THE CRACK OF DOOM
ROBERT CROMIE Author of "A Plunge into Space," etc.
LONDON DIGBY, LONG & CO. 18 BOUVERIE STREET, FLEET STREET, E.C. 1895
The rough notes from which this narrative has been constructed were given to me by the man who tells the story. For obvious reasons I have altered the names of the principals, and I hereby pass on the assurance which I have received, that the originals of such as are left alive can be found if their discovery be thought desirable. This alteration of names, the piecing together of somewhat disconnected and sometimes nearly indecipherable memoranda, and the reduction of the mass to consecutive form, are all that has been required of me or would have been permitted to me. The expedition to Labrador mentioned by the narrator has not returned, nor has it ever been definitely traced. He does not undertake to prove that it ever set out. But he avers that all which is hereafter set down is truly told, and he leaves it to mankind to accept the warning which it has fallen to him to convey, or await the proof of its sincerity which he believes the end of the century will produce.
BELFAST, May, 1895.
I. THE UNIVERSE A MISTAKE! 1
II. A STRANGE EXPERIMENT 10
III. "IT IS GOOD TO BE ALIVE" 21
IV. GEORGE DELANY—DECEASED 32
V. THE MURDER CLUB 41
VI. A TELEPATHIC TELEGRAM 51
VII. GUILTY! 62
VIII. THE WOKING MYSTERY 72
IX. CUI BONO? 81
X. FORCE—A REMEDY 93
XI. MORITURI TE SALUTANT 104
XII. "NO DEATH—SAVE IN LIFE" 111
XIII. MISS METFORD'S PLAN 123
XIV. ROCKINGHAM TO THE SHARKS 133
XV. "IF NOT TOO LATE" 146
XVI. L5000 TO DETAIN THE SHIP 160
XVII. "THIS EARTH SHALL DIE" 174
XVIII. THE FLIGHT 184
XIX. THE CATASTROPHE 197
XX. CONCLUSION 208
THE CRACK OF DOOM
THE UNIVERSE A MISTAKE!
"The Universe is a mistake!"
Thus spake Herbert Brande, a passenger on the Majestic, making for Queenstown Harbour, one evening early in the past year. Foolish as the words may seem, they were partly influential in leading to my terrible association with him, and all that is described in this book.
Brande was standing beside me on the starboard side of the vessel. We had been discussing a current astronomical essay, as we watched the hazy blue line of the Irish coast rise on the horizon. This conversation was interrupted by Brande, who said, impatiently:
"Why tell us of stars distant so far from this insignificant little world of ours—so insignificant that even its own inhabitants speak disrespectfully of it—that it would take hundreds of years to telegraph to some of them, thousands to others, and millions to the rest? Why limit oneself to a mere million of years for a dramatic illustration, when there is a star in space distant so far from us that if a telegram left the earth for it this very night, and maintained for ever its initial velocity, it would never reach that star?"
He said this without any apparent effort after rhetorical effect; but the suddenness with which he had presented a very obvious truism in a fresh light to me made the conception of the vastness of space absolutely oppressive. In the hope of changing the subject I replied:
"Nothing is gained by dwelling on these scientific speculations. The mind is only bewildered. The Universe is inexplicable."
"The Universe!" he exclaimed. "That is easily explained. The Universe is a mistake!"
"The greatest mistake of the century, I suppose," I added, somewhat annoyed, for I thought Brande was laughing at me.
"Say, of Time, and I agree with you," he replied, careless of my astonishment.
I did not answer him for some moments.
This man Brande was young in years, but middle-aged in the expression of his pale, intellectual face, and old—if age be synonymous with knowledge—in his ideas. His knowledge, indeed, was so exhaustive that the scientific pleasantries to which he was prone could always be justified, dialectically at least, by him when he was contradicted. Those who knew him well did not argue with him. I was always stumbling into intellectual pitfalls, for I had only known him since the steamer left New York.
As to myself, there is little to be told. My history prior to my acquaintance with Brande was commonplace. I was merely an active, athletic Englishman, Arthur Marcel by name. I had studied medicine, and was a doctor in all but the degree. This certificate had been dispensed with owing to an unexpected legacy, on receipt of which I determined to devote it to the furtherance of my own amusement. In the pursuit of this object, I had visited many lands and had become familiar with most of the beaten tracks of travel. I was returning to England after an absence of three years spent in aimless roaming. My age was thirty-one years, and my salient characteristic at the time was to hold fast by anything that interested me, until my humour changed. Brande's conversational vagaries had amused me on the voyage. His extraordinary comment on the Universe decided me to cement our shipboard acquaintance before reaching port.
"That explanation of yours," I said, lighting a fresh cigar, and returning to a subject which I had so recently tried to shelve, "isn't it rather vague?"
"For the present it must serve," he answered absently.
To force him into admitting that his phrase was only a thoughtless exclamation, or induce him to defend it, I said:
"It does not serve any reasonable purpose. It adds nothing to knowledge. As it stands, it is neither academic nor practical."
Brande looked at me earnestly for a moment, and then said gravely:
"The academic value of the explanation will be shown to you if you will join a society I have founded; and its practicalness will soon be made plain whether you join or not."
"What do you call this club of yours?" I asked.
"We do not call it a club. We call it a Society—the Cui Bono Society," he answered coldly.
"I like the name," I returned. "It is suggestive. It may mean anything—or nothing."
"You will learn later that the Society means something; a good deal, in fact."
This was said in the dry, unemotional tone which I afterwards found was the only sign of displeasure Brande ever permitted himself to show. His arrangements for going on shore at Queenstown had been made early in the day, but he left me to look for his sister, of whom I had seen very little on the voyage. The weather had been rough, and as she was not a good sailor, I had only had a rare glimpse of a very dark and handsome girl, whose society possessed for me a strange attraction, although we were then almost strangers. Indeed, I regretted keenly, as the time of our separation approached, having registered my luggage (consisting largely of curios and mementoes of my travels, of which I was very careful) for Liverpool. My own time was valueless, and it would have been more agreeable to me to continue the journey with the Brandes, no matter where they went.
There was a choppy sea on when we reached the entrance to the harbour, so the Majestic steamed in between the Carlisle and Camden forts, and on to the man-of-war roads, where the tender met us. By this time, Brande and his sister were ready to go on shore; but as there was a heavy mail to be transhipped, we had still an hour at our disposal. For some time we paced the deck, exchanging commonplaces on the voyage and confidences as to our future plans. It was almost dark, but not dark enough to prevent us from seeing those wonderfully green hills which landlock the harbour. To me the verdant woods and hills were delightful after the brown plains and interminable prairies on which I had spent many months. As the lights of Queenstown began to speck the slowly gathering gloom, Miss Brande asked me to point out Rostellan Castle. It could not be seen from the vessel, but the familiar legend was easily recalled, and this led us to talk about Irish tradition with its weird romance and never failing pathos. This interested her. Freed now from the lassitude of sea-sickness, the girl became more fascinating to me every moment. Everything she said was worth listening to, apart from the charming manner in which it was said.
To declare that she was an extremely pretty girl would not convey the strange, almost unearthly, beauty of her face—as intellectual as her brother's—and of the charm of her slight but exquisitely moulded figure. In her dark eyes there was a sympathy, a compassion, that was new to me. It thrilled me with an emotion different from anything that my frankly happy, but hitherto wholly selfish life had known. There was only one note in her conversation which jarred upon me. She was apt to drift into the extraordinary views of life and death which were interesting when formulated by her eccentric brother, but pained me coming from her lips. In spite of this, the purpose I had contemplated of joining Brande's Society—evoked as it had been by his own whimsical observation—now took definite form. I would join that Society. It would be the best way of keeping near to Natalie Brande.
Her brother returned to us to say that the tender was about to leave the ship. He had left us for half an hour. I did not notice his absence until he himself announced it. As we shook hands, I said to him:
"I have been thinking about that Society of yours. I mean to join it."
"I am very glad," he replied. "You will find it a new sensation, quite outside the beaten track, which you know so well."
There was a shade of half-kindly contempt in his voice, which missed me at the moment. I answered gaily, knowing that he would not be offended by what was said in jest:
"I am sure I shall. If all the members are as mad as yourself, it will be the most interesting experience outside Bedlam that any man could wish for."
I had a foretaste of that interest soon.
As Miss Brande was walking to the gangway, a lamp shone full upon her gypsy face. The blue-black hair, the dark eyes, and a deep red rose she wore in her bonnet, seemed to me an exquisite arrangement of harmonious colour. And the thought flashed into my mind very vividly, however trivial it may seem here, when written down in cold words: "The queen of women, and the queen of flowers." That is not precisely how my thought ran, but I cannot describe it better. The finer subtleties of the brain do not bear well the daylight of language.
Brande drew her back and whispered to her. Then the sweet face, now slightly flushed, was turned to me again.
"Oh, thank you for that pretty thought," she said with a pleasant smile. "You are too flattering. The 'queen of flowers' is very true, but the 'queen of women!' Oh, no!" She made a graceful gesture of dissent, and passed down the gangway.
As the tender disappeared into the darkness, a tiny scrap of lace waved, and I knew vaguely that she was thinking of me. But how she read my thought so exactly I could not tell.
That knowledge it has been my fate to gain.
A STRANGE EXPERIMENT.
Soon after my arrival in London, I called on Brande, at the address he had given me in Brook Street. He received me with the pleasant affability which a man of the world easily assumes, and his apology for being unable to pass the evening with me in his own house was a model of social style. The difficulty in the way was practically an impossibility. His Society had a meeting on that evening, and it was imperative that he should be present.
"Why not come yourself?" he said. "It is what we might call a guest night. That is, visitors, if friends of members, are admitted, and as this privilege may not be again accorded to outsiders, you ought to come before you decide finally to join us. I must go now, but Natalie" (he did not say "Miss Brande") "will entertain you and bring you to the hall. It is very near—in Hanover Square."
"I shall be very glad indeed to bring Miss Brande to the hall," I answered, changing the sentence in order to correct Brande's too patronising phrase.
"The same thing in different words, is it not? If you prefer it that way, please have it so." His imperturbability was unaffected.
Miss Brande here entered the room. Her brother, with a word of renewed apology, left us, and presently I saw him cross the street and hail a passing hansom.
"You must not blame him for running off," Miss Brande said. "He has much to think of, and the Society depends almost wholly on himself."
I stammered out that I did not blame him at all, and indeed my disclaimer was absolutely true. Brande could not have pleased me better than he had done by relieving us of his company.
Miss Brande made tea, which I pretended to enjoy in the hope of pleasing her. Over this we talked more like old and well proven friends than mere acquaintances of ten days' standing. Just once or twice the mysterious chord which marred the girl's charming conversation was touched. She immediately changed the subject on observing my distress. I say distress, for a weaker word would not fittingly describe the emotion I felt whenever she blundered into the pseudo-scientific nonsense which was her brother's favourite affectation. At least, it seemed nonsense to me. I could not well foresee then that the theses which appeared to be mere theoretical absurdities, would ever be proven—as they have been—very terrible realities. On subjects of ordinary educational interest my hostess displayed such full knowledge of the question and ease in dealing with it, that I listened, fascinated, as long as she chose to continue speaking. It was a novel and delightful experience to hear a girl as handsome as a pictorial masterpiece, and dressed like a court beauty, discourse with the knowledge, and in the language, of the oldest philosopher. But this was only one of the many surprising combinations in her complex personality. My noviciate was still in its first stage.
The time to set out for the meeting arrived all too soon for my inclination. We decided to walk, the evening being fine and not too warm, and the distance only a ten minutes' stroll. At a street crossing, we met a crowd unusually large for that neighbourhood. Miss Brande again surprised me. She was watching the crowd seething and swarming past. Her dark eyes followed the people with a strange wondering, pitying look which I did not understand. Her face, exquisite in its expression at all times, was now absolutely transformed, beatified. Brande had often spoken to me of mesmerism, clairvoyance, and similar subjects, and it occurred to me that he had used his sister as a medium, a clairvoyante. Her brain was not, therefore, under normal control. I determined instantly to tell him on the first opportunity that if he did not wish to see the girl permanently injured, he would have to curtail his hypnotic influence.
"It is rather a stirring sight," I said so sharply to Miss Brande that she started. I meant to startle her, but did not succeed as far as I wished.
"It is a very terrible sight," she answered.
"Oh, there is no danger," I said hastily, and drew her hand over my arm.
"Danger! I was not thinking of danger."
As she did not remove her hand, I did not infringe the silence which followed this, until a break in the traffic allowed us to cross the street. Then I said:
"May I ask what you were thinking of just now, Miss Brande?"
"Of the people—their lives—their work—their misery!"
"I assure you many are very happy," I replied. "You take a morbid view. Misery is not the rule. I am sure the majority are happy."
"What difference does that make?" the girl said with a sigh. "What is the end of it all—the meaning of it all? Their happiness! Cui Bono?"
We walked on in silence, while I turned over in my mind what she had said. I could come to no conclusion upon it save that my dislike for her enigmatic aberrations was becoming more intense as my liking for the girl herself increased. To change the current of her thoughts and my own, I asked her abruptly:
"Are you a member of the Cui Bono Society?"
"I! Oh, no. Women are not allowed to join—for the present."
"I am delighted to hear it," I said heartily, "and I hope the rule will continue in force."
She looked at me in surprise. "Why should you mind? You are joining yourself."
"That is different. I don't approve of ladies mixing themselves up in these curious and perhaps questionable societies."
My remark amused her. Her eyes sparkled with simple fun. The change in her manner was very agreeable to me.
"I might have expected that." To my extreme satisfaction she now looked almost mischievous. "Herbert told me you were a little—"
"A little what?"
"Well, a little—you won't be vexed? That is right. He said a little—mediaeval."
This abated my appreciation of her sense of humour, and I maintained a dignified reticence, which unhappily she regarded as mere sullenness, until we reached the Society's room.
The place was well filled, and the company, in spite of the extravagantly modern costumes of the younger women, which I cannot describe better than by saying that there was little difference in it from that of ordinary male attire, was quite conventional in so far as the interchange of ordinary courtesies went. When, however, any member of the Society mingled with a group of visitors, the conversation was soon turned into a new channel. Secrets of science, which I had been accustomed to look upon as undiscoverable, were bandied about like the merest commonplaces of education. The absurdity of individuality and the subjectivity of the emotions were alike insisted on without notice of the paradox, which to me appeared extreme. The Associates were altruistic for the sake of altruism, not for the sake of its beneficiaries. They were not pantheists, for they saw neither universal good nor God, but rather evil in all things—themselves included. Their talk, however, was brilliant, and, with allowance for its jarring sentiments, it possessed something of the indefinable charm which followed Brande. My reflections on this identity of interest were interrupted by the man himself. After a word of welcome he said:
"Let me show you our great experiment; that which touches the high-water mark of scientific achievement in the history of humanity. It is not much in itself, but it is the pioneer of many marvels."
He brought me to a metal stand, on which a small instrument constructed of some white metal was placed. A large number of wires were connected with various portions of it, and these wires passed into the side-wall of the building.
In appearance, this marvel of micrology, so far as the eye-piece and upper portions went, was like an ordinary microscope, but its magnifying power was to me unbelievable. It magnified the object under examination many thousand times more than the most powerful microscope in the world.
I looked through the upper lens, and saw a small globe suspended in the middle of a tiny chamber filled with soft blue light, or transparent material. Circling round this globe four other spheres revolved in orbits, some almost circular, some elliptical, some parabolic. As I looked, Brande touched a key, and the little globules began to fly more rapidly round their primary, and make wider sweeps in their revolutions. Another key was pressed, and the revolving spheres slowed down and drew closer until I could scarcely distinguish any movement. The globules seemed to form a solid ball.
"Attend now!" Brande exclaimed.
He tapped the first key sharply. A little grey cloud obscured the blue light. When it cleared away, the revolving globes had disappeared.
"What do you think of it?" he asked carelessly.
"What is it? What does it mean? Is it the solar system or some other system illustrated in miniature? I am sorry for the misadventure."
"You are partly correct," Brande replied. "It is an illustration of a planetary system, though a small one. But there was no misadventure. I caused the somewhat dangerous result you witnessed, the wreckage not merely of the molecule of marsh gas you were examining—which any educated chemist might do as easily as I—but the wreckage of its constituent atoms. This is a scientific victory which dwarfs the work of Helmholtz, Avogadro, or Mendelejeff. The immortal Dalton himself" (the word "immortal" was spoken with a sneer) "might rise from his grave to witness it."
"Atoms—molecules! What are you talking about?" I asked, bewildered.
"You were looking on at the death of a molecule—a molecule of marsh gas, as I have already said. It was caused by a process which I would describe to you if I could reduce my own life work—and that of every scientific amateur who has preceded me since the world began—into half a dozen sentences. As that would be difficult, I must ask you to accept my personal assurance that you witnessed a fact, not a fiction of my imagination."
"And your instrument is so perfect that it not only renders molecules and atoms but their diffusion visible? It is a microscopic impossibility. At least it is amazing."
"Pshaw!" Brande exclaimed impatiently. "My instrument does certainly magnify to a marvellous extent, but not by the old device of the simple microscope, which merely focussed a large area of light rays into a small one. So crude a process could never show an atom to the human eye. I add much to that. I restore to the rays themselves the luminosity which they lost in their passage through our atmosphere. I give them back all their visual properties, and turn them with their full etheric blaze on the object under examination. Great as that achievement is, I deny that it is amazing. It may amaze a Papuan to see his eyelash magnified to the size of a wire, or an uneducated Englishman to see a cheese-mite magnified to the size of a midge. It should not amaze you to see a simple process a little further developed."
"Where does the danger you spoke of come in?" I asked with a pretence of interest. Candidly, I did not believe a single word that Brande had said.
"If you will consult a common text-book on the physics of the ether," he replied, "you will find that one grain of matter contains sufficient energy, if etherised, to raise a hundred thousand tons nearly two miles. In face of such potentiality it is not wise to wreck incautiously even the atoms of a molecule."
"And the limits to this description of scientific experiment? Where are they?"
"There are no limits," Brande said decisively. "No man can say to science 'thus far and no farther.' No man ever has been able to do so. No man ever shall!"
"IT IS GOOD TO BE ALIVE."
Amongst the letters lying on my breakfast-table a few days after the meeting was one addressed in an unfamiliar hand. The writing was bold, and formed like a man's. There was a faint trace of a perfume about the envelope which I remembered. I opened it first.
It was, as I expected, from Miss Brande. Her brother had gone to their country place on the southern coast. She and her friend, Edith Metford, were going that day. Their luggage was already at the station. Would I send on what I required for a short visit, and meet them at eleven o'clock on the bridge over the Serpentine? It was enough for me. I packed a large portmanteau hastily, sent it to Charing Cross, and spent the time at my disposal in the park, which was close to my hotel.
Although the invitation I had received gave me pleasure, I could not altogether remove from my mind a vague sense of disquietude concerning Herbert Brande and his Society. The advanced opinions I had heard, if extreme, were not altogether alarming. But the mysterious way in which Brande himself had spoken about the Society, and the still more mysterious air which some of the members assumed when directly questioned as to its object, suggested much. Might it not be a revolutionary party engaged in a grave intrigue—a branch of some foreign body whose purpose was so dangerous that ordinary disguises were not considered sufficiently secure? Might they not have adopted the jargon and pretended to the opinions of scientific faddists as a cloak for designs more sinister and sincere? The experiment I witnessed might be almost a miracle or merely a trick. Thinking it over thus, I could come to no final opinion, and when I asked myself aloud, "What are you afraid of?" I could not answer my own question. But I thought I would defer joining the Society pending further information.
A few minutes before eleven, I walked towards the bridge over the Serpentine. No ladies appeared to be on it. There were only a couple of smartly dressed youths there, one smoking a cigarette. I sauntered about until one of the lads, the one who was not smoking, looked up and beckoned to me. I approached leisurely, for it struck me that the boy would have shown better breeding if he had come toward me, considering my seniority.
"I am sorry I did not notice you sooner. Why did you not come on when you saw us?" the smallest and slimmest youth called to me.
"In the name of—Miss—Miss—" I stammered.
"Brande; you haven't forgotten my name, I hope," Natalie Brande said coolly. "This is my friend, Edith Metford. Metford, this is Arthur Marcel."
"How do you do, Marcel? I am glad to meet you; I have heard 'favourable mention' of you from the Brandes," the second figure in knickerbockers said pleasantly.
"How do you do, sir—madam—I mean—Miss—" I blundered, and then in despair I asked Miss Brande, "Is this a tableau vivant? What is the meaning of these disguises?" My embarrassment was so great that my discourteous question may be pardoned.
"Our dress! Surely you have seen women rationally dressed before!" Miss Brande answered complacently, while the other girl watched my astonishment with evident amusement.
This second girl, Edith Metford, was a frank, handsome young woman, but unlike the spirituelle beauty of Natalie Brande. She was perceptibly taller than her friend, and of fuller figure. In consequence, she looked, in my opinion, to even less advantage in her eccentric costume, or rational dress, than did Miss Brande.
"Rationally dressed! Oh, yes. I know the divided skirt, but—"
Miss Metford interrupted me. "Do you call the divided skirt atrocity rational dress?" she asked pointedly.
"Upon my honour I do not," I answered.
These girls were too advanced in their ideas of dress for me. Nor did I feel at all at my ease during this conversation, which did not, however, appear to embarrass them. I proposed hastily to get a cab, but they demurred. It was such a lovely day, they preferred to walk, part of the way at least. I pointed out that there might be drawbacks to this amendment of my proposal.
"What drawbacks?" Miss Metford asked.
"For instance, isn't it probable we shall all be arrested by the police?" I replied.
"Rubbish! We are not in Russia," both exclaimed.
"Which is lucky for you," I reflected, as we commenced what was to me a most disagreeable walk. I got them into a cab sooner than they wished. At the railway station I did not offer to procure their tickets. To do so, I felt, would only give offence. Critical glances followed us as we went to our carriage. Londoners are becoming accustomed to varieties, if not vagaries, in ladies' costumes, but the dress of my friends was evidently a little out of the common even for them. Miss Metford was just turning the handle of a carriage door, when I interposed, saying, "This is a smoking compartment."
"So I see. I am going to smoke—if you don't object?"
"I don't suppose it would make any difference if I did," I said, with unconscious asperity, for indeed this excess of free manners was jarring upon me. The line dividing it from vulgarity was becoming so thin I was losing sight of the divisor. Yet no one, even the most fastidious, could associate vulgarity with Natalie Brande. There remained an air of unassumed sincerity about herself and all her actions, including even her dress, which absolutely excluded her from hostile criticism. I could not, however, extend that lenient judgment to Miss Metford. The girls spoke and acted—as they had dressed themselves—very much alike. Only, what seemed to me in the one a natural eccentricity, seemed in the other an unnatural affectation.
I saw the guard passing, and, calling him over, gave him half-a-crown to have the compartment labelled, "Engaged."
Miss Brande, who had been looking out of the window, absently asked my reason for this precaution. I replied that I wanted the compartment reserved for ourselves. I certainly did not want any staring and otherwise offensive fellow-passengers.
"We don't want all the seats," she persisted.
"No," I admitted. "We don't want the extra seats. But I thought you might like the privacy."
"The desire for privacy is an archaic emotion," Miss Metford remarked sententiously, as she struck a match.
"Besides, it is so selfish. We may be crowding others," Miss Brande said quietly.
I was glad she did not smoke.
"I don't want that now," I said to a porter who was hurrying up with a label. To the girls I remarked a little snappishly, "Of course you are quite right. You must excuse my ignorance."
"No, it is not ignorance," Miss Brande demurred. "You have been away so much. You have hardly been in England, you told me, for years, and—"
"And progress has been marching in my absence," I interrupted.
"So it seems," Miss Metford remarked so significantly that I really could not help retorting with as much emphasis, compatible with politeness, as I could command:
"You see I am therefore unable to appreciate the New Woman, of whom I have heard so much since I came home."
"The conventional New Woman is a grandmotherly old fossil," Miss Metford said quietly.
This disposed of me. I leant back in my seat, and was rigidly silent.
Miles of green fields stippled with daisies and bordered with long lines of white and red hawthorn hedges flew past. The smell of new-mown hay filled the carriage with its sweet perfume, redolent of old associations. My long absence dwindled to a short holiday. The world's wide highways were far off. I was back in the English fields. My slight annoyance passed away. I fell into a pleasant day-dream, which was broken by a soft voice, every undulation of which I already knew by heart.
"I am afraid you think us very advanced," it murmured.
"Very," I agreed, "but I look to you to bring even me up to date."
"Oh, yes, we mean to do that, but we must proceed very gradually."
"You have made an excellent start," I put in.
"Otherwise you would only be shocked."
"It is quite possible." I said this with so much conviction that the two burst out laughing at me. I could not think of anything more to add, and I felt relieved when, with a warning shriek, the train dashed into a tunnel. By the time we had emerged again into the sunlight and the solitude of the open landscape I had ready an impromptu which I had been working at in the darkness. I looked straight at Miss Metford and said:
"After all, it is very pleasant to travel with girls like you."
"You did not show any hysterical fear of my kissing you in the tunnel."
"Why the deuce would you do that?" Miss Metford replied with great composure, as she blew a smoke ring.
When we reached our destination I braced myself for another disagreeable minute or two. For if the great Londoners thought us quaint, surely the little country station idlers would swear we were demented. We crossed the platform so quickly that the wonderment we created soon passed. Our luggage was looked after by a servant, to whose care I confided it with a very brief description. The loss of an item of it did not seem to me of as much importance as our own immediate departure.
Brande met us at his hall door. His house was a pleasant one, covered with flowering creeping plants, and surrounded by miniature forests. In front there was a lake four hundred yards in width. Close-shaven lawns bordered it. They were artificial products, no doubt, but they were artificial successes—undulating, earth-scented, fresh rolled every morning. Here there was an isolated shrub, there a thick bank of rhododendrons. And the buds, bursting into floral carnival, promised fine contrasts when their full splendour was come. The lake wavelets tinkled musically on a pebbly beach.
Our host could not entertain us in person. He was busy. The plea was evidently sincere, notwithstanding that the business of a country gentleman—which he now seemed to be—is something less exacting than busy people's leisure. After a short rest, and an admirably-served lunch, we were dismissed to the woods for our better amusement.
Thereafter followed for me a strangely peaceful, idyllic day—all save its ending. Looking back on it, I know that the sun which set that evening went down on the last of my happiness. But it all seems trivial now.
My companions were accomplished botanists, and here, for the first time, I found myself on common ground with both. We discussed every familiar wild flower as eagerly as if we had been professed field naturalists. In walking or climbing my assistance was neither requisitioned nor required. I did not offer, therefore, what must have been unwelcome when it was superfluous.
We rested at last under the shade of a big beech, for the afternoon sun was rather oppressive. It was a pleasant spot to while away an hour. A purling brook went babbling by, singing to itself as it journeyed to the sea. Insects droned about in busy flight. There was a perfume of honeysuckle wafted to us on the summer wind, which stirred the beech-tree and rustled its young leaves lazily, so that the sunlight peeped through the green lattice-work and shone on the faces of these two handsome girls, stretched in graceful postures on the cool sward below—their white teeth sparkling in its brilliance, while their soft laughter made music for me. In the fulness of my heart, I said aloud:
"It is a good thing to be alive."
"It is a good thing to be alive," Natalie Brande repeated slowly, gazing, as it were, far off through her half-closed eyelids. Then turning to me and looking at me full, wide-eyed, she asked: "A good thing for how many?"
"For all; for everything that is alive."
"Faugh! For few things that are alive. For hardly anything. You say it is a good thing to be alive. How often have you said that in your life?"
"All my life through," I answered stoutly. My constitution was a good one, and I had lived healthily, if hardily. I voiced the superfluous vitality of a well nourished body.
"Then you do not know what it is to feel for others."
There was a scream in the underwood near us. It ended in a short, choking squeak. The girl paled, but she went on with outward calm.
"That hawk or cat feels as you do. I wonder what that young rabbit thinks of life's problem?"
"But we are neither hawks nor cats, nor even young rabbits," I answered warmly. "We can not bear the burthens of the whole animal world. Our own are sufficient for us."
"You are right. They are more than sufficient."
I had made a false move, and so tried to recover my lost ground. She would not permit me. The conversation which had run in pleasant channels for two happy hours was ended. Thenceforth, in spite of my obstructive efforts, subjects were introduced which could not be conversed on but must be discussed. On every one Miss Brande took the part of the weak against the strong, oblivious of every consideration of policy and even ethics, careful only that she championed the weak because of their weakness. Miss Metford abetted her in this, and went further in their joint revolt against common sense. Miss Brande was argumentative, pleading. Miss Metford was defiant. Between the two I fared ill.
Of course the Woman question was soon introduced, and in this I made the best defence of time-honoured customs of which I was capable. But my outworks fell down as promptly before the voices of these young women as did the walls of Jericho before the blast of a ram's horn. Nothing that I had cherished was left to me. Woman no longer wanted man's protection. ("Enslavement" they called it.) Why should she, when in the evolution of society there was not now, or presently would not be, anything from which to protect her? ("Competing slaveowners" was what they said.) When you wish to behold protectors you must postulate dangers. The first are valueless save as a preventive of the second. Both evils will be conveniently dispensed with. All this was new to me, most of my thinking life having been passed in distant lands, where the science of ethics is codified into a simple statute—the will of the strongest.
When my dialectical humiliation was within one point of completion, Miss Metford came to my rescue. For some time she had looked on at my discomfiture with a good-natured neutrality, and when I was metaphorically in my last ditch, she arose, stretched her shapely figure, flicked some clinging grass blades from her suit, and declared it was time to return. Brande was a man of science, but as such he was still amenable to punctuality in the matter of dinner.
On the way back I was discreetly silent. When we reached the house I went to look for Herbert Brande. He was engaged in his study, and I could not intrude upon him there. To do so would be to infringe the only rigid rule in his household. Nor had I an opportunity of speaking to him alone until after dinner, when I induced him to take a turn with me round the lake. I smoked strong cigars, and made one of these my excuse.
The sun was setting when we started, and as we walked slowly the twilight shadows were deepening fast by the time we reached the further shore. Brande was in high spirits. Some new scientific experiment, I assumed, had come off successfully. He was beside himself. His conversation was volcanic. Now it rumbled and roared with suppressed fires. Anon, it burst forth in scintillating flashes and shot out streams of quickening wit. I have been his auditor in the three great epochs of his life, but I do not think that anything that I have recollected of his utterances equals the bold impromptus, the masterly handling of his favourite subject, the Universe, which fell from him on that evening. I could not answer him. I could not even follow him, much less suppress him. But I had come forth with a specific object in view, and I would not be gainsaid. And so, as my business had to be done better that it should be done quickly. Taking advantage of a pause which he made, literally for breath, I commenced abruptly:
"I want to speak to you about your sister."
He turned on me surprised. Then his look changed to one of such complete contempt, and withal his bearing suggested so plainly that he knew beforehand what I was going to say, that I blurted out defiantly, and without stopping to choose my words:
"I think it an infernal shame that you, her brother, should allow her to masquerade about with this good-natured but eccentric Metford girl—I should say Miss Metford."
"Why so?" he asked coldly.
"Because it is absurd; and because it isn't decent."
"My dear Abraham," Brande said quietly, "or is your period so recent as that of Isaac or Jacob? My sister pleases herself in these matters, and has every right to do so."
"She has not. You are her brother."
"Very well, I am her brother. She has no right to think for herself; no right to live save by my permission. Then I graciously permit her to think, and I allow her to live."
"You'll be sorry for this nonsense sooner or later—and don't say I didn't warn you." The absolute futility of my last clause struck me painfully at the moment, but I could not think of any way to better it. It was hard to reason with such a man, one who denied the fundamental principles of family life. I was thinking over what to say next, when Brande stopped and put his hand, in a kindly way, upon my shoulder.
"My good fellow," he said, "what does it matter? What do the actions of my sister signify more than the actions of any other man's sister? And what about the Society? Have you made up your mind about joining?"
"I have. I made it up twice to-day," I answered. "I made it up in the morning that I would see yourself and your Society to the devil before I would join it. Excuse my bluntness; but you are so extremely candid yourself you will not mind."
"Certainly, I do not mind bluntness. Rudeness is superfluous."
"And I made it up this evening," I said, a little less aggressively, "that I would join it if the devil himself were already in it, as I half suspect he is."
"I like that," Brande said gravely. "That is the spirit I want in the man who joins me."
To which I replied: "What under the sun is the object of this Society of yours?"
"Proximately to complete our investigations—already far advanced—into the origin of the Universe."
"I cannot tell you now. You will not know that until you join us."
"And if your ultimate object does not suit me, I can withdraw?"
"No, it would then be too late."
"How so? I am not morally bound by an oath which I swear without full knowledge of its consequences and responsibilities."
"Oath! The oath you swear! You swear no oath. Do you fancy you are joining a society of Rechabites or Carmelites, or mediaeval rubbish of that kind. Don't keep so painstakingly behind the age."
I thought for a moment over what this mysterious man had said, over the hidden dangers in which his mad chimeras might involve the most innocent accomplice. Then I thought of that dark-eyed, sweet-voiced, young girl, as she lay on the green grass under the beech-tree in the wood and out-argued me on every point. Very suddenly, and, perhaps, in a manner somewhat grandiose, I answered him:
"I will join your Society for my own purpose, and I will quit it when I choose."
"You have every right," Brande said carelessly. "Many have done the same before you."
"Can you introduce me to any one who has done so?" I asked, with an eagerness that could not be dissembled.
"I am afraid I can not."
"Or give me an address?"
"Oh yes, that is simple." He turned over a note-book until he found a blank page. Then he drew the pencil from its loop, put the point to his lips, and paused. He was standing with his back to the failing light, so I could not see the expression of his mobile face. When he paused, I knew that no ordinary doubt beset him. He stood thus for nearly a minute. While he waited, I watched a pair of swans flit ghost-like over the silken surface of the lake. Between us and a dark bank of wood the lights of the house flamed red. The melancholy even-song of a blackbird wailed out from a shrubbery beside us. Then Herbert Brande wrote in his note-book, and tearing out the page, he handed it to me, saying: "That is the address of the last man who quitted us."
The light was now so dim I had to hold the paper close to my eyes in order to read the lines. They were these—
GEORGE DELANY, Near Saint Anne's Chapel, Woking Cemetery.
THE MURDER CLUB.
"Delany was the last man who quitted us—you see I use your expression again. I like it," Brande said quietly, watching me as he spoke.
I stood staring at the slip of paper which I held in my hand for some moments before I could reply. When my voice came back, I asked hoarsely:
"Did this man, Delany, die suddenly after quitting the Society?"
"He died immediately. The second event was contemporaneous with the first."
"And in consequence of it?"
"Have all the members who retired from your list been equally short-lived?"
"Without any exception whatever."
"Then your Society, after all your high-flown talk about it, is only a vulgar murder club," I said bitterly.
"Wrong in fact, and impertinent in its expression. It is not a murder club, and—well, you are the first to discover its vulgarity."
"I call things by their plain names. You may call your Society what you please. As to my joining it in face of what you have told me—"
"Which is more than was ever told to any man before he joined—to any man living or dead. And more, you need not join it yet unless you still wish to do so. I presume what I have said will prevent you."
"On the contrary, if I had any doubt, or if there was any possibility of my wavering before this interview, there is none now. I join at once."
He would have taken my hand, but that I could not permit. I left him without another word, or any form of salute, and returned to the house. I did not appear again in the domestic circle that evening, for I had enough upon my mind without further burdening myself with social pretences.
I sat in my room and tried once more to consider my position. It was this: for the sake of a girl whom I had only met some score of times; who sometimes acted, talked, dressed after a fashion suggestive of insanity; who had glorious dark eyes, a perfect figure, and an exquisitely beautiful face—but I interrupt myself. For the sake of this girl, and for the manifestly impossible purpose of protecting her from herself as well as others, I had surrendered myself to the probable vengeance of a band of cut-throats if I betrayed them, and to the certain vengeance of the law if I did not. Brande, notwithstanding his constant scepticism, was scrupulously truthful. His statement of fact must be relied upon. His opinions were another matter. As nothing practical resulted from my reflections, I came to the conclusion that I had got into a pretty mess for the sake of a handsome face. I regretted this result, but was glad of the cause of it. On this I went to bed.
Next morning I was early astir, for I must see Natalie Brande without delay, and I felt sure she would be no sluggard on that splendid summer day. I tried the lawn between the house and the lake shore. I did not find her there. I found her friend Miss Metford. The girl was sauntering about, swinging a walking-cane carelessly. She was still rationally dressed, but I observed with relief that the rational part of her costume was more in the nature of the divided skirt than the plain knickerbockers of the previous day. She accosted me cheerfully by my surname, and not to be outdone by her, I said coolly:
"How d'ye do, Metford?"
"Very well, thanks. I suppose you expected Natalie? You see you have only me."
"Delighted," I was commencing with a forced smile, when she stopped me.
"You look it. But that can't be helped. Natalie saw you going out, and sent me to meet you. I am to look after you for an hour or so. You join the Society this evening, I hear. You must be very pleased—and flattered."
I could not assent to this, and so remained silent. The girl chattered on in her own outspoken manner, which, now that I was growing accustomed to it, I did not find as unpleasant as at first. One thing was evident to me. She had no idea of the villainous nature of Brande's Society. She could not have spoken so carelessly if she shared my knowledge of it. While she talked to me, I wondered if it was fair to her—a likeable girl, in spite of her undesirable affectations of advanced opinion, emancipation or whatever she called it—was it fair to allow her to associate with a band of murderers, and not so much as whisper a word of warning? No doubt, I myself was associating with the band; but I was not in ignorance of the responsibility thereby incurred.
"Miss Metford," I said, without heeding whether I interrupted her, "are you in the secret of this Society?"
"I? Not at present. I shall be later on."
I stopped and faced her with so serious an expression that she listened to me attentively.
"If you will take my earnest advice—and I beg you not to neglect it—you will have nothing to do with it or any one belonging to it."
"Not even Brande—I mean Natalie? Is she dangerous?"
I disregarded her mischief and continued: "If you can get Miss Brande away from her brother and his acquaintances," (I had nearly said accomplices,) "and keep her away, you would be doing the best and kindest thing you ever did in your life."
Miss Metford was evidently impressed by my seriousness, but, as she herself said very truly, it was unlikely that she would be able to interfere in the way I suggested. Besides, my mysterious warning was altogether too vague to be of any use as a guide for her own action, much less that of her friend. I dared not speak plainer. I could only repeat, in the most emphatic words, my anxiety that she would think carefully over what I had said. I then pretended to recollect an engagement with Brande, for I was in such low spirits I had really little taste for any company.
She was disappointed, and said so in her usual straightforward way. It was not in the power of any gloomy prophecy to oppress her long. The serious look which my words had brought on her face passed quickly, and it was in her natural manner that she bade me good-morning, saying:
"It is rather a bore, for I looked forward to a pleasant hour or two taking you about."
I postponed my breakfast for want of appetite, and, as Brande's house was the best example of Liberty Hall I had ever met with, I offered no apology for my absence during the entire day when I rejoined my host and hostess in the evening. The interval I spent in the woods, thinking much and deciding nothing.
After dinner, Brande introduced me to a man whom he called Edward Grey. Natalie conducted me to the room in which they were engaged. From the mass of correspondence in which this man Grey was absorbed, and the litter of papers about him, it was evident that he must have been in the house long before I made his acquaintance.
Grey handed me a book, which I found to be a register of the names of the members of Brande's Society, and pointed out the place for my signature.
When I had written my name on the list I said to Brande: "Now that I have nominated myself, I suppose you'll second me?"
"It is not necessary," he answered; "you are already a member. Your remark to Miss Metford this morning made you one of us. You advised her, you recollect, to beware of us."
"That girl!" I exclaimed, horrified. "Then she is one of your spies? Is it possible?"
"No, she is not one of our spies. We have none, and she knew nothing of the purpose for which she was used."
"Then I beg to say that you have made a d—d shameful use of her."
In the passion of the moment I forgot my manners to my host, and formed the resolution to denounce the Society to the police the moment I returned to London. Brande was not offended by my violence. There was not a trace of anger in his voice as he said:
"Miss Metford's information was telepathically conveyed to my sister."
"Then it was your sister—"
"My sister knows as little as the other. In turn, I received the information telepathically from her, without the knowledge of either. I was just telling Grey of it when you came into the room."
"And," said Grey, "your intention to go straight from this house to Scotland Yard, there to denounce us to the police, has been telepathically received by myself."
"My God!" I cried, "has a man no longer the right to his own thoughts?"
Grey went on without noticing my exclamation: "Any overt or covert action on your part, toward carrying out your intention, will be telepathically conveyed to us, and our executive—" He shrugged his shoulders.
"I know," I said, "Woking Cemetery, near Saint Anne's Chapel. You have ground there."
"Yes, we have to dispense with—"
"Dispense with," Grey repeated sharply, "any member whose loyalty is questionable. This is not our wish; it is our necessity. It is the only means by which we can secure the absolute immunity of the Society pending the achievement of its object. To dispense with any living man we have only to will that he shall die."
"And now that I am a member, may I ask what is this object, the secret of which you guard with such fiendish zeal?" I demanded angrily.
"The restoration of a local etheric tumour to its original formation."
"I am already weary of this jargon from Brande," I interrupted. "What do you mean?"
"We mean to attempt the reduction of the solar system to its elemental ether."
"And you will accomplish this triviality by means of Huxley's comet, I suppose?"
I could scarcely control my indignation. This fooling, as I thought it, struck me as insulting. Neither Brande nor Grey appeared to notice my keen resentment. Grey answered me in a quiet, serious tone.
"We shall attempt it by destroying the earth. We may fail in the complete achievement of our design, but in any case we shall at least be certain of reducing this planet to the ether of which it is composed."
"Of course, of course," I agreed derisively. "You will at least make sure of that. You have found out how to do it too, I have no doubt?"
"Yes," said Grey, "we have found out."
A TELEPATHIC TELEGRAM.
I left the room and hurried outside without any positive plan for my movements. My brain was in such a whirl I could form no connected train of thought. These men, whose conversation was a jargon fitting only for lunatics, had proved that they could read my mind with the ease of a telegraph operator taking a message off a wire. That they, further, possessed marvellous, if not miraculous powers, over occult natural forces could hardly be doubted. The net in which I had voluntarily entangled myself was closing around me. An irresistible impulse to fly—to desert Natalie and save myself—came over me. I put this aside presently. It was both unworthy and unwise. For whither should I fly? The ends of the earth would not be far enough to save me, the depths of the sea would not be deep enough to hide me from those who killed by willing that their victim should die.
On the other hand, if my senses had only been hocussed, and Messrs. Brande and Grey were nothing better than clever tricksters, the park gate was far enough, and the nearest policeman force enough, to save me from their vengeance. But the girl—Natalie! She was clairvoyante. They practised upon her. My diagnosis of the strange seeing-without-sight expression of her eyes was then correct. And it was clear to me that whatsoever or whomsoever Brande and Grey believed or disbelieved in, they certainly believed in themselves. They might be relied on to spare nothing and no one in their project, however ridiculous or mad their purpose might be. What then availed my paltry protection when the girl herself was a willing victim, and the men omnipotent? Nevertheless, if I failed eventually to serve her, I could at least do my best.
It was clear that I must stand by Natalie Brande.
While I was thus reflecting, the following conversation took place between Brande and Grey. I found a note of it in a diary which Brande kept desultorily. He wrote this up so irregularly no continuous information can be gleaned from it as to his life. How the diary came into my hands will be seen later. The memorandum is written thus:—
Grey—Our new member? Why did you introduce him? You say he cannot help with money. It is plain he cannot help with brains.
Brande—He interests Natalie. He is what the uneducated call good-natured. He enjoys doing unselfish things, unaware that it is for the selfish sake of the agreeable sensation thereby secured. Besides, I like him myself. He amuses me. To make him a member was the only safe way of keeping him so much about us. But Natalie is the main reason. I am afraid of her wavering in spite of my hypnotic influence. In a girl of her intensely emotional nature the sentiment of hopeless love will create profound melancholy. Dominated by that she is safe. It seems cruel at first sight. It is not really so. It is not cruel to reconcile her to a fate she cannot escape. It is merciful. For the rest, what does it matter? It will be all the same in—
Grey—This day six months.
Brande—I believe I shivered. Heredity has much to answer for.
That is the whole of the entry. I did not read the words until the hand that wrote them was dust.
Natalie professed some disappointment when I announced my immediate return to town. I was obliged to manufacture an excuse for such a hasty departure, and so fell back on an old engagement which I had truly overlooked, and which really called me away. But it would have called long enough without an answer if it had not been for Brande himself, his friend Grey, and their insanities. My mind was fixed on one salient issue: how to get Natalie Brande out of her brother's evil influence. This would be better compassed when I myself was outside the scope of his extraordinary influence. And so I went without delay.
For some time after my return to London, I went about visiting old haunts and friends. I soon tired of this. The haunts had lost their interest. The friends were changed, or I was changed. I could not resume the friendships which had been interrupted. The chain of connection had been broken and the links would not weld easily. So, after some futile efforts to return to the circle I had long deserted, I desisted and accepted my exclusion with serenity. I am not sure that I desired the old relationships re-established. And as my long absence had prevented any fresh shoots of friendship being grafted, I found myself alone in London. I need say no more.
One evening I was walking through the streets in a despondent mood, as had become my habit. By chance I read the name of a street into which I had turned to avoid a more crowded thoroughfare. It was that in which Miss Metford lived. I knew that she had returned to town, for she had briefly acquainted me with the fact on a postcard written some days previously.
Here was a chance of distraction. This girl's spontaneous gaiety, which I found at first displeasing, was what I wanted to help me to shake off the gloomy incubus of thought oppressing me. It was hardly within the proprieties to call upon her at such an hour, but it could not matter very much, when the girl's own ideas were so unconventional. She had independent means, and lived apart from her family in order to be rid of domestic limitations. She had told me that she carried a latch-key—indeed she had shown it to me with a flourish of triumph—and that she delighted in free manners. Free manners, she was careful to add, did not mean bad manners. To my mind the terms were synonymous. When opposite her number I decided to call, and, having knocked at the door, was told that Miss Metford was at home.
"Hallo, Marcel! Glad to see you," she called out, somewhat stridently for my taste. Her dress was rather mannish, as usual. In lieu of her out-door tunic she wore a smoking-jacket. When I entered she was sitting in an arm-chair, with her feet on a music-stool. She arose so hastily that the music-stool was overturned, and allowed to lie where it fell.
"What is the matter?" she asked, concerned. "Have you seen a ghost?"
"I think I have seen many ghosts of late," I said, "and they have not been good company. I was passing your door, and I have come in for comfort."
She crossed the room and poured out some whisky from a decanter which was standing on a side-board. Then she opened a bottle of soda-water with a facility which suggested practice. I was relieved to think that it was not Natalie who was my hostess. Handing me the glass, she said peremptorily:
"Drink that. That is right. Give me the glass. Now smoke. Do I allow smoking here? Pah! I smoke here myself."
I lit a cigar and sat down beside her. The clouds began to lift from my brain and float off in the blue smoke wreaths. We talked on ordinary topics without my once noticing how deftly they had been introduced by Miss Metford. I never thought of the flight of time until a chime from a tiny clock on the mantelpiece—an exquisite sample of the tasteful furniture of the whole room—warned me that my visit had lasted two hours. I arose reluctantly.
She rallied me on my ingratitude. I had come in a sorry plight. I was now restored. She was no longer useful, therefore I left her. And so on, till I said with a solemnity no doubt lugubrious:
"I am most grateful, Miss Metford. I cannot tell you how grateful I am. You would not understand—"
"Oh, please leave my poor understanding alone, and tell me what has happened to you. I should like to hear it. And what is more, I like you." She said this so carelessly, I did not feel embarrassed. "Now, then, the whole story, please." Saying which, she sat down again.
"Do you really know nothing more of Brande's Society than you admitted when I last spoke to you about it?" I asked, without taking the chair she pushed over to me.
"This is all I know," she answered, in the rhyming voice of a young pupil declaiming a piece of a little understood and less cared for recitation. "The society has very interesting evenings. Brande shows one beautiful experiments, which, I daresay, would be amazingly instructive if one were inclined that way, which I am not. The men are mostly long-haired creatures with spectacles. Some of them are rather good-looking. All are wholly mad. And my friend—I mean the only girl I could ever stand as a friend—Natalie Brande, is crazy about them."
"Nothing more than that?"
The clock now struck the hour of nine, the warning chime for which had startled me.
"Is there anything more than that?" Miss Metford asked with some impatience.
I thought for a moment. Unless my own senses had deceived me that evening in Brande's house, I ran a great risk of sharing George Delany's fate if I remained where I was much longer. And suppose I told her all I knew, would not that bring the same danger upon her too? So I had to answer:
"I cannot tell you. I am a member now."
"Then you must know more than any mere outsider like myself. I suppose it would not be fair to ask you. Anyhow, you will come back and see me soon. By the way, what is your address?"
I gave her my address. She wrote it down on a silver-cased tablet, and remarked:
"That will be all right. I'll look you up some evening."
As I drove to my hotel, I felt that the mesmeric trick, or whatever artifice had been practised upon me by Brande and Grey, had now assumed its true proportion. I laughed at my fears, and was thankful that I had not described them to the strong-minded young woman to whose kindly society I owed so much. What an idiot she would have thought me!
A servant met me in the hall.
"Telegram, sir. Just arrived at this moment."
I took the telegram, and went upstairs with it unopened in my hand. A strange fear overcame me. I dared not open the envelope. I knew beforehand who the sender was, and what the drift of the message would be. I was right. It was from Brande.
"I beg you to be more cautious. Your discussion with Miss M. this evening might have been disastrous. I thought all was over at nine o'clock.
I sat down stupefied. When my senses returned, I looked at the table where I had thrown the telegram. It was not there, nor in the room. I rang for the man who had given it to me, and he came immediately.
"About that telegram you gave me just now, Phillips—"
"I beg your pardon, sir," the man interrupted, "I did not give you any telegram this evening."
"I mean when you spoke to me in the hall."
"Yes, sir. I said 'good-night,' but you took no notice. Excuse me, sir, I thought you looked strange."
"Oh, I was thinking of something else. And I remember now, it was Johnson who gave me the telegram."
"Johnson left yesterday, sir."
"Then it was yesterday I was thinking of. You may go, Phillips."
So Brande's telepathic power was objective as well as subjective. My own brain, unaccustomed to be impressed by another mind "otherwise than through the recognised channels of sense," had supplied the likeliest authority for its message. The message was duly delivered, but the telegram was a delusion.
As to protecting Natalie Brande from her brother and the fanatics with whom he associated, it was now plain that I was powerless. And what guarantee had I that she herself was unaware of his nefarious purpose; that she did not sympathise with it? This last thought flashed upon me one day, and the sting of pain that followed it was so intolerable, I determined instantly to prove its falsity or truth.
I telegraphed to Brande that I was running down to spend a day or two with him, and followed my message without waiting for a reply. I have still a very distinct recollection of that journey, notwithstanding much that might well have blotted it from my memory. Every mile sped over seemed to mark one more barrier passed on my way to some strange fate; every moment which brought me nearer this incomprehensible girl with her magical eyes was an epoch of impossibility against my ever voluntarily turning back. And now that it is all over, I am glad that I went on steadfastly to the end.
Brande received me with the easy affability of a man to whom good breeding had ceased to be a habit, and had become an instinct. Only once did anything pass between us bearing on the extraordinary relationship which he had established with me—the relation of victor and victim, I considered it. We had been left together for a few moments, and I said as soon as the others were out of hearing distance:
"I got your message."
"I know you did," he replied. That was all. There was an awkward pause. It must be broken somehow. Any way out of the difficulty was better than to continue in it.
"Have you seen this?" I asked, handing Brande a copy of a novel which I had picked up at a railway bookstall. When I say that it was new and popular, it will be understood that it was indecent.
He looked at the title, and said indifferently: "Yes, I have seen it, and in order to appreciate this class of fiction fairly, I have even tried to read it. Why do you ask?"
"Because I thought it would be in your line. It is very advanced." I said this to gain time.
"Advanced—advanced? I am afraid I do not comprehend. What do you mean by 'advanced'? And how could it be in my line. I presume you mean by that, on my plane of thought?"
"By 'advanced,' I mean up-to-date. What do you mean by it?"
"If I used the word at all, I should mean educated, evolved. Is this evolved? Is it even educated? It is not always grammatical. It has no style. In motive, it ante-dates Boccaccio."
"You disapprove of it."
"Then you approve it, notwithstanding your immediate condemnation?"
"By no means. I neither approve nor disapprove. It only represents a phase of humanity—the deliberate purpose of securing money or notoriety to the individual, regardless of the welfare of the community. There is nothing to admire in that. It would be invidious to blame it when the whole social scheme is equally wrong and contemptible. By the way, what interest do you think the wares of any literary pander, of either sex, could possess for me, a student—even if a mistaken one—of science?"
"I did not think the book would possess the slightest interest for you, and I suppose you are already aware of that?"
"Ah no! My telepathic power is reserved for more serious purposes. Its exercise costs me too much to expend it on trifles. In consequence I do not know why you mentioned the book."
To this I answered candidly, "I mentioned it in order to get myself out of a conversational difficulty—without much success."
Natalie was reserved with me at first. She devoted herself unnecessarily to a boy named Halley who was staying with them. Grey had gone to London. His place was taken by a Mr. Rockingham, whom I did not like. There was something sinister in his expression, and he rarely spoke save to say something cynical, and in consequence disagreeable. He had "seen life," that is, everything deleterious to and destructive of it. His connection with Brande was clearly a rebound, the rebound of disgust. There was nothing creditable to him in that. My first impression of him was thus unfavourable. My last recollection of him is a fitting item in the nightmare which contains it.
The youth Halley would have interested me under ordinary circumstances. His face was as handsome and refined as that of a pretty girl. His figure, too, was slight and his voice effeminate. But there my own advantage, as I deemed it, over him ceased. Intellectually, he was a pupil of Brande's who did his master credit. Having made this discovery I did not pursue it. My mind was fixed too fast upon a definite issue to be more than temporarily interested in the epigrams of a peachy-cheeked man of science.
The afternoon was well advanced before I had an opportunity of speaking to Natalie. When it came, I did not stop to puzzle over a choice of phrases.
"I wish to speak to you alone on a subject of extreme importance to me," I said hurriedly. "Will you come with me to the sea-shore? Your time, I know, is fully occupied. I would not ask this if my happiness did not depend upon it."
The philosopher looked on me with grave, kind eyes. But the woman's heart within her sent the red blood flaming to her cheeks. It was then given to me to fathom the lowest depth of boorish stupidity I had ever sounded.
"I don't mean that," I cried, "I would not dare—"
The blush on her cheek burnt deeper as she tossed her head proudly back, and said straight out, without any show of fence or shadow of concealment:
"It was my mistake. I am glad to know that I did you an injustice. You are my friend, are you not?"
"I believe I have the right to claim that title," I answered.
"Then what you ask is granted. Come." She put her hand boldly into mine. I grasped the slender fingers, saying:
"Yes, Natalie, some day I will prove to you that I am your friend."
"The proof is unnecessary," she replied, in a low sad voice.
We started for the sea. Not a word was spoken on the way. Nor did our eyes meet. We were in a strange position. It was this: the man who had vowed he was the woman's friend—who did not intend to shirk the proof of his promise, and never did gainsay it—meant to ask the woman, before the day was over, to clear herself of knowingly associating with a gang of scientific murderers. The woman had vaguely divined his purpose, and could not clear herself.
When we arrived at the shore we occupied ourselves inconsequently. We hunted little fishes until Natalie's dainty boots were dripping. We examined quaint denizens of the shallow water until her gloves were spoilt. We sprang from rock to rock and evaded the onrush of the foaming waves. We made aqueducts for inter-communication between deep pools. We basked in the sunshine, and listened to the deep moan of the sounding sea, and the solemn murmur of the shells. We drank in the deep breath of the ocean, and for a brief space we were like happy children.
The end came soon to this ephemeral happiness. It was only one of those bright coins snatched from the niggard hand of Time which must always be paid back with usurious charges. We paid with cruel interest.
Standing on a flat rock side by side, I nerved myself to ask this girl the same question I had asked her friend, Edith Metford, how much she knew of the extraordinary and preposterous Society—as I still tried to consider it—which Herbert Brande had founded. She looked so frank, so refined, so kind, I hardly dared to put my brutal question to an innocent girl, whom I had seen wince at the suffering of a maimed bird, and pale to the lips at the death-cry of a rabbit. This time there was no possibility of untoward consequence in the question save to myself—for surely the girl was safe from her own brother. And I myself preferred to risk the consequences rather than endure longer the thought that she belonged voluntarily to a vile murder club. Yet the question would not come. A simple thing brought it out. Natalie, after looking seaward silently for some minutes, said simply:
"How long are we to stand here, I wonder?"
"Until you answer this question. How much do you know about your brother's Society, which I have joined to my own intense regret?"
"I am sorry you regret having joined," she replied gravely.
"You would not be sorry," said I, "if you knew as much about it as I do," forgetting that I had still no answer to my question, and that the extent of her knowledge was unknown to me.
"I believe I do know as much as you." There was a tremor in her voice and an anxious pleading look in her eyes. This look maddened me. Why should she plead to me unless she was guilty? I stamped my foot upon the rock without noticing that in so doing I kicked our whole collection of shells into the water.
There was something more to ask, but I stood silent and sullen. The woods above the beach were choral with bird-voices. They were hateful to me. The sea song of the tumbling waves was hideous. I cursed the yellow sunset light glaring on their snowy crests. A tiny hand was laid upon my arm. I writhed under its deadly if delicious touch. But I could not put it away, nor keep from turning to the sweet face beside me, to mark once more its mute appeal—now more than mere appeal; it was supplication that was in her eyes. Her red lips were parted as though they voiced an unspoken prayer. At last a prayer did pass from them to me.
"Do not judge me until you know me better. Do not hate me without cause. I am not wicked, as you think. I—I—I am trying to do what I think is right. At least, I am not selfish or cruel. Trust me yet a little while."
I looked at her one moment, and then with a sob I clasped her in my arms, and cried aloud:
"My God! to name murder and that angel face in one breath! Child, you have been befooled. You know nothing."
For a second she lingered in my embrace. Then she gently put away my arms, and looking up at me, said fearlessly but sorrowfully:
"I cannot lie—even for your love. I know all."
THE WOKING MYSTERY.
She knew all. Then she was a murderess—or in sympathy with murderers. My arms fell from her. I drew back shuddering. I dared not look in her lying eyes, which cried pity when her base heart knew no mercy. Surely now I had solved the maddening puzzle which the character of this girl had, so far, presented to me. Yet the true solution was as far from me as ever. Indeed, I could not well have been further from it than at that moment.
As we walked back, Natalie made two or three unsuccessful attempts to lure me out of the silence which was certainly more eloquent on my part than any words I could have used. Once she commenced:
"It is hard to explain—"
I interrupted her harshly. "No explanation is possible."
On that she put her handkerchief to her eyes, and a half-suppressed sob shook her slight figure. Her grief distracted me. But what could I say to assuage it?
At the hall door I stopped and said, "Good-bye."
"Are you not coming in?"
There was a directness and emphasis in the question which did not escape me.
"I?" The horror in my own voice surprised myself, and assuredly did not pass without her notice.
"Very well; good-bye. We are not exactly slaves of convention here, but you are too far advanced in that direction even for me. This is your second startling departure from us. I trust you will spare me the humiliation entailed by the condescension of your further acquaintance."
"Give me an hour!" I exclaimed aghast. "You do not make allowance for the enigma in which everything is wrapped up. I said I was your friend when I thought you of good report. Give me an hour—only an hour—to say whether I will stand by my promise, now that you yourself have claimed that your report is not good but evil. For that is really what you have protested. Do I ask too much? or is your generosity more limited even than my own?"
"Ah, no! I would not have you think that. Take an hour, or a year—an hour only if you care for my happiness."
"Agreed," said I. "I will take the hour. Discretion can have the year."
So I left her. I could not go indoors. A roof would smother me. Give me the open lawns, the leafy woods, the breath of the summer wind. Away, then, to the silence of the coming night. For an hour leave me to my thoughts. Her unworthiness was now more than suspected. It was admitted. My misery was complete. But I would not part with her; I could not. Innocent or guilty, she was mine. I must suffer with her or for her. The resolution by which I have abided was formed as I wandered lonely through the woods.
When I reached my room that night I found a note from Brande. To receive a letter from a man in whose house I was a guest did not surprise me. I was past that stage. There was nothing mysterious in the letter, save its conclusion. It was simply an invitation to a public meeting of the Society, which was to be held on that day week in the hall in Hanover Square, and the special feature in the letter—seeing that it did not vanish like the telegram, but remained an ordinary sheet of paper—lay in its concluding sentence. This urged me to allow nothing to prevent my attendance. "You will perhaps understand thereafter that we are neither political plotters nor lunatics, as you have thought."
Thought! The man's mysterious power was becoming wearisome. It was too much for me. I wished that I had never seen his face.
As I lay sleepless in my bed, I recommenced that interminable introspection which, heretofore, had been so barren of result. It was easy to swear to myself that I would stand by Natalie Brande, that I would never desert her. But how should my action be directed in order that by its conduct I might prevail upon the girl herself to surrender her evil associates? I knew that she regarded me with affection. And I knew also that she would not leave her brother for my sake. Did she sympathise with his nefarious schemes, or was she decoyed into them like myself?
Decoyed! That was it!
I sprang from the bed, beside myself with delight. Now I had not merely a loophole of escape from all these miseries; I had a royal highway. Fool, idiot, blind mole that I was, not to perceive sooner that easy solution of the problem! No wonder that she was wounded by my unworthy doubts. And she had tried to explain, but I would not listen! I threw myself back and commenced to weave all manner of pleasant fancies round the salvation of this girl from her brother's baneful influence, and the annihilation of his Society, despite its occult powers, by mine own valour. The reaction was too great. Instead of constructing marvellous counterplots, I fell sound asleep.
Next day I found Natalie in a pleasant morning-room to which I was directed. She wore her most extreme—and, in consequence, most exasperating—rational costume. When I entered the room she pushed a chair towards me, in a way that suggested Miss Metford's worst manner, and lit a cigarette, for the express purpose, I felt, of annoying me.
"I have come," I said somewhat shamefacedly, "to explain."
"Yes, to apologise. I made a hideous mistake. I have suffered for it as much as you could wish."
"Wish you to suffer!" She flung away her cigarette. Her dark eyes opened wide in unassumed surprise. And that curious light of pity, which I had so often wondered at, came into them. "I am very sorry if you have suffered," she said, with convincing earnestness.
"How could I doubt you? Senseless fool that I was to suppose for one moment that you approved of what you could not choose but know—"
At this her face clouded.
"I am afraid you are still in error. What opinion have you formed which alters your estimate of me?"
"The only opinion possible: that you have unwillingly learned the secret of your brother's Society; but, like myself—you see no way to—to—"
"To what purpose?"
"To destroy it."
"I am not likely to attempt that."
"No, it would be impossible, and the effort would cost your life."
"That is not my reason." She arose and stood facing me. "I do not like to lose your esteem. You know already that I will not lie to retain it. I approve of the Society's purpose."
"And its actions?"
"They are inevitable. Therefore I approve also of its actions. I shall not ask you to remain now, for I see that you are again horrified; as is natural, considering your knowledge—or, pardon me for saying so, your want of knowledge. I shall be glad to see you after the lecture to which you are invited. You will know a little more then; not all, perhaps, but enough to shake your time-dishonoured theories of life—and death."
I bowed, and left the room without a word. It was true, then, that she was mad like the others, or worse than mad—a thousand times worse! I said farewell to Brande, as his guest, for the last time. Thenceforward I would meet him as his enemy—his secret enemy as far as I could preserve my secrecy with such a man; his open enemy when the proper time should come.
In the railway carriage I turned over some letters and papers which I found in my pockets, not with deliberate intention, but to while away the time. One scrap startled me. It was the sheet on which Brande had written the Woking address, and on reading it over once more, a thought occurred to me which I acted on as soon as possible. I could go to Woking and find out something about the man Delany. So long as my inquiries were kept within the limits of the strictest discretion, neither Brande nor any of his executive could blame me for seeking convincing evidence of the secret power they claimed.
On my arrival in London, I drove immediately to the London Necropolis Company's station and caught the funeral train which runs to Brookwood cemetery. With Saint Anne's Chapel as my base, I made short excursions hither and thither, and stood before a tombstone erected to the memory of George Delany, late of the Criminal Investigation Department, Scotland Yard. This was a clue which I could follow, so I hurried back to town and called on the superintendent of the department.
Yes, I was told, Delany had belonged to the department. He had been a very successful officer in ferreting out foreign Anarchists and evil-doers. His last movement was to join a Society of harmless cranks who met in Hanover Square. No importance was attached to this in the department. It could not have been done in the way of business, although Delany pretended that it was. He had dropped dead in the street as he was leaving his cab to enter the office with information which must have appeared to him important—to judge from the cabman's evidence as to his intense excitement and repeated directions for faster driving. There was an inquest and a post-mortem, but "death from natural causes" was the verdict. That was all. It was enough for me.
I had now sufficient evidence, and was finally convinced that the Society was as dangerous as it was demented.
When I arrived at the Society's rooms on the evening for which I had an invitation, I found them pleasantly lighted. The various scientific diagrams and instruments had been removed, and comfortable arm-chairs were arranged so that a free passage was available, not merely to each row, but to each chair. The place was full when I entered, and soon afterwards the door was closed and locked. Natalie Brande and Edith Metford were seated beside each other. An empty chair was on Miss Metford's right. She saw me standing at the door and nodded toward the empty seat which she had reserved for me. When I reached it she made a movement as if to forestall me and leave me the middle chair. I deprecated this by a look which was intentionally so severe that she described it later as a malignant scowl.
I could not at the moment seat myself voluntarily beside Natalie Brande with the exact and final knowledge which I had learnt at Scotland Yard only one week old. I could not do it just then, although I did not mean to draw back from what I had undertaken—to stand by her, innocent or guilty. But I must have time to become accustomed to the sensation which followed this knowledge. Miss Metford's fugitive attempts at conversation pending the commencement of the lecture were disagreeable to me.
There was a little stir on the platform. The chairman, in a few words, announced Herbert Brande. "This is the first public lecture," he said, "which has been given since the formation of the Society, and in consequence of the fact that a number of people not scientifically educated are present, the lecturer will avoid the more esoteric phases of his subject, which would otherwise present themselves in his treatment of it, and confine himself to the commonplaces of scientific insight. The title of the lecture is identical with that of our Society—Cui Bono?"
Brande came forward unostentatiously and placed a roll of paper on the reading-desk. I have copied the extracts which follow from this manuscript. The whole essay, indeed, remains with me intact, but it is too long—and it would be immaterial—to reproduce it all in this narrative. I cannot hope either to reproduce the weird impressiveness of the lecturer's personality, his hold over his audience, or my own emotions in listening to this man—whom I had proved, not only from his own confession, but by the strongest collateral evidence, to be a callous and relentless murderer—to hear him glide with sonorous voice and graceful gesture from point to point in his logical and terrible indictment of suffering!—the futility of it, both in itself and that by which it was administered! No one could know Brande without finding interest, if not pleasure, in his many chance expressions full of curious and mysterious thought. I had often listened to his extemporaneous brain pictures, as the reader knows, but I had never before heard him deliberately formulate a planned-out system of thought. And such a system! This is the gospel according to Brande.
"In the verbiage of primitive optimism a misleading limitation is placed on the significance of the word Nature and its inflections. And the misconception of the meaning of an important word is as certain to lead to an inaccurate concept as is the misstatement of a premise to precede a false conclusion. For instance, in the aphorism, variously rendered, 'what is natural is right,' there is an excellent illustration of the misapplication of the word 'natural.' If the saying means that what is natural is just and wise, it might as well run 'what is natural is wrong,' injustice and unwisdom being as natural, i.e., a part of Nature, as justice and wisdom. Morbidity and immorality are as natural as health and purity. Not more so, but not less so. That 'Nature is made better by no mean but Nature makes that mean,' is true enough. It is inevitably true. The question remains, in making that mean, has she really made anything that tends toward the final achievement of universal happiness? I say she has not.
"The misuse of a word, it may be argued, could not prove a serious obstacle to the growth of knowledge, and might be even interesting to the student of etymology. But behind the misuse of the word 'natural' there is a serious confusion of thought which must be clarified before the mass of human intelligence can arrive at a just appreciation of the verities which surround human existence, and explain it. To this end it is necessary to get rid of the archaic idea of Nature as a paternal, providential, and beneficent protector, a successor to the 'special providence,' and to know the true Nature, bond-slave as she is of her own eternal persistence of force; that sole primary principle of which all other principles are only correlatives; of which the existence of matter is but a cognisable evidence.