Thought! The man's mysterious power was becoming wearisome. It was too much for me. I wished that I had never seen his face.
As I lay sleepless in my bed, I recommenced that interminable introspection which, heretofore, had been so barren of result. It was easy to swear to myself that I would stand by Natalie Brande, that I would never desert her. But how should my action be directed in order that by its conduct I might prevail upon the girl herself to surrender her evil associates? I knew that she regarded me with affection. And I knew also that she would not leave her brother for my sake. Did she sympathise with his nefarious schemes, or was she decoyed into them like myself?
Decoyed! That was it!
I sprang from the bed, beside myself with delight. Now I had not merely a loophole of escape from all these miseries; I had a royal highway. Fool, idiot, blind mole that I was, not to perceive sooner that easy solution of the problem! No wonder that she was wounded by my unworthy doubts. And she had tried to explain, but I would not listen! I threw myself back and commenced to weave all manner of pleasant fancies round the salvation of this girl from her brother's baneful influence, and the annihilation of his Society, despite its occult powers, by mine own valour. The reaction was too great. Instead of constructing marvellous counterplots, I fell sound asleep.
Next day I found Natalie in a pleasant morning-room to which I was directed. She wore her most extreme--and, in consequence, most exasperating--rational costume. When I entered the room she pushed a chair towards me, in a way that suggested Miss Metford's worst manner, and lit a cigarette, for the express purpose, I felt, of annoying me.
"I have come," I said somewhat shamefacedly, "to explain."
"Yes, to apologise. I made a hideous mistake. I have suffered for it as much as you could wish."
"Wish you to suffer!" She flung away her cigarette. Her dark eyes opened wide in unassumed surprise. And that curious light of pity, which I had so often wondered at, came into them. "I am very sorry if you have suffered," she said, with convincing earnestness.
"How could I doubt you? Senseless fool that I was to suppose for one moment that you approved of what you could not choose but know--"
At this her face clouded.
"I am afraid you are still in error. What opinion have you formed which alters your estimate of me?"
"The only opinion possible: that you have unwillingly learned the secret of your brother's Society; but, like myself--you see no way to--to--"
"To what purpose?"
"To destroy it."
"I am not likely to attempt that."
"No, it would be impossible, and the effort would cost your life."
"That is not my reason." She arose and stood facing me. "I do not like to lose your esteem. You know already that I will not lie to retain it. I approve of the Society's purpose."
"And its actions?"
"They are inevitable. Therefore I approve also of its actions. I shall not ask you to remain now, for I see that you are again horrified; as is natural, considering your knowledge--or, pardon me for saying so, your want of knowledge. I shall be glad to see you after the lecture to which you are invited. You will know a little more then; not all, perhaps, but enough to shake your time-dishonoured theories of life--and death."
I bowed, and left the room without a word. It was true, then, that she was mad like the others, or worse than mad--a thousand times worse! I said farewell to Brande, as his guest, for the last time. Thenceforward I would meet him as his enemy--his secret enemy as far as I could preserve my secrecy with such a man; his open enemy when the proper time should come.
In the railway carriage I turned over some letters and papers which I found in my pockets, not with deliberate intention, but to while away the time. One scrap startled me. It was the sheet on which Brande had written the Woking address, and on reading it over once more, a thought occurred to me which I acted on as soon as possible. I could go to Woking and find out something about the man Delany. So long as my inquiries were kept within the limits of the strictest discretion, neither Brande nor any of his executive could blame me for seeking convincing evidence of the secret power they claimed.
On my arrival in London, I drove immediately to the London Necropolis Company's station and caught the funeral train which runs to Brookwood cemetery. With Saint Anne's Chapel as my base, I made short excursions hither and thither, and stood before a tombstone erected to the memory of George Delany, late of the Criminal Investigation Department, Scotland Yard. This was a clue which I could follow, so I hurried back to town and called on the superintendent of the department.
Yes, I was told, Delany had belonged to the department. He had been a very successful officer in ferreting out foreign Anarchists and evil-doers. His last movement was to join a Society of harmless cranks who met in Hanover Square. No importance was attached to this in the department. It could not have been done in the way of business, although Delany pretended that it was. He had dropped dead in the street as he was leaving his cab to enter the office with information which must have appeared to him important--to judge from the cabman's evidence as to his intense excitement and repeated directions for faster driving. There was an inquest and a post-mortem, but "death from natural causes" was the verdict. That was all. It was enough for me.
I had now sufficient evidence, and was finally convinced that the Society was as dangerous as it was demented.
When I arrived at the Society's rooms on the evening for which I had an invitation, I found them pleasantly lighted. The various scientific diagrams and instruments had been removed, and comfortable arm-chairs were arranged so that a free passage was available, not merely to each row, but to each chair. The place was full when I entered, and soon afterwards the door was closed and locked. Natalie Brande and Edith Metford were seated beside each other. An empty chair was on Miss Metford's right. She saw me standing at the door and nodded toward the empty seat which she had reserved for me. When I reached it she made a movement as if to forestall me and leave me the middle chair. I deprecated this by a look which was intentionally so severe that she described it later as a malignant scowl.
I could not at the moment seat myself voluntarily beside Natalie Brande with the exact and final knowledge which I had learnt at Scotland Yard only one week old. I could not do it just then, although I did not mean to draw back from what I had undertaken--to stand by her, innocent or guilty. But I must have time to become accustomed to the sensation which followed this knowledge. Miss Metford's fugitive attempts at conversation pending the commencement of the lecture were disagreeable to me.
There was a little stir on the platform. The chairman, in a few words, announced Herbert Brande. "This is the first public lecture," he said, "which has been given since the formation of the Society, and in consequence of the fact that a number of people not scientifically educated are present, the lecturer will avoid the more esoteric phases of his subject, which would otherwise present themselves in his treatment of it, and confine himself to the commonplaces of scientific insight. The title of the lecture is identical with that of our Society--Cui Bono?"
Brande came forward unostentatiously and placed a roll of paper on the reading-desk. I have copied the extracts which follow from this manuscript. The whole essay, indeed, remains with me intact, but it is too long--and it would be immaterial--to reproduce it all in this narrative. I cannot hope either to reproduce the weird impressiveness of the lecturer's personality, his hold over his audience, or my own emotions in listening to this man--whom I had proved, not only from his own confession, but by the strongest collateral evidence, to be a callous and relentless murderer--to hear him glide with sonorous voice and graceful gesture from point to point in his logical and terrible indictment of suffering!--the futility of it, both in itself and that by which it was administered! No one could know Brande without finding interest, if not pleasure, in his many chance expressions full of curious and mysterious thought. I had often listened to his extemporaneous brain pictures, as the reader knows, but I had never before heard him deliberately formulate a planned-out system of thought. And such a system! This is the gospel according to Brande.
"In the verbiage of primitive optimism a misleading limitation is placed on the significance of the word Nature and its inflections. And the misconception of the meaning of an important word is as certain to lead to an inaccurate concept as is the misstatement of a premise to precede a false conclusion. For instance, in the aphorism, variously rendered, 'what is natural is right,' there is an excellent illustration of the misapplication of the word 'natural.' If the saying means that what is natural is just and wise, it might as well run 'what is natural is wrong,' injustice and unwisdom being as natural, i.e., a part of Nature, as justice and wisdom. Morbidity and immorality are as natural as health and purity. Not more so, but not less so. That 'Nature is made better by no mean but Nature makes that mean,' is true enough. It is inevitably true. The question remains, in making that mean, has she really made anything that tends toward the final achievement of universal happiness? I say she has not.
"The misuse of a word, it may be argued, could not prove a serious obstacle to the growth of knowledge, and might be even interesting to the student of etymology. But behind the misuse of the word 'natural' there is a serious confusion of thought which must be clarified before the mass of human intelligence can arrive at a just appreciation of the verities which surround human existence, and explain it. To this end it is necessary to get rid of the archaic idea of Nature as a paternal, providential, and beneficent protector, a successor to the 'special providence,' and to know the true Nature, bond-slave as she is of her own eternal persistence of force; that sole primary principle of which all other principles are only correlatives; of which the existence of matter is but a cognisable evidence.
"The optimist notion, therefore, that Nature is an all-wise designer, in whose work order, system, wisdom, and beauty are prominent, does not fare well when placed under the microscope of scientific research.
"There is no order in Nature. Her armies are but seething mobs of rioters, destroying everything they can lay hands on.
"She has no system, unless it be a reductio ad absurdum, which only blunders on the right way after fruitlessly trying every other conceivable path. She is not wise. She never fills a pail but she spills a hogshead. All her works are not beautiful. She never makes a masterpiece but she smashes a million 'wasters' without a care. The theory of evolution--her gospel--reeks with ruffianism, nature-patented and promoted. The whole scheme of the universe, all material existence as it is popularly known, is founded upon and begotten of a system of everlasting suffering as hideous as the fantastic nightmares of religious maniacs. The Spanish Inquisitors have been regarded as the most unnatural monsters who ever disgraced the history of mankind. Yet the atrocities of the Inquisitors, like the battlefields of Napoleon and other heroes, were not only natural, but they have their prototypes in every cubic inch of stagnant water, or ounce of diseased tissue. And stagnant water is as natural as sterilised water; and diseased tissue is as natural as healthy tissue. Wholesale murder is Nature's first law. She creates only to kill, and applies the rule as remorselessly to the units in a star-drift as to the tadpoles in a horse-pond.
"It seems a far cry from a star-drift to a horse-pond. It is so in distance and magnitude. It is not in the matter of constituents. In ultimate composition they are identical. The great nebula in Andromeda is an aggregation of atoms, and so is the river Thames. The only difference between them is the difference in the arrangement and incidence of these atoms and in the molecular motion of which they are the first but not the final cause. In a pint of Thames water, we know that there is bound up a latent force beside which steam and electricity are powerless in comparison. To release that force it is only necessary to apply the sympathetic key; just as the heated point of a needle will explode a mine of gunpowder and lay a city in ashes. That force is asleep. The atoms which could give it reality are at rest, or, at least, in a condition of quasi-rest. But in the stupendous mass of incandescent gas which constitutes the nebula of Andromeda, every atom is madly seeking rest and finding none; whirling in raging haste, battling with every other atom in its field of motion, impinging upon others and influencing them, being impinged upon and influenced by them. That awful cauldron exemplifies admirably the method of progress stimulated by suffering. It is the embryo of a new Sun and his planets. After many million years of molecular agony, when his season of fission had come, he will rend huge fragments from his mass and hurl them helpless into space, there to grow into his satellites. In their turn they may reproduce themselves in like manner before their true planetary life begins, in which they shall revolve around their parent as solid spheres. Follow them further and learn how beneficent Nature deals with them.
"After the lapse of time-periods which man may calculate in figures, but of which his finite mind cannot form even a true symbolic conception, the outer skin of the planet cools--rests. Internal troubles prevail for longer periods still; and these, in their unsupportable agony, bend and burst the solid strata overlying; vomit fire through their self-made blow-holes, rear mountains from the depths of the sea, then dash them in pieces.
"Time strides on austere.
"The globe still cools. Life appears upon it. Then begins anew the old strife, but under conditions far more dreadful, for though it be founded on atomic consciousness, the central consciousness of the heterogeneous aggregation of atoms becomes immeasurably more sentient and susceptible with every step it takes from homogenesis. This internecine war must continue while any creature great or small shall remain alive upon the world that bore it.
"By slow degrees the mighty milestones in the protoplasmic march are passed. Plants and animals are now busy, murdering and devouring each other--the strong everywhere destroying the weak. New types appear. Old types disappear. Types possessing the greatest capacity for murder progress most rapidly, and those with the least recede and determine. The neolithic man succeeds the palaeolithic man, and sharpens the stone axe. Then to increase their power for destruction, men find it better to hunt in packs. Communities appear. Soon each community discovers that its own advantage is furthered by confining its killing, in the main, to the members of neighbouring communities. Nations early make the same discovery. And at last, as with ourselves, there is established a race with conscience enough to know that it is vile, and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant. But what profits this? In the fulness of its time the race shall die. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness which, in this obscure corner, has for a brief space broken the silence of the Universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. Life and death and love, stronger than death, will be as though they never had been. Nor will anything that is be better or be worse for all that the labour, genius, devotion, and suffering of man have striven through countless generations to effect.
 From this sentence to the end of the paragraph Brande draws freely, for the purpose of his own argument, on Mr. Balfour's "Naturalism and Ethics."--Ed.
"The roaring loom of Time weaves on. The globe cools out. Life mercifully ceases from upon its surface. The atmosphere and water disappear. It rests. It is dead.
"But for its vicarious service in influencing more youthful planets within its reach, that dead world might as well be loosed at once from its gravitation cable and be turned adrift into space. Its time has not yet come. It will not come until the great central sun of the system to which it belongs has passed laboriously through all his stages of stellar life and died out also. Then when that dead sun, according to the impact theory, blunders across the path of another sun, dead and blind like himself, its time will come. The result of that impact will be a new star nebula, with all its weary history before it; a history of suffering, in which a million years will not be long enough to write a single page.
"Here we have a scientific parallel to the hell of superstition which may account for the instinctive origin of the smoking flax and the fire which shall never be quenched. We know that the atoms of which the human body is built up are atoms of matter. It follows that every atom in every living body will be present in some form at that final impact in which the solar system will be ended in a blazing whirlwind which will melt the earth with its fervent heat. There is not a molecule or cell in any creature alive this day which will not in its ultimate constituents endure the long agony, lasting countless aeons of centuries, wherein the solid mass of this great globe will be represented by a rush of incandescent gas, stupendous in itself, but trivial in comparison with the hurricane of flame in which it will be swallowed up and lost.
"And when from that hell a new star emerges, and new planets in their season are born of him, and he and they repeat, as they must repeat, the ceaseless, changeless, remorseless story of the universe, every atom in this earth will take its place, and fill again functions identical with those which it, or its fellow, fills now. Life will reappear, develop, determine, to be renewed again as before. And so on for ever.
"Nature has known no rest. From the beginning--which never was--she has been building up only to tear down again. She has been fabricating pretty toys and trinkets, that cost her many a thousand years to forge, only to break them in pieces for her sport. With infinite painstaking she has manufactured man only to torture him with mean miseries in the embryonic stages of his race, and in his higher development to madden him with intellectual puzzles. Thus it will be unto the end--which never shall be. For there is neither beginning nor end to her unvarying cycles. Whether the secular optimist be successful or unsuccessful in realising his paltry span of terrestrial paradise, whether the paeans he sings about it are prophetic dithyrambs or misleading myths, no Christian man need fear for his own immortality. That is well assured. In some form he will surely be raised from the dead. In some shape he will live again. But, Cui bono?"
"Get me out of this, I am stifled--ill," Miss Metford said, in a low voice to me.
As we were hurrying from the room, Brande and his sister, who had joined him, met us. The fire had died out of his eyes. His voice had returned to its ordinary key. His demeanour was imperturbable, sphinx-like. I murmured some words about the eloquence of the lecture, but interrupted myself when I observed his complete indifference to my remarks, and said, "Neither praise nor blame seems to affect you, Brande."
"Certainly not," he answered calmly. "You forget that there is nothing deserving of either praise or blame."
I knew I could not argue with him, so we passed on. Outside, I offered to find a cab for Miss Metford, and to my surprise she allowed me to do so. Her self-assertive manner was visibly modified. She made no pretence of resenting this slight attention, as was usual with her in similar cases. Indeed, she asked me to accompany her as far as our ways lay together. But I felt that my society at the time could hardly prove enlivening. I excused myself by saying candidly that I wished to be alone.
My own company soon became unendurable. In despair I turned into a music hall. The contrast between my mental excitement and the inanities of the stage was too acute, so this resource speedily failed me. Then I betook myself to the streets again. Here I remembered a letter Brande had put into my hand as I left the hall. It was short, and the tone was even more peremptory than his usual arrogance. It directed me to meet the members of the Society at Charing Cross station at two o'clock on the following day. No information was given, save that we were all going on a long journey; that I must set my affairs in such order that my absence would not cause any trouble, and the letter ended, "Our experiments are now complete. Our plans are matured. Do not fail to attend."
"Fail to attend!" I muttered. "If I am not the most abject coward on the earth I will attend--with every available policeman in London." The pent-up wrath and impotence of many days found voice at last. "Yes, Brande," I shouted aloud, "I will attend, and you shall be sorry for having invited me."
"But I will not be sorry," said Natalie Brande, touching my arm.
"You here!" I exclaimed, in great surprise, for it was fully an hour since I left the hall, and my movements had been at haphazard since then.
"Yes, I have followed you for your own sake. Are you really going to draw back now?"
"Then I must go on alone."
"You will not go on alone. You will remain, and your friends shall go on without you--go to prison without you, I mean."
"Poor boy," she said softly, to herself. "I wonder if I would have thought as I think now if I had known him sooner? I suppose I should have been as other women, and their fools' paradise would have been mine--for a little while."
The absolute hopelessness in her voice pierced my heart. I pleaded passionately with her to give up her brother and all the maniacs who followed him. For the time I forgot utterly that the girl, by her own confession, was already with them in sympathy as well as in deed.
She said to me: "I cannot hold back now. And you? You know you are powerless to interfere. If you will not come with me, I must go alone. But you may remain. I have prevailed on Herbert and Grey to permit that."
"Never," I answered. "Where you go, I go."
"It is not really necessary. In the end it will make no difference. And remember, you still think me guilty."
"Even so, I am going with you--guilty."
Now this seemed to me a very ordinary speech, for who would have held back, thinking her innocent? But Natalie stopped suddenly, and, looking me in the face, said, almost with a sob: "Arthur, I sometimes wish I had known you sooner. I might have been different." She was silent for a moment. Then she said piteously to me: "You will not fail me to-morrow?"
"No, I will not fail you to-morrow," I answered.
She pressed my hand gratefully, and left me without any explanation as to her movements in the meantime.
I hurried to my hotel to set my affairs in order before joining Brande's expedition. The time was short for this. Fortunately there was not much to do. By midnight I had my arrangements nearly complete. At the time, the greater part of my money was lying at call in a London bank. This I determined to draw in gold the next day. I also had at my banker's some scrip, and I knew I could raise money on that. My personal effects and the mementos of my travels, which lay about my rooms in great confusion, must remain where they were. As to the few friends who still remained to me, I did not write to them. I could not well describe a project of which I knew nothing, save that it was being carried out by dangerous lunatics, or, at least, by men who were dangerous, whether their madness was real or assumed. Nor could I think of any reasonable excuse for leaving England after so long an absence without a personal visit to them. It was best, then, to disappear without a word. Having finished my dispositions, I changed my coat for a dressing-gown and sat down by the window, which I threw open, for the summer night was warm. I sat long, and did not leave my chair until the morning sun was shining on my face.
When I got to Charing Cross next day, a group of fifty or sixty people were standing apart from the general crowd and conversing with animation. Almost the whole strength of the Society was assembled to see a few of us off, I thought. In fact, they were all going. About a dozen women were in the party, and they were dressed in the most extravagant rational costumes. Edith Metford was amongst them. I drew her aside, and apologised for not having called to wish her farewell; but she stopped me.
"Oh, it's all right; I am going too. Don't look so frightened."
This was more than I could tolerate. She was far too good a girl to be allowed to walk blindfold into the pit I had digged for myself with full knowledge. I said imperatively: "Miss Metford, you shall not go. I warned you more than once--and warned you, I firmly believe, at the risk of my life--against these people. You have disregarded the advice which it may yet cost me dear to have given you."
"To tell you the truth," she said candidly, "I would not go an inch if it were not for yourself. I can't trust you with them. You'd get into mischief. I don't mean with Natalie Brande, but the others; I don't like them. So I am coming to look after you."
"Then I shall speak to Brande."
"That would be useless. I joined the Society this morning."
This she said seriously, and without anything of the spirit of bravado which was one of her faults. That ended our dispute. We exchanged a meaning look as our party took their seats. There was now, at any rate, one human being in the Society to whom I could speak my mind.
We travelled by special train. Our ultimate destination was a fishing village on the southern coast, near Brande's residence. Here we found a steam yacht of about a thousand tons lying in the harbour with steam up.
The vessel was a beautiful model. Her lines promised great speed, but the comfort of her passengers had been no less considered by her builder when he gave her so much beam and so high a freeboard. The ship's furniture was the finest I had ever seen, and I had crossed every great ocean in the world. The library, especially, was more suggestive of a room in the British Museum than the batch of books usually carried at sea. But I have no mind to enter on a detailed description of a beautiful pleasure ship while my story waits. I only mention the general condition of the vessel in evidence of the fact which now struck me for the first time--Brande must have unlimited money. His mode of life in London and in the country, notwithstanding his pleasant house, was in the simplest style. From the moment we entered his special train at Charing Cross, he flung money about him with wanton recklessness.
As we made our way through the crowd which was hanging about the quay, an unpleasant incident occurred. Miss Brande, with Halley and Rockingham, became separated from Miss Metford and myself and went on in front of us. We five had formed a sub-section of the main body, and were keeping to ourselves when the unavoidable separation took place. A slight scream in front caused Miss Metford and myself to hurry forward. We found the others surrounded by a gang of drunken sailors, who had stopped them. A red-bearded giant, frenzied with drink, had seized Natalie in his arms. His abettor, a swarthy Italian, had drawn his knife, and menaced Halley and Rockingham. The rest of the band looked on, and cheered their chiefs. Halley was white to the lips; Rockingham was perfectly calm, or, perhaps, indifferent. He called for a policeman. Neither interfered. I did not blame Rockingham; he was a man of the world, so nothing manly could be expected of him. But Halley's cowardice disgusted me.
I rushed forward and caught the Italian from behind, for his knife was dangerous. Seizing him by the collar and waist, I swung him twice, and then flung him from me with all my strength. He spun round two or three times, and then collided with a stack of timber. His head struck a beam, and he fell in his tracks without a word. The red-haired giant instantly released Natalie and put up his hands. The man's attitude showed that he knew nothing of defence. I swept his guard aside, and struck him violently on the neck close to the ear. I was a trained boxer; but I had never before struck a blow in earnest, or in such earnest, and I hardly knew my own strength. The man went down with a grunt like a pole-axed ox, and lay where he fell. To a drunken sailor lad, who seemed anxious to be included in this matter, I dealt a stinging smack on the face with my open hand that satisfied him straightway. The others did not molest me. Turning from the crowd, I found Edith Metford looking at me with blazing eyes.
"Superb! Marcel, I am proud of you!" she cried.
"Oh! Edith, how can you say that?" Natalie Brande exclaimed, still trembling. "Such dreadful violence! The poor men knew no better."
"Poor fiddlesticks! It is well for you that Marcel is a man of violence. He's worth a dozen sheep like--"
"Like whom, Miss Metford?" Rockingham asked, glaring at her so viciously that I interposed with a hasty entreaty that all should hurry to the ship. I did not trust the man.
Miss Metford was not so easily suppressed. She said leisurely, "I meant to say like you, and this over-nervous but otherwise admirable boy. If you think 'sheep' derogatory, pray make it 'goats.'"
I hurried them on board. Brande welcomed us at the gangway. The vessel was his own, so he was as much at home on the ship as in his country house. I had an important letter to write, and very little time for the task. It was not finished a moment too soon, for the moment the last passenger and the last bale of luggage was on board, the captain's telegraph rang from the bridge, and the Esmeralda steamed out to sea. My letter, however, was safe on shore. The land was low down upon the horizon before the long summer twilight deepened slowly into night. Then one by one the shadowy cliffs grew dim, dark, and disappeared. We saw no more of England until after many days of gradually culminating horror. The very night which was our first at sea did not pass without a strange adventure, which happened, indeed, by an innocent oversight.