The House of the Vampire/XXVII
Reginald Clarke had hardly left the room when Ernest hastily rose from his seat. While it was likely that he would remain in undisturbed possession of the apartment the whole morning, the stake at hand was too great to permit of delay.
Palpitating and a little uncertain, he entered the studio where, scarcely a year ago, Reginald Clarke had bidden him welcome. Nothing had changed there since then; only in Ernest's mind the room had assumed an aspect of evil. The Antinous was there and the Faun and the Christ- head. But their juxtaposition to-day partook of the nature of the blasphemous. The statues of Shakespeare and Balzac seemed to frown from their pedestals as his fingers were running through Reginald's papers. He brushed against a semblance of Napoleon that was standing on the writing-table, so that it toppled over and made a noise that weirdly re-echoed in the silence of the room. At that moment a curious family resemblance between Shakespeare, Balzac, Napoleon—and Reginald, forcibly impressed itself upon his mind. It was the indisputable something that marks those who are chosen to give ultimate expression to some gigantic world- purpose. In Balzac's face it was diffused with kindliness, in that of Napoleon sheer brutality predominated. The image of one who was said to be the richest man of the world also rose before his eyes. Perhaps it was only the play of his fevered imagination, but he could have sworn that this man's features, too, bore the mark of those unoriginal, great absorptive minds who, for better or for worse, are born to rob and rule. They seemed to him monsters that know neither justice nor pity, only the law of their being, the law of growth.
Common weapons would not avail against such forces. Being one, they were stronger than armies; nor could they be overcome in single combat. Stealth, trickery, the outfit of the knave, were legitimate weapons in such a fight. In this case the end justified the means, even if the latter included burglary.
After a brief and fruitless search of the desk, he attempted to force open a secret drawer, the presence of which he had one day accidentally discovered. He tried a number of keys to no account, and was thinking of giving up his researches for the day until he had procured a skeleton key, when at last the lock gave way.
The drawer disclosed a large file of manuscript. Ernest paused for a moment to draw breath. The paper rustled under his nervous fingers. And there—at last—his eyes lit upon a bulky bundle that bore this legend: “Leontina, A Novel.”
It was true, then—all, his dream, Reginald's confession. And the house that had opened its doors so kindly to him was the house of a Vampire!
Finally curiosity overcame his burning indignation. He attempted to read. The letters seemed to dance before his eyes—his hands trembled.
At last he succeeded. The words that had first rolled over like drunken soldiers now marched before his vision in orderly sequence. He was delighted, then stunned. This was indeed authentic literature, there could be no doubt about it. And it was his. He was still a poet, a great poet. He drew a deep breath. Sudden joy trembled in his heart. This story set down by a foreign hand had grown chapter by chapter in his brain.
There were some slight changes—slight deviations from the original plan. A defter hand than his had retouched it here and there, but for all that it remained his very own. It did not belong to that thief. The blood welled to his cheek as he uttered this word that, applied to Reginald, seemed almost sacrilegious.
He had nearly reached the last chapter when he heard steps in the hallway. Hurriedly he restored the manuscript to its place, closed the drawer and left the room on tiptoe.
It was Reginald. But he did not come alone. Someone was speaking to him. The voice seemed familiar. Ernest could not make out what it said. He listened intently and—was it possible? Jack? Surely he could not yet have come in response to his note! What mysterious power, what dim presentiment of his friend's plight had led him hither? But why did he linger so long in Reginald's room, instead of hastening to greet him? Cautiously he drew nearer. This time he caught Jack's words:
“It would be very convenient and pleasant. Still, some way, I feel that it is not right for me, of all men, to take his place here.”
“That need not concern you,” Reginald deliberately replied; “the dear boy expressed the desire to leave me within a fortnight. I think he will go to some private sanitarium. His nerves are frightfully overstrained.”
“This seems hardly surprising after the terrible attack he had when you read your play.”
“That idea has since then developed into a monomania.”
“I am awfully sorry for him. I cared for him much, perhaps too much. But I always feared that he would come to such an end. Of late his letters have been strangely unbalanced.”
“You will find him very much changed. In fact, he is no longer the same.”
“No,” said Jack, “he is no longer the friend I loved.”
Ernest clutched for the wall. His face was contorted with intense agony. Each word was like a nail driven into his flesh. Crucified upon the cross of his own affection by the hand he loved, all white and trembling he stood there. Tears rushed to his eyes, but he could not weep. Dry-eyed he reached his room and threw himself upon his bed. Thus he lay—uncomforted and alone.