The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 21

The Last of the Gray Dust

AT ten-thirty, five tired and hungry people ascended the steps of No. 17 Walnut Street and rang the bell. It was not immediately answered. Then Drayton noticed that the door was not latched. They all entered and became aware that in the library on the right something unusual was going on. A gurgling, choking noise was punctuated by several thumps, followed by the crash of furniture violently overthrown.

Trenmore was first at the door. He flung it open and rushed inside. The room seemed empty. As the noises continued, however, Trenmore passed around the big reading table and stooping over plucked his man, Martin, from the prostrate body of an unknown antagonist. He did it with the air of one who separates his bull pup from the mangled corpse of the neighbor’s Pomeranian. With a sad, disgusted face Terry glanced from the pugnacious one to the figure on the floor.

“Ah now, boy,” he demanded, “are you not ashamed to be choking a man old enough to be your own grand-dad?” Then he dropped Martin, with an exclamation. “Sure, ’tis my old friend the little collector man!”

“Mr. Trenmore,” began Martin in excited self-defense, “he come in here and he —”

“Never mind what he did till I count what’s left of the pieces, my boy. I take back what I said, though. Be he alive or dead, the old rascal’s got no more than was coming to him.”

Kneeling down, while the rest gathered in an interested group, he put his hand to the man’s heart. He was an elderly, smooth-shaven, gray-haired person, with sharp, clean-cut features. The forehead was high and sloping, the mouth thin and tight-pressed even in unconsciousness. He was well dressed, and a gold pince-nez lay on the floor near by, miraculously unbroken.

“He’s all right,” announced Trenmore. “Martin, a drop of liquor now and we’ll have the old scoundrel up and able for an explanation.”

His prophecy proved correct. Five minutes later the gray-haired collector sat in an armchair, shaken but able to talk and be talked to.

“And now,” said Trenmore, “I’ll ask you, Martin, to tell your share in this, and then you’ll go out and you’ll get everything in the house that is eatable and you’ll set it out in the dining room, for it’s starved to death we are, every one of us.”

“Yes, Mr. Trenmore, I’ll tend to it. This old man broke in on me about half an hour ago. He asked for you, Sir. I told him you’d been out since this morning —”

“This morning!” The exclamation broke from three pairs of lips simultaneously. Martin stared.

“Never mind,” said Terry hastily. “And then?”

“He wanted to know where you were. I said I didn’t know, as you didn’t say anything to me. And then we got talking and — I’m sorry, sir — but I let out that it seemed mighty queer, your going that way. And then he asked me questions about where I’d last seen you and all that. I told him about finding this gray stuff — it’s wrapped up in that newspaper on the table, sir — and not knowing what it was or whether you wanted it kept or thrown out.

“And then — honest, I don’t know how he did it, but he got me to show it to him. I brought it in here. And then he said I’d never see you again, and would I sell him the stuff. I said no, of course. Then he pulled a gun on me — here it is — and I jumped on him — and then you came in. I didn’t want to hurt the old guy, but he got me wild and —”

“That’s all right, Martin. You did very well, but don’t ever be doing any of it again. Now hurry up that supper. What’s coming next would likely strain your poor brain. Get along with you.”

Reluctantly, Martin vanished kitchenward. The rest of the company pulled up chairs and made themselves comfortable. For a time they found the captive of Martin’s prowess inclined to an attitude of silent defiance. Upon Terry’s threat, however, to turn him over to the police on charges of housebreaking, he expressed a willingness to listen to reason. Bertram’s presence had a very chastening effect. He knew the burglar for one of the men he had hired to steal the Cerberus, and realized that should his former accomplice go on the stand, his testimony, together with the attack on Martin, would mean penitentiary stripes for himself.

“By the way,” Drayton broke in, picking up the newspaper package which contained the Dust of Purgatory and weighing it in his hand, “did you ever ask Bertram, Terry, if he knew what had become of the vial this was in?”

The burglar started and flushed. “Say, I done a mean trick then. I didn’t mean to keep the thing, but you left it laying on your bureau that day at the Belleclaire, Mr. Trenmore, and I— well, I took it along. I give it to Skidoo here for a keepsake. I didn’t have anything else pretty to give her. But she’s a straight girl and I shouldn’t’ve done it. Skidoo, have you got that bottle I give you for bath salts?”

“Sure.” No. 23000 promptly produced it from her sweater pocket. “Why, Bert, wasn’t it yours?”

Bertram admitted that it was not. With a reproachful glance for Bertram, she extended the Cerberus vial to Trenmore. Trenmore reached for it and took it in his hand. In the flash of an eye the space before him was empty. Miss Skidoo had vanished more abruptly than he had himself disappeared, upon his first experience with the dust!

With a startled yell, Terence leaped to his feet and flung the Cerberus across the room. His feelings were shared by all present, save the old collector, who put up a thin, protesting hand.

“Now, don’t — I beg of you, don’t become excited! Mr. Trenmore, my nerves are not in shape to stand this sort of thing. There is no harm done — unless the beautiful little curio is broken, which would be a pity. Tell me, did that violently costumed young lady come here from — well, from the place you have been in since this morning?”

“She did that!”

“Then she has simply returned there,” announced the collector and he settled placidly back in his chair.

But Bertram, who had been stricken temporarily dumb and paralyzed by the abrupt vanishment of his beloved “kid,” gave vent to one anguished cry of grief and rage. Springing upon Drayton, he wrenched from him the newspaper packet.

“What the deuce are you doing?” exclaimed the lawyer.

“You lemme alone!” panted the burglar, backing away. “I want a dose of this dust, that’s what. I’m goin’ after Skidoo, I am!”

“You are not!”

Trenmore pounced on him and recovered the dangerous package. “You poor little maniac,” he said. “Do you think that I rang the Red Bell in that temple for nothing? Don’t you realize that the place where we were isn’t anywhere now, wherever it was before?”

A moment the burglar stood cogitating this puzzling statement, his face the picture of woe. Then he sank slowly into a chair and dropped his head in his hands.

“The brightest kid!” he muttered despairingly. “The best kid and now she’s nothing! Hell — beg pardon, lady, but this’s fierce! I don’t care what happens now!”

They all sincerely pitied him. As, however, there is no known remedy for the loss of a sweetheart who has melted into the circumambient atmosphere, and as he repulsed their sympathy with almost savage impatience, they once more turned their attention to the gray-haired collector.

Trenmore began by asking his name.

The old fellow fumbled in his pockets a moment. “I find I have left my card case,” he said, “but I am Phineas Dodd Scarboro. By profession I am an oculist. I am willing to tell you the history and nature of that dust. In order that I may do so intelligently, however, I must ask that you first relate your own experience with it.”

There seemed nothing unreasonable in this request. Beginning with the first uncapping of the vial, they unfolded their remarkable narrative. Long before that tale was done, Martin had announced supper. The collector adjourned with them to the dining room. Bertram, however, declined, saying that he had no appetite and preferred to stay where he was. So he was left alone, hunched over in his chair, a figure of sorrow inconsolable. Trenmore took the precaution of bringing the packet of dust into the dining room.

“And so,” concluded Trenmore over the coffee cups, “we got back to our own day again, and a very good job it was. I’d sooner put up with any hardships of our own time, than live out my life in the year 2118!”

Phineas Scarboro sniffed scornfully at Terry’s last remark.

“The year fiddlesticks!” he exclaimed impatiently. “You might, if you had used that powder intelligently, have reached a plane where the vibration was so rapid that a year there was the equivalent of one day here. That, however, is the only form of trick you could play with time. To talk of time as a dimension through which one might travel is the merest nonsense. Time is not a dimension. It is a sequence, or rather a comparative sequence, of vibrations.”

Trenmore threw up his hand. “Man, man, don’t confuse us that way; we’ll be worse off than we are now!”

“The sun rose and set at least twice while we were there,” said Drayton.

“And if it was not the year 2118, then what was it and where were we?” This from Viola.

Scarboro placed his fingers together, tip to tip. He contemplated them for a moment without replying.

“Perhaps,” he said at last, “I had best begin where your adventures began — with the Dust of Purgatory. In my freshman year at Harvard I made the acquaintance of a young man destined to influence my life in a very remarkable manner. His name was Andrew Power. You appear startled. That was the name, was it not, which you, Mr. Drayton, encountered in the temple library as the man who had carried out the scheme for state isolation? The appearance of that name is one of those inexplicable circumstances which in my own investigations have often obtruded themselves.

“Andrew Power, then, was a young man of very unusual abilities. He was, in fact, a theorist along lines so novel that he became persona non grata to more than one member of the faculty. In those days they were convinced that science had achieved her ultimate victories. Any one who pointed out new worlds to conquer was a heretic or worse. Finding no sympathy in his instructors, Power brought his theories to me and to Thaddeus B. Crane, who was then my roommate. The three of us struck up one of those intense friendships of boyhood. On many a night we argued and wrangled into the small hours over subjects of whose very existence Thaddeus and I would scarcely have been aware, save for Andrew Power.

“His chief interest lay in the fields of the occult, which he approached from the angle of sheer materialism. To expound his theories even in brief would require more time than you, I am sure, would care to expend in listening. Enough that he was deeply interested in the Eastern religions — he was born in India, by the way, and had studied under some of their greatest pundits — and contended that their mysticism was based on scientifically demonstrable facts.”

In spite of himself, Trenmore yawned. Was the man never going to reach the dust?

“In his own words,” continued Scarboro, “Power believed it possible to ‘reduce psychic experiences to a material basis! You smile”— They hadn’t —“but Andrew Power, whom we secretly considered a mad theorist, proved himself far more practical than Crane and I, who merely talked. The faculty objected to experiments along any line not in the regular curriculum. Power, however, had set up for himself a small private laboratory.

“One night he came to us ablaze with excitement. In his hand was a glass specimen jar, half filled with this gray, powdery stuff. ‘Fellows,’ he said, ‘I’ve done the thing at last. I’ve precipitated RI.’ Though we hadn’t the vaguest idea what he was talking about, we managed not to give ourselves away. We led him on to explanation. This powder, he said, was of a substance more magical than the fabled philosopher’s stone, which could at most but transmute one element into another. Taken into the system of a living creature this substance so altered the vibrations of the electrons — he called them atomic corpuscles, but electrons is the modern term — of not only the body but of any other matter within the immediate radius of its magnetism that these vibrations were modified to function on an entirely different plane from this with which we are familiar from birth. This other world, or rather these worlds, lie within or in the same place as our own. The old axiom, that two bodies cannot exist simultaneously in the same place, was, according to Power, an axiom no more. Two bodies, a hundred bodies, could by inter-vibration exist in precisely the same place. And therein lay the explanation of every materialization, every ‘miracle,’ every ‘super-natural’ wonder since the world began. Mediums, clairvoyants, prophets, and yogis, all had their occasional spiritual glimpses of these hidden planes or worlds. What Power desired — what he had accomplished — was the actual physical entry.

“Needless to say, we scoffed. We angered Power to the point where he was ready to actually demonstrate. Later we learned from his notes that he had only translated an unlucky cat or so to these secret realms, and was personally inexperienced. Driven, however, by our laughter, Power took about ten grains of the powder and placed it on his tongue. He disappeared. From that day to this no one, not even I, who have many times gone the same road and returned, has ever seen Andrew Power.

“We two escaped arrest only because our unfortunate friend had not been seen coming to our rooms that night. There was a great fuss made over his supposed murder, and the country for miles around was searched for days. Thaddeus and I, two frightened boys, kept still. The first day or so we had access to his laboratory, where we read his notes in the hope of being able to reverse his disastrous experiment on himself. Then everything was locked up and later his effects were shipped to his only living relative, an uncle in Delhi. But the formula for the dust was not among them. That, before my eyes and in the face of my frantic protest, Thaddeus Crane had destroyed.

“He would have destroyed the powder also, had I not persuaded him that it was our moral duty to hold it in case of Andrew Power’s return. He was always a bit afraid of Andrew. In the face of that contingency he suddenly saw his arbitrary act with the formula in its true light. So Crane and I divided the powder between us, promising each other to hold it in case Power should ever return.

“But Crane had had enough and more than enough. He would never afterward discuss even with me the theories which had cost humanity that great and daring mind. I think Crane privately considered that the devil had taken his own. He became very religious, a rigid church member, and died in a firm conviction of grace.

“But I was of different stuff. Power’s notes had given me a few ideas of my own. For fifteen years, though I followed the profession for which I had trained myself, I worked, studied, and experimented. At last I felt that I, too, had solved a problem, not of this dust, the secret of which passed with its creator, but of a means to recover the original vibratory rhythm after it had been altered by the dust, that is, a means to return to our own world.

“I am proud to say that I had the courage to make the trial. I too, have wandered across the wide Ulithian plain. I, too, have passed the Gateway of the Moon into places and amid peoples more strange than even you can dream. The thought of those wanderings became to me an obsession. I was like a drug fiend, who can neither rest nor sleep unless he knows that the means are at hand to rebuild his dream castles — reanimate his wondrous and seductive houris.

“But the time came when my share of the dust was at last exhausted. Naturally I went to Crane. I think I hinted to you that he was a superstitious fool. He had bought that vial, the Cerberus, and he dumped out the absurdly impossible relic of Dante, replacing it with Power’s stuff. ‘Dust from the Rocks of Purgatory’ appealed to him, I suppose, as better applicable to this powder than to the very earthy dust the vial had before contained.

“Well, I found Crane utterly unapproachable on the subject. I begged, pleaded, threatened, offered him all in my power to give; but he would not let me have it. At his death I was wild with rage when I learned of its sale to a mere collector of curios. You know the rest of that episode. Can you blame me now?

“To-day science herself is steadily approaching the magic boundaries of those realms which were once my familiar playground. Soon she can no longer ignore the actual, material existence of the ‘astral plane’ as it has been misnamed by investigators who only recognize it as a Psychical possibility.

“But I— in the flesh, I have known such adventures as only you in all the world would credit! There, ever changing, continually forming, are born the nuclei of events, conditions, inventions, ideas, which later ‘break through’ as it were and recreate this more stable world to which we are born. The inspiration of the poet, the philosopher, or the inventor, is no more than a flicker from that swifter, different vibration within our own.

“And those lands have their monsters — devils, even. The spirit can at times attune itself and in our world a prophet arises. But let him beware! They are wild realms which he glimpses, neither good nor bad, but alive with their own never-ceasing, half-aimless, half-purposeful activities. I know them as no other man save Andrew Power alone. Many times have I sought him there. Many times has his name come up in some such fantastic connection at it came to you. I have seen, as it were, the shadow of his thought sketched in the tangible phantasmagoria which surrounded me. But either he eludes me purposely, or he is dead, and only his mind endures as an invisible force. But if he still lives and we meet, he can make this stuff that I can’t make; I can show him the way back to our own world; and after that the door will be open for all to pass!

“Think of the discoveries that will be hastened — the miracles that may be wrought by knowledge acquired at first hand across that threshold! I could almost kill myself for sheer rage when I think how I wasted glorious opportunities in the pursuit of mere unprofitable adventure! Why, you yourselves brought back at least one idea — the idea of matter-destroying sound waves. Had it been Andrew Power or I, we would have searched those archives until we found the formula by which the Red Bell was made. We would have brought that back, instead of the bare and useless idea!”

“And a fine lot of good that would have been to the world!” exploded Trenmore. “I’d as soon give matches to a child and bid it go play in the nice powder mill, as turn loose the men of this world in that one we’ve come from, if all you say is true. This dust here I’ll toss in the river, so no man shall go that road again. ’Tis not right nor decent, Mr. Scarboro, that one should so thrust oneself into the very workshop of the Almighty!”

By the gleam in Scarboro’s eye hostilities threatened.

Drayton intervened. “Before we discuss the ultimate fate of the dust, Mr. Scarboro, won’t you run over our own experience and explain a few little things? Now, in the first place you say that Andrew Power placed the powder on his tongue and disappeared! I am sure none of us even tried to taste the stuff.”

“I said,” corrected Scarboro, “that it must enter the system of a living creature! It is equally effective when breathed into the lungs. That is the way every one of you went. As to what you found, Ulithia is a place, or rather a condition, which is the one invariable prelude to every adventure I have had. Its phantasmagoria are well-nigh as fixed in their nature as what we please to call ‘reality.’ But of the character of its inhabitants or of the laws which govern its various phenomena, I can tell you but little.

“After living in this commonplace world of ours so many thousand centuries, mankind stands blank-faced before its greater mysteries. How can I, then, who have but one lifetime, and of that have spent but a small proportion in this other world, be expected to explain Ulithia? It is there. Every one present has seen it. We have seen its starry sky that is like our own sky; its sun that is not our sun; its moon that is a mystic gateway. While in our world the sun set once, you passed three days and two whole nights in Ulithia and the next inner world. Our astronomy is not theirs, however much it may resemble it in appearance. And we have all talked with Ulithia’s ghostly, phantasmal inhabitants. Spirits? Demons? Elves? I do not know. That they are more familiar with our nature than we with theirs is certain. In Ulithia they recognize our alien passing. As the whim pleases them, they speed or hinder us. But, just as happened to all of you, one always does finally pass through there.

“What lies beyond varies. Those worlds are real. Their matter is solid while it lasts. But the form passes. ‘The hills are shadows and they flow from form to form and nothing stands. They melt like mists, the solid lands; like clouds they shape themselves and go!’ That was written of earth as we know it. How much better it applies to those inner, wilder realms!

“To one who knows the conditions, who has power to go and come at will, their perils are negligible; their wonder and delight inexhaustible. But ‘woe to the stranger in the Hollow Lands!’ You people were singularly fortunate. By a millionth chance, when the great Red Bell dissolved the astral vibrations, you were restored to your own. The distance which you had moved through space, even the direction was the same. In traversing Ulithia you actually traversed Philadelphia. When you went through the moon gate, you turned inward upon another plane and came back through the false city as if it were the real one. Thus, because your temple occupied the same space as the real city hall, it was there you finally found yourselves.

“That girl who returned with you came because she was temporarily in contact with a thing of this world — the Cerberus. When contact with that particular object ceased she went. I say ‘she,’ but she was nothing — a phantasm — the materialized figment of a dream. All those phantasmagoria which you met, touched, which might and would have slain you had not the Red Bell been one of them — they were the changing forms of a world which may be created and recreated in a single day.

“A prophecy of the actual future of this city and nation? Perhaps. More likely some one of the forces that rule there, for its own sardonic amusement, twisted the fluent astral matter into a distorted and mocking reflection of the real city. Oh, yes, there are forces there, as here, at whose nature we can only guess. Matter does not form or vivify itself, either in those worlds or in this.

“As to the general moral tone of your Philadelphia in the year A.D. 2118 — pardon me — but that moral tone seems to have been a distinct reflection of your own. At least, you met guile with treachery, and the inference is not hard to draw!”

At this gratuitous and unexpected insult, Drayton flushed uncomfortably, Viola drew herself up with great dignity, and Trenmore rose from the table so violently that his chair crashed over.

“You old scalawag —”

Just here the door was flung open. There stood Martin, panting and stammering incoherently.

“What is it now?” demanded his employer.

“Is it Mr. Bertram, Martin?” queried Viola, turning quite pale. A vision had flashed up of the disconsolate burglar, lying in a pool of blood, slain by his own hand in excessive grief for the loss of his phantasmal sweetheart.

“Y-yes, ma’am! At least, I guess so. Was Mr. Bertram that other party that didn’t want supper?”

By now Viola’s fears had communicated themselves to her brother and Drayton. Without pausing, all three pushed past Martin and reached the library. Bertram’s chair was empty. His body was nowhere in sight.

Trenmore turned on Martin. “Where is he, then?”

“I don’t know, sir. I’m not saying anything against a guest of yours, Mr. Trenmore, but all I know is he went upstairs a while back and I just now went to your room, sir, to lay out your pajamas, and-and the safe’s open, sir — and —”

But Trenmore waited for no more. He bounded up the stairs three steps at a time. Martin’s tale proved only too true. The silk curtain was pushed back, the steel door in the wall swung wide, and the floor was as littered as that of the third-floor bedroom upon Drayton’s first awakening in this much-burglarized house.

“The money,” moaned Martin, wringing his hands. “All the money I saw you put in there yesterday — it’s gone!”

Trenmore was rapidly running over the leather boxes, trays, and the like which were scattered about. He rose with a sigh of relief. “At least, he’s taken nothing else. The money was only a couple of hundred that I can spare; but these trinkets of mine I could not easily replace.”

“I don’t believe it was Bertram,” broke in Viola, with the eager loyalty of youth for one who has been, if not a friend, at least a companion. “He couldn’t rob you, Terry, after all we’ve been through together!”

“What’s this?” Drayton had picked up a folded scrap of paper from the dresser. “Why it’s addressed to you, Terry!”

The Irishman took the paper, hastily opened it, and read:

“Dear Mr. Trenmore, I heard what Mr. Scarboro said. Skidoo wasn’t anything. Then I ain’t anything either. I was goin’ to go straight but what’s the use. I need this money worse than you. Goodby. B.”

To the astonishment of all present, Trenmore’s face suddenly cleared and with a whoop of joy he rushed toward the door.

“Moral tone, is it? Wait till I show this to the old scalawag below there. Now whom will he blame for the moral tone, when he reads this letter? And I never thought of Bertram, the thievin’ little crook!”

Waving the missive triumphantly, he thundered down the stairs. Viola burst into almost hysterical laughter and Drayton was forced to laugh with her. “That shot of Scarboro’s rankled,” he said. “Let’s go down and hear them argue it out.”

In the dining room, however, yet another surprise awaited them. Terry was there, a picture of chagrin, but no Scarboro.

“The old villain skipped out,” he said disgustedly, “while we were tearing about after the other scoundrel! And what’s worse, he took the dust with him! Well, I’d not chase after either of them if ’twas to win me a kingdom.”

Very thoughtfully the three made their way to the library. Drayton picked up the crystal vial which Trenmore had flung away. One of its silver heads was dented to a yet more savage expression. Otherwise the Cerberus was unharmed. He offered it to Trenmore, but his friend waved the vial aside.

“I don’t want it,” he said grimly. “Sure, Bobby my lad, I think I’ll just give the thing to yourself and Viola for a wedding present — if you fear no ill luck from it.”

“A wedding present!” stammered Drayton. “See here, Terry, I— Viola, child, I love you too well to marry you! You don’t know of the disgrace into which I have fallen, nor, far worse, of the infamy of which I discovered myself capable. On the edge of death and in those strange surroundings, it didn’t seem to matter so much; but we are back in a real world again and — and by heaven! I think for me the other was the better place!”

Viola went to him and with her two hands on his arm looked up into his face. “Bobby,” she said, “I know what you mean. My brother told me of your sorrows and griefs, while we stood waiting for the examinations to begin, in the Green Room of the temple. He told me everything. Do you think I love you the less that you have suffered?”

“You don’t understand” he said hoarsely. Somehow he held himself from taking her in his arms. He looked to Trenmore, but that large, discreet gentleman had wandered over to the window and was staring out into the night. Drayton choked. “You might as well marry that thief Bertram!” he forced out.

“Marry Bertram!” She laughed softly and hid the flush of her cheek against his coat. “Why, but so I would marry Bertram did I love him as I love you, Bobby, darling!”

No attempt to persuade him of his own moral innocence could have had the least effect. That last naive assertion, however, was too much for Drayton. His arms swept about her.

Trenmore, looking over his shoulder, grinned and hastily resumed his scrutiny of the empty pavement outside.

“And so,” he murmured, “we’ll just take our worlds as we find them, Bobby, my lad! And we’ll see what can be done out there in Cincinnati. The scoundrels that downed him have gold. But I’ve gold myself. We’ll give them a chance to down a fighting Irishman. And maybe — who knows? — there’s a Red Bell hung for them, too, in the Dome of Justice. Aye, we’ll go spy out the land and think well and then strike hard! The way they’ll be wishing they’d crept in their holes and stayed there.”

And with a smile of pleased anticipation for that Olympian battle he sniffed afar, Trenmore turned to the immediate and more difficult task of exerting his Celtic wit and eloquence to persuade Robert Drayton to let him undertake it.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00