My friend Mark Jenkins is an intelligent and usually a very careful man. When he took from “Smiler” Callahan a cigar which had every appearance of being excellent, innocent Havana, the act denoted both intelligence and caution. By very clever work he had traced the poisoning of young Ralph Peeler to Mr. Callahan’s door, and he believed this particular cigar to be the mate of one smoked by Peeler just previous to his demise. And if, upon arresting Callahan, he had not confiscated this bit of evidence, it would have doubtless been destroyed by its regrettably unconscientious owner.
But when Jenkins shortly afterward gave me that cigar, as one of his own, he committed one of those almost inconceivable blunders which, I think, are occasionally forced upon clever men to keep them from overweening vanity. Discovering his slight mistake, my detective friend spent the night searching for his unintended victim, myself; and that his search was successful was due to Pietro Marini, a young Italian of Jenkins’ acquaintance, whom he met about the hour of 2:00 A.M. returning from a dance.
Now, Marini had seen me standing on the steps of the house where Doctor Frederick Holt had his laboratory and living rooms, and he had stared at me, not with any ill intent, but because he thought I was the sickest-looking, most ghastly specimen of humanity that he had ever beheld. And, sharing the superstition of his South Street neighbors, he wondered if the worthy doctor had poisoned me as well as Peeler. This suspicion he imparted to Jenkins, who, however, had the best of reasons for believing otherwise. Moreover, as he informed Marini, Holt was dead, having drowned himself late the previous afternoon. An hour or so after our talk in the restaurant, news of his suicide reached Jenkins.
It seemed wise to search any place where a very sick-looking young man had been seen to enter, so Jenkins came straight to the laboratory. Across the fronts of those houses was the long sign with its mysterious inscription, “See the Great Unseen,” not at all mysterious to the detective. He knew that next door to Doctor Holt’s the second floor had been thrown together into a lecture room, where at certain hours a young man employed by settlement workers displayed upon a screen stereopticon views of various deadly bacilli, the germs of diseases appropriate to dirt and indifference. He knew, too, that Doctor Holt himself had helped the educational effort along by providing some really wonderful lantern slides, done by micro-color photography.
On the pavement outside, Jenkins found the two-thirds remnant of a cigar, which he gathered in and came up the steps, a very miserable and self-reproachful detective. Neither outer nor inner door was locked, and in the laboratory he found me, alive, but on the verge of death by another means that he had feared.
In the extreme physical depression following my awakening from drugged sleep, and knowing nothing of its cause, I believed my adventure fact in its entirety. My mentality was at too low an ebb to resist its dreadful suggestion. I was searching among Holt’s various bottles when Jenkins burst in. At first I was merely annoyed at the interruption of my purpose, but before the anticlimax of his explanation the mists of obsession drifted away and left me still sick in body, but in spirit happy as any man may well be who has suffered a delusion that the world is wholly bad — and learned that its badness springs from his own poisoned brain.
The malice which I had observed in every face, including young Marini’s, existed only in my drug-affected vision. Last week’s “popular-science” lecture had been recalled to my subconscious mind — the mind that rules dreams and delirium — by the photographic apparatus in Holt’s workroom. “See the Great Unseen” assisted materially, and even the corner drug store before which I had paused, with its green-lit show vases, had doubtless played a part. But presently, following something Jenkins told me, I was driven to one protest. “If Holt was not here,” I demanded, “if Holt is dead, as you say, how do you account for the fact that I, who have never seen the man, was able to give you an accurate description which you admit to be that of Doctor Frederick Holt?”
He pointed across the room. “See that?” It was a life-size bust portrait, in crayons, the picture of a white-haired man with bushy eyebrows and the most piercing black eyes I had ever seen — until the previous evening. It hung facing the door and near the windows, and the features stood out with a strangely lifelike appearance in the white rays of the arc lamp just outside. “Upon entering,” continued Jenkins, “the first thing you saw was that portrait, and from it your delirium built a living, speaking man. So, there are your white-haired showman, your unnatural fear, your color photography and your pretty green golliwogs all nicely explained for you, Blaisdell, and thank God you’re alive to hear the explanation. If you had smoked the whole of that cigar — well, never mind. You didn’t. And now, my very dear friend, I think it’s high time that you interviewed a real, flesh-and-blood doctor. I’ll phone for a taxi.”
“Don’t,” I said. “A walk in the fresh air will do me more good than fifty doctors.”
“Fresh air! There’s no fresh air on South Street in July,” complained Jenkins, but reluctantly yielded.
I had a reason for my preference. I wished to see people, to meet face to face even such stray prowlers as might be about at this hour, nearer sunrise than midnight, and rejoice in the goodness and kindliness of the human countenance — particularly as found in the lower classes.
But even as we were leaving there occurred to me a curious inconsistency.
“Jenkins,” I said, “you claim that the reason Holt, when I first met him in the hall, appeared to twice close the door in my face, was because the door never opened until I myself unlatched it.”
“Yes,” confirmed Jenkins, but he frowned, foreseeing my next question.
“Then why, if it was from that picture that I built so solid, so convincing a vision of the man, did I see Holt in the hall before the door was open?”
“You confuse your memories,” retorted Jenkins rather shortly.
“Do I? Holt was dead at that hour, but — I tell you I saw Holt outside the door! And what was his reason for committing suicide?”
Before my friend could reply I was across the room, fumbling in the dusk there at the electric lamp above the sink. I got the tin flap open and pulled out the sliding screen, which consisted of two sheets of glass with fabric between, dark on one side, yellow on the other. With it came the very thing I dreaded — a sheet of whitish, parchmentlike, slightly opalescent stuff.
Jenkins was beside me as I held it at arm’s length toward the windows. Through it the light of the arc lamp fell — divided into the most astonishingly brilliant rainbow hues. And instead of diminishing the light, it was perceptibly increased in the oddest way. Almost one thought that the sheet itself was luminous, and yet when held in shadow it gave off no light at all.
“Shall we — put it in the lamp again — and try it?” asked Jenkins slowly, and in his voice there was no hint of mockery.
I looked him straight in the eyes. “No,” I said, “we won’t. I was drugged. Perhaps in that condition I received a merciless revelation of the discovery that caused Holt’s suicide, but I don’t believe it. Ghost or no ghost, I refuse to ever again believe in the depravity of the human race. If the air and the earth are teeming with invisible horrors, they are not of our making, and — the study of demonology is better let alone. Shall we burn this thing, or tear it up?”
“We have no right to do either,” returned Jenkins thoughtfully, “but you know, Blaisdell, there’s a little too darn much realism about some parts of your ‘dream.’ I haven’t been smoking any doped cigars; but when you held that up to the light, I’ll swear I saw — well, never mind. Burn it — send it back to the place it came from.”
“South America?” said I.
“A hotter place than that. Burn it.”
So he struck a match and we did. It was gone in one great white flash.
A large place was given by morning papers to the suicide of Doctor Frederick Holt, caused, it was surmised, by mental derangement brought about by his unjust implication in the Peeler murder. It seemed an inadequate reason, since he had never been arrested, but no other was ever discovered.
Of course, our action in destroying that “membrane” was illegal and rather precipitate, but, though he won’t talk about it, I know that Jenkins agrees with me — doubt is sometimes better than certainty, and there are marvels better left unproved. Those, for instance, which concern the Powers of Evil.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00