I strayed through the forest till noon, in debate with myself, and strove to shape my wild doubts into purpose, before I could nerve and compose myself again to face Margrave alone.
I reentered the hut. To my surprise, Margrave was not in the room in which I had left him, nor in that which adjoined it. I ascended the stairs to the kind of loft in which I had been accustomed to pursue my studies, but in which I had not set foot since my alarm for Lilian had suspended my labours. There I saw Margrave quietly seated before the manuscript of my Ambitious Work, which lay open on the rude table, just as I had left it, in the midst of its concluding summary.
“I have taken the license of former days, you see,” said Margrave, smiling, “and have hit by chance on a passage I can understand without effort. But why such a waste of argument to prove a fact so simple? In man, as in brute, life once lost is lost forever; and that is why life is so precious to man.”
I took the book from his hand, and flung it aside in wrath. His approval revolted me more with my own theories than all the argumentative rebukes of Faber.
“And now,” I said, sternly, “the time has come for the explanation you promised. Before I can aid you in any experiment that may serve to prolong your life, I must know how far that life has been a baleful and destroying influence?”
“I have some faint recollection of having saved your life from an imminent danger, and if gratitude were the attribute of man, as it is of the dog, I should claim your aid to serve mine as a right. Ask me what you will. You must have seen enough of me to know that I do not affect either the virtues or vices of others. I regard both with so supreme an indifference, that I believe I am vicious or virtuous unawares. I know not if I can explain what seems to have perplexed you, but if I cannot explain I have no intention to lie. Speak — I listen! We have time enough now before us.”
So saying, he reclined back in the chair, stretching out his limbs wearily. All round this spoilt darling of Material Nature were the aids and appliances of Intellectual Science — books and telescopes and crucibles, with the light of day coming through a small circular aperture in the boarded casement, as I had constructed the opening for my experimental observation of the prismal rays.
While I write, his image is as visible before my remembrance as if before the actual eye — beautiful even in its decay, awful even in its weakness, mysterious as is Nature herself amidst all the mechanism by which our fancied knowledge attempts to measure her laws and analyze her light.
But at that moment no such subtle reflections delayed my inquisitive eager mind from its immediate purpose — who and what was this creature boasting of a secret through which I might rescue from death the life of her who was my all upon the earth?
I gathered rapidly and succinctly together all that I knew and all that I guessed of Margrave’s existence and arts. I commenced from my vision in that mimic Golgotha of creatures inferior to man, close by the scene of man’s most trivial and meaningless pastime. I went on — Derval’s murder; the missing contents of the casket; the apparition seen by the maniac assassin guiding him to the horrid deed; the luminous haunting shadow; the positive charge in the murdered man’s memoir connecting Margrave with Louis Grayle, and accusing him of the murder of Haroun; the night in the moonlit pavilion at Derval Court; the baneful influence on Lilian; the struggle between me and himself in the house by the seashore — the strange All that is told in this Strange Story.
But warming as I spoke, and in a kind of fierce joy to be enabled thus to free my own heart of the doubts that had burdened it, now that I was fairly face to face with the being by whom my reason had been so perplexed and my life so tortured. I was restrained by none of the fears lest my own fancy deceived me, with which in his absence I had striven to reduce to natural causes the portents of terror and wonder. I stated plainly, directly, the beliefs, the impressions which I had never dared even to myself to own without seeking to explain them away. And coming at last to a close, I said: “Such are the evidences that seem to me to justify abhorrence of the life that you ask me to aid in prolonging. Your own tale of last night but confirms them. And why to me — to me — do you come with wild entreaties to lengthen the life that has blighted my own? How did you even learn the home in which I sought unavailing refuge? How — as your hint to Faber clearly revealed — were you aware that, in yon house, where the sorrow is veiled, where the groan is suppressed, where the foot-tread falls ghostlike, there struggles now between life and death my heart’s twin, my world’s sunshine? Ah! through my terror for her, is it a demon that tells you how to bribe my abhorrence into submission, and supple my reason into use to your ends?”
Margrave had listened to me throughout with a fixed attention, at times with a bewildered stare, at times with exclamations of surprise, but not of denial. And when I had done, he remained for some moments silent, seemingly stupefied, passing his hand repeatedly over his brow, in the gesture so familiar to him in former days.
At length he said quietly, without evincing any sign either of resentment or humiliation —
“In much that you tell me I recognize myself; in much I am as lost in amazement as you in wild doubt or fierce wrath. Of the effect that you say Philip Derval produced on me I have no recollection. Of himself I have only this — that he was my foe, that he came to England intent on schemes to shorten my life or destroy its enjoyments. All my faculties tend to self-preservation; there, they converge as rays in a focus; in that focus they illume and — they burn. I willed to destroy my intended destroyer. Did my will enforce itself on the agent to which it was guided? Likely enough. Be it so. Would you blame me for slaying the tiger or serpent — not by the naked hand, but by weapons that arm it? But what could tiger and serpent do more against me than the man who would rob me of life? He had his arts for assault, I had mine for self-defence. He was to me as the tiger that creeps through the jungle, or the serpent uncoiling his folds for the spring. Death to those whose life is destruction to mine, be they serpent or tiger or man! Derval perished. Yes! the spot in which the maniac had buried the casket was revealed to me — no matter how; the contents of the casket passed into my hands. I coveted that possession because I believed that Derval had learned from Haroun of Aleppo the secret by which the elixir of life is prepared, and I supposed that some stores of the essence would be found in his casket. I was deceived — not a drop! What I there found I knew not how to use or apply, nor did I care to learn. What I sought was not there. You see a luminous shadow of myself; it haunts, it accosts, it compels you. Of this I know nothing. Was it the emanation of my intense will really producing this spectre of myself, or was it the thing of your own imagination — an imagination which my will impressed and subjugated? I know not. At the hours when my shadow, real or supposed, was with you, my senses would have been locked in sleep. It is true, however, that I intensely desire to learn from races always near to man, but concealed from his every-day vision, the secret that I believed Philip Derval had carried with him to the tomb; and from some cause or another I cannot now of myself alone, as I could years ago, subject those races to my command — I must, in that, act through or with the mind of another. It is true that I sought to impress upon your waking thoughts the images of the circle, the powers of the wand, which, in your trance or sleep-walking, made you the involuntary agent of my will. I knew by a dream — for by dreams, more or less vivid, are the results of my waking will sometimes divulged to myself — that the spell had been broken, the discovery I sought not effected. All my hopes were then transferred from yourself, the dull votary of science, to the girl whom I charmed to my thraldom through her love for you and through her dreams of a realm which the science of schools never enters. In her, imagination was all pure and all potent; and tell me, O practical reasoner, if reason has ever advanced one step into knowledge except through that imaginative faculty which is strongest in the wisdom of ignorance, and weakest in the ignorance of the wise. Ponder this, and those marvels that perplex you will cease to be marvellous. I pass on to the riddle that puzzles you most. By Philip Derval’s account I am, in truth, Louis Grayle restored to youth by the elixir, and while yet infirm, decrepit, murdered Haroun — a man of a frame as athletic as yours! By accepting this notion you seem to yourself alone to unravel the mysteries you ascribe to my life and my powers. O wise philosopher! O profound logician! you accept that notion, yet hold my belief in the Dervish’s tale a chimera! I am Grayle made young by the elixir, and yet the elixir itself is a fable!”
He paused and laughed, but the laugh was no longer even an echo of its former merriment or playfulness — a sinister and terrible laugh, mocking, threatening, malignant.
Again he swept his hand over his brow, and resumed —
“Is it not easier to so accomplished a sage as you to believe that the idlers of Paris have guessed the true solution of that problem, my place on this earth? May I not be the love-son of Louis Grayle? And when Haroun refused the elixir to him, or he found that his frame was too far exhausted for even the elixir to repair organic lesions of structure in the worn frame of old age, may he not have indulged the common illusion of fathers, and soothed his death-pangs with the thought that he should live again in his son? Haroun is found dead on his carpet — rumour said strangled. What proof of the truth of that rumour? Might he not have passed away in a fit? Will it lessen your perplexity if I state recollections? They are vague — they often perplex myself; but so far from a wish to deceive you, my desire is to relate them so truthfully that you may aid me to reduce them into more definite form.”
His face now became very troubled, the tone of his voice very irresolute — the face and the voice of a man who is either blundering his way through an intricate falsehood, or through obscure reminiscences.
“This Louis Grayle! this Louis Grayle! I remember him well, as one remembers a nightmare. Whenever I look back, before the illness of which I will presently speak, the image of Louis Grayle returns to me. I see myself with him in African wilds, commanding the fierce Abyssinians. I see myself with him in the fair Persian valley,-lofty, snow-covered mountains encircling the garden of roses. I see myself with him in the hush of the golden noon, reclined by the spray of cool fountains — now listening to cymbals and lutes, now arguing with graybeards on secrets bequeathed by the Chaldees — with him, with him in moonlit nights, stealing into the sepulchres of mythical kings. I see myself with him in the aisles of dark caverns, surrounded by awful shapes, which have no likeness amongst the creatures of earth. Louis Grayle! Louis Grayle! all my earlier memories go back to Louis Grayle! All my arts and powers, all that I have learned of the languages spoken in Europe, of the sciences taught in her schools, I owe to Louis Grayle. But am I one and the same with him? No — I am but a pale reflection of his giant intellect. I have not even a reflection of his childlike agonies of sorrow. Louis Grayle! He stands apart from me, as a rock from the tree that grows out from its chasms. Yes, the gossip was right; I must be his son.”
He leaned his face on both hands, rocking himself to and fro. At length, with a sigh, he resumed —
“I remember, too, a long and oppressive illness, attended with racking pains, a dismal journey in a wearisome litter, the light hand of the woman Ayesha, so sad and so stately, smoothing my pillow or fanning my brows. I remember the evening on which my nurse drew the folds of the litter aside, and said, ‘See Aleppo! and the star of thy birth shining over its walls!’
“I remember a face inexpressibly solemn and mournful. I remember the chill that the calm of its ominous eye sent through my veins — the face of Haroun, the Sage of Aleppo. I remember the vessel of crystal he bore in his hand, and the blessed relief from my pains that a drop from the essence which flashed through the crystal bestowed! And then — and then — I remember no more till the night on which Ayesha came to my couch and said, ‘Rise.’
“And I rose, leaning on her, supported by her. We went through dim narrow streets, faintly lit by wan stars, disturbing the prowl of the dogs, that slunk from the look of that woman. We came to a solitary house, small and low, and my nurse said, ‘Wait.’
“She opened the door and went in; I seated myself on the threshold. And after a time she came out from the house, and led me, still leaning on her, into her chamber.
“A man lay, as in sleep, on the carpet, and beside him stood another man, whom I recognized as Ayesha’s special attendant — an Indian. ‘Haroun is dead,’ said Ayesha. ‘Search for that which will give thee new life. Thou hast seen, and wilt know it, not I.’
“And I put my hand on the breast of Haroun — for the dead man was he — and drew from it the vessel of crystal.
“Having done so, the frown of his marble brow appalled me. I staggered back, and swooned away.
“I came to my senses, recovering and rejoicing, miles afar from the city, the dawn red on its distant wall. Ayesha had tended me; the elixir had already restored me.
“My first thought, when full consciousness came back to me, rested on Louis Grayle, for he also had been at Aleppo; I was but one of his numerous train. He, too, was enfeebled and suffering; he had sought the known skill of Haroun for himself as for me; and this woman loved and had tended him as she had loved and tended me. And my nurse told me that he was dead, and forbade me henceforth to breathe his name.
“We travelled on — she and I, and the Indian her servant — my strength still renewed by the wondrous elixir. No longer supported by her, what gazelle ever roved through its pasture with a bound more elastic than mine?
“We came to a town, and my nurse placed before me a mirror. I did not recognize myself. In this town we rested, obscure, till the letter there reached me by which I learned that I was the offspring of love, and enriched by the care of a father recently dead. Is it not clear that Louis Grayle was this father?”
“If so, was the woman Ayesha your mother?”
“The letter said that ‘my mother had died in my infancy.’ Nevertheless, the care with which Ayesha had tended me induced a suspicion that made me ask her the very question you put. She wept when I asked her, and said, ‘No, only my nurse. And now I needed a nurse no more.’ The day after I received the letter which announced an inheritance that allowed me to vie with the nobles of Europe, this woman left me, and went back to her tribe.”
“Have you never seen her since?”
Margrave hesitated a moment, and then answered, though with seeming reluctance, “Yes, at Damascus. Not many days after I was borne to that city by the strangers who found me half-dead on their road, I woke one morning to find her by my side. And she said, ‘In joy and in health you did not need me. I am needed now.”’
“Did you then deprive yourself of one so devoted? You have not made this long voyage — from Egypt to Australia — alone — you, to whom wealth gave no excuse for privation?”
“The woman came with me; and some chosen attendants. I engaged to ourselves the vessel we sailed in.”
“Where have you left your companions?”
“By this hour,” answered Margrave, “they are in reach of my summons; and when you and I have achieved the discovery — in the results of which we shall share — I will exact no more from your aid. I trust all that rests for my cure to my nurse and her swarthy attendants. You will aid me now, as a matter of course; the physician whose counsel you needed to guide your own skill enjoins you to obey my whim — if whim you still call it; you will obey it, for on that whim rests your own sole hope of happiness — you, who can love — I love nothing but life. Has my frank narrative solved all the doubts that stood between you and me, in the great meeting-grounds of an interest in common?”
“Solved all the doubts! Your wild story but makes some the darker, leaving others untouched: the occult powers of which you boast, and some of which I have witnessed — your very insight into my own household sorrows, into the interests I have, with yourself, in the truth of a faith so repugnant to reason —”
“Pardon me,” interrupted Margrave, with that slight curve of the lip which is half smile and half sneer, “if, in my account of myself, I omitted what I cannot explain, and you cannot conceive: let me first ask how many of the commonest actions of the commonest men are purely involuntary and wholly inexplicable. When, for instance, you open your lips and utter a sentence, you have not the faintest idea beforehand what word will follow another. When you move a muscle can you tell me the thought that prompts to the movement? And, wholly unable thus to account for your own simple sympathies between impulse and act, do you believe that there exists a man upon earth who can read all the riddles in the heart and brain of another? Is it not true that not one drop of water, one atom of matter, ever really touches another? Between each and each there is always a space, however infinitesimally small. How, then, could the world go on, if every man asked another to make his whole history and being as lucid as daylight before he would buy and sell with him? All interchange and alliance rest but on this — an interest in common. You and I have established that interest: all else, all you ask more, is superfluous. Could I answer each doubt you would raise, still, whether the answer should please or revolt you, your reason would come back to the same starting-point — namely, In one definite proposal have we two an interest in common?”
And again Margrave laughed, not in mirth, but in mockery. The laugh and the words that preceded it were not the laugh and the words of the young. Could it be possible that Louis Grayle had indeed revived to false youth in the person of Margrave, such might have been his laugh and such his words. The whole mind of Margrave seemed to have undergone change since I last saw him; more rich in idea, more crafty even in candour, more powerful, more concentred. As we see in our ordinary experience, that some infirmity, threatening dissolution, brings forth more vividly the reminiscences of early years, when impressions were vigorously stamped, so I might have thought that as Margrave neared the tomb, the memories he had retained from his former existence, in a being more amply endowed, more formidably potent, struggled back to the brain; and the mind that had lived in Louis Grayle moved the lips of the dying Margrave.
“For the powers and the arts that it equally puzzles your reason to assign or deny to me,” resumed my terrible guest, “I will say briefly but this: they come from faculties stored within myself, and doubtless conduce to my self-preservation — faculties more or less, perhaps (so Van Helmont asserts), given to all men, though dormant in most; vivid and active in me because in me self-preservation has been and yet is the strong master-passion, or instinct; and because I have been taught how to use and direct such faculties by disciplined teachers — some by Louis Grayle, the enchanter; some by my nurse, the singer of charmed songs. But in much that I will to have done, I know no more than yourself how the agency acts. Enough for me to will what I wish, and sink calmly into slumber, sure that the will would work somehow its way. But when I have willed to know what, when known, should shape my own courses, I could see, without aid from your pitiful telescopes, all objects howsoever far. What wonder in that? Have you no learned puzzle-brained metaphysicians who tell you that space is but an idea, all this palpable universe an idea in the mind, and no more? Why am I an enigma as dark as the Sibyls, and your metaphysicians as plain as a hornbook?” Again the sardonic laugh. “Enough: let what I have said obscure or enlighten your guesses, we come back to the same link of union, which binds man to man, bids States arise from the desert, and foeman embrace as brothers. I need you and you need me; without your aid my life is doomed; without my secret the breath will have gone from the lips of your Lilian before the sun of tomorrow is red on the hill-tops.”
“Fiend or juggler,” I cried in rage, “you shall not so enslave and enthrall me by this mystic farrago and jargon. Make your fantastic experiment on yourself if you will: trust to your arts and your powers. My Lilian’s life shall not hang on your fiat. I trust it — to —”
“To what — to man’s skill? Hear what the sage of the college shall tell you, before I ask you again for your aid. Do you trust to God’s saving mercy? Ah, of course you believe in a God? Who, except a philosopher, can reason a Maker away? But that the Maker will alter His courses to hear you; that, whether or not you trust in Him, or in your doctor, it will change by a hairbreadth the thing that must be-do you believe this, Allen Fenwick?”
And there sat this reader of hearts! a boy in his aspect, mocking me and the graybeards of schools.
I could listen no more; I turned to the door and fled down the stairs, and heard, as I fled, a low chant: feeble and faint, it was still the old barbaric chant, by which the serpent is drawn from its hole by the charmer.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48