The music of Reginald Clarke’s intonation captivated every ear. Voluptuously, in measured cadence, it rose and fell; now full and strong like the sound of an organ, now soft and clear like the tinkling of bells. His voice detracted by its very tunefulness from what he said. The powerful spell charmed even Ernest’s accustomed ear. The first page gracefully glided from Reginald’s hand to the carpet before the boy dimly realised that he was intimately familiar with every word that fell from Reginald’s lips. When the second page slipped with seeming carelessness from the reader’s hand, a sudden shudder ran through the boy’s frame. It was as if an icy hand had gripped his heart. There could be no doubt of it. This was more than mere coincidence. It was plagiarism. He wanted to cry out. But the room swam before his eyes. Surely he must be dreaming. It was a dream. The faces of the audience, the lights, Reginald, Jack—all phantasmagoria of a dream.
Perhaps he had been ill for a long time. Perhaps Clarke was reading the play for him. He did not remember having written it. But he probably had fallen sick after its completion. What strange pranks our memories will play us! But no! He was not dreaming, and he had not been ill.
He could endure the horrible uncertainty no longer. His overstrung nerves must find relaxation in some way or break with a twang. He turned to his friend who was listening with rapt attention.
“Jack, Jack!” he whispered.
“What is it?”
“That is my play!”
“You mean that you inspired it?”
“No, I have written it, or rather, was going to write it.”
“Wake up, Ernest! You are mad!”
“No, in all seriousness. It is mine. I told you—don’t you remember—when we returned from Coney Island—that I was writing a play.”
“Ah, but not this play.”
“Yes, this play. I conceived it, I practically wrote it.”
“The more’s the pity that Clarke had preconceived it.”
“But it is mine!”
“Did you tell him a word about it?”
“No, to be sure.”
“Did you leave the manuscript in your room?”
“I had, in fact, not written a line of it. No, I had not begun the actual writing.”
“Why should a man of Clarke’s reputation plagiarise your plays, written or unwritten?”
“I can see no reason. But—”
For already this whispered conversation had elicited a look like a stab from a lady before them.
Ernest held fast to the edge of a chair. He must cling to some reality, or else drift rudderless in a dim sea of vague apprehensions.
Or was Jack right?
Was his mind giving way? No! No! No! There must be a monstrous secret somewhere, but what matter? Did anything matter? He had called on his mate like a ship lost in the fog. For the first time he had not responded. He had not understood. The bitterness of tears rose to the boy’s eyes.
Above it all, melodiously, ebbed and flowed the rich accents of Reginald Clarke.
Ernest listened to the words of his own play coming from the older man’s mouth. The horrible fascination of the scene held him entranced. He saw the creations of his mind pass in review before him, as a man might look upon the face of his double grinning at him from behind a door in the hideous hours of night.
They were all there! The mad king. The subtle-witted courtiers. The sombre-hearted Prince. The Queen-Mother who had loved a jester better than her royal mate, and the fruit of their shameful alliance, the Princess Marigold, a creature woven of sunshine and sin.
Swiftly the action progressed. Shadows of impending death darkened the house of the King. In the horrible agony of the rack the old jester confessed. Stripped of his cap and bells, crowned with a wreath of blood, he looked so pathetically funny that the Princess Marigold could not help laughing between her tears.
The Queen stood there all trembling and pale. Without a complaint she saw her lover die. The executioner’s sword smote the old man’s head straight from the trunk. It rolled at the feet of the King, who tossed it to Marigold. The little Princess kissed it and covered the grinning horror with her yellow veil.
The last words died away.
There was no applause. Only silence. All were stricken with the dread that men feel in the house of God or His awful presence in genius.
But the boy lay back in his chair. The cold sweat had gathered on his brow and his temples throbbed. Nature had mercifully clogged his head with blood. The rush of it drowned the crying voice of the nerves, deadening for a while both consciousness and pain.
Somehow the night had passed—somehow in bitterness, in anguish. But it had passed.
Ernest’s lips were parched and sleeplessness had left its trace in the black rings under the eyes, when the next morning he confronted Reginald in the studio.
Reginald was sitting at the writing-table in his most characteristic pose, supporting his head with his hand and looking with clear piercing eyes searchingly at the boy.
“Yes,” he observed, “it’s a most curious psychical phenomenon.”
“You cannot imagine how real it all seemed to me.”
The boy spoke painfully, dazed, as if struck by a blow.
“Even now it is as if something has gone from me, some struggling thought that I cannot—cannot remember.”
Reginald regarded him as a physical experimenter might look upon the subject of a particularly baffling mental disease.
“You must not think, my boy, that I bear you any malice for your extraordinary delusion. Before Jack went away he gave me an exact account of all that has happened. Divers incidents recurred to him from which it appears that, at various times in the past, you have been on the verge of a nervous collapse.”
A nervous collapse! What was the use of this term but a euphemism for insanity?
“Do not despair, dear child,” Reginald caressingly remarked. “Your disorder is not hopeless, not incurable. Such crises come to every man who writes. It is the tribute we pay to the Lords of Song. The minnesinger of the past wrote with his heart’s blood; but we moderns dip our pen into the sap of our nerves. We analyse life, love art—and the dissecting knife that we use on other men’s souls finally turns against ourselves.
“But what shall a man do? Shall he sacrifice art to hygiene and surrender the one attribute that makes him chiefest of created things? Animals, too, think. Some walk on two legs. But introspection differentiates man from the rest. Shall we yield up the sweet consciousness of self that we derive from the analysis of our emotion, for the contentment of the bull that ruminates in the shade of a tree or the healthful stupidity of a mule?”
“But what shall a man do?”
“Ah, that I cannot tell. Mathematics offers definite problems that admit of a definite solution. Life states its problems with less exactness and offers for each a different solution. One and one are two to-day and to-morrow. Psychical values, on each manipulation, will yield a different result. Still, your case is quite clear. You have overworked yourself in the past, mentally and emotionally. You have sown unrest, and must not be surprised if neurasthenia is the harvest thereof.”
“Do you think—that I should go to some sanitarium?” the boy falteringly asked.
“God forbid! Go to the seashore, somewhere where you can sleep and play. Take your body along, but leave your brain behind—at least do not take more of it with you than is necessary. The summer season in Atlantic City has just begun. There, as everywhere in American society, you will be much more welcome if you come without brains.”
Reginald’s half-bantering tone reassured Ernest a little. Timidly he dared approach once more the strange event that had wrought such havoc with his nervous equilibrium.
“How do you account for my strange obsession—one might almost call it a mania?”
“If it could be accounted for it would not be strange.”
“Can you suggest no possible explanation?”
“Perhaps a stray leaf on my desk a few indications of the plot, a remark—who knows? Perhaps thought-matter is floating in the air. Perhaps—but we had better not talk of it now. It would needlessly excite you.”
“You are right,” answered Ernest gloomily, “let us not talk of it. But whatever may be said, it is a marvellous play.”
“You flatter me. There is nothing in it that you may not be able to do equally well—some day.”
“Ah, no,” the boy replied, looking up to Reginald with admiration. “You are the master.”
Lazily Ernest stretched his limbs on the beach of Atlantic City. The sea, that purger of sick souls, had washed away the fever and the fret of the last few days. The wind was in his hair and the spray was in his breath, while the rays of the sun kissed his bare arms and legs. He rolled over in the glittering sand in the sheer joy of living.
Now and then a wavelet stole far into the beach, as if to caress him, but pined away ere it could reach its goal. It was as if the enamoured sea was stretching out its arms to him. Who knows, perhaps through the clear water some green-eyed nymph, or a young sea-god with the tang of the sea in his hair, was peering amorously at the boy’s red mouth. The people of the deep love the red warm blood of human kind. It is always the young that they lure to their watery haunts, never the shrivelled limbs that totter shivering to the grave.
Such fancies came to Ernest as he lay on the shore in his bathing attire, happy, thoughtless,—animal.
The sun and the sea seemed to him two lovers vying for his favor. The sudden change of environment had brought complete relaxation and had quieted his rebellious, assertive soul. He was no longer a solitary unit but one with wind and water, herb and beach and shell. Almost voluptuously his hand toyed with the hot sand that glided caressingly through his fingers and buried his breast and shoulder under its glittering burden.
A summer girl who passed lowered her eyes coquettishly. He watched her without stirring. Even to open his mouth or to smile would have seemed too much exertion.
Thus he lay for hours. When at length noon drew nigh, it cost him a great effort of will to shake off his drowsy mood and exchange his airy costume for the conventional habilaments of the dining-room.
He had taken lodgings in a fashionable hotel. An unusual stroke of good luck, hack-work that paid outrageously well, had made it possible for him to idle for a time without a thought of the unpleasant necessity of making money.
One single article to which he signed his name only with reluctance had brought to him more gear than a series of golden sonnets.
“Surely,” he thought, “the social revolution ought to begin from above. What right has the bricklayer to grumble when he receives for a week’s work almost more than I for a song?”
Thus soliloquising, he reached the dining-room. The scene that unfolded itself before him was typical—the table over-loaded, the women over-dressed.
The luncheon was already in full course when he came. He mumbled an apology and seated himself on the only remaining chair next to a youth who reminded him of a well-dressed dummy. With slight weariness his eyes wandered in all directions for more congenial faces when they were arrested by a lady on the opposite side of the table. She was clad in a silk robe with curiously embroidered net-work that revealed a nervous and delicate throat. The rich effect of the net-work was relieved by the studied simplicity with which her heavy chestnut-colored hair was gathered in a single knot. Her face was turned away from him, but there was something in the carriage of her head that struck him as familiar. When at last she looked him in the face, the glass almost fell from his hand: it was Ethel Brandenbourg. She seemed to notice his embarrassment and smiled. When she opened her lips to speak, he knew by the haunting sweetness of the voice that he was not mistaken.
“Tell me,” she said wistfully, “you have forgotten me? They all have.”
He hastened to assure her that he had not forgotten her. He recollected now that he had first been introduced to her in Walkham’s house some years ago, when a mere college boy, he had been privileged to attend one of that master’s famous receptions. She had looked quite resolute and very happy then, not at all like the woman who had stared so strangely at Reginald in the Broadway restaurant.
He regarded this encounter as very fortunate. He knew so much of her personal history that it almost seemed to him as if they had been intimate for years. She, too, felt on familiar ground with him. Neither as much as whispered the name of Reginald Clarke. Yet it was he, and the knowledge of what he was to them, that linked their souls with a common bond.
It was the third day after their meeting. Hour by hour their intimacy had increased. Ethel was sitting in a large wicker-chair. She restlessly fingered her parasol, mechanically describing magic circles in the sand. Ernest lay at her feet. With his knees clasped between his hands, he gazed into her eyes.
“Why are you trying so hard to make love to me?” the woman asked, with the half-amused smile with which the Eve near thirty receives the homage of a boy. There is an element of insincerity in that smile, but it is a weapon of defence against love’s artillery.
Sometimes, indeed, the pleading in the boy’s eyes and the cry of the blood pierces the woman’s smiling superiority. She listens, loves and loses.
Ethel Brandenbourg was listening, but the idea of love had not yet entered into her mind. Her interest in Ernest was due in part to his youth and the trembling in his voice when he spoke of love. But what probably attracted her most powerfully was the fact that he intimately knew the man who still held her woman’s heart in the hollow of his hand. It was half in play, therefore, that she had asked him that question.
Why did he make love to her? He did not know. Perhaps it was the irresistible desire to be petted which young poets share with domesticated cats. But what should he tell her? Polite platitudes were out of place between them.
Besides he knew the penalty of all tender entanglements. Women treat love as if it were an extremely tenuous wire that can be drawn out indefinitely. This is a very expensive process. It costs us the most precious, the only irretrievable thing in the universe—time. And to him time was song; for money he did not care. The Lord had hallowed his lips with rhythmic speech; only in the intervals of his singing might he listen to the voice of his heart—strangest of all watches, that tells the time not by minutes and hours, but by the coming and going of love.
The woman beside him seemed to read his thoughts.
“Child, child,” she said, “why will you toy with love? Like Jehovah, he is a jealous god, and nothing but the whole heart can placate him. Woe to the woman who takes a poet for a lover. I admit it is fascinating, but it is playing va banque. In fact, it is fatal. Art or love will come to harm. No man can minister equally to both. A genuine poet is incapable of loving a woman.”
“Pshaw! You exaggerate. Of course, there is a measure of truth in what you say, but it is only one side of the truth, and the truth, you know, is always Janus-faced. In fact, it often has more than two faces. I can assure you that I have cared deeply for the women to whom my love-poetry was written. And you will not deny that it is genuine.”
“God forbid! Only you have been using the wrong preposition. You should have said that it was written at them.”
Ernest stared at her in child-like wonder.
“By Jove! you are too devilishly clever!” he exclaimed.
After a little silence he said not without hesitation: “And do you apply your theory to all artists, or only to us makers of rhyme?”
“To all,” she replied.
He looked at her questioningly.
“Yes,” she said, with a new sadness in her voice, “I, too, have paid the price.”
“That was the sacrifice.”
“Perhaps you have chosen the better part,” Ernest said without conviction.
“No,” she replied, “my tribute was brought in vain.”
This she said calmly, but Ernest knew that her words were of tragic import.
“You love him still?” he observed simply.
Ethel made no reply. Sadness clouded her face like a veil or like a grey mist over the face of the waters. Her eyes went out to the sea, following the sombre flight of the sea-mews.
In that moment he could have taken her in his arms and kissed her with infinite tenderness.
But tenderness between man and woman is like a match in a powder-magazine. The least provocation, and an amorous explosion will ensue, tumbling down the card-houses of platonic affection. If he yielded to the impulse of the moment, the wine of the springtide would set their blood afire, and from the flames within us there is no escape.
“Come, come,” she said, “you do not love me.”
“Ah!” she cried triumphantly, “how many sonnets would you give for me? If you were a usurer in gold instead of in rhyme, I would ask how many dollars. But it is unjust to pay in a coin that we value little. To a man starving in gold mines, a piece of bread weighs more than all the treasures of the earth. To you, I warrant your poems are the standard of appreciation. How many would you give for me? One, two, three?”
“Because you think love would repay you with compound interest,” she observed merrily.
And when love turns to laughter the danger is passed for the moment.
Thus three weeks passed without apparent change in their relations. Ernest possessed a personal magnetism that, always emanating from him, was felt most deeply when withdrawn. He was at all times involuntarily exerting his power, which she ever resisted, always on the alert, always warding off.
When at last pressure of work made his immediate departure for New York imperative, he had not apparently gained the least ground. But Ethel knew in her heart that she was fascinated, if not in love. The personal fascination was supplemented by a motherly feeling toward Ernest that, sensuous in essence, was in itself not far removed from love. She struggled bravely and with external success against her emotions, never losing sight of the fact that twenty and thirty are fifty.
Increasingly aware of her own weakness, she constantly attempted to lead the conversation into impersonal channels, speaking preferably of his work.
“Tell me,” she said, negligently fanning herself, “what new inspiration have you drawn from your stay at the seaside?”
“Why,” he exclaimed enthusiastically, “volumes and volumes of it. I shall write the great novel of my life after I am once more quietly installed at Riverside Drive.”
“The great American novel?” she rejoined.
“Who will be your hero—Clarke?”
There was a slight touch of malice in her words, or rather in the pause between the penultimate word and the last. Ernest detected its presence, and knew that her love for Reginald was dead. Stiff and cold it lay in her heart’s chamber—beside how many others?—all emboxed in the coffin of memory.
“No,” he replied after a while, a little piqued by her suggestion, “Clarke is not the hero. What makes you think that he casts a spell on everything I do?”
“Dear child,” she replied, “I know him. He cannot fail to impress his powerful personality upon all with whom he comes in contact, to the injury of their intellectual independence. Moreover, he is so brilliant and says everything so much better than anybody else, that by his very splendor he discourages effort in others. At best his influence will shape your development according to the tenets of his mind—curious, subtle and corrupted. You will become mentally distorted, like one of those hunchback Japanese trees, infinitely wrinkled and infinitely grotesque, whose laws of growth are not determined by nature, but by the diseased imagination of the East.”
“I am no weakling,” Ernest asserted, “and your picture of Clarke is altogether out of perspective. His splendid successes are to me a source of constant inspiration. We have some things in common, but I realise that it is along entirely different lines that success will come to me. He has never sought to influence me, in fact, I never received the smallest suggestion from him.” Here the Princess Marigold seemed to peer at him through the veil of the past, but he waved her aside. “As for my story,” he continued, “you need not go so far out of your way to find the leading character?”
“Who can it be?” Ethel remarked, with a merry twinkle, “You?”
“Ethel,” he said sulkingly, “be serious. You know that it is you.”
“I am immensely flattered,” she replied. “Really, nothing pleases me better than to be immortalised in print, since I have little hope nowadays of perpetuating my name by virtue of pencil or brush. I have been put into novels before and am consumed with curiosity to hear the plot of yours.”
“If you don’t mind, I had rather not tell you just yet,” Ernest said. “It’s going to be called Leontina—that’s you. But all depends on the treatment. You know it doesn’t matter much what you say so long as you say it well. That’s what counts. At any rate, any indication of the plot at this stage would be decidedly inadequate.”
“I think you are right,” she ventured. “By all means choose your own time to tell me. Let’s talk of something else. Have you written anything since your delightful book of verse last spring? Surely now is your singing season. By the time we are thirty the springs of pure lyric passion are usually exhausted.”
Ethel’s inquiry somehow startled him. In truth, he could find no satisfactory answer. A remark relative to his play—Clarke’s play—rose to the threshold of his lips, but he almost bit his tongue as soon as he realised that the strange delusion which had possessed him that night still dominated the undercurrents of his cerebration. No, he had accomplished but little during the last few months—at least, by way of creative literature. So he replied that he had made money. “That is something,” he said. “Besides, who can turn out a masterpiece every week? An artist’s brain is not a machine, and in the respite from creative work I have gathered strength for the future. But,” he added, slightly annoyed, “you are not listening.”
His exclamation brought her back from the train of thoughts that his words had suggested. For in his reasoning she had recognised the same arguments that she had hourly repeated to herself in defence of her inactivity when she was living under the baneful influence of Reginald Clarke. Yes, baneful; for the first time she dared to confess it to herself. In a flash the truth dawned upon her that it was not her love alone, but something else, something irresistable and very mysterious, that had dried up the well of creation in her. Could it be that the same power was now exerting its influence upon the struggling soul of this talented boy? Rack her brains as she might, she could not definitely formulate her apprehensions and a troubled look came into her eyes.
“Ethel,” the boy repeated, impatiently, “why are you not listening? Do you realise that I must leave you in half an hour?”
She looked at him with deep tenderness. Something like a tear lent a soft radiance to her large child-like eyes.
Ernest saw it and was profoundly moved. In that moment he loved her passionately.
“Foolish boy,” she said softly; then, lowering her voice to a whisper: “You may kiss me before you go.”
His lips gently touched hers, but she took his head between her hands and pressed her mouth upon his in a long kiss.
Ernest drew back a little awkwardly. He had not been kissed like this before.
“Poet though you are,” Ethel whispered, “you have not yet learned to kiss.”
She was deeply agitated when she noticed that his hand was fumbling for the watch in his vest-pocket. She suddenly released him, and said, a little hurt: “No, you must not miss your train. Go by all means.”
Vainly Ernest remonstrated with her.
“Go to him,” she said, and again, “go to him.”
With a heavy heart the boy obeyed. He waved his hat to her once more from below, and then rapidly disappeared in the crowd. For a moment strange misgivings cramped her heart, and something within her called out to him: “Do not go! Do not return to that house.” But no sound issued from her lips. Worldly wisdom had sealed them, had stifled the inner voice. And soon the boy’s golden head was swallowed up in the distance.
While the train sped to New York, Ethel Brandenbourg was the one object engaging Ernest’s mind. He still felt the pressure of her lips upon his, and his nostrils dilated at the thought of the fragrance of her hair brushing against his forehead.
But the moment his foot touched the ferry-boat that was to take him to Manhattan, the past three weeks were, for the time being at least, completely obliterated from his memory. All his other interests that he had suppressed in her company because she had no part in them, came rushing back to him. He anticipated with delight his meeting with Reginald Clarke. The personal attractiveness of the man had never seemed so powerful to Ernest as when he had not heard from him for some time. Reginald’s letters were always brief. “Professional writers,” he was wont to say, “cannot afford to put fine feeling into their private correspondence. They must turn it into copy.” He longed to sit with the master in the studio when the last rays of the daylight were tremulously falling through the stained window, and to discuss far into the darkening night philosophies young and old. He longed for Reginald’s voice, his little mannerisms, the very perfume of his rooms.
There also was a deluge of letters likely to await him in his apartment. For in his hurried departure he had purposely left his friends in the dark as to his whereabouts. Only to Jack he had dropped a little note the day after his meeting with Ethel.
He earnestly hoped to find Reginald at home, though it was well nigh ten o’clock in the evening, and he cursed the “rapid transit” for its inability to annihilate space and time. It is indeed disconcerting to think how many months, if not years, of our earthly sojourn the dwellers in cities spend in transportation conveyances that must be set down as a dead loss in the ledger of life. A nervous impatience against things material overcame Ernest in the subway. It is ever the mere stupid obstacle of matter that weights down the wings of the soul and prevents it from soaring upward to the sun.
When at last he had reached the house, he learned from the hall-boy that Clarke had gone out. Ruffled in temper he entered his rooms and went over his mail. There were letters from editors with commissions that he could not afford to reject. Everywhere newspapers and magazines opened their yawning mouths to swallow up what time he had. He realised at once that he would have to postpone the writing of his novel for several weeks, if not longer.
Among the letters was one from Jack. It bore the postmark of a little place in the Adirondacks where he was staying with his parents. Ernest opened the missive not without hesitation. On reading and rereading it the fine lines on his forehead, that would some day deepen into wrinkles, became quite pronounced and a look of displeasure darkened his face. Something was wrong with Jack, a slight change that defied analysis. Their souls were out of tune. It might only be a passing disturbance; perhaps it was his own fault. It pained him, nevertheless. Somehow it seemed of late that Jack was no longer able to follow the vagaries of his mind. Only one person in the world possessed a similar mental vision, only one seemed to understand what he said and what he left unsaid. Reginald Clarke, being a man and poet, read in his soul as in an open book. Ethel might have understood, had not love, like a cloud, laid itself between her eyes and the page.
It was with exultation that Ernest heard near midnight the click of Reginald’s key in the door. He found him unchanged, completely, radiantly himself. Reginald possessed the psychic power of undressing the soul, of seeing it before him in primal nakedness. Although no word was said of Ethel Brandenbourg except the mere mention of her presence in Atlantic City, Ernest intuitively knew that Reginald was aware of the transformation that absence had wrought in him. In the presence of this man he could be absolutely himself, without shame or fear of mis-understanding; and by a strange metamorphosis, all his affection for Ethel and Jack went out for the time being to Reginald Clarke.
The next day Ernest wrote a letter of more or less superficial tenderness to Ethel. She had wounded his pride by proving victorious in the end over his passion and hers; besides, he was in the throes of work. When after the third day no answer came, he was inclined to feel aggrieved. It was plain now that she had not cared for him in the least, but had simply played with him for lack of another toy. A flush of shame rose to his cheeks at the thought. He began to analyse his own emotions, and stunned, if not stabbed, his passion step by step. Work was calling to him. It was that which gave life its meaning, not the love of a season. How far away, how unreal, she now seemed to him. Yes, she was right, he had not cared deeply; and his novel, too, would be written only at her. It was the heroine of his story that absorbed his interest, not the living prototype.
Once in a conversation with Reginald he touched upon the subject. Reginald held that modern taste no longer permitted even the photographer to portray life as it is, but insisted upon an individual visualisation. “No man,” he remarked, “was ever translated bodily into fiction. In contradiction to life, art is a process of artificial selection.”
Bearing in mind this motive, Ernest went to work to mould from the material in hand a new Ethel, more real than life. Unfortunately he found little time to devote to his novel. It was only when, after a good day’s work, a pile of copy for a magazine lay on his desk, that he could think of concentrating his mind upon “Leontina.” The result was that when he went to bed his imagination was busy with the plan of his book, and the creatures of his own brain laid their fingers on his eyelid so that he could not sleep.
When at last sheer weariness overcame him, his mind was still at work, not in orderly sequence but along trails monstrous and grotesque. Hobgoblins seemed to steal through the hall, and leering incubi oppressed his soul with terrible burdens. In the morning he awoke unrested. The tan vanished from his face and little lines appeared in the corners of his mouth. It was as if his nervous vitality were sapped from him in some unaccountable way. He became excited, hysterical. Often at night when he wrote his pot-boilers for the magazines, fear stood behind his seat, and only the buzzing of the elevator outside brought him back to himself.
In one of his morbid moods he wrote a sonnet which he showed to Reginald after the latter’s return from a short trip out of town. Reginald read it, looking at the boy with a curious, lurking expression.
O gentle Sleep, turn not thy face away,
But place thy finger on my brow, and take
All burthens from me and all dreams that ache;
Upon mine eyes a cooling balsam lay,
Seeing I am aweary of the day.
But, lo! thy lips are ashen and they quake.
What spectral vision sees thou that can shake
Thy sweet composure, and thy heart dismay?
Perhaps some murderer’s cruel eye agleam
Is fixed upon me, or some monstrous dream
Might bring such fearful guilt upon the head
Of my unvigilant soul as would arouse
The Borgian snake from her envenomed bed,
Or startle Nero in his golden house.
“Good stuff,” Reginald remarked, laying down the manuscript; “when did you write it?”
“The night when you were out of town,” Ernest rejoined.
“I see,” Reginald replied.
There was something startling in his intonation that at once aroused Ernest’s attention.
“What do you see?” he asked quickly.
“Nothing,” Reginald replied, with immovable calm, “only that your state of nerves is still far from satisfactory.”
After Ernest’s departure Ethel Brandenbourg’s heart was swaying hither and thither in a hurricane of conflicting feelings. Before she had time to gain an emotional equilibrium, his letter had hurled her back into chaos. A false ring somewhere in Ernest’s words, reechoing with an ever-increasing volume of sound, stifled the voice of love. His jewelled sentences glittered, but left her cold. They lacked that spontaneity which renders even simple and hackeneyed phrases wonderful and unique. Ethel clearly realised that her hold upon the boy’s imagination had been a fleeting midsummer night’s charm, and that a word from Reginald’s lips had broken the potency of her spell. She almost saw the shadow of Reginald’s visage hovering over Ernest’s letter and leering at her from between the lines in sinister triumph. Finally reason came and whispered to her that it was extremely unwise to give her heart into the keeping of a boy. His love, she knew, would have been exacting, irritating at times. He would have asked her to sympathise with every phase of his life, and would have expected active interest on her part in much that she had done with long ago. Thus, untruth would have stolen into her life and embittered it. When mates are unequal, Love must paint its cheeks and, in certain moods at least, hide its face under a mask. Its lips may be honeyed, but it brings fret and sorrow in its train.
These things she told herself over and over again while she penned a cool and calculating answer to Ernest’s letter. She rewrote it many times, and every time it became more difficult to reply. At last she put her letter aside for a few days, and when it fell again into her hand it seemed so unnatural and strained that she destroyed it.
Thus several weeks had passed, and Ernest no longer exclusively occupied her mind when, one day early in September, while glancing over a magazine, she came upon his name in the table of contents. Once more she saw the boy’s wistful face before her, and a trembling something stirred in her heart. Her hand shook as she cut the pages, and a mist of tears clouded her vision as she attempted to read his poem. It was a piece of sombre brilliance. Like black-draped monks half crazed with mystic devotion, the poet’s thoughts flitted across the page. It was the wail of a soul that feels reason slipping from it and beholds madness rise over its life like a great pale moon. A strange unrest emanated from it and took possession of her. And again, with an insight that was prophetic, she distinctly recognised behind the vague fear that had haunted the poet the figure of Reginald Clarke.
A half-forgotten dream, struggling to consciousness, staggered her by its vividness. She saw Clarke as she had seen him in days gone by, grotesquely transformed into a slimy sea-thing, whose hungry mouths shut sucking upon her and whose thousand tentacles encircled her form. She closed her eyes in horror at the reminiscence. And in that moment it became clear to her that she must take into her hands the salvation of Ernest Fielding from the clutches of the malign power that had mysteriously enveloped his life.
The summer was brief, and already by the middle of September many had returned to the pleasures of urban life. Ethel was among the first-comers; for, after her resolve to enter the life of the young poet once more, it would have been impossible for her to stay away from the city much longer. Her plan was all ready. Before attempting to see Ernest she would go to meet Reginald and implore him to free the boy from his hideous spell. An element of curiosity unconsciously entered her determination. When, years ago, she and Clarke had parted, the man had seemed, for once, greatly disturbed and had promised, in his agitation, that some day he would communicate to her what would exonerate him in her eyes. She had answered that all words between them were purposeless, and that she hoped never to see his face again. The experience that the years had brought to her, instead of elucidating the mystery of Reginald’s personality, had, on the contrary, made his behaviour appear more and more unaccountable. She had more than once caught herself wishing to meet him again and to analyse dispassionately the puzzling influences he had exerted upon her. And she could at last view him dispassionately; there was triumph in that. She was dimly aware that something had passed from her, something by which he had held her, and without which his magnetism was unable to play upon her.
So when Walkham sent her an invitation to one of his artistic “at homes” she accepted, in the hope of meeting Reginald. It was his frequentation of Walkham’s house that had for several years effectively barred her foot from crossing the threshold. It was with a very strange feeling she greeted the many familiar faces at Walkham’s now; and when, toward ten o’clock, Reginald entered, politely bowing in answer to the welcome from all sides, her heart beat in her like a drum. But she calmed herself, and, catching his eye, so arranged it that early in the evening they met in an alcove of the drawing-room.
“It was inevitable,” Reginald said. “I expected it.”
“Yes,” she replied, “we were bound to meet.”
Like a great rush of water, memory came back to her. He was still horribly fascinating as of old—only she was no longer susceptible to his fascination. He had changed somewhat in those years. The lines about his mouth had grown harder and a steel-like look had come into his eyes. Only for a moment, as he looked at her, a flash of tenderness seemed to come back to them. Then he said, with a touch of sadness: “Why should the first word between us be a lie?”
Ethel made no answer.
Reginald looked at her half in wonder and said: “And is your love for the boy so great that it overcame your hate of me?”
Ah, he knew! She winced.
“He has told you?”
“Not a word.”
There was something superhuman in his power of penetration. Why should she wear a mask before him, when his eyes, like the eyes of God, pierced to the core of her being?
“No,” she replied, “it is not love, but compassion for him.”
“Yes, compassion for your victim.”
“I am all ear.”
“I implore you.”
“You have ruined one life.”
He raised his eyebrows derogatively.
“Yes,” she continued fiercely, “ruined it! Is not that enough?”
“I have never wilfully ruined any one’s life.”
“You have ruined mine.”
“How else shall I explain your conduct?”
“I warned you.”
“Warning, indeed! The warning that the snake gives to the sparrow helpless under its gaze.”
“Ah, but who tells you that the snake is to blame? Is it not rather the occult power that prescribes with blood on brazen scroll the law of our being?”
“This is no solace to the sparrow. But whatever may be said, let us drop the past. Let us consider the present. I beg of you, leave this boy—let him develop without your attempting to stifle the life in him or impressing upon it the stamp of your alien mind.”
“Ethel,” he protested, “you are unjust. If you knew—” Then an idea seemed to take hold of him. He looked at her curiously.
“What if I knew?” she asked.
“You shall know,” he said, simply. “Are you strong?”
“Strong to withstand anything at your hand. There is nothing that you can give me, nothing that you can take away.”
“No,” he remarked, “nothing. Yes, you have changed. Still, when I look upon you, the ghosts of the past seem to rise like live things.”
“We both have changed. We meet now upon equal grounds. You are no longer the idol I made of you.”
“Don’t you think that to the idol this might be a relief, not a humiliation? It is a terrible torture to sit in state with lips eternally shut. Sometimes there comes over the most reticent of us a desire to break through the eternal loneliness that surrounds the soul. It is this feeling that prompts madmen to tear off their clothes and exhibit their nakedness in the market-place. It’s madness on my part, or a whim, or I don’t know what; but it pleases me that you should know the truth.”
“You promised me long ago that I should.”
“To-day I will redeem my promise, and I will tell you another thing that you will find hard to believe.”
“And that is?”
“That I loved you.”
Ethel smiled a little sceptically. “You have loved often.”
“No,” he replied. “Loved, seriously loved, I have, only once.”
They were sitting in a little Italian restaurant where they had often, in the old days, lingered late into the night over a glass of Lacrimæ Christi. But no pale ghost of the past rose from the wine. Only a wriggling something, with serpent eyes, that sent cold shivers down her spine and held her speechless and entranced.
When their order had been filled and the waiter had posted himself at a respectful distance, Reginald began—at first leisurely, a man of the world. But as he proceeded a strange exultation seemed to possess him and from his eyes leaped the flame of the mystic.
“You must pardon me,” he commenced, “if I monopolise the conversation, but the revelations I have to make are of such a nature that I may well claim your attention. I will start with my earliest childhood. You remember the picture of me that was taken when I was five?”
She remembered, indeed. Each detail of his life was deeply engraven on her mind.
“At that time,” he continued, “I was not held to be particularly bright. The reason was that my mind, being pre-eminently and extraordinarily receptive, needed a stimulus from without. The moment I was sent to school, however, a curious metamorphosis took place in me. I may say that I became at once the most brilliant boy in my class. You know that to this day I have always been the most striking figure in any circle in which I have ever moved.”
Ethel nodded assent. Silently watching the speaker, she saw a gleam of the truth from afar, but still very distant and very dim.
Reginald lifted the glass against the light and gulped its contents. Then in a lower voice he recommenced: “Like the chameleon, I have the power of absorbing the colour of my environment.”
“Do you mean that you have the power of absorbing the special virtues of other people?” she interjected.
“That is exactly what I mean.”
“Oh!” she cried, for in a heart-beat many things had become clear to her. For the first time she realised, still vaguely but with increasing vividness, the hidden causes of her ruin and, still more plainly, the horrible danger of Ernest Fielding.
He noticed her agitation, and a look of psychological curiosity came into his eyes.
“Ah, but that is not all,” he observed, smilingly. “That is nothing. We all possess that faculty in a degree. The secret of my strength is my ability to reject every element that is harmful or inessential to the completion of my self. This did not come to me easily, nor without a struggle. But now, looking back upon my life, many things become transparent that were obscure even to me at the time. I can now follow the fine-spun threads in the intricate web of my fate, and discover in the wilderness of meshes a design, awful and grandly planned.”
His voice shook with conviction, as he uttered these words. There was something strangely gruesome in this man. It was thus that she had pictured to herself the high-priest of some terrible and mysterious religion, demanding a human sacrifice to appease the hunger of his god. She was fascinated by the spell of his personality, and listened with a feeling not far removed from awe. But Reginald suddenly changed his tone and proceeded in a more conversational manner.
“The first friend I ever cared for was a boy marvellously endowed for the study of mathematics. At the time of our first meeting at school, I was unable to solve even the simplest algebraical problem. But we had been together only for half a month, when we exchanged parts. It was I who was the mathematical genius now, whereas he became hopelessly dull and stuttered through his recitations only with a struggle that brought the tears to his eyes. Then I discarded him. Heartless, you say? I have come to know better. Have you ever tasted a bottle of wine that had been uncorked for a long time? If you have, you have probably found it flat—the essence was gone, evaporated. Thus it is when we care for people. Probably—no, assuredly—there is some principle prisoned in their souls, or in the windings of their brains, which, when escaped, leaves them insipid, unprofitable and devoid of interest to us. Sometimes this essence—not necessarily the finest element in a man’s or a woman’s nature, but soul-stuff that we lack—disappears. In fact, it invariably disappears. It may be that it has been transformed in the processes of their growth; it may also be that it has utterly vanished by some inadvertence, or that we ourselves have absorbed it.”
“Then we throw them away?” Ethel asked, pale, but dry-eyed. A shudder passed through her body and she clinched her glass nervously. At that moment Reginald resembled a veritable Prince of Darkness, sinister and beautiful, painted by the hand of a modern master. Then, for a space, he again became the man of the world. Smiling and self-possessed, he filled the glasses, took a long sip of the wine and resumed his narrative.
“That boy was followed by others. I absorbed many useless things and some that were evil. I realised that I must direct my absorptive propensities. This I did. I selected, selected well. And all the time the terrible power of which I was only half conscious grew within me.”
“It is indeed a terrible power,” she cried; “all the more terrible for its subtlety. Had I not myself been its victim, I should not now find it possible to believe in it.”
“The invisible hand that smites in the dark is certainly more fearful than a visible foe. It is also more merciful. Think how much you would have suffered had you been conscious of your loss.”
“Still it seems even now to me that it cannot have been an utter, irreparable loss. There is no action without reaction. Even I—even we—must have received from you some compensation for what you have taken away.”
“In the ordinary processes of life the law of action and reaction is indeed potent. But no law is without exception. Think of radium, for instance, with its constant and seemingly inexhaustible outflow of energy. It is a difficult thing to imagine, but our scientific men have accepted it as a fact. Why should we find it more difficult to conceive of a tremendous and infinite absorptive element? I feel sure that it must somewhere exist. But every phenomenon in the physical world finds its counterpart in the psychical universe. There are radium-souls that radiate without loss of energy, but also without increase. And there are souls, the reverse of radium, with unlimited absorptive capacities.”
“Vampire-souls,” she observed, with a shudder, and her face blanched.
“No,” he said, “don’t say that.” And then he suddenly seemed to grow in stature. His face was ablaze, like the face of a god.
“In every age,” he replied, with solemnity, “there are giants who attain to a greatness which by natural growth no men could ever have reached. But in their youth a vision came to them, which they set out to seek. They take the stones of fancy to build them a palace in the kingdom of truth, projecting into reality dreams, monstrous and impossible. Often they fail and, tumbling from their airy heights, end a quixotic career. Some succeed. They are the chosen. Carpenter’s sons they are, who have laid down the Law of a World for milleniums to come; or simple Corsicans, before whose eagle eye have quaked the kingdoms of the earth. But to accomplish their mission they need a will of iron and the wit of a hundred men. And from the iron they take the strength, and from a hundred men’s brains they absorb their wisdom. Divine missionaries, they appear in all departments of life. In their hand is gathered to-day the gold of the world. Mighty potentates of peace and war, they unlock new seas and from distant continents lift the bars. Single-handed, they accomplish what nations dared not hope; with Titan strides they scale the stars and succeed where millions fail. In art they live, the makers of new periods, the dreamers of new styles. They make themselves the vocal sun-glasses of God. Homer and Shakespeare, Hugo and Balzac—they concentrate the dispersed rays of a thousand lesser luminaries in one singing flame that, like a giant torch, lights up humanity’s path.”
She gazed at him, open-mouthed. The light had gone from his visage. He paused, exhausted, but even then he looked the incarnation of a force no less terrible, no less grand. She grasped the immensity of his conception, but her woman’s soul rebelled at the horrible injustice to those whose light is extinguished, as hers had been, to feed an alien flame. And then, for a moment, she saw the pale face of Ernest staring at her out of the wine.
“Cruel,” she sobbed, “how cruel!”
“What matter?” he asked. “Their strength is taken from them, but the spirit of humanity, as embodied in us, triumphantly marches on.”
Reginald’s revelations were followed by a long silence, interrupted only by the officiousness of the waiter. The spell once broken, they exchanged a number of more or less irrelevant observations. Ethel’s mind returned, again and again, to the word he had not spoken. He had said nothing of the immediate bearing of his monstrous power upon her own life and that of Ernest Fielding.
At last, somewhat timidly, she approached the subject.
“You said you loved me,” she remarked.
“But why, then—”
“I could not help it.”
“Did you ever make the slightest attempt?”
“In the horrible night hours I struggled against it. I even implored you to leave me.”
“Ah, but I loved you!”
“You would not be warned, you would not listen. You stayed with me, and slowly, surely, the creative urge went out of your life.”
“But what on earth could you find in my poor art to attract you? What were my pictures to you?”
“I needed them, I needed you. It was a certain something, a rich colour effect, perhaps. And then, under your very eyes, the colour that vanished from your canvases reappeared in my prose. My style became more luxurious than it had been, while you tortured your soul in the vain attempt of calling back to your brush what was irretrievably lost.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“You would have laughed in my face, and I could not have endured your laugh. Besides, I always hoped, until it was too late, that I might yet check the mysterious power within me. Soon, however, I became aware that it was beyond my control. The unknown god, whose instrument I am, had wisely made it stronger than me.”
“But why,” retorted Ethel, “was it necessary to discard me, like a cast-off garment, like a wanton who has lost the power to please?”
Her frame shook with the remembered emotion of that moment, when years ago he had politely told her that she was nothing to him.
“The law of being,” Reginald replied, almost sadly, “the law of my being. I should have pitied you, but the eternal reproach of your suffering only provoked my anger. I cared less for you every day, and when I had absorbed all of you that my growth required, you were to me as one dead, as a stranger you were. There was between us no further community of interest; henceforth, I knew, our lives must move in totally different spheres. You remember that day when we said good-bye?”
“You mean that day when I lay before you on my knees,” she corrected him.
“That day I buried my last dream of personal happiness. I would have gladly raised you from the floor, but love was utterly gone. If I am tenderer to-day than I am wont to be, it is because you mean so much to me as the symbol of my renunciation. When I realised that I could not even save the thing I loved from myself, I became hardened and cruel to others. Not that I know no kindly feeling, but no qualms of conscience lay their prostrate forms across my path. There is nothing in life for me but my mission.”
His face was bathed in ecstasy. The pupils were luminous, large and threatening. He had the look of a madman or a prophet.
After a while Ethel remarked: “But you have grown into one of the master-figures of the age. Why not be content with that? Is there no limit to your ambition?”
Reginald smiled: “Ambition! Shakespeare stopped when he had reached his full growth, when he had exhausted the capacity of his contemporaries. I am not yet ready to lay down my pen and rest.”
“And will you always continue in this criminal course, a murderer of other lives?”
He looked her calmly in the face. “I do not know.”
“Are you the slave of your unknown god?”
“We are all slaves, wire-pulled marionettes: You, Ernest, I. There is no freedom on the face of the earth nor above. The tiger that tears a lamb is not free, I am not free, you are not free. All that happens must happen; no word that is said is said in vain, in vain is raised no hand.”
“Then,” Ethel retorted, eagerly, “if I attempted to wrest your victim from you, I should also be the tool of your god?”
“Assuredly. But I am his chosen.”
“Can you—can you not set him free?”
“I need him—a little longer. Then he is yours.”
“But can you not, if I beg you again on my knees, at least loosen his chains before he is utterly ruined?”
“It is beyond my power. If I could not rescue you, whom I loved, what in heaven or on earth can save him from his fate? Besides, he will not be utterly ruined. It is only a part of him that I absorb. In his soul are chords that I have not touched. They may vibrate one day, when he has gathered new strength. You, too, would have spared yourself much pain had you striven to attain success in different fields—not where I had garnered the harvest of a lifetime. It is only a portion of his talent that I take from him. The rest I cannot harm. Why should he bury that remainder?”
His eyes strayed through the window to the firmament, as if to say that words could no more bend his indomitable will than alter the changeless course of the stars.
Ethel had half-forgotten the wrong she herself had suffered at his hands. He could not be measured by ordinary standards, this dazzling madman, whose diseased will-power had assumed such uncanny proportions. But here a young life was at stake. In her mind’s eye she saw Reginald crush between his relentless hands the delicate soul of Ernest Fielding, as a magnificent carnivorous flower might close its glorious petals upon a fly.
Love, all conquering love, welled up in her. She would fight for Ernest as a tiger cat fights for its young. She would place herself in the way of the awful force that had shattered her own aspirations, and save, at any cost, the brilliant boy who did not love her.
TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR CHAPTERS 22 – 31 OF
George Sylvester Viereck’s
THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE