Prometheans were evidently in full attendance; possibly the rumour had reached them that Dr. Fillery was coming. No one announced the latter’s arrival, there was no servant visible; the party hung up their hats and coats in a passage, then walked into the lofty, dim-lit studio which was already filled with people and the hum of many voices.
At once, standing in a hesitating group beside the door, they were observed by everyone in the room. All asked, it seemed, “Who is this stranger they have brought?” Fillery caught the curious atmosphere in that first moment, an instant whiff, as it were, of excitement, interest, something picturesque, if possibly foolish, fantastic, too, yet faintly stimulating, breathing along his extremely sensitive nerves.
He glanced at his companions. Devonham, it struck him, looked more than ever like a floor-walker come to supervise, say, a Department where the sales and assistants were not satisfactory or he laughed inwardly as the simile occurred to him a free-thinker entering a church whose teaching he disapproved, even despised, and whose congregation touched his contemptuous pity. “Who would ever guess,” thought his friend and colleague, “the sincerity and depth of knowledge in that insignificant appearance? Paul hides his value well!” He noticed, in his quick fashion, touched by humour, the hard challenging eyes, the aquiline nose on which a pair of pince-nez balanced uneasily, the narrow shoulders, the poorly fitting clothes. The heart, of course, remained invisible. Yet suddenly he felt glad that Devonham was with him. “Nothing unstable there,” he reflected, “and stability combined with competence is rare.” This rapid judgment, it occurred to him, was possibly a warning from his own subconscious being. . . . A red flag signalled, flickered, vanished.
He glanced next at LeVallon, towering above the other. LeVallon was now well dressed in London clothes that suited him, though, for that matter, any clothes must have looked well upon a male figure so virile and upstanding. His great shoulders, his leanness, covered so beautifully with muscle, his height, his colouring, his radiant air; above all, his strange, big penetrating eyes, marked him as a figure one would notice anywhere. He stood, somehow, alone, apart, though the ingredients that contributed to this strange air of aloofness would be hard to define.
It was chiefly, perhaps, the poise of the great powerful frame that helped towards this odd setting in isolation and independence. Motionless, he gazed about him quietly, but it was the way he stood that singled him out from other men. Even in his stillness there was grace; neither hands nor feet, though it was difficult to describe exactly how he placed them or used them, were separate from this poise of perfect balance. To put it colloquially, he knew what to do with his extremities. Self-consciousness, in sight of this ardent throng, the first he had encountered at close, intimate quarters, was entirely absent.
This Fillery noticed instantly, but other impressions followed during the few brief seconds while they waited by the door; and first, the odd effect of tremendous power he managed to convey. Nothing could have been less aggressive than the tentative, questioning, half inquiring, half wondering attitude in which he stood, waiting to be introduced to the buzzing throng of humans; yet there hung about him like an atmosphere this potential strength, of confidence, of superiority, even of beauty too, that not only contributed much to the aloofness already mentioned, but also contrived to make the others, men and women, in the crowded room insignificant. Somehow they seemed pale and ineffective against a larger grandeur, a scale entirely beyond their reach.
“Gigantic” was the word that leaped into the mind, but another perhaps leaped with it “elemental.”
Fillery was aware of envy, oddly enough, of pride as well. His heart warmed more than ever to him. Almost, he could have then and there recalled his promise given to Devonham, cancelling it contemptuously with a word of self-apology for his smallness and his lack of faith. . . .
LeVallon, aware of a sympathetic mind occupied closely with himself, turned in that moment, and their eyes met squarely; a smile of deep, inner understanding passed swiftly between them over Devonham’s head and shoulders. In which moment, exactly, a short, bearded man, detaching himself from the crowd, came forward and greeted them with sincere pleasure in his voice and manner. He was broad-shouldered, lean, his clothes hung loosely; his glance was keen but kindly. Introductions followed, and KhilkofFs sharp eye rested for some seconds with unconcealed admiration upon LeVallon, as he held his hand. His discerning sculptor’s glance seemed to appraise his stature and proportions, while he bade him welcome to the Studio. His big head and short neck, his mane of hair, the width of his face, with its squat nose and high cheek-bones, the half ferocious eyes, the heavy jaw and something sprawling about the mouth, gave him a leonine expression. And his voice was not unlike a deep-toned growl, for all its,cordiality.
A stir, meanwhile, ran through the room, more heads turned in their direction; they had long ago been observed,; they were being now examined.
“Nayan,” Khilkoff was saying, while he still held Le–Vallon’s hand as though its size and grip contented him, “had a late Russian lesson. She will be here shortly, and very glad to make your acquaintance,” looking up at Le–Vallon, as the new-comer. His gruffness and brevity had something pleasing in them. “Today the Studio is not entirely mine,” he explained. “I want you to come when I’m alone. Some studies I made in Sark this summer may interest you.” He turned to Fillery. “That lonely place was good for both of us,” he said; “it gave me new life and inspiration, and Nayan benefited immensely too. She looks more like a nymph than ever.”
He shook hands with Devonham, smiling more grimly. “I’m surprised you, too, have honoured us,” he exclaimed with genuine surprise. “Come to damn them all as usual, probably! Good! Your common-sense and healthy criticism are needed in these days cool, cleaning winds in an over-heated conservatory.” He broke off abruptly and looked down at LeVallon’s hand he was still holding. He examined it for a second with care and admiration, then turned his eye upon the young man’s figure. He grunted.
“When I know you better,” he said, with a growl of earnest meaning, “I shall ask a favour, a great favour, of you. So, beware!”
“Thank you,” replied LeVallon, and at the sound of his voice the sculptor’s interest deepened. A gleam shone in his eye.
“You’ve begun some work,” said Fillery, “and models are hard to come by, I imagine.” His eye never left Le–Vallon.
Khilkoff chuckled. “Thought-reader!” he exclaimed. “If Povey heard that, he’d make you join the Society at once as honorary member or vice-president. Anything to get you in. Dr. Fillery understands us all too well,” he went on to LeVallon. “In Sark, that lonely island in the sea, I began four figures four elemental figures of earth, air, fire and water a group, of course. The air figure, I’ve done —”
“With Nayan as model,” suggested Fillery, smiling.
“One morning, yes, I caught her bathing from a rock, hair streaming in the wind, no clothes on, white foam from the big breakers fluttering about her, slim, shining, unconscious and half dancing, fierce sunlight all over her. Ah” he broke off “here’s Povey coming. I mustn’t monopolize you all. Devonham, you know most of ’em. Make yourselves at home.” He turned to LeVallon again, with a touch of something gentler, almost of respect, thought Fillery, as he noticed the delicate change of voice and manner quickly. “Come, Mr. LeVallon,” he said courteously, “I should like to show you the figure as I’ve done it. We’ll go for a moment into my own private rooms. But it’s a model for fire I’m looking for, as Fillery guessed. You may be interested.” He led him off. LeVallon went with evident content, and the advance of skirmishes that were already approaching for introductions was temporarily defeated.
For the three men standing by the door had formed a noticeable group, and Khilkoff’s presence added to their value. Dr. Fillery, known and much respected, regarded with a touch of awe by many, had not come for nothing, it was doubtless argued; his colleague, moreover, accompanied him, and he, too, was known to the Society, though not much cultivated by its members owing to his down-right, critical way of talking. They deemed him prejudiced, unsympathetic. It was the third member of the group, LeVallon, who had quickly caught all eyes, and the attention immediately paid to him by their host set the value of a special and important guest upon him instantly. All watched him led away by Khilkoff to the private quarters of the Studio, where none at first presumed to follow them; but it was the eyes of the women that remained glued to the open door where they had disappeared, waiting with careful interest for their reappearance. In particular Lady Gleeson, the “pretty Lady Gleeson,” watched from the corner where she sat alone, sipping some refreshment.
Fillery and Devonham, having observed the signs about them, exchanged a glance; their charge was safe for the moment, at any rate; they felt relieved; yet it was for the entry of Nayan, the daughter, that both waited with interest and impatience, as, meanwhile, the bolder ones among the crowd came up one by one and captured them.
“Oh, Dr. Fillery, I am glad to see you here. I thought you were always too busy for unscientific people like us. Yet, in a way, we’re all seekers, are we not? I’ve been reading your Physiology book, and I did so want to ask you about something in it. I wonder if you’d mind.”
He shook hands with a young-old woman, wearing bobbed hair and glasses, and speaking with an intense, respectful, yet self-apologetic manner.
“You’ve forgotten me, but I quite understand. You see so many people. I’m Miss Lance. I sent you my little magazine, ‘Simplicity,’ once, and you acknowledged it so sweetly, though, of course, I understood you had not the time to write for it.” She continued for several minutes, smiling up at him, her hands clasping and unclasping themselves behind a back clothed with some glittering coloured material that rather fascinated him by its sheen. She kept raising herself on her toes and sinking back again in a series of jerky rhythms.
He gave her his delightful smile.
“Oh, Dr. Fillery!” she exclaimed, with pleasure, leading him to a divan, upon which he let himself down in such a position that he could observe the door from the street as well as the door where LeVallon had disappeared. “This is really too good-natured of you. Your book set me on fire simply” her eyes wandering to the other door “and what a wonderful looking person you’ve brought with you —”
“I fear it’s not very easy reading,” he interposed patiently.
“To me it was too delightful for words,” she rattled on, pleased by the compliment implied. “I devour all your books and always review them myself in the magazine. I wouldn’t trust them to anyone else. I simply can’t tell you how physiology stimulates me. Humanity needs imaginative books, especially just now.” She broke off with a deprecatory smile. “I do what I can,” she added, as he made no remark, “to make them known, though in such a very small way, I fear.” Her interest, however, was divided, the two powerful attractions making her quite incoherent. “Your friend,” she ventured again, “he must be Eastern perhaps? Or is that merely sunburn? He looks most unusual.”
“Sunburn merely, Miss Lance. You must have a chat with him later.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, Dr. Fillery. I do so love unusual people. . . . ”
He listened gravely. He was gentle, while she confided to him her little inner hopes and dreams about the “simple life.” She introduced adjectives she believed would sound correct, if spoken very quickly, until, between the torrent of “psychical,” “physiological” and once or twice, “psychological,” she became positively incoherent in a final entanglement from which there was no issue but a convulsive gesture. None the less, she was bathed in bliss. She monopolized the great man for a whole ten minutes on a divan where everybody could see that they talked earnestly, intimately, perhaps even intellectually, together side by side.
He observed the room, meanwhile, without her noticing it, scanning the buzzing throng with interest. There was confusion somewhere, something was lacking, no system prevailed; he was aware of a general sense of waiting for a leader. All looked, he knew, for Nayan to appear. Without her presence, there was no centre, for, though not a member of the Society herself, she was the heart always of their gatherings, without which they straggled somewhat aimlessly. And “heart,” he remembered, with a smile that Miss Lance took proudly for herself, was the appropriate word. Nayan mothered them. They were but children, after all. . . .
“When you talk of a ‘New Age,’ what exactly do you mean? I wish you’d define the term for me,” Devonham meanwhile was saying to an interlocutor, not far away, while with a corner of his eye he watched both Fillery and the private door. He still stood near the entrance, looking more than ever like a disapproving floor-walker in a big department store, and it was with H. Millington Povey that he talked, the Honorary Secretary of the Society. The
Secretary had aimed at Fillery, but Miss Lance had been too quick for him. He was obliged to put up with Devonham as second best, and his temper suffered accordingly. He was in aggressive mood.
Povey, facing him, was talking with almost violent zeal. A small, thin, nervous man, on the verge of middle age, his head prematurely bald, with wildish tufts of patchy hair, a thin, scraggy neck that he lengthened and shortened between high hunched shoulders, Povey resembled an eager vulture. His keen bright eyes, hooked nose, and a habit of twisting head and neck apart from his body, which held motionless, increased this likeness to a bird of prey. Possessed of considerable powers of organization, he kept the Society together. It was he who insisted upon some special “psychic gift” as a qualification of membership; an applicant must prove this gift to a committee of Povey’s choosing, though these proofs were never circulated for general reading in the Society’s Reports. Talkers, dreamers, faddists were not desired; a member must possess some definite abnormal power before he could be elected. He must be clairvoyant or clairaudient, an automatic writer, trance-painter, medium, ghost-seer, prophet, priest or king.
Members, therefore, stated their special qualification to each other without false modesty: “I’m a trance medium,” for instance; “Oh, really! I see auras, of course”; while others had written automatic poetry, spoken in trance “inspirational speakers,” that is photographed a spirit, appeared to someone at a distance, or dreamed a prophetic dream that later had come true. Mediums, spirit-photographers, and prophetic dreamers were, perhaps, the most popular qualifications to offer, but there were many who remembered past lives and not a few could leave their bodies consciously at will.
Memberships cost two guineas, the hat was occasionally passed round for special purposes, there was a monthly dinner in Soho, when members stood up, like saved sinners at a revivalist meeting, and gave personal testimony of conversion or related some new strange incident. The Prometheans were full of stolen fire and life.
Among them were ambitious souls who desired to start a new religion, deeming the Church past hope. Others, like the water-dowsers and telepathists, were humbler. There was an Inner Circle which sought to revive the Mysteries, and gave very private performances of dramatic and symbolic kind, based upon recovered secret knowledge, at the solstices and equinoxes. New Thought members despised these, believing nothing connected with the past had value; they looked ahead; “live in the present,” “do it now” was their watchword. Astrologers were numerous too. These cast horoscopes, or, for a small fee, revealed one’s secret name, true colour, lucky number, day of the week and month, and so forth. One lady had a tame “Elemental.” Students of Magic and Casters of Spells, wearers of talismans and intricate designs in precious or inferior metal, according to taste and means, were well represented, and one and all believed, of course, in spirits.
None, however, belonged to any Sect of the day, whatever it might be; they wore no labels; they were seekers, questers, inquirers whom no set of rules or dogmas dared confine within fixed limits. An entirely open mind and no prejudices, they prided themselves, distinguished them.
“Define it in scientific terms, this New Age I cannot,” replied Povey in his shrill voice, “for science deals only with the examination of the known. Yet you only have to look round you at the world today to see its obvious signs. Humanity is changing, new powers everywhere —”
Devonham interrupted unkindly, before the other could assume he had proved something by merely stating it:
“What are these signs, if I may ask?” he questioned sharply. “For if you can name them, we can examine them er scientifically.” He used the word with malice, knowing it was ever on the Promethean lips.
“There you are, at cross-purposes at once,” declared Povey. “I refer to hints, half-lights, intuitions, signs that only the most sensitive among us, those with psychic divination, with spiritual discernment that only the privileged and those developed in advance of the Race can know. And, instantly you produce your microscope, as though I offered you the muscles of a tadpole to dissect.”
They glared at one another. “We shall never get progress your way,” Povey fumed, withdrawing his head and neck between his shoulders.
“Returning to the Middle Ages, on the other hand,” mentioned Devonham, “seems like advancing in a circle, doesn’t it?”
“Dr. Devonham,” interrupted a pretty, fair-haired girl with an intense manner, “forgive me for breaking up your interesting talk, but you come so seldom, you know, and there’s a lady here who is dying to be introduced. She has just seen crimson flashing in your aura, and she wants to ask do you mind very much?” She smiled so sweetly at him, and at Mr. Povey, too, who was said to be engaged to her, though none believed it, that annoyance was not possible. “She says she simply must ask you if you were feeling anger. Anger, you know, produces red or crimson in one’s visible atmosphere,” she explained charmingly. She led him off, forgetting, however, her purpose en route, since they presently sat down side by side in a quiet corner and began to enjoy what seemed an interesting tete-a-tete, while the aura-seeing lady waited impatiently and observed them, without the aid of clairvoyance, from a distance.
“And your qualifications for membership?” askeS Devonham. “I wonder if I may ask?”
“But you’d laugh at me, if I told you,” she answered simply, fingering a silver talisman that hung from her neck, a six-pointed star with zodiacal signs traced round a rose, rosa mystica, evidently. “I’m so afraid of doctors.”
Devonham shook his head decidedly, asserting vehemently his interest, whereupon she told him her little private dream delightfully, without pose or affectation, yet shyly and so sincerely that he proved his assertion by a genuine interest.
“And does that protect you among your daily troubles?” he asked, pointing to her little silver talisman. He had already commented sympathetically upon her account of saving her new puppies from drowning, having dreamed the night before that she saw them gasping in a pail of water, the cruel under-gardener looking on. “Do you wear it always, or only on special occasions like this?”
“Oh, Miss Milligan made that,” she told him, blushing a little. “She’s rather poor. She earns her living by designing —”
“But I don’t mean that. She tells you your Sign and works it in metal for you. I bought one. Mine is Pisces.” She became earnest. “I was born in Pisces, you see.”
“And what does Pisces do for you?” he inquired, remembering the heightened colour. The sincerity of this Rose Mystica delighted him, and he already anticipated her reply with interest. Here, he felt, was the credulous, religious type in its naked purity, forced to believe in something marvellous.
“Well, if you wear your Sign next your skin it brings good luck it makes the things you want happen.” The blush reappeared becomingly. She did not lower her eyes.
“Have your things happened then?”
She hesitated. “Well, I’ve had an awfully good time ever since I wore it —”
“Proposals?” he asked gently.
“Dr. Devonham!” she exclaimed. “How ever did you guess?” She looked very charming in her innocent confusion.
He laughed. “If you don’t take it off at once,” he told her solemnly, “you may get another.”
“It was two in a single week,” she confided a little tremulously. “Fancy!”
“The important thing, then,” he suggested, “is to wear your talisman at the right moment, and with the right person.”
But she corrected him promptly.
“Oh, no. It brings the right moment and the right person together, don’t you see, and if the other person is a Pisces person, you understand each other, of course, at once.”
“Would that I too were Pisces!” he exclaimed, seeing that she was flattered by his interest. “I’m probably” taking a sign at random “Scorpio.”
“No,” she said with grave disappointment, “I’m afraid you’re Capricornus, you know. I can tell by your nose and eyes and cleverness. But I wanted really to ask you,” she went on half shyly, “if I might “ She stuck fast.
“You want to know,” he said, glancing at her with quick understanding, “who he is.” He pointed to the door. “Isn’t that it?”
She nodded her head, while a divine little blush spread over her face. Devonham became more interested. “Why?” he asked. “Did he impress you so?”
“Rather,” she replied with emphasis, and there was something in her earnestness curiously convincing. A sincere impression had been registered.
“His appearance, you mean?”
She nodded again; the blush deepened; but it was not, he saw, an ordinary blush. The sensitive young girl had awe in her. “He’s a friend of Dr. Fillery’s,” he told her; “a young man who’s lived in the wilds all his life. But, tell me why are you so interested? Did he make any particular impression on you?”
He watched her. His own thoughts dropped back suddenly to a strange memory of woods and mountains . . . a sunset, a blazing fire . . . a hint of panic.
“Yes,” she said, her tone lower, “he did.”
“Something very definite?”
She made no answer.
“What did you see?” he persisted gently. From woods and mountains, memory stepped back to a railway station and a customs official. . . .
Her manner, obviously truthful, had deep wonder, mystery, even worship in it. He was aware of a nervous reaction he disliked, almost a chill. He listened for her next words with an interest he could hardly account for.
“Wings,” she replied, an odd hush in her voice. “I thought of wings. He seemed to carry me off the earth with great rushing wings, as the wind blows a leaf. It was too lovely: I felt like a dancing flame. I thought he was —”
“What?” Something in his mind held its breath a moment.
“You won’t laugh, Dr. Devonham, will you? I thought for a second of an angel.” Her voice died away.
For a second the part of his mood that held its breath struggled between anger and laughter. A moment’s confusion in him there certainly was.
“That makes two in the room,” he said gently, recovering himself. He smiled. But she did not hear the playful compliment; she did not see the smile. “You’ve a delightful, poetic little soul,” he added under his breath, watching the big earnest eyes whose rapt expression met his own so honestly. Having made her confession she was still engrossed, absorbed, he saw, in her own emotion. . . . So this was the picture that LeVallon, by his mere appearance alone, left upon an impressionable young girl, an impression, he realized, that was profound and true and absolute, whatever value her own individual interpretation of it might have. Her mention of space, wind, fire, speed, he noticed in particular “off the earth . . . rushing wind . . . dancing flame . . . an angel!”
It was easy, of course, to jeer. Yet, somehow, he did not jeer at all.
She relapsed into silence, which proved how great had been the emotional discharge accompanying the confession, temporarily exhausting her. Dr. Devonham keenly registered the small, important details.
“Entertaining an angel unawares in a Chelsea Studio,” he said, laughingly; then reminding her presently that there was a lady who was “dying to be introduced” to him, made his escape, and for the next ten minutes found himself listening to a disquisition on auras which described “visible atmospheres whose colour changes with emotion . . . radioactivity . . . the halo worn by saints” . . . the effect of light noticed about very good people and of blackness that the wicked emanated, and ending up with the “radiant atmosphere that shone round the figure of Christ and was believed to show the most lovely and complicated geometrical designs.”
“God geometrizes you, doubtless, know the ancient saying?” Mrs. Towzer said it like a challenge.
“I have heard it,” admitted her listener shortly, his first opportunity of making himself audible. “Plato said some other fine things too —”
“I felt sure you were feeling cross just now,” the lady went on, “because I saw lines and arrows of crimson darting and flashing through your aura while you were talking to Mr. Povey. He is very annoying sometimes, isn’t he? I often wonder where all our subscriptions go to. I never could understand a balance-sheet — Can you?”
But Devonham, having noticed Dr. Fillery moving across the room, did not answer, even if he heard the question. Fillery, he saw, was now standing near the door where Khilkoff and LeVallon had disappeared to see the sculpture, an oddly rapt expression on his face. He was talking with a member called Father Collins. The buzz of voices, the incessant kaleidoscope of colour and moving figures, made the atmosphere a little electric. Extricating himself with a neat excuse, he crossed towards his colleague, but the latter was already surrounded before he reached him. A forest of coloured scarves, odd coiffures, gleaming talismans, intervened; he saw men’s faces of intense, eager, preoccupied expression, old and young, long hair and bald; there was a new perfume in the air, incense evidently; tea, coffee, lemonade were being served, with stronger drink for the few who liked it, and cigarettes were everywhere. The note everywhere was exalte rather.
Out of the excited throng his eyes then by chance, apparently, picked up the figure of Lady Gleeson, smoking her cigarette alone in a big armchair, a half-empty glass of wine-cup beside her. She caught his attention instantly, this “pretty Lady Gleeson,” although personally he found neither title nor adjective justified. The dark hair framed a very white skin. The face was shallow, trivial, yet with a direct intensity in the shining eyes that won for her the reputation of being attractive to certain men. Her smile added to the notoriety she loved, a curious smile that lifted the lip oddly, showing the little pointed teeth. To him, it seemed somehow a face that had been over-kissed; everything had been kissed out of it; the mouth, the lips, were worn and barren in an appearance otherwise still young. She was very expensively dressed, and deemed her legs of such symmetry that it were a shame to hide them; clad in tight silk stockings, and looking like strips of polished steel, they were now visible almost to the knee, where the edge of the skirt, neatly trimmed in fur, cut them off sharply. Some wag in the Society, paraphrasing the syllables of her name, wittily if unkindly, had christened her fille de joie. When she heard it she was rather pleased than otherwise.
Lady Gleeson, too, he saw now, was watching the private door. The same moment, as so often occurred between himself and his colleague at some significant point in time and space, he was aware of Fillery’s eye upon his own across the intervening heads and shoulders. Fillery, also, had noticed that Lady Gleeson watched that door. His changed position in the room was partly explained.
A slightly cynical smile touched Dr. Devonham’s lips, but vanished again quickly, as he approached the lady, bowed politely, and asked if he might bring her some refreshment. He was too discerning to say “more” refreshment. But she dotted every i, she had no half tones.
“Thanks, kind Dr. Devonham,” she said in a decided tone, her voice thin, a trifle husky, yet not entirely unmusical. It held a strange throaty quality. “It’s so absurdly light,” she added, holding out the glass she first emptied. “The mystics don’t hold with anything strong apparently. But I’m tired, and you discovered it. That’s clever of you. It’ll do me good.”
He, malevolently, assured her that it would.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked point blank, with an air that meant to have a proper answer, as he brought the glass and took a chair near her. “He looks unusual. More like a hurdle-race champion than a visionary.” A sneer lurked in the voice. She fixed her determined clear grey eyes upon his, eyes sparkling with interest, curiosity in life, desire, the last-named quality of unmistakable kind. “I think I should like to know him perhaps.” It was mentioned as a favour to the other.
Devonham, who disliked and disapproved of all these people collectively, felt angry suddenly with Fillery for having brought LeVallon among them. It was after all a foolish experiment; the atmosphere was dangerous for anyone of unstable, possibly of hysterical temperament. He had vengeance to discharge. He answered with deliberate malice, leading her on that he might watch her reactions. She was so transparently sincere.
“I hardly think Mr. LeVallon would interest you,” he said lightly. “He is neither modern nor educated. He has spent his life in the backwoods, and knows nothing but plants and stars and weather and animals. You would find him dull.”
“No man with a face and figure like that can be dull,” she said quickly, her eyes alight.
He glanced at her rings, the jewelry round her neck, her expensive gown that would keep a patient for a year or two. He remembered her millionaire South African husband who was her foolish slave. She lived, he knew, entirely for her own small, selfish pleasure. Although he meant to use her, his gorge rose. He produced his happiest smile.
“You are a keen observer, Lady Gleeson,” he remarked. “He doesn’t look quite ordinary, I admit.” After a pause he added, “It’s a curious thing, but Mr. LeVallon doesn’t care for the charms that we other men succumb to so easily. He seems indifferent. What he wants is knowledge only. . . . Apparently he’s more interested in stars than in girls.”
“Rubbish,” she rejoined. “He hasn’t met any in his woods, that’s all.”
Her directness rather disconcerted him. At the same time, it charmed him a little, though he did not know it. His dislike of the woman, however, remained. The idle, self-centred rich annoyed him. They were so useless. The fabulous jewelry hanging upon such trash now stirred his bile. He was conscious of the lust for pleasure in her.
“Yet, after all, he’s rather an interesting fellow perhaps,” he told her, as with an air of sudden enthusiasm. “Do you know he talks of rather wonderful things, too. Mere dreams, of course, yet, for all that, out of the ordinary. He has vague memories, it seems, of another state of existence altogether. He speaks sometimes of of marvellous women, compared to whom our women here, our little dressed-up dolls, seem commonplace and insignificant.” And, to his keen enjoyment, Lady Gleeson took the bait with open mouth. She recrossed her shapely legs. She wriggled a little in her chair. Her beringed fingers began fidgeting along the priceless necklace.
“Just what I should expect,” she replied in her throaty voice, “from a young man who looks as he does.”
She began to play her own cards then, mentioning that her husband was interested in Dr. Fillery’s Clinique. Devonham, however, at once headed her off. He described the work of the Home with enthusiasm. “It’s fortunate that Dr. Fillery is rich,” he observed carelessly, “and can follow out his own ideas exactly as he likes. I, personally, should never have joined him had he been dependent upon the mere philanthropist.”
“How wise of you,” she returned. “And I should never have joined this mad Society but for the chance of coming across unusual people. Now, your Mr. LeVallon is one. You may introduce him to me,” she repeated as an ultimatum.
Her directness was the one thing he admired in her. At her own level, she was real. He was aware of the semi-erotic atmosphere about these Meetings and realized that Lady Gleeson came in search of excitement, also that she was too sincere to hide it. She wore her insignia unconcealed. Her talisman was of base metal, the one cheap thing she wore, yet real. This foolish woman, after all, might be of use unwittingly. She might capture LeVallon, if only for a moment, before Nayan Khilkoff enchanted him with that wondrous sweetness to which no man could remain indifferent. For he had long ago divined the natural, unspoken passion between his Chief and the daughter of his host, and with his whole heart he desired to advance it.
“My husband, too, would like to meet him, I’m sure,” he heard her saying, while he smiled at the reappearance of the gilded bait. “My husband, you know, is interested in spirit photography and Dr. Frood’s unconscious theories.”
He rose, without even a smile. “I’ll try and find him at once,” he said, “and bring him to you. I only hope,” he added as an afterthought, “that Miss Khilkoff hasn’t monopolized him already —”
“She hasn’t come,” Lady Gleeson betrayed herself. Instinctively she knew her rival, he saw, with an inward chuckle, as he rose to fetch the desired male.
He found him the centre of a little group just inside \ the door leading into the sculptor’s private studio, where Khilkoff had evidently been showing his new group of elemental figures. Fillery, a few feet away, observing everything at close range, was still talking eagerly with Father Collins. LeVallon and Kempster, the pacifist, were in the middle of an earnest talk, of which Devonham caught an interesting fragment. Kempster’s qualification for membership was an occasional display of telepathy. He was a neat little man exceedingly well dressed, over-dressed in fact, for his tailor’s dummy appearance betrayed that he thought too much about his personal appearance. LeVallon, towering over him like some flaming giant, spoke quietly, but with rare good sense, it seemed. Fillery’s condensed education had worked wonders on his mind. Devonham was astonished. About the pair others had collected, listening, sometimes interjecting opinions of their own, many women among them leaning against the furniture or sitting on cushions and movable, dump-like divans on the floor. It was a picturesque little scene. But LeVallon somehow dwarfed the others.
“I really think,” Kempster was saying, “we might now become a comfortable little third-rate Power like Spain, for instance enjoy ourselves a bit, live on our splendid past, and take the sun in ease.” He looked about him with a self-satisfied smirk, as though he had himself played a fine role in the splendid past.
LeVallon’s reply surprised him perhaps, but it surprised Devonham still more. The real, the central self, LeVallon, he thought with satisfaction, was waking and developing. His choice of words was odd too.
“No, no! You the English are the leaders of the world; the best quality is in you. If you give up, the world goes down and backwards.” The deep, musical tones vibrated through the little room. The speaker, though so quiet, had the air of a powerful athlete, ready to strike. His pose was admirable. Faces turned up and stared. There was a murmur of approval.
“We’re so tired of that talk,” replied Kempster, no whit disconcerted by the evident signs of his unpopularity. “Each race should take its turn. We’ve borne the white man’s burden long enough. Why not drop it, and let another nation do its bit? We’ve earned a rest, I think.”
His precise, high voice was persuasive. He was a good public speaker, wholly impervious to another point of view. But the resonant tones of LeVallon’s rejoinder seemed to bury him, voice, exquisite clothes and all.
“There is no other unless you hand it back to weaker shoulders. No other race has the qualities of generosity, of big careless courage of the unselfish kind required. Above all, you alone have the chivalry.”
Two things Devonham noted as he heard: behind the natural resonance in the big voice lay a curious deepness that made him think of thunder, a volume of sound suppressed, potential, roaring, which, if let loose, might overwhelm, submerge. It belonged to an earnestness as yet unsuspected in him, a strength of conviction based on a great purpose that was evidently subconscious in him, as though he served it, belonged to it, without realizing that he did so. He stood there like some new young prophet, proclaiming a message not entirely his own. Also he said “you” in place of the natural “we.”
Devonham listened attentively. Here, too, at any rate, was an exchange of ideas above the “psychic” level he so disliked.
LeVallon, he noticed at once, showed no evidence of emotion, though his eyes shone brightly and his voice was earnest.
“America “ began Kempster, but was knocked down by a fact before he could continue.
“Has deliberately made itself a Province again. America saw the ideal, then drew back, afraid. It is once more provincial, cut off from the planet, a big island again, concerned with local affairs of its own. Your Democracy has failed.”
“As it always must,” put in Kempster, glad perhaps to shift the point, when he found no ready answer. “The wider the circle from which statesmen are drawn, the lower the level of ability. We should be patriotic for ideas, not for places. The success of one country means the downfall of another. That’s not spiritual.,,.” He continued at high speed, but Devonham missed the words. He was too preoccupied with the other’s language, penetration, point of view. LeVallon had, indeed, progressed. There was nothing of the alternative personality in this, nothing of the wild, strange, nature-being whom he called “N.H.”
“Patriotism, of course, is vulgar rubbish,” he heard Kempster finishing his tirade. “It is local, provincial. The world is a whole.”
But LeVallon did not let him escape so easily. It was admirable really. This half-educated countryman from the woods and mountains had a clear, concentrated mind. He had risen too. Whence came his comprehensive outlook?
“Chivalry you call it sporting instinct is the first essential of a race that is to lead the world. It is a topmost quality. Your race has it. It has come down even into your play. It is instinctive in you more than any other. And chivalry is unselfish. It is divine. You have conquered the sun. The hot races all obey you.”
The thunder broke through the strange but simple words which, in that voice, and with that quiet earnestness, carried some weight of meaning in them that print cannot convey. The women gazed at him with unconcealed, if not with understanding admiration. “Lead us, inspire us, at any rate!” their eyes said plainly; “but love us, O love us, passionately, above all!”
Devonham, hardly able to believe his ears and eyes, turned to see if Fillery had heard the scrap of talk. Judging by the expression on his face, he had not heard it. Father Collins seemed saying things that held his attention too closely. Yet Fillery, for all his apparent absorption, had heard it, though he read it otherwise than his somewhat literal colleague. It was, nevertheless, an interesting revelation to him, since it proved to him again how unreal “LeVallon” was; how easily, quickly this educated simulacrum caught up, assimilated and reproduced as his own, yet honestly, whatever was in the air at the moment. For the words he had spoken were not his own, but Fillery’s. They lay, or something like them lay, unuttered in Fillery’s mind just at that very moment. Yet, even while listening attentively to Father Collins, his close interest in LeVallon was so keen, so watchful, that another portion of his mind was listening to this second conversation, even taking part in it inaudibly. LeVallon caught his language from the
Devonham made his opportunity, leading LeVallon off to be introduced to Lady Gleeson, who still sat waiting for them on the divan in the outer studio.
As they made their way through the buzzing throng into the larger room, Devonham guessed suddenly that Lady Gleeson must somehow have heard in advance that Le–Vallon would be present; her flair for new men was singular; the sexual instinct, unduly developed, seemed aware of its prey anywhere within a big radius. He owed his friend a hint of guidance possibly. “A little woman,” he explained as they crossed over, “who has a weakness for big men and will probably pay you compliments. She comes here to amuse herself with what she calls ‘the freaks.’ Sometimes she lends her great house for the meetings. Her husband’s a millionaire.” To which the other, in his deep, quiet voice, replied: “Thank you, Dr. Devonham.”
“She’s known as ‘the pretty Lady Gleeson.’”
“That?” exclaimed the other, looking towards her.
“Hush!” his companion warned him.
As they approached, Lady Gleeson, waiting with keen impatience, saw them coming and made her preparations. The frown of annoyance at the long delay was replaced by a smile of welcome that lifted the upper lip on one side only, showing the white even teeth with odd effect. She stared at LeVallon, thought Devonham, as a wolf eyes its prey. Deftly lowering her dress betraying thereby that she knew it was too high, and a detail now best omitted from the picture she half rose from her seat as they came up. The instinctive art of deference, though instantly corrected, did not escape Paul Devonham’s too observant eye.
“You were kind enough to say I might introduce my friend,” murmured he. “Mr. LeVallon is new to our big London 2 and a stranger among all these people.”
LeVallon bowed in his calm, dignified fashion, saying no word, but Lady Gleeson put her hand out, and, finding his own, shook it with her air of brilliant welcome. Determination lay in her smile and in her gesture, in her voice as well, as she said familiarly at once: “But, Mr. LeVallon, how tall are you, really? You seem to me a perfect giant.” She made room for him beside her on the divan. “Everybody here looks undersized beside you!” She became intense.
“I am six feet and three inches,” he replied literally, but without expression in his face. There was no smile. He was examining her as frankly as she examined him. Devonham was examining the pair of them. The lack of interest, the cold indifference in LeVallon, he reflected, must put the young woman on her mettle, accustomed as she was to quick submission in her victims.
LeVallon, however, did not accept the offered seat; perhaps he had not noticed the invitation. He showed no interest, though polite and gentle.
“He towers over all of us,” Devonham put in, to help an awkward pause. Yet he meant it more than literally; the empty prettiness of the shallow little face before him, the triviality of Miss Rosa Mystica, the cheapness of Povey, Kempster, Mrs. Towzer, the foolish air of otherworldly expectancy in the whole room, of deliberate exaggeration, of eyes big with wonder for sensation as story followed story all this came upon him with its note of poverty and tawdriness as he used the words.
Something in the atmosphere of LeVallon had this effect whence did it come? he questioned, puzzled of dwarfing all about him.
“All London, remember, isn’t like this,” he heard Lady Gleeson saying, a dangerous purr audible in the throaty voice. “Do sit down here and tell me what you think about it. I feel you don’t belong here quite, do you know? London cramps you, doesn’t it? And you find the women dull and insipid?” She deliberately made more room, patting the cushions invitingly with a flashing hand, that alone, thought Devonham contemptuously, could have endowed at least two big Cliniques. “Tell me about yourself, Mr. LeVallon. I’m dying to hear about your life in the woods and mountains. Do talk to me. I am so bored!”
What followed surprised Devonham more than any of the three perhaps. He ascribed it to what Fillery had called the “natural gentleman,” while Lady Gleeson, doubtless, ascribed it to her own personal witchery.
With that easy grace of his he sat down instantly beside her on the low divan, his height and big frame contriving the awkward movement without a sign of clumsiness. His indifference was obvious to Devonham, but the vain eyes of the woman did not notice it.
“That’s better,” she again welcomed him with a happy laugh. She edged closer a little. “Now, do make yourself comfortable” she arranged the cushions again “and please tell me about your wild life in the forests, or wherever it was. You know a lot about the stars, I hear.” She devoured his face and figure with her shining eyes.
The upper lip was lifted for a second above a gleaming tooth. Devonham had the feeling she was about to eat him, licking her lips already in anticipation. He himself would be dismissed, he well knew, in another moment, for Lady Gleeson would not tolerate a third person at the meal. Before he was sent about his business, however, he had the good fortune to hear LeVallon’s opening answer to the foolish invitation. Amazement filled him, He wished
Fillery could have heard it with him, seen the play of expression on the faces too the bewilderment of sensational hunger for something new in Lady Gleeson’s staring eyes, arrested instantaneously; the calm, cold look of power, yet power tempered by a touch of pity, in LeVallon’s glance, a glance that was only barely aware of her proximity. He smiled as he spoke, and the smile increased his natural radiance. He looked extraordinarily handsome, yet with a new touch of strangeness that held even the cautious doctor momentarily almost spellbound.
“Stars yes, but I rarely see them here in London, and they seem so far away. They comfort me. They bring me they and women bring me nearest to a condition that is gone from me. I have lost it.” He looked straight into her face, so that she blinked and screwed up her eyes, while her breathing came more rapidly. “But stars and women,” he went on, his voice vibrating with music in spite of its quietness, “remind me that it is recoverable. Both give me this sweet message. I read it in stars and in the eyes of women. And it is true because no words convey it. For women cannot express themselves, I see; and stars, too, are silent here.”
The same soft thunder as before sounded below the gently spoken words; Lady Gleeson was trembling a little; she made a movement by means of which she shifted herself yet nearer to her companion in what seemed a natural and unconscious way. It was doubtless his proximity rather than his words that stirred her. Her face was set, though the lips quivered a trifle and the voice was less shrill than usual as she spoke, holding out her empty glass.
“Thank you, Dr. Devonham,” she said icily.
The determined gesture, a toss of the head, with the glare of sharp impatience in the eyes, he could not ignore; yet he accepted his curt dismissal slowly enough to catch her murmured words to LeVallon:
“How wonderful! How wonderful you are! And what sort of women . . .?” followed him as he moved away.
In his heart rose again an uncomfortable memory of a Jura valley blazing in the sunset, and of a half-naked figure worshipping before a great wood fire on the rocks. . . . He fancied he caught, too, in the voice, a suggestion of a lilt, a chanting resonance, that increased his uneasiness further. One thing was certain: it was not quite the ordinary “LeVallon” that answered the silly woman. The reaction was of a different kind. Was, then, the other self awake and stirring? Was it “N.H.” after all, as his colleague claimed?
Allowing a considerable interval to pass, he returned with a glass of lemonade reaching the divan in its dimlit corner just in time to see a flashing hand withdrawn quickly from LeVallon’s arm, and to intercept a glance that told him the intrigue evidently had not developed altogether according to Lady Gleeson’s plan, although her air was one of confidence and keenest self-satisfaction. LeVallon sat like a marble figure, cold, indifferent, looking straight before him, listening, if only with half an ear, to a stream of words whose import it was not difficult to guess.
This Devonham’ s practised eye read in the flashing look she shot at him, and in the quick way she thanked him.
“Coffee, dear Dr. Devonham, I asked for.”
Her move was so quick, his desire to watch them a moment longer together so keen, that for an instant he appeared to hesitate. It was more than appearance; he did hesitate an instant merely, yet long enough for Lady Gleeson to shoot at him a second swift glance of concentrated virulence, and also long enough for LeVallon to spring lightly to his feet, take the glass from his hand and vanish in the direction of the refreshment table before anything could prevent. “I will get your coffee for you,” still sounded in the air, so quickly was the adroit manoeuvre executed. LeVallon had cleverly escaped.
“How stupid of me,” said Devonham quickly, referring to the pretended mistake. Lady Gleeson made no reply. Her inward fury betrayed itself, however, in the tight-set lips and the hard glitter of her brilliant little eyes. “He won’t be a moment,” the other added. “Do you find him interesting? He’s not very talkative as a rule, but perhaps with you “ He hardly knew what words he used.
The look she gave him stopped him, so intense was the bitterness in the eyes. His interruption, then, must indeed have been worse or better? timed than he had imagined. She made no pretence of speaking. Turning her glance in the direction whence the coffee must presently appear, she waited, and Devonham might have been a dummy for all the sign she gave of his being there. He had made an enemy for life, he felt, a feeling confirmed by what almost immediately then followed. Neither the coffee nor its bearer came that evening to pretty Lady Gleeson in the way she had desired. She laid the blame at Devonham’s door.
For at that moment, as he stood before her, secretly enjoying her anger a little, yet feeling foolish, perhaps, as well, a chord sounded on the piano, and a hush passed instantly over the entire room. Someone was about to sing. Nayan Khilkoff had come in, unnoticed, by the door of the private room. Her singing invariably formed a part of these entertainments. The song, too, was the one invariably asked for, its music written by herself.
All talk and movement stopped at the sound of the little prelude, as though a tap had been turned off. Even Devonham, most unmusical of men, prepared to listen with enjoyment. He tried to see Nayan at the piano, but too many people came between. He saw, instead, LeVallon standing close at his side, the cup of coffee in his hand. He had that instant returned.
“For Lady Gleeson. Will you pass it to her? Who’s going to sing?” he whispered all in the same breath. And Devonham told him, as he bent down to give the cup. “Nayan Khilkoff. Hush! It’s a lovely song. I know it The Vagrant’s Epitaph.’”
They stood motionless to listen, as the pure voice of the girl, singing very simply but with the sweetness and truth of sincere feeling, filled the room. Every word, too, was clearly audible:
“Change was his mistress; Chance his counsellor.
Love could not hold him; Duty forged no chain.
The wide seas and the mountains called him,
And grey dawns saw his camp-fires in the rain.
“Sweet hands might tremble! aye, but he must go.
Revel might hold him for a little space;
But, turning past the laughter and the lamps,
His eyes must ever catch the luring Face.
“Dear eyes might question! Yea, and melt again;
Rare lips a-quiver, silently implore;
But he must ever turn his furtive head,
And hear that other summons at the door.
“Change was his mistress; Chance his counsellor.
The dark firs knew his whistle up the trail.
Why tarries he today? . . . And yesternight
Adventure lit her stars without avail.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52