A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 31.

It is the night of the mayor’s ball! The guests are assembling fast; county families twelve miles round have been invited, as well as the principal families of the town. All, before proceeding to the room set apart for the dance, moved in procession through the museum — homage to science before pleasure!

The building was brilliantly lighted, and the effect was striking, perhaps because singular and grotesque. There, amidst stands of flowers and evergreens, lit up with coloured lamps, were grouped the dead representatives of races all inferior — some deadly — to man. The fancy of the ladies had been permitted to decorate and arrange these types of the animal world. The tiger glared with glass eyes from amidst artificial reeds and herbage, as from his native jungle; the grisly white bear peered from a mimic iceberg. There, in front, stood the sage elephant, facing a hideous hippopotamus; whilst an anaconda twined its long spire round the stem of some tropical tree in zinc. In glass cases, brought into full light by festooned lamps, were dread specimens of the reptile race — scorpion and vampire, and cobra capella, with insects of gorgeous hues, not a few of them with venomed stings.

But the chief boast of the collection was in the varieties of the Genus Simia — baboons and apes, chimpanzees, with their human visage, mockeries of man, from the dwarf monkeys perched on boughs lopped from the mayor’s shrubberies, to the formidable ourangoutang, leaning on his huge club.

Every one expressed to the mayor admiration, to each other antipathy, for this unwonted and somewhat ghastly, though instructive, addition to the revels of a ballroom.

Margrave, of course, was there, and seemingly quite at home, gliding from group to group of gayly-dressed ladies, and brilliant with a childish eagerness to play off the showman. Many of these grim fellow-creatures he declared he had seen, played, or fought with. He had something true or false to say about each. In his high spirits he contrived to make the tiger move, and imitated the hiss of the terribly anaconda. All that he did had its grace, its charm; and the buzz of admiration and the flattering glances of ladies’ eyes followed him wherever he moved.

However, there was a general feeling of relief when the mayor led the way from the museum into the ballroom. In provincial parties guests arrive pretty much within the same hour, and so few who had once paid their respects to the apes and serpents, the hippopotamus and the tiger, were disposed to repeat the visit, that long before eleven o’clock the museum was as free from the intrusion of human life as the wilderness in which its dead occupants had been born.

I had gone my round through the rooms, and, little disposed to be social, had crept into the retreat of a window-niche, pleased to think myself screened by its draperies — not that I was melancholy, far from it; for the letter I had received that morning from Lilian had raised my whole being into a sovereignty of happiness high beyond the reach of the young pleasure-hunters, whose voices and laughter blended with that vulgar music.

To read her letter again I had stolen to my nook, and now, sure that none saw me kiss it, I replaced it in my bosom. I looked through the parted curtain; the room was comparatively empty; but there, through the open folding-doors, I saw the gay crowd gathered round the dancers, and there again, at right angles, a vista along the corridor afforded a glimpse of the great elephant in the deserted museum.

Presently I heard, close beside me, my host’s voice.

“Here’s a cool corner, a pleasant sofa, you can have it all to yourself. What an honour to receive you under my roof, and on this interesting occasion! Yes, as you say, there are great changes in L—— since you left us. Society has much improved. I must look about and find some persons to introduce to you. Clever! oh, I know your tastes. We have a wonderful man — a new doctor. Carries all before him; very high character, too; good old family, greatly looked up to, even apart from his profession. Dogmatic a little — a Sir Oracle — ‘Lets no dog bark;’ you remember the quotation — Shakspeare. Where on earth is he? My dear Sir Philip, I am sure you would enjoy his conversation.”

Sir Philip! Could it be Sir Philip Derval to whom the mayor was giving a flattering yet scarcely propitiatory description of myself? Curiosity combined with a sense of propriety in not keeping myself an unsuspected listener; I emerged from the curtain, but silently, and reached the centre of the room before the mayor perceived me. He then came up to me eagerly, linked his arm in mine, and leading me to a gentleman seated on a sofa, close by the window I had quitted, said —

“Doctor, I must present you to Sir Philip Derval, just returned to England, and not six hours in L——. If you would like to see the museum again, Sir Philip, the doctor, I am sure, will accompany you.”

“No, I thank you; it is painful to me at present to see, even under your roof, the collection which my poor dear friend, Dr. Lloyd, was so proudly beginning to form when I left these parts.”

“Ay, Sir Philip, Dr. Lloyd was a worthy man in his way, but sadly duped in his latter years; took to mesmerism, only think! But our young doctor here showed him up, I can tell you.”

Sir Philip, who had acknowledged my first introduction to his acquaintance by the quiet courtesy with which a well-bred man goes through a ceremony that custom enables him to endure with equal ease and indifference, now evinced by a slight change of manner how little the mayor’s reference to my dispute with Dr. Lloyd advanced me in his good opinion. He turned away with a bow more formal than his first one, and said calmly,

“I regret to hear that a man so simple-minded and so sensitive as Dr. Lloyd should have provoked an encounter in which I can well conceive him to have been worsted. With your leave, Mr. Mayor, I will look into your ballroom. I may perhaps find there some old acquaintances.”

He walked towards the dancers, and the mayor, linking his arm in mine, followed close behind, saying in his loud hearty tones —

“Come along, you too, Dr. Fenwick, my girls are there; you have not spoken to them yet.”

Sir Philip, who was then half way across the room, turned round abruptly, and, looking me full in the face, said —

“Fenwick, is your name Fenwick — Allen Fenwick?”

“That is my name, Sir Philip.”

“Then permit me to shake you by the hand; you are no stranger, and no mere acquaintance to me. Mr. Mayor, we will look into your ballroom later; do not let us keep you now from your other guests.”

The mayor, not in the least offended by being thus summarily dismissed, smiled, walked on, and was soon lost amongst the crowd.

Sir Philip, still retaining my hand, reseated himself on the sofa, and I took my place by his side. The room was still deserted; now and then a straggler from the ballroom looked in for a moment, and then sauntered back to the central place of attraction.

“I ain trying to guess,” said I, “how my name should be known to you. Possibly you may, in some visit to the Lakes, have known my father?”

“No; I know none of your name but yourself — if, indeed, as I doubt not, you are the Allen Fenwick to whom I owe no small obligation. You were a medical student at Edinburgh in the year ——?”

“Yes.”

“So! At that time there was also at Edinburgh a young man, named Richard Strahan. He lodged in a fourth flat in the Old Town.”

“I remember him very well.”

“And you remember, also, that a fire broke out at night in the house in which he lodged; that when it was discovered there seemed no hope of saving him. The flames wrapped the lower part of the house; the staircase had given way. A boy, scarcely so old as himself, was the only human being in the crowd who dared to scale the ladder that even then scarcely reached the windows from which the smoke rolled in volumes; that boy penetrated into the room, found the inmate almost insensible, rallied, supported, dragged him to the window, got him on the ladder — saved his life then: and his life later, by nursing with a woman’s tenderness, through the fever caused by terror and excitement, the fellow-creature he had rescued by a man’s daring. The name of that gallant student was Allen Fenwick, and Richard Strahan is my nearest living relation. Are we friends now?”

I answered confusedly. I had almost forgotten the circumstances referred to. Richard Strahan had not been one of my more intimate companions, and I bad never seen nor heard of him since leaving college. I inquired what had become of him.

“He is at the Scotch Bar,” said Sir Philip, “and of course without practice. I understand that he has fair average abilities, but no application. If I am rightly informed, he is, however, a thoroughly honourable, upright man, and of an affectionate and grateful disposition.”

“I can answer for all you have said in his praise. He had the qualities you name too deeply rooted in youth to have lost them now.”

Sir Philip remained for some moments in a musing silence; and I took advantage of that silence to examine him with more minute attention than I had done before, much as the first sight of him had struck me.

He was somewhat below the common height — so delicately formed that one might call him rather fragile than slight. But in his carriage and air there was remarkable dignity. His countenance was at direct variance with his figure; for as delicacy was the attribute of the last, so power was unmistakably the characteristic of the first. He looked fully the age his steward had ascribed to him — about forty-eight; at a superficial glance, more, for his hair was prematurely white — not gray, but white as snow. But his eyebrows were still jet black, and his eyes, equally dark, were serenely bright. His forehead was magnificent — lofty and spacious, and with only one slight wrinkle between the brows. His complexion was sunburnt, showing no sign of weak health. The outline of his lips was that which I have often remarked in men accustomed to great dangers, and contracting in such dangers the habit of self-reliance — firm and quiet, compressed without an effort. And the power of this very noble countenance was not intimidating, not aggressive; it was mild, it was benignant. A man oppressed by some formidable tyranny, and despairing to find a protector, would, on seeing that face, have said, “Here is one who can protect me, and who will!”

Sir Philip was the first to break the silence.

“I have so many relations scattered over England, that fortunately not one of them can venture to calculate on my property if I die childless, and therefore not one of them can feel himself injured when, a few weeks hence, he shall read in the newspapers that Philip Derval is married. But for Richard Strahan at least, though I never saw him, I must do something before the newspapers make that announcement. His sister was very dear to me.”

“Your neighbours, Sir Philip, will rejoice at your marriage, since, I presume, it may induce you to settle amongst them at Derval Court.”

“At Derval Court! No! I shall not settle there.” Again he paused a moment or so, and then went on: “I have long lived a wandering life, and in it learned much that the wisdom of cities cannot teach. I return to my native land with a profound conviction that the happiest life is the life most in common with all. I have gone out of my way to do what I deemed good, and to avert or mitigate what appeared to me evil. I pause now and ask myself, whether the most virtuous existence be not that in which virtue flows spontaneously from the springs of quiet everyday action; when a man does good without restlessly seeking it, does good unconsciously, simply because he is good and he lives. Better, perhaps, for me, if I had thought so long ago! And now I come back to England with the intention of marrying, late in life though it be, and with such hopes of happiness as any matter-of-fact man may form. But my hope will not be at Derval Court. I shall reside either in London or its immediate neighbourhood, and seek to gather round me minds by which I can correct, if I cannot confide to them, the knowledge I myself have acquired.”

“Nay, if, as I have accidentally heard, you are fond of scientific pursuits, I cannot wonder, that after so long an absence from England, you should feel interest in learning what new discoveries have been made, what new ideas are unfolding the germs of discoveries yet to be. But, pardon me, if in answer to your concluding remark, I venture to say that no man can hope to correct any error in his own knowledge, unless he has the courage to confide the error to those who can correct. La Place has said, ‘Tout se tient dans le chaine immense des verites;’ and the mistake we make in some science we have specially cultivated is often only to be seen by the light of a separate science as specially cultivated by another. Thus, in the investigation of truth, frank exposition to congenial minds is essential to the earnest seeker.”

“I am pleased with what you say,” said Sir Philip, “and I shall be still more pleased to find in you the very confidant I require. But what was your controversy with my old friend, Dr. Lloyd? Do I understand our host rightly, that it related to what in Europe has of late days obtained the name of mesmerism?”

I had conceived a strong desire to conciliate the good opinion of a man who had treated me with so singular and so familiar a kindness, and it was sincerely that I expressed my regret at the acerbity with which I had assailed Dr. Lloyd; but of his theories and pretensions I could not disguise my contempt. I enlarged on the extravagant fallacies involved in a fabulous “clairvoyance,” which always failed when put to plain test by sober-minded examiners. I did not deny the effects of imagination on certain nervous constitutions. “Mesmerism could cure nobody; credulity could cure many. There was the well-known story of the old woman tried as a witch; she cured agues by a charm. She owned the impeachment, and was ready to endure gibbet or stake for the truth of her talisman — more than a mesmerist would for the truth of his passes! And the charm was a scroll of gibberish sewn in an old bag and given to the woman in a freak by the judge himself when a young scamp on the circuit. But the charm cured? Certainly; just as mesmerism cures. Fools believed in it. Faith, that moves mountains, may well cure agues.”

Thus I ran on, supporting my views with anecdote and facts, to which Sir Philip listened with placid gravity.

When I had come to an end he said: “Of mesmerism, as practised in Europe, I know nothing except by report. I can well understand that medical men may hesitate to admit it amongst the legitimate resources of orthodox pathology; because, as I gather from what you and others say of its practice, it must, at the best, be far too uncertain in its application to satisfy the requirements of science. Yet an examination of its pretensions may enable you to perceive the truth that lies hid in the powers ascribed to witchcraft; benevolence is but a weak agency compared to malignity; magnetism perverted to evil may solve half the riddles of sorcery. On this, however, I say no more at present. But as to that which you appear to reject as the most preposterous and incredible pretension of the mesmerists, and which you designate by the word ‘clairvoyance,’ it is clear to me that you have never yourself witnessed even those very imperfect exhibitions which you decide at once to be imposture. I say imperfect, because it is only a limited number of persons whom the eye or the passes of the mesmerist can effect; and by such means, unaided by other means, it is rarely indeed that the magnetic sleep advances beyond the first vague shadowy twilight-dawn of that condition to which only in its fuller developments I would apply the name of ‘trance.’ But still trance is as essential a condition of being as sleep or as waking, having privileges peculiar to itself. By means within the range of the science that explores its nature and its laws, trance, unlike the clairvoyance you describe, is producible in every human being, however unimpressible to mere mesmerism.”

“Producible in every human being! Pardon me if I say that I will give any enchanter his own terms who will produce that effect upon me.”

“Will you? You consent to have the experiment tried on yourself?”

“Consent most readily.”

“I will remember that promise. But to return to the subject. By the word ‘trance’ I do not mean exclusively the spiritual trance of the Alexandrian Platonists. There is one kind of trance — that to which all human beings are susceptible — in which the soul has no share: for of this kind of trance, and it was of this I spoke, some of the inferior animals are susceptible; and, therefore, trance is no more a proof of soul than is the clairvoyance of the mesmerists, or the dream of our ordinary sleep, which last has been called a proof of soul, though any man who has kept a dog must have observed that dogs dream as vividly as we do. But in this trance there is an extraordinary cerebral activity, a projectile force given to the mind, distinct from the soul, by which it sends forth its own emanations to a distance in spite of material obstacles, just as a flower, in an altered condition of atmosphere, sends forth the particles of its aroma. This should not surprise you. Your thought travels over land and sea in your waking state; thought, too, can travel in trance, and in trance may acquire an intensified force. There is, however, another kind of trance which is truly called spiritual, a trance much more rare, and in which the soul entirely supersedes the mere action of the mind.”

“Stay!” said I; “you speak of the soul as something distinct from the mind. What the soul may be, I cannot pretend to conjecture; but I cannot separate it from the intelligence!”

“Can you not? A blow on the brain can destroy the intelligence! Do you think it can destroy the soul?

‘From Marlbro’s eyes the tears of dotage flow,

And Swift expires, a driveller and a show.’

“Towards the close of his life even Kant’s giant intellect left him. Do you suppose that in these various archetypes of intellectual man the soul was worn out by the years that loosened the strings, or made tuneless the keys, of the perishing instrument on which the mind must rely for all notes of its music? If you cannot distinguish the operations of the mind from the essence of the soul, I know not by what rational inductions you arrive at the conclusion that the soul is imperishable.”

I remained silent. Sir Philip fixed on me his dark eyes quietly and searchingly, and, after a short pause, said —

“Almost every known body in nature is susceptible of three several states of existence — the solid, the liquid, the aeriform. These conditions depend on the quantity of heat they contain. The same object at one moment may be liquid; at the next moment solid; at the next aeriform. The water that flows before your gaze may stop consolidated into ice, or ascend into air as a vapour. Thus is man susceptible of three states of existence — the animal, the mental, the spiritual; and according as he is brought into relation or affinity with that occult agency of the whole natural world, which we familiarly call heat, and which no science has yet explained, which no scale can weigh, and no eye discern, one or the other of these three states of being prevails, or is subjected.”

I still continued silent, for I was unwilling discourteously to say to a stranger so much older than myself, that he seemed to me to reverse all the maxims of the philosophy to which he made pretence, in founding speculations audacious and abstruse upon unanalogous comparisons that would have been fantastic even in a poet. And Sir Philip, after another pause, resumed with a half smile —

“After what I have said, it will perhaps not very much surprise you when I add that but for my belief in the powers I ascribe to trance, we should not be known to each other at this moment.”

“How? Pray explain!”

“Certain circumstances, which I trust to relate to you in detail hereafter, have imposed on me the duty to discover, and to bring human laws to bear upon, a creature armed with terrible powers of evil. This monster, for without metaphor, monster it is, not man like ourselves, has, by arts superior to those of ordinary fugitives, however dexterous in concealment, hitherto for years eluded my research. Through the trance of an Arab child, who, in her waking state, never heard of his existence, I have learned that this being is in England, is in L——. I am here to encounter him. I expect to do so this very night, and under this very roof.”

“Sir Philip!”

“And if you wonder, as you well may, why I have been talking to you with this startling unreserve, know that the same Arab child, on whom I thus implicitly rely, informs me that your life is mixed up with that of the being I seek to unmask and disarm — to be destroyed by his arts or his agents, or to combine in the causes by which the destroyer himself shall be brought to destruction.”

“My life! — your Arab child named me, Allen Fenwick?”

“My Arab child told me that the person in whom I should thus naturally seek an ally was he who had saved the life of the man whom I then meant for my heir, if I died unmarried and childless. She told me that I should not be many hours in this town, which she described minutely, before you would be made known to me. She described this house, with yonder lights, and yon dancers. In her trance she saw us sitting together, as we now sit. I accepted the invitation of our host, when he suddenly accosted me on entering the town, confident that I should meet you here, without even asking whether a person of your name were a resident in the place; and now you know why I have so freely unbosomed myself of much that might well make you, a physician, doubt the soundness of my understanding. The same infant, whose vision has been realized up to this moment, has warned me also that I am here at great peril. What that peril may be I have declined to learn, as I have ever declined to ask from the future what affects only my own life on this earth. That life I regard with supreme indifference, conscious that I have only to discharge, while it lasts, the duties for which it is bestowed on me, to the best of my imperfect power; and aware that minds the strongest and souls the purest may fall into the sloth habitual to predestinarians, if they suffer the action due to the present hour to be awed and paralyzed by some grim shadow on the future! It is only where, irrespectively of aught that can menace myself, a light not struck out of my own reason can guide me to disarm evil or minister to good, that I feel privileged to avail myself of those mirrors on which things, near and far, reflect themselves calm and distinct as the banks and the mountain peak are reflected in the glass of a lake. Here, then, under this roof, and by your side, I shall behold him who — Lo! the moment has come — I behold him now!”

As he spoke these last words, Sir Philip had risen, and, startled by his action and voice, I involuntarily rose too. Resting one hand on my shoulder, he pointed with the other towards the threshold of the ballroom. There, the prominent figure of a gay group — the sole male amidst a fluttering circle of silks and lawn, of flowery wreaths, of female loveliness and female frippery — stood the radiant image of Margrave. His eyes were not turned towards us. He was looking down, and his light laugh came soft, yet ringing, through the general murmur.

I turned my astonished gaze back to Sir Philip; yes, unmistakably it was on Margrave that his look was fixed. Impossible to associate crime with the image of that fair youth! Eccentric notions, fantastic speculations, vivacious egotism, defective benevolence — yes. But crime! No! impossible!

“Impossible,” I said aloud. As I spoke, the group had moved on. Margrave was no longer in sight. At the same moment some other guests came from the ballroom, and seated themselves near us.

Sir Philip looked round, and, observing the deserted museum at the end of the corridor, drew me into it.

When we were alone, he said in a voice quick and low, but decided —

“It is of importance that I should convince you at once of the nature of that prodigy which is more hostile to mankind than the wolf is to the sheepfold. No words of mine could at present suffice to clear your sight from the deception which cheats it. I must enable you to judge for yourself. It must be now and here. He will learn this night, if he has not learned already, that I am in the town. Dim and confused though his memories of myself may be, they are memories still; and he well knows what cause he has to dread me. I must put another in possession of his secret. Another, and at once! For all his arts will be brought to bear against me, and I cannot foretell their issue. Go, then; enter that giddy crowd, select that seeming young man, bring him hither. Take care only not to mention my name; and when here, turn the key in the door, so as to prevent interruption — five minutes will suffice.”

“Am I sure that I guess whom you mean? The young light-hearted man, known in this place under the name of Margrave? The young man with the radiant eyes, and the curls of a Grecian statue?”

“The same; him whom I pointed out. Quick, bring him hither.”

My curiosity was too much roused to disobey. Had I conceived that Margrave, in the heat of youth, had committed some offence which placed him in danger of the law and in the power of Sir Philip Derval, I possessed enough of the old borderer’s black-mail loyalty to have given the man whose hand I had familiarly clasped a hint and a help to escape. But all Sir Philip’s talk had been so out of the reach of common-sense, that I rather expected to see him confounded by some egregious illusion than Margrave exposed to any well-grounded accusation. All, then, that I felt as I walked into the ballroom and approached Margrave was that curiosity which, I think, any one of my readers will acknowledge that, in my position, he himself would have felt.

Margrave was standing near the dancers, not joining them, but talking with a young couple in the ring. I drew him aside.

“Come with me for a few minutes into the museum; I wish to talk to you.”

“What about — an experiment?”

“Yes, an experiment.”

“Then I am at your service.”

In a minute more, he had followed me into the desolate dead museum. I looked round, but did not see Sir Philip.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31