Eis aqui mais uma humilde homenagem da Câmara dos Tormentos ao maravilhoso escritor galês Arthur Machen cuja obra obrigatória da literatura fantástica continua sendo negligenciada pela industria editorial brasileira.
The Great God Pan

by Arthur MachenHypertext Meanings and Commentariesfrom the Encyclopedia of the Selfby Mark Zimmerman

"I am glad you came, Clarke; very glad indeed. I wasnot sure you could spare the time."
"I was able to make arrangements for a few days; thingsare not very lively just now. But have you no misgivings,Raymond? Is it absolutely safe?"
The two men were slowly pacing the terrace in front ofDr. Raymond's house. The sun still hung above the westernmountain-line, but it shone with a dull red glow that cast noshadows, and all the air was quiet; a sweet breath came from thegreat wood on the hillside above, and with it, at intervals, thesoft murmuring call of the wild doves. Below, in the longlovely valley, the river wound in and out between the lonelyhills, and, as the sun hovered and vanished into the west, afaint mist, pure white, began to rise from the hills. Dr.Raymond turned sharply to his friend.
"Safe? Of course it is. In itself the operation is aperfectly simple one; any surgeon could do it."
"And there is no danger at any other stage?"
"None; absolutely no physical danger whatsoever, I giveyou my word. You are always timid, Clarke, always; but you knowmy history. I have devoted myself to transcendental medicinefor the last twenty years. I have heard myself called quack andcharlatan and impostor, but all the while I knew I was on theright path. Five years ago I reached the goal, and since thenevery day has been a preparation for what we shall do tonight."
"I should like to believe it is all true." Clarke knithis brows, and looked doubtfully at Dr. Raymond. "Are youperfectly sure, Raymond, that your theory is not aphantasmagoria--a splendid vision, certainly, but a merevision after all?"
Dr. Raymond stopped in his walk and turned sharply.He was a middle-aged man, gaunt and thin, of a pale yellowcomplexion, but as he answered Clarke and faced him, there was aflush on his cheek.
"Look about you, Clarke. You see the mountain, andhill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woodsand orchard, the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reachingto the reed-beds by the river. You see me standing here besideyou, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things --yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to thesolid ground beneath our feet--I say that all these are butdreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world fromour eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamourand this vision, beyond these 'chases in Arras, dreams in acareer,'beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whetherany human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know,Clarke, that you and I shall see it lifted this very night frombefore another's eyes. You may think this all strange nonsense;it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew whatlifting the veil means. They called it seeing the god Pan."
Clarke shivered; the white mist gathering over theriver was chilly.
"It is wonderful indeed," he said. "We are standing onthe brink of a strange world, Raymond, if what you sayis true. I suppose the knife is absolutely necessary?"
"Yes; a slight lesion in the grey matter, that is all;a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a microscopicalalteration that would escape the attention of ninety-nine brainspecialists out of a hundred. I don't want to bother you with'shop,'Clarke; I might give you a mass of technical detail whichwould sound very imposing, and would leave you as enlightened asyou are now. But I suppose you have read, casually, inout-of-the-way corners of your paper, that immense strides havebeen made recently in the physiology of the brain. I saw aparagraph the other day about Digby's theory, and Browne Faber'sdiscoveries. Theories and discoveries! Where they are standingnow, I stood fifteen years ago, and I need not tell you that Ihave not been standing still for the last fifteen years. Itwill be enough if I say that five years ago I made the discoverythat I alluded to when I said that ten years ago I reached thegoal. After years of labour, after years of toiling and gropingin the dark, after days and nights of disappointments andsometimes of despair, in which I used now and then to trembleand grow cold with the thought that perhaps there were othersseeking for what I sought, at last, after so long, a pang ofsudden joy thrilled my soul, and I knew the long journey was atan end. By what seemed then and still seems a chance, thesuggestion of a moment's idle thought followed up upon familiarlines and paths that I had tracked a hundred times already, thegreat truth burst upon me, and I saw, mapped out in lines ofsight, a whole world, a sphere unknown; continents and islands,and great oceans in which no ship has sailed (to my belief)since a Man first lifted up his eyes and beheld the sun, and thestars of heaven, and the quiet earth beneath. You will thinkthis all high-flown language, Clarke, but it is hard to beliteral. And yet; I do not know whether what I am hinting atcannot be set forth in plain and lonely terms. For instance,this world of ours is pretty well girded now with the telegraphwires and cables; thought, with something less than the speedof thought, flashes from sunrise to sunset, from north to south,across the floods and the desert places. Suppose that anelectrician of today were suddenly to perceive that he and hisfriends have merely been playing with pebbles and mistaking themfor the foundations of the world; suppose that such a man sawuttermost space lie open before the current, and words of menflash forth to the sun and beyond the sun into the systemsbeyond, and the voice of articulate-speaking men echo in thewaste void that bounds our thought. As analogies go, that is apretty good analogy of what I have done; you can understand nowa little of what I felt as I stood here one evening; it was asummer evening, and the valley looked much as it does now; Istood here, and saw before me the unutterable, the unthinkablegulf that yawns profound between two worlds, the world of matterand the world of spirit; I saw the great empty deep stretch dimbefore me, and in that instant a bridge of light leapt from theearth to the unknown shore, and the abyss was spanned. You maylook in Browne Faber's book, if you like, and you will findthat to the present day men of science are unable to account forthe presence, or to specify the functions of a certain group ofnerve-cells in the brain. That group is, as it were, land tolet, a mere waste place for fanciful theories. I am not in theposition of Browne Faber and the specialists, I am perfectlyinstructed as to the possible functions of those nerve-centersin the scheme of things. With a touch I can bring them intoplay, with a touch, I say, I can set free the current, with atouch I can complete the communication between this world ofsense and--we shall be able to finish the sentence later on.Yes, the knife is necessary; but think what that knife willeffect. It will level utterly the solid wall of sense, andprobably, for the first time since man was made, a spirit willgaze on a spirit-world. Clarke, Mary will see the god Pan!"
"But you remember what you wrote to me? I thought itwould be requisite that she--"
He whispered the rest into the doctor's ear.
"Not at all, not at all. That is nonsense. I assureyou. Indeed, it is better as it is; I am quite certain ofthat."
"Consider the matter well, Raymond. It's a greatresponsibility. Something might go wrong; you would be amiserable man for the rest of your days."
"No, I think not, even if the worst happened. As youknow, I rescued Mary from the gutter, and from almost certainstarvation, when she was a child; I think her life is mine, touse as I see fit. Come, it's getting late; we had better goin."
Dr. Raymond led the way into the house, through thehall, and down a long dark passage. He took a key from hispocket and opened a heavy door, and motioned Clarke into hislaboratory. It had once been a billiard-room, and was lightedby a glass dome in the centre of the ceiling, whence there stillshone a sad grey light on the figure of the doctor as he lit alamp with a heavy shade and placed it on a table in the middleof the room.
Clarke looked about him. Scarcely a foot of wallremained bare; there were shelves all around laden with bottlesand phials of all shapes and colours, and at one end stood alittle Chippendale book-case. Raymond pointed to this.
"You see that parchment Oswald Crollius? He was one ofthe first to show me the way, though I don't think he ever foundit himself. That is a strange saying of his: 'In every grain ofwheat there lies hidden the soul of a star.'"
There was not much furniture in the laboratory. Thetable in the centre, a stone slab with a drain in one corner,the two armchairs on which Raymond and Clarke were sitting; thatwas all, except an odd-looking chair at the furthest end of theroom. Clarke looked at it, and raised his eyebrows.
"Yes, that is the chair," said Raymond. "We may aswell place it in position." He got up and wheeled the chair tothe light, and began raising and lowering it, letting down theseat, setting the back at various angles, and adjusting thefoot-rest. It looked comfortable enough, and Clarke passed hishand over the soft green velvet, as the doctor manipulated thelevers.
"Now, Clarke, make yourself quite comfortable. I havea couple hours' work before me; I was obliged to leave certainmatters to the last."
Raymond went to the stone slab, and Clarke watched himdrearily as he bent over a row of phials and lit the flame underthe crucible. The doctor had a small hand-lamp, shaded as thelarger one, on a ledge above his apparatus, and Clarke, who satin the shadows, looked down at the great shadowy room, wonderingat the bizarre effects of brilliant light and undefined darknesscontrasting with one another. Soon he became conscious of anodd odour, at first the merest suggestion of odour, in the room,and as it grew more decided he felt surprised that he was notreminded of the chemist's shop or the surgery. Clarke foundhimself idly endeavouring to analyse the sensation, and halfconscious, he began to think of a day, fifteen years ago, thathe had spent roaming through the woods and meadows near his ownhome. It was a burning day at the beginning of August, the heathad dimmed the outlines of all things and all distances with afaint mist, and people who observed the thermometer spoke of anabnormal register, of a temperature that was almost tropical.Strangely that wonderful hot day of the fifties rose up again inClarke's imagination; the sense of dazzling all-pervadingsunlight seemed to blot out the shadows and the lights of thelaboratory, and he felt again the heated air beating in gustsabout his face, saw the shimmer rising from the turf, and heardthe myriad murmur of the summer.
"I hope the smell doesn't annoy you, Clarke; there'snothing unwholesome about it. It may make you a bit sleepy,that's all."
Clarke heard the words quite distinctly, and knew thatRaymond was speaking to him, but for the life of him he couldnot rouse himself from his lethargy. He could only think of thelonely walk he had taken fifteen years ago; it was his last lookat the fields and woods he had known since he was a child, andnow it all stood out in brilliant light, as a picture, beforehim. Above all there came to his nostrils the scent of summer,the smell of flowers mingled, and the odour of the woods, ofcool shaded places, deep in the green depths, drawn forth by thesun's heat; and the scent of the good earth, lying as it werewith arms stretched forth, and smiling lips, overpowered all.His fancies made him wander, as he had wandered long ago, fromthe fields into the wood, tracking a little path between theshining undergrowth of beech-trees; and the trickle of waterdropping from the limestone rock sounded as a clear melody inthe dream. Thoughts began to go astray and to mingle with otherthoughts; the beech alley was transformed to a path betweenilex-trees, and here and there a vine climbed from bough tobough, and sent up waving tendrils and drooped with purplegrapes, and the sparse grey-green leaves of a wild olive-treestood out against the dark shadows of the ilex. Clarke, in thedeep folds of dream, was conscious that the path from hisfather's house had led him into an undiscovered country, and hewas wondering at the strangeness of it all, when suddenly, inplace of the hum and murmur of the summer, an infinite silenceseemed to fall on all things, and the wood was hushed, and for amoment in time he stood face to face there with a presence, thatwas neither man nor beast, neither the living nor the dead, butall things mingled, the form of all things but devoid of allform. And in that moment, the sacrament of body and soul wasdissolved, and a voice seemed to cry "Let us go hence," andthen the darkness of darkness beyond the stars, the darkness ofeverlasting.
When Clarke woke up with a start he saw Raymond pouringa few drops of some oily fluid into a green phial, which hestoppered tightly.
"You have been dozing," he said; "the journey must havetired you out. It is done now. I am going to fetch Mary; Ishall be back in ten minutes."
Clarke lay back in his chair and wondered. It seemedas if he had but passed from one dream into another. He halfexpected to see the walls of the laboratory melt and disappear,and to awake in London, shuddering at his own sleeping fancies.But at last the door opened, and the doctor returned, and behindhim came a girl of about seventeen, dressed all in white. Shewas so beautiful that Clarke did not wonder at what the doctorhad written to him. She was blushing now over face and neck andarms, but Raymond seemed unmoved.
"Mary," he said, "the time has come. You are quitefree. Are you willing to trust yourself to me entirely?"
"Yes, dear."
"Do you hear that, Clarke? You are my witness. Hereis the chair, Mary. It is quite easy. Just sit in it and leanback. Are you ready?"
"Yes, dear, quite ready. Give me a kiss before youbegin."
The doctor stooped and kissed her mouth, kindly enough."Now shut your eyes," he said. The girl closed her eyelids, asif she were tired, and longed for sleep, and Raymond placed thegreen phial to her nostrils. Her face grew white, whiter thanher dress; she struggled faintly, and then with the feeling ofsubmission strong within her, crossed her arms upon her breastas a little child about to say her prayers. The bright lightof the lamp fell full upon her, and Clarke watched changesfleeting over her face as the changes of the hills when thesummer clouds float across the sun. And then she lay all whiteand still, and the doctor turned up one of her eyelids. She wasquite unconscious. Raymond pressed hard on one of the leversand the chair instantly sank back. Clarke saw him cutting awaya circle, like a tonsure, from her hair, and the lamp was movednearer. Raymond took a small glittering instrument from alittle case, and Clarke turned away shudderingly. When helooked again the doctor was binding up the wound he had made.
"She will awake in five minutes." Raymond was stillperfectly cool. "There is nothing more to be done; we can onlywait."
The minutes passed slowly; they could hear a slow,heavy, ticking. There was an old clock in the passage. Clarkefelt sick and faint; his knees shook beneath him, he couldhardly stand.
Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawnsigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return tothe girl's cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailedbefore them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away,and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretchedout as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant thewonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. Themuscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook fromhead to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering withinthe house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushedforward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.
Three days later Raymond took Clarke to Mary's bedside.She was lying wide-awake, rolling her head from side to side,and grinning vacantly.
"Yes," said the doctor, still quite cool, "it is agreat pity; she is a hopeless idiot. However, it could not behelped; and, after all, she has seen the Great God Pan."
Mr. Clarke, the gentleman chosen by Dr. Raymond towitness the strange experiment of the god Pan, was a person inwhose character caution and curiosity were oddly mingled; in hissober moments he thought of the unusual and eccentric withundisguised aversion, and yet, deep in his heart, there was awide-eyed inquisitiveness with respect to all the more reconditeand esoteric elements in the nature of men. The latter tendency hadprevailed when he accepted Raymond's invitation, for though hisconsidered judgment had always repudiated the doctor's theoriesas the wildest nonsense, yet he secretly hugged a belief infantasy, and would have rejoiced to see that belief confirmed.The horrors that he witnessed in the dreary laboratory were to acertain extent salutary; he was conscious of being involved inan affair not altogether reputable, and for many yearsafterwards he clung bravely to the commonplace, and rejected alloccasions of occult investigation. Indeed, on some homeopathicprinciple, he for some time attended the seances ofdistinguished mediums, hoping that the clumsy tricks of thesegentlemen would make him altogether disgusted with mysticism ofevery kind, but the remedy, though caustic, was not efficacious.Clarke knew that he still pined for the unseen, and little bylittle, the old passion began to reassert itself, as the face ofMary, shuddering and convulsed with an unknown terror, fadedslowly from his memory. Occupied all day in pursuits bothserious and lucrative, the temptation to relax in the eveningwas too great, especially in the winter months, when the firecast a warm glow over his snug bachelor apartment, and a bottleof some choice claret stood ready by his elbow. His dinnerdigested, he would make a brief pretence of reading the eveningpaper, but the mere catalogue of news soon palled upon him, andClarke would find himself casting glances of warm desire in thedirection of an old Japanese bureau, which stood at a pleasantdistance from the hearth. Like a boy before a jam-closet, fora few minutes he would hover indecisive, but lust alwaysprevailed, and Clarke ended by drawing up his chair, lighting acandle, and sitting down before the bureau. Its pigeon-holesand drawers teemed with documents on the most morbid subjects,and in the well reposed a large manuscript volume, in which hehad painfully entered he gems of his collection. Clarke had afine contempt for published literature; the most ghostly storyceased to interest him if it happened to be printed; his solepleasure was in the reading, compiling, and rearranging what hecalled his "Memoirs to prove the Existence of the Devil," andengaged in this pursuit the evening seemed to fly and the nightappeared too short.
On one particular evening, an ugly December night,black with fog, and raw with frost, Clarke hurried over hisdinner, and scarcely deigned to observe his customary ritual oftaking up the paper and laying it down again. He paced two orthree times up and down the room, and opened the bureau, stoodstill a moment, and sat down. He leant back, absorbed in oneof those dreams to which he was subject, and at length drew outhis book, and opened it at the last entry. There were three orfour pages densely covered with Clarke's round, set penmanship,and at the beginning he had written in a somewhat larger hand:
Singular Narrative told me by my Friend, Dr. Phillips. He assures me that all the facts related therein are strictly and wholly True, but refuses to give either the Surnames of the Persons Concerned, or the Place where these Extraordinary Events occurred.
Mr. Clarke began to read over the account for thetenth time, glancing now and then at the pencil notes he hadmade when it was told him by his friend. It was one of hishumours to pride himself on a certain literary ability; hethought well of his style, and took pains in arranging thecircumstances in dramatic order. He read the following story:--
The persons concerned in this statement are Helen V.,who, if she is still alive, must now be a woman oftwenty-three, Rachel M., since deceased, who was a year youngerthan the above, and Trevor W., an imbecile, aged eighteen.These persons were at the period of the story inhabitants of avillage on the borders of Wales, a place of some importance inthe time of the Roman occupation, but now a scattered hamlet,of not more than five hundred souls. It is situated on risingground, about six miles from the sea, and is sheltered by alarge and picturesque forest.
Some eleven years ago, Helen V. came to the village underrather peculiar circumstances. It is understood that she, beingan orphan, was adopted in her infancy by a distant relative, whobrought her up in his own house until she was twelve years old.Thinking, however, that it would be better for the child to haveplaymates of her own age, he advertised in several local papersfor a good home in a comfortable farmhouse for a girl of twelve,and this advertisement was answered by Mr. R., a well-to-dofarmer in the above-mentioned village. His references provingsatisfactory, the gentleman sent his adopted daughter to Mr.R., with a letter, in which he stipulated that the girl shouldhave a room to herself, and stated that her guardians need beat no trouble in the matter of education, as she was alreadysufficiently educated for the position in life which she wouldoccupy. In fact, Mr. R. was given to understand that the girlbe allowed to find her own occupations and to spend her timealmost as she liked. Mr. R. duly met her at the neareststation, a town seven miles away from his house, and seems tohave remarked nothing extraordinary about the child except thatshe was reticent as to her former life and her adopted father.She was, however, of a very different type from the inhabitantsof the village; her skin was a pale, clear olive, and herfeatures were strongly marked, and of a somewhat foreigncharacter. She appears to have settled down easily enough intofarmhouse life, and became a favourite with the children, whosometimes went with her on her rambles in the forest, for thiswas her amusement. Mr. R. states that he has known her to goout by herself directly after their early breakfast, and notreturn till after dusk, and that, feeling uneasy at a younggirl being out alone for so many hours, he communicated withher adopted father, who replied in a brief note that Helen mustdo as she chose. In the winter, when the forest paths areimpassable, she spent most of her time in her bedroom, whereshe slept alone, according to the instructions of her relative.It was on one of these expeditions to the forest that the firstof the singular incidents with which this girl is connectedoccurred, the date being about a year after her arrival at thevillage. The preceding winter had been remarkably severe, thesnow drifting to a great depth, and the frost continuing for anunexampled period, and the summer following was as noteworthyfor its extreme heat. On one of the very hottest days in thissummer, Helen V. left the farmhouse for one of her long ramblesin the forest, taking with her, as usual, some bread and meatfor lunch. She was seen by some men in the fields making forthe old Roman Road, a green causeway which traverses thehighest part of the wood, and they were astonished to observethat the girl had taken off her hat, though the heat of the sunwas already tropical. As it happened, a labourer, Joseph W. byname, was working in the forest near the Roman Road, and attwelve o'clock his little son, Trevor, brought the man hisdinner of bread and cheese. After the meal, the boy, who wasabout seven years old at the time, left his father at work,and, as he said, went to look for flowers in the wood, and theman, who could hear him shouting with delight at hisdiscoveries, felt no uneasiness. Suddenly, however, he washorrified at hearing the most dreadful screams, evidently theresult of great terror, proceeding from the direction in whichhis son had gone, and he hastily threw down his tools and ranto see what had happened. Tracing his path by the sound, hemet the little boy, who was running headlong, and was evidentlyterribly frightened, and on questioning him the man elicitedthat after picking a posy of flowers he felt tired, and laydown on the grass and fell asleep. He was suddenly awakened,as he stated, by a peculiar noise, a sort of singing he calledit, and on peeping through the branches he saw Helen V. playingon the grass with a "strange naked man," who he seemed unableto describe more fully. He said he felt dreadfully frightenedand ran away crying for his father. Joseph W. proceeded in thedirection indicated by his son, and found Helen V. sitting onthe grass in the middle of a glade or open space left bycharcoal burners. He angrily charged her with frightening hislittle boy, but she entirely denied the accusation and laughedat the child's story of a "strange man," to which he himselfdid not attach much credence. Joseph W. came to theconclusion that the boy had woke up with a sudden fright, aschildren sometimes do, but Trevor persisted in his story, andcontinued in such evident distress that at last his father tookhim home, hoping that his mother would be able to soothe him.For many weeks, however, the boy gave his parents much anxiety;he became nervous and strange in his manner, refusing to leavethe cottage by himself, and constantly alarming the householdby waking in the night with cries of "The man in the wood!father! father!"
In course of time, however, the impression seemed tohave worn off, and about three months later he accompanied hisfather to the home of a gentleman in the neighborhood, for whomJoseph W. occasionally did work. The man was shown into thestudy, and the little boy was left sitting in the hall, and afew minutes later, while the gentleman was giving W. hisinstructions, they were both horrified by a piercing shriek andthe sound of a fall, and rushing out they found the child lyingsenseless on the floor, his face contorted with terror. Thedoctor was immediately summoned, and after some examination hepronounced the child to be suffering form a kind of fit,apparently produced by a sudden shock. The boy was taken toone of the bedrooms, and after some time recoveredconsciousness, but only to pass into a condition described bythe medical man as one of violent hysteria. The doctorexhibited a strong sedative, and in the course of two hourspronounced him fit to walk home, but in passing through thehall the paroxysms of fright returned and with additionalviolence. The father perceived that the child was pointing atsome object, and heard the old cry, "The man in the wood," andlooking in the direction indicated saw a stone head ofgrotesque appearance, which had been built into the wall aboveone of the doors. It seems the owner of the house had recentlymade alterations in his premises, and on digging thefoundations for some offices, the men had found a curious head,evidently of the Roman period, which had been placed in themanner described. The head is pronounced by the mostexperienced archaeologists of the district to be that of a faunor satyr. [Dr. Phillips tells me that he has seen the head inquestion, and assures me that he has never received such avivid presentment of intense evil.]
From whatever cause arising, this second shock seemedtoo severe for the boy Trevor, and at the present date hesuffers from a weakness of intellect, which gives but littlepromise of amending. The matter caused a good deal ofsensation at the time, and the girl Helen was closelyquestioned by Mr. R., but to no purpose, she steadfastlydenying that she had frightened or in any way molested Trevor.
The second event with which this girl's name isconnected took place about six years ago, and is of a stillmore extraordinary character.
At the beginning of the summer of 1882, Helencontracted a friendship of a peculiarly intimate character withRachel M., the daughter of a prosperous farmer in theneighbourhood. This girl, who was a year younger than Helen,was considered by most people to be the prettier of the two,though Helen's features had to a great extent softened as shebecame older. The two girls, who were together on everyavailable opportunity, presented a singular contrast, the onewith her clear, olive skin and almost Italian appearance, andthe other of the proverbial red and white of our ruraldistricts. It must be stated that the payments made to Mr. R.for the maintenance of Helen were known in the village for theirexcessive liberality, and the impression was general that shewould one day inherit a large sum of money from her relative.The parents of Rachel were therefore not averse from theirdaughter's friendship with the girl, and even encouraged theintimacy, though they now bitterly regret having done so.Helen still retained her extraordinary fondness for the forest,and on several occasions Rachel accompanied her, the twofriends setting out early in the morning, and remaining in thewood until dusk. Once or twice after these excursions Mrs. M.thought her daughter's manner rather peculiar; she seemedlanguid and dreamy, and as it has been expressed, "differentfrom herself," but these peculiarities seem to have beenthought too trifling for remark. One evening, however, afterRachel had come home, her mother heard a noise which soundedlike suppressed weeping in the girl's room, and on going infound her lying, half undressed, upon the bed, evidently in thegreatest distress. As soon as she saw her mother, sheexclaimed, "Ah, mother, mother, why did you let me go to theforest with Helen?" Mrs. M. was astonished at so strange aquestion, and proceeded to make inquiries. Rachel told her awild story. She said --
Clarke closed the book with a snap, and turned hischair towards the fire. When his friend sat one evening inthat very chair, and told his story, Clarke had interrupted himat a point a little subsequent to this, had cut short his wordsin a paroxysm of horror. "My God!" he had exclaimed, "think,think what you are saying. It is too incredible, toomonstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world, wheremen and women live and die, and struggle, and conquer, or maybefail, and fall down under sorrow, and grieve and suffer strangefortunes for many a year; but not this, Phillips, not suchthings as this. There must be some explanation, some way outof the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, ourearth would be a nightmare."
But Phillips had told his story to the end, concluding:
"Her flight remains a mystery to this day; she vanishedin broad sunlight; they saw her walking in a meadow, and a fewmoments later she was not there."
Clarke tried to conceive the thing again, as he sat bythe fire, and again his mind shuddered and shrank back,appalled before the sight of such awful, unspeakable elementsenthroned as it were, and triumphant in human flesh. Beforehim stretched the long dim vista of the green causeway in theforest, as his friend had described it; he saw the swayingleaves and the quivering shadows on the grass, he saw thesunlight and the flowers, and far away, far in the longdistance, the two figure moved toward him. One was Rachel, butthe other?
Clarke had tried his best to disbelieve it all, but atthe end of the account, as he had written it in his book, hehad placed the inscription:
"Herbert! Good God! Is it possible?"
"Yes, my name's Herbert. I think I know your face,too, but I don't remember your name. My memory is very queer."
"Don't you recollect Villiers of Wadham?"
"So it is, so it is. I beg your pardon, Villiers, Ididn't think I was begging of an old college friend.Good-night."
"My dear fellow, this haste is unnecessary. My roomsare close by, but we won't go there just yet. Suppose we walkup Shaftesbury Avenue a little way? But how in heaven's namehave you come to this pass, Herbert?"
"It's a long story, Villiers, and a strange one too,but you can hear it if you like."
"Come on, then. Take my arm, you don't seem verystrong."
The ill-assorted pair moved slowly up Rupert Street;the one in dirty, evil-looking rags, and the other attired inthe regulation uniform of a man about town, trim, glossy, andeminently well-to-do. Villiers had emerged from his restaurantafter an excellent dinner of many courses, assisted by aningratiating little flask of Chianti, and, in that frame of mindwhich was with him almost chronic, had delayed a moment by thedoor, peering round in the dimly-lighted street in search ofthose mysterious incidents and persons with which the streets ofLondon teem in every quarter and every hour. Villiers pridedhimself as a practised explorer of such obscure mazes and bywaysof London life, and in this unprofitable pursuit he displayed anassiduity which was worthy of more serious employment. Thus hestood by the lamp-post surveying the passers-by withundisguised curiosity, and with that gravity known only to thesystematic diner, had just enunciated in his mind the formula:"London has been called the city of encounters; it is more thanthat, it is the city of Resurrections," when these reflectionswere suddenly interrupted by a piteous whine at his elbow, anda deplorable appeal for alms. He looked around in someirritation, and with a sudden shock found himself confrontedwith the embodied proof of his somewhat stilted fancies. There,close beside him, his face altered and disfigured by poverty anddisgrace, his body barely covered by greasy ill-fitting rags,stood his old friend Charles Herbert, who had matriculated onthe same day as himself, with whom he had been merry and wisefor twelve revolving terms. Different occupations and varyinginterests had interrupted the friendship, and it was six yearssince Villiers had seen Herbert; and now he looked upon thiswreck of a man with grief and dismay, mingled with a certaininquisitiveness as to what dreary chain of circumstances haddragged him down to such a doleful pass. Villiers felt togetherwith compassion all the relish of the amateur in mysteries, andcongratulated himself on his leisurely speculations outside therestaurant.
They walked on in silence for some time, and more thanone passer-by stared in astonishment at the unaccustomedspectacle of a well-dressed man with an unmistakable beggarhanging on to his arm, and, observing this, Villiers led the wayto an obscure street in Soho. Here he repeated his question.
"How on earth has it happened, Herbert? I alwaysunderstood you would succeed to an excellent position inDorsetshire. Did your father disinherit you? Surely not?"
"No, Villiers; I came into all the property at my poorfather's death; he died a year after I left Oxford. He was avery good father to me, and I mourned his death sincerelyenough. But you know what young men are; a few months later Icame up to town and went a good deal into society. Of course Ihad excellent introductions, and I managed to enjoy myself verymuch in a harmless sort of way. I played a little, certainly,but never for heavy stakes, and the few bets I made on racesbrought me in money--only a few pounds, you know, but enoughto pay for cigars and such petty pleasures. It was in my secondseason that the tide turned. Of course you have heard of mymarriage?"
"No, I never heard anything about it."
"Yes, I married, Villiers. I met a girl, a girl of themost wonderful and most strange beauty, at the house of somepeople whom I knew. I cannot tell you her age; I never knew it,but, so far as I can guess, I should think she must have beenabout nineteen when I made her acquaintance. My friends hadcome to know her at Florence; she told them she was an orphan,the child of an English father and an Italian mother, and shecharmed them as she charmed me. The first time I saw her was atan evening party. I was standing by the door talking to afriend, when suddenly above the hum and babble of conversation Iheard a voice which seemed to thrill to my heart. She wassinging an Italian song. I was introduced to her that evening,and in three months I married Helen. Villiers, that woman, if Ican call her woman, corrupted my soul. The night of the weddingI found myself sitting in her bedroom in the hotel, listening toher talk. She was sitting up in bed, and I listened to her asshe spoke in her beautiful voice, spoke of things which even nowI would not dare whisper in the blackest night, though I stoodin the midst of a wilderness. You, Villiers, you may think youknow life, and London, and what goes on day and night in thisdreadful city; for all I can say you may have heard the talk ofthe vilest, but I tell you you can have no conception of what Iknow, not in your most fantastic, hideous dreams can you haveimaged forth the faintest shadow of what I have heard--andseen. Yes, seen. I have seen the incredible, such horrors thateven I myself sometimes stop in the middle of the street and askwhether it is possible for a man to behold such things and live.In a year, Villiers, I was a ruined man, in body and soul--inbody and soul."
"But your property, Herbert? You had land in Dorset."
"I sold it all; the fields and woods, the dear oldhouse--everything."
"And the money?"
"She took it all from me."
"And then left you?"
"Yes; she disappeared one night. I don't know whereshe went, but I am sure if I saw her again it would kill me.The rest of my story is of no interest; sordid misery, that isall. You may think, Villiers, that I have exaggerated andtalked for effect; but I have not told you half. I could tellyou certain things which would convince you, but you would neverknow a happy day again. You would pass the rest of your life,as I pass mine, a haunted man, a man who has seen hell."
Villiers took the unfortunate man to his rooms, andgave him a meal. Herbert could eat little, and scarcely touchedthe glass of wine set before him. He sat moody and silent bythe fire, and seemed relieved when Villiers sent him away with asmall present of money.
"By the way, Herbert," said Villiers, as they parted atthe door, "what was your wife's name? You said Helen, I think?Helen what?"
"The name she passed under when I met her was HelenVaughan, but what her real name was I can't say. I don't thinkshe had a name. No, no, not in that sense. Only human beingshave names, Villiers; I can't say anymore. Good-bye; yes, Iwill not fail to call if I see any way in which you can help me.Good-night."
The man went out into the bitter night, and Villiersreturned to his fireside. There was something about Herbertwhich shocked him inexpressibly; not his poor rags nor the markswhich poverty had set upon his face, but rather an indefiniteterror which hung about him like a mist. He had acknowledgedthat he himself was not devoid of blame; the woman, he hadavowed, had corrupted him body and soul, and Villiers felt thatthis man, once his friend, had been an actor in scenes evilbeyond the power of words. His story needed no confirmation: hehimself was the embodied proof of it. Villiers mused curiouslyover the story he had heard, and wondered whether he had heardboth the first and the last of it. "No," he thought, "certainlynot the last, probably only the beginning. A case like this islike a nest of Chinese boxes; you open one after the other andfind a quainter workmanship in every box. Most likely poorHerbert is merely one of the outside boxes; there are strangerones to follow."
Villiers could not take his mind away from Herbert andhis story, which seemed to grow wilder as the night wore on.The fire seemed to burn low, and the chilly air of the morningcrept into the room; Villiers got up with a glance over hisshoulder, and, shivering slightly, went to bed.
A few days later he saw at his club a gentleman of hisacquaintance, named Austin, who was famous for his intimateknowledge of London life, both in its tenebrous and luminousphases. Villiers, still full of his encounter in Soho and itsconsequences, thought Austin might possibly be able to shed somelight on Herbert's history, and so after some casual talk hesuddenly put the question:
"Do you happen to know anything of a man named Herbert-- Charles Herbert?"
Austin turned round sharply and stared at Villiers withsome astonishment.
"Charles Herbert? Weren't you in town three years ago?No; then you have not heard of the Paul Street case? It causeda good deal of sensation at the time."
"What was the case?"
"Well, a gentleman, a man of very good position, wasfound dead, stark dead, in the area of a certain house in PaulStreet, off Tottenham Court Road. Of course the police did notmake the discovery; if you happen to be sitting up all night andhave a light in your window, the constable will ring the bell,but if you happen to be lying dead in somebody's area, you willbe left alone. In this instance, as in many others, the alarmwas raised by some kind of vagabond; I don't mean a commontramp, or a public-house loafer, but a gentleman, whose businessor pleasure, or both, made him a spectator of the London streetsat five o'clock in the morning. This individual was, as hesaid, 'going home,'it did not appear whence or whither, and hadoccasion to pass through Paul Street between four and five a.m.Something or other caught his eye at Number 20; he said,absurdly enough, that the house had the most unpleasantphysiognomy he had ever observed, but, at any rate, he glanceddown the area and was a good deal astonished to see a man lyingon the stones, his limbs all huddled together, and his faceturned up. Our gentleman thought his face looked peculiarlyghastly, and so set off at a run in search of the nearestpoliceman. The constable was at first inclined to treat thematter lightly, suspecting common drunkenness; however, he came,and after looking at the man's face, changed his tone, quicklyenough. The early bird, who had picked up this fine worm, wassent off for a doctor, and the policeman rang and knocked at thedoor till a slatternly servant girl came down looking more thanhalf asleep. The constable pointed out the contents of the areato the maid, who screamed loudly enough to wake up the street,but she knew nothing of the man; had never seen him at thehouse, and so forth. Meanwhile, the original discoverer hadcome back with a medical man, and the next thing was to get intothe area. The gate was open, so the whole quartet stumped downthe steps. The doctor hardly needed a moment's examination; hesaid the poor fellow had been dead for several hours, and it wasthen the case began to get interesting. The dead man had notbeen robbed, and in one of his pockets were papers identifyinghim as--well, as a man of good family and means, a favouritein society, and nobody's enemy, as far as could be known. Idon't give his name, Villiers, because it has nothing to do withthe story, and because it's no good raking up these affairsabout the dead when there are no relations living. The nextcurious point was that the medical men couldn't agree as to howhe met his death. There were some slight bruises on hisshoulders, but they were so slight that it looked as if he hadbeen pushed roughly out of the kitchen door, and not thrown overthe railings from the street or even dragged down the steps.But there were positively no other marks of violence about him,certainly none that would account for his death; and when theycame to the autopsy there wasn't a trace of poison of any kind.Of course the police wanted to know all about the people atNumber 20, and here again, so I have heard from private sources,one or two other very curious points came out. It appears thatthe occupants of the house were a Mr. and Mrs. Charles Herbert;he was said to be a landed proprietor, though it struck mostpeople that Paul Street was not exactly the place to look forcountry gentry. As for Mrs. Herbert, nobody seemed to knowwho or what she was, and, between ourselves, I fancy the diversafter her history found themselves in rather strange waters. Ofcourse they both denied knowing anything about the deceased, andin default of any evidence against them they were discharged.But some very odd things came out about them. Though it wasbetween five and six in the morning when the dead man wasremoved, a large crowd had collected, and several of theneighbours ran to see what was going on. They were pretty freewith their comments, by all accounts, and from these it appearedthat Number 20 was in very bad odour in Paul Street. Thedetectives tried to trace down these rumours to some solidfoundation of fact, but could not get hold of anything. Peopleshook their heads and raised their eyebrows and thought theHerberts rather 'queer,' 'would rather not be seen going intotheir house,'and so on, but there was nothing tangible. Theauthorities were morally certain the man met his death in someway or another in the house and was thrown out by the kitchendoor, but they couldn't prove it, and the absence of anyindications of violence or poisoning left them helpless. An oddcase, wasn't it? But curiously enough, there's something morethat I haven't told you. I happened to know one of the doctorswho was consulted as to the cause of death, and some time afterthe inquest I met him, and asked him about it. 'Do you reallymean to tell me,' I said, 'that you were baffled by the case,that you actually don't know what the man died of?' 'Pardon me,'he replied, 'I know perfectly well what caused death. Blankdied of fright, of sheer, awful terror; I never saw features sohideously contorted in the entire course of my practice, and Ihave seen the faces of a whole host of dead.' The doctor wasusually a cool customer enough, and a certain vehemence in hismanner struck me, but I couldn't get anything more out of him.I suppose the Treasury didn't see their way to prosecuting theHerberts for frightening a man to death; at any rate, nothingwas done, and the case dropped out of men's minds. Do youhappen to know anything of Herbert?"
"Well," replied Villiers, "he was an old college friendof mine."
"You don't say so? Have you ever seen his wife?"
"No, I haven't. I have lost sight of Herbert for manyyears."
"It's queer, isn't it, parting with a man at thecollege gate or at Paddington, seeing nothing of him for years,and then finding him pop up his head in such an odd place. ButI should like to have seen Mrs. Herbert; people saidextraordinary things about her."
"What sort of things?"
"Well, I hardly know how to tell you. Everyone who sawher at the police court said she was at once the most beautifulwoman and the most repulsive they had ever set eyes on. I havespoken to a man who saw her, and I assure you he positivelyshuddered as he tried to describe the woman, but he couldn'ttell why. She seems to have been a sort of enigma; and I expectif that one dead man could have told tales, he would have toldsome uncommonly queer ones. And there you are again in anotherpuzzle; what could a respectable country gentleman like Mr.Blank (we'll call him that if you don't mind) want in such avery queer house as Number 20? It's altogether a very odd case,isn't it?"
"It is indeed, Austin; an extraordinary case. Ididn't think, when I asked you about my old friend, I shouldstrike on such strange metal. Well, I must be off; good-day."
Villiers went away, thinking of his own conceit of theChinese boxes; here was quaint workmanship indeed.
A few months after Villers'meeting with Herbert, Mr.Clarke was sitting, as usual, by his after-dinner hearth,resolutely guarding his fancies from wandering in the directionof the bureau. For more than a week he had succeeded in keepingaway from the "Memoirs," and he cherished hopes of a completeself-reformation; but, in spite of his endeavours, he could nothush the wonder and the strange curiosity that the last case hehad written down had excited within him. He had put the case,or rather the outline of it, conjecturally to a scientificfriend, who shook his head, and thought Clarke getting queer,and on this particular evening Clarke was making an effort torationalize the story, when a sudden knock at the door rousedhim from his meditations.
"Mr. Villiers to see you sir."
"Dear me, Villiers, it is very kind of you to look meup; I have not seen you for many months; I should think nearly ayear. Come in, come in. And how are you, Villiers? Want anyadvice about investments?"
"No, thanks, I fancy everything I have in that way ispretty safe. No, Clarke, I have really come to consult youabout a rather curious matter that has been brought under mynotice of late. I am afraid you will think it all rather absurdwhen I tell my tale. I sometimes think so myself, and that'sjust what I made up my mind to come to you, as I know you're apractical man."
Mr. Villiers was ignorant of the "Memoirs to prove theExistence of the Devil."
"Well, Villiers, I shall be happy to give you myadvice, to the best of my ability. What is the nature of thecase?"
"It's an extraordinary thing altogether. You know myways; I always keep my eyes open in the streets, and in my timeI have chanced upon some queer customers, and queer cases too,but this, I think, beats all. I was coming out of a restaurantone nasty winter night about three months ago; I had had acapital dinner and a good bottle of Chianti, and I stood for amoment on the pavement, thinking what a mystery there is aboutLondon streets and the companies that pass along them. A bottleof red wine encourages these fancies, Clarke, and I dare say Ishould have thought a page of small type, but I was cut short bya beggar who had come behind me, and was making the usualappeals. Of course I looked round, and this beggar turned outto be what was left of an old friend of mine, a man namedHerbert. I asked him how he had come to such a wretched pass,and he told me. We walked up and down one of those long anddark Soho streets, and there I listened to his story. He saidhe had married a beautiful girl, some years younger thanhimself, and, as he put it, she had corrupted him body andsoul. He wouldn't go into details; he said he dare not, thatwhat he had seen and heard haunted him by night and day, andwhen I looked in his face I knew he was speaking the truth.There was something about the man that made me shiver. I don'tknow why, but it was there. I gave him a little money and senthim away, and I assure you that when he was gone I gasped forbreath. His presence seemed to chill one's blood."
"Isn't this all just a little fanciful, Villiers? Isuppose the poor fellow had made an imprudent marriage, and, inplain English, gone to the bad."
"Well, listen to this." Villiers told Clarke the storyhe had heard from Austin.
"You see," he concluded, "there can be but little doubtthat this Mr. Blank, whoever he was, died of sheer terror; hesaw something so awful, so terrible, that it cut short his life.And what he saw, he most certainly saw in that house, which,somehow or other, had got a bad name in the neighbourhood. Ihad the curiosity to go and look at the place for myself. It'sa saddening kind of street; the houses are old enough to be meanand dreary, but not old enough to be quaint. As far as I couldsee most of them are let in lodgings, furnished and unfurnished,and almost every door has three bells to it. Here and there theground floors have been made into shops of the commonest kind;it's a dismal street in every way. I found Number 20 was tolet, and I went to the agent's and got the key. Of course Ishould have heard nothing of the Herberts in that quarter, butI asked the man, fair and square, how long they had left thehouse and whether there had been other tenants in the meanwhile.He looked at me queerly for a minute, and told me the Herbertshad left immediately after the unpleasantness, as he called it,and since then the house had been empty."
Mr. Villiers paused for a moment.
"I have always been rather fond of going over emptyhouses; there's a sort of fascination about the desolate emptyrooms, with the nails sticking in the walls, and the dust thickupon the window-sills. But I didn't enjoy going over Number 20,Paul Street. I had hardly put my foot inside the passage when Inoticed a queer, heavy feeling about the air of the house. Ofcourse all empty houses are stuffy, and so forth, but this wassomething quite different; I can't describe it to you, but itseemed to stop the breath. I went into the front room and theback room, and the kitchens downstairs; they were all dirty anddusty enough, as you would expect, but there was somethingstrange about them all. I couldn't define it to you, I onlyknow I felt queer. It was one of the rooms on the first floor,though, that was the worst. It was a largish room, and once ona time the paper must have been cheerful enough, but when I sawit, paint, paper, and everything were most doleful. But theroom was full of horror; I felt my teeth grinding as I put myhand on the door, and when I went in, I thought I should havefallen fainting to the floor. However, I pulled myselftogether, and stood against the end wall, wondering what onearth there could be about the room to make my limbs tremble,and my heart beat as if I were at the hour of death. In onecorner there was a pile of newspapers littered on the floor, andI began looking at them; they were papers of three or four yearsago, some of them half torn, and some crumpled as if they hadbeen used for packing. I turned the whole pile over, andamongst them I found a curious drawing; I will show it to youpresently. But I couldn't stay in the room; I felt it wasoverpowering me. I was thankful to come out, safe and sound,into the open air. People stared at me as I walked along thestreet, and one man said I was drunk. I was staggering aboutfrom one side of the pavement to the other, and it was as muchas I could do to take the key back to the agent and get home. Iwas in bed for a week, suffering from what my doctor callednervous shock and exhaustion. One of those days I was readingthe evening paper, and happened to notice a paragraph headed:'Starved to Death.' It was the usual style of thing; a modellodging-house in Marlyebone, a door locked for several days, anda dead man in his chair when they broke in. 'The deceased,'saidthe paragraph, 'was known as Charles Herbert, and is believed tohave been once a prosperous country gentleman. His name wasfamiliar to the public three years ago in connection with themysterious death in Paul Street, Tottenham Court Road, thedeceased being the tenant of the house Number 20, in the area ofwhich a gentleman of good position was found dead undercircumstances not devoid of suspicion.' A tragic ending, wasn'tit? But after all, if what he told me were true, which I amsure it was, the man's life was all a tragedy, and a tragedy ofa stranger sort than they put on the boards."
"And that is the story, is it?" said Clarke musingly.
"Yes, that is the story."
"Well, really, Villiers, I scarcely know what to sayabout it. There are, no doubt, circumstances in the case whichseem peculiar, the finding of the dead man in the area ofHerbert's house, for instance, and the extraordinary opinion ofthe physician as to the cause of death; but, after all, it isconceivable that the facts may be explained in a straightforwardmanner. As to your own sensations, when you went to see thehouse, I would suggest that they were due to a vividimagination; you must have been brooding, in a semi-consciousway, over what you had heard. I don't exactly see what more canbe said or done in the matter; you evidently think there is amystery of some kind, but Herbert is dead; where then do youpropose to look?"
"I propose to look for the woman; the woman whom hemarried. She is the mystery."
The two men sat silent by the fireside; Clarke secretlycongratulating himself on having successfully kept up thecharacter of advocate of the commonplace, and Villiers wrappedin his gloomy fancies.
"I think I will have a cigarette," he said at last, andput his hand in his pocket to feel for the cigarette-case.
"Ah!" he said, starting slightly, "I forgot I hadsomething to show you. You remember my saying that I had founda rather curious sketch amongst the pile of old newspapers atthe house in Paul Street? Here it is."
Villiers drew out a small thin parcel from his pocket.It was covered with brown paper, and secured with string, andthe knots were troublesome. In spite of himself Clarke feltinquisitive; he bent forward on his chair as Villiers painfullyundid the string, and unfolded the outer covering. Inside was asecond wrapping of tissue, and Villiers took it off and handedthe small piece of paper to Clarke without a word.
There was dead silence in the room for five minutes ormore; the two man sat so still that they could hear the tickingof the tall old-fashioned clock that stood outside in the hall,and in the mind of one of them the slow monotony of sound wokeup a far, far memory. He was looking intently at the smallpen-and-ink sketch of the woman's head; it had evidently beendrawn with great care, and by a true artist, for the woman'ssoul looked out of the eyes, and the lips were parted with astrange smile. Clarke gazed still at the face; it brought tohis memory one summer evening, long ago; he saw again the longlovely valley, the river winding between the hills, the meadowsand the cornfields, the dull red sun, and the cold white mistrising from the water. He heard a voice speaking to him acrossthe waves of many years, and saying "Clarke, Mary will see thegod Pan!" and then he was standing in the grim room beside thedoctor, listening to the heavy ticking of the clock, waiting andwatching, watching the figure lying on the green char beneaththe lamplight. Mary rose up, and he looked into her eyes, andhis heart grew cold within him.
"Who is this woman?" he said at last. His voice wasdry and hoarse.
"That is the woman who Herbert married."
Clarke looked again at the sketch; it was not Maryafter all. There certainly was Mary's face, but there wassomething else, something he had not seen on Mary's featureswhen the white-clad girl entered the laboratory with the doctor,nor at her terrible awakening, nor when she lay grinning on thebed. Whatever it was, the glance that came from those eyes,the smile on the full lips, or the expression of the whole face,Clarke shuddered before it at his inmost soul, and thought,unconsciously, of Dr. Phillip's words, "the most vividpresentment of evil I have ever seen." He turned the paper overmechanically in his hand and glanced at the back.
"Good God! Clarke, what is the matter? You are aswhite as death."
Villiers had started wildly from his chair, as Clarkefell back with a groan, and let the paper drop from his hands.
"I don't feel very well, Villiers, I am subject tothese attacks. Pour me out a little wine; thanks, that will do.I shall feel better in a few minutes."
Villiers picked up the fallen sketch and turned it overas Clarke had done.
"You saw that?" he said. "That's how I identified itas being a portrait of Herbert's wife, or I should say hiswidow. How do you feel now?"
"Better, thanks, it was only a passing faintness. Idon't think I quite catch your meaning. What did you sayenabled you to identify the picture?"
"This word--'Helen'--was written on the back.Didn't I tell you her name was Helen? Yes; Helen Vaughan."
Clarke groaned; there could be no shadow of doubt.
"Now, don't you agree with me," said Villiers, "that inthe story I have told you to-night, and in the part this womanplays in it, there are some very strange points?"
"Yes, Villiers," Clarke muttered, "it is a strangestory indeed; a strange story indeed. You must give me time tothink it over; I may be able to help you or I may not. Must yoube going now? Well, good-night, Villiers, good-night. Come andsee me in the course of a week."
"Do you know, Austin," said Villiers, as the twofriends were pacing sedately along Piccadilly one pleasantmorning in May, "do you know I am convinced that what you toldme about Paul Street and the Herberts is a mere episode in anextraordinary history? I may as well confess to you that when Iasked you about Herbert a few months ago I had just seen him."
"You had seen him? Where?"
"He begged of me in the street one night. He was inthe most pitiable plight, but I recognized the man, and I gothim to tell me his history, or at least the outline of it. Inbrief, it amounted to this--he had been ruined by his wife."
"In what manner?"
"He would not tell me; he would only say that she haddestroyed him, body and soul. The man is dead now.
"And what has become of his wife?"
"Ah, that's what I should like to know, and I mean tofind her sooner or later. I know a man named Clarke, a dryfellow, in fact a man of business, but shrewd enough. Youunderstand my meaning; not shrewd in the mere business sense ofthe word, but a man who really knows something about men andlife. Well, I laid the case before him, and he was evidentlyimpressed. He said it needed consideration, and asked me tocome again in the course of a week. A few days later I receivedthis extraordinary letter."
Austin took the envelope, drew out the letter, and readit curiously. It ran as follows:--
"MY DEAR VILLIERS,--I have thought over the matter onwhich you consulted me the other night, and my advice to you isthis. Throw the portrait into the fire, blot out the story fromyour mind. Never give it another thought, Villiers, or you willbe sorry. You will think, no doubt, that I am in possession ofsome secret information, and to a certain extent that is thecase. But I only know a little; I am like a traveller who haspeered over an abyss, and has drawn back in terror. What I knowis strange enough and horrible enough, but beyond my knowledgethere are depths and horrors more frightful still, moreincredible than any tale told of winter nights about the fire.I have resolved, and nothing shall shake that resolve, toexplore no whit farther, and if you value your happiness you willmake the same determination.
"Come and see me by all means; but we will talk on morecheerful topics than this."
Austin folded the letter methodically, and returned itto Villiers.
"It is certainly an extraordinary letter," he said,"what does he mean by the portrait?"
"Ah! I forgot to tell you I have been to Paul Streetand have made a discovery."
Villiers told his story as he had told it to Clarke,and Austin listened in silence. He seemed puzzled.
"How very curious that you should experience such anunpleasant sensation in that room!" he said at length. "Ihardly gather that it was a mere matter of the imagination; afeeling of repulsion, in short."
"No, it was more physical than mental. It was as if Iwere inhaling at every breath some deadly fume, which seemed topenetrate to every nerve and bone and sinew of my body. I feltracked from head to foot, my eyes began to grow dim; it was likethe entrance of death."
"Yes, yes, very strange certainly. You see, yourfriend confesses that there is some very black story connectedwith this woman. Did you notice any particular emotion in himwhen you were telling your tale?"
"Yes, I did. He became very faint, but he assured methat it was a mere passing attack to which he was subject."
"Did you believe him?"
"I did at the time, but I don't now. He heard what Ihad to say with a good deal of indifference, till I showed himthe portrait. It was then that he was seized with the attack ofwhich I spoke. He looked ghastly, I assure you."
"Then he must have seen the woman before. But theremight be another explanation; it might have been the name, andnot the face, which was familiar to him. What do you think?"
"I couldn't say. To the best of my belief it was afterturning the portrait in his hands that he nearly dropped fromthe chair. The name, you know, was written on the back."
"Quite so. After all, it is impossible to come to anyresolution in a case like this. I hate melodrama, and nothingstrikes me as more commonplace and tedious than the ordinaryghost story of commerce; but really, Villiers, it looks as ifthere were something very queer at the bottom of all this."
The two men had, without noticing it, turned up AshleyStreet, leading northward from Piccadilly. It was a longstreet, and rather a gloomy one, but here and there a brightertaste had illuminated the dark houses with flowers, and gaycurtains, and a cheerful paint on the doors. Villiers glancedup as Austin stopped speaking, and looked at one of thesehouses; geraniums, red and white, drooped from every sill, anddaffodil-coloured curtains were draped back from each window.
"It looks cheerful, doesn't it?" he said.
"Yes, and the inside is still more cheery. One of thepleasantest houses of the season, so I have heard. I haven'tbeen there myself, but I've met several men who have, and theytell me it's uncommonly jovial."
"Whose house is it?"
"A Mrs. Beaumont's."
"And who is she?"
"I couldn't tell you. I have heard she comes fromSouth America, but after all, who she is is of littleconsequence. She is a very wealthy woman, there's no doubt ofthat, and some of the best people have taken her up. I hear shehas some wonderful claret, really marvellous wine, which musthave cost a fabulous sum. Lord Argentine was telling me aboutit; he was there last Sunday evening. He assures me he hasnever tasted such a wine, and Argentine, as you know, is anexpert. By the way, that reminds me, she must be an oddish sortof woman, this Mrs. Beaumont. Argentine asked her how old thewine was, and what do you think she said? 'About a thousandyears, I believe.' Lord Argentine thought she was chaffing him,you know, but when he laughed she said she was speaking quiteseriously and offered to show him the jar. Of course, hecouldn't say anything more after that; but it seems ratherantiquated for a beverage, doesn't it? Why, here we are at myrooms. Come in, won't you?"
"Thanks, I think I will. I haven't seen thecuriosity-shop for a while."
It was a room furnished richly, yet oddly, where everyjar and bookcase and table, and every rug and jar and ornamentseemed to be a thing apart, preserving each its ownindividuality.
"Anything fresh lately?" said Villiers after a while.
"No; I think not; you saw those queer jugs, didn't you?I thought so. I don't think I have come across anything for thelast few weeks."
Austin glanced around the room from cupboard tocupboard, from shelf to shelf, in search of some new oddity.His eyes fell at last on an odd chest, pleasantly and quaintlycarved, which stood in a dark corner of the room.
"Ah," he said, "I was forgetting, I have got somethingto show you." Austin unlocked the chest, drew out a thick quartovolume, laid it on the table, and resumed the cigar he had putdown.
"Did you know Arthur Meyrick the painter, Villiers?"
"A little; I met him two or three times at the house ofa friend of mine. What has become of him? I haven't heard hisname mentioned for some time."
"He's dead."
"You don't say so! Quite young, wasn't he?"
"Yes; only thirty when he died."
"What did he die of?"
"I don't know. He was an intimate friend of mine, anda thoroughly good fellow. He used to come here and talk to mefor hours, and he was one of the best talkers I have met. Hecould even talk about painting, and that's more than can be saidof most painters. About eighteen months ago he was feelingrather overworked, and partly at my suggestion he went off on asort of roving expedition, with no very definite end or aimabout it. I believe New York was to be his first port, but Inever heard from him. Three months ago I got this book, with avery civil letter from an English doctor practising at BuenosAyres, stating that he had attended the late Mr. Meyrick duringhis illness, and that the deceased had expressed an earnest wishthat the enclosed packet should be sent to me after his death.That was all."
"And haven't you written for further particulars?"
"I have been thinking of doing so. You would advise meto write to the doctor?"
"Certainly. And what about the book?"
"It was sealed up when I got it. I don't think thedoctor had seen it."
"It is something very rare? Meyrick was a collector,perhaps?"
"No, I think not, hardly a collector. Now, what do youthink of these Ainu jugs?"
"They are peculiar, but I like them. But aren't yougoing to show me poor Meyrick's legacy?"
"Yes, yes, to be sure. The fact is, it's rather apeculiar sort of thing, and I haven't shown it to any one. Iwouldn't say anything about it if I were you. There it is."
Villiers took the book, and opened it at haphazard.
"It isn't a printed volume, then?" he said.
"No. It is a collection of drawings in black and whiteby my poor friend Meyrick."
Villiers turned to the first page, it was blank; thesecond bore a brief inscription, which he read:
Silet per diem universus, nec sine horrore secretusest; lucet nocturnis ignibus, chorus Aegipanum undiquepersonatur: audiuntur et cantus tibiarum, et tinnitus cymbalorumper oram maritimam.
On the third page was a design which made Villiersstart and look up at Austin; he was gazing abstractedly out ofthe window. Villiers turned page after page, absorbed, in spiteof himself, in the frightful Walpurgis Night of evil, strangemonstrous evil, that the dead artist had set forth in hard blackand white. The figures of Fauns and Satyrs and Aegipans dancedbefore his eyes, the darkness of the thicket, the dance on themountain-top, the scenes by lonely shores, in green vineyards,by rocks and desert places, passed before him: a world beforewhich the human soul seemed to shrink back and shudder.Villiers whirled over the remaining pages; he had seen enough,but the picture on the last leaf caught his eye, as he almostclosed the book.
"Well, what is it?"
"Do you know who that is?"
It was a woman's face, alone on the white page.
"Know who it is? No, of course not."
"I do."
"Who is it?"
"It is Mrs. Herbert."
"Are you sure?"
"I am perfectly sure of it. Poor Meyrick! He is onemore chapter in her history."
"But what do you think of the designs?"
"They are frightful. Lock the book up again, Austin.If I were you I would burn it; it must be a terrible companioneven though it be in a chest."
"Yes, they are singular drawings. But I wonder whatconnection there could be between Meyrick and Mrs. Herbert, orwhat link between her and these designs?"
"Ah, who can say? It is possible that the matter mayend here, and we shall never know, but in my own opinion thisHelen Vaughan, or Mrs. Herbert, is only the beginning. Shewill come back to London, Austin; depend on it, she will comeback, and we shall hear more about her then. I doubt it willbe very pleasant news."
Lord Argentine was a great favourite in LondonSociety. At twenty he had been a poor man, decked with thesurname of an illustrious family, but forced to earn alivelihood as best he could, and the most speculative ofmoney-lenders would not have entrusted him with fifty pounds onthe chance of his ever changing his name for a title, and hispoverty for a great fortune. His father had been near enough tothe fountain of good things to secure one of the family livings,but the son, even if he had taken orders, would scarcely haveobtained so much as this, and moreover felt no vocation for theecclesiastical estate. Thus he fronted the world with nobetter armour than the bachelor's gown and the wits of a youngerson's grandson, with which equipment he contrived in some way tomake a very tolerable fight of it. At twenty-five Mr. CharlesAubernon saw himself still a man of struggles and of warfarewith the world, but out of the seven who stood before him andthe high places of his family three only remained. These three,however, were "good lives," but yet not proof against the Zuluassegais and typhoid fever, and so one morning Aubernon woke upand found himself Lord Argentine, a man of thirty who had facedthe difficulties of existence, and had conquered. The situationamused him immensely, and he resolved that riches should be aspleasant to him as poverty had always been. Argentine, aftersome little consideration, came to the conclusion that dining,regarded as a fine art, was perhaps the most amusing pursuitopen to fallen humanity, and thus his dinners became famous inLondon, and an invitation to his table a thing covetouslydesired. After ten years of lordship and dinners Argentinestill declined to be jaded, still persisted in enjoying life,and by a kind of infection had become recognized as the cause ofjoy in others, in short, as the best of company. His sudden andtragical death therefore caused a wide and deep sensation.People could scarcely believe it, even though the newspaper wasbefore their eyes, and the cry of "Mysterious Death of aNobleman" came ringing up from the street. But there stood thebrief paragraph: "Lord Argentine was found dead this morning byhis valet under distressing circumstances. It is stated thatthere can be no doubt that his lordship committed suicide,though no motive can be assigned for the act. The deceasednobleman was widely known in society, and much liked for hisgenial manner and sumptuous hospitality. He is succeeded by,"etc., etc.
By slow degrees the details came to light, but the casestill remained a mystery. The chief witness at the inquest wasthe deceased's valet, who said that the night before his deathLord Argentine had dined with a lady of good position, whosenamed was suppressed in the newspaper reports. At about eleveno'clock Lord Argentine had returned, and informed his man thathe should not require his services till the next morning. Alittle later the valet had occasion to cross the hall and wassomewhat astonished to see his master quietly letting himselfout at the front door. He had taken off his evening clothes,and was dressed in a Norfolk coat and knickerbockers, and wore alow brown hat. The valet had no reason to suppose that LordArgentine had seen him, and though his master rarely kept latehours, thought little of the occurrence till the next morning,when he knocked at the bedroom door at a quarter to nine asusual. He received no answer, and, after knocking two or threetimes, entered the room, and saw Lord Argentine's body leaningforward at an angle from the bottom of the bed. He found thathis master had tied a cord securely to one of the shortbed-posts, and, after making a running noose and slipping itround his neck, the unfortunate man must have resolutely fallenforward, to die by slow strangulation. He was dressed in thelight suit in which the valet had seen him go out, and thedoctor who was summoned pronounced that life had been extinctfor more than four hours. All papers, letters, and so forthseemed in perfect order, and nothing was discovered whichpointed in the most remote way to any scandal either great orsmall. Here the evidence ended; nothing more could bediscovered. Several persons had been present at thedinner-party at which Lord Augustine had assisted, and to allthese he seemed in his usual genial spirits. The valet, indeed,said he thought his master appeared a little excited when hecame home, but confessed that the alteration in his manner wasvery slight, hardly noticeable, indeed. It seemed hopeless toseek for any clue, and the suggestion that Lord Argentine hadbeen suddenly attacked by acute suicidal mania was generallyaccepted.
It was otherwise, however, when within three weeks,three more gentlemen, one of them a nobleman, and the twoothers men of good position and ample means, perished miserablyin the almost precisely the same manner. Lord Swanleigh wasfound one morning in his dressing-room, hanging from a pegaffixed to the wall, and Mr. Collier-Stuart and Mr. Herries hadchosen to die as Lord Argentine. There was no explanation ineither case; a few bald facts; a living man in the evening, anda body with a black swollen face in the morning. The policehad been forced to confess themselves powerless to arrest or toexplain the sordid murders of Whitechapel; but before thehorrible suicides of Piccadilly and Mayfair they weredumbfoundered, for not even the mere ferocity which did duty asan explanation of the crimes of the East End, could be ofservice in the West. Each of these men who had resolved to diea tortured shameful death was rich, prosperous, and to allappearances in love with the world, and not the acutestresearch should ferret out any shadow of a lurking motive ineither case. There was a horror in the air, and men looked atone another's faces when they met, each wondering whether theother was to be the victim of the fifth nameless tragedy.Journalists sought in vain for their scrapbooks for materialswhereof to concoct reminiscent articles; and the morning paperwas unfolded in many a house with a feeling of awe; no man knewwhen or where the next blow would light.
A short while after the last of these terrible events,Austin came to see Mr. Villiers. He was curious to know whetherVilliers had succeeded in discovering any fresh traces of Mrs.Herbert, either through Clarke or by other sources, and he askedthe question soon after he had sat down.
"No," said Villiers, "I wrote to Clarke, but he remainsobdurate, and I have tried other channels, but without anyresult. I can't find out what became of Helen Vaughan after sheleft Paul Street, but I think she must have gone abroad. But totell the truth, Austin, I haven't paid much attention to thematter for the last few weeks; I knew poor Herries intimately,and his terrible death has been a great shock to me, a greatshock."
"I can well believe it," answered Austin gravely, "youknow Argentine was a friend of mine. If I remember rightly, wewere speaking of him that day you came to my rooms."
"Yes; it was in connection with that house in AshleyStreet, Mrs. Beaumont's house. You said something aboutArgentine's dining there."
"Quite so. Of course you know it was there Argentinedined the night before--before his death."
"No, I had not heard that."
"Oh, yes; the name was kept out of the papers to spareMrs. Beaumont. Argentine was a great favourite of hers, and itis said she was in a terrible state for sometime after."
A curious look came over Villiers' face; he seemedundecided whether to speak or not. Austin began again.
"I never experienced such a feeling of horror as when Iread the account of Argentine's death. I didn't understand itat the time, and I don't now. I knew him well, and itcompletely passes my understanding for what possible cause he-- or any of the others for the matter of that--could haveresolved in cold blood to die in such an awful manner. Youknow how men babble away each other's characters in London, youmay be sure any buried scandal or hidden skeleton would havebeen brought to light in such a case as this; but nothing of thesort has taken place. As for the theory of mania, that is verywell, of course, for the coroner's jury, but everybody knowsthat it's all nonsense. Suicidal mania is not small-pox."
Austin relapsed into gloomy silence. Villiers satsilent, also, watching his friend. The expression ofindecision still fleeted across his face; he seemed as ifweighing his thoughts in the balance, and the considerations hewas resolving left him still silent. Austin tried to shake offthe remembrance of tragedies as hopeless and perplexed as thelabyrinth of Daedalus, and began to talk in an indifferent voiceof the more pleasant incidents and adventures of the season.
"That Mrs. Beaumont," he said, "of whom we werespeaking, is a great success; she has taken London almost bystorm. I met her the other night at Fulham's; she is really aremarkable woman."
"You have met Mrs. Beaumont?"
"Yes; she had quite a court around her. She would becalled very handsome, I suppose, and yet there is somethingabout her face which I didn't like. The features are exquisite,but the expression is strange. And all the time I was lookingat her, and afterwards, when I was going home, I had a curiousfeeling that very expression was in some way or anotherfamiliar to me."
"You must have seen her in the Row."
"No, I am sure I never set eyes on the woman before; itis that which makes it puzzling. And to the best of my belief Ihave never seen anyone like her; what I felt was a kind of dimfar-off memory, vague but persistent. The only sensation I cancompare it to, is that odd feeling one sometimes has in a dream,when fantastic cities and wondrous lands and phantom personagesappear familiar and accustomed."
Villiers nodded and glanced aimlessly round the room,possibly in search of something on which to turn theconversation. His eyes fell on an old chest somewhat like thatin which the artist's strange legacy lay hid beneath a Gothicscutcheon.
"Have you written to the doctor about poor Meyrick?" heasked.
"Yes; I wrote asking for full particulars as to hisillness and death. I don't expect to have an answer foranother three weeks or a month. I thought I might as wellinquire whether Meyrick knew an Englishwoman named Herbert, andif so, whether the doctor could give me any information abouther. But it's very possible that Meyrick fell in with her atNew York, or Mexico, or San Francisco; I have no idea as to theextent or direction of his travels."
"Yes, and it's very possible that the woman may havemore than one name."
"Exactly. I wish I had thought of asking you to lendme the portrait of her which you possess. I might have enclosedit in my letter to Dr. Matthews."
"So you might; that never occurred to me. We mightsend it now. Hark! what are those boys calling?"
While the two men had been talking together a confusednoise of shouting had been gradually growing louder. The noiserose from the eastward and swelled down Piccadilly, drawingnearer and nearer, a very torrent of sound; surging up streetsusually quiet, and making every window a frame for a face,curious or excited. The cries and voices came echoing up thesilent street where Villiers lived, growing more distinct asthey advanced, and, as Villiers spoke, an answer rang up fromthe pavement:
"The West End Horrors; Another Awful Suicide; FullDetails!"
Austin rushed down the stairs and bought a paper andread out the paragraph to Villiers as the uproar in the streetrose and fell. The window was open and the air seemed full ofnoise and terror.
"Another gentleman has fallen a victim to the terribleepidemic of suicide which for the last month has prevailed inthe West End. Mr. Sidney Crashaw, of Stoke House, Fulham, andKing's Pomeroy, Devon, was found, after a prolonged search,hanging dead from the branch of a tree in his garden at oneo'clock today. The deceased gentleman dined last night at theCarlton Club and seemed in his usual health and spirits. Heleft the club at about ten o'clock, and was seen walkingleisurely up St. James's Street a little later. Subsequent tothis his movements cannot be traced. On the discovery of thebody medical aid was at once summoned, but life had evidentlybeen long extinct. So far as is known, Mr. Crashaw had notrouble or anxiety of any kind. This painful suicide, it willbe remembered, is the fifth of the kind in the last month. Theauthorities at Scotland Yard are unable to suggest anyexplanation of these terrible occurrences."
Austin put down the paper in mute horror.
"I shall leave London to-morrow," he said, "it is acity of nightmares. How awful this is, Villiers!"
Mr. Villiers was sitting by the window quietly lookingout into the street. He had listened to the newspaper reportattentively, and the hint of indecision was no longer on hisface.
"Wait a moment, Austin," he replied, "I have made up mymind to mention a little matter that occurred last night. Itstated, I think, that Crashaw was last seen alive in St.James's Street shortly after ten?"
"Yes, I think so. I will look again. Yes, you arequite right."
"Quite so. Well, I am in a position to contradict thatstatement at all events. Crashaw was seen after that;considerably later indeed."
"How do you know?"
"Because I happened to see Crashaw myself at about twoo'clock this morning."
"You saw Crashaw? You, Villiers?"
"Yes, I saw him quite distinctly; indeed, there werebut a few feet between us."
"Where, in Heaven's name, did you see him?"
"Not far from here. I saw him in Ashley Street. Hewas just leaving a house."
"Did you notice what house it was?"
"Yes. It was Mrs. Beaumont's."
"Villiers! Think what you are saying; there must besome mistake. How could Crashaw be in Mrs. Beaumont's house attwo o'clock in the morning? Surely, surely, you must have beendreaming, Villiers; you were always rather fanciful."
"No; I was wide awake enough. Even if I had beendreaming as you say, what I saw would have roused meeffectually."
"What you saw? What did you see? Was there anythingstrange about Crashaw? But I can't believe it; it isimpossible."
"Well, if you like I will tell you what I saw, or ifyou please, what I think I saw, and you can judge for yourself."
"Very good, Villiers."
The noise and clamour of the street had died away,though now and then the sound of shouting still came from thedistance, and the dull, leaden silence seemed like the quietafter an earthquake or a storm. Villiers turned from the windowand began speaking.
"I was at a house near Regent's Park last night, andwhen I came away the fancy took me to walk home instead oftaking a hansom. It was a clear pleasant night enough, andafter a few minutes I had the streets pretty much to myself.It's a curious thing, Austin, to be alone in London at night,the gas-lamps stretching away in perspective, and the deadsilence, and then perhaps the rush and clatter of a hansom onthe stones, and the fire starting up under the horse's hoofs.I walked along pretty briskly, for I was feeling a little tiredof being out in the night, and as the clocks were striking twoI turned down Ashley Street, which, you know, is on my way. Itwas quieter than ever there, and the lamps were fewer;altogether, it looked as dark and gloomy as a forest in winter.I had done about half the length of the street when I heard adoor closed very softly, and naturally I looked up to see whowas abroad like myself at such an hour. As it happens, thereis a street lamp close to the house in question, and I saw a manstanding on the step. He had just shut the door and his facewas towards me, and I recognized Crashaw directly. I never knewhim to speak to, but I had often seen him, and I am positivethat I was not mistaken in my man. I looked into his face for amoment, and then--I will confess the truth--I set off at agood run, and kept it up till I was within my own door."
"Why? Because it made my blood run cold to see thatman's face. I could never have supposed that such an infernalmedley of passions could have glared out of any human eyes; Ialmost fainted as I looked. I knew I had looked into the eyesof a lost soul, Austin, the man's outward form remained, but allhell was within it. Furious lust, and hate that was like fire,and the loss of all hope and horror that seemed to shriek aloudto the night, though his teeth were shut; and the utterblackness of despair. I am sure that he did not see me; he sawnothing that you or I can see, but what he saw I hope we nevershall. I do not know when he died; I suppose in an hour, orperhaps two, but when I passed down Ashley Street and heard theclosing door, that man no longer belonged to this world; it wasa devil's face I looked upon."
There was an interval of silence in the room whenVilliers ceased speaking. The light was failing, and all thetumult of an hour ago was quite hushed. Austin had bent hishead at the close of the story, and his hand covered his eyes.
"What can it mean?" he said at length.
"Who knows, Austin, who knows? It's a black business,but I think we had better keep it to ourselves, for the presentat any rate. I will see if I cannot learn anything about thathouse through private channels of information, and if I do lightupon anything I will let you know."
Three weeks later Austin received a note from Villiers,asking him to call either that afternoon or the next. He chosethe nearer date, and found Villiers sitting as usual by thewindow, apparently lost in meditation on the drowsy traffic ofthe street. There was a bamboo table by his side, a fantasticthing, enriched with gilding and queer painted scenes, and on itlay a little pile of papers arranged and docketed as neatly asanything in Mr. Clarke's office.
"Well, Villiers, have you made any discoveries in thelast three weeks?"
"I think so; I have here one or two memoranda whichstruck me as singular, and there is a statement to which Ishall call your attention."
"And these documents relate to Mrs. Beaumont? It wasreally Crashaw whom you saw that night standing on the doorstepof the house in Ashley Street?"
"As to that matter my belief remains unchanged, butneither my inquiries nor their results have any special relationto Crashaw. But my investigations have had a strange issue. Ihave found out who Mrs. Beaumont is!"
"Who is she? In what way do you mean?"
"I mean that you and I know her better under anothername."
"What name is that?"
"Herbert!" Austin repeated the word, dazed withastonishment.
"Yes, Mrs. Herbert of Paul Street, Helen Vaughan ofearlier adventures unknown to me. You had reason to recognizethe expression of her face; when you go home look at the facein Meyrick's book of horrors, and you will know the sources ofyour recollection."
"And you have proof of this?"
"Yes, the best of proof; I have seen Mrs. Beaumont, orshall we say Mrs. Herbert?"
"Where did you see her?"
"Hardly in a place where you would expect to see a ladywho lives in Ashley Street, Piccadilly. I saw her entering ahouse in one of the meanest and most disreputable streets inSoho. In fact, I had made an appointment, though not with her,and she was precise to both time and place."
"All this seems very wonderful, but I cannot call itincredible. You must remember, Villiers, that I have seen thiswoman, in the ordinary adventure of London society, talking andlaughing, and sipping her coffee in a commonplace drawing-roomwith commonplace people. But you know what you are saying."
"I do; I have not allowed myself to be led by surmisesor fancies. It was with no thought of finding Helen Vaughanthat I searched for Mrs. Beaumont in the dark waters of thelife of London, but such has been the issue."
"You must have been in strange places, Villiers."
"Yes, I have been in very strange places. It wouldhave been useless, you know, to go to Ashley Street, and askMrs. Beaumont to give me a short sketch of her previoushistory. No; assuming, as I had to assume, that her record wasnot of the cleanest, it would be pretty certain that at someprevious time she must have moved in circles not quite sorefined as her present ones. If you see mud at the top of astream, you may be sure that it was once at the bottom. I wentto the bottom. I have always been fond of diving into QueerStreet for my amusement, and I found my knowledge of thatlocality and its inhabitants very useful. It is, perhaps,needless to say that my friends had never heard the name ofBeaumont, and as I had never seen the lady, and was quiteunable to describe her, I had to set to work in an indirectway. The people there know me; I have been able to do some ofthem a service now and again, so they made no difficulty aboutgiving their information; they were aware I had nocommunication direct or indirect with Scotland Yard. I had tocast out a good many lines, though, before I got what I wanted,and when I landed the fish I did not for a moment suppose itwas my fish. But I listened to what I was told out of aconstitutional liking for useless information, and I foundmyself in possession of a very curious story, though, as Iimagined, not the story I was looking for. It was to thiseffect. Some five or six years ago, a woman named Raymondsuddenly made her appearance in the neighbourhood to which I amreferring. She was described to me as being quite young,probably not more than seventeen or eighteen, very handsome,and looking as if she came from the country. I should be wrongin saying that she found her level in going to this particularquarter, or associating with these people, for from what I wastold, I should think the worst den in London far too good forher. The person from whom I got my information, as you maysuppose, no great Puritan, shuddered and grew sick in tellingme of the nameless infamies which were laid to her charge.After living there for a year, or perhaps a little more, shedisappeared as suddenly as she came, and they saw nothing ofher till about the time of the Paul Street case. At first shecame to her old haunts only occasionally, then more frequently,and finally took up her abode there as before, and remained forsix or eight months. It's of no use my going into details asto the life that woman led; if you want particulars you canlook at Meyrick's legacy. Those designs were not drawn fromhis imagination. She again disappeared, and the people of theplace saw nothing of her till a few months ago. My informanttold me that she had taken some rooms in a house which hepointed out, and these rooms she was in the habit of visitingtwo or three times a week and always at ten in the morning. Iwas led to expect that one of these visits would be paid on acertain day about a week ago, and I accordingly managed to beon the look-out in company with my cicerone at a quarter toten, and the hour and the lady came with equal punctuality. Myfriend and I were standing under an archway, a little way backfrom the street, but she saw us, and gave me a glance that Ishall be long in forgetting. That look was quite enough for me;I knew Miss Raymond to be Mrs. Herbert; as for Mrs. Beaumontshe had quite gone out of my head. She went into the house,and I watched it till four o'clock, when she came out, and thenI followed her. It was a long chase, and I had to be verycareful to keep a long way in the background, and yet not losesight of the woman. She took me down to the Strand, and thento Westminster, and then up St. James's Street, and alongPiccadilly. I felt queerish when I saw her turn up AshleyStreet; the thought that Mrs. Herbert was Mrs. Beaumont cameinto my mind, but it seemed too impossible to be true. Iwaited at the corner, keeping my eye on her all the time, and Itook particular care to note the house at which she stopped.It was the house with the gay curtains, the home of flowers, thehouse out of which Crashaw came the night he hanged himself inhis garden. I was just going away with my discovery, when Isaw an empty carriage come round and draw up in front of thehouse, and I came to the conclusion that Mrs. Herbert was goingout for a drive, and I was right. There, as it happened, I meta man I know, and we stood talking together a little distancefrom the carriage-way, to which I had my back. We had not beenthere for ten minutes when my friend took off his hat, and Iglanced round and saw the lady I had been following all day.'Who is that?' I said, and his answer was 'Mrs. Beaumont; livesin Ashley Street.' Of course there could be no doubt afterthat. I don't know whether she saw me, but I don't think shedid. I went home at once, and, on consideration, I thought thatI had a sufficiently good case with which to go to Clarke."
"Why to Clarke?"
"Because I am sure that Clarke is in possession offacts about this woman, facts of which I know nothing."
"Well, what then?"
Mr. Villiers leaned back in his chair and lookedreflectively at Austin for a moment before he answered:
"My idea was that Clarke and I should call on Mrs.Beaumont."
"You would never go into such a house as that? No, no,Villiers, you cannot do it. Besides, consider; what result..."
"I will tell you soon. But I was going to say that myinformation does not end here; it has been completed in anextraordinary manner.
"Look at this neat little packet of manuscript; it ispaginated, you see, and I have indulged in the civil coquetryof a ribbon of red tape. It has almost a legal air, hasn't it?Run your eye over it, Austin. It is an account of theentertainment Mrs. Beaumont provided for her choicer guests.The man who wrote this escaped with his life, but I do notthink he will live many years. The doctors tell him he musthave sustained some severe shock to the nerves."
Austin took the manuscript, but never read it. Openingthe neat pages at haphazard his eye was caught by a word and aphrase that followed it; and, sick at heart, with white lips anda cold sweat pouring like water from his temples, he flung thepaper down.
"Take it away, Villiers, never speak of this again.Are you made of stone, man? Why, the dread and horror of deathitself, the thoughts of the man who stands in the keen morningair on the black platform, bound, the bell tolling in his ears,and waits for the harsh rattle of the bolt, are as nothingcompared to this. I will not read it; I should never sleepagain."
"Very good. I can fancy what you saw. Yes; it ishorrible enough; but after all, it is an old story, an oldmystery played in our day, and in dim London streets instead ofamidst the vineyards and the olive gardens. We know whathappened to those who chanced to meet the Great God Pan, andthose who are wise know that all symbols are symbols ofsomething, not of nothing. It was, indeed, an exquisite symbolbeneath which men long ago veiled their knowledge of the mostawful, most secret forces which lie at the heart of all things;forces before which the souls of men must wither and die andblacken, as their bodies blacken under the electric current.Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot beimagined except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the mostof us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale.But you and I, at all events, have known something of theterror that may dwell in the secret place of life, manifestedunder human flesh; that which is without form taking to itselfa form. Oh, Austin, how can it be? How is it that the verysunlight does not turn to blackness before this thing, the hardearth melt and boil beneath such a burden?"
Villiers was pacing up and down the room, and the beadsof sweat stood out on his forehead. Austin sat silent for awhile, but Villiers saw him make a sign upon his breast.
"I say again, Villiers, you will surely never entersuch a house as that? You would never pass out alive."
"Yes, Austin, I shall go out alive--I, and Clarkewith me."
What do you mean? You cannot, you would not dare..."
"Wait a moment. The air was very pleasant and freshthis morning; there was a breeze blowing, even through this dullstreet, and I thought I would take a walk. Piccadilly stretchedbefore me a clear, bright vista, and the sun flashed on thecarriages and on the quivering leaves in the park. It was ajoyous morning, and men and women looked at the sky and smiledas they went about their work or their pleasure, and the windblew as blithely as upon the meadows and the scented gorse. Butsomehow or other I got out of the bustle and the gaiety, andfound myself walking slowly along a quiet, dull street, wherethere seemed to be no sunshine and no air, and where the fewfoot-passengers loitered as they walked, and hung indecisivelyabout corners and archways. I walked along, hardly knowingwhere I was going or what I did there, but feeling impelled, asone sometimes is, to explore still further, with a vague idea ofreaching some unknown goal. Thus I forged up the street, notingthe small traffic of the milk-shop, and wondering at theincongruous medley of penny pipes, black tobacco, sweets,newspapers, and comic songs which here and there jostled oneanother in the short compass of a single window. I think it wasa cold shudder that suddenly passed through me that first toldme that I had found what I wanted. I looked up from thepavement and stopped before a dusty shop, above which thelettering had faded, where the red bricks of two hundred yearsago had grimed to black; where the windows had gathered tothemselves the dust of winters innumerable. I saw what Irequired; but I think it was five minutes before I had steadiedmyself and could walk in and ask for it in a cool voice and witha calm face. I think there must even then have been a tremor inmy words, for the old man who came out of the back parlour, andfumbled slowly amongst his goods, looked oddly at me as he tiedthe parcel. I paid what he asked, and stood leaning by thecounter, with a strange reluctance to take up my goods and go.I asked about the business, and learnt that trade was bad andthe profits cut down sadly; but then the street was not what itwas before traffic had been diverted, but that was done fortyyears ago, 'just before my father died,' he said. I got away atlast, and walked along sharply; it was a dismal street indeed,and I was glad to return to the bustle and the noise. Would youlike to see my purchase?"
Austin said nothing, but nodded his head slightly; hestill looked white and sick. Villiers pulled out a drawer inthe bamboo table, and showed Austin a long coil of cord, hardand new; and at one end was a running noose.
"It is the best hempen cord," said Villiers, "just asit used to be made for the old trade, the man told me. Not aninch of jute from end to end."
Austin set his teeth hard, and stared at Villiers,growing whiter as he looked.
"You would not do it," he murmured at last. "You wouldnot have blood on your hands. My God!" he exclaimed, withsudden vehemence, "you cannot mean this, Villiers, that you willmake yourself a hangman?"
"No. I shall offer a choice, and leave Helen Vaughanalone with this cord in a locked room for fifteen minutes. Ifwhen we go in it is not done, I shall call the nearestpoliceman. That is all."
"I must go now. I cannot stay here any longer; Icannot bear this. Good-night."
"Good-night, Austin."
The door shut, but in a moment it was open again, andAustin stood, white and ghastly, in the entrance.
"I was forgetting," he said, "that I too have somethingto tell. I have received a letter from Dr. Harding of BuenosAyres. He says that he attended Meyrick for three weeks beforehis death."
"And does he say what carried him off in the prime oflife? It was not fever?"
"No, it was not fever. According to the doctor, it wasan utter collapse of the whole system, probably caused by somesevere shock. But he states that the patient would tell himnothing, and that he was consequently at some disadvantage intreating the case."
"Is there anything more?"
"Yes. Dr. Harding ends his letter by saying: 'I thinkthis is all the information I can give you about your poorfriend. He had not been long in Buenos Ayres, and knew scarcelyany one, with the exception of a person who did not bear thebest of characters, and has since left--a Mrs. Vaughan.'"
[Amongst the papers of the well-known physician, Dr.Robert Matheson, of Ashley Street, Piccadilly, who diedsuddenly, of apoplectic seizure, at the beginning of 1892, aleaf of manuscript paper was found, covered with penciljottings. These notes were in Latin, much abbreviated, and hadevidently been made in great haste. The MS. was onlydeciphered with difficulty, and some words have up to thepresent time evaded all the efforts of the expert employed.The date, "XXV Jul. 1888," is written on the right-handcorner of the MS. The following is a translation of Dr.Matheson's manuscript.]
"Whether science would benefit by these brief notes ifthey could be published, I do not know, but rather doubt. Butcertainly I shall never take the responsibility of publishing ordivulging one word of what is here written, not only on accountof my oath given freely to those two persons who were present,but also because the details are too abominable. It is probablythat, upon mature consideration, and after weighting the goodand evil, I shall one day destroy this paper, or at least leaveit under seal to my friend D., trusting in his discretion, touse it or to burn it, as he may think fit.
"As was befitting, I did all that my knowledgesuggested to make sure that I was suffering under no delusion.At first astounded, I could hardly think, but in a minute's timeI was sure that my pulse was steady and regular, and that I wasin my real and true senses. I then fixed my eyes quietly onwhat was before me.
"Though horror and revolting nausea rose up within me,and an odour of corruption choked my breath, I remained firm.I was then privileged or accursed, I dare not say which, to seethat which was on the bed, lying there black like ink,transformed before my eyes. The skin, and the flesh, and themuscles, and the bones, and the firm structure of the humanbody that I had thought to be unchangeable, and permanent asadamant, began to melt and dissolve.
"I know that the body may be separated into itselements by external agencies, but I should have refused tobelieve what I saw. For here there was some internal force, ofwhich I knew nothing, that caused dissolution and change.
"Here too was all the work by which man had been maderepeated before my eyes. I saw the form waver from sex to sex,dividing itself from itself, and then again reunited. Then Isaw the body descend to the beasts whence it ascended, and thatwhich was on the heights go down to the depths, even to theabyss of all being. The principle of life, which makesorganism, always remained, while the outward form changed.
"The light within the room had turned to blackness, notthe darkness of night, in which objects are seen dimly, for Icould see clearly and without difficulty. But it was thenegation of light; objects were presented to my eyes, if I maysay so, without any medium, in such a manner that if there hadbeen a prism in the room I should have seen no coloursrepresented in it.
"I watched, and at last I saw nothing but a substanceas jelly. Then the ladder was ascended again... [here the illegible] ...for one instance I saw a Form, shaped indimness before me, which I will not farther describe. But thesymbol of this form may be seen in ancient sculptures, and inpaintings which survived beneath the lava, too foul to be spokenof... as a horrible and unspeakable shape, neither man norbeast, was changed into human form, there came finally death.
"I who saw all this, not without great horror andloathing of soul, here write my name, declaring all that I haveset on this paper to be true.
* * *
...Such, Raymond, is the story of what I know and whatI have seen. The burden of it was too heavy for me to bearalone, and yet I could tell it to none but you. Villiers, whowas with me at the last, knows nothing of that awful secret ofthe wood, of how what we both saw die, lay upon the smooth,sweet turf amidst the summer flowers, half in sun and half inshadow, and holding the girl Rachel's hand, called and summonedthose companions, and shaped in solid form, upon the earth wetread upon, the horror which we can but hint at, which we canonly name under a figure. I would not tell Villiers of this,nor of that resemblance, which struck me as with a blow upon myheart, when I saw the portrait, which filled the cup of terrorat the end. What this can mean I dare not guess. I know thatwhat I saw perish was not Mary, and yet in the last agony Mary'seyes looked into mine. Whether there can be any one who canshow the last link in this chain of awful mystery, I do notknow, but if there be any one who can do this, you, Raymond, arethe man. And if you know the secret, it rests with you to tellit or not, as you please.
I am writing this letter to you immediately on mygetting back to town. I have been in the country for the lastfew days; perhaps you may be able to guess in which part. Whilethe horror and wonder of London was at its height--for "Mrs.Beaumont," as I have told you, was well known in society--Iwrote to my friend Dr. Phillips, giving some brief outline, orrather hint, of what happened, and asking him to tell me thename of the village where the events he had related to meoccurred. He gave me the name, as he said with the lesshesitation, because Rachel's father and mother were dead, andthe rest of the family had gone to a relative in the State ofWashington six months before. The parents, he said, hadundoubtedly died of grief and horror caused by the terribledeath of their daughter, and by what had gone before that death.On the evening of the day which I received Phillips'letter I wasat Caermaen, and standing beneath the mouldering Roman walls,white with the winters of seventeen hundred years, I looked overthe meadow where once had stood the older temple of the "God ofthe Deeps," and saw a house gleaming in the sunlight. It wasthe house where Helen had lived. I stayed at Caermaen forseveral days. The people of the place, I found, knew little andhad guessed less. Those whom I spoke to on the matter seemedsurprised that an antiquarian (as I professed myself to be)should trouble about a village tragedy, of which they gave avery commonplace version, and, as you may imagine, I toldnothing of what I knew. Most of my time was spent in the greatwood that rises just above the village and climbs the hillside,and goes down to the river in the valley; such another longlovely valley, Raymond, as that on which we looked one summernight, walking to and fro before your house. For many an hour Istrayed through the maze of the forest, turning now to right andnow to left, pacing slowly down long alleys of undergrowth,shadowy and chill, even under the midday sun, and haltingbeneath great oaks; lying on the short turf of a clearing wherethe faint sweet scent of wild roses came to me on the wind andmixed with the heavy perfume of the elder, whose mingled odouris like the odour of the room of the dead, a vapour of incenseand corruption. I stood at the edges of the wood, gazing at allthe pomp and procession of the foxgloves towering amidst thebracken and shining red in the broad sunshine, and beyond theminto deep thickets of close undergrowth where springs boil upfrom the rock and nourish the water-weeds, dank and evil. Butin all my wanderings I avoided one part of the wood; it was nottill yesterday that I climbed to the summit of the hill, andstood upon the ancient Roman road that threads the highest ridgeof the wood. Here they had walked, Helen and Rachel, along thisquiet causeway, upon the pavement of green turf, shut in oneither side by high banks of red earth, and tall hedges ofshining beech, and here I followed in their steps, looking out,now and again, through partings in the boughs, and seeing on oneside the sweep of the wood stretching far to right and left,and sinking into the broad level, and beyond, the yellow sea,and the land over the sea. On the other side was the valley andthe river and hill following hill as wave on wave, and wood andmeadow, and cornfield, and white houses gleaming, and a greatwall of mountain, and far blue peaks in the north. And so atleast I came to the place. The track went up a gentle slope,and widened out into an open space with a wall of thickundergrowth around it, and then, narrowing again, passed on intothe distance and the faint blue mist of summer heat. And intothis pleasant summer glade Rachel passed a girl, and left it,who shall say what? I did not stay long there.
In a small town near Caermaen there is a museum,containing for the most part Roman remains which have beenfound in the neighbourhood at various times. On the day aftermy arrival in Caermaen I walked over to the town in question,and took the opportunity of inspecting the museum. After I hadseen most of the sculptured stones, the coffins, rings, coins,and fragments of tessellated pavement which the place contains,I was shown a small square pillar of white stone, which had beenrecently discovered in the wood of which I have been speaking,and, as I found on inquiry, in that open space where the Romanroad broadens out. On one side of the pillar was aninscription, of which I took a note. Some of the letters havebeen defaced, but I do not think there can be any doubt as tothose which I supply. The inscription is as follows:
"To the great god Nodens (the god of the Great Deep orAbyss) Flavius Senilis has erected this pillar on account of themarriage which he saw beneath the shade."
The custodian of the museum informed me that localantiquaries were much puzzled, not by the inscription, or byany difficulty in translating it, but as to the circumstance orrite to which allusion is made.
* * *
...And now, my dear Clarke, as to what you tell meabout Helen Vaughan, whom you say you saw die undercircumstances of the utmost and almost incredible horror. Iwas interested in your account, but a good deal, nay all, ofwhat you told me I knew already. I can understand the strangelikeness you remarked in both the portrait and in the actualface; you have seen Helen's mother. You remember that stillsummer night so many years ago, when I talked to you of theworld beyond the shadows, and of the god Pan. You rememberMary. She was the mother of Helen Vaughan, who was born ninemonths after that night.
Mary never recovered her reason. She lay, as you sawher, all the while upon her bed, and a few days after the childwas born she died. I fancy that just at the last she knew me; Iwas standing by the bed, and the old look came into her eyes fora second, and then she shuddered and groaned and died. It wasan ill work I did that night when you were present; I broke openthe door of the house of life, without knowing or caring whatmight pass forth or enter in. I recollect your telling me atthe time, sharply enough, and rightly too, in one sense, that Ihad ruined the reason of a human being by a foolish experiment,based on an absurd theory. You did well to blame me, but mytheory was not all absurdity. What I said Mary would see shesaw, but I forgot that no human eyes can look on such a sightwith impunity. And I forgot, as I have just said, that when thehouse of life is thus thrown open, there may enter in that forwhich we have no name, and human flesh may become the veil of ahorror one dare not express. I played with energies which I didnot understand, you have seen the ending of it. Helen Vaughandid well to bind the cord about her neck and die, though thedeath was horrible. The blackened face, the hideous form uponthe bed, changing and melting before your eyes from woman toman, from man to beast, and from beast to worse than beast, allthe strange horror that you witness, surprises me but little.What you say the doctor whom you sent for saw and shuddered at Inoticed long ago; I knew what I had done the moment the childwas born, and when it was scarcely five years old I surprisedit, not once or twice but several times with a playmate, you mayguess of what kind. It was for me a constant, an incarnatehorror, and after a few years I felt I could bear it no more,and I sent Helen Vaughan away. You know now what frightened theboy in the wood. The rest of the strange story, and all elsethat you tell me, as discovered by your friend, I have contrivedto learn from time to time, almost to the last chapter. And nowHelen is with her companions...
The End
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