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A Tribute of Souls by Robert Smythe Hichens

 

PRELUDE

The matter of Carlounie, the village of Perthshire in Scotland, is become notorious in the world. The name of its late owner, his remarkable transformation, his fortunate career, his married life, the brooding darkness that fell latterly upon his mind, the flaming deed that he consummated, its appalling outcome, and the finding of him by Mr Mackenzie, the minister of the parish of Carlounie, sunk in a pool of the burn that runs through a “den” close to his house—all these things are fresh in the minds of many men. It has been supposed that he had discovered a common intrigue between his wife, Kate, formerly an hospital nurse, and his tenant, Hugh Fraser of Piccadilly, London. It has been universally thought that this discovery led to the last action of his life. The following pages, found among his papers, seem to put a very different complexion on the affair, although they suggest a mediæval legend rather than a history of modern days. It may be added that careful enquiries have been made among the inhabitants of Carlounie, and that no man, woman, or child has been discovered who ever saw, or heard of, the grey traveller mentioned in Alistair Ralston's narrative.

I

THE STRANGER BY THE BURN

Can a fever change a man's whole nature, giving him powers that he never had before? Can he go into it impotent, starved, naked, emerge from it potent, satisfied, clothed with possibilities that are wonders, that are miracles to him? It must be so; it is so. And yet—I must go back to that sad autumn day when I walked beside the burn. Can I write down my moods, my feelings of that day and of the following days? And if I can, does that power of pinning the butterfly of my soul down upon the board—does that power, too, bud, blossom from a soil mysteriously fertilised by illness? Formerly, I could as easily have flown in the air to the summit of cloud-capped Schiehallion as have set on paper even the smallest fragment of my mind. Now—well, let me see, let me still further know my new, my marvellous self.

Yes, that first day! It was Autumn, but only early Autumn. The leaves were changing colour upon the birch trees, upon the rowans. At dawn, mists stood round to shield the toilet of the rising sun. At evening, they thronged together like a pale troop of shadowy mutes to assist at his departure to the under world. It was a misty season, through which the bracken upon the hillsides of my Carlounie glowed furtively in tints of brown and of orange; and my mind, my whole being, seemed to move in mists. I was just twenty-two, an orphan, master of my estate of Carlounie, a Scotch laird, and my own governor. And some idiots envied me then, as many begin to envy me now. I even remember one ghastly old man who clapped me on the shoulder, and, with the addition of an unnecessary oath, swore that I was “a lucky youngster.” I, with my thin, chétif body, my burning, weakly, starved, and yet ambitious soul—lucky! I remember that I broke into a harsh laugh, and longed to kill the babbling beast.

And it was the next day, in the afternoon, that I took that book—my Bible—and went forth alone to the long den in which the burn hides and cries its presence. Yes, I took Goethe's “Faust,” and my own complaining spirit, and went out into the mist with my misty, clouded mind. My cousin Gavin wanted me to go out shooting. He laughed and rallied me upon my ill-luck on the previous day, when I had gone out and been the joke of my own keepers because I had missed every bird; and I turned and railed at him, and told him to leave me to myself. And, as I went, I heard him muttering, “That wretched little fellow! To think that he should be owner of Carlounie!” Now, he sings another tune.

With “Faust” in my hand, and hatred in my heart, I went out into the delicately chilly air, down the winding ways of the garden, through the creaking iron gateway. I emerged on to the wilder land, irregular, grass-covered ground, strewn with grey granite boulders, among which coarse, wiry ferns grew sturdily. The blackfaced sheep whisked their broad tails at me as I passed, then stooped their ever-greedy mouths to their damp and eternal meal again. I heard the thin and distant cry of a hawk, poised somewhere up in the mist. The hills, clothed in the death-like glory of the bracken, loomed around me, like some phantom, tricked-out procession passing through desolate places. And then I heard the voice of the burn—that voice which is even now for ever in my ears. To me that day it was the voice of one alive; and it is the voice of one alive to me now. I descended the sloping hill with my lounging, weak-kneed gait, at which the creatures who called me master had so often looked contemptuously askance. (I was often tired at that time.) I descended, I say, until I reached the edge of the tree-fringed den, and the burn was noisy in my ears. I could see it now, leaping here and there out of its hiding-place—ivory foam among the dripping larches, and the birches with their silver stems; ivory foam among the deep brown and flaming orange of the bracken, and in that foam a voice calling—calling me to come down into its hiding-place, presided over by the mists—to come down into its hiding-place, away from men: away from the living creatures whom I hated because I envied them, because they were stronger than I, because they could do what I could not do, say what I could not say. Gavin, Dr Wedderburn, my tenants, the smallest farm boy, the grooms, the little leaping peasants—I hated, I hated them all. And then I obeyed the voice of the ivory foam, and I went down into the hiding-place of the burn.

It ran through strange and secret places where the soft mists hung in wet wreaths. I seemed to be in another world when I was in its lair. On the sharply rising banks stood the sentinel trees like shadows, some of them with tortured and tormented shapes. As I turned and looked straight up the hill of the burn's descending course, the mountain from which it came closed in the prospect inexorably. A soft gloom hemmed us in—me and the burn which talked to me. We two were out of the world which I hated and longed to have at my feet. Yes, we were in another world, full of murmuring and of restful unrest; and now that I was right down at the water-side, the ivory face of my friend, the ivory lips that spoke to me, the ivory heart that beat against my heart—so sick and so weary—were varied and were changed. As thoughts streak a mind, the clear amber of the pools among the rocks streaked the continuous foam that marked the incessant leaps taken by the water towards the valley. The silence of those pools was brilliant, like the pauses for contemplation in a great career of action; and their silence spoke to me, mingling mysteriously with the voice of the foam. The course of the burn is broken up, and attended by rocks that have been modelled by the action of the running water into a hundred shapes. Some are dressed in mosses, yellow and green, like velvet to the touch, and all covered with drops of moisture; some are gaunt and naked and deplorable, with sharp edges and dry faces. The burn avoids some with a cunning and almost coquettish grace, dashes brutally against others, as if impelled by an internal violence of emotion. Others, again, it caresses quite gently, and would be glad to linger by, if Nature would allow the dalliance. And this army of rocks helps to give to the burn its charm of infinite variety, and to fill its voice with a whole gamut of expression; for the differing shape of each boulder, against which it rushes in its long career, gives it a different note. It flickers across the small and round stone with the purling cry of a child. From the stone curved inwards, and with a hollow bosom it gains a crooning, liquid melody. The pointed and narrow colony of rocks which break it into an intricate network of small water threads, toss it, chattering frivolously, towards the dark pool under the birches, where the trout play like sinister shadows and the insects dance in the sombre pomp of Autumn; and when it gains a great slab that serves it for a spring-board, from which it takes a mighty leap, its voice is loud and defiant, and shrieks with a banshee of triumph—in which, too, there is surely an undercurrent of wailing woe. Oh, the burn has many voices among the rocks, under the ferns and the birch trees, in the brooding darkness of the mists and shadows, between the steep walls of the green banks that hem it in! Many voices which can sing, when they choose, one song, again and again and—monotonously—again!

So—now on this sad Autumn day—I was with the burn in its hiding-place, cool, damp, fretful. Carlounie sank from my sight. My garden, the wilder land beyond, the moors on which yesterday my incompetence as a shot had roused the contempt of my cousin and of my hirelings—all were lost to view. I was away from all men in this narrow, tree-shrouded cleft of a world. I sat down on a rock, and, stretching out my legs, rested my heels on another rock. Beneath my legs the clear brown water glided swiftly. I sat and listened to its murmur. And, just then, it did not occur to me that water can utter words like men. The murmur was suggestive but definitely inarticulate. I had come down here to be away and to think. The murmur of my mind spoke to the murmur of the burn; and, as ever, in those days, it lamented and cursed and bitterly complained.

Why, why was I pursued by a malady of incompetence that clung to both mind and body? (So ran my thoughts.) Why was I bruised and beaten by Providence? Why had I been given a soul that could not express itself in the frame of a coward, a weakling, a thin, nervous, dwarfish, almost a deformed, creature? If my soul had corresponded exactly to my body, then all might have been well enough. I should have been more complete, although less, in some way, than I now was. For such a soul would have accepted cowardice, weakness, inferiority to others as suitable to it, as a right fate. Such a soul would never have known the meaning of the word rebellion, would never have been able to understand its own cancer of disease, to diagnose the symptoms of its villainous and creeping malady. It would never have aspired like a flame, and longed in vain to burn clearly and grandly or to flicker out for ever. Rather would such a soul have guttered on like some cheap and ill-smelling candle, shedding shadows rather than any light, ignorant of its own obscurity, regardless of the possibilities that teem like waking children in the wondrous womb of life, oblivious of the contempt of the souls around it, heedless of ambition, of the trumpet call of success, of the lust to be something, to do something, of the magic, of the stinging magic of achievement. With such a soul in my hateful, pinched, meagre, pallid body—I thought, sitting thus by the burn—I might have been content, an utterly low, and perhaps an utterly satisfied product of the fiend creation.

But my soul was not of this kind, and so I was the most bitterly miserable of men. God—or the Devil—had made me ill-shaped, physically despicable, with the malign sort of countenance that so often accompanies and illustrates a bad poor body. My limbs, without being actually twisted, were shrunken and incompetent—they would not obey my desires as do the limbs of other men. My legs would not grip a horse. When I rode I was a laughing-stock. My arms had no swiftness, no agility, no delicate and subtle certainty. When I tried to box, to fence, I was one whirling, jigging incapacity. I had feeble sight, and objects presented themselves to my vision so strangely that I could not shoot straight. I, Alistair Ralston the young Laird of Carlounie! When I walked my limbs moved heavily and awkwardly. I had no grace, no lightness, no ordinary, quite usual competence of bodily power. And this was bitter, yet as nothing to the Marah that lay beyond. For my body was in a way complete. It was a wretch. But when you came to the mind you had the real tragedy. In many decrepit flesh temples there dwells a commanding spirit, as a great God might dwell—of mysterious choice—in a ruinous and decaying lodge in a wilderness. And such a spirit rules, disposes, presides, develops, has its own full and superb existence, triumphing not merely over, but actually through the contemptible body in which it resides, so that men even are led to worship the very ugliness and poverty of this body, to adore it for its power to retain such a mighty spirit within it. Such a spirit was not mine. Had it been, I might have been happy by the burn that Autumn day. Had it been, I might never—But I am anticipating, and I must not anticipate. I must sit with the brown water rushing beneath the arch of my limbs, and recall the horror of my musing.

In a manner, then, my soul matched my body. It was feeble and incompetent too. My brain was dull and clouded. My intellect was sluggish and inert. But—and this was the terror for me!—within the rank nest of my soul—my spirit—lay coiled two vipers that never ceased from biting me with their poisoned fangs—Self-consciousness and Ambition. I knew myself, and I longed to be other than I was. I watched my own incompetence as one who watches from a tower. I divined how others regarded me—precisely. The blatant and comfortable egoism of a dwarf mind in a dwarf body was never for one moment mine. I was that terrible anomaly, an utterly incomplete and incompetent thing that adored, with a curious wildness of passion, completeness, competence. Nor had I a soul that could ever be satisfied with a one-sided perfection. My desires were Gargantuan. When I was with my cousin Gavin, a fine all-round sportsman, I longed with fury to be a good shot, to throw a fly as he did, to have a perfect seat on a horse. I felt that I would give up years of life to beat him once in any of his pursuits. When I was with Dr Wedderburn, my desires, equally intense, were utterly different. He represented in my neighbourhood Intellect—with a capital I. A man of about fifty, minister of the parish of Carlounie, he was astonishingly adroit as a controversialist, astonishingly eloquent as a divine. His voice was full of music. His eyes were full of light and of the most superb self-confidence. He rested upon his intellect as a man may rest upon a rock. The power of his personality was calm and immense. I felt it vehemently. I shook and trembled under it. I hated and loathed the man for it, because I wanted and could never possess it. So, too, I hated my cousin Gavin for his possessions, his long and sure-sighted eyes, great and strong arms, broad chest, lithe legs, bright agility. My body could do nothing. My soul could do nothing—except one great thing. It could fully observe and comprehend its own impotence. It could fully and desperately envy and pine to be what it could never be. Could never be, do I say? Wait! Remember that is only what I thought then as I sat upon the rock, and, with haggard young eyes, watched the clear brown water slipping furtively past between my knees.

My disease seemed to culminate that day, I remember. I was a sick invalid alone in the mist. Something—it might have been vitriol—was eating into me, eating, eating its way to my very heart, to the core of me. Oh, to be stunted and desire to be straight and tall, to be dwarf and wish to be giant, to be stupid and long to be a genius, to be ugly and yearn to be in face as one of the shining gods, to have no power over men, and to pine to fascinate, hold, dominate a world of men—this indeed is to be in hell! I was in hell that Autumn day. I clenched my thin, weak hands together. I clenched my teeth from which the pale lips were drawn back in a grin; and I realised all the spectral crowd of my shortcomings. They stood before me like demons of the Brocken—yes, yes, of the Brocken!—and I cursed God with the sound of the burn ringing and chattering in my ears. And I devoted Gavin, Doctor Wedderburn, every man highly placed, every lowest peasant, who could do even one of all the things I could not do, to damnation. The paroxysm that took hold of me was like a fit, a convulsion. I came out of it white and feeble. And, suddenly, the voice of the burn seemed to come from a long way off. I put out my hand, and took up from the rock on which I had laid it, “Faust.” And, scarcely knowing what I did, I began mechanically to read—to the dim rapture of the burn—

Scene III.—The Study. Faust (entering, with the poodle).” I began to read, do I say, mechanically? Yes, it is true, but soon, very soon, the spell of Goethe was laid upon me. I was in the lofty-arched, narrow Gothic chamber, with that living symbol of the weariness, broken ambition, learned despair of all the ages. I was engrossed. I heard the poodle snarling by the stove. I heard the spirits whispering in the corridor. Vapour rose—or was it indeed the mist from the mountains among the birch trees?—and out of the vapour came Mephistopheles in the garb of a travelling scholar. And then—and then the great bargain was struck. I heard—yes, I did, I actually, and most distinctly, heard a voice—Faust's—say, “Let us the sensual deeps explore.... Plunge we in Time's tumultuous dance, In the rush and roll of circumstance. “ A pause; then the Student's grave and astonished tones came to me: Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum. The cloak was spread, and on the burning air Faust was wafted to his new life—nay, not to his new life merely, but to life itself. He vanished with his guide in a coloured, flower-like mist. I dropped my hand holding the book down upon the cold rock by which the cold water splashed. It felt burning hot to my touch. My head fell upon my breast, and I had my dreams—dreams of the life of Faust and of its glories, gained by this bargain that he made. And then—yes, then it was!—the voice of the burn, as from leagues away in the bosom of this very mist, began to sing like a fairy voice, or a voice in dreams, and in visions of the night, “If it was so then, it might be so now.” At first I scarcely heeded it, for I was enwrapt. But the song grew louder, more insistent. It was travelling to me from a far country. I heard it coming: “If it was so then, it might be so now”—“If it was so then, it might be so now.” How near it was at last, how loud in my ears! And yet always there was something vague, visionary about it, something of the mist, I think. At length I heard it with the attention that is of earth. I came to myself, out of the narrow Gothic chamber in which the genius of Goethe had prisoned me, and I stared into the mist, which was gathering thicker as the night began to fall. It seemed flower-like, and full of strange and mysterious colour. I trembled. I got up. Still I heard the voice of the burn singing that monotonous legend, on, and on, and on. Slowly I turned. I climbed the bank of the den. The sheep scattered lethargically at my approach. I passed through the creaking iron gate into the garden. Carlounie was before me. There was something altered, something triumphant about its aspect. The voice of the burn faded in a long diminuendo. Yet, even as I gained the door of my house, and, before entering it, paused in an attentive attitude, I heard the water chanting faintly from the den—“If it was so then, it might be so now.” ... As I came into the hall, in which Gavin and Dr Wedderburn stood together talking earnestly, I remember that I shivered. Yet my cheeks were glowing.

       * * * * *

From that moment not a day passed without my visiting the burn. It summoned me. Always it sang those words persistently. The sound of the water can be very faintly heard from the windows of Carlounie. Each day, at dawn, I pushed open the lattice of my bedroom and hearkened to hear if the song had changed. Each night, at moon-rise, or in the darkness through which the soft and small rain fell quietly, I leaned over the sill and listened. Sometimes the wind was loud among the mountains. Sometimes the silence was intense and awful. But in storm or in stillness the burn sang on, ever and ever the same words. At moments I fancied that the voice was as the voice of a man demented, repeating with mirthless frenzy through all his years one hollow sentence. At moments I deemed it the cry of a fair woman, a siren, a Lorelei among my rocks in my valley. Then again I said, “It is a spirit voice, a voice from the inner chamber of my own heart.” And—why I know not—at that last fantasy I shuddered. Even in the midnight from my window ledge I leaned while the world slept and I heard the mystic message of the burn. My visits to its bed were not unobserved. One morning my cousin Gavin said to me roughly, “Why the devil are you always stealing off to that ditch”—so he called the den that was the home of my voice—“when you ought to be practising to conquer your infernal deficiencies? Why, the children of your own keepers laugh at you. Try to shoot straight, man, and be a real man instead of dreaming and idling.” I stared at him and answered, “You don't understand everything.” Once Dr Wedderburn, who had been my tutor, said to me more kindly, “Alistair, action is better for you than thought. Leave the burn alone. You go there to brood. Try to work, for work is the best man-maker after all.”

And to him I said, “Yes, I know!” and flew with a strong wing in the face of his advice. For the voice of the burn was more to me than the voice of Gavin, or of Wedderburn; and the mind of the burn meant more to me than the mind of any man. And so the Autumn died slowly, with a lingering decadence, and shrouded perpetually in mist. I often felt ill, even then. My body was dressed in weakness. Perhaps already the fever was upon me. I wish I could know. Was it crawling in my veins? Was it nestling about my heart and in my brain? Could it be that?...

Certainly during this period life seemed alien to me, and I moved as one apart in a remote world, full of the music of the burn, and full, too, of vague clouds. That is so. Looking back, I know it. Still, I cannot be sure what is the truth. In the late Autumn I paid my last visit to the burn before my illness seized me. The cold of early Winter was in the air and a great stillness. It was afternoon when I left the house walking slowly with my awkward gait. My face, I know, was white and drawn, and I felt that my lips were twitching. I did not carry my volume of Goethe in my hand; but, in its place, held an old book on transcendental magic. The voice of the burn—yes, that alone—had led me to study this book. So now I took it down to the burn. Why? Had I the foolish fancy of introducing my live thing of the den to this strange writing on the black art? Who knows? Perhaps the fever in my veins put the book into my hand. I shivered in the damp cold as I descended the steep ground that lay about the water, which that day seemed to roar in my ears the sentence I had heard so many days and nights. And this time, as I hearkened, my heart and my brain echoed the last words—“It might be so now.” Gaining the edge of the burn, then in heavy spate, I watched for a while the passage of the foam from rock to rock. I peered into the pools, clouded with flood water from the hills, and with whirling or sinking dead leaves. And all my meagre body seemed pulsing with those everlasting words: “Why not now?” I murmured to myself, with a sort of silent sneer, too, at my own absurdity. I remember I glanced furtively around as I spoke. Grey emptiness, grey loneliness, dripping bare trees through whose branches the mist curled silently, cold rocks, the cold flood of the swollen burn—such was the blank prospect that met my eyes.

There was no man near me. There was no one to look at me. I was remote, hidden in a secret place, and the early twilight was already beginning to fall. No one could see me. I opened my old and ragged book, or, rather, let it fall open at a certain page. Upon it I looked for the hundredth time, and read that he who would evoke the Devil must choose a solitary and condemned spot. The burn was solitary. The burn was condemned surely by the despair and by the endless incapacities of the wretched being who owned it. I had taken off my shoes and placed them upon a rock. My feet were bare. My head was covered. I now furtively proceeded to gather together a small heap of sticks and leaves, and to these I set fire, after several attempts. As the flames at last crept up, the mist gathered more closely round me and my fire, as if striving to warm itself at the blaze. The voice of the burn mingled with the uneasy crackle of the twigs, and a murmur of its words seemed to emanate also from the flames, two elements uniting to imitate the utterance of man to my brain, already surely tormented with fever. And now, with my eyes upon my book, I proceeded to trace with the sharp point of a stick in some sandy soil between two rocks a rough Goetic Circle of Black evocations and pacts. From time to time I paused in my work and glanced uneasily about me, but I saw only the mists and the waters.

At length my task was finished, and the time had arrived for the supreme effort of my insane and childish folly. Standing at Amasarac in the Circle, I said aloud the formula of Evocation of the Grand Grimoire, ending with the words “Jehosua, Evam, Zariat, natmik, Come, come, come.”

My voice died away in the twilight, and I stood among the grey rocks waiting, mad creature that I surely was! But only the rippling voice of the burn answered my adjuration. Then I repeated the words in a louder tone, adding menaces and imprecations to my formula. And all the time the fire I had kindled sprang up into the mist; and the twilight of the heavy Autumn fell slowly round me. Again I paused, and again my madness received no satisfaction, no response. But it seemed to me that I heard the browsing sheep on the summit of the right bank of the gully scatter as if at the approach of some one. Yet there was no stir of footsteps. It must have been my fancy, or the animals were merely changing their feeding ground in a troop, as they sometimes will, for no assignable cause. And now I made one last effort, urged by the voice of the burn, which sang so loudly the words which had mingled with my dream of Faust. I cried aloud the supreme appellation, making an effort that brought out the sweat on my forehead, and set the pulses leaping in my thin and shivering body. “Chavajoth! chavajoth! chavajoth! I command thee by the Key of Solomon and the great name Semhamphoras.

       * * * * *

A little way up the course of the burn the dead wood cracked and shuffled under the pressure of descending feet. Again I heard a scattering of the sheep upon the hillside. My hair stirred on my head under my cap, and the noise of the falling water was intolerably loud to me. I wanted to hear plainly, to hear what was coming down to me in the mist. The brush-wood sang nearer. In the heavy and damp air there was the small, sharp report of a branch snapped from a tree. I heard it drop among the ferns close to me. And then in the mist and in the twilight I saw a slim figure standing motionless. It was vague, but less vague than a shadow. It seemed to be a man, or a youth, clad in a grey suit that could scarcely be differentiated from the mist. The flames of my fire, bent by a light breeze that had sprung up, stretched themselves towards it, as if to salute it. And now I could not hear any movement of the sheep; evidently they had gone to a distance. At first, seized with a strange feeling of extreme, almost unutterable fear, I neither moved nor spoke. Then, making a strong effort to regain control of my ordinary faculties, I cried out in the twilight—

“What is that? What is it?”

“Only a stranger who has missed his way on the mountain, and wants to go on to Wester Denoon.”

The voice that came to me from the figure beyond the fire sounded, I remember, quite young, like the voice of a boy. It was clear and level, and perhaps a little formal. So that was all. A tourist—that was all!

“Can you direct me on the way?” the voice said.

I gave the required direction slowly, for I was still confused, nervous, exhausted with my insane practices in the den. But the youth—as I supposed he was—did not move away at once.

“What are you doing by this fire?” he said. “I heard your voice calling by the torrent among the trees when I was a very long way off.”

Strangely, I did not resent the question. Still more strangely, I was impelled to give him the true answer to it.

“Raising the Devil!” he said. “And did he come to you?”

“No; of course not. You must think me mad.”

“And why do you call him?”

Suddenly a desire to confide in this stranger, whose face I could not see now, whose shadowy form I should, in all probability, never see again, came upon me. My usual nervousness deserted me. I let loose my heart in a turbulent crowd of words. I explained my impotence of body and of mind to this grey traveller in the twilight. I dwelt upon my misery. I repeated the cry of the burn and related my insane dream of imitating Faust, of making my poor pact with Lucifer, with the Sphinx of mediæval terrors. When I ceased, the boy's voice answered:—

“They say that in these modern days Satan has grown exigent. It is not enough to dedicate to him your own soul; but you must also pay a tribute of souls to the Cæsar of hell.”

“A tribute of souls?”

“Yes. You must bring, they say, the mystic number, three souls to Satan.”

Suddenly I laughed.

“I could never do that,” I said. “I have no power to seduce man or woman. I cannot win souls to heaven or to hell.”

“But if you received new powers, such as you desire, would you use them to win souls, three souls, to Lucifer?”

“Yes,” I said with passionate earnestness. “I swear to you that I would.”

Suddenly the boy's voice laughed.

Quomodo cecidisti, Lucifer!” he said. “When thou canst not contrive to capture souls for thyself! But,” he added, as if addressing himself once more to me, after this strange ejaculation, “your words have, perhaps, sealed the bond. Who knows? Words that come from the very heart are often deeds. For, as we can never go back from things that we have done, it may be that, sometimes, we can never go back from things that we have said.”

On the words he moved, and passed so swiftly by me into the twilight down the glen that I never saw his face. I turned instinctively to look after him; and, this was strange, it seemed that the wind at that very moment must have turned with me, blowing from, instead of towards, the mountain. This certainly was so; for the tongues of flame from my fire bent backward on a sudden and leaned after the grey traveller, whose steps died swiftly away among the rocks, and on the shuffling dead wood and leaves of the birches and the oaks.

And then there came a singing in my ears, a beating of many drums in my brain. I drooped and sank down by the fire in the mist. My fever came upon me like a giant, and presently Gavin and Doctor Wedderburn, searching in the night, found me in a delirium, and bore me back to Carlounie.

II

THE SOUL OF DR WEDDERBURN

To emerge from a great illness is sometimes dreadful, sometimes divine. To one man the return from the gates of death is a progress of despair. He feels that he cannot face the wild contrasts of the surprising world again, that his courage has been broken upon the wheel, that energy is desolation, and sleep true beauty. To another this return is a marvellous and superb experience. It is like the vivid re-awakening of youth in one who is old, a rapture of the past committing an act of brigandage upon the weariness of the present, a glorious substitution of Eden for the outer courts where is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It will be supposed that I found myself in the first category, a terror-stricken and rebellious mortal when the fever gave me up to the world again. For the world had always been cruel to me, because I was afraid of it, and was a puny thing in it. Yet this was not so. My convalescence was like a beautiful dream of rest underneath which riot stirred. A simile will explain best exactly what I mean. Let me liken the calm of my convalescence to the calm of earth on the edge of Spring. What a riot of form, of scent, of colour, of movement, is preparing beneath that enigmatic, and apparently profound, repose. In the simile you have my exact state. And I alone felt that, within this womb of inaction, the child, action, lay hid, developing silently, but inexorably, day by day. This knowledge was my strange secret. It came upon me one night when I lay awake in the faint twilight, shed by a carefully shaded lamp over my bed. Rain drummed gently against the windows. There was no other sound. By the fire, in a great armchair, the trained nurse, Kate Walters, was sitting with a book—“Jane Eyre” it was—upon her knees. I had been sleeping and now awoke thirsty. I put out my hand to get at a tumbler of lemonade that stood on a table by my pillow. And suddenly a thought, a curious thought, was with me. My hand had grasped the tumbler and lifted it from the table; but, instead of bringing my hand to my mouth I kept my arm rigidly extended, the tumbler poised on my palm as upon the palm of a juggler.

“How long my arm is!” that was my thought, “and how strong!” Formerly it had been short, weak, awkward. Now, surely, after my illness, my arms would naturally be nerveless, useless things. The odd fact was that now, for the first time in my life, I felt joy in a physical act. An absurd and puny act, you will say, I daresay. What of that? With it came a sudden stirring of triumph. I lay there on my back and kept my arm extended for full five minutes by the watch that ticked by my bed-head. And with each second that passed joy blossomed more fully within my heart. I drank the lemonade as one who drinks a glad toast. Yet I was puzzled. “Is this—can this be a remnant of delirium?” I asked myself. And beneath the clothes drawn up to my chin I fingered my arm above the elbow. It was the limb of a big, strong man. Surprise, supreme astonishment forced an exclamation from my lips. Kate got up softly and came towards me; but I feigned to be asleep, and she returned to the fire. Yet, peering under my lowered eyelids, I noticed an expression of amazement upon her young and pretty face. I knew afterwards that it was the sound of my voice—my new voice—that drew it there. After that night my convalescence was more than a joy to me, it was a rapture, touched by, and mingled with something that was almost awe. Is not the earth awe-struck when she considers that Spring and Summer nestle silently in her bosom? With each day the secret which I kept grew more mysterious, more profound. Soon I knew it could be a secret no longer. The fever—it must be that!—had wrought magic within my body, driving out weakness, impotence, lassitude, developing my physical powers to an extent that was nothing less than astounding. Lying there in my bed, I felt the dwarf expand into the giant. Think of it! Did ever living man know such an experience before? A bodily spring came about within me. And I was already twenty-two years old before the fever took me. My limbs grew large and strong; the muscles of my chest and back were tensely strung and knit as firmly as the muscles of an athlete. I lay still, it is true, and felt much of the peculiar vagueness that follows fever; but I was conscious of a supine, latent energy never known before. I was conscious that when I rose, and went out into the world again, it would be as a man, capable of holding his own against other strong, straight men. That was a wonder. But it was succeeded by a greater marvel yet.

One afternoon, while I was still in bed, Doctor Wedderburn came to see me and to sit with me. He had been away on a holiday, and, consequently, had not visited me before, except once when I had been delirious. The doctor was a short, spare man, with a sharply cut brick-red face, lively and daring dark eyes, and straight hair already on the road to grey. His self-possession bordered on self-satisfaction; and, despite his good heart and the real and anxious sanctity of his life, he could seldom entirely banish from his manner the contempt he felt for those less intellectual, less swift-minded than himself. Often had I experienced the stinging lash of his sarcasm. Often had I withered beneath one of his keen glances that dismissed me from an argument as a profound sage might kick an urchin from the study into the street. Often had I hated him with a sick hatred and ground my teeth because my mind was so clouded and so helpless, while his was so lucent and so adroit. So now, when I heard his tap on the door, his deep voice asking to come in, a rage of self-contempt seized me, as in the days before my illness. The doctor entered with an elaborate softness, and walked, flat-footed, to my bed, pursing his large lips gently as men do when filled with cautious thoughts. I could see he desired to moderate his habitual voice and manner; but, arrived close to me, he suddenly cried aloud, with a singularly full-throated amazement.

“Boy—boy, what's come to you?” he called. Then, abruptly putting his finger to his lips, he sank down in a chair, his bright eyes fixed upon me.

“It's a miracle,” he said slowly.

“What is?” I asked with an invalid's pettishness.

“The voice, too—the voice!”

I grew angry easily, as men do when they are sick.

“Why do you say that? Of course I've been bad—of course I'm changed.”

“Changed! Look at yourself—and praise God, Alistair.”

He had caught up a hand-mirror that lay on the dressing-table and now put it into my hand. For the first time since the fever I saw my face. It was as it had been and yet it was utterly different, for now it was beautiful. The pinched features seemed to have been smoothed out. The mouth had become firm and masterful. The haggard eyes were alight as if torches burned behind them. My expression, too, was powerful, collected, alert. I scarcely recognised myself. But I pretended to see no change.

“Well—what is it?” I asked, dropping the glass.

The doctor was confused by my calm.

“Your look of health startled me,” he answered, sitting down by the bed and examining me keenly.

All at once I was seized by a strange desire to get up an argument with this man, by whom I had so often been crushed in conversation. I leaned on my elbow in the bed, and fixing my eyes on him, I said:—

“And why should I praise God?”

The doctor seemed in amazement at my tone.

“Because you are a Christian and have been brought back from death,” he replied, but with none of his usual half-sarcastic self-confidence.

“You think God did that?”

“Alistair, do you dare to blaspheme the Almighty?”

I felt at that moment like a cat playing with a mouse. My lips, I know, curved in a smile of mockery, and yet I will swear—yes, even to my own heart—that all I said that day I said in pure mischief, with no evil intent. It seemed that I, Alistair Ralston, the dolt, the ignoramus, longed to try mental conclusions with this brilliant and opinionated divine. He bade me praise God. In reply I praised—the Devil, and I forced him to hear me. Absolutely I broke into a flood of words, and he sat silent. I compared the good and evil in the scheme of the world, balancing them in the scales, the one against the other. I took up the stock weapon of atheism, the deadly nature, the deadly outcome of free will. I used it with skill. The names of Strauss, Comte, Schopenhauer, Renan, a dozen others, sprang from my lips. The dreary doctrine of the illimitable triumph of sin, of the appalling mistake of the permission granted it to step into the scheme of creation, in order that its presence might create a raison d'être for the power of personal action one way or the other in mankind—such matters as these I treated with a vehement eloquence and command of words that laid a spell upon the doctor. Going very far, I dared to exclaim that since God had allowed his own scheme to get out of gear, the only hope of man lay in the direction of the opposing force, in frank and ardent Satanism.

When at length I ceased from speaking, I expected Dr Wedderburn to rise up in his wrath and to annihilate me, but he sat still in his chair with a queer, and, as I thought, puzzled expression upon his face. At last he said, as if to himself:

“The miracle of Balaam; verily, the miracle of Balaam.”

The ass had indeed spoken as never ass spoke before. I waited a moment, then I said:—

“Well, why don't you rebuke me, or why don't you try to controvert me?”

Again he looked upon me, very uneasily I thought, and with something that was almost fear in his keen eyes.

“Ah!” he said, “I have praised the Lord many a morning and evening for his gift of words to me. It seems others bestow that gift too. Alistair”—and here his voice became deeply solemn—“where have you been visiting when you lay there, mad to all seeming? In what dark place have you been to gather destruction for men? With whom have you been talking?”

Suddenly, I know not why, I thought of the grey stranger, and, with a laugh, I cried:—

“The grey traveller taught me all I have said to you.”

“The grey traveller! Who may he be?”

But I lay back upon the pillows and refused to answer, and very soon the doctor went, still bending uneasy, nervous eyes upon me.

In those eyes I read the change that had stolen over my intellect, as in the hand-mirror I had read the change that had stolen over my face. This strange fever had caused both soul and body to blossom. I trembled with an exquisite joy. Had Fate relented to me at last? Was it possible that I was to know the joys of the heroes? I longed for, yet feared my full recovery. In it alone should I discover how sincere was my transformation. Doctor Wedderburn did not come to me again. The days passed, my convalescence strengthened, watched over by the pretty nurse, Kate Walters, a fresh, pure, pious, innocent, beautiful soul, tender, temperate, and pitiful for all sorrow and evil. At length I was well. At length I knew, to some extent, my new, my marvellous self. For I had, indeed, been folded up in my fever like a vesture, and, like a vesture, changed. I had grown taller, expanded, put forth mighty muscles as a tree puts forth leaves. My cheeks and my eyes glowed with the radiance of strong health. I went out with my cousin Gavin, whose estate marched with mine, and I shot so well that he was filled with admiration, and forthwith conceived a sort of foolish worship for me—having a sportsman's soul but no real mind. For the first time in my life I felt absolutely at home on a horse, an unwonted skill came to my hands, and I actually schooled Gavin's horses over some fences he had had set up in a grass park at the Mains of Cossens. The keepers who had once secretly jeered at me were now at my very feet. Their children looked upon me as a young god. I rejoiced in my strength as a giant. But I asked myself then, as I ask myself now—what does it mean? The days of miracles are over. Yet, is this not a miracle? And in a miracle is there not a gleam of terror, as there is a gleam of stormy yellow in the fated opal? But here I leave my condition of body alone, and pass on to the episode of Doctor Wedderburn, partially related in the newspapers of the day and marvelled at, I believe, by all who ever knew, or even set eyes upon him.

The doctor, as I have said, did not come again to see me, but I felt an over-mastering desire to set forth and visit him. This was surprising, as hitherto I had rather avoided and hated him. Now something drew me to the Manse. At first I resisted my inclination, but a chance word led me to yield to it impulsively. Since my illness I had not once attended church. Moved by a violent distaste for the religious service, that was novel in me, I had frankly avowed my intention of keeping away. But, as I did not go to the kirk, I missed seeing Dr Wedderburn; and I wanted to see him. One day, leaning by chance against a stone dyke in the Glen of Ogilvy, smoking a pipe and enjoying the soft air of Spring as it blew over the rolling moorland, I heard two ploughmen exchange a fragment of gossip that made excitement start up quick within me.

One said:—

“The doctor's failin'. Man, he was fairly haverin' last Sabbath, on and on, wi'out logic or argeyment or sense.”

The other answered:—

“Ay; he's greatly changed. He's no the man he was. It fairly beats me; I canna mak' it out. Ye've heard that—” And here he lowered his voice and I could not catch his words.

I turned away from the wall, and walking swiftly, set out for the Manse with a busy mind. The afternoon was already late, and when I gained a view of the Manse, a cold grey house standing a little apart in a grove of weary-looking sycamores, one or two lights smiled on me from the small windows that stared upon the narrow and muddy road. The minister's study was on the right of the hall door; and, as I pulled the bell, I observed the shadow of his head to dance upon the drawn white blind, a thought fantastically, or with a palsied motion, I fancied. The yellow-headed maidservant admitted me with a shrunken grin, that suggested wild humour stifled by achieved respect, and I was soon in the minister's study. Then I saw that Doctor Wedderburn was moving up and down the room, and that his head was going this way and that, as he communed in a loud voice with himself. My entrance checked him as soon as he observed me, which was not instantly, as, at first, his back was set towards me and the mood-swept maid. When he turned about, his discomposure was evident. His gaze was troubled, and his manner, as he shook hands with me, had in it something of the tremulous, and was backward in geniality. We sat down on either side of the fire, the tea service and the hot cakes, loved of the doctor, between us. At first we talked warily of such things as my recovery, the weather, the condition of affairs in the parish and so forth. I noticed that though the doctor's eyes often rested with an almost glaring expression of scrutiny or of surprise upon me, he made no remark on the change of my appearance. Nor did I on the change of his, which was startling, and suggested I know not what of sorrow and of the attempt to kill it with evil weapons. The healthy brick-red of his complexion was now become scarlet and full of heat; his mouth worked loosely while he talked; the flesh of his cheeks was puffed and wrinkled; his eyes had the clouded and yet fierce aspect of the drunkard. But, absurdly enough, what most struck me in him was his abstinence from an accustomed act. He drank his tea, but he ate no hot cakes. This was a departure from an established, if trifling custom of many years' standing, and worked on my imaginative conception of what the doctor now was more than would, at the first blush, appear likely, or even possible. Instead of, as of old, feeling myself on the worm level in his presence, I was filled with a sense of pity, as I looked upon him and wondered what subtle process of mental or physical development or retrogression had wrought this dreary change. Presently, while I wondered, he put his cup down with an awkward and errant hand that set it swaying and clattering in the tray, and said abruptly:—

“And what have you come for, Alistair, eh? what have you come for? To go on with what you've begun? Well, well, lad, I'm ready for you; I'm ready now.”

His voice was full of timorous irritation, his manner of pitiable distress.

“I've thought it out, I've thought it all out,” he continued; “and I can combat you, I can combat you, Alistair, wherever you've got your fever-mind from and your fever-tongue.”

I knew what he meant, and suddenly I knew, too, why I had wanted so eagerly to come to the Manse. My instinct of pity and of sympathy died softly away. My new instinct of cruel rapture in the ruthless exercise of my—shall I call them fever-powers then?—woke, dawned to sunrise. And Doctor Wedderburn and I fell forthwith into an animated theological discussion. He was desperately nervous, desperately ill at ease. His argumentative struggles were those of a drowning man positively convinced—note this,—that he would drown, that no human or divine aid could save him. There was, too, a strong hint of personal anger in his manner, which was strictly undignified. He fought a losing battle with bludgeons, and had an obvious contempt for the bludgeons while in the act of using them in defence or in attack. And at last, with a sort of sharp cry, he threw up his hands, and exclaimed in a voice I hardly knew as his:—

“God forgive you, Alistair, for what you're doing! God forgive you—murderer, murderer!”

This dolorous exclamation ran through me like cold water and chilled all the warmth of my intellectual excitement.

“Murderer!” I repeated inexpressively.

Doctor Wedderburn sat in his chair trembling, and looking upon me with despairing and menacing eyes, the eyes of a man who curses but cannot fight his enemy.

“Of a soul, of a soul,” he said. “The poisoned dagger?—doubt, the poisoned dagger—you've plunged it into me, boy.”

Then raising his voice harshly, he exclaimed:

“Curse you, curse you!”

I was thunderstruck. I declare it here, for it is true. I had defamed—and deliberately—the doctor's dearest idols. I had driven my lance into his convictions. I had blasphemed what he worshipped, and had denied all he affirmed. But that I had made so terrific an impression upon his mind, his soul—this astounded me. Yet what else could his passionate denunciation mean? Had I, a boy, unused to controversy, unskilled in dialectics, overthrown with my hasty words the faith of this strong and fervent man? The thought thrilled one side of my dual nature with triumph, pierced the other with grim horror. My emotions were divided and complex. As I sat silent, my face dogged yet ashamed, the doctor got up from his chair trembling like one with the palsy.

“Away from me—away,” he cried in a hoarse voice, and pointing at the door. “I'll have no more talk with the Devil, no more—no more!”

I had not a word. I got up and went, bending a steady, fascinated look upon this old mentor of mine, who now proclaimed himself my victim. Arrived in the garden I found a thin moon riding above the sycamores, and soft airs of Spring playing round the doctor's habitation. Strangely, I had no mind to begone from it immediately. I crossed the garden bit and paced up and down the country lane that skirted it, keeping an eye upon the lighted window of the study. So I went back and forth for full an hour, I suppose. Then I heard a sound in the Spring night. The doctor's hall door banged, and, peering through the privet hedge that protected his meagre domain, I perceived him come out into the air bareheaded. He took his way to the small path that ran by the hedge parallel to the lane, coming close to the place by which I crouched, spying upon his privacy. And there he paced, bemoaning aloud the ill fate that had come upon him. I heard all the awful complaining of this soul in distress, besieged by doubts, deserted by the faith and hope of a lifetime. It was villainous to be his audience. Yet, I could not go. Sometimes the poor man prayed with a desolate voice, calling upon God for a sign, imploring against temptation. Sometimes—and this was terrible—he blasphemed, he imprecated. And then again he prayed—to the Devil, as do the Satanists. I heard him weeping in his garden in the night, alone under the sycamores. It was a new agony of the garden and it wrung my heart. Yet I watched it till the spectral moon waned, and the trees were black as sins against the faded sky.

About this time, as I have said, his parishioners began to mark the outward change of Dr Wedderburn that signified the inward change in him. The talking ploughmen had their fellows. All who sat under the doctor were conscious of a difference, at first vague, in his eloquent discourses, of a diminuendo in the full fervour of his delivery and manner. Gossip flowed about him, and presently there were whisperings of change in his bodily habits. He had been seen by night wandering about his garden in very unholy condition, he who had so often rebuked excess. Children, passing his gate in the dark of evening, had endured with terror his tipsy shoutings. A maidservant left him, and spread doleful reports of his conduct through the village. By degrees, rumours of our minister's shortcomings stole, like snakes, into the local papers, carefully shrouded by the wrappings that protect scandal-mongers against libel actions. The congregation beneath the doctor's pulpit dwindled. Women looked at him askance. Men were surly to him, or—and that was less kind—jocular. I, alone, followed with fascination the paling to dusk of a bright and useful career. I, alone, partially understood the hell this poor creature carried within him. For I often heard his dreary night-thoughts, and assisted, unperceived of him, at the vigils that he kept. The lamp within his study burned till dawn while he wrestled, but in vain, with the disease of his soul, the malady of his tortured heart.

One night in Summer time, towards midnight, I bent my steps furtively to the Manse. It was very dark and the weather was dumb and agitating. No leaf danced, no grass quivered. Breathless, dead, seemed the woods and fields, the ocean of moorland, the assemblage of the mountains. I heard no step upon the lonely road but my own, and life seemed to have left the world until I came upon the Manse. Then I saw the light in the doctor's window, and, drawing near, observed that the blind was up and the lattice thrust open among the climbing dog-roses. Craftily I stole up the narrow garden path, and, keeping to the side of the window, looked into the room.

Doctor Wedderburn lounged within at the table facing me. A pen was in his shaking hand. A shuffle of manuscript paper was before him, and a Bible, in which he thrust his fingers as if to keep texts already looked out. Beyond the Bible was a bottle, three-quarters full of whiskey, and a glass. His muttering lips and dull yet shining eyes betokened his condition. I saw before me a drunkard writing a sermon. The vision was sufficiently bizarre. A tragedy of infinite pathos mingled with a comedy of hideous yet undeniable humour in the live picture. I neither wept nor did I laugh. I only watched, shrouded by the inarticulate night. The doctor took a pull at the bottle, then swept the leaves of the Bible....

“Let me die the death of the righteous,” he murmured thickly. “That's it—that's—that's—” He wrote on the paper before him with a wandering pen, then pushed the sheet from him. It fell on the floor by the window.

“And let my last end be like his—Ah—ah!”

He drank again, and again wrote with fury. How old and how wicked he looked, yet how sad! He crouched down over the table and the pen broke in his hand. A dull exclamation burst from him. Taking up the bottle, he poured by accident some of the whiskey over the open Bible.

“A baptism! A baptism!” he ejaculated, bursting into laughter. “Now—now—let's see—let's see.”

Again he violently turned the sodden leaves and shook his head. He could not read the words, and that angered him. He drank again and again till the bottle was empty, then staggered out of the room. I heard his frantic footsteps echoing in the uncarpeted passage. Quickly I leaned in at the window and caught up the sheet of paper that had fallen to the floor. I held it up to the light. Only one sentence writhed up and down over it, repeated a dozen times; “There is no God!” While I read I heard the doctor returning, and I shrank back into the night. He came stumbling in, another whiskey bottle full in his hand. Falling down in the chair he applied his lips to it and drank—on and on. He was killing himself there and then. I knew it. I wanted to leap into the room, to stop him, yet I only watched him. Why?—I want to know why—

At last he fell forward across the Bible with a choking noise. His limbs struggled. His arms shot out wildly, the table broke under him—there was a crash of glass. The lamp was extinguished. Darkness crowded the little room—and silence.

       * * * * *

The papers recorded the shocking death of a minister. They did not record this.

As I stole home that night, alone in my knowledge of the doctor's appalling end, I heard going before me light and tripping footsteps, those, apparently, of some youth, not above three yards or so from me. What wanderer thus preceded me, I asked myself, with a certain tingling of the nerves, shaken, perhaps, by what I had just seen? I paused. The steps also paused. The person was stopping too. I resumed my way. Again I heard the tripping footfalls. Their sound greatly disquieted me, yet I hurried, intending to catch up the wayfarer. Still the steps hastened along the highway, and always just before me. I ran, yet did not come up with any person. I called “Stop! Stop!” There was no reply. Again I waited. This man—or boy—(the steps seemed young) waited also. I started forward once more. So did he. Then a fury of fear ran over me, urging me at all hazards to see in whose train I travelled. We were now close to Carlounie. We entered the policies. Yes, this person turned from the public road through my gates into the drive, and the footfalls reached the very house. I stopped. I dared not approach quite close to the door. With trembling fingers I fumbled in my pocket, drew out my match-box, and, in the airless night, struck a match. The tiny flame burned steadily. I stretched my hand out, approaching it, as I supposed, to the face of the stranger.

But I saw nothing. Only, on a sudden, I heard some one hasten from me across the sweep of gravel in the direction of the burn. And then, after an interval, I heard the rush of startled sheep through the night.

Just so had they scattered on the day I spoke with the grey traveller by the waterside.

III

THE SOUL OF KATE WALTERS

It is more than two years since I wrote down any incident of my life. Two years ago I seemed to myself a stranger. To-day an intimacy has sprung up between myself and that observant, detached something within me—that little extra spirit which looks on at me, and yet is, somehow, me. I am at home with my own power. I am accustomed to my strength of personality. From my fever I rose like some giant. Long ago my world recognised the obedience it owed me. Long ago, by many signs, in many ways, it taught me the paramount quality of the emanation from my soul that is called my influence. Yet sometimes, even now, I seem to stare at myself aghast, to turn cold when I am alone with myself. I am seized with terrible fancies. I think of the voice of the burn. I think of that childish Autumn ceremony upon its bank among the mists and the flying leaves. I think of the grey youth who spoke with me in the twilight, and my soul is full of questions. I muse upon the Wandering Jew, upon Faust, upon Van Der Decken, upon the monstrous figures that are legends, yet sometimes realities to men. And then—and this is ghastly—I say to myself, can it be that I, too, shall become a legend? Can it be that my name will be whispered by the pale lips of good men long after I am dead? For, is there not a whirl of white faces attending my progress as the whirl of dead leaves attends the Autumn? Do I not hear a faint symphony of despairing cries like a dreadful music about my life? Is not my power upon men malign? Boys with their hopes shattered, men with their faiths broken, women with their love turned to gall—do they not crowd about my chariot wheels? Or is it my vain fancy that they do? Here and there from the sea of these beings one rises like a drowned creature whom the ocean will not hide, stark, stiff, corpse-like. Doctor Wedderburn was the first. Kate Walters is the second—Kate Walters.

       * * * * *

When my convalescence was well advanced she left Carlounie and went back to Edinburgh. Some months afterwards I heard casually that she was working in an hospital there. But a year and a half went by before I saw this girl again. Her fresh, pure, ministering face had nearly faded from my memory. Yet, she had attended intimately upon my marvellous transformation from my death of weakness to the life of strength. She had lifted me in her girl's arms when I was nothing. Yes, I had been in her arms then. How strange, how close are the commonest relations between the invalid and his nurse! When I chanced to meet Kate again I had no thought of this. I had forgotten. I came to Edinburgh on some business connected with a mine discovered on my estate, which seemed likely to make a great fortune for me, and is already on the way to accomplishing this first duty of a mine. My business done, I stayed on at my hotel in Princes Street amusing myself, for I had a multitude of friends in Edinburgh. One of these friends was a medical student attached to the hospital there, and he chanced to invite me to go with him through the wards one day. In one of the wards I encountered Kate Walters, fresh, clear, calm as in the old Carlounie days of my illness. She did not know me till I recalled myself to her recollection; then she looked into my face with the frankest astonishment. My superb physique amazed her, although she had attended upon its beginnings. I asked after her life in the interval since our last meeting; and she told me, with a delightful blush, that her period of nursing was nearly concluded, as she was engaged to be married to one Hugh Fraser, a handsome, rich, and—strange thing this!—most steadfast youth, who lived in England in the south, and who loved her tenderly. I congratulated her, and was on the point of moving away down the ward with my friend when my eyes were caught again by Kate's blushing cheeks and eyes alight with the fiery shames and joys of love. How beautiful is the human face when the torches of the heart are kindled thus. How beautiful! I paused, and, before I went, invited Kate to tea one afternoon at my hotel. She accepted the invitation. Why not? In our meeting the old chain of sympathy between patient and nurse seemed forged anew. We felt that we were indeed friends. As we left the ward, my student chum chaffed me—I let his words go by heedlessly. I was not in love with Kate, but I was half in love with her love for Hugh Fraser. It had such pretty features. She came to tea and told me all about him; and when she talked of him she was so fascinating that I was loath to let her go. It was a sweet evening, and, as Kate had not to be back at the hospital early, I suggested that we should go for a stroll on Carlton Hill, and talk a little more about Hugh Fraser. The bribe tempted her. I saw that. And she agreed after a moment's hesitation.

There is certainly an influence that lives only out of doors and can never enter a house, or exercise itself within four walls. There is a wandering spirit in the air of evening, a soul that walks with gathering shadows, speaks in the distant hum of a city, and gazes through its twinkling lights. There is a grey traveller who journeys in the twilight. (What am I saying? To-day, as I write, I am full of fancies.) I felt that, so soon as Kate and I were away from the hotel, out under the sky and amid the mysteries of Edinburgh, we were changed. In a flash our intimacy advanced, the sympathy already existing between us deepened. Leaving the streets, we mounted the flight of steps that leads to the hill, and joined the few couples who were walking, almost like gods on some Olympus, above the world. They were all obviously lovers. I pointed this fact out to Kate, saying, “Hugh Fraser should be here, not I.”

She smiled, but scarcely, I thought, with much regret. For the moment it seemed that a confidant satisfied her; and this pleased me. I drew her arm within mine.

“We must not alarm the lovers,” I said. “We must appear to be as they are, or we shall carry a fiery sword into their Eden.”

“You seem to understand us very well,” she answered with a smile. And she left her arm in mine.

The mention of “us” chilled me. It seemed to set me outside a magic circle within which she, Hugh Fraser, these people sauntering near us, like amorous ghosts in the dimness, moved. I pressed her arm ever so gently.

“Tell me how lovers feel at such a time as this,” I whispered, looking into her eyes.

       * * * * *

From Carlton Hill at night one sees a heaving ocean of yellow lights, gleaming like phosphorescence on ebon waves. Towards Arthur's Seat, towards the Castle, they rise; by Holyrood, by the old town, they fall. That night I could fancy that this sea of light spoke to me, murmured in my ear, urging me to prosecute my will, ruthlessly stirring a strange and, perhaps, evanescent romance in my heart. I know that when I parted from Kate that night I bent and kissed her. I know that she looked up at me startled, even terrified, yet found no voice to rebuke me. I know that I did not leave Edinburgh, as I had originally intended, upon the morrow. And I know this best of all—that I had no ill-intent in staying. I was caught in a net of impulse despite my own desire. I was held fast. There are—I believe it unalterably now—influences in life that are the very Tsars of the empires of men's souls. They must be obeyed. Possibly—is it so I wonder?—they only mount upon their thrones when they are urgently invoked by men who, as it were, say, “Come and rule over us!” But once that invocation has been made, once it has been responded to, there is never again free will for him who has rashly called upon the power he does not understand, and bowed before the tyrant whose face he has not seen. I tremble now, as I write; I tremble as does the bond slave. Yet I neither speak with, nor hear, nor have sight of, my master. Unless, indeed—but I will not give way to any madness of the brain. No, no; I do not hear, I do not see, although I am conscious of, my Tsar, whose unemancipated serf I am.

I need not tell all the story of my soul's impression that was stamped upon the soul of Kate Walters. Perhaps it is old. Certainly it is sad. I stamped deceit upon the nature which had not known it, knowledge of evil where only purity had been, satiety upon temperance. And, worst of all, I expelled from this girl's heart love for a good man who loved her, and planted, in its stead, passion for a—must I say a bad, or may I not cry, a driven man? And all this time Hugh Fraser knew nothing of his sorrow, growing up swiftly to meet him like a giant. Even now, while I write these words, he knows nothing of it. As I had carelessly taken possession of the mind, the very nature of Dr Wedderburn, so now I took possession of the very nature of Kate Walters. My immense strength, my abounding physical glory drew her—who had known me a puny invalid—irresistibly. I won the doctor by my mind; this girl, in the main, I think, by my body. And when at length I tired of her slightly, the woman, the gentle woman, sprang up a tigress. I had said one night that, since I was obliged to go to London, we must part for a while. I had added that it was well Hugh Fraser lived in complete ignorance of his betrayal.

“Why?” Kate suddenly cried out.

“Because—because it is best so. He and you—some day.”

I paused. She understood my meaning. Instantly the tigress had sprung upon me. The scene that followed was eloquent. I learned what lives and moves in the very depths of a nature, stirred by the inexhaustible greed of passion, twisted by passion's fulfilment, the ardent touched by the inert. But upon that hurricane has followed an immense and very strange calm. Kate is almost cold to me, though very sweet. She has acquiesced in my departure for town. She has come to one mind with me on the subject of Hugh Fraser. More, she has even written a letter to him asking him to come to her, pressing forward their marriage, and I am to be the bearer of it to him. This is only a woman's whim. She insists that I must see once the man who is to be her husband.

So, after all, the tragedy of Dr Wedderburn is not to be repeated. I—I shall not hear, stealing along the steep and windy streets of Edinburgh, any—any strange footsteps.

       * * * * *

What is the awful fate that pursues me? A year ago I left Edinburgh carrying with me the letter which I understood to contain the request of Kate Walters to her lover, Hugh Fraser, to hasten on their marriage. As the train roared southwards, I congratulated myself on my clever management of a woman. I had, it is true, stepped in between Kate and the calm happiness she had been anticipating when I first met her in the hospital ward. But now I had withdrawn. And, I told myself, in time. All would be well. This girl would marry the boy who loved her. She would deceive him. He would never know that the girl he married was not the girl he originally loved. He would never perceive that a human being had intervened between her and purity, truth, honour. In this letter—I touched it with my fingers, congratulating myself—Hugh Fraser would read the summons to the future he desired, the future with Kate Walters. His soul would rush to meet hers, and surely, after a little while, hers would cease to hold back. She would really once more be as she had been. I forgot that no human soul can ever retreat from knowledge to ignorance.

Hugh Fraser's rooms in London were in Piccadilly. Directly I arrived in town I wrote him a note, saying that I was from Edinburgh with a message from Kate Walters for him. I explained that she had nursed me through a severe illness, and hoped I might have the pleasure of making his acquaintance. In reply, I received a most friendly note, begging me to call at an hour on the evening of the following day.

That evening I drove in a hansom from the Grand Hotel to Piccadilly, taking Kate's note with me. I was conscious of a certain excitement, and also of a certain moral exultation. Ridiculously enough, I felt as if I were about to perform a sort of fine, almost paternal act, blessing these children with genuine, as opposed to stage, emotion. Yes; I glowed with a consciousness of personal merit. How incredible human beings are! Arrived at Hugh Fraser's rooms, I was at once shown in. How vividly I remember that first interview of ours, the exact condition of the room, Hugh's attitude of lively anticipation, the precise way in which he held his cigarette, the grim, short bark of the fox-terrier that sprang up from a sofa when I came in. Hugh was almost twenty-four years old, rather tall, slim, with intense, large, dark eyes—full of shining cheerfulness just then—very short, curling black hair, and fine, straight features. His expression was boyish; so were his movements. As soon as he saw me, he sprang forward and gave me an enthusiastic welcome—for the sake of Kate, I knew. He led me to the fire and made me sit down. I at once handed him my credentials, Kate's letter. His face flushed with pleasure, and his fingers twitched with the desire to tear it open, but he refrained politely, and began to talk—about her, I confess. I understood in three minutes how deeply he was in love with her. I told him all about her that might please him, and hinted at the contents of the letter.

“What!” he exclaimed joyously. “She wants to hasten on our marriage at last. And she's kept me off—but you know what girls are! She couldn't leave the hospital immediately. She swore it. There were a thousand reasons for delay. But now—by Jove!”

His eyes were suddenly radiant, and he clutched hold of my hand like a schoolboy.

“You are a good chap to bring me such a letter,” he cried.

“Read it,” I said, again filled with moral self-satisfaction, vain, paltry egoist that I was.

“No, no—presently.”

But I insisted; and at length he complied, enchanted to yield to my importunity. He opened the letter, and, as he broke the seal, his face was like morning. Never shall I forget the change that grew in it as he read. When he had finished his face was like starless night. He looked old, haggard, black, shrunken. I watched him with a sensation that something had gone wrong with my sight. Surely radiance was fully before me and my tricked vision saw it as despair. Raising his blank, bleak eyes from the letter, Hugh stared towards me and opened his lips. But no sound came from them. He frowned, as if in fury at his own dumbness. Then at last, with a sharp shake of his head sideways, he said in a low and dry voice:

“You know what is in this letter, you say?”

“I—I thought so,” I answered, growing cold and filled with anxiety.

“Well, read it, will you?”

I took the paper from his hand and read:—

   “DEAR HUGH,—Make the man who brings you this letter marry me.
   If you don't, I will kill myself; for I am ruined. KATE.”

I looked up at Hugh Fraser over the letter which my hand still mechanically held near my eyes. I wonder how long the silence through which we stared lasted.

       * * * * *

A month later I was married to Kate Walters!

IV

THE SOUL OF HUGH FRASER

It may seem strange that my influence upon the soul of Hugh Fraser should follow upon such a situation as I have just described; but everything connected with my life, since the day when I met the grey boy by the burn, has been utterly strange, utterly abnormal. My treachery, one would have thought, must have led Fraser to hate me. I had wrecked his happiness. I had done him the deepest injury one man can do to another, and at first he hated me. When he had wrung from me a promise to marry Kate, he left me, and I did not see him again until after the wedding. But then, it seemed, he could not keep away from her. For he forgave us the wrong we had done him; and, after a while, wrote a friendly letter in which he suggested that we should all forget the past.

“Why should I not see you sometimes?” he concluded. “I only wish you both good, there is no longer any evil in my heart.”

Poor boy! It was to be, I suppose. The Tsar of the empire of my soul set forth his edict, and one winter day carriage wheels ground harshly upon the gravel sweep, and Hugh Fraser was my guest at Carlounie. I welcomed him upon the very spot where those light footsteps paused that black night of Doctor Wedderburn's dreary end. And the faint sound of the burn mingled with our voices in greeting and reply.

The boy was changed. He had aged, grown grave, heavier in movement, fiercer in observation, less ready in speech. But his manner was friendly even to me, and it was plain to see that Kate still had his heart. They met quietly enough, but a flush ran from his cheek to hers as they touched hands. Their voices quivered when they spoke a commonplace of pleasure at the encounter. So the wheels of Fate began slowly to turn on this winter's day.

I must tell you that my fortunes had greatly changed before Hugh Fraser came to Carlounie. I was grown rich. My investments, my speculations had prospered almost miraculously. The mine I have spoken of was proving a gold mine to me. All worldly things went well with me—all worldly things, yes.

Now, I believe that all mighty circumstances are born tiny, like children, at some given moment. As a rule, they usually seem so insignificant, so puny at the birth, that we take no heed of the fact that they have come into being, and that, in process of time, they will grow to might, perhaps to horrible majesty. Only, when we trace events backwards do we know the exact moment when their first faint wail broke upon our mental hearing. Generally this is so. But I affirm that I felt, at the very time of its first coming, the presence of the shadow, the tiny shadow of the events which I am about to describe. I even said to myself, “This is a birthday.”

Among many improvements on my estate I had built a new Manse, in which, of course, our new minister lived. The old habitation of Doctor Wedderburn stood empty and deserted among its sycamores. One winter's day Hugh Fraser, Kate, and I, in our walk, passed along the lane by the now ragged privet hedge through which I had so often observed the doctor's agonies. It was a black and white day of frost, which crawled along the dark trees and outlined twig and branch. The air was misty, and distant objects assumed a mysterious importance. Slight sounds, too, suggested infinite activities to the mind. As we neared the Manse, Hugh Fraser said to me:—

“Who lives in that old house?”

“Nobody,” I replied.

Hugh glanced at me very doubtfully.

“Nobody,” I reiterated.

“Really,” he rejoined. “But the garden?”

“Is deserted.”

“Hardly,” he exclaimed, pointing with his hand. “Look!”

“Yes,” said Kate, as if in agreement.

And she grew duskily pale.

I looked over the privet hedge, seeing only the rank and frost-bitten grass, the wild bushes and narrow mossy paths. Then I stared at my two companions in silence. Their eyes appeared to follow the onward movement of some object invisible to me.

“The old man makes himself at home,” Hugh said. “He has gone into the summer-house now.”

“Yes,” Kate said again.

There was fear in her eyes.

I felt suddenly that the air was very chill.

“That house is unoccupied,” I repeated shortly.

We all walked on in silence. But, through our silence, it certainly seemed to me that there came a sound of some one lamenting in the garden.

A day or two later Fraser said to me:—

“Why is that old house shut up?”

“Who would occupy it?” I said. “Of course, if I could get a tenant—”

“I'll take it,” he rejoined quickly. “You can let me some shooting with it, can't you?”

“But,” I began; and then I stopped. I had an instinct to keep the old Manse empty, but I fought it, merely because it struck me as unreasonable. How seldom are our instincts unreasonable! God—how seldom!

“I've been looking out for a shooting-box,” Hugh said. “That house would suit me admirably.”

“All right,” I answered. “I shall be very glad to have you for a tenant.”

So it was arranged. When Kate heard of the arrangement, I observed her to go very pale; but she made no objection. Hugh Fraser rented the house, furnished it, engaged servants, a gardener, enlarged the stables, and took up his abode there. Doctor Wedderburn's old study was now his den. When I looked in at the window through which I had seen the doctor die, I saw Fraser smoking, or playing with his setters. I don't know why, but the sight turned me sick.

My relations with Kate, of which I have said nothing, were rather cold and distant. My passion, such as it was, had died before marriage. Hers seemed to languish afterwards. I believe that she had really loved me, but that the shame of being with me, after I had wedded her actually against my will, struck this sentiment to the dust. When one feeling that has been very strong dies, its place is generally filled by another. Sometimes I fancied that this was so with Kate, that the bitterness of shattered self-respect gradually transformed her nature, that a cruel frost bound the tendernesses, the warm vagaries of what had been a sweet woman's heart. But, to tell the truth, I did not trouble much about the matter. My affairs were prospering so greatly, my health was so abounding, I had so much beside the mere egotism of brilliant physical strength to occupy me, that I was heedless, reckless—at first. Yet, I had moments of a dull alarm connected with the dweller at the Manse.

If Hugh Fraser changed as he read that fateful letter in London, he changed far more after he came to live at the Manse. And it seemed to me that there were times when—how shall I put it?—when he bore a curious, and, to me, almost intolerable likeness to—some one who was dead. A certain old man's manner came upon him at moments. His body, in sitting or standing, assumed, to my eyes, elderly and damnable attitudes. Once, when I glanced in at the study window before entering the Manse, I perceived him lounging over a table facing me, a pen in his hand and paper before him, and the spectacle threw all my senses into a violent and most distressing disorder. Instead of going into the house, as I had intended, I struck sharply upon the glass at the window. Fraser looked up quickly.

“What—what are you writing?” I cried out.

He got up, came to the window, and opened it.

“Eh? What's the row, man?” he said. “Why don't you come in?”

I repeated my question, with an anxiety I strove to mask.

“Writing? Only a letter to town,” he said, looking at me in wonder.

“Not a sermon?” I blurted forth.

“A sermon? Good heavens, no. Why should I write a sermon?”

“Oh,” I replied, forcing an uneasy laugh. “You—you live in a Manse. Doctor Wedderburn used to write his sermons in that room.”

That evening I remember that I said to Kate:

“Don't you think Fraser is getting to look very old at times?”

“I haven't observed it,” she replied coldly.

Another curious thing. Very soon after he took up his abode in the Manse, Fraser, who had been a godly youth, became markedly averse to religion. He informed us, with some excitement, that he had changed his views, and seemed much inclined to carry on an atheistical propaganda among the devout people of the neighbourhood. He declared that much evil had been wrought by faith in Carlounie, and appeared to deem it as his special duty to preach some sort of a crusade against the accepted Christianity of the parish. I began to combat his views, and once sought the reason of his ardour and self-election to the post of teacher. His answer struck me exceedingly. He said:—

“Why should I be the one to clear away these senseless beliefs in phantasms, you say? Why, because I suppose they were woven by my predecessor in the Manse. Didn't the minister live and die there? Do you know, Ralston, sometimes, as I sit in that study at night, I have a feeling that instead of turning to what is called repentance when he died, the minister turned the other way, recanted in his last hour the faith he had professed all through his life, and expired before he could give words to his new mind and heart. And then I feel as if his influence was left behind him in that room, and fell upon me and imposed on me this mission.”

And as he spoke, he suddenly plucked at his face with an old, habitual action of Doctor Wedderburn's when excited. I scarcely restrained a cry, and with difficulty forced myself to go out slowly from his presence. Nevertheless, I felt strongly impelled to fight against the atheism of this boy, I who had formerly sown the seeds of destruction in the soul of Doctor Wedderburn. But it was as if my own act of the past rose and conquered me in the present. I declare solemnly it was so. Some emanation from the poor dead creature's soul clung round that cursed place of his doom, and, seizing upon the soul of Fraser, spread tyranny from its throne. And whom did it take first as its victim, think you? Kate, my wife.

Let our individual beliefs be what they may, one thing we must all—when we think—acknowledge, that the pulse which beats eternally in the heart of life is reparation.

Kate, as I have said, was originally finely pure and finely dowered with the blessings of faith in a divine Providence, trust in the eventual redemption of the world, hope that sin, sorrow, and sighing would, indeed, flee away, and all mankind find eternal and unutterable peace. In my worst moments I had never tried to destroy this beauty of her soul; and, in her fall, now repaired, she had never abandoned her religion. It was, I know, a haunting memory of the last moments of the doctor that held me back from ever attacking the faith of another. For myself, I did not think much of my future beyond death. Life filled my horizon then.

But now, after a short absence in England, during which I left Kate at Carlounie, I returned to find her infected with Fraser's pestilent notions. She declined to go to the kirk, declaring that it was better to act up to her real convictions than to set what is called a good example to her dependants. She and Fraser gloried openly in their new-found damnation. I say damnation, for this was actually how the matter struck me when I began carefully to consider it. Men often see only what irreligion really is and means when they find it existing in a woman. I was appalled at this deadly fire flaring up in the heart of Kate, and I set myself, at first feebly, at length determinedly, to quench it and stamp it out.

But I fought against my own former self. I fought against the influence of the spectre that surely haunted the Manse, and that spectre rose originally from the very bosom of the burn at my summons. Am I mad to think so? No, no. Oh, the eternal horror that may spring from one wild and lawless action, from the recital of one diabolic litany! This was surely the strangest, subtlest reparation that ever beat in the inexorable heart of Life. Hugh Fraser was enveloped by the influence, still retained mysteriously in his abode, of the soul that was gone to its account. Through him it seized upon Kate, and thus the mystic number was made up, three souls were bound and linked together. (I hear as I write the voice of the grey traveller by the burn in the twilight.) And in the first soul I had planted the seed of death, and so in the second and in the third. Now, thrusting as it were backward through Kate and Hugh Fraser, I fought with a dead man, long ago, perhaps, wrapped in pain unknown. But, as the influence of Doctor Wedderburn had formerly—before the fever—dominated my influence, so now it dominated my influence from the tomb. Indeed, this man whom I had destroyed had a drear revenge upon me. There had been an interregnum when the doctor wavered from Christianity to atheism. But that had ceased to be. He died undoubting, a blatant unbeliever. Hence, surely, his deadly power now. He returned, as it were, to slay me. The spectre at the Manse defied me.

Slowly I grew to feel, to know, all this. It did not come upon me in a moment; for sometimes my worldly affairs still occupied me. My glory of health and of strength still delighted me. I was as Faust—I was as Faust in his monstrous and damnable youth. But there came a time when the spectre at the Manse touched me with the hand of Hugh Fraser. And then I rose up to battle with it, trembling at the thought of the grey boy's words at the thought of the Cæsar of hell whose tribute was three human souls.

Kate and I were taking tea one evening with Fraser. We sat around the hearth, by which was placed the table with the tea-service and the hot cakes. Fraser began, as was his habit now, to discuss religious subjects and to rail against the professors of faith. Kate listened to him eagerly—a filthy fire, so I thought, gleaming in her great eyes. I was silent, watching. And presently it seemed to me that Fraser's gestures in talking grew like the dead gestures of the doctor. He threw his hands abroad with the fingers divided in a manner of Wedderburn's. He struck his knees sharply, and simultaneously, with both his palms to emphasise his remarks, a frequent habit of the dead man's. So vehement was the similarity that I began presently to feel that the doctor himself declaimed in the firelight, and I was seized with a desire to combat effectively his wicked, but forcible arguments. I broke in, then, upon Fraser's tirade and cried the cause of religion. He turned upon me, dealt with my pleas, scattered my contentions—growing, I fancied, very old and with the rumbling voice of age,—thrust at me with the lances of sarcasm, sore belaboured me into silence and mute fury. And all the time Kate sat by, and I seemed to see her soul, with fluttering outstretched wings, sinking down to hell, as a hawk drops out of sight into a dark cleft of the mountains. And then, in the last resort, Fraser struck his hand down on mine to clinch his defeat of me. And I, looking upon that poor Kate, cried out:—

“God forgive you, Fraser, for what you're doing—murderer! murderer!”

Scarcely had my cry died away than I knew I had borrowed the very words of Wedderburn to me. A cold, like ice, came upon me. This reversal of the past in the present was too ironic. I heard the doctor chuckling drearily in Hades. I suddenly sprang up like one pursued, and got away into the night, leaving Kate and Fraser together by the fire. But the spectre of the Manse surely pursued me. I heard its soft but heavy footsteps coming in my wake. I heard its old laughter in the dark behind me; and I sickened and faltered, and was in fear beyond all human fear of an enemy. The next day I told Fraser he must leave the Manse; I would build him a shooting-lodge on any part of my estate that he preferred.

“No,” he said, “no; I have grown to love the old place; I never feel alone there.”

I looked in his eyes, searching after his meaning.

“I would rather pull down the Manse,” I said.

In reply, he touched with his forefinger the lease I had signed with him, which lay on his writing-table.

“You cannot, my friend,” he said.

I cannot do anything that I would. I am driven on a dark road by the creature with the whip that is surely after every man who once yields to his worst desires.

Just after this I received a visit from Mr. Mackenzie, the new minister, a young and fervent, but not very knowledgeable man, whose zeal was red-hot, but incompetent, and who would have died for the faith he could never properly expound, like many young ministers of our church. The little man was in a twisting turmoil of distress, and was moved, so he said, to deal very plainly with me. I bade him deal on. It seemed that his flock was becoming infected with atheism, which spread like the plague, from the old Manse. The young children lisped it to each other in the lanes; lovers talked it between their kisses; youths chattered perdition at the idle corner by the church wall. Even the old began to look askance at the Bible that had been their only book of age, and to shiver wantonly at the inevitable approach of death. The young minister cried denunciation upon Fraser, like a vague-minded, but angry Jonah before a provincial Nineveh.

“Turn him out, Mr. Ralston, drive him forth,” he ejaculated. “What is his rent to you? What is his money in comparison with the immortal souls of men? Away with him, away with him.”

I mentioned the small matter of the lease. The young minister, with a quivering scarlet face, replied stammering:—

“A lease! But—but—your own wife—she is—is—”

“I do not discuss her,” I said sternly.

“Well; they are deserting the services. You see that yourself. They will not come to hear me preach. They will not listen to me.”

The man was tasting bitterness. He was almost crying. I was terribly sorry for him. Yet, all I could do was to think of the spectre at the Manse and answer:—

“I can do nothing.”

His words were true. Carlounie's soul was being devoured as by a plague. A colony of unbelievers was springing up in the midst of the beautiful woods and the mountains. Soon the evil fame of the place began to spread abroad, and men, in distant parts of Scotland, to speak of mad Carlounie. The matter weighed intolerably upon me, and at last became a fixed idea. I could think of nothing else but this devil's home in the hills, this haunted and harassed centre of doom and darkness which was my possession and in which I lived. I fell into silence. I ceased to stir abroad beyond my own land. It seemed to me that Carlounie should keep strict quarantine, should be isolated, and that each person who went over its borders carried a strange infection and was guilty of murder. I forbade Kate to drive beyond my estates.

“I never wish to,” she said.

And I knew that where Fraser was she was happy. He had her soul fast by this; or, it would be truer to say, the spectre of the Manse had both him and her. And he aged apace and bore on his countenance the stamp of evil. And I brooded and brooded upon the whole matter. But, from whatever point I started, I came back to the Manse and to the spectre dwelling in it with Hugh Fraser. I had given death to Doctor Wedderburn, in return for the life so miraculously given to me, and now his spirit, retained in its ancient abiding-place, spread death about it in its turn. This was, and is, my conviction. The influence of the departed clings to roof, to walls, to floors, leans on the accustomed window-seat, trembles by the bed-head, sits by the hearthstone, stands invisible in the passage way. To kill it one must destroy its home. It was my duty to kill it, therefore it was my duty to destroy the Manse. This thought at length took complete possession of me, and, following it, I strove in every imaginable way to oust Fraser from the house among the sycamores. But he would not go. He loved the place, he said. He stood by his lease and I was powerless.

Oh, God, I have, surely I have, my excuse for what I have done! I meant to be a saviour, not a destroyer! I would have restored Fraser and my poor Kate to their freedom of heart. That was what I meant. Ay, but the grey traveller fought against me. Shut up here by night in my house, on the verge of—that which I cannot, dare not speak of, I declare that I am guiltless. Let him bear the burden, him alone! In these last moments, before my deed is known, I write the truth that men may exonerate me. This is the truth.

Overwhelmed with this idea that Carlounie must be rescued, that Hugh Fraser and Kate must be rescued from this damnation that was preying upon them, I determined, secretly, on the destruction of the Manse, in which the spectre of the doctor stayed to work such evil. But, to do this, I must first make sure that Hugh Fraser was at a distance, and that his small household—he only kept two servants, hired from the village—were away from the haunted dwelling. I, therefore, suggested to Fraser that he should come and spend a week with me, and give his maids a holiday. After a little demur, and drawn, I see now, by his hidden passion for Kate, he accepted my invitation. He dismissed the maids to their homes for a week, and moved over to us. When the minister knew of it, he, no doubt, fully included me in his prayers for the damnation of those who worked evil among his flock. Will he ever read these pages, I wonder? Kate was now an avowed atheist, and she and Fraser were continually together, glorying in their complete freedom from old prejudices, and their new outlook upon life. They had, I heard them say, broken through the ties that bound poor, terrified Christians; and, when they said this, they smiled, the one upon the other. I did not then know why. Meanwhile, I was preparing for my deed of redemption, as I called it, and meant it to be. I was resolved to go out by night to the empty Manse, and secretly to set it in flames. It stood alone. The country people slept sound at night. I calculated that if I chose midnight for my act none would see the flames, and, ere the peasants woke at dawn, the Manse and the spectre within it would be destroyed for ever. Such was my belief—such the spirit in which I prepared myself for this strange work.

V

THE RETURN OF THE GREY TRAVELLER

I write these last words after the dead of night, towards the coming of the dawn. Ere the light is grey in the sky I shall be away to the burn to meet him, the grey traveller. He is there waiting for me. He has come back. I go to meet him, and I shall never return. Carlounie will know my face no more. All is done as he ordained. My words have been as deeds, have marched on inevitably to actual deeds. Long ago he said that sometimes, even as we can never go back from things that we have done, we can never go back from things that we have said. So, indeed, it is.

According to my fixed intention, I determined on a night for the destruction of the Manse. The house was old and would burn like tinder. I should break into it through the window of the study, which was never shuttered. I should set fire to the interior at several points, and escape in the darkness of the night. By dawn the accursed place would be a ruin, and then—then I looked for a new era. Fool! Fool! I looked to see the burden of the vile influence of the spectre lifted from the soul of Fraser, and so from the soul of Kate, which was infected by him. I looked to see my people sane and satisfied as of old, Carlounie no more a plague-spot in the land, that poor and zealous man, the minister, calm and at rest with his little faithful flock once more. All this I looked for confidently. And so, when the black and starless night of my deed came, I was happy and serene. That night Kate pleaded a headache, and went to bed very early, before nine. She begged me not to come to her room to bid her good-night, as she wanted perfect quiet and sleep. All unsuspecting, I agreed to her request. Soon after she had gone, Fraser, who had seemed heavy with unusual fatigue all through the evening, also went off to bed, and I was left alone. But it was not yet time for me to start on my errand of the darkness. The burning Manse would surely attract attention before midnight. People might be out and about in the village. A belated peasant might be on his way home by the lane that skirted the privet hedge. I must wait till all were sleeping. The time seemed very long. Once I fancied I heard a movement in the house—again I dreamed that soft and hurried footsteps upon the gravel outside broke on the silence. But I said to myself that I was nervous, highly strung because of my strange project, that my imagination tricked me. At last the hour came. Without going upstairs I drew on my thickest overcoat, took my hat and a heavy stick, opened the hall door, and passed out into the night. It was still and very cold, and the voice of the burn came loudly to my ears. Treading quietly, I made my way into the road, and set forth along it in the direction of the Manse. The ground was hard, and scarcely had I gone a few yards before I thought that some one was furtively following me. I stopped rather uneasily, and listened, but heard nothing. I went on, and again seemed aware of distant footsteps treading gently behind me. The sound made me suppose that some one of my household must be after me, moved by curiosity as to the reason of my present pilgrimage; but I was not minded to be watched, so I turned sharply, yet very softly, around and faced the way I had come. I encountered no one, nor did I any longer catch the patter of feet. So, reckoning that my nerves must be playing with me, I pursued my way. But the whole of the distance between my dwelling and the Manse I seemed vaguely to hear a noise of one treading behind me. And, although I said to myself that there was nobody out beside myself, I was filled with the stir of a shifting uneasiness. I entered the lonely and narrow lane that led beside the Manse, and presently arrived in front of the house; when, what was my astonishment to perceive a light gleaming in the study window. My hand was on the gate when it went out, and all the front of the house was black and eyeless. For so brief a moment had I seen the light that I was moved to think that it, too, existed, like the sound of steps, only in my excited brain. Nevertheless, I did not go up at once to the house, but paced the lane for a full half-hour, always—so it seemed to me—tracked by some one. But, since I kept turning about, and the footfalls were always at my back, I grew certain that they were nothing more nor less than a fantasy on my part. It must have been well after twelve when I summoned courage to enter the garden and to approach the Manse. The steps, I thought, followed me to the gate and then paused, as if a sentinel was posted there to keep watch. Arrived at the stone step which preceded the hall door, I, too, paused in my turn and listened. Did the spectre that inhabited this abode know of my coming, of my purpose? Was it crouching within, like some frantic shadow, fearful of its impending fate? Or was it, perhaps, preparing to attack, to repel me? Strangely, I had now no fear of it, or of anything. I was calm. I felt that my deed was one of rescue, even though, by performing it, I wrought destruction. I moved to the study window, and was about to smash in the glass with my heavy stick when a mad idea came to me to try the hall door. I put my hand upon it and found it not locked. This opening of the door sent a shiver through me, and a ghastly sense of the occupation of this deserted abode. I was filled again with an acute consciousness of the indwelling spectre, whom, in truth, I came to murder. But, I reasoned, this door has been left unbarred by the carelessness of Fraser's servants, that is all.

I stood on the lintel, struck a match and set it to a candle end which I drew from my coat pocket. The flame burned up, showing the narrow passage, the umbrella stand, the doors on either side. I entered the study softly, looking swiftly on all sides of me as I did so. Did I expect a vision of Doctor Wedderburn lounging at the table, his fingers thrust into a Bible? I scarcely know; but I saw nothing except the grimly standing furniture, the lamp on the table, the vacant chairs, the books in their shelves. I listened. There was no rustle of the spectre that I came to kill. Did it watch me? Did it see me there? I set fire to the room, passed quickly to the chamber on the other side of the passage, from thence to the kitchen and the dining-parlour, leaving a track of dwarf flames behind me. The means of destruction I had prepared and carried with me. They availed. When I once more reached the garden, the ground floor of the Manse was in a blaze. But now came the incredible event which I must chronicle before I go down to the burn for the last time.

Having gained the garden, I waited there in the darkness to watch my work progress. I saw the light within the Manse, at first a twinkle, grow to a glare. I heard the faint crackle of the burning rooms increase to a soft and continuous roar. And, as I watched and listened, a mighty sense of relief ran through me. Thus did I burn up my past! thus did I sacrifice grandly and gladly the ill spirit my wild desires had evoked! Thus—thus! All the base of the Manse was red-hot, when, on a sudden, I heard a great shout that seemed to come from the sky. Light sprang in an upper window. There followed a sound like the smash of glass, and I saw two arms shoot out, the top part of a figure and a face framed in the glare. I deemed it the vision of the poor spectre that I destroyed. I looked upon it and fancied I could detect the tortured lineaments of the doctor, his accustomed gestures distorted by fear and fury. But then I seemed to see behind him another figure, struggling, and to hear the failing scream of a woman. But the flames from below leaped to the roof. The floors fell in with an uproar. The figure, or figures, disappeared.

Trembling I turned to go, my mind shuddering at the thought of the apparition I had seen. I got into the lane and hastened towards home. Soon the burning Manse was out of sight, and I was swallowed up in the intense darkness.

Now, as I went along, a terrible and very peculiar sensation came upon me. I heard no footsteps; all was silence. Yet I seemed to be aware that I was closely companioned, that at my very side something—I knew not what—walked, keeping pace with me. And so close did I believe this thing to be, that at moments I even felt it pressing against me like a slim figure in the night. Once, when it thus nestled to me, as if in affection, I could not refrain from crying out aloud. I stretched forth my arms to grasp this surely amorous horror of the darkness, but found nothing, and pursued my road in a sweat of apprehension. And still, the thing was certainly with me, and seemed, I thought, to praise me as I walked, as the good man is praised on his journey. My great horror was that this creature that I could not see, could not hear, could not feel, and yet was so sharply conscious of, was well disposed towards me. My heart craved its hatred—but it loved me I knew. My soul demanded its curses. I almost heard it bless me as I moved. My knees knocked together, my limbs were turned to wax, as it was borne in upon me that I had surely done this terror that walked in darkness a service of some kind. To be pursued in fury by one of the dreadful beings that dwell in the borderland beyond our sight is sad and dreary; but to be followed thus by one as by a dog, to be fawned upon and caressed—this is appalling. I longed to shriek aloud. I broke into a run, and, like one demented, gained the gate of Carlounie; but always the thing was with me—full of joy and laudation. At the house door I paused, facing round. I was moved to address this thing I could not see.

“Who is it that walks with me?” I cried, and my voice was high and strained.

A voice I knew, young, clear, level, a little formal, answered out of the darkness:—

“It is I.”

It was the voice of the grey traveller whom I had seen long ago by the burnside. I leaned back against the door and my shoulders shook against it.

“What do you want of me?”

“I come to thank you.”

“What, then, have I done?”

“You have brought the tribute money.”

I did not understand, and I answered:—

“No. One soul I may have destroyed, but two I have saved to-night. For I have slain the spectre that preyed upon them and I have set them free from bondage.”

The voice answered:—

Go into the house and see.

Then again I was filled with apprehension. I turned to go in at my door, and, as I did so, I heard footsteps treading in the direction of the burn, and a fading voice which cried, like an echo:—

“And then come to me.”

And, as the voice died, I heard the rush of sheep in the night.

       * * * * *

Filled with nameless fear and a cold apprehension, I entered the house, and, led by some cruel instinct, made my way to Kate's room. The lamp she always had at night burned dimly on the dressing-table and cast a grave radiance upon an empty bed.

What could this mean?

I stole to the room of Fraser, bearing the lamp with me. His chamber was also untenanted; but, on the quilt of the bed, lay a piece of paper written over. I took it up and read—with the sound of the burn in my ears:—

   “You stole her from me. I take back my own. To-night we stay
   at the old Manse. To-morrow we shall be far away. HUGH FRASER.”

The paper dropped from my hand upon the quilt. A woman's scream rang in my ears above the roar of flames. I understood.

       * * * * *

The tribute money has been paid. I go down to the burn. The grey traveller is waiting there for me.

  ROBERT HICHENS.
  FREDERIC HAMILTON.

 
 
 

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