In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


As we reached the Place Verte and turned into the court of the hotel, the sound of the midnight bells swept over the city, and a horse-car jingled slowly by on its last trip to the railroad station. 
          “We passed the fountain, bubbling and splashing in the moonlit court, and, crossing the square, entered the southern wing of the hotel. At the foot of the stairway she leaned for an instant against the banisters. 
          “‘I am afraid we have walked too fast,’ I said. 
          “She turned to me coldly. ‘No—conventionalities must be observed. You were quite right in escaping as soon as possible.’ 
          “‘But,’ I protested, ‘I assure you—’ 
          “She gave a little movement of impatience. ‘Don’t,’ she said, ‘you tire me— conventionalities tire me. Be satisfied—nobody has seen you.’ 
          “‘You are cruel,’ I said, in a low voice— ‘what do you think I care for conventionalities?’ 
          “‘You care everything—you care what people think, and you try to do what they say is good form. You never did such an original thing in your life as you have just done.’ 
          “‘You read my thoughts,’ I exclaimed, bitterly. ‘It is not fair—’ 
          “‘Fair or not, I know what you consider me—ill-bred, common, pleased with any sort of attention. Oh! why should I waste one word—one thought on you?’ 
          “‘Miss Wyeth—’ I began, but she interrupted me. 
          “‘Would you dare tell me what you think of me?—Would you dare tell me what you think of my father?’ 
          “I was silent. She turned and mounted two steps of the stairway, then faced me again. 
          “‘Do you think it was for my own pleasure that I permitted myself to be left alone with you? Do you imagine that I am flattered by your attention?—do you venture to think I ever could be? How dared you think what you did think there on the sea-wall?’ 
          “‘I cannot help my thoughts!’ I replied. 
          “‘You turned on me like a tiger when you awoke from your trance. Do you really suppose that you mewed? Are you not aware that my father hypnotized you?’ 
          “‘No—I did not know it,’ I said. The hot blood tingled in my finger-tips, and I looked angrily at her. 
          “‘Why do you imagine that I waste my time on you?’ she said. ‘Your vanity has answered that question—now let your intelligence answer it. I am a Pythagorean; I have been chosen to bring in a convert, and you were the convert selected for me by the Mahatmas of the Consolidated Trust Company. I have followed you from New York to Antwerp, as I was bidden, but now my courage fails, and I shrink from fulfilling my mission, knowing you to be the type of man you are. If I could give it up—if I could only go away—never, never again to see you! Ah, I fear they will not permit it!—until my mission is accomplished. Why was I chosen—I, with a woman’s heart and a woman’s pride. I—I hate you!’ 
          “‘I love you,’ I said, slowly. 
          “She paled and looked away. 
          “‘Answer me,’ I said. 
          “Her wide, blue eyes turned back again, and I held them with mine. At last she slowly drew a long-stemmed rose from the bunch at her belt, turned, and mounted the shadowy staircase. For a moment I thought I saw her pause on the landing above, but the moonlight was uncertain. After waiting for a long time in vain, I moved away, and in going raised my hand to my face, but I stopped short, and my heart stopped too, for a moment. In my hand I held a long-stemmed rose. 
          “With my brain in a whirl I crept across the court and mounted the stairs to my room. Hour after hour I walked the floor, slowly at first, then more rapidly, but it brought no calm to the fierce tumult of my thoughts, and at last I dropped into a chair before the empty fireplace, burying my head in my hands. 
          “Uncertain, shocked, and deadly weary, I tried to think—I strove to bring order out of the chaos in my brain, but I only sat staring at the long-stemmed rose. Slowly I began to take a vague pleasure in its heavy perfume, and once I crushed a leaf between my palms, and, bending over, drank in the fragrance. 
          “Twice my lamp flickered and went out, and twice, treading softly, I crossed the room to relight it. Twice I threw open the door, thinking that I heard some sound without. How close the air was!—how heavy and hot! And what was that strange, subtle odor which had insensibly filled the room? It grew stronger and more penetrating, and I began to dislike it, and to escape it I buried my nose in the half-opened rose. Horror! The odor came from the rose—and the rose itself was no longer a rose—not even a flower now—it was only a bunch of catnip; and I dashed it to the floor and ground it under my heel. 
          “‘Mountebank!’ I cried, in a rage. My anger grew cold—and I shivered, drawn perforce to the curtained window. Something was there, outside. I could not hear it, for it made no sound, but I knew it was there, watching me. What was it? The damp hair stirred on my head. I touched the heavy curtains. Whatever was outside them sprang up, tore at the window, and then rushed away. 
          “Feeling very shaky, I crept to the window, opened it, and leaned out. The night was calm. I heard the fountain splashing in the moonlight and the sea-winds soughing through the palms. Then I closed the window and turned back into the room; and as I stood there a sudden breeze, which could not have come from without, blew sharply in my face, extinguishing the candle and sending the long curtains bellying out into the room. The lamp on the table flashed and smoked and sputtered; the room was littered with flying papers and catnip leaves. Then the strange wind died away, and somewhere in the night a cat snarled. 
          “I turned desperately to my trunk and flung it open. Into it I threw everything I owned, pell-mell, closed the lid, locked it, and, seizing my mackintosh and travelling-bag, ran down the stairs, crossed the court, and entered the night-office of the hotel. There I called up the sleepy clerk, settled my reckoning, and sent a porter for a cab. 
          “‘Now,’ I said, ‘what time does the next train leave?’ 
          “‘The next train for where?’ 
          “The clerk locked the safe, and, carefully keeping the desk between himself and me, motioned the office-boy to look at the time-tables. 
          “‘Next train, 2.10. Brussels—Paris,’ read the boy. 
          “At that moment the cab rattled up by the curbstone, and I sprang in while the porter tossed my traps on top. Away we bumped over the stony pavement, past street after street lighted dimly by tall gas-lamps, and alley after alley brilliant with the glare of villanous all-night café-concerts, and then, turning, we rumbled past the Circus and the Eldorado, and at last stopped with a jolt before the Brussels station. 
          “I had not a moment to lose. ‘Paris!’ I cried—’first-class!’ and, pocketing the book of coupons, hurried across the platform to where the Brussels train lay. A guard came running up, flung open the door of a first-class carriage, slammed and locked it after I had jumped in, and the long train glided from the arched station out into the starlit morning. 
          “I was all alone in the compartment. The wretched lamp in the roof flickered dimly, scarcely lighting the stuffy box. I could not see to read my time-table, so I wrapped my legs in the travelling-rug and lay back, staring out into the misty morning. Trees, walls, telegraph-poles flashed past, and the cinders drove in showers against the rattling windows. I slept at times, fitfully, and once, springing up, peered sharply at the opposite seat, possessed with the idea that somebody was there. 
          “When the train reached Brussels I was sound asleep, and the guard awoke me with difficulty. 
          “‘Breakfast, sir?’ he asked. 
          “‘Anything,’ I sighed, and stepped out to the platform, rubbing my legs and shivering. The other passengers were already breakfasting in the station cafe, and I joined them and managed to swallow a cup of coffee and a roll. 
          “The morning broke gray and cloudy, and I bundled myself into my mackintosh for a tramp along the platform. Up and down I stamped, puffing a cigar, and digging my hands deep in my pockets, while the other passengers huddled into the warmer compartments of the train or stood watching the luggage being lifted into the forward mail-carriage. The wait was very long; the hands of the great clock pointed to six, and still the train lay motionless along the platform. I approached a guard and asked him whether anything was wrong. 
          “‘Accident on the line,’ he replied; ‘monsieur had better go to his compartment and try to sleep, for we may be delayed until noon.’ 
          “I followed the guard’s advice, and, crawling into my corner, wrapped myself in the rug and lay back watching the rain-drops spattering along the window-sill. At noon the train had not moved, and I lunched in the compartment. At four o’clock in the afternoon the station-master came hurrying along the platform, crying, ‘Montez! montez! messieurs, s’il vous plait’—and the train steamed out of the station and whirled away through the flat, treeless Belgian plains. At times I dozed, but the shaking of the car always awoke me, and I would sit blinking out at the endless stretch of plain, until a sudden flurry of rain blotted the landscape from my eyes. At last a long, shrill whistle from the engine, a jolt, a series of bumps, and an apparition of red trousers and bayonets warned me that we had arrived at the French frontier. I turned out with the others, and opened my valise for inspection, but the customs officials merely chalked it, without examination, and I hurried back to my compartment amid the shouting of guards and the clanging of station bells. Again I found that I was alone in the compartment, so I smoked a
cigarette, thanked Heaven, and fell into a dreamless sleep. 
          “How long I slept I do not know, but when I awoke the train was roaring through a tunnel. When again it flashed out into the open country I peered through the grimy, rain-stained window and saw that the storm had ceased and stars were twinkling in the sky. I stretched my legs, yawned, pushed my travelling-cap back from my forehead, and, stumbling to my, feet, walked up and down the compartment until my cramped muscles were relieved. Then I sat down again, and, lighting a cigar, puffed great rings and clouds of fragrant smoke across the aisle. 
          “The train was flying; the cars lurched and shook, and the windows rattled accompaniment to the creaking panels. The smoke from my cigar dimmed the lamp in the ceiling and hid the opposite seat from view. How it curled and writhed in the corners, now eddying upward, now floating across the aisle like a veil! I lounged back in my cushioned seat, watching it with interest. What queer shapes it took! How thick it was becoming!—how strangely luminous! Now it had filled the whole compartment, puff after puff crowding upward, waving, wavering, clouding the windows, and blotting the lamp from sight. It was most interesting. I had never before smoked such a cigar. What an extraordinary brand! I examined the end, flicking the ashes away. The cigar was out. Fumbling for a match to relight it, my eyes fell on the drifting smoke-curtain which swayed across the corner opposite. It seemed almost tangible. How like a real curtain it hung, gray, impenetrable! A man might hide behind it. Then an idea came into my head, and it persisted until my uneasiness amounted to a vague terror. I tried to fight it off—I strove
to resist— but the conviction slowly settled upon me that something was behind that smoke-veil—something which had entered the compartment while I slept. 
          “‘It can’t be,’ I muttered, my eyes fixed on the misty drapery; ‘the train has not stopped.’ 
          “The car creaked and trembled. I sprang to my feet and swept my arm through the veil of smoke. Then my hair rose on my head. For my hand touched another hand, and my eyes had met two other eyes. 
          “I heard a voice in the gloom, low and sweet, calling me by name; I saw the eyes again, tender and blue; soft fingers touched my own. 
          “‘Are you afraid?’ she said. 
          “My heart began to beat again, and my face warmed with returning blood. 
          “‘It is only I,’ she said, gently. 
          “I seemed to hear my own voice speaking as if at a great distance, ‘You here—alone?’ 
          “‘How cruel of you!’ she faltered; ‘I am not alone.’ At the same instant my eyes fell upon the professor, calmly seated by the farther window. His hands were thrust into the folds of a corded and tasselled dressing-gown, from beneath which peeped two enormous feet encased in carpet slippers. Upon his head towered a yellow night-cap. He did not pay the slightest attention to either me or his daughter, and, except for the lighted cigar which he kept shifting between his lips, he might have been taken for a wax dummy. 
          “Then I began to speak, feebly, hesitating like a child. 
          “‘How did you come into this compartment? You—you do not possess wings, I suppose? You could not have been here all the time. Will you explain— explain to me? See, I ask you very humbly, for I do not understand. This is the nineteenth century, and these things don’t fit in. I’m wearing a Dunlap hat— I’ve got a copy of the New York Herald in my bag—President Roosevelt is alive, and everything is so very unromantic in the world! Is this real magic? Perhaps I’m filled with hallucinations. Perhaps I’m asleep and dreaming. Perhaps you are not really here—nor I—nor anybody, nor anything!’ 
          “The train plunged into a tunnel, and when again it dashed out from the other end the cold wind blew furiously in my face from the farther window. It was wide open; the professor was gone. 
          “‘Papa has changed to another compartment,’ she said, quietly. ‘I think perhaps you were beginning to bore him.’ 
          “Her eyes met mine and she smiled. 
          “‘Are you very much bewildered?’ 
          “I looked at her in silence. She sat very quietly, her hands clasped above her knee, her curly hair glittering to her girdle. A long robe, almost silvery in the twilight, clung to her young figure; her bare feet were thrust deep into a pair of shimmering Eastern slippers. 
          “‘When you fled,’ she sighed, ‘I was asleep and there was no time to lose. I barely had a moment to go to Bombay, to find papa, and return in time to join you. This is an East-Indian costume.’ 
          “Still I was silent. 
          “‘Are you shocked?’ she asked, simply. 
          “‘No,’ I replied, in a dull voice, ‘I’m past that.’ 
          “‘You are very rude,’ she said, with the tears starting to her eyes. 
          “‘I do not mean to be. I only wish to go away—away somewhere and find out what my name is.’ 
          “‘Your name is Harold Kensett.’ 
          “‘Are you sure?’ I asked, eagerly. 
          “‘Yes—what troubles you ?’ 
          “‘Is everything plain to you? Are you a sort of prophet and second-sight medium? Is nothing hidden from you?’ I asked. 
          “‘Nothing,’ she faltered. My head ached and I clasped it in my hand. 
          “A sudden change came over her. ‘I am human— believe me!’ she said, with piteous eagerness. ‘Indeed, I do not seem strange to those who understand. You wonder, because you left me at midnight in Antwerp and you wake to find me here. If, because I find myself reincarnated, endowed with senses and capabilities which few at present possess—if I am so made, why should it seem strange? It is all so natural to me. If I appear to you—’ 
          “‘Wilhelmina!’ I cried, ‘can you vanish?’ 
          “‘Yes,’ she murmured; ‘does it seem to you unmaidenly?’ 
          “‘Great Heaven!’ I groaned. 
          “‘Don’t!’ she cried, with tears in her voice—”oh, please don’t! Help me to bear it! If you only knew how awful it is to be different from other girls—how mortifying it is to me to be able to vanish—oh; how I hate and detest it all!’ 
          “‘Don’t cry,’ I said, looking at her pityingly. 
          “‘Oh, dear me!’ she sobbed. ‘You shudder at the sight of me because I can vanish.’ 
          “‘I don’t!’ I cried. 
          “‘Yes, you do! You abhor me—you shrink away! Oh, why did I ever see you?—why did you ever come into my life?—what have I done in ages past, that now, reborn, I suffer cruelly—cruelly?’ 
          “‘What do you mean?’ I whispered. My voice trembled with happiness. 
          “‘I?—nothing; but you think me a fabled monster.’ 
          “‘Wilhelmina—my sweet Wilhelmina,’ I said, ‘I don’t think you a fabled monster. I love you; see—see—I am at your feet; listen to me, my darling—’ 
          “She turned her blue eyes to mine. I saw tears sparkling on the curved lashes. 
          “‘Wilhelmina, I love you,’ I said again. 
          “Slowly she raised her hands to my head and held it a moment, looking at me strangely. Then her face grew nearer to my own, her glittering hair fell over my shoulders, her lips rested on mine. 
          “In that long, sweet kiss the beating of her heart answered mine, and I learned a thousand truths, wonderful, mysterious, splendid; but when our lips fell apart, the memory of what I learned departed also. 
          “‘It was so very simple and beautiful,’ she sighed, ‘and I—I never saw it. But the Mahatmas knew—ah, they knew that my mission could only be accomplished through love.’ 
          “‘And it is,’ I whispered, ‘for you shall teach me—me, your husband.’ 
          “‘And—and you will not be impatient? You will try to believe?’ 
          “‘I will believe what you tell me, my sweetheart.’ 
          “‘Even about—cats ?’ 
          “Before I could reply the farther window opened and a yellow night-cap, followed by the professor, entered from somewhere without. Wilhelmina sank back on her sofa, but the professor needed not to be told, and we both knew he was already busily reading our thoughts. 
          “For a moment there was dead silence—long enough for the professor to grasp the full significance of what had passed. Then he uttered a single exclamation, ‘Oh!’ 
          “After a while, however, he looked at me for the first time that evening, saying, ‘Congratulate you, Mr. Kensett, I’m sure,’ tied several knots in the cord of his dressing-gown, lighted a cigar, and paid no further attention to either of us. Some moments later he opened the window again and disappeared. I looked across the aisle at Wilhelmina. 
          “‘You may come over beside me,’ she said, shyly. 

Go to Chapter Twenty Five.....