If I were in Europe now I'd make a pilgrimage to the shrine of some saint and heap up offerings of flowers. I must do something to make others happy; my heart is overflowing with gratitude!
I thrilled with pride as I walked beside my lover on the Avenue this afternoon. He looked so tall and splendid in his uniform. I love his eyes—his shoulders—everything about him. My Christopher!
I am to give him his answer within a week, but—what answer can I give him?
* * * * *
Alas! I have paid for my happiness—it was written, it had to be. I have lived through a night that cannot be described. Seraphine's prophetic words have come true. Horror! Terror! I cannot bear it any longer. It is quite impossible for me to bear it any longer. I have sent for Seraphine, begging her to come to me at once—this afternoon, this evening, any time tonight, before I sleep again. I would sooner die than endure another such night.
* * * * *
Seraphine did not get my note until late, but in spite of a snow-storm, she came to me and stayed all night. Dear Seraphine! She spends her life helping and comforting people in distress. She sees nothing but trouble from morning till night, yet she is always cheerful and jolly. She says God wants her to laugh and grow fat, so she does.
We talked for hours and I told her everything—or nearly everything. There is only one abominable memory that I can never tell to anyone, I may write it some day in the red leather volume of my diary that is locked with a key and that must be burned before I die. I told Seraphine how I was suddenly awakened Thursday night by a horrible feeling that there was a presence near me in my bedroom. Then I slept again and saw myself all in white lying on the ground surrounded by a circle of black birds with hateful red eyes—fiery eyes. These birds came nearer and nearer and I knew I was suffering horribly as I lay there, yet I looked on calmly without a shred of sympathy for myself; in fact I felt only amused contempt when I saw the dream image of poor Penelope start up from the ground with a scream of fright.
While I opened my heart Seraphine sat silent, watching me like a loving mother. Several times she touched my arm protectingly, and once her gaze swept quickly down my skirt, then up again, as if she saw something moving.
"What is it? What do you see?" I asked, but she did not tell me.
When I had finished she kissed me tenderly and said she was so glad I had let her come to me in my distress. She told me there was a great and immediate danger hanging over me, but that God's infinite love would protect and heal me, as it protects all His children, if I would learn to draw upon it.
I asked what this danger was and Seraphine said it would strike at me very soon through a dark-haired woman; but she would try to help me, if I would heed her warnings. I don't know why but I immediately thought of Roberta Vallis, and the strange part of it is that within an hour, Roberta called me on the telephone to say she was coming up right away. Roberta and Seraphine had not seen each other for years, not since that night when Seraphine made her prophecy about me.
Within a half hour Roberta arrived very grand in furs and jewels, quite dashingly pretty and pleased with herself—the real joie de vivre spirit. She was perfectly willing to reveal the source of this sudden magnificence, but I did not ask her—I know enough of Bobby's love affairs already—and I could see that she was uneasy under Seraphine's gravely disapproving eyes. She had come to invite me to a house-warming party that she is planning to give at her new apartment in the Hotel des Artistes. I shall meet all sorts of wonderful people, social and theatrical celebrities, and there will be music. Seraphine's eyes kept saying no, and I told Bobby I would telephone her tomorrow before six o'clock. I was not sure whether I could accept because—"Haven't you an engagement for Thursday with Captain Herrick?" suggested Seraphine.
Whereupon Bobby, with an impertinent little toss of her bobbed-off black hair, said: "Oh, Pen, why do you waste your time on a commonplace architect? He will never satisfy you—not in a thousand years. Bye-bye, I'll see you at the party." Then away she went, her eyes challenging Seraphine who stands for all the old homely virtues, including unselfish love, that Bobby Vallis entirely disapproves of. What shall I do? Seraphine says I must not go to this party, but—I want to go!
* * * * *
I have accepted Roberta's invitation, in spite of a warning from Seraphine that something dreadful will happen to me if I go. I have a morbid curiosity to see what experiences can be in store for me that are worse than those I have gone through already. Besides, I do not believe what Seraphine says—it is contrary to my reason, it is altogether fantastic. And, even if it were true, even if I really am in the horrible peril that she describes, what difference does it make where I go or what I do? I am just a spiritual outcast, marked for suffering—a little more or less je m'en moque.
* * * * *
I have hesitated to write down Seraphine's explanation of my trouble, even in my diary. I reject it with all the strength of my soul. I consider it absurd, I hate it, I try to forget it; but alas! it sticks in my thoughts like some ridiculous jingle. So I may as well face the thing on paper, here in the privacy of my diary, and laugh at it. Ha, ha!—is that false-sounding laughter?
Seraphine says that the great war has thrown the spirit world into confusion, especially in the lower levels where the new arrivals come and linger. Millions, have died on the battle field in hatred and violence. Great numbers of these have gone over so suddenly that they are not able to adjust themselves to the other plane where they constitute an immense company of earth-bound souls that long to come back. There are myriads of these unreconciled souls hovering all about us, crowding about us, eagerly, greedily, striving to come back. Some do not know that they are dead and rebel fiercely against their changed condition. The drunkards still thirst after drink. The murderers want to go on killing. The gluttons would fain gorge themselves with food, the lustful with bodily excesses. All these evil spirits, cut off from their old gratifications, try to satisfy their desires by re-entering earthly bodies, and often they succeed. That is the great peril of the war, she says. What a horrible thought! I simply refuse to believe that such things are possible.
And yet—those Voices!
If this were a conventional novel and not simply a statement of essential facts in the strange case of Penelope Wells, there would be much elaboration of details and minor characters, including the wife of Dr. William Owen and an adventure that befell this lady during a week-end visit to Morristown, N. J., since this adventure has a bearing upon the narrative. As it is, we must be content to know that Mrs. William Owen was an irritable and neurasthenic person, a thorn in the side of her distinguished husband, who was supposed to cure these ailments. He could not cure his wife, however, and had long since given up trying. It was Mrs. Owen who quite unintentionally changed the course of events for sad-eyed Penelope.
It happened in this way. Dr. Owen received a call from Mrs. Seraphine Walters on the day following Seraphine's talk with Penelope and was not overjoyed to learn that his visitor was a trance medium. If there was one form of human activity that this hard-headed physician regarded with particular detestation it was that of mediumship. All mediums, in his opinion, were knaves or fools and their so-called occult manifestations were either conjurers' trickery or self-created illusions of a hypnotic character. He had never attended a spiritualistic seance and had no intention of doing so.
But in spite of his aversion for Seraphine's metier, the doctor was impressed by the lady's gentle dignity and by her winsome confidence that she must be lovingly received since she herself came armed so abundantly with the power of love. Furthermore, it appeared that the medium had called for no other reason than to furnish information about her dear friend Penelope Wells, so the specialist listened politely.
"You are the first spiritualist I ever talked to, Mrs. Walters," he said amiably. "You seem to have a sunny, joyous nature?"
Her face lighted up. "That is because I have so much to be grateful for, doctor. I have always been happy, almost always, even as a little girl, because—" She checked herself, laughing. "I guess you are not interested in that."
"Yes I am. Go on."
"I was only going to say that I have always known that there are wonderful powers all about us, guarding us."
"You knew this as a little girl?"
"Oh, yes, I used to see Them when I was playing alone. I thought They were fairies. It was a long time before I discovered that the other children did not see Them."
"Them! Hm! How long have you been doing active work as a medium?"
"About fifteen years."
"What started you at it? I suppose there were indications that you had unusual powers?"
"Yes. There were indications that I had been chosen for this work. I don't know why I was chosen unless it is that I have never thought much about myself. That is the great sin—selfishness. My controls tell me that terrible punishment awaits selfish souls on the other side. I was so happy when I learned that the exalted spirits can only manifest through a loving soul. They read our thoughts, see the color of our aura and, if they can, they come to those who have traits in common with their own."
"If they can—how do you mean?"
"My controls tell me that many spirits cannot manifest at all, just as many humans cannot serve as mediums."
At this moment a maid entered the office and spoke to Dr. Owen in a low tone saying that Mrs. Owen had sent her to remind the doctor that this was Saturday morning and that they were leaving for Morristown in an hour to be gone over Sunday. No message could have been more unfortunate than this for Dr. Owen's equanimity, since he abominated week-end invitations, particularly those like the present one (which Mrs. Owen revelled in) from pretentiously rich people.
"Very well. Tell Mrs. Owen I will be ready," he said, then turned with changed manner to poor Seraphine, whose brightening chances were now hopelessly dissipated.
"Suppose we come to the point, Mrs. Walters," he went on. "I am rather pressed for time and—you say you are a friend of Mrs. Wells? Have you any definite information bearing upon her condition?"
"Oh, yes," she replied and at once made it clear that she was fully informed as to Penelope's distressing symptoms.
"She is suffering from shell shock," said the doctor.
"No, no!" the medium disagreed, sweetly but firmly. "Penelope's trouble is due to something quite different and far more serious than shell shock."
Then earnestly, undaunted by Owen's skeptical glances, Seraphine proceeded to set forth her belief that there is today in the world such a thing as literal possession by evil spirits.
"You mean that as applying to Mrs. Wells?" the doctor asked with a weary lift of the shoulders.
"Yes, I do. I can give you evidence—if you will only listen—"
"My dear lady, I really cannot go into such a—purely speculative field. I must handle Mrs. Wells' case as I understand it with the help of means that I am familiar with."
"Of course, but, doctor," she begged, "don't be vexed with me, I am only trying to save this dear child, I love Penelope and—I must say it—you are not making progress. She is going straight on to—to disaster. I know what I am saying."
For a moment he hesitated.
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to have a consultation with Dr. Edgar Leroy."
"Dr. Edgar Leroy? Who is he? I never heard of him."
"He is a New York doctor who has had great success in cases like Penelope's—cases of obsession or—possession."
"Oh! Does he believe in that sort of thing? Is he a spiritualist?"
Seraphine felt the coldness of his tone and shrank from it, but she continued her effort, explaining that Dr. Leroy had been a regular practitioner for years, but he had changed his methods after extended psychic investigations that had led him to new knowledge—such wonderful knowledge! Her deep eyes burned with the zeal of a great faith.
"I see. Where is his office?"
"In Fortieth Street—it's in the telephone book—Dr. Edgar Leroy. If you only knew the extraordinary cures he has accomplished, you would realize how necessary it is for Penelope to have the help he alone can give her."
She waited eagerly for his reply.
"How do you happen to know so much about this doctor?"
"Because I have been allowed to help him. He uses me in diagnosis."
"You mean that Dr. Leroy relies upon information that you give him as a medium in treating cases?" He spoke with frank disapproval.
Dr. Owen thought a moment. "Of course, Mrs. Wells is free to consult anyone she pleases, but I would not feel justified in advising her to go to Dr. Leroy."
"But you must advise it, you must insist upon it," urged Seraphine. "Penelope relies entirely upon you, she will do nothing without your approval, and this is her only hope."
"My dear lady, you certainly are not lacking in confidence, but you must realize that I cannot advise a treatment for Mrs. Wells that involves the use of spiritualistic agencies when I do not believe in spiritualism. In fact, I regard spiritualism as—"
Seraphine lifted her hand with a wistful little smile that checked the outburst.
"Don't say it—please don't. Will you do one thing, doctor, not for me but for poor Penelope? Come to my house Monday night. I have a little class there, a class of eight. We have been working together for three months and—we have been getting results. You may be allowed to witness manifestations that will convince you. Will you come?" she pleaded.
"You mean that I may see a spirit form? Or hear some tambourines playing? Something of that sort?" His tone was almost contemptuously incredulous.
The anxious suppliant was gathering her forces to reply when the hall clock struck solemnly, bringing back disagreeably to the specialist's mind his impending social duty, and this was sufficient to turn the balance of his decision definitely against Seraphine. He shook his head uncompromisingly.
"I cannot do it, madam. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I have strong convictions on this subject and—" He rose to dismiss her. "Now I must ask you to excuse me."
In spite of this disappointment Seraphine did not lose faith. "Dear child," she wrote to Penelope that night, "I am like a man in the darkness who knows the sun will rise soon and is not discouraged. Before many days Dr. Owen will listen to me and be convinced."
Firm in this confidence, the medium returned to Dr. Owen's office the following Monday morning, but she was coldly received. A rather condescending young woman brought out word that the specialist was exceedingly busy and could not see her.
"But it is so important," pleaded Mrs. Walters with eyes that would have moved a heart of stone. "Couldn't you ask him to give me a few minutes? I'll be very grateful."
The office assistant wavered. "I'll tell you why you had better come back another day, madam," she began confidentially; "Dr. Owen is very much upset because his wife has just lost some valuable jewelry. You see, Mrs. Owen went to Morristown for the week-end and took a jewel box with her in her trunk—there was a pearl necklace and some brooches and rings; but when she came to dress for dinner last night—"
"Wait! I—I hear something," Seraphine murmured and sank down weakly on a chair. She closed her eyes and her breathing quickened, while the young woman bent over her in concern; but almost immediately the psychic recovered herself and looked up with a friendly smile.
"It's all right. You are very kind. I am happy now because I can do something for Dr. Owen. Please tell him his wife is mistaken in thinking that she took the jewels with her. The jewels are here in this house—now."
"What makes you think that?"
"My control says so." The medium spoke with such a quiet power of manner that the office assistant was impressed.
"Suppose I tell Mrs. Owen?" she suggested.
"Very well, tell Mrs. Owen. Ask her if I may go to the room where she last remembers having her jewel box?"
The young woman withdrew with this message and presently returned to say that Mrs. Owen would be glad if Seraphine would come up to her bedroom. A few minutes later Seraphine faced a querulous invalid propped up against lace pillows.
"I am positive I put my jewel box in the trunk," insisted Mrs. Owen. "It is foolish to say that I did not, it is perfectly useless to look for the jewels in this house. However—what are you doing? Why do you look at me so strangely?"
"The jewels are—in this room—in a chintz sewing bag," the psychic declared slowly, her eyes far away.
"I see the sewing bag—distinctly. There are pink roses on it."
"I have a sewing bag like that," admitted the doctor's wife, "it is on a shelf in the closet—there! Will you get it for me, Miss Marshall? We shall soon see about this. Now then!" She searched through the bag, but found nothing. "I told you so. My husband is quite right in his ideas about mediums. I really wish you had not disturbed me," she said impatiently.
But the medium answered pleasantly: "I have only repeated what my control tells me. I am sorry if I have annoyed you. I advise you to search the house carefully."
"I have done that already," said Mrs. Owen.
Whereupon Seraphine, still unruffled, took her departure, with these last words at the door to the office assistant: "Please tell Dr. Owen that I beg him most earnestly to have the house searched for his wife's jewels. Otherwise one of the servants will find them."
And Dr. Owen, in spite of his scientific prejudices, in spite of his wife's positive declaration that the jewels had been stolen during her visit, and that the house had been thoroughly searched, acted on this suggestion and had the house searched again. And this time the missing jewel box was found, with the necklace, rings and brooches all intact, in a chintz sewing bag covered with pink roses!
It seems that Mrs. Owen had two chintz bags, one for ordinary sewing, one for darning, and in the latter bag, hanging on a nail behind the bureau, where the doctor's wife had absent-mindedly hidden it, the missing jewel box was discovered.
"This beats the devil!" exclaimed the doctor when he heard the good news. And an hour later he sent the following telegram to Seraphine: "Jewels found, thanks to you. We are very grateful. I have reconsidered the matter and accept your invitation for tonight. Will call at eight o'clock."
(From Penelope's Diary)
New York January 31, 1919.
An extraordinary thing happened on Monday night at Seraphine's apartment. I must write down the details before they fade from my memory. Seraphine telephoned Monday morning that there was to be a meeting of her occult class in the evening and she wanted me to come as Dr. Owen had promised to be there. She regarded this as a great opportunity to help me. Darling Seraphine! Of course I could not refuse, although I abhor spiritualism. I love Seraphine for what she is, and in spite of her queer beliefs.
When we were gathered together and after introductions to her class (there were six or seven devout believers), Seraphine explained that it was difficult to obtain psychic manifestations in the presence of active disbelief, and she begged us to maintain an attitude of friendly open-mindedness. I am afraid I did not do this all the time.
We had first some psychic reminiscences and Seraphine described in detail how on a certain night years ago she and her sister were sleeping together in a heavy mahogany fourposter bed, when the whole bed with the two women was lifted several inches from the floor and rocked about, and was then held suspended in the air while the chamber resounded with strange music. In my opinion, this was a dream or an illusion.
I am also skeptical about the testimony of one of the group, a New York minister, who told us that his dead wife has come to him in the night on several occasions in materialized form and has spoken to him, kissed him, and taken loving counsel with him about the children and about other matters. I am sure this minister was the victim of some kind of hallucination.
And I cannot believe a statement of Seraphine's regarding a Southern woman who is possessed by an evil spirit that forces her to drinking excesses so that she has spoiled her whole life. Seraphine described to us with ghastly vividness the appearance of this evil entity which she is able to see, through her clairvoyant vision, with its hideous leering countenance, inside the lady. For my part I refuse to believe it.
I admit that I began to have creepy sensations when Seraphine went into an entranced condition in the cabinet. Then came the happenings that I do not understand and I know Dr. Owen does not understand them either, but that does not prove that they were supernatural. I distinctly saw two white shapes rise from the floor—one of them was so close to me that I could have touched it with my hand, but I did not because I was afraid. Besides, I was sitting in a semi-circle with the others and our hands were joined. Dr. Owen, however, was at the end of the line with one hand free, and I saw him reach out towards the apparition (it was about four feet high) and it seemed to me that his hand and arm passed right through the white shape. As he did this I heard a long sigh and a rustling sound and I was conscious of a chilling breath on my face. I asked Dr. Owen about this afterwards and he said that when his hand touched the shape it felt as if he was grasping thick smoke.
The appearance of the second white shape was more terrifying because Seraphine came out of the cabinet when she evoked it. She wore a loose white garment and moved about the room in the near darkness like a woman walking in her sleep. She repeated a beautiful prayer in a slow dreamy voice—I wish I could remember it, the idea was that a great disaster might be averted if God would open the eyes of two of His doubting children. I suppose she meant Dr. Owen and me.
Then the second white shape appeared and seemed to rise and grow into the likeness of a woman, but presently it wavered and dissolved. Seraphine reached out her arms towards it imploringly and I saw a woman's hand take shape clearly and rest on Seraphine's hand, but this presently faded away, like a thing of vapor, and was gone. I have no idea what those white shapes were, or why they came, or why they went; but neither have I any idea as to the operation of X-rays. These white shapes may in a few years turn out to be perfectly simple laboratory phenomena, no more mysterious than wireless phenomena were twenty-five years ago. I refuse to believe that a living person can be possessed by an evil spirit!
Looking back at this seance, what troubles me is an utterance about myself that is supposed to have been made by a voice from the other side. This came at the very end when Seraphine went into an entranced condition again, with the lights up.
"I have a message for one who is tenderly loved by an exalted spirit," she said, sighing heavily, her eyes closed, "one who would come to her, but there is a barrier. She can regain health and happiness if she will cleanse her soul of evil. She must confess a sinful purpose that she entertained in her heart on the night of June 14, 1914."
June 14, 1914! I looked up this date in my diary and find that it was the occasion of Roberta Vallis' party when Seraphine made her prophecy about me. Now I remember. We were considering what a woman can do to satisfy her emotional nature if she has no chance to marry and longs for the companionship of a man. I said, according to my diary, that "there is a sacred right given by God to every woman who is born, a right that not even God Himself can take away—" Then I was interrupted by Seraphine and I did not tell them what that sacred right is or what use I personally proposed to make of it.
But I knew and know still, and the question that distresses me is whether an exalted spirit (could it be my mother?) really possesses this knowledge of my wicked purpose—if it was wicked—or whether this is simply a case of mind reading by Seraphine.
"She can regain health and happiness if she will cleanse her soul of evil—" That was the message. Is it true? Is there evil in my heart? Have I entertained a sinful purpose? Have I the courage to answer this question truthfully, even in these secret pages—have I?
Yes, I will put down the truth and justify myself in my own eyes. Then I will burn this book. I would die of shame if Christopher should ever read this confession.
As my chief justification, I dwell upon the frightful wrong that my husband did me when he took away my faith in men, my faith in their ability or willingness to be true to one woman. He did this by his words and by his acts. He assured me that sex desire in the male is so resistless that, when conflict arises between this desire and the teachings of religion, it is the latter which are almost invariably set aside; with the result that great numbers of men, brought up as Christians, either renounce Christianity (if they are honest) or find themselves forced into a life of hypocritical compromise in regard to sex indulgence. Julian told me this over and over again, no doubt to excuse his own delinquencies, until it was burned into my soul that, whatever happened, I would never marry another man, and expose myself to torments and humiliations such as I had endured with him—never!
After my husband died I had to face a problem that confronts thousands of high principled young women, widows, divorcees, in America and in all countries—how could I bear the torture of this immense loneliness? How could I adjust myself to life without the intimate companionship of a man? How could I satisfy my emotional nature? How?
There were two solutions, a second marriage and a lover. I rejected the first solution for reasons already given and the second solution because of evidence all about me that one lover usually means two, three, half a dozen lovers, since men grow weary and change and women, in loneliness or desperation, change also. Never would I let myself sink to the degrading level of sex complaisance that is sadly or cynically accepted by many women, self-supporting and self-respecting, in many American cities, simply because they cannot combat conditions that have been created and perpetuated by the stronger sex.
Therefore I worked out a third solution that was to satisfy my emotional nature and at the same time give me a reason for existence. I would adopt a little waif as my child, a French or Belgian waif, and I would bring up this child to be a useful and happy man or woman. I would love it, care for it, teach it, and with this responsibility and soulagement, I would be able to endure the loneliness of the long years stretching before me. I would find this child while I was in France working for the Red Cross and bring it home after the war, only—
My purpose was to adopt a child that should be born of my own body!
That is my sin, a sin never committed, save in intention, yet a sin that would have been committed, if things had happened differently. The arguments (based on the sacred right of motherhood and the longing for a child) that led me to my original purpose still seem valid to me. It is terrible to say this now, but I must tell the truth and the truth is that, if I had not met Captain Herrick, I would have done this thing. My whole plan of life was changed because I loved Captain Herrick. What was previously impossible became possible, and what was previously possible became impossible because I loved Captain Herrick.
That is the truth.
* * * * *
If I love him so much, why am I possessed by a horrible fear that I will refuse to be his wife? Good God, what a woman I am! I love Captain Herrick so much that I would gladly die for him—I have risked my life for him already—and yet—
I have promised Christopher his answer when we meet at Roberta's party on Friday night, but I am not sure what I will say to him. Three days! I told Roberta I would not go to her party unless she invited Christopher, so she did.
I feel much encouraged about my health. For nearly a week my sleep has been free from dreams and They have not come near me. I begin to think Dr. Owen is right. I have been suffering from nervous disturbances caused by shell shock, and I am on the road to recovery. I need rest and recreation, especially recreation—anything to divert my mind from fears and somber thoughts. I say this to Seraphine when she warns me that I must not go to Roberta's party. She says I will go at my great peril, but I refuse to entertain these fears. I crave the gaiety and insouciance of Roberta's care-free Bohemians. Besides, I shall see Christopher. I will tell him that I love him with all my soul and will marry him—the sooner the better—any time. Within a month I may be Mrs. Christopher Herrick. How wonderful!
While I was looking back through my diary I came upon a reflection of Julian's—he said that men take no real interest in other men, as men, although they are interested in all women. The fact that men are sex animals makes no impression upon other men, whereas the fact that women are sex animals makes an enormous impression. A man would hear of the tragic death of a thousand unknown men with comparative indifference, he declared, but would be distressed to hear of the death of a hundred unknown women. I wonder if that is true. I know that women are intensely conscious that all other women are sex animals. Is that due to jealousy?
I came upon another thought of Julian's—about temptation. He pictured a drunkard who has sworn off drinking. This man announces his virtuous intentions from the housetops—he will never drink again, he will avoid temptation, he will not attend a certain convivial gathering, say tonight at nine o'clock. He repeats this to himself and to others—he will not be present at this gathering. But all the time, deep down in his heart, he knows that he will be present. He knows that nine o'clock will find him in his accustomed seat smiling upon flowing glasses....
* * * * *
I am afraid of tomorrow night. I am afraid of what I will say to Captain Herrick!
I dreamed last night that I was in a great purple forest and again I saw the black birds with fiery eyes. They were in a circle around me, judging me. They wanted me to say something or do something, but I did not know what it was, and I was in despair. Suddenly the trees opened and I saw a smooth black river pouring over a precipice and the birds bore me to the river and dropped me into it. Then, as I struggled in the water, Chris leaped from the bank to save me, but I fought against him and we were both swept along towards the precipice. He caught me in his arms, but I struck at him and screamed—and then I awakened.
* * * * *
Seraphine gave me a beautiful prayer or affirmation to say when I am afraid. I say this over and over again and it comforts me: "I am God's child. God is my life, God is my strength. My soul is in unison with the perfect love of God. There is absolutely nothing to fear. All thoughts of fear are banished from my mind. I will no longer be bound by thoughts of fear."
I shut my eyes tight and say this when I am going to sleep.
THE CONFESSIONAL CLUB
In setting forth the happenings at Roberta Vallis' party (with their startling psychic consequences to Penelope Wells) it is necessary to say a word about the Greenwich Village poet Kendall Brown, since he originated the Confessional Club. This remarkable organization grew out of a tirade against American hypocrisy made by Kendall one night in a little Italian restaurant on Bleecker Street.
What was most needed in this country and in all countries, the one thing that alone could redeem mankind, declared Brown, soaring away on red wine enthusiasm, was truth. "Let us be honest and outspoken about things as they are, about men and women as they are," he ran on in his charmingly plausible way. "We are none of us very important, there isn't much difference between saints and sinners—I'll argue that point with any man—but there is one immensely valuable contribution that we can all make to the general store of life-knowledge, we can speak the exact truth about ourselves and our experiences, instead of hiding it. That would be a real service to humanity, for this composite truth, assembled and studied, must lead to wisdom; but men and women are such pitiful cowards, such cringing toadies to convention. It makes me sick!"
He refilled his glass slowly and continued: "Why is our talk stupid—all talk, so stupid that we have to get drunk in order to endure life? Why are we bores—all of us? Because we are afraid to say the essential things—what we know. We talk about what we don't know, like monkeys, and call it civilized. By God, I'd like to start a society for the dissemination of the truth that everybody knows and nobody tells!"
This phrase caught the fancy of Roberta Vallis whose fluttering, frivolous soul was appealed to by any line of reasoning that tended to put saints and sinners on the same level. She made Kendall repeat his idea and then and there proposed that they adopt it. A society for the dissemination of the truth that everybody knows and nobody tells! Splendid! They must found this society—immediately. When should they have the first meeting?
In this casual way the Confessional Club came into being, with no fixed membership, no dues or constitution, no regular place or time of meeting, and added one more to those amusing (sometimes inspiring) little groups that have flourished in Greenwich Village. It certainly had a real idea behind it. "We are loaded with human dynamite. We tell the truth that is never told," became the watchword of the society.
All of which bears upon the present narrative because Roberta Vallis had arranged to have one of these self-revealing seances as a feature of her party; and she insisted that Penelope contribute an emotional experience.
"You must confess something, Pen, my sweet one, in order to be in the spirit of the evening," she explained with bubbling exuberance, "any little thing. We all do it. Only be careful you don't make that architect of yours jealous," she teased. "Think up a classy confession, something weird—understand? Don't look so darned serious. It's only for fun. You can fake up something, dearie, if you're afraid to tell the truth. Why, what's the matter?"
Penelope's face had changed startlingly, and was now overcast by sombre memories—by fears. Why had those lightly spoken words moved her so strangely? Afraid to tell the truth! Was she afraid? With sinking heart she recalled that message of Seraphine's exalted spirit—Penelope must cleanse her soul of evil!
But—had she not cleansed her soul already? Had she not confessed the truth about her longing for a child? And written it down in her diary and prayed God to forgive her? Was not that enough? Why should this pressure to confess more be put upon her? Could it be that frivolous, selfish Roberta Vallis was the unconscious agent of some fateful power urging Penelope Wells to look into her soul again?
Suddenly, in a flash of new understanding, Mrs. Wells decided. This was no longer a trifling incident, but a happening of deep spiritual import. She was struggling desperately for health—for happiness. Perhaps this was her way of salvation, if she could only bring herself to say the one thing that—that ought to be said. After all, the opinion of these careless Bohemians mattered little—it was God's opinion that mattered.
"Do you mind if I bring Seraphine to the party?" Penelope asked with a far-away look in her eyes.
"Of course not—we'll be glad to have her."
"All right, Bobby. I will make a confession. There is something I want to confess. I don't know just the details, but—yes I do, too, it's about—" she hesitated, but went on with strengthening resolve, "it's about a trip I made once on a Fall River steamboat."
Roberta's eyes danced at this prospect.
"Splendid, Pen! We'll have yours last—just before the supper."
And so it came about that it was Penelope herself who set into action forces of the mind or the soul, memories and fears that were to change her whole future.
We need take no account of the other confessions (except one), tinsel or tawdry fragments from the drift-wood of life, that were offered blithely by three or four members of the gay company. We are concerned with Penelope's confession, and with this only as it leads up to subsequent developments of the evening. There was an ominous significance in the fact that Mrs. Wells made this confession before the man she loved. Why did she do that? Why?
Penelope sat beside a Japanese screen of black and gold on which a red-tongued dragon coiled its embroidered length and, by the light of a yellow lantern just above (there was also a tiny blue lantern that flung down a caressing ray upon her smooth dark hair and adorable shoulders) she glanced at some loose leaves taken from an old diary. Then, nerving herself for the effort, she began in a low, appealing tone, but rather unsteadily:
"I am going to tell you something that—it's very hard for me to speak of this, but—I want to tell it. I have a feeling that if I tell it I may save myself and someone who is dear to me," she looked down in embarrassment, "from—from a terrible danger. I feel more deeply about this because—some of you remember a strange thing that happened four years ago when I was present at a meeting of this club."
There were murmurs and nods of understanding from several of the guests who settled themselves into positions of expectant attention.
"Are we to have a second prophecy, Mrs. Walters?" inquired Kendall Brown briskly of Seraphine, whose haunting eyes kept Penelope in loving watchfulness; but the medium made no reply.
"The second prophecy has already been made, Kendall," Mrs. Wells answered gravely. "I have come here tonight knowing that a disaster may result from my presence. Seraphine says that a disaster will result, but—I don't believe it. I can't believe it. What harm is there in my coming to this party?"
She spoke vehemently with increasing agitation and the guests watched her with fascinated interest.
"A disaster? Tonight? Extraordinary! What kind of a disaster?"
Such were the questions and exclamations called forth by this startling announcement, and incredulous glances were addressed to the psychic; but Seraphine offered no enlightenment. She merely rocked placidly in her chair.
"Go on, dear," she said.
And Penelope continued:
"You know I have been ill since I came back from France. There are symptoms in my illness that are—peculiar—distressing. I have horrible fears that I have to fight all the time. Horrible dreams, one dream in particular lately of a thing that happened on a Fall River steamboat."
"A thing that really happened?" questioned a little gray-haired woman.
"Yes, it really happened to me during a trip that I made on this boat; and now, years later, it continues to happen in my dreams. It terrifies me, tortures me, for the thing was—it was something wrong that I did. I—I suppose it was a sin."
There was a tremor in her voice, a pathetic catch in her breath, almost a sob, as she forced herself to speak these words; then bravely, pleadingly, she lifted her eyes to her beloved.
Over the gay company there came a surprised and sympathetic hush. Herrick straightened awkwardly, but never flinched in his loyalty or fondness—what an ordeal for a lover!—while Penelope paused as if gathering strength to go on.
"May I ask if this was before you were married?" queried the poet.
"After you were married?"
"Yes. My husband was with me."
Penelope's voice sank almost to a whisper, and the unconscious twining together of her fingers bore witness to her increasing distress. Everyone in the room felt the poignancy of the moment. If the operation of soul cleansing involved such stress as this, then even these heedless members of the Confessional Club drew back disapprovingly.
"Hold on, Pen!" interposed Roberta Vallis good-naturedly, wishing to relieve this embarrassment. "You're getting all fussed up. I guess you'd better cut out this story. I don't believe it's much good anyway. If you think there are any sentimental variations on a Fall River steamboat theme that we are not fully conversant with, why you've got another guess coming."
Penelope wavered and again her dark eyes yearned towards Christopher. It was cruelly hard to go on with her story, yet it was almost impossible now not to tell it.
"I want to make this confession," she insisted, strong in her purpose, yet breaking under womanly weakness. "I must cleanse my soul of—of evil—mustn't I?" her anguished eyes begged comfort of Seraphine.
"You are right, dear child," the medium answered gently, "but wait a little. Sit over here by me. We have plenty of time. She took her friend's icy hand in hers and drew her protectingly to a place beside her on the sofa.
"To cheer you up, Pen," laughed Bobby, "and create a general diversion, I'll tell a story myself—you'll see the kind of confession stuff we generally put over in our little group of unconventional thinkers. Attention, folks! Harken to the Tale of Dora the Dressmaker! Which proves that the way of the transgressor, as observed on Manhattan Island, is not always so darned hard."
Then she told her story in the most approved Greenwich Village style, with slangy and cynical comments, all of which were received with chortles of satisfaction by the men and with no very severe disapproval by the ladies—except Seraphine.
"Dora was a pretty, frail looking girl—but really as strong as a horse," began Bobby gleefully, "one of those tall blondes who can pass off for aristocrats without being the real thing. She came from a small Southern town and had married a man who was no good. He drank and chased after women; and, in one of his drunken fits, he was run over on a dark night at the railroad crossing—fortunately."
Penelope stirred uneasily at the memories in her own life conjured up by this picture.
"Dora had the usual small town collection of wedding cut glass and doilies, which she put away in the attic, after husband's decease; and, with them, she also put away all respect and desire for the married state. She was through with domesticity and all that it represented, and made up her mind to devote the rest of her life to earning as big a salary as she could and having the best time possible."
The rest of the story was a sordid account of this girl's effort to combine business with pleasure, as men do, and of her startled discovery one day, just at the moment of her greatest success—she had been offered the position of head designer in a wholesale dress house with coveted trips to Europe—that she was about to become a mother.
Penelope sighed wearily as she listened. Could she never escape from this eternal sex theme?
"You see," Bobby rattled on, "Dora knew she couldn't go to roof gardens and supper parties alone, and she couldn't keep a chap on a string without paying—so she paid. Of course she camouflaged this part of her life very daintily, as she did everything else, but going out evenings was as important to her as her business ambition was."
Mrs. Wells smiled faintly at the word camouflaged, for she knew better than anyone else that this supposed story of a dressmaker was really the story of Roberta Vallis herself, thinly disguised.
"The point is that after years of living exactly like a man," Miss Vallis became a shade more serious here and a note of defiance crept into her discourse, "with work and pleasure travelling along side by side, Dora was called upon to face a situation that would have brought her gay and prosperous career to a sad and shameful end in any well-constructed Sunday School book; but please notice that it did nothing of the sort in real life. Did she lose her job? She did not. Or her health or reputation? Nothing like that. After she got over the first shock of surprise Dora decided to go through with the thing, and, being tall and thin, got away with it successfully. No one suspected that the illness which kept her away from her work was anything but influenza, and—well, the child didn't live," she concluded abruptly as she caught Seraphine's disapproving glance. "The point is that Dora is today one of the most successful business women in Boston."
A challenge to outraged virtue was in her tone, and all eyes turned instinctively to the psychic who was still rocking placidly.
"Poor woman!" Seraphine said simply, which seemed to annoy Miss Vallis.
"Why do you say that? Why is she a poor woman? She has everything she wants."
"No! No indeed," was the grave reply. "She has nothing that she really wants. She has cut herself off from the operation of God's love. She is surrounded by forces that—Oh!" the medium's eyes closed for a moment and she drew a long breath, "my control tells me these forces of evil—they will destroy this girl."
Roberta essayed to answer mockingly, but the words died on her lips, and there fell a moment of shivery silence until Kendall Brown broke the spell.
"That story of Dora is a precious human document," was the poet's ponderous pronouncement. "It is unpleasant, painful, but—what is the lesson? The lesson is that infinite trouble grows out of our rotten squeamishness about sex facts. This girl craved a reasonable amount of pleasure after her work, and she got it. She refused to spend her evenings alone in her room reading a book. She wanted to dance, to enjoy the society of men—their intimate society. That brings us to the oldest and most resistless force in the world, a blessed force, a God-given force upon which all life depends—you know what I mean. And how do we deal with this most formidable of forces? Are we grateful for it? Do we acknowledge its irresistible supremacy? No! We deal with it by pretending that it doesn't exist. We say to Friend Dora that, being unmarried, she has nothing whatever to do with sex attraction, except to forget it. Does she forget it? She does not. Do the men allow her to forget it? They do not. And one fine day Friend Dora has a baby and everybody says horrible, disgraceful! Rubbish! I maintain that the state should provide homes and proper care for the children we call illegitimate! What a word! I say all children are legitimate, all mothers should be honored, yes, and financially protected. A woman who gives a child to the nation, regardless of who the father is, renders a distinguished service. She is a public benefactor."
"Hear, hear!" approved several, but the little grey-haired woman objected that this meant free love, whereupon Kendall was off again on his hobby.
"Love is free, it always has been and always will be free. If you chain love down under smug rules you only kill it or distort it. I am not arguing against marriage, but against hypocrisy. We may as well recognize that sex desire is so strong a force in the world—that—"
To all of this Penelope had listened with ill-concealed aversion, now she could no longer restrain her impatience. "Ridiculous!" she interrupted. "You exasperate me with your talk about the compelling claims of oversexed individuals. Let them learn to behave themselves and control themselves."
"Mrs. Wells is absolutely right," agreed Captain Herrick quietly, his eyes challenging Brown. "If certain men insist on behaving like orang-outangs in the jungle, then society should treat them as orang-outangs."
This incisive statement somewhat jarred the poet's self-sufficiency and he subsided for the moment, but jealousy is a cunning adversary and the rival awaited his opportunity for counter-attack.
As the discussion proceeded Kendall noticed that one of the loose pages from Penelope's diary had fluttered to the floor and, recovering this, he glanced at it carelessly, then smiled as he plucked at his yellow beard.
"Excuse me, Mrs. Wells," he said. "I could not help reading a few words. Won't you go on with your confession—please do. It sounds so wonderfully interesting. See—there—at the bottom!" He pointed to the lines.
"Oh!" she murmured as she saw the writing, and two spots of color burned in her cheeks. "Let me have it—I insist!"
"Certainly. But do read it to us. This is a real human interest story. 'Let me bow my head in shame and humble my spirit in the dust'—wasn't that it?" laughed Kendall maliciously.
At this, seeing the frightened look in Penelope's eyes, Captain Herrick stormed in: "You had no right to read those words or repeat them."
"I am sorry, Mrs. Wells. I meant no offense," apologized the poet, realizing that he had gone too far, but the harm was done. Something unaccountably serious had happened to Penelope Wells. Her face had gone deathly white, and Roberta, suddenly sympathetic, hastened to her.
"It's a shame to tease you, dearie. No more confession stuff. Now, folks, we'll have supper—down in the restaurant. Then we'll dance. Come on! Feeling better, Pen? What you need is a cocktail and some champagne."
But Penelope lay like a stricken creature, her beautiful head limp against the pillow of her chair, her eyes filled with pain.
"I—I'll be all right in a minute, Bobby," she whispered. "Please go down now—all of you except Captain Herrick. We'll join you—a little later. You don't mind?" she turned to Herrick who was bending over her anxiously. Then she said softly: "Don't leave me, Chris. I don't feel quite like myself. I'm a little frightened."
Thus it happened that Penelope and Captain Herrick did not descend to the flower-spread supper room where dancing and good cheer awaited the gay company, but remained in Roberta's black and gold apartment, two lovers swept along by powers of fate far beyond their control, and now facing the greatest emotional moment of their lives.
The catastrophe came gradually, yet at the end with startling suddenness.
At first, when they were alone, Penelope seemed to recover from her distress and began to talk naturally and serenely, as if her preceding agitations were forgotten. She told Christopher that Dr. Owen's wise counsels had reassured her, and she now felt confident that her bad dreams and other disturbing symptoms would soon leave her.
"You see something has conquered all my sadness, all my fears," she looked at him shyly.
For a moment he sat motionless, drinking in her splendid beauty, then he leaned towards her impulsively and spoke one word that carried all the devotion of his soul: "Penelope!"
"Dear boy!" she murmured, her voice thrilling, and a moment later he had clasped her in his arms.
"You're mine! You love me! Thank God!"
But she disengaged herself gently, there was something she wished to say. She would not deny her love, her great love for him. She realized that she had loved him from the first. Her resistance had been part of her illness—it was not coquetry, he must not think that. Now her eyes were opened and her heart was singing with joy. She was the happiest woman in the world at the thought that she was to be his wife.
"My darling! How I love you!" exclaimed Christopher, drawing her towards him, his lips seeking hers.
"No—no," Penelope's voice was so serious, so full of alarm that her lover instantly obeyed. He drew away from her with a hurt, puzzled expression in his eyes. Very gravely Penelope went on. "I love you, too, my darling, but I must ask you to make me a solemn promise. I shall be most unhappy if you refuse. I want you to promise not to kiss me,—as—as lovers kiss, passionately, ardently, until after we are married."
"But, Pen, you—can't mean that seriously?"
With a wistful little smile she assured him that she did mean it most seriously.
In vain he protested. "But why? It's so absurd! Why shouldn't I kiss you when I love you better than anything in the world."
"Chris, please, please don't talk like that. You must trust me and do what I ask. You must, dear!"
A pathetic earnestness in her tone and a strange look in her eyes made Christopher forget his privileges, and he made the promise.
"Thank you, dear. Now I must tell you something else," she went on. "I must explain why I was so disturbed when Kendall Brown read those words from my diary. I must tell you what they meant."
But a masterful gesture from Herrick stopped her. He did not wish to know anything about this. He trusted her entirely, he approved of her entirely, they must never speak of these old sad things again.
Tears of gratitude suddenly filled her eyes.
"Take this, dear, it belonged to my mother," she said fondly and gave him a circlet of twisted dolphins and he put it on his finger. Then he gave her a brown seal ring, engraved with old Armenian characters.
"I got it in Constantinople, Pen. It's a talisman. It will bring us luck."
They talked on, forgetful of the supper party downstairs, until a waiter came with cocktails and champagne that Roberta had sent up, but Penelope would have none of these, saying that her love was too great to need stimulation.
"I must drink to your health, dear," said Herrick, and pouring out the bubbling liquid, he offered her a glass, but she shook her head.
"No? Not even a sip? All right, sweetheart. I'll pledge you the finest toast in the world," he lifted his goblet. "My love! My wife!"
As Christopher set down his glass and turned to clasp his beloved in his arms, he realized that there was a curious change in her face, a subtle, an almost indistinguishable change—the sweet radiance had gone. It was the word wife that had stabbed Penelope with unforgettable memories and brought back her impulse to confess. Once more she tried to tell the story of that tragic steamboat, but Christopher firmly and good-naturedly refused to listen. Whatever she had done, her life had been a hundred times finer and nobler than his. Not that he had any great burden on his conscience, but—well—With a chivalrous idea of balancing scores, he mentioned that there had been one or two things that—er—and his embarrassment grew.
Penelope's eyes caressed him. "I'm so glad, Chris, if there is something for me to forgive. Is it—is it a woman story?"
"Tell me. I won't misjudge you, dear," she spoke confidently, although a shadow of pain flitted across her face. Then he began to tell of a hotel flirtation—a young woman he had met one night in Philadelphia. She wasn't so very pretty, but—her husband had treated her like the devil and—she was very unhappy and—they had rather a mad time together.
Christopher spoke in brief, business-like sentence's as if desiring to get through with a painful duty, but Penelope pressed him for details.
"What was her name—her first name?"
"Did you have supper with her—did she drink?"
"Was she—how shall I say it?—an alluring woman? Did she have a pretty figure?"
The soldier looked at his sweetheart in surprise and, without answering, he struck a match and meditatively followed the yellow flame as it consumed the wood. Penelope watched his well-shaped, well-kept hands.
"I—I suppose so. What difference does that make? Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Of course not." She took a cigarette from his silver case. "I'll have one with you—from the same match! Voila!" She inhaled deeply and blew out a grey cloud. "Tell me more about Katherine."
His frown deepened.
"Poor woman! She was reckless. I am sure she had never done a thing like this before. I hadn't either. I don't mean that I've been an angel, Pen, but—" he paused, then, with a flash of self-justification: "I give you my word of honor, in the main I have not done that sort of thing."
She caught his hand impulsively. "I know you haven't. I'm so glad. Now I will drink to—to you." She rose and stood before him, a lithe young creature vibrant with life. "Touch your glass to mine. My dear boy! My Christopher!"
They drank together.
Then Herrick resumed his explanation. "I must tell you a little more, darling. You see I was sorry for this woman, her story was so pathetic. I wanted to help her, if I could, not to harm her. So I suggested that we each make a pledge to the other—"
He was intensely in earnest, but Penelope's eyes were now dancing in mockery.
"Oh you reformer! You ridiculous boy!" she laughed.
"It's true, I assure you."
"I don't believe it. What was the pledge? No, don't tell me! Tell me if you kept it."
He moved uneasily under her searching gaze, but did not answer.
"Did you keep your pledge?" she insisted.
"For how long?"
He shifted again uncomfortably.
"For several months," he began, "but I must admit—"
"No, no!" she interrupted with a swift emotional change. "Don't admit anything. It was wicked of me to mock you. Come, we will drink to the lady in Philadelphia! Fill the glasses! To Katherine! And poor, weak human nature! Katherine! And all our good resolutions!"
Pen's eyes teased her lover with a gay diablerie as she slowly emptied her glass, and Herrick's heart quickened at the realization that this beautiful woman belonged to him—she belonged to him. At the same time he was conscious of a vague uneasiness under the increasing allurement of her glances. Were there ever such eyes in the world? Was there ever such a woman? Adorable as a saint, dangerous as a siren!
"There is one pledge I will never break, Pen," he said tenderly. "I'll never fail to do every possible thing to make you happy."
"Will you take me back to Paris, Chris? I want to spend a whole year in Paris with you. We'll go to fine hotels along the Champs Elysees, we'll prowl through those queer places in Montmartre, remember? and once you'll take me to a students' ball, won't you, dear? I'd love to dance at a students' ball—with you!" Her eyes burned on him under fluttering black lashes—such long curling lashes! "Let's drink to Paris—toi et moi, tous les deux ensemble, pas? Come!" She snatched up her glass again and emptied it quickly.
A spirit of wild gaiety and abandon had caught Penelope—there was no restraining her. They must sit on the divan under that dull blue light, and talk of their love—their wonderful love that had swept aside all barriers—while she smoked another cigarette. Christopher forgot to be afraid—he, too, was young! Vive la joie!
She nestled close to him against the pillows and, as they talked in low tones, he drew her closer, breathing the perfume of her hair. She caught his hand and clung to it, then slowly, restlessly, her fingers moved along his arm.
"My love! My love!" she whispered.
"Sweetheart!" he looked deep into her soul, his heart pounding furiously.
"It was horrid of me, Chris, to make you promise—that," she bent close offering him her lips.
"Promise what?" he asked unsteadily.
"Oh, Chris," she whispered and her soft form seemed to envelope him. "I am yours, yours!"
Then silence fell in the room while she pressed her eager mouth to his.
"Penelope!" he thrilled deliriously.
"Don't call me Penelope. It's so prim and old fashioned. I told you what to call me—Fauvette. That's the name I like. Fauvette! I am your Fauvette. Say it."
Her eyes consumed him.
Christopher realized his danger, but he was powerless against the spell of her beauty.
"My Fauvette!" he caught her in his arms.
"Ah! Ah! Mon cheri! Wait!" Swiftly she turned off the lights, then darted back to him in the darkness.
At this moment of supreme crisis the door of the apartment opened slowly and, as the light streamed in, a figure entered that came like a gentle radiance. It was Seraphine.
THE EVIL SPIRIT
Penelope sprang up from the divan panting with anger. Her hair was dishevelled. Her bare shoulders gleamed in the shadows. She glared at Seraphine.
"How dare you come in here?" she demanded insolently. "What do you want here?"
With a smile of infinite compassion Mrs. Walters approached like a loving mother. "My child! My dear child!" she said tenderly.
But the mad young creature repulsed her. "No, no! I hate you! Go away!"
The newcomer turned reassuringly to Captain Herrick. "I am Penelope's friend—Seraphine."
"Ha! Seraphine! I am Fauvette! What do I care for you?" The frantic one snapped her fingers at the other woman.
"Penelope!" pleaded Christopher, shocked at her violence.
She turned on him in fury. "You fool! You wouldn't take the chance I offered you."
"I will quiet her," said Mrs. Walters to Herrick. "Don't be alarmed."
"You can't quiet me. I'll say anything I damn please. Go on, quiet me! Quiet Fauvette! I'd like to see you do it. Ha, ha, ha!" Her wild laughter rang through the apartment.
Christopher's face was tense with alarm and distress. "What can I do? What is the matter with her?" he appealed to Seraphine.
"She is ill. She is not herself," was the grave reply. "I'll call Dr. Owen; I'll tell him to come at once."
He hurried out of the room and the two women faced each other.
Fauvette sank back on the divan and lay there in sullen defiance. "Now we're alone—you and I. What are you going to do about it?" was her harsh challenge.
The psychic did not answer, but her lips moved as if in prayer; then she spoke sternly, her deep eyes widening: "I see your scarlet lights, your sinister face."
From the shadowy corner Fauvette sneered: "I see your soft, sentimental Christmas card face. I'm not afraid of you. I laugh at you." And peals of shrill, almost satanic, laughter rang through the room.
Seraphine advanced slowly, holding out her hands.
"I know your ways, creature of darkness. I command you to leave this pure body that you would defile."
And fierce the answer came: "No! Damn you! You are not strong enough to drive me out."
"Think of the tortures you are preparing for yourself."
"Don't you worry about my tortures."
"Have pity on Penelope. It will be counted in your favor."
There were snarling throat-sounds, then these menacing words: "No! I'm going to put Penelope out of business."
"Where is Penelope now?"
"She is sleeping. Poor nut!"
"She knows nothing about Fauvette?"
"She remembers nothing that Fauvette says?"
There was a long silence in the darkened room while Seraphine prayed.
"You know very well that Dr. Leroy can drive you out," she said presently.
"He can't do it. Let him try. Nobody can drive me out. Besides, you won't get Dr. Leroy."
"This other doctor won't have him."
"Yes. I know damned well how to fix him. I'll tell him some things that will make him sit up and take notice."
"How do you mean you will fix him?"
"Never mind. You'll see. If I can't have Herrick, Penelope is never going to have him."
The medium closed her eyes and seemed to listen. "You mean Penelope will never have him because of something you are going to tell Dr. Owen—something about—about chemistry?" she groped for the word.
"Dr. Owen will not believe you."
"He will believe me."
"No!" declared Seraphine dreamily. "There are greater powers than you fighting for Penelope."
X K C
We come now to what has been regarded by some authorities as the most remarkable feature in the case of Penelope Wells, a development almost without parallel in the records of abnormal psychology. All books on this subject record instances of jealousy or hostility between two recurring personalities in the same individual. A woman in one personality writes a letter that humiliates her in another personality. A little girl eats a certain article of food while in one personality simply because she knows that her other personality hates that particular food. And so on. It almost never occurs, however, that an evil personality will commit an act or a crime that is abhorrent to the individual's fundamental nature. Neither through hypnotism nor through any manifestation of a dual nature will a person become a thief or a murderer unless there is really in that person a latent tendency towards stealing or killing. There is always some germ of Mr. Hyde's bloodthirstiness in the benevolence of Dr. Jekyll.
But Penelope Wells, under the domination of her Fauvette personality, now entered upon a course that was certain to bring disgrace and sorrow upon a man she loved with all her heart, a man for whom she had risked her life on the battle field. Here is one of those mysteries that will not be cleared up until we better understand these strange and distressing phenomena of the sick brain or the sick soul.
In presenting this development it must be mentioned that Dr. William Owen was not only a specialist on nervous diseases but a chemist of wide reputation in the field of laboratory investigation. For a year and a half preceding the end of the war he had held a major's commission in the army and had spent much time in a government research laboratory, studying poison gases.
In August, 1918, he had discovered a toxic product of extraordinary virulence, not a gas, but a tasteless and odorless liquid containing harmful bacteria. These bacteria showed great resistance against heat and cold and were able to propagate and disseminate themselves with incredible rapidity through living creatures, rats, earth worms, birds, cattle, dogs, fleas, that might feed upon them or come in contact with them. The deadliness of this product was so great, as appeared from laboratory tests, that it was believed all human life might be exterminated in a region intensively inoculated (from airplanes or guns) with the liquid. This was only a possibility, but it was an enormously important possibility.
A report on this formidable discovery had been prepared by Dr. Owen for the Washington authorities with such extreme secrecy that the chemical formula for the liquid had been indicated simply by the letters X K C, the product being referred to as X K C liquid. Moreover, the only person, except Dr. Owen, in possession of the full facts touching this discovery was Captain Herrick who had assisted the doctor in his investigations. Herrick had been cautioned to guard this secret as he would his life, since there was involved in it nothing less than the possibility of preventing future wars through the power of its potential terribleness.
The bearing of all this upon our narrative was presently made clear as the conflict developed between tortured Penelope and the psychic in Roberta Vallis' studio.
For some moments the two women eyed each other in hostile silence, which was broken presently by the sound of footsteps in the hall.
"Ah! Here comes your doctor!" mocked the fair creature on the divan. "Now watch Fauvette!"
The door opened and Dr. Owen, followed by Herrick, both grave-faced, entered the apartment.
Christopher turned anxiously to Seraphine: "What has happened? Is she better?"
Mrs. Walters shook her head, but when the young officer looked at Penelope his fears were lessened, for she (was it from dissimulation or weariness?) gave no indication of her recent frenzy, but seemed to be resting peacefully against the cushions.
"Let's have a little more light here," said Dr. Owen, and he turned on the electrics. "I'm afraid you have overtaxed your strength, Mrs. Wells."
Penelope answered gently with perfect self-possession: "I'm afraid I have, doctor, I'm sorry to give you so much trouble." And she smiled sweetly at Herrick.
The specialist drew up a chair and studied his patient thoughtfully. There was an added austerity in his usual professional manner.
"Captain Herrick tells me that you made some rather strange remarks just now?" he said tentatively.
Mrs. Wells met him with a look of half amused understanding.
"Did I?" she answered carelessly, and as she spoke she took up a pencil and made formless scrawls on a sheet of paper. "I suppose he refers to my calling him a fool. It is a little unusual, isn't it?"
She laughed in a mirthless way.
"Why did you do it?"
"I haven't any idea."
"And you spoke unkindly to Seraphine? That isn't like you."
"No? How do you know what I am like?" she answered quickly, her hand still fidgeting with the pencil.
Dr. Owen observed her attentively and did not speak for some moments. Seraphine and Christopher drew their chairs nearer, as if they knew that the tension of restraint was about to break.
"You must realize that you have been under a great strain, Mrs. Wells," resumed the doctor, "and you are tired—you are very tired."
Her answer came dreamily, absent-mindedly: "Yes, I am tired," and, as she spoke, Penelope's tragic eyes closed wearily. But her fingers still clutched the pencil and continued to move it over the white sheet.
"Look!" whispered Seraphine, "she is making letters upside down."
"That's queer!" nodded Owen. "She is writing backwards—from right to left. Hello!" He started in surprise as he saw, on bending closer, that Penelope had covered the sheet with large printed letters—X—K—C, written over and over again.
Greatly disturbed, Dr. Owen roused his patient and questioned her about this; but she insisted that she had no idea what she had written or what the letters meant. A little later, however, she acknowledged that this was not true.
"What! You did know what you wrote?" the scientist demanded. His whole manner had changed. His eyes were cold and accusing. He was no longer a sympathetic physician tactful towards the whims of a pretty woman, but a major in the United States Army defending the interests of his country.
"This is a very serious matter, Mrs. Wells, please understand that. You told me just now that you did not know what you wrote on the sheet of paper?"
Penelope faced him scornfully. Her cheeks were flushed. Her bosom heaved.
"I said that, but it wasn't true. I lied to you. I did know what I wrote."
"You know what those letters mean?"
"Yes, I do!"
"What do they mean?"
"They mean some kind of poison stuff that you have made for the army."
"How do you know that?"
"He told me," she turned to Captain Herrick who had listened in dumb bewilderment.
"How can you say such a thing?" Chris protested.
"Because it's true," she flung the words at him defiantly.
The young officer went close to her and looked searchingly into her eyes.
"Think what you are saying," he begged. "Remember what this means. Remember that—"
She cut in viciously: "You shut up! I have no more use for you. I tell you it's true."
"Don't believe her, doctor," interposed Seraphine: "She is not responsible for what she says."
"I am responsible. I know exactly what I am saying."
"It is not true, sir," put in Captain Herrick. "May I add that—"
"Wait! Why are you confessing this, Mrs. Wells?"
Like a fury Fauvette glared at Christopher.
"Because he turned me down. I'm sore on him. He's not on the level."
"Not on the level? Are you speaking of him as a lover or an officer?"
"Both ways. He's not on the level at all."
"Oh, Penelope!" grieved the heartbroken lover.
She eyed him scornfully. "You needn't Penelope me! I said I have no use for you. A Sunday school sweetheart! Ha! I'll tell you something else, doctor, I'm not the only one who knows about your X K C stuff."
"Mrs. Wells," Dr. Owen spoke slowly, "are you deliberately accusing Captain Herrick of disloyalty?"
"Yes, I am."
Herrick stiffened under this insult, white-faced, but he did not speak.
"He meant to sell this information—for money," she added.
"My God!" breathed Christopher.
"Captain Herrick told you this?"
"Yes, he did. He said we would go abroad and live together—like millionaires. You did! You know damned well you did," she almost screamed the words at Herrick, then she sank back on the divan exhausted, and lay still, her eyes closed.
The doctor's face was ominously set as he turned to his young friend.
"Chris, my boy, I need not tell you that I cannot believe this monstrous accusation. At the same time, I saw Mrs. Wells write down those letters that are only known to you and to me. I saw that with my own eyes—you saw it, too."
"And you heard what she said?"
"Under the circumstances, as your superior officer, I don't see how I have any choice except to—"
Here Mrs. Walters interrupted: "May I speak? It is still possible to avert a great disaster."
The doctor shook his head. "You have heard Mrs. Wells' confession. No power on earth can prevent an investigation of this," he declared with military finality.
Seraphine's lips moved in silent prayer. Her face was transfigured as her eyes fell tenderly upon the white-faced, tortured sleeper.
"No power on earth, but—God can prevent it," she murmured and moved nearer to Penelope whose face was convulsed as if by a terrifying dream. Then, with hands extended over the beautiful figure, the psychic prayed aloud, while Herrick and the doctor, caught by the power of her faith, looked on in wondering silence.
"God of love, let Thine infinite power descend upon this Thy tortured child and drive out all evil and wickedness from her. Open the eyes of these men so that they may understand and be merciful. Oh, God, grant us a sign! Let Thy light descend upon us."
Captain Herrick has always maintained that at this moment, as he watched his beloved, his heart clutched with horrible forebodings, he distinctly saw (Dr. Owen did not see this) a faint stream of bluish radiance playing over her from the direction of Seraphine, and enveloping her. It is certain that Penelope's face immediately became peaceful and the convulsive twitchings that had shaken her body ceased.
"Look!" marvelled Christopher. "She is smiling in her sleep."
Seraphine turned to Dr. Owen, with radiant countenance.
"It is God's sign. Come! Penelope will awaken soon and must find herself alone with her lover. It will be the real Penelope. You will see. Let us draw back into the shadows. You stay near her," she motioned to Herrick, then turned down the lights except a yellow-shaded lamp near the sleeper.
And, presently, watching with breathless interest, these three saw Penelope stir naturally and open her eyes.
"Why, how strange!" she exclaimed. "I must have gone to sleep. Why did you let me go to sleep, Chris?" she questioned her lover, with bright, happy eyes in which there was no trace of her recent perturbations of spirit.
"It's all right, Pen," he said reassuringly. "You were a little—a little faint, I guess."
She held out her hand lovingly and beckoned him to her side.
"Sit by me here. I had such a horrible dream. I'm so glad to see you, dear. I'm so glad to be awake. Oh!" She started up in embarrassment as she saw that her dress was disarranged. "What's the matter with my dress? What did I do? What has happened? Tell me. You must tell me," she begged in confusion.
"Don't worry, sweetheart," he soothed her. "It was the excitement of all that talk—that ass of a poet."
Penelope passed her hand over her eyes in a troubled effort to remember. It was pathetic to see her groping backwards through a daze of confused impressions. The last clear thing in her mind was exchanging rings with her lover. How long had they been here? What time was it? What must Roberta think of them, staying up in her apartment all alone?
Christopher assured her that what Roberta thought (she and her gay friends were still dancing downstairs) was the very least of his preoccupations, and he was planning to turn his sweetheart's thoughts into a different channel when Seraphine came forward out of the shadows followed by Dr. Owen.
"Why, Seraphine!" exclaimed Penelope in astonishment. "Where did you come from? And Dr. Owen?"
Seraphine greeted her friend lovingly and kissed her, but there was unconcealed anxiety in her voice and manner.
"Dear child, something very serious has happened. You were ill and—Dr. Owen came to help you. He wants to ask you some questions."
"Yes?" replied Penelope, her face paling.
Then the doctor, with scarcely any prelude and with almost brutal directness, said: "Mrs. Wells, I want you to tell me why you accused Captain Herrick of disloyalty."
Poor Penelope! She could only gasp for breath and turn whiter still. Accuse her dear Christopher whom she loved and honored above all men of any wrong or baseness! God in heaven! If she had done this she wanted to die.
"I—I didn't," she stammered. "I couldn't do such a thing."
But the doctor was relentless. "If what you said to me a few minutes ago is true," he went on coldly, "it will be my duty, as a major in the United States Army, to order the arrest of Captain Herrick for treason against the government."
At this startling assertion Penelope fell back as if struck down by a mortal wound, and lay still on the couch, a pitiful crumpled figure. The others gathered around her apprehensively.
"You were very harsh, sir," reproached Herrick.
"It was the best thing for you and for Mrs. Wells," answered Dr. Owen, bending over his patient, who lay there with dark-circled eyes closed, oblivious to her surroundings. "At least I have no doubt as to her sincerity, I mean as to the genuineness of this shock."
The doctor was sorely perplexed as he faced this situation. What was his duty? Here was a definite charge of extreme gravity made against a young man of unimpeachable character by the very last person in the world who would naturally make such an accusation, that is the woman who loved him. Must he assume that the patient's mind was affected? The idea that Christopher Herrick could be capable of a treasonable act was altogether preposterous, a thing that Owen rejected indignantly, yet there was the evidence of his own senses. Penelope had written those letters that were not known to anyone except Herrick and himself? And she knew what they meant. How did she know? Was it possible Chris had told her?
But, even so, why had Penelope betrayed and denounced her lover?
At this moment Seraphine turned to the doctor in gentle appeal.
"Don't you see what the explanation is?" she whispered with eloquent eyes.
"It seems to be a case of dual personality," he answered.
"It's more than that, doctor."
The scientist moved impatiently, then, remembering what he had seen at Seraphine's apartment, and the recovery of his wife's jewels, he softened the skepticism of his tone.
"You think it is one of those cases you told me about of—possession? That's absurd!"
"Why is it absurd? Doesn't the Bible speak of possession by evil spirits? Is the Bible absurd? Did not Christ cast out evil spirits?"
"I suppose so, but—times have changed."
"Not in the spirit world. Oh no!"
"Anyway, the thing is not capable of proof."
"Yes, it is, if you will not shut your mind against the evidence. Oh," she pleaded, "if you only had faith enough to let Dr. Leroy treat Penelope! What harm could it do? You say yourself this is a case of dual personality. Do you know how to cure that trouble? Do you?" she insisted.
"Perhaps not," he admitted, "but—that is not the only thing. It must be made clear to me how Mrs. Wells came into possession of an extremely precious secret of the war department."
The medium's face shone with an inspired light as she answered: "That is the work of an evil entity, doctor, I know what I am saying. You must let me prove it. Look at that young woman—honored by all the world." She pointed to Penelope resting peacefully. "Think what she has done! Think of her bravery, her kindness, her sincerity. Look at Captain Herrick—the soul of honor! You know him, doctor, I tell you it is impossible that these two are guilty of treason."
Dr. Owen could not resist the power of this appeal. He was deeply moved in spite of himself. "You say you can prove that Mrs. Wells is possessed by an evil spirit? How can you prove it?"
"Give me permission to take Penelope to Dr. Leroy's hospital for a few days—will you?" she begged. "You will see for yourself that I am right."
"See for myself? Great heavens! You don't mean to tell me that—?" the doctor stopped short before the vivid memory of those white shapes that this woman once before had so strangely evoked.
Seraphine stood silent in deep concentration, then she said slowly: "Yes, that is what I mean. I believe that God, for His great purposes, will let you see this evil spirit."
(Statement by Seraphine)
At the request of Dr. William Owen I am writing this account of what happened last night after Roberta Vallis' party. What happened during the party was terrible enough, but what came later, after the doctor and the guests had gone and we three women were alone together, Roberta and Penelope and I, was infinitely worse.
I am told to put down details of the night, as far as I can remember them, so that these may be kept in the records of the American Occult Society. There never was a clearer case of an evil spirit working destructively against a living person, although other noble souls have faced a similar ordeal, especially returned soldiers and Red Cross workers, and some have not survived it. Remember those pitiful, unaccountable suicides of our bravest and our fairest. In every case there was a reason!
Penelope did not go home after the party, she was in no condition to do so, but stayed at Roberta's, and I stayed with her, at least I promised to stay, for I knew she needed me. I knew that the greatest danger was still threatening her.
When the guests had gone we took off our things (Roberta let me have her little spare room on the mezzanine floor and she gave Penelope her own big bedroom with the old French furniture), then a Russian singer, a tall blond, Margaret G——, came in from the next apartment and we talked for a long time. Pen and Bobby smoke cigarettes and drank cordials; they drank in a nervous, hysterical way, as if they felt they must drink, and, strangely enough, the more they drank the more intensely sober they became. I understood this!
Such talk! Miss Gordon had just returned to America by way of Tokio. She had been in London, Paris, Petrograd, Cairo; and, everywhere, as a result of the war, she said, she found a mad carnival of recklessness and extravagance. Everywhere the old standards of decency and honor had been set aside, greed and lust were rampant, the whole human race seemed to be swept as with a mighty tide, by three fierce desires—for money, for pleasure, for sensuality. And God had been forgotten!
I, who know how hideously true this is, tried to show these women why it is true, especially Penelope, whose eyes were burning dangerously, but they were not interested in my moralizing. "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die," mocked Margaret G——, emptying her glass, and Roberta joined her, while Penelope hesitated.
"Wait! For God's sake, wait!" I caught the poor child's arm and the wine spilled over the carpet. Never shall I forget the look in her eyes as she drew back her head and faced me. I realized that the powers of evil were striving again for the soul of Penelope Wells. Poor, tortured child!
"Why shouldn't we eat, drink and be merry?" she demanded boldly, and I was silent.
How could I explain to this dear, misguided one that, even as those rollicking words were spoken, I felt the clutch of a cold foreboding that I know only too well.
For tomorrow we die!
The Russian singer presently withdrew as if she were annoyed at something, saying to Roberta that she would see her later. It seems they had arranged that Roberta should pass the night in Margaret G——'s apartment so that Penelope might have the large bedroom.
It was now after two o'clock and I suggested that we all needed sleep, my thought being for Penelope; but she was aggressively awake, and Roberta, as if bent on further excitement, started a new subject that came like a challenge to me. She began innocently enough by putting her arm around Penelope, as she sat on the bedside between the draped curtains—I never saw her so beautiful—and saying sweetly: "You don't know how terribly I'm going to miss you, Pen, when you get married."
Married! That word, so full of exquisite sentiment, seemed to stir only what was evil in Penelope. Her face hardened, her eyes narrowed cynically.
"Good old Bobby! I'm not so sure that I shall marry at all. I'm a little fed up with this holy matrimony stuff. Perhaps I want my freedom just as much as you do."
For a moment I caught her steady defiant gaze, then her eyes dropped and shifted. I knew that Penelope was gone.
After this outburst the other one was restrained enough for a time and did not betray herself by violent utterances. Apparently she was listening attentively to Roberta Vallis' views about life and love and the destiny of woman, these views being as extreme and selfish as the most wayward nature could demand.
I realized that the moment was critical and concentrated all my spiritual power in an appeal to Penelope, praying that God would bring her back and make her heed my words. I spoke gently of God's love for His children and said that we need fear no evil within us or about us, no dangers of any sort, if we will learn to draw to us and through us that healing and protecting love. We can do this, we must do this by establishing a love-current from God to us and from us to God, by keeping it flowing just as an electrician keeps an electrical current flowing—every day, every hour. It is not enough to pray for God's love, we must keep our spiritual connections right, exactly as an electrician keeps his electrical connections right, if we expect the current to flow. We cannot make our electric lamps burn by merely wishing them to burn, although there is a boundless ocean of electricity waiting to be drawn upon. We must know how to tap that ocean. Similarly, the power of God's infinite love will not descend upon us simply because we need it or ask for it. We must ask for it in the right way. We must establish the right love-connections. We must set the love-current flowing, and keep it flowing, from God to us and from us back to God; and this can be done only by confessing our sins, by cleansing our hearts of evil thoughts and desires. Not even God Himself can make the sun shine upon those who wilfully hide in the shadows!
I saw that they were listening impatiently and more than once Roberta tried to interrupt me, but I persisted and said what I had to say as well as I could, with all the love in my heart, for I knew that my precious Penelope's fate was hanging in the balance.
When I had finished Roberta got up from the bed where she had been sitting and lighted a cigarette.
"Now, then, it's my turn," she began. I could see her eyes shining with an evil purpose. "You've heard her pretty little speech, Pen. You've heard her talk about the wonderful power of God's love, and a great rigamarole about how it guards us from all evil, if we say our prayers and confess our sins and so on. I say that is all bunk, and I can prove it. Take women—they've always said their prayers more than men, always confessed their sins more than men, always been more loving than men, haven't they? And what's the result? Has God protected them from the evils of life more than men? He has not. God has let women get the worst of it right straight along through the centuries. Women have always been the slaves of men, haven't they?—in spite of all their love and devotion, in spite of all their prayers and tears? How do you account for that?"
She flashed this at me with a wicked little toss of her head and Penelope chimed in: "Yes, I'd like to know that myself." But, when I tried to answer, Roberta cut me off with a new flood of violence.
"I'll let you know how I account for it," she went on angrily. "It's because all the churches in the world, all the smug preachers in the world, like you, have gone on shooting out this very same kind of hot air that you've been giving us; and the women, silly fools, have fallen for it. But not the men! The women have tried to live by love and prayer and unselfishness; they have said: 'God's will be done,' 'God will protect us'; and what is the result? How has God protected the women, who did believe? And how has He punished the men who refused to believe? He has made the men masters of the world, lords of everything; and He has kept the women in bondage, hasn't He?—in factory bondage, in nursery bondage, in prostitution bondage? Is what I say true, or isn't it true? I ask you, I ask any person who has got such a thing as a clear brain and is not simply a mushy sentimentalist, is what I say true?"
Again I tried to answer, but again she cut me short and rushed on in a blaze of excitement.
"So it has been through all the pitiful history of women, until a few years ago, the poor, foolish creatures began to wake up. At last women are getting rid of their delusions and emerging from their slavery—why? Because they have begun to imitate men, and go straight after the thing they want, the thing that is worth while, by using their power as women, and not depending upon the power of love or the power of God or any other power. Believe me, the greatest power in the world is the power of women as women, and we may as well use it to the limit, just as men would. We can get anything we want out of men by learning to use this power, and, I tell you, Pen, there isn't anything better in this good old United States than money. So far men have had the money, they've ground it out of the poor and the ignorant, especially women, but now women are going after money and getting it, just like the men. Why not? If I want a sable coat and a limousine and a nice duplex apartment, why shouldn't I have them, if I can get them without breaking the law? And I can get them; so can you, Pen, if you'll play the cards you hold in your hand. Haven't I done it? You don't see me eating in Childs restaurants to any great extent these days, do you? And I'm not worrying about clothes, or about paying my rent."
The poison of her words was stealing into Penelope's soul and defiling it, yet I was powerless to restrain her.
"Listen to this, child, and remember it, women are the equals of men today in every line, and they're going to have their full share of the good things of life. They're going to have freedom, and that means the right to do as they please without asking the permission of any man. Women are going to have their own latch keys and their own bank accounts. They're going to cut off their hair and put pockets in their skirts, and have babies, if they feel like it, or not have them, if they don't feel like it. The greatest revolution the world has ever known is going on now, it's the revolution of women. Let the men open their eyes! How did women get the suffrage? Was it by praying for it? Was it by the power of love? Was it by the mercy of God? No! They got the suffrage by fighting for it, by going out and hustling for it, just the way men hustle for what they want. If women had depended on the power of God's love to give them the suffrage, they wouldn't have got it in a million years."
Of course, those were not Roberta's exact words, but I am sure I have given the substance of them, and I cannot exaggerate the defiant bitterness of her tone. She was a powerful devil's advocate and I saw that wavering Penelope (if it still was Penelope) was deeply impressed by this false and wicked reasoning. She looked at me out of her wonderful eyes—unflinching, cruel, then the balance swung against me.
"I believe you are right, Roberta Vallis," she spoke with raised forefinger and a show of judicial consideration. "It's a bold speech for a woman, I never heard the thing put that way before, but—I'm damned if I see what the answer is except—"
"Oh, Penelope!" I interrupted, trying in vain to reach her with my eyes.
"You shut up," she answered spitefully. "I said I'm damned if I see what the answer is except your answer, Bobby, that women have always been fools and dupes—dupes of religious superstition invented by men for the benefit of men and never accepted by men."
Roberta applauded this. "Bravo! little one! I'll tell that to Kendall Brown. Women have always been dupes of religious superstition invented by men for the benefit of men and never accepted by men! Go on! Tell us some more."
And Penelope went on, flinging aside all restraint, while my heart sank.
"Take my own life. Look at it! I had an ignoble husband. Why didn't I leave him? Because I was loving, trusting. I thought I could save him. I said prayers for him. I asked God to strengthen him. And what was the result? The result was that Julian not only destroyed himself, but he destroyed what was best in me. Did God interfere? Did God give any manifestation of His infinite love? Not so that you could notice it."
She paused with heaving bosom and then swept on in her mad discourse.
"And then, when I was left alone in the world, what happened? I went abroad as a Red Cross nurse. I tried my best to help in the war. I took care of the wounded—under fire. I bore every hardship. I said my prayers. And God put a curse upon me—yes He did. He took all chance of happiness and health and love away from me. He made me do things that I never meant to do, that I don't remember doing."
Her cheeks were burning scarlet, her eyes shone like black stars. I tried to stop her. "My darling, you are ill!"
"Ill? Who made me ill? God made me ill, didn't He? That's my reward, isn't it? That's what has come of all my love and faith. If that's what God does, you can have Him. I don't want Him. I'll go with Roberta. I'll do as Roberta does—yes, I will." She almost screamed the words.
How I prayed then for wisdom!
"No—no!" I said slowly but firmly. "You will not go with Roberta. You will go with me."
"I must say I like your impertinence," Roberta put in, her face white, her voice trembling with fury. "This happens to be my apartment, Mrs. Seraphine Walters, and now you can get damned well out of it."
I saw that I could no nothing more, for Penelope's eyes were hard set against me. They both wanted me to go.
"Good night. God bless you, dear," I said.
"Don't you worry about God's blessing us. You can tell Him the next time you make your report that there is a young woman named Roberta Vallis living at the Hotel des Artistes who is getting along quite well, thank you, without—"
"Don't say it, please don't say it," I begged. "You have no idea what dangers are threatening, what evil powers are about us—even now—here."
She laughed in my face. "I snap my fingers at your evil powers and your God of Love. I don't believe in either of them. I'm not afraid of either of them. Evil powers! Ha! Let them come if they want to. Here! We'll drink defiance to the powers of evil. Come on, Pen!"
"Defiance to the powers of evil," laughed my poor soul-sick Penelope, lifting her glass.
With a shudder I watched these two tragically led young women as they stood there, draped in white, and drank this sacrilegious toast; then, heavy-hearted, I came away.