MoboReader> Horror > The Grey Room

   Chapter 4 BY THE HAND OF GOD

The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 45253

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Sir Walter always remembered that Sunday luncheon and declared that it reminded him of a very painful experience in his early life. When big-game shooting in South Africa, he had once been tossed by a wounded buffalo bull. By good chance the creature threw him into a gully some feet lower than the surrounding bush. Thus it lost him, and he was safe from destruction. There, however, he remained with a broken leg for some hours until rescued; and during that time the mosquitoes caused him unspeakable torments.

To-day the terrible disaster of the morning became temporarily overshadowed by the necessity of enduring his friends' comments upon it. The worst phase of the ordeal was their pity. Sir Walter had never been pitied in his life, and detested the experience. This stream of sympathy and the chastened voices much oppressed him. He was angry with himself also, for a guilty conviction that, in truth, the interest of the visitors exceeded their grief. He felt it base to suspect them of any such thing; but the buzz of their polite expressions, combined with their cautious questions and evident thirst for knowledge, caused him exquisite uneasiness.

They all wanted to know everything he could tell them concerning Tom May. Had he enemies? Was it conceivable that he might have even bitter and unscrupulous enemies?

"Dear Mary is keeping up splendidly," said Mrs. Travers. "She is magnificent. Thank Heaven I have been some little help to her."

"You have, Nelly, without a doubt."

"Do try to eat more, Walter," urged Ernest Travers. "Much lies before you. Indeed, the worst has yet to come. You must keep up for all our sakes. How thankfully I would share your load if I could!"

"I hope you are going to make this an official matter, Sir Walter, and communicate with the Society for Psychical Research," urged Felix Fayre-Michell. "It is just a case for them. In fact, when this gets known widely, as it must, of course, a great many skilled inquirers will wish to visit Chadlands and spend a night in the room."

"The police will have to be considered first," declared Colonel Vane. "This is, of course, a police affair. I should think they will so regard it. There is the Service, too. The Admiralty will be sure to do something."

"Is he to be buried at Chadlands? I suppose so, poor fellow," murmured Ernest Travers. "I think your family graves so distinguished, Walter-so simple and fine and modest-just perfectly kept, grassy mounds, and simple inscriptions. I was looking at them after service to-day. The vicar made a very tactful allusion to the great grief that had overtaken the lord of the manor at the end of his sermon."

Henry assisted his uncle to the best of his power. It was he who went into the question of the Sunday service from the neighboring market town, and proved, to the relief of Colonel Vane and Mr. Miles Handford, that they might leave in comfort before nightfall and catch a train to London.

"A car is going in later, to meet poor Tom's father," he said, "and if it's any convenience, it would take you both."

The pair thankfully agreed.

Then Colonel Vane interested Sir Walter in spite of himself. The latter had spoken of an inquiry, and Vane urged a distinguished name upon him.

"Do get Peter Hardcastle if you can," he said. "He's absolutely top hole at this sort of thing at present-an amazing beggar."

"I seem to have heard the name."

"Who hasn't? It was he who got to the bottom of that weird murder in Yorkshire."

"It was weird," said Handford. "I knew intimate friends of the murdered man."

"A crime for which no logical reason existed," continued the colonel. "It puzzled everybody, till Hardcastle succeeded where his superior officers at Scotland Yard had failed. I believe he's still young. But that was less amazing than the German spy-you remember now, Sir Walter? The spy had been too clever for England and France-thanks to a woman who helped him. Peter Hardcastle got to know her; then he actually disguised himself as the woman-of course without her knowledge-arrested her, and kept an appointment that she had made with the spy. What was the spy called? I forget."

"Wundt," said Felix Fayre-Michell.

"No, I don't think so. Hardt or Hardfelt, or something like that."

"Anyway, a jolly wonderful thing. He's the first man at this business, and I hope you'll be able to secure him."

"If he comes, Sir Walter, don't let it be known that he is here. Keep it a secret. If Hardcastle could come down as your guest, and nobody know he was here, it might help him to succeed."

"And if he fails, then I hope you'll invite the Psychical Research Society."

Sir Walter let the chatter flow past him; but he concentrated on the name of Peter Hardcastle. He remembered the story of the spy, and the sensation it had aroused.

Millicent Fayre-Michell also remembered it.

"Mr. Hardcastle declined to let his photograph be published in the halfpenny papers, I remember," she said. "That struck me as so wonderful. There was a reason given-that he did not wish the public to know him by sight. I believe he is never seen as himself, and that he makes up just as easily to look like a woman as a man."

"Some people believe he is a woman."

"No! You don't say that?"

"To have made up as that German's friend and so actually reached his presence-nay, secured him! It is certainly one of the most remarkable pages in the annals of crime," said Ernest Travers.

"Is he attached to Scotland Yard still, or does he work independently?" asked Miles Handford.

"I don't know yet. Mannering has already urged me to consult Scotland Yard at once. Indeed, he was going to approach them to-day. Mr. Hardcastle shall certainly be invited to do what he can. I shall leave no stone unturned to reach the truth. Yet what even such a man can do is difficult to see. The walls of the Grey Room are solid, the floor is of sound oak, the ceiling is nine or ten inches thick, and supported by immense beams. The hearth is modern, and the chimney not large enough to admit a human being. This was proved twelve years ago."

"Give him a free hand all the same-with servants and everybody. I should ask him to come as your guest, then nobody need know who he is, and he can pursue his investigations the more freely."

Felix Fayre-Michell made this suggestion after luncheon was ended, and Masters and Fred Caunter had left the room. Then the conversation showed signs of drifting back to sentimentality. Sir Walter saw it coming in their eyes, and sought to head them off by inquiring concerning their own movements.

"Can I be of any service to simplify your plans? I fear this terrible event has put you all to great inconvenience."

"Our inconvenience is nothing beside your sorrow, dear Walter," said Nelly Travers.

All declared that if they could serve the cause in any way they would gladly stop at Chadlands, but since they were powerless to assist, they felt that the sooner they departed the better.

"We go, but we leave our undying sympathy and commiseration, dear friend," declared Mr. Travers. "Believe me, this has aged my wife and myself. Probably it would not be an exaggeration to say it has aged us all. That he should have come through Jutland, done worthy deeds, won honorable mention and the D. S. O., then to be snatched out of life in this incomprehensible manner-nay, perhaps even by supernatural means, for we cannot yet actually declare it is not so. All this makes it impossible to say much that can comfort you or dear Mary. Time must pass I fear, Walter. You must get her away into another environment. Thank Heaven she has youth on her side."

"Yes, yes, I shall live for her, be sure of that." He left them and presently spoke to his nephew alone in his study.

"Do what you can for them. Handford and Vane are getting off this afternoon, the rest early to-morrow. I don't think I shall be able to dine with them to-night. Tom's father will be here. I fear he is likely to be prostrated when he knows that all is over."

"No, he's not that kind of man, uncle. Mary tells me he will want to get to the bottom of this in his own way. He's one of the fighting sort, but he believes in a lot of queer things. I'm going in to Newton with Colonel Vane, and shall meet Mannering there about-about Sir Howard Fellowes. He'll come down to-morrow, no doubt, perhaps to-night. Mannering will know."

"And tell Mannering to insist on a detective called Peter Hardcastle for the inquiry. If he's left Scotland Yard and acting independently, none the less engage him. I shall, of course, thankfully pay anything to get this tragedy explained."

"Be sure they will explain it."

"If they do not I shall be tempted to leave altogether. Indeed, I may do so in any case. Mary will never reconcile herself to live here now."

"Don't bother about the future, don't think about it. Consider yourself, and take a little rest this afternoon. Everybody is very concerned for you, they mean to be awfully decent in their way; but I know how they try you. They can't help it. Such a thing takes them out of their daily round, and beggars their experience, and makes them excited and tactless. There's no precedent for them, and you know how most people depend on precedent and how they're bowled over before anything new."

"I will go to Mary, I think. Has the undertaker been?"

"Yes, uncle."

"I want him to be buried with us here. I should not suppose his father will object."

"Not likely. Mary would wish it so."

"It was so typical of Mary to think of Septimus May before everybody. She put her own feelings from her that she might soften the blow for him."

"She would."

"Are you equal to telling the clergyman at the station that his son is dead, or can't you trust yourself to do it?"

"I expect he'll know it well enough, but I'll tell him everything there is to tell. I remember long ago, after the wedding, that he was interested in haunted rooms, and said he believed in such things on Scriptural grounds."

Sir Walter took pause at this statement.

"That is news to me. Supposing he-However, we need not trouble ourselves with him yet. He will, of course, be as deeply concerned to get to the bottom of this as I am, though we must not interfere, or make the inquiry harder for Hardcastle than he is bound to find it."

"Certainly nobody must interfere. I only hope we can get Peter Hardcastle."

"Tell them to call me when Mr. May arrives, and not sooner. I'll see Mary, then lie down for an hour or two."

"You feel all right? Should you care to see Mannering?"

"I am right enough. Say 'Good-bye' to Vane and Miles Handford for me. They may have to return here presently. One can't tell who may be wanted, and who may not be. I don't know-these things are outside my experience; but they had better both leave you their directions."

"I'll ask them."

Sir Walter visited his daughter, and changed his mind about sleeping. She was passing through an hour of unspeakable horror. The dark temple of realization had opened for her and she was treading its dreary aisles. Henceforth for long days-she told herself for ever-sorrow and sense of unutterable loss must be her companions and share her waking hours.

They stopped together alone till the dusk came down and Mannering returned. He stayed but a few minutes, and presently they heard his car start again, while that containing the departing guests and Henry Lennox immediately followed it.

In due course Septimus May returned to Chadlands with him. The clergyman had heard of his son's end, and went immediately to see the dead man. There Mary joined him, and witnessed his self-control under very shattering grief. He was thin, clean-shaven-a grey man with smouldering eyes and an expression of endurance. A fanatic in faith, by virtue of certain asperities of mind and a critical temperament, he had never made friends, won his parish into close ties, nor advanced the cause of his religion as he had yearned to do. With the zeal of a reformer, he had entered the ministry in youth; but while commanding respect for his own rule of conduct and the example he set his little flock, their affection he never won. The people feared him, and dreaded his stern criticism. Once certain spirits, smarting under pulpit censure, had sought to be rid of him; but no grounds existed on which they could eject the reverend gentleman or challenge his status. He remained, therefore, as many like him remain, embedded in his parish and unknown beyond it. He was a poor student of human nature and life had dimmed his old ambitions, soured his hopes; but it had not clouded his faith. With a passionate fervor he believed all that he tried to teach, and held that an almighty, all loving and all merciful God controlled every destiny, ordered existence for the greatest and least, and allowed nothing to happen upon earth that was not the best that could happen for the immortal beings He had created in His own image. Upon this assurance fell the greatest, almost the only, blow that life could deal Septimus May. He was stricken suddenly, fearfully with his unutterable loss; but his agony turned into prayer while he knelt beside his son. He prayed with a fiery intensity and a resonant vibration of voice that scorched rather than comforted the woman who knelt beside him. The fervor of the man's emotion and the depth of his conviction, running like a torrent through the narrow channels of his understanding, were destined presently to complicate a situation sufficiently painful without intervention; for a time swiftly came when Septimus May forced his beliefs upon Chadlands and opposed them to the opinions of other people as deeply concerned as himself to explain the death of his son.

Mr. May, learning that most of the house party could not depart until the following morning, absented himself from dinner; indeed, he spent his time almost entirely with his boy, and when night came kept vigil beside him. Something of the strange possession of his mind already appeared, in curious hints that puzzled Sir Walter; but it was not until after the post-mortem examination and inquest that his extraordinary views were elaborated.

Millicent Fayre-Michell and her uncle were the first to depart on the following day. The girl harbored a grievance.

"Surely Mary might have seen me a moment to say 'Good-bye,'" she said. "It's a very dreadful thing, but we've been so sympathetic and understanding about it that I think they ought to feel rather grateful. They might realize how trying it is for us, too. And to let me go without even seeing her-she saw Mrs. Travers over and over again."

"Do not mind. Grief makes people selfish," declared Felix. "Probably we should not have acted so. I think we should have hidden our sufferings and faced our duty; but perhaps we are exceptional. I dare say Mrs. May will write and express regret and gratitude later. We must allow for her youth and sorrow."

Mr. Fayre-Michell rather prided himself on the charity of this conclusion.

When Mr. and Mrs. Travers departed, Sir Walter bade them farewell. The lady wept, and her tears fell on his hand as he held it. She was hysterical.

"For Heaven's sake don't let Mary be haunted by that dreadful priest," she said. "There is something terrible about him. He has no bowels of compassion. I tried to console him for the loss of his son, and he turned upon me as if I were weak-minded."

"I had to tell him he was being rude and forgetting that he spoke to a lady," said Ernest Travers. "One makes every allowance for a father's sufferings; but they should not take the form of abrupt and harsh speech to a sympathetic fellow-creature-nay, to anyone, let alone a woman. His sacred calling ought to-"

"A man's profession cannot alter his manners, my dear Ernest; they come from defects of temperament, no doubt. May must not be judged. His faith would move mountains."

"So would mine," said Ernest Travers, "and so would yours, Walter. But it is perfectly possible to be a Christian and a gentleman. To imply that our faith was weak because we expressed ordinary human emotions and pitied him unfeignedly for the loss of his only child-"

"Good-bye, good-bye, my dear friends," answered the other. "I cannot say how I esteem your kindly offices in this affliction. May we meet again presently. God bless and keep you both."

The post-mortem examination revealed no physical reason why Thomas May should have ceased to breathe. Neither did the subsequent investigations of a Government analytical chemist throw any light upon the sailor's sudden death. No cause existed, and therefore none could be reported at the inquest held a day later.

The coroner's jury brought in a verdict rarely heard, but none dissented from it. They held that May had received his death "by the hand of God."

"All men receive death from the hand of God," said Septimus May, when the judicial inquiry was ended. "They receive life from the hand of God also. But, while bowing to that, there is a great deal more we are called to do when God's hand falls as it has fallen upon my son. To-night I shall pray beside his dust, and presently, when he is at peace, I shall be guided. There is a grave duty beside me, Sir Walter, and none must come between me and that duty."

"There is a duty before all of us, and be sure nobody will shrink from it. I have done what is right, so far. We have secured a famous detective-the most famous in England, they tell me. He is called Peter Hardcastle, and he will, I hope, be able to arrive here immediately."

The clergyman shook his head.

"I will say nothing at present," he answered. "But, believe me, a thousand detectives cannot explain my son's death. I shall return to this subject after the funeral, Sir Walter. But my conviction grows that the reason of these things will never be revealed to the eye of science. To the eye of faith alone we must trust the explanation of what has happened. There are things concealed from the wise and prudent-to be revealed unto babes."

That night the master of Chadlands, his nephew, and the priest dined together, and Henry Lennox implored a privilege.

"I feel I owe it to poor Tom in a way," he said. "I beg that you will let me spend the night in the Grey Room, Uncle Walter. I would give my soul to clear this."

But his uncle refused with a curt shake of the head, and the clergyman uttered a reproof.

"Do not speak so lightly," he said. "You use a common phrase and a very objectionable phrase, young man. Do you rate your soul so low that you would surrender it for the satisfaction of a morbid craving? For that is all this amounts to. Not to such an inquirer will my son's death reveal its secret."

"I have already received half-a-dozen letters from people offering and wishing to spend a night in that accursed room," said Sir Walter.

"Do not call it 'accursed' until you know more," urged Septimus May.

"You have indeed charity," answered the other.

"Why withhold charity? We must approach the subject in the only spirit that can disarm the danger. These inquirers who seek to solve the mystery are not concerned with my son's death, only the means that brought it about. Not to such as they will any answer be vouchsafed, and not to the spirit of materialistic inquiry, either. I speak what I know, and will say more upon the subject at another time."

"You cannot accept this awful thing without resentment or demur, Mr. May?" asked Henry Lennox.

"Who shall demur? Did not even the unenlightened men who formed the coroner's jury declare that Tom passed into another world by the hand of God? Can we question our Creator? I, too, desire as much as any human being can an explanation; what is more, I am far more confident of an explanation than you or any other man. But that is because I already know the only road by which it will please God to send an explanation. And that is not the road which scientists or rationalists are used to travel. It is a road that I must be allowed to walk alone."

He left them after dinner, and returned to his daughter-in-law. She had determined not to attend the funeral, but Mr. May argued with her, examined her reasons, found them, in his opinion, not sufficient, and prevailed with her to change her mind.

"Drink the cup to the dregs," he said. "This is our grief, our trial. None feel and know what we feel and know, and your youth is called to bear a burden heavy to be borne. You must stand beside his grave as surely as I must commit him to it."

Men will go far to look upon the coffin of one whose end happens to be mysterious or terrible. The death of Sir Walter's son-in-law had made much matter for the newspapers, and not only Chadlands, but the countryside converged upon the naval funeral, lined the route to the grave, and crowded the little burying ground where the dead man would lie. Cameras pointed their eyes at the gun-carriage and the mourners behind it. The photographers worked for a sort of illustrated paper that tramples with a swine's hoofs and routs up with a swine's nose the matter its clients best love to purchase. Mary, supported by her father and her cousin, preserved a brave composure. Indeed, she was less visibly moved than they. It seemed that the ascetic parent of the dead had power to lift the widow to his own stern self-control. The chaplain of Tom May's ship assisted at the service, but Septimus May conducted it. Not a few old messmates attended, for the sailor had been popular, and his unexpected death brought genuine grief to many men. Under a pile of flowers the coffin was carried to the grave. Rare and precious blossoms came from Sir Walter's friends, and H. M. S. Indomitable sent a mighty anchor of purple violets. Mr. May read the service without a tremor, but his eyes blazed out of his lean head, and there lacked not other signs to indicate the depth of emotion he concealed. Then the bluejackets who had drawn the gun-carriage fired a volley, and the rattle of their musketry echoed sharply from the church tower.

Upon the evening of the day that followed Septimus May resumed the subject concerning which he had already fitfully spoken. His ideas were now in order, and he brought a formidable argument to support a strange request. Indeed, it amounted to a demand, and for a time it seemed doubtful whether Sir Walter would deny him. The priest, indeed, declared that he could take no denial, and his host was thankful that other and stronger argume

nts than his own were at hand to argue the other side. For Dr. Mannering stayed at the manor house after the funeral, and the Rev. Noel Prodgers, the vicar of Chadlands, a distant connection of the Lennoxes, was also dining there. Until now Mannering could not well speak, but he invited himself to dinner on the day after the funeral that he might press a course of action upon those who had suffered so severely. He wished Sir Walter to take his daughter away at once, for her health's sake, and while advancing this advice considered the elder also, for these things had upset the master of Chadlands in mind and body, and Mannering was aware of it.

On the morrow Peter Hardcastle would arrive, and he had urgently directed that his coming should be in a private capacity, unknown to the local police or neighborhood. Neither did he wish the staff of Chadlands to associate him with the tragedy.

An official examination of the room had been made by the local constabulary, as upon the occasion of Nurse Forrester's death; but it was a perfunctory matter, and those responsible for it understood that special attention would presently be paid to the problem by the supreme authority.

"After this man has been and gone, I do earnestly beg you to leave England and get abroad, Sir Walter," said Mannering. "I think it your duty, not only for your girl's sake, but your own. Do not even wait for the report. There is nothing to keep you, and I shall personally be very thankful and relieved if you will manage this and take Mary to some fresh scenes, a place or country that she has not visited before. There is nothing like an entirely novel environment for distracting the mind, bracing the nerves, and restoring tone."

"I must do my duty," answered the other, "and that remains to be seen. If Hardcastle should find out anything, there may be a call upon me. At least, I cannot turn my back upon Chadlands till the mystery is threshed out to the bottom, as far as man can do it."

It was then that Septimus May spoke and astounded his hearers.

"You give me the opportunity to introduce my subject," he said, "for it bears directly on Sir Walter's intentions, and it is in my power, as I devoutly believe, to free him swiftly of any further need to remain here. I am, of course, prepared to argue for my purpose, but would rather not do so. Briefly, I hold it a vital obligation to spend this night in the Grey Room, and I ask that no obstacle of any kind be raised to prevent my doing so. The wisdom of man is foolishness before the wit of God, and what I desire to do is God's will and wish, impressed upon me while I knelt for long hours and prayed to know it. I am convinced, and that should be enough. In this matter I am far from satisfied that all has yet been done, within the Almighty's purpose and direction, to discover the mystery of our terrible loss. But He helps those who help themselves, remember, and I owe it to my son, Sir Walter, and you owe it to your daughter Mary first, and the community also, to take such steps as Heaven, through me, has now directed."

They were for a moment struck dumb by this extraordinary assertion and demand. A thousand objections leaped to the lips of the elder men, and Mr. Prodgers, a devout young Christian of poor physique but great spiritual courage, found himself as interested by this fearless demand of faith as the others were alarmed by it.

Sir Walter spoke.

"We know it is so, May. None recognizes our obligations, both to the living and the dead, more acutely than I do. A very famous man of European reputation will be here to-morrow, and if you, too, desire a representative, you have only got to say so."

"I desire no representative armed with material craft or knowledge of criminal procedure. I am my own representative, and I come armed with greater power than any you can command on earth, Sir Walter. I mean my Maker's response to my prayer. I must spend the night in that room, and cannot leave Chadlands until I have done so. I trust to no human expedient or precaution, for such things would actually disarm me; but my faith is in the God I have served to the best of my power from my youth up. I entertain not the least shadow of fear or doubt. To fear or doubt would be to fail. I rely absolutely on the Supreme Being who has permitted this unspeakable sorrow to fall upon us, and there is no living man less likely than myself to fall a victim to the unknown spirit hidden here and permitted to exercise such awful control over us. The time has come to challenge that spirit in the name of its Maker, and to cleanse your house once and for all of something which, potent for evil though it is allowed to be, must yield to the forces of the Most High, even in the feeble hand of His minister."

The doctor spoke.

"Is it possible, sir, that you attribute your son's death to anything but natural physical forces?" he asked.

"Is it possible to do otherwise? How can you, of all men, ask? Science has spoken-or, rather, science has been struck dumb. No natural, physical force is responsible for his end. He died without any cause that you could discover. This is no new thing, however. History records that men have passed similarly under visitations beyond human power to explain. If the Lord could slay multitudes in a night at a breath, as we know from the pages of the Old Testament, then it is certain He can still end the life of any man at any moment, and send His messengers to do so. I believe in good and evil spirits as I believe in my Bible, and I know that, strong and terrible though they may be and gifted with capital powers against our flesh, yet the will of God is stronger than the strongest of them. These things, I say, have happened before. They are sent to try our faith. I do not mourn my son, save with the blind, natural pang of paternity, because I know that he has been withdrawn from this world for higher purposes in another; but the means of his going I demand to investigate, because they may signify much more than his death itself. One reason for his death may be this: that we are now called to understand what is hidden in the Grey Room. My son's death may have been necessary to that explanation. Human intervention may be demanded there. One of God's immortal souls, for reasons we cannot tell, may be chained in that room, waiting its liberation at human hands. We are challenged, and I accept the challenge, being impelled thereto by the sacred message that has been put into my heart."

Even his fellow-priest stared in bewilderment at Septimus May's extraordinary opinions, while to the physician this was the chatter of a lunatic.

"I will take my Bible into that haunted room to-night," concluded the clergyman, "and I will pray to God, Who sits above both quick and dead, to protect me, guide me, and lead me to my duty."

Sir Walter spoke.

"You flout reason when you say these things, my dear May."

"And why should I not flout reason? What Christian but knows well enough that reason is the staff that breaks in our hands and wounds us? Much of our most vital experience has no part nor lot with reason. A thousand things happen in the soul's history which reason cannot account for. A thousand moods, temptations, incitements prompt us to action or deter us from it-urge us to do or avoid-for which reason is not responsible. Reason, if we bring these emotions to it, cannot even pronounce upon them. Yet in them and from them springs the life of the soul and the conviction of immortality. 'To act on impulse'-who but daily realizes that commonplace in his own experience? The mind does not only play tricks and laugh at reason in dreams while we sleep. It laughs at reason while we wake, and the sanest spirit experiences inspired moments, mad moments, unaccountable impulses the reason for which he knows not. The ancients explained these as temptations of malicious and malignant spirits or promptings from unseen beings who wish man well. And where the urge is to evil, that may well be the truth; and where it is to good, who can doubt whence the inspiration comes?"

"And shall not my inspiration-to employ the cleverest detective in England-be also of good?" asked Sir Walter.

"Emphatically not. Because this thing is in another category than that of human crime. It is lifted upon a plane where the knowledge of man avails nothing. You are a Christian, and you should understand this as well as I do. If there is danger, then I am secure, because I have the only arms that can avail in a battle of the spirit. My trust is shield enough against any evil being that may roam this earth or be held by invisible bonds within the walls of the Grey Room. I will justify the ways of God to man and, through the channel of potent prayer, exorcise this presence and bring peace to your afflicted house. For any living fellow-creature would I gladly pit my faith against evil; how much more, then, in a matter where my very own life's blood has been shed? You cannot deny me this. It is my right."

"I will ask you to listen to the arguments against you, nevertheless," replied Mannering. "You have propounded an extraordinary theory, and must not mind if we disagree with you."

"Speak for yourself alone, then," answered May. "I do not ask or expect a man of your profession to agree with me. But the question ceases to be your province."

"Do not say that, sir," urged Henry Lennox. "I don't think my uncle agrees with you either. You are assuming too much."

"Honestly, I can't quite admit your assumption, my dear May," declared Sir Walter. "You go too far-farther than is justified at this stage of events, at any rate. Were we in no doubt that a spirit is granted power within my house to destroy human life, then I confess, with due precautions, I could not deny you access to it in the omnipotent Name you invoke. I am a Christian and believe my Bible as soundly as you do. But why assume such an extraordinary situation? Why seek a supernatural cause for dear Tom's death before we are satisfied that no other exists?"

"Are you not satisfied? What mortal man can explain the facts on any foundation of human knowledge?"

"Consider how limited human knowledge is," said Mannering, "and grant that we have not exhausted its possibilities yet. There may be some physical peculiarity about the room, some deadly but perfectly natural chemical accident, some volatile stuff, in roof or walls, that reacts to the lowered temperatures of night. A thousand rare chance combinations of matter may occur which are capable of examination, and which, under skilled experiment, will resolve their secret. Nothing it more bewildering than a good conjuring trick till we know how it is done, and Nature is the supreme conjurer. We have not found out all her tricks, and never shall do so; but we very well know that a solution to all of them exists."

"A material outlook and arrogant," said the priest.

Whereupon Mannering grew a little warm.

"It is neither material nor arrogant. I am humbler than you, and your positive assertion seems much the more arrogant. This is the twentieth century, and your mediaeval attitude would win no possible sympathy or support from any educated man."

"Truth can afford to be patient," answered May. "But I, too, am quite sane, though your face doubts it. I do not claim that human prayer can alter physical laws, and I do not ask my Maker to work a miracle on my behalf or suspend the operations of cause and effect. But I am satisfied that we are in a region outside our experience and on another plane and dimension than those controlled by natural law. God has permitted us to enter such a region. He has opened the door into this mystery. He has spoken to my soul and so directed me that I cannot sit with folded hands. This is, I repeat, a challenge to me personally.

"There is, as I potently believe, a being in bondage here which only the voice of God, speaking through one of His creatures, can liberate. If I am wrong, then I shall pray in vain; if right, as I know by deepest conviction and intuition, then my prayer must avail. In any case, I do my duty, and if I myself was called to die while so doing, what nobler death can I desire?"

Mannering regarded the speaker with growing concern. But he still assumed sanity on the part of the reverend gentleman, and still felt considerable irritation mix with his solicitude.

"You must consider others a little," he said.

"No, Dr. Mannering; they must consider me. Providence sends me a message denied to the rest of you, because I am a fit recipient; you are not. It is Newman's 'Illative Sense'-a conviction arising from well-springs far deeper and purer than those that account for human reason. I know because I know. Reasoning, at best, is mere inference deduced from observation, but I am concerned with an inspiration-a something akin to the gift of prophecy."

"Then I can only hope that Sir Walter will exercise his rights and responsibilities and deny you what you wish."

"He has faith, and I am sorry that you lack it."

"No, Mr. May, you must not say that. It is entirely reasonable that Mannering should ask you to consider others," said Sir Walter. "To you a sudden and peaceful death might be no ill; but it would be a very serious ill to the living-a loss to your work on earth, which is not done, a shock and grief to those who respect you, and a reflection on all here."

"Let the living minister to the living and put their trust in God."

Mannering spoke to the vicar of Chadlands.

"What do you think, Prodgers? You are a parson, too, yet may be able to see with our eyes. Surely common sense shouldn't be left out of our calculations, even if they concern the next world?"

"I respect Mr. May's faith," answered the younger priest, "and assuredly I believe that if we eliminate all physical and natural causes from poor Captain May's death, then no member of our sacred calling should fear to spend the night alone in that room. Jacob wrestled with the angel of light. Shall the servants of God fear to oppose a dark angel?"

"Well spoken," said Mr. May.

"But that is not all, sir," continued Noel Prodgers. "It is impossible that we can share such certainty as you claim. Probability lies entirely against it. This has happened twice, remember, and each time a valuable and precious life disappears, for causes beyond our knowledge. That, however, is no reason for assuming the causes are beyond all human knowledge. We do not all possess learning in physics. I would venture most earnestly to beg you to desist, at least until much more has been done and this famous professional man has made such researches as his genius suggests. That is only reasonable, and reason, after all, is a mighty gift of God-a gift, no doubt, often abused by finite beings, who actually use it to defy the Giver-yet none the less, in its proper place, the handmaid of faith and the light of true progress."

But Septimus May argued against him. "To shelter behind reason at such a moment is to blunt the sword of the spirit," he replied, "and human reason is never the handmaid of faith, as you wrongly suggest, but her obdurate, unsleeping foe. That which metaphysicians call intuition, and which I call the voice of God, tells me in clear tones that my boy died by no human agency whatever and by no natural accident. He was wrapt from this life to the next in the twinkling of an eye by forces, or a force, concerning which we know nothing save through the Word of God. I will go farther. I will venture to declare that this death-dealing ghost, or discarnate but conscious being, may not be, as you say, a dark angel-perhaps not wholly evil-perhaps not evil at all. One thing none can question-it did the will of its Creator, as we all must, and we are not, therefore, justified in asserting that a malignant force was exerted. To say so is to speak in terms of our own bitter loss and our own aching hearts. But we are justified in believing that a fearful, unknown power was liberated during the night that Tom died, and I desire to approach that power upon my knees and with my life in my Maker's hands."

The conviction of this righteous but superstitious soul was uttered with passionate zeal. He puzzled to understand how fellow Christians could argue against him, and much resented the fact that Sir Walter withstood his claim and declined to permit the experiment he desired to make. A formalist and precisian, he held any sort of doubt to be backsliding before the message in his own heart. They argued unavailingly with him, and Henry Lennox suggested a compromise.

"Why is it vital, after all, that only one should undertake this ordeal?" he asked. "I begged you to let me try-for revenge."

"Do not use that word," said Mr. Prodgers.

"Well, at any rate, I feel just as great a call to be there as Tom's father can feel-just as pressing a demand and desire. There may have been foul play. At any rate, the thing was done by an active agency, and Tom was taken in some way at a disadvantage. There was no fair fight, I'll swear. He was evidently kneeling, calmly enough looking out of the window, when he died, and the blow must have been a coward's blow, struck from behind, whoever struck it."

"There was no blow, Henry," said Sir Walter.

"Death is a blow, uncle-the most awful blow a strong man can be called to suffer, surely. And I beg this, that if you won't let me face the infernal thing alone you'll let me share this business with Mr. May. He can pray and I can-watch."

But the dead man's father made short work of Henry's proposition.

"You are introducing that very element of rationalism to be, before all things, distrusted here. The mere introduction of human precaution and human weapons would sully faith and make of no avail the only sure means of winning light on this solemn problem. Reason, so employed, would be a hindrance-an actual danger. Only absolute faith can unravel the mystery before us."

"Then, frankly, I tell you that I lack any such absolute faith," declared Sir Walter.

"Do not say that-you libel yourself and are letting a base and material fear cloud your own trust," answered May. "As there is no human reason for what has happened, so no human reason will be found to explain it. By denying me, you are denying the sole means by which this dark terror can be banished. You are denying God's offer of peace. We must not only seek peace, but ensure it. That means that we are now called to take such steps as the Almighty puts at our service by the road of conscience and faith. I have a right to this revelation as my boy's father. The cup is mine, and you will do very wrongly if you deny me the right to drink it. I desire to say, 'Peace be to this house' before I leave it, and, Christian to Christian, you cannot deny me, or hesitate as to your answer."

No argument would bend his obstinate conviction, and he debated with great force from his own standpoint. He presented a man overmastered and mentally incapable of appreciating any argument against his possession.

But Sir Walter, now determined, was as obstinate as the clergyman. Mannering bluntly declared that it would be suicide on May's part, and a conniving at the same by any who permitted him to attempt his vigil.

"I, too, must do my duty as I see it," summed up the master of Chadlands, "and after I have done so, then we may be in a position to admit the case is altered."

The other suddenly rose and lifted his hands. He was trembling with emotion.

"May my God give a sign, then!" he cried.

They were silent a moment, for courtesy or astonishment. Nothing happened, and presently Sir Walter spoke:

"You must bear with me. You are upset, and scarcely know the gravity of the things you say. To-morrow the physical and material investigation that I consider proper, and the world has a right to demand, will be made-in a spirit, I hope, as earnest and devout as your own. And if after that no shadow of explanation is forthcoming, and no peril to life can be discovered, then I should feel disposed to consider your views more seriously-with many reserves, however. At any rate, it will be your turn then, if you still adhere to your opinions; and I am sure all just persons who hear of your purpose would join their prayers with you."

"Your faith is weak, though you believe it strong," answered the other.

And he was equally curt when the physician advised him to take a sleeping-draught before retiring. He bade them "Good-night" without more words, and went to his room, while after further conversation, Dr. Mannering and Mr. Prodgers took their leave.

The former strongly urged Sir Walter to set some sort of guard outside the door of the Grey Room.

"That man's not wholly sane to-night," he declared, "and he appears to glory in the fact that he isn't. He must surely be aware that much he said was superstitious bosh. Look after him. Guard his own apartment. That will be the simplest plan."

When they had gone, Sir Walter addressed his nephew. They went upstairs together and stood for a moment outside the Grey Room. The door was wide open, and the place brilliantly lighted by a high-powered bulb. So had it been by night ever since the disaster. None of the household entered it, and none, save Sir Walter or Henry, was willing to do so until more should be known.

"I have your word of honor you will not go into that room to-night," said his uncle; "but such is the mental condition of this poor clergyman that I can but feel Mannering is right. May might, from some fancied call of the spirit, take the law into his own hands and do what he wishes to do. This must be prevented at any cost. I will ask you, Henry, to follow the doctor's suggestion on my behalf, and keep guard over him. Oppose him actively if he should appear, and call me. I would suggest that Caunter or Masters accompanied you, but that is only to make gossip and mystery."

"On no account. I'll look after him. You can trust me. I expect he's pretty worn out after such a harrowing day, poor old beggar. He'll probably sleep soundly enough when he gets to bed."

"I trust so. I cannot offer to aid you myself, for I am dead beat," said the other.

Then they parted, and the younger presently took up a position in the west wing of the house, where Septimus May had his bedroom.

Not until sunrise did Henry Lennox go to his own chamber, but his sleepless night proved a needless precaution, for Septimus May gave no sign.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares