Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 5

THAT a man may retire to his bed unknown and wake up famous is a truism of long standing. There is a parallel truth not half so pleasant. A man — a whole family — may retire wealthy and wake up paupers.

My father was the practically inactive senior member of his firm, and the reins had so far left his hands that when the blow fell it was hard for him to get a grasp on the situation or even credit it.

Rather shockingly, the first word we had of disaster came through the morning paper in a blare-headed column announcing the suicide of Frederic Hutchinson. Suicide without attempt at concealment. A scrubwoman, entering the private offices of Barbour & Hutchinson early that morning, had fairly trodden in the junior partner’s scattered brains.

There followed a week of torment — of sordid revelations of unwise speculation, and ever increasing despair. A week that left dad a shaken, tremulous old man, and the firm of Barbour & Hutchinson, grain brokers, an unpleasant problem to be dealt with by the receivers.

Dad had known his partner for a clever man, and no doubt he was formerly a trustable one. But when the disease called speculation takes late root, its run is likely to be more virulent than in a younger victim. All Hutchinson’s personal estate had been absorbed. His family were left in worse predicament than ours — or would have been, save that dad’s peculiar sense of honor caused him to throw every cent he owned, independent of the firm, into the pit where that firm’s honor had vanished, in an attempt to save it.

Unfortunately he possessed not nearly enough to satisfy the creditors and re-establish the business. As my mother pointed out, the disgrace that had been all Fred Hutchinson’s was now dad’s for impoverishing his family when, under the terms of partnership and the law of our State, most of his personal investments and realty could have been held free from liability.

And to that dad had only one, and to my mind somewhat appalling, reply:

“Let Clay go to work in earnest, then. Perhaps some day my son will clear the slate of what scores I’ve failed to settle!”

Well, great God, can a young fellow carefully trained to have everything he wants without trying turn financial genius in a week?

If it hadn’t been for Roberta, I think I should have thrown up the sponge and fairly run away from it all. Her faith, though, stirred a chord of ambition that those of my own blood failed to touch, and her stately Charlestonian mother emerged from stateliness into surprising sympathy.

Then Dick Vansittart, the unregenerate youngster who had been my dearest pal in college days, got me a job with the Colossus Trust Company, thebank of which his father was president and where he himself loafed about intermittently.

Even I knew that the salary offered was more commensurate with our needs than with what I was worth. Vansittart, Sr., a gruff old lion of a man, growled at me through a personal interview which ended in: “You won’t earn your salt for six months, Barbour, but maybe Terne can put up with you. Try it, anyway!”

Terne was the second vice-president, whose assistant, or secretary, or general errand-boy, it was proposed that I become. I reached for my hat.

“Sorry to have bothered you, Mr. Vansittart! I would hardly care to receive pay except on the basis that it was earned.”

The lion roared.

“Sit down! Don’t you try Dick’s high mannerisms with me! If I can tolerate Dick in this bank, I can tolerate you; but there’s going to be one difference. You’ll play the man and work till you do earn your wages, or you’ll go out! Understand?”

“I merely meant-”

“Never mind that.” The savage countenance before me softened to a leonine benevolence. “Clayton Barbour’s son wants no charity, but, you young fool, don’t I know that? Your father has, swamped himself to pay debts that weren’t his. Now I choose to pay a debt that isn’t mine, but Dick’s!”

I must have looked my bewilderment.

“I mean,” he thundered, “that when my son was expelled from the college he disgraced he nearly took you with him! You cubs believe you carry your shame on your own shoulders. You never think of us. I’ve crossed the street three times to avoid meeting your father! Earn your wages here, so that I can shake hands with him next time. Here — take this note to Mr. Terne. His office is next the cashier’s. Go to work!”

I went, but outside the door found Van waiting for me, smiling ironically.

“You heard?” I muttered.

“Not being stone deaf, yes. The governor doesn’t mind publicity where I’m concerned, eh? Interested passersby in the street might hear, for all he cares. Oh, well — truth is mighty and must prevail. Wish you luck, Clay, and there’s Fatty Terne coming now. So long!”

I was left to present my note to a dignified person who had just emerged from the Cashier’s office. “Fatty” was a merciless nickname for him, and unfair besides. The second vice-president’s large figure suggested strength rather than overindulgence. Beneath his dignity he proved a kindly, not domineering man, much overworked himself, but patient with early mistakes from a new helper.

He shared one stenographer with another official, and seemed actually grateful when I offered to learn shorthand during spare hours in order to be of more use with the correspondence. I was quite infected with the work fever for a while, and saw little of Van, who let me severely alone from the first day I entered the bank.

His new standoffishness didn’t please me exactly, but I was too busy to think much of him one way or the other. At home, however, things went not so well. Since the house had been sold over our heads, we were forced into painfully small quarters. There was a little place near by that belonged to my mother. It had stood empty for a year, and though not much better than a cottage, her ownership of it solved the rent problem, and, as she bitterly explained, we no longer needed servants’ rooms nor space for the entertainment of guests.

Mother and Cathy undertook the housework, while dad fooled about with paint-pots and the like, trying to delude himself into the belief that paint, varnish, and a few new shelves here and there would make a real home for us out of this wretched shack; for that is what Cathy and I called it privately.

All the problems of home life had taken on new, ugly, uncomfortable angles, and I spent as little time among them as I decently could.

Roberta had no more complaints to make of “sixty miles an hour and never touched the horn.” My car had gone with the rest. We went on sedate little walks, like a country pair, tried to prefer movies to grand opera, and piled up heart-breaking dream-castles for consolation.

Two months slid by, and in that while our adventure at the “dead-alive house,” as Roberta had named Moore’s place, was hardly mentioned between us. Once or twice, indeed, she referred to it, but there was for me an oppressive distastefulness in the subject that made me lead our conversations elsewhere.

On the very heels of the catastrophic passing of my father’s firm I had received a brief note from Moore. He expressed concern and sympathy, adding in the same breath, as it were, that he hoped I had been well enough interested the other evening to wish to walk farther along the path of Psychical research.

I regarded his concern as impertinent and his hope as impudent, considering my unpleasant memories of the first visit. I tore the letter up without answering it. After that I heard no more from him, and it was not until the second month’s ending that a thing occurred which forced the whole matter vividly upon my recollection.

“If dear Serapion had not been taken from us,” said my mother, “we should be living in a civilized manner, and my children and I would not have been driven to manual labor!”

Dad kept his eyes on his plate, refraining from answer. He had been guilty of an ill-advised criticism on Cathy’s cooking, and, from that, discussion had run through all the ramifications of domestic misery until I was tempted to leave dinner unfinished and escape to my usual refuge, the Whitingfields.

But the mention of my uncle’s name had a peculiar effect on me. A slight swimming sensation behind the eyes, a gripping tightness at the back of my neck — Serapion!

The feeling passed, but left me trembling so that I remained in my place, fearing to rise lest I betray myself. As before, some deep-seated instinct fought that. The weakness was like a shameful wound, to be at all costs hidden.

“Had he lived,” continued my mother, “he would have seen to it that we weren’t brought to this. No one near poor Serapion was ever allowed to be uncomfortable!”

Dad’s eyes flashed up with a glint of spirit that he had never before showed in this connection.

“Is that so? I know he kept remarkably comfortable himself, but I can’t recall his feathering anyone’s nest but his own.”

“Don’t slander the dead!” came her sharp retort. “Why, you owe the very house over your head to him! And if it hadn’t been that his thoughtfulness left it in my name you wouldn’t have that. You would have robbed your children and me of even this pitiful shelter-”

“Evelyn — please!”

“It’s true! And then you dare cast slurs and innuendoes at poor Serapion-”

“I gave him the house in the first place,” dad muttered.

She rose, eyes flashing and filled with tears. “Yes, you did! And this shameful little hole was all he had to live in — and die in! Serapion was a saint!” she declared. “A saint! He was — he was universally loved!”

And with that, my mother swept from the room. Cathy followed, though with a sneaking glance of sympathy for dad. Tempestuous exits on mother’s part had been frequent as far back as I could remember, and as they were invariably followed by hours in which someone must sit with her and the house must be kept dead silent, we other three had the fellow-feeling of victims.

Dad eyed me across the table. “Son,” he said, “what is your middle name?”

“Ser–Ser-Samuel!” I ended desperately. My heart, for no obvious reason, had begun a palpitation. Why couldn’t they let that name alone?

He looked surprised, and then laughed. “You are right, son. I was about to give you warning — to forbid your becoming such a saint as your esteemed namesake. But I guess that isn’t needed. The Samuels of the world stand on their own feet, as you do now, thank Heaven! A Samuel for the Serapion in you, then, and never forget it!”

He could not guess the frantic struggle going on beneath my calm exterior. There is, I believe, a psychopathic condition in which sound-waves produce visual sensations; a musical note, for example, being seen as a blob of scarlet, or the sustained blast of a bugle as a ribbony, orange-colored streak. Some such confusion of the senses seemed to have occurred in me, only in my case one single sound produced it, and the result was not color but a feeling of pressure, dizziness, suffocation.

Fighting for control, I knew that another iteration of the sound in question would cost me the battle. Dad’s mouth opened, and simultaneously I rose. Opinions on my uncle’s character, pro or con, didn’t interest me half so much as the problem of excusing myself in a steady voice, walking from table to doorway without a stagger, and finally escaping from that room before the fatal name could be spoken again.

These feats accomplished, I managed to get up the stairs and into my own room, where I locked the door and dropped, face downward, across the bed. Though the evening was cool, my whole body was drenched with sweat and my brain reeled sickeningly.

One may get help from queer sources. Van, in our gay junior year — his last at college — had initiated me into a device for keeping steady when the last drink has been one too many. You mentally recite a poem or speech or the multiplication table — any old thing will do. Fixing the mind in that way seems to soothe the gyrating interior and enables a fellow at least to fall asleep like a gentleman.

In my present distress that came back to me. Still fighting off the unknown with one-half of my mind, I scrabbled around in the other half for some definite memorization to take hold of.

There was none. The very multiplication table swam a jumble of numbers. Then I caught a rhyme beginning in the back of my head, and fixed my attention on it feverishly. Over and over the words said themselves, first haltingly, then with increasing certainty. It was a simple, jingling little prayer that every child in the English-speaking world, I suppose, has learned past forgetfulness. “Now I lay me down to Sleep-”

Again — again — by the tenth repetition of “I pray the Lord my soul to take,” I had wrenched my mind away from — that other — and had its whole attention on the rhyme. At last, following a paroxysm of trembling, I knew myself the victor. Once more the Fifth Presence had released me.

Panting and weak from reaction, I sat up. What ailed me? How, in reason and common sense, could the sound of any man’s name have this effect on me?

Hypnotism? Nearly two months had elapsed since my first trouble of this kind, and without recurrence in the interim. No, and come to think of it, I couldn’t recall having heard the name spoken in that while, either. Serapion! It was only when uttered aloud that the word had power over me. I could think of it without any evil effect. And that name on Alicia’s lips had been my last vivid impression before I lost self-consciousness and walked out of, Moore’s house, an intelligent automaton for sixty minutes after.

Scraps of psychology came back to me. Hypnotism — hypnotic suggestion. Could a man be shocked into hypnotic sleep, awaken, and weeks later be swayed by a sound that had accompanied the first lapse?

One way, I set myself very firmly. In cool judgment I was no believer in ghosts. The very thought brought a smile to my lips. My uncle had died before I was born; but, though dad had for some reason disliked him, by all accounts my namesake had been a genial, easy-going, agreeable gentleman, rather characterless, perhaps, and inclined to let the other fellow work, but not a man whose spirit could be imagined as a half-way efficient “haunt.”

Serapion! No, and neither would he probably have flung away his own and his family’s comfort for a point of fine-drawn honor. Was dad in the right? I had tried to reserve criticism there, and in action I had certainly backed him to the limit. Inevitably, though from yet far-off, I could see the loss of Roberta grinding down upon me. She couldn’t wait my convenience forever, you know. Some other fellow-some free, unburdened chap —

I buried my head in my hands.

Then I dropped them and sprang erect, every nerve alert.

I had closed my eyes, and in that instant, a face had leaped into being behind their shut lids. The face was not Roberta’s, though I had been thinking of her. Moreover, it had lacked any dreamlike quality. It had come real — real as if the man had entered my bedroom and thrust his face close to mine.

As my eyes flicked open, it had vanished, leaving me quivering with a strange resentment — an anger, as if some intimate privacy had been invaded. I stood with clenched fists, more angry than amazed at first, but not daring to shut my eyes lest it return.

What had there been about the queer vision that was so loathsome?

The face of a man around forty years it had seemed, smooth-shaven, boyish in a manner, with a little inward twist at the mouth corners, an amused slyness to the clear, light-blue eyes, The face of an easygoing, take-life’s-jokes-as-they-come sort of fellow, amiable, pleasant, and, in some indefinite fashion — horrible.

I was sure I had never seen the man in real life, though there had been a vague familiarity about him, too.

About him! A dream — a vision.

“Clayton Barbour,” I muttered through shut teeth, “if it has reached the point where a word throws you into spasm and you are afraid to close your eyes, you’d better consult a doctor; and that is exactly what I shall do!”

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