The Neapolitan winter had overpassed its common clemency; save for a touch of frost, kindly and wholesome, on a few nights, it had no frown or rigour. Day after day the sun had enkindled the still air, and life had danced with love upon the hills.
But on the night of her fullness, the moon was tawny and obscure, with a reddish vapour about her, as if she had wrapped herself in a mantle of anger; and the next dawn broke grey with storm, the wind tearing its way across the mountain spine of Italy, as if some horde of demon bandits were raiding the peasantry of the plains. The Butterfly-Net was sheltered from its rage by the crest of Posilippo; but it was bitter cold in the house, and Iliel bade her maidens pile the brazier with hazel and white sandalwood and birch.
Across the ridge, the villa which Dr. Vesquit had taken for the winter was exposed to the senseless madness of the blast; and he too heaped his braziers, but with cypress and bituminous coal.
As the day passed the violence of the storm increased; the doctor even began to fear for the safety of his operation when, about an hour after noon, a window of the villa was broken by a torn branch of olive that came hurtling against it.
But a little later the speed of the hurricane abated; the sky was visible, through the earth-vapours, as a wrack of wrathful clouds — one might say the flight of Michael before Satan.
Though the gale was yet fierce, its heart broke in a torrent of sleet mixed with hail; for two hours more it drove almost horizontally against the hillside, and then, steadying and steepening, fell as a flood, a cataract of icy rain.
The slopes of Posilippo roared with their foaming load; gardens were washed clear of soil; walls broke down before the impetuosity of the waves they strove to dam; and the streets of lower Naples stood in water to the height of a man's thigh.
The hour for the beginning of the work of the necromancers was that of sunset; and at that moment the rain, after a last burst of vehemence, ceased entirely; nightfall, though black and bitter, was silent as the corpse of Gates itself.
In the chapel a portion of the marble floor had been torn up; for it was desired to touch the naked earth with the bare feet, and draw her powers directly up from their volcanic stratum.
This raw earth had been smeared with mire brought from the swamps of the Maremma; and upon this sulphur had been sprinkled until it formed a thick layer. In this sulphur the magick circle had been drawn with a two-pointed stick, and the grooves thus made had been filled with charcoal powder.
It was not a true circle; no figure of sanctity and perfection might enter into that accursed rite; it had been made somewhat in the shape of an old-fashioned keyhole, a combination of circle and triangle.
In the centre the body of Gates, his head toward the north, was laid; Arthwait stood on one side with the Grimoire in one hand, and a lighted taper of black wax in the other. On the opposite side was Abdul Bey, holding the goat in leash, and bearing the sickle which Vesquit was to use as the principal magical weapon of the ceremony.
The doctor was himself the last to enter the circle. In a basket he had the four black cats; and, when he had lighted the nine small candles about the circle, he pinned the four cats, at the four quarters, with black arrows of iron. He was careful not to kill them; it was important that their agony should frighten away any undesirable spirits.
All being now ready, the necromancers fell upon their knees; for this servile position is pleasing to the enemies of mankind.
The forces which made man, alone of all animals, erect, love to see him thank Them for that independence by refusing to surrender it.
The main plan of Dr. Vesquit's ceremony was simple; it was to invoke the spirit of a demon into the goat, and slaying the animal at that moment of possession upon the corpse of Gates, to endow that corpse with the demoniac power, in a kind of hideous marriage.
The object was then identical with that of spiritism, or "spiritualism," as it is commonly and illiterately called; but Dr. Vesquit was a serious student, determined to obtain results, and not to be duped; his methods were consequently more efficient than those of the common or parlour medium.
Arthwait opened the Grimoire and began his conjurations. It would be impossible to reproduce the hideous confusion and complexity of the manner, and undesirable to indicate the abomination of the matter. But every name of opposition to light was invoked in its own rite; the fearful deities of man's dawn, when nature was supposed to be a personal power of cruelty, delighting in murder, rape, and pillage, were called by their most secret names, and commemoration made of their deeds of infamy.
Such was the recital of horror that, cloaked even as it was in Arthwait's unintelligible style, the meaning was salient by virtue of the tone of the enchanter, and the gestures with which Vesquit accompanied him, going in dumb show through all the gamut of infernal discord, the music of the pit. He showed how children were cast into the fire, or thrown to bears, or offered up in sacrifice on bloody altars; how peaceful nations were uprooted by savage tribes in the name of their demon, their men slain or mutilated and enslaved, their women butchered, their virgins ravished; how miracle testified to the power of the evil ones, the earth opening to swallow heretic priests, the sun stopped in the sky that the hours of massacre might be prolonged.
It was in short one interminable recital of treachery and murder and revenge; never a thought of pity or of kindliness, of common decency or common humanity, struck a false note in that record of vileness; and it culminated in the ghastliest atrocity of human history, when the one man in all that cut-throat race who now and then showed gleams of a nobler mind was chosen for torture and death as a final offering to the blood-lust of the fiend.
With a sort of hellish laughter, the second conjuration continued the recital; how the demon had brought the corpse of his victim to life, and mocked and profaned his humanity by concealing himself in that man-shape, thence to continue his reign, and extend his empire, under the cloak of hypocrisy. The crimes that had been done openly in the fiend's name, were now to be carried on with fresh device of shame and horror, by those who called themselves the priests of his victim.
By this commemoration was concluded the first part of the ceremony; the atmosphere of the fiend, so to speak, was brought into the circle; in the second part the demon was to be identified with the goat; in the third part the two first were joined, and the goat as he died was to repeat the miracle wrought in long ages past upon that other victim, by coming to life again humanized by the contact of the ghost of the sorcerer.
It is not permissible to describe this ritual in detail; it is too execrably efficient; but the Turk, brought up in a merciful and cleanly religion, with but few stains of savagery upon it, faltered and nigh fainted; only his desire for Lisa, which had become a soul-tempest, held him to the circle.
And indeed the brains of them all were awhirl. As Eliphaz Levi says, evil ceremonies are a true intellectual poison; they do invoke the powers of hallucination and madness as surely as does hashish. And who dare call the phantoms of delirium "unreal?" They are real enough to kill a man, to ruin a life, to push a soul to every kind of crime; and there are not many "real" "material" things that have such weight in work.
Phantoms, then, were apparent to the necromancers; and there was no doubt in any of their minds that they were dealing with actual and malignant entities.
The hideous cries of the tortured cats mingled with the triumphant bleating of the goat and the nasal monotone of Arthwait as he mouthed the words of the Grimoire. And it seemed to all of them as though the air grew thick and greasy; that of that slime were bred innumerable creeping things, monsters misshapen, abortions of dead paths of evolution, creatures which had not been found fit to live upon the earth and so had been cast off by her as excrement. It seemed as if the goat were conscious of the phantoms; as if he understood himself as demon-king of those regions; for he bounded under the manipulations of Vesquit with such rage and pride that Abdul Bey was forced to use all his strength hold him. It was taken as a sign of success by all the necromancers; and as Vesquit made the final gesture, Arthwait turned his page, and Abdul struck home with a great knife to the brute's heart.
Now, as the blood stained their grave-clothes, the hearts of the three sorcerers beat heavily. A foul sweat broke out upon them. The sudden change — psychological or magical? — from the turgid drone of Arthwait to the grimness of that silence in which the howls of the agonizing cats rose hideous, struck them with a deadly fear. Or was it that they realized for the first time on what a ship they had embarked?
Suppose the corpse did move? Suppose Gates rose in the power of the devil, and strangled them? Their sweat ran down, and mingled with the blood. The stench of the slain goat was horrible, and the body of Gates had begun decomposition. The sulphur, burning in little patches here and there, where a candle had fallen and kindled it, added the reek of hell to that of death. Abdul Bey of a sudden was taken deathly sick; at the end he pitched forward, prone upon the corpses. Vesquit pulled him roughly back, and administered a violent stimulant, which made him master of himself.
Now Arthwait started the final conjuration. It can hardly be called language; it was like the jabber of a monkey-house, and like the yells of a thousand savages, and like the moaning of damned souls.
Meanwhile Vesquit proceeded to the last stage of his task. With his knife he hacked off the goat's head, and thrust it into a cavity slashed in the abdomen of the other body. Other parts of the goat he thrust into the mouth of Gates, while the obscene clamour of the cats mingled with the maniac howls of his colleague.
And then the one thing happened which they none of them expected. Abdul Bey flung himself down upon the carcasses, and began to tear them with his teeth, and lap the blood with his tongue. Arthwait shrieked out in terror that the Turk had gone mad: but Vesquit understood the truth. Abdul was the most sensitive of the party, and the least developed; it was in him that the spirit of Gates, demon-inspired, would manifest.
A few minutes of that scene, and then the Turk sat up. His face expressed the most extreme pleasure. It was the release of a soul from agony that showed itself. But he must have known that his time was short, for he spoke rapidly and earnestly, with febrile energy. And his words were commanding and convincing: Vesquit had no doubt that they were in presence of knowledge vastly superior to anything that he had yet found.
He wrote down the speech upon the tablets that he had prepared for the purpose. "They are working by the moon towards the Sun.
"Hecate will come to help you. Attack from within, not from without.
"An old woman and a young man bring victory.
"All the powers are at your service; but they are stronger. Treachery shall save you.
"Abandon the direct attack; for even now you have called down your death upon you. Quick! snap the cord. Conceal yourselves awhile. Even so, you are nigh death. Oh haste! Look yonder who is standing ready to smite!"
The voice dropped. Well was it for Vesquit that he kept his presence of mind. The necromancers looked round over their shoulders, and in the East was a blue mist shaped like an egg. In the midst of it, standing upon two crocodiles, was the image of Brother Onofrio, smiling, with his finger upon his lips. Vesquit realized that he was in contact with a force a thousand times greater than any at his disposal. He obeyed instantly the command spoken through Abdul Bey. "I swear," he cried, raising his right hand to heaven, "I swear that we intend you no manner of hurt." He flushed inwardly, knowing it for a lie, and therefore useless to avert the blow which he felt poised above him. He sought a new form of words. "I swear that we will not seek to break through your defences." This, he thought, should satisfy the captain of the gate, and yet permit him to do as he intended in the matter of trying to attack from within. Abdul Bey gasped out that it was well, that no more could be done, that the link with the White Lodge was broken. "But now our own blow strikes us to the earth." He fell backwards, as one dead. In another moment Arthwait, with a yell, a last invocation of that fiend whom he really believed to be omnipotent, entered into spasmodic convulsions, like a man poisoned with strychnine, or dying of tetanus. Vesquit, appalled at the fate of his companions, gazed on the figure of Brother Onofrio in an agony of fear and horror. It retained the infant smile, and Vesquit reached his arms toward it. "Mercy!" he cried, "oh, my lord, mercy!"
Arthwait was writhing upon the corpses, horribly twisting, foaming black blood from his lungs.
And the old man saw that his life had been an imbecility, that he had taken the wrong path.
Brother Onofrio still smiled. "Oh my lord!" cried Vesquit, rising to his feet, "'twere better I should die."
The formula of humanity is the willing acceptance of death; and as love, in the male, is itself of the nature of a voluntary death, and therefore a sacrament, so that he who loves slays himself, therefore he who slays himself that life may live becomes a lover. Vesquit stretched out his arms in the sign of the cross, the symbol of Him who gives life through his own death, or of the instrument of that life and of that death, of the Holy One appointed from the foundation of the world as its redeemer.
It was as if there had come to him a flash of that most secret Word of all initiated knowledge, so secret and so simple that it may be declared openly in the market-place, and no man hear it. At least he realized himself as a silly old man, whose weakness and pliability in the hands of evil men had made him their accomplice. And he saw that death, grasped now, might save him.
Brother Onofrio still smiled.
"I invoke the return of the current!" cried Vesquit aloud; and thus, uniting justice with self-sacrifice, he died the death of the righteous.
The image of Brother Onofrio faded away.
The great operation of necromancy had come to naught.
Yet the writing remained; and, nearly a day later, when Abdul Bey came to himself, it was the first thing that caught his eye. He thrust it into his shroud, automatically; then stumbled to his feet, and sought his colleagues. At his feet the old coroner lay dead; Arthwait, his convulsions terminated by exhaustion approximating coma, lay with his head upon the carrion, his tongue, lolling from his mouth, chewed to a bloody pulp.
The Turk carried him from the chapel to the villa. His high connexions made it easy for him to secure a silent doctor to certify the death of Vesquit, and to attend to Arthwait, who passed from one convulsion to another at frequent intervals. It was almost a month before he could be considered out of danger, but a week after that he was his own man again. They repaired immediately to Paris to lay the case before Douglas; for even Arthwait was compelled to recognize some elements in the business which were not satisfactory, incidents which he could not but regard as indicating that he had fallen appreciably short of his high standard of success.
The day succeeding the exploit of the necromancers dawned gay and bright. The earth dried up again, but breathed refreshment. A light mist hung over the walled garden where Iliel stood upon her terrace.
The moon sank large and pale over the ocean as sunrise awoke the waves, and Iliel, her vigil almost ended, prepared for the ceremony that ended her day.
But no sooner had she gone to the care of her hand-maidens than Cyril Grey came down the garden with Brother Onofrio. Their arms were crossed upon their breasts in the stately fashion of the Order; and Brother Onofrio's scarlet robe contrasted magnificently with the soft green silk of Brother Cyril's.
In the eyes of the Italian was a passionate reverence for the younger, but more gifted, man, coupled with a human affection which was almost more than friendship; there was in it the devotion, selfless and unsleeping, which is only possible to those of immense singleness of heart. He understood that Brother Cyril was of a finer mould than himself; he seemed to be rather a flame of fire than a man, so subtle and so keen was he. For in every talk, whenever he thought that he had sounded Cyril's guard, he suddenly found, on the riposte, that he had lost touch of his blade without knowing it. But he burned with constant ardour to know more of his idol; and this morning the young man had awakened him softly with a whisper, smiling, with a finger pointed to the terrace: "Let's go over there, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer can't hear us." So they had risen and come down to the lily-pool, after the morning adoration of the Sun, and their daily exercise of meditation.
Brother Cyril proved to be in his airiest mood.
"Do you remember who said 'Surtout, pas de zele'?" he began. "Whoever it was then, I'm saying it now. Brother Onofrio, big brother, strong brother, clever brother, it won't do. You're doing much too well. Think you're a Russian General, if that will assist your feeble intelligence; but what you think doesn't matter, so long as you understand that to win too many victories is as bad as to eat toujours perdrix. You have not merely defended this excellent citadel, for which I formally tender you the thanks of the Republic. You may kiss my hand. But you have pursued the defeated enemy; you have annihilated their strongest regiments; and, after last night, I am afraid that they will abandon the attack altogether. The situation is lamentable."
"But they invoked the death-current themselves," objected Brother Onofrio. "How could I tell that they would send for poor old Vesquit, and prepare an operation so formidable that something definite was bound to happen, one way or the other?"
"But you failed to deal gently with the young man Gates! "
"I know I'm liable to be carried away by a Tarot divination; but he was himself attempting a magical murder. You can't work things except on their own plane. He who taketh the sword shall perish by the sword."
"I dare say you're right; but I'm terribly afraid you've scared the game. I wanted to have Douglas and Balloch down here; then was the moment to turn loose those engines of destruction."
"You might have told me."
"Ah, if I had only known!"
Brother Onofrio gave a savage gesture. Once again he was being eluded.
"I only realized just now how fit and final were your labours. And now we are going to eat our hearts out in enervating peace and Capuan luxury. Alas! Think of the fate of Hannibal and of Napoleon. Always the same story — too much victory!"
Brother Onofrio bounded again in his amazement. "Peace! Luxury!" he cried. "Haven't we got the Great Experiment?"
"Have we?" sighed Cyril, languidly.
"Isn't the crisis in a month?"
"There are twelve months in a year."
Brother Onofrio rose in indignation. He hated to be played with in this manner; he could see no point in the jest, if it were one; or excuse for the rudeness, in the alternative.
"Sit down, sit down!" said Cyril dreamily. "You say yourself the crisis is not for a month. What a wonderful way is Ocean, girdling the five continents like a mother with her children. I should like to sail out westward, past the Pillars of Hercules, and up into the stormy reaches of the Bay, and — ah well! it may not be. We are held here by our stern duty; we are the chosen warriors of the Final Battle to decide whether men shall mould their own destiny, or remain the toys of Fate; we are the pioneers of the Great Experiment. To arms, Brother Onofrio! Be diligent! Be courageous! The crisis is upon us — a month, no more! Return to me with your shield, or upon it!
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
"Ah! now I understand you!" cried Onofrio warmly, clasping him in the impulsive Italian fashion.
"That's splendid of you," he said brightly. "I do appreciate that."
Brother Onofrio wriggled again.
"I half think," he said "that you know the Great Experiment will be a failure, and that for some reason you don't care!"
"The bluntness of the British diplomat was no match for the subtlety of the ambitious, wily, and astute Italian."
"Confound it! Is there anything real or true to you?"
"Wine, spirits, and cigars."
"You won't be serious. You jest about everything most vital; and you make solemnities of merest wisps of fancy. You would make drumsticks of your father's bones, and choose a wife by blowing a puff-ball!"
"While you would go without music for fear of disturbing your father, and choose a wife by the smell of a powder-puff."
Brother Cyril shook his head
"I must explain myself more carefully," he said. "Let me ask you, in the first place, what is the most serious thing in the world."
"Exactly. Now, what is religion? The consummation of the soul by itself in divine ecstasy. What is life but love, and what is love but laughter? In other words, religion is a joke. There is the spirit of Dionysus and there is the spirit of Pan; but they are twin phases of laughter. Religion is a joke. Now what is the most absurd thing in the world?"
"Right again. And therefore she is the only serious island in this ocean of laughter. While we hunt and fish, and fight, and otherwise take our pleasure, she is toiling in the fields and cooking, and bearing children. So, all the serious words are jests, and all the jokes are earnest. This, oh my brother, is the key to my light and sparkling conversation."
"I know what you are going to say. You can reverse it again. That is precisely the idea. You keep on reversing it; and it gets funnier and more serious every time, and it spins faster and faster until you cannot follow it, and your brain begins to whirl, and presently you become That Spiral Force which is of the Quintessence of the Absolute. So it is all a simple and easy method of attaining the summit of perfections, the stone of the Wise, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness."
"Listening to you," reflected Brother Onofrio, with a whisk of the rapier, "produces something of this effect!"
"Then praise the Father of All for making me, and let us go to break our fast!"
In the refectory a telegram awaited Cyril Grey. He read it carefully, destroyed it, and, looking with quaint spieglish eyes at Brother Onofrio, refrained ostentatiously from a prolonged fit of laughter. His face grew exceedingly grave, and he spoke with the weightiest deliberation. "I deeply regret to be obliged to inform you," he said at last, "that the exigencies of the situation combine to make it incumbent on me to proceed to instant action by asking you to pass the sugar."
With sullen grace Brother Onofrio complied. "What saith the Scripture?" asked Cyril, still more portentous. "Ornithi gluku — a little bit of sugar for the bird!"