When It Was Dark/Chapter 4
THE SMOKE CLOUD AT DAWN
THE two men strode along without speaking for some way. Their feet echoed in the empty streets.
Suddenly Schuabe turned to Basil. "Well, Mr. Gortre," he said, "I have given you your opportunity. Are you not going to speak the word in season after all?"
The young man started violently. Who was this man who had been reading his inner thoughts? How could his companion have fathomed his sternly repressed desire as he sat in the vicarage study? And why did he speak now, when he knew that some chilling influence had him in its grip, that his tongue was tied, his power weakened?
"It is late, Mr. Schuabe," he said at length, and very gravely. "My brain is tired and my enthusiasm chilled. Nor are you anxious to hear what I have to say. But your taunt is ungenerous. It almost seems as if you are not always so tolerant as men think!"
The other laughed—a cold laugh, but not an unkindly one. "Forgive me," he said, "one should not jest with conviction. But I should like to talk with you also. There are lusts of the brain just as there are lusts of the flesh, and to-night I am in the mood and humour for conversation."
They were approaching a side road which led to Gortre's rooms. Schuabe's great stone house was still a quarter of a mile away up the hill.
"Do not go home yet," said Schuabe, "come to my house, see my books, and let us talk. Make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, Mr. Gortre! You are disturbed and unstrung to-night. You will not sleep. Come with me."
Gortre hesitated for a moment, and then continued with him. He was hardly conscious why he did so, but even as he accepted the invitation his nerves seemed recovered as by some powerful tonic. A strange confidence possessed him, and he strode on with the air and manner of a man who has some fixed purpose in his brain.
And as he talked casually with Schuabe, he felt towards him no longer the cold fear, the inexplicable shrinking. He regarded him rather as a vast and powerful enemy, an evil, sinister influence, indeed, but one against which he was armed with an armour not his own, with weapons forged by great and terrible hands.
So they entered the drive and walked up among the gaunt black trees towards the house.
Mount Prospect was a large, castellated modern building of stone. In a neighbourhood where architectural monstrosities abounded, perhaps it outdid them all in its almost brutal ugliness and vulgarity. It had been built by Constantine Schuabe's grandfather.
The present owner was little at Walktown. His Parliamentary and social duties bound him to London, and when he had time for recreation the newspapers announced that he had "gone abroad," and until he was actually seen again in the midst of his friends his disappearances were mysterious and complete.
In London he had a private set of rooms at one of the great hotels.
But despite his rare visits, the hideous stone palace in the smoky North held all the treasures which he himself had collected and which had been left to him by his father.
It was understood that at his death the pictures and library were to become the property of the citizens of Manchester, held in trust for them by the corporation.
Schuabe took a key from his pocket and opened the heavy door in the porch.
"I always keep the house full of servants," he said, "even when I am away, for a dismantled house and caretakers are horrible. But they will be all gone to bed now, and we must look after ourselves."
Opening an inner door, they passed through some heavy padded curtains, which fell behind them with a dull thud, and came out into the great hall.
Ugly as the shell of the great building was, the interior was very different.
Here, set like a jewel in the midst of the harsh, forbidding country, was a treasure-house of ordered beauty which had few equals in England.
Gortre drew a long, shuddering breath of pleasure as he looked round. Every aesthetic influence within him responded to what he saw. And how simple and severe it all was! Simply a great domed hall of white marble, brilliantly lit by electric light hidden high above their heads. On every side slender columns rose towards the dome, beyond them were tall archways leading to the rooms of the house; dull, formless curtains, striking no note of colour, hung from the archways.
In the centre of the vast space, exactly under the dome, was a large pool of still green water, a square basin with abrupt edges, having no fountain nor gaudy fish to break its smoothness.
And that was all, literally all. No rugs covered the tesselated floor, not a single seat stood anywhere. There was not the slightest suggestion of furniture or habitation. White, silent, and beautiful! As Gortre stood there, he knew, as if some special message had been given him, that he had come for some great hidden purpose, that it had been foreordained. His whole soul seemed filled with a holy power, unseen powers and principalities thronged round him like sweet but awful friends.
He turned inquiringly towards his host. Schuabe's face was very pale; the calm, cruel eyes seemed agitated; he was staring at the priest. "Come," he said in a voice which seemed to be without its usual confidence; "come, this place is cold—I have sometimes thought it a little too bare and fantastic—come into the library; let us eat and talk."
He turned and passed through the pillars on the right. Gortre followed him through the dark, heavy curtains which led to the library.
They found themselves in an immense low-ceilinged room. The floor was covered with a thick carpet of dull blue, and their feet made no sound as they passed over it towards the blazing fire, which glowed in an old oak framework of panelling and ingle-nook brought from an ancient manor-house in Norfolk.
At one end of the room was a small organ, cased, modern as the mechanism was, in priceless Renaissance painted panels from Florence and set in a little octagonal alcove hung with white and yellow.
The enormous writing-table of dark wood stood in front of the fireplace and was covered with books and papers. By it was a smaller circular table laid with a white cloth and shining glass and silver for a meal.
"My valet is in bed," said Schuabe; "I hate any one about me at night, and I prefer to wait on myself then. 'From the cool cisterns of the midnight air my spirit drinks repose.' If you will wait here a few moments I will go and get some food. I know where to find some. Pray amuse yourself by looking at my books."
He left the room noiselessly, and Basil turned towards the walls. From ceiling to floor the immense room was lined with shelves of enamelled white wood, here and there carved with tiny florid bunches of fruit and flowers—Jacobean work it seemed.
A few pictures here and there in spaces between the shelves—the hectic flummery of a Whistler nocturne; a woman avec cerises, by Manet; a green silk fan, painted with fêtes gallantes, by Conder—alone broke the many-coloured monotony of the books.
Gortre had, from his earliest Oxford days, been a lover of books and a collector in a moderate, discriminating way. As a rule he was roused to a mild enthusiasm by a fine library. But as his practised eye ran over the shelves, noting the beauty and variety of the contents, he was unmoved by any special interest. His brain, still, so it seemed, under some outside and compelling instinct or influence, was singularly detached from ordinary interests and rejected the books' appeal.
Close to where he stood the shelves were covered with theological works. Müller's Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy, Romane's Reply to Dr. Lightfoot, De la Saussaye's Manual, stood together. His hand had been wandering unconsciously over the books when it was suddenly arrested, and stopped on a familiar black binding with plain gold letters. It was an ordinary reference edition of the Holy Bible, the "pearl" edition from the Oxford University Press.
There was something familiar and homely in the little dark volume, which showed signs of constant use. A few feet away was a long shelf of Bibles of all kinds, rare editions, expensive copies bound up with famous commentaries—all the luxuries and éditions de luxe of Holy Writ. But the book beneath his fingers was the same size and shape as the one which stood near his own bedside in his rooms—the one which his father had given him when he went to Harrow, with "Flee youthful lusts" written on the fly-leaf in faded ink. It was homelike and familiar.
He drew it out with a half smile at himself for choosing the one book he knew by heart from this new wealth of literature.
Then a swift impulse came to him.
Gortre could not be called a superstitious man. The really religious temperament, which, while not rejecting the aids of surface and symbol, has seen far below them, rarely is "superstitious" as the word has come to be understood.
The familiar touch, the pleasant sensation of the limp, rough leather on his finger-balls gave him a feeling of security. But that very fact seemed to remind him that some danger, some subtle mental danger, was near. Was this Bible sent to him? he wondered. Were his eyes and hands directed to it by the vibrating, invisible presences which he felt were near him? Who could say?
But he took the book in his right hand, breathed a prayer for help and guidance—if it might so be that God, who watched him, would speak a message of help—and opened it at random.
He was about to make a trial of that old mediæval practice of "searching"—that harmless trial of faith which a modern hard-headed cleric has analysed so cleverly, so completely, and so entirely unsatisfactorily.
He opened the book, with his eyes fixed in front of him, and then let them drop towards it. For a moment the small type was all blurred and indistinct, and then one text seemed to leap out at him.
It was this—
"take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is."
This, then, was his message! He was to watch, to pray, for the time was at hand when—
The curtain slid aside, and Schuabe entered with a tray. He had changed his morning coat for a long dressing-gown of camel's-hair, and wore scarlet leather slippers.
Basil slipped the Bible back into its place and turned to face him.
"I live very simply," he said, "and can offer you nothing very elaborate. But here is some cold chicken, a watercress salad, and a bottle of claret."
They sat down on opposite sides of the round table and said little. Both men were tired and hungry. After he had eaten, the clergyman bent his head for a second or two in an inaudible grace, and made the sign of the Cross before he rose from his chair.
"Symbol!" said Schuabe, with a cold smile, as he saw him.
The truce was over.
"What is that Cross to which all Christians bow?" he continued. "It was the symbol of the water-god of the Gauls, a mere piece of their iconography. The Phœnician ruin of Gigantica is built in the shape of a cross; the Druids used it in their ceremonies; it was Thor's hammer long before it became Christ's gibbet; it is used by the pagan Icelanders to this day as a magic sign in connection with storms of wind. Why, the symbol of Buddha on the reverse of a coin found at Ugain is the same cross, the 'fylfot' of Thor. The cross was carved by Brahmins a thousand years before Christ in the caves of Elephanta. I have seen it in India with my own eyes in the hands of Siva Brahma and Vishnu! The worshipper of Vishnu attributes as many virtues to it as the pious Roman Catholic here in Salford to the Christian Cross. There is the very strongest evidence that the origin of the cross is phallic! The crux ansata was the sign of Venus: it appears beside Baal and Astarte!"
"Very possibly, Mr. Schuabe," said Gortre, quietly. "Your knowledge on such points is far wider than mine; but that does not affect Christianity in the slightest."
"Of course not! Who ever said it did? But this reverence for the cross, the instrument of execution on which an excellent teacher, and, as far as we know, a really good man, suffered, angers me because it reminds me of the absurd and unreasoning superstitions which cloud the minds of so many educated men like yourself."
"Ah," said Gortre, quietly, "now we are 'gripped.' We have come to the point."
"If you choose, Mr. Gortre," Schuabe answered; " you are an intellectual man, and one intellectual man has a certain right to challenge another. I was staying with Lord Haileybury the other day, and I spent two whole mornings walking over the country with the Bishop of London, talking on these subjects. He very ably endeavoured to bring physical and psychological science into a single whole. But all he seemed to me to prove was this, crystallised into an axiom or at least a postulate. Conscious volition is the ultimate source of all force. It is his belief that behind the sensuous and phenomenal world which gives it form, existence, and activity, lies the ultimate invisible, immeasurable power of Mind, conscious Will, of Intelligence, analogous to our own; and—mark this essential corollary—that man is in communication with it, and that was positively all he could do for me! I met him there easily enough, but when he tried to prove a revelation—Christianity—he utterly broke down. We parted very good friends, and I gave him a thousand pounds for the East London poor fund. But still, say what you will to me. I am here to listen."
He looked calmly at the young man with his unsmiling eyes. He held a Russian cigarette in his fingers, and he waved it with a gentle gesture of invitation as if from an immeasurable superiority.
And as Gortre watched him he knew that here was a brain and intelligence far keener and finer than his own. But with all that certainty he felt entirely undismayed, strangely uplifted.
"I have a message for you, Mr. Schuabe," he began, and the other bowed slightly, without irony, at his words. "I have a message for you, one which I have been sent here—I firmly believe—to deliver, but it is not the message or the argument that you expect to hear."
He stopped for a short time, marshalling his mental forces, and noticing a slight but perceptible look of surprise in his host's eyes.
"I know you better than you imagine, sir," he said gravely, "and not as many other good and devout Christians see you. I tell you here to-night with absolute certainty that you are the active enemy of Christ—I say active enemy."
The face opposite became slightly less tranquil, but the voice was as calm as ever.
"You speak according to your lights, Mr. Gortre," he said. "I am no Christian, but there is much good in Christianity. My words and writings may have helped to lift the veil of superstition and hereditary influences from the eyes of many men, and in that sense I am an enemy of the Christian faith, I suppose. My sincerity is my only apology—if one were needed. You speak with more harshness and less tolerance than I should have thought it your pleasure or your duty to use."
Gortre rose. "Man," he cried, with sudden sternness, "I know! You hate our Lord, and would work Him evil. You are as Judas was, for to-night it is given me to read far into your brain."
Schuabe rose quickly from his chair and stood facing him. His face was pallid, something looked out of his eyes which almost frightened the other.
"What do you know?" he cried as if in a swift stroke of pain. "Who—?" He stopped as if by a tremendous effort . Some thought came to reassure him.
"Listen," he said. "I tell you, paid priest as you are, a blind man leading the blind, that a day is coming when all your boasted fabric of Christianity will disappear. It will go suddenly, and be swept utterly away. And you, you shall see it. You shall be left naked of your faith, stripped and bare, with all Christendom beside you. Your pale Nazarene shall die amid the bitter laughter of the world, die as surely as He died two thousand years ago, and no man or woman shall resurrect Him. You know nothing, but you will remember my words of to-night, until you also become as nothing and endure the inevitable fate of mankind."
He had spoken with extraordinary vehemence, hissing the words out with a venom and malice, general rather than particular, from which the Churchman shrunk, shuddering. There was such unutterable conviction in the thin, evil voice that for a moment the pain of it was like a spasm of physical agony.
Schuabe had thrown down the mask; it was even as Gortre said, the soul of Iscariot looked out from those eyes. The man saw the clergyman's sudden shrinking.
The smile of a devil flashed over his face. Gortre had turned to him once more and he saw it. And as he watched an awful certainty grew within him, a thought so appalling that beside it all that had gone before sank into utter insignificance.
He staggered for a moment and then rose to his full height, a fearful loathing in his eyes, a scorn like a whip of fire in his voice.
Schuabe blanched before him, for he saw the truth in the priest's soul.
"As the Lord of Hosts is my witness," cried Gortre loudly, "I know you now for what you are! You know that Christ is God!"
Schuabe shrank into his chair.
"Antichrist!" pealed out the accusing voice. "You know the truth full well, and, knowing, in an awful presumption you have dared to lift your hand against God."
Then there was a dead silence in the room. Schuabe sat motionless by the dying fire.
Very slowly the colour crept back into his cheeks. Slowly the strength and light entered his eyes. He moved slightly.
At last he spoke.
"Go," he said. "Go, and never let me see your face again. You have spoken. Yet I tell you still that such a blinding blow shall descend on Christendom that——"
He rose quickly from his chair. His manner changed utterly with a marvellous swiftness.
He went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. A chill and ghostly dawn came creeping into the library.
"Let us make an end of this," he said quietly and naturally. "Of what use for you and me, atoms that we are, to wrangle and thunder through the night over an infinity in which we have neither part nor lot? Come, get you homewards and rest, as I am about to do. The night has been an unpleasant dream. Treat it as such. We differ on great matters. Let that be so and we will forget it. You shall have a friend in me if you will."
Gortre, hardly conscious of any voluntary movements, his brain in a stupor, the arteries all over his body beating like little drums, took the hat and coat the other handed to him, and stumbled out of the house.
It was about five o'clock in the morning, raw, damp, and cold.
With a white face, drawn and haggard with emotion, he strode down the hill. The keen air revived his physical powers, but his brain was whirling, whirling, till connected thought was impossible.
What was it? What was the truth about that nightmare, that long, horrid night in the warm, rich room? His powers were failing; he must see a doctor after breakfast.
When he reached the foot of the hill, and was about to turn down the road which led to his rooms, he stopped to rest for a moment.
From far behind the hill, over the dark, silhouetted houses of the wealthy people who lived upon it, a huge, formless pall of purple smoke was rising, and almost blotting out the dawn in a Titanic curtain of gloom. The feeble new-born sun flickered redly through it, the colour of blood. There was no wind that morning, and the fog and smoke from the newly lit factory chimneys in the Irwell valley could not be dispersed. It crept over the town like doom itself—menacing, vast, unconquerable.
He pulled out his latch-key with trembling hand, and turned to enter his own door.
The cloud was spreading.
"Lighten our darkness," he whispered to himself, half consciously, and then fell fainting on the door-step, where they found him soon, and carried him in to the sick-bed, where he lay sick of a brain-fever a month or more.
Lighten our darkness!