THE DWELLER ON THE THRESHOLD
Author of The Garden of Allah, Bella Donna, Egypt and Its Monuments, The Holy Land, etc.
When Evelyn Malling, notorious because of his sustained interest in Psychical Research and his work for Professor Stepton, first met the Rev. Marcus Harding, that well-known clergyman was still in the full flow of his many activities. He had been translated from his labors in Liverpool to a West End church in London. There he had proved hitherto an astonishing success. On Hospital Sundays the total sums collected from his flock were by far the largest that came from the pockets of any congregation in London. The music in St. Joseph's was allowed by connoisseurs, who knew their Elgar as well as their Goss, their Perosi as well as their Bach, and their Wesley, to be remarkable. Critical persons, mostly men, who sat on the fence between Orthodoxy and Atheism, thought highly of Mr. Harding's sermons, and even sometimes came down on his side. And, of all signs surely the most promising for a West End clergyman's success, smart people flocked to him to be married, and Arum lilies were perpetually being carried in and out of his chancel, which was adorned with Morris windows. He was married to a woman who managed to be admirable without being dull, Lady Sophia, daughter of the late Earl of Mansford, and sister of the present peer. He was comfortably off. His health as a rule was good, though occasionally he suffered from some obscure form of dyspepsia. And he was still comparatively young, just forty-eight.
Nevertheless, as Evelyn Malling immediately perceived, Mr. Harding was not a happy man.
In appearance he was remarkable. Of commanding height, with a big frame, a striking head and countenance, and a pair of keen gray eyes, he looked like a man who was intended by nature to dominate. White threads appeared in his thick brown hair, which he wore parted in the middle. But his face, which was clean-shaven, had not many telltale lines. And he did not look more than his age.
The sadness noted by Malling was at first evasive and fleeting, not indellibly fixed in the puckers of a forehead, or in the down-drawn corners of a mouth. It was as a thin, almost impalpable mist, that can scarcely be seen, yet that alters all the features in a landscape ever so faintly. Like a shadow it traveled across the eyes, obscured the forehead, lay about the lips. And as a shadow lifts it lifted. But it soon returned, like a thing uneasy that is becoming determined to discover an abiding-place.
Malling's first meeting with the clergyman took place upon Westminster Bridge on an afternoon in early May, when London seemed, almost like a spirited child, to be flinging itself with abandon into the first gaieties of the season. Malling was alone, coming on foot from Waterloo. Mr. Harding was also on foot, with his senior curate, the Rev. Henry Chichester, who was an acquaintance of Malling, but whom Malling had not seen for a considerable period of time, having been out on his estate in Ceylon. At the moment when Malling arrived upon the bridge the two clergymen were standing by the parapet on the Parliament side, looking out over the river. As he drew near to them the curate glanced suddenly round, saw him, and uttered an involuntary exclamation which attracted Mr. Harding's attention.
"Telepathy!" said Chichester, shaking Malling by the hand. "I believe I looked round because I knew I should see you. Yet I supposed you to be still in Ceylon." He glanced at the rector rather doubtfully, seemed to take a resolution, and with an air almost of doggedness added, "May I?" and introduced the two men to one another.
Mr. Harding observed the new-comer with an interest that was unmistakable.
"You are the Mr. Malling of whom Professor Stepton has spoken to me," he said,—"who has done so much experimental work for him?"
"The professor comes to my church now and then."
"I have heard him say so."
"You saw we were looking at the river? Before I came to London I was at Liverpool, and learned there to love great rivers. There is something in a great river that reminds us—"
He caught his curate's eye and was silent.
"Are you walking my way?" asked Malling. "I am going by the Abbey and Victoria Street to Cadogan Square."
"Then we will accompany you as far as Victoria Station," said the rector.
"You don't think it would be wiser to take a hansom?" began Chichester. "You remember—"
"No, no, certainly not. Walking always does me good," rejoined Mr. Harding, almost in a tone of rebuke.
The curate said nothing more, and the three men set out toward Parliament Square, Malling walking between the two clergymen.
He felt embarrassed, and this surprised him, for he was an extremely self-reliant man and entirely free from shyness. At first he thought that possibly his odd discomfort arose from the fact that he was in company with two men who, perhaps, had quite recently had a difference which they were endeavoring out of courtesy to conceal from him. Perhaps there had been a slight quarrel over some parish matter. Certainly when he first spoke with them there had been something uneasy, a suspicion of strain, in the manner of both. But then he remembered how, before Chichester had turned round, they had been leaning amicably above the river.
No, it could not be that. He sought mentally for some other reason. But while he did so he talked, and endeavored to rid himself promptly of the unwelcome feeling that beset him.
In this effort, however, he did not at first succeed. The "conditions" were evidently unsatisfactory. He wondered whether if he were not walking between the two men he would feel more comfortable, and presently, at a crossing, he managed to change his place. He was now next to Mr. Harding, who had the curate on his other side, and at once he felt more at his ease. The rector of St. Joseph's led the conversation, in which Malling joined, and at first the curate was silent. But presently Malling noticed a thing that struck him as odd. Chichester began to "chip in" now and then, and whenever he did so it was either to modify what Mr. Harding had just said, or to check him in what he was saying, or abruptly to introduce a new topic of talk. Sometimes Mr. Harding did not appear to notice these interruptions; at other times he obviously resented them; at others again he yielded with an air of anxiety, almost of fear, to his curate's attenuations or hastened to follow his somewhat surprising leads down new conversational paths. Malling could not understand Chichester. But it became evident to him that for some reason or other the curate was painfully critical of his rector, as sometimes highly sensitive people are critical of members of their own family. And Mr. Harding was certainly aware of this critical attitude, and at moments seemed to be defiant of it, at other moments to be almost terrorized by it.
All that passed, be it noted, passed as between gentlemen, rather glided in the form of nuance than trampled heavily in more blatant guise. But Evelyn Malling was a highly trained observer and a man in whom investigation had become a habit. Now that he was no longer ill at ease he became deeply interested in the relations between the two men with whom he was walking. He was unable to understand them, and this fact of course increased his interest. Moreover he was surprised by the change he observed in Chichester.
Although he had never been intimate with Henry Chichester, he had known him fairly well, and had summed him up as a very good man and a decidedly attractive man, but marred, as Malling thought, by a definite weakness of character. He had been too amiable, too ready to take others on their own valuation of themselves, too kind-hearted, and too easily deceived. The gentleness of a saint had been his, but scarcely the firmness of a saint. Industrious, dutiful, and conscientious, he had not struck Malling as a man of strong intellect, though he was a cultivated and well-educated man. Though not governed by his own passions,—when one looked at him one had been inclined to doubt whether he had any,—he had seemed prone to be governed by those about him, at any rate in little matters of every day. His charm had consisted in his transparent goodness, and in an almost gay kindliness which had seemed to float round him like an atmosphere. To look into his face had been to look at the happiness which comes only to those who do right things, and are at peace with their own souls.
What could have happened to change this charming, if too pliant, personality into the critical, watchful, almost—so at moments it seemed to Malling—aggressive curate who was now, always in a gentlemanly way, making things rather difficult for his rector?
And the matter became the more mysterious when Malling considered Mr. Harding. For here was a man obviously of dominant personality. Despite his fleeting subservience to Chichester, inexplicable to Malling, he was surely by far the stronger of the two, both in intellect and character. Not so saintly, perhaps, he was more likely to influence others. Firmness showed in his forcible chin, energy in the large lines of his mouth, decision in his clear-cut features. Yet there was something contradictory in his face. And the flitting melancholy, already remarked, surely hinted at some secret instability, perhaps known only to Harding himself, perhaps known to Chichester also.
When the three men came to the turning at the corner of the Grosvenor Hotel, Chichester stopped short.
"Here is our way," he said, speaking across Mr. Harding to Malling.
The rector looked at Malling.
"Have you far to go?" he asked, with rather a tentative air.
"I live in Cadogan Square."
"Of course. I remember. You told us you were going there."
"Good-by," said Chichester. "We are taking the underground to South Kensington."
"I think I shall walk," said the rector.
"But you know we are due—"
"There is plenty of time. Tell them I shall be there at four."
"Punctually at four. I will walk on with Mr. Malling."
"I really think you had better not," began Chichester. "Over-exertion—"
"Am I an invalid?" exclaimed Mr. Harding, almost sharply.
"No, no, of course not. But you remember that yesterday you were not quite well."
"That is the very reason why I wish to walk. Exercise always does my dyspepsia good."
"Let us all walk," said the curate, abruptly.
But this was obviously not Mr. Harding's intention.
"I want you to go through the minutes and the accounts before the meeting," he said, in a quieter but decisive voice. "We will meet at the School at four. You will have plenty of time if you take the train. And meanwhile Mr. Malling and I will go on foot together as far as Cadogan Square."
Chichester stood for a moment staring into Mr. Harding's face, then he said, almost sulkily:
"Very well. Good-by."
He turned on his heel, and was lost in the throng near the station.
It seemed to Malling that an expression of relief overspread his companion's face.
"You don't mind my company for a little longer, I hope?" said the rector.
"I shall be glad to have it."
They set out on their walk to Cadogan Square. After two or three minutes of silence the rector remarked:
"You know Chichester well?"
"I can hardly say that. I used to meet him sometimes with some friends of mine, the Crespignys. But I haven't seen him for more than two years."
"He's a very good fellow."
"An excellent fellow."
"Perhaps a little bit limited in his outlook. He has been with me at St. Joseph's exactly two years."
The rector seemed about to say more, then shut his large mouth almost with a snap. Malling made no remark. He was quite certain that snap was merely the preliminary to some further remark about Chichester. And so it proved. As they came to St. Peter's Eaton Square, the rector resumed:
"I often think that it is a man's limitations which make him critical of others. The more one knows, the wider one's outlook, the readier one is to shut one's eyes to the foibles, even to the faults, of one's neighbors. I have tried to impress that upon our friend Chichester."
"Doesn't he agree with you?"
"Well—it's difficult to say, difficult to say. Shall we go by Wilton Place, or—?"
"Professor Stepton has talked to me about you from time to time, Mr. Malling."
"He's a remarkable man," said Malling almost with enthusiasm.
"Yes. He's finding his way to the truth rather by the pathway of science than by the pathway of faith. But he's a man I respect. And I believe he'll get out into the light. You've done a great deal of work for him, I understand, in—in occult directions."
"I have made a good many careful investigations at his suggestion."
"Exactly. Now"—Mr. Harding paused, seemed to make an effort, and continued—"we know very little even now, with all that has been done, as to—to the possibilities—I scarcely know how to put it—the possibilities of the soul."
"Very little indeed," rejoined Malling.
He was considerably surprised by his companion's manner, but was quite resolved not to help him out.
"The possibilities of one soul, let us say, in connection with another," continued the rector, almost in a faltering voice. "I often feel as if the soul were a sort of mysterious fluid, and that when we what is called influence another person, we, as it were, submerge his soul fluid in our own, as a drop of water might be submerged in an ocean."
"Ah!" said Malling, laconically.
Mr. Harding shot a rather sharp glance at him.
"You don't object to my getting on this subject, I hope?" he observed.
"Perhaps you think it rather a strange one for a clergyman to select?"
"Oh, no. I have known many clergymen deeply interested in Stepton's investigations."
Mr. Harding's face, which had been cloudy, cleared.
"It seems to me," he said, "that we clergymen have a special reason for desiring Stepton, and all Stepton's assistants, to make progress. It is true, of course, that we live by faith. And nothing can be more beautiful than a childlike faith in the Great Being who is above all worlds, in the anima mundi. But it would be unnatural in us if we did not earnestly desire that our faith be proved, scientifically proved, to be well-founded. I speak now of the faith we Christians hold in a life beyond the grave. I know many people who think it very wrong in a clergyman to mix himself up in any occult experiments. But I don't agree with them."
It was now Malling's turn to look sharply at his companion.
"Have you made many experiments yourself, may I ask?" he said very bluntly.
The clergyman started, and was obviously embarrassed by the question.
"I! Oh, I was speaking generally. I am a very busy man, you see. What with my church and my parish, and one thing and another, I get very little time for outside things. Still I am greatly interested, I confess, in all that Stepton is doing."
"Does Mr. Chichester share your interest?" said Malling.
"In a minor degree, in a minor degree," answered the rector, rather evasively.
They were now in Sloane Street and Malling said:
"I must turn off here."
"I'll go with you as far as your door if you've no objection," said the rector, who seemed very loath to leave his companion. "It's odd how men change, isn't it?"
"As they grow older? But surely development is natural and to be expected?"
"Certainly. But when a man changes drastically, sheds his character and takes on another?"
"You are talking perhaps of what is called conversion?"
"Well, that would be an instance of what I mean, no doubt. But there are changes of another type. We clergymen, you know, mix intimately with so many men that we are almost bound to become psychologists if we are to do any good. It becomes a habit with many of us to study closely our fellow-men. Now I, for instance; I cannot live at close quarters with a man without, almost unconsciously, subjecting him to a minute scrutiny, and striving to sum him up. My curates, for example—"
"Yes?" said Malling.
"There are four of them, our friend Chichester being the senior one."
"And you have 'placed' them all?"
"I thought I had, I thought so—but—"
Mr. Harding was silent. Then, with a strange abruptness, and the air of a man forced into an action against which something within him protested, he said:
"Mr. Malling, you are the only person I know who, having been acquainted with Henry Chichester, has at last met him again after a prolonged interval of separation. Two years, you said. People who see a man from day to day observe very little or nothing. Changes occur and are not noticed by them. A man and his wife live together and grow old. But does either ever notice when the face of the other begins first to lose its bloom, to take on that peculiar, unmistakable stamp that the passage of the years sets on us all? Few of us really see what is always before us. But the man who comes back—he sees. Tell me the honest truth, I beg of you. Do you or do you not, see a great change in Henry Chichester?"
The rector's voice had risen while he spoke, till it almost clamored for reply. His eyes were more clamorous still, insistent in their demand upon Malling. Nevertheless voice and eyes pushed Malling toward caution. Something within him said, "Be careful what you do!" and, acting surprise, he answered:
"Chichester changed! In what way?"
The rector's countenance fell.
"You haven't observed it?"
"Remember I've only seen him to-day and walking in the midst of crowds."
"Quite true! Quite true!"
Mr. Harding meditated for a minute, and then said:
"Mr. Malling, I daresay my conduct to-day may surprise you. You may think it odd of me to be so frank, seeing that you and I have not met before. But Stepton has told me so much about you that I cannot feel we are quite strangers. I should like you to have an opportunity of observing Henry Chichester without prejudice. I will say nothing more. But if I invite you to meet him, in my house or elsewhere, will you promise me to come?"
"Certainly, if I possibly can."
"And your address?"
Malling stopped and, smiling, pointed to the number outside a house.
"You live here?"
Mr. Harding took a small book and a pencil from his pocket and noted down the address.
"Good-by," he said. "I live in Onslow Gardens—Number 89."
"Thank you. Good-by."
The two men shook hands. Then Mr. Harding went on his way toward South Kensington, while Malling inserted his latch-key into the door of Number 7b, Cadogan Square.
Evelyn Malling was well accustomed to meeting with strange people and making investigations into strange occurrences. He was not easily surprised, nor was he easily puzzled. By nature more skeptical than credulous, he had a cool brain, and he was seldom, if ever, the victim of his imagination. But on the evening of the day in question he found himself continually dwelling, and with a curiously heated mind, upon the encounter of that afternoon. Mr. Harding's manner in the latter part of their walk together had—he scarcely knew why—profoundly impressed him. He longed to see the clergyman again. He longed, almost more ardently, to pay a visit to Henry Chichester. Although the instinct of caution, which had perhaps been developed in him by his work among mediums, cranks of various kinds, and charlatans, had prevented him from letting the rector know that he had been struck by the change in the senior curate, that change had greatly astonished him. Yet was it really so very marked? He had noticed it before his attention had been drawn to it. That he knew. But was he not now, perhaps, exaggerating its character, "suggestioned" as it were by the obvious turmoil of Mr. Harding? He wondered, and was disturbed by his wonderment. Two or three times he got up, with the intention of jumping into a cab, and going to Westminster to find out if Professor Stepton was in town. But he only got as far as the hall. Then something seemed to check him. He told himself that he was in no fit condition to meet the sharp eyes of the man of science, who delighted in his somewhat frigid attitude of mind toward all supposed supernormal manifestations, and he returned to his study and tried to occupy himself with a book.
On the occasion of his last return, just as he was about to sit down, his eyes chanced to fall on an almanac framed in silver which stood on his writing-table. He took it up and stared at it. May 8, Friday—May 9, Saturday—May 10, Sunday. It was May 9. He put the almanac back on the table with a sudden sense of relief. For he had come to a decision.
To-morrow he would attend morning service at St. Joseph's.
Malling was not a regular church-goer. He belonged to the Stepton breed. But he was an earnest man and no scoffer, and some of his best friends were priests and clergymen. Nevertheless it was in a rather unusual go-to-meeting frame of mind that he got into a tail-coat and top hat, and set forth in a hansom to St. Joseph's the next morning.
He had never been there before. As he drew near he found people flowing toward the great church on foot, in cabs and carriages. Evidently Mr. Harding had attractive powers, and Malling began to wonder whether he would have any difficulty in obtaining the seat he wanted, in some corner from which he could get a good view both of the chancel and the pulpit. Were vergers "bribable"? What an ignoramus he was about church matters!
He smiled to himself as he paid the cabman and joined the stream of church-goers which was passing in through the open door.
Just as he was entering the building someone in the crowd by accident jostled him, and he was pushed rather roughly against a tall lady immediately before him. She turned round with a startled face, and Malling hastily begged her pardon.
"I was pushed," he said. "Forgive me."
The lady smiled, her lips moved, doubtless in some words of conventional acceptance, then she disappeared in the throng, taking her way toward the left of the church. She was a slim woman, with a white streak in her dark hair just above the forehead. Her face, which was refined and handsome, had given to Malling a strong impression of anxiety. Even when it had smiled it had looked almost tragically anxious, he thought. The church was seated with chairs, and a man, evidently an attendant, told him that all the chairs in the right and left aisles were free. He made his way to the right, and was fortunate enough to get one not far from the pulpit. Unluckily, from it he could only see the left-hand side of the choir. But the preacher would be full in his view. The organ sounded; the procession appeared. Over the heads of worshipers—he was a tall man—Malling perceived both Mr. Harding and Chichester. The latter took his place at the end of the left-hand row of light-colored oaken stalls next to the congregation. Malling could see him well. But the rector was hidden from him. He fixed his eyes upon Chichester.
The service went on its way. The music was excellent. A fair young man, who looked as if he might be a first-rate cricketer, one of the curates no doubt, read the lessons. Chichester intoned with an agreeable light tenor voice. During the third hymn, "Fight the Good Fight," Mr. Harding mounted into the pulpit. He let down the brass reading-desk. He had no notes in his hands. Evidently he was going to preach extempore. After the "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" had been pronounced, Malling settled himself to listen. He felt tensely interested. Both Mr. Harding and Chichester were now before him, the one as performer—he used the word mentally, with no thought of irreverence—the other as audience. He could study both as he wished to study them at that moment.
Chichester was a small, cherubic man, with blue eyes, fair hair, and neat features, the sort of man who looks as if when a boy he must have been the leading choir-boy in a cathedral. There was nothing powerful in his face, but much that was amiable and winning. His chin and his forehead were rather weak. His eyes and his mouth looked good. Or—did they?
Malling found himself wondering as Mr. Harding preached.
And was Mr. Harding the powerful preacher he was reputed to be?
At first he held his congregation. That was evident. Rows of rapt faces gazed up at him, as he leaned over the edge of the pulpit, or stood upright with his hands pressed palm downward upon it. But it seemed to Malling that he held them rather because of his reputation, because of what they confidently expected of him, because of what he had done in the past, than because of what he was actually doing. And presently they slipped out of his grasp. He lost them.
The first thing that is necessary in an orator, if he is to be successful with an audience, is confidence in himself, a conviction that he has something to say which is worth saying, which has to be said. Malling perceived that on this Sunday morning Mr. Harding possessed neither self-confidence nor conviction; though he made a determined, almost a violent, effort to pretend that he had both. He took as the theme of his discourse self-knowledge, and as his motto—so he called it—-the words, "Know thyself." This was surely a promising subject. He began to treat it with vigor. But very soon it became evident that he was ill at ease, as an actor becomes who cannot get into touch with his audience. He stumbled now and then in his sentences, harked back, corrected a phrase, modified a thought, attenuated a statement. Then, evidently bracing himself up, almost aggressively he delivered a few passages that were eloquent enough. But the indecision returned, became more painful. He even contradicted himself. A "No, that is not so. I should say—" communicated grave doubts as to his powers of clear thinking to the now confused congregation. People began to cough and to shift about in their chairs. A lady just beneath the pulpit unfolded a large fan and waved it slowly to and fro. Mr. Harding paused, gazed at the fan, looked away from it, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, grasped the pulpit ledge, and went on speaking, but now with almost a faltering voice.
The congregation were doubtless ignorant of the cause of their pastor's perturbation, but Malling felt sure that he knew what it was.
The cause was Henry Chichester.
On the cherubic face of the senior curate, as he leaned back in his stall while Mr. Harding gave out the opening words of the sermon, there had been an expression that was surely one of anxiety, such as a master's face wears when his pupil is about to give some public exhibition. That simile came at once into Malling's mind. It was the master listening to the pupil, fearing for, criticizing, striving mentally to convey help to the pupil. And as the sermon went on it was obvious to Malling that the curate was not satisfied with it, and that his dissatisfaction was, as it were, breaking the rector down. At certain statements of Mr. Harding looks of contempt flashed over Chichester's face, transforming it. The anxiety of the master, product of vanity but also of sympathy, was overlaid by the powerful contempt of a man who longs to traverse misstatements but is forced by circumstances to keep silence. And so certain was Malling that the cause of Mr. Harding's perturbation lay in Chichester's mental attitude, that he longed to spring up, to take the curate by the shoulders and to thrust him out of the church. Then all would be well. He knew it. The rector's self-confidence would return and, with it, his natural powers.
But now the situation was becoming painful, almost unbearable.
With every sentence the rector became more involved, more hesitating, more impotent. The sweat ran down his face. Even his fine voice was affected. It grew husky. It seemed to be failing. Yet he would not cease. To Malling he gave the impression of a man governed by a secret obstinacy, fighting on though he knew it was no use, that he had lost the combat. Malling longed to cry out to him, "Give it up!"
The congregation coughed more persistently, and the lady with the fan began to ply her instrument of torture almost hysterically.
Suddenly Malling felt obliged to look toward the left of the crowded church. Sitting up very straight, and almost craning his neck, he stared over the heads of the fidgeting people and met the eyes of a woman, the lady with the streak of white hair against whom he had pushed when coming in.
There was a look almost of anguish on her face. She turned her eyes toward Mr. Harding. At the same instant the rector saw Mailing in the congregation. He stopped short, muttered an uneven sentence, then, forcing his voice, uttered in unnaturally loud tones the "Now to God the Father," et cetera.
Henry Chichester rose in his stall with an expression of intense thankfulness, which yet seemed somehow combined with a sneer.
The collection was made.
Before the celebration some of the choir and two of the clergy, of whom Mr. Harding was one, left the church. Henry Chichester and the fair, athletic-looking curate remained. Mailing took his hat and made his way slowly to the door. As he emerged a young man stopped him and said:
"If you please, sir, the rector would like to speak to you if you could wait just a moment. You are Mr. Malling, I believe."
"Yes. How could you know?"
"Mr. Harding told me what you were like, sir, and that you were wearing a tie with a large green stone in it. Begging your pardon, sir."
"I will wait," said Malling, marveling at the rector's rapid and accurate powers of observation.
Those of the congregation who had not remained for the celebration were quickly dispersing, but Malling now noticed that the lady with the white lock was, like himself, waiting for some one. She stood not far from him. She was holding a parasol, and looking down; she moved its point to and fro on the ground. Several people greeted her. Almost as if startled she glanced up quickly, smiled, replied. Then, as they went on, she again looked down. There was a pucker in her brow. Her lips twitched now and then.
Suddenly she lifted her head, turned and forced her quivering mouth to smile. Mr. Harding had come into sight round the corner of the church.
"Ah, Mr. Malling," he said, "so you have stayed. Very good of you. Sophia, let me introduce Mr. Malling to you—my wife, Lady Sophia."
The lady with the white lock held out her hand.
"You have heard Professor Stepton speak of Mr. Malling, haven't you?" added the rector to his wife.
"Indeed I have," she answered.
She smiled again kindly, and as if resolved to throw off her depression began to talk with some animation as they all walked together toward the street. Directly they reached it the rector said:
"Are you engaged to lunch to-day, Mr. Malling?"
"No," answered Malling.
Lady Sophia turned to him and said:
"Then I shall be informal and beg you to lunch with us, if you don't mind our being alone. We lunch early, at one, as my husband is tired after his morning's work and eats virtually nothing at breakfast."
"I shall be delighted," said Malling. "It's very kind of you."
"We always walk home," said the rector.
He sighed. It was obvious that he was in low spirits after the failure of the morning, but he tried to conceal the fact, and his wife tactfully helped him. Malling praised the music warmly, and remarked on the huge congregation.
"I scarcely thought I should find a seat," he added.
"It is always full to the doors in the morning," said Lady Sophia, with a cheerfulness that was slightly forced.
She glanced at her husband, and suddenly added, not without a decided touch of feminine spite:
"Unless Mr. Chichester, the senior curate, is preaching."
"My dear Sophy!" exclaimed Mr. Harding.
"Well, it is so!" she said, with a sort of petulance.
"Perhaps Mr. Chichester is not gifted as a preacher," said Malling.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," said the rector.
"My husband never criticizes his—swans," said Lady Sophia, with delicate malice, and a glance full of meaning at Malling. "But I'm a woman, and my principles are not so high as his."
"You do yourself an injustice," said the rector. "Here we are."
He drew out his latch-key.
Before lunch Malling was left alone for a few minutes in the drawing-room with Lady Sophia. The rector had to see a parishioner who had called and was waiting for him in his study. Directly her husband had left the room Lady Sophia turned to Malling and said:
"Had you ever heard my husband preach till this morning?"
"No, never," Mailing answered. "I'm afraid I'm not a very regular church-goer. I must congratulate you again on the music at St. Joseph's. It is exceptional. Even at St. Anne's Soho—"
Almost brusquely she interrupted him. She was obviously in a highly nervous condition; and scarcely able to control herself.
"Yes, yes, our music is always good, of course. So glad you liked it. But what I want to say is that you haven't heard my husband preach this morning."
Malling looked at her with curiosity, but without astonishment. He might have acted a part with her as he had the previous day with her husband. But, as he looked, he came to a rapid decision, to be more frank with the woman than he had been with the man.
"You mean, of course, that your husband was not in his best vein," he said. "I won't pretend that I didn't realize that."
"You didn't hear him at all. He wasn't himself—simply."
She sat down on a sofa and clasped her hands together.
"I cannot tell you what I was feeling," she added. "And he used to be so full of self-confidence. It was his great gift. His self-confidence carried him through everything. Nothing could have kept him back if—"
Suddenly she checked herself and looked, with a sort of covert inquiry, at Malling.
"You must think me quite mad to talk like this," she said, with a return to her manner when he first met her.
"Shall I tell you what I really think?" he asked, leaning forward in the chair he had taken.
"Yes, do, do!"
"I think you are very ambitious for your husband and that your ambition for him has received a perhaps mysterious—check."
Before she could reply the door opened and Mr. Harding reappeared.
At lunch he carefully avoided any reference to church matters, and they talked on general subjects. Lady Sophia showed herself a nervously intelligent and ardent woman. It seemed to Malling obvious that she was devoted to her husband, "wrapped up in" him—to use an expressive phrase. Any failure on his part upset her even more than it did him. Secretly she must still be quivering from the public distresses of the morning. But she now strove to aid the rector's admirable effort to be serene, and proved herself a clever talker, and well informed on the events of the day. Of her Malling got a fairly clear impression.
But his impression of her husband was confused and almost nebulous.
"Do you smoke?" asked Mr. Harding, when lunch was over.
Malling said that he did.
"Then come and have a cigar in my study."
"Yes, do go," said Lady Sophia. "A quiet talk with you will rest my husband."
And she went away, leaving the two men together.
Mr. Harding's study looked out at the back of the house upon a tiny strip of garden. It was very comfortably, though not luxuriously, furnished, and the walls were lined with bookcases. While his host went to a drawer to get the cigar-box, Malling idly cast his eyes over the books in the shelves nearest to him. He always liked to see what a man had to read. The first book his eyes rested upon was Myers's "Human Personality." Then came a series of works by Hudson, including "Psychic Phenomena," then Oliver Lodge's "Survival of Man," "Man and the Universe," and "Life and Matter." Farther along were works by Lowes Dickinson and Professor William James, Bowden's "The Imitation of Buddha" and Inge's "Christian Mysticism." At the end of the shelf, bound in white vellum, was Don Lorenzo Scupoli's "The Spiritual Combat."
A drawer shut, and Mailing turned about to take the cigar which Mr. Harding offered him.
"The light is rather strong, don't you think?" Mr. Harding said, when the two men had lit up. "I'll lower the blind."
He did so, and they sat down in a sort of agreeable twilight, aware of the blaze of an almost un-English sun without.
Malling settled down to his cigar with a very definite intention to clear up his impressions of the rector. The essence of the man baffled him. He had known more about Lady Sophia in five minutes than he knew about Mr. Harding now, although he had talked with him, walked with him, heard him preach, and watched him intently while he was doing so. His confusion and distress of the morning were comprehended by Malling. They were undoubtedly caused by the preacher's painful consciousness of the presence and criticism of one whom, apparently, he feared, or of whose adverse opinion at any rate he was in peculiar dread. But what was the character of the man himself? Was he saint or sinner, or just ordinary, normal man, with a usual allowance of faults and virtues? Was he a man of real force, or was he painted lath? The Chichester episodes seemed to point to the latter conclusion. But Malling was too intelligent to take everything at its surface value. He knew much of the trickery of man, but that knowledge did not blind him to the mystery of man. He had exposed charlatans. Yet he had often said to himself, "Who can ever really expose another? Who can ever really expose himself?" Essentially he was the Seeker. And he was seldom or never dogmatic. A friend of his, who professed to believe in transmigration, had once said of him, "I'm quite certain Malling must have been a sleuth-hound once." Now he wished to get on a trail.
But Mr. Harding, who on the previous day had been almost strangely frank about Henry Chichester, to-day had apparently no intention to be frank about himself. Though he had desired Malling's company, now that they were together alone he showed a reserve through which, Malling believed, he secretly wanted to break. But something held him back. He talked of politics, government and church, the spread of science, the follies of the day. And Malling got little nearer to him. But presently Malling happened to mention the modern craze for discussing intimately, or, as a Frenchwoman whom he knew expressed it, "avec un luxe de detail," matters of health.
"Yes, yes," responded Mr. Harding. "It is becoming almost objectionable, almost indecent. At the same time the health of the body is a very interesting subject because of its effect upon the mind, even, so it seems sometimes, upon the very nature of a man. Now I—" he struck the ash off the end of his cigar—"was, I might almost say, the victim of my stomach in the pulpit this morning."
"You were feeling ill?"
"Not exactly ill. I have a strong constitution. But I suffer at times from what the doctors call nervous dyspepsia. It is a very tiresome complaint, because it takes away for the time a man's confidence in himself, reduces him to the worm-level almost; and it gives him absurd ideas. Now this morning in the pulpit I had an attack of pain and uneasiness, and my nerve quite gave out. You must have noticed it."
"I saw that you were troubled by something."
"Something! It was that. My poor wife was thoroughly upset by it. You know how sensitive women are. To hold a crowd of people a man must be strong and well, in full possession of his powers. And I had a good subject."
"I'll treat it again—treat it again."
The rector shifted in his chair.
"Do you think," he said after a pause, "that it is possible for another, an outsider, to know a man better than he knows himself?"
"In some cases, yes," answered Malling.
"But—as a rule?"
"There is the saying that outsiders see most of the game."
"Then why should we mind when all are subject to criticism!" exclaimed Mr. Harding, forcibly.
Evidently he was startled by his own outburst, for instantly he set about to attenuate it.
"What I mean is that men ought not to care so much as most of them undoubtedly do what others think about them."
"It certainly is a sign of great weakness to care too much," said Malling. "But some people have a quite peculiar power of impressing their critical thoughts on others. These spread uneasiness around them like an atmosphere."
"I know, I know," said the rector, with an almost hungry eagerness. "Now surely one ought to keep out of such an atmosphere, to get out of it, and to keep out of it."
"But—but—how extraordinary it is, the difficulty men have in getting away from things! Haven't you noticed that?"
"Want of moral strength," said Mailing, laconically.
"You think so?"
At this moment there was a knock at the door. Mr. Harding started.
"How impossible it is to get a quiet moment," he said with acute irritation. "Come in!" he called out.
The footman appeared.
"Mr. Chichester has called to see you, sir."
The rector's manner changed. He beckoned to the man to come into the room and to shut the door. The footman, looking surprised, obeyed.
"Where is he, Thomas?" asked Mr. Harding, in a lowered voice. "In the hall?"
"No, sir. As you were engaged I showed him up into the drawing-room."
"Oh, very well. Thank you. You can go."
The footman went out, still looking surprised.
Just as he was about to close the door his master said:
"Wait a moment!"
"Was her ladyship in the drawing-room?"
"No, sir. Her ladyship is lying down in the boudoir."
"Ah. That will do."
The footman shut the door.
Directly he was gone the rector got up with an air of decision.
"Mr. Malling," he said, "perhaps I ought to apologize to you for treating you with the abruptness allowable in a friend, but surprising in an acquaintance, indeed in one who is almost a stranger. I do apologize. My only excuse is that I know you to be a man of exceptional trend of mind and unusual ability. I know this from Professor Stepton. But there's another thing. As I told you yesterday, you are the only person of my acquaintance who, having been fairly intimate with Henry Chichester, has not seen anything of him during the two years he has been with me as my coadjutor. Now what I want you to do is this: will you go upstairs and spend a few minutes alone with Chichester? Tell him I am detained, but am coming in a moment. I'll see to it that you are not interrupted. I'll explain to my wife. And, of course, I rely on you to make the matter appear natural to Chichester, not to rouse his—but I am sure you understand. Will you do this for me?"
"Certainly," said Malling, with his most prosaic manner. "Why not?"
"Why not? Exactly. There's nothing objectionable in the matter. But—" Mr. Harding's manner became very earnest, almost tragic. "I'll ask you one thing—afterward you will tell me the truth, exactly how Chichester impresses you now in comparison with the impression you got of him two years ago. You—you have no objection to promising to tell me?"
"But is it quite fair to Chichester?" he said. "Suppose I obtained, for instance, a less favorable, or even an unfavorable impression of him now? You are his rector. I hardly think—"
The rector interrupted him.
"I'll leave it to you," he said. "Do just as you please. But, believe me, I have a very strong reason for wishing to know your opinion. I need it. I need it."
There was a lamentable sound in his voice.
"If I feel it is right I will give it to you," said Malling.
The rector opened the door of the study.
"You know your way?"
Malling went upstairs. Mr. Harding stood watching him from below till he disappeared.
When Malling opened the door of the drawing-room Chichester was standing by one of the windows, looking out into Onslow Gardens. He turned round, saw Malling, and uttered an exclamation.
"You are here!"
His light tenor voice sounded almost denunciatory, as if he had a right to demand an explanation of Malling's presence in Mr. Harding's house, and as he came away quickly from the window, he repeated, with still more emphasis:
"You are here!"
"Lunching—yes," replied Malling, imperturbably.
He looked at Chichester and smiled.
"You have no objection, I hope?"
His words and manner evidently brought the curate to a sense of his own unconventionality. He held out his hand.
"I beg your pardon. Your coming in surprised me. I had no idea"—his blue eyes went searchingly over Malling's calm face—"that you could be here. I thought you and the rector were complete strangers till I introduced you yesterday."
"So we were."
Malling sat down comfortably on a sofa. His action evidently recalled Chichester's mind to the fact that he was to see the rector.
"Isn't the rector coming to see me?" he asked.
"Almost directly. He's busy for a few minutes. We were smoking together in his study."
"You seem to—you seem to have made great friends!" said Chichester, with a sort of forced jocularity.
"Great friends! They're hardly made in a moment. I happened to be at church this morning—"
"At church—where?" exclaimed the curate.
"At St. Joseph's. And Mr. Harding kindly asked me to lunch."
"You were at church at St. Joseph's this morning?" said Chichester.
He sat down by Malling and stared into his face.
"Did you—did you stay for the sermon?"
"Certainly. I came for the sermon. I had never heard Mr. Harding preach."
"No? No? Well, what did you think of it? What did you think of it?"
The curate spoke nervously, and seemed to Malling to be regarding him with furtive anxiety.
"It was obvious that Mr. Harding wasn't in good form this morning," Malling said. "He explained the matter after lunch."
"He explained the matter!" said Chichester, with a rising voice, in which there was an almost shrill note of suspicion.
"Yes. He told me he was often the victim of nervous dyspepsia, and that he had an attack of it while in the pulpit this morning."
"He told you it was nervous dyspepsia!"
"I have just said so."
The curate looked down.
"I advised him not to walk all the way home yesterday," he said gloomily. "You heard me."
"You think it was that?"
"He never will take advice from any one. That's his—one of his great faults. Whatever he thinks, whatever he says, must be right. You, as a layman, probably have no idea how a certain type of clergyman loves authority."
This remark struck Malling as in such singularly bad taste—considering where they were, and that one of them was Mr. Harding's guest, the other his curate—that only his secret desire to make obscure things clear prevented him from resenting it.
"It is one of the curses of the Church," continued Chichester, "this passion for authority, for ruling, for having all men under one's feet as it were. If men would only listen, take advice, see themselves as they really are, how much finer, how much greater, they might become!"
"See themselves as others see them! Eh?" said Malling. "But do you mean that a rector should depend on his curate's advice rather than on his own judgment?"
"And why not?" said Chichester. "Rector—curate—archbishop—what does it matter? The point is not what rank in the hierarchy a man has, but what, and how, does he see? A street boy may perceive a truth that a king is blind to. At that moment the street boy is greater than the king. Do you deny it?"
"No," said Malling, amazed at the curate's excitement, but showing no astonishment.
"But it's a terrible thing to see too clearly!" continued Chichester, almost as if talking to himself, absorbed. "A terrible thing!"
He looked up at Malling, and almost solemnly he said:
"Are you still going on with all those investigations?"
"When I have any spare time, I often spend some of it in that sort of work," answered Malling, lightly.
It was his way to make light of his research work, and indeed he seldom mentioned it unless he was forced to do so.
"Do you think it is right?" said Chichester, earnestly.
"To strive to push one's way into hidden regions."
"If I didn't think it right I shouldn't do it," retorted Malling, but without heat.
"And—for clergymen?" questioned Chichester, leaning forward, and dropping his small, thin hands down between his knees.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you think it right for clergymen to indulge themselves—for it is indulgence—in investigations, in attempts to find out more than God has chosen to reveal to us?"
The man of science in Malling felt impatient with the man of faith in Chichester.
"Does it never occur to you that the anima mundi may have hidden certain things from the minds of mortals just in order to provide them with a field to till?" he said, with a hint of sarcasm. "Wasn't the fact that the earth revolves round the sun, instead of the sun round the earth, hidden from every living creature till Galileo discovered it? Do you think Galileo deserved our censure?"
"Saul was punished for consulting the witch of Endor," returned Chichester. "And the Roman Catholic Church forbids her children to deal in occult things."
"You can't expect a man like me, a disciple of Stepton, to take the Roman Catholic view of such a matter."
"You are not a clergyman," said Chichester.
Malling could not help smiling.
"You think the profession carries with it certain obligations," he said. "No doubt it does. But I shall never believe that one of them is to shut your eyes to any fact in the whole scheme of Creation. Harm can never come from truth."
"If I could believe that!" Chichester cried out.
"Do you mean to tell me you don't believe it?"
Chichester looked at Malling for quite a minute without replying. Then he got up, and said, with a changed voice and manner:
"If the rector doesn't come to see me I shall have to go. Sunday is not a holiday, you know, for us clergymen."
He drew out his watch and looked at it.
"I shall have to go. I'm taking the Children's Service."
Malling got up too.
"Is it getting late?" he said. "Perhaps—"
At this moment the door was gently opened and Mr. Harding appeared.
"Oh, Chichester," he said. "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. What is it? Would you like to come to my study?"
"I must be off," said Malling. "May I say good-by to Lady Sophia? Or perhaps she is resting and would rather not be disturbed."
"I'm sure she would wish to say good-by to you," said the rector. "I'll just ask her."
He shot a quick glance from one man to the other and went out of the room, leaving the door open behind him.
Directly he was gone the curate said: "It has been such a pleasure to me to renew my acquaintance with you, Mr. Malling. Are you going to be long in London?"
"All the season, I think."
"Then I hope we may meet again soon, very soon."
He hesitated, put one hand in his pocket, and brought out a card-case.
"I should like to give you my address."
"And let me give you mine."
They exchanged cards.
"I expect you'll be very busy," said the curate, rather doubtfully.
Then he added, like a man urged on by some strong, almost overpowering desire to do a thing not quite natural to him:
"But I wish you could spare an evening to come to dine with me. I live very modestly, of course. I'm in rooms, in Hornton Street—do you know it?—near Campden Hill?—Number 4a—as you'll see on my card. I wonder—"
"I shall be delighted to come."
"Whenever you are kind enough to ask me."
"Could you come on Wednesday week? It's so unfortunate, I have such a quantity of parish engagements—that is my first evening free."
"Wednesday week, with pleasure."
"At half after seven?"
"That will suit me perfectly."
"And"—he looked toward the door—"I shall be greatly obliged to you if you won't mention to the rector the fact that you are coming. He—"
"My wife's in the boudoir," said Mr. Harding, coming into the room at this moment.
He stood by the door.
Malling shook hands with Chichester, and went to say good-by to his hostess.
Mr. Harding shut the drawing-room door.
"This is the way," he said. "Well, Mr. Malling? Well?"
"You mean you want to know—?"
"Your impression of Chichester."
The rector stopped on the landing.
"Do you find him much changed?"
Malling shrugged his shoulders.
"Possibly—a little. He may have become rather firmer in manner, a trifle more decisive."
"Firmer! More decisive, you say!"
"But surely that is only natural, working—as he has done, I understand, under a man such as yourself for two years."
"Such as myself! Then you think he's caught something of my manner and way of looking at things? You think—"
"Really, it's difficult to say," interrupted Malling. "He's developed, no doubt. But very few people don't. I suppose you've trained him."
"I!" said the rector. "I train a man like Chichester!"
In his voice there was a bitter irony.
"Is that you, Mr. Malling?" said the voice of Lady Sophia. "I was lying down with a book. This is my little room."
She looked pale, almost haggard, as the sunshine fell upon her through the open window.
Malling took his leave at once and she did not attempt to detain him.
"I hope you'll come again," she said, as they shook hands. "Perhaps on another Sunday morning, to church and lunch. I'll let you know."
She said the last words with a significance which made Malling understand that she did not wish him to come to church at St. Joseph's again till she gave him the word.
The rector let him out of the house. Not another word was spoken about Henry Chichester. As his guest walked away the rector stood, bareheaded, looking after him, then, as Malling turned the corner of the gardens, with a heavy sigh, and the unconscious gesture of a man greatly troubled in mind, he stepped back into his hall and shut the door behind him.
A week later, Mailing paid a visit to Professor Stepton. He had heard nothing of the Hardings and Chichester since the day of the luncheon in Onslow Gardens, but they had seldom been absent from his thoughts, and more than once he had looked at the words, "Dine with H.C." in his book of engagements, and had found himself wishing that "Hornton Street, Wednesday" was not so far distant.
The professor lived in Westminster, in a house with Adam ceilings, not far from the Houses of Parliament. He was unmarried, and Malling found him alone after dinner, writing busily in his crowded library. He had but recently returned from Paris, whither he had traveled to take part in a series of "sittings" with the famous medium, Mrs. Groeber.
In person the professor was odd, without being specially striking. He was of medium height, thin and sallow, with gray whiskers, thick gray hair, bushy eyebrows, and small, pointed and inquiring features which gave him rather the aspect of a prying bird. His eyes were little and sparkling. His mouth, strangely enough, was ecclesiastical. He nearly always wore very light-colored clothes. Even in winter he was often to be seen clad in yellow-gray tweeds, a yellow silk necktie, and a fawn-colored Homburg hat. And no human being had ever encountered him in a pair of boots unprotected by spats. One peculiarity of his was that he did not possess a walking-stick, another that he had never—so at least he declared—owned a pocket-handkerchief, having had no occasion to use one at any moment of his long and varied life. When it rained he sometimes carried an umbrella, generally shut. At other times he moved briskly along with his arms swinging at his sides.
As Malling came in he looked up and nodded.
"Putting down all about Mrs. Groeber," he observed.
"Anything new or interesting?" asked Malling.
"Just the usual manifestations, done in full light, though."
He laid aside his pen, while Malling sat down.
"A letter from Flammarion this morning," he said. "But all about Halley's comet, of course. What is it?"
Now the professor's "What is it?" was not general, but particular, and was at once understood to be so by Malling. It did not mean "Why have you come?" but "Why are you obsessed at this moment, and by what?"
"Let's have the mystery," he added, leaning his elbows on his just dried manuscript, and resting his sharp little chin on his doubled fists.
Yet Malling had hinted at no mystery, and had come without saying he was coming.
"You know a clergyman called Marcus Harding?" said Malling.
"Of St. Joseph's. To be sure, I do."
"Do you know also his senior curate, Henry Chichester?"
"Have you heard of him?"
"Oh dear, yes. And I fancy I've seen him at a distance."
"You heard of him from Harding, I suppose."
"Exactly, and Harding's wife."
"Oh, from Lady Sophia!"
"Who hates him."
"Since when?" said Malling, emphatically.
"I couldn't say. But I was only aware of the fact about a month ago."
"Have you any reason to suppose that Harding has been making any experiments?"
"In church music, biblical criticism, or what?"
"Say in psychical research?"
"Or that Chichester has?"
"Hasn't Harding ever talked to you on the subject?"
"He has tried to," said the professor, rather grimly.
"And you didn't encourage him?"
"When do I encourage clergymen to talk about psychical research?"
Malling could not help smiling.
"I have some reason—at least I believe so—to suppose that Harding and his curate Chichester have been making some experiments in directions not entirely unknown to us," he observed. "And what is more"—he paused—"what is more," he continued, "I am inclined to think that those experiments may have been crowned with a success they little understand."
Down went the professor's fists, his head was poked forward in Malling's direction, and his small eyes glittered almost like those of a glutton who sees a feast spread before him.
"The experiments of two clergymen in psychical research crowned with success!" he barked out.
"If so, I shall see what I can do in the pulpit—the Abbey pulpit!"
He got up, and walking slightly sidewise, with his hands hanging, and his fingers opening and shutting, went over to a chair close to Malling's.
"Get on!" he said.
"I'm going to. I want your advice."
When Malling had finished what he had to say, the professor, who had interrupted him two or three times to ask pertinent questions, put his hands on his knees and thrust his head forward.
"You said you wanted advice," he said. "What about?"
"I wish you to advise me how I had better proceed."
"You really think the matter important?" asked the professor.
Malling looked slightly disconcerted.
"You don't?" he said.
"You are deducing a great deal from not very much. That's certain," observed the professor.
"You never knew Chichester," retorted Malling. "I did—two years ago."
"Suppose you are right, suppose these two reverend gentlemen have done something such as you suppose—and that there has been a result, a curious result, what have we to do with it? Tell me that."
"You mean that I have no right to endeavor to make a secret investigation into the matter. But I'm positive both the men want help from me. I don't say either of them will ask it. But I'm certain both of them want it."
"Two clergymen!" said the professor. "Two clergymen! That's the best of it—if there is an it, which there may not be."
"Harding spoke very warmly of you."
"Good-believing man! Now, I do wonder what he's been up to. I do wonder. Perhaps he'd have told me but for my confounded habit of sarcasm, my way of repelling the amateur—repelling!" His arms flew out. "There's so much silliness beyond all bearing, credulity beyond all the patience of science. Table-turning women, feminine men! 'The spirits guide me, Professor, in every smallest action of my life!'—Wuff!—the charlatan battens and breeds. And the bile rises in one till Carlyle on his worst day might have hailed one as a brother bilious, and so denunciatory—Jeremiah nervously dyspeptic! And when you opened your envelop and drew out a couple of clergymen, really, really! But perhaps I was in a hurry! Clergymen in a serious fix, too, because of unexpected and not understood success! And I talk of repelling the amateur!"
Suddenly he paused and, with his bushy eyebrows twitching, looked steadily at Malling.
"I leave it to you," he said. "Take your own line. But don't forget that, if there's anything in it, development will take place in the link. The link will be a center of combat. The link will be an interesting field for study."
"The link?" said Malling, interrogatively.
"Goodness gracious me! Her ladyship! Her ladyship!" cried out the professor. "What are you about, Malling?"
And he refused to say another word on the matter till Malling, after much more conversation on other topics, got up to go. Then, accompanying him to the front door, the professor said:
"You know I think it's probably all great nonsense."
"Your two black-coated friends. You bustle along at such a pace. Remember, I have made more experiments than you have, and I have never come upon an exactly similar case. I don't know whether such a thing can be. No more do you—you've guessed. Now, guessing is not at all scientific. At the same time you've proved you can be patient. If there is anything in this it's profoundly interesting, of course."
"Then you advise me—?"
"If in doubt, study Lady Sophia. Good night."
As Malling went away into the darkness he heard the professor snapping out to himself, as he stood before his house bareheaded:
"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! Tres bien! But—reverend gentlemen of St. Joseph's! I shall have to look for telergic power in my acquaintance Randall Cantuar, when I want it! By Jove!"
"If in doubt, study Lady Sophia." As Malling thought over these parting words, he realized their wisdom and wondered at his own short-sightedness.
He had sent his cards to Onslow Gardens after the luncheon with the Hardings. He wished now he had called and asked for Lady Sophia. But doubtless he would have an opportunity of being with her again. If she did not offer him one, he would make one for himself.
He longed to see her with Henry Chichester.
During the days that elapsed before "Hornton Street, Wednesday" he considered a certain matter with sedulous care. His interview with Stepton had not been fruitless. Stepton always made an effect on his mind. Casual and jerky though his manner was, obstinate as were his silences at certain moments, fragmentary as was his speech, he had a way of darting at the essential that set him apart from most men. Malling remembered a horrible thing he had once seen in the Sahara, a running gazelle killed by a falcon. The falcon, rising high in the blue air, had followed the gazelle, had circled, poised, then shot down and, with miraculous skill, struck into the gazelle's eye. Unerringly from above it had chosen out of the vast desert the home for its cruel beak. Somewhat in similar fashion, so Malling thought, Stepton rose above things, circled, poised, sank, and struck into the heart of the truth unerringly.
Perhaps he was able to do this because he was able to mount, falconwise!
Malling would have given a good deal to have Stepton with him in this affair, despite the professor's repellent attitude toward the amateur. Well, if there really was anything in it, if strangeness rose out of the orthodox bosom of St. Joseph's, if he—Malling—found himself walking in thick darkness, he meant to bring Stepton into the matter, whether at Stepton's desire or against it. Meanwhile he would see if there was enlightenment in Hornton Street.
On the Wednesday the spell of fine weather which had made London look strangely vivacious broke up, and in the evening rain fell with a gentle persistence. Blank grayness took the town. A breath as of deep autumn was in the air. And the strange sadness of cities, which is like no other sadness, held the spirit of Evelyn Malling as he walked under an umbrella in the direction of Kensington High Street. He walked, to shake off depression. But in his effort he did not succeed. All that he saw deepened his melancholy; the soldiers starting out vaguely from barracks, not knowing what to do, but free for a time, and hoping, a little heavily, for some adventure to break the military monotony of their lives; the shopgirls, also in hope of something to "take them out of themselves"—pathetic desire of escape from the little prison, where the soul sits, picking its oakum sometimes, in its cell of flesh!—young men making for the parks, workmen for the public houses, an old woman, in a cap, peering out of an upper window in Prince's Gate; Italians with an organ, and a monkey that looked as if it were dying of nostalgia; women hurrying—whither?—with anxious faces, and bodies whose very shapes, and whose every movement, suggested, rather proclaimed, worry.
Malling knew it was the rain, the possessive grayness, which troubled his body to-night, and through his body troubled his spirit. His nostrils inhaled the damp, and it seemed to go straight into his essence, into the mystery that was he. His eyes saw no more blue, and it was as if they drew a black shutter over all the blue in his heart, blotting it out. People became doomed phantoms, because the weather had changed and because London knows how to play Cassandra to the spirit of many a man. To Malling, as he presently turned to the right, Hornton Street looked like an alley leading straight to the pit of despair, and when he tapped on the blistered green door of the small house where the curate lived, it was as if he tapped seeking admittance to all the sorrowful things that had been brought into being to beset his life with blackness.
A neat servant-girl opened the door. There was a smell of roast mutton in the passage. So far well. Malling took off his hat and coat, hung them up on a hook indicated by the plump red hand of the maid, and then followed her upstairs. The curate was in possession of the first floor.
Malling knew that it would be a case of folding-doors and perhaps of curtains of imitation lace. It was a case of folding-doors. But there was a dull green hue on the walls that surely bespoke Henry Chichester's personal taste. There were bookcases, there were mezzotints, there were engravings of well-known pictures, and there were armchairs not covered with horsehair. There was also a cottage piano, severely nude. In the center of the room stood a small square table covered with a cloth and laid for two persons.
"I'll tell Mr. Chichester, sir."
The maid went out. From behind the folding-doors came to Malling's ears the sound of splashing water, then a voice saying, certainly to the maid, "Thank you, Ellen, I will come." And in three minutes Chichester was in the room, apologizing.
"I was kept late in the parish. There's a good deal to do."
"You're not overworked?" asked Malling.
"Do I look so?" said Chichester, quickly.
He turned round and gazed at himself in an oval Venetian mirror which was fixed to the wall just behind him. His manner for a moment was oddly absorbed as he examined his face.
"London life tells on one, I suppose," he said, again turning. "We change, of course, in appearance as we go on."
His blue eyes seemed to be seeking something in Malling's impenetrable face.
"Do you think," he said, "I am much altered since we used to meet two years ago? It would of course be natural enough if I were."
Malling looked at him for a minute steadily.
"In appearance, you mean?"
"To-night it seems to me that you have altered a good deal."
"To-night?" said the curate, as if with anxiety.
"If there is any change,—and I think there is,—it seems to me more apparent to-night than it was when I saw you the other day."
Ellen, the maid, entered the room bearing a tray on which was a soup-tureen.
"Oh, dinner!" said Chichester. "Let us sit down. You won't mind simple fare, I hope. We are having soup, mutton,—I am not sure what else."
"Stewed fruit, sir," interpolated Ellen.
"To be sure! Stewed fruit and custard. Open the claret, Ellen, please."
"Have you been in these rooms long?" asked Malling, as they unfolded their napkins.
"Two years. All the time I have been at St. Joseph's. The rector told me of them. The curate who preceded me had occupied them."
"What became of him?"
"He has a living in Northampton now. But when he left he had nothing in view."
"He was tired of work at St. Joseph's?"
"I don't think he got on with the rector."
The drip of the rain became audible outside, and a faint sound of footsteps on the pavement.
"Possibly I shall not stay much longer," he added.
"No doubt you'll take a living."
"I don't know. I don't know. But, in any case, I may not stay much longer—perhaps. That will do, Ellen; you may go and fetch the mutton. Put the claret on the table, please."
When the maid was gone, he added:
"One doesn't want a servant in the room listening to all one says. As she was standing behind me I had forgotten she was here. How it rains to-night! I hate the sound of rain."
"It is dismal," said Malling, thinking of his depression while he had walked to Hornton Street.
"Do you mind," said the curate, slightly lowering his voice, "if I speak rather—rather confidentially to you?"
"Not at all, if you wish to—"
"Well, now, you are a man of the world, you've seen many people. I wish you would tell me something."
"What is it?"
Ellen appeared with the mutton. As soon as she had put it on the table and departed, Chichester continued:
"How does Mr. Harding strike you? What impression does he make upon you?"
Eagerness, even more, something that was surely anxiety, shone in his eyes as he asked the question.
"He's a very agreeable man."
"Of course, of course! Would you say he was a man to have much power over others, his fellow-men?"
"Speaking quite confidentially—"
"Nothing you say shall ever go beyond us two."
"Then—I don't know that I should."
"He doesn't strike you as a man of power?"
"In the pulpit?"
"And out of it—especially out of it?"
"He may have been. But—perhaps he has lost in power. Dispersion, you know, does not make for strength."
Suddenly the curate became very pale.
"Dispersion—you say!" he almost stammered.
As if to cover some emotion, he looked at Malling's plate, and added:
"Have some more? You won't? Then—"
He got up and rang the bell. Ellen reappeared, cleared away, and put the stewed fruit and custard on the table.
"Bring the coffee in ten minutes, Ellen. I won't ring."
"Very well, sir."
"Dispersion," said Chichester to Malling in a firmer voice, as Ellen disappeared.
"Concentration makes for strength. Mr. Harding seems to me mentally—what shall I say?—rather torn in pieces, as if preyed upon by some anxiety. Now, if you'll allow me to be personal, I should say that you have greatly gained in strength and power since I knew you two years ago."
"You—you observe a difference?" asked Chichester, apparently in great perturbation.
"A striking difference."
"And—and would you say I looked a happier, as well as a—a stronger man?"
"I couldn't with truth say that."
"Very few of us are happy," said Chichester, with trembling lips. "Poor miserable sinners as we are! And we clergymen, who set up to direct others—" he broke off.
He seemed greatly, strangely, moved.
"You must forgive me. I have had a very hard day's work!" he murmured. "The coffee will do me good. Let us sit in the armchairs, and Ellen can clear away. I wish I had two sitting-rooms."
He rang to make Ellen hurry. Till she came Malling talked about Italian pictures and looked at the curate's books. When she had cleared away, left the coffee, and finally departed, he sat down with an air of satisfaction. Chichester did not smoke, but begged Malling to light up, and gave him a cigar.
"Coffee always does one good," he said. "It acts directly on the heart, and seems to strengthen the whole body. I have had a trying day."
"You look tired," said Malling.
The fact was that Chichester had never recovered the color he had so suddenly lost when they were discussing Mr. Harding.
"It's no wonder if I do," rejoined Chichester, in a voice that sounded hopeless.
He drank some coffee, seemed to make a strong effort to recover himself, and, with more energy, said:
"I asked you here because I wanted to renew a pleasant acquaintanceship, but also—you won't think me discourteous, I know—because—well, I had a purpose in begging you to come."
"Won't you tell me what it is?"
The curate shifted in his armchair, clasped and unclasped his hands. A mental struggle was evidently going on within him. Indeed, during the whole evening Malling had received from him a strong impression of combat, of confusion.
"I wanted to continue the discussion we began at Mr. Harding's the other day. You remember, I asked you not to tell him you were coming?"
"I think it's best to keep certain matters private. People so easily misunderstand one. And the rector has rather a jealous nature."
Malling looked at his companion without speaking. At this moment he was so strongly interested that he simply forgot to speak. Never, even at a successful sitting when, the possibility of trickery having been eliminated, a hitherto hidden truth seemed about to lift a torch in the darkness and to illumine an unknown world, had he been more absorbed by the matter in hand. Chichester did not seem to be struck by his silence, and continued:
"And then not every one is fitted to comprehend properly certain matters, to see things in their true light. Now the other day you said a thing that greatly impressed me, that I have never been able to get out of my mind since. You said, 'Harm can never come from truth.' I have been thinking about those words of yours, night and day, night and day. Tell me—did you mean them?"
The question came from Chichester's lips with such force that Malling was almost startled.
"Certainly I meant them," he answered.
"And if truth slays?"
"And is death the worst thing that can happen to a man, or to an idea—some wretched fallacy, perhaps, that has governed the minds of men, some gross superstition, some lie that darkens counsel?"
"You think if a man lives by a lie he is better dead?"
"Don't you think so?"
"But don't we all need a crutch to help us along on the path of life?"
"What! You, a clergyman, think that it is good to bolster up truth with lies?" said Malling, with genuine scorn.
"I didn't say that."
"You implied it, I think."
"Perhaps if you had worked among men and women as much as I have you would know how much they need. If you went abroad, say to Italy, and saw how the poor, ignorant people live happily oftentimes by their blind belief in the efficacy of the saints, would you wish to tear it from them?"
"I think we should live by the truth, and I would gladly strike away a lie from any human being who was using it as a crutch."
"I thought that once," said Chichester.
The words were ordinary enough, but there was something either in the way they were said, or in Chichester's face as he said them, that made Malling turn cold.
To cover his unusual emotion, which he was ashamed of, and which he greatly desired to hide from his companion, he blew out a puff of cigar smoke, lifted his cup, and drank the rest of his coffee.
"May I have another cup?" he said. "It's excellent."
The coffee-pot was on the table. Chichester poured out some more.
"I will have another cup, too," he said. "How it wakes up the mind."
He glanced at Mailing and added:
"Almost terribly sometimes."
"Yes. But—going back to our subject—don't you still think that men should live by the truth?"
"I think," began Chichester—"I think—"
It seemed as if something physical prevented him from continuing. He swallowed, as if forcing something down his throat.
"I think," he got out at last, "that few men know how terrible the face of truth can be."
His own countenance was contorted as he spoke, as if he were regarding something frightful.
"I think"—he turned right round in his chair to confront Malling squarely—"that you do not know."
For the first time he completely dominated Malling, Chichester the gentle, cherubic clergyman, whom Malling had thought of as good, but weak, and certainly as a negligible quantity. He dominated, because at that moment he made Malling feel as if he had some great possession of knowledge which Malling lacked.
"And you?" said Malling. "Do you know?"
The curate's lips worked, but he made no answer.
Malling was aware of a great struggle in his mind, as of a combat in which two forces were engaged. He got up, walked to the window, and stood as if listening to the rain.
"If only Stepton were here!" thought Malling.
There was a truth hidden from him, perhaps partly divined, obscurely half seen, but not thoroughly understood, as a whole invisible. Stepton would be the man to elucidate it, Malling thought. It lured him on, and baffled him.
"How it rains!" said the curate at last, without turning.
He bent down and opened the small window. The uneasy, almost sinister noise of rain in darkness entered the room, with the soft smell of moisture.
"Do you mind if we have a little air?" he added.
"I should like it," said Malling.
Chichester came back and sat down again opposite Malling. His expression had now quite changed. He looked calmer, gentler, weaker, and much more uninteresting. Crossing his legs, and folding his thin hands on his knees, he began to talk in his light tenor voice. And he kept the conversation going on church music, sacred art in Italy, and other eminently safe and respectable topics till it was time for Malling to go.
Only when he was letting his guest out into the night did he seem troubled once more. He clasped Malling's hand in his, as if almost unaware that he was doing so, and said with some hesitation:
"Are you—are you going to see the rector again?"
"Not that I know of," said Malling, speaking the strict truth, and virtually telling a lie at the same time.
For he was determined, if possible, to see Mr. Harding, and that before very long.
"If I may say so," Chichester said, shifting from one foot to another and looking down at the rain-sodden pavement, "I wouldn't see him."
"May I ask you why?"
"You may get a wrong impression. Two years ago he was another man. Strangers, of course, may not know it, not realize it. But we who have lived with him do know it. Mr. Harding is going down the hill."
There was a note of deep sadness in his voice. Had he been speaking of himself, of his own decadence, his tone could scarcely have been more melancholy.
And for long Malling remembered the look in his eyes as he drew back to shut his door.
In the rain Malling walked home as he had come. But now it was deep in the night and his depression had deepened. He was a self-reliant man, and not easily felt himself small, though he was not conceited. To-night he felt diminished. The worm-sensation overcame him. That such a man as Chichester should have been able to convey to him such a sensation was strange, yet it was from Chichester that this mental chastisement had come. For a moment Chichester had towered, and at that moment Malling surely had dwindled, shrunk together, like a sheet of paper exposed to the heat of a flame.
But that Chichester should have had such an effect on him—Malling!
If Mr. Harding was going down the hill, Chichester surely was not. He had changed drastically since Malling had known him two years ago. In power, in force, he had gained. He now conveyed the impression of a man capable, if he chose, of imposing himself on others. Formerly he had been the wax that receives the impress. But whereas formerly he had been a contented man, obviously at peace with himself and with the world, now he was haunted by some great anxiety, by some strange grief, or perhaps even by some fear.
"Few men know how terrible the face of the truth can be."
Chichester had said that.
Was he one of the few men?
And was that why now, as Malling walked home in the darkness and rain, he felt himself humbled, diminished?
For Malling loved knowledge and thought men should live by it. Had truth a Medusa face, still would he have desired to look into it once, would have been ready to endure a subsequent turning to stone.
That Chichester should perhaps have seen what he had not seen—that troubled him, even humbled him.
Some words of Professor Stepton came back to his mind: "If there's anything in it, development will take place in the link." And those last words: "If in doubt, study Lady Sophia."
Mailing was in doubt. Why not follow Stepton's advice? Why not study Lady Sophia?
He resolved to do it. And with the resolve came to him a sense of greater well-being. The worm-sensation departed from him. He lifted his head and walked more briskly.
On the night following the dinner in Hornton Street, Malling went to the Covent Garden Opera House to hear "La Traviata." The well-worn work did not grasp the attention of a man who was genuinely fond of the music of Richard Strauss, with its almost miraculous intricacies, and who was willingly captive to Debussy. He looked about the house from his stall, and very soon caught sight of Lady Mansford, Lady Sophia's sister-in-law, in a box on the Grand Tier. Malling knew Lady Mansford. He resolved to pay her a visit, and as soon as the curtain was down, and Tetrazzini had tripped before it, smiling not unlike a good-natured child, he made his way upstairs, and asked the attendant to tap at a door on which was printed, "The Earl of Mansford." The man did so, and opened the door, showing a domestic scene highly creditable to the much maligned British aristocracy—Lord Mansford seated alone with his wife, in evidently amicable conversation.
After a few polite words he made Malling sit down beside her, and, saying he would have a cigarette in the foyer, he left them together.
Lady Mansford was a pretty, dark woman, of the slightly irresponsible and little-bird type. She willingly turned her charmingly dressed head and chirped when noticed, and she was generally noticed because of her beauty. Now she chirped of Ceylon, where Malling had been, and then, more vivaciously, of Parisian milliners, where she had been. From these allied subjects Malling led her on to a slightly different topic—religion.
"I went to St. Joseph's last Sunday week," he presently said.
"St. who—what?" said Lady Mansford, who was busy with her opera-glasses, and had just noticed that Lady Sindon, a bird-like rival of hers, had changed the color of her hair, fortunately to her—Lady Sindon's—disadvantage.
"To St. Joseph's, to hear your brother-in-law preach."
"It doesn't do at all," murmured Lady Mansford. "It makes her look Chinese."
"Mollie Sindon. But what were you talking about? Do tell me." She laid down her glasses.
"I was saying that I went to church last Sunday week."
"To hear your brother-in-law preach at St. Joseph's."
"Marcus!" exclaimed Lady Mansford.
She pursed her lips.
"I don't go to St. Joseph's. Poor Sophy! I'm sorry for her."
"I lunched with Lady Sophia after the service."
"Did you? Isn't it sad?"
"Sad! I don't quite understand?" said Malling, interrogatively.
"The change in him. Of course people say it's drink. Such nonsense! But they must say something, mustn't they?"
"Is Mr. Harding so very much changed?"
"Do you mean to say you didn't notice it?"
"I never met him till within the last fortnight."
"He's transformed—simply. He might have risen to anything, with his energy, his ambition, and his connections. And now! But the worst of it is no one can make out why it is. Even Sophia and Isinglass—my husband, you know!—haven't an idea. And it gets worse every day. Last Sunday I hear his sermon was too awful, a mere muddle of adjectives, such as one hears in Hyde Park, I believe. I never liked Marcus particularly. I always thought him too autocratic, too determined to dominate. He had that poor little Mr. Chichester—his curate—completely under his thumb. Mr. Chichester couldn't call his soul his own. He worshiped Marcus. But now they say even he is beginning to think that his god is of clay. What can it be? Do you think Marcus is losing his mind?"
"Oh, I should hope not," returned Malling, vaguely. "Has it been going on long?"
"Oh, for quite a time. But it all seemed to come on gradually—as things do, you know! Poor Sophy has always adored him, and given way to him in everything. In her eyes all that he does is right. She never says a word, I believe, but she must be suffering the tortures of—you know! There's Winnie Rufford coming in! How astonishingly young she looks. Were you at the Huntingham's ball? Well—"
Lady Mansford twittered no more about the Harding menage. But Malling felt that his visit had not been fruitless.
After the opera he went to a party in Grosvenor Street where again he managed to produce talk of the Hardings. It seemed that Lady Mansford had not exaggerated very much. Among those who knew the Hardings a change in the rector of St. Joseph's had evidently been generally noticed. Malling took in to supper a Mrs. Armitage, a great friend of Lady Sophia's, and she made no secret of the fact that Lady Sophia was greatly distressed.
"I thought she would have been here to-night," Mrs. Armitage said. "But she isn't. I suppose she felt she couldn't face it. So many of his congregation are here, or so many who were in his congregation."
"The church was crammed to the doors last Sunday week when he preached," observed Malling.
"Was it? Curiosity, I suppose. It certainly can't have been the intellectual merit of the sermon. I heard it was quite deplorable. But last Sunday's, I was told, was worse still. No continuity at all, and the church not full. People say the curate, Mr. Chichester, who often preaches in the evening, is making a great effect, completely cutting out his rector. And he used to be almost unbearably dull."
"Will you have a quail?"
"Please. You might give me two. My doctor says if I sit up late—thank you!"
"I've never heard Mr. Chichester preach," said Malling.
"He seems to have come on marvelously, to be quite another man."
"Quite another man, does he?"
"Yes. It's very trying for the Hardings naturally. If it continues I think there will have to be a change. I don't think things can go on as they are. My friend Sophia won't be able to stand it."
"You mean—the contrast?"
"Between her husband and Mr. Chichester. She's very highly strung and quite worships her husband; though, between you and me, I think rather in the slave spirit. But some women are like that. They can't admire a man unless he beats them. Not that Mr. Harding ever dreamed of doing such a thing to Sophia, of course. But his will had to be law in everything. You know the type of man! It's scarcely my idea of what a clergyman should be. I think a man who professes to direct the souls of others should be more gentle and unselfish, especially to his wife. Another quail? Well, really, I think perhaps I will. They are so absurdly small this season, aren't they? There's scarcely anything on them."
So that minute fraction of the world that knew of the existence of the Hardings began to utter itself concerning them, and Malling was fortified in his original belief which he had expressed to Professor Stepton.
Among his many experiments made in connection with psychical research those which had interested him the most had been those in which the mystery of the human will had seemed to be deeply involved. Malling was essentially a psychologist. And man was to him the great mystery, because man contained surely something that belonged to, that was lent to, man, as it were, by another, the mind beyond, the anima mundi. When Malling drew mentally, or spiritually, very near to any man, however rude, however humble, he always had the feeling that he was approaching holy ground. Hidden beneath his generally imperturbable exterior, sunk beneath the surface incredulity of his mind, there was the deep sense of mighty truths waiting the appointed day of proclamation. Surely, he often thought, if there is God in anything, in the last rays of the sunset, in the silence of night upon the sea, in the waking of spring among the forests and the gardens, in the song of the nightingale which knows not lovers are listening, there is God in the will of man.
And when he made investigations into the action of will upon will, or of will—as it seemed—upon matter, he was held, as he was not held by the appearance of so-called spirit faces and spirit forms, even when he could not connect these with trickery which he knew how to expose. Perhaps, however, his incredulity in regard to these latter phenomena was incurable, though he did not know it. For he knew nearly all the devices of the charlatans. And when the so-called spirits came, the medium was always entranced, that is, apparently will-less, and so to Malling not interesting.
Now, from what Harding and Chichester had said to him, and from what he had observed for himself, Malling believed that the two clergymen must have had sittings together, probably with the usual tremendous object of the ignorant amateur, that merely of communicating with the other world. Considering who the two men were, Malling believed that in all probability they had sat alone and in secret. He also felt little doubt that from Mr. Harding's brain had come the suggestion of these practices, that his will had led Chichester on to them. Although he had not known the rector two years ago, he had gathered sufficient testimony to the fact that he had been a man of powerful, even perhaps of tyrannical, temperament, formed rather to rule than to be ruled. He knew that Chichester, on the contrary, had been gentle, kindly, yielding, and of somewhat weak, though of very amiable, nature. The physique of the two men accorded with these former temperaments. Harding's commanding height, large frame, big, powerful face and head, rather hard gray eyes, even his large white teeth, his bony, determined hands, his firmly treading feet, suggested force, a dominating will, the capacity, and the intention, to rule. Henry Chichester's fleshly envelop, on the other hand, cherubic, fair, and delicate, his blue eyes, small bones, the shape of forehead and chin, the line of the lips, hinted at—surely more than that, surely stated mildly—the existence within it of a nature retiring, meek, and ready to be ruled by others. No wonder if Chichester had been, as Lady Mansford had said, completely under the rector's thumb, no wonder if he had been unable to "call his soul his own" and had "worshiped Marcus."
Yes, if there had been these secret sittings by these two men, it was Harding who had persuaded Chichester to take part in them. And what had these sittings led to, what had been their result?
The ignorant outsider, the hastily skeptical, of course would say that there could have been no result. Malling, knowing more, knew better. He had seen strange cases of temporary confusion of a man's will brought about by sittings, of what had seemed temporary change even of a man's nature. When a hitherto sane man goes mad he often becomes the opposite of what he was. Those whom he formerly loved he specially singles out for hatred. That which he delighted to do he shrinks from with horror. Once good-natured, he is now of an evil temper, once gentle, he is fiercely obstinate, once gay, he cowers and weeps. So Malling had known a man, while retaining his sanity, to be transformed by the apparently trivial fact of sitting at a table with a friend, and placing his hands upon it with the hands of another man. He himself had sat with an Oxford friend,—who in later sittings became entranced,—and at the very first experiment this man had said to him, "It's so strange, now that I am sitting with you like this I feel filled with hatred toward you." This hatred, which had come upon this man at every successive sitting, had always faded away when the sitting was over. But was it certain that the feelings generated in sittings never persisted after they were broken up? Was it certain that in every case the waters that had been mysteriously troubled settled into their former stillness?
Harding and Chichester, for instance! Had the strong man troubled the waters of the weaker man's soul, and were those waters still agitated? That was perhaps possible. But Malling thought it was possible also, and he had suggested this to Professor Stepton, that the weaker man had infused some of his weakness, his self-doubtings, his readiness to be affected by the opinion of others, into his dominating companion. Malling believed it possible that the wills of the two clergymen, in some mysterious and inexplicable way, had mingled during their sittings, and that they had never become completely disentangled. If this were so, the result was a different Harding from the former Harding, and a different Henry Chichester from the former Henry Chichester.
What puzzled Malling, however, was the fact, if fact it were, that the difference in each man was not diminishing, but increasing.
Could they be continuing the sittings, if there had ever been sittings? All was surmise. As the professor had said, he, Malling, was perhaps deducing a good deal from very little. And yet was he? His instinct told him he was not. Yet there might no doubt be some ordinary cause for the change in Mr. Harding. Some vice, such as love of drink, or morphia, something that disintegrates a man, might have laid its claw upon him. That was possible. What seemed to Malling much more unaccountable was the extraordinary change in the direction of strength in Chichester. And the relations between the two men, if indeed the curate had once worshiped his rector, were mysteriously transformed. For now, was it not almost as if something of Harding in Chichester watched, criticized, Chichester in Harding?