NOVEL OF THE WHITE POWDER

My name is Leicester; my father. Major General Wyn Leicester, a
distinguished officer of artillery, succumbed five years ago to a
complicated liver complaint acquired in the deadly climate of India. A
year later my only brother, Francis, came home after an exceptionally
brilliant career at the University, and settled down with the resolution
of a hermit to master what has been well called the great legend of the
law. He was a man who seemed to live in utter indifference to everything
that is called pleasure; and though he was handsomer than most men, and
could talk as merrily and wittily as if he were a mere vagabond, he
avoided society, and shut himself up in a large room at the top of the
house to make himself a lawyer. Ten hours a day of hard reading was at
first his allotted portion; from the first light in the east to the late
afternoon he remained shut up with his books, taking a hasty half-hour’s
lunch with me as if he grudged the wasting of the moments, and going out
for a short walk when it began to grow dusk. I thought that such
relentless application must be injurious, and tried to cajole him from
the crabbed text-books; but his ardor seemed to grow rather than
diminish, and his daily tale of hours increased. I spoke to him
seriously, suggesting some occasional relaxation, if it were but an idle
afternoon with a harmless novel; but he laughed, and said that he read
about feudal tenures when he felt in need of amusement, and scoffed at
the notion of theatres, or a month’s fresh confessed that he looked
well, and seemed not to suffer from his labors; but I knew that such
unnatural toil would take revenge at last, and I was not mistaken. A
look of anxiety began to lurk about his eyes, and he seemed languid, and
at last he avowed that he was no longer in perfect health; he was
troubled, he said, with a sensation of dizziness, and awoke now and then
of nights from fearful dreams, terrified and cold with icy sweats. “I am
taking care of myself,” he said; “so you must not trouble. I passed the
whole of yesterday afternoon in idleness, leaning back in that
comfortable chair you gave me, and scribbling nonsense on a sheet of
paper. No, no; I will not overdo my work. I shall be well enough in a
week or two, depend upon it.”

Yet, in spite of his assurances, I could see that he grew no better, but
rather worse; he would enter the drawing-room with a face all miserably
wrinkled and despondent, and endeavor to look gayly when my eyes fell on
him, and I thought such symptoms of evil omen, and was frightened
sometimes at the nervous irritation of his movements, and at glances
which I could not decipher. Much against his will, I prevailed on him to
have medical advice, and with an ill grace he called in our old doctor.

Dr. Haberden cheered me after his examination of his patient.

“There is nothing really much amiss,” he said to me. “No doubt he reads
too hard, and eats hastily, and then goes back again to his books in too
great a hurry; and the natural consequence is some digestive trouble,
and a little mischief in the nervous system. But I think–I do, indeed,
Miss Leicester–that we shall be able to set this all right. I have
written him a prescription which ought to do great things. So you have
no cause for anxiety.”

My brother insisted on having the prescription made up by a chemist in
the neighborhood; it was an odd old-fashioned shop, devoid of the
studied coquetry and calculated glitter that make so gay a show on the
counters and shelves of the modern apothecary; but Francis liked the old
chemist, and believed in the scrupulous purity of his drugs. The
medicine was sent in due course, and I saw that my brother took it
regularly after lunch and dinner. It was an innocent-looking white
powder, of which a little was dissolved, in a glass of cold water. I
stirred it in, and it seemed to disappear, leaving the water clear and
colorless. At first Francis seemed to benefit greatly; the weariness
vanished from his face, and he became more cheerful than he had ever
been since the time when he left school; he talked gayly of reforming
himself, and avowed to me that he had wasted his time.

“I have given too many hours to law,” he said, laughing; “I think you
have saved me in the nick of time. Come, I shall be Lord Chancellor yet,
but I must not forget life. You and I will have a holiday together
before long; we will go to Paris and enjoy ourselves, and keep away from
the Bibliothèque Nationale.”

I confessed myself delighted with the prospect.

“When shall we go?” I said. “I can start the day after to-morrow, if you
like.”

“Ah, that is perhaps a little too soon; after all, I do not know London
yet, and I suppose a man ought to give the pleasures of his own country
the first choice. But we will go off together in a week or two, so try
and furbish up your French. I only know law French myself, and I am
afraid that wouldn’t do.”

We were just finishing dinner, and he quaffed off his medicine with a
parade of carousal as if it had been wine from some choicest bin.

“Has it any particular taste?” I said.

“No; I should not know I was not drinking water,” and he got up from his
chair, and began to pace up and down the room as if he were undecided as
to what he should do next.

“Shall we have coffee in the drawing-room,” I said, “or would you like
to smoke?”

“No; I think I will take a turn, it seems a pleasant evening. Look at
the afterglow; why, it is as if a great city were burning in flames, and
down there between the dark houses it is raining blood fast, fast. Yes,
I will go out. I may be in soon, but I shall take my key, so good-night,
dear, if I don’t see you again.”

The door slammed behind him, and I saw him walk lightly down the street,
swinging his malacca cane, and I felt grateful to Dr. Haberden for such
an improvement.

I believe my brother came home very late that night; but he was in a
merry mood the next morning.

“I walked on without thinking where I was going,” he said, “enjoying the
freshness of the air, and livened by the crowds as I reached more
frequented quarters. And then I met an old college friend, Orford, in
the press of the pavement, and then–well, we enjoyed ourselves. I have
felt what it is to be young and a man, I find I have blood in my veins,
as other men have. I made an appointment with Orford for to-night; there
will be a little party of us at the restaurant. Yes, I shall enjoy
myself for a week or two, and hear the chimes at midnight, and then we
will go for our little trip together.”

Such was the transmutation of my brother’s character that in a few days
he became a lover of pleasure, a careless and merry idler of western
pavements, a hunter out of snug restaurants, and a fine critic of
fantastic dancing; he grew fat before my eyes, and said no more of
Paris, for he had clearly found his Paradise in London. I rejoiced, and
yet wondered a little, for there was, I thought, something in his gayety
that indefinitely displeased me, though I could not have defined my
feeling. But by degrees there came a change; he returned still in the
cold, hours of the morning, but I heard no more about his pleasures, and
one morning as we sat at breakfast together, I looked suddenly into his
eyes and saw a stranger before me.

“Oh, Francis!” I cried; “Oh, Francis, Francis, what have you done?” and
rending sobs cut the words short, and I went weeping out of the room,
for though I knew nothing, yet I knew all, and by some odd play of
thought I remembered the evening when he first went abroad to prove his
manhood, and the picture of the sunset sky glowed before me; the clouds
like a city in burning flames, and the rain of blood. Yet I did battle
with such thoughts, resolving that perhaps, after all, no great harm
had been done, and in the evening at dinner I resolved to press him to
fix a day for our holiday in Paris. We had talked easily enough, and my
brother had just taken his medicine, which he had continued all the
while. I was about to begin my topic, when the words forming in my mind
vanished, and I wondered for a second what icy and intolerable weight
oppressed my heart and suffocated me as with the unutterable horror of
the coffin-lid nailed down on the living.

We had dined without candles, and the room had slowly grown from
twilight to gloom, and the walls and corners were indistinct in the
shadow. But from where I sat I looked out into the street; and as I
thought of what I would say to Francis, the sky began to flush and
shine, as it had done on a well-remembered evening, and in the gap
between two dark masses that were houses an awful pageantry of flame
appeared. Lurid whorls of writhed cloud, and utter depths burning, and
gray masses like the fume blown from a smoking city, and an evil glory
blazing far above shot with tongues of more ardent fire, and below as if
there were a deep pool of blood. I looked down to where my brother sat
facing me, and the words were shaped on my lips, when I saw his hand
resting on the table. Between the thumb and forefinger of the closed
hand, there was a mark, a small patch about the size of a sixpence, and
somewhat of the color of a bad bruise. Yet, by some sense I cannot
define, I knew that what I saw was no bruise at all. Oh, if human flesh
could burn with flame, and if flame could be black as pitch, such was
that before me! Without thought or fashioning of words, gray horror
shaped within me at the sight, and in an inner cell it was known to be a
brand. For a moment the stained sky became dark as midnight, and when
the light returned to me, I was alone in the silent room, and soon after
I heard my brother go out.

Late as it was, I put on my bonnet and went to Dr. Haberden, and in his
great consulting-room, ill-lighted by a candle which the doctor brought
in with him, with stammering lips, and a voice that would break in spite
of my resolve, I told him all; from the day on which my brother began to
take the medicine down to the dreadful thing I had seen scarcely half an
hour before.

When I had done, the doctor looked at me for a minute with an expression
of great pity on his face.

“My dear Miss Leicester,” he said, “you have evidently been anxious
about your brother; you have been worrying over him, I am sure. Come,
now, is it not so?

“I have certainly been anxious,” I said. “For the last week or two I
have not felt at ease.”

“Quite so; you know, of course, what a queer thing the brain is?”

“I understand what you mean; but I was not deceived. I saw what I have
told you with my own eyes.”

“Yes, yes, of course. But your eyes had been staring at that very
curious sunset we had to-night. That is the only explanation. You will
see it in the proper light to-morrow, I am sure. But, remember, I am
always ready to give any help that is in my power; do not scruple to
come to me, or to send for me if you are in any distress.”

I went away but little comforted, all confusion and terror and sorrow,
not knowing where to turn. When my brother and I met the next day, I
looked quickly at him, and noticed, with a sickening at heart, that the
right hand, the hand on which I had clearly seen the patch as of a black
fire, was wrapped up with a handkerchief.

“What is the matter with your hand, Francis?” I said in a steady voice.

“Nothing of consequence. I cut a finger last night, and it bled rather
awkwardly, so I did it up roughly to the best of my ability.”

“I will do it neatly for you, if you like.”

“No, thank you, dear, this will answer very well. Suppose we have
breakfast; I am quite hungry.”

We sat down, and I watched him. He scarcely ate or drank at all, but
tossed his meat to the dog when he thought my eyes were turned away; and
there was a look in his eyes that I had never yet seen, and the thought
fled across my mind that it was a look that was scarcely human. I was
firmly convinced that awful and incredible as was the thing I had seen
the night before, yet it was no illusion, no glamour of bewildered
sense, and in the course of the morning I went again to the doctor’s
house.

He shook his head with an air puzzled and incredulous, and seemed to
reflect for a few minutes.

“And you say he still keeps up the medicine? But why? As I understand,
all the symptoms he complained of have disappeared long ago; why should
he go on taking the stuff when he is quite well? And by the bye where
did he get it made up? At Sayce’s? I never send any one there; the old
man is getting careless. Suppose you come with me to the chemist’s; I
should like to have some talk with him.”

We walked together to the shop. Old Sayce knew Dr. Haberden, and was
quite ready to give any information.

“You have been sending that in to Mr. Leicester for some weeks, I think,
on my prescription,” said the doctor, giving the old man a pencilled
scrap of paper.

The chemist put on his great spectacles with trembling uncertainty, and
held up the paper with a shaking hand.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “I have very little of it left; it is rather an
uncommon drug, and I have had it in stock some time. I must get in some
more, if Mr. Leicester goes on with it.”

“Kindly let me have a look at the stuff,” said Haberden; and the chemist
gave him a glass bottle. He took out the stopper and smelt the contents,
and looked strangely at the old man.

“Where did you get this?” he said, “and what is it? For one thing, Mr.
Sayce, it is not what I prescribed. Yes, yes, I see the label is right
enough, but I tell you this is not the drug.”

“I have had it a long time,” said the old man, in feeble terror. “I got
it from Burbage’s in the usual way. It is not prescribed often, and I
have had it on the shelf for some years. You see there is very little
left.”

“You had better give it to me,” said Haberden. “I am afraid something
wrong has happened.”

We went out of the shop in silence, the doctor carrying the bottle
neatly wrapped in paper under his arm.

“Dr. Haberden,” I said when we had walked a little way–“Dr. Haberden.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at me gloomily enough.

“I should like you to tell me what my brother has been taking twice a
day for the last month or so.”

“Frankly, Miss Leicester, I don’t know. We will speak of this when we
get to my house,”

We walked on quickly without another word till we reached Dr.
Haberden’s. He asked me to sit down, and began pacing up and down the
room, his face clouded over, as I could see, with no common fears.

“Well,” he said at length, “this is all very strange; it is only natural
that you should feel alarmed, and I must confess that my mind is far
from easy. We will put aside, if you please, what you told me last night
and this morning, but the fact remains that for the last few weeks Mr.
Leicester has been impregnating his system with a drug which is
completely unknown to me. I tell you, it is not what I ordered; and what
that stuff in the bottle really is remains to be seen.”

He undid the wrapper, and cautiously tilted a few grains of the white
powder on to a piece of paper, and peered curiously at it.

“Yes,” he said, “it is like the sulphate of quinine, as you say; it is
flaky. But smell it.”

He held the bottle to me, and I bent over it. It was a strange sickly
smell, vaporous and overpowering, like some strong anæsthetic.

“I shall have it analyzed,” said Haberden. “I have a friend who has
devoted his whole life to chemistry as a science. Then we shall have
something to go upon. No, no, say no more about that other matter; I
cannot listen to that, and take my advice and think no more about it
yourself.”

That evening my brother did not go out as usual after dinner.

“I have had my fling,” he said with a queer laugh; “and I must go back
to my old ways. A little law will be quite a relaxation after so sharp a
dose of pleasure,” and he grinned to himself, and soon after went up to
his room. His hand was still all bandaged.

Dr. Haberden called a few days later.

“I have no special news to give you,” he said. “Chambers is out of town,
so I know no more about that stuff than you do. But I should like to see
Mr. Leicester if he is in.”

“He is in his room,” I said; “I will tell him you are here.”

“No, no, I will go up to him; we will have a little quiet talk together.
I dare say that we have made a good deal of fuss about very little; for,
after all, whatever the white powder may be, it seems to have done him
good.”

The doctor went upstairs, and standing in the hall I heard his knock,
and the opening and shutting of the door; and then I waited in the
silent house for an hour, and the stillness grew more and more intense
as the hands of the clock crept round. Then there sounded from above the
noise of a door shut sharply, and the doctor was coming down the stairs.
His footsteps crossed the hall, and there was a pause at the door. I
drew a long sick breath with difficulty, and saw my face white in a
little mirror, and he came in and stood at the door. There was an
unutterable horror shining in his eyes; he steadied himself by holding
the back of a chair with one hand, and his lower lip trembled like a
horse’s, and he gulped and stammered unintelligible sounds before he
spoke.

“I have seen that man,” he began in a dry whisper. “I have been sitting
in his presence for the last hour. My God! and I am alive and in my
senses! I, who have dealt with death all my life, and have dabbled with
the melting ruins of the earthly tabernacle. But not this! Oh, not this,”
and he covered his face with his hands as if to shut out the sight
of something before him.

“Do not send for me again, Miss Leicester,” he said with more composure.
“I can do nothing in this house. Good-bye.”

As I watched him totter down the steps and along the pavement towards
his house, it seemed to me that he had aged by ten years since the
morning.

My brother remained in his room. He called out to me in a voice I hardly
recognized, that he was very busy, and would like his meals brought to
his door and left there, and I gave the order to the servants. From that
day it seemed as if the arbitrary conception we call time had been
annihilated for me. I lived in an ever present sense of horror, going
through the routine of the house mechanically, and only speaking a few
necessary words to the servants. Now and then I went out and paced the
streets for an hour or two and came home again; but whether I were
without or within, my spirit delayed before the closed door of the upper
room, and, shuddering, waited for it to open. I have said that I
scarcely reckoned time, but I suppose it must have been a fortnight
after Dr. Haberden’s visit that I came home from my stroll a little
refreshed and lightened. The air was sweet and pleasant, and the hazy
form of green leaves, floating cloud-like in the square, and the smell
of blossoms, had charmed my senses, and I felt happier and walked more
briskly. As I delayed a moment at the verge of the pavement, waiting for
a van to pass by before crossing over to the house, I happened to look
up at the windows, and instantly there was the rush and swirl of deep
cold waters in my ears, and my heart leapt up, and fell down, down as
into a deep hollow, and I was amazed with a dread and terror without
form or shape. I stretched out a hand blindly through folds of thick
darkness, from the black and shadowy valley, and held myself from
falling, while the stones beneath my feet rocked and swayed and tilted,
and the sense of solid things seemed to sink away from under me. I had
glanced up at the window of my brother’s study, and at that moment the
blind was drawn aside, and something that had life stared out into the
world. Nay, I cannot say I saw a face or any human likeness; a living
thing, two eyes of burning flame glared at me, and they were in the
midst of something as formless as my fear, the symbol and presence of
all evil and all hideous corruption. I stood shuddering and quaking as
with the grip of ague, sick with unspeakable agonies of fear and
loathing, and for five minutes I could not summon force or motion to my
limbs. When I was within the door, I ran up the stairs to my brother’s
room, and knocked.

“Francis, Francis,” I cried, “for heaven’s sake answer me. What is the
horrible thing in your room? Cast it out, Francis, cast it from you!”

I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a
choking, gurgling sound, as if some one was struggling to find
utterance, and then the noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words
that I could scarcely understand.

“There is nothing here,” the voice said, “Pray do not disturb me. I am
not very well to-day.”

I turned away, horrified and yet helpless. I could do nothing, and I
wondered why Francis had lied to me, for I had seen the appearance
beyond the glass too plainly to be deceived, though it was but the sight
of a moment. And I sat still, conscious that there had been something
else, something I had seen in the first flash of terror before those
burning eyes had looked at me. Suddenly I remembered; as I lifted my
face the blind was being drawn back, and I had had an instant’s glance
of the thing that was moving it, and in my recollection I knew that a
hideous image was engraved forever on my brain. It was not a hand: there
were no fingers that held the blind, but a black stump pushed it aside;
the mouldering outline and the clumsy movement as of a beast’s paw had
glowed into my senses before the darkling waves of terror had
overwhelmed me as I went down quick into the pit. My mind was aghast at
the thought of this, and of the awful presence that dwelt with my
brother in his room; I went to his door and cried to him again, but no
answer came. That night one of the servants came up to me and told me in
a whisper that for three days food had been regularly placed at the door
and left untouched; the maid had knocked, but had received no answer;
she had heard the noise of shuffling feet that I had noticed. Day after
day went by, and still my brother’s meals were brought to his door and
left untouched; and though I knocked and called again and again, I could
get no answer. The servants began to talk to me; it appeared they were
as alarmed as I. The cook said that when my brother first shut himself
up in his room, she used to hear him come out at night and go about the
house; and once, she said, the hall door had opened and closed again,
but for several nights she had heard no sound. The climax came at last.
It was in the dusk of the evening, and I was sitting in the darkening
dreary room when a terrible shriek jarred and rang harshly out of the
silence, and I heard a frightened scurry of feet dashing down the
stairs. I waited, and the servant maid staggered into the room and faced
me, white and trembling.

“O Miss Helen,” she whispered. “Oh, for the Lord’s sake, Miss Helen,
what has happened? Look at my hand, miss; look at that hand!” I drew her
to the window, and saw there was a black wet stain upon her hand.

“I do not understand you,” I said. “Will you explain to me?”

“I was doing your room just now,” she began. “I was turning down the
bedclothes, and all of a sudden there was something fell upon my hand
wet, and I looked up, and the ceiling was black and dripping on me.”

I looked bard at her, and bit my lip. “Come with me,” I said. “Bring
your candle with you.”

The room I slept in was beneath my brother’s, and as I went in I felt I
was trembling. I looked up at the ceiling, and saw a patch, all black
and wet and a dew of black drops upon it, and a pool of horrible liquor
soaking into the white bedclothes.

I ran upstairs and knocked loudly.

“O Francis, Francis, my dear brother,” I cried, “what has happened to
you?”

And I listened. There was a sound of choking, and a noise like water
bubbling and regurgitating, but nothing else, and I called louder, but
no answer came.

In spite of what Dr. Haberden had said, I went to him, and with tears
streaming down my cheeks, I told him of all that had happened, and he
listened to me with a face set hard and grim.

“For your father’s sake,” he said at last, “I will go with you, though I
can do nothing.”

We went out together; the streets were dark and silent, and heavy with
heat and a drought of many weeks. I saw the doctor’s face white under
the gas-lamps, and when we reached the house his hand was shaking. We
did not hesitate, but went upstairs directly. I held the lamp, and he
called out in a loud, determined voice:–

“Mr. Leicester, do you hear me? I insist on seeing you. Answer me at
once.”

There was no answer, but we both heard that choking noise I have
mentioned.

“Mr. Leicester, I am waiting for you. Open the door this instant, or I
shall break it down.” And he called a third time in a voice that rang
and echoed from the walls.

“Mr. Leicester! For the last time I order you to open the door.”

“Ah!” he said, after a pause of heavy silence, “we are wasting time
here. Will you be so kind as to get me a poker, or something of the
kind?”

I ran into a little room at the back where odd articles were kept, and
found a heavy adze-like tool that I thought might serve the doctor’s
purpose.

“Very good,” he said, “that will do, I dare say. I give you notice, Mr.
Leicester,” he cried loudly at the keyhole, “that I am now about to break
into your room.”




Then I heard the wrench of the adze, and the woodwork split and cracked
under it, and with a loud crash the door suddenly burst open; and for a
moment we started back aghast at a fearful screaming cry, no human
voice, but as the roar of a monster, that burst forth inarticulate and
struck at us out of the darkness.

“Hold the lamp,” said the doctor, and we went in and glanced quickly
round the room. “There it is,” said Dr. Haberden, drawing a quick
breath; “look, in that corner.”

I looked, and a pang of horror seized my heart as with a white-hot iron.
There upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with
corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but
melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily
bubbles like boiling pitch. And out of the midst of it shone two burning
points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring as of limbs, and
something moved and lifted up that might have been an arm. The doctor
took a step forward, and raised the iron bar and struck at the burning
points, and drove in the weapon, and struck again and again in a fury of
loathing. At last the thing was quiet.

* * * * *

A week or two later, when I had to some extent recovered from the
terrible shock, Dr. Haberden came to see me.

“I have sold my practice,” he began, “and to-morrow I am sailing on a
long voyage. I do not know whether I shall ever return to England; in
all probability I shall buy a little land in California, and settle
there for the remainder of my life. I have brought you this packet,
which you may open and read when you feel able to do so. It contains the
report of Dr. Chambers on what I submitted to him. Good-bye, Miss
Leicester, good-bye.”

When he was gone, I opened the envelope; I could not wait, and proceeded
to read the papers within. Here is the manuscript; and if you will allow
me, I will read you the astounding story it contains.

“My dear Haberden,” the letter began, “I have delayed inexcusably in
answering your questions as to the white substance you sent me. To tell
you the truth, I have hesitated for some time as to what course I should
adopt, for there is a bigotry and an orthodox standard in physical
science as in theology, and I knew that if I told you the truth I
should offend rooted prejudices which I once held dear myself. However,
I have determined to be plain with you, and first I must enter into a
short personal explanation.

“You have known me, Haberden, for many years as a scientific man; you
and I have often talked of our profession together, and discussed the
hopeless gulf that opens before the feet of those who think to attain to
truth by any means whatsoever, except the beaten way of experiment and
observation, in the sphere of material things. I remember the scorn with
which you have spoken to me of men of science who have dabbled a little
in the unseen, and have timidly hinted that perhaps the senses are not,
after all, the eternal, impenetrable bounds of all knowledge, the
everlasting walls beyond which no human being has ever passed. We have
laughed together heartily, and I think justly, at the “occult” follies
of the day, disguised under various names,–the mesmerisms,
spiritualisms, materializations, theosophies, all the rabble rant of
imposture, with their machinery of poor tricks and feeble conjuring, the
true back-parlor magic of shabby London streets. Yet, in spite of what I
have said, I must confess to you that I am no materialist, taking the
word of course in its usual signification. It is now many years since I
have convinced myself, convinced myself a sceptic remember, that the old
iron-bound theory is utterly and entirely false. Perhaps this confession
will not wound you so sharply as it would have done twenty years ago;
for I think you cannot have failed to notice that for some time
hypotheses have been advanced by men of pure science which are nothing
less than transcendental, and I suspect that most modern chemists and
biologists of repute would not hesitate to subscribe the _dictum_ of the
old Schoolman, _Omnia exeunt in mysterium_, which means, I take it, that
every branch of human knowledge if traced up to its source and final
principles vanishes into mystery. I need not trouble you now with a
detailed account of the painful steps which led me to my conclusions; a
few simple experiments suggested a doubt as to my then standpoint, and a
train of thought that rose from circumstances comparatively trifling
brought me far. My old conception of the universe has been swept away,
and I stand in a world that seems as strange and awful to me as the
endless waves of the ocean seen for the first time, shining, from a Peak
in Darien. Now I know that the walls of sense that seemed so
impenetrable, that seemed to loom up above the heavens and to be founded
below the depths, and to shut us in forevermore, are no such everlasting
impassable barriers as we fancied, but thinnest and most airy veils that
melt away before the seeker, and dissolve as the early mist of the
morning about the brooks. I know that you never adopted the extreme
materialistic position: you did not go about trying to prove a universal
negative, for your logical sense withheld you from that crowning
absurdity; yet I am sure that you will find all that I am saying strange
and repellent to your habits of thought. Yet, Haberden, what I tell you
is the truth, nay, to adopt our common language, the sole and scientific
truth, verified by experience; and the universe is verily more splendid
and more awful than we used to dream. The whole universe, my friend, is
a tremendous sacrament; a mystic, ineffable force and energy, veiled by
an outward form of matter; and man, and the sun and the other stars, and
the flower of the grass, and the crystal in the test-tube, are each and
every one as spiritual, as material, and subject to an inner working.

“You will perhaps wonder, Haberden, whence all this tends; but I think a
little thought will make it clear. You will understand that from such a
standpoint the whole view of things is changed, and what we thought
incredible and absurd may be possible enough. In short, we must look at
legend and belief with other eyes, and be prepared to accept tales that
had become mere fables. Indeed, this is no such great demand. After all,
modern science will concede as much, in a hypocritical manner. You must
not, it is true, believe in witchcraft, but you may credit hypnotism;
ghosts are out of date, but there is a good deal to be said for the
theory of telepathy. Give a superstition a Greek name, and believe in
it, should almost be a proverb.

“So much for my personal explanation. You sent me, Haberden, a phial,
stoppered and sealed, containing a small quantity of a flaky white
powder, obtained from a chemist who has been dispensing it to one of
your patients. I am not surprised to hear that this powder refused to
yield any results to your analysis. It is a substance which was known to
a few many hundred years ago, but which I never expected to have
submitted to me from the shop of a modern apothecary. There seems no
reason to doubt the truth of the man’s tale; he no doubt got, as he
says, the rather uncommon salt you prescribed from the wholesale
chemist’s; and it has probably remained on his shelf for twenty years,
or perhaps longer. Here what we call chance and coincidence begins to
work; during all these years the salt in the bottle was exposed to
certain recurring variations of temperature, variations probably ranging
from 40° to 80°. And, as it happens, such changes, recurring year after
year at irregular intervals, and with varying degrees of intensity and
duration, have constituted a process, and a process so complicated and
so delicate, that I question whether modern scientific apparatus
directed with the utmost precision could produce the same result. The
white powder you sent me is something very different from the drug you
prescribed; it is the powder from which the wine of the Sabbath, the
_Vinum Sabbati_ was prepared. No doubt you have read of the Witches’
Sabbath, and have laughed at the tales which terrified our ancestors;
the black cats, and the broomsticks, and dooms pronounced against some
old woman’s cow. Since I have known the truth I have often reflected
that it is on the whole a happy thing that such burlesque as this is
believed, for it serves to conceal much that it is better should not be
known generally. However, if you care to read the appendix to Payne
Knight’s monograph, you will find that the true Sabbath was something
very different, though the writer has very nicely refrained from
printing all he knew. The secrets of the true Sabbath were the secrets
of remote times surviving into the Middle Ages, secrets of an evil
science which existed long before Aryan man entered Europe. Men and
women, seduced from their homes on specious pretences, were met by
beings well qualified to assume, as they did assume, the part of devils,
and taken by their guides to some, desolate and lonely place, known to
the initiate by long tradition and unknown to all else. Perhaps it was a
cave in some bare and wind-swept hill; perhaps some inmost recess of a
great forest, and there the Sabbath was held. There, in the blackest
hour of night, the _Vinum Sabbati_ was prepared, and this evil graal was
poured forth and offered to the neophytes, and they partook of an
infernal sacrament; _sumentes calicem principis inferorum,_ as an old
author well expresses it. And suddenly, each one that had drunk found
himself attended by a companion, a shape of glamour and unearthly
allurement, beckoning him apart to share in joys more exquisite, more
piercing than the thrill of any dream, to the consummation of the
marriage of the Sabbath. It is hard to write of such things as these,
and chiefly because that shape that allured with loveliness was no
hallucination, but, awful as it is to express, the man himself. By the
power of that Sabbath wine, a few grains of white powder thrown into a
glass of water, the house of life was riven asunder, and the human
trinity dissolved, and the worm which never dies, that which lies
sleeping within us all, was made tangible and an external thing, and
clothed with a garment of flesh. And then in the hour of midnight, the
primal fall was repeated and represented, and the awful thing veiled in
the mythos of the Tree in the Garden was done anew. Such was the
_nuptiæ Sabbati_.

“I prefer to say no more; you, Haberden, know as well as I do that the
most trivial laws of life are not to be broken with impunity; and for so
terrible an act as this, in which the very inmost place of the temple
was broken open and defiled, a terrible vengeance followed. What began
with corruption ended also with corruption.”

* * * * *

Underneath is the following in Dr. Haberden’s writing:–

“The whole of the above is unfortunately strictly and entirely true.
Your brother confessed all to me on that morning when I saw him in his
room. My attention was first attracted to the bandaged hand, and I
forced him to show it me. What I saw made me, a medical man of many
years standing, grow sick with loathing; and the story I was forced to
listen to was infinitely more frightful than I could have believed
possible. It has tempted me to doubt the Eternal Goodness which can
permit nature to offer such hideous possibilities; and if you had not
with your own eyes seen the end, I should have said to you–disbelieve
it all. I have not, I think, many more weeks to live, but you are young,
and may forget all this.

“JOSEPH HABERDEN, M.D.”

In the course of two or three months I heard that Dr. Haberden had died
at sea, shortly after the ship left England.

Miss Leicester ceased speaking, and looked pathetically at Dyson, who
could not refrain from exhibiting some symptoms of uneasiness.

He stuttered out some broken phrases expressive of his deep interest in
her extraordinary history, and then said with a better grace–

“But, pardon me, Miss Leicester, I understood you were in some
difficulty. You were kind enough to ask me to assist you in some way.”

“Ah,” she said, “I had forgotten that. My own present trouble seems of
such little consequence in comparison with what I have told you. But as
you are so good to me, I will go on. You will scarcely believe it, but I
found that certain persons suspected, or rather pretended to suspect
that I had murdered my brother. These persons were relatives of mine,
and their motives were extremely sordid ones; but I actually found
myself subject to the shameful indignity of being watched. Yes, sir, my
steps were dogged when I went abroad, and at home I found myself exposed
to constant if artful observation. With my high spirit this was more
than I could brook, and I resolved to set my wits to work and elude the
persons who were shadowing me. I was so fortunate as to succeed. I
assumed this disguise, and for some time have lain snug and unsuspected.
But of late I have reason to believe that the pursuer is on my track;
unless I am greatly deceived, I saw yesterday the detective who is
charged with the odious duty of observing my movements. You, sir, are
watchful and keen-sighted; tell me, did you see any one lurking about
this evening?”

“I hardly think so,” said Dyson, “but perhaps you would give me some
description of the detective in question.”

“Certainly; he is a youngish man, dark, with dark whiskers. He has
adopted spectacles of large size in the hope of disguising himself
effectually, but he cannot disguise his uneasy manner, and the quick,
nervous glances he casts to right and left.”

This piece of description was the last straw for the unhappy Dyson, who
was foaming with impatience to get out of the house, and would gladly
have sworn eighteenth century oaths if propriety had not frowned on such
a course.

“Excuse me, Miss Leicester,” he said with cold politeness, “I cannot
assist you.”

“Ah!” she said sadly, “I have offended you in some way. Tell me what I
have done, and I will ask you to forgive me.”

“You are mistaken,” said Dyson, grabbing his hat, but speaking with some
difficulty; “you have done nothing. But, as I say, I cannot help you.
Perhaps,” he added, with some tinge of sarcasm, “my friend Russell might
be of service.”

“Thank you,” she replied; “I will try him,” and the lady went off into a
shriek of laughter, which filled up Mr. Dyson’s cup of scandal and
confusion.

He left the house shortly afterwards, and had the peculiar delight of a
five-mile walk, through streets which slowly changed from black to gray,
and from gray to shining passages of glory for the sun to brighten. Here
and there he met or overtook strayed revellers, but he reflected that no
one could have spent the night in a more futile fashion than himself;
and when he reached his home he had made resolves for reformation. He
decided that he would abjure all Milesian and Arabian methods of
entertainment, and subscribe to Mudie’s for a regular supply of mild and
innocuous romance.