"Is she Rhamda's wife?"
His eyes lit fire.
"Do you love her?"
He went blank again; but at last he spoke slowly.
"No, I don't love her. What's the use? She's not for me. I did; but I learned better. I was after the professor—and the Blind Spot. She—"
Again that look of haunted pursuit. He glanced about the room. Whatever had been his experience, it was plain that he had not given up. He held something and he held it still. What was it?
"You say you didn't find the Blind Spot?"
"No, I did not find it."
"Have you any idea?"
"My dear Harry," he answered, "I am full of ideas. That's the trouble. I am near it. It's the cause of my present condition. I don't know just what it is nor where. A condition, or a combination of phenomena. You remember the lecture that was never delivered? Had the doctor spoken that morning the world would have had a great fact. He had made a great discovery. It is a terrible thing." He turned the ring so we could all see it—beyond all doubt it was the doctor. "There he is—the professor. If he could only speak. The secret of the ages. Just think what it means. Where is he? I have taken that jewel to the greatest lapidaries and they have one and all been startled. Then they all come to the same conclusion—trickery—Chinese or Hindu work, they say; most of them want to cut."
"Have you taken it to the police?"
"I would simply be laughed at."
"Have you ever reported this Rhamda?"
"A score of times. They have come and sought; but every time he has gone out—like a shadow. It's got to be an old story now. If you call them up and tell them they laugh."
"How do you account for it?"
"I don't. I—I—I'm just dying."
"And not one member of the force—surely?"
"Oh, yes. There's one. You have heard of Jerome. Jerome followed the professor and the Rhamda to the house of the Blind Spot, as he calls it. He's not a man to fool. He had eyes and he saw it. He will not leave it till he's dead."
"But he did not see the Blind Spot, did he? How about trickery? Did it ever occur to you that the professor might have been murdered?"
"Take a look at that, Harry. Does that look like murder? When you see the man living?"
Watson reached over and turned up the jewel.
Here Hobart came in.
"Just a minute, Chick. My wise friend here is an attorney. He's always the first into everything, especially conversation. It's been my job pulling Harry out of trouble. Just one question."
"Didn't you—er—keep company, as they say, with Bertha Holcomb while at college?"
A kind look came into the man's eyes; he nodded; his whole face was soft and saddened.
"I see. That naturally brought you to the Blind Spot. You are after her father. Am I correct?"
"All right. Perhaps Bertha has taken you into some of her father's secrets. He undoubtedly had data on this Blind Spot. Have you ever been able to locate it?"
"I see. This Rhamda? Has he ever sought that data?"
"Many, many times."
"Does he know you haven't got it?"
"So. I understand. You hold the whip hand through your ignorance. Rhamda is your villain—and perhaps this Nervina? Who is she?"
"Oh, yes!" He laughed. "A goddess. Naturally! They all are. There are about forty in this room at the present moment, my dear fellow. Watch them dance!"
Now I had picked up the ring. It just fitted the natural finger. I tried it on and looked into the jewel. The professor was growing dimmer. The marvellous blue was returning, a hue of fascination; not the hot flash of the diamond, but the frozen light of the iceberg. It was frigid, cold, terrible, blue, alluring. To me at the moment it seemed alive and pulselike. I could not account for it. I felt the lust for possession. Perhaps there was something in my face. Watson leaned over and touched me on the arm.
"Harry," he asked, "do you think you can stand up under the burden? Will you take my place?"
I looked into his eyes; in their black depths was almost entreaty. How haunting they were, and beseeching.
"Will you take my place?" he begged. "Are you willing to give up all that God gives to the fortunate? Will you give up your practice? Will you hold out to the end? Never surrender? Will—"
"You mean will I take this ring?"
"Exactly. But you must know beforehand. It would be murder to give it to you without the warning. Either your death or that of Dr. Holcomb. It is not a simple jewel. It defies description. It takes a man to wear it. It is subtle and of destruction; it eats like a canker; it destroys the body; it frightens the soul—"
"An ominous piece of finery," I spoke. "Wherein—"
But Watson interrupted. There was appeal in his eyes.
"Harry," he went on, "I am asking. Somebody has got to wear this ring. He must be a man. He must be fearless; he must taunt the devil. It is hard work, I assure you. I cannot last much longer. You loved the old doctor. If we get at this law we have done more for mankind than either of us may do with his profession. We must save the old professor. He is living and he is waiting. There are perils and forces that we do not know of. The doctor went at it alone and fearless; he succumbed to his own wisdom. I have followed after, and I have been crushed down—perhaps by my ignorance. I am not afraid. But I don't want my work to die. Somebody has got to take it on and you are the man."
They were all of them looking at me. I studied the wonderful blue and its light. The image of the great professor had dimmed almost completely. It was a sudden task and a great one. Here was a law; one of the great secrets of Cosmos. What was it? Somehow the lure caught into my vitals. I couldn't picture myself ever coming to the extremity of my companion. Besides, it was a duty. I owed it to the old doctor. It seemed somehow that he was speaking. Though Watson did the talking I could feel him calling. Would I be afraid? Besides, there was the jewel. It was calling; already I could feel it burning into my spirit. I looked up.
"Do you take it, Harry?"
"I do. God knows I am worthless enough. I'll take it up. It may give me a chance to engage with this famous Rhamda."
"Be careful of Rhamda, Harry. And above all don't let him have the ring."
"Because. Now listen. I'm not laying this absolutely, understand. Nevertheless the facts all point in one direction. Hold the ring. Somewhere in that lustre lies a great secret; it controls the Blind Spot. The Rhamda himself may not take it off your finger. You are immune from violence. Only the ring itself may kill you."
"God knows," he spoke, "it has killed me."
It was rather ominous. The mere fact of that cough and his weakness was enough. One would come to this. He had warned me, and he had besought me with the same voice as the warning.
"But what is the Blind Spot?"
"Then you take the ring? What is the time? Twelve. Gentlemen—"
Now here comes in one of the strange parts of my story—one that I cannot account for. Over the shoulder of Dr. Hansen I could watch the door. Whether it was the ring or not I do not know. At the time I did not reason. I acted upon impulse. It was an act beyond good breeding. I had never done such a thing before. I had never even seen the woman.
The woman? Why do I say it? She was never a woman—she was a girl— far, far transcendent. It was the first time I had ever seen her— standing there before the door. I had never beheld such beauty, such profile, poise—the witching, laughing, night-black of her eyes; the perfectly bridged nose and the red, red lips that smiled, it seemed to me, in sadness. She hesitated, and as if puzzled, lifted a jewelled hand to her raven mass of hair. To this minute I cannot account for my action, unless, perchance, it was the ring. Perhaps it was. Anyway I had risen.
How well do I remember.
It seemed to me that I had known her a long, long time. There was something about her that was not seduction; but far, far above it. Somewhere I had seen her, had known her. She was looking and she was waiting for me. There was something about her that was super feminine. I thought it then, and I say it now.
Just then her glance came my way. She smiled, and nodded; there was a note of sadness in her voice.
There is no accounting for my action, nor my wonder; she knew me. Then it was true! I was not mistaken! Somewhere I had seen her. I felt a vague and dim rush of dreamy recollections. Ah, that was the answer! She was a girl of dreams and phantoms. Even then I knew it; she was not a woman; not as we conceive her; she was some materialisation out of Heaven. Why do I talk so? Ah! this strange beauty that is woman! From the very first she held me in the thrall that has no explanation.
"Do we dance?" she asked simply.
The next moment I had her in my arms and we were out among the dancers. That my actions were queer and entirely out of reason never occurred to me. There was a call about her beautiful body and in her eyes that I could not answer. There was a fact between us, some strange bond that was beyond even passion. I danced, and in an extreme emotion of happiness. A girl out of the dreams and the ether—a sprig of life woven out of the moonbeams!
"Do you know me?" she asked as we danced.
"Yes," I answered, "and no. I have seen you; but I do not remember; you come from the sunshine."
She laughed prettily.
"Do you always talk like this?"
"You are out of my dreams," I answered: "it is sufficient. But who are you?"
She held back her pretty head and looked at me; her lips drooped slightly at the corners, a sad smile, and tender, in the soft wonderful depths of her eyes—a pity.
"Harry," she asked, "are you going to wear this ring?"
So that was it. The ring and the maiden. What was the bond? There was weirdness in its colour, almost cabalistic—a call out of the occult. The strange beauty of the girl, her remarkable presence, and her concern. Whoever and whatever she was her anxiety was not personal. In some way she was woven up with this ring and poor Watson.
"I think I shall," I answered.
Again the strange querulous pity and hesitation; her eyes grew darker, almost pleading.
"You won't give it to me?"
How near I came to doing it I shall not tell. It would be hard to say it. I knew vaguely that she was playing; that I was the plaything. It is hard for a man to think of himself as being toyed with. She was certain; she was confident of my weakness. It was resentment, perhaps, and pride of self that gave the answer.
"I think I shall keep it."
"Do you know the danger, Harry? It is death to wear it. A thousand perils—"
"Then I shall keep it. I like peril. You wish for the ring. If I keep it I may have you. This is the first time I have danced with the girl out of the moonbeams."
Her eyes snapped, and she stopped dancing. I don't think my words displeased her. She was still a woman.
"Is this final? You're a fine young man, Mr. Wendel. I know you. I stepped in to save you. You are playing with something stranger than the moonbeams. No man may wear that ring and hold to life. Again, Harry, I ask you; for your own sake."
At this moment we passed Watson. He was watching; as our eyes glanced he shook his head. Who was this girl? She was as beautiful as sin and as tender as a virgin. What interest had she in myself?
"That's just the reason," I laughed. "You are too interested. You are too beautiful to wear it. I am a man; I revel in trouble; you are a girl. It would not be honourable to allow you to take it. I shall keep it."
She had overreached herself, and she knew it. She bit her lip. But she took it gracefully; so much so, in fact, that I thought she meant it.
"I'm sorry," she answered slowly. "I had hopes. It is terrible to look at Watson and then to think of you. It is, really"—a faint tremor ran through her body; her hand trembled—"it is terrible. You young men are so unafraid. It's too bad."
Just then the door was opened; outside I could see the bank of fog; someone passed. She turned a bit pale.
"Excuse me. I must be going. Don't you see I'm sorry—"
She held out her hand—the same sad little smile. On the impulse of the moment, unmindful of place, I drew it to my lips and kissed it. She was gone.
I returned to the table. The three men were watching me: Watson analytically, the doctor with wonder, and Hobart with plain disgust. Hobart spoke first.
"Nice for sister Charlotte, eh, Harry?"
I had not a word to say. In the full rush of the moment I knew that he was right. It was all out of reason. I had no excuse outside of sheer insanity—and dishonour. The doctor said nothing. It was only in Watson's face that there was a bit of understanding.
"Hobart," he said, "I have told you. It is not Harry's fault. It is the Nervina. No man may resist her. She is beauty incarnate; she weaves with the hearts of men, and she loves no one. It is the ring. She, the Rhamda, the Blind Spot, and the ring. I have never been able to unravel them. Please don't blame Harry. He went to her even as I. She has but to beckon. But he kept the ring. I watched them. This is but the beginning."
But Hobart muttered: "She's a beauty all right—a beauty. That's the rub. I know Harry—I know him as a brother, and I want him so in fact. But I'd hate to trust that woman."
"Never fear, Hobart, your sister is safe enough. The Nervina is not a woman. She is not of the flesh."
"Brr," said the doctor, "you give me the creeps."
Watson reached for the brandy; he nodded to the doctor.
"Just a bit more of that stuff if you please. Whatever it is, on the last night one has no fear of habit. There—Now, gentlemen, if you will come with me, I shall take you to the house of the Blind Spot."
"NOW THERE ARE THREE"
I shall never forget that night. When we stepped to the pavement the whole world was shrouded. The heavy fog clung like depression; life was gone out—a foreboding of gloom and disaster. It was cold, dank, miserable; one shuddered instinctively and battered against the wall with steaming columns of breath. Just outside the door we were detained.
Someone stepped beside us.
"A message, sir."
The doctor made a gesture of impatience.
"Bother!" he spoke. "Bother! A message. Nothing in the world would stop me! I cannot leave."
Nevertheless he stepped back into the light.
"Just a minute, gentlemen."
He tore open the envelope. Then he looked up at the messenger and then at us. His face was startled—almost frightened.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I am sorry. Not a thing in the world would detain me but this. I would go with you, but I may not. My duty as a physician. I had hopes." He came over to me and spoke softly. "I am going to send you one of the greatest specialists in the city in my stead. This young man should have attention. Have you the address?"
"288 Chatterton Place," I answered.
"Very well. I am sorry, very much disappointed. However, it is my daughter, and I cannot do otherwise. Continue the brandy for a while—and this." He slipped an envelope into my hand. "By that time Dr. Higgins will be with you."
"You think there is hope?" I asked.
"There's always hope," replied the doctor.
I returned to my companions. They were walking slowly. It was work for poor Watson. He dragged on, leaning on Hobart's arm. But at last he gave up.
"No," he said, "I can't make it. I'm too far gone. I had thought— Oh, what a lapse it has been! I am eighty years of age; one year ago I was a boy. If only I had some more brandy. I have some at the house. We must make that. I must show you; there I can give you the details."
"Hail a cab," I said. "Here's one now."
A few minutes later we were before the House of the Blind Spot. It was a two storey drab affair, much like a thousand others, old- fashioned, and might have been built in the early nineties. It had been outside of the fire limits of 1906, and so had survived the great disaster. Chatterton Place is really a short street running lengthwise along the summit of the hill. A flight of stone steps descended to the pavement.
Watson straightened up with an effort.
"This is the house," he spoke. "I came here a year ago. I go away tonight. I had hoped to find it. I promised Bertha. I came alone. I had reasons to believe I had solved it. I found the Rhamda and the Nervina. I had iron will and courage—also strength. The Rhamda was never able to control me. My life is gone but not my will. Now I have left him another. Do not surrender, Harry. It is a gruesome task; but hold on to the end. Help me up the steps. There now. Just wait a minute till I fetch a stimulant."
He did not ring for a servant. That I noticed. Instead he groped about for a key, unlocked the door and stumbled into a room. He fumbled for a minute among some glasses.
"Will you switch on a light?" he asked.
Hobart struck a match; when he found it he pressed the switch.
The room in which we were standing was a large one, fairly well furnished, and lined on two sides with bookshelves; in the centre was an oak table cluttered with papers, a couple of chairs, and on one of them, a heavy pipe, which, somehow, I did not think of as Watson's. He noticed my look.
"Jerome's," he explained. "We live here—Jerome, the detective, and myself. He has been here since the day of the doctor's disappearance. I came here a year ago. He is in Nevada at present. That leaves me alone. You will notice the books, mostly occult: partly mine, partly the detective's. We have gone at it systematically from the beginning. We have learned almost everything but what would help us. Mostly sophistry—and guesswork. Beats all how much ink has been wasted to say nothing. We were after the Blind Spot."
"But what is it? Is it in this house?"
"I can answer one part of your question," he answered, "but not the other. It is here somewhere, in some place. Jerome is positive of that. You remember the old lady? The one who died? Her actions were rather positive even if feeble. She led Jerome to this next room." He turned and pointed; the door was open. I could see a sofa and a few chairs; that was all.
"It was in here. The bell. Jerome never gets tired of telling. A church bell. In the centre of the room. At first I didn't believe; but now I accept it all. I know, but what I know is by intuition."
"Sort of sixth sense?'
"Yes. Or foresight."
"You never saw this bell nor found it? Never were able to arrive at an explanation?"
"How about the Rhamda? The Nervina? Do they come to this house?"
"How do they come in? Through the window?"
He smiled rather sadly. "I don't know. At least they come. You shall see them yourself. The Rhamda still has something to do with Dr. Holcomb. Somehow his very concern tells me the doctor is safe. Undoubtedly the professor made a great discovery. But he was not alone. He had a co-worker—the Rhamda. For reasons of his own the Rhamda wishes to control the Blind Spot."
"Then the professor is in this Blind Spot?"
"We think so. At least it is our conjecture. We do not know."
"Then you don't think it trickery?"
"No, hardly. Harry, you know better than that. Can you imagine the great doctor the dupe of a mere trickster? The professor was a man of great science and was blessed with an almighty sound head. But he had one weakness."
Hobart spoke up.
"What is it, Chick? I think I know what you mean. The old boy was honest?"
"Exactly. He had been a scholar all his life. He taught ethics. He believed in right. He practised his creed. When he came to the crucial experiment he found himself dealing with a rogue. The Rhamda helped him just so far; but once he had the professor in his power it was not his purpose to release him until he was secure of the Blind Spot."
"I see," I spoke. "The man is a villain. I think we can handle him."
But Watson shook his head.
"That's just it, Harry! The man! If he were a man I could have handled him in short order. That's what I thought at first. Don't make any mistake. Don't try violence. That's the whole crux of the difficulty. If he were only a man! Unfortunately, he is not."
"Not a man!" I exclaimed. "What do you mean? Then, what is he?"
"He is a phantom."
I glanced at Hobart and caught his eye. Hobart believed him! The poor pallid face of Watson, the athlete; there was nothing left to him but his soul! I shall not forget Watson as he sat there, his lean, long fingers grasping the brandy glass, his eyes burning and his life holding back from the pit through sheer will and courage. Would I come to this? Would I have the strength to measure up to his standard?
Hobart broke the tension.
"Chick's right. There is something in it, Harry. Not all the secrets of the universe have been unlocked by any means. Now, Chick, about details. Have you any data—any notes?"
Watson rose. I could see he was grateful.
"You believe me, don't you, Hobart? It is good. I had hoped to find someone, and I found you two. Harry, remember what I have told you. Hold the ring. You take my place. Whatever happens, stick out to the end. You have Hobart here to help you. Now just a minute. The library is here; you can look over my books. I shall return in a moment."
He stepped out into the hall; we could hear his weary feet dragging down the hallway—a hollow sound and a bit uncanny. Somehow my mind rambled back to that account I had read in the newspaper—Jerome's story—"Like weary bones dragging slippers." And the old lady. Who was she? Why was everyone in this house pulled down to exhaustion—the words of the old lady, I could almost hear them; the dank air murmuring their recollection. "Now there are two. Now there are two!"
"What's the matter, Harry?"
Perhaps I was frightened. I do not know. I looked around. The sound of Watson's footsteps had died away; there was a light in the back of the building coming toward us.
"Nothing! Only—damn this place, Hobart. Don't you notice it? It's enough to eat your heart out."
"Rather interesting," said Hobart. It was too interesting for me. I stepped over to the shelves and looked at the titles. Sanskrit and Greek; German and French—the Vedas, Sir Oliver Lodge, Besant, Spinoza, a conglomeration of all ages and tongues; a range of metaphysics that was as wide as Babel, and about as enlightening. As Babel? Over my shoulders came the strangest sound of all, weak, piping, tremulous, fearful—"Now there are two. Now there are two." My heart gave a fearful leap. "Soon there will be three! Soon—"
I turned suddenly about. I had a fearful thought. I looked at Hobart. A strange, insidious fear clutched at me. Was the thought intrinsic? If not, where had it come from? Three? I strained my ears to hear Watson's footsteps. He was in the back part of the building. I must have some air.
"I'm going to open the door, Hobart," I spoke. "The front door, and look out into the street."
"Don't blame you much. Feel a bit that way myself. About time for Dr. Higgins. Here comes Chick again. Take a look outside and see if the doc is coming."
I opened the door and looked out into the dripping fog bank. What a pair of fools we were! We both knew it, and we were both seeking an excuse. In the next room through the curtains I could see the weak form of Watson; he was bearing a light.
Suddenly the light went out.
I was at high tension; the mere fact of the light was nothing, but it meant a world at that moment—a strange sound—a struggle—then the words of Watson—Chick Watson's:
"Harry! Harry! Hobart! Harry! Come here! It's the Blind Spot!"
It was in the next room. The despair of that call is unforgettable, like that of one suddenly falling into space. Then the light dropped to the floor. I could see the outlines of his figure and a weird, single string of incandescence. Hobart turned and I leaped. It was a blur, the form of a man melting into nothing. I sprang into the room, tearing down the curtains. Hobart was on top of me. But we were too late. I could feel the vibrancy of something uncanny as I rushed across the space intervening. Through my mind darted the thrill of terror. It had come suddenly, and in climax. It was over before it had commenced. The light had gone out. Only by the gleam from the other room could we make out each others' faces. The air was vibrant, magnetic. There was no Watson. But we could hear his voice. Dim and fearful, coming down the corridors of time.
"Hold that ring, Harry! Hold that ring!" Then the faint despair out of the weary distance, faint, but a whole volume:
"The Blind Spot!"
It was over as quickly as that. The whole thing climaxed into an instant. It is difficult to describe. One cannot always analyse sensations. Mine, I am afraid, were muddled. A thousand insistent thoughts clashed through my brain. Horror, wonder, doubt! I have only one persistent and predominating recollection. The old lady! I could almost feel her coming out of the shadows. There was sadness and pity; out of the stillness and the corners. What had been the dirge of her sorrow?
"NOW THERE ARE THREE!"
MAN OR PHANTOM
It was Hobart who came to first. His voice was good to hear. It was natural; it was sweet and human, but it was pregnant with disappointment: "We are fools, Harry; we are fools!"
But I could only stare. I remember saying: "The Blind Spot?"
"Yes," returned Hobart, "the Blind Spot. But what is it? We saw him go. Did you see it?"
"It gets me," I answered. "He just vanished into space. It—" Frankly I was afraid.
"It tallies well with the reports. The old lady and Jerome. Remember?"
"And the bell?" I looked about the room.
"Exactly. Phenomena! Watson was right. I just wonder—but the bell? Remember the doctor? 'The greatest day since Columbus.' No, don't cross the room, Harry, I'm a bit leery: A great discovery! I should say it was. How do you account for it?"
Fenton shook his head.
"By no means! It's the gateway to the universe—into Cosmos." His eyes sparkled. "My Lord, Harry! Don't you see! Once we control it. The Blind Spot! What is beyond? We saw Chick Watson go. Before our eyes. Where did he go to? It beats death itself."
I started across the room, but Hobart caught me with both arms: "No, no, no, Harry. My Lord! I don't want to lose you. No! You foolhardly little cuss—stand back!"
He threw me violently against the wall. The impact quite took my breath.
On the instant the old rush of temper surged up in me. From boyhood we had these moments. Hobart settled himself and awaited the rush that he knew was coming. In his great, calm, brute strength there was still a greatness of love.
"Harry," he was saying, "for the love of Heaven, listen to reason! Have we got to have a knock-down and drag-out on this of all nights? Have I got to lick you again? Do you want to roll into the Blind Spot?"
Why did God curse me with such a temper? On such moments as this I could feel something within me snapping. It was fury and unreason. How I loved him! And yet we had fought a thousand times over just such provocation. Over his shoulders I could see the still open door that led into the street. A heavy form was looming through the opening; out of the corner of my eye I caught the lines of the form stepping out of the shadows—it crossed the room and stood beside Hobart Fenton. It was Rhamda Avec!
I leaped. The fury of a thousand conflicts—and the exultation. For the glory of such moments it is well worth dying. One minute flying through the air—the old catapult tackle—and the next a crashing of bone and sinew. We rolled over, head on, and across the floor. Curses and execrations; the deep bass voice of Hobart:
"Hold him, Harry! Hold him! That's the way! Hold him! Hold him!"
We went crashing about the room. He was the slipperiest thing I had ever laid hold of. But he was bone—bone and sinew; he was a man! I remember the wild thrill of exultation at the discovery. It was battle! And death! The table went over, we went spinning against the wall, a crash of falling bookcases, books and broken glass, a scurry and a flying heap of legs and arms. He was wonderfully strong and active, like a panther. Each time I held him he would twist out like a cat, straighten, and throw me out of hold. I clung on, fighting, striving for a grip, working for the throat. He was a man—a man! I remembered that he must never get away. He must account for Watson.
In the first rush I was a madman. The mere force of my onslaught had borne him down. But in a moment he had recovered and was fighting systematically. As much as he could he kept over on one side of me, always forcing me toward the inner room where Watson had disappeared. In spite of my fury he eluded every effort that I made for a vital part. We rolled, fought, struck and struggled.
I could hear Hobart's bass thundering: "Over! Over! Under! Look out! Now you've got him! Harry! Harry! Look out! Hold him, for the love of Heaven I see his trick. That's his trick. The Blind Spot!"
We were rolled clear over, picked, heaved, shoved against the front wall. There were three! The great heaving bulk of Fenton; the fighting tiger between us; and myself! Surely such strength was not human; we could not pin him; his quickness was uncanny; he would uncoil, twist himself and throw us loose. Gradually he worked us away from the front wall and into the centre of the room.
Could any mere man fight so? Hobart was as good as a ton; I was as much for action. Slowly, slowly in spite of our efforts, he was working us towards the Blind Spot. Confident of success, he was over, around, and in and under. In a spin of a second he went into the attack. He fairly bore us off our feet. We were on the last inch of our line; the stake was—
What was it? We all went down. A great volume of sound! We were inside a bell! My whole head buzzed to music and a roar; the whir of a thousand vibrations; the inside of sound. I fell face downwards; the room went black.
What was it? How long I lay there I don't know. A dim light was burning. I was in a room. The ceiling overhead was worked in a grotesque pattern; I could not make it out. My clothes were in tatters and my hand was covered with blood. Something warm was trickling down my face. What was it? The air was still and sodden. Who was this man beside me? And what was this smell of roses?
I lay still for a minute, thinking. Ah, yes! It came back. Watson—Chick Watson! The Blind Spot! The Rhamda and the bell!
Surely it was a dream. How could all this be in one short night? It was like a nightmare and impossible. I raised up on my elbow and looked at the form beside me. It was Hobart Fenton. He was unconscious.
For a moment my mind was whirring; I was too weak and unsteady. I dropped back and wondered absently at the roses. Roses meant perfume, and perfume meant a woman. What could—something touched my face—something soft; it plucked tenderly at my tangled hair and drew it away from my forehead. It was the hand of a woman!
"You poor, foolish boy! You foolish boy!"
Somewhere I had heard that voice; it held a touch of sadness; it was familiar; it was soft and silken like music that might have been woven out of the moonbeams. Who was it that always made me think of moonbeams? I lay still, thinking.
"He dared; he dared; he dared!" she was saying. "As if there were not two! He shall pay for this! Am I to be a plaything? You poor boy!"
Then I remembered. I looked up. It was the Nervina. She was stooping over with my head against her. How beautiful her eyes were! In their depths was a pathos and a tenderness that was past a woman's, the same slight droop at the corners of the mouth, and the wistfulness; her features were relaxed like a mother's—a wondrous sweetness and pity.
"Harry," she asked, "where is Watson? Did he go?"
"Into the Blind Spot?"
"Yes. What is the Blind Spot?"
She ignored the question.
"I am sorry" she answered. "So sorry. I would have saved him. And the Rhamda; was he here, too?"
I nodded. Her eyes flashed wickedly.
"And—and you—tell me, did you fight with the Rhamda? You—"
"It was Watson," I interrupted. "This Rhamda is behind it all. He is the villain. He can fight like a tiger; whoever he is he can fight."
She frowned slightly; she shook her head.
"You young men," she said. "You young men! You are all alike! Why must it be? I am so sorry. And you fought with the Rhamda? You could not overcome him, of course. But tell me, how could you resist him? What did you do?"
What did she mean? I had felt his flesh and muscle. He was a man. Why could he not be conquered—not be resisted?
"I don't understand," I answered. "He is a man. I fought him. He was here. Let him account for Watson. We fought alone at first, until he tried to throw me into this Thing. Then Hobart stepped in. Once I thought we had him, but he was too slippery. He came near putting us both in. I don't know. Something happened—a bell."
Her hand was on my arm, she clutched it tightly, she swallowed hard; in her eyes flashed the fire that I had noticed once before, the softness died out, and their glint was almost terrible.
"He! The bell saved you? He would dare to throw you into the Blind Spot!"
I lay back. I was terribly weak and uncertain. This beautiful woman! What was her interest in myself?
"Harry," she spoke, "let me ask you. I am your friend. If you only knew! I would save you. It must not be. Will you give me the ring? If I could only tell you! You must not have it. It is death—yes, worse than death. No man may wear it."
So that was it. Again and so soon I was to be tempted. Was her concern feigned or real? Why did she call me Harry? Why did I not resent it? She was wonderful; she was beautiful; she was pure. Was it merely a subtle act for the Rhamda? I could still hear Watson's voice ringing out of the Blind Spot; "Hold the ring! Hold the ring!" I could not be false to my friend.
"Tell me first," I asked. "Who is this Rhamda? What is he? Is he a man?"
Not a man! I remembered Watson's words: "A phantom!" How could it be? At least I would find out what I could.
"Then tell me, what is he?"
"She smiled faintly; again the elusive tenderness lingered about her lips, the wistful droop at the corners.
"That I may not tell you, Harry. You couldn't understand. If only I could."
Certainly I couldn't understand her evasion. I studied and watched her—her wondrous hair, the perfection of her throat, the curve of her bosom.
"Then he is supernatural."
"No, not that, Harry. That would explain everything. One cannot go above Nature. He is living just as you are."
I studied a moment.
"Are you a woman?" I asked suddenly.
Perhaps I should not have asked it; she was so sad and beautiful, somehow I could not doubt her sincerity. There was a burden at the back of her sadness, some great yearning unsatisfied, unattainable. She dropped her head. The hand upon my arm quivered and clutched spasmodically; I caught the least sound of a sob. When I looked up her eyes were wet and sparkling.
"Oh," she said. "Harry, why do you ask it? A woman! Harry, a woman! To live and love and to be loved. What must it be? There is so much of life that is sweet and pure. I love it—I love it! I can have everything but the most exalted thing of all. I can live, see, enjoy, think, but I cannot have love. You knew it from the first. How did you know it? You said—Ah, it is true! I am out of the moonbeams." She controlled herself suddenly. "Excuse me," she said simply. "But you can never understand. May I have the ring?"
It was like a dream—her beauty, her voice, everything. But I could still hear Watson. I was to be tempted, cajoled, flattered. What was this story out of the moonbeams? Certainly she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Why had I asked such a question?
"I shall keep the ring," I answered.
She sighed. A strange weakness came over me; I was drowsy; I lapsed again into unconsciousness; just as I was fading away I heard her speaking: "I am so sorry!"
Was it a dream? The next I knew somebody was dousing water down my neck. It was Hobart Fenton. "Lord," he was saying, "I thought you were never coming to. What hit us? You are pretty well cut up. That was some fight. This Rhamda, who is he? Can you figure him out? Did you hear that bell? What was it?"
I sat up. "Where is the Nervina?" I asked. "The who?" He was bewildered. "Oh, down at the cafe, I suppose. Thought you had forgotten her. Wasn't her mate enough? It might be healthy to forget his Nervina."
He was a fine sight; his clothes were in ribbons; his plump figure was breaking out at the seams. He regarded me critically.
"What d'you think of the Blind Spot?" he asked. "Who is the Rhamda? He put us out pretty easily."
"But the girl?" I interrupted. "The girl? Confound it, the girl?"
It was sometime before I could make him understand; even then he refused to believe me.
"It was all a dream," he said; "all a dream."
But I was certain.
Fenton began prodding about the room. I do not believe any apartment was ever so thoroughly ransacked. We even tore up the carpet. When we were through he sat in the midst of the debris and wiped his forehead.
"It's no use, Harry—no use. We might have known better. It can't be done. Yet you say you saw a string of incandescence."
"A single string; the form of Watson; a blur—then nothing," I answered.
He thought. He quoted the professor:
"'Out of the occult I shall bring you the proof and the substance. It will be concrete—within the reach of your senses.' Isn't that what the doctor said?"
"Then you believe Professor Holcomb?"
"Why not? Didn't we see it? I know a deal of material science; but nothing like this. I always had faith in Dr. Holcomb. After all, it's not impossible. First we must go over the house thoroughly."
We did. Most of all, we were interested in that bell. We did not think, either of us, that so much noise could come out of nothing. It was too material. The other we could credit to the occult; but not the sound. It had drowned our consciousness; perhaps it had saved us from the Rhamda. But we found nothing. We went over the house systematically. It was much as it had been previously described, only now a bit more furnished. The same dank, musty smell and the same suggestive silence. We returned to the lower floor and the library. It was a sorry sight. We straightened up the shelves and returned the books to their places.
It was getting along toward morning. Hobart sailed at nine o'clock. We must have new clothing and some coffee; likewise we must collect our wits. I had the ring, and had given my pledge to Watson. I was muddled. We must get down to sane action. First of all we must return to our rooms.
The fog had grown thicker; one could almost taste it. I couldn't suppress a shudder. It was cold, dank, repressive. Neither of us spoke a word on our way downtown. Hobart opened the door to our apartment; he turned on the lights.
In a few moments we had hot, steaming cups of coffee. Still we did not speak. Hobart sat in his chair, his elbows on the table and his head between his hands. My thoughts ran back to that day in college when he said "I was just thinking, Harry, if I had one hundred thousand dollars, I would solve the Blind Spot."
That was long ago. We had neither of us thought that we would come to the fact.
"Well," I spoke, "have you got that hundred thousand dollars? You had an idea once."
He looked up. "I've got it yet. I am not certain. It is merely a theory. But it's not impossible."
"Well, what is it?"
He took another drink of coffee and settled back in his chair.
"It is energy, Harry—force. Nothing but energy—and Nature."
"Then it's not occult?" I asked.
"Certainly it is. I didn't say that. It is what the professor promised. Something concrete for our senses. If the occult is, it can certainly be proven. The professor was right. It is energy, force, vibration. It has a law. The old doctor was caught somehow. We must watch our step and see that we aren't swallowed up also. Perhaps we shall go the way of Watson."
"I hope not. But explain. You speak in volumes. Come back to earth."
"That's easy, Harry. I can give you my theory in a few short words. You've studied physiology, haven't you? Well, that's where you can get your proof—or rather let me say my theory. What is the Blind Spot?"
"We'll forgo that," he answered. "I refer to this one."
I thought for a moment.
"Well," I said, "I don't know. It was something I couldn't see. Watson went out before our eyes. He was lost."
"Exactly. Do you get the point?"
"It is this. What you see is merely energy. Your eye is merely a machine. It catches certain colours. Which in turn are merely rates of vibration. There is nothing to matter but force, Harry; if we could get down deep enough and know a few laws, we could transmute it."
"What has it to do with the occult?" "Merely a fact. The eye machine catches only certain vibration speeds of energy. There are undoubtedly any number of speeds; the eye cannot see them."
"Then this would account for the Blind Spot?"
"Exactly. A localised spot, a condition, a combination of phenomena, anything entering it becomes invisible."
"Where does it go to?"
"That's it. Where? It's one of the things that man has been guessing at down the ages. The professor is the first philosopher with sound sense. He went after it. It's a pity he was trapped."
"By the Rhamda?"
"Who is he?"
"How do I know? Where did he come from? If we knew that, we would know everything. 'A phantom,' so Watson says. If so, it only strengthens our theory. It would make a man and matter only a part of creation. Certainly it would clear up a lot of doubts."
"And the ring?"
"It controls the Blind Spot."
"In what way?"
"That's for us to find out."
"And Watson? He is in this land of doubt?"
"At least he is in the Blind Spot. Let me try the ring."
He struck a match.
It was much as it had been in the restaurant, only a bit more startling. Then the blue faded, the colour went out, and it became transparent. For a moment. There was an effect of space and distance that I had not noted before, almost marvellous. If I could describe it at all, I would say a crystal corridor of a vastness that can scarcely be imagined. It made one dizzy, even in that bit of jewel: one lost proportion, it was height, distance, space immeasurable. For an instant. Then the whole thing blurred and clouded. Something passed across the face; the transparency turned to opaqueness, and then—two men. It was as sudden as a flash—the materialisation. There was no question. They were alive. Watson was with the professor.
It was a strange moment. Only an hour before one of them had been with us. It was Watson, beyond a doubt. He was alive; one could almost believe him in the jewel. We had heard his story: "The screen of the occult; the curtain of shadow." We had seen him go. There was an element of horror in the thing, and of fascination. The great professor! The faithful Watson! Where had they gone?
It was not until the colour had come back and the blue had regained its lustre that either of us looked up. Could such a thing be unravelled? Fenton turned the stone over thoughtfully. He shook his head.
"In that jewel, Harry, lies the secret. I wish I knew a bit more about physics, light, force, energy, vibration. We have got to know."
"It still holds good."
"Let me get it clear, Hobart. You say that we catch only certain vibrations."
"That's it. Our eyes are instruments, nothing else. We can see light, but we cannot hear it. We hear sound, but we cannot see it. Of course they are not exactly parallel. But it serves the point. Let's go a bit further. The eye picks up certain vibrations. Light is nothing but energy vibrating at a tremendous speed. It has to be just so high for the eye to pick it up. A great deal we do not get. For instance, we can only catch one-twelfth of the solar spectrum. Until recently we have believed only what we could see. Science has pulled us out of the rut. It may pull us through the Blind Spot."
Hobart held up his hands.
"It is almost too much to believe. We have made a discovery. We must watch our step. We must not lose. The work of Dr. Holcomb shall not go for nothing."
"And the ring?"
He consulted his watch.
"We have only a short time left. We must map our action. We have three things to work on—the ring, the house, Bertha Holcomb. It's all up to you, Harry. Find out all that is possible; but go slow. Trace down that ring; find out everything that you can. Go and see Bertha Holcomb. Perhaps she can give you some data. Watson said no; but perhaps you may uncover it. Take the ring to a lapidary; but don't let him cut it. Last of all, and most important, buy the house of the Blind Spot. Draw on me. Let me pay half, anyway."
"I shall move into it," I answered.
He hesitated a bit.
"I am afraid of that," he answered. "Well, if you wish. Only be careful. Remember I shall return just as soon as I can get loose. If you feel yourself slipping or anything happens, send me a cable."
The hours passed all too quickly. When day came we had our breakfast and hurried down to the pier. It was hard to have him go. His last words were like Hobart Fenton. He repeated the warning.
"Watch your step, Harry; watch your step. Take things easy; be cautious. Get the house. Trace down the ring. Be sure of yourself. Keep me informed. If you need me, cable. I'll come if I have to swim."
His last words; and not a year ago. It seems now like a lifetime. As I stood upon the pier and watched the ship slipping into the water, I felt it coming upon me. It had grown steadily, a gloom and oppression not to be thwarted; it is silent and subtle and past defining—like shadow. The grey, heavy heave of the water; the great hull of the steamer backing into the bay; the gloom of the fog bank. A few uncertain lines, the shrill of the siren, the mist settling; I was alone. It was isolation.
I had been warned by Watson. But I had not guessed. At the moment I sensed it. It was the beginning. Out of my heart I could feel it—solitude.
In the great and populous city I was to be alone, in all its teeming life I was to be a stranger. It has been almost a year—a year! It has been a lifetime. A breaking down of life!
I have waited and fought and sought to conquer. One cannot fight against shadow. It is merciless and inexorable. There are secrets that may be locked forever. It was my duty, my pledge to Watson, what I owed to the professor. I have hung on grimly; what the end will be I do not know. I have cabled for Fenton.
A DEAL IN PROPERTY
But to return. There was work that I should do—much work if I was going after the solution. In the first place, there was the house. I turned my back to the waterfront and entered the city. The streets were packed, the commerce of man jostled and threaded along the highways; there was life and action, hope, ambition. It was what I had loved so well. Yet now it was different.
I realised it vaguely, and wondered. This feeling of aloofness? It was intrinsic, coming from within, like the withering of one's marrow. I laughed at my foreboding; it was not natural; I tried to shake myself together.
I had no difficulty with the records. In less than an hour I traced out the owners, "an estate," and had located the agent. It just so happened that he was a man with whom I had some acquaintance. We were not long in coming to business.
"The house at No. 288 Chatterton Place?"
I noticed that he was startled; there was a bit of wonder in his look—a quizzical alertness. He motioned me to a chair and closed the door.
"Sit down, Mr. Wendel; sit down. H-m! The house at No. 288 Chatterton Place? Did I hear you right?"
Again I noted the wonder; his manner was cautious and curious. I nodded.
"Want to buy it or just lease it? Pardon me, but you are sort of a friend. I would not like to lose your friendship for the sake of a mere sale. What is your—"
"Just for a residence," I insisted. "A place to live in."
"I see. Know anything about this place?"
He fumbled with some papers. For an agent he did not strike me as being very solicitous for a commission.
"Well," he said, "in a way, yes. A whole lot more than I'd like to. It all depends. One gets much from hearsay. What I know is mostly rumour." He began marking with a pencil. "Of course I don't believe it. Nevertheless I would hardly recommend it to a friend as a residence."
"And these rumours?"
He looked up; for a moment he studied; then:
"Ever hear of the Blind Spot? Perhaps you remember Dr. Holcomb—in 1905, before the 'quake. It was a murder. The papers were full of it at the time; since then it has been occasionally featured in the supplements. I do not believe in the story; but I can trust to facts. The last seen of Dr. Holcomb was in this house. It is called the Blind Spot."
"Then you believe in the story?" I asked.
He looked at me.
"Oh, you know it, eh? No, I do not. It's all bunkum; reporters' work and exaggeration. If you like that kind of stuff, it's weird and interesting. But it hurts property. The man was undoubtedly murdered. The tale hangs over the house. It's impossible to dispose of the place."
"Then why not sell it to me?"
He dropped his pencil; he was a bit nervous.
"A fair question, Mr. Wendel—a very fair question. Well, now, why don't I? Perhaps I shall. There's no telling. But I'd rather not. Do you know, a year ago I would have jumped at an offer. Fact is, I did lease it—the lease ran out yesterday—to a man named Watson. I don't believe a thing in this nonsense; but what I have seen during the past year has tested my nerve considerably."
"What about Watson?"
"Watson? A year ago he came to see me in regard to this Chatterton property. Wanted to lease it. Was interested in the case of Dr. Holcomb; asked for a year's rental and the privilege of renewal. I don't know. I gave it to him; but when he drops in again I am going to fight almighty hard against letting him hold it longer."
"Why? Why, because I don't believe in murder. A year ago he came to me the healthiest and happiest man I ever saw; today he is a shadow. I watched that boy go down. Understand, I don't believe a damn word I'm saying; but I have seen it. It's that cursed house. I say no, when I reason; but it keeps on my nerves; it's on my conscience. It is insidious. Every month when he came here I could see disintegration. It's pitiful to see a young man stripped of life like that; forlorn, hopeless, gone. He has never told me what it is; but I have wondered. A battle; some conflict with—there I go again. It's on my nerves, I tell you, on my nerves. If this keeps up I'll burn it."
It was a bit foreboding. Already I could feel the tugging at my heart that had done for Watson. This man had watched my friend slipping into the shadow; I had come to take his place.
"Watson has gone," I said simply; "and that's why I am here."
He straightened up.
"You know him then. He was not—"
"He went last night; he has left the country. He was in very poor health. That's why I am here. I know very well the cloud that hangs over the property; it is my sole reason for purchasing."
"You don't believe in this nonsense?"
I smiled. Certainly the man was perverse in his agnosticism; he was stubborn in disbelief. It was on his nerves; on his conscience; he was afraid.
"I believe nothing," I answered; "neither do I disbelieve. I know all the story that has been told or written. I am a friend of Watson. You need not scruple in making me out a bill of sale. It's my own funeral. I abide by the consequences."
He gave a sigh of relief. After all, he was human. He had honour; but it was after the brand of Pontius Pilate. He wished nothing on his conscience.
Armed with the keys and the legal title, I took possession. In the daylight it was much as it had been the night before. Once across its threshold, one was in dank and furtive suppression; the air was heavy; a mould of age had streaked the walls and gloomed the shadows. I put up all the curtains to let in the rush of sunlight, likewise I opened the windows. If there is anything to beat down sin, it is the open measure of broad daylight.
The house was well situated; from the front windows one could look down the street and out at the blue bay beyond the city. The fog had lifted and the sun was shining upon the water. I could make out the ferryboats, the islands, and the long piers that lead to Oakland, and still farther beyond the hills of Berkeley. It was a long time since those days in college. Under the shadow of those hills I had first met the old doctor. I was only a boy then.
I turned into the building. Even the sound of my footsteps was foreign; the whole place was pregnant with stillness and shadow; life was gone out. It was fearful; I felt the terror clutching upon me, a grimness that may not be spoken; there was something breaking within me. I had pledged myself for a year. Frankly I was afraid.
But I had given my word. I returned to my apartments and began that very day the closing down of my practice. In a fortnight I had completed everything and had moved my things to the room of Chick Watson.
Just as soon as possible I hurried over to Berkeley. I went straight to the bungalow on Dwight Way; I inquired for Miss Holcomb. She was a woman now in her late twenties, decidedly pretty, a blonde, and of intelligent bearing.
Coming on such an errand, I was at a loss just how to approach her. I noted the little lines about the corners of her eyes, the sad droop of her pretty mouth. Plainly she was worried. As I was removing my hat she caught sight of the ring upon my finger.
"Oh," she said; "then you come from Mr. Watson. How is Chick?"
"Mr. Watson"—I did not like lying, but I could not but feel for her; she had already lost her father—"Mr. Watson has gone on a trip up-country—with Jerome. He was not feeling well. He has left this ring with me. I have come for a bit of information."
She bit her lips; her mouth quivered.
"Couldn't you get this from Mr. Watson? He knows about the stone. Didn't he tell you? How did it come into your possession? What has happened?"
Her voice was querulous and suspicious. I had endeavoured to deceive her for her own sake; she had suffered enough already. I could not but wince at the pain in her eyes. She stood up.
"Please, Mr. Wendel; don't be clumsy. Don't regard me as a mere baby. Tell me what has happened to Chick. Please—"
She stopped in a flow of emotion. Tears came to her eyes; but she held control. She sat down.
"Tell me all, Mr. Wendel. It is what I expected." She blinked to hold back her tears. "It is my fault. You wouldn't have the ring had nothing happened. Tell me. I can be brave."
And brave she was—splendid. With the tug at my own heart I could understand her. What uncertainty and dread she must have been under! I had been in it but a few days; already I could feel the weight. At no time could I surmount the isolation; there was something going from me minute by minute. With the girl there could be no evasion; it were better that she have the truth. I made a clean breast of the whole affair.
"And he told you no more about the ring?"
"That is all," I answered. "He would have told us much more, undoubtedly, had he not—"
"You saw him go—you saw this thing?"
"That is just it, Miss Holcomb. We saw nothing. One minute we were looking at Chick, and the next at nothing. Hobart understood it better than I. At least he forbade my crossing the room. There is a danger point, a spot that may not be crossed. He threw me back. It was then that the Rhamda came upon the scene." She frowned slightly.
"Tell me about the Nervina. When Chick spoke of her, I could always feel jealous. Is she beautiful?"
"Most beautiful, the most wonderful girl I have ever seen, though I would hardly class her as one to be jealous of. But she wants the ring. I've promised Watson, and of course I shall keep it. But I would like its history."
"I think I can give you some information there," she answered. "The ring, or rather the jewel, was given to father about twenty years ago by a Mr. Kennedy. He had been a pupil of father's when father taught at a local school. He came here often to talk over old times. Father had the jewel set in a ring; but he never wore it."
"I do not know."
"How did Watson come to link it up with the Blind Spot?"
"That, I think, was an accident. He was in college, you know, at the time of father's disappearance. In fact, he was in the Ethics class. He came here often, and during one of his visits I showed him the ring. That was several years ago."
"Well, about a year ago he was here again, and asked to see the jewel. We were to be married, you understand; but I had always put it off because of father. Somehow I felt that he would return. It was in late summer, about September; it was in the evening; it was getting dark. I gave Chick the ring, and stepped into the garden to cut some flowers. I remember that Chick struck a match in the parlour. When I came back he seemed to be excited."
"Did he ask you for the ring?"
"Yes. He wanted to wear it. And he suddenly began to talk of father. It was that night that he took it upon himself to find him."
"I see. Not before that night? Did he take the ring then?"
"Yes. We went to the opera. I remember it well, because that night was the first time I ever knew Chick to be gloomy."
"Yes. You know how jolly he always was. When we returned that night he would scarcely say a word. I thought he was sick; but he said he was not; said he just felt that way."
"I understand. And he kept getting glummer? Did you suspect the jewel? Did he ever tell you anything?"
She shook her head.
"No. He told me nothing, except that he would find father. Of course, I became excited and wanted to know. But he insisted that I couldn't help; that he had a clue, and that it might take time. From that night I saw very little of him. He leased the house on Chatterton Place. He seemed to lose interest in myself; when he did come over he would act queerly. He talked incoherently, and would often make rambling mention of a beautiful girl called Nervina. You say it is the ring? Tell me, Mr. Wendel, what is it? Has it really anything to do with father?"
"I think it has, Miss Holcomb. And I can understand poor Chick. He is a very brave man. It's a strange jewel and of terrible potency; that much I know. It devitalises; it destroys. I can feel it already. It covers life with a fog of decay. The same solitude has come upon myself. Nevertheless I am certain it has much to do with the Blind Spot. It is a key of some sort. The very interest of the Rhamda and the Nervina tells us that. I think it was through this stone that your father made his discovery."
She thought a moment.
"Hadn't you better return it? While you still have health? If you keep it, it will be only one more."
"You forget, Miss Holcomb, my promise to Chick. I loved your father, and I was fond of Watson. It's a great secret and, if the professor is right, one which man has sought through the ages. I'd be a coward to forgo my duty. If I fail, I have another to take my place."
"Oh," she said, "it's horrible. First father; then Chick; now you; and afterwards it will be Mr. Fenton."
"It is our duty," I returned. "One by one. Though we may fail, each one of us may pass a bit more on to his successor. In the end we win. It is the way of man."
I had my way. She turned over all the data and notes that had been left by the professor; but I never found a thing in them that could be construed to an advantage. My real quest was to trace down the jewel. The man Kennedy's full name was, I learned, Budge Kennedy. He had lived in Oakland. It was late in the afternoon when I parted with Miss Holcomb and started for the city.
I remember it well because of a little incident that occurred immediately after our parting. I was just going down the steps when I looked up one of the side streets. A few students were loitering here and there. But there was one who was not a student. I recognised him instantly, and I wondered. It was the Rhamda. This was enough to make me suspicious. But there was one thing more. Farther up the street was another figure.
When I came down the steps the Rhamda moved, and his move was somehow duplicated by the other. In itself this was enough to clear up some of my doubts concerning the phantom. His actions were too simple for an apparition. Only a man would act like that, and a crude one. I didn't know then the nerve of the Rhamda. There was no doubt that I was being shadowed.
To make certain, I took the by-streets and meandered by a devious route to the station. There was no question; one and two they followed. I knew the Rhamda; but who was the other?
At the station we purchased tickets, and when the train pulled in I boarded a smoker. The other two took another coach—the stranger was a thick-set individual with a stubby, grey moustache. On the boat I didn't see them; but at the ferry building I made a test to see that I was followed. I hailed a taxi and gave specific instructions to the driver.
"Drive slowly," I told him. "I think we shall be followed."
And I was right; in a few minutes there were two cars dogging our wheel-tracks. I had no doubt concerning the Rhamda; but I couldn't understand the other. At No. 288 Chatterton Place we stopped and I alighted. The Rhamda's car passed, then the other. Neither stopped. Both disappeared round the corner. I took the numbers; then I went into the house. In about a half hour a car drew up at the curb. I stepped to the window. It was the car that had tracked the Rhamda's. The stubby individual stepped out; without ceremony he ran up the steps and opened the door. It was a bit disconcerting, I think, for both. He was plain and blunt—and honest.
"Well," he said, "where's Watson? Who are you? What do you want?"
"That," I answered, "is a question for both of us. Who are you, and what do you want? Where is Watson?"
Just then his eyes dropped and his glance fell and eyes widened.
"My name is Jerome," he said simply. "Has something happened to Watson? Who are you?"
We were standing in the library; I made an indication towards the other room. "In there," I said. "My name is Wendel."
He took off his hat and ran the back of his hand across his forehead.
"So that pair got him, too! I was afraid of them all the while. And I had to be away. Do you know how they did it? What's the working of their game? It's devilish and certainly clever. They played that boy for a year; they knew they would get him in the end. So did I.
"He was a fine lad, a fine lad. I knew this morning when I came down from Nevada that they had him. Found your duds. A stranger. House looked queer. But I had hopes he might have gone over to see his girl. Just thought I'd wander over to Berkeley. Found that bird Rhamda under a palm tree watching the Holcomb bungalow. It was the first time I'd seen him since that day things went amiss with the professor. In about ten minutes you came out. I stayed with him while he tracked you back here; I followed him back down town and lost him. Tell me about Watson."
He sat down; during my recital he spoke not a word. He consumed one cigar after another; when I stopped for a moment he merely nodded his head and waited until I continued. He was sturdy and frank, of an iron way and vast common sense. I liked him. When I had finished he remained silent; his grief was of a solid kind! he had liked poor Watson.
"I see," he said. "It is as I thought. He told you more than he ever told me."
"He never told you?"
"Not much. He was a strange lad—about the loneliest one I've ever seen. There was something about him from the very first that was not natural; I couldn't make him out. You say it is the ring. He always wore it. I laid it to this Rhamda. He was always meeting him. I could never understand it. Try as I would, I could not get a trace of the phantom."
"Most assuredly. Would you call him human?" His grey eyes were flecked with light. "Come now, Mr. Wendel, would you?"
"Well," I answered, "I don't know. Not after what I have seen. But for all that, I have proof of his sinews. I am inclined to blend the two. There is a law somewhere, a very natural one. The Blind Spot is undoubtedly a combination of phenomena; it has a control. We do not know what it is, or where it leads to; neither do we know the motive of the Rhamda. Who is he? If we knew that, we would know everything."
"And this ring?"
"I shall wear it."
"Then God help you. I watched Watson. It's plain poison. You have a year; but you had better count on half a year; the first six months aren't so bad; but the last—it takes a man! Wendel, it takes a man! Already you're eating your heart out. Oh, I know—you have opened the windows; you want sunshine and air. In six months I shall have to fight to get one open. It gets into the soul; it is stagnation; you die by inches. Better give me the ring."
"This Budge Kennedy," I evaded, "we must find him. We have time. One clue may lead us on. Tell me what you know of the Blind Spot."
"Very easy," he answered; "you have it all. I have been here a number of years. You will remember I fell into the case through intuition. I never had any definite proof, outside the professor's disappearance, the old lady, and that bell; unless perhaps it is the Rhamda. But from the beginning I've been positive.
"Taking that lecture in ethics as a starter, I built up my theory. All the clues lead to this building. It's something that I cannot understand. It's out of the occult. It's a bit too much for me. I moved into the place and waited. I've never forgotten that bell, nor that old lady. You and Fenton are the only ones who have seen the Blind Spot."
I had a sudden thought.
"The Rhamda! I have read that he has the manner of inherent goodness. Is it true? You have conversed with him. I haven't."
"He has. He didn't strike me as a villain. He's intrinsic, noble, out of self. I have often wondered."
I smiled. "Perhaps we are thinking the same thing. Is this it? The Blind Spot is a secret that man may not attain to. It is unknowable and akin to death. The Rhamda knows it. He couldn't head off the professor. He simply employed Dr. Holcomb's wisdom to trap him; now that he has him secure, he intends to hold him. It is for our own good."
"He was very anxious to put you and Fenton into this very Spot."
"That is so. But may it not be that we, too, knew a bit too much?"
He couldn't answer that.
Nevertheless, we were both of us convinced concerning the Rhamda. It was merely a digression of thought, a conjecture. He might be good; but we were both positive of his villainy. It was his motive, of course, that weighed up his character; could we find that, we would uncover everything.
A NEW ELEMENT
Budge Kennedy was not so easily found. There were many Kennedys. About two-thirds of Ireland had apparently migrated to San Francisco under that name and had lodged in the directory. We went through the lists on both sides of the bay, but found nothing; the old directories had mostly been destroyed by fire or had been thrown away as worthless; but at last we unearthed one. In it we found the name of Budge Kennedy.
He had two sons—Patrick and Henry. One of these, Henry, we ran down in the Mission. He was a great, red-headed, broad-shouldered Irishman. He was just eating supper when we called; there were splotches of white plaster on his trousers.
I came right to the point: "Do you know anything about this?" I held out the ring.
He took it in his fingers; his eyes popped. "What, that! Well, I guess I do! Where'd you get it?" He called out to the kitchen: "Say, Mollie, come here. Here's the old man's jool!" He looked at me a bit fearfully. "You aren't wearing it?"
"Why not?" I asked.
"Why? Well, I don't know exactly. I wouldn't wear it for a million dollars. It ain't a jool; it's a piece of the divil. The old man gave it to Dr. Holcomb—or sold it, I don't know which. He carried it in his pocket once, and he came near dying."
"Unlucky?" I asked.
"No, it ain't unlucky; it just rips your heart out. It would make you hate your grandmother. Lonesome! Lonesome! I've often heard the old man talking."
"He sold it to Dr. Holcomb? Do you know why?"
"Well, yes. 'Twas that the old doc had some scientific work. Dad told him about his jool. One day he took it over to Berkeley. It was some kind of thing that the professor just wanted. He kept it. Dad made him promise not to wear it."
"I see. Did your father ever tell you where he got it?"
"Oh, yes. He often spoke about that. The old man wasn't a plasterer, you know—just a labourer. He was digging a basement. It was a funny basement—a sort of blind cellar. There was a stone wall right across the middle, and then there was a door of wood to look like stone. You can go down into the back cellar, but not into the front. If you don't know about the door, you'll never find it. Dad often spoke about that. He was working in the back cellar when he found this. 'Twas sticking in some blue clay."
"Where was this place? Do you remember?"
"Sure. 'Twas in Chatterton Place. Pat and I was kids then; we took the old man's dinner."
"Do you know the number?"
"It didn't have no number; but I know the place. 'Tis a two-story house, and was built in 'ninety-one."
I nodded. "And afterwards you moved to Oakland?"
"Did your father ever speak of the reason for this partition in the cellar?"
"He never knew of one. It was none of his business. He was merely a labourer, and did what he was paid for."
"Do you know who built it?"
"Some old guy. He was a cranky cuss with side-whiskers. He used to wear a stove-pipe hat. I think he was a chemist. Whenever he showed up he would run us kids out of the building. I think he was a bachelor."
This was all the information he could give, but it was a great deal. Certainly it was more than I had hoped for. The house had been built by a chemist; even in the construction there was mystery. I had never thought of a second cellar; when I had explored the building I had taken the stone wall for granted. It was so with Jerome. It was the first definite clue that really brought us down to earth. What had this chemist to do with the phenomena?
After all, behind everything was lurking the mind of man.
We hastened back to the house and into the cellar. By merely sounding along the wall we discovered the door; it was cleverly constructed and for a time defied our efforts; but Jerome got it open by means of a jemmy and a pick. The outside was a clever piece of sham work shaped like stone and smeared over with cement. In the dim light we had missed it.
We had high expectations. But we were disappointed. The space contained nothing; it was smeared with cobwebs and hairy mould; but outside of a few empty bottles and the gloomy darkness there was nothing. We tapped the walls and floor and ceiling. Beyond all doubt the place once held a secret; if it held it still, it was cleverly hidden. After an hour or two of search we returned to the upper part of the building.
Jerome was not discouraged.
"We're on the right track, Mr. Wendel; if we can only get started. I have an idea. The chemist—it was in 'ninety-one—that's more than twenty years."
"What is your idea?"
"The Rhamda. What is the first thing that strikes you? His age. With everyone that sees him it's the same. At first you take him for an old man; if you study him long enough, you are positive that he is in his twenties. May he not be this chemist?"
"What becomes of the doctor and his Blind Spot?"
"The Blind Spot," answered Jerome, "is merely a part of the chemistry."
Next day I hunted up a jeweller. I was careful to choose one with whom I was acquainted. I asked for a private consultation. When we were alone I took the ring from my finger.
"Just an opinion," I asked. "You know gems. Can you tell me anything about this one?"
He picked it up casually, and turned it over; his mouth puckered. For a minute he studied.
"That? Well, now." He held it up. "Humph. Wait a minute."
"Is it a gem?"
"I think it is. At first I thought I knew it right off; but now— wait a minute."
He reached in the drawer for his glass. He held the stone up for some minutes. His face was a study; queer little wrinkles twisting from the corners of his eyes told his wonder. He did not speak; merely turned the stone round and round. At last he removed his glass and held up the ring. He was quizzical.
"Where did you get this?" he asked.
"That is something I do not care to answer. I wish to know what it is. Is it a gem? If so, what kind?"
He thought a moment and shook his head.
"I thought I knew every gem on earth. But I don't. This is a new one. It is beautiful—just a moment." He stepped to the door. In a moment another man stepped in. The jeweller motioned towards the ring. The man picked it up and again came the examination. At last he laid the glass and ring both upon the table.
"What do you make of it, Henry?" asked the jeweller.
"Not me," answered the second one. "I never saw one like it."
It was as Watson had said. No man had ever identified the jewel. The two men were puzzled; they were interested. The jeweller turned to me.
"Would you care to leave it with us for a bit; you have no objection to us taking it out of the ring?"
I had not thought of that. I had business down the street. I consulted my watch.
"In half an hour I shall be back. Will that be enough time?"
"I think so."
It was an hour before I returned. The assistant was standing at the door of the office. He spoke something to the one inside and then made an indication to myself. He seemed excited; when I came closer I noted that his face was full of wonder.
"We've been waiting," said he. "We didn't examine the stone; it wasn't necessary. It is truly wonderful." He was a short, squat man with a massive forehead. "Just step inside."
Inside the office the jeweller was sitting beside a table; he was leaning back in his chair; he had his hands clasped over his stomach. He was gazing toward the ceiling; his face was a study, full of wonder and speculation.
"Well?" I asked.
For an answer he merely raised his finger, pointed towards the ceiling.
"Up there," he spoke. "Your jewel or whatever it is. A good thing we weren't in open air. 'Twould be going yet."
I looked up. Sure enough, against the ceiling was the gem. It was a bit disconcerting, though I will confess that in the first moment I did not catch the full significance.
The jeweller closed one eye and studied first myself and then the beautiful thing against the ceiling.
"What do you make of it?" he asked.
Really I had not made anything; it was a bit of a shock; I hadn't grasped the full impossibility. I didn't answer.
"Don't you see, Mr. Wendel? Impossible! Contrary to nature! Lighter than air. We took it out of the ring and it shot out like a bullet. Thought I'd dropped it. Began looking on the floor. Couldn't find it; looked up and saw Reynolds, here, with his eyes popping out like marbles. He was looking at the ceiling."
I thought for a moment.
"Then it is not a gem?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Not if I'm a jeweller. Whoever heard of a stone without weight? It has no gravity, that is, apparently. I doubt whether it is a substance. I don't know what it is."
It was puzzling. I would have given a good deal just then for a few words with Dr. Holcomb. The man, Kennedy, had kept it in his pocket. How had he held it a prisoner? The professor had use for it in some scientific work! No wonder! Certainly it was not a jewel. What could it be? It was solid. It was lighter than air. Could it be a substance? If not; what is it?
"What would you advise?"
In answer the jeweller reached for the telephone. He gave a number.
"Hello. Say, is Ed there? This is Phil. Tell him to step to the phone. Hello! Say, Ed, I want you to come over on the jump. Something to show you. Too busy! No, you're not. Not for this. I'm going to teach you some chemistry. No; this is serious. What is it? I don't know. What's lighter than air? Lots of things? Oh, I know. But what solid? That's why I'm asking. Come over. All right. At once."
He hung up the receiver.
"My brother," he spoke. "It has passed beyond my province and into his. He is a chemist. As an expert he may give you a real opinion."
Surely we needed one. It was against reason. It had taken me completely off my balance. I took a chair and joined the others in the contemplation of the blue dot on the ceiling. We could speculate and conjecture; but there was not one of us deep enough even to start a theory. Plainly it was what should not be. We had been taught physics and science; we had been drilled to fundamentals. If this thing could be, then the foundations upon which we stood were shattered. But one little law! Back in my mind was buzzing the enigma of the Blind Spot. They were woven together. Some law that had eluded the ken of mankind.
The chemist was a tall man with a hook nose and black eyes that clinched like rivets. He was a bit impatient. He looked keenly at his brother.
"Well, Phil, what is it?" He pulled out a watch, "I haven't much time."
There was a contrast between them. The jeweller was fat and complacent. He merely sat in his chair, his hand on his waistband and a stubby finger elevated toward the jewel. He seemed to enjoy it.
"You're a chemist, Ed. Here's a test for your wisdom. Can you explain that? No, over here. Above your head. That jewel?"
The other looked up.
"What's the idea? New notion for decoration? Or"?—a bit testily— "is this a joke?" He was a serious man; his black eyes and the nose spoke his character.
The jeweller laughed gently.
"Listen, Ed—" Then he went into explanation; when he was through the chemist was twitching with excitement.
"Get me a ladder. Here, let me get on the table; perhaps I can reach it. Sounds impossible, but if it's so, it's so; it must have an explanation."
Without ado and in spite of the protests of his brother he stepped upon the polished surface of the table. He was a tall man; he could just barely reach it with the tip of his finger. He could move it; but each time it clung as to a magnet. After a minute of effort he gave it up. When he looked down he was a different man; his black eyes glowed with wonder.
"Can't make it," he said. "Get a step-ladder. Strange!"
With the ladder it was easy. He plucked it off the ceiling. We pressed about the table. The chemist turned it about with his fingers.
"I wonder," he was saying. "It's a gem. Apparently. You say it has no gravity. It can't be. Whoop!" He let it slip out of his fingers. Again it popped on its way to the ceiling. He caught it with a deft movement of his hand. "The devil! Did you ever see! And a solid! Who owns this?"
That brought it back to me. I explained what I could of the manner of my possession.
"I see. Very interesting. Something I've never seen—and—frankly— something strictly against what I've been taught. Nevertheless, it's not impossible. We are witnesses at least. Would you care if I take this over to the laboratory?"
It was a new complication. If it were not a jewel there was a chance of its being damaged. I was as anxious as he; but I had been warned as to its possession.
"I shan't harm it. I'll see to that. I have suspicions and I'd like to verify them. A chemist doesn't blunder across such a thing every day. I am a chemist." His eyes glistened.
"Your suspicions?" I asked.
"A new element."
This gem. A new element. Perhaps that would explain the Blind Spot. It was not exactly of earth. Everything had confirmed it.
"You—A new element? How do you account for it? It defies your laws. Most of your elements are evolved through tedious process. This is picked up by chance."
"That is so. But there are still a thousand ways. A meteor, perhaps; a bit of cosmic dust—there are many shattered comets. Our chemistry is earthly. There are undoubtedly new elements that we don't know of. Perhaps in enormous proportion."
I let him have it. It was the only night I had been away from the ring. I may say that it is the only time I have been free from its isolation.
When I called at his office next day I found he had merely confirmed his suspicions. It defied analysis; there was no reaction. Under all tests it was a stranger. The whole science that had been built up to explain everything had here explained nothing. However there was one thing that he had uncovered—heat. Perhaps I should say magnetism. It was cold to man. I have spoken about the icy blue of its colour. It was cold even to look at. The chemist placed it in my hand.
"Is it not so?"
It was. The minute it touched my palm I could sense the weird horror of the isolation; the stone was cold. Just like a piece of ice.
This was the first time I had ever had it in direct contact with the flesh. Set in the ring its impulse had always been secondary.
"You notice it? It is so with me. Now then. Just a minute."
He pressed a button. A young lady answered his ring; she glanced first at myself and then at the chemist.
"Miss Mills, this is Mr. Wendel. He is the owner of the gem. Would you take it in your hand? And please tell Mr. Wendel how it feels—"
She laughed; she was a bit perplexed.
"I don't understand"—she turned to me—"we had the same dispute yesterday. See, Mr. White says that it's cold; but it is not. It is warm; almost burning. All the other girls think just as I do."
"And all the men as I do," averred the chemist, "even Mr. Wendel."
"Is it cold to you?" she asked. "Really—"
It was a turn I hadn't looked for. It was akin to life—this relation to sex. Could it account for the strange isolation and the weariness? I was a witness to its potency. Watson! I could feel myself dragging under. I had just one question:
"Tell me, Miss Mills. Can you sense anything else; I mean beyond its temperature?"
She smiled a bit. "I don't know what you mean exactly. It is a beautiful stone. I would like to have it."
"You think its possession would make you happy?"
Her eyes sparkled.
"Oh," she exclaimed. "I know it would! I can feel it!"
It was so. Whatever there was in the bit of sapphirine blue, it had life. What was it? It had relation to sex. In the strict line of fact it was impossible.
When we were alone again I turned to the chemist.
"Is there anything more you uncovered? Did you see anything in the stone?"
He frowned. "No. Nothing else. This magnetism is the only thing. Is there anything more?"
Now I hadn't said anything about its one great quality. He hadn't stumbled across the image of the two men. I couldn't understand it. I didn't tell him. Perhaps I was wrong. Down inside me I sensed a subtle reason for secrecy. It is hard to explain. It was not perverseness; it was a finer distinction; perhaps it was the influence of the gem. I took it back to the jeweller again and had it reset.
AGAIN THE NERVINA
It was at this point that I began taking notes. There is something psychological to the Blind Spot, weird and touching on the spirit. I know not what it is; but I can feel it. It impinges on to life. I can sense the ecstasy of horror. I am not afraid. Whatever it is that is dragging me down, it is not evil. My sensations are not normal.
For the benefit of my successor, if there is to be one, I have made an elaborate detail of notes and comments. After all, the whole thing, when brought down to the end, must fall to the function of science. When Hobart arrives, whatever my fate, he will find a complete and comprehensive record of my sensations. I shall keep it up to the end. Such notes being dry and sometimes confusing I have purposely omitted them from this narrative. But there are some things that must be given to the world. I shall pick out the salient parts and give them chronologically.
Jerome stayed with me. Rather I should say he spent the nights with me. Most of the time he was on the elusive trail of the Rhamda. From the minute of our conversation with Kennedy he held to one conviction. He was positive of that chemist back in the nineties. He was certain of the Rhamda. Whatever the weirdness of his theory it would certainly bear investigation. When he was not on the trail over the city he was at work in the cellar. Here we worked together.
We dug up the concrete floor and did a bit of mining. I was interested in the formation.
From the words of Budge Kennedy the bit of jewel had been discovered at the original excavation. We found the blue clay that he spoke of, but nothing else. Jerome dissected every bit of earth carefully. We have spent many hours in that cellar.
But most of the time I was alone. When not too worn with the loneliness and weariness I worked at my notes. It has been a hard task from the beginning. Inertia, lack of energy! How much of our life is impulse! What is the secret that backs volition? It has been will—will-power from the beginning. I must thank my ancestors. Without the strength and character built up through generations, I would have succumbed utterly.
Even as it is I sometimes think I am wrong in following the dictates of Watson. If I were only sure. I have pledged my word and my honour. What did he know? I need all the reserve of character to hold up against the Nervina. From the beginning she has been my opponent. What is her interest in the Blind Spot and myself? Who is she? I cannot think of her as evil. She is too beautiful, too tender; her concern is so real. Sometimes I think of her as my protector, that it is she, and she alone who holds back the power which would engulf me. Once she made a personal appeal.