A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 34.

I walked on slowly and with the downcast brow of a man absorbed in meditation. I had gained the broad place in which the main streets of the town converged, when I was overtaken by a violent storm of rain. I sought shelter under the dark archway of that entrance to the district of Abbey Hill which was still called Monk’s Gate. The shadow within the arch was so deep that I was not aware that I had a companion till I beard my own name, close at my side. I recognized the voice before I could distinguish the form of Sir Philip Derval.

“The storm will soon be over,” said he, quietly. “I saw it coming on in time. I fear you neglected the first warning of those sable clouds, and must be already drenched.”

I made no reply, but moved involuntarily away towards the mouth of the arch.

“I see that you cherish a grudge against me!” resumed Sir Philip. “Are you, then, by nature vindictive?”

Somewhat softened by the friendly tone of this reproach, I answered, half in jest, half in earnest —

“You must own, Sir Philip, that I have some little reason for the uncharitable anger your question imputes to me. But I can forgive you, on one condition.”

“What is that?”

“The possession for half an hour of that mysterious steel casket which you carry about with you, and full permission to analyze and test its contents.”

“Your analysis of the contents,” returned Sir Philip, dryly, “would leave you as ignorant as before of the uses to which they can be applied; but I will own to you frankly, that it is my intention to select some confidant among men of science, to whom I may safely communicate the wonderful properties which certain essences in that casket possess. I invite your acquaintance, nay, your friendship, in the hope that I may find such a confidant in you. But the casket contains other combinations, which, if wasted, could not be resupplied — at least by any process which the great Master from whom I received them placed within reach of my knowledge. In this they resemble the diamond; when the chemist has found that the diamond affords no other substance by its combustion than pure carbonic-acid gas, and that the only chemical difference between the costliest diamond and a lump of pure charcoal is a proportion of hydrogen less than 1/100000 part of the weight of the substance, can the chemist make you a diamond?

“These, then, the more potent, but also the more perilous of the casket’s contents, shall be explored by no science, submitted to no test. They are the keys to masked doors in the ramparts of Nature, which no mortal can pass through without rousing dread sentries never seen upon this side her wall. The powers they confer are secrets locked in my breast, to be lost in my grave; as the casket which lies on my breast shall not be transferred to the hands of another, till all the rest of my earthly possessions pass away with my last breath in life and my first in eternity.”

“Sir Philip Derval,” said I, struggling against the appeals to fancy or to awe, made in words so strange, uttered in a tone of earnest conviction, and heard amidst the glare of the lightning, the howl of the winds, and the roll of the thunder — “Sir Philip Derval, you accost me in a language which, but for my experience of the powers at your command, I should hear with the contempt that is due to the vaunts of a mountebank, or the pity we give to the morbid beliefs of his dupe. As it is, I decline the confidence with which you would favour me, subject to the conditions which it seems you would impose. My profession abandons to quacks all drugs which may not be analyzed, all secrets which may not be fearlessly told. I cannot visit you at Derval Court. I cannot trust myself, voluntarily, again in the power of a man, who has arts of which I may not examine the nature, by which he can impose on my imagination and steal away my reason.”

“Reflect well before you decide,” said Sir Philip, with a solemnity that was stern. “If you refuse to be warned and to be armed by me, your reason and your imagination will alike be subjected to influences which I can only explain by telling you that there is truth in those immemorial legends which depose to the existence of magic.”

“Magic!”

“There is magic of two kinds — the dark and evil, appertaining to witchcraft or necromancy; the pure and beneficent, which is but philosophy, applied to certain mysteries in Nature remote from the beaten tracks of science, but which deepened the wisdom of ancient sages, and can yet unriddle the myths of departed races.”

“Sir Philip,” I said, with impatient and angry interruption, “if you think that a jargon of this kind be worthy a man of your acquirements and station, it is at least a waste of time to address it to me. I am led to conclude that you desire to make use of me for some purpose which I have a right to suppose honest and blameless, because all you know of me is, that I rendered to your relation services which can not lower my character in your eyes. If your object be, as you have intimated, to aid you in exposing and disabling man whose antecedents have been those of guilt, and who threatens with danger the society which receives him, you must give me proofs that are not reducible to magic; and you must prepossess me against the person you accuse, not by powders and fumes that disorder the brain, but by substantial statements, such as justify one man in condemning another. And, since you have thought fit to convince me that there are chemical means at your disposal, by which the imagination can be so affected as to accept, temporarily, illusions for realities, so I again demand, and now still more decidedly than before, that while you address yourself to my reason, whether to explain your object or to vindicate your charges against a man whom I have admitted to my acquaintance, you will divest yourself of all means and agencies to warp my judgment so illicit and fraudulent as those which you own yourself to possess. Let the casket, with all its contents, be transferred to my hands, and pledge me your word that, in giving that casket, you reserve to yourself no other means by which chemistry can be abused to those influences over physical organization, which ignorance or imposture may ascribe to — magic.”

“I accept no conditions for my confidence, though I think the better of you for attempting to make them. If I live, you will seek me yourself, and implore my aid. Meanwhile, listen to me, and —”

“No; I prefer the rain and the thunder to the whispers that steal to my ear in the dark from one of whom I have reason to beware.”

So saying, I stepped forth, and at that moment the lightning flashed through the arch, and brought into full view the face of the man beside me. Seen by that glare, it was pale as the face of a corpse, but its expression was compassionate and serene.

I hesitated, for the expression of that hueless countenance touched me; it was not the face which inspires distrust or fear.

“Come,” said I, gently; “grant my demand. The casket —”

“It is no scruple of distrust that now makes that demand; it is a curiosity which in itself is a fearful tempter. Did you now possess what at this moment you desire, how bitterly you would repent!”

“Do you still refuse my demand?”

“I refuse.”

“If then you really need me, it is you who will repent.”

I passed from the arch into the open space. The rain had passed, the thunder was more distant. I looked back when I had gained the opposite side of the way, at the angle of a street which led to my own house. As I did so, again the skies lightened, but the flash was comparatively slight and evanescent; it did not penetrate the gloom of the arch; it did not bring the form of Sir Philip into view; but, just under the base of the outer buttress to the gateway, I descried the outline of a dark figure, cowering down, huddled up for shelter, the outline so indistinct, and so soon lost to sight as the flash faded, that I could not distinguish if it were man or brute. If it were some chance passer-by, who had sought refuge from the rain, and overheard any part of our strange talk, “the listener,” thought I with a half-smile, “must have been mightily perplexed.”

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