BY ROBERT HICHENS
AUTHOR OF THE GARDEN OF ALLAH, ETC.
COPYRIGHT, 1897, BY HERBERT S. STONE & CO.
This edition published July, 1906, by Duffield & Company
THE SAINT OF VICTORIA STREET
Refinement had more power over the soul of Valentine Cresswell than religion. It governed him with a curious ease of supremacy, and held him back without effort from most of the young man's sins. Each age has its special sins. Each age passes them, like troops in review, before it decides what regiment it will join. Valentine had never decided to join any regiment. The trumpets of vice rang in his ears in vain, mingled with the more classical music of his life as the retreat from the barracks of Seville mingled with the click of Carmen's castanets. But he heeded them not. If he listened to them sometimes, it was only to wonder at the harsh and blatant nature of their voices, only to pity the poor creatures who hastened to the prison, which youth thinks freedom and old age protection, at their shrieking summons. He preferred to be master of his soul, and had no desire to set it drilling at the command of painted women, or to drown it in wine, or to suffocate it in the smoke at which the voluptuary tries to warm his hands, mistaking it for fire. Intellectuality is to some men what religion is to many women, a trellis of roses that bars out the larger world. Valentine loved to watch the roses bud and bloom as he sat in his flower-walled cell, a deliberate and rejoicing prisoner. For a long time he loved to watch them. And he thought that it must always be so, for he was not greatly given to moods, and therefore scarcely appreciated the thrilling meaning of the word change, that is the key-word of so many a life cipher. He loved the pleasures of the intellect so much that he made the mistake of opposing them, as enemies, to the pleasures of the body. The reverse mistake is made by the generality of men; and those who deem it wise to mingle the sharply contrasted ingredients that form a good recipe for happiness are often dubbed incomprehensible, or worse. But there were moments at a period of Valentine's life when he felt discontented at his strange inability to long for sin; when he wondered, rather wearily, why he was rapt from the follies that other men enjoyed; why he could refuse, without effort, the things that they clamoured after year by year with an unceasing gluttony of appetite. The saint quarrelled mutely with his holiness of intellectuality, and argued, almost fiercely, with his cold and delicate purity.
"Why am I like some ivory statue?" he thought sometimes, "instead of like a human being, with drumming pulses, and dancing longings, and voices calling forever in my ears, like voices of sirens, 'Come, come, rest in our arms, sleep on our bosoms, for we are they who have given joy to all men from the beginning of time. We are they who have drawn good men from their sad goodness, and they have blessed us. We are they who have been the allegory of the sage and the story of the world. In our soft arms the world has learned the glory of embracing. On our melodious hearts the hearts of men have learned the sweet religion of singing.' Why cannot I be as other men are, instead of the Saint—the saint of Victoria Street—that I am?"
For, absurdly enough, that was the name his world gave to Valentine. This is not an age of romance, and he did not dwell, like the saints of old centuries, in the clear solitudes of the great desert, but in what the advertisement writer calls a "commodious flat" in Victoria Street. No little jackals thronged about him in sinful circle by night. No school of picturesque disciples surrounded him by day. If he peeped above his blinds he could see the radiant procession of omnibuses on their halting way towards Westminster. The melodies of wandering organs sang in his ascetic ears, not once, nor twice, but many times a week. The milk-boy came, it must be presumed, to pay his visit in the morning; and the sparrows made the air alive, poising above the chimneys, instead of the wild eagles, whose home is near the sun. Valentine was a modern young man of twenty-four, dealt at the Army and Navy Stores, was extremely well off, and knew everybody. He belonged to the best clubs and went occasionally to the best parties. His tailor had a habitation in Sackville Street, and his gloves came from the Burlington Arcade. He often lunched at the Berkeley and frequently dined at Willis's. Also he had laughed at the antics of Arthur Roberts, and gazed through a pair of gold-mounted opera-glasses at Empire ballets and at the discreet juggleries of Paul Cinquevalli. The romance of cloistered saintliness was not his. If it had been he might never have rebelled. For how often it is romance which makes a home for religion in the heart of man, romance which feathers the nest of purity in which the hermit soul delights to dwell! Is it not that bizarre silence of the Algerian waste which leads many a Trappist to his fate, rather than the strange thought of God calling his soul to heavenly dreams and ecstatic renunciations? Is it not the wild poetry of the sleeping snows by night that gives to the St. Bernard monk his holiest meditations? When the organ murmurs, and he kneels in that remote chapel of the clouds to pray, is it not the religion of his wonderful earthly situation and prospect that speaks to him loudly, rather than the religion of the far-off Power whose hands he believes to hold the threads of his destinies? Even the tonsure is a psalm to some, and the robe and cowl a litany. The knotted cord is a mass and the sandal a prayer.
But Valentine had been a saint by temperament, it seemed, and would be a saint by temperament to the end. He had not been scourged to a prayerful attitude by sorrow or by pain. Tears had not made a sea to float him to repentance or to purity. Apparently he had been given what men call goodness as others are given moustaches or a cheerful temper. When his contemporaries wondered at him, he often found himself wondering still more at them. Why did they love coarse sins? he thought. Why did they fling themselves down, like dogs, to roll in offal? He could not understand, and for a long time he did not wish to understand. But one night the wish came to him, and he expressed it to his bosom friend, Julian Addison.
A QUESTION OF EXCHANGE
Most of us need an opposite to sit by the hearth with us sometimes, and to stir us to wonder or to war. Julian was Valentine's singularly complete and perfect opposite, in nature if not in deeds. But, after all, it is the thoughts that are of account rather than the acts, to a mind like Valentine's. He knew that Julian's nature was totally unlike his own, so singularly unlike that Julian struck just the right note to give the strength of a discord to the chord—that often seemed a common chord—of his own harmony. Long ago, for this reason, or for no special reason, he had grown to love Julian. Theirs was a fine, clean specimen of friendship. How fine, Valentine never rightly knew until this evening.
They were sitting together in Valentine's flat in that hour when he became serious and expansive. He had rather a habit of becoming serious toward midnight, especially if he was with only one person; and no desire to please interfered with his natural play of mind and of feeling when he was with Julian. To affect any feeling with Julian would have seemed like being on conventional terms with an element, or endeavouring to deceive one's valet about one's personal habits. Long ago Julian and he had, in mind, taken up their residence together, fallen into the pleasant custom of breakfasting, lunching, and dining on all topics in common. Valentine knew of no barriers between them. And so, now, as they sat smoking, he expressed his mood without fear or hesitation.
The room in which they were was small. It was named the tentroom, being hung with dull-green draperies, which hid the ceiling and fell loosely to the floor on every side. A heavy curtain shrouded the one door. On the hearth flickered a fire, before which lay Valentine's fox-terrier, Rip. Julian was half lying down on a divan in an unbuttoned attitude. Valentine leaned forward in an arm-chair. They were smoking cigarettes.
"Julian," Valentine said, meditatively, "I sometimes wonder why you and I are such great friends."
"How abominable of you! To seek a reason for friendship is as inhuman as to probe for the causes of love. Don't, for goodness' sake, let your intellect triumph over your humanity, Valentine. Of all modern vices, that seems to me the most loathsome. But you could never fall into anything loathsome. You are sheeted against that danger with plate armour."
"But you are. It sometimes seems to me that you and I are like Elijah and Elisha, in a way. But I am covetous of your mantle."
"Then you want me to be caught from you into heaven?"
"No. I should like you to give me your mantle, your powers, your nature, that is, and to stay here as well."
"And send the chariot of fire to the coach-house, and the horses of fire to the nearest stables?"
"Well, but give me a reason for this rascally craving."
"A reason! Oh, I hate my nature and I love yours. What a curse it is to go through life eternally haunted by one's self; worse than being married to an ugly and boring wife."
"Now you are being morbid."
"Well, I'm telling you just how I feel."
"That is being morbid. Recording to some people who claim to direct Society."
"The world's County Council, who would like to abolish all the public bars."
"And force us to do our drinking in the privacy of our bedrooms."
"You would never do any drinking, Valentine. How could you, the Saint of Victoria Street?"
"I begin to hate that nickname."
And he frowned slowly. Tall, fair, curiously innocent-looking, his face was the face of a blonde ascetic. His blue eyes were certainly not cold, but nobody could imagine that they would ever gleam with passion or with desire as they looked upon sin. His mouth seemed made for prayer, not for kisses; and so women often longed to kiss it. Over him, indeed, intellectuality hung like a light veil, setting him apart from the uproar which the world raises while it breaks the ten commandments. Julian, on the other hand, was brown, with bright, eager eyes, and the expression of one who was above all things intensely human. Valentine had ever been, and still remained, to him a perpetual wonder, a sort of beautiful mystery. He actually reverenced this youth who stood apart from all the muddy ways of sin, too refined, as it seemed, rather than too religious, to be attracted by any wile of the devil's, too completely artistic to feel any impulse towards the subtle violence which lurks in all the vagaries of the body. Valentine was to Julian a god, but in their mutual relations this fact never became apparent. On the contrary, Valentine was apt to look up to Julian with admiration, and the curious respect often felt by those who are good by temperament for those who are completely human. And Julian loved Valentine for looking up to him, finding in this absurd modesty of his friend a crowning beauty of character. He had never told Valentine the fact that Valentine kept him pure, held his bounding nature in leash, was the wall of fire that hedged him from sin, the armour that protected him against the assaults of self. He had never told Valentine this secret, which he cherished with the exceeding and watchful care men so often display in hiding that which does them credit. For who is not a pocket Byron nowadays? But to-night was fated by the Immortals to be a night of self-revelation. And Valentine led the way by taking a step that surprised Julian not a little. For as Valentine frowned he said:
"Yes, I begin to hate my nickname, and I begin to hate myself."
Julian could not help smiling at the absurdity of this bemoaning.
"What is it in yourself that you hate so much?" he asked, with a decided curiosity.
Valentine sat considering.
"Well," he replied at length, "I think it is my inhumanity, which robs me of many things. I don't desire the pleasures that most men desire, as you know. But lately I have often wished to desire them."
"Rather an elaborate state of mind."
"Yet a state easy to understand, surely. Julian, emotions pass me by. Why is that? Deep love, deep hate, despair, desire, won't stop to speak to me. Men tell me I am a marvel because I never do as they do. But I am not driven as they are evidently driven. The fact of the matter is that desire is not in me. My nature shrinks from sin; but it is not virtue that shrinks: it is rather reserve. I have no more temptation to be sensual, for instance, than I have to be vulgar."
"Hang it, Val, you don't want to have the temptation, do you?"
Valentine looked at Julian curiously.
"You have the temptation, Julian?" he said.
"You know I have—horribly."
"But you fight it and conquer it?"
"I fight it, and now I am beginning to conquer it, to get it under."
"Now? Since when?"
Julian replied by asking another question.
"Look here, how long have we known each other?"
"Let me see. I'm twenty-four, you twenty-three. Just five years."
"Ah! For just five years I've fought, Val, been able to fight."
"And before then?"
"I didn't fight; I revelled in the enemy's camp."
"You have never told me this before. Did you suddenly get conversion, as Salvationists say?"
"Something like it. But my conversion had nothing to do with trumpets and tambourines."
"What then? This is interesting."
A certain confusion had come into Julian's expression, even a certain echoing awkwardness into his attitude. He looked away into the fire and lighted another cigarette before he answered. Then he said rather unevenly:
"I dare say you'll be surprised when I tell you. But I never meant to tell you at all."
"Don't, if you would rather not."
"Yes, I think I will. I must stop you from disliking yourself at any cost, dear old boy. Well, you converted me, so far as I am converted; and that's not very far, I'm afraid."
"I?" said Valentine, with genuine surprise. "Why, I never tried to."
"Exactly. If you had, no doubt you'd have failed."
"I've never told you all you do for me, Val. You are my armour against all these damned things. When I'm with you, I hate the notion of being a sinner. I never hated it before I met you. In fact, I loved it. I wanted sin more than I wanted anything in heaven or earth. And then—just at the critical moment when I was passing from boyhood into manhood, I met you."
He stopped. His brown cheeks were glowing, and he avoided Valentine's gaze.
"Go on, Julian," Valentine said. "I want to hear this."
"All right, I'll finish now, but I don't know why I ever began. Perhaps you'll think me a fool, or a sentimentalist."
"Well, I don't know how it is, but when I saw you I first understood that there is a good deal in what the parsons say, that sin is beastly in itself, don't you know, even apart from one's religious convictions, or the injury one may do to others. When I saw you, I understood that sin degrades one's self, Valentine. For you had never sinned as I had, and you were so different from me. You are the only sinless man I know, and you have made me know what beasts we men are. Why can't we be what we might be?"
Valentine did not reply. He seemed lost in thought, and Julian continued, throwing off his original shamefacedness:
"Ever since then you've kept me straight. If I feel inclined to throw myself down in the gutter, one look at you makes me loathe the notion. Preaching often drives one wrong out of sheer 'cussedness,' I suppose. But you don't preach and don't care. You just live beautifully, because you're made differently from all of us. So you do for me what no preachers could ever do. There—now you know."
He lay back, puffing violently at his cigarette.
"It is strange," Valentine said, seeing he had finished. "You know, to live as I do is no effort to me, and so it is absurd to praise me."
"I won't praise you, but it's outrageous of you to want to feel as I and other men feel."
"Is it? I don't think so. I think it is very natural. My life is a dead calm, and a dead calm is monotonous."
"It's better than an everlasting storm."
"I wonder!" Valentine said. "How curious that I should protect you. I am glad it is so. And yet, Julian, in spite of what you say, I would give a great deal to change souls with you, if only for a day or two. You will laugh at me, but I do long to feel a real, keen temptation. Those agonizing struggles of holy men that one reads of, what can they be like? I can hardly imagine. There have been ascetics who have wept, and dashed themselves down on the ground, and injured, wounded their bodies to distract their thoughts from vice. To me they seem as madmen. You know the story of the monk who rescued a great courtesan from her life of shame. He placed her in a convent and went into the desert. But her image haunted him, maddened him. He slunk back to the convent, and found her dying in the arms of God. And he tried to drag her away, that she might sin only once again with him, with him, her saviour. But she died, giving herself to God, and he went out cursing and blaspheming. This is only a dramatic fable to me. And yet I suppose it is a possibility."
"Of course. Val, I could imagine myself doing as that monk did, but for you. Only that I could never have been a monk at all."
"I am glad if I help you to any happiness, Julian. But—but—oh! to feel temptation!"
"Oh, not to feel it! By Jove, I long to have done with the infernal thing that's always ready to bother me. Fighting it is no fun, Val, I can tell you. If you would like to have my soul for a day or two, I should love to have yours in exchange."
Valentine smoked in silence for two or three minutes. His pure, pale, beautiful face was rather wistful as he gazed at the fire.
"Why can't these affairs be managed?" he sighed out at length.
"Why can't we do just the one thing more? We can kill a man's body. We can kill a woman's purity. And here you and I sit, the closest friends, and neither of us can have the same experiences, as the other, even for a moment. Why isn't it possible?"
"Perhaps it is."
"Why? How do you mean?"
"Well, of course I'm rather a sceptic, and entirely an ignoramus. But I met a man the other day who would have laughed at us for doubting. He was an awfully strange fellow. His name is Marr. I met him at Lady Crichton's."
"Who is he?"
"Haven't an idea. I never saw or heard of him before. We talked a good deal at dessert. He came over from the other side of the table to sit by me, and somehow, in five minutes, we'd got into spiritualism and all that sort of thing. He is evidently a believer in it, calls himself an occultist."
"But do you mean to tell me he said souls could be exchanged at will? Come, Julian?"
"I won't say that. But he set no limit at all to what can be done. He declares that if people seriously set themselves to develop the latent powers that lie hidden within them, they can do almost anything. Only they must be en rapport. Each must respond closely, definitely, to the other. Now, you and I are as much in sympathy with one another as any two men in London, I suppose."
"Then half the battle's won—according to Marr."
"You are joking."
"He wasn't. He would declare that, with time and perseverance, we could accomplish an exchange of souls."
"Well, but how?"
Julian laughed too.
"Oh, it seems absurd—but he'd tell us to sit together."
"Well, we are sitting together now."
"No; at a table, I mean."
"Table-turning!" Valentine cried, with a sort of contempt. "That is for children, and for all of us at Christmas, when we want to make fools of ourselves."
"Just what I am inclined to think. But Marr—and he's really a very smart, clever chap, Val—denies it. He swears it is possible for two people who sit together often to get up a marvellous sympathy, which lasts on even when they are no longer sitting. He says you can even see your companion's thoughts take form in the darkness before your eyes, and pass in procession like living things."
"He must be mad."
"Perhaps. I don't know. If he is, he can put his madness to you very lucidly, very ingeniously."
Valentine stroked the white back of Rip meditatively with his foot.
"You have never sat, have you?" he asked.
"Nor I. I have always thought it an idiotic and very dull way of wasting one's time. Now, what on earth can a table have to do with one's soul?"
"I don't know. What is one's soul?"
"One's essence, I suppose; the inner light that spreads its rays outward in actions, and that is extinguished, or expelled, at the hour of death."
"Expelled, I think."
"I think so too. That which is so full of strange power cannot surely die so soon. Even my soul, so frigid, so passionless, has, you say, held you back from sins like a leash of steel, And I did not even try to forge the steel. If we could exchange souls, would yours hold me back in the same way?"
"I wonder," Valentine said thoughtfully. After a moment he added, "shall we make this absurd experiment of sitting, just for a phantasy?"
"Why not? It would be rather fun."
"It might be. We will just do it once to see whether you can get some of my feelings, and I some of yours."
"That's it. But you could never get mine. I know you too well, Val. You're my rock of defence. You've kept me straight because you're so straight yourself; and, with that face, you'll never alter. If anything should happen, it will be that you'll drag me up to where you are. I shan't drag you down to my level, you old saint!"
And he laid his hand affectionately on his friend's shoulder.
"Your level is not low," he said.
"No, perhaps; but, by Jove, it could be, though. If you hadn't been chucked into the world, I often think the devil must have had me altogether. You keep him off. How he must hate you, Val. Hulloh! What's that?"
"Who's that laughing outside? Has Wade got a friend in to-night?"
"Not that I know of. I didn't hear anything."
Valentine touched the electric bell, and his man appeared.
"Any one in with you to-night, Wade?" he asked.
The man looked surprised.
"No, sir; certainly not, sir."
"Oh! Don't sit up; we may be late to-night. And we don't want anything more, except—yes, bring another couple of sodas."
He brought them and vanished. A moment later they heard the front door of the flat close. The butler was married and slept out of the house. Valentine had no servant sleeping in the flat. He preferred to be alone at night.
EPISODE OF THE FIRST SITTING
"Now, then," said Valentine, "let us be absurd and try this sitting. Shall we clear this little table?"
"Yes. It's just the right size. It might do for three people, but certainly not for more."
"There! Now, then."
And, as the clock struck twelve, Valentine turned off the electric light, and they sat down with their hands upon the table. The room was only very dimly illuminated by the fire on the hearth, where Rip slept on, indifferent to their proceedings.
"I suppose nothing could go wrong," Julian said, after a moment of silence.
"Yes. I don't know exactly what Marr meant, but he said that if unsuitable people sit together any amount of harm can result from it."
"What sort of harm?"
"I don't know."
"H'm! I expect that is all nonsense, like the rest of his remarks. Anyhow, Julian, no two people could ever hit it off better than you and I do. Wait a second."
He jumped up and drew the curtain over the door. Wade had pulled it back when he came in.
"I must have that curtain altered," Valentine said. "It is so badly hung that whenever the door is opened, it falls half way back, and looks hideous. That is better."
He sat down again.
"We won't talk," he said.
"No. We'll give the—whatever it is every chance."
They were silent.
Presently—it might have been a quarter of an hour—Julian said suddenly:
"Do you feel anything?"
"'M—no," Valentine answered, rather doubtfully.
"I think so."
"You can't merely think you are sure, old chap."
"Well, then—yes, I'll say I am sure."
"Right," rejoined Julian.
Again there was a silence, broken this time by Valentine.
"Why did you ask me?" he said.
"Oh! no special reason. I just wanted to know."
"Then you didn't?"
"No; nothing particular."
"Well, what do you mean by that?"
"What I say. I can't be sure it was anything."
"So was my—I can't even call it exactly sensation. It was so very slight. In fact, I'm as good as sure I felt nothing at all. It was a mere fancy. Nothing more."
And then again they were silent. The fire gradually died down until the room grew quite dark. Presently Valentine said:
"Hulloh! here is Rip up against my foot. He is cold without the fire, poor little beggar."
"Shall we stop?" asked Julian.
"Yes; I vote we do—for to-night."
Valentine struck a match, felt for the knob of the electric light, and turned it on. Julian and he looked at each other, blinking.
"Think there's anything in it?" asked Julian.
"I don't know," said Valentine. "I suppose not. Rip! Rip! He is cold. Did you ever see a dog shiver like that?"
He picked the little creature up in his arms. It nestled against his shoulder with a deep sigh.
"Well, we have made a beginning," he said, turning to pour out a drink. "It is rather interesting."
Julian was lighting a cigarette.
"Yes; it is—very." he answered.
Valentine gave him a brandy and soda; then, as if struck by a sudden thought, asked:
"You really didn't feel anything?"
"Nor I. But then, Julian, why do we find it interesting?"
Julian looked puzzled.
"Hang it! I don't know," he answered, after an instant of reflection. "Why do we? I wonder."
"That is what I am wondering."
He flicked the ash from his cigarette.
"But I don't come to any conclusion," he presently added, meditatively. "We sit in the dark for an hour and a quarter, with our hands solemnly spread out upon a table; we don't talk; the table doesn't move; we hear no sound; we see nothing; we feel nothing that we have not felt before. And yet we find the function interesting. This problem of sensation is simply insoluble. I cannot work it out."
"It is awfully puzzling," said Julian. "I suppose our nerves must have been subtly excited because the thing was an absolute novelty."
"Possibly. But, if so, we are a couple of children, mere schoolboys."
"That's rather refreshing, however undignified. If we sit long enough, we may even recover our long-lost babyhood."
And so they laughed the matter easily away. Soon afterwards, however, Julian got up to go home to his chambers. Valentine went towards the door, intending to open it and get his friend's coat. Suddenly he stopped.
"Strange!" he exclaimed.
"What's the row?"
"Look at the door, Julian."
"Don't you see?"
"The curtain is half drawn back again."
Julian gave vent to a long, low whistle.
"So it is!"
"It always does that when the door is opened."
"And only then, of course?"
"But the door hasn't been opened."
They regarded each other almost uneasily. Then Valentine added, with a short laugh:
"I can't have drawn it thoroughly over the door when Wade went away."
"I suppose not. Well, good-night, Val."
"Good-night. Shall we sit again tomorrow?"
"Yes; I vote we do."
Valentine let his friend out. As he shut the front door, he said to himself:
"I am positive I did draw the curtain thoroughly."
He went back into the tentroom and glanced again at the curtain.
"Yes; I am positive."
After an instant of puzzled wonder, he seemed to put the matter deliberately from him.
"Come along, Rip," he said. "Why, you are cold and miserable to-night! Must I carry you then?"
He picked the dog up, turned out the light, and walked slowly into his bedroom.
THE SECOND SITTING
On the following night Valentine sat waiting for Julian's arrival in his drawing-room, which looked out upon Victoria Street, whereas the only window of the tentroom opened upon some waste ground where once a panorama of Jerusalem, or some notorious city, stood, and where building operations were now being generally carried on. Valentine very seldom used his drawing-room. Sometimes pretty women came to tea with him, and he did them honour there. Sometimes musicians came. Then there was always a silent group gathered round the Steinway grand piano. For Valentine was inordinately fond of music, and played so admirably that even professionals never hurled at him a jeering "amateur!" But when Valentine was alone, or when he expected one or two men to smoke, he invariably sat in the tentroom, where the long lounges and the shaded electric light were suggestive of desultory conversation, and seemed tacitly to forbid all things that savour of a hind-leg attitude. To-night, however, some whim, no doubt, had prompted him to forsake his usual haunt. Perhaps he had been seized with a dislike for complete silence, such as comes upon men in recurring hours of depression, when the mind is submerged by a thin tide of unreasoning melancholy, and sound of one kind or another is as ardently sought as at other times it is avoided. In this room Valentine could hear the vague traffic of the dim street outside, the dull tumult of an omnibus, the furtive, flashing clamour of a hansom, the cry of an occasional newsboy, explanatory of the crimes and tragedies of the passing hour. Or perhaps the eyes of Valentine were, for the moment, weary of the monotonous green walls of his sanctum, leaning tent-wise towards the peaked apex of the ceiling, and longed to rest on the many beautiful pictures that hung in one line around his drawing-room. It seemed so, for now, as he sat in a chair before the fire, holding Rip upon his knee, his blue eyes were fixed meditatively upon a picture called "The Merciful Knight," which faced him over the mantelpiece. This was the only picture containing a figure of the Christ which Valentine possessed. He had no holy children, no Madonnas. But he loved this Christ, this exquisitely imagined dead, drooping figure, which, roused into life by an act of noble renunciation, bent down and kissed the armed hero who had been great enough to forgive his enemy. He loved those weary, tender lips, those faded limbs, the sacred tenuity of the ascetic figure, the wonderful posture of benign familiarity that was more majestic than any reserve. Yes, Valentine loved this Christ, and Julian knew it well. Often, late at night, Julian had leaned back lazily listening while Valentine played, improvising in a light so dim as to be near to darkness. And Julian had noticed that the player's eyes perpetually sought this picture, and rested on it, while his soul, through the touch of the fingers, called to the soul of music that slept in the piano, stirred it from sleep, carried it through strange and flashing scenes, taught it to strive and to agonize, then hushed it again to sleep and peace. And as Julian looked from the picture to the player, who seemed drawing inspiration from it, he often mutely compared the imagined beauty of the soul of the Christ with the known beauty of the soul of his friend. And the two lovelinesses seemed to meet, and to mingle as easily as two streams one with the other. Yet the beauty of the Christ soul sprang from a strange parentage, was a sublime inheritance, had been tried in the fiercest fires of pity and of pain. The beauty of Valentine's soul seemed curiously innate, and mingled with a dazzling snow of almost inhuman purity. His was not a great soul that had striven successfully, and must always strive. His was a soul that easily triumphed, that was almost coldly perfect without effort, that had surely never longed even for a moment to fall, had never desired and refused the shadowy pleasures of passion. The wonderful purity of his friend's face continually struck Julian anew. It suggested to him the ivory peak of an Alp, the luminous pallor of a pearl. What other young man in London looked like that? Valentine was indeed an unique figure in the modern London world. Had he strayed into it from the fragrant pages of a missal, or condescended to it from the beatific vistas of some far-off Paradise? Julian had often wondered, as he looked into the clear, calm eyes of the friend who had been for so long the vigilant, yet unconscious guardian of his soul.
To-night, as Valentine sat looking at the Christ, a curious wonder at himself came into his mind. He was musing on the confession of Julian, so long withheld, so shyly made at last. This confession caused him, for the first time, to look self-consciously upon himself, to stand away from his nature, as the artist stands away from the picture he is painting, and to examine it with a sideways head, with a peering, contracted gaze. This thing that protected a soul from sin—what was it like? What was it? He could not easily surmise. He had a clear vision of the Christ soul, of the exquisite essence of a divine individuality that prompted life to spring out of death for one perfect moment that it might miraculously reward a great human act of humanity. Yes, that soul floated before him almost visibly. He could call it up before his mind as a man can call up the vision of a supremely beautiful rose he has admired. And there was a scent from the Christ soul as ineffably delicious as the scent of the rose. But when Valentine tried to see his own soul, he could not see it. He could not comprehend how its aspect affected others, even quite how it affected Julian. Only he could comprehend, as he looked at the Christ, its imperfection, and a longing, not felt before, came to him to be better than he was. This new aspiration was given to him by Julian's confession. He knew that well. He protected his friend now without effort. Could he not protect him more certainly with effort? Can a soul be beautiful that never strives consciously after beauty? A child's nature is beautiful in its innocence because it has never striven to be innocent. But is not an innocent woman more wonderful, more beautiful, than an innocent child? Valentine felt within him that night a distinct aspiration, and he vaguely connected it with the drooping Christ, who touched with wan, rewarding lips the ardent face of the merciful knight. And he no longer had the desire to know desire of sin. He no longer sought to understand the power of temptation or the joy of yielding to that power. A subtle change swept over him. Whether it was permanent, or only passing, he could not tell.
A tingling cry from the electric bell in the passage told of Julian's arrival, and in a moment he entered. He looked gay, almost rowdy, and clapped Valentine on the shoulder rather boisterously.
"Why on earth are you in here?" he exclaimed. "Have you been playing?"
"Are you in an exalted state of mind, that demands the best parlour for its environment?"
"But why then have you let out the fire in the den and enthroned yourself here?"
"A whim, Julian. I felt a strong inclination to sit in this room to-night. It seems to me a less nervous room than the other, and I want to be as cold-blooded as possible."
"O, I see! But, my dear fellow, what is there nervous about the tent? Do you imagine ghosts lurking in the hangings, or phantoms of dead Arabs clinging, like bats, round that rosette in the roof? You got it up the Nile, didn't you?"
"Yes. Where have you been?"
"Dining out. And, oddly enough, I met Marr again, the man I told you about. It seems he is in universal request just now."
"On account of his mystery-mongering, I suppose."
"Did you tell him anything about our sitting?"
"Only that we had sat, and that nothing had happened."
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'Pooh, pooh! these processes are, and always must be, gradual. Another time there may be some manifestation.'"
"Manifestation! Did you ask him of what nature the manifestation was likely to be? These people are so vague in the terms they employ."
"Yes, I asked him; but I couldn't get much out of him. I must tell you, Val, that he seemed curiously doubtful about my statement that nothing had happened. I can't think why. He said, 'Are you quite sure?'"
"Of course you answered Yes?"
Valentine looked at him for a moment and then said:
"You didn't mention the—the curtain by any chance?"
"No. You thought you had left it only partially drawn, didn't you?"
Valentine made no reply. His face was rather grave. Julian did not repeat the question. He felt instinctively that Valentine did not wish to be obliged to answer it. Oddly enough, during the short silence which followed, he was conscious of a slight constraint such as he had certainly never felt with Valentine before. His gaiety seemed dropping from him in this quiet room to which he was so often a visitor. The rowdy expression faded out of his face and he found himself glancing half furtively at his friend.
"Valentine," he presently said, "shall we really sit to-night?"
"Yes, surely. You meant to when you came here, didn't you?"
"I don't believe there is anything in it."
"We will find out. Remember that I want to get hold of your soul."
"If you ever do it will prove an old man of the sea to you," he said.
"I will risk that," Valentine answered.
And then he added:
"But, come, don't let us waste time. I will go and send away Wade. Clear that little table by the piano."
Julian began removing the photographs and books which stood on it, while Valentine went out of the room and told his man to go.
As soon as they heard the front door close upon him they sat down opposite to each other as on the previous night.
They kept silence and sat for what seemed a very long time. At last Julian said:
"Let us go back into the tentroom."
"Nothing will ever happen here."
"Why should anything happen there?"
"I don't know. Let us go. The fire is burning too brightly here. We ought to have complete darkness."
"Very well, though I can't believe it will make the slightest difference."
They got up and went into the tentroom, which looked rather cheerless with its fireless grate.
"I know this will be better," Julian said. "We'll have the same table as last night."
Valentine carefully drew the green curtain quite over the door and called Julian's attention to the fact that he had done so. Then they sat down again. Rip lay on the divan in his basket with a rug over him, so that he might not disturb them by any movement in search of warmth and of companionship.
The arrangements seemed careful and complete. They were absolutely isolated from the rest of the world. They were in darkness and the silence might almost be felt. As Julian said, they were safe from trickery, and, as Valentine rejoined in his calm voix d'or, they were therefore probably also safe from what Marr had mysteriously called "manifestations."
Dead, dumb silence. Their four hands, not touching, lay loosely on the oval table. Rip slept unutterably, shrouded head and body in his cosy rug. So—till the last gleam of the fire faded. So—till another twenty minutes had passed. The friends had not exchanged a word, had scarcely made the slightest movement. Could a stranger have been suddenly introduced into the black room, and have remained listening attentively, he might easily have been deceived into the belief that, but for himself, it was deserted. To both Valentine and Julian the silence seemed progressive. With each gliding moment they could have declared that it grew deeper, more dense, more prominent, even more grotesque and living. There seemed to be a sort of pressure in it which handled them more and more definitely. The sensation was interesting and acute. Each gave himself to it, and each had a, perhaps deceptive, consciousness of yielding up something, something impalpable, evanescent, fluent. Valentine, more especially, felt as if he were pouring away from himself, by this act of sitting, a vital liquid, and he thought with a mental smile:
"Am I letting my soul out of its cage, here and now?"
"No doubt," his common sense replied; "no doubt this sensation is the merest fancy."
He played with it in the darkness, and had no feeling of weariness.
Nearly an hour had passed in this morose way, when, with, it seemed, appalling abruptness, Rip barked.
Although the bark was half stifled in rug, both Valentine and Julian started perceptibly.
"'Sh!" Valentine hissed to the little dog. "'Sh! Rip! Quiet!"
The response of Rip was, with a violent scramble, to disentangle himself from his covering, emerging from which he again barked with shrill and piercing vehemence, at the same time leaping to the floor. By the sound, which he could locate, Valentine felt certain that the dog had gone over to the door.
"What on earth is he barking at?" Julian said in the darkness.
"I can't imagine. Hush, Rip! S-sh!"
"Val, turn on the light, quick! You're nearest to it."
Valentine stretched out his hand hastily, and in a flash the room sprang into view. He was right. Rip was crouched—his front legs extended along the floor, his hind legs standing almost straight—close to the door, and facing it full. His head was down, and moving, darting this way and that, as if he were worrying the feet of some person who was trying to advance from the door into the centre of the room. All his teeth showed, and his yellow eyes were glaring fiercely.
Julian, who had thrown a hasty and searching glance round the room when the light was turned on, sprang forward and bent down to him.
"Rip! Rip!" he said. "Silly! What's the matter? Silly dog!" and he began to stroke him.
Either this action of his, or something else not known by the young men, had an effect on the terrier, for he suddenly ceased barking, and began to snuffle eagerly, excitedly, at the bottom of the door.
"It's as if he were mad," said Julian, turning round. "Hulloh, Val! What the devil's come to you?"
For he found Valentine standing up by the table with an expression of deep astonishment on his face.
He pointed in silence to the door.
"By Jove! that curtain again!" said Julian, with an accent of amazement. "I'm damned!"
The curtain was, in fact, drawn back from the door. Valentine struck a match and put it to a candle. Then he opened the door. Rip immediately darted out of the room and pattered excitedly down the passage, as if searching for something, his sharp nose investigating the ground with a vehement attention. The young men followed him. He ran to the front door, then back into Valentine's bedroom; then, by turns, into the four other apartments—bedroom, drawing-room, bathroom and kitchen—that formed the suite. The doors of the two latter were opened by Valentine. Having completed this useless progress, Rip once more resorted to the passage and the front door, by which he paused, whimpering, in an uncertain, almost a wistful attitude.
"Open it!" said Julian.
Valentine did so.
They looked out upon the broad and dreary stone steps, and waited, listening. There was no sound. Rip still whimpered, rather feebly. His excitement was evidently dying away. At last Valentine shut the door, and they went back again to the tentroom, accompanied closely by the dog, who gradually regained his calmness, and who presently jumped of his own accord into his basket, and, after turning quickly round some half-dozen times, composed himself once more to sleep.
"I wish, after all, we had stayed in the other room by the fire," Julian said. "Give me some brandy."
Valentine poured some into a glass and Julian swallowed it at a gulp.
"We mustn't have Rip in the room another time," he added. "He spoilt the whole thing."
"What whole thing?" Valentine asked, sinking down in a chair.
"Well, the sitting. Perhaps—perhaps one of Marr's mysterious manifestations might have come off to-night."
Valentine did not reply at first. When he did, he startled Julian by saying:
"Perhaps one of them did come off."
"What was Rip barking at?"
"There's no accounting for what dogs will do. They often bark at shadows."
"At shadows—yes, exactly. But what cast a shadow to-night?"
Julian laughed with some apparent uneasiness.
"Perhaps a coming event," he exclaimed.
Valentine looked at him rather gravely.
"That is exactly what I felt," he said.
"Explain. For I was only joking."
"I felt, perhaps it was only a fancy, that this second sitting of ours brought some event a stage nearer, a stage nearer on its journey."
"I felt—to us."
"Probably. You didn't feel it?"
"I? Oh, I scarcely know what I felt. I must say, though, that squatting in the dark, and saying nothing for such an age, and—and all the rest of it, doesn't exactly toughen one's nerves. That little demon of a Rip quite gave me the horrors when he started barking. What fools we are! I should think nothing of mounting a dangerous horse, or sailing a boat in rough weather, or risking my life as we all do half our time in one way or another. Yet a dog and a dark room give me the shudders. Funny, Val, isn't it?"
Valentine answered, "If it is a dog and a dark room."
"What else can it possibly be?" Julian said with an accent of rather unreasonable annoyance.
"I don't know. But I did draw the curtain completely over the door to-night. Julian, I am getting interested in this. Perhaps—who knows?—in the end I shall have your soul, you mine."
He laughed as he spoke; then added:
"No, no; I don't believe in such an exchange; and, Julian, I scarcely desire it. But let us go on. This gives a slight new excitement to life."
"Yes. But it is selfish of you to wish to keep your soul to yourself. I want it. Well, au revoir, Val; to-morrow night."
After Julian had gone Valentine went back into the drawing-room and stood for a long while before the "Merciful Knight." He had a strange fancy that the picture of the bending Christ protected the room from the intrusion of—what?
He could not tell yet. Perhaps he could never tell.
THE THIRD SITTING
"Isn't it an extraordinary thing," Julian said, on the following evening, "that if you meet a man once in London you keep knocking up against him day after day? While, if—"
"You don't meet him, you don't."
"No. I mean that if you don't happen to be introduced to him, you probably never set eyes on him at all."
"I know. But whom have you met to-day?"
"That's odd. He is beginning to haunt you."
"I met him at my club. He has just been elected a member."
"Did he make any more inquiries into our sittings?"
"Rather. He talked of nothing else. He's an extraordinary fellow, extraordinary."
"Why? What is he like?"
"In appearance? Oh, the sort of chap little pink women call Satanic; white complexion showing blue where he shaves, big dark eyes rather sunken, black hair, tall, very thin and quiet. Very well dressed. He is that uncanny kind of a man who has a silent manner and a noisy expression. You know what I mean?"
"I think he's very morbid. He never reads the evening papers."
"That proves it absolutely. Does he smoke?"
"Always. I found him in the smoking-room. He showed the most persistent interest in our proceedings, Val. I couldn't get him to talk of anything else, so at last I told him exactly what had happened."
"Did you tell him that we began to sit last night in a different room?"
"Yes. That was curious. Directly I said it he began making minute inquiries as to what the room was like, how the furniture was placed, even what pictures hung on the walls."
"Yes. I described them."
"All of them?"
"No, one or two; that favorite of yours, 'The Merciful Knight,' the Turner, those girls of Solomon's with the man playing to them, and—yes, I think those were all."
"He said, 'You made a great mistake in changing your venue to that room, a great mistake.' Then I explained how we moved back to the tentroom in the middle of the sitting, and all about Rip."
"Did he make any remark?"
"One that struck me as very quaint, 'You are en route.'"
"Enigmatic again. He was playing the wizard."
"He spoke very gravely."
"Of course. Great gravity is part of the business."
"Afterwards he said, 'Turn that dog out next time.'"
"And that was all?"
"I think so."
Valentine sat musing. Presently he said:
"I should rather like to meet this Marr."
"Oh, I don't think—I fancy—"
"I'd as soon you didn't."
"I don't think you'd get on. You wouldn't like him."
"For what reason?"
"I don't know. I've a notion he's something exceptional in the way of a blackguard. Perhaps I am wrong. I haven't an idea what sort of a reputation he has. But he is black, Valentine, not at all your colour. Oh! and, by the way, he doesn't want to meet you."
"How charming of him!"
"I had half suggested it, I don't know why, and he said, 'Thanks! Thanks! Chance will bring us together later on if we ought to meet.' And now I am glad he wasn't keen. Shall we begin? Put Rip into your bedroom, as he advised. Besides, I can't stand his barking."
Valentine carried the little dog away. When he came back he shut the tentroom door and was about to draw the curtain over it. But Julian stopped him.
"No, don't," Julian said.
"I would rather you didn't. I hate that curtain. If I were you I would have it taken down altogether."
Valentine looked at him in surprise. He had uttered the words with an energy almost violent. But even as Valentine looked Julian switched off the electric light and the leaping darkness hid his face.
"Come now. Business! Business!" he cried.
And again they sat with their hands loosely on the table, not touching each other.
Valentine felt that Julian was being less frank with him than usual. Perhaps for this reason he was immediately conscious that they were not so much in sympathy as on the two former occasions of their sittings. Or there might have been some other reason which he could not identify. It is certain that he gradually became acutely aware of a stifling sense of constraint, which he believed to be greatly intensified by the surrounding darkness and silence. He wondered if Julian was conscious of it also, and at moments longed to ask. But something held him back, that curious something which we all feel at times like a strong hand laid upon us. He made up his mind that this discomfort of his soul, unreasonably considerable though it was, must be due solely to Julian's abrupt demeanour and obvious desire to check his curiosity about the drawing of the curtain. But, as the moments ran by, his sense of uneasiness assumed such fantastic proportions that he began to cast about for some more definite, more concrete, cause. At one instant he found it in the condition of his health. The day had been damp and dreary, and he had suffered from neuralgia. Doubtless the pain had acted upon his nervous system, and was accountable for his present and perpetually increasing anxiety. A little later he was fain to dismiss this supposition as untenable. His sense of constraint was changing into a positive dread, and not at all of Julian, around whom he had believed that his thoughts were in flight. Something, he knew not at all what, interposed between him and Julian, and so definitely that Valentine felt as if he could have fixed the exact moment in which the interposition had taken place, as one can fix the exact moment in which a person enters a room where one is sitting. And the interposition was one of great horror,—entirely malignant, Valentine believed.
He had an impulse to spring up from the table, to turn on the light, and to say, "Let us make an end of this jugglery!" Yet he sat still, wondering why he did so. A curiosity walked in his mind, pacing about till he could almost fancy he heard its footsteps. He sat, then, as one awaiting an arrival, that has been heralded in some way, by a telegram, a message, a carrier-pigeon flown in at an open window. But the herald, too, was horrible. What then would follow it? What was coming? Valentine felt that he began to understand Marr's queer remark, "You are en route." At the first sitting he had felt a very vague suggestion of immoderate possibilities, made possibilities by the apparently futile position assumed at a table by himself and Julian. To-night the vague seemed on march towards the definite. Fancy was surely moving towards fact.
With his eyes wide open Valentine gazed in the direction of Julian, sitting invisible opposite to him. He wondered how Julian was feeling, what he was thinking. And then he remembered that strange saying of Marr's, that thoughts could take form, materialize. What would he give to witness that monstrous procession of embodied brain-actions trooping from the mind of his friend! He imagined them small, spare, phantom-like things, fringed with fire, as weapon against the darkness, silent-footed as spirits, moving with a level impetus, as pale ghosts treading a sea, onward to the vast world of clashing minds, to which we carelessly cast out our thoughts as a man who shoots rubbish into a cart. The vagrant fancies danced along with attenuated steps and tiny, whimsical gestures of fairies, fluttering their flame-veined wings. The sad thoughts moved slowly with drooped heads and monotonous hands, and tears fell forever about their feet. The thoughts that were evil—and Julian had acknowledged them many, though combatted—were endowed with a strangely sinister gait, like the gait of those modern sinners who express, ignorantly, in their motions the hidden deeds their tongues decline to speak. The wayward thoughts had faces like women, who kiss and frown within the limits of an hour. On the cheeks of the libertine thoughts a rosy cloud of rouge shone softly, and their haggard eyes were brightened by a cunning pigment. And the noble thoughts, grand in gesture, godlike in bearing, did not pass them by, but spoke to them serene words, and sought to bring them out from their degradation. And there was no music in this imagined procession which Valentine longed to see. All was silent as from the gulf of Julian's mind the inhabitants stole furtively to do their mission. Yes, Valentine knew to-night that he should feel no wonder if thought took form, if a disembodied voice spoke, or a detached hand moved into ripples of the air. Only he was irritated and alarmed by the abiding sense of some surrounding danger, which stayed with him, which he fought against in vain. His common sense had not deserted him. On the contrary, it was argumentative, cogent in explanation and in rebuke. It strove to sneer his distress down with stinging epithets, and shot arrows of laughter against his aimless fears. But the combat was, nevertheless, tamely unequal. Common sense was routed by this enigmatic enemy, and at length Valentine's spirits became so violently perturbed that he could keep silence no longer.
"Julian," he said, with a pressure of chained alarm in his voice, "Julian!"
"Yes," Julian replied, tensely.
"Anything wrong with you?"
"No, no. Or with you?"
"I will confess to you that to-night I feel—I feel, well, horribly afraid."
"I have no idea. The feeling is totally unreasonable. That gives it an inexplicable horror."
"Ah! then that is why you joined your left hand with my right five minutes ago. I wondered why you did it."
"I! Joined hands!"
"I haven't moved my hand."
"My dear Val! How is it holding mine then?"
"Don't be absurd, Julian; my hand is not near yours. Both my hands are just where they were when we sat down, on my side of the table."
"Just where they were! Your little finger has been tightly linked in mine for the last five minutes. You know that as well as I do."
"But it is linked now while I am speaking."
"I tell you it isn't."
"I'll soon let you know it too. There! Ah! no wonder you have snatched it away. You forget that my muscles are like steel, and that I can pinch as a gin pinches a rabbit's leg. I say, I didn't really hurt you, did I? It was only a joke to stop your little game."
"I tell you," Valentine said, almost angrily, "your hand has never once touched mine, nor mine yours."
His accent of irritable sincerity appeared suddenly to carry conviction to the mind of Julian, for he sprang violently up from the table, and cried, in the darkness:
"Then who the devil's in the room with us?"
Valentine also, convinced that Julian had not been joking, was appalled. He switched on the light, and saw Julian standing opposite to him, looking very white. They both threw a rapid glance upon the room, whose dull green draperies returned their inquiry with the complete indifference of artistic inanimation.
"Who the devil's got in here?" Julian repeated, with the savage accent of extreme uneasiness.
"Nobody," Valentine replied. "You know the thing's impossible."
"Impossible or not, somebody has found means to get in."
Valentine shook his head.
"Then you were lying?"
"Julian, what are you saying? Don't go too far."
"Either you were, or else a man has been sitting at that table between us, and I have held his hand, the hand of some stranger. Ouf!"
He shook his broad shoulders in an irrepressible shudder.
"I was not lying, Julian. I tell you so, and I mean it."
Valentine's eyes met Julian's, and Julian believed him.
"Put your hands on the table again," Julian said.
Valentine obeyed, and Julian laid his beside them, linking one of his little fingers tightly in one of Valentine's, and at the same time shutting his eyes. After a long pause he grew visibly whiter, and hastily unlinked his finger.
"No, damn it, Val, I hadn't hold of your hand. The hand I touched was much harder, and the finger was bigger, thicker. I say, this is ghastly."
Again he shook himself, and cast a searching glance upon the little room.
"Somebody has been in here with us, sitting between us in the dark," he repeated. "Good God, who is it?"
Valentine looked doubtful, but uneasy too.
"Let us go through the rooms," he said.
They took a candle, and, as on the previous night, searched, but in vain. They found no trace of any alien presence in the flat. No book, no ornament, had been moved. No door stood open. There was no sound of any footsteps except their own. When they came to Valentine's bedroom, Rip leaped to greet them, and seemed in excellent spirits. He showed no excitement until he had followed them back into the tentroom. But, arrived there, he suddenly stood still, raised one white paw from the ground, and emitted a long and dreary howl. The young men stared at him, and then at each other.
"Rip knows somebody has been here," Julian said.
Valentine was much more uncomfortably impressed by the demeanour of the dog than by Julian's declaration and subsequent agitation. He had been inclined to attribute the whole affair to a trick of his friend's nerves. But the nervous system of a fox-terrier was surely, under such circumstances as these, more truth-telling than that of a man.
"But the thing is absolutely impossible," he repeated, with some disturbance of manner.
"Is anything that we can't investigate straight away absolutely impossible?"
Valentine did not reply directly.
"Here is a cigarette," he said. "Let us sit down, soothe our nerves, and talk things over calmly and openly. We have not been quite frank with each other about these sittings yet."
Julian accepted Valentine's offer with his usual readiness. The fire was relit with some difficulty. Rip was coaxed into silence.
Presently, as the smoke curled upward with its lazy demeanour, the horror that had hung like a thin vapour in the atmosphere seemed to be dissipated.
"Now I think we are ourselves again, and can be reasonable," Valentine began. "Don't let us be hysterical. Spiritualists always suffer from hysteria."
"The sceptics say, Val."
"And probably they are generally right. Now—yes, do drink some more of that brandy and soda. Now, Julian, do you still believe that a hand held yours just now?"
Julian answered quietly, showing no irritation at the question:
"I simply know it as surely as I know that I am sitting with you at this moment. And,—look here, you may laugh at me as much as you. like,—although I supposed the hand to be yours, until you denied it I had previously felt the most curious sensation."
"Well, that something was coming, even had actually come, into the room."
Valentine answered nothing to this, so Julian went on.
"I thought it was a trick of the nerves, and determined to drive it away, and I succeeded. And then, just as I was internally laughing at myself, this hand, as if groping about in the dark, was first laid on mine, full on it, Val, and then slid off onto the table and linked its little finger tightly in mine. I, of course, supposed the hand was yours, and this finger was crooked round mine for fully five minutes, I should say. After you spoke, thinking that you were trying to deceive me for a joke, I caught the hand in mine, and pinched it with all my strength until it was forcibly dragged away."
"Strange," Valentine murmured.
"Deucedly strange! and, what's more, diabolically unpleasant."
"I wonder what that fellow, Marr, would say to this."
"Marr! By Jove, is this one of the manifestations which he spoke about so vaguely?"
"It seems like it."
"But describe your sensations. You say you felt horribly afraid. Why was that?"
"I can't tell. That, I think, made part of the horror. There was a sort of definite vagueness, if you can imagine such a seeming contradiction, in my state of mind. But the feeling is really indescribable. That it was more strange and more terrible than anything I have known is certain. I should like to ask Dr. Levillier about all this."
"Levillier—yes. But he would—"
"Be reasonable about it, as he is about everything. Dear, sensible, odd, saintly, emotional, strong-headed, soft-hearted little doctor. He is unique."
They talked on for some time, arriving at no conclusion, until it seemed they had talked the whole matter thoroughly out. Yet Valentine, who was curiously instinctive, had, all the time, a secret knowledge that Julian was keeping something from him, was not being perfectly frank. The conviction pained him. At last Julian got up to go. He stood putting on his overcoat.
"Good-night," he said.
"Now—is this to be our last sitting?"
"What do you wish?" he asked at length.
"What do you?"
"Well, I—yes, I think I would rather it was the last."
Julian caught his hand impulsively.
"So would I. Good-night."
Julian went out into the hall, got as far as the front door, opened it, then suddenly called out:
"Come here for a moment."
Valentine went, and found him standing with his hand on the door, looking flushed and rather excited.
"There is one thing I haven't told you," he began.
"I knew that."
"I guessed you did. The most horrible sensation I have had. During our sitting to-night—don't be vexed—an extraordinary apprehension of—well, of you, came over me. There! Now I have told you."
Valentine was greatly astonished.
"Of me?" he said.
"Yes. There was a moment when the idea that I was alone with you made my blood run cold."
"Do you wish I hadn't told you?"
"No, of course not. But it is so extraordinary, so unnatural."
"It is utterly gone now, thank God. I say, we have resolved that we won't sit again, haven't we?"
"Yes; and what you have just told me makes me hate the whole thing. The game seems a game no longer."
When the door had closed upon Julian, Valentine sat down and wrote a note.
He addressed it to—
"Doctor Hermann Levillier, "Harley Street, W.,"
and laid it on his writing-table, so that it might be posted early the next morning.
A CONVERSATION AT THE CLUB
Doctor Levillier was not a materialist, although he concerned himself much with the functions of the body, and with that strange spider's web of tingling threads which we call the nervous system. The man who sweeps out the temple, who polishes the marble steps and dusts the painted windows, may yet find time to bend in prayer before the altars he helps to keep beautiful, may yet find a heart to wonder at the spirit which the temple holds as an envelope holds a letter. Reversing the process of mind which seems to lead so many medical students to atheism, Dr. Levillier had found that the more he understood the weaknesses, the nastinesses, the dreary failures, the unimaginable impulses of the flesh, the more he grew to believe in the existence, within it, of the soul. One day a worn-out dyspeptic, famous for his intellectual acquirements over two continents, sat with the little great doctor in his consulting-room. The author, with dry, white lips, had been recounting a series of sordid symptoms, and, as the recital grew, their sordidness seemed suddenly to strike him with a mighty disgust.
"Ah, doctor," he said. "And do you know there are people thousands of miles away from Harley Street who actually admire me, who are stirred and moved by what I write, who make a cult and a hero of me. They say I have soul, forsooth. But I am all body; you know that. You doctors know that it is only body that we put on paper, body that lifts us high, or drags us low. Why, my best romances come straight from my liver. My pathos springs from its condition of disorder, and my imaginative force is only due to an unnatural state of body which I can deliberately produce by drinking tea that has stood a long while and become full of tannin. When my prose glows with fiery beauty, the tea is getting well hold of my digestive organs, and by the time it has begun to prove its power by giving me a violent pain in the stomach, I have wrung from it a fine scene which will help to consolidate my fame. When a man wins the Victoria Cross, his healthy body has done the deed, unprompted by anything higher. Good air, or a muscular life, has strung his nerves strongly so that he can't, even if he would, appreciate danger. On the other hand, when a man shows funk, turns tail and bolts, and is dubbed a coward, it's his beastly body again. Some obscure physical misfortune is the cause of his disgrace, and if he'd only been to you he would have won the Cross too. Isn't it so? How you doctors must laugh at mystics, and at those who are ascetics, save for sake of their health. Why, I suppose even the saint owes his so-called goodness to some analyzable proceeding that has gone on in his inside, and that you could diagnose. Eh?"
Doctor Levillier was writing a prescription in which bismuth was an item. He glanced up quietly.
"The more I know of the body, the more I think of and believe in the power of the soul," he said. "Have that made up. Take it three times a day and come to me again in a fortnight. Good-morning."
Indeed, this little man was writing prescriptions for the body and thinking prescriptions for the soul all day long. Within him there dwelt a double mind, the mind of a great doctor and the mind of a great priest, and these two minds linked hands and lived as friends. The one never strove against the other. There was never a moment of estrangement. And if there were frequent arguments and discussions between the two, they were the arguments and discussions that make friendship firmer, not enmity more bitter. And, as Dr. Levillier very well knew, it was often the mind of the priest within him that gave to him his healing power over the body. It was the mind of the priest that had won him testimonial clocks and silver salvers from grateful patients. Often as he sat with some dingy-faced complainant, listening to a recital of sickness or uttering directions about avoidance of green meat, sauces, pastry, and liquids, till the atmosphere seemed that of a hospital, a pastry-cook's shop and a bar combined, he was silently examining the patient's soul, facing its probable vagaries, mapping out the tours it had taken, scheming for its welfare. And, perhaps, after the dietary was arranged and the prescription was written, he would say carelessly:
"Do you read much? What do you read? Ah! such and such books. Yes, very interesting. Do you know this book which has struck me greatly? No? Allow me to lend it to you. Good-bye."
And the patient departed, ignorant that he had received a pill for his soul from the priest as well as a pill for his body from the doctor.
In appearance Dr. Levillier was small, slight, and delicate looking. His complexion was clear and white. His eyes were blue. What hair he possessed was rather soft, fluffy and reddish, with a dash of light brown in it. He wore neither beard nor moustache, was always very neatly and simply dressed, and was remarkable for his polished boots, said to be the most perfectly varnished in London. Although he must have been nearly fifty-five, he had never married, and some people declared that he had the intention of starting a new "order" of medical celibates, who would be father-confessors as well as physicians, and who would pray for the souls of their patients after tending their bodily needs.
For some years Valentine had been very intimate with the doctor, whom he admired for his intellect and loved for his nature. So now he resolved to lay the case of the sittings with Julian before him and hear his opinion of the matter. In all their conversations Valentine could not remember that they had ever discussed spiritualism or occultism. As a rule, they talked about books, painting, or music, of which Dr. Levillier was a devoted lover. Valentine's note asked the doctor to dine with him that night at his club. The messenger brought back an acceptance.
They dined at a corner table and the room was rather empty. A few men chatted desultorily of burlesques, horses, the legs of actresses, the chances of politics. The waiters moved quietly about with pathetic masks of satisfied servitude. Valentine and the doctor conversed earnestly.
At first they spoke of a new symphony composed by a daring young Frenchman, who had striven to reproduce vices in notes and to summon up visions of things damnable by harmonic progressions which frequently defied the laws of harmony. Levillier gently condemned him for putting a great art to a small and degraded use.
"His very success makes me regret the waste of his time more deeply, Cresswell," he said. "He is a marvellous painter in sound. He has improved upon Berlioz, if it is improvement to cry sin with a clearer, more determinate voice. Think what a heaven that man could reproduce in music."
"Because he has reproduced a hell. But do you think that follows? Can the man who wallows with force and originality soar with force and originality too?"
"I believe he could learn to. The main thing is to possess genius in any form, the genius to imagine, to construct, to present things that seize upon the minds of men. But to possess genius is only a beginning. We have to train it, to lead it, to coax it even, until it learns to be obedient."
"Genius and obedience. Don't the two terms quarrel?"
"They should not. Obedience is a very magnificent thing, Cresswell, just as to have to struggle, to be obliged to fight, is a very magnificent thing."
"Yes," Valentine answered, thoughtfully. "I believe you are right. But, if you are right, I have missed a great deal."
"How do you deduce that?"
"In this way. I have never had to be obedient. I have never had to struggle."
"Surely the latter," the little doctor said, fixing his clear, kind eyes on Valentine's face. "I don't think, in all my experience, that I have ever met a man who lived a fine, pure life without fixing the bayonet and using the sword at moments. There must be an occasional mle."
"Indeed not; that is to say," Valentine rather hastily added, "as regards the pure life. For I cannot lay claim to anything fine. But I assure you that my life has been pure without a struggle."
"Without one? Think!"
"Without one. Perhaps that is what wearies me at moments, doctor, the completeness of my coldness. Perhaps it is this lack of necessity to struggle that has at last begun to render me dissatisfied."
"I thought you were free from that evil humour of dissatisfaction, that evil humour which crowds my consulting-rooms and wastes away the very tissues of the body."
"I have been, until quite lately. I have been neither pessimist nor optimist—just myself, and I believe happy."
"And what is this change? and what has it led to?"
"It was to tell you that I asked you here to-night."
They had finished dinner, and rose from the table. Passing through the hall of the club, they went into a huge high room, papered with books. Valentine led the way to a secluded corner, and gave the doctor a cigar. When he had lit it and settled himself comfortably, his rather small feet, in their marvellously polished boots, lightly crossed, his head reposing serenely on the back of his chair, Valentine continued, answering his attentive silence.
"It has led to what I suppose you would call an absurdity. But first, the change itself. A sort of dissatisfaction has been creeping over me, perhaps for a long while, I being unconscious of it. At length I became conscious. I found that I was weary of being so free from the impulse to sin—to sin, I mean, in definite, active ways, as young men sin. It seemed to me that I was missing a great deal, missing the delight sin is said to give to natures, or at least missing the invigorating necessity you have just mentioned, the necessity to fight, to wage war against impulses."
"And one night I expressed this feeling to Julian."
"To Addison?" the doctor said, an expression of keen interest sliding into his face. "I should much like to know how he received it."
"He said, of course, that such a dissatisfaction was rather monstrous."
"Was that all?"
"No. He told me he considered temptation rather a curse than otherwise, and then he surprised me very much."
"He told you a secret?"
"The secret of your great influence over his life?"
"You knew of this secret, then?"
"He didn't tell it to me. Long ago I divined it. Addison is a very interesting fellow to a doctor, and the fact of his strong friendship with you has made him more interesting even than he would otherwise have been. His physique is tremendous. He has a quite unusual vitality, and stronger passions by far than most Englishmen. I confess that my knowledge of human nature led me to foresee a very troubled and too vehement future for him. My anticipation being utterly falsified led me naturally to look round for the reason of its falsification. I very soon found that reason in you."
"I had never suspected it."
"Your lack of suspicion was not the least reason of the influence you exercised."
"Possibly. He told me of the strength of his evil impulses, of how he hated their assaults, and of how being with me enabled him to conquer them. Apparently the contemplation of my unnatural nature is an armour to him."
"Well, I continued to bewail my condition, which he envied, and it ended in our sitting down, in jest, to make an experiment to try to exchange our souls."
"What means did you take?"
And then Valentine told Dr. Levillier the exact circumstances of the three sittings, without embellishment, without omission of any kind. He listened with keen attention, and without attempting interruption or intruding comment. When Valentine had finished he made no remark.
"What do you think of it, doctor?"
"Of what part of it?"
"Of any part. Do you attach any importance to it?"
"I do, certainly."
"I thought you would laugh at the whole thing."
"Why should I? Why should I laugh at any circumstances which strongly affect men whom I know, or, indeed, any men?"
"But then, tell me, do you believe in some strange, unseen agency? Do you believe that Julian absolutely held the hand of some being dwelling in another sphere, some being attracted to us, or, say, enabled to come to us by such an action as our sitting at a table in the dark?"
"No. I don't believe that."
"You attribute the whole thing to bodily causes?"
"I am inclined to attribute it to the action and reaction of mind and body, undoubtedly. If you had sat in the light, for instance, I don't think Addison would have felt that hand. The hand is indeed the least of the circumstances you have related, in my opinion. The incidents of the dog and of the curtain are far more mysterious. You are positive the door was securely shut?"
"Could you, after having drawn the curtain, have allowed your hand to slip slightly back, pulling the curtain with it?"
"I don't think so. I feel sure not."
"You know we all constantly make involuntary motions—motions that our minds are quite unaware of."
"I do feel sure, nevertheless. And the dog? What do you say to that?"
"I don't know what to say. But dogs are extraordinarily sensitive. I do not think it beyond the bounds of possibility that the tumult of your nerves—for there was tumult; you confess it—communicated itself to him."
"And was the cause of his conduct?"
"Yes. In the course of my career I have been consulted by a great many patients whose nervous systems have been disastrously upset by the practices you describe, by so-called spiritualism, table-turning, and so forth. One man I knew, trying to cultivate himself onto what he called 'a higher plane,' cultivated himself into a lunatic asylum, where he still remains."
"Then you consider spiritualism—?"
"I have too much respect for the soul, too much belief in its great destiny, Cresswell, to juggle with it, or to play tricks with it. When one meets a genius one does not want to have a game at puss-in-the-corner with him. One is rather anxious to hear him talk seriously and display his mind. When I come into contact with a soul, I don't want to try to detach it from the home in which a divine power has placed it for a time. I glory in many limitations against which it is the prevailing fashion to fight uselessly. The soul can do all its work where it is—in the body. The influence you exercise over your friend Addison convinces me of the existence of spirits, things which will eventually be freed from the body, more certainly than any amount of material manifestations, sights, sounds, apparent physical sensations. Why should we not be satisfied with remaining, for a time, as we are? I consider that you and Addison were ill-advised in making this—no doubt absurd—experiment. Supposing it to be absurd, the raison d'tre of the sittings is gone at once. Supposing it not to be—"
"Yes. What, then?"
"Then the danger is great. Imagine yourself with Addison's soul or nature, him with yours. To what might not you be led? How do you know that your nature in him would exert any control over his nature in you?"
"Why should it not?"
"There comes in the power of the body, which is very great. I believe, as you know, absolutely in the existence of the soul, and in its immortal destiny; but that does not blind me to the extraordinary influence, the extraordinary kingship, which a mere body, a mere husk and shell, as some good people call it—I don't feel with them—can obtain not only over another body, but, strangely, over the soul which is in that body. Your influence over Addison has been, and is, immense. Do you imagine that it is simply your nature which governs him?"
"I suppose so."
"Your mere appearance may have an immense deal to do with the matter. You have the look, the expression, of one who has not sinned. It is partly that which keeps Addison from giving the reins to his impulses. I consider that if it were possible for your nature to change secretly and for your face to remain unchanged, if you sinned perpetually and retained your exact appearance, and if Addison did not know you sinned, you could still be his guardian, while, really, yourself far worse in every way than him."
"But surely that fights against your theory that the existence of a soul is proved by such an influence as I possess over Addison?"
"Not at all. I said if it were possible for the body not to express the soul, if—but that's just the difficulty, it is not possible. The body manifests the soul. Supposing it were not so, the power of evil, the devil, if you choose to name it and imply a personal existence for it, might have hold of the world even more tightly than now. Just conceive, under such conditions, how you might lure Addison to destruction if you desired to do so. Looking at you, and seeing the same face in which he has learned to see what he thinks entire goodness, he would be unable to believe that any action you could suggest and take part in could be evil. You could wreck his future with a perfect ease. But, as things are, did your nature change and become malignant, your face would change too, and you might quickly cease to exercise a strong influence over Addison. He might even, having now been unconsciously trained into a curious integrity, learn to hate and to despise you. You remember our conversation to-night about that symphony?"
"I said that the soul which could reproduce hell should be able to reproduce heaven."
"Well, my boy—for you are a boy to me—the reverse of that might happen also."
"Perhaps. But I don't quite see."
"The application—to you?"
"Yes, to you, Cresswell. You have been given a strangely perfect nature. As you say, you seem to have nothing to do with the matter. You have even been inclined to rebel against your gift. But, take my advice. Cherish it. Don't play with it, as you have been playing. Remember, if you lose heaven, the space once filled by heaven will not be left empty."
"Ah! now I see. You think that I—"
"Might swing from a great height to an equally great depth. That has been my experience—that the man who is once extreme is always extreme, but not always in the same way. The greatest libertines have made the greatest ascetics. But, within my own experience, I have known the reverse process to obtain. And you, if you changed, might carry Addison with you."
"But then, doctor, you do believe in these manifestations?"
"Not necessarily. But I believe that the minds of men are often very carefully, very deftly, poised, and that a little push can send them one way or the other. Have you ever balanced one billiard-ball on the top of another?"
"Then you know that a breath will upset it and send it rolling. Be careful. Your mind, your very nature, may be poised like that billiard-ball. Addison's may be the same. Indeed, I feel sure Addison's is. That curious dread of you which overcame him at your last sitting is a sign of it. The whole thing is wrong—bad for body and for mind."
"Perhaps. Well, we have definitely agreed to give it up."
"That's well. Eleven o'clock! I must be going. Are you doing anything to-morrow night?"
"I have got a box for this new play at the Duke's Theatre. Will you come?"
"I will ask Addison also."
They put on their overcoats, and walked a little way along Pall Mall before they parted. Near the Atheneaum they passed a tall, thin man, who was coming in the opposite direction. He turned round as they went by, and stood directly regarding them till they were out of sight.
THE REGENT STREET EPISODE
The things we do apparently by chance often have a curious applicability to the things we have thought. John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. These thoughts are the John the Baptists of the mind, and prepare the way for facts that often startlingly illustrate them. It is as if our thoughts were gradually materialized by the action of the mind; as if, by the act of thinking, we projected them.
When Doctor Levillier got a box for the first night of the new play at the Duke's Theatre, and when he invited Valentine and Julian to make up his party, he had no idea what the subject of the piece was, no notion that it would have anything to do with the conversation which took place between him and Valentine at the club. But the plot applied with almost amazing fidelity to much that he had said upon that occasion. The play was a modern allegory of the struggle between good and evil, which has been illustrated in so many different ways since the birth of the Faust legend. But the piece had a certain curious originality which sprang from the daring of the author. Instead of showing one result of the struggle, a good man drawn gradually down, or a bad man drawn gradually up, he set forth, with a great deal of detail, a great deal of vividness, a modern wobbler, a human pendulum, and simply noted down, as it were, his slow swinging backwards and forwards. His hero, an evil liver, a modern man of wrath in the first act, dominated by a particular vice, was drawn, by an outside personal influence, from the mire in which he was wallowing, to purity, to real elevation. But his author, having led him up to the pinnacle, had no intention of leaving him there, blessed by the proclaimed admiration of the gods in the gallery. In the succeeding acts he introduced a second personal influence, exerted this time on the side of evil, and permitted it to act upon his central figure successfully. The man fell again into the mire, and was left there at the conclusion of the piece, but hugging a different sin, not the sin he had been embracing when the curtain rose upon the first act. This dramatic scheme took away the breath of the house for a moment, but only for a moment. Then the lungs once more did their accustomed duty, and enabled a large number of excited persons to hiss with a wonderful penetration. Their well-meant efforts did not have the effect of terrorizing the author. On the contrary, he quickly responded to the hostile uproar, and, coming forward in a very neat Jaeger suit, a flannel shirt, and a pair of admirably fitting doeskin gloves, bowed with great gravity and perfect self-possession. The hisses thereupon suddenly faded into piercing entreaties for a speech, in which a gallery lady with a powerful soprano voice became notorious as the leader. But the Jaeger author was not to be prevailed upon. He waved the doeskin gloves in token of adieu, and retreated once more into the excited obscurity of the wings, where his manager was trembling like an aspen, in the midst of a perspiring company. The lights were turned down. The orchestra burst into a tuneful jig, and the lingering audience at length began to disperse.
Dr. Levillier, Julian, and Valentine left their box in silence. It seemed that this odd play, which dared to be natural, had impressed them. They walked into the vestibule without a word, and, avoiding many voluble friends who were letting off the steam as they gathered their coats and hats from a weary lady in a white cap, they threaded their way through the crowd and emerged into the street. Just as they reached the portico, Julian suddenly started and laid his hand on Valentine's arm.
"What is it?" asked Valentine, looking round.
"Ah! you're just too late. He's gone!"
"Oh," Valentine said, showing considerable interest; "I wish I had seen him. Where was he sitting?"
"I haven't an idea. Didn't know he was in the theatre."
Doctor Levillier made an exception to his rule of being in bed by twelve o'clock that night, and accepted Valentine's invitation to sup in Victoria Street. He had always been greatly drawn to Valentine, attracted by the latter's exceptional clarity of character, and he was scarcely less interested in Julian. Nor did the considerable difference between his age and the ages of the two youths in any way interfere with their pleasant intercourse. For Levillier had a heart that was ageless. The corroding years did not act as acid upon it. All his sympathies were as keen, all his power of enjoyment was as great, as when he had been a delightfully gay and delightfully pleasant boy at school. Youth always loved him, and age always respected him. He possessed the great secret of a beautiful life. He was absolutely genuine, and he meant nothing but good to all with whom he was brought into contact.
The three friends spoke but little as they went back to the flat, but when they had sat down to supper, and Dr. Levillier had expressed his complete satisfaction with the champagne that Valentine's butler had politely insinuated into his glass, the silence took to itself wings and lightly departed. They talked of the play, and it appeared that they were all impressed by it, but in slightly different ways, and for different reasons. Valentine, who was intensely, but sometimes almost coldly, artistic, appreciated it, he said, because it did not obviously endeavour to work out a problem or to teach a lesson. It simply, with a great deal of literary finish and dramatic force, stated a curiously human character, showed the nature of a man at work, and left him, after some scenes of his life, still at work upon his own salvation or destruction, not telling the audience what his end would be, scarcely even trying to imply his innate tendency one way or the other. This satisfied Valentine. This had made him feel as if he had seen a block cut out of life.
"I do not want to learn what becomes of that man," he said. "I have known him, good and bad. That is enough. That satisfies me more than the sight of a thousand bombastic heroes, a thousand equally bombastic villains. Life is neither ebony nor ivory. That man is something to my mind forever, as Ibsen's 'Master Builder' is something. I can never forget the one or the other."
"Your life is ivory, Val," Julian said.
He had liked the play because the violent struggle between good and evil woke up many responsive memories in his mind. The hero of the play had been shown feeling precisely as Julian had often felt. That was enough. He did not very much care for the brilliant artifice, which Valentine had remarked with so much pleasure. He did not specially note the peculiar effect of nature produced by the simplicity and thoughtful directness of the dialogue. He only knew that he had seen somebody whose nature was akin to his own nature, although placed in different, perhaps more dramatic, circumstances.
Dr. Levillier combined, to some appreciable extent, the different joys of his two companions, and obtained another that was quite his own. He had seen two horses running in double harness that night, the body and mind of the hero, and had taken delight in observing what had practically escaped the definite notice of his companions, the ingenuity and subtlety with which the author, without being obtrusive or insistent, had displayed their liaison; the effect of each upon the other, their answering excursions and alarums, their attempts at separate amours, amours that always had an inevitable effect upon the one which the other had, for the moment, endeavoured to exclude from its life. The doctor in him and the priest in him had both enjoyed a glorious evening of bracing activity. As they discussed the piece, and each advanced his reason of pleasure, the doctor expanded into a sort of saintly geniality, which was peculiarly attractive even to sinners. And when supper was over, and they strolled into the drawing-room to smoke and to make music, he sank into a chair, stretched out his polished boots with a sigh, and said:
"And people say there is so little joy in life!"
Julian laughed at the satisfied whimsicality of his exclamation and of the expression which shadowed it.
"Light up, doctor," he cried. "You are a boon to this modern world. For you see all the sorrows of life, I suppose, and yet you always manage to convey the impression that the joys win the battle after all."
Valentine had gone over to the piano and was dreamily opening it. He did not seem to hear what they were saying. The doctor obeyed the injunction to light up. He was one of the hardest and most assiduous toilers in all London, and he appreciated a good cigar and a comfortable arm-chair more than some men could appreciate Paradise, or some women appreciate love.
"And I believe that joy will win the battle in the end," he said, with a puff that proved successful.
"I see evidences of it, or think I do. The colour will fade out of bad acts, Addison, but the colour of a good act is eternal. A noble deed will never emulate a Sir Joshua Reynolds—never. Play to us, Cresswell."
"Yes, but I wish you to talk. I want to improvise to-night. The murmur of your conversation will help me."
Julian sat down by the doctor. He, too, looked very happy. It was a pleasant hour. Sympathy was in that pretty room, complete human sympathy, and a sympathy that sprang from their vitality, avoiding the dusky dumbness of the phlegmatic. Valentine sat down at the piano and began gently to play. The smoke from the cigars curled away towards the watching pictures; the room was full of soft music.
"Yes, Addison," Doctor Levillier continued, in a low voice, "I am perpetually sitting with sorrow, communing with disease. That consulting-room of mine is as a pool of Bethesda, only not all who come to it, alas! can be healed. I sit day by day in my confessional—I like to call it that; perhaps I was meant to be a priest—and I read the stories of the lives of men and of women, most of them necessarily, from the circumstances which bring them to me, sad. And yet I have a belief in joy and its triumph which nothing can ever shake, a belief in the final glory of good which nothing can ever conquer."
"That's fine, doctor. But do you know why you have it?"
"I daresay that question is difficult to answer. I often seek for my reasons, Addison, and I find many, though I can hardly say which is the best, or whether any quite explains the faith that is always in me. Apropos of this evening, by the bye, I long ago found one of my reasons in the theatre, the theatre which some really good men hate and condemn."
"What was that?"
"Oh, a very simple one. I believe that men in the mass express eternal truths more readily, more certainly, than men as individuals. Put a lot of bad men, or—we won't call them bad, why should we?—loose, careless, thoughtless men, together in the pit of a theatre. Many of them, perhaps, drink, and are rendered cruel by drink. Many of them care nothing for morality, and have wounded, in the worst way, the souls of women. Many of them show incessant hardness in most of the relations of life. What, then, is it, that makes all these individuals respond so directly, so certainly, to every touch of goodness, and gentleness, and unselfishness, and purity, and faith, that is put before them upon the stage? I think it must be that eternal truth—the rocks of good that lie forever beneath the wild seas of evil. Those men don't know themselves; don't know that it is all useless for them to try to hide the nobility which has been put into them, to thrust it down, and, metaphorically, to dance on it. They can't get rid of it, do what they will. I like to think of goodness as the shadow of evil through life, the shadow that, at death, or perhaps long after death, becomes the substance."
"You think we cannot kill the good that is in us?"
"Not quite. But I think we can go near to killing it, so near that it will take longer to recover and to be itself again, longer far than the most relapsing typhoid patient."
"And have you other reasons for your belief?"
"Perhaps. But some of them are difficult to define, and would carry no conviction to any one but myself. There is one in this very room with us."
Julian glanced up, surprised.
"What is that, doctor?" he said.
"You ought to know better than I," Levillier answered.
He was looking at Valentine, who, apparently quite unconscious of their presence, was still playing rather softly. Julian followed his eyes.
The light in the room was dim, a carefully manufactured twilight. It is strange how many things, and how slight, stir, control, influence in one direction or another, the emotions. Light and the absence of light can divert a heart as easily as the pressing of a button can give a warship to the sea. Twilight and music can change a beast into a man, a man into an angel, for the moment. Long after that evening was dead, both Julian and Doctor Levillier anxiously, and in their different ways analytically, considered it. They submitted it to a secret process of probing, such as many men enforce upon what they imagine to be great causes in their lives. That hour became an hour of wonder, an hour of amazement, viewed in the illumination of subsequent events. They found in it a curious climax of misunderstanding, a culmination of all deceptive things.
And yet, in that hour they only watched a young man of London, a modern intellectual youth, playing in a Victoria Street drawing-room upon a Steinway grand piano.
They were sitting sideways to Valentine, and a little behind him. Therefore he could not easily see them unless he slightly turned his head. But they could observe him, and, obeying Doctor Levillier's mute injunction, Julian now did so.
Valentine was gazing straight before him over the top, of the piano, and his eyes seemed to be fixed upon the dim figure of Christ in the picture of "The Merciful Knight." Was he not playing to the picture, playing to that figure in it? And did not his musical imagination seek to reproduce in sound the vision of the life of that mailed knight who never lived and died? The purity of his expression, always consummate, was to-night more peculiar, more unearthly, than before in any place, at any moment. And, as mere line can convey to the senses of man a conception of a great virtue or of a great vice, the actual shape of his features, thus seen in profile, was the embodiment of an exquisitely ascetic purity, as much an embodiment as is a drop of water pierced by a sunbeam. This struck both Doctor Levillier and Julian, and the doctor was amazed anew at the silent decree that the invisible shall be made visible in forms comprehensible to the commonest minds. Sin would surely flee from a temple sculptured in such a shape as the body of Valentine, as a vampire would flee from the bloodless courts of the heaven of the Revelation. Lust cannot lie at ease on a crystal couch, or rest its dark head upon a pillow of pale ivory. And the message of this strange, unearthly youth now given in music, and to the air and the dust—for Valentine had lost knowledge of his friends—was crystalline too. In his improvisation he journeyed through many themes of varying characters. He hymned the knight's temptation no less than his triumph. But purity was in the hymn even at the hour of temptation, and sang like a bird in every scene of the life,—a purity classical, detached, so refined as to be almost physically cold.