Brande--I believe I shivered. Heredity has much to answer for.
That is the whole of the entry. I did not read the words until the hand that wrote them was dust.
Natalie professed some disappointment when I announced my immediate return to town. I was obliged to manufacture an excuse for such a hasty departure, and so fell back on an old engagement which I had truly overlooked, and which really called me away. But it would have called long enough without an answer if it had not been for Brande himself, his friend Grey, and their insanities. My mind was fixed on one salient issue: how to get Natalie Brande out of her brother's evil influence. This would be better compassed when I myself was outside the scope of his extraordinary influence. And so I went without delay.
For some time after my return to London, I went about visiting old haunts and friends. I soon tired of this. The haunts had lost their interest. The friends were changed, or I was changed. I could not resume the friendships which had been interrupted. The chain of connection had been broken and the links would not weld easily. So, after some futile efforts to return to the circle I had long deserted, I desisted and accepted my exclusion with serenity. I am not sure that I desired the old relationships re-established. And as my long absence had prevented any fresh shoots of friendship being grafted, I found myself alone in London. I need say no more.
One evening I was walking through the streets in a despondent mood, as had become my habit. By chance I read the name of a street into which I had turned to avoid a more crowded thoroughfare. It was that in which Miss Metford lived. I knew that she had returned to town, for she had briefly acquainted me with the fact on a postcard written some days previously.
Here was a chance of distraction. This girl's spontaneous gaiety, which I found at first displeasing, was what I wanted to help me to shake off the gloomy incubus of thought oppressing me. It was hardly within the proprieties to call upon her at such an hour, but it could not matter very much, when the girl's own ideas were so unconventional. She had independent means, and lived apart from her family in order to be rid of domestic limitations. She had told me that she carried a latch-key--indeed she had shown it to me with a flourish of triumph--and that she delighted in free manners. Free manners, she was careful to add, did not mean bad manners. To my mind the terms were synonymous. When opposite her number I decided to call, and, having knocked at the door, was told that Miss Metford was at home.
"Hallo, Marcel! Glad to see you," she called out, somewhat stridently for my taste. Her dress was rather mannish, as usual. In lieu of her out-door tunic she wore a smoking-jacket. When I entered she was sitting in an arm-chair, with her feet on a music-stool. She arose so hastily that the music-stool was overturned, and allowed to lie where it fell.
"What is the matter?" she asked, concerned. "Have you seen a ghost?"
"I think I have seen many ghosts of late," I said, "and they have not been good company. I was passing your door, and I have come in for comfort."
She crossed the room and poured out some whisky from a decanter which was standing on a side-board. Then she opened a bottle of soda-water with a facility which suggested practice. I was relieved to think that it was not Natalie who was my hostess. Handing me the glass, she said peremptorily: "Drink that. That is right. Give me the glass. Now smoke. Do I allow smoking here? Pah! I smoke here myself."
I lit a cigar and sat down beside her. The clouds began to lift from my brain and float off in the blue smoke wreaths. We talked on ordinary topics without my once noticing how deftly they had been introduced by Miss Metford. I never thought of the flight of time until a chime from a tiny clock on the mantelpiece--an exquisite sample of the tasteful furniture of the whole room--warned me that my visit had lasted two hours. I arose reluctantly.
She rallied me on my ingratitude. I had come in a sorry plight. I was now restored. She was no longer useful, therefore I left her. And so on, till I said with a solemnity no doubt lugubrious: "I am most grateful, Miss Metford. I cannot tell you how grateful I am. You would not understand--"
"Oh, please leave my poor understanding alone, and tell me what has happened to you. I should like to hear it. And what is more, I like you." She said this so carelessly, I did not feel embarrassed. "Now, then, the whole story, please." Saying which, she sat down again.
"Do you really know nothing more of Brande's Society than you admitted when I last spoke to you about it?" I asked, without taking the chair she pushed over to me.
"This is all I know," she answered, in the rhyming voice of a young pupil declaiming a piece of a little understood and less cared for recitation. "The society has very interesting evenings. Brande shows one beautiful experiments, which, I daresay, would be amazingly instructive if one were inclined that way, which I am not. The men are mostly long-haired creatures with spectacles. Some of them are rather good-looking. All are wholly mad. And my friend--I mean the only girl I could ever stand as a friend--Natalie Brande, is crazy about them."
"Nothing more than that?"
The clock now struck the hour of nine, the warning chime for which had startled me.
"Is there anything more than that?" Miss Metford asked with some impatience.
I thought for a moment. Unless my own senses had deceived me that evening in Brande's house, I ran a great risk of sharing George Delany's fate if I remained where I was much longer. And suppose I told her all I knew, would not that bring the same danger upon her too? So I had to answer: "I cannot tell you. I am a member now."
"Then you must know more than any mere outsider like myself. I suppose it would not be fair to ask you. Anyhow, you will come back and see me soon. By the way, what is your address?"
I gave her my address. She wrote it down on a silver-cased tablet, and remarked: "That will be all right. I'll look you up some evening."
As I drove to my hotel, I felt that the mesmeric trick, or whatever artifice had been practised upon me by Brande and Grey, had now assumed its true proportion. I laughed at my fears, and was thankful that I had not described them to the strong-minded young woman to whose kindly society I owed so much. What an idiot she would have thought me!
A servant met me in the hall.
"Telegram, sir. Just arrived at this moment."
I took the telegram, and went upstairs with it unopened in my hand. A strange fear overcame me. I dared not open the envelope. I knew beforehand who the sender was, and what the drift of the message would be. I was right. It was from Brande.
"I beg you to be more cautious. Your discussion with Miss M. this evening might have been disastrous. I thought all was over at nine o'clock.
I sat down stupefied. When my senses returned, I looked at the table where I had thrown the telegram. It was not there, nor in the room. I rang for the man who had given it to me, and he came immediately.
"About that telegram you gave me just now, Phillips--"
"I beg your pardon, sir," the man interrupted, "I did not give you any telegram this evening."
"I mean when you spoke to me in the hall."
"Yes, sir. I said 'good-night,' but you took no notice. Excuse me, sir, I thought you looked strange."
"Oh, I was thinking of something else. And I remember now, it was Johnson who gave me the telegram."
"Johnson left yesterday, sir."
"Then it was yesterday I was thinking of. You may go, Phillips."
So Brande's telepathic power was objective as well as subjective. My own brain, unaccustomed to be impressed by another mind "otherwise than through the recognised channels of sense," had supplied the likeliest authority for its message. The message was duly delivered, but the telegram was a delusion.
As to protecting Natalie Brande from her brother and the fanatics with whom he associated, it was now plain that I was powerless. And what guarantee had I that she herself was unaware of his nefarious purpose; that she did not sympathise with it? This last thought flashed upon me one day, and the sting of pain that followed it was so intolerable, I determined instantly to prove its falsity or truth.
I telegraphed to Brande that I was running down to spend a day or two with him, and followed my message without waiting for a reply. I have still a very distinct recollection of that journey, notwithstanding much that might well have blotted it from my memory. Every mile sped over seemed to mark one more barrier passed on my way to some strange fate; every moment which brought me nearer this incomprehensible girl with her magical eyes was an epoch of impossibility against my ever voluntarily turning back. And now that it is all over, I am glad that I went on steadfastly to the end.
Brande received me with the easy affability of a man to whom good breeding had ceased to be a habit, and had become an instinct. Only once did anything pass between us bearing on the extraordinary relationship which he had established with me--the relation of victor and victim, I considered it. We had been left together for a few moments, and I said as soon as the others were out of hearing distance: "I got your message."
"I know you did," he replied. That was all. There was an awkward pause. It must be broken somehow. Any way out of the difficulty was better than to continue in it.
"Have you seen this?" I asked, handing Brande a copy of a novel which I had picked up at a railway bookstall. When I say that it was new and popular, it will be understood that it was indecent.
He looked at the title, and said indifferently: "Yes, I have seen it, and in order to appreciate this class of fiction fairly, I have even tried to read it. Why do you ask?"
"Because I thought it would be in your line. It is very advanced." I said this to gain time.
"Advanced--advanced? I am afraid I do not comprehend. What do you mean by 'advanced'? And how could it be in my line. I presume you mean by that, on my plane of thought?"
"By 'advanced,' I mean up-to-date. What do you mean by it?"
"If I used the word at all, I should mean educated, evolved. Is this evolved? Is it even educated? It is not always grammatical. It has no style. In motive, it ante-dates Boccaccio."
"You disapprove of it."
"Then you approve it, notwithstanding your immediate condemnation?"
"By no means. I neither approve nor disapprove. It only represents a phase of humanity--the deliberate purpose of securing money or notoriety to the individual, regardless of the welfare of the community. There is nothing to admire in that. It would be invidious to blame it when the whole social scheme is equally wrong and contemptible. By the way, what interest do you think the wares of any literary pander, of either sex, could possess for me, a student--even if a mistaken one--of science?"
"I did not think the book would possess the slightest interest for you, and I suppose you are already aware of that?"
"Ah no! My telepathic power is reserved for more serious purposes. Its exercise costs me too much to expend it on trifles. In consequence I do not know why you mentioned the book."
To this I answered candidly, "I mentioned it in order to get myself out of a conversational difficulty--without much success."
Natalie was reserved with me at first. She devoted herself unnecessarily to a boy named Halley who was staying with them. Grey had gone to London. His place was taken by a Mr. Rockingham, whom I did not like. There was something sinister in his expression, and he rarely spoke save to say something cynical, and in consequence disagreeable. He had "seen life," that is, everything deleterious to and destructive of it. His connection with Brande was clearly a rebound, the rebound of disgust. There was nothing creditable to him in that. My first impression of him was thus unfavourable. My last recollection of him is a fitting item in the nightmare which contains it.
The youth Halley would have interested me under ordinary circumstances. His face was as handsome and refined as that of a pretty girl. His figure, too, was slight and his voice effeminate. But there my own advantage, as I deemed it, over him ceased. Intellectually, he was a pupil of Brande's who did his master credit. Having made this discovery I did not pursue it. My mind was fixed too fast upon a definite issue to be more than temporarily interested in the epigrams of a peachy-cheeked man of science.
The afternoon was well advanced before I had an opportunity of speaking to Natalie. When it came, I did not stop to puzzle over a choice of phrases.
"I wish to speak to you alone on a subject of extreme importance to me," I said hurriedly. "Will you come with me to the sea-shore? Your time, I know, is fully occupied. I would not ask this if my happiness did not depend upon it."
The philosopher looked on me with grave, kind eyes. But the woman's heart within her sent the red blood flaming to her cheeks. It was then given to me to fathom the lowest depth of boorish stupidity I had ever sounded.
"I don't mean that," I cried, "I would not dare--"
The blush on her cheek burnt deeper as she tossed her head proudly back, and said straight out, without any show of fence or shadow of concealment: "It was my mistake. I am glad to know that I did you an injustice. You are my friend, are you not?"
"I believe I have the right to claim that title," I answered.
"Then what you ask is granted. Come." She put her hand boldly into mine. I grasped the slender fingers, saying: "Yes, Natalie, some day I will prove to you that I am your friend."
"The proof is unnecessary," she replied, in a low sad voice.
We started for the sea. Not a word was spoken on the way. Nor did our eyes meet. We were in a strange position. It was this: the man who had vowed he was the woman's friend--who did not intend to shirk the proof of his promise, and never did gainsay it--meant to ask the woman, before the day was over, to clear herself of knowingly associating with a gang of scientific murderers. The woman had vaguely divined his purpose, and could not clear herself.
When we arrived at the shore we occupied ourselves inconsequently. We hunted little fishes until Natalie's dainty boots were dripping. We examined quaint denizens of the shallow water until her gloves were spoilt. We sprang from rock to rock and evaded the onrush of the foaming waves. We made aqueducts for inter-communication between deep pools. We basked in the sunshine, and listened to the deep moan of the sounding sea, and the solemn murmur of the shells. We drank in the deep breath of the ocean, and for a brief space we were like happy children.
The end came soon to this ephemeral happiness. It was only one of those bright coins snatched from the niggard hand of Time which must always be paid back with usurious charges. We paid with cruel interest.
Standing on a flat rock side by side, I nerved myself to ask this girl the same question I had asked her friend, Edith Metford, how much she knew of the extraordinary and preposterous Society--as I still tried to consider it--which Herbert Brande had founded. She looked so frank, so refined, so kind, I hardly dared to put my brutal question to an innocent girl, whom I had seen wince at the suffering of a maimed bird, and pale to the lips at the death-cry of a rabbit. This time there was no possibility of untoward consequence in the question save to myself--for surely the girl was safe from her own brother. And I myself preferred to risk the consequences rather than endure longer the thought that she belonged voluntarily to a vile murder club. Yet the question would not come. A simple thing brought it out. Natalie, after looking seaward silently for some minutes, said simply: "How long are we to stand here, I wonder?"
"Until you answer this question. How much do you know about your brother's Society, which I have joined to my own intense regret?"
"I am sorry you regret having joined," she replied gravely.
"You would not be sorry," said I, "if you knew as much about it as I do," forgetting that I had still no answer to my question, and that the extent of her knowledge was unknown to me.
"I believe I do know as much as you." There was a tremor in her voice and an anxious pleading look in her eyes. This look maddened me. Why should she plead to me unless she was guilty? I stamped my foot upon the rock without noticing that in so doing I kicked our whole collection of shells into the water.
There was something more to ask, but I stood silent and sullen. The woods above the beach were choral with bird-voices. They were hateful to me. The sea song of the tumbling waves was hideous. I cursed the yellow sunset light glaring on their snowy crests. A tiny hand was laid upon my arm. I writhed under its deadly if delicious touch. But I could not put it away, nor keep from turning to the sweet face beside me, to mark once more its mute appeal--now more than mere appeal; it was supplication that was in her eyes. Her red lips were parted as though they voiced an unspoken prayer. At last a prayer did pass from them to me.
"Do not judge me until you know me better. Do not hate me without cause. I am not wicked, as you think. I--I--I am trying to do what I think is right. At least, I am not selfish or cruel. Trust me yet a little while."
I looked at her one moment, and then with a sob I clasped her in my arms, and cried aloud: "My God! to name murder and that angel face in one breath! Child, you have been befooled. You know nothing."
For a second she lingered in my embrace. Then she gently put away my arms, and looking up at me, said fearlessly but sorrowfully: "I cannot lie--even for your love. I know all."
THE WOKING MYSTERY.
She knew all. Then she was a murderess--or in sympathy with murderers. My arms fell from her. I drew back shuddering. I dared not look in her lying eyes, which cried pity when her base heart knew no mercy. Surely now I had solved the maddening puzzle which the character of this girl had, so far, presented to me. Yet the true solution was as far from me as ever. Indeed, I could not well have been further from it than at that moment.
As we walked back, Natalie made two or three unsuccessful attempts to lure me out of the silence which was certainly more eloquent on my part than any words I could have used. Once she commenced: "It is hard to explain--"
I interrupted her harshly. "No explanation is possible."
On that she put her handkerchief to her eyes, and a half-suppressed sob shook her slight figure. Her grief distracted me. But what could I say to assuage it?
At the hall door I stopped and said, "Good-bye."
"Are you not coming in?"
There was a directness and emphasis in the question which did not escape me.
"I?" The horror in my own voice surprised myself, and assuredly did not pass without her notice.
"Very well; good-bye. We are not exactly slaves of convention here, but you are too far advanced in that direction even for me. This is your second startling departure from us. I trust you will spare me the humiliation entailed by the condescension of your further acquaintance."
"Give me an hour!" I exclaimed aghast. "You do not make allowance for the enigma in which everything is wrapped up. I said I was your friend when I thought you of good report. Give me an hour--only an hour--to say whether I will stand by my promise, now that you yourself have claimed that your report is not good but evil. For that is really what you have protested. Do I ask too much? or is your generosity more limited even than my own?"
"Ah, no! I would not have you think that. Take an hour, or a year--an hour only if you care for my happiness."
"Agreed," said I. "I will take the hour. Discretion can have the year."
So I left her. I could not go indoors. A roof would smother me. Give me the open lawns, the leafy woods, the breath of the summer wind. Away, then, to the silence of the coming night. For an hour leave me to my thoughts. Her unworthiness was now more than suspected. It was admitted. My misery was complete. But I would not part with her; I could not. Innocent or guilty, she was mine. I must suffer with her or for her. The resolution by which I have abided was formed as I wandered lonely through the woods.
When I reached my room that night I found a note from Brande. To receive a letter from a man in whose house I was a guest did not surprise me. I was past that stage. There was nothing mysterious in the letter, save its conclusion. It was simply an invitation to a public meeting of the Society, which was to be held on that day week in the hall in Hanover Square, and the special feature in the letter--seeing that it did not vanish like the telegram, but remained an ordinary sheet of paper--lay in its concluding sentence. This urged me to allow nothing to prevent my attendance. "You will perhaps understand thereafter that we are neither political plotters nor lunatics, as you have thought."