Book III. The Terror by Night and the Terror by Day
Chapter XXXI. The Terror by Day
My first impulse, after Sydney's disappearance, was to laugh. Why should he display anxiety on my behalf merely because I was to be the sole occupant of an otherwise empty house for a few minutes more or less,--and in broad daylight too! To say the least, the anxiety seemed unwarranted.
I lingered at the gate, for a moment or two, wondering what was at the bottom of Mr Holt's singular proceedings, and what Sydney really proposed to gain by acting as a spy upon his wanderings. Then I turned to re-enter the house. As I did so, another problem suggested itself to my mind,--what connection, of the slightest importance, could a man in Paul Lessingham's position have with the eccentric being who had established himself in such an unsatisfactory dwelling-place? Mr Holt's story I had only dimly understood,--it struck me that it would require a deal of understanding. It was more like a farrago of nonsense, an outcome of delirium, than a plain statement of solid facts. To tell the truth, Sydney had taken it more seriously than I expected. He seemed to see something in it which I emphatically did not. What was double Dutch to me, seemed clear as print to him. So far as I could judge, he actually had the presumption to imagine that Paul --my Paul!--Paul Lessingham!--the great Paul Lessingham!--was mixed up in the very mysterious adventures of poor, weak-minded, hysterical Mr Holt, in a manner which was hardly to his credit.
Of course, any idea of the kind was purely and simply balderdash. Exactly what bee Sydney had got in his bonnet, I could not guess. But I did know Paul. Only let me find myself face to face with the fantastic author of Mr Holt's weird tribulations, and I, a woman, single-handed, would do my best to show him that whoever played pranks with Paul Lessingham trifled with edged tools.
I had returned to that historical front room which, according to Mr Holt, had been the scene of his most disastrous burglarious entry. Whoever had furnished it had had original notions of the resources of modern upholstery. There was not a table in the place,--no chair or couch, nothing to sit down upon except the bed. On the floor there was a marvellous carpet which was apparently of eastern manufacture. It was so thick, and so pliant to the tread, that moving over it was like walking on thousand- year-old turf. It was woven in gorgeous colours, and covered with--
When I discovered what it actually was covered with, I was conscious of a disagreeable sense of surprise.
It was covered with beetles!
All over it, with only a few inches of space between each, were representations of some peculiar kind of beetle,--it was the same beetle, over, and over, and over. The artist had woven his undesirable subject into the warp and woof of the material with such cunning skill that, as one continued to gaze, one began to wonder if by any possibility the creatures could be alive.
In spite of the softness of the texture, and the art--of a kind!-- which had been displayed in the workmanship, I rapidly arrived at the conclusion that it was the most uncomfortable carpet I had ever seen. I wagged my finger at the repeated portrayals of the-- to me!--unspeakable insect.
'If I had discovered that you were there before Sydney went, I think it just possible that I should have hesitated before I let him go.'
Then there came a revulsion of feeling. I shook myself.
'You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Marjorie Lindon, to even think such nonsense. Are you all nerves and morbid imaginings,-- you who have prided yourself on being so strong-minded! A pretty sort you are to do battle for anyone.--Why, they're only make- believes!'
Half involuntarily, I drew my foot over one of the creatures. Of course, it was nothing but imagination; but I seemed to feel it squelch beneath my shoe. It was disgusting.
'Come!' I cried. 'This won't do! As Sydney would phrase it,--am I going to make an idiot of myself?'
I turned to the window,--looking at my watch.
'It's more than five minutes ago since Sydney went. That companion of mine ought to be already on the way. I'll go and see if he is coming.'
I went to the gate. There was not a soul in sight. It was with such a distinct sense of disappointment that I perceived this was so, that I was in two minds what to do. To remain where I was, looking, with gaping eyes, for the policeman, or the cabman, or whoever it was Sydney was dispatching to act as my temporary associate, was tantamount to acknowledging myself a simpleton,-- while I was conscious of a most unmistakable reluctance to return within the house.
Common sense, or what I took for common sense, however, triumphed, and, after loitering for another five minutes, I did go in again.
This time, ignoring, to the best of my ability, the beetles on the floor, I proceeded to expend my curiosity--and occupy my thoughts --in an examination of the bed. It only needed a very cursory examination, however, to show that the seeming bed was, in reality, none at all,--or if it was a bed after the manner of the Easterns it certainly was not after the fashion of the Britons. There was no framework,--nothing to represent the bedstead. It was simply a heap of rugs piled apparently indiscriminately upon the floor. A huge mass of them there seemed to be; of all sorts, and shapes, and sizes,--and materials too.
The top one was of white silk,--in quality, exquisite. It was of huge size, yet, with a little compression, one might almost have passed it through the proverbial wedding ring. So far as space admitted I spread it out in front of me. In the middle was a picture,--whether it was embroidered on the substance or woven in it, I could not quite make out. Nor, at first, could I gather what it was the artist had intended to depict,--there was a brilliancy about it which was rather dazzling. By degrees, I realised that the lurid hues were meant for flames,--and, when one had got so far, one perceived that they were by no means badly imitated either. Then the meaning of the thing dawned on me,--it was a representation of a human sacrifice. In its way, as ghastly a piece of realism as one could see.
On the right was the majestic seated figure of a goddess. Her hands were crossed upon her knees, and she was naked from her waist upwards. I fancied it was meant for Isis. On her brow was perched a gaily-apparelled beetle--that ubiquitous beetle!-- forming a bright spot of colour against her coppery skin,--it was an exact reproduction of the creatures which were imaged on the carpet. In front of the idol was an enormous fiery furnace. In the very heart of the flames was an altar. On the altar was a naked white woman being burned alive. There could be no doubt as to her being alive, for she was secured by chains in such a fashion that she was permitted a certain amount of freedom, of which she was availing herself to contort and twist her body into shapes which were horribly suggestive of the agony which she was enduring,--the artist, indeed, seemed to have exhausted his powers in his efforts to convey a vivid impression of the pains which were tormenting her.
'A pretty picture, on my word! A pleasant taste in art the garnitures of this establishment suggest! The person who likes to live with this kind of thing, especially as a covering to his bed, must have his own notions as to what constitute agreeable surroundings.'
As I continued staring at the thing, all at once it seemed as if the woman on the altar moved. It was preposterous, but she appeared to gather her limbs together, and turn half over.
'What can be the matter with me? Am I going mad? She can't be moving!'
If she wasn't, then certainly something was,--she was lifted right into the air. An idea occurred to me. I snatched the rug aside.
The mystery was explained!
A thin, yellow, wrinkled hand was protruding from amidst the heap of rugs,--it was its action which had caused the seeming movement of the figure on the altar. I stared, confounded. The hand was followed by an arm; the arm by a shoulder; the shoulder by a head,--and the most awful, hideous, wicked-looking face I had ever pictured even in my most dreadful dreams. A pair of baleful eyes were glaring up at mine.
I understood the position in a flash of startled amazement.
Sydney, in following Mr Holt, had started on a wild goose chase after all. I was alone with the occupant of that mysterious house,--the chief actor in Mr Holt's astounding tale. He had been hidden in the heap of rugs all the while.