Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 1

IT BEGAN because, meeting Nils Berquist in town one August morning, he dragged me off for luncheon at a little restaurant on a side street where he swore I would meet some of the rising geniuses of the century.

What we did meet was the commencement for me of such an extraordinary experience as befalls few men. At the time, however, the whole affair seemed incidental, with a spice of grotesque but harmless absurdity. Jimmy Moore and his Alicia! How could anyone, meeting them as I did, have believed a grimness behind their amusing eccentricity?

I was just turned twenty-four that August day. A boy’s guileless enthusiasm for the untried was still strong in me, coupled with a tendency to make friends in all quarters, desirable or otherwise. Almost anyone who liked me, I liked. My college years, very recently ended, had seen me sworn comrade to a reckless and on-his-way-to-be-notorious son of plutocracy, while I was also well received in the room which Nils Berquist sharing with two other embryo socialists of fanatic dye. A certain ingenuous likableness must have been mine even then, I think, to have gained me not only toleration, but real friendship in both camps.

Berquist was older than I by several years. He had earned his college days before enjoying them and, college ended, he dropped back into the struggle for existence and out of my sight — till I ran across him in town that August day.

To play host even at a very moderate luncheon must have been an extravagance for Nils, though I didn’t think of that. He was a man with whom one somehow never associated the idea of need. Tall, lean, with a dark, long face, high cheekbones and deep eyes set well apart, he dressed badly and walked the world in a careless air of ownership that mere clothes could not in the least affect.

His intimates knew him capable of vast, sudden enthusiasms, and equally vast depressions of the spirit. But up or down, he was Nils Berquist, sufficient unto himself, asking no favors, and always with an indefinable air of being well able to grant them.

I admired and liked him, was very glad to see him again, and cheerfully let him steer me around two corners and in the door of his bragged-of trysting place.

On first entering, my friend cast an eye about the aggregation of more or less shabby individuals present and muttered: “Not a soul here!” in a disappointed tone. Then, glimpsing a couple seated at a corner table laid for four, he brightened a trifle and led me over to them.

Nil’s idea of formal presentation was always more brief than elaborate. After addressing the fair-haired, light-eyelashed, Palm–Beach-suited person on one side of the table as “Jimmy” and his vis-a-vis, a darkly mysterious lady in a purple veil, as “Alicia,” he referred to me casually as “Clay,” and considered the introduction complete.

I do not mean that the lady’s costume was limited to the veil. Only that this article was of such peculiar, brilliantly, fascinatingly ugly hue that the rest of her might have been clothed in anything from a mermaid’s scales to a speckled calico wrapper; I can image nothing except a gown of the same color which would have distracted one’s attention from that veil.

The thing was draped over a small hat and hung all about her head and face in a sort of circular curtain. Behind it I became aware of two dark bright eyes watching me, like the eyes of some sea creature, laired behind a highly futurist wave. Having met peculiar folk before in Berquist’s company, I took a seat opposite the veil without embarrassment.

“Charming little place, this,” I lied, glancing about the low-ceilinged semi ventilated, architectural container for chairs, tables and genius which formed a background to the veil. “Sorry I didn’t discover it earlier.”

The dark eyes gleamed immovably from their lair. I essayed a direct question. “You lunch here frequently, I presume?”

No answer. The veil didn’t so much as quiver. Even my genial amity began to suffer a chill.

Suddenly “Jimmy” of the Palm Beach suit transferred his attention from Berquist to me. “Please don’t try to talk with Alicia,” he said. “She is in the silence today. If you draw her out it will disturb the vibrations for a week and make the deuce of a hole in my work. Do you mind?”

With a slight gasp I adjusted myself to the unusual. I said I didn’t mind anything.

“You’re the right sort, then. Might have known it, or you wouldn’t be traveling with old man Nils, eh? What you going to have? Nothing worth eating except the broiled bluefish, and that’s scorched. Always is. What you eating, Nils?”

“Rice,” said Berquist briefly.

“On the one-dish-at-a-time diet, eh? Great stuff, if you can stick it out. Make an athlete out of a centenarian — if you can stick it out. Bluefish for one or two?” he added, addressing the waiter and myself in the same sentence.

“Two,” I smiled. Palm Beach Jimmy seemed to have usurped my friend’s role of host with calm casualism. The man’s blond hair and faintly yellow lashes and eyebrows robbed his face of emphasis, so that the remarkably square and sloping forehead did not impress one at first. His way of assuming direction of even the slightest affairs about him struck me as easy-going and careless, rather than domineering.

He gave the rest of the order, with an occasional kindly reference to my desires. “And boiled rice for one,” he finished.

The waiter cast a curious glance at the purple veil. “Nothing for the lady?” he queried.

“Seaweed, of course,” retorted Jimmy. “You’re new at this table, aren’t you?”

“Just started working here. Seaweed, sir?”

“Certainly. There it is, staring you in the face under ‘Salads.’ Study your menu, man. That,” explained Jimmy, after the waiter’s somewhat dazed departure, “is the only reason we come here. One place I know of that serves rhodymenia serrata. Great stuff. Rich in mineral salts and vitamins.”

“You didn’t order any for yourself,” I ventured.

“No. Great stuff, but has a horrid taste. Simply horrid! Alicia eats it as a martyr to the cause. We have to be careful of her diet. Very careful; Nils, old man, what’s the new wrong to the human race you’re being so silent over?”

“Can’t say without becoming personal,” retorted Berquist calmly.

“What? Oh, I forgot you don’t approve. Still clinging to the sacred barriers, eh?”

“The barriers exist, and they are sacred.” Nils’ long, dark face was solemn, but as he was capable of cracking the wildest jokes with just that solemn expression, I wasn’t sure if the conversation were light or serious. I only knew that as yet I had failed to get a grip on the situation. The man talked about his seaweed-fed Alicia as if the lady were not present.

What curiosity in human shape did that veil hide? One thing I was uneasily aware of. Not once, since the moment of our arrival had those laired bright eyes strayed from my face.

“The barriers exist,” Berquist repeated. “I do not believe that you or others like you can tear them down. If I did, I should be justified in taking your life, as though you were any other dangerous criminal. When those barriers go down, chaos will swallow the world, and the race of men be superseded by the race of madmen!”

Jimmy laughed, unstartled by my friend’s reference to cold-blooded assassination. “In the world of science,” he retorted, “what one can do, one may do. If every investigator of novel fields had stopped his work for fear of scorched fingers-”

“In the material, physical world,” interrupted Berquist, speaking in the same solemn, dogmatic tone, “what one can do, one may do. There, the worst punishment of a step too far can be only the loss of life or limb. It isn’t man’s rightful workshop. Let him learn its tools at the cost of a cut or so. But the field that you would invade is forbidden.”

“By whom? By what?”

“By its nature! A man who risks his life may be a hero, but what is the name for a man who risks his soul?”

“Oh, Nils — Nils! You anachronism! You — you inquisitor! Here! You say the physical world is open ground — don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And what is commonly referred to as the ‘supernatural’ is forbidden?”

“In the sense we speak of — yes.”

“Very well. Now, where do you draw the fine dividing line? How do you know that your soul, as you call it, isn’t just another finer form of matter? A good medium Alicia here can do it — stretches out a tenuous arm, a misty, wraithy, seimiformless limb, and lifts a ten-pound weight off the table while the ‘physical’ hands and feet are bound so they can’t stir an inch. Telekinesis, that is called, or levitation, and you talk about it as if it were done by some sort of supernatural will power.

“Will power, yes; but will actuating matter to move matter. That fluidic arm is just as ‘material.’ though not so substantial, as your own husky biceps. It’s thinner — different. But material — of course it’s material! Why, you yourself are a walking case of miraculous levitation. Will moving matter. Will, a super physical force generated on the physical plane. Where’s your fine dividing line? You talk about the material plane-”

“I won’t any more,” broke in Berquist hastily. “But you know that there are entities and forces dangerous to the human race outside of what we call the natural world, and that your investigations are no better than a sawing at the bars of a cage full of tigers. If I thought you could loose them, I have already told what I would do!”

There was a dark gleam in Berquist’s deep-set eyes that suddenly warned me he meant exactly what he said — though the meaning of the whole argument was as hazy to me as the face behind that astounding veil.

Jimmy himself looked sober. “Here comes your rice,” he said shortly. “Eat it, you old vegetarian, and get off the murder subject. I’ll expect you to be coming around some night with a carving knife, if you say much more.”

“There are police to guard you from the carving knife. The wild marches between this world and the invisible are patrolled by no police. Yet you fear the knife; which can harm only your body, and fearlessly expose your naked soul!”

“Thanks, old man, but my soul is well able to take care of itself. Eat your rice. There! Didn’t I say the bluefish would be scorched? And it is. Behold, a prophet among you!”

The bluefish wasn’t worrying me. What I was awaiting was the moment when that miraculously colored veil should be uplifted. Surely, her purple screen removed, the lady would cease to stare me out of countenance.

Before the veil a large platter of straggling, saw-edged, brownish-red leaves had been set down. The dish looked as horrid as Jimmy said it tasted. In a quiver of impatience I waited. At last I should see — a hand, white and well shaped, but slender to emaciation, was raised to the veil’s lower edge. The edge was lifted. Another hand conveyed a modest forkful of the uncanny edible upward. It passed behind the veil. The fork came away empty.

With a gasping sigh I relinquished hope, and turned my attention to scorched bluefish.

Jimmy may have noted my emotion. “When Alicia is in the silence,” he offered, “she has to be guarded. The vibratory rhythm of the violet light waves is less harmful than the rest of the spectrum. Hence, the veil. Invention of my own. You agree with our wild anarchist here, Mr. — er — Clay? Sacred barrierist and all that?”

“My name’s Barbour,” I said. “Clayton S. Barbour. As for the barriers, I must admit you’ve been talking over my head.”

“So? Don’t believe it. Pardon me, but your head doesn’t look that sort. Hasn’t Nils told you what I’m doing?”

“Nils,” said Berquist, with what would have been cold insolence from anyone else, “has something better to do than walk about the world exploiting you to his acquaintances.

“I’m smashed — crushed flat,” laughed Jimmy. He seemed one of the most good-humored individuals I had ever met. “Never mind, anarchist. I’ll tend to it myself.” He turned again to me. “Come to think of it, one of Nils’ introductions is an efficient disguise. I’m James Barton Moore.”

I murmured polite gratification. For the life of me I couldn’t recall hearing the name before. His perception was as quick as his good humor. That ready laugh broke out again.

“Never heard of me, eh? That’s a fault of mine — expect the whole world to be thrillingly expectant of results from my work. Ever hear of the Psychic Research Association?”

“Certainly.” I looked as intelligent as possible. “Investigate ghosts and haunted houses and all that, don’t they?”

“You’re right, son. Ghosts and haunted houses about cover the Association’s metier. Bah! Do you know who I am?”

“A member?” I hazarded.

“Not exactly. I’m the man the Association forced off its directing board. And I’m also the man who is going to make the Association look like; a crowd of children hunting spooks in the nursery. Come around to my place tonight and I’ll show you something!”

The invitation was so explosively abrupt that I started in my chair.

“Why — er — ” I began.

Nils broke in again. “Don’t go,” he said, coolly.

“Let him alone!” enjoined Moore, but with no sign of irritation. “You drop in around seven — here,” he scribbled an address on the back of a card and tossed it across the table, “and I’ll promise you an interesting evening.”

“You are very good,” I said, not knowing quite what to do. I already had an engagement for that evening; on the other hand, my ever-ready curiosity had been aroused.

“Don’t go,” repeated Berquist tonelessly.

“Thanks, but I believe I will.”

“Good! You’re the right sort. Knew it the minute I set eyes on you. Don’t extend these invitations to everyone. Not by any means.”

Berquist pushed back his chair.

“Are you going on with me, Clay?” he inquired.

I thought he was carrying his peculiar style of rudeness rather beyond the boundaries; but he was really my host, so I acquiesced. I took pains, however, to bid a particularly courteous farewell to the eccentric pair with whom we had lunched. I might or might not keep my appointment with Moore, but if I did I wished to be sure of a welcome.

With me the influence of a personality, however strong, ended where its line of direction crossed the course of my own wishes. Nils’ opposition to my further acquaintance with the Moores had struck me as decidedly officious.

Once outside the restaurant, he turned on me almost savagely.

“Clay,” he said, “you are not going up there tonight!”

“No?” I asked coldly. “And why not?”

“You don’t know what you might be let in for. That is why not.”

“You have an odd way of talking about your friends.”

“Oh, Moore knows what I think.”

“All right,” I grinned, not really wishing a quarrel if one could be avoided. “But your friends are good enough for me, too, Nils. Who was the lady in the veil?”

“His wife. A physical medium. Heaven help her!”

“Spirit rapping, clairvoyant and all that, eh? I supposed it was something of the sort. Well, if I wish to go out to their place and spend a dollar or so to watch some conjuring tricks, why do you object so strenuously? That’s one thing I’ve never done-”

“Spend a dollar or so!” snapped Berquist. “Those people are not professionals, Clay. Mrs. Moore is one of the few genuine mediums in this country.”

“Oh, come! Surely you’re not a believer in table-tipping and messages from Marcus Aurelius and Shakespeare?”

Berquist squinted at me disgustedly.

“Heaven help me save this infant!” he muttered, taking no pains, however, that I shouldn’t hear him. “Clay, you go home and stay among your own people. Jimmy Moore is a moderately good fellow, but in one certain line he’s as voracious as a wolf and unscrupulous as a Corsican bandit. He told you that he didn’t extend these invitations to everyone. That is strictly true. The fact that he extended one to you is proof sufficient that you should not accept. He saw in you something he’s continually on the watch for. He would use you and wreck you without a scruple.”

“How? What do you mean?”

“If I should tell you in what way, you would laugh and call it impossible. But, let me say something you can understand. Except casually, Moore is not a pleasant man to know. He would like people to believe that he was dropped from the administrative board of the Association because his investigations and inferences were too daring for even the extraordinary open types of mind which compose it. The, real reason was that he proved so violently, overbearingly quarrelsome that even they couldn’t tolerate him.”

Recalling Moore’s impregnable good humor under Nils’ own attacks, I began to wonder exactly what was the latter’s object.

“I’m not going there to quarrel with him,” I said.

“No; you’re going to be used by him. Look at that unfortunate little wife of his, if you want a horrible example.”

“You mean he’d obscure my classic features with a purple veil? There’ll be a fight to the finish first, believe me!”

“Oh, that veil-vibration-seaweed business — that’s all rot. Just freak results of freak theorizing. Froth and bubbles. It’s the dark brew underneath that’s dangerous.”

“Witch’s scene in Macbeth,” I chuckled. “Fire burn and caldron bubble! We now see Mr. Jimmy Moore in his famous personation of Beelzebub — costume, one Palm Beach suit and a cheerful grin. Don’t worry, Nils! I’ll bolt through the window at the first whiff of brimstone.”

“My child,” said Berquist, very gently and slowly, “you have the joyous courage of ignorance. Alicia Moore is that rare freak, a real materializing medium — a producer of supernormal physical phenomena, as they are called. In other words, she is an open channel for forces which are neither understood nor recognized by the average civilized man. And Timmy Moore is that much more common freak, a fool who doesn’t care whose fingers get burnt. The responsibility for having introduced you to those people is mine. As a personal favor, I now ask you to have nothing more to do with either of them.”

“Nils, you’re back in the dark ages, as Moore claimed. I never thought you’d fall for this spiritualistic bunk.”

“Leave that. You are determined to keep the appointment?”

“Come with me, if you think I need a chaperon.”

“No,” he said soberly.

“Why not?”

“He wouldn’t have me. Not when a seance is planned, and that is what he meant by an ‘interesting evening.’ I’m persona non grate on such an occasion, because Alicia says her spirit guides don’t like me — save the mark! If I tried to wedge in tonight there would be another row, and Heaven alone knows where the thing would end. I wish you’d stay away from there!”

“Do you mean,” I asked slowly, and beginning to see new light on Nils’ attitude, “that you have quarreled with Moore in the past?”

“My dear fellow, get this through your head if you can. It is impossible to know Moore very long and not quarrel with him — or be subjugated. You keep away.”

I was growing a little sick of Nils’ persistence.

“Softy. Fear I haven’t your faith in the bodiless powers of evil, and I can’t say Moore seemed such an appalling person. I’m going!”

Abruptly, without a word of answer or farewell, Berquist turned his back on me and swung off down street. Several times I had seen him end a conversation in that manner, and I knew why. By rights, he should have been the last man to criticize another man’s temper.

But I knew, too, that Nils’ wrath was likely as evanescent as sudden. He would be as friendly as ever next time we met, and even if he were not, I couldn’t see why his anger or disapproval should afflict me greatly. Friends were too easily acquired for me to miss one.

I forgot him promptly and began wondering how my dissertation for the evening would be accepted by Roberta Whitingfield.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevens/francis/serapion/chapter1.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30