The Adventure of the Missing Brother (part 2/2)

Mr. Phillipps, who had listened with exemplary patience to this tale, hesitated a moment before he spoke.

“My dear madam,” he said at length, “you have known how to engage me in your service, not only as a man, but as a student of science. As a fellow-creature I pity you most profoundly; you must have suffered extremely from what you saw, or rather from what you fancied you saw. For, as a scientific observer, it is my duty to tell you the plain truth, which, indeed, besides being true, must also console you. Allow me to ask you then to describe your brother.”

“Certainly,” said the lady, eagerly; “I can describe him accurately. My brother is a somewhat young-looking man; he is pale, has small black whiskers, and wears spectacles. He has rather a timid, almost a frightened expression, and looks about him nervously from side to side. Think, think! Surely you must have seen him. Perhaps you are an habitué of this engaging quarter; you may have met him on some previous Saturday. I may have been mistaken in supposing that he turned up that side street; he may have gone on, and you may have passed each other. Oh, tell me, sir, whether you have not seen him?”

“I am afraid I do not keep a very sharp lookout when I am walking,” said Phillipps, who would have passed his mother unnoticed; “but I am sure your description is admirable. And now will you describe the person, who, you say, held your brother by the arm?”

“I cannot do so. I told you, his face seemed devoid of expression or salient feature. It was like a mask.”

“Exactly; you cannot describe what you have never seen. I need hardly point out to you the conclusion to be drawn; you have been the victim of an hallucination. You expected to see your brother, you were alarmed because you did not see him, and unconsciously, no doubt, your brain went to work, and finally you saw a mere projection of your own morbid thoughts; a vision of your absent brother, and a mere confusion of terrors incorporated in a figure which you can’t describe. Of course your brother has been in some way prevented from coming to meet you as usual. I expect you will hear from him in a day or two.”

The lady looked seriously at Mr. Phillipps, and then for a second there seemed almost a twinkling as of mirth about her eyes, but her face clouded sadly at the dogmatic conclusions to which the scientist was led so irresistibly.

“Ah,” she said, “you do not know. I cannot doubt the evidence of my waking senses. Besides, perhaps I have had experiences even more terrible. I acknowledge the force of your arguments, but a woman has intuitions which never deceive her. Believe me, I am not hysterical; feel my pulse, it is quite regular.”

She stretched out her hand with a dainty gesture, and a glance that enraptured Phillipps in spite of himself. The hand held out to him was soft and white and warm, and as, in some confusion, he placed his fingers on the purple vein, he felt profoundly touched by the spectacle of love and grief before him.

“No,” he said, as he released her wrist, “as you say, you are evidently quite yourself. Still, you must be aware that living men do not possess dead hands. That sort of thing doesn’t happen. It is, of course, barely possible that you did see your brother with another gentleman, and that important business prevented him from stopping. As for the wonderful hand, there may have been some deformity, a finger shot off by accident, or something of that sort.”

The lady shook her head mournfully.

“I see you are a determined rationalist,” she said. “Did you not hear me say that I have had experiences even more terrible? I too was once a sceptic, but after what I have known I can no longer affect to doubt.”

“Madam,” replied Mr. Phillipps, “no one shall make me deny my faith. I will never believe, nor will I pretend to believe, that two and two make five, nor will I on any pretences admit the existence of two-sided triangles.”

“You are a little hasty,” rejoined the lady. “But may I ask you if you ever heard the name of Professor Gregg, the authority on ethnology and kindred subjects?”

“I have done much more than merely hear of Professor Gregg,” said Phillipps. “I always regarded him as one of our most acute and clear-headed observers; and his last publication, the ‘Text-book of Ethnology,’ struck me as being quite admirable in its kind. Indeed, the book had but come into my hands when I heard of the terrible accident which cut short Gregg’s career. He had, I think, taken a country house in the West of England for the summer, and is supposed to have fallen into a river. So far as I remember, his body was never recovered.”

“Sir, I am sure that you are discreet. Your conversation seems to declare as much, and the very title of that little work of yours which you mentioned, assures me that you are no empty trifler. In a word, I feel that I may depend on you. You appear to be under the impression that Professor Gregg is dead; I have no reason to believe that that is the case.”

“What?” cried Phillipps, astonished and perturbed. “You do not hint that there was anything disgraceful? I cannot believe it. Gregg was a man of clearest character; his private life was one of great benevolence; and though I myself am free from delusions, I believe him to have been a sincere and devout Christian. Surely you cannot mean to insinuate that some disreputable history forced him to flee the country?”

“Again you are in a hurry,” replied the lady. “I said nothing of all this. Briefly, then, I must tell you that Professor Gregg left his house one morning in full health both of mind and body. He never returned, but his watch and chain, a purse containing three sovereigns in gold and some loose silver, with a ring that he wore habitually, were found three days later on a wild and savage hillside, many miles from the river. These articles were placed beside a limestone rock of fantastic form; they had been wrapped into a parcel with a kind of rough parchment which was secured with gut. The parcel was opened, and the inner side of the parchment bore an inscription done with some red substance; the characters were undecipherable, but seemed to be a corrupt cuneiform.”

“You interest me intensely,” said Phillips. “Would you mind continuing your story? The circumstance you have mentioned seems to me of the most inexplicable character, and I thirst for an elucidation.”

The young lady seemed to meditate for a moment, and she then proceeded to relate the Novel of the Black Seal

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