A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 33.

My recollections of all which I have just attempted to describe were distinct and vivid; except with respect to time, it seemed to me as if many hours must have elapsed since I had entered the museum with Margrave; but the clock on the mantelpiece met my eyes as I turned them wistfully round the room; and I was indeed amazed to perceive that five minutes had sufficed for all which it has taken me so long to narrate, and which in their transit had hurried me through ideas and emotions so remote from anterior experience.

To my astonishment now succeeded shame and indignation — shame that I, who had scoffed at the possibility of the comparatively credible influences of mesmeric action, should have been so helpless a puppet under the hand of the slight fellow-man beside me, and so morbidly impressed by phantasmagorieal illusions; indignation that, by some fumes which had special potency over the brain, I had thus been, as it were, conjured out of my senses; and looking full into the calm face at my side, I said, with a smile to which I sought to convey disdain —

“I congratulate you, Sir Philip Derval, on having learned in your travels in the East so expert a familiarity with the tricks of its jugglers.”

“The East has a proverb,” answered Sir Philip, quietly, “that the juggler may learn much from the dervish, but the dervish can learn nothing from the juggler. You will pardon me, however, for the effect produced on you for a few minutes, whatever the cause of it may be, since it may serve to guard your whole life from calamities, to which it might otherwise have been exposed. And however you may consider that which you have just experienced to be a mere optical illusion, or the figment of a brain super-excited by the fumes of a vapour, look within yourself, and tell me if you do not feel an inward and unanswerable conviction that there is more reason to shun and to fear the creature you left asleep under the dead jaws of the giant serpent, than there would be in the serpent itself, could hunger again move its coils, and venom again arm its fangs.”

I was silent, for I could not deny that that conviction had come to me.

“Henceforth, when you recover from the confusion or anger which now disturbs your impressions, you will be prepared to listen to my explanations and my recital in a spirit far different from that with which you would have received them before you were subjected to the experiment, which, allow me to remind you, you invited and defied. You will now, I trust, be fitted to become my confidant and my assistant; you will advise with me how, for the sake of humanity, we should act together against the incarnate lie, the anomalous prodigy which glides through the crowd in the image of joyous beauty. For the present I quit you. I have an engagement, on worldly affairs, in the town this night. I am staying at L— — which I shall leave for Derval Court tomorrow evening. Come to me there the day after tomorrow, at any hour that may suit you the best. Adieu!”

Here Sir Philip Derval rose and left the room. I made no effort to detain him. My mind was too occupied in striving to recompose itself and account for the phenomena that had scared it, and for the strength of the impressions it still retained.

I sought to find natural and accountable causes for effects so abnormal.

Lord Bacon suggests that the ointments with which witches anointed themselves might have had the effect of stopping the pores and congesting the rain, and thus impressing the sleep of the unhappy dupes of their own imagination with dreams so vivid that, on waking, they were firmly convinced that they had been borne through the air to the Sabbat.

I remember also having heard a distinguished French traveller — whose veracity was unquestionable — say, that he had witnessed extraordinary effects produced on the sensorium by certain fumigations used by an African pretender to magic. A person, of however healthy a brain; subjected to the influence of these fumigations, was induced to believe that he saw the most frightful apparitions.

However extraordinary such effects, they were not incredible — not at variance with our notions of the known laws of nature. And to the vapour or the odours which a powder applied to a lamp had called forth, I was, therefore, prepared to ascribe properties similar to those which Bacon’s conjecture ascribed to the witches’ ointment, and the French traveller to the fumigations of the African conjuror.

But, as I came to that conclusion, I was seized with an intense curiosity to examine for myself those chemical agencies with which Sir Philip Derval appeared so familiar; to test the contents in that mysterious casket of steel. I also felt a curiosity no less eager, but more, in spite of myself, intermingled with fear, to learn all that Sir Philip had to communicate of the past history of Margrave. I could but suppose that the young man must indeed be a terrible criminal, for a person of years so grave, and station so high, to intimate accusations so vaguely dark, and to use means so extraordinary, in order to enlist my imagination rather than my reason against a youth in whom there appeared none of the signs which suspicion interprets into guilt.

While thus musing, I lifted my eyes and saw Margrave himself there at the threshold of the ballroom — there, where Sir Philip had first pointed him out as the criminal he had come to L—— to seek and disarm; and now, as then, Margrave was the radiant centre of a joyous group. Not the young boy-god Iacchus, amidst his nymphs, could, in Grecian frieze or picture, have seemed more the type of the sportive, hilarious vitality of sensuous nature. He must have passed unobserved by me, in my preoccupation of thought, from the museum and across the room in which I sat; and now there was as little trace in that animated countenance of the terror it had exhibited at Sir Philip’s approach, as of the change it had undergone in my trance or my fantasy.

But he caught sight of me, left his young companions, came gayly to my side.

“Did you not ask me to go with you into that museum about half an hour ago, or did I dream that I went with you?”

“Yes; you went with me into that museum.”

“Then pray what dull theme did you select to set me asleep there?”

I looked hard at him, and made no reply. Somewhat to my relief, I now heard my host’s voice —

“Why, Fenwick, what has become of Sir Philip Derval?”

“He has left; he had business.” And, as I spoke, again I looked hard on Margrave.

His countenance now showed a change; not surprise, not dismay, but rather a play of the lip, a flash of the eye, that indicated complacency — even triumph.

“So! Sir Philip Derval! He is in L——; he has been here to-night? So! as I expected.”

“Did you expect it?” said our host. “No one else did. Who could have told you?”

“The movements of men so distinguished need never take us by surprise. I knew he was in Paris the other day. It is natural eno’ that he should come here. I was prepared for his coming.”

Margrave here turned away towards the window, which he threw open and looked out.

“There is a storm in the air,” said he, as he continued to gaze into the night.

Was it possible that Margrave was so wholly unconscious of what had passed in the museum as to include in oblivion even the remembrance of Sir Philip Derval’s presence before he had been rendered insensible, or laid asleep? Was it now only for the first time that he learned of Sir Philip’s arrival in L— — and visit to that house? Was there any intimation of menace in his words and his aspect?

I felt that the trouble of my thoughts communicated itself to my countenance and manner; and, longing for solitude and fresh air, I quitted the house. When I found myself in the street I turned round and saw Margrave still standing at the open window, but he did not appear to notice me; his eyes seemed fixed abstractedly on space.

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