A Fragment of Life, by Arthur Machen

Chapter 3

It might have been different in the evening, and Darnell had matured a plan by which he hoped to gain much. He intended to ask his wife if she would mind having only one gas, and that a good deal lowered, on the pretext that his eyes were tired with work; he thought many things might happen if the room were dimly lit, and the window opened, so that they could sit and watch the night, and listen to the rustling murmur of the tree on the lawn. But his plans were made in vain, for when he got to the garden gate his wife, in tears, came forth to meet him.

‘Oh, Edward,’ she began, ‘such a dreadful thing has happened! I never liked him much, but I didn’t think he would ever do such awful things.’

‘What do you mean? Who are you talking about? What has happened? Is it Alice’s young man?’

‘No, no. But come in, dear. I can see that woman opposite watching us: she’s always on the look out.’

‘Now, what is it?’ said Darnell, as they sat down to tea. ‘Tell me, quick! you’ve quite frightened me.’

‘I don’t know how to begin, or where to start. Aunt Marian has thought that there was something queer for weeks. And then she found — oh, well, the long and short of it is that Uncle Robert has been carrying on dreadfully with some horrid girl, and aunt has found out everything!’

‘Lord! you don’t say so! The old rascal! Why, he must be nearer seventy than sixty!’

‘He’s just sixty-five; and the money he has given her ——’

The first shock of surprise over, Darnell turned resolutely to his mince.

‘We’ll have it all out after tea,’ he said; ‘I am not going to have my meals spoilt by that old fool of a Nixon. Fill up my cup, will you, dear?’

‘Excellent mince this,’ he went on, calmly. ‘A little lemon juice and a bit of ham in it? I thought there was something extra. Alice all right to-day? That’s good. I expect she’s getting over all that nonsense.’

He went on calmly chattering in a manner that astonished Mrs. Darnell, who felt that by the fall of Uncle Robert the natural order had been inverted, and had scarcely touched food since the intelligence had arrived by the second post. She had started out to keep the appointment her aunt had made early in the morning, and had spent most of the day in a first-class waiting-room at Victoria Station, where she had heard all the story.

‘Now,’ said Darnell, when the table had been cleared, ‘tell us all about it. How long has it been going on?’

‘Aunt thinks now, from little things she remembers, that it must have been going on for a year at least. She says there has been a horrid kind of mystery about uncle’s behaviour for a long time, and her nerves were quite shaken, as she thought he must be involved with Anarchists, or something dreadful of the sort.’

‘What on earth made her think that?’

‘Well, you see, once or twice when she was out walking with her husband, she has been startled by whistles, which seemed to follow them everywhere. You know there are some nice country walks at Barnet, and one in particular, in the fields near Totteridge, that uncle and aunt rather made a point of going to on fine Sunday evenings. Of course, this was not the first thing she noticed, but, at the time, it made a great impression on her mind; she could hardly get a wink of sleep for weeks and weeks.’

‘Whistling?’ said Darnell. ‘I don’t quite understand. Why should she be frightened by whistling?’

‘I’ll tell you. The first time it happened was one Sunday in last May. Aunt had a fancy they were being followed a Sunday or two before, but she didn’t see or hear anything, except a sort of crackling noise in the hedge. But this particular Sunday they had hardly got through the stile into the fields, when she heard a peculiar kind of low whistle. She took no notice, thinking it was no concern of hers or her husband’s, but as they went on she heard it again, and then again, and it followed them the whole walk, and it made her so uncomfortable, because she didn’t know where it was coming from or who was doing it, or why. Then, just as they got out of the fields into the lane, uncle said he felt quite faint, and he thought he would try a little brandy at the “Turpin’s Head,” a small public-house there is there. And she looked at him and saw his face was quite purple — more like apoplexy, as she says, than fainting fits, which make people look a sort of greenish-white. But she said nothing, and thought perhaps uncle had a peculiar way of fainting of his own, as he always was a man to have his own way of doing everything. So she just waited in the road, and he went ahead and slipped into the public, and aunt says she thought she saw a little figure rise out of the dusk and slip in after him, but she couldn’t be sure. And when uncle came out he looked red instead of purple, and said he felt much better; and so they went home quietly together, and nothing more was said. You see, uncle had said nothing about the whistling, and aunt had been so frightened that she didn’t dare speak, for fear they might be both shot.

‘She wasn’t thinking anything more about it, when two Sundays afterwards the very same thing happened just as it had before. This time aunt plucked up a spirit, and asked uncle what it could be. And what do you think he said? “Birds, my dear, birds.” Of course aunt said to him that no bird that ever flew with wings made a noise like that: sly, and low, with pauses in between; and then he said that many rare sorts of birds lived in North Middlesex and Hertfordshire. “Nonsense, Robert,” said aunt, “how can you talk so, considering it has followed us all the way, for a mile or more?” And then uncle told her that some birds were so attached to man that they would follow one about for miles sometimes; he said he had just been reading about a bird like that in a book of travels. And do you know that when they got home he actually showed her a piece in the “Hertfordshire Naturalist” which they took in to oblige a friend of theirs, all about rare birds found in the neighbourhood, all the most outlandish names, aunt says, that she had never heard or thought of, and uncle had the impudence to say that it must have been a Purple Sandpiper, which, the paper said, had “a low shrill note, constantly repeated.” And then he took down a book of Siberian Travels from the bookcase and showed her a page which told how a man was followed by a bird all day long through a forest. And that’s what Aunt Marian says vexes her more than anything almost; to think that he should be so artful and ready with those books, twisting them to his own wicked ends. But, at the time, when she was out walking, she simply couldn’t make out what he meant by talking about birds in that random, silly sort of way, so unlike him, and they went on, that horrible whistling following them, she looking straight ahead and walking fast, really feeling more huffy and put out than frightened. And when they got to the next stile, she got over and turned round, and “lo and behold,” as she says, there was no Uncle Robert to be seen! She felt herself go quite white with alarm, thinking of that whistle, and making sure he’d been spirited away or snatched in some way or another, and she had just screamed out “Robert” like a mad woman, when he came quite slowly round the corner, as cool as a cucumber, holding something in his hand. He said there were some flowers he could never pass, and when aunt saw that he had got a dandelion torn up by the roots, she felt as if her head were going round.’

Mary’s story was suddenly interrupted. For ten minutes Darnell had been writhing in his chair, suffering tortures in his anxiety to avoid wounding his wife’s feelings, but the episode of the dandelion was too much for him, and he burst into a long, wild shriek of laughter, aggravated by suppression into the semblance of a Red Indian’s war-whoop. Alice, who was washing-up in the scullery, dropped some three shillings’ worth of china, and the neighbours ran out into their gardens wondering if it were murder. Mary gazed reproachfully at her husband.

‘How can you be so unfeeling, Edward?’ she said, at length, when Darnell had passed into the feebleness of exhaustion. ‘If you had seen the tears rolling down poor Aunt Marian’s cheeks as she told me, I don’t think you would have laughed. I didn’t think you were so hard-hearted.’

‘My dear Mary,’ said Darnell, faintly, through sobs and catching of the breath, ‘I am awfully sorry. I know it’s very sad, really, and I’m not unfeeling; but it is such an odd tale, now, isn’t it? The Sandpiper, you know, and then the dandelion!’

His face twitched and he ground his teeth together. Mary looked gravely at him for a moment, and then she put her hands to her face, and Darnell could see that she also shook with merriment.

‘I am as bad as you,’ she said, at last. ‘I never thought of it in that way. I’m glad I didn’t, or I should have laughed in Aunt Marian’s face, and I wouldn’t have done that for the world. Poor old thing; she cried as if her heart would break. I met her at Victoria, as she asked me, and we had some soup at a confectioner’s. I could scarcely touch it; her tears kept dropping into the plate all the time; and then we went to the waiting-room at the station, and she cried there terribly.’

‘Well,’ said Darnell, ‘what happened next? I won’t laugh any more.’

‘No, we mustn’t; it’s much too horrible for a joke. Well, of course aunt went home and wondered and wondered what could be the matter, and tried to think it out, but, as she says, she could make nothing of it. She began to be afraid that uncle’s brain was giving way through overwork, as he had stopped in the City (as he said) up to all hours lately, and he had to go to Yorkshire (wicked old story-teller!), about some very tiresome business connected with his leases. But then she reflected that however queer he might be getting, even his queerness couldn’t make whistles in the air, though, as she said, he was always a wonderful man. So she had to give that up; and then she wondered if there were anything the matter with her, as she had read about people who heard noises when there was really nothing at all. But that wouldn’t do either, because though it might account for the whistling, it wouldn’t account for the dandelion or the Sandpiper, or for fainting fits that turned purple, or any of uncle’s queerness. So aunt said she could think of nothing but to read the Bible every day from the beginning, and by the time she got into Chronicles she felt rather better, especially as nothing had happened for three or four Sundays. She noticed uncle seemed absent-minded, and not as nice to her as he might be, but she put that down to too much work, as he never came home before the last train, and had a hansom twice all the way, getting there between three and four in the morning. Still, she felt it was no good bothering her head over what couldn’t be made out or explained anyway, and she was just settling down, when one Sunday evening it began all over again, and worse things happened. The whistling followed them just as it did before, and poor aunt set her teeth and said nothing to uncle, as she knew he would only tell her stories, and they were walking on, not saying a word, when something made her look back, and there was a horrible boy with red hair, peeping through the hedge just behind, and grinning. She said it was a dreadful face, with something unnatural about it, as if it had been a dwarf, and before she had time to have a good look, it popped back like lightning, and aunt all but fainted away.’

‘A red-headed boy?’ said Darnell. ‘I thought —— What an extraordinary story this is. I’ve never heard of anything so queer. Who was the boy?’

‘You will know in good time,’ said Mrs. Darnell. ‘It is very strange, isn’t it?’

‘Strange!’ Darnell ruminated for a while.

‘I know what I think, Mary,’ he said at length. ‘I don’t believe a word of it. I believe your aunt is going mad, or has gone mad, and that she has delusions. The whole thing sounds to me like the invention of a lunatic.’

‘You are quite wrong. Every word is true, and if you will let me go on, you will understand how it all happened.’

‘Very good, go ahead.’

‘Let me see, where was I? Oh, I know, aunt saw the boy grinning in the hedge. Yes, well, she was dreadfully frightened for a minute or two; there was something so queer about the face, but then she plucked up a spirit and said to herself, “After all, better a boy with red hair than a big man with a gun,” and she made up her mind to watch Uncle Robert closely, as she could see by his look he knew all about it; he seemed as if he were thinking hard and puzzling over something, as if he didn’t know what to do next, and his mouth kept opening and shutting, like a fish’s. So she kept her face straight, and didn’t say a word, and when he said something to her about the fine sunset, she took no notice. “Don’t you hear what I say, Marian?” he said, speaking quite crossly, and bellowing as if it were to somebody in the next field. So aunt said she was very sorry, but her cold made her so deaf, she couldn’t hear much. She noticed uncle looked quite pleased, and relieved too, and she knew he thought she hadn’t heard the whistling. Suddenly uncle pretended to see a beautiful spray of honeysuckle high up in the hedge, and he said he must get it for aunt, only she must go on ahead, as it made him nervous to be watched. She said she would, but she just stepped aside behind a bush where there was a sort of cover in the hedge, and found she could see him quite well, though she scratched her face terribly with poking it into a rose bush. And in a minute or two out came the boy from behind the hedge, and she saw uncle and him talking, and she knew it was the same boy, as it wasn’t dark enough to hide his flaming red head. And uncle put out his hand as if to catch him, but he just darted into the bushes and vanished. Aunt never said a word at the time, but that night when they got home she charged uncle with what she’d seen and asked him what it all meant. He was quite taken aback at first, and stammered and stuttered and said a spy wasn’t his notion of a good wife, but at last he made her swear secrecy, and told her that he was a very high Freemason, and that the boy was an emissary of the order who brought him messages of the greatest importance. But aunt didn’t believe a word of it, as an uncle of hers was a mason, and he never behaved like that. It was then she began to be afraid that it was really Anarchists, or something of the kind, and every time the bell rang she thought that uncle had been found out, and the police had come for him.’

‘What nonsense! As if a man with house property would be an Anarchist.’

‘Well, she could see there must be some horrible secret, and she didn’t know what else to think. And then she began to have the things through the post.’

‘Things through the post! What do you mean by that?’

‘All sorts of things; bits of broken bottle-glass, packed carefully as if it were jewellery; parcels that unrolled and unrolled worse than Chinese boxes, and then had “cat” in large letters when you came to the middle; old artificial teeth, a cake of red paint, and at last cockroaches.’

‘Cockroaches by post! Stuff and nonsense; your aunt’s mad.’

‘Edward, she showed me the box; it was made to hold cigarettes, and there were three dead cockroaches inside. And when she found a box of exactly the same kind, half-full of cigarettes, in uncle’s great-coat pocket, then her head began to turn again.’

Darnell groaned, and stirred uneasily in his chair, feeling that the tale of Aunt Marian’s domestic troubles was putting on the semblance of an evil dream.

‘Anything else?’ he asked.

‘My dear, I haven’t repeated half the things poor aunt told me this afternoon. There was the night she thought she saw a ghost in the shrubbery. She was anxious about some chickens that were just due to hatch out, so she went out after dark with some egg and bread-crumbs, in case they might be out. And just before her she saw a figure gliding by the rhododendrons. It looked like a short, slim man dressed as they used to be hundreds of years ago; she saw the sword by his side, and the feather in his cap. She thought she should have died, she said, and though it was gone in a minute, and she tried to make out it was all her fancy, she fainted when she got into the house. Uncle was at home that night, and when she came to and told him he ran out, and stayed out for half-an-hour or more, and then came in and said he could find nothing; and the next minute aunt heard that low whistle just outside the window, and uncle ran out again.’

‘My dear Mary, do let us come to the point. What on earth does it all lead to?’

‘Haven’t you guessed? Why, of course it was that girl all the time.’

‘Girl? I thought you said it was a boy with a red head?’

‘Don’t you see? She’s an actress, and she dressed up. She won’t leave uncle alone. It wasn’t enough that he was with her nearly every evening in the week, but she must be after him on Sundays too. Aunt found a letter the horrid thing had written, and so it has all come out. Enid Vivian she calls herself, though I don’t suppose she has any right to one name or the other. And the question is, what is to be done?’

‘Let us talk of that again. I’ll have a pipe, and then we’ll go to bed.’

They were almost asleep when Mary said suddenly —

‘Doesn’t it seem queer, Edward? Last night you were telling me such beautiful things, and to-night I have been talking about that disgraceful old man and his goings on.’

‘I don’t know,’ answered Darnell, dreamily. ‘On the walls of that great church upon the hill I saw all kinds of strange grinning monsters, carved in stone.’

The misdemeanours of Mr. Robert Nixon brought in their train consequences strange beyond imagination. It was not that they continued to develop on the somewhat fantastic lines of these first adventures which Mrs. Darnell had related; indeed, when ‘Aunt Marian’ came over to Shepherd’s Bush, one Sunday afternoon, Darnell wondered how he had had the heart to laugh at the misfortunes of a broken-hearted woman.

He had never seen his wife’s aunt before, and he was strangely surprised when Alice showed her into the garden where they were sitting on the warm and misty Sunday in September. To him, save during these latter days, she had always been associated with ideas of splendour and success: his wife had always mentioned the Nixons with a tinge of reverence; he had heard, many times, the epic of Mr. Nixon’s struggles and of his slow but triumphant rise. Mary had told the story as she had received it from her parents, beginning with the flight to London from some small, dull, and unprosperous town in the flattest of the Midlands, long ago, when a young man from the country had great chances of fortune. Robert Nixon’s father had been a grocer in the High Street, and in after days the successful coal merchant and builder loved to tell of that dull provincial life, and while he glorified his own victories, he gave his hearers to understand that he came of a race which had also known how to achieve. That had been long ago, he would explain: in the days when that rare citizen who desired to go to London or to York was forced to rise in the dead of night, and make his way, somehow or other, by ten miles of quagmirish, wandering lanes to the Great North Road, there to meet the ‘Lightning’ coach, a vehicle which stood to all the countryside as the visible and tangible embodiment of tremendous speed —‘and indeed,’ as Nixon would add, ‘it was always up to time, which is more than can be said of the Dunham Branch Line nowadays!’ It was in this ancient Dunham that the Nixons had waged successful trade for perhaps a hundred years, in a shop with bulging bay windows looking on the market-place. There was no competition, and the townsfolk, and well-to-do farmers, the clergy and the country families, looked upon the house of Nixon as an institution fixed as the town hall (which stood on Roman pillars) and the parish church. But the change came: the railway crept nearer and nearer, the farmers and the country gentry became less well-to-do; the tanning, which was the local industry, suffered from a great business which had been established in a larger town, some twenty miles away, and the profits of the Nixons grew less and less. Hence the hegira of Robert, and he would dilate on the poorness of his beginnings, how he saved, by little and little, from his sorry wage of City clerk, and how he and a fellow clerk, ‘who had come into a hundred pounds,’ saw an opening in the coal trade — and filled it. It was at this stage of Robert’s fortunes, still far from magnificent, that Miss Marian Reynolds had encountered him, she being on a visit to friends in Gunnersbury. Afterwards, victory followed victory; Nixon’s wharf became a landmark to bargemen; his power stretched abroad, his dusky fleets went outwards to the sea, and inward by all the far reaches of canals. Lime, cement, and bricks were added to his merchandise, and at last he hit upon the great stroke — that extensive taking up of land in the north of London. Nixon himself ascribed this coup to native sagacity, and the possession of capital; and there were also obscure rumours to the effect that some one or other had been ‘done’ in the course of the transaction. However that might be, the Nixons grew wealthy to excess, and Mary had often told her husband of the state in which they dwelt, of their liveried servants, of the glories of their drawing-room, of their broad lawn, shadowed by a splendid and ancient cedar. And so Darnell had somehow been led into conceiving the lady of this demesne as a personage of no small pomp. He saw her, tall, of dignified port and presence, inclining, it might be, to some measure of obesity, such a measure as was not unbefitting in an elderly lady of position, who lived well and lived at ease. He even imagined a slight ruddiness of complexion, which went very well with hair that was beginning to turn grey, and when he heard the door-bell ring, as he sat under the mulberry on the Sunday afternoon, he bent forward to catch sight of this stately figure, clad, of course, in the richest, blackest silk, girt about with heavy chains of gold.

He started with amazement when he saw the strange presence that followed the servant into the garden. Mrs. Nixon was a little, thin old woman, who bent as she feebly trotted after Alice; her eyes were on the ground, and she did not lift them when the Darnells rose to greet her. She glanced to the right, uneasily, as she shook hands with Darnell, to the left when Mary kissed her, and when she was placed on the garden seat with a cushion at her back, she looked away at the back of the houses in the next street. She was dressed in black, it was true, but even Darnell could see that her gown was old and shabby, that the fur trimming of her cape and the fur boa which was twisted about her neck were dingy and disconsolate, and had all the melancholy air which fur wears when it is seen in a second-hand clothes-shop in a back street. And her gloves — they were black kid, wrinkled with much wear, faded to a bluish hue at the finger-tips, which showed signs of painful mending. Her hair, plastered over her forehead, looked dull and colourless, though some greasy matter had evidently been used with a view of producing a becoming gloss, and on it perched an antique bonnet, adorned with black pendants that rattled paralytically one against the other.

And there was nothing in Mrs. Nixon’s face to correspond with the imaginary picture that Darnell had made of her. She was sallow, wrinkled, pinched; her nose ran to a sharp point, and her red-rimmed eyes were a queer water-grey, that seemed to shrink alike from the light and from encounter with the eyes of others. As she sat beside his wife on the green garden-seat, Darnell, who occupied a wicker-chair brought out from the drawing-room, could not help feeling that this shadowy and evasive figure, muttering replies to Mary’s polite questions, was almost impossibly remote from his conceptions of the rich and powerful aunt, who could give away a hundred pounds as a mere birthday gift. She would say little at first; yes, she was feeling rather tired, it had been so hot all the way, and she had been afraid to put on lighter things as one never knew at this time of year what it might be like in the evenings; there were apt to be cold mists when the sun went down, and she didn’t care to risk bronchitis.

‘I thought I should never get here,’ she went on, raising her voice to an odd querulous pipe. ‘I’d no notion it was such an out-of-the-way place, it’s so many years since I was in this neighbourhood.’

She wiped her eyes, no doubt thinking of the early days at Turnham Green, when she married Nixon; and when the pocket-handkerchief had done its office she replaced it in a shabby black bag which she clutched rather than carried. Darnell noticed, as he watched her, that the bag seemed full, almost to bursting, and he speculated idly as to the nature of its contents: correspondence, perhaps, he thought, further proofs of Uncle Robert’s treacherous and wicked dealings. He grew quite uncomfortable, as he sat and saw her glancing all the while furtively away from his wife and himself, and presently he got up and strolled away to the other end of the garden, where he lit his pipe and walked to and fro on the gravel walk, still astounded at the gulf between the real and the imagined woman.

Presently he heard a hissing whisper, and he saw Mrs. Nixon’s head inclining to his wife’s. Mary rose and came towards him.

‘Would you mind sitting in the drawing-room, Edward?’ she murmured. ‘Aunt says she can’t bring herself to discuss such a delicate matter before you. I dare say it’s quite natural.’

‘Very well, but I don’t think I’ll go into the drawing-room. I feel as if a walk would do me good. You mustn’t be frightened if I am a little late,’ he said; ‘if I don’t get back before your aunt goes, say good-bye to her for me.’

He strolled into the main road, where the trams were humming to and fro. He was still confused and perplexed, and he tried to account for a certain relief he felt in removing himself from the presence of Mrs. Nixon. He told himself that her grief at her husband’s ruffianly conduct was worthy of all pitiful respect, but at the same time, to his shame, he had felt a certain physical aversion from her as she sat in his garden in her dingy black, dabbing her red-rimmed eyes with a damp pocket-handkerchief. He had been to the Zoo when he was a lad, and he still remembered how he had shrunk with horror at the sight of certain reptiles slowly crawling over one another in their slimy pond. But he was enraged at the similarity between the two sensations, and he walked briskly on that level and monotonous road, looking about him at the unhandsome spectacle of suburban London keeping Sunday.

There was something in the tinge of antiquity which still exists in Acton that soothed his mind and drew it away from those unpleasant contemplations, and when at last he had penetrated rampart after rampart of brick, and heard no more the harsh shrieks and laughter of the people who were enjoying themselves, he found a way into a little sheltered field, and sat down in peace beneath a tree, whence he could look out on a pleasant valley. The sun sank down beneath the hills, the clouds changed into the likeness of blossoming rose-gardens; and he still sat there in the gathering darkness till a cool breeze blew upon him, and he rose with a sigh, and turned back to the brick ramparts and the glimmering streets, and the noisy idlers sauntering to and fro in the procession of their dismal festival. But he was murmuring to himself some words that seemed a magic song, and it was with uplifted heart that he let himself into his house.

Mrs. Nixon had gone an hour and a half before his return, Mary told him. Darnell sighed with relief, and he and his wife strolled out into the garden and sat down side by side.

They kept silence for a time, and at last Mary spoke, not without a nervous tremor in her voice.

‘I must tell you, Edward,’ she began, ‘that aunt has made a proposal which you ought to hear. I think we should consider it.’

‘A proposal? But how about the whole affair? Is it still going on?’

‘Oh, yes! She told me all about it. Uncle is quite unrepentant. It seems he has taken a flat somewhere in town for that woman, and furnished it in the most costly manner. He simply laughs at aunt’s reproaches, and says he means to have some fun at last. You saw how broken she was?’

‘Yes; very sad. But won’t he give her any money? Wasn’t she very badly dressed for a woman in her position?’

‘Aunt has no end of beautiful things, but I fancy she likes to hoard them; she has a horror of spoiling her dresses. It isn’t for want of money, I assure you, as uncle settled a very large sum on her two years ago, when he was everything that could be desired as a husband. And that brings me to what I want to say. Aunt would like to live with us. She would pay very liberally. What do you say?’

‘Would like to live with us?’ exclaimed Darnell, and his pipe dropped from his hand on to the grass. He was stupefied by the thought of Aunt Marian as a boarder, and sat staring vacantly before him, wondering what new monster the night would next produce.

‘I knew you wouldn’t much like the idea,’ his wife went on. ‘But I do think, dearest, that we ought not to refuse without very serious consideration. I am afraid you did not take to poor aunt very much.’

Darnell shook his head dumbly.

‘I thought you didn’t; she was so upset, poor thing, and you didn’t see her at her best. She is really so good. But listen to me, dear. Do you think we have the right to refuse her offer? I told you she has money of her own, and I am sure she would be dreadfully offended if we said we wouldn’t have her. And what would become of me if anything happened to you? You know we have very little saved.’

Darnell groaned.

‘It seems to me,’ he said, ‘that it would spoil everything. We are so happy, Mary dear, by ourselves. Of course I am extremely sorry for your aunt. I think she is very much to be pitied. But when it comes to having her always here ——’

‘I know, dear. Don’t think I am looking forward to the prospect; you know I don’t want anybody but you. Still, we ought to think of the future, and besides we shall be able to live so very much better. I shall be able to give you all sorts of nice things that I know you ought to have after all that hard work in the City. Our income would be doubled.’

‘Do you mean she would pay us £150 a year?’

‘Certainly. And she would pay for the spare room being furnished, and any extra she might want. She told me, specially, that if a friend or two came now and again to see her, she would gladly bear the cost of a fire in the drawing-room, and give something towards the gas bill, with a few shillings for the girl for any additional trouble. We should certainly be more than twice as well off as we are now. You see, Edward, dear, it’s not the sort of offer we are likely to have again. Besides, we must think of the future, as I said. Do you know aunt took a great fancy to you?’

He shuddered and said nothing, and his wife went on with her argument.

‘And, you see, it isn’t as if we should see so very much of her. She will have her breakfast in bed, and she told me she would often go up to her room in the evening directly after dinner. I thought that very nice and considerate. She quite understands that we shouldn’t like to have a third person always with us. Don’t you think, Edward, that, considering everything, we ought to say we will have her?’

‘Oh, I suppose so,’ he groaned. ‘As you say, it’s a very good offer, financially, and I am afraid it would be very imprudent to refuse. But I don’t like the notion, I confess.’

‘I am so glad you agree with me, dear. Depend upon it, it won’t be half so bad as you think. And putting our own advantage on one side, we shall really be doing poor aunt a very great kindness. Poor old dear, she cried bitterly after you were gone; she said she had made up her mind not to stay any longer in Uncle Robert’s house, and she didn’t know where to go, or what would become of her, if we refused to take her in. She quite broke down.’

‘Well, well; we will try it for a year, anyhow. It may be as you say; we shan’t find it quite so bad as it seems now. Shall we go in?’

He stooped for his pipe, which lay as it had fallen, on the grass. He could not find it, and lit a wax match which showed him the pipe, and close beside it, under the seat, something that looked like a page torn from a book. He wondered what it could be, and picked it up.

The gas was lit in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Darnell, who was arranging some notepaper, wished to write at once to Mrs. Nixon, cordially accepting her proposal, when she was startled by an exclamation from her husband.

‘What is the matter?’ she said, startled by the tone of his voice. ‘You haven’t hurt yourself?’

‘Look at this,’ he replied, handing her a small leaflet; ‘I found it under the garden seat just now.’

Mary glanced with bewilderment at her husband and read as follows:—

The New and Chosen Seed of Abraham
Prophecies to be Fulfilled in the Present Year
  1. The Sailing of a Fleet of One hundred and Forty and Four Vessels for Tarshish and the Isles.

  2. Destruction of the Power of the Dog, including all the instruments of anti-Abrahamic legislation.

  3. Return of the Fleet from Tarshish, bearing with it the gold of Arabia, destined to be the Foundation of the New City of Abraham.

  4. The Search for the Bride, and the bestowing of the Seals on the Seventy and Seven.

  5. The Countenance of FATHER to become luminous, but with a greater glory than the face of Moses.

  6. The Pope of Rome to be stoned with stones in the valley called Berek–Zittor.

  7. FATHER to be acknowledged by Three Great Rulers. Two Great Rulers will deny FATHER, and will immediately perish in the Effluvia of FATHER’S Indignation.

  8. Binding of the Beast with the Little Horn, and all Judges cast down.

  9. Finding of the Bride in the Land of Egypt, which has been revealed to FATHER as now existing in the western part of London.

  10. Bestowal of the New Tongue on the Seventy and Seven, and on the One Hundred and Forty and Four. FATHER proceeds to the Bridal Chamber.

  11. Destruction of London and rebuilding of the City called No, which is the New City of Abraham.

  12. FATHER united to the Bride, and the present Earth removed to the Sun for the space of half an hour.

Mrs. Darnell’s brow cleared as she read matter which seemed to her harmless if incoherent. From her husband’s voice she had been led to fear something more tangibly unpleasant than a vague catena of prophecies.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘what about it?’

‘What about it? Don’t you see that your aunt dropped it, and that she must be a raging lunatic?’

‘Oh, Edward! don’t say that. In the first place, how do you know that aunt dropped it at all? It might easily have blown over from any of the other gardens. And, if it were hers, I don’t think you should call her a lunatic. I don’t believe, myself, that there are any real prophets now; but there are many good people who think quite differently. I knew an old lady once who, I am sure, was very good, and she took in a paper every week that was full of prophecies and things very like this. Nobody called her mad, and I have heard father say that she had one of the sharpest heads for business he had ever come across.’

‘Very good; have it as you like. But I believe we shall both be sorry.’

They sat in silence for some time. Alice came in after her ‘evening out,’ and they sat on, till Mrs. Darnell said she was tired and wanted to go to bed.

Her husband kissed her. ‘I don’t think I will come up just yet,’ he said; ‘you go to sleep, dearest. I want to think things over. No, no; I am not going to change my mind: your aunt shall come, as I said. But there are one or two things I should like to get settled in my mind.’

He meditated for a long while, pacing up and down the room. Light after light was extinguished in Edna Road, and the people of the suburb slept all around him, but still the gas was alight in Darnell’s drawing-room, and he walked softly up and down the floor. He was thinking that about the life of Mary and himself, which had been so quiet, there seemed to be gathering on all sides grotesque and fantastic shapes, omens of confusion and disorder, threats of madness; a strange company from another world. It was as if into the quiet, sleeping streets of some little ancient town among the hills there had come from afar the sound of drum and pipe, snatches of wild song, and there had burst into the market-place the mad company of the players, strangely bedizened, dancing a furious measure to their hurrying music, drawing forth the citizens from their sheltered homes and peaceful lives, and alluring them to mingle in the significant figures of their dance.

Yet afar and near (for it was hidden in his heart) he beheld the glimmer of a sure and constant star. Beneath, darkness came on, and mists and shadows closed about the town. The red, flickering flame of torches was kindled in the midst of it. The song grew louder, with more insistent, magical tones, surging and falling in unearthly modulations, the very speech of incantation; and the drum beat madly, and the pipe shrilled to a scream, summoning all to issue forth, to leave their peaceful hearths; for a strange rite was preconized in their midst. The streets that were wont to be so still, so hushed with the cool and tranquil veils of darkness, asleep beneath the patronage of the evening star, now danced with glimmering lanterns, resounded with the cries of those who hurried forth, drawn as by a magistral spell; and the songs swelled and triumphed, the reverberant beating of the drum grew louder, and in the midst of the awakened town the players, fantastically arrayed, performed their interlude under the red blaze of torches. He knew not whether they were players, men that would vanish suddenly as they came, disappearing by the track that climbed the hill; or whether they were indeed magicians, workers of great and efficacious spells, who knew the secret word by which the earth may be transformed into the hall of Gehenna, so that they that gazed and listened, as at a passing spectacle, should be entrapped by the sound and the sight presented to them, should be drawn into the elaborated figures of that mystic dance, and so should be whirled away into those unending mazes on the wild hills that were abhorred, there to wander for evermore.

But Darnell was not afraid, because of the Daystar that had risen in his heart. It had dwelt there all his life, and had slowly shone forth with clearer and clearer light, and he began to see that though his earthly steps might be in the ways of the ancient town that was beset by the Enchanters, and resounded with their songs and their processions, yet he dwelt also in that serene and secure world of brightness, and from a great and unutterable height looked on the confusion of the mortal pageant, beholding mysteries in which he was no true actor, hearing magic songs that could by no means draw him down from the battlements of the high and holy city.

His heart was filled with a great joy and a great peace as he lay down beside his wife and fell asleep, and in the morning, when he woke up, he was glad.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/machen/arthur/fragment-of-life/chapter3.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39