In which a man of science unriddles a riddle and two lovers encounter a dilemma
The story: Hector Court, a young man, “ready for anything,” and with three hundred pounds a year to maintain a West-end establishment in London, answers an advertisement which is decidedly mysterious in tone. He goes down to Monk’s Mount, Hoddesdon, Herts., and comes upon a strange menage. The head of the house is a Mr. Absalom, wtiose “gray eyes seem oddly dry and whose brown hair suggests a wig.” This strange individual puts young Court through a series of tests designed to determine his physical fitness. At their conclusion, Mr. Absalom is insistent that Hector shall accept the position. The latter, however, obtains a few days for consideration.
The next day he dines with a Mrs. Baxter—elderly but very popular in London’s social world. At her house he meets a most attractive girl, Anthea Reichert. He learns that she lives at Monk’s Mount. In the course of the evening she drops Hector a hint that in accepting a berth with Mr. Absalom he will be subjected to danger.
Hector goes down to Monk’s Mount. He finds that he is not expected to leave the estate; he takes down some very mystifying letters; he hears a weird, half human cry and is conscious of a curious acrid odor emanating from one of the outhouses.
A few days later, Anthea asks that Court shall allow his extraordinary employer to beat him should they play billiards. Court allows Mr. Absalom to win easily and is sharply reproved for his pains. From a date on a photograph Court is amazed to learn that his employer is one hundred years old.
Mr. Absalom shows his secretary his laboratory. It is an eerie place filled by extraordinary instruments, including a “giant installation like a sentry box with a close-fitting door.” In this contrivance Absalom places a live guinea pig. He moves a switch and—there is no sign of the guinea pig. Absalom explains that the little animal has been “dissipated into its original atoms.”
Hector learns that a Bulgarian prince, Dimitri, is to visit Monk’s Mount. When he appears it is evident that he is a very old, decrepit man and that Absalom has some strange hold over him.
The night of Dimitri’s arrival Hector is aroused by Hervey, the butler, who informs him that Absalom has been hurt. Hector finds the injury to be merely a superficial one —a long scratch which seems to have been made by a nail. Absalom is much more perturbed than the nature of the wound would seem to warrant.
The next morning Hervey informs Court that Prince Dimitri is to go out shooting with him and that, decrepit as he might have appeared the night before, he is now a changed man.
OOD morning, young Twenty-five! You have a gun for me—yes?”
Hector turned with a start. A man was coming across the lawn toward him. Dimitri? He stared hard before he was convinced, and even then it seemed incredible. This active figure in a short leather jacket and leggings, Dimitri! Where was the stoop, the uncertain step, the weakness of the night before? The man looked transmogrified.
He clapped a hand on Hector’s shoulder, and laughed.
“You are astonished—yes—but what will a good sleep not do? Now I will show you how to deal with these English birds so fat and lazy. Let us go on.”
Hector stammered something, and they struck off to meet the keeper, Dimitri walking with an easy gliding stride that carried him fast. He did not seem conscious of'any effort. The dark face looked just as lean, the figure just as gaunt, but the human volcano had broken out in full eruption again. The man appeared to have cast away years in a single night. Hé stole a glance at his companion, and smiled.
“Your thoughts, Twenty-five? Yes, I shall call you that—tell them to me. Many people have done that.”
“I was wondering, sir, what kind of shooting you get in your own country.”
Dimitri chuckled. “So—it is like that; always do the British their real thoughts hold back. In my country one kills the deer, bear, the partridge and duck. How uninteresting ! Well, let us try again. Tell me, Twentyfive, what with your life you propose to do. Come—that is something!”
“Haven’t decided yet, sir. I want to travel, of course, when I get a bit ahead, but that’s a . . . ”
“Marry—you will marry?”
“I suppose so.”
“Twenty-five supposes so! Très amusant! You are not affianced—yet?”
“No, sir; can’t afford it.”
“But how negative is all this! I, Dimitri, now make a little prophecy. Before one short year has passed, you will be affianced, married, a father, and rich. One year from today, the November twenty, cease for one moment what you may be doing, and to yourself say
‘Paul Dimitri, of Bulgaria, told me this and that he was right.’ ”
Hector grinned at him. “Well, sir, if that happens— and I don’t see it coming my way—I certainly will.”
The old man looked at him sharply. “How much, tell me, does one of your age see what is coming his way? If it were me . . . Ah, well, you are with my friend Absalom how long?”
“Only a few days, Count.”
“Yes—that he told me himself. And your impression of him?”
“Well, sir,” said Hector awkwardly, “you have known him so much better and longer than I. But I can see that he’s frightfully clever.”
• Dimitri laughed outright. “I sometimes think that it takes much, yes, very much, to loosen the tongue of the Englishman. When angry he is apt to be silent—which is a sign of danger. When happy he may perhaps whistle—and not very well—a short tune. When sad he tells none of his sorrow, but, taking dog and stick, will walk up and down beating bushes and trees. When in love he chokes in his throat, and makes sounds that are strange. Yet they are understood by the woman.
“It is only when finding fault with his own country that he contrives a full voice. Ask him of another man, and he will ask why you want to know. Of himself, and he will say the subject is too small for talk. Gott in Himmel! what a remarkable race ! Twenty-five, you are a complete Englishman !”
“Gad, sir,” laughed Hector, “you seem to know us rather well. Here’s the keeper now, and I think we start here.”
“By my mistakes I have paid to understand your countrymen. I have encountered them for so many ...” He broke off at this, giving another chuckle. “Of Absalom we were speaking. What a brain ! And he is rich beyond measure. And all over the world are those who desire to make him still richer if he will but accept. Today—this is the November twenty—and an occasion for Absalom. Tonight you may hear something. Ah, my guns!”
The keeper came up and touched his cap. “Beaters are ready, sir, if you are.”
What followed was impressive. The joking ceased, another Dimitri looked out through the dark eyes, and in the next half hour there took place an exhibition of straight, rapid shooting such as Hector had never seen before in any drive or on any moor. ......
This old Bulgarian could not miss. The birds, again
crowding to the coverts’ edge, lay till the beaters were on top of them. Then a mighty clatter of bronze wings, and they rose, dozens at a time, whirring over Dimitri’s head. He fired, right and left, both eyes open, snatching his second gun from the loader while a pair of limp bodies hurtled earthward above him, and firing the third time before one heard the soft bouncing thuds of his first kill. On one occasion Hector actually saw three dead pheasants in the air.
The coverts seemed alive with game and presently both guns were almost too hot to hold. Then Dimitri knocked off, lit a cigarette, and waited till he had learned the size of the bag. The keeper, whose eyes were bulging, made it seventy-three birds—all cocks.
“It is enough,” said Dimitri, glancing at the long array of blood-flecked plumage. “This is not sport but slaughter. These too trusting birds when they heard the feet and sticks of the beaters said to themselves: ‘here come the humans with food, as they have come for months.’ So they waited. Pah, I am ashamed! It is too like murder! What think you, Twenty-five?”
“I think you’re a perfectly marvellous shot, sir. Never saw anything like it before. You must have done a great deal of it.”
Dimitri’s lips took on a mirthful curve. “Yes, I have done much shooting in my time—-very much; but it was not all like this. The game was bigger. And again, you see, I am not told what you think. You step to one side and a compliment pay instead—which means that you do not at all think it murder. Is it so?”
“Afraid it is, sir, and what’s the use of a pheasant unless you shoot it. Why have ’em at all, if you don’t? Probably I’m all wrong, but ...”
“Ah, young man, when a son of your country says that, it is only of courtesy; and in all the whole world there is nothing that will make him think he is wrong.” It was Hector’s turn to laugh, and they were on the way back to the house when Dimitri mentioned Mrs.
“You know her—so Absalom says?”
“Yes, Count, for the last two or three years. She is very kind and hospitable, especially to young people.”
“Her age—what do you guess?” He asked this with unconcealed curiosity.
“No idea—sixty-five, perhaps; seventy—nobody seems to know.”
“Some day at that estimate you will smile. Now, for yourself I have an invitation.”
“You’re very kind, sir, but I can’t accept any just now.”
“But wait ! Y ou have heard me tell Absalom that to Bucharest I wished he would come again. Well, it happens that when at home I live not in Bucharest but Sofia, which is a large town and unhandsome, while the other is a noble city.
In Bucharest, however, I have a small palace and it is there I ask you on your Lune de miel— your honeymoon.”
Hector grinned at him. “You seem to have it all arranged, sir.”
“No, it is not that. I am not he who arranges. But c’est toujours l’imprévu qui arrive— what one does not expect— that happens. You say, then, that you will not be shortly married?”
“Perfectly certain, sir.”
“But if for just once an Englishman is wrong—what do you say then, young Twentyfive? Do you accept?”
“Well, sir, if I do happen to have a wife soon, and she is willing, and we can afford it— why, I’d like very much to come.”
Dimitri stopped in his stride to laugh the more heartily.
“Never before has anyone himself more safe made than that. However, my friend, I shall expect you. One small thing more. Do you like cats?”
He shot this out with a sly look that was a trifle confidential.
“Not soft young kittens, but
old cats—yes, very, very old—with large yellow eyes that know too much?”
“I hate ’em,” grunted Hector.
“Ma foi! but so do I—therefore no cats are to be found in my house in Bucharest. And here comes the chatelaine of Monk’s Mount!”
ANTHEA was walking down the drive to meet them.
The Count gave her a military salute, with a look in his eyes that Hector rather resented, it being a shade desirous, a shade possessive. It passed before she reached them.
“Good morning, Count, and did you have good sport? I heard some very fast shooting.”
“Yes, the shooting was perhaps faster than your too deliberate pheasants. And Absalom, where is he?” “Expecting you in the study. Lunch will be ready in half an hour, if you are.”
“I go—one does not keep that man waiting. My friend and I have had an argument, but without agreement, he being so pig-headed, as you say here. But he has accepted my invitation to Bucharest. Alors, we meet at lunch.”
He walked on, ran up the front steps with the agility of a boy and disappeared. Hector looked at the girl but her eyes avoided his. Nevertheless she lingered, seeming content to be alone with him. Then because his nature could no longer put up with veiled allusions, suggestions and unreality, he broke out:
“I can’t stick this sort of thing any longer. Dimitri, who is a different man from yesterday, has been talking without giving me his real meaning. I’m not asking about anything that isn’t my business, but where I’m involved it’s another matter. And last night—didn’t you hear anything? Absalom got hurt and I patched him up, but he didn’t, or would not, tell me the truth about it.”
She listened to this with a sort of pathetic humility which had a curious effect on his rising impatience. Again, in spite of his own problems, he felt the touch of pity. The girl made no attempt to free herself from blame or suspicion, but manner and expression told him that she was helpless to intervene.
“Could you trust me, just for a little longer?” she asked very gently.
It seemed hardly fair to ask him to trust anyone at Monk’s Mount, and that thought must have occurred to her also.
“I know why you’ve stayed here, even for these few days,” she went on, “but, even so, I can say nothing.” Then, desperately: “Ask Mrs. Baxter.”
AT DINNER that night the air seemed electric. Mrs.
Baxter, who arrived early in the afternoon, had disappeared immediately with Absalom and only came down stairs at the sound of the gong. Hector thought she was more active and high-spirited than ever. She sat next Dimitri who was on Anthea’s right.
Hervey had achieved a triumph by setting out some very old hand-wrought silver with rare Venetian glass, delicate as flowers and marvellously fashioned. This, with four tall crystal candlesticks, was reflected in the tawny sheen of mahogany, the duplication of these precious things offering itself to the eye as though through a watery and transparent film.
Dimitri, radiating a rediscovered vigor, again wore his great diamond star and talked constantly, while Hector, remembering what this man had been the previous night, likened him to a re-made golf ball, glistening in its new paint. He looked no less tough and seemed on intimate terms with his neighbor.
Anthea, thought Hector, looked almost beautiful. He had not perceived this before, and now he watched her with a sense of surprise, realizing that only happiness was needed to transform her into something unusual and arresting. Tonight, on her lips, in her eyes, was the suggestion of repression. She seemed to be looking between the bars of a prison, immured, cut off, and hungering for the life of her own kind. If those bars came down, how quickly she would blossom into beauty under other and brighter skies!
It was from Absalom that the electricity of the hour seemed to emanate. He wore his maroon coat, a soft-fronted shirt, an amazing cabochon emerald on his left hand, the white fingers protruding stiffly from a black silk sling. If his arm gave him any pain he did not show it, and there being no reference to his injury, Hector assumed that all but himself knew the truth of the matter— the truth he proposed to ferret out very shortly.
Tonight the scientist seemed in a subtle way triumphant, with the manner of one who has reached some invisible goal. His talk was brilliant, and both Mrs. Baxter and Dimitri seemed to attach great importance to anything he said. He was extraordinarily well informed, and had an astonishing memory for dates and places. Occasionally he leaned over to caress the head of Maktai, and had done this several times when Dimitri made a grimace.
“My friend, tell me what in the nature of that cat you so attractive discover. Were it a dog, one could understand. A dog no secrets has from his master, while a cat is but one large secret covered with fur and armed with steel hooks,. And that beast —•” He shrugged his shoulders expressively.
Absalom gave his short metallic laugh. “You think Maktai does not understand you—but look at her now.” Dimitri leaned over. The grizzled brute had her back curved into a sharp bow, the small black lips were wrinkled, showing stumps of tiny teeth,
the scrawny tail erect, and the large, lamplike, yellow eyes were fixed on the Bulgarian in a baleful stare. Maktai felt something and did not like it.
“But that is nothing. Its name you speak, and that name it knows. Nothing more! A cat cannot mourn; it being too selfish. It cares not whether you live or die if only it goes not hungry. A dog will fight for you, but not a cat. The trained dog will not steal, but what is safe from a cat? A dog will die for you, but not a cat.”
, “I am content that Maktai should have lived for me,” said Absalom in a dry voice. “She has done all and more than I hoped for.”
That remark, and it held just a touch of impatience had a strange effect on his visitors. He seemed to have introduced some subject that they were waiting for him to open, and which, till he brought it forward, they had been careful to avoid. One could see that they felt a definite thrill. Mrs. Baxter sat up very straight, her brows lifted, and she looked questioningly at the scientist. Dimitri dropped his bantering manner and nodded quite gravely. Anthea started and sent Hector a quick glance that baffled him completely. It was very timorous, very expectant.
“This reminds me that when alone we are, I have a health to propose.” This from Dimitri, his tone almost exulting.”
“You need not wait, Hervey,” said Absalom. “We will take our wine with the ladies here.”
The butler went out, silent-footed, the door closed. Dimitri stood up, glass in hand.
“A birthday toast I offer to our friend and benefactor —the most remarkable man in the world!”
He gathered the others with a dark commanding eye. They rose, Anthea like one in a dream, Mrs. Baxter with a nervous, excited little laugh as though she had been waiting for this moment, and was glad it had come, Hector with a stiff formality that masked the sudden tension of his nerves. He felt that one corner of the curtain was about to lift.
“To Absalom!” repeated Dimitri, draining his glass.
Followed a murmur of “Absalom,” who was leaning slightly forward, his chemical face utterly impassive, his dry eyes blank. Then very slowly, his lips relaxed into a faint smile, and Hector, catching his glance, thought that never before had he encountered an expression so satirical, so indicative of a consciousness of complete superiority.
“I thank you all,” he said. “Yes, this is my anniversary. I was born on the twentieth of November.”
“But how long ago?” demanded Dimitri. “That you must not leave out.”
“One hundred years ago today!”
This extraordinary announcement, made without any particular emphasis, was all the more dramatic. He looked at
Hector while he spoke as though to inform the young man that he might have curbed his curiosity a day or two longer, then nodded at Mrs. Baxter, who sat in rigid attention.
“My father married Mary Warner, of Reading, in 1827, and I was born the following year. Should anyone desire confirmation of this statement, it should be found in the register of St. Mary’s Church in Henley. It is St. Mary’s, isn’t it,
Hector turned a fiery red. He heard Dimitri chuckle, and Mrs. Baxter laugh hysterically.
“Yes, sir,” he said in a distinctly truculent tone.
“Thank you. Further proof may be found in a photograph of myself and my mother and a cat known as Maktai. This was taken on a visit to Henley when I was forty years old, and before my
father died. Anthea, my dear, I think you have that photograph?”
“Yes,” whispered the girl*
“I thought so, and perhaps you will show it to my friends later. I think they will decide that I carry my years well.” He paused, sent Hector a mocking look, nibbled an olive reflectively, then continued:
“When I was born, it was at once noticed, I was told, that my eyebrows grew vertically. This was recognized to be a very unusual thing, and my parents took it as an indication of great natural curiosity. That was quite correct, and when I was little more than a boy the curiosity developed strongly. It turned to the question of physical life, particularly human life, and what determined the limits of its duration.”
He paused again, struggling with a growing emotion of which Hector had not thought him capable. There was a dead silence at the table. No one stirred. Dimitri’s eyes were gleaming, and Mrs. Baxter sat with her lips parted and a manner almost worshipping.
“I studied all the authorities on this subject, and without exception found them to my mind lacking in the profound essential insight necessary for my object. I began to experiment. This is not the time or place to dwell on those experiments, but they have succeeded beyond my dreams. In evidence of this, I ask my friend Dimitri to tell us how old he is.
“Next month I, Paul Josef Dimitri, shall be ninetyeight!” The voice was full, deep and triumphant.
“And perhaps you would tell my new secretary how this came about? It would interest him.”
“Yes, for it is a privilege to tell an Englishman what he cannot know otherwise. Forty years ago, having been then a widower for three years, I met our friend Absalom. That was through another good friend who is beside me now.” He nodded reminiscently at Mrs. Baxter. “Yes, in Madrid. Ah, Madame, those days—those marvellous costumes of yours which even today you can wear! It was then as it is now in St. James Square. Well, it was under the seal of secrecy that you told me of the marvels Absalom even then was performing. I laughed, and came away. This man is mad, I said to myself.”
“Forty-one years, not forty,” put in Absalom quietly. “But yes—you are right—and in the winter. The next summer my son and I were in the Caucasus shooting. It was mountain goats, Twenty-five, not your too fat English pheasants. My son was built as I am— twenty-two years younger—but the image of me in face and figure. After his father he was named Paul Josef.
The greater and the lesser Paul we were called by our friends. There was an accident! My son fell on his rifle. In ten minutes he was dead!”
He said this with a tone of profound pathos, staring unseeingly at the table, his lids drooping like those of a wounded eagle. Then, sighing deeply, he continued:
“Picture it. I with what was once my son on a mountain tableland, with no compatriots as companions, two hundred' miles from the sea, and surrounded by wild men of the hills to whom life and wounds and death are bagatelles. In that silence it was that my thoughts turned again to Absalom.”
“And the reason is this. My son had not the strong hands of a ruler, and when I myself died, it was expected that many things would happen. For one—a war in the Balkans. So to myself I said, ‘If this man Absalom is indeed a magician, if he does the very least of the things whispered in my ear, I, Dimitri, will give him that whereon to try his magic.’ So very quickly and secretly I crossed Europe incognito, and finding him still in Madrid, spoke thus:
“Absalom, is it possible that the world be made to believe that it is not my son but myself that is dead? I desire the world to take me, who am fifty-eight, for my son who was thirty-six. You, who claim to be master of the creeping years, tell me is this thing attainable? It is not a matter of me or my son, but so long as I live I shall keep thousands from springing at each others’ throats. No sentiment can be allowed in such affairs as these.”
Hector gaped at him. This astonishing recital sounded true; and surely a man did not lie about the death of his own son. If it were true, it offered a perfect solution to the difficulties encountered in considering the case of Dimitri as evidence of Absalom’s mysterious powers. Dimitri had apparently needed no alibis, and the son, though long since dead, still lived in the deathless body of his father.
“Yes,” said Absalom, “those were your very words.”
“When one asks what I asked, one does not forget.”
A profound silence pervaded the room, and Hector felt Anthea’s foot pressing his own, signalling him to say nothing. Mrs. Baxter’s expression had changed, and her thoughts were obviously back again in Madrid. Some of the usual animation had left her face and she looked wistful, as though she had discovered in Madrid something she missed in St. James Square. Hector wondered if she could feel now as keenly as she felt then, and in that state of wonder found himself in another astonishing situation. It explained every question he had ever heard asked about her.
Absalom seemed the least impressed and quite unmoved by what was about to be a tremendous tribute. What appeared to interest him most was the accuracy of the tribute. Did Dimitri’s memory of what took place march precisely with his own? His face evidenced no benignity, none of the graciousness of the benefactor, and he watched the old Bulgarian much as a schoolmaster might watch an over-confident boy at his lesson. He appeared to seek only justification.
“Well, Dimitri—and after that?”
“Nor shall I forget our talk of half a night. And one month after the talk I went back to Sofia by way of the Caucasus to make the certainty more certain. There I was greeted by my son’s friends. What condolences were not offered on my own death? How amusing to hear those who had hated and feared me tell of my virtues when they took my hand, thinking it the hand of my son! Mon Dieu! but if anyone desire to hear surprising talk of himself, let him return from the grave as I returned.”
“But at first it was not easy. How difficult to remember always the individual, the carefree young man I had now become. At times I spoke with too much wisdom, too great experience, mentioning matters that happened before my son was born. When this happened some looked surprised, while others argued that the son had inherited his father’s brain. How amusing! But there was one little matter not at all amusing.”
“Please?” said Mrs. Baxter. “I want to know that especially.”
“The matter of women. Immediately I found that
great care was needful. My son had loved many, and I knew no more than that. Of his conquests and failures he never spoke. The only solution was that no woman should have any least part of the new life presented to me by Absalom. There was no alternative. Had I felt safe I would have married again, but there are times when a man’s tongue is unsealed and I feared for that. Ah, Absalom, how much more could I not tell of what has happened in these forty years with which you have enriched me!”
Continued on page 36
Continued from page 18
Absalom made a gesture of acquiescence. “I understand. The difficult part has always been to help the man or woman not to remember too much. There I can, as yet, do nothing. The underlying process of memory eludes me. Mrs. Baxter, is it possible that you care to say anything tonight?”
“I’m thinking of that last remark,” she began. “If it’s true for a man it’s doubly so for a woman. After a while she hates to remember too much. And,” she added with a glance at Anthea, “that’s so at almost any age.”
Her voice was the kind one could not possibly misinterpret, very clear and cultivated, and with a slight American intonation. Hector, with every excuse for doing so, now examined her very closely. Her eyes were bright, her movements alert, and she was blessed with an unusually quick intelligence. Fortified by great riches, she seemed to be voyaging happily through that favored portion of feminine existence where the sense of enjoyment is fully developed, where life is undistorted by passion or any great emotion, and as yet unshadowed by the approach of its inevitable end. And, thus watching her, Hector recalled that nothing had ever been known of her husband.
“You surely don’t expect me to tell everybody how old I am?” she said with a little moue at Absalom.
This came out with such spontaneity that it eased the tension of the moment. Dimitri laughed, and even Anthea had to smile. Mrs. Baxter was looking genuinely perturbed.
“No—no—I still have a heart. If you prefer it, say nothing.”
She shook her head at that. “It isn’t in me to let Paul do all the talking. You remember, Paul, that day in Madrid when you asked me how old I was?” Dimitri raised his lean hands. “Was I so impertinent? But yes—I do remember.” “Well, I told you something.” “Perfectly I recall what it was.”
“But it wasn’t quite correct.” “Madame, shall I confess—this being a night for confessions—that I made the usual allowance to be added to your statement?”
“Yes, but I allowed for the allowance.” Absalom was greatly amused. “You see, Dimitri, one is never too old to learn.” “Well,” continued Mrs. Baxter, in my case I went from Madrid to Mexico City, and later to Buenos Aires. There, naturally, I was not known as Mrs. Baxter. Occasionally I met someone I had known, say in Madrid. They used to look at me, shake their head, and I could hear them thinking, ‘No, it is impossible!’ Of course, I kept in touch with our friend at the end of this table.” She paused, then looked at Hector with an air of complete candor.
“My dear boy, do you begin to understand?”
He nodded. Without expecting it, he had been let into the tremendous secret of the lives of these two people. It struck him dumb. He now saw in the quiet chemical-faced man—the master of the creeping years—the arbiter of their existence. Through Absalom, and by his permission, they were still alive ! So that was the secret of Monk’s Mount!
But not all of it. Why had he himself been brought here? Anthea ! He stared at her, conscious but not caring that this was instantly noted by the others. Their eyes met, and in hers he saw so great an appeal, so touching a petition that he would not desert her even now, that he felt rooted, anchored, till the whole mys-
tery had been uncovered. That mystery involved her also. Into this strange translation of spirit drifted the voice of Mrs. Baxter.
“I’m leaving a lot out, Hector,” she went on, “but Mr. Absalom will supply what he sees fit. I suppose you’ve wondered about me sometimes, and why I entertain so much. Well, there are two reasons—one that I can afford it—the other, that I feel the need of youth around me. That helps me not to dwell too much on the fact that I discovered Mr. Absalom just a little too late.”
“But, on the whole, you are glad you did discover me?” put in Absalom with his dry little cough.
“Glad!” she exclaimed. “Glad is not the word. There is no word. Absalom, is it possible you do not know that?”
“I think I know. And you, Dimitri? I ask this to prove to my young friend, Court, that the work which goes on at Monk’s Mount is not entirely experimental.”
“It is beyond that stage. Let me answer you in my own way, and assume that your work ceases—now—at once!”
The effect of this on Mrs. Baxter was remarkable. Her eyes filled with fear, her lips trembled, and she seemed to shrink with horror, recoiling from a gulf that opened at her very feet.
“Paul—Paul,” she implored in a shaking voice, “do not talk like that. It’s too awful. Think of Stephen Burt—Mrs. Bannister—ourselves—all of . . . !” “Please!” broke in Absalom sharply. She was silenced in a second. Dimitri was staring at her, his black eyes round and wide open. Then Absalom went on in the tone of a master, quiet and level.
“My friends, perhaps enough has been said, and you have overwhelmed me with thanks on my anniversary. I ask you to meet me again ten years from today. Where you will come from next time, I do not know, nor where I shall entertain you. But in any case we must meet. Now I would like a word in private with my clients. Anthea, will you please excuse us?” Hector got up automatically, but the girl did not move. The three passed on to the door, opened with a flourish by Dimitri, and disappeared toward the study. Hervey came in at once, and after a questioning glance began to clear the table.
“Mr. Court,” said Anthea, “would you like to give me another lesson in billiards?”
'“PHERE was no pretense at play. He •*took her hands in his and looked straight into her troubled eyes.
“Don’t let anyone or anything make you so unhappy. You’re not alone in all this.”
That seemed to bring a little comfort, but only a little, and she shook her head.
“It was Absalom’s way of telling you certain things he wanted you to know— first. I thought he was going to do it, but couldn’t be sure.”
“Well, perhaps it’s as good as any other. I can’t think very clearly yet, but it goes with all he told me the first time. And Mrs. Baxter! Who’d have dreamed that? You knew, of course?”
“Yes, for some time. But I couldn’t speak.”
“Are there many others?” he asked wonderingly.
“Yes, a good many, all very rich. But it isn’t really the money he does it for.” “Well,” confessed Hector, “of course it beats me, but I’m not so astonished now. It fits into everything that’s been said and happened—except one or two.”
“What took place last night on the roof—and Absalom’s being hurt.”
“He will tell you about that tomorrow,” she said nervously.
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Continued from page 36
“Did he say so?”
“Yes, this afternoon.”
“Right—I can wait.” He pressed her hands reassuringly, then shrugged his shoulders. “There’s another puzzle not worked out. It’s about me. Why did he specially want me here; why was he so keen on my physical condition; why those tests? Does he want to find out what goes on inside an extra healthy chap without that treatment of his?”
“No,” she said, in a strange tone.
“Right you are, and I can wait for that, too.” At this she looked so frightened and forlorn that he felt a great wave of pity. “I can take care of myself, and you, too, for that matter,” he added. “And I will.”
She gave a quick little sigh, wrenched her hands from his, and threw herself on a lounge, face down. Soon she began to sob, dry, muffled, hopeless sobs that reached his very soul. Something leaped upon him at that moment. He put out a big strong hand, patting her shoulder.
“Anthea, dear Anthea, what is the matter?”
“Don’t touch me !” she quavered. “I’m not worth it. Tomorrow you’ll be sorry you touched me!”
At that his arms went round her and he bent low.
“Anthea,” he whispered, “I want to tell you something. I love you! I didn’t realize it till this minute. I love you! I can’t bear seeing you like this. Speak to me!”
The sobbing ceased. She lay very still as though trying to comprehend, then turned a tortured face. It was full of a wild wonder.
“You love me—you!”
“Isn’t it that when my arms ache to go round you—isn’t that love. I never felt anything like it before. Anthea, come to my arms!”
She stared at him, the wildness of her eyes slowly softened by a divine light, yet retaining a sort of amazed incredulity. She swayed a little toward him, but drew away as though compelled by invisible force.
“You don’t realize what you’re saying.” The voice was tremulous, and touched with a great pathos. Never in his life had he heard anything that sounded half so lonely.
“I have never said it before, Anthea.” She shook her head, gently insistent. “It’s just because you’re sorry for me.” He came very close, and this time she did not move.
“I love you !” he repeated, “I love you ! You brought me here because you were madeto. I’m glad you were made to. You blame yourself for bringing me, and I love you for blaming yourself. I remember every word of what has been said tonight, and that makes no difference. Something threatens us both. I feel that—can you deny it?”
“No,” she whispered, her eyes large and luminous. She was in a new world, breathing a new air, and had captured a new beauty. It invested her with a marvellous grace and tenderness.
“Well, whatever it is makes no difference either. I would not have it threaten you and spare me. And all the more I love you for that.”
“Listen!” she said, “then tell me something. Imagine I have done the most cowardly unwomanly thing possible, and after I had seen you, a thing that no other woman would forgive—and very few men, and ...”
“Anthea, why do you talk like that
“Because I must, for both our sakes. After tonight you must never say to yourself, ‘If I had known, that would have been the end of it.’ Don’t you understand,
“You ask me to imagine that you’ve done something cowardly and unwomanly!”
“Well,” he said, with a wonderful
smile, “you pretend that I have imagined and I’ll tell you something.”
Again that sweet look of incredulity and hope. “Yes, Hector?”
“I don’t love you any more—I adore you !”
At that she gave an irrepressible cry of complete happiness, and came to his arms like a tired bird to her nest. He held her for a long time, his caress expressing the thousand things that rushed from heart to lips, and for which there seemed no present speech.
“Hector,” she whispered, “I love you, too. Forgive me now—before you know.” His face was pressed against her and his lips gave answer. Monk’s Mount and its marvels ceased to exist, being blotted out in a wonder still more unbelievable.
“I love you,” he breathed. “My most dear one, I love you.”
Came a dry cough at the door of the billiard room. Absalom stood there, his face bearing an extraordinary mingling of surprise and satisfaction.
“Anthea, when you are disengaged, Mrs. Baxter would like to say good night.”
TF YOU please, sir, Mr. Absalom would like you to be in the study at ten o’clock.”
This from Hervey who, instead of Ram Sid, was laying breakfast in Hector’s sitting room.
It was quite to be expected, and Hector had a sense of relief. It meant, for one thing, an end to uncertainty and mystery. Also he welcomed so immediate an opportunity to speak out.
In the course of a sleepless night, he had framed his ultimatum. He proposed to tell Absalom that under the circumstances he could not discharge his secretaryship— and he did not intend to try. Further, that he loved Anthea, that she loved him —though perhaps this did not need telling —and he would marry her at once if she was willing.
If Absalom objected to the marriage and stood in the way, he would use every means to carry it out. The promise of secrecy as to what he had learned at Monk’s Mount would be observed— whatever happened. In addition, he proposed to say that England was a free country—and several things of that sort.
With this in mind, he took occasion to speak out to the sallow-faced butler.
“Hervey, do you know what took place last night?”
“I do, sir.”
“You do! Who told you?”
“Mr. Absalom, sir.”
“He doesn’t seem to have many secrets from you.”
“Is this what you meant when you told me I’d need another kind of courage here?”
“Part of it, Mr. Court.”
“And the other part?”
“I think you’ll hear that this morning, sir.”
“Oh, will I! Hervey, I got just a glimpse—once—of the chap I take to be the real you. Tell me, do you like it here —are you happy? You seem pretty well cut off from the outside world. And in spite of what we both know goes on at Monk’s Mount, it doesn’t strike me as being a particularly healthy sort of place.” The heavy features looked rueful. “Well, sir, of course I’m extra well paid. That’s one thing. For another, once you get mixed up in this affair you shoulder a sort of responsibility for others. That’s Mr. Absalom’s way. He gets you in a position where you can’t think just of yourself.”
This was a strange thing for him to say, and he did not in the least degree suggest one who thought of others. Hector glanced at him sharply.
“I don’t quite get that. Goon!”
“I can’t, sir. I’ve gone as far as.I dare. But afterward, when this is all over—if it ever is—I’d like you to believe that I haven’t made myself what I appear to be.
There’s Miss Anthea—I’d do anything for her—if I could.”
Hector fastened on that swiftly. The time might be coming soon when this man could be of invaluable aid—if he would. The entire future might turn on his support. All a question of whether there was anything of the sportsman still left in him.
“Hervey, I’m going to speak out. You know how it stands between Miss Anthea and me?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Well, where do you stand?”
This seemed to hit the man in the face. He colored and looked extremely uncomfortable.
“Sir, before you say anything more,
may I speak?”
“You know so much already that it won’t hurt if you know more. It’s this way with me—-Mr. Absalom has promised me something I’d give my immortal soul for, if his plans work out as he’s got them arranged. If they don’t, I don’t get it.” “Promised you what other people come here for?”
“That’s it, sir,” stammered the man. He stood there, a self-confessed aspirant, grasping with all his frightened anxious being at the thing his master alone could give. He was a sharer in the secret of Monk’s Mount, but not yet partaker of what he saw bestowed on others. He, too,' feared the thought of death—he, too, shrank from the creeping years—he, too, grasped at immortality— he, the servant whose sphere was so narrow, who could look forward to nothing more than an existence of endless service. And in that moment there came over Hector the crushing perception that no matter how mean or worthless or charged with suffering may be a human life, there arrives the inevitable hour when it seems precious beyond compute.
That hour had already come for Hervey, and the truth was written in his haunted eyes. What if the guerdon of service be not bestowed !
“Well,” said Hector slowly, “I have nothing of that sort to offer you. Forget it.”
“Mr. Court, sir, don’t make any mistake about Mr. Absalom. He goes on living, but he’s not a happy man. He loves Miss Anthea. He’s not unkind. I’ve come on him at times when he looked tired of living. It’s got him, sir, and won’t let go, and he’s got to carry on to—to whatever end that sort of thing can have —if it has one. I don’t know.”
He spoke as though the truth were being forced out of him by a great fear, and there was no mistaking it. And how little, it seemed, could anyone offer in comparison with Absalom!
“The night before last, Hervey, and that accident. It wasn’t glass?”
“But you can’t tell me what it was?” “You’ll know about that today, sir. Will you please excuse me now.” “Hervey!”
“I’ve a sort of idea that when this matter comes up again between you and me, it’s going to be in a totally different fashion.”
He heard the door close, and sat staring at his breakfast table. How short a time had passed since he was at another breakfast table, wondering whether he could give satisfaction as private secretary to a scientist. How closely under the surface are the unexpected events of life! How many other young men had scanned that alluring paragraph, and would another, had he been accepted, have encountered the same extraordinary situation?
This brought in Anthea, and he found himself rebelling at the thought of some other man discovering her. The idea made him jealous, and thus she became more essentially his. It was one of the many cumulative factors that now affected him so strongly.
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Continued from page 38
He tried to visualize Mrs. Baxter in her new aspect. She had been very frank, and after all these recaptured years was still very feminine. They had not hardened her. It was hard to think of her paying Absalom for a further indefinite lease of life. That would be a large sum, and how many others paid in the same way? Easy to understand that Absalom must be very rich, for what he sold was beyond price.
And himself? What if Absalom wanted to establish him permanently, so to speak, in his present physical person? He jerked his mind away from that, and automatically it turned to Anthea. He would have liked to see her before he saw Absalom, but that was difficult. He went into the hall. The door of her sitting room was shut. He knocked, and got no answer.
They loved each other! That shining fact invested him with pride. He was proud to be loved, proud to love her, and spent the next hour in a day-dream, dominated by her alone. How overwrought she must have been to say the strange things she said last night. No girl was ever less unwomanly, no woman ever less of a coward.
At ten o’clock he went to the study. Absalom sat in his usual place, with Maktai curled at his feet. Near him stood Anthea.
THE sight of the girl created an immediate complication, and Hector realized that he could not now make his proposed announcement. Absalom’s manner only deepened this quandary.
“Sit down, Court.”
Hector glanced at Anthea, and Absalom made a gesture.
“Anthea, please sit down—that’s better. I shall only keep you a minute. Court, I shall need you longer.” He paused, put his parchment fingertips together, and gave one of his inscrutable smiles.
“Court, I have a good deal to tell you this morning; but first—and while Anthea is here—I want you to know that I am entirely in favor of your engagement to her.”
Hector gaped at him. “You mean that, sir?”
“I am not in the habit of saying what I don’t mean.”
“Anthea—darling—do you hear?” He went to her quickly, taking her hand. The hand was limp, her face very pale, and again her eyes avoided his. It seemed that no love—no life—was left in her.
“Anthea—dearest—what’s the matter? Don’t you understand?”
“One moment, Court,” came in the cool voice. “Anthea understands perfectly. Again I say that I am in favor—subject to certain conditions.”
“What?” snapped Hector.
“I think that you and I had better discuss them in private.”
“Does Anthea know what they are?” demanded the young man suspiciously. “She has always known,” said Absalom. The girl gave a gasp, raised her drooping eyes, and sent her lover one look in which shame strove with love, and pride with entreaty. So eloquent was it that in a flash it brought back the strange moment when she had called herself cowardly and unwomanly. And at that look something tightened round his heart.
“Anthea,” he begged, “don’t! It’s all right—everything is—and don’t wait here. I’ll come to you soon.”
“Yes,” nodded Absalom, “we’ll talk things over alone.”
“No,” she said in a low voice, “I’ll stay.”
“Then on one condition—that you say nothing whatever. But I doubt your wisdom.”
“I’ll stay. Nothing matters now,” she answered desperately.
Absalom shrugged his shoulders, and dismissed the point, while Hector, searching these two faces, one so baffling, the other so dearly loved, gathered his forces as he often had before.
But now there was a difference. He was used to fighting with something visible, calculable, where one could measure the weight and speed of a blow. One could mark its effect. Here he was struggling with something elusive, impalpable, that gave no sign when it was wounded—if wounded it could be. And never was he more conscious of the brilliant mental powers of the man he faced.
“Well, sir,” he asked, very much on guard, “what are the stipulations? I love Anthea, and we’re going to be married— anyway.”
Absalom seemed to like him none the less for this assurance.
“I must begin by going back a little way. Have you realized all that is implied by what you heard last night?”
“I could hardly fail to do that.”
“Very well. Now let us take Dimitri, and Mrs. Baxter as the evidence of my success. When I began my experiments, I was groping in the dark along a path none had followed before. I had disappointments, and these naturally affected others. Then the light began to come. Can you imagine what it meant to me to demonstrate successfully what no other man, living or dead, had dreamed possible?”
“In only a crude sort of way, sir.”
“Well, slowly I came nearer the secret I pursued—the secret of death.” He paused for an instant, and his voice dropped to a thrilling whisper. “Then, one miraculous night, I crossed the hidden threshold of immortality. I knew! First of all created men, I knew! I had made no attempt to solve the other secret—that of life. Were that riddle to be read it would mean the breaking up of our entire social fabric— and the world is not ready for such disruption.”
He stopped, and sent the young man a piercing look as though to make sure that he was being clearly followed. Hector did not stir. Anthea was motionless, her eyes full of shadows. And in that silent room it seemed that one could hear the very tick of the clock of eternity.
“To make a long story short,” went on Absalom, “I began with animals—and took Maktai. Sixty years ago, Maktai was three years old. I cannot see any difference in the last fifty years. Eh, Maktai?”
The gray beast looked up at him, stretched her stiff limbs, and yawned. The yawn expressed a profound indifference. Absalom gave a mirthless chuckle, noted the expression on Hector’s face, and continued thoughtfully:
“You will recall what Dimitri said about cats last night. He knows about Maktai and was only joking. He also knows that for many years I have perpetuated the life of something much higher in intelligence than even the dog. Come with me.”
He crossed the study, and drew back the bolts in the massive door of the north wall. As he opened it, Hector perceived again the acrid odor he had noted twice before. Now it was sharper, more penetrating.
“Court, may I introduce you to my friend, Siak?”
The young man was too astonished to move. He stood in an area surrounded on two sides by a high brick wall with spiked iron guards. It was open to the sky, and paved. The entire west side was occupied by an iron-barred enclosure with a metal roof. There were sliding doors by which it could be tightly sealed. And behind the bars squatted a great Orang-outang, golden with age.
Hector stared and stared. Never before in his life had he seen so gigantic a specimen of the higher anthropoid. The beast had an enormous thin-lipped mouth, sagging leather pouches of cheeks, low brows that twitched and jerked up the small membranous ears. The lids lay low over small deep-set eyes. The length of his arms and the size of the barrel-shaped chest were enormous. He sat there, a vast tawny pyramid, and one could see the slow heave of the huge hairy chest.
It was the eyes of this monstrosity that fascinated. They were fixed on Absalom, weary, resentful, and charged with a sort of speechless knowledge. The brute seemed to know Absalom, know what he had done and was doing, and in the brutish gaze was a smouldering revolt proclaiming that the ape was long since tired of life, sickened with captivity and wanted to die, but without Absalom it could not die. It did not appear conscious of the presence of another. Those forbidding eyes rested only on its master.
Absalom touched his own bandaged arm. “Weil, Court, I assume you understand now. It wasn’t glass that did it, but the time for explanation had not then arrived. Owing to a bit of carelessness, Siak got loose.”
Hector nodded. He was aware of Anthea close by, but she might have been a statue. She breathed, and that was all. He tried to control his racing brain. What use of speech now?
“The Orang has been known to live thirty years,” went on Absalom in his impassionate tone, “but Siak is nearly as old as Dimitri. Several times I thought I had lost him, but a change of treatment put that right. He is very human in his likes and dislikes, and lately has conceived an objection to me. For instance
He approached the cage, stared hard at the ape, and began to talk rapidly in a foreign tongue.
Instantly the flat, close-set ears commenced a twitching, the wide, thin lips lifted, showing jagged yellow teeth, the tawny hair on the vast shoulders bristled, and Siak was transformed into a terrific engine of potent destruction. The small eyes gleamed redly, the webbed fingers crooked. Fury ran through the savage body, and Siak spoke in his own wild way with a harsh grating sound.
“You see!” said Absalom coolly. “Interesting, isn’t it?”
Hector, who felt as though he were hypnotized, came to himself with a start. Anthea was deadly white. Instinctively he took her slack hand, pressing it tightly. She gave him a smile that nearly broke his heart.
“Anthea is a bit faint, sir. Couldn’t we get out of this?”
Absalom, nodding, turned his back on Siak. The beast grappled with his bars, and the last Hector saw of him was that distorted visage and two long, black, prehensile hands curved over the iron.
From the study they went on to the lab; and here, glancing at his extraordinary collection of apparatus, Absalom seemed a shade uncertain how to begin. Hector still held his girl’s hand, but no look or word came from her.
“It would be impossible,” said the cold voice, speaking very carefully, “to give you more than one or two principal points of my discoveries. First, I had to establish what causes death through what we term old age—why we get old—and what happens. Well, it is simply because our bodies become unable to resist what have been called ‘The harpies of death.’ To find these harpies I had to devise a way of photographing them.”
“Yes. I had known of their existence for many years but wanted to see them. Anthea, please stand opposite that screen. There, don’t move.”
He stepped to the projector, adjusted a switch, and nodded to Court.
“Now watch the screen.”
Across space there must have leaped some invisible ray, and instantly there was cast on the screen the living presentation of the girl’s heart and lungs, depicted in a pale phosphorescent pattern. Hector could see the heart beat, expand, contract, see the lungs inflate, deflate, and observe the blood take its passage in what appeared to be a semi-transparent stream. This heart by which she lived and breathed, the heart she had promised to him, lay exposed to his astonished gaze.
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Continued from page 4O
“What I show you now is one consummation of my work,” Absalom’s voice sounded again. There was no triumph in it, no pride, only a vast satisfaction. “Formerly I was more or less in the dark. I was on the right lines, but could not follow step by step what I did. Now it is easy. The harpies of death of which I spoke were in the projection, but you could not distinguish them. Thank you, Anthea.”
Came a click. The screen was blank. Hector stared at it, then at the girl with a sense of utter helplessness. The spectacle had struck him dumb, and he found it impossible to question a word. The harpies of death in the one he loved, perceived and understood by this man— their master—and himself powerless. Anthea was silent, a passionless image. Her very soul seemed asleep.
He moistened his dry lips and forced himself to speak.
“You—you won’t let that go on!” he jerked out.
Absalom smiled. “A very familiar request. Of course, they are in you also; quiescent for the moment, but latent and potent. We will return to that angle of it. But first I would like to demonstrate what Dimitri calls ‘the cabinet of life.’ He made a gesture at the great glass dome.
“Life!” croaked Hector.
“Life and death are twin brothers,” said Absalom musingly, “with only a hair’s breadth between. Court, you are built of atoms; we all are. Now, if I can make a slight rearrangement of—” here he shook his head and frowned as one in deep thought—“no, that is too difficult to explain to a layman. I put it this way. If I influence your atoms so as to produce what for the sake of illustration I call a minus effect, you simply cease to exist. I don’t know where you go, but you follow the guinea pig, wherever that is. You become an invisible part of the general cosmos. Do you grasp that?”
Hector’s brain began to reel. “I’m trying to.”
“I shall be surprised if you do. However! If, on the other hand I produce what we may call a plus effect, I take the first step toward destroying the harpies of death. That process is carried on at stated intervals.”
He paused, and the young man’s consciousness perceived a light. A million thoughts assailed him.
“Anthea,” went on Absalom, “I did not wish you to come with us,but you insisted. I had meant to bring Hervey. Now I must ask you to take Hervey’s place. Please go into the cabinet.”
Hector’s heart seemed transmuted into ice, and all physical strength ran out of him. He was rooted to the spot, powerless to move or speak. He saw Absalom open the great glass door, saw the girl pass through it and seat herself in the wooden chair. He saw the door closed, saw Absalom secure it with bolts. The nightmare held him speechless. Anthea looked at him out of her transparent prison, and his soul shook within him. Absalom moved to the switchboard.
He stood there, this man of science and mystery, one small white hand resting on a dial, the other poised over a switch. In that moment he became giver of life or death according to his will, inscrutable, an amazing more than human thinking machine whose excursions, carrying him far past the realms of ordinary knowledge, enabled him to explore regions unvisited by others.
One could not imagine him as husband —father—son—or occupying any given status in life. One could not picture him as shaken by emotion, uplifted by joy, prostrated by grief. He was a mechanism infinitely more marvellous than the astonishing things he controlled. It seemed strange that he should eat, sleep and speak like other men. And it was this remoteness, this complete intellectual removal which silenced the wild protest
that now rose to Hector’s lips, and deprived him of any power to revolt.
Anthea sat without moving, still gazing at her lover as though to assure him that she was not afraid. She appeared to have entered this casement of death to prove that she was not all cowardly, not all unwomanly. He knew of a surety that she was aware of the gleaming flicker that spelled destruction. The knowledge was written in the calm courage of her eyes. Yet she waited there, those eyes fixed on him as they might be fixed on the last thing she was to behold on earth. By what superlative heroism had she nerved herself? Truly it needed a great love to glorify thus a woman’s face!
“There is no danger,” said Absalom in the calmest voice imaginable.
Adjusting the dial, he pushed the switch. In the glass dome came a glimmer -—but not as before. It had a pale tinge, like heat lightning on a summer night. There was no mist, no fog. Hector could watch his girl. For one second she closed her eyes, and again they shone on him, infinitely trusting, infinitely clear. They seemed to ask whether she had proved worthy of his love.
Absalom snatched back the switch, and opened the glass door.
“Thank you, Anthea.”
That was all. She stepped out of that potent dome, and stood as before, quite silent. He made a gesture toward the study.
“Court, I think you have seen enough of this part of it for the present. Now I have a proposal to make. Let us sit down.”
They took their former places.
“Before I put my proposal,” he began, “I would ask you something. When you came here first, I gave you my assurance that what went on at Monk’s Mount was in every sense within the law, and that your promise of secrecy would not violate your sense of duty to your country or yourself.”
“You did, sir.” Hector wondered at the sound of his own voice.
“Well, have you seen or heard anything since to make you question my assurance?”
It was shrewdly put. There was nothing. People applied to Monk’s Mount—already the thing was becoming less incredible—begging for a sort of time-cheque for which they were ready to pay royally. Some of them got it—others did not. They were dealing with their own lives. Nothing in the law or the decalogue against that.
“I haven’t learned anything that I think I ought to mention outside,” he admitted stiffly.
“Because, of course, there is nothing. You are merely the privileged sharer of information that millions would be overjoyed to have. Now as to my proposal. Anthea, do you still wish to stay with us?”
She was as white as death, and to Hector appeared to be anticipating an even more nerve-racking ordeal. Yet she was determined to face it with him.
“Yes,” she said faintly, “I must.”
“Very well, as you decide; though it might be better if you did not. Court, do you remember that Mrs. Baxter said something last night about having discovered me too late?”
“Have you any idea what she meant by it?”
“This—that she was sixty when she first entered the cabinet of life. She wished that she had been younger. All I
can do for her and others is to ‘fix’ them, as it were, in the physical appearance in which I find them, adding to that a much greater bodily vigor. Sarah Baxter regrets that she was not ‘fixed,’ say, at fifty instead of sixty. You may say that I enabled Dimitri to be taken for his son. True—but he happened to look very young for his age, and his son very old. Bodily vigor did the rest.
“And now, Court, it has come to this. I am tired of working over middle-aged clients. What I want are younger ones, still in the flush of youth, without stain or physical flaw, and capable of the perfect union. These I propose to perpetuate, and I will endow them as youth has never been endowed before.” He paused, and leaned over with a look of intense and concentrated meaning. “Can you understand, Court, how interested I was in what I saw in the billiard room last night?”
He broke off at that, vertical brows lifted, his dry, gray eyes boring into the young man’s very soul.
It had come at last—the final blinding revelation—and with it Hector achieved a dazed comprehension of all that had happened since he first entered this house of mystery. Not a look, not a word remained unsolved! The gnome-like lodgekeeper who in a cackling tone wondered not who Absalom was but what he was; Hervey’s warning about that other kind of courage; Dimitri’s semi-jocular invitation; Absalom’s physical tests and insistence on the sheltered life—all were clear now !
In this mental maelstrom sounded a voice reminding him that Anthea also had known. From the first she must have known, and, finally, with that knowledge in her heart had given him her lips. She had watched his love grow till it came to this!
“Court,” said Absalom with an impersonal sort of sympathy, “the situation is very difficult for you. I quite understand that. There is still a good deal to be explained concerning the remarkable privileges of what I suggest. Nor have I touched on the consequences if you should think of refusing. It is absolutely essential that you understand these points quite clearly, but I will leave them to some other time. You look a bit shaken, which is very natural, so why not take a walk. Anthea, it would do you good also.”
Hector looked at the girl, and at the sight of that downcast, suffering face he had the amazing conviction that in spite of everything he still loved her. No words came, only the speechless conviction that love had survived even this last assault. And there were countless unanswerable reasons why he, a free man, should go now, and never return. The world was as open as ever.
But something in him had changed. He felt an emotion he could not fathom. Love was in it—and pity—and protection— and something of the dogged resolve that marks the true fighting man. He was persuaded that just as Anthea had been hypnotized into influencing him that night at the Embassy, so she had been forced to go further. But that was not the real Anthea.
The real one had broken through Absalom’s diabolical pressure and begged him not to come to Monk’s Mount; had later implored him to leave this house before it was too late; had entered the cabinet of death, and watched him with faithful eyes from that fateful dome; had nerved herself to face this last exposure.
Why? Because her heart was great and she loved him!
There could be no other explanation, nor did Hector attempt to probe further. He gave Absalom one fearless look, went to the girl’s side and took her unresisting hand.
“Come, dear,” he said.
They went out with fingers interlocked, like fingers of children that feel instinctively for each other.
To be Continued