In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


“It was nearly ten o’clock and our train was rapidly approaching Paris. We passed village after village wrapped in mist, station after station hung with twinkling red and blue and yellow lanterns, then sped on again with the echo of the switch-bells ringing in our ears: 
          “When at length the train slowed up and stopped, I opened the window and looked out upon a long, wet platform, shining under the electric lights. 
          “A guard came running by, throwing open the doors of each compartment, and crying, ‘Paris next! Tickets, if you please.’ 
          “I handed him my book of coupons, from which he tore several and handed it back. Then he lifted his lantern and peered into the compartment, saying, ‘Is monsieur alone?’ 
          “I turned to Wilhelmina. 
          “‘He wants your ticket—give it to me.’ 
          “‘What’s that?’ demanded the guard. 
          “I looked anxiously at Wilhelmina. 
          “‘If your father has the tickets—’ I began, but was interrupted by the guard, who snapped: 
          “‘Monsieur will give himself the trouble to remember that I do not understand English.’ 
          “‘Keep quiet!’ I said, sharply, in French. ‘I am not speaking to you.’ 
          “The guard stared stupidly at me, then at my luggage, and finally, entering the car, knelt down and peered under the seats. Presently he got up, very red in the face, and went out slamming the door. He had not paid the slightest attention to Wilhelmina, but I distinctly heard him say, ‘Only Englishmen and idiots talk to themselves!’ 
          “‘Wilhelmina,’ I faltered, ‘do you mean to say that that guard could not see you?’ 
          “She began to look so serious again that I merely added, ‘Never mind, I don’t care whether you are invisible or not, dearest.’ 
          “‘I am not invisible to you,’ she said; ‘why should you care?’ 
          “A great noise of bells and whistles drowned our voices, and, amid the whirring of switch-bells, the hissing of steam, and the cries of ‘Paris! All out!’ our train glided into the station. 
          “It was the professor who opened the door of our carriage. There he stood, calmly adjusting his yellow night-cap and drawing his dressing-gown closer with the corded tassels. 
          “‘Where have you been?’ I asked. 
          “‘On the engine.’ 
          “ ‘In the engine, I suppose you mean,’ I said. 
          “‘No, I don’t; I mean on the engine—on the pilot. It was very refreshing. Where are we going now?’ 
          “‘Do you know Paris?’ asked Wilhelmina, turning to me. 
          “‘Yes. I think your father had better take you to the Hôtel Normandie on the Rue de l’Echelle—’ 
          “‘But you must stay there, too!’ 
          “‘Of course—if you wish—’ 
          She laughed nervously. 
          “‘Don’t you see that my father and I could not take rooms—now? You must engage three rooms for yourself. “ 
          ”’Why?’ I asked, stupidly. 
          “‘Oh, dear—why, because we are invisible.’ 
          “I tried to repress a shudder. The professor gave Wilhelmina his arm, and, as I studied his ensemble, I thanked Heaven that he was invisible. 
          “At the gate of the station I hailed a four-seated cab, and we rattled away through the stony streets, brilliant with gas-jets, and in a few moments rolled smoothly across the Avenue de l’Opéra, turned into the Rue de l’Echelle, and stopped. A bright little page, all over buttons, came out, took my luggage, and preceded us into the hallway. 
          “I, with Wilhelmina on my arm and the professor shuffling along beside me, walked over to the desk. 
          “‘Room?’ said the clerk. ‘We have a very desirable room on the second, fronting the Rue St. Honoré—’ 
          “‘But we—that is, I want three rooms—three separate rooms!’ I said. 
          “The clerk scratched his chin. ‘Monsieur is expecting friends?’ 
          “‘Say yes,’ whispered Wilhelmina, with a suspicion of laughter in her voice. 
          “‘Yes,’ I repeated, feebly. 
          “‘Gentlemen, of course?’ said the clerk, looking at me narrowly. 
          “‘One lady.’ 
          “‘Married, of course?’ 
          “‘What’s that to you?’ I said, sharply. ‘What do you mean by speaking to us—’ 
          “‘I mean to me,’ I said, badly rattled; ‘give me the rooms and let me get to bed, will you?’ 
          “‘Monsieur will remember,’ said the clerk, coldly, ‘that this is an old and respectable hotel.’ 
          “‘I know it,’ I said, smothering my rage. 
          “The clerk eyed me suspiciously. 
          “‘Front!’ he called, with irritating deliberation. ‘Show this gentleman to apartment ten.’ 
          “‘How many rooms are there!’ I demanded. 
          “‘Three sleeping-rooms and a parlor.’ 
          “‘I will take it,’ I said, with composure. 
          “‘On probation,’ muttered the clerk, insolently. 
          “Swallowing the insult, I followed the bell-boy up the stairs, keeping between him and Wilhelmina, for I dreaded to see him walk through her as if she were thin air. A trim maid rose to meet us and conducted us through a hallway into a large apartment. She threw open all the bedroom-doors and said, ‘Will monsieur have the goodness to choose?’ 
          “‘Which will you take,’ I began, turning to Wilhelmina. 
          “‘I? Monsieur!’ cried the startled maid. 
          “That completely upset me. ‘Here,’ I muttered, slipping some silver into her hand; ‘now, for the love of Heaven, run away !’ 
          “When she had vanished with a doubtful ‘Merci, monsieur!’ I handed the professor the keys and asked him to settle the thing with Wilhelmina. 
          “Wilhelmina took the corner room, the professor rambled into the next one, and I said good-night and crept wearily into my own chamber. I sat down and tried to think. A great feeling of fatigue weighted my spirits. 
          “‘I can think better with my clothes off,’ I said, and slipped the coat from my shoulders. How tired I was! ‘I can think better in bed,’ I muttered, flinging my cravat on the dresser and tossing my shirt-studs after it. I was certainly very tired. ‘Now,’ I yawned, grasping the pillow and drawing it under my head— ’now I can think a bit.’ But before my head fell on the pillow sleep closed my eyes. 
          “I began to dream at once. It seemed as though my eyes were wide open and the professor was standing beside my bed. 
          “‘Young man,’ he said, ‘you’ve won my daughter and you must pay the piper!’ 
          “‘What piper?’ I said. 
          “‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin, I don’t think,’ replied the professor, vulgarly, and before I could realize what he was doing he had drawn a reed pipe from his dressing-gown and was playing a strangely annoying air. Then an awful thing occurred. Cats began to troop into the room, cats by the hundred—toms and tabbies, gray, yellow, Maltese, Persian, Manx—all purring and all marching round and round, rubbing against the furniture, the professor, and even against me. I struggled with the nightmare. 
          “‘Take them away!’ I tried to gasp. 
          “‘Nonsense!’ he said; ‘here is an old friend.’ 
          “I saw the white tabby cat of the Hôtel St. Antoine. 
          “‘An old friend,’ he repeated, and played a dismal melody on his reed. “I saw Wilhelmina enter the room, lift the white tabby in her arms, and bring her to my side. 
          “‘Shake hands with him,’ she commanded. 
          “To my horror the tabby deliberately extended a paw and tapped me on the knuckles. 
          “‘Oh!’ I cried, in agony; ‘this is a horrible dream! Why, oh, why can’t I wake!’ 
          “‘Yes,’ she said, dropping the cat, ‘it is partly a dream, but some of it is real. Remember what I say, my darling; you are to go to-morrow morning and meet the twelve-o’clock train from Antwerp at the Gare du Nord. Papa and I are coming to Paris on that train. Don’t you know that we are not really here now, you silly boy? Good-night, then. I shall be very glad to see you.’ 
          “I saw her glide from the room, followed by the professor, playing a gay quick-step, to which the cats danced two and two. 
          “‘Good-night, sir,’ said each cat as it passed my bed; and I dreamed no more. 
          “When I awoke, the room, the bed had vanished; I was in the street, walking rapidly; the sun shone down on the broad, white pavements of Paris, and the streams of busy life flowed past me on either side. How swiftly I was walking! Where the devil was I going? Surely I had business somewhere that needed immediate attention. I tried to remember when I had awakened, but I could not. I wondered where I had dressed myself; I had apparently taken great pains with my toilet, for I was immaculate, monocle and all, even down to a long-stemmed rose nestling in my button-hole. I knew Paris and recognized the streets through which I was hurrying. Where could I be going? What was my hurry? I glanced at my watch and found I had not a moment to lose. Then, as the bells of the city rang out mid-day, I hastened into the railroad station on the Rue Lafayette and walked out to the platform. And as I looked down the glittering track, around the distant curve shot a locomotive followed by a long line of cars. Nearer and nearer it came, while the station-gongs sounded and the switch-bells began ringing all along the track. 
          “‘Antwerp express!’ cried the sous-chef de gare, and as the train slipped along the tiled platform I sprang upon the steps of a first-class carriage and threw open the door. 
          “‘How do you do, Mr. Kensett?’ said Wilhelmina Wyeth, springing lightly to the platform. ‘Really it is very nice of you to come to the train.’ At the same moment a bald, mild-eyed gentleman emerged from the depths of the same compartment, carrying a large, covered basket. 
          “‘How are you, Kensett?’ he said. ‘Glad to see you again. Rather warm in that compartment—no, I will not trust this basket to an expressman; give Wilhelmina your arm and I’ll follow. We go to the Normandie, I believe?’ 
          “All the morning I had Wilhelmina to myself, and at dinner I sat beside her, with the professor opposite. The latter was cheerful enough, but he nearly ruined my appetite, for he smelled strongly of catnip. After dinner he became restless and fidgeted about in his chair until coffee was brought, and we went up to the parlor of our apartment. Here his restlessness increased to such an extent that I ventured to ask him if he was in good health. 
          “‘It’s that basket—the covered basket which I have in the next room,’ he said. 
          “‘What’s the trouble with the basket?’ I asked. 
          “‘The basket’s all right—but the contents worry me.’ 
          “‘May I inquire what the contents are?’ I ventured. “The professor rose. 
          “‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you may inquire of my daughter.’ He left the room, but reappeared shortly, carrying a saucer of milk. 
          “I watched him enter the next room, which was mine. 
          “‘What on earth is he taking that into my room for?’ I asked Wilhelmina. ‘I don’t keep cats.’ 
          “‘But you will,’ she said. 
          “‘I? Never!’ 
          “‘You will if I ask you to.’ 
          “‘But—but you won’t ask me.’ 
          “‘But I do.’ 
          “‘I detest cats.’ 
          “‘You must not.’ 
          “‘I can’t help it.’ 
          “‘You will when I ask it. Have I not given myself to you? Will you not make a little sacrifice for me?’ 
          “‘I don’t understand—’ 
          “‘Would you refuse my first request?’ 
          “‘No,’ I said, miserably, ‘I will keep dozens of cats—’ 
          “‘I do not ask that; I only wish you to keep one,’ 
          “‘Was that what your father had in that basket?’ I asked, suspiciously. 
          “‘Yes, the basket came from Antwerp.’ 
          “‘What! The white Antwerp cat!’ I cried. 
          “‘And you ask me to keep that cat? Oh, Wilhelmina!’ 
          “‘Listen!’ she said. ‘I have a long story to tell you; come nearer, close to me.  You say you love me?’ 
          “I bent and kissed her. 
          “‘Then I shall put you to the proof,’ she murmured. 
          “‘Prove me!’ 
          “‘Listen. That cat is the same cat that ran out of the apartment in the Waldorf when your great-aunt ceased to exist—in human shape. My father and myself, having received word from the Mahatmas of the Trust Company, sheltered and cherished the cat. We were ordered by the Mahatmas to convert you. The task was appalling—but there is no such thing as refusing a command, and we laid our plans. That man with a white spot in his hair was my father—’ 
          “‘What! Your father is bald.’ 
          “‘He wore a wig then. The white spot came from dropping chemicals on the wig while experimenting with a substance which you could not comprehend.’ 
          “‘Then—then that clew was useless; but who could have taken the Crimson Diamond? And who was the man with the white spot on his head who tried to sell the stone in Paris?’ 
          “‘That was my father.’ 
          “‘He—he—st—took the Crimson Diamond!’ I cried, aghast. 
          “‘Yes and no. That was only a paste stone that he had in Paris. It was to draw you over here. He had the real Crimson Diamond also.’ 
          “‘Your father?’ 
          “‘Yes. He has it in the next room now. Can you not see how it disappeared, Harold? Why, the cat swallowed it!’ 
          “‘Do you mean to say that the white tabby swallowed the Crimson Diamond?’ 
          “‘By mistake. She tried to get it out of the velvet bag, and, as the bag was also full of catnip, she could not resist a mouthful, and unfortunately just then you broke in the door and so startled the cat that she swallowed the Crimson Diamond.’ 
          “There was a painful pause. At last I said: 
          “‘Wilhelmina, as you are able to vanish, I suppose you also are able to converse with cats.’ 
          “‘I am,’ she replied, trying to keep back the tears of mortification. 
          “‘And that cat told you this?’ 
          “‘She did.’ 
          “‘And my Crimson Diamond is inside that cat?’ 
          “‘It is.’ 
          “‘Then,’ said I, firmly, ‘I am going to chloroform the cat.’ 
          “‘Harold!’ she cried, in terror, ‘that cat is your great-aunt!’ 
          “I don’t know to this day how I stood the shock of that announcement, or how I managed to listen while Wilhelmina tried to explain the transmigration theory, but it was all Chinese to me. I only knew that I was a blood relation of a cat, and the thought nearly drove me mad. 
          “‘Try, my darling, try to love her,’ whispered Wilhelmina; ‘she must be very precious to you—’ 
          “‘Yes, with my diamond inside her,’ I replied, faintly. 
          “‘You must not neglect her,’ said Wilhelmina. 
          “‘Oh no, I’ll always have my eye on her—I mean I will surround her with luxury—er, milk and bones and catnip and books—er—does she read?’ 
          “‘Not the books that human beings read. Now, go and speak to your aunt, Harold.’ 
          “‘Eh! How the deuce—’ 
          “‘Go; for my sake try to be cordial.’ 
          “She rose and led me unresistingly to the door of my room. 
          “‘Good Heavens!’ I groaned; ‘this is awful.’ 
          “‘Courage, my darling!’ she whispered. ‘Be brave for love of me.’ 
          “I drew her to me and kissed her. Beads of cold perspiration started in the roots of my hair, but I clenched my teeth and entered the room alone. The room was dark and I stood silent, not knowing where to turn, fearful lest I step on my aunt! Then, through the dreary silence, I called, ‘Aunty!’ 
          “A faint noise broke upon my ear, and my heart grew sick, but I strode into the darkness, calling, hoarsely: 
          “‘Aunt Tabby! It is your nephew!’ 
          “Again the faint sound. Something was stirring there among the shadows— a shape moving softly along the wall, a shade which glided by me, paused, wavered, and darted under the bed. Then I threw myself on the floor, profoundly moved, begging, imploring my aunt to come to me. 
          “‘Aunty! Aunty!’ I murmured. ‘Your nephew is waiting to take you to his heart!’ 
          “At last I saw my great-aunt’s eyes shining in the dark.” 
          The young man’s voice grew hushed and solemn, and he lifted his hand in silence: 
          “Close the door. That meeting is not for the eyes of the world! Close the door upon that sacred scene where great-aunt and nephew are united at last.” 
          A long pause followed; deep emotion was visible in Miss Barrison’s sensitive face. She said: 
          “Then—you are married?” 
          “No,” replied Mr. Kensett, in a mortified voice. 
          “Why not?” I asked, amazed. 
          “Because,” he said, “although my fiancée was prepared to accept a cat as her great-aunt, she could not endure the complications that followed.” 
          “What complications?” inquired Miss Barrison. 
          The young man sighed profoundly, shaking his head. 
          “My great-aunt had kittens,” he said, softly. 
          The tremendous scientific importance of these experiences excited me beyond measure. The simplicity of the narrative, the elaborate attention to corroborative detail, all bore irresistible testimony to the truth of these accounts of phenomena vitally important to the entire world of science. 
          We all dined together that night—a little earnest company of knowledgeseekers in the vast wilderness of the unexplored; and we lingered long in the dining-car, propounding questions, advancing theories, speculating upon possibilities of most intense interest. Never before had I known a man whose relatives were cats and kittens, but he did not appear to share my enthusiasm in the matter. 
          “You see,” he said, looking at Miss Barrison, “it may be interesting from a purely scientific point of view, but it has already proved a bar to my marrying.” 
          “Were the kittens black?” I inquired. 
          “No,” he said, “my aunt drew the color-line, I am proud to say.” 
          “I don’t see,” said Miss Barrison, “why the fact that your great-aunt is a cat should prevent you from marrying.” 
          “It wouldn’t prevent me!” said the young man, quickly. 
          “Nor me,” mused Miss Barrison—“if I were really in love.” 
          Meanwhile I had been very busy thinking about Professor Farrago, and, coming to an interesting theory, advanced it. 
          “If,” I began, “he marries one of those transparent ladies, what about the children?” 
          “Some would be, no doubt, transparent,” said Kensett. 
          “They might be only translucent,” suggested Miss Barrison. 
          “Or partially opaque,” I ventured. “But it’s a risky marriage—not to be able to see what one’s wife is about—” 
          “That is a silly reflection on women,” said Miss Barrison, quietly. “Besides, a girl need not be transparent to conceal what she’s doing.” 
          This observation seemed to end our postprandial and tripartite conference; Miss Barrison retired to her stateroom presently; after a last cigar, smoked almost in silence, the young man and I bade each other a civil good-night and retired to our respective berths. 
          I think it was at Richmond, Virginia, that I was awakened by the negro porter shaking me very gently and repeating, in a pleasant, monotonous voice: 
          “Teleg’am foh you, suh! Teleg’am foh Mistuh Gilland, suh. ‘Done call you ‘lev’m times sense breakfass, suh! Las’ call foh luncheon, suh. Teleg’am foh—” 
          “Heavens!” I muttered, sitting up in my bunk, “is it as late as that! Where are we?” I slid up the window-shade and sat blinking at a flood of sunshine. 
          “Telegram?” I said, yawning and rubbing my eyes. “Let me have it. All right, I’ll be out presently. Shut that curtain! I don’t want the entire car to criticise my pink pajamas!” 
          “Ain’ nobody in de cyar, ‘scusin yo’se’f, suh,” grinned the porter, retiring. I heard him, but did not comprehend, sitting there sleepily unfolding the scrawled telegram. Suddenly my eyes flew wide open; I scanned the despatch with stunned incredulity:  
          Atlanta, Georgia.  
          “We couldn’t help it. Love at first sight. Married this morning in Atlanta. 
          Wildly happy. Forgive. Wire blessing. 
          “(Signed) Harold Kensett, 
          “Helen Barrison Kensett.”  
          “Porter!” I shouted. “Porter! Help!” 
          There was no response. 
          “Oh, Lord!” I groaned, and rolled over, burying my head in the blankets; for I understood at last that Science, the most jealous, most exacting of mistresses, could never brook a rival.