THE BLIND SPOT
AUSTIN HALL AND HOMER EON FLINT
INTRODUCTION BY FORREST J ACKERMAN
THE LURE AND LORE OF "THE BLIND SPOT"
BY FORREST J ACKERMAN
The Blind Spot opens with the words: "Perhaps it were just as well to start at the beginning. A mere matter of news." Suppose I use them in the same sense:
A mere matter of news: The first instalment of this fabulous novel was featured in Argosy-All-Story-Weekly for May 14, 1921. Described as a "different" serial, it was introduced by a cover by Modest Stein. In the foreground was the profile of a girl of another dimension—ethereal, sensuous, the eternal feminine—the Nervina of the story. Filmy crystalline earrings swept back over her bare shoulders. Dominating the background was a huge flaming yellow ball, like our Sun as seen from the hypothetical Vulcan— splotched with murky, mysterious globii vitonae. There was an ancient quay, and emerging from the ultramarine waters about it a silhouetted metropolis of spires, domes, and minarets. It was 1921, and that generation thus received its first glimpse of the alien landscape of The Blind Spot and the baroque beauty of an immortal woman of fantasy fiction.
The authors? Homer Eon Flint was already a reigning favourite with post-World-War-I enthusiasts of imaginative literature, who had eagerly devoured his QUEEN OF LIFE and LORD OF DEATH, his KING OF CONSERVE ISLAND and THE PLANETEER. Austin Hall was well known and popular for his ALMOST IMMORTAL, REBEL SOUL, and INTO THE INFINITE.
Then came this epoch-making collaboration. When Mary Gnaedinger launched Famous Fantastic Mysteries magazine she early presented THE BLIND SPOT, and printed it again in that magazine's companion Fantastic Novels. These reprints are now collectors' items, almost unobtainable, and otherwise the story has long been out of print. Rumour says an unauthorised German version of THE BLIND SPOT, has been published in book form. There is another book called THE BLIND SPOT, and also a magazine story, and a major movie studio was to produce a film of the same title. However, here is presented the only hard-cover version of the only BLIND SPOT of consequence to lovers of fantasy.
Who wrote the story? When I first looked into the question, as a 15 year old boy, Homer Eon Flint (he originally spelled his name with a "d") was already dead of a fall into a canyon. In 1949 his widow told me: "I think Homer's father contributed that middle name"—the same name (with slightly different spelling) that the Irish poet George Russell took as his pen-name, which became known by its abbreviation AE. Mrs. Flindt said of Flint's father: "He was a very deep thinker, and enjoyed reading heavy material." Like father, like son. "Homer always talked over his ideas with me, and although I couldn't always follow his thoughts it seemed to help him to express them to another—it made some things come more clearly to him."
Flint was a great admirer of H. G. Wells (this little grandmother- schoolteacher told me) and had probably read all his works up to the time when he (Flint) died in 1924. He had read Doyle and Haggard, but: "Wells was his favourite—the real thinker."
Flint found a fellow-thinker in Austin Hall, whom he met in San Jose, California, while working at a shop where shoes were repaired electrically—"a rather new concept at the time." Hall, learning that Flint lived in the same city, sought him out, and they became fast friends. Each stimulated the other. As Hall told me twenty years ago of the origin of THE BLIND SPOT:
"One day after we had lunched together, I held my finger up in front of one of my eyes and said: 'Homer, couldn't a story be written about that blind spot in the eye?' Not much was said about it at the time, but four days later, again at lunch, I outlined the whole story to him. I wrote the first eighteen chapters; Homer took up the tale as 'Hobart Fenton' and wrote the chapters about the house of miracles, the living death, the rousing of Aradna's mind, and so forth, up to 'The Man from Space,' where once again I took over."
To THE BLIND SPOT Hall contributed a great knowledge of history and anthropology, while Flint's fortes were physics and medicine. Both had a great fund of philosophy at their command.
When I met Hall (about four years older than Flint) he was in his fifties: a devil-may-care old codger (old to a fifteen-year-old, that is) full of good humour and indulgence for a youthful admirer who had journeyed far to meet him. He casually referred to his 600 published stories, and I carried away the impression of one who resembled both in output and in looks that other fiction-factory of the time, Edgar Wallace.
Finally: Several years ago, before I knew anything about the present volume, I had an unusual experience. (At that time I had no reason to think THE BLIND SPOT would ever become available as a book, for the location of the heirs proved a Herculean task by itself; publishers had long wanted to present this amazing novel but could not do so until I located Mrs. Mae Hall and Mrs. Mabel Flindt.) While, unfortunately, I did not take careful notes at the time, the gist of the occurrence was this:
I visited a friend whose hobby (besides reading fantasy) was the occult, who volunteered to entertain me with automatic writing and the ouija-board. Now, I share Lovecraft's scepticism towards the supernatural, regarding it as at best a means of amusement. When the question arose of what spirits we should try to lure to our planchette, the names of Lovecraft, Merritt, Hall, and Flint popped into my pixilated mind. So I set my fingers on the wooden heart and, since my host was also a Flint admirer, we asked about Flint's fatal accident. The ouija spelled out:
There followed something about being held up by a hitch-hiker. Then Hall (or at least some energy-source other than my own conscious mind) came through too, and when I asked if he had left any work behind he replied:
Y-E-S—T-H-E L-A-S-T G-O-D-L-I-N-G
Later I asked his son about this (without revealing the title) and Javen Hall told me of the story his father had been plotting when he died: THE HIDDEN EMPIRE, or THE CHILD OF THE SOUTHWIND. Whatever was pushing the planchette failed to inform me that when I found Austin Hall's son and widow, they would put into my hands an unknown, unpublished fantasy novel by Hall: THE HOUSE OF DAWN! Some day it may appear in print.
Meanwhile you are getting understandably impatient to explore that unknown realm of the Blind Spot. Be on your way, and bon voyage!
FORREST J ACKERMAN, Beverley Hills, Calif.
Perhaps it were just as well to start at the beginning. A mere matter of news.
All the world at the time knew the story; but for the benefit of those who have forgotten I shall repeat it. I am merely giving it as I have taken it from the papers with no elaboration and no opinion—a mere statement of facts. It was a celebrated case at the time and stirred the world to wonder. Indeed, it still is celebrated, though to the layman it is forgotten.
It has been labelled and indexed and filed away in the archives of the profession. To those who wish to look it up it will be spoken of as one of the great unsolved mysteries of the century. A crime that leads two ways, one into murder—sordid, cold and calculating; and the other into the nebulous screen that thwarts us from the occult.
Perhaps it is the character of Dr. Holcomb that gives the latter. He was a great man and a splendid thinker. That he should have been led into a maze of cheap necromancy is, on the face, improbable. He had a wonderful mind. For years he had been battering down the scepticism that had bulwarked itself in the material.
He was a psychologist, and up to the day the greatest, perhaps, that we have known. He had a way of going out before his fellows— it is the way of genius—and he had gone far, indeed, before them. If we would trust Dr. Holcomb we have much to live for; our religion is not all hearsay and there is a great deal in science still unthought of. It is an unfortunate case; but there is much to be learned in the circumstance that led the great doctor into the Blind Spot.
On a certain foggy morning in September, 1905, a tall man wearing a black overcoat and bearing in one hand a small satchel of dark- reddish leather descended from a Geary Street tram at the foot of Market Street, San Francisco. It was a damp morning; a mist was brooding over the city blurring all distinctness.
The man glanced about him; a tall man of trim lines and distinctness and a quick, decided step and bearing. In the shuffle of descending passengers he was outstanding, with a certain inborn grace that without the blood will never come from training. Men noticed and women out of instinct cast curious furtive glances and then turned away; which was natural, inasmuch as the man was plainly old. But for all that many ventured a second glance—and wondered.
An old man with the poise of twenty, a strange face of remarkable features, swarthy, of an Eastern cast, perhaps Indian; whatever the certainty of the man's age there was still a lingering suggestion of splendid youth. If one persisted in a third or fourth look this suggestion took an almost certain tone, the man's age dwindled, years dropped from him, and the quizzical smile that played on the lips seemed a foreboding of boyish laughter.
We say foreboding because in this case it is not mistaken diction. Foreboding suggests coming evil; the laughter of boys is wholehearted. It was merely that things were not exactly as they should be; it was not natural that age should be so youthful. The fates were playing, and in this case for once in the world's history their play was crosswise.
It is a remarkable case from the beginning and we are starting from facts. The man crossed to the window of the Key Route ferry and purchased a ticket for Berkeley, after which, with the throng, he passed the turnstile and on to the boat that was waiting. He took the lower deck, not from choice, apparently, but more because the majority of his fellow passengers, being men, were bound in this direction. The same chance brought him to the cigar-stand. The men about him purchased cigars and cigarettes, and as is the habit of all smokers, strolled off with delighted relish. The man watched them. Had anyone noticed his eyes he would have noted a peculiar colour and a light of surprise. With the prim step that made him so distinctive he advanced to the news-stand.
"Pardon me; but I would like to purchase one of those." Though he spoke perfect English it was in a strange manner, after the fashion of one who has found something that he has just learned how to use. At the same time he made a suggestion with his tapered fingers indicating the tobacco in the case. The clerk looked up.
"A cigar, sir? Yes, sir. What will it be?"
"A cigar?" Again the strange articulation. "Ah, yes, that is it. Now I remember. And it has a little sister, the cigarette. I think I shall take a cigarette, if—if—if you will show me how to use it."
It was a strange request. The clerk was accustomed to all manner of men and their brands of humour; he was about to answer in kind when he looked up and into the man's eyes. He started.
"You mean," he asked, "that you have never seen a cigar or cigarette; that you do not know how to use them? A man as old as you are."
The stranger laughed. It was rather resentful, but for all that of a hearty taint of humour.
"So old? Would you say that I am as old as that; if you will look again—"
The young man did and what he beheld is something that he could not quite account for: the strange conviction of this remarkable man; of age melting into youth, of an uncertain freshness, the smile, not of sixty, but of twenty. The young man was not one to argue, whatever his wonder; he was first of all a lad of business; he could merely acquiesce.
"The first time! This is the first time you have ever seen a cigar or cigarette?"
The stranger nodded.
"The first time. I have never beheld one of them before this morning. If you will allow me?" He indicated a package. "I think I shall take one of these."
The clerk took up the package, opened the end, and shook out a single cigarette. The man lit it and, as the smoke poured out of his mouth, held the cigarette tentatively in his fingers.
"Like it?" It was the clerk who asked.
The other did not answer, his whole face was the expression of having just discovered one of the senses. He was a splendid man and, if the word may be employed of the sterner sex, one of beauty. His features were even; that is to be noted, his nose chiselled straight and to perfection, the eyes of a peculiar sombreness and lustre almost burning, of a black of such intensity as to verge into red and to be devoid of pupils, and yet, for all of that, of a glow and softness. After a moment he turned to the clerk.
"You are young, my lad."
"You are fortunate. You live in a wonderful age. It is as wonderful as your tobacco. And you still have many great things before you."
The man walked on to the forward part of the boat; leaving the youth, who had been in a sort of daze, watching. But it was not for long. The whole thing had been strange and to the lad almost inexplicable. The man was not insane, he was certain; and he was just as sure that he had not been joking. From the start he had been taken by the man's refinement, intellect and education. He was positive that he had been sincere. Yet—
The ferry detective happened at that moment to be passing. The clerk made an indication with his thumb.
"That man yonder," he spoke, "the one in black. Watch him." Then he told his story. The detective laughed and walked forward.
It was a most fortunate incident. It was a strange case. That mere act of the cigar clerk placed the police on the track and gave to the world the only clue that it holds of the Blind Spot.
The detective had laughed at the lad's recital—almost any one had a patent for being queer—and if this gentleman had a whim for a certain brand of humour that was his business. Nevertheless, he would stroll forward.
The man was not hard to distinguish; he was standing on the forward deck facing the wind and peering through the mist at the grey, heavy heave of the water. Alongside of them the dim shadow of a sister ferry screamed its way through the fogbank. That he was a landsman was evidenced by his way of standing; he was uncertain; at every heave of the boat he would shift sidewise. An unusually heavy roll caught him slightly off-balance and jostled him against the detective. The latter held up his hand and caught him by the arm.
"A bad morning," spoke the officer. "B-r-r-r! Did you notice the Yerbe Buena yonder? She just grazed us. A bad morning."
The stranger turned. As the detective caught the splendid face, the glowing eyes and the youthful smile, he started much as had done the cigar clerk. The same effect of the age melting into youth and—the officer being much more accustomed to reading men— a queer sense of latent and potent vision. The eyes were soft and receptive but for all that of the delicate strength and colour that comes from abnormal intellect. He noted the pupils, black, glowing, of great size, almost filling the iris and the whole melting into intensity that verged into red. Either the man had been long without sleep or he was one of unusual intelligence and vitality.
"A nasty morning," repeated the officer.
"Ah! Er, yes—did you say it was a nasty morning? Indeed, I do not know, sir. However, it is very interesting."
"Stranger in San Francisco?"
"Well, yes. At least, I have never seen it."
"H-m!" The detective was a bit nonplussed by the man's evident evasion. "Well, if you are a stranger I suppose it is up to me to come to the defence of my city. This is one of Frisco's fogs. We have them occasionally. Sometimes they last for days. This one is a low one. It will lift presently. Then you will see the sun. Have you ever seen Frisco's sun?"
"My dear sir"—this same slow articulation—"I have never seen your sun nor any other."
It was an answer altogether unexpected. Again the officer found himself gazing into the strange, refined face and wonderful eyes. The man was not blind, of that he was certain. Neither was his voice harsh or testy. Rather was it soft and polite, of one merely stating a fact. Yet how could it be? He remembered the cigar clerk. Neither cigar nor sun! From what manner of land could the man come? A detective has a certain gift of intuition. Though on the face of it, outside of the man's personality, there could be nothing to it but a joke, he chose to act upon the impulse. He pulled back the door which had been closed behind them and re- entered the boat. When he returned the boat had arrived at the pier.
"You are going to Oakland?"
It was a chance question.
"No, to Berkeley. I take a train here, I understand. Do all the trains go to Berkeley?"
"By no means. I am going to Berkeley myself. We can ride together. My name is Jerome. Albert Jerome."
"Thanks. Mine is Avec. Rhamda Avec. I am much obliged. Your company may be instructive."
He did not say more, but watched with unrestrained interest their manoeuvre into the slip. A moment later they were marching with the others down the gangways to the trains waiting. Just as they were seated and the electric train was pulling out of the pier the sun breaking through the mist blazed with splendid light through the cloud rifts. The stranger was next to the window where he could look out over the water and beyond at the citied shoreline, whose sea of housetops extended and rose to the peaks of the first foothills. The sun was just coming over the mountains.
The detective watched. There was sincerity in the man's actions. It was not acting. When the light first broke he turned his eyes full into the radiance. It was the act of a child and, so it struck the officer, of the same trust and simplicity—and likewise the same effect. He drew away quickly: for the moment blinded.
"Ah!" he said. "It is so. This is the sun. Your sun is wonderful!"
"Indeed it is," returned the other. "But rather common. We see it every day. It's the whole works, but we get used to it. For myself I cannot see anything strange in the 'sun's still shining.' You have been blind, Mr. Avec? Pardon the question. But I must naturally infer. You say you have never seen the sun. I suppose—"
He stopped because of the other's smile; somehow it seemed a very superior one, as if predicting a wealth of wisdom.
"My dear Mr. Jerome," he spoke, "I have never been blind in my life. I say it is wonderful! It is glorious and past describing. So is it all, your water, your boats, your ocean. But I see there is one thing even stranger still. It is yourselves. With all your greatness you are only part of your surroundings. Do you know what is your sun?"
"Search me," returned the officer. "I'm no astronomer. I understand they don't know themselves. Fire, I suppose, and a hell of a hot one! But there is one thing that I can tell."
"Is the truth."
If he meant it for insinuation it was ineffective. The other smiled kindly. In the fine effect of the delicate features, and most of all in the eyes was sincerity. In that face was the mark of genius—he felt it—and of a potent superior intelligence. Most of all did he note the beauty and the soft, silky superlustre of the eyes.
We have the whole thing from Jerome, at least this part of it; and our interest being retrospect is multiplied far above that of the detective. The stranger had a certain call of character and of appearance, not to say magnetism. The officer felt himself almost believing and yet restraining himself into caution of unbelief. It was a remark preposterous on the face of it. What puzzled Jerome was the purpose; he could think of nothing that would necessitate such statements and acting. He was certain that the man was sane.
In the light of what came after great stress has been laid by a certain class upon this incident. We may say that we lean neither way. We have merely given it in some detail because of that importance. We have yet no proof of the mystic and until it is proved, we must lean, like Jerome, upon the cold material. We have the mystery, but, even at that, we have not the certainty of murder.
Understand, it was intuition that led Jerome into that memorable trip to Berkeley; he happened to be going off duty and was drawn to the man by a chance incident and the fact of his personality. At this minute, however, he thought no more of him than as an eccentric, as some refined, strange wonderful gentleman with a whim for his own brand of humour. Only that could explain it. The man had an evident curiosity for everything about him, the buildings, the street, the cars, and the people. Frequently he would mutter: "Wonderful, wonderful, and all the time we have never known it. Wonderful!"
As they drew into Lorin the officer ventured a question.
"You have friends in Berkeley? I see you are a stranger. If I may presume, perhaps I may be of assistance?"
"Well, yes, if—if—do you know of a Dr. Holcomb?"
"You mean the professor. He lives on Dwight Way. At this time of the day you would be more apt to find him at the university. Is he expecting you?"
It was a blunt question and of course none of his business. Yet, just what another does not want him to know is ever the pursuit of a detective. At the same time the subconscious flashing and wondering at the name Rhamda Avec—surely neither Teutonic nor Sanskrit nor anything between.
"Expecting me? Ah, yes. Pardon me if I speak slowly. I am not quite used to speech—yet. I see you are interested. After I see Dr. Holcomb I may tell you. However, it is very urgent that I see the doctor. He—well, I may say that we have known each other a long time."
"Then you know him?"
"Yes, in a way; though we have never met. He must be a great man. We have much in common, your doctor and I; and we have a great deal to give to your world. However, I would not recognise him should I see him. Would you by any chance—"
"You mean would I be your guide? With pleasure. It just happens that I am on friendly terms with your friend Dr. Holcomb."
THE PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
And now to start in on another angle. There is hardly any necessity for introducing Dr. Holcomb. All of us, at least, those who read, and, most of all, those of us who are interested in any manner of speculation, knew him quite well. He was the professor of philosophy at the University of California: a great man and a good one, one of those fine academic souls who, not only by their wisdom, but by their character, have a way of stamping themselves upon generations; a speaker of the upstanding class, walking on his own feet and utterly fearless when it came to dashing out on some startling philosophy that had not been borne up by his forebears.
He was original. He believed that the philosophies of the ages are but stepping stones, that the wisdom of the earth looked but to the future, and that the study of the classics, however essential, is but the ground work for combining and working out the problems of the future. He was epigrammatic, terse, and gifted with a quaint humour, with which he was apt, even when in the driest philosophy, to drive in and clinch his argument.
Best of all, he was able to clothe the most abstract thoughts in language so simple and concrete that he brought the deepest of all subjects down to the scope of the commonest thinker. It is needless to say that he was 'copy.' The papers about the bay were ever and anon running some startling story of the professor.
Had they stuck to the text it would all have been well; but a reporter is a reporter; in spite of the editors there were numerous little elaborations to pervert the context. A great man must be careful of his speech. Dr. Holcomb was often busy refuting; he could not understand the need of these little twistings of wisdom. It kept him in controversy; the brothers of his profession often took him to task for these little distorted scraps of philosophy. He did not like journalism. He had a way of consigning all writers and editors to the devil.
Which was vastly amusing to the reporters. Once they had him going they poised their pens in glee and began splashing their venomous ink. It was tragic; the great professor standing at bay to his tormentors. One and all they loved him and one and all they took delight in his torture. It was a hard task for a reporter to get in at a lecture; and yet it was often the lot of the professor to find himself and his words featured in his breakfast paper.
On the very day before this the doctor had come out with one of his terse startling statements. He had a way of inserting parenthetically some of his scraps of wisdom. It was in an Ethics class. We quote his words as near as possible:
"Man, let me tell you, is egotistic. All our philosophy is based on ego. We live threescore years and we balance it with all eternity. We are it. Did you ever stop and think of eternity? It is a rather long time. What right have we to say that life, which we assume to be everlasting, immediately becomes restrospect once it passes out of the conscious individuality which is allotted upon this earth? The trouble is ourselves. We are five-sensed. We weigh everything! We so measure eternity. Until we step out into other senses, which undoubtedly exist, we shall never arrive at the conception of infinity. Now I am going to make a rather startling announcement.
"The past few years have promised a culmination which has been guessed at and yearned for since the beginning of time. It is within, and still without, the scope of metaphysics. Those of you who have attended my lectures have heard me call myself the material idealist. I am a mystic sensationalist. I believe that we can derive nothing from pure contemplation. There is mystery and wonder in the veil of the occult. The earth, our life, is merely a vestibule of the universe. Contemplation alone will hold us all as inapt and as impotent as the old Monks of Athos. We have mountains of literature behind us, all contemplative, and whatever its wisdom, it has given us not one thing outside the abstract. From Plato down to the present our philosophy has given us not one tangible proof, not one concrete fact which we can place our hands on. We are virtually where we were originally; and we can talk, talk, talk from now until the clap of doomsday.
"My friends, philosophy must take a step sidewise. In this modern age young science, practical science, has grown up and far surpassed us. We must go back to the beginning, forget our subjective musings and enter the concrete. We are five-sensed, and in the nature of things we must bring the proof down into the concrete where we can understand it. Can we pierce the nebulous screen that shuts us out of the occult? We have doubted, laughed at ourselves and been laughed at; but the fact remains that always we have persisted in the believing.
"I have said that we shall never, never understand infinity while within the limitations of our five senses. I repeat it. But that does not imply that we shall never solve some of the mystery of life. The occult is not only a supposition, but a fact. We have peopled it with terror, because, like our forebears before Columbus, we have peopled it with imagination.
"And now to my statement.
"I have called myself the Material Idealist. I have adopted an entirely new trend of philosophy. During the past years, unknown to you and unknown to my friends, I have allied myself with practical science. I desired something concrete. While my colleagues and others were pounding out tomes of wonderful sophistry I have been pounding away at the screen of the occult. This is a proud moment. I have succeeded. Tomorrow I shall bring to you the fact and the substance. I have lifted up the curtain and flooded it with the light of day. You shall have the fact for your senses. Tomorrow I shall explain it all. I shall deliver my greatest lecture; in which my whole Me has come to a focus. It is not spiritualism nor sophistry. It is concrete fact and common sense. The subject of my lecture tomorrow will be: 'The Blind Spot.'"
Here begins the second part of the mystery.
We know now that the great lecture was never delivered. Immediately the news was scattered out of the class-room. It became common property. It was spread over the country and was featured in all the great metropolitan dailies. In the lecture- room next morning seats were at a premium; students, professors, instructors and all the prominent people who could gain admission crowded into the hall; even the irrepressible reporters had stolen in to take down the greatest scoop of the century. The place was jammed until even standing room was unthought of. The crowd, dense and packed and physically uncomfortable, waited.
The minutes dragged by. It was a long, long wait. But at last the bell rang that ticked the hour. Every one was expectant. And then fifteen minutes passed by, twenty—the crowd settled down to waiting. At length one of the colleagues stepped into the doctor's office and telephoned to his home. His daughter answered.
"Father? Why he left over two hours ago."
"About what time?"
"Why, it was about seven-thirty. You know he was to deliver his lecture today on the Blind Spot. I wanted to hear it, but he told me I could have it at home. He said he was to have a wonderful guest and I must make ready to receive him. Isn't father there?" "Not yet. Who was this guest? Did he say?"
"Oh yes! In a way. A most wonderful man. And he gave him a wonderful name, Rhamda Avec. I remember because it is so funny. I asked father if he was Sanskrit; and he said he was much older than that. Just imagine!"
"Did your father have his lecture with him?"
"Oh, yes. He glanced over it at breakfast. He told me he was going to startle the world as it had never been since the day of Columbus."
"Yes. And he was terribly impatient. He said he had to be at the college before eight to receive the great man. He was to deliver his lecture at ten. And afterward he would have lunch at noon and he would give me the whole story. I'm all impatience."
Then he came back and made the announcement that there was a little delay; but that Dr. Holcomb would be there shortly. But he was not. At twelve o'clock there were still some people waiting. At one o'clock the last man had slipped out of the room—and wondered. In all the country there was but one person who knew. That one was an obscure man who had yielded to a detective's intuition and had fallen inadvertently upon one of the greatest mysteries of modern times.
"NOW THERE ARE TWO"
The rest of the story is unfortunately all too easily told. We go back to Jerome and his strange companion.
At Centre Street station they alighted and walked up to the university. Under the Le Conte oaks they met the professor. He was trim and happy, his short, well-built figure clothed in black, his snow-white whiskers trimmed to the usual square crop and his pink skin glowing with splendid health. The fog had by this time lifted and the sun was just beginning to overcome the chilliness of the air. There was no necessity for an introduction.
The two men apparently recognised each other at once. So we have it from the detective. There was sincerity in the delight of their hand-clasp. A strange pair, both of them with the distinction and poise that come from refinement and intellectual training; though in physique they were almost opposite, there was still a strange, almost mutual, bond between them. Dr. Holcomb was beaming.
"At last!" he greeted. "At last! I was sure we could not fail. This, my dear Dr. Avec, is the greatest day since Columbus."
The other took the hand.
"So this is the great Dr. Holcomb. Yes, indeed, it is a great day; though I know nothing about your Columbus. So far it has been simply wonderful. I can scarcely credit my senses. So near and yet so far. How can it be? A dream? Are you sure, Dr. Holcomb?"
"My dear Rhamda, I am sure that I am the happiest man that ever lived. It is the culmination. I was certain we could not fail; though, of course, to me also it is an almost impossible climax of fact. I should never have succeeded without your assistance."
The other smiled.
"That was of small account, my dear doctor. To yourself must go the credit; to me the pleasure. Take your sun, for instance, I— but I have not the language to tell you."
But the doctor had gone in to abstraction.
"A great day," he was beaming. "A great day! What will the world say? It is proved." Then suddenly: "You have eaten?"
"Not yet. You must allow me a bit of time. I thought of it; but I had not quite the courage to venture."
"Then we shall eat," said the other man. "Afterward we shall go up to the lecture-room. Today I shall deliver my lecture on the Blind Spot. And when I am through you shall deliver the words that will astonish the world."
But here it seems there was a hitch. The other shook his head kindly. It was evident that while the doctor was the leader, the other was a co-worker who must be considered.
"I am afraid, professor, that you have promised a bit too much. I am not entirely free yet, you know. Two hours is the most that I can give you; and not entirely that. There are some details that may not be neglected. It is a far venture and now that we have succeeded this far there is surely no reason why we cannot go on. However, it is necessary that I return to the house on Chatterton Place. I have but slightly over an hour left."
The doctor was plainly disappointed.
"But the lecture?"
"It means my life, professor, and the subsequent success of our experiment. A few details, a few minutes. Perhaps if we hurry we can get back in time."
The doctor glanced at his watch. "Twenty minutes for the train, twenty minutes for the boat, ten minutes; that's an hour, two hours. These details? Have you any idea how long, Rhamda?"
"Perhaps not more than fifteen minutes."
"We have still two hours. Fifteen minutes; perhaps a little bit late. Tell you what. I shall go with you. You can get on the boat."
We have said that the detective had intuition. He had it still. Yet he had no rational reason for suspecting either the professor or his strange companion. Furthermore he had never heard of the Blind Spot in any way whatsoever; nor did he know a single thing of philosophy or anything else in Holcomb's teaching. He knew the doctor as a man of eminent standing and respectability. It was hardly natural that he should suspect anything sinister to grow out of this meeting of two refined scholars. He attached no great importance to the trend of their conversation. It was strange, to be sure; but he felt, no doubt, that living in their own world they had a way and a language of their own. He was no scholar.
Still, he could think. The man Rhamda had made an assertion that he could not quite uncover. It puzzled him. Something told him that for the safety of his old friend it might be well for him to shadow the strange pair to the city.
When the next train pulled out for the pier the two scholars were seated in the forward part of the car. In the last seat was a man deeply immersed in a morning paper.
It is rather unfortunate. In the natural delicacy of the situation Jerome could not crowd too closely. He had no certainty of trouble; no proof whatever; he was known to the professor. The best he could do was to keep aloof and follow their movements. At the ferry building they hailed a taxi and started up Market Street. Jerome watched them. In another moment he had another driver and was winding behind in their wheel tracks. The cab made straight for Chatterton Place. In front of a substantial two-story house it drew up. The two men alighted. Jerome's taxi passed them.
They were then at the head of the steps; a woman of slender beauty with a wonderful loose fold of black hair was talking. It seemed to the detective that her voice was fearful, of a pregnant warning, that she was protesting. Nevertheless, the old men entered and the door slammed behind them. Jerome slipped from the taxi and spoke a few words to the driver. A moment later the two men were holding the house under surveillance.
They did not have long to wait. The man called Rhamda had asked for fifteen minutes. At the stroke of the second the front door re-opened. Someone was laughing; a melodious enchanting laugh and feminine. A woman was speaking. And then there were two forms in the doorway. A man and a woman. The man was Rhamda Avec, tall, immaculate, black clad and distinguished. The woman, Jerome was not certain that she was the same who opened the door or not; she was even more beautiful. She was laughing. Like her companion she was clad in black, a beautiful shimmering material which sparkled in the sun like the rarest silk. The man glanced carelessly up and down the street for a moment. Then he assisted the lady down the steps and into the taxi. The door slammed; and before the detective could gather his scattered wits they were lost in the city.
Jerome was expecting the professor. Naturally when the door opened he looked for the old gentleman and his companion. It was the doctor he was watching, not the other. Though he had no rational reason for expecting trouble he had still his hunch and his intuition. The man and woman aroused suspicion; and likewise upset his calculation. He could not follow them and stay with the professor. It was a moment for quick decision. He wondered. Where was Dr. Holcomb? This was the day he was to deliver his lecture on the Blind Spot. He had read the announcement in the paper on the way back, together with certain comments by the editor. In the lecture itself there was mystery. This strange one, Rhamda, was mixed in the Blind Spot. Undoubtedly he was the essential fact and substance. Until now he had not scented tragedy. Why had Rhamda and the woman come out together? Where was the professor?
At the end of a half-hour Jerome ventured across the street. He noted the number 288. Then he ascended the steps and clanged at the knocker. From the sounds that came from inside, the place was but partly furnished. Hollow steps sounded down the hallway, shuffling, like weary bones dragging slippers. The door opened and an old woman, very old, peered out of the crack. She coughed. Though it was not a loud cough it seemed to the detective that it would be her last one; there was so little of her.
"Pardon me, but is Dr. Holcomb here?"
The old lady looked up at him. The eyes were of blank expressionless blue; she was in her dotage.
"You mean—oh, yes, I think so, the old man with the white whiskers. He was here a few minutes ago, with that other. But he just went out, sir, he just went out."
"No, I don't think so. There was a man went out and a woman. But not Dr. Holcomb."
"A woman? There was no woman."
"Oh, yes, there was a woman—a very beautiful one."
The old lady dropped her hand. It was trembling.
"Oh, dear," she was saying. "This makes two. This morning it was a man and now it is a woman, that makes two."
It seemed to the man as he looked down in her eyes that he was looking into great fear; she was so slight and frail and helpless and so old; such a fragile thing to bear burden and trouble. Her voice was cracked and just above a shrill whisper, almost uncanny. She kept repeating:
"Now there are two. Now there are two. That makes two. This morning there was one. Now there are two."
Jerome could not understand. He pitied the old lady.
"Did you say that Dr. Holcomb is here?"
Again she looked up: the same blank expression, she was evidently trying to gather her wits.
"Two. A woman. Dr. Holcomb. Oh, yes, Dr. Holcomb. Won't you come in?"
She opened the door.
Jerome entered and took off his hat. Judicially he repeated the doctor's name to keep it in her mind. She closed the door carefully and touched his arm. It seemed to him that she was terribly weak and tottering; her old eyes, however expressionless, were full of pitiful pleading. She was scarcely more than a shadow.
"You are his son?"
Jerome lied; but he did it for a reason. "Yes."
She took him by the sleeve and led him to a room, then across it to a door in the side wall. Her step was slow and feeble; twice she stopped to sing the dirge of her wonder. "First a man and then a woman. Now there is one. You are his son." And twice she stopped and listened. "Do you hear anything? A bell? I love to hear it: and then afterward I am afraid. Did you ever notice a bell? It always makes you think of church and the things that are holy. This is a beautiful bell—first—"
Either the woman was without her reason or very nearly so: she was very frail.
"Come, mother, I know, first a bell, but Dr. Holcomb?"
The name brought her back again. For a moment she was blank trying to recall her senses. And then she remembered. She pointed to the door.
"In there—Dr. Holcomb. That's where they come. That's where they go. Dr. Holcomb. The little old man with the beautiful whiskers. This morning it was a man; now it is a woman. Now there are two. Oh, dear; perhaps we shall hear the bell."
Jerome began to scent a tragedy. Certainly the old lady was uncanny; the house was bare and hollow; the scant furniture was threadbare with age and mildew; each sound was exaggerated and fearful, even their breathing. He placed his hand on the knob and opened the door.
"Now there are two. Now there are two."
The room was empty. Not a bit of furniture; a blank, bare apartment with an old-fashioned high ceiling. Nothing else. Whatever the weirdness and adventure, Jerome was getting nowhere. The old lady was still clinging to his arm and still droning:
"Now there are two. Now there are two. This morning a man; now a woman. Now there are two."
"Come, mother, come. This will not do. Perhaps—"
But just then the old lady's lean fingers clinched into his arm; her eyes grew bright; her mouth opened and she stopped in the middle of her drone. Jerome grew rigid. And no wonder. From the middle of the room not ten feet away came the tone of a bell, a great silvery voluminous sound—and music. A church bell. Just one stroke, full toned, filling all the air till the whole room was choked with music. Then as suddenly it died out and faded into nothing. At the same time he felt the fingers on his arm relax; and a heap was at his feet. He reached over. The life and intelligence that was so near the line was just crossing over the border. The poor old lady! Here was a tragedy he could not understand. He stooped over to assist her. He was trembling. As he did so he heard the drone of her soul as it wafted to the shadow:
"Now there are two."
Jerome was a strong man, of iron nerve, and well set against emotion; in the run of his experience he had been plumped into many startling situations; but none like this. The croon of the old lady thrummed in his ears with endless repetition. He picked her up tenderly and bore her to another room and placed her on a ragged sofa. There were still marks on her face of former beauty. He wondered who she was and what had been her life to come to such an ending.
"Now there are two," the words were withering with oppression. Subconsciously he felt the load that crushed her spirit. It was as if the burden had been shifted; he sensed the weight of an unaccountable disaster.
The place was musty and ill-lighted. He looked about him, the dank, close air was unwashed by daylight. A stray ray of sunshine filtering through the broken shutter slanted across the room and sought vainly to dispel the shadow. He thought of Dr. Holcomb and the old lady. "Now there are two." Was it a double tragedy? First of all he must investigate.
The place was of eleven rooms, six downstairs and five on the upper story. With the exception of one broken chair there was no furniture upstairs; four of the rooms on the lower floor were partly furnished, two not at all. A rear room had evidently been to the old lady the whole of her habitation, serving as a kitchen, bedroom, and living-room combined. Except in this room there were no carpets what-ever. His steps sounded hollow and ghostly; the boards creaked and each time he opened a door he was oppressed by the same gloom of dankness and stagnation. There was no trace of Dr. Holcomb.
He remembered the bell and sought vainly on both floors for anything that would give him a clue to the sound. There was nothing. The only thing he heard was the echoing of his own creaking footsteps and the unceasing tune that dinned in his spirit, "Now there are two."
At last he came to the door and looked out into the street. The sun was shining and the life and pulse was rising from the city. It was daylight; plain, healthy day. It was good to look at. On the threshold of the door he felt himself standing on the border of two worlds. What had become of the doctor and who was the old lady; and lastly and just as important, who was the Rhamda and his beautiful companion?
Jerome telephoned to headquarters.
It was a strange case.
At the precise minute when his would-be auditors were beginning to fidget over his absence, the police of San Francisco had started the search for the great doctor. Jerome had followed his intuition. It had led him into a tragedy and he was ready to swear almost on his soul that it was twofold. The prominence of the professor, together with his startling announcement of the day previous and the world-wide comment that it had aroused, elevated the case to a national interest.
What was the Blind Spot? The world conjectured, and like the world has been since beginning, it scoffed and derided. Some there were, however, men well up in the latest discoveries of science, who did not laugh. They counselled forbearance; they would wait for the doctor and his lecture.
There was no lecture. In the teeth of our expectation came the startling word that the doctor had disappeared. Apparently when on the very verge of announcing his discovery he had been swallowed by the very force that he had loosened. There was nothing in known science outside of optics, that could in any way be blended with the Blind Spot. There were but two solutions; either the professor had been a victim of a clever rogue, or he had been overcome by the rashness of his own wisdom. At any rate, it was known from that minute on as "THE BLIND SPOT."
Perhaps it is just as well to take up the findings of the police. The police of course never entertained any suggestion of the occult. They are material; and were convinced from the start that the case had its origin in downright villainy. Man is complex; but being so, is oft overbalanced by evil Some genius had made a fool of the doctor.
In the first place a thorough search was made for the professor. The house at No. 288 Chatterton Place was ransacked from cellar to attic. The records were gone over and it was found that the property had for some time been vacant; that the real ownership was vested in a number of heirs scattered about the country.
The old lady had apparently been living on the place simply through sufferance. No one could find out who she was. A few tradesman in the vicinity had sold her some scant supplies and that was all. The stress that Jerome placed upon her actions and words was; given its due account. There were undoubtedly two villains; but there were two victims. That the old lady was such as well as the professor no one has doubted. The whole secret lay in the gentleman with the Eastern cast and complexion. Who was Rhamda Avec?
And now comes the strangest part of the story. Ever, when we re- count the tale, there is something to overturn the theories of the police. It has become a sort of legend in San Francisco; one to be taken with a grain of salt, to be sure, but for all that, one at which we may well wonder. Here the supporters of the professor's philosophy hold their strongest point—if it is true. Of course we can venture no private opinion, never having been a witness. It is this:
Rhamda Avec is with us and in our city. His description and drawn likeness have been published many times. There are those who aver that they have seen him in reality of the flesh walking through the crowds of Market Street.
He is easily distinguished, tall and distinctive, refined to a high degree, and with the poise and alertness of a gentleman of reliance and character. Women look twice and wonder; he is neither old nor young; when he smiles it is like youth breaking in laughter. And with him often is his beautiful companion.
Men vouch for her beauty and swear that it is of the kind that drives to distraction. She is fire and flesh and carnal—she is more than beauty. There is allurement about her body; sylph-like, sinuous; the olive tint of her complexion, the wonderful glory of her hair and the glowing night-black of her eyes. Men pause; she is of the superlative kind that robs the reason, a supreme glory of passion and life and beauty, at whose feet fools and wise men would slavishly frolic and folly. She seldom speaks, but those who have heard her say that it is like rippling water, of gentleness and softness and of the mellow flow that comes from love and passion and from beauty.
Of course there is nothing out of the ordinary in their walking down the streets. Anybody might do that. The wonder comes in the manner in which they elude the police. They come and go in the broad, bright daylight. Hundreds have seen them. They make no effort at concealment, nor disguise. And yet no phantoms were ever more unreal than they to those who seek them. Who are they? The officers have been summoned on many occasions; but each and every time in some manner or way they had contrived to elude them. There are some who have consigned them to the limbo of illusion. But we do not entirely agree.
In a case like this it is well to take into consideration the respectability and character of those who have witnessed. Phantoms are not corporeal; these two are flesh and blood. There is mystery about them; but they are substance, the same as we are.
If you will take the Key Route ferry some foggy morning you may see something to convince you. It must be foggy and the air must be grey and drab and sombre. Take the lower deck. Perhaps you will see nothing. If not try again; for they say you shall be rewarded. Watch the forward part of the boat; but do not leave the inner deck. The great Rhamda watching the grey swirl of the water!
He stands alone, in his hands the case of reddish leather, his feet slightly apart and his face full of a great hungry wonder. Watch his features: they are strong and aglow with a great and wondrous wisdom; mark if you see evil. And remember. Though he is like you he is something vastly different. He is flesh and blood; but perhaps the master of one of the greatest laws that man can attain to. He is the fact and the substance that was promised, but was not delivered by the professor.
This account has been largely taken from one of the Sunday editions of our papers. I do not agree with it entirely. Nevertheless, it will serve as an excellent foundation for my own adventures; and what is best of all, save labour.
My name is Harry Wendel.
I am an attorney and until recently boasted of a splendid practice and an excellent prospect for the future. I am still a young man; I have had a good education and still have friends and admirers. Such being the case, you no doubt wonder why I give a past reference to my practice and what the future might have held for me. Listen:
I might as well start 'way back. I shall do it completely and go back to the fast-receding time of childhood.
There is a recollection of childish disaster. I had been making strenuous efforts to pull the tail out of the cat that I might use it for a feather duster. My desire was supreme logic. I could not understand objection; the cat resisted for certain utilitarian reasons of its own and my mother through humane sympathy. I had been scratched and spanked in addition: it was the first storm centre that I remember. I had been punished but not subdued. At the first opportunity, I stole out of the house and onto the lawn that stretched out to the pavement.
I remember the day. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and everything was green with springtime. For a minute I stood still and blinked in the sunlight. It was beautiful and soft and balmy; the world at full exuberance; the buds upon the trees, the flowers, and the songbirds singing. I could not understand it. It was so beautiful and soft. My heart was still beating fiercely, still black with perversity and stricken rancour. The world had no right to be so. I hated with the full rush of childish anger.
And then I saw.
Across the street coming over to meet me was a child of my age. He was fat and chubby, a mass of yellow curls and laughter; when he walked he held his feet out at angles as is the manner of fat boys and his arms away from his body. I slid off the porch quietly. Here was something that could suffer for the cat and my mother. At my rush he stopped in wonder. I remember his smiling face and my anger. In an instant I had him by the hair and was biting with all the fury of vindictiveness.
At first he set up a great bawl for assistance. He could not understand; he screamed and held his hands aloft to keep them out of my reach. Then he tried to run away. But I had learned from the cat that had scratched me. I clung on, biting, tearing. The shrill of his scream was music: it was conflict, sweet and delicious; it was strife, swift as instinct.
At last I stopped him; he ceased trying to get away and began to struggle. It was better still; it was resistance. But he was stronger than I; though I was quicker he managed to get my by the shoulders, to force me back, and finally to upset me. Then in the stolid way, and after the manner of fat boys, he sat upon my chest. When our startled mothers came upon the scene they so found us—I upon my back, clinching my teeth and threatening all the dire fates of childhood, and he waiting either for assistance or until my ire should retire sufficiently to allow him to release me in safety.
"Who did it? Who started it?"
That I remember plainly.
"Hobart, did you do this?" The fat boy backed off quietly and clung to his mother; but he did not answer.
"Hobart, did you start this?"
Still no answer.
"Harry, this was you; you started it. Didn't you try to hurt Hobart?"
My mother took me by the hand and drew me away.
"He is a rascal, Mrs. Fenton, and has a temper like sin; but he will tell the truth, thank goodness."
I am telling this not for the mere relation, but by way of introduction. It was my first meeting with Hobart Fenton. It is necessary that you know us both and our characters. Our lives are so entwined and so related that without it you could not get the gist of the story. In the afternoon I came across the street to play with Hobart. He met me smiling. It was not in his healthy little soul to hold resentment. I was either all smiles or anger. I forgot as quickly as I battled. That night there were two happy youngsters tucked into the bed and covers.
So we grew up; one with the other. We played as children do and fought as boys have done from the beginning. I shall say right now that the fights were mostly my fault. I started them one and all; and if every battle had the same beginning it likewise had the same ending. The first fight was but the forerunner of all the others.
Please do not think hardly of Hobart. He is the kindest soul in the world; there never was a truer lad nor a kinder heart. He was strong, healthy, fat, and, like fat boys, forever laughing. He followed me into trouble and when I was retreating he valiantly defended the rear. Stronger, sturdier, and slower, he has been a sort of protector from the beginning. I have called him the Rear Guard; and he does not resent it.
I have always been in mischief, restless, and eager for anything that would bring quick action; and when I got into deep water Hobart would come along, pluck me out and pull me to shore and safety. Did you ever see a great mastiff and a fox terrier running together? It is a homely illustration; but an apt one.
We were boys together, with our delights and troubles, joys and sorrows. I thought so much of Hobart that I did not shirk stooping to help him take care of his baby sister. That is about the supreme sacrifice of a boy's devotion. In after years, of course, he has laughed at me and swears I did it on purpose. I do not know, but I am willing to admit that I think a whole lot of that sister.
Side by side we grew up and into manhood. We went to school and into college. Even as we were at odds in our physical builds and our dispositions, so were we in our studies. From the beginning Hobart has had a mania for screws, bolts, nuts, and pistons. He is practical; he likes mathematics; he can talk to you from the binomial theorem up into Calculus; he is never so happy as when the air is buzzing with a conversation charged with induction coils, alternating currents, or atomic energy. The whole swing and force of popular science is his kingdom. I will say for Hobart that he is just about in line to be king of it all. Today he is in South America, one of our greatest engineers. He is bringing the water down from the Andes; and it is just about like those strong shoulders and that good head to restore the land of the Incas.
About myself? I went into the law. I enjoy an atmosphere of strife and contention. I liked books and discussion and I thought that I would like the law. On the advice of my elders I entered law college, and in due time was admitted to practice. It was while studying to qualify that I first ran into philosophy. I was a lad to enjoy quick, pithy, epigrammatic statements. I have always favoured a man who hits from the shoulder. Professor Holcomb was a man of terse, heavy thinking; he spoke what he thought and he did not quibble. He favoured no one.
I must confess that the old white-haired professor left his stamp upon me. I loved him like all the rest; though I was not above playing a trick on the old fellow occasionally. Still he had a wit of his own and seldom came out second best, and when he lost out he could laugh like the next one. I was deeply impressed by him. As I took course after course under him I was convinced that for all of his dry philosophy the old fellow had a trick up his sleeve; he had a way of expounding that was rather startling; likewise, he had a scarcely concealed contempt for some of the demigods of our old philosophy.
What this trick was I could never uncover. I hung on and dug into great tomes of wisdom. I became interested and gradually took up with his speculation; for all my love of action I found that I had a strong subcurrent for the philosophical.
Now I roomed with Hobart. When I would come home with some dry tome and would lose myself in it by the hour he could not understand it. I was preparing for the law. He could see no advantage to be derived from this digging into speculation. He was practical and unless he could drive a nail into a thing or at least dig into its chemical elements it was hard to get him interested.
"Of what use is it, Harry? Why waste your brains? These old fogies have been pounding on the question for three thousand years. What have they got? You could read all their literature from the pyramids down to the present sky-scrapers and you wouldn't get enough practical wisdom to drive a dump-cart."
"That's just it," I answered. "I'm not hankering for a dump-cart. You have an idea that all the wisdom in the world is locked up in the concrete; unless a thing has wheels, pistons, some sort of combustion, or a chemical action you are not interested. What gives you the control over your machinery? Brains! But what makes the mind go?"
Hobart blinked. "Fine," he answered. "Go on."
"Well," I answered, "that's what I am after."
He laughed. "Great. Well, keep at it. It's your funeral, Harry. When you have found, it let me know and I'll beat you to the patent."
With that he turned to his desk and dug into one of his everlasting formulas. Just the same, next day when I entered Holcomb's lecture-room I was in for a surprise. My husky room-mate was in the seat beside me.
"What's the big idea?" I asked. "Big idea is right, Harry," he grinned. "Just thought I would beat you to it. Had a dickens of a time with Dan Clark, of the engineering department. Told him I wanted to study philosophy. The old boy put up a beautiful holler. Couldn't understand what an engineer would want with psychology or ethics. Neither could I until I got to thinking last night when I went to roost. Because a thing has never been done is no reason why it never will be; is it, Harry?"
"Certainly not. I don't know just what you are driving at. Perhaps you intend to take your notes over to the machine shop and hammer out the Secret of the Absolute."
"Pretty wise head at that, Harry. What did you call it? The Secret of the Absolute. Will remember that. I'm not much on phrases; but I'm sure the strong boy with the hammer. You don't object to my sitting here beside you; so that I, too, may drink in the little drops of wisdom?"
It was in this way that Hobart entered into the study of philosophy. When the class was over and we were going down the steps he patted me on the shoulder.
"That's not so bad, Harry. Not so bad. The old doctor is there; he's got them going. Likewise little Hobart has got a big idea."
Now it happened that this was just about six weeks before Dr. Holcomb announced his great lecture on the Blind Spot. It was not more than a week after registration. In the time ensuing Fenton became just as great an enthusiast as myself. His idea, of course, was chimerical and a blind; his main purpose was to get in with me where he could argue me out of my folly.
He wound up by being a convert of the professor.
Then came the great day. The night of the announcement we had a long discussion. It was a deep question. For all of my faith in the professor I was hardly prepared for a thing like this. Strange to say I was the sceptic; and stranger still, it was Hobart who took the side of the doctor.
"Why not?" he said. "It merely comes down to this: you grant that a thing is possible and then you deny the possibility of a proof— outside of your abstract. That's good paradox, Harry; but almighty poor logic. If it is so it certainly can be proven. There's not one reason in the world why we can't have something concrete. The professor is right. I am with him. He's the only professor in all the ages."
Well, it turned out as it did. It was a terrible blow to us all. Most of the world took it as a great murder or an equally great case of abduction. There were but few, even in the university, who embraced the side of the doctor. It was a case of villainy, of a couple of remarkably clever rogues and a trusting scholar.
But there was one whose faith was not diminished. He had been one of the last to come under the influence of the doctor. He was practical and concrete, and not at all attuned to philosophy; he had not the training for deep dry thinking. He would not recede one whit. One day I caught him sitting down with his head between his hands. I touched him on the shoulder.
"What's the deep study?" I asked him.
He looked up. By his eyes I could see that his thoughts had been far away.
"What's the deep study?" I repeated.
"I was just thinking, Harry; just thinking."
"I was just thinking, Harry, that I would like to have about one hundred thousand dollars and about ten years' leisure."
"That's a nice thought," I answered; "I could think that myself. What would you do with it?"
"Do? Why, there is just one thing that I would do if I had that much money. I would solve the Blind Spot."
This happened years ago while we were still in college. Many things have occurred since then. I am writing this on the verge of disaster. How little do we know! What was the idea that buzzed in the head of Hobart Fenton? He is concrete, physical, fearless. He is in South America. I have cabled to him and expect him as fast as steam can bring him. The great idea and discovery of the professor is a fact, not fiction. What is it? That I cannot answer. I have found it and I am a witness to its potency.
Some law has been missed through the ages. It is inexorable and insidious; it is concrete. Out of the unknown comes terror. Through the love for the great professor I have pitted myself against it. From the beginning it has been almost hopeless. I remember that last digression in ethics. "The mystery of the occult may be solved. We are five-sensed. When we bring the thing down to the concrete we may understand."
Sometimes I wonder at the Rhamda. Is he a man or a phantom? Does he control the Blind Spot? Is he the substance and the proof that was promised by Dr. Holcomb? Through what process and what laws did the professor acquire even his partial control over the phenomena? Where did the Rhamda and his beautiful companion come from? Who are they? And lastly—what was the idea that buzzed in the head of Hobart Fenton?
When I look back now I wonder. I have never believed in fate. I do not believe in it now. Man is the master of his own destiny. We are cowards else. Whatever is to be known we should know it. One's duty is ever to one's fellows. Heads up and onward. I am not a brave man, perhaps, under close analysis; but once I have given my word I shall keep it. I have done my bit; my simple duty. Perhaps I have failed. In holding myself against the Blind Spot I have done no more than would have been done by a million others. I have only one regret. Failure is seldom rewarded. I had hoped that my life would be the last; I have a dim hope still. If I fail in the end, there must be still one more to follow.
Understand I do not expect to die. It is the unknown that I am afraid of. I who thought that we knew so much have found it still so little. There are so many laws in the weave of Cosmos that are still unguessed. What is this death that we are afraid of? What is life? Can we solve it? Is it permissible? What is the Blind Spot? If Hobart Fenton is right it has nothing to do with death. If so, what is it?
My pen is weak. I am weary. I am waiting for Hobart. Perhaps I shall not last. When he comes I want him to know my story. What he knows already will not hurt repeating. It is well that man shall have it; it may be that we shall both fail-there is no telling; but if we do the world can profit by our blunders and guide itself—perhaps to the mastery of the phenomenon that controls the Blind Spot.
I ask you to bear with me. If I make a few mistakes or I am a bit loose, remember the stress under which I am writing. I shall try to be plain so that all may follow.
Now to go back.
In due time we were both of us graduated from college. I went into the law and Hobart into engineering. We were both successful. There was not a thing to foreshadow that either of us was to be jerked from his profession. There was no adventure, but lots of work and reward in proportion.
Perhaps I was a bit more fortunate. I was in love and Hobart was still a confirmed bachelor. It was a subject over which he was never done joking. It was not my fault. I was innocent. If the blame ran anywhere it would have to be placed upon that baby sister of his.
It happened as it happened since God first made the maiden. One autumn Hobart and I started off for college. We left Charlotte at the gate a girl of fifteen years and ten times as many angles. I pulled one of her pigtails, kissed her, and told her I wanted her to get pretty. When we came home next summer I went over to pull the other pigtail. I did not pull it. I was met by the fairest young woman I had ever looked on. And I could not kiss her. Seriously, was I to blame?
Now to the incident.
It was a night in September. Hobart had completed his affairs and had booked passage to South America. He was to sail next morning. We had dinner that day with his family, and then came up to San Francisco for a last and farewell bachelor night. We could take in the opera together, have supper at our favourite cafe, and then turn in. It was a long hark back to our childhood; but for all that we were still boys together.
I remember that night. It was our favourite opera—"Faust." It was the one piece that we could agree on. Looking back since, I have wondered at the coincidence. The old myth of age to youth and the subcurrent of sin with its stalking, laughing, subtle Mephistopheles. It is strange that we should have gone to this one opera on this one evening. I recall our coming out of the theatre; our minds thrilling to the music and the subtle weirdness of the theme.
A fog had fallen—one of those thick, heavy, grey mists that sometimes come upon us in September. Into its sombre depths the crowd disappeared like shadows. The lights upon the streets blurred yellow. At the cold sheer contact we hesitated upon the pavement.
I had on a light overcoat. Hobart, bound for the tropics, had no such protection. It was cold and miserable, a chill wind stirring from the north was unusually cutting. Hobart raised his collar and dug his hands into his pockets.
"Brr," he muttered; "brr, some coffee or some wine. Something."
The sidewalks were wet and slippery, the mists settling under the lights had the effect of drizzle. I touched Hobart's arm and we started across the street.
"Brr is right," I answered, "and some wine. Notice the shadows, like ghosts."
We were half across the street before he answered; then he stopped.
"Ghosts! Did you say ghosts, Harry?" I noted a strange inflection in his voice. He stood still and peered into the fog bank. His stop was sudden and suggestive. Just then a passing taxicab almost caught us and we were compelled to dodge quickly. Hobart ducked out of the way and I side-stepped in another direction. We came up on the sidewalk. Again he peered into the shadow.
"Confound that cab," he was saying, "now we have gone and missed him."
He took off his hat and then put it back on his head. His favourite trick when bewildered. I looked up and down the street.
"Didn't you see him? Harry! Didn't you see him? It was Rhamda Avec!"
I had seen no one; that is to notice; I did not know the Rhamda. Neither did he.
"The Rhamda? You don't know him."
Hobart was puzzled.
"No," he said; "I do not; but it was he, just as sure as I am a fat man."
I whistled. I recalled the tale that was now a legend. The man had an affinity for the fog mist. To come out of "Faust" and to run into the Rhamda! What was the connection? For a moment we both stood still and waited.
"I wonder—" said Hobart. "I was just thinking about that fellow tonight. Strange! Well, let's get something hot—some coffee."
But it had given us something for discussion. Certainly it was unusual. During the past few days I had been thinking of Dr. Holcomb; and for the last few hours the tale had clung with reiterating persistence. Perhaps it was the weirdness and the tremulous intoxication of the music. I was one of the vast majority who disbelieved it. Was it possible that it was, after all, other than the film of fancy? There are times when we are receptive; at that moment I could have believed it.
We entered the cafe and chose a table slightly to the rear. It was a contrast to the cold outside; the lights so bright, the glasses clinking, laughter and music. A few young people were dancing. I sat down; in a moment the lightness and jollity had stirred my blood. Hobart took a chair opposite. The place was full of beauty. In the back of my mind blurred the image of Rhamda. I had never seen him; but I had read the description. I wondered absently at the persistence.
I have said that I do not believe in fate. I repeat it. Man should control his own destiny. A great man does. Perhaps that is it. I am not great. Certainly it was circumstance.
In the back part of the room at one of the tables was a young man sitting alone. Something caught my attention. Perhaps it was his listlessness or the dreamy unconcern with which he watched the dancers; or it may have been the utter forlornness of his expression. I noted his unusual pallor and his cast of dissipation, also the continual working of his long, lean fingers. There are certain set fixtures in the night life of any city. But this was not one. He was not an habitue. There was a certain greatness to his loneliness and his isolation. I wondered.
Just then he looked up. By a mere coincidence our eyes met. He smiled, a weak smile and a forlorn one, and it seemed to me rather pitiful. Then as suddenly his glance wandered to the door behind me. Perhaps there was something in my expression that caught Hobart's attention. He turned about.
"Say, Harry, who is that fellow? I know that face, I'm certain."
"Come to think I have seen him myself. I wonder—"
The young man looked up again. The same weary smile. He nodded. And again he glanced over my shoulder toward the door. His face suddenly hardened.
"He knows us at any rate," I ventured.
Now Hobart was sitting with his face toward the entrance. He could see anyone coming or going. Following the young man's glance he looked over my shoulder. He suddenly reached over and took me by the forearm.
"Don't look round," he warned; "take it easy. As I said—on my honour as a fat man."
The very words foretold. I could not but risk a glance. Across the room a man was coming down the aisle—a tall man, dark, and of a very decided manner. I had read his description many times; I had seen his likeness drawn by certain sketch artists of the city. They did not do him justice. He had a wonderful way and presence— you might say, magnetism. I noticed the furtive wondering glances that were cast, especially by the women. He was a handsome man beyond denying, about the handsomest I had ever seen. The same elusiveness.
At first I would have sworn him to be near sixty; the next minute I was just as certain of his youth. There was something about him that could not be put to paper, be it strength, force or vitality; he was subtle. His step was prim and distinctive, light as shadow, in one hand he carried the red case that was so often mentioned. I breathed an exclamation.
"Am I a fat man? The famous Rhamda! What say! Ah, ha! He has business with our wan friend yonder. See!"
And it was so. He took a chair opposite the wan one. The young man straightened. His face was even more familiar, but I could not place him. His lips were set; in their grim line—determination; whatever his exhaustion there was still a will. Somehow one had a respect for this weak one; he was not a mere weakling. Yet I was not so sure that he was not afraid of the Rhamda. He spoke to the waiter. The Rhamda began talking. I noted the poise in his manner; it was not evil, rather was it calm—and calculating. He made an indication. The young man drew back. He smiled; it was feeble and weary, but for all of that disdainful. Though one had a pity for his forlornness, there was still an admiration. The waiter brought glasses.
The young man swallowed his drink at a gulp, the other picked his up and sipped it. Again he made the indication. The youth dropped his hand upon the table, a pale blue light followed the movement of his fingers. The older man pointed. So that was their contention? A jewel? After all our phantom was material enough to desire possession; his solicitude was calmness, but for all that aggression. I could sense a battle, but the young man turned the jewel to the palm side of his fingers; he shook his head.
The Rhamda drew up. For a moment he waited. Was it for surrender? Once he started to speak, but was cut short by the other. For all of his weakness there was spirit to the young man. He even laughed. The Rhamda drew out a watch. He held up two fingers. I heard Hobart mumble.
"Two minutes. Well, I'm betting on the young one. Too much soul. He's not dead; just weary."
He was right. At exactly one hundred and twenty seconds the Rhamda closed his watch. He spoke something. Again the young man laughed. He lit a cigarette; from the flicker and jerk of the flame he was trembling. But he was still emphatic. The other rose from the table, walked down the aisle and out of the building. The youth spread out both arms and dropped his head upon the table.
It was a little drama enacted almost in silence. Hobart and I exchanged glances. The mere glimpse of the Rhamda had brought us both back to the Blind Spot. Was there any connection? Who was the young man with the life sapped out? I had a recollection of a face strangely familiar. Hobart interrupted my thoughts.
"I'd give just about one leg for the gist of that conversation. That was the Rhamda; but who is the other ghost?"
"Do you think it has to do with the Blind Spot?"
"I don't think," averred Hobart. "I know. Wonder what's the time." He glanced at his watch. "Eleven thirty."
Just here the young man at the table raised up his head. The cigarette was still between his fingers; he puffed lamely for a minute, taking a dull note of his surroundings. In the well of gaiety and laughter coming from all parts of the room his actions were out of place. He seemed dazed; unable to pull himself together. Suddenly he looked at us. He started.
"He certainly knows us," I said. "I wonder—by George, he's coming over."
Even his step was feeble. There was exertion about every move of his body, the wanness and effort of vanished vitality; he balanced himself carefully. Slowly, slowly, line by line his features became familiar, the underlines of another, the ghost of one departed. At first I could not place him. He held himself up for breath. Who was he? Then it suddenly came to me—back to the old days at college—an athlete, one of the best of fellows, one of the sturdiest of men! He had come to this!
Hobart was before me.
"By all the things that are holy!" he exclaimed. "Chick Watson! Here, have a seat. In the name of Heavens, Chick! What on earth—"
The other dropped feebly into the chair. The body that had once been so powerful was a skeleton. His coat was a disguise of padding.
"Hello, Hobart; hello, Harry," he spoke in a whisper. "Not much like the old Chick, am I? First thing, I'll take some brandy."
It was almost tragic. I glanced at Hobart and nodded to the waiter. Could it be Chick Watson? I had seen him a year before, hale, healthy, prosperous. And here he was—a wreck!"
"No," he muttered, "I'm not sick—not sick. Lord, boys, it's good to meet you. I just thought I would come out for this one last night, hear some music, see a pretty face, perhaps meet a friend. But I am afraid—" He dropped off like one suddenly drifting into slumber.
"Hustle that waiter," I said to Hobart. "Hurry that brandy."
The stimulant seemed to revive him. He lifted up suddenly. There was fear in his eyes; then on seeing himself among friends— relief. He turned to me.
"Think I'm sick, don't you?" he asked.
"You certainly are," I answered.
"Well, I'm not."
For a moment silence. I glanced at Hobart. Hobart nodded.
"You're just about in line for a doctor, Chick, old boy," I said. "I'm going to see that you have one. Bed for you, and the care of mother—"
He started; he seemed to jerk himself together.
"That's it, Harry; that's what I wanted. It's so hard for me to think. Mother, mother! That's why I came downtown. I wanted a friend. I have something for you to give to mother."
"Rats," I said. "I'll take you to her. What are you talking about?"
But he shook his head.
"I wish that you were telling the truth, Harry. But it's no use— not after tonight. All the doctors in the world could not save me. I'm not sick, boys, far from it."
Hobart spoke up.
"What is it, Chick? I have a suspicion. Am I right?"
Chick looked up; he closed his eyes.
"All right, Hobart, what's your suspicion?"
Fenton leaned over. It seemed to me that he was peering into the other's soul. He touched his forearm.
"Chick, old boy, I think I know. But tell me. Am I right? It's the Blind Spot."
At the words Watson opened his eyes; they were full of hope and wonder, for a moment, and then, as suddenly of a great despair. His body went to a heap. His voice was feeble.
"Yes," he answered, "I am dying—of the Blind Spot"
It was a terrible thing; death stalking out of the Blind Spot. We had almost forgotten. It had been a story hitherto—a wonderful one to be sure, and one to arouse conjecture. I had never thought that we were to be brought to its shivering contact. It was out of the occult; it had been so pronounced by the professor; a great secret of life holding out a guerdon of death to its votaries. Witness Chick Watson, the type of healthy, fighting manhood—come to this. He opened his eyes feebly; one could see the light; the old spirit was there—fighting for life. What was this struggle of soul and flesh? Why had the soul hung on? He made another effort.
"More drink," he asked; "more drink. Anything to hold me together. I must tell you. You must take my place and—and—fight the Blind Spot! Promise that—"
"Order the drinks," I told Hobart. "I see Dr. Hansen over there. Even if we cannot save him we must hold him until we get his story."
I went and fetched Hansen over.
"A strange case," he murmured. "Pulse normal; not a trace of fever. Not sick, you say—" Hobart pointed to his head. "Ah, I see! I would suggest home and a bed."
Just here Watson opened his eyes again. They rested first upon the doctor, then upon myself, and finally upon the brandy. He took it up and drank it with eagerness. It was his third one; it gave him a bit more life.
"Didn't I tell you, boys, that there is not a doctor on earth that can save me? Excuse me, doc. I am not sick. I told them. I am far past physic; I have gone beyond medicine. All I ask is stimulant and life enough to tell my story."
"My boy," asked the doctor kindly, "what ails you?"
Watson smiled. He touched himself on the forehead.
"Up here, doc. There are things in the world with which we may not tamper. I tried it. Somebody had to do it and somebody has to do it yet. You remember Dr. Holcomb; he was a great man; he was after the secret of life. He began it."
Dr. Hansen started.
"Lord!" he exclaimed, looking at us all; "you don't mean this man is mixed up in the Blind Spot?"
We nodded. Watson smiled; again he dropped back into inertia; the speech he had made was his longest yet; the brandy was coming into effect.
"Give him brandy," the doctor said; "it's as good as anything. It will hold him together and give him life for a while. Here." He reached into his pocket and flicked something into the glass. "That will help him. Gentlemen, do you know what it means? I had always thought! I knew Dr. Holcomb! Crossing over the border! It may not be done! The secret of life is impossible. Yet—"
Watson opened his eyes again; his spirit seemed suddenly to flicker into defiance.
"Who said it was impossible? Who said it? Gentlemen, it IS possible. Dr. Holcomb—pardon me. I do not wish to appear a sot; but this brandy is about the only thing to hold me together. I have only a few hours left."
He took the glass, and at one gulp downed the contents. I do not know what the doctor had dropped into it. Chick revived suddenly, and a strange light blazed up in his eyes, like life rekindled.
"Ah, now I am better. So?"
He turned to us all; then to the doctor.
"So you say the secret of life is impossible?"
Chick smiled wanly. "May I ask you: what it is that has just flared up within me? I am weak, anaemic, fallen to pieces; my muscles have lost the power to function, my blood runs cold, I have been more than two feet over the border. And yet—a few drinks of brandy, of stimulants, and you have drawn me back, my heart beats strongly, for an hour. By means of drugs you have infused a new life—which of course is the old—and driven the material components of my body into correlation. You are successful for a time; so long as nature is with you; but all the while you are held aghast by the knowledge that the least flaw, the least disarrangement, and you are beaten.
"It is your business to hold this life or what you may. When it has gone your structures, your anatomy, your wonderful human machine is worthless. Where has it come from? Where has it gone? I have drunk four glasses of brandy; I have a lease of four short hours. Ordinarily it would bring reaction; it is poison, to be sure; but it is driving back my spirit, giving me life and strength enough to tell my story—in the morning I shall be no more. By sequence I am a dead man already. Four glasses of brandy; they are speaking. Whence comes this affinity of substance and of shadow?"
We all of us listened, the doctor most of all. "Go on," he said.
"Can't you see?" repeated Watson. "There is affinity between substance and shadow; and therefore your spirit or shadow or what you will is concrete, is in itself a substance. It is material just as much as you are. Because you do not see it is no proof that it is not substance. That pot palm yonder does not see you; it is not blessed with eyes."
The doctor looked at Watson; he spoke gently.
"This is very old stuff, my boy, out of your abstract philosophy. No man knows the secret of life. Not even yourself."
The light in Watson's eyes grew brighter, he straightened; he began slipping the ring from his finger.
"No," he answered. "I don't. I have tried and it was like playing with lightning. I sought for life and it is giving me death. But there is one man living who has found it."
"And this man?"
"Is Dr. Holcomb!"
We all of us started. We had every one given the doctor up as dead. The very presence of Watson was tragedy. We did not doubt that he had been through some terrible experience. There are things in the world that may not be unriddled. Some power, some sinister thing was reaching for his vitality. What did he know about the professor? Dr. Holcomb had been a long time dead.
"Gentlemen. You must hear my story; I haven't long to tell it. However, before I start here is a proof for a beginning."
He tossed the ring upon the table.
It was Hobart who picked it up. A beautiful stone, like a sapphire; blue but uncut and of a strange pellucid transparency—a jewel undoubtedly; but of a kind we have never seen. We all of us examined it, and were all, I am afraid, a bit disappointed. It was a stone and nothing else.
Watson watched us. The waiter had brought more brandy, and Watson was sipping it, not because he liked it, he said, but just to keep himself at the proper lift.
"You don't understand it, eh? You see nothing? Hobart, have you a match? There, that's it; now give me the ring. See—" He struck the match and held the flame against the jewel. "Gentlemen, there is no need for me to speak. The stone will give you a volume. It's not trickery, I assure you, but fact. There, now, perfect. Doctor, you are the sceptic. Take a look at the stone."
The doctor picked it up casually and held it up before his eyes. At first he frowned; then came a look of incredulity; his chin dropped and he rose in his chair.
"My God," he exclaimed, "the man's living! It—he—"
But Hobart and I had crowded over. The doctor held the ring so we could see it. Inside the stone was Dr. Holcomb!
It was a strenuous moment, and the most incredible. We all of us knew the doctor. It was not a photograph, nor a likeness; but the man himself. It was beyond all reason that he could be in the jewel; indeed there was only the head visible; one could catch the expression of life, the movements of the eyelids. Yet how could it be? What was it? It was Hobart who spoke first.
"Chick," he asked, "what's the meaning? Were it not for my own eyes I would call it impossible. It's absurd on the face. The doctor! Yet I can see him—living. Where is he?"
"That's the whole question. Where is he? I know and yet I know nothing. You are now looking into the Blind Spot. The doctor sought the secret of life—and found it. He was trapped by his own wisdom!"
For a moment we were silent. The jewel reposed upon the table. What was the secret of its phenomena? I could think of nothing in science that would explain it. How had Watson come into its possession? What was the tale he had to tell? The lean, long finger that clutched for brandy! What force was this that had driven him to such a verge? He was resigned; though he was defiant he had already conceded his surrender. Dr. Hansen spoke.
"Watson," he asked, "what do you know about the Blind Spot?"
We all turned to Chick. Hobart ordered more brandy. The doctor's eyes went to slits. I could not but wonder.
"Chick," I asked, "who is Rhamda Avec?"
"You saw him a few minutes ago? You saw him with me? Let me ask you."
"Yes," I answered, "I saw him. Most people did. Is he invisible? Is he really the phantom they say?"
Somehow the mention of the name made him nervous; he looked cautiously about the room.
"That I don't know, Harry. It—If I can only get my wits together. Is he a phantom? Yes, I think so. I can't understand him. At least, he has the powers we attribute to an apparition. He is strange and unaccountable. Sometimes you see him, sometimes you don't. The first known of him was on the day Professor Holcomb was to deliver his lecture on the Blind Spot. He was tracked, you know, to the very act. Then came in the Nervina."
"And who is the Nervina?"
Watson looked at me blankly.
"The Nervina?" he asked, "The Nervina—what do you know about the Nervina?"
"Nothing. You mentioned her just now."
His mind seemed to ramble. He looked about the room rather fearfully. Perhaps he was afraid.
"Did I mention her? I don't know, Harry, my wits are muddled. The Nervina? She is a goddess. Never was and never will be woman. She loves; she never hates, and still again she does not love. She is beautiful; too beautiful for man. I've quit trying."