From The Windsor Magazine, August 1898
Illustrated by JOHN H. BACON
SYNOPSIS OF FOREGOING CHAPTERS.
The footman, having descended from the box, opened the door of the carriage, and when he had withdrawn the rug from his master's knees, assisted him to alight. I followed, and we proceeded up the steps into the house. Prepared as I was by the fact that both Lady Medenham and Sir George Legrath had informed me of Pharos's wealth, I could scarcely contain my surprise when the beauty of the house to which I was now introduced was revealed to me. The hall in which we stood was filled from floor to ceiling with works of art, carvings, paintings, statues, tapestry, the value of which I could the better appreciate when I was permitted an opportunity of examining them more closely.
"I make you welcome to my abode, Mr. Forrester," said Pharos, as I crossed the threshold. "You are not the first English artist who has honoured me with a visit, and I think, if you will glance round these walls, you will admit that you are in good company. See, here is a Fra Angelico, here a Botticelli, here a Perugino, to your right a Giorgione—all your fellow-guests. At the foot of the stairs is a Jan Steen, half-way up a Madonna by Signorelli; the monk above is, as doubtless you can see for yourself, an Andra del Sarto, who has found many admirers. But that is not all. If you will follow me, I think I can show you something which will have an equal interest for you, though perhaps in a somewhat different way."
Feeling as if I were walking in a dream, I followed him along the hall. Presently he stopped and pointed to a large canvas.
"Do you recognise it?" he inquired.
To my surprise it was neither more nor less than one of my own earlier works which had appeared in the Academy about three years before and represented a fantastic subject. It had been purchased by a dealer, and after it had left my possession I had lost sight of it altogether. To find it here, in the home of the man who had come to play such an extraordinary part in my life, overwhelmed me with astonishment.
"You seem surprised at seeing it," said Pharos, as we stood before it. "If you will allow me, I will relate to you the circumstances under which it came into my possession, and I think you will admit that they are highly interesting. It is now two years since the event occurred of which I am going to tell you. I was then in Baden. It was the height of the season, and the city was crowded, not only with interesting foreigners—if you will permit the unintentional sarcasm—but with a large proportion of your own English aristocracy. Among the latter was a certain nobleman to whom I was happily able to be of considerable service. He was one of life's failures. In his earlier youth he had a literary tendency which, had the Fates been propitious, might possibly have brought him some degree of fame; his accession to the title, however, and the wealth it carried with it, completely destroyed him. When I met him in Baden he was as near ruined as a man of his position could be. He had with him one daughter, a paralytic, to whom he was devotedly attached. Had it not been for her, I am convinced he would have given up the struggle and have done what he afterwards did —namely, have made away with himself. In the hope of retrieving his fortune and of distracting his mind, he sought the assistance of the gaming-tables; but having neither luck nor, what is equally necessary, sufficient courage, eventually found himself face to face with ruin. It was then that I appeared upon the scene, and managed to extricate him from his dilemma. As a token of his gratitude he made me a present of this picture, which up to that time had been one of his most treasured possessions."
"And the man himself—what became of him?"
Pharos smiled an evil smile.
"Well, he was always unfortunate. On the selfsame night that he made me the present to which I refer he experienced another run of ill luck."
"And the result?"
"Can you not guess? He returned to his lodgings to find that his daughter was dead, whereupon he wrote me a note, thanking me for the assistance I had rendered him, and blew his brains out at the back of the Kursaal."
On hearing this I recoiled a step from the picture, While it flattered my vanity to hear that the wretched man who had lost fame, fortune, and everything else, should still have retained my work, I could not repress a feeling of horror at the thought that in so doing he had, unconsciously, it is true, been bringing me into connection with the very man who I had not the least doubt had brought about his ruin. As may be supposed, however, I said nothing to Pharos on this score. For the time being we were flying a flag of truce, and having had one exhibition of his powers, I had no desire to experience a second. Whether he read what was passing in my mind or not, I cannot say. At any rate, he changed the subject abruptly and led me away from my own work to another at the farther end of the hall. From this we passed into an anteroom, which, like the hall, was hung with pictures. It was a magnificent apartment in every way, but, as I soon discovered, was eclipsed by the larger room into which it opened. The latter could not have been less than eighty feet long by forty wide. The walls were decorated with exquisite pictures, and, if such a thing were possible, with still more exquisite china. All the appointments were in keeping. At the farther end was a grand piano, and seated near this, slowly fanning herself with a large ostrich-feather fan, was the woman I had seen first at the Academy, then at Medenham House, and earlier that very day in the Piazza S. Ferdinando. Upon our entrance she rose, and once more I thought I discovered a frightened look in her face. In a second, however, it had passed, and she had once more recovered her equanimity.
"Valerie," said Monsieur Pharos, "I have been fortunate enough to meet Mr. Forrester, who arrived in Naples last night, and to induce him to dine with us this evening."
While he was speaking, I had been watching the face of the beautiful woman whose affecting story Lady Medenham had told me, and had noticed how white it had suddenly become. The reason of this I have since discovered, but I know that at the time it puzzled me more than a little.
"I bid you welcome, sir," she said, in excellent English, but with no great degree of cordiality.
I made some suitable reply, and then Pharos departed from the room, leaving us together. My companion once more seated herself, and, making an effort, began a conversation that was doubtless of a very polite, but to me entirely unsatisfactory, nature. Presently she rose from her chair and went to the window, where she stood for some moments looking out into the fast-darkening street. Then she turned to me, as she did so making a little gesture with her hands that was more expressive than any words.
"Mr. Forrester," she said, speaking rapidly in a low voice, but with great earnestness, "have you taken leave of your senses that you come here? Are you tired of your life that you thrust your head into the lion's den in this foolish fashion?"
Her words were so startling, and her agitation so genuine, that I could make neither head nor tail of it. I accordingly hastened to ask for an explanation.
"I can tell you nothing," she said, "except that this place is fatal to you. Oh, if I could only make you understand how fatal!"
Her beauty and the agitation under which she was labouring exercised a most powerful effect upon me, which was increased rather than diminished when I reflected that it was being exerted on my behalf.
"I scarcely understand you," I stammered, for I was quite carried away by her vehemence. "From what you say, I gather that you believe me to be in a position of some danger, but I assure you such is not the case, I met Monsieur Pharos at Pompeii this afternoon, and he was kind enough to ask me to dine with him this evening. Surely there can be nothing dangerous in that. If, however, my presence is in any way distasteful to you, I can easily make an excuse and take my departure."
"You know it is not that," she answered quickly and with a little stamp of her foot. "It is for your own sake I am imploring you to go. If you knew as much of this house as I do, you would not remain in it another minute."
"My dear madame," I said," if you would only be more explicit, I should be the better able to understand you."
"I cannot be more explicit," she answered; "such a thing is out of my power. But remember, if anything happens, I have warned you, and your fate will be upon your own head."
"But—" I cried, half rising from my seat.
"Hush!" she answered. "There is not time for more. He is coming."
A moment later Pharos entered the room. He had discarded his heavy fur coat, and was now dressed as I had seen him at Medenham House—that is to say, he wore a tight-fitting black velvet coat buttoned high up round his throat, and a skull cap of the same material. He had scarcely entered the room before dinner was announced.
"If you will take my ward," he said, "I will follow you."
I did as directed, and never while I live shall I forget the thrill that passed through me as I felt the pressure of her tiny hand upon my arm. Lovely as I had always thought her, I had never seen her look more beautiful than on this particular evening. As I watched her proud and graceful carnage, I could well believe, as Lady Medenham had said, that she traced her descent from one of the oldest families in Europe. There was something about her that I could not understand, though I tried repeatedly to analyse it—a vague, indescribable charm that made her different to all other women I had ever met.
The room in which we dined was a more sombre apartment than the others I had seen. The walls were hung with heavy tapestries, unrelieved by light or brilliant colour. The servants also struck me as remarkable. They were tall, elderly, dark-skinned, and, if the truth must be told, of somewhat saturnine appearance, and if I had been asked, I should have given my vote against their being Italians. They did their duty noiselessly and well, but their presence grated upon me, very much as Pharos's had done on the first three occasions that I had met him. Among other things, one singular circumstance arrested my attention. While the dinner was in every respect admirable, and would not have discredited the Maison Doree, or the Café de la Paix, Pharos did not partake of it. At the commencement of the meal a dish of fruit and a plate of small flat cakes were placed before him. He touched nothing else, save, when we had finished, to fill a wineglass with water and to pour into it a spoonful of some white powder, which he took from a small silver box standing before him. This he tossed off at one draught.
"You are evidently surprised," he said, turning towards me, "at the frugality of my fare, but I can assure you that in my case eating has been reduced almost to a vanishing point. Save a little fruit in the morning, and a glass of water in which I dissolve one of these powders, and a meal similar to that you now see me making in the evening, I take nothing else, and yet I am stronger than many men of half my age. If the matter interests you, I will some day give you proof of that."
To this speech I made some reply and then glanced at the Fräulein Valerie. Her face was still deathly pale, and I could see by the way her hands trembled above her plate that the old fellow's words had in some manner been the cause of it. Had I known as much then as I do now, I should no doubt have trembled myself. For the moment, however, I thought she must be ill, and should have said as much had my eyes not met hers and found them imploring me to take no notice of her agitation. I accordingly addressed myself to Pharos on the subject of the journey from Paris to Naples, and thus permitted her time to recover her self-possession. The meal at an end, she rose and left the room, not, however, before she had thrown another look of entreaty at me, which, as I read it, seemed to say, "For pity sake remember where you are, and be careful what you say or do."
The door had scarcely closed behind her before another on the other side of the room opened, and a servant entered carrying in his arms a monkey wrapped in a small rug, from which its evil-looking little face peered out at me as if it were wondering at my presence there. Pharos noticed my surprise.
"Let me make you acquainted with my second self," he said, and then, turning to the monkey, continued, "Pehtes, make your salutation."
The monkey, however, finding himself in his master's arms, snuggled himself down and paid no more attention to me, whereupon Pharos pushed the decanters, which the servant had placed before him, towards me and invited me to fill my glass.
I thanked him, but declined.
"If you will permit me to say so, I think you are foolish," he answered. "I have been often complimented on that wine, particularly by your countrymen."
I wondered who the countrymen were who had sat at this table, and what the reason could have been that had induced them to accept his hospitality. Could Legrath have been among the number, and, if so, what was the terrible connection between them? For terrible I knew it must have been, otherwise it would scarcely have made Sir George, usually the most self-contained of men, betray such agitation when I inquired if he were acquainted with the name of Pharos.
While these thoughts were passing through my mind, I stole a glance at the old fellow as he sat at the head of the table, propped up with cushions, and with the monkey's evil countenance peeping out from his hiding-place under the other's coat. He was evidently in an expansive mood, and as anxious as possible to make himself agreeable. The first horror of his presence had by this time left me, and, as I said at the commencement of this chapter, its place had been taken by a peculiar interest for which I found it well-nigh impossible to account.
"If you will not take any wine, perhaps you will let me offer you a cigarette," he said, after I had declined his previous invitation. "I am not a smoker myself, but those who do enjoy the fragrant weed tell me the brand is excellent. It is grown on one of my own estates in Turkey, and can be obtained nowhere else in the world."
So saying, he produced a small silver case from his pocket and handed it to me. I took one of the cigarettes it contained, lit it, and for the next two or three minutes sat back in my chair silently smoking. The tobacco was excellent. To have wasted a puff of that precious smoke in conversation would have been a sacrilege that I was determined not to commit. Having finished one, I was easily persuaded to take another, and was compelled to declare the flavour to be even better than the first.
"I am delighted to see that you enjoy them," said Pharos.
"I have never smoked any tobacco like it," I replied. "It seems hard that you should not enjoy it yourself."
"I could not enjoy it in a happier way," he answered, "than through my friends. I am amply compensated when I see the pleasure it gives them."
After this philanthropic contribution to the conversation of the evening, we were both silent again for some moments. My cigarette was half finished, but the case, still nearly full, lay upon the table for me to help myself when I felt inclined. Little by little the subtle intoxication of the weed was permeating my whole being; a gentle languor was stealing over me, and as a result my brain had never before seemed so bright or my capacity of enjoyment so keen as it did then.
"If you will not take wine, we might adjourn to the drawing-room," said Pharos at last. "It is possible we may be able to induce my ward to give us some music, and as she is partial to the aroma of these cigarettes, I think I may assure you beforehand that she will willingly give you permission to smoke in her presence."
Accordingly we sought the drawing-room, the same in which the beautiful Hungarian had uttered her curious warning to me earlier in the evening. She was seated in the same chair as she had then occupied, and, on entering, Pharos, still carrying the monkey in his arms, crossed and patted her hand in a grandfatherly fashion. Kindly, however, as the action appeared to be, I noticed that she trembled beneath it.
"I have assured Mr. Forrester, my dear Valerie," he said, "that the odour of tobacco is not distasteful to you, and that you will permit him to smoke a cigarette in your presence. Was I not right?"
"Of course I will give permission," she answered, but never had I heard her voice so cold and monotonous. It was as if she were repeating something under compulsion. At any other time I should have declined to avail myself of what I could not help thinking was permission grudgingly given; but since Pharos insisted, and the Fräulein begged me to do so, I at length consented and made a further raid upon the case. As soon as he had seen the cigarette lighted and myself comfortably seated, Pharos installed himself in an armchair, while his ward wrapped the inevitable rug about his knees. Having done this, she took her violin from its case, and when she had tuned it, took up her position and commenced to play. I had still the same feeling, however, that she was doing it under compulsion; but how that force was being exerted, and for what reason, was more than I could tell. Once more the same gentle languor I had felt at the dinner-table began to steal over me, and again my senses became abnormally acute. Under the influence of the music, new ideas, new inspirations, new dreams of colour, crowded upon me thick and fast. In the humour in which I was then, I felt that there was nothing I could not do, no achievement of which I was not capable. What I had done in the past was as nothing compared with what I would do in the future. With this man's help I would probe the very heart of Wisdom and make myself conversant with her secrets. Through half-closed eyes I could see the violinist standing before me, and it was as if her white hands were beckoning me along the road of Fame. I turned from her to Pharos, and found him still seated in his chair, with his eyes fixed steadfastly upon me. Then the cigarette came to an end, the music ceased, and with a choking sob the violinist, unable to control herself any longer, fled from the room. I sprang to my feet and hastened to open the door for her, but was too late. She was gone.
"Mr. Forrester," said Pharos, after we had been alone together for a few moments, "I am going to make a proposition to you which I shall be very much honoured if you can see your way to accept."
"I shall be better able to tell you when I know what it is," I answered.
"It is eminently simple," he continued. "It is neither more nor less than this. I am the possessor of a steam-yacht—a comfortable craft, my friends tell me—and in her my ward and I start to-morrow for Port Said, en route for Cairo."
"For Cairo?" I cried, in amazement.
"For Cairo," he answered with a smile. "And why not? Cairo is a most delightful place, and I have important business in Egypt. Perhaps you can guess what that business is."
"The mummy?" I answered at a hazard.
"Exactly," he replied, nodding his head; "the mummy. It is my intention to restore it to the tomb from which your father sto—from which, shall we say?—your father removed it."
"And your proposition?"
"Is that you accompany us. The opportunity is one you should not let slip. You will have a chance of seeing the Land of the Pharaohs under the most favourable auspices, and the hints you should derive for future work should be invaluable to you. What do you say?"
To tell the truth, I did not know what answer to give. I had all my life long had a craving to visit that mysterious country, and, as I have said elsewhere, I had quite made up my mind to do so at the end of the year. Now an opportunity was afforded me of carrying out my intentions, and in a most luxurious fashion. I remembered the extraordinary interest Pharos had lent to the ruins of Pompeii that afternoon, and I felt sure that in Egypt, since it was his native country, he would be able to do much more. But it was not the prospect of what I should learn from him so much as the knowledge that I should be for some weeks in the company of Valerie de Vocxqal that tempted me. The thought that I should be with her on board the yacht, and that I should be able to enjoy her society uninterruptedly in the mystic land which had played such an important part in my career, thrilled me to the centre of my being. That her life was a far from happy one I was quite convinced, and it was just possible, if I went with them, that I might be able to discover the seat of the trouble and perhaps be in a position to assist her.
"What have you to say to my plan?" inquired Pharos. "Does not the idea tempt you?"
"It tempts me exceedingly," I answered; "but the fact of the matter is, I had no intention of being absent so long from England."
"England will be still there when you get back," he continued with a laugh. "Come, let it be decided that you will join us. I think I can promise that you will enjoy the trip."
"I do not wish to appear discourteous," I said, "but would it not be better for me to take till to-morrow morning to think it over?"
"It would be the most foolish policy possible," he answered, "for in that case I feel convinced you would find some reason for not accepting my invitation, and by so doing would deprive yourself of a chance which, as I said just now, may never come again in your life. If Valerie were here, I feel sure she would add her voice to mine."
The mention of his ward's name decided me, and, with a recklessness that forces a sigh from me now, I gave my promise to accompany them.
"I am very glad to hear it," said Pharos. "I think you have decided wisely. We shall sail to-morrow evening at ten o'clock. My servants will call for your luggage and will convey it and you on board. You need not trouble yourself in any way."
I thanked him, and then, finding that it was close upon eleven o'clock, took leave of him. That I was disappointed in not being permitted an opportunity of saying farewell to his ward, I will not deny. I feared that she was offended with me for not having taken her advice earlier in the evening. I did not mention the matter, however, to Pharos, but bade him goodnight, and, declining his offer to send me home in his carriage, made my way into the hall and presently left the house. Having crossed the courtyard, the ancient gatekeeper passed me out through a small door beside the gates. The night was exceedingly warm, and as I stepped into the street the moon was rising above the opposite housetops. Having made inquiries from Pharos, I had no doubt of being able to make my way back to my hotel. Accordingly, as soon as I had rewarded the concierge, and the gate had closed behind me, I set off down the pavement at a brisk pace. I had not gone very far, however, before a door opened in a garden wall, and a black figure stole forth and addressed me by my name. It was the Fräulein Valerie.
"Mr. Forrester," she said, "I have come at great risk to meet you. You would not listen to me this evening, but I implore you to do so now. If you do not heed me and take my warning, it may be too late."
The moon shone full and fair upon her face, revealing her wonderful beauty and adding an ethereal charm to it which I had never noticed it possessed before.
"Of what is it you would warn me, my dear lady?" I asked.
"I cannot tell you," she answered, "for I do not know myself. But of this I am certain: since he has interested himself in you, and has declared his desire for your friendship, it cannot be for your good. You do not know him as I do. You have no idea, it is impossible you should, of what he is. For your own sake, Mr. Forrester, draw back while you have time. Have no more to do with him. Shun his society, whatever it costs you. You smile! Ah, if you only knew! I tell you this—it would be better, far better for you to die than to fall into his power."
I was touched by the earnestness with which she spoke, but more by the sadness of her face.
"Fräulein," I said, "you speak as if you had done that yourself."
"I have," she answered. "I am in his power, and, as a result, I am lost, body and soul. It is for that reason I would save you. Take warning by what I have said and leave Naples to-night. Never mind where you go—go to Russia, to America, bury yourself in the wilds of Siberia or Kamtschatka—but get beyond his reach."
"It is too late," I answered. "The die is cast, for I have promised to sail with him to Egypt tomorrow."
On hearing this she uttered a little cry, and took a step away from me.
"You have promised to visit Egypt with him?" she cried, as if she could scarcely believe she heard aright. "Oh! Mr. Forrester, what can you be thinking of? I tell you it is fatal, suicidal. If you have any regard for your own safety, you will get away to-night, this very moment, and never return to Naples or see him again."
In her agitation she clutched at my arm and held it tightly. I could feel that she was trembling violently.
Her touch, however, instead of effecting the purpose she had in view, decided me on a contrary course.
"Fräulein," I said, in a voice I should not at any other time have recognised as my own, "you tell me that this man has you in his power. You warn me of the dangers I run by permitting myself to associate with him, and, having risked so much for me, you expect me to go away and leave you to his mercy. I fear you must have a very poor opinion of me."
"I am only trying to save you," she answered. "The first day I saw you I read disaster in your face, and from that moment I desired to prevent it."
"But if you are so unhappy, why do you not attempt to save yourself?" I asked. "Come, I will make a bargain with you. If I am to fly from this man, you must do so too. Let us set off this moment. You are beyond the walls now. Will you trust yourself to me? There is a steamer in the harbour sailing at midnight. Let us board her and sail for Genoa, thence anywhere you please. I have money, and I give you my word of honour, as a gentleman, that I will leave nothing undone to promote your safety and your happiness. Let us start at once, and in half an hour we shall be rid of him for ever."
As I said this, I took her arm and endeavoured to lead her down the pavement, but she would not move.
"No, no," she said in a frightened whisper. "You do not know what you are asking of me. Such a thing is impossible—hopelessly impossible. However much I may desire to do so, I cannot escape. I am chained to him for life by a bond that is stronger than fetters of steel. I cannot leave him. O God! I cannot leave him!"
She fell back against the wall and once more covered her face with her hands, while her slender frame shook with convulsive sobs.
"So be it then," I said; and, as I did so, I took off my hat. "If you will not leave him, I swear before God I will not go alone. It is settled, and I sail with him for Egypt to-morrow."
She did not attempt to dissuade me further, but, making her way to the door in the wall through which she had entered the street, opened it and disappeared within. I heard the bolts pushed to, and then I was in the street alone.
"The die is cast," I said to myself. "Whether for good or evil, I accompany her to-morrow, and, once with her, I will not leave her until I am certain that she no longer requires my help."
Then I resumed my walk to my hotel.
THE clocks of the city had struck ten on the following evening when I left the carriage which Pharos had sent to convey me to the harbour, and, escorted by his servant, the same who had sat beside the coachman on the occasion of our drive home from Pompeii on the previous evening, made my way down the landing-stage and took my place in the boat which was waiting to carry me to the yacht.
Throughout the day I had seen nothing either of Pharos or his ward, nor had I heard anything from the former save a message to the effect that he had made arrangements for my getting on board. But if I had not seen them I had at least thought about them—so much so, indeed, that I had scarcely closed my eyes all night. And the more attention I bestowed upon them, the more difficult I found it to account for the curious warning I had received from the Fräulein Valerie. What the danger was which threatened me, it was beyond my power to tell. I endeavoured to puzzle it out, but in vain. Had it not been for that scene on the Embankment, and his treatment of me in my own studio, to say nothing of the suspicions I had erroneously entertained against him in respect of the murder of the curiosity dealer, I should in all probability have attributed it to a mere womanly superstition which, although it appeared genuine enough to her, had no sort of foundation in fact. Knowing, however, what I did, I could see that it behoved me, if only for the sake of my own safety, to be more than cautious; and when I boarded the yacht, I did so with a full determination to keep my eyes wide open, and to be prepared for trouble whenever, or in whatever shape, it might come.
On gaining the deck, I was received by an elderly individual whom I afterwards discovered to be the captain. He informed me in French that both Monsieur Pharos and the Fräulein Valerie had already arrived on board and had retired to their cabins. The former had given instructions that everything possible was to be done to promote my comfort, and, having said this, the captain surrendered me to the charge of the servant who had escorted me on board, and, bowing reverentially to me, made some excuse about seeing the yacht under way, and went forward.
My luggage had preceded me, and, as it was now close upon eleven o'clock, I determined to turn in, and, if possible, get to sleep before the vessel started.
When I woke in the morning we were at sea. Brilliant sunshine streamed in through the port-hole and danced on the white and gold panelling of the cabin. Smart seas rattled against the hull and set the little craft rolling, till I began to think it was as well I was a good sailor, otherwise I should scarcely have looked forward with such interest to the breakfast I could hear preparing in the saloon outside.
As soon as I had dressed, I made my way to the deck. It was a lovely morning, a bright blue sky overhead, with a few snow-white clouds away to the southwest to afford relief and to add to the beauty of the picture. A smart sea was running, and more than once I had to make a bolt for the companion-ladder in order to escape the spray which came whistling over the bulwarks.
In the daylight the yacht looked bigger than she had done on the previous night. At a rough guess she scarcely could have been less than four hundred tons. Her captain, so I afterwards discovered, was a Greek, but of what nationality her crew were composed I was permitted no opportunity of judging. One thing is very certain—they were not English, nor did their behaviour realize my notion of the typical sailor. There was none of that good-humoured chaff or horseplay which is supposed to characterize the calling. These men, for the most part, were middle-aged, taciturn, and gloomy fellows, who did their work with automaton-like regularity, but without interest or apparent good-will. The officers, with the exception of the captain, I had not yet seen.
Punctually on the stroke of eight bells a steward emerged from the companion and came aft to inform me that breakfast was served. I inquired if my host and hostess were in the saloon, but was informed that Pharos made it a rule never to rise before midday, and that, on this occasion, the Fräulein Valerie intended taking the meal in her own cabin and begged me to excuse her. Accordingly I sat down alone, and when I had finished returned to the deck and lit a cigar. The sea by this time had moderated somewhat, and the vessel in consequence was making better progress. For upwards of half an hour I tramped the deck religiously, and then returned to my favourite position aft. Leaning my elbows on the rail, I stood gazing at the curdling wake, watching the beautiful blending of white and green created by the screw.
I was still occupied in this fashion when I heard my name spoken, and, turning, found the Fräulein Valerie standing before me. She was dressed in some dark material, which not only suited her complexion but displayed the exquisite outline of her figure to perfection.
"Good-morning, Mr. Forrester," she said, holding out her white hand to me. "I must apologise to you for my rudeness in not having joined you at breakfast; but I was tired, and did not feel equal to getting up so early."
There was a troubled look in her eyes which told me that while she had not forgotten our interview of two nights before, she was determined not to refer to it in any way, or even to permit me to suppose that she remembered it. I accordingly resolved to follow her example, though, if the truth must be confessed, there were certain questions I was more than desirous of putting to her.
"Since you are on deck the first morning out, I presume you are fond of the sea?" I said in a matter-of-fact voice, after we had been standing together for some moments.
"I love it," she answered fervently; "and the more so because I am a good sailor. In the old days, when my father was alive, I was never happier than when we were at sea, away from land and all its attendant troubles."
She paused, and I saw her eyes fill with tears. In a few moments, however, she recovered her composure, and began to talk of the various countries with which we were mutually acquainted. As it soon transpired, she had visited almost every capital in Europe since she had been with Pharos, but for what purpose I could not discover. The most eastern side of Russia and the most western counties of England were equally well known to her. In an unguarded moment I asked her which city she preferred.
"Is it possible I could have any preference?" she asked, almost reproachfully. "If you were condemned to imprisonment for life, do you think it would matter to you what colour your captors painted your cell, or of what material the wall was composed that you looked upon through your barred windows? Such is my case. My freedom is gone, and for that reason I take no sort of interest in the places to which my gaoler leads me."
To this speech I offered no reply, nor could I see that one was needed. We were standing upon dangerous ground, and I hastened to get off it as soon as possible. I fear, however, I must have gone clumsily to work for she noticed my endeavour and smiled a little bitterly, I thought. Then, making some excuse, she left me and returned below.
It was well past midday before Pharos put in an appearance. Whether at sea or ashore he made no difference in his costume. He wore the same heavy coat and curious cap that I remembered seeing that night at Cleopatra's Needle.
"I fear, my dear Forrester," he said, "you will think me a discourteous host for not having remained on deck last night to receive you. My age, however, must be my excuse. I trust you have been made comfortable?"
"The greatest Sybarite could scarcely desire to be more comfortable," I answered. "I congratulate you upon your vessel and her appointments."
"Yes," he answered, looking along the deck, "she is a good little craft, and, as you may suppose, exceedingly useful to me at times."
As he said this, a curious expression came into his face. It was as if the memory of an occasion on which this vessel had carried him beyond the reach of pursuit had suddenly occurred to him. Exquisite, however, as the pleasure it afforded him seemed to be, I cannot say that it pleased me as much. It revived unpleasant memories, and just at the time when I was beginning to forget my first distrust of him.
After a few moments' further conversation he expressed a desire to show me the vessel, an invitation which, needless to say, I accepted with alacrity. We first visited the smoking-room on deck, then the bridge, after that the engine-room, and later on the men's quarters forward. Retracing our steps aft, we descended to the saloon, upon the beauty of which I warmly congratulated him.
"I am rejoiced that it meets with your approval," he said gravely. "It is usually admired. And now, having seen all this, perhaps it would interest you to inspect the quarters of the owner."
This was exactly what I desired to do, for from a man's sleeping quarters it is often possible to obtain some clue as to his real character.
Bidding me follow him, he led me along the saloon to a cabin at the farther end. With the remembrance of all I had seen in the other parts of the vessel still fresh in my mind, I was prepared to find the owner's berth replete with every luxury. My surprise may therefore be imagined when I discovered a tiny cabin, scarcely half the size of that occupied by myself, not only devoid of luxury, but lacking much of what is usually considered absolutely necessary. On the starboard side was the bunk, a plain wooden affair, in which were neatly folded several pairs of coarse woollen blankets. Against the bulwark was the wash-handstand, and under the port a settee covered with a fur rug, on which was curled up the monkey Pehtes. That was all. Nay, I am wrong—it was not all. For in a corner, carefully secured so that the movement of the vessel should not cause it to fall, was no less a thing than the mummy Pharos had stolen from me, and which was the first and foremost cause of my being where I was. From what he had told me of his errand, I had surmised it might be on board; but I confess I scarcely expected to find it in the owner's cabin. With the sight of it the recollection of my studio rose before my eyes, and not only of the studio, but of that terrible night when the old man now standing beside me, had called upon me and had used such diabolical means to obtain possession of the thing he wanted. In reality it was scarcely a week since Lady Medenham's "at home"; but the gulf that separated the man I was then from the man I was now seemed one of centuries.
Accompanied by Pharos I returned to the deck, convinced that I was as far removed from an understanding of this strange individual's. character as I had been since I had known him. Of the Fräulein Valerie I saw nothing until late in the afternoon. She was suffering from a severe headache, so the steward informed Pharos, and was not equal to leaving her cabin.
That this news was not palatable to my companion, I gathered from the way in which his face darkened. However, he pretended to feel only solicitude for her welfare, and, having instructed the steward to convey his sympathy to her, returned to his conversation with me.
In this fashion, reading, talking, and perambulating the deck, the remainder of the day passed away, and it was not until we sat down to dinner at night that our party in the saloon was united.
When we rose from the table, my host and hostess retired to their respective cabins, while I lit a cigar and went on deck. The sun was just disappearing below the horizon, and a wonderful hush had fallen upon the sea. Scarcely a ripple disturbed its glassy surface, while the track the vessel left behind her seemed to lead across the world into the very eye of the sinking sun beyond. There was something awe-inspiring in the beauty and stillness of the evening. It was like the hush that precedes a violent storm, and seeing the captain near the entrance to the smoking-room, I made my way along the deck and accosted him, inquiring what he thought of the weather.
"I scarcely know what to think of it, monsieur," he answered in French. "The glass has fallen considerably since morning. My own opinion is that it is working up for a storm."
I agreed with him, and after a few moments more conversation thanked him for his courtesy and returned aft.
Reaching the skylight, I seated myself upon it. The glasses were lifted, and through the open space I could see into the saloon below. The mellow light of the shaded electric lamps shone upon the rich decorations and the inlaid furniture, and was reflected in the mirrors on the walls. As far as I could see, no one was present. I was about to rise and move away when a sound came from the Fräulein Valerie's cabin that caused me to remain where I was. Some one was speaking, and that person was a woman. Knowing there was no other of her sex on board, this puzzled me more than I can say. The voice was harsh, monotonous, unmusical, and grated strangely upon the ear. There was a pause, then another, which I instantly recognised as belonging to Pharos, commenced.
I had no desire to play the eavesdropper, but for some reason which I cannot explain I could not choose but listen.
"Come," Pharos was saying in German, "thou canst not disobey me. Hold my hand so, open thine eyes, and tell me what thou seest!"
There was a pause for a space in which I could have counted fifty. Then the woman's voice answered as slowly and monotonously as before.
"I see a sandy plain, which stretches as far as the eye can reach in all directions save one. On that side it is bordered by a range of hills. I see a collection of tents, and in the one nearest me a man tossing on a bed of sickness."
"Is it he? The man thou knowest?"
There was another pause, and when she answered, the woman's voice was even harsher than before.
"It is he."
"What dost thou see now?"
"I am in the dark, and see nothing."
"Hold my hand and wait, thou wilt see more plainly anon. Now that thine eyes are accustomed to the darkness, describe to me the place in which thou standest."
There was another interval. Then she began again.
"I am in a dark and gloomy cavern. The roof is supported by heavy pillars, and they are carved in a style I have never seen before. On the ceilings and walls are paintings, and lying on a slab of stone—a dead man."
Once more there was a long silence, until I began to think that I must have missed the next question and answer, and that this extraordinary catechism had terminated. Then the voice of Pharos recommenced.
"Place thine hand in mine and look once more."
This time the answer was even more bewildering than before.
"I see death," said the voice. "Death on every hand It continues night and day, and the world is full of wailing."
"It is well; I am satisfied," said Pharos. "Now lie down and sleep. In an hour thou wilt wake and wilt remember nought of what thou hast revealed to me."
Unable to make anything of what I had heard, I rose from the place where I had been sitting and began to pace the deck. The remembrance of the conversation to which I had listened irritated me beyond measure. Had I been permitted another insight into the devilry of Pharos, or what was the meaning of it? I was still thinking of this when I heard a step behind me, and, turning, found the man himself approaching me. In the dim light of the deck the appearance he presented was not prepossessing, but when he approached me I discovered he was in the best of humours,—in fact, in better spirits than I had ever yet seen him.
"I have been looking for you, Mr. Forrester," he said, "It is delightful on deck, and I am in just the humour for a chat."
I felt an inclination to tell him that I was not so ready, but before I could give him an answer he had noticed my preoccupation.
"You have something on your mind," he said. "I fear you are not as pleased with my hospitality as I could wish you to be. What is amiss? Is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Nothing, I thank you," I answered a little stiffly. "I have a slight headache, and am not much disposed for conversation this evening."
Though the excuse I made was virtually true, I did not tell him that I had only felt it since I had overheard his conversation a few moments before.
"You must let me cure you," he answered. "I am vain enough to flatter myself I have some knowledge of medicine."
I was beginning to wonder if there was anything of which he was ignorant. At the same time I was so suspicious of him that I had no desire to permit him to practise his arts on me. I accordingly thanked him, but declined his services on the pretext that my indisposition was too trifling to call for so much trouble.
"As you will," he answered carelessly. "If you are not anxious to be cured, you must, of course, continue to suffer."
So saying, he changed the subject, and for upwards of half an hour we wandered in the realm of art, discussing the methods of painters, past and present. Upon this subject, as upon every other, I was amazed at the extent and depth of his learning. His taste, I discovered, was cosmopolitan, but if he had any preference it was for the early Tuscan school. We were still debating this point when a dark figure emerged from the companion and came along the deck towards us. Seeing that it was the Fräulein Valerie, I rose from my chair.
"How hot the night is, Mr. Forrester!" she said, as she came up to us. "There is thunder in the air, I am sure, and, if I am not mistaken, we shall have a storm before morning."
"I think it more than likely," I answered. "It is extremely oppressive below."
"It is almost unbearable," she answered, as she took the seat I offered her. "Notwithstanding that fact, I believe I must have fallen asleep in my cabin, for I cannot remember what I have been doing since dinner."
Recalling the conversation I had overheard, and which had concluded with the instruction, "In an hour thou wilt wake and wilt remember nought of what thou hast revealed to me," I glanced at Pharos; but his face told me nothing.
"I fear you are not quite yourself, my dear," said the latter in a kindly tone, as he leant towards her and placed his skinny hand upon her arm. "As you say, it must be the thundery evening. Our friend Forrester here is complaining of a headache. Though he will not let me experiment upon him, I think I shall have to see what I can do for you. I will consult my medicine chest at once."
With this he rose from his seat, and, bidding us farewell, went below.
Presently the Fräulein rose, and, side by side, we walked aft to the taffrail. Though I did my best to rouse her from the lethargy into which she had fallen, I was unsuccessful. She stood with her slender hands clasping the rail before her, and her great, dark eyes staring out across the waste of water. Never had she looked more beautiful, and certainly never more sad, Her unhappiness touched me to the heart, and, under the influence of my emotion, I approached a little nearer to her.
"You are unhappy," I said. "Is there no way in which I can help you?"
"Not one," she answered bitterly, still gazing steadfastly out to sea. "I am beyond the reach of help. Can you realize what it means, Mr. Forrester, to be beyond the reach of help?"
The greatest tragedienne the world has seen could not have invested those terrible words with greater or more awful meaning.
"No, no," I said; "I cannot believe that. You are overwrought to-night. You are not yourself. You say things you do not mean."
This time she turned on me almost fiercely. "Mr. Forrester," she said, "you try to console me; but, as I am beyond the reach of help, so I am also beyond the reach of comfort. If you could have but the slightest conception of what my life is, you would not wonder that I am so wretched."
"Will you not tell me about it?" I answered. "I think you know by this time that I may be trusted." Then, sinking my voice a little, I added a sentence that I could scarcely believe I had uttered when the words had passed my lips. "Valerie, if you do not already know it, let me tell you that, although we have not known each other a fortnight, I would give my life to serve you."
"And I believe you and thank you for it from the bottom of my heart," she answered, with equal earnestness; "but I can tell you nothing." Then, after an interval of silence that must have lasted for some minutes she declared her intention of going below.
I accompanied her as far as the saloon, where she once more gave me her hand and wished me goodnight. As soon as her door had closed behind her, I went to my own cabin, scarcely able to realize that I had said what I had.
I do not know whether it was the heat, or whether it was the excitement under which I was labouring. At any rate, I soon discovered that I could not sleep. Valerie's beautiful, sad face haunted me continually. Hour after hour I lay awake, thinking of her and wondering what the mystery could be that surrounded her. The night was oppressively still. Save the throbbing of the screw, not a sound was to be heard. The yacht was upon an even keel, and scarcely a wavelet splashed against her side. At last I could bear the stifling cabin no longer, so, rising from my bunk, I dressed myself and sought the coolness of the deck. It was now close upon one o'clock, and when I emerged from the companion the moon was a hand's breadth above the sea line, rising like a ball of gold. I seemed to have the entire world to myself. Around me was the glassy sea, black as ink, save where the moon shone upon it. Treading softly, as if I feared my footsteps would wake the sleeping ship, I stepped out of the companion, and was about to make my way aft, when something I saw before me caused me to stop. Standing on the grating, which extended the whole width of the stern behind the after wheel, was a man whom I had no difficulty in recognising as Pharos. His hands were lifted above his head, as if he were invoking the assistance of the Goddess of the Night. His head was thrown back, and from the place where I stood I could distinctly see the expression upon it. Anything more fiendish could scarcely be imagined. It was not the face of a human being, but that of a ghoul, so repulsive and yet so fascinating was it. Try how I would, I could not withdraw my eyes; and while I watched, he spread his arms apart and cried something aloud in a language I did not recognise. For upwards of a minute he remained in this attitude, then, descending from the grating, he made his way slowly along the deck, and came towards the place where I stood.
Afraid of I know not what, I shrank back into the shadow of the hatch. Had he discovered my presence, I feel convinced, in the humour in which he then was, he would have done his best to kill me. Fortunately, however, my presence was unsuspected, and he went below without seeing me. Then, wiping great beads of sweat from my forehead, I stumbled to the nearest skylight, and, seating myself upon it, endeavoured to regain my composure. Once more I asked myself the question, "Who and what was this man into whose power I had fallen?"
THE captain was not very far out in his reckoning when he prophesied that the unusual calm of the previous evening betokened the approach of a storm. Every one who has had experience of the Mediterranean is aware with what little warning gales spring up. At daybreak the weather may be all that can be desired, and in the evening your ship is fighting her way along in the teeth of a hurricane. In this particular instance, when I turned into my bunk after the fright Pharos had given me, as narrated in the preceding chapter, the sea was as smooth as glass and the sky innocent of a single cloud. When I opened my eyes on the morning following, the yacht was being pitched up and down and to and fro like a cork. A gale of wind was blowing overhead, while every timber sent forth an indignant protest against the barbarity to which it was being subjected. From the pantry, beyond the saloon companion-ladder, a clatter of breaking glass followed every roll, while I was able to estimate the magnitude of the seas the little vessel was encountering, by the number of times her propeller raced, as she hung suspended in mid-air. For upwards of an hour I remained in my bunk, thinking of the singular events of the night before, and telling myself that were it not for the Fräulein Valerie, I could find it in my heart to wish myself out of the yacht and back in my own comfortable studio once more. By seven o'clock my curiosity was so excited as to what was doing on deck, that I could no longer remain inactive. I accordingly scrambled out of bed and dressed myself, a proceeding which, owing to the movement of the vessel, was attended with no small amount of difficulty, and then, clutching at everything that would permit of a grip, I passed out of the saloon and made my way up the companion-ladder. On glancing through the port-holes there, a scene of indescribable tumult met my eye. In place of the calm and almost monotonous stretch of blue water, across which we had been sailing so peacefully less than twenty-four hours before, I now saw a wild and angry sea, upon which dark, leaden clouds looked down. The gale was from the north-east, and beat upon our port quarter with relentless fury.
My horizon being limited in the companion, I turned the handle and prepared to step on to the deck outside. It was only when I had done so that I realized how strong the wind was; it caught the door and dashed it from my hand as if it had been made of paper, while the cap I had upon my head was whisked off and carried away into the swirl of grey water astern before I had time to clap my hand to it. Undaunted, however, by this mishap, I shut the door, and, hanging on to the hand-rail, lest I too should be washed overboard, made my way forward and eventually reached the ladder leading to the bridge. By the time I put my foot upon the first step I was quite exhausted, and had to pause in order to recover my breath; and yet, if it was so bad below, how shall I describe the scene which greeted my eyes when I stood upon the bridge itself? From that dizzy height I was better able to estimate the magnitude of the waves and the capabilities of the little vessel for withstanding them.
The captain, sea-booted and clad in sou'-wester and oilskins, came forward and dragged me to a place of safety as soon as he became aware of my presence. I saw his lips move, but what with the shrieking of the wind in the shrouds and the pounding of the seas on the deck below, what he said was quite inaudible, Once in the corner to which he led me, I clung to the rails like a drowning man, and regarded the world above my canvas screen in silent consternation.
For upwards of half an hour I remained where the captain had placed me, drenched by the spray, listening to the dull thud of the seas as they broke upon the deck below, and watching with an interest that amounted almost to a pain the streams of water that sluiced backwards and forwards across the bridge every time she rolled. Then, summoning all my courage, for I can assure you it was needed, I staggered towards the ladder, and once more prepared to make my way below. I had not reached the deck, however, and fortunately my hands had not quitted the guide rails, when a wave larger than any I had yet seen mounted the bulwark and dashed aboard, carrying away a boat and twisting the davits, from which it had been suspended a moment before, like pieces of bent wire. Had I descended a moment earlier, nothing could have prevented me from being washed overboard. With a feeling of devout thankfulness in my heart for my escape, I remained where I was, clinging to the ladder long after the sea had passed and disappeared through the scuppers. Then I descended, and, holding on to the rails as before, eventually reached the saloon entrance in safety.
To be inside, in that still, warm atmosphere, out of the pressure of the wind, was a relief beyond all telling, though what sort of object I must have looked, with my hair blown in all directions by the wind, and my clothes soaked through and through by the spray that had dashed upon me on the bridge, is more than I can say. Thinking it advisable I should change as soon as possible, I made my way to my own cabin, but, before I reached it, the door of that occupied by the Fräulein Valerie opened, and she came out. That something unusual was the matter I saw at a glance.
"Mr. Forrester," she said, with a scorn in her voice that cut like a knife, "come here. I have something curious to show you."
I did as she wished, and forthwith she led me to her cabin. I was not prepared, however, for what I found there. Crouching in a corner, almost beside himself with fear, and with the frightened face of the monkey, Pehtes, peering out from beneath his coat, was no less a person than Pharos, the man I had hitherto supposed insensible to such an emotion. In the presence of that death, however, which we all believed to be so imminent, he showed himself a coward past all believing. Terror incarnate stared from his eyes and rendered him unconscious of our scorn. At every roll the vessel gave he shrank farther into his corner, glaring at us meanwhile with a ferocity that was not very far removed from madness.
At any other time and in any other person such an exhibition might have been conducive of pity; in his case, however, it only added to the loathing I already felt for him. One thing was very certain : in his present condition he was no fit companion for the woman who stood clinging to the door behind me. I accordingly determined to get him either to his own cabin or to mine without delay.
"Come, come, Monsieur Pharos," I said, "you must not give way like this. I have been on deck, and I can assure you there is no immediate danger."
As I said this, I stooped and placed my hand upon his shoulder. He threw it off with a snarl and a snap of his teeth that was more like the action of a mad dog than that of a man.
"You lie, you lie!" he cried in a paroxysm of rage and fear. "I am cursed, and I shall never see land again. But I will not die—I will not die. There must be some way of keeping the yacht afloat. The captain must find one. If any one is to be saved, it must be me. Do you hear what I say? It must be me."
For the abominable selfishness of this remark I could have struck him.
"Are you a man that you can talk like this in the presence of a woman?" I cried. "For shame, sir, for shame. Get up, and let me conduct you to your own cabin."
With this I lifted him to his feet, and, whether he liked it or not, half led and half dragged him along the saloon to his own quarters. Once there, I placed him on his settee, but the next roll of the vessel brought him to the floor and left him crouching in the corner, still clutching the monkey, his knees almost level with his shoulders, and his awful face looking up at me between them. The whole affair was so detestable that my gorge rose at it, and when I left him I returned to the saloon with a greater detestation of him in my heart than I had felt before. I found the Fräulein Valerie seated at the table.
"Fräulein," I said, seating myself beside her, "I am afraid you have been needlessly alarmed. As I said in there, I give you my word there is no immediate danger."
"I am frightened," she answered. "See how my hands are trembling. But it is not death I fear."
"You fear that man," I said, nodding my head in the direction of the cabin I had just left; "but I assure you, you need not do so, for to-day, at least, he is harmless."
"Ah! you do not know him as I do," she replied. "I have seen him like this before. As soon as the storm abates he will be himself again, and then he will hate us both the more for having been witnesses of his cowardice." Then, sinking her voice a little, she added, "I often wonder, Mr. Forrester, whether he can be human. If so, he must be the only one of his kind in the world, for Nature surely could not permit two such men to live."
(To be continued)