Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The deadly affinity - Part 3
THE DEADLY AFFINITY.
A STORY IN THREE CHAPTERS.
CHAPTER III. NIGHT AND DAWN.
A few days after my interview with Doctor Walstein and his daughter, I learned from Holdsworth that they had left London for their house in Wales. This did not surprise me, as I had expected their departure; but I thought it rather strange that the doctor had neither written nor sent any message to me. If Fred had ever been really smitten with the charms of Minna Walstein, he was no longer so. I think that he could never get over the idea that she was deeply versed in chemical science. At all events, he never blushed now when her name was mentioned, and he had even the temerity to taunt me with having a penchant in that direction myself. Notwithstanding my energetic denials, he persisted in his assertions, so that I could almost have been angry, if it had not been for his constant good humour.
Very gradually there came over me a peculiar feeling, for which I tried vainly to account. I had only seen Minna Walstein on two occasions; but both these interviews were associated in my mind with that strange, subtle perfume of geranium leaves. At first, when I began to allow my recollection to dwell upon this scent, I thought of it with dislike. Very gradually, however, this feeling wore away, and I began to think of it with a strange unrest, and at last with a fierce sort of pleasure. I dreamt of it at night; I seemed to inhale with it a vital atmosphere, necessary for my existence. I soon lost all interest in my studies, and longed to be alone, so that I could let loose the reins of imagination and fancy. I became more and more reserved, and my mind became more morbid every day.
Every one with whom I met noticed an alteration in my appearance, and I could see that Fred Holdsworth was very solicitous about my health. But I was impatient at all notice, and preferred being left alone to my thoughts. On one occasion, however, he made a remark that called up a vague apprehension, since it corroborated a mysterious sensation which I had lately experienced. After telling me how pale and thin I looked, he said that there was a peculiar expression in my eyes,—a sort of glittering, that reminded him of Doctor Walstein. The same idea had occurred to me of late, when looking at the mirror; but the glittering somehow reminded me more of the eyes of Minna Walstein. He saw by my manner that I was annoyed, and did not allude to the subject again; but I could not forget it: and this new fancy, added to my morbid thoughts concerning the perfume, harassed me almost beyond endurance. A longing to breathe once more that scented atmosphere took possession of me; it seemed now an absolute necessity of my life. I could not, however, disconnect the remembrance of it from Doctor Walstein’s poisonous experiments. Was that subtle perfume a poison? If so, what affinity had it with me, that I should feel thus strongly attracted towards it? Questions like these were continually recurring to me, and filled me with a mysterious foreboding.
The poisoned perfume—for such I had begun to consider it—haunted my dreams more than ever. Some of these dreams were almost too horrible to bear. I remember that, after one night of feverish and troubled sleep, I seemed to lie in a state between sleeping and waking in the grey dawn. The perfume appeared to steal into the air around, and suddenly something heavy, cold, and slimy seemed to pass slowly over my neck and cheek and across my throat, down between my arm and breast. I knew, although I had not seen it, that it was a snake. I lay motionless, but in a dreadful agony of suspense. The slightest sound, the slightest movement, I thought, would be a signal for the deadly fangs of the reptile. At last it seemed that, roused by the warmth, the creature was uncoiling itself, and soon I felt it repass across my throat, and in the dim light I thought I saw the green head of a Cobra di Capello, with its hood distended, rising close before my face. The glittering eyes flashed brilliantly, but, strangely enough to me, they seemed to be the eyes of Minna Walstein! I awoke with a scream, but the dream was too vivid to pass away. I was trembling with terror. It was then that the idea first rose to my mind,—Why not go to Wales and see this old man, and there learn from himself what truth there might be in the vague fears that beset me? The thought no sooner occurred to me, than it superseded all others. I determined to lose no time, but to set out as soon as possible for Wales.
I knew where the doctor lived; he had spoken to me of his house on several occasions. It was called Pwlldu, or Black-pool House, and was situated somewhere in the wild region of Gower. I made my arrangements for leaving during the day, not even telling my intention to Fred. As soon as I had made up my mind to undertake this journey, I felt drawn and attracted in the direction I had fixed upon, by an almost resistless force. It seemed the one great object of my life. I was as careless of the future as I was utterly forgetful of the past. I thought only of breathing once more that strange atmosphere,—of meeting once more that old man whom I hated,—and of seeing again the serpent-glitter of his daughter’s eyes.
I remember very little of my journey. I arrived about eleven at night in the little town of ——. Late as it was, I procured a carriage, and was soon hurrying forward at a good pace to Pwlldu House, some ten miles distant.
The carriage was obliged to stop at a little village, where I had to knock up the inmates of a small inn, who instructed me as to my road to the house. It was down by the cliffs, close to the sea, and as there was only a footpath, I paid off the coachman, who drove back to ——, and I proceeded on my lonely walk to Pwlldu House.
There was sufficient light from the stars to enable me to see my way, but I believe that if there had been such darkness as might have been felt, I would have gone unerringly on my path.
I was approaching the cliffs, for the mournful monotonous sound of falling waves met my ears, and I found that I was advancing upon a dark grove of trees, through which lights glimmered. I passed through a small gate and under the trees, until I met with a gravel path that led up to the door of a large and substantial looking house. The hall door was open, and in the light stood Doctor Walstein, dressed in the coarse blouse and velvet skull-cap that I had seen him wear in the laboratory, when I first met him.
“Ah, you are here at last,—I have been expecting you,” he said, holding out his hand.
I grasped it eagerly, and in an instant was conscious of a strange feeling of relief. The very touch of his hand, and the sound of his voice, seemed to bring to me a feeling of calm and security. He took my valise from me and led me within, and as I stood talking with him in a cheerfully lighted room, all the bitter, heart-burning questions which I had intended to ask vanished into air. The moment that I stepped within his door my anguish and suspense disappeared; I felt all the soft and soothing sensation of a condemned prisoner’s sudden release. I was treated by Doctor Walstein as an invited guest, and I made no effort to influence his treatment. The perfect rest and composure of my mind was delicious, after the agony that I had endured, and I would not allow even conscience to whisper to me a word of warning.
After showing me to my apartment he informed me that, fancying I had not dined during my journey, he had caused a slight repast to be prepared. Would I join him even at that late hour? I acquiesced at once, and in a short time he rejoined me, having altered his dress. We descended together.
Subtle, crafty fiend! I thought I saw that hideous grim smile on his face, but I put my arm through his, and walked with him in all good faith. Subtle, crafty fiend! Another day to wait, and it might have been too late. Had I known his devil’s cunning, I would have strangled him then and there, old man though he was.
We passed across the entrance-hall, and along a passage, at the end of which was the evil-faced servant, still dressed in black, who opened the door for us. I was not in a very observant condition at the moment of which I am writing, but I could not help being struck with the appearance of the room which we entered. The walls were covered with dark green paper, on which was a scroll work of gold, composed, seemingly, of cabalistic characters. A soft carpet, of a deep, rich purple, covered the floor; and the further end of the room was concealed by a heavy green velvet curtain. In the centre of the room was a table, on which a recherché little banquet was laid out. The apartment was lighted by one lamp, which hung from the ceiling, and cast a bright but soft and even light around. The prevalence of green and gold, for even the crystal and porcelain on the table had these hues predominating, and the cabalistic golden scroll, affected me at first, but as my host sat down and invited me to sit opposite to him, all feeling except that of repose and relief left me. I had had no appetite all day, but now I was hungry, and did full justice to the repast before me. The evil-faced servant only appeared now and then, to remove the dishes, and the doctor spoke very little, seeing that I was busily engaged. At last the meal was over, and the servant removed everything but the wine. There were several kinds of wine, and crystal goblets of antique shape, on the table. There was also a small gold flask, beautifully chased, the top being closed with a clasp, in which a large emerald was set. This flask stood on the doctor’s right hand, but was not opened.
My companion’s conversation was as interesting and fascinating as ever for me, and I listened to him in a dreamy state of pleasure. The influence of the wine, the soft light, and the strange gold characters on the wall, produced a feeling of calm excitement (if I may use the term), that I wished could last for ever.
The velvet curtain, which concealed one end of the room, was behind me, and I sat facing the old man, listening once more to his wild and fanciful speculations. My mind was in a perfect state of rest and security, and I was not startled—not a muscle moved nor a nerve quivered—when I was conscious that the mysterious perfume was gradually pervading the air and stealing around me. My eyes were fixed upon the doctor’s face, and I saw him, while still looking at me and talking to me, stretch out his hand, and take hold of the flask with the emerald clasp. He opened it mechanically, still looking at me, and pushed it across the table in my direction; signalling to me, at the same time, to take it. I did so, and following the direction of his eyes, I looked behind me. The heavy green curtain was opened in the centre, and Minna Walstein stood in the opening.
She was dressed in a soft white dress, which fell about her form in long graceful folds. Her beautiful golden hair was unbound, and rippled over her shoulders nearly to the ground, as she stood with her arms stretched out before her, gazing at her father, with a fixed expression of fear and anxiety. She was deadly pale, and moved forward slowly and hesitatingly, never by a single look acknowledging my presence. When she arrived at a few paces from where I sat, I observed that in one hand she carried a curious golden goblet, set with emeralds, and similarly fashioned to the flask which I held.
There was a dead silence. I glanced at the doctor; he rose and signalled to me to fill the goblet, which his daughter held from the flask. His eyes glanced fiercely under his white eyebrows, and I felt compelled to obey. Raising the flask and moving forward, I filled the gold goblet. The liquid was colourless, and limpid as water, but as I poured it out, I was conscious that the perfume in the air was growing more powerful and oppressive, every instant. I watched her raise the draught to her lips, and her eyes met mine for an instant. Suddenly the room seemed to swim before my eyes,—strains of wonderful, fairy-like music sounded in my ears,—my head throbbed violently, and I fell forward, and down at her feet.
It was broad daylight when I recovered from a long swoon. I was lying on a large sofa or couch, in an elegantly furnished room, with two large French windows, which were open to the ground, and led into a lovely garden outside. In front of one of the open windows was a writing-desk, on which were a number of papers, a semi-spherical steel hand-bell, and a row of stoppered phials in a rack, over the top of the desk. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud disturbed the serene blue of the sky, and far away I could see the ocean calm and unruffled, with here and there a small white sail gliding along, and the soft murmur of summer waves fell gently on my ears. Roses and jessamine seemed to clamber up the front of the house, for I could see some crimson blossoms of the former, and some of the little white stars of the latter, peeping round the sides of the open windows. But, I looked at everything apathetically. I was quite indifferent as to where I was or how I had chanced to get there. I felt as if I had been prostrated by an attack of fever for months, and was now only recovering, weak and worn out. I was so powerless (physically) that I felt unable to move a finger. I simply lay on the couch, gazing vapidly out of the windows, and then inactively round the room. I was alone. Then suddenly, like a shock of electricity, came the remembrance of the evening of my arrival at Pwlldu. All my former belief and blind confidence in Dr. Walstein flashed away in an instant, and nothing filled my mind but a feeling of intense hatred and horror of the man. But I was physically so weak that I had no more strength than an infant. I tried to rise, and succeeded, with difficulty, in raising myself on one arm, but the exertion was too much for me, I fell back stunned and fainting on the couch.
“Nine hours he has now been insensible; if he remains five more, then I know that my plans will succeed. Death and Life—Life and Death—how wondrously are ye linked together!”
These words were uttered in a low, distinct tone, and although I made no sign, I recognised the voice of Dr. Walstein. I kept my eyes closed and listened. He was evidently alone, for there was no response, and I could hear the sound of his pen as he wrote rapidly at his desk. I have before said that I felt powerless; but as I lay there, with closed eyes, I began to perceive with joy that my mind had really assumed a stronger and healthier tone. I began now to see that this old man, for some purposes unknown to me, had been employing me as a subject on which to try some of his diabolical experiments. By some process of mesmerism or animal magnetism he had led me on involuntarily step by step, until I had become entirely subject to his power. I resolved to make a determined resistance against any further proceedings on his part. In the meantime, I made up my mind to remain still and passive. The doctor evidently believed that I was still insensible, and I wished him to remain in that belief, and I lay there, listening intently, in case anything might be said by the old man that might enlighten me with regard to his intentions regarding myself.
I don’t know how long I had lain in this state, when it suddenly dawned upon me that the subtle perfume of geranium leaves was, and had been, lingering about me, ever since I had regained consciousness. On assuring myself of this fact, a feeling of terror came over me which is impossible to describe. However, I rallied, and endeavoured calmly to reflect on every circumstance that had characterised my intercourse with Doctor Walstein and his daughter. I then remembered that I had never noticed the perfume except when Minna Walstein was present. I felt perfectly assured that she was not in the room, before the Doctor came in, and even now I was convinced that she was not near me. Like a lurid gleam of lightning an idea flashed across my mind,—an idea that filled me with horror and dismay.
The perfume existed in my own breath!
I shuddered from head to foot, and gave an involuntary cry.
Still I had enough presence of mind to keep my eyes closed, for I felt that if I met that piercing glance of Dr. Walstein, he would once more control my senses and my will, and compel me to act as he desired. As I uttered the short sharp cry of agony which I have referred to, I was conscious that he had risen from his chair, and was watching me intently. He uttered a few impatient syllables, and then struck sharply two or three times upon the steel bell. Some one entered the apartment almost immediately afterwards. I presumed that it was the evil-faced servant.
“Your young mistress—where is she, Cosmo?” said the Doctor, rapidly.
“Miss Walstein went out nearly two hours ago, sir, and I believe that she has gone down to the beach—I saw her take the path that leads down to the cliffs.”
“Run at once, Cosmo—find her, and tell her to come to me. I want her immediately. Haste!”
The servant left the room, and I was aware that the old man was pacing rapidly to and fro in the lower part of the room, and from his expressions of impatience I learned that he was very anxious for his daughter’s return. Still, he neither came near me, nor addressed me. This perplexed me. I had an unaccountable impression that he was afraid of me. And yet it seemed absurd that he should fear one whose strength was so far gone, that it was with an effort he kept his eyes closed. Nevertheless, the belief that he was afraid to approach me grew stronger and stronger every instant. What was the cause of his fear? How I tried to drive back the thought that insidiously crept upon me! How I tried to prevent its passing even as a shadow across my brain! That perfume—that deadly perfume in my breath! Had this old man,—I had heard of such a thing,—by his fiendish acts, contrived to assimilate that poisonous vapour with my being, so that he was afraid to approach the finished object of his design? I tried to banish the thought, but gloom and dismay made my heart sink within me.
Nearly half an hour passed away, and I became aware that Doctor Walstein’s impatience was increasing. He vented his rage in sullen, muttered curses at the delay of his servant and daughter. It appeared to me that he was afraid to leave me out of his sight, and at the same time, was afraid to come near me. At last he stopped suddenly, as it seemed to me, near one of the open windows, and spoke:
“Charles Haughton, I know that you are conscious, and have been so, for a considerable time. For some reason, known only to yourself, you have declined to speak to me, or even to look towards me. I say nothing of the ingratitude you display in not acknowledging the services rendered to you by my daughter and myself. You have since last night been rescued by us from impending death. But putting that aside, I beg that you will rouse yourself and speak to me, or I cannot answer for the consequences.”
Still he did not come near me. I now felt sure that he was afraid to approach me, and I remained fixed in the determination to keep motionless and silent. For some time the Doctor appeared to wait, expecting my answer; but at length, seeing that I was resolved not to speak, he again began to pace rapidly backwards and forwards, muttering impatiently at intervals. All that I could gather was, that he was anxious for the arrival of his daughter. It seemed however, that his impatience was at length overcome, for after two or three wild outbursts of rage, he again addressed me, but in a different tone:
“Young man, you force me to speak, and to tell you the whole truth. For some time past, I have been endeavouring to subjugate and control your mind and will by the force of my own. I have succeeded. Listen to me,—and force yourself to comprehend thoroughly what I mean. You are now, as much under my bidding and control as the action of my own muscles, and I defy you to move from the place where you now lie. I hope you are taking heed of what I say, for I wish you to understand what kind of a man you have to deal with. I am not only a student of the mysteries of Nature, but I worship Nature, and have no religion except science. I have no belief in what are called the feelings of the heart, they have, at least, never troubled my rest, and there are no such qualities as love and hate in me. I have often told you that in all my researches I have had one great object in view. In striving to reach that object, no obstacle has ever hindered my progress. Health, wealth, and laborious toil, have all served me in their turn. I did not hesitate for a moment, when I found it necessary to imbue the being,—the system,—the nature of my own daughter with an essence, the fatal nature of which, makes her a living poison. Ah! you may start,—but it is not the first time, that the thought has passed through your mind. And yet, blind fool that you were, you sat almost by her side the first time you ever spoke to her, and drank in eagerly with every respiration, that deadly essence. I say that you were a blind fool,—for if you had glanced at the flower in your breast, you would have seen it withering before your eyes. You, perhaps, wonder why I called you in,—why I enticed you to inhale her poisonous breath. I will tell you. The woman’s nature was giving way under the fierce ordeal through which it had to pass, for she not only breathed, but lived and fed on poisons! She was dying slowly and gradually. This did not serve my purpose. She was valuable to me, and I resolved that she should live. I have not studied the secrets of life and death in vain, and I had not long to seek before I met the man who could save my daughter’s life, by taking upon himself half of her poisonous existence. The instant that I met with you, I fully comprehended your real nature and temperament, and knew that I could completely control your mental and physical powers. The only real difficulty that I had, was in getting the entire possession of your mind and reason. It was necessary that all remembrance and all thought of other subjects should be banished from your mind, and then I knew that I could infuse that deadly poison into your blood and breath. You may well shudder,—but you know, only too well, how completely my scheme succeeded. You know how thoroughly you emptied your mind of every other idea, and how absolutely you gave yourself over to myself and my daughter, and the subjects which we discussed. But, this is wearisome. Last night, my work was accomplished. When, under the influence of that potent perfume you filled Minna Walstein’s goblet and met the glance of her eyes you completed my design—my daughter’s life was saved, and I have now two living poisons to assist me in, what you may call, my ambitious aims. Look calmly, if you can, at your fate—you will poison and kill every living creature you come in contact with, except my daughter Minna. Her you cannot hurt, and there can be no affinity between you and anyone else in the world. I quote your own theory. As she is of my own flesh and blood, I soon discovered a mode by which I could approach her with impunity, but you are different. I feel that it might be fatal to me if I came near you. But it is still possible that you do not believe me. I am unable to approach nearer to you than where I stand, but I break off this rose from the trellis, and fling it to you. If you wish proof of what I say raise it to your lips and watch the result.”
I heard the flower fall on the carpet beside the couch, but I did not move, I scarcely breathed. The terrible words that he had just uttered confirmed the vague apprehension that I had formed, and I felt more dead than alive. Still through all I had an overpowering belief that my only chance of safety depended upon my silence, and upon guarding my eyes from his basilisk gaze.
The doctor seemed to wait for a movement on my part for some time, but, seeing that I made no sign, he again spoke:
“I have tried to show you your utter powerlessness, and have pointed out your only hope. I now appeal to other feelings. I fear that your obstinacy and indifference may seriously affect my daughter. Her life now depends upon yours, and I know not how your present disposition may affect her being. At this very moment—”
While he spoke I heard a voice far down in the garden, calling to the doctor to come at once, for the love of Heaven. I recognised the voice of Cosmo, the servant. Doctor Walstein muttered an oath, and called out from the window that he could not come.
“But, master, master, you must come!” said Cosmo, as he came up to the house; the young lady—Miss Minna—is dying down yonder amongst the rocks by the sea-shore.”
“Dying, do you say?”
“Yes; she is weaker and more prostrate than she was even yesterday. When I approached her where she lay, amongst the wet shingle and sea-weed of the rocks, she waved me back, saying, ‘Do not come near me, but tell my father to come to me at once. I am dying. Tell him also that he is deceived in young Haughton, he only thinks of me with loathing—the thoughts of his heart are elsewhere.’ Then she turned paler than before, and fell back fainting. I was afraid to go nearer, master, for you told me—”
“Silence, Cosmo! Return at once to your mistress, and keep watch until I come. I will be with you immediately.”
I heard the sound of Cosmo’s footsteps, as he ran through the garden towards the cliffs, and then Doctor Walstein’s voice:
“We have had enough of this trifling, youngster. Your fate is in your own hands, and I am the only person who can save your life. It seems that I have miscalculated, and that you have not given your mind and reason so completely into my power as I had supposed. It would appear that, through the rapport which exists between my daughter and yourself, you are able to weaken the power of life in her. If this is the case, I warn you not to try that power too far, or it will be a fatal day for you. Will you answer me?”
I was silent; but through the still air, far away, could be heard the voice of Cosmo, calling for help piteously.
The Doctor remained irresolute for a moment, and then hastened away in the direction of Cosmo’s voice. I lay for some time without venturing to unclose my eyes; at length feeling assured that I was alone, I looked around. Was it all a dream? Were those cruel words, which I had heard, lies? The last remarks of the old man I cared nothing for,—what were he and his daughter to me? But there on the floor beside me lay the rose that Doctor Walstein had thrown to me, and it was within reach. I picked it up languidly and carried it with difficulty to my mouth, and breathed upon it. Merciful heaven? It seemed as if I had held the flower over some corrosive acid. The petals shrank up—brown and black, and in a few seconds I held in my hand only a few twigs and withered leaves.
It was true. I was the hateful, poisonous wretch that the old man had depicted. I buried my face in my hands, and bitter, scalding tears filled my eyes. I thought of the dismal time that had passed, and my mad infatuation for the doctor and his daughter. How truly, as he said,; I had emptied my mind of every other thought except of him and her. How I cursed my madness and folly. Then, as I lay there despairing, there came shining into the blackness of my thoughts the image of a sweet pale face that I loved, and the tender glance of soft dark forgiving eyes. And then sweet, as the tinkling of fairy bells, came that strange warning, echoing back from long ago. Of what use was it to me to upbraid myself for not heeding it now? Of what good was it to me now to remember how often the recollection of it might have turned me from my perilous course? None. Yet why had I for one moment forgotten that loving heart that trusted so truly in me? . . . . . One thing, however, I knew,—forgetful I might have been—mad—foolish—but unfaithful to my love, never. As these thoughts passed through my tortured mind, I dashed my hands from my face and clenched them till my nails nearly entered the flesh. Heavenly powers! Was it possible my strength had returned? Could it be so, that as I had been rendered powerless by the thought of this old man and his hateful offspring, so now my strength was regained by the remembrance of Cousin Polly’s pure and tender love? It must be so! I sprang from the couch, and as I did so a passing breeze swept through the room, and seemed to bear away with it the last traces of the poisonous perfume. I felt assured that the baneful vapours had left my breath, but to make doubly sure, I plucked a spray of jasmine and carried it hurriedly to my lips. My heart beat wildly with joy—the little white stars gleamed as brightly and healthfully as before. Ah, Cousin Polly, why did I ever forget you for a second?—but you had not forgotten me, for the precious jewel of your love, hid in my heart, proved my talisman against powerful and deadly enemies.
But I had no time to throw away, and I determined to make my escape before the return of the doctor, his daughter, or his servant. Through bye lanes and over slimy marshes and wild moorlands I wandered all day, and late at night I arrived at the town of ——, worn out with fatigue and excitement, and before morning I was delirious with fever.
It was some weeks before I recovered sufficiently to recognise Fred Holdsworth, who was waiting upon me, and through whose exertions my life was saved. From him I learned the history of events. He had noticed my change of manner, and when I disappeared from London he immediately conjectured that I had gone to visit Doctor Walstein. He still laboured under the delusion that the doctor’s daughter was my attraction. Several letters came for me, and as he grew uneasy he resolved to set out and find Pwlldu House himself. When he arrived at —— he put up at the same hotel where I was then prostrated with fever. He stayed with me, and nursed me as tenderly as any woman could have done, and he was there in daily expectation of the arrival of my uncle.
He did arrive in a few days, bringing with him Cousin Polly. I will not describe our meeting. Uncle Mark never heard this narrative,—he is long since dead; and Cousin Polly had been for years my loving little wife before I told it to her.
All that I ever heard again of Doctor Walstein was from Holdsworth, who told me that two nights after I escaped from the old man’s clutches the scattered inhabitants of that part of Gower were startled at seeing a great conflagration at Pwlldu House. When discovered, the building was burning in every part. There was little water in the neighbourhood, and every now and then during the fire there were terrific explosions, which drove back those who tried to extinguish the flames or save any of the property. It was also said that dense fumes of a nauseous and poisonous character came from the flames, causing faintness and giddiness to those who inhaled them. The house was burned to the ground, and everything was destroyed. Nothing was ever seen of the inmates; but there was a report, never properly confirmed, that traces of human bones had been found amongst the charred and calcined débris.