The Novel of the Black Seal (part 2/5)

The days passed quickly; I could see that the professor was all quivering with suppressed excitement, and I could scarce credit the eager appetence of his glance as we left the old manor house behind us, and began our journey. We set out at mid-day, and it was in the dusk of the evening that we arrived at a little country station. I was tired, and excited, and the drive through, the lanes seems all a dream. First the deserted streets of a forgotten village, while I heard Professor Gregg’s voice talking of the Augustan Legion and the clash of arms, and all the tremendous pomp that followed the eagles; then the broad river swimming to full tide with the last afterglow glimmering duskily in the yellow water, the wide meadows, and the cornfields whitening, and the deep lane winding on the slope between the hills and the water. At last we began to ascend, and the air grew rarer; I looked down and saw the pure white mist tracking the outline of the river like a shroud, and a vague and shadowy country, imaginations and fantasy of swelling hills and hanging woods, and half-shaped outlines of hills beyond, stand in the distance the glare of the furnace fire on the mountain, growing by turns a pillar of shining flame, and fading to a dull point of red. We were slowly mounting a carriage drive, and then there came to me the cool breath and the scent of the great wood that was above us; I seemed to wander in its deepest depths, and there was the sound of trickling water, the scent of the green leaves, and the breath of the summer night. The carriage stopped at last, and I could scarcely distinguish the form of the house as I waited a moment at the pillared porch; and the rest of the evening seemed a dream of strange things bounded by the great silence of the wood and the valley and the river.

The next morning when I awoke and looked out of the bow window of the big old-fashioned bedroom, I saw under a gray sky a country that was still all mystery. The long, lovely valley, with the river winding in and out below, crossed, in mid vision by a mediaeval bridge of vaulted and buttressed stone, the clear presence of the rising ground beyond, and the woods that I had only seen in shadow the night before, seemed tinged with enchantment, and the soft breath, of air that sighed in at the opened pane was like no other wind. I looked across the valley, and beyond, hill followed on hill as wave on wave, and here a faint blue pillar of smoke rose still in the morning air from the chimney of an ancient gray farmhouse, there was a rugged height crowned with dark firs, and in the distance I saw the white streak of a road that climbed and vanished into some unimagined country. But the boundary of all was a great wall of mountain, vast in the west, and ending like a fortress with a steep ascent and a domed tumulus clear against the sky.

I saw Professor Gregg walking up and down the terrace path below the windows, and it was evident that he was revelling in the sense of liberty, and the thought that he had, for a while, bidden good-bye to task-work. When I joined him there was exultation in his voice as he pointed out the sweep of valley and the river that wound beneath the lovely hills.

“Yes,” he said, “it is a strangely beautiful country; and to me, at least, it seems full of mystery. You have not forgotten the drawer I showed you, Miss Lally? No; and you have guessed that I have come here not merely for the sake of the children and the fresh air?”

“I think I have guessed as much as that,” I replied; “but you must remember I do not know the mere nature of your investigations; and as for the connection between the search and this wonderful valley, it is past my guessing.”

He smiled queerly at me. “You must not think I am making a mystery for the sake of mystery,” he said. “I do not speak out because, so far, there is nothing to be spoken, nothing definite I mean, nothing that can be set down in hard black and white, as dull and sure and irreproachable as any blue book. And then I have another reason: many years ago a chance paragraph in a newspaper caught my attention, and focussed in an instant the vagrant thoughts and half-formed fancies of many idle and speculative hours into a certain hypothesis. I saw at once that I was treading on a thin crust; my theory was wild and fantastic in the extreme, and I would not for any consideration have written a hint of it for publication. But I thought that in the company of scientific men like myself, men who knew the course of discovery, and were aware that the gas that blazes and flares in the gin-palace was once a wild hypothesis; I thought that with such men as these I might hazard my dream–let us say Atlantis, or the philosopher’s stone, or what you like–without danger of ridicule. I found I was grossly mistaken; my friends looked blankly at me and at one another, and I could see something of pity, and something also of insolent contempt, in the glances they exchanged. One of them called on me next day, and hinted that I must be suffering from overwork and brain exhaustion. ‘In plain terms,’ I said, ‘you think I am going mad. I think not;’ and I showed him out with some little appearance of heat. Since that day I vowed that I would never whisper the nature of my theory to any living soul; to no one but yourself have I ever shown the contents of that drawer. After all, I may be following a rainbow; I may have been misled by the play of coincidence; but as I stand here in this mystic hush and silence amidst the woods and wild hills, I am more than ever sure that I am hot on the scent. Come, it is time we went in.”

To me in all this there was something both of wonder and excitement; I knew how in his ordinary work Professor Gregg moved step by step, testing every inch of the way, and never venturing on assertion without proof that was impregnable. Yet I divined more from his glance and the vehemence of his tone than from the spoken word that he had in his every thought the vision of the almost incredible continually with him; and I, who was with some share of imagination no little of a sceptic, offended at a hint of the marvellous, could not help asking myself whether he was cherishing a monomania, and barring out from this one subject all the scientific method of his other life.

Yet, with, this image of mystery haunting my thoughts, I surrendered wholly to the charm of the country. Above the faded house on the hillside began the great forest; a long dark line seen from the opposing hills, stretching above the river for many a mile from north to south, and yielding in the north to even wilder country, barren and savage hills, and ragged common land, a territory all strange and unvisited, and more unknown to Englishmen than the very heart of Africa. The space of a couple of steep fields alone separated the house from the wood, and the children were delighted to follow me up the long alleys of undergrowth, between smooth pleached walls of shining beech, to the highest point in the wood, whence one looked on one side across the river and the rise and fall of the country to the great western mountain wall, and on the other, over the surge and dip of the myriad trees of the forest, over level meadows and the shining yellow sea to the faint coast beyond. I used to sit at this point on the warm sunlit turf which marked the track of the Roman Road, while the two children raced about hunting for the whinberries that grew here and there on the banks. Here beneath the deep blue sky and the great clouds rolling, like olden galleons with sails full-bellied, from the sea to the hills, as I listened to the whispered charm of the great and ancient wood, I lived solely for delight, and only remembered strange things when we would return to the house, and find Professor Gregg either shut up in the little room he had made his study, or else pacing the terrace with the look, patient and enthusiastic, of the determined seeker.

One morning, some eight or nine days after our arrival, I looked out of my window and saw the whole landscape transmuted before me. The clouds had dipped low and hidden the mountain in the west, and a southern wind was driving the rain in shifting pillars up the valley, and the little brooklet that burst the hill below the house now raged, a red torrent, down to the river. We were perforce obliged to keep snug within doors, and when I had attended to my pupils, I sat down in the morning-room where the ruins of a library still encumbered an old-fashioned bookcase. I had inspected the shelves once or twice, but their contents had failed to attract me; volumes of eighteenth century sermons, an old book on farriery, a collection of “Poems” by “persons of quality,” Prideaux’s “Connection,” and an odd volume of Pope were the boundaries of the library, and there seemed little doubt that everything of interest or value had been removed. Now, however, in desperation, I began to re-examine the musty sheepskin and calf bindings, and found, much to my delight, a fine old quarto printed by the Stephani, containing the three books of Pomponius Mela, “De Situ Orbis,” and other of the ancient geographers. I knew enough of Latin to steer my way through an ordinary sentence, and I soon became absorbed in the odd mixture of fact and fancy; light shining on a little of the space of the world, and beyond mist and shadow and awful forms. Glancing over the clear-printed pages, my attention was caught by the heading of a chapter in Solinus, and I read the words:–

MIRA DE INTIMIS GENTIBUS LIBYAE, DE LAPIDE HEXECONTALITHO.

“The wonders of the people that inhabit the inner parts of Libya, and of the stone called Sixtystone.”

The odd title attracted me and I read on:–

“Gens ista avia et secreta habitat, in montibus horrendis foeda mysteria celebrat. De hominibus nihil aliud illi præferunt quam figuram, ab humano ritu prorsus exulant, oderunt deum lucis. Stridunt potius quam loquuntur; vox absona nec sine horrore auditur. Lapide quodam gloriantur, quem Hexecontalithon vocant, dicunt enim hunc lapidem sexaginta notas ostendere. Cujus lapidis nomen secretum ineffabile colunt: quod Ixaxar.”

“This folk,” I translated to myself, “dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name; which is Ixaxar.”

I laughed at the queer inconsequence of all this, and thought it fit for Sinbad the Sailor or other of the supplementary Nights. When I saw Professor Gregg in the course of the day, I told him of my find in the bookcase, and the fantastic rubbish I had been reading. To my surprise, he looked up at me with an expression of great interest.

“That is really very curious,” he said. “I have never thought it worth while to look into the old geographers, and I daresay I have missed a good deal. Ah, that is the passage, is it. It seems a shame to rob you of your entertainment, but I really think I must carry off the book.”

The next day the professor called to me to come to the study. I found him sitting at a table in the full light of the window, scrutinizing something very attentively with a magnifying-glass.

“Ah, Miss Lally,” he began, “I want to use your eyes. This glass is pretty good, but not like my old one that I left in town. Would you mind examining the thing yourself, and telling me how many characters are cut on it?”

He handed me the object in his hand, and I saw that it was the black seal he had shown me in London, and my heart began to beat with the thought that I was presently to know something. I took the seal, and holding it up to the light checked off the grotesque dagger-shaped characters one by one.

“I make sixty-two,” I said at last.

“Sixty-two? Nonsense; it’s impossible. Ah, I see what you have done, you have counted that and that,” and he pointed to two marks which I had certainly taken as letters with the rest.

“Yes, yes,” Professor Gregg went on; “but those are obvious scratches, done accidentally; I saw that at once. Yes, then that’s quite right. Thank you very much, Miss Lally.”

I was going away, rather disappointed at my having been called in merely to count a number of marks on the black seal, when suddenly there flashed into my mind what I had read in the morning.

“But, Professor Gregg, I cried, breathless, the seal, the seal. Why, it is the stone Hexecontalithos that Solinus writes of; it is Ixaxar.”

“Yes,” he said, “I suppose it is. Or it maybe a mere coincidence. It never does to be too sure, you know, in these matters. Coincidence killed the professor.”

I went away puzzled by what I had heard, and as much as ever at a loss to find the ruling clew in this maze of strange evidence. For three days the bad weather lasted, changing from driving rain to a dense mist, fine and dripping, and we seemed to be shut up in a white cloud that veiled all the world away from us. All the while Professor Gregg was darkling in his room, unwilling, it appeared, to dispense confidences or talk of any kind, and I heard him walking to and fro with a quick, impatient step, as if he were in some way wearied of inaction. The fourth morning was fine, and at breakfast the professor said briskly:–

“We want some extra help about the house; a boy of fifteen or sixteen, you know. There are a lot of little odd jobs that take up the maids’ time, which a boy could do much better.”

“The girls have not complained to me in any way,” I replied. “Indeed, Anne said there was much less work than in London, owing to there being so little dust.”

“Ah, yes, they are very good girls. But I think we shall do much better with a boy. In fact, that is what has been bothering me for the last two days.”

“Bothering you?” I said in astonishment, for as a matter of fact the professor never took the slightest interest in the affairs of the house.

“Yes,” he said, “the weather, you know. I really couldn’t go out in that Scotch mist; I don’t know the country very well, and I should have lost my way. But I am going to get the boy this morning.”

“But how do you know there is such a boy as you want anywhere about?”

“Oh, I have no doubt as to that. I may have to walk a mile or two at the most, but I am sure to find just the boy I require.”

I thought the professor was poking, but though his tone was airy enough there was something grim and set about his features that puzzled me. He got his stick, and stood at the door looking meditatively before him, and as I passed through the hall he called to me.

“By the way, Miss Lally, there was one thing I wanted to say to you. I daresay you may have heard that some of these country lads are not over bright; idiotic would be a harsh word to use, and they are usually called ‘naturals,’ or something of the kind, I hope you won’t mind if the boy I am after should turn out not too keen-witted; he will be perfectly harmless, of course, and blacking boots doesn’t need much mental effort.”

With that he was gone, striding up the road that led to the wood; and I remained stupefied, and then for the first time my astonishment was mingled with a sudden note of terror, arising I knew not whence, and all unexplained even to myself, and yet I felt about my heart for an instant something of the chill of death, and that shapeless, formless dread of the unknown that is worse than death itself. I tried to find courage in the sweet air that blew up from the sea, and in the sunlight after rain, but the mystic woods seemed to darken around me; and the vision of the river coiling between the reeds, and the silver gray of the ancient bridge, fashioned in my mind symbols of vague dread, as the mind of a child fashions terror from things harmless and familiar.

Two hours later Professor Gregg returned. I met him as he came down the road, and asked quietly if he had been able to find a boy.

“Oh, yes,” he answered; “I found one easily enough. His name is Jervase Cradock, and I expect he will make himself very useful. His father has been dead for many years, and the mother, whom I saw, seemed very glad at the prospect of a few shillings extra coming in on Saturday nights. As I expected, he is not too sharp, has fits at times, the mother said; but as he will not be trusted with the china, that doesn’t much matter, does it? And he is not in any way dangerous, you know, merely a little weak.”

“When is he coming?”

“To-morrow morning at eight o’clock. Anne will show him what he has to do, and how to do it. At first he will go home every night, but perhaps it may ultimately turn out more convenient for him to sleep here, and only go home for Sundays.”

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