From The Windsor Magazine, July 1898
Illustrated by JOHN H. BACON
SYNOPSIS OF FOREGOING CHAPTERS.
By the time I reached home it was considerably past midnight; but I was not in the least tired, so, exchanging my dress coat for an old velvet painting jacket, for which I entertained a lasting affection, I lit a cigar and began to promenade the room. It had been a fancy of mine when I first took the studio, which, you must understand, was of more than the usual size, to have it decorated in the Egyptian fashion, and, after my meeting with Pharos, this seemed to have a singular appropriateness. It was as if the quaint images of the Gods, which decorated the walls, were watching me with almost human interest, and even the gilded face upon the mummy case, in the alcove at the farther end, wore an expression that I had never noticed on it before. It might have been saying, "Ah, my nineteenth-century friend, your father stole me from the land of my birth, and from the resting-place the gods decreed for me; but beware, for retribution is pursuing you, and is even now close upon your heels."
Cigar in hand, I stopped in my walk and looked at it, thinking as I did so of the country from which it had hailed, and of the changes that had taken place in the world during the time it had lain in its Theban tomb, whence it had emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, with colouring as fresh, and detail as perfect, as on the day when the hieroglyphics had first left the artist's hand. It was an unusually fine specimen—one of the most perfect, indeed, of its kind ever brought to England, and, under the influence of the interest it now inspired in me, I went to an ancient cabinet on the other side of the room, and, opening a small drawer, took from it a bulky pocket-book, once the property of my father. He it was, as I have already said, who had discovered the mummy in question, and it was from him, at his death, in company with many other Egyptian treasures, that I received it.
As I turned the yellow, time-stained pages in search of the information I wanted, the clock of St. Jude's, in the street behind, struck one, solemnly and deliberately, as though it were conscious of the part it played in the passage of time. To my surprise the reference was more difficult to find than I had anticipated. Entries there were in hundreds; records of distances travelled, of measurements taken, evidence as to the supposed whereabouts of tombs, translations of hieroglyphics, paintings, and inscriptions, memoranda of amounts paid to Arab sheiks, details of stores and equipments, but for some time no trace of the information I required. At last, however, it struck me to look in the pocket contained in the cover of the book. My diligence was immediately rewarded, for there, carefully folded and hidden away, was the small square of parchment upon which my father had written the name once borne by the dead man, also a complete translation of the record upon the cartonnage itself. According to the statement here set forth, the coffin contained the mortal remains of a certain Ptahmes, Chief of the King's Magicians— an individual who flourished during the reign of Merenptah (Amenepthes of the Greeks, but better known to the nineteenth century as the Pharaoh of the Exodus). For all I knew to the contrary, my silent property might have been one of that band of conjurors who pitted their wits against Moses, and by so doing caused Pharaoh's heart to be hardened so that he would not let the Children go. Once more I stood looking at the stolid representation of a face before me, wondering what the life's history of the man within could have been, whether his success in life had equalled his ambition, or was commensurate with his merits, and whether in that age, so long since dead, his heart had ever been thrilled by thoughts of love.
While wrapped in this brown study, my hearing, which on that particular occasion was for some reason abnormally acute, caught the sound of a soft footfall on the polished boards at the farther end of the room. I wheeled sharply round, and a moment later almost fell back against the mummy-case under the influence of my surprise. (How he had got there I could not tell, for I was certain I had locked the door behind me when I entered the house.) It is sufficient, however, that, standing before me, scarcely a dozen feet away, breathing rather heavily as though he had been running, and with what struck me as a frightened look in his eyes, was no less a person than Monsieur Pharos, the man I had met at the foot of Cleopatra's Needle some weeks before, at the Academy that afternoon, and at Medenham House only a couple of hours since. Upwards of a minute elapsed before I could find sufficient voice to question him as to the reason of his presence in my room.
"My dear Mr. Forrester," he said in a conciliatory tone, "while offering you ten thousand apologies for my intrusion, I must explain that it is quite by accident I am here. On reaching home this evening, I pined for a breath of fresh air. Accordingly I went for a stroll, lost my way, eventually found myself in this street, where, seeing an open door, I took the liberty of entering for the purpose of inquiring which turning I should follow to reach my hotel. It was not until you turned round that I realized my good fortune in having chanced upon a friend. It is plain, however, that my presence is not so welcome as I could have desired."
From the way he spoke, I gathered that for some purpose of his own he had taken, or was pretending to take, offence at my reception of him. Knowing, therefore, that if I desired to see anything further of his beautiful companion—an idea which I will confess had more than once occurred to me—I must exert myself to conciliate him, I hastened to apologise for the welcome I had given him, explaining that any momentary hesitation I might have shown was due more to my surprise than to any intended discourtesy towards himself.
"In that case let us say no more about it," he answered politely, but with the same expression of cunning malignity on his face to which I have referred elsewhere. "You were quite within your rights, for I should have remembered that in England an impromptu visit at one in the morning, on the part of an acquaintance of a few hours' standing, is scarcely likely to be well received."
"If you will carry your memory back a few weeks," I said, as I wheeled a chair up for him, "you will remember that our acquaintance is not of such a recent date."
"I am rejoiced to hear it," he replied, with a sharp glance at me as he seated himself. "Nevertheless, I must confess that I fail for the moment to remember where I had the pleasure of meeting you on that occasion. It is not a complimentary admission, I will confess; but, as you know, Age is proverbially forgetful, and my memory is far from being what it once was."
Could the man be pretending, or had the incident really escaped his memory? It was just possible, of course, that on that occasion my face had failed to impress itself upon his recollection; but after the hard things I had said to him, I had to confess it seemed unlikely. Then the remembrance of the drowning man, his piteous cry for help, and the other's demoniacal conduct on the steps returned upon me, and I resolved to show no mercy.
"The occasion to which I refer, Monsieur Pharos," I said, standing opposite him and speaking with a sternness that in the light of all that has transpired since seems almost ludicrous, "was an evening towards the end of March—a cold, wet night when you stood upon the steps below Cleopatra's Needle, and not only refused help, but, in a most inhuman fashion, laughed at a drowning man."
I half expected that he would offer a vehement denial, or would at least put forward a plea of forgetfulness. To my surprise, however, he did neither.
"I remember the incident perfectly," he answered, with the most complete composure. "At the same time, I must say you wrong me when you declare I laughed—on my word, you do! Let us suppose, however, that I did do so; and where would be the harm? The man desired death; his own action confessed it, otherwise how came he there? It was proved at the inquest that he had repeatedly declared himself weary of life. He was starving; he was without hope. Had he lived over that night, death, under any circumstances, would only have been only a matter of a few days with him. Would you therefore have had me, knowing all this, prolong such an existence? In the name of that humanity to which you referred just now, I ask you the question. You say I laughed. Would you have had me weep?"
"A specious argument," I replied; "but I own to you frankly I considered the incident a detestable one."
"There I will meet you most willingly," he continued. "From your point of view it certainly was. From mine —well, as I said just now, I confess I view it differently. However, I give you my word that in this instance your pity is undeserved. The man was a contemptible scoundrel in every way. He came of respectable stock, was reared under the happiest auspices. Had he chosen, he might have been anything in his own rank of life; but he would not choose. At fifteen he robbed his father's till to indulge in debauchery, and had broken his parents' hearts before he was five-and-twenty. He married a girl as good as he was bad, and as a result starved not only himself but his wife and children. Though employment was offered him, he repeatedly refused it, not from any inability to work, but from sheer love of idleness and distaste of labour. He had not sufficient wit, courage, or energy to become a criminal; but throughout his life, wherever he went, and upon all with whom he came in contact, he brought misery and disgrace. Eventually he reached the end of his tether, and was cast off by every one. The result you know."
The fluency and gusto with which he related these sordid details amazed, while it disconcerted me. I inquired how, since by his own confession he had been such a short time in London, he had become cognizant of the man's history. He hesitated before replying.
"Have I not told you once before to-night," he said, "that there are very few things in this world hidden from my knowledge? I could tell you circumstances in your own life that you flatter yourself are known to no one. But do not let us talk of such things now. When I entered the room you were reading a paper. You hold it in your hand at this moment."
"It is a translation, by my father, of the inscription upon the mummy case over yonder," I replied, with an eagerness to change the subject for which I can scarcely account. "At his death many of his Egyptian treasures came into my possession, this among them. For some reason or another I had never read the translation until to-night. I suppose it must have been my meeting with you that put the idea into my head."
"I am interested in such matters, as you know. May I, therefore, be permitted to look at it?"
With a parade of indifference that I could easily see was assumed, Pharos had extended his withered old hand and taken it from me before I realized what he was doing. Having obtained it, he leaned back in his chair, staring at the paper as if he could not remove his eyes from it. For some moments not a word passed his lips. Then, muttering something to himself in a language I did not recognise, he sprang to his feet. The quickness of the action was so different to his usual enfeebled movements that I did not fail to notice it
"The mummy!" he cried. "Show me the mummy!"
Before I could answer or comply with his request, he had discovered it for himself, had crossed to it and was devouring it with his eyes.
Upwards of three minutes must have elapsed before he turned to me again. When he did so, I scarcely recognised the man. So distorted was his countenance that I instinctively recoiled from him in horror.
"Thy father, was it, wretched man," he cried, shaking his skeleton fist at me, while his body trembled like a leaf under the whirlwind of his passion, "who stole this body from its resting-place? Thy father, was it, who broke the seals the gods had placed upon the tombs of those who were their servants? If that be so, then may the punishment decreed against those guilty of the sin of sacrilege be visited on thee and thine for evermore." Then, turning to the mummy, he continued, as if to himself, "Oh, mighty Egypt! hast thou fallen so far from thy high estate that even the bodies of thy kings and priests may no longer rest within their tombs, but are ravished from thee to be gaped at in alien lands. But, by Osiris, a time of punishment is coming. It is decreed, and none shall stay the sword!"
If I had been surprised at the excitement he had shown on reading the paper, it was nothing to the astonishment I felt now. For the first time since I had known him, a suspicion of his sanity crossed my mind, and my first inclination was to draw away from him.
Then the fit, as I deemed it, passed, and his expression changed entirely. He uttered a queer little laugh.
"Once more I must crave your forgiveness, Mr. Forrester," he said, as he sank exhausted into a chair. "Believe me, I had not the least intention of offending you. Your father was, I know, an ardent Egyptologist, one of that intrepid band who penetrated to every corner of our sacred land, digging, delving, and bringing to light such tombs, temples, and monuments as have for centuries lain hidden from the sight of man. For my own part, as you may have gathered from my tirade just now, my sympathies do not lie in that direction. I am one who reverences the past, and would fain have others do so."
"At the same time, I scarcely see that that justifies such language towards myself as you used a few moments since," I replied, with a fair amount of warmth, which I think it will be conceded I had every right to feel.
"It does not justify it in the least," he answered, with ready condescension. "The only way I can hope to do so is on the plea of the exuberance of my emotion. My dear Mr. Forrester, I beg you will not misunderstand me. I would not quarrel with you for the wealth of England. Though you are not aware of it, there is a bond between us that is stronger than chains of steel. You are required for a certain work, and for that reason alone I dare not offend you or excite your anger, even if I otherwise desired to do so. In this matter I am not my own master."
"A bond between us? A work for which I am required? I am afraid I do not understand you."
"And it is not in my power to enlighten you. Remain assured of this, however: when the time is ripe, you will be informed."
As he said this the same light that I have described before came into his eyes, causing them to shine as brightly as two stars. I did not like it. To use a fishing simile, it made me think of the gleam that comes into the eyes of a hungry pike as he darts towards his helpless prey. Taking this in conjunction with the extraordinary language he had used towards me, I felt more than ever convinced of his insanity. The thought was by no means a cheerful one. I had got myself into a nice position. Here I was, alone with a dangerous lunatic, in the middle of the night, and not a soul within call. How I was to rid myself of him I could not see. I felt, therefore, that I must humour him until I could hit upon a scheme. I accordingly tried to frame a conciliatory speech, but before I could do so he had turned to me again.
"Your thoughts are easily read," he began, with a repetition of that queer little laugh which I have described before; and as he uttered it he leaned a little closer to me till I was sick and faint with the horror of his presence. "You think me mad, and it will take more than my assurance to make you believe that I am not. How slight is your knowledge of me! But there, let us put that aside for to-night! There is something of much greater importance to be arranged between us. In the first place, it is necessary, both for your sake— your safety, if you like—and for mine, that yonder mummy should pass into my possession."
"Impossible!" I answered. "I could not dream of such a thing! It was one of my poor father's greatest treasures, and for that reason alone no consideration would induce me to part with it. Besides, despite your assertion that it is for our mutual safety, I cannot see by what right you ask such a favour of me."
"If you only knew how important it is," he repeated, "that that particular mummy should become my property, you would not know a single minute's peace until you had seen the last of it. You may not believe me when I say that I have been searching for it without intermission for nearly fifteen years, and it was only yesterday I learnt you were the owner of it. And yet it is the truth."
If I had not had sufficient proof already, here was enough to convince me of his madness. Until that evening he had no notion of my identity, much less of the things I possessed. How, therefore, could he have become aware that I was the owner of the remains of Ptahmes, the King's Magician? Under the influence of the momentary irritation caused by his persistence, my intention of humouring him quite slipped my memory, and I answered sharply that it was no use his bothering me further about the matter, as I had made up my mind and was not to be moved from it.
He took my refusal with apparent coolness; but the light which again came into his eyes warned me, before it was too late, not to rely too much upon this. I knew that in his heart he was raging against me, and that at any moment his passion might take active shape.
"You must excuse my saying so, Monsieur Pharos," I said, rising from my chair and moving towards the door," but I think it would perhaps be better for both of us to terminate this most unpleasant interview. It is getting late, and I am tired. With your permission, I will open the door for you."
Seeing that I was determined he should go, and realizing, I suppose, that it was no use his staying longer, he also rose, and a more evil-looking figure than he presented as he did so Victor Hugo himself could scarcely have imagined. The light of the quaint old Venetian hanging-lamp in the middle of the room fell full and fair upon his face, showing me the deep-set gleaming eyes, the wrinkled, nut-cracker face, and the extraordinary development of shoulder to which I have already directed attention. Old man as he was, a braver man than myself might have been excused had he declined the task of tackling him, and I had the additional spur of knowing that if he got the better of me he would show no mercy. For this reason alone I watched his every movement.
"Come, come, my foolish young friend," he said at length, "in spite of my warning, here we are at a deadlock again! You really must not take things so seriously. Had I had any idea that you were so determined not to let me have the thing I want, I would not have dreamed of asking for it. It was for your own good as well as mine that I did so. Now, since you desire to turn me out, I will not force my presence upon you. But let us part friends."
As he said this he advanced towards me with extended hand, leaning heavily upon his stick, according to his custom, and to all intents and purposes as pathetic an example of senile decrepitude as a man could wish to see. If he were going off like this, I flattered myself, I was escaping from my horrible predicament in an easier manner than I had expected. However, I was fully determined in my own heart, if I could but once get him on the other side of the street door, that no earthly consideration should induce me ever to admit him to my dwelling again. His hand was deathly cold—so cold, in fact, that even in my excitement I could not help noticing it. I had scarcely done so, however, before a tremor ran through his figure, and with a guttural noise that scarcely could be described as a cry, he dropped my hand and sprang forward at my throat.
If I live to the age of a hundred, I shall not forget the absolute, the unspeakable, the indescribable terror of that moment. Till then I had never regarded myself in the light of a coward; on the contrary, I had on several occasions had good reason to congratulate myself upon what is popularly termed my "strength of nerve." Now, however, it was all different. Possibly the feeling of repulsion, I might almost say of fear, I had hitherto entertained for him had something to do with it. It may have been the mesmeric power, which I afterwards had good reason to know he possessed, that did it. At any rate, from the moment he pounced upon me I found myself incapable of resistance. It was as if all my will power were being slowly extracted from me by the contact of those skeleton fingers which, when they had once touched my flesh, seemed to lose their icy coldness, and to burn like bars of red-hot iron. In a dim and misty fashion, somewhat as one sees people across a street in a fog, I was conscious of the devilish ferocity of the face that was looking into mine. Then a strange feeling of numbness took possession of me, an entire lack of interest in everything, even in life itself. Gradually and easily I sank into the chair behind me, the room swam before my eyes, an intense craving for sleep overcame me, and little by little, still without any attempt at resistance, my head fell back and I lost consciousness.
WHEN I came to myself again it was already morning. In the small square behind the studio the birds were discussing the prospects of breakfast, though as yet that earliest of all birds, the milkman, had not begun to make his presence known in the streets. Of all the hours of the day there is not one, to my thinking, so lonely and so full of dreariness as that which immediately precedes and ushers in the dawn; while, of all the experiences of our human life, there is, perhaps, not one more unpleasant than to awake from sleep at such an hour to find that one has passed the entire night in one's clothes and seated in a most uncomfortable armchair. That was my lot in this particular instance. On opening my eyes, I looked around me with a puzzled air. For the life of me I could not understand why I was not in my bed. It was the first time I had ever gone to sleep in my chair, and the idea disquieted me strangely. I studied the room, but, to all intents and purposes, everything there was just the same as when I had closed my eyes. I only was changed. My brain was as heavy as lead, and, though I did my best to recall the events of the previous evening, I found that, while I could recollect the "at home" at Medenham House, and my return to my studio afterwards, I could remember nothing that followed later. I was still pursuing this train of thought when I became aware of a loud knocking at the street door. I immediately hastened to it and drew the bolts. My surprise may be imagined on discovering an inspector of police standing upon the threshold, with a constable behind him.
"Mr. Forrester, I believe?" he began; and as soon as I had nodded an affirmative, continued, "You must excuse my disturbing you, sir, at this early hour, but the reason is imperative. I should be glad if you would permit me the honour of five minutes' conversation with you alone."
"With pleasure," I answered, and immediately invited him to enter.
Having shut the door behind him, I led the way to the studio, where I signed him to a chair, taking up a position myself on the hearthrug before him. The constable remained in the passage outside.
"It is, as you say, rather an early hour for a call," I remarked, making a mental note as I spoke of the man's character as I read it in his large, honest eyes, well-shaped nose, and square, determined-looking chin, "What can I do for you?"
"I believe you are in a position to furnish me with some important information," he replied. "A diabolical murder was committed at the old curiosity shop at the corner of the next street, either late last night or during the early hours of this morning, most probably between midnight and one o'clock. It is altogether a most remarkable affair, and, from the evidence we have before us, though no cries were heard, the struggle must have been a desperate one. From the fact that the front door was still locked and bolted when we forced our way in, it is plain that the murderer must have effected his escape by the back. Indeed, a man was seen entering the alley behind the house between one and two o'clock, though this circumstance gave rise to no suspicion at the time. The witness who saw him reports that he came along on this side of the street, in the shadow, and, though he is not at all certain on this point, believes that he entered one of the houses hereabouts. That on your right is empty, and the doors and windows are securely fastened. He could not, therefore, have gone in there. That on the left is a boarding-house. I have called upon the landlady, who asserts most positively that her front door was not opened to any one after ten o'clock last night. She informs me, however, that a light was burning in your studio all night, and I see for myself that you have not been to bed. May I ask, therefore, if you saw anything of such a man, or whether you can furnish me with such particulars as will be likely to help us in our search for him?"
Like lightning, while he was talking, the memory of all that had happened that morning, and the visit Pharos had paid me, flashed into my mind. As it did so, I glanced involuntarily towards that part of the room where the mummy had hitherto stood. To my amazement—I might almost say to my consternation—it was no longer there. What had become of it? Could Pharos, after disposing of me as he had done, have stolen it and transported it away? It seemed impossible, and yet I had the best of evidence before me that it was no longer there. And then another question; Had Pharos had any connection with the murder? The time at which it was supposed to have been committed, between midnight and one o'clock, was precisely that at which he had made his appearance before me. And yet what reason had I, but my own terrible suspicions, to lead me to the conclusion that he was the author of this fiendish bit of work? I saw, however, that my continued silence was impressing my companion unfavourably.
"Come, sir," he said, this time a little more sharply than before; "I must remind you that my time is valuable. Am I to understand that you are in a position to help me, or not?"
God knows, if I had been my own master I should have loosed my tongue instantly and revealed all I knew. I should have told him under what terrible circumstances I had met Pharos on the Embankment that wet night towards the end of March, and have commented on his inhuman conduct on that occasion. I should have informed him of the appearance he had made in my studio early this morning, not only with a frightened look in his eyes, but breathing heavily as if he had been running, though such a thing would have seemed an impossibility in a man of his years. Then I should have gone on to tell how he had attempted to induce me to part with something upon which I placed considerable value, and, being disappointed, had hypnotised me and made off with the article in question. All this, as I say, I should have narrated had I been my own master. But God knows I was not. An irresistible force was at work within me, compelling me, even against my will, to screen him, and to tell the first deliberate lie to which I had ever given utterance in my life.
It was a poor excuse to offer, and I am aware that a world so censorious as our own will in all probability not believe this statement, but upon my hopes of forgiveness at the Last Great Day, at that dread moment when the sins of all men shall be judged and punishment awarded, I declare it to be true in every single particular; and, what is more, I further say that even if my life depended on it I could not have done otherwise.
Though it has taken some time to place these thoughts on paper, the interval that elapsed between the inspector's last question and my answer, which seemed to me so halting and suspicious, to the effect that I had neither seen nor heard anything of the man he wanted, was scarcely more than a few seconds.
Having received my assurance, the officer apologised for troubling me, and withdrew, and I was left alone with my thoughts. Deep down in my heart there was the desire to hasten after him and to tell him that not only had I lied to him, but that it was possible for me to make amends by putting him on the track of the man who, I felt morally certain, was the criminal. The wish, however, was scarcely born before it was dragged down and stifled by that same irresistible force I have described a few lines since. It seemed to me I was bound hand and foot, powerless to help myself, and incapable of aught save to carry out the will of the remorseless being into whose power I had fallen so completely. But had I really so fallen? Could it be possible that such power was permitted to a human being? No, no—a thousand times no! If he had that influence he must be an agent of the Evil One, whose mission it was to draw to perdition the souls of helpless men. Filled with shame, I sank into a chair and covered my face with my hands, as if by so doing I could shut out the horrible thoughts that filled my brain. Was it true, I asked myself, in the bitterest self-humiliation, that I, who had always regarded a liar as the most despicable of men, had sunk so low as to become one myself? God help me! God pity me! Of all the bitter hours my life has known, I think that moment was the worst.
For some time after the inspector had taken his departure I sat, as I have said, my face covered with my hands, trying to think coherently. Twenty-four hours before I had been one of the happiest men in England. Nothing had troubled me. I had lived for my art and in my art, and I believe I can confidently say that I had not an enemy in the world. Now, in a single hour, my whole life was changed. I had been drawn into the toils of a fiend in human shape, and I was paying the awful penalty.
Hour after hour went by. My servant arrived, and presently brought in my breakfast, but I put it aside; I had too much upon my mind to eat. It was in vain I tried to force myself. My food stuck in my throat and defied me. All the time I was oppressed by the diabolical picture of that murder. The shop in which it had occurred was one with which I was familiar. In my mind's eye I saw the whole scene as clearly as if I had been present at the time. I saw the shop, filled to overflowing with bric-&-brac, the light of the single gas lamp reflected in hundreds of varieties of brass and pottery work. At a desk in the corner sat the dealer himself, and before him, holding him in earnest conversation, the extraordinary figure of Pharos the Assassin. How he came to be there at such an hour I could not tell, but from what I knew of him I was convinced it was with no good purpose. I could imagine how off his guard and totally unprepared for attack the other would be; and, even if he had entertained any suspicions, it is extremely doubtful whether he would have credited this deformed atom with the possession, either of such malignity or of such giant strength. Then that same cruel light that had exercised such an influence upon me began to glisten in the murderer's eyes. Little by little he moved his right hand behind him, until it touched an Oriental dagger lying on a table beside which he stood. Then, with that cat-like spring which I had good reason to remember, he leapt upon his opponent and seized him by the throat, driving the blade deep in below the shoulder. His victim, paralysed with surprise, at first offered no resistance. Then, with the instinct of self-preservation, he began to struggle with his devilish opponent, only to discover the strength that seemingly attenuated form possessed. Little by little his power departed from him, and at last, with a crash, he fell back upon the floor. I pictured Pharos stopping over him, to see if he were dead, chuckling with delight at the success he had achieved. Having convinced himself on this head, he abstracted a key from the dead man's pocket, and approached a safe built into the wall. The handle turned, and the door swung open. A moment later he had taken a ring set with a scarabaeus from a drawer and dropped it into his pocket. After that he paused while he considered in which direction it would be safest for him to make his escape. A policeman's step sounded on the pavement outside, and as he heard it he looked up, and his thin lips drew back, showing the wolfish teeth behind. His horrible cunning pointed out to him the danger he would incur in leaving by the front. Accordingly he made his way through the sitting-room behind the shop, and passed out by the gate in the yard beyond. A few seconds later he was in my presence, but whether by accident or design was more than I could say.
So vivid was the picture I had conjured up that I could not help believing it must be something more than mere conjecture on my part. If so, what course should I pursue? I had been robbed. I had given a murderer shelter at the very moment when he stood most in need of it, and when the law was close upon his heels I had pledged my word for his innocence and perjured myself to ensure his salvation. His presence had been repulsive to me ever since I had first set eyes on him. I hated the man as I had hitherto deemed it impossible I could hate any one. Yet, despite all this, by some power—how real I cannot expect any one to believe—he was compelling me to shield him and behave towards him as if he had been my brother, or at least my dearest friend. I can feel the shame of that moment even now, the agonizing knowledge of the deep gulf that separated me from the man I was yesterday, or even an hour before.
I rose from the table, leaving my breakfast untouched, and stood at the window looking out upon the dismal square beyond. The sunshine of the earlier morning had given place to a cloudy sky, and, as I watched, a heavy shower began to fall. It was as if Nature were weeping tears of shame to see a Child of Man brought so low. I went to the place where, until a few hours before, the mummy had stood—that wretched mummy which had been the cause of all the trouble. As I had good reason to know, it weighed a considerable amount, more, indeed, than I should have imagined an old man like Pharos could have lifted, much less carried. I examined the floor to see if the case had been dragged over it, but highly polished as the boards were, I could detect no sign of such a thing. The wainscoting of the hall next received my attention, but with a similar result. And it was at this juncture that another curious point in the evening's story struck me. When I had admitted the inspector of police, I had unlocked and unchained the door. I was also the sole occupant of the building. How, therefore, had Pharos conveyed his burden outside, and locked, chained, and bolted the door behind him? Under the influence of this new discovery I returned with all speed to the studio. Perhaps he had not gone out by the front door at all, but had made his escape by the windows at the back. These I carefully examined, only to find them safely bolted as usual. The riddle was beyond me. I had to confess myself beaten. Was it possible I could have dreamed the whole thing? Had I fallen asleep in my chair and imagined a meeting with Pharos which had really never taken place? Oh, if only it could be true, what a difference it would make in my happiness! And yet, staring me in the face, was the damning evidence that the mummy was gone. When I rose from my chair my mind was made up. I would seek Pharos out, accuse him not only of the theft, but of the murder, and make him understand, with all the earnestness of which I was master, that justice should be done, and that I would no longer shield him from the consequences of his villainy. It was only then that I remembered that I had no knowledge of the man's whereabouts. I considered for a moment how I could best overcome this difficulty. Lady Medenham was, of course, the one person of all others to help me. Since she had invited the man to her house, it was almost certain that she could furnish me with his address. I would go to her without further waste of time. Accordingly I made the necessary changes in my toilet and left the studio. The rain had ceased, and the streets were once more full of sunshine. It was a pleasant morning for walking, but so urgent did my business seem that I felt I could not even spare the time for exercise. Hailing a hansom, I bade the man drive me with all possible speed to Eaton Square. To my delight Lady Medenham was at home, and I was shown forthwith to her boudoir. A few moments elapsed before she joined me there, and then her first remark was one of astonishment.
"Why, Mr. Forrester, what is the matter with you?" she cried. "I have never seen you look so ill."
"It is nothing," I answered, with a forced laugh. "I have had some bad news this morning, and it has upset me. Lady Medenham, I have come to beg a favour at your hands."
"If it is within my power, you know it is already granted," she said kindly. "Won't you sit down and tell me what it is?"
"I want you to furnish me with the address of that singular old gentleman who was at your 'at home' last evening," I replied, as I seated myself opposite her.
"London would say that there were many singular old gentlemen at my 'at home,'" she answered with a smile; "but my instinct tells me you mean Monsieur Pharos."
"That, I believe, is his name," I said; and then, as if to excuse the question, I added, "He is, as I think you heard him say, an ardent Egyptologist."
"I do not know anything about his attainments in that direction," Lady Medenham replied, "but he is certainly a most extraordinary person. Were it not for his beautiful ward, whose case I must confess excites my pity, I should not care if I never saw him again."
"She is his ward, then?" I said, with an eagerness that I could see was not lost upon my companion. "I had made up my mind she was his grand-daughter."
"Indeed, no," Lady Medenham replied. "The poor girl's story is a very strange and sad one. Her father was a Hungarian noble, a brilliant man in his way, I believe, but a confirmed spendthrift. Her mother died when she was but six years old. From a very early age she gave signs of possessing extraordinary musical talent, and this her father, perhaps with some strange prevision of the future, fostered with every care. When she was barely fifteen he was killed in a duel. It was then discovered that his money was exhausted, and that the home was mortgaged beyond all redemption to the Jews. Thus the daughter, now without relations or friends of any sort or description, was thrown upon the world to sink or swim just as Pilate should decree. For any girl the position would have been sufficiently unhappy, but for her, who had seen nothing of life, and who was of an extremely sensitive disposition, it was well-nigh insupportable. What her existence must have been like for the next five years one scarcely likes to think. But it served its purpose. With a bravery that excites one's admiration she supported herself almost entirely by her music; gaining in breadth, power, and knowledge of technique with every year. Then—where, or in what manner I have never been able to discover, for she is peculiarly sensitive upon this point—she became acquainted with the old gentleman you saw last night, Monsieur Pharos. He was rich, eccentric, and perhaps what most attracted her, passionately fond of music. His extreme age obviated any scandal, even had there been any one to raise it, so that when he proposed to adopt the friendless but beautiful girl, and to enable her to perfect her musical education under the best masters, no one came forward to protest against it. She has, I believe, been with him upwards of seven years now."
I shuddered when I heard this. Knowing what I did of Pharos, I could not find it in my heart to credit him with the possession of so much kindly feeling. But if it were not so, what could be the bond between them?
"All you tell me is extremely interesting," I remarked, "and only adds to my desire to see the old gentleman once more. If you could let me have his address, I should be more grateful than I can say."
"I am very much afraid it is not in my power," she replied. "It is one of the least of Monsieur Pharos's many peculiarities, to take extraordinary precautions to prevent his whereabouts becoming known; but stay, I think I can tell you of some one who may be of more service to you. You know Sir George Legrath, do you not?"
"The Director of the Egyptian Museum?" I said. "Yes, I know him very well indeed. He was an old friend of my father's."
"To be sure he was," she answered. "Well then, go and see him. I think it is probable that he may be able to assist you. Monsieur Pharos is an acquaintance of his, and it was to Sir George's care that I sent the invitation to my 'at home' last night."
"I cannot thank you enough for your kindness, Lady Medenham," I replied, as I rose from my chair. "I will go and see Sir George at once."
"And I hope you may be successful. If I can help you in any other way, be sure I will do so. But before you go, Mr. Forrester, let me give you another piece of advice. You should really consult a doctor without delay. I do not like your appearance at all. We shall hear of your being seriously ill if you do not take more care of yourself."
I laughed uneasily. In my own heart I knew my ailment was not of the body but of the mind, and until my suspicions were set at rest, it was beyond the reach of any doctor's science to do me good. Once more I thanked Lady Medenham for her kindness, and then left her and made my way back to the cab.
"To the Egyptian Museum," I cried to the driver, as I took my seat in the vehicle, "and as quickly as you can go!"
The man whipped up his horse, and in less than ten minutes from the time the butler closed the front door upon me at Medenham House I was entering the stately portico of the world-famous Museum. For some years I had been a constant visitor there, and as a result my face was well known to the majority of the officials. I inquired from one, whom I met in the vestibule, whether I should find Sir George in his office.
"I am not quite certain, sir," the man replied. "It's only just gone half-past ten, and unless there is something important doing, we don't often see him much before a quarter to eleven. However, if you will be kind enough, sir, to step this way, I'll very soon find out whether he has come."
So saying, he led me along the corridor, past huge monuments and blocks of statuary, to a smaller passage on the extreme left of the building. At the farther end of this was a door, upon which he knocked. No answer rewarded him.
"I am very much afraid, sir, he has not arrived," remarked the man, "but perhaps you will be good enough to step inside and take a seat. I feel sure he won't be very long."
"In that case I think I will do so," I replied, and accordingly I was ushered into what is perhaps the most characteristic office in London. Having found the morning paper and with unconscious irony placed it before me, the man withdrew, closing the door behind him.
I have said that the room in which I was now seated was characteristic of the man who occupied it. Sir George Legrath is, as every one knows, the most competent authority the world possesses at the present day on the subject of Ancient Egypt. He had graduated under my own poor father, and, if only for this reason, we had always been the closest friends. It follows as a natural sequence that the walls of the room should be covered from ceiling to floor with paintings, engravings, specimens of papyrus, and the various odds and ends accumulated in an Egyptologist's career. He had also the reputation of being one of the best-dressed men in London, and was at all times careful to a degree of his appearance. This accounted for the velvet office-coat, a sleeve of which I could just see peeping out from behind a curtain in the corner. Kindly of heart and the possessor of a comfortable income, it is certain that but few of those in need who applied to him did so in vain; hence the pile of begging letters from charitable institutions and private individuals that invariably greeted his arrival at his office. I had not been waiting more than five minutes before I heard an active step upon the stone flagging of the passage outside. The handle of the door was sharply turned, and the man for whom I was waiting entered the room.
"My dear Cyril," he cried, advancing towards me with outstretched hand, "this is indeed a pleasure! It is now some weeks since I last saw you, but, on the other hand, I have heard of you. The fame of your picture is in every one's mouth."
"Every one is very kind," I replied, "but I am afraid in this instance the public says rather more than it means."
"Not a bit of it," answered my friend. "That reminds me, however, that there is one point in the picture about which I want to talk to you."
"At any other time I shall be delighted," I replied, "but to-day, Sir George, I have something else to say to you. I have come to you because I am very much worried."
"Now that I come to look at you I can see you are not very bright," he said. "But what is this worry? Tell me about it, for you know if I can help you I shall be only too glad to do so."
"I have come to seek your advice in a rather strange matter," I replied, "and before I begin I must ask that everything I say shall remain in the strictest confidence between us."
"I will give you that promise willingly," he said, "and I think you know me well enough to feel certain I shall keep it. Now let me hear your troubles."
"In the first place, I want you to tell me all you know of an extraordinary individual who has been seen a good deal in London society of late. I refer to a man named Pharos."
While I had been speaking, Sir George had seated himself in the chair before his writing-table. On hearing my question, however, he sprang to his feet with an exclamation that was as startling as it was unexpected. It did not exactly indicate surprise, nor did it express annoyance or curiosity; yet it seemed to partake of all three. It was his face, however, which betrayed the greatest change. A moment before it had exhibited all the ruddiness of perfect health, now it was ashen pale.
"Pharos?" he cried. Then, recovering his composure a little, he added, "My dear Forrester, what can you possibly want with him?"
"I want to know all you can tell me about him," I replied gravely. "It is the greatest favour I have ever asked you, and I hope you will not disappoint me."
For some moments he paced the room as if in anxious thought. Then he returned to his seat at the writing-table. The long hand of the clock upon the mantelpiece had made a perceptible movement when he spoke again. So changed was his voice then that I scarcely recognised it.
"Cyril," he said, "you have asked me a question to which I can return you but one answer, and that is— may God help you if you have fallen into that man's power. What he has done or how he has treated you, I do not know, but I tell you this, that he is as cruel and as remorseless as Satan himself. You are my friend, and I tell you I would far rather see you dead than in his clutches. I do not fear many men, but Pharos the Egyptian is to me an incarnate terror."
"You say Pharos the Egyptian. What do you mean by that?"
"What I say. The man is an Egyptian, and claims, I believe, to be able to trace his descent back at least three thousand years."
"And you know no more of him?"
As I put this question I looked at Sir George's hand, which rested on his blotting-pad, and noticed that it was shaking as if with the palsy.
Once more a pause ensued.
"What I know must remain shut up in my own brain," he answered slowly, and as if he were weighing every word before he uttered it; "and it will go down to my grave with me. Dear lad, fond as I am of you, you must not ask any more of me, for I cannot satisfy your curiosity."
"But, Sir George, I assure you, with all the earnestness at my command, that this is a matter of life and death to me," I replied. "You can have no notion what it means. My honour, my good name—nay, my very existence itself depends upon it."
As if in answer to my importunity, my friend rose from his chair and picked up the newspaper which the attendant had placed on the table beside me. He opened it, and, after scanning the pages, discovered what he was looking for. Folding it carefully, he pointed to a certain column and handed it to me. I took it mechanically and glanced at the item in question. It was an account of the murder of the unfortunate curiosity dealer, but, so far as I could see, my name was not mentioned in it. I looked up at Sir George for an explanation.
"Well?" I said, but the word stuck in my throat
"Though you will scarcely credit it, I think I understand everything," he replied. "The murdered man's shop was within a short distance of your abode. A witness states that he saw some one leave the victim's house about the time that the deed must have been committed, and that he made his way into your street. As I said, when you first asked me about him, may God help you, Cyril Forrester, if this is your trouble!"
"But what makes you connect Pharos with the murder described here?" I asked, with an attempt to feign the surprise I was far from feeling.
"That I cannot tell you," he replied. "To do so would bring upon me—but no, my lips are sealed, hopelessly sealed."
"But surely you are in a position to give me the man's address. Lady Medenham told me you were aware of it."
"It is true I was, but I am afraid you have come too late."
"Too late! What do you mean? Oh, Sir George, for Heaven's sake do not trifle with me!"
"I am not trifling with you, Forrester," he replied. "I mean that it is impossible for you to find him in London, for the simple reason that he left England with his companion early this morning."
On hearing this I must have looked so miserable that Sir George came over to where I sat and placed his hand upon my shoulder.
"Dear lad," he said, "you don't know how it pains me to be unable to help you. If it were possible, you have every reason to know that I would do so. In this case, however, I am powerless, how powerless you cannot imagine. But you must not give way like this. The man is gone, and in all human probability you will never see his face again. Try to forget him."
"It is impossible. I assure you, upon my word of honour, that I shall know neither peace nor happiness until I have seen him and spoken to him face to face. If I wish ever to be able to look upon myself as an honourable man, I must, do it. Is there no way in which I can find him?"
"I fear none; but stay, now I come to think of it, there is a chance, but a very remote one. I will make inquiries and let you know within an hour."
"God bless you! I will remain in my studio until I hear from you."
I bade him good-bye and left the museum. That he did not forget his promise was proved by the fact that within an hour a cab drove up to my door, and one of the attendants from the museum alighted. I took the note he brought from him at the door, and when I had returned to the studio, tore open the envelope and drew forth a plain visiting card. On it was written :
IF there is one place more than another for which I entertain a dislike that is akin to hatred, it is for Naples in the summer time—that wretched period when every one one knows is absent, all the large houses are closed, the roads are knee-deep in dust, and even the noise of the waves breaking upon the walls of the Castello del' Ovo seem unable to detract from the impression of heat and dryness which pervades everything. It is the season when the hotels, usually so cool—one might almost say frigid—have had time to grow hot throughout, and are in consequence well-nigh unbearable; when the particular waiter who has attended to your wants during each preceding visit, and who has come to know your customs and to have survived his original impression that each successive act on your part is only a more glaring proof of your insular barbarity, is visiting his friends in the country, or whatever it is that waiters do during the dull season when the tourists have departed and their employers have no further use for them. It was at this miserable period of the year that I descended upon Naples in search of Monsieur Pharos.
Owing to a breakdown on the line between Spezia and Pisa, it was close upon midnight before I reached my destination, and almost one o'clock before I had transported my luggage from the railway station to my hotel. By this time, as will be readily understood by all those who have made the overland journey, I was in a condition bordering upon madness. Ever since I had called upon Sir George Legrath, and had obtained from him the address of the man from whom I hoped to learn the whereabouts of Pharos, I had been living in a kind of stupor. It took the form of a drowsiness that nothing would shake off, and yet, do what I would, I could not sleep. Times out of number during that long journey I had laid myself back in the railway carriage and closed my eyes in the hope of obtaining some rest; but it was in vain. However artfully I might woo the drowsy god, sleep would not visit my eyelids. The mocking face of the man I had come to consider my evil angel was always before me, and in the darkness of the night, when the train was rolling its way towards the South, I could hear his voice in my ears telling me that this hastily conceived journey on my part had been all carefully thought out and arranged by him beforehand, and that in seeking him in Naples I was only advancing another step towards the fulfilment of my allotted destiny.
On reaching my hotel I went straight to bed. Every bone in my body ached with fatigue. Indeed, so weary was I that I could eat nothing and could scarcely think coherently. The proprietor of the hotel was an old friend, and for the reason that whenever I visited Naples I made it a rule to insist upon occupying the same room, I did not experience the same feeling of loneliness which usually assails one on retiring to rest in a strange place. In my own mind I was convinced that as soon as my head touched the pillow I should be asleep. But a bitter disappointment was in store for me. I laid myself down with a sigh of satisfaction and closed my eyes; but whether I missed the rocking of the train, or whether I was in reality overtired I cannot say—at any rate, I was soon convinced of one thing, and that was that the longer I lay there the more wakeful I became. I tried another position, but with the same result. I turned my pillow, only to make it the more uncomfortable. Every trick for the production of sleep that I had ever heard of I put into execution, but always with entire absence of success. At last, thoroughly awake and still more thoroughly exasperated, I rose from my couch, and dressing myself, opened the window of my room and stepped out on to the balcony. It was a glorious night, such a one as is seldom, if ever, seen in England; the air as soft and gentle as the first caress of love. Overhead the moon sailed in a cloudless sky, revealing with her exquisite light the city stretching away to right and left and the expanse of harbour lying directly before me, Vesuvius standing out black and awesome, and the dim outline of the hills towards Castellamare and Sorrento beyond. For some reason my thoughts no longer centred themselves on Pharos. I found the lovely face of his companion continually rising before my eyes. There was the same expression of hopelessness upon it that I remembered on the first occasion upon which I had seen her; but there was this difference, that in some vague, uncertain way she seemed now to be appealing to me to help her, to rescue her from the life she was leading and from the man who had got her, as he had done myself, so completely in his power. Her beauty affected me as no other had ever done. I could still hear the soft accents of her voice, and the echo of her wild, weird music, as plainly as if I were still sitting listening to her in Lady Medenham's drawing-room; and, strange to relate, it soothed me to think that it was even possible we might be in the same town together.
For upwards of an hour I remained on the balcony looking down at the moonlit city and thinking of the change that had been brought about in my life by the last few days. When I did return to my bedroom, and once more sought my couch, scarcely five minutes elapsed before I was wrapped in a heavy, dreamless sleep, from which I did not wake until well-nigh nine o'clock. Much refreshed, I dressed myself, and having swallowed a hasty breakfast, to which I brought a better appetite than I had known for some days past, I donned my hat and left the hotel in search of Signor Angelotti, who, as the card informed me, carried on his profession of a public letter-writer under the arches of the San Carlo Theatre.
In all the years which have elapsed since the illustrious Don Pedro de Toledo laid the foundation of the magnificent thoroughfare which to-day bears his name, I very much doubt if a man has made his way along it in the prosecution of a more curious errand than I did that day. To begin with, I had yet to discover what connection the illustrious Angelotti could have with Monsieur Pharos, and then to find out how far it was in his power to help me. Would he forsake his business and lead me direct to the Egyptian's abode, or would he deny any knowledge of the person in question and send me unenlightened away? Upon these points I resolved to satisfy myself without delay.
Of all the characteristic spots of Naples, surely the point at which the Via Roma joins the Piazza Sara Ferdinando, in which is situated the theatre in question, is the most remarkable. Here one is permitted an opportunity of studying the life of the city under the most favourable auspices. My mind, however, on this occasion was too much occupied wondering what the upshot of my errand would be to have any time to spare to the busy scene around me. Reaching the theatre, I took the card from my pocket and once more examined it. It was plain and straightforward, like Sir George Legrath's own life, and, as I have already said, warned me that I must look for this mysterious Angelotti, who carried on the trade of a public letter-writer, and who was the custodian of the Egyptian's address, under the arches of the famous theatre. As I glanced at the words "Public Letter-writer" another scene rose before my mind's eye.
Several years before I had visited Naples with a number of friends, among whom was a young American lady whose vivacity and capacity for fun made her the life and soul of the party. On one occasion nothing would please her but to stop in the street and engage one of these public scribes to indite a letter for her to an acquaintance in New York. I can see the old man's, amusement now, and the pretty, bright face of the girl as she endeavoured to make him understand, in broken Italian, what she desired him to say. That afternoon, I remember, we went to Capri and were late in reaching home, for which we should in all probability have received a wigging from the elder members of the party, who had remained behind, but for the fact that two important engagements, long hoped for, were announced as resulting from the excursion. I could not help contrasting the enjoyment with which I had made a bet of a pair of gloves with the young American, that she would not employ the letter-writer as narrated above, with my feelings as I searched for Angelotti now. Approaching the first table, I inquired of the man behind it whether he could inform me where I should be most likely to find the individual I wanted.
"Angelotti, did you say, signore?" the fellow replied, shaking his head. "I know no one of that name among the writers here." Then, turning to a man seated a little distance from him, he questioned him with the same result.
It began to look as if Legrath must have made some mistake, and that the individual in whose custody reposed the secret of Pharos's address was as difficult to find as his master himself. But, unsuccessful as my first inquiry had been, I was not destined to be disappointed in the end. A tall, swarthy youth, of the true Neapolitan loafer type, who had been leaning against a wall close by, smoking a cigarette and taking a mild interest in our conversation, now removed his back from its resting-place and approached us.
"Ten thousand pardons, excellenza," he said, "but you mentioned the name of one Angelotti, a public letter-writer. I am acquainted with him, and with the signor's permission will take him to that person."
"You are sure you know him?" I replied, turning upon him sharply, for I had had to do with Neapolitan loafers before, and I did not altogether like the look of this fellow.
"Since he is my uncle, excellenza, it may be supposed that I do," he answered.
Having said this, he inhaled a considerable quantity of smoke and blew it slowly out again, watching me all the time. I do not know any being in the world who can be so servile, and at the same time so insolent at a moment's notice, as a youth of the Neapolitan lower classes. This fellow was an excellent specimen of his tribe.
"Since you know Angelotti, perhaps you will tell me his address?" I said at last. "I have no doubt I shall then be able to find it for myself."
Seeing the advantage he held, and scenting employment of not too severe a kind, the young man made a gesture with his hands, as if to signify that while he was perfectly willing to oblige me in so small a matter, business was business, and he must profit by his opportunity. He would be perfectly willing, he said, to act as my guide; but it must be remembered that it would occupy some considerable portion of his valuable time, and this would have to be paid for at a corresponding rate.
When I had agreed to his terms he bade me follow him, and leaving the precincts of the theatre struck out in the direction of the Strada di Chiaia. Whatever his other deficiencies may have been, he was certainly a good walker, and I very soon found that it took me all my time to keep up with him. Reaching the end of the street, he turned sharply to the right, crossed the road, and a few seconds later dived into an alley. Of all the filthy public places of Naples, that in which I now found myself was undoubtedly the dirtiest. As usual, the houses were many storeys high; but the road was so narrow, and the balconies projected so far from the windows, that an active man might easily have leapt from side to side with perfect safety. As a rule the houses consisted of small shops, though here and there the heavily-barred lower windows and carved doorways proclaimed them private residences. Halfway down this objectionable thoroughfare a still smaller and dirtier one led off to the right, and into this my guide turned, bidding me follow him. Just as I was beginning to wonder whether I should ever find my way out alive, the youth came to a standstill before a small shop in which a number of second-hand musical instruments were displayed for sale.
"This, excellenza, is the residence of the most illustrious Angelotti," he said, as he waved his hand towards the shop in question.
"But I understood that he was a letter-writer," I answered, believing for the moment that the youth had tricked me.
"And it was quite true," he replied. "Until a month ago the Signor Angelotti had his table at the theatre; but his cousin is dead, and now he sells the most beautiful violins in all Italy."
As he said this the young man lifted his hand and gently waved it in the air, as if it were impossible for him to find words sufficiently expressive to describe the excellence of the wares I should find within. It is probable he considered me an intending purchaser, and I do not doubt he had made up his mind, in the event of business ensuing, to return a little later in order to demand from his avuncular relative a commission upon the transaction. Rewarding him for the trouble he had taken, I bade him be off about his business and entered the shop. It was a dismal little place, and filthy to an indescribable degree. The walls were hung with musical instruments, the ceiling with rows of dried herbs, and in a corner, seated at a table busily engaged upon some literary composition, a little old man, with sharp, twinkling eyes and snow-white hair. On seeing me, he rose from his chair and came forward to greet me, pen in hand.
"I am looking for the Signor Angelotti," I said, byway of introducing myself, "whom I was told in England I should find among the public letter-writers at the Theatre San Carlo."
"Angelotti is my name," he answered, "and for many-years I received my clients at the place you mention; but my cousin died, and though I would willingly have, gone on writing my little letters—for I may tell you, excellenza, that writing letters for other people and seeing how the world goes on around one is a pleasurable employment—business is business, however, and here was this shop to be attended to. So away went letter-writing, and now, as you see, I sell violins and mandolins, of which I can show your excellency the very best assortment in all Naples."
As he said this he put his little sparrow-like head ort one side and looked at me in such a comical fashion that I could scarcely refrain from laughing. I had no desire, however, to offend the little man, for I did not know how useful he might prove himself to me.
"Doubtless you miss your old employment," I said, "particularly as it seems to have afforded you so much interest. It was not in connection with your talents in that direction, however, that I called to see you. I have come all the way from England to ask you a question."
On hearing this he nodded his head even more vigorously.
"A great country," he answered with enthusiasm. "I have written many letters for my clients to relatives there. There is a place called Saffron Hill. Oh, excellenza, you would scarcely believe what stories I could tell you about the letters I have written to people there. But I am interrupting you, excellenza. I am an old man, and I have seen very many things, so it is only natural I should like to talk about them."
"Very natural, indeed," I answered; "but in this instance all I have come to ask of you is an address. I want to find a person who left England a few days since."
"And came to Naples? A countryman, perhaps?"
"No, he is no countryman of mine, nor do I even know that he came to Naples; but I was told by some one in England, from whom I made inquiries, that if I came here and asked for one Angelotti, a public letter-writer, I should, in all probability, be able to learn his whereabouts."
As if convinced of the importance of the part he was to play in the affair, the old man laid his pen carefully down upon the table, and then stood before me with his hands placed together, finger tip to finger tip.
"If his excellency would condescend to mention the individual's name," he said softly, "it is just possible I might be able to give him the information he seeks."
"The name of the person I want to find is Pharos," I replied. "He is sometimes called Pharos the Egyptian."
Had I stated that I was in search of the Author of all Evil, the placid Angelotti could scarcely have betrayed more surprise. He took a step from me and for a moment gazed at me in amazement that was not unmixed with horror. Then the expression gradually faded from his face, leaving it as devoid of emotion as before.
"Pharos?" he repeated. "For the moment it does not strike me, excellenza, that I know the individual."
I should have believed that he really had not the power to help me had I not noticed the look that had come into his face when I mentioned that fatal name.
"You do not know him?" I said. "Surely you must be making some mistake. Think again, Signor Angelotti. See, here is the card I spoke of. It has your name and address upon it, and it was given me by Sir George Legrath, the head of the Egyptian Museum in London, of whom I think you must at least have heard."
He shook his head after he had examined the card.
"It is my name, sure enough," he said, handing it back to me, "but I cannot understand why you should have supposed that I know anything of the person you are seeking. However, if you will write your name and address upon the card, and will leave it with me, I will make inquiries, and, should I discover anything, will at once communicate with you. I can do no more."
I saw then that my suppositions were correct, and that the old fellow was not as ignorant as he desired me to believe. I accordingly wrote my name, with that of the hotel at which I was staying, at the top of the card, and handed it to him, and then, seeing that there was nothing further to be done, bade him good-morning, and left the shop. Fortunately the road home was easier to find than I had expected it would be, and it was not very long before I was once more in the Piazza S. Ferdinando.
I was still thinking of the curious interview through which I had just passed when, as I crossed the road, I was suddenly recalled to the reality of the moment by a loud voice adjuring me, in scarcely complimentary terms, to get out of the way, unless I desired to be run over. I turned my head in time to see a handsome carriage, drawn by a pair of horses, coming swiftly towards me. With a spring I gained the pavement, and then turned to take stock of it. It was not, however, at the carriage I gazed, but upon its occupant For, lying back upon her cushions, and looking even more beautiful than when I had seen her last, was Pharos's companion, the Fräulein Valerie de Vocxqal. That she saw and recognised me was evinced by the expression on her face and the way in which she threw up her right hand. I almost fancied I could hear the cry of amazement that escaped her lips. Then the carriage disappeared in the crowd of traffic, and she was gone again. For some moments I stood on the pavement looking after her as if rooted to the spot. It was only when I had recovered myself sufficiently to resume my walk that I could put two and two together and understand what significance this meeting had for me. If she were in Naples, it was well-nigh certain that Pharos must be there too; and if he were there, then I hoped it would be in my power to find him and acquaint him with the determination at which I had arrived concerning him. That he desired to avoid me I could well understand, and the very fact that his companion showed so much astonishment at seeing me seemed to point to the same conclusion. Poor blind worm that I was, I hugged this conceit to my heart, and the more I did so the more resolved I became in my own mind that, when I did meet him, I would show no mercy. Debating with myself in this fashion, I made my way along the Strada S. Carlo, and so by a short cut to my hotel.
As I have already remarked, there is nothing drearier in the world than a foreign hotel out of the season. In this particular instance I seemed to have the entire building to myself. The long corridors were innocent of the step of a stranger foot, and when I sat down to lunch in the great dining-hall, I had not only the room, but the entire staff, or what was left of it, to wait upon me.
I had just finished my meal, and was wondering in what manner I could spend the afternoon, when a waiter approached and placed a note beside my plate. Had I never seen the writer, I should have been able to guess his profession by his penmanship. The caligraphy displayed upon the envelope was in every way too perfect not to be professional, and, as I looked at it, it seemed to me I could see the queer, sparrow-like head of the writer bending over it, and smell the odour of the dried herbs and the still drier violins hanging up in that quaint old shop to which I had paid a visit that morning. On the top was my name and address in my own writing, and below it the direction furnished to me by Sir George Legrath. Seeing that there was nothing new on that side, I took it to the window, and, turning it over, read as follows—
"If Mr. Forrester desires to meet the person on whose account he is visiting Naples, he should be in the Temple of Mercury at Pompeii this afternoon at four o'clock. Provided he brings no one with him, he will be permitted the interview he seeks."
There was no signature, and nothing to show from whom it emanated, but that it was genuine I did not for a moment doubt. I looked at my watch, and finding that as yet it was scarcely half-past one, tried to make up my mind whether I should go by train or drive. The afternoon would be hot, I was very well aware, and so would be a long drive in an open carriage; but the train would be hotter still. Eventually I decided for the road, and immediately despatched a waiter in search of a conveyance. Of the carriage and horses there is nothing to be said, and save the view, which is always beautiful, but little in favour of the drive. It was a quarter to four when I alighted at the entrance to the ruins, and by that time I was covered from head to foot with a coating of that indescribable dust so peculiar to Naples.
Informing the cabman that I should return to the city by train, I paid the admission fee, and, declining the services of a guide, entered the grounds, keeping my eyes wide open, as you may suppose, for any sign of the man I had come to meet. Entering the ruins proper by the Marine Gate, I made my way direct to the rendezvous named upon the card, and, surely, never in the history of that ancient place had a man done so with a stranger object in view. I need not have hurried, however, for on reaching the Forum, whence a full view of the Temple can be obtained, I found that I had the place to myself. Having satisfied myself on this point, I sat down on a block of stone and collected my thoughts in preparation for the coming interview. Times out of number I consulted my watch; and when the hands pointed to four o'clock I felt as if the quarter of an hour I had spent there had in reality been an hour. It was a breathless afternoon; beyond the city the blue hills appeared to float and quiver in mid-air. A lark was trilling in the sky above me, and so still was everything that the rumbling of a waggon on the white road half a mile or so away could be distinctly heard.
"My dear Mr. Forrester, allow me to wish you a very good afternoon; I need scarcely say how delighted I am to meet you!" said a voice behind me; and, turning, I found myself face to face with Pharos.
ANXIOUS as I was to see him, and eagerly as I had sought his presence, now that Pharos stood before me I was as frightened of him as I had been on the night I had first seen him at the foot of Cleopatra's Needle. I stood looking at his queer, ungainly figure for some thirty seconds, trying to make up my mind how I should enter upon what I had to say to him. That he was aware of my embarrassment I could see, and from the way his lips curled, I guessed that he was deriving considerable satisfaction from it. His face was as crafty and his eyes as wicked as ever I had seen them; but I noticed that on this occasion he leant more heavily upon his stick than usual.
"I presume it is to my kind friend, Sir George Legrath, that I am indebted for the pleasure of this interview," he said, after the short pause that followed his introductory speech; "for I need not flatter myself you will believe me when I say that I was fully aware, even before I met you in Lady Medenham's house the other day, that we should be talking together in this Temple within a week."
The palpable absurdity of this speech gave me just the opportunity for which I was waiting.
"Monsieur Pharos," I said, with as much sternness as I could manage to throw into my voice, "successful as you have hitherto been in deceiving me, it is not the least use your attempting to do so on the present occasion. I am quite willing to state that it was my friend, Sir George Legrath, who put me in the way of communicating with you. I called upon him on Tuesday morning, and obtained your address from him."
He nodded his head. "You will pardon me, I hope, if I seat myself," he said. "It seems that this interview is likely to be a protracted one, and as I am no longer young, I doubt if I can go through it standing."
With this apology he seated himself on a block of stone at the foot of one of the graceful columns, which in bygone days had supported the entrance to the Temple, and, resting his chin on his hands, which again leant on the carved handle of his stick, he turned to me, and in a mocking voice said," This air of mystery is no doubt very appropriate, my friend; but since you have taken such trouble to find me, perhaps you will be good enough to furnish me with your reason?"
I scratched in the dust with the point of my stick before I replied. Prepared as I was with what I had to say to him, and justified as I felt in pursuing the course I had determined to adopt, for the first time since I had arrived in Naples a doubt as to the probability, or even the sanity, of my case entered my head.
"I can quite understand your embarrassment, my dear Mr. Forrester," he said, with a little laugh, when he saw that I did not begin. "I am afraid you have formed a totally wrong impression of me. By some mischance a train of circumstances has arisen which has filled your mind with suspicion of me. As a result, instead of classing me among your warmest and most admiring friends, as I had hoped you would do, you distrust me and have nothing but unpleasant thoughts in your mind concerning me. Pray, let me hear the charges you bring against me, and I feel sure—nay, I am certain— I shall be able to refute them. The matter of what occurred at Cleopatra's Needle has already been disposed of, and I do not think we need refer to it again. What else have you to urge?"
His voice had entirely changed. It had lost its old sharpness, and was softer, more musical, and infinitely more agreeable than I had ever known it before. He rose from his seat and moved a step towards me. Placing his hand upon my arm, and looking me full and fair in the face, he said—
"Mr. Forrester, I am an old man—how old you can have no idea—and it is too late in my life for me to begin making enemies. Fate, in one of her cruel moments, has cursed me with an unpleasing exterior. Nay, do not pretend that you think otherwise, for I know it to be true. Those whom I would fain conciliate are offended by it. You, however, I should have thought would have seen below the surface. Why should we quarrel? To quote your own Shakespeare, 'I would be friends with you and have your love.' I am rich, I have influence, I have seen a great deal of the world, and have studied mankind as few others have done. If, therefore, we joined forces, what is there we might not do together?"
Incredible as it may seem after all I had suffered on his account, such was the influence he exerted over me that I now began to find myself wishing it were not necessary for me to say the things I had come to-say. But I had no intention of allowing him to suppose I could be moved as easily as he seemed to imagine.
"Before there can be any talk of friendship or even of association between us, Monsieur Pharos," I said, "it will be necessary for me to have a complete understanding with you. If I have wronged you, as, I confess, I sincerely hope I have done, I will apologise and endeavour to make amends for it. Are you aware that on the night of Lady Medenham's 'at home,' a diabolical murder was committed at the old curiosity shop at the corner of the street adjoining that in which my studio is situated?"
"One could hardly read the English papers without being aware of it," he answered gravely; "but I scarcely see in what way the matter affects me."
Here he stopped and gazed at me for a moment in silence, as if he were anxious to read what was passing in my mind. Then he began again—
"Surely you do not mean to tell me, Mr. Forrester, that your dislike to me has carried you so far as to induce you to believe that I was the perpetrator of that ghastly deed?"
"Since you are aware that a murder was committed," I said, "perhaps you also know that the deed was supposed to have been done between the hours of midnight and one o'clock. You may also have read that an individual was seen leaving the house by the back entrance almost on the stroke of one, and that he was believed to have taken refuge in my studio."
"Now that you recall the circumstance, I confess I did see something of the sort in the paper," he answered; "and I remember reading also that you informed the inspector of police, who called upon you to make inquiries, that to the best of your knowledge no such man had entered your house. What then?"
"Well, Monsieur Pharos, it was a few moments after the hour mentioned that you made your appearance before me, breathing heavily as though you had been running. Upon my questioning you, you offered the paltry excuse that you had been for a walk after Lady Medenham's 'at home,' and that you had missed your way and come quite by chance to my studio."
"As I shall prove to your satisfaction when you have finished, that was exactly what happened."
"But you have not heard all," I replied. "While in my rooms you became desirous of possessing the mummy of the Egyptian magician Ptahmes. You expressed a wish that I should present it to you, and, when I declined to do so, you hypnotised me, and took it without either my leave or my license—a very questionable proceeding if viewed in the light of the friendship you profess to entertain for me. How the law of the land would regard it, doubtless you know as well as I do."
As I said this I watched his face closely, but if I hoped to find any expression of shame there I was destined to be disappointed.
"My dear Forrester," he said, "it is very plain indeed that you have developed an intense dislike to me. Otherwise you would scarcely be so ready to believe evil of me. How will you feel when I convince you that all the ill you think of me is undeserved? Answer me that!"
"If only you can do so," I cried, clutching eagerly at the hope he held out. "If you can prove that I have wronged you, I will only too gladly make you any amends in my power. You cannot imagine what these last few days have been to me. I have perjured myself to save you. I have risked my good name, I have&mdash"
"And I thank you," he answered. "I don't think you will find me ungrateful. But before I accept your services I must prove to you that I am not as bad as you think me. Let us for a moment consider the matter. We will deal with the case of the mummy first, that being, as you will allow, of the least importance as far as you, individually, are concerned. Before I unburden myself, however, I must make you understand the disadvantage under which I am labouring. To place my meaning more clearly before you, it would be necessary for me to make an assertion which I have the best of reasons for knowing you would not believe. Perhaps I made a mistake on that particular evening to which we are referring, when I induced you to believe that it was by accident I visited your studio. I am prepared now to confess that it was not so. I was aware that you had that mummy in your possession. I had known it for some considerable time, but I had not been able to get in touch with you. That night an opportunity offered, and I seized it with avidity. I could not wait until the next day, but called upon you within a few hours of meeting you at Lady Medenham's 'at home.' I endeavoured to induce you to part with the mummy, but in vain. My entreaties would not move you. I exerted all my eloquence, argued and pleaded as I have seldom, if ever, done to a man before. Then, seeing that it was useless, I put into force a power of which I am possessed, and determined that, come what might, you should do as I desired. I do not deny that in so doing I was to blame, but I think, if the magnitude of the temptation were brought home to you, you would understand how difficult it would be not to fall. Let me make my meaning clearer to you, if possible."
"It would, perhaps, be as well," I answered, with a touch of sarcasm, "for at present I am far from being convinced."
"You have been informed already by our mutual friend, Sir George Legrath, if I remember rightly, that I am of Egyptian descent. Perhaps you do not understand that, while the ancient families of your country are proud of being able to trace their pedigrees back to the time of the Norman Conquest, a beggarly eight hundred years, or thereabouts, I, Pharos, can trace mine, with scarcely a break, back to the nineteenth dynasty of Egyptian history, a period, as your Baedeker will tell you, of over three thousand years. It was that very Ptahmes, the man whose mummy your father stole from its ancient resting-place, who was the founder of our house. For some strange reason, what I cannot tell, I have always entertained the belief that my existence upon this earth, and such success as I shall meet with hereon, depended upon my finding that mummy and returning it to the tomb from which sacrilegious hands had taken it. At first this was only a mere desire; later it became a fixed determination, which grew in strength and intensity until it became more than a determination, a craving in which the happiness of my whole existence was involved. For many years, with a feverish longing which I cannot expect or hope to make you understand, I searched Europe from end to end, visiting all the great museums and private collections of Egyptian antiquities, but without success. Then, quite by chance, and in a most circuitous fashion, I discovered that it was your father who had found it, and that at his death it had passed on to you. I visited England immediately, obtained an introduction to you, and the rest you know."
"And where is the mummy now?" I inquired.
"In Naples," he replied. "To-morrow I start with it for Egypt, to return it to the place whence your father took it."
"But allow me to remark that it is not your property, Monsieur Pharos," I replied; "and even taking into consideration the circumstances you relate, you must see yourself that you have no right to act as you propose doing."
"And pray by what right did your father rifle the dead man's tomb?" said Pharos quietly. "And since you are such a stickler for what is equitable, perhaps you will show me his justification for carrying away the body from the country in which it had been laid to rest, and conveying it to England to be stared at in the light of a curiosity. No, Mr. Forrester, your argument is a poor one, and I should combat it to the last. I am prepared, however, to make a bargain with you."
"And what is that bargain?" I inquired.
"It is as follows," he replied. "Our interest in the dead man shall be equal. Since it was your father who stole the mummy from its resting-place, let it be the descendant of the dead Ptahmes who restores it. As you will yourself see, and as I think you must in common honesty admit, what I am doing in this matter can in no way advance my own personal interests. If I have taken from you a possession which you valued so highly, set your own figure upon it, and double what you ask I will pay. Can I say anything fairer?"
I did not know what to answer. If the man were what he said, the veritable descendant of the king's magician, then it was only natural he should be willing to sacrifice anything to obtain possession of the body of his three thousand years old ancestor. On my part the sentiment was undoubtedly a much weaker one. The mummy had been left me, among other items of his collection, by my father, and, when that has been said, my interest in the matter lapsed. There was, however, a weightier issue to be decided before I could do him the favour he asked.
"So much for the mummy incident," I said. "What you have to do now is to clear yourself of the more serious suspicion that exists against you. I refer to the murder of the curiosity dealer."
"But surely, Mr. Forrester," he said, "you cannot be serious when you say you believe I had anything to do with that dreadful affair?"
"You know very well what I do and what I do not believe," I answered. "I await your reply."
"Since you press me for it, I will give it," he continued. "But remember this, if I have to convince you of my innocence, your only chance will be gone, for I shall never feel the same towards you again."
As he said this, the old fierce light came into his eyes, and for a moment he looked as dangerous as on that evening in the studio.
"I repeat, I ask you for it," I said, as firmly as my voice could speak.
"Then you shall have it," he replied, and dived his hand into his coat pocket. When he produced it again it held a crumpled copy of a newspaper. He smoothed it out upon his knee, and handed it to me.
"If you look at the third column from the left, you will see a heading entitled, 'The mysterious murder in Bonwell Street.' Pray read it."
I took the paper and read as follows—
"THE MYSTERIOUS MURDER IN
"EXTRAORDINARY CONFESSION AND SUICIDE.
"Shortly before nine o'clock this morning, a tall, middle-aged man, giving the name of Johann Schmidt, a German, and evidently in a weak state of health, entered the precincts of Bow Street Police Station, and informed the officer in charge that he desired to give himself up to justice as the murderer of Herman Clausand, the curiosity dealer of Bonwell Street, the victim of the shocking tragedy announced in our issue of Tuesday last Schmidt, who spoke with considerable earnestness, and seemed desirous of being believed, stated that several years before he had been in the deceased's employ, and since his dismissal had nursed feelings of revenge. On the day preceding the murder he had called at Bonwell Street, and, after informing Clausand that he was out of employment and starving, asked to be again taken into his service; the other, however, refused, whereupon Schmidt very reluctantly left the shop. For the remainder of the day he wandered about London, endeavouring to obtain work; but about midnight, having been unsuccessful, he returned to Bonwell Street and rang the bell. The door was opened by Clausand himself, who, as we stated in our first account of the murder, lived alone. Schmidt entered, and once more demanded employment, or at least money sufficient to enable him to find shelter for the night. Again Clausand refused, whereupon the man picked up a dagger from a stand near by, and stabbed him to the heart. Frightened at what he had done, he did not stay to rob the body, but made his way through the house and out by the back door. Passing into Murbrook Street, he saw a policeman coming towards him, but by stepping into a doorway he avoided him. Since that time, up to the moment of surrendering himself, he had been wandering about London, and it was only when he found starvation staring him in the face that he determined to give himself up. Having told his story, the man was about to be searched prior to being conducted to a cell, when he drew from his pocket a revolver and placed the muzzle to his forehead. Before the bystanders could stop him he had pulled the trigger; there was a loud report, and a moment later the wretched man fell dead at the officer's feet. The divisional surgeon was immediately summoned, but on his arrival found that life was extinct. Inquiries were at once made, with a view to ascertaining whether the story he had told had any foundation in fact. We have since learned that the description he gave of himself was a true one, that he had once been in Clausand's employ, and that on the day preceding the murder he had openly asserted in a public-house in the neighbourhood of Soho his intention of being revenged upon him.
"The coroner has been informed, and an inquest will be held to-morrow morning."
After I had read it, I stood for some moments looking at the paper in my hand. Then I turned to Pharos, who was still seated on the block of stone watching me intently. Since this miserable wretch had confessed to the crime, it was plain that I had wronged him in supposing he had committed it. A weight was undoubtedly lifted from my mind, but for some reason or another the satisfaction I derived from this was by no means as great as I had expected it would be. At the back of my mind there was still a vague impression that I was being deceived, and, do what I would, I could not rid myself of it.
"That, I think, should convince you, Mr. Forrester," said Pharos, rising and coming towards me, "how very unwise it is ever to permit one's feelings to outweigh one's judgment. You made up your mind that you disliked me, and for the simple reason that I had the misfortune to lose my way on that particular evening, and to reach your studio about the same time that that terrible murder was committed, you were ready at a moment's notice to believe me guilty of the crime."
"What you say is quite true," I answered humbly. "I acted very foolishly, I admit. I have done you a great wrong, and you have behaved very generously about it."
"In that case we will say no more about it," he replied. "It is an unpleasant subject; let us forget it and never refer to it again. As I asked you to believe when last I saw you, my only desire is that you should think well of me and that we should be friends. As another proof of my kindly feeling towards yourself, I will go further than I originally intended, and say that I am willing to restore the mummy I took from you. It is here in Naples, but, if you wish, it shall be at once returned to your house in London."
This was more than I had expected from him, and it impressed me accordingly.
"I could not dream of such a thing," I replied. "Since you have been so generous, let me follow your example. I have wronged you, and, as some small return, I ask you to keep the King's Magician, and do with him as you please."
"I accept your offer in the spirit in which it is made," he replied. "Now, perhaps, we had better be going. If you have nothing better to do this evening, I should be glad if you would dine with me. I think I can promise you a better dinner than you will get at your own hotel, and afterwards, I have no doubt, we shall be able to induce my ward to give us some music. You had better say 'Yes,' for, I assure you, we shall both be disappointed if you refuse."
"You are really very kind," I began, "but—"
"With your permission we will have no 'buts,'" he replied, with a wave of his hand. "The matter is settled, and I shall look forward to a pleasant evening. My carriage is at the gate, and if you will drive back with me I shall be doubly honoured."
If there had been any way of getting out of it, I think I should have taken advantage of it; but as I could not discover one, I was perforce compelled to accept his invitation.
"I wonder if this city has the same fascination for you, Mr. Forrester, that it has for me?" said Pharos after I had given my consent to the arrangement he proposed. "For my own part I confess I never come to Naples without paying it a visit; but how very few are there of the numbers who visit it weekly that really understand it! What tales I could tell you of it, if only they interested you! How vividly I could bring back to you the life of the people who once spoke in this forum, bathed in yonder baths, applauded in the theatre nineteen hundred years ago I Let us follow this street which leads towards the Temple of Isis, that temple in which the Egyptian goddess was worshipped by such as pretended to believe in her mysterious powers. I say pretended, because it was the fashion then to consult her oracles, a fashion as insulting as it was popular."
By this time we had passed out of the Temple of Mercury and were making our way along the time-worn pavement towards the building of which he spoke. The sun was sinking in the west, and already long shadows were drawing across the silent streets, intensifying the ghostliness of the long-deserted city. Reaching the Temple, we entered and looked about us.
"See how its grandeur has departed from it," said Pharos, with a note of sadness in his voice that made me turn and look at him in surprise. "Time was when this was the most beautiful temple in the city, when every day her courts were thronged with worshippers, when her oracles boasted a reputation that reached even to mighty Rome. On this spot stood the statue of the goddess herself. There that of her son, the god Horus. Here was the purgatorium, and there the bronze figure of the bull god Apis. Can you not picture the crowd of eager faces beyond the rails, the white-robed priests, and the sacrifice being offered up on yonder altar amid the perfumes of frankincense and myrrh? Where, Mr. Forrester, are these priests now? The crowd of worshippers, the statue's? Gone—gone—dust and ashes, these nineteen hundred years. Come, we have lingered here long enough, let us go farther."
Leaving the Temple, we made our way into the Stabian Street, passed the Temple of Aesculapius, and did not stop until we had reached the house of Tullus Agrippa. Into this Pharos led me.
"O Tullus Agrippa!" he cried, as if apostrophising the dead man, "across the sea of time, I, Pharos the Egyptian, salute thee! Great was thy wealth and seemingly endless thy resources. Greedy of honour and praise wast thou, and this house was the apex of thy vanity. Here is that same triclinium where thy guests were wont to assemble when thou didst invite them to thy banquets. Here the room in which thou didst condemn thine only son to perpetual banishment. In those days, when the sun was warm and the table was spread, and friends crowded about thee and praised the beauty of thy frescoes, the excellence of thy wine, the cunning devices of thy cook, and the service of thy slaves, little didst thou dream that nineteen centuries later would find thy house roofless, dug up from the bowels of the earth, and thy cherished rooms a show to be gaped at by all who cared to pay a miserable fee. Least of all didst thou think then that Pharos the Egyptian would be standing in the room where once thou didst rule so absolute, telling a man, of a race that in thy day was unknown, of thy faults and follies."
He stopped for a moment, and then, turning to me again, recommenced with fresh energy.
"The owner of this house, Tullus Agrippa, was avaricious, cruel, vain and sensual. He gave of his wealth only when he was assured of a large return. He was hated on every hand, and by his own family and dependants most of all. What did his wealth avail him on that last dread day, when the streets were filled with flying citizens, when all was confusion and none knew which way to turn for safety? The catastrophe found him tossing on a bed of sickness and scarcely able to stand alone. With the first shock of the earthquake he called imperiously for his favourite slave, but received no answer. He called again, this time almost with entreaty. Still no answer came. The walls of his house trembled and shook as he rose from his couch and staggered out into the fast darkening street. Like a blind man he groped his way to yonder corner, calling upon the names of his gods as he went, and offering every sestertia in his possession to the person who would conduct him to a place of safety. A man brushed against him. He looked up and recognised the gladiator, Tymon, the man he had encouraged and whose richest patron he was. Accordingly he seized him and clung to him, offering gifts innumerable if he would only carry him as far as the Marine Gate. But this was no time for helping others, with that terrible shower of ashes pouring down upon them like rain. The gladiator cast him off, but he was not to be denied. He struggled to his knees and threw his arms around the strong man's legs, but only for an instant. Roused to a pitch of fury by his terror and the other's persistency, Tymon struck him a blow on the temple with the full strength of his ponderous fist. The old man stumbled against the wall, clutched at it for support, and at length fell senseless upon the ground. The shower of ashes and scoria quickly covered him, and nineteen hundred years later the workmen, excavating the ruins, discovered his body at the base of yonder wall. Such was the fate of the noble Tullus Agrippa, citizen of Rome, and once the owner of this house."
Before I could ask how he had become familiar with these details, he had made his way outside and was in the road again. I followed him, and we returned to the Porta Marina, and down the path towards the entrance to the ruins. My companion was evidently well known to the officials, for they treated him with obsequious respect, bowing before him and inquiring if he had seen certain new excavations, as if the success of the latter depended entirely on his good opinion of them. In the road outside a carriage was standing, to which was attached a magnificent pair of black horses. A coachman, dressed in a neat but unpretentious black livery, sat upon the box, while a footman stood beside the carriage door. The whole turn-out was in excellent taste, and would have made a creditable appearance in the Bois de Boulogne or Hyde Park. Into this elegant equipage Pharos invited me to step, and when I had seated myself he took his place beside me. Hot though the night was, a heavy fur rug was wrapped round his knees, and he laid himself back upon the cushions with a sigh of relief, as if the exertion of the afternoon had been too much for him,
"So much for Pompeii," he said, as the horses sprang forward. "Now for Naples and the most beautiful creature it contains at present, my ward, the Fräulein Valeria De Vocxqal."
(To be continued)
|The opening chapters of "Pharos the Egyptian" will be found in our June Number.|