In which a scientist reveals an appalling power and a young man begins to fall in love
In the first installment:
“Wanted as Private Secretary by scientist. Young gentleman without personal obligations of any sort. Good ancestry. Must be of perfect physical condition with no hereditary taint. Excellent salary.
Apply in person to A. B.,
Monk’s Mount, Hoddesdon, Herts."
To Hector Court, “ready for anything," this advertisement made an instant appeal. The description of the desired Private Secretary fitted him perfectly: he had three hundred pounds a year on which to maintain a Westend' establishment in London but nothing in sight that promised an augmentation of this modest income. So midforenoon of the day on which he read the advertisement saw Hector on his way to Monk’s Mount. It is a curious place.
First he encounters a butler, a “plastic, semi-animate image.” Then he meets “Mr. Absalom.” This individual is as odd as the house and the butler. His “gray eyes seem oddly dry, his brown hair resembles a wig." From him one got a “suggestion of conflict between age and youthfulness.’’ The eerie Absalom seems concerned only with Hector’s physical fitness which he tests in several ingenious ways. Then he offers the latter the job at a salary which startles him, but Hector asks time for consideration. Also there is a cat, Maktai, which gives Hector the feeling that in some mysterious way it is linked with The next day he is invited to dinner by a Mrs. Baxter in London—old, but very much in the social swim. At her house he meets a girl who attracts him very much, by name, Anthea Reichert. He is somewhat astonished to learn that she lives at Monk’s Court. He is further astonished when she gives him some hint of test, of danger, which he is utterly unable to interpret. However, he determines to take the berth with Mr. Absalom.
is linked with the unfathomable, uncanny Mr. Absalom.
He goes down to Monk’s Court to find fresh marvels. He is told never to leave the grounds of the estate: he takes down some letters, all of which are extremely autocratic in tone: he hears a weird, half human cry: he is conscious of a curious acrid odor emanating from one of the outhouses.
Anthea repeats her warning, and then without any apparent reason bursts into tears.
E WENT to her quickly, and stood patting her shoulder.
“I say, I’m frightfully sorry. Let’s drop it. Don’t think of it again, please. Everything is all right —rhonestly.”
Sfye gave him an unfathomable look. It stirred him to the depths and never before had he seen that look on any .woman’s face.
. “Do you know what you’ve done?” she whispered.
“Only made a bigger fool of myself than usual.”
She did not even smile. “No—anything but that. You’ve trusted me. Because of that I’ve got to do something.”
“Not on my account if you’d sooner not,” he put in hastily.
“It’s just that I must trust you in return not to think too hardly of me. Any woman could see what you’re thinking already.”
This time she sent him the wraith of a smile.
“After dinner Mr. Absalom will ask you to play billiards. You can, can’t you?”
“Bit of a dab at it,” he said cheerfully. “I like playing.” “Then, even though you play very well, you must let him beat you by just a little. After that he’ll say goodnight, and go to the study or his Lab. He never appears again till next morning. When he goes, I want you to come here, or, better, to my sitting room. It’s immediately above this. Is that quite clear?”
“Quite,” said Hector, marveling greatly.
Whoever did the housekeeping at Monk’s Mount knew their business, and Absalom had a perfect cook. Hector decided that never had he been favored with a more admirable meal more perfectly served. The impassive Hervey waited on the three in a manner nothing short of art. The silver was Georgian, the glass old Irish Waterford, and the linen hand-woven in Italy.
Anthea, in black, took the end of the table, very calm of air, and showing no trace of recent tears. She talked
brightly, and Absalom, who wore a maroon velvet smoking-jacket, and had a marvelous pearl in his shirt front, seemed pleased with her. He ate very little, masticating his food with extreme thoroughness, and sending an occasional glance at Maktai. The great cat had appeared in the dining room with him, and now stretched her brindled length by the fireplace. Hector, meeting the baleful stare of the yellow eyes, felt a murderous impulse.
Absalom, talking about London, brought in Mrs. Baxter’s name.
“Do you know her well, Court?”
“I met her first about three years ago. Awfully decent sort. American, isn’t she?”
“Yes: her husband died—er—several years ago, leaving her several millions. Then she tired of Baltimore and came to England.” “She’s a marvel for her years, then,” said Hector enthusiastically. Hope I’ll be as chirpy when I reach her age. Wonder how old she is!” Absalom twisted his empty wineglass. “What would you put it at?” “Haven’t an idea, but I heard some people talking about her last week, and they thought her rather a wonder. Said she’s been going the pace for the last twelve years, and hadn’t changed a hair.”
“A fortunate woman, you’d call her?”
“I don’t know: she seems to find a lot in life, but if it were myself—well—I suppose it’s an advantage to keep alive after one’s allotted time, but just the same—” He broke off with a laugh.
“Please go on. Just the same—?”
“Doesn’t it all depend how long it’s worth while living?”
Absalom shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Court, I begin to think you’re a philosopher disguised as an athlete. You’ve summed up the whole question—how long is it worth while living? Yet, if you put it that way, it seems you have to say ‘worthwhile to whom’ —oneself or someone else.”
“Depends on the person, doesn’t it? You, sir, are a scientist, and naturally your life is worth preserving. I run, box, pitch things about a bit, which is very different. No question as between us which is worth most to the world.”
“Very generous of you,” here Absalom smiled faintly, “but—well—Anthea, what do you think, and how long do you want to live?”
He put this with a direct, penetrating look from which the girl, taken completely by surprise, recoiled a little. The color crept to her temples and she appeared confused.
“I think I’d want someone else to settle that for me,” she said in a tone unlike her usual voice. It was flat, parrot-like, and she seemed unable to take her eyes from Absalom.
Then came one of those strange pauses in which sudden silence takes possession of a group, seals their mouths, and is only dispersed by deliberate effort. Ordinarily it is dissipated by a laugh or forced outburst of talk, but in any event it seems to be a positive, objective thing that needs positive action to defeat it.
This happened now, and Hector, a newcomer to this mansion of mystery, ignorant of the real character and purpose of those with whom he was committed to live, found in the abrupt cessation of talk an impressive significance. Absalom’s thoughts had obviously wandered ahead of the hour, and he sat looking first at the girl, then at his secretary with a scrutiny that, though Derfectly polite and well-bred, was nevertheless disturbing. He was master here; would look where he liked; was at liberty to speak or keep silent when he liked; but in this case he seemed to welcome the silence. He was embarked on reflections involving these two young people, and they carried him far beyond the present time and place.
Anthea, too, was struck dumb, held by whatever influence Absalom possessed over her; a quick pulse fluttering in her smooth, white throat; one slim hand, alabaster against the sheen of mahogany, drawn up into a nervous curve, her lips wearing an expression of appeal. She was mutely imploring something from Absalom, but in so hopeless a fashion that it was clear she already knew the petition to be in vain.
She did not look at all at Hector, only at the verticallybrowed man on her left. The butler had disappeared, and there was no sound from any other part of the house. One heard the low putter of a wood fire; the port glowed blood-red in one wineglass—Hector’s—and the great gray cat stretched herself on the hearth, indifferent to all save whatever instincts stirred in her flat bony skull.
It was Maktai that first precipitated herself into the gulf of silence. She gave a throaty yawn, extended her steel-clawed pads, elongated her stiff body, then stalked deliberately to the door, where she stood looking round at Absalom with a sort of leer. He started, coughed dryly, and spoke.
'Tm afraid we’re not over-attentive to our guest. Court, I must apologize.
Anthea, you say you would like someone else to settle that rather important question for you. I agree, and think that is quite sound. Now to lighter subjects. Mr. Court tells me he rides.”
"I’m glad,” she said quickly. “I hoped he did."
“Then I suggest tomorrow, but no jumping for either of you. Court, the decanter is with you.”
“Thanks, sir, no more for me.”
“Billiards? It’s about the only diversion I take.”
Anthea, with a slight nod that included them both, went upstairs, and the two men crossed the hall to the billiard room preceded by Maktai, who seemed to have understood what was said. The lights were on, and the cover off the table. Absalom chalked his cue in a businesslike manner, and Hector perceived that he was no novice at the game.
He had a slightly stiff but extremely accurate stroke, unusual control of the balls, and the Absalom who now leaned over the green cloth, balancing a level cue between delicate fingertips, seemed an infinitely more natural and approachable man than he had been ten minutes previously. His eyes were brighter, his face younger, and he betrayed what was for him surprising animation. Hector began to hope that billiards would prove the saving clause at Monk’s Mount.
“By Jove, sir, that was a pretty shot.”
“Fair,” said Absalom contentedly.
“J'ohn Palmer showed it to me first: I once took lessons from him.”
“Professional champion in—” He broke off, frowning, and missed a simple cannon. “I forget the year.”
Now it happened that Hector had made a hobby of the history of billiards and was particularly well posted, so in between shots he searched his brain to determine where, and especially when Palmer had risen to fame. But he I could not recall it.
“I can place most of the big bugs in billiards, but don’t seem to locate that chap,” he hazarded.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, does it?” snapped Absalom with sudden testiness.
Hector, sensitive to a surprisingly swift and inexplicable change in the atmosphere, assured him that it did not, and found a sort of tension in the next hour. He now saw that he could beat this man, though he had doubted it at first. Absalom’s game perceptibly weakened. It became patchy. At times he was brilliant, at other times mis-cued, lost all delicacy of touch. He was out of form, and it was increasingly difficult for the other man not to forge ahead.
After one miss by Hector, too glaring to escape notice, Absalom made an irritated gesture.
“It isn’t necessary, Court; really it isn’t.”
“To take such pains to avoid beating me. Your courtesy is a shade overdone. If I can’t win on merit, I prefer not to be handed the game. Pm not a child in this matter, you know; in fact very, very far from being a child. Has anyone happened to suggest that you don’t beat me?”
Hector turned red. “It isn’t that, sir. I simply wasn’t taking it very seriously. Thought this was a sort of preliminary canter before more—well—” he stammered, looked very foolish, and gave a short laugh: “Fact is, I was wondering whether a new secretary ought to start in by beating his boss.”
Absalom smiled at him knowingly and with a touch of pity.
“Let me give a new secretary a hint. It is that he be guided solely by what his employer says—or suggests. What others may say—or suggest—is apt to be misleading. You’re young, Court, very young,” here the voice was almost envious, “and there may be in store for you a future that you have not even remotely guessed at. Meantime, my advice is to beat me at billiards—if you can. Simple, isn’t it? Goodnight! We’ll have another game soon.”
He disappeared, Maktai at his heels. Hector heard the study door close, then the faint sound of the drawing of a heavy bolt. This meant that Absalom had gone on through the study to the outer enclosure. Why there— at this time of night?
The young man knocked about the balls aimlessly for another few minutes, hazarding this and that. But he got no nearer any solution. What did Absalom mean by “things in store?” Was it that when he was a little surer of his man and had explored him more completely, Hector would be called on to do something that would require “that other kind of courage?” It was impossible to avoid the conviction that Anthea knew what this test would be. Anthea! She was waiting for him now.
He re-covered the table, switched off the lights, and went upstairs assailed by innumerable doubts. Was Absalom’s stepdaughter to be trusted any more than Absalom himself? One doubted it.
THE door of Anthea’s sitting room was open, and he entered it for the first time armed, he felt assured, against any appeal she might bring to bear, but little dreaming of the extraordinary hours he was destined to spend in these intimate surroundings. She greeted him gravely, like one burdened with the pressure of the occasion.
A simple room. Shelves of books, old, colored prints on the walls, a miniature grand piano, bronze chrysanthemums in tall vases, rugs, an antique oak desk, some curious brasses that he took to be East Indian or Arabic work, comfortable chair—such a room, in fact, as might be the special preserve of any girl of good taste, and the daughter of people of ample means. The tawny curtains were drawn, and the air was noticeable for the peculiarly invigorating freshness he noticed in his own room. What he did observe was that there were no photographs of friends visible, men or women.
Anthea looked at him thoughtfully, motioning to a big chair.
“You’ve been wondering?” she said. “Yes, a lot.”
“I know. How did the billiards go?” He told her, blaming his own too obvious efforts not to win, and, still puzzled, explained the mention of Palmer.
“I’ll find out about that from town,” he added, wrinkling a smooth brow. “Thought I had all those chaps by heart away back—long before my own time. Look here, how old is Mr. Absalom?”
That question, simple as a question could be, had an unusual response, or, rather, no response whatever. She frowned, as though in doubt, deliberated with her eyes fixed on his, then nodded with a touch of decision.
“You must try to be content to learn things gradually in Monk’s Mount, and it was strange you should begin with that. He was vexed when you couldn’t remember Palmer?” “Not so much that, but vexed, it struck me, because he happened to mention him. I couldn’t see that it mattered at all.”
“Mr. Court,” she said slowly, “that night at the Embassy—you must have gone home thinking very hard?”
“And as a result of that night you are here now?”
“If you must know—yes.”
She took a long, long breath, sitting very still, exploring him with intensity. He could almost feel the spirit of her struggling out toward the open, casting off mysterious shackles that heretofore had bound it, He, too, waited motionless, with an oppressing sense of personal responsibility, knowing that on his account would be said that which otherwise might never be revealed. In the saying of it she would be committing herself to something still further that so far she had not dared to face. This moment, he felt, was bound to link them in some extraordinary bond.
“When I saw you coming up the drive,” she went on, “I knew why you were coming—it was not for the reason you thought—and I knew that Absalom was very likely to send for me, if he approved of you. Knowing what I did, I could not bear to meet you. I can’t tell you that part of it now. It’s one of the things you will have to learn—well—gradually.”
“Oh!” He was curiously impressed.
“Did Absalom assure you that you would be involved in nothing dishonorable or illegal if you came here?” “He did.”
“Would it help if I told you the same thing?”
“It would,” blurted Hector.
“Then I do. It’s quite true. There are no laws one could apply to—to his work, no laws to break. It’s beyond all that, greater than any law.”
He shrugged his big shoulders. “We’ll call that part of it settled. Anything more?”
“Yes, the hardest part—for me. You would not have been asked to Mrs. Baxter’s, had it not been for me!” Suspicion flamed up in him. “What do you mean?” “I’m only trying to be honest,” she said very humbly. “You see I have to be—with you. You were asked there to meet me. Absalom insisted on it, and she could not refuse him anything.”
Hector felt bewildered. Three of them in it now, their eyes all set on him.
“Why not—and why should I be asked to meet you?” She gazed at him imploringly, shame mounting to her cheeks.
“Absalom made me—please be sure of that—he made me try where he felt he had failed himself. He suspected that you had been warned. I implore you to understand that I could not help it, nor could Mrs. Baxter.”
He was completely confused. So this girl was the decoy—and confessed it. But why confess with him at liberty to walk out of the house. Yet not at liberty. He had agreed with Absalom on a year’s trial. Could he go back on that, arguing that he had been brought there by a girl? This battered about in his brain, and all the time he was conscious of those large, beseeching eyes.
“Mr. Court,” he heard her again, “having said that, I must say more. There are times when Absalom hypnotizes me. Then I cannot but obey. I’m helpless. It was like that at the Embassy. I knew perfectly well what I was doing, and why, and saw its effect on you. Can you imagine what I felt about myself? Then, just as we said goodby, I managed to break through for a second—that was the real me—and I begged you not to come. Think about me as you will—I can’t help that either—but what I’ve told you is the truth.”
Knowing truth when he heard it he listened silently.
The thing was amazing. Yet it had happened.
Then again, and this time more clearly, he perceived that this girl was alone, fighting with something he could not unravel, unaided except for what he might do, honest in that she had made her confession, and, in spite of everything, thinking of him and not] herself.
That last point hung in his mind, and what she said immediately after confirmed it.
“So now you are free to go. Never mind any promise you may have given Absalom.
You’re not bound because you’re, ignorant of what you face, and even I must not tell you what that is. You were brought here under false pretenses, so I say go now, tonight—before it’s too late.”
“I think you’re the pluckiest girl I’ve known,” he said very distinctly. “I stay!"
At that she gave a little cry, and lay back, white and trembling but with a wonderful expression on her face. ’Twas as though she had found something so precious that it was unbelievable. They exchanged a long searching look, and in it Hector was brought nearer to her than he had been to any woman before.
“Tell me what to do or not to do,” he added. “That for a start. For the rest I’ll wait.”
“You mean it?” she whispered.
“On my honor, yes.”
“Even though later you are put to a tremendous test?”
“Alone?” He had guessed that she also would be involved.
“No, not alone.”
“I’m ready,when it comes. What in the meantime?”
She sent him a glance of entire confidence, and a weight seemed to fall from her heart. Then from her desk she took a faded photo.
“Do you know that man?”
He examined it with extreme care. A woman of about sixty, in Victorian dress, seated, with a man standing beside her. In her lap was a large cat, and one could distinguish that round its neck was a particolored ruff, a sort of natural collar of fur that varied from the rest of its body. There was nothing unusual about the woman. The man had narrow shoulders, and one small hand rested on his companion’s arm.
“I say, how odd ! Is that Absalom’s grandfather? And that cat—had Maktai’s ancestors the same thing round their necks?”
“Read what’s underneath.”
It was in very faint script. “To my dear husband on my sixtieth birthday. Burton Shaw, June 7, 1868.”
“Gad ! If it weren’t for the date I’d say it was Absalom himself. He’s got that same inquisitive look. Face is the same shape, too.”
The girl put a reading-glass in his hand. “Examine it closely.”
The photo leaped up under the lens with sudden distinctness, and Hector gave a gasp. He could now see that the man’s brows grew vertically, the hair seeming plastered upright against the frontal bone. The contour of the face was the same to the very curve of the full lips, and it had the identical semblance to a mask.
“Look here,” he said, “that’s Absalom—and Maktai, too. But the date—that must be wrong!”
“You’re sure, quite sure?” she asked in a strained voice.
“Dead certain. That combination doesn’t happen once in a thousand years. But it’s absurd.”
“What is absurd?”
“The date. That photo is of a man not less than forty—which would make Absalom a hundred years old.”
“Mr. Court, he is!”
“Does this deathless stunt apply to Maktai, too?’! he asked chaotically.
Her voice, quiet, even, deliberate, was very impressive. No fireworks. No attempt at the dramatic. At first on the edge of laughter, he passed swiftly to a stage of silent incredulity, till all at once there sprang at him a multitude of reasons why, perhaps, this girl was giving him the truth. They exchanged another long straight stare.
“I think,” she added, “if you were to ask yourself whether this would be the explanation of things you must have noticed, it would be easier to accept.”
At that he felt a little suffocated, because innumerable points came crowding in on him, points he had noticed. The impression Absalom gave first of maturity, then of age, and finally a strange composition neither old, middle-aged nor young, but with suggestions of all three stages. The chemical quality in his face and skin. The dryness of the gray eyes. The flat, lustreless hair that looked so like a wig, but was not. The voice with its curiously metallic intonation. The guardedness he had for his physical self. The unresisting palm that collapsed when he shook hands.
These piled up, one after the other, all cumulative, all significant. The talk that very night at dinner. Absalom’s introduction of the subject of human life, and the value of its prolongation. And, after dinner in the billiard room, the mention of Palmer. That was a bit of carelessness in a moment of relaxation when he thoughtlessly mentioned a man who was, it seemed, his contemporary before Hector was born.
These points of evidence began to weave themselves into a pattern that was made the less incredible by the appearance of Maktai in the photograph. Without doubt it was Maktai. That ruff—a thing that a biologist might have called a spontaneous variation of the race— was unmistakeable. But it meant that Maktai was more than sixty years old —this feline partner of the apparently undying Absalom. It was breath-taking ; almost horrible.
“Where did you get this?” He fingered the edge of the photo.
“I found it in an old dust-covered book. It had not been opened for years.”
“Where is Burton Shaw?”
“I don’t know. It must have been his father’s place, but Absalom has never spoken of it. The photo was taken in Henley; you can see the man’s name embossed on the card.”
“You!” he asked suddenly. “How did you come into this man’s life?” “He married my mother in Vienna when I was six years old. My own father—I can remember him—was Austrian. His name was Reichert. My mother was English, and Absalom’s second wife. He was very fond of her, and rich when they married. When she died, we came here. Before Vienna, Absalom had lived in Paris, Moscow, Bombay and Copenhagen. It seems he never stayed anywhere more than a few years, then moved on.” Something clicked in Hector’s brain, and he looked up sharply.
“His friends—do you know anything about them?”
“Since I can remember, he’s had very few, all elderly, all rich. I hardly ever meet any young people.”
He had a glimmering of light. “Friends like Mrs. Baxter?”
“Yes, and they come—”
Hector, whose ears were remarkably quick, had his finger to his lips and made a significant gesture toward the door.
“Well,” he said heartily, “many thanks for a pleasant evening and the books. Will you ride tomorrow morning if I’m free?” “Yes, I’d like to.” She played her part admirably.
He went out, and as he expected, no one was visible in the upper hall. He stood listening, and Monk’s Mount was dipped in silence. When he reached his room, he rang, and Ram Sid answered at once.
“Hervey!” he said. “Tell Hervey I’d like to see him.”
Three minutes later the butler waited on the threshold, his full cheeks with a touch of pink, his eyes furtive.
“You wanted me, sir?”
“Yes; you might let the groom or whoever is in charge of the stables know in good time that Miss Anthea and I will ride tomorrow morning.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And, Hervey, one thing more. I take it from something you said when I saw you first that you’re interested in sport?” “Yes, sir; from a boy. That’s why—” “Exactly!” cut in Hector, “and I came across a good definition of the true sportsman the other day. Like to hear it?” “Thank you, sir.” The man’s expression looked confused, trapped, guilty.
“It’s a chap who only fights in the open. Rather neat, eh? That’s all. Good night.”
TN THE study next morning Absalom -*■ showed no trace of recent irritation, and his manner rather indicated the relief one has after an important matter has been settled. He dictated a few letters of the same character as the others, put the originals away, rubbed his white hands together softly, and relaxed into a sort of amiability.
“Court,” he said, “did you ever hear of a Prince Dimitri?”
“I’ve seen his name in the papers, sir. Serbian or Bulgarian, isn’t he?”
Absalom fingered a telegram. “Bulgarian: a very old family, connected by marriage with most of the Balkan royalties. We met first in Bucharest some years ago. I expect him here tomorrow for a short visit. Mrs. Baxter may come down for a day or so also.”
Hector nodded, not sure whether he was expected to say anything. But this information seemed for some reason significant.
“With regard to Prince Dimitri,” went on Absalom, “while he is with me he prefers to remain incognito. Please, therefore, do not use his title. Call him ‘Count.’ He has peculiar views on that subject when he leaves his own country, and for your private information it is not known in the Balkans that he comes here at all. I impress you with this: it is important.”
“Right, sir. I quite understand.” Absalom puckered his lips, suggesting that there might be a good deal the young man did not understand, and continued: “And, Court, in any conversation you may have with him be careful not to introduce anything that might bring up the subject of his age. He is very sensitive in that direction, and it must be avoided. As a matter of fact he is old— unusually old, as you will see for yourself —but likes to think that he does not show it. If, on the contrary, you were to suggest that he was looking very well, it would please him. Is this quite clear?” “Yes, quite. Is Mrs. Baxter a friend of his? She seems to know everybody.” “They met here some years ago.” Absalom deliberated for a moment. “I take it from what you told me that you know nothing of chemistry?”
“I know that if you mix sulphuric and nitric acid there’s a beastly mess. That’s about all.”
“Quite sound, so far as it goes.” He looked distinctly amused. “Do you happen to be an electrician?”
Hector shook his head. “Sorry, but that's left out, too. I can test a spark plug, but there I stop.”
The other man seemed a shade relieved. “Would you care to see my laboratory?” This, coming of a sudden, was breathtaking, but Hector managed to conceal his surprise.
“Very much, sir.”
Absalom rose, standing for an instant with his dry eyes fixed on the great cat at his feet, and Hector had a confusing vision of these two, with a woman long since dead, walking into a photographer’s studio in Henley sixty years ago. The thing was baffling. It upset the normal sequence of thought, and led the brain into confusing alleys that ended in the air. But it could not be escaped. What had they done, this man and this beast, with the inflexible march of time for a half century past? Again came that peculiar sense of imminence.
Then Absalom opened the west door in the north wall of the study.
“What you see here,” he said, with a gesture full of pride, “is the product of more intense work than you can imagine. And it is all my work.”
Hector found himself looking at an extraordinary collection of diverse apparatus in a space that must have been fifty feet long and thirty broad. It was roofed with opaque glass, very heavy, and supported by a steel grid. Against the walls were ranged a multitude of strange appliances, nearly all made of glass; cylinders, tubes, variously shaped receptacles, many of them connected and interconnected by glass tubing.
In one corner was some kind of a projector, and, opposite, a highly burnished glass screen like an enormous cheval mirror. In another, a sort of diver’s helmet, coupled by flexible hose to a large container. A bellows worked by the foot lay close by. One giant installation was like a glass sentry-box with a close-fitting door, and big enough to contain a man standing up. The thing itself was on a low platform, and inside was a common wooden chair. From a partitioned space came the low hum of a dynamo, and near this was a small switchboard.
Hector stared at this remarkable collection with a sense of stupefaction. He had no glimmer of understanding what was done here or how it worked, but perceived at once that the scale of it was too large to be merely experimental. It must, obviously, represent the practical outcome of an infinity of work and research. And Absalom had said this.
Another thing struck him. The man who evolved it must inevitably be a genius. No question there. This aggregation of non-understandable things was tremendously complex. It looked potent. The room suggested that it was charged with invisible forces, here for the first time called into being, and ready to be released at a touch of the master finger. It was silencing, menacing, forbidding. And here, too, one perceived that strikingly fresh and stimulating air one noticed in other parts of the house. He must ask about that.
No less impressive was Absalom himself. Advancing a little, he stood, king of this mysterious domain, the dry eyes a little brighter, his chemical face touched with a faint glow of pride. Thus surrounded by the creations of his own brain, he seemed to have advanced far beyond all previous conceptions Hector had formed of him. He was more to be respected, considerably more to be feared.
Apparently forgetting the young man for an instant, he approached a nest of vertical, transparent cylinders, and opened a connecting valve. At once began an internal motion. Liquids rose, fell and mixed, producing in another receptacle a cloud of pale amber gas. The process was a chemical drama, silent, compelling, fascinating. Then, satisfied, he turned to Hector.
“Well, what do you make of it?”
“I’m completely fogged, sir. Tell me anything you like and I’ll believe it.”
Absalom nodded and looked content. “Yes, that’s natural enough. You may remember that during our first interview I told you some of the pursuits that did not go on here.” He said this with an accent of satire.
Hector reddened. “Yes, you told me.”
“But I did say I was interested in anthropology.”
“I remember that, sir.”
“Well, what you see here has all to do with anthropological work. This equipment is devoted to three branches of it; first, the establishment of the cause of what we call human decay; second, its location; third, its possible stoppage. Do you follow me?”
Hector’s mind flashed back to articles he had read a few months past, written as the result of the meeting of a very famous society. They also dealt with the causes of human decay, and had caused him and millions of others an hour or two of unusual reflection. Strange things had been said in debate and argument. Then another sensation came along, and public interest was transferred. But the matter rather stuck in the mind.
“Biggish contract, isn’t it, sir?” he hazarded.
“It is, but incomparably the most absorbing. I will not attempt any explanation now, merely demonstrate one point that may interest you. That also I will not explain, but you will find the visual operation unusual. Stay where you are for a minute. Don’t move on any account whatever.”
He opened a door, entered what appeared to be a spacious cupboard, and came out carrying a guinea-pig in a small wicker cage. The little animal was nibbling a lettuce leaf, blinking its large pink eyes. Absalom put the cage into Hector’s hand.
“Very much alive, you see, and in good appetite. No doubt of that, is there?”
“No,” said Hector, wondering greatly.
“Now observe what follows.”
He took the cage, opened the door of the great glass sentry box, drew out the guinea-pig, and put it with The leaf on the seat of the wooden chair. The nibbling went on peacefully. He closed the door carefully—it was a massive piece of molded glass that must have represented several hundredweight, and was perfectly balanced on heavy hinges—then extended his hand to the switchboard.
“Now! Watch!” he said sharply.
Came the snap of a switch. Simultaneously there flickered through the sentrybox a pale glimmering flash that left behind it a dense cloud of foggy vapour, rolling and coiling in its transparent prison. It began to clear slowly, and Hector distinguished the dim outlines of the chair. Then the lettuce leaf. That was all. No blood—no stain—not the least particle of fur or hide. The guinea-pig had vanished. There remained only a lettuce leaf, its edge nibbled into a ragged fringe!
He gazed helplessly at this emptiness, then at Absalom, and felt a little sick.
“Isay! Look here—what the . . .?”
“Interesting, isn’t it?” said the cold voice. “I was not seeking this discovery, and certainly not expecting it, but science often suggests new possibilities if one is quick enough to seize them.”
“Where’s the guinea-pig?” stammered Hector.
“Frankly, I do not know myself. All that I am sure of is that it has been dissolved, dissipated, so to speak, into its original atoms. It has ceased to exist, that is all.” Absalom, as he said this, had the aspect of a human automaton, merciless, inflexible, who snuffed out life at the turn of a wrist, and himself stayed unmoved.
The young man was now thoroughly frightened. Confronted with this amazing exhibition, this operation of an intelligence so infinitely superior to his own, he also felt reduced to an atom, and experienced an appalling helplessness. And the chair! For what purpose was this chair? He visualized someone sitting in it—the silent closing of the door—the snapping switch—the glimmering flash—and ... !”
“Why did you kill that thing?” he jerked out.
“Ah, why!” Absalom gave an enigmatical smile, and the vertical brows went up more stiffly than ever. “It is always WHY. Men have been asking that question since the time they began to cut down trees instead of living in them. Why is anything? Why are you—or I? If I were to tell you ...”
He broke off, seized with sudden and profound emotion, stared at his secretary with an absorbed expression, and made a swift gesture of dismissal.
“You have seen enough for today, yet it is the least important part of what is here. At Monk’s Mount you must be content to acclimatize yourself gradually —very gradually. It is possible that this has been suggested already. Now go and ride: you need it. But no jumping.”
He led the way back to the study, turning his back on his gleaming apparatus with the cool indifference of one who carries its secret with him.
HALF an hour later, Hector was listening to the soft thud of hoofs weave itself into a sort of refrain, just as the clicking rail-joints under a fast train blend into a rhapsody of their own, spelling out something in metrical rhythm. Glancing at Anthea, and still thrilling with the adventure of the morning, he perceived that their horses’ feet were urging him to speak out and tell her all.
Against that he was forced to put his own undertaking of secrecy. It brought him up short. By every code to which his kind subscribed, he was unable to say a word. And Absalom had done nothing illegal. Scientists, biologists, anatomists, surgeons—all were probably doing very much the same thing, and in a less merciful manner.
Also it was possible that Anthea had been kept in ignorance. Absalom might have reasons for her not knowing; in which case why add to her present difficulties? All Hector could tell at the moment was that now, less than ever, did he feel justified in leaving her.
He was puzzling over this, trying to find some permissible form of action, when she pulled up her horse. They were riding along a narrow leaf-strewn glade, well out of sight of Monk’s Mount.
“Mr. Court, you have hardly said a word since we started.”
“Sorry,” he said penitently, “I never had any manners.”
“And you look—well—queer.”
“You’ve been in the lab.”
“How did you know?”
“Your expression, for one thing. Also, I went to the study an hour ago and didn’t see either of you.”
“You’re right—I was. Look here, have you been in the lab. yourself? If you have, I can speak about it. If you haven’t, I can’t say a word. My promise, you know.”
“Yes,” she said, eyes sombre as the gray skies above them.
“With the big glass thing?”
“Yes; something there one second— nothing the next.”
She nodded. “It was horrible, but he only seemed amused and rather proud. I suppose it’s very wonderful. It frightened me.”
“I felt a bit sick myself,” he confessed. There was a silence while these two, caught up in circumstance and mystery, looked at each other gravely. A cock pheasant, resplendent in gold, purple and bronze stalked out of a covert close by, followed by a pair of more demurely garbed hens. The keeper crossed the glade farther on, a gun under his arm, a dog at his heels. The whistle of a train in Hoddesdon Station came clearly, and the clatter of a lorry as it lurched past the lodge. A faint plume of smoke from Monk’s Mount was visible over the trees.
“Look here,” he said with an effort, “what can I do? Suggest something— anything.”
“There’s nothing to be done.” Her tone was hopeless and she shivered a little. “More than that I can’t say.”
“Can you tell me why you can’t? That would help.”
“One reason is that if I antagonized Absalom many people might suffer innocently. You’ve only seen him in his gentler moods, but sometimes he gets reckless. He’s told me that, when he feels inclined to play with—with what he controls. If he did, it would be too horrible. I know you can’t understand that yet. It’s dreadful that he should go on as he’s going, yet still more dreadful if he should stop. I know that sounds mad— but it’s true.”
She touched her horse, moving on in a sharp trot. They made a circuit of the park, he probing his brain for further light, she apparently fearing lest she should say too much.
“Anthea, hold on a minute!”
She turned with a smile that made him thankful, so quick and captivating was its charm. Never had he seen her smile quite like that before.
“Yes, I said it deliberately, Anthea, and again, Anthea. It’s absurd that you and I should do anything else with things as they are. Agree?”
She seemed happy to agree.
“Then tell me something—it’s the question that Absalom asked me the first time we met. A bit personal, perhaps. However ...”
“Are you engaged?”
An extraordinary thing then happened. She turned her face away, and lashed her horse’s flanks with her crop till he reared, plunged and tore off in a furious gallop. She darted along lanes between the trees, over scattered clearings, flew across the spongy drive, crashed through the rhododendrons and finally bored a perilous passage beneath the trees themselves. Time and again, her head just missed a branch that would have brained her, the horse sliding and slithering over the soft ground.
Never had Hector seen such reckless riding, and he followed, cold with fear, not daring to pursue too closely lest the thunder of his coming urge on her mount. Then, just as suddenly, Anthea reined back. When he reached her, she was perfectly calm, and looked at him with cloudless eyes.
“Don’t you feel like that sometimes— as though you’d like to break your neck?” “I’ve more often felt like breaking someone else’s. Gad, you didn’t miss it by much that time.”
“Well,” she said bitterly, “I’d like to— before it’s too late. Shall I tell you what’s ahead of me? Oh, Hector, I see it so clearly.”
“You see it?”
“Yes—shame! Year after year of
shame—if I live.”
“What has Absalom done now?” he demanded hotly.
“It’s what he’s making me do.” Her voice was hot with resentment. “You can’t see it all yet. Things come gradually at Monk’s Mount.”
“My dear,” he said gently, “your kind of brain does not conceive shameful things, and your kind of girl cannot do them.”
That moved her greatly. “Ah, Hector, you have only to wait. And what you have ahead of you is anger.”
“I—what about—against whom?” “Me!”
He patted her shoulder. “Anthea, I’ll tell you something, and I mean it. I didn’t expect to say it so soon—if ever. I’m in this thing, whatever it is, to the finish.” He paused a moment, regarding her with large honest eyes, urged on by the spontaneous wave that so often surges up in the heart of youth. “I came here because of you for a certain reason only. I felt ashamed to stay away, leaving you up against it. That was all. But there’s another for my staying. I’ll—I’ll tell you some day—not now.”
“Hector, you—you have told me!” “Then that’s that.” He felt awkward, and abashed at showing any emotion, so veered into a rather offhand manner. “Guess what I’m doing this afternoon, if I can make a getaway.”
“Play truant, and slide over to Henley. I want to check up that photograph if I can.”
DIMITRI was not expected till dinnertime, Absalom had no dictation for the afternoon, and immediately after lunch Hector strolled casually down the drive in full view of the house. Reaching the shelter of the rhododendrons, he struck directly north across the park till he reached the brick wall a quarter mile from the lodge. In another moment he had scaled it, and was footing fast toward Hertford. He planned to hire a car, dash over to Henley, and be back before dark. In twenty minutes he was at the wheel of a two-seater, and raced along by way of Hatfield, Watford and High Wycombe. Speeding across the Chilterns, he was soon looking down on the square tower of St. Mary’s, with beyond it the steely gray gleam of a now deserted river, its banks lined with white house-boats at their winter moorings. In an hour and a quarter from Hertford, he pulled up at The Little White Hart.
Very soon he received a definite check. The name embossed on the card mount of the photograph had been Lockwood, but there was no such studio now in Henley, the address being that of a very modern haberdasher. Nor was the name Absalom familiar to anyone he could find. The registry office disclosed the marriage of no such persons. Hector had reached a dead end, and was frowning at the tower of St. Mary’s, when inspiration came. The church register !
It took more time than he liked to spare to get hold of the verger, and there followed the unlocking of vaults, tantalizingly deliberate, and the search back— back through great dusty leather-bound volumes, till of a sudden the record he sought leaped out at him.
First, he found the baptism of John Henry Absalom on February 15, 1829, establishing the birth of the child as on November 20 of the preceding year. Still further back—and he turned this up with fingers a little unsteady—the marriage of John Absalom of Henley to Mary Warner of Reading in January of 1828. The signatures were identical in each case, that of Mary Warner being rather faltering when she signed the marriage register.
Hector gave a royal fee to the verger, and drove back across the Chilterns in a daze. If the master of Monk’s Mount was, in truth, John Henry Absalom, he was just one day less than one hundred years old.
Tea was over when the truant arrived, drawing and billiard rooms empty, and no sign of Absalom, Dimitri or Anthea. Crossing the hall, he encountered Hervey, who looked at him queerly, seemed about to speak, and passed on. Then upstairs. The door of Anthea’s sitting room was open, and he heard a low “come in.” She I appeared to be very nervous.
“I’m afraid you’ve been missed,” she said quickly.
“Dimitri arrived early—before we expected him. He was here for tea. Absalom asked for you to be introduced. I said you’d gone for a walk in the park. Then I saw Hervey on his way to the keeper’s cottage, and when he got back he went straight to the study.”
“Where’s Absalom now?”
“In the study—or lab.”
“Resting in his room. He looks a wreck; it’s strange that he was able to travel at all.”
“What should I do—anything?” “Nothing would be the safest. If Absalom does know that you’ve been away, he may not mention it at all—now. He’s like that, and keeps things in his head till he wants to use them. Did you find anything in Henley?”
He put the record copy in her hand. “It’s all there, and if Absalom is the same John Henry, you’re right. I’m fearfully mixed up. Couldn’t find anyone in Henley who remembered the family, but Burton Shaw is two miles out on the High Wycombe road. I passed it on the way back. I don’t think Absalom’s father had it for long, but rented it when he was married. Is your stepfather John Henry?” She nodded.
“What’s to do now?” he asked with a long breath.
“Just wait,” she begged. Mrs. Baxter is motoring out for dinner tomorrow— just dinner. She won’t stay the night. I want you to see her and Dimitri together, especially when Absalom is there. That I ought to suggest something;”
1 He begged for more light, but obviously
she had gone as far as she felt safe in going; and he, perceiving this to be her method of preparing him for something in the future, did not press the matter. In his own room he found Ram Sid laying out evening clothes, and when alone lighted a reflective pipe. But his cogitations were foggy. And it sobered him to remember that already and on impulse he had broken his promise not to leave the ground of Monk’s Mount.
Then the dinner-gong, with Absalom bland and superficially amiable. If he knew anything, he did not show it. Dimitri came into the drawing-room last. Anthea made him a formal courtesy, and Hector bowed when he was presented. Never before had he seen so strange a personality—except only Absalom himself.
The Bulgarian was small and very swarthy; his hair, evidently dyed, being coal black, his brows a sort of piebald. He was emaciated, stooped a good deal, and across his shirt front lay the broad purple ribbon of some order. A great star of diamonds was pinned to his lean breast—wonderful stones set in a Maltese cross outlined with rubies so that they seemed edged with living blood.
His expression could only be described as hawklike, and this was accentuated by a nose shaped like an eagle’s beak, and dark, restless, predatory eyes. These eyes were curious; at times dull and lifeless, and again flashing a quick overbearing fire. With all this was the appearance of great age. He gave, in fact, the impression of a nearly but not quite extinct human volcano whose slowly cooling crater still gave evidence in jets and spurts of the molten furnace of years past. He spoke excellent English in deep hollow tones, arranging his words as might a scientific German who is steeped in the classics. And he looked deadly tired.
He took a sharp glance at Hector. “So —you are new secretary to my very good friend. I congratulate you.”
“Thank you, Count.”
“You, too, are a scientist—no?”
“No science in me, sir, I’m afraid.” “What matter: what you lack Absalom will supply. Your age?”
“Twenty-five! This youth is a millionaire. When I was twenty-five, but, no, the subject too sad is to dwell upon.” He sent Absalom a look full of meaning. “My apologies I have already made for my lateness in coming to England. There was trouble in Belgrade—unrest in the Ukraine. But for tomorrow I was determined to be here. What an epoch!” Absalom said nothing to this, and when they went into dinner, the old man was too exhausted to talk much more, but now and again Hector caught the dark eyes resting on him with a peculiar expression. It was speculative. From Hector he would glance at Anthea with a sort of admiring wonder.
He ate very little, drank nothing, and his silence was infectious. It spread to the others, and the meal dragged. In one of these intervals Hector noticed that Absalom was now watching Dimitri in a strangely concentrated manner, pushing out his lips, vertical brows puckered, as a judge might listen to a witness, or a surgeon watch a patient after some serious operation. At the end of this stare, he shrugged his shoulders, suggesting in a curious way that the subject was hardly worth the thought he had given it.
“Fond of motoring, Court?” he said abruptly.
Hector felt a little cold. “Rather, sir.” “Done a good deal of it, I assume?”
“A fairish bit, though 1 haven’t got a car of my own.”
“Well, if you had, it would be rather superfluous here, wouldn’t it?”
That was all he said, but sufficient. He knew! Hector was aware of Anthea pretending to be interested in the swarthy old man on her right, and dared not look at her. But how had Absalom known? It was Dimitri who came unconsciously to the rescue.
“Friend Absalom,” he croaked, “are you ready? I think that I cannot wait much longer.”
“No wine, Count? You’ve drunk nothing!”
The old hands, lean with shrunken sinews and curved like claws, went out in an emphatic gesture.
“Wine! Ah, my friend, there is but one wine I crave, and found it is only in your cellar, but on this table there is none.” He turned to Hector with a sardonic smile. “Think of that, young twenty-five; just one wine in all this world, and his is the only science that such nectar distils.” Absalom shook his head. “Too complimentary by far.”
“Pah ! How much did Alexis offer for a bottle of this elixir—Alexis who could not buy it because you considered that he— well—well . . . but tell me how is the ever-young Baxter, and do we meet here tomorrow?”
He tilted his bony skull to one side, and looked very knowing. “Soon, I suppose, yes, very soon; she must be moving on. And where to, next time?”
Absalom frowned very distinctly, whereat Dimitri gave up further attempts, closed his eyes, and leaned back wearily.
“Youth!” he mumbled. “Beside me is all this youth. Too trying it is for me tonight, Absalom. Cannot you see that I cannot longer wait? Suppose I were to say to you, ‘Stop, for all time stop, and let happen what will.’ What would you to say to that? By all the saints I am tired. Come and live in Bucharest, Absalom, where I at you can get more easily.”
The voice trailed out, and his head began to droop in a sort of senile languor. At that Absalom made a sign to Hervey, who bowed and offered his arm. Thus supported, Dimitri left the room with a faltering step, Absalom close behind.
“Am I mad?” breathed Hector, staring after him, “or is he?”
“I begin to think we are all mad,” said the girl in a strained tone. “Let us go to the billiard room, and you teach me. Now—before Hervey gets back.”
When they were alone, she turned to him swiftly. “I don’t want to play, and we mustn’t go to my sitting room again. It’s too dangerous. Do you know what the date is?”
“November the nineteenth.”
“Yes, and tomorrow is Absalom’s birthday. What birthday?”
“I haven’t forgotten that for one minute, but, again, are you and I justified in what we feel?”
“You know so little—yet,” she murmured.
“I’m limited to what I’ve seen and what you’ve told me. Assuming that Absalom has lived for a hundred years, and that he admits it and is proud of it— as he well might be—what have we to say? It’s his affair. On the other hand, if he denies it, how can we prove it?”
He put this very deliberately, trying to be unprejudiced, not unmindful of Hervey’s warning, vividly mindful of the glimmering flash that filled the great glass box, and almost persuading himself that Anthea’s imagination had run away with her. What more natural, considering the abnormal circumstances under which she lived!
And Absalom? He tried to visualize Absalom as a scientific crank; cynical, captious, unreasonable in his demands on others, so inoculated with the marvels of his discoveries, so proud of his achievements, that he imagined himself omnipotent and able to impose his own will where and when he liked. No doubt he had hypnotized Dimitri as he had Anthea.
He attempted to put some of this into words, but the girl would have none of it.
“No—no—” she broke in, “don’t think the truth can be covered up like that. All I can do is suggest—suggest things that may help you to understand. Think! Why is Dimitri here? Why are all Absalom’s friends elderly? Why do they come here from all over the world? Why did Dimitri say that Mrs. Baxter would soon be moving on? And didn’t you see that Absalom was playing with the old man at table?”
“It’s hard to remember that you’ve just come to Monk’s Mount,” she went on more patiently. “It was nothing but play, and, oh, so cruel. I recognized something in his face that I dread—a sort of anticipation. He was just seeing how near he could let Dimitri safely go to—to death!”
“Death!” she whispered, turning pale. Hector’s lips felt dry. “Anthea,” he said slowly, “do you trust me?”
She nodded, looking at him with great frightened eyes.
“To the limit—nothing less is any use?” “Yes.” She gave a pathetic gesture, there being no one else to trust.
“Then listen. You say you’ve sworn not to divulge certain things, and in the next minute tell me that Absalom plays with the life and death of others. Assuming that—which I question—are you right to abide by any oath?”
“I expected you to ask that. I've asked it myself a thousand times.”
“There isn’t any answer—yet; but there must be soon. If a thing or condition is against nature it can’t last indefinitely, can it?”
Hector, wanting her to go on, said nothing.
“Also I’ve got to consider Absalom. Perhaps it isn’t his fault that he is what he is. He was born with something strange in him. I’ve seen him so sad that it was heartbreaking, his eyes hollow like the dead craters on the moon. He’s dreadfully lonely in spite of his work. He looks as though he’d lost something—the power of feeling it must be—and would give anything to recapture it. There’s just an extraordinary brain left, Hector, and the queer body that supports it. It must be the most remarkable brain in the world today. That dreadful laboratory is his kingdom, and there he works; rich—I can’t imagine how rich he must be—with the world at his feet, and yet himself not of the world—as we know it.”
“Why was there a chair in that big glass dome?” he asked grimly.
She shivered a little. “You’ll know soon ! Oh, can’t you see that never, never was any girl faced with what faces me now?”
She turned, and ran out of the room. He heard her feet stumbling blindly upstairs, then the sharp slam of a door.
'T'HAT night he smoked for a long time, -*• sitting by his open window, beneath which was the sloping roof of a side porch, and staring into a foggy obscurity. He had seen neither Absalom nor Dimitri again. Hervey had brought whisky and soda to the billiard room, but when Hector, tempted to'pump the man, saw the expression on the sallow face he gave it up. Hervey did not look like one who could be believed under any circumstances.
An hour passed slowly while he mused. Incredible that the complexion of one’s life could have altered so abruptly in less than a week; that in this twentieth century there should have existed almost under his nose such a situation as at Monk’s Mount. One had become, perhaps, so accustomed to the obvious and banal that the mere existence of what was strange, secret and, it might be, menacing, seemed a shade ridiculousBut here it was.
As to Anthea, he felt that he had come nearer to further revelation, but could not comprehend why his own advent to this house of mystery had so added to her own difficulties. True that she, and no other, had brought him here. But that confespion being made, he had instantly absolved her. And she knew it. No man under the circumstances could have done otherwise.
But what weighed on her now was something graver. Shame! She shrank from coming shame! Had she been mesmerized into bringing him in order to entrap him into marriage? Was that why Absalom wanted to be sure that he was not engaged? Was that why she had ridden off so desperately when he put the same question himself? Was this whole affair a “plant”?
He could not credit this—not so far as Anthea was concerned—and there stirred in him again that pity which is not so far from love.
He was getting a nebulous idea of what Absalom did, or tried to do, in his laboratory. Anthea knew. And no doubt Hervey. And Anthea had said that he himself would know before long, adding that what was against nature could not last indefinitely.
There was a certain comforting satisfaction in that, so he emptied his pipe, switched off the light, and got into bed. How strangely fresh the air was—and in all this fog ! k
He was a very light sleeper, and it might have been three in the morning when he awoke with a start. It was still very dark, but without the sheer, solid and almost tangible blackness of a few hours ago, and from where he lay the window opening was visible. It framed an opaque, rectangular patch, and gradually, his eyes becoming accustomed, he could just distinguish certain objects in the room. They presented themselves merely as a local thickening of the atmosphere, and had a ghostly appearance of unreality. Then, slowly, his gaze was drawn to the window sill.
At first he could not be sure that he saw anything, but seemed to distinguish a shape, round like a man’s head, amorphous, unsubstantial in the gloom, as though some emanation of the very night itself had taken form, and was watching— waiting. It was motionless, but he knew it had not been there at midnight.
“Burglar!” he reflected. “You’ve come to the wrong shop this time, my friend!”
He lay very still, preparing to leap at the appointed instant, without any physical fear, and much relishing the interlude. Something healthy to talk about tomorrow, and perhaps the man had come for Dimitri’s jewels. And it was then, with his muscles taut, and heart slowing a little as it always did before a fight, that there reached him a whiff of the same faintly acrid odor he had noticed once before.
It was not strong, but penetrating, with the same peculiarly unwashed suggestion, and it switched his imagination from burglars. Burglars did not smell like that, nor did anything he could remember. Yet it was not unfamiliar, human but not human.
For one giddy instant he wondered whether Absalom’s anthropology had evolved some crossbred monstrosity, half man, half beast, that he kept in the high walled area next the study. Was that what he meant in saying that experience would come gradually at Monk’s Mount? But such things did not happen nowadays. Arguing thus, Hector felt an irrepressible wave of repulsion, thought he caught the glimmer of eyes, and hurled at the Thing the carafe of water from his bedside table.
There came a splintering crash, the apparition vanished, and in the same instant he heard Absalom’s voice shouting unintelligibly !
What happened next was over in a flash. He dashed to the window and could see nothing, but there was a scramble on the roof. Then the slither of a tile. Absalom’s call grew fainter, and, just audible, a strange rapid fire of gibberish in another voice. Then the rattle of iron ,on iron—and silence,
Impossible to wait here and do nothing, so he flung on a dressing gown and stepped into the hall. Dimitri’s door was closed. And Anthea’s. If they had heard anything, it was, evidently, better to appear not to have heard. He switched on a light, and went downstairs. There was no sound of movement, nor anyone about. He began to wonder whether he had been dreaming when Hervey, half dressed, came rapidly along the passage from the study. He was very agitated, sallower than ever, with fear written deep in his face.
“Mr. Court, sir, do you know anything about first aid?”
“A bit—what’s up?”
“Then this way, please, sir, quick. I ought to do it myself but I’m too shaky.” He ran back, opened the study door, and Hector saw Absalom in his usual seat. His coat was off, left shirt sleeve rolled up, and in his arm a ragged gash four inches long.
“Black luck, sir ! Let me look at it.” Absalom nodded, but did not speak. He sat very still, staring at the wound with an incredulous horror. All the cold reserve of the man had disappeared, and now, if ever, the very soul of the man peered out of the sunken gray eyes at the torn flesh. He had, it seemed, an enormous fear, not so much of the gash itself as of something else, further on, that this thing involved. He looked haunted and desperate, amazed that this had happened to him.
This impressed itself ineffaceably on the young man, and he examined the wound with care, seeing at once that it was not deep, not in any sense dangerous. No major vein was touched. The skin might have been ripped open by a nail.
“Gad, sir, if it had been an inch the other way, you’d have wanted a tourniquet and a surgeon. But you needn’t be anxious.”
“It’s not deep then?” Absalom spoke in a small voice that sounded oddly old.
“No, not at all.”
“And I won’t need a doctor?”
“No if you don’t mind an amateurish job. Thing is to make sure it’s perfectly clean before I bind it. Hope it wasn’t anything rusty—like a nail.” He hazarded this on the chance that it might bring some ray of light.
“No—not a nail.” Absalom’s tone stiffened perceptibly. “There was a slight accident in the lab, and I did it on a piece of glass.”
Hector, with a side-glance, saw that the sleeve of the coat had been ripped from elbow to wrist. That meant a very considerable force. Glass! No, it was not glass. Then he noted that on the massive vault-like door only one of the great bolts was shot.
“Well, we’ll sterilize it in any case. It’s apt to make some people sick if they watch this sort of thing, so suppose you forget me for about five minutes.”
Absalom nodded, and shut his eyes. His color had begun to come back, but he looked astonishingly frail. Hector’s firm young fingers worked steadily. It was strange to be feeling this man’s flesh, and he wondered vaguely if it were a hundred years old, because it seemed to have but little substance. He pressed down the last strip of plaster, and gave a little grunt.
“There you are, sir. It’s clean, I’ll answer for that, and ought to heal in no time. It would help you to keep your arm in a sling for a day or two. Fortunate it’s the left.”
“I’m very much obliged to you, Court, very much indeed. It’s well for me that you were in the house. And you got here very quickly: I hardly imagined that Hervey could have brought you down so soon.”
It was very smooth, and sounded very natural, but Hector saw the point in a flash. Absalom had no intention of admitting or even suggesting that anything out of the usual had happened that night except, as he said, a slight breakage in the lab. And Hervey? Where did Hervey stand in this swiftly developed situation? Would he subsequently report that he had found Hector downstairs, very much awake and prowling about. If he didn’t, it would mean that for Hector’s sake he was keeping something from his master. Hector was bluffing, and Hervey knew it. Did enough of the sportsman survive in him to hold him silent?
“That’s all right, sir. I generally wake at the first knock, and certainly did so this time, eh, Hervey?” This with a straight challenging stare.
“You did, sir,” said Hervey.
Hector breathed more freely. Absalom, who had settled back in his chair, waited a moment, then with the faintest possible smile repeated his thanks.
“And, by the way,” he added, “Count Dimitri would like to shoot tomorrow for an hour or so, about noon. I’d be glad if you’d go with him—as company only. Please do not take a gun yourself. Good night—or rather good morning.”
Hector went back to his room utterly confused. What had happened? The lid on Monk’s Mount seemed to have been lifted for one dramatic moment, and slammed down again. And the picture of Dimitri—that feeble, emaciated wreck of a man—with a twelve-bore gun at his shoulder made one laugh.
But it was a gray dawn before sleep came.
T—TE AWOKE with a sort of anticipation L for which he could find no definite reason; and Ram Sid, the perfect servant, brought in breakfast at the usual hour. With it a letter.
“I protrude my weary head from clouds of dust raised on your behalf. The next time you want dates, confine them to the present century, or else find some other unfortunate to do the dirty work, or, better, come and do it yourself. Now about your billiard sharp Palmer, and when he was champion. My son, I betook me to the B.M. and burrowed back for years till I found him—Charles James Palmer of Birmingham. It seems he was king pin of the billiard bunch in 1839. But what has that to do with the price of lard?
“Who is the chief push at Monk’s Mount? What are you doing there, and what’s her name? I’ve just bet the Cherub five to one that your number is up.
Hector read this twice and for some reason was not at all surprised. It began to seem natural, more natural, in fact, than other things that had happened of late. Absalom might have had billiard lessons forty-nine years ago. Again, perhaps he was only joking.
If it was not a joke, what was he like at the beginning of the past half century? Was his skin already like a transparent and flexible parchment? Had his eyes begun to look dry? Had his voice that metallic quality? At what point in his life did he cease, apparently, to get any older?
These interrogations brought a veritable cloud of others. No man could maintain year after year a physically unchanged self without causing comment —and more than comment. One could not liberate oneself from the effects and transitions of time, and stand aside to watch those effects developing in others. But if a man did not die when, to all practical purposes, he ought to die, he would become a sort of living curio, an animated human antique. And such things cannot escape publicity.
It was while Hector pondered over this aspect of it, that there dawned the inner significance of Dimitri’s remark about Mrs. Baxter. “She’ll soon be moving on. Where is it to be this time?”
Moving on! Not it seemed toward any physical end, but in search of another home, lest too long sojourn in the present one attract undue attention. How wise— how absolutely important—especially for a woman who lived in the full glare of social publicity. And Mrs. Baxter’s friends had begun to wonder a little already.
Hector got back to Absalom again, and the mist of uncertainty lifted here also. Vienna-Paris-Warsaw-—and Dimitri had wanted him to return to Bucharest! Of course! He had already lived in all these places. And how many more? Again the same imperative and abiding reason. He was the Wandering Jew of two centuries! How long would he continue to wander?
Had he transported to each new domicile the prodigious equipment of the lab. in Monk’s Mount, or was there a new one on each occasion, a little better than the last? Perhaps that did not matter, because Absalom was so rich that he could afford anything. Had he an advancing and progressive science that squeezed additional year after year out of an eternity that he was gradually making his own? And where did his riches come from?
Into this maze of thought there was suddenly projected the figure of Dimitri, and Hector, forgetting about his breakfast, concentrated on that aged Bulgarian. Here was a Prince of royal blood. One could not conceal the identity of a prince, and alibi was impossible. He was Somebody. He could not move on and elsewhere; nor vanish here and reappear there. That would be sacrificing position, heritage, authority, even royalty itself. The inheritance of an estate was one thing, the succession to a principality another. And Dimitri, the trouble-maker of southern Europe, was a family man who had lost his only son forty years ago. No, his case did not fit into the solution at all.
He went downstairs and found Hervey arranging chrysanthemums in a tall vase in the drawing-room.
“Morning, Hervey. Is the Count up yet?”
“He is up, sir, but has not left his room.” “Mind giving me a word of advice?” The man looked surprised, then distinctly uncomfortable.
“It’s about the Count. You heard Mr. Absalom say that he proposed to shoot today?”
“Well, how about it? Is it safe—I mean for him? He doesn’t look to me as though he could stand up to a gun.” “That will be all right, sir. He’s had a good sleep and feels much better. I’ve seen him much like this before—and he’s a wonderful shot.”
“H’m—and Mr. Absalom?”
“Feeling much more like himself, sir, this morning.”
“That cut; you know—it didn’t really amount to anything.”
“I know that, sir, and should have looked after it myself but was upset by —by other things.”
There was not the slightest change of expression, and he stood, a damp flower in his hand, as though waiting dismissal. Hector, thinking very hard, and weighing this strange individual in the light of one who must have somewhere in his nature one latent streak of honesty, took a chance.
“I say, Hervey, about last night: I’m —er—very much obliged.”
A little light flickered for a second in the butler’s eyes. Nothing could have been slighter, nothing more transitory. But it was the light one finds in the eyes of a decent man.
“Thank you, sir. Your’re quite welcome.” Then he went on with his work.
To be continued