THE NEMESIS OF FIRE, 1

 work in progress

By Algernon Blackwood

6?

“And personal experiences of your own, Colonel Wragge?” asked John Silence earnestly, his manner showing the greatest possible interest and sympathy.

The soldier gave an almost imperceptible start. He looked distinctly uncomfortable.

“Nothing, I think,” he said slowly, “nothing—er—I should like to rely on. I mean nothing I have the right to speak of, perhaps—yet.”

His mouth closed with a snap. Dr. Silence, after waiting a little to see if he would add to his reply, did not seek to press him on the point.

“Well,” he resumed presently, and as though he would speak contemptuously, yet dared not, “this sort of thing has gone on at intervals ever since. It spreads like wildfire, of course, mysterious chatter of this kind, and people began trespassing all over the estate, coming to see the wood, and making themselves a general nuisance. Notices of man-traps and spring-guns only seemed to increase their persistence; and—think of it,” he snorted, “some local Research Society actually wrote and asked permission for one of their members to spend a night in the wood! Bolder fools, who didn’t write for leave, came and took away bits of bark from the trees and gave them to clairvoyants, who invented in their turn a further batch of tales. There was simply no end to it all.”

“Most distressing and annoying, I can well believe,” interposed the doctor.

“Then suddenly the phenomena ceased as mysteriously as they had begun, and the interest flagged. The tales stopped. People got interested in something else. It all seemed to die out. This was last July. I can tell you exactly, for I’ve kept a diary more or less of what happened.”

“Ah!”

“But now, quite recently, within the past three weeks, it has all revived again with a rush—with a kind of furious attack, so to speak. It has really become unbearable. You may imagine what it means, and the general state of affairs, when I say that the possibility of leaving has occurred to me.”

“Incendiarism?” suggested Dr. Silence, half under his breath, but not so low that Colonel Wragge did not hear him.

“By Jove, sir, you take the very words out of my mouth!” exclaimed the astonished man, glancing from the doctor to me and from me to the doctor, and rattling the money in his pocket as though some explanation of my friend’s divining powers were to be found that way.

“It’s only that you are thinking very vividly,” the doctor said quietly, “and your thoughts form pictures in my mind before you utter them. It’s merely a little elementary thought-reading.”

His intention, I saw, was not to perplex the good man, but to impress him with his powers so as to ensure obedience later.

“Good Lord! I had no idea——” He did not finish the sentence, and dived again abruptly into his narrative.

“I did not see anything myself, I must admit, but the stories of independent eye-witnesses were to the effect that lines of light, like streams of thin fire, moved through the wood and sometimes were seen to shoot out precisely as flames might shoot out—in the direction of this house. There,” he explained, in a louder voice that made me jump, pointing with a thick finger to the map, “where the westerly fringe of the plantation comes up to the end of the lower lawn at the back of the house—where it links on to those dark patches, which are laurel shrubberies, running right up to the back premises—that’s where these lights were seen. They passed from the wood to the shrubberies, and in this way reached the house itself. Like silent rockets, one man described them, rapid as lightning and exceedingly bright.”

“And this evidence you spoke of?”

“They actually reached the sides of the house. They’ve left a mark of scorching on the walls—the walls of the laundry building at the other end. You shall see ’em tomorrow.” He pointed to the map to indicate the spot, and then straightened himself and glared about the room as though he had said something no one could believe and expected contradiction.

“Scorched—just as the faces were,” the doctor murmured, looking significantly at me.

“Scorched—yes,” repeated the Colonel, failing to catch the rest of the sentence in his excitement.

There was a prolonged silence in the room, in which I heard the gurgling of the oil in the lamp and the click of the coals and the heavy breathing of our host. The most unwelcome sensations were creeping about my spine, and I wondered whether my companion would scorn me utterly if I asked to sleep on the sofa in his room. It was eleven o’clock, I saw by the clock on the mantelpiece. We had crossed the dividing line and were now well in the movement of the adventure. The fight between my interest and my dread became acute. But, even if turning back had been possible, I think the interest would have easily gained the day.

“I have enemies, of course,” I heard the Colonel’s rough voice break into the pause presently, “and have discharged a number of servants——”

“It’s not that,” put in John Silence briefly.

“You think not? In a sense I am glad, and yet—there are some things that can be met and dealt with——”

He left the sentence unfinished, and looked down at the floor with an expression of grim severity that betrayed a momentary glimpse of character. This fighting man loathed and abhorred the thought of an enemy he could not see and come to grips with. Presently he moved over and sat down in the chair between us. Something like a sigh escaped him. Dr. Silence said nothing.

“My sister, of course, is kept in ignorance, as far as possible, of all this,” he said disconnectedly, and as if talking to himself. “But even if she knew, she would find matter-of-fact explanations. I only wish I could. I’m sure they exist.”

There came then an interval in the conversation that was very significant. It did not seem a real pause, or the silence real silence, for both men continued to think so rapidly and strongly that one almost imagined their thoughts clothed themselves in words in the air of the room. I was more than a little keyed up with the strange excitement of all I had heard, but what stimulated my nerves more than anything else was the obvious fact that the doctor was clearly upon the trail of discovery. In his mind at that moment, I believe, he had already solved the nature of this perplexing psychical problem. His face was like a mask, and he employed the absolute minimum of gesture and words. All his energies were directed inwards, and by those incalculable methods and processes he had mastered with such infinite patience and study, I felt sure he was already in touch with the forces behind these singular phenomena and laying his deep plans for bringing them into the open, and then effectively dealing with them.

Colonel Wragge meanwhile grew more and more fidgety. From time to time he turned towards my companion, as though about to speak, yet always changing his mind at the last moment. Once he went over and opened the door suddenly, apparently to see if any one were listening at the keyhole, for he disappeared a moment between the two doors, and I then heard him open the outer one. He stood there for some seconds and made a noise as though he were sniffing the air like a dog. Then he closed both doors cautiously and came back to the fireplace. A strange excitement seemed growing upon him. Evidently he was trying to make up his mind to say something that he found it difficult to say. And John Silence, as I rightly judged, was waiting patiently for him to choose his own opportunity and his own way of saying it. At last he turned and faced us, squaring his great shoulders, and stiffening perceptibly.

Dr. Silence looked up sympathetically.

“Your own experiences help me most,” he observed quietly.

“The fact is,” the Colonel said, speaking very low, “this past week there have been outbreaks of fire in the house itself. Three separate outbreaks—and all—in my sister’s room.”

“Yes,” the doctor said, as if this was just what he had expected to hear.

“Utterly unaccountable—all of them,” added the other, and then sat down. I began to understand something of the reason of his excitement. He was realising at last that the “natural” explanation he had held to all along was becoming impossible, and he hated it. It made him angry.

“Fortunately,” he went on, “she was out each time and does not know. But I have made her sleep now in a room on the ground floor.”

“A wise precaution,” the doctor said simply. He asked one or two questions. The fires had started in the curtains—once by the window and once by the bed. The third time smoke had been discovered by the maid coming from the cupboard, and it was found that Miss Wragge’s clothes hanging on the hooks were smouldering. The doctor listened attentively, but made no comment.

“And now can you tell me,” he said presently, “what your own feeling about it is—your general impression?”

“It sounds foolish to say so,” replied the soldier, after a moment’s hesitation, “but I feel exactly as I have often felt on active service in my Indian campaigns: just as if the house and all in it were in a state of siege; as though a concealed enemy were encamped about us—in ambush somewhere.” He uttered a soft nervous laugh. “As if the next sign of smoke would precipitate a panic—a dreadful panic.”

The picture came before me of the night shadowing the house, and the twisted pine trees he had described crowding about it, concealing some powerful enemy; and, glancing at the resolute face and figure of the old soldier, forced at length to his confession, I understood something of all he had been through before he sought the assistance of John Silence.

“And tomorrow, unless I am mistaken, is full moon,” said the doctor suddenly, watching the other’s face for the effect of his apparently careless words.

Colonel Wragge gave an uncontrollable start, and his face for the first time showed unmistakable pallor.

“What in the world——?” he began, his lip quivering.

“Only that I am beginning to see light in this extraordinary affair,” returned the other calmly, “and, if my theory is correct, each month when the moon is at the full should witness an increase in the activity of the phenomena.”

“I don’t see the connection,” Colonel Wragge answered almost savagely, “but I am bound to say my diary bears you out.” He wore the most puzzled expression I have ever seen upon an honest face, but he abhorred this additional corroboration of an explanation that perplexed him.

“I confess,” he repeated; “I cannot see the connection.”

“Why should you?” said the doctor, with his first laugh that evening. He got up and hung the map upon the wall again. “But I do—because these things are my special study—and let me add that I have yet to come across a problem that is not natural, and has not a natural explanation. It’s merely a question of how much one knows—and admits.”

Colonel Wragge eyed him with a new and curious respect in his face. But his feelings were soothed. Moreover, the doctor’s laugh and change of manner came as a relief to all, and broke the spell of grave suspense that had held us so long. We all rose and stretched our limbs, and took little walks about the room.

“I am glad, Dr. Silence, if you will allow me to say so, that you are here,” he said simply, “very glad indeed. And now I fear I have kept you both up very late,” with a glance to include me, “for you must be tired, and ready for your beds. I have told you all there is to tell,” he added, “and tomorrow you must feel perfectly free to take any steps you think necessary.”

The end was abrupt, yet natural, for there was nothing more to say, and neither of these men talked for mere talking’s sake.

Out in the cold and chilly hall he lit our candles and took us upstairs. The house was at rest and still, every one asleep. We moved softly. Through the windows on the stairs we saw the moonlight falling across the lawn, throwing deep shadows. The nearer pine trees were just visible in the distance, a wall of impenetrable blackness.

Our host came for a moment to our rooms to see that we had everything. He pointed to a coil of strong rope lying beside the window, fastened to the wall by means of an iron ring. Evidently it had been recently put in.

“I don’t think we shall need it,” Dr. Silence said, with a smile.

“I trust not,” replied our host gravely. “I sleep quite close to you across the landing,” he whispered, pointing to his door, “and if you—if you want anything in the night you will know where to find me.”

He wished us pleasant dreams and disappeared down the passage into his room, shading the candle with his big muscular hand from the draughts.

John Silence stopped me a moment before I went.

“You know what it is?” I asked, with an excitement that even overcame my weariness.

“Yes,” he said, “I’m almost sure. And you?”

“Not the smallest notion.”

He looked disappointed, but not half as disappointed as I felt.

“Egypt,” he whispered, “Egypt!”

 

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