ONE sense, it is a mere truism to speak of the evocative power of words.
The olden efficacy of subtly woven spells, of magic formulas and incantations,
has long become a literary metaphor; though the terrible reality which
once underlay and may still underlie such concepts has been forgotten.
However, the necromancy of language is more than a metaphor to Sir Roderick
Hagdon: the scars of fire on his ankles are things which no one
could possibly regard as having their origin in a figure of speech.
Sir Roderick Hagdon came to his title and his estate with no definite
expectation of inheriting them, nor any first-hand knowledge of the sort
of life and surroundings entailed by his inheritance. He had been born
in Australia; and though he had known that his father was the younger brother
of Sir John Hagdon, he had formed only the vaguest idea of the ancestral
manor; and the interest that he felt therein was even vaguer. His surprize
was little short of consternation when the deaths of his father, of Sir
John Hagdon and Sir John's only son, all occurring within less than a year,
left clear his own succession and brought a letter from the family lawyers
informing him of this fact—which otherwise might have escaped his attention.
His mother, too, was dead; and he was unmarried; so, leaving the Australian
sheep-range in charge of a competent overseer, he had sailed immediately
for England to assume his hereditary privileges.
It was a strange experience for him; and, strangest of all, in view
of the fact that he had never before visited England, was the inexplicable
feeling of familiarity aroused by his first sight of the Hagdon manor.
He seemed to know the farm-lands, the cottages of the tenants, the wood
of ancient oaks with their burdens of Druidic mistletoe, and the old manor-house
half hidden among gigantic yews, as if he had seen them all in some period
that was past recollection. Being of an analytic trend, he attributed all
this to that imperfect sitmultaneousness in the action of the brain-hemispheres
by which psychologists account for such phenomena. But the feeling remained
and grew upon him; and he yielded more and more to its half-sinister charm,
as he explored his property and delved in the family archives. He felt
also an unexpected kinship with his ancestors—a feeling which had lain
wholly dormant during his Australian youth. Their portraits, peering upon
him from the never-dissipated shadows of the long hall wherein they hung,
were like well-known faces.
The manor-house, it was said, had been built in the reign of Henry
the Seventh. It was mossed and lichened with antiquity; and there was a
hint of beginning dilapidation in the time-worn stone of the walls. The
formal garden had gone a little wild from neglect; the trimmed hedges and
trees had taken on fantastic sprawling shapes; and evil, poisonous weeds
had invaded the flower-beds. There were statues of cracked marble and verdigris-eaten
bronze amid the shrubbery; there were fountains that had long ceased to
flow; and dials on which the foliage-intercepted sun no longer fell. About
it all there hung an air of shadow-laden time and subtle decadence. But
though he had never known anything but the primitive Australian environment,
Hagdon found himself quite at home in this atmosphere of Old World complexities—an
atmosphere that was made from the dissolving phantoms of a thousand years,
from the breathings of dead men and women, from loves and hates that had
gone down to dust. Contrary to his anticipations, he felt no nostalgia
whatever for the remote land of his birth and upbringing.
Sir Roderick came to love the sunless gardens and the overtowering
yews. But, above and beyond these, he was fascinated by the manor-house
itself, by the hall of ancestral portraits and the dark, dusty library
in which he found an amazing medley of rare tomes and manuscripts. There
were many first editions of Elizabethan poets and dramatists; and mingled
with these in a quaint disorder, were antique books on astrology and conjuration,
on demonism and magic. Sir Rodereck shivered a little, he knew not why,
as he turned the leaves of some of these latter, volumes, from whose ancient
vellum and parchment arose to his nostrils an odor that was like the mustiness
of tombs. He dosed them hastily; and the first editions were unable to
detain him; but he lingered long over certain genealogies and manuscript
records of the Hagdon family filled with a strange eagerness to learn as
much as he could concerning these shadowy forbears of his.
In going through the records, he was struck by the brevity of the
mention accorded to a former Sir Roderick Hagdon, who had lived in the
early Seventeenth Century. All other members of the direct line had been
dealt with at some length; their deeds, their marriages, and their various
claims to distinction (often in the role of soldiers or scholars) were
usually set forth with a well-nigh vainglorious unction. But concerning
Sir Roderick, nothing more was given than the bare dates of his birth and
death, and the fact that he was the father of one Sir Ralph Hagdon. No
mention whatever was made of his wife.
Though there was no obvious reason for more than a passing surmise,
the present Sir Roderick wondered and speculated much over these singular
and perhaps sinister omissions. His curiosity increased when he found that
there was no portrait of Sir Roderick in the gallery, and none of his mysterious
unnamed lady. There was not even a vacant place between the pictures of
Sir Roderick's father and son, to indicate that there ever had been a portrait.
The new baronet determined to solve the mystery, if possible: an element
of vague but imperative disquietude was now mingled with his curiosity.
He could not have analyzed his feelings; but the life and fate of this
unknown ancestor seemed to take on for him a special significance, a concern
that was incomprehensibly personal and intimate.
At times he felt that his obsession with this problem was utterly
ridiculous and uncalled-for. Nevertheless, he ransacked the manor-house
in the hope of finding some hidden record; and he questioned the servants,
the tenants and the people of the parish to learn if there were any legendry
concerning his namesake. The manor-house yielded nothing more to his search;
and his inquiries met with blank faces and avowals of ignorance: no one
seemed to have heard of this elusive Seventeenth Century baronet.
At last, from the family butler, James Wharton, an octogenarian who
had served three generations of Hagdons, Sir Roderick obtained the clue
which he sought. Wharton, who was now on the brink of senility, and had
grown forgetful and taciturn, was seemingly ignorant as the rest; but one
day, after repeated questioning, he remembered that he had been told in
his youth of a secret closet behind one of the book-shelves; in which certain
manuscripts and heirlooms had been locked away several hundred years before;
and which, for some unknown reason, no Hagdon had ever opened since that
time. Here, he suggested, something might be found that would serve to
illumine the dark gap in the family history. There was a cunning, sardonic
gleam in his rheumy eyes as he came forth with this tardy piece of information,
and Sir Roderick wondered if the old man were not possessed of more genealogical
lore than he was willing to admit. All at once, he conceived the disquieting
idea that perhaps he was on the verge of some abominable discovery, on
the threshold of things that had been forgotten because they were too dreadful
However, he did not hesitate: he was conscious of a veritable compulsion
to learn whatever could be learned. The bookcase indicated built the half-senile
butler was one which contained most of the volumes of demonism and magic.
It was now removed; and Sir Roderick went over the uncovered wall inch
by inch. After much futile fumbling, he located mod pressed a hidden spring,
and the door of the sealed room swung Open.
It was little more than a cupboard, though a man could have concealed
himself within it in time of need. Doubtless it had been built primarily
for some such purpose. From out its narrow gloom the moldiness of dead
ages rushed upon Sir Roderick, together with the ghosts of queer exotic
perfumes such as might have poured from the burning of unholy censers in
Satanic rites. It was an effluence of mystery and of evil, Within, there
were several ponderous brazen-bound volumes of mediaeval date, a thin manuscript
of yellowing parchment, and two portraits whose faces had been turned to
the wall, as if it were unlawful for even the darkness of the sealed door
to behold them. Sir Roderick brought the volumes, the manuscript and the
portraits Forth to the light. The pictures, which he examined first, represented
a pan and woman who were both in the bloom of life. Both were attired in
Seventeenth Century costumes; and the new Sir Roderick did not doubt for
a moment that they were the mysterious couple concerning whom the family
records were so reticent.
He thrilled with a strange excitement, with a feeling of some momentous
revelation that he could not wholly comprehend, as he looked upon them.
Even at a glance, he saw the singular resemblance of the first Sir Roderick
to himself—a likeness otherwise unduplicated in the family, which tended
to an almost antinomian type. There were the same falcon-like features,
the same pallor of brow and cheek, the same semi-morbid luster of eyes,
the same bloodless lips that seemed to be carven from a marble that had
also been chiselled for the long hollow eyelids. The majority of the Hagdons
were broad and sanguine and ruddy; but in these two, a darker strain had
repeated itself across the centuries. The main difference was in the expression,
for the look of the first Sir Roderick was that of a man who has given
himself with a passionate devotion to all things evil and corrupt; who
has gone down to damnation through some inevitable fatality of his own
Sir Roderick gazed on the picture with a fascination that was partly
horror, and partly the stirring of emotions which he could not have named.
Then he turned to the woman, and a wild agitation overmastered him before
the sullen-smiling mouth and the malign oval of the lovely cheeks. She,
too, was evil, and her beauty was that of Lilith. She was like some crimson-lipped
and honey-scented flower that grows on the brink of hell; but Sir Roderick
knew, with the terror and fearful rapture of one who longs to fling himself
from a precipice, that here was the one woman he might have loved, if haply
he had known her. Then, in a moment of reeling and whirling confusion,
it seemed to him that he known and loved her, though he could not remember
when or where.
The feeling of eery confusion passed; and Sir Roderick began to examine
the brass-bound volumes. They were written in a barbarous decadent Latin,
and dealt mainly with methods and formulas for the evocation of such demons
as Acheront, Amaimon, Asmodi and Ashtoreth, together with innumerable others.
Sir Roderick shuddered at the curious drawings with which they were illuminated;
but they did not detain him long. With a thrill of actual trepidation,
like one who is about to enter some awful and unhallowed place, he took
up the manuscript of yellowing parchment.
It was late afternoon when he began to read; and rays of dusty amber
were slanting through the low panes of the library windows. As he read
on, he gave no heed to the sinking of the light; and the last words were
plain as runes of fire when he finished his perusal in the dusk. He closed
his eyes, and could still see them:
"And Sir Roderick Hagdonne was now deemed a moste infamous warlocke,
and hys Ladye Elinore a nefandous witche. . . . And both were burned at
the stake on Hagdonne Common for their crimes against God and man. And
their sorcerous deedes and practices were thought so foule a blotte on
ye knighthoode of England, that no man speaks thereof, and no grandam tells
the tale to the children at her knee. So, by God Hys mercy, the memorie
of thys foulnesse shall haply be forgotten; for sorely itte were an ill
thing that such should be recalled."
Then, at the very bottom of the page, there was a brief, mysterious
footnote in a finer hand than the rest:
"There be those amid the thronge who deemed that they saw Sir Rodericke
vanish when the flames leaped high; and thys, if true, is the moste damnable
proof of hys compact and hys commerce with the Evil One. "
Sir Roderick sat for a long while in the thickening twilight. He
was unstrung, he was abnormally shaken and distraught by the biographical
record he had just read—a record that had been written by some unknown
hand in a bygone century. It was not pleasant for any man to find a tale
so dreadful amid the archives of his family history. But the fact that
the narrative concerned the first Sir Roderick and his Lady Elinor was
hardly enough to account for all the spiritual turmoil and horror into
which he was plunged. Somehow, in a way that was past analysis, that was
more intimate than his regard for the remote blot on the Hagdon name, he
felt that the thing concerned himself also. A terrible nervous perturbation
possessed him, his very sense of identity was troubled, he was adrift in
a sea of abominable confusion, of disoriented thoughts and capsizing memories.
In this peculiar state of mind, by an automatic impulse, he lit the floor-lamp
beside his chair and began to re-read the manuscript.
Almost in the casual manner of a modern tale, the story opened with
an account of Sir Roderick's first meeting, at the age of twenty-three,
with Elinor D'Avenant, who was afterward to become his wife.
This time, as he read, a peculiar hallucination seized the new baronet
It seemed to him that the words of the old writing had begun to waver and
change beneath his scrutiny; that, under the black lines of script on yellowing
parchment, the picture of an actual place was forming. The page expanded,
the letters grew dim and gigantic; they seemed to fade out in midair, and
the picture behind them was no longer a picture, but the very scene of
the narrative. As if the wording were a necromantic spell, the room about
him had vanished like the chamber of a dream; and he stood in the open
sunlight of a windy moor. Bees were humming around him, and the scent of
heather was in his nostrils. His consciousness was indescribably dual;
somewhere, he knew, one part of his brain was still reading the ancient
record; but the rest of his personality had become identified with that
of the first Sir Roderick Hagdon. Inevitably, with no surprize or astonishment,
he found himself living in a bygone age, with the perceptions and memories
of an ancestor who was long dead.
"Now Sir Roderick Hagdonne, being in the flower of hys youth, became
instantlie enamoured of the beauteous Elinore D'Avenant, whenas he mette
her of an Aprile morn on Hagdonne heathe."
Sir Roderick saw that he was not alone on the moor. A woman was coming
toward him along the narrow path amid the heather. Though clad in the conventional
gown and bodice of the period, she was somehow foreign and exotic to that
familiar English landscape. She was the woman of the portrait which, in
a later life, as another Sir Roderick, he had found in a sealed room of
the manor-house. (But this, like much else, he had now forgotten.) Walking
with a languid grace amid the homely blossoms of the heath, her beauty
was like that of some opulent and sinister lily from Saracenic lands. He
thought that he had never seen any one half so strange and lovely.
He stood to one side in the stiff growth, and bowed before her with
a knightly courtesy as she passed. She nodded slightly in acknowledgment,
and gave him an unfathomable smile and an oblique flash of her dark eyes.
From that time, Sir Roderick was her slave and her devotee: he stared after
her as she disappeared on the curving slope, and felt the mounting of an
irresistible flame in his heart, and the stirring of hot desires and curiosities.
He seemed to inhale the spice of a languorous alien perfume with every
breath of the homeland air, as he walked onward, musing with ingenuous
rapture on the dark, enigmatic beauty of the face he had seen.
Now, in that queer necromantic dream, Sir Roderick seemed to live,
or re-live, the events of an entire lustrum. Somewhere, in another existence,
another self was conning briefly the paragraphs which detailed these events;
but of this he was conscious only at long intervals, and then vaguely.
So complete was his immersion in the progress of the tale (as if he had
drunk of that Lethe which alone makes it possible to live again) that he
was untroubled by any prevision of a future known to the Sir Roderick who
sat re-reading an old manuscript. Even as it was written, he returned from
the moor to Hagdon Hall with the vision of a fair stranger in his heart;
he made inquiries concerning her, and learned that she was the daughter
of Sir John D'Avenant, who had but recently received his knighthood for
diplomatic services, and had now taken up his abode on the state near Hagdon
that went with his title. Sir Roderick was now doubly impelled to call
on his new neighbors; and his first visit was soon repeated. He became
an open suitor for the hand of Elinor D'Avenant; and, after a wooing of
several months, he married her
The passionate love with which she had inspired him was only deepened
by their life together. Always her allurement was that of things half understood,
of momentous revelations eternally half withheld. She seemed to love him
truly in return; but ever her heart and soul were strange to him, ever
they were mysterious and exotic, even as the first sight of her face had
been. For this, mayhap, he loved her all the more. They were happy together;
and she bore him one child, a son whom they named Ralph.
Now, in that other life, the Sir Roderick who was reading in the
old library came to these words:
"No man knew how it happed; but anon there were dreade whispers and
foule rumours regarding the Ladye Elinore; and people said that she was
a witch. And in their time these rumours reached the eare of Sir Roderick."
A horror crept upon the happy dream—a horror scarce to be comprehended
in this modern age. There were formless evil wings that came to brood above
Hagdon Hall; and the very air was poisoned with malignant murmurs. Day
by day, and night by night, the baronet was tortured with a vile, unholy
suspicion of the woman he loved. He watched her with a fearful anxiety,
with eyes that dreaded to discern a new and more ominous meaning in her
strange beauty. Then, when he could bear it no longer, he taxed her with
the infamous things he had heard, hoping she would deny them and by virtue
of her denial restore fully his former trust and peace of mind.
To his utter consternation, the Lady Elinor laughed in his face,
with a soft, siren-like mirth, and made open avowal that the charges were
"And I trow," she added, "that you love me too well to disown or
betray me; that for my sake, if need be, you will become a veritable wizard,
even as I am a witch; and will share with me the infernal sports of the
Sir Roderick pleaded, he cajoled, he commanded, he threatened; but
ever she answered him with voluptuous laughter and Circean smiles; and
ever she told him of those delights and privileges which are procurable
only through damnation, through the perilous aid of demons and succubi.
Till, through his exceeding love for her, even as she had foretold, Sir
Roderick suffered himself to become an initiate in the arts of sorcery;
and sealed his own pact with the powers of evil, that he might in all things
be made forever one with her that he loved so dearly.
It was an age of dark beliefs and of practises that were no less
dark; and witchcraft and sorcery were rampant throughout the land, among
all classes. But in the Lilith-like Elinor there was a spirit of soulless,
depravity beyond that of all others; and beneath the seduction of her love
the hapless Sir Roderick fell to depths wherefrom no man could return,
and made mortgage of his soul and brain and body to Satan. He learned the
varying malefic usages to which a waxen image could be put; he memorized
the formulas that summon frightful things from their abode in the nethermost
night, or compel the dead to do the abominable will of necromancers. And
he was taught the secrets whereof it is unlawful to tell or even hint;
and came to know the maledictions and invultuations which are lethal to
more than the mortal flesh. And Hagdon Hall became the scene of pandemonian
revels, of rites that were both obscene and blasphemous; and the terror
and turpitude of hellish things were effluent therefrom on all the countryside.
And amid her coterie of the damned, amid the witches and sorcerers and
incubi that fawned upon her, the Lady Elinor exulted openly; and Sir Roderick
was her partner in each new enormity or baleful deed. And in this atmosphere
of noisome things, of Satanic crime and sacrilege, the child Ralph was
alone innocent, being too young to be harmed thereby as yet. But anon the
scandal of it all was a horror in men's souls that could be endured no
longer; and the justice of the law, which made a felony of witchcraft,
was called upon by the people of Hagdon.
It was no new thing for members of the nobility to be tried on such
a charge before the secular or ecclesiastical courts. Such cases, in which
the accusations were often doubtful or prompted by mere malice, had sometimes
been fought at length. But this time the guilt of the defendants was so
universally maintained, and the reprobation arouse thereby so profound,
that only the briefest and most perfunctory trial was accorded them. They
were sentenced to be burnt at the stake; the sentence to be carried out
on the following day.
It was a chill, dank morning in autumn when Sir Roderick and Lady
Elinor were borne to the place of execution and were tied to their respective
stakes, with piles of dry fagots at their feet. They were set facing each
other, so that neither might lose any detail of their mutual agony. A crowd
was gathered about them, thronging the entire common —a crowd whose awful
silence was unbroken by any outcry or murmur. So deep was the terror wrought
by this infamous couple, that no one dared to execrate or mock them even
in the hour of their downfall. Sir Roderick's brain was benumbed by the
obloquy and shame and horror of his situation, by a realization of the
ultimate depths to which he had fallen, of the bitter doom that was now
imminent. He looked at his wife, and thought of how she had drawn him down
from evil to evil through his surpassing love for her; and then he thought
of the frightful searing pains that would convulse her soft body; and thinking
of these he forgot his own fate.
Then, in a dim, exiguous manner, he remembered that somewhere in
another century there sat another Sir Roderick who was reading all this
in an old manuscript. If he could only break the necromantic spell of the
tale, and re-identify himself with that other Sir Roderick, he would be
saved from the fiery doom that awaited him, but if he could not deny the
spell, he would surely perish, even as a falling man who reaches bottom
in a dream is said to perish.
He looked again, and met the gaze of the Lady Elinor. She smiled
across her bonds and fagots, with all the old seduction that had been so
fatal to him. In the re-attained duality of his consciousness, it seemed
as if she were aware of his intention and had willed to deter him. The
ache and anguish of a deadly lure was upon him, as he closed his eyes and
tried very hard to picture the old library and the very sheet of parchment
which his other self was now perusing. If he could do this, the whole diabolical
illusion would vanish, the process of visualization and sympathetic identification
which had been carried to an hallucinative degree, would return to that
which is normally experienced by the reader of an absorbing tale.
There was a crackling at his feet, for some one had lit the fagots.
Sir Roderick opened his eyes a little, and saw that the pile at Lady Elinor's
feet had likewise been lit. Threads of smoke were rising from each pile,
with tiny tongues of flame that grew longer momently. He did not lift his
eyes to the level of Lady Elinor's face. Resolutely he closed them again,
and sought to re-summon the written page.
He was aware of a browing warmth underneath his soles; and now, with
an agonizing flash of pain, he felt the licking of the flames about his
ankles. But somehow, by a desperate effort of his will, like one who awakens
voluntarily from a clutching nightmare, he saw before him the written words
he was trying to visualize:
"And both were burned at the stake on Hagdonne Common for their crimes
against God and man."
The words wavered, they receded and drew near on a page that was
still dim and enormous. But the crackling at his feet had ceased; the air
was no longer dank and chill, no longer charged with acrid smoke. There
was a moment of madly whirling vertigo and confusion; and then Sir Roderick's
two selves were re-united, and he found that he was sitting in the library
chair at Hagdon, staring with open eyes at the last sentences of the manuscript
in his hands.
He felt as if he had been through some infernal ordeal that had lasted
many years; and he was still half obsessed by emotions of sorrow and regret
and horror that could belong only to a dead progenitor. But the whole thing
was manifestly a dream, albeit terrible and real to a degree that he had
never before experienced. He must have fallen asleep over the old record.
. . . But why, then, if it were only a dream, did his ankles still pain
him so frightfully, as if they had been seared by fire?
He bent down and examined them: beneath the Twentieth Century hose
in which they were attired, he found the upward-flaring marks of recent