The Grinning God
This story is the result of an unusual method of collaboration between Mrs. Jacques Futrelle, and Jacques Futrelle, creator of The Thinking Machine,—unusual in that the first installment, “Wraiths of the Storm,” which presents a remarkable, even an intangible, problem, is entirely the work of Mrs. Futrelle, and the second installment, “The House That Was,” is a legitimate attempt by Mr. Futrelle to solve the problem on the stated facts with the aid of The Thinking Machine.
Wraiths of the Storm
Mrs. Jacques Futrelle
Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen—The Thinking Machine—readjusted his thick spectacles, dropped back into the depths of the huge chair, manuscript in hand, and read:
“Something less than three months ago I had a photograph taken. As I look upon it now I see a man of about thirty years, clean shaven, full faced, and vigorous with health; eyes which are clear and calm and placid, almost phlegmatic; a brow upon which sits the serenity of perfect physical and mental poise; a pleasant mouth with quizzical lines about the corners; a chin with determination and assurance in every line; hair brown and unmarked with age. I was red blooded then, lusty, buoyant with life and animalism, while now——
“Here is a hand mirror. It reflects back at me the gaunt, haggard face of a man who might be any age; furtive, shifting eyes in which lies perpetual, hideous fear; a brow ruffled over into spidery lines of suffering; a drooping, flabby mouth; a chin weak and utterly devoid of the assurances of manhood; hair dead white over the temples, with strange grey streaks through it. My blood is become water; youth is frozen into senility; all things worth while are gone.
“Fear, Webster says, is apprehension, dread, alarm—and it is more than that. It is a loss of the sense of proportion, an unseating of mental power, a phantasmagoria of perverted imagination; a vampire which saps hope and courage and common sense, and leaves a quivering shell of what was once a man. I know what fear is—no man better. I knew it that night in the forest, and I know it now, when I find myself sitting up in bed staring into nothingness with the echo of screams in my ears; I knew it when that grim, silent old man moved about me, and I know it now when without conscious effort my imagination conjures up those dead, glassy eyes; I knew it when vicious little tongues of flames lapped at me that night, and I know it now when at times I seem to feel their heat.
“I know what fear is! It is typified by a little ivory god which squats upon my mantel as I write, grinning hideously. Perhaps there is some explanation of the event of that night, some single hidden fact which, if revealed, would make it all clear; but seeking that explanation I have grown like this. When it will end, I don’t know—I can only wait and listen, always, always!
“Impatient, half famished, and wholly disgusted at a sudden failure of my gasolene supply, I ran my automobile off the main roadway and brought it to a standstill in a small open space before a little country store. I had barely been able to make out the outlines of the building through the utter darkness of the night,—a darkness which was momentarily growing more dense. Black, threatening clouds swooped across the face of the heavens, first obscuring, then obliterating, the brilliant star points.
“I knew where I was perfectly, although I had never been over the road before. Behind me lay Pelham, a quiet little village which had been sound asleep when I rushed through, and somewhere vaguely in front was Millen. I had been due there about seven o’clock; but, thanks to some trouble with a crank, it was now about ten. I was well nigh exhausted from hours at the steering wheel, and nothing to eat since luncheon. I would spend the night in Millen, store up a few hours’ sleep, after the insistent demands of my appetite had been appeased, then on the morrow proceed comfortably on my way.
“This was what I had intended to do. The sudden shortage of motive power brought me to a stop in front of the forbidding little store, and a little maneuvering back and forth cleared the road’s fairway of the bulk of my machine. No light showed in the house, but as I had not passed another building in two or three miles back, it seemed not improbable that the keeper of the store slept on the premises. I put this hypothesis to a test by a loud halloing, which in the course of time brought a nightcapped head to a window just above the door. I hailed the appearance of the head as a good omen.
“ ‘Got any gasolene?’ I asked.
“ ‘I calculate as how I might have a little,’ came the answer in a man’s voice.
“ ‘Well, will you please let me have enough to get me to Millen?’
“ ‘It’s ag’in’ the law to draw gasolene at night,’ said the man placidly. ‘Cal’late as how you’ll have to wait till mornin’.’
“ ‘Wait till morning?’ I complained. ‘Why man, there’s a storm coming! I’ve got to get to Millen.’
“ ‘Can’t help that,’ was the reply. ‘Law’s law, you know. I’d be sorter skeered, anyway, to draw gasolene now.’
“Here was another dilemma, unexpected as it was annoying. The tone of the voice left no room for argument, and I knew the obstinacy of this man’s type. I was prepared, therefore, to accept the inevitable.
“ ‘Well, if you can’t draw any gasolene to-night, can you give me a bite to eat and put me up till morning?’ I asked. ‘I can’t stay out in this storm.’
“ ‘Ain’t got no room,’ explained the man. ‘Jus’ enough space up here for me an’ the dog, an’ he kinder crowds.’
“ ‘Well, something must be done,’ I insisted. ‘What is the price of your gasolene?’ I added by way of suggestion.
“ ‘Twenty-five cents a gallon in day time.’
“ ‘Well, how is fifty cents a gallon at night?’ I went on.
“The whitecapped head was withdrawn, and the window banged down suddenly. For a moment I thought I had hopelessly offended some puritanical old man of the woods; but then a light glowed inside the store, and the front door opened. I stepped inside. The light came from a safety lantern in the hands of a shrunken shanked, little old man, who proceeded to draw the gasolene.
“ ‘How far is it to Millen?’ I inquired casually.
“ ‘Calculate as how it’s about five miles.’
“ ‘Straight roads?’
“ ‘Straight ’cept where it bends,’ he replied. ‘They ain’t no turnout nor nothin’. You can’t go wrong ’less you climb a fence.’
“The gasolene was drawn and paid for, after which the old man accompanied me to the automobile with his safety lantern. He stood looking on curiously as I filled the tank.
“ ‘ ’Pears to be a right smart storm comin’ up,’ he remarked consolingly.
“I glanced upward. Every star point was lost now behind an impenetrable veil of black; there was a whispering, sighing sound of wind in the trees.
“ ‘I think I can beat it into Millen,’ I replied hopefully.
“ ‘I cal’late as how you oughter,’ responded the old man. ‘Ain’t no thunder an’ lightnin’ yet, an’ I cal’late as how they’ll be a pile of it before it rains.’
“I handed back the empty gasolene can, cranked up, then climbed aboard my car. There was a whir as I touched the power lever, and the machine trembled beneath me.
“ ‘If I should get caught before I get to Millen, is there any place I might stop,’ I inquired.
“ ‘I cal’late as how you might stop anywhere,’ the old man chuckled; ‘but they ain’t no houses nor nothin’. They ain’t even a dog kennel ’tween here an’ Millen. But they ain’t no turnouts, an’ you can hit it up as fast as you want to. You’ll be all right.’
“A sudden gust of wind brought a whirling cloud of dust upon us, and the thinly clad old man scampered off into the house.
“ ‘Good night,’ I called.
“ ‘Good night,’ he answered, and the door slammed.
“I backed my car, then straightened out into the road, a wide yellow stretch, as smooth as asphalt, where the swirling, eddying winds awoke little dust devils to play. Then I kicked loose the speed gear, pulled the lever far back, and went plunging off into the night.
“It might have been only my imagination, or it might have been that, as the car swept on, I heard some one calling me; I’ll never know which. But the lowering clouds and a quickened rush of wind did not make a stop inviting; so the car sped on.
“I knew a capital little all night restaurant in Millen, and was speculating pleasantly as to whether it should be a chop and a mug of ale, or a more substantial steak and potatoes. I was aroused from this anticipatory mood by the fact that the glittering lamps of my car showed me straight ahead two roads instead of one. Two roads! Here was another unexpected annoyance. I brought the automobile to a stop, in doubt and perplexity.
“To the right the road ran off into the thickening forest, as far as the steady light gleams showed; to the left it seemed a little more marked, as if more traveled, and where the light melted into the enveloping blackness it appeared to widen. I leaped out of the car and went forward, seeking a guide post or something to show my way. There was nothing.
“Then I remembered that I had a road map in my pocket. Of course that would tell me. A grumble of thunder came from far off as I drew near the car to examine the map in the light. Here was Pelham, and here was Millen; here even the little store where I stopped, marked with a star, which meant that gasolene was to be procured there. Now I was somewhere between that store and Millen. The map was a large one. It should show not only the main road, but every little bypath that cut athwart it. Yet from the little store to Millen the road was an unbroken line. There was no branch road on the map; and yet here was one.
“I was perplexed, impatient, and incidentally starving; so hastily made up my mind which road to take: the left and more beaten one. Heaping maledictions upon the head of the man who drew that particular map, I started to climb into the car again, when the veil of night was cleft by a vivid zigzag flash of lightning. It startled me, blinded me almost, and was followed instantly by the crash and roar of thunder.
“Then came another sound,—a curdling, nerve racking scream,—a scream of agony, of pain, of fear,—a hideous, awful thing which seemed to stop my heart for one fearful instant, then was lost in the thunder of the approaching storm. Suddenly all was silent again, save for the wind as it whipped its way through the forest.
“I was not a nervous man; so after the first shock the blood rushed back to my heart, my head cleared, and I was perfectly calm. But I stood waiting with my foot on the step—waiting and listening. I argued calmly. Some one was evidently in distress. But where? In what direction? The singing wind, the whirling dust, left me no guess. And then again came that scream, this time a series of quick, sharp shrieks ending in a wail which made me clench my hands until the nails bit into the flesh, and left me weak and trembling absurdly.
“But now I had the direction. The cries had come apparently from the road, somewhere behind me. I walked to the rear of the car where the tail light shot out a feeble ray, and stood peering off into the blackness in the direction whence I had come. At first I could distinguish nothing, then a white, intangible something slowly grew out of the night,—something hazy, floating, indistinct, yet unmistakably something. Fascinated, I stood still and continued to stare. The floating white figure seemed to grow sensibly larger and clearer. It was coming toward me; it would cross the path of the light in another moment. I caught my breath and waited.
“Suddenly again came the reverberating crash of thunder, nearer and louder, but unaccompanied by lightning. Instantly, as if in echo, came that scream again. Obviously it was some one in distress,—a woman perhaps, lost in the woods and in terror of the approaching storm. If this was true then there was only one thing to do; go to her relief.
“I stopped and tugged at the tail lamp to release it from its fastenings. A ragged edge cut my hand cruelly; but I hardly felt the sting. At last the light was free in my hand, and I started with it back along the road to where I had seen the figure. With the lamp thrust straight out in front of me at arm’s length I ran back ten yards, twenty, fifty, and saw—nothing. I screened the light with my hand, and peered about through the gloom, and saw—nothing.
“A panic was growing upon me. I flashed the light to the right, to the left, and it showed only the gaunt, silent trees, straight ahead of me along the yellow road, and behind me toward the panting automobile. There was nothing—absolutely nothing! I rushed back to the car; but no one was there. I called aloud; but the grim forest gave me back only the sound of my own voice, mingled with the swishing of the wind.
“Then I stopped still in silence and awe, and listened. For a long time I stood there, light in hand, until the silence grew more terrifying than the screams had been. I wanted to hear that scream again now, to bring relief to my bursting heart and shaking nerves, to tell me that it was real and not some trick of overwrought fancy. But the silence was unbroken save for the freshening gusts of air which stirred the dry leaves and rained them down in a gentle patter.
“Finally I turned and walked back to where the car stood throbbing like a living, breathing thing. It gave me confidence. I struck the tonneau with my open palm, and laughed suddenly at my unreasoning terror. It was absurd, a school boy running from his shadow, and here I was a man—a sound, healthy, hungry man. I had heard the screams, I knew; I had seen the floating white figure. There was nothing very remarkable about it; it was a thing to be explained, of course.
“So now, deliberately I searched the road again, this time with the light turned toward the ground. I went along, stooping, seeking footprints. I found none; but I could explain even that; the wind gusts had covered them with dust, obliterated them.
“I straightened up suddenly. Something had sounded, something louder than the rustling of the leaves, something louder even than the creaking of the trees. It was a crackling sound—a sound that might have been a foot pressure upon dry twigs. It seemed to be to the left, and I turned the light in that direction. Grotesque shadows danced and swayed as the trees reeled about me. Then high up where the light straggled through the branches I saw something white—dead white!
“I cleared the road at a stride and plunged into the forest with the light turned upward. I stumbled over rocks half buried in the leaves; I slipped once into a ditch which I couldn’t see. Finally my foot struck a fallen tree, and I went forward sprawling on my hands and knees. The lamp rolled beyond my reach, and utter blackness swooped down as the light was smothered in the underbrush. As I groped for it I heard again that crackling sound as of breaking twigs. Perhaps it was coming toward me—and I couldn’t see!
“At last my frantic fingers closed on the lamp, and I shot the light high above my head, seeking that white something up among the trees. It was gone! I paused to wipe the perspiration from my brow, and tore my collar loose. A sudden shower of leaves came down upon my head; there was another zigzag flash of lightning, a nearby roll of thunder, and the sinister patter of raindrops falling about me like leaden bullets. The storm had burst.
“Heedless of all the intangible horrors of that lonely spot in the forest, maddened by terror at the inexplicable things which had befallen me, I stumbled back to the pulsating automobile, clambered in, and sent it forward headlong on the road to the left,—the well beaten road,—the road which bore evidence of constant travel. The pace was furious; for somewhere behind me I felt was a misty, floating figure of white, and somewhere a woman screaming. The rain beat me in the face steadily; the lightning burst forth in livid, flaming tongues; the thunder crashed about me,—and my only haven was Millen.
“Suddenly the road widened where a path cut through the dense wood, and was lost in a perspective of gloom. A single sidelong glance at it as I rushed past told me it was wider than would be naturally worn by persons passing, and yet not wide enough for my car, nor even for a narrow wagon. Here that road map was at fault again. I remembered that grimly, even as the automobile went splashing along through growing pools of water and invisible ruts in the wagonway. I clung grimly to the steering wheel with only one idea in mind: to get to Millen. Already I was wet through from the terrific downpour, and a chilling numbness was seizing upon my limbs.
“Gradually the road turned toward the left, or so it seemed to me. But that too might have been the effect of an overwrought brain. The road did not look so much traveled now, despite the deceptive ruts into which my wheels sank with maddening frequency. Yet beneath its sheet of water the steadily gleaming lights showed that there was a road, plainly marked. For a minute or more, I suppose, I went straight on, desperately, recklessly; then an illuminating flash across the sky showed me that I was plunging into open country, and that the forest was gradually receding.
“Finally, through the swirling, drenching rain, I saw a faint rosy point in the distance. Whatever it was, a lantern I supposed, it at least indicated the presence of some fellow human being. I drove straight toward it. The gleam did not falter or fade. Another dazzling burst of lightning answered my question as to the nature of the light. It was in a farm house,—a farm house out here where there weren’t any farm houses, squatting in an open field, a ramshackle, two-storied affair. But at least it would serve to shelter me from the fury of the storm. I took in all of it at one glance, even to a small shed in the rear where I might store my machine.
“I didn’t pause to call as I drew near, but drove to the shed and ran my car in. Then, guided by the constant lightning flashes, I walked round to the front of the farm house, passing through the stream of light from the window as I went. It cheered me, that light. It offered an unexpected haven, that physical refreshment of which I was so much in need, possible companionship, and above all a refuge.
“I knocked on the front door loudly, the thunder was rolling incessantly now, then shook the water from my dripping garments. I waited—waited patiently enough for half a minute, I suppose. There was no answering sound of any sort, and again I knocked, this time insistently, even clamorously. Still no answer. It was not difficult to imagine that the continuous roar of the elements had drowned the feeble knock, and I repeated the performance with several thumping, banging variations. Still no answer.
“Even in this desperate strait I did not care to enter the house as a thief might, by forcing my way, and run the risk too of being received as a thief, possibly with a bullet. So I stepped down from the veranda, and went to the lighted window, intending to attract attention by rapping on the glass. My first glimpse told me no one was there; but the room gave every evidence of occupancy. A big cheerful log fire was burning, and its flickering light showed books strewn about here and there, inviting chairs, a table, and all the little knickknacks that make a comfortable sitting room. There beside that brightly blazing fire was comfort, and here the penetrating chill of the storm.
“I had no further scruples about it. I was going into that room! I ran up the steps, and was just reaching out my hand to try the knob, when the latch clicked, and slowly, silently, the door swung open. Naturally I expected to meet some one,—some one who had anticipated me in lifting the latch,—but I saw no one. The door had merely opened, revealing a rather long, broad hallway, with a stair in the distance, and unlighted save for the reflection from the sitting room. I took just two steps across the threshold, enough to get out of the swirling rain, then stopped and called. No one answered. I called a second time. For a wonder the thunders were silent just then, and there was no sound save that of my own voice. I ventured along the hall to the sitting room door and looked in. It was cozy, warm, comfortable, more so even than I had imagined when I looked in through the window.
“All at once I was overcome by a guilty sense of intrusion. What right had I to enter a strange house at this time of night in this manner, even to get out of a storm? My personal safety seemed at stake, somehow. I turned and started back for the door by which I had entered, with the intention of remaining there till in someway I could attract the attention of the occupants of the house.
“But I didn’t reach the door; for directly in front of me stood a man. He was tall, angular, aged, and a little bent. A straggling gray beard almost covered his face, and thick gray hair hung down limply from beneath the brim of an old slouch hat. He was beside me, almost within reach of my hand, almost treading upon my toes with his great boots, and yet I had not heard one sound, except when the door clicked as I entered. It all came to me at once, and I shivered involuntarily.
“ ‘I must apologize——’ I began; but I got no further. He had not heard me, had not even seen me, if I might judge by the manner in which he walked slowly past me with his chin upon his breast, and his hands clasped behind his back. I stepped back to avoid a collision.
“ ‘I beg your pardon——’ I began again; but he had disappeared into the sitting room, stalked away noiselessly without even a glance in my direction, leaving me dripping, chilly, and overcome by the indefinable sense of impending danger.
“I paused there in the hall and pondered the situation. Surely the old man had seen me. But I had spoken! Of course, it was possible that he had neither seen nor heard me; yet—yet——
“ ‘I’m going in there, and I am going to stay until the storm moderates!’ I told myself. ‘Perhaps it is just a peculiar old man’s way.’
“I removed my automobile coat, hung it upon a peg, walked along the hallway with a firm tread, and stepped into the sitting room. It was deserted!
“There are moments in every man’s life when the weight of a revolver in his hand is tremendously reassuring. This was mine. I drew the weapon from my hip pocket, examined it, and thrust it into my coat within easy reach of my right hand. Then I stood by the table, drumming my fingers upon it idly, and debating with myself as to what I should do. I was looking toward the door by which I had entered. No one came in, and yet—— Suddenly the gray bearded old man was throwing a log on the fire. The flames shot up and the sparks flew; but there was not the crackle of fresh burning wood as there should have been—just this silent old man. My heart was in my throat, and I laughed sheepishly.
“ ‘You startled me,’ I explained foolishly in apology.
“He did not look at me; but busied himself about the room for a moment, and laid his hat upon a couch. Then he went out by the door into the hallway.
“ ‘Well, upon my soul!’ I ejaculated.
“I sat down and deliberately waited for the old man to return. The uncanniness of it all was growing upon me, the silence of his great boots as he walked, the fire which didn’t crackle as it burned, the lack of any sign or movement to indicate that he had recognized my presence. Was the old man real? I came to my feet with an exclamation. Or was it—was it some weird continuation of that horrible thing in the forest?
“I put out a cold, clammy hand to the fire. That seemed real—at least a warmth came to me, and gradually my fingers lost their numbness, and looking upon my own hand I fell to remembering the hands of my strange host. They were knotted, toil worn, and the left forefinger was missing. That fact struck sharply upon my memory, and I remembered too a scar over one eye when he removed his hat. That all seemed real too, as did these things upon the mantel here in front of me: an empty spool, an alabaster cat, glaring red and white, a piece of crystal of peculiar shape upon the farthermost corner. And near it, so close that at first it seemed a part of it, was a queer little ivory god sitting upon his haunches, grinning hideously.
“I lifted the ivory image and examined it curiously. It was real enough. I had stepped back from the mantel a pace to let the firelight fall upon it, when suddenly I knew that the old man had returned. I didn’t hear him, I hadn’t seen him,—I merely knew he was there. I felt it. I slipped the little image into my pocket involuntarily as I turned; for all my interest was instantly transferred to a tray of food which the old man carried. I remembered I was hungry.
“He placed the things upon the table in the same ghostly silence. There was a jug of milk, some jelly, a little pat of butter, and several biscuits. I went forward and thanked him. He was absolutely impassive, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, and seeming to have no connection with the things around him. He didn’t invite me to eat,—I assumed that privilege and gingerly poked a finger into a biscuit. It felt like a biscuit. I bit it; it tasted like a biscuit. In fact, I am convinced to this day that it was a biscuit. And against the reality of that biscuit was the silent old man and his ghostly tread.
“Real, or unreal, the food was refreshing and good, and I fell to with a will. The old man sat down in a rocker by the fire and folded his hands in his lap. I ventured a remark about the storm. He didn’t answer. I really had not expected that he would. The modest supper brought a tingle to my blood again. My rioting nerves were calmed, the room cozy, the fire comfortable. I was beginning to enjoy this singular experience; but an occasional glance at the swaying rocker where the old man sat by the fire kept expectation on the qui vive. The rocker swayed dismally, but without the slightest sound.
“The warmth, the food, and my utter exhaustion conspired to make me a little drowsy, and I think once I must have closed my eyes. I opened them with a start. From somewhere above me, below me, or outside where the storm still growled, came that awful, heart tearing scream again, ending in a wail that brought me to my feet. The old man did not heed the quick movement by the slightest sign,—he was still comfortably rocking.
“ ‘What is it?’ I demanded. ‘What is it?’
“Revolver in hand, I rushed toward the door leading into the hallway. The old man was there ahead of me. He didn’t touch me, and yet imperceptibly I was forced aside. He crossed the hall and went up the stairs. After a moment I heard a door open and shut.
“Except for the noise of the storm, the scream, and my own voice, it was the only sound I had heard since I entered the house.
“I went up those stairs; why I cannot say, except that something, a vague, undefined curiosity, seemed to impel me. And with this impulse came again, stronger than ever, that sense of personal danger to myself—the feeling that had possessed me ever since I entered the house.
“I groped my way through the darkness to the top of the stairs; then my hand ran along a wall till I came to an open door. I stood there a moment undecided whether to investigate further or to retrace my steps. I was on the point of going back down the stairs; but the flare of a candle almost in my face stopped me. The old man held the candle, shading it with his left hand, from which the forefinger was missing. The wavering light gave the withered old face a strangely drawn expression.
“He was within three feet of me, gazing straight into my face, and yet I felt, I knew, he didn’t see me. It occurred to me even then that it was the first time I had seen his eyes. They were white and glassy. Blind? I do not know. For one moment he stood there staring, then passing me entered the room beyond, where he put down the candle. I followed him into the room as a moth follows a flame. It was the light, I think, that lured me in. Here once for all I would make an end of the thing. The old man, still noiselessly, went out the door by which he had entered, off through the darkness—somewhere. The door swung to. Like a madman I sprang forward and shot the bolt. I don’t know why.
“I felt caged. Whatever was to come, was to come here! It was an intuition more strongly upon me than the sense of danger. I sat down on a clean little bed and stared thoughtfully at the single door,—that only way out save one of two small windows which I imagined overlooked the yard. I examined my revolver carefully. Every chamber was loaded, and the cylinder whirled easily. Well and good. I waited. What for? I don’t know.
“The candle burned with a straight, unwavering flame, while I crouched there on the bed for a long time. The grumble of thunder was growing faint and far away; but the rain swished against the windows in sheets. Here was a vigil, it seemed, and a long one; for sleep seemed hopelessly out of the question despite the insistent drowsiness of exhaustion. I wondered if the candle would last throughout the night. It was not yet half burned. I gazed at it with a certain returning sense of assurance; and as I gazed it flickered, flared up suddenly, and went out.
“I don’t know what happened then. It might have been ten minutes later, or it might have been half a dozen hours, when strangling, choking fumes of smoke aroused me. My lungs were bursting for air. I struggled up on the bed, and was instantly conscious of the crackling sound of burning wood—of fire. The house was on fire! I rushed toward the bolted door, to find the flames already eating through the thin panels, and little red tongues shot out at me. I was cut off from the stairs.
“From there to one of the little windows! The glow far out through the rain told me instantly that the structure was aflame. I glanced downward. Sinuous forks were below me, on each side of me, above me. There was nothing to do but jump. I had only a moment to decide. I drew in my breath and pulled myself upon the ledge.
“And then again I heard that scream. Far across the open field where the glow from the blaze dimmed off into the shadows, I saw faintly a misty white figure with outstretched arms fleeing toward the forest. A little behind the floating white figure, and nearer to me, well within the range of the firelight, the old man was following. Even at the distance I could see that his chin drooped upon his chest and his hands clasped behind his back. That was all I saw.
“The next instant I had jumped.
“I found myself in my automobile skimming along a smooth, hard road that led through a forest. It was not familiar, and I don’t know in what direction I was headed, nor did it matter then so long as I got away from those things behind. My ankle was broken, my clothing torn and burned in spots, and my head was throbbing with pain.
“Then I found myself in what seemed to be a street in a small city. A faint, rosy line was just tinging the eastern sky. Houses to right and left of me were closed forbiddingly; but just ahead was the solitary figure of a man, walking slowly along, swinging a stick. I ran the automobile alongside him, shouting some senseless question, then fell forward fainting. My last recollection was of shutting off power.
“When I recovered consciousness it was to find myself upon a cot in a strange room, perhaps a hospital. A physician was bandaging my ankle. A thousand questions leaped to my lips; and some of them burst forth in a torrent.
“ ‘Don’t talk!’ commanded the physician brusquely.
“ ‘But where am I?’ I insisted.
“ ‘Millen,’ he responded tersely. ‘Don’t talk!’
“It struck me curiously that I should be here,—that I should have reached the point for which I was bound even after all that had happened to me. It seemed centuries since I had left Pelham somewhere behind. Perhaps it was all a dream. But those screams! That silent old man! This broken ankle! I dropped into agonizing slumber after awhile,—the sleep of sheer exhaustion,—but asleep I lived again those awful moments which had almost driven me mad.
“On the following day I was calmer. The physician asked me some questions, and I answered them to the best of my ability. He did not smile at my fright; only shook his head and gave me something which made me sleep again. And so for a week I lay there, helpless, half asleep, and half awake. But one day I awoke to clear consciousness, comparatively free of the torture of the broken ankle, and myself again. Then the physician and I discussed the matter at length.
“He listened respectfully as I repeated it all, and at the end shook his head.
“ ‘There is no intersecting road between the small store of which you speak and the outskirts of Millen,’ he said positively.
“ ‘But, man, I was there!’ I protested. ‘I turned into the other road, and ran along till I saw the house in the open field. I tell you——’
“But he let me go no further. I knew why. He thought it was some mental vagary; for after awhile he gave me a pill and went away. So I resolved to solve the matter for myself. I would go back along that road by day, and find that silent old man, and, if not the house itself, the charred spot where it had stood. I would know that intersection; I would know even the path which led from the mysterious road off into the wood. When I found these I knew the maze would fade into some simple, plain explanation—perhaps even an absurd one.
“So I bided my time. In the course of another week I was able to leave my cot and hobble about with the aid of crutches. It was then that I took the physician in my car, and we went back along the highway toward Pelham. It was all unfamiliar ground to me; there was no road, and suddenly there ahead of me was the little store where I had bought the gasolene that night. I would question the old man I had seen there; but there was no old man. The little store was unoccupied; it seemed to have been unoccupied for weeks.
“I turned back and traversed the road toward Millen again. I recognized nothing; I couldn’t find a trace of a bypath from the highway in any direction. And once more I went over the ground at night. Nothing! After that the physician, a singularly patient man, accompanied me as I hobbled through the forest on each side of the road seeking that house, or its ashes. I never saw anything to lead me, to even suggest, a single incident of that awful night.
“ ‘I know the country, every inch of it,’ the physician told me. ‘There isn’t any such place as you mention.’
“And—well, that’s all. I know his opinion was that my story was some sort of delusion—a dream. But how he accounts for the broken ankle I don’t know. Then the condition of my clothing! I had been compelled to discard everything I wore for garments sent down from the city. And so in time I came to believe the experience a dream. I was growing content with this story, even knowing it to be wrong, because it brought mental rest, and was beginning to be myself again.
“Then one day I had occasion to search the coat I had worn that night for some papers which had been misplaced. In the course of the search I thrust my hand into an outside pocket, and drew out—a little ivory god, sitting on his haunches, grinning hideously!
“Now I am like this—and the little god sits up laughing at me. He knows!”
When he had finished reading, The Thinking Machine dropped back into the chair, with squint eyes turned steadily upward, and long slender fingers pressed tip to tip. Hutchinson Hatch, reporter, sat staring in silence at the drawn, inscrutable face of the scientist.
“And the writer of this?” demanded The Thinking Machine at last.
“His name is Harold Fairbanks,” the reporter explained. “He was removed to an asylum yesterday, hopelessly insane.”
The House That Was
Editor’s Note.—Mrs. Futrelle undertook to set up a problem which The Thinking Machine could not solve. “Wraiths of the Storm,” in The Sunday Magazine last week, presented what she thought to be a mystery story impossible of solution. Printer’s proofs of the story were submitted to Mr. Futrelle, who, after frequent consultations with Professor Van Dusen,—The Thinking Machine,—evolved “The House that Was” as the perfect solution.
The Thinking Machine lowered his squint eyes and favored Hutchinson Hatch with a long, steady stare which for the moment seemed totally to obliterate him as a personality. Gradually, under the continued unseeing but tense gaze, there grew upon the newspaper man a singular sense of utter transparency, a complete invisibility, an uncomfortable feeling of not being present. He laughed a little finally, and lighted a cigarette.
“As I was saying,” Hatch began, “this Harold Fairbanks is hopelessly insane, and——”
“I imagine,” interrupted the eminent man of science,—“I imagine that this insanity of Fairbanks’s is rather a maniacal condition?”
“Yes,” Hatch told him. “I was going to say——”
“And that possibly it took a homicidal turn?” The Thinking Machine continued.
“Yes,” the reporter assented. “He tried to——”
“Against a woman, perhaps?”
“Precisely. The direct cause of his——”
“Please don’t interrupt, Mr. Hatch!” snapped The Thinking Machine. He was silent for a time; Hatch smiled whimsically. “The object of his homicidal mania,” the scientist continued slowly, as if feeling his way, “was—was his mother?”
Hatch dropped back into his chair and met the squint blue eyes fairly. He was not surprised at this statement of the case, thus far correct, because he was accustomed to the unerring accuracy of the master mind behind those eyes; but he was curious to know just how far that logical brain would follow a circumstantial thread which it had developed of itself out of an apparent nothingness. Nothing in the manuscript, nothing he had said, had even indicated, to his mind, the more recent developments.
The leaves of the manuscript fluttered through the slender white fingers of The Thinking Machine, and the straight line of the thin lips was drawn down a little as he glanced over a page or so.
“He shot at her?” he queried at last.
“Three times,” the reporter informed him. The Thinking Machine raised his eyes quickly, inquiringly, to those of the newspaper man. “She was not wounded,” the reporter hastened to say. “The shots went wild.”
“That happened in Fairbanks’s own room?”
“Yes; about one o’clock.”
“Of course!” exclaimed the little scientist crabbedly. “I know that.” Again there was a pause. “Mrs. Fairbanks has a room near that of her son—perhaps on the same floor?”
“Just across the hall.”
“And she was awakened by some unusual noise in his room?”
“She hadn’t been to sleep.” The reporter smiled.
“Oh!” and again The Thinking Machine’s squint eyes were turned toward the ceiling. “Some unusual noise attracted her attention, then?”
“Yes,” the reporter agreed.
The Thinking Machine nodded. “So she ran to her son’s room just as she was—in a white night robe, I imagine?”
The reporter was leaning forward in his chair now, staring into the impassive face before him. Still he wasn’t surprised—he was merely curious and interested in the workings of that mind which laid before him in order these incidents which were not known to it by any tangible method.
“And as she entered her son’s room,” the scientist resumed, “he shot at her?”
The Thinking Machine was silent for a long time. “That’s all?” he remarked inquiringly at last.
“Well, Fairbanks was raving, of course,” and Hatch dropped back in his chair. “He was over-powered by two servants, and——”
“Yes, I know,” broke in The Thinking Machine. “He is now in a padded cell in a private asylum somewhere.” This was not a question; it was a statement. “And this manuscript was found in his room after he had gone?”
“It lay open on his table. That is his handwriting,” explained the newspaper reporter.
The Thinking Machine arose and walked the length of the room three times. Finally he stopped before the newspaper man. “And is there really such a thing as this grinning god that he describes?” he demanded.
“Certainly,” Hatch responded, and his tone indicated surprise.
“Not necessarily certain,” said the scientist sharply. “Do you know there is a grinning god?”
“Yes,” replied the newspaper man emphatically. “It was taken away from Fairbanks when he was locked up. He fought like a fiend for it.”
“Naturally,” was the terse comment. “You have seen it, have you?”
“Yes, I saw it. It’s about six inches tall, seems to be cut from a solid piece of ivory, and——”
“And has shiny eyes?” interrupted the other.
“Yes. The eyes seem to be of amethyst, highly polished.”
Again The Thinking Machine walked the length of the room three times. “Do you know anything about self hypnotism, Mr. Hatch?” he inquired at last.
“Only that there is such a thing,” replied the reporter, wondering at the abrupt change in the trend of the conversation. “Why?”
The Thinking Machine didn’t say why. “You came to me, of course, to see if it was possible, by throwing light on this affair, to restore Fairbanks’s mind?” he inquired instead.
“Well, that was the idea,” Hatch agreed. “Fairbanks was evidently driven to his present condition by the haunting mystery of this thing, by brooding over it, and by the tangible existence in his hands of that ivory god which established a definite connection with an experience which might otherwise have been only a nightmare, and it occurred to me that if he could be made to see just what had happened and the underlying causes for its happening, he might be brought back to a normal condition.” The reporter was silent for a moment, with eyes set on the drawn, inscrutable face of The Thinking Machine. “Of course,” he added, “I am presuming that if it was not a diseased mental condition the things as he set them down did happen, and if they did happen I know you won’t believe that they were due to other than natural causes.”
“I don’t disbelieve in anything, Mr. Hatch,” and The Thinking Machine regarded the newspaper man quietly. “I don’t even disbelieve in what is broadly termed the supernatural—I merely don’t know. It is necessary, in the solution of material problems, to work from a material basis, and then the things which are conjured up by fear and—and failure to understand may be dissipated. That is done by logic, Mr. Hatch. Disregard the supernatural, so called, in our material problems, and logic is as inevitable as that two and two make four, not sometimes, but all the time.”
“You don’t deny the possibility of the so called supernatural, then?” Hatch asked, and again there was a note of surprise in his voice.
“I don’t deny anything until I know,” was the response. “I don’t know that there is a supernatural force; therefore,” and he shrugged his slender, stooping shoulders, “I work only from a material basis. If this manuscript states facts, then Fairbanks saw an old man, not a spook; he saw a woman, not a wraith; he jumped to escape a real fire, not a ghost fire. When we disregard the supernatural, we must admit that everything was real, unless it was pure invention, and the broken ankle and burned clothing are against that. If these were real people, we can find them—that’s all there is to that. Yet there is a chance that the whole tale is a fiction, or the product of a disordered brain. But even that being true, it interferes in no way with the inevitable logic of the affair. When we know that this manuscript is in existence, and when we know that the man who produced it has since become a raving maniac, the sheer logic of the thing reveals clearly the intermediate steps.”
“How, for instance?” Hatch inquired curiously.
“Well, we have this,” and The Thinking Machine rattled the sheets of the manuscript impatiently; “and while we’ll admit it was written by a sane man, we know that that man has since become a maniac. I stated the incidents which led to his incarceration as logic unfolded them to me. First I knew that insanity from fear and failure to understand nearly always takes the maniacal turn; therefore I saw that instead of being insane, as you stated first, Fairbanks was probably a maniac. There is a difference.”
The reporter nodded.
“Next, one of the first manifestations of a maniacal condition is a homicidal tendency. Did Fairbanks attempt homicide? Yes.
“Now the problem grew a little more complex, rather intricately psychological, if I may say it that way,” The Thinking Machine explained precisely. “However, it goes back generally to the broad grounds that a woman in a flowing white night robe typifies the popular conception of the ghostly, and when we know that this supposed wraith, or one of them, was a woman in white, we see that in Fairbanks’s condition at the moment the appearance of such a figure would have instantly aroused him to the frenzy which led to the subsequent events.”
“I understand, so far,” Hatch remarked.
“Now the only woman—the most likely woman, I should say—to go to his room in a white night robe was his mother.” He paused for a moment. “Therefore, his mother was in all probability the object of his attack. Remember, he was mad with fear, and, appearing suddenly as she did, perhaps in a dim light, she was to his disordered brain the incarnation of that thing he most feared.”
Hatch seemed to be perfectly fascinated. His cigarette burned up until the fire touched his fingers; and he barely noticed it.
“In this manuscript,” The Thinking Machine resumed after a moment, “Fairbanks tells me that he had a revolver, and shows a distinct weakness for the weapon. Therefore, wouldn’t he shoot at this incarnation of the thing which was responsible for his condition. He did shoot. The fact that the incidents happened in Fairbanks’s own room at night was an assumption based upon the fact that his mother figured in it, and the further fact that she was dressed for bed when she appeared in his room. Of course, if her room was near, her attention would be attracted by some unusual noise. If these noises were due to a maniac, they were in all probability screams.”
“Well, by George!” Hatch remarked fervently. “It’s——”
“Now the first thing to do is to see Fairbanks in person,” interrupted The Thinking Machine, with a sudden change to a most business like tone. “I think, if he can comprehend at all, that I may be able to do something for him.”
The Thinking Machine—Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, scientist—was cordially, even deferentially, received by Dr. Pollock, physician in charge of the Westbrook Sanatorium.
“I should like to spend ten minutes in the padded cell with Fairbanks,” he announced tersely.
Dr. Pollock regarded him curiously, but without surprise. “It’s dangerous,” he remarked doubtfully. “I have no objection, of course; but I should advise that a couple of keepers go in with you.”
“I’ll go alone,” announced the diminutive man of science. “It may be that I can quiet him.” Dr. Pollock merely stared. “By the way,” The Thinking Machine added, “you have that little ivory god here, haven’t you? Well, let me see it, please.”
It was produced and subjected to a searching scrutiny, after which the scientist set it up on a table, dropped into a seat facing it, leaned forward on his elbows, and sat staring straight into the amethyst eyes for a long time. A curious silence fell upon the watchers as he sat there immovable, minute after minute, staring, staring. Hatch absently glanced at his watch and went over and looked out the window. The thing was getting on his nerves.
At last the scientist arose and thrust the grinning god into his pocket. “Now, please,” he directed curtly, “I shall go into the cell with Fairbanks alone. I want the door closed behind me, and I want that door to remain closed for ten minutes. Under no circumstances must there be any interruption.” He turned upon Dr. Pollock. “Don’t have any fears for me. I’m not a fool.”
Dr. Pollock led the way along the corridor, down some stairs, and paused before a door.
“Just ten minutes—no more, no less,” directed the scientist.
The key was inserted in the lock, and the door swung on its hinges. Instantly the ears of the three men outside were assailed by a torrent of screams, of blasphemy, hideous imprecations. The maniac rushed for the door, and Hatch for an instant gazed straight into a distorted, pallid face in which there was no trace of intelligence, or even of humanity. He turned away with a shudder. Dr. Pollock thrust his arm forward to stay the swaying figure, and glanced round at The Thinking Machine doubtfully.
“Look at me! Look at me!” commanded the scientist sharply, and the squint blue eyes fearlessly met the glitter of madness in the eyes of Fairbanks. He raised his right hand suddenly in front of his face, and instantly the incoherent ravings stopped, while some strange, sudden change came over the maniacal face. In the scientist’s right hand was the grinning god. That was the magic which had stilled the ravings. Slowly, slowly, with his eyes fixed upon those of the maniac, the scientist edged his way into the cell, Fairbanks retreating almost imperceptibly. Never for an instant did the maniacal eyes leave the ivory image; yet he made no attempt to seize it, he seemed merely fascinated.
“Close the door,” directed The Thinking Machine quietly, without so much as a glance back. “Ten minutes!”
Dr. Pollock closed the door and turned the key in the lock, after which he looked at the newspaper man with an expression of frank bewilderment on his face. Hatch said nothing, only glanced at his watch and went over to the window, where he stood staring out moodily, with every nerve strained to catch any sound which might by chance penetrate the heavy, padded walls.
One minute, two minutes, three minutes! The second hand of Hatch’s watch moved at a snail’s pace! Four minutes, five minutes, six minutes! Then through the well nigh impenetrable wall came faintly the sound of hoarse cries, of screams, and finally the crash of something falling. Dr. Pollock’s face paled a little and he turned the key in the lock.
“No!” and Hatch sprang forward to seize the physician’s hand.
“But he’s in danger,” declared the doctor emphatically; “maybe even killed!” Again he tugged at the door.
“No!” said Hatch again, and he shoved the physician aside. “He said ten minutes, and—and I know the man!”
Eight minutes! Listening tensely, they knew that the screaming had stopped; there was dead silence. Nine minutes! Still they stood there, Hatch guarding the door, and his eyes unflinchingly fixed on the physician’s face. Ten minutes! And Hatch opened the door.
Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen—The Thinking Machine—was sitting calmly on a padded seat beside Harold Fairbanks, with one slender hand resting on his pulse. Fairbanks himself sat with his ivory image held close up to his eyes, babbling and mumbling at it incoherently. An over-turned table lay in the middle of the cell. So great had been the power used to upset it that an iron bolt which held it fast to the floor had been broken short off. The scientist arose and came toward them; and Hatch drew a deep breath of relief.
“I would advise that this man be placed in another cell,” said the little scientist quietly. “There is no further need to keep him in a padded cell. Put him somewhere where he can see out and find something to attract his attention. Meanwhile let him keep that ivory image, and there’ll be no more raving.”
“What—what did you do to him?” demanded the physician in deep perplexity.
“Nothing—yet,” was the enigmatic response. “I’d like for him to stay here a couple of days longer, under constant watch as to his physical condition,—never mind his mental condition now,—and then with your permission I’ll make a little experiment which I believe will restore him to a normal condition. Meanwhile he needs the best of physical care. Let him babble,—he will, anyway,—that doesn’t matter just now.”
Harold Fairbanks sat beside The Thinking Machine in the second seat of a huge touring car, with the slender hand of the scientist resting lightly on his wrist. In front of them the chauffeur was busy with the multiple levers of the great machine; and behind them sat Hutchinson Hatch and Dr. Pollock. They were scudding along a smooth road, with the wind beating in their faces, guided by the ribbons of light which shot out ahead from their forward lamps. The night was perfectly black, with not a light point visible save those carried by their own car.
Behind them lay the quiet little village of Pelham, and miles away in front was the town of Millen. From time to time as the car rushed on The Thinking Machine peered inquisitively through the darkness into the face of the man beside him; but he could barely make out its general shape,—a pallid splotch in the darkness. The hand lay quietly beside his own, and a senile voice mumbled and babbled—that was all. The newspaper man and the physician in the rear seat had nothing to say; they too were peering vainly at Fairbanks.
At last through the gloom the outlines of a small building loomed dimly in front of them, just off the road to the left. The Thinking Machine leaned forward and touched the chauffeur on the arm.
“We’ll stop here for gasolene,” he said distinctly.
“Gasolene—stop here for gasolene!” babbled a senseless voice beside him.
The Thinking Machine felt the hand he held move spasmodically as the huge car ran off the main roadway and maneuvered back and forth to clear the fairway of its bulk. Finally it stopped, with its tonneau, end on, within a few feet of the door of the building. The scientist’s fingers closed more tightly on the wrist; and after a moment the incoherent mumbling began again.
Hutchinson Hatch and Dr. Pollock arose and got out. Hatch went straight to the little building and rapped sharply. The sound caused Fairbanks to turn vacant, wavering eyes in that direction. After a moment a nightcapped head appeared at the window above. The Thinking Machine shot an electric flashlight into Fairbanks’s face. The eyes, now fixed on the nightcapped head, were wide open, and a glint of childish curiosity lay in them. The babblings were silent for a moment,—somewhere in a recess of the maddened brain a germ of intelligence was struggling. Then, as the scientist regarded him steadily, the expression of the face changed again, the eyes grew vacant, the mouth flabby, the senile mumblings began again.
Hatch began and concluded negotiations for five gallons of gasolene. A shrunken shanked old man brought it out in a can, delivered it, and scuttled back into the house with his safety lantern. Dr. Pollock and Hatch took their seats again, while The Thinking Machine clambered out and went round to the back, where he spoke to the chauffeur, who was busy at the tank. The chauffeur nodded as if he understood, and followed the scientist to his seat.
“Now for Millen,” directed the scientist quietly.
“Millen!” Fairbanks repeated meaninglessly.
The chauffeur twisted his wheel, backed a little, caught the forward clutch, whirled his car straight to the road again, and shot out through the darkness. For two or three minutes there was utter silence, save for the chug and whir of the engine and the clanking rattle of the car; then The Thinking Machine spoke over his shoulder to Hatch and Dr. Pollock.
“Did either of you notice anything peculiar?” he inquired.
“No,” was the simultaneous response. “Why?”
“Mr. Hatch, you have that automobile map,” the scientist continued without heeding the question. “Take this electric light and examine it once more, to satisfy us that there is no road between the little store and Millen.”
“I know there isn’t,” Hatch told him.
“Do as I say!” directed the other crabbedly. “We can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Obediently enough Hatch and Dr. Pollock studied the map. There was the road, straight away from the star, to Millen. There was not a bypath or deviation of any kind marked on it.
“Straight as a string,” Hatch announced.
“Now look!” directed The Thinking Machine.
The huge car slowed up and came to a standstill. The glittering lamps of the car showed two roads instead of one—two roads, here where there were not two roads! Hatch glared at them for a moment, then fumbled with the automobile map.
“Why, hang it! there can’t be two roads!” he declared.
“But there they are,” replied The Thinking Machine.
He felt Fairbanks’s hand flutter, and then it was raised suddenly. Again he threw the light on the pallid face. A strange expression was there; a set, incredible, vague expression which might have meant anything. The eyes were turned ahead to where the road was split by a small clump of trees.
“Keep on to your left,” The Thinking Machine directed the chauffeur, without, however, removing his eyes from the face of the man beside him. “A little more slowly.”
The car started up again and swung off to the left, sharply. Every eye, save the squint, blue ones of the scientist, was turned ahead; he was still staring into the face of his patient. His light still showed realization struggling feebly there. Perhaps only the chauffeur realized what a steady turn to the left the car made; but he said nothing, only felt his way along till suddenly the road widened a little where a path cut through the dense forest, and was lost in the perspective of gloom. The car slowed up.
“Don’t stop!” commanded the scientist sharply. “Go ahead!”
With a sudden spurt the car rushed forward, skimming along easily for a time, and then the heavy jolting told them all that the road was growing rougher, and here, dimly ahead of them, they saw an open patch of sky. It was evidently the edge of the forest. The car went steadily on and out into the open, clear of the forest; then the chauffeur slowed down.
“There isn’t any road here,” he remarked.
“Go on!” commanded The Thinking Machine tensely. “Road or no road—straight ahead!”
The chauffeur took a new grip on his wheel and went straight ahead, over plowed ground, apparently, for the bumping and jolting were terrific, and the steering gear tore at the sockets of his arms viciously. For two or three minutes they proceeded this way, while the scientist’s light still played on Fairbanks’s face and the squint eyes unwaveringly watched every tiny change in it.
“There!” shrieked Fairbanks suddenly, and he came to his feet. “There!”
Hatch and Dr. Pollock saw it at the same instant,—a faint, rosy point in the distance; The Thinking Machine didn’t alter the direction of his gaze.
“Straight for the light!” he commanded.
. . . the room showed every evidence of occupancy . . . log fire was burning, and its flickering light showed books strewn about here and there . . . directly in front of them stood a man, tall, angular, aged, and a little bent . . . hands were knotted, toil worn; and the left forefinger was missing . . . eyes white and glassy!
With a choking, gutteral exclamation of some sort, Fairbanks darted forward and placed the grinning god upon the mantel beside a piece of crystal, then turned back to The Thinking Machine and seized him by the arm, as a child might have sought protection. The Thinking Machine nodded at him, and a grin of foolish delight overspread the pallid face.
Meanwhile, the strange old man, who seemed utterly oblivious of their presence, stood beside the fire gazing into it with sightless eyes. The scientist moved toward him slowly, Fairbanks staring as if fascinated. Finally the scientist extended his hand, which held that of Fairbanks, and touched the old man on the shoulder. He started violently and stretched out both hands instinctively.
Then, while Hatch and Dr. Pollock looked on silently, The Thinking Machine stood motionless, while the strange old man’s hands ran up his arm, and the fingers touched his face. The right fore-finger paused for an instant at the eyes, then was laid lightly across the thin lips. It remained there.
“You are blind?” asked the scientist.
The strange old man nodded.
“You are deaf?”
Again the old man nodded. His forefinger still rested lightly on The Thinking Machine’s lips.
“You are dumb?” the scientist went on.
Again the nod.
“Deafness, dumbness, blindness, result of disease?”
The nod again.
The Thinking Machine turned and lifted Fairbanks’s hand till it rested on the old man’s shoulder, then slowly down the arm, while his eyes studied the changed expression on the pallid face.
“Real, real!” said The Thinking Machine slowly to Fairbanks. “A man—you understand?”
Fairbanks merely started back; but it was evident that some great struggle was going on in his mind. There was a growing interest in his face, the mouth was no longer flabby, the eyes were fixed.
. . . then there came another sound . . . a curdling, nerve-racking scream . . . a scream of agony, of pain, of fear . . . a hideous, awful thing . . . suddenly all was silent again.
At the first sound Fairbanks straightened up, then slowly he started forward. Three steps, and he fell. Hatch and Dr. Pollock turned him over and found on his face an expression of utter, cringing fear. The eyes were roving, glittering, and he was babbling again. Only his weakness had prevented flight.
“Stay there!” commanded The Thinking Machine hurriedly, and ran out of the room.
Hatch heard him as he went up the steps; then after a moment there came more screams, rather a sharp, intermittent wailing. Fairbanks struggled feebly, then lay still, flat on his back. A minute more, and The Thinking Machine reŽntered the room, leading a woman by the hand—a woman in a gingham apron and with her hair flying loose about her face. He went straight to the old man, who had stood motionless through it all, and raised the toilworn finger to his lips.
“A woman is here—your wife?” he asked.
The old man shook his head.
The old man nodded.
“She is insane?”
Again a nod.
The woman stood for an instant with roving eyes, then rushed toward the mantel with a peculiar sobbing cry. In another instant she had clasped the ugly ivory image to her withered breast, and was crooning to it softly as a mother to her babe. Fairbanks raised himself from the floor, stared at her dully for a moment, then fell back into the arms of Dr. Pollock and Hatch with a sigh. He had fainted.
“I think, gentlemen, this is all,” remarked The Thinking Machine.
It was more than a month later that The Thinking Machine called upon Harold Fairbanks at his home. The young man was sitting up in bed, weak but intelligently cognizant of everything about him. There was still an occasional restless roving of his eyes; but that was all.
“You remember me, Mr. Fairbanks?” began the scientist.
“Yes,” was the reply.
“You remember the events of the night we were together?”
“Everything, from the time the automobile left the road and the light appeared in the distance,” said Fairbanks. “I remember seeing the old man again, and the woman appearing. I know now that he was deaf and dumb and blind, and that she was insane. That seems to clear the situation a great deal.” He passed a wasted hand across his brow. “But where is the place. I couldn’t find it.”
“Listen for just a moment now, please,” said The Thinking Machine soothingly. “You don’t remember shooting at your mother? No. Don’t excite yourself; she was not wounded. Immediately after that you were placed in a sanatorium. I saw you there. The ivory image had been taken away from you. I went into the room where you were confined and gave it back to you. It acted as I thought it would,—quieted you. To make certain that it was this and nothing else that had that effect, I took it away from you again, and you grew violent—as a matter of fact, your condition was such that you overturned a heavy table that was bolted to the floor—broke the bolt. You don’t remember that?”
“I left the image with you. That really was the tangible cause of your condition. If it hadn’t been for that, and the brooding over the mystery which it constantly caused, the events of that first night would have passed out of your mind in time. You superinduced self hypnotism with that little image; that is, you must understand that self hypnotism is possible to persons of a certain temperament in a mechanical way, when the object employed is highly polished—shiny, I might say.
“Although that image brought you to the condition you were in, I restored it to you to quiet you physically. That was necessary before I could reproduce for you the events of the first night. You went with us in an automobile, from Pelham to the little store where you had stopped that first night for gasolene. We stopped there for gasolene, and saw the man you saw that first night. As a matter of fact, he had gone away only for a few months, and is now installed in the little store again. This was all done, you understand, to arouse you, if possible, to what was passing around you. In a way it succeeded.
“Well, from the little store we went as you went the night of your first trouble, until we came to the two roads, one leading by sharp turns to the left. Then we went straight to the farm house where the old man and the woman were. There I wanted to convince you that they were real people,—that there was nothing of the ghostly about them. As a matter of fact, that old man and the woman never knew you were in the house that night. The man had no means of knowing it so long as you never touched him nor he you. You say he brought in something to eat. In all probability that was intended for the woman. You assumed it was for yourself. The fire which compelled you to jump and which resulted in the broken ankle for you, did not destroy the house. There were still marks of it there but the heavy rain extinguished it, and carpenters made the necessary repairs. Now all that is clear, isn’t it?”
“Perfectly,” was the reply; “but the white thing in the road—the screaming I heard there?”
“There is no mystery whatever about that,” continued the scientist calmly. “That road that turns to the left turns more sharply than you imagine. After a little distance it goes almost parallel with the main road, so that following it at night you would, without any knowledge of it, pass within a few hundred feet of a point on the main road. Now the house where these people live is say five hundred feet from the road that turns to the left therefore not more than eight hundred feet, we’ll say, from the main road. Thus the screaming you heard in the main road was the woman who lived in that house; the figure you saw was that woman. Just why she had left the house and was wandering around through the wood does not appear; it is certain that she was there, and was frightened by the storm. I can only say that she might have known she was pursued by you and taken refuge on an overhanging limb, and thus gave you the impression of her figure rising above the ground and moving about among the trees.
“It followed naturally that by the time you had taken the roundabout way with your automobile and reached the house she had reached it by going straight ahead through the wood—say for eight hundred feet, and again you heard her screams there. Many things happened in that house that night of no consequence in themselves, but which to your excited imagination were mysterious. One of these was the candle going out. It is obvious that a gust of wind did that, or else a single drop of water from a leak in the roof. Do you follow me?”
Fairbanks was silent for several minutes as he lay back with his eyes closed. “But the vital thing, the real thing that bewildered me most of all,” he said slowly, “you haven’t touched. That is, Why was it that after all my searching for the road to the left and the farm house, I didn’t find them, if they were there?”
“Of course you don’t remember,” explained The Thinking Machine; “but the night our party went over the route I asked Dr. Pollock and Mr. Hatch just after we left the little store whether they had noticed anything peculiar. They replied in the negative. As a matter of fact,” and the scientist was speaking very quietly, “our automobile went the same way yours had gone—not toward Millen, as you supposed and they supposed, but back toward Pelham. You didn’t find the road to the left and the farm house when you were searching, for the reason that they were beyond the little store toward Pelham, eight or ten miles away.”
A great wave of relief swept over the young man, and he leaned forward eagerly. “But wouldn’t I have known when I turned the wrong way?” he demanded.
The Thinking Machine shrugged his shoulders. “You would have known in daylight, yes,” was the reply, “but at night, in a hurry and somewhat confused by the flying dust, you turned the wrong way—toward Pelham, not toward Millen. You see that is possible when I tell you that Dr. Pollock and Mr. Hatch didn’t notice that we had turned the wrong way, when there was no storm, and when I asked them if they had noticed anything peculiar.”
There was a long silence. Fairbanks dropped back in the bed and lay silent.
“In your manuscript,” resumed The Thinking Machine at last, “you mentioned that you seemed to hear some one calling you as you started away from the little store. This you attributed vaguely to imagination. As a matter of fact, you did hear some one call—it was the man who sold you the gasolene. He knew you intended going to Millen, saw that you had turned the wrong way, and called to tell you so. You didn’t wait to hear.”
And that was all of it.