Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XIII. At the Guest House
I presented myself at the Guest House at half-past eleven. My mental state was troubled and indescribably complex. Perhaps my own uneasy, thoughts were responsible for the idea, but it seemed to me that the atmosphere of Cray's Folly had changed yet again. Never before had I experienced a sense of foreboding like that which had possessed me throughout the hours of this bright summer's morning.
Colonel Menendez had appeared about nine o'clock. He exhibiting no traces of illness that were perceptible to me. But this subtle change which I had detected, or thought I had detected, was more marked in Madame Staemer than in any one. In her strange, still eyes I had read what I can only describe as a stricken look. It had none of the heroic resignation and acceptance of the inevitable which had so startled me in the face of the Colonel on the previous day. There was a bitterness in it, as of one who has made a great but unwilling sacrifice, and again I had found myself questing that faint but fugitive memory, conjured up by the eyes of Madame de Staemer.
Never had the shadow lain so darkly upon the house as it lay this morning with the sun blazing gladly out of a serene sky. The birds, the flowers, and Mother Earth herself bespoke the joy of summer. But beneath the roof of Cray's Folly dwelt a spirit of unrest, of apprehension. I thought of that queer lull which comes before a tropical storm, and I thought I read a knowledge of pending evil even in the glances of the servants.
I had spoken to Harley of this fear. He had smiled and nodded grimly, saying:
"Evidently, Knox, you have forgotten that to-night is the night of the full moon."
It was in no easy state of mind, then, that I opened the gate and walked up to the porch of the Guest House. That the solution of the grand mystery of Cray's Folly would automatically resolve these lesser mysteries I felt assured, and I was supported by the idea that a clue might lie here.
The house, which from the roadway had an air of neglect, proved on close inspection to be well tended, but of an unprosperous aspect. The brass knocker, door knob, and letter box were brilliantly polished, whilst the windows and the window curtains were spotlessly clean. But the place cried aloud for the service of the decorator, and it did not need the deductive powers of a Paul Harley to determine that Mr. Colin Camber was in straitened circumstances.
In response to my ringing the door was presently opened by Ah Tsong. His yellow face exhibited no trace of emotion whatever. He merely opened the door and stood there looking at me.
"Is Mr. Camber at home?" I enquired.
"Master no got," crooned Ah Tsong.
He proceeded quietly to close the door again.
"One moment," I said, "one moment. I wish, at any rate, to leave my card."
Ah Tsong allowed the door to remain open, but:
"No usee palaber so fashion," he said. "No feller comee here. Sabby?"
"I savvy, right enough," said I, "but all the same you have got to take my card in to Mr. Camber."
I handed him a card as I spoke, and suddenly addressing him in "pidgin," of which, fortunately, I had a smattering:
"Belong very quick, Ah Tsong," I said, sharply, "or plenty big trouble, savvy?"
"Sabby, sabby," he muttered, nodding his head; and leaving me standing in the porch he retired along the sparsely carpeted hall.
This hall was very gloomily lighted, but I could see several pieces of massive old furniture and a number of bookcases, all looking incredibly untidy.
Rather less than a minute elapsed, I suppose, when from some place at the farther end of the hallway Mr. Camber appeared in person. He wore a threadbare dressing gown, the silken collar and cuffs of which were very badly frayed. His hair was dishevelled and palpably he had not shaved this morning.
He was smoking a corncob pipe, and he slowly approached, glancing from the card which he held in his hand in my direction, and then back again at the card, with a curious sort of hesitancy. In spite of his untidy appearance I could not fail to mark the dignity of his bearing, and the almost arrogant angle at which he held his head.
"Mr--er--Malcolm Knox?" he began, fixing his large eyes upon me with a look in which I could detect no sign of recognition. "I am advised that you desire to see me?"
"That is so, Mr. Camber," I replied, cheerily. "I fear I have interrupted your work, but as no other opportunity may occur of renewing an acquaintance which for my part I found extremely pleasant--"
"Of renewing an acquaintance, you say, Mr. Knox?"
"Quite." He looked me up and down critically. "To be sure, we have met before, I understand?"
"We met yesterday, Mr. Camber, you may recall. Having chanced to come across a contribution of yours of the Occult Review, I have availed myself of your invitation to drop in for a chat."
His expression changed immediately and the sombre eyes lighted up.
"Ah, of course," he cried, "you are a student of the transcendental. Forgive my seeming rudeness, Mr. Knox, but indeed my memory is of the poorest. Pray come in, sir; your visit is very welcome."
He held the door wide open, and inclined his head in a gesture of curious old-world courtesy which was strange in so young a man. And congratulating myself upon the happy thought which had enabled me to win such instant favour, I presently found myself in a study which I despair of describing.
In some respects it resembled the lumber room of an antiquary, whilst in many particulars it corresponded to the interior of one of those second-hand bookshops which abound in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross Road. The shelves with which it was lined literally bulged with books, and there were books on the floor, books on the mantelpiece, and books, some open and some shut, some handsomely bound, and some having the covers torn off, upon every table and nearly every chair in the place.
Volume seven of Burton's monumental "Thousand Nights and a Night" lay upon a littered desk before which I presumed Mr. Camber had been seated at the time of my arrival. Some wet vessel, probably a cup of tea or coffee, had at some time been set down upon the page at which this volume was open, for it was marked with a dark brown ring. A volume of Fraser's "Golden Bough" had been used as an ash tray, apparently, since the binding was burned in several places where cigarettes had been laid upon it.
In this interesting, indeed unique apartment, East met West, unabashed by Kipling's dictum. Roman tear-vases and Egyptian tomb-offerings stood upon the same shelf as empty Bass bottles; and a hideous wooden idol from the South Sea Islands leered on eternally, unmoved by the presence upon his distorted head of a soft felt hat made, I believe, in Philadelphia.
Strange implements from early British barrows found themselves in the company of Thugee daggers There were carved mammals' tusks and snake emblems from Yucatan; against a Chinese ivory model of the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas rested a Coptic crucifix made from a twig of the Holy Rose Tree. Across an ancient Spanish coffer was thrown a Persian rug into which had been woven the monogram of Shah-Jehan and a text from the Koran. It was easy to see that Mr. Colin Camber's studies must have imposed a severe strain upon his purse.
"Sit down, Mr. Knox, sit down," he said, sweeping a vellum-bound volume of Eliphas Levi from a chair, and pushing the chair forward. "The visit of a fellow-student is a rare pleasure for me. And you find me, sir," he seated himself in a curious, carved chair which stood before the desk, "you find me engaged upon enquiries, the result of which will constitute chapter forty-two of my present book. Pray glance at the contents of this little box."
He placed in my hands a small box of dark wood, evidently of great age. It contained what looked like a number of shrivelled beans.
Having glanced at it curiously I returned it to him, shaking my head blankly.
"You are puzzled?" he said, with a kind of boyish triumph, which lighted up his face, which rejuvenated him and gave me a glimpse of another man. "These, sir," he touched the shrivelled objects with a long, delicate forefinger "are seeds of the sacred lotus of Ancient Egypt. They were found in the tomb of a priest."
"And in what way do they bear upon the enquiry to which you referred, Mr. Camber?"
"In this way," he replied, drawing toward him a piece of newspaper upon which rested a mound of coarse shag. "I maintain that the vital principle survives within them. Now, I propose to cultivate these seeds, Mr. Knox. Do you grasp the significance, of this experiment?"
He knocked out the corn-cob upon the heel of his slipper and began to refill the hot bowl with shag from the newspaper at his elbow.
"From a physical point of view, yes," I replied, slowly. "But I should not have supposed such an experiment to come within the scope of your own particular activities, Mr. Camber."
"Ah," he returned, triumphantly, at the same time stuffing tobacco into the bowl of the corn-cob, "it is for this very reason that chapter forty-two of my book must prove to be the hub of the whole, and the whole, Mr. Knox, I am egotist enough to believe, shall establish a new focus for thought, an intellectual Rome bestriding and uniting the Seven Hills of Unbelief."
He lighted his pipe and stared at me complacently.
Whilst I had greatly revised my first estimate of the man, my revisions had been all in his favour. Respecting his genius my first impression was confirmed. That he was ahead of his generation, perhaps a new Galileo, I was prepared to believe. He had a pride of bearing which I think was partly racial, but which in part, too, was the insignia of intellectual superiority. He stood above the commonplace, caring little for the views of those around and beneath him. From vanity he was utterly free. His was strangely like the egotism of true genius.
"Now, sir," he continued, puffing furiously at his corn-cob, "I observed you glancing a moment ago at this volume of the 'Golden Bough.'" He pointed to the scarred book which I have already mentioned. "It is a work of profound scholarship. But having perused its hundreds of pages, what has the student learned? Does he know why the twenty- sixth chapter of the 'Book of the dead' was written upon lapis-lazuli, the twenty-seventh upon green felspar, the twenty-ninth upon cornelian, and the thirtieth upon serpentine? He does not. Having studied Part Four, has he learned the secret of why Osiris was a black god, although he typified the Sun? Has he learned why modern Christianity is losing its hold upon the nations, whilst Buddhism, so called, counts its disciples by millions? He has not. This is because the scholar is rarely the seer."
"I quite agree with you," I said, thinking that I detected the drift of his argument.
"Very well," said he. "I am an American citizen, Mr. Knox, which is tantamount to stating that I belong to the greatest community of traders which has appeared since the Phoenicians overran the then known world. America has not produced the mystic, yet Judaea produced the founder of Christianity, and Gautama Buddha, born of a royal line, established the creed of human equity. In what way did these magicians, for a miracle-worker is nothing but a magician, differ from ordinary men? In one respect only: They had learned to control that force which we have to-day termed Will."
As he spoke those words Colin Camber directed upon me a glance from his luminous eyes which frankly thrilled me. The bemused figure of the Lavender Arms was forgotten. I perceived before me a man of power, a man of extraordinary knowledge and intellectual daring. His voice, which was very beautiful, together with his glance, held me enthralled.
"What we call Will," he continued, "is what the Ancient Egyptians called Khu. It is not mental: it is a property of the soul. At this point, Mr. Knox, I depart from the laws generally accepted by my contemporaries. I shall presently propose to you that the eye of the Divine Architect literally watches every creature upon the earth."
"Literally, Mr. Knox. We need no images, no idols, no paintings. All power, all light comes from one source. That source is the sun! The sun controls Will, and the Will is the soul. If there were a cavern in the earth so deep that the sun could never reach it, and if it were possible for a child to be born in that cavern, do you know what that child would be?"
"Almost certainly blind," I replied; "beyond which my imagination fails me."
"Then I will inform you, Mr. Knox. It would be a demon."
"What!" I cried, and was momentarily touched with the fear that this was a brilliant madman.
"Listen," he said, and pointed with the stem of his pipe. "Why, in all ancient creeds, is Hades depicted as below? For the simple reason that could such a spot exist and be inhabited, it must be sunless, when it could only be inhabited by devils; and what are devils but creatures without souls?"
"You mean that a child born beyond reach of the sun's influence would have no soul?"
"Such is my meaning, Mr. Knox. Do you begin to see the importance of my experiment with the lotus seeds?"
I shook my head slowly. Whereupon, laying his corn-cob upon the desk, Colin Camber burst into a fit of boyish laughter, which seemed to rejuvenate him again, which wiped out the image of the magus completely, and only left before me a very human student of strange subjects, and withal a fascinating companion.
"I fear, sir," he said, presently, "that my steps have led me farther into the wilderness than it has been your fate to penetrate. The whole secret of the universe is contained in the words Day and Night, Darkness and Light. I have studied both the light and the darkness, deliberately and without fear. A new age is about to dawn, sir, and a new age requires new beliefs, new truths. Were you ever in the country of the Hill Dyaks?"
This abrupt question rather startled me, but:
"You refer to the Borneo hill-country?"
"No, I was never there."
"Then this little magical implement will be new to you," said he.
Standing up, he crossed to a cabinet littered untidily with all sorts of strange-looking objects, carved bones, queer little inlaid boxes, images, untidy manuscripts, and what-not.
He took up what looked like a very ungainly tobacco-pipe, made of some rich brown wood, and, handing it to me:
"Examine this, Mr. Knox," he said, the boyish smile of triumph returning again to his face.
I did as he requested and made no discovery of note. The thing clearly was not intended for a pipe. The stem was soiled and, moreover, there was carving inside the bowl. So that presently I returned it to him, shaking my head.
"Unless one should be informed of the properties of this little instrument," he declared, "discovery by experiment is improbable. Now, note."
He struck the hollow of the bowl upon the palm of his hand, and it delivered a high, bell-like note which lingered curiously. Then:
He made a short striking motion with the thing, similar to that which one would employ who had designed to jerk something out of the bowl. And at the very spot on the floor where any object contained in the bowl would have fallen, came a reprise of the bell note! Clearly, from almost at my feet, it sounded, a high, metallic ring.
He struck upward, and the bell-note sounded on the ceiling; to the right, and it came from the window; in my direction, and the tiny bell seemed to ring beside my ear! I will honestly admit that I was startled, but:
"Dyak magic," said Colin Camber; "one of nature's secrets not yet discovered by conventional Western science. It was known to the Egyptian priesthood, of course; hence the Vocal Memnon. It was known to Madame Blavatsky, who employed an 'astral bell'; and it is known to me."
He returned the little instrument to its place upon the cabinet.
"I wonder if the fact will strike you as significant," said he, "that the note which you have just heard can only be produced between sunrise and sunset?"
Without giving me time to reply:
"The most notable survival of black magic--that is, the scientific employment of darkness against light--is to be met with in Haiti and other islands of the West Indies."
"You are referring to Voodooism?" I said, slowly.
He nodded, replacing his pipe between his teeth.
"A subject, Mr. Knox, which I investigated exhaustively some years ago."
I was watching him closely as he spoke, and a shadow, a strange shadow, crept over his face, a look almost of exaltation--of mingled sorrow and gladness which I find myself quite unable to describe.
"In the West Indies, Mr. Knox," he continued, in a strangely altered voice, "I lost all and found all. Have you ever realized, sir, that sorrow is the price we must pay for joy?"
I did not understand his question, and was still wondering about it when I heard a gentle knock, the door opened, and a woman came in.