THE GHOST OF GUIR HOUSE
CHARLES WILLING BEALE
When Mr. Henley reached his dingy little house in Twentieth Street, a servant met him at the door with a letter, saying:
"The postman has just left it, sir, and hopes it is right, as it has given him a lot of trouble."
Mr. Henley examined the letter with curiosity. There were several erased addresses. The original was:
"Mr. P. Henley, New York City."
Scarcely legible, in the lower left-hand corner, was:
"Dead. Try Paul, No. —, W. 20th."
Being unfamiliar with the handwriting, Mr. Henley carried the letter to his room. It was nearly dark, and he lighted the gas, exchanged the coat he had been wearing for a gaudy smoking jacket, glancing momentarily at the mirror, at a young and gentlemanly face with good features; complexion rather florid; hair and moustache neither fair nor dark, with reddish lights.
Seating himself upon a table directly under the gas, he proceeded with the letter. Evidently the document was not intended for him, but it proved sufficiently interesting to hold his attention.
GUIR HOUSE, 16TH SEPT., 1893.
MY DEAR MR. HENLEY:
Although we have never met, I feel sure that you are the man for whom I am looking, which conclusion has been reached after carefully considering your letters. Why have I taken so long to decide? Perhaps I can answer that better when we meet. Do not forget that the name of our station is the same as that of the house—Guir. Take the evening train from New York, and you will be with us in old Virginia next day, not twenty-four hours. I shall meet you at the station, where I shall go every day for a month, or until you come. You will know me because—well, because I shall probably be the only girl there, and because I drive a piebald horse in a cart with red wheels—but how shall I know you? Suppose you carry a red handkerchief in your hand as you step upon the platform. Yes, that will do famously. I shall look for the red silk handkerchief, while you look for the cart with gory wheels and a calico horse. What a clever idea! But how absurd to take precautions in such a desolate country as this. I shall know you as the only man stopping at Guir's, and you will know me as the only woman in sight.
Of course you will be our guest until you have proved all things to your satisfaction, and don't forget that I shall be looking for you each day until I see you. Meanwhile believe me
"Devilish strange letter!" said Henley, turning the sheet over in an effort to identify the writer. But it was useless. Dorothy Guir was as complete a myth as the individual for whom her letter was intended. Oddly enough, the man's last name, as well as the initial of his first, were the same as his own; but whether the P. stood for Peter, Paul, or Philip, Mr. Henley knew not, the only evident fact being that the letter was not intended for himself.
Reading the mysterious communication once more, the young man smiled. Who was Dorothy Guir? Of course she was Dorothy Guir, but what was she like? At one moment he pictured her as a charming girl, where curls, giggles, and blushes were strangely intermingled with moonlight walks, rope ladders, and elopements. At the next, as some monstrous female agitator; a leader of Anarchists and Nihilistic organizations, loaded with insurrectionary documents for the destruction of society. But the author was inclined to playfulness; incompatible with such a character. He preferred the former picture, and throwing back his head while watching the smoke from his cigarette curl upward toward the ceiling, Mr. Paul Henley suddenly became convulsed with laughter. He had conceived the idea of impersonating the original Henley, the man for whom the letter had been written. The more he considered the scheme, the more fascinating it became. The girl, if girl she were, confessed to never having met the man; she would therefore be the more easily deceived. But she was expecting him daily, and should not be disappointed. Love of adventure invested the project with an irresistible charm, and Mr. Henley determined to undertake the journey and play the part for all he was worth. It is true that visions of embarrassing complications occasionally presented themselves, but were dismissed as trifles unworthy of consideration.
It was still early in October, while Miss Guir's communication had been dated nearly three weeks before. Had she kept her word? Had she driven to the station every day during those weeks? Mr. Henley jumped down from the table, exclaiming:
"Yes, Miss Dorothy, I will be with you at once, or as soon as the southern express can carry me." A moment later he added: "But I shall glance out of the car window first, and if I don't like your looks, or if you are not on hand, why in that event I shall simply continue my journey. See?"
But another question presented itself. Where was Guir Station? The lady had mentioned neither county nor county town, evidently taking it for granted that the right Henley knew all about it, which he doubtless did; but, since he was dead, it was awkward to consult him, especially about a matter which was manifestly a private affair of his own. But where was Guir? In all the vast State of Virginia, how was he to discover an insignificant station, doubtless unknown to New York ticket agents, and perhaps not even familiar to those living within twenty miles of it? Paul opened the atlas at the "Old Dominion," and threw it down again in disgust. "A map of the infernal regions would be as useful," he declared. However important Guir might be to the Guirs, it was clearly of no importance to the world. But the following day the Postal Guide revealed the secret, and the railway officials confirmed and located it. Guir was situated in a remote part of the State, upon an obscure road, far removed from any of the trunk lines. Mr. Henley purchased his ticket, resolved to take the first train for this terra incognita of Virginia.
The train drew up at the station. Yes, there was the piebald horse, and there was the cart with the gory wheels, and there—yes, certainly, there was Dorothy, a slender, nervous-looking girl of twenty, standing at the horse's head! Be she what she might, politically, socially, or morally, Mr. Henley decided at the first glance that she would do. With a flourish of his crimson handkerchief he stepped out upon the platform. "Rash man! You have put your foot in it," he soliloquized, "and you may never, never be able to take it out again." But he could as soon have passed the open doors of Paradise unheeded as Dorothy Guir at that moment.
"Mr. Henley! So glad!" said the girl in recognition of the young man's hesitating and somewhat prolonged bow. "He's a little afraid of the engine," she continued, alluding now to the horse, "so if you will jump in and take the reins while I hold his head—"
Paul tossed in his bag and satchels, and then jumping in himself gathered up the reins, while the girl stood at the animal's head.
Although Mr. Henley had hoped to find an attractive young woman awaiting him at the station, he was surprised to discover that his most sanguine expectations were exceeded. Here was no blue-stocking, or agitator, or superannuated spinster, but a graceful young woman, rather tall and slight, with blue eyes, set with dark lashes that intensified their color. Her complexion, although slightly freckled, charmed by its wholesomeness; and her hair, which shone both dark and red, according as the light fell upon it, seemed almost too heavy for the delicate head and neck that supported it. Although not strictly beautiful, she had one of those intelligent and responsive faces that are often more attractive than mere perfection of feature and form.
"It does seem funny that you are here at last!" she said, when seated beside him with the reins in her hand.
"It does indeed!" answered Paul, with a suspicion that he was a villain and ought to be kicked. For a moment he scowled and bit his mustache, hesitating whether to make a clean breast of the deception or continue in the role he had assumed. Alas, it was no longer of his choosing. He had commenced with a lie, which he now found it impossible to repudiate. No, he could not insult this girl by telling her the truth. That surely was out of the question.
Miss Guir touched the horse with the whip, and the station was soon out of sight. They ascended a long hill with gullies, bordered by worm fences and half-cultivated fields. Such improvements as there were appeared in a state of decay, and, so far as Henley could see, the country was uninhabited. Presently the road entered a wood and became carpeted with pine tags, over which they trotted noiselessly. Where were they going? Dorothy had not spoken since starting, and Paul was too much disconcerted to continue the conversation. He hoped she would speak first, and yet dreaded anything which it seemed at all probable she would say. The novelty was intense, but the agony was growing. At last, without looking at him, she said:
"You haven't told me why you never answered my last letter. You know we have been expecting you for ages."
Paul coughed, hesitated, and then resolved to tell a part of the truth, which is often more misleading than the blackest lie.
"I—I did not get it," he answered, "until a day or two ago."
Miss Dorothy looked surprised.
"Strange!" she said; "but, after all, I had my misgivings, for I never could believe that a letter like that would reach its destination. But you know you told me—"
"Yes, I know I did," interrupted Paul. "You were perfectly right. You see I got it at last, and 'all's well that ends well!'"
"Not necessarily; because if you are as careless about other matters as this, why—I may have—that is, we may have to part before really knowing each other, and do you know, I should be awfully sorry for that."
Although she laughed a quick, nervous laugh, the words were uttered as if really meant. Paul suffered, and tried to think of something non-committal—something which, while not exposing his ignorance of the real Henley's business, might induce the girl to explain the situation; but no leading question presented itself. He thought he could be happy if he could but divert the conversation from its present awkward drift.
There was a quaintness about the young lady's costume that reminded Henley of an old portrait. Evidently her attire had been modeled after that of some remote ancestor, but it was picturesque and singularly becoming, and Paul found it difficult to avoid staring in open admiration. Inwardly he concluded that she was a "stunner," but in no ordinary sense; and despite the novel and somewhat embarrassing situation, he was conscious of a fascination not clearly accounted for. Thoughts of the defunct Henley, with his store of inaccessible knowledge, were discouraging; but then the memory of the girl's smiles was reassuring; and, come what might, Paul determined to represent his namesake as creditably as possible.
The loneliness of the country road begot a spirit of confidence, so that Miss Guir soon appeared in the light of an old friend, to deceive whom was sacrilege. Mr. Henley realized the enormity of his conduct each time he glanced at her pretty face, but had not the courage to undeceive her. And why should he? Was not Dorothy happy? "Would it be right," he argued, "to upset the girl's tranquillity for a whim, for a scruple of his own, which had come too late, and which, for his as well as the girl's peace of mind, had better not have come at all? No, he would continue as he had begun. Doubtless he would be discovered ere long, but would not anticipate the event."
The forest was beginning to take on its autumnal tints, but Mr. Henley's conscience barred his thorough enjoyment of the scene. They followed the bank of a brook where wild ivy and rhododendrons clustered. They climbed steep places and descended others, and crossed a little river, where rocks and a rushing torrent made the ford seem dangerous. It was lonely, but exquisitely beautiful, and the mountain ridges closed about them on every hand.
The twilight was rapidly giving way to the soft illumination of a full moon; and it was not until Paul noticed this, that he began to ask himself, "Where are we going?" He could not put the question to the girl, and expose his ignorance of a matter which he might reasonably be supposed to know.
After a prolonged silence, Henley ventured to observe that he had never been in the State of Virginia before, hoping that the remark might lead to some information from his driver; but she only looked at him with a wondering expression, and after a minute, with eyebrows lifted, said:
"And I have never been out of it."
Paul would have liked to pursue the conversation, but did not know how to do it. So far from gaining any information, he felt that he was sinking deeper in the mire. "After all," he reflected, "there are worse things in life than being run away with by a pretty girl, even if one doesn't happen to know exactly where she is taking him, and even if she doesn't happen to know exactly whom she is taking." He stretched out his feet and leaned back, resigned to his fate.
Not a house had been passed in more than a mile. The road was deserted, and Paul's interest in future developments steadily growing.
Suddenly there was a terrible crash, and Mr. Henley's side of the cart collapsed. Dorothy drew up the horse and exclaimed:
"There! It is the spring. I was afraid it would break!"
"Too much weight on my side, Miss Guir," said Paul, jumping to the ground.
"It is not that; it was weak; and I should have remembered to place your luggage on my side. It is too unfortunate."
"What are we to do?" inquired Henley.
"It is difficult to say. We are miles from home, and the road is rough."
She was examining the broken spring by the uncertain light, and seemed perplexed.
"Can I not lead the horse while we walk?" suggested Paul.
"We could, but the break is too bad. I fear the body of the cart will fall from the axle. But stop; there is one thing I can do. There is a smith about half a mile from here, upon another road, which leaves this about a hundred yards ahead. I will drive on alone to the shop, and, although it is late, I feel sure the man will do the work for me. You, Mr. Henley, will wait here for the stage, which will be due directly. Tell the driver to put you off at the Guir Road, where you can wait until I come along to pick you up. The distance is not great, and I will follow as quickly as possible."
She was off before he had time to answer, leaving him standing by the roadside, waiting for the promised coach. It was not long before the rumbling of a heavy vehicle was heard, and but a few minutes more when an antiquated stage with four scrubby horses emerged from the shadow of a giant oak into the open moonlight, scarce fifty yards away. Mr. Henley hailed the driver, who stopped, and looked at him as if frightened. The man was a Negro, and, when convinced that it was nothing more terrible than a human being who had accosted him, smiled generously and invited him to a seat on the box.
"I 'lowed yer was a hant" observed the man, by way of opening the conversation, when Paul had handed up his bags and taken his place on top. Henley lighted a cigar, and the cumbersome old vehicle moved slowly forward.
Their way now lay through a beautiful valley, beside a picturesque stream, tunneling its course through wild ivy and magnificent banks of calmia, and under the wide spreading limbs of pines and hemlocks. The country appeared to be a wilderness, and Paul could not help feeling that the real world of flesh and ambition lay upon the other side of the ridge, now far behind. The night was superb, but the road rough, so that the horses seldom went out of a walk. Presently the driver drew up his animals for water, and Henley took the opportunity to question him.
"Do you know these Guirs where I am going?" he inquired.
The man paused in the act of dipping a pail of water, and seemed puzzled. Thinking he had not understood, Paul repeated the question, when the man dropped the bucket, and staring at him with a look of horror, said:
"Boss, is you uns in airnest?"
Henley laughed, and told him that he thought he was, adding that Miss Guir was a friend of his.
"Now I knows you uns is jokin', 'case dey ain't got no friends in dis 'ere country."
"But I am a stranger!" argued Paul.
"Well, sah, it ain't for de likes o' me to argify wid you uns, but ef you wants to know whar de house is, I kin show it to you; leastways I kin show you de road to git dar."
"That's it; but tell me, don't the people about here like the Guirs?"
"Boss, ef dey's frens o' yourn, I reckon you knows all about 'em; maybe more'n I kin tell you, and I reckon it's saiftest for me to keep my mouf shet tight!"
"Why so? Explain. Surely Miss Guir is a very charming young lady."
"I reckon she be, boss; dough for my part I ain't nebber seed her. Folks says as how it ain't good luck when she trabels on de road."
"What do you mean? Are any of her people accused of crime?"
"Not as ever I heerd on, sir."
"Then explain yourself. Speak!"
But not another word was to be gotten out of the man. He was like one grown suddenly dumb, save for the power of an occasional shout to his horses. A mile beyond this the driver drew up his team, and turning abruptly, said:
"You see dat paf?"
After peering doubtfully through the moonlight into the black shadows beyond, Paul thought he discerned the outline of a narrow wood road, and placing a tip in the man's hand, picked up his satchel and climbed down to the ground.
"Tank 'ee, sir, and de Lawd take keer o' you when you gets to de Guirs'," called the driver, as he cracked his whip and drove away, leaving Mr. Henley standing by the roadside listening to the retreating wheels of the coach. The forest was dense, and the moonlight, struggling through the tree-tops, fell upon the ground in patches, adding to the obscurity. Henley seated himself upon a fallen tree, to await the arrival of the cart. Although quite as courageous as the average of men, he could not help a slight feeling of apprehension concerning the outcome of his enterprise. Of course, he knew nothing about these people; but the girl was prepossessing and refined to an unusual degree. It seemed impossible that she could be acting as a decoy for unworthy ends. He laughed at the thought, and at the fun he would some day have in recounting his fears to her, and at her imaginary explanation of the driver's silly talk. At the same time he examined his revolver, which he kept well concealed, despite the law, in the depths of a convenient pocket.
When twenty minutes had passed, he began to grow impatient for the girl's arrival, and, when half an hour was up, started down the road to meet her. Scarcely had he done so when the sound of approaching wheels greeted his ears, and directly after Miss Guir was in full view.
"I hope you have been successful," Paul asked as she drew up beside him.
"Quite," answered the girl; "indeed, they put in a new spring for me; and we can now drive home without fear."
"Do you know, I have been half frightened," said Paul, climbing into the cart beside her.
"And about what, pray?"
"Absurd nonsense, of course; but the old man who drove the coach talked the most idiotic stuff when I asked him about your people. Indeed, from his manner, I believe he was afraid of you."
Miss Guir did not laugh, nor seem in the least surprised. She only drew a long breath and said:
"But why should he be?" persisted Henley.
"It does seem strange," said the girl, pathetically, "but many people are."
"I am sure I should never be afraid of you," added Paul, confidentially.
"I hope not; and am I anything like what you expected?" she asked with languid interest.
"Well, hardly—at least, you are better than I expected—I mean that you are better—looking, you know."
He laughed, but the girl was silent. There was nothing trivial in her manner, and she drove on for some minutes, devoting herself to the horse and a careful scrutiny of the road, whose shadows, ruts, and stones required constant attention. Presently, in an open space, bathed in a flood of moonlight, she turned toward him and said:
"I can not reciprocate, Mr. Henley, by saying that you are better than I expected, for I expected a great deal; I also expected to like you immensely."
"Which I hope you will promptly conclude to do," Paul added, with a twinkle in his eyes, which was lost on his companion, in her endeavor to urge the horse into a trot.
"No," she presently answered, "I can conclude nothing; for I like you already, and quite as well as I anticipated."
"I'm awfully glad," said Henley, awkwardly, "and hope I'll answer the purpose for which I was wanted."
"To be sure you will. Do you think that I should be bringing you back with me if I were not quite sure of it?"
He had hoped for a different answer—one which might throw some light upon the situation—but the girl was again quiet and introspective, without affording the slightest clew to her thoughts. How did it happen that he had proved so entirely satisfactory? Perhaps, then, after all, the original Henley was not so important a personage as he had imagined. But Paul scarcely hoped that his identity would remain undiscovered after arriving at the young lady's home; then, indeed, he might expect to be thrown upon his mettle to make things satisfactory to the Guirs.
They had been jogging along for half a mile, when, turning suddenly through an open gateway, they entered a private approach. Paul exclaimed in admiration, for the road was tunneled through such a dense growth of evergreens that the far-reaching limbs of the cedars and spruce pines brushed the cart as they passed.
"Romantic!" Henley exclaimed, standing up in the vehicle to hold a branch above the girl's head as she drove under it. The little horse tossed the limbs right and left as he burrowed his way amongst them.
"Wait until you know us better," said Dorothy, dodging a hemlock bough; "you might even come to think that several other improvements could be made beside the trimming out of this avenue; but Ah Ben would as soon cut off his head as disturb a single twig."
"Who?" inquired Paul.
Mr. Henley concluded not to push his investigations any further for the present, taking refuge in the thought that all things come to him who waits. He had no doubt that Ah Ben would come along with the rest.
A sudden turn, and an old house stood before them. It was built of black stones, rough as when dug from the ground more than a century before. At the farther end was a tower with an open belfry, choked in a tangle of vines and bushes, within which the bell was dimly visible through a crust of spiders' webs and birds' nests. Patches of moss and vegetable mold relieved the blackness of the stones, and a venerable ivy plant clung like a rotten fish-net to the wall. It was a weird, yet fascinating picture; for the house, like a rocky cliff, looked as if it had grown where it stood. Parts of the building were crumbling, and decay had laid its hand more or less heavily upon the greater part of the structure. All this in the mellow light of the moon, and under the peculiar circumstances, made a scene which was deeply impressive.
"This is Guir House," said Dorothy, drawing up before the door. "Now don't tell me how you like it, because you don't know. You must wait until you have seen it by daylight."
She threw the reins to a stupid-looking servant, who took them as if not quite knowing why he did so. She then made a signal to him with her hands, and jumped lightly to the ground.
"Down, Beelzebub!" called Dorothy to a huge dog that had come out to meet them, while the next instant she was engaged in exchanging signals with the servant, who immediately led the horse away, followed by the dog.
"Why does the boy not speak?" inquired Paul, considerably puzzled by what he had seen.
"Because he is dumb," answered the girl, leading the way up to the door.
Paul carried his luggage into the porch where he saw that Dorothy's eyes were fixed upon him with that strange quizzo-critical gaze, with lids half closed and head tilted, which he had observed once before, and which he could not help thinking gave her a very aristocratic bearing.
"You should carry one of those long-handled lorgnettes," he suggested, "when you look that way."
"And why?" she asked quite innocently.
"To look at me with," answered Henley, hoping to induce a smile, or a more cheery tone amid a gloom which was growing oppressive. But Miss Guir simply led the way to the great hall door, which was built of heavy timber, and studded with nail-heads without. As the cumbersome old portal swung open, Paul could not help observing that it was at least two inches thick, braced diagonally, and that the locks and hinges were unusually crude and massive. He followed Miss Guir into the hall, with a slight foreboding of evil which the memory of the stage driver's remark did not help to dispel.
There are few men who would not have felt uncomfortable in the peculiar situation in which Mr. Henley now found himself, although, perhaps, he was as little affected as any one would have been under the circumstances. It was impossible now to retreat from the part assumed, and he resolved to carry it out to the best of his ability, never doubting for an instant that the deception would be discovered sooner or later.
Following Miss Guir across the threshold of her mysterious home, Henley entered a hall which was by far the most extraordinary he had ever beheld, and he paused for a moment to take in the scene. The room was nearly square, with a singular staircase ascending from the left. Upon the side opposite the door was a huge chimney, where a fire of logs was burning in an enormous rough stone fireplace, doubly cheering after their long drive through the cool October evening. A brass lamp of antique design, with perforated shade of the same material, was suspended from the ceiling, and helped illumine this strange apartment. From each end of the mantelpiece an immense high-backed sofa projected into the room, cushioned and padded, and looking as if built into its present position with the house. The walls were covered with odd portraits, whose frames were crumbling in decay, and the window curtains adorned with fairy scenes and mythological figures. The ceiling was crossed with heavy beams of oak, black with the smoke of a century; and the stairway upon the left was also black, but ornamented with a series of rough panels, upon each of which was painted a human face, giving it a somewhat fantastic appearance. Paul could not help glancing above, toward the mysterious regions with which this eccentric stairway communicated. An antique sofa, studded with brass nails, exhibited upon its towering back a picture of Tsong Kapa reclining under the tree of a thousand images at the Llamasary of Koomboom. There were scenes which were evidently intended to be historical, but there were others which were wild and inexplicable. The quaintness of the room was intensified by the flickering fire and the shafts of yellow light emitted through the perforations of the lamp.
A faint aromatic odor hung upon the air, possibly due to a pile of balsam logs in a corner near the chimney. Over all was the unmistakable evidence of age, and of a nature at once barbaric, eccentric, and artistic. Who had conceived and executed this extraordinary apartment? And what were the people like who called the place their home? Paul stood aghast and wondered as he inwardly propounded these questions.
The girl led the way to the fire, and, seating herself upon one of the sofas described, invited Paul to the opposite place. His bewilderment was intense, and with a lingering gaze at the oddities surrounding him, he accepted the invitation. Not another soul had been seen since he entered. Did the girl live alone? It seemed incredible; and yet where were her people?
Dorothy pulled off her gloves and warmed her fingers before the cheerful blaze, and then stood eying with evident satisfaction the costly gems with which they were loaded. The light seemed to shine directly through her delicate palms, and to fall upon her face and hair and quaint old-fashioned costume with singular effect. There was something so bizarre and yet so spirituelle in her appearance that Henley could not help observing in what perfect harmony she seemed with her environment. It was some minutes before either of them spoke—Paul loth to express his surprise for fear of betraying a lack of knowledge he might possibly be expected to possess, while Dorothy, in an apparent fit of abstraction, had evidently forgotten her guest and all else, save the cheerful fire before her. Presently she withdrew her eyes from their fixed stare at the flames, and, looking at Paul, said:
"You must be hungry."
There was something so incongruous with his surroundings and recent train of thought in the girl's sudden remark that Henley could not help laughing.
"One would scarcely expect to eat in such a remarkable home as yours, Miss Guir," he replied, looking into her earnest eyes, and wondering if she ordinarily dined alone.
"Nevertheless, we will in an hour," she answered, "and I shall expect you to have an excellent appetite after our long drive."
Paul wanted to ask about the members of her family, but thought it wisest to say nothing for the present. Surely they would appear in due season, for it was impossible the girl could live alone in so large a house, and without natural protection; and so he simply made a further allusion to the apparent age and great picturesqueness of the building.
"Yes," said Dorothy, again gazing into the fire, "it is old—considerably more than a hundred years. It was built in the Colonial days, when things were rougher and good work more difficult to obtain."
"But surely these portraits and historical scenes were the work of an artist," Henley ventured to observe, looking at a strange head of Medusa.
"Yes," she answered, "the one you are looking at was done by Ah Ben."
He had been led to believe that Ah Ben was a living member of the household, who would shortly appear, but this now seemed impossible, for these extraordinary pictures were as old as the house itself. What did the girl mean? Had this Ah Ben done them all? Should he ask her and expose his ignorance? Paul thought he would venture upon a compromise.
"And are these pictures as old as they appear?"
"Quite," answered the girl. "As you can see for yourself, the house and all that is in it date from quite a remote time, and many of the portraits were painted before the house was ever begun."
That seemed to settle the question. Ah Ben was evidently a deceased ancestor; possibly a friend of the family in the distant past, and Henley concluded that he had misunderstood the girl in her former allusion to the man.
Dorothy had not taken off her hat, nor did she seem to have the slightest intention of doing so; meanwhile Paul's appetite, which had been temporarily lulled by his novel surroundings, was beginning to assert itself, and as there was no prospect of an attendant to conduct him to his room, he was about to ask where he might find a bowl of water to relieve himself of some of the stains of travel. Before he had finished the sentence, however, his attention was arrested by the sound of a distant footstep. He listened; it came nearer, and in a minute was descending the black staircase in the corner. Paul watched, and saw the figure of an old man as it turned an angle in the stairs. Then it stopped, and coughed lightly as if to announce its approach.
"Come," cried Dorothy, "it's only Mr. Henley, and I'm sure he'll be glad to see you."
The figure advanced, and when it had descended far enough to be in range with the fire and lamplight, Paul saw a most extraordinary person. The man, although very old, was tall and dignified in appearance, with deep-set, mysterious eyes, and flowing white moustache and hair. The top of his head was lightly bound in a turban of some flimsy material, and a loose robe of crimson silk hung from his shoulders, gathered together with a cord about the waist. As he advanced Henley observed that the bones of his cheeks were high and prominent, and the eyes buried so deep beneath their projecting brows and skull, that he was at a loss to account for the strange sense of power which he felt to be lodged in so small a space.
"This is Ah Ben, Mr. Henley, of whom I have spoken," said Dorothy, rising.
The old man extended his hand and bowed most courteously. He hoped that they had had a pleasant drive from the station, and then took his seat beside the fire.
Paul was dumfounded. Probably he was expected to know all about the man, and he had only just decided that he had been dead for a century. How could he so have misinterpreted what he had heard?
Ah Ben stretched his long bony fingers to the fire, and observed that the nights were beginning to grow quite cold.
"Yes," said Henley, "I had hardly expected to find the season so far advanced in your Southern home."
"Our altitude more than amends for our latitude," answered the old man; and then, taking a pair of massive tongs from the corner of the mantel, he stirred the balsam logs into a fierce blaze, starting a myriad of sparks in their flight up the chimney. Dorothy was looking above, and Paul, following the direction of her eyes, observed a model of Father Time reclining upon a shelf near the ceiling. The figure's scythe was broken; his limbs were in shackles, and his body covered with chains. It was an original conception, and Henley could not help asking if Time had really been checked in his onward march at Guir House.
"Ah!" said Dorothy, "that is a symbol of a great truth; but I am not surprised at your asking"; then, turning to the old man, added: "Mr. Henley has not yet been shown to his room, and I am sure he would like to see it. It is the west chamber."
"True," said Ah Ben, rising and taking a candle from the mantel, which he lighted with a firebrand; "if Mr. Henley will follow me, I shall take pleasure in pointing it out to him."
Paul followed the elder man up the black stairs, through devious passages, and past doors with pictured panels, until he began to wonder if he could ever find his way back again. At last they stopped before a rough door, hung with massive hinges stretching half way across it, discolored with rust, and looking as if they had not been moved in an age, and which creaked dismally as Ah Ben entered.
"This will be your room," he said, bowing courteously, and placing the candle upon the table near the chimney. He then reminded Henley that their evening meal would soon be ready. "If there is anything further which you will need, pray let me know," he added, and then retired.
"I should like my luggage," said Paul, having left it below, with the exception of a small satchel.
"It shall be sent to you at once," the old man answered, as he walked slowly away.
Left to himself, Henley looked around with curiosity. Every comfort had been provided, even to an arm-chair and writing-table by the fire; but the room, as well as its furnishing, was old and quaint, and rapidly going to decay. Everything he saw related to a past period of existence. The window was high, and deep set in the wall. There was a bench under it, upon which one was obliged to climb to obtain a view of the country, and Henley pulled himself up into the sill to look out.
The landscape presented an unbroken panorama of forest. No farming land was visible, and the distant mountains closed in the sky-line, and all bathed in the soft light of the moon, made a picture of extreme beauty and loneliness—a solid wilderness, shut in from the busy world without. There was a musty smell, as if the room had not been used in years, and he lifted the sash. The rich perfume of fir and balsam was wafted in, displacing the disagreeable odor.
The bed was a high four-poster, and there were steps for climbing into it. On examination, it was discovered to be built into the room with heavy timbers, and framed solidly with the house itself. A few faded rugs were scattered about the worm-eaten floor, and in every direction the wood-work was rough and unpainted, though massive enough for a fortress. Above the wash-stand was a strange picture, painted upon a fragment of coarse blanket, which had been stretched upon the wall. It depicted the setting sun, with red and gold rays, and a blue mountain in the distance. Around the entire scene, in a semicircle, was the word "Illusion," singularly wrought into the shafts of light, and undecipherable without the closest scrutiny. The figure of an old man in the foreground was contemplating the scene. It was a crude piece of work, but impressive. There was a large mahogany cabinet, mounted with brass; but its double doors were locked and its drawers immovable. Beside the bed was a worm-eaten door, and in idle curiosity Paul tried the handle. It opened easily, revealing a spacious closet, with hooks and shelves. Throwing the small satchel he had brought up with him upon the floor within, it struck something, but the closet was too dark for him to see what; so, taking the candle, he made an examination. In the farthest corner was a hand-rail, guarding a closed scuttle, in which was inserted a heavy iron ring. Henley took hold of the ring, and with some effort succeeded in opening the scuttle. Looking down, he found to his surprise that it communicated with a rough stairway leading below. He peered into the darkness, but could discern nothing save the steps, which seemed to go all the way to the cellar, and were just wide enough to admit of a human body. He then removed his belongings back into the room, shut down the scuttle, and closed the door. As there was no fastening, he wedged a chair between the knob and the floor, in such a manner that it could not be opened from within. He then threw himself upon the bed, wondering what would be the outcome of his unlawful enterprise, and while inhaling the tonic air of hill and forest, half wished he were well away from this uncanny house and its eccentric inmates. And yet, despite the mystery which enshrouded it, there was a charm, a fascination, he could not deny. It was the dream-like unreality of his surroundings—unreal, because different from all that he had ever known. Should he suddenly find himself a dozen miles removed, he felt certain that he would straightway return.
The musty smell had disappeared, and as the room was getting cold, Paul got up and closed the window. At the moment he had done so, there was a low knock at the door. He replied by a summons to enter, but there was no answer. The knock was repeated, and again Paul shouted, "Come in"; but, as before, there was no response. He now went to the door and opened it, and found a servant standing outside with his luggage.
"Why did you not come in?" Paul inquired.
But the man did not answer; he simply entered and placed the bags upon the floor. Henley now asked him another question, but the fellow did not even look at him, and left the room without saying a word. Suddenly Paul remembered that he had seen him before. It was the dumb man who had met them on their arrival. It was the only servant he had seen. Could it be possible that these people kept no other?
When Henley had completed his toilet, he blew out the candle and then groped his way down to the hall, where he found Miss Guir and Ah Ben awaiting him. The girl came forward to greet her guest, and to reveal her presence, the fire having died away and the hanging lamp affording but a dull, copperish glow, barely sufficient to indicate the furniture and outlines of the room.
Dorothy was radiant, but peculiarly so. She was unlike the girls to whom he was accustomed in the city. Moreover, her manner was more quiet, more earnest and dignified than theirs. She looked more charming than ever in a white gown, while her burnished hair was held in place by a tall Spanish comb, and decorated with a flower. To be sure, the details of her costume were only suggested in the vague, uncertain light, but her pose and manner were unusually impressive.
"I hope you will not think that all Virginians are as inhospitable as we appear to be, Mr. Henley," she exclaimed, with a graciousness that was quite bewitching.
"I'm sure," said Henley, "that I have never been treated with greater consideration by any one; my room is simply perfect!"
"In its way, yes; but its way is that of a century past. But what I was referring to in the matter of special negligence was the time we have kept you from food."
"Do you know," Paul replied, "that I have been so absorbed with the many strange things I have seen since my arrival that I have scarcely had time to think of food?"
"But I told you that you would be expected to have a good appetite."
"And I have. In fact, when I think of it, I am ravenous," he answered.
"Then follow me," she said, leading the way toward a heavily-curtained door upon the right. They passed into a narrow passage, and then, turning to the left, entered a softly-lighted room. Paul was amazed at the sight that met his eyes. A round table, set for two, loaded with flowers, cut glass, and silver, and lighted with wax candles grouped under a large central shade of yellow silk, with a deep fringe of the same material. The distant parts of the room were in comparative shadow forming a proper setting for the soft candle-light in the center. Evidently no one else was expected, and Dorothy, taking her seat upon one side of the cloth, requested Paul to sit opposite.
"And will not Ah Ben be with us?" inquired Henley, glancing around to see if the old man were not coming.
"I'm afraid not," replied Dorothy; "he rarely dines at this hour."
If Mr. Henley had been told of the reception awaiting him at Guir House before leaving New York, he would doubtless have considered it a hoax. As it was, he was astounded. The odd character of the house and its inmates had already given him much ground for thought, even amazement; but to suddenly find himself face to face, tete-a-tete with a bewitching girl, at a gorgeous dinner table, laid for them only, was a condition of things calculated to turn any ordinary man's head. Never for an instant had the girl given the slightest intimation of why he, or rather the original Henley, had been wanted, and every effort to gain a clew of his business was thwarted—sometimes, it seemed, intentionally. The table was deftly waited upon by the same dumb man, who was a man-of-all-work and marvelous capacity, but his orders were invariably given by signals. Paul wondered if he were mistaken; could it be another servant with the same affliction? But that seemed incredible.
Miss Guir's eloquent face, her wonderful hair and eyes, doubtless interfered with Paul in the full enjoyment of his meal. In fact, he was bewildered—dazed. He could neither account for the situation or the growing beauty of the girl. Was it the candle-light that had proved so becoming? But there was another matter that disturbed him, perhaps, quite as much as this. It was the fact that Dorothy would not eat. Scarcely a mouthful of food passed her lips, although the dishes were of the daintiest, and she barely tasted many which she recommended heartily to him. Was she ill? or was it not the usual hour for her evening meal? Manlike, Henley was distressed for anything not endowed with a hearty appetite, and after the long cool drive he was sure she ought to be hungry. When he ventured to allude to the fact, and to remark that neither she nor Ah Ben ate like country people, the girl only smiled and declared that they both ate quite enough for their health, although she would never undertake to judge for others. With this he had to be satisfied.
From time to time Paul's eyes would wander around the table; and from its dainty dishes and exquisite flowers return to their true lodestone, his hostess. In fact, the girl possessed a mesmeric charm for him, which had grown with marvelous rapidity since his arrival.
"It is all wonderfully beautiful!" he said, looking straight into Dorothy's eyes.
"I'm so glad you like it," she answered smiling, "but you're not eating like a very hungry man."
She was helping his plate to a salad of cresses, to which she was adding an extra spoonful of dressing.
"I think you will find this quite the correct thing," she added, pushing the plate toward him.
"Everything is much more than perfect," answered Paul; "in fact, I am not accustomed——"
But he checked himself suddenly. How did he know what the real Henley was accustomed to? Possibly he was a millionaire, while he, Paul—was not.
Whate'er she was doing, in every pose, Miss Guir was a picture—a quaint, unusual picture, to be sure, but nevertheless a picture. In helping the fruit which was brought on after dinner, her white hands, ablaze with precious stones, shone to peculiar advantage; and when she poured out the coffee that followed, Paul wished for his kodak, for he had seen nowhere, save in old-fashioned engravings, just such a picture as she made. But it became Miss Guir's turn to be critical.
"Do you know what I think?" she said, looking him full in the face, and without a suspicion of embarrassment.
She bent toward him with her elbows on the table, her chin resting upon her clasped hands.
"I think that if you had a flower in your buttonhole—you wouldn't mind it now, would you, if I were to give you one?"
And then without either smile or apology, she took the chrysanthemum from her hair and tossed it over to Paul. There was something so odd, and yet so deeply earnest in the way the thing was done that Henley accepted the favor as he might have accepted a command from royalty than as a flirtatious banter from a girl. He placed the flower in his buttonhole without the faintest desire to respond with one of those frivolous speeches he would have used under most similar circumstances.
Before the meal was finished, Ah Ben entered the room and poured himself a cup of coffee, which he drank without sitting down. It was all that he took.
When Ah Ben had finished his coffee, the three retired to the great entrance hall, where the fire was burning brightly, and the hanging lamp lending its uncertain aid to the illumination of the curious old apartment. Ah Ben produced a couple of long-stemmed pipes, one of which he handed to Paul, with a great leather pouch of leaf tobacco which he showed his guest how to prepare for smoking. They seated themselves in the pew before the fire, Dorothy nearest the hearth, while Paul placed himself upon the lounge opposite.
A great stillness pervaded the house, and Mr. Henley could not help wondering again if there were not other members of the establishment. Dorothy was staring into the fire, her thoughts far away, while Ah Ben smoked his pipe in silence. "Perhaps they have theories about digestion," Paul reflected, while he pulled at his long Ti-ti stem, and watched the meditative couple before him. The firelight played upon Ah Ben's white moustache and swarthy features, and the colored handkerchief upon his head, and set the long thin fingers all of a tremble upon the pipe-stem, as if manipulating the stops of a flute. It danced over Dorothy's gown in a dazzling sheen of white, and flashed upon her jeweled hands in colored sparks of green and gold and purple and red, and lit up her face and hair with the soft warm tints of a Rubens. Such a picture did the twain combine to make; they looked indeed as if they might have stepped from the canvas of some old master and come for a brief season to taste the joys of flesh and blood and life.
The outer regions of the hall were in darkness, the ancient lamp barely revealing the oddities of brush, chisel, and structure, that combined to make the most remarkable living-room that Henley had ever seen. The decaying portraits, the singular carvings and peculiar furniture, now only revealed themselves by suggestion in the faint illumination of the lamp and uncertain flicker of the fire.
But what were these people, Dorothy and Ah Ben, to each other? It was out of the question that they could be husband and wife—it seemed equally so that they could be father and daughter. Paul searched the faces of each for traces of similiarity, but there were none. Their manner to each other, the girl's mode of addressing the man, all indicated the absence of kinship. Yes, Henley felt quite certain that Ah Ben and Dorothy Guir were neither related nor connected, and that they were never likely to become so.
From time to time the old man would arise to mend the fire, and a quiet conversation upon indifferent topics ensued, Dorothy uttering a few words occasionally, in a dreamy voice, with her head propped upon a cushion in the corner. At last she failed to answer when spoken to; evidently she had fallen asleep.
"My daughter, you need rest," said Ah Ben gently, and at the same moment a clock upon the stairs began striking eleven.
Dorothy opened her eyes and looked around.
"I must have fallen asleep!" she exclaimed quite naively.
She bade them each "Good night," and then started up the uncanny stairs. Near the top she paused in the darkness, and looking over the balustrade into the hall below, seemed to be waiting. Perhaps she was not so completely in the shadow as she imagined, and perhaps Paul did not see aright, but through the gloom he thought he caught the flash of a diamond as it moved toward her lips and away again. If tempted to return the salute, his better judgment prevailed, and while holding the stem of his pipe in his right hand, pressed the tobacco firmly into the bowl with his left. A troublesome thought presented itself. Could this girl have entered into any kind of entanglement with his namesake which would have demanded a tenderer attitude than he had assumed toward her? Had he neglected opportunities and failed to avail himself of privileges which he had unknowingly inherited? For an instant the thought disturbed Mr. Henley's equilibrium, but a moment's reflection convinced him that the idea was not worth considering. Whatever it was he had seen upon the stairs he knew was not intended for his eyes, even if it had been meant for himself.
"Shall we smoke another pipe?" said Ah Ben. "I'm something of an owl myself, and shall sit here for quite a while before retiring."
Paul was glad of the opportunity, and accepted with alacrity. He hoped in the quiet of a midnight conversation to discover something about this peculiar man and his home. Perhaps he should also learn something of the girl, her strange life, and the Guirs.
"We may not be so comfortable as we would be in our beds," continued the elder man, "but there is a certain comfort in discomfort which ought not to be undervalued. Sleep, to be enjoyed, should be discouraged rather than courted."
"Yes," answered Paul, "I believe Shakespeare has told us something about it in his famous soliloquy on that subject."
"True," replied Ah Ben, "and I suppose there is no one living who has not felt the delusion of comfort. Like many other material blessings, it is to be had only in pills."
Ah Ben had stretched his legs out toward the hearth, and while passing his hand across his withered cheek, had closed his eyes in reverie. The dim and uncertain shadows made the room seem like some vast cavern, whose walls were mythical and whose recesses unexplored. The lamp had expired to a single spark, and there was nothing to reveal their presence to each other except the red glow from the embers.
"No," said the man, continuing to speak with his eyes still closed, "luxury is not necessary to a man's happiness, although he has persuaded himself that it is so."
"Perhaps not," Paul admitted, "although I contend that a certain amount of comfort is."
"By no means. There was never a greater fallacy, although I am free to admit that under certain conditions it may conduce to that end. But tell me, have you never seen one happy amid the greatest physical privations?"
"No, not absolutely; the absolute does not belong to the finite. I refer to what most men would consider happiness."
"Oh, if you're talking about saints, they're outside my experience."
A faint smile played over Ah Ben's face as he answered:
"Saints, my dear sir, are no more to me than to you. Have you ever seen a prize fight?"
"Oh, yes; several."
"Do you not believe that the winner of a prize fight, even when covered with bruises, and suffering in every bone of his body, is happier at the moment of victory than he was the previous morning while lying comfortably in his bed?"
"I dare say; but now you're speaking of—"
"Happiness," suggested Ah Ben, "and if you will pardon me for saying so—for possibly I may have thought more upon this subject than you have—I can tell you the one essential which lies at the root of all happiness, without which it can never be acquired, but with which it is certain to follow."
"And what is that?" inquired Paul, with interest.
"Power" said Ah Ben, with an assurance that left no doubt of the conviction of the speaker.
"I suppose that is a kind of stepping-stone to contentment," answered Paul, reflectively.
"Precisely; for no man who lacks the power to accomplish his desires can know contentment. But contentment is transitory, and rests upon power. Power alone is the cornerstone of happiness."
"Do you really believe that?" Paul inquired, half incredulously.
"I know it. With me it is not a matter of speculation; it is a matter of knowledge."
"Then let me ask you why it is that the greatest power in the world, which is undoubtedly money, so often fails of this end?"
Ah Ben refilled his pipe, then raked a coal out of the fire with the bowl and pressed it firmly down upon the tobacco, and then said, reflectively:
"You are mistaken. Money does confer happiness to the full limit of its power, but this limit is quickly reached—first, because man's ambitions and desires grow faster than his wealth, or reach out into channels that wealth can never compass, or, and principally, because wealth is an impersonal power and not a direct one. Give the earth to a single man, and it would never enable him to change his appearance or alter one of his mental characteristics, nor to do one single thing he could not have accomplished before—it giving him the power to make others do his will; and so long as his will is not beyond the power of others to do, he is to that extent happy. But to be really happy, a man must have personal power. Wealth is not power. Power is lodged in the individuality."
"I don't know whether I quite understand you," said Paul.
Ah Ben looked at him searchingly with his luminous, deep-set eyes.
"Can gold restore an idiot's mind," he inquired, "or a cripple the use of his limbs? Would a mountain of gold add one iota to the power of your soul? And yet it is gold that men have labored for since the earth was made. Could they once understand its real limitations? What a different planet we should have!"
"That is all very well," answered Henley; "but this personal power of which you speak is born in a man, and is not to be acquired by anything he can do; whereas, the battle for wealth can be fought in a field open to all."
"There again I must beg to differ from you," said Ah Ben. "There is a law for the acquirement of this soul-power which is as fixed and certain as the law of gravitation; and when a man has once gained it, he has no more use for worldly wealth than he has for the drainings of a sewer."
"Do you mean to say that by a course of life—"
"I do, and it is this: Self-control is the law of psychic power."
"Then, according to your theory, the better mastery a man has over himself, the more he can accomplish and the greater his happiness?"
"I go still further," the old man continued. "I claim that self-control is the only source of happiness, and that he who can control his body—and by this I mean his eyes, his nerves, his tongue, his appetites and passions—can control other men; but he who is master of his mind, his thoughts, his desires, his emotions, has the world in a sling. Such a man is all powerful; there is nothing he can not accomplish; there is no force that can stand against him."
The fire had died out, save for a few glowing embers, but Ah Ben's singular face seemed to draw unto itself what light there was, and to hold Henley's eyes in a kind of mesmeric fascination. He had put off going to bed for the sole purpose of gaining some knowledge of the house and its inmates; and yet now, with apparently nothing to hinder his investigations, he felt an unaccountable diffidence about making the inquiries. An impression that the man was a mind-reader had doubtless increased this embarrassment, and yet he had had no evidence of this kind, nor anything to indicate such a fact beyond the keen, penetrating power of those marvelous eyes. Paul felt that there was a mental chasm, deep and wide and impassable, that yawned between him and the strange individual before him. Such stupendous power of will as lodged within that brain could sport with the forces of nature, suspend or reverse the action of law, disintegrate matter, or create it. At least such was the impression which Mr. Henley had received.
It was past midnight before a movement was made for bed, and when Ah Ben brought a lighted candle, inquiring if everything in the bedchamber had been satisfactory, Paul was about to reply in the affirmative, when he suddenly remembered the staircase in the closet.
"I was about to forget," he said, "but would you mind explaining the object of a very peculiar staircase I discovered in the closet of my room?"
"This house is old," Ah Ben replied simply. "It was built when the State was a colony and full of Indians. The stairway communicating with the lower floor was doubtless intended as a means of escape. I had not thought of this annoying you, but can readily see how it might. You shall be removed to another room at once."
"Removed?" exclaimed Paul. "My dear sir, I had no intention of making such a suggestion. The most I thought of asking for was a bolt for the door, or scuttle; but since your explanation I do not wish either."
They bade each other good night, and Paul undertook to find his room alone, declining Ah Ben's offer to accompany him. But the house was full of strange passages and unexpected stairways, making the task more difficult than he had expected. After wandering about he found himself stopped by a dead wall, at least so it had looked, but suddenly directly before him stood Ah Ben.
"I thought you might need my assistance," he said quietly; and then without appearing to notice Henley's astonishment, led the way to his room.
When Paul found himself alone, he became conscious of a growing curiosity concerning the stairs in the closet. He opened the door and looked in, and then quietly lifted the scuttle by the ring. He peered down into the darkness, but, as the stairs were winding, could discern nothing for more than a half dozen steps below. He listened, but the house was perfectly quiet, Ah Ben's retreating footsteps having died upon the air. Somehow he half doubted the story which the old man had told him about the original intention of the stairway as a means of escape. It seemed improbable, and dated back to such a remote period that he could not help feeling distrustful. Candle in hand, he commenced to descend, looking carefully where he placed his feet. As everywhere else, the woodwork was worm-eaten, and the timbers set up a dismal creaking under the weight of his body, but he had undertaken to investigate the meaning of this architectural eccentricity, and would not now turn back. On he crept, noiselessly as possible, adown the twisting stairs, carefully looking ahead for pitfalls and unsuspected developments. Once he paused, thinking he heard the distant tread of a foot, but the sound died away, and he resumed his course. Some of the steps were so broken and rotten that extreme caution was necessary to avoid falling. At last he reached the ground, and found himself at the bottom of a square well, around the four walls of which the stairs had been built. He was facing a massive door, which occupied one of the sides of the well. Paul tried the lock, but it was so old and rust-eaten that it refused to move. There was no other outlet, and the place was narrow and damp. He looked wistfully at the solitary door, feeling a vague suspicion that it barred the entrance to a mystery, and resolved to return at some future time, when not so harassed with sleepiness and the fatigues of travel, and make another effort to open it. Paul looked above, and as he did so a gust of air swept down the narrow opening and blew out his light; at the same instant he heard the fall of the scuttle and realized that he was shut in.
"Trapped! and by my own cursed curiosity," he muttered, as he commenced groping his way up in the darkness. But it was not so easy as he had supposed. Twice he slipped his foot into a rotten hole, and once the stairs trembled so violently that he thought they were about to fall. Nevertheless he reached the top, as he realized when his head came in contact with the trap-door, upon the other side of which he pictured Ah Ben standing with an amused smile. Henley placed his shoulder against the door, and to his amazement found that it opened quite easily. He then procured a light, and having satisfied himself that there had never been the slightest intention to entrap him, the door having simply fallen, he went hurriedly to bed.
The breakfast room was a charming little corner reclaimed from a dingy cell, where in by-gone days guns and ammunition had been stored, but the peace-loving inhabitants of later times had rendered these no longer necessary. It was now the most modern room Paul had seen since his arrival at this great unconventional homestead, looking quite as if it had been tacked on by mistake to the dismal old mansion.
Upon entering, he found Miss Guir sitting alone at the table. She was attired in a charming costume, and looked as fresh as the flowers before her. She greeted him with a smile, and asked how he had slept.
"Perfectly!" he answered, seating himself by her side, where he looked out of a low French window opening upon a garden with boxwood borders and a few belated blossoms.
"But do you know," he continued, "the most extraordinary thing happened."
He went on to tell of his experience in the closet, thinking it best to take the bull by the horns and see if anything in Dorothy's expression would lead him to suspect foul play. She listened to his story with interest, and, as Paul thought, a slight display of anxiety, but nothing more. When he had finished, she simply advised him not to go down those stairs any more, as they were rotten and dangerous. This was all. Nevertheless Henley felt sure that the girl knew what lay upon the other side of the door at the bottom. They chatted along quite pleasantly, Paul endeavoring to lead the conversation into some instructive channel, but without success.
"I thought perhaps I should have met some of your people at breakfast," he said, while sipping his coffee.
Dorothy stopped with a piece of toast half way to her lips.
"My people!" she exclaimed.
"Yes," said Paul, unmindful of the impression he had made.
"Really, Mr. Henley, what are you talking about?"
"The Guirs!" said Paul, still unheedful.
Suddenly he looked up, and the expression on the girl's face startled him.
"Are you ill?" he cried. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No, no," she gasped. "It is nothing. I am nervous. I am always nervous in the morning, and you gave me quite a turn. There now, I shall feel better directly."
If Paul was astonished before, he was dumfounded now. He could not imagine how anything he had said could produce such an effect, but he watched the return of color to the girl's face with satisfaction. Presently she looked up at him with a smile and said:
"It is all right now, but you must excuse me for a minute. I shall be back immediately."
She got up and left the room, leaving Paul alone. His appetite had quite departed, so he turned his chair around and looked out of the window at the boxwood bushes and the trees beyond. Not a human figure was in sight, nor was there a sound to indicate that there were living creatures about the premises. Where was the family? Surely such a large house could not be occupied solely by the few individuals he had already met. If there were other members, where had they kept themselves? He would have given the world to have asked a few straightforward questions, but there seemed no opportunity to do so. Where was Ah Ben? Even he had not shown his face at the breakfast table. A painful sense of mystery was growing more oppressive each hour, which the bright morning sunlight had not dispelled, as he had hoped it would. If this feeling had confined itself to Ah Ben and the house, Paul thought he might have shaken off the gloom while in the company of the girl, but even she was subject to such extraordinary flights of eccentricity, such sudden fits of nervous depression, that he felt she was not surely to be depended on as a solace to his troubled soul. While he was meditating, the door opened, and Dorothy returned. She was full of smiles; and the color had come back to her cheeks.
"I can't imagine how I could have given you such a turn," said Paul apologetically, as he resumed his place at the table.
"It was altogether my fault," she answered. Then looking at him very earnestly, added:
"I hope, Mr. Henley, that you may never become an outcast, as I am. I hope your people will never disown you. But let us talk of something else."
As upon the previous evening, she was solicitous about his food, that it should be of the best, and that he should enjoy it, although apparently indifferent about her own.
"Of course, you will find us quite different from other people, Mr. Henley," she continued, sipping her coffee (she never seemed to drink or eat anything heartily); "our ideas and manner of living being quite at variance with theirs."
"Yes," Paul replied, as if he understood it perfectly. She was toying with her cup as though not knowing exactly how to continue. Presently she looked up at him appealingly, possessed of a sudden idea, and added:
"And what do you think about the brain?"
Paul was astonished at the irrelevancy of the question.
"I think it is in the head," he answered, smiling, in the hope of averting a difficulty. "That is, I think it ought to be there," he added in a minute, "although it is doubtless missing in some cases. Still, there can be but little dissent from the general opinion that the skull is the proper place for it."
She looked puzzled, and Paul began to wonder if he had offended her, but in another moment she relaxed into a smile.
"I'm sure you don't think anything of the kind," she answered, "for if you do, you're not up to date. The latest investigations have shown that brain matter is distributed throughout the body. No, I'm not joking. We all think more or less with our hands and feet."
"I've not the slightest doubt of it," Paul answered, applying himself to his food; "and even if I had," he continued, "I should never dispute anything you told me." And then, looking her full in the face, he added: "Do you know, Miss Guir, that you have exerted a most remarkable influence over me? It might not be polite to say that it is inexplicable; but when I recall the fact that no girl ever before, in so short a time—"
He paused for a word, but before he could discover one that was satisfactory, she said:
"Do you mean to say that you have formed a liking for me already?"
"It is hardly the word. I have been fascinated from the moment I first saw you."
"I'm so glad," she answered, without the slightest appearance of coquetry, and as simply and naturally as though she were talking about the weather. Paul was puzzled. He could not understand her, and not knowing how to proceed, an awkward silence followed. Presently she leaned her head upon her hand, her elbow resting on the table, and with a languid yet interested scrutiny of his face, said:
"You doubtless know the world, its people and ways, far better than I, and perhaps you wouldn't mind helping me with my book."
"Indeed! You are writing a book, then?"
"No, but I should like to do so."
"And may I ask what it is about?"
"It's about myself and Ah Ben, and the awful predicament into which we have fallen."
"I should like greatly to help you," said Paul, thinking the subject might lead to a clearer insight of the situation; "but even were I competent to do so, which I doubt, I can not see how any little worldly knowledge I might possess could possibly be of service in a description of your own life."
"It is only that I should like to present our story in attractive form—one which would be read by worldly people."
"A laudable ambition. But what is the predicament you speak of?"
"The predicament is more directly my own; the situation, Ah Ben's."
"Perhaps if you will explain them, I might aid you."
"You might indeed," she answered seriously, rising from the table; "but it would be premature. Let us go into the garden."
She led the way through the back of the house out into the old-fashioned yard, where boxwood bushes and chrysanthemums, together with other autumnal flowers, adorned the beds. They walked down a straight path and seated themselves upon a rustic bench in full view of the edifice. Paul lighted a cigarette and watched the strange old building before him, while Dorothy was content to sit and look at him, as though he were some new variety of man just landed from the planet Mars. Presently she arose and wandered down the path in search of a few choice blossoms, leaving Paul alone, who watched her until she disappeared among the shrubbery.
Sitting quietly smoking his cigarette, Mr. Henley became absorbed in a critical study of the quaint old pile which had so suddenly risen to abnormal interest in his eyes. A part of the structure was falling rapidly to decay, while other portions were so deeply embedded in ivy and other creeping things that it was impossible to discover their actual state of preservation. The windows were small and far apart, and Paul recognized his own by its bearing upon a certain tree which he had noticed while looking out upon the previous night. Following down the line of the wall, he was surprised to find a large space which was not pierced by either door or window, and naturally began to wonder what manner of apartment lay upon the opposite side, where neither light nor air were admitted. The wall, to be sure, was covered with Virginia creeper, which had made its way to the roof, but it was evident that it concealed no opening. Then his thoughts wandered back to the mysterious well, and he began to wonder if the closed door at the bottom connected with the unaccounted-for space behind this wall. His curiosity grew as he brooded upon this possibility—a possibility which he now conceded to be a certainty as he marked the configuration of the building. The blank wall was beneath his bedroom. The well descended directly into it, or upon one side of it, and communicated with it through the door mentioned. There was nothing to be learned by inquiry, and Henley determined to make another effort to force open the door. His resolution was not entirely the result of curiosity, for he had taken such a sudden and strong liking for the girl that he disliked the thought of leaving her; and yet the riddle of her environment was such that he conceived it to be no more than a proper regard for his own safety to take such a precaution while visiting her. Having reached this determination, he cast about for the means of executing it. He thought he should require a hammer and a cold chisel, but where such were to be found he could not conceive. Moreover, even were they in his possession, it was impossible to see exactly how he could make use of them without arousing the household. He thought of various devices, such as a muffled hammer, or a crowbar to wrench the door from its hinges, but these were discarded in turn as impracticable, from the fact that they were unobtainable. He looked about him among the shrubbery, but there was nothing to aid him; and, indeed, how could he expect to find tools where there were no servants to use them? He got up and walked down the path, absorbed in reverie, and although unable to devise any immediate plan to accomplish the task, his resolution became more fixed as he dwelt upon it. He would risk all things in opening that door, and was impatient for an opportunity to renew the effort. Then the girl's voice came floating through the air in a plaintive melody, and Henley was recalled to his surroundings. In another minute she had joined him.
"I was afraid you would be lonely without me," she said, "and so I returned as soon as I had carried the flowers to the house."
"I am so glad," he replied, with a look of unmistakable pleasure. "Do you know, this is the most romantic place I have ever seen in all my life, and you are certainly the most romantic girl."
"Am I?" she answered sadly, and without a glimmering suspicion of a smile.
They walked slowly down the path until reaching a decrepit old gate, where they stopped.
"This is the end of the garden," she said. "Shall we go into the woods for a walk?"
"Dorothy!" Paul began, "pardon me for calling you by your name, but do you know I feel as if any prefix in your case would be irritating, from the fact that you strike me as a girl who is utterly above and beyond such idle conventionalities. One would almost as soon think of saying Miss to a goddess."
"And may I call you Paul? You will not think me forward if I should do so?" she asked, looking up at him.
"I will think myself more honored than any poor language of mine could describe," he answered.
"You know I would not want to call you Paul," she added, "unless I believed in you—unless I thought you were true and honorable in all things."
Paul winced. Was he not deceiving the girl at that very minute? What could he say?
"Dorothy," he answered, after a moment's hesitation, "I am not true, nor honorable neither. Perhaps you had better not call me Paul. I do not deserve it."
She was looking him straight in the face, with her hand upon the gate. He felt the keen, searching quality of her eyes, but was able now to return the look.
"We sometimes judge ourselves harshly," she continued. "I have myself been often led by an idle temptation into what at first appeared but a trifling wrong, but which looked far more serious later. Had I acted with the greater knowledge, I had committed the greater fault."
What was she saying? Was she not describing his own position?
"Therefore, when I say Paul," she added, "I do it because I like you, and because I believe in you, and not because I think you perfect."
She lifted the rickety old gate with care, and he closed it after them; then they walked out over the dank leaves, through the brilliant coloring of the forest. The day was soft and tempting, while a mellow haze filled the air.
"I am going to show you the prettiest spot in all the world," said Dorothy, "a place where I often go and sit alone."
They walked side by side, there being no longer any path, or, if there had been one, it was now covered, and the sunlight, filtering through the tree-tops, fell in brilliant patches upon the gaudy carpet beneath their feet. They had walked a mile, when Paul heard the murmur of distant water, and saw that they were heading for a rocky gorge, through which a small stream forced its way in a jumble of tiny cataracts and pools. It was an ideal spot, shut in from all the world beyond. The restful air, barely stirring the tree-tops, and the water, as it went dripping from stone to stone, made just enough sound to intimate that the life principle of a drowsy world was existent. They seated themselves upon a rocky ledge, and Dorothy became absorbed in reverie; while Paul, from a slightly lower point, gazed up at the trees, the sky, and the girl, with mute infatuation.
"You lead such an ideal life here," he said, after some minutes of silence, "that I should imagine the outer world would seem harsh and cold by contrast."
"But I have never seen what you call the outer world," she answered, with a touch of melancholy in her voice.
"Do you mean to say that you have lived here always?"
"Yes, and always shall, unless some one helps me away."
"I don't think I quite understand," he replied, "who could help you away, if your own people would not. Pardon the allusion, but I do not grasp the situation."
"I could never go with any of the Guirs," she answered, with a shudder, "for I am quite as much afraid of them as they are of me."
Paul was again silent. He was meditating whether it were best to ask frankly what she meant, and risk the girl's displeasure, as well as his own identity, or to take another course. Presently he said:
"Dorothy, I would not pry into the secrets of your soul for the world, and am sure you will believe in my honesty in declaring that there is no one whom I would more gladly serve than yourself. I think you must know this."
An eager glance for a moment dispelled the melancholy of her face, and then the old look returned with added force, as she answered:
"Yes, Paul, I believe what you say, and admit that you, of all men, could be of service; and yet you have no conception of the sacrifice you would entail upon yourself by the service you would render. Could I profit myself at the cost of your eternal sorrow? You do not know, and alas! I cannot explain; but the boon of my liberty would, I fear, only be purchased at the price of yours. I had not thought I should be so perplexed!"
He had not found the slightest relief from the embarrassing ignorance that enshrouded him. The girl's utter lack of coquetry, and her depth of feeling, made his position even more complex than it might otherwise have been.
"As you must know, I am talking in the dark," he continued after a minute, "but this much I will venture to assert, that no act of mine could be a sacrifice which would put my life in closer touch with yours; for although it was only yesterday that we met for the first time, I love you; and I loved you, Dorothy, from the instant I first caught sight of you at the station. I do not pretend to explain this, but have felt an overpowering passion from that moment."
"And you will not think me unmaidenly, Paul, if I say the same to you?"
She made no effort to conceal her feelings, and they sat murmuring sweet things into each other's ears until a green bird came fluttering through the air, and lighting upon a bough just above their heads, screamed:
It was a parrot, and there was something so uncanny in its sudden appearance that Paul started:
"He seems to be your chaperone!" he observed.
"He is my mascot!" cried Dorothy. "If it were not for his company, I fear I should go mad. I am so lonely, Paul, you can not understand it."
"Have you no neighbors?" he inquired.
"None within miles; and we live such a strange isolated life that people are afraid of us."
Paul thought of the stage driver, and his look of horror on hearing where he was going.
"I can't understand why people should be afraid of you simply because you live alone," he said. "For my part, I think your life here is most interesting. But you have not told me how I can help you."
"Nor can I yet," she answered. "There is a way, of course, but I can not consent to so great a sacrifice from you; at least, not at present."
"And would it compel me to leave you?"
"No; it would compel you to be with me always."
"And have you so little faith in me as to call that a sacrifice? I did flatter myself that you believed what I told you just now."
"But, Paul, you do not know me. Wait until you do. Then, perhaps, you will change your mind."
She spoke with emphasis and a strange depth of feeling, and he wondered what she meant.
"I could never change, Dorothy," he replied with fervor, "unless you wished it; but if you did, do you know I believe it would not be in your power to reverse the bewildering spell you have wrought, and make me hate you, for never before have I felt anything approaching this strange sudden infatuation. But do not keep me in suspense; tell me, I pray, what is this mystery in your life which you think would change my feelings toward you?"
"I belong nowhere. I have no friend in all the wide world," she answered bitterly.
"You have forgotten Ah Ben," suggested Paul. She did not answer, but continued stroking the parrot which had lighted upon her shoulder, demanding her caresses with numerous mutterings.
"Modesty prevents my reminding you of my humble aspirations to your friendship," added Paul, nestling closer to her side. Suddenly she looked up at him with an intense penetrating gaze, while she squeezed the parrot until it screamed.
"Do you think you could show your friendship and stick to me through a terrible ordeal?" she asked earnestly.
"I'm sure of it," he answered. "My love is not so thin-skinned as to shrink from any test. Only try me!"
"Then get me away from this place," she cried, "far, far away from it. But, mind, it will not be so easy as you think."
"Are you held against your will?" demanded Paul.
"No, no! You can not understand it. But I could not go alone. I will explain it to you some time, but not now. There is no hurry."
"Is Ah Ben anxious to keep you?" inquired Henley.
"On the contrary, he wishes me to go. You can not understand me, as I am quite different from other girls. Only take my word for what I tell you; and when the time comes, you will not desert me, will you?"
There was something wildly entreating in her manner and the tones of her voice, and a pathos which went to Henley's heart. What it all was about he could no more imagine than he could account for any of the mysteries at Guir House; but he was determined to stand by Dorothy, come what might.
Suddenly the girl had become quiet, rapt in some new thought. In another minute she placed her hand lightly upon Paul's shoulder, and said:
"Remember, you have promised!"
"I have promised," answered Paul. "Is there anything more?"
"Yes," said Dorothy.
She paused for a minute, as if what she were about to say was a great effort.
"Well," he continued, "after I have got you safely away—which, by the by, does not seem such a difficult task, as no one opposes your going—but, after we have escaped together, what further am I to do?"
"Naturally, I feel great delicacy in what I am about to say," said Dorothy; "but since you have told me that you love me, it does not seem so hard, although you do not know who or what I am—but, to be candid and frank with you, dear Paul, after you have gotten me away—why, you must marry me!"
Paul snatched her up in his arms.
"My darling!" he said, "you are making me the proudest man on earth!"
"Do not speak too soon," said Dorothy, releasing herself from his grasp. "Remember I have told you frankly that you do not know me. Perhaps I am driving a hard bargain with you!"
For a moment Paul became serious.
"Tell me, Dorothy," he asked, in an altered tone, "have you, or Ah Ben, or any member of your mysterious household or family, any crimes to answer for? Is there any good reason why I, as an honest man, should object to taking you for my wife?"
She turned scarlet as she answered:
"Never! There is no such reason. There is nothing dishonorable, I swear to you—nothing which could implicate you in any way with wrong-doing. No, Paul; my secret is different from that. You could never guess it, nor could I ever compromise you with crime."
Her manner was sincere, and carried conviction to the hearer of the truth of what she said.
"It is time we were going to the house," she added, rising, with the parrot still upon her shoulder; and side by side they retraced their steps along the woodland way homeward.
Although Mr. Henley had no doubt of the truth of Miss Guir's assertion, the mystery of her life was as real and deeply impressive as ever. Perhaps it was even more so, as seeming more subtle and far-reaching than crime itself, if such a thing were possible. Paul was determined to investigate the secret of the closet stairs; for while Ah Ben's explanation was plausible to a degree, the blank wall and heavy door at the bottom filled him with an uncanny fascination, which grew as he pondered upon them. Exactly what course to pursue he had not decided, but awaited an opportunity to continue his efforts in earnest. There were two serious difficulties to contend with; one was the want of tools, the other the necessity of prosecuting his work in silence.
As upon the previous evening, Dorothy and Mr. Henley dined alone, although Ah Ben, appearing just before they had finished, partook of a little dry lettuce and a small cup of coffee. Dorothy, as usual, ate most sparingly, "scarcely enough," as Paul remarked, "to keep the parrot alive."
After dinner they went together into the great hall, where Ah Ben prepared a pipe apiece for himself and his guest.
The logs were piled high upon the hearth, and the cheery blaze lit up the old pictures with a shimmering lustre, reducing the lamp to a mere spectral ornament. It was the flickering firelight that made the men and women on the walls nod at each other, as perhaps they had done in life.
They seated themselves in the spacious old leather-covered pew; Ah Ben and Dorothy upon one side, while Paul sat opposite. The men were soon engaged with their pipes, while Miss Guir had settled herself upon a pile of cushions in the corner nearest the chimney.
"You have been absent from home to-day, I believe," said Henley to the old man, by way of opening the conversation, and with the hope of eliciting an answer which would throw some light upon his habits.
"Yes," Ah Ben replied, blowing a volume of smoke from under his long, white moustache; "I seldom pass the entire day in this house. There are few things that give me more pleasure than roaming alone through the forest. One seems to come in closer touch with first principles. Nature, Mr. Henley, must be courted to be comprehended."
"I suppose so," answered Paul, not knowing what else to say, and wondering at the man's odd method of passing the time.
A long silence followed after this, only interrupted at intervals by guttural mutterings from the parrot, which seemed to be lodged somewhere in the upper regions of the obscure stairway. When the clock struck eleven, the bird shrieked out, as upon the previous night.
"Dorothy! Dorothy! it is bed time!"
Miss Guir arose, and saying "Good night," left Ah Ben and Mr. Henley to themselves.
"I am afraid I have been very stupid," said the old man, apologetically; "indeed, I must have fallen asleep, as it is my habit to take a nap in the early evening, after which I am more wide awake than at any other hour."
"Not at all," answered Paul, "I have been enjoying my pipe, and as Miss Guir seemed disposed to be quiet, think I must have been nodding myself."
"Do you feel disposed to join me in another pipe and a midnight talk," inquired the host, "or are you inclined for bed?"
Paul was not sleepy, and nothing could have suited him better than to sit over the fire, listening to this strange man, and so he again accepted eagerly. Ah Ben seemed pleased, declaring it was a great treat to have a friend who was as much of an owl as he himself was. And so he added fresh fuel to the dying embers, settled himself in his cosy corner by the fire, while Paul sat opposite.
"Every man must live his own life," resumed Ah Ben; "but with my temper, the better half would be blotted out, were I deprived of this quiet time for thought and reflection."
"I quite agree with you," replied Paul, "and yet the wisdom of the world is opposed to late hours,"
"The wisdom of the world is based upon the experience of the worldly prosperous; and what is worldly prosperity but the accumulation of dollars? To be prosperous is one thing; to be happy, quite another."
"I see you are coming back to our old argument. I am sure I could never school myself to the cheerful disregard for money which you seem to have. For my part, I could not do without it, although, to be sure, I sometimes manage on very little."
"Again the wisdom of the world!" exclaimed Ah Ben, "and what has it done for us?"
"It has taught us to be very comfortable in this latter part of the nineteenth century," Paul replied.
"Has it?" cried the old man, his eyes fixed full upon Henley's face. "I admit," he continued, "that it has taught us to rely upon luxuries that eat out the life while pampering the body. It has taught us to depend upon the poison that paralyzes the will, and that personal power we were speaking of. It has done much for man, I grant you, but its efforts have been mainly directed to his destruction."
"No man can be happy without health," answered Paul, "and surely you will admit that the discoveries of the last few decades have done much to improve his physical condition."
He was nestling back into the corner of his lounge, where the shadow of the mantelpiece screened his face, and enabled him to look directly into Ah Ben's eyes, now fixed upon him with strange intensity. There was a power behind those eyes that was wont to impress the beholder with a species of interest which he felt might be developed into awe; and yet they were neither large nor handsome, as eyes are generally counted. Deep set, mounted with withered lids and shaggy brows, their power was due to the manifestation of a spiritual force, a Titanic will, that made itself felt, independent of material envelopment. It was the soul looking through the narrow window of mortality.
"Health?" said Ah Ben, repeating Henley's last idea interrogatively, and yet scarcely above a whisper.
"Yes, health," answered Paul. "I maintain that the old maxim of 'early to bed' says something on that score, as well as on that of wealth."
"True, but you said that a man must needs be healthy to be happy."
"That's it, and I maintain that it's a pretty good assertion."
"There again we must differ. Happiness should be independent of bodily conditions, whether those conditions mean outward luxury or inward ease. I must again refer you to the prize-fighter. But if you will pardon me, I think you have put the cart before the horse; for once having granted that personal power, happiness must ensue, and your health as a necessity follow. First cultivate this occult force, and we need submit to no physical laws; for inasmuch as the higher controls the lower, we are masters of our own bodies."
"That is a pretty good prescription for those who are able to follow it, but for my humble attainments I'd rather depend on physic and a virtuous life."
"Quite so," answered Ah Ben, thoughtfully, "but, speaking frankly, this limitation of your powers to the chemical action of your body only shows the narrowness of your scientific training. Had men been taught the power of the will as the underlying principle of every effect, one drug would have proved quite as efficacious as another, and bread pills would have met the requirements of the world."
"But in the state of imbecility in which we happen to find ourselves," added Paul, "I should think that a judicious application of the world's wisdom would be better than trifling with theories one does not comprehend."
"As I said just now," observed Ah Ben, "I have no desire to force my private views upon another, but I must distinctly object to the word 'theory,' as associated with my positive knowledge on this subject. Every man must do as he thinks right, and as suits him best; but, for my part, I have disregarded all the physical laws of health during an unusually long life."
Paul straightened himself up, and looked at his host in the hope of a further explanation.
"I don't think I quite understand you!"
"Yes," said Ah Ben, repeating the sentence slowly and emphasizing the words, "I disregard all laws usually considered essential to living at all!"
Henley was silent for a minute in a vain effort to decide whether or not he were speaking seriously. He could not help remembering his abstinence from food, but at the time had not doubted the man had eaten between meals.
"Then you certainly ought to know all about it," he continued, relaxing into his former position, but quite unsettled as to Ah Ben's intention.
"You must admit that I have had sufficient time to be an authority unto myself, if not to others," added the old man. And then as he pressed the ashes down into the bowl of his pipe with his long emaciated fingers, and watched the little threads of smoke as they came curling out from under his thick moustache, Paul could only admit that the gravity of his bearing was inconsistent with a humorous interpretation of his words.
"You interest me greatly," resumed Henley, after scrutinizing the singular face before him for several minutes, in a kind of mesmeric fascination, "and I should like to ask what you mean by the cultivation of this occult power of which you spoke?"
"It is only to be acquired by the supremest quality of self-control, as I told you yesterday," answered Ah Ben; "but when once gained, no man would relinquish it for the gold of a thousand Solomons! You would have proof of what I tell you? Well, some day perhaps you will!"
Henley started. The man had read his thoughts. It was the very question upon his lips.
"You are a mind reader!" cried Paul. "How did you know I was going to ask you that?"
Ah Ben made no answer; he did not even smile, but continued to gaze into the fire and blow little puffs of smoke toward the chimney.
"You referred just now to the prize-fighter," Paul resumed after a few minutes, "but I am going to squelch that argument."
"Yes," Ah Ben replied, now with his eyes half closed, "you are going to tell me that, although the man may have been battered and bruised, he really feels no pain, because of the unnatural excitement of the moment; but there you only rivet the argument against yourself; for I maintain—and not from theory, but from knowledge—that that very excitement is an exaltation of the spirit, which may be cultivated and relied upon to conquer pain and the ills of the flesh forever!"
"It would go far indeed if it could do all that, although I believe there is something in what you say, for in a small way I have seen it myself."
"Yes, we have all seen it in a small way; and does it not seem strange that men have never thought of cultivating it in a larger way, through the exercise of their will in controlling their minds and bodies? This exaltation of spirit is only attained through effort, or some great physical shock. It is the secret of all power; it conquers all pain, and makes disease impossible."
"Makes disease impossible!" cried Paul in astonishment.
"Yes," answered the elder man quietly. "This soul power, of which I speak, is the hidden akasa in all men—it is the man himself—and when once recognized, the body is relegated to its proper sphere as the servant, and not the master; then it is that man realizes his own power and supremacy over all things."