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   Chapter 7 THE FANATIC

The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 28871

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


A succession of incidents, that must have perturbed the doctor and his companion in earnest, had followed upon their departure from Chadlands, and Mary soon discovered that she was faced with a terrible problem.

For one young woman had little chance of winning her way against an old man and the religious convictions that another had impressed upon him. Sir Walter and the priest were now at one, nor did the common sense of a fourth party to the argument convince them. At dinner Septimus May declared his purpose.

"We are happily free of any antagonistic and material influence," he said. "Providence has willed that those opposed to us should be taken elsewhere, and I am now able to do my duty without more opposition."

"Surely, father, you do not wish this?" asked Mary. "I thought you-"

But the elder was fretful.

"Let me eat my meal in peace," he answered. "I am not made of iron, and reason cuts both ways. It was reasonable to deny Mr. May before these events. It would be unreasonable to pretend that the death of Peter Hardcastle has not changed my opinions. To cleave to the possibility of a physical explanation any longer is mere folly and obstinacy. I believe him to be right."

"This is fearful for me-and fearful for everybody here. Don't you see what it would mean if anything happened to you, Mr. May? Even supposing there is a spirit hidden in the Grey Room with power and permission to destroy us-why, that being so, are you any safer than dear Tom was or this poor man?"

"Because I am armed, Mary, and they were defenseless. Unhappily youth is seldom clothed in the whole armor of righteousness. My dear son was a good and honorable man, but he was not a religious man. He had yet to learn the incomparable and vital value of the practice of Christian faith. Hardcastle invited his own doom. He admitted-he even appeared to pride himself upon a crude and pagan rationalism. It is not surprising that such a man should be called away to learn the lessons of which he stood so gravely in need."

"I know that our dear Tom was bidden to higher work-to labor in a higher cause than here, to purer knowledge of those things that matter most to the human soul," said Mary. "But that is not to say God chose to take him by a miracle. For what you believe amounts to a miracle. You know that I am bearing my loss in the same spirit as yourself, but, granted it had to be at God's will, that is no reason why we should suppose the means employed were outside nature."

"How can you pretend they are inside nature, as we know it?" asked her father.

"We know nothing at all yet, and I implore Mr. May to wait until we are at least assured that science cannot find a reason."

"Fear not for me, my child," answered Septimus May. "You forget certain details that have assisted to decide me. Remember that Hardcastle had openly denied and derided the possibility of supernatural peril. He had challenged this potent thing not an hour before he was brought face to face with it. Tom went to his death innocently; this man cannot be absolved so easily. In my case, with my knowledge and faith, the conditions are very different, and I oppose an impregnable barrier between myself and the secret being. I am an old priest, and I go knowing the nature of my task. My weapons are such that a good spirit would applaud them and an evil spirit be powerless against them. Do you not see that the Almighty could never permit one of His creatures-for even the devils also are His-to defeat His own minister or trample on the name of Christ? It would amount to that. So armed one might walk in safety through the lowermost hell, for hell can only believe and tremble before the truth."

Mary looked hopelessly at her father; but he offered her small comfort. Sir Walter still found himself conforming to the fierce piety and dogmatic assurance of the man of God. In this welter and upheaval his modest intellect found only a foothold here, and his judgment now firmly inclined to the confident assertions of religion. He was himself a devout and conventional believer, and he turned to the support of faith, and shared, with increasing conviction, the opinion of Septimus May, as uttered in a volume of confident words. He became blind to the physical danger. He even showed a measure of annoyance at Mary's obstinate entreaties. She strove to calm him, and told him he was not himself-an assertion that, by his inner consciousness of its truth, seemed to incense Sir Walter.

He begged her to be silent, and declared that her remarks savored of irreverence. Startled and bewildered by such a criticism, the woman was indeed silent for some time, while her father-in-law flowed on and uttered his conviction. Yet not all his intensity and asseverations could justify such extravagant assertion. At another time they might even have amused Mary; but in sight of the fact that her father was yielding, and that the end of the argument would mean the clergyman in the Grey Room, she could win nothing but frantic anxiety from the situation. Sir Walter was broken; he had lost his hold on reality, and she realized that. His unsettled intelligence had gone over to the opposition, and there was none, as it seemed, to argue on her side.

Septimus May had acted like a dangerous drug on Sir Walter; he appeared to be intoxicated in some degree. But only in mind, not in manner. He argued for his new attitude, and he was not as excited as the priest, but maintained his usual level tones.

"I agreed with Mannering and Henry yesterday, as you know, Mary," he said, "and at my desire Mr. May desisted from his wish. We see how mistaken I was, how right he must have been. I have thought it out this afternoon, calmly and logically. These unfortunate young men have died without a reason, for be sure no explanation of Peter Hardcastle's death will be forthcoming though the whole College of Surgeons examines his corpse. Then we must admit that life has been snatched out of these bodies by some force of which we have no conception. Were it natural, science would have discovered a reason for death; but it could not, because their lives flowed away as water out of a bottle, leaving the bottle unchanged in every particular. But life does not desert its physical habitation on these terms. It cannot quit a healthy, human body neither ruined nor rent. You must be honest with yourself, my child, as well as with your father-in-law and me. A physical cause being absolutely ruled out, what remains? To-night I emphatically support Mr. May, and my conscience, long in terrible concern, is now at rest again. And because it is at rest, I know that I have done well. I believe that what dear Tom's father desires to do-namely, to spend this night in the Grey Room-is now within his province and entirely proper to his profession, and I share his perfect faith and confidence."

"It is you who lack faith, Mary," continued Septimus May. "You lack faith, otherwise you would appreciate the unquestionable truth of what your father tells you. Listen," he continued, "and understand something of what this means from a larger outlook than our own selfish and immediate interests. Much may come of my action for the Faith at large. I may find an answer to those grave questions concerning the life beyond and the whole problem of spiritualism now convulsing the Church and casting us into opposing sections. It is untrodden and mysterious ground; but I am called upon to tread it. For my part, I am never prepared to flout inquirers if they approach these subjects in a reverent spirit. We must not revile good men because they think differently from ourselves. We must examine the assertions of such inquirers as Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Conan Doyle in a mood of reverence and sympathy. Some men drift away from the truth in vital particulars; but not so far that they cannot return if the road is made clear to them.

"We must remember that our conviction of a double existence rests on the revelation of God through His Son, not on a mere, vague desire toward a future life common to all sorts and conditions of men. They suspected and hoped; we know. Science may explain that general desire if it pleases; it cannot explain, or destroy, the triumphant certainty born of faith. Spiritualism has succeeded to the biblical record of 'possession,' and I, for my part, of course prefer what my Bible teaches. I do not myself find that the 'mediums' of modern spiritualism speak with tongues worthy of much respect up to the present, and it is certain that rogues abound; but the question is clamant. It demands to be discussed by our spiritual guides and the fathers of the Church. Already they recognize this fact and are beginning to approach it-some priests in a right spirit, some-as at the Church Congress last month-in a wrong spirit."

"A wrong spirit, May?" asked Sir Walter.

"In my opinion, a wrong spirit," answered the other. "There is much, even in a meeting of the Church Congress, that makes truly religious men mourn. They laughed when they should have learned. I refer to incidents and criticisms of last October. There the Dean of Manchester, who shows how those, who have apparently spoken to us from Beyond through the mouths of living persons, describe their different states and conditions. Stainton Moses gave us a vision of heaven such as an Oxford don and myself might be supposed to appreciate.

"Raymond describes a heaven wherein the average second lieutenant could find all that, for the moment, he needs. But why laugh at these things? If we make our own hells, shall we not make our own heavens? We must go into the next world more or less cloyed and clogged with the emotions and interests of this one. It is inevitable. We cannot instantly throw off a lifetime of interests, affections, and desires. We are still human and pass onward as human beings, not as angels of light.

"Therefore, we may reasonably suppose that the Almighty will temper the wind to the shorn lamb, nor impose too harsh and terrible a transformation upon the souls of the righteous departed, but lead one and all, by gradual stages and through not unfamiliar conditions, to the heaven of ultimate and absolute perfection that He has designed for His conscious creatures."

"Well spoken," said Sir Walter.

But Mr. May had not finished. He proceeded to the immediate point.

"Shall it be denied that devils have been cast out in the name of God?" he asked. "And if from human tenements, then why not from dwellings made with human hands also? May not a house be similarly cleansed as well as a soul? This unknown spirit-angel or fiend, or other sentient being-is permitted to challenge mankind and draw attention to its existence. A mystery, I grant, but its Maker has now willed that some measure of this mystery shall be revealed to us. We are called to play our part in this spirit's existence.

"It would seem that it has endured a sort of imprisonment in this particular room for more years than we know, and it may actually be the spirit of some departed human being condemned, for causes that humanity has forgotten, to remain within these walls. The nameless and unknown thing cries passionately to be liberated, and is permitted by its Maker to draw our terrified attention upon itself by the exercise of destructive functions transcending our reason.

"God, then, has willed that, through the agency of devout and living men, the unhappy phantom shall now be translated and moved from this environment for ever; and to me the appointed task is allotted. So I believe, as firmly as I believe in the death and resurrection of the Lord. Is that clear to you, Sir Walter?"

"It is. You have made it convincingly clear."

"So be it, then. I, too, Mary, am not dead to the meaning of science in its proper place. We may take an illustration of what I have told you from astronomy. As comets enter our system from realms of which we have no knowledge, dazzle us a little, awaken our speculations and then depart, so may certain immortal spirits also be supposed to act. We entangle them possibly in our gross air and detain them for centuries, or moments, until their Creator's purpose in sending them is accomplished. Then He takes the means to liberate them and set them on their eternal roads and to their eternal tasks once more."

The listening woman, almost against her reason, felt herself beginning to share these assumptions. But that they were fantastic, unsupported by any human knowledge, and would presently involve an experiment full of awful peril to the life of the man who uttered them, she also perceived. Yet her reasonable caution and conventional distrust began to give way a little under the priest's magnetic voice, his flaming eyes, his positive and triumphant certainty of truth. He burned with his inspiration, and she felt herself powerless to oppose any argument founded on facts against the mystic enthusiasm of such religious faith. His honesty and fervor could not, however, abate Mary's acute fear. Her father had entirely gone over to the side of the devotee and she knew it.

"It is well we have your opportunity to-night," he said, "for had the police arrived, out of their ignorance they might deny it to you."

Yet Mary fought on against them. In despair she appealed to Masters. He had been an officer's orderly in his day, and when he left the Army and came to Chadlands, he never departed again. He was an intelligent man, who occupied a good part of his leisure in reading. He set Sir Walter and Mary first in his affections; and that Mary should have won him so completely she always held to be a triumph, since Abraham Masters had no regard or admiration for women.

"Can't you help me, Masters?" she begged. "I'm sure you know as well as I do that this ought not to happen."

The butler eyed his master. He was handing coffee, but none took it.

"By all means speak," said Sir Walter. "You know how I rate your judgment, Masters. You have heard Mr. May upon this terrible subject, and should be convinced, as I am."

Masters was very guarded.

"It's not for me to pass an opinion, Sir Walter. But the reverend gentleman, no doubt, understands such things. Only there's the Witch of Endor, if I may mention the creature, she fetched up more than she bargained for. And I remember a proverb as I heard in India, from a Hin

doo. I've forgot the lingo now, but I remember the sense. They Hindoos say that if you knock long enough at a closed door, the devil will open it-excuse my mentioning such a thing; but Hindoos are awful wise."

"And what then, Masters? I know not who may open the door of this mystery; but this I know, that, in the Name of the Most High God, I can face whatever opens it."

"I ain't particular frightened neither, your reverence," said Masters. "But I wouldn't chance it alone, being about average sinful and not near good enough to tackle that unknown horror hid up there single-handed. I'd chance it, though, in high company like yours. And that's something."

"It is, Masters, and much to your credit," declared Sir Walter. "For that matter, I would do the like. Indeed, I am willing to accompany Mr. May."

While Septimus May shook his head and Mary trembled, the butler spoke again.

"But there's nobody else in this house would. Not even Fred Caunter, who doesn't know the meaning of fear, as you can testify, Sir Walter. But he's fed up with the Grey Room, if I may say so, and so's the housekeeper, Mrs. Forbes, and so's Jane Bond. Not that they would desert the ship; but there's others that be going to do so. I may mention that four maids and Jackson intend to give notice to-morrow. Ann Maine, the second housemaid, has gone to-night. Her father fetched her. Excuse me mentioning it, but Mrs. Forbes will give you the particulars to-morrow, if you please."

"Hysteria," declared Sir Walter. "I don't blame them. It is natural. Everybody is free to go, if they desire to do so. But tell them what you have heard to-night, Masters. Tell them that no good Christian need fear to rest in peace. Explain that Mr. May will presently enter the Grey Room in the name of God; and bid them pray on their knees for him before they go to sleep."

Masters hesitated.

"All the same, I very much wish the reverend gentleman would give Scotland Yard a chance. If they fall, then he can wipe their eye after-excuse my language, Sir Walter. I've read a lot about the spirits, being terrible interested in 'em, as all human men must be; and I hear that running after 'em often brings trouble. I don't mean to your life, Sir Walter, but to your wits. People get cracked on 'em and have to be locked up. I stopped everybody frightening themselves into 'sterics at dinner to-day; but you could see how it took 'em; and, whether or no, I do beg Mr. May to be so kind as to let me sit up along with him to-night.

"You never hear of two people getting into trouble with these here customers, and while he was going for this blackguard ghost in the name of the Lord, I could keep my weather eye lifting for trouble. 'Tis a matter for common sense and keeping your nerve, in my opinion, and we don't want another death on our hands, I suppose. There'll be half the mountebanks and photograph men and newspaper men in the land here to-morrow, and 'twill take me all my time to keep 'em from over-running the house. Because if they could come in their scores for the late captain-poor gentleman!-what won't they try now this here famous detective has been done in?"

"Henry deplored the same thing," said Mary. "And I answer again, as I answered then," replied Septimus May. "You mean well, Sir Walter, and your butler means well; but you propose an act in direct opposition to the principle that inspires me."

"What do you expect to happen?" asked Mary. "Do you suppose you will see something, and that something will tell you what it is, and why it killed dear Tom?"

"That, at any rate, would be a very great blessing to the living," said her father.

"The least the creature could do, in my humble opinion," ventured Masters.

But Septimus May deprecated such curiosity.

"Hope for no such thing, and do not dwell upon what is to happen until I am able to tell you what does happen," he answered. "Allow no human weakness, no desire to learn the secrets of another world, to distract your thoughts. I am only concerned with what I know beyond possibility of doubt is my duty-to be entered upon as swiftly as possible. I hear my call in the very voice of the wind shouting round the house to-night. But beyond my duty I do not seek. Whether information awaits me, whether some manifestation indicating my success and valuable to humanity will be granted, I cannot say. I do not stop now to think about that.

"Alone I do this thing-yet not alone, for my hand is in my Maker's hand. Your part will not be to accompany me. Let each man and woman be informed of what I do, and let them lift a petition for me, that my work be crowned with success. But let them not assume that to-morrow I shall have anything to impart. The night may be one of peace within, though so stormy without. I may pray till dawn with no knowledge how my prayer prospers, or I may be called to face a being that no human eye has ever seen and lived. These things are hidden from us."

"You are wonderful, and it is heartening to meet with such mighty faith," replied Sir Walter. "You have no fear, no shadow of hesitation or doubt at the bottom of your mind?"

"None. Only an overmastering desire to obey the message that throbs in my heart. I will be honest with you, for I recognize that many might doubt whether you were in the right to let me face this ordeal. But I am driven by an overwhelming mandate. Did I fear, or feel one tremor of uncertainty, I would not proceed; for any wavering might be fatal and give me helpless into the power of this watchful spirit; but I am as certain of my duty as I am that salvation awaits the just man.

"I believe that I shall liberate this arrested being with cathartic prayer and cleansing petition to our common Maker. And have I not the spirit of my dead boy on my side? Could any living man, however well intentioned, watch with me and over me as he will? Fear nothing; go to your rest, and let all who would assist me do so on their knees before they sleep."

Even Masters echoed some of this fierce and absolute faith when he returned to the servants' hall.

"His eyes blaze," he said. "He's about the most steadfast man ever I saw inside a pulpit, or out of it. You feel if that man went to the window and told the rain to stop and the wind to go down, they would. No ghost that ever walked could best him anyway. They asked me to talk and say what I felt, and I did; but words are powerless against such an iron will as he's got.

"I doubted first, and Sir Walter said he doubted likewise; but he's dead sure now, and what's good enough for him is good enough for us. I'll bet Caunter, or any man, an even flyer that he's going to put the creature down and out and come off without a scratch himself. I offered to sit up with him, so did Sir Walter; but he wouldn't hear of it. So all we've got to do is to turn in and say our prayers. That's simple enough for God-fearing people, and we can't do no better than to obey orders."

It was none the less a nervous and highly strung household that presently went to bed, and no woman slept without another woman to keep her company. Sir Walter found himself worn out in mind and body. Mary made him take his bromide, and he slept without a dream, despite the din of the great "sou'-wester" and the distant, solemn crash of more than one great tree thrown upon the lap of mother earth at last.

Before he retired, however, something in the nature of a procession had escorted the priest to his ordeal. Mr. May donned biretta, surplice, and stole, for, as he explained, he was to hold a religious service as sacred and significant as any other rite.

"Lord send him no congregation then," thought Masters.

But, with Sir Walter and Mary, he followed the ministrant, and left him at the open door of the Grey Room. The electric light shone steadily; but the storm seemed to beat its fists at the windows, and the leaded panes shook and chattered. With no bell and candle, but his Bible alone, Septimus May entered the room, having first made the sign of the Cross before him; then he turned and bade good-night to all.

"Be of good faith!" were the last words he spoke to them.

Having done so he shut the door, and they heard his voice immediately uplifted in prayer. They waited a little, and the sound roiled steadily on. Sir Walter then bade Masters extinguish all the lights and send the household to bed, though the time was not more than ten o'clock.

As for Masters, the glamour and appeal of those strenuous words at the dinner-table had now passed, and presently, as he prepared to retire, he found himself far less confident and assured than his recent words had implied. He sank slowly from hope to fear, even pictured the worse, and asked himself what would follow if the worst happened. He believed that it might mean serious disaster for Sir Walter. If another life were sacrificed to this unknown peril, and it transpired that his master had sanctioned what would amount to suicide in the eyes of reason; then he began to fear that grave trouble must result. Already the burning words of Septimus May began to cool and sound unreal, and Masters suspected that, if they were repeated in other ears, which had not heard him utter them, or seen the fervor of religious earnestness and reverence in which they had been spoken, this feverish business of exorcising a ghost in the twentieth century might only awake derision and receive neither credence nor respect. His entire concern was for Sir Walter, not Mr. May. He could not sleep, lighted a pipe, considered whether it was in his power to do anything, felt a sudden impulse to take certain steps, yet hesitated-from no fear to himself, but doubt whether action might not endanger another. Mary did not sleep either, and she suffered more, for she had never approved, and now she blamed herself not a little for her weak opposition. A thousand arguments occurred to her while she lay awake. Then, for a time, she forgot present tribulations, and her own grief overwhelmed her, as it was wont to do by night. For while the events that had so swiftly followed each other since her husband's death banished him now and again, save from her subconscious mind, when alone he was swift to return and her sorrow made many a night sleepless. She was herself ill, but did not know it. The reaction had yet to come, and could not be long delayed, for her nervous energy was worn out now. She wept and lived days with the dead; then the present returned to her mind, and she fretted and prayed-for Septimus May and for daylight. She wondered why stormy nights were always the longest. She heard a thousand unfamiliar sounds, and presently leaped from her bed, put on a dressing-gown, and crept out into the house. To know that all was well with the watcher would hearten her. But then her feet dragged before she had left the threshold of her own room, and she stood still and shuddered a little. For how if all were not well? How if his voice no longer sounded?

She hesitated to make the experiment, and balanced the relief of reassurance against the horror of silence. She remembered a storm at sea, when through a long night, not lacking danger to a laboring steamer with weak engines, she had lain awake and felt her heart warm again when the watch shouted the hour.

She set out, then, determined to know if all prospered with her father-in-law. Nor would she give ear to misgiving or ask herself what she would do if no voice were steadily uplifted in the Grey Room.

The great wind seemed to play upon Chadlands like a harp. It roared and reverberated, now stilled a moment for another leap, now died away against the house, yet still sounded with a steady shout in the neighbor trees. At the casements it tugged and rattled; against them it flung the rain fiercely. Every bay and passage of the interior uttered its own voice, and overhead was creaking of old timbers, rattling of old slates, and rustling of mortar fragments dislodged by sudden vibrations.

Mary proceeded on her way, and then, to her astonishment, heard a footfall, and nearly ran into an invisible figure approaching from the direction of the Grey Room. Man and woman startled each other, but neither exclaimed, and Mrs. May spoke.

"Who is it?" she asked; and Masters answered:

"Oh, my gracious! Terrible sorry, ma'am! If I didn't think-"

"What on earth are you doing, Masters?"

"Much the same as you, I expect, ma'am. I thought just to creep along and see if the reverend gentleman was all right. And he is. The light's burning-you can see it under the door-and he's praying away, steady as a steam-threshing machine. I doubt he's keeping the evil creature at arm's length, and I'm a tidy lot more hopeful than what I was an hour ago. The thing ain't strong enough to touch a man praying to God like what he can. But if prayers keep it harmless, then it's got ears and it's alive!"

"Can you believe that, Masters?" she whispered.

"Got to, ma'am. If it was just a natural horror beyond the reach of prayer, it would have knocked his reverence out long before now, like other people. It settled the police officer in under an hour, and Mr. May's been up against it for three-nearly four hours, so far. He'll bolt it yet, I shouldn't wonder, like a ferret bolts a rat."

"You really feel more hopeful?"

"Yes, I do, ma'am; and if he can fire the creature and signal 'All's clear' for Chadlands, it will calm everybody and be a proper feather in his cap, and he did ought to be made a bishop, at the least. Not that Scotland Yard men will believe a word of it to-morrow, all the same. Ghosts are bang out of their line, and I never met even a common constable that believed in 'em, except Bob Parrett, and he had bats in the belfry, poor chap. No; they'll reckon it's somebody in the house, I expect, who wanted to kill t' others, but ain't got no quarrel with Mr. May. And you'd be wise to get back to bed, ma'am, and try to sleep, else you'll catch a cold. I'll look round again in an hour or to, if I don't go to sleep my self."

They parted, while the storm still ran high, and through the empty corridor, when it was lulled, a voice rolled steadily on from the Grey Boom.

When it suddenly ceased, an hour before dawn, the storm had already begun to sink, and through a rack of flying and breaking cloud the "Hunter" wheeled westerly to his setting.

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