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The Wrists On The Door by Horace Fish

1919

From Everybody's Magazine

Between his leather easy-chair at one end of his drawing-room and the wall with his wife's portrait at the other, Henry Montagu was pacing in a state of agitation such as he had never experienced in his fifty years of life. The drawing-room was no longer “theirs.” It was his—and the portrait's. The painting was of a girl who was not more beautiful in radiance of feature and lovable contour of body than the woman a generation older who had died two months ago.

Suddenly he stopped short in the middle of the room, his hands in his pockets. “My God!” he cried.

Then he shut his teeth on the words as sharply and passionately as he had uttered them, and raised one of his hands to his brow. There were drops of cold sweat upon it.

Mr. Montagu was a simple, selfish, good-natured business-man, never given to imaginative thoughts or to greater extremes of mood than the heights and depths of rising and falling stocks. Yet his experience of the last two hours had shown him to himself as a creature wretchedly inadequate to face the problem that confronted him—the simple problem of widowerhood.

He was not bitter at his wife's death. Not only did he consider himself too sensible for that, but he was too sensible. Death is an inevitable thing. And the one fact involving the simplicity of the problem was no more than many another man had borne without a thought—his childlessness.

Yet as if the whole two months in their strangeness their sad novelty, had been concentrating their loneliness for an accumulated spring at him, the last two hours had driven home to him that this secondary fact had not been inevitable, that what he was suffering to-night could have been avoided.

He had not wished to have children, and neither had the beautiful woman whose painted spirit smiled down so pitilessly now on his tragedy of jangled nerves and intolerable solitude. Deliberately and quite frankly, without even hiding behind the cowardly excuse of the tacit, they had outspokenly chosen not to.

After his desperate exclamation, he had laughed and thrown himself into his chair. He had forced the laugh, seeking to batter down with it a thrill that was akin to fright at an abrupt realization that in those two dreadful hours he had done three unprecedented things. He had spoken aloud there by himself, an action he had always ascribed exclusively to children and maniacs; he had harbored absurd temptations; and finally he had ejaculated “My God!” which he had thought appropriate to a man only in the distresses of fiction or after complete ruin on the Stock Exchange.

That exclamation had sprung from him when he had caught himself thinking how gladly he would give half his fortune if he could have a companion, even his butler, for the rest of the evening, his whole fortune, exactly as if he had died, if he could but have a son to give it to.

That freedom from care, which they had chosen to call freedom from responsibility, had been their mutual property, but to-night, in his hopeless solitude, it seemed that he was paying the whole price for it. She had met the unknown, but with the known—himself, her whole life—beside her, and her ordeal was over. His, he felt now, was worse, and already beginning. After all, he reflected, there was a certain rough justice in it; the one spared longer in the world of bodily people bore, in consequence, the reverting brunt of their double selfishness. But the remnant of life seemed a poor thing to-night. The further it stretched, in his suddenly stirred imagination, the poorer, the emptier, it seemed.

And having stirred, after a whole lifetime of healthy sleep, his imagination gripped him in a strong and merciless embrace. It seemed to twist him about and force him to look down the vista of the coming years and at all their possibilities, even the desecrational one of marrying again and calling into life the son that he had never wanted before. At the thought, he flushed with the idea that the portrait's eyes were reading his face, and compelled himself to look bravely at it; but as he met the lovely eyes strange questions darted into his brain: whether he would not rather have been solely to blame; whether his all-possessive love of her would not be more flawless now if she had been a flawless eternal-feminine type, longing for motherhood, but denying it for his sake; whether he would not be happier now in looking at her portrait if some warm tint from a Renaissance Madonna had mellowed the radiant Medici Venus who smiled from the frame. He was seized by a desire to turn the gazing picture to the wall.

Half-way across the room, he checked the impulse with a gasp of self-disgust, but with hands raised involuntarily toward it he cried:

Oh, why didn't we?

As he stood trembling with his back to it, the second absurd temptation of the night assailed him—to dash on his hat and go to Maurice's, a restaurant of oblique reputation to which his wife had once accompanied him out of curiosity, and which, in a surprising outburst of almost pious prudery, she had refused to visit again. Nor had she ever allowed him to go thereafter himself, and though she had made no dying request of him, he knew that, if she had, that would have been it.

In his shaken state the thought of his one club, the Business Men's, was repugnant. Maurice's, expansive, insinuating and brilliant, called to his loneliness arbitrarily, persistently. But with a glance over his shoulder at the portrait, he put the thought away. Then, straightening up, he walked to his chair again, sat tensely down, and faced the long room and his childish terror at its emptiness.

Innocent as had been his impulse toward Maurice's and full as was Broadway with places as glittering and noisy, his morbid duty to debar that one resort seemed to him to condemn him to the house for the night. Why was it the butler's night out? Even to know that he was below stairs—Would other nights be like this? Every night—The possibility turned him cold. His thoughts were racing now, and even as he gripped the arms of the chair a still worse terror gripped his mind. His loneliness seemed to have become an actual thing, real as a person, a spirit haunting the luxurious, silent house. He was facing the door, and its heavy mahogany, fixing his attention through his staring gaze, seemed to be shutting him alone with the dead. Save for his trembling self and his wife's painted eyes, the big room was lifeless. It was beyond the closed door that his imagination, now running beyond control, pictured the presence of his frightful guest—his own solitude, coming in ironical answer to his craving for companionship.

Were those live eyes of the dead creating his sense of an impending life in the house? Was it his wife, who, never having created a child for him, was forcing on him now a horrible companion? Again he started desperately toward the picture, again he caught himself, again he cried, “My God!” and faced his terror passionately, facing too, this time, the closed door.

“You fool! You fool!”

His voice sounded weak and strange to him as if indeed some one else had spoken. The paralyzing thought that such a mood of panic could be the beginning of real madness had shaken his voice and his whole body, and again Maurice's, now as a positive savior, rushed into his mind. But he threw the idea of refuge contemptuously away. He would stand his ground and not leave the house that night; yet even as he stood, he asked himself if this was not because he feared to open the door.

With a gasp, he drew himself up in the center of the room, and in a surge of determined anger, with his eyes on the door, facing it as he would have faced an enemy before he attacked, he deliberately gave his mind to his fear, letting it sweep through him, trying to magnify it, reading every horror that he could into the imagined presence that he intended to dispel, and then, tormenting himself with slow steps, he walked to the door, reached his hand to the knob, and opened it.

Though his mouth opened for a cry of terror, no sound came from him as he staggered back, and a waiting figure pitched into the room, rushed wildly past him with a whimper like that of a wounded animal, and flung itself, face forward, into the empty chair.

As if through the same doorway that had given entrance to the desperate wretch, his terror seemed to leave him. While he stood gasping, with pounding heart, staring at the limp, shuddering manhood that had hurled itself into his home, Henry Montagu suddenly felt himself a man again.

With the cold plunge of his senses into rationality, they told him that he was in the presence of some fatal and soul-sickening tragedy, yet this horror that had dashed into the hollow privacy of his house was at least real to him. Overwhelmed as he was by the frightful appearance of the young man, who was now weeping abandonedly, he had no fear of him, and his first act was a practical one—he swiftly, quietly closed the door. It was done in an instinct of protection. It would be useless to question him yet, but that he was a fugitive, and from something hideous, Montagu took for granted.

He stood looking across the room at his outlandish guest, trying to docket the kaleidoscopic flock of impressions that had flown into his mind from the instant he swung back the door. Though noble, even splendid in its slender lines, the youth's figure had half-fallen, half-sprung through the doorway, animal-like. There had not been even a ghost of sound in the hallway, yet it was as if he had been in the act of hurtling himself against the closed door, hammering at it with upraised hands. Mr. Montagu had been horrified by it instantaneously, as by a thing of violence with every suggestion of the sordid, but the poor sobbing fellow who now lay in the chair with his arms and head drooping over the big leather arm seemed to him as immaculately dressed as himself. Remembering the fleeting posture at the door, his eyes went involuntarily to the hanging, graphic hands. In the light of his reading-lamp they gleamed white, and as he watched, his heart sinking with pity at their thinness, two slow red drops rolled from under the cuffs down the palms, and fell to the floor.

“Good God!” breathed Henry Montagu.

He had never doubted for the fraction of a second that his guest was a criminal, and in every sense a desperate one, but, just as instinctively, he felt certain that no matter what the horror he had run from, he was more sinned against than sinning. Every line in the boy's fragile, pathetic figure went straight to the older man's heart. It came to him, almost joyously, that there had been premonition in his strange mood of longing for a son. As an end to this nerve-racking night, there was work to do—for the remainder of it, at least for a brief moment, he had a companion in his grim, empty house.

“Thank God!” he exclaimed aloud.

“Thank God! Thank God!”

The young man had spoken, and Mr. Montagu, as he heard the words, remembered that between the sobs there had been, in faint, broken syllables, “My God! My God!” again and again, and that he had understood at last what it was to hear that from a man who was neither ruined by the Stock Exchange nor the weak victim of childish terror. But now, this repetition of his varied expression startled him. It was like an echo of himself.

Again he shook himself together. If the boy could speak, it was time to question him. He had not yet seen his face, beyond a flashing imprint on his brain of a look of terrific fear and terrific exultation as it had dashed past him, but he was prepared to like it. He braced himself, walked over and stood in front of the chair. With an object—even this object—to justify it, he gladly surrendered himself now to the fatherly instinct he had so bitterly struggled against, and he felt that he would like, with his first words, to put his hand reassuringly on the crumpled shoulder. But the night had left his nerves still raw—in his sensitivity he could not bear the thought that the trembling figure would shrink from his touch, and he kept his hand firmly at his side.

“My boy,” he said gently, “you mustn't be afraid of me. Tell me what you've done.”

The young man raised his head, sank back in the chair, and looked at him.

Not once in the long evening of lonely terror, not when he had first heard himself talking aloud, not when he had dashed at his wife's portrait, not when he had faced the thought of madness, had Mr. Montagu had such a shock. An eternally lost soul, a damned thing staring at paradise, seemed to gaze at him out of the boy's eyes. He thought he was seeing all the sins of the world in them, yet the look was appallingly innocent. He seemed to be discovering those sins in the dark, ravening eyes, but to be feeling them in himself as if the forgotten, ignored innermost of his own life were quaking with guilt under the spell of this staring presence. In the state of horrified sympathy to which it had precipitated him, he morbidly felt almost responsible for the brooding evil in the boy as well as aghast at it. But even this sense of sin, implying as it did a skeleton of naked, primal right and wrong seemed of small import to his astounded mind beside the nameless, unmentionable sorrow that pervaded the face and stabbed at Henry Montagu's heart. He knew without question that he was looking at tragedy—worse than he had supposed the world could hold or any human thing, in any world, be subject to. It was a man's face in every line and poise and suggestion, but for all its frightful knowledge he had to call it beautiful—the clear-cut word “handsome” ran away from it like a mouse into a hole, leaving it a superb horror that, as soon as his paralyzed muscles could respond to his instinct, drove his hand to his face to shut away the deliberate, searching gaze.

“Done?” answered the young fellow at last. “What have I done? Good God!

For the third time, it was one of his own three exclamations totally new to him that night, and the coincidence drove home to him, this time, with a sense of omen. But his guest was speaking again, and, forcing himself to look calmly at the tragic face he listened breathlessly.

“I've done a thing never accomplished in human life before, a thing more terrific than the world's entire history, from the moment of the first atom crawling on it has ever known!”

He could not have spoken more solemnly and convincingly if he had reverently murdered, one by one, a whole nation of people, and it was some such picture that came into Henry Montagu's mind as, shivering and fascinated, he watched him and listened.

But the young man said no more.

“If—if you will tell me what you've done,” said Mr. Montagu haltingly, his pity sweeping every caution away, “or simply what you want of me, I will do anything for you that I possibly can.”

“There is nothing in this world,” answered the boy wearily, “that anybody can do for me.” But suddenly, impulsively, he added: “There is just one thing, that you can do—not for me, but for yourself. Don't ask me questions. For your own sake don't!”

“But—” began Mr. Montagu.

“If you knew who I am or what I am, and what I've deliberately done,” cried the boy, “you'd curse this night, and curse me, the longest day you lived! What—what is your name?”

“Henry Montagu,” said his host simply.

He pondered it. “That has a nice sound. I like it. And I—I like you. So don't ask me questions!”

The elder man was looking down at the thin white hands again, and the naïve comment brought a sudden contraction to his throat. “Poor little boy!” was on his lips, but an intuition like a woman's warned him that the words would make the desolate figure weep again, and his utmost strength quailed from the thought of seeing it, now that he had seen the face. As the white hands clasped themselves together, he had seen that the under sides of the wrists were bruised and dark. Facially, nothing could have been more unlike than this youth to the paint and plaster symbols that crowded before him from his memory, yet the red drops that he had seen drip to the floor, the wickedness and waste that he seemed to expiate and represent, the whole obvious torment of his being, had forced a simile upon him which he now blurted out.

“Whoever and whatever you are, whatever terrible thing you've done, I only know that you make me think of—of—Oh, the crown of thorns, the cross—you know what I mean!”

“Some one with a crown of thorns?” said the young man wonderingly. “Who was that?”

Mr. Montagu stared at him incredulously. That any man, no matter how base a criminal, and one, indeed, who had cried out again and again the name of God, should not know the story and the name of God's son, astonished him, for the moment, more than anything yet had done.

“Oh, yes, yes, I remember now,” continued the boy. “Yes, that was very, very sad. But I'm selfish and preoccupied with my own dreadful trouble, and that whole history, tragic as it was, was a very happy one compared with mine!”

With a cold shudder, Henry Montagu believed him. He realized that as yet he had done nothing for him. Food and drink had occurred to him, but in the minutes that they had passed together the stranger had grown more virile. He was no longer the incredible figure of wretchedness that had dashed into the room. He was sitting forward in the chair now, his eyes on the portrait.

“Is that your wife?” he asked.

“My—my dead wife,” answered Mr. Montagu.

His own eyes reverting again and again to the lacerated wrists, he did not see the changing expressions in his visitor's as they studied the eyes of the portrait; but as the boy now leaped impulsively to his feet he saw in them a fierce gleam that was like the hatred of a maniac. He thrilled with renewed terror as the boy once more sprang to him like an animal, and with a growl in his throat rushed toward the portrait.

“Stop!” he shouted, and the boy almost cringed to a halt in the middle of the floor.

When, after his first chill of horror at the act itself, Henry Montagu realized that the desecration was his own thought, his own impulse carried into fierce determination, he sank weak and dizzy into the chair that the boy had left. But again he mastered his frightened mind and thrust away from it the sinister oppression of omen and coincidence. Unwillingly but helplessly, he was letting into his thoughts the theory that, after he had opened the door instead of before he had opened it, the room had been harboring a maniac. And the theory stabbed him. A mushroom growth of tenderness had germinated in his pity and was growing nearer and nearer to a personal liking for the beautiful, pathetic figure of youth that stood before him, wilted and helpless again, in the center of the room.

“My boy,” he said quietly, “I ought to resent that but strangely enough I don't find myself resenting the idea of your taking strange liberties in my house. In fact, I—I had that same impulse. I nearly did that myself, just before you burst in here.”

The young man looked at him in amazement.

You were going to turn—Mrs. Montagu's picture to the wall? Wh—why, you old dirty beast!”

To Henry Montagu there was no vulgarity in the words. Their huge reproach of him drove every other quality out of them and a deep color into his face.

“But I—I quelled the impulse. And y—you would actually have done it!” he stammered.

“I had a reason and a right to!” cried the young man. “I'd never seen it before and if it repelled me I had a right never to look at it again! But she was your wife!”

Once more he stood, his eyes avoiding the portrait and wandering hungrily about the rest of the beautiful room.

“Well,” he said, after a few moments, “good-by!” And he walked toward the door.

“Stop!” cried Mr. Montagu again. He sat forward on the edge of the chair, trembling. After hours of successive surprises, the simple announcement of his visitor's departure had struck him cold with the accumulated force of his past lonely terror and his present intense curiosity. Again the boy had obeyed his command with a visible shiver, and it hurt the older man by recalling to him the suggestion of crime, of the place and the tragedy he must have escaped from, the unknown cloud he was under. But however involved in the horrible he might become by detaining him, shaken and filled with inexplicable grief as he was by his presence, worst of all was the fear of being alone again after a frightful, brief adventure in his life, vanished and unexplained. He wanted to reassure and comfort the wavering, sorrowful boy, but all he could stammer in apology for his shout was: “Wh—where are you going?”

“What difference does it make to you where I go?” asked the boy drearily. “If you must know, I'm going to Maurice's.”

Mr. Montagu sprang to his feet. With bitten lips he kept himself silent at this final thrust of the hypernatural, but the damp beads had returned to his brow. His terror lasted only a moment, and in his resurging desire to hold back the boy, he demanded both curiously and assertively:

“What are you going to Maurice's for?”

He had not supposed that there was a particle of color in the pitiful face, but as the boy answered, a delicate flesh-tint seemed to leave it, turning him deathly white.

“I—I want to look at the women,” he said.

At his agitation and pallor, the hectic whisper of his voice, above all, the light of fiendish hate that leapt into his beautiful eyes and ravaged their look, a physical sensation crept through the older man from head to foot and held him motionless.

But it was not horror at the boy himself. As he stood there wan and shivering before him, every best instinct in Henry Montagu rushed uppermost, and he felt that he would give anything in his life, gladly devote, if not actually give, that life itself, to set the boy right with the world. And with his terror gone and his horror going, he impulsively walked across the room and stood between him and the door.

“Why do you leave me this way? You mustn't mind what I say to you or how I say it, for it can't be any more abrupt or strange than the way you came here. I don't want you to go to Maurice's. And if you do, I'm going with you.”

“No! No!” cried the boy fearfully.

“I don't want you to leave me. I want you to confide in me. I want you to trust me, and to tell me, without fear, what it is you've done.”

“No, no, no, no! Don't ask me to!” cried the boy.

“I do ask you to. I have some right to know. I'd be justified in detaining you if I wanted to—”

“You couldn't!” cried the trembling youth passionately.

“I said I'd be justified. Are you, in dashing like a shot into my life and then leaving me without a word to explain it? I've played host to you gladly, though you've torn my nerves to pieces. Remember how you came here!”

“Yes! Yes!” ejaculated the boy bitterly. “I'm an intruder! I forced myself on you and I know it! God knows I know it!”

“I didn't mean it unkindly. I tell you, I want you to stay! I want you to, no matter what you are or what you've done. You've admitted that you've done something—something terrific—”

“And I have!” cried the boy, his eyes lighting wildly. “At last, at last! I've done it, I've done it!”

“And in spite of it, I want you to stay! Whatever it is, I want to protect you from the consequences of it!”

“Look to yourself!” cried the boy. “You'll curse me yet for coming here! Let me go, and protect yourself!”

“I am no longer considering myself, I've done that too much in my life, and to-night I'm reckless. No matter what the crime you've done—”

“Crime?” His visitor flashed wondering eyes upon him. “You fool! You fool!” Again, the exclamation was like an echo of himself, but Mr. Montagu had no time to entertain the thought, for the boy was stammering out his astonishment in hysterical syllables. “I—a criminal! I—I—Oh, I might have known it would seem that way to you! But I—”

Again under the penetrating gaze his host felt himself morbidly guilty, but there was a thrill of gladness in his heart that now welcomed the grim alternative of the boy's simple madness.

“Stay with me!” he cried. “Sleep here, and rest, and then—”

“Let me go to Maurice's!” cried the boy desperately. “You'll regret it if you don't! Oh, for the pity of God, for pity of yourself, let me leave you while I still offer to leave you!”

Mr. Montagu backed himself against the door.

“Why do you want to go there?” he demanded. “What is it you want to look at the women in Maurice's for?”

The boy hung fire under the determined voice.

“The—the women who go to Maurice's are—are—of a—certain kind, aren't they?”

“Some of them—most of them,” said Mr. Montagu. “If you've never been there, why do you want so to go? They're not unusual; simply—painted women.”

“Painted?” repeated the boy in astonishment. He turned to the portrait. “That's a painted woman, too. Aren't they alive at Maurice's?”

In his marvel at the enormous innocence of it, Mr. Montagu wondered, for the first time, what the young man's age could definitely be, but in a moment he remembered the one pitiful way to account for the pathetic question, and his voice was very gentle as he said:

“My boy, if you have your heart set on going to Maurice's, you shall go. But surely, after this mysterious time together in my house, and knowing that whatever you may be I welcome your companionship, you won't refuse my request to let me go with you? To say that I've enjoyed it would be to put a queer word to a terrible business that I have no way of understanding. But until you came I was bitterly, hungrily lonely—”

“Don't! Don't!” cried the boy. He had begun to tremble at the earnest tenderness of the voice. “I can't bear it! You don't know what you're talking about! Oh! let me go to Maurice's, and let me go alone! If you insist on going with me I can't stop you—”

“I do insist,” said Mr. Montagu.

“But I can plead with you not to! And I can warn you what the price will be! Oh—” and he stretched out his hands in so imploring a gesture that his host could see the dull, dried blood of his cruelly injured wrists—“for God's sake, for God's sake, believe what I tell you! If you leave this house with me to-night, you're lost! Oh, God, God, I see you don't believe me! Tell me this, I beg of you, I demand of you—did you feel that I was in the hall to-night, before you opened the door?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Montagu.

“Had I made any noise?”

“No.”

“Then I can prove to you that I know what I'm saying! I did that! I made you feel me! Till after you let me in, I wasn't strong enough to make a sound! Yet I made you know I was there! Am I telling the truth, then? When I started to leave you, and now, even now, in warning you I was doing, I am doing, a more unselfish thing, a decenter thing, than any you've ever done in all your years of life! It's because I like you more than I want to! I'm unselfish, I tell you! I wanted you to go to Maurice's with me! I intended to make you, as I made you let me in! But if you do, you'll find me out! I'll tell you! I won't be able to conceal it! You'll know the truth about me! You've said all this was mysterious—for your own sake, let it stay so! You needn't think all truths are beautiful, and the truth about me is the most ghastly in the universe!”

“I want to find you out,” said Mr. Montagu, steadying his voice. “I want to know the truth.”

“By that cross and crown of thorns that mean so much to you and nothing at all to me,” implored the boy, “don't go! I swear to you, mine is a more terrible secret than any living heart has ever held! You'll hate me, and I don't want you to! Oh, while I don't, while I'm merciful to you, believe me, and let me go alone! No loneliness that you could ever suffer would equal the price that you will pay if you go with me!”

Though the sense of horror sweeping indomitably through him was worse than any he had felt before, Mr. Montagu's answer was deliberate and resolute:

“I told myself only a few minutes ago that I would sacrifice anything in my life, almost my life itself, to—well, to this. Do you mean that the price would be—my—death?”

He threw every possible significance demandingly into the word, and the boy's voice was suddenly quiet in its tensity as he gazed back at him.

“It would be worse than death,” he said solemnly. “If you let me go, and face your loneliness here, there's a chance for you, though I've warned you as it is. If you leave the house with me to-night, you're as lost as I am, and I am irretrievably damned and always have been damned. As truly as you see me standing before you now, the price is—madness.”

“Come,” said Mr. Montagu, and without another word he opened the door.

At Maurice's, Mr. Montagu led the way to the far side of the big room, threading in a zigzag through the gleam of bright silver, the glitter of white linen, the crimson of deep carnations. Maurice's in its own way was admirably tasteful; as distinctively quiet and smooth in its manners and rich hangings as it was distinctly loud in its lights and ragged in its music. No after-theatre corner of Broadway had a crisper American accent of vice, or displayed vice itself more delicately lacquered. The place was as openly innocent as a street, with a street's sightless and irresponsible gaze for what occurred in it. And nothing remarkable occurred, save the fungus growth of what was to occur elsewhere.

Mr. Montagu, on the way to the table, looked several times over his shoulder, ostensibly to speak to his companion, but in reality to see whether the extraordinary boy was running the gantlet of eyes he had presupposed he would. And each time he met inquisitive faces that were not only staring but listening.

His own conspicuousness was grilling, but it was part and parcel of his insistent bargain; he could understand, quite sympathetically, how the youth's appearance, as awful as it was immaculate, should pound open the heart of any woman alive; and his suppressed excitement was too powerful for him to resent even the obvious repugnance in the faces of the men until he imagined an intentional discourtesy to the boy on the part of the waiter.

To himself, the man was over-servile, and elaborately cautious in pulling out his chair, but he stood, with his face quite white, and his back to the boy, and pulled out none for him. Henry Montagu had never yet bullied a waiter, and he did not bully now. But with an icy glare of reproof at the man, he rose and set the chair for his guest himself.

“Shall I order for you?” he asked gently as the boy sat quietly down; and made irritably incisive by the tendency of near-by men and women to listen as well as watch, he emphasized his expensive order of foods and wines, repeated each item loudly to cheapen the listeners, and sent the man scuttling.

In his intense desire to see the effect of the queerly chosen place on his queerly chosen companion, he now turned to him. And as he saw the effect, every shock of the night seemed to recoil upon him. The feeling of mystery; the foreboding, despite his courage and his conviction that the boy was mad, of the imminent unknown; his recurrent and absorbing curiosity to learn the gruesome secret that he had declared; all rushed one by one back upon him, and then as swiftly left him to the simple grip of horror at his face. It was gazing at woman after woman, here, there and yonder, throughout the large room, deliberately, searchingly, venomously, its great eyes and set lips and every tense haggard line fuller and fuller of an undying hate that eclipsed even that which had shaken Henry Montagu before they came. Appalled and fascinated, he looked with him, and back at him, and with him again, to the next and the next. There were women there, and ladies of every sort, good, bad and indecipherable; yet in every instance the childlike, horribly sophisticated eyes had picked their victim unerringly, deterred by neither clothes, veneer, nor manner.

As he stared with him from frightened female face to frightened female face, Mr. Montagu realized shamefully that his own features were helplessly mirroring the detestation of the boy's, and he changed from very pale to very red himself as woman after woman flushed crimson under his gaze. Yet the boy's face grew calm and his voice was perfectly so as he turned at last from his horrid review and met the eyes of his host.

“I see what you meant, now, by 'painted' women. Well, they'd much better be dead!”

At the tone, cruelly cool as if he planned to see that they were, Mr. Montagu shivered. “Why, why do you hate them like that?” he whispered.

The fierce anger flickered dangerously in the great eyes again.

“Because they're my enemy! Because they and the wicked thing they mean are my prowling, triumphant enemy, and the enemy of all others like me!”

“Oh, my boy, my boy!” pleaded the man of the world, sickly. “You don't realize it, but I can tell you from appearances—some of those women you stared at are here with their husbands!”

“So was your wife when she came here,” said the boy.

Mr. Montagu fell back in his chair with a gasp. As swiftly as it had leapt into his mind, the frightful implication of the words leapt out again in his amazement at the boy's knowledge of the incident.

But the waiter stepped between them with the order, and in obvious terror now instead of simple aversion, clattered it down with trembling hands.

“Go away! Go away!” commanded Mr. Montagu angrily. “I'll arrange it! Go!” And the waiter escaped.

“How did you know?” he asked; but without waiting for a reply he poured out the boy's wine and his own, and took a long hasty draft.

“Now, how did you?”

“Oh!” cried the boy piteously. “Don't ask me! I shouldn't have said it! I knew I'd let it out if you came here with me! I'll be telling you everything in a minute, and you'll go stark mad when you know!”

The inference rushed again upon Henry Montagu, a worse vague horror than any yet, and he almost sprang from his chair.

“Are you going to tell me my wife was unfaithful to me, and with—with—”

“Fool! Fool!” cried the boy. “I wish to God she had been unfaithful to you! I tried to make her, I can tell you that! Then there'd have been at least half a chance for me! But now that she's dead, there's no chance for either of us, even you! Unless—O God!—unless you'll control yourself and think! I beg you again, I beg of you, think again! Go away from here, go now, without asking me anything more, and there's just a shade of a chance for you! I told you there was none if you left the house, but there may be, there may be! Go home, and forget this, and be satisfied your wife loved you, for she did. She kept herself for you at my expense! Go now, and they'll let you go. But if you stay here and talk to me, you'll leave this place in manacles! I'm here, among those women, and I'm with you! My secret will come out and drag you down, as I planned it should before I began to like you! And you like me, too—I feel it. For my sake, then, for God's sake and for your sake, won't you go ?”

“No!” cried Mr. Montagu, almost roughly in his eagerness. “I don't judge you, but it's your duty, and in your power, to put me where I can! I harbored you, thinking you were a frightened fugitive, and you weren't. I'm your voluntary host in circumstances of mysterious horror and you ask me to quit you in ignorance! I won't! You sicken me with a doubt about the wife I loved—Who are you? What are you?”

“If you believed I knew as much of her as I said I did,” cried the boy, “why don't you believe me when I assure you that she loved you? What more should you demand? I meant everything I said, and more—your wife was nothing but a licensed wanton, and you knew it! You ask me who and what I am—so long as she loved you, who are you, and what are you, to point a finger at her?”

A rush of instinctive fury filled the man, but he felt as dazed at finding himself angry at the beautiful unhappy youth, as if he had known him for years, and he only gasped and stared.

“If you think I'm crazy,” cried the boy, “I'll show you, as I showed you once before, that I know what I'm talking about! I'll tell you something that was a secret between you two, and your wife didn't tell me, either! The night you'd been here, after you'd gone home, after you were locked in your room, you disputed about this place! She refused to come here again, and she refused to tell you why! But I know why!”

Once more Mr. Montagu gasped and with a thrill of wondering terror.

“Who are you and what are you?” he demanded. “I command you to solve this mystery and solve it now!”

His voice had risen to a shout, but a sudden lump in his throat silenced it, for the boy was weeping again.

“Oh,” wept the boy, “if you've liked me at all, put it off as long as you can, for you'll make me tell you I hate you, and why I hate you!”

Hate me?”

It had struck Henry Montagu like a flail in the face, wiping away his anger, his astonishment at the boy's uncanny knowledge, even his astonishment that the word was able to strike him so.

“I—I've suffered enough through you!” he stammered painfully. “And if I've got to suffer more, I insist on doing it now and getting it over with!”

“Don't! don't! It will never be over with!” gulped the boy.

“I'm through!” cried Mr. Montagu. “Who are you? What are you?”

At the determined finality of the voice the boy quivered like a helpless thing, and his stuttering ejaculations came as if shaken out of him by the shivering of his body.

“Wh—who am I?”

Yes!

“Wh—what am I?”

Yes!

Never yet had he been so awful as in the torment and majesty that gazed like fate at Henry Montagu now, and the frightful fire of the eyes seemed to dry up the tears on his cheeks at its first flare of accusing righteousness.

I'm the child that you and your wife refused to have!

As the aghast man shrank back before his blighting fury, he leaned farther and farther toward him.

Now do you know why I hate you as no human thing can hate? Your wilful waste has made my hideous want! Now do you know why I said I'd done a more terrific thing than had ever been done in the world's history before? I've gotten in! At last, at last, I've gotten in, in spite of you, and after she was dead! I've done a greater and more impossible thing than that great Mystery the world adores! I've gotten in despite you, and without even a woman's help! When we spoke of that life once before to-night, I shocked you! Do you believe now that my history is more terrible, or not? He suffered, and suffered, and He died. But He'd lived! His torture was a few hours—for mine to-night, I've waited almost as many years as He did, and to what end? To nothing! God, God, do you see that?”

He twisted open his hands and held out his bruised wrists before the trembling man's eyes. “For all those years—”

He suddenly drew himself to his full height and threw them passionately above his head in the posture that had haunted Henry Montagu from the first instant's glimpse of him.

“For all those endless years, ever since your marriage-night, I've stood beating, beating, beating at the door of life until my wrists have bled! And you didn't hear me! You couldn't and she wouldn't! You didn't want to! You wouldn't listen! And you—you never have heard that desperate pounding and calling, not even to-night, though even so, with that woman out of the way, I made you feel me! But she'd heard me, the ghoul! She heard me again and again! I made her! I told her what she was, and that you knew it, and I meant it! Her marriage certificate was her license! She gave you a wanton's love, and you gave her just what you got! And I made her understand that! I made her understand it right here in this place! That's why I wanted to come here—I could see only her picture, and I wanted to see a real one of them! Until to-night, I could never see either of you, but I always knew where you were!

“And when you brought her here, I made her look at that enemy of me and my kind that I could always feel—those women that she was one of and that she knew she was one of when I screamed it at her in this place! For I was with you two that night! I was with you till after you'd gone home, you demons! That's why she'd never come near the place again, the coward, the miserable coward! That's why I hate her worse than I hate you! There's a pitiful little excuse for the men, because they're stupider.

“For the hideous doom of all our hopeless millions, the women are more wickedly to blame, because they must face the fact that we are waiting to get in. God, God, I'd gladly be even a woman, if I could! But you're bad enough—bad enough—bad enough to deserve the fate you face to-night! And now, God help you, you're facing it, just as I said you would! You deserve it because you were put here with a purpose and you flatly wouldn't fulfil it! God only demands that mankind should be made in His image. In a wisdom that you have no right to question. He lets the images go their own way, as you've gone yours. Yet you, and all others like you, the simple, humble image-workers, instead of rejoicing that you have work to do, set your little selves up far greater than Great God, and actually decide whether men shall even be!

“You have a lot of hypercritical, self-justifying theories about it—that it's better for them not to live at all than to suffer some of the things that life, even birth itself, can wither them with. But there never yet was any living creature, no matter how smeared and smitten, that told the truth when he said he wished he'd never been born, while we, the countless millions of the lost, pound and shriek for life—forever shriek and hope! That's the worst anguish of the lost—they hope! I've shown what can be done through that anguish, as it's never been shown before. Even the terrible night that woman died, I hoped! I hoped more than ever, for knowing then that for all eternity it was too late, I hoped for revenge! And revenge was my right! Yes, every solitary soul has a right to live, even if it lives to wreck, kill, madden its parents! And now, oh, God, I've got my revenge when I no longer want it! The way you took me in, the way you wanted me to stay when I'd almost frightened you to death, made me want to spare you! It was my fate that I—I liked you—I—more than liked you. And I tried to save you! Oh, God, God, how I've tried!”

As he stood with his hands thrown forth again and his wretched eyes staring into those of the white-faced man, Henry Montagu met the wild gaze unflinchingly. He had sat dumbstruck and shuddering, but the spasmodic quivering of his body had lessened into calmness, and his whispered, slow words gained in steadiness as they came: “My boy, I admit you've nearly driven me to madness just now. I was close to the border! I can't dispute one shred of reproach, of accusation, of contempt. Your fearful explanation of this night, the awful import of your visit and yourself have shaken me to the center of my being. But its huge consistency is that of a madman. You poor, you pitiful, deluded boy, you tell me to believe you are an unborn soul, while you stand there and exist before my eyes!”

The boy gave a cry of agony—agony so immortal that as he sank into his chair and clutched the table, an echoing moan of it wrenched from the older man.

“I don't exist! Didn't I tell you my secret was more terrible than any living heart had ever held? I'm real to you since I made you let me into your thoughts to-night. I'm real to you, and through your last moment of consciousness through eternity I always will be! But I won't be with you! You don't believe me yet, but the moment you do, I won't be here! And I never can be real to any other creature in the universe—not even that prostitute who refused to be my mother! I don't exist, and never can exist!”

“But you do! You do! You do! You're there before me now!” gasped Mr. Montagu through chattering teeth. “How can you deny that you're sitting here with me in this restaurant? I forgive you—I love you, and I forgive you, but, thank God, I see through you at last! You're a fanatic, a poor, frenzied maniac on this subject, and you've morbidly spied on and studied me as a typical case of it; through your devilish understanding and divination you've guessed at that conversation between me and my wife, and like the creature I pictured you in my house, a ravening, devouring thing, you've sought to drag me into your hell of madness! But you shan't! I tell you I see through you at last, you pitiful mad creature! You know you're there before my eyes, and just so truly as you are, not one syllable do I believe of what you've told me!”

As the boy sprang with a venomous shout to his feet, all the hate in his terrible being sprang tenfold into his eyes.

“Do you call me 'mad,' and 'creature'? Do you dare deny me, now, after all I've told you? You coward, you coward! You've denied me life, but you can't deny this night! The people in this place will let you know presently! I tried to spare you. Though I'd thirsted for my revenge I pleaded with you, prayed to you to spare yourself! If you'd stayed in the house, you might have come to your senses and forgotten me! But what hope for you is there now? Do you still believe I exist? Look back at the night! Do you remember the portrait? You commanded me to stop—commanded, as you've always commanded my fate, and I was powerless. To me, that was a parental command—from you, you who deliberately wouldn't be my parent! Did you see me wince under it? If you hadn't done it, you'd have found me out right then! I'm not a physical thing, and I couldn't have moved it! I only said I was going to Maurice's! I couldn't have come here if you hadn't brought me! When you wondered, as we were starting out, whether I had a hat, I stooped down in the hall. But you only thought I picked one up! As we came in here, you only thought I checked it! Did you see the man stare as you reached out to take my check away from me? Have I eaten or drunk to-night? I've not, for I'm not a creature! And mad, I? Look to yourself, as I told you to look before it was too late! You fool, you've been staring inoffensive women out of countenance, with all the hate from my face printed on yours, and in the eyes of all these people you've been sitting here for half an hour talking to yourself, and ordering wine and food for an empty chair! You won't ever believe you're mad, but every one else will!”

“So help me God,” cried Henry Montagu, white and trembling, “you're there! I swear you're there!”

“So help you God, I'm there!” cried the boy frightfully, pointing straight at him.

“Right there, in your brain, there, there, and only there! I'm no more flesh and blood than—than I ever was, because, you murderer, you and your damned wife never would let me be! Well, do you see through me now?”

“No! No!” screamed Mr. Montagu. “I don't see through you! I don't!” But as he leaned forward to clutch at him in his terror, all that he could see before him was a closed door beyond a dozen tables, a disused entranceway diagonally opposite the one that had let them in. “I don't believe you!” he wailed. “Oh, my God, my God, my God, where are you?” He turned frantically to the men and women nearest him. “You saw him! There was a boy with me, wasn't there? Wasn't there? Yes, see, there, isn't he going for that door? Oh, my boy, my boy!” And he dashed toward it. He heard the terrible screams of women, and chairs and a table crashed in his wake. He reached it. It was locked.

Desperately sobbing, he hurled himself against it.

It seemed to him as if all the men in the restaurant fell upon him. Strong, merciless hands dragged down and pinioned the wrists with which he had beaten against the door.

 
 
 

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