Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 4

THE difference between light and the lack of it is the difference between freedom and captivity, and the real reason that we pity a blind man is because he is a prisoner. This is true under normal conditions. Add to darkness dread of the supernatural, and the inevitable sum is panic.

Till that moment I doubt if Roberta or I had believed the black hand which touched her to be of other than natural origin. Ingrained thought-habit had accused Moore of trickery, even while it condemned the trick as unpleasant.

That was while the light burned. One instant later we were trapped prisoners of the dark, and instincts centuries old flung off thought-habit like a tissue cloak.

What had been a quiet, modern room became, in that instant, the devil-haunted jungle of forebears infinitely remote.

And it didn’t help matters that just then “Horace” elected to be heard again. Alicia visible, Horace had seemed a vocal feat on her part. Alicia unseen, Horace became a discarnate fiend. That he was a fiend, vulgar and incongruous, only made his fiendishness more intolerable.

“How’s this for a joke?” he inquired sardonically, “I never did like that lamp! Let’s give it away, Jimmy. Tell your young fool friend to take the lamp away with him.”

Soundlessly, without warning, something hard and slightly warm touched my cheek. I struck out wildly. My fist crashed through glass, there was a great smash and clatter from the floor, and mingled with it shout upon shout of fairly maniacal mirth. Then Moore’s voice, cool but irritated:

“You’ll have to stop these tricks, Horace. I’m ashamed of you! Breaking a valuable lamp like that. Our guests will believe you a common spirit or poltergeist.”

“Moore, if you don’t throw on the lights, I’ll kill you for this!”

My own voice shook with mingled rage and dread. Of course, it might be he who had brought the lamp and held it against my face, but the very senselessness of the trick made it terrible in a queer, unhuman way.

“Stand still!” he commanded sharply. “Barbour, Miss Whitingfield, you are not children! Nothing will harm you, if you keep quiet. It was your own yielding to anger and fear that brought this crude force into play. Did it actually hit you with the lamp, Barbour?”

“I hit the lamp, but-”

“Exactly! Now keep quiet. Horace, may I turn on the lights?”

“If you do, you’ll be sorry, Jimmy! Call me poltergeist or plain Dutch, there’s somebody worse than me here tonight.”

“What do you mean, Horace?”

“Oh, somebody that came along in with your scared young friends. He’s a Joker, too, but I don’t like him. He wants to get through the gates altogether, and stay through. If he does, a lot of people will be sorry: You say I’m rough, but say, Jimmy, this fellow is worse than rough. He’s smooth! Get me? Too smooth. I’m keeping him back, and you know I’m stronger in the dark.”

“Very well.” I heard Moore laugh amusedly. His quiet matter-of-courseness should have deleted all terror from the affair. He was carrying on a conversation with a rather silly, rather vulgar man, of whom he was not afraid, but whose vagaries he indulged for reasons of expediency. That was the sound of it.

But the sense of it — there in the blackness — was such an indescribable horror to me as I cannot convey by words. There was more to this feeling than fear of Horace. I learned what nerves meant that night. If mine had all been on the outside of my skin, crawling, expectant of shock, I could have suffered no more keenly. Coward? Wait to judge that till you learn what the uncomprehending expectancy meant for me.

“Very well,” laughed Moore. “But don’t break any more lamps, Horace — please! Have some consideration for my pocketbook.”

“Money! We haven’t any pants-pockets my side of the line,” Horace chuckled. “If I’m to keep the smooth fellow back, you must let me use my strength. Let me have my fun, Jimmy! What’s a lamp or so between pals? And just to keep things interesting, suppose we bring out the big fellow in the closet?”

I heard a thud from the direction of the cabinet, a low chuckle, and then a huge panting sound. It sounded like an enormous animal. We had a sense of something living and enormous that had suddenly come out of nothing into the room.

“The hand!” screamed Roberta sharply. “It’s the black-hand thing!”

I was hideously afraid that she was right. With her own clutching little hands on my arm, I sprang, dragging her with me. I didn’t spring for where I thought Moore was, nor for where I supposed the door might be. There were only two thoughts in my head. One of a monstrous and wholly imaginary black giant; the other, a passionate desire for light.

By pure chance I brought up against the wall just beside a brass plate inset with two magical, blessed buttons. My fingers found them. Got the wrong button — the right one.

Flash! And we were out of demon-land and in a commonplace room again.

Not quite commonplace, though. True, no black, impossible giant inhabited it. The vast panting sound hand passed and though the lamp lay among the splinters of its wrecked shade and my hand was bleeding, a broken lamp and cut hand are possible incidentals of the ordinary.

But that woman in the chair was not!

Writhing, shrieking, foaming creatures like that have their place in a hospital — or a sick man’s delirium — but not rightfully in an evening’s entertainment for two unexpectant young people. Bert took one look and buried her face against my vest in an ecstasy of fear.

Moore was beside his wife, swiftly unclasping the steel manacles that held her, but finding time for a glaring side glance at me which expressed white-hot and concentrated rage.

I didn’t understand. Alicia’s previous spasms or seizures, though less violent than this, had been bad enough. Why should Moore eye me like that, when if anyone had a right to be furious it was I?

“The lights!” moaned Bert against my vest. “You turned on the lights, and it hurt her. I’ve read that somewhere — Oh, Clay, why don’t you do something to help her and make her stop that horrible screaming?”

Moore heard and turned again, snarling. “You get out of here, Barbour! You’ve done harm enough!”

“Shan’t I— shan’t we call a doctor?” I stammered.

He didn’t answer. Released, Alicia had subsided limply, a black heap in the chair, face on knees. The gurgling shrieks had lowered to a series of long, agonizing moans. I thought she was dying, and in a confused way felt that both Roberta and Moore blamed me.

The moans, too, had ceased. Was she dead?

Now Moore was trying to lift his wife out of the chair — and failing, for some reason. Instinctively I pushed Roberta aside and moved to help him.

And then, at last, that happened for which all the rest had been a prelude — for which, my whole life had been a prelude, as I was to learn one day. There came — how can I phrase it?

It was not a darkness, for I saw. It was not a vacuum, for most certainly I— everyone of us — continued to breathe. It was like — you know what happens sometimes in a thunderstorm? There is a hushed moment, when it is as if a mighty, invisible being had drawn in its breath — not breath of air, but of force. If you live in the suburbs and have alternating current, the lights go out — as if the current had been sucked back.

Static has the upper band of kinetic. A moment, and kinetic will rebel in a blinding, crashing river of fire from sky to earth. But till then, between earth and clouds there is a tension so terrific that it gives the awful sense of a void.

That happened in the room where we stood, though the force involved was not the physical one of electricity. There was the hushed moment, the sense of awful tension — of void — of strength sucked back like the current —

Without knowing how, I became aware that all the life in the room was suddenly, dreadfully centralizing around one of us. That one was Alicia.

I saw Moore move back from her. He had gone ghastly pale, and he waved his hands queerly. The straining sense of void which was also centralization increased. A numbness crept over me.

The invisible had drawn in its breath of pure force, and my life was undoubtedly a part of it.

There came a stirring of the black heap in the chair. Inexplicably, I felt as well as saw it. As if, standing by the wall, I was also in the chair. Roberta shivered. She was out of my sight, standing slightly behind me, but I felt that, too. No two of us were in physical contact, and yet some strange interfusion of consciousness was linking us more closely than the physical.

Again Alicia stirred. She cried out inarticulately. The centralization was around her, but not by her will. I felt a surge of resentment that was not mine, but Alicia’s. Then I knew that there were more than four of us present, in the room. A fifth was here — invisible, strong, unifying the strength of us all for its own purpose — for a leap across the intangible barriers and into the living world.

Numbness was on me, cold dread, and a sense of some danger peculiarly personal to myself. It was coming now — now — With another cry, Alicia shot suddenly erect. Her arms went out in a wide sweep that seemed to be struggling in an attempt to push something from her.

“Serapion!” she cried, and: “You! Back! Go back — go back — go back! Oh, you, Serapion!”

When kinetic revolts against static, blinding fire results. The tension in that room let go as suddenly as the lightning stroke, though I was the only one to feel it fully.

My body reeled against the wall. My spirit — I— the ego — reeled with it — beyond it — down — down — into darkness absolute — and into a nullity deeper than darkness’ self.

Speed. In outer space there is room for it, and necessity. Between our sun and the nearest star where one may grow warm again there is space that a light ray needs centuries to cross.

The cold is cruel, and a wind blows there more biting than the winds of earth. Little, cold stars rush by like far-separated lamps on a country road, and double meteors, twin blazing eyes, swing down through the long black reaches. It is hard to avoid these, when they sweep so close, and one’s hands are numb on the steering-wheel.

But one can’t slow for that — nor even for a frightened voice at one’s elbow, pleading, protesting, begging for the slowness that will let the cold overtake and annihilate us. “The cold!” I shouted against the wind. “Cold!”

“Well, if you’re cold,” wailed the harassed voice, “why don’t you slow down? Clay! Clayton Barbour! I’ll never ride again in a car with you, Clayton, if you don’t slow down!”

Another pair of twin meteors rushed curving toward us. We avoided them, kept our course by the fraction of a safe margin, and as we did so the limitless vistas of interstellar space seemed to close in sharply and solidify.

Infinite shrank to finite with the jolt of a collision — and it was almost a real one. I swung to the left and barely avoided the tail of a farmer’s wagon, ambling sedately along the road ahead of us. Then I not only slowed, but stopped, while the wagon creaked prosaically by. I sat at the wheel of a car — my own car — and that was Roberta Whitingfeld beside me.

“Sixty miles an hour!” she was saying indignantly. “You haven’t touched the horn once, and you are sitting so that I can’t get at it.”

I said nothing. Desperately I was trying to adjust the unadjustable.

This road was real. The numbness and chill were passing, and the air of a summer night blew warm on my cheek. That wild rush of the spirit through space was already fading into place as a dream memory.

But there had been some kind of an hiatus in realities. My last definite memory was of — Alicia Moore. Alicia — upright — rebellious — crying out a name.

“Serapion.”

“Clay!” A note of concern had replaced Roberta’s indignation. “Why do you sit there so still? Answer me! Are you ill? What is the matter?”

“Nothing.”

That was a lie, of course, but instinctive as self-protection. I must get straight somehow, but I wouldn’t confide the need even to Roberta. In the most ordinary tone I apologized for my reckless driving and started the car again. We were on a familiar road, outside the city, but one that would take us by roundabout ways to our home in the suburbs.

I drove slowly, for it was very necessary that Roberta should talk. By listening I might be able to get straight without betraying myself, and indeed, before we reached home, I had a fairly clear idea of what had happened in the blank interim.

A first wild surmise that the Moore episode had been a dream in its entirety was banished almost at once. As nearly as I could gather, without direct questioning, from the time when I reeled back against the wall until my return to self-consciousness some sixty minutes later, I had behaved so normally in outward appearance that not even Roberta had seen a difference.

My body had evidently not fallen to the floor, nor showed any signs of fainting or unconsciousness. Alicia seemed to have returned to her senses at the same time that I lost mine, for Roberta spoke of her hostess’ quiet air of indifference that amounted almost to scorn for the concern that we — Bert and I, mind you! — expressed for her.

Moore, for his part, it seemed, had recovered his temper and been rather apologetic and anxious that I, at least, should repeat my visit. I had been noncommittal on the subject — for which Roberta now commended me — and then we had come away together.

After that, the hallucination I had suffered, of myself as a disembodied entity, careering from one planetary system to another, had synchronized with an actual career in the car where road-lamps simulated stars and occasional cars traveling in the opposite direction provided the stimuli for my dream-meteors.

A man hypnotized might have done what I did, and as successfully. To myself, then, I said that I had been hypnotized. That in a manner yet to be explained either Moore or his wife had hypnotized me and allowed me to leave their house under that influence. I tried to determine what reckoning I should have with them later. But it was a failure. I was frankly scared.

An hour had been jerked bodily, out of my conscious life. If, in the ordinary and orthodox manner, I had lain insensible through that hour, it wouldn’t have mattered so much. Instead of that, an ‘I’ that was not I appeared to have taken charge of my affairs and in such a manner that a person very near and dear to me had perceived nothing wrong. It was that which frightened me.

The last traces of daze, and shock released my mind, the instinct to keep its lapse a secret only grew stronger. Fortunately I found concealment easy. Speeding was not so far from my occasional habit that Roberta had thought much of that part of the episode. Her vigorous protests had been largely on account of my failure to use the horn.

Dropping the subject with her usual quick good-nature, she talked of our remarkable first experience with a “real medium,” and disclosed the fact — not surprising perhaps — that she had been considerably less impressed than I. In retrospect she blamed her own nerves for most of the excitement.

“I may be unfair, Clay,” she confided, “but truly, I can’t help believing that Mrs. Moore is just a clever, hysterical woman who has deluded poor Mr. Moore into a faith in ‘spirit voices.’”

“The black hand? The little flames?”

“Did we really see them? Don’t you think the woman may have some kind of hypnotic power, like — oh, like the mango trick that everybody’s heard they do in India? You know. A tree grows right up out of the ground while you watch; but it doesn’t really, of course. You’re hypnotized, and only think you see it. Couldn’t everything we saw and heard tonight have been a — a kind of hypnotic trick? And — now, with all the screaming and fuss she had made, Mrs. Moore was so calm and cool when we left! I think it was all put on, and the rest was hypnotism.”

“You’re a very clever little girl, Berty,” I commented, and meant it. If there was one thing I wished to believe, it was that Alicia Moore had faked.

We knew nearly as little about hypnotism as we did of psychic phenomena, real or so-called. But the word had a good sound to me. I had been hypnotized. Hypnotized! That Fifth Presence in the room had existed only in my own overborne imagination. The whole affair was — “Berty,” I said, “we’ve been through a highly unpleasant experience, and it’s my fault. Nils warned me against those people, but I was stubborn mule enough to believe I wished to know more of them. I don’t, and we don’t — you and I. The truth is, Berty, I feel pretty foolish over the whole business. Had no right to take you to such a place. Downright dangerous — queer, irresponsible people like that! Say, do you mind not telling Cathy, for instance?”

“If you won’t tell mother!”

She giggled. I could picture myself relating that weird and unconventional tale to the stately Mrs. Whitingfield! Up went my right hand.

“Hear me swear! I, Clayton S. Barbour, do solemnly vow silence-”

“Full name, or it isn’t legal!” trilled the girl beside me.

“Oh, very well! I, Clayton Serapion Barbour, do-”

I stopped with a tightening of the throat. As the word “Serapion” passed my lips, the Fifth Presence had shut down close about me.

Out of space-time — wrapped away in cloudy envelopes of oblivion — “Clayton!” A clear young voice out of the clouds. They shriveled to nothing, and I was loosed to my world again. “Why, Clayton!” repeated Roberta. “How did that woman know your middle name?”

My right hand dropped to the wheel, and the car leaped forward.

“Did you tell her?” insisted Roberta.

“No,” I answered shortly. “Berquist told Moore, I supposed. How do I know?”

“Someone must have told her,” Bert agreed. “It isn’t as if it were an ordinary name that she might have hit on by guessing.”

“Oh, it isn’t so unusual. There have been Sera — there; have been men of that name in my mother’s family for generations. I was given the name in remembrance of my mother’s brother. He died only a few months before I was born, and she had cared a lot for him. But don’t let’s talk of the name any more. I always hated it. Sounds silly, like a girl’s name — I— I— Oh, forget the name! Here we are at home, and there’s your mother in the window looking for us.”

“We’re awfully late!”

“Tell her the Moores were very interesting people,” I suggested grimly.

That night, though I slept, Alicia Moore and the Fifth Presence — in various unpleasant shapes — haunted me through some exceedingly restless hours.

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