Of course the Woman question was soon introduced, and in this I made the best defence of time-honoured customs of which I was capable. But my outworks fell down as promptly before the voices of these young women as did the walls of Jericho before the blast of a ram's horn. Nothing that I had cherished was left to me. Woman no longer wanted man's protection. ("Enslavement" they called it.) Why should she, when in the evolution of society there was not now, or presently would not be, anything from which to protect her? ("Competing slaveowners" was what they said.) When you wish to behold protectors you must postulate dangers. The first are valueless save as a preventive of the second. Both evils will be conveniently dispensed with. All this was new to me, most of my thinking life having been passed in distant lands, where the science of ethics is codified into a simple statute--the will of the strongest.
When my dialectical humiliation was within one point of completion, Miss Metford came to my rescue. For some time she had looked on at my discomfiture with a good-natured neutrality, and when I was metaphorically in my last ditch, she arose, stretched her shapely figure, flicked some clinging grass blades from her suit, and declared it was time to return. Brande was a man of science, but as such he was still amenable to punctuality in the matter of dinner.
On the way back I was discreetly silent. When we reached the house I went to look for Herbert Brande. He was engaged in his study, and I could not intrude upon him there. To do so would be to infringe the only rigid rule in his household. Nor had I an opportunity of speaking to him alone until after dinner, when I induced him to take a turn with me round the lake. I smoked strong cigars, and made one of these my excuse.
The sun was setting when we started, and as we walked slowly the twilight shadows were deepening fast by the time we reached the further shore. Brande was in high spirits. Some new scientific experiment, I assumed, had come off successfully. He was beside himself. His conversation was volcanic. Now it rumbled and roared with suppressed fires. Anon, it burst forth in scintillating flashes and shot out streams of quickening wit. I have been his auditor in the three great epochs of his life, but I do not think that anything that I have recollected of his utterances equals the bold impromptus, the masterly handling of his favourite subject, the Universe, which fell from him on that evening. I could not answer him. I could not even follow him, much less suppress him. But I had come forth with a specific object in view, and I would not be gainsaid. And so, as my business had to be done better that it should be done quickly. Taking advantage of a pause which he made, literally for breath, I commenced abruptly: "I want to speak to you about your sister."
He turned on me surprised. Then his look changed to one of such complete contempt, and withal his bearing suggested so plainly that he knew beforehand what I was going to say, that I blurted out defiantly, and without stopping to choose my words: "I think it an infernal shame that you, her brother, should allow her to masquerade about with this good-natured but eccentric Metford girl--I should say Miss Metford."
"Why so?" he asked coldly.
"Because it is absurd; and because it isn't decent."
"My dear Abraham," Brande said quietly, "or is your period so recent as that of Isaac or Jacob? My sister pleases herself in these matters, and has every right to do so."
"She has not. You are her brother."
"Very well, I am her brother. She has no right to think for herself; no right to live save by my permission. Then I graciously permit her to think, and I allow her to live."
"You'll be sorry for this nonsense sooner or later--and don't say I didn't warn you." The absolute futility of my last clause struck me painfully at the moment, but I could not think of any way to better it. It was hard to reason with such a man, one who denied the fundamental principles of family life. I was thinking over what to say next, when Brande stopped and put his hand, in a kindly way, upon my shoulder.
"My good fellow," he said, "what does it matter? What do the actions of my sister signify more than the actions of any other man's sister? And what about the Society? Have you made up your mind about joining?"
"I have. I made it up twice to-day," I answered. "I made it up in the morning that I would see yourself and your Society to the devil before I would join it. Excuse my bluntness; but you are so extremely candid yourself you will not mind."
"Certainly, I do not mind bluntness. Rudeness is superfluous."
"And I made it up this evening," I said, a little less aggressively, "that I would join it if the devil himself were already in it, as I half suspect he is."
"I like that," Brande said gravely. "That is the spirit I want in the man who joins me."
To which I replied: "What under the sun is the object of this Society of yours?"
"Proximately to complete our investigations--already far advanced--into the origin of the Universe."
"I cannot tell you now. You will not know that until you join us."
"And if your ultimate object does not suit me, I can withdraw?"
"No, it would then be too late."
"How so? I am not morally bound by an oath which I swear without full knowledge of its consequences and responsibilities."
"Oath! The oath you swear! You swear no oath. Do you fancy you are joining a society of Rechabites or Carmelites, or mediaeval rubbish of that kind. Don't keep so painstakingly behind the age."
I thought for a moment over what this mysterious man had said, over the hidden dangers in which his mad chimeras might involve the most innocent accomplice. Then I thought of that dark-eyed, sweet-voiced, young girl, as she lay on the green grass under the beech-tree in the wood and out-argued me on every point. Very suddenly, and, perhaps, in a manner somewhat grandiose, I answered him: "I will join your Society for my own purpose, and I will quit it when I choose."
"You have every right," Brande said carelessly. "Many have done the same before you."
"Can you introduce me to any one who has done so?" I asked, with an eagerness that could not be dissembled.
"I am afraid I can not."
"Or give me an address?"
"Oh yes, that is simple." He turned over a note-book until he found a blank page. Then he drew the pencil from its loop, put the point to his lips, and paused. He was standing with his back to the failing light, so I could not see the expression of his mobile face. When he paused, I knew that no ordinary doubt beset him. He stood thus for nearly a minute. While he waited, I watched a pair of swans flit ghost-like over the silken surface of the lake. Between us and a dark bank of wood the lights of the house flamed red. The melancholy even-song of a blackbird wailed out from a shrubbery beside us. Then Herbert Brande wrote in his note-book, and tearing out the page, he handed it to me, saying: "That is the address of the last man who quitted us."
The light was now so dim I had to hold the paper close to my eyes in order to read the lines. They were these-- GEORGE DELANY, Near Saint Anne's Chapel, Woking Cemetery.
THE MURDER CLUB.
"Delany was the last man who quitted us--you see I use your expression again. I like it," Brande said quietly, watching me as he spoke.
I stood staring at the slip of paper which I held in my hand for some moments before I could reply. When my voice came back, I asked hoarsely: "Did this man, Delany, die suddenly after quitting the Society?"
"He died immediately. The second event was contemporaneous with the first."
"And in consequence of it?"
"Have all the members who retired from your list been equally short-lived?"
"Without any exception whatever."
"Then your Society, after all your high-flown talk about it, is only a vulgar murder club," I said bitterly.
"Wrong in fact, and impertinent in its expression. It is not a murder club, and--well, you are the first to discover its vulgarity."
"I call things by their plain names. You may call your Society what you please. As to my joining it in face of what you have told me--"
"Which is more than was ever told to any man before he joined--to any man living or dead. And more, you need not join it yet unless you still wish to do so. I presume what I have said will prevent you."
"On the contrary, if I had any doubt, or if there was any possibility of my wavering before this interview, there is none now. I join at once."
He would have taken my hand, but that I could not permit. I left him without another word, or any form of salute, and returned to the house. I did not appear again in the domestic circle that evening, for I had enough upon my mind without further burdening myself with social pretences.
I sat in my room and tried once more to consider my position. It was this: for the sake of a girl whom I had only met some score of times; who sometimes acted, talked, dressed after a fashion suggestive of insanity; who had glorious dark eyes, a perfect figure, and an exquisitely beautiful face--but I interrupt myself. For the sake of this girl, and for the manifestly impossible purpose of protecting her from herself as well as others, I had surrendered myself to the probable vengeance of a band of cut-throats if I betrayed them, and to the certain vengeance of the law if I did not. Brande, notwithstanding his constant scepticism, was scrupulously truthful. His statement of fact must be relied upon. His opinions were another matter. As nothing practical resulted from my reflections, I came to the conclusion that I had got into a pretty mess for the sake of a handsome face. I regretted this result, but was glad of the cause of it. On this I went to bed.
Next morning I was early astir, for I must see Natalie Brande without delay, and I felt sure she would be no sluggard on that splendid summer day. I tried the lawn between the house and the lake shore. I did not find her there. I found her friend Miss Metford. The girl was sauntering about, swinging a walking-cane carelessly. She was still rationally dressed, but I observed with relief that the rational part of her costume was more in the nature of the divided skirt than the plain knickerbockers of the previous day. She accosted me cheerfully by my surname, and not to be outdone by her, I said coolly: "How d'ye do, Metford?"
"Very well, thanks. I suppose you expected Natalie? You see you have only me."
"Delighted," I was commencing with a forced smile, when she stopped me.
"You look it. But that can't be helped. Natalie saw you going out, and sent me to meet you. I am to look after you for an hour or so. You join the Society this evening, I hear. You must be very pleased--and flattered."
I could not assent to this, and so remained silent. The girl chattered on in her own outspoken manner, which, now that I was growing accustomed to it, I did not find as unpleasant as at first. One thing was evident to me. She had no idea of the villainous nature of Brande's Society. She could not have spoken so carelessly if she shared my knowledge of it. While she talked to me, I wondered if it was fair to her--a likeable girl, in spite of her undesirable affectations of advanced opinion, emancipation or whatever she called it--was it fair to allow her to associate with a band of murderers, and not so much as whisper a word of warning? No doubt, I myself was associating with the band; but I was not in ignorance of the responsibility thereby incurred.
"Miss Metford," I said, without heeding whether I interrupted her, "are you in the secret of this Society?"
"I? Not at present. I shall be later on."
I stopped and faced her with so serious an expression that she listened to me attentively.
"If you will take my earnest advice--and I beg you not to neglect it--you will have nothing to do with it or any one belonging to it."
"Not even Brande--I mean Natalie? Is she dangerous?"
I disregarded her mischief and continued: "If you can get Miss Brande away from her brother and his acquaintances," (I had nearly said accomplices,) "and keep her away, you would be doing the best and kindest thing you ever did in your life."
Miss Metford was evidently impressed by my seriousness, but, as she herself said very truly, it was unlikely that she would be able to interfere in the way I suggested. Besides, my mysterious warning was altogether too vague to be of any use as a guide for her own action, much less that of her friend. I dared not speak plainer. I could only repeat, in the most emphatic words, my anxiety that she would think carefully over what I had said. I then pretended to recollect an engagement with Brande, for I was in such low spirits I had really little taste for any company.
She was disappointed, and said so in her usual straightforward way. It was not in the power of any gloomy prophecy to oppress her long. The serious look which my words had brought on her face passed quickly, and it was in her natural manner that she bade me good-morning, saying: "It is rather a bore, for I looked forward to a pleasant hour or two taking you about."
I postponed my breakfast for want of appetite, and, as Brande's house was the best example of Liberty Hall I had ever met with, I offered no apology for my absence during the entire day when I rejoined my host and hostess in the evening. The interval I spent in the woods, thinking much and deciding nothing.
After dinner, Brande introduced me to a man whom he called Edward Grey. Natalie conducted me to the room in which they were engaged. From the mass of correspondence in which this man Grey was absorbed, and the litter of papers about him, it was evident that he must have been in the house long before I made his acquaintance.
Grey handed me a book, which I found to be a register of the names of the members of Brande's Society, and pointed out the place for my signature.
When I had written my name on the list I said to Brande: "Now that I have nominated myself, I suppose you'll second me?"
"It is not necessary," he answered; "you are already a member. Your remark to Miss Metford this morning made you one of us. You advised her, you recollect, to beware of us."
"That girl!" I exclaimed, horrified. "Then she is one of your spies? Is it possible?"
"No, she is not one of our spies. We have none, and she knew nothing of the purpose for which she was used."
"Then I beg to say that you have made a d--d shameful use of her."
In the passion of the moment I forgot my manners to my host, and formed the resolution to denounce the Society to the police the moment I returned to London. Brande was not offended by my violence. There was not a trace of anger in his voice as he said: "Miss Metford's information was telepathically conveyed to my sister."
"Then it was your sister--"
"My sister knows as little as the other. In turn, I received the information telepathically from her, without the knowledge of either. I was just telling Grey of it when you came into the room."
"And," said Grey, "your intention to go straight from this house to Scotland Yard, there to denounce us to the police, has been telepathically received by myself."
"My God!" I cried, "has a man no longer the right to his own thoughts?"
Grey went on without noticing my exclamation: "Any overt or covert action on your part, toward carrying out your intention, will be telepathically conveyed to us, and our executive--" He shrugged his shoulders.
"I know," I said, "Woking Cemetery, near Saint Anne's Chapel. You have ground there."
"Yes, we have to dispense with--"
"Dispense with," Grey repeated sharply, "any member whose loyalty is questionable. This is not our wish; it is our necessity. It is the only means by which we can secure the absolute immunity of the Society pending the achievement of its object. To dispense with any living man we have only to will that he shall die."
"And now that I am a member, may I ask what is this object, the secret of which you guard with such fiendish zeal?" I demanded angrily.
"The restoration of a local etheric tumour to its original formation."
"I am already weary of this jargon from Brande," I interrupted. "What do you mean?"
"We mean to attempt the reduction of the solar system to its elemental ether."
"And you will accomplish this triviality by means of Huxley's comet, I suppose?"
I could scarcely control my indignation. This fooling, as I thought it, struck me as insulting. Neither Brande nor Grey appeared to notice my keen resentment. Grey answered me in a quiet, serious tone.
"We shall attempt it by destroying the earth. We may fail in the complete achievement of our design, but in any case we shall at least be certain of reducing this planet to the ether of which it is composed."
"Of course, of course," I agreed derisively. "You will at least make sure of that. You have found out how to do it too, I have no doubt?"
"Yes," said Grey, "we have found out."
A TELEPATHIC TELEGRAM.
I left the room and hurried outside without any positive plan for my movements. My brain was in such a whirl I could form no connected train of thought. These men, whose conversation was a jargon fitting only for lunatics, had proved that they could read my mind with the ease of a telegraph operator taking a message off a wire. That they, further, possessed marvellous, if not miraculous powers, over occult natural forces could hardly be doubted. The net in which I had voluntarily entangled myself was closing around me. An irresistible impulse to fly--to desert Natalie and save myself--came over me. I put this aside presently. It was both unworthy and unwise. For whither should I fly? The ends of the earth would not be far enough to save me, the depths of the sea would not be deep enough to hide me from those who killed by willing that their victim should die.
On the other hand, if my senses had only been hocussed, and Messrs. Brande and Grey were nothing better than clever tricksters, the park gate was far enough, and the nearest policeman force enough, to save me from their vengeance. But the girl--Natalie! She was clairvoyante. They practised upon her. My diagnosis of the strange seeing-without-sight expression of her eyes was then correct. And it was clear to me that whatsoever or whomsoever Brande and Grey believed or disbelieved in, they certainly believed in themselves. They might be relied on to spare nothing and no one in their project, however ridiculous or mad their purpose might be. What then availed my paltry protection when the girl herself was a willing victim, and the men omnipotent? Nevertheless, if I failed eventually to serve her, I could at least do my best.
It was clear that I must stand by Natalie Brande.
While I was thus reflecting, the following conversation took place between Brande and Grey. I found a note of it in a diary which Brande kept desultorily. He wrote this up so irregularly no continuous information can be gleaned from it as to his life. How the diary came into my hands will be seen later. The memorandum is written thus:-- Grey--Our new member? Why did you introduce him? You say he cannot help with money. It is plain he cannot help with brains.
Brande--He interests Natalie. He is what the uneducated call good-natured. He enjoys doing unselfish things, unaware that it is for the selfish sake of the agreeable sensation thereby secured. Besides, I like him myself. He amuses me. To make him a member was the only safe way of keeping him so much about us. But Natalie is the main reason. I am afraid of her wavering in spite of my hypnotic influence. In a girl of her intensely emotional nature the sentiment of hopeless love will create profound melancholy. Dominated by that she is safe. It seems cruel at first sight. It is not really so. It is not cruel to reconcile her to a fate she cannot escape. It is merciful. For the rest, what does it matter? It will be all the same in-- Grey--This day six months.