Book II. The Haunted Man
Chapter XIII. The Picture
'I wonder what that nice-looking beggar really means, and who he happens to be?' That was what I said to myself when I returned to the laboratory. 'If it is true that, now and again, Providence does write a man's character on his face, then there can't be the slightest shred of a doubt that a curious one's been written on his. I wonder what his connection has been with the Apostle,--or if it's only part of his game of bluff.'
I strode up and down,--for the moment my interest in the experiments I was conducting had waned.
'If it was all bluff I never saw a better piece of acting,--and yet what sort of finger can such a precisian as St Paul have in such a pie? The fellow seemed to squirm at the mere mention of the rising-hope-of-the-Radicals' name. Can the objection be political? Let me consider,--what has Lessingham done which could offend the religious or patriotic susceptibilities of the most fanatical of Orientals? Politically, I can recall nothing. Foreign affairs, as a rule, he has carefully eschewed. If he has offended--and if he hasn't the seeming was uncommonly good!--the cause will have to be sought upon some other track. But, then, what track?'
The more I strove to puzzle it out, the greater the puzzlement grew.
'Absurd!--The rascal has had no more connection with St Paul than St Peter. The probability is that he's a crackpot; and if he isn't, he has some little game on foot--in close association with the hunt of the oof-bird!--which he tried to work off on me, but couldn't. As for--for Marjorie--my Marjorie!--only she isn't mine, confound it!--if I had had my senses about me, I should have broken his head in several places for daring to allow her name to pass his lips,--the unbaptised Mohammedan!--Now to return to the chase of splendid murder!'
I snatched up my mask--one of the most ingenious inventions, by the way, of recent years; if the armies of the future wear my mask they will defy my weapon!--and was about to re-adjust it in its place, when someone knocked at the door.
'Who's there?--Come in!'
It was Edwards. He looked round him as if surprised.
'I beg your pardon, sir,--I thought you were engaged. I didn't know that--that gentleman had gone.'
'He went up the chimney, as all that kind of gentlemen do.--Why the deuce did you let him in when I told you not to?' 'Really, sir, I don't know. I gave him your message, and--he looked at me, and--that is all I remember till I found myself standing in this room.'
Had it not been Edwards I might have suspected him of having had his palm well greased,--but, in his case, I knew better. It was as I thought,--my visitor was a mesmerist of the first class; he had actually played some of his tricks, in broad daylight, on my servant, at my own front door,--a man worth studying. Edwards continued.
'There is someone else, sir, who wishes to see you,--Mr Lessingham.'
'Mr Lessingham!' At that moment the juxtaposition seemed odd, though I daresay it was so rather in appearance than in reality. 'Show him in.'
Presently in came Paul.
I am free to confess,--I have owned it before!--that, in a sense, I admire that man,--so long as he does not presume to thrust himself into a certain position. He possesses physical qualities which please my eye--speaking as a mere biologist like the suggestion conveyed by his every pose, his every movement, of a tenacious hold on life,--of reserve force, of a repository of bone and gristle on which he can fall back at pleasure. The fellow's lithe and active; not hasty, yet agile; clean built, well hung,-- the sort of man who might be relied upon to make a good recovery. You might beat him in a sprint,--mental or physical--though to do that you would have to be spry!--but in a staying race he would see you out. I do not know that he is exactly the kind of man whom I would trust,--unless I knew that he was on the job,--which knowledge, in his case, would be uncommonly hard to attain. He is too calm; too self-contained; with the knack of looking all round him even in moments of extremest peril,--and for whatever he does he has a good excuse. He has the reputation, both in the House and out of it, of being a man of iron nerve,--and with some reason; yet I am not so sure. Unless I read him wrongly his is one of those individualities which, confronted by certain eventualities, collapse,--to rise, the moment of trial having passed, like Phoenix from her ashes. However it might be with his adherents, he would show no trace of his disaster.
And this was the man whom Marjorie loved. Well, she could show some cause. He was a man of position,--destined, probably, to rise much higher; a man of parts,--with capacity to make the most of them; not ill-looking; with agreeable manners,--when he chose; and he came within the lady's definition of a gentleman, 'he always did the right thing, at the right time, in the right way.' And yet--! Well, I take it that we are all cads, and that we most of us are prigs; for mercy's sake do not let us all give ourselves away.
He was dressed as a gentleman should be dressed,--black frock coat, black vest, dark grey trousers, stand-up collar, smartly- tied bow, gloves of the proper shade, neatly brushed hair, and a smile, which if was not childlike, at any rate was bland.
'I am not disturbing you?'
'Not at all.'
'Sure?--I never enter a place like this, where a man is matching himself with nature, to wrest from her her secrets, without feeling that I am crossing the threshold of the unknown. The last time I was in this room was just after you had taken out the final patents for your System of Telegraphy at Sea, which the Admiralty purchased,--wisely--What is it, now?'
'No?--really?--what do you mean?'
'If you are a member of the next government, you will possibly learn; I may offer them the refusal of a new wrinkle in the art of murder.'
'I see,--a new projectile.--How long is this race to continue between attack and defence?'
'Until the sun grows cold.'
'There'll be no defence,--nothing to defend.'
He looked at me with his calm, grave eyes.
'The theory of the Age of Ice towards which we are advancing is not a cheerful one.' He began to finger a glass retort which lay upon a table. 'By the way, it was very good of you to give me a look in last night. I am afraid you thought me peremptory,--I have come to apologise.'
'I don't know that I thought you peremptory; I thought you-- queer.'
'Yes.' He glanced at me with that expressionless look upon his face which he could summon at will, and which is at the bottom of the superstition about his iron nerve. 'I was worried, and not well. Besides, one doesn't care to be burgled, even by a maniac.'
'Was he a maniac?'
'Did you see him?'
'In the street.'
'How close were you to him?'
'Closer than I am to you.'
'Indeed. I didn't know you were so close to him as that. Did you try to stop him?'
'Easier said than done,--he was off at such a rate.'
'Did you see how he was dressed,--or, rather, undressed?'
'In nothing but a cloak on such a night. Who but a fanatic would have attempted burglary in such a costume?'
'Did he take anything?'
'It seems to have been a curious episode.'
He moved his eyebrows,--according to members of the House the only gesture in which he has been known to indulge.
'We become accustomed to curious episodes. Oblige me by not mentioning it to anyone,--to anyone.' He repeated the last two words, as if to give them emphasis. I wondered if he was thinking of Marjorie. 'I am communicating with the police. Until they move I don't want it to get into the papers,--or to be talked about. It's a worry,--you understand?'
I nodded. He changed the theme.
'This that you're engaged upon,--is it a projectile or a weapon?'
'If you are a member of the next government you will possibly know; if you aren't you possibly won't.'
'I suppose you have to keep this sort of thing secret?'
'I do. It seems that matters of much less moment you wish to keep secret.'
'You mean that business of last night? If a trifle of that sort gets into the papers, or gets talked about,--which is the same thing!--you have no notion how we are pestered. It becomes an almost unbearable nuisance. Jones the Unknown can commit murder with less inconvenience to himself than Jones the Notorious can have his pocket picked,--there is not so much exaggeration in that as there sounds.--Good-bye,--thanks for your promise.' I had given him no promise, but that was by the way. He turned as to go,--then stopped. 'There's another thing,--I believe you're a specialist on questions of ancient superstitions and extinct religions.'
'I am interested in such subjects, but I am not a specialist.'
'Can you tell me what were the exact tenets of the worshippers of Isis?'
'Neither I nor any man,--with scientific certainty. As you know, she had a brother; the cult of Osiris and Isis was one and the same. What, precisely, were its dogmas, or its practices, or anything about it, none, now, can tell. The Papyri, hieroglyphics, and so on, which remain are very far from being exhaustive, and our knowledge of those which do remain, is still less so.'
'I suppose that the marvels which are told of it are purely legendary?'
'To what marvels do you particularly refer?'
'Weren't supernatural powers attributed to the priests of Isis?'
'Broadly speaking, at that time, supernatural powers were attributed to all the priests of all the creeds.'
'I see.' Presently he continued. 'I presume that her cult is long since extinct,--that none of the worshippers of Isis exist to- day.'
I hesitated,--I was wondering why he had hit on such a subject; if he really had a reason, or if he was merely asking questions as a cover for something else,--you see, I knew my Paul.
'That is not so sure.'
He looked at me with that passionless, yet searching glance of his.
'You think that she still is worshipped?
'I think it possible, even probable, that, here and there, in Africa--Africa is a large order!--homage is paid to Isis, quite in the good old way.'
'Do you know that as a fact?'
'Excuse me, but do you know it as a fact?--Are you aware that you are treating me as if I was on the witness stand?--Have you any special purpose in making these inquiries?'
'In a kind of a way I have. I have recently come across rather a curious story; I am trying to get to the bottom of it.'
'What is the story?'
'I am afraid that at present I am not at liberty to tell it you; when I am I will. You will find it interesting,--as an instance of a singular survival.--Didn't the followers of Isis believe in transmigration?'
'Some of them,--no doubt.'
'What did they understand by transmigration?'
'Yes,--but of the soul or of the body?'
'How do you mean?--transmigration is transmigration. Are you driving at something in particular? If you'll tell me fairly and squarely what it is I'll do my best to give you the information you require; as it is, your questions are a bit perplexing.'
'Oh, it doesn't matter,--as you say, "transmigration is transmigration."' I was eyeing him keenly; I seemed to detect in his manner an odd reluctance to enlarge on the subject he himself had started. He continued to trifle with the retort upon the table. 'Hadn't the followers of Isis a--what shall I say?--a sacred emblem?'
'Hadn't they an especial regard for some sort of a--wasn't it some sort of a--beetle?'
'You mean Scarabaeus sacer,--according to Latreille, Scarabaeus Egyptiorum? Undoubtedly,--the scarab was venerated throughout Egypt,--indeed, speaking generally, most things that had life, for instance, cats; as you know, Orisis continued among men in the figure of Apis, the bull.'
'Weren't the priests of Isis--or some of them--supposed to assume, after death, the form of a--scarabaeus?'
'I never heard of it.'
'Are you sure?--think!'
'I shouldn't like to answer such a question positively, offhand, but I don't, on the spur of the moment, recall any supposition of the kind.'
'Don't laugh at me--I'm not a lunatic!--but I understand that recent researches have shown that even in some of the most astounding of the ancient legends there was a substratum of fact. Is it absolutely certain that there could be no shred of truth in such a belief?'
'In what belief?'
'In the belief that a priest of Isis--or anyone--assumed after death the form of a scarabaeus?'
'It seems to me, Lessingham, that you have lately come across some uncommonly interesting data, of a kind, too, which it is your bounden duty to give to the world,--or, at any rate, to that portion of the world which is represented by me. Come,--tell us all about it!--what are you afraid of?'
'I am afraid of nothing,--and some day you shall be told,--but not now. At present, answer my question.'
'Then repeat your question,--clearly.'
'Is it absolutely certain that there could be no foundation of truth in the belief that a priest of Isis--or anyone--assumed after death the form of a beetle?'
'I know no more than the man in the moon,--how the dickens should I? Such a belief may have been symbolical. Christians believe that after death the body takes the shape of worms--and so, in a sense, it does,--and, sometimes, eels.'
'That is not what I mean.'
'Then what do you mean?'
'Listen. If a person, of whose veracity there could not be a vestige of a doubt, assured you that he had seen such a transformation actually take place, could it conceivably be explained on natural grounds?'
'Seen a priest of Isis assume the form of a beetle?'
'Or a follower of Isis?'
'Before, or after death?'
He hesitated. I had seldom seen him wear such an appearance of interest,--to be frank, I was keenly interested too!--but, on a sudden there came into his eyes a glint of something that was almost terror. When he spoke, it was with the most unwonted awkwardness.
'In--in the very act of dying.'
'In the very act of dying?'
'If--he had seen a follower of Isis in--the very act of dying, assume--the form of a--a beetle, on any conceivable grounds would such a transformation be susceptible of a natural explanation?'
I stared,--as who would not? Such an extraordinary question was rendered more extraordinary by coming from such a man,--yet I was almost beginning to suspect that there was something behind it more extraordinary still.
'Look here, Lessingham, I can see you've a capital tale to tell,-- so tell it, man! Unless I'm mistaken, it's not the kind of tale in which ordinary scruples can have any part or parcel,--anyhow, it's hardly fair of you to set my curiosity all agog, and then to leave it unappeased.'
He eyed me steadily, the appearance of interest fading more and more, until, presently, his face assumed its wonted expressionless mask,--somehow I was conscious that what he had seen in my face was not altogether to his liking. His voice was once more bland and self-contained.
'I perceive you are of opinion that I have been told a taradiddle. I suppose I have.'
'But what is the taradiddle?--don't you see I'm burning?'
'Unfortunately, Atherton, I am on my honour. Until I have permission to unloose it, my tongue is tied.' He picked up his hat and umbrella from where he had placed them on the table. Holding them in his left hand, he advanced to me with his right outstretched. 'It is very good of you to suffer my continued interruption; I know, to my sorrow, what such interruptions mean, --believe me, I am not ungrateful. What is this?'
On the shelf, within a foot or so of where I stood, was a sheet of paper,--the size and shape of half a sheet of post note. At this he stooped to glance. As he did so, something surprising occurred. On the instant a look came on to his face which, literally, transfigured him. His hat and umbrella fell from his grasp on to the floor. He retreated, gibbering, his hands held out as if to ward something off from him, until he reached the wall on the other side of the room. A more amazing spectacle than he presented I never saw.
'Lessingham!' I exclaimed. 'What's wrong with you?'
My first impression was that he was struck by a fit of epilepsy,-- though anyone less like an epileptic subject it would be hard to find. In my bewilderment I looked round to see what could be the immediate cause. My eye fell upon the sheet of paper, I stared at it with considerable surprise. I had not noticed it there previously I had not put it there,--where had it come from? The curious thing was that, on it, produced apparently by some process of photogravure, was an illustration of a species of beetle with which I felt that I ought to be acquainted, and yet was not. It was of a dull golden green; the colour was so well brought out,-- even to the extent of seeming to scintillate, and the whole thing was so dexterously done that the creature seemed alive. The semblance of reality was, indeed, so vivid that it needed a second glance to be assured that it was a mere trick of the reproducer. Its presence there was odd,--after what we had been talking about it might seem to need explanation; but it was absurd to suppose that that alone could have had such an effect on a man like Lessingham.
With the thing in my hand, I crossed to where he was,--pressing his back against the wall, he had shrunk lower inch by inch till he was actually crouching on his haunches.
'Lessingham!--come, man, what's wrong with you?'
Taking him by the shoulder, I shook him with some vigour. My touch had on him the effect of seeming to wake him out of a dream, of restoring him to consciousness as against the nightmare horrors with which he was struggling. He gazed up at me with that look of cunning on his face which one associates with abject terror.
'Atherton?--Is it you?--It's all right,--quite right.--I'm well,-- very well.'
As he spoke, he slowly drew himself up, till he was standing erect.
'Then, in that case, all I can say is that you have a queer way of being very well.'
He put his hand up to his mouth, as if to hide the trembling of his lips.
'It's the pressure of overwork,--I've had one or two attacks like this,--but it's nothing, only--a local lesion.'
I observed him keenly; to my thinking there was something about him which was very odd indeed.
'Only a local lesion!--If you take my strongly-urged advice you'll get a medical opinion without delay,--if you haven't been wise enough to have done so already.'
'I'll go to-day;--at once; but I know it's only mental overstrain.'
'You're sure it's nothing to do with this?'
I held out in front of him the photogravure of the beetle. As I did so he backed away from me, shrieking, trembling as with palsy.
'Take it away! take it away!' he screamed.
I stared at him, for some seconds, astonished into speechlessness. Then I found my tongue.
'Lessingham!--It's only a picture!--Are you stark mad?'
He persisted in his ejaculations.
'Take it away! take it away!--Tear it up!--Burn it!'
His agitation was so unnatural,--from whatever cause it arose!-- that, fearing the recurrence of the attack from which he had just recovered, I did as he bade me. I tore the sheet of paper into quarters, and, striking a match, set fire to each separate piece. He watched the process of incineration as if fascinated. When it was concluded, and nothing but ashes remained, he gave a gasp of relief.
'Lessingham,' I said, 'you're either mad already, or you're going mad,--which is it?'
'I think it's neither. I believe I am as sane as you. It's--it's that story of which I was speaking; it--it seems curious, but I'll tell you all about it--some day. As I observed, I think you will find it an interesting instance of a singular survival.' He made an obvious effort to become more like his usual self. 'It is extremely unfortunate, Atherton, that I should have troubled you with such a display of weakness,--especially as I am able to offer you so scant an explanation. One thing I would ask of you,--to observe strict confidence. What has taken place has been between ourselves. I am in your hands, but you are my friend, I know I can rely on you not to speak of it to anyone,--and, in particular, not to breathe a hint of it to Miss Lindon.'
'Why, in particular, not to Miss Lindon?'
'Can you not guess?'
I hunched my shoulder.
'If what I guess is what you mean is not that a cause the more why silence would be unfair to her?'
'It is for me to speak, if for anyone. I shall not fail to do what should be done.--Give me your promise that you will not hint a word to her of what you have so unfortunately seen?'
I gave him the promise he required.
. . . . . . .There was no more work for me that day. The Apostle, his divagations, his example of the coleoptera, his Arabian friend,-- these things were as microbes which, acting on a system already predisposed for their reception, produced high fever; I was in a fever,--of unrest. Brain in a whirl!--Marjorie, Paul, Isis, beetle, mesmerism, in delirious jumble. Love's upsetting!--in itself a sufficiently severe disease; but when complications intervene, suggestive of mystery and novelties, so that you do not know if you are moving in an atmosphere of dreams or of frozen facts,--if, then, your temperature does not rise, like that rocket of M. Verne's,--which reached the moon, then you are a freak of an entirely genuine kind, and if the surgeons do not preserve you, and place you on view, in pickle, they ought to, for the sake of historical doubters, for no one will believe that there ever was a man like you, unless you yourself are somewhere around to prove them Thomases.
Myself,--I am not that kind of man. When I get warm I grow heated, and when I am heated there is likely to be a variety show of a gaudy kind. When Paul had gone I tried to think things out, and if I had kept on trying something would have happened--so I went on the river instead.