The House of the Vampire/XVIII

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XVIII[edit]

After Ernest's departure Ethel Brandenbourg's heart was swaying hither and thither in a hurricane of conflicting feelings. Before she had time to gain an emotional equilibrium, his letter had hurled her back into chaos. A false ring somewhere in Ernest's words, reechoing with an ever-increasing volume of sound, stifled the voice of love. His jewelled sentences glittered, but left her cold. They lacked that spontaneity which renders even simple and hackeneyed phrases wonderful and unique. Ethel clearly realised that her hold upon the boy's imagination had been a fleeting midsummer night's charm, and that a word from Reginald's lips had broken the potency of her spell. She almost saw the shadow of Reginald's visage hovering over Ernest's letter and leering at her from between the lines in sinister triumph. Finally reason came and whispered to her that it was extremely unwise to give her heart into the keeping of a boy. His love, she knew, would have been exacting, irritating at times. He would have asked her to sympathise with every phase of his life, and would have expected active interest on her part in much that she had done with long ago. Thus, untruth would have stolen into her life and embittered it. When mates are unequal, Love must paint its cheeks and, in certain moods at least, hide its face under a mask. Its lips may be honeyed, but it brings fret and sorrow in its train.

These things she told herself over and over again while she penned a cool and calculating answer to Ernest's letter. She rewrote it many times, and every time it became more difficult to reply. At last she put her letter aside for a few days, and when it fell again into her hand it seemed so unnatural and strained that she destroyed it.

Thus several weeks had passed, and Ernest no longer exclusively occupied her mind when, one day early in September, while glancing over a magazine, she came upon his name in the table of contents. Once more she saw the boy's wistful face before her, and a trembling something stirred in her heart. Her hand shook as she cut the pages, and a mist of tears clouded her vision as she attempted to read his poem. It was a piece of sombre brilliance. Like black-draped monks half crazed with mystic devotion, the poet's thoughts flitted across the page. It was the wail of a soul that feels reason slipping from it and beholds madness rise over its life like a great pale moon. A strange unrest emanated from it and took possession of her. And again, with an insight that was prophetic, she distinctly recognised behind the vague fear that had haunted the poet the figure of Reginald Clarke.

A half-forgotten dream, struggling to consciousness, staggered her by its vividness. She saw Clarke as she had seen him in days gone by, grotesquely transformed into a slimy seathing, whose hungry mouths shut sucking upon her and whose thousand tentacles encircled her form. She closed her eyes in horror at the reminiscence. And in that moment it became clear to her that she must take into her hands the salvation of Ernest Fielding from the clutches of the malign power that had mysteriously enveloped his life.