Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 8

MY FACE in the mirror bore a faint sketchy resemblance to that of the unreal but none the less troublesome vision by which I was intermittently afflicted. The resemblance accounted for the vague familiarity that had enveloped it from the first.

The face in the mirror, though, was much younger, and resolve flared up in its eyes like a lighted fire.

“You,” I addressed my reflection, “are not a sneak. You are not going to be made one. Tonight you will present yourself to Mr. James Barton Moore, and you will inform him that the little trick of hypnotism performed by his wife last August will either be reversed by her, or he himself will pay for it unpleasantly. I believe,” and my arm muscles flexed in bravado, “that Mr. Jimmy Moore will think twice before he refuses.” That was what I said. But in my heart I yearned suddenly to go and fling myself, abject, at the feet of Alicia Moore, and entreat her to help me.

It was a cold night, and the afternoon’s scattered flakes had increased to a snowfall. Alighting from the car — not mine, this time, but the transit company’s — I found the snow inches deep. I can still recall the feel of it blown against my face, like light, cold finger-touches.

Plowing through it, I came again to the “dead-alive house.” That other visit had been in summer. The twin lawns, one green and close-cropped, the other high-grown with weeds, had stood out contrastingly then. There had been a line of sharp demarcation between Moore’s clean, freshly painted half of the house and the other half’s dirt-freckled wall.

Now all that sharp difference was blurred and indistinct. The snow, blue-white in the swaying circles of light from a corner arc lamp, had buried both the lawns. Joining the roofs in whiteness, drifting across the porches, swirling in the air, it obliterated all but a hint of difference between the living half and the dead.

Though the windows of one part were dark as those of the other, a faint glow shone through the curtained glazing of Moore’s door.

Now that I was here, I almost hoped that he and his wife were out. The accusation I must make was strange to absurdity. I braced myself, however, opened the gate, and as I did so a hand dropped on my shoulder from behind.

A man had come upon me soundlessly through the snow. In my nerve-racked state, I whirled and struck at him.

He caught my wrist. “Here! I’m no highwayman, Clay!”

“Nils,” I laughed shakily, “you startled me.”

Berquist stared, with a sudden close attention that I found myself shrinking from. For weeks I had been keeping a secret at some cost. Though I had come here to reveal it, the habit of concealment was still on me.

“Your nerves used to be better than that,” said Berquist shortly.

“You calling on Moore?” I queried. “Thought there was some kind of vendetta between you. You wouldn’t come here with me, I remember.”

“I’m glad you remember something,” he retorted gravely. “You have a very nice, hospitable family, though. They took me in last night and fed me on the bare strength of my word that I’d been invited.”

“I say, Nils, that’s too bad.”

In the desperate search I had made for Van the previous evening, I had clean forgotten my dinner invitation to Berquist. Reaching home near midnight, I had received a thoroughly sisterly call-down from Cathy, who had waited up to express her frank opinion of a brother who not only invited a friend to dinner without forewarning her, but neglected even to be present when that friend arrived.

It seemed, too, that Roberta had dined there on Cathy’s own invitation, and the two girls had unitedly agreed that poor Nils was “odd” and not very desirable. He had committed the double offense of talking wild theories to dad, verbally ignoring the feminine element, and at the same time staring Bert out of countenance whenever her eyes were not actually on him.

I had informed Cathy that Bert should feel highly honored, since Nils was generally too shy even to look at a girl, much less stare at her, and that as the family’s support I should certainly invite whom I pleased to dinner; as for Nils, I had regretted missing him; but knew he was too casual himself to hold the lapse against me.

Now I began an apology that was rather wandering, for my mind was otherwise concerned.

I wished to tell him about the Fifth Presence. Before I entered Moore’s house, it would be very well that I should tell Nils of my errand. Why, in the name all reason, was I possessed by this sense of shame that shut my lips whenever I tried to open them concerning the haunting face?

Cutting the apologies short, Nils forgave me, explained that though out of sympathy with Moore’s work, he occasionally called to play chess with him, and then we were going up the snow-blanketed walk, side by side.

Even the chess sometimes ends in “a row,” Nils added gloomily. “I wouldn’t play him at all, if he hadn’t beaten me so many times. Perhaps some day I’ll get the score even, and then I shan’t come here any more.”

“Moore is — did he ever tell you that I kept my appointment with him?”

“Which one?”

The question leaped out cuttingly sharp.

“The only one I ever made with him, of course. That day you introduced me to him in the restaurant.”

“You haven’t been coming here since?”

“No. Why should you think that?”

We had checked again, half-way up the walk. As we stood Nils caught my shoulders and swung me around till the arc-lamp rays beat on my face. He scrutinized me from under frowning brows.

“You’ve lost something!” he said bluntly. “I can’t tell exactly what. I don’t know what story your eyes hide; but they hide one. Clay, don’t think me an officious meddler, but you — you have your family dependent on you — and — oh, why do I beat about the bush? That girl you will marry some day; she’s rather wonderful. For her sake, if not your own, tell me the truth. Has Moore involved you in some of his cursed, dangerous experiments? Tell me, is it that, or” — his voice softened-“are you merely worn out with the common and comparatively safe kinds of trouble?”

“I’ve had — trouble enough to worry any fellow.”

“Yes, but is any part of it to be laid at this door?” He jerked his head toward Moore’s dimly radiant portal.

“A face — a face — ” sheer panic choked words in my throat. I had begun betraying the secret which every atom of my being demanded should be kept.

“Yes; a face.”

“A face — is not necessarily a chart of the owner’s doings,” I wrenched roughly from his grasp. “Since when have you set up as a critic in physiognomy, Nils?”

“When one has a friend, one cares to look beneath the surface,” he said simply.

“Well, don’t look with the air of hunting out a criminal, then. I have as good a right to call here as you, haven’t I? Moore sent me a letter asking me to drop around, so I— I thought I would. I’m tired, and need distraction. What’s the harm?”

Without answering, he eyed me through a long moment; then turned quietly and went on up into the porch.

Standing hesitant, I glanced upward, looking for a light in the windows above. Again. I saw the slanting roofs, blended in snow. Months ago, in a momentary illusion of moonlight, I had seen them look just so. The thought brought me a tiny prick of apprehension. Not fear, but the startled uneasiness one might feel at coming to a place one has never visited, and knowing it for the place one has seen in a dream.

Nevertheless, I followed Nils to the door.

Another maid opened it than the one who had admitted Roberta and myself in August. She was a great, craggy, hard-faced old colored woman, whom Nils addressed rather familiarly as “Sabina,” and who made him rather glumly welcome in accents that betrayed her Southern origin. She assumed, I suppose, that Nils and I had come together, and my card did not precede me into Moore’s sanctum.

The latter was in the library again. The shades and curtains were drawn tight which accounted for the “not-at-home” look of the windows from outside. I learned later that he frequently denied himself to callers, even near acquaintances, unless they came by appointment. His letter to me had been ignored too long to come under that heading. I wonder! Would he have refused to see me that night, given a choice?

In my very first step across the library’s threshold, I realized that my battle was to be an even more difficult one than I had feared.

Passing the doorway I entered — physically and consciously entered — the same field of tension, to call it that, which had centralized about Alicia at the climax of my previous experience.

It was less masterful than then. There was not the same drain on my physical strength, nor the feeling of being in harmony with the movements of others. But the condition was none the less present; I knew it as surely and actually as one recognizes a marked change in atmospheric temperature or, to use a closer simile, as one feels entry into the radius of electrical force produced by a certain type of powerful generator.

There are no words which will exactly express what I mean. The consciousness involved is other than normal, and only a person who had been possessed by it could fully understand.

On that first occasion, I had been sure that my impressions were shared by the others present. This time some minutes passed before I became convinced that Berquist and James Moore, at least, were insensitive to the condition.

The library appeared as I had seen it first, save that the lamp broken then had been replaced by another, with a Japanese “art” shade made of painted silk. Near the large reading-table, with the lamp, a small stand had been drawn up and a chessboard laid on it. In anticipation of Nils’ arrival Moore had been arranging the pieces. They were red and white ivory men, finely carved. They and the Japanese lampshade made a glow of exotic color, in the shadow behind which sat — Alicia, a dim figure, pallid and immobile.

By one of those surface thoughts that flash across moments of intensity, I noted that Moore was dressed in a gray suit, patterned with a faint, large check in lighter gray.

Then Moore had recognized me, and the man’s pale eyebrows lifted.

“You’ve brought Barbour?” he said to Nils.

“No,” denied my friend. “Met him at the door. How do, Alicia?”

He strode across the room to where Mrs. Moore sat in the shadow.

Under other conditions I should have felt embarrassed. By Moore’s tone and Nils’ non-committal response, they placed me as an intruder, received without even a gloss of welcome for courtesy’s sake.

But to me it seemed only strange that they could speak at all in ordinary tones through this atmosphere of breathless tension. A voice here, I thought, should be either a shriek or a whisper.

Then Alicia’s dry monotone.

“You should have come alone, Nils. You have brought one with you who is very evil. I know him. He is an eater of lives.”

“Dear lady!” protested Nils, half jokingly. “Surely you don’t apply that cannibalistic description to my friend here? He might take it that way.”

“How he takes it is nothing,” shrugged Alicia. “There are four of us here, and there is also a fifth. And I think your friend is more aware of that than even I.”

Moore’s previously unenthusiastic face lighted to quick eagerness. He pounced on Alicia’s original phrase like a cat jumping for a mouse.

“An eater of life! Did you say this invisible Fifth Presence is an ‘eater of life,’ Alicia?”

“I did not,” she retorted precisely. “I said an eater of lives. Everyone does not know that-”

“No, but wait, Alicia. This is really interesting.” He turned from her to us. “There’s a particularly horrid old German legend about such a being.” He informed us of it with the air of one imparting some delightful news. “Give me a German legend always for pure horror, but this excels the average. Der verschlingener des Lebeng — ‘The Devourer of Life.’ Very interesting. Now the question arises, did Alicia read that yarn some time in the past, and is this the subliminal report of it coming out, or does she really sense an alien force which has entered the room in your company? What’s your impression, Barbour? Have you any? You’re psychic yourself — knew it the first time I saw you. Is anyone here but we four?”

By a great effort, I forced my lips to answer:

“I couldn’t say. This — I-”

“Have a chair, Barbour, and take your time.” He was all sudden kindliness the active sort, with a motive behind it, as I knew well enough now. To him I was not a guest but an experiment. “I haven’t a doubt,” he asserted cheerfully, “that you and Alicia sense a presence that entered with you and which such poor moles as Nils and myself are blind to. Now don’t deny it. Anyone possessing the psychic gift who denies or tries to smother it is not only unwise but selfish. Supremely selfish. And it’s a curious fact that one powerful psychic will often bring out the undeveloped potentialities in another. Alicia may have already done that for you. When you were here before-”

“That will do!” Abruptly deserting Alicia, Nils strode down upon us. There was wrath in every line of his dark face. “Jimmy, that boy is my friend! If he has ‘Psychic potentialities,’ as you call it, let ’em alone. He doesn’t wish to develop into a ghost-ridden, hysterical, semi-human monstrosity, with one foot in this world and the other across the border.”

“Really,” drawled Moore, “that description runs beyond even the insolence I’ve learned to expect from you, Berquist. My wife is a psychic.”

Nils was not too easily crushed, but this time he had brought confusion on himself. “Ghost-ridden, hysterical, semi-human monstrosity” may have been an excellent description of Alicia. It is certain, however, that Nils-had forgotten her when he voiced it. He flushed to the ears and stammered through an apology, to which Moore listened in grim silence.

Then Alicia spoke, with her customary dry directness.

“I am not offended. My guides do not like you, Nils, but that is because your opposition interferes with the work. Personally I like you for speaking frankly always. Take your unfortunate young friend, Mr. Barbour, and go away now.’

“Alicia!” Moore was half pleading, half-indignant. “You agreed with me that Barbour had possibilities of mediumship almost as great as your own. And yet you send him away. Think of the work.”

“I tried to send him away the first time.” From beyond the lamp Alicia’s enormous eyes glinted mockingly at her husband. “You believed,” she went on, “that Mr. Barbour was naturally psychic, but undeveloped. Many times, we have disagreed in similar cases. Your theory that more than half the human race might, properly trained, be sensitive to the etheric vibrations of astral and spiritual beings is true enough.”

“Then why did you-”

“Don’t argue, James. That tires me. I say that your belief is correct. But I have told you and, through me, my guides have told you that not everyone who is a natural sensitive is worthy of being developed.”

“I consulted you” — Moore’s voice trembled with suppressed irritation — “I consulted you, and you-”

“I said that a tremendous psychic possibility enveloped Mr. Barbour. That was true. Had I told you that the possibility was evil, that would have been equally true. But you would not have yielded to my judgment, and sent him away — as I tried to do.”

“Alicia,” cried her husband, “are we never to have any clear understandings?”

“Possibly not,” she said, with cool indifference. “I am — what I am. Also I am a channel for all forces, good or evil. My guides protect me, of course. They will not let any bad spirit harm me. But I think Mr. Barbour was not glad that he stayed when I wished him to go. He has come back to me for help. I am not sure that I wish to help him. It was a long time before I was rested from my first struggle with the One he is afraid of.”

Nils made an impatient movement. “I don’t believe Clay needs any help except — pardon me, Alicia — except to keep away from this house and you.”

“Then why did he return here?”

“Because,” interpolated Moore, with a scowl for Nils, “he grew interested in his own possibilities. This attempt to frighten him is not only absurd, but the worst thing possible for him. Of course the invisible forces are of different kinds, and of course some of them are inimical. But fear is the only dangerous weapon they have. If they can’t frighten you, they can’t harm you.”

“Alicia,” cut in Nils, “seems to disagree there.”

“Alicia does agree. She inclines to repel the so-called evil beings, not from fear of them, but because they are more apt to trespass than the friendlier powers. They demand too much of her strength. In consequence, I have had an insufficient opportunity to study them. If Barbour is psychic — and I should say that he very obviously is — then his strength, combined with Alicia’s, should be great enough for almost any strain. You are interfering here, Berquist. I won’t have it. I— will — not — have — it.”

“And my friend is to be sacrificed so that you may study demonology?”

“Berquist, I have nothing to do with demons or daevas, devils or flibbertigibbets. You use the nomenclature of a past age.”

Verschlingener des Lebens,” quoted Nils quickly. “You didn’t boggle over nomenclature when Alicia warned us that an ‘eater of life’ was present.”

“Oh, give me patience!” groaned Moore. “I try to trace a reference, and you — ” He broke off and wheeled to the small, shadowy figure beyond the lamplight. “Alicia, exactly what did you mean when you said that an ‘eater of lives’ had entered the room? You can put us straight there, at least.”

“I meant,” drawled Alicia, “one of those quaint, harmless beings whom you are so anxious to study at anybody’s expense. Not a demon, certainly, in the sense that Nils means. But not company I care for, either. No, I am not afraid of this one. He has the strength of an enormous greed — of a dead spirit who covets life — but he will not trap me again into lending my strength to his purpose.

“His! Whose? Do be plain for once, Alicia.”

“I try to be,” she retorted composedly. “I could give him a name that one of you at least would recognize. But that would please him too well. There is power in a name. Everyone does not know that, nor how to use it. This one does. He bears his name written across his forehead. He wills that I shall see it and speak it now. Once he surprised me into speaking it, but that was Mr. Barbour’s fault. He threw me off balance at a critical moment by turning on the lights. You have probably forgotten the name I spoke then, but I doubt if Mr. Barbour has forgotten. This one whom I refuse to name has no power over me. I have many friends among the living dead who protect me from such dead spirits as this one-”

“Just a minute, Alicia!” Moore was exaggeratedly patient. “I can believe in a dead body, and through you I’ve come to believe in live spirits, disembodied. But a dead spirit! That would be like an extinguished flame. It would have no existence.”

She shook her head. “Please don’t argue, James, You know that tires me. A spirit cannot perish. But a spirit may die, and having died, exist in death eternal. There is life eternal and there is death eternal. There are the living spirits of the so-called dead. They are many, and harmless. My guides are of their number. Also there are dead spirits. They are the ones to beware of, because they covet life. Such a one is he whom I called ‘an eater of lives,’ and who is better known to Mr. Barbour than to me. That is not my fault, however, and now I wish no more to do with any of it. I must insist, James, that you ask Mr. Barbour to leave. In fact, if he remains in the house five minutes longer I shall go out of it.”

Her strange eyes opened suddenly till a gleam of white was plainly visible all around the wide blackness of them. Her porcelain, doll-like placidity vanished in an instant.

“Make him go!” she cried. “I tell you, there is an evil in this room which is accumulating force every moment. I tell you, something bad is coming. Bad! Do you hear me? And I won’t be involved in it. I won’t! I won’t!”

Her voice rose to a querulous shriek. A spasm twitched every feature. And then she had sunk back in her chair with drooped lids.

“Bad!” she murmured softly.

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