From The Windsor Magazine, November 1898
Illustrated by JOHN H. BACON
"What is the matter?" I inquired, as he entered. "What brings you here?"
"I have come to you for your advice," he said nervously, as he fidgeted with his cap. "I can tell you we're in a bad way aboard this ship."
"Why, what has happened?" I inquired, sitting up and staring at his white face. "Have we met with an accident?"
"We have," he answered, "and a bad one. A worse could scarcely have befallen us." Then, sinking his voice to a whisper, he added, "The plague has broken out aboard!"
"The plague!" I cried, in consternation. "Do you mean it? For Heaven's sake, man, be sure you are not making a mistake before you say such a thing!"
"I only wish I were not," he replied. "Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact. The plague's upon us, sure enough, and, what's worse, I'm afraid it's come to stay."
"How many cases are there?" I asked, "and when did you discover it? Tell me everything."
"We found it out early this morning," the captain replied. "There are two cases, the steward aft here and the cook forward. The steward is dead; we pitched him overboard just before I came down to you. The cook is very nearly as bad. I can tell you, I wish I was anywhere but where I am. I've got a wife and youngsters depending on me at home. The thing spreads like fire, they say, and poor Reimann was as well as you are a couple of hours ago. He brought me a cup of coffee and a biscuit up on to the bridge at eight bells, and now to think he's overboard!"
The captain concluded his speech with a groan, and then stood watching me and waiting for me to speak.
"But I can't understand what brings you to me," I said. "I don't see how I can help you."
"I came to you because I wanted to find out what I had better do," he returned. "I thought most probably you would be able to advise me, and I didn't want to go to him." Here he nodded his head in the direction of Pharos's cabin. "If you could only have heard the way he bully-ragged me yesterday, you would understand why. If I'd been a dog in the street he couldn't have treated me worse, and all because I was unable to make the boat travel twice as fast as her engines would let her go."
"But I don't see how I'm to help you in this matter," I said, and then added, with what could only have been poor comfort, "We don't know who may be the next case."
"That's the worst part of it," he answered. "For all we can tell, it may be you, and it might be me. I suppose you're as much afraid of it as I am."
I had to confess that I was, and then inquired what means he proposed to adopt for stamping it out.
"I don't know what to do," he answered, and the words were scarcely out of his mouth before another rap sounded on the cabin door. He opened it to find a deck hand standing outside, A muttered conversation ensued between them, after which the captain, with a still more scared look upon his face, returned to me.
"It's getting worse," he said. "The chief engineer's down now, and the bosun has sent word to say he don't feel well. God help us if this sort of thing is going to continue. Every mother's son aboard this ship will make sure he's got it, and then who's to do the work? We may as well go to the bottom right off."
Trouble was indeed pursuing us. It seemed as if I were destined to get safely out of one difficulty only to fall into another. If this terrible scourge continued we should indeed be in straits; for the Continent was barred to us on one hand, and England on the other, while to turn her head and put back to Hamburg was a course we could not dream of adopting. One thing was plain to me; to avoid any trouble later, we must inform Pharos. So, advising the captain to separate those who had contracted the disease from those who were still well, I left my cabin and crossed to the further side of the saloon. To my surprise, Pharos received the news with greater equanimity than I had expected he would show.
"I doubted whether we should escape unscathed," he said; "but the captain deserves to die of it himself for not having informed me as soon as the first man was taken ill. However, let us hope it is not too late to put a stop to it. I must go and see the men, and do what I can to pull them round. It would not do to have a breakdown out here for the want of sufficient men to work the boat."
So saying, he bade me leave him while he dressed, and when this operation was completed, departed on his errand, while I returned to the saloon. I had not been there many minutes before the door of Valerie's cabin opened, and my sweetheart emerged. I sprang to my feet with a cry of surprise, and then ran forward to greet her. Short though her illness had been, it had effected a great change in her appearance; but since she was able to leave her cabin, I trusted that the sea air would soon restore her accustomed health to her. After a few preliminary remarks, which would scarcely prove of interest even if recorded, she inquired when we expected to reach England.
"About midnight to-night, I believe," I replied; "that is, if all goes well."
There was a short silence, and then she placed her hand in mine and looked anxiously into my face.
"I want you to tell me, dear," she said, "all that happened the night before last. In my own heart I felt quite certain from the first that we should not get safely away. Did I not say that Pharos would never permit it? I must have been very ill, for though I remember standing in the sitting-room at the hotel, waiting for you to return from the steamship office, I cannot recall anything else. Tell me everything; I am quite strong enough to bear it."
Thus entreated, I described how she had foretold Pharos's arrival in Hamburg, and how she had warned me that he had entered the hotel.
"I can remember nothing of what you tell me," she said sadly, when I had finished. Then, still holding my hand in hers, she continued in an undertone," We were to have been so happy together."
"Not 'were to have been,'" I said, with a show of confidence I was far from feeling, "but 'are to be.' Believe me, darling, all will come right yet. We have been through so much together, that surely we must be happy in the end. We love each other, and nothing can destroy that."
"Nothing," she answered, with a little catch of her breath; "but there is one thing I must say to you while I have time—something that I fear may possibly give you pain. You told me in Hamburg that up to the present no case of the plague had been notified in England. If that is so, darling, what right have we to introduce it? Surely none! Think of the misery its coming must inevitably cause to others! For aught we know to the contrary, we may carry the infection from Hamburg with us, and thousands of innocent people will suffer in consequence. I have been thinking over it all night, and it seems to me that if we did this thing, we should be little better than murderers."
I had thought of this myself, but lest I should appear to be taking credit for more than I deserve, I must confess that the true consequences of the action to which she referred had never struck me. Not having any desire to frighten her, I did not tell her that the disease had already made its appearance on board the very vessel in which we were travelling.
"You are bargaining without Pharos, however," I replied. "If he has made up his mind to go, how are we to gainsay him? Our last attempt could scarcely be considered a success."
"At any cost to ourselves we must not go," she said firmly and decidedly. "The lives of loving parents, of women and little children, the happiness of an entire nation depends upon our action. What is our safety, great as it seems to us, compared with theirs?"
"Valerie, you are my good angel," I said. "Whatever you wish, I will do."
"We must tell Pharos that we have both determined on no account to land with him," she continued. "If the pestilence had already shown itself there, it would be a different matter; but as it is, we have no choice left us but to do our duty."
"But where are we to go if we do not visit England? And what are we to do?" I asked, for I could plainly see the difficulties ahead.
"I do not know," she answered simply. "Never fear; we will find some place. You may be certain of this, dear—if we wish God to bless our love, we must act as I propose."
"So it shall be," I answered, lifting her hand to my lips. "You have decided for me. Whatever it may mean to ourselves, we will not do anything that will imperil the lives of the people you spoke of just now."
A few moments later I heard a footstep on the companion-ladder. It was Pharos returning from his examination of the plague-stricken men. In the dim light of the hatchway he looked more like a demon than a man, and as I thought of the subject I had to broach to him, and the storm it would probably bring down upon us, I am not ashamed to confess that my heart sank into my shoes.
It was not until he was fairly in the saloon that he became aware of Valerie's presence.
"I offer you my compliments upon your improved appearance," he said politely. "I am glad of it, for it will make matters the easier when we get ashore."
I had already risen from my seat, though I still held Valerie's hand.
"Your pardon, Monsieur Pharos," I said, trying to speak calmly, "but on that subject it is necessary that I should have a few words with you."
"Indeed!" he answered, looking at me with the customary sneer upon his face. "In that case, say on, for, as you see, I am all attention. I must beg, however, that you will be quick about it, for matters are progressing so capitally on board this ship that, if things go on as they are doing at present, we may every one of us expect to be down with the plague before midday."
"The plague!" Valerie repeated, with a note of fear in her voice. "Do you mean to say that it has broken out on board this steamer?" Then, turning to me, she added reproachfully, "You did not tell me that."
"Very probably not, my dear," Pharos answered for me. "Had he done so, you would scarcely have propounded the ingenious theory you were discussing shortly before I entered."
Overwhelming as was Valerie's surprise at the dreadful news Pharos had disclosed to her, and unenviable as our present position was, we could not contain our astonishment at finding that Pharos had become acquainted with the decision we had arrived at a few moments before. Instinctively I glanced up at the skylight overhead, thinking it might have been through that he had overheard our conversation. But it was securely closed. By what means, therefore, he had acquired his information I could not imagine.
"You were prepared to tell me when I entered," he said, "that you would refuse to enter England, on what I cannot help considering most absurd grounds. You must really forgive me if I do not agree with your views. Apart from the idea of your thwarting me, your decision is ludicrous in the extreme. However, now that you find you are no safer on board this ship than you would be ashore—in point of fact, not so safe—you will doubtless change your minds. By way of emphasizing my point, I might tell you that out of the twelve men constituting her crew, no less than four are victims of the pestilence, while one is dead and thrown overboard."
"Four!" I cried, scarcely able to believe that what he said could be true. "There were only two half an hour ago."
"I do not combat that assertion," he said; "but you forget that the disease travels fast—faster even than you do when you run away from me, my dear Forrester. However, I don't know that that fact matters very much. What we have to deal with is your obliging offer to refuse to land in England. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me, in the event of your not doing so there, where you will condescend to go ashore? The Margrave of Brandenburg is only a small vessel, after all, and with the best intention she cannot remain at sea for ever."
"What we mean to tell you is," I answered, "that we have decided not to be the means of introducing this terrible scourge into a country that so far is free from it."
"A very philanthropic decision on your part," he answered sarcastically. "Unfortunately, however, I am in a position to be able to inform you that your charity is not required. Though the authorities are not aware of it, the plague has already broken out in England. For this reason you will not be responsible for such deaths as may occur."
He paused, and looked first at Valerie and then at myself. The old light I remembered having seen in his eyes the night he had hypnotised me in my studio was shining there now. Very soon the storm which had been gathering broke, and its violence was the greater for having been so long suppressed.
"I have warned you several times already," he cried, shaking his fist at me, "but you take no notice. You will try to thwart me again, and then nothing can save you. You fool! cannot you see how thin the crust is upon which you stand? Hatch but one more plot, and I will punish you in a fashion of which you do not dream. As with this woman here, I have but to raise my hand, and you are powerless to help yourself. Sight, hearing, power of speech, may be all taken from you in a second, and for as long a time as I please." Then, turning to Valerie, he continued, "To your cabin with you, madame. Let me hear no more of such talk as this, or 'twill be time for me to give you another exhibition of my power."
Valerie departed to her cabin without a word, and Pharos, with another glance at me, entered his, while I remained standing in the centre of the saloon, not knowing what to do nor what to say.
It was not until late that evening that I saw him again, and then I was on deck. The sea was much smoother than in the morning, but the night wind blew cold. I had not left the companion-ladder very long before I was aware of a man coming slowly along the deck towards me, lurching from side to side as he walked. To my astonishment it proved to be the captain, and it was plain that something serious was the matter with him. When he came closer, I found that he was talking to himself.
"What is the matter, captain?" I inquired, with a foreboding in my heart. "Are you not feeling well?"
He shook off the hand I had placed upon his arm.
"It is no good, I will not do it!" he cried fiercely. "I have done enough for you already, and you won't get me to do any more."
"Come, come," I said, "you mustn't be wandering about the deck like this! Let me help you to your cabin." So saying, I took him by the arm and was about to lead him along the deck in the direction of his own quarters, when, with a shout of rage, he turned and threw himself upon me. The onslaught was so sudden that I was taken completely off my guard, and before I could defend myself he had dragged me to within a few inches of the rails. Then began a struggle such as I had never known in my life before. The man was undoubtedly mad, and I soon found that I had to put out all my strength to hold my own against him. It is a matter for conjecture, indeed, whether I should have got the better of him at all had not assistance come to me from an unexpected quarter.
While we were still wrestling, Pharos made his appearance from below. He took in the situation at a glance, and as we swayed towards him threw himself upon the captain, twining his long, thin fingers about the other's throat and clinging to him with the tenacity of a bulldog. The result may be easily foreseen. Overmatched as he was, the wretched man fell like a log upon the deck, and I with him. The force with which his head struck the planks must have stunned him, for he lay, without moving, just where he had fallen. The light of the lamp in the companion fell full upon his face and enabled me to see a large swelling on the right side of the throat, a little below the ear.
"Another victim," said Pharos, and I could have sworn a chuckle escaped him. "You had better leave him to me. There is no hope for him. That swelling is an infallible sign. He is unconscious now; in half an hour he will be dead."
Unhappily his prophecy proved to be correct, for though we bore him to his cabin and did all that was possible, in something under the time Pharos had mentioned death had overtaken him.
Our position was even less amiable now than before. We had only the second mate to fall back upon, and if anything happened to him I did not see how it would be possible for us to reach our destination. As it turned out, however, I need not have worried myself, for we were closer to the English coast than I imagined.
Owing to the stringency of the quarantine laws, and to the fact that the coastguards all round the British Isles were continually on the look-out for vessels attempting to land passengers, orders had been given that no lights should be shown; the skylights and portholes were accordingly covered with tarpaulins.
It wanted a quarter of an hour to midnight when Pharos came along the deck and, standing by my side, pointed away over our bow.
"The black smudge you can distinguish on the horizon is England," he said abruptly, and then was silent, in order, I suppose, that I might have time to digest the thoughts his information conjured up.
PHAROS and I stood leaning against the bulwarks, gazing at the land. For my part I must confess that there was a feeling in my heart that was not unlike that of a disgraced son who enters his home by stealth after a long absence. And yet it would be impossible to tell you how my heart warmed to it. Times out of number I had thought of my return to England, and had pictured Valerie standing by my side upon the deck of the steamer, watching the land loom up, and thinking of the happiness that was to be our portion in the days to come. Now Valerie and I were certainly nearing England together; Pharos, however, was with us, and while we were in his power happiness was, to all intents and purposes, unknown to us.
"What do you propose doing when you get ashore?" I inquired of my companion, more for the sake of breaking the silence than for any desire I had for the information.
"That will very much depend upon circumstances," he replied, still without looking at me. "Our main object must be to reach London as quickly as possible." Then, changing his tone, he turned to me. "Forrester, my dear fellow," he said, almost sorrowfully, "you cannot think how I regret our little disagreement of this morning. I am afraid, while I am touchy, you are headstrong; and, in consequence, we misunderstand each other. I cannot, of course, tell what you think of me in your heart, but I venture to believe that if you knew everything, you would be the first to own that you have wronged me. Bad as I may be, I am not quite what you would make me out. If I were, do you think, knowing your antagonism as I do, I should have kept you so long with me? You have doubted me from the beginning; in fact, as you will remember, you once went so far as to accuse me of the crime of murder. You afterwards acknowledged your mistake —in handsome terms, I will own; but to counterbalance such frankness, you later on accused me of drugging you in Cairo. This was another fallacy, as you yourself will, I am sure, admit. In Prague you ran away from me, taking my ward with you, a very curious proceeding, regarded in whatever light you choose to look at it. What was your object? Why, to reach England. Well, as soon as I knew that, I again showed my desire to help you. As a proof of that, are we not on board this ship, and is not that the coast of England over yonder?"
I admitted that it was. But I was not at all prepared to subscribe to his generous suggestion that he had only undertaken the voyage for my sake.
"That, however, is not all," he continued, still in the same tone. "As I think I told you in Prague, I am aware that you entertain a sincere affection for my ward. Many men in my position would doubtless have refused their consent to your betrothal, if for no other reason, because of your behaviour to myself. I am, however, cast in a different mould. If you will only play fair by me, you will find that I will do so to you. I like you, as I have so often said, and, though I am doubtless a little hasty in my temper, there is nothing I would not do to help you, either in your heart, your ambition, or your love. And I can assure you my help is not to be despised. If it is fame you seek, you have surely seen enough of me to know that I can give it to you. If it is domestic happiness, who can do so much for you as I?"
"I hope, Monsieur Pharos," I answered, in as dignified a manner as I could assume, "that I appreciate your very kind remarks at their proper value, and also the generous manner in which you have offered to forget and forgive such offences as I have committed against yourself. You must, however, pardon me if I fail to realize the drift of your remarks. There have been times during the last six weeks when you have uttered the most extraordinary threats against myself. Naturally, I have no desire to quarrel with you; but, remembering what has passed between us, I am compelled to show myself a little sceptical of your promises."
He glanced sharply at me, but was wise enough to say nothing. A moment later, making the excuse that he must discover where the mate intended to bring up, he left me and went forward to the bridge.
I was still thinking of my conversation with Pharos, and considering whether I had been wise in letting him see my cards, when a little hand stole into mine, and I found Valerie beside me.
"I could not remain below," she said, "when we were nearing England. I knew the effect the land would have upon you, and I wanted to be with you."
I then gave her an account of the interview I had had with Pharos, and of all he had said to me and I to him. She listened attentively enough; but I could see that she was far from being impressed.
"Do not trust him," she said. "Surely you know him well enough by this time not to do so? You may be very sure he has some reason for saying this, otherwise he would not trouble himself to speak about it."
"I shall not trust him," I replied. "You need have no fear of that. My experience of him has taught me that it is in such moments as these that he is most dangerous. When he is in one of his bad humours, one is on the alert and prepared for anything he may do or say; but when he repents and appears so anxious to be friendly, one scarcely knows how to take him. Suspicion is lulled to sleep for the moment, there is a feeling of security, and it is then the mischief is accomplished."
"We will watch him together," she continued; "but, whether he is friendly or otherwise, we will not trust him even for a moment."
So close were we by this time to the shore, and so still was the night, that we could even hear the wavelets breaking upon the beach. Then the screw of the steamer ceased to revolve, and when it was quite still, Pharos and the second mate descended from the bridge and joined us.
"This has been a bad business, a very bad business," the mate was saying. "The skipper, the chief engineer, the steward, and three of the hands all dead, and no port to put into for assistance. I wish I was going ashore like you."
We shook hands with him in turn, and then descended the ladder to the boat alongside. The thought of the mate's position on board that plague-stricken vessel may possibly have accounted for the silence in which we pushed off and headed for the shore; at any rate, not a word was spoken. The sea was as calm as a mill-pond, and for the reason that the night was dark, and we were all dressed in sombre colours, while the boat chosen for the work of landing us was painted a deep black, it was scarcely likely our presence would be detected. Be that as it may, no coastguard greeted us on our arrival. Therefore, as soon as the boat was aground, we made our way into the bows, and with the assistance of the sailors reached the beach. Once more I stood on English soil; but what a different being to the Forrester who had left it! Pharos rewarded the men, and remained standing beside the water until he had seen them safely embarked on their return journey to the steamer. Then, without a word to us, he turned himself about, crossed the beach, and carrying his beloved monkey in his arms, began slowly to ascend the steep path which led to the high land on which the village was situated. We did not, however, venture to approach the place itself.
The remembrance of that strange night often returns to me now. In my mind's eye I can see the squat figure of Pharos tramping on ahead, Valerie following a few steps behind him, and myself bringing up the rear, and all this with the brilliant stars overhead, the lights of the village showing dimly across the sandhills to our right, and the continuous murmur of the sea behind us.
For upwards of an hour we tramped on in this fashion, and in that time scarcely covered a distance of four miles. Had it occurred at the commencement of our acquaintance, I should not have been able to understand how Pharos, considering his age and infirm appearance, could have accomplished even so much. Since then, however, I had been permitted so many opportunities of noting the enormous strength and vitality contained in his meagre frame that I was past any feeling of wonderment. Valerie it was who caused me most anxiety. Only two days before she had been stricken by the plague; yesterday she was still confined to her cabin. Now here she was, subjected to intense excitement and no small amount of physical exertion. Pharos must have had the same thought in his mind, for more than once he stopped and inquired if she felt capable of proceeding, and on one occasion he poured out for her from a flask he carried in his pocket a small cupful of some fluid he had doubtless brought with him for that purpose. At last the welcome sight of a railway line came into view. It crossed the road, and as soon as we saw it we stopped and took counsel together. The question for us to consider was whether it would be wiser to continue our walk along the high-road, on the chance of its bringing us to a station, or whether we should clamber up the embankment to the railway line itself, and follow that along in the hope of achieving the same result. On the one side there was the likelihood of our having to go a long way round, and on the other the suspicion that might possibly be aroused in the minds of the railway officials should we make an appearance at the station in such an unorthodox fashion. Eventually, however, we decided for the railway line. Accordingly we mounted the stile beside the arch, and having clambered up the embankment to the footpath beside the permanent way, resumed our march, one behind the other as before. We had not, however, as it turned out, very much farther to go, for on emerging from the cutting, which began at a short distance from the arch just referred to, we saw before us a glimmering light, emanating, so we discovered later, from the signal-box on the farther side of the station. I could not help wondering how Pharos would explain our presence at such an hour; but I knew him well enough by this time to feel sure that he would be able to do so, not to his own, but to everybody else's satisfaction. The place itself proved to be a primitive roadside affair, with a small galvanized shelter for passengers, and a cottage at the farther end, which we set down rightly enough as the residence of the station-master. The only lights to be seen were an oil-lamp above the cottage door, and another in the waiting-room. No sign of any official could be discovered.
"We must now find out," said Pharos, "at what time the next train leaves for civilization. Even in such a hole as this they must surely have a time-table."
So saying, he went into the shelter before described and turned up the lamp. His guess proved to be correct, for a number of notices were pasted upon the wall.
"Did you happen to see the name of the station as you came along the platform?" he inquired of me, as he knelt upon the seat and ran his eye along the printed sheets.
"I did not," I replied; "but I will very soon find out"
Leaving them, I made my way along the platform towards the cottage. Here on a board suspended upon the fence was the name "Tebworth" in large letters. I returned and informed Pharos, who immediately placed his skinny finger upon the placard before him.
"Tebworth," he said. "Here it is. The next train for Norwich leaves at 2.48. What is the time now?"
I consulted my watch.
"Ten minutes to two," I replied. "Roughly speaking, we have an hour to wait."
"We are lucky in not having longer," Pharos replied. "It is a piece of good fortune to get a train at all at such an early hour."
With that he seated himself in a corner and closed his eyes, as if preparatory to slumber. I suppose I must have dozed off after a while, for I have no remembrance of anything further until I was awakened by hearing the steps of a man on the platform outside, and his voice calling to a certain Joel, whoever he might be, to know if there was any news of the train for which we were waiting.
Before the other had time to answer, Pharos had risen and gone out. The exclamation of surprise, to say nothing of the look of astonishment upon the station-master's face,—for the badge upon his cap told me it was he,—when he found Pharos standing before him, was comical in the extreme.
"Good-evening," said the latter in his most urbane manner, "or rather, since it is getting on for three o'clock, I suppose I should say 'Good-morning.' Is your train likely to be late, do you think?"
"I don't fancy so, sir," the man replied. "She always runs up to time."
Then, unable to contain the curiosity, our presence on his platform at such an hour occasioned him, he continued: "No offence, I hope, sir, but we don't have many passengers of your kind by it as a general rule. It's full early for ladies and gentlemen Tebworth way to be travelling about the country."
"Very likely," said Pharos, with more than his usual sweetness; "but you see, my friend, our case is peculiar. We have a poor lady with us whom we are anxious to get up to London as quickly as possible. The excitement of travelling by day would be too much for her, so we choose the quiet of the early morning. Of course you understand."
Pharos tapped his forehead in a significant manner, and his intelligence being thus complimented, the man glanced into the shelter, and seeing Valerie seated there with a sad expression upon her face, turned to Pharos and said :—
"When the train comes in, sir, you leave it to me, and I'll see if I can't find you a carriage which you can have to yourselves right through. You'll be in Norwich at three-twenty."
We followed him along the platform to the booking-office, and Pharos had scarcely taken the tickets before the whistle of the train, sounding as it entered the cutting by which we had reached the station, warned us to prepare for departure.
"Ah, here she is, running well up to time!" said the station-master. "Now, sir, you come with me."
Pharos beckoned us to follow; the other opened the door of a first-class coach. We all got in. Pharos slipped a sovereign into the man's hand; the train started, and a minute later we were safely out of Tebworth and on the road once more. Our arrival in Norwich was punctual almost to the moment, and within twenty minutes of our arrival there we had changed trains and were speeding towards London at a rate of fifty miles an hour.
From Norwich, as from Tebworth, we were fortunate enough to have a carriage to ourselves, and during the journey I found occasion to discuss with Pharos the question as to what he thought of doing when we reached town. In my own mind I had made sure that as soon as we got there he would take Valerie away to the house he had occupied on the occasion of his last visit, while I should return to my own studio. This, however, I discovered was by no means what he intended.
"I could not hear of it, my dear Forrester," he said emphatically. "Is it possible that you can imagine, after all we have been through together, I should permit you to leave me? No! no! Such a thing is not to be thought of for an instant. I appreciate your company, even though you told me so plainly last evening that you do not believe it. You are also about to become the husband of my ward, and for that reason alone I have no desire to lose sight of you in the short time that is left me. I arranged with my agents before I left London in June, and I heard from them in Cairo that they had found a suitable residence for me in a fashionable locality. Valerie and I do not require very much room, and if you will take up your abode with us —that is to say, of course, until you are married—I assure you we shall both be delighted. What do you say, my dear?"
I saw Valerie's face brighten on hearing that we were not destined to be separated, and that decided me. However, for the reason that I did not for an instant believe in his expressions of friendship, I was not going to appear too anxious to accept his proposal. There was something behind it all that I did not know, and before I pledged myself I desired to find out what that something was.
"I do not know what to say," I answered, as soon as I had come to the conclusion that for the moment it would be better to appear to have forgotten and forgiven the past. "I have trespassed too much upon your hospitality already."
"You have not trespassed upon it at all," he answered. "I have derived great pleasure from your society, and I shall be still more pleased if you can see your way to fall in with my plan."
Thereupon I withdrew my refusal, and promised to take up my residence with him at least until the arrangements should be made for our wedding.
As it turned out, my astonishment on hearing that he had taken a London house was not the only surprise in store for me, for on reaching Liverpool Street, who should come forward to meet us but the same peculiar footman who had ridden beside the coachman on that memorable return journey from Pompeii. He was dressed in the same dark and unpretentious livery he had worn then, and, while he greeted his master, mistress, and myself with the most obsequious respect, did not betray the least sign of either pleasure or astonishment. Having ascertained that we had brought no luggage with us, he led us from the platform to the yard outside, where we found a fine landau awaiting us, drawn by a pair of jet-black horses, and driven by the same coachman I had seen in Naples on the occasion referred to above. Having helped Valerie to enter, and as soon as I had installed myself with my back to the horses, Pharos said something in an undertone to the footman, and then took his place opposite me. The door was immediately closed, and we drove out of the yard.
We soon left the City behind and proceeded along Victoria Street, and so by way of Grosvenor Place to Park Lane, where it drew up before a house at which, in the days when it had been the residence of the famous Lord Tollingtower, I had been a constant visitor.
"I presume, since we have stopped here, that this must be the place," said Pharos, gazing up at it.
"Do you mean that this is the house you have taken?" I asked in astonishment, for it was one of the finest residences in London.
"I mean that this is the house that my agents have taken for me," Pharos replied. "Personally I know nothing whatsoever about it."
"But surely you do not take a place without making some inquiries about it?" I continued.
"Why not?" he inquired. "I have servants whom I can trust, and they know that it is more than their lives are worth to deceive me. Strangely enough, however, it is recalled to my mind that this house and I do happen to be acquainted. The late owner was a personal friend. As a matter of fact, I stayed with him throughout his last illness and was with him when he died."
You may be sure I pricked up my ears on hearing this, for, as every one knew, the late Lord Tollingtower had reached the end of his extraordinary career under circumstances that had created rather a sensation at the time. Something, however, warned me to ask no questions.
"Let us alight," said Pharos, and when the footman had opened the door we accordingly did so.
On entering the house, I was surprised to find that considerable architectural changes had been made in it. Nor was my wonderment destined to cease there, for when I was shown to the bedroom which had been prepared for me, there, awaiting me at the foot of the bed, was the luggage I had left at the hotel in Prague, and which I had made up my mind I had lost sight of for ever. Here, at least, was evidence to prove that Pharos had never intended that I should leave him.
AFTER the excitement of the past few days, and her terrible experience in Hamburg, to say nothing of the fact that she had landed from a steamer under peculiar circumstances, and had been tramping the country half the night, it is not to be wondered at that, by the time we reached Park Lane, Valerie was completely knocked up. Pharos had accordingly insisted that she should at once retire to her room and endeavour to obtain the rest of which she stood so much in need.
"For the next few weeks,—that is to say, until the end of the season,—I intend that you shall both enjoy yourselves," he said with the utmost affability, when we were alone together, "to the top of your bent. And that reminds me of something, Forrester. Your betrothal must be announced as speedily as possible. It is due to Valerie that this should be done. I presume you do not wish the engagement to be a long one?"
"Indeed, I do not," I answered, not, however, without a slight feeling of surprise that he should speak so openly and so soon upon the subject. "As you may suppose, it cannot be too short to please me. And our marriage?"
"Your marriage can take place as soon after the season as you please," he continued with the same extraordinary geniality. "You will not find me placing any obstacles in your way."
"But you have never asked me as to my means, or my power to support her," I said, putting his last remark aside as if I had not heard it.
"I have not," he answered. "There is no need for me to do so. Your means are well known to me; besides, it has always been my intention to make provision for Valerie myself. Provided you behave yourselves, and do not play me any more tricks such as I had to complain of in Hamburg, you will find that she will bring you a handsome little nest-egg that will make it quite unnecessary for you ever to feel any anxiety on the score of money. But we will discuss all that more fully later on. See, here are a number of invitations that have arrived for us. It looks as if we are not likely to be dull during our stay in London."
So saying, he placed upwards of fifty envelopes before me, many of which I was surprised to find were addressed to myself. These I opened with the first feeling of a return to my old social life that I had experienced since I had re-entered London. The invitations hailed, for the most part, from old friends. Some were for dinners, others for musical "At homes," while at least a dozen were for dances, one of the last-named being from the Duchess of Amersham.
"I have taken the liberty of accepting that on your behalf," said Pharos, picking the card up. "The Duchess of Amersham and I are old friends, and I think it will brighten Valerie and yourself up a little if we look in at her ball an hour or so to-night."
"But surely," I said, "we have only just reached London, and—" Here I paused, not knowing quite how to proceed.
"What objection have you to raise?" he asked, with a sudden flash of the old angry look in his eyes.
"My only objection was that I thought it a little dangerous," I said. "On your own confession, it was the plague from which Valerie was suffering in Hamburg."
Pharos laughed a short, harsh laugh, that grated upon the ear.
"You must really forgive me, Forrester, for having deceived you," he said, "but I had to do it. It was necessary for me to use any means I could think of for getting you to England. As you have reason to know, Valerie is possessed of a peculiarly sensitive temperament. She is easily influenced, particularly by myself, and the effect can be achieved at any distance. If I were in London and she in Vienna, I could, by merely exercising my will, not only induce her to do anything I might wish, but could make, her bodily health exactly what I pleased. You will therefore see that it would be an easy task for me to cause her to be taken ill in Hamburg. Her second self— that portion of her mind which is so susceptible to my influence, as you saw for yourself—witnessed my arrival in Prague and at the hotel. As soon as I entered the room in which she was waiting for me, the attraction culminated in a species of fainting fit. I despatched you post haste to a chemist with a prescription which I thought would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for you to get made up. At any rate, it would, I knew, serve my purpose if it kept you some time away."
"Then you mean that while I was hurrying from place to place like a madman, suffering untold agonies of fear, and believing that Valerie's life depended upon my speed, you were in reality deceiving me?"
"If I am to be truthful, I must confess that I was," he replied; "but I give you my word the motive was a good one. Had I not done so, who knows what would have happened? The plague was raging on the Continent, and you were both bent on getting away from me again on the first opportunity. What was the result? Working on your fears for her, I managed to overcome the difficulties, and got you safely into England. Valerie has not been as ill as you supposed. I have sanctioned your engagement, and, as I said just now, if you will let me, will provide for you both for life, and will assist in lifting you to the highest pinnacle of fame. After this explanation, surely you are not going to be ungenerous enough to still feel vindictive against me?"
"It was a cruel trick to play me," I answered; "but since the result has not been as serious as I supposed, and you desire me to believe you did it all with a good object, I will endeavour to think no more about it."
"You have decided sensibly," he said. "And now let us arrange what we shall do this evening. My proposal is that we rest this afternoon, that you dine with me at my club, the Antiquarian, in the evening, and that afterwards I show you London as I see it in my character of Pharos the Egyptian. I think you will find the programme both interesting and instructive. Shortly before midnight we might return here, pick Valerie up, and go on to the Duchess of Amersham's ball. Does that meet with your approval?"
I was so relieved at finding that Valerie had not really been attacked by the plague, that however much I should have liked to spend the evening alone with her, I could see no reason for declining Pharos's invitation. I accordingly stated that I should be very glad to do as he wished.
We followed out his plan to the letter. After lunch we retired to our respective apartments and rested until it was time to prepare for the evening. At the hour appointed, I descended to the drawing-room, where I found Pharos awaiting me. He was dressed as I had seen him at Lady Medenham's well-remembered "At home "—that is to say, he wore his velvet jacket and black skull cap, and, as usual, carried his gold-topped walking-stick in his hand.
"The carriage is at the door, I think," he said as I entered, "so if you are ready we will set off."
A neat brougham was drawn up beside the pavement; we took our places in it, and ten minutes later had reached the Antiquarian Club, of all the establishments of the kind in London perhaps the most magnificent. Wide and lofty, and yet boasting the most harmonious proportions, the dining-room at the Antiquarian Club always remains in my mind the most stately of the many stately banqueting halls in London. Pharos's preference, I found, was for a table in one of the large windows overlooking the Embankment and the river, and this had accordingly been prepared for him.
"If you will sit there," said Pharos, motioning with his hand to a chair on the right, "I will take this one opposite you."
I accordingly seated myself in the place he indicated.
The dinner was perfect in every respect. My host himself, however, dined after his own fashion, in the manner I have elsewhere described. Nevertheless, he did the honours of the table with the most perfect grace, and had any stranger been watching us, he would have found it difficult to believe that the relationship existing between us was not of the most cordial nature possible.
By eight o'clock the room was crowded, and with as fine a collection of well-born, well-dressed, and well-mannered men as could be found in London. The decorations, the portraits upon the walls, the liveried servants, the snowy drapery and sparkling silver, all helped to make up a picture that, after the sordidness of the Margrave of Brandenberg, was like a glimpse of a new life.
"This is the first side of that London life I am desirous of presenting to you," said Pharos in his capacity of showman, after I had finished my dessert, and had enjoyed a couple of glasses of the famous Antiquarian port—"one side of that luxury and extravagance which is fast drawing this great city to its doom. Now, if you have quite finished, we might move on."
I acquiesced, and we accordingly descended to the hall and donned our coats.
"If you would care to smoke, permit me to offer you one of the same brand of cigarettes of which you expressed your approval in Naples," said Pharos, producing from his pocket a silver case, which he handed to me. I took one of the delicacies it contained and lit it. Then we passed out of the hall to Pharos's own carriage, which was waiting in the street for us. We will now return to pick up Valerie, after which we will drive to Amersham House, where I have no doubt we shall meet many of those whom we have seen here to-night."
We found Valerie awaiting us in the drawing-room. She was dressed for the ball, and, superb as I thought she looked on the evening she had been presented to the Emperor in Prague, I had to confess to myself that she was even more beautiful now. Her face was flushed with excitement, and her lovely eyes sparkled like twin stars. I hastened to congratulate her on her altered appearance, and had scarcely done so before the butler announced that the carriage was at the door. Whereupon we departed for Carlton House Terrace.
On the subject of the ball itself it is not my intention to say very much; let it suffice that, possibly by reason of what followed later, it is talked of to this day. The arrangements were of the most sumptuous and extravagant description, princes of the blood and their wives were present, Cabinet Ministers jostled burly country squires upon the staircase, fair but haughty aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the daughters of American millionaires, whose money had been made goodness knows where or how; half the celebrities of England nodded to the other half; but in all that distinguished company there was no woman to eclipse Valerie in beauty, and, as another side of the picture, no man who could equal Pharos in ugliness. Much to my astonishment, the latter seemed to have no lack of acquaintances, and I noticed also that every one with whom he talked, though they paid a most servile attention to his remarks while he was with them, invariably heaved a sigh of relief when he took his departure.
At two o'clock Valerie was tired, and we accordingly decided to leave. But I soon found that it was not to return home. Having placed my darling in her carriage, Pharos directed the coachman to drive to Park Lane, declaring that we preferred to walk.
It was a beautiful night, cool and fresh, with a few clouds in the south-west, but brilliant starlight overhead. Leaving Carlton House Terrace, we passed into Waterloo Place, ascended it as far as Piccadilly, and then hailed a cab.
"Our evening is not completed yet," said Pharos. "I have still some places to show you. It is necessary that you should see them in order that you may appreciate what is to follow. The first will be a fancy dress ball at Covent Garden, where yet another side of London life is to be found."
If such a thing could possibly have had any effect, I should have objected; but so completely did his will dominate mine, that I had no option but to consent to anything he proposed. We accordingly stepped into the cab and were driven off to the place indicated. From the sounds which issued from the great building as we entered it, it was plain that the ball was proceeding with its accustomed vigour, a surmise on our part which proved to be correct when we reached the box Pharos had bespoken. A floor had been laid over the stalls and pit, and upon this upwards of fifteen hundred dancers, in every style of fancy dress the ingenuity of man could contrive, were slowly revolving to the music of a military band. It was a curious sight, and at any other time would have caused me considerable amusement. Now, however, with the fiendish face of Pharos continually at my elbow, and his carping criticisms sounding without ceasing in my ear, mocking at the people below us, finding evil in everything, and hinting always at the doom which was hanging over London, it reminded me more of Dante's Inferno than anything else to which I could liken it. For upwards of an hour we remained spectators of it. Then, with a final sneer, Pharos gave the signal for departure.
"We have seen the finest club in Europe," he said, as we emerged into the cool air of Bow Street, "the most fashionable social event of the season, and a fancy dress ball at Covent Garden. We must now descend a grade lower, and, if you have no objection, we will go on in search of it on foot?"
I had nothing to urge against this suggestion, so, turning into Long Acre, we passed through a number of squalid streets, with all of which Pharos seemed to be as intimately acquainted as he was in the West End, and finally approached the region of Seven Dials—that delectable neighbourhood bordered on the one side by Shaftesbury Avenue, and on the other by Drury Lane. Here, though it was by this time close upon three o'clock, no one seemed to have begun to think of bed. In one narrow alley through which we were compelled to pass at least thirty people were assembled, more than half of which number were intoxicated. A woman was screaming for assistance from a house across the way, and a couple of men were fighting at the farther end of an adjoining court. In this particular locality the police seemed as extinct as the dodo. At any other time, and in any other company, I should have felt some doubt as to the wisdom of being in such a place at such an hour. But with my present companion beside me I felt no fear.
We had walked some distance before we reached the house Pharos desired to visit. From its outward appearance it might have been a small drinking-shop in the daytime; now, however, every window was closely shuttered, and not a ray of light showed through chink or cranny. Approaching the door, he knocked four times upon it, whereupon it was opened on a chain for a few inches. A face looked through the aperture thus created, and Pharos, moving a little closer, said something in a whisper to it.
"Beg pardon, sir," said the woman, for a woman I soon discovered it was. "I didn't know as it was you. I'll undo the chain. Is the gentleman with you safe?"
"Quite safe," Pharos replied. "You need have no fear of him. He is my friend."
"In you come, then," said the woman to me, my character being thus vouched for, and accordingly in I stepped.
Dirty as were the streets outside, the house in which we now stood more than equalled them. The home of Captain Wisemann in Hamburg, which I had up to that time thought the filthiest I had ever seen, was nothing to it. Taking the candle in her hand, the old woman led us along the passage towards another door. Before this she paused and rang a bell, the handle of which was cleverly concealed in the wood-work. Almost instantly it was opened, and we entered a room the like of which I had never seen or dreamt of before. Its length was fully thirty feet, its width possibly fifteen. On the wall above the fireplace was a gas bracket, from the burner of which a large flame was issuing with a hissing noise. In the centre of the room was a table, and seated round it were at least twenty men and women, who, at the moment of our entering, were engaged upon a game the elements of which I did not understand. On seeing us the players sprang to their feet with one accord, and a scramble ensued for the money upon the table. A scene of general excitement followed, which might very well have ended in the gas being turned out and our finding ourselves upon the floor with knives between our ribs, had not the old woman who had introduced us called out that there was no need for alarm, and added, with an oath—what might in Pharos's case possibly have been true, but in mine was certainly not—that we had been there hundreds of times before, and were proper sort o' gents. Thereupon Pharos contributed a sovereign to be spent in liquid refreshment, and when our healths had been drunk with a variety of toasts intended to be complimentary, out presence was forgotten, and the game once more proceeded. One thing was self-evident: there was no lack of money among those present, and when a member of the company had not the wherewithal to continue the gamble, he in most cases produced a gold watch, a ring, or some other valuable from his pocket, and handed it to a burly ruffian at the head of the table, who advanced him an amount upon it which nine cases out of ten failed to meet with his approval.
"Seeing you have not been here before," said Pharos, " I might explain that this is the most typical thieves' gambling hell in London. There is not a man or woman in this room at the present moment who is not a hardened criminal in every sense of the word. The fellow at the end narrowly escaped the gallows, the man on his right has but lately emerged from seven years' penal servitude for burglary. The three sitting together next the banker are at the present moment badly wanted by the police, while the old woman who admitted us, and who was once not only a celebrated variety actress, but an exceedingly beautiful woman, is the mother of that sickly youth drinking gin beside the fireplace, who assisted in the murder of an old man in Shaftesbury Avenue a fortnight or so ago, and will certainly be captured and brought within measurable distance of the gallows before many more weeks have passed over his head. Have you seen enough of this to satisfy you?"
"More than enough," I answered truthfully.
"Then let us leave. It will soon be daylight, and there are still many places for us to visit before we return home."
We accordingly bade the occupants of the room good-night, and when we had been escorted to the door by the old woman who had admitted us left the house.
From the neighbourhood of Seven Dials Pharos carried me off to other equally sad -and disreputable quarters of the city. We visited Salvation Army Shelters, the cheapest of cheap lodging-houses, doss-houses in comparison to which a workhouse would be a palace; dark railway arches, where we found homeless men, women, and children endeavouring to snatch intervals of rest between the visits of patrolling policemen; the public parks, where the grass was dotted with recumbent forms, and every seat was occupied; and then, turning homewards, reached Park Lane just as the clocks were striking seven, as far as I was concerned sick to the heart, not only of the sorrow and the sin of London, but of the callous indifference to it displayed by Pharos.
WHEN I woke next morning, the feeling I had had in my heart the evening before, that something terrible was about to happen, had not left me. With a shudder of intense disgust, I recalled the events of the previous night. Never, since I had known him, with the exception of that one occasion on the Embankment, had Pharos appeared so loathsome to me. I remembered the mocking voice in which he had pointed out to me the follies and frailties of our great city, the cruel look in his eyes as he watched those about him in the different places we had visited. For the life of me I could not comprehend what his object had been in taking me to them. While I dressed I debated the subject with myself, but though I had a very shrewd suspicion that the vengeance to which he alluded, and which he had declared to be so imminent, was the plague, yet I could not see how he was able to speak with such authority upon the subject. On the other hand, I had to remember that I had never yet known him fail, either in what he had predicted, or anything he had set himself to do. Having got so far in my calculations, I stopped, as another thought occurred to me, and with my brushes still in either hand stared at the wall before me. From the fact that he had informed me of the existence of the plague in London, it was certain that he knew of it, though the authorities did not. Could it be possible, therefore, that he had simply crossed from the Continent to London in order to be able to gloat over the misery that was to come?
The diabolical nature of the man, and his love of witnessing the sufferings of others, tallied exactly with the conclusion I had arrived at; and if my reasoning were correct, this would account for the expression of triumph I had seen upon his face. When I descended to the breakfast-room, I found Valerie awaiting me there. She was looking quite her own self again by this time, and greeted me with a pretty exhibition of shyness upon her face, which I could understand when she handed me a number of letters she had received, congratulating her upon our engagement.
"You were late last night," she said. "Hour after hour I lay awake listening for your step, and it was broad daylight when I heard you ascend the stairs. I cannot tell you how frightened I was while you were away. I knew you were with him, and I imagined you exposed to a hundred dangers."
I told her where and with whom I had been.
"But why did he take you with him?" she inquired, when I had finished. "I cannot understand that."
"I must confess that it has puzzled me also," I replied.
"The whole thing is very strange," she continued, "and I do not like the look of it. We have reason to know that he does nothing without a motive. But what can the motive have been in this particular instance?"
"That is more than I can say," I answered, and with that we changed the subject, and interested ourselves in our own and more particular concerns. So engrossing were they, and so pleasant were the thoughts they conjured up, that when breakfast was finished I remained on in the dining-room, and did not open any of the morning papers which were lying in a heap upon the library table. At half-past ten I said good-bye to Valerie, who was practising in the drawing-room— Pharos I had not yet seen—and, putting on my hat, left the house. It was the first opportunity I had had, since my return to London, of visiting my studio, and I was exceedingly anxious to discover how things had been progressing there during my absence. It was a lovely morning for walking, the sky being without a cloud, and the streets in consequence filled with sunshine. In the Row a considerable number of men and women were enjoying their morning canter, and nursemaids in white dresses were to be counted by the dozen in the streets leading to the Park. At the corner of Hamilton Place a voice I recognised called to me to stop, and, on turning round, I found my old friend, Sir George Legrath, hastening after me.
"My dear Cyril," he said, as he shook hands with me, "I am indeed glad to see you. I had no idea you had returned."
"I reached London yesterday morning," I answered, but in such a constrained voice that he must have been dense indeed if he did not see that something was amiss. "How did you know I had been away?"
"Why, my dear fellow," he answered, "have you forgotten that I sent you a certain address in Naples? And then I called at your studio the following morning, when your man told me you were abroad. But somehow you don't look well. I hope nothing is the matter?"
"Nothing, nothing," I replied, almost sharply, and for the first time in my life his presence was almost distasteful to me, though if I had been asked the reason I should have found it difficult to say why. "Sir George, when I called on you at the Museum that morning, you told me you would rather see me in my grave than connected in any way with Pharos."
"Well?" he inquired, looking up at me with a face that had suddenly lost its usual ruddy hue. "What makes you remind me of that now?"
"Because," I answered, "if it were not for one person's sake, I could wish that that opportunity had been vouchsafed you. I have been two months with Pharos."
"Well?" he said again.
"What more do you expect me to say?" I continued. Then, sinking my voice a little, as if I were afraid Pharos might be within hearing distance, I added," Sir George, if I were to tell you all I know about that man—"
"You must tell me nothing!" he cried hastily. "I know too much already."
We walked for some distance in silence, and it was not until we were opposite Devonshire House that we spoke again.
Then Sir George said abruptly, and with a desire to change the subject that could not be disguised, "Of course you have heard the terrible news this morning?"
Following the direction of his eyes, I saw what had put the notion into his head. A news-seller was standing in the gutter on the other side of the street, holding in his hand the usual placard setting forth the contents of the papers he had for sale. On this was printed in large letters:—
TERRIBLE OUTBREAK OF THE
PLAGUE IN LONDON.
"You refer to the plague, I presume?" I said, with an assumed calmness I was far from feeling. "From that headline it would seem to have made its appearance in London after all."
"It has, indeed," said Sir George, with a gloominess that was far from usual with him. "Can it be possible you have not seen the papers?"
"I have scarcely seen a paper since I left London," I replied. "I have been far too busy. Tell me about it. Is it so very bad?"
"It has come upon us like a thunderclap," he answered. "Two days ago it was not known. Yesterday there was but one case, and that in the country. This morning there are no less than three hundred and seventy-five, and among them some of our most intimate friends. God help us if it gets worse! The authorities assure us they can stamp it out with ease, but it is my opinion this is destined to prove a grave crisis in England's history. However, it does not do to look on the black side of things, so I'll not turn prophet. Our ways part here, do they not? In that case, good-bye. I am very glad to have seen you. If you should be passing the Museum, I hope you will drop in. You know my hours, I think?"
"I shall be very glad to do so," I answered, and thereupon we parted with the first shadow of a cloud between us that our lives had seen. On reviewing our conversation afterwards, I could recall nothing that should have occasioned it; nevertheless, there it was, "that little rift within the lute," as Tennyson says, "which by-and-by would make the music mute."
After we had parted, I crossed the road and walked by way of Dover Street to my studio. Scarcely two months had elapsed since that fatal day when I had left it to go in search of Pharos, and yet those eight weeks seemed like years. So long did I seem to have been away that I almost expected to find a change in the houses of the street, and when I passed the curiosity shop at the corner where the murder had taken place, that terrible tragedy which had been the primary cause of my falling into Pharos's power, it was with a sensible feeling of surprise I found the windows still decorated with the same specimens of china, and the shop still carrying on its trade under the name of Clausand. I turned the corner and crossed the road. Instinctively my hand went into my pocket and produced the latchkey. I tapped it twice against the right-hand pillar of the door, just as I had been in the habit of doing for years, and inserted it in the lock. A few seconds later I had let myself in and was standing amongst my own lares and penates once more. Everything was just as I had left it; the clock was ticking on the mantelpiece, not a speck of dirt or dust was upon chair or china; indeed, the only thing that served to remind me that I had been away at all was the pile of letters which had been neatly arranged upon my writing-table. These I opened, destroyed what were of no importance, and placed the rest in my pocket to be answered at a more convenient opportunity. Then leaving a note upon my table to inform my servant that I had returned, and would call again on the following morning, I let myself out, locked the door, and returned to Piccadilly en route to Park Lane.
A great writer has mentioned somewhere that the gravest issues are often determined by the most insignificant trifles. As I have just remarked, I had, in this instance, made up my mind to return to Park Lane, in the hope that I might be able to induce Valerie to take a stroll with me in the Park, and had left Bond Street in order to turn westward, when, emerging from a shop on the other side of the road, I espied the writer of one of the most important of the many letters I had found awaiting me at the studio. He was a member of my own club, and thinking I had better apologise to him while I had the chance for not having answered his letter sooner, I hastened after him. He, however, seemed to be in a hurry; and as soon as it came to a race between us, it was evident that he had the advantage of me on a point of speed. I chased him until I saw that he was bound for the club, whereupon, knowing I should be certain to catch him there, I slackened my pace and strolled leisurely along. In other days I had often been twitted in a jocular fashion by my friends about my membership of this particular club. The reputation it possessed was excellent in every way but it certainly must be confessed that what it gained in respectability it lacked in liveliness. For the most part the men who made use of it were middle-aged; in point of fact I believe there were but two younger than myself, consequently the atmosphere of the house, while being always dignified, was sometimes cold almost to the borders of iciness.
On this particular day there was an additional air of gloom about it that rather puzzled me. When, however, I had finished my conversation with the man I had been following, and sought the smoking-room, the reason of it soon became apparent. That terrible fear which was destined within a few hours to paralyse all London was already beginning to make its presence felt, and as a result the room, usually so crowded, now contained but four men. These greeted me civilly enough, but without any show of interest. They were gathered round one of their number who was seated at a table with a pencil in his hand and a map of Europe spread out before him. From the way in which he was laying down the law, I gathered that he was demonstrating some theory upon which he pinned considerable faith.
"I have worked the whole thing out," he was saying as I entered," and you can see it here for yourselves. On this sheet of paper I have pasted every telegram that has reached London from the time the disease first made its appearance in Constantinople. As each country became affected I coloured it upon the map in red, while these spots of a darker shade represent the towns from which the first cases were notified. At a glance, therefore, you can see the way in which the malady has travelled across Europe."
On hearing this, you may be sure I drew closer to the table, and looked over the shoulders of the men at the map below.
"As you see," said the lecturer, with renewed interest, as he observed this addition to his audience, "it started in Constantinople, made its appearance next in Southern Russia and the Balkan States. Two days later a case was notified from Vienna and another in Prague. Berlin was the next city visited, then Wittenberg, then Hamburg. France did not become infected until some days later, and then the individual who brought it was proved to have arrived the day before from Berlin. Yesterday, according to the official returns, there were twelve hundred cases in France, eighteen thousand in Austria, sixteen thousand in Germany—of which Hamburg alone contributes five thousand three hundred and fifty—while in Italy there have been three thousand four hundred, in Spain and Portugal only two hundred and thirty, while Turkey and Russia have forty-five thousand, and thirty-seven thousand three hundred and eighty, respectively. Greece returns seventeen thousand six hundred and twenty, Holland seven thousand two hundred and sixty-four, Belgium nine thousand five hundred and twenty-three, while Denmark completes the total of Europe with four thousand two hundred and twenty-one. The inferences to be drawn from these figures are apparent. The total number of deaths upon the Continent up to midnight last night was one hundred and fifty-nine thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight The nations most seriously affected are Turkey and the countries immediately surrounding her, namely, Greece, Russia, and Austria. Germany follows next, though why Hamburg should contribute such a large proportion as five thousand three hundred and fifty I must admit it is difficult to see. England hitherto has stood aloof; now, however, it has broken out in London, and three hundred and seventy-five cases have been notified up to eight o'clock this morning."
On hearing this, the men standing round him turned pale and shuffled uneasily upon their feet. As for myself, I might have been changed to stone, so cold and so incapable of moving was I. It was as if a bandage had suddenly been removed from my eyes, enabling me to see everything plainly and in its proper light.
"The returns for our own country," continued this indefatigable statistician, without noticing my condition, "are as interesting as those from the Continent. I have filed everything already published, and have applied the result to this map of London. The two cases that occurred in Norfolk—the porter in Norwich, and the stationmaster at Tebworth Junction—I omit, for the reason that they tell us nothing. Of the cases notified in this city, careful inquiries on the part of the authorities have elicited the information that sixty-eight were present at the Renaissance Theatre last night, twenty-five spent the evening at the Antiquarian Club last night, seventy-one to the Fancy Dress Ball at Covent Garden, while, strangely enough, no less than thirty-seven can be proved to have been among the guests of the Duchess of Amersham at her ball in Carlton House Terrace. The others are more difficult to account for, being made up of coster-mongers, homeless vagrants, street-hawkers, and others of the same class."
I could bear no more, but stumbled from the room like a drunken man out into the hall beyond. A servant, thinking I was ill, hastened to inquire if he could be of any assistance to me.
"Get me a cab," I faltered huskily.
The man ran into the street and blew his whistle. A hansom drove up, and I made my way into the street and scrambled into it, scarcely knowing how I managed it, and then fell back upon the cushions as if I were in a fit. The cab sped along the streets, threaded its way in and out of the traffic with a dexterity and a solicitude for my safety that was a more biting sarcasm than any lips could utter. What was my safety to me now? Knowing what I knew, I had better, far better, be dead.
The dreadful secret was out. In less than five minutes the mystery of two months had been solved. Now I knew the meaning of the spot I had discovered upon my arm on the morning following my terrible adventure in the Pyramid; now I could understand my illness in the desert, and the sudden death of the poor Arab who had nursed me. In the light of this terrible truth, everything was as clear as daylight, and all I wanted was to get back to Park Lane and find myself face to face with Pharos, in order that I might tax him with it, and afterwards go forth and publish his infamy to the world. Fast as the man was driving, he could not make his horse go fast enough for me. Though at first my blood had been as cold as ice, it now raced through my veins like liquid fire. A feverish nervousness had seized me, and for the time being I was little better than a madman. Regardless of the passers-by, conscious only of the vile part I had been induced to play—unwittingly, it is true—in his unbelievable wickedness, I urged the driver to greater speed. At last, after what seemed an eternity, we reached our destination. I alighted, and, as I had done in Hamburg, paid the cabman with the first money I took from my pocket, and then went up the steps and entered the house. By this time the all-consuming fire of impatience which had succeeded the icy coldness of the first discovery had left me, and was succeeded by a strange, unnatural calm, in which I seemed to be myself, and yet to be standing at a distance, watching myself. In a voice that I scarcely recognised, I inquired from the butler where I could find his master. He informed me that he was in the drawing-room, and I accordingly went thither in search of him. I had not the least notion of what I was going to say to him when I found him, or how I should say it, but I had to relieve my mind of the weight it was carrying, and then— Why, after that, nothing would matter. I opened the door and entered the room. The sunshine was streaming in through the windows at the farther end, falling upon the elegant furniture, the embroideries and draperies, the china, and the hundred-and-one knick-knacks that go to make up a fashionable drawing-room. Of Pharos, however, there was no sign. In place of him Valerie rose from a chair by the window and greeted me with a little exclamation of delight. Then, seeing the look upon my face, and the deadly pallor of my complexion, she must have realized that something serious had happened to me, for she ran forward and took my hands in hers.
"My darling!" she cried, with a look of terror upon her face, "what has happened? Tell me, for pity's sake, for your face terrifies me!"
The pressure of her hands and the sight of those beautiful frightened eyes gazing up into mine cut me to the heart. Overwhelmed with sorrow as I was, she alone of all the world could soothe me and alleviate the agony I was suffering. It was not possible, however, that I could avail myself of her sympathy. I was dishonoured enough already, without seeking to dishonour her. Here our love must end. For the future I should be an outcast, a social leper, carrying with me to my grave the knowledge of the curse I had brought upon my fellow-men. I tried to put her from me, but she would not be denied.
"Oh, what can have happened that you treat me like this?" she cried. "Your silence breaks my heart."
"You must not come near me, Valerie," I muttered hoarsely. "Leave me. You have no notion what I am."
"You are the man I love," she answered. "That is enough for me. Whatever it may be, I have the right to share your sorrow with you."
"No, no!" I cried. "You must have no more to do with me. Drive me away from you. I tell you I am viler than you can believe, lower than the common murderer, for he kills but one, while, God help me, I have killed thousands."
She must have thought me mad, for she uttered a little choking sob and sank down upon the floor, the very picture and embodiment of despair. Then the door opened, and Pharos entered.
Seeing me standing in the centre of the room with a wild look upon my face, and Valerie crouching at my feet, he paused and gazed from one to the other of us in surprise.
"I am afraid I am de trop," he said, with the old nasty sneer upon his face. "If it is not putting you to too much trouble, perhaps one of you will be good enough to tell me what it means."
Neither of us answered for upwards of a minute; then I broke the spell that bound us and turned to Pharos. How feeble the words seemed, when compared with the violence of my emotions and the unbelievable nature of the charge I was bringing against him, I must leave you to imagine.
"It means, Monsieur Pharos," I said, "that I have discovered everything."
I could say no more, for a lump was rising in my throat which threatened to choke me. It soon appeared, however, that I had said enough, for Pharos must either have read my thoughts and have understood that denial would be useless, or, since I was no longer necessary to him, he did not care whether he confessed to me or not. At any rate, he advanced into the room, his cruel eyes watching me intently the while.
"So you have discovered everything, have you, my friend?" he said. "And pray what is this knowledge that you have accumulated?"
"How can I tell you?" I cried, scarcely knowing how to enter upon my terrible indictment. "How can I make you understand your wickedness? I have discovered that it is you who are responsible for the misery from which Europe is now suffering. I know that it was I, through you, who introduced the plague and carried it from Constantinople to London. Inhuman monster!" I continued, having by this time worked myself to a white heat. "I was in your power and you made me your tool. But you shall not escape. It is not too late even now to punish you. Within an hour the world shall know everything, and you will be dead, if devils can die. I have been your tool, but, since I know your wickedness, I will not be your accomplice. Oh, my God! is it possible that a man breathing the pure air of heaven can be so vile?"
All the time I had been thus denouncing him, I had been standing just as I was when he entered the room, with Valerie still crouching at my feet. The dangerous light I remembered so well of old had returned to his eyes, making him look indescribably fiendish.
"Are you mad that you dare to talk to me in this fashion?" he said at last, but with a calmness the meaning of which there was no mistaking. "Since it is plain that you do not remember the hold I have upon you, nor what your fate will be if you anger me, I must enlighten you. You bring these accusations against me and you threaten to betray me to the world—me, Pharos the Egyptian, and to your pitiful world which I spurn beneath my feet. Once more I ask you, are you mad? But since there is no further need for concealment, and you desire the truth, you shall hear it." He paused, and when he spoke again it was noticeable he had dropped his former conversational tone and had adopted a manner more in keeping with the solemnity of what he had to say. "Know, then, that what thou sawest in the vision before the Sphinx and in the Temple of Ammon was the truth, and not a dream, as I desired thee to believe. I, whom thou hast known as Pharos, am none other than Ptahmes, son of Netruhôtep, Prophet of the North and South, the same whom Pharaoh sought to kill, and who died in hiding and was buried by his faithful priests under cover of night more than three thousand years ago. Cursed by the gods, and denied the right of burial by order of the King, I have inhabited this shape since then. Darest thou, knowing this, pit thyself against the servant of the Mighty Ones? For I tell thee assuredly that the plague which is now destroying Europe was decreed by the gods of Egypt against such nations as have committed the sin of sacrilege."
He paused, and for a moment I thought he would have sprung upon me as he had done that night in my studio. But he controlled himself with an effort, and a moment later his voice was as soft and conciliatory and yet as full of malice as before. I also noticed that he had returned to his ordinary and more colloquial tone.
"Are you anxious to hear more? If you are determined to proclaim my doings to the world, it is only fit you should know everything. I will willingly confess. Why should I not do so? You are mine to do with as I please. Without my leave you are powerless to hurt me, and who would believe you if you were to tell? No one! They would call you mad, as you undoubtedly are, and say that fear of the plague had turned your brain. In Naples you accused me of the murder of Clausand, the curiosity dealer. I denied it because the time was not then ripe for me to acquaint you with the truth. Now I confess it. I stabbed him because he would not give me a certain scarabeus, and to divert suspicion willed that the half-crazy German, Schmidt, whom the other had cast out of his service, should declare that he did the deed. In obedience to my desire you followed me to Italy and accompanied me thence to Egypt. I it was who drew you to the Pyramid and decreed that you should lose your way inside, in order that when fear had deprived you of your senses I might inoculate you with the plague. Seven days later you were stricken with it in the desert. As soon as you recovered, I carried you off to Europe to begin the work required of you. In Constantinople, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Hamburg, wherever you went you left the fatal germs of the disease as a legacy behind you. You infected this woman here, and but for me she would have died. To-day the last portion of that vengeance which has been decreed commences, and when all is finished I go to that rest in ancient Thebes which has been denied me these long three thousand years. Hark! Even now the sound of wailing is to be heard in London. Hour by hour the virulence of the pestilence increases, and the strong men and weak women, youths and maidens, children and babes, go down before it like corn before the reaper. On every hand the voices of mourners rise into the summer air, and it is I, Ptahmes, the servant of the gods, the prophet of the king, the man whom thou hast said thou wilt proclaim to the world, who has brought it about."
Then, lifting his right hand, he pointed it at me.
"Fool—fool!" he cried, with withering scorn. "Frail atom in the path of life, who art thou that thou shouldst deem thyself strong enough to cope with me? Learn, then, that the time is not yet ripe. I have further need of thee. Sleep again, and in that sleep do all I shall require of thee."
As he said this his diminutive form seemed to grow larger and more terrible, until it appeared to have attained twice its ordinary size. His eyes shone in his head like living coals, and seemed to burn into my brain. I saw Valerie rise from the place where she had hitherto been crouching, and snatch an Oriental dagger from a table. Then, swift as a panther, she sprang upon him, only to be hurled back against the wall as if struck by an invisible hand. Then, obedient as a little child, I closed my eyes and slept.
FOR no less a period than five days and six nights Pharos kept me in the same hypnotic condition, and, incredible though it may seem, I have not the slightest recollection of any one single circumstance that occurred during the whole of that time. Valerie has since informed me that I moved about the house very much as usual, that I went in and out with Pharos, but that I never spoke to her, and while I seemed conscious of my actions and well enough in my bodily health, I did everything with that peculiar listless air that one notices in a man while walking in his sleep. I also gather from the same source that Pharos's behaviour during that terrible period was equally extraordinary. Never for one instant did he allow her to remain alone with me. The greater portion of his time was spent out of the house with myself, though in what pursuit he was engaged she could not discover. He would take me away with him early in the morning and not return until late at night, when he would conduct me to my room and then retire himself. At times he would scarcely speak a word, then a fit of loquacity would come over him, and he would openly boast to her of the misery he had caused, and find a diabolical delight in every bulletin that proclaimed the increasing virulence of the plague. To this day the picture of that impish creature perambulating the death-stricken streets and alleys to the accompaniment of tolling bells, watching with ghoulish satisfaction the futile efforts of the authorities to cope with the disease, haunts me like a nightmare. Every day fresh tidings were pouring in of the spread of the infection into other cities and towns, until the entire kingdom was riddled like a honeycomb.
How long Pharos would have kept me under his influence, had he possessed the power, I cannot say. I only know that on the morning of the sixth day I woke with a strange and confused feeling in my head. Though my eyes were open and I was to all outward appearances wide awake, I was like a man hovering on the borderland of sleep. My senses were gradually coming back to me; the strength of my brain was reasserting itself, and by some strange process, how arrived at it is impossible for me to say, the hold Pharos had obtained upon me was slowly weakening. Then it was as if I suddenly awoke to find myself standing fully dressed in my own room. My bed had been slept in, and one glance out of my window showed me that it was early morning. And yet I had not the least recollection of having been in bed or of having made my toilet. Then the scene with Pharos, and the awful knowledge it had given rise to, came back to me, and I remembered how he had pointed his hand at me, and how I had fallen asleep before him. Here was the logical explanation of the whole thing. It was plain that after I had become unconscious, Pharos had caused me to be carried to my room and put to bed. This then, I argued, must be the morning following. Now that the effect he had produced had worn off, there was still time for me to do what I had originally intended. Having arrived at this decision, I opened my door and went downstairs. A curious silence prevailed, not only in the house, but outside. I stopped on the first landing and looked out of the window. So far as I could see, there were no cabs or carriages in the street, no riders in the Row, no children with their nurses upon the pavements, and yet the old Chippendale timepiece in the hall told me that the hour was considerably past nine o'clock. A curious feeling of drowsiness still possessed me, but it was fast leaving me, and, what was more, leaving me filled with but one purpose in life, which was to seek out the authorities and proclaim to them the devilry of Pharos, and the part I had myself played in his abominable wickedness. After that I would wait for Fate to say what should become of me.
Putting on my hat, I opened the front door and stepped out into the street. At any cost I would endeavour to reach the Home Office, and tell my story there, before Pharos could prevent me. With this end in view I hurried towards Piccadilly, intending to take a cab there and so save time. But when I set out I had not the least notion of the misery that had befallen London, nor of anything that had happened since Pharos had pointed his finger at me. In my wildest dreams I had never imagined such a picture of desolation as that which was now presented to me. It seemed impossible that so terrible a change should have come over a city in so short a time (I must remind you here that I still believed that only twenty hours had elapsed since I had had my fatal interview with Pharos). In all Park Lane not a house, save that occupied by Pharos, showed any sign of being inhabited. Without exception the blinds were down, and in most cases the shutters had been put up, while in numerous instances broad lines of red paint had been drawn across the pavement opposite them, but for what purpose, or their indication, I had not the remotest idea. In Piccadilly, from Apsley House to Berkeley Street, it was the same, though here a few solitary foot-passengers were to be seen. Thinking I must have mistaken the hour, and that it was earlier than I supposed, I looked at my watch, but it said a quarter to ten. In vain I searched for a cab of any sort. In the road, usually so crowded at that hour with vehicles of all descriptions, omnibuses, hansoms, private carriages, vans, and even coster-mongers' barrows, two dogs were fighting over a piece of food. But the silence was the worst part of it all. Not a sound, save the chirruping of the sparrows in the trees of the park, was to be heard. Realizing that it was useless waiting for a cab, I crossed the road and entered the Green Park, intending to make my way to St. James's Park, and thence to the Home Office. With feverish haste I pushed on, walking as if every life in England depended on my speed.
Reaching the Mall, I crossed into St. James's Park and passed over the bridge which spans the lake. Here the water-birds were swimming about as happily as if nothing out of the common were occurring in the great city around them. At last I reached the office for which I was making. The Home Secretary at the time was a man I had known all my life, an upright, honest Englishman in every sense of the word, beloved by everybody, and respected even by his political opponents. If any man would listen to my story, I felt convinced he would be that one. When, however, I reached the office, what a change was there! Only the day before, as I still imagined, the place had been teeming with life, every room filled with clerks, and exhibiting all the machinery of a great Government office. Now, at first glance, it appeared deserted. I entered the hall in which I had been accustomed to inquire from the porter for my friend, only to find it occupied by a sergeant of the Guards, who rose on seeing me.
"What do you want?" he inquired brusquely.
"I desire to see the Home Secretary without loss of time," I answered. "I am the bearer of most important information, and it is most imperative that I should see him at once."
"What is the information?" the man inquired suspiciously. "The Home Secretary sees no one except on the most urgent business now."
"My business is the most urgent possible," I returned. "If you will take my name to him, I feel sure he will see me."
"I shall do nothing of the kind," replied the sergeant, "so you had better take yourself off. We don't want any of your kind about here just now. There's enough trouble without having you to look after."
"But I must see him!" I cried in despair. "You don't know what you are doing when you try to stop me. I have a confession to make to him, and make it I will at any hazard. Take me to him at once, or I shall find him myself."
The man was moving towards me with the evident intention of putting me into the street, when a door opened and the Home Secretary, Sir Edward Granger-field, stood before me. When last I had seen him at the Duchess of Amersham's ball—I remembered that he congratulated me on my engagement on that occasion—he had looked in the prime of life. Now he was an old man, borne down by the weight of sorrow and responsibility which the plague had placed upon his shoulders. From the way he looked at me, it was plain he did not recognise me.
"Sir Edward," I said, "is it possible I am so much changed that you do not know me? I am Cyril Forrester."
"Cyril Forrester!" he cried in amazement, coming a step closer to me as he spoke. "Surely not? But it is, I see. Why, man, how changed you are! What brings you here, and what is it you want with me? I have not much time to spare. I have an appointment with the Public Health Commission in a quarter of an hour."
"So much the better," I answered, "for you will then be able to acquaint them with the circumstances I am about to reveal to you. Sir Edward, I must have a few moments' conversation with you alone. I have a confession to make to you—the most hideous tale to pour into your ears that ever man confided to another." Then, recollecting myself, I continued : "But it must not be here. It must be in the open air, or I shall infect you."
He looked at me in a curious fashion.
"You need have no fear on that score," he said. "I have had the plague, and have recovered from it. So far it has not been known to attack any one twice. But since you wish to speak to me alone, come with me."
With this he led me down the long passage to an office at the farther end. Like the others, this one was also deserted. Once inside, he closed the door.
"Be as brief as you can," he said, "for during this terribly trying period my time is not my own. What is it you wish to say to me?"
"I wish to confess to you," I said, and my voice rang in my ears like a death-knell, "that I am the cause of me misery under the weight of which England and Europe is groaning at the present time."
Once more Sir Edward looked at me as he had done in the passage outside.
"I am afraid I do not quite understand," he said, but this time in a somewhat different tone. "Do you mean that you wish me to believe that you, Cyril Forrester, are the cause of the plague which is decimating England in this terrible manner?"
"I do," I answered, and then waited to hear what he would say.
In reply he inquired whether I had suffered from the disease myself.
"I was the first to have it," I answered. "My story is an extraordinary one, but I assure you every particular of it is true. I was inoculated with the virus while I was in Egypt—that is to say, in the Queen's Hall of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh. I afterwards nearly died of it in an Arab tent out in the desert beyond Luxor. Later on I was taken by a man, of whom I will tell you more presently, to Constantinople, thence through Austria and Germany, and finally was smuggled across the Channel into England."
"And who was the man who inoculated you?" inquired the Home Secretary, still with the same peculiar intonation. "Can you remember his name?"
"He is known in England as Pharos the Egyptian," I replied—" the foulest fiend this world has ever seen. In reality he is Ptahmes the Magician, and he has sworn vengeance on the human race. Among other things he was the real murderer of Clausand, the curiosity dealer, in Bonwell Street last June, and not the inoffensive German who shot himself after confessing to the crime at Bow Street. He smuggled me into England from Hamburg, and the night before last he took me all through London—to the Antiquarian Club, the Renaissance Theatre, the House of Commons, the Occidental Music Hall, to the Duchess of Amersham's ball, to Covent Garden, and to many other places. Every one I spoke to became infected, and that, I assure you, on my word of honour, was how the plague originated here. Oh, Sir Edward, you cannot realize what agonies I have suffered since I became possessed of this terrible knowledge!"
A short silence followed, during which I am convinced I heard my companion say very softly to himself, "That settles it."
Then, turning to me, he continued: "You say you were at the Duchess of Amersham's ball the night before last? Do you mean this?"
"Of course I do," I replied. "Why, you spoke to me there yourself, and congratulated me upon my engagement. And, now I come to think of it, I saw you talking with Pharos there."
"Quite right," he said. "I did speak to Monsieur Pharos there. But are you sure it was the night before last? That is what I want to get at."
"I am as sure of that as I am of anything in this world," I replied.
"What you tell me is very interesting," he said, rising from his chair—" very interesting indeed, and I am sincerely obliged to you for coming to me. Now, if you will excuse me, I must be going, for, as I told you, I have a meeting of the Health Commission to attend in a few minutes. If I were you, I should go back to my house and keep quiet. There is nothing to be gained by worrying oneself, as you have evidently been doing."
"I can see that you do not believe what I have told you," I cried with great bitterness. "Sir Edward, I implore you to do so. I assure you, on my honour as a gentleman, I will swear, by any oath you care to name, that what I say is true in every particular. Pharos is still in London, in Park Lane, and if you are quick you can capture him. But there is not a moment to lose. For God's sake believe me before it is too late!"
"I have listened to all you have said, my dear Cyril," he answered soothingly, "and I can quite understand that you believe it to be true. You have been ill, and it is plain your always excitable imagination has not yet recovered its equilibrium. Go home, as I say, and rest. Trust me, you will soon be yourself once more. Now I must go."
"Oh, heavens! how can I convince you?" I groaned, wringing my hands. "Is there nothing I can say or do that will make you believe my story? You will find out when it is too late that I have told you the truth. Men and women are dying like sheep to right and left of us, and yet the vile author of all this sorrow and suffering will escape unpunished. Is it any use, Sir Edward, for me to address one last appeal to you?"
Then a notion struck me. I thrust my hand into my coat pocket and produced the prescription which Pharos had given me for Valerie in Hamburg, and which, since it had done her so much good, I had been careful not to let out of my possession.
"Take that, Sir Edward," I said. "I came to make my confession to you because I deemed it my duty, and because of the load upon my brain, which I thought it might help to lighten. You will not believe me, so what can I do? This paper contains the only prescription which has yet been effectual in checking the disease. It saved the life of Valerie de Vocxqal, and I can vouch for its efficacy. Show it to the medical authorities. It is possible it may convince them that I am not as mad as you think me."
He took it from me, but it was plain to me, from the look upon his face, that he believed it to be only another part of my delusion.
"If it will make your mind any easier," he said, "I will give you my word that it shall be placed before the members of the Commission. If they deem it likely that any good can result from it, you may be sure it will be used."
He then wished me good-bye, and, with a feeling of unavailing rage and disappointment in my heart, I left the Offices and passed out into Whitehall. Once more I made my way into St. James's Park, and reaching a secluded spot, threw myself down upon the turf and buried my face in my arms. At first I could think of nothing but my own shame; then my thoughts turned to Valerie. In my trouble I had for the moment forgotten her. Coward that I was, I had considered my own before her safety. If anything happened to me, who would protect her? I was still debating this with myself when my ears caught the sound of a footstep on the hard ground, and then the rustle of a dress. A moment later a voice sounded in my ears like the sweetest music. "Thank God!" it said, "oh! thank God! I have found you."
Her cry of happiness ended in a little choking sob, and I turned and looked up to discover Valerie, her beautiful eyes streaming with tears, bending over me.
"How did you find me?" I inquired, in a voice that my love and longing for her rendered almost inaudible. "How did you know that I was here?"
"Love told me," she answered softly. "My heart led me to you. You forget the strange power with which I am gifted. Though I did not see you leave the house, I knew that you were gone, and my instinct warned me not only where you were going, but what you were going to do. Cyril, it was brave of you to go."
"It was useless!" I cried. "I have failed. He would not believe me, Valerie, and I am lost eternally!"
"Hush!" she said. "Dear love, you must not say such things. They are not true. But rise. You must come to him. All this morning he has not been at all the same. I do not know what to think, but something is going to happen, I am certain."
There was no need for her to say to whom she referred.
I did as she commanded me, and side by side we crossed the park.
"He has made arrangements to leave England this afternoon," she continued, as we passed into Piccadilly. "The yacht is in the Thames, and orders have been sent to hold her in readiness for a long voyage."
"And what does he intend doing with us?"
"I know nothing of that," she answered. "But there is something very strange about him to-day. When he sent for me this morning, I scarcely knew him, he was so changed."
We made our way along the deserted streets and presently reached Park Lane. As soon as we were inside the house, I ascended the stairs beside her, and it was not until we had reached the top floor, on which Pharos's room was situated, that we paused before a door. Listening before it, we could plainly hear some one moving about inside. When we knocked, a voice I failed to recognise called upon us to enter. It was a strange picture we saw when we did so. In a large armchair before a roaring fire, though it was the middle of summer, sat Pharos, but so changed that I hardly knew him. He looked half his usual size; his skin hung loose about his face, as if the bones had shrunken underneath it; his eyes, always so deep-set in his head, were now so much sunken that they could scarcely be seen, while his hands were shrivelled until they resembled those of a mummy more than a man. The monkey also, which was huddled beside him in the chair, looked smaller than I had ever seen it. As if this were not enough, the room was filled with Egyptian curios from floor to ceiling. So many were there, indeed, that there barely remained room for Pharos's chair. How he had obtained possession of them, I did not understand; but since Sir George Legrath's confession, written shortly before his tragic death by his own hand, the mystery has been solved, and Pharos confronts us in an even more unenviable light than before. Hating, loathing, and yet fearing the man as I did, there was something in his look now that roused an emotion in me that was almost akin to pity.
"Thou hast come in time," he said to Valerie, but in a different voice and without that harshness to which we had so long grown accustomed. "I have been anxiously awaiting thee."
He signed to her to approach him.
"Give me your hand," he whispered faintly. "Through you it is decreed that I must learn my fate. Courage, courage—there is naught for thee to fear!"
Taking her hand, he bade her close her eyes and describe to him what she saw. She did as she was ordered, and for upwards of a minute perfect silence reigned in the room. The picture they made—the worn-out, shrivelled body of the man and the lovely woman—I cannot hope to make you understand.
"I see a great hall supported by pillars," she said at last, speaking in that hard, measured voice I remembered to have heard on board the yacht. "The walls are covered with paintings, and two sphinxes guard the door. In the centre is an old man with a long white beard, who holds his arms above his head."
"It is Paduamen, the mouthpiece of the gods," moaned Pharos, with a look of terror in his face that there was no disguising. "I am lost for ever—for ever; not for to-day, not for to-morrow, but for all time! Tell me, woman, what judgment the Mighty Ones pronounce against me?"
"Hush—he speaks!" Valerie continued slowly; and then a wonderful thing happened.
Whether it was the first warning of the illness that was presently to fall upon me, or whether I was so much in sympathy with Valerie that I saw what she and Pharos saw, I cannot say; at any rate, I suddenly found myself transported from Park Lane away to that mysterious hall below the Temple of Ammon, of which I retained so vivid a recollection. The place was in semi-darkness, and in the centre, as Valerie had described, stood the old man who had acted as my guide on the other occasion that I had been there. His arms were raised above his head, and his voice when he spoke was stern yet full of sadness.
"Ptahmes, son of Netruhôtep," he was saying, "across the seas I speak to thee. For the second time thou hast been found wanting in the trust reposed in thee. Thou hast used the power vouchsafed thee by the gods for thine own purposes and to enrich thyself in the goods of the earth. Therefore thy doom is decreed, and in the Valley of Amenti thy punishment awaits thee. Prepare, for that time is even now upon thee."
Then the hall grew dark, there was a rushing sound as of a great wind, and once more I was back in Park Lane. Pharos was crouching in his chair, moaning feebly, and evidently beside himself with terror.
"What more dost thou see?" he said at length, and his voice was growing perceptibly weaker. "Tell me all."
There was another pause, and then Valerie spoke again. "I see a rocky hillside and a newly opened tomb. I see three white men and five Arabs who surround it. They are lifting a mummy from the vault below with cords."
On hearing this Pharos sprang to his feet with a loud cry, and for a moment fought wildly with the air. Meanwhile the monkey clung tenaciously to him, uttering strange cries, which grew feebler every moment. Valerie, released from her trance, if by such a name I may describe it, and unable to bear more, fled the room, while I stood rooted to the spot, powerless to move hand or foot, watching Pharos with fascinated eyes.
As if he were choking, he tore at his throat with his skeleton fingers till the blood spurted out on either side. Little by little, however, his struggles grew weaker, until they ceased altogether, and he fell back into his chair to all intents and purposes a dead man, with the dying monkey still clinging to his coat.
After all I had lately gone through, the strain this terrible scene put upon my mind was too great for me to bear, and I fell back against the wall in a dead faint.
When I recovered from the attack of brain fever which followed the ghastly event I have just described, I found myself lying in my bunk in my old cabin on board the yacht. Valerie was sitting beside me, holding my hand in hers and gazing lovingly into my face. Surprised at finding myself where I was, I endeavoured to obtain an explanation from her.
"Hush," she said, "you must not talk! Let it suffice that I have saved you, and now we are away from England, and at sea together. Pharos is dead, and the past is only a bitter memory."
As she spoke, as if to bear out what she had said, a ray of sunshine streamed in through the porthole and fell upon us both.