In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


“Daylight was fading in the city of Antwerp. Down into the sea sank the sun, tinting the vast horizon with flakes of crimson, and touching with rich deep undertones the tossing waters of the Scheldt. Its glow fell like a rosy mantle over red-tiled roofs and meadows; and through the haze the spires of twenty churches pierced the air like sharp, gilded flames. To the west and south the green plains, over which the Spanish armies tramped so long ago, stretched away until they met the sky; the enchantment of the afterglow had turned old Antwerp into fairy-land; and sea and sky and plain were beautiful and vague as the night-mists floating m the moats below. 
          “Along the sea-wall from the Rubens Gate all Antwerp strolled, and chattered, and flirted, and sipped their Flemish wines from slender Flemish glasses, or gossiped over krugs of foaming beer. 
          “From the Scheldt came the cries of sailors, the creaking of cordage, and the puff! puff! of the ferry-boats. On the bastions of the fortress opposite, a bugler was standing. Twice the mellow notes of the bugle came faintly over the water, then a great gun thundered from the ramparts, and the Belgian flag fluttered along the lanyards to the ground. 
          “I leaned listlessly on the sea-wall and looked down at the Scheldt below. A battery of artillery was embarking for the fortress. The tublike transport lay hissing and whistling in the slip, and the stamping of horses, the rumbling of gun and caisson, and the sharp cries of the officers came plainly to the ear. 
          “When the last caisson was aboard and stowed, and the last trooper had sprung jingling to the deck, the transport puffed out into the Scheldt, and I turned away through the throng of promenaders, and found a little table on the terrace, just outside of the pretty cafe. And as I sat down I became aware of a girl at the next table—a girl all in white—the most ravishingly and distractingly pretty girl that I had ever seen. In the agitation of the moment I forgot my name, my fortune, my aunt, and the Crimson Diamond—all these I forgot in a purely human impulse to see clearly; and to that end I removed my monocle from my left eye. Some moments later I came to myself and feebly replaced it. It was too late; the mischief was done. I was not aware at first of the exact state of my feelings—for I had never been in love more than three or four times in all my life—but I did know that at her request I would have been proud to stand on my head, or turn a flip-flap into the Scheldt. 
          “I did not stare at her, but I managed to see her most of the time when her eyes were in another direction. I found myself drinking something which a waiter brought, presumably upon an order which I did not remember having given. Later I noticed that it was a loathsome drink which the Belgians call ‘American grog,’ but I swallowed it and lighted a cigarette. As the fragrant cloud rose in the air, a voice, which I recognized with a chill, broke into my dream of enchantment. Could he have been there all the while—there sitting beside that vision in white? His hat was off, and the ocean-breezes whispered about his bald head. His frayed coat-tails were folded carefully over his knees, and between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand he balanced a bad cigar. He looked at me in a mildly cheerful way, and said, ‘I know now.’ 
          “‘Know what?’ I asked, thinking it better to humor him, for I was convinced that he was mad. 
          “‘I know why cats bite.’ 
          “This was startling. I hadn’t an idea what to say. 
          “‘I know why,’ he repeated; ‘can you guess why?’ There was a covert tone of triumph in his voice and he smiled encouragement. ‘Come, try and guess,’ he urged. 
          “I told him that I was unequal to problems. 
          “‘Listen, young man,’ he continued, folding his coattails closely about his legs—’try to reason it out: why should cats bite? Don’t you know? I do.’ 
          “He looked at me anxiously. 
          “‘You take no interest in this problem?’ he demanded. 
          “‘Oh yes.’ 
          “‘Then why do you not ask me why?’ he said, looking vaguely disappointed. 
          “‘Well,’ I said, in desperation, ‘why do cats bite?—hang it all!’ I thought, ‘it’s like a burned-cork show, and I’m Mr. Bones and he’s Tambo!’ 
          “Then he smiled gently. ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘cats bite because they feed on catnip. I have reasoned it out.’ 
          “I stared at him in blank astonishment. Was this benevolent-looking old party poking fun at me? Was he paying me up for the morning’s snub? Was he a malignant and revengeful old party, or was he merely feeble-minded? Who might he be? What was he doing here in Antwerp—what was he doing now?— for the bald one had turned familiarly to the beautiful girl in white. 
          “‘Wilhelmina,’ he said, ‘do you feel chilly?’ The girl shook her head. 
          “‘Not in the least, papa.’ 
          “‘Her father!’ I thought—‘her father!’ Thank God she did not say ‘popper’! 
          “‘I have been to the Zoo to-day,’ announced the bald one, turning towards me. 
          “‘Ah, indeed,’ I observed; ‘er—I trust you enjoyed it.’ 
          “‘I have been contemplating the apes,’ he continued, dreamily. ‘Yes, contemplating the apes.’ 
          “I tried to look interested. 
          “‘Yes, the apes,’ he murmured, fixing his mild eyes on me. Then he leaned towards me confidentially and whispered, ‘Can you tell me what a monkey thinks?’ 
          “‘I cannot—’ I replied, sharply. 
          “‘Ah,’ he sighed, sinking back in his chair, and patting the slender hand of the girl beside him—’ah, who can tell what a monkey thinks?’ His gentle face lulled my suspicions, and I replied, very gravely: 
          “‘Who can tell whether they think at all?’ 
          “‘True, true! Who can tell whether they think at all; and if they do think, all! who can tell what they think?’ 
          “‘But,’ I began, ‘if you can’t tell whether they think at all, what’s the use of trying to conjecture what they would think if they did think?’ 
          “He raised his hand in deprecation. ‘Ah, it is exactly that which is of such absorbing interest—exactly that! It is the abstruseness of the proposition which stimulates research—which stirs profoundly the brain of the thinking world. The question is of vital and instant importance. Possibly you have already formed an opinion.’ 
          “I admitted that I had thought but little on the subject. 
          “‘I doubt,’ he continued, swathing his knees in his coat-tails—’I doubt whether you have given much attention to the subject lately discussed by the Boston Dodo Society of Pythagorean Research.’ 
          “‘I am not sure,’ I said, politely, ‘that I recall that particular discussion. May I ask what was the question brought up?’ 
          “‘The Felis domestica question.’ 
          “‘Ah, that must indeed be interesting! And—er— what may be the Felis do—do—’ 
          “‘Domestica—not dodo. Felis domestica, the common or garden cat.’ 
          “‘Indeed,’ I murmured. 
          “‘You are not listening,’ he said. 
          “I only half heard him. I could not turn my eyes from his daughter’s face. 
          “‘Cat!’ shouted the bald one, and I almost leaped from my chair. ‘Are you deaf?’ he inquired, sympathetically. 
          “‘No—oh no!’ I replied, coloring with confusion; ‘you were—pardon me— you were—er—speaking of the dodo. Extraordinary bird that—’ 
          “‘I was not discussing the dodo,’ he sighed. ‘I was speaking of cats.’ 
          “‘Of course,’ I said. 
          “‘The question is,’ he continued, twisting his frayed coat-tails into a sort of rope—‘the question is, how are we to ameliorate the present condition and social status of our domestic cats?’ 
          “‘Feed ‘em,’ I suggested. 
          “He raised both hands. They were eloquent with patient expostulation ‘I mean their spiritual condition,’ he said. 
          “I nodded, but my eyes reverted to that exquisite face. She sat silent, her eyes fixed on the waning flecks of color in the western sky. 
          “‘Yes,’ repeated the bald one, ‘the spiritual welfare of our domestic cats.’ 
          “‘Toms and tabbies?’ I murmured. 
          “‘Exactly,’ he said, tying a large knot in his coat-tails. 
          “‘You will ruin your coat,’ I observed. 
          “‘Papa!’ exclaimed the girl, turning in dismay, as that gentleman gave a guilty start, ‘stop it at once!’ 
          “He smiled apologetically and made a feeble attempt to conceal his coat-tails. 
          “‘My dear,’ he said, with gentle deprecation, ‘I am so absent-minded—I always do it in the heat of argument.’ 
          “The girl rose, and, bending over her untidy parent, deftly untied the knot in his flapping coat. When he was disentangled, she sat down and said, with a ghost of a smile, ‘He is so very absent-minded.’ 
          “‘Your father is evidently a great student,’ I ventured, pleasantly. How I pitied her, tied to this old lunatic! 
          “‘Yes, he is a great student,’ she said, quietly. 
          “‘I am,’ he murmured; ‘that’s what makes me so absent-minded. I often go to bed and forget to sleep.’ Then, looking at me, he asked me my name, adding, with a bow, that his name was P. Royal Wyeth, Professor of Pythagorean Research and Abstruse Paradox. 
          “‘My first name is Penny—named after Professor Penny, of Harvard,’ he said; ‘but I seldom use my first name in connection with my second, as the combination suggests a household remedy of penetrating odor.’ 
          “‘My name is Kensett,’ I said, ‘Harold Kensett, of New York.’ 
          “‘Er—a little.’ 
          “‘Student of diamonds?’ 
          “I smiled. ‘Oh, I see you know who my great-aunt was,’ I said. 
          “‘I know her,’ he said. 
          “‘Ah—perhaps you are unaware that my great-aunt is not now living.’ 
          “‘I know her,’ he repeated, obstinately. 
          “I bowed. What a crank he was! 
          “‘What do you study? You don’t fiddle away all your time, do you?’ he asked. 
          “Now that was just what I did, but I was not pleased to have Miss Wyeth know it. Although my time was chiefly spent in killing time, I had once, in a fit of energy, succeeded in writing some verses ‘To a Tomtit,’ so I evaded a humiliating confession by saying that I had done a little work in ornithology. 
          “‘Good!’ cried the professor, beaming all over.’ I knew you were a fellow-scientist. Possibly you are a brother-member of the Boston Dodo Society of Pythagorean Research. Are you a dodo?’ 
          “I shook my head. ‘No, I am not a dodo.’ 
          “‘Only a jay?’ 
          “‘A—what?’ I said, angrily. 
          “‘A jay. We call the members of the Junior Ornithological Jay Society of New York, jays, just as we refer to ourselves as dodos. Are you not even a jay?’ 
          “‘I am not,’ I said, watching him suspiciously. 
          “‘I must convert you, I see,’ said the professor, smiling. 
          “‘I’m afraid I do not approve of Pythagorean research,’ I began, but the beautiful Miss Wyeth turned to me very seriously, and, looking me frankly in the eyes, said: 
          “‘I trust you will be open to conviction.’ 
          “‘Good Lord!’ I thought. ‘Can she be another lunatic?’ I looked at her steadily. What a little beauty she was! She also, then, belonged to the Pythagoreans—a sect I despised. Everybody knows all about the Pythagorean craze, its rise in Boston, its rapid spread, and its subsequent consolidation with mental and Christian science, theosophy, hypnotism, the Salvation Army, the Shakers, the Dunkards, and the mind-cure cult, upon a business basis. I had hitherto regarded all Pythagoreans with the same scornful indifference which I accorded to the faith-curists; being a member of no particular church, I was scarcely prepared to take any of them seriously. Least of all did I approve of the ‘business basis,’ and I looked very much askance indeed at the ‘Scientific and Religious Trust Company,’ duly incorporated and generally known as the Pythagorean Trust, which, consolidating with mind-curists, faith-curists, and other flourishing salvation syndicates, actually claimed a place among ordinary trusts, and at the same time pretended to a control over man’s future life. No, I could never listen—I was ashamed of even
entertaining the notion, and I shook my head. 
          “‘No, Miss Wyeth, I am afraid I do not care to listen to any reasoning on this subject.’ 
          “‘Don’t you believe in Pythagoras?’ demanded the professor, subduing his excitement with difficulty, and adding another knot to his coat-tails. 
          “‘No,’ I said, ‘I do not.’ 
          “‘How do you know you don’t?’ inquired the professor. 
          “‘Because,’ I said, firmly, ‘it is nonsense to say that the soul of a human being can inhabit a hen!’ 
          “‘Put it in a more simplified form!’ insisted the professor. ‘Do you believe that the soul of a hen can inhabit a human being?’ 
          “‘No, I don’t!’ 
          “‘Did you ever hear of a hen-pecked man?’ cried the professor, his voice ending in a shout. 
          “I nodded, intensely annoyed. 
          “‘Will you listen to reason, then?’ he continued, eagerly. 
          “‘No,’ I began, but I caught Miss Wyeth’s blue eyes fixed on mine with an expression so sad, so sweetly appealing, that I faltered. 
          “‘Yes, I will listen,’ I said, faintly. 
          “‘Will you become my pupil?’ insisted the professor. 
          “I was shocked to find myself wavering, but my eyes were looking into hers, and I could not disobey what I read there. The longer I looked the greater inclination I felt to waver. I saw that I was going to give in, and, strangest of all, my conscience did not trouble me. I felt it coming—a sort of mild exhilaration took possession of me. For the first time in my life I became reckless—I even gloried in my recklessness. 
          “‘Yes, yes,’ I cried, leaning eagerly across the table, ‘I shall be glad— delighted! Will you take me as your pupil?’ My single eye-glass fell from its position unheeded. ‘Take me! Oh, will you take me?’ I cried. Instead of answering, the professor blinked rapidly at me for a moment. I imagined his eyes had grown bigger, and were assuming a greenish tinge. The corners of his mouth began to quiver, emitting queer, caressing little noises, and he rapidly added knot after knot to his twitching coat-tails. Suddenly he bent forward across the table until his nose almost touched mine. The pupils of his eyes expanded, the iris assuming a beautiful, changing, golden-green tinge, and his coat-tails switched violently. Then he began to mew. 
          “I strove to rouse myself from my paralysis—I tried to shrink back, for I felt the end of his cold nose touch mine. I could not move. The cry of terror died in my straining throat, my hands tightened convulsively; I was incapable of speech or motion. At the same time my brain became wonderfully clear. I began to remember everything that had ever happened to me— everything that I had ever done or said. I even remembered things that I had neither done nor said; I recalled distinctly much that had never happened. How fresh and strong my memory! The past was like a mirror, crystal clear, and there, in glorious tints and hues, the scenes of my childhood grew and glowed and faded, and gave place to newer and more splendid scenes. For a moment the episode of the cat at the Hôtel St. Antoine flashed across my mind. When it vanished a chilly stupor slowly clouded my brain; the scenes, the memories, the brilliant colors, faded, leaving me enveloped in a gray vapor, through which the two great eyes of the professor twinkled with a murky light. A peculiar longing stirred me—a strange yearning for something, I knew not what—but, oh! how I longed and yearned for it! Slowly this indefinite, incomprehensible longing became a living pain. Ah, how I suffered, and how the vapors seemed to crowd around me! Then, as at a great distance, I heard her voice, sweet, imperative: 
          “‘Mew!’ she said. 
          “For a moment I seemed to see the interior of my own skull, lighted as by a flash of fire; the rolling eyeballs, veined in scarlet, the glistening muscles quivering along the jaw, the humid masses of the convoluted brain; then awful darkness—a darkness almost tangible—an utter blackness, through which now seemed to creep a thin, silver thread, like a river crawling across a world—like a thought gliding to the brain—like a song, a thin, sharp song which some distant voice was singing— which I was singing. 
          “And I knew that I was mewing! 
          “I threw myself back in my chair and mewed with all my heart. Oh, that heavy load which was lifted from my breast! How good, how satisfying it was to mew! And how I did miaul and yowl! 
          “I gave myself up to it, heart and soul; my whole being thrilled with the passionate outpourings of a spirit freed. My voice trembled in the upper bars of a feline love-song, quavered, descended, swelling again into an intimation that I brooked no rival, and ended with a magnificent crescendo. 
          “I finished, somewhat abashed, and glanced askance at the professor and his daughter, but the one sat nonchalantly disentangling his coat-tails, and the other was apparently absorbed in the distant landscape. Evidently they did not consider me ridiculous. Flushing painfully, I turned in my chair to see how my grewsome solo had affected the people on the terrace. Nobody even looked at me. This, however, gave me little comfort, for, as I began to realize what I had done, my mortification and rage knew no bounds. I was ready to die of shame. What on earth had induced me to mew? I looked wildly about for escape—I would leap up—rush home to bury my burning face in my pillows, and, later, in the friendly cabin of a homeward-bound steamer. I would fly—fly at once! Woe to the man who blocked my way! I started to my feet, but at that moment I caught Miss Wyeth’s eyes fixed on mine. 
          “‘Don’t go,’ she said. 
          “What in Heaven’s name lay in those blue eyes? I slowly sank back into my chair. 
          “Then the professor spoke: ‘Wilhelmina, I have just received a despatch.’ 
          “‘Where from, papa?’ 
          “‘From India. I’m going at once.’ 
          “She nodded her head, without turning her eyes from the sea. ‘Is it important, papa?’ 
          “‘I should say so. The cashier of the local trust has compromised an astral body, and has squandered on her all our funds, including a lot of first mortgages on Nirvana. I suppose he’s been dabbling in futures and is short in his accounts. I sha’n’t be gone long.’ 
          “‘Then, good-night, papa,’ she said, kissing him; ‘try to be back by eleven.’ I sat stupidly staring at them. 
          “‘Oh, it’s only to Bombay—I sha’n’t go to Thibet to-night—good-night, my dear,’ said the professor. 
          “Then a singular thing occurred. The professor had at last succeeded in disentangling his coat-tails, and now, jamming his hat over his ears, and waving his arms with a batlike motion, he climbed upon the seat of his chair and ejaculated the word ‘Presto!’ Then I found my voice. 
          “‘Stop him!’ I cried, in terror. 
          “‘Presto! Presto!’ shouted the professor, balancing himself on the edge of his chair and waving his arms majestically, as if preparing for a sudden flight across the Scheldt; and, firmly convinced that he not only meditated it, but was perfectly capable of attempting it, I covered my eyes with my hands. 
          “‘Are you ill, Mr. Kensett?’ asked the girl, quietly. 
          “I raised my head indignantly. ‘Not at all, Miss Wyeth, only I’ll bid you good-evening, for this is the nineteenth century, and I’m a Christian.’ 
          “‘So am I,’ she said. ‘So is my father.’ 
          “‘The devil he is,’ I thought. 
          “Her next words made me jump. 
          “‘Please do not be profane, Mr. Kensett.’ 
          “How did she know I was profane? I had not spoken a word! Could it be possible she was able to read my thoughts? This was too much, and I rose. 
          “‘I have the honor to bid you good-evening,’ I began, and reluctantly turned to include the professor, expecting to see that gentleman balancing himself on his chair. The professor’s chair was empty. 
          “‘Oh,’ said the girl, smiling, ‘my father has gone.’ 
          “‘Gone! Where?’ 
          “‘To—to India, I believe.’ 
          “I sank helplessly into my own chair. 
          “‘I do not think he will stay very long—he promised to return by eleven,’ she said, timidly. 
          “I tried to realize the purport of it all. ‘Gone to India? Gone! How? On a broomstick? Good Heavens,’ I murmured, ‘am I insane?’ 
          “‘Perfectly,’ she said, ‘and I am tired; you may take me back to the hotel.’ 
          “I scarcely heard her; I was feebly attempting to gather up my numbed wits. Slowly I began to comprehend the situation, to review the startling and humiliating events of the day. At noon, in the court of the Hôtel St. Antoine, I had been annoyed by a man and a cat. I had retired to my own room and had slept until dinner. In the evening I met two tourists on the sea-wall promenade. I had been beguiled into conversation—yes, into intimacy with these two tourists! I had had the intention of embracing the faith of Pythagoras! Then I had mewed like a cat with all the strength of my lungs. Now the male tourist vanishes—and leaves me in charge of the female tourist, alone and at night in a strange city! And now the female tourist proposes that I take her home! 
          “With a remnant of self-possession I groped for my eye-glass, seized it, screwed it firmly into my eye, and looked long and earnestly at the girl. As I looked, my eyes softened, my monacle dropped, and I forgot everything in the beauty and purity of the face before me. My heart began to beat against my stiff, white waistcoat. Had I dared—yes, dared to think of this wondrous little beauty as a female tourist? Her pale, sweet face, turned towards the sea, seemed to cast a spell upon the night. How loud my heart was beating! The yellow moon floated, half dipping in the sea, flooding land and water with enchanted lights. Wind and wave seemed to feel the spell of her eyes, for the breeze died away, the heaving Scheldt tossed noiselessly, and the dark Dutch luggers swung idly on the tide with every sail adroop. 
          “A sudden hush fell over land and water, the voices on the promenade were stilled; little by little the shadowy throng, the terrace, the sea itself vanished, and I only saw her face, shadowed against the moon. 
          “It seemed as if I had drifted miles above the earth, through all space and eternity, and there was naught between me and high heaven but that white face. Ah, how I loved her! I knew it—I never doubted it. Could years of passionate adoration touch her heart—her little heart, now beating so calmly with no thought of love to startle it from its quiet and send it fluttering against the gentle breast? In her lap her clasped hands tightened—her eyelids drooped as though some pleasant thought was passing. I saw the color dye her temples, I saw the blue eyes turn, half frightened, to my own, I saw—and I knew she had read my thoughts. Then we both rose, side by side, and she was weeping softly, yet for my life I dared not speak. She turned away, touching her eyes with a bit of lace, and I sprang to her side and offered her my arm. 
          “‘You cannot go back alone,’ I said. 
          “She did not take my arm. 
          “‘Do you hate me, Miss Wyeth?’ 
          “‘I am very tired,’ she said; ‘I must go home.’ 
          “‘You cannot go alone.’ 
          “‘I do not care to accept your escort.’ 
          “‘Then—you send me away?’ 
          “‘No,’ she said, in a hard voice. ‘You can come if you like.’ So I humbly attended her to the Hôtel St. Antoine.

Go to Chapter Twenty Four.....