"Oh, Blanche!" exclaimed Bella Clayton, hiding her hot face in her hands.
"We lived in a fool's paradise for some months, and then one day she left her house and went to the Continent, without giving me any warning of her intention. I was thunderstruck when I heard it, and deeply hurt, and as soon as I had traced her to Paris, I followed and demanded an explanation of her conduct. But she refused to see me, and when she found me pertinacious, left the city as suddenly as she had done that of London. Since which time she has answered no letters of mine, nor did we ever meet until, most unexpectedly, I met her in your house. My pride, after her first refusals to see me, was too great to permit me to renew my entreaties, and so I called her a flirt, and inconstant. I tried to banish her remembrance from my heart—and I thought I had succeeded."
"Oh, my poor darling!" exclaimed Mrs. Clayton. "This accounts then for her holding aloof from all her relations for so long a time, by which means she estranged herself from many of them. She was working out her penitence and deep remorse in solitary misery; and she would not even let me share her confidence. But about the box, Mr. Laurence; what has all this to do with the black box?"
"When I met her in your shrubbery the other day, and reproached her for her desertion of me, insisting upon her giving me the reason of her change of mind, she bade me follow her to her own apartment. There, unlocking the box before you, she showed me its contents."
"And they are—?" inquired Mrs. Clayton, breathlessly.
"Would you like to see them?" he demanded, taking a key from his pocket. "I have as much right to show them you as she would have had. But is your love for her dead memory and reputation strong enough to insure your eternal secrecy on the subject?"
"It is," said Bella Clayton, decidedly.
"This box," continued Mr. Laurence, applying the key he held to the lock of the iron-clamped black trunk, "has accompanied my poor girl on all her travels for the last two years. The dreadful secret of its contents which she bore in silent, solitary misery all that time has been, I believe, the ultimate cause of her death, by proving too heavy a burden for the sensitive and proud spirit which was forced to endure the knowledge of its shame. She was killed by her remorse. If you have courage, Mrs. Clayton, for the sight, look at this—and pity the feelings I must endure as I kneel here and look at it with you."
He threw back the lid and the topmost linen as he spoke, and Bella Clayton pressed eagerly forward to see, carefully laid amidst withered flowers and folds of cambric, the tiny skeleton of a new-born creature whose angel was even then beholding the face of his Father in Heaven.
She covered her eyes with her clasped hands, no less to shut out the sight than to catch the womanly tears which poured forth at it, and then she cried between her sobs—
"Oh! my poor, poor Blanche, what must she not have suffered! God have mercy on her soul!"
"Amen!" said Herbert Laurence.
"You will let me take the box away with me, Mrs. Clayton?" he asked, gently.
She looked up as he spoke, and the tears were standing in his eyes.
"Yes—yes," she said; "take it away; do what you will with it, only never speak of it to me again."
He never did but once, and that was but an allusion. On the evening of the day on which they committed the remains of Blanche Damer to the dust, he lay in wait for Mrs. Clayton on the landing.
"All has been done as she desired," he whispered; and Mrs. Clayton asked for no further explanation. The secret of which she had been made an unwilling recipient pressed so heavily on her conscience, that she was thankful when he left Molton Grange and went abroad, as he had expressed his intention of doing.
Since which time she has never seen Herbert Laurence again; and Colonel Damer, whose grief at the funeral and for some time after was nearly frenzied, having—like most men who mourn much outwardly—found a source of consolation in the shape of another wife, the story of Blanche Damer's life and death is remembered, for aught her cousin knows to the contrary, by none but herself.
I feel that an objection will be raised to this episode by some people on the score of its being unnatural; to whom all I can say in answer is, that the principal incident on which the interest of it turns—that of the unhappy Mrs. Damer having been made so great a coward by conscience that she carried the proof of her frailty about with her for years, too fearful of discovery to permit it to leave her sight—is a fact.
To vary the circumstances under which the discovery of the contents of the black box was finally made, and to alter the names of places and people so as to avoid general recognition, I have made my province: to relate the story itself, since, in the form I now present it to my readers, it can give pain to no one, I consider my privilege.
MY FASCINATING FRIEND
Nature has cursed me with a retiring disposition. I have gone round the world without making a single friend by the way. Coming out of my own shell is as difficult to me as drawing others out of theirs. There are some men who go through life extracting the substance of every one they meet, as one picks out periwinkles with a pin. To me my fellow-men are oysters, and I have no oyster-knife; my sole consolation (if it be one) is that my own values absolutely defy the oyster-knives of others. Not more than twice or thrice in my life have I met a fellow-creature at whose "Open Sesame" the treasures of my heart and brain stood instantly revealed. My Fascinating Friend was one of these rare and sympathetic beings.
I was lounging away a few days at Monaco, awaiting a summons to join some relations in Italy. One afternoon I had started for an aimless and rambling climb among the olive-terraces on the lower slopes of the Tete du Chien. Finding an exquisite coign of vantage amid the roots of a gnarled old trunk springing from a built-up semicircular patch of level ground, I sat me down to rest, and read, and dream. Below me, a little to the right, Monaco jutted out into the purple sea. I could distinguish carriages and pedestrians coming and going on the chaussee between the promontory and Monte Carlo, but I was far too high for any sound to reach me. Away to the left the coast took a magnificent sweep, past the clustering houses of Roccabruna, past the mountains at whose base Mentone nestled unseen, past the Italian frontier, past the bight of Ventimiglia, to where the Capo di Bordighera stood faintly outlined between sea and sky. There was not a solitary sail on the whole expanse of the Mediterranean. A line of white, curving at rhythmic intervals along a small patch of sandy beach, showed that there was a gentle swell upon the sea, but its surface was mirror-like. A lovelier scene there is not in the world, and it was at its very loveliest. I took the Saturday Review from my pocket, and was soon immersed in an article on the commutation of tithes.
I was aroused from my absorption by the rattle of a small stone hopping down the steep track, half path, half stairway, by which I had ascended. It had been loosened by the foot of a descending wayfarer, in whom, as he picked his way slowly downward, I recognized a middle-aged German (that I supposed to be his nationality) who had been very assiduous at the roulette-tables of the Casino for some days past. There was nothing remarkable in his appearance, his spectacled eyes, squat nose, and square-cropped bristling beard being simply characteristic of his class and country. He did not notice me as he went by, being too intent on his footing to look about him; but I was so placed that it was a minute or more before he passed out of sight round a bend in the path. He was just turning the corner, and my eyes were still fixed on him, when I was conscious of another figure within my field of vision. This second comer had descended the same pathway, but had loosened no stones on his passage. He trod with such exquisite lightness and agility that he had passed close by me without my being aware of his presence, while he, for his part, had his eyes fixed with a curious intensity on the thick-set figure of the German, upon whom, at his rate of progress, he must have been gaining rapidly. A glance showed me that he was a young man of slender figure, dressed in a suit of dark-coloured tweed, of English cut, and wearing a light-brown wide-awake hat. Just as my eye fell upon him he put his hand into the inner breast-pocket of his coat, and drew from it something which, as he was now well past me, I could not see. At the same moment some small object, probably jerked out of his pocket by mistake, fell almost noiselessly on the path at his feet. In his apparently eager haste he did not notice his loss, but was gliding onward, leaving what I took to be his purse lying on the path. It was clearly my duty to call his attention to it; so I said, "Hi!" an interjection which I have found serves its purpose in all countries. He gave a perceptible start, and looked round at me over his shoulder. I pointed to the object he had dropped, and said, "Voila!" He had thrust back into his pocket the thing, whatever it was, which he held in his hand, and now turned round to look where I was pointing. "Ah!" he said in English, "my cigarette-case! I am much obliged to you," and he stooped and picked it up.
"I thought it was your purse," I said.
"I would rather have lost my purse than this," he said, with a light laugh. He had apparently abandoned his intention of overtaking the German, who had meanwhile passed out of sight.
"Are you such an enthusiastic smoker?" I asked.
"I go in for quality, not quantity," he replied; "and a Spanish friend has just given me some incomparable cigarritos." He opened the case as he ascended the few steps which brought him up to my little plateau. "Have one?" he said, holding it out to me with the most winning smile I have ever seen on any human face.
I was about to take one from the left-hand side of the case, when he turned it away and presented the other side to me.
"No, no!" he said; "these flat ones are my common brand. The round ones are the gems."
"I am robbing you," I said, as I took one.
"Not if you are smoker enough to appreciate it," he said, as he stretched himself on the ground beside me, and produced from a little gold match-box a wax vesta, with which he lighted my cigarette and his own.
So graceful was his whole personality, so easy and charming his manner, that it did not strike me as in the least odd that he should thus make friends with me by the mere exchange of half a dozen words. I looked at him as he lay resting on his elbows and smoking lazily. He had thrown his hat off, and his wavy hair, longish and of an opaque charcoal black, fell over his temples while he shook it back behind his ears. He was a little above the middle height, of dark complexion, with large and soft black eyes and arched eyebrows, a small and rather broad nose (the worst feature in his face), full curving and sensitive lips, and a very strong and rounded chin. He was absolutely beardless, but a slight black down on the upper lip announced a coming mustache. His age could not have been more than twenty. The cut of his clothes, as I have said, was English, but his large black satin neck-cloth, flowing out over the collar of his coat, was such as no home-keeping Englishman would ever have dared to appear in. This detail, combined with his accent, perfectly pure but a trifle precise and deliberate, led me to take him for an Englishman brought up on the Continent—probably in Italy, for there was no French intonation in his speech. His voice was rich, but deep—a light baritone.
He took up my Saturday Review.
"The Bible of the Englishman abroad," he said. "One of the institutions that makes me proud of our country."
"I have it sent me every week," I said.
"So had my father," he replied. "He used to say, 'Shakespeare we share with the Americans, but damn it, the Saturday Review is all our own!' He was one of the old school, my father."
"And the good school," I said, with enthusiasm. "So am I."
"Now, I'm a bit of a Radical," my new friend rejoined, looking up with a smile, which made the confession charming rather than objectionable; and from this point we started upon a discussion, every word of which I could write down if I chose, such a lasting impression did it make upon me. He was indeed a brilliant talker, having read much and travelled enormously for one so young. "I think I have lived in every country in Europe," he said, "except Russia. Somehow it has never interested me." I found that he was a Cambridge man, or, at least, was intimately acquainted with Cambridge life and thought; and this was another bond between us. His Radicalism was not very formidable; it amounted to little more, indeed, than a turn for humorous paradox. Our discussion reminded me of Fuller's description of the wit-combats between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare at the "Mermaid." I was the Spanish galleon, my Fascinating Friend was the English man-of-war, ready "to take advantage of all winds by the quickness of his wit and invention." An hour sped away delightfully, the only thing I did not greatly enjoy being the cigarette, which seemed to me no better than many I had smoked before.
"What do you think of my cigarettes?" he said, as I threw away the stump.
I felt that a blunt expression of opinion would be in bad taste after his generosity in offering an utter stranger the best he had. "Exquisite!" I answered.
"I thought you would say so," he replied, gravely. "Have another!"
"Let me try one of your common ones," I said.
"No, you shan't!" he replied, closing the case with a sudden snap, which endangered my fingers, but softening the brusquerie of the proceeding by one of his enthralling smiles; then he added, using one of the odd idioms which gave his speech a peculiar piquancy, "I don't palm off upon my friends what I have of second best." He re-opened the case and held it out to me. To have refused would have been to confess that I did not appreciate his "gems" as he called them. I smoked another, in which I still failed to find any unusual fragrance; but the aroma of my new-found friend's whole personality was so keen and subtle, that it may have deadened my nerves to any more material sensation.
We lay talking until the pink flush of evening spread along the horizon, and in it Corsica, invisible before, seemed to body itself forth from nothingness like an island of phantom peaks and headlands. Then we rose, and, in the quickly gathering dusk, took our way down among the olive-yards, and through the orange-gardens to Monte Carlo.
My acquaintance with my Fascinating Friend lasted little more than forty-eight hours, but during that time we were inseparable. He was not at my hotel, but on that first evening I persuaded him to dine with me, and soon after breakfast on the following morning I went in search of him; I was at the Russie, he at the Hotel de Paris. I found him smoking in the veranda, and at a table not far distant sat the German of the previous afternoon, finishing a tolerably copious dejeuner a la fourchette. As soon as he had scraped his plate quite clean and finished the last dregs of his bottle of wine, he rose and took his way to the Casino. After a few minutes' talk with my Fascinating Friend, I suggested a stroll over to Monaco. He agreed, and we spent the whole day together, loitering and lounging, talking and dreaming. We went to the Casino in the afternoon to hear the concert, and I discovered my friend to be a cultivated musician. Then we strolled into the gambling-room for an hour, but neither of us played. The German was busy at one of the roulette-tables, and seemed to be winning considerably. That evening I dined with my friend at the table d'hote of his hotel. At the other end of the table I could see the German sitting silent and unnoticing, rapt in the joys of deglutition.
Next morning, by arrangement, my friend called upon me at my hotel, and over one of his cigarettes, to which I was getting accustomed, we discussed our plan for the day. I suggested a wider flight than yesterday's. Had he ever been to Eza, the old Saracen robber-nest perched on a rock a thousand feet above the sea, halfway between Monaco and Villafranca? No, he had not been there, and after some consideration he agreed to accompany me. We went by rail to the little station on the seashore, and then attacked the arduous ascent. The day was perfect, though rather too warm for climbing, and we had frequent rests among the olive-trees, with delightfully discursive talks on all things under the sun. My companion's charm grew upon me moment by moment. There was in his manner a sort of refined coquetry of amiability which I found irresistible. It was combined with a frankness of sympathy and interest subtly flattering to a man of my unsocial habit of mind. I was conscious every now and then that he was drawing me out; but to be drawn out so gently and genially was, to me, a novel and delightful experience. It produced in me one of those effusions of communicativeness to which, I am told, all reticent people are occasionally subject. I have myself given way to them some three or four times in my life, and found myself pouring forth to perfect strangers such intimate details of feeling and experience as I would rather die than impart to my dearest friend. Three or four times, I say, have I found myself suddenly and inexplicably brought within the influence of some invisible truth-compelling talisman, which drew from me confessions the rack could not have extorted; but never has the influence been so irresistible as in the case of my Fascinating Friend. I told him what I had told to no other human soul—what I had told to the lonely glacier, to the lurid storm-cloud, to the seething sea, but had never breathed in mortal ear—I told him the tragedy of my life. How well I remember the scene! We were resting beneath the chestnut-trees that shadow a stretch of level sward immediately below the last short stage of ascent that leads into the heart of the squalid village now nestling in the crevices of the old Moslem fastness. The midday hush was on sea and sky. Far out on the horizon a level line of smoke showed where an unseen steamer was crawling along under the edge of the sapphire sphere. As I reached the climax of my tale an old woman, bent almost double beneath a huge fagot of firewood, passed us on her way to the village. I remember that it crossed my mind to wonder whether there was any capacity in the nature of such as she for suffering at all comparable to that which I was describing. My companion's sympathy was subtle and soothing. There was in my tale an element of the grotesque which might have tempted a vulgar nature to flippancy. No smile crossed my companion's lips. He turned away his head, on pretense of watching the receding figure of the old peasant-woman. When he looked at me again, his deep dark eyes were suffused with a moisture which enhanced the mystery of their tenderness. In that moment I felt, as I had never felt before, what it is to find a friend.
We returned to Monte Carlo late in the afternoon, and I found a telegram at my hotel begging me to be in Genoa the following morning. I had barely time to bundle my traps together and swallow a hasty meal before my train was due. I scrawled a note to my new found confidant, expressing most sincerely my sorrow at parting from him so soon and so suddenly, and my hope that ere long we should meet again.
The train was already at the platform when I reached the station. There were one or two first-class through carriages on it, which, for a French railway, were unusually empty. In one of them I saw at the window the head of the German, and from a certain subdued radiance in his expression, I judged that he must be carrying off a considerable "pile" from the gaming-table. His personality was not of the most attractive, and there was something in his squat nose suggestive of stertorous possibilities which, under ordinary circumstances, would have held me aloof from him. But—shall I confess it?—he had for me a certain sentimental attraction, because he was associated in my mind with that first meeting with my forty-eight hours' friend. I looked into his compartment; an overcoat and valise lay in the opposite corner from his, showing that seat to be engaged, but two corners were still left me to choose from. I installed myself in one of them, face to face with the valise and overcoat, and awaited the signal to start. The cry of "En voiture, messieurs!" soon came, and a lithe figure sprang into the carriage. It was my Fascinating Friend! For a single moment I thought that a flash of annoyance crossed his features on finding me there, but the impression vanished at once, for his greeting was as full of cordiality as of surprise. We soon exchanged explanations. He, like myself, had been called away by telegram, not to Genoa, but to Rome; he, like myself, had left a note expressing his heartfelt regret at our sudden separation. As we sped along, skirting bays that shone burnished in the evening light, and rumbling every now and then through a tunnel-pierced promontory, we resumed the almost affectionate converse interrupted only an hour before, and I found him a more delightful companion than ever. His exquisitely playful fantasy seemed to be acting at high pressure, as in the case of a man who is talking to pass the time under the stimulus of a delightful anticipation. I suspected that he was hurrying to some peculiarly agreeable rendezvous in Rome, and I hinted my suspicion, which he laughed off in such a way as to confirm it. The German, in the mean time, sat stolid and unmoved, making some pencilled calculations in a little pocket-book. He clearly did not understand English.
As we approached Ventimiglia my friend rose, took down his valise from the rack, and, turning his back to me, made some changes in its arrangement, which I, of course, did not see. He then locked it carefully and kept it beside him. At Ventimiglia we had all to turn out to undergo the inspection of the Italian dogana. My friend's valise was his sole luggage, and I noticed, rather to my surprise, that he gave the custom-house official a very large bribe—two or three gold pieces—to make his inspection of it purely nominal, and forego the opening of either of the inside compartments. The German, on the other hand, had a small portmanteau and a large dispatch box, both of which he opened with a certain ostentation, and I observed that the official's eyes glittered under his raised eyebrows as he looked into the contents of the dispatch-box. On returning to the train we all three resumed our old places, and the German drew the shade of a sleeping-cap over his eyes and settled himself down for the night. It was now quite dark, but the moon was shining.
"Have you a large supply of the 'gems' in your valise?" I asked, smiling, curious to know his reason for a subterfuge which accorded ill with his ordinary straight-forwardness, and remembering that tobacco is absolutely prohibited at the Italian frontier.
"Unfortunately, no," he said; "my 'gems' are all gone, and I have only my common cigarettes remaining. Will you try them, such as they are?" and he held out his case, both sides of which were now filled with the flat cigarettes. We each took one and lighted it, but he began giving me an account of a meeting he had had with Lord Beaconsfield, which he detailed so fully and with so much enthusiasm, that, after a whiff or two he allowed his cigarette to go out. I could not understand his taste in tobacco. These cigarettes which he despised seemed to me at once more delicate and more peculiar than the others. They had a flavour which was quite unknown to me. I was much interested in his vivid account of the personality of that great man, whom I admired then, while he was yet with us, and whom, as a knight of the Primrose League, I now revere; but our climb of the morning, and the scrambling departure of the afternoon, were beginning to tell on me, and I became irresistibly drowsy. Gradually, and in spite of myself, my eyes closed. I could still hear my companion's voice mingling with the heavy breathing of the German, who had been asleep for some time; but soon even these sounds ceased to penetrate the mist of languor, the end of my cigarette dropped from between my fingers and I knew no more.
* * * * *
My awakening was slow and spasmodic. There was a clearly perceptible interval—probably several minutes—between the first stirrings of consciousness and the full clarification of my faculties. I began to be aware of the rumble and oscillation of the train without realizing what was meant. Then I opened my eyes and blinked at the lamp, and vaguely noted the yellow oil washing to and fro in the bowl. Then the white square of the "Avis aux Voyageurs" caught my eye in the gloom under the luggage-rack, and beneath it, on the seat, I saw the light reflected from the lock of the German's portmanteau. Next I was conscious of the German himself still sleeping in his corner, but no longer puffing and grunting as when I had fallen asleep. Then I raised my head, looked round the carriage, and the next moment sprang bolt upright in dismay.
Where was my Fascinating Friend?
Gone! vanished! There was not a trace of him. His valise, his great-coat, all had disappeared. Only in the little cigar-ash box on the window-frame I saw the flat cigarette which he had barely lighted—how long before? I looked at my watch: it must have been about an hour and a half ago.
By this time I had all my faculties about me. I looked across at the German, intending to ask him if he knew anything of our late travelling-companion. Then I noticed that his head had fallen forward in such a way that it seemed to me suffocation must be imminent. I approached him, and put down my head to look into his face. As I did so I saw a roundish black object on the oil-cloth floor not far from the toe of his boot. The lamplight was reflected at a single point from its convex surface. I put down my hand and touched it. It was liquid. I looked at my fingers—they were not black, but red. I think (but am not sure) that I screamed aloud. I shrank to the other end of the carriage, and it was some moments before I had sufficient presence of mind to look for a means of communicating with the guard. Of course there was none. I was alone for an indefinite time with a dead man. But was he dead? I had little doubt, from the way his head hung, that his throat was cut, and a horrible fascination drew me to his side to examine. No; there was no sign of the hideous fissure I expected to find beneath the gray bristles of his beard. His head fell forward again into the same position, and I saw with horror that I had left two bloody fingermarks upon the gray shade of his sleeping-cap. Then I noticed for the first time that the window he was facing stood open, for a gust of wind came through it and blew back the lapel of his coat. What was that on his waistcoat? I tore the coat back and examined: it was a small triangular hole just over the heart, and round it there was a dark circle about the size of a shilling, where the blood had soaked through the light material. In examining it I did what the murderer had not done—disturbed the equilibrium of the body, which fell over against me.
At that moment I heard a loud voice behind me, coming from I knew not where. I nearly fainted with terror. The train was still going at full speed; the compartment was empty, save for myself and the ghastly object which lay in my arms; and yet I seemed to hear a voice almost at my ear. There it was again! I summoned up courage to look round. It was the guard of the train clinging on outside the window and demanding "Biglietti!" By this time, he, too, saw that something was amiss. He opened the door and swung himself into the carriage. "Dio mio!" I heard him exclaim, as I actually flung myself into his arms and pointed to the body now lying in a huddled heap amid its own blood on the floor. Then, for the first time in my life, I positively swooned away, and knew no more.
When I came to myself the train had stopped at a small station, the name of which I do not know to this day. There was a Babel of speech going on around, not one word of which I could understand. I was on the platform, supported between two men in uniform, with cocked hats and cockades. In vain I tried to tell my story. I knew little or no Italian, and, though there were one or two Frenchmen in the train, they were useless as interpreters, for on the one hand my power of speaking French seemed to have departed in my agitation, and on the other hand none of the Italians understood it. In vain I tried to make them understand that a "giovane" had travelled in the compartment with us who had now disappeared. The Italian guard, who had come on at Ventimiglia, evidently had no recollection of him. He merely shook his head, said "Non capisco," and inquired if I was "Prussiano." The train had already been delayed some time, and, after a consultation between the station-master, the guard, the syndic of the village, who had been summoned in haste, it was determined to hand the matter over to the authorities at Genoa. The two carabinieri sat one on each side of me facing the engine, and on the opposite seat the body was stretched out with a luggage tarpaulin over it. In this hideous fashion I passed the four or five remaining hours of the journey to Genoa.
The next week I spent in an Italian prison, a very uncomfortable yet quite unromantic place of abode. Fortunately, my friends were by this time in Genoa, and they succeeded in obtaining some slight mitigation of my discomforts. At the end of that time I was released, there being no evidence against me. The testimony of the French guard, of the booking-clerk at Monaco, and of the staff of the Hotel de Paris, established the existence of my Fascinating Friend, which was at first called in question; but no trace could be found of him. With him had disappeared his victim's dispatch-box, in which were stored the proceeds of several days of successful gambling. Robbery, however, did not seem to have been the primary motive of the crime, for his watch, purse, and the heavy jewelry about his person were all untouched. From the German Consul at Genoa I learned privately, after my release, that the murdered man, though in fact a Prussian, had lived long in Russia, and was suspected of having had an unofficial connection with the St. Petersburg police. It was thought, indeed, that the capital with which he had commenced his operation at Monte Carlo was the reward of some special act of treachery; so that the anarchists, if it was indeed they who struck the blow, had merely suffered Judas to put his thirty pieces out to usance, in order to pay back to their enemies with interest the blood-money of their friends.
About two years later I happened one day to make an afternoon call in Mayfair, at the house of a lady well known in the social and political world, who honours me, if I may say so, with her friendship. Her drawing-room was crowded, and the cheerful ring of afternoon tea-cups was audible through the pleasant medley of women's voices. I joined a group around the hostess, where an animated discussion was in progress on the Irish Coercion Bill, then the leading political topic of the day. The argument interested me deeply; but it is one of my mental peculiarities that when several conversations are going on around me I can by no means keep my attention exclusively fixed upon the one in which I am myself engaged. Odds and ends from all the others find their way into my ears and my consciousness, and I am sometimes accused of absence of mind, when my fault is in reality a too great alertness of the sense of hearing. In this instance the conversation of three or four groups was more or less audible to me; but it was not long before my attention was absorbed by the voice of a lady, seated at the other side of the circular ottoman on which I myself had taken my place.
She was talking merrily, and her hearers, in one of whom, as I glanced over my shoulder, I recognized an ex-Cabinet Minister, seemed to be greatly entertained. As her back was toward me, all I could see of the lady herself was her short black hair falling over the handsome fur collar of her mantle.
"He was so tragic about it," she was saying, "that it was really impayable. The lady was beautiful, wealthy, accomplished, and I don't know what else. The rival was an Australian squatter, with a beard as thick as his native bush. My communicative friend—I scarcely knew even his name when he poured forth his woes to me—thought that he had an advantage in his light moustache, with a military twirl in it. They were all three travelling in Switzerland, but the Australian had gone off to make the ascent of some peak or other, leaving the field to the foe for a couple of days at least. On the first day the foe made the most of his time, and had nearly brought matters to a crisis. The next morning he got himself up as exquisitely as possible, in order to clinch his conquest, but found to his disgust that he had left his dressing-case with his razors at the last stopping-place. There was nothing for it but to try the village barber, who was also the village stationer, and draper, and ironmonger, and chemist—a sort of Alpine Whiteley, in fact. His face had just been soaped—what do you call it?—lathered, is it not? and the barber had actually taken hold of his nose so as to get his head into the right position, when, in the mirror opposite, he saw the door open, and—oh, horror!—who should walk into the shop but the fair one herself! He gave such a start that the barber gashed his chin. His eyes met hers in the mirror; for a moment he saw her lips quiver and tremble, and then she burst into shrieks of uncontrollable laughter, and rushed out of the shop. If you knew the pompous little man, I am sure you would sympathize with her. I know I did when he told me the story. His heart sank within him, but he acted like a Briton. He determined to take no notice of the contretemps, but return boldly to the attack. She received him demurely at first, but the moment she raised her eyes to his face, and saw the patch of sticking-plaster on his chin, she was again seized with such convulsions that she had to rush from the room. 'She is now in Melbourne,' he said, almost with a sob, 'and I assure you, my dear friend, that I never now touch a razor without an impulse, to which I expect I shall one day succumb, to put it to a desperate use.'"
There was a singing in my ears, and my brain was whirling. This story, heartlessly and irreverently told, was the tragedy of my life!
I had breathed it to no human soul—save one!
I rose from my seat, wondering within myself whether my agitation was visible to those around me, and went over to the other side of the room whence I could obtain a view of the speaker. There were the deep, dark eyes, there were the full sensuous lips, the upper shaded with an impalpable down, there was the charcoal-black hair! I knew too well that rich contralto voice! It was my Fascinating Friend!
Before I had fully realized the situation she rose, handed her empty tea-cup to the Cabinet-Minister, bowed to him and his companion, and made her way up to the hostess, evidently intending to take her leave. As she turned away, after shaking hands cordially with Lady X——, her eyes met mine intently fixed upon her. She did not start, she neither flushed nor turned pale; she simply raised for an instant her finely arched eyebrows, and as her tall figure sailed past me out of the room, she turned upon me the same exquisite and irresistible smile with which my Fascinating Friend had offered me his cigarette-case that evening among the olive-trees.
I hurried up to Lady X——.
"Who is the lady who has just left the room?" I asked.
"Oh, that is the Baroness M——," she replied. "She is half an Englishwoman, half a Pole. She was my daughter's bosom friend at Girton—a most interesting girl."
"Is she a politician?" I asked.
"No; that's the one thing I don't like about her. She is not a bit of a patriot; she makes a joke of her country's wrongs and sufferings. Should you like to meet her? Dine with us the day after to-morrow. She is to be here."
* * * * *
I dined at Lady X——'s on the appointed day, but the Baroness was not there. Urgent family affairs had called her suddenly to Poland.
A week later the assassination of the Czar sent a thrill of horror through the civilized world.
* * * * *
"Don't you think your friend might be held an accessory after the fact to the death of the German?" asked the Novelist, when all the flattering comments, which were many, were at an end. "And an accessory before the fact to the assassination of the Czar?" chimed in the Editor. "Why didn't he go straight from Lady ——'s house to the nearest police-station and put the police on the track of his 'Fascinating Friend'?" "What a question!" the Romancer exclaimed, starting from his seat and pacing restlessly about the deck. "How could any man with a palate for the rarest flavours of life resist the temptation of taking that woman down to dinner? And, besides, hadn't he eaten salt with her? Hadn't he smoked the social cigarette with her? Shade of De Quincey! are we to treat like a vulgar criminal a mistress of the finest of the fine arts? Shall we be such crawling creatures as to seek to lay by the heels a Muse of Murder? Are we a generation of detectives, that we should do this thing?" "So my friend put it to me," said the Critic dryly, "not quite so eloquently, but to that effect. Between ourselves, though, I believe he was influenced more by consideration of his personal safety than by admiration for murder as a fine art. He remembered the fate of the German, and was unwilling to share it." "He adopted a policy of non-intervention," said the Eminent Tragedian, who in his hours of leisure, was something of a politician. "I should rather say of laissez faire, or, more precisely, of laissez assassiner," laughed the Editor. "What was the Fascinating Friend supposed to have in her portmanteau?" asked Beatrice. "What was she so anxious to conceal from the custom-house officers?" "Her woman's clothes, I imagine," the Critic replied, "though I don't hold myself bound to explain all the ins and outs of her proceedings." "Then she was a wonderful woman," replied the fair questioner, as one having authority, "if she could get a respectable gown and 'fixings,' as the Americans say, into a small portmanteau. But," she added, "I very soon suspected she was a woman." "Why?" asked several voices simultaneously. "Why, because she drew him out so easily," was the reply. "You think, in fact," said the Romancer, "that however little its victim was aware of it, there was a touch of the Ewig-weibliche in her fascination?" "Precisely."
THE LOST ROOM
It was oppressively warm. The sun had long disappeared, but seemed to have left its vital spirit of heat behind it. The air rested; the leaves of the acacia-trees that shrouded my windows hung plumb-like on their delicate stalks. The smoke of my cigar scarce rose above my head, but hung about me in a pale blue cloud, which I had to dissipate with languid waves of my hand. My shirt was open at the throat, and my chest heaved laboriously in the effort to catch some breaths of fresher air. The noises of the city seemed to be wrapped in slumber, and the shrilling of the mosquitos was the only sound that broke the stillness.
As I lay with my feet elevated on the back of a chair, wrapped in that peculiar frame of mind in which thought assumes a species of lifeless motion, the strange fancy seized me of making a languid inventory of the principal articles of furniture in my room. It was a task well suited to the mood in which I found myself. Their forms were duskily defined in the dim twilight that floated shadowily through the chamber; it was no labour to note and particularize each, and from the place where I sat I could command a view of all my possessions without even turning my head.
There was, imprimis, that ghostly lithograph by Calame. It was a mere black spot on the white wall, but my inner vision scrutinized every detail of the picture. A wild, desolate, midnight heath, with a spectral oak-tree in the centre of the foreground. The wind blows fiercely, and the jagged branches, clothed scantily with ill-grown leaves, are swept to the left continually by its giant force.
A formless wrack of clouds streams across the awful sky, and the rain sweeps almost parallel with the horizon. Beyond, the heath stretches off into endless blackness, in the extreme of which either fancy or art has conjured up some undefinable shapes that seem riding into space. At the base of the huge oak stands a shrouded figure. His mantle is wound by the blast in tight folds around his form, and the long cock's feather in his hat is blown upright, till it seems as if it stood on end with fear. His features are not visible, for he has grasped his cloak with both hands, and drawn it from either side across his face. The picture is seemingly objectless. It tells no tale, but there is a weird power about it that haunts one, and it was for that I bought it.
Next to the picture comes the round blot that hangs below it, which I know to be a smoking-cap. It has my coat of arms embroidered on the front, and for that reason I never wear it; though, when properly arranged on my head, with its long blue silken tassel hanging down by my cheek, I believe it becomes me well. I remember the time when it was in the course of manufacture. I remember the tiny little hands that pushed the coloured silks so nimbly through the cloth that was stretched on the embroidery-frame,—the vast trouble I was put to to get a coloured copy of my armorial bearings for the heraldic work which was to decorate the front of the band,—the pursings up of the little mouth, and the contractions of the young forehead, as their possessor plunged into a profound sea of cogitation touching the way in which the cloud should be represented from which the armed hand, that is my crest, issues,—the heavenly moment when the tiny hands placed it on my head, in a position that I could not bear for more than a few seconds, and I, kinglike, immediately assumed my royal prerogative after the coronation, and instantly levied a tax on my only subjects which was, however, not paid unwillingly. Ah! the cap is there, but the embroiderer has fled; for Atropos was severing the web of life above her head while she was weaving that silken shelter for mine!
How uncouthly the huge piano that occupies the corner at the left of the door looms out in the uncertain twilight! I neither play nor sing, yet I own a piano. It is a comfort to me to look at it, and to feel that the music is there, although I am not able to break the spell that binds it. It is pleasant to know that Bellini and Mozart, Cimarosa, Porpora, Glueck and all such,—or at least their souls,—sleep in that unwieldy case. There lie embalmed, as it were, all operas, sonatas, oratorios, nocturnos, marches, songs and dances, that ever climbed into existence through the four bars that wall in melody. Once I was entirely repaid for the investment of my funds in that instrument which I never use. Blokeeta, the composer, came to see me. Of course his instincts urged him as irresistibly to my piano as if some magnetic power lay within it compelling him to approach. He tuned it, he played on it. All night long, until the gray and spectral dawn rose out of the depths of the midnight, he sat and played, and I lay smoking by the window listening. Wild, unearthly, and sometimes insufferably painful, were the improvisations of Blokeeta. The chords of the instrument seemed breaking with anguish. Lost souls shrieked in his dismal preludes; the half-heard utterances of spirits in pain, that groped at inconceivable distances from anything lovely or harmonious, seemed to rise dimly up out of the waves of sound that gathered under his hands. Melancholy human love wandered out on distant heaths, or beneath dank and gloomy cypresses, murmuring its unanswered sorrow, or hateful gnomes sported and sang in the stagnant swamps triumphing in unearthly tones over the knight whom they had lured to his death. Such was Blokeeta's night's entertainment; and when he at length closed the piano, and hurried away through the cold morning, he left a memory about the instrument from which I could never escape.
Those snow-shoes that hang in the space between the mirror and the door recall Canadian wanderings,—a long race through the dense forests, over the frozen snow through whose brittle crust the slender hoofs of the caribou that we were pursuing sank at every step, until the poor creature despairingly turned at bay in a small juniper coppice, and we heartlessly shot him down. And I remember how Gabriel, the habitant, and Francois, the half-breed, cut his throat, and how the hot blood rushed out in a torrent over the snowy soil; and I recall the snow cabane that Gabriel built, where we all three slept so warmly; and the great fire that glowed at our feet, painting all kinds of demoniac shapes on the black screen of forest that lay without; and the deer-steaks that we roasted for our breakfast; and the savage drunkenness of Gabriel in the morning, he having been privately drinking out of my brandy-flask all the night long.
That long haftless dagger that dangles over the mantelpiece makes my heart swell. I found it, when a boy, in a hoary old castle in which one of my maternal ancestors once lived. That same ancestor—who, by the way, yet lives in history—was a strange old sea-king, who dwelt on the extremest point of the southwestern coast of Ireland. He owned the whole of that fertile island called Inniskeiran, which directly faces Cape Clear, where between them the Atlantic rolls furiously, forming what the fishermen of the place call "the Sound." An awful place in winter is that same Sound. On certain days no boat can live there for a moment, and Cape Clear is frequently cut off for days from any communication with the mainland.
This old sea-king—Sir Florence O'Driscoll by name—passed a stormy life. From the summit of his castle he watched the ocean, and when any richly laden vessels bound from the South to the industrious Galway merchants, hove in sight, Sir Florence hoisted the sails of his galley, and it went hard with him if he did not tow into harbor ship and crew. In this way he lived; not a very honest mode of livelihood, certainly, according to our modern ideas, but quite reconcilable with the morals of the time. As may be supposed, Sir Florence got into trouble. Complaints were laid against him at the English court by the plundered merchants, and the Irish viking set out for London, to plead his own cause before good Queen Bess, as she was called. He had one powerful recommendation: he was a marvellously handsome man. Not Celtic by descent, but half Spanish, half Danish in blood, he had the great northern stature with the regular features, flashing eyes, and dark hair of the Iberian race. This may account for the fact that his stay at the English court was much longer than was necessary, as also for the tradition, which a local historian mentions, that the English Queen evinced a preference for the Irish chieftain, of other nature than that usually shown by monarch to subject.
Previous to his departure, Sir Florence had intrusted the care of his property to an Englishman named Hull. During the long absence of the knight, this person managed to ingratiate himself with the local authorities, and gain their favour so far that they were willing to support him in almost any scheme. After a protracted stay, Sir Florence, pardoned of all his misdeeds, returned to his home. Home no longer. Hull was in possession, and refused to yield an acre of the lands he had so nefariously acquired. It was no use appealing to the law, for its officers were in the opposite interest. It was no use appealing to the Queen, for she had another lover, and had forgotten the poor Irish knight by this time; and so the viking passed the best portion of his life in unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his vast estates, and was eventually, in his old age, obliged to content himself with his castle by the sea and the island of Inniskeiran, the only spot of which the usurper was unable to deprive him. So this old story of my kinsman's fate looms up out of the darkness that enshrouds that haftless dagger hanging on the wall.
It was somewhat after the foregoing fashion that I dreamily made the inventory of my personal property. As I turned my eyes on each object, one after the other,—or the places where they lay, for the room was now so dark that it was almost impossible to see with any distinctness,—a crowd of memories connected with each rose up before me, and, perforce, I had to indulge them. So I proceeded but slowly, and at last my cigar shortened to a hot and bitter morsel that I could barely hold between my lips, while it seemed to me that the night grew each moment more insufferably oppressive. While I was revolving some impossible means of cooling my wretched body, the cigar stump began to burn my lips. I flung it angrily through the open window, and stooped out to watch it falling. It first lighted on the leaves of the acacia, sending out a spray of red sparkles, then, rolling off, it fell plump on the dark walk in the garden, faintly illuminating for a moment the dusky trees and breathless flowers. Whether it was the contrast between the red flash of the cigar-stump and the silent darkness of the garden, or whether it was that I detected by the sudden light a faint waving of the leaves, I know not; but something suggested to me that the garden was cool. I will take a turn there, thought I, just as I am; it cannot be warmer than this room, and however still the atmosphere, there is always a feeling of liberty and spaciousness in the open air, that partially supplies one's wants. With this idea running through my head, I arose, lit another cigar, and passed out into the long, intricate corridors that led to the main staircase. As I crossed the threshold of my room, with what a different feeling I should have passed it had I known that I was never to set foot in it again!
I lived in a very large house, in which I occupied two rooms on the second floor. The house was old-fashioned, and all the floors communicated by a huge circular staircase that wound up through the centre of the building, while at every landing long, rambling corridors stretched off into mysterious nooks and corners. This palace of mine was very high, and its resources, in the way of crannies and windings, seemed to be interminable. Nothing seemed to stop anywhere. Cul-de-sacs were unknown on the premises. The corridors and passages, like mathematical lines, seemed capable of indefinite extension, and the object of the architect must have been to erect an edifice in which people might go ahead forever. The whole place was gloomy, not so much because it was large, but because an unearthly nakedness seemed to pervade the structure. The staircases, corridors, halls, and vestibules all partook of a desert-like desolation. There was nothing on the walls to break the sombre monotony of those long vistas of shade. No carvings on the wainscoting, no moulded masks peering down from the simply severe cornices, no marble vases on the landings. There was an eminent dreariness and want of life—so rare in an American establishment—all over the abode. It was Hood's haunted house put in order and newly painted. The servants, too, were shadowy, and chary of their visits. Bells rang three times before the gloomy chambermaid could be induced to present herself; and the negro waiter, a ghoul-like looking creature from Congo, obeyed the summons only when one's patience was exhausted or one's want satisfied in some other way. When he did come, one felt sorry that he had not stayed away altogether, so sullen and savage did he appear. He moved along the echoless floors with a slow, noiseless shamble, until his dusky figure, advancing from the gloom, seemed like some reluctant afreet, compelled by the superior power of his master to disclose himself. When the doors of all the chambers were closed, and no light illuminated the long corridor save the red, unwholesome glare of a small oil lamp on a table at the end, where late lodgers lit their candles, one could not by any possibility conjure up a sadder or more desolate prospect.
Yet the house suited me. Of meditative and sedentary habits, I enjoyed the extreme quiet. There were but few lodgers, from which I infer that the landlord did not drive a very thriving trade; and these, probably oppressed by the sombre spirit of the place, were quiet and ghost-like in their movements. The proprietor I scarcely ever saw. My bills were deposited by unseen hands every month on my table, while I was out walking or riding, and my pecuniary response was intrusted to the attendant afreet. On the whole, when the bustling, wide-awake spirit of New York is taken into consideration, the sombre, half-vivified character of the house in which I lived was an anomaly that no one appreciated better than I who lived there.
I felt my way down the wide, dark staircase in my pursuit of zephyrs. The garden, as I entered it, did feel somewhat cooler than my own room, and I puffed my cigar along the dim, cypress-shrouded walks with a sensation of comparative relief. It was very dark. The tall-growing flowers that bordered the path were so wrapped in gloom as to present the aspect of solid pyramidal masses, all the details of leaves and blossoms being buried in an embracing darkness, while the trees had lost all form, and seemed like masses of overhanging cloud. It was a place and time to excite the imagination; for in the impenetrable cavities of endless gloom there was room for the most riotous fancies to play at will. I walked and walked, and the echoes of my footsteps on the ungravelled and mossy path suggested a double feeling. I felt alone and yet in company at the same time. The solitariness of the place made itself distinct enough in the stillness, broken alone by the hollow reverberations of my step, while those very reverberations seemed to imbue me with an undefined feeling that I was not alone. I was not, therefore, much startled when I was suddenly accosted from beneath the solid darkness of an immense cypress by a voice saying, "Will you give me a light, sir?"
"Certainly," I replied, trying in vain to distinguish the speaker amidst the impenetrable dark.
Somebody advanced, and I held out my cigar. All I could gather definitively about the individual who thus accosted me was that he must have been of extremely small stature; for I, who am by no means an overgrown man, had to stoop considerably in handing him my cigar. The vigorous puff that he gave his own lighted up my Havana for a moment, and I fancied that I caught a glimpse of long, wild hair. The flash was, however, so momentary that I could not even say certainly whether this was an actual impression or the mere effort of imagination to embody that which the senses had failed to distinguish.
"Sir, you are out late," said this unknown to me, as he, with half-uttered thanks, handed me back my cigar, for which I had to grope in the gloom.
"Not later than usual," I replied, dryly.
"Hum! you are fond of late wanderings, then?"
"That is just as the fancy seizes me."
"Do you live here?"
"Queer house, isn't it?"
"I have only found it quiet."
"Hum! But you will find it queer, take my word for it." This was earnestly uttered; and I felt at the same time a bony finger laid on my arm, that cut it sharply like a blunted knife.
"I cannot take your word for any such assertion," I replied rudely, shaking off the bony finger with an irrepressible motion of disgust.
"No offence, no offence," muttered my unseen companion rapidly, in a strange, subdued voice, that would have been shrill had it been louder; "your being angry does not alter the matter. You will find it a queer house. Everybody finds it a queer house. Do you know who live there?"
"I never busy myself, sir, about other people's affairs," I answered sharply, for the individual's manner, combined with my utter uncertainty as to his appearance, oppressed me with an irksome longing to be rid of him.
"O, you don't? Well, I do. I know what they are—well, well, well!" and as he pronounced the three last words his voice rose with each, until, with the last, it reached a shrill shriek that echoed horribly among the lonely walks. "Do you know what they eat?" he continued.
"No, sir,—nor care."
"O, but you will care. You must care. You shall care. I'll tell you what they are. They are enchanters. They are ghouls. They are cannibals. Did you never remark their eyes, and how they gloated on you when you passed? Did you never remark the food that they served up at your table? Did you never in the dead of night hear muffled and unearthly footsteps gliding along the corridors, and stealthy hands turning the handle of your door? Does not some magnetic influence fold itself continually around you when they pass, and send a thrill through spirit and body, and a cold shiver that no sunshine will chase away? O, you have! You have felt all these things! I know it!"
The earnest rapidity, the subdued tones, the eagerness of accent, with which all this was uttered, impressed me most uncomfortably. It really seemed as if I could recall all those weird occurrences and influences of which he spoke; and I shuddered in spite of myself in the midst of the impenetrable darkness that surrounded me.
"Hum!" said I, assuming, without knowing it, a confidential tone, "may I ask you how you know these things?"
"How I know them? Because I am their enemy; because they tremble at my whisper; because I hang upon their track with the perseverance of a bloodhound and the stealthiness of a tiger; because—because—I was of them once!"
"Wretch!" I cried excitedly, for involuntarily his eager tones had wrought me up to a high pitch of spasmodic nervousness, "then you mean to say that you——"
As I uttered this word, obeying an uncontrollable impulse, I stretched forth my hand in the direction of the speaker and made a blind clutch. The tips of my fingers seemed to touch a surface as smooth as glass, that glided suddenly from under them. A sharp, angry hiss sounded through the gloom, followed by a whirring noise, as if some projectile passed rapidly by, and the next moment I felt instinctively that I was alone.
A most disagreeable feeling instantly assailed me;—a prophetic instinct that some terrible misfortune menaced me; an eager and overpowering anxiety to get back to my own room without loss of time. I turned and ran blindly along the dark cypress alley, every dusky clump of flowers that rose blackly in the borders making my heart each moment cease to beat. The echoes of my own footsteps seemed to redouble and assume the sounds of unknown pursuers following fast upon my track. The boughs of lilac-bushes and syringas, that here and there stretched partly across the walk, seemed to have been furnished suddenly with hooked hands that sought to grasp me as I flew by, and each moment I expected to behold some awful and impassable barrier fall across my track and wall me up forever.
At length I reached the wide entrance. With a single leap I sprang up the four or five steps that formed the stoop, and dashed along the hall, up the wide, echoing stairs, and again along the dim, funereal corridors until I paused, breathless and panting, at the door of my room. Once so far, I stopped for an instant and leaned heavily against one of the panels, panting lustily after my late run. I had, however, scarcely rested my whole weight against the door, when it suddenly gave way, and I staggered in head-foremost. To my utter astonishment the room I had left in profound darkness was now a blaze of light. So intense was the illumination that, for a few seconds while the pupils of my eyes were contracting under the sudden change, I saw absolutely nothing save the dazzling glare. This fact in itself, coming on me with such utter suddenness, was sufficient to prolong my confusion, and it was not until after several minutes had elapsed that I perceived the room was not only illuminated, but occupied. And such occupants! Amazement at the scene took such possession of me that I was incapable of either moving or uttering a word. All that I could do was to lean against the wall, and stare blankly at the strange picture.
It might have been a scene out of Faublas, or Gramont's Memoirs, or happened in some palace of Minister Foucque.
Round a large table in the centre of the room, where I had left a student-like litter of books and papers, were seated half a dozen persons. Three were men and three were women. The table was heaped with a prodigality of luxuries. Luscious eastern fruits were piled up in silver filigree vases, through whose meshes their glowing rinds shone in the contrasts of a thousand hues. Small silver dishes that Benvenuto might have designed, filled with succulent and aromatic meats, were distributed upon a cloth of snowy damask. Bottles of every shape, slender ones from the Rhine, stout fellows from Holland, sturdy ones from Spain, and quaint basket-woven flasks from Italy, absolutely littered the board. Drinking-glasses of every size and hue filled up the interstices, and the thirsty German flagon stood side by side with the aerial bubbles of Venetian glass that rest so lightly on their threadlike stems. An odour of luxury and sensuality floated through the apartment. The lamps that burned in every direction seemed to diffuse a subtle incense on the air, and in a large vase that stood on the floor I saw a mass of magnolias, tuberoses, and jasmines grouped together, stifling each other with their honeyed and heavy fragrance.
The inhabitants of my room seemed beings well suited to so sensual an atmosphere. The women were strangely beautiful, and all were attired in dresses of the most fantastic devices and brilliant hues. Their figures were round, supple, and elastic; their eyes dark and languishing; their lips full, ripe, and of the richest bloom. The three men wore half-masks, so that all I could distinguish were heavy jaws, pointed beards, and brawny throats that rose like massive pillars out of their doublets. All six lay reclining on Roman couches about the table, drinking down the purple wines in large draughts, and tossing back their heads and laughing wildly.
I stood, I suppose, for some three minutes, with my back against the wall staring vacantly at the bacchanal vision, before any of the revellers appeared to notice my presence. At length, without any expression to indicate whether I had been observed from the beginning or not, two of the women arose from their couches, and, approaching, took each a hand and led me to the table. I obeyed their motions mechanically. I sat on a couch, between them as they indicated. I unresistingly permitted them to wind their arms about my neck.
"You must drink," said one, pouring out a large glass of red wine, "here is Clos Vougeout of a rare vintage; and here," pushing a flask of amber-hued wine before me, "is Lachryma Christi."
"You must eat," said the other, drawing the silver dishes toward her. "Here are cutlets stewed with olives, and here are slices of a filet stuffed with bruised sweet chestnuts"—and as she spoke, she, without waiting for a reply, proceeded to help me.
The sight of the food recalled to me the warnings I had received in the garden. This sudden effort of memory restored to me my other faculties at the same instant. I sprang to my feet, thrusting the women from me with each hand.
"Demons!" I almost shouted. "I will have none of your accursed food. I know you. You are cannibals, you are ghouls, you are enchanters. Begone, I tell you! Leave my room in peace!"
A shout of laughter from all six was the only effect that my passionate speech produced. The men rolled on their couches, and their half-masks quivered with the convulsions of their mirth. The women shrieked, and tossed the slender wine-glasses wildly aloft, and turned to me and flung themselves on my bosom fairly sobbing with laughter.
"Yes," I continued, as soon as the noisy mirth had subsided, "yes, I say, leave my room instantly! I will have none of your unnatural orgies here!"
"His room!" shrieked the woman on my right.
"His room!" echoed she on my left.
"His room! He calls it his room!" shouted the whole party, as they rolled once more into jocular convulsions.
"How know you that it is your room?" said one of the men who sat opposite to me, at length, after the laughter had once more somewhat subsided.
"How do I know?" I replied indignantly. "How do I know my own room? How could I mistake it, pray? There's my furniture—my piano——"
"He calls that a piano," shouted my neighbours, again in convulsions as I pointed to the corner where my huge piano, sacred to the memory of Blokeeta, used to stand. "O, yes! It is his room. There—there is his piano!"
The peculiar emphasis they laid on the word "piano" caused me to scrutinize the article I was indicating more thoroughly. Up to this time, though utterly amazed at the entrance of these people into my chamber, and connecting them somewhat with the wild stories I had heard in the garden, I still had a sort of indefinite idea that the whole thing was a masquerading freak got up in my absence, and that the bacchanalian orgie I was witnessing was nothing more than a portion of some elaborate hoax of which I was to be the victim. But when my eyes turned to the corner where I had left a huge and cumbrous piano, and beheld a vast and sombre organ lifting its fluted front to the very ceiling, and convinced myself, by a hurried process of memory, that it occupied the very spot in which I had left my own instrument, the little self-possession that I had left forsook me. I gazed around me bewildered.
In like manner everything was changed. In the place of that old haftless dagger, connected with so many historic associations personal to myself, I beheld a Turkish yataghan dangling by its belt of crimson silk, while the jewels in the hilt blazed as the lamplight played upon them. In the spot where hung my cherished smoking cap, memorial of a buried love, a knightly casque was suspended on the crest of which a golden dragon stood in the act of springing. That strange lithograph of Calame was no longer a lithograph, but it seemed to me that the portion of the wall which it covered, of the exact shape and size, had been cut out, and, in place of the picture, a real scene on the same scale, and with real actors, was distinctly visible. The old oak was there, and the stormy sky was there; but I saw the branches of the oak sway with the tempest, and the clouds drive before the wind. The wanderer in his cloak was gone; but in his place I beheld a circle of wild figures, men and women, dancing with linked hands around the hole of the great tree, chanting some wild fragment of a song, to which the winds roared an unearthly chorus. The snow-shoes, too, on whose sinewy woof I had sped for many days amidst Canadian wastes, had vanished, and in their place lay a pair of strange up-curled Turkish slippers, that had, perhaps, been many a time shuffled off at the doors of mosques, beneath the steady blaze of an orient sun.
All was changed. Wherever my eyes turned they missed familiar objects, yet encountered strange representatives. Still, in all the substitutes there seemed to me a reminiscence of what they replaced. They seemed only for a time transmuted into other shapes, and there lingered around them the atmosphere of what they once had been. Thus I could have sworn the room to have been mine, yet there was nothing in it that I could rightly claim. Everything reminded me of some former possession that it was not. I looked for the acacia at the window, and lo! long silken palm-leaves swayed in through the open lattice; yet they had the same motion and the same air of my favourite tree, and seemed to murmur to me, "Though we seem to be palm-leaves, yet are we acacia-leaves; yea, those very ones on which you used to watch the butterflies alight and the rain patter while you smoked and dreamed!" So in all things; the room was, yet was not, mine; and a sickening consciousness of my utter inability to reconcile its identity with its appearance overwhelmed me, and choked my reason.
"Well, have you determined whether or not this is your room?" asked the girl on my left, proffering me a huge tumbler creaming over with champagne, and laughing wickedly as she spoke.
"It is mine," I answered, doggedly, striking the glass rudely with my hand, and dashing the aromatic wine over the white cloth. "I know that it is mine; and ye are jugglers and enchanters who want to drive me mad."
"Hush! hush!" she said, gently, not in the least angered by my rough treatment. "You are excited. Alf shall play something to soothe you."
At her signal, one of the men sat down at the organ. After a short, wild, spasmodic prelude, he began what seemed to me to be a symphony of recollections. Dark and sombre, and all through full of quivering and intense agony, it appeared to recall a dark and dismal night, on a cold reef, around which an unseen but terribly audible ocean broke with eternal fury. It seemed as if a lonely pair were on the reef, one living, the other dead; one clasping his arms around the tender neck and naked bosom of the other, striving to warm her into life, when his own vitality was being each moment sucked from him by the icy breath of the storm. Here and there a terrible wailing minor key would tremble through the chords like the shriek of sea-birds, or the warning of advancing death. While the man played I could scarce restrain myself. It seemed to be Blokeeta whom I listened to, and on whom I gazed. That wondrous night of pleasure and pain that I had once passed listening to him seemed to have been taken up again at the spot where it had broken off, and the same hand was continuing it. I stared at the man called Alf. There he sat with his cloak and doublet, and long rapier and mask of black velvet. But there was something in the air of the peaked beard, a familiar mystery in the wild mass of raven hair that fell as if wind-blown over his shoulders, which riveted my memory.
"Blokeeta! Blokeeta!" I shouted, starting up furiously from the couch on which I was lying, and bursting the fair arms that were linked around my neck as if they had been hateful chains,—"Blokeeta! my friend! speak to me, I entreat you! Tell these horrid enchanters to leave me. Say that I hate them. Say that I command them to leave my room."
The man at the organ stirred not in answer to my appeal. He ceased playing, and the dying sound of the last note he had touched faded off into a melancholy moan. The other men and the women burst once more into peals of mocking laughter.
"Why will you persist in calling this your room?" said the woman next me, with a smile meant to be kind, but to me inexpressibly loathsome. "Have we not shown you by the furniture, by the general appearance of the place, that you are mistaken, and that this cannot be your apartment? Rest content, then, with us. You are welcome here, and need no longer trouble yourself about your room."
"Rest content!" I answered madly; "live with ghosts, eat of awful meats, and see awful sights! Never! never! You have cast some enchantment over the place that has disguised it; but for all that I know it to be my room. You shall leave it!"
"Softly, softly!" said another of the sirens. "Let us settle this amicably. This poor gentleman seems obstinate and inclined to make an uproar. Now we do not want an uproar. We love the night and its quiet; and there is no night that we love so well as that on which the moon is coffined in clouds. Is it not so, my brothers?"
An awful and sinister smile gleamed on the countenances of her unearthly audience, and seemed to glide visibly from underneath their masks.
"Now," she continued, "I have a proposition to make. It would be ridiculous for us to surrender this room simply because this gentleman states that it is his; and yet I feel anxious to gratify, as far as may be fair, his wild assertion of ownership. A room, after all, is not much to us; we can get one easily enough, but still we should be loath to give this apartment up to so imperious a demand. We are willing, however, to risk its loss. That is to say,"—turning to me,—"I propose that we play for the room. If you win, we will immediately surrender it to you just as it stands; if, on the contrary, you lose, you shall bind yourself to depart and never molest us again."
Agonized at the ever-darkening mysteries that seemed to thicken around me, and despairing of being able to dissipate them by the mere exercise of my own will, I caught almost gladly at the chance thus presented to me. The idea of my loss or my gain scarce entered into my calculations. All I felt was an indefinite knowledge that I might, in the way proposed, regain in an instant, that quiet chamber and that peace of mind of which I had so strangely been deprived.
"I agree!" I cried eagerly; "I agree. Anything to rid myself of such unearthly company!"
The woman touched a small golden bell that stood near her on the table, and it had scarce ceased to tinkle when a negro dwarf entered with a silver tray on which were dice-boxes and dice. A shudder passed over me as I thought in this stunted African I could trace a resemblance to the ghoul-like black servant to whose attendance I had been accustomed.
"Now," said my neighbour, seizing one of the dice-boxes and giving me the other, "the highest wins. Shall I throw first?"
I nodded assent. She rattled the dice, and I felt an inexpressible load lifted from my heart as she threw fifteen.
"It is your turn," she said, with a mocking smile; "but before you throw, I repeat the offer I made you before. Live with us. Be one of us. We will initiate you into our mysteries and enjoyments,—enjoyments of which you can form no idea unless you experience them. Come; it is not too late yet to change your mind. Be with us!"
My reply was a fierce oath, as I rattled the dice with spasmodic nervousness and flung them on the board. They rolled over and over again, and during that brief instant I felt a suspense, the intensity of which I have never known before or since. At last they lay before me. A shout of the same horrible, maddening laughter rang in my ears. I peered in vain at the dice, but my sight was so confused that I could not distinguish the amount of the cast. This lasted for a few moments. Then my sight grew clear, and I sank back almost lifeless with despair as I saw that I had thrown but twelve!
"Lost! lost!" screamed my neighbour, with a wild laugh. "Lost! lost!" shouted the deep voices of the masked men. "Leave us, coward!" they all cried; "you are not fit to be one of us. Remember your promise; leave us!"
Then it seemed as if some unseen power caught me by the shoulders and thrust me toward the door. In vain I resisted. In vain I screamed and shouted for help. In vain I implored them for pity. All the reply I had was those mocking peals of merriment, while, under the invisible influence, I staggered like a drunken man toward the door. As I reached the threshold the organ pealed out a wild triumphal strain. The power that impelled me concentrated itself into one vigorous impulse that sent me blindly staggering out into the echoing corridor, and as the door closed swiftly behind me, I caught one glimpse of the apartment I had left forever. A change passed like a shadow over it. The lamps died out, the siren women and masked men vanished, the flowers, the fruits, the bright silver and bizarre furniture faded swiftly, and I saw again, for the tenth of a second, my own old chamber restored. There was the acacia waving darkly; there was the table littered with books; there was the ghostly lithograph, the dearly beloved smoking-cap, the Canadian snow-shoes, the ancestral dagger. And there, at the piano, organ no longer, sat Blokeeta playing.
The next instant the door closed violently, and I was left standing in the corridor stunned and despairing.
As soon as I had partially recovered my comprehension I rushed madly to the door, with the dim idea of beating it in. My fingers touched a cold and solid wall. There was no door! I felt all along the corridor for many yards on both sides. There was not even a crevice to give me hope. I rushed downstairs shouting madly. No one answered. In the vestibule I met the negro; I seized him by the collar and demanded my room. The demon showed his white and awful teeth, which were filed into a saw-like shape, and extricating himself from my grasp with a sudden jerk, fled down the passage with a gibbering laugh. Nothing but echo answered to my despairing shrieks. The lonely garden resounded with my cries as I strode madly through the dark walls, and the tall funereal cypresses seemed to bury me beneath their heavy shadows. I met no one,—could find no one. I had to bear my sorrow and despair alone.
Since that awful hour I have never found my room. Everywhere I look for it, yet never see it. Shall I ever find it?