Book II. The Haunted Man
Chapter XXI. The Terror in the Night
'Sydney!' she cried, 'I'm so glad that I can see you!'
She might be,--but, at that moment, I could scarcely assert that I was a sharer of her joy.
'I told you that if trouble overtook me I should come to you, and --I'm in trouble now. Such strange trouble.'
So was I,--and in perplexity as well. An idea occurred to me,--I would outwit her eavesdropping father.
'Come with me into the house,--tell me all about it there.'
She refused to budge.
'No,--I will tell you all about it here.' She looked about her,-- as it struck me queerly. 'This is just the sort of place in which to unfold a tale like mine. It looks uncanny.'
'"But me no buts!" Sydney, don't torture me,--let me stop here where I am,--don't you see I'm haunted?'
She had seated herself. Now she stood up, holding her hands out in front of her in a state of extraordinary agitation, her manner as wild as her words.
'Why are you staring at me like that? Do you think I'm mad?--I wonder if I'm going mad.--Sydney, do people suddenly go mad? You're a bit of everything, you're a bit of a doctor too, feel my pulse,--there it is!--tell me if I'm ill!'
I felt her pulse,--it did not need its swift beating to inform me that fever of some sort was in her veins. I gave her something in a glass. She held it up to the level of her eyes.
'It's a decoction of my own. You might not think it, but my brain sometimes gets into a whirl. I use it as a sedative. It will do you good.'
She drained the glass.
'It's done me good already,--I believe it has; that's being something like a doctor.--Well, Sydney, the storm has almost burst. Last night papa forbade me to speak to Paul Lessingham--by way of a prelude.'
'Exactly. Mr Lindon---'
'Yes, Mr Lindon,--that's papa. I fancy we almost quarrelled. I know papa said some surprising things,--but it's a way he has,-- he's apt to say surprising things. He's the best father in the world, but--it's not in his nature to like a really clever person; your good high dried old Tory never can;--I've always thought that that's why he's so fond of you.'
'Thank you, I presume that is the reason, though it had not occurred to me before.'
Since her entry, I had, to the best of my ability, been turning the position over in my mind. I came to the conclusion that, all things considered, her father had probably as much right to be a sharer of his daughter's confidence as I had, even from the vantage of the screen,--and that for him to hear a few home truths proceeding from her lips might serve to clear the air. From such a clearance the lady would not be likely to come off worst. I had not the faintest inkling of what was the actual purport of her visit.
She started off, as it seemed to me, at a tangent.
'Did I tell you last night about what took place yesterday morning,--about the adventure of my finding the man?'
'Not a word.'
'I believe I meant to,--I'm half disposed to think he's brought me trouble. Isn't there some superstition about evil befalling whoever shelters a homeless stranger?'
'We'll hope not, for humanity's sake.'
'I fancy there is,--I feel sure there is.--Anyhow, listen to my story. Yesterday morning, before breakfast,--to be accurate, between eight and nine, I looked out of the window, and I saw a crowd in the street. I sent Peter out to see what was the matter. He came back and said there was a man in a fit. I went out to look at the man in the fit. I found, lying on the ground, in the centre of the crowd, a man who, but for the tattered remnants of what had apparently once been a cloak, would have been stark naked. He was covered with dust, and dirt, and blood,--a dreadful sight. As you know, I have had my smattering of instruction in First Aid to the Injured, and that kind of thing, so, as no one else seemed to have any sense, and the man seemed as good as dead, I thought I would try my hand. Directly I knelt down beside him, what do you think he said?'
'Nonsense.--He said, in such a queer, hollow, croaking voice, "Paul Lessingham." I was dreadfully startled. To hear a perfect stranger, a man in his condition, utter that name in such a fashion--to me, of all people in the world!--took me aback. The policeman who was holding his head remarked, "That's the first time he's opened his mouth. I thought he was dead." He opened his mouth a second time. A convulsive movement went all over him, and he exclaimed, with the strangest earnestness, and so loudly that you might have heard him at the other end of the street, "Be warned, Paul Lessingham, be warned!" It was very silly of me, perhaps, but I cannot tell you how his words, and his manner--the two together--affected me.--Well, the long and the short of it was, that I had him taken into the house, and washed, and put to bed,--and I had the doctor sent for. The doctor could make nothing of it at all. He reported that the man seemed to be suffering from some sort of cataleptic seizure,--I could see that he thought it likely to turn out almost as interesting a case as I did.'
'Did you acquaint your father with the addition to his household?'
She looked at me, quizzically.
'You see, when one has such a father as mine one cannot tell him everything, at once. There are occasions on which one requires time.'
I felt that this would be wholesome hearing for old Lindon.
'Last night, after papa and I had exchanged our little courtesies,--which, it is to be hoped, were to papa's satisfaction, since they were not to be mine--I went to see the patient. I was told that he had neither eaten nor drunk, moved nor spoken. But, so soon as I approached his bed, he showed signs of agitation. He half raised himself upon his pillow, and he called out, as if he had been addressing some large assembly--I can't describe to you the dreadful something which was in his voice, and on his face,--"Paul Lessingham!--Beware!--The Beetle!"'
When she said that, I was startled.
'Are you sure those were the words he used?'
'Quite sure. Do you think I could mistake them,--especially after what has happened since? I hear them singing in my ears,--they haunt me all the time.'
She put her hands up to her face, as if to veil something from her eyes. I was becoming more and more convinced that there was something about the Apostle's connection with his Oriental friend which needed probing to the bottom.
'What sort of a man is he to look at, this patient of yours?'
I had my doubts as to the gentleman's identity,--which her words dissolved; only, however, to increase my mystification in another direction.
'He seems to be between thirty and forty. He has light hair, and straggling sandy whiskers. He is so thin as to be nothing but skin and bone,--the doctor says it's a case of starvation.'
'You say he has light hair, and sandy whiskers. Are you sure the whiskers are real?'
She opened her eyes.
'Of course they're real. Why shouldn't they be real?'
'Does he strike you as being a--foreigner?'
'Certainly not. He looks like an Englishman, and he speaks like one, and not, I should say, of the lowest class. It is true that there is a very curious, a weird, quality in his voice, what I have heard of it, but it is not un-English. If it is catalepsy he is suffering from, then it is a kind of catalepsy I never heard of. Have you ever seen a clairvoyant?' I nodded. 'He seems to me to be in a state of clairvoyance. Of course the doctor laughed when I told him so, but we know what doctors are, and I still believe that he is in some condition of the kind. When he said that last night he struck me as being under what those sort of people call 'influence,' and that whoever had him under influence was forcing him to speak against his will, for the words came from his lips as if they had been wrung from him in agony.'
Knowing what I did know, that struck me as being rather a remarkable conclusion for her to have reached, by the exercise of her own unaided powers of intuition,--but I did not choose to let her know I thought so.
'My dear Marjorie!--you who pride yourself on having your imagination so strictly under control!--on suffering it to take no errant flights!'
'Is not the fact that I do so pride myself proof that I am not likely to make assertions wildly,--proof, at any rate, to you? Listen to me. When I left that unfortunate creature's room,--I had had a nurse sent for, I left him in her charge--and reached my own bedroom, I was possessed by a profound conviction that some appalling, intangible, but very real danger, was at that moment threatening Paul.'
'Remember,--you had had an exciting evening; and a discussion with your father. Your patient's words came as a climax.'
'That is what I told myself,--or, rather, that was what I tried to tell myself; because, in some extraordinary fashion, I had lost the command of my powers of reflection.'
'It was not precisely,--or, at least, it was not precisely in the sense you mean. You may laugh at me, Sydney, but I had an altogether indescribable feeling, a feeling which amounted to knowledge, that I was in the presence of the supernatural.'
'It was not nonsense,--I wish it had been nonsense. As I have said, I was conscious, completely conscious, that some frightful peril was assailing Paul. I did not know what it was, but I did know that it was something altogether awful, of which merely to think was to shudder. I wanted to go to his assistance, I tried to, more than once; but I couldn't, and I knew that I couldn't,--I knew that I couldn't move as much as a finger to help him.--Stop, --let me finish!--I told myself that it was absurd, but it wouldn't do; absurd or not, there was the terror with me in the room. I knelt down, and I prayed, but the words wouldn't come. I tried to ask God to remove this burden from my brain, but my longings wouldn't shape themselves into words, and my tongue was palsied. I don't know how long I struggled, but, at last, I came to understand that, for some cause, God had chosen to leave me to fight the fight alone. So I got up, and undressed, and went to bed,--and that was the worst of all. I had sent my maid away in the first rush of my terror, afraid, and, I think, ashamed, to let her see my fear. Now I would have given anything to summon her back again, but I couldn't do it, I couldn't even ring the bell. So, as I say, I got into bed.'
She paused, as if to collect her thoughts. To listen to her words, and to think of the suffering which they meant to her, was almost more than I could endure. I would have thrown away the world to have been able to take her in my arms, and soothe her fears. I knew her to be, in general, the least hysterical of young women; little wont to become the prey of mere delusions; and, incredible though it sounded, I had an innate conviction that, even in its wildest periods, her story had some sort of basis in solid fact. What that basis amounted to, it would be my business, at any and every cost, quickly to determine.
'You know how you have always laughed at me because of my objection to--cockroaches, and how, in spring, the neighbourhood of May-bugs has always made me uneasy. As soon as I got into bed I felt that something of the kind was in the room.'
'Something of what kind?'
'Some kind of--beetle. I could hear the whirring of its wings; I could hear its droning in the air; I knew that it was hovering above my head; that it was coming lower and lower, nearer and nearer. I hid myself; I covered myself all over with the clothes, --then I felt it bumping against the coverlet. And, Sydney!' She drew closer. Her blanched cheeks and frightened eyes made my heart bleed. Her voice became but an echo of itself. 'It followed me.'
'It got into the bed.'
'You imagined it.'
'I didn't imagine it. I heard it crawl along the sheets, till it found a way between them, and then it crawled towards me. And I felt it--against my face.--And it's there now.'
She raised the forefinger of her left hand.
'There!--Can't you hear it droning?'
She listened, intently. I listened too. Oddly enough, at that instant the droning of an insect did become audible.
'It's only a bee, child, which has found its way through the open window.'
'I wish it were only a bee, I wish it were.--Sydney, don't you feel as if you were in the presence of evil? Don't you want to get away from it, back into the presence of God?'
'Pray, Sydney, pray!--I can't!--I don't know why, but I can't!
She flung her arms about my neck, and pressed herself against me in paroxysmal agitation. The violence of her emotion bade fair to unman me too. It was so unlike Marjorie,--and I would have given my life to save her from a toothache. She kept repeating her own words,--as if she could not help it.
'Pray, Sydney, pray!'
At last I did as she wished me. At least, there is no harm in praying,--I never heard of its bringing hurt to anyone. I repeated aloud the Lord's Prayer,---the first time for I know not how long. As the divine sentences came from my lips, hesitatingly enough, I make no doubt, her tremors ceased. She became calmer. Until, as I reached the last great petition, 'Deliver us from evil,' she loosed her arms from about my neck, and dropped upon her knees, close to my feet. And she joined me in the closing words, as a sort of chorus.
'For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen.'
When the prayer was ended, we both of us were still. She with her head bowed, and her hands clasped; and I with something tugging at my heart-strings which I had not felt there for many and many a year, almost as if it had been my mother's hand;--I daresay that sometimes she does stretch out her hand, from her place among the angels, to touch my heart-strings, and I know nothing of it all the while.
As the silence still continued, I chanced to glance up, and there was old Lindon peeping at us from his hiding-place behind the screen. The look of amazed perplexity which was on his big red face struck me with such a keen sense of the incongruous that it was all I could do to keep from laughter Apparently the sight of us did nothing to lighten the fog which was in his brain, for he stammered out, in what was possibly intended for a whisper,
'Is--is she m-mad?'
The whisper,--if it was meant for a whisper--was more than sufficiently audible to catch his daughter's ears. She started-- raised her head--sprang to her feet--turned--and saw her father.
Immediately her sire was seized with an access of stuttering.
'W-w-what the d-devil's the--the m-m-meaning of this?'
Her utterance was clear enough,--I fancy her parent found it almost painfully clear.
'Rather it is for me to ask, what is the meaning of this! Is it possible, that, all the time, you have actually been concealed behind that--screen?'
Unless I am mistaken the old gentleman cowered before the directness of his daughter's gaze,--and endeavoured to conceal the fact by an explosion of passion.
Do-don't you s-speak to me li-like that, you un-undutiful girl! I--I'm your father!'
'You certainly are my father; though I was unaware until now that my father was capable of playing the part of eavesdropper.'
Rage rendered him speechless,--or, at any rate, he chose to let us believe that that was the determining cause of his continuing silent. So Marjorie turned to me,--and, on the whole, I had rather she had not. Her manner was very different from what it had been just now,--it was more than civil, it was freezing.
'Am I to understand, Mr Atherton, that this has been done with your cognisance? That while you suffered me to pour out my heart to you unchecked, you were aware, all the time, that there was a listener behind the screen?'
I became keenly aware, on a sudden, that I had borne my share in playing her a very shabby trick,--I should have liked to throw old Lindon through the window.
'The thing was not of my contriving. Had I had the opportunity I would have compelled Mr Lindon to face you when you came in. But your distress caused me to lose my balance. And you will do me the justice to remember that I endeavoured to induce you to come with me into another room.'
'But I do not seem to remember your hinting at there being any particular reason why I should have gone.'
'You never gave me a chance.'
'Sydney!--I had not thought you would have played me such a trick!'
When she said that--in such a tone!--the woman whom I loved!--I could have hammered my head against the wall. The hound I was to have treated her so scurvily!
Perceiving I was crushed she turned again to face her father, cool, calm, stately;--she was, on a sudden, once more, the Marjorie with whom I was familiar. The demeanour of parent and child was in striking contrast. If appearances went for aught, the odds were heavy that in any encounter which might be coming the senior would suffer.
'I hope, papa, that you are going to tell me that there has been some curious mistake, and that nothing was farther from your intention than to listen at a keyhole. What would you have thought--and said--if I had attempted to play the spy on you? And I have always understood that men were so particular on points of honour.'
Old Lindon was still hardly fit to do much else than splutter,-- certainly not qualified to chop phrases with this sharp-tongued maiden.
'D-don't talk to me li-like that, girl!--I--I believe you're s- stark mad!' He turned to me. 'W-what was that tomfoolery she was talking to you about?'
'To what do you allude?'
'About a rub-rubbishing b-beetle, and g-goodness alone knows what,--d-diseased and m-morbid imagination,--r-reared on the literature of the gutter!--I never thought that a child of mine could have s-sunk to such a depth!--Now, Atherton, I ask you to t- tell me frankly,--what do you think of a child who behaves as she has done? who t-takes a nameless vagabond into the house and con- conceals his presence from her father? And m-mark the sequel! even the vagabond warns her against the r-rascal Lessingham!--Now, Atherton, tell me what you think of a girl who behaves like that?' I shrugged my shoulders. 'I--I know very well what you d-do think of her,--don't be afraid to say it out because she's present.'
'No; Sydney, don't be afraid.'
I saw that her eyes were dancing,--in a manner of speaking, her looks brightened under the sunshine of her father's displeasure.
'Let's hear what you think of her as a--as a m-man of the world!'
'Pray, Sydney, do!'
'What you feel for her in your--your heart of hearts!'
'Yes, Sydney, what do you feel for me in your heart of hearts?'
The baggage beamed with heartless sweetness,--she was making a mock of me. Her father turned as if he would have rent her.
'D-don't you speak until you're spoken to! Atherton, I--I hope I'm not deceived in you; I--I hope you're the man I--I took you for; that you're willing and--and ready to play the part of a-a-an honest friend to this mis-misguided simpleton. T-this is not the time for mincing words, it--it's the time for candid speech. Tell this--this weak minded young woman, right out, whether this man Lessingham is, or is not, a damned scoundrel.'
'Papa!--Do you really think that Sydney's opinion, or your opinion, is likely to alter facts?'
'Do you hear, Atherton, tell this wretched girl the truth!'
'My dear Mr Lindon, I have already told you that I know nothing either for or against Mr Lessingham except what is known to all the world.'
'Exactly,--and all the world knows him to be a miserable adventurer who is scheming to entrap my daughter.'
'I am bound to say, since you press me, that your language appears to me to be unnecessarily strong.'
'Atherton, I--I'm ashamed of you!'
'You see, Sydney, even papa is ashamed of you; now you are outside the pale.--My dear papa, if you will allow me to speak, I will tell you what I know to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.--That Mr Lessingham is a man with great gifts goes without saying,--permit me, papa! He is a man of genius. He is a man of honour. He is a man of the loftiest ambitions, of the highest aims. He has dedicated his whole life to the improvement of the conditions amidst which the less fortunate of his fellow countrymen are at present compelled to exist. That seems to me to be an object well worth having. He has asked me to share his life- work, and I have told him that I will; when, and where, and how, he wants me to. And I will. I do not suppose his life has been free from peccadilloes. I have no delusion on the point. What man's life has? Who among men can claim to be without sin? Even the members of our highest families sometimes hide behind screens. But I know that he is, at least, as good a man as I ever met, I am persuaded that I shall never meet a better; and I thank God that I have found favour in his eyes.--Good-bye, Sydney.--I suppose I shall see you again, papa.'
With the merest inclination of her head to both of us she straightway left the room. Lindon would have stopped her.
'S-stay, y-y-y-you--' he stuttered.
But I caught him by the arm.
'If you will be advised by me, you will let her go. No good purpose will be served by a multiplication of words.'
'Atherton, I--I'm disappointed in you. You--you haven't behaved as I expected. I--I haven't received from you the assistance which I looked for.'
'My dear Lindon, it seems to me that your method of diverting the young lady from the path which she has set herself to tread is calculated to send her furiously along it.'
'C-confound the women! c-confound the women! I don't mind telling you, in c-confidence, that at--at times, her mother was the devil, and I'll be--I'll be hanged if her daughter isn't worse.--What was the tomfoolery she was talking to you about? Is she mad?'
'No,--I don't think she's mad.'
'I never heard such stuff, it made my blood run cold to hear her. What's the matter with the girl?'
'Well,--you must excuse my saying that I don't fancy you quite understand women.'
'I--I don't,--and I--I--I don't want to either.'
I hesitated; then resolved on a taradiddle,--in Marjorie's interest.
'Marjorie is high-strung,--extremely sensitive. Her imagination is quickly aflame. Perhaps, last night, you drove her as far as was safe. You heard for yourself how, in consequence, she suffered. You don't want people to say you have driven her into a lunatic asylum.'
'I--good heavens, no! I--I'll send for the doctor directly I get home,--I--I'll have the best opinion in town.'
'You'll do nothing of the kind,--you'll only make her worse. What you have to do is to be patient with her, and let her have peace. --As for this affair of Lessingham's, I have a suspicion that it may not be all such plain sailing as she supposes.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean nothing. I only wish you to understand that until you hear from me again you had better let matters slide. Give the girl her head.'
'Give the girl her head! H-haven't I--I g-given the g-girl her h- head all her l-life!' He looked at his watch. 'Why, the day's half gone!' He began scurrying towards the front door, I following at his heels. 'I've got a committee meeting on at the club,--m-most important! For weeks they've been giving us the worst food you ever tasted in your life,--p-played havoc with my digestion, and I--I'm going to tell them if--things aren't changed, they--they'll have to pay my doctor's bills.--As for that man, Lessingham--'
As he spoke, he himself opened the hall door, and there, standing on the step was 'that man Lessingham' himself. Lindon was a picture. The Apostle was as cool as a cucumber. He held out his hand.
'Good morning, Mr Lindon. What delightful weather we are having.'
Lindon put his hand behind his back,--and behaved as stupidly as he very well could have done.
'You will understand, Mr Lessingham, that, in future, I don't know you, and that I shall decline to recognise you anywhere; and that what I say applies equally to any member of my family.'
With his hat very much on the back of his head he went down the steps like an inflated turkeycock.