THE NEMESIS OF FIRE

By Algernon Blackwood

Chapter 1, scene 1

By some means which I never could fathom, John Silence always contrived to keep the compartment to himself, and as the train had a clear run of two hours before the first stop, there was ample time to go over the preliminary facts of the case. He had telephoned to me that very morning, and even through the disguise of the miles of wire the thrill of incalculable adventure had sounded in his voice.

“As if it were an ordinary country visit,” he called, in reply to my question; “and don’t forget to bring your gun.”

“With blank cartridges, I suppose?” for I knew his rigid principles with regard to the taking of life, and guessed that the guns were merely for some obvious purpose of disguise.

Then he thanked me for coming, mentioned the train, snapped down the receiver, and left me vibrating with the excitement of anticipation to do my packing. For the honour of accompanying Dr. John Silence on one of his big cases was what many would have considered an empty honour—and risky. Certainly the adventure held all manner of possibilities, and I arrived at Waterloo with the feelings of a man who is about to embark on some dangerous and peculiar mission in which the dangers he expects to run will not be the ordinary dangers to life and limb, but of some secret character difficult to name and still more difficult to cope with.

“The Manor House has a high sound,” he told me, as we sat with our feet up and talked, “but I believe it is little more than an overgrown farmhouse in the desolate heather country beyond D——, and its owner, Colonel Wragge, a retired soldier with a taste for books, lives there practically alone, I understand, with an elderly invalid sister. So you need not look forward to a lively visit, unless the case provides some excitement of its own.”

“Which is likely?”

By way of reply he handed me a letter marked “Private.” It was dated a week ago, and signed “Yours faithfully, Horace Wragge.”

“He heard of me, you see, through Captain Anderson,” the doctor explained modestly, as though his fame were not almost world-wide; “you remember that Indian obsession case——”

I read the letter. Why it should have been marked private was difficult to understand. It was very brief, direct, and to the point. It referred by way of introduction to Captain Anderson, and then stated quite simply that the writer needed help of a peculiar kind and asked for a personal interview—a morning interview, since it was impossible for him to be absent from the house at night. The letter was dignified even to the point of abruptness, and it is difficult to explain how it managed to convey to me the impression of a strong man, shaken and perplexed. Perhaps the restraint of the wording, and the mystery of the affair had something to do with it; and the reference to the Anderson case, the horror of which lay still vivid in my memory, may have touched the sense of something rather ominous and alarming. But, whatever the cause, there was no doubt that an impression of serious peril rose somehow out of that white paper with the few lines of firm writing, and the spirit of a deep uneasiness ran between the words and reached the mind without any visible form of expression.

“And when you saw him——?” I asked, returning the letter as the train rushed clattering noisily through Clapham Junction.

“I have not seen him,” was the reply. “The man’s mind was charged to the brim when he wrote that; full of vivid mental pictures. Notice the restraint of it. For the main character of his case psychometry could be depended upon, and the scrap of paper his hand has touched is sufficient to give to another mind—a sensitive and sympathetic mind—clear mental pictures of what is going on. I think I have a very sound general idea of his problem.”

“So there may be excitement after all?”

John Silence waited a moment before he replied.

“Something very serious is amiss there,” he said gravely, at length. “Some one—not himself, I gather,—has been meddling with a rather dangerous kind of gunpowder. So—yes, there may be excitement, as you put it.”

“And my duties?” I asked, with a decidedly growing interest. “Remember, I am your ‘assistant.’”

“Behave like an intelligent confidential secretary. Observe everything, without seeming to. Say nothing—nothing that means anything. Be present at all interviews. I may ask a good deal of you, for if my impressions are correct this is——”

He broke off suddenly.

“But I won’t tell you my impressions yet,” he resumed after a moment’s thought. “Just watch and listen as the case proceeds. Form your own impressions and cultivate your intuitions. We come as ordinary visitors, of course,” he added, a twinkle showing for an instant in his eye; “hence, the guns.”

Though disappointed not to hear more, I recognised the wisdom of his words and knew how valueless my impressions would be once the powerful suggestion of having heard his own lay behind them. I likewise reflected that intuition joined to a sense of humour was of more use to a man than double the quantity of mere “brains,” as such.

Before putting the letter away, however, he handed it back, telling me to place it against my forehead for a few moments and then describe any pictures that came spontaneously into my mind.

“Don’t deliberately look for anything. Just imagine you see the inside of the eyelid, and wait for pictures that rise against its dark screen.”

I followed his instructions, making my mind as nearly a blank as possible. But no visions came. I saw nothing but the lines of light that pass to and fro like the changes of a kaleidoscope across the blackness. A momentary sensation of warmth came and went curiously.

“You see—what?” he asked presently.

“Nothing,” I was obliged to admit disappointedly; “nothing but the usual flashes of light one always sees. Only, perhaps, they are more vivid than usual.”

He said nothing by way of comment or reply.

“And they group themselves now and then,” I continued, with painful candour, for I longed to see the pictures he had spoken of, “group themselves into globes and round balls of fire, and the lines that flash about sometimes look like triangles and crosses—almost like geometrical figures. Nothing more.”

I opened my eyes again, and gave him back the letter.

“It makes my head hot,” I said, feeling somehow unworthy for not seeing anything of interest. But the look in his eyes arrested my attention at once.

“That sensation of heat is important,” he said significantly.

“It was certainly real, and rather uncomfortable,” I replied, hoping he would expand and explain. “There was a distinct feeling of warmth—internal warmth somewhere—oppressive in a sense.”

“That is interesting,” he remarked, putting the letter back in his pocket, and settling himself in the corner with newspapers and books. He vouchsafed nothing more, and I knew the uselessness of trying to make him talk. Following his example I settled likewise with magazines into my corner. But when I closed my eyes again to look for the flashing lights and the sensation of heat, I found nothing but the usual phantasmagoria of the day’s events—faces, scenes, memories,—and in due course I fell asleep and then saw nothing at all of any kind.

 

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