The Thing on the Hearth by Melville Davisson Post
"THE first confirmatory evidence of the thing, Excellency, was the print of a woman's bare foot."
He was an immense creature. He sat in an upright chair that seemed to have been provided especially for him. The great bulk of him flowed out and filled the chair. It did not seem to be fat that enveloped him. It seemed rather to be some soft, tough fiber, like the pudgy mass making up the body of a deep-sea thing. One got an impression of strength.
The country was before the open window; the clusters of cultivated shrub on the sweep of velvet lawn extending to the great wall that inclosed the place, then the bend of the river and beyond the distant mountains, blue and mysterious, blending indiscernibly into the sky. A soft sun, clouded with the haze of autumn, shone over it.
"You know how the faint moisture in the bare foot will make an impression."
He paused as though there was some compelling force in the reflection. It was impossible to say, with accuracy, to what race the man belonged. He came from some queer blend of Eastern peoples. His body and the cast of his features were Mongolian. But one got always, before him, a feeling of the hot East lying low down against the stagnant Suez. One felt that he had risen slowly into our world of hard air and sun out of the vast sweltering ooze of it.
He spoke English with a certain care in the selection of the words, but with ease and an absence of effort, as though languages were instinctive to him - as though he could speak any language. And he impressed one with this same effortless facility in all the things he did.
It is necessary to try to understand this, because it explains the conception everybody got of the creature, when they saw him in charge of Rodman. I am using precisely the descriptive words; he was exclusively in charge of Rodman, as a jinn in an Arabian tale might have been in charge of a king's son.
The creature was servile - with almost a groveling servility. But one felt that this servility resulted from something potent and secret. One looked to see Rodman take Solomon's ring out of his waistcoat pocket.
I suppose there is no longer any doubt about the fact that Rodman was one of those gigantic human intelligences who sometimes appear in the world, and by their immense conceptions dwarf all human knowledge - a sort of mental monster that we feel nature has no right to produce. Lord Bayless Truxley said that Rodman was some generations in advance of the time; and Lord Bayless Truxley was, beyond question, the greatest authority on synthetic chemistry in the world.
Rodman was rich and, everybody supposed, indolent; no one ever thought very much about him until he published his brochure on the scientific manufacture of precious stones. Then instantly everybody with any pretension to a knowledge of synthetic chemistry turned toward him.
The brochure startled the world.
It prosed to adapt the luster and beauty of jewels to commercial uses. We were being content with crude imitation colors in our commercial glass, when we could quite as easily have the actual structure and the actual luster of the jewel in it. We were painfully hunting over the earth, and in its bowels, for a few crystals and prettily colored stones which we hoarded and treasured, when in a manufacturing laboratory we could easily produce them, more perfect than nature, and in unlimited quantity.
Now, if you want to understand what I am printing here about Rodman, you must think about this thing as a scientific possibility and not as a fantastic notion. Take, for example, Rodman's address before the Sorbonne, or his report to the International Congress of Science in Edinburgh, and you will begin to see what I mean. The Marchese Giovanni, who was a delegate to that congress, and Pastreaux, said that the something in the way of an actual practical realization of what Rodman outlined was the formulae. If Rodman could work out the formulae, jewel-stuff could be produced as cheaply as glass, and in any quantity - by the carload. Imagine it; sheet ruby, sheet emerald, all the beauty and luster of jewels in the windows of the corner drugstore!
And there is another thing that I want you to think about. Think about the immense destruction of value - not to us, so greatly, for our stocks of precious stones are not large; but the thing meant, practically, wiping out all the assembled wealth of Asia except the actual earth and its structures.
The destruction of value was incredible.
Put the thing some other way and consider it. Suppose we should suddenly discover that pure gold could be produced by treating common yellow clay with sulphuric acid, or that some genius should set up a machine on the border of the Sahara that received sand at one end and turned out sacked wheat at the other! What, then, would our hoarded gold be worth, or the wheat-lands of Australia, Canada or our Northwest?
The illustrations are fantastic. But the thing Rodman was after was a practical fact. He had it on the way. Giovanni and Lord Bayless Truxley were convinced that the man would work out the formula. They tried, over their signatures, to prepare the world for it.
The whole of Asia was appalled. The rajahs of the native states in India prepared a memorial and sent it to the British Government.
The thing came out after the mysterious, incredible tragedy. I should not have written that final sentence. I want you to think, just now, about the great hulk of a man that sat in his big chair beyond me at the window.
It was like Rodman to turn up with an outlandish human creature attending him hand and foot. How the thing came about reads like a lie; it reads like a lie; the wildest lie that anybody ever put forward to explain a big yellow Oriental following one about.
But it was no lie. You could not think up a lie to equal the actual things that happened to Rodman. Take the way he died!....
The thing began in India. Rodman had gone there to consult with the Marchese Giovanni concerning some molecular theory that was involved in his formulas. Giovanni was digging up a buried temple on the northern border of the Punjab. One night, in the explorer's tent, near the excavations, this inscrutable creature walked in on Rodman. No one knew how he got into the tent or where he came from.
Giovanni told about it. The tent-flap simply opened, and the big Oriental appeared. He had something under his arm rolled up in a prayer-carpet. He gave no attention to Giovanni, but he salaamed like a coolie to the little American.
"Master," he said, "you were hard to find. I have looked over the world for you."
And he squatted down on the dirty floor by Rodman's camp stool.
Now, that's precisely the truth. I suppose any ordinary person would have started no end of fuss. But not Rodman, and not, I think, Giovanni. There's the attitude that we can't understand in a genius - did you ever know a man with an inventive mind who doubted a miracle? A thing like that did not seem unreasonable to Rodman.
The two men spent the remainder of the night looking at the present that the creature brought Rodman in his prayer-carpet. They wanted to know where the Oriental got it, and that's how his story came out.
He was something - searcher, seems our nearest English word to it - in the great Shan Monastery on the southeastern plateau of the Gobi. He was looking for Rodman because he had the light - here was another word that the two men could find no term in any modern language to translate; a little flame, was the literal meaning.
The present was from the treasure-room of the monastery; the very carpet around it, Giovanni said, was worth twenty thousand lire. There was another thing that came out in the talk that Giovanni afterward recalled. Rodman was to accept the present and the man who brought it to him. The Oriental would protect him, in every way, in every direction, from things visible and invisible. He made quite a speech about it. But, there was one thing from which he could not protect him.
The Oriental used a lot of his ancient words to explain, and he did not get it very clear. He seemed to mean that the creative Forces of the spirit would not tolerate a division of worship with the creative forces of the body - the celibate notion in the monastic idea.
Giovanni thought Rodman did not understand it; he thought he himself understood it better. The monk was pledging Rodman to a high virtue, in the lapse of which something awful was sure to happen.
Giovanni wrote a letter to the State Department when he learned what had happened to Rodman. The State Department turned it over to the court at the trial. I think it was one of the things that influenced the judge in his decision. Still, at the time, there seemed no other reasonable decision to make. The testimony must have appeared incredible; it must have appeared fantastic. No man reading the record could have come to any other conclusion about it. Yet it seemed impossible - at least, it seemed impossible for me - to consider this great vital bulk of a man as a monk of one of the oldest religious orders in the world. Every common, academic conception of such a monk he distinctly negatived. He impressed me, instead, as possessing the ultimate qualities of clever diplomacy - the subtle ambassador of some new Oriental power, shrewd, suave, accomplished.
When one read the yellow-backed court-record, the sense of old, obscure, mysterious agencies moving in sinister menace, invisibly, around Rodman could not be escaped from. You believed it. Against your reason, against all modern experience of life, you believed it.
And yet it could not be true! One had to find that verdict or topple over all human knowledge - that is, all human knowledge as we understand it. The judge, cutting short the criminal trial, took the only way out of the thing.
There was one man in the world that everybody wished could have been present at the time. That was Sir Henry Marquis. Marquis was chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard. He had been in charge of the English secret service on the frontier of the Shan states, and at the time he was in Asia.
As soon as Scotland Yard could release Sir Henry, it sent him. Rodman's genius was the common property of the world. The American Government could not, even with the verdict of a trial court, let Rodman's death go by under the smoke-screen of such a weird, inscrutable mystery.
I was to meet Sir Henry and come here with him. But my train into New England was delayed, and when I arrived at the station, I found that Marquis had gone down to have a look at Rodman's country-house, where the thing had happened.
It was on an isolated forest ridge of the Berkshires, no human soul within a dozen miles of it - a comfortable stone house in the English fashion. There was a big drawing-room across one end of it, with an immense fireplace framed in black marble under a great white panel to the ceiling. It had a wide black-marble hearth. There is an excellent photograph of it in the record, showing the single andiron, that mysterious andiron upon which the whole tragedy seemed to turn as on a hinge.
Rodman used this drawing-room for a workshop. He kept it close-shuttered and locked. Not even this big, yellow, servile creature who took exclusive care of him in the house was allowed to enter, except under Rodman's eye. What he saw in the final scenes of the tragedy, he saw looking in through a crack under the door. The earlier things he noticed when he put logs on the fire at dark.
Time is hardly a measure for the activities of the mind. These reflections winged by in a scarcely perceptible interval of it. They have taken me some time to write out here, but they crowded past while the big Oriental was speaking - in the pause between his words.
"The print," he continued, "was the first confirmation of evidence, but it was not the first indicatory sign. I doubt if the Master himself noticed the thing at the beginning. The seductions of this disaster could not have come quickly; and besides that, Excellency, the agencies behind the material world get a footing in it only with continuous pressure. Do not receive a wrong impression, Excellency; to the eye a thing will suddenly appear, but the invisible pressure will have been for some time behind that materialization."
"The Master was sunk in his labor, and while that enveloped him, the first advances of the lure would have gone by unnoticed - and the tension of the pressure. But the day was at hand when the Master was receptive. He had got his work completed; the formula, penciled out, were on his table. I knew by the relaxation. Of all periods this is the one most dangerous to the human spirit."
He sat silent for a moment, his big fingers moving on the arms of the chair.
"I knew," he added. Then he went on: "But it was the one thing against which I could not protect him. The test was to be permitted."
He made a vague gesture.
"The Master was indicated - but the peril antecedent to his elevation remained . . . . It was to be permitted, and at its leisure and in its choice of time."
He turned sharply toward me, the folds of his face unsteady.
"Excellency!" he cried. "I would have saved the Master, I would have saved him with my soul's damnation, but it was not permitted. On that first night in the Italian's tent I said all I could."
His voice went into a higher note.
"Twice, for the Master, I have been checked and reduced in merit. For that bias I was myself encircled. I was in an agony of spirit when I knew that the thing was beginning to advance, but my very will to aid was at the time environed."
His voice descended.
He sat motionless, as though the whole bulk of him were devitalized, and maintained its outline only by the inclosing frame of the chair.
"It began, Excellency, on an August night. There is a chill in these mountains at sunset. I had put wood into the fireplace, and lighted it, and was about the house. The Master, as I have said, had worked out his formulae. He was at leisure. I could not see him, for the door was closed, but the odor of his cigar escaped from the room. It was very silent. I was placing the Master's bed-candle on the table in the hall, when I heard his voice. . . . You have read it, Excellency, as the scriveners wrote it down before the judge."
"It was an exclamation of surprise, of astonishment. Then I heard the Master get up softly and go over to the fireplace. . . Presently he returned. He got a new cigar, Excellency, clipped it and lighted it. I could hear the blade of the knife on the fiber of the tobacco, and of course, clearly the rasp of the match. A moment later I knew that he was in the chair again. The odor of ignited tobacco returned. It was some time before there was another sound in the room; then suddenly I heard the Master swear. His voice was sharp and astonished. This time, Excellency, he got up swiftly and crossed the room to the fireplace. . . I could hear him distinctly. There was the sound of one tapping on metal, thumping it, as with the fingers."
He stopped again, for a brief moment, as in reflection.
"It was then that the Master unlocked the door and asked for the liquor." He indicated the court record in my pocket. "I brought it, a goblet of brandy, with some carbonated water. He drank it all without putting down the glass . . . . His face was strange, Excellency . . . . Then he looked at me.
"`Put a log on the fire,' he said.
"I went in and added wood to the fire and came out.
"The Master remained in the doorway; he reentered when I came out, and closed the door behind him . . . . There was a long silence after that; them I heard the voice, permitted to the devocation thin, metallic, offering the barter to the Master. It began and ceased because the Master was on his feet and before the fireplace. I heard him swear again, and presently return to his place by the table."
The big Oriental lifted his face and looked out at the sweep of country before the window.
"The thing went on, Excellency, the voice offering its lure, and presenting it in brief flashes of materialization, and the Master endeavoring to seize and detain the visitations, which ceased instantly at his approach to the hearth."
The man paused.
"I knew the Master contended in vain against the thing; if he would acquire possession of what it offered, he must destroy what the creative forces of the spirit had released to him."
Again he paused.
"Toward morning he went out of the house. I could hear him walking on the gravel before the door. He would walk the full length of the house and return. The night was clear; there was a chill in it, and every sound was audible.
"That was all, Excellency. The Master returned a little later and ascended to his bedroom as usual."
Then he added:
"It was when I went in to put wood on the fire that I saw the footprint on the hearth."
There was a force, compelling and vivid, in these meager details, the severe suppression of things, big and tragic. No elaboration could have equaled, in effect, the virtue of this restraint.
The man was going on, directly, with the story,
"The following night, Excellency, the thing happened. The Master had passed the day in the open. He dined with a good appetite, like a man in health. And there was a change in his demeanor. He had the aspect of men who are determined to have a thing out at any hazard.
"After his dinner the Master went into the drawing-room and closed the door behind him. He had not entered the room on this day. It had stood locked and close-shuttered!"
The big Oriental paused and made a gesture outward with his fingers, as of one dismissing an absurdity.
"No living human being could have been concealed in that room. There is only the bare floor, the Master's table and the fireplace. The great wood shutters were bolted in, as they had stood since the Master took the room for a workshop and removed the furniture. The door was always locked with that special thief-proof lock that the American smiths had made for it. No one could have entered."
It was the report of the experts at the trial. They showed by the casing of rust on the bolts that the shutters had not been moved; the walls, ceiling and floor were undisturbed; the throat of the chimney was coated evenly with old soot. Only the door was possible as an entry, and this was always locked except when Rodman was himself in the room. And at such times the big Oriental never left his post in the hall before it. That seemed a condition of his mysterious overcare of Rodman.
Everybody thought the trial court went to an excessive care. It scrutinized in minute detail every avenue that could possibly lead to a solution of the mystery. The whole country and every resident was inquisitioned. The conclusion was inevitable. There was no human creature on that forest crest of the Berkshires but Rodman and his servant.
But one can see why the trial judge kept at the thing; he was seeking an explanation consistent with the common experience of mankind. And when he could not find it, he did the only thing he could do. He was wrong, as we now know. But he had a hold in the dark on the truth - not the whole truth by any means; he never had a glimmer of that. He never had the faintest conception of the big, amazing truth. But as I have said, he had his fingers on one essential fact.
The man was going on with a slow, precise articulation as though he would thereby make a difficult matter clear.
"The night had fallen swiftly. It was incredibly silent. There was no sound in the Master's room, and no light except the flicker of the logs smoldering in the fireplace. The thin line of it appeared faintly along the sill of the door."
"The fireplace, Excellency, is at the end of the great room, directly opposite this door into the hall, before which I always sat when the Master was within. The fireplace is of black marble with an immense black-marble hearth. And the gift which I had brought the Master stands on one side of the fire, on this marble hearth, as though it were a singe andiron."
The man turned back into the heart of his story.
"I knew by the vague sense of pressure that the devocations of the thing were again on the way. And I began to suffer in the spirit for the Master's safety. Interference, both by act and by the will, were denied me. But there is an anxiety of spirit, Excellency, that the uncertainty of an issue makes intolerable."
The man paused.
"The pressure continued - and the silence. It was nearly midnight. I could not distinguish any act or motion of the Master, and in fear I crept over to the door and looked in through the crevice along the threshold.
"The Master sat by his table; he was straining forward, his hands gripping the arms of his chair. His eyes and every tense instinct of the man were concentrated on the fireplace. The red light of the embers was in the room. I could see him clearly, and the table beyond him with the calculations; but the fireplace seemed strangely out of perspective - it extended above me.
"My gift to the Master, not more than four handbreaths in length, including the base, stood now like an immense bronze on an extended marble slab beside a gigantic fireplace. This effect of extension put the top of the fireplace and the enlarged andiron, above its pedestal, out of my line of vision. Everything else in the chamber, holding its normal dimensions, was visible to me.
"The Master's face was a little lifted. He was looking at the elevated portions of the andiron which were invisible to me. He did not move. The steady light threw half of his face into shadow. But in the other half every feature stood out sharply as in a delicate etching. It had that refined sharpness and distinction which intense moments of stress stamp on the human face. He did not move, and there was no sound.
"I have said, Excellency, that my angle of vision along the crevice of the doorsill was sharply cut midway of this now enlarged fireplace. From the direction and lift of the Master's face, he was watching something above this line and directly over the pedestal of the andiron. I watched, also, flattening my face against the sill, for the thing to appear.
"And it did appear.
"A naked foot became slowly visible, as though some one were descending with extreme care from the elevation of the andiron to the great marble hearth, under this strange enlargement, now some distance below."
The big Oriental paused, and looked down at me.
"I knew then, Excellency, that the Master was lost! The creative energies of the Spirit suffer no division of worship; those of the body must be wholly denied. I had warned the Master. And in travail, Excellency, I turned over with my face to the floor.
"But there is always hope, hope over the certainties of experience, over the certainties of knowledge. Perhaps the Master, even now, sustained in the spirit, would put away the devocation . . . . No, Excellency, I was not misled. I knew the Master was beyond hope! But the will to hope moved me, and I turned back to the crevice at the doorsill."
"There was now a delicate odor, everywhere, faintly, like the blossom of the little bitter apple here in your country. The red embers in the fireplace gave out a steady light; and in the glow of it, on the marble hearth, stood the one who had descended from the elevation of the andiron."
Again the man hesitated, as for an accurate method of expression.
"In the flesh, Excellency, there was color that would not appear in the image. The hair was yellow, and the eyes were blue; and against the black marble of the fireplace the body was conspicuously white. But in every other aspect of her, Excellency, the woman was on the hearth in the flesh as she is in the clutch of the savage male figure in the image.
"There is no dress or ornament, as you will recall, Excellency. Not even an ear-jewel or an anklet, as though the graver of the image felt that the inherent beauty of his figure could take nothing from these ostentations. The woman's heavy yellow hair was wound around her head, as in the image. She shivered a little, faintly, like a naked child in an unaccustomed draught of air, although she stood on the warm marble hearth and within the red glow of the fire.
"The voice from the male figure of the image, which I had brought the Master, and which stood as the andiron, now so immensely enlarged, was beginning again to speak. The thin metallic sounds seemed to splinter against the dense silence, as it went forward in the ritual prescribed.
"But the Master had already decided; he stood now on the great marble hearth with his papers crushed together. And as I looked on, through the crevice under the doorsill, he put out his free hand and with his finger touched the woman gently. The flesh under his finger yielded, and stooping over, he put the formulas into the fire."
Like one who has come to the end of his story, the huge Oriental stopped. He remained for some moments silent. Then he continued in an even, monotonous voice
"I got up from the floor then, and purified myself with water. And after that I went into an upper chamber, opened the window to the east, and sat down to write my report to the brotherhood. For the thing which I had been sent to do was finished."
He put his hand somewhere into the loose folds of his Oriental garment and brought out a roll of thin vellum like onion-skin, painted in Chinese characters. It was of immense length, but on account of the thinness of the vellum, the roll wound on a tiny cylinder of wood was not above two inches in thickness.
"Excellency," he said, "I have carefully concealed this report through the misfortunes that have attended me. It is not certain that I shall be able to deliver it. Will you give it for me to the jewel merchant Vanderdick, in Amsterdam? He will send it to Mahadal in Bombay, and it will go north with the caravans."
His voice changed into a note of solicitation.
"You will not fail me, Excellency - already for my bias to the Master I am reduced in merit."
I put the scroll into my pocket and went out, for a motorcar had come into the park, and I knew that Marquis had arrived.
I met Sir Henry and the superintendent in the long corridor; they had been looking in at my interview through the elevated grating.
"Marquis," I cried, "the judge was right to cut short the criminal trial and issue a lunacy warrant. This creature is the maddest lunatic in this whole asylum. The human mind is capable of any absurdity."
Sir Henry looked at me with a queer ironical smile.
"The judge was wrong," he said. "The creature, as you call him, is as sane as any of us."
"Then you believe this amazing story?" I said.
"I believe Rodman was found at daylight dead on the hearth, with practically every bone in his body crushed," he replied.
"Certainly," I said. "We all know that is true. But why was he killed?'
Again Sir Henry regarded me with his ironical smile.
"Perhaps," he drawled, "there is some explanation in the report in your pocket, to the Monastic Head. It's only a theory, you know."
He smiled, showing his white, even teeth.
We went into the superintendent's room, and sat down by a smoldering fire of coals in the gate. I handed Marquis the roll of vellum. It was in one of the Shan dialects. He read it aloud. With the addition of certain formal expressions, it contained precisely the Oriental's testimony before the court, and no more.
"Ah!" he said in his curiously inflected Oxford voice.
And he held the scroll out to the heat of the fire. The vellum baked slowly, and as it baked, the black Chinese characters faded out and faint blue ones began to appear.
Marquis read the secret message in his emotionless drawl:
"`The American is destroyed, and his accursed work is destroyed with him. Send the news to Bangkok and west to Burma. The treasures of India are saved."'
I cried out in astonishment.
"An assassin! The creature was an assassin! He killed Rodman simply by crushing him in his arms!"
Sir Henry's drawl lengthened.
"Its Lal Gupta," he said, "the cleverest Oriental in the whole of Asia. The jewel-traders sent him to watch Rodman, and to kill him if he was ever able to get his formulae worked out. They must have paid him an incredible sum."
"And that is why the creature attached himself to Rodman!" I said.
"Surely," replied Sir Henry. "He brought that bronze Romulus carrying off the Sabine woman and staged the supernatural to work out his plan and to save his life. I knew the bronze as soon as I got my eye on it - old Franz Josef gave it as a present to Mahadal in Bombay for matching up some rubies."
I swore bitterly.
"And we took him for a lunatic!"
"Ah, yes I" replied Sir Henry. "What was it you said as I came in? `The human mind is capable of any absurdity!"