The House of the Vampire/XXVIII
Terrible as was his loneliness, a meeting with Jack would have been more terrible. And, after all, it was true, a gulf had opened between them.
Ethel alone could bring solace to his soul. There was a great void in his heart which only she could fill. He hungered for the touch of her hand. He longed for her presence strongly, as a wanton lusts for pleasure and as sad men crave death.
Noiselessly he stole to the door so as not to arouse the attention of the other two men, whose every whisper pierced his heart like a dagger. When he came to Ethel's home, he found that she had gone out for a breath of air. The servant ushered him into the parlor, and there he waited, waited, waited for her.
Greatly calmed by his walk, he turned the details of Clarke's conversation over in his mind, and the conviction grew upon him that the friend of his boyhood was not to blame for his course of action. Reginald probably had encircled Jack's soul with his demoniacal influence and singled him out for another victim. That must never be. It was his turn to save now. He would warn his friend of the danger that threatened him, even if his words should be spoken into the wind. For Reginald, with an ingenuity almost satanic, had already suggested that the delusion of former days had developed into a monomania, and any attempt on his part to warn Jack would only seem to confirm this theory. In that case only one way was left open. He must plead with Reginald himself, confront at all risks that snatcher of souls. To-night he would not fall asleep. He would keep his vigil. And if Reginald should approach his room, if in some way he felt the direful presence, he must speak out, threaten if need be, to save his friend from ruin. He had fully determined upon this course when a cry of joy from Ethel, who had just returned from her walk, interrupted his reverie. But her gladness changed to anxiety when she saw how pale he was. Ernest recounted to her the happenings of the day, from the discovery of his novel in Reginald's desk to the conversation which he had accidentally overheard. He noticed that her features brightened as he drew near the end of his tale.
“Was your novel finished?” she suddenly asked. “I think so.”
“Then you are out of danger. He will want nothing else of you. But you should have taken it with you.”
“I had only sufficient presence of mind to slip it back into the drawer. To-morrow I shall simply demand it.”
“You will do nothing of the kind. It is in his handwriting, and you have no legal proof that it is yours. You must take it away secretly. And he will not dare to reclaim it.”
She had quite forgotten Jack. Women are invariably selfish for those they love. “You must warn him,” she replied.
“He would laugh at me. However, I must speak to Reginald.”
“It is of no avail to speak to him. At least, you must not do so before you have obtained the manuscript. It would unnecessarily jeopardise our plans.”
“After, perhaps. But you must not expose yourself to any danger.”
“No, dear,” he said, and kissed her; “what danger is there, provided I keep my wits about me? He steals upon men only in their sleep and in the dark.”
“Be careful, nevertheless.”
“I shall. In fact, I think he is not at home at this moment. If I go now I may be able to get hold of the manuscript and hide it before he returns.”
“I cannot but tremble to think of you in that house.”
“You shall have no more reason to tremble in a day or two.”
“Shall I see you to-morrow?”
“I don't think so. I must go over my papers and things so as to be ready at any moment to leave the house.”
He took her in his arms and looked long and deeply into her eyes. “Yes,” she replied—“at least, perhaps.”
Then he turned to go, resolute and happy. How strangely he had matured since the summer! Her heart swelled with the consciousness that it was her love that had effected this transformation.
“As I cannot expect you to-morrow, I shall probably go to the opera, but I shall be at home before midnight. Will you call me up then? A word from you will put me at ease for the night, even if it comes over the telephone.”
“I will call you up. We moderns have an advantage over the ancients in this respect: the twentieth-century Pyramus can speak to Thisbe even if innumerable walls sever his body from hers.”
“A quaint conceit! But let us hope that our love-story will end less tragically,” she said, tenderly caressing his hair. “Oh, we shall be happy, you and I,” she added, after a while. “The iron finger of fate that lay so heavily on our lives is now withdrawn. Almost withdrawn. Yes, almost. Only almost.”
And then a sudden fear overcame her.
“No,” she cried, “do not go, do not go! Stay with me; stay here. I feel so frightened. I don't know what comes over me. I am afraid—afraid for you.”
“No, dear,” he rejoined, “you need not be afraid. In your heart you don't want me to desert a friend, and, besides, leave the best part of my artistic life in Reginald's clutch.”
“Why should you expose yourself to God knows what danger for a friend who is ready to betray you?”
“You forget friendship is a gift. If it exacts payment in any form, it is no longer either friendship or a gift. And you yourself have assured me that I have nothing to fear from Reginald. I have nothing to give to him.”
She rallied under his words and had regained her self-possession when the door closed behind him. He walked a few blocks very briskly. Then his pace slackened. Her words had unsettled him a little, and when he reached home he did not at once resume his exploration of Reginald's papers. He had hardly lit a cigarette when, at an unusually early hour, he heard Reginald's key in the lock.
Quickly he turned the light out and in the semi-darkness, lit up by an electric lantern below, barricaded the door as on the previous night. Then he went to bed without finding sleep.
Supreme silence reigned over the house. Even the elevator had ceased to run. Ernest's brain was all ear. He heard Reginald walking up and down in the studio. Not the smallest movement escaped his attention. Thus hours passed. When the clock struck twelve, he was still walking up and down, down and up, up and down.
Still the measured beat of his footfall had not ceased. There was something hypnotic in the regular tread. Nature at last exacted its toll from the boy. He fell asleep.
Hardly had he closed his eyes when again that horrible nightmare—no longer a nightmare—- tormented him. Again he felt the pointed delicate fingers carefully feeling their way along the innumerable tangled threads of nerve-matter that lead to the innermost recesses of self. . .
A subconscious something strove to arouse him, and he felt the fingers softly withdrawn. He could have sworn that he heard the scurrying of feet in the room. Bathed in perspiration he made a leap for the electric light.
But there was no sign of any human presence. The barricade at the door was undisturbed. But fear like a great wind filled the wings of his soul.
Yet there was nothing, nothing to warrant his conviction that Reginald Clarke had been with him only a few moments ago, plying his horrible trade. The large mirror above the fireplace only showed him his own face, white, excited,—the face of a madman.