"You're right, Professor, according to your lights," admitted Horace. "And yet—confound it all!—you're utterly wrong, too!"
"Oh, Horace," cried Sylvia; "if you had only listened to dad, and not gone to all this foolish, foolish expense, we might have been so happy!"
"But I have gone to no expense. All this hasn't cost me a penny!"
"Ah, there is some mystery! Horace, if you love me, you will explain—here, now, before it's too late!"
"My darling," groaned Horace, "I would, like a shot, if I thought it would be of the least use!"
"Hitherto," said the Professor, "you cannot be said to have been happy in your explanations—and I should advise you not to venture on any more. Good-night, once more. I only wish it were possible, without needless irony, to make the customary acknowledgments for a pleasant evening."
Mrs. Futvoye had already hurried her daughter away, and, though she had left her husband to express his sentiments unaided, she made it sufficiently clear that she entirely agreed with them.
Horace stood in the outer hall by the fountain, in which his drowned chrysanthemums were still floating, and gazed in stupefied despair after his guests as they went down the path to the gate. He knew only too well that they would never cross his threshold, nor he theirs, again.
Suddenly he came to himself with a start. "I'll try it!" he cried. "I can't and won't stand this!" And he rushed after them bareheaded.
"Professor!" he said breathlessly, as he caught him up, "one moment. On second thoughts, I will tell you my secret, if you will promise me a patient hearing."
"The pavement is hardly the place for confidences," replied the Professor, "and, if it were, your costume is calculated to attract more remark than is desirable. My wife and daughter have gone on—if you will permit me, I will overtake them—I shall be at home to-morrow morning, should you wish to see me."
"No—to-night, to-night!" urged Horace. "I can't sleep in that infernal place with this on my mind. Put Mrs. Futvoye and Sylvia into a cab, Professor, and come back. It's not late, and I won't keep you long—but for Heaven's sake, let me tell you my story at once."
Probably the Professor was not without some curiosity on the subject; at all events he yielded. "Very well," he said, "go into the house and I will rejoin you presently. Only remember," he added, "that I shall accept no statement without the fullest proof. Otherwise you will merely be wasting your time and mine."
"Proof!" thought Horace, gloomily, as he returned to his Arabian halls, "The only decent proof I could produce would be old Fakrash, and he's not likely to turn up again—especially now I want him."
A little later the Professor returned, having found a cab and despatched his women-folk home. "Now, young man," he said, as he unwound his wrapper and seated himself on the divan by Horace's side, "I can give you just ten minutes to tell your story in, so let me beg you to make it as brief and as comprehensible as you can."
It was not exactly an encouraging invitation in the circumstances, but Horace took his courage in both hands and told him everything, just as it had happened.
"And that's your story?" said the Professor, after listening to the narrative with the utmost attention, when Horace came to the end.
"That's my story, sir," said Horace. "And I hope it has altered your opinion of me."
"It has," replied the Professor, in an altered tone; "it has indeed. Yours is a sad case—a very sad case."
"It's rather awkward, isn't it? But I don't mind so long as you understand. And you'll tell Sylvia—as much as you think proper?"
"Yes—yes; I must tell Sylvia."
"And I may go on seeing her as usual?"
"Well—will you be guided by my advice—the advice of one who has lived more than double your years?"
"Certainly," said Horace.
"Then, if I were you, I should go away at once, for a complete change of air and scene."
"That's impossible, sir—you forget my work!"
"Never mind your work, my boy: leave it for a while, try a sea-voyage, go round the world, get quite away from these associations."
"But I might come across the Jinnee again," objected Horace; "he's travelling, as I told you."
"Yes, yes, to be sure. Still, I should go away. Consult any doctor, and he'll tell you the same thing."
"Consult any—— Good God!" cried Horace; "I see what it is—you think I'm mad!"
"No, no, my dear boy," said the Professor, soothingly, "not mad—nothing of the sort; perhaps your mental equilibrium is just a trifle—it's quite intelligible. You see, the sudden turn in your professional prospects, coupled with your engagement to Sylvia—I've known stronger minds than yours thrown off their balance—temporarily, of course, quite temporarily—by less than that."
"You believe I am suffering from delusions?"
"I don't say that. I think you may see ordinary things in a distorted light."
"Anyhow, you don't believe there really was a Jinnee inside that bottle?"
"Remember, you yourself assured me at the time you opened it that you found nothing whatever inside it. Isn't it more credible that you were right then than that you should be right now?"
"Well," said Horace, "you saw all those black slaves; you ate, or tried to eat, that unutterably beastly banquet; you heard that music—and then there was the dancing-girl. And this hall we're in, this robe I've got on—are they delusions? Because if they are, I'm afraid you will have to admit that you're mad too."
"Ingeniously put," said the Professor. "I fear it is unwise to argue with you. Still, I will venture to assert that a strong imagination like yours, over-heated and saturated with Oriental ideas—to which I fear I may have contributed—is not incapable of unconsciously assisting in its own deception. In other words, I think that you may have provided all this yourself from various quarters without any clear recollection of the fact."
"That's very scientific and satisfactory as far as it goes, my dear Professor," said Horace; "but there's one piece of evidence which may upset your theory—and that's this brass bottle."
"If your reasoning powers were in their normal condition," said the Professor, compassionately, "you would see that the mere production of an empty bottle can be no proof of what it contained—or, for that matter, that it ever contained anything at all!"
"Oh, I see that," said Horace; "but this bottle has a stopper with what you yourself admit to be an inscription of some sort. Suppose that inscription confirms my story—what then? All I ask you to do is to make it out for yourself before you decide that I'm either a liar or a lunatic."
"I warn you," said the Professor, "that if you are trusting to my being unable to decipher the inscription, you are deceiving yourself. You represent that this bottle belongs to the period of Solomon—that is, about a thousand years B.C. Probably you are not aware that the earliest specimens of Oriental metal-work in existence are not older than the tenth century of our era. But, granting that it is as old as you allege, I shall certainly be able to read any inscription there may be on it. I have made out clay tablets in Cuneiform which were certainly written a thousand years before Solomon's time."
"So much the better," said Horace. "I'm as certain as I can be that, whatever is written on that lid—whether it's Phoenician, or Cuneiform, or anything else—must have some reference to a Jinnee confined in the bottle, or at least bear the seal of Solomon. But there the thing is—examine it for yourself."
"Not now," said the Professor; "it's too late, and the light here is not strong enough. But I'll tell you what I will do. I'll take this stopper thing home with me, and examine it carefully to-morrow—on one condition."
"You have only to name it," said Horace.
"My condition is, that if I, and one or two other Orientalists to whom I may submit it, come to the conclusion that there is no real inscription at all—or, if any, that a date and meaning must be assigned to it totally inconsistent with your story—you will accept our finding and acknowledge that you have been under a delusion, and dismiss the whole affair from your mind."
"Oh, I don't mind agreeing to that," said Horace, "particularly as it's my only chance."
"Very well, then," said the Professor, as he removed the metal cap and put it in his pocket; "you may depend upon hearing from me in a day or two. Meantime, my boy," he continued, almost affectionately, "why not try a short bicycle tour somewhere, hey? You're a cyclist, I know—anything but allow yourself to dwell on Oriental subjects."
"It's not so easy to avoid dwelling on them as you think!" said Horace, with rather a dreary laugh. "And I fancy, Professor, that—whether you like it or not—you'll have to believe in that Jinnee of mine sooner or later."
"I can scarcely conceive," replied the Professor, who was by this time at the outer door, "any degree of evidence which could succeed in convincing me that your brass bottle had ever contained an Arabian Jinnee. However, I shall endeavour to preserve an open mind on the subject. Good evening to you."
As soon as he was alone, Horace paced up and down his deserted halls in a state of simmering rage as he thought how eagerly he had looked forward to his little dinner-party; how intimate and delightful it might have been, and what a monstrous and prolonged nightmare it had actually proved. And at the end of it there he was—in a fantastic, impossible dwelling, deserted by every one, his chances of setting himself right with Sylvia hanging on the slenderest thread; unknown difficulties and complications threatening him from every side!
He owed all this to Fakrash. Yes, that incorrigibly grateful Jinnee, with his antiquated notions and his high-flown professions, had contrived to ruin him more disastrously than if he had been his bitterest foe! Ah! if he could be face to face with him once more—if only for five minutes—he would be restrained by no false delicacy: he would tell him fairly and plainly what a meddling, blundering old fool he was. But Fakrash had taken his flight for ever: there were no means of calling him back—nothing to be done now but go to bed and sleep—if he could!
Exasperated by the sense of his utter helplessness, Ventimore went to the arch which led to his bed-chamber and drew the curtain back with a furious pull. And just within the archway, standing erect with folded arms and the smile of fatuous benignity which Ventimore was beginning to know and dread, was the form of Fakrash-el-Aamash, the Jinnee!
NO PLACE LIKE HOME!
"May thy head long survive!" said Fakrash, by way of salutation, as he stepped through the archway.
"You're very good," said Horace, whose anger had almost evaporated in the relief of the Jinnee's unexpected return, "but I don't think any head can survive this sort of thing long."
"Art thou content with this dwelling I have provided for thee?" inquired the Jinnee, glancing around the stately hall with perceptible complacency.
It would have been positively brutal to say how very far from contented he felt, so Horace could only mumble that he had never been lodged like that before in all his life.
"It is far below thy deserts," Fakrash observed graciously. "And were thy friends amazed at the manner of their entertainment?"
"They were," said Horace.
"A sure method of preserving friends is to feast them with liberality," remarked the Jinnee.
This was rather more than Horace's temper could stand. "You were kind enough to provide my friends with such a feast," he said, "that they'll never come here again."
"How so? Were not the meats choice and abounding in fatness? Was not the wine sweet, and the sherbet like unto perfumed snow?"
"Oh, everything was—er—as nice as possible," said Horace. "Couldn't have been better."
"Yet thou sayest that thy friends will return no more—for what reason?"
"Well, you see," explained Horace, reluctantly, "there's such a thing as doing people too well. I mean, it isn't everybody that appreciates Arabian cooking. But they might have stood that. It was the dancing-girl that did for me."
"I commanded that a houri, lovelier than the full moon, and graceful as a young gazelle, should appear for the delight of thy guests."
"She came," said Horace, gloomily.
"Acquaint me with that which hath occurred—for I perceive plainly that something hath fallen out contrary to thy desires."
"Well," said Horace, "if it had been a bachelor party, there would have been no harm in the houri; but, as it happened, two of my guests were ladies, and they—well, they not unnaturally put a wrong construction on it all."
"Verily," exclaimed the Jinnee, "thy words are totally incomprehensible to me."
"I don't know what the custom may be in Arabia," said Horace, "but with us it is not usual for a man to engage a houri to dance after dinner to amuse the lady he is proposing to marry. It's the kind of attention she'd be most unlikely to appreciate.
"Then was one of thy guests the damsel whom thou art seeking to marry?"
"She was," said Horace, "and the other two were her father and mother. From which you may imagine that it was not altogether agreeable for me when your gazelle threw herself at my feet and hugged my knees and declared that I was the light of her eyes. Of course, it all meant nothing—it's probably the conventional behaviour for a gazelle, and I'm not reflecting upon her in the least. But, in the circumstances, it was compromising."
"I thought," said Fakrash, "that thou assuredst me that thou wast not contracted to any damsel?"
"I think I only said that there was no one whom I would trouble you to procure as a wife for me," replied Horace; "I certainly was engaged—though, after this evening, my engagement is at an end—unless ... that reminds me, do you happen to know whether there really was an inscription on the seal of your bottle, and what it said?"
"I know naught of any inscription," said the Jinnee; "bring me the seal that I may see it."
"I haven't got it by me at this moment," said Horace; "I lent it to my friend—the father of this young lady I told you of. You see, Mr. Fakrash, you got me into—I mean, I was in such a hole over this affair that I was obliged to make a clean breast of it to him. And he wouldn't believe it, so it struck me that there might be an inscription of some sort on the seal, saying who you were, and why Solomon had you confined in the bottle. Then the Professor would be obliged to admit that there's something in my story."
"Truly, I wonder at thee and at the smallness of thy penetration," the Jinnee commented; "for if there were indeed any writing upon this seal, it is not possible that one of thy race should be able to decipher it."
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said Horace; "Professor Futvoye is an Oriental scholar; he can make out any inscription, no matter how many thousands of years old it may be. If anything's there, he'll decipher it. The question is whether anything is there."
The effect of this speech on Fakrash was as unexpected as it was inexplicable: the Jinnee's features, usually so mild, began to work convulsively until they became terrible to look at, and suddenly, with a fierce howl, he shot up to nearly double his ordinary stature.
"O thou of little sense and breeding!" he cried, in a loud voice; "how camest thou to deliver the bottle in which I was confined into the hands of this learned man?"
Ventimore, startled as he was, did not lose his self-possession. "My dear sir," he said, "I did not suppose you could have any further use for it. And, as a matter of fact, I didn't give Professor Futvoye the bottle—which is over there in the corner—but merely the stopper. I wish you wouldn't tower over me like that—it gives me a crick in the neck to talk to you. Why on earth should you make such a fuss about my lending the seal; what possible difference can it make to you even if it does confirm my story? And it's of immense importance to me that the Professor should believe I told the truth."
"I spoke in haste," said the Jinnee, slowly resuming his normal size, and looking slightly ashamed of his recent outburst as well as uncommonly foolish. "The bottle truly is of no value; and as for the stopper, since it is but lent, it is no great matter. If there be any legend upon the seal, perchance this learned man of whom thou speakest will by this time have deciphered it?"
"No," said Horace, "he won't tackle it till to-morrow. And it's as likely as not that when he does he won't find any reference to you—and I shall be up a taller tree than ever!"
"Art thou so desirous that he should receive proof that thy story is true?"
"Why, of course I am! Haven't I been saying so all this time?"
"Who can satisfy him so surely as I?"
"You!" cried Horace. "Do you mean to say you really would? Mr. Fakrash, you are an old brick! That would be the very thing!"
"There is naught," said the Jinnee, smiling indulgently, "that I would not do to promote thy welfare, for thou hast rendered me inestimable service. Acquaint me therefore with the abode of this sage, and I will present myself before him, and if haply he should find no inscription upon the seal, or its purport should be hidden from him, then will I convince him that thou hast spoken the truth and no lie."
Horace very willingly gave him the Professor's address. "Only don't drop in on him to-night, you know," he thought it prudent to add, "or you might startle him. Call any time after breakfast to-morrow, and you'll find him in."
"To-night," said Fakrash, "I return to pursue my search after Suleyman (on whom be peace!). For not yet have I found him."
"If you will try to do so many things at once," said Horace, "I don't see how you can expect much result."
"At Nineveh they knew him not—for where I left a city I found but a heap of ruins, tenanted by owls and bats."
"They say the lion and the lizard keep the Courts——" murmured Horace, half to himself. "I was afraid you might be disappointed with Nineveh myself. Why not run over to Sheba? You might hear of him there."
"Seba of El-Yemen—the country of Bilkees, the Queen beloved of Suleyman," said the Jinnee. "It is an excellent suggestion, and I will follow it without delay."
"But you won't forget to look in on Professor Futvoye to-morrow, will you?"
"Assuredly I will not. And now, ere I depart, tell me if there be any other service I may render thee."
Horace hesitated. "There is just one," he said, "only I'm afraid you'll be offended if I mention it."
"On the head and the eye be thy commands!" said the Jinnee; "for whatsoever thou desirest shall be accomplished, provided that it lie within my power to perform it."
"Well," said Horace, "if you're sure you don't mind, I'll tell you. You've transformed this house into a wonderful place, more like the Alhambra—I don't mean the one in Leicester Square—than a London lodging-house. But then I am only a lodger here, and the people the house belongs to—excellent people in their way—would very much rather have the house as it was. They have a sort of idea that they won't be able to let these rooms as easily as the others."
"Base and sordid dogs!" said the Jinnee, with contempt.
"Possibly," said Horace, "it's narrow-minded of them—but that's the way they look at it. They've actually left rather than stay here. And it's their house—not mine."
"If they abandon this dwelling, thou wilt remain in the more secure possession."
"Oh, shall I, though? They'll go to law and have me turned out, and I shall have to pay ruinous damages into the bargain. So, you see, what you intended as a kindness will only bring me bad luck."
"Come—without more words—to the statement of thy request," said Fakrash, "for I am in haste."
"All I want you to do," replied Horace, in some anxiety as to what the effect of his request would be, "is to put everything here back to what it was before. It won't take you a minute."
"Of a truth," exclaimed Fakrash, "to bestow a favour upon thee is but a thankless undertaking, for not once, but twice, hast thou rejected my benefits—and now, behold, I am at a loss to devise means to gratify thee!"
"I know I've abused your good nature," said Horace; "but if you'll only do this, and then convince the Professor that my story is true, I shall be more than satisfied. I'll never ask another favour of you!"
"My benevolence towards thee hath no bounds—as thou shalt see; and I can deny thee nothing, for truly thou art a worthy and temperate young man. Farewell, then, and be it according to thy desire."
He raised his arms above his head, and shot up like a rocket towards the lofty dome, which split asunder to let him pass. Horace, as he gazed after him, had a momentary glimpse of deep blue sky, with a star or two that seemed to be hurrying through the transparent opal scud, before the roof closed in once more.
Then came a low, rumbling sound, with a shock like a mild earthquake: the slender pillars swayed under their horseshoe arches; the big hanging-lanterns went out; the walls narrowed, and the floor heaved and rose—till Ventimore found himself up in his own familiar sitting-room once more, in the dark. Outside he could see the great square still shrouded in grey haze—the street lamps flickering in the wind; a belated reveller was beguiling his homeward way by rattling his stick against the railings as he passed.
Inside the room everything was exactly as before, and Horace found it difficult to believe that a few minutes earlier he had been standing on that same site, but twenty feet or so below his present level, in a spacious blue-tiled hall, with a domed ceiling and gaudy pillared arches.
But he was very far from regretting his short-lived splendour; he burnt with shame and resentment whenever he thought of that nightmare banquet, which was so unlike the quiet, unpretentious little dinner he had looked forward to.
However, it was over now, and it was useless to worry himself about what could not be helped. Besides, fortunately, there was no great harm done; the Jinnee had been brought to see his mistake, and, to do him justice, had shown himself willing enough to put it right. He had promised to go and see the Professor next day, and the result of the interview could not fail to be satisfactory. And after this, Ventimore thought, Fakrash would have the sense and good feeling not to interfere in his affairs again.
Meanwhile he could sleep now with a mind free from his worst anxieties, and he went to his room in a spirit of intense thankfulness that he had a Christian bed to sleep in. He took off his gorgeous robes—the only things that remained to prove to him that the events of that evening had been no delusion—and locked them in his wardrobe with a sense of relief that he would never be required to wear them again, and his last conscious thought before he fell asleep was the comforting reflection that, if there were any barrier between Sylvia and himself, it would be removed in the course of a very few more hours.
A FOOL'S PARADISE
Ventimore found next morning that his bath and shaving-water had been brought up, from which he inferred, quite correctly, that his landlady must have returned.
Secretly he was by no means looking forward to his next interview with her, but she appeared with his bacon and coffee in a spirit so evidently chastened that he saw that he would have no difficulty so far as she was concerned.
"I'm sure, Mr. Ventimore, sir," she began, apologetically, "I don't know what you must have thought of me and Rapkin last night, leaving the house like we did!"
"It was extremely inconvenient," said Horace, "and not at all what I should have expected from you. But possibly you had some reason for it?"
"Why, sir," said Mrs. Rapkin, running her hand nervously along the back of a chair, "the fact is, something come over me, and come over Rapkin, as we couldn't stop here another minute not if it was ever so."
"Ah!" said Horace, raising his eyebrows, "restlessness—eh, Mrs. Rapkin? Awkward that it should come on just then, though, wasn't it?"
"It was the look of the place, somehow," said Mrs. Rapkin. "If you'll believe me, sir, it was all changed like—nothing in it the same from top to bottom!"
"Really?" said Horace. "I don't notice any difference myself."
"No more don't I, sir, not by daylight; but last night it was all domes and harches and marble fountings let into the floor, with parties moving about downstairs all silent and as black as your hat—which Rapkin saw them as well as what I did."
"From the state your husband was in last night," said Horace, "I should say he was capable of seeing anything—and double of most things."
"I won't deny, sir, that Rapkin mayn't have been quite hisself, as a very little upsets him after he's spent an afternoon studying the papers and what-not at the libery. But I see the niggers too, Mr. Ventimore, and no one can say I ever take more than is good for me."
"I don't suggest that for a moment, Mrs. Rapkin," said Horace; "only, if the house was as you describe last night, how do you account for its being all right this morning?"
Mrs. Rapkin in her embarrassment was reduced to folding her apron into small pleats. "It's not for me to say, sir," she replied, "but, if I was to give my opinion, it would be as them parties as called 'ere on camels the other day was at the bottom of it."
"I shouldn't wonder if you were right, Mrs. Rapkin," said Horace blandly; "you see, you had been exerting yourself over the cooking, and no doubt were in an over-excited state, and, as you say, those camels had taken hold of your imagination until you were ready to see anything that Rapkin saw, and he was ready to see anything you did. It's not at all uncommon. Scientific people, I believe, call it 'Collective Hallucination.'"
"Law, sir!" said the good woman, considerably impressed by this diagnosis, "you don't mean to say I had that? I was always fanciful from a girl, and could see things in coffee-grounds as nobody else could—but I never was took like that before. And to think of me leaving my dinner half cooked, and you expecting your young lady and her pa and ma! Well, there, now, I am sorry. Whatever did you do, sir?"
"We managed to get food of sorts from somewhere," said Horace, "but it was most uncomfortable for me, and I trust, Mrs. Rapkin—I sincerely trust that it will not occur again."
"That I'll answer for it shan't, sir. And you won't take no notice to Rapkin, sir, will you? Though it was his seein' the niggers and that as put it into my 'ed; but I 'ave spoke to him pretty severe already, and he's truly sorry and ashamed for forgetting hisself as he did."
"Very well, Mrs. Rapkin," said Horace; "we will understand that last night's—hem—rather painful experience is not to be alluded to again—on either side."
He felt sincerely thankful to have got out of it so easily, for it was impossible to say what gossip might not have been set on foot if the Rapkins had not been brought to see the advisability of reticence on the subject.
"There's one more thing, sir, I wished for to speak to you about," said Mrs. Rapkin; "that great brass vawse as you bought at an oction some time back. I dunno if you remember it?"
"I remember it," said Horace. "Well, what about it?"
"Why, sir, I found it in the coal-cellar this morning, and I thought I'd ask if that was where you wished it kep' in future. For, though no amount o' polish could make it what I call a tasty thing, it's neither horniment nor yet useful where it is at present."
"Oh," said Horace, rather relieved, for he had an ill-defined dread from her opening words that the bottle might have been misbehaving itself in some way. "Put it wherever you please, Mrs. Rapkin; do whatever you like with it—so long as I don't see the thing again!"
"Very good, sir; I on'y thought I'd ask the question," said Mrs. Rapkin, as she closed the door upon herself.
Altogether, Horace walked to Great Cloister Street that morning in a fairly cheerful mood and amiably disposed, even towards the Jinnee. With all his many faults, he was a thoroughly good-natured old devil—very superior in every way to the one the Arabian Nights fisherman found in his bottle.
"Ninety-nine Jinn out of a hundred," thought Horace, "would have turned nasty on finding benefit after benefit 'declined with thanks.' But one good point in Fakrash is that he does take a hint in good part, and, as soon as he can be made to see where he's wrong, he's always ready to set things right. And he thoroughly understands now that these Oriental dodges of his won't do nowadays, and that when people see a penniless man suddenly wallowing in riches they naturally want to know how he came by them. I don't suppose he will trouble me much in future. If he should look in now and then, I must put up with it. Perhaps, if I suggested it, he wouldn't mind coming in some form that would look less outlandish. If he would get himself up as a banker, or a bishop—the Bishop of Bagdad, say—I shouldn't care how often he called. Only, I can't have him coming down the chimney in either capacity. But he'll see that himself. And he's done me one real service—I mustn't let myself forget that. He sent me old Wackerbath. By the way, I wonder if he's seen my designs yet, and what he thinks of them."
He was at his table, engaged in jotting down some rough ideas for the decoration of the reception-rooms in the projected house, when Beevor came in.
"I've got nothing doing just now," he said; "so I thought I'd come in and have a squint at those plans of yours, if they're forward enough to be seen yet."
Ventimore had to explain that even the imperfect method of examination proposed was not possible, as he had despatched the drawings to his client the night before.
"Phew!" said Beevor; "that's sharp work, isn't it?"
"I don't know. I've been sticking hard at it for over a fortnight."
"Well, you might have given me a chance of seeing what you've made of it. I let you see all my work!"
"To tell you the honest truth, old fellow, I wasn't at all sure you'd like it, and I was afraid you'd put me out of conceit with what I'd done, and Wackerbath was in a frantic hurry to have the plans—so there it was."
"And do you think he'll be satisfied with them?"
"He ought to be. I don't like to be cock-sure, but I believe—I really do believe—that I've given him rather more than he expected. It's going to be a devilish good house, though I say it myself."
"Something new-fangled and fantastic, eh? Well, he mayn't care about it, you know. When you've had my experience, you'll realise that a client is a rum bird to satisfy."
"I shall satisfy my old bird," said Horace, gaily. "He'll have a cage he can hop about in to his heart's content."
"You're a clever chap enough," said Beevor; "but to carry a big job like this through you want one thing—and that's ballast."
"Not while you heave yours at my head! Come, old fellow, you aren't really riled because I sent off those plans without showing them to you? I shall soon have them back, and then you can pitch into 'em as much as you please. Seriously, though, I shall want all the help you can spare when I come to the completed designs."
"'Um," said Beevor, "you've got along very well alone so far—at least, by your own account; so I dare say you'll be able to manage without me to the end. Only, you know," he added, as he left the room, "you haven't won your spurs yet. A fellow isn't necessarily a Gilbert Scott, or a Norman Shaw, or a Waterhouse just because he happens to get a sixty-thousand pound job the first go off!"
"Poor old Beevor!" thought Horace, repentantly, "I've put his back up. I might just as well have shown him the plans, after all; it wouldn't have hurt me and it would have pleased him. Never mind, I'll make my peace with him after lunch. I'll ask him to give me his idea for a—no, hang it all, even friendship has its limits!"
He returned from lunch to hear what sounded like an altercation of some sort in his office, in which, as he neared his door, Beevor's voice was distinctly audible.
"My dear sir," he was saying, "I have already told you that it is no affair of mine."
"But I ask you, sir, as a brother architect," said another voice, "whether you consider it professional or reasonable——?"
"As a brother architect," replied Beevor, as Ventimore opened the door, "I would rather be excused from giving an opinion.... Ah, here is Mr. Ventimore himself."
Horace entered, to find himself confronted by Mr. Wackerbath, whose face was purple and whose white whiskers were bristling with rage. "So, sir!" he began. "So, sir!——" and choked ignominiously.
"There appears to have been some misunderstanding, my dear Ventimore," explained Beevor, with a studious correctness which was only a shade less offensive than open triumph. "I think I'd better leave you and this gentleman to talk it over quietly."
"Quietly?" exclaimed Mr. Wackerbath, with an apoplectic snort; "quietly!!"
"I've no idea what you are so excited about, sir," said Horace. "Perhaps you will explain?"
"Explain!" Mr. Wackerbath gasped; "why—no, if I speak just now, I shall be ill: you tell him," he added, waving a plump hand in Beevor's direction.
"I'm not in possession of all the facts," said Beevor, smoothly; "but, so far as I can gather, this gentleman thinks that, considering the importance of the work he intrusted to your hands, you have given less time to it than he might have expected. As I have told him, that is a matter which does not concern me, and which he must discuss with you."
So saying, Beevor retired to his own room, and shut the door with the same irreproachable discretion, which conveyed that he was not in the least surprised, but was too much of a gentleman to show it.
"Well, Mr. Wackerbath," began Horace, when they were alone, "so you're disappointed with the house?"
"Disappointed!" said Mr. Wackerbath, furiously. "I am disgusted, sir, disgusted!"
Horace's heart sank lower still; had he deceived himself after all, then? Had he been nothing but a conceited fool, and—most galling thought of all—had Beevor judged him only too accurately? And yet, no, he could not believe it—he knew his work was good!
"This is plain speaking with a vengeance," he said; "I'm sorry you're dissatisfied. I did my best to carry out your instructions."
"Oh, you did?" sputtered Mr. Wackerbath. "That's what you call—but go on, sir, go on!"
"I got it done as quickly as possible," continued Horace, "because I understood you wished no time to be lost."
"No one can accuse you of dawdling over it. What I should like to know is how the devil you managed to get it done in the time?"
"I worked incessantly all day and every day," said Horace. "That's how I managed it—and this is all the thanks I get for it!"
"Thanks?" Mr. Wackerbath well-nigh howled. "You—you insolent young charlatan; you expect thanks!"
"Now look here, Mr. Wackerbath," said Horace, whose own temper was getting a little frayed. "I'm not accustomed to being treated like this, and I don't intend to submit to it. Just tell me—in as moderate language as you can command—what you object to?"
"I object to the whole damned thing, sir! I mean, I repudiate the entire concern. It's the work of a raving lunatic—a place that no English gentleman, sir, with any self-respect or—ah!—consideration for his reputation and position in the county, could consent to occupy for a single hour!"
"Oh," said Horace, feeling deathly sick, "in that case it is useless, of course, to suggest any modifications."
"Absolutely!" said Mr. Wackerbath.
"Very well, then; there's no more to be said," replied Horace. "You will have no difficulty in finding an architect who will be more successful in realising your intentions. Mr. Beevor, the gentleman you met just now," he added, with a touch of bitterness, "would probably be just your man. Of course I retire altogether. And really, if any one is the sufferer over this, I fancy it's myself. I can't see how you are any the worse."
"Not any the worse?" cried Mr. Wackerbath, "when the infernal place is built!"
"Built!" echoed Horace feebly.
"I tell you, sir, I saw it with my own eyes driving to the station this morning; my coachman and footman saw it; my wife saw it—damn it, sir, we all saw it!"
Then Horace understood. His indefatigable Jinnee had been at work again! Of course, for Fakrash it must have been what he would term "the easiest of affairs"—especially after a glance at the plans (and Ventimore remembered that the Jinnee had surprised him at work upon them, and even requested to have them explained to him)—to dispense with contractors and bricklayers and carpenters, and construct the entire building in the course of a single night.
It was a generous and spirited action—but, particularly now that the original designs had been found faulty and rejected, it placed the unfortunate architect in a most invidious position.
"Well, sir," said Mr. Wackerbath, with elaborate irony, "I presume it is you whom I have to thank for improving my land by erecting this precious palace on it?"
"I—I——" began Horace, utterly broken down; and then he saw, with emotions that may be imagined, the Jinnee himself, in his green robes, standing immediately behind Mr. Wackerbath.
"Greeting to you," said Fakrash, coming forward with his smile of amiable cunning. "If I mistake not," he added, addressing the startled estate agent, who had jumped visibly, "thou art the merchant for whom my son here," and he laid a hand on Horace's shrinking shoulder, "undertook to construct a mansion?"
"I am," said Mr. Wackerbath, in some mystification. "Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Ventimore, senior?"
"No, no," put in Horace; "no relation. He's a sort of informal partner."
"Hast thou not found him an architect of divine gifts?" inquired the Jinnee, beaming with pride. "Is not the palace that he hath raised for thee by his transcendent accomplishments a marvel of beauty and stateliness, and one that Sultans might envy?"
"No, sir!" shouted the infuriated Mr. Wackerbath; "since you ask my opinion, it's nothing of the sort! It's a ridiculous tom-fool cross between the palm-house at Kew and the Brighton Pavilion! There's no billiard-room, and not a decent bedroom in the house. I've been all over it, so I ought to know; and as for drainage, there isn't a sign of it. And he has the brass—ah, I should say, the unblushing effrontery—to call that a country house!"
Horace's dismay was curiously shot with relief. The Jinnee, who was certainly very far from being a genius except by courtesy, had taken it upon himself to erect the palace according to his own notions of Arabian domestic luxury—and Horace, taught by bitter experience, could sympathise to some extent with his unfortunate client. On the other hand, it was balm to his smarting self-respect to find that it was not his own plans, after all, which had been found so preposterous; and, by some obscure mental process, which I do not propose to explain, he became reconciled, and almost grateful, to the officious Fakrash. And then, too, he was his Jinnee, and Horace had no intention of letting him be bullied by an outsider.
"Let me explain, Mr. Wackerbath," he said. "Personally I've had nothing to do with this. This gentleman, wishing to spare me the trouble, has taken upon himself to build your house for you, without consulting either of us, and, from what I know of his powers in the direction, I've no doubt that—that it's a devilish fine place, in its way. Anyhow, we make no charge for it—he presents it to you as a free gift. Why not accept it as such and make the best of it?"
"Make the best of it?" stormed Mr. Wackerbath. "Stand by and see the best site in three counties defaced by a jimcrack Moorish nightmare like that! Why, they'll call it 'Wackerbath's Folly,' sir. I shall be the laughing-stock of the neighbourhood. I can't live in the beastly building. I couldn't afford to keep it up, and I won't have it cumbering my land. Do you hear? I won't! I'll go to law, cost me what it may, and compel you and your Arabian friends there to pull the thing down. I'll take the case up to the House of Lords, if necessary, and fight you as long as I can stand!"
"As long as thou canst stand!" repeated Fakrash, gently. "That is a long time truly, O thou litigious one!... On all fours, ungrateful dog that thou art!" he cried, with an abrupt and entire change of manner, "and crawl henceforth for the remainder of thy days. I, Fakrash-el-Aamash, command thee!"
It was both painful and grotesque to see the portly and intensely respectable Mr. Wackerbath suddenly drop forward on his hands while desperately striving to preserve his dignity. "How dare you, sir?" he almost barked, "how dare you, I say? Are you aware that I could summon you for this? Let me up. I insist upon getting up!"
"O contemptible in aspect!" replied the Jinnee, throwing open the door. "Begone to thy kennel."
"I won't! I can't!" whimpered the unhappy man. "How do you expect me—me!—to cross Westminster Bridge on all fours? What will the officials think at Waterloo, where I have been known and respected for years? How am I to face my family in—in this position? Do, for mercy's sake, let me get up!"
Horace had been too shocked and startled to speak before, but now humanity, coupled with disgust for the Jinnee's high-handed methods, compelled him to interfere. "Mr. Fakrash," he said, "this has gone far enough. Unless you stop tormenting this unfortunate gentleman, I've done with you."
"Never," said Fakrash. "He hath dared to abuse my palace, which is far too sumptuous a dwelling for such a son of a burnt dog as he. Therefore, I will make his abode to be in the dust for ever."
"But I don't find fault," yelped poor Mr. Wackerbath. "You—you entirely misunderstood the—the few comments I ventured to make. It's a capital mansion, handsome, and yet 'homey,' too. I'll never say another word against it. I'll—yes, I'll live in it—if only you'll let me up?"
"Do as he asks you," said Horace to the Jinnee, "or I swear I'll never speak to you again."
"Thou art the arbiter of this matter," was the reply. "And if I yield, it is at thy intercession, and not his. Rise then," he said to the humiliated client; "depart, and show us the breadth of thy shoulders."
It was this precise moment which Beevor, who was probably unable to restrain his curiosity any longer, chose to re-enter the room. "Oh, Ventimore," he began, "did I leave my——?... I beg your pardon. I thought you were alone again."
"Don't go, sir," said Mr. Wackerbath, as he scrambled awkwardly to his feet, his usually florid face mottled in grey and lilac. "I—I should like you to know that, after talking things quietly over with your friend Mr. Ventimore and his partner here, I am thoroughly convinced that my objections were quite untenable. I retract all I said. The house is—ah—admirably planned: most convenient, roomy, and—ah—unconventional. The—the entire freedom from all sanitary appliances is a particular recommendation. In short, I am more than satisfied. Pray forget anything I may have said which might be taken to imply the contrary.... Gentlemen, good afternoon!"
He bowed himself past the Jinnee in a state of deference and apprehension, and was heard stumbling down the staircase. Horace hardly dared to meet Beevor's eyes, which were fixed upon the green-turbaned Jinnee, as he stood apart in dreamy abstraction, smiling placidly to himself.
"I say," Beevor said to Horace, at last, in an undertone, "you never told me you had gone into partnership."
"He's not a regular partner," whispered Ventimore; "he does odd things for me occasionally, that's all."
"He soon managed to smooth your client down," remarked Beevor.
"Yes," said Horace; "he's an Oriental, you see, and, he has a—a very persuasive manner. Would you like to be introduced?"
"If it's all the same to you," replied Beevor, still below his voice, "I'd rather be excused. To tell you the truth, old fellow, I don't altogether fancy the looks of him, and it's my opinion," he added, "that the less you have to do with him the better. He strikes me as a wrong'un, old man."
"No, no," said Horace; "eccentric, that's all—you don't understand him."
"Receive news!" began the Jinnee, after Beevor, with suspicion and disapproval evident even on his back and shoulders, had retreated to his own room, "Suleyman, the son of Daood, sleeps with his fathers."
"I know," retorted Horace, whose nerves were unequal to much reference to Solomon just then. "So does Queen Anne."
"I have not heard of her. But art thou not astounded, then, by my tidings?"
"I have matters nearer home to think about," said Horace, dryly. "I must say, Mr. Fakrash, you have landed me in a pretty mess!"
"Explain thyself more fully, for I comprehend thee not."
"Why on earth," Horace groaned, "couldn't you let me build that house my own way?"
"Did I not hear thee with my own ears lament thy inability to perform the task? Thereupon, I determined that no disgrace should fall upon thee by reason of such incompetence, since I myself would erect a palace so splendid that it should cause thy name to live for ever. And, behold, it is done."
"It is," said Horace. "And so am I. I don't want to reproach you. I quite feel that you have acted with the best intentions; but, oh, hang it all! can't you see that you've absolutely wrecked my career as an architect?"
"That is a thing that cannot be," returned the Jinnee, "seeing that thou hast all the credit."
"The credit! This is England, not Arabia. What credit can I gain from being supposed to be the architect of an Oriental pavilion, which might be all very well for Haroun-al-Raschid, but I can assure you is preposterous as a home for an average Briton?"
"Yet that overfed hound," remarked the Jinnee, "expressed much gratification therewith."
"Naturally, after he had found that he could not give a candid opinion except on all-fours. A valuable testimonial, that! And how do you suppose I can take his money? No, Mr. Fakrash, if I have to go on all-fours myself for it, I must say, and I will say, that you've made a most frightful muddle of it!"
"Acquaint me with thy wishes," said Fakrash, a little abashed, "for thou knowest that I can refuse thee naught."
"Then," said Horace, boldly, "couldn't you remove that palace—dissipate it into space or something?"
"Verily," said the Jinnee, in an aggravated tone, "to do good acts unto such as thee is but wasted time, for thou givest me no peace till they are undone!"
"This is the last time," urged Horace; "I promise never to ask you for anything again."
"Not for the first time hast thou made such a promise," said Fakrash. "And save for the magnitude of thy service unto me, I would not hearken to this caprice of thine, nor wilt thou find me so indulgent on another occasion. But for this once"—and he muttered some words and made a sweeping gesture with his right hand—"thy desire is granted unto thee. Of the palace and all that is therein there remaineth no trace!"
"Another surprise for poor old Wackerbath," thought Horace, "but a pleasant one this time. My dear Mr. Fakrash," he said aloud, "I really can't say how grateful I am to you. And now—I hate bothering you like this, but if you could manage to look in on Professor Futvoye——"
"What!" cried the Jinnee, "yet another request? Already!"
"Well, you promised you'd do that before, you know!" said Horace.
"For that matter," remarked Fakrash, "I have already fulfilled my promise."
"You have?" Horace exclaimed. "And does he believe now that it's all true about that bottle?"
"When I left him," answered the Jinnee, "all his doubts were removed."
"By Jove, you are a trump!" cried Horace, only too glad to be able to commend with sincerity. "And do you think, if I went to him now, I should find him the same as usual?"
"Nay," said Fakrash, with his weak and yet inscrutable smile, "that is more than I can promise thee."
"But why?" asked Horace, "if he knows all?"
There was the oddest expression in the Jinnee's furtive eyes: a kind of elfin mischief combined with a sense of wrong-doing, like a naughty child whose palate is still reminiscent of illicit jam. "Because," he replied, with a sound between a giggle and a chuckle, "because, in order to overcome his unbelief, it was necessary to transform him into a one-eyed mule of hideous appearance."
"What!" cried Horace. But, whether to avoid thanks or explanations, the Jinnee had disappeared with his customary abruptness.
"Fakrash!" shouted Horace, "Mr. Fakrash! Come back! Do you hear? I must speak to you!" There was no answer; the Jinnee might be well on his way to Lake Chad, or Jericho, by that time—he was certainly far enough from Great Cloister Street.
Horace sat down at his drawing-table, and, his head buried in his hands, tried to think out this latest complication. Fakrash had transformed Professor Futvoye into a one-eyed mule. It would have seemed incredible, almost unthinkable, once, but so many impossibilities had happened to Horace of late that one more made little or no strain upon his credulity.
What he felt chiefly was the new barrier that this event must raise between himself and Sylvia; to do him justice, the mere fact that the father of his fiancee was a mule did not lessen his ardour in the slightest. Even if he had felt no personal responsibility for the calamity, he loved Sylvia far too well to be deterred by it, and few family cupboards are without a skeleton of some sort.
With courage and the determination to look only on the bright side of things, almost any domestic drawback can be lived down.
But the real point, as he instantly recognised, was whether in the changed condition of circumstances Sylvia would consent to marry him. Might she not, after the experiences of that abominable dinner of his the night before, connect him in some way with her poor father's transformation? She might even suspect him of employing this means of compelling the Professor to renew their engagement; and, indeed, Horace was by no means certain himself that the Jinnee might not have acted from some muddle-headed motive of this kind. It was likely enough that the Professor, after learning the truth, should have refused to allow his daughter to marry the protege of so dubious a patron, and that Fakrash had then resorted to pressure.
In any case, Ventimore knew Sylvia well enough to feel sure that pride would steel her heart against him so long as this obstacle remained.
It would be unseemly to set down here all that Horace said and thought of the person who had brought all this upon them, but after some wild and futile raving he became calm enough to recognise that his proper place was by Sylvia's side. Perhaps he ought to have told her at first, and then she would have been less unprepared for this—and yet how could he trouble her mind so long as he could cling to the hope that the Jinnee would cease to interfere?
But now he could be silent no longer; naturally the prospect of calling at Cottesmore Gardens just then was anything but agreeable, but he felt it would be cowardly to keep away.
Besides, he could cheer them up; he could bring with him a message of hope. No doubt they believed that the Professor's transformation would be permanent—a harrowing prospect for so united a family; but, fortunately, Horace would be able to reassure them on this point.
Fakrash had always revoked his previous performances as soon as he could be brought to understand their fatuity—and Ventimore would take good care that he revoked this.
Nevertheless, it was with a sinking heart and an unsteady hand that he pulled the visitors' bell at the Futvoyes' house that afternoon, for he neither knew in what state he should find that afflicted family, nor how they would regard his intrusion at such a time.
THE MESSENGER OF HOPE
Jessie, the neat and pretty parlour-maid, opened the door with a smile of welcome which Horace found reassuring. No girl, he thought, whose master had suddenly been transformed into a mule could possibly smile like that. The Professor, she told him, was not at home, which again was comforting. For a savant, however careless about his personal appearance, would scarcely venture to brave public opinion in the semblance of a quadruped.
"Is the Professor out?" he inquired, to make sure.
"Not exactly out, sir," said the maid, "but particularly engaged, working hard in his study, and not to be disturbed on no account."
This was encouraging, too, since a mule could hardly engage in literary labour of any kind. Evidently the Jinnee must either have overrated his supernatural powers, or else have been deliberately amusing himself at Horace's expense.
"Then I will see Miss Futvoye," he said.
"Miss Sylvia is with the master, sir," said the girl; "but if you'll come into the drawing-room I'll let Mrs. Futvoye know you are here."
He had not been in the drawing-room long before Mrs. Futvoye appeared, and one glance at her face confirmed Ventimore's worst fears. Outwardly she was calm enough, but it was only too obvious that her calmness was the result of severe self-repression; her eyes, usually so shrewdly and placidly observant, had a haggard and hunted look; her ears seemed on the strain to catch some distant sound.
"I hardly thought we should see you to-day," she began, in a tone of studied reserve; "but perhaps you came to offer some explanation of the extraordinary manner in which you thought fit to entertain us last night? If so——"
"The fact is," said Horace, looking into his hat, "I came because I was rather anxious about the Professor.
"About my husband?" said the poor lady, with a really heroic effort to appear surprised. "He is—as well as could be expected. Why should you suppose otherwise?" she asked, with a flash of suspicion.
"I fancied perhaps that—that he mightn't be quite himself to-day," said Horace, with his eyes on the carpet.
"I see," said Mrs. Futvoye, regaining her composure; "you were afraid that all those foreign dishes might not have agreed with him. But—except that he is a little irritable this afternoon—he is much as usual."
"I'm delighted to hear it," said Horace, with reviving hope. "Do you think he would see me for a moment?"
"Great heavens, no!" cried Mrs. Futvoye, with an irrepressible start; "I mean," she explained, "that, after what took place last night, Anthony—my husband—very properly feels that an interview would be too painful."
"But when we parted he was perfectly friendly."
"I can only say," replied the courageous woman, "that you would find him considerably altered now."
Horace had no difficulty in believing it.
"At least, I may see Sylvia?" he pleaded.
"No," said Mrs. Futvoye; "I really can't have Sylvia disturbed just now. She is very busy, helping her father. Anthony has to read a paper at one of his societies to-morrow night, and she is writing it out from his dictation."
If any departure from strict truth can ever be excusable, this surely was one; unfortunately, just then Sylvia herself burst into the room.
"Mother," she cried, without seeing Horace in her agitation, "do come to papa, quick! He has just begun kicking again, and I can't manage him alone.... Oh, you here?" she broke off, as she saw who was in the room. "Why do you come here now, Horace? Please, please go away! Papa is rather unwell—nothing serious, only—oh, do go away!"
"Darling!" said Horace, going to her and taking both her hands, "I know all—do you understand?—all!"
"Mamma!" cried Sylvia, reproachfully, "have you told him—already? When we settled that even Horace wasn't to know till—till papa recovers!"
"I have told him nothing, my dear," replied her mother. "He can't possibly know, unless—but no, that isn't possible. And, after all," she added, with a warning glance at her daughter, "I don't know why we should make any mystery about a mere attack of gout. But I had better go and see if your father wants anything." And she hurried out of the room.
Sylvia sat down and gazed silently into the fire. "I dare say you don't know how dreadfully people kick when they've got gout," she remarked presently.
"Oh yes, I do," said Horace, sympathetically; "at least, I can guess."
"Especially when it's in both legs," continued Sylvia.
"Or," said Horace gently, "in all four."
"Ah, you do know!" cried Sylvia. "Then it's all the more horrid of you to come!"
"Dearest," said Horace, "is not this just the time when my place should be near you—and him?"
"Not near papa, Horace!" she put in anxiously; "it wouldn't be at all safe."
"Do you really think I have any fear for myself?"
"Are you sure you quite know—what he is like now?"
"I understand," said Horace, trying to put it as considerately as possible, "that a casual observer, who didn't know your father, might mistake him, at first sight, for—for some sort of quadruped."
"He's a mule," sobbed Sylvia, breaking down entirely. "I could bear it better if he had been a nice mule.... B—but he isn't!"
"Whatever he may be," declared Horace, as he knelt by her chair endeavouring to comfort her, "nothing can alter my profound respect for him. And you must let me see him, Sylvia; because I fully believe I shall be able to cheer him up."
"If you imagine you can persuade him to—to laugh it off!" said Sylvia, tearfully.
"I wasn't proposing to try to make him see the humorous side of his situation," Horace mildly explained. "I trust I have more tact than that. But he may be glad to know that, at the worst, it is only a temporary inconvenience. I'll take care that he's all right again before very long."
She started up and looked at him, her eyes widened with dawning dread and mistrust.
"If you can speak like that," she said, "it must have been you who—no, I can't believe it—that would be too horrible!"
"I who did what, Sylvia? Weren't you there when—when it happened?"
"No," she replied. "I was only told of it afterwards. Mother heard papa talking loudly in his study this morning, as if he was angry with somebody, and at last she grew so uneasy she couldn't bear it any longer, and went in to see what was the matter with him. Dad was quite alone and looked as usual, only a little excited; and then, without the slightest warning, just as she entered the room, he—he changed slowly into a mule before her eyes! Anybody but mamma would have lost her head and roused the whole house."
"Thank Heaven she didn't!" said Horace, fervently. "That was what I was most afraid of."
"Then—oh, Horace, it was you! It's no use denying it. I feel more certain of it every moment!"
"Now, Sylvia!" he protested, still anxious, if possible, to keep the worst from her, "what could have put such an idea as that into your head?"
"I don't know," she said slowly. "Several things last night. No one who was really nice, and like everybody else, would live in such queer rooms like those, and dine on cushions, with dreadful black slaves, and—and dancing-girls and things. You pretended you were quite poor."
"So I am, darling. And as for my rooms, and—and the rest, they're all gone, Sylvia. If you went to Vincent Square to-day, you wouldn't find a trace of them!"
"That only shows!" said Sylvia. "But why should you play such a cruel, and—and ungentlemanly trick on poor dad? If you had ever really loved me——!"
"But I do, Sylvia, you can't really believe me capable of such an outrage! Look at me and tell me so."
"No, Horace," said Sylvia frankly. "I don't believe you did it. But I believe you know who did. And you had better tell me at once!"
"If you're quite sure you can stand it," he replied, "I'll tell you everything." And, as briefly as possible, he told her how he had unsealed the brass bottle, and all that had come of it.
She bore it, on the whole, better than he had expected; perhaps, being a woman, it was some consolation to her to remind him that she had foretold something of this kind from the very first.
"But, of course, I never really thought it would be so awful as this!" she said. "Horace, how could you be so careless as to let a great wicked thing like that escape out of its bottle?"
"I had a notion it was a manuscript," said Horace—"till he came out. But he isn't a great wicked thing, Sylvia. He's an amiable old Jinnee enough. And he'd do anything for me. Nobody could be more grateful and generous than he has been."
"Do you call it generous to change the poor, dear dad into a mule?" inquired Sylvia, with a little curl of her upper lip.
"That was an oversight," said Horace; "he meant no harm by it. In Arabia they do these things—or used to in his day. Not that that's much excuse for him. Still, he's not so young as he was, and besides, being bottled up for all those centuries must have narrowed him rather. You must try and make allowances for him, darling."
"I shan't," said Sylvia, "unless he apologises to poor father, and puts him right at once."
"Why, of course, he'll do that," Horace answered confidently. "I'll see that he does. I don't mean to stand any more of his nonsense. I'm afraid I've been just a little too slack for fear of hurting his feelings; but this time he's gone too far, and I shall talk to him like a Dutch uncle. He's always ready to do the right thing when he's once shown where he has gone wrong—only he takes such a lot of showing, poor old chap!"
"But when do you think he'll—do the right thing?"
"Oh, as soon as I see him again."
"Yes; but when will you see him again?"
"That's more than I can say. He's away just now—in China, or Peru, or somewhere."
"Horace! Then he won't be back for months and months!"
"Oh yes, he will. He can do the whole trip, aller et retour, you know, in a few hours. He's an active old beggar for his age. In the meantime, dearest, the chief thing is to keep up your father's spirits. So I think I'd better—— I was just telling Sylvia, Mrs. Futvoye," he said, as that lady re-entered the room, "that I should like to see the Professor at once."
"It's quite, quite impossible!" was the nervous reply. "He's in such a state that he's unable to see any one. You don't know how fractious gout makes him!"
"Dear Mrs. Futvoye," said Horace, "believe me, I know more than you suppose."
"Yes, mother, dear," put in Sylvia, "he knows everything—really everything. And perhaps it might do dad good to see him."
Mrs. Futvoye sank helplessly down on a settee. "Oh, dear me!" she said. "I don't know what to say. I really don't. If you had seen him plunge at the mere suggestion of a doctor!"
Privately, though naturally he could not say so, Horace thought a vet. might be more appropriate, but eventually he persuaded Mrs. Futvoye to conduct him to her husband's study.
"Anthony, love," she said, as she knocked gently at the door, "I've brought Horace Ventimore to see you for a few moments, if he may."
It seemed from the sounds of furious snorting and stamping within, that the Professor resented this intrusion on his privacy. "My dear Anthony," said his devoted wife, as she unlocked the door and turned the key on the inside after admitting Horace, "try to be calm. Think of the servants downstairs. Horace is so anxious to help."
As for Ventimore, he was speechless—so inexpressibly shocked was he by the alteration in the Professor's appearance. He had never seen a mule in sorrier condition or in so vicious a temper. Most of the lighter furniture had been already reduced to matchwood; the glass doors of the bookcase were starred or shivered; precious Egyptian pottery and glass were strewn in fragments on the carpets, and even the mummy, though it still smiled with the same enigmatic cheerfulness, seemed to have suffered severely from the Professorial hoofs.
Horace instinctively felt that any words of conventional sympathy would jar here; indeed, the Professor's attitude and expression reminded him irresistibly of a certain "Blondin Donkey" he had seen enacted by music-hall artists, at the point where it becomes sullen and defiant. Only, he had laughed helplessly at the Blondin Donkey, and somehow he felt no inclination to laugh now.
"Believe me, sir," he began, "I would not disturb you like this unless—steady there, for Heaven's sake Professor, don't kick till you've heard me out!" For, the mule, in a clumsy, shambling way which betrayed the novice, was slowly revolving on his own axis so as to bring his hind-quarters into action, while still keeping his only serviceable eye upon his unwelcome visitor.
"Listen to me, sir," said Horace, manoeuvring in his turn. "I'm not to blame for this, and if you brain me, as you seem to be endeavouring to do, you'll simply destroy the only living man who can get you out of this."
The mule appeared impressed by this, and backed cumbrously into a corner, from which he regarded Horace with a mistrustful, but attentive, eye. "If, as I imagine, sir," continued Horace, "you are, though temporarily deprived of speech, perfectly capable of following an argument, will you kindly signify it by raising your right ear?" The mule's right ear rose with a sharp twitch.
"Now we can get on," said Horace. "First let me tell you that I repudiate all responsibility for the proceedings of that infernal Jinnee.... I wouldn't stamp like that—you might go through the floor, you know.... Now, if you will only exercise a little patience——"
At this the exasperated animal made a sudden run at him with his mouth open, which obliged Horace to shelter himself behind a large leather arm-chair. "You really must keep cool, sir," he remonstrated; "your nerves are naturally upset. If I might suggest a little champagne—you could manage it in—in a bucket, and it would help you to pull yourself together. A whisk of your—er—tail would imply consent." The Professor's tail instantly swept some rare Arabian glass lamps and vases from a shelf at his rear, whereupon Mrs. Futvoye went out, and returned presently with a bottle of champagne and a large china jardiniere, as the best substitute she could find for a bucket.
When the mule had drained the flower-pot greedily and appeared refreshed, Horace proceeded: "I have every hope, sir," he said, "that before many hours you will be smiling—pray don't prance like that, I mean what I say—smiling over what now seems to you, very justly, a most annoying and serious catastrophe. I shall speak seriously to Fakrash (the Jinnee, you know), and I am sure that, as soon as he realises what a frightful blunder he has made, he will be the first to offer you every reparation in his power. For, old foozle as he is, he's thoroughly good-hearted."
The Professor drooped his ears at this, and shook his head with a doleful incredulity that made him look more like the Pantomime Donkey than ever.
"I think I understand him fairly well by this time, sir," said Horace, "and I'll answer for it that there's no real harm in him. I give you my word of honour that, if you'll only remain quiet and leave everything to me, you shall very soon be released from this absurd position. That's all I came to tell you, and now I won't trouble you any longer. If you could bring yourself, as a sign that you bear me no ill-feeling, to give me your—your off-foreleg at parting, I——"
But the Professor turned his back in so pointed and ominous a manner that Horace judged it better to withdraw without insisting further. "I'm afraid," he said to Mrs. Futvoye, after they had rejoined Sylvia in the drawing-room—"I'm afraid your husband is still a little sore with me about this miserable business."
"I don't know what else you can expect," replied the lady, rather tartly; "he can't help feeling—as we all must and do, after what you said just now—that, but for you, this would never have happened!"
"If you mean it was all through my attending that sale," said Horace, "you might remember that I only went there at the Professor's request. You know that, Sylvia."
"Yes, Horace," said Sylvia; "but papa never asked you to buy a hideous brass bottle with a nasty Genius in it. And any one with ordinary common sense would have kept it properly corked!"
"What, you against me too, Sylvia!" cried Horace, cut to the quick.
"No, Horace, never against you. I didn't mean to say what I did. Only it is such a relief to put the blame on somebody. I know, I know you feel it almost as much as we do. But so long as poor, dear papa remains as he is, we can never be anything to one another. You must see that, Horace!"
"Yes, I see that," he said; "but trust me, Sylvia, he shall not remain as he is. I swear he shall not. In another day or two, at the outside, you will see him his own self once more. And then—oh, darling, darling, you won't let anything or anybody separate us? Promise me that!"
He would have held her in his arms, but she kept him at a distance. "When papa is himself again," she said, "I shall know better what to say. I can't promise anything now, Horace."
Horace recognised that no appeal would draw a more definite answer from her just then; so he took his leave, with the feeling that, after all, matters must improve before very long, and in the meantime he must bear the suspense with patience.
He got through dinner as well as he could in his own rooms, for he did not like to go to his club lest the Jinnee should suddenly return during his absence.
"If he wants me he'd be quite equal to coming on to the club after me," he reflected, "for he has about as much sense of the fitness of things as Mary's lamb. I shouldn't care about seeing him suddenly bursting through the floor of the smoking-room. Nor would the committee."
He sat up late, in the hope that Fakrash would appear; but the Jinnee made no sign, and Horace began to get uneasy. "I wish there was some way of ringing him up," he thought. "If he were only the slave of a ring or a lamp, I'd rub it; but it wouldn't be any use to rub that bottle—and, besides, he isn't a slave. Probably he has a suspicion that he has not exactly distinguished himself over his latest feat, and thinks it prudent to keep out of my way for the present. But if he fancies he'll make things any better for himself by that he'll find himself mistaken."
It was maddening to think of the unhappy Professor still fretting away hour after hour in the uncongenial form of a mule, waiting impatiently for the relief that never came. If it lingered much longer, he might actually starve, unless his family thought of getting in some oats for him, and he could be prevailed upon to touch them. And how much longer could they succeed in concealing the nature of his affliction? How long before all Kensington, and the whole civilised world, would know that one of the leading Orientalists in Europe was restlessly prancing on four legs around his study in Cottesmore Gardens?
Racked by speculations such as these, Ventimore lay awake till well into the small hours, when he dropped off into troubled dreams that, wild as they were, could not be more grotesquely fantastic than the realities to which they were the alternative.
A CHOICE OF EVILS
Not even his morning tub could brace Ventimore's spirits to their usual cheerfulness. After sending away his breakfast almost untasted he stood at his window, looking drearily out over the crude green turf of Vincent Square at the indigo masses of the Abbey and the Victoria Tower and the huge gasometers to the right which loomed faintly through a dun-coloured haze.
He felt a positive loathing for his office, to which he had gone with such high hopes and enthusiasm of late. There was no work for him to do there any longer, and the sight of his drawing-table and materials would, he knew, be intolerable in their mute mockery.
Nor could he with any decency present himself again at Cottesmore Gardens while the situation still remained unchanged, as it must do until he had seen Fakrash.
When would the Jinnee return, or—horrible suspicion!—did he never intend to return at all?
"Fakrash!" he groaned aloud, "you can't really mean to leave me in such a regular deuce of a hole as this?"
"At thy service!" said a well-known voice behind him, and he turned to see the Jinnee standing smiling on the hearthrug—and at this accomplishment of his dearest desire all his indignation surged back.
"Oh, there you are!" he said irritably. "Where on earth have you been all this time?"
"Nowhere on earth," was the bland reply; "but in the regions of the air, seeking to promote thy welfare."
"If you have been as brilliantly successful up there as you have down here," retorted Horace, "I have much to thank you for."
"I am more than repaid," answered the Jinnee, who, like many highly estimable persons, was almost impervious to irony, "by such assurances of thy gratitude."
"I'm not grateful," said Horace, fuming. "I'm devilish annoyed!"
"Well hath it been written," replied the Jinnee:—
"'Be disregardful of thine affairs, and commit them to the course of Fate, For often a thing that enrages thee may eventually be to thee pleasing.'"
"I don't see the remotest chance of that, in my case," said Horace.
"Why is thy countenance thus troubled, and what new complaint hast thou against me?"
"What the devil do you mean by turning a distinguished and perfectly inoffensive scholar into a wall-eyed mule?" Horace broke out. "If that is your idea of a practical joke——!"
"It is one of the easiest affairs possible," said the Jinnee, complacently running his fingers through the thin strands of his beard. "I have accomplished such transformations on several occasions."
"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself, that's all. The question is now—how do you propose to restore him again?"
"Far from undoing be that which is accomplished!" was the sententious answer.
"What?" cried Horace, hardly believing his ears; "you surely don't mean to allow that unhappy Professor to remain like that for ever, do you?"
"None can alter what is predestined."
"Very likely not. But it wasn't decreed that a learned man should be suddenly degraded to a beastly mule for the rest of his life. Destiny wouldn't be such a fool!"
"Despise not mules, for they are useful and valuable animals in the household."
"But, confound it all, have you no imagination? Can't you enter at all into the feelings of a man—a man of wide learning and reputation—suddenly plunged into such a humiliating condition?"
"Upon his own head be it," said Fakrash, coldly. "For he hath brought this fate upon himself."
"Well, how do you suppose that you have helped me by this performance? Will it make him any the more disposed to consent to my marrying his daughter? Is that all you know of the world?"
"It is not my intention that thou shouldst take his daughter to wife."
"Whether you approve or not, it's my intention to marry her."
"Assuredly she will not marry thee so long as her father remaineth a mule."
"There I agree with you. But is that your notion of doing me a good turn?"
"I did not consider thy interest in this matter."
"Then will you be good enough to consider it now? I have pledged my word that he shall be restored to his original form. Not only my happiness is at stake, but my honour."
"By failure to perform the impossible none can lose honour. And this is a thing that cannot be undone."
"Cannot be undone?" repeated Horace, feeling a cold clutch at his heart. "Why?"
"Because," said the Jinnee, sullenly, "I have forgotten the way."
"Nonsense!" retorted Horace; "I don't believe it. Why," he urged, descending to flattery, "you're such a clever old Johnny—I beg your pardon, I meant such a clever old Jinnee—you can do anything, if you only give your mind to it. Just look at the way you changed this house back again to what it was. Marvellous!"
"That was the veriest trifle," said Fakrash, though he was obviously pleased by this tribute to his talent; "this would be a different affair altogether."
"But child's play to you!" insinuated Horace. "Come, you know very well you can do it if you only choose."
"It may be as thou sayest. But I do not choose."
"Then I think," said Horace, "that, considering the obligation you admit yourself you are under to me, I have a right to know the reason—the real reason—why you refuse."
"Thy claim is not without justice," answered the Jinnee, after a pause, "nor can I decline to gratify thee."
"That's right," cried Horace; "I knew you'd see it in the proper light when it was once put to you. Now, don't lose any more time, but restore that unfortunate man at once, as you've promised."
"Not so," said the Jinnee; "I promised thee a reason for my refusal—and that thou shalt have. Know then, O my son, that this indiscreet one had, by some vile and unhallowed arts, divined the hidden meaning of what was written upon the seal of the bottle wherein I was confined, and was preparing to reveal the same unto all men."
"What would it matter to you if he did?"
"Much—for the writing contained a false and lying record of my actions."
"If it is all lies, it can't do you any harm. Why not treat them with the contempt they deserve?"
"They are not all lies," the Jinnee admitted reluctantly.
"Well, never mind. Whatever you've done, you've expiated it by this time."
"Now that Suleyman is no more, it is my desire to seek out my kinsmen of the Green Jinn, and live out my days in amity and honour. How can that be if they hear my name execrated by all mortals?"
"Nobody would think of execrating you about an affair three thousand years old. It's too stale a scandal."
"Thou speakest without understanding. I tell thee that if men knew but the half of my misdoings," said Fakrash, in a tone not altogether free from a kind of sombre complacency, "the noise of them would rise even unto the uppermost regions, and scorn and loathing would be my portion."
"Oh, it's not so bad as all that," said Horace, who had a private impression that the Jinnee's "past" would probably turn out to be chiefly made up of peccadilloes. "But, anyway, I'm sure the Professor will readily agree to keep silence about it; and, as you have of course, got the seal in your own possession again——"
"Nay; the seal is still in his possession, and it is naught to me where it is deposited," said Fakrash, "since the only mortal who hath deciphered it is now a dumb animal."
"Not at all," said Horace. "There are several friends of his who could decipher that inscription quite as easily as he did."
"Is this the truth?" said the Jinnee, in visible alarm.
"Certainly," said Horace. "Within the last quarter of a century archaeology has made great strides. Our learned men can now read Babylonian bricks and Chaldean tablets as easily as if they were advertisements on galvanised iron. You may think you've been extremely clever in turning the Professor into an animal, but you'll probably find you've only made another mistake."
"How so?" inquired Fakrash.
"Well," said Horace, seeing his advantage, and pushing it unscrupulously, "now, that, in your infinite wisdom, you have ordained that he should be a mule, he naturally can't possess property. Therefore all his effects will have to be sold, and amongst them will be that seal of yours, which, like many other things in his collection, will probably be bought up by the British Museum, where it will be examined and commented upon by every Orientalist in Europe. I suppose you've thought of all that?"
"O young man of marvellous sagacity!" said the Jinnee; "truly I had omitted to consider these things, and thou hast opened my eyes in time. For I will present myself unto this man-mule and adjure him to reveal where he hath bestowed this seal, so that I may regain it."
"He can't do that, you know, so long as he remains a mule."
"I will endow him with speech for the purpose."
"Let me tell you this," said Horace: "he's in a very nasty temper just now, naturally enough, and you won't get anything out of him until you have restored him to human form. If you do that, he'll agree to anything."
"Whether I restore him or not will depend not on me, but on the damsel who is his daughter, and to whom thou art contracted in marriage. For first of all I must speak with her."
"So long as I am present and you promise not to play any tricks," said Horace, "I've no objection, for I believe, if you once saw her and heard her plead for her poor father, you wouldn't have the heart to hold out any longer. But you must give me your word that you'll behave yourself."
"Thou hast it," said the Jinnee; "I do but desire to see her on thine account."
"Very well," agreed Horace; "but I really can't introduce you in that turban—she'd be terrified. Couldn't you contrive to get yourself up in commonplace English clothes, just for once—something that wouldn't attract so much attention?"
"Will this satisfy thee?" inquired the Jinnee, as his green turban and flowing robes suddenly resolved themselves into the conventional chimney-pot hat, frock-coat, and trousers of modern civilisation.
He bore a painful resemblance in them to the kind of elderly gentleman who comes on in the harlequinade to be bonneted by the clown; but Horace was in no mood to be critical just then.
"That's better," he said encouragingly; "much better. Now," he added, as he led the way to the hall and put on his own hat and overcoat, "we'll go out and find a hansom and be at Kensington in less than twenty minutes."
"We shall be there in less than twenty seconds," said the Jinnee, seizing him by the arm above the elbow; and Horace found himself suddenly carried up into the air and set down, gasping with surprise and want of breath, on the pavement opposite the Futvoyes' door.
"I should just like to observe," he said, as soon as he could speak, "that if we've been seen, we shall probably cause a sensation. Londoners are not accustomed to seeing people skimming over the chimney-pots like amateur rooks."
"Trouble not for that," said Fakrash, "for no mortal eyes are capable of following our flight."
"I hope not," said Horace, "or I shall lose any reputation I have left. I think," he added, "I'd better go in alone first and prepare them, if you don't mind waiting outside. I'll come to the window and wave my pocket-handkerchief when they're ready. And do come in by the door like an ordinary person, and ask the maidservant if you may see me."
"I will bear it in mind," answered the Jinnee, and suddenly sank, or seemed to sink, through a chink in the pavement.
Horace, after ringing at the Futvoyes' door, was admitted and shown into the drawing-room, where Sylvia presently came to him, looking as lovely as ever, in spite of the pallor due to sleeplessness and anxiety. "It is kind of you to call and inquire," she said, with the unnatural calm of suppressed hysteria. "Dad is much the same this morning. He had a fairly good night, and was able to take part of a carrot for breakfast—but I'm afraid he has just remembered that he has to read a paper on 'Oriental Occultism' before the Asiatic Society this evening, and it's worrying him a little.... Oh, Horace," she broke out, unexpectedly, "how perfectly awful all this is! How are we to bear it?"
"Don't give way, darling!" said Horace; "you will not have to bear it much longer."
"It's all very well, Horace, but unless something is done soon it will be too late. We can't go on keeping a mule in the study without the servants suspecting something, and where are we to put poor, dear papa? It's too ghastly to think of his having to be sent away to—to a Home of Rest for Horses—and yet what is to be done with him?... Why do you come if you can't do anything?"
"I shouldn't be here unless I could bring you good news. You remember what I told you about the Jinnee?"
"Remember!" cried Sylvia. "As if I could forget! Has he really come back, Horace?"
"Yes. I think I have brought him to see that he has made a foolish mistake in enchanting your unfortunate father, and he seems willing to undo it on certain conditions. He is somewhere within call at this moment, and will come in whenever I give the signal. But he wishes to speak to you first."
"To me? Oh, no, Horace!" exclaimed Sylvia, recoiling. "I'd so much rather not. I don't like things that have come out of brass bottles. I shouldn't know what to say, and it would frighten me horribly."
"You must be brave, darling!" said Horace. "Remember that it depends on you whether the Professor is to be restored or not. And there's nothing alarming about old Fakrash, either, I've got him to put on ordinary things, and he really doesn't look so bad in them. He's quite a mild, amiable old noodle, and he'll do anything for you, if you'll only stroke him down the right way. You will see him, won't you, for your father's sake?"
"If I must," said Sylvia, with a shudder, "I—I'll be as nice to him as I can."
Horace went to the window and gave the signal, though there was no one in sight. However, it was evidently seen, for the next moment there was a resounding blow at the front door, and a little later Jessie, the parlour-maid, announced "Mr. Fatrasher Larmash—to see Mr. Ventimore," and the Jinnee stalked gravely in, with his tall hat on his head.
"You are probably not aware of it, sir," said Horace, "but it is the custom here to uncover in the presence of a lady." The Jinnee removed his hat with both hands, and stood silent and impassive.