There are, it would appear, certain wholly
unremarkable persons, with none of the characteristics that invite
adventure, who yet once or twice in the course of their smooth lives
undergo an experience so strange that the world catches its breath--and
looks the other way! And it was cases of this kind, perhaps, more than
any other, that fell into the widespread net of John Silence, the
psychic doctor, and, appealing to his deep humanity, to his patience,
and to his great qualities of spiritual sympathy, led often to the
revelation of problems of the strangest complexity, and of the
profoundest possible human interest.
Matters that seemed almost too curious and fantastic
for belief he loved to trace to their hidden sources. To unravel a
tangle in the very soul of things--and to release a suffering human
soul in the process-- was with him a veritable passion. And the knots
he untied were, indeed, after passing strange.
The world, of course, asks for some plausible basis
to which it can attach credence--something it can, at least, pretend to
explain. The adventurous type it can understand: such people carry
about with them an adequate explanation of their exciting lives, and
their characters obviously drive them into the circumstances which
produce the adventures. It expects nothing else from them, and is
satisfied. But dull, ordinary folk have no right to out-of-the-way
experiences, and the world having been led to expect otherwise, is
disappointed with them, not to say shocked. Its complacent judgment has
been rudely disturbed.
"Such a thing happened to that man!" it
cries--"a commonplace person like that! It is too absurd! There must be
Yet there could be no question that something did
actually happen to little Arthur Vezin, something of the purious nature
he described to Dr. Silence. Outwardly or inwardly, it happened beyond
a doubt, and in spite of the jeers of his few friends who heard the
tale, and observed wisely that "such a thing might perhaps have come to
Iszard, that crack-brained Iszard, or to that odd fish Minski, but it
could never have happened to commonplace little Vezin, who was
fore-ordained to live and die according to scale."
But, whatever his method of death was, Vezin certainly did not "live
according to scale" so far as this particular event in his otherwise
uneventful life was concerned; and to hear him recount it, and watch
his pale delicate features change, and hear his voice grow softer and
more hushed as he proceeded, was to know the conviction that his
halting words perhaps failed sometimes to convey. He lived the thing
over again each time he told it. His whole personality became muffled
in the recital. It subdued him more than ever, so that the tale became
a lengthy apology for an experience that he deprecated. He appeared to
excuse himself and ask your pardon for having dared to take part in so
fantastic an episode. For little Vezin was a timid, gentle, sensitive
soul, rarely able to assert himself, tender to man and beast, and
almost constitutionally unable to say No, or to claim many things that
should rightly have been his. His whole scheme of life seemed utterly
remote from anything more exciting than missing a train or losing an
umbrella on an omnibus. And when this curious event came upon him he
was already more years beyond forty than his friends suspected or he
cared to admit.
John Silence, who heard him speak of his experience
more than once, said that he sometimes left out certain details and put
in others; yet they were all obviously true. The whole scene was
unforgettably cinematographed on to his mind. None of the details were
imagined or invented. And when he told the story with them all
complete, the effect was undeniable. His appealing brown eyes shone,
and much of the charming personality, usually so carefully repressed,
came forward and revealed itself. His modesty was always there, of
course, but in the telling he forgot the present and allowed himself to
appear almost vividly as he lived again in the past of his adventure.
He was on the way home when it happened, crossing
northern France from some mountain trip or other where he buried
himself solitary-wise every summer. He had nothing but an unregistered
bag in the rack, and the train was jammed to suffocation, most of the
passengers being unredeemed holiday English. He disliked them, not
because they were his fellow-countrymen, but because they were noisy
and obtrusive, obliterating with their big limbs and tweed clothing all
the quieter tints of the day that brought him satisfaction and enabled
him to melt into insignificance and forget that he was anybody. These
English clashed about him like a brass band, making him feel vaguely
that he ought to be more self-assertive and obstreperous, and that he
did not claim insistently enough all kinds of things that he didn't
want and that were really valueless, such as corner seats, windows up
or down, and so forth.
So that he felt uncomfortable in the train, and
wished the journey were over and he was back again living with his
unmarried sister in Surbiton.
And when the train stopped for ten panting minutes
at the little station in northern France, and he got out to stretch his
legs on the platform, and saw to his dismay a further batch of the
British Isles debouching from another train, it suddenly seemed
impossible to him to continue the journey. Even his flabby soul
revolted, and the idea of staying a night in the little town and going
on next day by a slower, emptier train, flashed into his mind. The
guard was already shouting "en voiture" and the corridor of his
compartment was already packed when the thought came to him. And, for
once, he acted with decision and rushed to snatch his bag.
Finding the corridor and steps impassable, he tapped
at the window (for he had a corner seat) and begged the Frenchman who
sat opposite to hand his luggage out to him, explaining in his wretched
French that he intended to break the journey there. And this elderly
Frenchman, he declared, gave him a look, half of warning, half of
reproach, that to his dying day he could never forget; handed the bag
through the window of the moving train; and at the same time poured
into his ears a long sentence, spoken rapidly and low, of which he was
able to comprehend only the last few words: "a cause du sommeil et a
cause des chats."
In reply to Dr. Silence, whose singular psychic
acuteness at once seized upon this Frenchman as a vital point in the
adventure, Vezin admitted that the man had impressed him favourably
from the beginning, though without being able to explain why. They had
sat facing one another during the four hours of the journey, and though
no conversation had passed between them--Vezin was timid about his
stuttering French--he confessed that his eyes were being continually
drawn to his face, almost, he felt, to rudeness, and that each, by a
dozen nameless little politenesses and attentions, had evinced the
desire to be kind. The men liked each other and their personalities did
not clash, or would not have clashed had they chanced to come to terms
of acquaintance. The Frenchman, indeed, seemed to have exercised a
silent protective influence over the insignificant little Englishman,
and without words or gestures betrayed that he wished him well and
would gladly have been of service to him.
"And this sentence that he hurled at you after the
bag?" asked John Silence, smiling that peculiarly sympathetic smile
that always melted the prejudices of his patient, "were you unable to
follow it exactly?"
"It was so quick and low and vehement," explained
Vezin, in his small voice, "that I missed practically the whole of it.
I only caught the few words at the very end, because he spoke them so
clearly, and his face was bent down out of the carriage window so near
"'A cause du sommeil et a cause des chats'?"
repeated Dr. Silence, as though half speaking to himself.
"That's it exactly," said Vezin; "which, I take it,
means something like 'because of sleep and because of the cats,'
"Certainly, that's how I should translate it," the
doctor observed shortly, evidently not wishing to interrupt more than
"And the rest of the sentence--all the first part I
couldn't understand, I mean--was a warning not to do something--not to
stop in the town, or at some particular place in the town, perhaps.
That was the impression it made on me."
Then, of course, the train rushed off, and left
Vezin standing on the platform alone and rather forlorn.
The little town climbed in straggling fashion up a
sharp hill rising out of the plain at the back of the station, and was
crowned by the twin towers of the ruined cathedral peeping over the
summit. From the station itself it looked uninteresting and modern, but
the fact was that the mediaeval position lay out of sight just beyond
the crest. And once he reached the top and entered the old streets, he
stepped clean out of modern life into a bygone century. The noise and
bustle of the crowded train seemed days away. The spirit of this silent
hill-town, remote from tourists and motor-cars, dreaming its own quiet
life under the autumn sun, rose up and cast its spell upon him. Long
before he recognised this spell he acted under it. He walked softly,
almost on tiptoe, down the winding narrow streets where the gables all
but met over his head, and he entered the doorway of the solitary inn
with a deprecating and modest demeanour that was in itself an apology
for intruding upon the place and disturbing its dream.
At first, however, Vezin said, he noticed very
little of all this. The attempt at analysis came much later. What
struck him then was only the delightful contrast of the silence and
peace after the dust and noisy rattle of the train. He felt soothed and
stroked like a cat.
"Like a cat, you said?" interrupted John Silence,
quickly catching him up.
"Yes. At the very start I felt that." He laughed
apologetically. "I felt as though the warmth and the stillness and the
comfort made me purr. It seemed to be the general mood of the whole
The inn, a rambling ancient house, the atmosphere of the old
coaching days still about it, apparently did not welcome him too
warmly. He felt he was only tolerated, he said. But it was cheap and
comfortable, and the delicious cup of afternoon tea he ordered at once
made him feel really very pleased with himself for leaving the train in
this bold, original way. For to him it had seemed bold and original. He
felt something of a dog. His room, too, soothed him with its dark
panelling and low irregular ceiling, and the long sloping passage that
led to it seemed the natural pathway to a real Chamber of Sleep--a
little dim cubby hole out of the world where noise could not enter. It
looked upon the courtyard at the back. It was all very charming, and
made him think of himself as dressed in very soft velvet somehow, and
the floors seemed padded, the walls provided with cushions. The sounds
of the streets could not penetrate there. It was an atmosphere of
absolute rest that surrounded him.
On engaging the two-franc room he had interviewed
the only person who seemed to be about that sleepy afternoon, an
elderly waiter with Dundreary whiskers and a drowsy courtesy, who had
ambled lazily towards him across the stone yard; but on coming
downstairs again for a little promenade in the town before dinner he
encountered the proprietress herself. She was a large woman whose
hands, feet, and features seemed to swim towards him out of a sea of
person. They emerged, so to speak. But she had great dark, vivacious
eyes that counteracted the bulk of her body, and betrayed the fact that
in reality she was both vigorous and alert. When he first caught sight
of her she was knitting in a low chair against the sunlight of the
wall, and something at once made him see her as a great tabby cat,
dozing, yet awake, heavily sleepy, and yet at the same time prepared
for instantaneous action. A great mouser on the watch occurred to him.
She took him in with a single comprehensive
glance that was polite without being cordial. Her neck, he noticed, was
extraordinarily supple in spite of its proportions, for it turned so
easily to follow him, and the head it carried bowed so very flexibly.
"But when she looked at me, you know," said Vezin,
with that little apologetic smile in his brown eyes, and that faintly
deprecating gesture of the shoulders that was characteristic of him,
"the odd notion came to me that really she had intended to make quite a
different movement, and that with a single bound she could have leaped
at me across the width of that stone yard and pounced upon me like some
huge cat upon a mouse."
He laughed a little soft laugh, and Dr. Silence made
a note in his book without interrupting, while Vezin proceeded in a
tone as though he feared he had already told too much and more than we
"Very soft, yet very active she was, for all her size and mass, and
I felt she knew what I was doing even after I had passed and was behind
her back. She spoke to me, and her voice was smooth and running. She
asked if I had my luggage, and was comfortable in my room, and then
added that dinner was at seven o'clock, and that they were very early
people in this little country town. Clearly, she intended to convey
that late hours were not encouraged."
Evidently, she contrived by voice and manner to give
him the impression that here he would be "managed," that everything
would be arranged and planned for him, and that he had nothing to do
but fall into the groove and obey. No decided action or sharp personal
effort would be looked for from him. It was the very reverse of the
train. He walked quietly out into the street feeling soothed and
peaceful. He realised that he was in a milieu that suited him
and stroked him the right way. It was so much easier to be obedient. He
began to purr again, and to feel that all the town purred with him.
About the streets of that little town he meandered
gently, falling deeper and deeper into the spirit of repose that
characterised it. With no special aim he wandered up and down, and to
and fro. The September sunshine fell slantingly over the roofs. Down
winding alleyways, fringed with tumbling gables and open casements, he
caught fairylike glimpses of the great plain below, and of the meadows
and yellow copses lying like a dream-map in the haze. The spell of the
past held very potently here, he felt.
The streets were full of picturesquely garbed men
and women, all busy enough, going their respective ways; but no one
took any notice of him or turned to stare at his obviously English
appearance. He was even able to forget that with his tourist appearance
he was a false note in a charming picture, and he melted more and more
into the scene, feeling delightfully insignificant and unimportant and
unself-conscious. It was like becoming part of a softly coloured dream
which he did not even realise to be a dream.
On the eastern side the hill fell away more sharply, and the plain
below ran off rather suddenly into a sea of gathering shadows in which
the little patches of woodland looked like islands and the stubble
fields like deep water. Here he strolled along the old ramparts of
ancient fortifications that once had been formidable, but now were only
vision-like with their charming mingling of broken grey walls and
wayward vine and ivy. From the broad coping on which he sat for a
moment, level with the rounded tops of clipped plane trees, he saw the
esplanade far below lying in shadow. Here and there a yellow sunbeam
crept in and lay upon the fallen yellow leaves, and from the height he
looked down and saw that the townsfolk were walking to and fro in the
cool of the evening. He could just hear the sound of their slow
footfalls, and the murmur of their voices floated up to him through the
gaps between the trees. The figures looked like shadows as he caught
glimpses of their quiet movements far below.
He sat there for some time pondering, bathed in the
waves of murmurs and half-lost echoes that rose to his ears, muffled by
the leaves of the plane trees. The whole town, and the little hill out
of which it grew as naturally as an ancient wood, seemed to him like a
being lying there half asleep on the plain and crooning to itself as it
And, presently, as he sat lazily melting into its
dream, a sound of horns and strings and wood instruments rose to his
ears, and the town band began to play at the far end of the crowded
terrace below to the accompaniment of a very soft, deep-throated drum.
Vezin was very sensitive to music, knew about it intelligently, and had
even ventured, unknown to his friends, upon the composition of quiet
melodies with low-running chords which he played to himself with the
soft pedal when no one was about. And this music floating up through
the trees from an invisible and doubtless very picturesque band of the
townspeople wholly charmed him. He recognised nothing that they played,
and it sounded as though they were simply improvising without a
conductor. No definitely marked time ran through the pieces, which
ended and began oddly after the fashion of wind through an AEolian
harp. It was part of the place and scene, just as the dying sunlight
and faintly breathing wind were part of the scene and hour, and the
mellow notes of old-fashioned plaintive horns, pierced here and there
by the sharper strings, all half smothered by the continuous booming of
the deep drum, touched his soul with a curiously potent spell that was
almost too engrossing to be quite pleasant.
There was a certain queer sense of bewitchment in it
all. The music seemed to him oddly unartificial. It made him think of
trees swept by the wind, of night breezes singing among wires and
chimney-stacks, or in the rigging of invisible ships; or--and the
simile leaped up in his thoughts with a sudden sharpness of
suggestion--a chorus of animals, of wild creatures, somewhere in
desolate places of the world, crying and singing as animals will, to
the moon. He could fancy he heard the wailing, half-human cries of cats
upon the tiles at night, rising and falling with weird intervals of
sound, and this music, muffled by distance and the trees, made him
think of a queer company of these creatures on some roof far away in
the sky, uttering their solemn music to one another and the moon in
It was, he felt at the time, a singular image to
occur to him, yet it expressed his sensation pictorially better than
anything else. The instruments played such impossibly odd intervals,
and the crescendos and diminuendos were so very suggestive of cat-land
on the tiles at night, rising swiftly, dropping without warning to deep
notes again, and all in such strange confusion of discords and accords.
But, at the same time a plaintive sweetness resulted on the whole, and
the discords of these half-broken instruments were so singular that
they did not distress his musical soul like fiddles out of tune.
He listened a long time, wholly surrendering himself
as his character was, and then strolled homewards in the dusk as the
air grew chilly.
"There was nothing to alarm?" put in Dr. Silence briefly.
"Absolutely nothing," said Vezin; "but you know it
was all so fantastical and charming that my imagination was profoundly
impressed. Perhaps, too," he continued, gently explanatory, "it was
this stirring of my imagination that caused other impressions; for, as
I walked back, the spell of the place began to steal over me in a dozen
ways, though all intelligible ways. But there were other things I could
not account for in the least, even then."
"Incidents, you mean?"
"Hardly incidents, I think. A lot of vivid
sensations crowded themselves upon my mind and I could trace them to no
causes. It was just after sunset and the tumbled old buildings traced
magical outlines against an opalescent sky of gold and red. The dusk
was running down the twisted streets. All round the hill the plain
pressed in like a dim sea, its level rising with the darkness. The
spell of this kind of scene, you know, can be very moving, and it was
so that night. Yet I felt that what came to me had nothing directly to
do with the mystery and wonder of the scene."
"Not merely the subtle transformations of the spirit
that come with beauty," put in the doctor, noticing his hesitation.
"Exactly," Vezin went on, duly encouraged and no
longer so fearful of our smiles at his expense. "The impressions came
from somewhere else. For instance, down the busy main street where men
and women were bustling home from work, shopping at stalls and barrows,
idly gossiping in groups, and all the rest of it, I saw that I aroused
no interest and that no one turned to stare at me as a foreigner and
stranger. I was utterly ignored, and my presence among them excited no
special interest or attention.
"And then, quite suddenly, it dawned upon me with
conviction that all the time this indifference and inattention were
merely feigned. Everybody as a matter of fact was watching me closely.
Every movement I made was known and observed. Ignoring me was all a
pretence--an elaborate pretence."
He paused a moment and looked at us to see if we were smiling, and
then continued, reassured--
"It is useless to ask me how I noticed this, because I simply cannot
explain it. But the discovery gave me something of a shock. Before I
got back to the inn, however, another curious thing rose up strongly in
my mind and forced my recognition of it as true. And this, too, I may
as well say at once, was equally inexplicable to me. I mean I can only
give you the fact, as fact it was to me."
The little man left his chair and stood on the mat
before the fire. His diffidence lessened from now onwards, as he lost
himself again in the magic of the old adventure. His eyes shone a
little already as he talked.
"Well," he went on, his soft voice rising somewhat
with his excitement, "I was in a shop when it came to me first--though
the idea must have been at work for a long time subconsciously to
appear in so complete a form all at once. I was buying socks, I think,"
he laughed, "and struggling with my dreadful French, when it struck me
that the woman in the shop did not care two pins whether I bought
anything or not. She was indifferent whether she made a sale or did not
make a sale. She was only pretending to sell.
"This sounds a very small and fanciful incident to
build upon what follows. But really it was not small. I mean it was the
spark that lit the line of powder and ran along to the big blaze in my
"For the whole town, I suddenly realised, was
something other than I so far saw it. The real activities and interests
of the people were elsewhere and otherwise than appeared. Their true
lives lay somewhere out of sight behind the scenes. Their busy-ness was
but the outward semblance that masked their actual purposes. They
bought and sold, and ate and drank, and walked about the streets, yet
all the while the main stream of their existence lay somewhere beyond
my ken, underground, in secret places. In the shops and at the stalls
they did not care whether I purchased their articles or not; at the
inn, they were indifferent to my staying or going; their life lay
remote from my own, springing from hidden, mysterious sources, coursing
out of sight, unknown. It was all a great elaborate pretence, assumed
possibly for my benefit, or possibly for purposes of their own. But the
main current of their energies ran elsewhere. I almost felt as an
unwelcome foreign substance might be expected to feel when it has found
its way into the human system and the whole body organises itself to
eject it or to absorb it. The town was doing this very thing to me.
"This bizarre notion presented itself forcibly to my
mind as I walked home to the inn, and I began busily to wonder wherein
the true life of this town could lie and what were the actual interests
and activities of its hidden life.
"And, now that my eyes were partly opened, I noticed
other things too that puzzled me, first of which, I think, was the
extraordinary silence of the whole place. Positively, the town was
muffled. Although the streets were paved with cobbles the people moved
about silently, softly, with padded feet, like cats. Nothing made
noise. All was hushed, subdued, muted. The very voices were quiet,
low-pitched like purring. Nothing clamorous, vehement or emphatic
seemed able to live in the drowsy atmosphere of soft dreaming that
soothed this little hill-town into its sleep. It was like the woman at
the inn--an outward repose screening intense inner activity and purpose.
"Yet there was no sign of lethargy or sluggishness
anywhere about it. The people were active and alert. Only a magical and
uncanny softness lay over them all like a spell."
Vezin passed his hand across his eyes for a moment
as though the memory had become very vivid. His voice had run off into
a whisper so that we heard the last part with difficulty. He was
telling a true thing obviously, yet something that he both liked and
"I went back to the inn," he continued presently in
a louder voice, "and dined. I felt a new strange world about me. My old
world of reality receded. Here, whether I liked it or no, was something
new and incomprehensible. I regretted having left the train so
impulsively. An adventure was upon me, and I loathed adventures as
foreign to my nature. Moreover, this was the beginning apparently of an
adventure somewhere deep within me, in a region I could not check or
measure, and a feeling of alarm mingled itself with my wonder--alarm
for the stability of what I had for forty years recognised as my
"I went upstairs to bed, my mind teeming with
thoughts that were unusual to me, and of rather a haunting description.
By way of relief I kept thinking of that nice, prosaic noisy train and
all those wholesome, blustering passengers. I almost wished I were with
them again. But my dreams took me elsewhere. I dreamed of cats, and
soft-moving creatures, and the silence of life in a dim muffled world
beyond the senses."
Vezin stayed on from day to day, indefinitely, much longer than he
had intended. He felt in a kind of dazed, somnolent condition. He did
nothing in particular, but the place fascinated him and he could not
decide to leave. Decisions were always very difficult for him and he
sometimes wondered how he had ever brought himself to the point of
leaving the train. It seemed as though some one else must have arranged
it for him, and once or twice his thoughts ran to the swarthy Frenchman
who had sat opposite. If only he could have understood that long
sentence ending so strangely with "a cause du sommeil et un cause
des chats." He wondered what it all meant.
Meanwhile the hushed softness of the town held him
prisoner and he sought in his muddling, gentle way to find out where
the mystery lay, and what it was all about. But his limited French and
his constitutional hatred of active investigation made it hard for him
to buttonhole anybody and ask questions. He was content to observe, and
watch, and remain negative.
The weather held on calm and hazy, and this just
suited him. He wandered about the town till he knew every street and
alley. The people suffered him to come and go without let or hindrance,
though it became clearer to him every day that he was never free
himself from observation. The town watched him as a cat watches a
mouse. And he got no nearer to finding out what they were all so busy
with or where the main stream of their activities lay. This remained
hidden. The people were as soft and mysterious as cats.
But that he was continually under observation became
more evident from day to day.
For instance, when he strolled to the end of the
town and entered a little green public garden beneath the ramparts and
seated himself upon one of the empty benches in the sun, he was quite
alone--at first. Not another seat was occupied; the little park was
empty, the paths deserted. Yet, within ten minutes of his coming, there
must have been fully twenty persons scattered about him, some strolling
aimlessly along the gravel walks, staring at the flowers, and others
seated on the wooden benches enjoying the sun like himself. None of
them appeared to take any notice of him; yet he understood quite well
they had all come there to watch. They kept him under close
observation. In the street they had seemed busy enough, hurrying upon
various errands; yet these were suddenly all forgotten and they had
nothing to do but loll and laze in the sun, their duties unremembered.
Five minutes after he left, the garden was again deserted, the seats
vacant. But in the crowded street it was the same thing again; he was
never alone. He was ever in their thoughts.
By degrees, too, he began to see how it was he was
so cleverly watched, yet without the appearance of it. The people did
nothing directly. They behaved obliquely. He laughed in
his mind as the thought thus clothed itself in words, but the phrase
exactly described it. They looked at him from angles which naturally
should have led their sight in another direction altogether. Their
movements were oblique, too, so far as these concerned himself. The
straight, direct thing was not their way evidently. They did nothing
obviously. If he entered a shop to buy, the woman walked instantly away
and busied herself with something at the farther end of the counter,
though answering at once when he spoke, showing that she knew he was
there and that this was only her way of attending to him. It was the
fashion of the cat she followed. Even in the dining-room of the inn,
the be-whiskered and courteous waiter, lithe and silent in all his
movements, never seemed able to come straight to his table for an order
or a dish. He came by zigzags, indirectly, vaguely, so that he appeared
to be going to another table altogether, and only turned suddenly at
the last moment, and was there beside him.
Vezin smiled curiously to himself as he described
how he began to realize these things. Other tourists there were none in
the hostel, but he recalled the figures of one or two old men,
inhabitants, who took their dejeuner and dinner there, and
remembered how fantastically they entered the room in similar fashion.
First, they paused in the doorway, peering about the room, and then,
after a temporary inspection, they came in, as it were, sideways,
keeping close to the walls so that he wondered which table they were
making for, and at the last minute making almost a little quick run to
their particular seats. And again he thought of the ways and methods of
Other small incidents, too, impressed him as all
part of this queer, soft town with its muffled, indirect life, for the
way some of the people appeared and disappeared with extraordinary
swiftness puzzled him exceedingly. It may have been all perfectly
natural, he knew, yet he could not make it out how the alleys swallowed
them up and shot them forth in a second of time when there were no
visible doorways or openings near enough to explain the phenomenon.
Once he followed two elderly women who, he felt, had been particularly
examining him from across the street--quite near the inn this was--and
saw them turn the corner a few feet only in front of him. Yet when he
sharply followed on their heels he saw nothing but an utterly deserted
alley stretching in front of him with no sign of a living thing. And
the only opening through which they could have escaped was a porch some
fifty yards away, which not the swiftest human runner could have
reached in time.
And in just such sudden fashion people appeared, when he never
expected them. Once when he heard a great noise of fighting going on
behind a low wall, and hurried up to see what was going on, what should
he see but a group of girls and women engaged in vociferous
conversation which instantly hushed itself to the normal whispering
note of the town when his head appeared over the wall. And even then
none of them turned to look at him directly, but slunk off with the
most unaccountable rapidity into doors and sheds across the yard. And
their voices, he thought, had sounded so like, so strangely like, the
angry snarling of fighting animals, almost of cats.
The whole spirit of the town, however, continued to
evade him as something elusive, protean, screened from the outer world,
and at the same time intensely, genuinely vital; and, since he now
formed part of its life, this concealment puzzled and irritated him;
more--it began rather to frighten him.
Out of the mists that slowly gathered about his
ordinary surface thoughts, there rose again the idea that the
inhabitants were waiting for him to declare himself, to take an
attitude, to do this, or to do that; and that when he had done so they
in their turn would at length make some direct response, accepting or
rejecting him. Yet the vital matter concerning which his decision was
awaited came no nearer to him.
Once or twice he purposely followed little
processions or groups of the citizens in order to find out, if
possible, on what purpose they were bent; but they always discovered
him in time and dwindled away, each individual going his or her own
way. It was always the same: he never could learn what their main
interest was. The cathedral was ever empty, the old church of St.
Martin, at the other end of the town, deserted. They shopped because
they had to, and not because they wished to. The booths stood
neglected, the stalls unvisited, the little cafes desolate. Yet
the streets were always full, the townsfolk ever on the bustle.
"Can it be," he thought to himself, yet with a
deprecating laugh that he should have dared to think anything so odd,
"can it be that these people are people of the twilight, that they live
only at night their real life, and come out honestly only with the
dusk? That during the day they make a sham though brave pretence, and
after the sun is down their true life begins? Have they the souls of
night-things, and is the whole blessed town in the hands of the cats?"
The fancy somehow electrified him with little shocks
of shrinking and dismay. Yet, though he affected to laugh, he knew that
he was beginning to feel more than uneasy, and that strange forces were
tugging with a thousand invisible cords at the very centre of his
being. Something utterly remote from his ordinary life, something that
had not waked for years, began faintly to stir in his soul, sending
feelers abroad into his brain and heart, shaping queer thoughts and
penetrating even into certain of his minor actions. Something
exceedingly vital to himself, to his soul, hung in the balance.
And, always when he returned to the inn about the hour
of sunset, he saw the figures of the townsfolk stealing through the
dusk from their shop doors, moving sentry-wise to and fro at the
corners of the streets, yet always vanishing silently like shadows at
his near approach. And as the inn invariably closed its doors at ten
o'clock he had never yet found the opportunity he rather half-heartedly
sought to see for himself what account the town could give of itself at
"--a cause du sommeil et a cause des chats"--the
words now rang in his ears more and more often, though still as yet
without any definite meaning.
Moreover, something made him sleep like the dead.
It was, I think, on the fifth day--though in this
detail his story sometimes varied--that he made a definite discovery
which increased his alarm and brought him up to a rather sharp climax.
Before that he had already noticed that a change was going forward and
certain subtle transformations being brought about in his character
which modified several of his minor habits. And he had affected to
ignore them. Here, however, was something he could no longer ignore;
and it startled him.
At the best of times he was never very positive,
always negative rather, compliant and acquiescent; yet, when necessity
arose he was capable of reasonably vigorous action and could take a
strongish decision. The discovery he now made that brought him up with
such a sharp turn was that this power had positively dwindled to
nothing. He found it impossible to make up his mind. For, on this fifth
day, he realised that he had stayed long enough in the town and that
for reasons he could only vaguely define to himself it was wiser and
safer that he should leave.
And he found that he could not leave!
This is difficult to describe in words, and it was more by gesture
and the expression of his face that he conveyed to Dr. Silence the
state of impotence he had reached. All this spying and watching, he
said, had as it were spun a net about his feet so that he was trapped
and powerless to escape; he felt like a fly that had blundered into the
intricacies of a great web; he was caught, imprisoned, and could not
get away. It was a distressing sensation. A numbness had crept over his
will till it had become almost incapable of decision. The mere thought
of vigorous action--action towards escape--began to terrify him. All
the currents of his life had turned inwards upon himself, striving to
bring to the surface something that lay buried almost beyond reach,
determined to force his recognition of something he had long
forgotten--forgotten years upon years, centuries almost ago. It seemed
as though a window deep within his being would presently open and
reveal an entirely new world, yet somehow a world that was not
unfamiliar. Beyond that, again, he fancied a great Curtain hung; and
when that too rolled up he would see still farther into this region and
at last understand something of the secret life of these extraordinary
"Is this why they wait and watch?" he asked himself
with rather a shaking heart, "for the time when I shall join them--or
refuse to join them? Does the decision rest with me after all, and not
And it was at this point that the sinister character
of the adventure first really declared itself, and he became genuinely
alarmed. The stability of his rather fluid little personality was at
stake, he felt, and something in his heart turned coward:
Why otherwise should he have suddenly taken to
walking stealthily, silently, making as little sound as possible, for
ever looking behind him? Why else should he have moved almost on tiptoe
about the passages of the practically deserted inn, and when he was
abroad have found himself deliberately taking advantage of what cover
presented itself? And why, if he was not afraid, should the wisdom of
staying indoors after sundown have suddenly occurred to him as
eminently desirable? Why, indeed?
And, when John Silence gently pressed him for an
explanation of these things, he admitted apologetically that he had
none to give.
"It was simply that I feared something might happen
to me unless I kept a sharp look-out. I felt afraid. It was
instinctive," was all he could say. "I got the impression that the
whole town was after me--wanted me for something; and that if it got me
I should lose myself, or at least the Self I knew, in some unfamiliar
state of consciousness. But I am not a psychologist, you know," he
added meekly, "and I cannot define it better than that."
It was while lounging in the courtyard half an hour
before the evening meal that Vezin made this discovery, and he at once
went upstairs to his quiet room at the end of the winding passage to
think it over alone. In the yard it was empty enough, true, but there
was always the possibility that the big woman whom he dreaded would
come out of some door, with her pretence of knitting, to sit and watch
him. This had happened several times, and he could not endure the sight
of her. He still remembered his original fancy, bizarre though it was,
that she would spring upon him the moment his back was turned and land
with one single crushing leap upon his neck. Of course it was nonsense,
but then it haunted him, and once an idea begins to do that it ceases
to be nonsense. It has clothed itself in reality.
He went upstairs 'accordingly. It was dusk, and the
oil lamps had not yet been lit in the passages. He stumbled over the
uneven surface of the ancient flooring, passing the dim outlines of
doors along the corridor-- doors that he had never once seen
opened--rooms that seemed never occupied. He moved, as his habit now
was, stealthily and on tiptoe.
Half-way down the last passage to his own chamber
there was a sharp turn, and it was just here, while groping round the
walls with outstretched hands, that his fingers touched something that
was not wall-- something that moved. It was soft and warm in texture,
indescribably fragrant, and about the height of his shoulder; and he
immediately thought of a furry, sweet-smelling kitten. The next minute
he knew it was something quite different.
Instead of investigating, however,--his nerves must
have been too overwrought for that, he said,--he shrank back as closely
as possible against the wall on the other side. The thing, whatever it
was, slipped past him with a sound of rustling and, retreating with
light footsteps down the passage behind him, was gone. A breath of
warm, scented air was wafted to his nostrils.
Vezin caught his breath for an instant and paused,
stockstill, half leaning against the wall--and then almost ran down the
remaining distance and entered his room with a rush, locking the door
hurriedly behind him. Yet it was not fear that made him run: it was
excitement, pleasurable excitement. His nerves were tingling, and a
delicious glow made itself felt all over his body. In a flash it came
to him that this was just what he had felt twenty-five years ago as a
boy when he was in love for the first time. Warm currents of life ran
all over him and mounted to his brain in a whirl of soft delight. His
mood was suddenly become tender, melting, loving.
The room was quite dark, and he collapsed upon the
sofa by the window, wondering what had happened to him and what it all
meant. But , the only thing he understood clearly in that instant was
that something in him had swiftly, magically changed: he no longer
wished to leave, or to argue with himself about leaving. The
encounter in the passage-way had changed all that. The strange perfume
of it still hung about him, bemusing his heart and mind. For he knew
that it was a girl who had passed him, a girl's face that his fingers
had brushed in the darkness, and he felt in some extraordinary way as
though he had been actually kissed by her, kissed full upon the lips.
Trembling, he sat upon the sofa by the window and
struggled to collect his thoughts. He was utterly unable to understand
how the mere passing of a girl in the darkness of a narrow passage-way
could communicate so electric a thrill to his whole being that he still
shook with the sweetness of it. Yet, there it was! And he found it as
useless to deny as to attempt analysis. Some ancient fire had entered
his veins, and now ran coursing through his blood; and that he was
forty-five instead of twenty did not matter one little jot. Out of all
the inner turmoil and confusion emerged the one salient fact that the
mere atmosphere, the merest casual touch, of this girl, unseen, unknown
in the darkness, had been sufficient to stir dormant fires in the
centre of his heart, and rouse his whole being from a state of feeble
sluggishness to one of tearing and tumultuous excitement.
After a time, however, the number of Vezin's years
began to assert their cumulative power; he grew calmer, and when a
knock came at length upon his door and he heard the waiter's voice
suggesting that dinner was nearly over, he pulled himself together and
slowly made his way downstairs into the dining-room.
Every one looked up as he entered, for he was very
late, but he took his customary seat in the far corner and began to
eat. The trepidation was still in his nerves, but the fact that he had
passed through the courtyard and hall without catching sight of a
petticoat served to calm him a little. He ate so fast that he had
almost caught up with the current stage of the table d'h6te, when a
slight commotion in the room drew his attention.
His chair was so placed that the door and the
greater portion of the long salle a manger were behind him, yet
it was not necessary to turn round to know that the same person he had
passed in the dark passage had now come into the room. He felt the
presence long before he heard or saw any one. Then he became aware that
the old men, the only other guests, were rising one by one in their
places, and exchanging greetings with some one who passed among them
from table to table. And when at length he turned with his heart
beating furiously to ascertain for himself, he saw the form of a young
girl, lithe and slim, moving down the centre of the room and making
straight for his own table in the corner. She moved wonderfully, with
sinuous grace, like a young panther, and her approach filled him with
such delicious bewilderment that he was utterly unable to tell at first
what her face was like, or discover what it was about the whole
presentment of the creature that filled him anew with trepidation and
"Ah, Ma'mselle est de retour!" he heard the old
waiter murmur at his side, and he was just able to take in that she was
the daughter of the proprietress, when she was upon him, and he heard
her voice. She was addressing him. Something of red lips he saw and
laughing white teeth, and stray wisps of fine dark hair about the
temples; but all the rest was a dream in which his own emotion rose
like a thick cloud before his eyes and prevented his seeing accurately,
or knowing exactly what he did. He was aware that she greeted him with
a charming little bow; that her beautiful large eyes looked searchingly
into his own; that the perfume he had noticed in the dark passage again
assailed his nostrils, and that she was bending a little towards him
and leaning with one hand on the table at this side. She was quite
close to him--that was the chief thing he knew--explaining that she had
been asking after the comfort of her mother's guests, and now was
introducing herself to the latest arrival--himself.
"M'sieur has already been here a few days," he heard
the waiter say; and then her own voice, sweet as singing, replied--
"Ah, but M'sieur is not going to leave us just yet,
I hope. My mother is too old to look after the comfort of our guests
properly, but now I am here I will remedy all that." She laughed
deliciously. "M'sieur shall be well looked after."
Vezin, struggling with his emotion and desire to be
polite, half rose to acknowledge the pretty speech, and to stammer some
sort of reply, but as he did so his hand by chance touched her own that
was resting upon the table, and a shock that was for all the world like
a shock of electricity, passed from her skin into his body. His soul
wavered and shook deep within him. He caught her eyes fixed upon his
own with a look of most curious intentness, and the next moment he knew
that he had sat down wordless again on his chair, that the girl was
already halfway across the room, and that he was trying to eat his
salad with a dessert-spoon and a knife.
Longing for her return, and yet dreading it, he
gulped down the remainder of his dinner, and then went at once to his
bedroom to be alone with his thoughts. This time the passages were
lighted, and he suffered no exciting contretemps; yet the winding
corridor was dim with shadows, and the last portion, from the bend of
the walls onwards, seemed longer than he had ever known it. It ran
downhill like the pathway on a mountain side, and as he tiptoed softly
down it he felt that by rights it ought to have led him clean out of
the house into the heart of a great forest. The world was singing with
him. Strange fancies filled his brain, and once in the room, with the
door securely locked, he did not light the candles, but sat by the open
window thinking long, long thoughts that came unbidden in troops to his
This part of the story he told to Dr. Silence, without special
coaxing, it is true, yet with much stammering embarrassment. He could
not in the least understand, he said, how the girl had managed to
affect him so profoundly, and even before he had set eyes upon her. For
her mere proximity in the darkness had been sufficient to set him on
fire. He knew nothing of enchantments, and for years had been a
stranger to anything approaching tender relations with any member of
the opposite sex, for he was encased in shyness, and realised his
overwhelming defects only too well. Yet this bewitching young creature
came to him deliberately. Her manner was unmistakable, and she sought
him out on every possible occasion. Chaste and sweet she was
undoubtedly, yet frankly inviting; and she won him utterly with the
first glance of her shining eyes, even if she had not already done so
in the dark merely by the magic of her invisible presence.
"You felt she was altogether wholesome and good!"
queried the doctor. "You had no reaction of any sort--for instance, of
Vezin looked up sharply with one of his inimitable
little apologetic smiles. It was some time before he replied. The mere
memory of the adventure had suffused his shy face with blushes, and his
brown eyes sought the floor again before he answered.
"I don't think I can quite say that," he explained
presently. "I acknowledged certain qualms, sitting up in my room
afterwards. A conviction grew upon me that there was something about
her--how shall I express it?--well, something unholy. It is not
impurity in any sense, physical or mental, that I mean, but something
quite indefinable that gave me a vague sensation of the creeps. She
drew me, and at the same time repelled me, more than--than----"
He hesitated, blushing furiously, and unable to finish the sentence.
"Nothing like it has ever come to me before or
since," he concluded, with lame confusion. "I suppose it was, as you
suggested just now, something of an enchantment. At any rate, it was
strong enough to make me feel that I would stay in that awful little
haunted town for years if only I could see her every day, hear her
voice, watch her wonderful movements, and sometimes, perhaps, touch her
"Can you explain to me what you felt was the source
of her power?" John Silence asked, looking purposely anywhere but at
"I am surprised that you should ask me such a
question," answered Vezin, with the nearest approach to dignity he
could manage. "I think no man can describe to another convincingly
wherein lies the magic of the woman who ensnares him. I certainly
cannot. I can only say this slip of a girl bewitched me, and the mere
knowledge that she was living and sleeping in the same house filled me
with an extraordinary sense of delight.
"But there's one thing I can tell you," he went on
earnestly, his eyes aglow, "namely, that she seemed to sum up and
synthesise in herself all the strange hidden forces that operated so
mysteriously in the town and its inhabitants. She had the silken
movements of the panther, going smoothly, silently to and fro, and the
same indirect, oblique methods as the townsfolk, screening, like them,
secret purposes of her own--purposes that I was sure had me for
their objective. She kept me, to my terror and delight, ceaselessly
under observation, yet so carelessly, so consummately, that another man
less sensitive, if I may say so"--he made a deprecating gesture--"or
less prepared by what had gone before, would never have noticed it at
all. She was always still, always reposeful, yet she seemed to be
everywhere at once, so that I never could escape from her. I was
continually meeting the stare and laughter of her great eyes, in the
corners of the rooms, in the passages, calmly looking at me through the
windows, or in the busiest parts of the public streets."
Their intimacy, it seems, grew very rapidly after
this first encounter which had so violently disturbed the little man's
equilibrium. He was naturally very prim, and prim folk live mostly in
so small a world that anything violently unusual may shake them clean
out of it, and they therefore instinctively distrust originality. But
Vezin began to forget his primness after awhile. The girl was always
modestly behaved, and as her mother's representative she naturally had
to do with the guests in the hotel. It was not out of the way that a
spirit of camaraderie should spring up. Besides, she was young, she was
charmingly pretty, she was French, and--she obviously liked him.
At the same time, there was something
indescribable--a certain indefinable atmosphere of other places, other
times--that made him try hard to remain on his guard, and sometimes
made him catch his breath with a sudden start. It was all rather like a
delirious dream, half delight, half dread, he confided in a whisper to
Dr. Silence; and more than once he hardly knew quite what he was doing
or saying, as though he were driven forward by impulses he scarcely
recognised as his own.
And though the thought of leaving presented itself
again and again to his mind, it was each time with less insistence, so
that he stayed on from day to day, becoming more and more a part of the
sleepy life of this dreamy mediaeval town, losing more and more of his
recognisable personality. Soon, he felt, the Curtain within would roll
up with an awful rush, and he would find himself suddenly admitted into
the secret purposes of the hidden life that lay behind it all. Only, by
that time, he would have become transformed into an entirely different
And, meanwhile, he noticed various little signs of
the intention to make his stay attractive to him: flowers in his
bedroom, a more comfortable arm-chair in the corner, and even special
little extra dishes on his private table in the dining-room.
Conversations, too, with "Mademoiselle Use" became more and more
frequent and pleasant, and although they seldom travelled beyond the
weather, or the details of the town, the girl, he noticed, was never in
a hurry to bring them to an end, and often contrived to interject
little odd sentences that he never properly understood, yet felt to be
And it was these stray remarks, full of a meaning
that evaded him, that pointed to some hidden purpose of her own and
made him feel uneasy. They all had to do, he felt sure, with reasons
for his staying on in the town indefinitely.
"And has M'sieur not even yet come to a decision?"
she said softly in his ear, sitting beside him in the sunny yard before dejeuner,
the acquaintance having progressed with significant
rapidity. "Because, if it's so difficult, we must all try together to
The question startled him, following upon his own
thoughts. It was spoken with a pretty laugh, and a stray bit of hair
across one eye, as she turned and peered at him half roguishly.
Possibly he did not quite understand the French of it, for her near
presence always confused his small knowledge of the language
distressingly. Yet the words, and her manner, and something else that
lay behind it all in her mind, frightened him. It gave such point to
his feeling that the town was waiting for him to make his mind up on
some important matter.
At the same time, her voice, and the fact that she
was there so close beside him in her soft dark dress, thrilled him
"It is true I find it difficult to leave," he
stammered, losing his way deliciously in the depths of her eyes, "and
especially now that Mademoiselle Use has come."
He was surprised at the success of his sentence, and
quite delighted with the little gallantry of it. But at the same time
he could have bitten his tongue off for having said it.
"Then after all you like our little town, or you
would not be pleased to stay on," she said, ignoring the compliment.
"I am enchanted with it, and enchanted with you," he
cried, feeling that his tongue was somehow slipping beyond the control
of his brain. And he was on the verge of saying all manner of other
things of the wildest description, when the girl sprang lightly up from
her chair beside him, and made to go.
"It is soupe ci l'onion to-day!" she cried,
laughing back at him through the sunlight, "and I must go and see about
it. Otherwise, you know, M'sieur will not enjoy his dinner, and then,
perhaps, he will leave us!"
He watched her cross the courtyard, moving with all the grace and
lightness of the feline race, and her simple black dress clothed her,
he thought, exactly like the fur of the same supple species. She turned
once to laugh at him from the porch with the glass door, and then
stopped a moment to speak to her mother, who sat knitting as usual in
her corner seat just inside the hall-way.
But how was it, then, that the moment his eye fell
upon this ungainly woman, the pair of them appeared suddenly as other
than they were? Whence came that transforming dignity and sense of
power that enveloped them both as by magic? What was it about that
massive woman that made her appear instantly regal, and set her on a
throne in some dark and dreadful scenery, wielding a sceptre over the
red glare of some tempestuous orgy? And why did this slender stripling
of a girl, graceful as a willow, lithe as a young leopard, assume
suddenly an air of sinister majesty, and move with flame and smoke
about her head, and the darkness of night beneath her feet?
Vezin caught his breath and sat there transfixed.
Then, almost simultaneously with its appearance, the queer notion
vanished again, and the sunlight of day caught them both, and he heard
her laughing to her mother about the soupe l'onion, and
saw her glancing back at him over her dear little shoulder with a smile
that made him think of a dew-kissed rose bending lightly before summer
And, indeed, the onion soup was particularly
excellent that day, because he saw another cover laid at his small
table, and, with fluttering heart, heard the waiter murmur by way of
explanation that "Ma'mselle Use would honour M'sieur to-day at dejeuner,
as her custom sometimes is with her mother's guests."
So actually she sat by him all through that
delirious meal, talking quietly to him in easy French, seeing that he
was well looked after, mixing the salad-dressing, and even helping him
with her own hand. And, later in the afternoon, while he was smoking in
the courtyard, longing for a sight of her as soon as her duties were
done, she came again to his side, and when he rose to meet her, she
stood facing him a moment, full of a perplexing sweet shyness before
"My mother thinks you ought to know more of the
beauties of our little town, and I think so too! Would M'sieur like me
to be his guide, perhaps? I can show him everything, for our family has
lived here for many generations."
She had him by the hand, indeed, before he could
find a single word to express his pleasure, and led him, all
unresisting, out into the street, yet in such a way that it seemed
perfectly natural she should do so, and without the faintest suggestion
of boldness or immodesty. Her face glowed with the pleasure and
interest of it, and with her short dress and tumbled hair she looked
every bit the charming child of seventeen that she was, innocent and
playful, proud of her native town, and alive beyond her years to the
sense of its ancient beauty.
So they went over the town together, and she showed
him what she considered its chief interest: the tumble-down old house
where her forebears had lived; the sombre, aristocratic-looking mansion
where her mother's family dwelt for centuries, and the ancient
market-place where several hundred years before the witches had been
burnt by the score. She kept up a lively running stream of talk about
it all, of which he understood not a fiftieth part as he trudged along
by her side, cursing his forty-five years and feeling all the yearnings
of his early manhood revive and jeer at him. And, as she talked,
England and Surbiton seemed very far away indeed, almost in another age
of the world's history. Her voice touched something immeasurably old in
him, something that slept deep. It lulled the surface parts of his
consciousness to sleep, allowing what was far more ancient to awaken.
Like the town, with its elaborate pretence of modern active life, the
upper layers of his being became dulled, soothed, muffled, and what lay
underneath began to stir in its sleep. That big Curtain swayed a little
to and fro. Presently it might lift altogether. . . .
He began to understand a little better at last. The
mood of the town was reproducing itself in him. In proportion as his
ordinary external self became muffled, that inner secret life, that was
far more real and vital, asserted itself. And this girl was surely the
high-priestess of it all, the chief instrument of its accomplishment.
New thoughts, with new interpretations, flooded his mind as she walked
beside him through the winding streets, while the picturesque old
gabled town, softly coloured in the sunset, had never appeared to him
so wholly wonderful and seductive.
And only one curious incident came to disturb and
puzzle him, slight in itself, but utterly inexplicable, bringing white
terror into the child's face and a scream to her laughing lips. He had
merely pointed to a column of blue smoke that rose from the burning
autumn leaves and made a picture against the red roofs, and had then
run to the wall and called her to his side to watch the flames shooting
here and there through the heap of rubbish. Yet, at the sight of it, as
though taken by surprise, her face had altered dreadfully, and she had
turned and run like the wind, calling out wild sentences to him as she
ran, of which he had not understood a single word, except that the fire
apparently frightened her, and she wanted to get quickly away from it,
and to get him away too.
Yet five minutes later she was as calm and happy again
as though nothing had happened to alarm or waken troubled thoughts in
her, and they had both forgotten the incident.
They were leaning over the ruined ramparts together
listening to the weird music of the band as he had heard it the first
day of his arrival. It moved him again profoundly as it had done
before, and somehow he managed to find his tongue and his best French.
The girl leaned across the stones close beside him. No one was about.
Driven by some remorseless engine within he began to stammer
something--he hardly knew what--of his strange admiration for her.
Almost at the first word she sprang lightly off the wall and came up
smiling in front of him, just touching his knees as he sat there. She
was hatless as usual, and the sun caught her hair and one side of her
cheek and throat.
"Oh, I'm so glad!" she cried, clapping her little
hands softly in his face, "so very glad, because that means that if you
like me you must also like what I do, and what I belong to."
Already he regretted bitterly having lost control of
himself. Something in the phrasing of her sentence chilled him. He knew
the fear of embarking upon an unknown and dangerous sea.
"You will take part in our real life, I mean," she
added softly, with an indescribable coaxing of manner, as though she
noticed his shrinking. "You will come back to us."
Already this slip of a child seemed to dominate him;
he felt her power coming over him more and more; something emanated
from her that stole over his senses and made him aware that her
personality, for all its simple grace, held forces that were stately,
imposing, august. He saw her again moving through smoke and flame amid
broken and tempestuous scenery, alarmingly strong, her terrible mother
by her side. Dimly this shone through her smile and appearance of
"You will, I know," she repeated, holding him with her eyes.
They were quite alone up there on the ramparts, and
the sensation that she was overmastering him stirred a wild
sensuousness in his blood. The mingled abandon and reserve in her
attracted him furiously, and all of him that was man rose up and
resisted the creeping influence, at the same time acclaiming it with
the full delight of his forgotten youth. An irresistible desire came to
him to question her, to summon what still remained to him of his own
little personality in an effort to retain the right to his normal self.
The girl had grown quiet again, and was now leaning
on the broad wall close beside him, gazing out across the darkening
plain, her elbows on the coping, motionless as a figure carved in
stone. He took his courage in both hands.
"Tell me, Use," he said, unconsciously
imitating her own purring softness of voice, yet aware that he was
utterly in earnest, "what is the meaning of this town, and what is this
real life you speak of? And why is it that the people watch me from
morning to night? Tell me what it all means? And, tell me," he added
more quickly with passion in his voice, "what you really are--yourself?"
She turned her head and looked at him through
half-closed eyelids, her growing inner excitement betraying itself by
the faint colour that ran like a shadow across her face.
"It seems to me,"--he faltered oddly under her
gaze--"that I have some right to know----"
Suddenly she opened her eyes to the full. "You love
me, then?" she asked softly.
"I swear," he cried impetuously, moved as by the
force of a rising tide, "I never felt before--I have never known any
other girl who--"
"Then you have the right to know," she calmly
interrupted his confused confession, "for love shares all secrets."
She paused, and a thrill like fire ran swiftly
through him. Her words lifted him off the earth, and he felt a radiant
happiness, followed almost the same instant in horrible contrast by the
thought of death. He became aware that she had turned her eyes upon his
own and was speaking again.
"The real life I speak of," she whispered, "is the
old, old life within, the life of long ago, the life to which you, too,
once belonged, and to which you still belong."
A faint wave of memory troubled the deeps of his
soul as her low voice sank into him. What she was saying he knew
instinctively to be true, even though he could not as yet understand
its full purport. His present life seemed slipping from him as he
listened, merging his personality in one that was far older and
greater. It was this loss of his present self that brought to him the
thought of death.
"You came here," she went on, "with the purpose of
seeking it, and the people felt your presence and are waiting to know
what you decide, whether you will leave them without having found it,
Her eyes remained fixed upon his own, but her face
began to change, growing larger and darker with an expression of age.
"It is their thoughts constantly playing about your
soul that makes you feel they watch you. They do not watch you with
their eyes. The purposes of their inner life are calling to you,
seeking to claim you. You were all part of the same life long, long
ago, and now they want you back again among them."
Vezin's timid heart sank with dread as he listened;
but the girl's eyes held him with a net of joy so that he had no wish
to escape. She fascinated him, as it were, clean out of his normal self.
"Alone, however, the people could never have caught
and held you," she resumed. "The motive force was not strong enough; it
has faded through all these years. But I"--she paused a moment and
looked at him with complete confidence in her splendid eyes--"I possess
the spell to conquer you and hold you: the spell of old love. I can win
you back again and make you live the old life with me, for the force of
the ancient tie between us, if I choose to use it, is irresistible. And
I do choose to use it. I still want you. And you, dear soul of my dim
past"-- she pressed closer to him so that her breath passed across his
eyes, and her voice positively sang--"I mean to have you, for you love
me and are utterly at my mercy."
Vezin heard, and yet did not hear; understood, yet
did not understand. He had passed into a condition of exaltation. The
world was beneath his feet, made of music and flowers, and he was
flying somewhere far above it through the sunshine of pure delight. He
was breathless and giddy with the wonder of her words. They intoxicated
him. And, still, the terror of it all, the dreadful thought of death,
pressed ever behind her sentences. For flames shot through her voice
out of black smoke and licked at his soul.
And they communicated with one another, it seemed to
him, by a process of swift telepathy, for his French could never have
compassed all he said to her. Yet she understood perfectly, and what
she said to him was like the recital of verses long since known. And
the mingled pain and sweetness of it as he listened were almost more
than his little soul could hold.
"Yet I came here wholly by chance----" he heard himself saying.
"No," she cried with passion, "you came here because
I called to you. I have called to you for years, and you came with the
whole force of the past behind you. You had to come, for I own you, and
I claim you."
She rose again and moved closer, looking at him with
a certain insolence in the face--the insolence of power.
The sun had set behind the towers of the old cathedral and the
darkness rose up from the plain and enveloped them. The music of the
band had ceased. The leaves of the plane trees hung motionless, but the
chill of the autumn evening rose about them and made Vezin shiver.
There was no sound but the sound of their voices and the occasional
soft rustle of the girl's dress. He could hear the blood rushing in his
ears. He scarcely realised where he was or what he was doing. Some
terrible magic of the imagination drew him deeply down into the tombs
of his own being, telling him in no unfaltering voice that her words
shadowed forth the truth. And this simple little French maid, speaking
beside him with so strange authority, he saw curiously alter into quite
another being. As he stared into her eyes, the picture in his mind grew
and lived, dressing itself vividly to his inner vision with a degree of
reality he was compelled to acknowledge. As once before, he saw her
tall and stately, moving through wild and broken scenery of forests and
mountain caverns, the glare of flames behind her head and clouds of
shifting smoke about her feet. Dark leaves encircled her hair, flying
loosely in the wind, and her limbs shone through the merest rags of
clothing. Others were about her, too, and ardent eyes on all sides cast
delirious glances upon her, but her own eyes were always for One only,
one whom she held by the hand. For she was leading the dance in some
tempestuous orgy to the music of chanting voices, and the dance she led
circled about a great and awful Figure on a throne, brooding over the
scene through lurid vapours, while innumerable other wild faces and
forms crowded furiously about her in the dance. But the one she held by
the hand he knew to be himself, and the monstrous shape upon the throne
he knew to be her mother.
The vision rose within him, rushing to him down the
long years of buried time, crying aloud to him with the voice of memory
reawakened. . . . And then the scene faded away and he saw the clear
circle of the girl's eyes gazing steadfastly into his own, and she
became once more the pretty little daughter of the innkeeper, and he
found his voice again.
"And you," he whispered tremblingly--"you child of
visions and enchantment, how is it that you so bewitch me that I loved
you even before I saw?"
She drew herself up beside him with an air of rare dignity.
"The call of the Past," she said; "and besides," she
added proudly, "in the real life I am a princess----"
"A princess!" he cried.
"----and my mother is a queen!"
At this, little Vezin utterly lost his head. Delight
tore at his heart and swept him into sheer ecstasy. To hear that sweet
singing voice, and to see those adorable little lips utter such things,
upset his balance beyond all hope of control. He took her in his arms
and covered her unresisting face with kisses.
But even while he did so, and while the hot passion swept him, he
felt that she was soft and loathsome, and that her answering kisses
stained his very soul.... And when, presently, she had freed herself
and vanished into the darkness, he stood there, leaning against the
wall in a state of collapse, creeping with horror from the touch of her
yielding body, and inwardly raging at the weakness that he already
dimly realised must prove his undoing.
And from the shadows of the old buildings into which
she disappeared there rose in the stillness of the night a singular,
long-drawn cry, which at first he took for laughter, but which later he
was sure he recognised as the almost human wailing of a cat.
For a long time Vezin leant there against the wall,
alone with his surging thoughts and emotions. He understood at length
that he had done the one thing necessary to call down upon him the
whole force of this ancient Past. For in those passionate kisses he had
acknowledged the tie of olden days, and had revived it. And the memory
of that soft impalpable caress in the darkness of the inn corridor came
back to him with a shudder. The girl had first mastered him, and then
led him to the one act that was necessary for her purpose. He had been
waylaid, after the lapse of centuries--caught, and conquered.
Dimly he realised this, and sought to make plans for
his escape. But, for the moment at any rate, he was powerless to manage
his thoughts or will, for the sweet, fantastic madness of the whole
adventure mounted to his brain like a spell, and he gloried in the
feeling that he was utterly enchanted and moving in a world so much
larger and wilder than the one he had ever been accustomed to.
The moon, pale and enormous, was just rising over
the sea-like plain, when at last he rose to go. Her slanting rays drew
all the houses into new perspective, so that their roofs, already
glistening with dew, seemed to stretch much higher into the sky than
usual, and their gables and quaint old towers lay far away in its
The cathedral appeared unreal in a silver mist. He
moved softly, keeping to the shadows; but the streets were all deserted
and very silent; the doors were closed, the shutters fastened. Not a
soul was astir. The hush of night lay over everything; it was like a
town of the dead, a churchyard with gigantic and grotesque tombstones.
Wondering where all the busy life of the day had so utterly
disappeared to, he made his way to a back door that entered the inn by
means of the stables, thinking thus to reach his room unobserved. He
reached the courtyard safely and crossed it by keeping close to the
shadow of the wall. He sidled down it, mincing along on tiptoe, just as
the old men did when they entered the salle a manger. He was
horrified to find himself doing this instinctively. A strange impulse
came to him, catching him somehow in the centre of his body--an impulse
to drop upon all fours and run swiftly and silently. He glanced upwards
and the idea came to him to leap up upon his window-sill overhead
instead of going round by the stairs. This occurred to him as the
easiest, and most natural way. It was like the beginning of some
horrible transformation of himself into something else. He was
fearfully strung up.
The moon was higher now, and the shadows very dark
along the side of the street where he moved. He kept among the deepest
of them, and reached the porch with the glass doors.
But here there was light; the inmates,
unfortunately, were still about. Hoping to slip across the hall
unobserved and reach the stairs, he opened the door carefully and stole
in. Then he saw that the hall was not empty. A large dark thing lay
against the wall on his left. At first he thought it must be household
articles. Then it moved, and he thought it was an immense cat,
distorted in some way by the play of light and shadow. Then it rose
straight up before him and he saw that it was the proprietress.
What she had been doing in this position he could
only venture a dreadful guess, but the moment she stood up and faced
him he was aware of some terrible dignity clothing her about that
instantly recalled the girl's strange saying that she was a queen. Huge
and sinister she stood there under the little oil lamp; alone with him
in the empty hall. Awe stirred in his heart, and the roots of some
ancient fear. He felt that he must bow to her and make some kind of
obeisance. The impulse was fierce and irresistible, as of long habit.
He glanced quickly about him. There was no one there. Then he
deliberately inclined his head toward her. He bowed.
"Enfin! M'sieur c'est done decide". C'est bien
alors. J'en suis contente."
Her words came to him sonorously as through a great open space.
Then the great figure came suddenly across the
flagged hall at him and seized his trembling hands. Some overpowering
force moved with her and caught him.
"On pourrait faire un p'tit tour ensemble, n'est-ce
pas? Nous y allons cette nuit et il faut s'exercer un peu d'avance pour
cela. Use, Use, viens dans ici. Viens vite!"
And she whirled him round in the opening steps of some
dance that seemed oddly and horribly familiar. They made no sound on
the stones, this strangely assorted couple. It was all soft and
stealthy. And presently, when the air seemed to thicken like smoke, and
a red glare as of flame shot through it, he was aware that some one
else had joined them and that his hand the mother had released was now
tightly held by the daughter. Use had come in answer to the call, and
he saw her with leaves of vervain twined in her dark hair, clothed in
tattered vestiges of some curious garment, beautiful as the night, and
horribly, odiously, loathsomely seductive.
"To the Sabbath! to the Sabbath!" they cried. "On to
the Witches' Sabbath!"
Up and down that narrow hall they danced, the women
on each side of him, to the wildest measure he had ever imagined, yet
which he dimly, dreadfully remembered, till the lamp on the wall
flickered and went out, and they were left in total darkness. And the
devil woke in his heart with a thousand vile suggestions and made him
Suddenly they released his hands and he heard the
voice of the mother cry that it was time, and they must go. Which way
they went he did not pause to see. He only realised that he was free,
and he blundered through the darkness till he found the stairs and then
tore up them to his room as though all hell was at his heels.
He flung himself on the sofa, with his face in his
hands, and groaned. Swiftly reviewing a dozen ways of immediate escape,
all equally impossible, he finally decided that the only thing to do
for the moment was to sit quiet and wait. He must see what was going to
happen. At least in the privacy of his own bedroom he would be fairly
safe. The door was locked. He crossed over and softly opened the window
which gave upon the courtyard and also permitted a partial view of the
hall through the glass doors.
As he did so the hum and murmur of a great activity
reached his ears from the streets beyond--the sound of footsteps and
voices muffled by distance. He leaned out cautiously and listened. The
moonlight was clear and strong now, but his own window was in shadow,
the silver disc being still behind the house. It came to him
irresistibly that the inhabitants of the town, who a little while
before had all been invisible behind closed doors, were now issuing
forth, busy upon some secret and unholy errand. He listened intently.
At first everything about him was silent, but soon he became aware
of movements going on in the house itself. Rustlings and cheepings came
to him across that still, moonlit yard. A concourse of living beings
sent the hum of their activity into the night. Things were on the move
everywhere. A biting, pungent odour rose through the air, coming he
knew not whence. Presently his eyes became glued to the windows of the
opposite wall where the moonshine fell in a soft blaze. The roof
overhead, and behind him, was reflected clearly in the panes of glass,
and he saw the outlines of dark bodies moving with long footsteps over
the tiles and along the coping. They passed swiftly and silently,
shaped like immense cats, in an endless procession across the pictured
glass, and then appeared to leap down to a lower level where he lost
sight of them. He just caught the soft thudding of their leaps.
Sometimes their shadows fell upon the white wall opposite, and then he
could not make out whether they were the shadows of human beings or of
cats. They seemed to change swiftly from one to the other. The
transformation looked horribly real, for they leaped like human beings,
yet changed swiftly in the air immediately afterwards, and dropped like
The yard, too, beneath him, was now alive with the
creeping movements of dark forms all stealthily drawing towards the
porch with the glass doors. They kept so closely to the wall that he
could not determine their actual shape, but when he saw that they
passed on to the great congregation that was gathering in the hall, he
understood that these were the creatures whose leaping shadows he had
first seen reflected in the windowpanes opposite. They were coming from
all parts of the town, reaching the appointed meeting-place across the
roofs and tiles, and springing from level to level till they came to
Then a new sound caught his ear, and he saw that the
windows all about him were being softly opened, and that to each window
came a face. A moment later figures began dropping hurriedly down into
the yard. And these figures, as they lowered themselves down from the
windows, were human, he saw; but once safely in the yard they fell upon
all fours and changed in the swiftest possible second into--cats--huge,
silent cats. They ran in streams to join the main body in the hall
So, after all, the rooms in the house had not been
empty and unoccupied.
Moreover, what he saw no longer filled him with
amazement. For he remembered it all. It was familiar. It had all
happened before just so, hundreds of times, and he himself had taken
part in it and known the wild madness of it all. The outline of the old
building changed, the yard grew larger, and he seemed to be staring
down upon it from a much greater height through smoky vapours. And, as
he looked, half remembering, the old pains of long ago, fierce and
sweet, furiously assailed him, and the blood stirred horribly as he
heard the Call of the Dance again in his heart and tasted the ancient
magic of Use" whirling by his side.
Suddenly he started back. A great lithe cat had
leaped softly up from the shadows below on to the sill close to his
face, and was staring fixedly at him with the eyes of a human. "Come,"
it seemed to say, "come with us to the Dance! Change as of old!
Transform yourself swiftly and come!" Only too well he understood the
creature's soundless call.
It was gone again in a flash with scarcely a sound
of its padded feet on the stones, and then others dropped by the score
down the side of the house, past his very eyes, all changing as they
fell and darting away rapidly, softly, towards the gathering point. And
again he felt the dreadful desire to do likewise; to murmur the old
incantation, and then drop upon hands and knees and run swiftly for the
great flying leap into the air. Oh, how the passion of it rose within
him like a flood, twisting his very entrails, sending his heart's
desire flaming forth into the night for the old, old Dance of the
Sorcerers at the Witches' Sabbath! The whirl of the stars was about
him; once more he met the magic of the moon. The power of the wind,
rushing from precipice and forest, leaping from cliff to cliff across
the valleys, tore him away. ... He heard the cries of the dancers and
their wild laughter, and with this savage girl in his embrace he danced
furiously about the dim Throne where sat the Figure with the sceptre of
majesty. . . .
Then, suddenly, all became hushed and still, and the
fever died down a little in his heart. The calm moonlight flooded a
courtyard empty and deserted. They had started. The procession was off
into the sky. And he was left behind--alone.
Vezin tiptoed softly across the room and unlocked
the door. The murmur from the streets, growing momentarily as he
advanced, met his ears. He made his way with the utmost caution down
the corridor. At the head of the stairs he paused and listened. Below
him, the hall where they had gathered was dark and still, but through
opened doors and windows on the far side of the building came the sound
of a great throng moving farther and farther into the distance.
He made his way down the creaking wooden stairs,
dreading yet longing to meet some straggler who should point the way,
but finding no one; across the dark hall, so lately thronged with
living, moving things, and out through the opened front doors into the
street. He could not believe that he was really left behind, really
forgotten, that he had been purposely permitted to escape. It perplexed
Nervously he peered about him, and up and down the
street; then, seeing nothing, advanced slowly down the pavement.
The whole town, as he went, showed itself empty and deserted, as
though a great wind had blown everything alive out of it. The doors and
windows of the houses stood open to the night; nothing stirred;
moonlight and silence lay over all. The night lay about him like a
cloak. The air, soft and cool, caressed his cheek like the touch of a
great furry paw. He gained confidence and began to walk quickly, though
still keeping to the shadowed side. Nowhere could he discover the
faintest sign of the great unholy exodus he knew had just taken place.
The moon sailed high over all in a sky cloudless and serene.
Hardly realising where he was going, he crossed the open marketplace
and so came to the ramparts, whence he knew a pathway descended to the
high road and along which he could make good his escape to one of the
other little towns that lay to the northward, and so to the railway.
But first he paused and gazed out over the scene at
his feet where the great plain lay like a silver map of some dream
country. The still beauty of it entered his heart, increasing his sense
of bewilderment and unreality. No air stirred, the leaves of the plane
trees stood motionless, the near details were defined with the
sharpness of day against dark shadows, and in the distance the fields
and woods melted away into haze and shimmering mistiness.
But the breath caught in his throat and he stood
stockstill as though transfixed when his gaze passed from the horizon
and fell upon the near prospect in the depth of the valley at his feet.
The whole lower slopes of the hill, that lay hid from the brightness of
the moon, were aglow, and through the glare he saw countless moving
forms, shifting thick and fast between the openings of the trees; while
overhead, like leaves driven by the wind, he discerned flying shapes
that hovered darkly one moment against the sky and then settled down
with cries and weird singing through the branches into the region that
Spellbound, he stood and stared for a time that he
could not measure. And then, moved by one of the terrible impulses that
seemed to control the whole adventure, he climbed swiftly upon the top
of the broad coping, and balanced a moment where the valley gaped at
his feet. But in that very instant, as he stood hovering, a sudden
movement among the shadows of the houses caught his eye, and he turned
to see the outline of a large animal dart swiftly across the open space
behind him, and land with a flying leap upon the top of the wall a
little lower down. It ran like the wind to his feet and then rose up
beside him upon the ramparts. A shiver seemed to run through the
moonlight, and his sight trembled for a second. His heart pulsed
fearfully. Use stood beside him, peering into his face.
Some dark substance, he saw, stained the girl's face
and skin, shining in the moonlight as she stretched her hands towards
him; she was dressed in wretched tattered garments that yet became her
mightily; rue and vervain twined about her temples; her eyes glittered
with unholy light. He only just controlled the wild impulse to take her
in his arms and leap with her from their giddy perch into the valley
"See!" she cried, pointing with an arm on which the rags fluttered
in the rising wind towards the forest aglow in the distance. "See where
they await us! The woods are alive! Already the Great Ones are there,
and the dance will soon begin! The salve is here! Anoint yourself and
Though a moment before the sky was clear and
cloudless, yet even while she spoke the face of the moon grew dark and
the wind began to toss in the crests of the plane trees at his feet.
Stray gusts brought the sounds of hoarse singing and crying from the
lower slopes of the hill, and the pungent odour he had already noticed
about the courtyard of the inn rose about him in the air.
"Transform, transform!" she cried again, her voice
rising like a song. "Rub well your skin before you fly. Come! Come with
me to the Sabbath, to the madness of its furious delight, to the sweet
abandonment of its evil worship! See! the Great Ones are there, and the
terrible Sacraments prepared. The Throne is occupied. Anoint and come!
Anoint and come!"
She grew to the height of a tree beside him, leaping
upon the wall with flaming eyes and hair strewn upon the night. He too
began to change swiftly. Her hands touched the skin of his face and
neck, streaking him with the burning salve that sent the old magic into
his blood with the power before which fades all that is good.
A wild roar came up to his ears from the heart of
the wood, and the girl, when she heard it, leaped upon the wall in the
frenzy of her wicked joy.
"Satan is there!" she screamed, rushing upon him and
striving to draw him with her to the edge of the wall. "Satan has come.
The Sacraments call us! Come, with your dear apostate soul, and we will
worship and dance till the moon dies and the world is forgotten!"
Just saving himself from the dreadful plunge, Vezin
struggled to release himself from her grasp, while the passion tore at
his reins and all but mastered him. He shrieked aloud, not knowing what
he said, and then he shrieked again. It was the old impulses, the old
awful habits instinctively finding voice; for though it seemed to him
that he merely shrieked nonsense, the words he uttered really had
meaning in them, and were intelligible. It was the ancient call. And it
was heard below. It was answered.
The wind whistled at the skirts of his coat as the air round him
darkened with many flying forms crowding upwards out of the valley. The
crying of hoarse voices smote upon his ears, coming closer. Strokes of
wind buffeted him, tearing him this way and that along the crumbling
top of the stone wall; and Use clung to him with her long shining arms,
smooth and bare, holding him fast about the neck. But not Use alone,
for a dozen of them surrounded him, dropping out of the air. The
pungent odour of the anointed bodies stifled him, exciting him to the
old madness of the Sabbath, the dance of the witches and sorcerers
doing honour to the personified Evil of the world.
"Anoint and away! Anoint and away!" they cried in
wild chorus about him. "To the Dance that never dies! To the sweet and
fearful fantasy of evil!"
Another moment and he would have yielded-and gone,
for his will turned soft and the flood of passionate memory all but
overwhelmed him, when--so can a small thing after the whole course of
an adventure--he caught his foot upon a loose stone in the edge of the
wall, and then fell with a sudden crash on to the ground below. But he
fell towards the houses, in the open space of dust and cobblestones,
and fortunately not into the gaping depth of the valley on the farther
And they, too, came in a tumbling heap about him,
like flies upon a piece of food, but as they fell he was released for a
moment from the power of their touch, and in that brief instant of
freedom there flashed into his mind the sudden intuition that saved
him. Before he could regain his feet he saw them scrabbling awkwardly
back upon the wall, as though bat-like they could only fly by dropping
from a height, and had no hold upon him in the open. Then, seeing them
perched there in a row like cats upon a roof, all dark and singularly
shapeless, their eyes like lamps, the sudden memory came back to him of
Use's terror at the sight of fire.
Quick as a flash he found his matches and lit the
dead leaves that lay under the wall.
Dry and withered, they caught fire at once, and the
wind carried the flame in a long line down the length of the wall,
licking upwards as it ran; and with shrieks and wailings, the crowded
row of forms upon the top melted away into the air on the other side,
and were gone with a great rush and whirring of their bodies down into
the heart of the haunted valley, leaving Vezin breathless and shaken in
the middle of the deserted ground.
"Use!" he called feebly; "Use!" for his heart ached
to think that she was really gone to the great Dance without him, and
that he had lost the opportunity of its fearful joy. Yet at the same
time his relief was so great, and he was so dazed and troubled in mind
with the whole thing, that he hardly knew what he was saying, and only
cried aloud in the fierce storm of his emotion. . . .
The fire under the wall ran its course, and the
moonlight came out again, soft and clear, from its temporary eclipse.
With one last shuddering look at the ruined ramparts, and a feeling of
horrid wonder for the haunted valley beyond, where the shapes still
crowded and flew, he turned his face towards the town and slowly made
his way in the direction of the hotel.
And as he went, a great wailing of cries, and a
sound of howling, followed him from the gleaming forest below, growing
fainter and fainter with the bursts of wind as he disappeared between
"It may seem rather abrupt to you, this sudden tame
ending," said Arthur Vezin, glancing with flushed face and timid eyes
at Dr. Silence sitting there with his notebook, "but the fact
is--er--from that moment my memory seems to have failed rather. I have
no distinct recollection of how I got home or what precisely I did.
"It appears I never went back to the inn at all. I
only dimly recollect racing down a long white road in the moonlight,
past woods and villages, still and deserted, and then the dawn came up,
and I saw the towers of a biggish town and so came to a station.
"But, long before that, I remember pausing somewhere
on the road and looking back to where the hill-town of my adventure
stood up in the moonlight, and thinking how exactly like a great
monstrous cat it lay there upon the plain, its huge front paws lying
down the two main streets, and the twin and broken towers of the
cathedral marking its torn ears against the sky. That picture stays in
my mind with the utmost vividness to this day.
"Another thing remains in my mind from that
escape--namely, the sudden sharp reminder that I had not paid my bill,
and the decision I made, standing there on the dusty highroad, that the
small baggage I had left behind would more than settle for my
"For the rest, I can only tell you that I got coffee
and bread at a cafe on the outskirts of this town I had come to, and
soon after found my way to the station and caught a train later in the
day. That same evening I reached London."
"And how long altogether," asked John Silence
quietly, "do you think you stayed in the town of the adventure?"
Vezin looked up sheepishly.
"I was coming to that," he resumed, with apologetic
wrigglings of his body. "In London I found that I was a whole week out
in my reckoning of time. I had stayed over a week in the town, and it
ought to have been September 15th,--instead of which it was only
"So that, in reality, you had only stayed a night or
two in the inn?" queried the doctor.
Vezin hesitated before replying. He shuffled upon the mat.
"I must have gained time somewhere," he said at length--"somewhere
or somehow. I certainly had a week to my credit. I can't explain it. I
can only give you the fact."
"And this happened to you last year, since when you
have never been back to the place?"
"Last autumn, yes," murmured Vezin; "and I have
never dared to go back. I think I never want to."
"And, tell me," asked Dr. Silence at length, when he
saw that the little man had evidently come to the end of his words and
had nothing more to say, "had you ever read up the subject of the old
witchcraft practices during the Middle Ages, or been at all interested
in the subject?"
"Never!" declared Vezin emphatically. "I had never
given a thought to such matters so far as I know----"
"Or to the question of reincarnation, perhaps?"
"Never--before my adventure; but I have since," he
There was, however, something still on the man's
mind that he wished to relieve himself of by confession, yet could only
with difficulty bring himself to mention; and it was only after the
sympathetic tactful-ness of the doctor had provided numerous openings
that he at length availed himself of one of them, and stammered that he
would like to show him the marks he still had on his neck where, he
said, the girl had touched him with her anointed hands.
He took off his collar after infinite fumbling
hesitation, and lowered his shirt a little for the doctor to see. And
there, on the surface of the skin, lay a faint reddish line across the
shoulder and extending a little way down the back towards the spine. It
certainly indicated exactly the position an arm might have taken in the
act of embracing. And on the other side of the neck, slightly higher
up, was a similar mark, though not quite so clearly defined.
"That was where she held me that night on the
ramparts," he whispered, a strange light coming and going in his eyes.
It was some weeks later when I again found occasion to consult John
Silence concerning another extraordinary case that had come under my
notice, and we fell to discussing Vezin's story. Since hearing it, the
doctor had made investigations on his own account, and one of his
secretaries had discovered that Vezin's ancestors had actually lived
for generations in the very town where the adventure came to him. Two
of them, both women, had been tried and convicted as witches, and had
been burned alive at the stake. Moreover, it had not been difficult to
prove that the very inn where Vezin stayed was built about 1700 upon
the spot where the funeral pyres stood and the executions took place.
The town was a sort of headquarters for all the sorcerers and witches
of the entire region, and after conviction they were burnt there
literally by scores.
"It seems strange," continued the doctor, "that
Vezin should have remained ignorant of all this; but, on the other
hand, it was not the kind of history that successive generations would
have been anxious to keep alive, or to repeat to their children.
Therefore I am inclined to think he still knows nothing about it.
"The whole adventure seems to have been a very vivid
revival of the memories of an earlier life, caused by coming directly
into contact with the living forces still intense enough to hang about
the place, and, by a most singular chance, too, with the very souls who
had taken part with him in the events of that particular life. For the
mother and daughter who impressed him so strangely must have been
leading actors, with himself, in the scenes and practices of witchcraft
which at that period dominated the imaginations of the whole country.
"One has only to read the histories of the times to
know that these witches claimed the power of transforming themselves
into various animals, both for the purposes of disguise and also to
convey themselves swiftly to the scenes of their imaginary orgies.
Lycanthropy, or the power to change themselves into wolves, was
everywhere believed in, and the ability to transform themselves into
cats by rubbing their bodies with a special salve or ointment provided
by Satan himself, found equal credence. The witchcraft trials abound in
evidences of such universal beliefs."
Dr. Silence quoted chapter and verse from many
writers on the subject, and showed how every detail of Vezin's
adventure had a basis in the practices of those dark days.
"But that the entire affair took place subjectively in the man's own
consciousness, I have no doubt," he went on, in reply to my questions;
"for my secretary who has been to the town to investigate, discovered
his signature in the visitors' book, and proved by it that he had
arrived on September 8th, and left suddenly without paying his bill. He
left two days later, and they still were in possession of his dirty
brown bag and some tourist clothes. I paid a few francs in settlement
of his debt, and have sent his luggage on to him. The daughter was
absent from home, but the proprietress, a large woman very much as he
described her, told my secretary that he had seemed a very strange,
absent-minded kind of gentleman, and after his disappearance she had
feared for a long time that he had met with a violent end in the
neighbouring forest where he used to roam about alone.
should like to have obtained a personal interview with the daughter
so as to ascertain how much was subjective and how much actually took
place with her as Vezin told it. For her dread of fire and the sight of
burning must, of course, have been the intuitive memory of her former
painful death at the stake, and have thus explained why he fancied more
than once that he saw her through smoke and flame."
"And that mark on his skin, for instance?" I inquired.
"Merely the marks produced by hysterical brooding,"
he replied, "like the stigmata of the religieuses, and the
bruises which appear on the bodies of hypnotised subjects who have been
told to expect them. This is very common and easily explained. Only it
seems curious that these marks should have remained so long in Vezin's
case. Usually they disappear quickly."
"Obviously he is still thinking about it all,
brooding, and living it all over again," I ventured.
"Probably. And this makes me fear that the end of
his trouble is not yet. We shall hear of him again. It is a case, alas!
I can do little to alleviate."
Dr. Silence spoke gravely and with sadness in his voice.
"And what do you make of the Frenchman in the
train?" I asked further--"the man who warned him against the place, a cause du sommeil et a cause des chats?
Surely a very singular
"A very singular incident indeed," he made answer
slowly, "and one I can only explain on the basis of a highly improbable
"That the man was one who had himself stayed in the
town and undergone there a similar experience. I should like to find
this man and ask him. But the crystal is useless here, for I have no
slightest clue to go upon, and I can only conclude that some singular
psychic affinity, some force still active in his being out of the same
past life, drew him thus to the personality of Vezin, and enabled him
to fear what might happen to him, and thus to warn him as he did.
"Yes," he presently continued, half talking to himself, "I suspect
in this case that Vezin was swept into the vortex of forces arising out
of the intense activities of a past life, and that he lived over again
a scene in which he had often played a leading part centuries before.
For strong actions set up forces that are so slow to exhaust
themselves, they may be said in a sense never to die. In this case they
were not vital enough to render the illusion complete, so that the
little man found himself caught in a very distressing confusion of the
present and the past; yet he was sufficiently sensitive to recognise
that it was true, and to fight against the degradation of returning,
even in memory, to a former and lower state of development.
"Ah yes!" he continued, crossing the floor to gaze
at the darkening sky, and seemingly quite oblivious of my presence,
"subliminal up-rushes of memory like this can be exceedingly painful,
and sometimes exceedingly dangerous. I only trust that this gentle soul
may soon escape from this obsession of a passionate and tempestuous
past. But I doubt it, I doubt it."
His voice was hushed with sadness as he spoke, and
when he turned back into the room again there was an expression of
profound yearning upon his face, the yearning of a soul whose desire to
help is sometimes greater than his power.