The last rays of the late afternoon sun fell slanting through Ernest’s window. He was lying on his couch, in a leaden, death-like slumber that, for the moment at least, was not even perturbed by the presence of Reginald Clarke.
The latter was standing at the boy’s bedside, calm, unmoved as ever. The excitement of his conversation with Ethel had left no trace on the chiselled contour of his forehead. Smilingly fastening an orchid of an indefinable purple tint in his evening coat, radiant, buoyant with life, he looked down upon the sleeper. Then he passed his hand over Ernest’s forehead, as if to wipe off beads of sweat. At the touch of his hand the boy stirred uneasily. When it was not withdrawn his countenance twitched in pain. He moaned as men moan under the influence of some anæsthetic, without possessing the power to break through the narrow partition that separates them from death on the one side and from consciousness on the other. At last a sigh struggled to his seemingly paralysed lips, then another. Finally the babbling became articulate.
“For God’s sake,” he cried, in his sleep, “take that hand away!”
And all at once the benignant smile on Reginald’s features was changed to a look of savage fierceness. He no longer resembled the man of culture, but a disappointed, snarling beast of prey. He took his hand from Ernest’s forehead and retired cautiously through the half-open door.
Hardly had he disappeared when Ernest awoke. For a moment he looked around, like a hunted animal, then sighed with relief and buried his head in his hand. At that moment a knock at the door was heard, and Reginald re-entered, calm as before.
“I declare,” he exclaimed, “you have certainly been sleeping the sleep of the just.”
“It isn’t laziness,” Ernest replied, looking up rather pleased at the interruption. “But I’ve a splitting headache.”
“Perhaps those naps are not good for your health.”
“Probably. But of late I have frequently found it necessary to exact from the day-hours the sleep which the night refuses me. I suppose it is all due to indigestion, as you have suggested. The stomach is the source of all evil.”
“It is also the source of all good. The Greeks made it the seat of the soul. I have always claimed that the most important item in a great poet’s biography is an exact reproduction of his menu.”
“True, a man who eats a heavy beefsteak for breakfast in the morning is incapable of writing a sonnet in the afternoon.”
“Yes,” Reginald added, “we are what we eat and what our forefathers have eaten before us. I ascribe the staleness of American poetry to the griddle-cakes of our Puritan ancestors. I am sorry we cannot go deeper into the subject at present. But I have an invitation to dinner where I shall study, experimentally, the influence of French sauces on my versification.”
“Au revoir.” And, with a wave of the hand, Reginald left the room.
When the door had closed behind him, Ernest’s thoughts took a more serious turn. The tone of light bantering in which the preceding conversation had taken place had been assumed on his part. For the last few weeks evil dreams had tortured his sleep and cast their shadow upon his waking hours. They had ever increased in reality, in intensity and in hideousness. Even now he could see the long, tapering fingers that every night were groping in the windings of his brain. It was a well-formed, manicured hand that seemed to reach under his skull, carefully feeling its way through the myriad convolutions where thought resides.
And, oh, the agony of it all! A human mind is not a thing of stone, but alive, horribly alive to pain. What was it those fingers sought, what mysterious treasures, what jewels hidden in the under-layer of his consciousness? His brain was like a human gold-mine, quaking under the blow of the pick and the tread of the miner. The miner! Ah, the miner! Ceaselessly, thoroughly, relentlessly, he opened vein after vein and wrested untold riches from the quivering ground; but each vein was a live vein and each nugget of gold a thought!
No wonder the boy was a nervous wreck. Whenever a tremulous nascent idea was formulating itself, the dream-hand clutched it and took it away, brutally severing the fine threads that bind thought to thought. And when the morning came, how his head ached! It was not an acute pain, but dull, heavy, incessant.
These sensations, Ernest frequently told himself, were morbid fancies. But then, the monomaniac who imagines that his arms have been mangled or cut from his body, might as well be without arms. Mind can annihilate obstacles. It can also create them. Psychology was no unfamiliar ground to Ernest, and it was not difficult for him to seek in some casual suggestion an explanation for his delusion, the fixed notion that haunted him day and night. But he also realized that to explain a phenomenon is not to explain it away. The man who analyses his emotions cannot wholly escape them, and the shadow of fear—primal, inexplicable fear—may darken at moments of weakness the life of the subtlest psychologist and the clearest thinker.
He had never spoken to Reginald of his terrible nightmares. Coming on the heel of the fancy that he, Ernest, had written “The Princess With the Yellow Veil,” a fancy that, by the way, had again possessed him of late, this new delusion would certainly arouse suspicion as to his sanity in Reginald’s mind. He would probably send him to a sanitarium; he certainly would not keep him in the house. Beneficence itself in all other things, his host was not to be trifled with in any matter that interfered with his work. He would act swiftly and without mercy.
For the first time in many days Ernest thought of Abel Felton. Poor boy! What had become of him after he had been turned from the house? He would not wait for any one to tell him to pack his bundle. But then, that was impossible; Reginald was fond of him.
Suddenly Ernest’s meditations were interrupted by a noise at the outer door. A key was turned in the lock. It must be he—but why so soon? What could have brought him back at this hour? He opened the door and went out into the hall to see what had happened. The figure that he beheld was certainly not the person expected, but a woman, from whose shoulders a theatre-cloak fell in graceful folds,—probably a visitor for Reginald. Ernest was about to withdraw discreetly, when the electric light that was burning in the hallway fell upon her face and illumined it.
Then indeed surprise overcame him. “Ethel,” he cried, “is it you?”
Ernest conducted Ethel Brandenbourg to his room and helped her to remove her cloak.
While he was placing the garment upon the back of a chair, she slipped a little key into her hand-bag. He looked at her with a question in his eyes.
“Yes,” she replied, “I kept the key; but I had not dreamed that I would ever again cross this threshold.”
Meanwhile it had grown quite dark. The reflection of the street lanterns without dimly lit the room, and through the twilight fantastic shadows seemed to dance.
The perfume of her hair pervaded the room and filled the boy’s heart with romance. Tenderness long suppressed called with a thousand voices. The hour, the strangeness and unexpectedness of her visit, perhaps even a boy’s pardonable vanity, roused passion from its slumbers and once again wrought in Ernest’s soul the miracle of love. His arm encircled her neck and his lips stammered blind, sweet, crazy and caressing things.
“Turn on the light,” she pleaded.
“You were not always so cruel.”
“No matter, I have not come to speak of love.”
“Why, then, have you come?”
Ernest felt a little awkward, disappointed, as he uttered these words.
What could have induced her to come to his rooms? He loosened his hold on her and did as she asked.
How pale she looked in the light, how beautiful! Surely, she had sorrowed for him; but why had she not answered his letter? Yes, why?
“Your letter?” She smiled a little sadly. “Surely you did not expect me to answer that?”
“Why not?” He had again approached her and his lips were close to hers. “Why not? I have yearned for you. I love you.”
His breath intoxicated her; it was like a subtle perfume. Still she did not yield.
“You love me now—you did not love me then. The music of your words was cold—machine-made, strained and superficial. I shall not answer, I told myself: in his heart he has forgotten you. I did not then realise that a dangerous force had possessed your life and crushed in your mind every image but its own.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you think I would have come here if it were a light matter? No, I tell you, it is a matter of life and death to you, at least as an artist.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Have you done a stroke of work since I last saw you?”
“Yes, let me see, surely, magazine articles and a poem.”
“That is not what I want to know. Have you accomplished anything big? Have you grown since this summer? How about your novel?”
“I—I have almost finished it in my mind, but I have found no chance to begin with the actual writing. I was sick of late, very sick.”
No doubt of it! His face was pinched and pale, and the lines about the mouth were curiously contorted, like those of a man suffering from a painful internal disease.
“Tell me,” she ventured, “do you ever miss anything?”
“Do you mean—are there thieves?”
“Thieves! Against thieves one can protect oneself.”
He stared at her wildly, half-frightened, in anticipation of some dreadful revelation. His dream! His dream! That hand! Could it be more than a dream? God! His lips quivered.
Ethel observed his agitation and continued more quietly, but with the same insistence: “Have you ever had ideas, plans that you began without having strength to complete them? Have you had glimpses of vocal visions that seemed to vanish no sooner than seen? Did it ever seem to you as if some mysterious and superior will brutally interfered with the workings of your brain?”
Did it seem so to him! He himself could not have stated more plainly the experience of the last few months. Each word fell from her lips like the blow of a hammer. Shivering, he put his arm around her, seeking solace, not love. This time she did not repulse him and, trustingly, as a child confides to his mother, he depicted to her the suffering that harrowed his life and made it a hell.
As she listened, indignation clouded her forehead, while rising tears of anger and of love weighed down her lashes. She could bear the pitiful sight no longer.
“Child,” she cried, “do you know who your tormentor is?”
And like a flash the truth passed from her to him. A sudden intimation told him what her words had still concealed.
“Don’t! For Christ’s sake, do not pronounce his name!” he sobbed. “Do not breathe it. I could not endure it. I should go mad.”
Very quietly, with difficulty restraining her own emotion so as not to excite him further, Ethel had related to Ernest the story of her remarkable interview with Reginald Clarke. In the long silence that ensued, the wings of his soul brushed against hers for the first time, and Love by a thousand tender chains of common suffering welded their beings into one.
Caressingly the ivory of her fingers passed through the gold of his hair and over his brow, as if to banish the demon-eyes that stared at him across the hideous spaces of the past. In a rush a thousand incidents came back to him, mute witnesses of a damning truth. His play, the dreams that tormented him, his own inability to concentrate his mind upon his novel which hitherto he had ascribed to nervous disease—all, piling fact on fact, became one monstrous monument of Reginald Clarke’s crime. At last Ernest understood the parting words of Abel Felton and the look in Ethel’s eye on the night when he had first linked his fate with the other man’s. Walkham’s experience, too, and Reginald’s remarks on the busts of Shakespeare and Balzac unmistakably pointed toward the new and horrible spectre that Ethel’s revelation had raised in place of his host.
And then, again, the other Reginald appeared, crowned with the lyric wreath. From his lips golden cadences fell, sweeter than the smell of many flowers or the sound of a silver bell. He was once more the divine master, whose godlike features bore no trace of malice and who had raised him to a place very near his heart.
“No,” he cried, “it is impossible. It’s all a dream, a horrible nightmare.”
“But he has himself confessed it,” she interjected.
“Perhaps he has spoken in symbols. We all absorb to some extent other men’s ideas, without robbing them and wrecking their thought-life. Reginald may be unscrupulous in the use of his power of impressing upon others the stamp of his master-mind. So was Shakespeare. No, no, no! You are mistaken; we were both deluded for the moment by his picturesque account of a common, not even a discreditable, fact. He may himself have played with the idea, but surely he cannot have been serious.”
“And your own experience, and Abel Felton’s and mine—can they, too, be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulder?”
“But, come to think of it, the whole theory seems absurd. It is unscientific. It is not even a case of mesmerism. If he had said that he hypnotised his victims, the matter would assume a totally different aspect. I admit that something is wrong somewhere, and that the home of Reginald Clarke is no healthful abode for me. But you must also remember that probably we are both unstrung to the point of hysteria.”
But to Ethel his words carried no conviction.
“You are still under his spell,” she cried, anxiously.
A little shaken in his confidence, Ernest resumed: “Reginald is utterly incapable of such an action, even granting that he possessed the terrible power of which you speak. A man of his splendid resources, a literary Midas at whose very touch every word turns into gold, is under no necessity to prey on the thoughts of others. Circumstances, I admit, are suspicious. But in the light of common day this fanciful theory shrivels into nothing. Any court of law would reject our evidence as madness. It is too utterly fantastic, utterly alien to any human experience.”
“Is it though?” Ethel replied with peculiar intonation.
“Why, what do you mean?”
“Surely,” she answered, “you must know that in the legends of every nation we read of men and women who were called vampires. They are beings, not always wholly evil, whom every night some mysterious impulse leads to steal into unguarded bedchambers, to suck the blood of the sleepers and then, having waxed strong on the life of their victims, cautiously to retreat. Thence comes it that their lips are very red. It is even said that they can find no rest in the grave, but return to their former haunts long after they are believed to be dead. Those whom they visit, however, pine away for no apparent reason. The physicians shake their wise heads and speak of consumption. But sometimes, ancient chronicles assure us, the people’s suspicions were aroused, and under the leadership of a good priest they went in solemn procession to the graves of the persons suspected. And on opening the tombs it was found that their coffins had rotted away and the flowers in their hair were black. But their bodies were white and whole; through no empty sockets crept the vermin, and their sucking lips were still moist with a little blood.”
Ernest was carried away in spite of himself by her account, which vividly resembled his own experience. Still he would not give in.
“All this is impressive. I admit it is very impressive. But you yourself speak of such stories as legends. They are unfounded upon any tangible fact, and you cannot expect a man schooled in modern sciences to admit, as having any possible bearing upon his life, the crude belief of the Middle Ages!”
“Why not?” she responded. “Our scientists have proved true the wildest theories of mediæval scholars. The transmutation of metals seems to-day no longer an idle speculation, and radium has transformed into potential reality the dream of perpetual motion. The fundamental notions of mathematics are being undermined. One school of philosophers claims that the number of angles in a triangle is equal to more than two right angles; another propounds that it is less. Even great scientists who have studied the soul of nature are turning to spiritism. The world is overcoming the shallow scepticism of the nineteenth century. Life has become once more wonderful and very mysterious. But it also seems that, with the miracles of the old days, their terrors, their nightmares and their monsters have come back in a modern guise.”
Ernest became even more thoughtful. “Yes,” he observed, “there is something in what you say.” Then, pacing the room nervously, he exclaimed: “And still I find it impossible to believe your explanation. Reginald a vampire! It seems so ludicrous. If you had told me that such creatures exist somewhere, far away, I might have discussed the matter; but in this great city, in the shadow of the Flatiron Building—no!”
She replied with warmth: “Yet they exist—always have existed. Not only in the Middle Ages, but at all times and in all regions. There is no nation but has some record of them, in one form or another. And don’t you think if we find a thought, no matter how absurd it may seem to us, that has ever occupied the minds of men—if we find, I say, such a perennially recurrent thought, are we not justified in assuming that it must have some basis in the actual experience of mankind?”
Ernest’s brow became very clouded, and infinite numbers of hidden premature wrinkles began to show. How wan he looked and how frail! He was as one lost in a labyrinth in which he saw no light, convinced against his will, or rather, against his scientific conviction, that she was not wholly mistaken.
“Still,” he observed triumphantly, “your vampires suck blood; but Reginald, if vampire he be, preys upon the soul. How can a man suck from another man’s brain a thing as intangible, as quintessential as thought?”
“Ah,” she replied, “you forget, thought is more real than blood!”
Only three hours had passed since Ethel had startled Ernest from his sombre reveries, but within this brief space their love had matured as if each hour had been a year. The pallor had vanished from his cheeks and the restiveness from his eyes. The intoxication of her presence had rekindled the light of his countenance and given him strength to combat the mighty forces embodied in Reginald Clarke. The child in him had made room for the man. He would not hear of surrendering without a struggle, and Ethel felt sure she might leave his fate in his own hand. Love had lent him a coat of mail. He was warned, and would not succumb. Still she made one more attempt to persuade him to leave the house at once with her.
“I must go now,” she said. “Will you not come with me, after all? I am so afraid to think of you still here.”
“No, dear,” he replied. “I shall not desert my post. I must solve the riddle of this man’s life; and if, indeed, he is the thing he seems to be, I shall attempt to wrest from him what he has stolen from me. I speak of my unwritten novel.”
“Do not attempt to oppose him openly. You cannot resist him.”
“Be assured that I shall be on my guard. I have in the last few hours lived through so much that makes life worth living, that I would not wantonly expose myself to any danger. Still, I cannot go without certainty—cannot, if there is some truth in our fears, leave the best of me behind.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“My play—I am sure now that it is mine—I cannot take from him; that is irretrievably lost. He has read it to his circle and prepared for its publication. And, no matter how firmly convinced you or I may be of his strange power, no one would believe our testimony. They would pronounce us mad. Perhaps we are mad!”
“No; we are not mad; but it is mad for you to stay here,” she asserted.
“I shall not stay here one minute longer than is absolutely essential. Within a week I shall have conclusive proof of his guilt or innocence.”
“How will you go about it?”
“His writing table—”
“Yes, perhaps I can discover some note, some indication, some proof—”
“It’s a dangerous game.”
“I have everything to gain.”
“I wish I could stay here with you,” she said. “Have you no friend, no one whom you could trust in this delicate matter?”
A shadow passed over her face.
“Do you know,” she said, “I have a feeling that you care more for him than for me?”
“Nonsense,” he said, “he is my friend, you, you—immeasurably more.”
“Are you still as intimate with him as when I first met you?”
“Not quite; of late a troubling something, like a thin veil, seems to have passed between us. But he will come when I call him. He will not fail me in my hour of need.”
“When can he be here?”
“In two or three days.”
“Meanwhile be very careful. Above all, lock your door at night.”
“I will not only lock, but barricade it. I shall try with all my power to elucidate this mystery without, however, exposing myself to needless risks.”
“I will go, then. Kiss me good-bye.”
“May I not take you to the car?”
“You had better not.”
At the door she turned back once more. “Write me every day, or call me up on the telephone.”
He straightened himself, as if to convince her of his strength. Yet when at last the door had closed behind her, his courage forsook him for a moment. And, if he had not been ashamed to appear a weakling before the woman he loved, who knows if any power on earth could have kept him in that house where from every corner a secret seemed to lurk!
There was a misgiving, too, in the woman’s heart as she left the boy behind,—a prey to the occult power that, seeking expression in multiple activities, has made and unmade emperors, prophets and poets.
As she stepped into a street car she saw from afar, as in a vision, the face of Reginald Clarke. It seemed very white and hungry. There was no human kindness in it—only a threat and a sneer.
For over an hour Ernest paced up and down his room, wildly excited by Ethel’s revelations. It required an immense amount of self-control for him to pen the following lines to Jack: “I need you. Come.”
After he had entrusted the letter to the hall-boy, a reaction set in and he was able to consider the matter, if not with equanimity, at least with a degree of calmness. The strangest thing to him was that he could not bring himself to hate Reginald, of whose evil influence upon his life he was now firmly convinced. Here was another shattered idol; but one—like the fragment of a great god-face in the desert—intensely fascinating, even in its ruin. Then yielding to a natural impulse, Ernest looked over his photographs and at once laid hold upon the austere image of his master and friend. No—it was preposterous; there was no evil in this man. There was no trace of malice in this face, the face of a prophet or an inspired madman, a poet. And yet, as he scrutinised the picture closely a curious transformation seemed to take place in the features; a sly little line appeared insinuatingly about Reginald’s well-formed mouth, and the serene calm of his Jupiter-head seemed to turn into the sneak smile of a thief. Nevertheless, Ernest was not afraid. His anxieties had at last assumed definite shape; it was possible now to be on his guard. It is only invisible, incomprehensible fear, crouching upon us from the night, that drives sensitive natures to the verge of madness and transforms stern warriors into cowards.
Ernest realised the necessity of postponing the proposed investigation of Reginald’s papers until the morning, as it was now near eleven, and he expected to hear at any moment the sound of his feet at the door. Before retiring he took a number of precautions. Carefully he locked the door to his bedroom and placed a chair in front of it. To make doubly sure, he fastened the handle to an exquisite Chinese vase, a gift of Reginald’s, that at the least attempt to force an entrance from without would come down with a crash.
Then, although sleep seemed out of the question, he went to bed. He had hardly touched the pillow when a leaden weight seemed to fall upon his eyes. The day’s commotion had been too much for his delicate frame. By force of habit he pulled the cover over his ear and fell asleep.
All night he slept heavily, and the morning was far advanced when a knock at the door that, at first, seemed to come across an immeasurable distance, brought him back to himself. It was Reginald’s manservant announcing that breakfast was waiting.
Ernest got up and rubbed his eyes. The barricade at the door at once brought back to his mind with startling clearness the events of the previous evening.
Everything was as he had left it. Evidently no one had attempted to enter the room while he slept. He could not help smiling at the arrangement which reminded him of his childhood, when he had sought by similar means security from burglars and bogeys. And in the broad daylight Ethel’s tales of vampires seemed once more impossible and absurd. Still, he had abundant evidence of Reginald’s strange influence, and was determined to know the truth before nightfall. Her words, that thought is more real than blood, kept ringing in his ears. If such was the case, he would find evidence of Reginald’s intellectual burglaries, and possibly be able to regain a part of his lost self that had been snatched from him by the relentless dream-hand.
But under no circumstances could he face Reginald in his present state of mind. He was convinced that if in the fleeting vision of a moment the other man’s true nature should reveal itself to him, he would be so terribly afraid as to shriek like a maniac. So he dressed particularly slowly in the hope of avoiding an encounter with his host. But fate thwarted this hope. Reginald, too, lingered that morning unusually long over his coffee. He was just taking his last sip when Ernest entered the room. His behaviour was of an almost bourgeois kindness. Benevolence fairly beamed from his face. But to the boy’s eyes it had assumed a new and sinister expression.
“You are late this morning, Ernest,” he remarked in his mildest manner. “Have you been about town, or writing poetry? Both occupations are equally unhealthy.” As he said this he watched the young man with the inscrutable smile that at moments was wont to curl upon his lips. Ernest had once likened it to the smile of Mona Lisa, but now he detected in it the suavity of the hypocrite and the leer of the criminal.
He could not endure it; he could not look upon that face any longer. His feet almost gave way under him, cold sweat gathered on his brow, and he sank on a chair trembling and studiously avoiding the other man’s gaze.
At last Reginald rose to go. It seemed impossible to accuse this splendid impersonation of vigorous manhood of cunning and underhand methods, of plagiarisms and of theft. As he stood there he resembled more than anything a beautiful tiger-cat, a wonderful thing of strength and will-power, indomitable and insatiate. Yet who could tell whether this strength was not, after all, parasitic. If Ethel’s suspicions were justified, then, indeed, more had been taken from him than he could ever realise. For in that case it was his life-blood that circled in those veins and the fire of his intellect that set those lips aflame!
Reginald Clarke had hardly left the room when Ernest hastily rose from his seat. While it was likely that he would remain in undisturbed possession of the apartment the whole morning, the stake at hand was too great to permit of delay.
Palpitating and a little uncertain, he entered the studio where, scarcely a year ago, Reginald Clarke had bidden him welcome. Nothing had changed there since then; only in Ernest’s mind the room had assumed an aspect of evil. The Antinous was there and the Faun and the Christ-head. But their juxtaposition to-day partook of the nature of the blasphemous. The statues of Shakespeare and Balzac seemed to frown from their pedestals as his fingers were running through Reginald’s papers. He brushed against a semblance of Napoleon that was standing on the writing-table, so that it toppled over and made a noise that weirdly re-echoed in the silence of the room. At that moment a curious family resemblance between Shakespeare, Balzac, Napoleon—and Reginald, forcibly impressed itself upon his mind. It was the indisputable something that marks those who are chosen to give ultimate expression to some gigantic world-purpose. In Balzac’s face it was diffused with kindliness, in that of Napoleon sheer brutality predominated. The image of one who was said to be the richest man of the world also rose before his eyes. Perhaps it was only the play of his fevered imagination, but he could have sworn that this man’s features, too, bore the mark of those unoriginal, great absorptive minds who, for better or for worse, are born to rob and rule. They seemed to him monsters that know neither justice nor pity, only the law of their being, the law of growth.
Common weapons would not avail against such forces. Being one, they were stronger than armies; nor could they be overcome in single combat. Stealth, trickery, the outfit of the knave, were legitimate weapons in such a fight. In this case the end justified the means, even if the latter included burglary.
After a brief and fruitless search of the desk, he attempted to force open a secret drawer, the presence of which he had one day accidentally discovered. He tried a number of keys to no account, and was thinking of giving up his researches for the day until he had procured a skeleton key, when at last the lock gave way.
The drawer disclosed a large file of manuscript. Ernest paused for a moment to draw breath. The paper rustled under his nervous fingers. And there—at last—his eyes lit upon a bulky bundle that bore this legend: “Leontina, A Novel.”
It was true, then—all, his dream, Reginald’s confession. And the house that had opened its doors so kindly to him was the house of a Vampire!
Finally curiosity overcame his burning indignation. He attempted to read. The letters seemed to dance before his eyes—his hands trembled.
At last he succeeded. The words that had first rolled over like drunken soldiers now marched before his vision in orderly sequence. He was delighted, then stunned. This was indeed authentic literature, there could be no doubt about it. And it was his. He was still a poet, a great poet. He drew a deep breath. Sudden joy trembled in his heart. This story set down by a foreign hand had grown chapter by chapter in his brain.
There were some slight changes—slight deviations from the original plan. A defter hand than his had retouched it here and there, but for all that it remained his very own. It did not belong to that thief. The blood welled to his cheek as he uttered this word that, applied to Reginald, seemed almost sacrilegious.
He had nearly reached the last chapter when he heard steps in the hallway. Hurriedly he restored the manuscript to its place, closed the drawer and left the room on tiptoe.
It was Reginald. But he did not come alone. Someone was speaking to him. The voice seemed familiar. Ernest could not make out what it said. He listened intently and—was it possible? Jack? Surely he could not yet have come in response to his note! What mysterious power, what dim presentiment of his friend’s plight had led him hither? But why did he linger so long in Reginald’s room, instead of hastening to greet him? Cautiously he drew nearer. This time he caught Jack’s words:
“It would be very convenient and pleasant. Still, some way, I feel that it is not right for me, of all men, to take his place here.”
“That need not concern you,” Reginald deliberately replied; “the dear boy expressed the desire to leave me within a fortnight. I think he will go to some private sanitarium. His nerves are frightfully overstrained.”
“This seems hardly surprising after the terrible attack he had when you read your play.”
“That idea has since then developed into a monomania.”
“I am awfully sorry for him. I cared for him much, perhaps too much. But I always feared that he would come to such an end. Of late his letters have been strangely unbalanced.”
“You will find him very much changed. In fact, he is no longer the same.”
“No,” said Jack, “he is no longer the friend I loved.”
Ernest clutched for the wall. His face was contorted with intense agony. Each word was like a nail driven into his flesh. Crucified upon the cross of his own affection by the hand he loved, all white and trembling he stood there. Tears rushed to his eyes, but he could not weep. Dry-eyed he reached his room and threw himself upon his bed. Thus he lay—uncomforted and alone.
Terrible as was his loneliness, a meeting with Jack would have been more terrible. And, after all, it was true, a gulf had opened between them.
Ethel alone could bring solace to his soul. There was a great void in his heart which only she could fill. He hungered for the touch of her hand. He longed for her presence strongly, as a wanton lusts for pleasure and as sad men crave death.
Noiselessly he stole to the door so as not to arouse the attention of the other two men, whose every whisper pierced his heart like a dagger. When he came to Ethel’s home, he found that she had gone out for a breath of air. The servant ushered him into the parlor, and there he waited, waited, waited for her.
Greatly calmed by his walk, he turned the details of Clarke’s conversation over in his mind, and the conviction grew upon him that the friend of his boyhood was not to blame for his course of action. Reginald probably had encircled Jack’s soul with his demoniacal influence and singled him out for another victim. That must never be. It was his turn to save now. He would warn his friend of the danger that threatened him, even if his words should be spoken into the wind. For Reginald, with an ingenuity almost satanic, had already suggested that the delusion of former days had developed into a monomania, and any attempt on his part to warn Jack would only seem to confirm this theory. In that case only one way was left open. He must plead with Reginald himself, confront at all risks that snatcher of souls. To-night he would not fall asleep. He would keep his vigil. And if Reginald should approach his room, if in some way he felt the direful presence, he must speak out, threaten if need be, to save his friend from ruin. He had fully determined upon this course when a cry of joy from Ethel, who had just returned from her walk, interrupted his reverie. But her gladness changed to anxiety when she saw how pale he was. Ernest recounted to her the happenings of the day, from the discovery of his novel in Reginald’s desk to the conversation which he had accidentally overheard. He noticed that her features brightened as he drew near the end of his tale.
“Was your novel finished?” she suddenly asked.
“I think so.”
“Then you are out of danger. He will want nothing else of you. But you should have taken it with you.”
“I had only sufficient presence of mind to slip it back into the drawer. To-morrow I shall simply demand it.”
“You will do nothing of the kind. It is in his handwriting, and you have no legal proof that it is yours. You must take it away secretly. And he will not dare to reclaim it.”
She had quite forgotten Jack. Women are invariably selfish for those they love.
“You must warn him,” she replied.
“He would laugh at me. However, I must speak to Reginald.”
“It is of no avail to speak to him. At least, you must not do so before you have obtained the manuscript. It would unnecessarily jeopardise our plans.”
“After, perhaps. But you must not expose yourself to any danger.”
“No, dear,” he said, and kissed her; “what danger is there, provided I keep my wits about me? He steals upon men only in their sleep and in the dark.”
“Be careful, nevertheless.”
“I shall. In fact, I think he is not at home at this moment. If I go now I may be able to get hold of the manuscript and hide it before he returns.”
“I cannot but tremble to think of you in that house.”
“You shall have no more reason to tremble in a day or two.”
“Shall I see you to-morrow?”
“I don’t think so. I must go over my papers and things so as to be ready at any moment to leave the house.”
He took her in his arms and looked long and deeply into her eyes.
“Yes,” she replied—”at least, perhaps.”
Then he turned to go, resolute and happy. How strangely he had matured since the summer! Her heart swelled with the consciousness that it was her love that had effected this transformation.
“As I cannot expect you to-morrow, I shall probably go to the opera, but I shall be at home before midnight. Will you call me up then? A word from you will put me at ease for the night, even if it comes over the telephone.”
“I will call you up. We moderns have an advantage over the ancients in this respect: the twentieth-century Pyramus can speak to Thisbe even if innumerable walls sever his body from hers.”
“A quaint conceit! But let us hope that our love-story will end less tragically,” she said, tenderly caressing his hair. “Oh, we shall be happy, you and I,” she added, after a while. “The iron finger of fate that lay so heavily on our lives is now withdrawn. Almost withdrawn. Yes, almost. Only almost.”
And then a sudden fear overcame her.
“No,” she cried, “do not go, do not go! Stay with me; stay here. I feel so frightened. I don’t know what comes over me. I am afraid—afraid for you.”
“No, dear,” he rejoined, “you need not be afraid. In your heart you don’t want me to desert a friend, and, besides, leave the best part of my artistic life in Reginald’s clutch.”
“Why should you expose yourself to God knows what danger for a friend who is ready to betray you?”
“You forget friendship is a gift. If it exacts payment in any form, it is no longer either friendship or a gift. And you yourself have assured me that I have nothing to fear from Reginald. I have nothing to give to him.”
She rallied under his words and had regained her self-possession when the door closed behind him. He walked a few blocks very briskly. Then his pace slackened. Her words had unsettled him a little, and when he reached home he did not at once resume his exploration of Reginald’s papers. He had hardly lit a cigarette when, at an unusually early hour, he heard Reginald’s key in the lock.
Quickly he turned the light out and in the semi-darkness, lit up by an electric lantern below, barricaded the door as on the previous night. Then he went to bed without finding sleep.
Supreme silence reigned over the house. Even the elevator had ceased to run. Ernest’s brain was all ear. He heard Reginald walking up and down in the studio. Not the smallest movement escaped his attention. Thus hours passed. When the clock struck twelve, he was still walking up and down, down and up, up and down.
Still the measured beat of his footfall had not ceased. There was something hypnotic in the regular tread. Nature at last exacted its toll from the boy. He fell asleep.
Hardly had he closed his eyes when again that horrible nightmare—no longer a nightmare—tormented him. Again he felt the pointed delicate fingers carefully feeling their way along the innumerable tangled threads of nerve-matter that lead to the innermost recesses of self….
A subconscious something strove to arouse him, and he felt the fingers softly withdrawn.
He could have sworn that he heard the scurrying of feet in the room. Bathed in perspiration he made a leap for the electric light.
But there was no sign of any human presence. The barricade at the door was undisturbed. But fear like a great wind filled the wings of his soul.
Yet there was nothing, nothing to warrant his conviction that Reginald Clarke had been with him only a few moments ago, plying his horrible trade. The large mirror above the fireplace only showed him his own face, white, excited,—the face of a madman.
The next morning’s mail brought a letter from Ethel, a few lines of encouragement and affection. Yes, she was right; it would not do for him to stay under one roof with Reginald any longer. He must only obtain the manuscript and, if possible, surprise him in the attempt to exercise his mysterious and criminal power. Then he would be in the position to dictate terms and to demand Jack’s safety as the price of his silence.
Reginald, however, had closeted himself that day in his studio busily writing. Only the clatter of his typewriter announced his presence in the house. There was no chance for conversation or for obtaining the precious manuscript of “Leontina.”
Meanwhile Ernest was looking over his papers and preparing everything for a quick departure. Glancing over old letters and notes, he became readily interested and hardly noticed the passage of the hours.
When the night came he only partly undressed and threw himself upon the bed. It was now ten. At twelve he had promised Ethel to speak to her over the telephone. He was determined not to sleep at all that night. At last he would discover whether or not on the previous and other nights Reginald had secretly entered his room.
When one hour had passed without incident, his attention relaxed a little. His eyes were gradually closing when suddenly something seemed to stir at the door. The Chinese vase came rattling to the floor.
At once Ernest sprang up. His face had blanched with terror. It was whiter than the linen in which they wrap the dead. But his soul was resolute.
He touched a button and the electric light illuminated the whole chamber. There was no nook for even a shadow to hide. Yet there was no one to be seen. From without the door came no sound. Suddenly something soft touched his foot. He gathered all his will power so as not to break out into a frenzied shriek. Then he laughed, not a hearty laugh, to be sure. A tiny nose and a tail gracefully curled were brushing against him. The source of the disturbance was a little Maltese cat, his favourite, that by some chance had remained in his room. After its essay at midnight gymnastics the animal quieted down and lay purring at the foot of his bed.
The presence of a living thing was a certain comfort, and the reservoir of his strength was well nigh exhausted.
He dimly remembered his promise to Ethel, but his lids drooped with sheer weariness. Perhaps an hour passed in this way, when suddenly his blood congealed with dread.
He felt the presence of the hand of Reginald Clarke—unmistakably—groping in his brain as if searching for something that had still escaped him.
He tried to move, to cry out, but his limbs were paralysed. When, by a superhuman effort, he at last succeeded in shaking off the numbness that held him enchained, he awoke just in time to see a figure, that of a man, disappearing in the wall that separated Reginald’s apartments from his room….
This time it was no delusion of the senses. He heard something like a secret door softly closing behind retreating steps. A sudden fierce anger seized him. He was oblivious of the danger of the terrible power of the older man, oblivious of the love he had once borne him, oblivious of everything save the sense of outraged humanity and outraged right.
The law permits us to shoot a burglar who goes through our pockets at night. Must he tolerate the ravages of this a thousand times more dastardly and dangerous spiritual thief? Was Reginald to enjoy the fruit of other men’s labour unpunished? Was he to continue growing into the mightiest literary factor of the century by preying upon his betters? Abel, Walkham, Ethel, he, Jack, were they all to be victims of this insatiable monster?
Was this force resistless as it was relentless?
No, a thousand times, no!
He dashed himself against the wall at the place where the shadow of Reginald Clarke had disappeared. In doing so he touched upon a secret spring. The wall gave way noiselessly. Speechless with rage he crossed the next room and the one adjoining it, and stood in Reginald’s studio. The room was brilliantly lighted, and Reginald, still dressed, was seated at his writing-table scribbling notes upon little scraps of paper in his accustomed manner.
At Ernest’s approach he looked up without evincing the least sign of terror or surprise. Calmly, almost majestically, he folded his arms over his breast, but there was a menacing glitter in his eyes as he confronted his victim.
Silently the two men faced each other. Then Ernest hissed:
Reginald shrugged his shoulders.
“So Ethel has infected you with her absurd fancies! Poor boy! I am afraid…. I have been wanting to tell you for some time…. But I think…. We have reached the parting of our road!”
“And that you dare to tell me!”
The more he raged, the calmer Reginald seemed to become.
“Really,” he said, “I fail to understand…. I must ask you to leave my room!”
“You fail to understand? You cad!” Ernest cried. He stepped to the writing-table and opened the secret drawer with a blow. A bundle of manuscripts fell on the floor with a strange rustling noise. Then, seizing his own story, he hurled it upon the table. And behold—the last pages bore corrections in ink that could have been made only a few minutes ago!
Reginald smiled. “Have you come to play havoc with my manuscripts?” he remarked.
“Your manuscripts? Reginald Clarke, you are an impudent impostor! You have written no word that is your own. You are an embezzler of the mind, strutting through life in borrowed and stolen plumes!”
And at once the mask fell from Reginald’s face.
“Why stolen?” he coolly said, with a slight touch of irritation. “I absorb. I appropriate. That is the most any artist can say for himself. God creates; man moulds. He gives us the colours; we mix them.”
“That is not the question. I charge you with having wilfully and criminally interfered in my life; I charge you with having robbed me of what was mine; I charge you with being utterly vile and rapacious, a hypocrite and a parasite!”
“Foolish boy,” Reginald rejoined austerely. “It is through me that the best in you shall survive, even as the obscure Elizabethans live in him of Avon. Shakespeare absorbed what was great in little men—a greatness that otherwise would have perished—and gave it a setting, a life.”
“A thief may plead the same. I understand you better. It is your inordinate vanity that prompts you to abuse your monstrous power.”
“You err. Self-love has never entered into my actions. I am careless of personal fame. Look at me, boy! As I stand before you I am Homer, I am Shakespeare … I am every cosmic manifestation in art. Men have doubted in each incarnation my individual existence. Historians have more to tell of the meanest Athenian scribbler or Elizabethan poetaster than of me. The radiance of my work obscured my very self. I care not. I have a mission. I am a servant of the Lord. I am the vessel that bears the Host!”
He stood up at full length, the personification of grandeur and power. A tremendous force trembled in his very finger tips. He was like a gigantic dynamo, charged with the might of ten thousand magnetic storms that shake the earth in its orbit and lash myriads of planets through infinities of space….
Under ordinary circumstances Ernest or any other man would have quailed before him. But the boy in that epic moment had grown out of his stature. He felt the sword of vengeance in his hands; to him was intrusted the cause of Abel and of Walkham, of Ethel and of Jack. His was the struggle of the individual soul against the same blind and cruel fate that in the past had fashioned the ichthyosaurus and the mastodon.
“By what right,” he cried, “do you assume that you are the literary Messiah? Who appointed you? What divine power has made you the steward of my mite and of theirs whom you have robbed?”
“I am a light-bearer. I tread the high hills of mankind … I point the way to the future. I light up the abysses of the past. Were not my stature gigantic, how could I hold the torch in all men’s sight? The very souls that I tread underfoot realise, as their dying gaze follows me, the possibilities with which the future is big…. Eternally secure, I carry the essence of what is cosmic … of what is divine…. I am Homer … Goethe … Shakespeare…. I am an embodiment of the same force of which Alexander, Cæsar, Confucius and the Christos were also embodiments…. None so strong as to resist me.”
A sudden madness overcame Ernest at this boast. He must strike now or never. He must rid humanity of this dangerous maniac—this demon of strength. With a power ten times intensified, he raised a heavy chair so as to hurl it at Reginald’s head and crush it.
Reginald stood there calmly, a smile upon his lips…. Primal cruelties rose from the depth of his nature…. Still he smiled, turning his luminous gaze upon the boy … and, behold … Ernest’s hand began to shake … the chair fell from his grasp…. He tried to call for help, but no sound issued from his lips…. Utterly paralysed he confronted … the Force….
And still those eyes were fixed upon him.
But this was no longer Reginald!
It was all brain … only brain … a tremendous brain-machine … infinitely complex … infinitely strong. Not more than a mile away Ethel endeavoured to call to him through the night. The telephone rang, once, twice, thrice, insistingly. But Ernest heard it not. Something dragged him … dragged the nerves from his body dragged, dragged, dragged…. It was an irresistible suction … pitiless … passionless … immense.
Sparks, blue, crimson and violet, seemed to play around the living battery. It reached the finest fibres of his mind…. Slowly … every trace of mentality disappeared…. First the will … then feeling … judgment … memory … fear even…. All that was stored in his brain-cells came forth to be absorbed by that mighty engine….
The Princess With the Yellow Veil appeared … flitted across the room and melted away. She was followed by childhood memories … girls’ heads, boys’ faces…. He saw his dead mother waving her arms to him…. An expression of death-agony distorted the placid features…. Then, throwing a kiss to him, she, too, disappeared. Picture on picture followed…. Words of love that he had spoken … sins, virtues, magnanimities, meannesses, terrors … mathematical formulas even, and snatches of songs. Leontina came and was swallowed up…. No, it was Ethel who was trying to speak to him … trying to warn…. She waved her hands in frantic despair…. She was gone…. A pale face … dark, dishevelled hair…. Jack…. How he had changed! He was in the circle of the vampire’s transforming might. “Jack,” he cried. Surely Jack had something to explain … something to tell him … some word that if spoken would bring rest to his soul. He saw the words rise to the boy’s lips, but before he had time to utter them his image also had vanished. And Reginald … Reginald, too, was gone…. There was only the mighty brain … panting … whirling…. Then there was nothing…. The annihilation of Ernest Fielding was complete.
Vacantly he stared at the walls, at the room and at his master. The latter was wiping the sweat from his forehead. He breathed deeply…. The flush of youth spread over his features…. His eyes sparkled with a new and dangerous brilliancy…. He took the thing that had once been Ernest Fielding by the hand and led it to its room.
With the first flush of the morning Ethel appeared at the door of the house on Riverside Drive. She had not heard from Ernest, and had been unable to obtain connection with him at the telephone. Anxiety had hastened her steps. She brushed against Jack, who was also directing his steps to the abode of Reginald Clarke.
At the same time something that resembled Ernest Fielding passed from the house of the Vampire. It was a dull and brutish thing, hideously transformed, without a vestige of mind.
“Mr. Fielding,” cried Ethel, beside herself with fear as she saw him descending.
“Ernest!” Jack gasped, no less startled at the change in his friend’s appearance.
Ernest’s head followed the source of the sound, but no spark of recognition illumined the deadness of his eyes. Without a present and without a past … blindly … a gibbering idiot … he stumbled down the stairs.
THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE
George Sylvester Viereck