The Magician/Chapter XVI
ARTHUR would not leave the little village of Venning. Neither Susie nor the doctor could get him to make any decision. None of them spoke of the night which they had spent in the woods of Skene; but it coloured all their thoughts, and they were not free for a single moment from the ghastly memory of it. They seemed still to hear the sound of that passionate weeping. Arthur was moody. When he was with them he spoke little; he opposed a stubborn resistance to their efforts at diverting his mind. He spent long hours by himself, in the country, and they had no idea what he did. Susie was terribly anxious. He had lost his balance so completely that she was prepared for any rashness. She divined that his hatred of Haddo was no longer within the bounds of reason. The desire for vengeance filled him entirely, so that he was capable of any violence.
Several days went by.
At last, in concert with Dr. Porhoët, she determined to make one more attempt. It was late at night, and they sat with open windows in the sitting-room of the inn. There was a singular oppressiveness in the air which suggested that a thunderstorm was at hand. Susie prayed for it; for she ascribed to the peculiar heat of the last few days much of Arthur’s sullen irritability.
“Arthur, you must tell us what you are going to do,” she said. “It is useless to stay here. We are all so ill and nervous that we cannot consider anything rationally. We want you to come away with us to-morrow.”
“You can go if you choose,” he said. “I shall remain till that man is dead.”
“It is madness to talk like that. You can do nothing. You are only making yourself worse by staying here.”
“I have quite made up my mind.”
“The law can offer you no help, and what else can you do?”
She asked the question, meaning if possible to get from him some hint of his intentions; but the grimness of his answer, though it only confirmed her vague suspicions, startled her.
“If I can do nothing else I shall shoot him like a dog.”
She could think of nothing to say, and for a while they remained in silence. Then he got up.
“I think I should prefer it if you went,” he said. “You can only hamper me.”
“I shall stay here as long as you do.”
“Because if you do anything I shall be compromised. I may be arrested. I think the fear of that may restrain you.”
He looked at her steadily. She met his eyes with a calmness which showed that she meant exactly what she said, and he turned uneasily away. A silence even greater than before fell upon them. They did not move. It was so still in the room that it might have been quite empty. The breathlessness of the air increased, so that it was horribly oppressive. Suddenly there was a loud rattle of thunder, and a flash of lightning tore across the heavy clouds. Susie thanked Heaven for the storm which would give presently a welcome freshness. She felt excessively ill at ease, and it was a relief to ascribe her sensation to a state of the atmosphere. Again the thunder rolled. It was so loud that it seemed to be immediately above their heads. And the wind rose suddenly and swept with a long moan through the trees that surrounded the house. It was a sound so human that it might have come from the souls of dead men suffering hopeless torments of regret.
The lamp went out, so suddenly that Susie was vaguely frightened. It gave one flicker, and they were in total darkness. It seemed as though someone had leaned over the chimney and blown it out. The night was very black, and they could not see the window which opened on to the country. The darkness was so peculiar that for a moment no one stirred.Then Susie heard Dr. Porhoët slip his hand across the table to find matches, but it seemed that they were not there. Again a loud peal of thunder startled them, but the rain would not fall. They panted for fresh air. On a sudden Susie’s heart gave a bound, and she sprang up.
“There’s someone in the room.”
The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she heard Arthur fling himself upon the intruder. She knew at once, with the certainty of an intuition, that it was Haddo. But how had he come in? What did he want? She tried to cry out, but no sound came from her throat. Dr. Porhoët seemed bound to his chair. He did not move. He made no sound. She knew that an awful struggle was proceeding. It was a struggle to the death between two men who hated one another, but the most terrible part of it was that nothing was heard. They were perfectly noiseless. She tried to do something, but she could not stir. And Arthur’s heart exulted, for his enemy was in his grasp, under his hands, and he would not let him go while life was in him. He clenched his teeth and tightened his straining muscles. Susie heard his laboured breathing, but she only heard the breathing of one man. She wondered in abject terror what that could mean. They struggled silently, hand to hand, and Arthur knew that his strength was greater. He had made up his mind what to do and directed all his energy to a definite end. His enemy was extraordinarily powerful, but Arthur appeared to create strength from the sheer force of his will. It seemed for hours that they struggled. He could not bear him down.
Suddenly he knew that the other was frightened and sought to escape from him. Arthur tightened his grasp; for nothing in the world now would he ever loosen his hold. He took a deep, quick breath, and then put out all his strength in a tremendous effort. They swayed from side to side. Arthur felt as if his muscles were being torn from the bones, he could not continue for more than a moment longer; but the agony that flashed across his mind at the thought of failure braced him to a sudden angry jerk. All at once Haddo collapsed, and they fell heavily to the ground. Arthur was breathing more quickly now. He thought that if he could keep on for one instant longer, he would be safe. He threw all his weight on the form that rolled beneath him, and bore down furiously on the man’s arm. He twisted it sharply, with all his might, and felt it give way. He gave a low cry of triumph; the arm was broken. And now his enemy was seized with panic; he struggled madly, he wanted only to get away from those long hands that were killing him. They seemed to be of iron. Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk in the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them. He exulted, for he knew that his enemy was in his power at last; he was strangling him, strangling the life out of him. He wanted light so that he might see the horror of that vast face, and the deadly fear, and the starting eyes. And still he pressed with those iron hands. And now the movements were strangely convulsive. His victim writhed with the agony of death. His struggles were desperate, but the avenging hands held him as in a vice. And then the movements grew utterly spasmodic, and then they grew weaker. Still the hands pressed upon the gigantic throat, and Arthur forgot everything. He was mad with rage and fury and hate and sorrow. He thought of Margaret’s anguish and of her fiendish torture, and he wished the man had ten lives so that he might take them one by one. And at last all was still, and that vast mass of flesh was motionless, and he knew that his enemy was dead. He loosened his grasp and slipped one hand over the heart. It would never beat again. The man was stone dead. Arthur got up and straightened himself. The darkness was intense still, and he could see nothing. Susie heard him, and at length she was able to speak.
“Arthur, what have you done?”
“I’ve killed him,” he said hoarsely.
“O God, what shall we do?”
Arthur began to laugh aloud, hysterically, and in the darkness his hilarity was terrifying.
“For God’s sake let us have some light.”
“I’ve found the matches,” said Dr. Porhoët.
He seemed to awake suddenly from his long stupor. He struck one, and it would not light. He struck another, and Susie took off the globe and the chimney as he kindled the wick. Then he held up the lamp, and they saw Arthur looking at them. His face was ghastly. The sweat ran off his forehead in great beads, and his eyes were bloodshot. He trembled in every limb. Then Dr. Porhoët advanced with the lamp and held it forward. They looked down on the floor for the man who lay there dead. Susie gave a sudden cry of horror.
There was no one there.
Arthur stepped back in terrified surprise. There was no one in the room, living or dead, but the three friends. The ground sank under Susie’s feet, she felt horribly ill, and she fainted. When she awoke, seeming difficultly to emerge from an eternal night, Arthur was holding down her head.
“Bend down,” he said. “Bend down.”
All that had happened came back to her, and she burst into tears. Her self-control deserted her, and, clinging to him for protection, she sobbed as though her heart would break. She was shaken from head to foot. The strangeness of this last horror had overcome her, and she could have shrieked with fright.
“It’s all right,” he said. “You need not be afraid.”
“Oh, what does it mean?”
“You must pluck up courage. We’re going now to Skene.”
She sprang to her feet, as though to get away from him; her heart beat wildly.
“No, I can’t; I’m frightened.”
“We must see what it means. We have no time to lose, or the morning will be upon us before we get back.”
Then she sought to prevent him.
“Oh, for God’s sake, don’t go, Arthur. Something awful may await you there. Don’t risk your life.”
“There is no danger. I tell you the man is dead.”
“If anything happened to you . . .”She stopped, trying to restrain her sobs; she dared not go on. But he seemed to know what was in her mind.
“I will take no risks because of you. I know that whether I live or die is not—a matter of indifference to you.”
She looked up and saw that his eyes were fixed upon her gravely. She reddened. A curious feeling came into her heart.
“I will go with you wherever you choose,” she said humbly.
They stepped out into the night. And now, without rain, the storm had passed away, and the stars were shining. They walked quickly. Arthur went in front of them. Dr. Porhoët and Susie followed him, side by side, and they had to hasten their steps in order not to be left behind. It seemed to them that the horror of the night was passed, and there was a fragrancy in the air which was curiously refreshing. The sky was very beautiful. And at last they came to Skene. Arthur led them again to the opening in the palisade, and he took Susie’s hand. Presently they stood in the place from which a few days before they had seen the house. As then it stood in massive blackness against the night, and as then the attic windows shone out with brilliant lights. Susie started, for she had expected that the whole place would be in darkness.
“There is no danger, I promise you,” said Arthur gently. “We are going to find out the meaning of all this mystery.”
He began to walk towards the house.“Have you a weapon of some sort?” asked the doctor.
Arthur handed him a revolver.
“Take this. It will reassure you, but you will have no need of it. I bought it the other day when—I had other plans.”
Susie gave a little shudder. They reached the drive and walked to the great portico which adorned the façade of the house. Arthur tried the handle, but it would not open.
“Will you wait here?” he said. “I can get through one of the windows, and I will let you in.”
He left them. They stood quietly there, with anxious hearts; they could not guess what they would see. They were afraid that something would happen to Arthur, and Susie regretted that she had not insisted on going with him. Suddenly she remembered that awful moment when the light of the lamp had been thrown where all expected to see a body, and there was nothing.
“What do you think it meant?” she cried suddenly. “What is the explanation?”
“Perhaps we shall see now,” answered the doctor.
Arthur still lingered, and she could not imagine what had become of him. All sorts of horrible fancies passed through her mind, and she dreaded she knew not what. At last they heard a footstep inside the house, and the door was opened.
“I was convinced that nobody slept here, but I was obliged to make sure. I had some difficulty in getting in.”
Susie hesitated to enter. She did not know what horrors awaited her, and the darkness was terrifying.“I cannot see,” she said.
“I’ve brought a lantern,” said Arthur.
He pressed a button, and a narrow ray of bright light was cast upon the floor. Dr. Porhoët and Susie went in. Arthur carefully closed the door, and flashed the light of his lamp all round them. They stood in a large hall, the floor of which was scattered with the skins of lions that Haddo on his celebrated expedition had killed in Africa. There were perhaps a dozen, and their number gave a wild, barbaric note. In front of them a great oak staircase led to the upper floors.
“We must go through all the rooms,” said Arthur.
He did not expect to find Haddo till they came to the lighted attics, but it seemed needful nevertheless to pass right through the house on their way. A flash of his lantern had shown him that the walls of the hall were decorated with all manner of armour, ancient swords of Eastern handiwork, barbaric weapons from central Africa, savage implements of mediaeval warfare; and an idea came to him. He took down a huge battle-axe and swung it in his hand.
Silently, holding their breath as though they feared to wake the dead, they went into the first room. They saw it difficultly with their scant light, since the thin shaft of brilliancy, emphasising acutely the surrounding darkness, revealed it only piece by piece. It was a large room, evidently unused, for the furniture was covered with holland, and there was a mustiness about it which suggested that the windows were seldom opened. As in many old houses the rooms led not from a passage but into one another, and they walked through many till they came back into the hall. They had all a desolate, uninhabited air. Their sombreness was increased by the oak with which they were pannelled. There was pannelling in the hall too, and on the stairs that led broadly to the top of the house. As they ascended Arthur stopped for one moment and passed his hand over the polished wood.
“It would burn like tinder,” he said.
They went through the rooms on the first floor, and they were as empty and as cheerless. Presently they came to that which had been Margaret’s. In a bowl were dead flowers. Her brushes were still on the toilet table. But it was a gloomy chamber, with its dark oak, and so comfortless that Susie shuddered. Arthur stood for a time and looked at it, but he said nothing. They found themselves again on the stairs and they went to the second story. But here they seemed to be at the top of the house.
“How does one get up to the attics?” said Arthur, looking about him with surprise.
He paused for a while to think. Then he nodded his head.
“There must be some steps leading out of one of the rooms.”
They went on. And now the ceilings were much lower, with heavy beams, and there was no furniture at all. The emptiness seemed to make everything more terrifying. They felt that they were on the threshold of a great mystery, and Susie’s heart began to beat very fast. Arthur conducted his examination with the greatest method; he walked round each room carefully, looking for a door that might lead to a staircase; but there was no sign of one.
“What will you do if you can’t find the way up?” asked Susie.
“I shall find the way up,” he answered.
They came to the staircase once more and had discovered nothing. They looked at one another helplessly.
“It’s quite clear there is a way,” said Arthur, with impatience. “There must be something in the nature of a hidden door somewhere or other.”
He leaned against the balustrade and meditated. The light of his lantern threw a narrow ray upon the opposite wall.
“I feel certain it must be in one of the rooms at the end of the house. That seems the most natural place to put a means of ascent to the attics.”
They went back, and again he examined the pannelling of a small room that had outside walls on three sides of it. It was the only one that did not lead into another.
“It must be here,” he said.
Presently he gave a little laugh, for he saw that a small door was concealed by the woodwork. He pressed it where he thought there might be a spring, and it flew open. Their lantern showed them a narrow wooden staircase. They walked up and found themselves in front of a door. Arthur tried it, but it was locked. He smiled grimly.
“Will you get back a little,” he said.
He lifted his axe and swung it down upon the latch. The handle was shattered, but the lock did not yield. He shook his head. As he paused for a moment, and there was complete silence, Susie distinctly heard a slight noise. She put her hand on Arthur’s arm to call his attention to it, and with strained ears they listened. There was something alive on the other side of that door. They heard a curious sound: it was not that of a human voice, it was not the crying of an animal, it was extraordinary.
It was a sort of gibber, hoarse and rapid, and it filled them with an icy terror because it was so weird and so unnatural.
“Come away, Arthur,” said Susie. “Come away.”
“There’s some living thing in there,” he answered.
He did not know why the sound horrified him. The sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Something awful will happen to us,” whispered Susie, shaking with uncontrollable fear.
“The only thing is to break the door down.”
The horrid gibbering was drowned by the noise he made. Quickly, without pausing, he began to hack at the oak door with all his might. In rapid succession his heavy blows rained down, and the sound echoed through the empty house. There was a crash, and the door swung back. They had been so long in almost total darkness that they were blinded for an instant by the dazzling light. And then instinctively they started back, for, as the door opened, a wave of heat came out upon them so that they could hardly breathe. The place was like an oven.
They entered. It was lit by enormous lamps the light of which was increased by reflectors, and warmed by a great furnace. They could not understand why so intense a heat was necessary. The narrow windows were closed. Dr. Porhoët caught sight of a thermometer and was astounded at the temperature it indicated. The room was used evidently as a laboratory. On broad tables were test-tubes, basins and baths of white porcelain, measuring-glasses, and utensils of all sorts; but the surprising thing was the great scale upon which everything was. Neither Arthur nor Dr. Porhoët had ever seen such gigantic measures nor such large test-tubes. There were rows of bottles, like those in the dispensary of a hospital, each containing great quantities of a different chemical. The three friends stood in silence. The emptiness of the room contrasted so oddly with its appearance of being in immediate use that it was uncanny. Susie felt that he who worked there was in the midst of his labours, and might return at any moment; he could only have gone for an instant into another chamber in order to see the progress of some experiment. It was quite silent. Whatever had made those vague, unearthly noises was hushed by their approach.
The door was closed between this room and the next. Arthur opened it, and they found themselves in a long, low attic, ceiled with great rafters, as brilliantly lit and as hot as the first. Here too were broad tables laden with retorts, instruments for heating, huge test-tubes, and all manner of vessels. The furnace that warmed it gave a very steady but extreme heat. Arthur’s gaze travelled slowly from table to table, and he wondered what Haddo’s experiments had really been. The air was heavy with an extraordinary odour: it was not musty like that of the closed rooms through which they had passed, but singularly pungent, disagreeable and sickly. He asked himself what it could spring from. Then his eyes fell upon a huge receptacle that stood on the table nearest to the furnace. It was covered with a white cloth. He went up to it and took this off. The vessel was about four feet high, round, and shaped somewhat like a washing tub, but it was made of glass more than an inch thick. In it was a spherical mass, a little larger than a football, of a peculiar, livid colour. The surface was smooth, but rather coarsely grained, and over it ran a dense system of blood-vessels. It reminded the two medical men of those huge tumours which are preserved in spirit in hospital museums. Susie looked at it with an incomprehensible disgust. Suddenly she gave a cry.
“Good God, it’s moving!”
Arthur put his hand on her arm quickly to quieten her and bent down with irresistible curiosity. They saw that it was a mass of flesh, but of some strange, horrible flesh unlike that of any human being; and it pulsated regularly. The movement was quite distinct, up and down, like the delicate heaving of a woman’s breast when she is asleep. Arthur touched the thing with one finger and it shrank slightly.“It’s quite warm,” he said.
He turned it over, and it remained in the position in which he had placed it, as if there were neither top nor bottom to it. But they could see now, irregularly placed on one side, a few short hairs. They were just like human hairs.
“Is it alive?” whispered Susie, struck with horror and amazement.
Arthur seemed fascinated. He could not take his eyes off the loathsome thing. He watched it slowly heave with even motion.
“What can it mean?” he asked.
He looked at Dr. Porhoët with pale and startled face. A thought was coming to him, but a thought so unnatural, extravagant, and terrible, that he pushed it from him with a movement of both hands, as though it were a material thing. Then all three turned around abruptly with a start, for they heard again the wild gibbering which had first shocked their ears. In the wonder of this revolting object they had forgotten all the rest. The sound seemed extraordinarily near, and Susie drew back instinctively, for it appeared to come from her very side.
“There’s nothing here,” said Arthur. “It must be in the next room.”
“Oh, Arthur, let us go,” cried Susie. “I’m afraid to see what may be in store for us. It is nothing to us, and what we see may poison our sleep for ever.”She looked appealingly at Dr. Porhoët. He was white and anxious. The heat of that place had made the sweat break out on his forehead.
“I have seen enough. I want to see no more,” he said.
“Then you may go, both of you,” answered Arthur. “I do not wish to force you to see anything. But I shall go on. Whatever it is, I wish to find out.”
“But Haddo? Supposing he is there, waiting? Perhaps you are only walking into a trap that he has set for you.”
“I am convinced that Haddo is dead.”Again that unintelligible jargon, unhuman and shrill, fell upon their ears, and Arthur stepped forward. Susie did not hesitate. She was prepared to follow him anywhere. He opened the door, and there was a sudden quiet. Whatever made those sounds was there. It was a larger room than any of the others and much higher, for it ran along the whole front of the house. The powerful lamps showed every corner of it at once, but above, the beams of the open ceiling were dark with shadow. And here the nauseous odour, which had struck them before, was so overpowering that for a while they could not go in. It was indescribably foul. Even Arthur thought it would make him sick, and he looked at the windows to see if it was possible to open them; but it seemed they were hermetically closed. The extreme warmth made the air more overpowering. There were four furnaces here and they were all alight. In order to give out more heat and to burn slowly, the fronts of them were open, and one could see that they were filled with glowing coke.
The room was furnished no differently from the others, but to the various instruments for chemical operations on a large scale were added all manner of electrical appliances. Several books were lying about, and one had been left open face downwards on the edge of a table. But what immediately attracted their attention was a row of those large glass vessels like that which they had seen in the adjoining room. Each was covered with a white cloth. They hesitated a moment, for they knew that here they were face to face with the great enigma. At last Arthur pulled away the cloth from one. None of them spoke. They stared with astonished eyes. For here, too, was a strange mass of flesh, almost as large as a new-born child, but there was in it the beginnings of something ghastly human. It was shaped vaguely like an infant, but the legs were joined together so that it looked like a mummy rolled up in its coverings. There were neither feet nor knees. The trunk was formless, but there was a curious thickening on each side; it was as if a modeller had meant to make a figure with the arms loosely bent, but had left the work unfinished so that they were still one with the body. There was something that resembled a human head, covered with long golden hair, but it was horrible; it was an uncouth mass, without eyes or nose or mouth. The colour was a kind of sickly pink, and it was almost transparent. There was a very slight movement in it, rhythmical and slow. It was living too.
Then quickly Arthur removed the covering from all the other jars but one; and in a flash of the eyes they saw abominations so awful that Susie had to clench her fists in order not to scream. There was one monstrous thing in which the limbs approached nearly to the human. It was extraordinarily heaped up, with fat tiny arms, little bloated legs, and an absurd squat body, so that it looked like a Chinese mandarin in porcelain. In another the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other. And in another place was a ghastly monster in which it seemed that two bodies had been dreadfully entangled with one another. It was a creature of nightmare, with four arms and four legs, and this one actually moved. With a peculiar motion it crawled along the bottom of the great receptacle in which it was kept, towards the three persons who looked at it. It seemed to wonder what they did. Susie started back with fright, as it raised itself on its four legs and tried to reach up to them.
Susie turned away and hid her face. She could not look at those ghastly counterfeits of humanity. She was terrified and ashamed.
“Do you understand what this means?” said Dr. Porhoët to Arthur, in an awed voice. “It means that he has discovered the secret of life.”
“Was it for these vile monstrosities that Margaret was sacrificed in all her loveliness?”
The two men looked at one another with sad, wondering eyes.
“Don’t you remember that he talked of the manufacture of human beings? It’s these misshapen things that he’s succeeded in producing,” said the doctor.
“There is one more that we haven’t seen,” said Arthur.
He pointed to the covering which still hid the largest of the vases. He had a feeling that it contained the most fearful of all these monsters; and it was not without an effort that he drew the cloth away. But no sooner had he done this than something sprang up, so that instinctively he started back, and it began to gibber in piercing tones. These were the unearthly sounds that they had heard. It was not a voice, it was a kind of raucous crying, hoarse yet shrill, uneven like the barking of a dog, and appalling. The sounds came forth in rapid succession, angrily, as though the being that uttered them sought to express itself in furious words. It was mad with passion and beat against the glass walls of its prison with clenched fists. For the hands were human hands, and the body, though much larger, was of the shape of a new-born child. The creature must have stood about four feet high. The head was horribly misshapen. The skull was enormous, smooth and distended like that of a hydrocephalic, and the forehead protruded over the face hideously. The features were almost unformed, preternaturally small under the great, overhanging brow; and they had an expression of fiendish malignity. The tiny, misshapen countenance writhed with convulsive fury, and from the mouth poured out a foaming spume. It raised its voice higher and higher, shrieking senseless gibberish in its rage. Then it began to hurl its whole body madly against the glass walls and to beat its head. It appeared to have a sudden, incomprehensible hatred for the three strangers. It was trying to fly at them. The toothless gums moved spasmodically, and it threw its face into horrible grimaces. That nameless, loathsome abortion was the nearest that Oliver Haddo had come to the human form.
“Come away,” said Arthur. “We must not look at this.”
He quickly flung the covering over the jar.
“Yes, for God’s sake let us go,” said Susie.
“We haven’t done yet,” answered Arthur. “We haven’t found the author of all this.”
He looked at the room in which they were, but there was no door except that by which they had entered. Then he uttered a startled cry, and stepping forward fell on his knee.
On the other side of the long tables heaped up with instruments, hidden so that at first they had not seen him, Oliver Haddo lay on the floor, dead. His blue eyes were staring wide, and they seemed larger than they had ever been. They kept still the expression of terror which they had worn in the moment of his agony, and his heavy face was distorted with deadly fear. It was purple and dark, and the eyes were injected with blood.
“He died of suffocation,” whispered Dr. Porhoët.
Arthur pointed to the neck. There could be seen on it distinctly the marks of the avenging fingers that had strangled the life out of him. It was impossible to hesitate.
“I told you that I had killed him,” said Arthur.
Then he remembered something more. He took hold of the right arm. He was convinced that it had been broken during that desperate struggle in the darkness. He felt it carefully and listened. He heard plainly the two parts of the bone rub against one another. The dead man’s arm was broken just in the place where he had broken it. Arthur stood up. He took one last look at his enemy. That vast mass of flesh lay heaped up on the floor in horrible disorder.
“Now that you have seen, will you come away?” said Susie, interrupting him.
The words seemed to bring him suddenly to himself.“Yes, we must go quickly.”
They turned away and with hurried steps walked through those bright attics till they came to the stairs.
“Now go down and wait for me at the door,” said Arthur. “I will follow you immediately.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Susie.
“Never mind. Do as I tell you. I have not finished here yet.”
They went down the great oak staircase and waited in the hall. They wondered what Arthur was about. Presently he came running down.
“Be quick!” he cried. “We have no time to lose.”
“What have you done, Arthur?”
“There’s no time to tell you now.”
He hurried them out and slammed the door behind him. He took Susie’s hand.
“Now we must run. Come.”
She did not know what his great haste signified, but her heart beat furiously. He dragged her along. Dr. Porhoët hurried on behind them. Arthur plunged into the wood. He would not leave them time to breathe.
“You must be quick,” he said.
At last they came to the opening in the fence, and he helped them to get through. Then he carefully replaced the wooden paling, and taking Susie’s arm, began to walk rapidly towards their inn.
“I’m frightfully tired,” she said. “I simply can’t go so fast.”“You must. Presently you can rest as long as you like.”
They walked very quickly for a while. Now and then Arthur looked back. The night was still quite dark, and the stars shone out in their myriads. At last he slackened their pace.
“Now you can go more slowly,” he said.
Susie saw the smiling glance that he gave her. His eyes were full of tenderness. He put his arm affectionately round her shoulders to support her.
“I’m afraid you’re quite exhausted, poor thing,” he said. “I’m sorry to have had to hustle you so much.”
“It doesn’t matter at all.”
She leaned against him comfortably. With that protecting arm about her she felt capable of any fatigue. Dr. Porhoët stopped.
“You must really let me roll myself a cigarette,” he said.
“You may do whatever you like,” answered Arthur.
There was a different ring in his voice now, and it was soft with a good humour that they had not heard in it for many months. He appeared singularly relieved. Susie was ready to forget the terrible past and give herself over to the happiness that seemed at last in store for her. They began to saunter slowly on. And now they could take pleasure in the exquisite night. The air was very suave, odorous with the heather that was all about them, and there was an enchanting peace in that scene which wonderfully soothed their weariness. It was dark still, but they knew the dawn was at hand, and Susie rejoiced in the approaching day. In the east the azure of the night began to thin away into pale amethyst, and the trees seemed gradually to stand out from the darkness in a ghostly beauty. Suddenly birds began to sing all around them in a splendid chorus. From their feet a lark sprang up with a rustle of wings, and mounting proudly upon the air, chanted blithe canticles to greet the morning. They stood upon a little hill.
“Let us wait here and see the sun rise,” said Susie.
“As you will.”
They stood, all three of them, and Susie took in deep, joyful breaths of the sweet air of dawn. The whole land, spread at her feet, was clothed in the purple dimness that heralds day, and she exulted in its beauty. But she noticed that Arthur, unlike herself and Dr. Porhoët, did not look toward the east. His eyes were fixed steadily upon the place from which they had come. What did he look for in the darkness of the west? She turned round, and a cry broke from her lips, for the shadows there were lurid with a deep red glow.
“It looks like a fire,” she said.
“It is. Skene is burning like tinder.”
And as he spoke it seemed that the roof fell in, for suddenly vast flames sprang up, rising high into the still night air; and they saw that the house they had just left was blazing furiously. It was a magnificent sight from the distant hill on which they stood to watch the fire as it soared and sunk, as it shot scarlet tongues along like strange Titanic monsters, as it raged from room to room. Skene was burning. It was beyond the reach of human help. In a little while there would be no trace of all those crimes and all those horrors. Now it was one mass of flame. It looked like some primeval furnace, where the gods might work unheard-of miracles.
“Arthur, what have you done?” asked Susie, in a tone that was hardly audible.
He did not answer directly. He put his arm about her shoulder again, so that she was obliged to turn round.
“Look, the sun is rising.”
In the east a long ray of light climbed up the sky, and the sun, yellow and round, appeared upon the face of the earth.