It was nearly four o'clock when I reached my home and I was so exhausted by the emotions of the night that I lay down without undressing and almost immediately fell into a troubled sleep. Then, suddenly, I awoke with a start of alarm and a sense that a voice had called me. And, though my bedroom was dark, I distinctly saw a white vaporish form passing over me as if someone had blown a cloud of tobacco smoke in my face. Once before I had had this experience of a white form passing over me—it was when my mother died.
I got up quickly, knowing that this was a summons, and, as I put on my hat and cloak, I heard my control telling me that I must go to Penelope. I knelt down and prayed that I might not be too late. Then I hurried back to the hotel and got there at half-past five. It was still night.
A sleepy elevator girl took me up to Roberta's apartment and I found that the door opened at my touch. In another moment I was standing in the silent hall looking down a long passage that led to Penelope's bedroom. The bedroom door was ajar and a dim light from the chamber illumined the way before me.
Thus far I had acted swiftly, almost mechanically, knowing that I had only one thing to do, and I had been aware of no particular emotion except a natural anxiety; but now, the moment I entered this apartment and closed the door behind me, I was conscious of a freezing, paralyzing fear, a sensation as real as the touch of a hand or the sound of a bell. It was something that could not be resisted. I was bathed in an atmosphere of terror. I was afraid to a degree that made my breath stop, my heart stop....
The passage leading to Penelope's bedroom was not more than six yards long, but it seemed as if it took me an hour to traverse it. I could scarcely force my lagging steps, one by one, to carry me. And every hideous moment brought me the vision of Penelope lying on that curtained bed, her beautiful face distorted, her eager young life—crushed out of her. Oh God, how I prayed!
When at last I came into the bedroom I faced another struggle. There was absolute silence. No sound of breathing from the bed, although I saw a woman's form under the sheets. But not her face, which was hidden by the curtain. For a long time I stood beside that bed, rigid with fear, before I found courage to draw the curtain back. At last I drew it back and—there lay Penelope, sleeping peacefully, quite unharmed. I was stunned with relief, with amazement and—suddenly her eyes opened and she gave a wild but joyful cry and flung her arms around my neck, sobbing hysterically.
"Oh! Oh! My dear, dear Seraphine! You came to me. You forgave me. You did not abandon your poor Penelope." She clung to me like a child in frantic, pitiful terror.
Then she told me that she too had gone through a frightful experience. When Roberta had left her, about an hour before, to sleep in the adjoining apartment, as they had arranged with Margaret G——, Penelope had tried to compose herself on her pillow, but she had scarcely fallen into a doze when she was awakened by the same sense of horrible fear that had overcome me. She was about to die—by violence. An assassin was coming—he was near her. She could hardly breathe. It was almost beyond her power to rise from the bed and search the apartment, but she did this. There was nothing, and yet the terror persisted. She huddled herself under the bed-covers and waited, saying her prayers. And when I entered the apartment and came down the passage—so slowly, so stealthily!—she knew it was the murderer coming to kill her. And when I paused at her bedside—how long it was before I drew the curtain!—she almost died again, waiting for the blow.
Of course I did not leave Penelope after this, but comforted her and prayed with her and rejoiced that her madness was past. Then we tried to sleep, locked in each other's arms, but, shortly after six, there came a timid knock at the door and, all of a tremble, Jeanne entered, Penelope's French maid who had come with her mistress to Roberta's party and had occupied a small room overhead, and she told us with hysterical sobs that she had not closed her eyes all night for ghastly visions of Penelope murdered in her bed.
Now it is easy to scoff at premonitions and haunting fears, but there can be no doubt that on this night an evil spirit was present in Roberta's apartment, a hideous, destructive entity that came and—wavered in its deadly purpose against Penelope, then—manifested to Roberta Vallis in the adjoining apartment, for when I went in there a little later I found Roberta—she who had mocked God and defied the powers of evil—I found her in her bed, her face convulsed with a look of indescribable terror—dead!
The hotel doctor reported it as a case of heart failure, but Doctor William Owen, who has an honest mind, acknowledged that all this was beyond his understanding. This tragedy made him realize at last that there may be sinister agencies in us and about us that cannot be dealt with by mere medical skill. And, at my pleading, he directed that Mrs. Wells be placed immediately in the care of Dr. Edgar Leroy.
Thank God, my precious Penelope will receive psychic treatment before it is too late. There is no other hope for her but this.
(From Penelope's Diary)
At Dr. Leroy's Sanitarium.
I understand why people kill themselves. There was an hour last night, that horrible hour between four and five (I have seen so many hospital patients die then), when I was resolved to kill myself. Seraphine was sleeping in the next room—she has not left me since I came to this place yesterday—and I longed to waken her for a last talk, but decided not to. What was the use? I must settle this for myself—whether it was possible for me to go on living or not, I must fight out this battle alone—with my own soul.
I decided to kill myself because I felt sure, after what had happened, that I was condemned to madness. This is evidently a place where mad people are treated. They call it a Sanitarium, but I know what that means. Seraphine speaks of Dr. Leroy (I have only seen him once) as a wonderful spiritual healer and she says I will love him because he is so kind and wise; but none of this deceives me. I know they have brought me to a place for mad people.
Here is a thought that makes me waver—what if death is not annihilation? What if I find myself in some new state where there are other horrors and terrors—worse than those that I have suffered? The Voices tell me this—taunting me. And then Christopher! He loves me so much! He will be so sorry, if I do this!
While I was hesitating—it was just before dawn—Seraphine came to me. She talked to me, soothed me, and, at last, she told me the truth about myself. She said that all my troubles come from this, that I am possessed by an evil spirit! Literally possessed! This is what she was leading up to when she told me about the great company of earth-bound souls that are hovering about us since the war, striving to come back!
The extraordinary part of it is that I no longer regard this as a fantastic impossibility. I no longer reject it. I am not terrified or horrified by the thought, but almost welcome it, since it offers an explanation of what has happened that does not involve madness. I am either possessed by an evil spirit or I am mad, and of these two I prefer the evil spirit. That, at least, is a definite cause carrying with it the hope of a cure, for we read that evil spirits were cast out in olden times, and they may be again.
* * * * *
One thing convinces me that what Seraphine says is true—I did something at Roberta's party that my own soul or spirit, even in madness, could never have done. I accused Christopher of committing a crime. I accused him of treason! Christopher! My love! Seraphine bears witness to this. I must be possessed by an evil spirit! This would account for something else that happened last night. I was just falling into a troubled sleep when—no, I cannot tell it!
* * * * *
Christopher sent me a gorgeous basket of roses this morning with his love. He loves me in spite of the devil and all his angels—he said that to Seraphine. How wonderful! I wish they would let me see him, and yet—I am ashamed. How can I ever face Christopher again?
There is something strange about Roberta Vallis—I feel it. She did not come in to speak to me or say good-bye before I left her apartment—that morning. Why not? I asked Seraphine if there was anything the matter with Roberta—had I done anything to offend her?—but the only answer I could get was that Roberta is not well. Seraphine is keeping something back—I am sure of it.
* * * * *
Seraphine knows of two cases where evil spirits have been cast out. One was a New York silversmith who had never shown any talent for art, but who suddenly began to paint remarkable pictures, which sold for good prices. He was desperately unhappy, however, because he felt sure that he was becoming insane. He had visions of scenes that he was impelled to paint and he suffered from clairaudient hallucinations. Two well known neurologists declared that he was a victim of paranoia and must soon be confined in an asylum. This man was brought back to a normal condition by Dr. Leroy's treatment, and the first step in his improvement was when he grasped the idea that his abnormal symptoms were due to possession. This satisfied his reason and drove away his fears (I understand that), especially when he was assured that an evil spirit can be driven out by the power of God's love as easily as an evil germ or humour of the body can be driven out by the same agency. What a blessed thought!
Seraphine says we must obey the safeguarding rules with which God has surrounded the operation of His love, if we would enjoy the blessed guardianship of that love. We must not expect God to change His rules for us. We must cleanse our hearts of evil!
The other case of possession was not a patient of Dr. Leroy, but came under Seraphine's notice while she was attending a sufferer. This was Alice E——, a charming, refined girl about twenty, the daughter of well-bred people who lived in Boston. They were somewhat stricter in family discipline than most American parents, consequently Alice, from babyhood up, was guarded and protected in every possible way. She and her mother were almost inseparable companions. There was absolutely no way in which Alice could have become acquainted with people of the underworld, or heard the vile expressions that she afterward used in an evil personality. Her face showed unusual innocence and purity, her disposition was affectionate and serene.
But when she was about seventeen Alice began to have strange spells of irritability; she would grow sullen and stubborn, and soon these ugly moods became more violent; she would burst into horrible tirades against her father and mother and declare that she couldn't stand their goody-goody ways, that they were so damned pious they made her sick. Then rage and lust seemed to possess her and she would talk about men in a shocking way, using unspeakable words, while the expression of her face and the posture of her body became those of a wanton.
At first Alice could not tell when these attacks were coming on, but later, when she was about twenty, she knew and would beg her family to keep "that dreadful, horrible girl" from taking hold of her. "She's going to change me! Oh, keep her away! Don't let her get me!" she would cry out in terror.
Through the last days of the poor girl's life the struggle between the real Alice and the gutter woman went on almost constantly. Alice would implore Seraphine to make the wicked girl go away so that when the end came (she knew she was going to die) she might be herself. But the evil spirit had firm possession and a few hours before her death Alice's mouth was coarse and sensual, her eyes were wicked, her whole expression revolting.
Seraphine sent word to the family that they must not come into the room; then, kneeling by the bedside of the dying girl, she nerved herself for a last struggle between the powers of good and evil. With all the strength of her pure soul she invoked God's love to restore and heal this afflicted child ere she departed for the Great Beyond; and, an hour before the end, the family were admitted to the chamber and looked upon Alice's pillowed face, sweetly smiling, beautiful and unsullied, as they had always known her and cherished her. God's love had prevailed!
* * * * *
When Seraphine left me my mind had become calm and hopeful and I had given up my wicked purpose. I fell asleep praying that God would save me from the powers of darkness, that His love would watch over me and protect me from all evil, especially from that dream on the Fall River steamboat, the one that has tortured me so many nights.
I awakened suddenly to the knowledge that a terrible thing had happened, an incredible thing. I was alone in my bedroom, and yet I was not alone! I had escaped one degradation only to face another. I was awake, fully awake; yet I was more abdominally tempted than ever I was in my dreams. With all the strength of my soul I fought against the aggressions of a real presence that—that touched me! I cried out, I struggled, I begged God to save me or else to let me die. And then Seraphine came to me again in my agony.
But before she came the Voices sounded worse than ever, nearer about me than ever. Why was I such a fool? Why was I so obstinate in resisting my fate? Was I not Their appointed sacrifice? Why not be resigned to the inevitable? Why not...? They laughed and fluttered close to me with vile murmurings while I prayed against them with all my strength.
"God of love, guard Thy child; God of power, save Thy child," I prayed.
A harsh, cruel voice broke in to tell me that Roberta Vallis was dead, she died of terror because she had defied Them, as I had defied Them; and, in three days, the Voice said that I, too, would die of terror. Three days remained to me, three nights with my dream and a hideous awakening, unless—
Then Seraphine opened my bedroom door and I sobbed in her arms a long time before I could speak.
"Is—is Roberta dead?" I gasped.
She looked at me strangely and I knew it was true.
"Yes, dear," she answered gently, and tried to comfort me again, but it was in vain.
"I have only three days to live, Seraphine," I said solemnly. "Three days and three nights!"
Then I told her what the evil spirit had said, and she listened with grave attention.
There may now be presented, as bearing upon Mrs. Wells' strange illness, a conversation which took place between Dr. William Owen and Dr. Edgar Leroy, the psychic healer, on the evening following Penelope's entrance into the Leroy sanitarium on Fortieth Street, just south of Bryant Park.
Owen began in his bluff, outspoken way: "Doctor, I have put into your hands a lady I am very fond of, in spite of the fact that your theories contradict everything I stand for. Not very complimentary, is it?—but I may as well tell you the truth. Mrs. Wells has not improved under my treatment, I admit that, and I have turned her over to you as a sort of last hope."
Leroy's rather stern face brightened with a flash of humor.
"The same thing has happened to other physicians, doctor. I believe you diagnose this case as shell shock?"
"Unquestionably—with unfavorable developments, dual personality complications—I wrote you."
"Yes. I spent several hours with Mrs. Wells last evening when she arrived. She was agitated, but I soothed her and explained certain things that had troubled her, and, gradually, she grew calm. I think I can help her."
In spite of himself Dr. Owen was favorably impressed both by the man and his surroundings. There was nothing garish or freakish or Oriental about the place, which was furnished with the business-like simplicity of an ordinary doctor's office. And Leroy certainly had a fine head—a clean-shaven face with heavy black brows under which shone grave, kindly eyes that twinkled now and then in good-natured understanding. He was about ten years younger than his colleague.
"May I ask, doctor, if there is any scientific evidence to prove the existence of this healing spiritual power that you use or think you use?" In spite of himself, Owen put this question a little patronizingly.
"There are the results—the cures. And there is the evidence of Christianity. Spiritual power is the basis of Christianity, isn't it?"
A deeper note sounded here, and the hard-headed materialist began to realize that he was in the presence of an unusual personality, developed by suffering and struggle, a man who had finally reached a haven of sure and comforting belief. There was great kindness in this face as well as strength.
"Nothing else? Is there no evidence similar to that which convinces us that the X-rays really exist?"
Leroy thought a moment, then he spoke with a quiet impressiveness that was not lost upon Dr. Owen.
"There is evidence that would probably convince any fair-minded person who was willing to give to the investigation time enough to get results. The X-rays were not discovered in a day, were they? Suppose I tell you how I got into this occult field—would that interest you?"
"Take that other chair—make yourself comfortable—that's better. It began accidentally with certain persistent hallucinations, as I used to call them, in a patient of mine, a Southern lady whom I attended when I was a regular practitioner like yourself. These hallucinations worried me, and, being an open-minded man, I found it impossible to dismiss them as of trivial importance; so I began an investigation that led me—well, it led me very far, it is still leading me, for I am scarcely over the threshold of that mysterious region where spirit phenomena occur. I resolved to know for myself whether these things are true."
"And you think they are true?"
"I know they are true," was the grave reply.
Dr. Owen listened attentively while Leroy described his first groping efforts to determine whether or not he personally possessed psychic powers. He began with regular periods of mental concentration, an opening of the soul, as it were, to spirit impressions; he would sit alone, in a state of meditative receptiveness for ten or fifteen minutes every day, and later several times a day, waiting for something to happen—he did not know what.
Day after day the psychologist persisted in this singular experiment and, soon, he began to see small blue figures, irregularly shaped, that moved rapidly about the room and cast no shadows. Some of these blue figures were luminous, and among them were occasional luminous white figures. As weeks passed and his efforts continued, there came a noticeable increase in the number of these moving shapes until, when the doctor desired it, he could make them swarm everywhere, over the walls, the pictures, the bookcases.
"Wait!" interrupted Owen. "Do you see these blue shapes or luminous figures at all times? Do you see them now?"
"No. I only see them when I desire to see them—when I prepare myself to use them—for a case."
Leroy told how the phenomena continued to increase in frequency and in intensity, how gradually he felt an unmistakable sense of power growing in himself, as if he had somehow tapped a vast source of energy, a kind of spiritual trolley-line, and he was now impelled to use this power. He made his first trial on a poor man who had suffered for years from headaches that seemed incurable.
"Stretch out on that reclining chair, close your eyes, don't think of anything," ordered the experimenter. Then he laid his hands on the man's forehead and concentrated his mind in the psychic way he had adopted. Almost immediately the blue shapes appeared in great numbers, and began to pour themselves in fine, pulsing streams, like a purplish mist, over the patient's brow and head and shoulders, over his whole body until he was completely enveloped in them, laved by them, penetrated by them.
"That was a crude beginning," Leroy went on, "but it drove away those obstinate headaches for three months; then a second laying on of hands completed the cure. After that, as months passed, other persons were cured in the same way—especially nervous cases. Whatever these blue streams are, they benefit the patient in most cases. One woman told me, during a treatment, that she saw blue shapes about her!"
"You hypnotized her," declared Owen.
"Possibly. I did not intend to."
"What I want to know is, have you ever treated a case like this one of Mrs. Wells?"
"Yes, I treated a young woman in Mrs. Wells' profession, a trained nurse. She came of good family and was very intelligent, but she was driven toward certain forms of depravity. It was pretty bad. All efforts to change her had failed and, at last, her mother in desperation decided to try psychic treatment."
"And you cured her?"
"Yes. She is now doing useful work in Washington for the Red Cross."
"How did you cure her—it wasn't simply by the laying on of hands, was it?"
"No. I recognize the necessity of getting at the forgotten or concealed causes of these abnormalities, just as Freud does in his psycho-analysis, but, instead of following the uncertain trail of dreams, I conceived the idea of discovering the truth by clairvoyant revelation. I engaged Mrs. Seraphine Walters to assist me in my work. She has astonishing psychic gifts and—" he hesitated.
"In her entranced condition, Mrs. Walters discovered things about this young woman, painful things that had been hidden for years and—well, I was able to relieve her of her fears and check her waywardness," he concluded abruptly.
"But the details? Tell me more about this case. What were the painful things that Mrs. Walters discovered?"
Leroy shook his head.
"What's the use? I can state the result of my treatment, but if I go into details, if I try to make you understand the cause of this young woman's evil desires and how I overcame them—" he paused, his eyes shining with an inspired light. "Don't you see, doctor, you and I do not speak the same language. You are always in opposition. You have no faith. It's your narrow training."
"Narrow?" snorted the other.
"Yes, you scientists are childishly narrow. You believe in atoms and ions and electrons that you have never seen and never will see, but if anyone mentions secrets of the soul that control human happiness, you laugh or sneer."
"Not necessarily. I suppose you refer to your theory of possession by evil spirits. If you could only furnish any evidence—"
"It isn't my theory. It's as old as Christianity, it's a part of Christianity. As to evidence, my dear sir, you are blind to evidence. The young lady I speak of was despaired of by everybody, she was on her way to an insane asylum, two alienists had declared her case hopeless, yet, thanks to psychic treatment, she was restored to health and happiness. Does that impress you? Not at all if you call it a coincidence. And if I am fortunate enough to cure Mrs. Wells, whom you have failed to cure, you will call that a coincidence, too."
Dr. Owen tried to control his irritation, but his prejudices got the better of him.
"Of course I want to see Mrs. Wells cured, but—do you mean to tell me seriously that you believe she is possessed by an evil spirit?"
"I believe that some malignant influence is near her and able to control her—intermittently. How else do you account for the facts in her case? Even Mrs. Wells believes this."
"That is because Seraphine put the notion in her head. It's unfortunate."
"No, she believes this because of the way her friend died. You know how she died?"
"Miss Vallis? She died suddenly, but the cause of her death is doubtful. People die suddenly from all sorts of causes."
"Yes," answered Leroy with a significant tightening of the lips, "and one of the causes is fear. People die suddenly of fear, doctor."
"Referring to Mrs. Wells and her bad dreams?"
"Precisely. If you had seen her last night—after midnight—watching the clock with dark, furtive glances, watching, waiting, as the hands approached half past twelve, you would understand what fear can do to a woman. That is Mrs. Wells' worst symptom, she is afraid—not all the time but intermittently."
Owen leaned forward in concentrated attention.
"Why was she in such a state at half past twelve rather than at any other time?"
"Because the change in her takes place then, the change into her other personality."
"Fauvette? You saw her—in that personality?"
"Yes. I saw her. Besides, she told me about it in advance. She knows what is going to take place, but is powerless against it. Every night at exactly half past twelve there comes a violent period that lasts until one o'clock. Then she falls into a deep sleep, and a dream begins, always the same dream, a horrible dream that terrifies her and drains her life forces. She had this dream last night, she will have it again tonight, and again tomorrow night. She believes that she will die tomorrow night, just as her friend died!"
"Good God! What a pity!" exclaimed Owen. "Why does she think she is going to die tomorrow night?"
"Her Voices tell her so, and she believes them."
"She told you this?"
The older man tapped impatiently on his chair-arm.
"And you? What did you say to her? You surely do not believe that Mrs. Wells will die tomorrow night? You know these are only the morbid fancies of an hysterical woman, don't you?"
Leroy rose quietly and took down a volume from the bookcase.
"How we love to argue over the names of things!" he answered gravely. "I don't care what you call the influence or obsession that threatens this lady. I ask, What do you propose to do about it? Do you believe that Mrs. Wells will die tomorrow night? Do you?"
Owen moved uncomfortably on his chair, frowned, snapped his fingers softly and finally admitted that he did not know.
"Ah! Then is it your idea to wait without doing anything until tomorrow night comes, and see if Mrs. Wells really does die at half-past twelve, and then, if she does, as the Vallis woman died, to simply say: 'It's very strange, it's too bad!' and let it go at that? Is that your idea? Will you take that responsibility?"
"No, certainly not. I don't mean to interfere with your plans. I told you I have left this matter entirely in your hands," answered the skeptic, his aggressiveness suddenly calmed.
"Very well. Take my word, doctor, fear is terribly destructive, it may cause death. Listen to this case, cited by a French psychologist." He turned over the pages. "Daughter of an English nobleman, engaged to a man she loves, perfectly happy; but one night she is visited, or thinks she is, by her dead mother who says she will come for her daughter the next day at noon. The girl tells her father she is going to die. She reads her Bible, sings hymns to the accompaniment of a guitar, and just before noon, although apparently in excellent health, she asks to be helped to a large arm chair in her bedroom. At noon exactly she draws two or three gasping breaths and sinks back into her chair, dead. That shows what fear will do."
But his adversary was still unconvinced.
"What does that prove? Do you think you could have saved this young woman if you had been in charge of the case?"
"Perhaps. I hope to save Mrs. Wells."
Leroy hesitated, frowned with a nervous squinting, as if he were trying to solve a baffling problem.
"How? I wish I could tell you, doctor, but you would not understand. That is the sad part of my work, I am all alone."
His eyes burned somberly, then he spoke with intense feeling.
"Not one of you orthodox physicians will join me in my effort to save millions of unfortunates from the tragedy of our state hospitals. You won't lift a hand to help me. You all say there is nothing to be done. What a wicked evasion of responsibility! Nothing to be done? I tell you there is everything to be done. Suppose you had a daughter or a sister or a wife who was suffering from such an affliction—how would you feel? God grant you may never know how you would feel. Why do you doctors scoff at miracles when the Bible is full of them and we all live among them? What is life but an unceasing miracle? Tell me how you move your finger except by a miracle? What is vision? What is death? How do you know that spirits of the departed, good and bad, do not come back to help us—or to harm us? Many great men believe this and always have. Many fine women know that this is true. Mrs. Walters has actually seen an evil spirit hovering about a girl who was called insane. How do you know that insanity is not caused by evil possession?"
"Hold on! I can't answer all those questions," laughed Owen and now his manner changed quite charmingly as he made an amende honorable. "I'm a stubborn old fool, doctor. I ought to have had more sense than to get into this argument. What I care about is to have this dear lady restored to health and happiness. There!" He held out his hand. "Forgive me! The more miracles you can work for her cure, the better I shall like it."
At this Leroy relented in his turn.
"Dr. Owen, I will not conceal from you that Mrs. Wells is in great peril. I have no more doubt that she will die tomorrow night, unless she consents to do something that I have already indicated to her as necessary, than I have of your presence in this room."
"Extraordinary! Do you really mean that? What is this thing? Is it a definite thing, or is it some—some spiritual thing?"
Dr. Leroy sighed and shook his head.
"It's hard for you to believe, isn't it? I suppose you want me to give Mrs. Wells a dose of medicine or put a hot water bag at her feet. No, doctor, it's much more difficult than that."
The veteran pondered this in puzzled exasperation.
"If Mrs. Wells does this definite thing that you have told her to do, will she be saved?"
"Yes, I think so," Leroy spoke confidently.
There came a knock at the office door, but both men were so absorbed in their conversation that they paid no attention to it.
"Is there any doubt about her doing this definite thing that will save her?"
"That's the trouble, she fights against doing it with all her strength. She says she cannot do it. But I tell her she must do it!"
The knock sounded sharper. An attendant had come with a message from Seraphine asking Dr. Leroy to come to her at once. She was upstairs in Mrs. Wells' sitting-room. Something serious had happened.
"Tell Mrs. Walters that I will be right up," he said. "You had better wait here, doctor." Leroy glanced at his watch. "It's half-past nine. We have three hours."
Dr. Leroy found Mrs. Walters in the attractive sitting-room, brightened by flowers (most of them sent by Christopher) that had been set apart for Penelope. The medium, usually so serene, was pale and agitated and had evidently been repairing some recent disorder of her hair and dress.
"She is asleep, doctor," panted Seraphine, and she pointed to the closed door of the bedroom. "We have had quite a bad time."
Then Seraphine told the doctor what had happened. She and Penelope had spent the evening pleasantly, sewing and chatting, and Mrs. Wells had seemed her old joyous self, free from fears and agitations. She listened with touching confidence when the medium assured her that her mother's exalted spirit was trying to help her. And she promised to bear in mind Dr. Leroy's injunction that, just before composing herself to sleep, she must hold the thought strongly that she was God's child, guarded from all evil by the power of God's love. Also she would search into her heart to find the obstacle that prevented her mother from coming closer to her.
About nine o'clock Penelope said she was sleepy and would lie down to rest, at which Seraphine rejoiced, hoping this might indicate a break in the spell of fear that had kept Mrs. Wells in exhausting suspense. Perhaps this was an answer to their prayers. She assisted the patient, lovingly and encouragingly, to prepare herself for the night and at half-past nine left her in bed with the light extinguished and the door leading into the sitting-room open, so that she could hear the slightest call.
About twenty minutes later, as Seraphine sat meditating, her attention was attracted by a sound from the bedroom and, looking through the door, she was surprised to see Mrs. Wells sitting up in bed and writing rapidly on a large pad from which she tore sheets now and then, letting these fall to the floor. So dim was the bedroom light that it was impossible for Penelope to see her penciled writing, nor did she even glance at the words, but held her eyes fixed in a far-away stare, as if she were guided by some distant voice or vision. After a time, Penelope ceased writing and sank back in slumber upon her pillow, allowing the pad to fall by her side.
"Automatic writing," nodded the psychologist.
"Yes. I entered the bedroom softly and picked up the sheets. There are two communications, one in a large scrawl written by a woman—I believe, it is Penelope's mother. The other is in a small regular hand with quick powerful strokes, evidently a man's writing. There! You see the handwriting is quite different from Penelope's."
Leroy studied the sheets in silence.
"Have you read these messages?"
"I read one of them, doctor, the one from Penelope's mother—it is full of love and wisdom—and I was just beginning the other when a terrible thing happened. That is why I sent for you. I was sitting in this rocking chair with my back turned to the bedroom door, absorbed in reading this message, when suddenly—"
"Wait! Let me read it first. Hello! It's for Captain Herrick."
"Not all of it. Won't you read it aloud, doctor?"
The medium closed her eyes while Leroy, speaking in a low tone but distinctly, repeated this mysterious communication:
Tell Captain Herrick it was I he saw on the battlefield guiding the stumbling footsteps of my little girl, helping her to find the place where he lay. I realized that, through her love for him, which she would experience later, she would build better and higher ideals than the ones she was then holding deep within her soul. Tell him also that he is in danger from something he is carrying....
Here the writing became impossible to decipher.
"See how the powers of Love work against the powers of Evil!" mused the psychic. "I must show this to Captain Herrick. Well, what happened?"
Seraphine went on to say that she had just begun to read the second piece of automatic writing and had only finished a few lines—enough to see that it was very different from the first—when she felt a clutch of hands around her throat and realized that Fauvette had crept up cunningly from behind. There had been a struggle in which the medium tried vainly to cry out for help or to reach the bell, but her enemy was too strong for her, and she had grown weaker; then, using strategy, she let herself fall limp under the murderous hands, whereupon Fauvette, laughing triumphantly, had loosened her grip for a moment and allowed Seraphine to free herself.
"Then I caught her and held her so that I could look into her eyes and, finally, I subdued her. She cried out that she would come back again, but I forced her to lie down and almost instantly she fell into a deep sleep."
"It was your love and your fearlessness that gave you the victory," Leroy said quietly. Then he took up the other message and read it with darkening eyes.
"Horrible! The change must have come while she was writing this."
He opened the bedroom door softly and, with infinite compassion in his rugged face, bent over Penelope who was sleeping peacefully, her loveliness marred by no sign of evil.
An hour passed now, during which the spiritual physician gave Seraphine her instructions for the night and made preparations for the struggle that he knew was before him.
* * * * *
Meantime Captain Herrick had reached the sanitarium and, finding Dr. Owen in the study, had laid before him a plan to save Penelope, if it was true, as Christopher believed, that her trouble was simply in the imagination. He proposed to divert his sweetheart's attention so that she would not know when the deadly Fauvette hour was at hand. And to this end he had arranged to have the clocks set back half an hour.
"It can't do any harm, can it, sir?" he urged with a lover's ardor, "and it may succeed. Dr. Leroy says it's fear that's killing her. Well, we'll drive away her fear. I've fixed it at the church down the street, the one that chimes the quarter-hours, to have that clock put back. And the clocks in the house are easy. What do you think of it, sir?" he asked eagerly.
The old doctor frowned in perplexity.
"I don't know, Chris. You'll have to put this up to Dr. Leroy. He's a wonderful fellow. I've had my eyes opened tonight or my soul—something."
The two men smoked solemnly.
"I believe we're going to save Penelope, my boy—somehow. It's a mighty queer world. I don't know but we are all more or less possessed by evil spirits, Chris. What are these brainstorms that overwhelm the best of us? Why do good men and women, on some sudden, devilish impulse, do abominable things, criminal things, that they never meant to do? We doctors pretend to be skeptical, but we all come up against creepy stuff, inside confession stuff that we don't talk about."
He was silent again.
"There was a patient of mine in Chicago, a tough old rounder," Owen resumed, "who changed overnight into the straightest chap you ever heard of—because he went down to the edge of the Great Shadow—he was one of the passengers saved from the Titanic. He told me that when he was struggling there in the icy ocean, after the ship sank, he saw white shapes hovering over the waters, holding up the drowning! I never mentioned that until tonight."
They smoked without speaking.
"I—I had an experience like that myself, sir," ventured Christopher. "I've never spoken of it either—people would call me crazy, but—that night when I lay out there in front of Montidier, among the dead and dying, I saw a white shape moving over the battlefields."
"Yes, sir. It was the figure of a woman—coming towards me—she seemed to be leading Penelope. I saw her distinctly—she had a beautiful face."
Dr. Leroy joined them presently and, on learning of Captain Herrick's plan, he made no objections to it, but said it would fail.
"We are dealing with an evil power, gentlemen, that is far too clever to be deceived by such a trick," he assured them; but Christopher was resolved to try.
Leroy then described Seraphine's narrow escape and showed them the automatic writing, the message from Penelope's mother, not the evil message; whereupon Christopher, in amazement, gave the corroborative testimony of his battlefield experience. The psychologist nodded gravely.
At five minutes of twelve (correct time) Seraphine sent down word that Mrs. Wells had awakened and was asking eagerly for Captain Herrick.
"Go to her at once, my young friend," directed Leroy. "Do all you can to encourage her and make her happy. Tell her there is nothing to fear because her mother's pure soul is guarding her. Show her this message from her mother. And whatever happens do not let your own faith waver. I assure you our precautions are taken against everything. God bless you."
When Christopher had gone, Leroy told Dr. Owen about the second communication in automatic writing which he had withheld from Captain Herrick.
"This is undoubtedly from the evil spirit," he said, and he read it aloud:
"I was one of many loosed upon earth when the war began. I rode screaming upon clouds of poison gas. I danced over red battlefields. I entered one of the Gray ones, an officer, and revelled with him in ravished villages. Then I saw Penelope going about on errands of mercy, I saw her beautiful body and the little spots on her soul that she did not know about, and when her nerves were shattered, I entered into her. Now she is mine. I defy YOU to drive me out. Already her star burns scarlet through a mist of evil memories. I see it now as she sleeps! I shall come back tonight and make her dream."
"You see what we have against us," Leroy said, and his face was sad, yet fixed with a stern purpose.
And now the old materialist asked anxiously, not scoffingly: "Doctor, do you really believe that this spirit can drag Mrs. Wells down?"
"That depends upon herself. Mrs. Wells knows what she must do. I have told her. If she does this, she will be safe. If not—"
His eyes were inexpressibly tragic, and at this moment the neighboring chimes resounded musically through the quiet sanitarium—a quarter to twelve!
THE HOUR OF THE DREAM
When Seraphine led Captain Herrick into the bedroom where Penelope lay propped up against pillows, her dark hair in braids and a Chinese embroidered scarf brightening her white garment, it seemed to Christopher that his beloved had never been so adorably beautiful.
Gallantly and tenderly he kissed the slim white hand that his lady extended with a brave but pathetic smile.
Seraphine withdrew discreetly.
The lovers were alone.
It was an oppressive night, almost like summer, and Penelope, concerned for her sweetheart's comfort, insisted that he take off his heavy coat, and draw up an easy chair by her bedside.
They tried to talk of pleasant things—the lovely flowers he had sent her—how well she was looking—but it was no use. The weight of the approaching crisis was upon both of them.
"Oh, Chris, how we go on pretending—up to the very last!" she lifted her eyes appealingly. "We know what has happened—what may happen, but—" she drew in her breath sharply and a little shiver ran through her. "I—I'm afraid."
He took her hand strongly in his and with all a lover's ardor and tenderness tried to comfort her. Then, rather clumsily, he showed her the automatic writing, not quite sure whether to present this as a thing that he believed in or not.
Penelope studied the large, scrawled words.
"How wonderful!" she murmured. "I remember vaguely writing something, but I had no idea what it was. My mother! It must be true! It's her handwriting. She was watching over us, dear—she is watching over us still. That ought to give us courage, oughtn't it?"
She glanced nervously at the little gilt clock that was ticking quietly over the fireplace. Ten minutes to twelve!
"What is this danger, that she speaks of, Chris? What is it—that you are carrying?"
The captain's answer was partly an evasion. He really did not know what danger was referred to, unless it could be a small flask from the laboratory with a gas specimen for Dr. Owen that he had left in the other room in his coat, but this was in a little steel container and could do no harm.
"It may mean some spiritual danger, Pen, from selfishness or want of faith or—or something like that," he suggested. "I guess I am selfish and impatient—don't you think so?"
"I mean impatient for you to get well, impatient to take you far away from all these doctors and dreams, and just have you to myself. That isn't very wicked, is it, sweetheart?"
He stroked her hand fondly and looked deep into her wonderful eyes. Penelope sighed.
"I—I suppose it will all be over soon—I mean we shall know what's going to happen, won't we?"
It was her first open reference to the peril hanging over them, and again, involuntarily, she glanced at the clock. Five minutes to twelve! It was really twenty-five minutes past twelve!—but she did not know that.
"Darling, I don't believe anything is going to happen. Our troubles are over. You are guarded by this beautiful love—all these prayers. I've been saying prayers, myself, Pen—for both of us."
"I want you to promise me one thing—you love me, don't you? No matter what happens, you love me?"
Her eyes glowed on him.
"Oh yes, with all my heart."
"You're going to be my wife."
"All right, we'll put down the ifs. I want you to promise that if this foolish spell, or whatever it is, is broken tonight—if nothing happens at half-past twelve, and you don't have this bad dream, then you'll forget the whole miserable business and marry me tomorrow. There! Will you?"
"Oh, Chris! Tomorrow?"
"Yes, tomorrow! I'm not a psychologist or a doctor, but I believe I can cure you myself. Will you promise, Pen?"
Her eyes brimmed with tears of gratitude and fondness.
"You want me—anyway?"
"Then I say—yes! I will! I will! Oh my love!" She drew him slowly down to her and kissed his eyes gently, her face radiant with sweetness and purity. A moment later the chimes rang out twelve.
As the minutes passed Christopher watched her in breathless but confident expectation. The crisis had come and she was passing it—she had passed it safely. They talked on fondly—five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and still there were no untoward developments, no sign of anything evil or irrational. Penelope was her own adorable self. The spell was broken. Nothing had happened.
"You see, it's all right?" he laughed. "You needn't be afraid any more."
"Wait!" she looked at the clock. "Ten minutes yet!"
He longed to tell her that they had already passed the fatal moment, passed it by twenty minutes, but he restrained his ardor.
"Chris, my love, if we are really to be married tomorrow—how wonderful that seems!—I must have no secrets from you. What my mother said is true—a woman must cleanse her soul. I want to tell you something—for my sake, not for yours—then we will never refer to it again."
"For my sake, Chris."
"It isn't about that steamboat?"
"It is, darling. I must tell it. Fix the pillows behind me. There! Sit close to me—that's right. Now listen! This dream is a repetition of what happened on the boat. It would have been much better if I had told you all about it long ago."
"Because—it is not so much the memory of what I did that worries me, as the fear that—you will be ashamed of me or—or hate me—when you know."
Herrick saw that her cheeks were flushed, but at least her mind was occupied, he reflected, and the minutes were passing.
"I could never be ashamed of you, Penelope."
"If I were only sure of that," she sighed, then with a great effort, and speaking low, sometimes scarcely lifting her eyes, she told her lover the story of the Fall River steamboat.
The main point was that her husband, a coarse sensualist, whom she despised, had, during the year preceding his death, accepted a chambre apart arrangement, that being the only condition on which Penelope would continue to live with him, but, on the occasion of this journey down from Newport, he had broken his promise and entered her stateroom.
"It was an oppressive night, like this," she said, "and I had left the deck door ajar, held on a hook. I was trying to sleep, when suddenly I saw a man's arm pushed in through the opening. I shall never forget my fright, as I saw that black sleeve. Do you understand what I mean? Look!"
Gathering her draperies about her, Penelope sprang lightly out of bed and moved swiftly to the bedroom door, while Christopher, startled, followed the beauty of her sinuous form.
"His arm came through—like this," she stepped outside the bedroom, and, reaching around the edge of the door showed her exquisite bare arm within. "See? Then my husband entered slowly and—as soon as I saw his eyes," her agitation was increasing, "I knew what to expect. His face was flushed. He had been drinking. He looked at me and—then he locked the door—like this. I crouched away from him, I was frozen with terror, but—but—" she twined her hands in distress. "Oh, you'll hate me! I know you'll hate me!"
"I tried so hard to resist him. I pleaded, I wept. I begged on my knees—like this."
"Please—please don't," murmured Christopher, as he felt the softness of her supplicating body.
"But Julian was pitiless. He caught me in his arms. I fought against him. I struck him as I felt his loathsome kisses. I said I would scream for help and—he laughed at me. Then—"
She stopped abruptly, leaving her confession unfinished, and, standing close to her lover, held him fascinated by the wild appeal of her eyes and the heaving of her bosom.
Suddenly Christopher's heart froze with terror. The dreaded change had come. This glorious young creature whose glances thrilled him, whose flaunted beauty maddened him, was not Penelope any more, but the other, Fauvette, the temptress, the wanton.
"Chris!" she stepped before him splendid in the intensity of her emotion. Her garment was disarranged, her beautiful hair spread over her white shoulders. She came close to him—closer—and clung to him.
"Why—why did you lock that door?" he asked unsteadily.
"I did not notice," she answered in pretended innocence, and he knew that she was lying. "Do you mind, dear? Do you mind being alone with me?" Then, before he could answer, she offered her lips. "My love! My husband! Kiss me!"
It was too much. He clasped her in his arms and held her. He knew his danger, but forgot everything in the deliciousness of her embraces.
She drew back in displeasure.
"No! I'm not Penelope. Look at me! Look!"
What was it the soldier read in those siren eyes—what depths of allurement—what sublime degradation?
"Fauvette!" he faltered.
"Yes, your Fauvette. Say it!"
He said it, knowing that his power of resistance was breaking. He was going to yield to her, he could not help yielding. What did the consequences matter? She was too beautiful.
Then slowly, musically, the neighboring chimes resounded.
A quarter to one!
And Christopher remembered.
God! What should he do? He straightened from her with hands clenched and eyes hardening.
In a flash she saw the change. She knew what he was thinking and pressed close to him, offering again her red lips.
"Don't be a fool! You can save her, your goody-goody Penelope. It's the only way. I will leave her alone, except occasionally—I swear I will."
"No! You're lying!" It seemed as if he repeated words spoken within him.
"Lying?" Her eyes half closed over slumberous fires. "Do you think Penelope can ever love you as I can—as your Fauvette can? Share her with me or—" she panted, "or you will lose her entirely. Penelope dies tomorrow night, you know that, unless—"
Frantically she tried to encircle him with her arms, but Herrick repulsed her. Some power beyond himself was strengthening him.
"Oh!" she cried in fury, "you don't deserve to have a beautiful woman. Very well! This is the end!" She darted to the bedroom door and unlocked it. "Come! I'll show you."
Deathly pale, she led the way into the sitting-room and, going to Christopher's coat, she drew out a small flask.
"There! This is the danger she wrote about. I know. Spiritual danger! Ha! I'm going to open this. Yes, I am. You can't stop me."
"Don't! It's death!"
But already she had unscrewed a metal stopper and drawn forth a small glass vial filled with a colorless liquid.
"One step nearer, and I'll smash this on the floor!" she threatened. "If I can't have you, she never shall!"
The captain faced her quietly, knowing well what was at stake.
She stamped her foot. "I'm not Penelope. I'm Fauvette. I hate Penelope. For the last time—will you do what I want?"
She lifted the vial.
"Stop!" came a masterful voice, and, turning, they saw Dr. Leroy standing in the outer doorway. Back of him were Seraphine and Dr. Owen.
"Give that to me."
The psychologist advanced toward her slowly, holding out his hands. Fauvette stared at him, trembling.
"No! I'll throw it down."
His eyes blazed upon her. His outspread arms seemed to envelope her.
"You cannot throw it down! Come nearer! Give it to me!"
Like a frightened child she obeyed.
"Now go into the bedroom! Lie down! Sleep!"
Again she obeyed, turning and walking slowly to the bed; but there she paused and said with scornful deliberateness: "You can drive me out now, but I'll come back when she sleeps. I'll make her dream. Damn you! And tomorrow night—Ha! You'll see!"
Dr. Leroy's stern gaze did not falter, but compelled Penelope to go back to the couch, where almost immediately her tragic eyes closed in slumber.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
What happened on the last day, or rather the last night, of Mrs. Wells' psychological crisis may be regarded either as a purely subjective phenomena, a dream or a startling experience of the soul, or as something that came from without, a telepathic or spiritualistic manifestation. In any case note must be made of the testimony of Dr. William Owen, an extremely rational person, that after midnight on this occasion he distinctly saw scarlet lights moving about the darkened room near Penelope's couch.
The patient passed the day quietly (after sleeping late) and was advised not to see her lover, although Dr. Leroy did not insist upon this. Mrs. Wells agreed, however, that any conversation with Christopher might be harmfully agitating, and was content to send him a loving message, together with a sealed communication that was not to be opened unless—unless things went badly.
"Do you think I am going to pull through tonight, doctor?" she asked tremulously about three in the afternoon.
"I am sure you will, Mrs. Wells, if you will only trust me and do what I have told you to do. Your fate is in your own hands—entirely."
Dr. Leroy spoke confidently, but she shook her head in distress of mind.
"I wish I could believe what you say. I would give anything to feel sure that my mother is watching over me, trying to come to me; but I can't believe it. If she wants to come, why doesn't she do it? Why didn't she come to me last night when I needed her so terribly?"
"Seraphine has told you why, she says the conditions are not right. Is that so surprising? Take a telephone—you can't talk over it unless the connections are right, can you? Take a telescope or a microscope—you can see nothing through them unless the instruments are in focus, can you? Take an automobile—it will not move an inch unless all the parts are properly adjusted, will it? You may have the finest photographic camera in the world, yet you will get no picture unless you expose the sensitive plate in just the right way—isn't that true? Suppose a savage refused to believe in photography, or in the telephone, or the telescope, or in any of our great inventions, unless they would operate according to the fancy of his ignorant mind, regardless of scientific laws? What results would he get? The very same kind that we get in the psychic world if we refuse to obey psychic laws."
The fair patient moved wearily on her pillow with signs of increasing discouragement.
"I have not refused to obey psychic laws, I don't know what the laws are. How can I believe in something that is entirely unknown to me? I can't do it, I can't do it."
"But, Mrs. Wells, when so much is at stake, when everything is at stake, can't you take an open-minded attitude toward these mysteries? Why not submit to the indicated conditions and see what happens? If there is only one chance in a hundred that your mother can really come to you and help you, why not take that chance? You believe that your mother is an exalted spirit, don't you?"
"Oh, yes. I am sure she is."
"You don't doubt that she would be glad to help you in your present trouble, if she could, do you?"
"No, of course not, but what can I do? I say my prayers, I try to have good thoughts—what else can I do?"
The spiritual healer answered with sudden impressiveness.
"Penelope, you must cleanse your soul of evil. There is something you are keeping back—perhaps you do not know what it is yourself. I can only tell you to think, to look into the past, to search into your soul—just as if you were coming before a great, wise, loving Judge who cannot be deceived. He wants you to confess something—I don't know what it is, you must find that out for yourself—but when you have confessed, I know that help will come to you through your mother. Now close your eyes. Don't speak. Think! Think of your mother."
He laid his hands gently on her forehead and for some minutes there was silence.
"Now I shall leave you alone. In an hour I will send Seraphine to you."
Then he left her.
At four o'clock Mrs. Walters came in with an armful of flowers from Christopher and the two women talked of indifferent things over their tea. Then they went for a drive in the park and Penelope returned blooming like a lovely rose; but not one word did she breathe of her deeper thoughts. Seraphine waited.
At last the barrier of pride and reserve began to crumble. Penelope turned to her old friend, trying at first to speak lightly, but her troubled eyes told the story of tension within. Then came the confession—in broken words. There were two things on her conscience—one that she had done, but it wasn't exactly her fault, one that she did not do, but she meant to do it. She supposed that was a sin just the same.
Mrs. Walters smiled encouragingly.
"It can't be so serious a sin, can it? Tell me everything, Pen."
With flaming cheeks the young widow told how she had meant to adopt a child—in France—that would really have been—her own child. She did not do this because she met Captain Herrick, but—she would have done it. The other thing was what happened on the Fall River steamboat—with Julian. On that tragic summer night, she had finally yielded to him and—she had wanted to yield!
To which Seraphine made the obvious reply: "Still, my dear, he was your husband."
"But I had sworn that never—never—it was so—ignoble! I despised him. Then I despised myself."
The medium listened thoughtfully.
"You trust me, don't you, Pen? You know I want to do what is best for you?" She passed her arm affectionately around her distressed friend.
"Oh, yes. You have proved it, dearest. I'll never be able to repay your love."
Mrs. Wells began to cry softly.
"Please don't. We need all our courage, our intelligence. It doesn't matter how wrong you have been in the past, if you are right in the present. The trouble with you, dear child, is that you cannot see the truth, although it is right under your eyes."
"But I am telling the truth," Penelope protested tearfully. "I am not keeping anything back."
"You don't mean to keep anything back—but—"
The psychic's deep-set, searching eyes seemed to read into the soul of the fair sufferer.
"You showed me parts of your diary once—what you wrote in New York after your husband died—before you went to France. There were four years—you remember?"
"How would you interpret those four years, Pen? You were not worried about money—Julian left you enough to live on. You had no children, no responsibilities. You were in splendid health and very beautiful. What was in your mind most of the time? How did you get that idea of adopting a child in France? It must have come gradually. How did it come? Why did it come?"
"Because I was—lonely."
"Is that all? Think!"
There was silence.
"Why did you dance so much during those four years?"
"I like dancing. It's good exercise."
"And all those allurements of dress—clinging skirts, low-cut waists, no corsets—why was that?"
"I hate corsets. I don't need them. I can't breathe in corsets."
"And those insidious perfumes?"
"I don't see what that has to do with it."
"Those are little indications. But take the main point, your desire to have a child—of your own. Do you really love children, Pen? Have you ever shown that you do? Did you try to have children when you were married?"
"Not his children! God forbid!"
Seraphine hesitated as if dreading to wound her friend.
"I must go on, dear. We must get to the bottom of this. Suppose you had done what you intended to do? And had come back to America with an adopted child? And suppose no one had ever known the truth, about it—do you think you would have been happy?"
Penelope sighed wearily.
"Is a woman ever happy?"
"Wait! Let us take one point. You have always loved men's society, haven't you? That's natural, they're all crazy about you. Well, do you think that would have changed just because you had a child? Do you?"
"No—no, I suppose not."
"You would have been just as beautiful. You would have gone on wearing expensive clothes, wouldn't you? You would have kept up the old round of teas and dinners, theatres, dances, late suppers—with a train of men dangling after you—flirting men, married men—men who try to kiss women in taxicabs—you know what I mean?"
Penelope bit her red lips at this sordid picture.
"No," she said, "I don't think I would have done that. I would have changed, I intended to change. That was why I wanted a child—to give me something worthy of my love, something to serve as an outlet for my emotions."
The medium's eyes were unfathomably sad and yearning.
"Is that true, Pen? A child calls for ceaseless care—unselfishness. You know that? Did you really long for a child in a spirit of unselfish love? Did you?"
But Penelope was deaf to this touching appeal.
"Certainly," she answered sharply. "I wanted a child to satisfy my emotional nature. What else do you think I wanted it for?"
Mrs. Walters' face shone with ineffable tenderness.
"That is what I want you to find out, my darling. When you have answered that question I believe the barrier that keeps your dear mother away will be removed. Now I am going to leave you to your own thoughts. God bless you!"
* * * * *
At ten o'clock Dr. Leroy directed Mrs. Wells to prepare herself for the night and told her she was to sleep in a different room, a large chamber that had been made ready on the floor below. As Penelope entered this room a dim light revealed some shadowy pieces of furniture and at the back a recess hung with black curtains. In this was a couch and two chairs and on the wall a familiar old print, "Rock of Ages," showing a woman clinging to a cross in a tempest.
"Please lie down, Mrs. Wells," said Leroy with cheerful friendliness. "You don't mind these electrics?"
He turned on a strong white light that shone down upon the patient and threw the rest of the room into darkness. Then Penelope, exquisitely lovely in her white robe, stretched herself on the couch, while the doctor and Seraphine seated themselves beside her.
"This light will make you sleep better when I turn it off," explained the physician. Then he added: "I will ask Dr. Owen to come in a little later."
Not yet had the patient spoken and time was passing, the minutes that remained were numbered. Mrs. Walters essayed by appealing glances to open the obstinately closed doors of Penelope's spiritual consciousness, but it was in vain.
Half past eleven!
The spiritual healer rose, his face set with an unalterable purpose.
"I will turn down the light, Mrs. Wells," he said quietly. "I want you to compose yourself. Remember that God is watching over you. You are God's child. He will guard you from all evil. Hold that thought strongly as you go to sleep."
Penelope closed her eyes. Her face was deathly pale in the shadows. The minutes passed.
"I—I am afraid to go to sleep," the sufferer murmured, and her hands opened and closed nervously as if they were clutching at something.
"Think of your mother, dear," soothed Seraphine. "Her pure spirit is near you, trying to come nearer. Oh God, keep Penelope, Thy loving child, under the close guardianship of her mother's exalted spirit in this her hour of peril."
Twelve o'clock by the musical, slow-chiming bells!
Then at last Penelope spoke, her face transfigured with spiritual light and beauty.
"Doctor,—I—I know I have only a few minutes," she began haltingly, but almost immediately became calm, as if some new strength or vision had been accorded her. "I realize that my troubles have come from selfishness and—sensuality. I have deceived myself. I blamed my husband for encouraging these desires in me, but—I knew what kind of a man my husband was before I married him. There was another man, a much finer man, who asked me to be his wife, but I refused him because—in a way I—wanted the kind of husband that—my husband was."
She went on rapidly, speaking in a low tone but distinctly:
"In the years after my husband's death I was—playing with fire. I craved admiration. I wanted to go as near the danger point—with men—as I dared. I deceived myself when I said I wanted a child—of my own—to satisfy my emotional nature. What I really wanted was an excuse—to—give myself—to a man."
Some power beyond herself upheld the penitent in this hard ordeal. Her eyes remained fixed on the Cross to which she seemed to cling in spirit even as the woman pictured there clung to the Cross with outstretched arms.
There was an impressive silence, then the spiritual teacher, his voice vibrant with tenderness and faith, spoke these words of comfort:
"Penelope, you have cleansed your soul. You can sleep without fear. When your dream begins you will know that the powers of love are guarding you. You are God's child. No harm can befall you, for you will reach out to the Cross, you will reach out to the Cross!"
"Yes," she murmured faintly. Her eyelids fluttered and closed. She drew a long sigh of relief, then her breathing became regular and her face took on an expression of lovely serenity. She was sleeping.
And then the dream!
Penelope was in that tragic stateroom once more. She heard the throb of engines and sounds on the deck overhead—the echoing beat of footsteps, while the steady swish of the waters came in through the open window. She turned restlessly on her wide brass bed trying to sleep.
How oppressive was the night! She looked longingly at the stateroom door which she had fixed ajar on its hook. If she could only go out where the fresh breezes were blowing and spread her blanket on the deck—what a heavenly relief!
Penelope sat up against her pillows and looked out over the sighing waters illumined by an August moon. In the distance she watched the flashes of a lighthouse and counted the seconds between them....
Suddenly she froze with terror at the sight of a black sleeve, a man's arm, pushed in cautiously through the door, and a moment later Julian entered. She saw him plainly in the moonlight. He wore a dinner coat. He looked handsome but dissipated. His face was flushed, his dress disordered. He came to her bed and caught her in his arms. He kissed her. He drew her to him, close to him. She remembered the perfume of his hair. He said she belonged to him. He was not going to let her go. Promises did not matter—nothing mattered. This was a delicious summer night and—
"Oh God, let Thy love descend upon Penelope and strengthen her," prayed Seraphine, kneeling by the couch.
The dream moved on relentlessly toward its inevitable catastrophe. Penelope tried to resist the intruder, but she knew it was in vain. She wept, protested, pleaded, but she knew that presently she would be swept in a current of fierce desire, she would wish to surrender, she would be incapable of not surrendering.
"Oh God, let the spirit of the mother come close to her imperilled child," prayed Seraphine.
In her dream Penelope was yielding. She had ceased to struggle. She was clasped in her husband's arms and already was turning willing and responsive lips to his, when her eyes fell upon the porthole, through which the distant lighthouse was sending her a message—it seemed like a message of love and encouragement. She saw the mighty shaft towering serenely above dark rocks and crashing waters, and watched it change with beautiful gradations of light into a rugged cross to which a woman was clinging desperately. The waves beat against her, the winds buffeted her, but she cried to God for help and—then, as she slept Penelope recalled Dr. Leroy's words and, still dreaming, stretched out her hands to the Cross, praying with all her strength that her sins might be forgiven, that her soul might be cleansed, that she might be saved from evil by the power of God's love.
Instantly the torture of her dream was relieved. The brutal arms that had clasped her fell away. The ravisher, cheated of his victim, drew back scowling and slowly faded from her view, while from a distance a white figure with countenance radiant and majestic approached swiftly and Penelope knew it was the pure spirit of her mother coming to save her, and presently on her brow she felt a kiss of rapturous healing.
"My child!" came the dream words, perfectly distinct, although they were unspoken. "God will bless you and save you."
Penelope smiled in her sleep and her soul was filled with inexpressible peace.
"I saw the mother's exalted spirit hovering over her child," Seraphine wrote of this clairvoyant vision. "I saw the evil entity, leering hideously, go out of Penelope in a glow of scarlet light. I knew that the wicked dream was broken. My darling was saved."
An hour passed, during which the two doctors and the medium watched anxiously by the sleeping patient.
Finally the young woman stirred naturally and opened her eyes.
"Oh, Dr. Leroy!" she cried joyfully. "It is true—what you said. It stopped—the dream stopped. And my mother came to me in my sleep. She kissed me. She blessed me. Oh!" Penelope glanced eagerly about the room.
Leroy greeted her with grave kindness.
"Your troubles are all over, Mrs. Wells. You need never have any more of these fears."
"Is that really true?"
"Yes, I am quite sure of what I say."
He bowed gravely.
"God's love is very wonderful."
Again the radiant eyes seemed to search for some one. Penelope glanced appealingly at Seraphine.
"I understand, dear," beamed Mrs. Walters. "He is waiting outside. He will be so happy," and a moment later Christopher entered.
(Fragments from Penelope's Diary)
Paris, Three Months Later.
It is three months since I wrote this diary, three lonely months since I said good-bye to Christopher, or rather wrote good-bye, for I should never have had the courage to leave him, if I had tried to give him my reasons—face to face. I have never seen him or heard from him since that terrible night at Dr. Leroy's when the evil cloud was lifted from my soul and I knew and remembered—everything!
I have never heard from Seraphine. They do not even know where I am, they must not know—that is part of my plan, but it is frightfully hard. I pray for strength to be reconciled to my life of loneliness and to find comfort in good works; but the strength has not come to me. Every day I think of Christopher and the separation from him grows harder and harder. Life is not worth living.
* * * * *
I am perfectly sane and normal, just as I was before my hallucinations. No more voices, or fears, or wicked dreams. Sometimes I wish I could dream of Christopher; but I never do, I never dream of anything. I suppose I should be grateful for that and glad that my cure is so complete. Oh, dear!
* * * * *
I wear myself out at the dispensary for poor French children and try my best to smile and be cheerful and to interest myself in their pitiful needs and sorrows; but my heart is not in this work and my smiles are forced. Many nights I cry myself to sleep.
And yet I did right. I go over it all in my mind and I see that I did right. There was nothing else for me to do. I had to decide for both of us, and I decided. I thought of those dreadful things that I did, and—meant to do—those things that neither Christopher nor I can possibly forget ... how could Christopher ever have confidence in me as his wife? How could we ever be happy together with those memories between us?
* * * * *
I try to remember the exact words that I wrote to my lover that morning when I went away. I hope I did not make him suffer too much. But of course he suffered—he must have. I told him we could not see each other any more, or write to each other, or—anything. I knew I would have been too weak to resist the call of my love and he would have been too fine, too chivalrous, to let me go. He would have said: "You are cured now, dear" (which I really am) "and there is no reason why we should not be married—" which is true, except that he would always have had the fear, deep down in his heart, that I might relapse into what I had been. How could a high-minded man like Chris bear the thought that the woman he loved, the woman who was to be the mother of his children, had acted like a wanton? He could not bear it. It is evident that I did right.
* * * * *
I often wonder what another woman would have done in my place. She loves a man as I loved Christopher—as I love him still. She is proud, she has always been admired, she cannot bear the thought of being pitied. And suddenly she learns that she has disgraced herself, she has violated the sacred traditions of modesty that restrain all women. She has acted like an abandoned woman towards the man she worships. God! It is true she has done this without knowing it, without being responsible for it, but she has done it, and that ineffaceable memory will always shame her, if she becomes his wife. Day after day she will read it in his eyes, in his reticencies, in his efforts to be cheerful—she will know that he remembers—what she was!
NO! She could not bear it, no woman with any pride could bear it.
What is pride? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Would I be a finer woman if I could endure this humiliation and gracefully accept forgiveness? I suppose some women would take it all simply, like a grateful patient cured of an illness. Alas! that is not my nature.
* * * * *
How little we know ourselves! We all wear masks of one kind or another that hide our true personalities even from ourselves. How will a woman act in sudden peril? In a moral crisis? In the face of shattering disgrace? Let the most beautiful wife and mother realize that some painful chapter in her life is to be opened to the world—what price will she not pay to avert this scandal?
Julian had a friend who on a certain night stood before a locked door with an officer of the law. His wife was on the other side of that door—with a companion in dishonor. The husband was armed. He was absolutely within his rights. They broke down the door. And then—
Not one of those tragic three could have told in advance what would happen when that door crashed in. As a matter of fact the woman alone was calm—coldly calm.
"Yes," she said, "I am guilty. Now shoot! Why don't you shoot? You are afraid to shoot!"
Which was true.
The husband was afraid; and the lover was more afraid; it was the erring wife who cut the best figure. But who could have foreseen this denouement?
* * * * *
After all I only did those abominable things because I was ill—when I was not myself; whereas now I am well, and the evil has passed from me. Besides, I only showed that wicked side of my nature to Christopher, through my love; it is inconceivable that I could ever have acted that way with another man. Christopher knows that. He knows there is no possible doubt about that. How much difference does this knowledge make to him—I wonder.
* * * * *
I am going to leave Paris. I am too unhappy here. It seems there is a great need for nurses at Lourdes—that strange miracle place where pilgrims go to be healed—and I have volunteered for service. If the sick are really cured by miracles I don't see why they need nurses; but never mind that. It will give me a change and I may see some unfortunate men and women who are worse off than I am. Oh, if God would only work a miracle so that I can have Christopher and make him happy! But that can never be. Why not? Why do I say that after what has happened to me? Was it not a miracle that saved me from those hideous evils? Then why not other miracles?
* * * * *
At Lourdes. Two Weeks Later.
Speaking of miracles, I am living among them. I am working in the Bureau de Constatations where the miracules—those who are supposed to have been miraculously healed—are questioned and examined by doctors, Catholics, Protestants, Agnostics, Atheists, who come from all over the world to investigate these cures from the standpoint of a religion or pure science. What sights I have seen! Men and women of all ages and walks of life testifying that the waters of the sacred grotto have freed them from this or that malady, from tumors, lameness, deafness, blindness, tuberculosis, nervous trouble and numerous other afflictions. By thousands and tens of thousands these unfortunates crowd here from the four corners of the earth, an endless procession of believers, and every year sees scores of the incurable cured, instantly cured—even the sceptical admit this, although they interpret the facts differently. Some say it is auto-suggestion, others speak of mass hypnotism, others regard it as a scientific phenomenon not yet understood like the operation of the X-rays. And many wise men are satisfied with the simple explanation that it is the work of God, manifested today for those who have faith exactly as in Bible times.
* * * * *
I was stabbed with poignant memories this afternoon when a tall black-bearded peasant told the doctors that his father, who accompanied him, and who had been insane, a violent neurasthenic, shut up in an asylum for four years, had been restored by the blessed waters to perfect health and had shown no abnormality of body or mind for eight years. These statements were verified by scientists and doctors.
Eight years! If I really believe in the permanent recovery of this poor man, as the doctors do, why am I doubtful about my own permanent recovery? The answer is that I am not doubtful for myself, but for Christopher. He might reason like this, he might say to himself—he is so loyal that he would die rather than say it to me: "I know Penelope has been restored to her normal condition of mind, but that normal condition includes a strong inherited and developed tendency towards—certain things,"—my cheeks burn with shame as I write this. "How do I know that this tendency in her, even if she remains herself, will not make trouble again—for both of us?"
How could Christopher be sure about this?
He could not be sure!
So I did right to leave him.
(From Penelope's Diary)
Lourdes. A Week Later.
Today, with a multitude of the afflicted, I bathed in the piscine, a long trough filled with holy water from the grotto. The water was cold and not very clean (for hours it had received bodies carrying every disease known to man), but as I lay there, wrapped in a soaking apron and immersed to the head, I felt an indescribable peace possessing my soul. Was it the two priests who held my hands and encouraged me with kindly eyes? Was it the shouts and rejoicings, the continual prayers of pilgrims all about me? Or was it a sudden overwhelming sense of my own unworthiness, of my ingratitude and lack of faith and a rush of new desire to begin my life all over again, to forget my selfish repining? Whatever it was I know that as I arose from the bath and bowed before the statue of the Blessed Virgin, I was caught by a spiritual fervor that seemed to lift me in breathless ecstasy.
A young woman who was blind stood beside me, splashing water from a hand basin upon her reddened, sightless eyelids, and praying desperately. Together with her I prayed as I never had prayed, crying the words aloud, over and over again, as she did, while tears poured down my cheeks:
"Oh, Marie, concue sans peche, priez pour nous qui avons recours a vous!"
As I came away and started back to the Bureau, walking slowly under the blazing Pyrenees sun, I knew that an extraordinary change had taken place in me. I was not the same woman any more. I would never again be the same woman. I was like the child I knew about that had been miraculously cured of infantile paralysis; or like the widow I had spoken to who had been miraculously cured of a fistula in the arm that had been five times vainly operated upon; or like the old woman I had seen who had been miraculously cured of an "incurable" tumor that had caused her untold suffering for twenty-two years. I was a miraculee, like these others, hundreds of others, one more case that would be carefully noted down by skeptical investigators on their neatly ruled sheets, if only the mysteries of a sick soul could be revealed!
Suddenly a great burst of singing drew my attention to the open space beyond the gleaming white church with its sharp-pointed towers, and I drew nearer, pushing my way through a dense multitude gathered to witness the procession of pilgrims and the Blessing of the Sick. In all the world there is no such sight as this, nothing that can stir the human soul so deeply. Inside the concourse, fringing the great crowds, lay the afflicted—on litters, on reclining chairs, on blankets spread over the ground; standing and kneeling, men, women and children from all lands and of all stations, pallid-faced, emaciated, suffering, dying, brought here to supplicate for help when all other help has failed them.
"Seigneur, nous vous adorons!" chanted a priest with golden voice and ten thousand tongues responded:
"Seigneur, nous vous adorons!"
"Jesus, Fils de Marie, ayez pitie de nous!" came the inspired cry.
"Jesus, Fils de Marie, ayez pitie de nous!" crashed the answer.
"Hosanna! Hosanna au Fils de David!"
"Hosanna! Hosanna au Fils de David!" thundered the multitude, and the calm hills resounded.
It was an immense, an indescribable moment, not to be resisted. I felt myself literally in the presence of God, and choking, almost dying with emotion, I waited for what was to come.
Suddenly at the far end of the crowd a great shouting started and spread like a powder-train, with a violent clapping of hands.
"A miracle! A miracle!" the cries proclaimed.
They told me afterwards that five miraculous cures were accomplished at this moment, but I knew nothing about it. My eyes were closed. I had fallen to my knees in the dust and was sobbing my heart out, not in grief but in joy, for I knew that all was well with me now and would be in the days to come. I knew that Christopher would be restored to me, and that I would be allowed to make him happy. There would be no more doubt or fear in either of us—only love. I knew this!
As I knelt there filled with a spirit of infinite faith and serenity, it seemed as if, above the tumult of the crowd, I heard my name spoken gently—"Penelope!"
I knew, of course, that it could not be a real voice, for I was a stranger here, yet there was nothing disturbing to me in this illusion. It came rather like a comforting benediction, as if some higher part of me had inwardly expressed approval of my prayerful aspirations, and had confirmed my belief that Christopher would be restored to me.
"Penelope!" the voice spoke again, this time with unmistakable distinctness, and now I opened my eyes and saw Seraphine standing before me.
"Seraphine! Where did you come from? I thought you were in America—in New York."
Smiling tenderly she helped me to my feet and led me away from the multitude.
"Let us go where we can talk quietly," she said.
"We will go to the hospice, where I am staying," I replied, not marvelling very much, but more than ever filled with the knowledge that God was guiding and protecting me.
"This has been a wonderful day for me, Seraphine," I told her when we came to my room, "the most wonderful day in my whole life."
"I know, dear," she answered calmly, as if nothing could surprise her either.
Then I explained everything that had happened—why I had left America so suddenly, why I had felt that I must never see Christopher again.
"But you don't feel that way any more?" she asked me with a look of strange understanding in her deep eyes.
"No," said I, "everything is changed now. My fears are gone. I see that I must count upon Christopher to have the same faith and courage that I have in my own heart. Why should I expect to bear the whole burden of our future? He must bear his part of it. The responsibility goes with the love, doesn't it? I saw that this afternoon—it came to me like a flash when the procession passed. Isn't it wonderful?
"Dear child, the working of God's love for His children is always wonderful. This is a place of miracles"—she paused as if searching into my soul—"and the greatest miracle is yet to come."
I felt the color flooding to my cheeks.
"What do you mean?"
"I must go back a little, Penelope, and tell you something important. You haven't asked about Captain Herrick."