Here the man abruptly turned into a doorway, and was gone. On coming up, Helwyse found that the doorway led in through a pair of green folding-doors to some place unseen. The house had an air of villanous respectability,—a gambling-house air, or worse. Did the musician live there? Helwyse paused but a moment, and then walked on; and thus, sagacious reader, the meeting was for the second time put off.
When he reached his hotel, he had only half an hour to dress for dinner in; but he prepared himself faultlessly, chanting a sort of hymn to Appetite the while. "Hunger," quoth he, "is mightiest of magicians; breeds hope, energy, brains; prompts to love and friendship. Hunger gives day and night their meaning, and makes the pulse of time beat; creates society, industry, and rank. Hunger moves man to join in the work of creation,—to harmonize himself with the music of the universe,—to feel ambition, joy, and sorrow. Hunger unites man to nature in the ever-recurring inspiration to food, followed by the ever-alternating ecstasy of digestion. Morning tunes his heart to joy, for the benison of breakfast awaits him. The sun scales heaven to light him to his noonday meal. Evening wooes him supperwards, and night brings timeless sleep, to waft him to another dawn. Eating is earth's first law, and heaven itself could not subsist without it!"
So Balder Helwyse and the cook feasted gloriously that afternoon, in the back pantry, and they solemnly installed the partridges among the constellations!
That same afternoon Mr. MacGentle put his head into the outer office and said, "Mr. Dyke, could I speak with you a moment?"
Mr. Dyke scraped back his chair and went in, with his polished bald head, and square face and figure,—a block of common-sense. He was more common-sensible than usual, that afternoon, because he had so strangely forgotten himself in the morning. Mr. MacGentle was in his usual position for talking with his confidential clerk,—standing up with his back to the fireplace, and his coat-tails over his arms. Experience had taught him that this attitude was better adapted than any other to sustain the crushing weight of Mr. Dyke's sense. To have conversed with him in a sitting position would have been to lose breath and vitality before the end of five minutes.
"Mr. Helwyse has thoughts of settling in Boston to practise his profession," began the President, gently. "I told him you would be likely to know what the chances are."
"Profession is—what?" demanded Mr. Dyke, settling his fist on his hip.
"O—doctor—physician; eye-doctor, he said, I think."
"Eye-doctor? Well, Dr. Schlemm won't last the winter; may drop any day. Just the thing for Mr. Helwyse,—Dr. Helwyse." And the subject, being discussed at some length between the two gentlemen, took on a promising aspect. His house was picked out for the new incumbent, his earnings calculated, his success foretold. Two characters so diverse as were the President and his clerk united, it seems, in liking the young physician.
"Married?" asked Mr. Dyke, after a pause.
"Why, no,—no; and he doesn't seem inclined to marry. But he is quite young; perhaps he may, later on in life, Mr. Dyke."
The elderly clerk straightened his mouth. "Matter of taste—and policy. Gives solidity,—position;—and is an expense and a responsibility." Mr. Dyke himself was well known to be the husband of an idolized wife, and the father of a despotic family.
"He never had the advantage of woman's influence in his childhood, you know. His poor mother died in giving him and his sister birth; and the sister was lost,—stolen away, two or three years later. He does not appreciate woman at her true value," murmured MacGentle.
"Stolen away? His sister died in infancy,—so I understood, sir," said the clerk, whose versions of past events were apt to differ from the President's.
But the President—perhaps because he was conscious that his memory regarding things of recent occurrence was treacherous—was abnormally sensitive as to the correctness of his more distant reminiscences.
"O no, she was stolen,—stolen by her nurse, just before Thor Helwyse went to Europe, I think," said he.
"Beg your pardon, sir," said Mr. Dyke, with an iron smile; "died,—burnt to death in her first year,—yes, sir!"
"Mr. Dyke," rejoined MacGentle, dignifiedly, lifting his chin high above his stock, "I have myself seen the little girl, then in her third year, pulling her brother's hair on the nursery floor. She was dark-eyed,—a very lovely child. As to the burning, I now recollect that when the house in Brooklyn took fire, the child was in danger, but was rescued by her nurse, who herself received very severe injuries."
Mr. Dyke heaved a long, deliberate sigh, and allowed his eyes to wander slowly round the room, before replying.
"You are not a family man, Mr. MacGentle, sir! Don't blame you, sir! Your memory, perhaps—But no matter! The nurse who stole the child was, I presume, the same who rescued her from the fire?"
Mr. Dyke perhaps intended to give a delicately ironical emphasis to this question, but his irony was apt to be a rather unwieldy and unmistakable affair. The truth was, he was a little staggered by the President's circumstantial statement; whence his deliberation, and his not entirely pertinent rejoinder about "a family man."
"And why not the same, sir? I ask you, why not the same?" demanded Mr. MacGentle, with slender imperiousness.
But, by this time, Mr. Dyke had thought of a new argument.
"The little girl, I understood you to say, was dark? Since she was the twin-sister of one of Mr. Balder Helwyse's complexion, that is odd, Mr. MacGentle,—odd, sir." And the solid family man fixed his sharp brown eyes full upon the unsubstantial bachelor. The latter's delicate nostrils expanded, and a pink flush rose to his faded cheeks. He was now as haughty and superb as a paladin.
"I will discuss business subjects with my subordinates, Mr. Dyke; not other subjects, if you please! This dispute was not begun by me. Let it be carried no further, sir! Twins are not necessarily, nor invariably, of the same complexion. Let nothing more be said, Mr. Dyke. I trust the little girl may yet be found and restored to her family—to—to her brother! I trust she may yet be found, sir!" And he glared at Mr. Dyke aggressively.
"I trust you may live to see it, Mr. MacGentle, sir!" said the confidential clerk, shifting his ground in a truly masterly manner; and before the President could recover, he had bowed and gone out. Ten minutes afterwards MacGentle opened the door, and lo! Dyke himself on the threshold.
"Mr. MacGentle!" in the same breath.
"I—Mr. Dyke, let me apologize for my asperity,—for my rudeness," says MacGentle, stepping forward and holding out his thin white hand, his eyebrows more raised than ever, the corners of his mouth more depressed. "I am sincerely sorry that—that—"
"O sir!" cries the square clerk, grasping the thin hand in both his square palms; "O sir! O sir! No, no!—no, no! I was just coming to beg you—My fault,—my fault, Mr. MacGentle, sir! No, no!"
Thus incoherently ended the quarrel between these two old friends, the dispute being left undecided. But the important point was established that Balder Helwyse was insured a practice in Boston, in case his uncle Glyphic's fortune failed to enrich him.
A COLLISION IMMINENT.
A large, handsome steamer was the "Empire State," of the line which ran between Newport and New York. She was painted white, had walking-beam engines, and ornamented paddle-boxes, and had been known to run nearly twenty knots in an hour. On the evening of the twenty-seventh of May, in the year of which we write, she left her Newport dock as usual, with a full list of passengers. On getting out of the harbor, she steamed into a bank of solid fog, and only got out of it the next morning, just before passing Hellgate, at the head of East River, New York. On the passage down Long Island Sound she met with an accident. She ran into the schooner Resurrection, which was lying becalmed across her course, carrying away most of the schooner's bowsprit, but doing no serious damage. This, however, was not the worst. On arriving in New York, it was found that one of the passengers was missing! He had fallen overboard during the night, possibly at the time of the collision.
Balder Halwyse was on board. After dining with the cook, and smoking a real Havana cigar (probably the first real one that he had ever been blessed with), he put a package of the same brand in his travelling-bag, bade his entertainer,—who had solemnly engaged to remain in Boston for Mr. Helwyse's sole sake,—bade his fellow-convivialist good by, and took the train to Newport, and from there the "Empire State" for New York.
The darkness was the most impenetrable that the young man had ever seen; Long Island Sound was like a pocket. The passengers—those who did not go to their state-rooms at once—sat in the cabin reading, or dozing on the chairs and sofas. A few men stayed out on deck for an hour or two, smoking; but at last they too went in. The darkness was appalling. The officer on the bridge blew his steam fog-whistle every few minutes, and kept his lanterns hung out; but they must have been invisible at sixty yards.
Helwyse kept the deck alone. Apparently he meant to smoke his whole bundle of cigars before turning in. He paced up and down, Napoleon-like in his high boots, until finally he was brought to a stand by the blind night-wall, which no man can either scale or circumvent. Then he leaned on the railing and looked against the darkness. Not a light to be seen in heaven or on earth! The water below whispered and swirled past, torn to soft fragments by the gigantic paddle-wheel. Helwyse's beard was wet and his hands sticky with the salt mist.
Ever and anon sounded the fog-whistle, hoarsely, as though the fog had got in its throat; and the pale glare of a lantern, fastened aloft somewhere, lighted up the white issuing steam for a moment. There was no wind; one was conscious of motion, but all sense of direction and position—save to the steersman—was lost. Helwyse could see the red end of his cigar, and very cosey and friendly it looked; but he could see nothing else.
It is said that staid and respectable people, when thoroughly steeped in night, will sometimes break out in wild grimaces and outlandish gesticulations. It is certainly the time when unlawful thoughts and words come to men most readily and naturally. Night brings forth many things that daylight starts from. The real power of darkness lies not in merely baffling the eyesight, but in creating the feeling of darkness in the soul. The chains of light are broken, and we can almost believe our internal night to be as impenetrable to God's eyes as that external, to our own!
By and by Helwyse thought he would find some snug place and sit down. The cabin of the "Empire State" was built on the main deck, abaft the funnel, like a long, low house. Between the stern end of this house and the taffrail was a small space, thickly grown with camp-stools. Helwyse groped his way thither, got hold of a couple of the camp-stools, and arranged himself comfortably with his back against the cabin wall. The waves bubbled invisibly in the wake beneath. After sitting for a while in the dense blackness, Helwyse began to feel as though his whole physical self were shrivelled into a single atom, careering blindly through infinite space!
After all, and really, was he anything more? If he chose to think not, what logic could convince him of the contrary? Visible creation, as any child could tell him, was an illusion,—was not what it seemed to be. But this darkness was no illusion! Why, then, was it not the only reality? and he but an atom, charged with a vital power of so-called senses, that generally deceived him, but sometimes—as now—let him glimpse the truth? The fancy, absurd as it was, had its attraction for the time being. This great living, staring world of men and things is a terrible weight to lug upon one's back. But if man be an invisible atom, what a vast, wild, boundless freedom is his! Infinite space is wide enough to cut any caper in, and no one the wiser.
One would like to converse with a man who had been born and had lived in solitude and darkness. What original views he would have about himself and life! Would he think himself an abstract intelligence, out of space and time? What a riddle his physical sensations would be to him! Or, suppose him to meet with another being brought up in the same way; how they would mystify each other! Would they learn to feel shame, love, hate? or do the passions only grow in sunshine? Would they ever laugh? Would they hatch plots against each other, lie, deceive? Would they have secrets from each other?
But, fancy aside, take a supposable case. Suppose two sinners of our daylight world to meet for the first time, mutually unknown, on a night like this. Invisible, only audible, how might they plunge profound into most naked intimacy,—read aloud to each other the secrets of their deepest hearts! Would the confession lighten their souls, or make them twice as heavy as before? Then, the next morning, they might meet and pass, unrecognizing and unrecognized. But would the knot binding them to each other be any the less real, because neither knew to whom he was tied? Some day, in the midst of friends, in the brightest glare of the sunshine, the tone of a voice would strike them pale and cold.
Somewhat after this fashion, perhaps, did Helwyse commune with himself. He liked to follow the whim of the moment, whither it would lead him. He was romantic; it was one of his agreeablest traits, because spontaneous; and he indulged it the more, as being confident that he had too much solid ballast in the hold to be in danger of upsetting. To-night, at this point of his mental ramble, he found that his cigar had gone out. Had he been thinking aloud? He believed not, and yet there was no telling; he often did so, unconsciously. Were it so, and were any one listening, that person had him decidedly at advantage!
What put it into his head that some one might be listening? It may have come by pure accident,—if there be such a thing. The idea returned, stealing over his mind like a chilling breath. What if some one had all along been close beside him, with eyes fixed upon him! Helwyse found himself sitting perfectly still, holding his breath to listen. There was no disguising it,—he felt uneasy. He wished his cigar had not gone out. On second thoughts, he wished there had not been any cigar at all, because, if any one were near, the cigar must have pointed out the smoker's precise position. The uneasiness did not lessen, but grew more defined.
It was like the sensation felt when pointed at by a human finger, or stared at persistently. Was there indeed any one near? No sound or movement gave answer, but the odd sensation continued. Helwyse fancied he could now tell whence it came;—from the left, and not far away. He peered earnestly thitherward, but his eyes only swallowed blackness.
Was not this carrying a whim to a foolish length? If he thought he had a companion, why not speak, and end the doubt? But the dense silence, darkness, uncertainty, made common-sense seem out of place. The whole black fog, the sea, the earth itself, seemed to be pressing down his will! The longer he delayed, the weaker he grew.
A slight shifting of his position caused him all at once to encounter the eyes of the unseen presence with his own! The stout-nerved young fellow was startled to the very heart. Was the unseen presence startled also? At all events, the shock found Balder Helwyse his tongue, seldom before tied up without his consent.
"I hope I'm not disturbing your solitude. You are not a noisy neighbor, sir."
So flat fell the words on the blank darkness, it seemed as if there could never be a reply. Nevertheless, a reply came.
"You must come much nearer me than you are, to disturb my solitude. It does not consist in being without a companion."
The quality of this voice of darkness was peculiar. It sounded old, yet of an age that had not outlived the devil of youth. Probably the invisibility of the speaker enhanced its effect. With most of the elements of pleasing, it was nevertheless repulsive. It was soft, fluent, polished, but savage license was not far off, hard held by a slender leash; an underlying suggestion of harsh discordance. The utterance, though somewhat rapid, was carefully distinct.
Helwyse had the gift of familiarity,—of that rare kind of familiarity which does not degenerate into contempt. But there was an incongruity about this person, hard to assimilate. In a couple of not very original sentences, he had wrought upon his listener an effect of depraved intellectual power, strangely combined with artless simplicity,—an unspeakably distasteful conjunction! Imagination, freed from the check of the senses, easily becomes grotesque; and Helwyse, unable to see his companion, had no difficulty in picturing him as a grisly monster, having a satanic head set upon the ingenuous shoulders of a child. And what was Helwyse himself? No longer, surely, the gravely humorous moralizer? The laws of harmony forbid! He is a monster likewise; say—since grotesqueness is in vogue—the heart of Lucifer burning beneath the cool brain of a Grecian sage. The symbolism is not inapt, since Helwyse, while afflicted with pride and ambition as abstract as boundless, had, at the same time, a logical, fearless brain, and keen delight in beauty.
"I was just thinking," remarked the latter monster, "that this was a good place for confidential conversation."
"You believe, then, that talking relieves the mind?" rejoined the former, softly.
"I believe a thief or a murderer would be glad of an hour—such as now passes—to impart the story of what is dragging him to Hell. And even the best houses are better for an airing!"
"A pregnant idea! There are certainly some topics one would like to discuss, free from the restraint that responsibility imposes. Have you ever reflected on the subject of omnipotence?"
Somewhat confounded at this bold question, Helwyse hesitated a moment.
"I can't see you, remember, any more than you can see me," insinuated the voice, demurely.
"I believe I have sometimes asked myself whether it were obtainable,—how it might best be approximated," admitted Helwyse, cautiously; for he began to feel that even darkness might be too transparent for the utterance of some thoughts.
"But you never got a satisfactory answer, and are not therefore omnipotent? Well, the reason probably is, that you started wrongly. Did it ever occur to you to try the method of sin?"
"To obtain omnipotence? No!"
"It wouldn't be right,—eh?" chuckled the voice. "But then one must lay aside prejudice if one wants to be all-powerful! Now, sin denotes separation; the very etymology of the word should have attracted the attention of an ambitious man, such as you seem to be. It is a path separate from all other paths, and therefore worth exploring."
"It leads to weakness, not to power!"
"If followed in the wrong spirit, very true. But the wise man sins and is strong! See how frank I am!—But don't let me monopolize the conversation."
"I should like to hear your argument, if you have one. You are a prophet of new things."
"Sin is an old force, though it may be applied in new ways. Well, you will admit that the true sinner is the only true reformer and philosopher among men? No? I will explain, then. The world is full of discordances, for which man is not to blame. His endeavor to meet and harmonize this discordance is called sin. His indignation at disorder, rebellion against it, attempts to right it, are crimes! That is the vulgar argument which wise men smile at."
"I may be very dull; but I think your explanations need explaining."
"We'll take some examples. What is the liar, but one who sees the false relations of things, and seeks to put them in the true? The mission of the thief, again, is to equalize the notoriously unjust distribution of wealth. A fundamental defect in the principles of human association gave birth to the murderer; and as for the adulterer, he is an immortal protest against the absurd laws which interfere between the sexes. Are not these men, and others of similar stamp, the bulwarks of true society,—our leaders towards justice and freedom?"
Whether this were satire, madness, or earnest, Helwyse could not determine. The night-fog had got into his brain. He made shift, however, to say that the criminal class were not, as a mere matter of fact, the most powerful.
"Again you misapprehend me," rejoined the voice, with perfect suavity. "No doubt there are many weak and foolish persons who commit crimes,—nay, I will admit that the vast majority of criminals are weak and foolish; but that does not affect the dignity of the true sinner,—he who sins from exalted motives. Ignorance is the only real crime, polluting deeds that, wisely done, are sublime. Sin is culture!"
"Were I, then, from motives of self-culture, to kill you, I should be taking a long step towards rising in your estimation?" put in Helwyse.
"Admirable!" softly exclaimed the voice, in a tone as of an approving pat on the back. "Certainly, I should be the last to deny it! But would it not be more for the general good, were I, who have long been a student of these things, to kill a seeming novice like you? It would assure me of having had one sincere disciple."
"I wonder whether he's really mad?" mused Balder Helwyse, shuddering a little in the dampness.
"But, badinage aside," resumed this loquacious voice, "although there is so much talk and dispute about evil, very few people know what evil essentially is. Now, there are some things, the mere doing of which by the most involuntary agent would at once stamp his soul with the conviction of ineffable sin. He would have touched the essence of evil. And if a wise man has done that, he has had in his hand the key to omnipotence!"
"It is easily had, then. A man need but take his Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and run through the catalogue of crimes. He would be sure of finding the key hidden beneath some of them."
"No; you do Moses scant justice. He—shrewd soul!—was too cunning to fall into such an error as that. He forbade a few insignificant and harmless acts, which every one is liable to commit. His policy was no less simple than sagacious. By amusing mankind with such trumpery, he lured them off the scent of true sin. Believe me, the artifice was no idle one. Should mankind learn the secret, a generation would not pass before the world would be turned upside down, and its present Ruler buried in the ruins!"
At this point, surely, Helwyse got up and went to his state-room without listening to another word?—Not so. The Lucifer in him was getting the better of the sage. He wanted to hear all that the voice of darkness had to say. There might be something new, something instructive in it. He might hear a word that would unbar the door he had striven so long to open. He aimed at knowledge and power beyond recognized human reach. He had taken thought with himself keenly and deeply, but was still uncertain and unsatisfied. Here opened a new avenue, so untried as to transcend common criticism. The temptation to omnipotence is a grand thing, and may have shaken greater men than Helwyse; and he had trained himself to regard it—not exactly as a temptation. As for good or bad methods,—at a certain intellectual height such distinctions vanish. Vulgar immorality he would turn from as from anything vulgar; but refined, philosophic immorality, as a weapon of power,—there was fascination in it.
—Folly and delusion!—
But Helwyse was only Helwyse, careering through pitchy darkness, on a viewless sea, with a plausible voice at his ear insinuating villanous thoughts with an air of devilish good-fellowship!
The "Empire State" was at this moment four and a half miles northeast of the schooner whose bowsprit she was destined to carry away. The steamer was making about ten knots an hour: the schooner was slowly drifting with the tide into the line of the steamer's course. The catastrophe was therefore about twenty-seven minutes distant.
THE VOICE OF DARKNESS.
The fog-whistle screeched dismally. Helwyse took his feet off the camp-stool in front of him, and sat upright.
"Do you know this secret of sin?" he asked.
"It must, of course, be an object of speculation to a thoughtful man," answered the voice, modestly parrying the question. "But I assure you that only a man of intellect—of genius—has in him the intelligence, the sublime reach of soul, which could attain the full solution of the problem; they who merely blunder into it would fail to grasp the grand significance of the idea."
"But you affirm that whoever fairly masters the problem of absolute sin would have God and His kingdom at his mercy?"
"I am loath to appear boastful; but I apprehend the fact to be not unlike what you suggest," the voice replied, with a subdued gusto. "It would depend upon our hypothetical person's discretion, and his views as to the claims of the august Being who has so long controlled the destinies of the human race, how much the existing order of things might have to fear from him. I should imagine that the august Being, if He be as wise as they say He is, would be careful how He treated this hypothetical person!"
"You are a liar," said Helwyse, unceremoniously. "Why is not Satan, who must possess this all-powerful knowledge, supreme over the universe?"
Instead of taking offence (as Helwyse, to do him justice, hoped it would; for his Berserker blood, which boiled only at heaven-and-hell temperature, was beginning to stir in him),—so far from being offended, the voice only uttered its peculiar quiet chuckle.
"Your frankness charms me! it proves you worthy to learn. Satan—supposing there be such a personage—divides, with the other august Being, the sovereignty of the spiritual world. Were I a cynic, I should say he owned at least half of the physical world into the bargain! But Satan is only a spirit, and his power over men is but as the power of a dream. Were a Satan to arise in the flesh, so that men could see and touch him, and hear his voice with their fleshy ears,—there were a Satan! Already has the Incarnation of goodness appeared to mankind, and, though the world be moved to virtue only slowly and with reluctance, mark how mighty has been his influence! What think you, then, would be the power of a Christ of evil, showing to men the path they already grope for? I tell you, the human race would be his only; Hell, full to bursting with their hurrying souls, would outweigh Heaven in the balance; the teller of the secret would be king above all,—forever!"
The sinuous voice twined round the listener's mind, swaddling the vigorous limbs into imbecile inertia. But when before now did a sane human brain let itself be duped by sophistry? This case were worth marking, if only because it is unparalleled.
"And the only punishable sin is ignorance!" muttered Helwyse.
"Well, I have thought so, too. And I have questioned whether a man might have power over himself, to put his hand to evil or to good alike, and to remain impartial and impassive; and so make evil and good alike minister to his culture and raise him upwards!"
"The question does credit to your wit," chimed in the voice of darkness. "Whoever has in him the making of a deity must learn the nature of opposites. The soldier will not join battle without studying the tactics of the enemy. Without experimental knowledge of both evil and good, none but a fool would believe that man can become all-powerful."
"From the care with which you avoid speaking the name of God, if from no other cause, I should suppose you to be the Devil himself!" observed Helwyse, bluntly.
"Well, profanity is vulgar! As to my being the Devil, it is too dark here for either denial or acknowledgment to be of practical use. But (to be serious)—about this secret—"
The voice paused interrogatively. Lucifer, speaking through Helwyse's lips, demanded sullenly,—
"Well, what is the secret?"
What, indeed! Why, there is no such secret;—it is a bugbear! But the moral perversion of the person who could soberly ask the question that Helwyse asked is not so easily disposed of. It met, indeed, with full recognition. As for the subtile voice, having accomplished its main purpose, it began now to evade the point and to run into digressions; until the collision came, and ended the conversation forever.
"Unfortunately," said the voice, "the secret is not such as may be told in a word. Like all profound knowledge, it can only be communicated by leading the learner, step by step, over the ground traversed by the original discoverer. Let me, as a sort of preliminary, suppose a case."
Hereupon ensued a considerable silence, and Helwyse seemed once more a detached atom, flying through infinite darkness without guide or control. Where was he?—what was he? Did the world exist,—the broad earth, the sunny sky, the beauty, the sound, the order and sweet succession of nature? Was he a shadow that had dreamed for a moment a strange dream, and would anon be quenched, and know what had seemed Self no more? Strangely, through the doubt and uncertainty, Helwyse felt the pressure of his shoulders against the cabin wall, and the touch of the dead cigar between his fingers.
The voice, resuming, restored him to a reality that seemed less trustworthy than the doubt. The tone was not quite the same as heretofore. The smooth mocking had given place to a hurried excitement, alien to the philosophic temperament.
"A man kidnaps the child of his enemy, through the child to revenge himself. Kill it?—no! he is no short-sighted bungler; he has refinement, foresight, understanding. She is but an infant,—open and impressible, warm and sanguine! He isolates her from sight and reach. He pries into her nature with keenest delicacy,—no leaf is unread. Being learnt, he works upon it; touches each budding trait with gentlest impulse. No violence! he seems to leave her to her own development; yet nothing goes against his will. More than half is left to nature, but his scarce perceptible touches bias nature. Ah! the idealization of education!"
"This sounds more real than hypothetical!" thought Helwyse.
"So cunning was he, he reversed in her mind the universal law. Evil was good; good, evil. She grew fast and strong, for evil is the sweeter food; it is rich earth to the plant. She never knew that evil existed, yet evil was all she knew! For whatever is forced reacts; he never taught her positive sin, lest she perversely turn to good."
"Did he mean insensibly to initiate her into the knowledge of absolute sin?"
"Such would be his purpose,—such would be his purpose. To make her a devil, without the chance of knowing it possible to be anything else!"
"He was a fool," growled Helwyse. "The plan is folly,—impracticable in twenty ways. A soul cannot be so influenced. Devils are not made by education. The only devil would be the educator!"
But the voice had forgotten his presence. It ceased not to mutter to itself while he was speaking, and now it broke forth again.
"Years have passed,—she is a woman now. She knows not that the world exists. All is yet latent within her. But the time is at hand when the hidden forces shall flower! Plunged into life, with nothing to hold by, no truth, no divine help; her marvellous powers and passions in full strength,—all trained to drag her down,—not one aspiring, maddened by new thoughts, limitless opportunities opening before her,—she will plunge into such an abyss of sin as has been undreamt of since the Deluge!"
"Well,—what of it? what is the upshot?" questioned Helwyse with sullen impatience. The emotion now apparent in the voice, uncanny though it was, counteracted the spell wrought by its purely intellectual depravity. Helwyse was perhaps beginning to understand that he had ventured his stock of virgin gold for a handful of unclean waste-paper!
"He will come back,—her father,—my enemy! I have waited for him from youth to age. I have seen him in my dreams, and in visions. I am with him continually,—we talk together. At first, cringingly and softly, I lead him to recall the past, to speak of the dead wife,—the lost child,—her baby ways and words. I lure him on till imagination has fired his love and given life and vividness to his memory. Then I whisper,—She lives! she is near! in a moment he shall behold her! And while his heart beats and he trembles, I bring her forth in her beauty. Take her! your daughter! the one devil on earth; but devils shall spring like grass in the track of her footsteps!"
The voice had worked itself into a frenzy, and, forgetting caution, had crazily exposed itself. Its owner was probably some poor lunatic, subject to fits of madness. But Helwyse was full of scorn and anger, born of that bitterest disappointment which admits not even the poor consolation of having worthily aspired. He had been duped,—and by the cobwebs of a madman's brain! He broke into a short laugh, harsh to the ear, and answering to no mirthful impulse.
"So! you are the hero of your story? You have brooded all your life over a crazy scheme of stabbing a father through his child, until you have become as blind as you are vicious! As for the girl, you may have made her ignorant and stupid, or even idiotic; but that she should become queen of Hell or anything of that kind—"
He stopped, for his unseen companion was evidently beyond hearing him. The man seemed to be actually struggling in a fit,—gasping and choking. It was a piteous business,—not less piteous than revolting. But Helwyse felt no pity,—only ugly, hateful, unrelenting anger, needing not much stirring to blaze forth in fearful passion. Where now were his wise saws,—his philosophic indifference? Self-respect is the pith of such supports; which being gone, the supports fail.
"My music,—my music!" gasped the voice; "my music, or I shall die!"
"Die? Yes, it were well you should die. You cumber the earth! Shall I do it?" Helwyse muttered to his heart,—"merely as a means of culture!"
Perhaps it was said only in a mood of sardonic jesting. The next moment, no doubt, Balder Helwyse would have retired to his cabin, leaving the voice of darkness forever. But at that moment the hurried flash of a lantern on the captain's bridge fell full on the young man's face and shoulders, gleaming in his eyes, and lighting up the masses of yellow hair and mighty beard. He was standing with one hand resting on the taffrail. The dim halo of the fog, folding him about, made him look like a spirit.
HELWYSE RESISTS THE DEVIL.
As the light so fell, hoarse voices shouted, and then a concussion shivered through the steamer, and her headway was slackened. But of this Helwyse knew nothing; for the voice had burst forth in a cry of fear, amazement, and hate; and in another breath he found himself clutched tightly in long, wiry arms, and felt panting breath hot against his face.
He struggled at first to free himself,—but he was held in the grip of a madman! Then did the turbid current of his blood begin to leap and tingle, and strange half-thoughts darted through his mind like deformed spectres, capering as they flew! The bulwark of his will was overthrown; he could not poise himself long enough to recover his self-sway. He was sliding headlong down a steep, the velocity momently increasing.
Was it Balder Helwyse that was struggling thus furiously, his body full of fire, his brain of madness, his heart quick-beating with savage, wicked, thirsty joy? His soul—his own no longer—was bestridden by a frantic demon, who, brimming over with hot glee, drove him whirling blindly on, with an ever-growing purpose that surcharged each smallest artery, and furnished a condensed dart of malice wherewith to stab and stab again the opposing soul. He waxed every instant madder, wickeder, more devilishly exultant; and now, although panting, breathless, pricking at every pore from the agony of the strain, he could scarce forbear screaming with delight! for he felt he was gaining, and—O ecstasy!—knew that his adversary felt it also, and that his heart was as full of black despair and terror as was his conqueror's of intolerable triumph! Gaining still!
Strange, that all through this wild frenzy in which body and soul were rapt, the essential part of Balder Helwyse seemed to be looking on, with a curious, repellent twist of feature, commenting on what was going forward, and noting, with quiet interest and precision, each varying phase of the struggle,—noting, as of significance, that the sway of the demon of murder made the idea of other crimes seem beyond words congenial, enticing, delicious!
Steadily through this storm of lawless fury has the predestined victory been drawing near! The throbbing of his enemy's heart,—Helwyse feels it; did ever lover so rejoice in the palpitations of his mistress? O the wine of life! drunk from the cup of murder! Hear how the wretch's voice breaks choking from his throat!—he would beg for mercy, but cannot, shall not! Keep your fingers in his throat; the other hand creeps warily downwards. Now hurl him up,—over!—
* * * * *
But with what an ugly gulp the black water swallowed his body!
A DEAD WEIGHT.
Was it not well done? Tempted to covet imaginary wickedness, Helwyse was ripe for real crime,—and who so worthy to suffer as the tempter?
He leaned panting against taffrail. His predominant feeling was that he had been ensnared. His judgment had been drugged, and he had been lured on to evil. An infamous conspiracy!
His breath regained, he stood upright and in a mechanical manner arranged his disordered dress. His haversack was gone,—had been torn from his shoulders and carried overboard. An awkward loss! for it contained, among other things, valuable letters and papers given him by his father; not to mention a note-book of his own, and Uncle Glyphic's miniature. His dead enemy had carried off the proofs of his murderer's identity!
Not till now did Helwyse become aware of an unusual tumult on the steamer. Had they seen the deed?—He stood with set teeth, one hand on the taffrail. Rather than be taken alive, he would leap over!
But it soon became evident that the nucleus of excitement was elsewhere. The "Empire State" was at a stand-still. Captain and mates were shouting to one another and at the sailors. By the flying light of the lanterns Helwyse caught glimpses of the sails and tall masts of a schooner. He began to comprehend what had happened.
"Thank God! that saves me," he said with a sense of relaxation. Then he turned and peered fearfully into the black abyss beyond the stern. Nothing there! nothing save the heavy breathing of remorseless waves.
The statistics of things God has been thanked for,—what piquant instances would such a collection afford! Any unusual stir of emotion seems to impel a reference to something higher than the world. Only a bloodless calm appears to be secure from God's interference. It is worthy of remark that this was the first time in Helwyse's career—at least since his arrival at years of discretion—that he had thanked God for anything. This was not owing to his being of a specially ungrateful disposition, but to peculiar ideas upon the subject of a Supreme Being. God, he believed, was no more than the highest phase of man; and in any man of sufficient natural endowment, he saw a possible God; just as every American citizen is a possible President! What is of moment at present, however, is the fact that the young man's first inconsistency of word with creed dates at the time his self-control forsook him on board the midnight steamer.
In that thanksgiving prayer his passion passed away. After unnaturally distending every sense and faculty, it suddenly ebbed, leaving the consciousness of an irritating vacuum. Something must be done to fill it. One drawback to crime seems to be its insufficiency to itself. It creates a craving which needs must be fed. The demon returns, demanding a fresh task; and he returns again forever!
Helwyse, therefore, plunged into the midst of the uproar consequent on the collision, and tried to absorb the common excitement,—to identify himself with other men; no longer to be apart from them and above them. But he did not succeed. It seemed as though he would never feel excitement or warmth in the blood again! His deed was a dead weight that steadied him spite of his best efforts. His aim has hitherto been, not to forget himself;—let him forget himself now if he can!
The uproar was over all too soon, and the steamer once more under way.
"No serious harm done, sir!—no harm done!" observed a spruce steward.
"No; no harm."
"By the way, sir,—thought I heard some one sing out aft just afore we struck. You heard it, sir? Thought some fellow'd gone overboard, may be!"
"I saw no one," answered Helwyse; nor had he. But he turned away, fearing that the brisk steward might read prevarication in his face. No, he had seen no one; but he had heard a plunge! He revolted from the memory of it, but it would not be banished. Had there been a soul in the body before it made that dive? even for a few minutes afterwards? He would have given much to know! In theorizing about crime, he had always maintained the motive to be all in all. But now, though unable to controvert the logic of his assertion, he felt it told less than the whole truth. He recognised a divine conservative virtue in straws, and grasped at the smallest! Through the long torture of self-questioning and indecision, let us not follow him. Uncertainty is a ghastly element in such a matter.
He groped his way back to the taffrail. Why, he knew not; but there he was at last. He might safely soliloquize now; there was no listener. He might light a cigar and smoke; no one would see him. Yet, no; for, on second thoughts, his cigars had gone with the haversack!
He bent over the slender iron railing. Where was—it now? Miles away by this time, swinging, swaying down—down—down to the bottom of the Sound! Slowly turning over as it sinks, its arms now thrown out, now doubled underneath; the legs sprawling helplessly; the head wagging loosely on the dead neck. Down—down, pitching slowly head forwards; righting, and going down standing, the hair floating straight on end. Down! O, would it never be done sinking—sinking—sinking? Was the sea deep as Hell?
But when it reached the bottom, would it rest there? No, not even there. It would drift uneasily about for a while on the dark sand, the green gloom of the water above it. Every hour it would grow less and less heavy; by and by it would begin slowly to rise—rise! Horrible it looked now; not like itself, that had been horrible enough before. Rising,—rising. O fearful thing! why come to tell dead men's tales here? You are done with the world. What wants mankind with you? Begone! sink, and rise no more! It will not sink; still it rises, and the green gloom lightens as it slowly buoys upwards. The light rests shrinkingly on it, revealing the dreadful features. The limbs are no longer pliant, but stiff,—terribly stiff and unyielding. Still it rises, nearer and nearer to the surface. See where the throat was gripped! Up it comes at last in the morning sun, among the sparkling, laughing, pure blue waves,—the swollen, dead thing!—dead in the midst of the world's life, hideous amidst the world's beauty. It bobs and floats, and will sink no more; would rise to heaven if it could! No need for that. The tide takes it and creeps stealthily with it towards the shore, and casts it, with shudder and recoil, upon the beach. There it lies.
Such visions haunted Helwyse as he leaned over the taffrail. He had not suspected, at starting, upon how long a voyage he was bound. How many hours might it be since he and the cook had so merrily dined together? Was such a contrast possible? Surely no more monstrous delusion than this of Time ever imposed upon mankind! For months and years he jogs on with us, a dull and sober-paced pedestrian. Then comes a sudden eternity! But Time thrusts a clock in our faces, and shows us that the hands have marked a minute only. Shall we put faith in him?
Helwyse suffered from a vivid imagination. He went not to his room that night. He kept the deck, and tried to talk with the men, following them about and asking aimless questions, until they began to give him short answers. Where were his pride and his serene superiority to the friendship or enmity of his race? where his philosophic self-criticism and fanciful badinage? his resolute, conquering eyes? his bearing of graceful, careless authority? Had all these attributes been packed in his haversack, and cast with that upon the waters? and would they, no more than he to whose care they had been intrusted, ever return?
With each new hour, morning seemed farther off. In his objectless wanderings, Helwyse came to the well of the engine-room and hung over it, gazing at the bright, swift-sliding machinery, studying the parts, tracing the subtle transmission of force from piece to piece. Here at last was companionship for him! The engine was a beautiful combination,—so polished, effective, and logical; like the minds of some philosophers, moving with superhuman regularity and power, but lifeless!
Helwyse watched it long, till finally its monotony wearied him. It was doing admirable work, but it never swerved from its course at the call of sentiment or emotion. Its travesty of life was repulsive. Machinery is the most admirable invention of man, but is modelled after no heavenly prototype, and will have no part in the millennium. It seems to annul space and time, yet gives us no taste of eternity. Man lives quicker by it, but not more. With another kind of weapon must the true victory over matter be achieved!
Most benign and beautiful was the morning. The "Empire State" emerged from the fog and left it, a rosy cloud, astern. The chasing waves sparkled and danced for joy. The sun was up, fresh and unstained as yesterday. Night, that had changed so much, had left the sun undimmed. With the same power and brightness as for innumerable past centuries, his glorious glance colored the gray sky blue. Helwyse—he was at the stern taffrail again—looked at the marvellous sphere with unwinking eyes, until it blurred and swam before him, and danced in colored rings. It warmed his face, but penetrated no deeper. Looking away, black suns moved everywhere before his eyes, and the earth looked dim and shabby, as though blighted by a curse.
Helwyse had not slept, partly from disinclination to the solitude of his berth, partly because the thought of awakening dismayed him. Nevertheless, he could scarcely believe in what had happened, now. He stood upon the very spot; here was the semicircle of railing, the camp-stools, the white cabin-wall against which he had leaned. But the blackness of night had so utterly past away that it seemed as though the deed done in it must in some manner have vanished likewise. What is fact at one time looks unreal at another. It must be associated with all times and moods before it can be fully comprehended and accepted.
Glancing down at the deck, Helwyse saw there the cigar he had been smoking the night before, flattened out by the tread of a foot, and lying close beside it a sparkling ring. He picked it up; it was a diamond of purest water, curiously caught between the mouths of two little serpents, whose golden and black bodies, twisted round each other, formed the hoop. Realizing, after a moment, from whose finger it must have fallen, he had an impulse to fling it far into the sea; but his second thought was not to part from it. The idea of its former owner must indeed always be hateful to his murderer; but the bond between their souls was closer and more indissoluble than that between man and wife; and of so unnatural a union this ring was a fair emblem. Unnatural though the union were, to Helwyse it seemed at the time better than total solitude.
He felt heavy and inelastic,—averse to himself, but still more to society. He wished to see men and women, yet not to be seen of them. He had used to be ready in speech, and willing to listen; now, no subject interested him save one,—on which his lips must be forever closed. When the sun had made himself thoroughly at home on earth and in heaven, Helwyse went to his state-room, feeling unclean from the soul outwards. While making his toilet, he took care to leave the window-blind up, that he might at any time see the blue sky and water, and the bright shore, with its foliage and occasional houses. He shrank from severing, even for an instant, his communication with the beneficent spirit of nature. And yet Nature could not comfort him,—in his extremest need he found her most barren. He had been wont to rejoice in her as the creature of his own senses; but when he asked her to sympathize with his pain, she laughed at him,—the magnificent coquette!—and bade him, since she was only the reflection of himself, be content with his own sympathy. Truly, if man and Nature be thus allied, and God be but man developed, then is self-sufficiency the only virtue worth cultivating, and idolatry must begin at home!
His efforts to improve his appearance were not satisfactory; the loss of his toilet articles embarrassed him not a little; and he, moreover, lacked zest to enter into the business with his customary care. And what he did was done not merely for his own satisfaction, as heretofore, but with an eye to the criticisms of other people. His naively unconscious independence had got a blow. After doing his best he went out, pale and heavy-eyed, the diamond ring on his finger.
The passengers had begun to assemble in the cabin. It seemed to Helwyse, as he entered, that one and all turned and stared at him with suspicious curiosity. He half expected to see an accuser rise up and point a dreadful finger at him. But in truth the sensation he created was no more than common; it was his morbid sensitiveness, which for the first time took note of it. He had been accustomed to look at himself as at a third person, in whose faults or successes he was alike interested; but although his present mental attitude might have moved him to smile, he, in fact, felt no such impulse. The hue of his deed had permeated all possible forms of himself, thus barring him from any standpoint whence to see its humorous aspect. The sun would not shine on it!
As time passed on, however, and no one offered to denounce him, Helwyse began to be more at ease. Seeing the steward with whom he had spoken the night before, he asked him whereabouts he supposed the schooner was.
"O, she'll be in by night, sir, safe enough. Wind's freshened up a good bit since; wouldn't take her long to rig a new bowsprit. Beg pardon, sir, did you happen to know the party next door to you?"
"I know no one. What about him?"
"Can't find him nowhere, sir. Door locked this morning; hadn't used his bed; must have come aboard, for there was a violin lying on the bed in a black box, for all the world like a coffin, sir. Queer, ain't it?"
The steward was called away, but Helwyse's uneasiness had returned. Did this fellow suspect nothing? The student of men could not read his face; the power of insight seemed to have left him. Reason could tell him that it was impossible he should be suspected, but reason no longer satisfied him.
He left the cabin and once more sought the deck, harried and anxious. Why could not he be stolid and indifferent, as were many worse criminals than he? Or was his disquiet a gauge of his moral accountability? By as much as he was more finely gifted than other men, was the stain of sin upon his soul more ineffaceable? Last night, ignorance was the only evil; but had he been satisfied with less wisdom, might he not have sinned with more impunity? Nevertheless, Balder Helwyse would hardly have been willing to purchase greater ease at the price of being less a man.
The steamer descended the narrow and swift current of East River, rounded Castle Garden, and reached her pier before eight o'clock. Shoulder to shoulder with the other passengers, Helwyse descended the gangplank. The official who took his ticket eyed him so closely that there was the beginning of an impulse in his weary brain to knock the fellow down. Finding himself not interfered with, however, he passed on to the rattling street, beginning to understand that the attention he excited was not owing to a visible brand of Cain, but to his beard and hair which were at variance with the fashion of that day. He was neither more nor less a cynosure than at other times. But he was more sensitive to notice, and it now occurred to him that his unique appearance was unsafe as well as irksome. Were a certain body found, in connection with evidence more or less circumstantial, how readily might he be pointed out! He fancied himself reading the description in a newspaper, and realized how many and how easily noted were his peculiarities. His carelessness of public remark had been folly. The sooner his peculiarities were amended, the better!
At the corner of the street stood a couple of policemen,—ponderous, powerful men, able between them to carry to jail the most refractory criminal. One path was open to Helwyse, whereby to recover his self-respect, and regain his true footing with the world; and that led into the hands of those policemen! With a revulsion of feeling perhaps less strange than it seems, he walked up to them, resolved to surrender himself on a charge of murder. It was the simplest issue to his embarrassments.
"Policemen!" he began, with a return of his assured voice and bearing. They stared at him, and one said, "How?"
"Direct me to the best hotel near here!" said Helwyse.
They stared, and told him the way to the Astor House.
There had been but the briefest hesitation in Helwyse's mind, but during that pause he had reconsidered his resolve and said No to it. Remembering some episodes of his past history, he cannot hastily be accused of vulgar fear of death. In his case, indeed, it may have required more courage to close his mouth than to open it. Be that as it might, the question as to the degree and nature of his guilt was still unsettled in his mind. Moreover, had he been clear on this point, he yet distrusted the competence of human laws to do him justice. He shrank from surrender, less as affecting his person than as superseding his judgment. But, failing himself and mankind, to what other court can he appeal? Should the fitting tribunal appear, will he have the nerve to face it?
He did not go to the Astor House, notwithstanding the trouble he had taken to ask his way thither. He coasted along the more obscure thoroughfares, seeming to find something congenial in them. Here were people, many of whom had also committed crimes, whose eyes he need not shun to meet, who were his brethren. To be sure, they gave him no friendly glances, taking him for some dainty aristocrat, whom idle curiosity had led to their domains. But Helwyse knew the secret of his kinship; and he perhaps indulged a wild momentary dream of proclaiming himself to them, entering into their life, and vanishing from that world that had known him heretofore. It is a shorter step than is generally supposed, from human height to human degradation.
A pale girl with handsome features, careless expression, and somewhat disordered hair, leant out of a low window, her loose dress falling partly open from her bosom as she did so.
"Where are you going, my love?" inquired she, with a professionally attractive smile. "Aren't you going to give me a lock of that sweet yellow hair?—there's a duck!"
It so happened that Helwyse had never before been openly accosted by a member of this class of the community. Was this infringement of the rule the result of his own fall, or of the girl's exceptional effrontery? He had an indignant glance ready poised, but forbore to hurl it! The worst crime of the young woman was that she disposed of herself at a rate of remuneration exactly corresponding to the value of the commodity; whereas he, less economical and orderly, had mortgaged his own soul by disposing of some one else's body, and was, if anything, out of pocket by the transaction! Undoubtedly the young woman had the best of it; very likely, had she been aware of the circumstances, she would not have deigned him so much as a smile. He therefore neither yielded to her solicitations nor rebuked them, but passed on. The adventure rectified his fraternizing impulse. Albeit standing accountant for so great a sin, the mire was as yet alien to him.
But there was pertinence in the young woman's question; where was he going, indeed? Since the catastrophe on board the steamer, he had forgotten Doctor Glyphic. He felt small inclination to meet his relative now; but certain considerations of personal interest no longer wore the same color as yesterday. Robbed of his self-respect, he could ill afford to surrender worldly wealth into the bargain. On the other hand, to palm himself off on his uncle for a true man was adding hypocrisy to his other crime.
Such an objection, however, could hardly have turned the scale. Great crimes are magnets of smaller ones. It was necessary for Helwyse to alter the whole scheme of his life-voyage; and since he had failed in beating up against the wind, why not make all sail before it? Meanwhile, it was easier to call on Doctor Glyphic than to devise a new course of action; and thus, had matters been allowed to take their natural turn, mere inertia might have brought about their meeting.
But the irony of events turns our sternest resolves to ridicule. On the next street-corner was a hair-dresser's shop, its genial little proprietor, plump and smug, rubbing his hands and smiling in the doorway. Beholding the commanding figure of the yellow-bearded young aristocrat, afar off, his professional mouth watered over him. What a harvest for shears and razor was here! Dare he hope that to him would be intrusted the glorious task of reaping it?
As Helwyse gained the corner, his weary eyes took in the smiling hair-dresser, the little room beyond cheerful with sunshine and colored paper-hangings, and the padded chair for customers to recline in. Here might he rest awhile, and rise up a new man,—a stranger to himself and to all who had known him. It was fitting that the inward change should take effect without; not to mention that the wearing of so conspicuous a mane was as unsafe as it was unsuitable.
He entered the shop, therefore,—the proprietor backing and bowing before him,—and sat down with a sigh in the padded chair. Immediately he was enveloped in a light linen robe, a towel was tucked in round his neck by deft caressing fingers, the soothing murmur of a voice was in his ear, and presently sounded the click-click of shears. The descendant of the Vikings closed his eyes and felt comfortable.
The peculiar color and luxuriance of Balder's hair and beard were marked attributes of the Helwyse line. In these days of ponderous genealogies, who would be surprised to learn that the family sprang from that Balder, surnamed the Beautiful, who was the sun-god of Scandinavian mythology? Certain of his distinctive characteristics, both physical and mental, would appear to have been perpetuated with marvellous distinctness throughout the descent; above all, the golden locks, the blue eyes, and the sunny disposition.
For the rest, so far as sober history can trace them back, they seem to have been a noble and adventurous race of men, loving the sea, but often taking a high part in the political affairs of the nation. The sons were uniformly fair, but the daughters dark,—owing, it was said, to the first mother of the line having been a dark-eyed woman. But the advent of a dark-eyed heir had been foretold from the earliest times, not without ominous (albeit obscure) hints as to the part he would play in the family history. The precise wording of none of these old prophecies has come down to us; but they seem in general to have intimated that the dark-eyed Helwyse would bring the race to a ruinous and disgraceful end, saving on the accomplishment of conditions too improbable to deserve recording. The dead must return to life, the living forsake their identity, love unite the blood of the victim to that of the destroyer,—and other yet stranger things must happen before the danger could be averted.
The superstitious reverence paid to enigmatical utterances of this kind has long ago passed away; and, if any meaning ever attaches to them, it is apt to be sadly commonplace. Nevertheless, when Balder was born, and the hereditary blue eyes were found wanting, the circumstance was doubtless the occasion of much half-serious banter among those to whom the ominous prophecies were familiar. Certainly the young man had already made one grave mistake; and he could hardly have followed it up by a more disgraceful retreat than this to the hair-dresser's saloon. The ghosts of his heroic forefathers in Valhalla would disown his shorn head with indignant scorn; for their golden locks had ever been sacred to them as their honor. When the Roman Empire was invaded by the Goths and Vandals, a Helwyse—so runs the tale—was taken prisoner and brought before the Roman General. The latter summoned a barber and a headsman, and informed the captive that he might choose between forfeiting his head, and that which grew upon it. As to the precise words in which the Northern warrior couched his reply, historians vary; but they are agreed on the important point that his head was chopped off without delay!
Did the memory of these things bring no blush to Balder's cheeks? There he sat, as indifferent, to all outward seeming, as though he were asleep. But this may have been the apathy consequent on the abandonment of lofty pretensions and sublime ambitions; betraying proud sensitiveness rather than base lack of feeling. Balder Helwyse was not the first man of parts to appear in an undignified and unheroic light. The foremost man of all this world once whined like a sick girl for his physic, and preposterously overestimated his swimming powers; yet his greatness found him out!
In sober earnest, however, what real importance attaches to Helwyse's doings at this juncture? Physically and mentally weary, he may have acted from the most ordinary motives. As to his entertaining any superstitious crotchets about having his hair cut,—the spirit of the age forbid it!
THROUGH A GLASS.
The hair-dresser had the quality—now rare among his class—of unlimited and self-enjoying loquacity; soothing, because its little waves lapsed in objectless prattle on the beach of the apprehension, to be attended to or not at pleasure. The sentences were without regular head or tail, and were connected by a friendly arrangement between themselves, rather than by any logical sequence; while the recurring pauses at interesting epochs of work wrought a recognition of how caressing had been the easy voice, and accumulated a lazy disposition to hear it continue.
After decking Helwyse for the sacrifice, he had murmured confidentially in his ear, "Hair, sir?—or beard, sir?—or both?—little of both, sir? Just so. Hair first, please, sir. Love-ly morning!"
And thereupon began to clip and coo and whisk softly about, in the highest state of barberic joy. As he worked, inspired by the curly, flowing glossy locks which, to his eye, called inarticulately for the tools of his trade, his undulating monologue welled forth until Coleridge might have envied him. Helwyse heard the sound, but let the words go by to that unknown limbo whither all sounds, good or bad, have been flying since time began.
By and by the hair was done; there ensued a plying of brushes, a blowing down the neck, and a shaking out of the linen apron.
"Will you cast your eyes on the mirror now, sir, please?"
"No,—go on and finish, first," replied Helwyse; and forthwith a cushion was insinuated beneath his head, and his feet were elevated upon a rest. He heard the preparation of the warm lather, and anon the knowing strapping of a razor. He put up his hand and stroked his beard for the last time, wondering how he would look without it.
"Never saw the like before, sir; must have annoyed you dreadful!" remarked the commiserating barber, as he passed the preparatory scissors round his customer's jaw, mowing the great golden sheaf at one sweep. He spoke of it as though it were a cancer or other painful excrescence, the removal of which would be to the sufferer a boon unspeakable.
Helwyse's face expressed neither anguish nor relief; he presently lost himself in thoughts of his own, only returning to the perception of outside things when the barber asked him whether he, also, had ever attended camp-meeting; the subject being evidently one which had been held forth upon for some time past.
"No?" continued the little man who by long practice had acquired a wonderful power of interpreting silence. "Well, it's a great thing, sir; and a right curious thing is experiencing religion, too! A great blessing I've found it, sir; there's a peace dwells with me, as the minister says, right along all the time now. Does the razor please you, sir? Ah! I was a wild and godless being once, although always reckoned a smart hand with the razor;—Satan never took my cunning hand, as the poet says, away from me. Yes, there was a time when I was how-d' y'-do with all the bloods around the place, and a good business I used to do out of them, too, sir; but religion is a peace there's no understanding, as the Good Book says; and if I don't make all I used to, I save twice as much,—and that's the good of it, sir. Beau-ti-ful chin is yours, sir, I declare!"
"Do you believe in the orthodox faith?" demanded Helwyse; "in miracles, and the Trinity, and so forth?"
"Everything we're told to believe in I believe, I hope, sir; and as quick as I hear anything more, why, I'm ready to believe that also, provided only it comes through orthodox channels, as the saying is. Ah, sir, it's the unquestioning belief that brings the happiness. I wouldn't have anything explained to me, not if I could! and my faith is such, that what goes against it I never would believe, not if you proved it to me black and white, sir! Love-ly skin you've got, sir,—it's just like a woman's. The intellect is a snare, that's what it is,—ah, yes! You think with me, sir, don't you?"
But Helwyse had relapsed into silence. The little hair-dresser was happy, was he?—happy, and hopeful, and conscious of spiritual progress?—had no misgivings and feared no danger,—because he had eliminated reason from his scheme of religion! Divine reason,—could man live without it? A snare?—Well, had not Balder found it so?
True, that was not reason's fault, but his who misused reason. True, also, that he who believed on others' authority believed not ideas but men, and was destitute of self-reliance or dignity. Yet the hair-dresser seemed to find in that very dependence his best happiness, and to have built up a factitious self-respect from the very ruin of true dignity. His position was the antipodes of Balder's, yet, if results were evidence, it was tenable and more successful.
This plump, superficial, smiling little hair-dresser was a person of no importance, yet it happened to him to modify not only Helwyse's external aspect, but the aspect of his mind as well,—by the presentation of a new idea; for strange to say, Helwyse had never chanced to doubt that seraphim were higher than cherubim, or that independence was the only ladder to heaven. To be taught by one avowedly without intellect is humiliating; but the experience of many will furnish examples of a singular disregard of this kind of proprieties.
When the shaving was done to the artist's satisfaction, he held the mirror before his customer's face. Helwyse looked narrowly at his reflection, as was natural in making the acquaintance of one who was to be his near and intimate companion. He beheld a set of features strongly yet gracefully built, but shorn of a certain warm, manly attractiveness. The immediate visibility of mouth and chin—index of so large a part of man's nature—startled him. He was dismayed at the ease wherewith the working of emotion might now be traced. Man wholly unveiled to himself is indeed an awful spectacle, be the dissection-room that of the surgeon or of the psychologist. Hardly might angels themselves endure it. A measure of ignorance of ourselves is wise, because consciousness of a weakness may lead us to give it rein. Perfect strength can coexist only with perfect knowledge, but neither is attainable by man. Man should pay to be screened from himself, lest his sword fail,—lest the Gorgon's head on his breast change him to stone.
The gracious, outflowering veil of Balder Helwyse's life had vanished, leaving nakedness. Henceforth he must depend on fence, feint and guard, not on the downright sword-stroke. With Adam, the fig-leaf succeeded innocence as a garment; for Helwyse, artificial address must do duty as a fig-leaf. The day of guiltless sincerity was past; gone likewise the day of open acknowledgment of guilt. Now dawned the day of counterfeiting,—not always the shortest of our mortal year.
On the whole, Helwyse's new face pleased him not. He felt self-estranged and self-distrustful. Standing on the borders of a darker land, the thoughts and deeds of his past life swarmed in review before his eyes. Many a seeming trifling event now showed as the forewarning of harm to come. The day's journey once over, we see its issue prophesied in each trumpery raven and cloud that we have met since morning. However, the omens would have read as well another way; for nature, like man, is twofold, and can be as glibly quoted to Satan's advantage as to God's.
"Very well done!" said Helwyse to the barber, passing a hand over the close-cropped head and polished chin. "The only trouble is, it cannot be done once for all."
As the little man smilingly remarked, however, the charge was but ten cents. His customer paid it and went out, and was seen by the hair-dresser to walk listlessly up the street. The improvement in his personal appearance had not mended his spirits. Indeed, it cannot be disguised that his trouble was more serious than lay within a barber's skill altogether to set right.
Were man potentially omniscient, then might Balder's late deed be no crime, but a simple exercise of prerogative. But is knowledge of evil real knowledge? God is goodness and man is evil. God knows both good and evil. Man knows evil—knows himself—only; knows God only in so far as he ceases to be man and admits God. But this simple truth becomes confused if we fancy a possible God in man.
This was Balder's difficulty. Possessed of a strong, comprehensive mind, he had made a providence of himself; confounded intelligence with integrity; used the moral principle not as a law of action but as a means of insight. The temptation so to do is strong in proportion as the mind is greatly gifted. But experience shows no good results from yielding to it. Blind moral instinct, if not safer, is more comfortable!
Not the deed alone, but the revelation it brought, preyed on the young man's peace. If he were a criminal to-day, then was the whole argument of his past life criminal likewise. Yesterday's deed was the logical outcome of a course of thought extending over many yesterdays. Why, then, had not his present gloom impended also, and warned him beforehand? Because, while parleying with the Devil, he looks angelic; but having given our soft-spoken interlocutor house-room, he makes up for lost time by becoming direfully sincere!
On first facing the world in his new guise, Helwyse felt an embarrassment which he fancied everybody must remark. But, in fact (as he was not long discovering), he was no longer remarkable; the barber had wiped out his individuality. It was what he had wished, and yet his insignificance annoyed him. The stare of the world had put him out of countenance; yet when it stopped staring he was still unsatisfied. What can be the solution of this paradox?
It perhaps was the occasion of his seeking the upper part of the city, where houses were more scarce and there were fewer people to be unconcerned! In country solitudes he could still be the chief figure. He entered Broadway at the point where Grace Church stands, and passed on through the sparsely inhabited region now known as Union Square. The streets hereabouts were but roughly marked out, and were left in many places to the imagination. On the corner of Twenty-third Street was a low whitewashed inn, whose spreading roof overshadowed the girdling balcony. Farmers' wagons were housed beneath the adjoining shed, and one was drawn up before the door, its driver conversing with a personage in shirt-sleeves and straw hat, answering to the name of Corporal Thompson.
Helwyse perhaps stopped at the Corporal's hospitable little establishment to rest himself and get some breakfast; but whether or not, his walk did not end here, but continued up Broadway, and after passing a large kitchen-garden (whose owner, a stout Dutchman, was pacing its central path, smoking a long clay pipe which he took from his lips only to growl guttural orders to the gardeners who were stooping here and there over the beds), emerged into open country, where only an occasional Irish shanty broke the solitude.
How long the young man walked he never knew; but at length, from the summit of a low hill, he looked northwest and saw the gleam of Hudson River. Leaving the road he struck across rocky fields which finally brought him to the river-bank. A stony promontory jutted into the water, and on this (having clambered to its outer extremity) Helwyse sat down, his feet overhanging the swirling current. The tide was just past the flood.
About two hundred yards up stream, to the northward, stood a small wooden house, on the beach in front of which a shabby old mariner was bailing out his boat. Southwards, some miles away, curved the shadowed edge of the city, a spire mounting here and there, a pencilled mist of smoke from chimneys, a fringe of thready masts around the farthest point. In front slid ceaselessly away the vast sweep of levelled water, and still it came undiminished on. The opposing shore was a mile distant, its rocky front gradually gaining abruptness and height until lost round the northern curve. But directly opposite Helwyse's promontory, the stony wall was for some way especially precipitous and high, its lofty brink serried with a thick phalanx of trees.
This spot finally monopolized the adventurer's attention; had he been in Germany, he would have looked for gray castle-towers rising behind the foliage. The place looked inaccessible and romantic, and was undeniably picturesque. New York was far enough away to be mistaken for—say—Alexandria; while the broad river certainly took its rise in as prehistoric an age as the Nile itself. Perhaps in the early morning of the world some chieftain built his stronghold there, and fought notable battles and gave mighty feasts; and later married, and begat stalwart sons, or a daughter beautiful as earth and sky! Where to-day were her youth and beauty, her loving noble heart, her warm melodious voice, her eyes full of dark light? Why were there no such women now?—not warped, imperfect, only half alive in body and spirit; but charged from the heart outwards with pure divine vitality,—natures vivid as fire, yet by strength serene!
"Why did not I live when she lived, to marry her?" muttered Helwyse in a dream. "A woman whose infinite variety age could not alter nor custom stale! A true wife would have kept me from error. What man can comprehend the world, if he puts half the world away? Now it is too late; she might have helped me rise to greatness, but not to bear disgrace. Ah, Balder Helwyse, poor fool! you babble as if she stood before you to take or leave. You rise to greatness? You never had the germs of greatness in you! You are so little that not the goddess Freya herself could have made you tall! Through what delusion did you fancy yourself better than any other worm?"
There was an interval, not more than a rod or two in width, in the tree-hedge which lined the opposite cliff. Through this one might get a narrow glimpse of what lay beyond. A strip of grassy lawn extended in front of what seemed to be the stone corner of a house. The distance obscured detail, but it looked massively built, though not after the modern style. As Helwise gazed, sharpening his eyes to discern more clearly, he saw a figure moving across the lawn directly towards him. Advancing to the brink of the cliff, it there paused and seemed to return his glance. Helwyse could not tell whether it were man or woman. Had the river only been narrower!
The next moment he remembered his telescope, and, taking it from its case, he was at a bound within one hundred yards of the western shore. Man or woman? he steadied the glass on his knee and looked again. A woman, surely,—but how strangely dressed! Such a costume had not been in vogue since Damascus was a new name in men's mouths. Balder gazed and gazed. Accurately to distinguish the features was impossible,—tantalizingly so; for the gazer was convinced that she was both young and beautiful. Her motions, her bearing, the graceful peculiarity of her garb,—a hundred nameless evidences made it sure. How delightful to watch her in her unconsciousness! yet Helwyse felt a delicacy in thus stealing on her without her knowledge or consent. But the misgiving was not strong enough to shut up his telescope; perhaps it added a zest to the enjoyment.
"The very princess you were just now dreaming of! the most beautiful and complete woman! Would I were the prince to win thee!"
This aspiration was whispered, as though its object were within conversable distance. Balder could be imaginative enough when the humor took him.
Hardly had the whisper passed his lips when he saw the princess majestically turn her lovely head, slowly and heedfully, until her glance seemed directly to meet his own. His cheeks burned; it was as if she had actually overheard him. Was she gracious or offended? He saw her stretch towards him her arms, and then, with a gesture of beautiful power, clasp her hands and draw them in to her bosom.
Prince Balder's hand trembled, the telescope slipped; the quick effort to regain it lent it an impetus that shot it far into the water. It had done its work and was gone forever. The beautiful princess was once more a vague speck across a mile of rapid river; now, even the speck had moved beyond the trees and was out of sight!
The episode had come so unexpected, and so quickly passed, that now it seemed never to have been at all! But Helwyse had yielded himself unreservedly to the influence of the moment. Following so aptly the fanciful creation of his thought, the apparition had acquired peculiar significance. The abrupt disappearance afflicted him like a positive loss.
Did he, then, soberly believe himself and the princess to have exchanged glances (not to speak of thoughts) across a river a mile wide? Perhaps he merely courted a fancy from which the test of reason was deliberately withheld. Spirits not being amenable to material laws, what was the odds (so far as exchange of spiritual sentiment was concerned) whether the prince and princess were separated by miles or inches?
But however plausible the fancy, it was over. Helwyse leaned back on the rock, drew his hat over his eyes, folded his hands beneath his head, and appeared to sleep.
THE TOWER OF BABEL.
In a perfect state of society, where people will think and act in harmony with only the purest aesthetic laws, a knowledge of stenography and photography will suffice for the creation of perfect works of art. But until that epoch comes, the artist must be content to do the grouping, toning, and proportioning of his picture for himself, under penalty of redundancy and confusion. People nowadays seldom do or think the right thing at the fitting moment; insomuch that the biographer, if he would be intelligible, must use his own discretion in arranging his materials.
Now, in view of the rough shaking which late events had given Balder and his opinions, it is doing no violence to probability to fancy him taking an early opportunity to pass these opinions in review. It would be easy, by a glance at the magic ring, to reproduce his meditations just as they passed through his brain. Brevity and pertinence, however, counsel us to recall a dialogue which had taken place about three years before.
Balder and his father were then in the North of England; and the latter (who never concerned himself with any save the plainest and most practical philosophy) was not a little startled at an analogy drawn by his son between the cloud-cap on Helvellyn's head and the Almighty! Premising that the cloud-cap, though apparently stable, was really created by the continuous passage of warmer air through a cold region around the summit of the mountain, whereby it was for a moment condensed into visibility and then swept on,—having postulated this fact, and disregarding the elder's remark that he believed not a word of it,—Balder went on to say that God was only a set of attributes,—in a word, the perfection of all human attributes,—and not at all an individual!
"And what has that to do with your cloud-making theory?" demanded Thor, with scorn.
"The perfect human attributes," replied Balder, unruffled, "correspond to the region of condensation,—the cold place, you understand."
"Do they? Well?"
"The constant condensation of the warm current from below corresponds to the taking on of these attributes by a ceaseless succession of human souls. Filling out the Divine character, they lose identity, and so make room for others."
"What are these attributes?"
"They are ineffable,—they are omniscience,—the comprehension of the whole creative idea."
"You expect me to believe that,—eh?" growled Thor.
"If I could believe you understood it, dear old sceptic!" returned Balder, with affectionate irreverence, throwing his arm across his father's broad shoulders. "I say that every soul of right capacity, living for culture, and not afraid of itself, will at last reach that highest point. It is the sublime goal of man, and no human life is complete unless in gaining it. Many fail, but not all. I will not! No, I am not blasphemous; I think life without definite aim not worth having; and that aim, the highest conceivable."
Thor, having stared in silence at his descendant, came out with a stentorian Viking laugh, which Balder sustained with perfect good-humor.
"Ho, ho!—the devil is in you, son!—in those black eyes of yours,—ho, ho! No other Helwyse ever had such eyes,—or such ideas either! Well, but supposing you passed the condensation point, what then?"
Balder, who was entirely in earnest about the matter, answered gravely,—
"I cease to be; but what was I becomes the pure, life-giving, spiritual substance, and enters into fresh personalities, and so passes up again in endless circulation."
"Hum! and how with the evil ones, boy?"
"As with all waste matter; they are cast aside, and, as distinct souls, are gradually annihilated. But they may still manure the soil, and involuntarily help the growth of others. Sooner or later, in one or another form, all come into use."
"For all I see, then," quoth Thor, "your devils come to the same end as your gods!"
"There is the same kind of difference," returned the philosopher, "as between light and earth,—both of which help the growth of flowers; but light gives color and beauty, earth only the insipid matter. I would rather be the light."
"Another thing," proceeded Thor, ignoring this distinction; "admitting all else, how do you account for your region of condensation?"
"By the necessity of perfection," answered Balder, after some consideration. "There would be no meaning in existence unless it tended towards perfection. But you have hit on the unanswerable question."
Thor shook his head and huge grizzled beard. "German University humbug!" growled he. "Get you into a scrape some day. The cloud's not made in that way, I tell you! Come, let's go back to the inn."
"Take my arm," said Balder; and as together they descended the spur of the mountain, he added lovingly, "I'll bring no clouds across your sky, my dear old man!" So the hospitable inn received them.
The discussion between the two was never renewed; but Balder held to his creed. He elaborated and fortified what had been mere outline before. No dogma can be conceived which many circumstances will not seem to confirm and justify. But we cannot attempt to keep abreast of Balder's deductions. There are as many theological systems as individual souls; and no system can be wholly apprehended by any one save its author.
Mastery of men and things,—supreme knowledge to the end of supreme power,—such seems to have been his ambition,—an ambition too abstract and lofty for much rivalry. Nature and human nature were at once his laboratory and his instruments. His senses were to him outlets of divinity. The good and evil of such a scheme scarce need pointing out. It was the apotheosis of self-respect; but self-respect raised to such a height becomes self-worship; human vision dazzles at the sublimity of the prospect; at the moment of greatest weakness the soul arrogates invincible power, and falls! For, the mightier man is, the more absolutely does he need the support of a mightier Man than he can ever be.
No doubt Balder had often been assailed by doubts and weariness; the path had seemed too long and arduous, and he had secretly pined for some swift issue from perplexity and delay. In such a moment was it that the voice of darkness gained his ear, and, like a will-o'-the-wisp, lured him to calamity. Verily, it is not easy to be God. Only builders of the Tower of Babel know the awfulness of its overthrow.
Balder's spirit lay prostrate among the ruins, too stunned and bewildered to see the reason or justice of his fall. Such a state is dangerous, for, the better part of the mind being either occupied with its disaster or stupefied by it, the superficial part is readily moved to folly or extravagance,—to deeds and thoughts which a saner moment would scout and ridicule. Well is it, then, if the blind steps are guided to better foothold than they know how to choose. Angels are said to be particularly watchful over those who sleep; perhaps, also, during the darkness which follows on moral perversion.
After lying motionless for half an hour, Balder suddenly sat upright and settled his hat on his head. A new purpose had come to him which, arriving later than it might have done, made him wish to act upon it without delay.
The old mariner had by this time bailed out his boat, and, having shipped a mast in the forward thwart, was dropping down stream. As he neared the promontory Balder hailed him:—
"Hullo! skipper, take me across?"
The skipper, without replying, steered shorewards, the other clambering down the rock to meet him. After a brief parley, during which the old fellow closely scrutinized his intending passenger from head to foot, a bargain was struck, and they put forth, tacking diagonally across stream. For Balder, having charged his imagination with castles, warlike chieftains, and beautiful princesses, had finally arrived at the conclusion that the stone house was an enchanter's castle; the figure he had seen, an imprisoned lady; himself, a knight-errant bound to rescue her and give the wicked enchanter his deserts. This idea possessed his brain for the moment more vividly than do realities most men. The plumed helmet was on his head, he glittered with shining arms and sword, his heart warmed and throbbed with visions of conflict and bold emprise. The commonplace assumed an aspect of grandeur and magnificence in harmony with his chivalric mania. The leaky craft in which he sat became a majestic barge; the skipper, some wrinkled Charon who doubtless had ferried many a brave knight to his death beneath yonder castle's walls. That seeming birch-stump on the farther shore was the castle champion, armed cap-a-pie in silver harness and ready with drawn sword to do battle against all comers. Trim the sail, ferryman, and steer thy skilfullest!
The kind of insanity which sees in outward manifestation the fantasies of the mind is an affection incident at times to every one. An artist sees beauties in a landscape, an artisan in pulleys and levers, and either may be so far insane in the eyes of the other. Nature discovers grandeur, beauty, or truth according as the quality abides in the seer. In this view Balder or Don Quixote was no more insane than other people. Their eyes bore true witness to what was in their minds, and the sanest eyes can do no more. Their minds were, perhaps, out of focus; but who can cast the first stone?
The skipper, when not masquerading as Charon, was a lean, brown, and wrinkled old salt, neither complete nor clean of garb, and bulging as to one lank cheek with a quid of tobacco. At first he sat silent, dividing his attention between the conduct of his boat and his passenger.
"Whereabouts will yer land, Captain?" he asked when they were fairly under way.
"Wherever there is a path upwards. Who is the owner of the castle?"
"The castle? Well, there ain't many rightly knows just what his name is," answered Charon, cocking his gray eye rather quizzically. "Some says one thing, some another. I have heard tell he was Davy Jones himself!"
"Have you ever seen him?"
"Well, I don't know; I've seen something that might have been him; but there's no telling! he can fix himself up to look like pretty much anything, they say. There ain't many calls up to the castle, anyway."
"Well, there's a big wall all around the place, for one thing, and never a gate in it; so without yer dives under ground and up again, there don't seem no easy way of getting in."
"Does the owner never come out, then?"
"Well, he can get out, I expect, when he wants to," replied the wrinkled humorist, with a weather-beaten grin. "They do say he whips off on a broomstick about once a month and steers for Bos-ton!" His fashion of utterance was a leisurely sing-song, like the roll of a vessel anchored in a ground-swell.
"Why does he go there?" demanded Prince Balder, with the air of finding nothing extravagant or improbable in the sailor's yarn. The latter (a little doubting whether his interlocutor were a simpleton or a "deep one") answered, after a moment's pause,—to replenish his imagination perhaps,—
"Well, in course, I knows nothing what he does; but they do say he coasts around to all the ho-tels and overhauls the log. He's been laying for some one this twenty year. My idea, it's about time he hailed him!"
"What does he want with him?"
"Well, yer see, what folks say is, this chap had played some game or other off on Davy; so Davy he puts a rod in pickle and vows he'd be even with the chap, yet.
"Yer see,—I'll tell yer," continued Charon, leaning forward on his knee and speaking confidentially; "just as this chap was putting off,—with some of Davy's belongings, likely,—Davy up and cuts a slice of flesh and blood off him. Well, he takes this slice and fixes it up one way or another, and makes a witch out of it,—handsome as she can be,—enough to draw a chap's heart right out through his jacket. Now, being as she's his own flesh and blood, d' yer see, this chap I'm telling yer on's bound to come back after her afore he dies. Well, soon as Davy gets hold on him, he ups with him to the place yonder and outs with the witch. 'Here yer are, my dear friend!' says he (as civil as may be), 'here's yer own flesh and blood a-waiting for yer!' Well, the chap grabs for her, and once he touches her there ain't no letting go no more. Off she starts on her broomstick, he along behind, till they gets over Hell gate—" Charon checked himself, made an ominous downward gesture with his right forefinger, and emphasized it by spitting solemnly to leeward.
"Did you ever meet him,—this man?" asked Helwyse, rousing himself from a brown study and looking Charon in the eyes.
"Well, now, I couldn't tell for certain as I ever met him," replied the other, returning the look with an odd wrinkling of the features. "But it's nigh on twenty year that I fetched a man across this very spot, and back again in the evening, that might have been him. Leastways, he was the last caller ever I took over to that house."