NOVEL OF THE BLACK SEAL

I must now give you some fuller particulars of my history. I am the
daughter of a civil engineer, Steven Lally by name, who was so
unfortunate as to die suddenly at the outset of his career, and before
he had accumulated sufficient means to support his wife and her two
children. My mother contrived to keep the small household going on
resources which must have been incredibly small; we lived in a remote
country village, because most of the necessaries of life were cheaper
than in a town, but even so we were brought up with the severest
economy. My father was a clever and well-read man, and left behind him a
small but select collection of books, containing the best Greek, Latin,
and English classics, and these books were the only amusement we
possessed. My brother, I remember, learned Latin out of Descartes’
“Meditationes,” and I, in place of the little tales which children are
usually told to read, had nothing more charming than a translation of
the “Gesta Romanorum.” We grew up thus, quiet and studious children, and
in course of time my brother provided for himself in the manner I have
mentioned. I continued to live at home; my poor mother had become an
invalid, and demanded my continual care, and about two years ago she
died after many months of painful illness. My situation was a terrible
one; the shabby furniture barely sufficed to pay the debts I had been
forced to contract, and the books I despatched to my brother, knowing
how he would value them. I was absolutely alone. I was aware how poorly
my brother was paid; and though I came up to London in the hope of
finding employment, with the understanding that he would defray my
expenses, I swore it should only be for a month, and that if I could not
in that time find some work, I would starve rather than deprive him of
the few miserable pounds he had laid by for his day of trouble. I took a
little room in a distant suburb, the cheapest that I could find. I lived
on bread and tea, and I spent my time in vain answering of
advertisements, and vainer walks to addresses I had noted. Day followed
on day, and week on week, and still I was unsuccessful, till at last the
term I had appointed drew to a close, and I saw before me the grim
prospect of slowly dying of starvation. My landlady was good-natured in
her way; she knew the slenderness of my means, and I am sure that she
would not have turned me out of doors. It remained for me then to go
away, and to try and die in some quiet place. It was winter then, and a
thick white fog gathered in the early part of the afternoon, becoming
more dense as the day wore on; it was a Sunday, I remember, and the
people of the house were at chapel. At about three o’clock I crept out
and walked away as quickly as I could, for I was weak from abstinence.
The white mist wrapped all the streets in silence, and a hard frost had
gathered thick upon the bare branches of the trees, and frost crystals
glittered on the wooden fences, and on the cold cruel ground beneath my
feet. I walked on, turning to right and left in utter haphazard, without
caring to look up at the names of the streets, and all that I remember
of my walk on that Sunday afternoon seems but the broken fragments of an
evil dream. In a confused vision I stumbled on, through roads half town
and half country; gray fields melting into the cloudy world of mist on
one side of me, and on the other comfortable villas with a glow of
firelight flickering on the walls; but all unreal, red brick walls, and
lighted windows, vague trees, and glimmering country, gas-lamps
beginning to star the white shadows, the vanishing perspectives of the
railway line beneath high embankments, the green and red of the signal
lamps,–all these were but momentary pictures flashed on my tired brain
and senses numbed by hunger. Now and then I would hear a quick step
ringing on the iron road, and men would pass me well wrapped up, walking
fast for the sake of warmth, and no doubt eagerly foretasting the
pleasures of a glowing hearth, with curtains tightly drawn about the
frosted panes, and the welcomes of their friends; but as the early
evening darkened and night approached, foot-passengers got fewer and
fewer, and I passed through street after street alone. In the white
silence I stumbled on, as desolate as if I trod the streets of a buried
city; and as I grew more weak and exhausted, something of the horror of
death was folding thickly round my heart. Suddenly, as I turned a
corner, some one accosted me courteously beneath the lamp-post, and I
heard a voice asking if I could kindly point the way to Avon Road. At
the sudden shock of human accents I was prostrated and my strength gave
way, and I fell all huddled on the side-walk and wept and sobbed and
laughed in violent hysteria. I had gone out prepared to die, and as I
stepped across the threshold that had sheltered me, I consciously bade
adieu to all hopes and all remembrances; the door clanged behind me with
the noise of thunder, and I felt that an iron curtain had fallen on the
brief passages of my life, and that henceforth I was to walk a little
way in a world, of gloom and shadow; I entered on the stage of the first
act of death. Then came my wandering in the mist, the whiteness wrapping
all things, the void streets, and muffled silence, till when that voice
spoke to me, it was as if I had died and life returned to me. In a few
minutes I was able to compose my feelings, and as I rose I saw that I
was confronted by a middle-aged gentleman of specious appearance, neatly
and correctly dressed. He looked at me with an expression of great pity,
but before I could stammer out my ignorance of the neighborhood, for
indeed I had not the slightest notion of where I had wandered, he spoke.

“My dear madam,” he said, “you seem in some terrible distress. You
cannot think how you alarmed me. But may I inquire the nature of your
trouble? I assure you that you can safely confide in me.”

“You are very kind,” I replied; “but, I fear there is nothing to be
done. My condition seems a hopeless one.”

“Oh, nonsense, nonsense! You are too young to talk like that. Come, let
us walk down here, and you must tell me your difficulty. Perhaps I may
be able to help you.”

There was something very soothing and persuasive in his manner, and as
we walked together, I gave him an outline of my story, and told of the
despair that had oppressed me almost to death.

“You were wrong to give in so completely,” he said, when I was silent.
“A month is too short a time in which to feel one’s way in London.
London, let me tell you, Miss Lally, does not lie open and undefended;
it is a fortified place, fossed and double-moated with curious
intricacies. As must always happen in large towns, the conditions of
life have become hugely artificial; no mere simple palisade is run up to
oppose the man or woman who would take the place by storm, but serried
lines of subtle contrivances, mines, and pitfalls which it needs a
strange skill to overcome. You, in your simplicity, fancied you had only
to shout for these walls to sink into nothingness, but the time is gone
for such startling victories as these. Take courage; you will learn the
secret of success before very long.”

“Alas, sir,” I replied, “I have no doubt your conclusions are correct,
but at the present moment I seem to be in a fair way to die of
starvation. You spoke of a secret; for heaven’s sake, tell it me, if you
have any pity for my distress.”

He laughed genially. “There lies the strangeness of it all. Those who
know the secret cannot tell it if they would; it is positively as
ineffable as the central doctrine of Freemasonry. But I may say this,
that you yourself have penetrated at least the outer husk of the
mystery,” and he laughed again.

“Pray do not jest with me,” I said. “What have I done, _que sais-je_? I
am so far ignorant that I have not the slightest idea of how my next
meal is to be provided.”

“Excuse me. You ask what you have done? You have met me. Come, we will
fence no longer. I see you have self-education, the only education
which is not infinitely pernicious, and I am in want of a governess for
my two children. I have been a widower for some years; my name is Gregg.
I offer you the post I have named, and shall we say a salary of a
hundred a year?”

I could only stutter out my thanks, and slipping a card with his address
and a bank-note by way of earnest into my hand, Mr. Gregg bade me
good-bye, asking me to call in a day or two.

Such was my introduction to Professor Gregg, and can you wonder that the
remembrance of despair and the cold blast that had blown from the gates
of death upon me, made me regard him as a second father? Before the
close of the week. I was installed in my new duties; the professor had
leased an old brick manor house in a western suburb of London, and here,
surrounded by pleasant lawns and orchards, and soothed with the murmur
of the ancient elms that rocked their boughs above the roof, the new
chapter of my life began. Knowing as you do the nature of the
professor’s occupations, you will not be surprised to hear that the
house teemed with books; and cabinets full of strange and even hideous
objects filled every available nook in the vast low rooms. Gregg was a
man whose one thought was for knowledge, and I too before long caught
something of his enthusiasm, and strove to enter into his passion for
research. In a few months I was perhaps more his secretary than the
governess of the two children, and many a night I have sat at the desk
in the glow of the shaded lamp while he, pacing up and down in the rich,
gloom of the firelight, dictated to me the substance of his “Text-book
of Ethnology.” But amidst these more sober and accurate studies I always
detected a something hidden, a longing and desire for some object to
which he did not allude, and now and then he would break short in what
he was saying and lapse into revery, entranced, as it seemed to me, by
some distant prospect of adventurous discovery. The text-book was at
last finished, and we began to receive proofs from the printers, which
were intrusted to me for a first reading, and then underwent the final
revision of the professor. All the while his weariness of the actual
business he was engaged on increased, and it was with the joyous laugh
of a schoolboy when term is over that he one day handed me a copy of the
book. “There,” he said, “I have kept my word; I promised to write it,
and it is done with. Now I shall be free to live for stranger things; I
confess it, Miss Lally, I covet the renown of Columbus. You will, I
hope, see me play the part of an explorer.”

“Surely,” I said, “there is little left to explore. You have been born a
few hundred years too late for that.”

“I think you are wrong,” he replied; “there are still, depend upon it,
quaint undiscovered countries and continents of strange extent. Ah, Miss
Lally, believe me, we stand amidst sacraments and mysteries full of awe,
and it doth not yet appear what we shall be. Life, believe me, is no
simple thing, no mass of gray matter and congeries of veins and muscles
to be laid naked by the surgeon’s knife; man is the secret which I am
about to explore, and before I can discover him I must cross over
weltering seas indeed, and oceans and the mists of many thousand years.
You know the myth of the lost Atlantis; what if it be true, and I am
destined to be called the discoverer of that wonderful land?”

I could see excitement boiling beneath his words, and in his face was
the heat of the hunter; before me stood a man who believed himself
summoned to tourney with the unknown. A pang of joy possessed me when I
reflected that I was to be in a way associated with him in the
adventure, and I too burned with the lust of the chase, not pausing to
consider that I knew not what we were to unshadow.

The next morning Professor Gregg took me into his inner study, where
ranged against the wall stood a nest of pigeon-holes, every drawer
neatly labelled, and the results of years of toil classified in a few
feet of space.

“Here,” he said, “is my life; here are all the facts which I have
gathered together with so much pains, and yet it is all nothing. No,
nothing to what I am about to attempt. Look at this;” and he took me to
an old bureau, a piece fantastic and faded, which stood in a corner of
the room. He unlocked the front and opened one of the drawers.

“A few scraps of paper,” he went on, pointing to the drawer, “and a lump
of black stone, rudely annotated with queer marks and scratches,–that
is all that drawer holds. Here you see is an old envelope with the dark
red stamp of twenty years ago, but I have pencilled a few lines at the
back; here is a sheet of manuscript, and here some cuttings from
obscure local journals. And if you ask me the subject matter of the
collection, it will not seem extraordinary. A servant girl at a
farmhouse, who disappeared from her place and has never been heard of, a
child supposed to have slipped down some old working on the mountains,
some queer scribbling on a limestone rock, a man murdered with a blow
from a strange weapon; such is the scent I have to go upon. Yes, as you
say, there is a ready explanation for all this; the girl may have run
away to London, or Liverpool, or New York; the child may be at the
bottom of the disused shaft; and the letters on the rock may be the idle
whims of some vagrant. Yes, yes, I admit all that; but I know I hold the
true key. Look!” and he held me out a slip of yellow paper.

“Characters found inscribed on a limestone rock on the Gray Hills,” I
read, and then there was a word erased, presumably the name of a county,
and a date some fifteen years back. Beneath was traced a number of
uncouth characters, shaped somewhat like wedges or daggers, as strange
and outlandish as the Hebrew alphabet.

“Now the seal,” said Professor Gregg, and he handed me the black stone,
a thing about two inches long, and something like an old-fashioned
tobacco stopper, much enlarged.

I held it up to the light, and saw to my surprise the characters on the
paper repeated on the seal.

“Yes,” said the professor, “they are the same. And the marks on the
limestone rock were made fifteen years ago, with some red substance. And
the characters on the seal are four thousand years old at least. Perhaps
much more.”

“Is it a hoax?” I said.

“No, I anticipated that. I was not to be led to give my life to a
practical joke. I have tested the matter very carefully. Only one person
besides myself knows of the mere existence of that black seal. Besides,
there are other reasons which I cannot enter into now.”

“But what does it all mean?” I said. “I cannot understand to what
conclusion all this leads.”

“My dear Miss Lally, that is a question I would rather leave unanswered
for some little time. Perhaps I shall never be able to say what secrets
are held here in solution; a few vague hints, the outlines of village
tragedies, a few marks done with red earth upon a rock, and an ancient
seal. A queer set of data to go upon? Half-a-dozen pieces of evidence,
and twenty years before even so much could be got together; and who
knows what mirage or terra incognita may be beyond all this? I look
across deep waters, Miss Lally, and the land beyond may be but a haze
after all. But still I believe it is not so, and a few months will show
whether I am right or wrong.”

He left me, and alone I endeavored to fathom the mystery, wondering to
what goal such eccentric odds and ends of evidence could lead. I myself
am not wholly devoid of imagination, and I had reason to respect the
professor’s solidity of intellect; yet I saw in the contents of the
drawer but the materials of fantasy, and vainly tried to conceive what
theory could be founded on the fragments that had been placed before me.
Indeed, I could discover in what I had heard and seen but the first
chapter of an extravagant romance; and yet deep in my heart I burned
with curiosity, and day after day I looked eagerly in Professor Gregg’s
face for some hint of what was to happen.

It was one evening after dinner that the word came.

“I hope you can make your preparations without much trouble,” he said
suddenly to me. “We shall be leaving here in a week’s time.”

“Really!” I said in astonishment. “Where are we going?”

“I have taken a country house in the west of England, not far from
Caermaen, a quiet little town, once a city, and the headquarters of a
Roman legion. It is very dull there, but the country is pretty, and the
air is wholesome.”

I detected a glint in his eyes, and guessed that this sudden move had
some relation to our conversation of a few days before.

“I shall just take a few books with me,” said Professor Gregg, “that is
all. Everything else will remain here for our return. I have got a
holiday,” he went on, smiling at me, “and I shan’t be sorry to be quit
for a time of my old bones and stones and rubbish. Do you know,” he went
on, “I have been grinding away at facts for thirty years; it is time for
fancies.”

The days passed quickly; I could see that the professor was all
quivering with suppressed excitement, and I could scarce credit the
eager appetence of his glance as we left the old manor house behind us,
and began our journey. We set out at mid-day, and it was in the dusk of
the evening that we arrived at a little country station. I was tired,
and excited, and the drive through, the lanes seems all a dream. First
the deserted streets of a forgotten village, while I heard Professor
Gregg’s voice talking of the Augustan Legion and the clash of arms, and
all the tremendous pomp that followed the eagles; then the broad river
swimming to full tide with the last afterglow glimmering duskily in the
yellow water, the wide meadows, and the cornfields whitening, and the
deep lane winding on the slope between the hills and the water. At last
we began to ascend, and the air grew rarer; I looked down and saw the
pure white mist tracking the outline of the river like a shroud, and a
vague and shadowy country, imaginations and fantasy of swelling hills
and hanging woods, and half-shaped outlines of hills beyond, stand in
the distance the glare of the furnace fire on the mountain, growing by
turns a pillar of shining flame, and fading to a dull point of red. We
were slowly mounting a carriage drive, and then there came to me the
cool breath and the scent of the great wood that was above us; I seemed
to wander in its deepest depths, and there was the sound of trickling
water, the scent of the green leaves, and the breath of the summer
night. The carriage stopped at last, and I could scarcely distinguish
the form of the house as I waited a moment at the pillared porch; and
the rest of the evening seemed a dream of strange things bounded by the
great silence of the wood and the valley and the river.

The next morning when I awoke and looked out of the bow window of the
big old-fashioned bedroom, I saw under a gray sky a country that was
still all mystery. The long, lovely valley, with the river winding in
and out below, crossed, in mid vision by a mediæval bridge of vaulted
and buttressed stone, the clear presence of the rising ground beyond,
and the woods that I had only seen in shadow the night before, seemed
tinged with enchantment, and the soft breath, of air that sighed in at
the opened pane was like no other wind. I looked across the valley, and
beyond, hill followed on hill as wave on wave, and here a faint blue
pillar of smoke rose still in the morning air from the chimney of an
ancient gray farmhouse, there was a rugged height crowned with dark
firs, and in the distance I saw the white streak of a road that climbed
and vanished into some unimagined country. But the boundary of all was a
great wall of mountain, vast in the west, and ending like a fortress
with a steep ascent and a domed tumulus clear against the sky.

I saw Professor Gregg walking up and down the terrace path below the
windows, and it was evident that he was revelling in the sense of
liberty, and the thought that he had, for a while, bidden good-bye to
task-work. When I joined him there was exultation in his voice as he
pointed out the sweep of valley and the river that wound beneath the
lovely hills.

“Yes,” he said, “it is a strangely beautiful country; and to me, at
least, it seems full of mystery. You have not forgotten the drawer I
showed you, Miss Lally? No; and you have guessed that I have come here
not merely for the sake of the children and the fresh air?”

“I think I have guessed as much as that,” I replied; “but you must
remember I do not know the mere nature of your investigations; and as
for the connection between the search and this wonderful valley, it is
past my guessing.”

He smiled queerly at me. “You must not think I am making a mystery for
the sake of mystery,” he said. “I do not speak out because, so far,
there is nothing to be spoken, nothing definite I mean, nothing that can
be set down in hard black and white, as dull and sure and irreproachable
as any blue book. And then I have another reason: many years ago a
chance paragraph in a newspaper caught my attention, and focussed in an
instant the vagrant thoughts and half-formed fancies of many idle and
speculative hours into a certain hypothesis. I saw at once that I was
treading on a thin crust; my theory was wild and fantastic in the
extreme, and I would not for any consideration have written a hint of it
for publication. But I thought that in the company of scientific men
like myself, men who knew the course of discovery, and were aware that
the gas that blazes and flares in the gin-palace was once a wild
hypothesis; I thought that with such men as these I might hazard my
dream–let us say Atlantis, or the philosopher’s stone, or what you
like–without danger of ridicule. I found I was grossly mistaken; my
friends looked blankly at me and at one another, and I could see
something of pity, and something also of insolent contempt, in the
glances they exchanged. One of them called on me next day, and hinted
that I must be suffering from overwork and brain exhaustion. ‘In plain
terms,’ I said, ‘you think I am going mad. I think not;’ and I showed
him out with some little appearance of heat. Since that day I vowed that
I would never whisper the nature of my theory to any living soul; to no
one but yourself have I ever shown the contents of that drawer. After
all, I may be following a rainbow; I may have been misled by the play of
coincidence; but as I stand here in this mystic hush and silence amidst
the woods and wild hills, I am more than ever sure that I am hot on the
scent. Come, it is time we went in.”

To me in all this there was something both of wonder and excitement; I
knew how in his ordinary work Professor Gregg moved step by step,
testing every inch of the way, and never venturing on assertion without
proof that was impregnable. Yet I divined more from his glance and the
vehemence of his tone than from the spoken word that he had in his every
thought the vision of the almost incredible continually with him; and I,
who was with some share of imagination no little of a sceptic, offended
at a hint of the marvellous, could not help asking myself whether he was
cherishing a monomania, and barring out from this one subject all the
scientific method of his other life.

Yet, with, this image of mystery haunting my thoughts, I surrendered
wholly to the charm of the country. Above the faded house on the
hillside began the great forest; a long dark line seen from the opposing
hills, stretching above the river for many a mile from north to south,
and yielding in the north to even wilder country, barren and savage
hills, and ragged common land, a territory all strange and unvisited,
and more unknown to Englishmen than the very heart of Africa. The space
of a couple of steep fields alone separated the house from the wood, and
the children were delighted to follow me up the long alleys of
undergrowth, between smooth pleached walls of shining beech, to the
highest point in the wood, whence one looked on one side across the
river and the rise and fall of the country to the great western mountain
wall, and on the other, over the surge and dip of the myriad trees of
the forest, over level meadows and the shining yellow sea to the faint
coast beyond. I used to sit at this point on the warm sunlit turf which
marked the track of the Roman Road, while the two children raced about
hunting for the whinberries that grew here and there on the banks. Here
beneath the deep blue sky and the great clouds rolling, like olden
galleons with sails full-bellied, from the sea to the hills, as I
listened to the whispered charm of the great and ancient wood, I lived
solely for delight, and only remembered strange things when we would
return to the house, and find Professor Gregg either shut up in the
little room he had made his study, or else pacing the terrace with the
look, patient and enthusiastic, of the determined seeker.

One morning, some eight or nine days after our arrival, I looked out of
my window and saw the whole landscape transmuted before me. The clouds
had dipped low and hidden the mountain in the west, and a southern wind
was driving the rain in shifting pillars up the valley, and the little
brooklet that burst the hill below the house now raged, a red torrent,
down to the river. We were perforce obliged to keep snug within doors,
and when I had attended to my pupils, I sat down in the morning-room
where the ruins of a library still encumbered an old-fashioned bookcase.
I had inspected the shelves once or twice, but their contents had failed
to attract me; volumes of eighteenth century sermons, an old book on
farriery, a collection of “Poems” by “persons of quality,” Prideaux’s
“Connection,” and an odd volume of Pope were the boundaries of the
library, and there seemed little doubt that everything of interest or
value had been removed. Now, however, in desperation, I began to
re-examine the musty sheepskin and calf bindings, and found, much to my
delight, a fine old quarto printed by the Stephani, containing the three
books of Pomponius Mela, “De Situ Orbis,” and other of the ancient
geographers. I knew enough of Latin to steer my way through an ordinary
sentence, and I soon became absorbed in the odd mixture of fact and
fancy; light shining on a little of the space of the world, and beyond
mist and shadow and awful forms. Glancing over the clear-printed pages,
my attention was caught by the heading of a chapter in Solinus, and I
read the words:–

MIRA DE INTIMIS GENTIBUS LIBYAE, DE LAPIDE
HEXECONTALITHO.

“The wonders of the people that inhabit the inner parts of Libya, and of
the stone called Sixtystone.”

The odd title attracted me and I read on:–

“Gens ista avia et secreta habitat, in montibus horrendis foeda
mysteria celebrat. De hominibus nihil aliud illi præferunt quam
figuram, ab humano ritu prorsus exulant, oderunt deum lucis. Stridunt
potius quam loquuntur; vox absona nec sine horrore auditur. Lapide
quodam gloriantur, quem Hexecontalithon vocant, dicunt enim hunc lapidem
sexaginta notas ostendere. Cujus lapidis nomen secretum ineffabile
colunt: quod Ixaxar.”

“This folk,” I translated to myself, “dwells in remote and secret
places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they
in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly
strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak;
their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of
a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it
displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name;
which is Ixaxar.”

I laughed at the queer inconsequence of all this, and thought it fit for
Sinbad the Sailor or other of the supplementary Nights. When I saw
Professor Gregg in the course of the day, I told him of my find in the
bookcase, and the fantastic rubbish I had been reading. To my surprise,
he looked up at me with an expression of great interest.

“That is really very curious,” he said. “I have never thought it worth
while to look into the old geographers, and I daresay I have missed a
good deal. Ah, that is the passage, is it. It seems a shame to rob you
of your entertainment, but I really think I must carry off the book.”

The next day the professor called to me to come to the study. I found
him sitting at a table in the full light of the window, scrutinizing
something very attentively with a magnifying-glass.

“Ah, Miss Lally,” he began, “I want to use your eyes. This glass is
pretty good, but not like my old one that I left in town. Would you
mind examining the thing yourself, and telling me how many characters
are cut on it?”

He handed me the object in his hand, and I saw that it was the black
seal he had shown me in London, and my heart began to beat with the
thought that I was presently to know something. I took the seal, and
holding it up to the light checked off the grotesque dagger-shaped
characters one by one.

“I make sixty-two,” I said at last.

“Sixty-two? Nonsense; it’s impossible. Ah, I see what you have done, you
have counted that and that,” and he pointed to two marks which I had
certainly taken as letters with the rest.

“Yes, yes,” Professor Gregg went on; “but those are obvious scratches,
done accidentally; I saw that at once. Yes, then that’s quite right.
Thank you very much, Miss Lally.”

I was going away, rather disappointed at my having been called in merely
to count a number of marks on the black seal, when suddenly there
flashed into my mind what I had read in the morning.

“But, Professor Gregg, I cried, breathless, the seal, the seal. Why, it
is the stone Hexecontalithos that Solinus writes of; it is Ixaxar.”

“Yes,” he said, “I suppose it is. Or it maybe a mere coincidence. It
never does to be too sure, you know, in these matters. Coincidence
killed the professor.”

I went away puzzled by what I had heard, and as much as ever at a loss
to find the ruling clew in this maze of strange evidence. For three days
the bad weather lasted, changing from driving rain to a dense mist, fine
and dripping, and we seemed to be shut up in a white cloud that veiled
all the world away from us. All the while Professor Gregg was darkling
in his room, unwilling, it appeared, to dispense confidences or talk of
any kind, and I heard him walking to and fro with a quick, impatient
step, as if he were in some way wearied of inaction. The fourth morning
was fine, and at breakfast the professor said briskly:–

“We want some extra help about the house; a boy of fifteen or sixteen,
you know. There are a lot of little odd jobs that take up the maids’
time, which a boy could do much better.”

“The girls have not complained to me in any way,” I replied. “Indeed,
Anne said there was much less work than in London, owing to there being
so little dust.”

“Ah, yes, they are very good girls. But I think we shall do much better
with a boy. In fact, that is what has been bothering me for the last two
days.”

“Bothering you?” I said in astonishment, for as a matter of fact the
professor never took the slightest interest in the affairs of the house.

“Yes,” he said, “the weather, you know. I really couldn’t go out in that
Scotch mist; I don’t know the country very well, and I should have lost
my way. But I am going to get the boy this morning.”

“But how do you know there is such a boy as you want anywhere about?”

“Oh, I have no doubt as to that. I may have to walk a mile or two at the
most, but I am sure to find just the boy I require.”

I thought the professor was poking, but though his tone was airy enough
there was something grim and set about his features that puzzled me. He
got his stick, and stood at the door looking meditatively before him,
and as I passed through the hall he called to me.

“By the way, Miss Lally, there was one thing I wanted to say to you. I
daresay you may have heard that some of these country lads are not over
bright; idiotic would be a harsh word to use, and they are usually
called ‘naturals,’ or something of the kind, I hope you won’t mind if
the boy I am after should turn out not too keen-witted; he will be
perfectly harmless, of course, and blacking boots doesn’t need much
mental effort.”

With that he was gone, striding up the road that led to the wood; and I
remained stupefied, and then for the first time my astonishment was
mingled with a sudden note of terror, arising I knew not whence, and all
unexplained even to myself, and yet I felt about my heart for an instant
something of the chill of death, and that shapeless, formless dread of
the unknown that is worse than death itself. I tried to find courage in
the sweet air that blew up from the sea, and in the sunlight after rain,
but the mystic woods seemed to darken around me; and the vision of the
river coiling between the reeds, and the silver gray of the ancient
bridge, fashioned in my mind symbols of vague dread, as the mind of a
child fashions terror from things harmless and familiar.

Two hours later Professor Gregg returned. I met him as he came down the
road, and asked quietly if he had been able to find a boy.

“Oh, yes,” he answered; “I found one easily enough. His name is Jervase
Cradock, and I expect he will make himself very useful. His father has
been dead for many years, and the mother, whom I saw, seemed very glad
at the prospect of a few shillings extra coming in on Saturday nights.
As I expected, he is not too sharp, has fits at times, the mother said;
but as he will not be trusted with the china, that doesn’t much matter,
does it? And he is not in any way dangerous, you know, merely a little
weak.”

“When is he coming?”

“To-morrow morning at eight o’clock. Anne will show him what he has to
do, and how to do it. At first he will go home every night, but perhaps
it may ultimately turn out more convenient for him to sleep here, and
only go home for Sundays.”

I found nothing to say to all this. Professor Gregg spoke in a quiet
tone of matter-of-fact, as indeed was warranted by the circumstance; and
yet I could not quell my sensation of astonishment at the whole affair.
I knew that in reality no assistance was wanted in the housework, and
the professor’s prediction that the boy he was to engage might prove a
little “simple,” followed by so exact a fulfilment, struck me as bizarre
in the extreme. The next morning I heard from, the housemaid that the
boy Cradock had come at eight, and that she had been trying to make him
useful. “He doesn’t seem quite all there, I don’t think, miss,” was her
comment; and later in the day I saw him helping the old man who worked
in the garden. He was a youth of about fourteen, with black hair and
black eyes, and an olive skin, and I saw at once from the curious
vacancy of his expression that he was mentally weak. He touched his
forehead awkwardly as I went by, and I heard him answering the gardener
in a queer, harsh voice that caught my attention; it gave me the
impression of some one speaking deep below under the earth, and there
was a strange sibilance, like the hissing of the phonograph as the
pointer travels over the cylinder. I heard that he seemed anxious to do
what he could, and was quite docile and obedient, and Morgan the
gardener, who knew his mother, assured me he was perfectly harmless.
“He’s always been a bit queer,” he said, “and no wonder, after what his
mother went through before he was born. I did know his father, Thomas
Cradock, well, and a very fine workman he was too, indeed. He got
something wrong with his lungs owing to working in the wet woods, and
never got over it, and went off quite sudden like. And they do say as
how Mrs. Cradock was quite off her head; anyhow, she was found by Mr.
Hillyer, Ty Coch, all crouched up on the Gray Hills, over there, crying
and weeping like a lost soul. And Jervase he was born about eight months
afterwards, and as I was saying, he was a bit queer always; and they do
say when he could scarcely walk he would frighten the other children
into fits with the noises he would make.”

A word in the story had stirred up some remembrance within me, and
vaguely curious, I asked the old man where the Gray Hills were.

“Up there,” he said, with the same gesture he had used before; “you go
past the Fox and Hounds, and through the forest, by the old ruins. It’s
a good five mile from here, and a strange sort of a place. The poorest
soil between this and Monmouth, they do say, though it’s good feed for
sheep. Yes, it was a sad thing for poor Mrs. Cradock.”

The old man turned to his work, and I strolled on down the path between
the espaliers, gnarled and gouty with age, thinking of the story I had
heard, and groping for the point in it that had some key to my memory.
In an instant it came before me; I had seen the phrase “Gray Hills” on
the slip of yellowed paper that Professor Gregg had taken from the
drawer in his cabinet. Again I was seized with pangs of mingled
curiosity and fear; I remembered the strange characters copied from the
limestone rock, and then again their identity with the inscription on
the age-old seal, and the fantastic fables of the Latin geographer. I
saw beyond doubt that, unless coincidence had set all the scene and
disposed all these bizarre events with curious art, I was to be a
spectator of things far removed from the usual and customary traffic and
jostle of life. Professor Gregg I noted day by day. He was hot on his
trail, growing lean with eagerness; and in the evenings, when the sun
was swimming on the verge of the mountain, he would pace the terrace to
and fro with his eyes on the ground, while the mist grew white in the
valley, and the stillness of the evening brought far voices near, and
the blue smoke rose a straight column from the diamond-shaped chimney of
the gray farmhouse, just as I had seen it on the first morning. I have
told you I was of sceptical habit; but though I understood little or
nothing, I began to dread, vainly proposing to myself the iterated
dogmas of science that all life is material, and that in the system of
things there is no undiscovered land even beyond the remotest stars,
where the supernatural can find a footing. Yet there struck in on this
the thought that matter is as really awful and unknown as spirit, that
science itself but dallies on the threshold, scarcely gaining more than
a glimpse of the wonders of the inner place.




There is one day that stands up from amidst the others as a grim red
beacon, betokening evil to come. I was sitting on a bench in the garden,
watching the boy Cradock weeding, when I was suddenly alarmed by a harsh
and choking sound, like the cry of a wild beast in anguish, and I was
unspeakably shocked to see the unfortunate lad standing in full view
before me, his whole body quivering and shaking at short intervals as
though shocks of electricity were passing through him, and his teeth
grinding, and foam gathering on his lips, and his face all swollen and
blackened to a hideous mask of humanity. I shrieked with terror, and
Professor Gregg came running; and as I pointed to Cradock, the boy with
one convulsive shudder fell face forward, and lay on the wet earth, his
body writhing like a wounded blind-worm, and an inconceivable babble of
sounds bursting and rattling and hissing from his lips; he seemed to
pour forth an infamous jargon, with words, or what seemed words, that
might have belonged to a tongue dead since untold ages, and buried deep
beneath Nilotic mud, or in the inmost recesses of the Mexican forest.
For a moment the thought passed through my mind, as my ears were still
revolted with that infernal clamor, “Surely this is the very speech of
hell,” and then I cried out again and again, and ran away shuddering to
my inmost soul. I had seen Professor Gregg’s face as he stooped over the
wretched boy and raised him, and I was appalled by the glow of
exultation that shone on every lineament and feature. As I sat in my
room with drawn blinds, and my eyes hidden in my hands, I heard heavy
steps beneath, and I was told afterwards that Professor Gregg had
carried Cradock to his study, and had locked the door. I heard voices
murmur indistinctly, and I trembled to think of what might be passing
within a few feet of where I sat; I longed to escape to the woods and
sunshine, and yet I dreaded the sights that might confront me on the
way. And at last, as I held the handle of the door nervously, I heard
Professor Gregg’s voice calling to me with a cheerful ring: “It’s all
right now, Miss Lally,” he said. “The poor fellow has got over it, and I
have been arranging for him to sleep here after to-morrow. Perhaps I may
be able to do something for him.”

“Yes,” he said later, “it was a very painful sight, and I don’t wonder
you were alarmed. We may hope that good food will build him up a little,
but I am afraid he will never be really cured;” and he affected the
dismal and conventional air with which one speaks of hopeless illness,
and yet beneath it I detected the delight that leapt up rampant within
him, and fought and struggled to find utterance. It was as if one
glanced down on the even surface of the sea, clear and immobile, and saw
beneath raging depths, and a storm of contending billows. It was indeed
to me a torturing and offensive problem that this man, who had so
bounteously rescued me from the sharpness of death, and showed himself
in all the relations of life full of benevolence and pity and kindly
forethought, should so manifestly be for once on the side of the demons,
and take a ghastly pleasure in the torments of an afflicted
fellow-creature. Apart, I struggled with the horned difficulty, and
strove to find the solution, but without the hint of a clue; beset by
mystery and contradiction, I saw nothing that might help me, and began
to wonder whether, after all, I had not escaped from the white mist of
the suburb at too dear a rate. I hinted something of my thought to the
professor; I said enough to let him know that I was in the most acute
perplexity, but the moment after regretted what I had done, when I saw
his face contort with a spasm of pain.

“My dear Miss Lally,” he said, “you surely do not wish to leave us? No,
no, you would not do it. You do not know how I rely on you; how
confidently I go forward, assured that you are here to watch over my
children. You, Miss Lally, are my rear-guard; for, let me tell you, that
the business in which I am engaged is not wholly devoid of peril. You
have not forgotten what I said the first morning here; my lips are shut
by an old and firm resolve, till they can open to utter no ingenious
hypothesis or vague surmise but irrefragable fact, as certain as a
demonstration in mathematics. Think over it, Miss Lally, not for a
moment would I endeavor to keep you here against your own instincts, and
yet I tell you frankly that I am persuaded that it is here, here amidst
the woods, that your duty lies.”

I was touched by the eloquence of his tone, and by the remembrance that
the man, after all, had been my salvation, and I gave him my hand on a
promise to serve him loyally and without question. A few days later the
rector of our church, a little church, gray and severe and quaint, that
hovered on the very banks of the river and watched the tides swim and
return, came to see us, and Professor Gregg easily persuaded him to stay
and share our dinner. Mr. Meyrick was a member of an antique family of
squires, whose old manor house stood amongst the hills some seven miles
away, and thus rooted in the soil, the rector was a living store of all
the old fading customs and lore of the country. His manner, genial with
a deal of retired oddity, won on Professor Gregg; and towards the
cheese, when a curious Burgundy had begun its incantations, the two men
glowed like the wine, and talked of philology with the enthusiasm of a
burgess over the peerage. The parson was expounding the pronunciation of
the Welsh _ll_, and producing sounds like the gurgle of his native
brooks, when Professor Gregg struck in.

“By the way,” he said, “that was a very odd word I met with the other
day. You know my boy, poor Jervase Cradock. Well, he has got the bad
habit of talking to himself, and the day before yesterday I was walking
in the garden here and heard him; he was evidently quite unconscious of
my presence. A lot of what he said I couldn’t make out, but one word,
struck me distinctly. It was such an odd sound; half-sibilant,
half-guttural, and as quaint as those double _ll_’s you have been
demonstrating. I do not know whether I can give you an idea of the
sound. “Ishakshar” is perhaps as near as I can get; but the _k_ ought to
be a Greek _chi_ or a Spanish _j_. Now what does it mean in Welsh?”

“In Welsh?” said the parson. “There is no such word in Welsh, nor any
word remotely resembling it. I know the book-Welsh, as they call it, and
the colloquial dialects as well as any man, but there’s no word like
that from Anglesea to Usk. Besides, none of the Cradocks speak a word of
Welsh; it’s dying out about here.”

“Really. You interest me extremely, Mr. Meyrick. I confess the word
didn’t strike me as having the Welsh ring. But I thought it might be
some local corruption.”

“No, I never heard such a word, or anything like it. Indeed,” he added,
smiling whimsically, “if it belongs to any language, I should say it
must be that of the fairies,–the Tylwydd Têg, as we call them.”

The talk went on to the discovery of a Roman villa in the neighborhood;
and soon after I left the room, and sat down apart to wonder at the
drawing together of such strange clues of evidence. As the professor had
spoken of the curious word, I had caught the glint of his eye upon me;
and though the pronunciation he gave was grotesque in the extreme, I
recognized the name of the stone of sixty characters mentioned by
Solinus, the black seal shut up in some secret drawer of the study,
stamped forever by a vanished race with signs that no man could read,
signs that might, for all I knew, be the veils of awful things done long
ago, and forgotten before the hills were moulded into form.

When, the next morning, I came down, I found Professor Gregg pacing the
terrace in his eternal walk.

“Look at that bridge,” he said when he saw me, “observe the quaint and
Gothic design, the angles between the arches, and the silvery gray of
the stone in the awe of the morning light. I confess it seems to me
symbolic; it should illustrate a mystical allegory of the passage from
one world to another.”

“Professor Gregg,” I said quietly, “it is time that I knew something of
what has happened, and of what is to happen.”

For the moment he put me off, but I returned again with the same
question in the evening, and then Professor Gregg flamed with
excitement. “Don’t you understand yet?” he cried. “But I have told you a
good deal; yes, and shown you a good deal. You have heard pretty nearly
all that I have heard, and seen what I have seen; or at least,” and his
voice chilled as he spoke, “enough to make a good deal clear as noonday.
The servants told you, I have no doubt, that the wretched boy Cradock
had another seizure the night before last; he awoke me with cries in
that voice you heard in the garden, and I went to him, and God forbid
you should see what I saw that night. But all this is useless; my time
here is drawing to a close; I must be back in town in three weeks, as I
have a course of lectures to prepare, and need all my books about me. In
a very few days it will be all over, and I shall no longer hint, and no
longer be liable to ridicule as a madman and a quack. No, I shall speak
plainly, and I shall be heard with such emotions as perhaps no other man
has ever drawn from the breasts of his fellows.”

He paused, and seemed to grow radiant with the joy of great and
wonderful discovery.

“But all that is for the future, the near future certainly, but still
the future,” he went on at length. “There is something to be done yet;
you will remember my telling you that my researches were not altogether
devoid of peril? Yes, there is a certain amount of danger to be faced; I
did not know how much when I spoke on the subject before, and to a
certain extent I am still in the dark. But it will be a strange
adventure, the last of all, the last demonstration in the chain.”

He was walking up and down the room as he spoke, and I could hear in his
voice the contending tones of exultation and despondence, or perhaps I
should say awe, the awe of a man who goes forth on unknown waters, and I
thought of his allusion to Columbus on the night he had laid his book
before me. The evening was a little chilly, and a fire of logs had been
lighted in the study where we were, and the remittent flame and the glow
on the walls reminded me of the old days. I was sitting silent in an
armchair by the fire, wondering over all I had heard, and still vainly
speculating as to the secret springs concealed from me under all the
phantasmagoria I had witnessed, when I became suddenly aware of a
sensation that change of some sort had been at work in the room, and
that there was something unfamiliar in its aspect. For some time I
looked about me, trying in vain to localize the alteration that I knew
had been made; the table by the window, the chairs, the faded settee
were all as I had known them. Suddenly, as a sought-for recollection
flashes into the mind, I knew what was amiss. I was facing the
professor’s desk, which stood on the other side of the fire, and above
the desk was a grimy looking bust of Pitt, that I had never seen there
before. And then I remembered the true position of this work of art; in
the furthest corner by the door was an old cupboard, projecting into the
room, and on the top of the cupboard, fifteen feet from the floor, the
bust had been, and there no doubt it had delayed, accumulating dirt
since the early years of the century.

I was utterly amazed, and sat silent still, in a confusion of thought.
There was, so far as I knew, no such thing as a step-ladder in the
house, for I had asked for one to make some alterations in the curtains
of my room; and a tall man standing on a chair would have found it
impossible to take down the bust. It had been placed not on the edge of
the cupboard, but far back against the wall; and Professor Gregg was, if
anything, under the average height.

“How on earth did you manage to get down Pitt?” I said at last.

The professor looked curiously at me, and seemed to hesitate a little.

“They must have found you a step-ladder, or perhaps the gardener brought
in a short ladder from outside.”

“No, I have had no ladder of any kind. Now, Miss Lally,” he went on with
an awkward simulation of jest, “there is a little puzzle for you; a
problem in the manner of the inimitable Holmes; there are the facts,
plain and patent; summon your acuteness to the solution of the puzzle.
For Heaven’s sake,” he cried with a breaking voice, “say no more about
it. I tell you, I never touched the thing,” and he went out of the room
with horror manifest on his face, and his hand shook and jarred the door
behind him.

I looked round the room in vague surprise, not at all realizing what had
happened, making vain and idle surmises by way of explanation, and
wondering at the stirring of black waters by an idle word, and the
trivial change of an ornament. “This is some petty business, some whim
on which I have jarred,” I reflected; “the professor is perhaps
scrupulous and superstitious over trifles, and my question may have
outraged unacknowledged fears, as though one killed a spider or spilled
the salt before the very eyes of a practical Scotchwoman.” I was
immersed in these fond suspicions, and began to plume myself a little on
my immunity from such empty fears, when the truth fell heavily as lead
upon my heart, and I recognized with cold terror that some awful
influence had been at work. The bust was simply inaccessible; without a
ladder no one could have touched it.

I went out to the kitchen and spoke as quietly as I could to the
housemaid.

“Who moved that bust from the top of the cupboard, Anne?” I said to her.
“Professor Gregg says he has not touched it. Did you find an old
step-ladder in one of the outhouses?”

The girl looked at me blankly.

“I never touched it,” she said. “I found it where it is now the other
morning when I dusted the room. I remember now, it, was Wednesday
morning, because it was the morning after Cradock was taken bad in the
night. My room is next to his, you know, miss,” the girl went on
piteously; “and it was awful to hear how he cried and called out names
that I couldn’t understand. It made me feel all afraid, and then master
came, and I heard him speak, and he took down Cradock to the study and
gave him something.”

“And you found that bust moved the next morning?”

“Yes, miss, there was a queer sort of a smell in the study when I came
down and opened the windows; a bad smell it was, and I wondered what it
could be. Do you know, miss, I went a long time ago to the Zoo in London
with my cousin Thomas Barker, one afternoon that I had off, when I was
at Mrs. Prince’s in Stanhope Gate, and we went into the snake-house to
see the snakes, and it was just the same sort of a smell, very sick it
made me feel, I remember, and I got Barker to take me out. And it was
just the same kind of a smell in the study, as I was saying, and I was
wondering what it could be from, when I see that bust with Pitt cut in
it standing on the master’s desk, and I thought to myself, now who has
done that, and how have they done it? And when I came to dust the
things, I looked at the bust, and I saw a great mark on it where the
dust was gone, for I don’t think it can have been touched with a duster
for years and years, and it wasn’t like finger-marks, but a large patch
like, broad and spread out. So I passed my hand over it, without
thinking what I was doing, and where that patch was it was all sticky
and slimy, as if a snail had crawled over it. Very strange, isn’t it,
miss? and I wonder who can have done it, and how that mess was made.”

The well-meant gabble of the servant touched me to the quick. I lay down
upon my bed, and bit my lip that I should not cry out loud in the sharp
anguish of my terror and bewilderment. Indeed, I was almost mad with
dread; I believe that if it had been daylight I should have fled hot
foot, forgetting all courage and all the debt of gratitude that was due
to Professor Gregg, not caring whether my fate were that I must starve
slowly so long as I might escape from the net of blind and panic fear
that every day seemed to draw a little closer round me. If I knew, I
thought, if I knew what there were to dread, I could guard against it;
but here, in this lonely house, shut in on all sides by the olden woods
and the vaulted hills, terror seems to spring inconsequent from every
covert, and the flesh is aghast at the half-heard murmurs of horrible
things. All in vain I strove to summon scepticism to my aid, and
endeavored by cool common-sense to buttress my belief in a world of
natural order, for the air that blew in at the open window was a mystic
breath, and in the darkness I felt the silence go heavy and sorrowful
as a mass of requiem, and I conjured images of strange shapes gathering
fast amidst the reeds, beside the wash of the river.

In the morning, from the moment that I set foot in the breakfast-room I
felt that the unknown plot was drawing to a crisis; the professor’s face
was firm and set, and he seemed hardly to hear our voices when we spoke.

“I am going out for rather a long walk,” he said, when the meal was
over. “You mustn’t be expecting me, now, or thinking anything has
happened if I don’t turn up to dinner. I have been getting stupid
lately, and I dare say a miniature walking tour will do me good. Perhaps
I may even spend the night in some little inn, if I find any place that
looks clean and comfortable.”

I heard this, and knew by my experience of Professor Gregg’s manner that
it was no ordinary business or pleasure that impelled him. I knew not,
nor even remotely guessed, where he was bound, nor had I the vaguest
notion of his errand, but all the fear of the night before returned; and
as he stood, smiling, on the terrace, ready to set out, I implored him
to stay, and to forget all his dreams of the undiscovered continent.

“No, no, Miss Lally,” he replied, still smiling, “it’s too late now.
_Vestigia nulla retrorsum_, you know, is the device of all true
explorers, though I hope it won’t be literally true in my ease. But,
indeed, you are wrong to alarm yourself so; I look upon my little
expedition as quite commonplace; no more exciting than a day with the
geological hammers. There is a risk, of course, but so there is on the
commonest excursion. I can afford to be jaunty; I am doing nothing so
hazardous as ‘Arry does a hundred times over in the course of every Bank
Holiday. Well, then, you must look more cheerfully; and so good-by till
to-morrow at latest.”

He walked briskly up the road, and I saw him open the gate that marks
the entrance of the wood, and then he vanished in the gloom of the
trees.

All the day passed heavily with a strange darkness in the air, and again
I felt as if imprisoned amidst the ancient woods, shut in an olden land
of mystery and dread, and as if all was long ago and forgotten by the
living outside. I hoped and dreaded, and when the dinner-hour came, I
waited expecting to hear the professor’s step in the hall, and his voice
exulting at I knew not what triumph. I composed my face to welcome him
gladly, but the night descended dark, and he did not come.

In the morning when the maid knocked at my door, I called out to her,
and asked if her master had returned; and when she replied that his
bedroom stood open and empty, I felt the cold clasp of despair. Still, I
fancied he might have discovered genial company, and would return for
luncheon, or perhaps in the afternoon, and I took the children for a
walk in the forest, and tried my best to play and laugh with them, and
to shut out the thoughts of mystery and veiled terror. Hour after hour I
waited, and my thoughts grew darker; again the night came and found me
watching, and at last, as I was making much ado to finish my dinner, I
heard steps outside and the sound of a man’s voice.

The maid came in and looked oddly at me.

“Please, miss,” she began, “Mr. Morgan the gardener wants to speak to
you for a minute, if you didn’t mind.”

“Show him in, please,” I answered, and I set my lips tight.

The old man came slowly into the room, and the servant shut the door
behind him.

“Sit down, Mr. Morgan,” I said; “what is it that you want to say to me?”

“Well, miss, Mr. Gregg he gave me something for you yesterday morning,
just before he went off; and he told me particular not to hand it up
before eight o’clock this evening exactly, if so be as he wasn’t back
again home before, and if he should come home before I was just to
return it to him in his own hands. So, you see, as Mr. Gregg isn’t here
yet, I suppose I’d better give you the parcel directly.”

He pulled out something from his pocket, and gave it to me, half rising.
I took it silently, and seeing that Morgan seemed doubtful as to what he
was to do next, I thanked him and bade him good-night, and he went out.
I was left alone in the room with the parcel in my hand,–a paper parcel
neatly sealed and directed to me, with the instructions Morgan had
quoted all written in the professor’s large loose hand. I broke the
seals with a choking at my heart, and found an envelope inside,
addressed also, but open, and I took the letter out.

* * * * *

“MY DEAR MISS LALLY,” it began, “To quote the old logic manual, the case
of your reading this note is a case of my having made a blunder of some
sort, and, I am afraid, a blunder that turns these lines into a
farewell. It is practically certain that neither you nor anyone else
will ever see me again. I have made my will with provision for this
eventuality, and I hope you will consent to accept the small remembrance
addressed to you, and my sincere thanks for the way in which you joined
your fortunes to mine. The fate which has come upon me is desperate and
terrible beyond the remotest dreams of man; but this fate you have a
right to know–if you please. If you look in the left-hand drawer of my
dressing-table, you will find the key of the escritoire, properly
labelled. In the well of the escritoire is a large envelope sealed and
addressed to your name. I advise you to throw it forthwith into the
fire; you will sleep better of nights if you do so. But if you must know
the history of what has happened, it is all written down for you to
read.”

* * * * *

The signature was firmly written below, and again I turned the page and
read out the words one by one, aghast and white to the lips, my hands
cold as ice, and sickness choking me. The dead silence of the room, and
the thought of the dark woods and hills closing me in on every side,
oppressed me, helpless and without capacity, and not knowing where to
turn for counsel. At last I resolved that though knowledge should haunt
my whole life and all the days to come, I must know the meaning of the
strange terrors that had so long tormented me, rising gray, dim, and
awful, like the shadows in the wood at dusk. I carefully carried out
Professor Gregg’s directions, and not without reluctance broke the seal
of the envelope, and spread out his manuscript before me. That
manuscript I always carry with me, and I see that I cannot deny your
unspoken request to read it. This, then, was what I read that night,
sitting at the desk, with a shaded lamp beside me.

The young lady who called herself Miss Lally then proceeded to recite:–

* * * * *

_The Statement of William Gregg, F.R.S., etc._

It is many years since the first glimmer of the theory which is now
almost, if not quite, reduced to fact dawned first on my mind. A
somewhat extensive course of miscellaneous and obsolete reading had done
a good deal to prepare the way, and, later, when I became somewhat of a
specialist and immersed myself in the studies known as ethnological, I
was now and then startled by facts that would not square with orthodox
scientific opinion, and by discoveries that seemed to hint at something
still hidden for all our research. More particularly I became convinced
that much of the folk-lore of the world is but an exaggerated account of
events that really happened, and I was especially drawn to consider the
stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races. Here I
thought I could detect the fringe of embroidery and exaggeration, the
fantastic guise, the little people dressed in green and gold sporting in
the flowers, and I thought I saw a distinct analogy between the name
given to this race (supposed to be imaginary) and the description of
their appearance and manners. Just as our remote ancestors called the
dreaded beings “fair” and “good” precisely because they dreaded them, so
they had dressed them up in charming forms, knowing the truth to be the
very reverse. Literature, too, had gone early to work, and had lent a
powerful hand in the transformation, so that the playful elves of
Shakespeare are already far removed from the true original, and the real
horror is disguised in a form of prankish mischief. But in the older
tales, the stories that used to make men cross themselves as they sat
round the burning logs, we tread a different stage; I saw a widely
opposed spirit in certain histories of children and of men and women who
vanished strangely from the earth. They would be seen by a peasant in
the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no
more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child
quietly sleeping with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of
wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon,
but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black piercing
eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker
still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and
the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we
have turned the terrible “fair folk” into a company of benignant, if
freakish, elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the
witch and her companions under a popular _diablerie_ of old women and
broomsticks and a comic cat with tail on end. So the Greeks called the
hideous furies benevolent ladies, and thus the northern nations have
followed their example. I pursued my investigations, stealing odd hours
from other and more imperative labors, and I asked myself the question:
Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are
reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside
what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the middle ages, and came
to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race
and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days had
done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly
believed that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of
truth. As for some of the alleged wonders, I hesitated. While I should
be very loth to receive any one specific instance of modern spiritualism
as containing even a grain of the genuine, yet I was not wholly prepared
to deny that human flesh may now and then, once perhaps in ten million
cases, be the veil of powers which seem magical to us; powers which, so
far from proceeding from the heights and leading men thither, are in
reality survivals from the depths of being. The amoeba and the snail
have powers which we do not possess; and I thought it possible that the
theory of reversion might explain many things which seem wholly
inexplicable. Thus stood my position; I saw good reason to believe that
much of the tradition, a vast deal of the earliest and uncorrupted
tradition of the so-called fairies, represented solid fact, and I
thought that the purely supernatural element in these traditions, was to
be accounted for on the hypothesis that a race which had fallen out of
the grand march of evolution might have retained, as a survival, certain
powers which would be to us wholly miraculous. Such was my theory as it
stood conceived in my mind; and working with, this in view, I seemed to
gather confirmation from every side, from the spoils of a tumulus or a
barrow, from a local paper reporting an antiquarian meeting in the
country, and from general literature of all kinds. Amongst other
instances, I remember being struck by the phrase “articulate-speaking
men” in Homer, as if the writer knew or had heard of men whose speech
was so rude that it could hardly be termed articulate; and on my
hypothesis of a race who had lagged far behind the rest, I could easily
conceive that such a folk would speak a jargon but little removed from
the inarticulate noises of brute-beasts.

Thus I stood, satisfied that my conjecture was at all events not far
removed from fact, when a chance paragraph in a small country print one
day arrested my attention. It was a short account of what was to all
appearance the usual sordid tragedy of the village; a young girl
unaccountably missing, and evil rumor blatant and busy with her
reputation. Yet I could read between the lines that all this scandal was
purely hypothetical, and in all probability invented to account for what
was in any other manner unaccountable. A flight to London or Liverpool,
or an undiscovered body lying with a weight about its neck in the foul
depths of a woodland pool, of perhaps murder,–such were the theories of
the wretched girl’s neighbors. But as I idly scanned the paragraph, a
flash of thought passed through me with the violence of an electric
shock: What if the obscure and horrible race of the hills still
survived, still remained haunting wild places, and barren hills, and now
and then repeating the evil of Gothic legend, unchanged and
unchangeable as the Turanian Shelta, or the Basques of Spain. I have
said that the thought came with violence; and indeed I drew in my breath
sharply, and clung with both hands to my elbow-chair, in a strange
confusion of horror and elation. It was as if one of my _confrères_ of
physical science, roaming in a quiet English wood, had been suddenly
stricken aghast by the presence of the slimy and loathsome terror of the
ichthyosaurus, the original of the stories of the awful worms killed by
valorous knights, or had seen the sun darkened by the pterodactyl, the
dragon of tradition. Yet as a resolute explorer of knowledge, the
thought of such a discovery threw me into a passion of joy, and I cut
out the slip from the paper, and put it in a drawer in my old bureau,
resolved that it should be but the first piece in a collection of the
strangest significance. I sat long that evening dreaming of the
conclusions I should establish, nor did cooler reflection at first dash
my confidence. Yet as I began to put the case fairly, I saw that I might
be building on an unstable foundation; the facts might possibly be in
accordance with local opinion; and I regarded the affair with a mood of
some reserve. Yet I resolved to remain perched on the look-out, and I
hugged to myself the thought that I alone was watching and wakeful,
while the great crowd of thinkers and searchers stood heedless and
indifferent, perhaps letting the most prerogative facts pass by
unnoticed.

Several years elapsed before I was enabled to add to the contents of the
drawer; and the second find was in reality not a valuable one, for it
was a mere repetition of the first, with only the variation of another
and distant locality. Yet I gained something; for in the second case, as
in the first, the tragedy took place in a desolate and lonely country,
and so far my theory seemed justified. But the third piece was to me far
more decisive. Again, amongst outland hills, far even from a main road
of traffic, an old man was found done to death, and the instrument of
execution was left beside him. Here, indeed, there was rumor and
conjecture, for the deadly tool was a primitive stone axe, bound by gut
to the wooden handle, and surmises the most extravagant and improbable
were indulged in. Yet, as I thought with a kind of glee, the wildest
conjectures went far astray; and I took the pains to enter into
correspondence with the local doctor, who was called at the inquest. He,
a man of some acuteness, was dumfoundered. “It will not do to speak of
these things in country places, he wrote to me; but, frankly, Professor
Gregg, there is some hideous mystery here. I have obtained possession of
the stone axe, and have been so curious as to test its powers. I took it
into the back-garden of my house one Sunday afternoon when my family and
the servants were all out, and there, sheltered by the poplar hedges, I
made my experiments. I found the thing utterly unmanageable. Whether
there is some peculiar balance, some nice adjustment of weights, which
require incessant practice, or whether an effectual blow can be struck
only by a certain trick of the muscles, I do not know; but I assure you
that I went into the house with but a sorry opinion of my athletic
capacities. It was like an inexperienced man trying ‘putting the
hammer;’ the force exerted seemed to return on oneself, and I found
myself hurled backwards with violence, while the axe fell harmless to
the ground. On another occasion I tried the experiment with a clever
woodman of the place; but this man, who had handled his axe for forty
years, could do nothing with the stone implement, and missed every
stroke most ludicrously. In short, if it were not so supremely absurd, I
should say that for four thousand years no one on earth could have
struck an effective blow with the tool that undoubtedly was used to
murder the old man.” This, as may be imagined, was to me rare news; and
afterwards, when I heard the whole story, and learned that the
unfortunate old man had babbled tales of what might be seen at night on
a certain wild hillside, hinting at unheard-of wonders, and that he had
been found cold one morning on the very hill in question, my exultation
was extreme, for I felt I was leaving conjecture far behind me. But the
next step was of still greater importance. I had possessed for many
years an extraordinary stone seal,–a piece of dull black stone, two
inches long from the handle to the stamp, and the stamping end a rough
hexagon an inch and a quarter in diameter. Altogether, it presented the
appearance of an enlarged tobacco-stopper of an old-fashioned make. It
had been sent to me by an agent in the East, who informed me that it had
been found near the site of the ancient Babylon. But the characters
engraved on the seal were to me an intolerable puzzle. Somewhat of the
cuneiform pattern, there were yet striking differences, which I
detected at the first glance, and all efforts to read the inscription on
the hypothesis that the rules for deciphering the arrow-headed writing
would apply proved futile. A riddle such as this stung my pride, and at
odd moments I would take the Black Seal out of the cabinet, and
scrutinize it with so much idle perseverance that every letter was
familiar to my mind, and I could have drawn the inscription from memory
without the slightest error. Judge then of my surprise, when I one day
received from a correspondent in the west of England a letter and an
enclosure that positively left me thunderstruck. I saw carefully traced
on a large piece of paper the very characters of the Black Seal, without
alteration of any kind, and above the inscription my friend had written:
_Inscription found on a limestone rock on the Grey Hills, Monmouthshire.
Done in some red earth and quite recent_. I turned to the letter. My
friend wrote: “I send you the enclosed inscription with all due reserve.
A shepherd who passed by the stone a week ago swears that there was then
no mark of any kind. The characters, as I have noted, are formed by
drawing some red earth over the stone, and are of an average height of
one inch. They look to me like a kind of cuneiform character, a good
deal altered, but this of course is impossible. It may be either a hoax
or more probably some scribble of the gypsies, who are plentiful enough
in this wild country. They have, as you are aware, many hieroglyphics
which they use in communicating with one another. I happened to visit
the stone in question two days ago in connection with a rather painful
incident which has occurred here.”

As may be supposed, I wrote immediately to my friend, thanking him for
the copy of the inscription, and asking him in a casual manner, the
history of the incident he mentioned. To be brief, I heard that a woman
named Cradock, who had lost her husband a day before, had set out to
communicate the sad news to a cousin who lived some five miles away. She
took a short cut which led by the Gray Hills. Mrs. Cradock, who was then
quite a young woman, never arrived at her relative’s house. Late that
night a farmer who had lost a couple of sheep, supposed to have wandered
from the flock, was walking over the Gray Hills, with a lantern and his
dog. His attention was attracted by a noise, which he described as a
kind of wailing, mournful and pitiable to hear; and, guided by the
sound, he found the unfortunate Mrs. Cradock crouched on the ground by
the limestone rock, swaying her body to and fro, and lamenting and
crying in so heart-rending a manner that the farmer was, as he says, at
first obliged to stop his ears, or he would have run away. The woman
allowed herself to be taken home, and a neighbor came to see to her
necessities. All the night she never ceased her crying, mixing her
lament with words of some unintelligible jargon, and when the doctor
arrived he pronounced her insane. She lay on her bed for a week, now
wailing, as people said, like one lost and damned for eternity, and now
sunk in a heavy coma; it was thought that grief at the loss of her
husband had unsettled her mind, and the medical man did not at one time
expect her to live. I need not say that I was deeply interested in this
story, and I made my friend write to me at intervals with all the
particulars of the case. I heard then that in the course of six weeks
the woman gradually recovered the use of her faculties and some months
later she gave birth to a son, christened Jervase, who unhappily proved
to be of weak intellect. Such were the facts known to the village; but
to me while I whitened at the suggested thought of the hideous
enormities that had doubtless been committed, all this was nothing short
of conviction, and I incautiously hazarded a hint of something like the
truth to some scientific friends. The moment the words had left my lips
I bitterly regretted having spoken, and thus given away the great secret
of my life, but with a good deal of relief mixed with indignation, I
found my fears altogether misplaced, for my friends ridiculed me to my
face, and I was regarded as a madman; and beneath a natural anger I
chuckled to myself, feeling as secure amidst these blockheads, as if I
had confided what I knew to the desert sands.

But now, knowing so much, I resolved I would know all, and I
concentrated my efforts on the task of deciphering the inscription on
the Black Seal. For many years I made this puzzle the sole object of my
leisure moments; for the greater portion of my time was, of course,
devoted to other duties, and it was only now and then that I could
snatch a week of clear research. If I were to tell the full history of
this curious investigation, this statement would be wearisome in the
extreme, for it would contain simply the account of long and tedious
failure. By what I knew already of ancient scripts I was well-equipped
for the chase, as I always termed it to myself. I had correspondents
amongst all the scientific men in Europe, and, indeed, in the world, and
I could not believe that in these days any character, however ancient
and however perplexed, could long resist the search-light I should bring
to bear upon it. Yet, in point of fact, it was fully fourteen years
before I succeeded. With every year my professional duties increased,
and my leisure became smaller. This no doubt retarded me a good deal;
and yet, when I look back on those years I am astonished at the vast
scope of my investigation of the Black Seal. I made my bureau a centre,
and from all the world and from all the ages I gathered transcripts of
ancient writing. Nothing, I resolved, should pass me unawares, and the
faintest hint should be welcomed and followed up. But as one covert
after another was tried and proved empty of result, I began in the
course of years to despair, and to wonder whether the Black Seal were
the sole relic of some race that had vanished from the world and left no
other trace of its existence,–had perished, in fine, as Atlantis is
said to have done, in some great cataclysm, its secrets perhaps drowned
beneath the ocean or moulded into the heart of the hills. The thought
chilled my warmth a little, and though I still persevered, it was no
longer with the same certainty of faith. A chance came to the rescue. I
was staying in a considerable town in the north of England, and took the
opportunity of going over the very creditable museum that had for some
time been established in the place. The curator was one of my
correspondents; and, as we were looking through one of the mineral
cases, my attention was struck by a specimen, a piece of black stone
some four inches square, the appearance of which reminded me in a
measure of the Black Seal. I took it up carelessly, and was turning it
over in my hand, when I saw, to my astonishment, that the under side was
inscribed. I said, quietly enough, to my friend the curator that the
specimen interested me, and that I should be much obliged if he would
allow me to take it with me to my hotel for a couple of days. He, of
course, made no objection, and I hurried to my rooms, and found that my
first glance had not deceived me. There were two inscriptions; one in
the regular cuneiform character, another in the character of the Black
Seal, and I realized that my task was accomplished. I made an exact copy
of the two inscriptions; and when I got to my London study, and had the
Seal before me, I was able seriously to grapple with the great problem.
The interpreting inscription on the museum specimen, though in itself
curious enough, did not bear on my quest, but the transliteration made
me master of the secret of the Black Seal. Conjecture, of course, had to
enter into my calculations; there was here and there uncertainty about a
particular ideograph, and one sign recurring again and again on the Seal
baffled me for many successive nights. But at last the secret stood open
before me in plain English, and I read the key of the awful
transmutation of the hills. The last word was hardly written, when with
fingers all trembling and unsteady I tore the scrap of paper into the
minutest fragments, and saw them flame and blacken in the red hollow of
the fire, and then I crushed the gray films that remained into finest
powder. Never since then have I written those words; never will I write
the phrases which tell me how man can be reduced to the slime from which
he came, and be forced to put on the flesh of the reptile and the snake.
There was now but one thing remaining. I knew; but I desired to see, and
I was after some time able to take a house in the neighborhood of the
Gray Hills, and not far from the cottage where Mrs. Cradock and her son
Jervase resided. I need not go into a full and detailed account of the
apparently inexplicable events which have occurred here, where I am
writing this. I knew that I should find in Jervase Cradock something of
the blood of the “Little People,” and I found later that he had more
than once encountered his kinsmen in lonely places in that lonely land.
When I was summoned one day to the garden, and found him in a seizure
speaking or hissing the ghastly jargon of the Black Seal, I am afraid
that exultation prevailed over pity. I heard bursting from his lips the
secrets of the underworld, and the word of dread, “Ishakshar,” the
signification of which I must be excused from giving.

But there is one incident I cannot pass over unnoticed. In the waste
hollow of the night I awoke at the sound of those hissing syllables I
knew so well; and on going to the wretched boy’s room, I found him
convulsed and foaming at the mouth, struggling on the bed as if he
strove to escape the grasp of writhing demons. I took him down to my
room and lit the lamp, while he lay twisting on the floor, calling on
the power within his flesh to leave him. I saw his body swell and become
distended as a bladder, while the face blackened before my eyes; and
then at the crisis I did what was necessary according to the directions
on the Seal, and putting all scruple on one side, I became a man of
science, observant of what was passing. Yet the sight I had to witness
was horrible, almost beyond the power of human conception and the most
fearful fantasy; something pushed out from the body there on the floor,
and stretched forth, a slimy wavering tentacle, across the room, and
grasped the bust upon the cupboard, and laid it down on my desk.

When it was over, and I was left to walk up and down all the rest of the
night, white and shuddering, with sweat pouring from my flesh, I vainly
tried to reason with myself; I said, truly enough, that I had seen
nothing really supernatural, that a snail pushing out his horns and
drawing them in was but an instance on a smaller scale of what I had
witnessed; and yet horror broke through all such reasonings and left me
shattered and loathing myself for the share I had taken in the night’s
work.

There is little more to be said. I am going now to the final trial and
encounter; for I have determined that there shall be nothing wanting,
and I shall meet the “Little People” face to face. I shall have the
Black Seal and the knowledge of its secrets to help me, and if I
unhappily do not return from my journey, there is no need to conjure up
here a picture of the awfulness of my fate.

Pausing a little at the end of Professor Gregg’s statement, Miss Lally
continued her tale in the following words:–

Such was the almost incredible story that the professor had left behind
him. When I had finished reading it, it was late at night, but the next
morning I took Morgan with me, and we proceeded to search the Gray Hills
for some trace of the lost professor. I will not weary you with a
description of the savage desolation of that tract of country, a tract
of utterest loneliness, of bare green hills dotted over with gray
limestone boulders, worn by the ravage of time into fantastic semblances
of men and beasts. Finally, after many hours of weary searching, we
found what I told you–the watch and chain, the purse, and the
ring–wrapped in a piece of coarse parchment. When Morgan cut the gut
that bound the parcel together, and I saw the professor’s property, I
burst into tears, but the sight of the dreaded characters of the Black
Seal repeated on the parchment froze me to silent horror, and I think I
understood for the first time the awful fate that had come upon my late
employer.

I have only to add that Professor Gregg’s lawyer treated my account of
what had happened as a fairy tale, and refused even to glance at the
documents I laid before him. It was he who was responsible for the
statement that appeared in the public press, to the effect that
Professor Gregg had been drowned, and that his body must have been swept
into the open sea.

Miss Lally stopped speaking and looked at Mr. Phillipps, with a glance
of some enquiry. He, for his part, was sunken in a deep revery of
thought; and when he looked up and saw the bustle of the evening
gathering in the square, men and women hurrying to partake of dinner,
and crowds already besetting the music-halls, all the hum and press of
actual life seemed unreal and visionary, a dream in the morning after an
awakening.

“I thank you,” he said at last, “for your most interesting story,
interesting to me, because I feel fully convinced of its exact truth.”

“Sir,” said the lady, with some energy of indignation, “you grieve and
offend me. Do you think I should waste my time and yours by concocting
fictions on a bench in Leicester Square?”

“Pardon me, Miss Lally, you have a little misunderstood me. Before you
began I knew that whatever you told would be told in good faith, but
your experiences have a far higher value than that of _bona fides_. The
most extraordinary circumstances in your account are in perfect harmony
with the very latest scientific theories. Professor Lodge would, I am
sure, value a communication from you extremely; I was charmed from the
first by his daring hypothesis in explanation of the wonders of
Spiritualism (so called), but your narrative puts the whole matter out
of the range of mere hypothesis.”

“Alas, sir, all this will not help me. You forget, I have lost my
brother under the most startling and dreadful circumstances. Again, I
ask you, did you not see him as you came here? His black whiskers, his
spectacles, his timid glance to right and left; think, do not these
particulars recall his face to your memory?”

“I am sorry to say I have never seen any one of the kind,” said
Phillipps, who had forgotten all about the missing brother. “But let me
ask you a few questions. Did you notice whether Professor Gregg–”

“Pardon me, sir, I have stayed too long. My employers will be expecting
me. I thank you for your sympathy. Good bye.”

Before Mr. Phillipps had recovered from his amazement at this abrupt
departure, Miss Lally had disappeared from his gaze, passing into the
crowd that now thronged the approaches to the Empire. He walked home in
a pensive frame of mind, and drank too much tea. At ten o’clock he had
made his third brew, and had sketched out the outlines of a little work
to be called _Protoplasmic Reversion_.