Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 9

“YOU will have to go, Barbour,” said Moore heavily. “I am sorry, but there are occasions when Alicia must be humored. This seems to be one of them. Unfortunate. Very — unfortunate. Perhaps another time-”

He paused and glanced suggestively toward the door.

All the while that they had argued and quarreled over me, I had sat as apparently passive as the clay figure to which I had once compared Alicia. It was, however, the passivity not of inertia, but of high-keyed endurance. What Alicia felt I don’t know. If it was anything like the strain I suffered under, I can’t wonder that she wished to be rid of me.

“Another time,” said Moore, and looked toward the door.

I rose. Instantly Berquist was beside me. He took my arm — tried to draw me away — out of the room.

I shook him off. When I moved it was toward Alicia. Before either Moore or Nils realized my objective, I was halfway around the table. Alicia, her eyes still closed, moaned softly. She cried out, and thrust forth her hands in a resisting motion:

“Stop!”

That was Moore’s voice; but it was not for his sharp command that I halted. There was — it was as if a wall had risen between Alicia and me. Or as, if her out-stretched hands were against my chest, holding me back. Yet there was a space of at least two yards between us.

“What do you want, Barbour?” demanded’ Moore roughly. “I said you would have to go!”

“I wish,” I forced out, “to make her undo what she has done to me!”

“Then I was right!” cried Berquist indignantly.

I stood still, swept by wave upon wave of the force that willed to absorb me. The past weeks had trained me for such a struggle. Though the face of the Fifth Presence remained invisible, its identity with the intangible power I fought was clear enough to me — and I hated the face! I repulsed the enveloping consciousness of it as one strives to fling off a loathsome caress.

While I stood there, blind, silent, at war, Berquist continued:

“Now I know that I was right! Jimmy, you have let this boy suffer in some way that I neither understand nor wish wholly to understand. But believe me, you’ll answer for it. Clay, lad, come away. You are courting disaster here. Alicia can’t help you. She is a poor slave and tool for any force that would use her. Why, the very atmosphere of this house is contagious. Psychic. Many people are immune. Moore is immune. But I tell you, there has been more than one time when I have resolutely shut my senses against the influence, or Alicia would have dragged me into her own field of abnormal and accursed perceptiveness. It’s because I resist that they won’t have me at a seance. Come away!”

“No!” They could not guess, of course that I spoke from out a swimming darkness, slashed with streaks of scarlet. “No!” I muttered again. “This woman here — she can help me. She shall help me! Moore, I’ll wring your neck if you don’t make her help me.”

Through the swimming scarlet-slashed gloom I drove forward another step. Came a rush of motion. There was a vast, muffled sound as of beating wings. A trumpet-like, voice cried out loudly: “I’ll settle with you once for all!” it shouted. And then something had thrust in between Alicia and me.

Instantly the gloom lifted.

There at my right hand was the large table, with the shaded lamp and the boots and papers strewn over it. To my left the massive, empty chair in which Alicia was wont to be imprisoned during a seance.

Beyond that hung the straight, black folds of the curtains which concealed the cabinet.

Though I turned my head to neither side, I saw all these things as though looking directly at them. And also, with even more unusual distinctness, I saw what was straight ahead of me.

Between me and Alicia the figure of a man had sprung into sudden existence. In no way did this figure suggest the ghostly form one might expect from what is called “materialization.” The man was real — solid.

He was of stocky, but not very powerful build. He was dressed in gray. His face — ah! Only once before had I seen this man’s face with open gaze. But many times it had haunted my closed lids!

Smooth, boyish, pleasant, with smiling lips and clear, light-blue eyes — my own eyes, save that the amused gleam in them did not express a boy’s unsophisticated humor.

Not a bodiless face this time, afloat in mid-air or lurking behind my lids. This was the man himself — the whole, solid, flesh-and-blood man!

I could not doubt that he was real. His hand caught my arm — roughly for all that amiable gentleness the face expressed. I felt the clutching fingers tight and heavy. He clutched and at the same time smiled, sweetly, amusedly. Clutched and smiled.

“Serapion!” I whispered. And “Serapion!”

His smile grew a trifle brighter. His clutch tightened. But I was no longer afraid of him. The very strain I had been under flung me suddenly to a height of exalted courage. Instinctive loathing climaxed in rebellion.

He clasped my left arm tight. My right was free. I had no weapon, but caught up from the table a thing that served as one.

And even as I did it, that clear side vision I have referred to beheld a singular happening. As my head grew hot with a rush of exultant blood, something came flying out through the curtains of the cabinet.

It was bright scarlet in color, and about the size of a pigeon or small hawk. I am not sure that it had the shape of a bird. The size and the peculiarly brilliant scarlet of it are all I am sure of.

This red thing flashed out of the cabinet, darted across the room, passing chest-high through the narrow space between the suddenly — embodied Fifth Presence and myself and vanished.

I heard Alicia crying: “Bad — bad! It has come!”

And then, in all the young strength of my right arm, I struck at the Fifth Presence. My aim was the face I hated. The weapon — a queer enough one, but efficient, sank deep, deep-buried half its length in one of those smiling, light-blue eyes.

He let go my arm and dashed his hand to his face. The weapon remained in the wound. From around it, even before my victim fell, blood gushed out — scarlet — scarlet. Below the edge of his clutching hand that would clutch me no more I could see his mouth, and — Heaven help me! — the lips of it smiled — still.

Then he had writhed and crumpled down in a loose gray heap at my feet.

“Barbour! For mercy’s sake!”

The man I struck had sunk without a sound. That hoarse, harsh shout came from Nils. Next instant his powerful arm sent me spinning half across the room. I didn’t care. He dropped to his knees. When he tried to straighten the gray heap, his hands were instantly bright with the grim color that had been the flying scarlet things.

But I didn’t care!

I had killed him — it! The Fifth Presence had dared embody itself in flesh and I had slain it!

Nils had the body straight now, face upward. The light of the lamp beat down. Creeping tiptoe, I came to peer over Nils’ shoulder. The lips. Did they still smile?

Then —

But there is an extremity of feeling with which words are inadequate to deal. Leave my emotions and let me state here bare facts.

The gray suit in which I had seen the Fifth Presence clothed was the same faintly checked light suit I had wondered at Moore’s wearing in November.

And the face there in the lamplight, contorted, ashen, blood-smeared, was the face of James Barton Moore!

Though I had a few obscure after memories of loud talking, of blue uniforms that crowded in around me, of going downstairs and out into open air, of being pushed into a clumsy vehicle of some kind, and of interminable riding through a night cold and sharply white with snow, all the real consciousness of me hovered in a timeless, spaceless agony, whereby it could neither reason nor take right account of these impressions.

Thrust in a cell at last, I must have lain down and, from pure weariness of pain, fallen asleep. Shortly after dawn, however, I awoke to a dreary, clear-headed cognizance of facts. I knew I had killed.

When I threatened, Moore had sprung in between me and his wife, intending, no doubt with that hot temper of his, to put me violently from the house. His physical intervention had stocked me out of the shadows, then rapidly closing in, and the Fifth Presence had chosen that opportunity for its most ghastly trick.

The face I had struck at was a wraith — a vision. My weapon — one of those paper files that are made with a heavy bronze base and an upright, murderously sharp-pointed rod — had gone home in the real face behind. Instead of slaying an embodied ghost — a madman’s dream — I had murdered a living man!

Last night the killing and the atrocious manner of it had been enough. This morning, thought had a wider scope. I perceived that the isolated horror of the act itself was less than all. I must now take up the heavy burden of consequences.

The hard bed on which I lay, the narrow walls and the bars that encompassed me — these were symbols by which I foreread my fate.

I, Clayton Barbour, was a murderer. In that gray, early clear-headedness I made no bones about the word or fact.

True, I had been tricked, trapped into murder; but who would believe that? Alicia — perhaps. And how would Alicia’s weird testimony be received in a court of justice, even should she prove willing to give it?

I perceived that I was finished — done for. Life as I was familiar with it had already ended, and the short, ugly course that remained to be run would end soon enough.

Then for the first time I learned what the love of life is. Life — not as consciousness, nor a state of being, nor a thought; but the warm, precious thing we are born to and carry lightly till the time of its loss is upon us.

Afterward? What were dim afterwards to me? Grant that I, of all men, had reason to know that the dying body cast forth its spirit as a persistent entity. Grant that the shadow of ourselves survived the flesh. That was not life!

Let me grow old in life, till its vital flood ran low, and its blood thinned, and its flesh shriveled, and weariness came to release me from desire, Then, perhaps, I should be glad of that leap into the cold world of shadows. Now — now — I was young.

The injustice of it! I sprang up, driven to express revolt in action. For lack of a better outlet, I beat with closed fists against the wall — the bars. A lumpish, besotted creature in the cell next to mine roused and snarled like a beast at the noise.

Presently one of the keepers came tramping along the narrow alley between wall and cages.

I had retreated a little from the bars. I was not sure how this warder would look at me, a murderer. My new character was strange to me. Instinctively I shrank from being seen in it.

He peered through.

“C’m here!” he hissed softly. Puzzled, I moved nearer. “Take this!”

Then I saw that through one of the square apertures of cross-grating a folded bit of paper had been thrust. I drew it through to my side, though with no notion of what it could be. The man drew off again.

“I’ll see that ya get some coffee, Barbour,” he said, in a loud, offhand voice. “Morning, Mike! Early, ain’t ya?” He turned to me again. “This here’s Mike Megonigle. Slip him a dollar fer me as ya pass out, an’ then ya won’t owe me nothin’.”

A red-faced, bull-necked individual had tramped into view. He stared heavily from my grating to the night warder and back again.

“Is all right, Mike,” the latter asserted. “This here’s Mr. Barbour. Pal of his croaked a guy last night. Barbour ain’t implicated. Just a witness. He’ll be getting his bond pretty quick, and when he goes out you collect that dollar for me, Mike. Can’t afford to lose that dollar — not me, huh?”

He winked jovially in my direction, waved a hand on one finger of which was something which glittered brightly, and was gone. The other guard grunted, stared after him for a long minute, and moved on up the passage, still speechless and shaking his head in a slow, puzzled manner, like a bewildered ox.

But his bewilderment could not have been so great as my own. The thing that glittered on the night-guard’s finger had attracted my attention before he waved it. It was a ring that had a strangely familiar look. The setting was an oval bit of lapis lazuli, cut flat, incised with a tin device the scrolls of which had been filled with gold, and surrounded by small diamonds.

Nils Berquist wore a ring like that. It was the one possession I had ever known him to prize, and that was because it had been in his family for generations. It was very old, and different from modern rings.

A duplicate? Nonsense! Why was that warder wearing Nils’ ring — and what had he meant by describing me as a “witness”?

But I think some of the truth had begun to dawn on me even before I unfolded the paper that had been thrust through my grate. The inner side carried a lead-pencil scrawl, written in French. As the light in the cell was bad, and Berquist’s handwriting worse, I had more than a little trouble in deciphering it.

I had read it all, however, before the return of the night-warder — that superbly corrupt official who took a bribe to deliver a message, honestly delivered it, and thereafter brazenly wore the bribe about his duties. He returned with some coffee. I was face down on the shelf that served for a bed. He rattled the grate, spoke, and as I didn’t answer shoved the coffee under the door and went off — whistling, I fancy.

I couldn’t have spoken to him if I had wished, because I was crying like a girl. The reaction from friendless solitude in a world made new and terrible had hit me just that way. It was not that I meant to accept Nils’ sacrifice. I had not thought about the practical side of it yet. But to discover that a man who had actually seen me do that awful thing, in spite of it remained my friend and loyal to the amazing degree of taking the burden on himself — that changed the world round again, some way, and made it almost right again.

Why, the mere fact that Nils could think of me without abhorrence was enough! It restored to me all the love and friendship that had been mine and from which last night’s deed had seemed to irrevocably cut me off.

If Nils, then those nearer and dearer than Nils — Roberta — But there I halted and cringed back. That way there loomed a dreadful and inevitable loss. Let contemplation of it wait awhile.

With wet eyes I sat up and again held Nils’ message in the barred light that fell through the grating. He had protected his meaning by using a safer language than English — safe from the warder, at least — and couching it in terms whose real import would be obscure if it fell into other hands. At that his sacrifice was endangered in the sending, but not so much as by leaving me to blurt out the truth unwarned:

My dear Friend:

This to you, who last night were past understanding. May the morning have brought you a clear Mind. I take the chance and write. I killed James Moore. Understand me when I say this. He struck at me, but I wrested away the weapon and killed in self-defense and not in intent.

There followed a rather circumstantial account of his supposed struggle with Moore. Nils’ brain had not been numbed last night, like mine. Into this story which he had made for us both to tell he had fitted the least possible fiction. Questioned on details up to almost the moment of Moore’s death, we had only to stick to the truth and we could not disagree. It was a clever — a noble lie that he had arranged.

You will bear witness to all this, and they will not convict me of murder. Alicia Moore had fainted. She did not witness Moore’s death. I rely on you, therefore, as my sole witness. And it is fortunate that Moore in his anger turned not on you, but attacked me! I know you, dear friend, and that you would take my place — and bear all for me, if that were possible. But I have not one in the world, save you, to suffer the anguish for my trouble. I have little to lose.

Not for your own sake, then, but for the sake of those to whom you are all — for the sake of her whose life-happiness rests with you to hold sacred or shatter, I commend you — to be glad that I and not you have this to go through with. For that I shall not think the less of you. I only ask that in your heart I beheld always as a friend.

Nils Berquist

To accept would be dishonor unthinkable.

Even the weight of the thinly veiled argument he put forward must be outbalanced by the shame of allowing an innocent man to risk the most disgraceful of deaths in my stead. I could not accept, yet though I died, the wonder of Nils Berquist’s attempted loyalty should go with me — out there!

Out there! Into that dim, guessed — at coldness, with its shadowy, mocking inhabitants.

“You are right!” said a voice. “That world is to yours as the shadow to reality. But why cast the real life away?”

Had one of the warders entered my cell and addressed me, his voice could have echoed no more distinctly in my brain. Before I looked up, however, I knew what I should see. When, raising my own eyes, they met those clear, light-blue ones, I felt no surprise.

There floated the face, bodiless again, but aside from that with an appearance of substantiality which equaled — it could not exceed — that of its last tragic visitation. The undimensional flatness had given way to the solidly modeled curves of living flesh.

The point of my improvised weapon, however, had left not even a mark on the face it was meant for. That material aspect was false. Though I hated him now with an added loathing, I had learned bitterly that combat with him must be on other than physical ground. I sat sternly quiet, hoping that if I did not answer, the presence would vanish.

“Your violent temper,” he continued pleasantly, but with a trace of kindly reproach, “has placed you in danger. Fortunately we — you and I— are not as other men. We need not be overborne. Tell me, which of all the forces that influence life is the strongest?”

“Hate!” Springing erect, I thrust forward till my face almost touched that of the Presence. “Such hate as I feel for you!”

He did not retreat. I could — I could almost have sworn that I felt the warmth of his flesh close to mine!

“Aw-w-w-w-, cut it out!” wailed the dweller in the next cell. “Ain’t yer never goin’ ter let a guy git his beauty sleep?”

“You need not speak so loud,” smiled the face. “And I would suggest that you sit down. Consider the feelings of others! Consideration is a beautiful quality, and well worth cultivating. Speech between you and me need disturb no one. It can be silent as thought, for it is thought — my thought to yours. Sit down!”

A sudden weakening of the knees made me obey him. Revilings I could have withstood; curses, or threats of evil. But there was an awful sweetness and beauty in the face — a calm assurance about his preaching phrases — that frightened me as threats could not have done. Could it be that I had misjudged this serene being from beyond the border?

Then I looked in his eyes and knew that I had not. They were too like my own! I understood them. Another he might have deceived, but never me.

“Hate,” he continued, in his placid, leisurely manner, “is a futile, boomerang force that invariably reacts on itself. It is the scorpion among forces, stinging itself to destruction. No; I did not come here to preach. You understand now that I spoke the truth and can read your unvoiced thoughts with perfect readiness. Our conversations are thus safe from eavesdroppers. As I was saying, hate is its own enemy and the enemy of life. There is but one invincible power, offered by God to man, and which God has commanded man to use.”

“You mean-”

“Love! Armored in love, your life will be a sacred, guarded joy to you. Believe me! I am far older than I appear, and wiser than I am old. Guided by me, guarded by love, you have a beautiful future at your command.”

“Begun with murder!” I snarled.

The Presence beamed patiently upon me. “That was a mistake. Don’t blame yourself too severely. Blame me, if you like, though I had no idea that your foolish animosity would bring forth the red impulse of murder. Yes; we who have passed beyond can commit blunders. I made one in appearing when I did. Can’t we forgive one another and forget?”

“Not while I am in jail for it and facing electrocution!” said I grimly.

“But you are not. Very shortly you will walk out a free man; under bond, it is true, but only-”

“Never!” I was on my feet again at that. “Let Nils Berquist suffer in my place? Never!”

“But he won’t suffer! Or at least, not as you would. Come! Trust all that to me, who can see far, and have a certain power. Won’t you trust me?”

“You mean that you can influence a jury to acquit him?”

“I have power. And think. Would you cast back his friendship in his face? Would you hurl your father into his grave, killed by horror? Would you drag your sister — your mother — through the mire of notoriety that surrounds a criminal? Would you leave them destitute? Would you stab through the very heart of the girl who loves you? Your friend has none of these to care. The opprobrium will not hurt him. He is by nature an isolated soul; and moreover, he is innocent. He has that strength, and the glory of sacrifice to sustain him. Once free yourself, you can do much to bring about his release.

“It is well known that Moore had an evil temper. The plea of self-defense will be borne out by you. Engage a clever legal advisor for your friend, and in the end your pitiful mistake will have brought harm to no one except Moore himself, who deserved it. He was a very selfish, disagreeable man! He was not loved by anyone, even his wife. What? Oh, leave Alicia out of it, my dear boy. You won’t find our plans upset by her. And now, I should advise that before seekin’ bondsman elsewhere, you telephone to the man whose friendship you have already won at the bank. Your immediate superior there is a kindly, good man-”

The presence got no further with his advice. As he had talked, quietly, soothingly, I had found my thoughts beginning to follow the smooth current of his. But his reference to Mr. Terne had been another of those errors to which he claimed even the disembodied were prone. It had recalled to me that scene in the president’s office — Van’s desperate face — and the ignominy into which I had been betrayed.

Repulsion — loathing — surged mightily through my veins again.

“No! No! No! In the name of Heaven, leave me!” I cried aloud. To my amazed relief the Presence obeyed. He had faded and gone in an instant — though by the last impression I had of him, he still smiled.

Trembling, I looked down at Nils’ letter in my hand.

From the barred grating a shadow was cast upon it, and the form of that shadow was a cross.

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