By Algernon Blackwood
To say that he was bored during the meal were an over-statement of Dr. Francis’s mental condition, but to say that he was half-bored seemed the literal truth; for one-half of him, while he ate his steak and savoury and watched Farque manipulating chou chop suey and chou om dong most cleverly with chop-sticks, was too pre-occupied with his own romance to allow the other half to give its full attention to the conversation.
He had entered the room, however, with a distinct quickening of what may be termed his instinctive and infallible sense of diagnosis. That last remark of his friend’s had stimulated him. He was aware of surprise, curiosity, and impatience. Willy-nilly, he began automatically to study him with a profounder interest. Something was not quite as it should be in Edward Farque’s mental composition. There was what might be called an elusive emotional disturbance. He began to wonder and to watch.
They talked, naturally, of China and of things Chinese, for the scholar responded to little else, and Francis listened with what sympathy and patience he could muster. Of art and beauty he had hitherto known little, his mind was practical and utilitarian. He now learned that all art was derived from China, where a high, fine, subtle culture had reigned since time immemorial. Older than Egypt was their wisdom. When the western races were eating one another, before Greece was even heard of, the Chinese had reached a level of knowledge and achievement that few realized. Never had they, even in earliest times, been deluded by anthropomorphic conceptions of the Deity, but perceived in everything the expressions of a single whole whose giant activities they reverently worshipped. Their contempt for the western scurry after knowledge, wealth, machinery, was justified, if Farque was worthy of belief. He seemed saturated with Chinese thought, art, philosophy, and his natural bias towards the celestial race had hardened into an attitude to life that had now become ineradicable.
“They deal, as it were, in essences,” he declared; “they discern the essence of everything, leaving out the superfluous, the unessential, the trivial. Their pictures alone prove it. Come with me,” he concluded, “and see the ‘Earthly Paradise,’ now in the British Museum. It is like Botticelli, but better than anything Botticelli ever did. It was painted”—he paused for emphasis—“600 years B.C.”
The wonder of this quiet, ancient civilization, a sense of its depth, its wisdom, grew upon his listener as the enthusiastic poet described its charm and influence upon himself. He willingly allowed the enchantment of the other’s Paradise to steal upon his own awakened heart. There was a good deal Francis might have offered by way of criticism and objection, but he preferred on the whole to keep his own views to himself, and to let his friend wander unhindered through the mazes of his passionate evocation. All men, he well knew, needed a dream to carry them through life’s disappointments, a dream that they could enter at will and find peace, contentment, happiness. Farque’s dream was China. Why not? It was as good as another, and a man like Farque was entitled to what dream he pleased.
“And their women?” he inquired at last, letting both halves of his mind speak together for the first time.
But he was not prepared for the expression that leaped upon his friend’s face at the simple question. Nor for his method of reply. It was no reply, in point of fact. It was simply an attack upon all other types of woman, and upon the white, the English, in particular—their emptiness, their triviality, their want of intuitive imagination, of spiritual grace, of everything, in a word, that should constitute woman a meet companion for man, and a little higher than the angels into the bargain. The doctor listened spellbound. Too humorous to be shocked, he was disturbed by what he heard, displeased a little, too. It threatened too directly his own new tender dream.
Only with the utmost self-restraint did he keep his temper under, and prevent hot words he would have regretted later from tearing his friend’s absurd claim into ragged shreds. He was wounded personally as well. Never now could he bring himself to tell his own secret to him. The outburst chilled and disappointed him. But it had another effect—it cooled his judgment. His sense of diagnosis quickened. He divined an idée fixe, a mania possibly. His interest deepened abruptly. He watched. He began to look about him with more wary eyes, and a sense of uneasiness, once the anger passed, stirred in his friendly and affectionate heart.
They had been sitting alone over their port for some considerable time, the servant having long since left the room. The doctor had sought to change the subject many times without much success, when suddenly Farque changed it for him.
“Now,” he announced, “I’ll tell you something,” and Francis guessed that the professional questions were on the way at last. “We must pity the living, remember, and part with the dead. Have you forgotten old Shan-Yu?”
The forgotten name came back to him, the picturesque East End dealer of many years ago. “The old merchant who taught you your first Chinese? I do recall him dimly; now you mention it. You made quite a friend of him, didn’t you? He thought very highly of you—ah, it comes back to me now—he offered something or other very wonderful in his gratitude, unless my memory fails me?”
“His most valuable possession,” Farque went on, a strange look deepening on his face, an expression of mysterious rapture, as it were, and one that Francis recognized and swiftly pigeon-holed in his now attentive mind.
“Which was?” he asked sympathetically. “You told me once, but so long ago that really it’s slipped my mind. Something magical, wasn’t it?” He watched closely for his friend’s reply.
Farque lowered his voice to a whisper almost devotional:
“The Perfume of the Garden of Happiness,” he murmured, with an expression in his eyes as though the mere recollection gave him joy. “‘Burn it,’ he told me, ‘in a brazier; then inhale. You will enter the Valley of a Thousand Temples wherein lies the Garden of Happiness, and there you will meet your Love. You will have seven years of happiness with your Love before the Waters of Separation flow between you. I give this to you who alone of men here have appreciated the wisdom of my land. Follow my body towards the Sunrise. You, an eastern soul in a barbarian body, will meet your Destiny.’”
The doctor’s attention, such is the power of self-interest, quickened amazingly as he heard. His own romance flamed up with power. His friend—it dawned upon him suddenly—loved a woman.
“Come,” said Farque, rising quietly, “we will go into the other room, and I will show you what I have shown to but one other in the world before. You are a doctor,” he continued, as he led the way to the silk-covered divan where golden dragons swallowed crimson suns, and wonderful jade horses hovered near. “You understand the mind and nerves. States of consciousness you also can explain, and the effect of drugs is, doubtless, known to you.” He swung to the heavy curtains that took the place of door, handed a lacquered box of cigarettes to his friend, and lit one himself. “Perfumes, too,” he added, “you probably have studied, with their extraordinary evocative power.” He stood in the middle of the room, the green light falling on his interesting and thoughtful face, and for a passing second Francis, watching keenly, observed a change flit over it and vanish. The eyes grew narrow and slid tilted upwards, the skin wore a shade of yellow underneath the green from the lamp of jade, the nose slipped back a little, the cheek-bones forward.
“Perfumes,” said the doctor, “no. Of perfumes I know nothing, beyond their interesting effect upon the memory. I cannot help you there. But, you, I suspect,” and he looked up with an inviting sympathy that concealed the close observation underneath, “you yourself, I feel sure, can tell me something of value about them?”
“Perhaps,” was the calm reply, “perhaps, for I have smelt the perfume of the Garden of Happiness, and I have been in the Valley of a Thousand Temples.” He spoke with a glow of joy and reverence almost devotional.
The doctor waited in some suspense, while his friend moved towards an inlaid cabinet across the room. More than broad-minded, he was that much rarer thing, an open-minded man, ready at a moment’s notice to discard all preconceived ideas, provided new knowledge that necessitated the holocaust were shown to him. At present, none the less, he held very definite views of his own. “Please ask me any questions you like,” he added. “All I know is entirely yours, as always.” He was aware of suppressed excitement in his friend that betrayed itself in every word and look and gesture, an excitement intense, and not as yet explained by anything he had seen or heard.
The scholar had opened a drawer in the cabinet and taken from it a neat little packet tied up with purple silk. He held it with tender, almost loving care, as he came and sat down on the divan beside his friend.
“This,” he said, in a tone, again, of something between reverence and worship, “contains what I have to show you first.” He slowly unrolled it, disclosing a yet smaller silken bag within, coloured a deep rich orange. There were two vertical columns of writing on it, painted in Chinese characters. The doctor leaned forward to examine them. His friend translated:
“The Perfume of the Garden of Happiness,” he read aloud, tracing the letters of the first column with his finger. “The Destroyer of Honourable Homes,” he finished, passing to the second, and then proceeded to unwrap the little silken bag. Before it was actually open and the pale shredded material resembling coloured chaff visible to the eyes, the doctor’s nostrils had recognized the strange aroma he had first noticed about his friend’s letter received earlier in the day. The same soft, penetrating odour, sharply piercing, sweet and delicate, rose to his brain. It stirred at once a deep emotional pleasure in him. Having come to him first when he was aglow with his own unexpected romance, his mind and heart full of the woman he had just left, that delicious, torturing state revived in him quite naturally. The evocative power of perfume with regard to memory is compelling. A livelier sympathy towards his friend, and towards what he was about to hear, awoke in him spontaneously.
He did not mention the letter, however. He merely leaned over to smell the fragrant perfume more easily.
Farque drew back the open packet instantly, at the same time holding out a warning hand. “Careful,” he said gravely, “be careful, my old friend—unless you desire to share the rapture and the risk that have been mine. To enjoy its full effect, true, this dust must be burned in a brazier and its smoke inhaled; but even sniffed, as you now would sniff it, and you are in danger——”
“Of what?” asked Francis, impressed by the other’s extraordinary intensity of voice and manner.
“Of Heaven; but, possibly, of Heaven before your time.”