A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 44.

The next day my house was filled with visitors. I had no notion that I had so many friends. Mr. Vigors wrote me a generous and handsome letter, owning his prejudices against me on account of his sympathy with poor Dr. Lloyd, and begging my pardon for what he now felt to have been harshness, if not distorted justice. But what most moved me was the entrance of Strahan, who rushed up to me with the heartiness of old college days. “Oh, my dear Allen, can you ever forgive me; that I should have disbelieved your word — should have suspected you of abstracting my poor cousin’s memoir?”

“Is it found, then?”

“Oh, yes; you must thank Margrave. He, clever fellow, you know, came to me on a visit yesterday. He put me at once on the right scent. Only guess; but you never can! It was that wretched old housekeeper who purloined the manuscript. You remember she came into the room while you were looking at the memoir. She heard us talk about it; her curiosity was roused; she longed to know the history of her old master, under his own hand; she could not sleep; she heard me go up to bed; she thought you might leave the book on the table when you, too, went to rest. She stole downstairs, peeped through the keyhole of the library, saw you asleep, the book lying before you, entered, took away the book softly, meant to glance at its contents and to return it. You were sleeping so soundly she thought you would not wake for an hour; she carried it into the library, leaving the door open, and there began to pore over it. She stumbled first on one of the passages in Latin; she hoped to find some part in plain English, turned over the leaves, putting her candle close to them, for the old woman’s eyes were dim, when she heard you make some sound in your sleep. Alarmed, she looked round; you were moving uneasily in your seat, and muttering to yourself. From watching you she was soon diverted by the consequences of her own confounded curiosity and folly. In moving, she had unconsciously brought the poor manuscript close to the candle; the leaves caught the flame; her own cap and hand burning first made her aware of the mischief done. She threw down the book; her sleeve was in flames; she had first to tear off the sleeve, which was, luckily for her, not sewn to her dress. By the time she recovered presence of mind to attend to the book, half its leaves were reduced to tinder. She did not dare then to replace what was left of the manuscript on your table; returned with it to her room, hid it, and resolved to keep her own secret. I should never have guessed it; I had never even spoken to her of the occurrence; but when I talked over the disappearance of the book to Margrave last night, and expressed my disbelief of your story, he said, in his merry way: ‘But do you think that Fenwick is the only person curious about your cousin’s odd ways and strange history? Why, every servant in the household would have been equally curious. You have examined your servants, of course?’ ‘No, I never thought of it.’ ‘Examine them now, then. Examine especially that old housekeeper. I observe a great change in her manner since I came here, weeks ago, to look over the house. She has something on her mind — I see it in her eyes.’ Then it occurred to me, too, that the woman’s manner had altered, and that she seemed always in a tremble and a fidget. I went at once to her room, and charged her with stealing the book. She fell on her knees, and told the whole story as I have told it to you, and as I shall take care to tell it to all to whom I have so foolishly blabbed my yet more foolish suspicions of yourself. But can you forgive me, old friend?”

“Heartily, heartily! And the book is burned?”

“See;” and he produced a mutilated manuscript. Strange, the part burned — reduced, indeed, to tinder — was the concluding part that related to Haroun — to Grayle: no vestige of that part was left; the earlier portions were scorched and mutilated, though in some places still decipherable; but as my eye hastily ran over those places, I saw only mangled sentences of the experimental problems which the writer had so minutely elaborated.

“Will you keep the manuscript as it is, and as long as you like?” said Strahan.

“No, no; I will have nothing more to do with it. Consult some other man of science. And so this is the old woman’s whole story? No accomplice — none? No one else shared her curiosity and her task?”

“No. Oddly enough, though, she made much the same excuse for her pitiful folly that the madman made for his terrible crime; she said, ‘the Devil put it into her head.’ Of course he did, as he puts everything wrong into any one’s head. That does not mend the matter.”

“How! did she, too, say she saw a Shadow and heard a voice?”

“No; not such a liar as that, and not mad enough for such a lie. But she said that when she was in bed, thinking over the book, something irresistible urged her to get up and go down into the study; swore she felt something lead her by the hand; swore, too, that when she first discovered the manuscript was not in English, something whispered in her ear to turn over the leaves and approach them to the candle. But I had no patience to listen to all this rubbish. I sent her out of the house, bag and baggage. But, alas! is this to be the end of all my wise cousin’s grand discoveries?”

True, of labours that aspired to bring into the chart of science new worlds, of which even the traditionary rumour was but a voice from the land of fable — nought left but broken vestiges of a daring footstep! The hope of a name imperishable amidst the loftiest hierarchy of Nature’s secret temple, with all the pomp of recorded experiment, that applied to the mysteries of Egypt and Chaldwa the inductions of Bacon, the tests of Liebig — was there nothing left of this but what, here and there, some puzzled student might extract, garbled, mutilated, perhaps unintelligible, from shreds of sentences, wrecks of problems! O mind of man, can the works, on which thou wouldst found immortality below, be annulled into smoke and tinder by an inch of candle in the hand of an old woman!

When Strahan left me, I went out, but not yet to visit patients. I stole through by-paths into the fields; I needed solitude to bring my thoughts into shape and order. What was delusion, and what not? Was I right or the Public? Was Margrave really the most innocent and serviceable of human beings, kindly affectionate, employing a wonderful acuteness for benignant ends? Was I, in truth, indebted to him for the greatest boon one man can bestow on another — for life rescued, for fair name justified? Or had he, by some demoniac sorcery, guided the hand of the murderer against the life of the person who alone could imperil his own? Had he, by the same dark spells, urged the woman to the act that had destroyed the only record of his monstrous being — the only evidence that I was not the sport of an illusion in the horror with which he inspired me?

But if the latter supposition could be admissible, did he use his agents only to betray them afterwards to exposure, and that, without any possible clew to his own detection as the instigator? Then, there came over me confused recollections of tales of mediaeval witchcraft, which I had read in boyhood. Were there not on judicial record attestation and evidence, solemn and circumstantial, of powers analogous to those now exercised by Margrave — of sorcerers instigating to sin through influences ascribed to Demons; making their apparitions glide through guarded walls, their voices heard from afar in the solitude of dungeons or monastic cells; subjugating victims to their will, by means which no vigilance could have detected, if the victims themselves had not confessed the witchcraft that had ensnared, courting a sure and infamous death in that confession, preferring such death to a life so haunted? Were stories so gravely set forth in the pomp of judicial evidence, and in the history of times comparatively recent, indeed to be massed, pell-mell together, as a moles indigesta of senseless superstition — all the witnesses to be deemed liars; all the victims and tools of the sorcerers, lunatics; all the examiners or judges, with their solemn gradations — lay and clerical — from Commissions of Inquiry to Courts of Appeal — to be despised for credulity, loathed for cruelty; or, amidst records so numerous, so imposingly attested, were there the fragments of a terrible truth? And had our ancestors been so unwise in those laws we now deem so savage, by which the world was rid of scourges more awful and more potent than the felon with his candid dagger? Fell instigators of the evil in men’s secret hearts, shaping into action the vague, half-formed desire, and guiding with agencies impalpable, unseen, their spell-bound instruments of calamity and death.

Such were the gloomy questions that I— by repute, the sternest advocate of common-sense against fantastic errors; by profession, the searcher into flesh and blood, and tissue and nerve and sinew, for the causes of all that disease the mechanism of the universal human frame; I, self-boasting physician, sceptic, philosopher, materialist — revolved, not amidst gloomy pines, under grim winter skies, but as I paced slow through laughing meadows, and by the banks of merry streams, in the ripeness of the golden August: the hum of insects in the fragrant grass, the flutter of birds amid the delicate green of boughs checkered by playful sunbeams and gentle shadows, and ever in sight of the resorts of busy workday man — walls, roof-tops, church-spires rising high; there, white and modern, the handwriting of our race, in this practical nineteenth century, on its square plain masonry and Doric shafts, the Town–Hall, central in the animated marketplace. And I— I— prying into long-neglected corners and dust-holes of memory for what my reason had flung there as worthless rubbish; reviving the jargon of French law, in the proces verbal, against a Gille de Retz, or an Urbain Grandier, and sifting the equity of sentences on witchcraft!

Bursting the links of this ghastly soliloquy with a laugh at my own folly, I struck into a narrow path that led back towards the city, by a quiet and rural suburb; the path wound on through a wide and solitary churchyard, at the base of the Abbey-hill. Many of the former dwellers on that eminence now slept in the lowly burial-ground at its foot; and the place, mournfully decorated with the tombs which still jealously mark distinctions of rank amidst the levelling democracy of the grave, was kept trim with the care which comes half from piety, and half from pride.

I seated myself on a bench, placed between the clipped yew-trees that bordered the path from the entrance to the church porch, deeming vaguely that my own perplexing thoughts might imbibe a quiet from the quiet of the place.

“And oh,” I murmured to myself, “oh that I had one bosom friend to whom I might freely confide all these torturing riddles which I cannot solve — one who could read my heart, light up its darkness, exorcise its spectres; one in whose wisdom I could welcome a guide through the Nature which now suddenly changes her aspect, opening out from the walls with which I had fenced and enclosed her as mine own formal garden; — all her pathways, therein, trimmed to my footstep; all her blooms grouped and harmonized to my own taste in colour; all her groves, all her caverns, but the soothing retreats of a Muse or a Science; opening out — opening out, desert on desert, into clewless and measureless space! Gone is the garden! Were its confines too narrow for Nature? Be it so! The Desert replaces the garden, but where ends the Desert? Reft from my senses are the laws which gave order and place to their old questionless realm. I stand lost and appalled amidst Chaos. Did my Mind misconstrue the laws it deemed fixed and immutable? Be it so! But still Nature cannot be lawless; Creation is not a Chaos. If my senses deceive me in some things, they are still unerring in others; if thus, in some things, fallacious, still, in other things, truthful. Are there within me senses finer than those I have cultured, or without me vistas of knowledge which instincts, apart from my senses, divine? So long as I deal with the Finite alone, my senses suffice me; but when the Infinite is obtruded upon me there, are my senses faithless deserters? If so, is there aught else in my royal resources of Man — whose ambition it is, from the first dawn of his glory as Thinker, to invade and to subjugate Nature — is there aught else to supply the place of those traitors, the senses, who report to my Reason, their judge and their sovereign, as truths seen and heard tales which my Reason forfeits her sceptre if she does not disdain as lies? Oh, for a friend! oh, for a guide!”

And as I so murmured, my eye fell upon the form of a kneeling child — at the farther end of the burial-ground, beside a grave with its new headstone gleaming white amidst the older moss-grown tombs, a female child, her head bowed, her hands clasped. I could see but the outline of her small form in its sable dress — an infant beside the dead. My eye and my thoughts were turned from that silent figure, too absorbed in my own restless tumult of doubt and dread, for sympathy with the grief or the consolation of a kneeling child. And yet I should have remembered that tomb! Again I murmured with a fierce impatience, “Oh, for a friend! oh, for a guide!”

I heard steps on the walk under the yews; and an old man came in sight, slightly bent, with long gray hair, but still with enough of vigour for years to come, in his tread, firm, though slow, in the unshrunken muscle of his limbs and the steady light of his clear blue eye. I started. Was it possible? That countenance, marked, indeed, with the lines of laborious thought, but sweet in the mildness of humanity, and serene in the peace of conscience! I could not be mistaken. Julius Faber was before me — the profound pathologist, to whom my own proud self-esteem acknowledged inferiority, without humiliation; the generous benefactor to whom I owed my own smooth entrance into the arduous road of fame and fortune. I had longed for a friend, a guide; what I sought stood suddenly at my side.

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