Book I. The House with the Open Window
Chapter V. An Instruction to Commit Burglary
That the man in the bed was the one whom, to my cost, I had suffered myself to stumble on the night before, there could, of course, not be the faintest doubt. And yet, directly I saw him, I recognised that some astonishing alteration had taken place in his appearance. To begin with, he seemed younger,--the decrepitude of age had given place to something very like the fire of youth. His features had undergone some subtle change. His nose, for instance, was not by any means so grotesque; its beak-like quality was less conspicuous. The most part of his wrinkles had disappeared, as if by magic. And, though his skin was still as yellow as saffron, his contours had rounded,--he had even come into possession of a modest allowance of chin. But the most astounding novelty was that about the face there was something which was essentially feminine; so feminine, indeed, that I wondered if I could by any possibility have blundered, and mistaken a woman for a man; some ghoulish example of her sex, who had so yielded to her depraved instincts as to have become nothing but a ghastly reminiscence of womanhood.
The effect of the changes which had come about in his appearance-- for, after all, I told myself that it was impossible that I could have been such a simpleton as to have been mistaken on such a question as gender--was heightened by the self-evident fact that, very recently, he had been engaged in some pitched battle; some hand to hand, and, probably, discreditable encounter, from which he had borne away uncomfortable proofs of his opponent's prowess. His antagonist could hardly have been a chivalrous fighter, for his countenance was marked by a dozen different scratches which seemed to suggest that the weapons used had been someone's finger- nails. It was, perhaps, because the heat of the battle was still in his veins that he was in such a state of excitement. He seemed to be almost overwhelmed by the strength of his own feelings. His eyes seemed literally to flame with fire. The muscles of his face were working as if they were wholly beyond his own control. When he spoke his accent was markedly foreign; the words rushed from his lips in an inarticulate torrent; he kept repeating the same thing over and over again in a fashion which was not a little suggestive of insanity.
'So you're not dead!--you're not dead:--you're alive!--you're alive! Well,--how does it feel to be dead? I ask you!--Is it not good to be dead? To keep dead is better,--it is the best of all! To have made an end of all things, to cease to strive and to cease to weep, to cease to want and to cease to have, to cease to annoy and to cease to long, to no more care,--no!--not for anything, to put from you the curse of life,--forever!--is that not the best? Oh yes!--I tell you!--do I not know? But for you such knowledge is not yet. For you there is the return to life, the coming out of death,--you shall live on!--for me!--Live on!'
He made a movement with his hand, and, directly he did so, it happened as on the previous evening, that a metamorphosis took place in the very abysses of my being. I woke from my torpor, as he put it, I came out of death, and was alive again. I was far, yet, from being my own man; I realised that he exercised on me a degree of mesmeric force which I had never dreamed that one creature could exercise on another; but, at least, I was no longer in doubt as to whether I was or was not dead. I knew I was alive.
He lay, watching me, as if he was reading the thoughts which occupied my brain,--and, for all I know, he was.
'Robert Holt, you are a thief.'
'I am not.'
My own voice, as I heard it, startled me,--it was so long since it had sounded in my ears.
'You are a thief! Only thieves come through windows,--did you not come through the window?' I was still,--what would my contradiction have availed me? 'But it is well that you came through the window,--well you are a thief,--well for me! for me! It is you that I am wanting,--at the happy moment you have dropped yourself into my hands,--in the nick of time. For you are my slave,--at my beck and call,--my familiar spirit, to do with as I will,--you know this,--eh?'
I did know it, and the knowledge of my impotence was terrible. I felt that if I could only get away from him; only release myself from the bonds with which he had bound me about; only remove myself from the horrible glamour of his near neighbourhood; only get one or two square meals and have an opportunity of recovering from the enervating stress of mental and bodily fatigue;--I felt that then I might be something like his match, and that, a second time, he would endeavour in vain to bring me within the compass of his magic. But, as it was, I was conscious that I was helpless, and the consciousness was agony. He persisted in reiterating his former falsehood.
'I say you are a thief!--a thief, Robert Holt, a thief! You came through a window for your own pleasure, now you will go through a window for mine,--not this window, but another.' Where the jest lay I did not perceive; but it tickled him, for a grating sound came from his throat which was meant for laughter. 'This time it is as a thief that you will go,--oh yes, be sure.'
He paused, as it seemed, to transfix me with his gaze. His unblinking eyes never for an instant quitted my face. With what a frightful fascination they constrained me,--and how I loathed them!
When he spoke again there was a new intonation in his speech,-- something bitter, cruel, unrelenting.
'Do you know Paul Lessingham?'
He pronounced the name as if he hated it,--and yet as if he loved to have it on his tongue.
'What Paul Lessingham?'
'There is only one Paul Lessingham! THE Paul Lessingham,--the GREAT Paul Lessingham!'
He shrieked, rather than said this, with an outburst of rage so frenzied that I thought, for the moment, that he was going to spring on me and rend me. I shook all over. I do not doubt that, as I replied, my voice was sufficiently tremulous.
'All the world knows Paul Lessingham,--the politician,--the statesman.'
As he glared at me his eyes dilated. I still stood in expectation of a physical assault. But, for the present, he contented himself with words.
'To-night you are going through his window like a thief!'
I had no inkling of his meaning,--and, apparently, judging from his next words, I looked something of the bewilderment I felt.
'You do not understand?--no!--it is simple!--what could be simpler? I say that to-night--to-night!--you are going through his window like a thief. You came through my window,--why not through the window of Paul Lessingham, the politician--the statesman.'
He repeated my words as if in mockery. I am--I make it my boast!-- of that great multitude which regards Paul Lessingham as the greatest living force in practical politics; and which looks to him, with confidence, to carry through that great work of constitutional and social reform which he has set himself to do. I daresay that my tone, in speaking of him, savoured of laudation,-- which, plainly, the man in the bed resented. What he meant by his wild words about my going through Paul Lessingham's window like a thief, I still had not the faintest notion. They sounded like the ravings of a madman.
As I continued silent, and he yet stared, there came into his tone another note,--a note of tenderness,--a note of which I had not deemed him capable.
'He is good to look at, Paul Lessingham,--is he not good to look at?'
I was aware that, physically, Mr Lessingham was a fine specimen of manhood, but I was not prepared for the assertion of the fact in such a quarter,--nor for the manner in which the temporary master of my fate continued to harp and enlarge upon the theme.
'He is straight,--straight as the mast of a ship,--he is tall,-- his skin is white; he is strong--do I not know that he is strong-- how strong!--oh yes! Is there a better thing than to be his wife? his well-beloved? the light of his eyes? Is there for a woman a happier chance? Oh no, not one! His wife!--Paul Lessingham!'
As, with soft cadences, he gave vent to these unlooked-for sentiments, the fashion of his countenance was changed. A look of longing came into his face--of savage, frantic longing--which, unalluring though it was, for the moment transfigured him. But the mood was transient.
'To be his wife,--oh yes!--the wife of his scorn! the despised and rejected!'
The return to the venom of his former bitterness was rapid,--I could not but feel that this was the natural man. Though why a creature such as he was should go out of his way to apostrophise, in such a manner, a publicist of Mr Lessingham's eminence, surpassed my comprehension. Yet he stuck to his subject like a leech,--as if it had been one in which he had an engrossing personal interest.
'He is a devil,--hard as the granite rock,--cold as the snows of Ararat. In him there is none of life's warm blood,--he is accursed! He is false,--ay, false as the fables of those who lie for love of lies,--he is all treachery. Her whom he has taken to his bosom he would put away from him as if she had never been,--he would steal from her like a thief in the night,--he would forget she ever was! But the avenger follows after, lurking in the shadows, hiding among the rocks, waiting, watching, till his time shall come. And it shall come!--the day of the avenger!--ay, the day!'
Raising himself to a sitting posture, he threw his arms above his head, and shrieked with a demoniac fury. Presently he became a trifle calmer. Reverting to his recumbent position, resting his head upon his hand, he eyed me steadily; then asked me a question which struck me as being, under the circumstances, more than a little singular.
'You know his house,--the house of the great Paul Lessingham,--the politician,--the statesman?'
'I do not.'
'You lie!--you do!'
The words came from him with a sort of snarl,--as if he would have lashed me across the face with them.
'I do not. Men in my position are not acquainted with the residences of men in his. I may, at some time, have seen his address in print; but, if so, I have forgotten it.'
He looked at me intently, for some moments, as if to learn if I spoke the truth; and apparently, at last, was satisfied that I did.
'You do not know it?--Well!--I will show it you,--I will show the house of the great Paul Lessingham.'
What he meant I did not know; but I was soon to learn,--an astounding revelation it proved to be. There was about his manner something hardly human; something which, for want of a better phrase, I would call vulpine. In his tone there was a mixture of mockery and bitterness, as if he wished his words to have the effect of corrosive sublimate, and to sear me as he uttered them.
'Listen with all your ears. Give me your whole attention. Hearken to my bidding, so that you may do as I bid you. Not that I fear your obedience,--oh no!'
He paused,--as if to enable me to fully realise the picture of my helplessness conjured up by his jibes.
'You came through my window, like a thief. You will go through my window, like a fool. You will go to the house of the great Paul Lessingham. You say you do not know it? Well, I will show it you. I will be your guide. Unseen, in the darkness and the night, I will stalk beside you, and will lead you to where I would have you go.--You will go just as you are, with bare feet, and head uncovered, and with but a single garment to hide your nakedness. You will be cold, your feet will be cut and bleeding,--but what better does a thief deserve? If any see you, at the least they will take you for a madman; there will be trouble. But have no fear; bear a bold heart. None shall see you while I stalk at your side. I will cover you with the cloak of invisibility,--so that you may come in safety to the house of the great Paul Lessingham.'
He paused again. What he said, wild and wanton though it was, was beginning to fill me with a sense of the most extreme discomfort. His sentences, in some strange, indescribable way, seemed, as they came from his lips, to warp my limbs; to enwrap themselves about me; to confine me, tighter and tighter, within, as it were, swaddling clothes; to make me more and more helpless. I was already conscious that whatever mad freak he chose to set me on, I should have no option but to carry it through.
'When you come to the house, you will stand, and look, and seek for a window convenient for entry. It may be that you will find one open, as you did mine; if not, you will open one. How,--that is your affair, not mine. You will practise the arts of a thief to steal into his house.'
The monstrosity of his suggestion fought against the spell which he again was casting upon me, and forced me into speech,--endowed me with the power to show that there still was in me something of a man; though every second the strands of my manhood, as it seemed, were slipping faster through the fingers which were strained to clutch them.
'I will not.'
He was silent. He looked at me. The pupils of his eyes dilated,-- until they seemed all pupil.
'You will.--Do you hear?--I say you will.'
'I am not a thief, I am an honest man,--why should I do this thing?'
'Because I bid you.'
'On whom--on you, or on Paul Lessingham?--Who, at any time, has shown mercy unto me, that I should show mercy unto any?'
He stopped, and then again went on,--reiterating his former incredible suggestion with an emphasis which seemed to eat its way into my brain.
'You will practise the arts of a thief to steal into his house; and, being in, will listen. If all be still, you will make your way to the room he calls his study.'
'How shall I find it? I know nothing of his house.'
The question was wrung from me; I felt that the sweat was standing in great drops upon my brow.
'I will show it you.'
'Shall you go with me?'
'Ay,--I shall go with you. All the time I shall be with you. You will not see me, but I shall be there. Be not afraid.'
His claim to supernatural powers, for what he said amounted to nothing less, was, on the face of it, preposterous, but, then, I was in no condition to even hint at its absurdity. He continued.
'When you have gained the study, you will go to a certain drawer, which is in a certain bureau, in a corner of the room--I see it now; when you are there you shall see it too--and you will open it.'
'Should it be locked?'
'You still will open it.'
'But how shall I open it if it is locked?'
'By those arts in which a thief is skilled. I say to you again that that is your affair, not mine.'
I made no attempt to answer him. Even supposing that he forced me, by the wicked, and unconscionable exercise of what, I presumed, were the hypnotic powers with which nature had to such a dangerous degree endowed him, to carry the adventure to a certain stage, since he could hardly, at an instant's notice, endow me with the knack of picking locks, should the drawer he alluded to be locked --which might Providence permit!--nothing serious might issue from it after all. He read my thoughts.
'You will open it,--though it be doubly and trebly locked, I say that you will open it.--In it you will find--' he hesitated, as if to reflect--'some letters; it may be two or three,--I know not just how many,--they are bound about by a silken ribbon. You will take them out of the drawer, and, having taken them, you will make the best of your way out of the house, and bear them back to me.'
'And should anyone come upon me while engaged in these nefarious proceedings,--for instance, should I encounter Mr Lessingham himself, what then?'
'Paul Lessingham?--You need have no fear if you encounter him.'
'I need have no fear!--If he finds me, in his own house, at dead of night, committing burglary!'
'You need have no fear of him.'
'On your account, or on my own?--At least he will have me haled to gaol.'
'I say you need have no fear of him. I say what I mean.'
'How, then, shall I escape his righteous vengeance? He is not the man to suffer a midnight robber to escape him scatheless,--shall I have to kill him?'
'You will not touch him with a finger,--nor will he touch you.'
'By what spell shall I prevent him?'
'By the spell of two words.'
'What words are they?'
'Should Paul Lessingham chance to come upon you, and find you in his house, a thief, and should seek to stay you from whatever it is you may be at, you will not flinch nor flee from him, but you will stand still, and you will say--'
Something in the crescendo accents of his voice, something weird and ominous, caused my heart to press against my ribs, so that when he stopped, in my eagerness I cried out,
As the words came from him in a kind of screech, the lamp went out, and the place was all in darkness, and I knew, so that the knowledge filled me with a sense of loathing, that with me, in the room, was the evil presence of the night before. Two bright specks gleamed in front of me; something flopped from off the bed on to the ground; the thing was coming towards me across the floor. It came slowly on, and on, and on. I stood still, speechless in the sickness of my horror. Until, on my bare feet, it touched me with slimy feelers, and my terror lest it should creep up my naked body lent me voice, and I fell shrieking like a soul in agony.
It may be that my shrieking drove it from me. At least, it went. I knew it went. And all was still. Until, on a sudden, the lamp flamed out again, and there, lying, as before, in bed, glaring at me with his baleful eyes, was the being whom, in my folly, or in my wisdom,--whichever it was!--I was beginning to credit with the possession of unhallowed, unlawful powers.
'You will say that to him; those two words; they only; no more. And you will see what you will see. But Paul Lessingham is a man of resolution. Should he still persist in interference, or seek to hinder you, you will say those two words again. You need do no more. Twice will suffice, I promise you.--Now go.--Draw up the blind; open the window; climb through it. Hasten to do what I have bidden you. I wait here for your return,--and all the way I shall be with you.'