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 The Country of the Blind and other Stories

by H.G.Wells

I.

THE JILTING OF JANE.

 

As I sit writing in my study, I can hear our Jane bumping her way
downstairs with a brush and dust-pan. She used in the old days to sing
hymn tunes, or the British national song for the time being, to these
instruments, but latterly she has been silent and even careful over her
work. Time was when I prayed with fervour for such silence, and my wife
with sighs for such care, but now they have come we are not so glad as we
might have anticipated we should be. Indeed, I would rejoice secretly,
though it may be unmanly weakness to admit it, even to hear Jane sing
"Daisy," or, by the fracture of any plate but one of Euphemia's best green
ones, to learn that the period of brooding has come to an end.

Yet how we longed to hear the last of Jane's young man before we heard the
last of him! Jane was always very free with her conversation to my wife,
and discoursed admirably in the kitchen on a variety of topics--so well,
indeed, that I sometimes left my study door open--our house is a small
one--to partake of it. But after William came, it was always William,
nothing but William; William this and William that; and when we thought
William was worked out and exhausted altogether, then William all over
again. The engagement lasted altogether three years; yet how she got
introduced to William, and so became thus saturated with him, was always a
secret. For my part, I believe it was at the street corner where the Rev.
Barnabas Baux used to hold an open-air service after evensong on Sundays.
Young Cupids were wont to flit like moths round the paraffin flare of that
centre of High Church hymn-singing. I fancy she stood singing hymns there,
out of memory and her imagination, instead of coming home to get supper,
and William came up beside her and said, "Hello!" "Hello yourself!" she
said; and etiquette being satisfied, they proceeded to talk together.

As Euphemia has a reprehensible way of letting her servants talk to her,
she soon heard of him. "He is _such_ a respectable young man, ma'am,"
said Jane, "you don't know." Ignoring the slur cast on her acquaintance,
my wife inquired further about this William.

"He is second porter at Maynard's, the draper's," said Jane, "and gets
eighteen shillings--nearly a pound--a week, m'm; and when the head porter
leaves he will be head porter. His relatives are quite superior people,
m'm. Not labouring people at all. His father was a greengrosher, m'm, and
had a churnor, and he was bankrup' twice. And one of his sisters is in a
Home for the Dying. It will be a very good match for me, m'm," said Jane,
"me being an orphan girl."

"Then you are engaged to him?" asked my wife.

"Not engaged, ma'am; but he is saving money to buy a ring--hammyfist."

"Well, Jane, when you are properly engaged to him you may ask him round
here on Sunday afternoons, and have tea with him in the kitchen;" for my
Euphemia has a motherly conception of her duty towards her maid-servants.
And presently the amethystine ring was being worn about the house, even
with ostentation, and Jane developed a new way of bringing in the joint so
that this gage was evident. The elder Miss Maitland was aggrieved by it,
and told my wife that servants ought not to wear rings. But my wife looked
it up in _Enquire Within_ and _Mrs. Motherly's Book of Household
Management_, and found no prohibition. So Jane remained with this
happiness added to her love.

The treasure of Jane's heart appeared to me to be what respectable people
call a very deserving young man. "William, ma'am," said Jane one day
suddenly, with ill-concealed complacency, as she counted out the beer
bottles, "William, ma'am, is a teetotaller. Yes, m'm; and he don't smoke.
Smoking, ma'am," said Jane, as one who reads the heart, "_do_ make
such a dust about. Beside the waste of money. _And_ the smell.
However, I suppose they got to do it--some of them..."

William was at first a rather shabby young man of the ready-made black
coat school of costume. He had watery gray eyes, and a complexion
appropriate to the brother of one in a Home for the Dying. Euphemia did
not fancy him very much, even at the beginning. His eminent respectability
was vouched for by an alpaca umbrella, from which he never allowed himself
to be parted.

"He goes to chapel," said Jane. "His papa, ma'am----"

"His _what_, Jane?"

"His papa, ma'am, was Church: but Mr. Maynard is a Plymouth Brother, and
William thinks it Policy, ma'am, to go there too. Mr. Maynard comes and
talks to him quite friendly when they ain't busy, about using up all the
ends of string, and about his soul. He takes a lot of notice, do Mr.
Maynard, of William, and the way he saves his soul, ma'am."

Presently we heard that the head porter at Maynard's had left, and that
William was head porter at twenty-three shillings a week. "He is really
kind of over the man who drives the van," said Jane, "and him married,
with three children." And she promised in the pride of her heart to make
interest for us with William to favour us so that we might get our parcels
of drapery from Maynard's with exceptional promptitude.

After this promotion a rapidly-increasing prosperity came upon Jane's
young man. One day we learned that Mr. Maynard had given William a book.
"'Smiles' 'Elp Yourself,' it's called," said Jane; "but it ain't comic. It
tells you how to get on in the world, and some what William read to me was
_lovely_, ma'am."

Euphemia told me of this, laughing, and then she became suddenly grave.
"Do you know, dear," she said, "Jane said one thing I did not like. She
had been quiet for a minute, and then she suddenly remarked, 'William is a
lot above me, ma'am, ain't he?'"

"I don't see anything in that," I said, though later my eyes were to be
opened.

One Sunday afternoon about that time I was sitting at my writing-desk--
possibly I was reading a good book--when a something went by the window. I
heard a startled exclamation behind me, and saw Euphemia with her hands
clasped together and her eyes dilated. "George," she said in an
awe-stricken whisper, "did you see?"

Then we both spoke to one another at the same moment, slowly and solemnly:
"_A silk hat! Yellow gloves! A new umbrella!_"

"It may be my fancy, dear," said Euphemia; "but his tie was very like
yours. I believe Jane keeps him in ties. She told me a little while ago,
in a way that implied volumes about the rest of your costume, 'The master
_do_ wear pretty ties, ma'am.' And he echoes all your novelties."

The young couple passed our window again on their way to their customary
walk. They were arm in arm. Jane looked exquisitely proud, happy, and
uncomfortable, with new white cotton gloves, and William, in the silk hat,
singularly genteel!

That was the culmination of Jane's happiness. When she returned, "Mr.
Maynard has been talking to William, ma'am," she said, "and he is to serve
customers, just like the young shop gentlemen, during the next sale. And
if he gets on, he is to be made an assistant, ma'am, at the first
opportunity. He has got to be as gentlemanly as he can, ma'am; and if he
ain't, ma'am, he says it won't be for want of trying. Mr. Maynard has took
a great fancy to him."

"He _is_ getting on, Jane," said my wife.

"Yes, ma'am," said Jane thoughtfully; "he _is_ getting on."

And she sighed.

That next Sunday as I drank my tea I interrogated my wife. "How is this
Sunday different from all other Sundays, little woman? What has happened?
Have you altered the curtains, or re-arranged the furniture, or where is
the indefinable difference of it? Are you wearing your hair in a new way
without warning me? I perceive a change clearly, and I cannot for the life
of me say what it is."

Then my wife answered in her most tragic voice, "George," she said, "that
William has not come near the place to-day! And Jane is crying her heart
out upstairs."

There followed a period of silence. Jane, as I have said, stopped singing
about the house, and began to care for our brittle possessions, which
struck my wife as being a very sad sign indeed. The next Sunday, and the
next, Jane asked to go out, "to walk with William," and my wife, who never
attempts to extort confidences, gave her permission, and asked no
questions. On each occasion Jane came back looking flushed and very
determined. At last one day she became communicative.

"William is being led away," she remarked abruptly, with a catching of the
breath, apropos of tablecloths. "Yes, m'm. She is a milliner, and she can
play on the piano."

"I thought," said my wife, "that you went out with him on Sunday."

"Not out with him, m'm--after him. I walked along by the side of them, and
told her he was engaged to me."

"Dear me, Jane, did you? What did they do?"

"Took no more notice of me than if I was dirt. So I told her she should
suffer for it."

"It could not have been a very agreeable walk, Jane."

"Not for no parties, ma'am."

"I wish," said Jane, "I could play the piano, ma'am. But anyhow, I don't
mean to let _her_ get him away from me. She's older than him, and her
hair ain't gold to the roots, ma'am."

It was on the August Bank Holiday that the crisis came. We do not clearly
know the details of the fray, but only such fragments as poor Jane let
fall. She came home dusty, excited, and with her heart hot within her.

The milliner's mother, the milliner, and William had made a party to the
Art Museum at South Kensington, I think. Anyhow, Jane had calmly but
firmly accosted them somewhere in the streets, and asserted her right to
what, in spite of the consensus of literature, she held to be her
inalienable property. She did, I think, go so far as to lay hands on him.
They dealt with her in a crushingly superior way. They "called a cab."
There was a "scene," William being pulled away into the four-wheeler by
his future wife and mother-in-law from the reluctant hands of our
discarded Jane. There were threats of giving her "in charge."

"My poor Jane!" said my wife, mincing veal as though she was mincing
William. "It's a shame of them. I would think no more of him. He is not
worthy of you."

"No, m'm," said Jane. "He _is_ weak.

"But it's that woman has done it," said Jane. She was never known to bring
herself to pronounce "that woman's" name or to admit her girlishness. "I
can't think what minds some women must have--to try and get a girl's young
man away from her. But there, it only hurts to talk about it," said Jane.

Thereafter our house rested from William. But there was something in the
manner of Jane's scrubbing the front doorstep or sweeping out the rooms, a
certain viciousness, that persuaded me that the story had not yet ended.

"Please, m'm, may I go and see a wedding tomorrow?" said Jane one day.

My wife knew by instinct whose wedding. "Do you think it is wise, Jane?"
she said.

"I would like to see the last of him," said Jane.

"My dear," said my wife, fluttering into my room about twenty minutes
after Jane had started, "Jane has been to the boot-hole and taken all the
left-off boots and shoes, and gone off to the wedding with them in a bag.
Surely she cannot mean--"

"Jane," I said, "is developing character. Let us hope for the best."

Jane came back with a pale, hard face. All the boots seemed to be still in
her bag, at which my wife heaved a premature sigh of relief. We heard her
go upstairs and replace the boots with considerable emphasis.

"Quite a crowd at the wedding, ma'am," she said presently, in a purely
conversational style, sitting in our little kitchen, and scrubbing the
potatoes; "and such a lovely day for them." She proceeded to numerous
other details, clearly avoiding some cardinal incident.

"It was all extremely respectable and nice, ma'am; but _her_ father
didn't wear a black coat, and looked quite out of place, ma'am. Mr.
Piddingquirk--"

"_Who_?"

"Mr. Piddingquirk--William that was, ma'am--had white gloves, and a coat
like a clergyman, and a lovely chrysanthemum. He looked so nice, ma'am.
And there was red carpet down, just like for gentlefolks. And they say he
gave the clerk four shillings, ma'am. It was a real kerridge they had--not
a fly. When they came out of church there was rice-throwing, and her two
little sisters dropping dead flowers. And someone threw a slipper, and
then I threw a boot--"

"Threw a _boot_, Jane!"

"Yes, ma'am. Aimed at her. But it hit _him_. Yes, ma'am, hard. Gev
him a black eye, I should think. I only threw that one. I hadn't the heart
to try again. All the little boys cheered when it hit him."

After an interval--"I am sorry the boot hit _him_."

Another pause. The potatoes were being scrubbed violently. "He always
_was_ a bit above me, you know, ma'am. And he was led away."

The potatoes were more than finished. Jane rose sharply with a sigh, and
rapped the basin down on the table.

"I don't care," she said. "I don't care a rap. He will find out his
mistake yet. It serves me right. I was stuck up about him. I ought not to
have looked so high. And I am glad things are as things are."

My wife was in the kitchen, seeing to the higher cookery. After the
confession of the boot-throwing, she must have watched poor Jane fuming
with a certain dismay in those brown eyes of hers. But I imagine they
softened again very quickly, and then Jane's must have met them.

"Oh, ma'am," said Jane, with an astonishing change of note, "think of all
that _might_ have been! Oh, ma'am, I _could_ have been so happy!
I ought to have known, but I didn't know...You're very kind to let me talk
to you, ma'am...for it's hard on me, ma'am...it's har-r-r-r-d--"

And I gather that Euphemia so far forgot herself as to let Jane sob out
some of the fullness of her heart on a sympathetic shoulder. My Euphemia,
thank Heaven, has never properly grasped the importance of "keeping up her
position." And since that fit of weeping, much of the accent of bitterness
has gone out of Jane's scrubbing and brush work.

Indeed, something passed the other day with the butcher-boy--but that
scarcely belongs to this story. However, Jane is young still, and time and
change are at work with her. We all have our sorrows, but I do not believe
very much in the existence of sorrows that never heal.

 

 

 

II.

THE CONE.

 

The night was hot and overcast, the sky red-rimmed with the lingering
sunset of midsummer. They sat at the open window, trying to fancy the air
was fresher there. The trees and shrubs of the garden stood stiff and
dark; beyond in the roadway a gas-lamp burnt, bright orange against the
hazy blue of the evening. Farther were the three lights of the railway
signal against the lowering sky. The man and woman spoke to one another in
low tones.

"He does not suspect?" said the man, a little nervously.

"Not he," she said peevishly, as though that too irritated her. "He
thinks of nothing but the works and the prices of fuel. He has no
imagination, no poetry."

"None of these men of iron have," he said sententiously. "They have no
hearts."

"_He_ has not," she said. She turned her discontented face towards
the window. The distant sound of a roaring and rushing drew nearer and
grew in volume; the house quivered; one heard the metallic rattle of the
tender. As the train passed, there was a glare of light above the cutting
and a driving tumult of smoke; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven,
eight black oblongs--eight trucks--passed across the dim grey of the
embankment, and were suddenly extinguished one by one in the throat of the
tunnel, which, with the last, seemed to swallow down train, smoke, and
sound in one abrupt gulp.

"This country was all fresh and beautiful once," he said; "and now--it is
Gehenna. Down that way--nothing but pot-banks and chimneys belching fire
and dust into the face of heaven...But what does it matter? An end comes,
an end to all this cruelty..._To-morrow."_ He spoke the last word in
a whisper.

"_To-morrow,"_ she said, speaking in a whisper too, and still staring
out of the window.

"Dear!" he said, putting his hand on hers.

She turned with a start, and their eyes searched one another's. Hers
softened to his gaze. "My dear one!" she said, and then: "It seems so
strange--that you should have come into my life like this--to open--" She
paused.

"To open?" he said.

"All this wonderful world"--she hesitated, and spoke still more softly--
"this world of _love_ to me."

Then suddenly the door clicked and closed. They turned their heads, and he
started violently back. In the shadow of the room stood a great shadowy
figure-silent. They saw the face dimly in the half-light, with
unexpressive dark patches under the pent-house brows. Every muscle in
Raut's body suddenly became tense. When could the door have opened? What
had he heard? Had he heard all? What had he seen? A tumult of questions.

The new-comer's voice came at last, after a pause that seemed
interminable. "Well?" he said.

"I was afraid I had missed you, Horrocks," said the man at the window,
gripping the window-ledge with his hand. His voice was unsteady.

The clumsy figure of Horrocks came forward out of the shadow. He made no
answer to Raut's remark. For a moment he stood above them.

The woman's heart was cold within her. "I told Mr. Raut it was just
possible you might come back," she said in a voice that never quivered.

Horrocks, still silent, sat down abruptly in the chair by her little
work-table. His big hands were clenched; one saw now the fire of his eyes
under the shadow of his brows. He was trying to get his breath. His eyes
went from the woman he had trusted to the friend he had trusted, and then
back to the woman.

By this time and for the moment all three half understood one another.
Yet none dared say a word to ease the pent-up things that choked them.

It was the husband's voice that broke the silence at last.

"You wanted to see me?" he said to Raut.

Raut started as he spoke. "I came to see you," he said, resolved to lie to
the last.

"Yes," said Horrocks.

"You promised," said Raut, "to show me some fine effects of moonlight and
smoke."

"I promised to show you some fine effects of moonlight and smoke,"
repeated Horrocks in a colourless voice.

"And I thought I might catch you to-night before you went down to the
works," proceeded Raut, "and come with you."

There was another pause. Did the man mean to take the thing coolly? Did
he, after all, know? How long had he been in the room? Yet even at the
moment when they heard the door, their attitudes ... Horrocks glanced at
the profile of the woman, shadowy pallid in the half-light. Then he
glanced at Raut, and seemed to recover himself suddenly. "Of course," he
said, "I promised to show you the works under their proper dramatic
conditions. It's odd how I could have forgotten."

"If I am troubling you--" began Raut.

Horrocks started again. A new light had suddenly come into the sultry
gloom of his eyes. "Not in the least." he said.

"Have you been telling Mr. Raut of all these contrasts of flame and shadow
you think so splendid?" said the woman, turning now to her husband for
the first time, her confidence creeping back again, her voice just one
half-note too high--"that dreadful theory of yours that machinery is
beautiful, and everything else in the world ugly. I thought he would not
spare you, Mr. Raut. It's his great theory, his one discovery in art."

"I am slow to make discoveries," said Horrocks grimly, damping her
suddenly. "But what I discover ..." He stopped.

"Well?" she said.

"Nothing;" and suddenly he rose to his feet.

"I promised to show you the works," he said to Raut, and put his big,
clumsy hand on his friend's shoulder. "And you are ready to go?"

"Quite," said Raut, and stood up also.

There was another pause. Each of them peered through the indistinctness of
the dusk at the other two.

Horrocks' hand still rested on Raut's shoulder. Raut half fancied still
that the incident was trivial after all. But Mrs. Horrocks knew her
husband better, knew that grim quiet in his voice, and the confusion in
her mind took a vague shape of physical evil. "Very well," said Horrocks,
and, dropping his hand, turned towards the door.

"My hat?" Raut looked round in the half-light.

"That's my work-basket," said Mrs. Horrocks with a gust of hysterical
laughter. Their hands came together on the back of the chair. "Here it
is!" he said. She had an impulse to warn him in an undertone, but she
could not frame a word. "Don't go!" and "Beware of him!" struggled in her
mind, and the swift moment passed.

"Got it?" said Horrocks, standing with the door half open.

Raut stepped towards him. "Better say goodbye to Mrs. Horrocks," said the
ironmaster, even more grimly quiet in his tone than before.

Raut started and turned. "Good-evening, Mrs. Horrocks," he said, and their
hands touched.

Horrocks held the door open with a ceremonial politeness unusual in him
towards men. Raut went out, and then, after a wordless look at her, her
husband followed. She stood motionless while Raut's light footfall and her
husband's heavy tread, like bass and treble, passed down the passage
together. The front door slammed heavily. She went to the window, moving
slowly, and stood watching, leaning forward. The two men appeared for a
moment at the gateway in the road, passed under the street lamp, and were
hidden by the black masses of the shrubbery. The lamplight fell for a
moment on their faces, showing only unmeaning pale patches, telling
nothing of what she still feared, and doubted, and craved vainly to know.
Then she sank down into a crouching attitude in the big arm-chair, her
eyes-wide open and staring out at the red lights from the furnaces that
flickered in the sky. An hour after she was still there, her attitude
scarcely changed.

The oppressive stillness of the evening weighed heavily upon Raut. They
went side by side down the road in silence, and in silence turned into the
cinder-made byway that presently opened out the prospect of the valley.

A blue haze, half dust, half mist, touched the long valley with mystery.
Beyond were Hanley and Etruria, grey and dark masses, outlined thinly by
the rare golden dots of the street lamps, and here and there a gas-lit
window, or the yellow glare of some late-working factory or crowded
public-house. Out of the masses, clear and slender against the evening
sky, rose a multitude of tall chimneys, many of them reeking, a few
smokeless during a season of "play." Here and there a pallid patch and
ghostly stunted beehive shapes showed the position of a pot-bank or a
wheel, black and sharp against the hot lower sky, marked some colliery
where they raise the iridescent coal of the place. Nearer at hand was the
broad stretch of railway, and half-invisible trains shunted--a steady
puffing and rumbling, with every run a ringing concussion and a rhymthic
series of impacts, and a passage of intermittent puffs of white steam
across the further view. And to the left, between the railway and the
dark mass of the low hill beyond, dominating the whole view, colossal,
inky-black, and crowned with smoke and fitful flames, stood the great
cylinders of the Jeddah Company Blast Furnaces, the central edifices of
the big ironworks of which Horrocks was the manager. They stood heavy and
threatening, full of an incessant turmoil of flames and seething molten
iron, and about the feet of them rattled the rolling-mills, and the
steam-hammer beat heavily and splashed the white iron sparks hither and
thither. Even as they looked, a truckful of fuel was shot into one of the
giants, and the red flames gleamed out, and a confusion of smoke and black
dust came boiling upwards towards the sky.

"Certainly you get some colour with your furnaces," said Raut, breaking a
silence that had become apprehensive.

Horrocks grunted. He stood with his hands in his pockets, frowning down at
the dim steaming railway and the busy ironworks beyond, frowning as if he
were thinking out some knotty problem.

Raut glanced at him and away again. "At present your moonlight effect is
hardly ripe," he continued, looking upward; "the moon is still smothered
by the vestiges of daylight."

Horrocks stared at him with the expression of a man who has suddenly
awakened. "Vestiges of daylight? ... Of course, of course." He too looked
up at the moon, pale still in the midsummer sky. "Come along," he said
suddenly, and gripping Raut's arm in his hand, made a move towards the
path that dropped from them to the railway.

Raut hung back. Their eyes met and saw a thousand things in a moment that
their lips came near to say. Horrocks's hand tightened and then relaxed.
He let go, and before Raut was aware of it, they were arm in arm, and
walking, one unwillingly enough, down the path.

"You see the fine effect of the railway signals towards Burslem," said
Horrocks, suddenly breaking into loquacity, striding fast and tightening
the grip of his elbow the while--"little green lights and red and white
lights, all against the haze. You have an eye for effect, Raut. It's fine.
And look at those furnaces of mine, how they rise upon us as we come down
the hill. That to the right is my pet--seventy feet of him. I packed him
myself, and he's boiled away cheerfully with iron in his guts for five
long years. I've a particular fancy for _him_. That line of red
there--a lovely bit of warm orange you'd call it, Raut--that's the
puddlers' furnaces, and there, in the hot light, three black figures--did
you see the white splash of the steam-hammer then?--that's the rolling
mills. Come along! Clang, clatter, how it goes rattling across the floor!
Sheet tin, Raut,--amazing stuff. Glass mirrors are not in it when that
stuff comes from the mill. And, squelch! there goes the hammer again. Come
along!"

He had to stop talking to catch at his breath. His arm twisted into Raut's
with benumbing tightness. He had come striding down the black path towards
the railway as though he was possessed. Raut had not spoken a word, had
simply hung back against Horrocks's pull with all his strength.

"I say," he said now, laughing nervously, but with an undertone of snarl
in his voice, "why on earth are you nipping my arm off, Horrocks, and
dragging me along like this?"

At length Horrocks released him. His manner changed again. "Nipping your
arm off?" he said. "Sorry. But it's you taught me the trick of walking
in that friendly way."

"You haven't learnt the refinements of it yet then," said Raut, laughing
artificially again. "By Jove! I'm black and blue." Horrocks offered no
apology. They stood now near the bottom of the hill, close to the fence
that bordered the railway. The ironworks had grown larger and spread out
with their approach. They looked up to the blast furnaces now instead of
down; the further view of Etruria and Hanley had dropped out of sight with
their descent. Before them, by the stile, rose a notice-board, bearing,
still dimly visible, the words, "BEWARE OF THE TRAINS," half hidden by
splashes of coaly mud.

"Fine effects," said Horrocks, waving his arm. "Here comes a train. The
puffs of smoke, the orange glare, the round eye of light in front of it,
the melodious rattle. Fine effects! But these furnaces of mine used to be
finer, before we shoved cones in their throats, and saved the gas."

"How?" said Raut. "Cones?"

"Cones, my man, cones. I'll show you one nearer. The flames used to flare
out of the open throats, great--what is it?--pillars of cloud by day, red
and black smoke, and pillars of fire by night. Now we run it off--in
pipes, and burn it to heat the blast, and the top is shut by a cone.
You'll be interested in that cone."

"But every now and then," said Raut, "you get a burst of fire and smoke up
there."

"The cone's not fixed, it's hung by a chain from a lever, and balanced by
an equipoise. You shall see it nearer. Else, of course, there'd be no way
of getting fuel into the thing. Every now and then the cone dips, and out
comes the flare."

"I see," said Raut. He looked over his shoulder. "The moon gets brighter,"
he said.

"Come along," said Horrocks abruptly, gripping his shoulder again, and
moving him suddenly towards the railway crossing. And then came one of
those swift incidents, vivid, but so rapid that they leave one doubtful
and reeling. Half-way across, Horrocks's hand suddenly clenched upon him
like a vice, and swung him backward and through a half-turn, so that he
looked up the line. And there a chain of lamp-lit carriage windows
telescoped swiftly as it came towards them, and the red and yellow lights
of an engine grew larger and larger, rushing down upon them. As he grasped
what this meant, he turned his face to Horrocks, and pushed with all his
strength against the arm that held him back between the rails. The
struggle did not last a moment. Just as certain as it was that Horrocks
held him there, so certain was it that he had been violently lugged out of
danger.

"Out of the way," said Horrocks with a gasp, as the train came rattling
by, and they stood panting by the gate into the ironworks.

"I did not see it coming," said Raut, still, even in spite of his own
apprehensions, trying to keep up an appearance of ordinary intercourse.

Horrocks answered with a grunt. "The cone," he said, and then, as one who
recovers himself, "I thought you did not hear."

"I didn't," said Raut.

"I wouldn't have had you run over then for the world," said Horrocks.

"For a moment I lost my nerve," said Raut.

Horrocks stood for half a minute, then turned abruptly towards the
ironworks again. "See how fine these great mounds of mine, these
clinker-heaps, look in the night! That truck yonder, up above there! Up
it goes, and out-tilts the slag. See the palpitating red stuff go sliding
down the slope. As we get nearer, the heap rises up and cuts the blast
furnaces. See the quiver up above the big one. Not that way! This way,
between the heaps. That goes to the puddling furnaces, but I want to show
you the canal first." He came and took Raut by the elbow, and so they went
along side by side. Raut answered Horrocks vaguely. What, he asked
himself, had really happened on the line? Was he deluding himself with his
own fancies, or had Horrocks actually held him back in the way of the
train? Had he just been within an ace of being murdered?

Suppose this slouching, scowling monster _did_ know anything? For a
minute or two then Raut was really afraid for his life, but the mood
passed as he reasoned with himself. After all, Horrocks might have heard
nothing. At any rate, he had pulled him out of the way in time. His odd
manner might be due to the mere vague jealousy he had shown once before.
He was talking now of the ash-heaps and the canal. "Eigh?" said Horrocks.

"What?" said Raut. "Rather! The haze in the moonlight. Fine!"

"Our canal," said Horrocks, stopping suddenly. "Our canal by moonlight and
firelight is immense. You've never seen it? Fancy that! You've spent too
many of your evenings philandering up in Newcastle there. I tell you, for
real florid quality----But you shall see. Boiling water ..."

As they came out of the labyrinth of clinker-heaps and mounds of coal and
ore, the noises of the rolling-mill sprang upon them suddenly, loud, near,
and distinct. Three shadowy workmen went by and touched their caps to
Horrocks. Their faces were vague in the darkness. Raut felt a futile
impulse to address them, and before he could frame his words they passed
into the shadows. Horrocks pointed to the canal close before them now: a
weird-looking place it seemed, in the blood-red reflections of the
furnaces. The hot water that cooled the tuyères came into it, some fifty
yards up--a tumultuous, almost boiling affluent, and the steam rose up
from the water in silent white wisps and streaks, wrapping damply about
them, an incessant succession of ghosts coming up from the black and red
eddies, a white uprising that made the head swim. The shining black tower
of the larger blast-furnace rose overhead out of the mist, and its
tumultuous riot filled their ears. Raut kept away from the edge of the
water, and watched Horrocks.

"Here it is red," said Horrocks, "blood-red vapour as red and hot as sin;
but yonder there, where the moonlight falls on it, and it drives across
the clinker-heaps, it is as white as death."

Raut turned his head for a moment, and then came back hastily to his watch
on Horrocks. "Come along to the rolling-mills," said Horrocks. The
threatening hold was not so evident that time, and Raut felt a little
reassured. But all the same, what on earth did Horrocks mean about "white
as death" and "red as sin"? Coincidence, perhaps?

They went and stood behind the puddlers for a little while, and then
through the rolling-mills, where amidst an incessant din the deliberate
steam-hammer beat the juice out of the succulent iron, and black,
half-naked Titans rushed the plastic bars, like hot sealing-wax, between
the wheels, "Come on," said Horrocks in Raut's ear; and they went and
peeped through the little glass hole behind the tuyères, and saw the
tumbled fire writhing in the pit of the blast-furnace. It left one eye
blinded for a while. Then, with green and blue patches dancing across the
dark, they went to the lift by which the trucks of ore and fuel and lime
were raised to the top of the big cylinder.

And out upon the narrow rail that overhung the furnace Raut's doubts came
upon him again. Was it wise to be here? If Horrocks did know--everything!
Do what he would, he could not resist a violent trembling. Right under
foot was a sheer depth of seventy feet. It was a dangerous place. They
pushed by a truck of fuel to get to the railing that crowned the thing.
The reek of the furnace, a sulphurous vapour streaked with pungent
bitterness, seemed to make the distant hillside of Hanley quiver. The moon
was riding out now from among a drift of clouds, half-way up the sky above
the undulating wooded outlines of Newcastle. The steaming canal ran away
from below them under an indistinct bridge, and vanished into the dim haze
of the flat fields towards Burslem.

"That's the cone I've been telling you of," shouted Horrocks; "and, below
that, sixty feet of fire and molten metal, with the air of the blast
frothing through it like gas in soda-water."

Raut gripped the hand-rail tightly, and stared down at the cone. The heat
was intense. The boiling of the iron and the tumult of the blast made a
thunderous accompaniment to Horrocks's voice. But the thing had to be gone
through now. Perhaps, after all...

"In the middle," bawled Horrocks, "temperature near a thousand degrees. If
_you_ were dropped into it ... flash into flame like a pinch of
gunpowder in a candle. Put your hand out and feel the heat of his breath.
Why, even up here I've seen the rain-water boiling off the trucks. And
that cone there. It's a damned sight too hot for roasting cakes. The top
side of it's three hundred degrees."

"Three hundred degrees!" said Raut.

"Three hundred centigrade, mind!" said Horrocks. "It will boil the blood
out of you in no time."

"Eigh?" said Raut, and turned.

"Boil the blood out of you in ... No, you don't!"

"Let me go!" screamed Raut. "Let go my arm!"

With one hand he clutched at the hand-rail, then with both. For a moment
the two men stood swaying. Then suddenly, with a violent jerk, Horrocks
had twisted him from his hold. He clutched at Horrocks and missed, his
foot went back into empty air; in mid-air he twisted himself, and then
cheek and shoulder and knee struck the hot cone together.

He clutched the chain by which the cone hung, and the thing sank an
infinitesimal amount as he struck it. A circle of glowing red appeared
about him, and a tongue of flame, released from the chaos within,
flickered up towards him. An intense pain assailed him at the knees, and
he could smell the singeing of his hands. He raised himself to his feet,
and tried to climb up the chain, and then something struck his head. Black
and shining with the moonlight, the throat of the furnace rose about
him.

Horrocks, he saw, stood above him by one of the trucks of fuel on the
rail. The gesticulating figure was bright and white in the moonlight, and
shouting, "Fizzle, you fool! Fizzle, you hunter of women! You hot-blooded
hound! Boil! boil! boil!"

Suddenly he caught up a handful of coal out of the truck, and flung it
deliberately, lump after lump, at Raut.

"Horrocks!" cried Raut. "Horrocks!"

He clung, crying, to the chain, pulling himself up from the burning of the
cone. Each missile Horrocks flung hit him. His clothes charred and glowed,
and as he struggled the cone dropped, and a rush of hot, suffocating gas
whooped out and burned round him in a swift breath of flame.

His human likeness departed from him. When the momentary red had passed,
Horrocks saw a charred, blackened figure, its head streaked with blood,
still clutching and fumbling with the chain, and writhing in agony--a
cindery animal, an inhuman, monstrous creature that began a sobbing,
intermittent shriek.

Abruptly at the sight the ironmaster's anger passed. A deadly sickness
came upon him. The heavy odour of burning flesh came drifting up to his
nostrils. His sanity returned to him.

"God have mercy upon me!" he cried. "O God! what have I done?"

He knew the thing below him, save that it still moved and felt, was
already a dead man--that the blood of the poor wretch must be boiling in
his veins. An intense realisation of that agony came to his mind, and
overcame every other feeling. For a moment he stood irresolute, and then,
turning to the truck, he hastily tilted its contents upon the struggling
thing that had once been a man. The mass fell with a thud, and went
radiating over the cone. With the thud the shriek ended, and a boiling
confusion of smoke, dust, and flame came rushing up towards him. As it
passed, he saw the cone clear again.

Then he staggered back, and stood trembling, clinging to the rail with
both hands. His lips moved, but no words came to them.

Down below was the sound of voices and running steps. The clangour of
rolling in the shed ceased abruptly.

 

 

 

III.

THE STOLEN BACILLUS.

 

"This again," said the Bacteriologist, slipping a glass slide under the
microscope, "is well,--a preparation of the Bacillus of cholera--the
cholera germ."

The pale-faced man peered down the microscope. He was evidently not
accustomed to that kind of thing, and held a limp white hand over his
disengaged eye. "I see very little," he said.

"Touch this screw," said the Bacteriologist; "perhaps the microscope is
out of focus for you. Eyes vary so much. Just the fraction of a turn this
way or that."

"Ah! now I see," said the visitor. "Not so very much to see after all.
Little streaks and shreds of pink. And yet those little particles, those
mere atomies, might multiply and devastate a city! Wonderful!"

He stood up, and releasing the glass slip from the microscope, held it in
his hand towards the window. "Scarcely visible," he said, scrutinising the
preparation. He hesitated. "Are these--alive? Are they dangerous now?"

"Those have been stained and killed," said the Bacteriologist. "I wish,
for my own part, we could kill and stain every one of them in the
universe."

"I suppose," the pale man said, with a slight smile, 'that you scarcely
care to have such things about you in the living--in the active state?"

"On the contrary, we are obliged to," said the Bacteriologist.
"Here, for instance--" He walked across the room and took up one of
several sealed tubes. "Here is the living thing. This is a cultivation of
the actual living disease bacteria." He hesitated. "Bottled cholera, so to
speak."

A slight gleam of satisfaction appeared momentarily in the face of the
pale man. "It's a deadly thing to have in your possession," he said,
devouring the little tube with his eyes. The Bacteriologist watched the
morbid pleasure in his visitor's expression. This man, who had visited him
that afternoon with a note of introduction from an old friend, interested
him from the very contrast of their dispositions. The lank black hair and
deep grey eyes, the haggard expression and nervous manner, the fitful yet
keen interest of his visitor were a novel change from the phlegmatic
deliberations of the ordinary scientific worker with whom the
Bacteriologist chiefly associated. It was perhaps natural, with a hearer
evidently so impressionable to the lethal nature of; his topic, to take
the most effective aspect of the matter.

He held the tube in his hand thoughtfully. "Yes, here is the pestilence
imprisoned. Only break such a little tube as this into a supply of
drinking-water, say to these minute particles of life that one must needs
stain and examine with the highest powers of the microscope even to see,
and that one can neither smell nor taste--say to them, 'Go forth, increase
and multiply, and replenish the cisterns,' and death--mysterious,
untraceable death, death swift and terrible, death full of pain and
indignity--would be released upon this city, and go hither and thither
seeking his victims. Here he would take the husband from the wife, here
the child from its mother, here the statesman from his duty, and here the
toiler from his trouble. He would follow the water-mains, creeping along
streets, picking out and punishing a house here and a house there where
they did not boil their drinking-water, creeping into the wells of the
mineral water makers, getting washed into salad, and lying dormant in
ices. He would wait ready to be drunk in the horse-troughs, and by unwary
children in the public fountains. He would soak into the soil, to reappear
in springs and wells at a thousand unexpected places. Once start him at
the water supply, and before we could ring him in, and catch him again,
he would have decimated the metropolis."

He stopped abruptly. He had been told rhetoric was his weakness.

"But he is quite safe here, you know--quite safe."

The pale-faced man nodded. His eyes shone. He cleared his throat. "These
Anarchist--rascals," said he, "are fools, blind fools--to use bombs when
this kind of thing is attainable. I think----"

A gentle rap, a mere light touch of the finger-nails, was heard at the
door. The Bacteriologist opened if. "Just a minute, dear," whispered his
wife.

When he re-entered the laboratory his visitor was looking at his watch. "I
had no idea I had wasted an hour of your time," he said. "Twelve minutes
to four. I ought to have left here by half-past three. But your things
were really too interesting. No, positively I cannot stop a moment longer.
I have an engagement at four."

He passed out of the room reiterating his thanks, and the Bacteriologist
accompanied him to the door, and then returned thoughtfully along the
passage to his laboratory. He was musing on the ethnology of his visitor.
Certainly the man was not a Teutonic type nor a common Latin one. "A
morbid product, anyhow, I am afraid," said the Bacteriologist to himself.
"How he gloated over those cultivations of disease germs!" A disturbing
thought struck him. He turned to the bench by the vapour bath, and then
very quickly to his writing-table. Then he felt hastily in his pockets and
then rushed to the door. "I may have put it down on the hall table," he
said.

"Minnie!" he shouted hoarsely in the hall.

"Yes, dear," came a remote voice.

"Had I anything in my hand when I spoke to you, dear, just now?"

Pause.

"Nothing, dear, because I remember----"

"Blue ruin!" cried the Bacteriologist, and incontinently ran to the front
door and down the steps of his house to the street.

Minnie, hearing the door slam violently, ran in alarm to the window. Down
the street a slender man was getting into a cab. The Bacteriologist,
hatless, and in his carpet slippers, was running and gesticulating wildly
towards this group. One slipper came off, but he did not wait for it. "He
has gone _mad_!" said Minnie; "it's that horrid science of his"; and,
opening the window, would have called after him. The slender man, suddenly
glancing round, seemed struck with the same idea of mental disorder. He
pointed hastily to the Bacteriologist, said something to the cabman, the
apron of the cab slammed, the whip swished, the horse's feet clattered,
and in a moment cab and Bacteriologist hotly in pursuit, had receded up
the vista of the roadway and disappeared round the corner.

Minnie remained straining out of the window for a minute. Then she drew
her head back into the room again. She was dumbfounded. "Of course he is
eccentric," she meditated. "But running about London--in the height of the
season, too--in his socks!" A happy thought struck her. She hastily put
her bonnet on, seized his shoes, went into the hall, took down his hat and
light overcoat from the pegs, emerged upon the doorstep, and hailed a cab
that opportunely crawled by. "Drive me up the road and round Havelock
Crescent, and see if we can find a gentleman running about in a velveteen
coat and no hat."

"Velveteen coat, ma'am, and no 'at. Very good, ma'am." And the cabman
whipped up at once in the most matter-of-fact way, as if he drove to this
address every day in his life.

Some few minutes later the little group of cabmen and loafers that
collects round the cabman's shelter at Haverstock Hill were startled by
the passing of a cab with a ginger-coloured screw of a horse, driven
furiously.

They were silent as it went by, and then as it receded--"That's 'Arry
'Icks. Wot's _he_ got?" said the stout gentleman known as Old
Tootles.

"He's a-using his whip, he is, _to_ rights," said the ostler boy.

"Hullo!" said poor old Tommy Byles; "here's another bloomin' loonatic.
Blowed if there ain't."

"It's old George," said Old Tootles, "and he's drivin' a loonatic,
_as_ you say. Ain't he a-clawin' out of the keb? Wonder if he's after
'Arry 'Icks?"

The group round the cabman's shelter became animated. Chorus: "Go it,
George!" "It's a race." "You'll ketch 'em!" "Whip up!"

"She's a goer, she is!" said the ostler boy.

"Strike me giddy!" cried Old Tootles. "Here! _I'm_ a-goin' to begin
in a minute. Here's another comin'. If all the cabs in Hampstead ain't
gone mad this morning!"

"It's a fieldmale this time," said the ostler boy.

"She's a-followin' _him_," said Old Tootles. "Usually the other way
about."

"What's she got in her 'and?"

"Looks like a 'igh 'at."

"What a bloomin' lark it is! Three to one on old George," said the ostler
boy. "Nexst!"

Minnie went by in a perfect roar of applause. She did not like it, but she
felt that she was doing her duty, and whirled on down Haverstock Hill and
Camden Town High Street with her eyes ever intent on the animated back
view of old George, who was driving her vagrant husband so
incomprehensibly away from her.

The man in the foremost cab sat crouched in the corner, his arms tightly
folded, and the little tube that contained such vast possibilities of
destruction gripped in his hand. His mood was a singular mixture of fear
and exultation. Chiefly he was afraid of being caught before he could
accomplish his purpose, but behind this was a vaguer but larger fear of
the awfulness of his crime. But his exultation far exceeded his fear. No
Anarchist before him had ever approached this conception of his. Ravachol,
Vaillant, all those distinguished persons whose fame he had envied
dwindled into insignificance beside him. He had only to make sure of the
water supply, and break the little tube into a reservoir. How brilliantly
he had planned it, forged the letter of introduction and got into the
laboratory, and how brilliantly he had seized his opportunity! The world
should hear of him at last. All those people who had sneered at him,
neglected him, preferred other people to him, found his company
undesirable, should consider him at last. Death, death, death! They had
always treated him as a man of no importance. All the world had been in a
conspiracy to keep him under. He would teach them yet what it is to
isolate a man. What was this familiar street? Great Saint Andrew's Street,
of course! How fared the chase? He craned out of the cab. The
Bacteriologist was scarcely fifty yards behind. That was bad. He would be
caught and stopped yet. He felt in his pocket for money, and found half a
sovereign. This he thrust up through the trap in the top of the cab into
the man's face. "More," he shouted, "if only we get away."

The money was snatched out of his hand. "Right you are," said the cabman,
and the trap slammed, and the lash lay along the glistening side of the
horse. The cab swayed, and the Anarchist, half-standing under the trap,
put the hand containing the little glass tube upon the apron to preserve
his balance. He felt the brittle thing crack, and the broken half of it
rang upon the floor of the cab. He fell back into the seat with a curse,
and stared dismally at the two or three drops of moisture on the apron.

He shuddered.

"Well, I suppose I shall be the first. _Phew!_ Anyhow, I shall be a
Martyr. That's something. But it is a filthy death, nevertheless. I wonder
if it hurts as much as they say."

Presently a thought occurred to him--he groped between his feet. A little
drop was still in the broken end of the tube, and he drank that to make
sure. It was better to make sure. At any rate, he would not fail.

Then it dawned upon him that there was no further need to escape the
Bacteriologist. In Wellington Street he told the cabman to stop, and got
out. He slipped on the step, and his head felt queer. It was rapid stuff,
this cholera poison. He waved his cabman out of existence, so to speak,
and stood on the pavement with his arms folded upon his breast awaiting
the arrival of the Bacteriologist. There was something tragic in his pose.
The sense of imminent death gave him a certain dignity. He greeted his
pursuer with a defiant laugh.

"Vive l'Anarchie! You are too late, my friend, I have drunk it. The
cholera is abroad!"

The Bacteriologist from his cab beamed curiously at him through his
spectacles. "You have drunk it! An Anarchist! I see now." He was about to
say something more, and then checked himself. A smile hung in the corner
of his mouth. He opened the apron of his cab as if to descend, at which
the Anarchist waved him a dramatic farewell and strode off towards
Waterloo Bridge, carefully jostling his infected body against as many
people as possible. The Bacteriologist was so preoccupied with the vision
of him that he scarcely manifested the slightest surprise at the
appearance of Minnie upon the pavement with his hat and shoes and
overcoat. "Very good of you to bring my things," he said, and remained
lost in contemplation of the receding figure of the Anarchist.

"You had better get in," he said, still staring. Minnie felt absolutely
convinced now that he was mad, and directed the cabman home on her own
responsibility. "Put on my shoes? Certainly, dear," said he, as the cab
began to turn, and hid the strutting black figure, now small in the
distance, from his eyes. Then suddenly something grotesque struck him, and
he laughed. Then he remarked, "It is really very serious, though.

"You see, that man came to my house to see me, and he is an Anarchist.
No--don't faint, or I cannot possibly tell you the rest. And I wanted to
astonish him, not knowing he was an Anarchist, and took up a cultivation
of that new species of Bacterium I was telling you of that infest, and I
think cause, the blue patches upon various monkeys; and, like a fool, I
said it was Asiatic cholera. And he ran away with it to poison the water
of London, and he certainly might have made things look blue for this
civilised city. And now he has swallowed it. Of course, I cannot say what
will happen, but you know it turned that kitten blue, and the three
puppies--in patches, and the sparrow--bright blue. But the bother is, I
shall have all the trouble and expense of preparing some more.

"Put on my coat on this hot day! Why? Because we might meet Mrs. Jabber.
My dear, Mrs. Jabber is not a draught. But why should I wear a coat on a
hot day because of Mrs.-----. Oh! _very_ well."

 

 

 

IV.

THE FLOWERING OF THE STRANGE ORCHID.

 

The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour. You
have before you the brown shrivelled lump of tissue, and for the rest you
must trust your judgment, or the auctioneer, or your good luck, as your
taste may incline. The plant may be moribund or dead, or it may be just a
respectable purchase, fair value for your money, or perhaps--for the thing
has happened again and again--there slowly unfolds before the delighted
eyes of the happy purchaser, day after day, some new variety, some novel
richness, a strange twist of the labellum, or some subtler colouration or
unexpected mimicry. Pride, beauty, and profit blossom together on one
delicate green spike, and, it may be, even immortality. For the new
miracle of nature may stand in need of a new specific name, and what so
convenient as that of its discoverer? "John-smithia"! There have been
worse names.

It was perhaps the hope of some such happy discovery that made Winter
Wedderburn such a frequent attendant at these sales--that hope, and also,
maybe, the fact that he had nothing else of the slightest interest to do
in the world. He was a shy, lonely, rather ineffectual man, provided with
just enough income to keep off the spur of necessity, and not enough
nervous energy to make him seek any exacting employments. He might have
collected stamps or coins, or translated Horace, or bound books, or
invented new species of diatoms. But, as it happened, he grew orchids, and
had one ambitious little hothouse.

"I have a fancy," he said over his coffee, "that something is going to
happen to me to-day." He spoke--as he moved and thought--slowly.

"Oh, don't say _that_!" said his housekeeper--who was also his remote
cousin. For "something happening" was a euphemism that meant only one
thing to her.

"You misunderstand me. I mean nothing unpleasant...though what I do mean I
scarcely know.

"To-day," he continued, after a pause, "Peters' are going to sell a batch
of plants from the Andamans and the Indies. I shall go up and see what
they have. It may be I shall buy something good unawares. That may be it."

He passed his cup for his second cupful of coffee.

"Are these the things collected by that poor young fellow you told me of
the other day?" asked his cousin, as she filled his cup.

"Yes," he said, and became meditative over a piece of toast.

"Nothing ever does happen to me," he remarked presently, beginning to
think aloud. "I wonder why? Things enough happen to other people. There is
Harvey. Only the other week; on Monday he picked up sixpence, on Wednesday
his chicks all had the staggers, on Friday his cousin came home from
Australia, and on Saturday he broke his ankle. What a whirl of
excitement!--compared to me."

"I think I would rather be without so much excitement," said his
housekeeper. "It can't be good for you."

"I suppose it's troublesome. Still ... you see, nothing ever happens to
me. When I was a little boy I never had accidents. I never fell in love as
I grew up. Never married... I wonder how it feels to have something
happen to you, something really remarkable.

"That orchid-collector was only thirty-six--twenty years younger than
myself--when he died. And he had been married twice and divorced once; he
had had malarial fever four times, and once he broke his thigh. He killed
a Malay once, and once he was wounded by a poisoned dart. And in the end
he was killed by jungle-leeches. It must have all been very troublesome,
but then it must have been very interesting, you know--except, perhaps,
the leeches."

"I am sure it was not good for him," said the lady with conviction.

"Perhaps not." And then Wedderburn looked at his watch. "Twenty-three
minutes past eight. I am going up by the quarter to twelve train, so that
there is plenty of time. I think I shall wear my alpaca jacket--it is
quite warm enough--and my grey felt hat and brown shoes. I suppose--"

He glanced out of the window at the serene sky and sunlit garden, and then
nervously at his cousin's face.

"I think you had better take an umbrella if you are going to London," she
said in a voice that admitted of no denial. "There's all between here and
the station coming back."

When he returned he was in a state of mild excitement. He had made a
purchase. It was rare that he could make up his mind quickly enough to
buy, but this time he had done so.

"There are Vandas," he said, "and a Dendrobe and some Palaeonophis." He
surveyed his purchases lovingly as he consumed his soup. They were laid
out on the spotless tablecloth before him, and he was telling his cousin
all about them as he slowly meandered through his dinner. It was his
custom to live all his visits to London over again in the evening for her
and his own entertainment.

"I knew something would happen to-day. And I have bought all these. Some
of them--some of them--I feel sure, do you know, that some of them will be
remarkable. I don't know how it is, but I feel just as sure as if some one
had told me that some of these will turn out remarkable.

"That one "--he pointed to a shrivelled rhizome--"was not identified. It
may be a Palaeonophis--or it may not. It may be a new species, or even a
new genus. And it was the last that poor Batten ever collected."

"I don't like the look of it," said his housekeeper. "It's such an ugly
shape."

"To me it scarcely seems to have a shape."

"I don't like those things that stick out," said his housekeeper.

"It shall be put away in a pot to-morrow."

"It looks," said the housekeeper, "like a spider shamming dead."

Wedderburn smiled and surveyed the root with his head on one side. "It is
certainly not a pretty lump of stuff. But you can never judge of these
things from their dry appearance. It may turn out to be a very beautiful
orchid indeed. How busy I shall be to-morrow! I must see to-night just
exactly what to do with these things, and to-morrow I shall set to work."

"They found poor Batten lying dead, or dying, in a mangrove swamp--I
forget which," he began again presently, "with one of these very orchids
crushed up under his body. He had been unwell for some days with some kind
of native fever, and I suppose he fainted. These mangrove swamps are very
unwholesome. Every drop of blood, they say, was taken out of him by the
jungle-leeches. It may be that very plant that cost him his life to
obtain."

"I think none the better of it for that."

"Men must work though women may weep," said Wedderburn with profound
gravity.

"Fancy dying away from every comfort in a nasty swamp! Fancy being ill of
fever with nothing to take but chlorodyne and quinine--if men were left to
themselves they would live on chlorodyne and quinine--and no one round you
but horrible natives! They say the Andaman islanders are most disgusting
wretches--and, anyhow, they can scarcely make good nurses, not having the
necessary training. And just for people in England to have orchids!"

"I don't suppose it was comfortable, but some men seem to enjoy that kind
of thing," said Wedderburn. "Anyhow, the natives of his party were
sufficiently civilised to take care of all his collection until his
colleague, who was an ornithologist, came back again from the interior;
though they could not tell the species of the orchid, and had let it
wither. And it makes these things more interesting."

"It makes them disgusting. I should be afraid of some of the malaria
clinging to them. And just think, there has been a dead body lying across
that ugly thing! I never thought of that before. There! I declare I cannot
eat another mouthful of dinner."

"I will take them off the table if you like, and put them in the
window-seat. I can see them just as well there."

The next few days he was indeed singularly busy in his steamy little
hothouse, fussing about with charcoal, lumps of teak, moss, and all the
other mysteries of the orchid cultivator. He considered he was having a
wonderfully eventful time. In the evening he would talk about these new
orchids to his friends, and over and over again he reverted to his
expectation of something strange.

Several of the Vandas and the Dendrobium died under his care, but
presently the strange orchid began to show signs of life. He was
delighted, and took his housekeeper right away from jam-making to see it
at once, directly he made the discovery.

"That is a bud," he said, "and presently there will be a lot of leaves
there, and those little things coming out here are aerial rootlets."

"They look to me like little white fingers poking out of the brown," said
his housekeeper. "I don't like them."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. They look like fingers trying to get at you. I can't help
my likes and dislikes."

"I don't know for certain, but I don't _think_ there are any orchids
I know that have aerial rootlets quite like that. It may be my fancy, of
course. You see they are a little flattened at the ends."

"I don't like 'em," said his housekeeper, suddenly shivering and turning
away. "I know it's very silly of me--and I'm very sorry, particularly as
you like the thing so much. But I can't help thinking of that corpse."

"But it may not be that particular plant. That was merely a guess of
mine."

His housekeeper shrugged her shoulders. "Anyhow I don't like it," she
said.

Wedderburn felt a little hurt at her dislike to the plant. But that did
not prevent his talking to her about orchids generally, and this orchid in
particular, whenever he felt inclined.

"There are such queer things about orchids," he said one day; "such
possibilities of surprises. You know, Darwin studied their fertilisation,
and showed that the whole structure of an ordinary orchid flower was
contrived in order that moths might carry the pollen from plant to plant.
Well, it seems that there are lots of orchids known the flower of which
cannot possibly be used for fertilisation in that way. Some of the
Cypripediums, for instance; there are no insects known that can possibly
fertilise them, and some of them have never been found with seed."

"But how do they form new plants?"

"By runners and tubers, and that kind of outgrowth. That is easily
explained. The puzzle is, what are the flowers for?

"Very likely," he added, "_my_ orchid may be something extraordinary
in that way. If so I shall study it. I have often thought of making
researches as Darwin did. But hitherto I have not found the time, or
something else has happened to prevent it. The leaves are beginning to
unfold now. I do wish you would come and see them!"

But she said that the orchid-house was so hot it gave her the headache.
She had seen the plant once again, and the aerial rootlets, which were now
some of them more than a foot long, had unfortunately reminded her of
tentacles reaching out after something; and they got into her dreams,
growing after her with incredible rapidity. So that she had settled to her
entire satisfaction that she would not see that plant again, and
Wedderburn had to admire its leaves alone. They were of the ordinary broad
form, and a deep glossy green, with splashes and dots of deep red towards
the base He knew of no other leaves quite like them. The plant was placed
on a low bench near the thermometer, and close by was a simple arrangement
by which a tap dripped on the hot-water pipes and kept the air steamy. And
he spent his afternoons now with some regularity meditating on the
approaching flowering of this strange plant.

And at last the great thing happened. Directly he entered the little glass
house he knew that the spike had burst out, although his great
_Paloeonophis Lowii_ hid the corner where his new darling stood.
There was a new odour in the air, a rich, intensely sweet scent, that
overpowered every other in that crowded, steaming little greenhouse.

Directly he noticed this he hurried down to the strange orchid. And,
behold! the trailing green spikes bore now three great splashes of
blossom, from which this overpowering sweetness proceeded. He stopped
before them in an ecstasy of admiration.

The flowers were white, with streaks of golden orange upon the petals; the
heavy labellum was coiled into an intricate projection, and a wonderful
bluish purple mingled there with the gold. He could see at once that the
genus was altogether a new one. And the insufferable scent! How hot the
place was! The blossoms swam before his eyes.

He would see if the temperature was right. He made a step towards the
thermometer. Suddenly everything appeared unsteady. The bricks on the
floor were dancing up and down. Then the white blossoms, the green leaves
behind them, the whole greenhouse, seemed to sweep sideways, and then in a
curve upward.

* * * * *

At half-past four his cousin made the tea, according to their invariable
custom. But Wedderburn did not come in for his tea.

"He is worshipping that horrid orchid," she told herself, and waited ten
minutes. "His watch must have stopped. I will go and call him."

She went straight to the hothouse, and, opening the door, called his name.
There was no reply. She noticed that the air was very close, and loaded
with an intense perfume. Then she saw something lying on the bricks
between the hot-water pipes.

For a minute, perhaps, she stood motionless.

He was lying, face upward, at the foot of the strange orchid. The
tentacle-like aerial rootlets no longer swayed freely in the air, but were
crowded together, a tangle of grey ropes, and stretched tight, with their
ends closely applied to his chin and neck and hands.

She did not understand. Then she saw from under one of the exultant
tentacles upon his cheek there trickled a little thread of blood.

With an inarticulate cry she ran towards him, and tried to pull him away
from the leech-like suckers. She snapped two of these tentacles, and their
sap dripped red.

Then the overpowering scent of the blossom began to make her head reel.
How they clung to him! She tore at the tough ropes, and he and the white
inflorescence swam about her. She felt she was fainting, knew she must
not. She left him and hastily opened the nearest door, and, after she had
panted for a moment in the fresh air, she had a brilliant inspiration. She
caught up a flower-pot and smashed in the windows at the end of the
greenhouse. Then she re-entered. She tugged now with renewed strength at
Wedderburn's motionless body, and brought the strange orchid crashing to
the floor. It still clung with the grimmest tenacity to its victim. In a
frenzy, she lugged it and him into the open air.

Then she thought of tearing through the sucker rootlets one by one, and in
another minute she had released him and was dragging him away from the
horror.

He was white and bleeding from a dozen circular patches.

The odd-job man was coming up the garden, amazed at the smashing of glass,
and saw her emerge, hauling the inanimate body with red-stained hands. For
a moment he thought impossible things.

"Bring some water!" she cried, and her voice dispelled his fancies. When,
with unnatural alacrity, he returned with the water, he found her weeping
with excitement, and with Wedderburn's head upon her knee, wiping the
blood from his face.

"What's the matter?" said Wedderburn, opening his eyes feebly, and closing
them again at once.

"Go and tell Annie to come out here to me, and then go for Dr. Haddon at
once," she said to the odd-job man so soon as he brought the water; and
added, seeing he hesitated, "I will tell you all about it when you come
back."

Presently Wedderburn opened his eyes again, and, seeing that he was
troubled by the puzzle of his position, she explained to him, "You fainted
in the hothouse."

"And the orchid?"

"I will see to that," she said.

Wedderburn had lost a good deal of blood, but beyond that he had suffered
no very great injury. They gave him brandy mixed with some pink extract of
meat, and carried him upstairs to bed. His housekeeper told her incredible
story in fragments to Dr. Haddon. "Come to the orchid-house and see," she
said.

The cold outer air was blowing in through the open door, and the sickly
perfume was almost dispelled. Most of the torn aerial rootlets lay already
withered amidst a number of dark stains upon the bricks. The stem of the
inflorescence was broken by the fall of the plant, and the flowers were
growing limp and brown at the edges of the petals. The doctor stooped
towards it, then saw that one of the aerial rootlets still stirred feebly,
and hesitated.

The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and
putrescent. The door banged intermittently in the morning breeze, and all
the array of Wedderburn's orchids was shrivelled and prostrate. But
Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the glory of his
strange adventure.

 

 

 

V.

IN THE AVU OBSERVATORY.

 

The observatory at Avu, in Borneo, stands on the spur of the mountain. To
the north rises the old crater, black at night against the unfathomable
blue of the sky. From the little circular building, with its mushroom
dome, the slopes plunge steeply downward into the black mysteries of the
tropical forest beneath. The little house in which the observer and his
assistant live is about fifty yards from the observatory, and beyond this
are the huts of their native attendants.

Thaddy, the chief observer, was down with a slight fever. His assistant,
Woodhouse, paused for a moment in silent contemplation of the tropical
night before commencing his solitary vigil. The night was very still. Now
and then voices and laughter came from the native huts, or the cry of some
strange animal was heard from the midst of the mystery of the forest.
Nocturnal insects appeared in ghostly fashion out of the darkness, and
fluttered round his light. He thought, perhaps, of all the possibilities
of discovery that still lay in the black tangle beneath him; for to the
naturalist the virgin forests of Borneo are still a wonderland full of
strange questions and half-suspected discoveries. Woodhouse carried a
small lantern in his hand, and its yellow glow contrasted vividly with the
infinite series of tints between lavender-blue and black in which the
landscape was painted. His hands and face were smeared with ointment
against the attacks of the mosquitoes.

Even in these days of celestial photography, work done in a purely
temporary erection, and with only the most primitive appliances in
addition to the telescope, still involves a very large amount of cramped
and motionless watching. He sighed as he thought of the physical fatigues
before him, stretched himself, and entered the observatory.

The reader is probably familiar with the structure of an ordinary
astronomical observatory. The building is usually cylindrical in shape,
with a very light hemispherical roof capable of being turned round from
the interior. The telescope is supported upon a stone pillar in the
centre, and a clockwork arrangement compensates for the earth's rotation,
and allows a star once found to be continuously observed. Besides this,
there is a compact tracery of wheels and screws about its point of
support, by which the astronomer adjusts it. There is, of course, a slit
in the movable roof which follows the eye of the telescope in its survey
of the heavens. The observer sits or lies on a sloping wooden arrangement,
which he can wheel to any part of the observatory as the position of the
telescope may require. Within it is advisable to have things as dark as
possible, in order to enhance the brilliance of the stars observed.

The lantern flared as Woodhouse entered his circular den, and the general
darkness fled into black shadows behind the big machine, from which it
presently seemed to creep back over the whole place again as the light
waned. The slit was a profound transparent blue, in which six stars shone
with tropical brilliance, and their light lay, a pallid gleam, along the
black tube of the instrument. Woodhouse shifted the roof, and then
proceeding to the telescope, turned first one wheel and then another, the
great cylinder slowly swinging into a new position. Then he glanced
through the finder, the little companion telescope, moved the roof a
little more, made some further adjustments, and set the clockwork in
motion. He took off his jacket, for the night was very hot, and pushed
into position the uncomfortable seat to which he was condemned for the
next four hours. Then with a sigh he resigned himself to his watch upon
the mysteries of space.

There was no sound now in the observatory, and the lantern waned steadily.
Outside there was the occasional cry of some animal in alarm or pain, or
calling to its mate, and the intermittent sounds of the Malay and Dyak
servants. Presently one of the men began a queer chanting song, in which
the others joined at intervals. After this it would seem that they turned
in for the night, for no further sound came from their direction, and the
whispering stillness became more and more profound.

The clockwork ticked steadily. The shrill hum of a mosquito explored the
place and grew shriller in indignation at Woodhouse's ointment. Then the
lantern went out and all the observatory was black.

Woodhouse shifted his position presently, when the slow movement of the
telescope had carried it beyond the limits of his comfort.

He was watching a little group of stars in the Milky Way, in one of which
his chief had seen or fancied a remarkable colour variability. It was not
a part of the regular work for which the establishment existed, and for
that reason perhaps Woodhouse was deeply interested. He must have
forgotten things terrestrial. All his attention was concentrated upon the
great blue circle of the telescope field--a circle powdered, so it seemed,
with an innumerable multitude of stars, and all luminous against the
blackness of its setting. As he watched he seemed to himself to become
incorporeal, as if he too were floating in the ether of space. Infinitely
remote was the faint red spot he was observing.

Suddenly the stars were blotted out. A flash of blackness passed, and they
were visible again.

"Queer," said Woodhouse. "Must have been a bird."

The thing happened again, and immediately after the great tube shivered as
though it had been struck. Then the dome of the observatory resounded with
a series of thundering blows. The stars seemed to sweep aside as the
telescope--which had been unclamped--swung round and away from the slit in
the roof.

"Great Scott!" cried Woodhouse. "What's this?"

Some huge vague black shape, with a flapping something like a wing, seemed
to be struggling in the aperture of the roof. In another moment the slit
was clear again, and the luminous haze of the Milky Way shone warm and
bright.

The interior of the roof was perfectly black, and only a scraping sound
marked the whereabouts of the unknown creature.

Woodhouse had scrambled from the seat to his feet. He was trembling
violently and in a perspiration with the suddenness of the occurrence. Was
the thing, whatever it was, inside or out? It was big, whatever else it
might be. Something shot across the skylight, and the telescope swayed. He
started violently and put his arm up. It was in the observatory, then,
with him. It was clinging to the roof apparently. What the devil was it?
Could it see him?

He stood for perhaps a minute in a state of stupefaction. The beast,
whatever it was, clawed at the interior of the dome, and then something
flapped almost into his face, and he saw the momentary gleam of starlight
on a skin like oiled leather. His water-bottle was knocked off his little
table with a smash.

The sense of some strange bird-creature hovering a few yards from his face
in the darkness was indescribably unpleasant to Woodhouse. As his thought
returned he concluded that it must be some night-bird or large bat. At any
risk he would see what it was, and pulling a match from his pocket, he
tried to strike it on the telescope seat. There was a smoking streak of
phosphorescent light, the match flared for a moment, and he saw a vast
wing sweeping towards him, a gleam of grey-brown fur, and then he was
struck in the face and the match knocked out of his hand. The blow was
aimed at his temple, and a claw tore sideways down to his cheek. He reeled
and fell, and he heard the extinguished lantern smash. Another blow
followed as he fell. He was partly stunned, he felt his own warm blood
stream out upon his face. Instinctively he felt his eyes had been struck
at, and, turning over on his face to save them, tried to crawl under the
protection of the telescope.

He was struck again upon the back, and he heard his jacket rip, and then
the thing hit the roof of the observatory. He edged as far as he could
between the wooden seat and the eyepiece of the instrument, and turned his
body round so that it was chiefly his feet that were exposed. With these
he could at least kick. He was still in a mystified state. The strange
beast banged about in the darkness, and presently clung to the telescope,
making it sway and the gear rattle. Once it flapped near him, and he
kicked out madly and felt a soft body with his feet. He was horribly
scared now. It must be a big thing to swing the telescope like that. He
saw for a moment the outline of a head black against the starlight, with
sharply-pointed upstanding ears and a crest between them. It seemed to him
to be as big as a mastiff's. Then he began to bawl out as loudly as he
could for help.

At that the thing came down upon him again. As it did so his hand touched
something beside him on the floor. He kicked out, and the next moment his
ankle was gripped and held by a row of keen teeth. He yelled again, and
tried to free his leg by kicking with the other. Then he realised he had
the broken water-bottle at his hand, and, snatching it, he struggled into
a sitting posture, and feeling in the darkness towards his foot, gripped a
velvety ear, like the ear of a big cat. He had seized the water-bottle by
its neck and brought it down with a shivering crash upon the head of the
strange beast. He repeated the blow, and then stabbed and jabbed with the
jagged end of it, in the darkness, where he judged the face might be.

The small teeth relaxed their hold, and at once Woodhouse pulled his leg
free and kicked hard. He felt the sickening feel of fur and bone giving
under his boot. There was a tearing bite at his arm, and he struck over it
at the face, as he judged, and hit damp fur.

There was a pause; then he heard the sound of claws; and the dragging of a
heavy body away from him over the observatory floor. Then there was
silence, broken only by his own sobbing breathing, and a sound like
licking. Everything was black except the parallelogram of the blue
skylight with the luminous dust of stars, against which the end of the
telescope now appeared in silhouette. He waited, as it seemed, an
interminable time.

Was the thing coming on again? He felt in his trouser-pocket for some
matches, and found one remaining. He tried to strike this, but the floor
was wet, and it spat and went out. He cursed. He could not see where the
door was situated. In his struggle he had quite lost his bearings. The
strange beast, disturbed by the splutter of the match, began to move
again. "Time!" called Woodhouse, with a sudden gleam of mirth, but the
thing was not coming at him again. He must have hurt it, he thought, with
the broken bottle. He felt a dull pain in his ankle. Probably he was
bleeding there. He wondered if it would support him if he tried to stand
up. The night outside was very still. There was no sound of any one
moving. The sleepy fools had not heard those wings battering upon the
dome, nor his shouts. It was no good wasting strength in shouting. The
monster flapped its wings and startled him into a defensive attitude. He
hit his elbow against the seat, and it fell over with a crash. He cursed
this, and then he cursed the darkness.

Suddenly the oblong patch of starlight seemed to sway to and fro. Was he
going to faint? It would never do to faint. He clenched his fists and set
his teeth to hold himself together. Where had the door got to? It occurred
to him he could get his bearings by the stars visible through the
skylight. The patch of stars he saw was in Sagittarius and south-eastward;
the door was north--or was it north by west? He tried to think. If he
could get the door open he might retreat. It might be the thing was
wounded. The suspense was beastly. "Look here!" he said, "if you don't
come on, I shall come at you."

Then the thing began clambering up the side of the observatory, and he saw
its black outline gradually blot out the skylight. Was it in retreat? He
forgot about the door, and watched as the dome shifted and creaked.
Somehow he did not feel very frightened or excited now. He felt a curious
sinking sensation inside him. The sharply-defined patch of light, with the
black form moving across it, seemed to be growing smaller and smaller.
That was curious. He began to feel very thirsty, and yet he did not feel
inclined to get anything to drink. He seemed to be sliding down a long
funnel.

He felt a burning sensation in his throat, and then he perceived it was
broad daylight, and that one of the Dyak servants was looking at him with
a curious expression. Then there was the top of Thaddy's face upside down.
Funny fellow, Thaddy, to go about like that! Then he grasped the situation
better, and perceived that his head was on Thaddy's knee, and Thaddy was
giving him brandy. And then he saw the eyepiece of the telescope with a
lot of red smears on it. He began to remember.

"You've made this observatory in a pretty mess," said Thaddy.

The Dyak boy was beating up an egg in brandy. Woodhouse took this and sat
up. He felt a sharp twinge of pain. His ankle was tied up, so were his
arm and the side of his face. The smashed glass, red-stained, lay about
the floor, the telescope seat was overturned, and by the opposite wall was
a dark pool. The door was open, and he saw the grey summit of the mountain
against a brilliant background of blue sky.

"Pah!" said Woodhouse. "Who's been killing calves here? Take me out of
it."

Then he remembered the Thing, and the fight he had had with it.

"What _was_ it?" he said to Thaddy--"the Thing I fought with?".

"_You_ know that best," said Thaddy. "But, anyhow, don't worry
yourself now about it. Have some more to drink."

Thaddy, however, was curious enough, and it was a hard struggle between
duty and inclination to keep Woodhouse quiet until he was decently put
away in bed, and had slept upon the copious dose of meat extract Thaddy
considered advisable. They then talked it over together.

"It was," said Woodhouse, "more like a big bat than anything else in the
world. It had sharp, short ears, and soft fur, and its wings were
leathery. Its teeth were little but devilish sharp, and its jaw could not
have been very strong or else it would have bitten through my ankle."

"It has pretty nearly," said Thaddy.

"It seemed to me to hit out with its claws pretty freely. That is about as
much as I know about the beast. Our conversation was intimate, so to
speak, and yet not confidential."

"The Dyak chaps talk about a Big Colugo, a Klang-utang--whatever that may
be. It does not often attack man, but I suppose you made it nervous. They
say there is a Big Colugo and a Little Colugo, and a something else that
sounds like gobble. They all fly about at night. For my own part, I know
there are flying foxes and flying lemurs about here, but they are none of
them very big beasts."

"There are more things in heaven and earth," said Woodhouse--and Thaddy
groaned at the quotation--"and more particularly in the forests of Borneo,
than are dreamt of in our philosophies. On the whole, if the Borneo fauna
is going to disgorge any more of its novelties upon me, I should prefer
that it did so when I was not occupied in the observatory at night and
alone."

 

 

 

VI.

AEPYORNIS ISLAND.

 

The man with the scarred face leant over the table and looked at my
bundle.

"Orchids?" he asked.

"A few," I said.

"Cypripediums," he said.

"Chiefly," said I.

"Anything new? I thought not. _I_ did these islands twenty-five--
twenty-seven years ago. If you find anything new here--well, it's brand
new. I didn't leave much."

"I'm not a collector," said I.

"I was young then," he went on. "Lord! how I used to fly round." He seemed
to take my measure. "I was in the East Indies two years, and in Brazil
seven. Then I went to Madagascar."

"I know a few explorers by name," I said, anticipating a yarn. "Whom did
you collect for?"

"Dawson's. I wonder if you've heard the name of Butcher ever?"

"Butcher--Butcher?" The name seemed vaguely present in my memory;
then I recalled _Butcher_ v. _Dawson_. "Why!" said I, "you are the
man who sued them for four years' salary--got cast away on a desert
island..."

"Your servant," said the man with the scar, bowing. "Funny case, wasn't
it? Here was me, making a little fortune on that island, doing nothing
for it neither, and them quite unable to give me notice. It often used
to amuse me thinking over it while I was there. I did calculations of
it--big--all over the blessed atoll in ornamental figuring."

"How did it happen?" said I. "I don't rightly remember the case."

"Well... You've heard of the AEpyornis?"

"Rather. Andrews was telling me of a new species he was working on only a
month or so ago. Just before I sailed. They've got a thigh bone, it seems,
nearly a yard long. Monster the thing must have been!"

"I believe you," said the man with the scar. "It _was_ a monster.
Sindbad's roc was just a legend of 'em. But when did they find these
bones?"

"Three or four years ago--'91, I fancy. Why?"

"Why? Because _I_ found them--Lord!--it's nearly twenty years ago. If
Dawson's hadn't been silly about that salary they might have made a
perfect ring in 'em... _I_ couldn't help the infernal boat going
adrift."

He paused. "I suppose it's the same place. A kind of swamp about ninety
miles north of Antananarivo. Do you happen to know? You have to go to it
along the coast by boats. You don't happen to remember, perhaps?"

"I don't. I fancy Andrews said something about a swamp."

"It must be the same. It's on the east coast. And somehow there's
something in the water that keeps things from decaying. Like creosote it
smells. It reminded me of Trinidad. Did they get any more eggs? Some of
the eggs I found were a foot-and-a-half long. The swamp goes circling
round, you know, and cuts off this bit. It's mostly salt, too. Well...
What a time I had of it! I found the things quite by accident. We went for
eggs, me and two native chaps, in one of those rum canoes all tied
together, and found the bones at the same time. We had a tent and
provisions for four days, and we pitched on one of the firmer places. To
think of it brings that odd tarry smell back even now. It's funny work.
You go probing into the mud with iron rods, you know. Usually the egg gets
smashed. I wonder how long it is since these AEpyornises really lived. The
missionaries say the natives have legends about when they were alive, but
I never heard any such stories myself.[*] But certainly those eggs we got
were as fresh as if they had been new laid. Fresh! Carrying them down to
the boat one of my nigger chaps dropped one on a rock and it smashed. How
I lammed into the beggar! But sweet it was, as if it was new laid, not
even smelly, and its mother dead these four hundred years, perhaps. Said a
centipede had bit him. However, I'm getting off the straight with the
story. It had taken us all day to dig into the slush and get these eggs
out unbroken, and we were all covered with beastly black mud, and
naturally I was cross. So far as I knew they were the only eggs that have
ever been got out not even cracked. I went afterwards to see the ones they
have at the Natural History Museum in London; all of them were cracked and
just stuck together like a mosaic, and bits missing. Mine were perfect,
and I meant to blow them when I got back. Naturally I was annoyed at the
silly duffer dropping three hours' work just on account of a centipede. I
hit him about rather."

[Footnote *: No European is known to have seen a live AEpyornis, with the
doubtful exception of MacAndrew, who visited Madagascar in 1745.--H.G.W.]

The man with the scar took out a clay pipe. I placed my pouch before him.
He filled up absent-mindedly.

"How about the others? Did you get those home? I don't remember--"

"That's the queer part of the story. I had three others. Perfectly fresh
eggs. Well, we put 'em in the boat, and then I went up to the tent to make
some coffee, leaving my two heathens down by the beach--the one fooling
about with his sting and the other helping him. It never occurred to me
that the beggars would take advantage of the peculiar position I was in to
pick a quarrel. But I suppose the centipede poison and the kicking I had
given him had upset the one--he was always a cantankerous sort--and he
persuaded the other.

"I remember I was sitting and smoking and boiling up the water over a
spirit-lamp business I used to take on these expeditions. Incidentally I
was admiring the swamp under the sunset. All black and blood-red it was,
in streaks--a beautiful sight. And up beyond the land rose grey and hazy
to the hills, and the sky behind them red, like a furnace mouth. And fifty
yards behind the back of me was these blessed heathen--quite regardless of
the tranquil air of things--plotting to cut off with the boat and leave me
all alone with three days' provisions and a canvas tent, and nothing to
drink whatsoever beyond a little keg of water. I heard a kind of yelp
behind me, and there they were in this canoe affair--it wasn't properly a
boat--and, perhaps, twenty yards from land. I realised what was up in a
moment. My gun was in the tent, and, besides, I had no bullets--only duck
shot. They knew that. But I had a little revolver in my pocket, and I
pulled that out as I ran down to the beach.

"'Come back!' says I, flourishing it.

"They jabbered something at me, and the man that broke the egg jeered. I
aimed at the other--because he was unwounded and had the paddle, and I
missed. They laughed. However, I wasn't beat. I knew I had to keep cool,
and I tried him again and made him jump with the whang of it. He didn't
laugh that time. The third time I got his head, and over he went, and the
paddle with him. It was a precious lucky shot for a revolver. I reckon it
was fifty yards. He went right under. I don't know if he was shot, or
simply stunned and drowned. Then I began to shout to the other chap to
come back, but he huddled up in the canoe and refused to answer. So I
fired out my revolver at him and never got near him.

"I felt a precious fool, I can tell you. There I was on this rotten, black
beach, flat swamp all behind me, and the flat sea, cold after the sun set,
and just this black canoe drifting steadily out to sea. I tell you I
damned Dawson's and Jamrach's and Museums and all the rest of it just to
rights. I bawled to this nigger to come back, until my voice went up into
a scream.

"There was nothing for it but to swim after him and take my luck with the
sharks. So I opened my clasp-knife and put it in my mouth, and took off
my clothes and waded in. As soon as I was in the water I lost sight of
the canoe, but I aimed, as I judged, to head it off. I hoped the man in it
was too bad to navigate it, and that it would keep on drifting in the
same direction. Presently it came up over the horizon again to the
south-westward about. The afterglow of sunset was well over now and the
dim of night creeping up. The stars were coming through the blue. I swum
like a champion, though my legs and arms were soon aching.

"However, I came up to him by the time the stars were fairly out. As it
got darker I began to see all manner of glowing things in the water--
phosphorescence, you know. At times it made me giddy. I hardly knew which
was stars and which was phosphorescence, and whether I was swimming on my
head or my heels. The canoe was as black as sin, and the ripple under the
bows like liquid fire. I was naturally chary of clambering up into it. I
was anxious to see what he was up to first. He seemed to be lying cuddled
up in a lump in the bows, and the stern was all out of water. The thing
kept turning round slowly as it drifted---kind of waltzing, don't you
know. I went to the stern and pulled it down, expecting him to wake up.
Then I began to clamber in with my knife in my hand, and ready for a rush.
But he never stirred. So there I sat in the stern of the little canoe,
drifting away over the calm phosphorescent sea, and with all the host of
the stars above me, waiting for something to happen.

"After a long time I called him by name, but he never answered. I was too
tired to take any risks by going along to him. So we sat there. I fancy I
dozed once or twice. When the dawn came I saw he was as dead as a doornail
and all puffed up and purple. My three eggs and the bones were lying in
the middle of the canoe, and the keg of water and some coffee and biscuits
wrapped in a Cape _Argus_ by his feet, and a tin of methylated spirit
underneath him. There was no paddle, nor, in fact, anything except the
spirit-tin that I could use as one, so I settled to drift until I was
picked up. I held an inquest on him, brought in a verdict against some
snake, scorpion, or centipede unknown, and sent him overboard.

"After that I had a drink of water and a few biscuits, and took a look
round. I suppose a man low down as I was don't see very far; leastways,
Madagascar was clean out of sight, and any trace of land at all. I saw a
sail going south-westward--looked like a schooner but her hull never came
up. Presently the sun got high in the sky and began to beat down upon me.
Lord! it pretty near made my brains boil. I tried dipping my head in the
sea, but after a while my eye fell on the Cape _Argus_, and I lay
down flat in the canoe and spread this over me. Wonderful things these
newspapers! I never read one through thoroughly before, but it's odd what
you get up to when you're alone, as I was. I suppose I read that blessed
old Cape _Argus_ twenty times. The pitch in the canoe simply reeked
with the heat and rose up into big blisters.

"I drifted ten days," said the man with the scar. "It's a little thing in
the telling, isn't it? Every day was like the last. Except in the morning
and the evening I never kept a look-out even--the blaze was so infernal. I
didn't see a sail after the first three days, and those I saw took no
notice of me. About the sixth night a ship went by scarcely half a mile
away from me, with all its lights ablaze and its ports open, looking like
a big firefly. There was music aboard. I stood up and shouted and screamed
at it. The second day I broached one of the AEpyornis eggs, scraped the
shell away at the end bit by bit, and tried it, and I was glad to find it
was good enough to eat. A bit flavoury--not bad, I mean--but with
something of the taste of a duck's egg. There was a kind of circular
patch, about six inches across, on one side of the yoke, and with streaks
of blood and a white mark like a ladder in it that I thought queer, but I
did not understand what this meant at the time, and I wasn't inclined to
be particular. The egg lasted me three days, with biscuits and a drink of
water. I chewed coffee berries too--invigorating stuff. The second egg I
opened about the eighth day, and it scared me."

The man with the scar paused. "Yes," he said, "developing."

"I daresay you find it hard to believe. _I_ did, with the thing
before me. There the egg had been, sunk in that cold black mud, perhaps
three hundred years. But there was no mistaking it. There was the--what is
it?--embryo, with its big head and curved back, and its heart beating
under its throat, and the yolk shrivelled up and great membranes spreading
inside of the shell and all over the yolk. Here was I hatching out the
eggs of the biggest of all extinct birds, in a little canoe in the midst
of the Indian Ocean. If old Dawson had known that! It was worth four
years' salary. What do _you_ think?

"However, I had to eat that precious thing up, every bit of it, before I
sighted the reef, and some of the mouthfuls were beastly unpleasant. I
left the third one alone. I held it up to the light, but the shell was too
thick for me to get any notion of what might be happening inside; and
though I fancied I heard blood pulsing, it might have been the rustle in
my own ears, like what you listen to in a seashell.

"Then came the atoll. Came out of the sunrise, as it were, suddenly, close
up to me. I drifted straight towards it until I was about half a mile from
shore, not more, and then the current took a turn, and I had to paddle as
hard as I could with my hands and bits of the AEpyornis shell to make the
place. However, I got there. It was just a common atoll about four miles
round, with a few trees growing and a spring in one place, and the lagoon
full of parrot-fish. I took the egg ashore and put it in a good place,
well above the tide lines and in the sun, to give it all the chance I
could, and pulled the canoe up safe, and loafed about prospecting. It's
rum how dull an atoll is. As soon as I had found a spring all the interest
seemed to vanish. When I was a kid I thought nothing could be finer or
more adventurous than the Robinson Crusoe business, but that place was as
monotonous as a book of sermons. I went round finding eatable things and
generally thinking; but I tell you I was bored to death before the first
day was out. It shows my luck--the very day I landed the weather changed.
A thunderstorm went by to the north and flicked its wing over the island,
and in the night there came a drencher and a howling wind slap over us. It
wouldn't have taken much, you know, to upset that canoe.

"I was sleeping under the canoe, and the egg was luckily among the sand
higher up the beach, and the first thing I remember was a sound like a
hundred pebbles hitting the boat at once, and a rush of water over my
body. I'd been dreaming of Antananarivo, and I sat up and holloaed to
Intoshi to ask her what the devil was up, and clawed out at the chair
where the matches used to be. Then I remembered where I was. There were
phosphorescent waves rolling up as if they meant to eat me, and all the
rest of the night as black as pitch. The air was simply yelling. The
clouds seemed down on your head almost, and the rain fell as if heaven was
sinking and they were baling out the waters above the firmament. One great
roller came writhing at me, like a fiery serpent, and I bolted. Then I
thought of the canoe, and ran down to it as the water went hissing back
again; but the thing had gone. I wondered about the egg then, and felt my
way to it. It was all right and well out of reach of the maddest waves, so
I sat down beside it and cuddled it for company. Lord! what a night that
was!

"The storm was over before the morning. There wasn't a rag of cloud left
in the sky when the dawn came, and all along the beach there were bits of
plank scattered--which was the disarticulated skeleton, so to speak, of my
canoe. However, that gave me something to do, for, taking advantage of two
of the trees being together, I rigged up a kind of storm-shelter with
these vestiges. And that day the egg hatched.

"Hatched, sir, when my head was pillowed on it and I was asleep. I heard a
whack and felt a jar and sat up, and there was the end of the egg pecked
out and a rum little brown head looking out at me. 'Lord!' I said, 'you're
welcome'; and with a little difficulty he came out.

"He was a nice friendly little chap at first, about the size of a small
hen--very much like most other young birds, only bigger. His plumage was a
dirty brown to begin with, with a sort of grey scab that fell off it very
soon, and scarcely feathers--a kind of downy hair. I can hardly express
how pleased I was to see him. I tell you, Robinson Crusoe don't make near
enough of his loneliness. But here was interesting company. He looked at
me and winked his eye from the front backwards, like a hen, and gave a
chirp and began to peck about at once, as though being hatched three
hundred years too late was just nothing. 'Glad to see you, Man Friday!'
says I, for I had naturally settled he was to be called Man Friday if ever
he was hatched, as soon as ever I found the egg in the canoe had
developed. I was a bit anxious about his feed, so I gave him a lump of raw
parrot-fish at once. He took it, and opened his beak for more. I was glad
of that for, under the circumstances, if he'd been at all fanciful, I
should have had to eat him after all.

"You'd be surprised what an interesting bird that AEpyornis chick was. He
followed me about from the very beginning. He used to stand by me and
watch while I fished in the lagoon, and go shares in anything I caught.
And he was sensible, too. There were nasty green warty things, like
pickled gherkins, used to lie about on the beach, and he tried one of
these and it upset him. He never even looked at any of them again.

"And he grew. You could almost see him grow. And as I was never much of a
society man, his quiet, friendly ways suited me to a T. For nearly two
years we were as happy as we could be on that island. I had no business
worries, for I knew my salary was mounting up at Dawsons'. We would see a
sail now and then, but nothing ever came near us. I amused myself, too, by
decorating the island with designs worked in sea-urchins and fancy shells
of various kinds. I put AEPYORNIS ISLAND all round the place very nearly,
in big letters, like what you see done with coloured stones at railway
stations in the old country, and mathematical calculations and drawings of
various sorts. And I used to lie watching the blessed bird stalking round
and growing, growing; and think how I could make a living out of him by
showing him about if I ever got taken off. After his first moult he began
to get handsome, with a crest and a blue wattle, and a lot of green
feathers at the behind of him. And then I used to puzzle whether Dawsons'
had any right to claim him or not. Stormy weather and in the rainy season
we lay snug under the shelter I had made out of the old canoe, and I used
to tell him lies about my friends at home. And after a storm we would go
round the island together to see if there was any drift. It was a kind of
idyll, you might say. If only I had had some tobacco it would have been
simply just like heaven.

"It was about the end of the second year our little paradise went wrong.
Friday was then about fourteen feet high to the bill of him, with a big,
broad head like the end of a pickaxe, and two huge brown eyes with yellow
rims, set together like a man's--not out of sight of each other like a
hen's. His plumage was fine--none of the half-mourning style of your
ostrich--more like a cassowary as far as colour and texture go. And then
it was he began to cock his comb at me and give himself airs, and show
signs of a nasty temper ...

"At last came a time when my fishing had been rather unlucky, and he began
to hang about me in a queer, meditative way. I thought he might have been
eating sea-cucumbers or something, but it was really just discontent on
his part. I was hungry too, and when at last I landed a fish I wanted it
for myself. Tempers were short that morning on both sides. He pecked at it
and grabbed it, and I gave him a whack on the head to make him leave go.
And at that he went for me. Lord! ...

"He gave me this in the face." The man indicated his scar. "Then he kicked
me. It was like a carthorse. I got up, and seeing he hadn't finished, I
started off full tilt with my arms doubled up over my face. But he ran on
those gawky legs of his faster than a racehorse, and kept landing out at
me with sledgehammer kicks, and bringing his pickaxe down on the back of
my head. I made for the lagoon, and went in up to my neck. He stopped at
the water, for he hated getting his feet wet, and began to make a shindy,
something like a peacock's, only hoarser. He started strutting up and down
the beach. I'll admit I felt small to see this blessed fossil lording it
there. And my head and face were all bleeding, and--well, my body just one
jelly of bruises.

"I decided to swim across the lagoon and leave him alone for a bit, until
the affair blew over. I shinned up the tallest palm-tree, and sat there
thinking of it all. I don't suppose I ever felt so hurt by anything before
or since. It was the brutal ingratitude of the creature. I'd been more
than a brother to him. I'd hatched him, educated him. A great gawky,
out-of-date bird! And me a human being--heir of the ages and all that.

"I thought after a time he'd begin to see things in that light himself,
and feel a little sorry for his behaviour. I thought if I was to catch
some nice little bits of fish, perhaps, and go to him presently in a
casual kind of way, and offer them to him, he might do the sensible thing.
It took me some time to learn how unforgiving and cantankerous an extinct
bird can be. Malice!

"I won't tell you all the little devices I tried to get that bird round
again, I simply can't. It makes my cheek burn with shame even now to think
of the snubs and buffets I had from this infernal curiosity. I tried
violence. I chucked lumps of coral at him from a safe distance, but he
only swallowed them. I shied my open knife at him and almost lost it,
though it was too big for him to swallow. I tried starving him out and
struck fishing, but he took to picking along the beach at low water after
worms, and rubbed along on that. Half my time I spent up to my neck in the
lagoon, and the rest up the palm-trees. One of them was scarcely high
enough, and when he caught me up it he had a regular Bank Holiday with the
calves of my legs. It got unbearable. I don't know if you have ever tried
sleeping up a palm-tree. It gave me the most horrible nightmares. Think of
the shame of it, too! Here was this extinct animal mooning about my island
like a sulky duke, and me not allowed to rest the sole of my foot on the
place. I used to cry with weariness and vexation. I told him straight that
I didn't mean to be chased about a desert island by any damned
anachronisms. I told him to go and peck a navigator of his own age. But he
only snapped his beak at me. Great ugly bird, all legs and neck!

"I shouldn't like to say how long that went on altogether. I'd have killed
him sooner if I'd known how. However, I hit on a way of settling him at
last. It is a South American dodge. I joined all my fishing-lines together
with stems of seaweed and things, and made a stoutish string, perhaps
twelve yards in length or more, and I fastened two lumps of coral rock to
the ends of this. It took me some time to do, because every now and then
I had to go into the lagoon or up a tree as the fancy took me. This I
whirled rapidly round my head, and then let it go at him. The first time I
missed, but the next time the string caught his legs beautifully, and
wrapped round them again and again. Over he went. I threw it standing
waist-deep in the lagoon, and as soon as he went down I was out of the
water and sawing at his neck with my knife ...

"I don't like to think of that even now. I felt like a murderer while I
did it, though my anger was hot against him. When I stood over him and saw
him bleeding on the white sand, and his beautiful great legs and neck
writhing in his last agony ... Pah!

"With that tragedy loneliness came upon me like a curse. Good Lord! you
can't imagine how I missed that bird. I sat by his corpse and sorrowed
over him, and shivered as I looked round the desolate, silent reef.
I thought of what a jolly little bird he had been when he was hatched, and
of a thousand pleasant tricks he had played before he went wrong.
I thought if I'd only wounded him I might have nursed him round into a
better understanding. If I'd had any means of digging into the coral rock
I'd have buried him. I felt exactly as if he was human. As it was,
I couldn't think of eating him, so I put him in the lagoon, and the little
fishes picked him clean. I didn't even save the feathers. Then one day a
chap cruising about in a yacht had a fancy to see if my atoll still
existed.

"He didn't come a moment too soon, for I was about sick enough of the
desolation of it, and only hesitating whether I should walk out into the
sea and finish up the business that way, or fall back on the green
things...

"I sold the bones to a man named Winslow--a dealer near the British
Museum, and he says he sold them to old Havers. It seems Havers didn't
understand they were extra large, and it was only after his death they
attracted attention. They called 'em AEpyornis--what was it?"

"_AEpyornis vastus_," said I. "It's funny, the very thing was
mentioned to me by a friend of mine. When they found an AEpyornis, with a
thigh a yard long, they thought they had reached the top of the scale, and
called him _AEpyornis maximus_. Then some one turned up another
thigh-bone four feet six or more, and that they called _AEpyornis
Titan_. Then your _vastus_ was found after old Havers died, in his
collection, and then a _vastissimus_ turned up."

"Winslow was telling me as much," said the man with the scar. "If they get
any more AEpyornises, he reckons some scientific swell will go and burst a
blood-vessel. But it was a queer thing to happen to a man; wasn't it--
altogether?"

 

 

 

VII.

THE REMARKABLE CASE OF DAVIDSON'S EYES.

I.

The transitory mental aberration of Sidney Davidson, remarkable enough in
itself, is still more remarkable if Wade's explanation is to be credited.
It sets one dreaming of the oddest possibilities of intercommunication in
the future, of spending an intercalary five minutes on the other side of
the world, or being watched in our most secret operations by unsuspected
eyes. It happened that I was the immediate witness of Davidson's seizure,
and so it falls naturally to me to put the story upon paper.

When I say that I was the immediate witness of his seizure, I mean that I
was the first on the scene. The thing happened at the Harlow Technical
College, just beyond the Highgate Archway. He was alone in the larger
laboratory when the thing happened. I was in a smaller room, where the
balances are, writing up some notes. The thunderstorm had completely upset
my work, of course. It was just after one of the louder peals that I
thought I heard some glass smash in the other room. I stopped writing, and
turned round to listen. For a moment I heard nothing; the hail was playing
the devil's tattoo on the corrugated zinc of the roof. Then came another
sound, a smash--no doubt of it this time. Something heavy had been knocked
off the bench. I jumped up at once and went and opened the door leading
into the big laboratory.

I was surprised to hear a queer sort of laugh, and saw Davidson standing
unsteadily in the middle of the room, with a dazzled look on his face. My
first impression was that he was drunk. He did not notice me. He was
clawing out at something invisible a yard in front of his face. He put out
his hand, slowly, rather hesitatingly, and then clutched nothing. "What's
come to it?" he said. He held up his hands to his face, fingers spread
out. "Great Scott!" he said. The thing happened three or four years ago,
when every one swore by that personage. Then he began raising his feet
clumsily, as though he had expected to find them glued to the floor.

"Davidson!" cried I. "What's the matter with you?" He turned round in my
direction and looked about for me. He looked over me and at me and on
either side of me, without the slightest sign of seeing me. "Waves," he
said; "and a remarkably neat schooner. I'd swear that was Bellow's voice.
_Hullo_!" He shouted suddenly at the top of his voice.

I thought he was up to some foolery. Then I saw littered about his feet
the shattered remains of the best of our electrometers. "What's up, man?"
said I. "You've smashed the electrometer!"

"Bellows again!" said he. "Friends left, if my hands are gone. Something
about electrometers. Which way _are_ you, Bellows?" He suddenly came
staggering towards me. "The damned stuff cuts like butter," he said. He
walked straight into the bench and recoiled. "None so buttery that!" he
said, and stood swaying.

I felt scared. "Davidson," said I, "what on earth's come over you?"

He looked round him in every direction. "I could swear that was Bellows.
Why don't you show yourself like a man, Bellows?"

It occurred to me that he must be suddenly struck blind. I walked round
the table and laid my hand upon his arm. I never saw a man more startled
in my life. He jumped away from me, and came round into an attitude of
self-defence, his face fairly distorted with terror. "Good God!" he cried.
"What was that?"

"It's I--Bellows. Confound it, Davidson!"

He jumped when I answered him and stared--how can I express it?--right
through me. He began talking, not to me, but to himself. "Here in broad
daylight on a clear beach. Not a place to hide in." He looked about him
wildly. "Here! I'm _off_." He suddenly turned and ran headlong into
the big electro-magnet--so violently that, as we found afterwards, he
bruised his shoulder and jawbone cruelly. At that he stepped back a pace,
and cried out with almost a whimper, "What, in Heaven's name, has come
over me?" He stood, blanched with terror and trembling violently, with his
right arm clutching his left, where that had collided with the magnet.

By that time I was excited and fairly scared. "Davidson," said I, "don't
be afraid."

He was startled at my voice, but not so excessively as before. I repeated
my words in as clear and as firm a tone as I could assume. "Bellows," he
said, "is that you?"

"Can't you see it's me?"

He laughed. "I can't even see it's myself. Where the devil are we?"

"Here," said I, "in the laboratory."

"The laboratory!" he answered in a puzzled tone, and put his hand to his
forehead. "I _was_ in the laboratory--till that flash came, but I'm
hanged if I'm there now. What ship is that?"

"There's no ship," said I. "Do be sensible, old chap."

"No ship!" he repeated, and seemed to forget my denial forthwith. "I
suppose," said he slowly, "we're both dead. But the rummy part is I feel
just as though I still had a body. Don't get used to it all at once, I
suppose. The old shop was struck by lightning, I suppose. Jolly quick
thing, Bellows--eigh?"

"Don't talk nonsense. You're very much alive. You are in the laboratory,
blundering about. You've just smashed a new electrometer. I don't envy you
when Boyce arrives."

He stared away from me towards the diagrams of cryohydrates. "I must be
deaf," said he. "They've fired a gun, for there goes the puff of smoke,
and I never heard a sound."

I put my hand on his arm again, and this time he was less alarmed. "We
seem to have a sort of invisible bodies," said he. "By Jove! there's a
boat coming round the headland. It's very much like the old life after
all--in a different climate."

I shook his arm. "Davidson," I cried, "wake up!"

 

 

II.

It was just then that Boyce came in. So soon as he spoke Davidson
exclaimed: "Old Boyce! Dead too! What a lark!" I hastened to explain that
Davidson was in a kind of somnambulistic trance. Boyce was interested at
once. We both did all we could to rouse the fellow out of his
extraordinary state. He answered our questions, and asked us some of his
own, but his attention seemed distracted by his hallucination about a
beach and a ship. He kept interpolating observations concerning some boat
and the davits, and sails filling with the wind. It made one feel queer,
in the dusky laboratory, to hear him saying such things.

He was blind and helpless. We had to walk him down the passage, one at
each elbow, to Boyce's private room, and while Boyce talked to him there,
and humoured him about this ship idea, I went along the corridor and asked
old Wade to come and look at him. The voice of our Dean sobered him a
little, but not very much. He asked where his hands were, and why he had
to walk about up to his waist in the ground. Wade thought over him a long
time--you know how he knits his brows--and then made him feel the couch,
guiding his hands to it. "That's a couch," said Wade. "The couch in the
private room of Professor Boyce. Horse-hair stuffing."

Davidson felt about, and puzzled over it, and answered presently that he
could feel it all right, but he couldn't see it.

"What _do_ you see?" asked Wade. Davidson said he could see nothing
but a lot of sand and broken-up shells. Wade gave him some other things to
feel, telling him what they were, and watching him keenly.

"The ship is almost hull down," said Davidson presently, _apropos_ of
nothing.

"Never mind the ship," said Wade. "Listen to me, Davidson. Do you know
what hallucination means?"

"Rather," said Davidson.

"Well, everything you see is hallucinatory."

"Bishop Berkeley," said Davidson.

"Don't mistake me," said Wade. "You are alive and in this room of Boyce's.
But something has happened to your eyes. You cannot see; you can feel and
hear, but not see. Do you follow me?"

"It seems to me that I see too much." Davidson rubbed his knuckles into
his eyes. "Well?" he said.

"That's all. Don't let it perplex you. Bellows here and I will take you
home in a cab."

"Wait a bit." Davidson thought. "Help me to sit down," said he presently;
"and now--I'm sorry to trouble you--but will you tell me all that over
again?"

Wade repeated it very patiently. Davidson shut his eyes, and pressed his
hands upon his forehead. "Yes," said he. "It's quite right. Now my eyes
are shut I know you're right. That's you, Bellows, sitting by me on the
couch. I'm in England again. And we're in the dark."

Then he opened his eyes. "And there," said he, "is the sun just rising,
and the yards of the ship, and a tumbled sea, and a couple of birds
flying. I never saw anything so real. And I'm sitting up to my neck in a
bank of sand."

He bent forward and covered his face with his hands. Then he opened his
eyes again. "Dark sea and sunrise! And yet I'm sitting on a sofa in old
Boyce's room!... God help me!"

 

 

III.

That was the beginning. For three weeks this strange affection of
Davidson's eyes continued unabated. It was far worse than being blind. He
was absolutely helpless, and had to be fed like a newly-hatched bird, and
led about and undressed. If he attempted to move, he fell over things or
struck himself against walls or doors. After a day or so he got used to
hearing our voices without seeing us, and willingly admitted he was at
home, and that Wade was right in what he told him. My sister, to whom he
was engaged, insisted on coming to see him, and would sit for hours every
day while he talked about this beach of his. Holding her hand seemed to
comfort him immensely. He explained that when we left the College and
drove home--he lived in Hampstead village--it appeared to him as if we
drove right through a sandhill--it was perfectly black until he emerged
again--and through rocks and trees and solid obstacles, and when he was
taken to his own room it made him giddy and almost frantic with the fear
of falling, because going upstairs seemed to lift him thirty or forty feet
above the rocks of his imaginary island. He kept saying he should smash
all the eggs. The end was that he had to be taken down into his father's
consulting room and laid upon a couch that stood there.

He described the island as being a bleak kind of place on the whole, with
very little vegetation, except some peaty stuff, and a lot of bare rock.
There were multitudes of penguins, and they made the rocks white and
disagreeable to see. The sea was often rough, and once there was a
thunderstorm, and he lay and shouted at the silent flashes. Once or twice
seals pulled up on the beach, but only on the first two or three days. He
said it was very funny the way in which the penguins used to waddle right
through him, and how he seemed to lie among them without disturbing them.

I remember one odd thing, and that was when he wanted very badly to smoke.
We put a pipe in his hands--he almost poked his eye out with it--and lit
it. But he couldn't taste anything. I've since found it's the same with
me--I don't know if it's the usual case--that I cannot enjoy tobacco at
all unless I can see the smoke.

But the queerest part of his vision came when Wade sent him out in a
Bath-chair to get fresh air. The Davidsons hired a chair, and got that
deaf and obstinate dependant of theirs, Widgery, to attend to it.
Widgery's ideas of healthy expeditions were peculiar. My sister, who had
been to the Dogs' Home, met them in Camden Town, towards King's Cross,
Widgery trotting along complacently, and Davidson, evidently most
distressed, trying in his feeble, blind way to attract Widgery's
attention.

He positively wept when my sister spoke to him. "Oh, get me out of this
horrible darkness!" he said, feeling for her hand. "I must get out of it,
or I shall die." He was quite incapable of explaining what was the matter,
but my sister decided he must go home, and presently, as they went uphill
towards Hampstead, the horror seemed to drop from him. He said it was good
to see the stars again, though it was then about noon and a blazing day.

"It seemed," he told me afterwards, "as if I was being carried
irresistibly towards the water. I was not very much alarmed at first. Of
course it was night there--a lovely night."

"Of course?" I asked, for that struck me as odd.

"Of course," said he. "It's always night there when it is day here...
Well, we went right into the water, which was calm and shining under the
moonlight--just a broad swell that seemed to grow broader and flatter as I
came down into it. The surface glistened just like a skin--it might have
been empty space underneath for all I could tell to the contrary. Very
slowly, for I rode slanting into it, the water crept up to my eyes. Then I
went under and the skin seemed to break and heal again about my eyes. The
moon gave a jump up in the sky and grew green and dim, and fish, faintly
glowing, came darting round me--and things that seemed made of luminous
glass; and I passed through a tangle of seaweeds that shone with an oily
lustre. And so I drove down into the sea, and the stars went out one by
one, and the moon grew greener and darker, and the seaweed became a
luminous purple-red. It was all very faint and mysterious, and everything
seemed to quiver. And all the while I could hear the wheels of the
Bath-chair creaking, and the footsteps of people going by, and a man in
the distance selling the special _Pall Mall_.

"I kept sinking down deeper and deeper into the water. It became inky
black about me, not a ray from above came down into that darkness, and the
phosphorescent things grew brighter and brighter. The snaky branches of
the deeper weeds flickered like the flames of spirit-lamps; but, after a
time, there were no more weeds. The fishes came staring and gaping towards
me, and into me and through me. I never imagined such fishes before. They
had lines of fire along the sides of them as though they had been outlined
with a luminous pencil. And there was a ghastly thing swimming backwards
with a lot of twining arms. And then I saw, coming very slowly towards me
through the gloom, a hazy mass of light that resolved itself as it drew
nearer into multitudes of fishes, struggling and darting round something
that drifted. I drove on straight towards it, and presently I saw in the
midst of the tumult, and by the light of the fish, a bit of splintered
spar looming over me, and a dark hull tilting over, and some glowing
phosphorescent forms that were shaken and writhed as the fish bit at them.
Then it was I began to try to attract Widgery's attention. A horror came
upon me. Ugh! I should have driven right into those half-eaten--things. If
your sister had not come! They had great holes in them, Bellows, and ...
Never mind. But it was ghastly!"

 

IV.

For three weeks Davidson remained in this singular state, seeing what at
the time we imagined was an altogether phantasmal world, and stone blind
to the world around him. Then, one Tuesday, when I called I met old
Davidson in the passage. "He can see his thumb!" the old gentleman said,
in a perfect transport. He was struggling into his overcoat. "He can see
his thumb, Bellows!" he said, with the tears in his eyes. "The lad will be
all right yet."

I rushed in to Davidson. He was holding up a little book before his face,
and looking at it and laughing in a weak kind of way.

"It's amazing," said he. "There's a kind of patch come there." He pointed
with his finger. "I'm on the rocks as usual, and the penguins are
staggering and flapping about as usual, and there's been a whale showing
every now and then, but it's got too dark now to make him out. But put
something _there_, and I see it--I do see it. It's very dim and
broken in places, but I see it all the same, like a faint spectre of
itself. I found it out this morning while they were dressing me. It's like
a hole in this infernal phantom world. Just put your hand by mine. No--not
there. Ah! Yes! I see it. The base of your thumb and a bit of cuff! It
looks like the ghost of a bit of your hand sticking out of the darkling
sky. Just by it there's a group of stars like a cross coming out."

From that time Davidson began to mend. His account of the change, like his
account of the vision, was oddly convincing. Over patches of his field of
vision, the phantom world grew fainter, grew transparent, as it were, and
through these translucent gaps he began to see dimly the real world about
him. The patches grew in size and number, ran together and spread until
only here and there were blind spots left upon his eyes. He was able to
get up and steer himself about, feed himself once more, read, smoke, and
behave like an ordinary citizen again. At first it was very confusing to
him to have these two pictures overlapping each other like the changing
views of a lantern, but in a little while he began to distinguish the real
from the illusory.

At first he was unfeignedly glad, and seemed only too anxious to complete
his cure by taking exercise and tonics. But as that odd island of his
began to fade away from him, he became queerly interested in it. He wanted
particularly to go down into the deep sea again, and would spend half his
time wandering about the low-lying parts of London, trying to find the
water-logged wreck he had seen drifting. The glare of real daylight very
soon impressed him so vividly as to blot out everything of his shadowy
world, but of a night-time, in a darkened room, he could still see the
white-splashed rocks of the island, and the clumsy penguins staggering to
and fro. But even these grew fainter and fainter, and, at last, soon after
he married my sister, he saw them for the last time.

 

V.

And now to tell of the queerest thing of all. About two years after his
cure I dined with the Davidsons, and after dinner a man named Atkins
called in. He is a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, and a pleasant, talkative
man. He was on friendly terms with my brother-in-law, and was soon on
friendly terms with me. It came out that he was engaged to Davidson's
cousin, and incidentally he took out a kind of pocket photograph case to
show us a new rendering of his _fiancée_. "And, by-the-by," said he,
"here's the old _Fulmar_."

Davidson looked at it casually. Then suddenly his face lit up. "Good
heavens!" said he. "I could almost swear----"

"What?" said Atkins.

"That I had seen that ship before."

"Don't see how you can have. She hasn't been out of the South Seas for six
years, and before then----"

"But," began Davidson, and then, "Yes--that's the ship I dreamt of; I'm
sure that's the ship I dreamt of. She was standing off an island that
swarmed with penguins, and she fired a gun."

"Good Lord!" said Atkins, who had now heard the particulars of the
seizure. "How the deuce could you dream that?"

And then, bit by bit, it came out that on the very day Davidson was
seized, H.M.S. _Fulmar_ had actually been off a little rock to the
south of Antipodes Island. A boat had landed overnight to get penguins'
eggs, had been delayed, and a thunderstorm drifting up, the boat's crew
had waited until the morning before rejoining the ship. Atkins had been
one of them, and he corroborated, word for word, the descriptions Davidson
had given of the island and the boat. There is not the slightest doubt in
any of our minds that Davidson has really seen the place. In some
unaccountable way, while he moved hither and thither in London, his sight
moved hither and thither in a manner that corresponded, about this distant
island. _How_ is absolutely a mystery.

That completes the remarkable story of Davidson's eyes. It's perhaps the
best authenticated case in existence of real vision at a distance.
Explanation there is none forthcoming, except what Professor Wade has
thrown out. But his explanation invokes the Fourth Dimension, and a
dissertation on theoretical kinds of space. To talk of there being "a kink
in space" seems mere nonsense to me; it may be because I am no
mathematician. When I said that nothing would alter the fact that the
place is eight thousand miles away, he answered that two points might be a
yard away on a sheet of paper, and yet be brought together by bending the
paper round. The reader may grasp his argument, but I certainly do not.
His idea seems to be that Davidson, stooping between the poles of the big
electro-magnet, had some extraordinary twist given to his retinal elements
through the sudden change in the field of force due to the lightning.

He thinks, as a consequence of this, that it may be possible to live
visually in one part of the world, while one lives bodily in another. He
has even made some experiments in support of his views; but, so far, he
has simply succeeded in blinding a few dogs. I believe that is the net
result of his work, though I have not seen him for some weeks. Latterly I
have been so busy with my work in connection with the Saint Pancras
installation that I have had little opportunity of calling to see him. But
the whole of his theory seems fantastic to me. The facts concerning
Davidson stand on an altogether different footing, and I can testify
personally to the accuracy of every detail I have given.

 

 

 

VIII.

THE LORD OF THE DYNAMOS.

 

The chief attendant of the three dynamos that buzzed and rattled at
Camberwell, and kept the electric railway going, came out of Yorkshire,
and his name was James Holroyd. He was a practical electrician, but fond
of whisky, a heavy, red-haired brute with irregular teeth. He doubted the
existence of the Deity, but accepted Carnot's cycle, and he had read
Shakespeare and found him weak in chemistry. His helper came out of the
mysterious East, and his name was Azuma-zi. But Holroyd called him
Pooh-bah. Holroyd liked a nigger help because he would stand kicking--a
habit with Holroyd--and did not pry into the machinery and try to learn
the ways of it. Certain odd possibilities of the negro mind brought into
abrupt contact with the crown of our civilisation Holroyd never fully
realised, though just at the end he got some inkling of them.

To define Azuma-zi was beyond ethnology. He was, perhaps, more negroid
than anything else, though his hair was curly rather than frizzy, and his
nose had a bridge. Moreover, his skin was brown rather than black, and the
whites of his eyes were yellow. His broad cheekbones and narrow chin gave
his face something of the viperine V. His head, too, was broad behind, and
low and narrow at the forehead, as if his brain had been twisted round in
the reverse way to a European's. He was short of stature and still shorter
of English. In conversation he made numerous odd noises of no known
marketable value, and his infrequent words were carved and wrought into
heraldic grotesqueness. Holroyd tried to elucidate his religious beliefs,
and--especially after whisky--lectured to him against superstition and
missionaries. Azuma-zi, however, shirked the discussion of his gods, even
though he was kicked for it.

Azuma-zi had come, clad in white but insufficient raiment, out of the
stoke-hole of the _Lord Clive_, from the Straits Settlements and
beyond, into London. He had heard even in his youth of the greatness and
riches of London, where all the women are white and fair, and even the
beggars in the streets are white, and he had arrived, with newly-earned
gold coins in his pocket, to worship at the shrine of civilisation. The
day of his landing was a dismal one; the sky was dun, and a wind-worried
drizzle filtered down to the greasy streets, but he plunged boldly into
the delights of Shadwell, and was presently cast up, shattered in health,
civilised in costume, penniless, and, except in matters of the direst
necessity, practically a dumb animal, to toil for James Holroyd, and to be
bullied by him in the dynamo shed at Camberwell. And to James Holroyd
bullying was a labour of love.

There were three dynamos with their engines at Camberwell. The two that
have been there since the beginning are small machines; the larger one was
new. The smaller machines made a reasonable noise; their straps hummed
over the drums, every now and then the brushes buzzed and fizzled, and the
air churned steadily, whoo! whoo! whoo! between their poles. One was loose
in its foundations and kept the shed vibrating. But the big dynamo drowned
these little noises altogether with the sustained drone of its iron core,
which somehow set part of the ironwork humming. The place made the
visitor's head reel with the throb, throb, throb of the engines, the
rotation of the big wheels, the spinning ball-valves, the occasional
spittings of the steam, and over all the deep, unceasing, surging note of
the big dynamo. This last noise was from an engineering point of view a
defect, but Azuma-zi accounted it unto the monster for mightiness and
pride.

If it were possible we would have the noises of that shed always about the
reader as he reads, we would tell all our story to such an accompaniment.
It was a steady stream of din, from which the ear picked out first one
thread and then another; there was the intermittent snorting, panting, and
seething of the steam engines, the suck and thud of their pistons, the
dull beat on the air as the spokes of the great driving wheels came round,
a note the leather straps made as they ran tighter and looser, and a
fretful tumult from the dynamos; and, over all, sometimes inaudible, as
the ear tired of it, and then creeping back upon the senses again, was
this trombone note of the big machine. The floor never felt steady and
quiet beneath one's feet, but quivered and jarred. It was a confusing,
unsteady place, and enough to send anyone's thoughts jerking into odd
zigzags. And for three months, while the big strike of the engineers was
in progress, Holroyd, who was a blackleg, and Azuma-zi, who was a mere
black, were never out of the stir and eddy of it, but slept and fed in the
little wooden shanty between the shed and the gates.

Holroyd delivered a theological lecture on the text of his big machine
soon after Azuma-zi came. He had to shout to be heard in the din. "Look at
that," said Holroyd; "where's your 'eathen idol to match 'im?" And
Azuma-zi looked. For a moment Holroyd was inaudible, and then Azuma-zi
heard: "Kill a hundred men. Twelve per cent, on the ordinary shares," said
Holroyd, "and that's something like a Gord."

Holroyd was proud of his big dynamo, and expatiated upon its size and
power to Azuma-zi until heaven knows what odd currents of thought that and
the incessant whirling and shindy set up within the curly black cranium.
He would explain in the most graphic manner the dozen or so ways in which
a man might be killed by it, and once he gave Azuma-zi a shock as a sample
of its quality. After that, in the breathing-times of his labour--it was
heavy labour, being not only his own, but most of Holroyd's--Azuma-zi
would sit and watch the big machine. Now and then the brushes would
sparkle and spit blue flashes, at which Holroyd would swear, but all the
rest was as smooth and rhythmic as breathing. The band ran shouting over
the shaft, and ever behind one as one watched was the complacent thud of
the piston. So it lived all day in this big airy shed, with him and
Holroyd to wait upon it; not prisoned up and slaving to drive a ship as
the other engines he knew--mere captive devils of the British Solomon--had
been, but a machine enthroned. Those two smaller dynamos Azuma-zi by force
of contrast despised; the large one he privately christened the Lord of
the Dynamos. They were fretful and irregular, but the big dynamo was
steady. How great it was! How serene and easy in its working! Greater and
calmer even than the Buddhas he had seen at Rangoon, and yet not
motionless, but living! The great black coils spun, spun, spun, the rings
ran round under the brushes, and the deep note of its coil steadied the
whole. It affected Azuma-zi queerly.

Azuma-zi was not fond of labour. He would sit about and watch the Lord of
the Dynamos while Holroyd went away to persuade the yard porter to get
whisky, although his proper place was not in the dynamo shed but behind
the engines, and, moreover, if Holroyd caught him skulking he got hit for
it with a rod of stout copper wire. He would go and stand close to the
colossus, and look up at the great leather band running overhead. There
was a black patch on the band that came round, and it pleased him somehow
among all the clatter to watch this return again and again. Odd thoughts
spun with the whirl of it. Scientific people tell us that savages give
souls to rocks and trees,--and a machine is a thousand times more alive
than a rock or a tree. And Azuma-zi was practically a savage still; the
veneer of civilisation lay no deeper than his slop suit, his bruises, and
the coal grime on his face and hands. His father before him had worshipped
a meteoric stone, kindred blood, it may be, had splashed the broad wheels
of Juggernaut.

He took every opportunity Holroyd gave him of touching and handling the
great dynamo that was fascinating him. He polished and cleaned it until
the metal parts were blinding in the sun. He felt a mysterious sense of
service in doing this. He would go up to it and touch its spinning coils
gently. The gods he had worshipped were all far away. The people in London
hid their gods.

At last his dim feelings grew more distinct, and took shape in thoughts,
and at last in acts. When he came into the roaring shed one morning he
salaamed to the Lord of the Dynamos, and then, when Holroyd was away, he
went and whispered to the thundering machine that he was its servant, and
prayed it to have pity on him and save him from Holroyd. As he did so a
rare gleam of light came in through the open archway of the throbbing
machine-shed, and the Lord of the Dynamos, as he whirled and roared, was
radiant with pale gold. Then Azuma-zi knew that his service was acceptable
to his Lord. After that he did not feel so lonely as he had done, and he
had indeed been very much alone in London. And even when his work-time was
over, which was rare, he loitered about the shed.

Then, the next time Holroyd maltreated him, Azuma-zi went presently to the
Lord of the Dynamos and whispered, "Thou seest, O my Lord!" and the angry
whirr of the machinery seemed to answer him. Thereafter it appeared to him
that whenever Holroyd came into the shed a different note came into the
sounds of the dynamo. "My Lord bides his time," said Azuma-zi to himself.
"The iniquity of the fool is not yet ripe." And he waited and watched for
the day of reckoning. One day there was evidence of short circuiting, and
Holroyd, making an unwary examination--it was in the afternoon--got a
rather severe shock. Azuma-zi from behind the engine saw him jump off and
curse at the peccant coil.

"He is warned," said Azuma-zi to himself. "Surely my Lord is very
patient."

Holroyd had at first initiated his "nigger" into such elementary
conceptions of the dynamo's working as would enable him to take temporary
charge of the shed in his absence. But when he noticed the manner in which
Azuma-zi hung about the monster he became suspicious. He dimly perceived
his assistant was "up to something," and connecting him with the anointing
of the coils with oil that had rotted the varnish in one place, he issued
an edict, shouted above the confusion of the machinery, "Don't 'ee go nigh
that big dynamo any more, Pooh-bah, or a'll take thy skin off!" Besides,
if it pleased Azuma-zi to be near the big machine, it was plain sense and
decency to keep him away from it.

Azuma-zi obeyed at the time, but later he was caught bowing before the
Lord of the Dynamos. At which Holroyd twisted his arm and kicked him as he
turned to go away. As Azuma-zi presently stood behind the engine and
glared at the back of the hated Holroyd, the noises of the machinery took
a new rhythm, and sounded like four words in his native tongue.

It is hard to say exactly what madness is. I fancy Azuma-zi was mad. The
incessant din and whirl of the dynamo shed may have churned up his little
store of knowledge and big store of superstitious fancy, at last, into
something akin to frenzy. At any rate, when the idea of making Holroyd a
sacrifice to the Dynamo Fetich was thus suggested to him, it filled him
with a strange tumult of exultant emotion.

That night the two men and their black shadows were alone in the shed
together. The shed was lit with one big arc light that winked and
flickered purple. The shadows lay black behind the dynamos, the ball
governors of the engines whirled from light to darkness, and their pistons
beat loud and steady. The world outside seen through the open end of the
shed seemed incredibly dim and remote. It seemed absolutely silent, too,
since the riot of the machinery drowned every external sound. Far away was
the black fence of the yard with grey shadowy houses behind, and above was
the deep blue sky and the pale little stars. Azuma-zi suddenly walked
across the centre of the shed above which the leather bands were running,
and went into the shadow by the big dynamo. Holroyd heard a click, and the
spin of the armature changed.

"What are you dewin' with that switch?" he bawled in surprise. "Han't I
told you----"

Then he saw the set expression of Azuma-zi's eyes as the Asiatic came out
of the shadow towards him.

In another moment the two men were grappling fiercely in front of the
great dynamo.

"You coffee-headed fool!" gasped Holroyd, with a brown hand at his throat.
"Keep off those contact rings." In another moment he was tripped and
reeling back upon the Lord of the Dynamos. He instinctively loosened his
grip upon his antagonist to save himself from the machine.

The messenger, sent in furious haste from the station to find out what had
happened in the dynamo shed, met Azuma-zi at the porter's lodge by the
gate. Azuma-zi tried to explain something, but the messenger could make
nothing of the black's incoherent English, and hurried on to the shed.
The machines were all noisily at work, and nothing seemed to be
disarranged. There was, however, a queer smell of singed hair. Then he saw
an odd-looking crumpled mass clinging to the front of the big dynamo, and,
approaching, recognised the distorted remains of Holroyd.

The man stared and hesitated a moment. Then he saw the face, and shut his
eyes convulsively. He turned on his heel before he opened them, so that he
should not see Holroyd again, and went out of the shed to get advice and
help.

When Azuma-zi saw Holroyd die in the grip of the Great Dynamo he had been
a little scared about the consequences of his act. Yet he felt strangely
elated, and knew that the favour of the Lord Dynamo was upon him. His plan
was already settled when he met the man coming from the station, and the
scientific manager who speedily arrived on the scene jumped at the obvious
conclusion of suicide. This expert scarcely noticed Azuma-zi, except to
ask a few questions. Did he see Holroyd kill himself? Azuma-zi explained
he had been out of sight at the engine furnace until he heard a difference
in the noise from the dynamo. It was not a difficult examination, being
untinctured by suspicion.

The distorted remains of Holroyd, which the electrician removed from
the machine, were hastily covered by the porter with a coffee-stained
table-cloth. Somebody, by a happy inspiration, fetched a medical man. The
expert was chiefly anxious to get the machine at work again, for seven or
eight trains had stopped midway in the stuffy tunnels of the electric
railway. Azuma-zi, answering or misunderstanding the questions of the
people who had by authority or impudence come into the shed, was presently
sent back to the stoke-hole by the scientific manager. Of course a crowd
collected outside the gates of the yard--a crowd, for no known reason,
always hovers for a day or two near the scene of a sudden death in
London--two or three reporters percolated somehow into the engine-shed,
and one even got to Azuma-zi; but the scientific expert cleared them out
again, being himself an amateur journalist.

Presently the body was carried away, and public interest departed with it.
Azuma-zi remained very quietly at his furnace, seeing over and over again
in the coals a figure that wriggled violently and became still. An hour
after the murder, to any one coming into the shed it would have looked
exactly as if nothing remarkable had ever happened there. Peeping
presently from his engine-room the black saw the Lord Dynamo spin and
whirl beside his little brothers, and the driving wheels were beating
round, and the steam in the pistons went thud, thud, exactly as it had
been earlier in the evening. After all, from the mechanical point of view,
it had been a most insignificant incident--the mere temporary deflection
of a current. But now the slender form and slender shadow of the
scientific manager replaced the sturdy outline of Holroyd travelling up
and down the lane of light upon the vibrating floor under the straps
between the engines and the dynamos.

"Have I not served my Lord?" said Azuma-zi inaudibly, from his shadow, and
the note of the great dynamo rang out full and clear. As he looked at the
big whirling mechanism the strange fascination of it that had been a
little in abeyance since Holroyd's death resumed its sway.

Never had Azuma-zi seen a man killed so swiftly and pitilessly. The big
humming machine had slain its victim without wavering for a second from
its steady beating. It was indeed a mighty god.

The unconscious scientific manager stood with his back to him, scribbling
on a piece of paper. His shadow lay at the foot of the monster.

Was the Lord Dynamo still hungry? His servant was ready.

Azuma-zi made a stealthy step forward; then stopped. The scientific
manager suddenly ceased his writing, walked down the shed to the endmost
of the dynamos, and began to examine the brushes.

Azuma-zi hesitated, and then slipped across noiselessly into the shadow by
the switch. There he waited. Presently the manager's footsteps could be
heard returning. He stopped in his old position, unconscious of the stoker
crouching ten feet away from him. Then the big dynamo suddenly fizzled,
and in another moment Azuma-zi had sprung out of the darkness upon him.

First, the scientific manager was gripped round the body and swung towards
the big dynamo, then, kicking with his knee and forcing his antagonist's
head down with his hands, he loosened the grip on his waist and swung
round away from the machine. Then the black grasped him again, putting a
curly head against his chest, and they swayed and panted as it seemed for
an age or so. Then the scientific manager was impelled to catch a black
ear in his teeth and bite furiously. The black yelled hideously.

They rolled over on the floor, and the black, who had apparently slipped
from the vice of the teeth or parted with some ear--the scientific manager
wondered which at the time--tried to throttle him. The scientific manager
was making some ineffectual efforts to claw something with his hands and
to kick, when the welcome sound of quick footsteps sounded on the floor.
The next moment Azuma-zi had left him and darted towards the big dynamo.
There was a splutter amid the roar.

The officer of the company who had entered stood staring as Azuma-zi
caught the naked terminals in his hands, gave one horrible convulsion, and
then hung motionless from the machine, his face violently distorted.

"I'm jolly glad you came in when you did," said the scientific manager,
still sitting on the floor.

He looked at the still quivering figure. "It is not a nice death to die,
apparently--but it is quick."

The official was still staring at the body. He was a man of slow
apprehension.

There was a pause.

The scientific manager got up on his feet rather awkwardly. He ran his
fingers along his collar thoughtfully, and moved his head to and fro
several times.

"Poor Holroyd! I see now." Then almost mechanically he went towards the
switch in the shadow and turned the current into the railway circuit
again. As he did so the singed body loosened its grip upon the machine and
fell forward on its face. The core of the dynamo roared out loud and
clear, and the armature beat the air.

So ended prematurely the worship of the Dynamo Deity, perhaps the most
short-lived of all religions. Yet withal it could at least boast a
Martyrdom and a Human Sacrifice.

 

 

IX.

THE MOTH.

 

Probably you have heard of Hapley--not W. T. Hapley, the son, but the
celebrated Hapley, the Hapley of _Periplaneta Hapliia_, Hapley the
entomologist.

If so you know at least of the great feud between Hapley and Professor
Pawkins, though certain of its consequences may be new to you. For those
who have not, a word or two of explanation is necessary, which the idle
reader may go over with a glancing eye, if his indolence so incline him.

It is amazing how very widely diffused is the ignorance of such really
important matters as this Hapley-Pawkins feud. Those epoch-making
controversies, again, that have convulsed the Geological Society are, I
verily believe, almost entirely unknown outside the fellowship of that
body. I have heard men of fair general education even refer to the great
scenes at these meetings as vestry-meeting squabbles. Yet the great hate
of the English and Scotch geologists has lasted now half a century, and
has "left deep and abundant marks upon the body of the science." And this
Hapley-Pawkins business, though perhaps a more personal affair, stirred
passions as profound, if not profounder. Your common man has no conception
of the zeal that animates a scientific investigator, the fury of
contradiction you can arouse in him. It is the _odium theologicum_ in
a new form. There are men, for instance, who would gladly burn Professor
Ray Lankester at Smithfield for his treatment of the Mollusca in the
Encyclopaedia. That fantastic extension of the Cephalopods to cover the
Pteropods ... But I wander from Hapley and Pawkins.

It began years and years ago, with a revision of the Microlepidoptera
(whatever these may be) by Pawkins, in which he extinguished a new species
created by Hapley. Hapley, who was always quarrelsome, replied by a
stinging impeachment of the entire classification of Pawkins.[A] Pawkins
in his "Rejoinder"[B] suggested that Hapley's microscope was as defective
as his power of observation, and called him an "irresponsible meddler"--
Hapley was not a professor at that time. Hapley in his retort,[C] spoke of
"blundering collectors," and described, as if inadvertently, Pawkins'
revision as a "miracle of ineptitude." It was war to the knife. However,
it would scarcely interest the reader to detail how these two great men
quarrelled, and how the split between them widened until from the
Microlepidoptera they were at war upon every open question in entomology.
There were memorable occasions. At times the Royal Entomological Society
meetings resembled nothing so much as the Chamber of Deputies. On the
whole, I fancy Pawkins was nearer the truth than Hapley. But Hapley was
skilful with his rhetoric, had a turn for ridicule rare in a scientific
man, was endowed with vast energy, and had a fine sense of injury in the
matter of the extinguished species; while Pawkins was a man of dull
presence, prosy of speech, in shape not unlike a water-barrel, over
conscientious with testimonials, and suspected of jobbing museum
appointments. So the young men gathered round Hapley and applauded him. It
was a long struggle, vicious from the beginning and growing at last to
pitiless antagonism. The successive turns of fortune, now an advantage to
one side and now to another--now Hapley tormented by some success of
Pawkins, and now Pawkins outshone by Hapley, belong rather to the history
of entomology than to this story.

[Footnote A: "Remarks on a Recent Revision of Microlepidoptera."
_Quart. Journ. Entomological Soc._, 1863.]

[Footnote B: "Rejoinder to certain Remarks," etc. _Ibid._ 1864.]

[Footnote C: "Further Remarks," etc. _Ibid._]

But in 1891 Pawkins, whose health had been bad for some time, published
some work upon the "mesoblast" of the Death's Head Moth. What the
mesoblast of the Death's Head Moth may be does not matter a rap in this
story. But the work was far below his usual standard, and gave Hapley an
opening he had coveted for years. He must have worked night and day to
make the most of his advantage.

In an elaborate critique he rent Pawkins to tatters--one can fancy the
man's disordered black hair, and his queer dark eyes flashing as he went
for his antagonist--and Pawkins made a reply, halting, ineffectual, with
painful gaps of silence, and yet malignant. There was no mistaking his
will to wound Hapley, nor his incapacity to do it. But few of those who
heard him--I was absent from that meeting--realised how ill the man was.

Hapley got his opponent down, and meant to finish him. He followed with a
simply brutal attack upon Pawkins, in the form of a paper upon the
development of moths in general, a paper showing evidence of a most
extraordinary amount of mental labour, and yet couched in a violently
controversial tone. Violent as it was, an editorial note witnesses that it
was modified. It must have covered Pawkins with shame and confusion of
face. It left no loophole; it was murderous in argument, and utterly
contemptuous in tone; an awful thing for the declining years of a man's
career.

The world of entomologists waited breathlessly for the rejoinder from
Pawkins. He would try one, for Pawkins had always been game. But when it
came it surprised them. For the rejoinder of Pawkins was to catch
influenza, proceed to pneumonia, and die.

It was perhaps as effectual a reply as he could make under the
circumstances, and largely turned the current of feeling against Hapley.
The very people who had most gleefully cheered on those gladiators became
serious at the consequence. There could be no reasonable doubt the fret of
the defeat had contributed to the death of Pawkins. There was a limit even
to scientific controversy, said serious people. Another crushing attack
was already in the press and appeared on the day before the funeral. I
don't think Hapley exerted himself to stop it. People remembered how
Hapley had hounded down his rival, and forgot that rival's defects.
Scathing satire reads ill over fresh mould. The thing provoked comment in
the daily papers. This it was that made me think that you had probably
heard of Hapley and this controversy. But, as I have already remarked,
scientific workers live very much in a world of their own; half the
people, I dare say, who go along Piccadilly to the Academy every year,
could not tell you where the learned societies abide. Many even think that
research is a kind of happy-family cage in which all kinds of men lie down
together in peace.

In his private thoughts Hapley could not forgive Pawkins for dying. In
the first place, it was a mean dodge to escape the absolute pulverisation
Hapley had in hand for him, and in the second, it left Hapley's mind with
a queer gap in it. For twenty years he had worked hard, sometimes far
into the night, and seven days a week, with microscope, scalpel,
collecting-net, and pen, and almost entirely with reference to Pawkins.
The European reputation he had won had come as an incident in that great
antipathy. He had gradually worked up to a climax in this last
controversy. It had killed Pawkins, but it had also thrown Hapley out of
gear, so to speak, and his doctor advised him to give up work for a time,
and rest. So Hapley went down into a quiet village in Kent, and thought
day and night of Pawkins, and good things it was now impossible to say
about him.

At last Hapley began to realise in what direction the pre-occupation
tended. He determined to make a fight for it, and started by trying to
read novels. But he could not get his mind off Pawkins, white in the face
and making his last speech--every sentence a beautiful opening for Hapley.
He turned to fiction--and found it had no grip on him. He read the "Island
Nights' Entertainments" until his "sense of causation" was shocked beyond
endurance by the Bottle Imp. Then he went to Kipling, and found he "proved
nothing," besides being irreverent and vulgar. These scientific people
have their limitations. Then unhappily, he tried Besant's "Inner House,"
and the opening chapter set his mind upon learned societies and Pawkins at
once.

So Hapley turned to chess, and found it a little more soothing. He soon
mastered the moves and the chief gambits and commoner closing positions,
and began to beat the Vicar. But then the cylindrical contours of the
opposite king began to resemble Pawkins standing up and gasping
ineffectually against check-mate, and Hapley decided to give up chess.

Perhaps the study of some new branch of science would after all be better
diversion. The best rest is change of occupation. Hapley determined to
plunge at diatoms, and had one of his smaller microscopes and Halibut's
monograph sent down from London. He thought that perhaps if he could get
up a vigorous quarrel with Halibut, he might be able to begin life afresh
and forget Pawkins. And very soon he was hard at work in his habitual
strenuous fashion, at these microscopic denizens of the way-side pool.

It was on the third day of the diatoms that Hapley became aware of a novel
addition to the local fauna. He was working late at the microscope, and
the only light in the room was the brilliant little lamp with the special
form of green shade. Like all experienced microscopists, he kept both eyes
open. It is the only way to avoid excessive fatigue. One eye was over the
instrument, and bright and distinct before that was the circular field of
the microscope, across which a brown diatom was slowly moving. With the
other eye Hapley saw, as it were, without seeing. He was only dimly
conscious of the brass side of the instrument, the illuminated part of the
table-cloth, a sheet of notepaper, the foot of the lamp, and the darkened
room beyond.

Suddenly his attention drifted from one eye to the other. The table-cloth
was of the material called tapestry by shopmen, and rather brightly
coloured. The pattern was in gold, with a small amount of crimson and pale
blue upon a greyish ground. At one point the pattern seemed displaced, and
there was a vibrating movement of the colours at this point.

Hapley suddenly moved his head back and looked with both eyes. His mouth
fell open with astonishment.

It was a large moth or butterfly; its wings spread in butterfly fashion!

It was strange it should be in the room at all, for the windows were
closed. Strange that it should not have attracted his attention when
fluttering to its present position. Strange that it should match the
table-cloth. Stranger far that to him, Hapley, the great entomologist, it
was altogether unknown. There was no delusion. It was crawling slowly
towards the foot of the lamp.

"New Genus, by heavens! And in England!" said Hapley, staring.

Then he suddenly thought of Pawkins. Nothing would have maddened Pawkins
more...And Pawkins was dead!

Something about the head and body of the insect became singularly
suggestive of Pawkins, just as the chess king had been.

"Confound Pawkins!" said Hapley. "But I must catch this." And looking
round him for some means of capturing the moth, he rose slowly out of his
chair. Suddenly the insect rose, struck the edge of the lampshade--Hapley
heard the "ping"--and vanished into the shadow.

In a moment Hapley had whipped off the shade, so that the whole room was
illuminated. The thing had disappeared, but soon his practised eye
detected it upon the wall-paper near the door. He went towards it poising
the lamp-shade for capture. Before he was within striking distance,
however, it had risen and was fluttering round the room. After the fashion
of its kind, it flew with sudden starts and turns, seeming to vanish here
and reappear there. Once Hapley struck, and missed; then again.

The third time he hit his microscope. The instrument swayed, struck and
overturned the lamp, and fell noisily upon the floor. The lamp turned over
on the table and, very luckily, went out. Hapley was left in the dark.
With a start he felt the strange moth blunder into his face.

It was maddening. He had no lights. If he opened the door of the room the
thing would get away. In the darkness he saw Pawkins quite distinctly
laughing at him. Pawkins had ever an oily laugh. He swore furiously and
stamped his foot on the floor.

There was a timid rapping at the door.

Then it opened, perhaps a foot, and very slowly. The alarmed face of the
landlady appeared behind a pink candle flame; she wore a night-cap over
her grey hair and had some purple garment over her shoulders. "What
_was_ that fearful smash?" she said. "Has anything----" The strange
moth appeared fluttering about the chink of the door. "Shut that door!"
said Hapley, and suddenly rushed at her.

The door slammed hastily. Hapley was left alone in the dark. Then in the
pause he heard his landlady scuttle upstairs, lock her door, and drag
something heavy across the room and put against it.

It became evident to Hapley that his conduct and appearance had been
strange and alarming. Confound the moth! and Pawkins! However, it was a
pity to lose the moth now. He felt his way into the hall and found the
matches, after sending his hat down upon the floor with a noise like a
drum. With the lighted candle he returned to the sitting-room. No moth was
to be seen. Yet once for a moment it seemed that the thing was fluttering
round his head. Hapley very suddenly decided to give up the moth and go to
bed. But he was excited. All night long his sleep was broken by dreams of
the moth, Pawkins, and his landlady. Twice in the night he turned out and
soused his head in cold water.

One thing was very clear to him. His landlady could not possibly
understand about the strange moth, especially as he had failed to catch
it. No one but an entomologist would understand quite how he felt. She was
probably frightened at his behaviour, and yet he failed to see how he
could explain it. He decided to say nothing further about the events of
last night. After breakfast he saw her in her garden, and decided to go
out and talk to reassure her. He talked to her about beans and potatoes,
bees, caterpillars, and the price of fruit. She replied in her usual
manner, but she looked at him a little suspiciously, and kept walking as
he walked, so that there was always a bed of flowers, or a row of beans,
or something of the sort, between them. After a while he began to feel
singularly irritated at this, and to conceal his vexation went indoors and
presently went out for a walk.

The moth, or butterfly, trailing an odd flavour of Pawkins with it, kept
coming into that walk, though he did his best to keep his mind off it.
Once he saw it quite distinctly, with its wings flattened out, upon the
old stone wall that runs along the west edge of the park, but going up to
it he found it was only two lumps of grey and yellow lichen. "This," said
Hapley, "is the reverse of mimicry. Instead of a butterfly looking like a
stone, here is a stone looking like a butterfly!" Once something hovered
and fluttered round his head, but by an effort of will he drove that
impression out of his mind again.

In the afternoon Hapley called upon the Vicar, and argued with him upon
theological questions. They sat in the little arbour covered with briar,
and smoked as they wrangled. "Look at that moth!" said Hapley, suddenly,
pointing to the edge of the wooden table.

"Where?" said the Vicar.

"You don't see a moth on the edge of the table there?" said Hapley.

"Certainly not," said the Vicar.

Hapley was thunderstruck. He gasped. The Vicar was staring at him. Clearly
the man saw nothing. "The eye of faith is no better than the eye of
science," said Hapley awkwardly.

"I don't see your point," said the Vicar, thinking it was part of the
argument.

That night Hapley found the moth crawling over his counterpane. He sat on
the edge of the bed in his shirt sleeves and reasoned with himself. Was it
pure hallucination? He knew he was slipping, and he battled for his sanity
with the same silent energy he had formerly displayed against Pawkins. So
persistent is mental habit, that he felt as if it were still a struggle
with Pawkins. He was well versed in psychology. He knew that such visual
illusions do come as a result of mental strain. But the point was, he did
not only _see_ the moth, he had heard it when it touched the edge of
the lampshade, and afterwards when it hit against the wall, and he had
felt it strike his face in the dark.

He looked at it. It was not at all dreamlike, but perfectly clear and
solid-looking in the candle-light. He saw the hairy body, and the short
feathery antennae, the jointed legs, even a place where the down was
rubbed from the wing. He suddenly felt angry with himself for being afraid
of a little insect.

His landlady had got the servant to sleep with her that night, because she
was afraid to be alone. In addition she had locked the door, and put the
chest of drawers against it. They listened and talked in whispers after
they had gone to bed, but nothing occurred to alarm them. About eleven
they had ventured to put the candle out, and had both dozed off to sleep.
They woke up with a start, and sat up in bed, listening in the darkness.

Then they heard slippered feet going to and fro in Hapley's room. A chair
was overturned, and there was a violent dab at the wall. Then a china
mantel ornament smashed upon the fender. Suddenly the door of the room
opened, and they heard him upon the landing. They clung to one another,
listening. He seemed to be dancing upon the staircase. Now he would go
down three or four steps quickly, then up again, then hurry down into the
hall. They heard the umbrella stand go over, and the fanlight break. Then
the bolt shot and the chain rattled. He was opening the door.

They hurried to the window. It was a dim grey night; an almost unbroken
sheet of watery cloud was sweeping across the moon, and the hedge and
trees in front of the house were black against the pale roadway. They saw
Hapley, looking like a ghost in his shirt and white trousers, running to
and fro in the road, and beating the air. Now he would stop, now he would
dart very rapidly at something invisible, now he would move upon it with
stealthy strides. At last he went out of sight up the road towards the
down. Then, while they argued who should go down and lock the door, he
returned. He was walking very fast, and he came straight into the house,
closed the door carefully, and went quietly up to his bedroom. Then
everything was silent.

"Mrs. Colville," said Hapley, calling down the staircase next morning, "I
hope I did not alarm you last night."

"You may well ask that!" said Mrs. Colville.

"The fact is, I am a sleep-walker, and the last two nights I have been
without my sleeping mixture. There is nothing to be alarmed about, really.
I am sorry I made such an ass of myself. I will go over the down to
Shoreham, and get some stuff to make me sleep soundly. I ought to have
done that yesterday."

But half-way over the down, by the chalk pits, the moth came upon Hapley
again. He went on, trying to keep his mind upon chess problems, but it was
no good. The thing fluttered into his face, and he struck at it with his
hat in self-defence. Then rage, the old rage--the rage he had so often
felt against Pawkins--came upon him again. He went on, leaping and
striking at the eddying insect. Suddenly he trod on nothing, and fell
headlong.

There was a gap in his sensations, and Hapley found himself sitting on the
heap of flints in front of the opening of the chalk-pits, with a leg
twisted back under him. The strange moth was still fluttering round his
head. He struck at it with his hand, and turning his head saw two men
approaching him. One was the village doctor. It occurred to Hapley that
this was lucky. Then it came into his mind with extraordinary vividness,
that no one would ever be able to see the strange moth except himself, and
that it behoved him to keep silent about it.

Late that night, however, after his broken leg was set, he was feverish
and forgot his self-restraint. He was lying flat on his bed, and he began
to run his eyes round the room to see if the moth was still about. He
tried not to do this, but it was no good. He soon caught sight of the
thing resting close to his hand, by the night-light, on the green
table-cloth. The wings quivered. With a sudden wave of anger he smote at
it with his fist, and the nurse woke up with a shriek. He had missed it.

"That moth!" he said; and then, "It was fancy. Nothing!"

All the time he could see quite clearly the insect going round the cornice
and darting across the room, and he could also see that the nurse saw
nothing of it and looked at him strangely. He must keep himself in hand.
He knew he was a lost man if he did not keep himself in hand. But as the
night waned the fever grew upon him, and the very dread he had of seeing
the moth made him see it. About five, just as the dawn was grey, he tried
to get out of bed and catch it, though his leg was afire with pain. The
nurse had to struggle with him.

On account of this, they tied him down to the bed. At this the moth grew
bolder, and once he felt it settle in his hair. Then, because he struck
out violently with his arms, they tied these also. At this the moth came
and crawled over his face, and Hapley wept, swore, screamed, prayed for
them to take it off him, unavailingly.

The doctor was a blockhead, a just-qualified general practitioner, and
quite ignorant of mental science. He simply said there was no moth. Had he
possessed the wit, he might still, perhaps, have saved Hapley from his
fate by entering into his delusion, and covering his face with gauze, as
he prayed might be done. But, as I say, the doctor was a blockhead, and
until the leg was healed Hapley was kept tied to his bed, and with the
imaginary moth crawling over him. It never left him while he was awake and
it grew to a monster in his dreams. While he was awake he longed for
sleep, and from sleep he awoke screaming.

So now Hapley is spending the remainder of his days in a padded room,
worried by a moth that no one else can see. The asylum doctor calls it
hallucination; but Hapley, when he is in his easier mood, and can talk,
says it is the ghost of Pawkins, and consequently a unique specimen and
well worth the trouble of catching.

 

 

 

X.

THE TREASURE IN THE FOREST.

 

The canoe was now approaching the land. The bay opened out, and a gap in
the white surf of the reef marked where the little river ran out to the
sea; the thicker and deeper green of the virgin forest showed its course
down the distant hill slope. The forest here came close to the beach. Far
beyond, dim and almost cloudlike in texture, rose the mountains, like
suddenly frozen waves. The sea was still save for an almost imperceptible
swell. The sky blazed.

The man with the carved paddle stopped. "It should be somewhere here," he
said. He shipped the paddle and held his arms out straight before him.

The other man had been in the fore part of the canoe, closely scrutinising
the land. He had a sheet of yellow paper on his knee.

"Come and look at this, Evans," he said.

Both men spoke in low tones, and their lips were hard and dry.

The man called Evans came swaying along the canoe until he could look over
his companion's shoulder.

The paper had the appearance of a rough map. By much folding it was
creased and worn to the pitch of separation, and the second man held the
discoloured fragments together where they had parted. On it one could
dimly make out, in almost obliterated pencil, the outline of the bay.

"Here," said Evans, "is the reef, and here is the gap." He ran his
thumb-nail over the chart.

"This curved and twisting line is the river--I could do with a drink
now!--and this star is the place."

"You see this dotted line," said the man with the map; "it is a straight
line, and runs from the opening of the reef to a clump of palm-trees. The
star comes just where it cuts the river. We must mark the place as we go
into the lagoon."

"It's queer," said Evans, after a pause, "what these little marks down
here are for. It looks like the plan of a house or something; but what all
these little dashes, pointing this way and that, may mean I can't get a
notion. And what's the writing?"

"Chinese," said the man with the map.

"Of course! _He_ was a Chinee," said Evans.

"They all were," said the man with the map.

They both sat for some minutes staring at the land, while the canoe
drifted slowly. Then Evans looked towards the paddle.

"Your turn with the paddle now, Hooker," said he.

And his companion quietly folded up his map, put it in his pocket, passed
Evans carefully, and began to paddle. His movements were languid, like
those of a man whose strength was nearly exhausted.

Evans sat with his eyes half closed, watching the frothy breakwater of the
coral creep nearer and nearer. The sky was like a furnace, for the sun was
near the zenith. Though they were so near the Treasure he did not feel the
exaltation he had anticipated. The intense excitement of the struggle for
the plan, and the long night voyage from the mainland in the unprovisioned
canoe had, to use his own expression, "taken it out of him." He tried to
arouse himself by directing his mind to the ingots the Chinamen had spoken
of, but it would not rest there; it came back headlong to the thought of
sweet water rippling in the river, and to the almost unendurable dryness
of his lips and throat. The rhythmic wash of the sea upon the reef was
becoming audible now, and it had a pleasant sound in his ears; the water
washed along the side of the canoe, and the paddle dripped between each
stroke. Presently he began to doze.

He was still dimly conscious of the island, but a queer dream texture
interwove with his sensations. Once again it was the night when he and
Hooker had hit upon the Chinamen's secret; he saw the moonlit trees, the
little fire burning, and the black figures of the three Chinamen--silvered
on one side by moonlight, and on the other glowing from the firelight--and
heard them talking together in pigeon-English--for they came from
different provinces. Hooker had caught the drift of their talk first, and
had motioned to him to listen. Fragments of the conversation were
inaudible, and fragments incomprehensible. A Spanish galleon from the
Philippines hopelessly aground, and its treasure buried against the day of
return, lay in the background of the story; a shipwrecked crew thinned by
disease, a quarrel or so, and the needs of discipline, and at last taking
to their boats never to be heard of again. Then Chang-hi, only a year
since, wandering ashore, had happened upon the ingots hidden for two
hundred years, had deserted his junk, and reburied them with infinite
toil, single-handed but very safe. He laid great stress on the safety--it
was a secret of his. Now he wanted help to return and exhume them.
Presently the little map fluttered and the voices sank. A fine story for
two, stranded British wastrels to hear! Evans' dream shifted to the moment
when he had Chang-hi's pigtail in his hand. The life of a Chinaman is
scarcely sacred like a European's. The cunning little face of Chang-hi,
first keen and furious like a startled snake, and then fearful,
treacherous, and pitiful, became overwhelmingly prominent in the dream. At
the end Chang-hi had grinned, a most incomprehensible and startling grin.
Abruptly things became very unpleasant, as they will do at times in
dreams. Chang-hi gibbered and threatened him. He saw in his dream heaps
and heaps of gold, and Chang-hi intervening and struggling to hold him
back from it. He took Chang-hi by the pig-tail--how big the yellow brute
was, and how he struggled and grinned! He kept growing bigger, too. Then
the bright heaps of gold turned to a roaring furnace, and a vast devil,
surprisingly like Chang-hi, but with a huge black tail, began to feed him
with coals. They burnt his mouth horribly. Another devil was shouting his
name: "Evans, Evans, you sleepy fool!"--or was it Hooker?

He woke up. They were in the mouth of the lagoon.

"There are the three palm-trees. It must be in a line with that clump of
bushes," said his companion. "Mark that. If we, go to those bushes and
then strike into the bush in a straight line from here, we shall come to
it when we come to the stream."

They could see now where the mouth of the stream opened out. At the sight
of it Evans revived. "Hurry up, man," he said, "or by heaven I shall have
to drink sea water!" He gnawed his hand and stared at the gleam of silver
among the rocks and green tangle.

Presently he turned almost fiercely upon Hooker. "Give _me_ the
paddle," he said.

So they reached the river mouth. A little way up Hooker took some water in
the hollow of his hand, tasted it, and spat it out. A little further he
tried again. "This will do," he said, and they began drinking eagerly.

"Curse this!" said Evans suddenly. "It's too slow." And, leaning
dangerously over the fore part of the canoe, he began to suck up the water
with his lips.

Presently they made an end of drinking, and, running the canoe into a
little creek, were about to land among the thick growth that overhung the
water.

"We shall have to scramble through this to the beach to find our bushes
and get the line to the place," said Evans.

"We had better paddle round," said Hooker.

So they pushed out again into the river and paddled back down it to the
sea, and along the shore to the place where the clump of bushes grew. Here
they landed, pulled the light canoe far up the beach, and then went up
towards the edge of the jungle until they could see the opening of the
reef and the bushes in a straight line. Evans had taken a native implement
out of the canoe. It was L-shaped, and the transverse piece was armed with
polished stone. Hooker carried the paddle. "It is straight now in this
direction," said he; "we must push through this till we strike the stream.
Then we must prospect."

They pushed through a close tangle of reeds, broad fronds, and young
trees, and at first it was toilsome going, but very speedily the trees
became larger and the ground beneath them opened out. The blaze of the
sunlight was replaced by insensible degrees by cool shadow. The trees
became at last vast pillars that rose up to a canopy of greenery far
overhead. Dim white flowers hung from their stems, and ropy creepers swung
from tree to tree. The shadow deepened. On the ground, blotched fungi and
a red-brown incrustation became frequent.

Evans shivered. "It seems almost cold here after the blaze outside."

"I hope we are keeping to the straight," said Hooker.

Presently they saw, far ahead, a gap in the sombre darkness where white
shafts of hot sunlight smote into the forest. There also was brilliant
green undergrowth and coloured flowers. Then they heard the rush of water.

"Here is the river. We should be close to it now," said Hooker.

The vegetation was thick by the river bank. Great plants, as yet unnamed,
grew among the roots of the big trees, and spread rosettes of huge green
fans towards the strip of sky. Many flowers and a creeper with shiny
foliage clung to the exposed stems. On the water of the broad, quiet pool
which the treasure-seekers now overlooked there floated big oval leaves
and a waxen, pinkish-white flower not unlike a water-lily. Further, as the
river bent away from them, the water suddenly frothed and became noisy in
a rapid.

"Well?" said Evans.

"We have swerved a little from the straight," said Hooker. "That was to be
expected."

He turned and looked into the dim cool shadows of the silent forest behind
them. "If we beat a little way up and down the stream we should come to
something."

"You said--" began Evans.

"_He_ said there was a heap of stones," said Hooker.

The two men looked at each other for a moment.

"Let us try a little down-stream first," said Evans.

They advanced slowly, looking curiously about them. Suddenly Evans
stopped. "What the devil's that?" he said.

Hooker followed his finger. "Something blue," he said. It had come into
view as they topped a gentle swell of the ground. Then he began to
distinguish what it was.

He advanced suddenly with hasty steps, until the body that belonged to the
limp hand and arm had become visible. His grip tightened on the implement
he carried. The thing was the figure of a Chinaman lying on his face. The
_abandon_ of the pose was unmistakable.

The two men drew closer together, and stood staring silently at this
ominous dead body. It lay in a clear space among the trees. Near by was a
spade after the Chinese pattern, and further off lay a scattered heap of
stones, close to a freshly dug hole.

"Somebody has been here before," said Hooker, clearing his throat.

Then suddenly Evans began to swear and rave, and stamp upon the ground.

Hooker turned white but said nothing. He advanced towards the prostrate
body. He saw the neck was puffed and purple, and the hands and ankles
swollen. "Pah!" he said, and suddenly turned away and went towards the
excavation. He gave a cry of surprise. He shouted to Evans, who was
following him slowly.

"You fool! It's all right. It's here still." Then he turned again and
looked at the dead Chinaman, and then again at the hole.

Evans hurried to the hole. Already half exposed by the ill-fated wretch
beside them lay a number of dull yellow bars. He bent down in the hole,
and, clearing off the soil with his bare hands, hastily pulled one of the
heavy masses out. As he did so a little thorn pricked his hand. He pulled
the delicate spike out with his fingers and lifted the ingot.

"Only gold or lead could weigh like this," he said exultantly.

Hooker was still looking at the dead Chinaman. He was puzzled.

"He stole a march on his friends," he said at last. "He came here alone,
and some poisonous snake has killed him... I wonder how he found the
place."

Evans stood with the ingot in his hands. What did a dead Chinaman signify?
"We shall have to take this stuff to the mainland piecemeal, and bury it
there for a while. How shall we get it to the canoe?"

He took his jacket off and spread it on the ground, and flung two or three
ingots into it. Presently he found that another little thorn had punctured
his skin.

"This is as much as we can carry," said he. Then suddenly, with a queer
rush of irritation, "What are you staring at?"

Hooker turned to him. "I can't stand him ..." He nodded towards the
corpse. "It's so like----"

"Rubbish!" said Evans. "All Chinamen are alike."

Hooker looked into his face. "I'm going to bury _that_, anyhow,
before I lend a hand with this stuff."

"Don't be a fool, Hooker," said Evans, "Let that mass of corruption bide."

Hooker hesitated, and then his eye went carefully over the brown soil
about them. "It scares me somehow," he said.

"The thing is," said Evans, "what to do with these ingots. Shall we
re-bury them over here, or take them across the strait in the canoe?"

Hooker thought. His puzzled gaze wandered among the tall tree-trunks, and
up into the remote sunlit greenery overhead. He shivered again as his eye
rested upon the blue figure of the Chinaman. He stared searchingly among
the grey depths between the trees.

"What's come to you, Hooker?" said Evans. "Have you lost your wits?"

"Let's get the gold out of this place, anyhow," said Hooker.

He took the ends of the collar of the coat in his hands, and Evans took
the opposite corners, and they lifted the mass. "Which way?" said Evans.
"To the canoe?"

"It's queer," said Evans, when they had advanced only a few steps, "but my
arms ache still with that paddling."

"Curse it!" he said. "But they ache! I must rest."

They let the coat down, Evans' face was white, and little drops of sweat
stood out upon his forehead. "It's stuffy, somehow, in this forest."

Then with an abrupt transition to unreasonable anger: "What is the good of
waiting here all the day? Lend a hand, I say! You have done nothing but
moon since we saw the dead Chinaman."

Hooker was looking steadfastly at his companion's face. He helped raise
the coat bearing the ingots, and they went forward perhaps a hundred yards
in silence. Evans began to breathe heavily. "Can't you speak?" he said.

"What's the matter with you?" said Hooker.

Evans stumbled, and then with a sudden curse flung the coat from him. He
stood for a moment staring at Hooker, and then with a groan clutched at
his own throat.

"Don't come near me," he said, and went and leant against a tree. Then in
a steadier voice, "I'll be better in a minute."

Presently his grip upon the trunk loosened, and he slipped slowly down the
stem of the tree until he was a crumpled heap at its foot. His hands were
clenched convulsively. His face became distorted with pain. Hooker
approached him.

"Don't touch me! Don't touch me!" said Evans in a stifled voice. "Put the
gold back on the coat."

"Can't I do anything for you?" said Hooker.

"Put the gold back on the coat."

As Hooker handled the ingots he felt a little prick on the ball of his
thumb. He looked at his hand and saw a slender thorn, perhaps two inches
in length.

Evans gave an inarticulate cry and rolled over.

Hooker's jaw dropped. He stared at the thorn for a moment with dilated
eyes. Then he looked at Evans, who was now crumpled together on the
ground, his back bending and straightening spasmodically. Then he looked
through the pillars of the trees and net-work of creeper stems, to where
in the dim grey shadow the blue-clad body of the Chinaman was still
indistinctly visible. He thought of the little dashes in the corner of the
plan, and in a moment he understood.

"God help me!" he said. For the thorns were similar to those the Dyaks
poison and use in their blowing-tubes. He understood now what Chang-hi's
assurance of the safety of his treasure meant. He understood that grin
now.

"Evans!" he cried.

But Evans was silent and motionless, save for a horrible spasmodic
twitching of his limbs. A profound silence brooded over the forest.

Then Hooker began to suck furiously at the little pink spot on the ball of
his thumb--sucking for dear life. Presently he felt a strange aching pain
in his arms and shoulders, and his fingers seemed difficult to bend. Then
he knew that sucking was no good.

Abruptly he stopped, and sitting down by the pile of ingots, and resting
his chin upon his hands and his elbows upon his knees, stared at the
distorted but still quivering body of his companion. Chang-hi's grin came
into his mind again. The dull pain spread towards his throat and grew
slowly in intensity. Far above him a faint breeze stirred the greenery,
and the white petals of some unknown flower came floating down through the
gloom.

 

 

 

XI.

THE STORY OF THE LATE MR. ELVESHAM.

 

I set this story down, not expecting it will be believed, but, if
possible, to prepare a way of escape for the next victim. He, perhaps, may
profit by my misfortune. My own case, I know, is hopeless, and I am now in
some measure prepared to meet my fate.

My name is Edward George Eden. I was born at Trentham, in Staffordshire,
my father being employed in the gardens there. I lost my mother when I was
three years old, and my father when I was five, my uncle, George Eden,
then adopting me as his own son. He was a single man, self-educated, and
well-known in Birmingham as an enterprising journalist; he educated me
generously, fired my ambition to succeed in the world, and at his death,
which happened four years ago, left me his entire fortune, a matter of
about five hundred pounds after all outgoing charges were paid. I was then
eighteen. He advised me in his will to expend the money in completing my
education. I had already chosen the profession of medicine, and through
his posthumous generosity and my good fortune in a scholarship
competition, I became a medical student at University College, London. At
the time of the beginning of my story I lodged at 11A University Street in
a little upper room, very shabbily furnished and draughty, overlooking the
back of Shoolbred's premises. I used this little room both to live in and
sleep in, because I was anxious to eke out my means to the very last
shillings-worth.

I was taking a pair of shoes to be mended at a shop in the Tottenham Court
Road when I first encountered the little old man with the yellow face,
with whom my life has now become so inextricably entangled. He was
standing on the kerb, and staring at the number on the door in a doubtful
way, as I opened it. His eyes--they were dull grey eyes, and reddish under
the rims--fell to my face, and his countenance immediately assumed an
expression of corrugated amiability.

"You come," he said, "apt to the moment. I had forgotten the number of
your house. How do you do, Mr. Eden?"

I was a little astonished at his familiar address, for I had never set
eyes on the man before. I was a little annoyed, too, at his catching me
with my boots under my arm. He noticed my lack of cordiality.

"Wonder who the deuce I am, eh? A friend, let me assure you. I have seen
you before, though you haven't seen me. Is there anywhere where I can talk
to you?"

I hesitated. The shabbiness of my room upstairs was not a matter for every
stranger. "Perhaps," said I, "we might walk down the street. I'm
unfortunately prevented--" My gesture explained the sentence before I had
spoken it.

"The very thing," he said, and faced this way, and then that. "The street?
Which way shall we go?" I slipped my boots down in the passage. "Look
here!" he said abruptly; "this business of mine is a rigmarole. Come and
lunch with me, Mr. Eden. I'm an old man, a very old man, and not good at
explanations, and what with my piping voice and the clatter of the
traffic----"

He laid a persuasive skinny hand that trembled a little upon my arm.

I was not so old that an old man might not treat me to a lunch. Yet at the
same time I was not altogether pleased by this abrupt invitation. "I had
rather----" I began. "But I had rather," he said, catching me up, "and a
certain civility is surely due to my grey hairs."

And so I consented, and went with him.

He took me to Blavitiski's; I had to walk slowly to accommodate myself to
his paces; and over such a lunch as I had never tasted before, he fended
off my leading question, and I took a better note of his appearance. His
clean-shaven face was lean and wrinkled, his shrivelled, lips fell over a
set of false teeth, and his white hair was thin and rather long; he seemed
small to me,--though indeed, most people seemed small to me,--and his
shoulders were rounded and bent. And watching him, I could not help but
observe that he too was taking note of me, running his eyes, with a
curious touch of greed in them, over me, from my broad shoulders to my
suntanned hands, and up to my freckled face again. "And now," said he, as
we lit our cigarettes, "I must tell you of the business in hand.

"I must tell you, then, that I am an old man, a very old man." He paused
momentarily. "And it happens that I have money that I must presently be
leaving, and never a child have I to leave it to." I thought of the
confidence trick, and resolved I would be on the alert for the vestiges of
my five hundred pounds. He proceeded to enlarge on his loneliness, and the
trouble he had to find a proper disposition of his money. "I have weighed
this plan and that plan, charities, institutions, and scholarships, and
libraries, and I have come to this conclusion at last,"--he fixed his eyes
on my face,--"that I will find some young fellow, ambitious, pure-minded,
and poor, healthy in body and healthy in mind, and, in short, make him my
heir, give him all that I have." He repeated, "Give him all that I have.
So that he will suddenly be lifted out of all the trouble and struggle in
which his sympathies have been educated, to freedom and influence."

I tried to seem disinterested. With a transparent hypocrisy I said, "And
you want my help, my professional services maybe, to find that person."

He smiled, and looked at me over his cigarette, and I laughed at his quiet
exposure of my modest pretence.

"What a career such a man might have!" he said. "It fills me with envy to
think how I have accumulated that another man may spend----

"But there are conditions, of course, burdens to be imposed. He must, for
instance, take my name. You cannot expect everything without some return.
And I must go into all the circumstances of his life before I can accept
him. He _must_ be sound. I must know his heredity, how his parents
and grandparents died, have the strictest inquiries made into his private
morals."

This modified my secret congratulations a little.

"And do I understand," said I, "that I----"

"Yes," he said, almost fiercely. "You. _You_."

I answered never a word. My imagination was dancing wildly, my innate
scepticism was useless to modify its transports. There was not a particle
of gratitude in my mind--I did not know what to say nor how to say it.
"But why me in particular?" I said at last.

He had chanced to hear of me from Professor Haslar; he said, as a
typically sound and sane young man, and he wished, as far as possible, to
leave his money where health and integrity were assured.

That was my first meeting with the little old man. He was mysterious about
himself; he would not give his name yet, he said, and after I had answered
some questions of his, he left me at the Blavitiski portal. I noticed that
he drew a handful of gold coins from his pocket when it came to paying for
the lunch. His insistence upon bodily health was curious. In accordance
with an arrangement we had made I applied that day for a life policy in
the Loyal Insurance Company for a large sum, and I was exhaustively
overhauled by the medical advisers of that company in the subsequent week.
Even that did not satisfy him, and he insisted I must be re-examined by
the great Doctor Henderson.

It was Friday in Whitsun week before he came to a decision. He called me
down, quite late in the evening,--nearly nine it was,--from cramming
chemical equations for my Preliminary Scientific examination. He was
standing in the passage under the feeble gas-lamp, and his face was a
grotesque interplay of shadows. He seemed more bowed than when I had first
seen him, and his cheeks had sunk in a little.

His voice shook with emotion. "Everything is satisfactory, Mr. Eden," he
said. "Everything is quite, quite satisfactory. And this night of all
nights, you must dine with me and celebrate your--accession." He was
interrupted by a cough. "You won't have long to wait, either," he said,
wiping his handkerchief across his lips, and gripping my hand with his
long bony claw that was disengaged. "Certainly not very long to wait."

We went into the street and called a cab. I remember every incident of
that drive vividly, the swift, easy motion, the vivid contrast of gas and
oil and electric light, the crowds of people in the streets, the place in
Regent Street to which we went, and the sumptuous dinner we were served
with there. I was disconcerted at first by the well-dressed waiter's
glances at my rough clothes, bothered by the stones of the olives, but as
the champagne warmed my blood, my confidence revived. At first the old man
talked of himself. He had already told me his name in the cab; he was
Egbert Elvesham, the great philosopher, whose name I had known since I was
a lad at school. It seemed incredible to me that this man, whose
intelligence had so early dominated mine, this great abstraction, should
suddenly realise itself as this decrepit, familiar figure. I daresay every
young fellow who has suddenly fallen among celebrities has felt something
of my disappointment. He told me now of the future that the feeble streams
of his life would presently leave dry for me, houses, copyrights,
investments; I had never suspected that philosophers were so rich. He
watched me drink and eat with a touch of envy. "What a capacity for living
you have!" he said; and then with a sigh, a sigh of relief I could have
thought it, "it will not be long."

"Ay," said I, my head swimming now with champagne; "I have a future
perhaps--of a passing agreeable sort, thanks to you. I shall now have the
honour of your name. But you have a past. Such a past as is worth all my
future."

He shook his head and smiled, as I thought, with half sad appreciation of
my flattering admiration. "That future," he said, "would you in truth
change it?" The waiter came with liqueurs. "You will not perhaps mind
taking my name, taking my position, but would you indeed--willingly--take
my years?"

"With your achievements," said I gallantly.

He smiled again. "Kummel--both," he said to the waiter, and turned his
attention to a little paper packet he had taken from his pocket. "This
hour," said he, "this after-dinner hour is the hour of small things. Here
is a scrap of my unpublished wisdom." He opened the packet with his
shaking yellow fingers, and showed a little pinkish powder on the paper.
"This," said he--"well, you must guess what it is. But Kummel--put but a
dash of this powder in it--is Himmel."

His large greyish eyes watched mine with an inscrutable expression.

It was a bit of a shock to me to find this great teacher gave his mind to
the flavour of liqueurs. However, I feigned an interest in his weakness,
for I was drunk enough for such small sycophancy.

He parted the powder between the little glasses, and, rising suddenly,
with a strange unexpected dignity, held out his hand towards me. I
imitated his action, and the glasses rang. "To a quick succession," said
he, and raised his glass towards his lips.

"Not that," I said hastily. "Not that."

He paused with the liqueur at the level of his chin, and his eyes blazing
into mine.

"To a long life," said I.

He hesitated. "To a long life," said he, with a sudden bark of laughter,
and with eyes fixed on one another we tilted the little glasses. His eyes
looked straight into mine, and as I drained the stuff off, I felt a
curiously intense sensation. The first touch of it set my brain in a
furious tumult; I seemed to feel an actual physical stirring in my skull,
and a seething humming filled my ears. I did not notice the flavour in my
mouth, the aroma that filled my throat; I saw only the grey intensity of
his gaze that burnt into mine. The draught, the mental confusion, the
noise and stirring in my head, seemed to last an interminable time.
Curious vague impressions of half-forgotten things danced and vanished on
the edge of my consciousness. At last he broke the spell. With a sudden
explosive sigh he put down his glass.

"Well?" he said.

"It's glorious," said I, though I had not tasted the stuff.

My head was spinning. I sat down. My brain was chaos. Then my perception
grew clear and minute as though I saw things in a concave mirror. His
manner seemed to have changed into something nervous and hasty. He pulled
out his watch and grimaced at it. "Eleven-seven! And to-night I must--
Seven-twenty-five. Waterloo! I must go at once." He called for the bill,
and struggled with his coat. Officious waiters came to our assistance. In
another moment I was wishing him good-bye, over the apron of a cab, and
still with an absurd feeling of minute distinctness, as though--how can I
express it?--I not only saw but _felt_ through an inverted
opera-glass.

"That stuff," he said. He put his hand to his forehead. "I ought not to
have given it to you. It will make your head split to-morrow. Wait a
minute. Here." He handed me out a little flat thing like a seidlitz-powder.
"Take that in water as you are going to bed. The other thing was a
drug. Not till you're ready to go to bed, mind. It will clear your head.
That's all. One more shake--Futurus!"

I gripped his shrivelled claw. "Good-bye," he said, and by the droop of
his eyelids I judged he too was a little under the influence of that
brain-twisting cordial.

He recollected something else with a start, felt in his breast-pocket, and
produced another packet, this time a cylinder the size and shape of a
shaving-stick. "Here," said he. "I'd almost forgotten. Don't open this
until I come to-morrow--but take it now."

It was so heavy that I wellnigh dropped it. "All ri'!" said I, and he
grinned at me through the cab window as the cabman flicked his horse into
wakefulness. It was a white packet he had given me, with red seals at
either end and along its edge. "If this isn't money," said I, "it's
platinum or lead."

I stuck it with elaborate care into my pocket, and with a whirling brain
walked home through the Regent Street loiterers and the dark back streets
beyond Portland Road. I remember the sensations of that walk very vividly,
strange as they were. I was still so far myself that I could notice my
strange mental state, and wonder whether this stuff I had had was opium--a
drug beyond my experience. It is hard now to describe the peculiarity of
my mental strangeness--mental doubling vaguely expresses it. As I was
walking up Regent Street I found in my mind a queer persuasion that it
was Waterloo Station, and had an odd impulse to get into the Polytechnic
as a man might get into a train. I put a knuckle in my eye, and it was
Regent Street. How can I express it? You see a skilful actor looking
quietly at you, he pulls a grimace, and lo!--another person. Is it too
extravagant if I tell you that it seemed to me as if Regent Street had,
for the moment, done that? Then, being persuaded it was Regent Street
again, I was oddly muddled about some fantastic reminiscences that cropped
up. "Thirty years ago," thought I, "it was here that I quarrelled with my
brother." Then I burst out laughing, to the astonishment and encouragement
of a group of night prowlers. Thirty years ago I did not exist, and never
in my life had I boasted a brother. The stuff was surely liquid folly, for
the poignant regret for that lost brother still clung to me. Along
Portland Road the madness took another turn. I began to recall vanished
shops, and to compare the street with what it used to be. Confused,
troubled thinking is comprehensible enough after the drink I had taken,
but what puzzled me were these curiously vivid phantasm memories that had
crept into my mind, and not only the memories that had crept in, but also
the memories that had slipped out. I stopped opposite Stevens', the
natural history dealer's, and cudgelled my brains to think what he had to
do with me. A 'bus went by, and sounded exactly like the rumbling of a
train. I seemed to be dipping into some dark, remote pit for the
recollection. "Of course," said I, at last, "he has promised me three
frogs to-morrow. Odd I should have forgotten."

Do they still show children dissolving views? In those I remember one view
would begin like a faint ghost, and grow and oust another. In just that
way it seemed to me that a ghostly set of new sensations was struggling
with those of my ordinary self.

I went on through Euston Road to Tottenham Court Road, puzzled, and a
little frightened, and scarcely noticed the unusual way I was taking, for
commonly I used to cut through the intervening network of back streets. I
turned into University Street, to discover that I had forgotten my number.
Only by a strong effort did I recall 11A, and even then it seemed to me
that it was a thing some forgotten person had told me. I tried to steady
my mind by recalling the incidents of the dinner, and for the life of me I
could conjure up no picture of my host's face; I saw him only as a shadowy
outline, as one might see oneself reflected in a window through which one
was looking. In his place, however, I had a curious exterior vision of
myself, sitting at a table, flushed, bright-eyed, and talkative.

"I must take this other powder," said I. "This is getting impossible."

I tried the wrong side of the hall for my candle and the matches, and had
a doubt of which landing my room might be on. "I'm drunk," I said, "that's
certain," and blundered needlessly on the staircase to sustain the
proposition.

At the first glance my room seemed unfamiliar. "What rot!" I said, and
stared about me. I seemed to bring myself back by the effort, and the odd
phantasmal quality passed into the concrete familiar. There was the old
glass still, with my notes on the albumens stuck in the corner of the
frame, my old everyday suit of clothes pitched about the floor. And yet it
was not so real after all. I felt an idiotic persuasion trying to creep
into my mind, as it were, that I was in a railway carriage in a train just
stopping, that I was peering out of the window at some unknown station. I
gripped the bed-rail firmly to reassure myself. "It's clairvoyance,
perhaps," I said. "I must write to the Psychical Research Society."

I put the rouleau on my dressing-table, sat on my bed, and began to take
off my boots. It was as if the picture of my present sensations was
painted over some other picture that was trying to show through. "Curse
it!" said I; "my wits are going, or am I in two places at once?"
Half-undressed, I tossed the powder into a glass and drank it off. It
effervesced, and became a fluorescent amber colour. Before I was in bed
my mind was already tranquillised. I felt the pillow at my cheek, and
thereupon I must have fallen asleep.

* * * * *

I awoke abruptly out of a dream of strange beasts, and found myself lying
on my back. Probably every one knows that dismal, emotional dream from
which one escapes, awake indeed, but strangely cowed. There was a curious
taste in my mouth, a tired feeling in my limbs, a sense of cutaneous
discomfort. I lay with my head motionless on my pillow, expecting that my
feeling of strangeness and terror would pass away, and that I should then
doze off again to sleep. But instead of that, my uncanny sensations
increased. At first I could perceive nothing wrong about me. There was a
faint light in the room, so faint that it was the very next thing to
darkness, and the furniture stood out in it as vague blots of absolute
darkness. I stared with my eyes just over the bedclothes.

It came into my mind that some one had entered the room to rob me of my
rouleau of money, but after lying for some moments, breathing regularly to
simulate sleep, I realised this was mere fancy. Nevertheless, the uneasy
assurance of something wrong kept fast hold of me. With an effort I raised
my head from the pillow, and peered about me at the dark. What it was I
could not conceive. I looked at the dim shapes around me, the greater and
lesser darknesses that indicated curtains, table, fireplace, bookshelves,
and so forth. Then I began to perceive something unfamiliar in the forms
of the darkness. Had the bed turned round? Yonder should be the
bookshelves, and something shrouded and pallid rose there, something that
would not answer to the bookshelves, however I looked at it. It was far
too big to be my shirt thrown on a chair.

Overcoming a childish terror, I threw back the bedclothes and thrust my
leg out of bed. Instead of coming out of my truckle-bed upon the floor, I
found my foot scarcely reached the edge of the mattress. I made another
step, as it were, and sat up on the edge of the bed. By the side of my bed
should be the candle, and the matches upon the broken chair. I put out my
hand and touched--nothing. I waved my hand in the darkness, and it came
against some heavy hanging, soft and thick in texture, which gave a
rustling noise at my touch. I grasped this and pulled it; it appeared to
be a curtain suspended over the head of my bed.

I was now thoroughly awake, and beginning to realise that I was in a
strange room. I was puzzled. I tried to recall the overnight
circumstances, and I found them now, curiously enough, vivid in my memory:
the supper, my reception of the little packages, my wonder whether I was
intoxicated, my slow undressing, the coolness to my flushed face of my
pillow. I felt a sudden distrust. Was that last night, or the night
before? At any rate, this room was strange to me, and I could not imagine
how I had got into it. The dim, pallid outline was growing paler, and I
perceived it was a window, with the dark shape of an oval toilet-glass
against the weak intimation of the dawn that filtered through the blind. I
stood up, and was surprised by a curious feeling of weakness and
unsteadiness. With trembling hands outstretched, I walked slowly towards
the window, getting, nevertheless, a bruise on the knee from a chair by
the way. I fumbled round the glass, which was large, with handsome brass
sconces, to find the blind cord. I could not find any. By chance I took
hold of the tassel, and with the click of a spring the blind ran up.

I found myself looking out upon a scene that was altogether strange to me.
The night was overcast, and through the flocculent grey of the heaped
clouds there filtered a faint half-light of dawn. Just at the edge of the
sky the cloud-canopy had a blood-red rim. Below, everything was dark and
indistinct, dim hills in the distance, a vague mass of buildings running
up into pinnacles, trees like spilt ink, and below the window a tracery of
black bushes and pale grey paths. It was so unfamiliar that for the moment
I thought myself still dreaming. I felt the toilet-table; it appeared to
be made of some polished wood, and was rather elaborately furnished--there
were little cut-glass bottles and a brush upon it. There was also a queer
little object, horse-shoe shape it felt, with smooth, hard projections,
lying in a saucer. I could find no matches nor candlestick.

I turned my eyes to the room again. Now the blind was up, faint spectres
of its furnishing came out of the darkness. There was a huge curtained
bed, and the fireplace at its foot had a large white mantel with something
of the shimmer of marble.

I leant against the toilet-table, shut my eyes and opened them again, and
tried to think. The whole thing was far too real for dreaming. I was
inclined to imagine there was still some hiatus in my memory, as a
consequence of my draught of that strange liqueur; that I had come into my
inheritance perhaps, and suddenly lost my recollection of everything since
my good fortune had been announced. Perhaps if I waited a little, things
would be clearer to me again. Yet my dinner with old Elvesham was now
singularly vivid and recent. The champagne, the observant waiters, the
powder, and the liqueurs--I could have staked my soul it all happened a
few hours ago.

And then occurred a thing so trivial and yet so terrible to me that I
shiver now to think of that moment. I spoke aloud. I said, "How the devil
did I get here?" ... _And the voice was not my own_.

It was not my own, it was thin, the articulation was slurred, the
resonance of my facial bones was different. Then, to reassure myself I ran
one hand over the other, and felt loose folds of skin, the bony laxity of
age. "Surely," I said, in that horrible voice that had somehow established
itself in my throat, "surely this thing is a dream!" Almost as quickly as
if I did it involuntarily, I thrust my fingers into my mouth. My teeth
had gone. My finger-tips ran on the flaccid surface of an even row of
shrivelled gums. I was sick with dismay and disgust.

I felt then a passionate desire to see myself, to realise at once in its
full horror the ghastly change that had come upon me. I tottered to the
mantel, and felt along it for matches. As I did so, a barking cough sprang
up in my throat, and I clutched the thick flannel nightdress I found about
me. There were no matches there, and I suddenly realised that my
extremities were cold. Sniffing and coughing, whimpering a little,
perhaps, I fumbled back to bed. "It is surely a dream," I whispered to
myself as I clambered back, "surely a dream." It was a senile repetition.
I pulled the bedclothes over my shoulders, over my ears, I thrust my
withered hand under the pillow, and determined to compose myself to sleep.
Of course it was a dream. In the morning the dream would be over, and I
should wake up strong and vigorous again to my youth and studies. I shut
my eyes, breathed regularly, and, finding myself wakeful, began to count
slowly through the powers of three.

But the thing I desired would not come. I could not get to sleep. And the
persuasion of the inexorable reality of the change that had happened to me
grew steadily. Presently I found myself with my eyes wide open, the powers
of three forgotten, and my skinny fingers upon my shrivelled gums, I was,
indeed, suddenly and abruptly, an old man. I had in some unaccountable
manner fallen through my life and come to old age, in some way I had been
cheated of all the best of my life, of love, of struggle, of strength, and
hope. I grovelled into the pillow and tried to persuade myself that such
hallucination was possible. Imperceptibly, steadily, the dawn grew
clearer.

At last, despairing of further sleep, I sat up in bed and looked about me.
A chill twilight rendered the whole chamber visible. It was spacious and
well-furnished, better furnished than any room I had ever slept in before.
A candle and matches became dimly visible upon a little pedestal in a
recess. I threw back the bedclothes, and, shivering with the rawness of
the early morning, albeit it was summer-time, I got out and lit the
candle. Then, trembling horribly, so that the extinguisher rattled on its
spike, I tottered to the glass and saw--_Elvesham's face_! It was
none the less horrible because I had already dimly feared as much. He had
already seemed physically weak and pitiful to me, but seen now, dressed
only in a coarse flannel nightdress, that fell apart and showed the
stringy neck, seen now as my own body, I cannot describe its desolate
decrepitude. The hollow cheeks, the straggling tail of dirty grey hair,
the rheumy bleared eyes, the quivering, shrivelled lips, the lower
displaying a gleam of the pink interior lining, and those horrible dark
gums showing. You who are mind and body together, at your natural years,
cannot imagine what this fiendish imprisonment meant to me. To be young
and full of the desire and energy of youth, and to be caught, and
presently to be crushed in this tottering ruin of a body...

But I wander from the course of my story. For some time I must have been
stunned at this change that had come upon me. It was daylight when I did
so far gather myself together as to think. In some inexplicable way I had
been changed, though how, short of magic, the thing had been done, I could
not say. And as I thought, the diabolical ingenuity of Elvesham came home
to me. It seemed plain to me that as I found myself in his, so he must be
in possession of _my_ body, of my strength, that is, and my future.
But how to prove it? Then, as I thought, the thing became so incredible,
even to me, that my mind reeled, and I had to pinch myself, to feel my
toothless gums, to see myself in the glass, and touch the things about me,
before I could steady myself to face the facts again. Was all life
hallucination? Was I indeed Elvesham, and he me? Had I been dreaming of
Eden overnight? Was there any Eden? But if I was Elvesham, I should
remember where I was on the previous morning, the name of the town in
which I lived, what happened before the dream began. I struggled with my
thoughts. I recalled the queer doubleness of my memories overnight. But
now my mind was clear. Not the ghost of any memories but those proper to
Eden could I raise.

"This way lies insanity!" I cried in my piping voice. I staggered to my
feet, dragged my feeble, heavy limbs to the washhand-stand, and plunged my
grey head into a basin of cold water. Then, towelling myself, I tried
again. It was no good. I felt beyond all question that I was indeed Eden,
not Elvesham. But Eden in Elvesham's body!

Had I been a man of any other age, I might have given myself up to my fate
as one enchanted. But in these sceptical days miracles do not pass
current. Here was some trick of psychology. What a drug and a steady stare
could do, a drug and a steady stare, or some similar treatment, could
surely undo. Men have lost their memories before. But to exchange memories
as one does umbrellas! I laughed. Alas! not a healthy laugh, but a
wheezing, senile titter. I could have fancied old Elvesham laughing at my
plight, and a gust of petulant anger, unusual to me, swept across my
feelings. I began dressing eagerly in the clothes I found lying about on
the floor, and only realised when I was dressed that it was an evening
suit I had assumed. I opened the wardrobe and found some more ordinary
clothes, a pair of plaid trousers, and an old-fashioned dressing-gown. I
put a venerable smoking-cap on my venerable head, and, coughing a little
from my exertions, tottered out upon the landing.

It was then, perhaps, a quarter to six, and the blinds were closely drawn
and the house quite silent. The landing was a spacious one, a broad,
richly-carpeted staircase went down into the darkness of the hall below,
and before me a door ajar showed me a writing-desk, a revolving bookcase,
the back of a study chair, and a fine array of bound books, shelf upon
shelf.

"My study," I mumbled, and walked across the landing. Then at the sound of
my voice a thought struck me, and I went back to the bedroom and put in
the set of false teeth. They slipped in with the ease of old, habit.
"That's better," said I, gnashing them, and so returned to the study.

The drawers of the writing-desk were locked. Its revolving top was also
locked. I could see no indications of the keys, and there were none in the
pockets of my trousers. I shuffled back at once to the bedroom, and went
through the dress suit, and afterwards the pockets of all the garments I
could find. I was very eager, and one might have imagined that burglars
had been at work, to see my room when I had done. Not only were there no
keys to be found, but not a coin, nor a scrap of paper--save only the
receipted bill of the overnight dinner.

A curious weariness asserted itself. I sat down and stared at the garments
flung here and there, their pockets turned inside out. My first frenzy had
already flickered out. Every moment I was beginning to realise the immense
intelligence of the plans of my enemy, to see more and more clearly the
hopelessness of my position. With an effort I rose and hurried hobbling
into the study again. On the staircase was a housemaid pulling up the
blinds. She stared, I think, at the expression of my face. I shut the door
of the study behind me, and, seizing a poker, began an attack upon the
desk. That is how they found me. The cover of the desk was split, the lock
smashed, the letters torn out of the pigeon-holes, and tossed about the
room. In my senile rage I had flung about the pens and other such light
stationery, and overturned the ink. Moreover, a large vase upon the mantel
had got broken--I do not know how. I could find no cheque-book, no money,
no indications of the slightest use for the recovery of my body. I was
battering madly at the drawers, when the butler, backed by two
women-servants, intruded upon me.

* * * * *

That simply is the story of my change. No one will believe my frantic
assertions. I am treated as one demented, and even at this moment I am
under restraint. But I am sane, absolutely sane, and to prove it I have
sat down to write this story minutely as the things happened to me. I
appeal to the reader, whether there is any trace of insanity in the style
or method, of the story he has been reading. I am a young man locked away
in an old man's body. But the clear fact is incredible to everyone.
Naturally I appear demented to those who will not believe this, naturally
I do not know the names of my secretaries, of the doctors who come to see
me, of my servants and neighbours, of this town (wherever it is) where I
find myself. Naturally I lose myself in my own house, and suffer
inconveniences of every sort. Naturally I ask the oddest questions.
Naturally I weep and cry out, and have paroxysms of despair. I have no
money and no cheque-book. The bank will not recognise my signature, for I
suppose that, allowing for the feeble muscles I now have, my handwriting
is still Eden's. These people about me will not let me go to the bank
personally. It seems, indeed, that there is no bank in this town, and that
I have an account in some part of London. It seems that Elvesham kept the
name of his solicitor secret from all his household. I can ascertain
nothing. Elvesham was, of course, a profound student of mental science,
and all my declarations of the facts of the case merely confirm the theory
that my insanity is the outcome of overmuch brooding upon psychology.
Dreams of the personal identity indeed! Two days ago I was a healthy
youngster, with all life before me; now I am a furious old man, unkempt,
and desperate, and miserable, prowling about a great, luxurious, strange
house, watched, feared, and avoided as a lunatic by everyone about me. And
in London is Elvesham beginning life again in a vigorous body, and with
all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of threescore and ten. He has
stolen my life.

What has happened I do not clearly know. In the study are volumes of
manuscript notes referring chiefly to the psychology of memory, and parts
of what may be either calculations or ciphers in symbols absolutely
strange to me. In some passages there are indications that he was also
occupied with the philosophy of mathematics. I take it he has transferred
the whole of his memories, the accumulation that makes up his personality,
from this old withered brain of his to mine, and, similarly, that he has
transferred mine to his discarded tenement. Practically, that is, he has
changed bodies. But how such a change may be possible is without the range
of my philosophy. I have been a materialist for all my thinking life, but
here, suddenly, is a clear case of man's detachability from matter.

One desperate experiment I am about to try. I sit writing here before
putting the matter to issue. This morning, with the help of a table-knife
that I had secreted at breakfast, I succeeded in breaking open a fairly
obvious secret drawer in this wrecked writing-desk. I discovered nothing
save a little green glass phial containing a white powder. Round the neck
of the phial was a label, and thereon was written this one word,
"_Release_." This may be--is most probably--poison. I can understand
Elvesham placing poison in my way, and I should be sure that it was his
intention so to get rid of the only living witness against him, were it
not for this careful concealment. The man has practically solved the
problem of immortality. Save for the spite of chance, he will live in my
body until it has aged, and then, again, throwing that aside, he will
assume some other victim's youth and strength. When one remembers his
heartlessness, it is terrible to think of the ever-growing experience
that... How long has he been leaping from body to body?... But I tire of
writing. The powder appears to be soluble in water. The taste is not
unpleasant.

* * * * *

There the narrative found upon Mr. Elvesham's desk ends. His dead body lay
between the desk and the chair. The latter had been pushed back, probably
by his last convulsions. The story was written in pencil and in a crazy
hand, quite unlike his usual minute characters. There remain only two
curious facts to record. Indisputably there was some connection between
Eden and Elvesham, since the whole of Elvesham's property was bequeathed
to the young man. But he never inherited. When Elvesham committed suicide,
Eden was, strangely enough, already dead. Twenty-four hours before, he had
been knocked down by a cab and killed instantly, at the crowded crossing
at the intersection of Gower Street and Euston Road. So that the only
human being who could have thrown light upon this fantastic narrative is
beyond the reach of questions. Without further comment I leave this
extraordinary matter to the reader's individual judgment.

 

 

 

XII.

UNDER THE KNIFE.

 

"What if I die under it?" The thought recurred again and again, as I
walked home from Haddon's. It was a purely personal question. I was spared
the deep anxieties of a married man, and I knew there were few of my
intimate friends but would find my death troublesome chiefly on account of
their duty of regret. I was surprised indeed, and perhaps a little
humiliated, as I turned the matter over, to think how few could possibly
exceed the conventional requirement. Things came before me stripped of
glamour, in a clear dry light, during that walk from Haddon's house over
Primrose Hill. There were the friends of my youth: I perceived now that
our affection was a tradition, which we foregathered rather laboriously to
maintain. There were the rivals and helpers of my later career: I suppose
I had been cold-blooded or undemonstrative--one perhaps implies the other.
It may be that even the capacity for friendship is a question of physique.
There had been a time in my own life when I had grieved bitterly enough at
the loss of a friend; but as I walked home that afternoon the emotional
side of my imagination was dormant. I could not pity myself, nor feel
sorry for my friends, nor conceive of them as grieving for me.

I was interested in this deadness of my emotional nature--no doubt a
concomitant of my stagnating physiology; and my thoughts wandered off
along the line it suggested. Once before, in my hot youth, I had suffered
a sudden loss of blood, and had been within an ace of death. I remembered
now that my affections as well as my passions had drained out of me,
leaving scarce anything but a tranquil resignation, a dreg of self-pity.
It had been weeks before the old ambitions and tendernesses and all the
complex moral interplay of a man had reasserted themselves. It occurred to
me that the real meaning of this numbness might be a gradual slipping away
from the pleasure-pain guidance of the animal man. It has been proven, I
take it, as thoroughly as anything can be proven in this world, that the
higher emotions, the moral feelings, even the subtle unselfishness of
love, are evolved from the elemental desires and fears of the simple
animal: they are the harness in which man's mental freedom goes. And it
may be that as death overshadows us, as our possibility of acting
diminishes, this complex growth of balanced impulse, propensity and
aversion, whose interplay inspires our acts, goes with it. Leaving what?

I was suddenly brought back to reality by an imminent collision with the
butcher-boy's tray. I found that I was crossing the bridge over the
Regent's Park Canal, which runs parallel with that in the Zoological
Gardens. The boy in blue had been looking over his shoulder at a black
barge advancing slowly, towed by a gaunt white horse. In the Gardens a
nurse was leading three happy little children over the bridge. The trees
were bright green; the spring hopefulness was still unstained by the dusts
of summer; the sky in the water was bright and clear, but broken by long
waves, by quivering bands of black, as the barge drove through. The breeze
was stirring; but it did not stir me as the spring breeze used to do.

Was this dulness of feeling in itself an anticipation? It was curious that
I could reason and follow out a network of suggestion as clearly as ever:
so, at least, it seemed to me. It was calmness rather than dulness that
was coming upon me. Was there any ground for the relief in the
presentiment of death? Did a man near to death begin instinctively to
withdraw himself from the meshes of matter and sense, even before the
cold hand was laid upon his? I felt strangely isolated--isolated without
regret--from the life and existence about me. The children playing in the
sun and gathering strength and experience for the business of life,
the park-keeper gossiping with a nursemaid, the nursing mother, the young
couple intent upon each other as they passed me, the trees by the wayside
spreading new pleading leaves to the sunlight, the stir in their
branches--I had been part of it all, but I had nearly done with it now.

Some way down the Broad Walk I perceived that I was tired, and that my
feet were heavy. It was hot that afternoon, and I turned aside and sat
down on one of the green chairs that line the way. In a minute I had dozed
into a dream, and the tide of my thoughts washed up a vision of the
resurrection. I was still sitting in the chair, but I thought myself
actually dead, withered, tattered, dried, one eye (I saw) pecked out by
birds. "Awake!" cried a voice; and incontinently the dust of the path and
the mould under the grass became insurgent. I had never before thought of
Regent's Park as a cemetery, but now, through the trees, stretching as far
as eye could see, I beheld a flat plain of writhing graves and heeling
tombstones. There seemed to be some trouble: the rising dead appeared to
stifle as they struggled upward, they bled in their struggles, the red
flesh was torn away from the white bones. "Awake!" cried a voice; but I
determined I would not rise to such horrors. "Awake!" They would not let
me alone. "Wake up!" said an angry voice. A cockney angel! The man who
sells the tickets was shaking me, demanding my penny.

I paid my penny, pocketed my ticket, yawned, stretched my legs, and,
feeling now rather less torpid, got up and walked on towards Langham
Place. I speedily lost myself again in a shifting maze of thoughts about
death. Going across Marylebone Road into that crescent at the end of
Langham Place, I had the narrowest escape from the shaft of a cab, and
went on my way with a palpitating heart and a bruised shoulder. It struck
me that it would have been curious if my meditations on my death on the
morrow had led to my death that day.

But I will not weary you with more of my experiences that day and the
next. I knew more and more certainly that I should die under the
operation; at times I think I was inclined to pose to myself. The doctors
were coming at eleven, and I did not get up. It seemed scarce worth while
to trouble about washing and dressing, and though I read my newspapers and
the letters that came by the first post, I did not find them very
interesting. There was a friendly note from Addison, my old school-friend,
calling my attention to two discrepancies and a printer's error in my new
book, with one from Langridge venting some vexation over Minton. The rest
were business communications. I breakfasted in bed. The glow of pain at my
side seemed more massive. I knew it was pain, and yet, if you can
understand, I did not find it very painful. I had been awake and hot and
thirsty in the night, but in the morning bed felt comfortable. In the
night-time I had lain thinking of things that were past; in the morning I
dozed over the question of immortality. Haddon came, punctual to the
minute, with a neat black bag; and Mowbray soon followed. Their arrival
stirred me up a little. I began to take a more personal interest in the
proceedings. Haddon moved the little octagonal table close to the bedside,
and, with his broad back to me, began taking things out of his bag. I
heard the light click of steel upon steel. My imagination, I found, was
not altogether stagnant. "Will you hurt me much?" I said in an off-hand
tone.

"Not a bit," Haddon answered over his shoulder. "We shall chloroform you.
Your heart's as sound as a bell." And as he spoke, I had a whiff of the
pungent sweetness of the anaesthetic.

They stretched me out, with a convenient exposure of my side, and, almost
before I realised what was happening, the chloroform was being
administered. It stings the nostrils, and there is a suffocating sensation
at first. I knew I should die--that this was the end of consciousness for
me. And suddenly I felt that I was not prepared for death: I had a vague
sense of a duty overlooked--I knew not what. What was it I had not done? I
could think of nothing more to do, nothing desirable left in life; and yet
I had the strangest disinclination to death. And the physical sensation
was painfully oppressive. Of course the doctors did not know they were
going to kill me. Possibly I struggled. Then I fell motionless, and
a great silence, a monstrous silence, and an impenetrable blackness came
upon me.

There must have been an interval of absolute unconsciousness, seconds or
minutes. Then with a chilly, unemotional clearness, I perceived that I was
not yet dead. I was still in my body; but all the multitudinous sensations
that come sweeping from it to make up the background of consciousness had
gone, leaving me free of it all. No, not free of it all; for as yet
something still held me to the poor stark flesh upon the bed--held me, yet
not so closely that I did not feel myself external to it, independent of
it, straining away from it. I do not think I saw, I do not think I heard;
but I perceived all that was going on, and it was as if I both heard and
saw. Haddon was bending over me, Mowbray behind me; the scalpel--it was a
large scalpel--was cutting my flesh at the side under the flying ribs. It
was interesting to see myself cut like cheese, without a pang, without
even a qualm. The interest was much of a quality with that one might feel
in a game of chess between strangers. Haddon's face was firm and his hand
steady; but I was surprised to perceive (_how_ I know not) that he
was feeling the gravest doubt as to his own wisdom in the conduct of the
operation.

Mowbray's thoughts, too, I could see. He was thinking that Haddon's manner
showed too much of the specialist. New suggestions came up like bubbles
through a stream of frothing meditation, and burst one after another in
the little bright spot of his consciousness. He could not help noticing
and admiring Haddon's swift dexterity, in spite of his envious quality and
his disposition to detract. I saw my liver exposed. I was puzzled at my
own condition. I did not feel that I was dead, but I was different in some
way from my living self. The grey depression, that had weighed on me for a
year or more and coloured all my thoughts, was gone. I perceived and
thought without any emotional tint at all. I wondered if everyone
perceived things in this way under chloroform, and forgot it again when he
came out of it. It would be inconvenient to look into some heads, and not
forget.

Although I did not think that I was dead, I still perceived quite clearly
that I was soon to die. This brought me back to the consideration of
Haddon's proceedings. I looked into his mind, and saw that he was afraid
of cutting a branch of the portal vein. My attention was distracted from
details by the curious changes going on in his mind. His consciousness was
like the quivering little spot of light which is thrown by the mirror of a
galvanometer. His thoughts ran under it like a stream, some through the
focus bright and distinct, some shadowy in the half-light of the edge.
Just now the little glow was steady; but the least movement on Mowbray's
part, the slightest sound from outside, even a faint difference in the
slow movement of the living flesh he was cutting, set the light-spot
shivering and spinning. A new sense-impression came rushing up through the
flow of thoughts; and lo! the light-spot jerked away towards it, swifter
than a frightened fish. It was wonderful to think that upon that unstable,
fitful thing depended all the complex motions of the man; that for the
next five minutes, therefore, my life hung upon its movements. And he was
growing more and more nervous in his work. It was as if a little picture
of a cut vein grew brighter, and struggled to oust from his brain another
picture of a cut falling short of the mark. He was afraid: his dread of
cutting too little was battling with his dread of cutting too far.

Then, suddenly, like an escape of water from under a lock-gate, a great
uprush of horrible realisation set all his thoughts swirling, and
simultaneously I perceived that the vein was cut. He started back with a
hoarse exclamation, and I saw the brown-purple blood gather in a swift
bead, and run trickling. He was horrified. He pitched the red-stained
scalpel on to the octagonal table; and instantly both doctors flung
themselves upon me, making hasty and ill-conceived efforts to remedy the
disaster. "Ice!" said Mowbray, gasping. But I knew that I was killed,
though my body still clung to me.

I will not describe their belated endeavours to save me, though I
perceived every detail. My perceptions were sharper and swifter than they
had ever been in life; my thoughts rushed through my mind with incredible
swiftness, but with perfect definition. I can only compare their crowded
clarity to the effects of a reasonable dose of opium. In a moment it would
all be over, and I should be free. I knew I was immortal, but what would
happen I did not know. Should I drift off presently, like a puff of smoke
from a gun, in some kind of half-material body, an attenuated version of
my material self? Should I find myself suddenly among the innumerable
hosts of the dead, and know the world about me for the phantasmagoria it
had always seemed? Should I drift to some spiritualistic _séance_,
and there make foolish, incomprehensible attempts to affect a purblind
medium? It was a state of unemotional curiosity, of colourless
expectation. And then I realised a growing stress upon me, a feeling as
though some huge human magnet was drawing me upward out of my body. The
stress grew and grew. I seemed an atom for which monstrous forces were
fighting. For one brief, terrible moment sensation came back to me. That
feeling of falling headlong which comes in nightmares, that feeling a
thousand times intensified, that and a black horror swept across my
thoughts in a torrent. Then the two doctors, the naked body with its cut
side, the little room, swept away from under me and vanished, as a speck
of foam vanishes down an eddy.

I was in mid-air. Far below was the West End of London, receding
rapidly,--for I seemed to be flying swiftly upward,--and as it receded,
passing westward like a panorama. I could see, through the faint haze of
smoke, the innumerable roofs chimney-set, the narrow roadways, stippled
with people and conveyances, the little specks of squares, and the church
steeples like thorns sticking out of the fabric. But it spun away as the
earth rotated on its axis, and in a few seconds (as it seemed) I was over
the scattered clumps of town about Ealing, the little Thames a thread of
blue to the south, and the Chiltern Hills and the North Downs coming up
like the rim of a basin, far away and faint with haze. Up I rushed. And at
first I had not the faintest conception what this headlong rush upward
could mean.

Every moment the circle of scenery beneath me grew wider and wider, and
the details of town and field, of hill and valley, got more and more hazy
and pale and indistinct, a luminous grey was mingled more and more with
the blue of the hills and the green of the open meadows; and a little
patch of cloud, low and far to the west, shone ever more dazzlingly white.
Above, as the veil of atmosphere between myself and outer space grew
thinner, the sky, which had been a fair springtime blue at first, grew
deeper and richer in colour, passing steadily through the intervening
shades, until presently it was as dark as the blue sky of midnight, and
presently as black as the blackness of a frosty starlight, and at last as
black as no blackness I had ever beheld. And first one star, and then
many, and at last an innumerable host broke out upon the sky: more stars
than anyone has ever seen from the face of the earth. For the blueness of
the sky in the light of the sun and stars sifted and spread abroad
blindingly: there is diffused light even in the darkest skies of winter,
and we do not see the stars by day only because of the dazzling
irradiation of the sun. But now I saw things--I know not how; assuredly
with no mortal eyes--and that defect of bedazzlement blinded me no longer.
The sun was incredibly strange and wonderful. The body of it was a disc of
blinding white light: not yellowish, as it seems to those who live upon
the earth, but livid white, all streaked with scarlet streaks and rimmed
about with a fringe of writhing tongues of red fire. And shooting half-way
across the heavens from either side of it and brighter than the Milky Way,
were two pinions of silver white, making it look more like those winged
globes I have seen in Egyptian sculpture than anything else I can remember
upon earth. These I knew for the solar corona, though I had never seen
anything of it but a picture during the days of my earthly life.

When my attention came back to the earth again, I saw that it had fallen
very far away from me. Field and town were long since indistinguishable,
and all the varied hues of the country were merging into a uniform bright
grey, broken only by the brilliant white of the clouds that lay scattered
in flocculent masses over Ireland and the west of England. For now I could
see the outlines of the north of France and Ireland, and all this Island
of Britain, save where Scotland passed over the horizon to the north, or
where the coast was blurred or obliterated by cloud. The sea was a dull
grey, and darker than the land; and the whole panorama was rotating slowly
towards the east.

All this had happened so swiftly that until I was some thousand miles or
so from the earth I had no thought for myself. But now I perceived I had
neither hands nor feet, neither parts nor organs, and that I felt neither
alarm nor pain. All about me I perceived that the vacancy (for I had
already left the air behind) was cold beyond the imagination of man; but
it troubled me not. The sun's rays shot through the void, powerless to
light or heat until they should strike on matter in their course. I saw
things with a serene self-forgetfulness, even as if I were God. And down
below there, rushing away from me,--countless miles in a second,--where a
little dark spot on the grey marked the position of London, two doctors
were struggling to restore life to the poor hacked and outworn shell I had
abandoned. I felt then such release, such serenity as I can compare to no
mortal delight I have ever known.

It was only after I had perceived all these things that the meaning of
that headlong rush of the earth grew into comprehension. Yet it was so
simple, so obvious, that I was amazed at my never anticipating the thing
that was happening to me. I had suddenly been cut adrift from matter: all
that was material of me was there upon earth, whirling away through space,
held to the earth by gravitation, partaking of the earth-inertia, moving
in its wreath of epicycles round the sun, and with the sun and the planets
on their vast march through space. But the immaterial has no inertia,
feels nothing of the pull of matter for matter: where it parts from its
garment of flesh, there it remains (so far as space concerns it any
longer) immovable in space. _I_ was not leaving the earth: the earth
was leaving _me_, and not only the earth but the whole solar system
was streaming past. And about me in space, invisible to me, scattered in
the wake of the earth upon its journey, there must be an innumerable
multitude of souls, stripped like myself of the material, stripped like
myself of the passions of the individual and the generous emotions of the
gregarious brute, naked intelligences, things of new-born wonder and
thought, marvelling at the strange release that had suddenly come on them!

As I receded faster and faster from the strange white sun in the black
heavens, and from the broad and shining earth upon which my being had
begun, I seemed to grow in some incredible manner vast: vast as regards
this world I had left, vast as regards the moments and periods of a human
life. Very soon I saw the full circle of the earth, slightly gibbous, like
the moon when she nears her full, but very large; and the silvery shape of
America was now in the noonday blaze wherein (as it seemed) little England
had been basking but a few minutes ago. At first the earth was large, and
shone in the heavens, filling a great part of them; but every moment she
grew smaller and more distant. As she shrank, the broad moon in its third
quarter crept into view over the rim of her disc. I looked for the
constellations. Only that part of Aries directly behind the sun and the
Lion, which the earth covered, were hidden. I recognised the tortuous,
tattered band of the Milky Way with Vega very bright between sun and
earth; and Sirius and Orion shone splendid against the unfathomable
blackness in the opposite quarter of the heavens. The Pole Star was
overhead, and the Great Bear hung over the circle of the earth. And away
beneath and beyond the shining corona of the sun were strange groupings of
stars I had never seen in my life--notably a dagger-shaped group that I
knew for the Southern Cross. All these were no larger than when they had
shone on earth, but the little stars that one scarce sees shone now
against the setting of black vacancy as brightly as the first-magnitudes
had done, while the larger worlds were points of indescribable glory and
colour. Aldebaran was a spot of blood-red fire, and Sirius condensed to
one point the light of innumerable sapphires. And they shone steadily:
they did not scintillate, they were calmly glorious. My impressions had an
adamantine hardness and brightness: there was no blurring softness, no
atmosphere, nothing but infinite darkness set with the myriads of these
acute and brilliant points and specks of light. Presently, when I looked
again, the little earth seemed no bigger than the sun, and it dwindled and
turned as I looked, until in a second's space (as it seemed to me), it was
halved; and so it went on swiftly dwindling. Far away in the opposite
direction, a little pinkish pin's head of light, shining steadily, was the
planet Mars. I swam motionless in vacancy, and, without a trace of terror
or astonishment, watched the speck of cosmic dust we call the world fall
away from me.

Presently it dawned upon me that my sense of duration had changed; that my
mind was moving not faster but infinitely slower, that between each
separate impression there was a period of many days. The moon spun once
round the earth as I noted this; and I perceived clearly the motion of
Mars in his orbit. Moreover, it appeared as if the time between thought
and thought grew steadily greater, until at last a thousand years was but
a moment in my perception.

At first the constellations had shone motionless against the black
background of infinite space; but presently it seemed as though the group
of stars about Hercules and the Scorpion was contracting, while Orion and
Aldebaran and their neighbours were scattering apart. Flashing suddenly
out of the darkness there came a flying multitude of particles of rock,
glittering like dust-specks in a sunbeam, and encompassed in a faintly
luminous cloud. They swirled all about me, and vanished again in a
twinkling far behind. And then I saw that a bright spot of light, that
shone a little to one side of my path, was growing very rapidly larger,
and perceived that it was the planet Saturn rushing towards me. Larger and
larger it grew, swallowing up the heavens behind it, and hiding every
moment a fresh multitude, of stars. I perceived its flattened, whirling
body, its disc-like belt, and seven of its little satellites. It grew and
grew, till it towered enormous; and then I plunged amid a streaming
multitude of clashing stones and dancing dust-particles and gas-eddies,
and saw for a moment the mighty triple belt like three concentric arches
of moonlight above me, its shadow black on the boiling tumult below. These
things happened in one-tenth of the time it takes to tell them. The planet
went by like a flash of lightning; for a few seconds it blotted out the
sun, and there and then became a mere black, dwindling, winged patch
against the light. The earth, the mother mote of my being, I could no
longer see.

So with a stately swiftness, in the profoundest silence, the solar system
fell from me as it had been a garment, until the sun was a mere star amid
the multitude of stars, with its eddy of planet-specks lost in the
confused glittering of the remoter light. I was no longer a denizen of the
solar system: I had come to the outer Universe, I seemed to grasp and
comprehend the whole world of matter. Ever more swiftly the stars closed
in about the spot where Antares and Vega had vanished in a phosphorescent
haze, until that part of the sky had the semblance of a whirling mass of
nebulae, and ever before me yawned vaster gaps of vacant blackness, and
the stars shone fewer and fewer. It seemed as if I moved towards a point
between Orion's belt and sword; and the void about that region opened
vaster and vaster every second, an incredible gulf of nothingness into
which I was falling. Faster and ever faster the universe rushed by, a
hurry of whirling motes at last, speeding silently into the void. Stars
glowing brighter and brighter, with their circling planets catching the
light in a ghostly fashion as I neared them, shone out and vanished again
into inexistence; faint comets, clusters of meteorites, winking specks of
matter, eddying light-points, whizzed past, some perhaps a hundred
millions of miles or so from me at most, few nearer, travelling with
unimaginable rapidity, shooting constellations, momentary darts of fire,
through that black, enormous night. More than anything else it was like a
dusty draught, sunbeam-lit. Broader and wider and deeper grew the starless
space, the vacant Beyond, into which I was being drawn. At last a quarter
of the heavens was black and blank, and the whole headlong rush of stellar
universe closed in behind me like a veil of light that is gathered
together. It drove away from me like a monstrous jack-o'-lantern driven by
the wind. I had come out into the wilderness of space. Ever the vacant
blackness grew broader, until the hosts of the stars seemed only like a
swarm of fiery specks hurrying away from me, inconceivably remote, and the
darkness, the nothingness and emptiness, was about me on every side. Soon
the little universe of matter, the cage of points in which I had begun to
be, was dwindling, now to a whirling disc of luminous glittering, and now
to one minute disc of hazy light. In a little while it would shrink to a
point, and at last would vanish altogether.

Suddenly feeling came back to me--feeling in the shape of overwhelming
terror; such a dread of those dark vastitudes as no words can describe, a
passionate resurgence of sympathy and social desire. Were there other
souls, invisible to me as I to them, about me in the blackness? or was I
indeed, even as I felt, alone? Had I passed out of being into something
that was neither being nor not-being? The covering of the body, the
covering of matter, had been torn from me, and the hallucinations of
companionship and security. Everything was black and silent. I had ceased
to be. I was nothing. There was nothing, save only that infinitesimal dot
of light that dwindled in the gulf. I strained myself to hear and see, and
for a while there was naught but infinite silence, intolerable darkness,
horror, and despair.

Then I saw that about the spot of light into which the whole world of
matter had shrunk there was a faint glow. And in a band on either side of
that the darkness was not absolute. I watched it for ages, as it seemed to
me, and through the long waiting the haze grew imperceptibly more
distinct. And then about the band appeared an irregular cloud of the
faintest, palest brown. I felt a passionate impatience; but the things
grew brighter so slowly that they scarce seemed to change. What was
unfolding itself? What was this strange reddish dawn in the interminable
night of space?

The cloud's shape was grotesque. It seemed to be looped along its lower
side into four projecting masses, and, above, it ended in a straight line.
What phantom was it? I felt assured I had seen that figure before; but I
could not think what, nor where, nor when it was. Then the realisation
rushed upon me. _It was a clenched Hand._ I was alone in space, alone
with this huge, shadowy Hand, upon which the whole Universe of Matter lay
like an unconsidered speck of dust. It seemed as though I watched it
through vast periods of time. On the forefinger glittered a ring; and the
universe from which I had come was but a spot of light upon the ring's
curvature. And the thing that the hand gripped had the likeness of a black
rod. Through a long eternity I watched this Hand, with the ring and the
rod, marvelling and fearing and waiting helplessly on what might follow.
It seemed as though nothing could follow: that I should watch for ever,
seeing only the Hand and the thing it held, and understanding nothing of
its import. Was the whole universe but a refracting speck upon some
greater Being? Were our worlds but the atoms of another universe, and
those again of another, and so on through an endless progression? And what
was I? Was I indeed immaterial? A vague persuasion of a body gathering
about me came into my suspense. The abysmal darkness about the Hand filled
with impalpable suggestions, with uncertain, fluctuating shapes.

Then, suddenly, came a sound, like the sound of a tolling bell: faint, as
if infinitely far; muffled, as though heard through thick swathings of
darkness: a deep, vibrating resonance, with vast gulfs of silence between
each stroke. And the Hand appeared to tighten on the rod. And I saw far
above the Hand, towards the apex of the darkness, a circle of dim
phosphorescence, a ghostly sphere whence these sounds came throbbing; and
at the last stroke the Hand vanished, for the hour had come, and I heard a
noise of many waters. But the black rod remained as a great band across
the sky. And then a voice, which seemed to run to the uttermost parts of
space, spoke, saying, "There will be no more pain."

At that an almost intolerable gladness and radiance rushed in upon me, and
I saw the circle shining white and bright, and the rod black and shining,
and many things else distinct and clear. And the circle was the face of
the clock, and the rod the rail of my bed. Haddon was standing at the
foot, against the rail, with a small pair of scissors on his fingers; and
the hands of my clock on the mantel over his shoulder were clasped
together over the hour of twelve. Mowbray was washing something in a basin
at the octagonal table, and at my side I felt a subdued feeling that could
scarce be spoken of as pain.

The operation had not killed me. And I perceived, suddenly, that the dull
melancholy of half a year was lifted from my mind.

 

 

 

XIII.

THE SEA RAIDERS.

 

I.

Until the extraordinary affair at Sidmouth, the peculiar species
_Haploteuthis ferox_ was known to science only generically, on the
strength of a half-digested tentacle obtained near the Azores, and a
decaying body pecked by birds and nibbled by fish, found early in 1896 by
Mr. Jennings, near Land's End.

In no department of zoological science, indeed, are we quite so much in
the dark as with regard to the deep-sea cephalopods. A mere accident, for
instance, it was that led to the Prince of Monaco's discovery of nearly a
dozen new forms in the summer of 1895, a discovery in which the
before-mentioned tentacle was included. It chanced that a cachalot was
killed off Terceira by some sperm whalers, and in its last struggles
charged almost to the Prince's yacht, missed it, rolled under, and died
within twenty yards of his rudder. And in its agony it threw up a number
of large objects, which the Prince, dimly perceiving they were strange and
important, was, by a happy expedient, able to secure before they sank. He
set his screws in motion, and kept them circling in the vortices thus
created until a boat could be lowered. And these specimens were whole
cephalopods and fragments of cephalopods, some of gigantic proportions,
and almost all of them unknown to science!

It would seem, indeed, that these large and agile creatures, living in the
middle depths of the sea, must, to a large extent, for ever remain unknown
to us, since under water they are too nimble for nets, and it is only by
such rare, unlooked-for accidents that specimens can be obtained. In the
case of _Haploteuthis ferox_, for instance, we are still altogether
ignorant of its habitat, as ignorant as we are of the breeding-ground of
the herring or the sea-ways of the salmon. And zoologists are altogether
at a loss to account for its sudden appearance on our coast. Possibly it
was the stress of a hunger migration that drove it hither out of the deep.
But it will be, perhaps, better to avoid necessarily inconclusive
discussion, and to proceed at once with our narrative.

The first human being to set eyes upon a living _Haploteuthis_--the
first human being to survive, that is, for there can be little doubt now
that the wave of bathing fatalities and boating accidents that travelled
along the coast of Cornwall and Devon in early May was due to this
cause--was a retired tea-dealer of the name of Fison, who was stopping at
a Sidmouth boarding-house. It was in the afternoon, and he was walking
along the cliff path between Sidmouth and Ladram Bay. The cliffs in this
direction are very high, but down the red face of them in one place a kind
of ladder staircase has been made. He was near this when his attention was
attracted by what at first he thought to be a cluster of birds struggling
over a fragment of food that caught the sunlight, and glistened
pinkish-white. The tide was right out, and this object was not only far
below him, but remote across a broad waste of rock reefs covered with
dark seaweed and interspersed with silvery shining tidal pools. And he
was, moreover, dazzled by the brightness of the further water.

In a minute, regarding this again, he perceived that his judgment was in
fault, for over this struggle circled a number of birds, jackdaws and
gulls for the most part, the latter gleaming blindingly when the sunlight
smote their wings, and they seemed minute in comparison with it. And his
curiosity was, perhaps, aroused all the more strongly because of his first
insufficient explanations.

As he had nothing better to do than amuse himself, he decided to make this
object, whatever it was, the goal of his afternoon walk, instead of Ladram
Bay, conceiving it might perhaps be a great fish of some sort, stranded by
some chance, and flapping about in its distress. And so he hurried down
the long steep ladder, stopping at intervals of thirty feet or so to take
breath and scan the mysterious movement.

At the foot of the cliff he was, of course, nearer his object than he had
been; but, on the other hand, it now came up against the incandescent sky,
beneath the sun, so as to seem dark and indistinct. Whatever was pinkish
of it was now hidden by a skerry of weedy boulders. But he perceived that
it was made up of seven rounded bodies distinct or connected, and that the
birds kept up a constant croaking and screaming, but seemed afraid to
approach it too closely.

Mr. Fison, torn by curiosity, began picking his way across the wave-worn
rocks, and finding the wet seaweed that covered them thickly rendered them
extremely slippery, he stopped, removed his shoes and socks, and rolled
his trousers above his knees. His object was, of course, merely to avoid
stumbling into the rocky pools about him, and perhaps he was rather glad,
as all men are, of an excuse to resume, even for a moment, the sensations
of his boyhood. At any rate, it is to this, no doubt, that he owes his
life.

He approached his mark with all the assurance which the absolute security
of this country against all forms of animal life gives its inhabitants.
The round bodies moved to and fro, but it was only when he surmounted the
skerry of boulders I have mentioned that he realised the horrible nature
of the discovery. It came upon him with some suddenness.

The rounded bodies fell apart as he came into sight over the ridge, and
displayed the pinkish object to be the partially devoured body of a human
being, but whether of a man or woman he was unable to say. And the rounded
bodies were new and ghastly-looking creatures, in shape somewhat
resembling an octopus, with huge and very long and flexible tentacles,
coiled copiously on the ground. The skin had a glistening texture,
unpleasant to see, like shiny leather. The downward bend of the
tentacle-surrounded mouth, the curious excrescence at the bend, the
tentacles, and the large intelligent eyes, gave the creatures a grotesque
suggestion of a face. They were the size of a fair-sized swine about the
body, and the tentacles seemed to him to be many feet in length. There
were, he thinks, seven or eight at least of the creatures. Twenty yards
beyond them, amid the surf of the now returning tide, two others were
emerging from the sea.

Their bodies lay flatly on the rocks, and their eyes regarded him with
evil interest; but it does not appear that Mr. Fison was afraid, or that
he realised that he was in any danger. Possibly his confidence is to be
ascribed to the limpness of their attitudes. But he was horrified, of
course, and intensely excited and indignant, at such revolting creatures
preying upon human flesh. He thought they had chanced upon a drowned body.
He shouted to them, with the idea of driving them off, and finding they
did not budge, cast about him, picked up a big rounded lump of rock, and
flung it at one.

And then, slowly uncoiling their tentacles, they all began moving towards
him--creeping at first deliberately, and making a soft purring sound to
each other.

In a moment Mr. Fison realised that he was in danger. He shouted again,
threw both his boots, and started off, with a leap, forthwith. Twenty
yards off he stopped and faced about, judging them slow, and behold! the
tentacles of their leader were already pouring over the rocky ridge on
which he had just been standing!

At that he shouted again, but this time not threatening, but a cry of
dismay, and began jumping, striding, slipping, wading across the uneven
expanse between him and the beach. The tall red cliffs seemed suddenly at
a vast distance, and he saw, as though they were creatures in another
world, two minute workmen engaged in the repair of the ladder-way, and
little suspecting the race for life that was beginning below them. At one
time he could hear the creatures splashing in the pools not a dozen feet
behind him, and once he slipped and almost fell.

They chased him to the very foot of the cliffs, and desisted only when he
had been joined by the workmen at the foot of the ladder-way up the cliff.
All three of the men pelted them with stones for a time, and then hurried
to the cliff top and along the path towards Sidmouth, to secure assistance
and a boat, and to rescue the desecrated body from the clutches of these
abominable creatures.

 

II.

And, as if he had not already been in sufficient peril that day, Mr. Fison
went with the boat to point out the exact spot of his adventure.

As the tide was down, it required a considerable detour to reach the spot,
and when at last they came off the ladder-way, the mangled body had
disappeared. The water was now running in, submerging first one slab of
slimy rock and then another, and the four men in the boat--the workmen,
that is, the boatman, and Mr. Fison--now turned their attention from the
bearings off shore to the water beneath the keel.

At first they could see little below them, save a dark jungle of
laminaria, with an occasional darting fish. Their minds were set on
adventure, and they expressed their disappointment freely. But presently
they saw one of the monsters swimming through the water seaward, with a
curious rolling motion that suggested to Mr. Fison the spinning roll of a
captive balloon. Almost immediately after, the waving streamers of
laminaria were extraordinarily perturbed, parted for a moment, and three
of these beasts became darkly visible, struggling for what was probably
some fragment of the drowned man. In a moment the copious olive-green
ribbons had poured again over this writhing group.

At that all four men, greatly excited, began beating the water with oars
and shouting, and immediately they saw a tumultuous movement among the
weeds. They desisted to see more clearly, and as soon as the water was
smooth, they saw, as it seemed to them, the whole sea bottom among the
weeds set with eyes.

"Ugly swine!" cried one of the men. "Why, there's dozens!"

And forthwith the things began to rise through the water about them. Mr.
Fison has since described to the writer this startling eruption out of the
waving laminaria meadows. To him it seemed to occupy a considerable time,
but it is probable that really it was an affair of a few seconds only. For
a time nothing but eyes, and then he speaks of tentacles streaming out and
parting the weed fronds this way and that. Then these things, growing
larger, until at last the bottom was hidden by their intercoiling forms,
and the tips of tentacles rose darkly here and there into the air above
the swell of the waters.

One came up boldly to the side of the boat, and clinging to this with
three of its sucker-set tentacles, threw four others over the gunwale, as
if with an intention either of oversetting the boat or of clambering into
it. Mr. Fison at once caught up the boat-hook, and, jabbing furiously at
the soft tentacles, forced it to desist. He was struck in the back and
almost pitched overboard by the boatman, who was using his oar to resist a
similar attack on the other side of the boat. But the tentacles on either
side at once relaxed their hold, slid out of sight, and splashed into the
water.

"We'd better get out of this," said Mr. Fison, who was trembling
violently. He went to the tiller, while the boatman and one of the workmen
seated themselves and began rowing. The other workman stood up in the fore
part of the boat, with the boat-hook, ready to strike any more tentacles
that might appear. Nothing else seems to have been said. Mr. Fison had
expressed the common feeling beyond amendment. In a hushed, scared mood,
with faces white and drawn, they set about escaping from the position into
which they had so recklessly blundered.

But the oars had scarcely dropped into the water before dark, tapering,
serpentine ropes had bound them, and were about the rudder; and creeping
up the sides of the boat with a looping motion came the suckers again. The
men gripped their oars and pulled, but it was like trying to move a boat
in a floating raft of weeds. "Help here!" cried the boatman, and Mr. Fison
and the second workman rushed to help lug at the oar.

Then the man with the boat-hook--his name was Ewan, or Ewen--sprang up
with a curse and began striking downward over the side, as far as he could
reach, at the bank of tentacles that now clustered along the boat's
bottom. And, at the same time, the two rowers stood up to get a better
purchase for the recovery of their oars. The boatman handed his to Mr.
Fison, who lugged desperately, and, meanwhile, the boatman opened a big
clasp-knife, and leaning over the side of the boat, began hacking at the
spiring arms upon the oar shaft.

Mr. Fison, staggering with the quivering rocking of the boat, his teeth
set, his breath coming short, and the veins starting on his hands as he
pulled at his oar, suddenly cast his eyes seaward. And there, not fifty
yards off, across the long rollers of the incoming tide, was a large boat
standing in towards them, with three women and a little child in it. A
boatman was rowing, and a little man in a pink-ribboned straw hat and
whites stood in the stern hailing them. For a moment, of course, Mr. Fison
thought of help, and then he thought of the child. He abandoned his oar
forthwith, threw up his arms in a frantic gesture, and screamed to the
party in the boat to keep away "for God's sake!" It says much for the
modesty and courage of Mr. Fison that he does not seem to be aware that
there was any quality of heroism in his action at this juncture. The oar
he had abandoned was at once drawn under, and presently reappeared
floating about twenty yards away.

At the same moment Mr. Fison felt the boat under him lurch violently, and
a hoarse scream, a prolonged cry of terror from Hill, the boatman, caused
him to forget the party of excursionists altogether. He turned, and saw
Hill crouching by the forward row-lock, his face convulsed with terror,
and his right arm over the side and drawn tightly down. He gave now a
succession of short, sharp cries, "Oh! oh! oh!--oh!" Mr. Fison believes
that he must have been hacking at the tentacles below the water-line, and
have been grasped by them, but, of course, it is quite impossible to say
now certainly what had happened. The boat was heeling over, so that the
gunwale was within ten inches of the water, and both Ewan and the other
labourer were striking down into the water, with oar and boat-hook, on
either side of Hill's arm. Mr. Fison instinctively placed himself to
counterpoise them.

Then Hill, who was a burly, powerful man, made a strenuous effort, and
rose almost to a standing position. He lifted his arm, indeed, clean out
of the water. Hanging to it was a complicated tangle of brown ropes, and
the eyes of one of the brutes that had hold of him, glaring straight and
resolute, showed momentarily above the surface. The boat heeled more and
more, and the green-brown water came pouring in a cascade over the side.
Then Hill slipped and fell with his ribs across the side, and his arm and
the mass of tentacles about it splashed back into the water. He rolled
over; his boot kicked Mr. Fison's knee as that gentleman rushed forward to
seize him, and in another moment fresh tentacles had whipped about his
waist and neck, and after a brief, convulsive struggle, in which the boat
was nearly capsized, Hill was lugged overboard. The boat righted with a
violent jerk that all but sent Mr. Fison over the other side, and hid the
struggle in the water from his eyes.

He stood staggering to recover his balance for a moment, and as he did so
he became aware that the struggle and the inflowing tide had carried them
close upon the weedy rocks again. Not four yards off a table of rock still
rose in rhythmic movements above the in-wash of the tide. In a moment Mr.
Fison seized the oar from Ewan, gave one vigorous stroke, then dropping
it, ran to the bows and leapt. He felt his feet slide over the rock, and,
by a frantic effort, leapt again towards a further mass. He stumbled over
this, came to his knees, and rose again.

"Look out!" cried someone, and a large drab body struck him. He was
knocked flat into a tidal pool by one of the workmen, and as he went down
he heard smothered, choking cries, that he believed at the time came from
Hill. Then he found himself marvelling at the shrillness and variety of
Hill's voice. Someone jumped over him, and a curving rush of foamy water
poured over him, and passed. He scrambled to his feet dripping, and
without looking seaward, ran as fast as his terror would let him
shoreward. Before him, over the flat space of scattered rocks, stumbled
the two work-men--one a dozen yards in front of the other.

He looked over his shoulder at last, and seeing that he was not pursued,
faced about. He was astonished. From the moment of the rising of the
cephalopods out of the water he had been acting too swiftly to fully
comprehend his actions. Now it seemed to him as if he had suddenly jumped
out of an evil dream.

For there were the sky, cloudless and blazing with the afternoon sun, the
sea weltering under its pitiless brightness, the soft creamy foam of the
breaking water, and the low, long, dark ridges of rock. The righted boat
floated, rising and falling gently on the swell about a dozen yards from
shore. Hill and the monsters, all the stress and tumult of that fierce
fight for life, had vanished as though they had never been.

Mr. Fison's heart was beating violently; he was throbbing to the
finger-tips, and his breath came deep.

There was something missing. For some seconds he could not think clearly
enough what this might be. Sun, sky, sea, rocks--what was it? Then he
remembered the boat-load of excursionists. It had vanished. He wondered
whether he had imagined it. He turned, and saw the two workmen standing
side by side under the projecting masses of the tall pink cliffs. He
hesitated whether he should make one last attempt to save the man Hill.
His physical excitement seemed to desert him suddenly, and leave him
aimless and helpless. He turned shoreward, stumbling and wading towards
his two companions.

He looked back again, and there were now two boats floating, and the one
farthest out at sea pitched clumsily, bottom upward.

 

 

III.

So it was _Haploteuthis ferox_ made its appearance upon the
Devonshire coast. So far, this has been its most serious aggression. Mr.
Fison's account, taken together with the wave of boating and bathing
casualties to which I have already alluded, and the absence of fish from
the Cornish coasts that year, points clearly to a shoal of these voracious
deep-sea monsters prowling slowly along the sub-tidal coast-line. Hunger
migration has, I know, been suggested as the force that drove them hither;
but, for my own part, I prefer to believe the alternative theory of
Hemsley. Hemsley holds that a pack or shoal of these creatures may have
become enamoured of human flesh by the accident of a foundered ship
sinking among them, and have wandered in search of it out of their
accustomed zone; first waylaying and following ships, and so coming to our
shores in the wake of the Atlantic traffic. But to discuss Hemsley's
cogent and admirably-stated arguments would be out of place here.

It would seem that the appetites of the shoal were satisfied by the catch
of eleven people--for, so far as can be ascertained, there were ten people
in the second boat, and certainly these creatures gave no further signs of
their presence off Sidmouth that day. The coast between Seaton and
Budleigh Salterton was patrolled all that evening and night by four
Preventive Service boats, the men in which were armed with harpoons and
cutlasses, and as the evening advanced, a number of more or less similarly
equipped expeditions, organised by private individuals, joined them. Mr.
Fison took no part in any of these expeditions.

About midnight excited hails were heard from a boat about a couple of
miles out at sea to the south-east of Sidmouth, and a lantern was seen
waving in a strange manner to and fro and up and down. The nearer boats at
once hurried towards the alarm. The venturesome occupants of the boat--a
seaman, a curate, and two schoolboys--had actually seen the monsters
passing under their boat. The creatures, it seems, like most deep-sea
organisms, were phosphorescent, and they had been floating, five fathoms
deep or so, like creatures of moonshine through the blackness of the
water, their tentacles retracted and as if asleep, rolling over and over,
and moving slowly in a wedge-like formation towards the south-east.

These people told their story in gesticulated fragments, as first one boat
drew alongside and then another. At last there was a little fleet of eight
or nine boats collected together, and from them a tumult, like the chatter
of a market-place, rose into the stillness of the night. There was little
or no disposition to pursue the shoal, the people had neither weapons nor
experience for such a dubious chase, and presently--even with a certain
relief, it may be--the boats turned shoreward.

And now to tell what is perhaps the most astonishing fact in this whole
astonishing raid. We have not the slightest knowledge of the subsequent
movements of the shoal, although the whole south-west coast was now alert
for it. But it may, perhaps, be significant that a cachalot was stranded
off Sark on June 3. Two weeks and three days after this Sidmouth affair, a
living _Haploteuthis_ came ashore on Calais sands. It was alive,
because several witnesses saw its tentacles moving in a convulsive way.
But it is probable that it was dying. A gentleman named Pouchet obtained a
rifle and shot it.

That was the last appearance of a living _Haploteuthis_. No others
were seen on the French coast. On the 15th of June a dead carcass, almost
complete, was washed ashore near Torquay, and a few days later a boat from
the Marine Biological station, engaged in dredging off Plymouth, picked up
a rotting specimen, slashed deeply with a cutlass wound. How the former
had come by its death it is impossible to say. And on the last day of
June, Mr. Egbert Caine, an artist, bathing near Newlyn, threw up his arms,
shrieked, and was drawn under. A friend bathing with him made no attempt
to save him, but swam at once for the shore. This is the last fact to tell
of this extraordinary raid from the deeper sea. Whether it is really the
last of these horrible creatures it is, as yet, premature to say. But it
is believed, and certainly it is to be hoped, that they have returned now,
and returned for good, to the sunless depths of the middle seas, out of
which they have so strangely and so mysteriously arisen.

 

 

 

XIV.

THE OBLITERATED MAN.

 

I was--you shall hear immediately why I am not now--Egbert Craddock
Cummins. The name remains. I am still (Heaven help me!) Dramatic Critic to
the _Fiery Cross_. What I shall be in a little while I do not know. I
write in great trouble and confusion of mind. I will do what I can to make
myself clear in the face of terrible difficulties. You must bear with me a
little. When a man is rapidly losing his own identity, he naturally finds
a difficulty in expressing himself. I will make it perfectly plain in a
minute, when once I get my grip upon the story. Let me see--where
_am_ I? I wish I knew. Ah, I have it! Dead self! Egbert Craddock
Cummins!

In the past I should have disliked writing anything quite so full of "I"
as this story must be. It is full of "I's" before and behind, like the
beast in Revelation--the one with a head like a calf, I am afraid. But my
tastes have changed since I became a Dramatic Critic and studied the
masters--G.A.S., G.B.S., G.R.S., and the others. Everything has changed
since then. At least the story is about myself--so that there is some
excuse for me. And it is really not egotism, because, as I say, since
those days my identity has undergone an entire alteration.

That past!... I was--in those days--rather a nice fellow, rather shy--
taste for grey in my clothes, weedy little moustache, face "interesting,"
slight stutter which I had caught in my early life from a schoolfellow.
Engaged to a very nice girl, named Delia. Fairly new, she was--
cigarettes--liked me because I was human and original. Considered I was
like Lamb--on the strength of the stutter, I believe. Father, an eminent
authority on postage stamps. She read a great deal in the British Museum.
(A perfect pairing ground for literary people, that British Museum--you
should read George Egerton and Justin Huntly M'Carthy and Gissing and the
rest of them.) We loved in our intellectual way, and shared the brightest
hopes. (All gone now.) And her father liked me because I seemed honestly
eager to hear about stamps. She had no mother. Indeed, I had the happiest
prospects a young man could have. I never went to theatres in those days.
My Aunt Charlotte before she died had told me not to.

Then Barnaby, the editor of the _Fiery Cross_, made me--in spite of
my spasmodic efforts to escape--Dramatic Critic. He is a fine, healthy
man, Barnaby, with an enormous head of frizzy black hair and a convincing
manner, and he caught me on the staircase going to see Wembly. He had been
dining, and was more than usually buoyant. "Hullo, Cummins!" he said. "The
very man I want!" He caught me by the shoulder or the collar or something,
ran me up the little passage, and flung me over the waste-paper basket
into the arm-chair in his office. "Pray be seated," he said, as he did so.
Then he ran across the room and came back with some pink and yellow
tickets and pushed them into my hand. "Opera Comique," he said, "Thursday;
Friday, the Surrey; Saturday, the Frivolity. That's all, I think."

"But--" I began.

"Glad you're free," he said, snatching some proofs off the desk and
beginning to read.

"I don't quite understand," I said.

"_Eigh_?" he said, at the top of his voice, as though he thought I
had gone and was startled at my remark.

"Do you want me to criticise these plays?"

"Do something with 'em... Did you think it was a treat?"

"But I can't."

"Did you call me a fool?"

"Well, I've never been to a theatre in my life."

"Virgin soil."

"But I don't know anything about it, you know."

"That's just it. New view. No habits. No _clichés_ in stock. Ours is
a live paper, not a bag of tricks. None of your clockwork professional
journalism in this office. And I can rely on your integrity----"

"But I've conscientious scruples----"

He caught me up suddenly and put me outside his door. "Go and talk to
Wembly about that," he said. "He'll explain."

As I stood perplexed, he opened the door again, said, "I forgot this,"
thrust a fourth ticket into my hand (it was for that night--in twenty
minutes' time) and slammed the door upon me. His expression was quite
calm, but I caught his eye.

I hate arguments. I decided that I would take his hint and become (to my
own destruction) a Dramatic Critic. I walked slowly down the passage to
Wembly. That Barnaby has a remarkable persuasive way. He has made few
suggestions during our very pleasant intercourse of four years that he has
not ultimately won me round to adopting. It may be, of course, that I am
of a yielding disposition; certainly I am too apt to take my colour from
my circumstances. It is, indeed, to my unfortunate susceptibility to vivid
impressions that all my misfortunes are due. I have already alluded to the
slight stammer I had acquired from a schoolfellow in my youth. However,
this is a digression... I went home in a cab to dress.

I will not trouble the reader with my thoughts about the first-night
audience, strange assembly as it is,--those I reserve for my Memoirs,--nor
the humiliating story of how I got lost during the _entr'acte_ in a
lot of red plush passages, and saw the third act from the gallery. The
only point upon which I wish to lay stress was the remarkable effect of
the acting upon me. You must remember I had lived a quiet and retired
life, and had never been to the theatre before, and that I am extremely
sensitive to vivid impressions. At the risk of repetition I must insist
upon these points.

The first effect was a profound amazement, not untinctured by alarm. The
phenomenal unnaturalness of acting is a thing discounted in the minds of
most people by early visits to the theatre. They get used to the fantastic
gestures, the flamboyant emotions, the weird mouthings, melodious
snortings, agonising yelps, lip-gnawings, glaring horrors, and other
emotional symbolism of the stage. It becomes at last a mere deaf-and-dumb
language to them, which they read intelligently _pari passu_ with the
hearing of the dialogue. But all this was new to me. The thing was called
a modern comedy, the people were supposed to be English and were dressed
like fashionable Americans of the current epoch, and I fell into the
natural error of supposing that the actors were trying to represent human
beings. I looked round on my first-night audience with a kind of wonder,
discovered--as all new Dramatic Critics do--that it rested with me to
reform the Drama, and, after a supper choked with emotion, went off to the
office to write a column, piebald with "new paragraphs" (as all my stuff
is--it fills out so) and purple with indignation. Barnaby was delighted.

But I could not sleep that night. I dreamt of actors--actors glaring,
actors smiting their chests, actors flinging out a handful of extended
fingers, actors smiling bitterly, laughing despairingly, falling
hopelessly, dying idiotically. I got up at eleven with a slight headache,
read my notice in the _Fiery Cross_, breakfasted, and went back to my
room to shave, (It's my habit to do so.) Then an odd thing happened. I
could not find my razor. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not
unpacked it the day before.

"Ah!" said I, in front of the looking-glass. Then "Hullo!"

Quite involuntarily, when I had thought of my portmanteau, I had flung up
the left arm (fingers fully extended) and clutched at my diaphragm with my
right hand. I am an acutely self-conscious man at all times. The gesture
struck me as absolutely novel for me. I repeated it, for my own
satisfaction. "Odd!" Then (rather puzzled) I turned to my portmanteau.

After shaving, my mind reverted to the acting I had seen, and I
entertained myself before the cheval glass with some imitations of
Jafferay's more exaggerated gestures. "Really, one might think it a
disease," I said--"Stage-Walkitis!" (There's many a truth spoken in jest.)
Then, if I remember rightly, I went off to see Wembly, and afterwards
lunched at the British Museum with Delia. We actually spoke about our
prospects, in the light of my new appointment.

But that appointment was the beginning of my downfall. From that day I
necessarily became a persistent theatre-goer, and almost insensibly I
began to change. The next thing I noticed after the gesture about the
razor was to catch myself bowing ineffably when I met Delia, and stooping
in an old-fashioned, courtly way over her hand. Directly I caught myself,
I straightened myself up and became very uncomfortable. I remember she
looked at me curiously. Then, in the office, I found myself doing "nervous
business," fingers on teeth, when Barnaby asked me a question I could not
very well answer. Then, in some trifling difference with Delia, I clasped
my hand to my brow. And I pranced through my social transactions at times
singularly like an actor! I tried not to--no one could be more keenly
alive to the arrant absurdity of the histrionic bearing. And I did!

It began to dawn on me what it all meant. The acting, I saw, was too much
for my delicately-strung nervous system. I have always, I know, been too
amenable to the suggestions of my circumstances. Night after night of
concentrated attention to the conventional attitudes and intonation of the
English stage was gradually affecting my speech and carriage. I was giving
way to the infection of sympathetic imitation. Night after night my
plastic nervous system took the print of some new amazing gesture, some
new emotional exaggeration--and retained it. A kind of theatrical veneer
threatened to plate over and obliterate my private individuality
altogether. I saw myself in a kind of vision. Sitting by myself one night,
my new self seemed to me to glide, posing and gesticulating, across the
room. He clutched his throat, he opened his fingers, he opened his legs in
walking like a high-class marionette. He went from attitude to attitude.
He might have been clockwork. Directly after this I made an ineffectual
attempt to resign my theatrical work. But Barnaby persisted in talking
about the Polywhiddle Divorce all the time I was with him, and I could get
no opportunity of saying what I wished.

And then Delia's manner began to change towards me. The ease of our
intercourse vanished. I felt she was learning to dislike me. I grinned,
and capered, and scowled, and posed at her in a thousand ways, and
knew--with what a voiceless agony!--that I did it all the time. I tried to
resign again, and Barnaby talked about "X" and "Z" and "Y" in the _New
Review,_ and gave me a strong cigar to smoke, and so routed me. And
then I walked up the Assyrian Gallery in the manner of Irving to meet
Delia, and so precipitated the crisis.

"Ah!--_Dear_!" I said, with more sprightliness and emotion in my
voice than had ever been in all my life before I became (to my own
undoing) a Dramatic Critic.

She held out her hand rather coldly, scrutinising my face as she did so. I
prepared, with a new-won grace, to walk by her side. "Egbert," she said,
standing still, and thought. Then she looked at me.

I said nothing. I felt what was coming. I tried to be the old Egbert
Craddock Cummins of shambling gait and stammering sincerity, whom she
loved, but I felt even as I did so that I was a new thing, a thing of
surging emotions and mysterious fixity--like no human being that ever
lived, except upon the stage. "Egbert," she said, "you are not yourself."

"Ah!" Involuntarily I clutched my diaphragm and averted my head (as is the
way with them).

"There!" she said.

"_What do you mean_?" I said, whispering in vocal italics--you know
how they do it--turning on her, perplexity on face, right hand down, left
on brow. I knew quite well what she meant. I knew quite well the dramatic
unreality of my behaviour. But I struggled against it in vain. "What do
you mean?" I said, and, in a kind of hoarse whisper, "I don't understand!"

She really looked as though she disliked me. "What do you keep on posing
for?" she said. "I don't like it. You didn't use to."

"Didn't use to!" I said slowly, repeating this twice. I glared up and down
the gallery with short, sharp glances. "We are alone," I said swiftly.
"_Listen!_" I poked my forefinger towards her, and glared at her.
"I am under a curse."

I saw her hand tighten upon her sunshade. "You are under some bad
influence or other," said Delia. "You should give it up. I never knew
anyone change as you have done."

"Delia!" I said, lapsing into the pathetic. "Pity me, Augh! Delia!
_Pit_--y me!"

She eyed me critically. "_Why_ you keep playing the fool like this I
don't know," she said. "Anyhow, I really cannot go about with a man who
behaves as you do. You made us both ridiculous on Wednesday. Frankly, I
dislike you, as you are now. I met you here to tell you so--as it's about
the only place where we can be sure of being alone together----"

"Delia!" said I, with intensity, knuckles of clenched hands white. "You
don't mean----"

"I do," said Delia. "A woman's lot is sad enough at the best of times. But
with you----"

I clapped my hand on my brow.

"So, good-bye," said Delia, without emotion.

"Oh, Delia!" I said. "Not _this_?"

"Good-bye, Mr. Cummins," she said.

By a violent effort I controlled myself and touched her hand. I tried to
say some word of explanation to her. She looked into my working face and
winced. "I _must_ do it," she said hopelessly. Then she turned from
me and began walking rapidly down the gallery.

Heavens! How the human agony cried within me! I loved Delia. But nothing
found expression--I was already too deeply crusted with my acquired self.

"Good-baye!" I said at last, watching her retreating figure. How I hated
myself for doing it! After she had vanished, I repeated in a dreamy way,
"Good-baye!" looking hopelessly round me. Then, with a kind of
heart-broken cry, I shook my clenched fists in the air, staggered to the
pedestal of a winged figure, buried my face in my arms, and made my
shoulders heave. Something within me said "Ass!" as I did so. (I had the
greatest difficulty in persuading the Museum policeman, who was attracted
by my cry of agony, that I was not intoxicated, but merely suffering from
a transient indisposition.)

But even this great sorrow has not availed to save me from my fate. I see
it; everyone sees it: I grow more "theatrical" every day. And no one could
be more painfully aware of the pungent silliness of theatrical ways. The
quiet, nervous, but pleasing E.C. Cummins vanishes. I cannot save him. I
am driven like a dead leaf before the winds of March. My tailor even
enters into the spirit of my disorder. He has a peculiar sense of what is
fitting. I tried to get a dull grey suit from him this spring, and he
foisted a brilliant blue upon me, and I see he has put braid down the
sides of my new dress trousers. My hairdresser insists upon giving me a
"wave."

I am beginning to associate with actors. I detest them, but it is only in
their company that I can feel I am not glaringly conspicuous. Their talk
infects me. I notice a growing tendency to dramatic brevity, to dashes and
pauses in my style, to a punctuation of bows and attitudes. Barnaby has
remarked it too. I offended Wembly by calling him "Dear Boy" yesterday. I
dread the end, but I cannot escape from it.

The fact is, I am being obliterated. Living a grey, retired life all my
youth, I came to the theatre a delicate sketch of a man, a thing of tints
and faint lines. Their gorgeous colouring has effaced me altogether.
People forget how much mode of expression, method of movement, are a
matter of contagion. I have heard of stage-struck people before, and
thought it a figure of speech. I spoke of it jestingly, as a disease. It
is no jest. It is a disease. And I have got it badly! Deep down within me
I protest against the wrong done to my personality--unavailingly. For
three hours or more a week I have to go and concentrate my attention on
some fresh play, and the suggestions of the drama strengthen their awful
hold upon me. My manners grow so flamboyant, my passions so professional,
that I doubt, as I said at the outset, whether it is really myself that
behaves in such a manner. I feel merely the core to this dramatic casing,
that grows thicker and presses upon me--me and mine. I feel like King
John's abbot in his cope of lead.

I doubt, indeed, whether I should not abandon the struggle altogether--
leave this sad world of ordinary life for which I am so ill fitted,
abandon the name of Cummins for some professional pseudonym, complete my
self-effacement, and--a thing of tricks and tatters, of posing and
pretence--go upon the stage. It seems my only resort--"to hold the mirror
up to Nature." For in the ordinary life, I will confess, no one now seems
to regard me as both sane and sober. Only upon the stage, I feel
convinced, will people take me seriously. That will be the end of it. I
_know_ that will be the end of it. And yet ... I will frankly confess
... all that marks off your actor from your common man ... I
_detest_. I am still largely of my Aunt Charlotte's opinion, that
play-acting is unworthy of a pure-minded man's attention, much more
participation. Even now I would resign my dramatic criticism and try a
rest. Only I can't get hold of Barnaby. Letters of resignation he never
notices. He says it is against the etiquette of journalism to write to
your Editor. And when I go to see him, he gives me another big cigar and
some strong whisky and soda, and then something always turns up to prevent
my explanation.

 

 

 

XV.

THE PLATTNER STORY.

 

Whether the story of Gottfried Plattner is to be credited or not is a
pretty question in the value of evidence. On the one hand, we have seven
witnesses--to be perfectly exact, we have six and a half pairs of eyes,
and one undeniable fact; and on the other we have--what is it?--prejudice,
common-sense, the inertia of opinion. Never were there seven more
honest-seeming witnesses; never was there a more undeniable fact than the
inversion of Gottfried Plattner's anatomical structure, and--never was
there a more preposterous story than the one they have to tell! The most
preposterous part of the story is the worthy Gottfried's contribution (for
I count him as one of the seven). Heaven forbid that I should be led into
giving countenance to superstition by a passion for impartiality, and so
come to share the fate of Eusapia's patrons! Frankly, I believe there is
something crooked about this business of Gottfried Plattner; but what that
crooked factor is, I will admit as frankly, I do not know. I have been
surprised at the credit accorded to the story in the most unexpected and
authoritative quarters. The fairest way to the reader, however, will be
for me to tell it without further comment.

Gottfried Plattner is, in spite of his name, a freeborn Englishman. His
father was an Alsatian who came to England in the 'sixties, married a
respectable English girl of unexceptionable antecedents, and died, after a
wholesome and uneventful life (devoted, I understand, chiefly to the
laying of parquet flooring), in 1887. Gottfried's age is seven-and-twenty.
He is, by virtue of his heritage of three languages, Modern Languages
Master in a small private school in the south of England. To the casual
observer he is singularly like any other Modern Languages Master in any
other small private school. His costume is neither very costly nor very
fashionable, but, on the other hand, it is not markedly cheap or shabby;
his complexion, like his height and his bearing, is inconspicuous. You
would notice, perhaps, that, like the majority of people, his face was not
absolutely symmetrical, his right eye a little larger than the left, and
his jaw a trifle heavier on the right side. If you, as an ordinary
careless person, were to bare his chest and feel his heart beating, you
would probably find it quite like the heart of anyone else. But here you
and the trained observer would part company. If you found his heart quite
ordinary, the trained observer would find it quite otherwise. And once the
thing was pointed out to you, you too would perceive the peculiarity
easily enough. It is that Gottfried's heart beats on the right side of his
body.

Now, that is not the only singularity of Gottfried's structure, although
it is the only one that would appeal to the untrained mind. Careful
sounding of Gottfried's internal arrangements by a well-known surgeon
seems to point to the fact that all the other unsymmetrical parts of his
body are similarly misplaced. The right lobe of his liver is on the left
side, the left on his right; while his lungs, too, are similarly
contraposed. What is still more singular, unless Gottfried is a consummate
actor, we must believe that his right hand has recently become his left.
Since the occurrences we are about to consider (as impartially as
possible), he has found the utmost difficulty in writing, except from
right to left across the paper with his left hand. He cannot throw with
his right hand, he is perplexed at meal-times between knife and fork, and
his ideas of the rule of the road--he is a cyclist--are still a dangerous
confusion. And there is not a scrap of evidence to show that before these
occurrences Gottfried was at all left-handed.

There is yet another wonderful fact in this preposterous business.
Gottfried produces three photographs of himself. You have him at the age
of five or six, thrusting fat legs at you from under a plaid frock, and
scowling. In that photograph his left eye is a little larger than his
right, and his jaw is a trifle heavier on the left side. This is the
reverse of his present living condition. The photograph of Gottfried at
fourteen seems to contradict these facts, but that is because it is one of
those cheap "Gem" photographs that were then in vogue, taken direct upon
metal, and therefore reversing things just as a looking-glass would. The
third photograph represents him at one-and-twenty, and confirms the record
of the others. There seems here evidence of the strongest confirmatory
character that Gottfried has exchanged his left side for his right. Yet
how a human being can be so changed, short of a fantastic and pointless
miracle, it is exceedingly hard to suggest.

In one way, of course, these facts might be explicable on the supposition
that Plattner has undertaken an elaborate mystification, on the strength
of his heart's displacement. Photographs may be faked, and left-handedness
imitated. But the character of the man does not lend itself to any such
theory. He is quiet, practical, unobtrusive, and thoroughly sane, from the
Nordau standpoint. He likes beer, and smokes moderately, takes walking
exercise daily, and has a healthily high estimate of the value of his
teaching. He has a good but untrained tenor voice, and takes a pleasure in
singing airs of a popular and cheerful character. He is fond, but not
morbidly fond, of reading,--chiefly fiction pervaded with a vaguely pious
optimism,--sleeps well, and rarely dreams. He is, in fact, the very last
person to evolve a fantastic fable. Indeed, so far from forcing this story
upon the world, he has been singularly reticent on the matter. He meets
enquirers with a certain engaging--bashfulness is almost the word, that
disarms the most suspicious. He seems genuinely ashamed that anything so
unusual has occurred to him.

It is to be regretted that Plattner's aversion to the idea of post-mortem
dissection may postpone, perhaps for ever, the positive proof that his
entire body has had its left and right sides transposed. Upon that fact
mainly the credibility of his story hangs. There is no way of taking a man
and moving him about in space as ordinary people understand space, that
will result in our changing his sides. Whatever you do, his right is still
his right, his left his left. You can do that with a perfectly thin and
flat thing, of course. If you were to cut a figure out of paper, any
figure with a right and left side, you could change its sides simply by
lifting it up and turning it over. But with a solid it is different.
Mathematical theorists tell us that the only way in which the right and
left sides of a solid body can be changed is by taking that body clean out
of space as we know it,--taking it out of ordinary existence, that is, and
turning it somewhere outside space. This is a little abstruse, no doubt,
but anyone with any knowledge of mathematical theory will assure the
reader of its truth. To put the thing in technical language, the curious
inversion of Plattner's right and left sides is proof that he has moved
out of our space into what is called the Fourth Dimension, and that he has
returned again to our world. Unless we choose to consider ourselves the
victims of an elaborate and motiveless fabrication, we are almost bound to
believe that this has occurred.

So much for the tangible facts. We come now to the account of the
phenomena that attended his temporary disappearance from the world. It
appears that in the Sussexville Proprietary School, Plattner not only
discharged the duties of Modern Languages Master, but also taught
chemistry, commercial geography, bookkeeping, shorthand, drawing, and any
other additional subject to which the changing fancies of the boys'
parents might direct attention. He knew little or nothing of these various
subjects, but in secondary as distinguished from Board or elementary
schools, knowledge in the teacher is, very properly, by no means so
necessary as high moral character and gentlemanly tone. In chemistry he
was particularly deficient, knowing, he says, nothing beyond the Three
Gases (whatever the three gases may be). As, however, his pupils began by
knowing nothing, and derived all their information from him, this caused
him (or anyone) but little inconvenience for several terms. Then a little
boy named Whibble joined the school, who had been educated (it seems) by
some mischievous relative into an inquiring habit of mind. This little boy
followed Plattner's lessons with marked and sustained interest, and in
order to exhibit his zeal on the subject, brought, at various times,
substances for Plattner to analyse. Plattner, flattered by this evidence
of his power of awakening interest, and trusting to the boy's ignorance,
analysed these, and even, made general statements as to their composition.
Indeed, he was so far stimulated by his pupil as to obtain a work upon
analytical chemistry, and study it during his supervision of the evening's
preparation. He was surprised to find chemistry quite an interesting
subject.

So far the story is absolutely commonplace. But now the greenish powder
comes upon the scene. The source of that greenish powder seems,
unfortunately, lost. Master Whibble tells a tortuous story of finding it
done up in a packet in a disused limekiln near the Downs. It would have
been an excellent thing for Plattner, and possibly for Master Whibble's
family, if a match could have been applied to that powder there and then.
The young gentleman certainly did not bring it to school in a packet, but
in a common eight-ounce graduated medicine bottle, plugged with masticated
newspaper. He gave it to Plattner at the end of the afternoon school. Four
boys had been detained after school prayers in order to complete some
neglected tasks, and Plattner was supervising these in the small class-room
in which the chemical teaching was conducted. The appliances for the
practical teaching of chemistry in the Sussexville Proprietary School, as
in most small schools in this country, are characterised by a severe
simplicity. They are kept in a small cupboard standing in a recess, and
having about the same capacity as a common travelling trunk. Plattner,
being bored with his passive superintendence, seems to have welcomed the
intervention of Whibble with his green powder as an agreeable diversion,
and, unlocking this cupboard, proceeded at once with his analytical
experiments. Whibble sat, luckily for himself, at a safe distance,
regarding him. The four malefactors, feigning a profound absorption in
their work, watched him furtively with the keenest interest. For even
within the limits of the Three Gases, Plattner's practical chemistry was,
I understand, temerarious.

They are practically unanimous in their account of Plattner's proceedings.
He poured a little of the green powder into a test-tube, and tried the
substance with water, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, and sulphuric acid
in succession. Getting no result, he emptied out a little heap--nearly
half the bottleful, in fact--upon a slate and tried a match. He held the
medicine bottle in his left hand. The stuff began to smoke and melt, and
then exploded with deafening violence and a blinding flash.

The five boys, seeing the flash and being prepared for catastrophes,
ducked below their desks, and were none of them seriously hurt. The window
was blown out into the playground, and the blackboard on its easel was
upset. The slate was smashed to atoms. Some plaster fell from the ceiling.
No other damage was done to the school edifice or appliances, and the boys
at first, seeing nothing of Plattner, fancied he was knocked down and
lying out of their sight below the desks. They jumped out of their places
to go to his assistance, and were amazed to find the space empty. Being
still confused by the sudden violence of the report, they hurried to the
open door, under the impression that he must have been hurt, and have
rushed out of the room. But Carson, the foremost, nearly collided in the
doorway with the principal, Mr. Lidgett.

Mr. Lidgett is a corpulent, excitable man with one eye. The boys describe
him as stumbling into the room mouthing some of those tempered expletives
irritable schoolmasters accustom themselves to use--lest worse befall.
"Wretched mumchancer!" he said. "Where's Mr. Plattner?" The boys are
agreed on the very words. ("Wobbler," "snivelling puppy," and "mumchancer"
are, it seems, among the ordinary small change of Mr. Lidgett's scholastic
commerce.)

Where's Mr. Plattner? That was a question that was to be repeated many
times in the next few days. It really seemed as though that frantic
hyperbole, "blown to atoms," had for once realised itself. There was not a
visible particle of Plattner to be seen; not a drop of blood nor a stitch
of clothing to be found. Apparently he had been blown clean out of
existence and left not a wrack behind. Not so much as would cover a
sixpenny piece, to quote a proverbial expression! The evidence of his
absolute disappearance as a consequence of that explosion is indubitable.

It is not necessary to enlarge here upon the commotion excited in the
Sussexville Proprietary School, and in Sussexville and elsewhere, by this
event. It is quite possible, indeed, that some of the readers of these
pages may recall the hearing of some remote and dying version of that
excitement during the last summer holidays. Lidgett, it would seem, did
everything in his power to suppress and minimise the story. He instituted
a penalty of twenty-five lines for any mention of Plattner's name among
the boys, and stated in the schoolroom that he was clearly aware of his
assistant's whereabouts. He was afraid, he explains, that the possibility
of an explosion happening, in spite of the elaborate precautions taken to
minimise the practical teaching of chemistry, might injure the reputation
of the school; and so might any mysterious quality in Plattner's
departure. Indeed, he did everything in his power to make the occurrence
seem as ordinary as possible. In particular, he cross-examined the five
eye-witnesses of the occurrence so searchingly that they began to doubt
the plain evidence of their senses. But, in spite of these efforts, the
tale, in a magnified and distorted state, made a nine days' wonder in the
district, and several parents withdrew their sons on colourable pretexts.
Not the least remarkable point in the matter is the fact that a large
number of people in the neighbourhood dreamed singularly vivid dreams of
Plattner during the period of excitement before his return, and that these
dreams had a curious uniformity. In almost all of them Plattner was seen,
sometimes singly, sometimes in company, wandering about through a
coruscating iridescence. In all cases his face was pale and distressed,
and in some he gesticulated towards the dreamer. One or two of the boys,
evidently under the influence of nightmare, fancied that Plattner
approached them with remarkable swiftness, and seemed to look closely into
their very eyes. Others fled with Plattner from the pursuit of vague and
extraordinary creatures of a globular shape. But all these fancies were
forgotten in inquiries and speculations when on the Wednesday next but one
after the Monday of the explosion, Plattner returned.

The circumstances of his return were as singular as those of his
departure. So far as Mr. Lidgett's somewhat choleric outline can be filled
in from Plattner's hesitating statements, it would appear that on
Wednesday evening, towards the hour of sunset, the former gentleman,
having dismissed evening preparation, was engaged in his garden, picking
and eating strawberries, a fruit of which he is inordinately fond. It is a
large old-fashioned garden, secured from observation, fortunately, by a
high and ivy-covered red-brick wall. Just as he was stooping over a
particularly prolific plant, there was a flash in the air and a heavy
thud, and before he could look round, some heavy body struck him violently
from behind. He was pitched forward, crushing the strawberries he held in
his hand, and that so roughly, that his silk hat--Mr. Lidgett adheres to
the older ideas of scholastic costume--was driven violently down upon his
forehead, and almost over one eye. This heavy missile, which slid over him
sideways and collapsed into a sitting posture among the strawberry plants,
proved to be our long-lost Mr. Gottfried Plattner, in an extremely
dishevelled condition. He was collarless and hatless, his linen was dirty,
and there was blood upon his hands. Mr. Lidgett was so indignant and
surprised that he remained on all-fours, and with his hat jammed down on
his eye, while he expostulated vehemently with Plattner for his
disrespectful and unaccountable conduct.

This scarcely idyllic scene completes what I may call the exterior version
of the Plattner story--its exoteric aspect. It is quite unnecessary to
enter here into all the details of his dismissal by Mr. Lidgett. Such
details, with the full names and dates and references, will be found in
the larger report of these occurrences that was laid before the Society
for the Investigation of Abnormal Phenomena. The singular transposition of
Plattner's right and left sides was scarcely observed for the first day or
so, and then first in connection with his disposition to write from right
to left across the blackboard. He concealed rather than ostended this
curious confirmatory circumstance, as he considered it would unfavourably
affect his prospects in a new situation. The displacement of his heart was
discovered some months after, when he was having a tooth extracted under
anaesthetics. He then, very unwillingly, allowed a cursory surgical
examination to be made of himself, with a view to a brief account in the
_Journal of Anatomy_. That exhausts the statement of the material
facts; and we may now go on to consider Plattner's account of the matter.

But first let us clearly differentiate between the preceding portion of
this story and what is to follow. All I have told thus far is established
by such evidence as even a criminal lawyer would approve. Every one of the
witnesses is still alive; the reader, if he have the leisure, may hunt the
lads out to-morrow, or even brave the terrors of the redoubtable Lidgett,
and cross-examine and trap and test to his heart's content; Gottfried
Plattner himself, and his twisted heart and his three photographs, are
producible. It may be taken as proved that he did disappear for nine days
as the consequence of an explosion; that he returned almost as violently,
under circumstances in their nature annoying to Mr. Lidgett, whatever the
details of those circumstances may be; and that he returned inverted, just
as a reflection returns from a mirror. From the last fact, as I have
already stated, it follows almost inevitably that Plattner, during those
nine days, must have been in some state of existence altogether out of
space. The evidence to these statements is, indeed, far stronger than that
upon which most murderers are hanged. But for his own particular account
of where he had been, with its confused explanations and wellnigh
self-contradictory details, we have only Mr. Gottfried Plattner's word. I
do not wish to discredit that, but I must point out--what so many writers
upon obscure psychic phenomena fail to do--that we are passing here from
the practically undeniable to that kind of matter which any reasonable man
is entitled to believe or reject as he thinks proper. The previous
statements render it plausible; its discordance with common experience
tilts it towards the incredible. I would prefer not to sway the beam of
the reader's judgment either way, but simply to tell the story as Plattner
told it me.

He gave me his narrative, I may state, at my house at Chislehurst, and so
soon as he had left me that evening, I went into my study and wrote down
everything as I remembered it. Subsequently he was good enough to read
over a type-written copy, so that its substantial correctness is
undeniable.

He states that at the moment of the explosion he distinctly thought he was
killed. He felt lifted off his feet and driven forcibly backward. It is a
curious fact for psychologists that he thought clearly during his backward
flight, and wondered whether he should hit the chemistry cupboard or the
blackboard easel. His heels struck ground, and he staggered and fell
heavily into a sitting position on something soft and firm. For a moment
the concussion stunned him. He became aware at once of a vivid scent of
singed hair, and he seemed to hear the voice of Lidgett asking for him.
You will understand that for a time his mind was greatly confused.

At first he was under the impression that he was still standing in the
class-room. He perceived quite distinctly the surprise of the boys and the
entry of Mr. Lidgett. He is quite positive upon that score. He did not
hear their remarks; but that he ascribed to the deafening effect of the
experiment. Things about him seemed curiously dark and faint, but his mind
explained that on the obvious but mistaken idea that the explosion had
engendered a huge volume of dark smoke. Through the dimness the figures of
Lidgett and the boys moved, as faint and silent as ghosts. Plattner's face
still tingled with the stinging heat of the flash. He, was, he says, "all
muddled." His first definite thoughts seem to have been of his personal
safety. He thought he was perhaps blinded and deafened. He felt his limbs
and face in a gingerly manner. Then his perceptions grew clearer, and he
was astonished to miss the old familiar desks and other schoolroom
furniture about him. Only dim, uncertain, grey shapes stood in the place
of these. Then came a thing that made him shout aloud, and awoke his
stunned faculties to instant activity. _Two of the boys, gesticulating,
walked one after the other clean through him_! Neither manifested the
slightest consciousness of his presence. It is difficult to imagine the
sensation he felt. They came against him, he says, with no more force than
a wisp of mist.

Plattner's first thought after that was that he was dead. Having been
brought up with thoroughly sound views in these matters, however, he was a
little surprised to find his body still about him. His second conclusion
was that he was not dead, but that the others were: that the explosion had
destroyed the Sussexville Proprietary School and every soul in it except
himself. But that, too, was scarcely satisfactory. He was thrown back upon
astonished observation.

Everything about him was profoundly dark: at first it seemed to have an
altogether ebony blackness. Overhead was a black firmament. The only touch
of light in the scene was a faint greenish glow at the edge of the sky in
one direction, which threw into prominence a horizon of undulating black
hills. This, I say, was his impression at first. As his eye grew
accustomed to the darkness, he began to distinguish a faint quality of
differentiating greenish colour in the circumambient night. Against this
background the furniture and occupants of the class-room, it seems, stood
out like phosphorescent spectres, faint and impalpable. He extended his
hand, and thrust it without an effort through the wall of the room by the
fireplace.

He describes himself as making a strenuous effort to attract attention. He
shouted to Lidgett, and tried to seize the boys as they went to and fro.
He only desisted from these attempts when Mrs. Lidgett, whom he (as an
Assistant Master) naturally disliked, entered the room. He says the
sensation of being in the world, and yet not a part of it, was an
extraordinarily disagreeable one. He compared his feelings, not inaptly,
to those of a cat watching a mouse through a window. Whenever he made a
motion to communicate with the dim, familiar world about him, he found an
invisible, incomprehensible barrier preventing intercourse.

He then turned his attention to his solid environment. He found the
medicine bottle still unbroken in his hand, with the remainder of the
green powder therein. He put this in his pocket, and began to feel about
him. Apparently he was sitting on a boulder of rock covered with a velvety
moss. The dark country about him he was unable to see, the faint, misty
picture of the schoolroom blotting it out, but he had a feeling (due
perhaps to a cold wind) that he was near the crest of a hill, and that a
steep valley fell away beneath his feet. The green glow along the edge of
the sky seemed to be growing in extent and intensity. He stood up, rubbing
his eyes.

It would seem that he made a few steps, going steeply downhill, and then
stumbled, nearly fell, and sat down again upon a jagged mass of rock to
watch the dawn. He became aware that the world about him was absolutely
silent. It was as still as it was dark, and though there was a cold wind
blowing up the hill-face, the rustle of grass, the soughing of the boughs
that should have accompanied it, were absent. He could hear, therefore, if
he could not see, that the hillside upon which he stood was rocky and
desolate. The green grew brighter every moment, and as it did so a faint,
transparent blood-red mingled with, but did not mitigate, the blackness of
the sky overhead and the rocky desolations about him. Having regard to
what follows, I am inclined to think that that redness may have been an
optical effect due to contrast. Something black fluttered momentarily
against the livid yellow-green of the lower sky, and then the thin and
penetrating voice of a bell rose out of the black gulf below him. An
oppressive expectation grew with the growing light.

It is probable that an hour or more elapsed while he sat there, the
strange green light growing brighter every moment, and spreading slowly,
in flamboyant fingers, upward towards the zenith. As it grew, the spectral
vision of _our_ world became relatively or absolutely fainter.
Probably both, for the time must have been about that of our earthly
sunset. So far as his vision of our world went, Plattner, by his few steps
downhill, had passed through the floor of the class-room, and was now, it
seemed, sitting in mid-air in the larger schoolroom downstairs. He saw the
boarders distinctly, but much more faintly than he had seen Lidgett. They
were preparing their evening tasks, and he noticed with interest that
several were cheating with their Euclid riders by means of a crib, a
compilation whose existence he had hitherto never suspected. As the time
passed, they faded steadily, as steadily as the light of the green dawn
increased.

Looking down into the valley, he saw that the light had crept far down its
rocky sides, and that the profound blackness of the abyss was now broken
by a minute green glow, like the light of a glow-worm. And almost
immediately the limb of a huge heavenly body of blazing green rose over
the basaltic undulations of the distant hills, and the monstrous
hill-masses about him came out gaunt and desolate, in green light and
deep, ruddy black shadows. He became aware of a vast number of ball-shaped
objects drifting as thistledown drifts over the high ground. There were
none of these nearer to him than the opposite side of the gorge. The bell
below twanged quicker and quicker, with something like impatient
insistence, and several lights moved hither and thither. The boys at work
at their desks were now almost imperceptibly faint.

This extinction of our world, when the green sun of this other universe
rose, is a curious point upon which Plattner insists. During the
Other-World night it is difficult to move about, on account of the
vividness with which the things of this world are visible. It becomes a
riddle to explain why, if this is the case, we in this world catch no
glimpse of the Other-World. It is due, perhaps, to the comparatively
vivid illumination of this world of ours. Plattner describes the midday
of the Other-World, at its brightest, as not being nearly so bright as
this world at full moon, while its night is profoundly black.
Consequently, the amount of light, even in an ordinary dark room, is
sufficient to render the things of the Other-World invisible, on the
same principle that faint phosphorescence is only visible in the
profoundest darkness. I have tried, since he told me his story, to see
something of the Other-World by sitting for a long space in a
photographer's dark room at night. I have certainly seen indistinctly
the form of greenish slopes and rocks, but only, I must admit, very
indistinctly indeed. The reader may possibly be more successful. Plattner
tells me that since his return he has dreamt and seen and recognised
places in the Other-World, but this is probably due to his memory
of these scenes. It seems quite possible that people with unusually
keen eyesight may occasionally catch a glimpse of this strange Other-World
about us.

However, this is a digression. As the green sun rose, a long street of
black buildings became perceptible, though only darkly and indistinctly,
in the gorge, and after some hesitation, Plattner began to clamber down
the precipitous descent towards them. The descent was long and exceedingly
tedious, being so not only by the extraordinary steepness, but also by
reason of the looseness of the boulders with which the whole face of the
hill was strewn. The noise of his descent--now and then his heels struck
fire from the rocks--seemed now the only sound in the universe, for the
beating of the bell had ceased. As he drew nearer, he perceived that the
various edifices had a singular resemblance to tombs and mausoleums and
monuments, saving only that they were all uniformly black instead of being
white, as most sepulchres are. And then he saw, crowding out of the
largest building, very much as people disperse from church, a number of
pallid, rounded, pale-green figures. These dispersed in several directions
about the broad street of the place, some going through side alleys and
reappearing upon the steepness of the hill, others entering some of the
small black buildings which lined the way.

At the sight of these things drifting up towards him, Plattner stopped,
staring. They were not walking, they were indeed limbless, and they had
the appearance of human heads, beneath which a tadpole-like body swung. He
was too astonished at their strangeness, too full, indeed, of strangeness,
to be seriously alarmed by them. They drove towards him, in front of the
chill wind that was blowing uphill, much as soap-bubbles drive before a
draught. And as he looked at the nearest of those approaching, he saw it
was indeed a human head, albeit with singularly large eyes, and wearing
such an expression of distress and anguish as he had never seen before
upon mortal countenance. He was surprised to find that it did not turn to
regard him, but seemed to be watching and following some unseen moving
thing. For a moment he was puzzled, and then it occurred to him that this
creature was watching with its enormous eyes something that was happening
in the world he had just left. Nearer it came, and nearer, and he was too
astonished to cry out. It made a very faint fretting sound as it came
close to him. Then it struck his face with a gentle pat--its touch was
very cold--and drove past him, and upward towards the crest of the hill.

An extraordinary conviction flashed across Plattner's mind that this head
had a strong likeness to Lidgett. Then he turned his attention to the
other heads that were now swarming thickly up the hill-side. None made the
slightest sign of recognition. One or two, indeed, came close to his head
and almost followed the example of the first, but he dodged convulsively
out of the way. Upon most of them he saw the same expression of unavailing
regret he had seen upon the first, and heard the same faint sounds of
wretchedness from them. One or two wept, and one rolling swiftly uphill
wore an expression of diabolical rage. But others were cold, and several
had a look of gratified interest in their eyes. One, at least, was almost
in an ecstasy of happiness. Plattner does not remember that he recognised
any more likenesses in those he saw at this time.

For several hours, perhaps, Plattner watched these strange things
dispersing themselves over the hills, and not till long after they had
ceased to issue from the clustering black buildings in the gorge, did he
resume his downward climb. The darkness about him increased so much that
he had a difficulty in stepping true. Overhead the sky was now a bright,
pale green. He felt neither hunger nor thirst. Later, when he did, he
found a chilly stream running down the centre of the gorge, and the rare
moss upon the boulders, when he tried it at last in desperation, was good
to eat.

He groped about among the tombs that ran down the gorge, seeking vaguely
for some clue to these inexplicable things. After a long time he came to
the entrance of the big mausoleum-like building from which the heads had
issued. In this he found a group of green lights burning upon a kind of
basaltic altar, and a bell-rope from a belfry overhead hanging down into
the centre of the place. Round the wall ran a lettering of fire in a
character unknown to him. While he was still wondering at the purport of
these things, he heard the receding tramp of heavy feet echoing far down
the street. He ran out into the darkness again, but he could see nothing.
He had a mind to pull the bell-rope, and finally decided to follow the
footsteps. But, although he ran far, he never overtook them; and his
shouting was of no avail. The gorge seemed to extend an interminable
distance. It was as dark as earthly starlight throughout its length, while
the ghastly green day lay along the upper edge of its precipices. There
were none of the heads, now, below. They were all, it seemed, busily
occupied along the upper slopes. Looking up, he saw them drifting hither
and thither, some hovering stationary, some flying swiftly through the
air. It reminded him, he said, of "big snowflakes"; only these were black
and pale green.

In pursuing the firm, undeviating footsteps that he never overtook, in
groping into new regions of this endless devil's dyke, in clambering up
and down the pitiless heights, in wandering about the summits, and in
watching the drifting faces, Plattner states that he spent the better part
of seven or eight days. He did not keep count, he says. Though once or
twice he found eyes watching him, he had word with no living soul. He
slept among the rocks on the hillside. In the gorge things earthly were
invisible, because, from the earthly standpoint, it was far underground.
On the altitudes, so soon as the earthly day began, the world became
visible to him. He found himself sometimes stumbling over the dark green
rocks, or arresting himself on a precipitous brink, while all about him
the green branches of the Sussexville lanes were swaying; or, again, he
seemed to be walking through the Sussexville streets, or watching unseen
the private business of some household. And then it was he discovered,
that to almost every human being in our world there pertained some of
these drifting heads; that everyone in the world is watched intermittently
by these helpless disembodiments.

What are they--these Watchers of the Living? Plattner never learned. But
two, that presently found and followed him, were like his childhood's
memory of his father and mother. Now and then other faces turned their
eyes upon him: eyes like those of dead people who had swayed him, or
injured him, or helped him in his youth and manhood. Whenever they looked
at him, Plattner was overcome with a strange sense of responsibility. To
his mother he ventured to speak; but she made no answer. She looked sadly,
steadfastly, and tenderly--a little reproachfully, too, it seemed--into
his eyes.

He simply tells this story: he does not endeavour to explain. We are left
to surmise who these Watchers of the Living may be, or, if they are indeed
the Dead, why they should so closely and passionately watch a world they
have left for ever. It may be--indeed to my mind it seems just--that, when
our life has closed, when evil or good is no longer a choice for us, we
may still have to witness the working out of the train of consequences we
have laid. If human souls continue after death, then surely human
interests continue after death. But that is merely my own guess at the
meaning of the things seen. Plattner offers no interpretation, for none
was given him. It is well the reader should understand this clearly. Day
after day, with his head reeling, he wandered about this strange lit world
outside the world, weary and, towards the end, weak and hungry. By day--by
our earthly day, that is--the ghostly vision of the old familiar scenery
of Sussexville, all about him, irked and worried him. He could not see
where to put his feet, and ever and again with a chilly touch one of these
Watching Souls would come against his face. And after dark the multitude
of these Watchers about him, and their intent distress, confused his mind
beyond describing. A great longing to return to the earthly life that was
so near and yet so remote consumed him. The unearthliness of things about
him produced a positively painful mental distress. He was worried beyond
describing by his own particular followers. He would shout at them to
desist from staring at him, scold at them, hurry away from them. They were
always mute and intent. Run as he might over the uneven ground, they
followed his destinies.

On the ninth day, towards evening, Plattner heard the invisible footsteps
approaching, far away down the gorge. He was then wandering over the broad
crest of the same hill upon which he had fallen in his entry into this
strange Other-World of his. He turned to hurry down into the gorge,
feeling his way hastily, and was arrested by the sight of the thing that
was happening in a room in a back street near the school. Both of the
people in the room he knew by sight. The windows were open, the blinds up,
and the setting sun shone clearly into it, so that it came out quite
brightly at first, a vivid oblong of room, lying like a magic-lantern
picture upon the black landscape and the livid green dawn. In addition to
the sunlight, a candle had just been lit in the room.

On the bed lay a lank man, his ghastly white face terrible upon the
tumbled pillow. His clenched hands were raised above his head. A little
table beside the bed carried a few medicine bottles, some toast and water,
and an empty glass. Every now and then the lank man's lips fell apart,
to indicate a word he could not articulate. But the woman did not notice
that he wanted anything, because she was busy turning out papers from an
old-fashioned bureau in the opposite corner of the room. At first the
picture was very vivid indeed, but as the green dawn behind it grew
brighter and brighter, so it became fainter and more and more transparent.

As the echoing footsteps paced nearer and nearer, those footsteps that
sound so loud in that Other-World and come so silently in this, Plattner
perceived about him a great multitude of dim faces gathering together out
of the darkness and watching the two people in the room. Never before had
he seen so many of the Watchers of the Living. A multitude had eyes only
for the sufferer in the room, another multitude, in infinite anguish,
watched the woman as she hunted with greedy eyes for something she could
not find. They crowded about Plattner, they came across his sight and
buffeted his face, the noise of their unavailing regrets was all about
him. He saw clearly only now and then. At other times the picture quivered
dimly, through the veil of green reflections upon their movements. In the
room it must have been very still, and Plattner says the candle flame
streamed up into a perfectly vertical line of smoke, but in his ears each
footfall and its echoes beat like a clap of thunder. And the faces!
Two, more particularly near the woman's: one a woman's also, white and
clear-featured, a face which might have once been cold and hard, but which
was now softened by the touch of a wisdom strange to earth. The other
might have been the woman's father. Both were evidently absorbed in the
contemplation of some act of hateful meanness, so it seemed, which they
could no longer guard against and prevent. Behind were others, teachers,
it may be, who had taught ill, friends whose influence had failed. And
over the man, too--a multitude, but none that seemed to be parents or
teachers! Faces that might once have been coarse, now purged to strength
by sorrow! And in the forefront one face, a girlish one, neither angry nor
remorseful, but merely patient and weary, and, as it seemed to Plattner,
waiting for relief. His powers of description fail him at the memory of
this multitude of ghastly countenances. They gathered on the stroke of the
bell. He saw them all in the space of a second. It would seem that he was
so worked on by his excitement that, quite involuntarily, his restless
fingers took the bottle of green powder out of his pocket and held it
before him. But he does not remember that.

Abruptly the footsteps ceased. He waited for the next, and there was
silence, and then suddenly, cutting through the unexpected stillness like
a keen, thin blade, came the first stroke of the bell. At that the
multitudinous faces swayed to and fro, and a louder crying began all about
him. The woman did not hear; she was burning something now in the candle
flame. At the second stroke everything grew dim, and a breath of wind, icy
cold, blew through the host of watchers. They swirled about him like an
eddy of dead leaves in the spring, and at the third stroke something was
extended through them to the bed. You have heard of a beam of light. This
was like a beam of darkness, and looking again at it, Plattner saw that it
was a shadowy arm and hand.

The green sun was now topping the black desolations of the horizon, and
the vision of the room was very faint. Plattner could see that the white
of the bed struggled, and was convulsed; and that the woman looked round
over her shoulder at it, startled.

The cloud of watchers lifted high like a puff of green dust before the
wind, and swept swiftly downward towards the temple in the gorge. Then
suddenly Plattner understood the meaning of the shadowy black arm that
stretched across his shoulder and clutched its prey. He did not dare turn
his head to see the Shadow behind the arm. With a violent effort, and
covering his eyes, he set himself to run, made, perhaps, twenty strides,
then slipped on a boulder, and fell. He fell forward on his hands; and the
bottle smashed and exploded as he touched the ground.

In another moment he found himself, stunned and bleeding, sitting face to
face with Lidgett in the old walled garden behind the school.

* * * * *

There the story of Plattner's experiences ends. I have resisted, I believe
successfully, the natural disposition of a writer of fiction to dress up
incidents of this sort. I have told the thing as far as possible in the
order in which Plattner told it to me. I have carefully avoided any
attempt at style, effect, or construction. It would have been easy, for
instance, to have worked the scene of the death-bed into a kind of plot in
which Plattner might have been involved. But, quite apart from the
objectionableness of falsifying a most extraordinary true story, any such
trite devices would spoil, to my mind, the peculiar effect of this dark
world, with its livid green illumination and its drifting Watchers of the
Living, which, unseen and unapproachable to us, is yet lying all about us.

It remains to add that a death did actually occur in Vincent Terrace, just
beyond the school garden, and, so far as can be proved, at the moment of
Plattner's return. Deceased was a rate-collector and insurance agent. His
widow, who was much younger than himself, married last month a Mr.
Whymper, a veterinary surgeon of Allbeeding. As the portion of this story
given here has in various forms circulated orally in Sussexville, she has
consented to my use of her name, on condition that I make it distinctly
known that she emphatically contradicts every detail of Plattner's account
of her husband's last moments. She burnt no will, she says, although
Plattner never accused her of doing so; her husband made but one will, and
that just after their marriage. Certainly, from a man who had never seen
it, Plattner's account of the furniture of the room was curiously
accurate.

One other thing, even at the risk of an irksome repetition, I must insist
upon, lest I seem to favour the credulous, superstitious view. Plattner's
absence from the world for nine days is, I think, proved. But that does
not prove his story. It is quite conceivable that even outside space
hallucinations may be possible. That, at least, the reader must bear
distinctly in mind.

 

 

XVI.

THE RED ROOM.

 

"I can assure you," said I, "that it will take a very tangible ghost to
frighten me." And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand.

"It is your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm, and glanced
at me askance.

"Eight-and-twenty years," said I, "I have lived, and never a ghost have I
seen as yet."

The old woman sat staring hard into the fire, her pale eyes wide open.
"Ay," she broke in; "and eight-and-twenty years you have lived and never
seen the likes of this house, I reckon. There's a many things to see, when
one's still but eight-and-twenty." She swayed her head slowly from side to
side. "A many things to see and sorrow for."

I half suspected the old people were trying to enhance the spiritual
terrors of their house by their droning insistence. I put down my empty
glass on the table and looked about the room, and caught a glimpse of
myself, abbreviated and broadened to an impossible sturdiness, in the
queer old mirror at the end of the room. "Well," I said, "if I see
anything to-night, I shall be so much the wiser. For I come to the
business with an open mind."

"It's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm once more.

I heard the sound of a stick and a shambling step on the flags in the
passage outside, and the door creaked on its hinges as a second old man
entered, more bent, more wrinkled, more aged even than the first. He
supported himself by a single crutch, his eyes were covered by a shade,
and his lower lip, half averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying
yellow teeth. He made straight for an arm-chair on the opposite side of
the table, sat down clumsily, and began to cough. The man with the
withered arm gave this new-comer a short glance of positive dislike; the
old woman took no notice of his arrival, but remained with her eyes fixed
steadily on the fire.

"I said--it's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm, when
the coughing had ceased for a while.

"It's my own choosing," I answered.

The man with the shade became aware of my presence for the first time, and
threw his head back for a moment and sideways, to see me. I caught a
momentary glimpse of his eyes, small and bright and inflamed. Then he
began to cough and splutter again.

"Why don't you drink?" said the man with the withered arm, pushing the
beer towards him. The man with the shade poured out a glassful with a
shaky hand that splashed half as much again on the deal table. A monstrous
shadow of him crouched upon the wall and mocked his action as he poured
and drank. I must confess I had scarce expected these grotesque
custodians. There is to my mind something inhuman in senility, something
crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people
insensibly day by day. The three of them made me feel uncomfortable, with
their gaunt silences, their bent carriage, their evident unfriendliness to
me and to one another.

"If," said I, "you will show me to this haunted room of yours, I will make
myself comfortable there."

The old man with the cough jerked his head back so suddenly that it
startled me, and shot another glance of his red eyes at me from under the
shade; but no one answered me. I waited a minute, glancing from one to the
other.

"If," I said a little louder, "if you will show me to this haunted room of
yours, I will relieve you from the task of entertaining me."

"There's a candle on the slab outside the door," said the man with the
withered arm, looking at my feet as he addressed me. "But if you go to the
red room to-night----"

("This night of all nights!" said the old woman.)

"You go alone."

"Very well," I answered. "And which way do I go?"

"You go along the passage for a bit," said he, "until you come to a door,
and through that is a spiral staircase, and half-way up that is a landing
and another door covered with baize. Go through that and down the long
corridor to the end, and the red room is on your left up the steps."

"Have I got that right?" I said, and repeated his directions. He corrected
me in one particular.

"And are you really going?" said the man with the shade, looking at me
again for the third time, with that queer, unnatural tilting of the face.

("This night of all nights!" said the old woman.)

"It is what I came for," I said, and moved towards the door. As I did so,
the old man with the shade rose and staggered round the table, so as to be
closer to the others and to the fire. At the door I turned and looked at
them, and saw they were all close together, dark against the firelight,
staring at me over their shoulders, with an intent expression on their
ancient faces.

"Good-night," I said, setting the door open.

"It's your own choosing," said the man with the withered arm.

I left the door wide open until the candle was well alight, and then I
shut them in and walked down the chilly, echoing passage.

I must confess that the oddness of these three old pensioners in whose
charge her ladyship had left the castle, and the deep-toned, old-fashioned
furniture of the housekeeper's room in which they foregathered, affected
me in spite of my efforts to keep myself at a matter-of-fact phase. They
seemed to belong to another age, an older age, an age when things
spiritual were different from this of ours, less certain; an age when
omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very
existence was spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead
brains. The ornaments and conveniences of the room about them were
ghostly--the thoughts of vanished men, which still haunted rather than
participated in the world of to-day. But with an effort I sent such
thoughts to the right-about. The long, draughty subterranean passage was
chilly and dusty, and my candle flared and made the shadows cower and
quiver. The echoes rang up and down the spiral staircase, and a shadow
came sweeping up after me, and one fled before me into the darkness
overhead. I came to the landing and stopped there for a moment, listening
to a rustling that I fancied I heard; then, satisfied of the absolute
silence, I pushed open the baize-covered door and stood in the corridor.

The effect was scarcely what I expected, for the moonlight, coming in by
the great window on the grand staircase, picked out everything in vivid
black shadow or silvery illumination. Everything was in its place: the
house might have been deserted on the yesterday instead of eighteen months
ago. There were candles in the sockets of the sconces, and whatever dust
had gathered on the carpets or upon the polished flooring was distributed
so evenly as to be invisible in the moonlight. I was about to advance, and
stopped abruptly. A bronze group stood upon the landing, hidden from me by
the corner of the wall, but its shadow fell with marvellous distinctness
upon the white panelling, and gave me the impression of someone crouching
to waylay me. I stood rigid for half a minute perhaps. Then, with my hand
in the pocket that held my revolver, I advanced, only to discover a
Ganymede and Eagle glistening in the moonlight. That incident for a time
restored my nerve, and a porcelain Chinaman on a buhl table, whose head
rocked silently as I passed him, scarcely startled me.

The door to the red room and the steps up to it were in a shadowy corner.
I moved my candle from side to side, in order to see clearly the nature of
the recess in which I stood before opening the door. Here it was, thought
I, that my predecessor was found, and the memory of that story gave me a
sudden twinge of apprehension. I glanced over my shoulder at the Ganymede
in the moonlight, and opened the door of the red room rather hastily, with
my face half turned to the pallid silence of the landing.

I entered, closed the door behind me at once, turned the key I found in
the lock within, and stood with the candle held aloft, surveying the scene
of my vigil, the great red room of Lorraine Castle, in which the young
duke had died. Or, rather, in which he had begun his dying, for he had
opened the door and fallen headlong down the steps I had just ascended.
That had been the end of his vigil, of his gallant attempt to conquer the
ghostly tradition of the place, and never, I thought, had apoplexy better
served the ends of superstition. And there were other and older stories
that clung to the room, back to the half-credible beginning of it all, the
tale of a timid wife and the tragic end that came to her husband's jest of
frightening her. And looking around that large sombre room, with its
shadowy window bays, its recesses and alcoves, one could well understand
the legends that had sprouted in its black corners, its germinating
darkness. My candle was a little tongue of light in its vastness, that
failed to pierce the opposite end of the room, and left an ocean of
mystery and suggestion beyond its island of light.

I resolved to make a systematic examination of the place at once, and
dispel the fanciful suggestions of its obscurity before they obtained a
hold upon me. After satisfying myself of the fastening of the door, I
began to walk about the room, peering round each article of furniture,
tucking up the valances of the bed, and opening its curtains wide. I
pulled up the blinds and examined the fastenings of the several windows
before closing the shutters, leant forward and looked up the blackness
of the wide chimney, and tapped the dark oak panelling for any secret
opening. There were two big mirrors in the room, each with a pair of
sconces bearing candles, and on the mantelshelf, too, were more candles in
china candlesticks. All these I lit one after the other. The fire was
laid, an unexpected consideration from the old housekeeper,--and I lit it,
to keep down any disposition to shiver, and when it was burning well, I
stood round with my back to it and regarded the room again. I had pulled
up a chintz-covered arm-chair and a table, to form a kind of barricade
before me, and on this lay my revolver ready to hand. My precise
examination had done me good, but I still found the remoter darkness of
the place, and its perfect stillness, too stimulating for the imagination.
The echoing of the stir and crackling of the fire was no sort of comfort
to me. The shadow in the alcove at the end in particular, had that
undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking,
living thing, that comes so easily in silence and solitude. At last, to
reassure myself, I walked with a candle into it, and satisfied myself that
there was nothing tangible there. I stood that candle upon the floor of
the alcove, and left it in that position.

By this time I was in a state of considerable nervous tension, although to
my reason there was no adequate cause for the condition. My mind, however,
was perfectly clear. I postulated quite unreservedly that nothing
supernatural could happen, and to pass the time I began to string some
rhymes together, Ingoldsby fashion, of the original legend of the place. A
few I spoke aloud, but the echoes were not pleasant. For the same reason I
also abandoned, after a time, a conversation with myself upon the
impossibility of ghosts and haunting. My mind reverted to the three old
and distorted people downstairs, and I tried to keep it upon that topic.
The sombre reds and blacks of the room troubled, me; even with seven
candles the place was merely dim. The one in the alcove flared in a
draught, and the fire-flickering kept the shadows and penumbra perpetually
shifting and stirring. Casting about for a remedy, I recalled the candles
I had seen in the passage, and, with a slight effort, walked out into the
moonlight, carrying a candle and leaving the door open, and presently
returned with as many as ten. These I put in various knick-knacks of china
with which the room was sparsely adorned, lit and placed where the shadows
had lain deepest, some on the floor, some in the window recesses, until at
last my seventeen candles were so arranged that not an inch of the room
but had the direct light of at least one of them. It occurred to me that
when the ghost came, I could warn him not to trip over them. The room was
now quite brightly illuminated. There was something very cheery and
reassuring in these little streaming flames, and snuffing them gave me an
occupation, and afforded a helpful sense of the passage of time. Even with
that, however, the brooding expectation of the vigil weighed heavily upon
me. It was after midnight that the candle in the alcove suddenly went out,
and the black shadow sprang back to its place there. I did not see the
candle go out; I simply turned and saw that the darkness was there, as one
might start and see the unexpected presence of a stranger. "By Jove!" said
I aloud; "that draught's a strong one!" and, taking the matches from the
table, I walked across the room in a leisurely manner, to relight the
corner again. My first match would not strike, and as I succeeded with the
second, something seemed to blink on the wall before me. I turned my head
involuntarily, and saw that the two candles on the little table by the
fireplace were extinguished. I rose at once to my feet.

"Odd!" I said. "Did I do that myself in a flash of absent-mindedness?"

I walked back, relit one, and as I did so, I saw the candle in the right
sconce of one of the mirrors wink and go right out, and almost immediately
its companion followed it. There was no mistake about it. The flame
vanished, as if the wicks had been suddenly nipped between a finger and a
thumb, leaving the wick neither glowing nor smoking, but black. While I
stood gaping, the candle at the foot of the bed went out, and the shadows
seemed to take another step towards me.

"This won't do!" said I, and first one and then another candle on the
mantelshelf followed.

"What's up?" I cried, with a queer high note getting into my voice
somehow. At that the candle on the wardrobe went out, and the one I had
relit in the alcove followed.

"Steady on!" I said. "These candles are wanted," speaking with a
half-hysterical facetiousness, and scratching away at a match the while
for the mantel candlesticks. My hands trembled so much that twice I missed
the rough paper of the matchbox. As the mantel emerged from darkness again,
two candles in the remoter end of the window were eclipsed. But with the
same match I also relit the larger mirror candles, and those on the floor
near the doorway, so that for the moment I seemed to gain on the
extinctions. But then in a volley there vanished four lights at once in
different corners of the room, and I struck another match in quivering
haste, and stood hesitating whither to take it.

As I stood undecided, an invisible hand seemed to sweep out the two
candles on the table. With a cry of terror, I dashed at the alcove, then
into the corner, and then into the window, relighting three, as two more
vanished by the fireplace; then, perceiving a better way, I dropped the
matches on the iron-bound deed-box in the corner, and caught up the
bedroom candlestick. With this I avoided the delay of striking matches;
but for all that the steady process of extinction went on, and the shadows
I feared and fought against returned, and crept in upon me, first a
step gained on this side of me and then on that. It was like a ragged
storm-cloud sweeping out the stars. Now and then one returned for a
minute, and was lost again. I was now almost frantic with the horror of
the coming darkness, and my self-possession deserted me. I leaped panting
and dishevelled from candle to candle, in a vain struggle against that
remorseless advance.

I bruised myself on the thigh against the table, I sent a chair headlong,
I stumbled and fell and whisked the cloth from the table in my fall. My
candle rolled away from me, and I snatched another as I rose. Abruptly
this was blown out, as I swung it off the table by the wind of my sudden
movement, and immediately the two remaining candles followed. But there
was light still in the room, a red light that staved off the shadows from
me. The fire! Of course I could still thrust my candle between the bars
and relight it!

I turned to where the flames were still dancing between the glowing coals,
and splashing red reflections upon the furniture, made two steps towards
the grate, and incontinently the flames dwindled and vanished, the glow
vanished, the reflections rushed together and vanished, and as I thrust
the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of
an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and
crushed the last vestiges of reason from my brain. The candle fell from my
hand. I flung out my arms in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous
blackness away from me, and, lifting up my voice, screamed with all my
might--once, twice, thrice. Then I think I must have staggered to my feet.
I know I thought suddenly of the moonlit corridor, and, with my head bowed
and my arms over my face, made a run for the door.

But I had forgotten the exact position of the door, and struck myself
heavily against the corner of the bed. I staggered back, turned, and was
either struck or struck myself against some other bulky furniture. I have
a vague memory of battering myself thus, to and fro in the darkness, of a
cramped struggle, and of my own wild crying as I darted to and fro, of a
heavy blow at last upon my forehead, a horrible sensation of falling that
lasted an age, of my last frantic effort to keep my footing, and then I
remember no more.

I opened my eyes in daylight. My head was roughly bandaged, and the man
with the withered arm was watching my face. I looked about me, trying to
remember what had happened, and for a space I could not recollect. I
rolled my eyes into the corner, and saw the old woman, no longer
abstracted, pouring out some drops of medicine from a little blue phial
into a glass. "Where am I?" I asked; "I seem to remember you, and yet I
cannot remember who you are."

They told me then, and I heard of the haunted Red Room as one who hears a
tale. "We found you at dawn," said he, "and there was blood on your
forehead and lips."

It was very slowly I recovered my memory of my experience. "You believe
now," said the old man, "that the room is haunted?" He spoke no longer as
one who greets an intruder, but as one who grieves for a broken friend.

"Yes," said I; "the room is haunted."

"And you have seen it. And we, who have lived here all our lives, have
never set eyes upon it. Because we have never dared... Tell us, is it
truly the old earl who----"

"No," said I; "it is not."

"I told you so," said the old lady, with the glass in her hand. "It is his
poor young countess who was frightened----"

"It is not," I said. "There is neither ghost of earl nor ghost of countess
in that room, there is no ghost there at all; but worse, far worse----"

"Well?" they said.

"The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man," said I; "and
that is, in all its nakedness--Fear that will not have light nor sound,
that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms.
It followed me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room----"

I stopped abruptly. There was an interval of silence. My hand went up to
my bandages.

Then the man with the shade sighed and spoke. "That is it," said he. "I
knew that was it. A power of darkness. To put such a curse upon a woman!
It lurks there always. You can feel it even in the daytime, even of a
bright summer's day, in the hangings, in the curtains, keeping behind you
however you face about. In the dusk it creeps along the corridor and
follows you, so that you dare not turn. There is Fear in that room of
hers--black Fear, and there will be--so long as this house of sin
endures."

 

 

 

XVII.

THE PURPLE PILEUS

 

Mr. Coombes was sick of life. He walked away from his unhappy home, and,
sick not only of his own existence but of everybody else's, turned aside
down Gaswork Lane to avoid the town, and, crossing the wooden bridge that
goes over the canal to Starling's Cottages, was presently alone in the
damp pine woods and out of sight and sound of human habitation. He would
stand it no longer. He repeated aloud with blasphemies unusual to him that
he would stand it no longer.

He was a pale-faced little man, with dark eyes and a fine and very black
moustache. He had a very stiff, upright collar slightly frayed, that gave
him an illusory double chin, and his overcoat (albeit shabby) was trimmed
with astrachan. His gloves were a bright brown with black stripes over the
knuckles, and split at the finger ends. His appearance, his wife had said
once in the dear, dead days beyond recall--before he married her, that
is--was military. But now she called him--it seems a dreadful thing to
tell of between husband and wife, but she called him "a little grub." It
wasn't the only thing she had called him, either.

The row had arisen about that beastly Jennie again. Jennie was his wife's
friend, and, by no invitation of Mr. Coombes, she came in every blessed
Sunday to dinner, and made a shindy all the afternoon. She was a big,
noisy girl, with a taste for loud colours and a strident laugh; and this
Sunday she had outdone all her previous intrusions by bringing in a fellow
with her, a chap as showy as herself. And Mr. Coombes, in a starchy, clean
collar and his Sunday frock-coat, had sat dumb and wrathful at his own
table, while his wife and her guests talked foolishly and undesirably, and
laughed aloud. Well, he stood that, and after dinner (which, "as usual,"
was late), what must Miss Jennie do but go to the piano and play banjo
tunes, for all the world as if it were a week-day! Flesh and blood could
not endure such goings on. They would hear next door, they would hear in
the road, it was a public announcement of their disrepute. He had to
speak.

He had felt himself go pale, and a kind of rigour had affected his
respiration as he delivered himself. He had been sitting on one of the
chairs by the window--the new guest had taken possession of the arm-chair.
He turned his head. "Sun Day!" he said over the collar, in the voice of
one who warns. "Sun Day!" What people call a "nasty" tone, it was.

Jennie had kept on playing, but his wife, who was looking through some
music that was piled on the top of the piano, had stared at him. "What's
wrong now?" she said; "can't people enjoy themselves?"

"I don't mind rational 'njoyment, at all," said little Coombes, "but I
ain't a-going to have week-day tunes playing on a Sunday in this house."

"What's wrong with my playing now?" said Jennie, stopping and twirling
round on the music-stool with a monstrous rustle of flounces.

Coombes saw it was going to be a row, and opened too vigorously, as is
common with your timid, nervous men all the world over. "Steady on with
that music-stool!" said he; "it ain't made for 'eavy-weights."

"Never you mind about weights," said Jennie, incensed. "What was you
saying behind my back about my playing?"

"Surely you don't 'old with not having a bit of music on a Sunday, Mr.
Coombes?" said the new guest, leaning back in the arm-chair, blowing a
cloud of cigarette smoke and smiling in a kind of pitying way. And
simultaneously his wife said something to Jennie about "Never mind 'im.
You go on, Jinny."

"I do," said Mr. Coombes, addressing the new guest.

"May I arst why?" said the new guest, evidently enjoying both his
cigarette and the prospect of an argument. He was, by-the-by, a lank young
man, very stylishly dressed in bright drab, with a white cravat and a
pearl and silver pin. It had been better taste to come in a black coat,
Mr. Coombes thought.

"Because," began Mr. Coombes, "it don't suit me. I'm a business man. I
'ave to study my connection. Rational 'njoyment--"

"His connection!" said Mrs. Coombes scornfully. "That's what he's always
a-saying. We got to do this, and we got to do that--"

"If you don't mean to study my connection," said Mr. Coombes, "what did
you marry me for?"

"I wonder," said Jennie, and turned back to the piano.

"I never saw such a man as you," said Mrs. Coombes.

"You've altered all round since we were married. Before--"

Then Jennie began at the turn, turn, turn again.

"Look here!" said Mr. Coombes, driven at last to revolt, standing up and
raising his voice. "I tell you I won't have that." The frock-coat heaved
with his indignation.

"No vi'lence, now," said the long young man in drab, sitting up.

"Who the juice are you?" said Mr. Coombes fiercely.

Whereupon they all began talking at once. The new guest said he was
Jennie's "intended," and meant to protect her, and Mr. Coombes said he was
welcome to do so anywhere but in his (Mr. Coombes') house; and Mrs.
Coombes said he ought to be ashamed of insulting his guests, and (as I
have already mentioned) that he was getting a regular little grub; and the
end was, that Mr. Coombes ordered his visitors out of the house, and they
wouldn't go, and so he said he would go himself. With his face burning and
tears of excitement in his eyes, he went into the passage, and as he
struggled with his overcoat--his frock-coat sleeves got concertinaed up
his arm--and gave a brush at his silk hat, Jennie began again at the
piano, and strummed him insultingly out of the house. Turn, turn, turn. He
slammed the shop door so that the house quivered. That, briefly, was the
immediate making of his mood. You will perhaps begin to understand his
disgust with existence.

As he walked along the muddy path under the firs,--it was late October,
and the ditches and heaps of fir needles were gorgeous with clumps of
fungi,--he recapitulated the melancholy history of his marriage. It was
brief and commonplace enough. He now perceived with sufficient clearness
that his wife had married him out of a natural curiosity and in order to
escape from her worrying, laborious, and uncertain life in the workroom;
and, like the majority of her class, she was far too stupid to realise
that it was her duty to co-operate with him in his business. She was
greedy of enjoyment, loquacious, and socially-minded, and evidently
disappointed to find the restraints of poverty still hanging about her.
His worries exasperated her, and the slightest attempt to control her
proceedings resulted in a charge of "grumbling." Why couldn't he be nice--
as he used to be? And Coombes was such a harmless little man, too,
nourished mentally on _Self-Help_, and with a meagre ambition of
self-denial and competition, that was to end in a "sufficiency." Then
Jennie came in as a female Mephistopheles, a gabbling chronicle of
"fellers," and was always wanting his wife to go to theatres, and "all
that." And in addition were aunts of his wife, and cousins (male and
female) to eat up capital, insult him personally, upset business
arrangements, annoy good customers, and generally blight his life. It was
not the first occasion by many that Mr. Coombes had fled his home in wrath
and indignation, and something like fear, vowing furiously and even aloud
that he wouldn't stand it, and so frothing away his energy along the line
of least resistance. But never before had he been quite so sick of life as
on this particular Sunday afternoon. The Sunday dinner may have had its
share in his despair--and the greyness of the sky. Perhaps, too, he was
beginning to realise his unendurable frustration as a business man as the
consequence of his marriage. Presently bankruptcy, and after that----
Perhaps she might have reason to repent when it was too late. And destiny,
as I have already intimated, had planted the path through the wood with
evil-smelling fungi, thickly and variously planted it, not only on the
right side, but on the left.

A small shopman is in such a melancholy position, if his wife turns out a
disloyal partner. His capital is all tied up in his business, and to leave
her means to join the unemployed in some strange part of the earth. The
luxuries of divorce are beyond him altogether. So that the good old
tradition of marriage for better or worse holds inexorably for him, and
things work up to tragic culminations. Bricklayers kick their wives to
death, and dukes betray theirs; but it is among the small clerks and
shopkeepers nowadays that it comes most often to a cutting of throats.
Under the circumstances it is not so very remarkable--and you must take it
as charitably as you can--that the mind of Mr. Coombes ran for a while on
some such glorious close to his disappointed hopes, and that he thought of
razors, pistols, bread-knives, and touching letters to the coroner
denouncing his enemies by name, and praying piously for forgiveness. After
a time his fierceness gave way to melancholia. He had been married in this
very overcoat, in his first and only frock-coat that was buttoned up
beneath it. He began to recall their courting along this very walk, his
years of penurious saving to get capital, and the bright hopefulness of
his marrying days. For it all to work out like this! Was there no
sympathetic ruler anywhere in the world? He reverted to death as a topic.

He thought of the canal he had just crossed, and doubted whether he
shouldn't stand with his head out, even in the middle, and it was while
drowning was in his mind that the purple pileus caught his eye. He looked
at it mechanically for a moment, and stopped and stooped towards it to
pick it up, under the impression that it was some such small leather
object as a purse. Then he saw that it was the purple top of a fungus, a
peculiarly poisonous-looking purple: slimy, shiny, and emitting a sour
odour. He hesitated with his hand an inch or so from it, and the thought
of poison crossed his mind. With that he picked the thing, and stood up
again with it in his hand.

The odour was certainly strong--acrid, but by no means disgusting. He
broke off a piece, and the fresh surface was a creamy white, that changed
like magic in the space of ten seconds to a yellowish-green colour. It was
even an inviting-looking change. He broke off two other pieces to see it
repeated. They were wonderful things these fungi, thought Mr. Coombes, and
all of them the deadliest poisons, as his father had often told him.
Deadly poisons!

There is no time like the present for a rash resolve. Why not here and
now? thought Mr. Coombes. He tasted a little piece, a very little piece
indeed--a mere crumb. It was so pungent that he almost spat it out again,
then merely hot and full-flavoured: a kind of German mustard with a touch
of horse-radish and--well, mushroom. He swallowed it in the excitement of
the moment. Did he like it or did he not? His mind was curiously careless.
He would try another bit. It really wasn't bad--it was good. He forgot his
troubles in the interest of the immediate moment. Playing with death it
was. He took another bite, and then deliberately finished a mouthful. A
curious, tingling sensation began in his finger-tips and toes. His pulse
began to move faster. The blood in his ears sounded like a mill-race. "Try
bi' more," said Mr. Coombes. He turned and looked about him, and found his
feet unsteady. He saw, and struggled towards, a little patch of purple a
dozen yards away. "Jol' goo' stuff," said Mr. Coombes. "E--lomore ye'." He
pitched forward and fell on his face, his hands outstretched towards the
cluster of pilei. But he did not eat any more of them. He forgot
forthwith.

He rolled over and sat up with a look of astonishment on his face. His
carefully brushed silk hat had rolled away towards the ditch. He pressed
his hand to his brow. Something had happened, but he could not rightly
determine what it was. Anyhow, he was no longer dull--he felt bright,
cheerful. And his throat was afire. He laughed in the sudden gaiety of his
heart. Had he been dull? He did not know; but at any rate he would be dull
no longer. He got up and stood unsteadily, regarding the universe with an
agreeable smile. He began to remember. He could not remember very well,
because of a steam roundabout that was beginning in his head. And he knew
he had been disagreeable at home, just because they wanted to be happy.
They were quite right; life should be as gay as possible. He would go home
and make it up, and reassure them. And why not take some of this
delightful toadstool with him, for them to eat? A hatful, no less. Some of
those red ones with white spots as well, and a few yellow. He had been a
dull dog, an enemy to merriment; he would make up for it. It would be gay
to turn his coat-sleeves inside out, and stick some yellow gorse into his
waistcoat pockets. Then home--singing---for a jolly evening.

After the departure of Mr. Coombes, Jennie discontinued playing, and
turned round on the music-stool again. "What a fuss about nothing!" said
Jennie.

"You see, Mr. Clarence, what I've got to put up with," said Mrs. Coombes.

"He is a bit hasty," said Mr. Clarence judicially.

"He ain't got the slightest sense of our position," said Mrs. Coombes;
"that's what I complain of. He cares for nothing but his old shop; and if
I have a bit of company, or buy anything to keep myself decent, or get any
little thing I want out of the housekeeping money, there's disagreeables.
'Economy' he says; 'struggle for life,' and all that. He lies awake of
nights about it, worrying how he can screw me out of a shilling. He wanted
us to eat Dorset butter once. If once I was to give in to him--there!"

"Of course," said Jennie.

"If a man values a woman," said Mr. Clarence, lounging back in the
arm-chair, "he must be prepared to make sacrifices for her. For my own
part," said Mr. Clarence, with his eye on Jennie, "I shouldn't think of
marrying till I was in a position to do the thing in style. It's downright
selfishness. A man ought to go through the rough-and-tumble by himself,
and not drag her--"

"I don't agree altogether with that," said Jennie. "I don't see why a man
shouldn't have a woman's help, provided he doesn't treat her meanly, you
know. It's meanness--"

"You wouldn't believe," said Mrs. Coombes. "But I was a fool to 'ave 'im.
I might 'ave known. If it 'adn't been for my father, we shouldn't 'ave 'ad
not a carriage to our wedding."

"Lord! he didn't stick out at that?" said Mr. Clarence, quite shocked.

"Said he wanted the money for his stock, or some such rubbish. Why, he
wouldn't have a woman in to help me once a week if it wasn't for my
standing out plucky. And the fusses he makes about money--comes to me,
well, pretty near crying, with sheets of paper and figgers. 'If only we
can tide over this year,' he says, 'the business is bound to go.' 'If only
we can tide over this year,' I says; 'then it'll be, if only we can tide
over next year. I know you,' I says. 'And you don't catch me screwing
myself lean and ugly. Why didn't you marry a slavey?' I says, 'if you
wanted one--instead of a respectable girl,' I says."

So Mrs. Coombes. But we will not follow this unedifying conversation
further. Suffice it that Mr. Coombes was very satisfactorily disposed of,
and they had a snug little time round the fire. Then Mrs. Coombes went to
get the tea, and Jennie sat coquettishly on the arm of Mr. Clarence's
chair until the tea-things clattered outside. "What was that I heard?"
asked Mrs. Coombes playfully, as she entered, and there was badinage about
kissing. They were just sitting down to the little circular table when the
first intimation of Mr. Coombes' return was heard.

This was a fumbling at the latch of the front door.

"'Ere's my lord," said Mrs. Coombes. "Went out like a lion and comes back
like a lamb, I'll lay."

Something fell over in the shop: a chair, it sounded like. Then there was
a sound as of some complicated step exercise in the passage. Then the door
opened and Coombes appeared. But it was Coombes transfigured. The
immaculate collar had been torn carelessly from his throat. His
carefully-brushed silk hat, half-full of a crush of fungi, was under one
arm; his coat was inside out, and his waistcoat adorned with bunches of
yellow-blossomed furze. These little eccentricities of Sunday costume,
however, were quite overshadowed by the change in his face; it was livid
white, his eyes were unnaturally large and bright, and his pale blue lips
were drawn back in a cheerless grin. "Merry!" he said. He had stopped
dancing to open the door. "Rational 'njoyment. Dance." He made three
fantastic steps into the room, and stood bowing.

"Jim!" shrieked Mrs. Coombes, and Mr. Clarence sat petrified, with a
dropping lower jaw.

"Tea," said Mr. Coombes. "Jol' thing, tea. Tose-stools, too. Brosher."

"He's drunk," said Jennie in a weak voice. Never before had she seen this
intense pallor in a drunken man, or such shining, dilated eyes.

Mr. Coombes held out a handful of scarlet agaric to Mr. Clarence. "Jo'
stuff," said he; "ta' some."

At that moment he was genial. Then at the sight of their startled faces he
changed, with the swift transition of insanity, into overbearing fury. And
it seemed as if he had suddenly recalled the quarrel of his departure. In
such a huge voice as Mrs. Coombes had never heard before, he shouted, "My
house. I'm master 'ere. Eat what I give yer!" He bawled this, as it
seemed, without an effort, without a violent gesture, standing there as
motionless as one who whispers, holding out a handful of fungus.

Clarence approved himself a coward. He could not meet the mad fury in
Coombes' eyes; he rose to his feet, pushing back his chair, and turned,
stooping. At that Coombes rushed at him. Jennie saw her opportunity, and,
with the ghost of a shriek, made for the door.

Mrs. Coombes followed her. Clarence tried to dodge. Over went the
tea-table with a smash as Coombes clutched him by the collar and tried to
thrust the fungus into his mouth. Clarence was content to leave his collar
behind him, and shot out into the passage with red patches of fly agaric
still adherent to his face. "Shut 'im in!" cried Mrs. Coombes, and would
have closed the door, but her supports deserted her; Jennie saw the shop
door open, and vanished thereby, locking it behind her, while Clarence
went on hastily into the kitchen. Mr. Coombes came heavily against the
door, and Mrs. Coombes, finding the key was inside, fled upstairs and
locked herself in the spare bedroom.

So the new convert to _joie de vivre_ emerged upon the passage, his
decorations a little scattered, but that respectable hatful of fungi still
under his arm. He hesitated at the three ways, and decided on the kitchen.
Whereupon Clarence, who was fumbling with the key, gave up the attempt to
imprison his host, and fled into the scullery, only to be captured before
he could open the door into the yard. Mr. Clarence is singularly reticent
of the details of what occurred. It seems that Mr. Coombes' transitory
irritation had vanished again, and he was once more a genial playfellow.
And as there were knives and meat choppers about, Clarence very generously
resolved to humour him and so avoid anything tragic. It is beyond dispute
that Mr. Coombes played with Mr. Clarence to his heart's content; they
could not have been more playful and familiar if they had known each other
for years. He insisted gaily on Clarence trying the fungi, and, after a
friendly tussle, was smitten with remorse at the mess he was making of his
guest's face. It also appears that Clarence was dragged under the sink and
his face scrubbed with the blacking brush--he being still resolved to
humour the lunatic at any cost--and that finally, in a somewhat
dishevelled, chipped, and discoloured condition, he was assisted to his
coat and shown out by the back door, the shopway being barred by Jennie.
Mr. Coombes' wandering thoughts then turned to Jennie. Jennie had been
unable to unfasten the shop door, but she shot the bolts against Mr.
Coombes' latch-key, and remained in possession of the shop for the rest of
the evening.

It would appear that Mr. Coombes then returned to the kitchen, still in
pursuit of gaiety, and, albeit a strict Good Templar, drank (or spilt down
the front of the first and only frock-coat) no less than five bottles of
the stout Mrs. Coombes insisted upon having for her health's sake. He made
cheerful noises by breaking off the necks of the bottles with several of
his wife's wedding-present dinner-plates, and during the earlier part of
this great drunk he sang divers merry ballads. He cut his finger rather
badly with one of the bottles--the only bloodshed in this story--and what
with that, and the systematic convulsion of his inexperienced physiology
by the liquorish brand of Mrs. Coombes' stout, it may be the evil of the
fungus poison was somehow allayed. But we prefer to draw a veil over the
concluding incidents of this Sunday afternoon. They ended in the coal
cellar, in a deep and healing sleep.

An interval of five years elapsed. Again it was a Sunday afternoon in
October, and again Mr. Coombes walked through the pine wood beyond the
canal. He was still the same dark-eyed, black-moustached little man that
he was at the outset of the story, but his double chin was now scarcely so
illusory as it had been. His overcoat was new, with a velvet lapel, and a
stylish collar with turn-down corners, free of any coarse starchiness, had
replaced the original all-round article. His hat was glossy, his gloves
newish--though one finger had split and been carefully mended. And a
casual observer would have noticed about him a certain rectitude of
bearing, a certain erectness of head that marks the man who thinks well of
himself. He was a master now, with three assistants. Beside him walked a
larger sunburnt parody of himself, his brother Tom, just back from
Australia. They were recapitulating their early struggles, and Mr. Coombes
had just been making a financial statement.

"It's a very nice little business, Jim," said brother Tom. "In these days
of competition you're jolly lucky to have worked it up so. And you're
jolly lucky, too, to have a wife who's willing to help like yours does."

"Between ourselves," said Mr. Coombes, "it wasn't always so. It wasn't
always like this. To begin with, the missus was a bit giddy. Girls are
funny creatures."

"Dear me!"

"Yes. You'd hardly think it, but she was downright extravagant, and always
having slaps at me. I was a bit too easy and loving, and all that, and she
thought the whole blessed show was run for her. Turned the 'ouse into a
regular caravansery, always having her relations and girls from business
in, and their chaps. Comic songs a' Sunday, it was getting to, and driving
trade away. And she was making eyes at the chaps, too! I tell you, Tom,
the place wasn't my own."

"Shouldn't 'a' thought it."

"It was so. Well--I reasoned with her. I said, 'I ain't a duke, to keep a
wife like a pet animal. I married you for 'elp and company.' I said, 'You
got to 'elp and pull the business through.' She wouldn't 'ear of it. 'Very
well,' I says?? 'I'm a mild man till I'm roused,' I says, 'and it's
getting to that.' But she wouldn't 'ear of no warnings."

"Well?"

"It's the way with women. She didn't think I 'ad it in me to be roused.
Women of her sort (between ourselves, Tom) don't respect a man until
they're a bit afraid of him. So I just broke out to show her. In comes a
girl named Jennie, that used to work with her, and her chap. We 'ad a bit
of a row, and I came out 'ere--it was just such another day as this--and I
thought it all out. Then I went back and pitched into them."

"You did?"

"I did. I was mad, I can tell you. I wasn't going to 'it 'er if I could
'elp it, so I went back and licked into this chap, just to show 'er what I
could do. 'E was a big chap, too. Well, I chucked him, and smashed things
about, and gave 'er a scaring, and she ran up and locked 'erself into the
spare room."

"Well?"

"That's all. I says to 'er the next morning, 'Now you know,' I says, 'what
I'm like when I'm roused.' And I didn't have to say anything more."

"And you've been happy ever after, eh?"

"So to speak. There's nothing like putting your foot down with them. If it
'adn't been for that afternoon I should 'a' been tramping the roads now,
and she'd 'a' been grumbling at me, and all her family grumbling for
bringing her to poverty--I know their little ways. But we're all right
now. And it's a very decent little business, as you say."

They proceeded on their way meditatively. "Women are funny creatures,"
said Brother Tom.

"They want a firm hand," says Coombes.

"What a lot of these funguses there are about here!" remarked Brother Tom
presently. "I can't see what use they are in the world."

Mr. Coombes looked. "I dessay they're sent for some wise purpose," said
Mr. Coombes.

And that was as much thanks as the purple pileus ever got for maddening
this absurd little man to the pitch of decisive action, and so altering
the whole course of his life.

 

 

 

XVIII.

A SLIP UNDER THE MICROSCOPE.

 

Outside the laboratory windows was a watery-grey fog, and within a close
warmth and the yellow light of the green-shaded gas lamps that stood two
to each table down its narrow length. On each table stood a couple of
glass jars containing the mangled vestiges of the crayfish, mussels,
frogs, and guinea-pigs upon which the students had been working, and down
the side of the room, facing the windows, were shelves bearing bleached
dissections in spirits, surmounted by a row of beautifully executed
anatomical drawings in white-wood frames and overhanging a row of cubical
lockers. All the doors of the laboratory were panelled with blackboard,
and on these were the half-erased diagrams of the previous day's work. The
laboratory was empty, save for the demonstrator, who sat near the
preparation-room door, and silent, save for a low, continuous murmur and
the clicking of the rocker microtome at which he was working. But
scattered about the room were traces of numerous students: hand-bags,
polished boxes of instruments, in one place a large drawing covered by
newspaper, and in another a prettily bound copy of _News from
Nowhere_, a book oddly at variance with its surroundings. These things
had been put down hastily as the students had arrived and hurried at once
to secure their seats in the adjacent lecture theatre. Deadened by the
closed door, the measured accents of the professor sounded as a
featureless muttering.

Presently, faint through the closed windows came the sound of the Oratory
clock striking the hour of eleven. The clicking of the microtome ceased,
and the demonstrator looked at his watch, rose, thrust his hands into his
pockets, and walked slowly down the laboratory towards the lecture theatre
door. He stood listening for a moment, and then his eye fell on the little
volume by William Morris. He picked it up, glanced at the title, smiled,
opened it, looked at the name on the fly-leaf, ran the leaves through with
his hand, and put it down. Almost immediately the even murmur of the
lecturer ceased, there was a sudden burst of pencils rattling on the desks
in the lecture theatre, a stirring, a scraping of feet, and a number of
voices speaking together. Then a firm footfall approached the door, which
began to open, and stood ajar, as some indistinctly heard question
arrested the new-comer.

The demonstrator turned, walked slowly back past the microtome, and left
the laboratory by the preparation-room door. As he did so, first one, and
then several students carrying notebooks entered the laboratory from the
lecture theatre, and distributed themselves among the little tables, or
stood in a group about the doorway. They were an exceptionally
heterogeneous assembly, for while Oxford and Cambridge still recoil from
the blushing prospect of mixed classes, the College of Science anticipated
America in the matter years ago--mixed socially, too, for the prestige of
the College is high, and its scholarships, free of any age limit, dredge
deeper even than do those of the Scotch universities. The class numbered
one-and-twenty, but some remained in the theatre questioning the
professor, copying the black-board diagrams before they were washed off,
or examining the special specimens he had produced to illustrate the day's
teaching. Of the nine who had come into the laboratory three were girls,
one of whom, a little fair woman, wearing spectacles and dressed in
greyish-green, was peering out of the window at the fog, while the other
two, both wholesome-looking, plain-faced schoolgirls, unrolled and put on
the brown holland aprons they wore while dissecting. Of the men, two went
down the laboratory to their places, one a pallid, dark-bearded man, who
had once been a tailor; the other a pleasant-featured, ruddy young man of
twenty, dressed in a well-fitting brown suit; young Wedderburn, the son of
Wedderburn, the eye specialist. The others formed a little knot near the
theatre door. One of these, a dwarfed, spectacled figure, with a
hunchback, sat on a bent wood stool; two others, one a short, dark
youngster, and the other a flaxen-haired, reddish-complexioned young man,
stood leaning side by side against the slate sink, while the fourth stood
facing them, and maintained the larger share of the conversation.

This last person was named Hill. He was a sturdily built young fellow, of
the same age as Wedderburn; he had a white face, dark grey eyes, hair of
an indeterminate colour, and prominent, irregular features. He talked
rather louder than was needful, and thrust his hands deeply into his
pockets. His collar was frayed and blue with the starch of a careless
laundress, his clothes were evidently ready-made, and there was a patch on
the side of his boot near the toe. And as he talked or listened to the
others, he glanced now and again towards the lecture theatre door. They
were discussing the depressing peroration of the lecture they had just
heard, the last lecture it was in the introductory course in zoology.
"From ovum to ovum is the goal of the higher vertebrata," the lecturer had
said in his melancholy tones, and so had neatly rounded off the sketch
of comparative anatomy he had been developing. The spectacled hunchback
had repeated it, with noisy appreciation, had tossed it towards the
fair-haired student with an evident provocation, and had started one of
these vague, rambling discussions on generalities, so unaccountably dear
to the student mind all the world over.

"That is our goal, perhaps--I admit it, as far as science goes," said the
fair-haired student, rising to the challenge. "But there are things above
science."

"Science," said Hill confidently, "is systematic knowledge. Ideas that
don't come into the system--must anyhow--be loose ideas." He was not quite
sure whether that was a clever saying or a fatuity until his hearers took
it seriously.

"The thing I cannot understand," said the hunchback, at large, "is whether
Hill is a materialist or not."

"There is one thing above matter," said Hill promptly, feeling he had a
better thing this time; aware, too, of someone in the doorway behind him,
and raising his voice a trifle for her benefit, "and that is, the delusion
that there is something above matter."

"So we have your gospel at last," said the fair student. "It's all a
delusion, is it? All our aspirations to lead something more than dogs'
lives, all our work for anything beyond ourselves. But see how
inconsistent you are. Your socialism, for instance. Why do you trouble
about the interests of the race? Why do you concern yourself about the
beggar in the gutter? Why are you bothering yourself to lend that book "--
he indicated William Morris by a movement of the head--"to everyone in the
lab.?"

"Girl," said the hunchback indistinctly, and glanced guiltily over his
shoulder.

The girl in brown, with the brown eyes, had come into the laboratory, and
stood on the other side of the table behind him, with her rolled-up apron
in one hand, looking over her shoulder, listening to the discussion. She
did not notice the hunchback, because she was glancing from Hill to his
interlocutor. Hill's consciousness of her presence betrayed itself to her
only in his studious ignorance of the fact; but she understood that, and
it pleased her. "I see no reason," said he, "why a man should live like a
brute because he knows of nothing beyond matter, and does not expect to
exist a hundred years hence."

"Why shouldn't he?" said the fair-haired student.

"Why _should_ he?" said Hill.

"What inducement has he?"

"That's the way with all you religious people. It's all a business of
inducements. Cannot a man seek after righteousness for righteousness'
sake?"

There was a pause. The fair man answered, with a kind of vocal padding,
"But--you see--inducement--when I said inducement," to gain time. And then
the hunchback came to his rescue and inserted a question. He was a
terrible person in the debating society with his questions, and they
invariably took one form--a demand for a definition, "What's your
definition of righteousness?" said the hunchback at this stage.

Hill experienced a sudden loss of complacency at this question, but even
as it was asked, relief came in the person of Brooks, the laboratory
attendant, who entered by the preparation-room door, carrying a number of
freshly killed guinea-pigs by their hind legs. "This is the last batch of
material this session," said the youngster who had not previously spoken.
Brooks advanced up the laboratory, smacking down a couple of guinea-pigs
at each table. The rest of the class, scenting the prey from afar, came
crowding in by the lecture theatre door, and the discussion perished
abruptly as the students who were not already in their places hurried to
them to secure the choice of a specimen. There was a noise of keys
rattling on split rings as lockers were opened and dissecting instruments
taken out. Hill was already standing by his table, and his box of scalpels
was sticking out of his pocket. The girl in brown came a step towards him,
and, leaning over his table, said softly, "Did you see that I returned
your book, Mr. Hill?"

During the whole scene she and the book had been vividly present in his
consciousness; but he made a clumsy pretence of looking at the book and
seeing it for the first time. "Oh, yes," he said, taking it up. "I see.
Did you like it?"

"I want to ask you some questions about it--some time."

"Certainly," said Hill. "I shall be glad." He stopped awkwardly. "You
liked it?" he said.

"It's a wonderful book. Only some things I don't understand."

Then suddenly the laboratory was hushed by a curious, braying noise. It
was the demonstrator. He was at the blackboard ready to begin the day's
instruction, and it was his custom to demand silence by a sound midway
between the "Er" of common intercourse and the blast of a trumpet. The
girl in brown slipped back to her place: it was immediately in front of
Hill's, and Hill, forgetting her forthwith, took a notebook out of the
drawer of his table, turned over its leaves hastily, drew a stumpy pencil
from his pocket, and prepared to make a copious note of the coming
demonstration. For demonstrations and lectures are the sacred text of the
College students. Books, saving only the Professor's own, you may--it is
even expedient to--ignore.

Hill was the son of a Landport cobbler, and had been hooked by a chance
blue paper the authorities had thrown out to the Landport Technical
College. He kept himself in London on his allowance of a guinea a week,
and found that, with proper care, this also covered his clothing
allowance, an occasional waterproof collar, that is; and ink and needles
and cotton, and such-like necessaries for a man about town. This was his
first year and his first session, but the brown old man in Landport had
already got himself detested in many public-houses by boasting of his son,
"the Professor." Hill was a vigorous youngster, with a serene contempt for
the clergy of all denominations, and a fine ambition to reconstruct the
world. He regarded his scholarship as a brilliant opportunity. He had
begun to read at seven, and had read steadily whatever came in his way,
good or bad, since then. His worldly experience had been limited to the
island of Portsea, and acquired chiefly in the wholesale boot factory in
which he had worked by day, after passing the seventh standard of the
Board school. He had a considerable gift of speech, as the College
Debating Society, which met amidst the crushing machines and mine models
in the metallurgical theatre downstairs, already recognised--recognised by
a violent battering of desks whenever he rose. And he was just at that
fine emotional age when life opens at the end of a narrow pass like a
broad valley at one's feet, full of the promise of wonderful discoveries
and tremendous achievements. And his own limitations, save that he knew
that he knew neither Latin nor French, were all unknown to him.

At first his interest had been divided pretty equally between his
biological work at the College and social and theological theorising, an
employment which he took in deadly earnest. Of a night, when the big
museum library was not open, he would sit on the bed of his room in
Chelsea with his coat and a muffler on, and write out the lecture notes
and revise his dissection memoranda, until Thorpe called him out by a
whistle--the landlady objected to open the door to attic visitors--and
then the two would go prowling about the shadowy, shiny, gas-lit streets,
talking, very much in the fashion of the sample just given, of the God
idea, and Righteousness, and Carlyle, and the Reorganisation of Society.
And in the midst of it all, Hill, arguing not only for Thorpe, but for the
casual passer-by, would lose the thread of his argument glancing at some
pretty painted face that looked meaningly at him as he passed. Science and
Righteousness! But once or twice lately there had been signs that a third
interest was creeping into his life, and he had found his attention
wandering from the fate of the mesoblastic somites or the probable meaning
of the blastopore, to the thought of the girl with the brown eyes who sat
at the table before him.

She was a paying student; she descended inconceivable social altitudes to
speak to him. At the thought of the education she must have had, and the
accomplishments she must possess, the soul of Hill became abject within
him. She had spoken to him first over a difficulty about the alisphenoid
of a rabbit's skull, and he had found that, in biology at least, he had no
reason for self-abasement. And from that, after the manner of young people
starting from any starting-point, they got to generalities, and while Hill
attacked her upon the question of socialism--some instinct told him to
spare her a direct assault upon her religion--she was gathering resolution
to undertake what she told herself was his aesthetic education. She was a
year or two older than he, though the thought never occurred to him. The
loan of _News from Nowhere_ was the beginning of a series of cross
loans. Upon some absurd first principle of his, Hill had never "wasted
time" Upon poetry, and it seemed an appalling deficiency to her. One day
in the lunch hour, when she chanced upon him alone in the little museum
where the skeletons were arranged, shamefully eating the bun that
constituted his midday meal, she retreated, and returned to lend him, with
a slightly furtive air, a volume of Browning. He stood sideways towards
her and took the book rather clumsily, because he was holding the bun in
the other hand. And in the retrospect his voice lacked the cheerful
clearness he could have wished.

That occurred after the examination in comparative anatomy, on the day
before the College turned out its students, and was carefully locked up by
the officials, for the Christmas holidays. The excitement of cramming for
the first trial of strength had for a little while dominated Hill, to the
exclusion of his other interests. In the forecasts of the result in which
everyone indulged he was surprised to find that no one regarded him as a
possible competitor for the Harvey Commemoration Medal, of which this and
the two subsequent examinations disposed. It was about this time that
Wedderburn, who so far had lived inconspicuously on the uttermost margin
of Hill's perceptions, began to take on the appearance of an obstacle. By
a mutual agreement, the nocturnal prowlings with Thorpe ceased for the
three weeks before the examination, and his landlady pointed out that she
really could not supply so much lamp oil at the price. He walked to and
fro from the College with little slips of mnemonics in his hand, lists of
crayfish appendages, rabbits' skull-bones, and vertebrate nerves, for
example, and became a positive nuisance to foot passengers in the opposite
direction.

But, by a natural reaction, Poetry and the girl with the brown eyes ruled
the Christmas holiday. The pending results of the examination became such
a secondary consideration that Hill marvelled at his father's excitement.
Even had he wished it, there was no comparative anatomy to read in
Landport, and he was too poor to buy books, but the stock of poets in the
library was extensive, and Hill's attack was magnificently sustained. He
saturated himself with the fluent numbers of Longfellow and Tennyson, and
fortified himself with Shakespeare; found a kindred soul in Pope, and a
master in Shelley, and heard and fled the siren voices of Eliza Cook and
Mrs. Hemans. But he read no more Browning, because he hoped for the loan
of other volumes from Miss Haysman when he returned to London.

He walked from his lodgings to the College with that volume of Browning in
his shiny black bag, and his mind teeming with the finest general
propositions about poetry. Indeed, he framed first this little speech and
then that with which to grace the return. The morning was an exceptionally
pleasant one for London; there was a clear, hard frost and undeniable blue
in the sky, a thin haze softened every outline, and warm shafts of
sunlight struck between the house blocks and turned the sunny side of the
street to amber and gold. In the hall of the College he pulled off his
glove and signed his name with fingers so stiff with cold that the
characteristic dash under the signature he cultivated became a quivering
line. He imagined Miss Haysman about him everywhere. He turned at the
staircase, and there, below, he saw a crowd struggling at the foot of the
notice-board. This, possibly, was the biology list. He forgot Browning and
Miss Haysman for the moment, and joined the scrimmage. And at last, with
his cheek flattened against the sleeve of the man on the step above him,
he read the list--

CLASS I
H. J. Somers Wedderburn
William Hill

and thereafter followed a second class that is outside our present
sympathies. It was characteristic that he did not trouble to look for
Thorpe on the physics list, but backed out of the struggle at once, and in
a curious emotional state between pride over common second-class humanity
and acute disappointment at Wedderburn's success, went on his way
upstairs. At the top, as he was hanging up his coat in the passage, the
zoological demonstrator, a young man from Oxford, who secretly regarded
him as a blatant "mugger" of the very worst type, offered his heartiest
congratulations.

At the laboratory door Hill stopped for a second to get his breath, and
then entered. He looked straight up the laboratory and saw all five girl
students grouped in their places, and Wedderburn, the once retiring
Wedderburn, leaning rather gracefully against the window, playing with the
blind tassel and talking, apparently, to the five of them. Now, Hill could
talk bravely enough and even overbearingly to one girl, and he could have
made a speech to a roomful of girls, but this business of standing at ease
and appreciating, fencing, and returning quick remarks round a group was,
he knew, altogether beyond him. Coming up the staircase his feelings for
Wedderburn had been generous, a certain admiration perhaps, a willingness
to shake his hand conspicuously and heartily as one who had fought but the
first round. But before Christmas Wedderburn had never gone up to that end
of the room to talk. In a flash Hill's mist of vague excitement condensed
abruptly to a vivid dislike of Wedderburn. Possibly his expression
changed. As he came up to his place, Wedderburn nodded carelessly to him,
and the others glanced round. Miss Haysman looked at him and away again,
the faintest touch of her eyes. "I can't agree with you, Mr. Wedderburn,"
she said.

"I must congratulate you on your first-class, Mr. Hill," said the
spectacled girl in green, turning round and beaming at him.

"It's nothing," said Hill, staring at Wedderburn and Miss Haysman talking
together, and eager to hear what they talked about.

"We poor folks in the second class don't think so," said the girl in
spectacles.

What was it Wedderburn was saying? Something about William Morris! Hill
did not answer the girl in spectacles, and the smile died out of his face.
He could not hear, and failed to see how he could "cut in." Confound
Wedderburn! He sat down, opened his bag, hesitated whether to return the
volume of Browning forthwith, in the sight of all, and instead drew out
his new notebooks for the short course in elementary botany that was now
beginning, and which would terminate in February. As he did so, a fat,
heavy man, with a white face and pale grey eyes--Bindon, the professor of
botany, who came up from Kew for January and February--came in by the
lecture theatre door, and passed, rubbing his hands together and smiling,
in silent affability down the laboratory.

* * * * *

In the subsequent six weeks Hill experienced some very rapid and curiously
complex emotional developments. For the most part he had Wedderburn in
focus--a fact that Miss Haysman never suspected. She told Hill (for in the
comparative privacy of the museum she talked a good deal to him of
socialism and Browning and general propositions) that she had met
Wedderburn at the house of some people she knew, and "he's inherited his
cleverness; for his father, you know, is the great eye-specialist."

"_My_ father is a cobbler," said Hill, quite irrelevantly, and
perceived the want of dignity even as he said it. But the gleam of
jealousy did not offend her. She conceived herself the fundamental source
of it. He suffered bitterly from a sense of Wedderburn's unfairness, and a
realisation of his own handicap. Here was this Wedderburn had picked up a
prominent man for a father, and instead of his losing so many marks on the
score of that advantage, it was counted to him for righteousness! And
while Hill had to introduce himself and talk to Miss Haysman clumsily over
mangled guinea-pigs in the laboratory, this Wedderburn, in some backstairs
way, had access to her social altitudes, and could converse in a polished
argot that Hill understood perhaps, but felt incapable of speaking. Not,
of course, that he wanted to. Then it seemed to Hill that for Wedderburn
to come there day after day with cuffs unfrayed, neatly tailored,
precisely barbered, quietly perfect, was in itself an ill-bred, sneering
sort of proceeding. Moreover, it was a stealthy thing for Wedderburn to
behave insignificantly for a space, to mock modesty, to lead Hill to fancy
that he himself was beyond dispute the man of the year, and then suddenly
to dart in front of him, and incontinently to swell up in this fashion. In
addition to these things, Wedderburn displayed an increasing disposition
to join in any conversational grouping that included Miss Haysman, and
would venture, and indeed seek occasion, to pass opinions derogatory to
socialism and atheism. He goaded Hill to incivilities by neat, shallow,
and exceedingly effective personalities about the socialist leaders,
until Hill hated Bernard Shaw's graceful egotisms, William Morris's
limited editions and luxurious wall-papers, and Walter Crane's charmingly
absurd ideal working men, about as much as he hated Wedderburn. The
dissertations in the laboratory, that had been his glory in the previous
term, became a danger, degenerated into inglorious tussels with
Wedderburn, and Hill kept to them only out of an obscure perception that
his honour was involved. In the debating society Hill knew quite clearly
that, to a thunderous accompaniment of banged desks, he could have
pulverised Wedderburn. Only Wedderburn never attended the debating society
to be pulverised, because--nauseous affectation!--he "dined late."

You must not imagine that these things presented themselves in quite such
a crude form to Hill's perception. Hill was a born generaliser. Wedderburn
to him was not so much an individual obstacle as a type, the salient angle
of a class. The economic theories that, after infinite ferment, had shaped
themselves in Hill's mind, became abruptly concrete at the contact. The
world became full of easy-mannered, graceful, gracefully-dressed,
conversationally dexterous, finally shallow Wedderburns, Bishops
Wedderburn, Wedderburn M.P.'s, Professors Wedderburn, Wedderburn
landlords, all with finger-bowl shibboleths and epigrammatic cities of
refuge from a sturdy debater. And everyone ill-clothed or ill-dressed,
from the cobbler to the cab-runner, was a man and a brother, a
fellow-sufferer, to Hill's imagination. So that he became, as it were, a
champion of the fallen and oppressed, albeit to outward seeming only a
self-assertive, ill-mannered young man, and an unsuccessful champion at
that. Again and again a skirmish over the afternoon tea that the girl
students had inaugurated left Hill with flushed cheeks and a tattered
temper, and the debating society noticed a new quality of sarcastic
bitterness in his speeches.

You will understand now how it was necessary, if only in the interests of
humanity, that Hill should demolish Wedderburn in the forthcoming
examination and outshine him in the eyes of Miss Haysman; and you will
perceive, too, how Miss Haysman fell into some common feminine
misconceptions. The Hill-Wedderburn quarrel, for in his unostentatious way
Wedderburn reciprocated Hill's ill-veiled rivalry, became a tribute to her
indefinable charm; she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels
and stumpy pencils. To her confidential friend's secret annoyance, it even
troubled her conscience, for she was a good girl, and painfully aware,
from Ruskin and contemporary fiction, how entirely men's activities are
determined by women's attitudes. And if Hill never by any chance mentioned
the topic of love to her, she only credited him with the finer modesty for
that omission. So the time came on for the second examination, and Hill's
increasing pallor confirmed the general rumour that he was working hard.
In the aerated bread shop near South Kensington Station you would see him,
breaking his bun and sipping his milk, with his eyes intent upon a paper
of closely written notes. In his bedroom there were propositions about
buds and stems round his looking-glass, a diagram to catch his eye, if
soap should chance to spare it, above his washing basin. He missed several
meetings of the debating society, but he found the chance encounters with
Miss Haysman in the spacious ways of the adjacent art museum, or in the
little museum at the top of the College, or in the College corridors, more
frequent and very restful. In particular, they used to meet in a little
gallery full of wrought-iron chests and gates, near the art library, and
there Hill used to talk, under the gentle stimulus of her flattering
attention, of Browning and his personal ambitions. A characteristic she
found remarkable in him was his freedom from avarice. He contemplated
quite calmly the prospect of living all his life on an income below a
hundred pounds a year. But he was determined to be famous, to make,
recognisably in his own proper person, the world a better place to live
in. He took Bradlaugh and John Burns for his leaders and models, poor,
even impecunious, great men. But Miss Haysman thought that such lives were
deficient on the aesthetic side, by which, though she did not know it, she
meant good wall-paper and upholstery, pretty books, tasteful clothes,
concerts, and meals nicely cooked and respectfully served.

At last came the day of the second examination, and the professor of
botany, a fussy, conscientious man, rearranged all the tables in a long
narrow laboratory to prevent copying, and put his demonstrator on a chair
on a table (where he felt, he said, like a Hindoo god), to see all the
cheating, and stuck a notice outside the door, "Door closed," for no
earthly reason that any human being could discover. And all the morning
from ten till one the quill of Wedderburn shrieked defiance at Hill's, and
the quills of the others chased their leaders in a tireless pack, and so
also it was in the afternoon. Wedderburn was a little quieter than usual,
and Hill's face was hot all day, and his overcoat bulged with textbooks
and notebooks against the last moment's revision. And the next day, in the
morning and in the afternoon, was the practical examination, when sections
had to be cut and slides identified. In the morning Hill was depressed
because he knew he had cut a thick section, and in the afternoon came the
mysterious slip.

It was just the kind of thing that the botanical professor was always
doing. Like the income tax, it offered a premium to the cheat. It was a
preparation under the microscope, a little glass slip, held in its place
on the stage of the instrument by light steel clips, and the inscription
set forth that the slip was not to be moved. Each student was to go in
turn to it, sketch it, write in his book of answers what he considered it
to be, and return to his place. Now, to move such a slip is a thing one
can do by a chance movement of the finger, and in a fraction of a second.
The professor's reason for decreeing that the slip should not be moved
depended on the fact that the object he wanted identified was
characteristic of a certain tree stem. In the position in which it was
placed it was a difficult thing to recognise, but once the slip was moved
so as to bring other parts of the preparation into view, its nature was
obvious enough.

Hill came to this, flushed from a contest with staining re-agents, sat
down on the little stool before the microscope, turned the mirror to get
the best light, and then, out of sheer habit, shifted the slips. At once
he remembered the prohibition, and, with an almost continuous motion of
his hands, moved it back, and sat paralysed with astonishment at his
action.

Then, slowly, he turned his head. The professor was out of the room; the
demonstrator sat aloft on his impromptu rostrum, reading the _Q. Jour.
Mi. Sci_.; the rest of the examinees were busy, and with their backs to
him. Should he own up to the accident now? He knew quite clearly what the
thing was. It was a lenticel, a characteristic preparation from the
elder-tree. His eyes roved over his intent fellow-students, and Wedderburn
suddenly glanced over his shoulder at him with a queer expression in his
eyes. The mental excitement that had kept Hill at an abnormal pitch of
vigour these two days gave way to a curious nervous tension. His book of
answers was beside him. He did not write down what the thing was, but with
one eye at the microscope he began making a hasty sketch of it. His mind
was full of this grotesque puzzle in ethics that had suddenly been sprung
upon him. Should he identify it? or should he leave this question
unanswered? In that case Wedderburn would probably come out first in the
second result. How could he tell now whether he might not have identified
the thing without shifting it? It was possible that Wedderburn had failed
to recognise it, of course. Suppose Wedderburn too had shifted the slide?
He looked up at the clock. There were fifteen minutes in which to make up
his mind. He gathered up his book of answers and the coloured pencils he
used in illustrating his replies and walked back to his seat.

He read through his manuscript, and then sat thinking and gnawing his
knuckle. It would look queer now if he owned up. He _must_ beat
Wedderburn. He forgot the examples of those starry gentlemen, John Burns
and Bradlaugh. Besides, he reflected, the glimpse of the rest of the slip
he had had was, after all, quite accidental, forced upon him by chance, a
kind of providential revelation rather than an unfair advantage. It was
not nearly so dishonest to avail himself of that as it was of Broome, who
believed in the efficacy of prayer, to pray daily for a first-class. "Five
minutes more," said the demonstrator, folding up his paper and becoming
observant. Hill watched the clock hands until two minutes remained; then
he opened the book of answers, and, with hot ears and an affectation of
ease, gave his drawing of the lenticel its name.

When the second pass list appeared, the previous positions of Wedderburn
and Hill were reversed, and the spectacled girl in green, who knew the
demonstrator in private life (where he was practically human), said that
in the result of the two examinations taken together Hill had the
advantage of a mark--167 to 166 out of a possible 200. Everyone admired
Hill in a way, though the suspicion of "mugging" clung to him. But Hill
was to find congratulations and Miss Haysman's enhanced opinion of him,
and even the decided decline in the crest of Wedderburn, tainted by an
unhappy memory. He felt a remarkable access of energy at first, and the
note of a democracy marching to triumph returned to his debating-society
speeches; he worked at his comparative anatomy with tremendous zeal and
effect, and he went on with his aesthetic education. But through it all, a
vivid little picture was continually coming before his mind's eye--of a
sneakish person manipulating a slide.

No human being had witnessed the act, and he was cocksure that no higher
power existed to see, it; but for all that it worried him. Memories are
not dead things but alive; they dwindle in disuse, but they harden and
develop in all sorts of queer ways if they are being continually fretted.
Curiously enough, though at the time he perceived clearly that the
shifting was accidental, as the days wore on, his memory became confused
about it, until at last he was not sure--although he assured himself that
he _was_ sure--whether the movement had been absolutely involuntary.
Then it is possible that Hill's dietary was conducive to morbid
conscientiousness; a breakfast frequently eaten in a hurry, a midday bun,
and, at such hours after five as chanced to be convenient, such meat as
his means determined, usually in a chop-house in a back street off the
Brompton Road. Occasionally he treated himself to threepenny or ninepenny
classics, and they usually represented a suppression of potatoes or chops.
It is indisputable that outbreaks of self-abasement and emotional revival
have a distinct relation to periods of scarcity. But apart from this
influence on the feelings, there was in Hill a distinct aversion to
falsity that the blasphemous Landport cobbler had inculcated by strap and
tongue from his earliest years. Of one fact about professed atheists I am
convinced; they may be--they usually are--fools, void of subtlety,
revilers of holy institutions, brutal speakers, and mischievous knaves,
but they lie with difficulty. If it were not so, if they had the faintest
grasp of the idea of compromise, they would simply be liberal churchmen.
And, moreover, this memory poisoned his regard for Miss Haysman. For she
now so evidently preferred him to Wedderburn that he felt sure he cared
for her, and began reciprocating her attentions by timid marks of personal
regard; at one time he even bought a bunch of violets, carried it about in
his pocket, and produced it, with a stumbling explanation, withered and
dead, in the gallery of old iron. It poisoned, too, the denunciation of
capitalist dishonesty that had been one of his life's pleasures. And,
lastly, it poisoned his triumph in Wedderburn. Previously he had been
Wedderburn's superior in his own eyes, and had raged simply at a want of
recognition. Now he began to fret at the darker suspicion of positive
inferiority. He fancied he found justifications for his position in
Browning, but they vanished on analysis. At last--moved, curiously enough,
by exactly the same motive forces that had resulted in his dishonesty--he
went to Professor Bindon, and made a clean breast of the whole affair. As
Hill was a paid student, Professor Bindon did not ask him to sit down, and
he stood before the professor's desk as he made his confession.

"It's a curious story," said Professor Bindon, slowly realising how the
thing reflected on himself, and then letting his anger rise,--"a most
remarkable story. I can't understand your doing it, and I can't understand
this avowal. You're a type of student--Cambridge men would never dream--I
suppose I ought to have thought--why _did_ you cheat?"

"I didn't cheat," said Hill.

"But you have just been telling me you did."

"I thought I explained--"

"Either you cheated or you did not cheat."

"I said my motion was involuntary."

"I am not a metaphysician, I am a servant of science--of fact. You
were told not to move the slip. You did move the slip. If that is not
cheating--"

"If I was a cheat," said Hill, with the note of hysterics in his voice,
"should I come here and tell you?"

"Your repentance, of course, does you credit," said Professor Bindon, "but
it does not alter the original facts."

"No, sir," said Hill, giving in in utter self-abasement.

"Even now you cause an enormous amount of trouble. The examination list
will have to be revised."

"I suppose so, sir."

"Suppose so? Of course it must be revised. And I don't see how I can
conscientiously pass you."

"Not pass me?" said Hill. "Fail me?"

"It's the rule in all examinations. Or where should we be? What else did
you expect? You don't want to shirk the consequences of your own acts?"

"I thought, perhaps----" said Hill. And then, "Fail me? I thought, as I
told you, you would simply deduct the marks given for that slip."

"Impossible!" said Bindon. "Besides, it would still leave you above
Wedderburn. Deduct only the marks! Preposterous! The Departmental
Regulations distinctly say----"

"But it's my own admission, sir."

"The Regulations say nothing whatever of the manner in which the matter
comes to light. They simply provide----"

"It will ruin me. If I fail this examination, they won't renew my
scholarship."

"You should have thought of that before."

"But, sir, consider all my circumstances----"

"I cannot consider anything. Professors in this College are machines. The
Regulations will not even let us recommend our students for appointments.
I am a machine, and you have worked me. I have to do----"

"It's very hard, sir."

"Possibly it is."

"If I am to be failed this examination, I might as well go home at once."

"That is as you think proper." Bindon's voice softened a little; he
perceived he had been unjust, and, provided he did not contradict himself,
he was disposed to amelioration. "As a private person," he said, "I think
this confession of yours goes far to mitigate your offence. But you have
set the machinery in motion, and now it must take its course. I--I am
really sorry you gave way."

A wave of emotion prevented Hill from answering. Suddenly, very vividly,
he saw the heavily-lined face of the old Landport cobbler, his father.
"Good God! What a fool I have been!" he said hotly and abruptly.

"I hope," said Bindon, "that it will be a lesson to you."

But, curiously enough, they were not thinking of quite the same
indiscretion.

There was a pause.

"I would like a day to think, sir, and then I will let you know--about
going home, I mean," said Hill, moving towards the door.

* * * * *

The next day Hill's place was vacant. The spectacled girl in green was, as
usual, first with the news. Wedderburn and Miss Haysman were talking of a
performance of _The Meistersingers_ when she came up to them.

"Have you heard?" she said.

"Heard what?"

"There was cheating in the examination."

"Cheating!" said Wedderburn, with his face suddenly hot. "How?"

"That slide--"

"Moved? Never!"

"It was. That slide that we weren't to move--"

"Nonsense!" said Wedderburn. "Why! How could they find out? Who do they
say--?"

"It was Mr. Hill."

_Hill_!"

"Mr. Hill!"

"Not--surely not the immaculate Hill?" said Wedderburn, recovering.

"I don't believe it," said Miss Haysman. "How do you know?"

"I _didn't_," said the girl in spectacles. "But I know it now for a
fact. Mr. Hill went and confessed to Professor Bindon himself."

"By Jove!" said Wedderburn. "Hill of all people. But I am always inclined
to distrust these philanthropists-on-principle--"

"Are you quite sure?" said Miss Haysman, with a catch in her breath.

"Quite. It's dreadful, isn't it? But, you know, what can you expect? His
father is a cobbler."

Then Miss Haysman astonished the girl in spectacles.

"I don't care. I will not believe it," she said, flushing darkly under her
warm-tinted skin. "I will not believe it until he has told me so himself--
face to face. I would scarcely believe it then," and abruptly she turned
her back on the girl in spectacles, and walked to her own place.

"It's true, all the same," said the girl in spectacles, peering and
smiling at Wedderburn.

But Wedderburn did not answer her. She was indeed one of those people who
seemed destined to make unanswered remarks.

 

 

 

XIX.

THE CRYSTAL EGG.

 

There was, until a year ago, a little and very grimy-looking shop near
Seven Dials, over which, in weather-worn yellow lettering, the name of "C.
Cave, Naturalist and Dealer in Antiquities," was inscribed. The contents
of its window were curiously variegated. They comprised some elephant
tusks and an imperfect set of chessmen, beads and weapons, a box of eyes,
two skulls of tigers and one human, several moth-eaten stuffed monkeys
(one holding a lamp), an old-fashioned cabinet, a fly-blown ostrich egg
or so, some fishing-tackle, and an extraordinarily dirty, empty glass
fish-tank. There was also, at the moment the story begins, a mass of
crystal, worked into the shape of an egg and brilliantly polished. And at
that two people who stood outside the window were looking, one of them a
tall, thin clergyman, the other a black-bearded young man of dusky
complexion and unobtrusive costume. The dusky young man spoke with eager
gesticulation, and seemed anxious for his companion to purchase the
article.

While they were there, Mr. Cave came into his shop, his beard still
wagging with the bread and butter of his tea. When he saw these men and
the object of their regard, his countenance fell. He glanced guiltily over
his shoulder, and softly shut the door. He was a little old man, with pale
face and peculiar watery blue eyes; his hair was a dirty grey, and he wore
a shabby blue frock-coat, an ancient silk hat, and carpet slippers very
much down at heel. He remained watching the two men as they talked. The
clergyman went deep into his trouser pocket, examined a handful of money,
and showed his teeth in an agreeable smile. Mr. Cave seemed still more
depressed when they came into the shop.

The clergyman, without any ceremony, asked the price of the crystal egg.
Mr. Cave glanced nervously towards the door leading into the parlour, and
said five pounds. The clergyman protested that the price was high, to his
companion as well as to Mr. Cave--it was, indeed, very much more than Mr.
Cave had intended to ask when he had stocked the article--and an attempt
at bargaining ensued. Mr. Cave stepped to the shop door, and held it open.
"Five pounds is my price," he said, as though he wished to save himself
the trouble of unprofitable discussion. As he did so, the upper portion of
a woman's face appeared above the blind in the glass upper panel of the
door leading into the parlour, and stared curiously at the two customers.
"Five pounds is my price," said Mr. Cave, with a quiver in his voice.

The swarthy young man had so far remained a spectator, watching Cave
keenly. Now he spoke. "Give him five pounds," he said. The clergyman
glanced at him to see if he were in earnest, and when he looked at Mr.
Cave again, he saw that the latter's face was white. "It's a lot of
money," said the clergyman, and, diving into his pocket, began counting
his resources. He had little more than thirty shillings, and he appealed
to his companion, with whom he seemed to be on terms of considerable
intimacy. This gave Mr. Cave an opportunity of collecting his thoughts,
and he began to explain in an agitated manner that the crystal was not, as
a matter of fact, entirely free for sale. His two customers were naturally
surprised at this, and inquired why he had not thought of that before he
began to bargain. Mr. Cave became confused, but he stuck to his story,
that the crystal was not in the market that afternoon, that a probable
purchaser of it had already appeared. The two, treating this as an attempt
to raise the price still further, made as if they would leave the shop.
But at this point the parlour door opened, and the owner of the dark
fringe and the little eyes appeared.

She was a coarse-featured, corpulent woman, younger and very much larger
than Mr. Cave; she walked heavily, and her face was flushed. "That crystal
_is_ for sale," she said. "And five pounds is a good enough price for
it. I can't think what you're about, Cave, not to take the gentleman's
offer!"

Mr. Cave, greatly perturbed by the irruption, looked angrily at her over
the rims of his spectacles, and, without excessive assurance, asserted his
right to manage his business in his own way. An altercation began. The two
customers watched the scene with interest and some amusement, occasionally
assisting Mrs. Cave with suggestions. Mr. Cave, hard driven, persisted in
a confused and impossible story of an inquiry for the crystal that
morning, and his agitation became painful. But he stuck to his point with
extraordinary persistence. It was the young Oriental who ended this
curious controversy. He proposed that they should call again in the course
of two days--so as to give the alleged inquirer a fair chance. "And then
we must insist," said the clergyman. "Five pounds." Mrs. Cave took it on
herself to apologise for her husband, explaining that he was sometimes "a
little odd," and as the two customers left, the couple prepared for a free
discussion of the incident in all its bearings.

Mrs. Cave talked to her husband with singular directness. The poor little
man, quivering with emotion, muddled himself between his stories,
maintaining on the one hand that he had another customer in view, and on
the other asserting that the crystal was honestly worth ten guineas. "Why
did you ask five pounds?" said his wife. "_Do_ let me manage my
business my own way!" said Mr. Cave.

Mr. Cave had living with him a step-daughter and a step-son, and at supper
that night the transaction was re-discussed. None of them had a high
opinion of Mr. Cave's business methods, and this action seemed a
culminating folly.

"It's my opinion he's refused that crystal before," said the step-son, a
loose-limbed lout of eighteen.

"But _Five Pounds_!" said the step-daughter, an argumentative young
woman of six-and-twenty.

Mr. Cave's answers were wretched; he could only mumble weak assertions
that he knew his own business best. They drove him from his half-eaten
supper into the shop, to close it for the night, his ears aflame and tears
of vexation behind his spectacles. Why had he left the crystal in the
window so long? The folly of it! That was the trouble closest in his mind.
For a time he could see no way of evading sale.

After supper his step-daughter and step-son smartened themselves up and
went out and his wife retired upstairs to reflect upon the business
aspects of the crystal, over a little sugar and lemon and so forth in hot
water. Mr. Cave went into the shop, and stayed there until late,
ostensibly to make ornamental rockeries for gold-fish cases, but really
for a private purpose that will be better explained later. The next day
Mrs. Cave found that the crystal had been removed from the window, and
was lying behind some second-hand books on angling. She replaced it in a
conspicuous position. But she did not argue further about it, as a nervous
headache disinclined her from debate. Mr. Cave was always disinclined. The
day passed disagreeably. Mr. Cave was, if anything, more absent-minded
than usual, and uncommonly irritable withal. In the afternoon, when his
wife was taking her customary sleep, he removed the crystal from the
window again.

The next day Mr. Cave had to deliver a consignment of dog-fish at one of
the hospital schools, where they were needed for dissection. In his
absence Mrs. Cave's mind reverted to the topic of the crystal, and the
methods of expenditure suitable to a windfall of five pounds. She had
already devised some very agreeable expedients, among others a dress of
green silk for herself and a trip to Richmond, when a jangling of the
front door bell summoned her into the shop. The customer was an
examination coach who came to complain of the non-delivery of certain
frogs asked for the previous day. Mrs. Cave did not approve of this
particular branch of Mr. Cave's business, and the gentleman, who had
called in a somewhat aggressive mood, retired after a brief exchange of
words--entirely civil, so far as he was concerned. Mrs. Cave's eye then
naturally turned to the window; for the sight of the crystal was an
assurance of the five pounds and of her dreams. What was her surprise to
find it gone!

She went to the place behind the locker on the counter, where she had
discovered it the day before. It was not there; and she immediately began
an eager search about the shop.

When Mr. Cave returned from his business with the dogfish, about a quarter
to two in the afternoon, he found the shop in some confusion, and his
wife, extremely exasperated and on her knees behind the counter, routing
among his taxidermic material. Her face came up hot and angry over the
counter, as the jangling bell announced his return, and she forthwith
accused him of "hiding it."

"Hid _what_?" asked Mr. Cave.

"The crystal!"

At that Mr. Cave, apparently much surprised, rushed to the window. "Isn't
it here?" he said. "Great Heavens! what has become of it?"

Just then Mr. Cave's step-son re-entered the shop from, the inner room--he
had come home a minute or so before Mr. Cave--and he was blaspheming
freely. He was apprenticed to a second-hand furniture dealer down the
road, but he had his meals at home, and he was naturally annoyed to find
no dinner ready.

But when he heard of the loss of the crystal, he forgot his meal, and his
anger was diverted from his mother to his step-father. Their first idea,
of course, was that he had hidden it. But Mr. Cave stoutly denied all
knowledge of its fate, freely offering his bedabbled affidavit in the
matter--and at last was worked up to the point of accusing, first, his
wife and then his stepson of having taken it with a view to a private
sale. So began an exceedingly acrimonious and emotional discussion, which
ended for Mrs. Cave in a peculiar nervous condition midway between
hysterics and amuck, and caused the step-son to be half-an-hour late at
the furniture establishment in the afternoon. Mr. Cave took refuge from
his wife's emotions in the shop.

In the evening the matter was resumed, with less passion and in a judicial
spirit, under the presidency of the step-daughter. The supper passed
unhappily and culminated in a painful scene. Mr. Cave gave way at last to
extreme exasperation, and went out banging the front door violently. The
rest of the family, having discussed him with the freedom his absence
warranted, hunted the house from garret to cellar, hoping to light upon
the crystal.

The next day the two customers called again. They were received by Mrs.
Cave almost in tears. It transpired that no one _could_ imagine all
that she had stood from Cave at various times in her married pilgrimage.
... She also gave a garbled account of the disappearance. The clergyman
and the Oriental laughed silently at one another, and said it was very
extraordinary. As Mrs. Cave seemed disposed to give them the complete
history of her life they made to leave the shop. Thereupon Mrs. Cave,
still clinging to hope, asked for the clergyman's address, so that, if she
could get anything out of Cave, she might communicate it. The address was
duly given, but apparently was afterwards mislaid. Mrs. Cave can remember
nothing about it.

In the evening of that day the Caves seem to have exhausted their
emotions, and Mr. Cave, who had been out in the afternoon, supped in a
gloomy isolation that contrasted pleasantly with the impassioned
controversy of the previous days. For some time matters were very badly
strained in the Cave household, but neither crystal nor customer
reappeared.

Now, without mincing the matter, we must admit that Mr. Cave was a liar.
He knew perfectly well where the crystal was. It was in the rooms of Mr.
Jacoby Wace, Assistant Demonstrator at St. Catherine's Hospital,
Westbourne Street. It stood on the sideboard partially covered by a black
velvet cloth, and beside a decanter of American whisky. It is from Mr.
Wace, indeed, that the particulars upon which this narrative is based were
derived. Cave had taken off the thing to the hospital hidden in the
dog-fish sack, and there had pressed the young investigator to keep it for
him. Mr. Wace was a little dubious at first. His relationship to Cave was
peculiar. He had a taste for singular characters, and he had more than
once invited the old man to smoke and drink in his rooms, and to unfold
his rather amusing views of life in general and of his wife in particular.
Mr. Wace had encountered Mrs. Cave, too, on occasions when Mr. Cave was
not at home to attend to him. He knew the constant interference to which
Cave was subjected, and having weighed the story judicially, he decided to
give the crystal a refuge. Mr. Cave promised to explain the reasons for
his remarkable affection for the crystal more fully on a later occasion,
but he spoke distinctly of seeing visions therein. He called on Mr. Wace
the same evening.

He told a complicated story. The crystal he said had come into his
possession with other oddments at the forced sale of another curiosity
dealer's effects, and not knowing what its value might be, he had ticketed
it at ten shillings. It had hung upon his hands at that price for some
months, and he was thinking of "reducing the figure," when he made a
singular discovery.

At that time his health was very bad--and it must be borne in mind that,
throughout all this experience, his physical condition was one of ebb--and
he was in considerable distress by reason of the negligence, the positive
ill-treatment even, he received from his wife and step-children. His wife
was vain, extravagant, unfeeling, and had a growing taste for private
drinking; his step-daughter was mean and over-reaching; and his step-son
had conceived a violent dislike for him, and lost no chance of showing it.
The requirements of his business pressed heavily upon him, and Mr. Wace
does not think that he was altogether free from occasional intemperance.
He had begun life in a comfortable position, he was a man of fair
education, and he suffered, for weeks at a stretch, from melancholia and
insomnia. Afraid to disturb his family, he would slip quietly from his
wife's side, when his thoughts became intolerable, and wander about the
house. And about three o'clock one morning, late in August, chance
directed him into the shop.

The dirty little place was impenetrably black except in one spot, where he
perceived an unusual glow of light. Approaching this, he discovered it to
be the crystal egg, which was standing on the corner of the counter
towards the window. A thin ray smote through a crack in the shutters,
impinged upon the object, and seemed as it were to fill its entire
interior.

It occurred to Mr. Cave that this was not in accordance with the laws of
optics as he had known them in his younger days. He could understand the
rays being refracted by the crystal and coming to a focus in its interior,
but this diffusion jarred with his physical conceptions. He approached the
crystal nearly, peering into it and round it, with a transient revival of
the scientific curiosity that in his youth had determined his choice of a
calling. He was surprised to find the light not steady, but writhing
within the substance of the egg, as though that object was a hollow sphere
of some luminous vapour. In moving about to get different points of view,
he suddenly found that he had come between it and the ray, and that the
crystal none the less remained luminous. Greatly astonished, he lifted it
out of the light ray and carried it to the darkest part of the shop. It
remained bright for some four or five minutes, when it slowly faded and
went out. He placed it in the thin streak of daylight, and its
luminousness was almost immediately restored.

So far, at least, Mr. Wace was able to verify the remarkable story of Mr.
Cave. He has himself repeatedly held this crystal in a ray of light (which
had to be of a less diameter than one millimetre). And in a perfect
darkness, such as could be produced by velvet wrapping, the crystal did
undoubtedly appear very faintly phosphorescent. It would seem, however,
that the luminousness was of some exceptional sort, and not equally
visible to all eyes; for Mr. Harbinger--whose name will be familiar to the
scientific reader in connection with the Pasteur Institute--was quite
unable to see any light whatever. And Mr. Wace's own capacity for its
appreciation was out of comparison inferior to that of Mr. Cave's. Even
with Mr. Cave the power varied very considerably: his vision was most
vivid during states of extreme weakness and fatigue.

Now, from the outset, this light in the crystal exercised a curious
fascination upon Mr. Cave. And it says more for his loneliness of soul
than a volume of pathetic writing could do, that he told no human being of
his curious observations. He seems to have been living in such an
atmosphere of petty spite that to admit the existence of a pleasure would
have been to risk the loss of it. He found that as the dawn advanced, and
the amount of diffused light increased, the crystal became to all
appearance non-luminous. And for some time he was unable to see anything
in it, except at night-time, in dark corners of the shop.

But the use of an old velvet cloth, which he used as a background for a
collection of minerals, occurred to him, and by doubling this, and putting
it over his head and hands, he was able to get a sight of the luminous
movement within the crystal even in the day-time. He was very cautious
lest he should be thus discovered by his wife, and he practised this
occupation only in the afternoons, while she was asleep upstairs, and then
circumspectly in a hollow under the counter. And one day, turning the
crystal about in his hands, he saw something. It came and went like a
flash, but it gave him the impression that the object had for a moment
opened to him the view of a wide and spacious and strange country; and
turning it about, he did, just as the light faded, see the same vision
again.

Now it would be tedious and unnecessary to state all the phases of Mr.
Cave's discovery from this point. Suffice that the effect was this: the
crystal, being peered into at an angle of about 137 degrees from the
direction of the illuminating ray, gave a clear and consistent picture of
a wide and peculiar country-side. It was not dream-like at all: it
produced a definite impression of reality, and the better the light the
more real and solid it seemed. It was a moving picture: that is to say,
certain objects moved in it, but slowly in an orderly manner like real
things, and, according as the direction of the lighting and vision
changed, the picture changed also. It must, indeed, have been like looking
through an oval glass at a view, and turning the glass about to get at
different aspects.

Mr. Cave's statements, Mr. Wace assures me, were extremely circumstantial,
and entirely free from any of that emotional quality that taints
hallucinatory impressions. But it must be remembered that all the efforts
of Mr. Wace to see any similar clarity in the faint opalescence of the
crystal were wholly unsuccessful, try as he would. The difference in
intensity of the impressions received by the two men was very great, and
it is quite conceivable that what was a view to Mr. Cave was a mere
blurred nebulosity to Mr. Wace.

The view, as Mr. Cave described it, was invariably of an extensive plain,
and he seemed always to be looking at it from a considerable height, as if
from a tower or a mast. To the east and to the west the plain was bounded
at a remote distance by vast reddish cliffs, which reminded him of those
he had seen in some picture; but what the picture was Mr. Wace was unable
to ascertain. These cliffs passed north and south--he could tell the
points of the compass by the stars that were visible of a night--receding
in an almost illimitable perspective and fading into the mists of the
distance before they met. He was nearer the eastern set of cliffs; on the
occasion of his first vision the sun was rising over them, and black
against the sunlight and pale against their shadow appeared a multitude of
soaring forms that Mr. Cave regarded as birds. A vast range of buildings
spread below him; he seemed to be looking down upon them; and as they
approached the blurred and refracted edge of the picture they became
indistinct. There were also trees curious in shape, and in colouring a
deep mossy green and an exquisite grey, beside a wide and shining canal.
And something great and brilliantly coloured flew across the picture. But
the first time Mr. Cave saw these pictures he saw only in flashes, his
hands shook, his head moved, the vision came and went, and grew foggy and
indistinct. And at first he had the greatest difficulty in finding the
picture again once the direction of it was lost.

His next clear vision, which came about a week after the first, the
interval having yielded nothing but tantalising glimpses and some useful
experience, showed him the view down the length of the valley. The view
was different, but he had a curious persuasion, which his subsequent
observations abundantly confirmed, that he was regarding the strange world
from exactly the same spot, although he was looking in a different
direction. The long façade of the great building, whose roof he had looked
down upon before, was now receding in perspective. He recognised the roof.
In the front of the façade was a terrace of massive proportions and
extraordinary length, and down the middle of the terrace, at certain
intervals, stood huge but very graceful masts, bearing small shiny objects
which reflected the setting sun. The import of these small objects did not
occur to Mr. Cave until some time after, as he was describing the scene to
Mr. Wace. The terrace overhung a thicket of the most luxuriant and
graceful vegetation, and beyond this was a wide grassy lawn on which
certain broad creatures, in form like beetles but enormously larger,
reposed. Beyond this again was a richly decorated causeway of pinkish
stone; and beyond that, and lined with dense red weeds, and passing up the
valley exactly parallel with the distant cliffs, was a broad and
mirror-like expanse of water. The air seemed full of squadrons of great
birds, manoeuvring in stately curves; and across the river was a multitude
of splendid buildings, richly coloured and glittering with metallic tracery
and facets, among a forest of moss-like and lichenous trees. And suddenly
something flapped repeatedly across the vision, like the fluttering of a
jewelled fan or the beating of a wing, and a face, or rather the upper
part of a face with very large eyes, came as it were close to his own and
as if on the other side of the crystal. Mr. Cave was so startled and so
impressed by the absolute reality of these eyes that he drew his head back
from the crystal to look behind it. He had become so absorbed in watching
that he was quite surprised to find himself in the cool darkness of his
little shop, with its familiar odour of methyl, mustiness, and decay. And
as he blinked about him, the glowing crystal faded and went out.

Such were the first general impressions of Mr. Cave. The story is
curiously direct and circumstantial. From the outset, when the valley
first flashed momentarily on his senses, his imagination was strangely
affected, and as he began to appreciate the details of the scene he saw,
his wonder rose to the point of a passion. He went about his business
listless and distraught, thinking only of the time when he should be able
to return to his watching. And then a few weeks after his first sight of
the valley came the two customers, the stress and excitement of their
offer, and the narrow escape of the crystal from sale, as I have already
told.

Now, while the thing was Mr. Cave's secret, it remained a mere wonder, a
thing to creep to covertly and peep at, as a child might peep upon a
forbidden garden. But Mr. Wace has, for a young scientific investigator, a
particularly lucid and consecutive habit of mind. Directly the crystal and
its story came to him, and he had satisfied himself, by seeing the
phosphorescence with his own eyes, that there really was a certain
evidence for Mr. Cave's statements, he proceeded to develop the matter
systematically. Mr. Cave was only too eager to come and feast his eyes on
this wonderland he saw, and he came every night from half-past eight until
half-past ten, and sometimes, in Mr. Wace's absence, during the day. On
Sunday afternoons, also, he came. From the outset Mr. Wace made copious
notes, and it was due to his scientific method that the relation between
the direction from which the initiating ray entered the crystal and the
orientation of the picture were proved. And, by covering the crystal in a
box perforated only with a small aperture to admit the exciting ray, and
by substituting black holland for his buff blinds, he greatly improved the
conditions of the observations; so that in a little while they were able
to survey the valley in any direction they desired.

So having cleared the way, we may give a brief account of this visionary
world within the crystal. The things were in all cases seen by Mr. Cave,
and the method of working was invariably for him to watch the crystal and
report what he saw, while Mr. Wace (who as a science student had learnt
the trick of writing in the dark) wrote a brief note of his report. When
the crystal faded, it was put into its box in the proper position and the
electric light turned on. Mr. Wace asked questions, and suggested
observations to clear up difficult points. Nothing, indeed, could have
been less visionary and more matter-of-fact.

The attention of Mr. Cave had been speedily directed to the bird-like
creatures he had seen so abundantly present in each of his earlier
visions. His first impression was soon corrected, and he considered for a
time that they might represent a diurnal species of bat. Then he thought,
grotesquely enough, that they might be cherubs. Their heads were round and
curiously human, and it was the eyes of one of them that had so startled
him on his second observation. They had broad, silvery wings, not
feathered, but glistening almost as brilliantly as new-killed fish and
with the same subtle play of colour, and these wings were not built on the
plan of bird-wing or bat, Mr. Wace learned, but supported by curved ribs
radiating from the body. (A sort of butterfly wing with curved ribs seems
best to express their appearance.) The body was small, but fitted with two
bunches of prehensile organs, like long tentacles, immediately under the
mouth. Incredible as it appeared to Mr. Wace, the persuasion at last
became irresistible that it was these creatures which owned the great
quasi-human buildings and the magnificent garden that made the broad
valley so splendid. And Mr. Cave perceived that the buildings, with other
peculiarities, had no doors, but that the great circular windows, which
opened freely, gave the creatures egress and entrance. They would alight
upon their tentacles, fold their wings to a smallness almost rod-like, and
hop into the interior. But among them was a multitude of smaller-winged
creatures, like great dragon-flies and moths and flying beetles, and
across the greensward brilliantly-coloured gigantic ground-beetles crawled
lazily to and fro. Moreover, on the causeways and terraces, large-headed
creatures similar to the greater winged flies, but wingless, were visible,
hopping busily upon their hand-like tangle of tentacles.

Allusion has already been made to the glittering objects upon masts that
stood upon the terrace of the nearer building. It dawned upon Mr. Cave,
after regarding one of these masts very fixedly on one particularly vivid
day that the glittering object there was a crystal exactly like that into
which he peered. And a still more careful scrutiny convinced him that each
one in a vista of nearly twenty carried a similar object.

Occasionally one of the large flying creatures would flutter up to one,
and folding its wings and coiling a number of its tentacles about the
mast, would regard the crystal fixedly for a space,--sometimes for as long
as fifteen minutes. And a series of observations, made at the suggestion
of Mr. Wace, convinced both watchers that, so far as this visionary world
was concerned, the crystal into which they peered actually stood at the
summit of the end-most mast on the terrace, and that on one occasion at
least one of these inhabitants of this other world had looked into Mr.
Cave's face while he was making these observations.

So much for the essential facts of this very singular story. Unless we
dismiss it all as the ingenious fabrication of Mr. Wace, we have to
believe one of two things: either that Mr. Cave's crystal was in two
worlds at once, and that while it was carried about in one, it remained
stationary in the other, which seems altogether absurd; or else that it
had some peculiar relation of sympathy with another and exactly similar
crystal in this other world, so that what was seen in the interior of the
one in this world was, under suitable conditions, visible to an observer
in the corresponding crystal in the other world; and _vice versa_. At
present, indeed, we do not know of any way in which two crystals could so
come _en rapport_, but nowadays we know enough to understand that the
thing is not altogether impossible. This view of the crystals as _en
rapport_ was the supposition that occurred to Mr. Wace, and to me at
least it seems extremely plausible...

And where was this other world? On this, also, the alert intelligence of
Mr. Wace speedily threw light. After sunset, the sky darkened rapidly--
there was a very brief twilight interval indeed--and the stars shone out.
They were recognisably the same as those we see, arranged in the same
constellations. Mr. Cave recognised the Bear, the Pleiades, Aldebaran, and
Sirius; so that the other world must be somewhere in the solar system,
and, at the utmost, only a few hundreds of millions of miles from our own.
Following up this clue, Mr. Wace learned that the midnight sky was a
darker blue even than our midwinter sky, and that the sun seemed a little
smaller. _And there were two small moons!_ "like our moon but
smaller, and quite differently marked," one of which moved so rapidly that
its motion was clearly visible as one regarded it. These moons were never
high in the sky, but vanished as they rose: that is, every time they
revolved they were eclipsed because they were so near their primary
planet. And all this answers quite completely, although Mr. Cave did not
know it, to what must be the condition of things on Mars.

Indeed, it seems an exceedingly plausible conclusion that peering into
this crystal Mr. Cave did actually see the planet Mars and its
inhabitants. And if that be the case, then the evening star that shone so
brilliantly in the sky of that distant vision was neither more nor less
than our own familiar earth.

For a time the Martians--if they were Martians--do not seem to have known
of Mr. Cave's inspection. Once or twice one would come to peer, and go
away very shortly to some other mast, as though the vision was
unsatisfactory. During this time Mr. Cave was able to watch the
proceedings of these winged people without being disturbed by their
attentions, and although his report is necessarily vague and fragmentary,
it is nevertheless very suggestive. Imagine the impression of humanity a
Martian observer would get who, after a difficult process of preparation
and with considerable fatigue to the eyes, was able to peer at London from
the steeple of St. Martin's Church for stretches, at longest, of four
minutes at a time. Mr. Cave was unable to ascertain if the winged Martians
were the same as the Martians who hopped about the causeways and terraces,
and if the latter could put on wings at will. He several times saw certain
clumsy bipeds, dimly suggestive of apes, white and partially translucent,
feeding among certain of the lichenous trees, and once some of these fled
before one of the hopping, round-headed Martians. The latter caught one in
its tentacles, and then the picture faded suddenly and left Mr. Cave most
tantalisingly in the dark. On another occasion a vast thing, that Mr. Cave
thought at first was some gigantic insect, appeared advancing along the
causeway beside the canal with extraordinary rapidity. As this drew nearer
Mr. Cave perceived that it was a mechanism of shining metals and of
extraordinary complexity. And then, when he looked again, it had passed
out of sight.

After a time Mr. Wace aspired to attract the attention of the Martians,
and the next time that the strange eyes of one of them appeared close to
the crystal Mr. Cave cried out and sprang away, and they immediately
turned on the light and began to gesticulate in a manner suggestive of
signalling. But when at last Mr. Cave examined the crystal again the
Martian had departed.

Thus far these observations had progressed in early November, and then Mr.
Cave, feeling that the suspicions of his family about the crystal were
allayed, began to take it to and fro with him in order that, as occasion
arose in the daytime or night, he might comfort himself with what was fast
becoming the most real thing in his existence.

In December Mr. Wace's work in connection with a forthcoming examination
became heavy, the sittings were reluctantly suspended for a week, and for
ten or eleven days--he is not quite sure which--he saw nothing of Cave. He
then grew anxious to resume these investigations, and, the stress of his
seasonal labours being abated, he went down to Seven Dials. At the corner
he noticed a shutter before a bird fancier's window, and then another at a
cobbler's. Mr. Cave's shop was closed.

He rapped and the door was opened by the step-son in black. He at once
called Mrs. Cave, who was, Mr. Wace could not but observe, in cheap but
ample widow's weeds of the most imposing pattern. Without any very great
surprise Mr. Wace learnt that Cave was dead and already buried. She was in
tears, and her voice was a little thick. She had just returned from
Highgate. Her mind seemed occupied with her own prospects and the
honourable details of the obsequies, but Mr. Wace was at last able to
learn the particulars of Cave's death. He had been found dead in his shop
in the early morning, the day after his last visit to Mr. Wace, and the
crystal had been clasped in his stone-cold hands. His face was smiling,
said Mrs. Cave, and the velvet cloth from the minerals lay on the floor at
his feet. He must have been dead five or six hours when he was found.

This came as a great shock to Wace, and he began to reproach himself
bitterly for having neglected the plain symptoms of the old man's
ill-health. But his chief thought was of the crystal. He approached that
topic in a gingerly manner, because he knew Mrs. Cave's peculiarities. He
was dumfounded to learn that it was sold.

Mrs. Cave's first impulse, directly Cave's body had been taken upstairs,
had been to write to the mad clergyman who had offered five pounds for the
crystal, informing him of its recovery; but after a violent hunt, in which
her daughter joined her, they were convinced of the loss of his address.
As they were without the means required to mourn and bury Cave in the
elaborate style the dignity of an old Seven Dials inhabitant demands, they
had appealed to a friendly fellow-tradesman in Great Portland Street. He
had very kindly taken over a portion of the stock at a valuation. The
valuation was his own, and the crystal egg was included in one of the
lots. Mr. Wace, after a few suitable condolences, a little off-handedly
proffered perhaps, hurried at once to Great Portland Street. But there he
learned that the crystal egg had already been sold to a tall, dark man in
grey. And there the material facts in this curious, and to me at least
very suggestive, story come abruptly to an end. The Great Portland Street
dealer did not know who the tall dark man in grey was, nor had he observed
him with sufficient attention to describe him minutely. He did not even
know which way this person had gone after leaving the shop. For a time Mr.
Wace remained in the shop, trying the dealer's patience with hopeless
questions, venting his own exasperation. And at last, realising abruptly
that the whole thing had passed out of his hands, had vanished like a
vision of the night, he returned to his own rooms, a little astonished to
find the notes he had made still tangible and visible upon, his untidy
table.

His annoyance and disappointment were naturally very great. He made a
second call (equally ineffectual) upon the Great Portland Street dealer,
and he resorted to advertisements in such periodicals as were lively to
come into the hands of a _bric-a-brac_ collector. He also wrote
letters to _The Daily Chronicle_ and _Nature_, but both those
periodicals, suspecting a hoax, asked him to reconsider his action before
they printed, and he was advised that such a strange story, unfortunately
so bare of supporting evidence, might imperil his reputation as an
investigator. Moreover, the calls of his proper work were urgent. So that
after a month or so, save for an occasional reminder to certain dealers,
he had reluctantly to abandon the quest for the crystal egg, and from that
day to this it remains undiscovered. Occasionally, however, he tells me,
and I can quite believe him, he has bursts of zeal, in which he abandons
his more urgent occupation and resumes the search.

Whether or not it will remain lost for ever, with the material and origin
of it, are things equally speculative at the present time. If the present
purchaser is a collector, one would have expected the enquiries of Mr.
Wace to have reached him through the dealers. He has been able to discover
Mr. Cave's clergyman and "Oriental"--no other than the Rev. James Parker
and the young Prince of Bosso-Kuni in Java. I am obliged to them for
certain particulars. The object of the Prince was simply curiosity--and
extravagance. He was so eager to buy because Cave was so oddly reluctant
to sell. It is just as possible that the buyer in the second instance was
simply a casual purchaser and not a collector at all, and the crystal egg,
for all I know, may at the present moment be within a mile of me,
decorating a drawing-room or serving as a paper-weight--its remarkable
functions all unknown. Indeed, it is partly with the idea of such a
possibility that I have thrown this narrative into a form that will give
it a chance of being read by the ordinary consumer of fiction.

My own ideas in the matter are practically identical with those of Mr.
Wace. I believe the crystal on the mast in Mars and the crystal egg of Mr.
Cave's to be in some physical, but at present quite inexplicable, way
_en rapport_, and we both believe further that the terrestrial
crystal must have been--possibly at some remote date--sent hither from
that planet, in order to give the Martians a near view of our affairs.
Possibly the fellows to the crystals on the other masts are also on our
globe. No theory of hallucination suffices for the facts.

 

 

 

XX.

THE STAR.

 

It was on the first day of the new year that the announcement was made,
almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the
planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun,
had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a
suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news
was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose
inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor
outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a
faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause
any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the
intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new
body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite
different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the
deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an
unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of
the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of
planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that
almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is
space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth
or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million
miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed
before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets
more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human
knowledge crossed this gulf of space until early in the twentieth century
this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky,
heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into
the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any
decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the
constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could
attain it.

On the third day of the new year the newspaper readers of two hemispheres
were made aware for the first time of the real importance of this unusual
apparition in the heavens. "A Planetary Collision," one London paper
headed the news, and proclaimed Duchaine's opinion that this strange new
planet would probably collide with Neptune. The leader-writers enlarged
upon the topic. So that in most of the capitals of the world, on January
3rd, there was an expectation, however vague, of some imminent phenomenon
in the sky; and as the night followed the sunset round the globe,
thousands of men turned their eyes skyward to see--the old familiar stars
just as they had always been.

Until it was dawn in London and Pollux setting and the stars overhead
grown pale. The Winter's dawn it was, a sickly filtering accumulation of
daylight, and the light of gas and candles shone yellow in the windows to
show where people were astir. But the yawning policeman saw the thing, the
busy crowds in the markets stopped agape, workmen going to their work
betimes, milkmen, the drivers of news-carts, dissipation going home jaded
and pale, homeless wanderers, sentinels on their beats, and, in the
country, labourers trudging afield, poachers slinking home, all over the
dusky quickening country it could be seen--and out at sea by seamen
watching for the day--a great white star, come suddenly into the westward
sky!

Brighter it was than any star in our skies; brighter than the evening star
at its brightest. It still glowed out white and large, no mere twinkling
spot of light, but a small, round, clear shining disc, an hour after the
day had come. And where science has not reached, men stared and feared,
telling one another of the wars and pestilences that are foreshadowed by
these fiery signs in the Heavens. Sturdy Boers, dusky Hottentots, Gold
Coast negroes, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, stood in the warmth of
the sunrise watching the setting of this strange new star.

And in a hundred observatories there had been suppressed excitement,
rising almost to shouting pitch, as the two remote bodies had rushed
together, and a hurrying to and fro, to gather photographic apparatus and
spectroscope, and this appliance and that, to record this novel,
astonishing sight, the destruction of a world. For it was a world, a
sister planet of our earth, far greater than our earth indeed, that had so
suddenly flashed into flaming death. Neptune it was had been struck,
fairly and squarely, by the strange planet from outer space, and the heat
of the concussion had incontinently turned two solid globes into one vast
mass of incandescence. Round the world that day, two hours before the
dawn, went the pallid great white star, fading only as it sank westward
and the sun mounted above it. Everywhere men marvelled at it, but of all
those who saw it none could have marvelled more than those sailors,
habitual watchers of the stars, who far away at sea had heard nothing of
its advent and saw it now rise like a pigmy moon and climb zenithward and
hang overhead and sink westward with the passing of the night.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on
hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the
rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it,
like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into
existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. "It is larger,"
they cried. "It is brighter!" And indeed the moon, a quarter full and
sinking in the west, was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but
scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little
circle of the strange new star.

"It is brighter!" cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the
dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one
another. "_It is nearer_!" they said. "_Nearer_!"

And voice after voice repeated, "It is nearer," and the clicking telegraph
took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand
cities grimy compositors fingered the type. "It is nearer." Men writing in
offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men
talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in
those words, "It is nearer." It hurried along awakening streets, it was
shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages, men who had read
these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting
the news to the passers-by. "It is nearer," Pretty women, flushed and
glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned
an intelligent interest they did not feel. "Nearer! Indeed. How curious!
How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!"

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to
comfort themselves--looking skyward. "It has need to be nearer, for the
night's as cold as charity. Don't seem much warmth from it if it _is_
nearer, all the same."

"What is a new star to me?" cried the weeping woman, kneeling beside her
dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for
himself--with the great white star shining broad and bright through the
frost-flowers of his window. "Centrifugal, centripetal," he said, with his
chin on his fist. "Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal
force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And
this--!

"Do _we_ come in the way? I wonder--"

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later
watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now
so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself,
hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African city a great man had
married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride.
"Even the skies have illuminated," said the flatterer. Under Capricorn,
two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits for love of one
another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered.
"That is our star," they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the
sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from
him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there
still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for
four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had
given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this
momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from
his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he
went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half-way up the
sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys, and steeples of the city, hung
the star.

He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. "You may
kill me," he said after a silence. "But I can hold you--and all the
universe for that matter--in the grip of this small brain. I would not
change. Even now."

He looked at the little phial. "There will be no need of sleep again," he
said. The next day at noon, punctual to the minute, he entered his lecture
theatre, put his hat on the end of the table as his habit was, and
carefully selected a large piece of chalk. It was a joke among his
students that he could not lecture without that piece of chalk to fumble
in his fingers, and once he had been stricken to impotence by their hiding
his supply. He came and looked under his grey eyebrows at the rising tiers
of young fresh faces, and spoke with his accustomed studied commonness of
phrasing.

"Circumstances have arisen--circumstances beyond my control," he said, and
paused, "which will debar me from completing the course I had designed.
It would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and briefly,
that--Man has lived in vain."

The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright? Mad? Raised
eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained
intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. "It will be interesting," he was
saying, "to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it
clear to you, of the calculations that have led me to this conclusion. Let
us assume----"

He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in the way that was
usual to him. "What was that about 'lived in vain'?" whispered one student
to another. "Listen," said the other, nodding towards the lecturer.

And presently they began to understand.

* * * * *

That night the star rose later, for its proper eastward motion had carried
it some way across Leo towards Virgo, and its brightness was so great that
the sky became a luminous blue as it rose, and every star was hidden in
its turn, save only Jupiter near the zenith, Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius,
and the pointers of the Bear. It was very white and beautiful. In many
parts of the world that night a pallid halo encircled it about. It was
perceptibly larger; in the clear refractive sky of the tropics it seemed
as if it were nearly a quarter the size of the moon. The frost was still
on the ground in England, but the world was as brightly lit as if it were
midsummer moonlight. One could see to read quite ordinary print by that
cold, clear light, and in the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.

And everywhere the world was awake that night, and throughout Christendom
a sombre murmur hung in the keen air over the country-side like the
belling of bees in the heather, and this murmurous tumult grew to a
clangour in the cities. It was the tolling of the bells in a million
belfry towers and steeples, summoning the people to sleep no more, to sin
no more, but to gather in their churches and pray. And overhead, growing
larger and brighter, as the earth rolled on its way and the night passed,
rose the dazzling star.

And the streets and houses were alight in all the cities, the shipyards
glared, and whatever roads led to high country were lit and crowded all
night long. And in all the seas about the civilized lands, ships with
throbbing engines, and ships with bellying sails, crowded with men and
living creatures, were standing out to ocean and the north. For already
the warning of the master mathematician had been telegraphed all over the
world and translated into a hundred tongues. The new planet and Neptune,
locked in a fiery embrace, were whirling headlong, ever faster and faster
towards the sun. Already every second this blazing mass flew a hundred
miles, and every second its terrific velocity increased. As it flew now,
indeed, it must pass a hundred million of miles, wide of the earth and
scarcely affect it. But near its destined path, as yet only slightly
perturbed, spun the mighty planet Jupiter and his moons sweeping splendid
round the sun. Every moment now the attraction between the fiery star and
the greatest of the planets grew stronger. And the result of that
attraction? Inevitably Jupiter would be deflected from its orbit into
an elliptical path, and the burning star, swung by his attraction wide of
its sunward rush, would "describe a curved path," and perhaps collide
with, and certainly pass very close to, our earth. "Earthquakes, volcanic
outbreaks, cyclones, sea waves, floods, and a steady rise in temperature
to I know not what limit"--so prophesied the master mathematician.

And overhead, to carry out his words, lonely and cold and livid blazed the
star of the coming doom.

To many who stared at it that night until their eyes ached it seemed that
it was visibly approaching. And that night, too, the weather changed, and
the frost that had gripped all Central Europe and France and England
softened towards a thaw.

But you must not imagine, because I have spoken of people praying through
the night and people going aboard ships and people fleeing towards
mountainous country, that the whole world was already in a terror because
of the star. As a matter of fact, use and wont still ruled the world, and
save for the talk of idle moments and the splendour of the night, nine
human beings out of ten were still busy at their common occupations. In
all the cities the shops, save one here and there, opened and closed at
their proper hours, the doctor and the undertaker plied their trades, the
workers gathered in the factories, soldiers drilled, scholars studied,
lovers sought one another, thieves lurked and fled, politicians planned
their schemes. The presses of the newspapers roared through the nights,
and many a priest of this church and that would not open his holy building
to further what he considered a foolish panic. The newspapers insisted on
the lesson of the year 1000--for then, too, people had anticipated the
end. The star was no star--mere gas--a comet; and were it a star it could
not possibly strike the earth. There was no precedent for such a thing.
Common-sense was sturdy everywhere, scornful, jesting, a little inclined
to persecute the obdurate fearful. That night, at seven-fifteen by
Greenwich time, the star would be at its nearest to Jupiter. Then the
world would see the turn things would take. The master mathematician's
grim warnings were treated by many as so much mere elaborate
self-advertisement. Common-sense at last, a little heated by argument,
signified its unalterable convictions by going to bed. So, too, barbarism
and savagery, already tired of the novelty, went about their nightly
business, and, save for a howling dog here and there, the beast world left
the star unheeded.

And yet, when at last the watchers in the European States saw the star
rise, an hour later, it is true, but no larger than it had been the night
before, there were still plenty awake to laugh at the master
mathematician--to take the danger as if it had passed.

But hereafter the laughter ceased. The star grew--it grew with a terrible
steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer
the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, until it had turned night
into a second day. Had it come straight to the earth instead of in a
curved path, had it lost no velocity to Jupiter, it must have leapt the
intervening gulf in a day; but as it was, it took five days altogether to
come by our planet. The next night it had become a third the size of the
moon before it set to English eyes, and the thaw was assured. It rose over
America near the size of the moon, but blinding white to look at, and
_hot_; and a breath of hot wind blew now with its rising and
gathering strength, and in Virginia, and Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence
valley, it shone intermittently through a driving reek of thunder-clouds,
flickering violet lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a
thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of the earth the
snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the rivers coming out of
high country flowed thick and turbid, and soon--in their upper reaches--
with swirling trees and the bodies of beasts and men. They rose steadily,
steadily in the ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at
last, behind the flying population of their valleys.

And along the coast of Argentina and up the South Atlantic the tides were
higher than had ever been in the memory of man, and the storms drove the
waters in many cases scores of miles inland, drowning whole cities. And so
great grew the heat during the night that the rising of the sun was like
the coming of a shadow. The earthquakes began and grew until all down
America from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, hillsides were sliding,
fissures were opening, and houses and walls crumbling to destruction. The
whole side of Cotopaxi slipped out in one vast convulsion, and a tumult of
lava poured out so high and broad and swift and liquid that in one day it
reached the sea.

So the star, with the wan moon in its wake, marched across the Pacific,
trailed the thunder-storms like the hem of a robe, and the growing tidal
wave that toiled behind it, frothing and eager, poured over island and
island and swept them clear of men: until that wave came at last--in a
blinding light and with the breath of a furnace, swift and terrible it
came--a wall of water, fifty feet high, roaring hungrily, upon the long
coasts of Asia, and swept inland across the plains of China. For a space
the star, hotter now and larger and brighter than the sun in its strength,
showed with pitiless brilliance the wide and populous country; towns and
villages with their pagodas and trees, roads, wide cultivated fields,
millions of sleepless people staring in helpless terror at the
incandescent sky; and then, low and growing, came the murmur of the flood.
And thus it was with millions of men that night--a flight nowhither, with
limbs heavy with heat and breath fierce and scant, and the flood like a
wall swift and white behind. And then death.

China was lit glowing white, but over Japan and Java and all the islands
of Eastern Asia the great star was a ball of dull red fire because of the
steam and smoke and ashes the volcanoes were spouting forth to salute its
coming. Above was the lava, hot gases and ash, and below the seething
floods, and the whole earth swayed and rumbled with the earthquake shocks.
Soon the immemorial snows of Thibet and the Himalaya were melting and
pouring down by ten million deepening converging channels upon the plains
of Burmah and Hindostan. The tangled summits of the Indian jungles were
aflame in a thousand places, and below the hurrying waters around the
stems were dark objects that still struggled feebly and reflected the
blood-red tongues of fire. And in a rudderless confusion a multitude of
men and women fled down the broad river-ways to that one last hope of
men--the open sea.

Larger grew the star, and larger, hotter, and brighter with a terrible
swiftness now. The tropical ocean had lost its phosphorescence, and the
whirling steam rose in ghostly wreaths from the black waves that plunged
incessantly, speckled with storm-tossed ships.

And then came a wonder. It seemed to those who in Europe watched for the
rising of the star that the world must have ceased its rotation. In a
thousand open spaces of down and upland the people who had fled thither
from the floods and the falling houses and sliding slopes of hill watched
for that rising in vain. Hour followed hour through a terrible suspense,
and the star rose not. Once again men set their eyes upon the old
constellations they had counted lost to them for ever. In England it was
hot and clear overhead, though the ground quivered perpetually, but in the
tropics, Sirius and Capella and Aldebaran showed through a veil of steam.
And when at last the great star rose near ten hours late, the sun rose
close upon it, and in the centre of its white heart was a disc of black.

Over Asia it was the star had begun to fall behind the movement of the
sky, and then suddenly, as it hung over India, its light had been veiled.
All the plain of India from the mouth of the Indus to the mouths of the
Ganges was a shallow waste of shining water that night, out of which rose
temples and palaces, mounds and hills, black with people. Every minaret
was a clustering mass of people, who fell one by one into the turbid
waters, as heat and terror overcame them. The whole land seemed a-wailing,
and suddenly there swept a shadow across that furnace of despair, and a
breath of cold wind, and a gathering of clouds, out of the cooling air.
Men looking up, near blinded, at the star, saw that a black disc was
creeping across the light. It was the moon, coming between the star and
the earth. And even as men cried to God at this respite, out of the East
with a strange inexplicable swiftness sprang the sun. And then star, sun,
and moon rushed together across the heavens.

So it was that presently to the European watchers star and sun rose close
upon each other, drove headlong for a space and then slower, and at last
came to rest, star and sun merged into one glare of flame at the zenith of
the sky. The moon no longer eclipsed the star but was lost to sight in the
brilliance of the sky. And though those who were still alive regarded it
for the most part with that dull stupidity that hunger, fatigue, heat and
despair engender, there were still men who could perceive the meaning of
these signs. Star and earth had been at their nearest, had swung about one
another, and the star had passed. Already it was receding, swifter and
swifter, in the last stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun.

And then the clouds gathered, blotting out the vision of the sky, the
thunder and lightning wove a garment round the world; all over the earth
was such a downpour of rain as men had never before seen, and where the
volcanoes flared red against the cloud canopy there descended torrents of
mud. Everywhere the waters were pouring off the land, leaving mud-silted
ruins, and the earth littered like a storm-worn beach with all that had
floated, and the dead bodies of the men and brutes, its children. For days
the water streamed off the land, sweeping away soil and trees and houses
in the way, and piling huge dykes and scooping out Titanic gullies over
the country-side. Those were the days of darkness that followed the star
and the heat. All through them, and for many weeks and months, the
earthquakes continued.

But the star had passed, and men, hunger-driven and gathering courage only
slowly, might creep back to their ruined cities, buried granaries, and
sodden fields. Such few ships as had escaped the storms of that time came
stunned and shattered and sounding their way cautiously through the new
marks and shoals of once familiar ports. And as the storms subsided men
perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore, and the sun
larger, and the moon, shrunk to a third of its former size, took now
fourscore days between its new and new.

But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of
laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over
Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin's Bay, so that the sailors
coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce
believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of
mankind, now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards
the poles of the earth. It concerns itself only with the coming and the
passing of the star.

The Martian astronomers--for there are astronomers on Mars, although they
are very different beings from men--were naturally profoundly interested
by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course.
"Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung
through our solar system into the sun," one wrote, "it is astonishing what
a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All
the familiar continental markings and the masses of the seas remain
intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the
white discolouration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole."
Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem at a
distance of a few million miles.

 

 

 

XXI.

THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES.

A PANTOUM IN PROSE.

 

It is doubtful whether the gift was innate. For my own part, I think it
came to him suddenly. Indeed, until he was thirty he was a sceptic, and
did not believe in miraculous powers. And here, since it is the most
convenient place, I must mention that he was a little man, and had eyes of
a hot brown, very erect red hair, a moustache with ends that he twisted
up, and freckles. His name was George McWhirter Fotheringay--not the sort
of name by any means to lead to any expectation of miracles--and he was
clerk at Gomshott's. He was greatly addicted to assertive argument. It was
while he was asserting the impossibility of miracles that he had his first
intimation of his extraordinary powers. This particular argument was being
held in the bar of the Long Dragon, and Toddy Beamish was conducting the
opposition by a monotonous but effective "So _you_ say," that drove
Mr. Fotheringay to the very limit of his patience.

There were present, besides these two, a very dusty cyclist, landlord Cox,
and Miss Maybridge, the perfectly respectable and rather portly barmaid of
the Dragon. Miss Maybridge was standing with her back to Mr. Fotheringay,
washing glasses; the others were watching him, more or less amused by the
present ineffectiveness of the assertive method. Goaded by the Torres
Vedras tactics of Mr. Beamish, Mr. Fotheringay determined to make an
unusual rhetorical effort. "Looky here, Mr. Beamish," said Mr.
Fotheringay. "Let us clearly understand what a miracle is. It's something
contrariwise to the course of nature, done by power of will, something
what couldn't happen without being specially willed."

"So _you_ say," said Mr. Beamish, repulsing him.

Mr. Fotheringay appealed to the cyclist, who had hitherto been a silent
auditor, and received his assent--given with a hesitating cough and a
glance at Mr. Beamish. The landlord would express no opinion, and Mr.
Fotheringay, returning to Mr. Beamish, received the unexpected concession
of a qualified assent to his definition of a miracle.

"For instance," said Mr. Fotheringay, greatly encouraged. "Here would be a
miracle. That lamp, in the natural course of nature, couldn't burn like
that upsy-down, could it, Beamish?"

"_You_ say it couldn't," said Beamish.

"And you?" said Fotheringay. "You don't mean to say--eh?"

"No," said Beamish reluctantly. "No, it couldn't."

"Very well," said Mr. Fotheringay. "Then here comes someone, as it might
be me, along here, and stands as it might be here, and says to that lamp,
as I might do, collecting all my will--Turn upsy-down without breaking,
and go on burning steady, and--Hullo!"

It was enough to make anyone say "Hullo!" The impossible, the incredible,
was visible to them all. The lamp hung inverted in the air, burning
quietly with its flame pointing down. It was as solid, as indisputable as
ever a lamp was, the prosaic common lamp of the Long Dragon bar.

Mr. Fotheringay stood with an extended forefinger and the knitted brows of
one anticipating a catastrophic smash. The cyclist, who was sitting next
the lamp, ducked and jumped across the bar. Everybody jumped, more or
less. Miss Maybridge turned and screamed. For nearly three seconds the
lamp remained still. A faint cry of mental distress came from Mr.
Fotheringay. "I can't keep it up," he said, "any longer." He staggered
back, and the inverted lamp suddenly flared, fell against the corner of
the bar, bounced aside, smashed upon the floor, and went out.

It was lucky it had a metal receiver, or the whole place would have been
in a blaze. Mr. Cox was the first to speak, and his remark, shorn of
needless excrescences, was to the effect that Fotheringay was a fool.
Fotheringay was beyond disputing even so fundamental a proposition as
that! He was astonished beyond measure at the thing that had occurred. The
subsequent conversation threw absolutely no light on the matter so far as
Fotheringay was concerned; the general opinion not only followed Mr. Cox
very closely but very vehemently. Everyone accused Fotheringay of a silly
trick, and presented him to himself as a foolish destroyer of comfort and
security. His mind was in a tornado of perplexity, he was himself inclined
to agree with them, and he made a remarkably ineffectual opposition to the
proposal of his departure.

He went home flushed and heated, coat-collar crumpled, eyes smarting, and
ears red. He watched each of the ten street lamps nervously as he passed
it. It was only when he found himself alone in his little bedroom in
Church Row that he was able to grapple seriously with his memories of the
occurrence, and ask, "What on earth happened?"

He had removed his coat and boots, and was sitting on the bed with his
hands in his pockets repeating the text of his defence for the seventeenth
time, "I didn't want the confounded thing to upset," when it occurred to
him that at the precise moment he had said the commanding words he had
inadvertently willed the thing he said, and that when he had seen the lamp
in the air he had felt that it depended on him to maintain it there
without being clear how this was to be done. He had not a particularly
complex mind, or he might have stuck for a time at that "inadvertently
willed," embracing, as it does, the abstrusest problems of voluntary
action; but as it was, the idea came to him with a quite acceptable
haziness. And from that, following, as I must admit, no clear logical
path, he came to the test of experiment.

He pointed resolutely to his candle and collected his mind, though he felt
he did a foolish thing. "Be raised up," he said. But in a second that
feeling vanished. The candle was raised, hung in the air one giddy moment,
and as Mr. Fotheringay gasped, fell with a smash on his toilet-table,
leaving him in darkness save for the expiring glow of its wick.

For a time Mr. Fotheringay sat in the darkness, perfectly still. "It did
happen, after all," he said. "And 'ow _I'm_ to explain it I
_don't_ know." He sighed heavily, and began feeling in his pockets
for a match. He could find none, and he rose and groped about the
toilet-table. "I wish I had a match," he said. He resorted to his coat,
and there was none there, and then it dawned upon him that miracles were
possible even with matches. He extended a hand and scowled at it in the
dark. "Let there be a match in that hand," he said. He felt some light
object fall across his palm and his fingers closed upon a match.

After several ineffectual attempts to light this, he discovered it was a
safety match. He threw it down, and then it occurred to him that he might
have willed it lit. He did, and perceived it burning in the midst of his
toilet-table mat. He caught it up hastily, and it went out. His perception
of possibilities enlarged, and he felt for and replaced the candle in its
candlestick. "Here! _you_ be lit," said Mr. Fotheringay, and
forthwith the candle was flaring, and he saw a little black hole in the
toilet-cover, with a wisp of smoke rising from it. For a time he stared
from this to the little flame and back, and then looked up and met his own
gaze in the looking-glass. By this help he communed with himself in
silence for a time.

"How about miracles now?" said Mr. Fotheringay at last, addressing his
reflection.

The subsequent meditations of Mr. Fotheringay were of a severe but
confused description. So far, he could see it was a case of pure willing
with him. The nature of his experiences so far disinclined him for any
further experiments, at least until he had reconsidered them. But he
lifted a sheet of paper, and turned a glass of water pink and then green,
and he created a snail, which he miraculously annihilated, and got himself
a miraculous new tooth-brush. Somewhere in the small hours he had reached
the fact that his will-power must be of a particularly rare and pungent
quality, a fact of which he had indeed had inklings before, but no certain
assurance. The scare and perplexity of his first discovery was now
qualified by pride in this evidence of singularity and by vague
intimations of advantage. He became aware that the church clock was
striking one, and as it did not occur to him that his daily duties at
Gomshott's might be miraculously dispensed with, he resumed undressing, in
order to get to bed without further delay. As he struggled to get his
shirt over his head, he was struck with a brilliant idea. "Let me be in
bed," he said, and found himself so. "Undressed," he stipulated; and,
finding the sheets cold, added hastily, "and in my nightshirt--ho, in a
nice soft woollen nightshirt. Ah!" he said with immense enjoyment. "And
now let me be comfortably asleep..."

He awoke at his usual hour and was pensive all through breakfast-time,
wondering whether his over-night experience might not be a particularly
vivid dream. At length his mind turned again to cautious experiments. For
instance, he had three eggs for breakfast; two his landlady had supplied,
good, but shoppy, and one was a delicious fresh goose-egg, laid, cooked,
and served by his extraordinary will. He hurried off to Gomshott's in a
state of profound but carefully concealed excitement, and only remembered
the shell of the third egg when his landlady spoke of it that night. All
day he could do no work because of this astonishing new self-knowledge,
but this caused him no inconvenience, because he made up for it
miraculously in his last ten minutes.

As the day wore on his state of mind passed from wonder to elation, albeit
the circumstances of his dismissal from the Long Dragon were still
disagreeable to recall, and a garbled account of the matter that had
reached his colleagues led to some badinage. It was evident he must be
careful how he lifted frangible articles, but in other ways his gift
promised more and more as he turned it over in his mind. He intended among
other things to increase his personal property by unostentatious acts of
creation. He called into existence a pair of very splendid diamond studs,
and hastily annihilated them again as young Gomshott came across the
counting-house to his desk. He was afraid young Gomshott might wonder how
he had come by them. He saw quite clearly the gift required caution and
watchfulness in its exercise, but so far as he could judge the
difficulties attending its mastery would be no greater than those he had
already faced in the study of cycling. It was that analogy, perhaps, quite
as much as the feeling that he would be unwelcome in the Long Dragon, that
drove him out after supper into the lane beyond the gasworks, to rehearse
a few miracles in private.

There was possibly a certain want of originality in his attempts, for,
apart from his will-power, Mr. Fotheringay was not a very exceptional man.
The miracle of Moses' rod came to his mind, but the night was dark and
unfavourable to the proper control of large miraculous snakes. Then he
recollected the story of "Tannhäuser" that he had read on the back of the
Philharmonic programme. That seemed to him singularly attractive and
harmless. He stuck his walking-stick--a very nice Poona-Penang lawyer--
into the turf that edged the footpath, and commanded the dry wood to
blossom. The air was immediately full of the scent of roses, and by means
of a match he saw for himself that this beautiful miracle was indeed
accomplished. His satisfaction was ended by advancing footsteps. Afraid of
a premature discovery of his powers, he addressed the blossoming stick
hastily: "Go back." What he meant was "Change back;" but of course he was
confused. The stick receded at a considerable velocity, and incontinently
came a cry of anger and a bad word from the approaching person. "Who are
you throwing brambles at, you fool?" cried a voice. "That got me on the
shin."

"I'm sorry, old chap," said Mr. Fotheringay, and then, realising the
awkward nature of the explanation, caught nervously at his moustache. He
saw Winch, one of the three Immering constables, advancing.

"What d'yer mean by it?" asked the constable. "Hullo! it's you, is it? The
gent that broke the lamp at the Long Dragon!"

"I don't mean anything by it," said Mr. Fotheringay. "Nothing at all."

"What d'yer do it for then?"

"Oh, bother!" said Mr. Fotheringay.

"Bother indeed! D'yer know that stick hurt? What d'yer do it for, eh?"

For the moment Mr. Fotheringay could not think what he had done it for.
His silence seemed to irritate Mr. Winch. "You've been assaulting the
police, young man, this time. That's what _you_ done."

"Look here, Mr. Winch," said Mr. Fotheringay, annoyed and confused, "I'm
sorry, very. The fact is----"

"Well?"

He could think of no way but the truth. "I was working a miracle." He
tried to speak in an off-hand way, but try as he would he couldn't.

"Working a--! 'Ere, don't you talk rot. Working a miracle, indeed!
Miracle! Well, that's downright funny! Why, you's the chap that don't
believe in miracles... Fact is, this is another of your silly conjuring
tricks--that's what this is. Now, I tell you--"

But Mr. Fotheringay never heard what Mr. Winch was going to tell him. He
realised he had given himself away, flung his valuable secret to all the
winds of heaven. A violent gust of irritation swept him to action. He
turned on the constable swiftly and fiercely. "Here," he said, "I've had
enough of this, I have! I'll show you a silly conjuring trick, I will! Go
to Hades! Go, now!"

He was alone!

Mr. Fotheringay performed no more miracles that night, nor did he trouble
to see what had become of his flowering stick. He returned to the town,
scared and very quiet, and went to his bedroom. "Lord!" he said, "it's a
powerful gift--an extremely powerful gift. I didn't hardly mean as much as
that. Not really... I wonder what Hades is like!"

He sat on the bed taking off his boots. Struck by a happy thought he
transferred the constable to San Francisco, and without any more
interference with normal causation went soberly to bed. In the night he
dreamt of the anger of Winch.

The next day Mr. Fotheringay heard two interesting items of news. Someone
had planted a most beautiful climbing rose against the elder Mr.
Gomshott's private house in the Lullaborough Road, and the river as far as
Rawling's Mill was to be dragged for Constable Winch.

Mr. Fotheringay was abstracted and thoughtful all that day, and performed
no miracles except certain provisions for Winch, and the miracle of
completing his day's work with punctual perfection in spite of all the
bee-swarm of thoughts that hummed through his mind. And the extraordinary
abstraction and meekness of his manner was remarked by several people, and
made a matter for jesting. For the most part he was thinking of Winch.

On Sunday evening he went to chapel, and oddly enough, Mr. Maydig, who
took a certain interest in occult matters, preached about "things that are
not lawful." Mr. Fotheringay was not a regular chapelgoer, but the system
of assertive scepticism, to which I have already alluded, was now very
much shaken. The tenor of the sermon threw an entirely new light on these
novel gifts, and he suddenly decided to consult Mr. Maydig immediately
after the service. So soon as that was determined, he found himself
wondering why he had not done so before.

Mr. Maydig, a lean, excitable man with quite remarkably long wrists and
neck, was gratified at a request for a private conversation from a young
man whose carelessness in religious matters was a subject for general
remark in the town. After a few necessary delays, he conducted him to the
study of the manse, which was contiguous to the chapel, seated him
comfortably, and, standing in front of a cheerful fire--his legs threw a
Rhodian arch of shadow on the opposite wall--requested Mr. Fotheringay to
state his business.

At first Mr. Fotheringay was a little abashed, and found some difficulty
in opening the matter. "You will scarcely believe me, Mr. Maydig, I am
afraid"--and so forth for some time. He tried a question at last, and
asked Mr. Maydig his opinion of miracles.

Mr. Maydig was still saying "Well" in an extremely judicial tone, when Mr.
Fotheringay interrupted again: "You don't believe, I suppose, that some
common sort of person--like myself, for instance--as it might be sitting
here now, might have some sort of twist inside him that made him able to
do things by his will."

"It's possible," said Mr. Maydig. "Something of the sort, perhaps, is
possible."

"If I might make free with something here, I think I might show you by a
sort of experiment," said Mr. Fotheringay. "Now, take that tobacco-jar on
the table, for instance. What I want to know is whether what I am going to
do with it is a miracle or not. Just half a minute, Mr. Maydig, please."

He knitted his brows, pointed to the tobacco-jar and said: "Be a bowl of
vi'lets."

The tobacco-jar did as it was ordered.

Mr. Maydig started violently at the change, and stood looking from the
thaumaturgist to the bowl of flowers. He said nothing. Presently he
ventured to lean over the table and smell the violets; they were
fresh-picked and very fine ones. Then he stared at Mr. Fotheringay again.

"How did you do that?" he asked.

Mr. Fotheringay pulled his moustache. "Just told it--and there you are. Is
that a miracle, or is it black art, or what is it? And what do you think's
the matter with me? That's what I want to ask."

"It's a most extraordinary occurrence."

"And this day last week I knew no more that I could do things like that
than you did. It came quite sudden. It's something odd about my will, I
suppose, and that's as far as I can see."

"Is that--the only thing. Could you do other things besides that?"

"Lord, yes!" said Mr. Fotheringay. "Just anything." He thought, and
suddenly recalled a conjuring entertainment he had seen. "Here!" he
pointed, "change into a bowl of fish--no, not that--change into a glass
bowl full of water with goldfish swimming in it. That's better! You see
that, Mr. Maydig?"

"It's astonishing. It's incredible. You are either a most extraordinary...
But no----"

"I could change it into anything," said Mr. Fotheringay. "Just anything.
Here! be a pigeon, will you?"

In another moment a blue pigeon was fluttering round the room and making
Mr. Maydig duck every time it came near him. "Stop there, will you?" said
Mr. Fotheringay; and the pigeon hung motionless in the air. "I could
change it back to a bowl of flowers," he said, and after replacing the
pigeon on the table worked that miracle. "I expect you will want your pipe
in a bit," he said, and restored the tobacco-jar.

Mr. Maydig had followed all these later changes in a sort of ejaculatory
silence. He stared at Mr. Fotheringay and in a very gingerly manner picked
up the tobacco-jar, examined it, replaced it on the table. "_Well_!"
was the only expression of his feelings.

"Now, after that it's easier to explain what I came about," said Mr.
Fotheringay; and proceeded to a lengthy and involved narrative of his
strange experiences, beginning with the affair of the lamp in the Long
Dragon and complicated by persistent allusions to Winch. As he went on,
the transient pride Mr. Maydig's consternation had caused passed away; he
became the very ordinary Mr. Fotheringay of everyday intercourse again.
Mr. Maydig listened intently, the tobacco-jar in his hand, and his bearing
changed also with the course of the narrative. Presently, while Mr.
Fotheringay was dealing with the miracle of the third egg, the minister
interrupted with a fluttering, extended hand.

"It is possible," he said. "It is credible. It is amazing, of course, but
it reconciles a number of amazing difficulties. The power to work miracles
is a gift--a peculiar quality like genius or second sight; hitherto it has
come very rarely and to exceptional people. But in this case...I have
always wondered at the miracles of Mahomet, and at Yogi's miracles, and
the miracles of Madame Blavatsky. But, of course--Yes, it is simply a
gift! It carries out so beautifully the arguments of that great thinker"--
Mr. Maydig's voice sank--"his Grace the Duke of Argyll. Here we plumb some
profounder law--deeper than the ordinary laws of nature. Yes--yes. Go on.
Go on!"

Mr. Fotheringay proceeded to tell of his misadventure with Winch, and Mr.
Maydig, no longer overawed or scared, began to jerk his limbs about and
interject astonishment. "It's this what troubled me most," proceeded Mr.
Fotheringay; "it's this I'm most mijitly in want of advice for; of course
he's at San Francisco--wherever San Francisco may be--but of course it's
awkward for both of us, as you'll see, Mr. Maydig. I don't see how he can
understand what has happened, and I daresay he's scared and exasperated
something tremendous, and trying to get at me. I daresay he keeps on
starting off to come here. I send him back, by a miracle, every few hours,
when I think of it. And, of course, that's a thing he won't be able to
understand, and it's bound to annoy him; and, of course, if he takes a
ticket every time it will cost him a lot of money. I done the best I could
for him, but, of course, it's difficult for him to put himself in my
place. I thought afterwards that his clothes might have got scorched, you
know--if Hades is all it's supposed to be--before I shifted him. In that
case I suppose they'd have locked him up in San Francisco. Of course I
willed him a new suit of clothes on him directly I thought of it. But, you
see, I'm already in a deuce of a tangle----"

Mr. Maydig looked serious. "I see you are in a tangle. Yes, it's a
difficult position. How you are to end it..." He became diffuse and
inconclusive.

"However, we'll leave Winch for a little and discuss the larger question.
I don't think this is a case of the black art or anything of the sort. I
don't think there is any taint of criminality about it at all, Mr.
Fotheringay--none whatever, unless you are suppressing material facts. No,
it's miracles--pure miracles--miracles, if I may say so, of the very
highest class."

He began to pace the hearthrug and gesticulate, while Mr. Fotheringay sat
with his arm on the table and his head on his arm, looking worried. "I
don't see how I'm to manage about Winch," he said.

"A gift of working miracles--apparently a very powerful gift," said Mr.
Maydig, "will find a way about Winch--never fear. My dear sir, you are a
most important man--a man of the most astonishing possibilities. As
evidence, for example! And in other ways, the things you may do..."

"Yes, _I've_ thought of a thing or two," said Mr. Fotheringay. "But--
some of the things came a bit twisty. You saw that fish at first? Wrong
sort of bowl and wrong sort of fish. And I thought I'd ask someone."

"A proper course," said Mr. Maydig, "a very proper course--altogether the
proper course." He stopped and looked at Mr. Fotheringay. "It's
practically an unlimited gift. Let us test your powers, for instance. If
they really _are_ ... If they really are all they seem to be."

And so, incredible as it may seem, in the study of the little house behind
the Congregational Chapel, on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 10, 1896, Mr.
Fotheringay, egged on and inspired by Mr. Maydig, began to work miracles.
The reader's attention is specially and definitely called to the date. He
will object, probably has already objected, that certain points in this
story are improbable, that if any things of the sort already described had
indeed occurred, they would have been in all the papers at that time. The
details immediately following he will find particularly hard to accept,
because among other things they involve the conclusion that he or she, the
reader in question, must have been killed in a violent and unprecedented
manner more than a year ago. Now a miracle is nothing if not improbable,
and as a matter of fact the reader _was_ killed in a violent and
unprecedented manner in 1896. In the subsequent course of this story that
will become perfectly clear and credible, as every right-minded and
reasonable reader will admit. But this is not the place for the end of the
story, being but little beyond the hither side of the middle. And at first
the miracles worked by Mr. Fotheringay were timid little miracles--little
things with the cups and parlour fitments, as feeble as the miracles of
Theosophists, and, feeble as they were, they were received with awe by his
collaborator. He would have preferred to settle the Winch business out of
hand, but Mr. Maydig would not let him. But after they had worked a dozen
of these domestic trivialities, their sense of power grew, their
imagination began to show signs of stimulation, and their ambition
enlarged. Their first larger enterprise was due to hunger and the
negligence of Mrs. Minchin, Mr. Maydig's housekeeper. The meal to which
the minister conducted Mr. Fotheringay was certainly ill-laid and
uninviting as refreshment for two industrious miracle-workers; but they
were seated, and Mr. Maydig was descanting in sorrow rather than in anger
upon his housekeeper's shortcomings, before it occurred to Mr. Fotheringay
that an opportunity lay before him. "Don't you think, Mr. Maydig," he
said, "if it isn't a liberty, _I_----"

"My dear Mr. Fotheringay! Of course! No--I didn't think."

Mr. Fotheringay waved his hand. "What shall we have?" he said, in a large,
inclusive spirit, and, at Mr. Maydig's order, revised the supper very
thoroughly. "As for me," he said, eyeing Mr. Maydig's selection, "I am
always particularly fond of a tankard of stout and a nice Welsh rarebit,
and I'll order that. I ain't much given to Burgundy," and forthwith stout
and Welsh rarebit promptly appeared at his command. They sat long at their
supper, talking like equals, as Mr. Fotheringay presently perceived, with
a glow of surprise and gratification, of all the miracles they would
presently do. "And, by-the-by, Mr. Maydig," said Mr. Fotheringay, "I might
perhaps be able to help you--in a domestic way."

"Don't quite follow," said Mr. Maydig, pouring out a glass of miraculous
old Burgundy.

Mr. Fotheringay helped himself to a second Welsh rarebit out of vacancy,
and took a mouthful. "I was thinking," he said, "I might be able (_chum,
chum_) to work (_chum, chum_) a miracle with Mrs. Minchin
(_chum, chum_)--make her a better woman."

Mr. Maydig put down the glass and looked doubtful.

"She's----She strongly objects to interference, you know, Mr.
Fotheringay. And--as a matter of fact--it's well past eleven and she's
probably in bed and asleep. Do you think, on the whole----"

Mr. Fotheringay considered these objections. "I don't see that it
shouldn't be done in her sleep."

For a time Mr. Maydig opposed the idea, and then he yielded. Mr.
Fotheringay issued his orders, and a little less at their ease, perhaps,
the two gentlemen proceeded with their repast. Mr. Maydig was enlarging on
the changes he might expect in his housekeeper next day, with an optimism,
that seemed even to Mr. Fotheringay's supper senses a little forced and
hectic, when a series of confused noises from upstairs began. Their eyes
exchanged interrogations, and Mr. Maydig left the room hastily. Mr.
Fotheringay heard him calling up to his housekeeper and then his footsteps
going softly up to her.

In a minute or so the minister returned, his step light, his face radiant.
"Wonderful!" he said, "and touching! Most touching!"

He began pacing the hearthrug. "A repentance--a most touching repentance--
through the crack of the door. Poor woman! A most wonderful change! She
had got up. She must have got up at once. She had got up out of her sleep
to smash a private bottle of brandy in her box. And to confess it too!...
But this gives us--it opens--a most amazing vista of possibilities. If we
can work this miraculous change in _her_..."

"The thing's unlimited seemingly," said Mr. Fotheringay. "And about Mr.
Winch----"

"Altogether unlimited." And from the hearthrug Mr. Maydig, waving the
Winch difficulty aside, unfolded a series of wonderful proposals--
proposals he invented as he went along.

Now what those proposals were does not concern the essentials of this
story. Suffice it that they were designed in a spirit of infinite
benevolence, the sort of benevolence that used to be called post-prandial.
Suffice it, too, that the problem of Winch remained unsolved. Nor is it
necessary to describe how far that series got to its fulfilment. There
were astonishing changes. The small hours found Mr. Maydig and Mr.
Fotheringay careering across the chilly market square under the still
moon, in a sort of ecstasy of thaumaturgy, Mr. Maydig all flap and
gesture, Mr. Fotheringay short and bristling, and no longer abashed at his
greatness. They had reformed every drunkard in the Parliamentary division,
changed all the beer and alcohol to water (Mr. Maydig had overruled Mr.
Fotheringay on this point); they had, further, greatly improved the
railway communication of the place, drained Flinder's swamp, improved the
soil of One Tree Hill, and cured the vicar's wart. And they were going to
see what could be done with the injured pier at South Bridge. "The place,"
gasped Mr. Maydig, "won't be the same place to-morrow. How surprised and
thankful everyone will be!" And just at that moment the church clock
struck three.

"I say," said Mr. Fotheringay, "that's three o'clock! I must be getting
back. I've got to be at business by eight. And besides, Mrs. Wimms----"

"We're only beginning," said Mr. Maydig, full of the sweetness of
unlimited power. "We're only beginning. Think of all the good we're doing.
When people wake----"

"But----," said Mr. Fotheringay.

Mr. Maydig gripped his arm suddenly. His eyes were bright and wild. "My
dear chap," he said, "there's no hurry. Look"--he pointed to the moon at
the zenith--"Joshua!"

"Joshua?" said Mr. Fotheringay.

"Joshua," said Mr. Maydig. "Why not? Stop it."

Mr. Fotheringay looked at the moon.

"That's a bit tall," he said, after a pause.

"Why not?" said Mr. Maydig. "Of course it doesn't stop. You stop the
rotation of the earth, you know. Time stops. It isn't as if we were doing
harm."

"H'm!" said Mr. Fotheringay. "Well," he sighed, "I'll try. Here!"

He buttoned up his jacket and addressed himself to the habitable globe,
with as good an assumption of confidence as lay in his power. "Jest stop
rotating, will you?" said Mr. Fotheringay.

Incontinently he was flying head over heels through the air at the rate of
dozens of miles a minute. In spite of the innumerable circles he was
describing per second, he thought; for thought is wonderful--sometimes as
sluggish as flowing pitch, sometimes as instantaneous as light. He thought
in a second, and willed. "Let me come down safe and sound. Whatever else
happens, let me down safe and sound."

He willed it only just in time, for his clothes, heated by his rapid
flight through the air, were already beginning to singe. He came down with
a forcible, but by no means injurious, bump in what appeared to be a mound
of fresh-turned earth. A large mass of metal and masonry, extraordinarily
like the clock-tower in the middle of the market square, hit the earth
near him, ricochetted over him, and flew into stonework, bricks, and
cement, like a bursting bomb. A hurtling cow hit one of the larger blocks
and smashed like an egg. There was a crash that made all the most violent
crashes of his past life seem like the sound of falling dust, and this was
followed by a descending series of lesser crashes. A vast wind roared
throughout earth and heaven, so that he could scarcely lift his head to
look. For a while he was too breathless and astonished even to see where
he was or what had happened. And his first movement was to feel his head
and reassure himself that his streaming hair was still his own.

"Lord!" gasped Mr. Fotheringay, scarce able to speak for the gale, "I've
had a squeak! What's gone wrong? Storms and thunder. And only a minute ago
a fine night. It's Maydig set me on to this sort of thing. _What_ a
wind! If I go on fooling in this way I'm bound to have a thundering
accident!...

"Where's Maydig?

"What a confounded mess everything's in!"

He looked about him so far as his flapping jacket would permit. The
appearance of things was really extremely strange. "The sky's all right
anyhow," said Mr. Fotheringay. "And that's about all that is all right.
And even there it looks like a terrific gale coming up. But there's the
moon overhead. Just as it was just now. Bright as midday. But as for the
rest----Where's the village? Where's--where's anything? And what on earth
set this wind a-blowing? I didn't order no wind."

Mr. Fotheringay struggled to get to his feet in vain, and after one
failure, remained on all fours, holding on. He surveyed the moonlit world
to leeward, with the tails of his jacket streaming over his head. "There's
something seriously wrong," said Mr. Fotheringay. "And what it is--
goodness knows."

Far and wide nothing was visible in the white glare through the haze of
dust that drove before a screaming gale but tumbled masses of earth and
heaps of inchoate ruins, no trees, no houses, no familiar shapes, only a
wilderness of disorder, vanishing at last into the darkness beneath the
whirling columns and streamers, the lightnings and thunderings of a
swiftly rising storm. Near him in the livid glare was something that might
once have been an elm-tree, a smashed mass of splinters, shivered from
boughs to base, and further a twisted mass of iron girders--only too
evidently the viaduct--rose out of the piled confusion.

You see, when Mr. Fotheringay had arrested the rotation of the solid
globe, he had made no stipulation concerning the trifling movables upon
its surface. And the earth spins so fast that the surface at its equator
is travelling at rather more than a thousand miles an hour, and in these
latitudes at more than half that pace. So that the village, and Mr.
Maydig, and Mr. Fotheringay, and everybody and everything had been jerked
violently forward at about nine miles per second--that is to say, much
more violently than if they had been fired out of a cannon. And every
human being, every living creature, every house, and every tree--all the
world as we know it--had been so jerked and smashed and utterly destroyed.
That was all.

These things Mr. Fotheringay did not, of course, fully appreciate. But he
perceived that his miracle had miscarried, and with that a great disgust
of miracles came upon him. He was in darkness now, for the clouds had
swept together and blotted out his momentary glimpse of the moon, and the
air was full of fitful struggling tortured wraiths of hail. A great
roaring of wind and waters filled earth and sky, and peering under his
hand through the dust and sleet to windward, he saw by the play of the
lightnings a vast wall of water pouring towards him.

"Maydig!" screamed Mr. Fotheringay's feeble voice amid the elemental
uproar. "Here!--Maydig!

"Stop!" cried Mr. Fotheringay to the advancing water. "Oh, for goodness'
sake, stop!

"Just a moment," said Mr. Fotheringay to the lightnings and thunder. "Stop
jest a moment while I collect my thoughts... And now what shall I do?" he
said. "What _shall_ I do? Lord! I wish Maydig was about."

"I know," said Mr. Fotheringay. "And for goodness' sake let's have it
right _this_ time."

He remained on all fours, leaning against the wind, very intent to have
everything right.

"Ah!" he said. "Let nothing what I'm going to order happen until I say
'Off!'...Lord! I wish I'd thought of that before!"

He lifted his little voice against the whirlwind, shouting louder and
louder in the vain desire to hear himself speak. "Now then!--here goes!
Mind about that what I said just now. In the first place, when all I've
got to say is done, let me lose my miraculous power, let my will become
just like anybody else's will, and all these dangerous miracles be
stopped. I don't like them. I'd rather I didn't work 'em. Ever so much.
That's the first thing. And the second is--let me be back just before the
miracles begin; let everything be just as it was before that blessed lamp
turned up. It's a big job, but it's the last. Have you got it? No more
miracles, everything as it was--me back in the Long Dragon just before I
drank my half-pint. That's it! Yes."

He dug his fingers into the mould, closed his eyes, and said "Off!"

Everything became perfectly still. He perceived that he was standing
erect.

"So _you_ say," said a voice.

He opened his eyes. He was in the bar of the Long Dragon, arguing about
miracles with Toddy Beamish. He had a vague sense of some great thing
forgotten that instantaneously passed. You see that, except for the loss
of his miraculous powers, everything was back as it had been, his mind and
memory therefore were now just as they had been at the time when this
story began. So that he knew absolutely nothing of all that is told here--
knows nothing of all that is told here to this day. And among other
things, of course, he still did not believe in miracles.

"I tell you that miracles, properly speaking, can't possibly happen," he
said, "whatever you like to hold. And I'm prepared to prove it up to the
hilt."

"That's what _you_ think," said Toddy Beamish, and "Prove it if you
can."

"Looky here, Mr. Beamish," said Mr. Fotheringay. "Let us clearly
understand what a miracle is. It's something contrariwise to the course of
nature done by power of Will..."

 

 

 

XXII.

A VISION OF JUDGMENT.

 

I.

Bru-a-a-a.

I listened, not understanding.

Wa-ra-ra-ra.

"Good Lord!" said I, still only half awake. "What an infernal shindy!"

Ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra Ta-ra-rra-ra.

"It's enough," said I, "to wake----" and stopped short. Where was I?

Ta-rra-rara--louder and louder.

"It's either some new invention----"

Toora-toora-toora! Deafening!

"No," said I, speaking loud in order to hear myself. "That's the Last
Trump."

Tooo-rraa!

 

II.

The last note jerked me out of my grave like a hooked minnow.

I saw my monument (rather a mean little affair, and I wished I knew who'd
done it), and the old elm tree and the sea view vanished like a puff of
steam, and then all about me--a multitude no man could number, nations,
tongues, kingdoms, peoples--children of all the ages, in an amphitheatral
space as vast as the sky. And over against us, seated on a throne of
dazzling white cloud, the Lord God and all the host of his angels. I
recognised Azrael by his darkness and Michael by his sword, and the great
angel who had blown the trumpet stood with the trumpet still half raised.

 

III.

"Prompt," said the little man beside me. "Very prompt. Do you see the
angel with the book?"

He was ducking and craning his head about to see over and under and
between the souls that crowded round us. "Everybody's here," he said.
"Everybody. And now we shall know--

"There's Darwin," he said, going off at a tangent. "_He'll_ catch it!
And there--you see?--that tall, important-looking man trying to catch the
eye of the Lord God, that's the Duke. But there's a lot of people one
doesn't know.

"Oh! there's Priggles, the publisher. I have always wondered about
printers' overs. Priggles was a clever man ... But we shall know now--even
about him.

"I shall hear all that. I shall get most of the fun before ... _My_
letter's S."

He drew the air in between his teeth.

"Historical characters, too. See? That's Henry the Eighth. There'll be a
good bit of evidence. Oh, damn! He's Tudor."

He lowered his voice. "Notice this chap, just in front of us, all covered
with hair. Paleolithic, you know. And there again--"

But I did not heed him, because I was looking at the Lord God.

 

IV.

"Is this _all_?" asked the Lord God.

The angel at the book--it was one of countless volumes, like the British
Museum Reading-room Catalogue, glanced at us and seemed to count us in the
instant.

"That's all," he said, and added: "It was, O God, a very little planet."

The eyes of God surveyed us.

"Let us begin," said the Lord God.

 

V.

The angel opened the book and read a name. It was a name full of A's, and
the echoes of it came back out of the uttermost parts of space. I did not
catch it clearly, because the little man beside me said, in a sharp jerk,
"_What's_ that?" It sounded like "Ahab" to me; but it could not have
been the Ahab of Scripture.

Instantly a small black figure was lifted up to a puffy cloud at the very
feet of God. It was a stiff little figure, dressed in rich outlandish
robes and crowned, and it folded its arms and scowled.

"Well?" said God, looking down at him.

We were privileged to hear the reply, and indeed the acoustic properties
of the place were marvellous.

"I plead guilty," said the little figure.

"Tell them what you have done," said the Lord God.

"I was a king," said the little figure, "a great king, and I was lustful
and proud and cruel. I made wars, I devastated countries, I built palaces,
and the mortar was the blood of men. Hear, O God, the witnesses against
me, calling to you for vengeance. Hundreds and thousands of witnesses." He
waved his hands towards us. "And worse! I took a prophet--one of your
prophets----"

"One of my prophets," said the Lord God.

"And because he would not bow to me, I tortured him for four days and
nights, and in the end he died. I did more, O God, I blasphemed. I robbed
you of your honours----"

"Robbed me of my honours," said the Lord God.

"I caused myself to be worshipped in your stead. No evil was there but I
practised it; no cruelty wherewith I did not stain my soul. And at last
you smote me, O God!"

God raised his eyebrows slightly.

"And I was slain in battle. And so I stand before you, meet for your
nethermost Hell! Out of your greatness daring no lies, daring no pleas,
but telling the truth of my iniquities before all mankind."

He ceased. His face I saw distinctly, and it seemed to me white and
terrible and proud and strangely noble. I thought of Milton's Satan.

"Most of that is from the Obelisk," said the Recording Angel, finger on
page.

"It is," said the Tyrannous Man, with a faint touch of surprise.

Then suddenly God bent forward and took this man in his hand, and held him
up on his palm as if to see him better. He was just a little dark stroke
in the middle of God's palm.

"_Did_ he do all this?" said the Lord God.

The Recording Angel flattened his book with his hand.

"In a way," said the Recording Angel, carelessly. Now when I looked again
at the little man his face had changed in a very curious manner. He was
looking at the Recording Angel with a strange apprehension in his eyes,
and one hand fluttered to his mouth. Just the movement of a muscle or so,
and all that dignity of defiance was gone.

"Read," said the Lord God.

And the angel read, explaining very carefully and fully all the wickedness
of the Wicked Man. It was quite an intellectual treat.--A little "daring"
in places, I thought, but of course Heaven has its privileges...

 

VI.

Everybody was laughing. Even the prophet of the Lord whom the Wicked Man
had tortured had a smile on his face. The Wicked Man was really such a
preposterous little fellow.

"And then," read the Recording Angel, with a smile that set us all agog,
"one day, when he was a little irascible from over-eating, he--"

"Oh, not _that_," cried the Wicked Man, "nobody knew of _that_.

"It didn't happen," screamed the Wicked Man. "I was bad--I was really bad.
Frequently bad, but there was nothing so silly--so absolutely silly--"

The angel went on reading.

"O God!" cried the Wicked Man. "Don't let them know that! I'll repent!
I'll apologise..."

The Wicked Man on God's hand began to dance and weep. Suddenly shame
overcame him. He made a wild rush to jump off the ball of God's little
finger, but God stopped him by a dexterous turn of the wrist. Then he made
a rush for the gap between hand and thumb, but the thumb closed. And all
the while the angel went on reading--reading. The Wicked Man rushed to and
fro across God's palm, and then suddenly turned about and fled up the
sleeve of God.

I expected God would turn him out, but the mercy of God is infinite.

The Recording Angel paused.

"Eh?" said the Recording Angel.

"Next," said God, and before the Recording Angel could call the name a
hairy creature in filthy rags stood upon God's palm.

 

VII.

"Has God got Hell up his sleeve then?" said the little man beside me.

"_Is_ there a Hell?" I asked.

"If you notice," he said--he peered between the feet of the great angels--
"there's no particular indication of a Celestial City."

"'Ssh!" said a little woman near us, scowling. "Hear this blessed Saint!"

 

VIII.

"He was Lord of the Earth, but I was the prophet of the God of Heaven,"
cried the Saint, "and all the people marvelled at the sign. For I, O God,
knew of the glories of thy Paradise. No pain, no hardship, gashing with
knives, splinters thrust under my nails, strips of flesh flayed off, all
for the glory and honour of God."

God smiled.

"And at last I went, I in my rags and sores, smelling of my holy
discomforts----"

Gabriel laughed abruptly.

"And lay outside his gates, as a sign, as a wonder----"

"As a perfect nuisance," said the Recording Angel, and began to read,
heedless of the fact that the saint was still speaking of the gloriously
unpleasant things he had done that Paradise might be his.

And behold, in that book the record of the Saint also was a revelation, a
marvel.

It seemed not ten seconds before the Saint also was rushing to and fro
over the great palm of God. Not ten seconds! And at last he also shrieked
beneath that pitiless and cynical exposition, and fled also, even as the
Wicked Man had fled, into the shadow of the sleeve. And it was permitted
us to see into the shadow of the sleeve. And the two sat side by side,
stark of all delusions, in the shadow of the robe of God's charity, like
brothers.

And thither also I fled in my turn.

 

IX.

"And now," said God, as he shook us out of his sleeve upon the planet he
had given us to live upon, the planet that whirled about green Sirius for
a sun, "now that you understand me and each other a little better,...try
again."

Then he and his great angels turned themselves about and suddenly had
vanished...

The Throne had vanished.

All about me was a beautiful land, more beautiful than any I had ever seen
before--waste, austere, and wonderful; and all about me were the
enlightened souls of men in new clean bodies...

 

 

 

XXIII.

JIMMY GOGGLES THE GOD.

 

"It isn't every one who's been a god," said the sunburnt man. "But it's
happened to me--among other things."

I intimated my sense of his condescension.

"It don't leave much for ambition, does it?" said the sunburnt man.

"I was one of those men who were saved from the _Ocean Pioneer_.
Gummy! how time flies! It's twenty years ago. I doubt if you'll remember
anything of the _Ocean Pioneer_?"

The name was familiar, and I tried to recall when and where I had read it.
The _Ocean Pioneer_? "Something about gold dust," I said vaguely,
"but the precise--"

"That's it," he said. "In a beastly little channel she hadn't no business
in--dodging pirates. It was before they'd put the kybosh on that business.
And there'd been volcanoes or something and all the rocks was wrong.
There's places about by Soona where you fair have to follow the rocks
about to see where they're going next. Down she went in twenty fathoms
before you could have dealt for whist, with fifty thousand pounds worth of
gold aboard, it was said, in one form or another."

"Survivors?"

"Three."

"I remember the case now," I said. "There was something about salvage----"

But at the word salvage the sunburnt man exploded into language so
extraordinarily horrible that I stopped aghast. He came down to more
ordinary swearing, and pulled himself up abruptly. "Excuse me," he said,
"but--salvage!"

He leant over towards me. "I was in that job," he said. "Tried to make
myself a rich man, and got made a god instead. I've got my feelings----

"It ain't all jam being a god," said the sunburnt man, and for some time
conversed by means of such pithy but unprogressive axioms. At last he took
up his tale again.

"There was me," said the sunburnt man, "and a seaman named Jacobs, and
Always, the mate of the _Ocean Pioneer_. And him it was that set the
whole thing going. I remember him now, when we was in the jolly-boat,
suggesting it all to our minds just by one sentence. He was a wonderful
hand at suggesting things. 'There was forty thousand pounds,' he said, 'on
that ship, and it's for me to say just where she went down.' It didn't
need much brains to tumble to that. And he was the leader from the first
to the last. He got hold of the Sanderses and their brig; they were
brothers, and the brig was the _Pride of Banya_, and he it was bought
the diving dress--a second-hand one with a compressed air apparatus
instead of pumping. He'd have done the diving too, if it hadn't made him
sick going down. And the salvage people were mucking about with a chart
he'd cooked up, as solemn as could be, at Starr Race, a hundred and twenty
miles away.

"I can tell you we was a happy lot aboard that brig, jokes and drink and
bright hopes all the time. It all seemed so neat and clean and
straightforward, and what rough chaps call a 'cert.' And we used to
speculate how the other blessed lot, the proper salvagers, who'd started
two days before us, were getting on, until our sides fairly ached. We all
messed together in the Sanderses' cabin--it was a curious crew, all
officers and no men--and there stood the diving-dress waiting its turn.
Young Sanders was a humorous sort of chap, and there certainly was
something funny in the confounded thing's great fat head and its stare,
and he made us see it too. 'Jimmy Goggles,' he used to call it, and talk
to it like a Christian. Asked if he was married, and how Mrs. Goggles was,
and all the little Goggleses. Fit to make you split. And every blessed day
all of us used to drink the health of Jimmy Goggles in rum, and unscrew
his eye and pour a glass of rum in him, until, instead of that nasty
mackintosheriness, he smelt as nice in his inside as a cask of rum. It was
jolly times we had in those days, I can tell you--little suspecting, poor
chaps! what was a-coming.

"We weren't going to throw away our chances by any blessed hurry, you
know, and we spent a whole day sounding our way towards where the
_Ocean Pioneer_ had gone down, right between two chunks of ropy grey
rock--lava rocks that rose nearly out of the water. We had to lay off
about half a mile to get a safe anchorage, and there was a thundering row
who should stop on board. And there she lay just as she had gone down, so
that you could see the top of the masts that was still standing perfectly
distinctly. The row ended in all coming in the boat. I went down in the
diving-dress on Friday morning directly it was light.

"What a surprise it was! I can see it all now quite distinctly. It was a
queer-looking place, and the light was just coming. People over here think
every blessed place in the tropics is a flat shore and palm-trees and
surf, bless 'em! This place, for instance, wasn't a bit that way. Not
common rocks they were, undermined by waves; but great curved banks like
ironwork cinder heaps, with green slime below, and thorny shrubs and
things just waving upon them here and there, and the water glassy calm and
clear, and showing you a kind of dirty gray-black shine, with huge flaring
red-brown weeds spreading motionless, and crawling and darting things
going through it. And far away beyond the ditches and pools and the heaps
was a forest on the mountain flank, growing again after the fires and
cinder showers of the last eruption. And the other way forest, too, and a
kind of broken--what is it?--amby-theatre of black and rusty cinders
rising out of it all, and the sea in a kind of bay in the middle.

"The dawn, I say, was just coming, and there wasn't much colour about
things, and not a human being but ourselves anywhere in sight up or down
the channel. Except the _Pride of Banya_, lying out beyond a lump of
rocks towards the line of the sea.

"Not a human being in sight," he repeated, and paused.

"_I_ don't know where they came from, not a bit. And we were feeling
so safe that we were all alone that poor young Sanders was a-singing. I
was in Jimmy Goggles, all except the helmet. 'Easy,' says Always, 'there's
her mast.' And after I'd had just one squint over the gunwale, I caught up
the bogey, and almost tipped out as old Sanders brought the boat round.
When the windows were screwed and everything was all right, I shut the
valve from the air-belt in order to help my sinking, and jumped overboard,
feet foremost--for we hadn't a ladder. I left the boat pitching, and all
of them staring down into water after me, as my head sank down into the
weeds and blackness that lay about the mast. I suppose nobody, not the
most cautious chap in the world, would have bothered about a look-out at
such a desolate place. It stunk of solitude.

"Of course you must understand that I was a greenhorn at diving. None of
us were divers. We'd had to muck about with the thing to get the way of
it, and this was the first time I'd been deep. It feels damnable. Your
ears hurt beastly. I don't know if you've ever hurt yourself yawning or
sneezing, but it takes you like that, only ten times worse. And a pain
over the eyebrows here--splitting--and a feeling like influenza in the
head. And it isn't all heaven in your lungs and things. And going down
feels like the beginning of a lift, only it keeps on. And you can't turn
your head to see what's above you, and you can't get a fair squint at
what's happening to your feet without bending down something painful. And
being deep it was dark, let alone the blackness of the ashes and mud that
formed the bottom. It was like going down out of the dawn back into the
night, so to speak.

"The mast came up like a ghost out of the black, and then a lot of fishes,
and then a lot of flapping red seaweed, and then whack I came with a kind
of dull bang on the deck of the _Ocean Pioneer_, and the fishes that
had been feeding on the dead rose about me like a swarm of flies from road
stuff in summer-time. I turned on the compressed air again--for the suit
was a bit thick and mackintoshery after all, in spite of the rum--and
stood recovering myself. It struck coolish down there, and that helped
take off the stuffiness a bit."

"When I began to feel easier, I started looking about me. It was an
extraordinary sight. Even the light was extraordinary, a kind of
reddy-coloured twilight, on account of the streamers of seaweed that
floated up on either side of the ship. And far overhead just a moony,
deep green blue. The deck of the ship, except for a slight list to
starboard, was level, and lay all dark and long between the weeds, clear
except where the masts had snapped when she rolled, and vanishing into
black night towards the forecastle. There wasn't any dead on the decks,
most were in the weeds alongside, I suppose; but afterwards I found two
skeletons lying in the passengers' cabins, where death had come to them.
It was curious to stand on that deck and recognise it all, bit by bit; a
place against the rail where I'd been fond of smoking by starlight, and
the corner where an old chap from Sydney used to flirt with a widow we
had aboard. A comfortable couple they'd been, only a month ago, and now
you couldn't have got a meal for a baby crab off either of them.

"I've always had a bit of a philosophical turn, and I daresay I spent the
best part of five minutes in such thoughts before I went below to find
where the blessed dust was stored. It was slow work hunting, feeling it
was for the most part, pitchy dark, with confusing blue gleams down the
companion. And there were things moving about, a dab at my glass once, and
once a pinch at my leg. Crabs, I expect. I kicked a lot of loose stuff
that puzzled me, and stooped and picked up something all knobs and spikes.
What do you think? Backbone! But I never had any particular feeling for
bones. We had talked the affair over pretty thoroughly, and Always knew
just where the stuff was stowed. I found it that trip. I lifted a box one
end an inch or more."

He broke off in his story. "I've lifted it," he said, "as near as that!
Forty thousand pounds' worth of pure gold! Gold! I shouted inside my
helmet as a kind of cheer, and hurt my ears. I was getting confounded
stuffy and tired by this time--I must have been down twenty-five minutes
or more--and I thought this was good enough. I went up the companion
again, and as my eyes came up flush with the deck, a thundering great crab
gave a kind of hysterical jump and went scuttling off sideways. Quite a
start it gave me. I stood up clear on deck and shut the valve behind the
helmet to let the air accumulate to carry me up again--I noticed a kind of
whacking from above, as though they were hitting the water with an oar,
but I didn't look up. I fancied they were signalling me to come up.

"And then something shot down by me--something heavy, and stood a-quiver
in the planks. I looked, and there was a long knife I'd seen young Sanders
handling. Thinks I, he's dropped it, and I was still calling him this kind
of fool and that---for it might have hurt me serious--when I began to lift
and drive up towards the daylight. Just about the level of the top spars
of the _Ocean Pioneer_, whack! I came against something sinking down,
and a boot knocked in front of my helmet. Then something else, struggling
frightful. It was a big weight atop of me, whatever it was, and moving and
twisting about. I'd have thought it a big octopus, or some such thing, if
it hadn't been for the boot. But octopuses don't wear boots. It was all in
a moment, of course.

"I felt myself sinking down again, and I threw my arms about to keep
steady, and the whole lot rolled free of me and shot down as I went up--"

He paused.

"I saw young Sanders's face, over a naked black shoulder, and a spear
driven clean through his neck, and out of his mouth and neck what looked
like spirts of pink smoke in the water. And down they went clutching one
another, and turning over, and both too far gone to leave go. And in
another second my helmet came a whack, fit to split, against the niggers'
canoe. It was niggers! Two canoes full.

"It was lively times I tell you? Overboard came Always with three spears
in him. There was the legs of three or four black chaps kicking about me
in the water. I couldn't see much, but I saw the game was up at a glance,
gave my valve a tremendous twist, and went bubbling down again after poor
Always, in as awful a state of scare and astonishment as you can well
imagine. I passed young Sanders and the nigger going up again and
struggling still a bit, and in another moment I was standing in the dim
again on the deck of the _Ocean Pioneer_.

"Gummy, thinks I, here's a fix! Niggers? At first I couldn't see anything
for it but Stifle below or Stabs above. I didn't properly understand how
much air there was to last me out, but I didn't feel like standing very
much more of it down below. I was hot and frightfully heady, quite apart
from the blue funk I was in. We'd never reckoned with these beastly
natives, filthy Papuan beasts. It wasn't any good coming up where I was,
but I had to do something. On the spur of the moment, I clambered over the
side of the brig and landed among the weeds, and set off through the
darkness as fast as I could. I just stopped once and knelt, and twisted
back my head in the helmet and had a look up. It was a most extraordinary
bright green-blue above, and the two canoes and the boat floating there
very small and distant like a kind of twisted H. And it made me feel sick
to squint up at it, and think what the pitching and swaying of the three
meant.

"It was just about the most horrible ten minutes I ever had, blundering
about in that darkness--pressure something awful, like being buried in
sand, pain across the chest, sick with funk, and breathing nothing as it
seemed but the smell of rum and mackintosh. Gummy! After a bit, I found
myself going up a steepish sort of slope. I had another squint to see if
anything was visible of the canoes and boats, and then kept on. I stopped
with my head a foot from the surface, and tried to see where I was going,
but, of course, nothing was to be seen but the reflection of the bottom.
Then out I dashed, like knocking my head through a mirror. Directly I got
my eyes out of the water, I saw I'd come up a kind of beach near the
forest. I had a look round, but the natives and the brig were both hidden
by a big hummucky heap of twisted lava. The born fool in me suggested a
run for the woods. I didn't take the helmet off, but I eased open one of
the windows, and, after a bit of a pant, went on out of the water. You'd
hardly imagine how clean and light the air tasted.

"Of course, with four inches of lead in your boot soles, and your head in
a copper knob the size of a football, and been thirty-five minutes under
water, you don't break any records running. I ran like a ploughboy going
to work. And half-way to the trees I saw a dozen niggers or more, coming
out in a gaping, astonished sort of way to meet me.

"I just stopped dead, and cursed myself for all the fools out of London. I
had about as much chance of cutting back to the water as a turned turtle.
I just screwed up my window again to leave my hands free, and waited for
them. There wasn't anything else for me to do.

"But they didn't come on very much. I began to suspect why. 'Jimmy
Goggles,' I says, 'it's your beauty does it.' I was inclined to be a
little lightheaded, I think, with all these dangers about and the change
in the pressure of the blessed air. 'Who're ye staring at?' I said, as if
the savages could hear me. 'What d'ye take me for? I'm hanged if I don't
give you something to stare at,' I said, and with that I screwed up the
escape valve and turned on the compressed air from the belt, until I was
swelled out like a blown frog. Regular imposing it must have been. I'm
blessed if they'd come on a step; and presently one and then another went
down on their hands and knees. They didn't know what to make of me, and
they was doing the extra polite, which was very wise and reasonable of
them. I had half a mind to edge back seaward and cut and run, but it
seemed too hopeless. A step back and they'd have been after me. And out of
sheer desperation I began to march towards them up the beach, with slow,
heavy steps, and waving my blown-out arms about, in a dignified manner.
And inside of me I was singing as small as a tomtit.

"But there's nothing like a striking appearance to help a man over a
difficulty,--I've found that before and since. People like ourselves,
who're up to diving dresses by the time we're seven, can scarcely imagine
the effect of one on a simple-minded savage. One or two of these niggers
cut and run, the others started in a great hurry trying to knock their
brains out on the ground. And on I went as slow and solemn and
silly-looking and artful as a jobbing plumber. It was evident they took
me for something immense.

"Then up jumped one and began pointing, making extraordinary gestures to
me as he did so, and all the others began sharing their attention between
me and something out at; sea. 'What's the matter now?' I said. I turned
slowly on account of my dignity, and there I saw, coming round a point,
the poor old _Pride of Banya_ towed by a couple of canoes. The sight
fairly made me sick. But they evidently expected some recognition, so I
waved my arms in a striking sort of non-committal manner. And then I
turned and stalked on towards the trees again. At that time I was praying
like mad, I remember, over and over again: 'Lord help me through with it!
Lord help me through with it!' It's only fools who know nothing of danger
can afford to laugh at praying."

"But these niggers weren't going to let me walk through and away like
that. They started a kind of bowing dance about me, and sort of pressed me
to take a pathway that lay through the trees. It was clear to me they
didn't take me for a British citizen, whatever else they thought of me,
and for my own part I was never less anxious to own up to the old country.

"You'd hardly believe it, perhaps, unless you're familiar with savages,
but these poor, misguided, ignorant creatures took me straight to their
kind of joss place to present me to the blessed old black stone there. By
this time I was beginning to sort of realise the depth of their ignorance,
and directly I set eyes on this deity I took my cue. I started a baritone
howl, 'wow-wow,' very long on one note, and began waving my arms about a
lot, and then very slowly and ceremoniously turned their image over on its
side and sat down on it. I wanted to sit down badly, for diving dresses
ain't much wear in the tropics. Or, to put it different like, they're a
sight too much. It took away their breath, I could see, my sitting on
their joss, but in less time than a minute they made up their minds and
were hard at work worshipping me. And I can tell you I felt a bit relieved
to see things turning out so well, in spite of the weight on my shoulders
and feet.

"But what made me anxious was what the chaps in the canoes might think
when they came back. If they'd seen me in the boat before I went down, and
without the helmet on--for they might have been spying and hiding since
over night--they would very likely take a different view from the others.
I was in a deuce of a stew about that for hours, as it seemed, until the
shindy of the arrival began.

"But they took it down--the whole blessed village took it down. At the
cost of sitting up stiff and stern, as much like those sitting Egyptian
images one sees as I could manage, for pretty nearly twelve hours, I
should guess at least, on end, I got over it. You'd hardly think what it
meant in that heat and stink. I don't think any of them dreamt of the man
inside. I was just a wonderful leathery great joss that had come up with
luck out of the water. But the fatigue! the heat! the beastly closeness!
the mackintosheriness and the rum! and the fuss! They lit a stinking fire
on a kind of lava slab there was before me, and brought in a lot of gory
muck--the worst parts of what they were feasting on outside, the Beasts--
and burnt it all in my honour. I was getting a bit hungry, but I
understand now how gods manage to do without eating, what with the smell
of burnt-offerings about them. And they brought in a lot of the stuff
they'd got off the brig and, among other stuff, what I was a bit relieved
to see, the kind of pneumatic pump that was used for the compressed air
affair, and then a lot of chaps and girls came in and danced about me
something disgraceful. It's extraordinary the different ways different
people have of showing respect. If I'd had a hatchet handy I'd have gone
for the lot of them--they made me feel that wild. All this time I sat as
stiff as company, not knowing anything better to do. And at last, when
nightfall came, and the wattle joss-house place got a bit too shadowy for
their taste--all these here savages are afraid of the dark, you know--and
I started a sort of 'Moo' noise, they built big bonfires outside and left
me alone in peace in the darkness of my hut, free to unscrew my windows a
bit and think things over, and feel just as bad as I liked. And Lord! I
was sick.

"I was weak and hungry, and my mind kept on behaving like a beetle on a
pin, tremendous activity and nothing done at the end of it. Come round
just where it was before. There was sorrowing for the other chaps, beastly
drunkards certainly, but not deserving such a fate, and young Sanders with
the spear through his neck wouldn't go out of my mind. There was the
treasure down there in the _Ocean Pioneer_, and how one might get it
and hide it somewhere safer, and get away and come back for it. And there
was the puzzle where to get anything to eat. I tell you I was fair
rambling. I was afraid to ask by signs for food, for fear of behaving too
human, and so there I sat and hungered until very near the dawn. Then the
village got a bit quiet, and I couldn't stand it any longer, and I went
out and got some stuff like artichokes in a bowl and some sour milk. What
was left of these I put away among the other offerings, just to give them
a hint of my tastes. And in the morning they came to worship, and found me
sitting up stiff and respectable on their previous god, just as they'd
left me overnight. I'd got my back against the central pillar of the hut,
and, practically, I was asleep. And that's how I became a god among the
heathen--false god, no doubt, and blasphemous, but one can't always pick
and choose.

"Now, I don't want to crack myself up as a god beyond my merits, but I
must confess that while I was god to these people they was extraordinary
successful. I don't say there's anything in it, mind you. They won a
battle with another tribe--I got a lot of offerings I didn't want through
it--they had wonderful fishing, and their crop of pourra was exceptional
fine. And they counted the capture of the brig among the benefits I
brought 'em. I must say I don't think that was a poor record for a
perfectly new hand. And, though perhaps you'd scarcely credit it, I was
the tribal god of those beastly savages for pretty nearly four months...

"What else could I do, man? But I didn't wear that diving-dress all the
time. I made 'em rig me up a sort of holy of holies, and a deuce of a time
I had too, making them understand what it was I wanted them to do. That
indeed was the great difficulty--making them understand my wishes. I
couldn't let myself down by talking their lingo badly, even if I'd been
able to speak at all, and I couldn't go flapping a lot of gestures at
them. So I drew pictures in sand and sat down beside them and hooted like
one o'clock. Sometimes they did the things I wanted all right, and
sometimes they did them all wrong. They was always very willing,
certainly. All the while I was puzzling how I was to get the confounded
business settled. Every night before the dawn I used to march out in full
rig and go off to a place where I could see the channel in which the
_Ocean Pioneer_ lay sunk, and once even, one moonlight night, I tried
to walk out to her, but the weeds and rocks and dark clean beat me. I
didn't get back till full day, and then I found all those silly niggers
out on the beach praying their sea-god to return to them. I was that vexed
and tired, messing and tumbling about, and coming up and going down again,
I could have punched their silly heads all round when they started
rejoicing. Hanged if I like so much ceremony.

"And then came the missionary. That missionary! _What_ a Guy! Gummy!
It was in the afternoon, and I was sitting in state in my outer temple
place, sitting on that old black stone of theirs, when he came. I heard a
row outside and jabbering, and then his voice speaking to an interpreter.
'They worship stocks and stones,' he said, and I knew what was up, in a
flash. I had one of my windows out for comfort, and I sang out straight
away on the spur of the moment. 'Stocks and stones!' I says. 'You come
inside,' I says, 'and I'll punch your blooming Exeter Hall of a head.'

"There was a kind of silence and more jabbering, and in he came, Bible in
hand, after the manner of them--a little sandy chap in specks and a pith
helmet. I flatter myself that me sitting there in the shadows, with my
copper head and my big goggles, struck him a bit of a heap at first.
'Well,' I says, 'how's the trade in scissors?' for I don't hold with
missionaries.

"I had a lark with that missionary. He was a raw hand, and quite
outclassed by a man like me. He gasped out who was I, and I told him to
read the inscription at my feet if he wanted to know. There wasn't no
inscription; why should there be? but down he goes to read, and his
interpreter, being of course as superstitious as any of them, more so by
reason of his seeing missionary close to, took it for an act of worship
and plumped down like a shot. All my people gave a howl of triumph, and
there wasn't any more business to be done in my village after that
journey, not by the likes of him.

"But, of course, I was a fool to choke him off like that. If I'd had any
sense I should have told him straight away of the treasure and taken him
into Co. I've no doubt he'd have come into Co. A child, with a few hours
to think it over, could have seen the connection between my diving dress
and the loss of the _Ocean Pioneer_. A week after he left I went out
one morning and saw the _Motherhood_, the salver's ship from Starr
Race, towing up the channel and sounding. The whole blessed game was up,
and all my trouble thrown away. Gummy! How wild I felt! And guying it in
that stinking silly dress! Four months!"

The sunburnt man's story degenerated again. "Think of it," he said, when
he emerged to linguistic purity once more. "Forty thousand pounds' worth
of gold."

"Did the little missionary come back?" I asked.

"Oh yes! bless him! And he pledged his reputation there was a man inside
the god, and started out to see as much with tremendous ceremony. But
wasn't--he got sold again. I always did hate scenes and explanations, and
long before he came I was out of it all--going home to Banya along the
coast, hiding in bushes by day, and thieving food from the villages by
night. Only weapon, a spear. No clothes, no money. Nothing. My face, my
fortune, as the saying is. And just a squeak of eight thousand pounds of
gold--fifth share. But the natives cut up rusty, thank goodness, because
they thought it was him had driven their luck away."

 

 

 

XXIV.

MISS WINCHELSEA'S HEART.

 

Miss Winchelsea was going to Rome. The matter had filled her mind for a
month or more, and had overflowed so abundantly into her conversation that
quite a number of people who were not going to Rome, and who were not
likely to go to Rome, had made it a personal grievance against her. Some
indeed had attempted quite unavailingly to convince her that Rome was not
nearly such a desirable place as it was reported to be, and others had
gone so far as to suggest behind her back that she was dreadfully "stuck
up" about "that Rome of hers." And little Lily Hardhurst had told her
friend Mr. Binns that so far as she was concerned Miss Winchelsea might
"go to her old Rome and stop there; _she_ (Miss Lily Hardhurst)
wouldn't grieve." And the way in which Miss Winchelsea put herself upon
terms of personal tenderness with Horace and Benvenuto Cellini and Raphael
and Shelley and Keats--if she had been Shelley's widow she could not have
professed a keener interest in his grave--was a matter of universal
astonishment. Her dress was a triumph of tactful discretion, sensible, but
not too "touristy"'--Miss Winchelsea had a great dread of being
"touristy"--and her Baedeker was carried in a cover of grey to hide its
glaring red. She made a prim and pleasant little figure on the Charing
Cross platform, in spite of her swelling pride, when at last the great day
dawned, and she could start for Rome. The day was bright, the Channel
passage would be pleasant, and all the omens promised well. There was the
gayest sense of adventure in this unprecedented departure.

She was going with two friends who had been fellow-students with her at
the training college, nice honest girls both, though not so good at
history and literature as Miss Winchelsea. They both looked up to her
immensely, though physically they had to look down, and she anticipated
some pleasant times to be spent in "stirring them up" to her own pitch of
AEsthetic and historical enthusiasm. They had secured seats already, and
welcomed her effusively at the carriage door. In the instant criticism of
the encounter she noted that Fanny had a slightly "touristy" leather
strap, and that Helen had succumbed to a serge jacket with side pockets,
into which her hands were thrust. But they were much too happy with
themselves and the expedition for their friend to attempt any hint at the
moment about these things. As soon as the first ecstasies were over--
Fanny's enthusiasm was a little noisy and crude, and consisted mainly
in emphatic repetitions of "Just _fancy_! we're going to Rome, my
dear!--Rome!"--they gave their attention to their fellow-travellers. Helen
was anxious to secure a compartment to themselves, and, in order to
discourage intruders, got out and planted herself firmly on the step. Miss
Winchelsea peeped out over her shoulder, and made sly little remarks about
the accumulating people on the platform, at which Fanny laughed gleefully.

They were travelling with one of Mr. Thomas Gunn's parties--fourteen days
in Rome for fourteen pounds. They did not belong to the personally
conducted party, of course--Miss Winchelsea had seen to that--but they
travelled with it because of the convenience of that arrangement. The
people were the oddest mixture, and wonderfully amusing. There was a
vociferous red-faced polyglot personal conductor in a pepper-and-salt
suit, very long in the arms and legs and very active. He shouted
proclamations. When he wanted to speak to people he stretched out an arm
and held them until his purpose was accomplished. One hand was full of
papers, tickets, counterfoils of tourists. The people of the personally
conducted party were, it seemed, of two sorts; people the conductor wanted
and could not find, and people he did not want and who followed him in a
steadily growing tail up and down the platform. These people seemed,
indeed, to think that their one chance of reaching Rome lay in keeping
close to him. Three little old ladies were particularly energetic in his
pursuit, and at last maddened him to the pitch of clapping them into a
carriage and daring them to emerge again. For the rest of the time, one,
two, or three of their heads protruded from the window wailing inquiries
about "a little wicker-work box" whenever he drew near. There was a very
stout man with a very stout wife in shiny black; there was a little old
man like an aged hostler.

"What _can_ such people want in Rome?" asked Miss Winchelsea. "What
can it mean to them?" There was a very tall curate in a very small straw
hat, and a very short curate encumbered by a long camera stand. The
contrast amused Fanny very much. Once they heard some one calling for
"Snooks." "I always thought that name was invented by novelists," said
Miss Winchelsea. "Fancy! Snooks. I wonder which _is_ Mr. Snooks."
Finally they picked out a very stout and resolute little man in a large
check suit. "If he isn't Snooks, he ought to be," said Miss Winchelsea.

Presently the conductor discovered Helen's attempt at a corner in
carriages. "Room for five," he bawled with a parallel translation on his
fingers. A party of four together--mother, father, and two daughters--
blundered in, all greatly excited. "It's all right, Ma--you let me," said
one of the daughters, hitting her mother's bonnet with a handbag she
struggled to put in the rack. Miss Winchelsea detested people who banged
about and called their mother "Ma." A young man travelling alone followed.
He was not at all "touristy" in his costume, Miss Winchelsea observed; his
Gladstone bag was of good pleasant leather with labels reminiscent of
Luxembourg and Ostend, and his boots, though brown, were not vulgar. He
carried an overcoat on his arm. Before these people had properly settled
in their places, came an inspection of tickets and a slamming of doors,
and behold! they were gliding out of Charing Cross Station on their way to
Rome.

"Fancy!" cried Fanny, "we are going to Rome, my dear! Rome! I don't seem
to believe it, even now."

Miss Winchelsea suppressed Fanny's emotions with a little smile, and the
lady who was called "Ma" explained to people in general why they had "cut
it so close" at the station. The two daughters called her "Ma" several
times, toned her down in a tactless, effective way, and drove her at last
to the muttered inventory of a basket of travelling requisites. Presently
she looked up. "Lor!" she said, "I didn't bring _them_!" Both the
daughters said "Oh, Ma!" But what "them" was did not appear.

Presently Fanny produced Hare's _Walks in Rome_, a sort of mitigated
guide-book very popular among Roman visitors; and the father of the two
daughters began to examine his books of tickets minutely, apparently in a
search after English words. When he had looked at the tickets for a long
time right way up, he turned them upside down. Then he produced a fountain
pen and dated them with considerable care. The young man having completed
an unostentatious survey of his fellow-travellers produced a book and fell
to reading. When Helen and Fanny were looking out of the window at
Chislehurst--the place interested Fanny because the poor dear Empress of
the French used to live there--Miss Winchelsea took the opportunity to
observe the book the young man held. It was not a guide-book but a little
thin volume of poetry--_bound_. She glanced at his face--it seemed a
refined, pleasant face to her hasty glance. He wore a little gilt
_pince-nez_. "Do you think she lives there now?" said Fanny, and Miss
Winchelsea's inspection came to an end.

For the rest of the journey Miss Winchelsea talked little, and what she
said was as agreeable and as stamped with refinement as she could make it.
Her voice was always low and clear and pleasant, and she took care that on
this occasion it was particularly low and clear and pleasant. As they came
under the white cliffs the young man put his book of poetry away, and when
at last the train stopped beside the boat, he displayed a graceful
alacrity with the impedimenta of Miss Winchelsea and her friends. Miss
Winchelsea "hated nonsense," but she was pleased to see the young man
perceived at once that they were ladies, and helped them without any
violent geniality; and how nicely he showed that his civilities were to be
no excuse for further intrusions. None of her little party had been out of
England before, and they were all excited and a little nervous at the
Channel passage. They stood in a little group in a good place near the
middle of the boat--the young man had taken Miss Winchelsea's carry-all
there and had told her it was a good place--and they watched the white
shores of Albion recede and quoted Shakespeare and made quiet fun of their
fellow-travellers in the English way.

They were particularly amused at the precautions the bigger-sized people
had taken against the little waves--cut lemons and flasks prevailed, one
lady lay full length in a deck chair with a handkerchief over her face,
and a very broad resolute man in a bright brown "touristy" suit walked all
the way from England to France along the deck, with his legs as widely
apart as Providence permitted. These were all excellent precautions, and
nobody was ill. The personally-conducted party pursued the conductor about
the deck with inquiries, in a manner that suggested to Helen's mind the
rather vulgar image of hens with a piece of bacon rind, until at last he
went into hiding below. And the young man with the thin volume of poetry
stood at the stern watching England receding, looking rather lonely and
sad to Miss Winchelsea's eye.

And then came Calais and tumultuous novelties, and the young man had not
forgotten Miss Winchelsea's hold-all and the other little things. All
three girls, though they had passed Government examinations in French to
any extent, were stricken with a dumb shame of their accents, and the
young man was very useful. And he did not intrude. He put them in a
comfortable carriage and raised his hat and went away. Miss Winchelsea
thanked him in her best manner--a pleasing, cultivated manner--and Fanny
said he was "nice" almost before he was out of earshot. "I wonder what he
can be," said Helen. "He's going to Italy, because I noticed green tickets
in his book." Miss Winchelsea almost told them of the poetry, and decided
not to do so. And presently the carriage windows seized hold upon them and
the young man was forgotten. It made them feel that they were doing an
educated sort of thing to travel through a country whose commonest
advertisements were in idiomatic French, and Miss Winchelsea made
unpatriotic comparisons because there were weedy little sign-board
advertisements by the rail side instead of the broad hoardings that deface
the landscape in our land. But the north of France is really uninteresting
country, and after a time Fanny reverted to Hare's _Walks_, and Helen
initiated lunch. Miss Winchelsea awoke out of a happy reverie; she had
been trying to realise, she said, that she was actually going to Rome, but
she perceived at Helen's suggestion that she was hungry, and they lunched
out of their baskets very cheerfully. In the afternoon they were tired and
silent until Helen made tea. Miss Winchelsea might have dozed, only she
knew Fanny slept with her mouth open; and as their fellow-passengers were
two rather nice, critical-looking ladies of uncertain age--who knew French
well enough to talk it--she employed herself in keeping Fanny awake. The
rhythm of the train became insistent, and the streaming landscape outside
became at last quite painful to the eye. They were already dreadfully
tired of travelling before their night's stoppage came.

The stoppage for the night was brightened by the appearance of the young
man, and his manners were all that could be desired and his French quite
serviceable.

His coupons availed for the same hotel as theirs, and by chance, as it
seemed, he sat next Miss Winchelsea at the _table d'hôte._ In spite
of her enthusiasm for Rome, she had thought out some such possibility very
thoroughly, and when he ventured to make a remark upon the tediousness of
travelling--he let the soup and fish go by before he did this--she did not
simply assent to his proposition, but responded with another. They were
soon comparing their journeys, and Helen and Fanny were cruelly overlooked
in the conversation.. It was to be the same journey, they found; one day
for the galleries at Florence--"from what I hear," said the young man, "it
is barely enough,"--and the rest at Rome. He talked of Rome very
pleasantly; he was evidently quite well read, and he quoted Horace about
Soracte. Miss Winchelsea had "done" that book of Horace for her
matriculation, and was delighted to cap his quotation. It gave a sort of
tone to things, this incident--a touch of refinement to mere chatting.
Fanny expressed a few emotions, and Helen interpolated a few sensible
remarks, but the bulk of the talk on the girls' side naturally fell to
Miss Winchelsea.

Before they reached Rome this young man was tacitly of their party. They
did not know his name nor what he was, but it seemed he taught, and Miss
Winchelsea had a shrewd idea he was an extension lecturer. At any rate he
was something of that sort, something gentlemanly and refined without
being opulent and impossible. She tried once or twice to ascertain whether
he came from Oxford or Cambridge, but he missed her timid opportunities.
She tried to get him to make remarks about those places to see if he would
say "come up" to them instead of "go down,"--she knew that was how you
told a 'Varsity man. He used the word "'Varsity"--not university--in quite
the proper way.

They saw as much of Mr. Ruskin's Florence as the brief time permitted; he
met them in the Pitti Gallery and went round with them, chatting brightly,
and evidently very grateful for their recognition. He knew a great deal
about art, and all four enjoyed the morning immensely. It was fine to go
round recognising old favourites and finding new beauties, especially
while so many people fumbled helplessly with Baedeker. Nor was he a bit of
a prig, Miss Winchelsea said, and indeed she detested prigs. He had a
distinct undertone of humour, and was funny, for example, without being
vulgar, at the expense of the quaint work of Beato Angelico. He had a
grave seriousness beneath it all, and was quick to seize the moral lessons
of the pictures. Fanny went softly among these masterpieces; she admitted
"she knew so little about them," and she confessed that to her they were
"all beautiful." Fanny's "beautiful" inclined to be a little monotonous,
Miss Winchelsea thought. She had been quite glad when the last sunny Alp
had vanished, because of the staccato of Fanny's admiration. Helen said
little, but Miss Winchelsea had found her a trifle wanting on the
aesthetic side in the old days and was not surprised; sometimes she
laughed at the young man's hesitating, delicate jests and sometimes she
didn't, and sometimes she seemed quite lost to the art about them in the
contemplation of the dresses of the other visitors.

At Rome the young man was with them intermittently. A rather "touristy"
friend of his took him away at times. He complained comically to Miss
Winchelsea. "I have only two short weeks in Rome," he said, "and my friend
Leonard wants to spend a whole day at Tivoli looking at a waterfall."

"What is your friend Leonard?" asked Miss Winchelsea abruptly.

"He's the most enthusiastic pedestrian I ever met," the young man
replied--amusingly, but a little unsatisfactorily, Miss Winchelsea
thought.

They had some glorious times, and Fanny could not think what they would
have done without him. Miss Winchelsea's interest and Fanny's enormous
capacity for admiration were insatiable. They never flagged--through
pictures and sculpture galleries, immense crowded churches, ruins and
museums, Judas trees and prickly pears, wine carts and palaces, they
admired their way unflinchingly. They never saw a stone pine or a
eucalyptus but they named and admired it; they never glimpsed Soracte but
they exclaimed. Their common ways were made wonderful by imaginative play.
"Here Caesar may have walked," they would say. "Raphael may have seen
Soracte from this very point." They happened on the tomb of Bibulus. "Old
Bibulus," said the young man. "The oldest monument of Republican Rome!"
said Miss Winchelsea.

"I'm dreadfully stupid," said Fanny, "but who _was_ Bibulus?"

There was a curious little pause.

"Wasn't he the person who built the wall?" said Helen.

The young man glanced quickly at her and laughed. "That was Balbus," he
said. Helen reddened, but neither he nor Miss Winchelsea threw any light
upon Fanny's ignorance about Bibulus.

Helen was more taciturn than the other three, but then she was always
taciturn, and usually she took care of the tram tickets and things like
that, or kept her eye on them if the young man took them, and told him
where they were when he wanted them. Glorious times they had, these young
people, in that pale brown cleanly city of memories that was once the
world. Their only sorrow was the shortness of the time. They said indeed
that the electric trams and the '70 buildings, and that criminal
advertisement that glares upon the Forum, outraged their aesthetic
feelings unspeakably; but that was only part of the fun. And indeed Rome
is such a wonderful place that it made Miss Winchelsea forget some of her
most carefully prepared enthusiasms at times, and Helen, taken unawares,
would suddenly admit the beauty of unexpected things. Yet Fanny and Helen
would have liked a shop window or so in the English quarter if Miss
Winchelsea's uncompromising hostility to all other English visitors had
not rendered that district impossible.

The intellectual and aesthetic fellowship of Miss Winchelsea and the
scholarly young man passed insensibly towards a deeper feeling. The
exuberant Fanny did her best to keep pace with their recondite admiration
by playing her "beautiful" with vigour, and saying "Oh! _let's_ go,"
with enormous appetite whenever a new place of interest was mentioned. But
Helen developed a certain want of sympathy towards the end that
disappointed Miss Winchelsea a little. She refused to see "anything" in
the face of Beatrice Cenci--Shelley's Beatrice Cenci!--in the Barberini
Gallery; and one day, when they were deploring the electric trams, she
said rather snappishly that "people must get about somehow, and it's
better than torturing horses up these horrid little hills." She spoke of
the Seven Hills of Rome as "horrid little hills "!

And the day they went on the Palatine--though Miss Winchelsea did not know
of this--she remarked suddenly to Fanny, "Don't hurry like that, my dear;
_they_ don't want us to overtake them. And we don't say the right
things for them when we _do_ get near."

"I wasn't trying to overtake them," said Fanny, slackening her excessive
pace; "I wasn't indeed." And for a minute she was short of breath.

But Miss Winchelsea had come upon happiness. It was only when she came to
look back across an intervening tragedy that she quite realised how happy
she had been pacing among the cypress-shadowed ruins, and exchanging the
very highest class of information the human mind can possess, the most
refined impressions it is possible to convey. Insensibly emotion crept
into their intercourse, sunning itself openly and pleasantly at last when
Helen's modernity was not too near. Insensibly their interest drifted from
the wonderful associations about them to their more intimate and personal
feelings. In a tentative way information was supplied; she spoke
allusively of her school, of her examination successes, of her gladness
that the days of "Cram" were over. He made it quite clear that he also was
a teacher. They spoke of the greatness of their calling, of the necessity
of sympathy to face its irksome details, of a certain loneliness they
sometimes felt.

That was in the Colosseum, and it was as far as they got that day, because
Helen returned with Fanny--she had taken her into the upper galleries. Yet
the private dreams of Miss Winchelsea, already vivid and concrete enough,
became now realistic in the highest degree. She figured that pleasant
young man lecturing in the most edifying way to his students, herself
modestly prominent as his intellectual mate and helper; she figured a
refined little home, with two bureaus, with white shelves of high-class
books, and autotypes of the pictures of Rossetti and Burne Jones, with
Morris's wall-papers and flowers in pots of beaten copper. Indeed she
figured many things. On the Pincio the two had a few precious moments
together, while Helen marched Fanny off to see the _muro Torto_, and
he spoke at once plainly. He said he hoped their friendship was only
beginning, that he already found her company very precious to him, that
indeed it was more than that.

He became nervous, thrusting at his glasses with trembling fingers as
though he fancied his emotions made them unstable. "I should of course,"
he said, "tell you things about myself. I know it is rather unusual my
speaking to you like this. Only our meeting has been so accidental--or
providential--and I am snatching at things. I came to Rome expecting a
lonely tour ... and I have been so very happy, so very happy. Quite
recently I have found myself in a position--I have dared to think----,
And----"

He glanced over his shoulder and stopped. He said "Demn!" quite
distinctly--and she did not condemn him for that manly lapse into
profanity. She looked and saw his friend Leonard advancing. He drew
nearer; he raised his hat to Miss Winchelsea, and his smile was almost a
grin. "I've been looking for you everywhere, Snooks," he said. "You
promised to be on the Piazza steps half-an-hour ago."

Snooks! The name struck Miss Winchelsea like a blow in the face. She did
not hear his reply. She thought afterwards that Leonard must have
considered her the vaguest-minded person. To this day she is not sure
whether she was introduced to Leonard or not, nor what she said to him. A
sort of mental paralysis was upon her. Of all offensive surnames--Snooks!

Helen and Fanny were returning, there were civilities, and the young men
were receding. By a great effort she controlled herself to face the
inquiring eyes of her friends. All that afternoon she lived the life of a
heroine under the indescribable outrage of that name, chatting, observing,
with "Snooks" gnawing at her heart. From the moment that it first rang
upon her ears, the dream of her happiness was prostrate in the dust. All
the refinement she had figured was ruined and defaced by that cognomen's
unavoidable vulgarity.

What was that refined little home to her now, spite of autotypes, Morris
papers, and bureaus? Athwart it in letters of fire ran an incredible
inscription: "Mrs. Snooks." That may seem a little thing to the reader,
but consider the delicate refinement of Miss Winchelsea's mind. Be as
refined as you can and then think of writing yourself down:--"Snooks." She
conceived herself being addressed as Mrs. Snooks by all the people she
liked least, conceived the patronymic touched with a vague quality of
insult. She figured a card of grey and silver bearing 'Winchelsea'
triumphantly effaced by an arrow, Cupid's arrow, in favour of "Snooks."
Degrading confession of feminine weakness! She imagined the terrible
rejoicings of certain girl friends, of certain grocer cousins from whom
her growing refinement had long since estranged her. How they would make
it sprawl across the envelope that would bring their sarcastic
congratulations. Would even his pleasant company compensate her for that?
"It is impossible," she muttered; "impossible! _Snooks!_"

She was sorry for him, but not so sorry as she was for herself. For him
she had a touch of indignation. To be so nice, so refined, while all the
time he was "Snooks," to hide under a pretentious gentility of demeanour
the badge sinister of his surname seemed a sort of treachery. To put it in
the language of sentimental science she felt he had "led her on."

There were, of course, moments of terrible vacillation, a period even when
something almost like passion bid her throw refinement to the winds. And
there was something in her, an unexpurgated vestige of vulgarity that made
a strenuous attempt at proving that Snooks was not so very bad a name
after all. Any hovering hesitation flew before Fanny's manner, when Fanny
came with an air of catastrophe to tell that she also knew the horror.
Fanny's voice fell to a whisper when she said _Snooks_. Miss
Winchelsea would not give him any answer when at last, in the Borghese,
she could have a minute with him; but she promised him a note.

She handed him that note in the little book of poetry he had lent her, the
little book that had first drawn them together. Her refusal was ambiguous,
allusive. She could no more tell him why she rejected him than she could
have told a cripple of his hump. He too must feel something of the
unspeakable quality of his name. Indeed he had avoided a dozen chances of
telling it, she now perceived. So she spoke of "obstacles she could not
reveal"--"reasons why the thing he spoke of was impossible." She addressed
the note with a shiver, "E.K. Snooks."

Things were worse than she had dreaded; he asked her to explain. How
_could_ she explain? Those last two days in Rome were dreadful. She
was haunted by his air of astonished perplexity. She knew she had given
him intimate hopes, she had not the courage to examine her mind thoroughly
for the extent of her encouragement. She knew he must think her the most
changeable of beings. Now that she was in full retreat, she would not even
perceive his hints of a possible correspondence. But in that matter he did
a thing that seemed to her at once delicate and romantic. He made a
go-between of Fanny. Fanny could not keep the secret, and came and told
her that night under a transparent pretext of needed advice. "Mr. Snooks,"
said Fanny, "wants to write to me. Fancy! I had no idea. But should I let
him?" They talked it over long and earnestly, and Miss Winchelsea was
careful to keep the veil over her heart. She was already repenting his
disregarded hints. Why should she not hear of him sometimes--painful
though his name must be to her? Miss Winchelsea decided it might be
permitted, and Fanny kissed her good-night with unusual emotion. After she
had gone Miss Winchelsea sat for a long time at the window of her little
room. It was moonlight, and down the street a man sang "Santa Lucia" with
almost heart-dissolving tenderness... She sat very still.

She breathed a word very softly to herself. The word was "_Snooks_."
Then she got up with a profound sigh, and went to bed. The next morning he
said to her meaningly, "I shall hear of you through your friend."

Mr. Snooks saw them off from Rome with that pathetic interrogative
perplexity still on his face, and if it had not been for Helen he would
have retained Miss Winchelsea's hold-all in his hand as a sort of
encyclopaedic keepsake. On their way back to England Miss Winchelsea on
six separate occasions made Fanny promise to write to her the longest of
long letters. Fanny, it seemed, would be quite near Mr. Snooks. Her new
school--she was always going to new schools--would be only five miles from
Steely Bank, and it was in the Steely Bank Polytechnic, and one or two
first-class schools, that Mr. Snooks did his teaching. He might even see
her at times. They could not talk much of him--she and Fanny always spoke
of "him," never of Mr. Snooks--because Helen was apt to say unsympathetic
things about him. Her nature had coarsened very much, Miss Winchelsea
perceived, since the old Training College days; she had become hard and
cynical. She thought he had a weak face, mistaking refinement for weakness
as people of her stamp are apt to do, and when she heard his name was
Snooks, she said she had expected something of the sort. Miss Winchelsea
was careful to spare her own feelings after that, but Fanny was less
circumspect.

The girls parted in London, and Miss Winchelsea returned, with a new
interest in life, to the Girls' High School in which she had been an
increasingly valuable assistant for the last three years. Her new interest
in life was Fanny as a correspondent, and to give her a lead she wrote her
a lengthy descriptive letter within a fortnight of her return. Fanny
answered, very disappointingly. Fanny indeed had no literary gift, but it
was new to Miss Winchelsea to find herself deploring the want of gifts in
a friend. That letter was even criticised aloud in the safe solitude of
Miss Winchelsea's study, and her criticism, spoken with great bitterness,
was "Twaddle!" It was full of just the things Miss Winchelsea's letter had
been full of, particulars of the school. And of Mr. Snooks, only this
much: "I have had a letter from Mr. Snooks, and he has been over to see me
on two Saturday afternoons running. He talked about Rome and you; we both
talked about you. Your ears must have burnt, my dear..."

Miss Winchelsea repressed a desire to demand more explicit information,
and wrote the sweetest, long letter again. "Tell me all about yourself,
dear. That journey has quite refreshed our ancient friendship, and I do so
want to keep in touch with you." About Mr. Snooks she simply wrote on the
fifth page that she was glad Fanny had seen him, and that if he
_should_ ask after her, she was to be remembered to him _very
kindly_ (underlined). And Fanny replied most obtusely in the key of
that "ancient friendship," reminding Miss Winchelsea of a dozen foolish
things of those old schoolgirl days at the Training College, and saying
not a word about Mr. Snooks!

For nearly a week Miss Winchelsea was so angry at the failure of Fanny as
a go-between that she could not write to her. And then she wrote less
effusively, and in her letter she asked point-blank, "Have you seen Mr.
Snooks?" Fanny's letter was unexpectedly satisfactory. "I _have_ seen
Mr. Snooks," she wrote, and having once named him she kept on about him;
it was all Snooks--Snooks this and Snooks that. He was to give a public
lecture, said Fanny, among other things. Yet Miss Winchelsea, after the
first glow of gratification, still found this letter a little
unsatisfactory. Fanny did not report Mr. Snooks as saying anything about
Miss Winchelsea, nor as looking a little white and worn, as he ought to
have been doing. And behold! before she had replied, came a second letter
from Fanny on the same theme, quite a gushing letter, and covering six
sheets with her loose feminine hand.

And about this second letter was a rather odd little thing that Miss
Winchelsea only noticed as she re-read it the third time. Fanny's natural
femininity had prevailed even against the round and clear traditions of
the Training College; she was one of those she-creatures born to
make all her _m'_s and _n'_s and _u'_s and _r'_s and _e'_s
alike, and to leave her _o'_s and _a'_s open and her _i'_s
undotted. So that it was only after an elaborate comparison of word with
word that Miss Winchelsea felt assured Mr. Snooks was not really "Mr.
Snooks" at all! In Fanny's first letter of gush he was Mr. "Snooks," in
her second the spelling was changed to Mr. "Senoks." Miss Winchelsea's
hand positively trembled as she turned the sheet over--it meant so much to
her. For it had already begun to seem to her that even the name of Mrs.
Snooks might be avoided at too great a price, and suddenly--this
possibility! She turned over the six sheets, all dappled with that
critical name, and everywhere the first letter had the form of an
_e_! For a time she walked the room with a hand pressed upon her
heart.

She spent a whole day pondering this change, weighing a letter of inquiry
that should be at once discreet and effectual; weighing, too, what action
she should take after the answer came. She was resolved that if this
altered spelling was anything more than a quaint fancy of Fanny's, she
would write forthwith to Mr. Snooks. She had now reached a stage when the
minor refinements of behaviour disappear. Her excuse remained uninvented,
but she had the subject of her letter clear in her mind, even to the hint
that "circumstances in my life have changed very greatly since we talked
together." But she never gave that hint. There came a third letter from
that fitful correspondent Fanny. The first line proclaimed her "the
happiest girl alive."

Miss Winchelsea crushed the letter in her hand--the rest unread--and sat
with her face suddenly very still. She had received it just before morning
school, and had opened it when the junior mathematicians were well under
way. Presently she resumed reading with an appearance of great calm. But
after the first sheet she went on reading the third without discovering
the error:--"told him frankly I did not like his name," the third sheet
began. "He told me he did not like it himself--you know that sort of
sudden, frank way he has"--Miss Winchelsea did know. "So I said, 'couldn't
you change it?' He didn't see it at first. Well, you know, dear, he had
told me what it really meant; it means Sevenoaks, only it has got down to
Snooks--both Snooks and Noaks, dreadfully vulgar surnames though they be,
are really worn forms of Sevenoaks. So I said--even I have my bright ideas
at times--'If it got down from Sevenoaks to Snooks, why not get it back
from Snooks to Sevenoaks?' And the long and the short of it is, dear, he
couldn't refuse me, and he changed his spelling there and then to Senoks
for the bills of the new lecture. And afterwards, when we are married, we
shall put in the apostrophe and make it Se'noks. Wasn't it kind of him to
mind that fancy of mine, when many men would have taken offence? But it is
just like him all over; he is as kind as he is clever. Because he knew as
well as I did that I would have had him in spite of it, had he been ten
times Snooks. But he did it all the same."

The class was startled by the sound of paper being viciously torn, and
looked up to see Miss Winchelsea white in the face and with some very
small pieces of paper clenched in one hand. For a few seconds they stared
at her stare, and then her expression changed back to a more familiar one.
"Has any one finished number three?" she asked in an even tone. She
remained calm after that. But impositions ruled high that day. And she
spent two laborious evenings writing letters of various sorts to Fanny,
before she found a decent congratulatory vein. Her reason struggled
hopelessly against the persuasion that Fanny had behaved in an exceedingly
treacherous manner.

One may be extremely refined and still capable of a very sore heart.
Certainly Miss Winchelsea's heart was very sore. She had moods of sexual
hostility, in which she generalised uncharitably about mankind. "He forgot
himself with me," she said. "But Fanny is pink and pretty and soft and a
fool--a very excellent match for a Man." And by way of a wedding present
she sent Fanny a gracefully bound volume of poetry by George Meredith, and
Fanny wrote back a grossly happy letter to say that it was "_all_
beautiful." Miss Winchelsea hoped that some day Mr. Senoks might take up
that slim book and think for a moment of the donor. Fanny wrote several
times before and about her marriage, pursuing that fond legend of their
"ancient friendship," and giving her happiness in the fullest detail. And
Miss Winchelsea wrote to Helen for the first time after the Roman journey,
saying nothing about the marriage, but expressing very cordial feelings.

They had been in Rome at Easter, and Fanny was married in the August
vacation. She wrote a garrulous letter to Miss Winchelsea, describing her
home-coming and the astonishing arrangements of their "teeny, weeny"
little house. Mr. Se'noks was now beginning to assume a refinement in Miss
Winchelsea's memory out of all proportion to the facts of the case, and
she tried in vain to imagine his cultured greatness in a "teeny weeny"
little house. "Am busy enamelling a cosy corner," said Fanny, sprawling to
the end of her third sheet, "so excuse more." Miss Winchelsea answered in
her best style, gently poking fun at Fanny's arrangements, and hoping
intensely that Mr. Se'noks might see the letter. Only this hope enabled
her to write at all, answering not only that letter but one in November
and one at Christmas.

The two latter communications contained urgent invitations for her to come
to Steely Bank on a visit during the Christmas holidays. She tried to
think that _he_ had told her to ask that, but it was too much like
Fanny's opulent good-nature. She could not but believe that he must be
sick of his blunder by this time; and she had more than a hope that he
would presently write her a letter beginning "Dear Friend." Something
subtly tragic in the separation was a great support to her, a sad
misunderstanding. To have been jilted would have been intolerable. But he
never wrote that letter beginning "Dear Friend."

For two years Miss Winchelsea could not go to see her friends, in spite of
the reiterated invitations of Mrs. Sevenoaks--it became full Sevenoaks in
the second year. Then one day near the Easter rest she felt lonely and
without a soul to understand her in the world, and her mind ran once more
on what is called Platonic friendship. Fanny was clearly happy and busy in
her new sphere of domesticity, but no doubt _he_ had his lonely
hours. Did he ever think of those days in Rome, gone now beyond recalling?
No one had understood her as he had done; no one in all the world. It
would be a sort of melancholy pleasure to talk to him again, and what harm
could it do? Why should she deny herself? That night she wrote a sonnet,
all but the last two lines of the octave--which would not come; and the
next day she composed a graceful little note to tell Fanny she was coming
down.

And so she saw him again.

Even at the first encounter it was evident he had changed; he seemed
stouter and less nervous, and it speedily appeared that his conversation
had already lost much of its old delicacy. There even seemed a
justification for Helen's description of weakness in his face--in certain
lights it _was_ weak. He seemed busy and preoccupied about his
affairs, and almost under the impression that Miss Winchelsea had come for
the sake of Fanny. He discussed his dinner with Fanny in an intelligent
way. They only had one good long talk together, and that came to nothing.
He did not refer to Rome, and spent some time abusing a man who had stolen
an idea he had had for a text-book. It did not seem a very wonderful idea
to Miss Winchelsea. She discovered he had forgotten the names of more than
half the painters whose work they had rejoiced over in Florence.

It was a sadly disappointing week, and Miss Winchelsea was glad when it
came to an end. Under various excuses she avoided visiting them again.
After a time the visitor's room was occupied by their two little boys, and
Fanny's invitations ceased. The intimacy of her letters had long since
faded away.

 

 

 

XXV.

A DREAM OF ARMAGEDDON.

 

The man with the white face entered the carriage at Rugby. He moved slowly
in spite of the urgency of his porter, and even while he was still on the
platform I noted how ill he seemed. He dropped into the corner over
against me with a sigh, made an incomplete attempt to arrange his
travelling shawl, and became motionless, with his eyes staring vacantly.
Presently he was moved by a sense of my observation, looked up at me, and
put out a spiritless hand for his newspaper. Then he glanced again in my
direction.

I feigned to read. I feared I had unwittingly embarrassed him, and in a
moment I was surprised to find him speaking.

"I beg your pardon?" said I.

"That book," he repeated, pointing a lean finger, "is about dreams."

"Obviously," I answered, for it was Fortnum-Roscoe's _Dream States_,
and the title was on the cover.

He hung silent for a space as if he sought words. "Yes," he said, at last,
"but they tell you nothing."

I did not catch his meaning for a second.

"They don't know," he added.

I looked a little more attentively at his face.

"There are dreams," he said, "and dreams." That sort of proposition I
never dispute. "I suppose----" he hesitated. "Do you ever dream? I mean
vividly."

"I dream very little," I answered. "I doubt if I have three vivid dreams
in a year."

"Ah!" he said, and seemed for a moment to collect his thoughts.

"Your dreams don't mix with your memories?" he asked abruptly. "You don't
find yourself in doubt: did this happen or did it not?"

"Hardly ever. Except just for a momentary hesitation now and then. I
suppose few people do."

"Does _he_ say----" he indicated the book.

"Says it happens at times and gives the usual explanation about intensity
of impression and the like to account for its not happening as a rule. I
suppose you know something of these theories----"

"Very little--except that they are wrong."

His emaciated hand played with the strap of the window for a time. I
prepared to resume reading, and that seemed to precipitate his next
remark. He leant forward almost as though he would touch me.

"Isn't there something called consecutive dreaming--that goes on night
after night?"

"I believe there is. There are cases given in most books on mental
trouble."

"Mental trouble! Yes. I daresay there are. It's the right place for them.
But what I mean----" He looked at his bony knuckles. "Is that sort of
thing always dreaming? _Is_ it dreaming? Or is it something else?
Mightn't it be something else?"

I should have snubbed his persistent conversation but for the drawn
anxiety of his face. I remember now the look of his faded eyes and the
lids red stained--perhaps you know that look.

"I'm not just arguing about a matter of opinion," he said. "The thing's
killing me."

"Dreams?"

"If you call them dreams. Night after night. Vivid!--so vivid ... this--"
(he indicated the landscape that went streaming by the window) "seems
unreal in comparison! I can scarcely remember who I am, what business I am
on ..."

He paused. "Even now--"

"The dream is always the same--do you mean?" I asked.

"It's over."

"You mean?"

"I died."

"Died?"

"Smashed and killed, and now so much of me as that dream was is dead. Dead
for ever. I dreamt I was another man, you know, living in a different part
of the world and in a different time. I dreamt that night after night.
Night after night I woke into that other life. Fresh scenes and fresh
happenings--until I came upon the last--"

"When you died?"

"When I died."

"And since then--"

"No," he said. "Thank God! that was the end of the dream..."

It was clear I was in for this dream. And, after all, I had an hour before
me, the light was fading fast, and Fortnum-Roscoe has a dreary way with
him. "Living in a different time," I said: "do you mean in some different
age?"

"Yes."

"Past?"

"No, to come--to come."

"The year three thousand, for example?"

"I don't know what year it was. I did when I was asleep, when I was
dreaming, that is, but not now--not now that I am awake. There's a lot of
things I have forgotten since I woke out of these dreams, though I knew
them at the time when I was--I suppose it was dreaming. They called the
year differently from our way of calling the year... What _did_ they
call it?" He put his hand to his forehead. "No," said he, "I forget."

He sat smiling weakly. For a moment I feared he did not mean to tell me
his dream. As a rule, I hate people who tell their dreams, but this struck
me differently. I proffered assistance even. "It began----" I suggested.

"It was vivid from the first. I seemed to wake up in it suddenly. And it's
curious that in these dreams I am speaking of I never remembered this life
I am living now. It seemed as if the dream life was enough while it
lasted. Perhaps----But I will tell you how I find myself when I do my
best to recall it all. I don't remember anything clearly until I found
myself sitting in a sort of loggia looking out over the sea. I had been
dozing, and suddenly I woke up--fresh and vivid--not a bit dreamlike--
because the girl had stopped fanning me."

"The girl?"

"Yes, the girl. You must not interrupt or you will put me out."

He stopped abruptly. "You won't think I'm mad?" he said.

"No," I answered; "you've been dreaming. Tell me your dream."

"I woke up, I say, because the girl had stopped fanning me. I was not
surprised to find myself there or anything of that sort, you understand. I
did not feel I had fallen into it suddenly. I simply took it up at that
point. Whatever memory I had of _this_ life, this nineteenth-century
life, faded as I woke, vanished like a dream. I knew all about myself,
knew that my name was no longer Cooper but Hedon, and all about my
position in the world. I've forgotten a lot since I woke--there's a want
of connection--but it was all quite clear and matter-of-fact then."

He hesitated again, gripping the window strap, putting his face forward,
and looking up to me appealingly.

"This seems bosh to you?"

"No, no!" I cried. "Go on. Tell me what this loggia was like."

"It was not really a loggia--I don't know what to call it. It faced south.
It was small. It was all in shadow except the semicircle above the balcony
that showed the sky and sea and the corner where the girl stood. I was on
a couch--it was a metal couch with light striped cushions--and the girl
was leaning over the balcony with her back to me. The light of the sunrise
fell on her ear and cheek. Her pretty white neck and the little curls that
nestled there, and her white shoulder were in the sun, and all the grace
of her body was in the cool blue shadow. She was dressed--how can I
describe it? It was easy and flowing. And altogether there she stood, so
that it came to me how beautiful and desirable she was, as though I had
never seen her before. And when at last I sighed and raised myself upon my
arm she turned her face to me--"

He stopped.

"I have lived three-and-fifty years in this world. I have had mother,
sisters, friends, wife and daughters--all their faces, the play of their
faces, I know. But the face of this girl--it is much more real to me. I
can bring it back into memory so that I see it again--I could draw it or
paint it. And after all--"

He stopped--but I said nothing.

"The face of a dream--the face of a dream. She was beautiful. Not that
beauty which is terrible, cold, and worshipful, like the beauty of a
saint; nor that beauty that stirs fierce passions; but a sort of
radiation, sweet lips that softened into smiles, and grave gray eyes. And
she moved gracefully, she seemed to have part with all pleasant and
gracious things--"

He stopped, and his face was downcast and hidden. Then he looked up at me
and went on, making no further attempt to disguise his absolute belief in
the reality of his story.

"You see, I had thrown up my plans and ambitions, thrown up all I had ever
worked for or desired, for her sake. I had been a master man away there in
the north, with influence and property and a great reputation, but none of
it had seemed worth having beside her. I had come to the place, this city
of sunny pleasures, with her, and left all those things to wreck and ruin
just to save a remnant at least of my life. While I had been in love with
her before I knew that she had any care for me, before I had imagined that
she would dare--that we should dare--all my life had seemed vain and
hollow, dust and ashes. It _was_ dust and ashes. Night after night,
and through the long days I had longed and desired--my soul had beaten
against the thing forbidden!

"But it is impossible for one man to tell another just these things. It's
emotion, it's a tint, a light that comes and goes. Only while it's there,
everything changes, everything. The thing is I came away and left them in
their crisis to do what they could."

"Left whom?" I asked, puzzled.

"The people up in the north there. You see--in this dream, anyhow--I had
been a big man, the sort of man men come to trust in, to group themselves
about. Millions of men who had never seen me were ready to do things and
risk things because of their confidence in me. I had been playing that
game for years, that big laborious game, that vague, monstrous political
game amidst intrigues and betrayals, speech and agitation. It was a vast
weltering world, and at last I had a sort of leadership against the Gang--
you know it was called the Gang--a sort of compromise of scoundrelly
projects and base ambitions and vast public emotional stupidities and
catch-words--the Gang that kept the world noisy and blind year by year,
and all the while that it was drifting, drifting towards infinite
disaster. But I can't expect you to understand the shades and
complications of the year--the year something or other ahead. I had it
all--down to the smallest details--in my dream. I suppose I had been
dreaming of it before I awoke, and the fading outline of some queer new
development I had imagined still hung about me as I rubbed my eyes. It was
some grubby affair that made me thank God for the sunlight. I sat up on
the couch and remained looking at the woman, and rejoicing--rejoicing that
I had come away out of all that tumult and folly and violence before it
was too late. After all, I thought, this is life--love and beauty, desire
and delight, are they not worth all those dismal struggles for vague,
gigantic ends? And I blamed myself for having ever sought to be a leader
when I might have given my days to love. But then, thought I, if I had not
spent my early days sternly and austerely, I might have wasted myself upon
vain and worthless women, and at the thought all my being went out in love
and tenderness to my dear mistress, my dear lady, who had come at last and
compelled me--compelled me by her invincible charm for me--to lay that
life aside.

"'You are worth it,' I said, speaking without intending her to hear; 'you
are worth it, my dearest one; worth pride and praise and all things. Love!
to have _you_ is worth them all together.' And at the murmur of my
voice she turned about.

"'Come and see,' she cried--I can hear her now--come and see the sunrise
upon Monte Solaro.'

"I remember how I sprang to my feet and joined her at the balcony. She put
a white hand upon my shoulder and pointed towards great masses of
limestone flushing, as it were, into life. I looked. But first I noted the
sunlight on her face caressing the lines of her cheeks and neck. How can I
describe to you the scene we had before us? We were at Capri----"

"I have been there," I said. "I have clambered up Monte Solaro and drunk
_vero Capri_--muddy stuff like cider--at the summit."

"Ah!" said the man with the white face; "then perhaps you can tell me--you
will know if this was indeed Capri. For in this life I have never been
there. Let me describe it. We were in a little room, one of a vast
multitude of little rooms, very cool and sunny, hollowed out of the
limestone of a sort of cape, very high above the sea. The whole island,
you know, was one enormous hotel, complex beyond explaining, and on the
other side there were miles of floating hotels, and huge floating stages
to which the flying machines came. They called it a Pleasure City. Of
course, there was none of that in your time--rather, I should say,
_is_ none of that _now_. Of course. Now!--yes.

"Well, this room of ours was at the extremity of the cape, so that one
could see east and west. Eastward was a great cliff--a thousand feet high
perhaps, coldly grey except for one bright edge of gold, and beyond it the
Isle of the Sirens, and a falling coast that faded and passed into the hot
sunrise. And when one turned to the west, distinct and near was a little
bay, a little beach still in shadow. And out of that shadow rose Solaro,
straight and tall, flushed and golden-crested, like a beauty throned, and
the white moon was floating behind her in the sky. And before us from east
to west stretched the many-tinted sea all dotted with little
sailing-boats.

"To the eastward, of course, these little boats were gray and very minute
and clear, but to the westward they were little boats of gold--shining
gold--almost like little flames. And just below us was a rock with an arch
worn through it. The blue sea-water broke to green and foam all round the
rock, and a galley came gliding out of the arch."

"I know that rock," I said. "I was nearly drowned there. It is called the
Faraglioni."

"_Faraglioni_? Yes, _she_ called it that," answered the man with
the white face. "There was some story--but that----"

He put his hand to his forehead again. "No," he said, "I forget that
story.

"Well, that is the first thing I remember, the first dream I had, that
little shaded room and the beautiful air and sky and that dear lady of
mine, with her shining arms and her graceful robe, and how we sat and
talked in half whispers to one another. We talked in whispers, not because
there was any one to hear, but because there was still such a freshness of
mind between us that our thoughts were a little frightened, I think, to
find themselves at last in words. And so they went softly.

"Presently we were hungry, and we went from our apartment, going by a
strange passage with a moving floor, until we came to the great
breakfast-room--there was a fountain and music. A pleasant and joyful
place it was, with its sunlight and splashing, and the murmur of plucked
strings. And we sat and ate and smiled at one another, and I would not
heed a man who was watching me from a table near by.

"And afterwards we went on to the dancing-hall. But I cannot describe
that hall. The place was enormous, larger than any building you have ever
seen--and in one place there was the old gate of Capri, caught into the
wall of a gallery high overhead. Light girders, stems and threads of gold,
burst from the pillars like fountains, streamed like an Aurora across the
roof and interlaced, like--like conjuring tricks. All about the great
circle for the dancers there were beautiful figures, strange dragons, and
intricate and wonderful grotesques bearing lights. The place was inundated
with artificial light that shamed the newborn day. And as we went through
the throng the people turned about and looked at us, for all through the
world my name and face were known, and how I had suddenly thrown up pride,
and struggle to come to this place. And they looked also at the lady
beside me, though half the story of how at last she had come to me was
unknown or mistold. And few of the men who were there, I know, but judged
me a happy man, in spite of all the shame and dishonour that had come upon
my name.

"The air was full of music, full of harmonious scents, full of the rhythm
of beautiful motions. Thousands of beautiful people swarmed about the
hall, crowded the galleries, sat in a myriad recesses; they were dressed
in splendid colours and crowned with flowers; thousands danced about the
great circle beneath the white images of the ancient gods, and glorious
processions of youths and maidens came and went. We two danced, not the
dreary monotonies of your days--of this time, I mean--but dances that were
beautiful, intoxicating. And even now I can see my lady dancing--dancing
joyously. She danced, you know, with a serious face; she danced with a
serious dignity, and yet she was smiling at me and caressing me--smiling
and caressing with her eyes.

"The music was different," he murmured. "It went--I cannot describe it;
but it was infinitely richer and more varied than any music that has ever
come to me awake.

"And then--it was when we had done dancing--a man came to speak to me. He
was a lean, resolute man, very soberly clad for that place, and already I
had marked his face watching me in the breakfasting hall, and afterwards
as we went along the passage I had avoided his eye. But now, as we sat in
a little alcove smiling at the pleasure of all the people who went to and
fro across the shining floor, he came and touched me, and spoke to me so
that I was forced to listen. And he asked that he might speak to me for a
little time apart.

"'No,' I said. 'I have no secrets from this lady. What do you want to tell
me?'

"He said it was a trivial matter, or at least a dry matter, for a lady to
hear.

"'Perhaps for me to hear,' said I.

"He glanced at her, as though almost he would appeal to her. Then he asked
me suddenly if I. had heard of a great and avenging declaration that
Gresham had made. Now, Gresham had always before been the man next to
myself in the leadership of that great party in the north. He was a
forcible, hard, and tactless man, and only I had been able to control and
soften him. It was on his account even more than my own, I think, that the
others had been so dismayed at my retreat. So this question about what he
had done re-awakened my old interest in the life I had put aside just for
a moment.

"'I have taken no heed of any news for many days,' I said. 'What has
Gresham been saying?'

"And with that the man began, nothing loth, and I must confess ever; I was
struck by Gresham's reckless folly in the wild and threatening words he
had used. And this messenger they had sent to me not only told me of
Gresham's speech, but went on to ask counsel and to point out what need
they had of me. While he talked, my lady sat a little forward and watched
his face and mine.

"My old habits of scheming and organising reasserted themselves. I could
even see myself suddenly returning to the north, and all the dramatic
effect of it. All that this man said witnessed to the disorder of the
party indeed, but not to its damage. I should go back stronger than I had
come. And then I thought of my lady. You see--how can I tell you? There
were certain peculiarities of our relationship--as things are I need not
tell about that--which would render her presence with me impossible. I
should have had to leave her; indeed, I should have had to renounce her
clearly and openly, if I was to do all that I could do in the north. And
the man knew _that_, even as he talked to her and me, knew it as well
as she did, that my steps to duty were--first, separation, then
abandonment. At the touch of that thought my dream of a return was
shattered. I turned on the man suddenly, as he was imagining his eloquence
was gaining ground with me.

"'What have I to do with these things now?' I said. 'I have done with
them. Do you think I am coquetting with your people in coming here?'

"'No,' he said; 'but----'

"'Why cannot you leave me alone? I have done with these things. I have
ceased to be anything but a private man.'

"'Yes,' he answered. 'But have you thought?--this talk of war, these
reckless challenges, these wild aggressions----'

"I stood up.

"'No,' I cried. 'I won't hear you. I took count of all those things, I
weighed them--and I have come away."

"He seemed to consider the possibility of persistence. He looked from me
to where the lady sat regarding us.

"'War,' he said, as if he were speaking to himself, and then turned slowly
from me and walked away.

"I stood, caught in the whirl of thoughts his appeal had set going.

"I heard my lady's voice.

"'Dear,' she said; 'but if they have need of you--'

"She did not finish her sentence, she let it rest there. I turned to her
sweet face, and the balance of my mood swayed and reeled.

"'They want me only to do the thing they dare not do themselves,' I said.
'If they distrust Gresham they must settle with him themselves.'

"She looked at me doubtfully.

"'But war--' she said.

"I saw a doubt on her face that I had seen before, a doubt of herself and
me, the first shadow of the discovery that, seen strongly and completely,
must drive us apart for ever.

"Now, I was an older mind than hers, and I could sway her to this belief
or that.

"'My dear one,' I said, 'you must not trouble over these things. There
will be no war. Certainly there will be no war. The age of wars is past.
Trust me to know the justice of this case. They have no right upon me,
dearest, and no one has a right upon me. I have been free to choose my
life, and I have chosen this.'

"'But _war_--' she said.

"I sat down beside her. I put an arm behind her and took her hand in mine.
I set myself to drive that doubt away--I set myself to fill her mind with
pleasant things again. I lied to her, and in lying to her I lied also to
myself. And she was only too ready to believe me, only too ready to
forget.

"Very soon the shadow had gone again, and we were hastening to our
bathing-place in the Grotta del Bovo Marino, where it was our custom to
bathe every day. We swam and splashed one another, and in that buoyant
water I seemed to become something lighter and stronger than a man. And at
last we came out dripping and rejoicing and raced among the rocks. And
then I put on a dry bathing-dress, and we sat to bask in the sun, and
presently I nodded, resting my head against her knee, and she put her hand
upon my hair and stroked it softly and I dozed. And behold! as it were
with the snapping of the string of a violin, I was awakening, and I was in
my own bed in Liverpool, in the life of to-day.

"Only for a time I could not believe that all these vivid moments had been
no more than the substance of a dream.

"In truth, I could not believe it a dream, for all the sobering reality of
things about me. I bathed and dressed as it were by habit, and as I shaved
I argued why I of all men should leave the woman I loved to go back to
fantastic politics in the hard and strenuous north. Even if Gresham did
force the world back to war, what was that to me? I was a man, with the
heart of a man, and why should I feel the responsibility of a deity for
the way the world might go?

"You know that is not quite the way I think about affairs, about my real
affairs. I am a solicitor, you know, with a point of view.

"The vision was so real, you must understand, so utterly unlike a dream,
that I kept perpetually recalling little irrelevant details; even the
ornament of a bookcover that lay on my wife's sewing-machine in the
breakfast-room recalled with the utmost vividness the gilt line that ran
about the seat in the alcove where I had talked with the messenger from my
deserted party. Have you ever heard of a dream that had a quality like
that?"

"Like--?"

"So that afterwards you remembered little details you had forgotten."

I thought. I had never noticed the point before, but he was right.

"Never," I said. "That is what you never seem to do with dreams."

"No," he answered. "But that is just what I did. I am a solicitor, you
must understand, in Liverpool, and I could not help wondering what the
clients and business people I found myself talking to in my office would
think if I told them suddenly I was in love with a girl who would be born
a couple of hundred years or so hence, and worried about the politics of
my great-great-great-grandchildren. I was chiefly busy that day
negotiating a ninety-nine-year building lease. It was a private builder in
a hurry, and we wanted to tie him in every possible way. I had an
interview with him, and he showed a certain want of temper that sent me to
bed still irritated. That night I had no dream. Nor did I dream the next
night, at least, to remember.

"Something of that intense reality of conviction vanished. I began to feel
sure it _was_ a dream. And then it came again.

"When the dream came again, nearly four days later, it was very different.
I think it certain that four days had also elapsed _in_ the dream.
Many things had happened in the north, and the shadow of them was back
again between us, and this time it was not so easily dispelled. I began, I
know, with moody musings. Why, in spite of all, should I go back, go back
for all the rest of my days, to toil and stress, insults, and perpetual
dissatisfaction, simply to save hundreds of millions of common people,
whom I did not love, whom too often I could not do other than despise,
from the stress and anguish of war and infinite misrule? And, after all, I
might fail. _They_ all sought their own narrow ends, and why should
not I--why should not I also live as a man? And out of such thoughts her
voice summoned me, and I lifted my eyes.

"I found myself awake and walking. We had come out above the Pleasure
City, we were near the summit of Monte Solaro and looking towards the bay.
It was the late afternoon and very clear. Far away to the left Ischia hung
in a golden haze between sea and sky, and Naples was coldly white against
the hills, and before us was Vesuvius with a tall and slender streamer
feathering at last towards the south, and the ruins of Torre dell'
Annunziata and Castellammare glittering and near."

I interrupted suddenly: "You have been to Capri, of course?"

"Only in this dream," he said, "only in this dream. All across the bay
beyond Sorrento were the floating palaces of the Pleasure City moored and
chained. And northward were the broad floating stages that received the
aeroplanes. Aeroplanes fell out of the sky every afternoon, each bringing
its thousands of pleasure-seekers from the uttermost parts of the earth to
Capri and its delights. All these things, I say, stretched below.

"But we noticed them only incidentally because of an unusual sight that
evening had to show. Five war aeroplanes that had long slumbered useless
in the distant arsenals of the Rhine-mouth were manoeuvring now in the
eastward sky. Gresham had astonished the world by producing them and
others, and sending them to circle here and there. It was the threat
material in the great game of bluff he was playing, and it had taken even
me by surprise. He was one of those incredibly stupid energetic people who
seem sent by heaven to create disasters. His energy to the first glance
seemed so wonderfully like capacity! But he had no imagination, no
invention, only a stupid, vast, driving force of will, and a mad faith in
his stupid idiot 'luck' to pull him through. I remember how we stood out
upon the headland watching the squadron circling far away, and how I
weighed the full meaning of the sight, seeing clearly the way things must
_go_. And then even it was not too late. I might have gone back, I
think, and saved the world. The people of the north would follow me, I
knew, granted only that in one thing I respected their moral standards.
The east and south would trust me as they would trust no other northern
man. And I knew I had only to put it to her and she would have let me
go... Not because she did not love me!

"Only I did not want to go; my will was all the other way about. I had so
newly thrown off the incubus of responsibility: I was still so fresh a
renegade from duty that the daylight clearness of what I _ought_ to
do had no power at all to touch my will. My will was to live, to gather
pleasures, and make my dear lady happy. But though this sense of vast
neglected duties had no power to draw me, it could make me silent and
preoccupied, it robbed the days I had spent of half their brightness and
roused me into dark meditations in the silence of the night. And as I
stood and watched Gresham's aeroplanes sweep to and fro--those birds of
infinite ill omen--she stood beside me, watching me, perceiving the
trouble indeed, but not perceiving it clearly--her eyes questioning my
face, her expression shaded with perplexity. Her face was grey because the
sunset was fading out of the sky. It was no fault of hers that she held
me. She had asked me to go from her, and again in the night-time and with
tears she had asked me to go.

"At last it was the sense of her that roused me from my mood. I turned
upon her suddenly and challenged her to race down the mountain slopes.
'No,' she said, as if I jarred with her gravity, but I was resolved to end
that gravity and made her run--no one can be very grey and sad who is out
of breath---and when she stumbled I ran with my hand beneath her arm. We
ran down past a couple of men, who turned back staring in astonishment at
my behaviour--they must have recognised my face. And half-way down the
slope came a tumult in the air--clang-clank, clang-clank--and we stopped,
and presently over the hill-crest those war things came flying one behind
the other."

The man seemed hesitating on the verge of a description.

"What were, they like?" I asked.

"They had never fought," he said. "They were just like our ironclads are
nowadays; they had never fought. No one knew what they might do, with
excited men inside them; few even cared to speculate. They were great
driving things shaped like spear-heads without a shaft, with a propeller
in the place of the shaft."

"Steel?"

"Not steel."

"Aluminium?"

"No, no, nothing of that sort. An alloy that was very common--as common as
brass, for example. It was called--let me see--" He squeezed his forehead
with the fingers of one hand. "I am forgetting everything," he said.

"And they carried guns?"

"Little guns, firing high explosive shells. They fired the guns backwards,
out of the base of the leaf, so to speak, and rammed with the beak. That
was the theory, you know, but they had never been fought. No one could
tell exactly what was going to happen. And meanwhile I suppose it was very
fine to go whirling through the air like a flight of young swallows, swift
and easy. I guess the captains tried not to think too clearly what the
real thing would be like. And these flying war machines, you know, were
only one sort of the endless war contrivances that had been invented and
had fallen into abeyance during the long peace. There were all sorts of
these things that people were routing out and furbishing up; infernal
things, silly things; things that had never been tried; big engines,
terrible explosives, great guns. You know the silly way of these ingenious
sort of men who make these things; they turn 'em out as beavers build
dams, and with no more sense of the rivers they're going to divert and the
lands they're going to flood!

"As we went down the winding stepway to our hotel again in the twilight I
foresaw it all: I saw how clearly and inevitably things were driving for
war in Gresham's silly, violent hands, and I had some inkling of what war
was bound to be under these new conditions. And even then, though I knew
it was drawing near the limit of my opportunity, I could find no will to
go back."

He sighed.

"That was my last chance.

"We did not go into the city until the sky was full of stars, so we walked
out upon the high terrace, to and fro, and--she counselled me to go back.

"'My dearest,' she said, and her sweet face looked up to me, 'this is
Death. This life you lead is Death. Go back to them, go back to your
duty--'

"She began to weep, saying between her sobs, and clinging to my arm as she
said it, 'Go back--go back.'

"Then suddenly she fell mute, and glancing down at her face, I read in an
instant the thing she had thought to do. It was one of those moments when
one _sees_.

"'No!' I said.

"'No?' she asked, in surprise, and I think a little fearful at the answer
to her thought.

"'Nothing,' I said, 'shall send me back. Nothing! I have chosen. Love, I
have chosen, and the world must go. Whatever happens, I will live this
life--I will live for _you_! It--nothing shall turn me aside;
nothing, my dear one. Even if you died--even if you died--'

"'Yes?' she murmured, softly.

"'Then--I also would die.'

"And before she could speak again I began to talk, talking eloquently--as
I _could_ do in that life--talking to exalt love, to make the life we
were living seem heroic and glorious; and the thing I was deserting
something hard and enormously ignoble that it was a fine thing to set
aside. I bent all my mind to throw that glamour upon it, seeking not only
to convert her but myself to that. We talked, and she clung to me, torn
too between all that she deemed noble and all that she knew was sweet. And
at last I did make it heroic, made all the thickening disaster of the
world only a sort of glorious setting to our unparalleled love, and we two
poor foolish souls strutted there at last, clad in that splendid delusion,
drunken rather with that glorious delusion, under the still stars.

"And so my moment passed.

"It was my last chance. Even as we went to and fro there, the leaders of
the south and east were gathering their resolve, and the hot answer that
shattered Gresham's bluffing for ever took shape and waited. And all over
Asia, and the ocean, and the south, the air and the wires were throbbing
with their warnings to prepare--prepare.

"No one living, you know, knew what war was; no one could imagine, with
all these new inventions, what horror war might bring. I believe most
people still believed it would be a matter of bright uniforms and shouting
charges and triumphs and flags and bands--in a time when half the world
drew its food-supply from regions ten thousand miles away----"

The man with the white face paused. I glanced at him, and his face was
intent on the floor of the carriage. A little railway station, a string of
loaded trucks, a signal-box, and the back of a cottage shot by the
carriage window, and a bridge passed with a clap of noise, echoing the
tumult of the train.

"After that," he said, "I dreamt often. For three weeks of nights that
dream was my life. And the worst of it was there were nights when I could
not dream, when I lay tossing on a bed in _this_ accursed life; and
_there_--somewhere lost to me--things were happening--momentous,
terrible things... I lived at nights--my days, my waking days, this life
I am living now, became a faded, far-away dream, a drab setting, the cover
of the book."

He thought.

"I could tell you all, tell you every little thing in the dream, but as to
what I did in the daytime--no. I could not tell--I do not remember. My
memory--my memory has gone. The business of life slips from me--"

He leant forward, and pressed his hands upon his eyes. For a long time he
said nothing.

"And then?" said I.

"The war burst like a hurricane."

He stared before him at unspeakable things.

"And then?" I urged again.

"One touch of unreality," he said, in the low tone of a man who speaks to
himself, "and they would have been nightmares. But they were not
nightmares--they were not nightmares. _No_!"

He was silent for so long that it dawned upon me that there was a danger
of losing the rest of the story. But he went on talking again in the same
tone of questioning self-communion.

"What was there to do but flight? I had not thought the war would touch
Capri--I had seemed to see Capri as being out of it all, as the contrast
to it all; but two nights after the whole place was shouting and bawling,
every woman almost and every other man wore a badge--Gresham's badge--and
there was no music but a jangling war-song over and over again, and
everywhere men enlisting, and in the dancing halls they were drilling. The
whole island was a-whirl with rumours; it was said again and again, that
fighting had begun. I had not expected this. I had seen so little of the
life of pleasure that I had failed to reckon with this violence of the
amateurs. And as for me, I was out of it. I was like a man who might have
prevented the firing of a magazine. The time had gone. I was no one; the
vainest stripling with a badge counted for more than I. The crowd jostled
us and bawled in our ears; that accursed song deafened us; a woman
shrieked at my lady because no badge was on her, and we two went back to
our own place again, ruffled and insulted--my lady white and silent, and I
a-quiver with rage. So furious was I, I could have quarrelled with her if
I could have found one shade of accusation in her eyes.

"All my magnificence had gone from me. I walked up and down our rock cell,
and outside was the darkling sea and a light to the southward that flared
and passed and came again.

"'We must get out of this place,' I said over and over. 'I have made my
choice, and I will have no hand in these troubles. I will have nothing of
this war. We have taken our lives out of all these things. This is no
refuge for us. Let us go.'

"And the next day we were already in flight from the war that covered the
world.

"And all the rest was Flight--all the rest was Flight."

He mused darkly.

"How much was there of it?"

He made no answer.

"How many days?"

His face was white and drawn and his hands were clenched. He took no heed
of my curiosity.

I tried to draw him back to his story with questions.

"Where did you go?" I said.

"When?"

"When you left Capri."

"South-west," he said, and glanced at me for a second. "We went in a
boat."

"But I should have thought an aeroplane?"

"They had been seized."

I questioned him no more. Presently I thought he was beginning again. He
broke out in an argumentative monotone:

"But why should it be? If, indeed, this battle, this slaughter and stress,
_is_ life, why have we this craving for pleasure and beauty? If there
_is_ no refuge, if there is no place of peace, and if all our dreams
of quiet places are a folly and a snare, why have we such dreams? Surely
it was no ignoble cravings, no base intentions, had brought us to this; it
was love had isolated us. Love had come to me with her eyes and robed in
her beauty, more glorious than all else in life, in the very shape and
colour of life, and summoned me away. I had silenced all the voices, I had
answered all the questions--I had come to her. And suddenly there was
nothing but War and Death!"

I had an inspiration. "After all," I said, "it could have been only a
dream."

"A dream!" he cried, flaming upon me, "a dream--when, even now--"

For the first time he became animated. A faint flush crept into his cheek.
He raised his open hand and clenched it, and dropped it to his knee. He
spoke, looking away from me, and for all the rest of the time he looked
away. "We are but phantoms," he said, "and the phantoms of phantoms,
desires like cloud shadows and wills of straw that eddy in the wind; the
days pass, use and wont carry us through as a train carries the shadow of
its lights--so be it? But one thing is real and certain, one thing is no
dream stuff, but eternal and enduring. It is the centre of my life, and
all other things about it are subordinate or altogether vain. I loved her,
that woman of a dream. And she and I are dead together!

"A dream! How can it be a dream, when it drenched a living life with
unappeasable sorrow, when it makes all that I have lived for and cared for
worthless and unmeaning?

"Until that very moment when she was killed I believed we had still a
chance of getting away," he said. "All through the night and morning that
we sailed across the sea from Capri to Salerno we talked of escape. We
were full of hope, and it clung about us to the end, hope for the life
together we should lead, out of it all, out of the battle and struggle,
the wild and empty passions, the empty, arbitrary 'thou shalt' and 'thou
shalt not' of the world. We were uplifted, as though our quest was a holy
thing, as though love for one another was a mission...

"Even when from our boat we saw the fair face of that great rock Capri--
already scarred and gashed by the gun emplacements and hiding-places that
were to make it a fastness--we reckoned nothing of the imminent slaughter,
though the fury of preparation hung about in puffs and clouds of dust at a
hundred points amidst the grey; but, indeed, I made a text of that and
talked. There, you know, was the rock, still beautiful for all its scars,
with its countless windows and arches and ways, tier upon tier, for a
thousand feet, a vast carving of grey, broken by vine-clad terraces, and
lemon and orange groves, and masses of agave and prickly pear, and puffs
of almond blossom. And out under the archway that is built over the
Piccola Marina other boats were coming; and as we came round the cape and
within sight of the mainland, another little string of boats came into
view, driving before the wind towards the south-west. In a little while a
multitude had come out, the remoter just little specks of ultramarine in
the shadow of the eastward cliff.

"'It is love and reason,' I said, 'fleeing from all this madness of war.'

"And though we presently saw a squadron of aeroplanes flying across the
southern sky we did not heed it. There it was--a line of little dots in
the sky--and then more, dotting the south-eastern horizon, and then still
more, until all that quarter of the sky was stippled with blue specks. Now
they were all thin little strokes of blue, and now one and now a multitude
would heel and catch the sun and become short flashes of light. They came,
rising and falling and growing larger, like some huge flight of gulls or
rooks or such-like birds, moving with a marvellous uniformity, and ever as
they drew nearer they spread over a greater width of sky. The southward
wing flung itself in an arrow-headed cloud athwart the sun. And then
suddenly they swept round to the eastward and streamed eastward, growing
smaller and smaller and clearer and clearer again until they vanished from
the sky. And after that we noted to the northward, and very high,
Gresham's fighting machines hanging high over Naples like an evening swarm
of gnats.

"It seemed to have no more to do with us than a flight of birds.

"Even the mutter of guns far away in the south-east seemed to us to
signify nothing...

"Each day, each dream after that, we were still exalted, still seeking
that refuge where we might live and love. Fatigue had come upon us, pain
and many distresses. For though we were dusty and stained by our toilsome
tramping, and half starved, and with the horror of the dead men we had
seen and the flight of the peasants--for very soon a gust of fighting
swept up the peninsula--with these things haunting our minds it still
resulted only in a deepening resolution to escape. Oh, but she was brave
and patient! She who had never faced hardship and exposure had courage for
herself--and me. We went to and fro seeking an outlet, over a country all
commandeered and ransacked by the gathering hosts of war. Always we went
on foot. At first there were other fugitives, but we did not mingle with
them. Some escaped northward, some were caught in the torrent of peasantry
that swept along the main roads; many gave themselves into the hands of
the soldiery and were sent northward. Many of the men were impressed. But
we kept away from these things; we had brought no money to bribe a passage
north, and I feared for my lady at the hands of these conscript crowds. We
had landed at Salerno, and we had been turned back from Cava, and we had
tried to cross towards Taranto by a pass over Mount Alburno, but we had
been driven back for want of food, and so we had come down among the
marshes by Paestum, where those great temples stand alone. I had some
vague idea that by Paestum it might be possible to find a boat or
something, and take once more to sea. And there it was the battle overtook
us.

"A sort of soul-blindness had me. Plainly I could see that we were being
hemmed in; that the great net of that giant Warfare had us in its toils.
Many times we had seen the levies that had come down from the north going
to and fro, and had come upon them in the distance amidst the mountains
making ways for the ammunition and preparing the mounting of the guns.
Once we fancied they had fired at us, taking us for spies--at any rate a
shot had gone shuddering over us. Several times we had hidden in woods
from hovering aeroplanes.

"But all these things do not matter now, these nights of flight and
pain... We were in an open place near those great temples at Paestum, at
last, on a blank stony place dotted with spiky bushes, empty and desolate
and so flat that a grove of eucalyptus far away showed to the feet of its
stems. How I can see it! My lady was sitting down under a bush resting a
little, for she was very weak and weary, and I was standing up watching to
see if I could tell the distance of the firing that came and went. They
were still, you know, fighting far from each other, with these terrible
new weapons that had never before been used: guns that would carry beyond
sight, and aeroplanes that would do----What _they_ would do no man
could foretell.

"I knew that we were between the two armies, and that they drew together.
I knew we were in danger, and that we could not stop there and rest!

"Though all those things were in my mind, they were in the background.
They seemed to be affairs beyond our concern. Chiefly, I was thinking of
my lady. An aching distress filled me. For the first time she had owned
herself beaten and had fallen a-weeping. Behind me I could hear her
sobbing, but I would not turn round to her because I knew she had need of
weeping, and had held herself so far and so long for me. It was well, I
thought, that she would weep and rest, and then we would toil on again,
for I had no inkling of the thing that hung so near. Even now I can see
her as she sat there, her lovely hair upon her shoulder, can mark again
the deepening hollow of her cheek.

"'If we had parted,' she said, 'if I had let you go--'

"'No,' said I. 'Even now I do not repent. I will not repent; I made my
choice, and I will hold on to the end.'

"And then--

"Overhead in the sky flashed something and burst, and all about us I heard
the bullets making a noise like a handful of peas suddenly thrown. They
chipped the stones about us, and whirled fragments from the bricks and
passed..."

He put his hand to his mouth, and then moistened his lips.

"At the flash I had turned about...

"You know--she stood up--

"She stood up, you know, and moved a step towards me--

"As though she wanted to reach me--

"And she had been shot through the heart."

He stopped and stared at me. I felt all that foolish incapacity an
Englishman feels on such occasions. I met his eyes for a moment, and then
stared out of the window. For a long space we kept silence. When at last I
looked at him he was sitting back in his corner, his arms folded and his
teeth gnawing at his knuckles.

He bit his nail suddenly, and stared at it.

"I carried her," he said, "towards the temples, in my arms--as though it
mattered. I don't know why. They seemed a sort of sanctuary, you know,
they had lasted so long, I suppose.

"She must have died almost instantly. Only--I talked to her--all the way."

Silence again.

"I have seen those temples," I said abruptly, and indeed he had brought
those still, sunlit arcades of worn sandstone very vividly before me.

"It was the brown one, the big brown one. I sat down on a fallen pillar
and held her in my arms... Silent after the first babble was over. And
after a little while the lizards came out and ran about again, as though
nothing unusual was going on, as though nothing had changed... It was
tremendously still there, the sun high and the shadows still; even the
shadows of the weeds upon the entablature were still--in spite of the
thudding and banging that went all about the sky.

"I seem to remember that the aeroplanes came up out of the south, and that
the battle went away to the west. One aeroplane was struck, and overset
and fell. I remember that--though it didn't interest me in the least. It
didn't seem to signify. It was like a wounded gull, you know--flapping for
a time in the water. I could see it down the aisle of the temple--a black
thing in the bright blue water.

"Three or four times shells burst about the beach, and then that ceased.
Each time that happened all the lizards scuttled in and hid for a space.
That was all the mischief done, except that once a stray bullet gashed the
stone hard by--made just a fresh bright surface.

"As the shadows grew longer, the stillness seemed greater.

"The curious thing," he remarked, with the manner of a man who makes a
trivial conversation, "is that I didn't _think_--I didn't think at
all. I sat with her in my arms amidst the stones--in a sort of lethargy--
stagnant.

"And I don't remember waking up. I don't remember dressing that day. I
know I found myself in my office, with my letters all slit open in front
of me, and how I was struck by the absurdity of being there, seeing that
in reality I was sitting, stunned, in that Paestum Temple with a dead
woman in my arms. I read my letters like a machine. I have forgotten what
they were about."

He stopped, and there was a long silence.

Suddenly I perceived that we were running down the incline from Chalk Farm
to Euston. I started at this passing of time. I turned on him with a
brutal question with the tone of "Now or never."

"And did you dream again?"

"Yes."

He seemed to force himself to finish. His voice was very low.

"Once more, and as it were only for a few instants. I seemed to have
suddenly awakened out of a great apathy, to have risen into a sitting
position, and the body lay there on the stones beside me. A gaunt body.
Not her, you know. So soon--it was not her...

"I may have heard voices. I do not know. Only I knew clearly that men were
coming into the solitude and that that was a last outrage.

"I stood up and walked through the temple, and then there came into
sight--first one man with a yellow face, dressed in a uniform of dirty
white, trimmed with blue, and then several, climbing to the crest of the
old wall of the vanished city, and crouching there. They were little
bright figures in the sunlight, and there they hung, weapon in hand,
peering cautiously before them.

"And further away I saw others, and then more at another point in the
wall. It was a long lax line of men in open order.

"Presently the man I had first seen stood up and shouted a command, and
his men came tumbling down the wall and into the high weeds towards the
temple. He scrambled down with them and led them. He came facing towards
me, and when he saw me he stopped.

"At first I had watched these men with a mere curiosity, but when I had
seen they meant to come to the temple I was moved to forbid them. I
shouted to the officer.

"'You must not come here,' I cried, '_I_ am here. I am here with my
dead.'

"He stared, and then shouted a question back to me in some unknown tongue.

"I repeated what I had said.

"He shouted again, and I folded my arms and stood still. Presently he
spoke to his men and came forward. He carried a drawn sword.

"I signed to him to keep away, but he continued to advance. I told him
again very patiently and clearly: 'You must not come here. These are old
temples, and I am here with my dead.'

"Presently he was so close I could see his face clearly. It was a narrow
face, with dull grey eyes, and a black moustache. He had a scar on his
upper lip, and he was dirty and unshaven. He kept shouting unintelligible
things, questions perhaps, at me.

"I know now that he was afraid of me, but at the time that did not occur
to me. As I tried to explain to him he interrupted me in imperious tones,
bidding me, I suppose, stand aside.

"He made to go past me, and I caught hold of him.

"I saw his face change at my grip.

"'You fool,' I cried. 'Don't you know? She is dead!'

"He started back. He looked at me with cruel eyes.

"I saw a sort of exultant resolve leap into them--delight. Then suddenly,
with a scowl, he swept his sword back--_so_--and thrust."

He stopped abruptly.

I became aware of a change in the rhythm of the train. The brakes lifted
their voices and the carriage jarred and jerked. This present world
insisted upon itself, became clamorous. I saw through the steamy window
huge electric lights glaring down from tall masts upon a fog, saw rows of
stationary empty carriages passing by, and then a signal-box, hoisting its
constellation of green and red into the murky London twilight, marched
after them. I looked again at his drawn features.

"He ran me through the heart. It was with a sort of astonishment--no fear,
no pain--but just amazement, that I felt it pierce me, felt the sword
drive home into my body. It didn't hurt, you know. It didn't hurt at all."

The yellow platform lights came into the field of view, passing first
rapidly, then slowly, and at last stopping with a jerk. Dim shapes of men
passed to and fro without.

"Euston!" cried a voice.

"Do you mean--?"

"There was no pain, no sting or smart. Amazement and then darkness
sweeping over everything. The hot, brutal face before me, the face of the
man who had killed me, seemed to recede. It swept out of existence--"

"Euston!" clamoured the voices outside; "Euston!"

The carriage door opened, admitting a flood of sound, and a porter stood
regarding us. The sounds of doors slamming, and the hoof-clatter of
cab-horses, and behind these things the featureless remote roar of the
London cobble-stones, came to my ears. A truck-load of lighted lamps
blazed along the platform.

"A darkness, a flood of darkness that opened and spread and blotted out
all things."

"Any luggage, sir?" said the porter.

"And that was the end?" I asked.

He seemed to hesitate. Then, almost inaudibly, he answered, "_No_."

"You mean?"

"I couldn't get to her. She was there on the other side of the temple--
And then--"

"Yes," I insisted. "Yes?"

"Nightmares," he cried; "nightmares indeed! My God! Great birds that
fought and tore."

 

 

 

XXVI.

THE VALLEY OF SPIDERS.

 

Towards mid-day the three pursuers came abruptly round a bend in the
torrent bed upon the sight of a very broad and spacious valley. The
difficult and winding trench of pebbles along which they had tracked the
fugitives for so long expanded to a broad slope, and with a common impulse
the three men left the trail, and rode to a little eminence set with
olive-dun trees, and there halted, the two others, as became them, a
little behind the man with the silver-studded bridle.

For a space they scanned the great expanse below them with eager eyes. It
spread remoter and remoter, with only a few clusters of sere thorn bushes
here and there, and the dim suggestions of some now waterless ravine to
break its desolation of yellow grass. Its purple distances melted at last
into the bluish slopes of the further hills--hills it might be of a
greener kind--and above them, invisibly supported, and seeming indeed to
hang in the blue, were the snow-clad summits of mountains--that grew
larger and bolder to the northwestward as the sides of the valley drew
together. And westward the valley opened until a distant darkness under
the sky told where the forests began. But the three men looked neither
east nor west, but only steadfastly across the valley.

The gaunt man with the scarred lip was the first to speak. "Nowhere," he
said, with a sigh of disappointment in his voice. "But, after all, they
had a full day's start."

"They don't know we are after them," said the little man on the white
horse.

"_She_ would know," said the leader bitterly, as if speaking to
himself.

"Even then they can't go fast. They've got no beast but the mule, and all
to-day the girl's foot has been bleeding----"

The man with the silver bridle flashed a quick intensity of rage on him.
"Do you think I haven't seen that?" he snarled.

"It helps, anyhow," whispered the little man to himself.

The gaunt man with the scarred lip stared impassively. "They can't be over
the valley," he said. "If we ride hard----"

He glanced at the white horse and paused.

"Curse all white horses!" said the man with the silver bridle, and turned
to scan the beast his curse included.

The little man looked down between the melancholy ears of his steed.

"I did my best," he said.

The two others stared again across the valley for a space. The gaunt man
passed the back of his hand across the scarred lip.

"Come up!" said the man who owned the silver bridle, suddenly. The little
man started and jerked his rein, and the horse hoofs of the three made a
multitudinous faint pattering upon the withered grass as they turned back
towards the trail...

They rode cautiously down the long slope before them, and so came through
a waste of prickly twisted bushes and strange dry shapes of thorny
branches that grew amongst the rocks, into the levels below. And there the
trail grew faint, for the soil was scanty, and the only herbage was this
scorched dead straw that lay upon the ground. Still, by hard scanning, by
leaning beside the horses' necks and pausing ever and again, even these
white men could contrive to follow after their prey.

There were trodden places, bent and broken blades of the coarse grass, and
ever and again the sufficient intimation of a footmark. And once the
leader saw a brown smear of blood where the half-caste girl may have trod.
And at that under his breath he cursed her for a fool.

The gaunt man checked his leader's tracking, and the little man on the
white horse rode behind, a man lost in a dream. They rode one after
another, the man with the silver bridle led the way, and they spoke never
a word. After a time it came to the little man on the white horse that the
world was very still. He started out of his dream. Besides the little
noises of their horses and equipment, the whole great valley kept the
brooding quiet of a painted scene.

Before him went his master and his fellow, each intently leaning forward
to the left, each impassively moving with the paces of his horse; their
shadows went before them--still, noiseless, tapering attendants; and
nearer a crouched cool shape was his own. He looked about him. What was it
had gone? Then he remembered the reverberation from the banks of the gorge
and the perpetual accompaniment of shifting, jostling pebbles. And,
moreover----? There was no breeze. That was it! What a vast, still place
it was, a monotonous afternoon slumber! And the sky open and blank except
for a sombre veil of haze that had gathered in the upper valley.

He straightened his back, fretted with his bridle, puckered his lips to
whistle, and simply sighed. He turned in his saddle for a time, and stared
at the throat of the mountain gorge out of which they had come. Blank!
Blank slopes on either side, with never a sign of a decent beast or tree--
much less a man. What a land it was! What a wilderness! He dropped again
into his former pose.

It filled him with a momentary pleasure to see a wry stick of purple black
flash out into the form of a snake, and vanish amidst the brown. After
all, the infernal valley _was_ alive. And then, to rejoice him still
more, came a little breath across his face, a whisper that came and went,
the faintest inclination of a stiff black-antlered bush upon a little
crest, the first intimations of a possible breeze. Idly he wetted his
finger, and held it up.

He pulled up sharply to avoid a collision with the gaunt man, who had
stopped at fault upon the trail. Just at that guilty moment he caught his
master's eye looking towards him.

For a time he forced an interest in the tracking. Then, as they rode on
again, he studied his master's shadow and hat and shoulder, appearing and
disappearing behind the gaunt man's nearer contours. They had ridden four
days out of the very limits of the world into this desolate place, short
of water, with nothing but a strip of dried meat under their saddles, over
rocks and mountains, where surely none but these fugitives had ever been
before--for _that_!

And all this was for a girl, a mere wilful child! And the man had whole
cityfuls of people to do his basest bidding--girls, women! Why in the name
of passionate folly _this_ one in particular? asked the little man,
and scowled at the world, and licked his parched lips with a blackened
tongue. It was the way of the master, and that was all he knew. Just
because she sought to evade him...

His eye caught a whole row of high-plumed canes bending in unison, and
then the tails of silk that hung before his neck flapped and fell. The
breeze was growing stronger. Somehow it took the stiff stillness out of
things--and that was well.

"Hullo!" said the gaunt man.

All three stopped abruptly.

"What?" asked the master. "What?"

"Over there," said the gaunt man, pointing up the valley.

"What?"

"Something coming towards us."

And as he spoke a yellow animal crested a rise and came bearing down upon
them. It was a big wild dog, coming before the wind, tongue out, at a
steady pace, and running with such an intensity of purpose that he did not
seem to see the horsemen he approached. He ran with his nose up,
following, it was plain, neither scent nor quarry. As he drew nearer the
little man felt for his sword. "He's mad," said the gaunt rider.

"Shout!" said the little man, and shouted.

The dog came on. Then when the little man's blade was already out, it
swerved aside and went panting by them and passed. The eyes of the little
man followed its flight. "There was no foam," he said. For a space the man
with the silver-studded bridle stared up the valley. "Oh, come on!" he
cried at last. "What does it matter?" and jerked his horse into movement
again.

The little man left the insoluble mystery of a dog that fled from nothing
but the wind, and lapsed into profound musings on human character. "Come
on!" he whispered to himself. "Why should it be given to one man to say
'Come on!' with that stupendous violence of effect? Always, all his life,
the man with the silver bridle has been saying that. If _I_ said
it--!" thought the little man. But people marvelled when the master was
disobeyed even in the wildest things. This half-caste girl seemed to him,
seemed to every one, mad--blasphemous almost. The little man, by way of
comparison, reflected on the gaunt rider with the scarred lip, as stalwart
as his master, as brave and, indeed, perhaps braver, and yet for him there
was obedience, nothing but to give obedience duly and stoutly...

Certain sensations of the hands and knees called the little man back to
more immediate things. He became aware of something. He rode up beside his
gaunt fellow. "Do you notice the horses?" he said in an undertone.

The gaunt face looked interrogation.

"They don't like this wind," said the little man, and dropped behind as
the man with the silver bridle turned upon him.

"It's all right," said the gaunt-faced man.

They rode on again for a space in silence. The foremost two rode downcast
upon the trail, the hindmost man watched the haze that crept down the
vastness of the valley, nearer and nearer, and noted how the wind grew in
strength moment by moment. Far away on the left he saw a line of dark
bulks--wild hog, perhaps, galloping down the valley, but of that he said
nothing, nor did he remark again upon the uneasiness of the horses.

And then he saw first one and then a second great white ball, a great
shining white ball like a gigantic head of thistledown, that drove before
the wind athwart the path. These balls soared high in the air, and dropped
and rose again and caught for a moment, and hurried on and passed, but at
the sight of them the restlessness of the horses increased.

Then presently he saw that more of these drifting globes--and then soon
very many more--were hurrying towards him down the valley.

They became aware of a squealing. Athwart the path a huge boar rushed,
turning his head but for one instant to glance at them, and then hurling
on down the valley again. And at that all three stopped and sat in their
saddles, staring into the thickening haze that was coming upon them.

"If it were not for this thistle-down--" began the leader.

But now a big globe came drifting past within a score of yards of them. It
was really not an even sphere at all, but a vast, soft, ragged, filmy
thing, a sheet gathered by the corners, an aerial jelly-fish, as it were,
but rolling over and over as it advanced, and trailing long cobwebby
threads and streamers that floated in its wake.

"It isn't thistle-down," said the little man.

"I don't like the stuff," said the gaunt man.

And they looked at one another.

"Curse it!" cried the leader. "The air's full of lit up there. If it keeps
on at this pace long, it will stop us altogether."

An instinctive feeling, such as lines out a herd of deer at the approach
of some ambiguous thing, prompted them to turn their horses to the wind,
ride forward for a few paces, and stare at that advancing multitude of
floating masses. They came on before the wind with a sort of smooth
swiftness, rising and falling noiselessly, sinking to earth, rebounding
high, soaring--all with a perfect unanimity, with a still, deliberate
assurance.

Right and left of the horsemen the pioneers of this strange army passed.
At one that rolled along the ground, breaking shapelessly and trailing out
reluctantly into long grappling ribbons and bands, all three horses began
to shy and dance. The master was seized with a sudden, unreasonable
impatience. He cursed the drifting globes roundly. "Get on!" he cried;
"get on! What do these things matter? How _can_ they matter? Back to
the trail!" He fell swearing at his horse and sawed the bit across its
mouth.

He shouted aloud with rage. "I will follow that trail, I tell you," he
cried. "Where is the trail?"

He gripped the bridle of his prancing horse and searched amidst the grass.
A long and clinging thread fell across his face, a grey streamer dropped
about his bridle arm, some big, active thing with many legs ran down the
back of his head. He looked up to discover one of those grey masses
anchored as it were above him by these things and flapping out ends as a
sail flaps when a boat comes about--but noiselessly.

He had an impression of many eyes, of a dense crew of squat bodies, of
long, many-jointed limbs hauling at their mooring ropes to bring the thing
down upon him. For a space he stared up, reining in his prancing horse
with the instinct born of years of horsemanship. Then the flat of a sword
smote his back, and a blade flashed overhead and cut the drifting balloon
of spider-web free, and the whole mass lifted softly and drove clear and
away.

"Spiders!" cried the voice of the gaunt man. "The things are full of big
spiders! Look, my lord!"

The man with the silver bridle still followed the mass that drove away.

"Look, my lord!"

The master found himself staring down at a red smashed thing on the ground
that, in spite of partial obliteration, could still wriggle unavailing
legs. Then, when the gaunt man pointed to another mass that bore down upon
them, he drew his sword hastily. Up the valley now it was like a fog bank
torn to rags. He tried to grasp the situation.

"Ride for it!" the little man was shouting. "Ride for it down the valley."

What happened then was like the confusion of a battle. The man with the
silver bridle saw the little man go past him, slashing furiously at
imaginary cobwebs, saw him cannon into the horse of the gaunt man and hurl
it and its rider to earth. His own horse went a dozen paces before he
could rein it in. Then he looked up to avoid imaginary dangers, and then
back again to see a horse rolling on the ground, the gaunt man standing
and slashing over it at a rent and fluttering mass of grey that streamed
and wrapped about them both. And thick and fast as thistle-down on waste
land on a windy day in July the cobweb masses were coming on.

The little man had dismounted, but he dared not release his horse. He was
endeavouring to lug the struggling brute back with the strength of one
arm, while with the other he slashed aimlessly. The tentacles of a second
grey mass had entangled themselves with the struggle, and this second grey
mass came to its moorings, and slowly sank.

The master set his teeth, gripped his bridle, lowered his head, and
spurred his horse forward. The horse on the ground rolled over, there was
blood and moving shapes upon the flanks, and the gaunt man suddenly
leaving it, ran forward towards his master, perhaps ten paces. His legs
were swathed and encumbered with grey; he made ineffectual movements with
his sword. Grey streamers waved from him; there was a thin veil of grey
across his face. With his left hand he beat at something on his body, and
suddenly he stumbled and fell. He struggled to rise, and fell again, and
suddenly, horribly, began to howl, "Oh--ohoo, ohooh!"

The master could see the great spiders upon him, and others upon the
ground.

As he strove to force his horse nearer to this gesticulating, screaming
grey object that struggled up and down, there came a clatter of hoofs, and
the little man, in act of mounting, swordless, balanced on his belly
athwart the white horse, and clutching its mane, whirled past. And again a
clinging thread of grey gossamer swept across the master's face. All about
him, and over him, it seemed this drifting, noiseless cobweb circled and
drew nearer him...

To the day of his death he never knew just how the event of that moment
happened. Did he, indeed, turn his horse, or did it really of its own
accord stampede after its fellow? Suffice it that in another second he was
galloping full tilt down the valley with his sword whirling furiously
overhead. And all about him on the quickening breeze, the spiders'
air-ships, their air bundles and air sheets, seemed to him to hurry in a
conscious pursuit.

Clatter, clatter, thud, thud,--the man with the silver bridle rode,
heedless of his direction, with his fearful face looking up now right, now
left, and his sword arm ready to slash. And a few hundred yards ahead of
him, with a tail of torn cobweb trailing behind him, rode the little man
on the white horse, still but imperfectly in the saddle. The reeds bent
before them, the wind blew fresh and strong, over his shoulder the master
could see the webs hurrying to overtake...

He was so intent to escape the spiders' webs that only as his horse
gathered together for a leap did he realise the ravine ahead. And then he
realised it only to misunderstand and interfere. He was leaning forward on
his horse's neck and sat up and back all too late.

But if in his excitement he had failed to leap, at any rate he had not
forgotten how to fall. He was horseman again in mid-air. He came off clear
with a mere bruise upon his shoulder, and his horse rolled, kicking
spasmodic legs, and lay still. But the master's sword drove its point into
the hard soil, and snapped clean across, as though Chance refused him any
longer as her Knight, and the splintered end missed his face by an inch or
so.

He was on his feet in a moment, breathlessly scanning the on-rushing
spider-webs. For a moment he was minded to run, and then thought of the
ravine, and turned back. He ran aside once to dodge one drifting terror,
and then he was swiftly clambering down the precipitous sides, and out of
the touch of the gale.

There, under the lee of the dry torrent's steeper banks, he might crouch
and watch these strange, grey masses pass and pass in safety till the wind
fell, and it became possible to escape. And there for a long time he
crouched, watching the strange, grey, ragged masses trail their streamers
across his narrowed sky.

Once a stray spider fell into the ravine close beside him--a full foot it
measured from leg to leg and its body was half a man's hand--and after he
had watched its monstrous alacrity of search and escape for a little while
and tempted it to bite his broken sword, he lifted up his iron-heeled boot
and smashed it into a pulp. He swore as he did so, and for a time sought
up and down for another.

Then presently, when he was surer these spider swarms could not drop into
the ravine, he found a place where he could sit down, and sat and fell
into deep thought and began, after his manner, to gnaw his knuckles and
bite his nails. And from this he was moved by the coming of the man with
the white horse.

He heard him long before he saw him, as a clattering of hoofs, stumbling
footsteps, and a reassuring voice. Then the little man appeared, a rueful
figure, still with a tail of white cobweb trailing behind him. They
approached each other without speaking, without a salutation. The little
man was fatigued and shamed to the pitch of hopeless bitterness, and came
to a stop at last, face to face with his seated master. The latter winced
a little under his dependent's eye. "Well?" he said at last, with no
pretence of authority.

"You left him?"

"My horse bolted."

"I know. So did mine."

He laughed at his master mirthlessly.

"I say my horse bolted," said the man who once had a silver-studded
bridle.

"Cowards both," said the little man.

The other gnawed his knuckle through some meditative moments, with his eye
on his inferior.

"Don't call me a coward," he said at length.

"You are a coward, like myself."

"A coward possibly. There is a limit beyond which every man must fear.
That I have learnt at last. But not like yourself. That is where the
difference comes in."

"I never could have dreamt you would have left him. He saved your life two
minutes before... Why are you our lord?"

The master gnawed his knuckles again, and his countenance was dark.

"No man calls me a coward," he said. "No ... A broken sword is better
than none ... One spavined white horse cannot be expected to carry two
men a four days' journey. I hate white horses, but this time it cannot be
helped. You begin to understand me? I perceive that you are minded, on the
strength of what you have seen and fancy, to taint my reputation. It is
men of your sort who unmake kings. Besides which--I never liked you."

"My lord!" said the little man.

"No," said the master. "_No!_"

He stood up sharply as the little man moved. For a minute perhaps they
faced one another. Overhead the spiders' balls went driving. There was a
quick movement among the pebbles; a running of feet, a cry of despair, a
gasp and a blow...

Towards nightfall the wind fell. The sun set in a calm serenity, and the
man who had once possessed the silver bridle came at last very cautiously
and by an easy slope out of the ravine again; but now he led the white
horse that once belonged to the little man. He would have gone back to his
horse to get his silver-mounted bridle again, but he feared night and a
quickening breeze might still find him in the valley, and besides, he
disliked greatly to think he might discover his horse all swathed in
cobwebs and perhaps unpleasantly eaten.

And as he thought of those cobwebs, and of all the dangers he had been
through, and the manner in which he had been preserved that day, his hand
sought a little reliquary that hung about his neck, and he clasped it for
a moment with heartfelt gratitude. As he did so his eyes went across the
valley.

"I was hot with passion," he said, "and now she has met her reward. They
also, no doubt--"

And behold! far away out of the wooded slopes across the valley, but in
the clearness of the sunset, distinct and unmistakable, he saw a little
spire of smoke.

At that his expression of serene resignation changed to an amazed anger.
Smoke? He turned the head of the white horse about, and hesitated. And as
he did so a little rustle of air went through the grass about him. Far
away upon some reeds swayed a tattered sheet of grey. He looked at the
cobwebs; he looked at the smoke.

"Perhaps, after all, it is not them," he said at last.

But he knew better.

After he had stared at the smoke for some time, he mounted the white
horse.

As he rode, he picked his way amidst stranded masses of web. For some
reason there were many dead spiders on the ground, and those that lived
feasted guiltily on their fellows. At the sound of his horse's hoofs they
fled.

Their time had passed. From the ground, without either a wind to carry
them or a winding-sheet ready, these things, for all their poison, could
do him little evil.

He flicked with his belt at those he fancied came too near. Once, where a
number ran together over a bare place, he was minded to dismount and
trample them with his boots, but this impulse he overcame. Ever and again
he turned in his saddle, and looked back at the smoke.

"Spiders," he muttered over and over again. "Spiders. Well, well... The
next time I must spin a web."

 

 

 

XXVII.

THE NEW ACCELERATOR.

 

Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin, it
is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators
overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He
has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the
phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was
simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up
to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several
times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on
me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of
new sensations will become apparent enough.

Professor Gibberne, as many people know, is my neighbour in Folkestone.
Unless my memory plays me a trick, his portrait at various ages has
already appeared in _The Strand Magazine_--think late in 1899 but I
am unable to look it up because I have lent that volume to someone who has
never sent it back. The reader may, perhaps, recall the high forehead and
the singularly long black eyebrows that give such a Mephistophelean touch
to his face. He occupies one of those pleasant little detached houses in
the mixed style that make the western end of the Upper Sandgate Road so
interesting. His is the one with the Flemish gables and the Moorish
portico, and it is in the little room with the mullioned bay window that
he works when he is down here, and in which of an evening we have so often
smoked and talked together. He is a mighty jester, but, besides, he likes
to talk to me about his work; he is one of those men who find a help and
stimulus in talking, and so I have been able to follow the conception of
the New Accelerator right up from a very early stage. Of course, the
greater portion of his experimental work is not done in Folkestone, but in
Gower Street, in the fine new laboratory next to the hospital that he has
been the first to use.

As every one knows, or at least as all intelligent people know, the
special department in which Gibberne has gained so great and deserved a
reputation among physiologists is the action of drugs upon the nervous
system. Upon soporifics, sedatives, and anaesthetics he is, I am told,
unequalled. He is also a chemist of considerable eminence, and I suppose
in the subtle and complex jungle of riddles that centres about the
ganglion cell and the axis fibre there are little cleared places of his
making, little glades of illumination, that, until he sees fit to publish
his results, are still inaccessible to every other living man. And in the
last few years he has been particularly assiduous upon this question of
nervous stimulants, and already, before the discovery of the New
Accelerator, very successful with them. Medical science has to thank him
for at least three distinct and absolutely safe invigorators of unrivalled
value to practising men. In cases of exhaustion the preparation known as
Gibberne's B Syrup has, I suppose, saved more lives already than any
lifeboat round the coast.

"But none of these little things begin to satisfy me yet," he told me
nearly a year ago. "Either they increase the central energy without
affecting the nerves, or they simply increase the available energy by
lowering the nervous conductivity; and all of them are unequal and local
in their operation. One wakes up the heart and viscera and leaves the
brain stupefied, one gets at the brain champagne fashion, and does nothing
good for the solar plexus, and what I want--and what, if it's an earthly
possibility, I mean to have--is a stimulant that stimulates all round,
that wakes you up for a time from the crown of your head to the tip of
your great toe, and makes you go two--or even three--to everybody else's
one. Eh? That's the thing I'm after."

"It would tire a man," I said.

"Not a doubt of it. And you'd eat double or treble--and all that. But just
think what the thing would mean. Imagine yourself with a little phial like
this"--he held up a little bottle of green glass and marked his points
with it--"and in this precious phial is the power to think twice as fast,
move twice as quickly, do twice as much work in a given time as you could
otherwise do."

"But is such a thing possible?"

"I believe so. If it isn't, I've wasted my time for a year. These various
preparations of the hypophosphites, for example, seem to show that
something of the sort... Even if it was only one and a half times as fast
it would do."

"It _would_ do," I said.

"If you were a statesman in a corner, for example, time rushing up against
you, something urgent to be done, eh?"

"He could dose his private secretary," I said.

"And gain--double time. And think if _you_, for example, wanted to
finish a book."

"Usually," I said, "I wish I'd never begun 'em."

"Or a doctor, driven to death, wants to sit down and think out a case. Or
a barrister--or a man cramming for an examination."

"Worth a guinea a drop," said I, "and more--to men like that."

"And in a duel, again," said Gibberne, "where it all depends on your
quickness in pulling the trigger."

"Or in fencing," I echoed.

"You see," said Gibberne, "if I get it as an all-round thing, it will
really do you no harm at all--except perhaps to an infinitesimal degree it
brings you nearer old age. You will just have lived twice to other
people's once--"

"I suppose," I meditated, "in a duel--it would be fair?"

"That's a question for the seconds," said Gibberne.

I harked back further. "And you really think such a thing _is_
possible?" I said.

"As possible," said Gibberne, and glanced at something that went throbbing
by the window, "as a motor-bus. As a matter of fact--"

He paused and smiled at me deeply, and tapped slowly on the edge of his
desk with the green phial. "I think I know the stuff... Already I've got
something coming." The nervous smile upon his face betrayed the gravity of
his revelation. He rarely talked of his actual experimental work unless
things were very near the end. "And it may be, it may be--I shouldn't be
surprised--it may even do the thing at a greater rate than twice."

"It will be rather a big thing," I hazarded.

"It will be, I think, rather a big thing."

But I don't think he quite knew what a big thing it was to be, for all
that.

I remember we had several talks about the stuff after that. "The New
Accelerator" he called it, and his tone about it grew more confident on
each occasion. Sometimes he talked nervously of unexpected physiological
results its use might have, and then he would get a little unhappy; at
others he was frankly mercenary, and we debated long and anxiously how the
preparation might be turned to commercial account. "It's a good thing,"
said Gibberne, "a tremendous thing. I know I'm giving the world something,
and I think it only reasonable we should expect the world to pay. The
dignity of science is all very well, but I think somehow I must have the
monopoly of the stuff for, say, ten years. I don't see why _all_ the
fun in life should go to the dealers in ham."

My own interest in the coming drug certainly did not wane in the time. I
have always had a queer little twist towards metaphysics in my mind. I
have always been given to paradoxes about space and time, and it seemed to
me that Gibberne was really preparing no less than the absolute
acceleration of life. Suppose a man repeatedly dosed with such a
preparation: he would live an active and record life indeed, but he would
be an adult at eleven, middle-aged at twenty-five, and by thirty well on
the road to senile decay. It seemed to me that so far Gibberne was only
going to do for any one who took his drug exactly what Nature has done for
the Jews and Orientals, who are men in their teens and aged by fifty, and
quicker in thought and act than we are all the time. The marvel of drugs
has always been great to my mind; you can madden a man, calm a man, make
him incredibly strong and alert or a helpless log, quicken this passion
and allay that, all by means of drugs, and here was a new miracle to be
added to this strange armoury of phials the doctors use! But Gibberne was
far too eager upon his technical points to enter very keenly into my
aspect of the question.

It was the 7th or 8th of August when he told me the distillation that
would decide his failure or success for a time was going forward as we
talked, and it was on the 10th that he told me the thing was done and the
New Accelerator a tangible reality in the world. I met him as I was going
up the Sandgate Hill towards Folkestone--I think I was going to get my
hair cut, and he came hurrying down to meet me--I suppose he was coming to
my house to tell me at once of his success. I remember that his eyes were
unusually bright and his face flushed, and I noted even then the swift
alacrity of his step.

"It's done," he cried, and gripped my hand, speaking very fast; "it's more
than done. Come up to my house and see."

"Really?"

"Really!" he shouted. "Incredibly! Come up and see."

"And it does--twice?"

"It does more, much more. It scares me. Come up and see the stuff. Taste
it! Try it! It's the most amazing stuff on earth." He gripped my arm and;
walking at such a pace that he forced me into a trot, went shouting with
me up the hill. A whole _char-à-banc_-ful of people turned and stared
at us in unison after the manner of people in _chars-à-banc_. It was
one of those hot, clear days that Folkestone sees so much of, every colour
incredibly bright and every outline hard. There was a breeze, of course,
but not so much breeze as sufficed under these conditions to keep me cool
and dry. I panted for mercy.

"I'm not walking fast, am I?" cried Gibberne, and slackened his pace to a
quick march.

"You've been taking some of this stuff," I puffed.

"No," he said. "At the utmost a drop of water that stood in a beaker from
which I had washed out the last traces of the stuff. I took some last
night, you know. But that is ancient history now."

"And it goes twice?" I said, nearing his doorway in a grateful
perspiration.

"It goes a thousand times, many thousand times!" cried Gibberne, with a
dramatic gesture, flinging open his Early English carved oak gate.

"Phew!" said I, and followed him to the door.

"I don't know how many times it goes," he said, with his latch-key in his
hand.

"And you----"

"It throws all sorts of light on nervous physiology, it kicks the theory
of vision into a perfectly new shape! ... Heaven knows how many thousand
times. We'll try all that after----The thing is to try the stuff now."

"Try the stuff?" I said, as we went along the passage.

"Rather," said Gibberne, turning on me in his study. "There it is in that
little green phial there! Unless you happen to be afraid?"

I am a careful man by nature, and only theoretically adventurous. I
_was_ afraid. But on the other hand, there is pride.

"Well," I haggled. "You say you've tried it?"

"I've tried it," he said, "and I don't look hurt by it, do I? I don't even
look livery, and I _feel_----"

I sat down. "Give me the potion," I said. "If the worst comes to the
worst it will save having my hair cut, and that, I think, is one of the
most hateful duties of a civilised man. How do you take the mixture?"

"With water," said Gibberne, whacking down a carafe.

He stood up in front of his desk and regarded me in his easy-chair; his
manner was suddenly affected by a touch of the Harley Street specialist.
"It's rum stuff, you know," he said.

I made a gesture with my hand.

"I must warn you, in the first place, as soon as you've got it down to
shut your eyes, and open them very cautiously in a minute or so's time.
One still sees. The sense of vision is a question of length of vibration,
and not of multitude of impacts; but there's a kind of shock to the
retina, a nasty giddy confusion just at the time if the eyes are open.
Keep 'em shut."

"Shut," I said. "Good!"

"And the next thing is, keep still. Don't begin to whack about. You may
fetch something a nasty rap if you do. Remember you will be going several
thousand times faster than you ever did before, heart, lungs, muscles,
brain--everything--and you will hit hard without knowing it. You won't
know it, you know. You'll feel just as you do now. Only everything in the
world will seem to be going ever so many thousand times slower than it
ever went before. That's what makes it so deuced queer."

"Lor," I said. "And you mean----"

"You'll see," said he, and took up a little measure. He glanced at the
material on his desk. "Glasses," he said, "water. All here. Mustn't take
too much for the first attempt."

The little phial glucked out its precious contents. "Don't forget what I
told you," he said, turning the contents of the measure into a glass in
the manner of an Italian waiter measuring whisky. "Sit with the eyes
tightly shut and in absolute stillness for two minutes," he said. "Then
you will hear me speak."

He added an inch or so of water to the little dose in each glass.

"By-the-by," he said, "don't put your glass down. Keep it in your hand and
rest your hand on your knee. Yes--so. And now----"

He raised his glass.

"The New Accelerator," I said.

"The New Accelerator," he answered, and we touched glasses and drank, and
instantly I closed my eyes.

You know that blank non-existence into which one drops when one has taken
"gas." For an indefinite interval it was like that. Then I heard Gibberne
telling me to wake up, and I stirred and opened my eyes. There he stood as
he had been standing, glass still in hand. It was empty, that was all the
difference.

"Well?" said I.

"Nothing out of the way?"

"Nothing. A slight feeling of exhilaration, perhaps. Nothing more."

"Sounds?"

"Things are still," I said. "By Jove! yes! They _are_ still. Except
the sort of faint pat, patter, like rain falling on different things. What
is it?"

"Analysed sounds," I think he said, but I am not sure. He glanced at the
window. "Have you ever seen a curtain before a window fixed in that way
before?"

I followed his eyes, and there was the end of the curtain, frozen, as it
were, corner high, in the act of flapping briskly in the breeze.

"No," said I; "that's odd."

"And here," he said, and opened the hand that held the glass. Naturally I
winced, expecting the glass to smash. But so far from smashing, it did not
even seem to stir; it hung in mid-air--motionless. "Roughly speaking,"
said Gibberne, "an object in these latitudes falls 16 feet in the first
second. This glass is falling 16 feet in a second now. Only, you see, it
hasn't been falling yet for the hundredth part of a second. That gives you
some idea of the pace of my Accelerator."

And he waved his hand round and round, over and under the slowly sinking
glass. Finally he took it by the bottom, pulled it down and placed it very
carefully on the table. "Eh?" he said to me, and laughed.

"That seems all right," I said, and began very gingerly to raise myself
from my chair. I felt perfectly well, very light and comfortable, and
quite confident in my mind. I was going fast all over. My heart, for
example, was beating a thousand times a second, but that caused me no
discomfort at all. I looked out of the window. An immovable cyclist, head
down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to
overtake a galloping _char-à-banc_ that did not stir. I gaped in
amazement at this incredible spectacle. "Gibberne," I cried, "how long
will this confounded stuff last?"

"Heaven knows!" he answered. "Last time I took it I went to bed and slept
it off. I tell you, I was frightened. It must have lasted some minutes, I
think--it seemed like hours. But after a bit it slows down rather
suddenly, I believe."

I was proud to observe that I did not feel frightened--I suppose because
there were two of us. "Why shouldn't we go out?" I asked.

"Why not?"

"They'll see us."

"Not they. Goodness, no! Why, we shall be going a thousand times faster
than the quickest conjuring trick that was ever done. Come along! Which
way shall we go? Window, or door?"

And out by the window we went.

Assuredly of all the strange experiences that I have ever had, or
imagined, or read of other people having or imagining, that little raid I
made with Gibberne on the Folkestone Leas, under the influence of the New
Accelerator, was the strangest and maddest of all. We went out by his gate
into the road, and there we made a minute examination of the statuesque
passing traffic. The tops of the wheels and some of the legs of the horses
of this _char-à-banc,_ the end of the whip-lash and the lower jaw of
the conductor--who was just beginning to yawn--were perceptibly in motion,
but all the rest of the lumbering conveyance seemed still. And quite
noiseless except for a faint rattling that came from one man's throat. And
as parts of this frozen edifice there were a driver, you know, and a
conductor, and eleven people! The effect as we walked about the thing
began by being madly queer and ended by being--disagreeable. There they
were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless
attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. A girl and a man smiled at one another,
a leering smile that threatened to last for evermore; a woman in a floppy
capelline rested her arm on the rail and stared at Gibberne's house with
the unwinking stare of eternity; a man stroked his moustache like a figure
of wax, and another stretched a tiresome stiff hand with extended fingers
towards his loosened hat. We stared at them, we laughed at them, we made
faces at them, and then a sort of disgust of them came upon us, and we
turned away and walked round in front of the cyclist towards the Leas.

"Goodness!" cried Gibberne, suddenly; "look there!"

He pointed, and there at the tip of his finger and sliding down the air
with wings flapping slowly and at the speed of an exceptionally languid
snail--was a bee.

And so we came out upon the Leas. There the thing seemed madder than ever.
The band was playing in the upper stand, though all the sound it made for
us was a low-pitched, wheezy rattle, a sort of prolonged last sigh that
passed at times into a sound like the slow, muffled ticking of some
monstrous clock. Frozen people stood erect, strange, silent,
self-conscious-looking dummies hung unstably in mid-stride, promenading
upon the grass. I passed close to a little poodle dog suspended in the act
of leaping, and watched the slow movement of his legs as he sank to earth.
"Lord, look _here_!" cried Gibberne, and we halted for a moment
before a magnificent person in white faint--striped flannels, white shoes,
and a Panama hat, who turned back to wink at two gaily dressed ladies he
had passed. A wink, studied with such leisurely deliberation as we could
afford, is an unattractive thing. It loses any quality of alert gaiety,
and one remarks that the winking eye does not completely close, that under
its drooping lid appears the lower edge of an eyeball and a little line of
white. "Heaven give me memory," said I, "and I will never wink again."

"Or smile," said Gibberne, with his eye on the lady's answering teeth.

"It's infernally hot, somehow," said I, "Let's go slower."

"Oh, come along!" said Gibberne.

We picked our way among the bath-chairs in the path. Many of the people
sitting in the chairs seemed almost natural in their passive poses, but
the contorted scarlet of the bandsmen was not a restful thing to see. A
purple-faced little gentleman was frozen in the midst of a violent
struggle to refold his newspaper against the wind; there were many
evidences that all these people in their sluggish way were exposed to a
considerable breeze, a breeze that had no existence so far as our
sensations went. We came out and walked a little way from the crowd, and
turned and regarded it. To see all that multitude changed to a picture,
smitten rigid, as it were, into the semblance of realistic wax, was
impossibly wonderful. It was absurd, of course; but it filled me with an
irrational, an exultant sense of superior advantage. Consider the wonder
of it! All that I had said, and thought, and done since the stuff had
begun to work in my veins had happened, so far as those people, so far as
the world in general went, in the twinkling of an eye. "The New
Accelerator----" I began, but Gibberne interrupted me.

"There's that infernal old woman!" he said.

"What old woman?"

"Lives next door to me," said Gibberne. "Has a lapdog that yaps. Gods! The
temptation is strong!"

There is something very boyish and impulsive about Gibberne at times.
Before I could expostulate with him he had dashed forward, snatched the
unfortunate animal out of visible existence, and was running violently
with it towards the cliff of the Leas. It was most extraordinary. The
little brute, you know, didn't bark or wriggle or make the slightest sign
of vitality. It kept quite stiffly in an attitude of somnolent repose, and
Gibberne held it by the neck. It was like running about with a dog of
wood. "Gibberne," I cried, "put it down!" Then I said something else. "If
you run like that, Gibberne," I cried, "you'll set your clothes on fire.
Your linen trousers are going brown as it is!"

He clapped his hand on his thigh and stood hesitating on the verge.
"Gibberne," I cried, coming up, "put it down. This heat is too much! It's
our running so! Two or three miles a second! Friction of the air!"

"What?" he said, glancing at the dog.

"Friction of the air," I shouted. "Friction of the air. Going too fast.
Like meteorites and things. Too hot. And, Gibberne! Gibberne! I'm all over
pricking and a sort of perspiration. You can see people stirring slightly.
I believe the stuff's working off! Put that dog down."

"Eh?" he said.

"It's working off," I repeated. "We're too hot and the stuff's working
off! I'm wet through."

He stared at me, then at the band, the wheezy rattle of whose performance
was certainly going faster. Then with a tremendous sweep of the arm he
hurled the dog away from him and it went spinning upward, still inanimate,
and hung at last over the grouped parasols of a knot of chattering people.
Gibberne was gripping my elbow. "By Jove!" he cried, "I believe it
is! A sort of hot pricking and--yes. That man's moving his
pocket-handkerchief! Perceptibly. We must get out of this sharp."

But we could not get out of it sharply enough. Luckily, perhaps! For we
might have run, and if we had run we should, I believe, have burst into
flames. Almost certainly we should have burst into flames! You know we had
neither of us thought of that... But before we could even begin to run
the action of the drug had ceased. It was the business of a minute
fraction of a second. The effect of the New Accelerator passed like the
drawing of a curtain, vanished in the movement of a hand. I heard
Gibberne's voice in infinite alarm. "Sit down," he said, and flop, down
upon the turf at the edge of the Leas I sat--scorching as I sat. There is
a patch of burnt grass there still where I sat down. The whole stagnation
seemed to wake up as I did so, the disarticulated vibration of the band
rushed together into a blast of music, the promenaders put their feet down
and walked their ways, the papers and flags began flapping, smiles passed
into words, the winker finished his wink and went on his way complacently,
and all the seated people moved and spoke.

The whole world had come alive again, was going as fast as we were, or
rather we were going no faster than the rest of the world. It was like
slowing down as one comes into a railway station. Everything seemed to
spin round for a second or two, I had the most transient feeling of
nausea, and that was all. And the little dog, which had seemed to hang for
a moment when the force of Gibberne's arm was expended, fell with a swift
acceleration clean through a lady's parasol!

That was the saving of us. Unless it was for one corpulent old gentleman
in a bath-chair, who certainly did start at the sight of us, and
afterwards regarded us at intervals with a darkly suspicious eye, and,
finally, I believe, said something to his nurse about us, I doubt if a
solitary person remarked our sudden appearance among them. Plop! We must
have appeared abruptly. We ceased to smoulder almost at once, though the
turf beneath me was uncomfortably hot. The attention of every one--
including even the Amusements' Association band, which on this occasion,
for the only time in its history, got out of tune--was arrested by the
amazing fact, and the still more amazing yapping and uproar caused by the
fact, that a respectable, over-fed lapdog sleeping quietly to the east of
the bandstand should suddenly fall through the parasol of a lady on the
west--in a slightly singed condition due to the extreme velocity of its
movements through the air. In these absurd days, too, when we are all
trying to be as psychic, and silly, and superstitious as possible! People
got up and trod on other people, chairs were overturned, the Leas
policeman ran. How the matter settled itself I do not know--we were much
too anxious to disentangle ourselves from the affair and get out of range
of the eye of the old gentleman in the bath-chair to make minute
inquiries. As soon as we were sufficiently cool and sufficiently recovered
from our giddiness and nausea and confusion of mind to do so we stood up,
and skirting the crowd, directed our steps back along the road below the
Metropole towards Gibberne's house. But amidst the din I heard very
distinctly the gentleman who had been sitting beside the lady of the
ruptured sunshade using quite unjustifiable threats and language to one of
those chair-attendants who have "Inspector" written on their caps: "If you
didn't throw the dog," he said, "who _did_?"

The sudden return of movement and familiar noises, and our natural anxiety
about ourselves (our clothes were still dreadfully hot, and the fronts of
the thighs of Gibberne's white trousers were scorched a drabbish brown),
prevented the minute observations I should have liked to make on all these
things. Indeed, I really made no observations of any scientific value on
that return. The bee, of course, had gone. I looked for that cyclist, but
he was already out of sight as we came into the Upper Sandgate Road or
hidden from us by traffic; the _char-à-banc_, however, with its
people now all alive and stirring, was clattering along at a spanking pace
almost abreast of the nearer church.

We noted, however, that the window-sill on which we had stepped in getting
out of the house was slightly singed, and that the impressions of our feet
on the gravel of the path were unusually deep.

So it was I had my first experience of the New Accelerator. Practically we
had been running about and saying and doing all sorts of things in the
space of a second or so of time. We had lived half an hour while the band
had played, perhaps, two bars. But the effect it had upon us was that the
whole world had stopped for our convenient inspection. Considering all
things, and particularly considering our rashness in venturing out of the
house, the experience might certainly have been much more disagreeable
than it was. It showed, no doubt, that Gibberne has still much to learn
before his preparation is a manageable convenience, but its practicability
it certainly demonstrated beyond all cavil.

Since that adventure he has been steadily bringing its use under control,
and I have several times, and without the slightest bad result, taken
measured doses under his direction; though I must confess I have not yet
ventured abroad again while under its influence. I may mention, for
example, that this story has been written at one sitting and without
interruption, except for the nibbling of some chocolate, by its means. I
began at 6.25, and my watch is now very nearly at the minute past the
half-hour. The convenience of securing a long, uninterrupted spell of work
in the midst of a day full of engagements cannot be exaggerated. Gibberne
is now working at the quantitative handling of his preparation, with
especial reference to its distinctive effects upon different types of
constitution. He then hopes to find a Retarder, with which to dilute its
present rather excessive potency. The Retarder will, of course, have the
reverse effect to the Accelerator; used alone it should enable the patient
to spread a few seconds over many hours of ordinary time, and so to
maintain an apathetic inaction, a glacier-like absence of alacrity, amidst
the most animated or irritating surroundings. The two things together must
necessarily work an entire revolution in civilised existence. It is the
beginning of our escape from that Time Garment of which Carlyle speaks.
While this Accelerator will enable us to concentrate ourselves with
tremendous impact upon any moment or occasion that demands our utmost
sense and vigour, the Retarder will enable us to pass in passive
tranquillity through infinite hardship and tedium. Perhaps I am a little
optimistic about the Retarder, which has indeed still to be discovered,
but about the Accelerator there is no possible sort of doubt whatever. Its
appearance upon the market in a convenient, controllable, and assimilable
form is a matter of the next few months. It will be obtainable of all
chemists and druggists, in small green bottles, at a high but, considering
its extraordinary qualities, by no means excessive price. Gibberne's
Nervous Accelerator it will be called, and he hopes to be able to supply
it in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000,
distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively.

No doubt its use renders a great number of very extraordinary things
possible; for, of course, the most remarkable and, possibly, even criminal
proceedings may be effected with impunity by thus dodging, as it were,
into the interstices of time. Like all potent preparations, it will be
liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question
very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of
medical jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall
manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and as for the consequences--we
shall see.

 

 

 

XXVIII.

THE TRUTH ABOUT PYECRAFT.

 

He sits not a dozen yards away. If I glance over my shoulder I can see
him. And if I catch his eye--and usually I catch his eye--it meets me with
an expression----

It is mainly an imploring look--and yet with suspicion in it.

Confound his suspicion! If I wanted to tell on him I should have told long
ago. I don't tell and I don't tell, and he ought to feel at his ease. As
if anything so gross and fat as he could feel at ease! Who would believe
me if I did tell?

Poor old Pyecraft! Great, uneasy jelly of substance! The fattest clubman
in London.

He sits at one of the little club tables in the huge bay by the fire,
stuffing. What is he stuffing? I glance judiciously, and catch him biting
at a round of hot buttered teacake, with his eyes on me. Confound him!
--with his eyes on me!

That settles it, Pyecraft! Since you _will_ be abject, since you
_will_ behave as though I was not a man of honour, here, right under
your embedded eyes, I write the thing down--the plain truth about
Pyecraft. The man I helped, the man I shielded, and who has requited me by
making my club unendurable, absolutely unendurable, with his liquid
appeal, with the perpetual "don't tell" of his looks.

And, besides, why does he keep on eternally eating?

Well, here goes for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!

Pyecraft----. I made the acquaintance of Pyecraft in this very
smoking-room. I was a young, nervous new member, and he saw it. I was
sitting all alone, wishing I knew more of the members, and suddenly he
came, a great rolling front of chins and abdomina, towards me, and
grunted and sat down in a chair close by me and wheezed for a space, and
scraped for a space with a match and lit a cigar, and then addressed me.
I forget what he said--something about the matches not lighting properly,
and afterwards as he talked he kept stopping the waiters one by one as
they went by, and telling them about the matches in that thin, fluty
voice he has. But, anyhow, it was in some such way we began our talking.

He talked about various things and came round to games. And thence to my
figure and complexion. "_You_ ought to be a good cricketer," he said.
I suppose I am slender, slender to what some people would call lean, and I
suppose I am rather dark, still----I am not ashamed of having a Hindu
great-grandmother, but, for all that, I don't want casual strangers to see
through me at a glance to _her_. So that I was set against Pyecraft
from the beginning.

But he only talked about me in order to get to himself.

"I expect," he said, "you take no more exercise than I do, and probably
you eat no less." (Like all excessively obese people he fancied he ate
nothing.) "Yet"--and he smiled an oblique smile--"we differ."

And then he began to talk about his fatness and his fatness; all he did
for his fatness and all he was going to do for his fatness; what people
had advised him to do for his fatness and what he had heard of people
doing for fatness similar to his. "_A priori_," he said, "one would
think a question of nutrition could be answered by dietary and a question
of assimilation by drugs." It was stifling. It was dumpling talk. It made
me feel swelled to hear him.

One stands that sort of thing once in a way at a club, but a time came
when I fancied I was standing too much. He took to me altogether too
conspicuously. I could never go into the smoking-room but he would come
wallowing towards me, and sometimes he came and gormandised round and
about me while I had my lunch. He seemed at times almost to be clinging to
me. He was a bore, but not so fearful a bore as to be limited to me and
from the first there was something in his manner--almost as though he
knew, almost as though he penetrated to the fact that I _might_--that
there was a remote, exceptional chance in me that no one else presented.

"I'd give anything to get it down," he would say--"anything," and peer at
me over his vast cheeks and pant. Poor old Pyecraft! He has just gonged;
no doubt to order another buttered teacake!

He came to the actual thing one day. "Our Pharmacopoeia," he said, "our
Western Pharmacopoeia, is anything but the last word of medical science.
In the East, I've been told----"

He stopped and stared at me. It was like being at an aquarium.

I was quite suddenly angry with him. "Look here," I said, "who told you
about my great-grandmother's recipes?"

"Well," he fenced.

"Every time we've met for a week," I said--"and we've met pretty often--
you've given me a broad hint or so about that little secret of mine."

"Well," he said, "now the cat's out of the bag, I'll admit, yes, it is so.
I had it----"

"From Pattison?"

"Indirectly," he said, which I believe was lying, "yes."

"Pattison," I said, "took that stuff at his own risk." He pursed his mouth
and bowed.

"My great-grandmother's recipes," I said, "are queer things to handle. My
father was near making me promise----"

"He didn't?"

"No. But he warned me. He himself used one--once."

"Ah! ... But do you think----? Suppose--suppose there did happen to be
one----"

"The things are curious documents," I said. "Even the smell of 'em ...
No!"

But after going so far Pyecraft was resolved I should go farther. I was
always a little afraid if I tried his patience too much he would fall on
me suddenly and smother me. I own I was weak. But I was also annoyed with
Pyecraft. I had got to that state of feeling for him that disposed me to
say, "Well, _take_ the risk!" The little affair of Pattison to which
I have alluded was a different matter altogether. What it was doesn't
concern us now, but I knew, anyhow, that the particular recipe I used then
was safe. The rest I didn't know so much about, and, on the whole, I was
inclined to doubt their safety pretty completely.

Yet even if Pyecraft got poisoned----

I must confess the poisoning of Pyecraft struck me as an immense
undertaking.

That evening I took that queer, odd-scented sandal-wood box out of my
safe, and turned the rustling skins over. The gentleman who wrote the
recipes for my great-grandmother evidently had a weakness for skins of a
miscellaneous origin, and his handwriting was cramped to the last degree.
Some of the things are quite unreadable to me--though my family, with its
Indian Civil Service associations, has kept up a knowledge of Hindustani
from generation to generation--and none are absolutely plain sailing. But
I found the one that I knew was there soon enough, and sat on the floor by
my safe for some time looking at it.

"Look here," said I to Pyecraft next day, and snatched the slip away from
his eager grasp.

"So far as I can make it out, this is a recipe for Loss of Weight. ("Ah!"
said Pyecraft.) I'm not absolutely sure, but I think it's that. And if you
take my advice you'll leave it alone. Because, you know--I blacken my
blood in your interest, Pyecraft--my ancestors on that side were, so far
as I can gather, a jolly queer lot. See?"

"Let me try it," said Pyecraft.

I leant back in my chair. My imagination made one mighty effort and fell
flat within me. "What in Heaven's name, Pyecraft," I asked, "do you think
you'll look like when you get thin?"

He was impervious to reason, I made him promise never to say a word to me
about his disgusting fatness again whatever happened--never, and then I
handed him that little piece of skin.

"It's nasty stuff," I said.

"No matter," he said, and took it.

He goggled at it. "But--but--" he said

He had just discovered that it wasn't English.

"To the best of my ability," I said, "I will do you a translation."

I did my best. After that we didn't speak for a fortnight. Whenever he
approached me I frowned and motioned him away, and he respected our
compact, but at the end of the fortnight he was as fat as ever. And then
he got a word in.

"I must speak," he said, "It isn't fair. There's something wrong. It's
done me no good. You're not doing your great-grandmother justice."

"Where's the recipe?"

He produced it gingerly from his pocket-book.

I ran my eye over the items. "Was the egg addled?" I asked.

"No. Ought it to have been?"

"That," I said, "goes without saying in all my poor dear
great-grandmother's recipes. When condition or quality is not specified
you must get the worst. She was drastic or nothing... And there's one or
two possible alternatives to some of these other things. You got _fresh_
rattlesnake venom?"

"I got a rattlesnake from Jamrach's. It cost--it cost----"

"That's your affair anyhow. This last item----"

"I know a man who----"

"Yes. H'm. Well, I'll write the alternatives down. So far as I know the
language, the spelling of this recipe is particularly atrocious.
By-the-by, dog here probably means pariah dog."

For a month after that I saw Pyecraft constantly at the club and as fat
and anxious as ever. He kept our treaty, but at times he broke the spirit
of it by shaking his head despondently. Then one day in the cloakroom he
said, "Your great-grandmother----"

"Not a word against her," I said; and he held his peace.

I could have fancied he had desisted, and I saw him one day talking to
three new members about his fatness as though he was in search of other
recipes. And then, quite unexpectedly, his telegram came.

"Mr. Formalyn!" bawled a page-boy under my nose, and I took the telegram
and opened it at once.

"_For Heaven's sake come_.--_Pyecraft_."

"H'm," said I, and to tell the truth I was so pleased at the
rehabilitation of my great-grandmother's reputation this evidently
promised that I made a most excellent lunch.

I got Pyecraft's address from the hall porter. Pyecraft inhabited the
upper half of a house in Bloomsbury, and I went there so soon as I had
done my coffee and Trappistine. I did not wait to finish my cigar.

"Mr. Pyecraft?" said I, at the front door.

They believed he was ill; he hadn't been out for two days.

"He expects me," said I, and they sent me up.

I rang the bell at the lattice-door upon the landing.

"He shouldn't have tried it, anyhow," I said to myself. "A man who eats
like a pig ought to look like a pig."

An obviously worthy woman, with an anxious face and a carelessly placed
cap, came and surveyed me through the lattice.

I gave my name and she let me in in a dubious fashion.

"Well?" said I, as we stood together inside Pyecraft's piece of the
landing.

"'E said you was to come in if you came," she said, and regarded me,
making no motion to show me anywhere. And then, confidentially, "'E's
locked in, sir."

"Locked in?"

"Locked 'imself in yesterday morning and 'asn't let any one in since, sir.
And ever and again _swearing_. Oh, my!"

I stared at the door she indicated by her glances. "In there?" I said.

"Yes, sir."

"What's up?"

She shook her head sadly. "'E keeps on calling for vittles, sir.
'_Eavy_ vittles 'e wants. I get 'im what I can. Pork 'e's had, sooit
puddin', sossiges, noo bread. Everythink like that. Left outside, if you
please, and me go away. 'E's eatin', sir, somethink _awful_."

There came a piping bawl from inside the door: "That Formalyn?"

"That you, Pyecraft?" I shouted, and went and banged the door.

"Tell her to go away."

I did.

Then I could hear a curious pattering upon the door, almost like some one
feeling for the handle in the dark, and Pyecraft's familiar grunts.

"It's all right," I said, "she's gone."

But for a long time the door didn't open.

I heard the key turn. Then Pyecraft's voice said, "Come in."

I turned the handle and opened the door. Naturally I expected to see
Pyecraft.

Well, you know, he wasn't there!

I never had such a shock in my life. There was his sitting-room in a state
of untidy disorder, plates and dishes among the books and writing things,
and several chairs overturned, but Pyecraft----

"It's all right, old man; shut the door," he said, and then I discovered
him.

There he was, right up close to the cornice in the corner by the door, as
though some one had glued him to the ceiling. His face was anxious and
angry. He panted and gesticulated. "Shut the door," he said. "If that
woman gets hold of it----"

I shut the door, and went and stood away from him and stared.

"If anything gives way and you tumble down," I said, "you'll break your
neck, Pyecraft."

"I wish I could," he wheezed.

"A man of your age and weight getting up to kiddish gymnastics----"

"Don't," he said, and looked agonised.

"I'll tell you," he said, and gesticulated.

"How the deuce," said I, "are you holding on up there?"

And then abruptly I realised that he was not holding on at all, that he
was floating up there--just as a gas-filled bladder might have floated in
the same position. He began a struggle to thrust himself away from the
ceiling and to clamber down the wall to me. "It's that prescription," he
panted, as he did so. "Your great-gran----"

He took hold of a framed engraving rather carelessly as he spoke and it
gave way, and he flew back to the ceiling again, while the picture smashed
on to the sofa. Bump he went against the ceiling, and I knew then why he
was all over white on the more salient curves and angles of his person. He
tried again more carefully, coming down by way of the mantel.

It was really a most extraordinary spectacle, that great, fat,
apoplectic-looking man upside down and trying to get from the ceiling
to the floor. "That prescription," he said. "Too successful."

"How?"

"Loss of weight--almost complete."

And then, of course, I understood.

"By Jove, Pyecraft," said I, "what you wanted was a cure for fatness! But
you always called it weight. You would call it weight."

Somehow I was extremely delighted. I quite liked Pyecraft for the time.
"Let me help you!" I said, and took his hand and pulled him down. He
kicked about, trying to get foothold somewhere. It was very like holding a
flag on a windy day.

"That table," he said, pointing, "is solid mahogany and very heavy. If you
can put me under that----"

I did, and there he wallowed about like a captive balloon, while I stood
on his hearthrug and talked to him.

I lit a cigar. "Tell me," I said, "what happened?"

"I took it," he said.

"How did it taste?"

"Oh, _beastly_!"

I should fancy they all did. Whether one regards the ingredients or
the probable compound or the possible results, almost all my
great-grandmother's remedies appear to me at least to be extraordinarily
uninviting. For my own part----

"I took a little sip first."

"Yes?"

"And as I felt lighter and better after an hour, I decided to take the
draught."

"My dear Pyecraft!"

"I held my nose," he explained. "And then I kept on getting lighter and
lighter--and helpless, you know."

He gave way suddenly to a burst of passion. "What the goodness am I to
_do?_" he said.

"There's one thing pretty evident," I said, "that you mustn't do. If you
go out of doors you'll go up and up." I waved an arm upward. "They'd have
to send Santos-Dumont after you to bring you down again."

"I suppose it will wear off?"

I shook my head. "I don't think you can count on that," I said.

And then there was another burst of passion, and he kicked out at adjacent
chairs and banged the floor. He behaved just as I should have expected a
great, fat, self-indulgent man to behave under trying circumstances--that
is to say, very badly. He spoke of me and of my great-grandmother with an
utter want of discretion.

"I never asked you to take the stuff," I said.

And generously disregarding the insults he was putting upon me, I sat down
in his armchair and began to talk to him in a sober, friendly fashion.

I pointed out to him that this was a trouble he had brought upon himself,
and that it had almost an air of poetical justice. He had eaten too much.
This he disputed, and for a time we argued the point.

He became noisy and violent, so I desisted from this aspect of his lesson.
"And then," said I, "you committed the sin of euphuism. You called it, not
Fat, which is just and inglorious, but Weight. You----"

He interrupted to say that he recognised all that. What was he to
_do?_

I suggested he should adapt himself to his new conditions. So we came to
the really sensible part of the business. I suggested that it would not be
difficult for him to learn to walk about on the ceiling with his hands----

"I can't sleep," he said.

But that was no great difficulty. It was quite possible, I pointed out, to
make a shake-up under a wire mattress, fasten the under things on with
tapes, and have a blanket, sheet, and coverlet to button at the side. He
would have to confide in his housekeeper, I said; and after some
squabbling he agreed to that. (Afterwards it was quite delightful to see
the beautifully matter-of-fact way with which the good lady took all these
amazing inversions.) He could have a library ladder in his room, and all
his meals could be laid on the top of his bookcase. We also hit on an
ingenious device by which he could get to the floor whenever he wanted,
which was simply to put the _British Encyclopaedia_ (tenth edition)
on the top of his open shelves. He just pulled out a couple of volumes and
held on, and down he came. And we agreed there must be iron staples along
the skirting, so that he could cling to those whenever he wanted to get
about the room on the lower level.

As we got on with the thing I found myself almost keenly interested. It
was I who called in the housekeeper and broke matters to her, and it was I
chiefly who fixed up the inverted bed. In fact, I spent two whole days at
his flat. I am a handy, interfering sort of man with a screw-driver, and I
made all sorts of ingenious adaptations for him--ran a wire to bring his
bells within reach, turned all his electric lights up instead of down, and
so on. The whole affair was extremely curious and interesting to me, and
it was delightful to think of Pyecraft like some great, fat blow-fly,
crawling about on his ceiling and clambering round the lintel of his doors
from one room to another, and never, never, never coming to the club any
more...

Then, you know, my fatal ingenuity got the better of me. I was sitting by
his fire drinking his whisky, and he was up in his favourite corner by the
cornice, tacking a Turkey carpet to the ceiling, when the idea struck me.
"By Jove, Pyecraft!" I said, "all this is totally unnecessary."

And before I could calculate the complete consequences of my notion I
blurted it out. "Lead underclothing," said I, and the mischief was done.

Pyecraft received the thing almost in tears. "To be right ways up
again----" he said.

I gave him the whole secret before I saw where it would take me. "Buy
sheet lead," I said, "stamp it into discs. Sew 'em all over your
underclothes until you have enough. Have lead-soled boots, carry a bag of
solid lead, and the thing is done! Instead of being a prisoner here you
may go abroad again, Pyecraft; you may travel----"

A still happier idea came to me. "You need never fear a shipwreck. All you
need do is just slip off some or all of your clothes, take the necessary
amount of luggage in your hand, and float up in the air----"

In his emotion he dropped the tack-hammer within an ace of my head. "By
Jove!" he said, "I shall be able to come back to the club again."

"The thing pulled me up short. By Jove!" I said, faintly. "Yes. Of
course--you will."

He did. He does. There he sits behind me now, stuffing--as I live!--a
third go of buttered teacake. And no one in the whole world knows--except
his housekeeper and me---that he weighs practically nothing; that he is a
mere boring mass of assimilatory matter, mere clouds in clothing,
_niente, nefas_, the most inconsiderable of men. There he sits
watching until I have done this writing. Then, if he can, he will waylay
me. He will come billowing up to me...

He will tell me over again all about it, how it feels, how it doesn't
feel, how he sometimes hopes it is passing off a little. And always
somewhere in that fat, abundant discourse he will say, "The secret's
keeping, eh? If any one knew of it--I should be so ashamed... Makes
a fellow look such a fool, you know. Crawling about on a ceiling and all
that..."

And now to elude Pyecraft, occupying, as he does, an admirable strategic
position between me and the door.

 

 

 

XXIX.

THE MAGIC SHOP.

 

I had seen the Magic Shop from afar several times; I had passed it once or
twice, a shop window of alluring little objects, magic balls, magic hens,
wonderful cones, ventriloquist dolls, the material of the basket trick,
packs of cards that _looked_ all right, and all that sort of thing,
but never had I thought of going in until one day, almost without warning,
Gip hauled me by my finger right up to the window, and so conducted
himself that there was nothing for it but to take him in. I had not
thought the place was there, to tell the truth--a modest-sized frontage in
Regent Street, between the picture shop and the place where the chicks run
about just out of patent incubators,--but there it was sure enough. I had
fancied it was down nearer the Circus, or round the corner in Oxford
Street, or even in Holborn; always over the way and a little inaccessible
it had been, with something of the mirage in its position; but here it was
now quite indisputably, and the fat end of Gip's pointing finger made a
noise upon the glass.

"If I was rich," said Gip, dabbing a finger at the Disappearing Egg, "I'd
buy myself that. And that"--which was The Crying Baby, Very Human--"and
that," which was a mystery, and called, so a neat card asserted, "Buy One
and Astonish Your Friends."

"Anything," said Gip, "will disappear under one of those cones. I have
read about it in a book.

"And there, dadda, is the Vanishing Halfpenny--only they've put it this
way up so's we can't see how it's done."

Gip, dear boy, inherits his mother's breeding, and he did not propose to
enter the shop or worry in any way; only, you know, quite unconsciously,
he lugged my finger doorward, and he made his interest clear.

"That," he said, and pointed to the Magic Bottle.

"If you had that?" I said; at which promising inquiry he looked up with a
sudden radiance.

"I could show it to Jessie," he said, thoughtful as ever of others.

"It's less than a hundred days to your birthday, Gibbles," I said, and
laid my hand on the door-handle.

Gip made no answer, but his grip tightened on my finger, and so we came
into the shop.

It was no common shop this; it was a magic shop, and all the prancing
precedence Gip would have taken in the matter of mere toys was wanting. He
left the burthen of the conversation to me.

It was a little, narrow shop, not very well lit, and the door-bell pinged
again with a plaintive note as we closed it behind us. For a moment or
so we were alone and could glance about us. There was a tiger in
_papier-mâché_ on the glass case that covered, the low counter--a
grave, kind-eyed tiger that waggled his head in a methodical manner; there
were several crystal spheres, a china hand holding magic cards, a stock of
magic fish-bowls in various sizes, and an immodest magic hat that
shamelessly displayed its springs. On the floor were magic mirrors; one to
draw you out long and thin, one to swell your head and vanish your legs,
and one to make you short and fat like a draught; and while, we were
laughing at these the shopman, as I suppose, came in.

At any rate, there he was behind the counter--a curious, sallow, dark man,
with one ear larger than the other and a chin like the toe-cap of a boot.

"What can we have the pleasure?" he said, spreading his long magic fingers
on the glass case; and so with a start we were aware of him.

"I want," I said, "to buy my little boy a few simple tricks."

"Legerdemain?" he asked. "Mechanical? Domestic?"

"Anything amusing?" said I.

"Um!" said the shopman, and scratched his head for a moment as if
thinking. Then, quite distinctly, he drew from his head a glass ball.
"Something in this way?" he said, and held it out.

The action was unexpected. I had seen the trick done at entertainments
endless times before--it's part of the common stock of conjurers--but I
had not expected it here. "That's good," I said, with a laugh.

"Isn't it?" said the shopman.

Gip stretched out his disengaged hand to take this object and found merely
a blank palm.

"It's in your pocket," said the shopman, and there it was!

"How much will that be?" I asked.

"We make no charge for glass balls," said the shopman politely. "We get
them"--he picked one out of his elbow as he spoke--"free." He produced
another from the back of his neck, and laid it beside its predecessor on
the counter. Gip regarded his glass ball sagely, then directed a look of
inquiry at the two on the counter, and finally brought his round-eyed
scrutiny to the shopman, who smiled. "You may have those two," said the
shopman, "and, if you _don't_ mind one from my mouth. _So!_"

Gip counselled me mutely for a moment, and then in a profound silence put
away the four balls, resumed my reassuring finger, and nerved himself for
the next event.

"We get all our smaller tricks in that way," the shopman remarked.

I laughed in the manner of one who subscribes to a jest. "Instead of going
to the wholesale shop," I said. "Of course, it's cheaper."

"In a way," the shopman said. "Though we pay in the end. But not so
heavily--as people suppose... Our larger tricks, and our daily provisions
and all the other things we want, we get out of that hat... And you know,
sir, if you'll excuse my saying it, there _isn't_ a wholesale shop,
not for Genuine Magic goods, sir. I don't know if you noticed our
inscription--the Genuine Magic Shop." He drew a business card from his
cheek and handed it to me. "Genuine," he said, with his finger on the
word, and added, "There is absolutely no deception, sir."

He seemed to be carrying out the joke pretty thoroughly, I thought.

He turned to Gip with a smile of remarkable affability. "You, you know,
are the Right Sort of Boy."

I was surprised at his knowing that, because, in the interests of
discipline, we keep it rather a secret even at home; but Gip received it
in unflinching silence, keeping a steadfast eye on him.

"It's only the Right Sort of Boy gets through that doorway."

And, as if by way of illustration, there came a rattling at the door, and
a squeaking little voice could be faintly heard. "Nyar! I _warn_ 'a
go in there, dadda, I WARN 'a go in there. Ny-a-a-ah!" and then the
accents of a downtrodden parent, urging consolations and propitiations.
"It's locked, Edward," he said.

"But it isn't," said I.

"It is, sir," said the shopman, "always--for that sort of child," and as
he spoke we had a glimpse of the other youngster, a little, white face,
pallid from sweet-eating and over-sapid food, and distorted by evil
passions, a ruthless little egotist, pawing at the enchanted pane. "It's
no good, sir," said the shopman, as I moved, with my natural helpfulness,
doorward, and presently the spoilt child was carried off howling.

"How do you manage that?" I said, breathing a little more freely.

"Magic!" said the shopman, with a careless wave of the hand, and behold!
sparks of coloured fire flew out of his fingers and vanished into the
shadows of the shop.

"You were saying," he said, addressing himself to Gip, "before you came
in, that you would like one of our 'Buy One and Astonish your Friends'
boxes?"

Gip, after a gallant effort, said "Yes."

"It's in your pocket."

And leaning over the counter--he really had an extraordinary long body--
this amazing person produced the article in the customary conjurer's
manner. "Paper," he said, and took a sheet out of the empty hat with the
springs; "string," and behold his mouth was a string box, from which he
drew an unending thread, which when he had tied his parcel he bit off--
and, it seemed to me, swallowed the ball of string. And then he lit a
candle at the nose of one of the ventriloquist's dummies, stuck one of his
fingers (which had become sealing-wax red) into the flame, and so sealed
the parcel. "Then there was the Disappearing Egg," he remarked, and
produced one from within my coat-breast and packed it, and also The Crying
Baby, Very Human. I handed each parcel to Gip as it was ready, and he
clasped them to his chest.

He said very little, but his eyes were eloquent; the clutch of his arms
was eloquent. He was the playground of unspeakable emotions. These, you
know, were _real_ Magics.

Then, with a start, I discovered something moving about in my hat--
something soft and jumpy. I whipped it off, and a ruffled pigeon--no doubt
a confederate--dropped out and ran on the counter, and went, I fancy, into
a cardboard box behind the _papier-mâché_ tiger.

"Tut, tut!" said the shopman, dexterously relieving, me of my headdress;
"careless bird, and--as I live--nesting!"

He shook my hat, and shook out into his extended hand, two or three eggs,
a large marble, a watch, about half a dozen of the inevitable glass balls,
and then crumpled, crinkled paper, more and more and more, talking all the
time of the way in which people neglect to brush their hats _inside_
as well as out--politely, of course, but with a certain personal
application. "All sorts of things accumulate, sir... Not _you_, of
course, in particular... Nearly every customer... Astonishing what they
carry about with them..." The crumpled paper rose and billowed on the
counter more and more and more, until he was nearly hidden from us, until
he was altogether hidden, and still his voice went on and on. "We none of
us know what the fair semblance of a human being may conceal, Sir. Are we
all then no better than brushed exteriors, whited sepulchres-----"

His voice stopped--exactly like when you hit a neighbour's gramophone with
a well-aimed brick, the same instant silence--and the rustle of the paper
stopped, and everything was still...

"Have you done with my hat?" I said, after an interval.

There was no answer.

I stared at Gip, and Gip stared at me, and there were our distortions in
the magic mirrors, looking very rum, and grave, and quiet...

"I think we'll go now," I said. "Will you tell me how much all this comes
to?...

"I say," I said, on a rather louder note, "I want the bill; and my hat,
please."

It might have been a sniff from behind the paper pile...

"Let's look behind the counter, Gip," I said. "He's making fun of us."

I led Gip round the head-wagging tiger, and what do you think there was
behind the counter? No one at all! Only my hat on the floor, and a common
conjurer's lop-eared white rabbit lost in meditation, and looking as
stupid and crumpled as only a conjurer's rabbit can do. I resumed my hat,
and the rabbit lolloped a lollop or so out of my way.

"Dadda!" said Gip, in a guilty whisper.

"What is it, Gip?" said I.

"I _do_ like this shop, dadda."

"So should I," I said to myself, "if the counter wouldn't suddenly extend
itself to shut one off from the door." But I didn't call Gip's attention
to that. "Pussy!" he said, with a hand out to the rabbit as it came
lolloping past us; "Pussy, do Gip a magic!" and his eyes followed it as it
squeezed through a door I had certainly not remarked a moment before. Then
this door opened wider, and the man with one ear larger than the other
appeared again. He was smiling still, but his eye met mine with something
between amusement and defiance. "You'd like to see our showroom, sir," he
said, with an innocent suavity. Gip tugged my finger forward. I glanced at
the counter and met the shopman's eye again. I was beginning to think the
magic just a little too genuine. "We haven't _very_ much time," I
said. But somehow we were inside the showroom before I could finish that.

"All goods of the same quality," said the shopman, rubbing his flexible
hands together, "and that is the Best. Nothing in the place that isn't
genuine Magic, and warranted thoroughly rum. Excuse me, sir!"

I felt him pull at something that clung to my coat-sleeve, and then I saw
he held a little, wriggling red demon by the tail--the little creature bit
and fought and tried to get at his hand--and in a moment he tossed it
carelessly behind a counter. No doubt the thing was only an image of
twisted indiarubber, but for the moment--! And his gesture was exactly
that of a man who handles some petty biting bit of vermin. I glanced at
Gip, but Gip was looking at a magic rocking-horse. I was glad he hadn't
seen the thing. "I say," I said, in an undertone, and indicating Gip and
the red demon with my eyes, "you haven't many things like _that_
about, have you?"

"None of ours! Probably brought it with you," said the shopman--also in an
undertone, and with a more dazzling smile than ever. "Astonishing what
people _will_, carry about with them unawares!" And then to Gip, "Do
you see anything you fancy here?"

There were many things that Gip fancied there.

He turned to this astonishing tradesman with mingled confidence and
respect. "Is that a Magic Sword?" he said.

"A Magic Toy Sword. It neither bends, breaks, nor cuts the fingers. It
renders the bearer invincible in battle against any one under eighteen.
Half a crown to seven and sixpence, according to size. These panoplies on
cards are for juvenile knights-errant and very useful--shield of safety,
sandals of swiftness, helmet of invisibility."

"Oh, dadda!" gasped Gip.

I tried to find out what they cost, but the shopman did not heed me.
He had got Gip now; he had got him away from my finger; he had embarked
upon the exposition of all his confounded stock, and nothing was going to
stop him. Presently I saw with a qualm of distrust and something very like
jealousy that Gip had hold of this person's finger as usually he has hold
of mine. No doubt the fellow was interesting, I thought, and had an
interestingly faked lot of stuff, really _good_ faked stuff,
still----

I wandered after them, saying very little, but keeping an eye on this
prestidigital fellow. After all, Gip was enjoying it. And no doubt when
the time came to go we should be able to go quite easily.

It was a long, rambling place, that showroom, a gallery broken up by
stands and stalls and pillars, with archways leading off to other
departments, in which the queerest-looking assistants loafed and stared at
one, and with perplexing mirrors and curtains. So perplexing, indeed, were
these that I was presently unable to make out the door by which we had
come.

The shopman showed Gip magic trains that ran without steam or clockwork,
just as you set the signals, and then some very, very valuable boxes of
soldiers that all came alive directly you took off the lid and said----I
myself haven't a very quick ear, and it was a tongue-twisting sound, but
Gip--he has his mother's ear--got it in no time. "Bravo!" said the
shopman, putting the men back into the box unceremoniously and handing it
to Gip. "Now," said the shopman, and in a moment Gip had made them all
alive again.

"You'll take that box?" asked the shopman.

"We'll take that box," said I, "unless you charge its full value. In which
case it would need a Trust Magnate----"

"Dear heart! _No!_" and the shopman swept the little men back again,
shut the lid, waved the box in the air, and there it was, in brown paper,
tied up and--_with Gip's full name and address on the paper!_

The shopman laughed at my amazement.

"This is the genuine magic," he said. "The real thing."

"It's a little too genuine for my taste," I said again.

After that he fell to showing Gip tricks, odd tricks, and still odder the
way they were done. He explained them, he turned them inside out, and
there was the dear little chap nodding his busy bit of a head in the
sagest manner.

I did not attend as well as I might. "Hey, presto!" said the Magic
Shopman, and then would come the clear, small "Hey, presto!" of the boy.
But I was distracted by other things. It was being borne in upon me just
how tremendously rum this place was; it was, so to speak, inundated by a
sense of rumness. There was something a little rum about the fixtures
even, about the ceiling, about the floor, about the casually distributed
chairs. I had a queer feeling that whenever I wasn't looking at them
straight they went askew, and moved about, and played a noiseless
puss-in-the-corner behind my back. And the cornice had a serpentine design
with masks--masks altogether too expressive for proper plaster.

Then abruptly my attention was caught by one of the odd-looking
assistants. He was some way off and evidently unaware of my presence--I
saw a sort of three-quarter length of him over a pile of toys and through
an arch--and, you know, he was leaning against a pillar in an idle sort of
way doing the most horrid things with his features! The particular horrid
thing he did was with his nose. He did it just as though he was idle and
wanted to amuse himself. First of all it was a short, blobby nose, and
then suddenly he shot it out like a telescope, and then out it flew and
became thinner and thinner until it was like a long, red flexible whip.
Like a thing in a nightmare it was! He flourished it about and flung it
forth as a fly-fisher flings his line.

My instant thought was that Gip mustn't see him. I turned about, and there
was Gip quite preoccupied with the shopman, and thinking no evil. They
were whispering together and looking at me. Gip was standing on a little
stool, and the shopman was holding a sort of big drum in his hand.

"Hide and seek, dadda!" cried Gip. "You're He!"

And before I could do anything to prevent it, the shopman had clapped the
big drum over him.

I saw what was up directly. "Take that off," I cried, "this instant!
You'll frighten the boy. Take it off!"

The shopman with the unequal ears did so without a word, and held the big
cylinder towards me to show its emptiness. And the little stool was
vacant! In that instant my boy had utterly disappeared!...

You know, perhaps, that sinister something that conies like a hand out of
the unseen and grips your heart about. You know it takes your common self
away and leaves you tense and deliberate, neither slow nor hasty, neither
angry nor afraid. So it was with me.

I came up to this grinning shopman and kicked his stool aside.

"Stop this folly!" I said. "Where is my boy?"

"You see," he said, still displaying the drum's interior, "there is no
deception----"

I put out my hand to grip him, and he eluded me by a dexterous movement. I
snatched again, and he turned from me and pushed open a door to escape.
"Stop!" I said, and he laughed, receding. I leapt after him--into utter
darkness.

_Thud!_

"Lor' bless my 'eart! I didn't see you coming, sir!"

I was in Regent Street, and I had collided with a decent-looking working
man; and a yard away, perhaps, and looking a little perplexed with
himself, was Gip. There was some sort of apology, and then Gip had turned
and come to me with a bright little smile, as though for a moment he had
missed me.

And he was carrying four parcels in his arm!

He secured immediate possession of my finger.

For the second I was rather at a loss. I stared round to see the door of
the Magic Shop, and, behold, it was not there! There was no door, no shop,
nothing, only the common pilaster between the shop where they sell
pictures and the window with the chicks! ...

I did the only thing possible in that mental tumult; I walked straight to
the kerbstone and held up my umbrella for a cab.

"'Ansoms," said Gip, in a note of culminating exultation.

I helped him in, recalled my address with an effort, and got in also.
Something unusual proclaimed itself in my tail-coat pocket, and I felt and
discovered a glass ball. With a petulant expression I flung it into the
street.

Gip said nothing.

For a space neither of us spoke.

"Dadda!" said Gip, at last, "that _was_ a proper shop!"

I came round with that to the problem of just how the whole thing had
seemed to him. He looked completely undamaged--so far, good; he was
neither scared nor unhinged, he was simply tremendously satisfied with the
afternoon's entertainment, and there in his arms were the four parcels.

Confound it! what could be in them?

"Um!" I said. "Little boys can't go to shops like that every day."

He received this with his usual stoicism, and for a moment I was sorry I
was his father and not his mother, and so couldn't suddenly there,
_coram publico,_ in our hansom, kiss him. After all, I thought, the
thing wasn't so very bad.

But it was only when we opened the parcels that I really began to be
reassured. Three of them contained boxes of soldiers, quite ordinary lead
soldiers, but of so good a quality as to make Gip altogether forget that
originally these parcels had been Magic Tricks of the only genuine sort,
and the fourth contained a kitten, a little living white kitten, in
excellent health and appetite and temper.

I saw this unpacking with a sort of provisional relief. I hung about in
the nursery for quite an unconscionable time...

That happened six months ago. And now I am beginning to believe it is
all right. The kitten had only the magic natural to all kittens, and
the soldiers seemed as steady a company as any colonel could desire. And
Gip----?

The intelligent parent will understand that I have to go cautiously with
Gip.

But I went so far as this one day. I said, "How would you like your
soldiers to come alive, Gip, and march about by themselves?"

"Mine do," said Gip. "I just have to say a word I know before I open the
lid."

"Then they march about alone?"

"Oh, _quite_, dadda. I shouldn't like them if they didn't do that."

I displayed no unbecoming surprise, and since then I have taken occasion
to drop in upon him once or twice, unannounced, when the soldiers were
about, but so far I have never discovered them performing in anything like
a magical manner...

It's so difficult to tell.

There's also a question of finance. I have an incurable habit of paying
bills. I have been up and down Regent Street several times looking for
that shop. I am inclined to think, indeed, that in that matter honour is
satisfied, and that, since Gip's name and address are known to them, I may
very well leave it to these people, whoever they may be, to send in their
bill in their own time.

 

 

 

XXX.

THE EMPIRE OF THE ANTS.

 

When Captain Gerilleau received instructions to take his new gunboat, the
_Benjamin Constant,_ to Badama on the Batemo arm of the Guaramadema
and there assist the inhabitants against a plague of ants, he suspected
the authorities of mockery. His promotion had been romantic and irregular,
the affections of a prominent Brazilian lady and the captain's liquid eyes
had played a part in the process, and the _Diario_ and _O
Futuro_ had been lamentably disrespectful in their comments. He felt he
was to give further occasion for disrespect.

He was a Creole, his conceptions of etiquette and discipline were
pure-blooded Portuguese, and it was only to Holroyd, the Lancashire
engineer who had come over with the boat, and as an exercise in the use of
English--his "th" sounds were very uncertain--that he opened his heart.

"It is in effect," he said, "to make me absurd! What can a man do against
ants? Dey come, dey go."

"They say," said Holroyd, "that these don't go. That chap you said was a
Sambo----"

"Zambo;--it is a sort of mixture of blood."

"Sambo. He said the people are going!"

The captain smoked fretfully for a time. "Dese tings 'ave to happen," he
said at last. "What is it? Plagues of ants and suchlike as God wills. Dere
was a plague in Trinidad--the little ants that carry leaves. Orl der
orange-trees, all der mangoes! What does it matter? Sometimes ant armies
come into your houses--fighting ants; a different sort. You go and they
clean the house. Then you come back again;--the house is clean, like new!
No cockroaches, no fleas, no jiggers in the floor."

"That Sambo chap," said Holroyd, "says these are a different sort of ant."

The captain shrugged his shoulders, fumed, and gave his attention to a
cigarette.

Afterwards he reopened the subject. "My dear 'Olroyd, what am I to do
about dese infernal ants?"

The captain reflected. "It is ridiculous," he said. But in the afternoon
he put on his full uniform and went ashore, and jars and boxes came back
to the ship and subsequently he did. And Holroyd sat on deck in the
evening coolness and smoked profoundly and marvelled at Brazil. They were
six days up the Amazon, some hundreds of miles from the ocean, and east
and west of him there was a horizon like the sea, and to the south nothing
but a sand-bank island with some tufts of scrub. The water was always
running like a sluice, thick with dirt, animated with crocodiles and
hovering birds, and fed by some inexhaustible source of tree trunks; and
the waste of it, the headlong waste of it, filled his soul. The town of
Alemquer, with its meagre church, its thatched sheds for houses, its
discoloured ruins of ampler days, seemed a little thing lost in this
wilderness of Nature, a sixpence dropped on Sahara. He was a young man,
this was his first sight of the tropics, he came straight from England,
where Nature is hedged, ditched, and drained, into the perfection of
submission, and he had suddenly discovered the insignificance of man. For
six days they had been steaming up from the sea by unfrequented channels;
and man had been as rare as a rare butterfly. One saw one day a canoe,
another day a distant station, the next no men at all. He began to
perceive that man is indeed a rare animal, having but a precarious hold
upon this land.

He perceived it more clearly as the days passed, and he made his devious
way to the Batemo, in the company of this remarkable commander, who ruled
over one big gun, and was forbidden to waste his ammunition. Holroyd was
learning Spanish industriously, but he was still in the present tense and
substantive stage of speech, and the only other person who had any words
of English was a negro stoker, who had them all wrong. The second in
command was a Portuguese, da Cunha, who spoke French, but it was a
different sort of French from the French Holroyd had learnt in Southport,
and their intercourse was confined to politenesses and simple propositions
about the weather. And the weather, like everything else in this amazing
new world, the weather had no human aspect, and was hot by night and hot
by day, and the air steam, even the wind was hot steam, smelling of
vegetation in decay: and the alligators and the strange birds, the flies
of many sorts and sizes, the beetles, the ants, the snakes and monkeys
seemed to wonder what man was doing in an atmosphere that had no gladness
in its sunshine and no coolness in its night. To wear clothing was
intolerable, but to cast it aside was to scorch by day, and expose an
ampler area to the mosquitoes by night; to go on deck by day was to be
blinded by glare and to stay below was to suffocate. And in the daytime
came certain flies, extremely clever and noxious about one's wrist and
ankle. Captain Gerilleau, who was Holroyd's sole distraction from these
physical distresses, developed into a formidable bore, telling the simple
story of his heart's affections day by day, a string of anonymous women,
as if he was telling beads. Sometimes he suggested sport, and they shot at
alligators, and at rare intervals they came to human aggregations in the
waste of trees, and stayed for a day or so, and drank and sat about, and,
one night, danced with Creole girls, who found Holroyd's poor elements of
Spanish, without either past tense or future, amply sufficient for their
purposes. But these were mere luminous chinks in the long grey passage of
the streaming river, up which the throbbing engines beat. A certain
liberal heathen deity, in the shape of a demi-john, held seductive court
aft, and, it is probable, forward.

But Gerilleau learnt things about the ants, more things and more, at this
stopping-place and that, and became interested in his mission.

"Dey are a new sort of ant," he said. "We have got to be--what do you call
it?--entomologie? Big. Five centimetres! Some bigger! It is ridiculous. We
are like the monkeys---sent to pick insects... But dey are eating up the
country."

He burst out indignantly. "Suppose--suddenly, there are complications with
Europe. Here am I--soon we shall be above the Rio Negro--and my gun,
useless!"

He nursed his knee and mused.

"Dose people who were dere at de dancing place, dey 'ave come down. Dey
'ave lost all they got. De ants come to deir house one afternoon. Everyone
run out. You know when de ants come one must--everyone runs out and they
go over the house. If you stayed they'd eat you. See? Well, presently dey
go back; dey say, 'The ants 'ave gone.' ... De ants _'aven't_ gone.
Dey try to go in--de son, 'e goes in. De ants fight."

"Swarm over him?"

"Bite 'im. Presently he comes out again--screaming and running. He runs
past them to the river. See? He gets into de water and drowns de ants--
yes." Gerilleau paused, brought his liquid eyes close to Holroyd's face,
tapped Holroyd's knee with his knuckle. "That night he dies, just as if he
was stung by a snake."

"Poisoned--by the ants?"

"Who knows?" Gerilleau shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps they bit him
badly... When I joined dis service I joined to fight men. Dese things,
dese ants, dey come and go. It is no business for men."

After that he talked frequently of the ants to Holroyd, and whenever they
chanced to drift against any speck of humanity in that waste of water and
sunshine and distant trees, Holroyd's improving knowledge of the language
enabled him to recognise the ascendant word _Saüba_, more and more
completely dominating the whole.

He perceived the ants were becoming interesting, and the nearer he drew to
them the more interesting they became. Gerilleau abandoned his old themes
almost suddenly, and the Portuguese lieutenant became a conversational
figure; he knew something about the leaf-cutting ant, and expanded his
knowledge. Gerilleau sometimes rendered what he had to tell to Holroyd. He
told of the little workers that swarm and fight, and the big workers that
command and rule, and how these latter always crawled to the neck and how
their bites drew blood. He told how they cut leaves and made fungus beds,
and how their nests in Caracas are sometimes a hundred yards across. Two
days the three men spent disputing whether ants have eyes. The discussion
grew dangerously heated on the second afternoon, and Holroyd saved the
situation by going ashore in a boat to catch ants and see. He captured
various specimens and returned, and some had eyes and some hadn't. Also,
they argued, do ants bite or sting?

"Dese ants," said Gerilleau, after collecting information at a rancho,
"have big eyes. They don't run about blind--not as most ants do. No! Dey
get in corners and watch what you do."

"And they sting?" asked Holroyd.

"Yes. Dey sting. Dere is poison in the sting." He meditated. "I do not see
what men can do against ants. Dey come and go."

"But these don't go."

"They will," said Gerilleau.

Past Tamandu there is a long low coast of eighty miles without any
population, and then one comes to the confluence of the main river and the
Batemo arm like a great lake, and then the forest came nearer, came at
last intimately near. The character of the channel changes, snags abound,
and the _Benjamin Constant_ moored by a cable that night, under the
very shadow of dark trees. For the first time for many days came a spell
of coolness, and Holroyd and Gerilleau sat late, smoking cigars and
enjoying this delicious sensation. Gerilleau's mind was full of ants and
what they could do. He decided to sleep at last, and lay down on a
mattress on deck, a man hopelessly perplexed, his last words, when he
already seemed asleep, were to ask, with a flourish of despair, "What can
one do with ants?... De whole thing is absurd."

Holroyd was left to scratch his bitten wrists, and meditate alone.

He sat on the bulwark and listened to the little changes in Gerilleau's
breathing until he was fast asleep, and then the ripple and lap of the
stream took his mind, and brought back that sense of immensity that had
been growing upon him since first he had left Para and come up the river.
The monitor showed but one small light, and there was first a little
talking forward and then stillness. His eyes went from the dim black
outlines of the middle works of the gunboat towards the bank, to the black
overwhelming mysteries of forest, lit now and then by a fire-fly, and
never still from the murmur of alien and mysterious activities...

It was the inhuman immensity of this land that astonished and oppressed
him. He knew the skies were empty of men, the stars were specks in an
incredible vastness of space; he knew the ocean was enormous and
untamable, but in England he had come to think of the land as man's. In
England it is indeed man's, the wild things live by sufferance, grow on
lease, everywhere the roads, the fences, and absolute security runs. In an
atlas, too, the land is man's, and all coloured to show his claim to it--
in vivid contrast to the universal independent blueness of the sea. He had
taken it for granted that a day would come when everywhere about the
earth, plough and culture, light tramways and good roads, an ordered
security, would prevail. But now, he doubted.

This forest was interminable, it had an air of being invincible, and Man
seemed at best an infrequent precarious intruder. One travelled for miles,
amidst the still, silent struggle of giant trees, of strangulating
creepers, of assertive flowers, everywhere the alligator, the turtle, and
endless varieties of birds and insects seemed at home, dwelt
irreplaceably--but man, man at most held a footing upon resentful
clearings, fought weeds, fought beasts and insects for the barest
foothold, fell a prey to snake and beast, insect and fever, and was
presently carried away. In many places down the river he had been
manifestly driven back, this deserted creek or that preserved the name of
a _casa_, and here and there ruinous white walls and a shattered
tower enforced the lesson. The puma, the jaguar, were more the masters
here...

Who were the real masters?

In a few miles of this forest there must be more ants than there are men
in the whole world! This seemed to Holroyd a perfectly new idea. In a few
thousand years men had emerged from barbarism to a stage of civilisation
that made them feel lords of the future and masters of the earth! But what
was to prevent the ants evolving also? Such ants as one knew lived in
little communities of a few thousand individuals, made no concerted
efforts against the greater world. But they had a language, they had an
intelligence! Why should things stop at that any more than men had stopped
at the barbaric stage? Suppose presently the ants began to store
knowledge, just as men had done by means of books and records, use
weapons, form great empires, sustain a planned and organised war?

Things came back to him that Gerilleau had gathered about these ants they
were approaching. They used a poison like the poison of snakes. They
obeyed greater leaders even as the leaf-cutting ants do. They were
carnivorous, and where they came they stayed...

The forest was very still. The water lapped incessantly against the side.
About the lantern overhead there eddied a noiseless whirl of phantom
moths.

Gerilleau stirred in the darkness and sighed. "What can one _do?_" he
murmured, and turned over and was still again.

Holroyd was roused from meditations that were becoming sinister by the hum
of a mosquito.

 

II.

The next morning Holroyd learnt they were within forty kilometres of
Badama, and his interest in the banks intensified. He came up whenever an
opportunity offered to examine his surroundings. He could see no signs of
human occupation whatever, save for a weedy ruin of a house and the
green-stained facade of the long-deserted monastery at Mojû, with a forest
tree growing out of a vacant window space, and great creepers netted across
its vacant portals. Several flights of strange yellow butterflies with
semi-transparent wings crossed the river that morning, and many alighted on
the monitor and were killed by the men. It was towards afternoon that they
came upon the derelict _cuberta_.

She did not at first appear to be derelict; both her sails were set and
hanging slack in the afternoon calm, and there was the figure of a man
sitting on the fore planking beside the shipped sweeps. Another man
appeared to be sleeping face downwards on the sort of longitudinal bridge
these big canoes have in the waist. But it was presently apparent, from
the sway of her rudder and the way she drifted into the course of the
gunboat, that something was out of order with her. Gerilleau surveyed her
through a field-glass, and became interested in the queer darkness of the
face of the sitting man, a red-faced man he seemed, without a nose--
crouching he was rather than sitting, and the longer the captain looked
the less he liked to look at him, and the less able he was to take his
glasses away.

But he did so at last, and went a little way to call up Holroyd. Then he
went back to hail the cuberta. He ailed her again, and so she drove past
him. _Santa Rosa_ stood out clearly as her name.

As she came by and into the wake of the monitor, she pitched a little, and
suddenly the figure of the crouching an collapsed as though all its joints
had given way. His hat fell off, his head was not nice to look at, and his
body flopped lax and rolled out of sight behind the bulwarks.

"Caramba!" cried Gerilleau, and resorted to Holroyd forthwith.

Holroyd was half-way up the companion. "Did you see dat?" said the
captain.

"Dead!" said Holroyd. "Yes. You'd better send a boat aboard. There's
something wrong."

"Did you--by any chance--see his face?"

"What was it like?"

"It was--ugh!--I have no words." And the captain suddenly turned his back
on Holroyd and became an active and strident commander.

The gunboat came about, steamed parallel to the erratic course of the
canoe, and dropped the boat with Lieutenant da Cunha and three sailors to
board her. Then the curiosity of the captain made him draw up almost
alongside as the lieutenant got aboard, so that the whole of the _Santa
Rosa_, deck and hold, was visible to Holroyd.

He saw now clearly that the sole crew of the vessel was these two dead
men, and though he could not see their faces, he saw by their outstretched
hands, which were all of ragged flesh, that they had been subjected to
some strange exceptional process of decay. For a moment his attention
concentrated on those two enigmatical bundles of dirty clothes and laxly
flung limbs, and then his eyes went forward to discover the open hold
piled high with trunks and cases, and aft, to where the little cabin gaped
inexplicably empty. Then he became aware that the planks of the middle
decking were dotted with moving black specks.

His attention was riveted by these specks. They were all walking in
directions radiating from the fallen man in a manner--the image came
unsought to his mind--like the crowd dispersing from a bull-fight.

He became aware of Gerilleau beside him. "Capo," he said, "have you your
glasses? Can you focus as closely as those planks there?"

Gerilleau made an effort, grunted, and handed him the glasses.

There followed a moment of scrutiny. "It's ants," said the Englishman, and
handed the focused field-glass back to Gerilleau.

His impression of them was of a crowd of large black ants, very like
ordinary ants except for their size, and for the fact that some of the
larger of them bore a sort of clothing of grey. But at the time his
inspection was too brief for particulars. The head of Lieutenant da Cunha
appeared over the side of the cuberta, and a brief colloquy ensued.

"You must go aboard," said Gerilleau.

The lieutenant objected that the boat was full of ants.

"You have your boots," said Gerilleau.

The lieutenant changed the subject. "How did these en die?" he asked.

Captain Gerilleau embarked upon speculations that Holroyd could not
follow, and the two men disputed with a certain increasing vehemence.
Holroyd took up the field-glass and resumed his scrutiny, first of the
ants and then of the dead man amidships.

He has described these ants to me very particularly.

He says they were as large as any ants he has ever seen, black and moving
with a steady deliberation very different from the mechanical fussiness of
the common ant. About one in twenty was much larger than its fellows, and
with an exceptionally large head. These reminded him at once of the master
workers who are said to rule over the leaf-cutter ants; like them they
seemed to be directing and co-ordinating the general movements. They
tilted their bodies back in a manner altogether singular as if they made
some use of the fore feet. And he had a curious fancy that he was too far
off to verify, that most of these ants of both kinds were wearing
accoutrements, had things strapped about their bodies by bright white
bands like white metal threads...

He put down the glasses abruptly, realising that the question of
discipline between the captain and his subordinate had become acute.

"It is your duty," said the captain, "to go aboard. It is my
instructions."

The lieutenant seemed on the verge of refusing. The head of one of the
mulatto sailors appeared beside him.

"I believe these men were killed by the ants," said Holroyd abruptly in
English.

The captain burst into a rage. He made no answer to Holroyd. "I have
commanded you to go aboard," he screamed to his subordinate in Portuguese.
"If you do not go aboard forthwith it is mutiny--rank mutiny. Mutiny and
cowardice! Where is the courage that should animate us? I will have you in
irons, I will have you shot like a dog." He began a torrent of abuse and
curses, he danced to and fro. He shook his fists, he behaved as if beside
himself with rage, and the lieutenant, white and still, stood looking at
him. The crew appeared forward, with amazed faces.

Suddenly, in a pause of this outbreak, the lieutenant came to some heroic
decision, saluted, drew himself together and clambered upon the deck of
the cuberta.

"Ah!" said Gerilleau, and his mouth shut like a trap. Holroyd saw the ants
retreating before da Cunha's boots. The Portuguese walked slowly to the
fallen man, stooped down, hesitated, clutched his coat and turned him
over. A black swarm of ants rushed out of the clothes, and da Cunha
stepped back very quickly and trod two or three times on the deck.

Holroyd put up the glasses. He saw the scattered ants about the invader's
feet, and doing what he had never seen ants doing before. They had nothing
of the blind movements of the common ant; they were looking at him--as a
rallying crowd of men might look at some gigantic monster that had
dispersed it.

"How did he die?" the captain shouted.

Holroyd understood the Portuguese to say the body was too much eaten to
tell.

"What is there forward?" asked Gerilleau.

The lieutenant walked a few paces, and began his answer in Portuguese. He
stopped abruptly and beat off something from his leg. He made some
peculiar steps as if he was trying to stamp on something invisible, and
went quickly towards the side. Then he controlled himself, turned about,
walked deliberately forward to the hold, clambered up to the fore decking,
from which the sweeps are worked, stooped for a time over the second man,
groaned audibly, and made his way back and aft to the cabin, moving very
rigidly. He turned and began a conversation with his captain, cold and
respectful in tone on either side, contrasting vividly with the wrath and
insult of a few moments before. Holroyd gathered only fragments of its
purport.

He reverted to the field-glass, and was surprised to find the ants had
vanished from all the exposed surfaces of the deck. He turned towards the
shadows beneath the decking, and it seemed to him they were full of
watching eyes.

The cuberta, it was agreed; was derelict, but too full of ants to put men
aboard to sit and sleep: it must be towed. The lieutenant went forward to
take in and adjust the cable, and the men in the boat stood up to be ready
to help him. Holroyd's glasses searched the canoe.

He became more and more impressed by the fact that a great if minute and
furtive activity was going on. He perceived that a number of gigantic
ants--they seemed nearly a couple of inches in length--carrying
oddly-shaped burthens for which he could imagine no use--were moving in
rushes from one point of obscurity to another. They did not move in columns
across the exposed places, but in open, spaced-out lines, oddly suggestive
of the rushes of modern infantry advancing under fire. A number were
taking cover under the dead man's clothes, and a perfect swarm was
gathering along the side over which da Cunha must presently go.

He did not see them actually rush for the lieutenant as he returned, but
he has no doubt they did make a concerted rush. Suddenly the lieutenant
was shouting and cursing and beating at his legs. "I'm stung!" he shouted,
with a face of hate and accusation towards Gerilleau.

Then he vanished over the side, dropped into his boat, and plunged at once
into the water. Holroyd heard the splash.

The three men in the boat pulled him out and brought him aboard, and that
night he died.

III.

Holroyd and the captain came out of the cabin in which the swollen and
contorted body of the lieutenant lay and stood together at the stern of
the monitor, staring at the sinister vessel they trailed behind them. It
was a close, dark night that had only phantom flickerings of sheet
lightning to illuminate it. The cuberta, a vague black triangle, rocked
about in the steamer's wake, her sails bobbing and flapping, and the black
smoke from the funnels, spark-lit ever and again, streamed over her
swaying masts.

Gerilleau's mind was inclined to run on the unkind things the lieutenant
had said in the heat of his last fever.

"He says I murdered 'im," he protested. "It is simply absurd. Someone
_'ad_ to go aboard. Are we to run away from these confounded ants
whenever they show up?"

Holroyd said nothing. He was thinking of a disciplined rush of little
black shapes across bare sunlit planking.

"It was his place to go," harped Gerilleau. "He died in the execution of
his duty. What has he to complain of? Murdered!... But the poor fellow
was--what is it?--demented. He was not in his right mind. The poison
swelled him... U'm."

They came to a long silence.

"We will sink that canoe--burn it."

"And then?"

The inquiry irritated Gerilleau. His shoulders went up, his hands flew out
at right angles from his body. "What is one to _do?_" he said, his
voice going up to an angry squeak.

"Anyhow," he broke out vindictively, "every ant in dat cuberta!--I will
burn dem alive!"

Holroyd was not moved to conversation. A distant ululation of howling
monkeys filled the sultry night with foreboding sounds, and as the gunboat
drew near the black mysterious banks this was reinforced by a depressing
clamour of frogs.

"What is one to _do?_" the captain repeated after a vast interval,
and suddenly becoming active and savage and blasphemous, decided to burn
the _Santa Rosa_ without further delay. Everyone aboard was pleased
by that idea, everyone helped with zest; they pulled in the cable, cut it,
and dropped the boat and fired her with tow and kerosene, and soon the
cuberta was crackling and flaring merrily amidst the immensities of the
tropical night. Holroyd watched the mounting yellow flare against the
blackness, and the livid flashes of sheet lightning that came and went
above the forest summits, throwing them into momentary silhouette, and his
stoker stood behind him watching also.

The stoker was stirred to the depths of his linguistics. "_Saüba_ go
pop, pop," he said, "Wahaw" and laughed richly.

But Holroyd was thinking that these little creatures on the decked canoe
had also eyes and brains.

The whole thing impressed him as incredibly foolish and wrong, but--what
was one to _do_? This question came back enormously reinforced on the
morrow, when at last the gunboat reached Badama.

This place, with its leaf-thatch-covered houses and sheds, its
creeper-invaded sugar-mill, its little jetty of timber and canes, was very
still in the morning heat, and showed never a sign of living men. Whatever
ants there were at that distance were too small to see.

"All the people have gone," said Gerilleau, "but we will do one thing
anyhow. We will 'oot and vissel."

So Holroyd hooted and whistled.

Then the captain fell into a doubting fit of the worst kind. "Dere is one
thing we can do," he said presently, "What's that?" said Holroyd.

"'Oot and vissel again."

So they did.

The captain walked his deck and gesticulated to himself. He seemed to have
many things on his mind. Fragments of speeches came from his lips. He
appeared to be addressing some imaginary public tribunal either in Spanish
or Portuguese. Holroyd's improving ear detected something about
ammunition. He came out of these preoccupations suddenly into English. "My
dear 'Olroyd!" he cried, and broke off with "But what _can_ one do?"

They took the boat and the field-glasses, and went close in to examine the
place. They made out a number of big ants, whose still postures had a
certain effect of watching them, dotted about the edge of the rude
embarkation jetty. Gerilleau tried ineffectual pistol shots at these.
Holroyd thinks he distinguished curious earthworks running between the
nearer houses, that may have been the work of the insect conquerors of
those human habitations. The explorers pulled past the jetty, and became
aware of a human skeleton wearing a loin cloth, and very bright and clean
and shining, lying beyond. They came to a pause regarding this...

"I 'ave all dose lives to consider," said Gerilleau suddenly.

Holroyd turned and stared at the captain, realising slowly that he
referred to the unappetising mixture of races that constituted his crew.

"To send a landing party--it is impossible--impossible. They will be
poisoned, they will swell, they will swell up and abuse me and die. It is
totally impossible... If we land, I must land alone, alone, in thick
boots and with my life in my hand. Perhaps I should live. Or again--I
might not land. I do not know. I do not know."

Holroyd thought he did, but he said nothing.

"De whole thing," said Gerilleau suddenly, "'as been got up to make me
ridiculous. De whole thing!"

They paddled about and regarded the clean white skeleton from various
points of view, and then they returned to the gunboat. Then Gerilleau's
indecisions became terrible. Steam was got up, and in the afternoon the
monitor went on up the river with an air of going to ask somebody
something, and by sunset came back again and anchored. A thunderstorm
gathered and broke furiously, and then the night became beautifully cool
and quiet and everyone slept on deck. Except Gerilleau, who tossed about
and muttered. In the dawn he awakened Holroyd.

"Lord!" said Holroyd, "what now?"

"I have decided," said the captain.

"What--to land?" said Holroyd, sitting up brightly.

"No!" said the captain, and was for a time very reserved. "I have
decided," he repeated, and Holroyd manifested symptoms of impatience.

"Well,--yes," said the captain, "_I shall fire de big gun!_"

And he did! Heaven knows what the ants thought of it, but he did. He fired
it twice with great sternness and ceremony. All the crew had wadding in
their ears, and there was an effect of going into action about the whole
affair, and first they hit and wrecked the old sugar-mill, and then they
smashed the abandoned store behind the jetty. And then Gerilleau
experienced the inevitable reaction.

"It is no good," he said to Holroyd; "no good at all. No sort of bally
good. We must go back--for instructions. Dere will be de devil of a row
about dis ammunition--oh! de _devil_ of a row! You don't know,
'Olroyd..."

He stood regarding the world in infinite perplexity for a space.

"But what else was there to _do?_" he cried.

In the afternoon the monitor started down stream again, and in the evening
a landing party took the body of the lieutenant and buried it on the bank
upon which the new ants have so far not appeared...

IV.

I heard this story in a fragmentary state from Holroyd not three weeks
ago.

These new ants have got into his brain, and he has come back to England
with the idea, as he says, of "exciting people" about them "before it is
too late." He says they threaten British Guiana, which cannot be much over
a trifle of a thousand miles from their present sphere of activity, and
that the Colonial Office ought to get to work upon them at once. He
declaims with great passion: "These are intelligent ants. Just think what
that means!"

There can be no doubt they are a serious pest, and that the Brazilian
Government is well advised in offering a prize of five hundred pounds for
some effectual method of extirpation. It is certain too that since they
first appeared in the hills beyond Badama, about three years ago, they
have achieved extraordinary conquests. The whole of the south bank of the
Batemo River, for nearly sixty miles, they have in their effectual
occupation; they have driven men out completely, occupied plantations and
settlements, and boarded and captured at least one ship. It is even said
they have in some inexplicable way bridged the very considerable Capuarana
arm and pushed many miles towards the Amazon itself. There can be little
doubt that they are far more reasonable and with a far better social
organisation than any previously known ant species; instead of being in
dispersed societies they are organised into what is in effect a single
nation; but their peculiar and immediate formidableness lies not so much
in this as in the intelligent use they make of poison against their larger
enemies. It would seem this poison of theirs is closely akin to snake
poison, and it is highly probable they actually manufacture it, and that
the larger individuals among them carry the needle-like crystals of it in
their attacks upon men.

Of course it is extremely difficult to get any detailed information about
these new competitors for the sovereignty of the globe. No eye-witnesses
of their activity, except for such glimpses as Holroyd's, have survived
the encounter. The most extraordinary legends of their prowess and
capacity are in circulation in the region of the Upper Amazon, and grow
daily as the steady advance of the invader stimulates men's imaginations
through their fears. These strange little creatures are credited not only
with the use of implements and a knowledge of fire and metals and with
organised feats of engineering that stagger our northern minds--unused as
we are to such feats as that of the Saübas of Rio de Janeiro, who in 1841
drove a tunnel under the Parahyba where it is as wide as the Thames at
London Bridge--but with an organised and detailed method of record and
communication analogous to our books. So far their action has been a
steady progressive settlement, involving the flight or slaughter of every
human being in the new areas they invade. They are increasing rapidly in
numbers, and Holroyd at least is firmly convinced that they will finally
dispossess man over the whole of tropical South America.

And why should they stop at tropical South America?

Well, there they are, anyhow. By 1911 or thereabouts, if they go on as
they are going, they ought to strike the Capuarana Extension Railway, and
force themselves upon the attention of the European capitalist.

By 1920 they will be half-way down the Amazon. I fix 1950 or '60 at the
latest for the discovery of Europe.

 

 

 

XXXI.

THE DOOR IN THE WALL.

 

I.

One confidential evening, not three months ago, Lionel Wallace told me
this story of the Door in the Wall. And at the time I thought that so far
as he was concerned it was a true story.

He told it me with such a direct simplicity of conviction that I could not
do otherwise than believe in him. But in the morning, in my own flat, I
woke to a different atmosphere, and as I lay in bed and recalled the
things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice,
denuded of the focussed, shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that
wrapped about him and me, and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and
glasses and napery of the dinner we had shared, making them for the time a
bright little world quite cut off from everyday realities, I saw it all as
frankly incredible. "He was mystifying!" I said, and then: "How well he
did it!... It isn't quite the thing I should have expected him, of all
people, to do well."

Afterwards as I sat up in bed and sipped my morning tea, I found myself
trying to account for the flavour of reality that perplexed me in his
impossible reminiscences, by supposing they did in some way suggest,
present, convey--I hardly know which word to use--experiences it was
otherwise impossible to tell.

Well, I don't resort to that explanation now. I have got over my
intervening doubts. I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling,
that Wallace did to the very best of his ability strip the truth of his
secret for me. But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether
he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege or the victim of
a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess. Even the facts of his death,
which ended my doubts for ever, throw no light on that.

That much the reader must judge for himself.

I forget now what chance comment or criticism of mine moved so reticent a
man to confide in me. He was, I think, defending himself against an
imputation of slackness and unreliability I had made in relation to a
great public movement, in which he had disappointed me. But he plunged
suddenly. "I have," he said, "a preoccupation----

"I know," he went on, after a pause, "I have been negligent. The fact is--
it isn't a case of ghosts or apparitions--but--it's an odd thing to tell
of, Redmond--I am haunted. I am haunted by something--that rather takes
the light out of things, that fills me with longings..."

He paused, checked by that English shyness that so often overcomes us when
we would speak of moving or grave or beautiful things. "You were at Saint
Aethelstan's all through," he said, and for a moment that seemed to me
quite irrelevant. "Well"--and he paused. Then very haltingly at first, but
afterwards more easily, he began to tell of the thing that was hidden in
his life, the haunting memory of a beauty and a happiness that filled his
heart with insatiable longings, that made all the interests and spectacle
of worldly life seem dull and tedious and vain to him.

Now that I have the clue to it, the thing seems written visibly in his
face. I have a photograph in which that look of detachment has been caught
and intensified. It reminds me of what a woman once said of him--a woman
who had loved him greatly. "Suddenly," she said, "the interest goes out of
him. He forgets you. He doesn't care a rap for you--under his very
nose..."

Yet the interest was not always out of him, and when he was holding his
attention to a thing Wallace could contrive to be an extremely successful
man. His career, indeed, is set with successes. He left me behind him long
ago: he soared up over my head, and cut a figure in the world that I
couldn't cut--anyhow. He was still a year short of forty, and they say now
that he would have been in office and very probably in the new Cabinet if
he had lived. At school he always beat me without effort--as it were by
nature. We were at school together at Saint Aethelstan's College in West
Kensington for almost all our school-time. He came into the school as my
coequal, but he left far above me, in a blaze of scholarships and
brilliant performance. Yet I think I made a fair average running. And it
was at school I heard first of the "Door in the Wall"--that I was to hear
of a second time only a month before his death.

To him at least the Door in the Wall was a real door, leading through a
real wall to immortal realities. Of that I am now quite assured.

And it came into his life quite early, when he was a little fellow between
five and six. I remember how, as he sat making his confession to me with a
slow gravity, he reasoned and reckoned the date of it. "There was," he
said, "a crimson Virginia creeper in it--all one bright uniform crimson,
in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the
impression somehow, though I don't clearly remember how, and there were
horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They
were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that
they must have been new fallen. I take it that means October. I look out
for horse-chestnut leaves every year and I ought to know.

"If I'm right in that, I was about five years and four months old."

He was, he said, rather a precocious little boy--he learnt to talk at an
abnormally early age, and he was so sane and "old-fashioned," as people
say, that he was permitted an amount of initiative that most children
scarcely attain by seven or eight. His mother died when he was two, and he
was under the less vigilant and authoritative care of a nursery governess.
His father was a stern, preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention,
and expected great things of him. For all his brightness he found life a
little grey and dull, I think. And one day he wandered.

He could not recall the particular neglect that enabled him to get away,
nor the course he took among the West Kensington roads. All that had faded
among the incurable blurs of memory. But the white wall and the green door
stood out quite distinctly.

As his memory of that childish experience ran, he did at the very first
sight of that door experience a peculiar emotion, an attraction, a desire
to get to the door and open it and walk in. And at the same time he had
the clearest conviction that either it was unwise or it was wrong of him--
he could not tell which--to yield to this attraction. He insisted upon it
as a curious thing that he knew from the very beginning--unless memory has
played him the queerest trick--that the door was unfastened, and that he
could go in as he chose.

I seem to see the figure of that little boy, drawn and repelled. And it
was very clear in his mind, too, though why it should be so was never
explained, that his father would be very angry if he went in through that
door.

Wallace described all these moments of hesitation to me with the utmost
particularity. He went right past the door, and then, with his hands in
his pockets and making an infantile attempt to whistle, strolled right
along beyond the end of the wall. There he recalls a number of mean dirty
shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator with a dusty
disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead, ball taps, pattern books of
wall paper, and tins of enamel. He stood pretending to examine these
things, and _coveting_, passionately desiring, the green door.

Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion. He made a run for it, lest
hesitation should grip him again; he went plump with outstretched hand
through the green door and let it slam behind him. And so, in a trice, he
came into the garden that has haunted all his life.

It was very difficult for Wallace to give me his full sense of that garden
into which he came.

There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one
a sense of lightness and good happening and well-being; there was
something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect
and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely
glad--as only in rare moments, and when one is young and joyful one can be
glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there...

Wallace mused before he went on telling me. "You see," he said, with the
doubtful inflection of a man who pauses at incredible things, "there were
two great panthers there... Yes, spotted panthers. And I was not afraid.
There was a long wide path with marble-edged flower borders on either
side, and these two huge velvety beasts were playing there with a ball.
One looked up and came towards me, a little curious as it seemed. It came
right up to me, rubbed its soft round ear very gently against the small
hand I held out, and purred. It was, I tell you, an enchanted garden. I
know. And the size? Oh! it stretched far and wide, this way and that. I
believe there were hills far away. Heaven knows where West Kensington had
suddenly got to. And somehow it was just like coming home.

"You know, in the very moment the door swung to behind me, I forgot the
road with its fallen chestnut leaves, its cabs and tradesmen's carts, I
forgot the sort of gravitational pull back to the discipline and obedience
of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all
the intimate realities of this life. I became in a moment a very glad and
wonder-happy little boy--in another world. It was a world with a different
quality, a warmer, more penetrating and mellower light, with a faint clear
gladness in its air, and wisps of sun-touched cloud in the blueness of its
sky. And before me ran this long wide path, invitingly, with weedless beds
on either side, rich with untended flowers, and these two great panthers.
I put my little hands fearlessly on their soft fur, and caressed their
round ears and the sensitive corners under their ears, and played with
them, and it was as though they welcomed me home. There was a keen sense
of home-coming in my mind, and when presently a tall, fair girl appeared
in the pathway and came to meet me, smiling, and said 'Well?' to me, and
lifted me, and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand, there
was no amazement, but only an impression of delightful rightness, of being
reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked.
There were broad red steps, I remember, that came into view between spikes
of delphinium, and up these we went to a great avenue between very old and
shady dark trees. All down this avenue, you know, between the red chapped
stems, were marble seats of honour and statuary, and very tame and
friendly white doves...

"Along this cool avenue my girl-friend led me, looking down--I recall the
pleasant lines, the finely-modelled chin of her sweet kind face--asking me
questions in a soft, agreeable voice, and telling me things, pleasant
things I know, though what they were I was never able to recall...
Presently a little Capuchin monkey, very clean, with a fur of ruddy brown
and kindly hazel eyes, came down a tree to us and ran beside me, looking
up at me and grinning, and presently leapt to my shoulder. So we two went
on our way in great happiness."

He paused.

"Go on," I said.

"I remember little things. We passed an old man musing among laurels, I
remember, and a place gay with paroquets, and came through a broad shaded
colonnade to a spacious cool palace, full of pleasant fountains, full of
beautiful things, full of the quality and promise of heart's desire. And
there were many things and many people, some that still seem to stand out
clearly and some that are a little vague; but all these people were
beautiful and kind. In some way--I don't know how--it was conveyed to me
that they all were kind to me, glad to have me there, and filling me with
gladness by their gestures, by the touch of their hands, by the welcome
and love in their eyes. Yes----"

He mused for a while. "Playmates I found there. That was very much to me,
because I was a lonely little boy. They played delightful games in a
grass-covered court where there was a sun-dial set about with flowers. And
as one played one loved...

"But--it's odd--there's a gap in my memory. I don't remember the games we
played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours
trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness. I wanted to
play it all over again--in my nursery--by myself. No! All I remember is
the happiness and two dear playfellows who were most with me... Then
presently came a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy
eyes, a sombre woman, wearing a soft long robe of pale purple, who carried
a book, and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a
hall--though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game
and stood watching as I was carried away. Come back to us!' they cried.
'Come back to us soon!' I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not
at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the
gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened
it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked,
marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a
story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me
since ever I was born...

"It was wonderful to me, because the pages of that book were not pictures,
you understand, but realities."

Wallace paused gravely--looked at me doubtfully.

"Go on," I said. "I understand."

"They were realities---yes, they must have been; people moved and things
came and went in them; my dear mother, whom I had near forgotten; then my
father, stern and upright, the servants, the nursery, all the familiar
things of home. Then the front door and the busy streets, with traffic to
and fro. I looked and marvelled, and looked half doubtfully again into the
woman's face and turned the pages over, skipping this and that, to see
more of this book and more, and so at last I came to myself hovering and
hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall, and felt again
the conflict and the fear.

"'And next?' I cried, and would have turned on, but the cool hand of the
grave woman delayed me.

"'Next?' I insisted, and struggled gently with her hand, pulling up her
fingers with all my childish strength, and as she yielded and the page
came over she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow.

"But the page did not show the enchanted garden, nor the panthers, nor the
girl who had led me by the hand, nor the playfellows who had been so loth
to let me go. It showed a long grey street in West Kensington, in that
chill hour of afternoon before the lamps are lit, and I was there, a
wretched little figure, weeping aloud, for all that I could do to restrain
myself, and I was weeping because I could not return to my dear
playfellows who had called after me, 'Come back to us! Come back to us
soon!' I was there. This was no page in a book, but harsh reality; that
enchanted place and the restraining hand of the grave mother at whose knee
I stood had gone--whither had they gone?"

He halted again, and remained for a time staring into the fire.

"Oh! the woefulness of that return!" he murmured.

"Well?" I said, after a minute or so.

"Poor little wretch I was!--brought back to this grey world again! As I
realised the fulness of what had happened to me, I gave way to quite
ungovernable grief. And the shame and humiliation of that public weeping
and my disgraceful home-coming remain with me still. I see again the
benevolent-looking old gentleman in gold spectacles who stopped and spoke
to me--prodding me first with his umbrella. 'Poor little chap,' said he;
'and are you lost then?'--and me a London boy of five and more! And he
must needs bring in a kindly young policeman and make a crowd of me, and
so march me home. Sobbing, conspicuous, and frightened, I came back from
the enchanted garden to the steps of my father's house.

"That is as well as I can remember my vision of that garden--the garden
that haunts me still. Of course, I can convey nothing of that
indescribable quality of translucent unreality, that _difference_
from the common things of experience that hung about it all; but that--
that is what happened. If it was a dream, I am sure it was a day-time and
altogether extraordinary dream... H'm!--naturally there followed a
terrible questioning, by my aunt, my father, the nurse, the governess--
everyone...

"I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for
telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me
again for my wicked persistence. Then, as I said, everyone was forbidden
to listen to me, to hear a word about it. Even my fairytale books were
taken away from me for a time--because I was too 'imaginative.' Eh? Yes,
they did that! My father belonged to the old school... And my story was
driven back upon myself. I whispered it to my pillow--my pillow that was
often damp and salt to my whispering lips with childish tears. And I added
always to my official and less fervent prayers this one heartfelt request:
'Please God I may dream of the garden. Oh! take me back to my garden!'
Take me back to my garden! I dreamt often of the garden. I may have added
to it, I may have changed it; I do not know... All this, you understand,
is an attempt to reconstruct from fragmentary memories a very early
experience. Between that and the other consecutive memories of my boyhood
there is a gulf. A time came when it seemed impossible I should ever speak
of that wonder glimpse again."

I asked an obvious question.

"No," he said. "I don't remember that I ever attempted to find my way back
to the garden in those early years. This seems odd to me now, but I think
that very probably a closer watch was kept on my movements after this
misadventure to prevent my going astray. No, it wasn't till you knew me
that I tried for the garden again. And I believe there was a period--
incredible as it seems now--when I forgot the garden altogether--when I
was about eight or nine it may have been. Do you remember me as a kid at
Saint Aethelstan's?"

"Rather!"

"I didn't show any signs, did I, in those days of having a secret dream?"

 

II.

He looked up with a sudden smile.

"Did you ever play North-West Passage with me?... No, of course you didn't
come my way!"

"It was the sort of game," he went on, "that every imaginative child plays
all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The
way to school was plain enough; the game consisted in finding some way
that wasn't plain, starting off ten minutes early in some almost hopeless
direction, and working my way round through unaccustomed streets to my
goal. And one day I got entangled among some rather low-class streets on
the other side of Campden Hill, and I began to think that for once the
game would be against me and that I should get to school late. I tried
rather desperately a street that seemed a _cul-de-sac_, and found a
passage at the end. I hurried through that with renewed hope. 'I shall do
it yet,' I said, and passed a row of frowsy little shops that were
inexplicably familiar to me, and behold! there was my long white wall and
the green door that led to the enchanted garden!

"The thing whacked upon me suddenly. Then, after all, that garden, that
wonderful garden, wasn't a dream!"

He paused.

"I suppose my second experience with the green door marks the world of
difference there is between the busy life of a schoolboy and the infinite
leisure of a child. Anyhow, this second time I didn't for a moment think
of going in straight away. You see----. For one thing, my mind was full of
the idea of getting to school in time--set on not breaking my record for
punctuality. I must surely have felt _some_ little desire at least to
try the door--yes. I must have felt that... But I seem to remember the
attraction of the door mainly as another obstacle to my overmastering
determination to get to school. I was immensely interested by this
discovery I had made, of course--I went on with my mind full of it--but I
went on. It didn't check me. I ran past, tugging out my watch, found I had
ten minutes still to spare, and then I was going downhill into familiar
surroundings. I got to school, breathless, it is true, and wet with
perspiration, but in time. I can remember hanging up my coat and hat...
Went right by it and left it behind me. Odd, eh?"

He looked at me thoughtfully, "Of course I didn't know then that it
wouldn't always be there. Schoolboys have limited imaginations. I suppose
I thought it was an awfully jolly thing to have it there, to know my way
back to it, but there was the school tugging at me. I expect I was a good
deal distraught and inattentive that morning, recalling what I could of
the beautiful strange people I should presently see again. Oddly enough I
had no doubt in my mind that they would be glad to see me... Yes, I must
have thought of the garden that morning just as a jolly sort of place to
which one might resort in the interludes of a strenuous scholastic career.

"I didn't go that day at all. The next day was a half holiday, and that
may have weighed with me. Perhaps, too, my state of inattention brought
down impositions upon me, and docked the margin of time necessary for the
_detour_. I don't know. What I do know is that in the meantime the
enchanted garden was so much upon my mind that I could not keep it to
myself.

"I told. What was his name?--a ferrety-looking youngster we used to call
Squiff."

"Young Hopkins," said I.

"Hopkins it was. I did not like telling him. I had a feeling that in some
way it was against the rules to tell him, but I did. He was walking part
of the way home with me; he was talkative, and if we had not talked about
the enchanted garden we should have talked of something else, and it was
intolerable to me to think about any other subject. So I blabbed.

"Well, he told my secret. The next day in the play interval I found myself
surrounded by half a dozen bigger boys, half teasing, and wholly curious
to hear more of the enchanted garden. There was that big Fawcett--you
remember him?--and Carnaby and Morley Reynolds. You weren't there by any
chance? No, I think I should have remembered if you were...

"A boy is a creature of odd feelings. I was, I really believe, in spite of
my secret self-disgust, a little flattered to have the attention of these
big fellows. I remember particularly a moment of pleasure caused by the
praise of Crawshaw--you remember Crawshaw major, the son of Crawshaw the
composer?--who said it was the best lie he had ever heard. But at the same
time there was a really painful undertow of shame at telling what I felt
was indeed a sacred secret. That beast Fawcett made a joke about the girl
in green----"

Wallace's voice sank with the keen memory of that shame. "I pretended not
to hear," he said. "Well, then Carnaby suddenly called me a young liar,
and disputed with me when I said the thing was true. I said I knew where
to find the green door, could lead them all there in ten minutes. Carnaby
became outrageously virtuous, and said I'd have to--and bear out my words
or suffer. Did you ever have Carnaby twist your arm? Then perhaps you'll
understand how it went with me. I swore my story was true. There was
nobody in the school then to save a chap from Carnaby, though Crawshaw put
in a word or so. Carnaby had got his game. I grew excited and red-eared,
and a little frightened. I behaved altogether like a silly little chap,
and the outcome of it all was that instead of starting alone for my
enchanted garden, I led the way presently--cheeks flushed, ears hot, eyes
smarting, and my soul one burning misery and shame--for a party of six
mocking, curious, and threatening schoolfellows.

"We never found the white wall and the green door..."

"You mean----?"

"I mean I couldn't find it. I would have found it if I could.

"And afterwards when I could go alone I couldn't find it. I never found
it. I seem now to have been always looking for it through my school-boy
days, but I never came upon it--never."

"Did the fellows--make it disagreeable?"

"Beastly... Carnaby held a council over me for wanton lying. I remember
how I sneaked home and upstairs to hide the marks of my blubbering. But
when I cried myself to sleep at last it wasn't for Carnaby, but for the
garden, for the beautiful afternoon I had hoped for, for the sweet
friendly women and the waiting playfellows, and the game I had hoped to
learn again, that beautiful forgotten game...

"I believed firmly that if I had not told--... I had bad times after
that--crying at night and wool-gathering by day. For two terms I slackened
and had bad reports. Do you remember? Of course you would! It was
_you_--your beating me in mathematics that brought me back to the
grind again."

 

III.

For a time my friend stared silently into the red heart of the fire. Then
he said: "I never saw it again until I was seventeen.

"It leapt upon me for the third time--as I was driving to Paddington on my
way to Oxford and a scholarship. I had just one momentary glimpse. I was
leaning over the apron of my hansom smoking a cigarette, and no doubt
thinking myself no end of a man of the world, and suddenly there was the
door, the wall, the dear sense of unforgettable and still attainable
things.

"We clattered by--I too taken by surprise to stop my cab until we were
well past and round a corner. Then I had a queer moment, a double and
divergent movement of my will: I tapped the little door in the roof of the
cab, and brought my arm down to pull out my watch. 'Yes, sir!' said the
cabman, smartly. 'Er--well--it's nothing,' I cried. '_My_ mistake! We
haven't much time! Go on!' And he went on...

"I got my scholarship. And the night after I was told of that I sat over
my fire in my little upper room, my study, in my father's house, with his
praise--his rare praise--and his sound counsels ringing in my ears, and I
smoked my favourite pipe--the formidable bulldog of adolescence--and
thought of that door in the long white wall. 'If I had stopped,' I
thought, 'I should have missed my scholarship, I should have missed
Oxford--muddled all the fine career before me! I begin to see things
better!' I fell musing deeply, but I did not doubt then this career of
mine was a thing that merited sacrifice.

"Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me,
very fine but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another
door opening--the door of my career."

He stared again into the fire. Its red light picked out a stubborn
strength in his face for just one flickering moment, and then it vanished
again.

"Well," he said and sighed, "I have served that career. I have done--much
work, much hard work. But I have dreamt of the enchanted garden a thousand
dreams, and seen its door, or at least glimpsed its door, four times since
then. Yes--four times. For a while this world was so bright and
interesting, seemed so full of meaning and opportunity, that the
half-effaced charm of the garden was by comparison gentle and remote. Who
wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and
distinguished men? I came down to London from Oxford, a man of bold
promise that I have done something to redeem. Something--and yet there
have been disappointments...

"Twice I have been in love--I will not dwell on that--but once, as I went
to someone who, I knew, doubted whether I dared to come, I took a short
cut at a venture through an unfrequented road near Earl's Court, and so
happened on a white wall and a familiar green door. 'Odd!' said I to
myself, 'but I thought this place was on Campden Hill. It's the place I
never could find somehow--like counting Stonehenge--the place of that
queer daydream of mine.' And I went by it intent upon my purpose. It had
no appeal to me that afternoon.

"I had just a moment's impulse to try the door, three steps aside were
needed at the most--though I was sure enough in my heart that it would
open to me--and then I thought that doing so might delay me on the way to
that appointment in which I thought my honour was involved. Afterwards I
was sorry for my punctuality--might at least have peeped in, I thought,
and waved a hand to those panthers, but I knew enough by this time not to
seek again belatedly that which is not found by seeking. Yes, that time
made me very sorry...

"Years of hard work after that, and never a sight of the door. It's only
recently it has come back to me. With it there has come a sense as though
some thin tarnish had spread itself over my world. I began to think of it
as a sorrowful and bitter thing that I should never see that door again.
Perhaps I was suffering a little from overwork--perhaps it was what I've
heard spoken of as the feeling of forty. I don't know. But certainly the
keen brightness that makes effort easy has gone out of things recently,
and that just at a time--with all these new political developments--when I
ought to be working. Odd, isn't it? But I do begin to find life toilsome,
its rewards, as I come near them, cheap. I began a little while ago to
want the garden quite badly. Yes--and I've seen it three times."

"The garden?"

"No---the door! And I haven't gone in!"

He leant over the table to me, with an enormous sorrow in his voice as he
spoke. "Thrice I have had my chance--_thrice_! If ever that door
offers itself to me again, I swore, I will go in, out of this dust and
heat, out of this dry glitter of vanity, out of these toilsome futilities.
I will go and never return. This time I will stay... I swore it, and when
the time came--_I didn't go_.

"Three times in one year have I passed that door and failed to enter.
Three times in the last year.

"The first time was on the night of the snatch division on the Tenants'
Redemption Bill, on which the Government was saved by a majority of three.
You remember? No one on our side--perhaps very few on the opposite side--
expected the end that night. Then the debate collapsed like eggshells. I
and Hotchkiss were dining with his cousin at Brentford; we were both
unpaired, and we were called up by telephone, and set off at once in his
cousin's motor. We got in barely in time, and on the way we passed my wall
and door--livid in the moonlight, blotched with hot yellow as the glare of
our lamps lit it, but unmistakable. 'My God!' cried I. 'What?' said
Hotchkiss. 'Nothing!' I answered, and the moment passed.

"'I've made a great sacrifice,' I told the whip as I got in. 'They all
have,' he said, and hurried by.

"I do not see how I could have done otherwise then. And the next occasion
was as I rushed to my father's bedside to bid that stern old man farewell.
Then, too, the claims of life were imperative. But the third time was
different; it happened a week ago. It fills me with hot remorse to recall
it. I was with Gurker and Ralphs--it's no secret now, you know, that I've
had my talk with Gurker. We had been dining at Frobisher's, and the talk
had become intimate between us. The question of my place in the
reconstructed Ministry lay always just over the boundary of the
discussion. Yes--yes. That's all settled. It needn't be talked about yet,
but there's no reason to keep a secret from you... Yes--thanks! thanks!
But let me tell you my story.

"Then, on that night things were very much in the air. My position was a
very delicate one. I was keenly anxious to get some definite word from
Gurker, but was hampered by Ralphs' presence. I was using the best power
of my brain to keep that light and careless talk not too obviously
directed to the point that concerned me. I had to. Ralphs' behaviour since
has more than justified my caution... Ralphs, I knew, would leave us
beyond the Kensington High Street, and then I could surprise Gurker by a
sudden frankness. One has sometimes to resort to these little devices...
And then it was that in the margin of my field of vision I became aware
once more of the white wall, the green door before us down the road.

"We passed it talking. I passed it. I can still see the shadow of Gurker's
marked profile, his opera hat tilted forward over his prominent nose, the
many folds of his neck wrap going before my shadow and Ralphs' as we
sauntered past.

"I passed within twenty inches of the door. 'If I say good-night to them,
and go in,' I asked myself, 'what will happen?' And I was all a-tingle for
that word with Gurker.

"I could not answer that question in the tangle of my other problems.
'They will think me mad,' I thought. 'And suppose I vanish now!---Amazing
disappearance of a prominent politician!' That weighed with me. A thousand
inconceivably petty worldlinesses weighed with me in that crisis."

Then he turned on me with a sorrowful smile, and, speaking slowly, "Here I
am!" he said.

"Here I am!" he repeated, "and my chance has gone from me. Three times in
one year the door has been offered me--the door that goes into peace, into
delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can
know. And I have rejected it, Redmond, and it has gone----"

"How do you know?"

"I know. I know. I am left now to work it out, to stick to the tasks that
held me so strongly when my moments came. You say I have success--this
vulgar, tawdry, irksome, envied thing. I have it." He had a walnut in his
big hand. "If that was my success," he said, and crushed it, and held it
out for me to see.

"Let me tell you something, Redmond. This loss is destroying me. For two
months, for ten weeks nearly now, I have done no work at all, except the
most necessary and urgent duties. My soul is full of inappeasable regrets.
At nights--when it is less likely I shall be recognised--I go out. I
wander. Yes. I wonder what people would think of that if they knew. A
Cabinet Minister, the responsible head of that most vital of all
departments, wandering alone--grieving--sometimes near audibly lamenting--
for a door, for a garden!"

 

IV.

I can see now his rather pallid face, and the unfamiliar sombre fire that
had come into his eyes. I see him very vividly to-night. I sit recalling
his words, his tones, and last evening's _Westminster Gazette_ still
lies on my sofa, containing the notice of his death. At lunch to-day the
club was busy with his death. We talked of nothing else.

They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near
East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in
connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected
from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in
which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the
workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened
through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his
way...

My mind is darkened with questions and riddles.

It would seem he walked all the way from the House that night--he has
frequently walked home during the past Session--and so it is I figure his
dark form coming along the late and empty streets, wrapped up, intent. And
then did the pale electric lights near the station cheat the rough
planking into a semblance of white? Did that fatal unfastened door awaken
some memory?

Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times
when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence
between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless
trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me
superstitious, if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than
half convinced that he had, in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense,
something--I know not what---that in the guise of wall and door offered
him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and
altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed
him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery
of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our
world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard
he walked out of security into darkness, danger, and death.

But did he see like that?

 

 

 

XXXII.

THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND.

 

Three hundred miles and more from Chimborazo, one hundred from the snows
of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador's Andes, there lies that
mysterious mountain valley, cut off from the world of men, the Country of
the Blind. Long years ago that valley lay so far open to the world that
men might come at last through frightful gorges and over an icy pass into
its equable meadows; and thither indeed men came, a family or so of
Peruvian half-breeds fleeing from the lust and tyranny of an evil Spanish
ruler. Then came the stupendous outbreak of Mindobamba, when it was night
in Quito for seventeen days, and the water was boiling at Yaguachi and all
the fish floating dying even as far as Guayaquil; everywhere along the
Pacific slopes there were land-slips and swift thawings and sudden floods,
and one whole side of the old Arauca crest slipped and came down in
thunder, and cut off the Country of the Blind for ever from the exploring
feet of men. But one of these early settlers had chanced to be on the
hither side of the gorges when the world had so terribly shaken itself,
and he perforce had to forget his wife and his child and all the friends
and possessions he had left up there, and start life over again in the
lower world. He started it again but ill, blindness overtook him, and he
died of punishment in the mines; but the story he told begot a legend that
lingers along the length of the Cordilleras of the Andes to this day.

He told of his reason for venturing back from that fastness, into which he
had first been carried lashed to a llama, beside a vast bale of gear, when
he was a child. The valley, he said, had in it all that the heart of man
could desire--sweet water, pasture, and even climate, slopes of rich brown
soil with tangles of a shrub that bore an excellent fruit, and on one side
great hanging forests of pine that held the avalanches high. Far overhead,
on three sides, vast cliffs of grey-green rock were capped by cliffs of
ice; but the glacier stream came not to them but flowed away by the
farther slopes, and only now and then huge ice masses fell on the valley
side. In this valley it neither rained nor snowed, but the abundant
springs gave a rich green pasture, that irrigation would spread over all
the valley space. The settlers did well indeed there. Their beasts did
well and multiplied, and but one thing marred their happiness. Yet it was
enough to mar it greatly. A strange disease had come upon them, and had
made all the children born to them there--and indeed, several older
children also--blind. It was to seek some charm or antidote against this
plague of blindness that he had with fatigue and danger and difficulty
returned down the gorge. In those days, in such cases, men did not think
of germs and infections but of sins; and it seemed to him that the reason
of this affliction must lie in the negligence of these priestless
immigrants to set up a shrine so soon as they entered the valley. He
wanted a shrine--a handsome, cheap, effectual shrine--to be erected in the
valley; he wanted relics and such-like potent things of faith, blessed
objects and mysterious medals and prayers. In his wallet he had a bar of
native silver for which he would not account; he insisted there was none
in the valley with something of the insistence of an inexpert liar. They
had all clubbed their money and ornaments together, having little need for
such treasure up there, he said, to buy them holy help against their ill.
I figure this dim-eyed young mountaineer, sunburnt, gaunt, and anxious,
hat-brim clutched feverishly, a man all unused to the ways of the lower
world, telling this story to some keen-eyed, attentive priest before the
great convulsion; I can picture him presently seeking to return with pious
and infallible remedies against that trouble, and the infinite dismay with
which he must have faced the tumbled vastness where the gorge had once
come out. But the rest of his story of mischances is lost to me, save that
I know of his evil death after several years. Poor stray from that
remoteness! The stream that had once made the gorge now bursts from the
mouth of a rocky cave, and the legend his poor, ill-told story set going
developed into the legend of a race of blind men somewhere "over there"
one may still hear to-day.

And amidst the little population of that now isolated and forgotten valley
the disease ran its course. The old became groping and purblind, the young
saw but dimly, and the children that were born to them saw never at all.
But life was very easy in that snow-rimmed basin, lost to all the world,
with neither thorns nor briars, with no evil insects nor any beasts save
the gentle breed of llamas they had lugged and thrust and followed up the
beds of the shrunken rivers in the gorges up which they had come. The
seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noted their
loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they
knew the whole Valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among
them the race lived on. They had even time to adapt themselves to the
blind control of fire, which they made carefully in stoves of stone. They
were a simple strain of people at the first, unlettered, only slightly
touched with the Spanish civilisation, but with something of a tradition
of the arts of old Peru and of its lost philosophy. Generation followed
generation. They forgot many things; they devised many things. Their
tradition of the greater world they came from became mythical in colour
and uncertain. In all things save sight they were strong and able, and
presently the chance of birth and heredity sent one who had an original
mind and who could talk and persuade among them, and then afterwards
another. These two passed, leaving their effects, and the little community
grew in numbers and in understanding, and met and settled social and
economic problems that arose. Generation followed generation. Generation
followed generation. There came a time when a child was born who was
fifteen generations from that ancestor who went out of the valley with a
bar of silver to seek God's aid, and who never returned. Thereabouts it
chanced that a man came into this community from the outer world. And this
is the story of that man.

He was a mountaineer from the country near Quito, a man who had been down
to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way,
an acute and enterprising man, and he was taken on by a party of
Englishmen who had come out to Ecuador to climb mountains, to replace one
of their three Swiss guides who had fallen ill. He climbed here and he
climbed there, and then came the attempt on Parascotopetl, the Matterhorn
of the Andes, in which he was lost to the outer world. The story of the
accident has been written a dozen times. Pointer's narrative is the best.
He tells how the little party worked their difficult and almost vertical
way up to the very foot of the last and greatest precipice, and how they
built a night shelter amidst the snow upon a little shelf of rock, and,
with a touch of real dramatic power, how presently they found Nunez had
gone from them. They shouted, and there was no reply; shouted and
whistled, and for the rest of that night they slept no more.

As the morning broke they saw the traces of his fall. It seems impossible
he could have uttered a sound. He had slipped eastward towards the unknown
side of the mountain; far below he had struck a steep slope of snow, and
ploughed his way down it in the midst of a snow avalanche. His track went
straight to the edge of a frightful precipice, and beyond that everything
was hidden. Far, far below, and hazy with distance, they could see trees
rising out of a narrow, shut-in valley--the lost Country of the Blind. But
they did not know it was the lost Country of the Blind, nor distinguish it
in any way from any other narrow streak of upland valley. Unnerved by this
disaster, they abandoned their attempt in the afternoon, and Pointer was
called away to the war before he could make another attack. To this day
Parascotopetl lifts an unconquered crest, and Pointer's shelter crumbles
unvisited amidst the snows.

And the man who fell survived.

At the end of the slope he fell a thousand feet, and came down in the
midst of a cloud of snow upon a snow slope even steeper than the one
above. Down this he was whirled, stunned and insensible, but without a
bone broken in his body; and then at last came to gentler slopes, and at
last rolled out and lay still, buried amidst a softening heap of the white
masses that had accompanied and saved him. He came to himself with a dim
fancy that he was ill in bed; then realised his position with a
mountaineer's intelligence, and worked himself loose and, after a rest or
so, out until he saw the stars. He rested flat upon his chest for a space,
wondering where he was and what had happened to him. He explored his
limbs, and discovered that several of his buttons were gone and his coat
turned over his head. His knife had gone from his pocket and his hat was
lost, though he had tied it under his chin. He recalled that he had been
looking for loose stones to raise his piece of the shelter wall. His
ice-axe had disappeared.

He decided he must have fallen, and looked up to see, exaggerated by the
ghastly light of the rising moon, the tremendous flight he had taken. For
a while he lay, gazing blankly at that vast pale cliff towering above,
rising moment by moment out of a subsiding tide of darkness. Its
phantasmal, mysterious beauty held him for a space, and then he was seized
with a paroxysm of sobbing laughter...

After a great interval of time he became aware that he was near the lower
edge of the snow. Below, down what was now a moonlit and practicable
slope, he saw the dark and broken appearance of rock-strewn turf. He
struggled to his feet, aching in every joint and limb, got down painfully
from the heaped loose snow about him, went downward until he was on the
turf, and there dropped rather than lay beside a boulder, drank deep from
the flask in his inner pocket, and instantly fell asleep...

He was awakened by the singing of birds in the trees far below.

He sat up and perceived he was on a little alp at the foot of a vast
precipice, that was grooved by the gully down which he and his snow had
come. Over against him another wall of rock reared itself against the sky.
The gorge between these precipices ran east and west and was full of the
morning sunlight, which lit to the westward the mass of fallen mountain
that closed the descending gorge. Below him it seemed there was a
precipice equally steep, but behind the snow in the gully he found a sort
of chimney-cleft dripping with snow-water down which a desperate man might
venture. He found it easier than it seemed, and came at last to another
desolate alp, and then after a rock climb of no particular difficulty to a
steep slope of trees. He took his bearings and turned his face up the
gorge, for he saw it opened out above upon green meadows, among which he
now glimpsed quite distinctly a cluster of stone huts of unfamiliar
fashion. At times his progress was like clambering along the face of a
wall, and after a time the rising sun ceased to strike along the gorge,
the voices of the singing birds died away, and the air grew cold and dark
about him. But the distant valley with its houses was all the brighter for
that. He came presently to talus, and among the rocks he noted--for he was
an observant man--an unfamiliar fern that seemed to clutch out of the
crevices with intense green hands. He picked a frond or so and gnawed its
stalk and found it helpful.

About midday he came at last out of the throat of the gorge into the plain
and the sunlight. He was stiff and weary; he sat down in the shadow of a
rock, filled up his flask with water from a spring and drank it down, and
remained for a time resting before he went on to the houses.

They were very strange to his eyes, and indeed the whole aspect of that
valley became, as he regarded it, queerer and more unfamiliar. The greater
part of its surface was lush green meadow, starred with many beautiful
flowers, irrigated with extraordinary care, and bearing evidence of
systematic cropping piece by piece. High up and ringing the valley about
was a wall, and what appeared to be a circumferential water-channel, from
which the little trickles of water that fed the meadow plants came, and on
the higher slopes above this flocks of llamas cropped the scanty herbage.
Sheds, apparently shelters or feeding-places for the llamas, stood against
the boundary wall here and there. The irrigation streams ran together into
a main channel down the centre of the valley, and this was enclosed on
either side by a wall breast high. This gave a singularly urban quality to
this secluded place, a quality that was greatly enhanced by the fact that
a number of paths paved with black and white stones, and each with a
curious little kerb at the side, ran hither and thither in an orderly
manner. The houses of the central village were quite unlike the casual and
higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of the mountain villages he knew; they
stood in a continuous row on either side of a central street of
astonishing cleanness; here and there their particoloured facade was
pierced by a door, and not a solitary window broke their even frontage.
They were particoloured with extraordinary irregularity, smeared with a
sort of plaster that was sometimes grey, sometimes drab, sometimes
slate-coloured or dark brown; and it was the sight of this wild plastering
first brought the word "blind" into the thoughts of the explorer. "The
good man who did that," he thought, "must have been as blind as a bat."

He descended a steep place, and so came to the wall and channel that ran
about the valley, near where the latter spouted out its surplus contents
into the deeps of the gorge in a thin and wavering thread of cascade. He
could now see a number of men and women resting on piled heaps of grass,
as if taking a siesta, in the remoter part of the meadow, and nearer the
village a number of recumbent children, and then nearer at hand three men
carrying pails on yokes along a little path that ran from the encircling
wall towards the houses. These latter were clad in garments of llama cloth
and boots and belts of leather, and they wore caps of cloth with back and
ear flaps. They followed one another in single file, walking slowly and
yawning as they walked, like men who have been up all night. There was
something so reassuringly prosperous and respectable in their bearing that
after a moment's hesitation Nunez stood forward as conspicuously as
possible upon his rock, and gave vent to a mighty shout that echoed round
the valley.

The three men stopped, and moved their heads as though they were looking
about them. They turned their faces this way and that, and Nunez
gesticulated with freedom. But they did not appear to see him for all his
gestures, and after a time, directing themselves towards the mountains far
away to the right, they shouted as if in answer. Nunez bawled again, and
then once more, and as he gestured ineffectually the word "blind" came up
to the top of his thoughts. "The fools must be blind," he said.

When at last, after much shouting and wrath, Nunez crossed the stream by a
little bridge, came through a gate in the wall, and approached them, he
was sure that they were blind. He was sure that this was the Country of
the Blind of which the legends told. Conviction had sprung upon him, and a
sense of great and rather enviable adventure. The three stood side by
side, not looking at him, but with their ears directed towards him,
judging him by his unfamiliar steps. They stood close together like men a
little afraid, and he could see their eyelids closed and sunken, as though
the very balls beneath had shrunk away. There was an expression near awe
on their faces.

"A man," one said, in hardly recognisable Spanish--"a man it is--a man or
a spirit--coming down from the rocks."

But Nunez advanced with the confident steps of a youth who enters upon
life. All the old stories of the lost valley and the Country of the Blind
had come back to his mind, and through his thoughts ran this old proverb,
as if it were a refrain--

"In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King."

"In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King."

And very civilly he gave them greeting. He talked to them and used his
eyes.

"Where does he come from, brother Pedro?" asked one.

"Down out of the rocks."

"Over the mountains I come," said Nunez, "out of the country beyond
there--where men can see. From near Bogota, where there are a hundred
thousands of people, and where the city passes out of sight."

"Sight?" muttered Pedro. "Sight?"

"He comes," said the second blind man, "out of the rocks."

The cloth of their coats Nunez saw was curiously fashioned, each with a
different sort of stitching.

They startled him by a simultaneous movement towards him, each with a hand
outstretched. He stepped back from the advance of these spread fingers.

"Come hither," said the third blind man, following his motion and
clutching him neatly.

And they held Nunez and felt him over, saying no word further until they
had done so.

"Carefully," he cried, with a finger in his eye, and found they thought
that organ, with its fluttering lids, a queer thing in him. They went over
it again.

"A strange creature, Correa," said the one called Pedro. "Feel the
coarseness of his hair. Like a llama's hair."

"Rough he is as the rocks that begot him," said Correa, investigating
Nunez's unshaven chin with a soft and slightly moist hand. "Perhaps he
will grow finer." Nunez struggled a little under their examination, but
they gripped him firm.

"Carefully," he said again.

"He speaks," said the third man. "Certainly he is a man."

"Ugh!" said Pedro, at the roughness of his coat.

"And you have come into the world?" asked Pedro.

"_Out_ of the world. Over mountains and glaciers; right over above
there, half-way to the sun. Out of the great big world that goes down,
twelve days' journey to the sea."

They scarcely seemed to heed him. "Our fathers have told us men may be
made by the forces of Nature," said Correa. "It is the warmth of things
and moisture, and rottenness--rottenness."

"Let us lead him to the elders," said Pedro.

"Shout first," said Correa, "lest the children be afraid... This is a
marvellous occasion."

So they shouted, and Pedro went first and took Nunez by the hand to lead
him to the houses.

He drew his hand away. "I can see," he said.

"See?" said Correa.

"Yes, see," said Nunez, turning towards him, and stumbled against Pedro's
pail.

"His senses are still imperfect," said the third blind man. "He stumbles,
and talks unmeaning words. Lead him by the hand."

"As you will," said Nunez, and was led along, laughing.

It seemed they knew nothing of sight.

Well, all in good time he would teach them.

He heard people shouting, and saw a number of figures gathering together
in the middle roadway of the village.

He found it tax his nerve and patience more than he had anticipated, that
first encounter with the population of the Country of the Blind. The place
seemed larger as he drew near to it, and the smeared plasterings queerer,
and a crowd of children and men and women (the women and girls, he was
pleased to note, had some of them quite sweet faces, for all that their
eyes were shut and sunken) came about him, holding on to him, touching him
with soft, sensitive hands, smelling at him, and listening at every word
he spoke. Some of the maidens and children, however, kept aloof as if
afraid, and indeed his voice seemed coarse and rude beside their softer
notes. They mobbed him. His three guides kept close to him with an effect
of proprietorship, and said again and again, "A wild man out of the rock."

"Bogota," he said. "Bogota. Over the mountain crests."

"A wild man--using wild words," said Pedro. "Did you hear that--
_Bogota_? His mind is hardly formed yet. He has only the beginnings
of speech."

A little boy nipped his hand. "Bogota!" he said mockingly.

"Ay! A city to your village. I come from the great world--where men have
eyes and see."

"His name's Bogota," they said.

"He stumbled," said Correa, "stumbled twice as we came hither."

"Bring him to the elders."

And they thrust him suddenly through a doorway into a room as black as
pitch, save at the end there faintly glowed a fire. The crowd closed in
behind him and shut out all but the faintest glimmer of day, and before he
could arrest himself he had fallen headlong over the feet of a seated man.
His arm, outflung, struck the face of someone else as he went down; he
felt the soft impact of features and heard a cry of anger, and for a
moment he struggled against a number of hands that clutched him. It was a
one-sided fight. An inkling of the situation came to him, and he lay
quiet.

"I fell down," he said; "I couldn't see in this pitchy darkness."

There was a pause as if the unseen persons about him tried to understand
his words. Then the voice of Correa said: "He is but newly formed. He
stumbles as he walks and mingles words that mean nothing with his speech."

Others also said things about him that he heard or understood imperfectly.

"May I sit up?" he asked, in a pause. "I will not struggle against you
again."

They consulted and let him rise.

The voice of an older man began to question him, and Nunez found himself
trying to explain the great world out of which he had fallen, and the sky
and mountains and sight and such-like marvels, to these elders who sat in
darkness in the Country of the Blind. And they would believe and
understand nothing whatever he told them, a thing quite outside his
expectation. They would not even understand many of his words. For
fourteen generations these people had been blind and cut off from all the
seeing world; the names for all the things of sight had faded and changed;
the story of the outer world was faded and changed to a child's story; and
they had ceased to concern themselves with anything beyond the rocky
slopes above their circling wall. Blind men of genius had arisen among
them and questioned the shreds of belief and tradition they had brought
with them from their seeing days, and had dismissed all these things as
idle fancies, and replaced them with new and saner explanations. Much of
their imagination had shrivelled with their eyes, and they had made for
themselves new imaginations with their ever more sensitive ears and
finger-tips. Slowly Nunez realised this; that his expectation of wonder
and reverence at his origin and his gifts was not to be borne out; and
after his poor attempt to explain sight to them had been set aside as the
confused version of a new-made being describing the marvels of his
incoherent sensations, he subsided, a little dashed, into listening to
their instruction. And the eldest of the blind men explained to him life
and philosophy and religion, how that the world (meaning their valley) had
been first an empty hollow in the rocks, and then had come, first,
inanimate things without the gift of touch, and llamas and a few other
creatures that had little sense, and then men, and at last angels, whom
one could hear singing and making fluttering sounds, but whom no one could
touch at all, which puzzled Nunez greatly until he thought of the birds.

He went on to tell Nunez how this time had been divided into the warm and
the cold, which are the blind equivalents of day and night, and how it was
good to sleep in the warm and work during the cold, so that now, but for
his advent, the whole town of the blind would have been asleep. He said
Nunez must have been specially created to learn and serve the wisdom, they
had acquired, and that for all his mental incoherency and stumbling
behaviour he must have courage, and do his best to learn, and at that all
the people in the doorway murmured encouragingly. He said the night--for
the blind call their day night--was now far gone, and it behoved every one
to go back to sleep. He asked Nunez if he knew how to sleep, and Nunez
said he did, but that before sleep he wanted food.

They brought him food--llama's milk in a bowl, and rough salted bread--and
led him into a lonely place, to eat out of their hearing, and afterwards
to slumber until the chill of the mountain evening roused them to begin
their day again. But Nunez slumbered not at all.

Instead, he sat up in the place where they had left him, resting his limbs
and turning the unanticipated circumstances of his arrival over and over
in his mind.

Every now and then he laughed, sometimes with amusement, and sometimes
with indignation.

"Unformed mind!" he said. "Got no senses yet! They little know they've
been insulting their heaven-sent king and master. I see I must bring them
to reason. Let me think--let me think."

He was still thinking when the sun set.

Nunez had an eye for all beautiful things, and it seemed to him that the
glow upon the snowfields and glaciers that rose about the valley on every
side was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. His eyes went from
that inaccessible glory to the village and irrigated fields, fast sinking
into the twilight, and suddenly a wave of emotion took him, and he thanked
God from the bottom of his heart that the power of sight had been given
him.

He heard a voice calling to him from out of the village. "Ya ho there,
Bogota! Come hither!"

At that he stood up smiling. He would show these people once and for all
what sight would do for a man. They would seek him, but not find him.

"You move not, Bogota," said the voice.

He laughed noiselessly, and made two stealthy steps aside from the path.

"Trample not on the grass, Bogota; that is not allowed."

Nunez had scarcely heard the sound he made himself. He stopped amazed.

The owner of the voice came running up the piebald path towards him.

He stepped back into the pathway. "Here I am," he said.

"Why did you not come when I called you?" said the blind man. "Must you be
led like a child? Cannot you hear the path as you walk?"

Nunez laughed. "I can see it," he said.

"There is no such word as _see_," said the blind man, after a pause.
"Cease this folly, and follow the sound of my feet."

Nunez followed, a little annoyed.

"My time will come," he said.

"You'll learn," the blind man answered. "There is much to learn in the
world."

"Has no one told you, 'In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is
King'?"

"What is blind?" asked the blind man carelessly over his shoulder.

Four days passed, and the fifth found the King of the Blind still
incognito, as a clumsy and useless stranger among his subjects.

It was, he found, much more difficult to proclaim himself than he had
supposed, and in the meantime, while he meditated his _coup d'état,_
he did what he was told and learnt the manners and customs of the Country
of the Blind. He found working and going about at night a particularly
irksome thing, and he decided that that should be the first thing he would
change.

They led a simple, laborious life, these people, with all the elements of
virtue and happiness, as these things can be understood by men. They
toiled, but not oppressively; they had food and clothing sufficient for
their needs; they had days and seasons of rest; they made much of music
and singing, and there was love among them, and little children.

It was marvellous with what confidence and precision they went about their
ordered world. Everything, you see, had been made to fit their needs; each
of the radiating paths of the valley area had a constant angle to the
others, and was distinguished by a special notch upon its kerbing; all
obstacles and irregularities of path or meadow had long since been cleared
away; all their methods and procedure arose naturally from their special
needs. Their senses had become marvellously acute; they could hear and
judge the slightest gesture of a man a dozen paces away--could hear the
very beating of his heart. Intonation had long replaced expression with
them, and touches gesture, and their work with hoe and spade and fork was
as free and confident as garden work can be. Their sense of smell was
extraordinarily fine; they could distinguish individual differences as
readily as a dog can, and they went about the tending of the llamas, who
lived among the rocks above and came to the wall for food and shelter,
with ease and confidence. It was only when at last Nunez sought to assert
himself that he found how easy and confident their movements could be.

He rebelled only after he had tried persuasion.

He tried at first on several occasions to tell them of sight. "Look you
here, you people," he said. "There are things you do not understand in
me."

Once or twice one or two of them attended to him; they sat with faces
downcast and ears turned intelligently towards him, and he did his best to
tell them what it was to see. Among his hearers was a girl, with eyelids
less red and sunken than the others, so that one could almost fancy she
was hiding eyes, whom especially he hoped to persuade. He spoke of the
beauties of sight, of watching the mountains, of the sky and the sunrise,
and they heard him with amused incredulity that presently became
condemnatory. They told him there were indeed no mountains at all, but
that the end of the rocks where the llamas grazed was indeed the end of
the world; thence sprang a cavernous roof of the universe, from which the
dew and the avalanches fell; and when he maintained stoutly the world had
neither end nor roof such as they supposed, they said his thoughts were
wicked. So far as he could describe sky and clouds and stars to them it
seemed to them a hideous void, a terrible blankness in the place of the
smooth roof to things in which they believed--it was an article of faith
with them that the cavern roof was exquisitely smooth to the touch. He saw
that in some manner he shocked them, and gave up that aspect of the matter
altogether, and tried to show them the practical value of sight. One
morning he saw Pedro in the path called Seventeen and coming towards the
central houses, but still too far off for hearing or scent, and he told
them as much. "In a little while," he prophesied, "Pedro will be here." An
old man remarked that Pedro had no business on path Seventeen, and then,
as if in confirmation, that individual as he drew near turned and went
transversely into path Ten, and so back with nimble paces towards the
outer wall. They mocked Nunez when Pedro did not arrive, and afterwards,
when he asked Pedro questions to clear his character, Pedro denied and
outfaced him, and was afterwards hostile to him.

Then he induced them to let him go a long way up the sloping meadows
towards the wall with one complacent individual, and to him he promised to
describe all that happened among the houses. He noted certain goings and
comings, but the things that really seemed to signify to these people
happened inside of or behind the windowless houses--the only things they
took note of to test him by--and of these he could see or tell nothing;
and it was after the failure of this attempt, and the ridicule they could
not repress, that he resorted to force. He thought of seizing a spade and
suddenly smiting one or two of them to earth, and so in fair combat
showing the advantage of eyes. He went so far with that resolution as to
seize his spade, and then he discovered a new thing about himself, and
that was that it was impossible for him to hit a blind man in cold blood.

He hesitated, and found them all aware that he had snatched up the spade.
They stood alert, with their heads on one side, and bent ears towards him
for what he would do next.

"Put that spade down," said one, and he felt a sort of helpless horror. He
came near obedience.

Then he thrust one backwards against a house wall, and fled past him and
out of the village.

He went athwart one of their meadows, leaving a track of trampled grass
behind his feet, and presently sat down by the side of one of their ways.
He felt something of the buoyancy that comes to all men in the beginning
of a fight, but more perplexity. He began to realise that you cannot even
fight happily with creatures who stand upon a different mental basis to
yourself. Far away he saw a number of men carrying spades and sticks come
out of the street of houses, and advance in a spreading line along the
several paths towards him. They advanced slowly, speaking frequently to
one another, and ever and again the whole cordon would halt and sniff the
air and listen.

The first time they did this Nunez laughed. But afterwards he did not
laugh.

One struck his trail in the meadow grass, and came stooping and feeling
his way along it.

For five minutes he watched the slow extension of the cordon, and then his
vague disposition to do something forthwith became frantic. He stood up,
went a pace or so towards the circumferential wall, turned, and went back
a little way. There they all stood in a crescent, still and listening.

He also stood still, gripping his spade very tightly in both hands. Should
he charge them?

The pulse in his ears ran into the rhythm of "In the Country of the Blind
the One-eyed Man is King!"

Should he charge them?

He looked back at the high and unclimbable wall behind--unclimbable
because of its smooth plastering, but withal pierced with many little
doors, and at the approaching line of seekers. Behind these others were
now coming out of the street of houses.

Should he charge them?

"Bogota!" called one. "Bogota! where are you?"

He gripped his spade still tighter, and advanced down the meadows towards
the place of habitations, and directly he moved they converged upon him.
"I'll hit them if they touch me," he swore; "by Heaven, I will. I'll hit."
He called aloud, "Look here, I'm going to do what I like in this valley.
Do you hear? I'm going to do what I like and go where I like!"

They were moving in upon him quickly, groping, yet moving rapidly. It was
like playing blind man's buff, with everyone blindfolded except one. "Get
hold of him!" cried one. He found himself in the arc of a loose curve of
pursuers. He felt suddenly he must be active and resolute.

"You don't understand," he cried in a voice that was meant to be great and
resolute, and which broke. "You are blind, and I can see. Leave me alone!"

"Bogota! Put down that spade, and come off the grass!"

The last order, grotesque in its urban familiarity, produced a gust of
anger.

"I'll hurt you," he said, sobbing with emotion. "By Heaven, I'll hurt you.
Leave me alone!"

He began to run, not knowing clearly where to run. He ran from the nearest
blind man, because it was a horror to hit him. He stopped, and then made a
dash to escape from their closing ranks. He made for where a gap was wide,
and the men on either side, with a quick perception of the approach of his
paces, rushed in on one another. He sprang forward, and then saw he must
be caught, and _swish_! the spade had struck. He felt the soft thud
of hand and arm, and the man was down with a yell of pain, and he was
through.

Through! And then he was close to the street of houses again, and blind
men, whirling spades and stakes, were running with a sort of reasoned
swiftness hither and thither.

He heard steps behind him just in time, and found a tall man rushing
forward and swiping at the sound of him. He lost his nerve, hurled his
spade a yard wide at his antagonist, and whirled about and fled, fairly
yelling as he dodged another.

He was panic-stricken. He ran furiously to and fro, dodging when there was
no need to dodge, and in his anxiety to see on every side of him at once,
stumbling. For a moment he was down and they heard his fall. Far away in
the circumferential wall a little doorway looked like heaven, and he set
off in a wild rush for it. He did not even look round at his pursuers
until it was gained, and he had stumbled across the bridge, clambered a
little way among the rocks, to the surprise and dismay of a young llama,
who went leaping out of sight, and lay down sobbing for breath.

And so his _coup d'état_ came to an end.

He stayed outside the wall of the valley of the Blind for two nights and
days without food or shelter, and meditated upon the unexpected. During
these meditations he repeated very frequently and always with a profounder
note of derision the exploded proverb: "In the Country of the Blind the
One-Eyed Man is King." He thought chiefly of ways of fighting and
conquering these people, and it grew clear that for him no practicable way
was possible. He had no weapons, and now it would be hard to get one.

The canker of civilisation had got to him even in Bogota, and he could not
find it in himself to go down and assassinate a blind man. Of course, if
he did that, he might then dictate terms on the threat of assassinating
them all. But--sooner or later he must sleep!...

He tried also to find food among the pine trees, to be comfortable under
pine boughs while the frost fell at night, and--with less confidence--to
catch a llama by artifice in order to try to kill it--perhaps by hammering
it with a stone--and so finally, perhaps, to eat some of it. But the
llamas had a doubt of him and regarded him with distrustful brown eyes,
and spat when he drew near. Fear came on him the second day and fits of
shivering. Finally he crawled down to the wall of the Country of the Blind
and tried to make terms. He crawled along by the stream, shouting, until
two blind men came out to the gate and talked to him.

"I was mad," he said. "But I was only newly made."

They said that was better.

He told them he was wiser now, and repented of all he had done.

Then he wept without intention, for he was very weak and ill now, and they
took that as a favourable sign.

They asked him if he still thought he could "_see_"

"No," he said. "That was folly. The word means nothing--less than
nothing!"

They asked him what was overhead.

"About ten times ten the height of a man there is a roof above the world--
of rock--and very, very smooth." ... He burst again into hysterical
tears. "Before you ask me any more, give me some food or I shall die."

He expected dire punishments, but these blind people were capable of
toleration. They regarded his rebellion as but one more proof of his
general idiocy and inferiority; and after they had whipped him they
appointed him to do the simplest and heaviest work they had for anyone to
do, and he, seeing no other way of living, did submissively what he was
told.

He was ill for some days, and they nursed him kindly. That refined his
submission. But they insisted on his lying in the dark, and that was a
great misery. And blind philosophers came and talked to him of the wicked
levity of his mind, and reproved him so impressively for his doubts about
the lid of rock that covered their cosmic casserole that he almost doubted
whether indeed he was not the victim of hallucination in not seeing it
overhead.

So Nunez became a citizen of the Country of the Blind, and these people
ceased to be a generalised people and became individualities and familiar
to him, while the world beyond the mountains became more and more remote
and unreal. There was Yacob, his master, a kindly man when not annoyed;
there was Pedro, Yacob's nephew; and there was Medina-saroté, who was the
youngest daughter of Yacob. She was little esteemed in the world of the
blind, because she had a clear-cut face, and lacked that satisfying,
glossy smoothness that is the blind man's ideal of feminine beauty; but
Nunez thought her beautiful at first, and presently the most beautiful
thing in the whole creation. Her closed eyelids were not sunken and red
after the common way of the valley, but lay as though they might open
again at any moment; and she had long eyelashes, which were considered a
grave disfigurement. And her voice was strong, and did not satisfy the
acute hearing of the valley swains. So that she had no lover.

There came a time when Nunez thought that, could he win her, he would be
resigned to live in the valley for all the rest of his days.

He watched her; he sought opportunities of doing her little services, and
presently he found that she observed him. Once at a rest-day gathering
they sat side by side in the dim starlight, and the music was sweet. His
hand came upon hers and he dared to clasp it. Then very tenderly she
returned his pressure. And one day, as they were at their meal in the
darkness, he felt her hand very softly seeking him, and as it chanced the
fire leapt then and he saw the tenderness of her face.

He sought to speak to her.

He went to her one day when she was sitting in the summer moonlight
spinning. The light made her a thing of silver and mystery. He sat down at
her feet and told her he loved her, and told her how beautiful she seemed
to him. He had a lover's voice, he spoke with a tender reverence that came
near to awe, and she had never before been touched by adoration. She made
him no definite answer, but it was clear his words pleased her.

After that he talked to her whenever he could take an opportunity. The
valley became the world for him, and the world beyond the mountains where
men lived in sunlight seemed no more than a fairy tale he would some day
pour into her ears. Very tentatively and timidly he spoke to her of sight.

Sight seemed to her the most poetical of fancies, and she listened to his
description of the stars and the mountains and her own sweet white-lit
beauty as though it was a guilty indulgence. She did not believe, she
could only half understand, but she was mysteriously delighted, and it
seemed to him that she completely understood.

His love lost its awe and took courage. Presently he was for demanding
her of Yacob and the elders in marriage, but she became fearful and
delayed. And it was one of her elder sisters who first told Yacob that
Medina-saroté and Nunez were in love.

There was from the first very great opposition to the marriage of Nunez
and Medina-saroté; not so much because they valued her as because they
held him as a being apart, an idiot, incompetent thing below the
permissible level of a man. Her sisters opposed it bitterly as bringing
discredit on them all; and old Yacob, though he had formed a sort of
liking for his clumsy, obedient serf, shook his head and said the thing
could not be. The young men were all angry at the idea of corrupting the
race, and one went so far as to revile and strike Nunez. He struck back.
Then for the first time he found an advantage in seeing, even by twilight,
and after that fight was over no one was disposed to raise a hand against
him. But they still found his marriage impossible.

Old Yacob had a tenderness for his last little daughter, and was grieved
to have her weep upon his shoulder.

"You see, my dear, he's an idiot. He has delusions; he can't do anything
right."

"I know," wept Medina-saroté. "But he's better than he was. He's getting
better. And he's strong, dear father, and kind--stronger and kinder than
any I other man in the world. And he loves me--and, father, I love him."

Old Yacob was greatly distressed to find her inconsolable, and, besides--
what made it more distressing--he liked Nunez for many things. So he went
and sat in the windowless council-chamber with the other elders and
watched the trend of the talk, and said, at the proper time, "He's better
than he was. Very likely, some day, we shall find him as sane as
ourselves."

Then afterwards one of the elders, who thought deeply, had an idea. He was
the great doctor among these people, their medicine-man, and he had a very
philosophical and inventive mind, and the idea of curing Nunez of his
peculiarities appealed to him. One day when Yacob was present he returned
to the topic of Nunez.

"I have examined Bogota," he said, "and the case is clearer to me. I think
very probably he might be cured."

"That is what I have always hoped," said old Yacob.

"His brain is affected," said the blind doctor.

The elders murmured assent.

"Now, _what_ affects it?"

"Ah!" said old Yacob.

"_This_," said the doctor, answering his own question. "Those queer
things that are called the eyes, and which exist to make an agreeable soft
depression in the face, are diseased, in the case of Bogota, in such a way
as to affect his brain. They are greatly distended, he has eyelashes, and
his eyelids move, and consequently his brain is in a state of constant
irritation and distraction."

"Yes?" said old Yacob. "Yes?"

"And I think I may say with reasonable certainty that, in order to cure
him completely, all that we need do is a simple and easy surgical
operation--namely, to remove these irritant bodies."

"And then he will be sane?"

"Then he will be perfectly sane, and a quite admirable citizen."

"Thank Heaven for science!" said old Yacob, and went forth at once to tell
Nunez of his happy hopes.

But Nunez's manner of receiving the good news struck him as being cold and
disappointing.

"One might think," he said, "from the tone you take, that you did not care
for my daughter."

It was Medina-saroté who persuaded Nunez to face the blind surgeons.

"_You_ do not want me," he said, "to lose my gift of sight?"

She shook her head.

"My world is sight."

Her head drooped lower.

"There are the beautiful things, the beautiful little things--the flowers,
the lichens among the rocks, the lightness and softness on a piece of fur,
the far sky with its drifting down of clouds, the sunsets and the stars.
And there is _you_. For you alone it is good to have sight, to see
your sweet, serene face, your kindly lips, your dear, beautiful hands
folded together... It is these eyes of mine you won, these eyes that hold
me to you, that these idiots seek. Instead, I must touch you, hear you,
and never see you again. I must come under that roof of rock and stone and
darkness, that horrible roof under which your imagination stoops...
No; you would not have me do that?"

A disagreeable doubt had arisen in him. He stopped, and left the thing a
question.

"I wish," she said, "sometimes----" She paused.

"Yes," said he, a little apprehensively.

"I wish sometimes--you would not talk like that."

"Like what?"

"I know it's pretty--it's your imagination. I love it, but _now_----"

He felt cold. "_Now_?" he said faintly.

She sat quite still.

"You mean--you think--I should be better, better perhaps-----"

He was realising things very swiftly. He felt anger, indeed, anger at the
dull course of fate, but also sympathy for her lack of understanding--a
sympathy near akin to pity.

"_Dear_," he said, and he could see by her whiteness how intensely
her spirit pressed against the things she could not say. He put his arms
about her, he kissed her ear, and they sat for a time in silence.

"If I were to consent to this?" he said at last, in a voice that was very
gentle.

She flung her arms about him, weeping wildly. "Oh, if you would," she
sobbed, "if only you would!"

* * * * *

For a week before the operation that was to raise him from his servitude
and inferiority to the level of a blind citizen, Nunez knew nothing of
sleep, and all through the warm sunlit hours, while the others slumbered
happily, he sat brooding or wandered aimlessly, trying to bring his mind
to bear on his dilemma. He had given his answer, he had given his consent,
and still he was not sure. And at last work-time was over, the sun rose in
splendour over the golden crests, and his last day of vision began for
him. He had a few minutes with Medina-saroté before she went apart to
sleep.

"To-morrow," he said, "I shall see no more."

"Dear heart!" she answered, and pressed his hands with all her strength.

"They will hurt you but little," she said; "and you are going through this
pain--you are going through it, dear lover, for _me_... Dear, if a
woman's heart and life can do it, I will repay you. My dearest one, my
dearest with the tender voice, I will repay."

He was drenched in pity for himself and her.

He held her in his arms, and pressed his lips to hers, and looked on her
sweet face for the last time. "Good-bye!" he whispered at that dear sight,
"good-bye!"

And then in silence he turned away from her.

She could hear his slow retreating footsteps, and something in the rhythm
of them threw her into a passion of weeping.

He had fully meant to go to a lonely place where the meadows were
beautiful with white narcissus, and there remain until the hour of his
sacrifice should come, but as he went he lifted up his eyes and saw the
morning, the morning like an angel in golden armour, marching down the
steeps...

It seemed to him that before this splendour he, and this blind world in
the valley, and his love, and all, were no more than a pit of sin.

He did not turn aside as he had meant to do, but went on, and passed
through the wall of the circumference and out upon the rocks, and his eyes
were always upon the sunlit ice and snow.

He saw their infinite beauty, and his imagination soared over them to the
things beyond he was now to resign for ever.

He thought of that great free world he was parted from, the world that was
his own, and he had a vision of those further slopes, distance beyond
distance, with Bogota, a place of multitudinous stirring beauty, a glory
by day, a luminous mystery by night, a place of palaces and fountains and
statues and white houses, lying beautifully in the middle distance. He
thought how for a day or so one might come down through passes, drawing
ever nearer and nearer to its busy streets and ways. He thought of the
river journey, day by day, from great Bogota to the still vaster world
beyond, through towns and villages, forest and desert places, the rushing
river day by day, until its banks receded and the big steamers came
splashing by, and one had reached the sea--the limitless sea, with its
thousand islands, its thousands of islands, and its ships seen dimly far
away in their incessant journeyings round and about that greater world.
And there, unpent by mountains, one saw the sky--the sky, not such a disc
as one saw it here, but an arch of immeasurable blue, a deep of deeps in
which the circling stars were floating...

His eyes scrutinised the great curtain of the mountains with a keener
inquiry.

For example, if one went so, up that gully and to that chimney there, then
one might come out high among those stunted pines that ran round in a sort
of shelf and rose still higher and higher as it passed above the gorge.
And then? That talus might be managed. Thence perhaps a climb might be
found to take him up to the precipice that came below the snow; and if
that chimney failed, then another farther to the east might serve his
purpose better. And then? Then one would be out upon the amber-lit snow
there, and half-way up to the crest of those beautiful desolations.

He glanced back at the village, then turned right round and regarded it
steadfastly.

He thought of Medina-saroté, and she had become small and remote.

He turned again towards the mountain wall, down which the day had come to
him.

Then very circumspectly he began to climb.

When sunset came he was no longer climbing, but he was far and high. He
had been higher, but he was still very high. His clothes were torn, his
limbs were blood-stained, he was bruised in many places, but he lay as if
he were at his ease, and there was a smile on his face.

From where he rested the valley seemed as if it were in a pit and nearly a
mile below. Already it was dim with haze and shadow, though the mountain
summits around him were things of light and fire. The mountain summits
around him were things of light and fire, and the little details of the
rocks near at hand were drenched with subtle beauty--a vein of green
mineral piercing the grey, the flash of crystal faces here and there, a
minute, minutely-beautiful orange lichen close beside his face. There were
deep mysterious shadows in the gorge, blue deepening into purple, and
purple into a luminous darkness, and overhead was the illimitable vastness
of the sky. But he heeded these things no longer, but lay quite inactive
there, smiling as if he were satisfied merely to have escaped from the
valley of the Blind in which he had thought to be King.

The glow of the sunset passed, and the night came, and still he lay
peacefully contented under the cold clear stars.

 

 

 

XXXIII.

THE BEAUTIFUL SUIT.

 

There was once a little man whose mother made him a beautiful suit of
clothes. It was green and gold, and woven so that I cannot describe how
delicate and fine it was, and there was a tie of orange fluffiness that
tied up under his chin. And the buttons in their newness shone like stars.
He was proud and pleased by his suit beyond measure, and stood before the
long looking-glass when first he put it on, so astonished and delighted
with it that he could hardly turn himself away. He wanted to wear it
everywhere, and show it to all sorts of people. He thought over all the
places he had ever visited, and all the scenes he had ever heard
described, and tried to imagine what the feel of it would be if he were to
go now to those scenes and places wearing his shining suit, and he wanted
to go out forthwith into the long grass and the hot sunshine of the meadow
wearing it. Just to wear it! But his mother told him "No." She told him he
must take great care of his suit, for never would he have another nearly
so fine; he must save it and save it, and only wear it on rare and great
occasions. It was his wedding-suit, she said. And she took the buttons and
twisted them up with tissue paper for fear their bright newness should be
tarnished, and she tacked little guards over the cuffs and elbows, and
wherever the suit was most likely to come to harm. He hated and resisted
these things, but what could he do? And at last her warnings and
persuasions had effect, and he consented to take off his beautiful suit
and fold it into its proper creases, and put it away. It was almost as
though he gave it up again. But he was always thinking of wearing it, and
of the supreme occasions when some day it might be worn without the
guards, without the tissue paper on the buttons, utterly and delightfully,
never caring, beautiful beyond measure.

One night, when he was dreaming of it after his habit, he dreamt he took
the tissue paper from one of the buttons, and found its brightness a
little faded, and that distressed him mightily in his dream. He polished
the poor faded button and polished it, and, if anything, it grew duller.
He woke up and lay awake, thinking of the brightness a little dulled, and
wondering how he would feel if perhaps when the great occasion (whatever
it might be) should arrive, one button should chance to be ever so little
short of its first glittering freshness, and for days and days that
thought remained with him distressingly. And when next his mother let him
wear his suit, he was tempted and nearly gave way to the temptation just
to fumble off one little bit of tissue paper and see if indeed the buttons
were keeping as bright as ever.

He went trimly along on his way to church, full of this wild desire. For
you must know his mother did, with repeated and careful warnings, let him
wear his suit at times, on Sundays, for example, to and fro from church,
when there was no threatening of rain, no dust blowing, nor anything to
injure it, with its buttons covered and its protections tacked upon it,
and a sun-shade in his hand to shadow it if there seemed too strong a
sunlight for its colours. And always, after such occasions, he brushed it
over and folded it exquisitely as she had taught him, and put it away
again.

Now all these restrictions his mother set to the wearing of his suit he
obeyed, always he obeyed them, until one strange night he woke up and saw
the moonlight shining outside his window. It seemed to him the moonlight
was not common moonlight, nor the night a common night, and for awhile he
lay quite drowsily, with this odd persuasion in his mind. Thought joined
on to thought like things that whisper warmly in the shadows. Then he sat
up in his little bed suddenly very alert, with his heart beating very
fast, and a quiver in his body from top to toe. He had made up his mind.
He knew that now he was going to wear his suit as it should be worn. He
had no doubt in the matter. He was afraid, terribly afraid, but glad,
glad.

He got out of his bed and stood for a moment by the window looking at the
moonshine-flooded garden, and trembling at the thing he meant to do. The
air was full of a minute clamour of crickets and murmurings, of the
infinitesimal shoutings of little living things. He went very gently
across the creaking boards, for fear that he might wake the sleeping
house, to the big dark clothes-press wherein his beautiful suit lay
folded, and he took it out garment by garment, and softly and very eagerly
tore off its tissue-paper covering and its tacked protections until there
it was, perfect and delightful as he had seen it when first his mother had
given it to him--a long time it seemed ago. Not a button had tarnished,
not a thread had faded on this dear suit of his; he was glad enough for
weeping as in a noiseless hurry he put it on. And then back he went, soft
and quick, to the window that looked out upon the garden, and stood there
for a minute, shining in the moonlight, with his buttons twinkling like
stars, before he got out on the sill, and, making as little of a rustling
as he could, clambered down to the garden path below. He stood before his
mother's house, and it was white and nearly as plain as by day, with every
window-blind but his own shut like an eye that sleeps. The trees cast
still shadows like intricate black lace upon the wall.

The garden in the moonlight was very different from the garden by day;
moonshine was tangled in the hedges and stretched in phantom cobwebs from
spray to spray. Every flower was gleaming white or crimson black, and the
air was a-quiver with the thridding of small crickets and nightingales
singing unseen in the depths of the trees.

There was no darkness in the world, but only warm, mysterious shadows,
and all the leaves and spikes were edged and lined with iridescent jewels
of dew. The night was warmer than any night had ever been, the heavens
by some miracle at once vaster and nearer, and, spite of the great
ivory-tinted moon that ruled the world, the sky was full of stars.

The little man did not shout nor sing for all his infinite gladness. He
stood for a time like one awestricken, and then, with a queer small cry
and holding out his arms, he ran out as if he would embrace at once the
whole round immensity of the world. He did not follow the neat set paths
that cut the garden squarely, but thrust across the beds and through the
wet, tall, scented herbs, through the night-stock and the nicotine and the
clusters of phantom white mallow flowers and through the thickets of
southernwood and lavender, and knee-deep across a wide space of
mignonette. He came to the great hedge, and he thrust his way through it;
and though the thorns of the brambles scored him deeply and tore threads
from his wonderful suit, and though burrs and goose-grass and havers
caught and clung to him, he did not care. He did not care, for he knew it
was all part of the wearing for which he had longed. "I am glad I put on
my suit," he said; "I am glad I wore my suit."

Beyond the hedge he came to the duck-pond, or at least to what was the
duck-pond by day. But by night it was a great bowl of silver moonshine all
noisy with singing frogs, of wonderful silver moonshine twisted and
clotted with strange patternings, and the little man ran down into its
waters between the thin black rushes, knee-deep and waist-deep and to his
shoulders, smiting the water to black and shining wavelets with either
hand, swaying and shivering wavelets, amidst which the stars were netted
in the tangled reflections of the brooding trees upon the bank. He waded
until he swam, and so he crossed the pond and came out upon the other
side, trailing, as it seemed to him, not duckweed, but very silver in
long, clinging, dripping masses. And up he went through the transfigured
tangles of the willow-herb and the uncut seeding grasses of the farther
bank. He came glad and breathless into the high-road. "I am glad," he
said, "beyond measure, that I had clothes that fitted this occasion."

The high-road ran straight as an arrow flies, straight into the deep-blue
pit of sky beneath the moon, a white and shining road between the singing
nightingales, and along it he went, running now and leaping, and now
walking and rejoicing, in the clothes his mother had made for him with
tireless, loving hands. The road was deep in dust, but that for him was
only soft whiteness; and as he went a great dim moth came fluttering round
his wet and shimmering and hastening figure. At first he did not heed the
moth, and then he waved his hands at it, and made a sort of dance with it
as it circled round his head. "Soft moth!" he cried, "dear moth! And
wonderful night, wonderful night of the world! Do you think my clothes are
beautiful, dear moth? As beautiful as your scales and all this silver
vesture of the earth and sky?"

And the moth circled closer and closer until at last its velvet wings just
brushed his lips...

* * * * *

And next morning they found him dead, with his neck broken, in the bottom
of the stone pit, with his beautiful clothes a little bloody, and foul and
stained with the duckweed from the pond. But his face was a face of such
happiness that, had you seen it, you would have understood indeed how that
he had died happy, never knowing that cool and streaming silver for the
duckweed in the pond.

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