* * * * *
THE STORY OF ANDREW FAIRFAX
ALL MEN ARE LIARS
FIELDS OF FAIR RENOWN
WEAPONS OF MYSTERY
THE PURPLE ROBE
THE SCARLET WOMAN
MISTRESS NANCY MOLESWORTH
LEST WE FORGET
THE COMING OF THE KING
THE PRINCE OF THIS WORLD
GOD AND MAMMON
AN ENEMY HATH DONE THIS
THE RING OF DESTINY
THE TENANT OF CROMLECH COTTAGE
NANCY TREVANION'S LEGACY
THE SIGN OF THE TRIANGLE
The Weapons of Mystery
by Joseph Hocking
AUTHOR OF "ALL MEN ARE LIARS", "THE PURPLE ROBE", "THE SCARLET WOMAN", ETC.
WARD. LOCK & CO., LIMITED
LONDON AND MELBOURNE Made and Printed in Great Britain by Ward, Lock & Co., Limited, London.
I. INTRODUCES THE WRITER AND OTHERS
II. CHRISTMAS EVE
III. CHRISTMAS MORNING
IV. VOLTAIRE'S STORY OF THE EAST
V. CHRISTMAS NIGHT—THE FORGING OF THE CHAIN
VII. DREARWATER POND
VIII. DARKNESS AND LIGHT
IX. THE HALL GHOST
X. THE COMING OF THE NIGHT
XI. DARK DREAMS AND NIGHT SHADOWS
XII. A MIDNIGHT CONFERENCE
XIII. A MESMERIST'S SPELL
XV. BEGINNING TO SEARCH
XVI. STRUGGLING FOR VICTORY
XVII. USING THE ENEMY'S WEAPONS
XVIII. NEARING THE END
XIX. THE SECOND CHRISTMAS EVE
INTRODUCES THE WRITER AND OTHERS
My story begins on the morning of December 18, 18—, while sitting at breakfast. Let it be understood before we go further that I was a bachelor living in lodgings. I had been left an orphan just before I came of age, and was thus cast upon the world at a time when it is extremely dangerous for young men to be alone. Especially was it so in my case, owing to the fact that at twenty-one I inherited a considerable fortune. One thing saved me from ruin, viz. a passionate love for literature, which led me to make it my profession. I had at the time of my story been following the bent of my inclinations for two years with a fair amount of success, and was regarded by those who knew me as a lucky fellow. That is all I think I need say concerning myself prior to the time when my story opens, except to tell my name; but that will drop out very soon. I had not made very great inroads into the omelette my landlady had prepared for me when I heard the postman's knock, and soon after a servant entered with a letter. One only. I had expected at least half-a-dozen, but only one lay on the tray before me.
"Are you sure this is all, Jane?" I asked.
"Quite sure, sir," said Jane, smiling, and then with a curtsey she took her leave.
The envelope was addressed in a bold hand-writing to—
Justin M. Blake, Esq., Gower Street, London, W.
"Surely I know the writing," I mused, and then began to look at the postmarks as if a letter were something of very uncommon occurrence. I could make nothing of the illegible smear in the corner, however, and so opened it, and read as follows:—
Dear old Justin Martyr,
I suppose you have about forgotten your old schoolfellow, Tom Temple, and it's natural you should; but he has not forgotten you. You see, you have risen to fame, and I have remained in obscurity. Ah well, such is the fate of that community called 'country gentlemen.' But this is not what I want to write about, and I am going straight to the real object of this letter.
We—that is, mother, the girls, and myself—are contemplating a real jolly Christmas. We are inviting a few friends to spend Christmas and New Year with us, and we wish you to make one of the number. Will you come and spend a fortnight or so at Temple Hall? Of course it is rather quiet here, but we are going to do our best to make it more lively than usual. The weather looks frosty, and that promises skating. We have a few good horses, so that we can have some rides across the country. There is also plenty of shooting, hunting, etc., etc. Altogether, if you will come and help us; we can promise a fairly good bill of fare. What do you say? You must excuse me for writing in this unconventional strain, but I can't write otherwise to my old schoolfellow.
We shall all be really disappointed if you say 'no,' so write at once and tell us you will come, also when we may expect you. All the news when we meet.
Your sincere friend,
P.S.—I might say that most of the guests will arrive on Christmas Eve.
"Just the very thing," I exclaimed. "I had been wondering what to do and where to go this Christmas time, and this invitation comes in splendidly."
Tom Temple lived in Yorkshire, at a fine old country house some distance from the metropolis of that county, and was a really good fellow. As for his mother and sisters, I knew but little about them, but I judged from the letters his mother wrote him when at school, that she must be a true, kind-hearted, motherly woman.
I accordingly turned to my desk, wrote to Tom, telling him to expect me on the 24th inst., and then, without finishing my breakfast, endeavoured to go on with my work. It was very difficult, however. My thoughts were ever running away to Yorkshire, and on the pleasant time I hoped to spend. Between the lines on my paper I was ever seeing the old baronial hall that was Tom Temple's home, and the people who had been invited to spend the festive season there. Presently I began to chide myself for my foolishness. Why should the thoughts of a Christmas holiday so unfit me, a staid old bachelor of thirty, for my usual work? Nevertheless it did, so I put on my overcoat, and went away in the direction of Hyde Park in order, if possible, to dispel my fancies. I did dispel them, and shortly afterwards returned to my lodgings, and did a good morning's work.
Nothing of importance happened between the 18th and the 24th, and early in the afternoon of the latter date I found my way to St. Pancras Station, and booked for the station nearest Tom Temple's home. Although it was Christmas Eve, I found an empty first-class carriage, and soon comfortably ensconced myself therein. I don't know why, but we English people generally try to get an empty carriage, and feel annoyed when some one comes in to share our possession. I, like the rest of my countrymen are apt to do in such a case, began to hope I might retain the entire use of the carriage, at least to Leeds, when the door opened, and a porter brought a number of wraps and shawls, evidently the property of a lady.
"Bother it!" I mentally exclaimed, "and so I suppose I am to have some fidgety old women for my travelling companions."
The reader will imagine from this that I was not a lady's man. At any rate, such was the case. I had lived my thirty years without ever being in love; indeed, I had from principle avoided the society of ladies, that is, when they were of the flirtable or marriageable kind.
No sooner had the porter laid the articles mentioned on a corner seat, the one farthest away from me, than their owner entered, and my irritation vanished. It was a young lady under the ordinary size, and, from what I could see of her, possessed of more than ordinary beauty. Her skin was dark and clear, her eyes very dark, her mouth pleasant yet decided, her chin square and determined. This latter feature would in the eyes of many destroy her pretensions to beauty, but I, who liked persons with a will of their own, admired the firm resoluteness the feature indicated.
She took no notice of me, but quietly arranged her belongings as if she were accustomed to take care of herself. She had only just sat down, when she was followed by another lady, who appeared, from the sign of recognition that passed between them, an acquaintance.
Evidently, however, the younger lady was not delighted at the advent of the elder. A look of annoyance swept across her face, as if she could have very comfortably excused her presence. I did not wonder at it. This second comer was a woman of about fifty-five years of age. She had yellow wrinkled skin, a square upright forehead, shaggy grey eyebrows, beneath which, in two cavernous sockets, were two black beady-looking eyes. Her mouth was large and coarse, and, to make that feature still more objectionable, two large teeth, like two fangs, stuck out at a considerable angle from her upper jaw and rested on the lower lip. Altogether the face was repulsive. Added to this, she was tall and bony, and would have passed anywhere for one of the witches of olden time.
"I have altered my mind, Gertrude, and am going with you." This was said in a harsh, thick voice.
"I see you are here, Miss Staggles," said the younger lady very coolly.
"I did not intend coming at first, but your aunt, poor silly thing, said you would not take your maid with you, and so I thought it would be a sin for a young girl like you to travel alone to Yorkshire on a day like this."
"Yorkshire?" I thought. "Is that old woman to be in this carriage with me for five or six long hours? I'll get out."
I was too late; at that moment the guard's whistle blew, and the train moved slowly out of the station. At all events, I had to remain until the train stopped, so I composed myself as well as I could, and resolved to make the best of it. Neither of them paid the slightest attention to me. The elder lady sat bolt upright opposite the younger, and began to harangue her.
"Don't you know it was very foolish of you to think of coming alone?"
"No," said the younger lady; "I'm tired of having a maid dogging my every footstep, as if I were a child and unable to do for myself."
"Nevertheless, Gertrude, you should have brought her; no young lady should travel alone. However, you will have a chaperon, so the deficiency will be more than remedied;" and there was grim satisfaction in the woman's voice.
There was no satisfaction in the young lady's face, however, and she turned with what I thought an angry look towards the scrawny duenna, who had claimed guardianship over her, and said——
"But, Miss Staggles, you are in a false position. You have received no invitation."
"No, I have not; but your aunt had one, poor silly creature, and so, for duty's sake, I am breaking the rules of etiquette. Those fine people you are about to visit did not think it worth their while to invite your aunt's late husband's step-sister—perhaps because she is poor; but she has a soul above formalities, and so determined to come and take care of her niece."
The young lady made no reply.
"You will be thankful, Gertrude Forrest, some day that I do care for you," Miss Staggles continued, "although I never expect to get any reward for my kindness."
By this time the train was going rapidly, and so loud was the roar it made that I heard only the growling of Miss Staggles' voice without distinguishing any words. Indeed, I was very glad I could not. It was by no means pleasant to have to sit and listen to her hoarse voice, so I pulled down the laps of my travelling cap over my ears and, closing my eyes, began to think who Gertrude Forrest was, and where she was going.
I did not change carriages as I intended. Miss Staggles got tired after awhile, and so there was relief in that quarter, while my seat was most comfortable, and I did not want to be disturbed. Hour after hour passed by, until night came on; then the wind blew colder, and I began to wonder how soon the journey would end, when the collector came to take all the tickets from the Leeds passengers. Shortly after we arrived at the Midland station, for which I was truly thankful. I did not wait there long; a train stood at another platform, which stopped at a station some two miles from Tom Temple's home. By this time there was every evidence of the holiday season. The train was crowded, and I was glad to get in at all, unmindful of comfort.
What had become of my two travelling companions I was not aware, but concluded that they would be staying at Leeds, as they had given up their tickets at the collecting station. I cannot but admit, however, that I was somewhat anxious as to the destination of Gertrude Forrest, for certainly she had made an impression upon me I was not likely to forget. Still I gave up the idea of ever seeing her again, and tried to think of the visit I was about to pay.
Arrived at the station, I saw Tom Temple, who gave me a hearty welcome, after which he said, "Justin, my boy, do you want to be introduced to some ladies at present?"
"A thousand times no," I replied. "Let's wait till we get to Temple Hall."
"Then, in that case, you will have to go home in a cab. I retained one for you, knowing your dislike to the fair sex; for, of course, they will have to go in the carriage, and I must go with them. Stay, though. I'll go and speak to them, and get them all safe in the carriage, and then, as there will be barely room for me, I'll come back and ride home with you."
He rushed away as he spoke, and in a few minutes came back again. "I am sorry those ladies had to be made rather uncomfortable, but guests have been arriving all the day, and thus things are a bit upset. There are five people in yon carriage; three came from the north, and two from the south. The northern train has been in nearly half-an-hour, so the three had to wait for the two. Well, I think I've made them comfortable, so I don't mind so much."
"You're a capital host, Tom," I said.
"Am I, Justin? Well, I hope I am to you, for I have been really longing for you to come, and I want you to have a jolly time."
"I'm sure I shall," I replied.
"Well, I hope so; only you don't care for ladies' society, and I'm afraid I shall have to be away from you a good bit."
"Naturally you will, old fellow. You see, you are master of the hall, and will have to look after the comfort of all the guests."
"Oh, as to that, mother will do all that's necessary; but I—that is—" and Tom stopped.
"Any particular guest, Tom?" I asked.
"Yes, there is, Justin. I don't mind telling you, but I'm in love, and I want to settle the matter this Christmas. She's an angel of a girl, and I'm in hopes that—Well, I don't believe she hates me."
"Good, Tom. And her name?"
"Her name," said Tom slowly, "is Edith Gray."
I gave a sigh of relief. I could not help it—why I could not tell; and yet I trembled lest he should mention another name.
We reached Temple Hall in due time, where I was kindly welcomed by Mrs. Temple and her two daughters. The former was just the kind of lady I had pictured her, while the daughters gave promise of following in the footsteps of their kind-hearted mother.
Tom took me to my room, and then, looking at his watch, said, "Make haste, old fellow. Dinner has been postponed on account of you late arrivals, but it will be ready in half-an-hour."
I was not long over my toilet, and soon after hearing the first dinner bell I wended my way to the drawing-room, wondering who and what kind of people I should meet, but was not prepared for the surprises that awaited me.
Just before I reached the drawing-room door, Mrs. Temple came up and took me by the arm.
"We are all going to be very unceremonious, Mr. Blake," she said, "and I shall expect my son's friend to make himself perfectly at home."
I thanked her heartily, for I began to feel a little strange.
We entered the drawing-room together, where I found a number of people had gathered. They were mostly young, although I saw one or two ancient-looking dames, who, I supposed, had come to take care of their daughters.
"I am going to introduce you to everybody," continued the old lady, "for this is to be a family gathering, and we must all know each other. I know I may not be acting according to the present usages of society, but that does not trouble me a little bit."
Accordingly, with the utmost good taste, she introduced me to a number of the people who had been invited.
I need make no special mention of most of them. Some of the young ladies simpered, others were frank, some were fairly good looking, while others were otherwise, and that is about all that could be said. None had sufficient individuality to make a distinct impression upon me. The young men were about on a par with the young ladies. Some lisped and were affected, some were natural and manly; and I began to think that, as far as the people were concerned, the Christmas gathering would be a somewhat tame affair.
This thought had scarcely entered my mind when two men entered the room, who were certainly not of the ordinary type, and will need a few words of description; for both were destined, as my story will show, to have considerable influence over my life.
I will try to describe the more striking of the two first.
He was a young man. Not more than thirty-five. He was fairly tall, well built, and had evidently enjoyed the education and advantages of a man of wealth. His hair was black as the raven's wings, and was brushed in a heavy mass horizontally across his forehead. His eyes were of a colour that did not accord with his black hair and swarthy complexion. They were of an extremely light grey, and were tinted with a kind of green. They were placed very close together, and, the bridge of the nose being narrow, they appeared sometimes as if only one eye looked upon you. The mouth was well cut, the lips rather thin, which often parted, revealing a set of pearly white teeth. There was something positively fascinating about the mouth, and yet it betrayed malignity—cruelty. He was perfectly self-possessed, stood straight, and had a soldier-like bearing. I instinctively felt that this was a man of power, one who would endeavour to make his will law. His movements were perfectly graceful, and from the flutter among the young ladies when he entered, I judged he had already spent some little time with them, and made no slight impression.
His companion was much smaller, and even darker than he was. His every feature indicated that he was not an Englishman. With small wiry limbs, black, restless, furtive eyes, rusty black hair, and a somewhat unhealthy colour in his face, he formed a great contrast to the man I have just tried to describe. I did not like him. He seemed to carry a hundred secrets around with him, and each one a deadly weapon he would some day use against any who might offend him. He, too, gave you the idea of power, but it was the power of a subordinate.
Instinctively I felt that I should have more to do with these men than with the rest of the company present.
Although I have used a page of good paper in describing them, I was only a very few seconds in seeing and realizing what I have written.
Both walked up to us, and both smiled on Mrs. Temple, whereupon she introduced them. The first had a peculiar name; at least, so it seemed to me.
"Mr. Herod Voltaire—Mr. Justin Blake," she said; and instantly we were looking into each other's eyes, I feeling a strange kind of shiver pass through me.
The name of the smaller man was simply that of an Egyptian, "Aba Wady Kaffar." The guests called him Mr. Kaffar, and thus made it as much English as possible.
Scarcely had the formalities of introduction been gone through between the Egyptian and myself, when my eyes were drawn to the door, which was again opening. Do what I would I could not repress a start, for, to my surprise, I saw my travelling companions enter with Miss Temple—Gertrude Forrest looking more charming and more beautiful than ever, and beside her Miss Staggles, tall, gaunt, and more forbidding than when in the railway carriage.
It is no use denying the fact, for my secret must sooner or later drop out. My heart began to throb wildly, while my brain seemed on fire. I began to picture myself in conversation with her, and becoming acquainted with her, when I accidentally looked at Herod Voltaire. His eyes were fixed on Miss Forrest, as if held by a magnet, and I fancied I saw a faint colour tinge his cheek.
What I am now going to write may appear foolish and unreal, especially when you remember that I was thirty years of age, but the moment I saw his ardent, admiring gaze, I felt madly jealous.
The second dinner bell rang, and so, mechanically offering my arm to a lady who had, I thought, been neglected on account of her plain looks, I followed the guests to the dining-room.
Nothing happened there worth recording. We had an old-fashioned English dinner, and that is about all I can remember, except that the table looked exceedingly nice. I don't think there was much talking; evidently the guests were as yet strangers to each other, and were only gradually wearing away the restraint that naturally existed. I could not see Miss Gertrude Forrest, for she was sitting on my side of the table, but I could see the peculiar eyes of Herod Voltaire constantly looking at some one nearly opposite him, while he scarcely touched the various dishes that were placed on the table.
Presently dinner came to an end. The ladies retired to the drawing-room, while the gentlemen prepared to sit over their wine. Being an abstainer, I asked leave to retire with the ladies. I did this for two reasons besides my principles of abstinence. First, I thought the custom a foolish one, as well as being harmful; and, second, I hoped by entering the drawing-room early, I might have a chance to speak to Miss Forrest.
I did not leave alone. Two young Englishmen also declared themselves to be abstainers, and wanted to go with me, while Herod Voltaire likewise asked leave to abide by the rules he had ever followed in the countries in which he had lived.
Of course there was some laughing demur among those who enjoyed their after-dinner wine, but we followed the bent of our inclination, and found our way to the drawing-room.
Evidently the ladies were not sorry to see us, for a look of pleasure and surprise greeted us, and soon the conversation became general. Presently, however, our attention was by degrees drawn to that part of the room where Herod Voltaire sat, and I heard him speaking fluently and smoothly on some subject he was discussing with a young lady.
"Yes, Miss Emery," he said, "I think European education is poor, is one-sided. Take, for example, the ordinary English education, and what does it amount to? Arithmetic, and sometimes a little mathematics, reading, writing, French, sometimes German, and of course music and dancing. Nearly all are educated in one groove, until there is in the English mind an amount of sameness that becomes monotonous."
"You are speaking of the education of ladies, Mr. Voltaire?" said Miss Emery.
"Yes, more particularly, although there is but little more variation among the men. Take your University degrees—your Cambridge and Oxford Master of Arts, for example; what a poor affair it is! I have been looking over the subjects of examination, and what are they? A couple of languages, the literature of two or three countries, mathematics, and something else which I have forgotten now."
"You are scarcely correct, sir," said one of the young men who came in with me. "I happen to have passed through Cambridge, and have taken the degree you mention. I found it stiff enough."
"Not so stiff, when it can be taken at your age," replied Voltaire. "But, admitting what you say, you are all cast in the same mould. You study the same subjects, and thus what one of you knows, all know."
"And what may be your ideas concerning education?" said Miss Forrest.
Herod Voltaire turned and looked admiringly on her, and I saw that a blush tinged both their cheeks.
"My ideas are such as would not find much favour in ordinary English circles," he said smilingly. "But I should do away with much of the nonsense of ordinary English education, and deal with the more occult sciences."
"Pardon me, but I do not quite understand you."
"I will endeavour to make my meaning plain. There are subjects relating to the human body, mind, and soul, which cannot be said to have been really studied at all, except by some recluse here and there, who is generally considered mad. You deal with the things which are seen, but think not of the great unsolved spiritual problems of life. For example, the effect of mind upon mind, animal magnetism, mesmerism, biology, and kindred subjects are unknown to you. The secrets of mind and spirit are left unnoticed by you Western people. You seek not to solve the occult truths which exist in the spirit of all men. You shudder at the problem of what you call death, and fancy nothing can be known of the spirit which leaves the world in which you live; whereas there is no such thing as death. The spirits of the so-called dead are living forces all around us, who can tell their condition to those who understand some of the secrets of spiritualism. Nay, more than that. There are occult laws of the soul which, if understood by some powerful mind, can be made to explain some of the deepest mysteries of the universe. For example, a man versed in the secrets of the spirit life can cause the soul of any human being to leave its clay tenement, and go to the world of spirits, and learn its secrets; and by the powers of his soul life, which can be a thousand times strengthened by means of a knowledge of the forces at the command of all, he can summon it back to the body again. Of course I can only hint at these things here, as only the initiated can understand these secret laws; but these are the things I would have studied, and thus lift the life of man beyond his poor material surroundings." By this time the drawing-room was pretty well full. Nearly all the men had left their wine, and all were listening intently to what Voltaire was saying.
"You have lived in the East?" said Miss Forrest, evidently fascinated by the strange talk.
"For the last ten years. I spent a year in Cairo, two more up by the banks of the Nile, among the ruins of ancient cities, where, in spite of the degradation that exists, there is still to be found those who have some of the wisdom of past ages. Four years did I live in India among the sages who hold fast to the teaching of Buddha. The three remaining years I have spent in Arabia, Syria, and Chaldea."
"And do you mean to say that what you have mentioned exists in reality?" said Miss Forrest.
"I have only hinted at what really exists. I could record to you facts that are strange, beyond the imagination of Dumas; so wonderful, that afterwards you could believe the stories told by your most renowned satirist, Dean Swift."
"Favour us with one," I suggested.
Voltaire looked at me with his green-tinted eyes, as if he would read my innermost thoughts. Evidently his impression of me was not favourable, for a cynical smile curled his lips, and his eyes gleamed with a steely glitter. "One has to choose times, occasions, and proper circumstances, in order to tell such facts," he said. "I never speak of a sacred thing jestingly."
We were all silent. This man had become the centre of attraction. Both men and women hung upon his every word. I looked around the room and I saw a strange interest manifested, except in the face of the Egyptian. Aba Wady Kaffar was looking at the ceiling as if calculating how many square feet there were.
"Perhaps you find it difficult to believe me," went on Voltaire. "The truth is, I am very unfortunate in many respects. My way of expressing my thoughts is perhaps distasteful to you. You see, I have lived so long in the East that I have lost much of my European training. Then, my name is unfortunate. Herod killed one of your Christian saints, while Voltaire was an infidel. You English people have strong prejudices, and thus my story would be injured by the narrator."
"Nay, Voltaire," said Tom Temple, "we are all friendly listeners here."
"My good host," said Voltaire, "I am sure you are a friendly listener, but I have been telling of Eastern knowledge. One aspect of that knowledge is that the learned can read the minds, the thoughts of those with whom they come into contact."
The ladies began to express an intense desire to hear a story of magic and mystery, and to assure him that his name was a delightful one.
"I trust I am not the disciple of either the men whose name I bear. Certainly I am susceptible to the influence of ladies"—and he smiled, thereby showing his white, shining teeth—"but I am a great admirer of honest men, whoever they may be, or whatever be their opinion. I am not a follower of Voltaire, although I admire his genius. He believed but little in the powers of the soul, or in the spirit world; I, on the other hand, believe it to be more real than the world in which we live."
"We are not altogether strangers to stories about spiritualism or mesmerism here," said Miss Forrest, "but the votaries of these so-called sciences have been and are such miserable specimens of mankind that educated people treat them with derision."
There was decision and energy in her voice. Evidently she was not one to be easily deceived or trifled with.
"Counterfeits prove reality," said Voltaire, looking searchingly at her; "besides, I seek to impose none of my stories on any one. I am not a professional spiritualist, psychologist, or biologist. I simply happen to have lived in countries where these matters are studied, and, as a consequence, have learned some of their mysteries. Seeing what I have seen, and hearing what I have heard, I beg to quote your greatest poet—
'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"
"Your quotation is apropos," she said in reply, "but it so happens that I have taken considerable interest in the matter about which you have been speaking, and after seeing various representations of these so-called occult sciences, and carefully examining them, I have come to the conclusion that they are only so many fairly clever juggling tricks, which have been attempts to deceive credulous people. Moreover, these have been so often exposed by cultured men, that they have no weight with people of intelligence."
His eyes gleamed savagely, but he smiled upon her, and said, "Perhaps I may have an opportunity of undeceiving you, some time in the near future."
"Meanwhile you will tell us an Eastern story," said one of the young ladies.
"Pardon me," replied Voltaire, "but tonight is Christmas Eve, and as my story might be regarded as heathenish, I will wait for some more favourable time, when your minds will not be influenced by the memories of the birth of the Christian religion. Besides, I know many of you are longing for other amusement than stories of the unseen."
As he spoke I saw his eyes travel towards Aba Wady Kaffar, and they exchanged glances; then he looked towards Miss Forrest, and again a look of intelligence passed between him and the Egyptian.
Soon after Kaffar began to talk fluently to one of the Misses Temple, while several members of the party prepared for a charade. Then, when the attention of the guests was drawn towards those who displayed their powers at acting, I saw Voltaire rise and go out, and soon after he was followed by his friend.
Acting upon sudden impulse, which I think was caused by the remembrance of the meaning glances that passed between them after Voltaire had looked at Miss Forrest, I followed them out into the silent night. Somehow I felt that this fascinating man did not like me, while I was sure he had been deeply impressed by the woman who had that day travelled with me from London.
When I got out on the lawn, I accused myself of doing a very foolish thing. "Why," I thought, "should I follow these men? I know nothing against them. They have as much right here as I have, and surely two friends can leave the house and come out for a stroll without being watched?"
With this thought in my mind I turned to go back again, when I heard voices close by me. Evidently they were behind some large laurel bushes which hid them from my sight. I stopped again for an instant; but, knowing I had no right to listen to what might be private conversation, I started a second time for the house, when I heard the name of Gertrude Forrest, and then I seemed chained to the ground.
"You have inquired about her?" said a voice, which I recognized as belonging to Voltaire. The answer was in Arabic, and was spoken by Kaffar.
Five years prior to the time of which I am writing I had been engaged in a work that required a knowledge of the Arabic language, and although it cannot be said I had become anything like proficient in that tongue, I had been taught by an Arabian, and could enter into ordinary conversation. Thus I understood the Egyptian's reply.
"With regard to Miss Forrest," he said, "I answer not in the language which every one here knows. Miss Forrest must be yours, and that for several reasons. She is a flower in herself. She is an orphan. She has a large fortune. She has absolute control over it. She has a fine house in England's capital. She has a large estate and a grand country mansion in the south of this country. Win her, Herod Voltaire, and you can be a little king, and I your prime minister. We heard much about her before we came; but we did not think to find such a queen. Win her, man, and our fortunes are made."
This was said quickly, and with all the fervour of an Eastern.
"Yes, Kaffar. It would be well if it could be done. To be an English gentleman, with an entree into the best English society, is what I have long longed for. It will not only satisfy my taste, but give me power, and power is what I must have. It is by good luck we are here, but neither of us have the means to pass as English aristocrats very long. As you say, something must be done, and, upon my honour, I have very nearly fallen in love with her. But she must be won, and won fairly. She is evidently strong and determined, and can be forced to do nothing."
"Nonsense," snarled the Egyptian. "Use all your seductive arts first, and if you fail to win her by those, trust me to weave such a chain of events as shall make her become Mrs. Voltaire."
Up to this point I listened attentively, and then a minute's silence on their part aroused me to myself. Was it right to stand listening thus? And yet a thousand things justified the act.
They moved on from the spot where they had been standing, but I was too much stunned to follow them. At that moment I realized that I had given my heart to Gertrude Forrest, and that another man had designs concerning her.
This sudden falling into love may appear foolish, especially when it is remembered that I had passed the age of boyhood, and yet I have known several cases similar to my own. Anyhow, I, who had never loved before, loved now—loved, perhaps, foolishly; for I knew nothing of the lady I loved, and, of course, had not the slightest hope of her caring for me.
Thus it was with a throbbing heart that I stood there alone upon the lawn, with the knowledge of my new-found love just breaking upon me, and, more than that, I had every reason to fear that she was to be made the dupe of two clever villains.
I turned to follow them, but they were gone I knew not whither, and so I went back to the house determined that, if I could be nothing else, I would be Miss Forrest's protector.
I had been back in the drawing-room perhaps ten minutes, when Voltaire and Kaffar returned, and apparently entered with great zest into the festivities of the evening. There is no necessity that I should write of what took place during the remainder of Christmas Eve. It was held in good old English style, and to most, I am sure, it was very enjoyable. I got an opportunity of speaking to Miss Forrest, but only for a very short time; at the same time, I noticed that Voltaire took not the slightest notice of her.
When I awoke the following morning and looked out, I saw that the great Yorkshire hills were covered with snow, the air was bitingly cold, and the leaden sky promised us some real Christmas weather.
I was soon dressed and ready to go down, but on looking at my watch I found I had an hour to spare before breakfast. Arrangements had been made for us to breakfast at ten, and thus be just in time for service at the little village church.
On my way down-stairs I saw Tom Temple, who told me to find my way to the library, where I should be able to pass the time pleasantly. I entered the room, an old-fashioned dark place lined on every side with books. I felt in no mood for looking at them just then, however, and so walked to a window and looked out on the snow-draped landscape that stretched away on every hand. It was a wondrous scene. The snow had fallen steadily all through the night, and no breath of wind had stirred the feathery flakes. Thus trees and bushes were laden with snow crystals, while the spotless white was relieved here and there by some shining evergreen leaves which peeped out amidst their snowy mantles. Ordinarily I should have been impressed by it. Now, however, I could not help thinking of other matters. One face was ever before me, and I constantly wondered whether she were in real danger from these strange men, and whether I should have any part in the labour of delivering her from them. As yet I could do nothing. I knew nothing wrong of them. They might be impostors, they might be penniless adventurers, but I could not prove it. Neither could I tell Miss Forrest what I had heard, while certainly Voltaire had as much right as I had to seek to win her affections.
These thoughts had scarcely passed through my mind when, hearing a sound behind me, I turned and saw Miss Forrest, who met me with a bright "Good-morning" and the compliments of the season. I blushed almost guiltily at the sound of her voice—I, who had for years declared that no woman could interest me enough to make my heart throb one whit the quicker.
"This is a pleasant surprise," I said, after responding to her greeting. "I quite expected to be alone for an hour at least. You see, we all remained up so late last night that it was to me a settled matter that none of you would appear until it was time to start for church."
"I hope I am not disturbing you in your morning's meditations, Mr. Blake," she replied; "I would have stayed in my room had I thought so."
"On the other hand, I am delighted to see you here. Whether you know it or not, I rode from London to Leeds with you yesterday, and I have thought ever since I should like to know you."
She looked straight at me as if she would read my thoughts, and then said pleasantly, "I was on the point of asking you whether such was not the case. I was not sure, because you had your travelling cap pulled over your face."
"How strange, though, that we were both bound for the same place!" I said.
"Yes, it does seem remarkable; and yet it is not so wonderful, after all. I am an old friend and schoolfellow of Emily Temple, while you, I am told, are an old friend and schoolfellow of her brother. Thus nothing is more natural than that we should be invited to such a gathering as this."
"Do you know any of the people who are here?" I asked.
"I have met nearly all the young ladies, but only two of the gentlemen—Mr. Voltaire and Mr. Kaffar. I saw them on the Continent."
"Indeed?" I said, while I have no doubt a dark look passed over my face.
"Do you not like them?" she asked.
"I do not know enough of either," I replied, "to give an answer reasonably, either in the affirmative or the negative. I think my failing is to form hasty judgments concerning people, which, of course, cannot be fair."
I said this rather stammeringly, while she watched me keenly.
"That means that you do not like them," she said.
"Are you quite justified in saying that?" I replied, scarcely knowing what else to say.
"Quite," she said. "You feel towards them just as I do. I was introduced to them in Berlin. Mr. Tom Temple had formed their acquaintance somehow, and seemed wonderfully fascinated by them. I scarcely spoke to them, however, as I left Germany the next day, and was rather surprised to see them here last night."
"Mr. Voltaire is a very fascinating man," I suggested.
"There can be no doubt about that," was her reply.
"And yet I fancy much of his high-flown talk about spiritualism was mere imagination."
"I was inclined to think so at first, but I have heard strange things about him. However, it is perhaps scarcely fair to talk about him thus."
All this time we had stood looking out of the window upon the wintry landscape, and I, at least, was oblivious to all else but the fact that I was talking with the woman whose interest for me was paramount, when a lump of coal fell from the grate upon the fire-irons.
We both turned, and saw Herod Voltaire standing by a bookcase with an open volume in his hand. A disinterested person might have fancied he had not heard a word of our conversation, but I was sure I saw a steely glitter in his eyes, and a cruel smile playing around his mouth.
"Then you go to church this morning?" I said, seeking to turn the conversation as naturally as I could.
"Yes, I always do on Christmas morning," she replied, as if thankful I had given her an opportunity of speaking about other matters.
"Then I hope I shall have the pleasure of escorting you," I replied.
Ordinarily I should not have dared to mention such a matter to a lady I had seen so little of, but the request slipped out unthinkingly; and she, no doubt confused by the presence of Voltaire, cheerfully assented.
Our embarrassment came to an end just then, for several others came into the room, and the conversation became general.
As the reader may guess, I was highly elated at the turn matters were taking, and in my heart I began to laugh at Voltaire's idea of winning Gertrude Forrest. Moreover, she had willingly consented to walk to church with me, and had expressed a dislike for the man I, in spite of myself, was beginning to fear.
Only a very few of the party found their way to the old time-honoured building to join in the Christmas service that morning. Some were tired and remained in their rooms, while others enjoyed sitting around the cheerful fires. I was not sorry, however, for I was thus enabled to enjoy more of Miss Forrest's society. Need I say that my morning was truly enjoyable? I think not. I found in my companion one who was in every way delightful. Widely read, she was able to converse about books she loved, and possessing a mind that was untrammelled by society notions, it was refreshing to hear her talk. Far removed from the giddy society girl, she was yet full of mirth and pleasantness. Ready witted, she was quick at repartee; and possessing a keen sense of humour, she saw enjoyment in that which to many would be commonplace.
Only one thing marred my happiness. That was the memory of a cruel look which rested on Voltaire's face as we went away together. From that moment I am sure he regarded me as his rival, and from that moment he sought to measure his strength with mine. I could see in his face that he had guessed my secret, while I fancied I could see, beneath his somewhat cynical demeanour, indications of his love for Gertrude Forrest.
On our way back from church we met Voltaire and Kaffar, who were eagerly conversing. They took but little notice of us, however, and, for my own part, I felt relieved when they were out of sight.
"Do you know what is on the programme for to-night?" I said, when they were out of hearing.
"Yes; Mr. Temple has arranged for a conjuror and a ventriloquist to come, and thus we shall have something to occupy our attention besides ordinary chitchat."
"I'm very glad," I replied, "although I should be delighted to spend the evening as I have spent this morning."
I said this with an earnestness about which there could be no doubt, and I fancied I saw a blush mount to her cheek. At any rate, I felt that we were good friends, and my heart beat high with hope.
Arriving at Temple Hall, I saw Tom reading a letter. "Disappointing, Justin, my boy," he said.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Why, I engaged some fellows to come here and give us an entertainment to-night, and they write to say they can't come. But never mind; we must do the best we can among ourselves. You are good at all sorts of odd games; while at—yes, the very thing!—that's delightful!"
"You'll know to-night! 'Pon my word, it's lucky those juggling fellows can't come. Anyhow, I can promise you a jolly evening."
Had I known then what that evening would lead to, I should not have entered the house so joyously as I did; but I knew nothing of what lay in the future, while Miss Forrest's great dark eyes beamed upon me in such a way as to make earth seem like heaven.
VOLTAIRE'S STORY OF THE EAST
When lunch-time came, I, to my delight, obtained a seat next to Miss Forrest, and soon I became oblivious to all else but her. I was sure, too, that she liked me. Her every word and action disclaimed the idea of her being a coquette, while her honest preference for my society was apparent.
As we left the table I turned towards Voltaire, and I found that he was looking at us. If ever hate and cruelty were expressed in any human face, they were expressed in his. Evidently he regarded me as his rival, and thus his natural enemy. A little later in the afternoon he was again talking with Kaffar, and instinctively I felt that I was the subject of his conversation. But I did not trouble, for was not Gertrude Forrest near me, and did we not have delightful conversation together? It seemed as if we had known each other for years, and thus it was natural for us to converse freely.
Just before dinner, Voltaire came to me, as if he wished to enter into conversation. He commenced talking about Yorkshire, its customs, legends, and superstitions, and then, with a tact and shrewdness which I could not resist, he drew me into a talk about myself. I felt that he was sifting me, felt that he was trying to read my very soul, and yet I could not break myself from him.
One thing was in my favour. I knew his feelings towards me, felt sure that he hated me, and thus I kept on my guard. Time after time, by some subtle question, he sought to lead me to speak about the woman dear to my heart, but in that he did not succeed. He fascinated me, and in a degree mastered me, but did not succeed in all his desires. I knew he was weighing me, testing me, and seeking to estimate my powers, but being on my guard his success was limited.
When our conversation ceased I felt sure of one thing. It was to be a fight to the death between me and this man, if I would obtain the woman I loved. Perhaps some may think this conclusion to be built on a very insufficient foundation, nevertheless I felt sure that such was the case. When I was quite a lad, I remember an old Scotchwoman visited our house. It is little I can recall to memory now concerning her, but I know that when she first set her eye upon me she said—
"Eh, Mrs. Blake, but yon bairn has the gift o' second sight."
My mother laughed at the idea, whereupon the old woman began to correct herself.
"I'll no say he has the gift o' second sight properly," she said, "but he'll feel in a minute what it'll tak soom fowk years to fin' out. Eh, lad"—turning to me—"if ye coom across some one as ye doesna like, hae as leetle to do wi' 'em as ye can."
I am inclined to think there is truth in this judgment of the old Scotch lady. I have found her words true in many cases, and I was sure in the case of Voltaire my feelings told me what actually existed.
There was one thing in my favour. Evidently he did not think I guessed his wishes; nevertheless I felt sure that if I was to obtain the mastery over such a man, it would be little short of a miracle.
Dinner passed over without anything worthy of note, but as soon as it was over we hurried to the drawing-room. Even those who loved their after-dinner wine joined the ladies, as if in expectation of something wonderful. The truth was, it had gone around that Mr. Voltaire was going to tell us a story concerning the mystic rites that are practised in Eastern lands, and the subject was an attractive one. The ladies especially, evidently fascinated by the witchery of this man's presence, anxiously waited for him to commence.
"What do you wish me to tell you about?" he said in answer to repeated requests for him to begin, from several young ladies.
"Oh, tell us a story of second sight, and spiritualism, and all that, you know," replied a young lady with a doll's face and simpering manner.
"You promised you would," said another.
"True, I promised, but not to-day. This Christmas Day is like Sunday to you English folk, and I do not wish to mar its sacredness."
"Oh, the Sunday part of it is all ended at twelve o'clock," cried the young lady who had spoken first. "As soon as church is over we commence our fun. Do, Mr. Voltaire; we shall be disappointed if you don't."
"I cannot resist the ladies," he said, with a smile, "but you must not be frightened at my story. For, remember, what I tell you is true. I do not weave this out of my own brain like your average English novelist has to do."
I fancied this was directed at me. Not that I deserved the appellation. I had written only one novel, and that was a very poor one. Still I fancied I saw his light glittering eyes turned in my direction.
"I must make a sort of apology, too," he went on. "Many of you do not believe in what will be the very marrow of my story."
"Come, Voltaire, never mind apologies," said Tom Temple; "we are all anxious to hear it."
"I mentioned last night," said Voltaire, "that I had spent some time in Egypt up by the Nile. The story I have to tell relates to that part of the world.
"I had sailed up the Nile, by one of the ordinary river steamers, to a place called Aboo Simbel, close to the Second Cataract. Here the ordinary tourist stops, and stops too at the beginning of what really interests an imaginative mind. There are, however, some fine ruins here which well repay one for a visit. Ah me! One wishes he had lived three or four thousand years ago when he stands among those ancient piles. There was some wisdom then, some knowledge of the deep things of life! However, I did not stay here. I went with my friend Kaffar away further into the heart of Nubia.
"I cannot speak highly of the rank and file of the people there. They are mostly degraded and uncultured, lacking"—here he bowed to the ladies—"that delightful polish which characterizes those who live in the West. Still I found some relics of the wisdom of the ancients. One of the sheiks of a village that lay buried among palm trees was deeply versed in the things I longed to know, and with him I took up my abode.
"Abou al Phadre was an old man, and not one whom the ladies would love—that is, for his face, for it was yellow and wrinkled; his eyes, too, were almost buried in their cavernous sockets, and shaded by bushy white eyebrows. Those who love the higher powers, however, and can respect the divine power of knowledge, would have knelt at Abou's feet.
"This wonderful man had a daughter born to him in his old age, born, too, with the same love for truth, the same thirst for a knowledge of things unseen to the ordinary eye. So much was this so, that she was called 'Ilfra the Understanding One.' As the years went on she outstripped her father, and obtained a knowledge of that for which her father had unsuccessfully studied all his life.
"When Kaffar and I entered this village, she was nearly twenty years of age, and was fair to look upon. It was rarely she spoke to me, however, for she dwelt with the unseen and talked with the buried dead. Abou, on the other hand, was kind to me, and taught me much, and together we tried to find out what for years he had been vainly searching. What that secret was I will not tell. Only those who live in the atmosphere of mystery can think rightly about what lies in the mind and heart of the true magician.
"As I before hinted, 'Ilfra the Understanding One' had found out the secret; her soul had outsoared that of her father and of all the sages for many miles around, and she would have revealed her knowledge both to her father and to me, but for one thing. Seven is a perfect number, and all the Easterns take it into consideration, and it is a law that no one shall reveal a secret that they may have found until three times seven years pass over their heads. Thus it was, while we eagerly sought for the mysterious power I have mentioned, we were buoyed up by the hope that, though we might not be successful, Ilfra would reveal to us what we desired to know."
"And thus the time passed on until we reached Ilfra's twenty-first birthday, with the exception of seven days. Both Abou and I were glad at heart; for although the secret, to me, would be as nothing compared to what it would be to him, yet I could put it to some use, while, to him, it would dispel distance, time, and physical life. Through it the secrets of astronomer and astrologer would be known, while the pages of the past would lie before him like an open book.
"Judge his anguish then, and my disappointment, when, seven days before her twenty-first birthday, she was bitten by a cerastes, and her body died. Had she been near her home, her knowledge would have defied the powers of this most deadly serpent's bite; for she knew antidotes for every poison. As it was, however, the same kind of serpent that had laid the beautiful Cleopatra low, likewise set at liberty the soul of Ilfra. Do not think Abou grieved because of her death. Death was not death to him—his eyes pierced that dark barrier; he suffered because the glorious knowledge he longed for was rudely snatched from him."
"'Thou man of the West who bearest the name of a Jewish king,' he said to me, 'this is a heavy blow.'
"'Not too heavy for you, Abou,' I said. 'The soul has flown, but when the three times seven years is complete you can call her back and learn her wisdom.'"
"'I can call her back, but the secret—ah, I know it not,' he said."
By this time there was a deadly silence in the room. Every ear was strained, so that not one sound of Voltaire's voice might be missed. As for him, he sat with his eyes fixed, as if he saw beyond the present time and place, while his face was like a piece of marble. Kaffar, I noticed, fixed his eyes upon his friend, and in his stony stare he seemed possessed of an evil spirit.
None of the English guests spoke when Voltaire stopped a second in his narration. All seemed afraid to utter a sound, except Kaffar.
"Go on, Herod," he said; "I am up in Egypt again."
"It was little we ate," said Voltaire, "during the next seven days. We were too anxious to know whether the secrets of the dead were to be revealed. Neither could we speak much, for the tongue is generally silent when the soul is wrapped in mystery; and right glad were we when the day dawned on which the veil should be made thicker or altogether drawn aside.
"We did not seek to know the mystery after which we were panting until the midnight of Ilfra's birthday. Then, when the earth in its revolution spelt out that hour, we entered the room of the maiden whose soul had departed.
"The Egyptians have lost much of the knowledge of the ancients, especially in the art of embalming. Often the sons of Egypt moan over that departed wisdom; still the art is not altogether gone. The body of Ilfra lay embalmed before us as we entered. She had been beautiful in life, but was more beautiful in death, and it was with reverence for that beauty that I stood beside her.
"'Fetch Helfa,' said Abou to a servant, 'and then begone.'
"Helfa was Abou's son. Here, in England, you would cruelly designate him as something between a madman and an idiot, but the Easterns look not thus upon those who possess not their ordinary faculties. Through Helfa, Abou had seen many wonderful things, and now he was going to use him again.
"'Howajja Herod,' he said to me, 'I am first going to use one of our old means of getting knowledge. It has failed me in the past, but it will be, perchance, more potent in the presence of Ilfra the Understanding One.'
"With that he took some ink, and poured it in Helfa's hand. This ink was the most precious in his possession, and obtained by means not lawful to relate. When it was in his son's hands he looked at me straight in the eyes, until, while I was in possession of all my senses, I seemed to live a charmed life. My imagination soared, my heart felt a wondrous joy.
"'Look,' said Abou, 'look in Helfa's hand.'
"I looked intently.
"'What see you, son Herod?'
"'I see a paradise,' I replied, 'but I cannot describe it. The beauties are incomparable. Ilfra is there; she mingles with those who are most obeyed.'
"'See you anything by which the mystery can be learned?'
"'I can see nothing.'
"I heard a sigh. I had returned to my normal condition again, and had told nothing.
"'I expected this,' he said, 'but I will try Helfa.'
"The experiment with Helfa, however, was just as fruitless.
"Then he turned to me. 'Son Herod,' he said, 'prepare to see the greatest deed ever done by man. All the knowledge and power of my life are to be concentrated in one act.'
"With that he looked at Helfa, who staggered to a low cushion.
"'Spirit of Helfa, leave the body,' he said.
"Instantly the eyes of Helfa began to close; his limbs grew stiff, and in a few seconds he lay lifeless by us.
"'I have a mission for you, spirit of Helfa. Flee to the home of spirits, and bring back the soul of thy sister, that she may tell me what we wish to know.'
"When the command was given, I felt that a something—an entity—was gone from us. Abou and I were alone with the two bodies.
"'What expect you, Abou?' I said, anxiously.
"'If the labour of a lifetime has not been a failure,' he said, 'these two bodies will soon possess their spirits.'"
Again Voltaire stopped in his recital, and looked around the room. He saw that every eye was fixed upon him, while the faces of some of the young ladies were blanched with terror. Evidently they were deeply moved. Even some of the young men shuddered, not so much because of the story that was told, as the strange power of the man that told it. As he saw these marks of interest, a smile crept over his face. He evidently felt that he was the strongest influence in the room—that all had to yield to him as their superior.
"I confess," he went on, "that my heart began to beat quickly at these words. Fancy, if you can, the scene. An Egyptian village, not far removed from some of the great temples of the dead past. Above our heads waved tall palm trees. Around was a strange land, and a wild, lawless people. The hour was midnight, and our business was with the dead.
"We had not waited above three minutes when I knew that the room was peopled—by whom I knew not, except that they came from that land from whose bourne, your greatest poet says, 'no traveller returns.' I looked at Abou. His face was as the face of the dead, except for his eyes. They burned like two coals of fire. He uttered some strange words, the meaning of which was unknown to me, and then I knew some mighty forces were being exerted in that old sheik's hut. My brain began to whirl, while a terrible power gripped me; but still I looked, and still I remembered.
"'Spirit of Ilfra,' said Abou, 'are you here?'
"No voice spoke that I could hear, and yet I realized that Abou had received his answer.
"'Enter thy body then, spirit of my daughter, and tell me, if thou darest, the secret I have desired so long.'
"I looked at the embalmed body. I saw the eyelids quiver, the mouth twitch, and then the body moved.
"'Speak to me, my daughter, and tell me all,' said Abou.
"I only heard one sound. My overtaxed nerves could bear no more; the living dead was too terrible for me, and I fell senseless to the ground.
"When I awoke to consciousness, I found only Abou and Helfa there. The body of Ilfra had been removed, where, I know not, for I never saw it again; but Helfa was like unto that which he had been before.
"'The secret is mine, son Herod,' said Abou, 'but it is not for you to learn yet. Be patient; when your spirit is prepared, the knowledge will come.'"
Voltaire stopped abruptly. One of the young ladies gave a slight scream, and then he apologized for having no more to tell.
"But has the knowledge come since?" asked a voice.
I did not know who spoke, but it sounded like Gertrude Forrest's voice. I turned towards her, and saw her looking admiringly at this man whom I could not help fearing.
His answer was a beaming smile and a few words, saying that knowledge should never be boasted of.
That moment my jealousy, which had been allayed, now surged furiously in me, and I determined that that very night I would match the strength of my mind with the strength of his.
CHRISTMAS NIGHT—THE FORGING OF THE CHAIN
"You have more than redeemed your promise, Voltaire," said Tom Temple, after a silence that was almost painful. "Certainly there is enough romance and mystery in your story to satisfy any one. What do you think of it, Justin?"—turning to me.
"Mr. Voltaire used the word 'imagination' in his story," I replied, "and I think it would describe it very well. Still, it does not account for much after one has read Dumas' Memoirs of a Physician."
"Am I to understand that you doubt the truth of my words?" asked Voltaire sharply.
"I think your story is all it appears to be," I replied.
Honestly, however, I did not believe in one word of it. On the very face of it, it was absurd. The idea of taking a spirit from a living body and sending it after some one that was dead, in order that some secret might be learned, might pass for a huge joke; but certainly it could not be believed in by any well-balanced mind. At any rate, such was my conviction.
"I have heard that Mr. Blake has attempted to write a novel," said Voltaire. "Perhaps he believes my story is made on the same principle."
"Scarcely," I replied. "My novel was a failure. It caused no sensation at all. Your story, on the other hand, is a brilliant success. See with what breathless interest it was listened to, and how it haunts the memories of your hearers even yet!"
This raised a slight titter. I do not know why it should, save that some of the young ladies were frightened, and accepted the first opportunity whereby they could in some way relieve their feelings. Anyhow it aroused Mr. Voltaire, for, as he looked at me, there was the look of a demon in his face, and his hand trembled.
"Do you doubt the existence of the forces I have mentioned?" he asked. "Do you think that the matters to which I have referred exist only in the mind? Are they, in your idea, no sciences in reality?"
"Pardon me, Mr. Voltaire," I replied, "but I am an Englishman. We are thought by foreigners to be very conservative, and perhaps there may be truth in it. Anyhow, I, for one, like tangible proof before I believe in anything that does not appeal to my reason. Your story does not appear reasonable, and, although I hope I do not offend you by saying so, I cannot accept it as gospel."
"Perhaps," said Kaffar, who spoke for the first time, "Mr. Blake would like some proofs. Perhaps he would like not only to see manifestations of the power of the unseen, but to feel them. Ah! pardon me, ladies and gentlemen, but I cannot stand by and hear the greatest of all sciences maligned, and still be quiet. I cannot be silent when that which is dearer to me than life itself is submitted to the cool test of bigoted ignorance. You may not believe it true, but I would give much to know what Ilfra the Understanding One knew. I was reared under Egypt's sunny skies; I have lain under her stately palms and watched the twinkling stars; I am a child of the East, and believe in the truths that are taught there. I have only dabbled in the mysteries of the unseen, but I know enough to tell you that what my friend says is true."
Was this a ruse on the part of the Egyptian? Looking at the whole matter in the light of what followed I believe it was. And yet at the time I did not know.
"I am sorry," I replied, "if I have caused annoyance. But we English people possess the right of our opinions. However, I do not wish to bias other minds, and trust that my scepticism may cause no unpleasantness."
"But would Mr. Blake like to be convinced?" said Voltaire.
"I am perfectly indifferent about the matter," I replied.
"That is very convenient for one who has stated his beliefs so doggedly. Certainly I do not think that is English; if it is, I am glad I am not an Englishman."
With this he fixed his eyes steadily on me, and tried to fasten my attention, but did not at the time succeed.
"I was asked for my opinion," I said; "I did not force it. But still, since you place it in that light, I should like to be convinced."
By this time the interest manifested in the matter was great. Every one watched breathlessly for what was to be done or said next, and certainly I felt that I was regarded by the guests in anything but a favourable light.
I saw Voltaire and Kaffar exchanging glances, and I felt sure that I heard the former say in Arabic, "Not yet."
After this the two arranged to give us some manifestations of their power. While they were conversing I went across the room and spoke to Miss Forrest; but she was very reserved, and I thought her face looked very pale.
"This is becoming interesting," I said.
"I wish you had said nothing about his story," was her reply.
She only shook her head.
"Surely you do not believe in his foolish story or conjuring tricks?" I said laughingly.
But she did not reply in the same vein.
"Mr. Voltaire is a wonderful man," she said, "a clever man. If I were a man I should not like to make him my enemy."
"I have heard of an old saying at my home," I replied, "which ran something like this, 'Brag is a good dog, but Holdfast is better.'"
"Still I should have nothing to do with Brag," she said.
"I hope you will not," I replied meaningly.
She did not answer me, but I fancied she blushed; and again I felt happy.
By this time Voltaire was ready with his performance. "You will see," he said, "that here we have no chance for stage tricks. All is plain and open as the day. Moreover, I will have no secrets from you even with regard to the subject itself. The phenomena that will be brought before you are purely psychological. The mind of my friend Kaffar will be, by a secret power, merged into mine. What I see he will see, although in your idea of the matter he does not see at all. Now, first of all, I wish you to blindfold my friend Kaffar. Perhaps Mr. Blake, seeing he longs for truth, may like to do this. No? Well, then, perhaps our host will. Thank you, Mr. Temple."
With this Tom Temple completely blindfolded the Egyptian, and then we awaited the further development of the matter.
"Would you mind leading him to the library?" Voltaire continued. "He will certainly not be able to see anything of us here, and still he will not be out of earshot."
Kaffar was accordingly led into the library, blindfolded.
"Now," said Voltaire, "I told you that by a secret power his mind and mine became one. I will prove to you that I have not spoken boastingly. Will any gentleman or lady show me any curiosity he or she may have?"
Accordingly several of the party pulled from their pockets articles of interest, and of which neither Voltaire nor Kaffar could have known. Each time the former asked what the article was, and each time the latter, although at a distance, correctly described it.
A look of wonder began to settle on the faces of the guests, and exclamations of surprise and bewilderment were apparent. It was apparent that nearly all were converts to his beliefs, if beliefs they might be called. After a number of articles were shown and described, Kaffar was recalled, and was loudly applauded.
"You see," said Voltaire, "the evident truth of this. Certainly this is a very simple affair, and my old friend Abou al Phadre would have smiled at its littleness. Still it must convince every unprejudiced mind that there is something deeper and more wonderful than those things which are constantly passing before your view."
Miss Staggles, who had been almost as silent as a sphinx, spoke now. "We are convinced that you are a wonderful man," she said; "and what I have seen to-night will be ever a matter of marvel, as well as thankfulness that I have been privileged to see it."
This was evidently the opinion of every one in the room. Even Gertrude Forrest was carried away by it, while Miss Edith Gray was enraptured at what she termed "a glorious mystery."
"I should like," said Miss Staggles, "to hear what Mr. Blake, the Thomas of the party, has to say to it."
There was an ugly leer in the old woman's eye as she spoke, and the thought struck me that Voltaire had been making friends with her.
"Yes," said Voltaire; "I am sure we should all like to know whether Mr. Blake is convinced."
"I am convinced that Mr. Kaffar has a good memory," I said.
"Good memory! What do you mean?"
"Why, Mr. Voltaire and his friends have come a few years too late to make a good impression. I have not only seen a better performance at a dozen entertainments, but I have found out the secret of what is called 'thought-reading.'"
"Do you mean to say you have seen similar feats before?" asked Voltaire, savagely.
"At least a dozen times," I replied. "In a few years' time, we shall see the like performed on the sands at our fashionable watering-places."
"I am glad," said Kaffar, "that the education of your country has so far advanced."
I went on talking, not realizing that I was all the time forging a chain that should hold me in cruel bondage. "I am afraid it says very little for our education," I replied. "Some clever fellow has invented a clever system for asking and answering questions, and those who have taken the trouble to learn it have been able to deceive a credulous public."
Voltaire's eyes flashed fire. All the malignity and cruelty that could be expressed in a human face I thought I saw expressed in his. And yet he wore his old fascinating smile; he never lost his seeming self-possession.
"I must deny Mr. Blake's statement," he said; "and, further, I would defy him to find or produce such a code of questions as he mentions."
I immediately left the room, and soon afterwards returned with a book by a renowned thought-reader, wherein he explained what, to so many, has appeared marvellous. I pointed out how, according to his system, by asking a question, the first word of which should begin with a certain letter, a particular thing should be indicated, and all that would be needed was that the performers should be perfectly conversant with the system.
The company quickly saw the truth of what I was saying, and for the time, at any rate, Mr. Voltaire's marvellous knowledge was held at a discount. "But does Mr. Blake mean to insinuate that Mr. Kaffar and myself have learnt such a code as this?" said Voltaire at length.
"I insinuate nothing," I replied. "I am simply showing how your performance can be done by those possessing no knowledge of the occult sciences."
"But does Mr. Blake decline to believe that we know nothing of the mysterious—that we have not dived into subjects of which the ordinary mind can know nothing?" said Kaffar.
"Pardon me," I replied, "but I decline to answer. I have not volunteered any opinion either as to Mr. Voltaire's story or your performance. I was asked my opinion, and I gave it."
I watched Mr. Voltaire's face as I spoke. He seemed to be pondering some matter in his mind, and appeared irresolute as to what action he should take. At length, a strange light shot from his eyes, and he raised his head and spoke.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "evidently Mr. Blake, with his hard English common-sense, has raised some amount of doubt in your minds as to the validity of my story and of our performance. I am sure you will allow me to vindicate and prove any assertion I have made. If I have claimed a knowledge of the mysterious, I have not done so without reason."
"We believe that is true," said Miss Staggles; "we believe you are a wonderful man."
"Thank you," said Voltaire. "I am sure I have Miss Staggles' sympathies, but will some one assist me in what I am about to do? I will allow no possibility of a system in this, and consequently I shall be glad if any gentleman will help me in the manifestation of the hidden powers of the human mind. Perhaps"—turning, I thought, eagerly to me—"Mr. Blake will be the one?"
"No," I said; "I prefer to be a spectator."
I could no longer mistake the hate that flashed from his eyes; but he said nothing, and waited quietly for a volunteer. No one was forthcoming. At length Tom Temple said—
"Would one of the servants do, Voltaire?"
"I would rather have a visitor," said Voltaire, "and for two reasons: first, you could not then have any reason for suspecting a collusion; and, second, the ordinary English servant is extremely unsusceptible to the play of higher powers. If, however, none of you will volunteer, I can see no other alternative."
Accordingly, a man about my own age was brought in, and introduced as Simon Slowden. I saw that he was no ordinary character as soon as he entered, and was by no means one who could be easily imposed upon. I afterwards found that Simon had spent his boyhood in London, had when a youth joined a travelling circus, and tramped the country for a few years. He had also travelled with several "shows," two or three travelling theatres, and had finally settled down with a lame leg at Temple Hall, where he made himself generally useful.
His dialect was a mixture of the Cockney and a dozen others equally bad, until it was almost impossible to tell from that source the part of the country from which he hailed. He was, however, a good-hearted fellow, and for a wonder, considering his history, as honest as the day.
"Now, Simon," said Tom Temple, "this gentleman is a scientist and wants to show some experiments, and he can't get any one to assist him, so I thought I'd ask you."
"Well," said Simon, "I don't know as I think mich on these science gents. They're allays a-bringin' in some new-fangled thing or other, but generally there's nowt in 'em. Still, to 'blige the company, I'll do owt raisonable. I'm tough has a crocodile's tongue, and can stand a goodish bit o' jingo and nonsense. Here goes, yer honour." Voltaire eyed him doubtfully, and Simon coolly returned the stare.
"You are not a-gwine to waccinate me, be 'ee?" said Simon at length.
"'Cause I can't stand that, tough as I be. I lived wi' a doctor once, and says he to me, 'Simon, I want to speriment on ye,' says he. 'I'm tough 'nough,' says I. 'I want to waccinate you 'gainst cholera, hoopin' cough, and small-pox,' says he. 'What's that? give 'em to me?' says I. 'No,' says he, 'but to prevent you from a hevin' 'em.' 'That's yer sorts,' says I. Well, gentlemen, he waccinated me, and I said to un, 'Never no more, yer honour.'"
"Why?" asked I.
"'Cause I'd rather hev cholera, hoopin' cough, and small-pox all together than be waccinated. Jes like women, you never know where they'll break out."
"Will you kindly sit down," said Voltaire, "while I go to my room for a book?"
While he was gone I went to Simon, and spoke to him, and that gentleman got very communicative.
"I'm not overmich in love wi' that chap," he says; "and sure's I'm a right-down Cockney, he hates you like pizen. Give 'im a wide berth, yer honour, and doan't hev nothin' to do wi' 'im."
"Oh," I replied, "he can't hurt me."
"Don't know, yer honour. You and he's got your peepers fixed in the same place, and scuse me; but if you give 'im a chance, he'll beat yer. He'd charm a serpiant vith thews peepers o' hisn."
"Aren't you afraid yourself, then?"
"He can't hurt me, for I'm too tough, and I'm noan sighin' for anybody, I ain't; and I hain't a got a good-lookin' jib, and—"
But here Voltaire entered the room and spoke to Tom Temple.
"Simon," said Tom a second after, "what colour are the chestnut mare's eyes?"
Simon heaved himself, struggled, looked vacant, and said dreamily, "They're loike women, and—waccination, you—you—" But a film came over his eyes, and he was unconscious.
Again there was deathly silence in the room, and all eyes were turned towards Voltaire, who had walked close to Simon Slowden.
"The man is not very susceptible," said Voltaire, "consequently I cannot do so much with him as I should had he been more highly organized; but I can at least convince sceptics. You will see," he went on, "that I have not touched him, and yet he is no longer conscious. I will now ask him any question, concerning either the dead or the living, that you may be inclined to ask."
"I will ask a test question," said Gertrude Forrest. "What are the servants doing at this time?"
"The cook's examinin' a goose," was the reply, "and the housemaid's talking wi' a chap as is just come from t' village."
He went on telling what the rest were doing; but Tom Temple immediately sent to the kitchen, and found that things were as was described.
"Where's Dr. Sharp?" said Mrs. Temple, adding that they could easily find out the doctor's present whereabouts the next day.
"He's comin' up here with his long-nosed pointer," was the reply, "and 'll be 'ere in a jiffy."
Five minutes after, Dr. Sharp came into the room. "I did not know I could come until half-an-hour ago," he said as he entered, and then stared as he saw how matters stood.
"Will you tell me," said Miss Forrest, "what my aunt is doing just now?"
She mentioned no name, and I do not know how the man sitting in the chair could know anything about her.
"She is jest gwine to bed," he said; "she's a bit ov a cold in 'er chest, and housekeeper is gwine to take some warmin' stuff to her."
"I'll know if this is true to-morrow," said Miss Forrest, and then relapsed into silence.
Meanwhile question after question was asked and answered, while Voltaire and Kaffar stood side by side, each with a terrible glitter in his eyes.
Under some secret influence Simon Slowden was led to the piano, and there executed some of the latest and most difficult pieces of music, and, without hesitation, told things that were at least marvellous. Then, when excitement was at the highest, he woke up, and coolly rubbed his eyes.
No one uttered a word, we were all too much amazed. At last Voltaire, with a sidelong glance at me, asked whether we were convinced, and one by one the members of the party expressed their wonder and astonishment. I, however, was silent. Some power of obstinacy seemed to possess me. I would not tamely admit his victory, after I had openly defeated him before. Still I did not speak a word.
"Is Mr. Blake convinced?" said Miss Staggles, leering towards me.
"Of what?" I asked.
"Of Mr. Voltaire's power."
"Come," said Kaffar, "Mr. Blake is still a sceptic. I think it fair that he should consent to test this for himself."
"Certainly not," I replied.
"But I think it our right," said Voltaire. "You have expressed your want of faith in our power; now, if you have the courage of a man with an opinion, test the matter. Sit here as Simon did, and see whether you are right."
I thought I heard a voice saying "Don't!" close to my ear, and I hesitated.
At this there was a titter among the young ladies.
"Evidently our Thomas is afraid," said Miss Staggles.
There was an ugly look in her eyes as she said this, but the titter increased into a kind of derisive laugh.
I know it was an evidence of my cowardice, but I could not withstand their laughter. I forgot the warning voice behind me; I refused to take notice of Mrs. Temple's warning glance; I rose up, went to the chair in the middle of the room, and defiantly said, "There! do all you can with me."
Voltaire and Kaffar came up to me, while the rest crowded around. The former fixed his terrible eye upon me as if he would peer into my very soul. A strange feeling began to creep over me; but I struggled against it with all my strength, and for a minute I seemed to gain the mastery. I laughed in his face, as if I scorned his boasted strength. A strange gleam was emitted from his light grey eyes, while his lips became ashy pale. Then I saw him grip Kaffar's hand. Instantly the room was peopled with a strange crowd. Dark forms seemed to come from Voltaire's eyes; peculiar influences were all around me. The faces of the two men became dimmer and dimmer, the people appeared to float in mid air, and I with them; then something heavy seemed to move away, I thought I heard strange creeping noises, like that of an adder crawling amidst thick dry grass, and then all was blank.
When I awoke to consciousness I was in my bedroom. For some time I could not gather up my scattered senses; my mind refused to exercise its proper functions. Presently I heard some one speak.
"I had no idea he was so far gone," a voice said. "You see, his power of resistance is very great, and it needed four times the magnetism to bring him under that it did your servant."
"I'm sorry you experimented on him at all," said another voice.
"Oh, I can assure you no harm's done. There, you see, he's coming to."
I felt something cold at my temples, then a strange shivering sensation passed over me, and I was awake.
Voltaire, Kaffar, Tom Temple, and Simon Slowden were in the room. "How do you feel, Mr. Blake?" asked Voltaire, blandly.
I lifted my eyes to his, and felt held by a strange power. "I'm all right," I said almost mechanically, at the same time feeling as if I was under the influence of a charm.
"Then," said Voltaire, "I will leave you. Good-night."
Immediately he left, followed by Kaffar, I experiencing a sense of relief. "Did I do anything very foolish?" I asked, recollecting the events of the evening.
"Oh no, Justin," replied Tom. "And yet that Voltaire is a terrible fellow. Half the young ladies in the room were nearly as much mesmerized as you were. You acted in pretty nearly the same way as Simon here, but nothing else. Do you feel quite right?"