The House of the Vampire/XXVI
For over an hour Ernest paced up and down his room, wildly excited by Ethel's revelations. It required an immense amount of self-control for him to pen the following lines to Jack: “I need you. Come.”
After he had entrusted the letter to the hall-boy, a reaction set in and he was able to consider the matter, if not with equanimity, at least with a degree of calmness. The strangest thing to him was that he could not bring himself to hate Reginald, of whose evil influence upon his life he was now firmly convinced. Here was another shattered idol; but one—like the fragment of a great god-face in the desert—intensely fascinating, even in its ruin. Then yielding to a natural impulse, Ernest looked over his photographs and at once laid hold upon the austere image of his master and friend. No—it was preposterous; there was no evil in this man. There was no trace of malice in this face, the face of a prophet or an inspired madman, a poet. And yet, as he scrutinised the picture closely a curious transformation seemed to take place in the features; a sly little line appeared insinuatingly about Reginald's well-formed mouth, and the serene calm of his Jupiter-head seemed to turn into the sneak smile of a thief. Nevertheless, Ernest was not afraid. His anxieties had at last assumed definite shape; it was possible now to be on his guard. It is only invisible, incomprehensible fear, crouching upon us from the night, that drives sensitive natures to the verge of madness and transforms stern warriors into cowards.
Ernest realised the necessity of postponing the proposed investigation of Reginald's papers until the morning, as it was now near eleven, and he expected to hear at any moment the sound of his feet at the door. Before retiring he took a number of precautions. Carefully he locked the door to his bedroom and placed a chair in front of it. To make doubly sure, he fastened the handle to an exquisite Chinese vase, a gift of Reginald's, that at the least attempt to force an entrance from without would come down with a crash.
Then, although sleep seemed out of the question, he went to bed. He had hardly touched the pillow when a leaden weight seemed to fall upon his eyes. The day's commotion had been too much for his delicate frame. By force of habit he pulled the cover over his ear and fell asleep.
All night he slept heavily, and the morning was far advanced when a knock at the door that, at first, seemed to come across an immeasurable distance, brought him back to himself. It was Reginald's manservant announcing that breakfast was waiting.
Ernest got up and rubbed his eyes. The barricade at the door at once brought back to his mind with startling clearness the events of the previous evening.
Everything was as he had left it. Evidently no one had attempted to enter the room while he slept. He could not help smiling at the arrangement which reminded him of his childhood, when he had sought by similar means security from burglars and bogeys. And in the broad daylight Ethel's tales of vampires seemed once more impossible and absurd. Still, he had abundant evidence of Reginald's strange influence, and was determined to know the truth before nightfall. Her words, that thought is more real than blood, kept ringing in his ears. If such was the case, he would find evidence of Reginald's intellectual burglaries, and possibly be able to regain a part of his lost self that had been snatched from him by the relentless dream-hand.
But under no circumstances could he face Reginald in his present state of mind. He was convinced that if in the fleeting vision of a moment the other man's true nature should reveal itself to him, he would be so terribly afraid as to shriek like a maniac. So he dressed particularly slowly in the hope of avoiding an encounter with his host. But fate thwarted this hope. Reginald, too, lingered that morning unusually long over his coffee. He was just taking his last sip when Ernest entered the room. His behaviour was of an almost bourgeois kindness. Benevolence fairly beamed from his face. But to the boy's eyes it had assumed a new and sinister expression.
“You are late this morning, Ernest,” he remarked in his mildest manner. “Have you been about town, or writing poetry? Both occupations are equally unhealthy.” As he said this he watched the young man with the inscrutable smile that at moments was wont to curl upon his lips. Ernest had once likened it to the smile of Mona Lisa, but now he detected in it the suavity of the hypocrite and the leer of the criminal.
He could not endure it; he could not look upon that face any longer. His feet almost gave way under him, cold sweat gathered on his brow, and he sank on a chair trembling and studiously avoiding the other man's gaze.
At last Reginald rose to go. It seemed impossible to accuse this splendid impersonation of vigorous manhood of cunning and underhand methods, of plagiarisms and of theft. As he stood there he resembled more than anything a beautiful tiger-cat, a wonderful thing of strength and will-power, indomitable and insatiate. Yet who could tell whether this strength was not, after all, parasitic. If Ethel's suspicions were justified, then, indeed, more had been taken from him than he could ever realise. For in that case it was his lifeblood that circled in those veins and the fire of his intellect that set those lips aflame!