The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories

This Night

It was the evening of Monday, the eleventh of January, 1980, when Professor Cawstin entered the ballroom of Dunstan House and stood quietly beside the door, in a slight isolation, of which he would have been contemptuous had he given notice to a thing so trivial.

        His manner showed neither haste nor excitement, but his glance searched the glittering moving throng with a steady purpose, so that Belle Templeton, who had her own cause for unfriendliness, was reminded of a butcher that she had once seen surveying a herd of cattle (for he was a farmer also) to determine which of them he would consign to the slaughterhouse.

        He was a short, thickly-built man of about thirty-five years, well, though somewhat carelessly dressed, handsome enough in a hard featured way, with bright deep-set eyes that were almost black, and a dome of forehead above them. He moved as one in robust health and the full vigour of life, and as one for whom his fellowmen had learned to step aside without protest.

        When he saw whom he sought he made a straight way across the crowded floor and came upon a couple at the further side of the room, just as the music paused and they were withdrawing to an alcove together.

        He looked at the man rather than at the girl, to whom he addressed no word of greeting, and said without emphasis, as one accustomed to the obedience of those around him: "I want a few words with Lady Joselyn."

        The girl - she was not more than twenty - looked startled, but not displeased. Selwyn Morecambe flushed an angry red, but his eyes fell before these of Professor Cawstin, and he made no audible protest.

        Joselyn realised the antagonism of the two men, possibly with some feminine satisfaction. It was, at least, pleasant to see Selwyn look sulky at the idea of losing her for a few minutes. It was rather more than a fortnight - Christmas Day, to be exact - since she had decided that he was the man she would marry, and she had not been quite certain as yet that he knew his fate.

        "There'll be plenty of time for another after," she assured him, with a glance that was intended to divert his anger from her own head, to concentrate it upon that of the Professor, where it could do her no harm.

        "Ten minutes," said the Professor; "I'm not staying in this crowd." He laid a compelling hand on her arm, which she did not welcome, though she was too controlled to give any sign of feeling. (Why had she always disliked men with hairy hands? It was like a gorilla's.) "Where can we talk?" he was saying. "I suppose you know the run of this place."

        "Yes," she said. "Being my aunt's, I suppose I do. . . . Is it such a very private conversation? . . . Nobody will come in here, if the door is shut."

        She was inwardly puzzled as to what possible motive he could have for desiring such an interview with her. Puzzled - and a little afraid. But that was absurd. She was not frightened of any man.

        She had led the way across the landing as she spoke (for the ballroom at Dunstan House is on the first floor) to a small boudoir which closed with a sliding door, beneath an archway, in the style which is common to the architecture of that period. Such doors can only be closed from the inside, and though they can be opened from without, the fact that they are closed is an evidence of occupation and of a desire for privacy, so that it is discourteous to disturb them, unless a servant be summoned.

        Joselyn sank into the deep comfort of a large round-backed chair of the kind which was then in vogue, being built of a size and shape that invites a dual occupation. She did not choose it for that reason, but because her foot was against the bell. She was relieved when the Professor took the further chair which she indicated.

        Was she really afraid? She knew that her heart was beating at somewhat more than its usual pace. But what on earth could there be to fear? The door only closed the lower part of the high arch in which it was set. Her voice need scarcely be raised to call a score of friends to her rescue. The bell was against her foot. It was too absurd.

        And the Professor was an important man, so that his notice was a flattery, even to her. And he was known as one who had little use for women, and a large contempt.

        She had met him at dinner the night before, for the first time. He had sat at her left hand. He had talked most of the time. Brilliant talk, which she had done her best to follow, and to hold on its own level. She had been pleasantly conscious that he had admired her, as all men should - as most men did. But he had been nothing to her.

        But she knew that he had been speaking at the House of Commons this afternoon. As head of the Institute of Chemical Research he had ex officio seats in both Houses of Lords and Commons, without the indignity of seeking the suffrages of the mob. He and his brother scientists had controlling votes in both Houses on all matters on which only the specialist was competent to decide. It was the age of the specialist. There were few national questions on which he had not the final word. He held no exalted office, having the reality of power, and being able to despise its protestations. There was no limit to his wealth. He was one of the three men who shared the secret of the transmutation of metals, which they withheld, for the world's good. But he had other knowledge, which he used, or licensed, on his own terms. The world had come to the era when knowledge was power indeed.

        "Lady Joselyn," he said, "I suppose you know that you are a very beautiful woman."

        She was not prepared to dispute that. She knew it to be a very general opinion, with which she concurred. She said nothing, but her eyes fell. She was conscious of this and ashamed that she could not face him more easily.

        He went on. "A very beautiful woman. That is why I am here. I have only time for the best. You will come to my house tomorrow night at twelve-thirty. You will enter an automatic brougham at the corner of Berners Street, at twelve-fifteen. You will be home by three a.m., which is earlier than you often are."

        "Of course," she said steadily, "I will do nothing of the kind. I think you are mad."

        "You will do just what I have said," he answered coolly. "You had better not touch that bell, or you will be sorry. Anyway, it would make no difference. Do you suppose your aunt would be rash enough to oppose me? . . . You are a very fortunate woman. . . . I intend that you shall have a child with rather more brains than yourself. If a theory is right, of which I have little doubt, you will have a son. . . . In three week's time, you can marry that young fool you have just left."

        "Then," she said, and her voice was so steady and her eyes so quiet that even he could not tell what she was thinking, "this is not exactly an offer of marriage?"

        He smiled at that. He thought she was taking it well, at which he was pleased. He had found that there was seldom trouble with the older women. They saw sense. He had so much to give. They had so much to fear. But the young girls were uncertain. They were very easy, or very difficult. There had been scenes; but they had not mattered in the end. Knowledge is power. And this girl he meant to have, though the heavens fell.

        "Marriage?. . . Of course not. Why should I want you about the house all the time? I have got servants for that."

        "Well," she said, striving with half-success to give a lightness to her tone which she did not feel, "it would be all the same, whether or not."

        "You mean," he said, without sign of resentment or affectation of misunderstanding, "to refuse?"

        "Of course I do. You may be a great man, Professor Cawstin, but you have made a mistake."

        "No, Lady Joselyn," he answered, "I don't make mistakes."

        "You have made one this time. You have had more than ten minutes now. I think we had better go."

        "Not till you understand. I don't threaten. I only suggest. Suppose your father should die?. . ."

        She looked bewildered for a moment, and then sprang to her feet with a bloodless face, as his meaning reached her.

        "You would never do such a dreadful thing! . . . I know," she went on falteringly, "that you scientists have wonderful powers Everyone knows that. But you wouldn't use them in such a way! . . . Besides, it would be no good, if you did. . . . My father would rather die."

        "But," he added reasonably, "it would be no gain to you, if he did . . . you would still have to come."

        She had lost her fear now and faced him with a contemptuous anger which he regarded with scientific interest and appreciation. Yes, she was a very beautiful woman. He admired his selection.

        "You may kill me," she was saying, "but I never will."

        "Oh, no," he said, "I shouldn't do that. Perhaps a skin-disease on the face, that you would come to me to cure when it reached the eyes. . . . But I never threaten. I only suggest. . . . And I haven't suggested anything really bad. Not to what I might."

        Her courage faltered before the remorseless confidence that confronted her. "Professor Cawstin," she said piteously, "I can't really mean much to you. Can't you be generous? You can't understand how I feel. . . . What it means to me. . . . You've got all the world. . . . You can't really love me, or you wouldn't frighten me like this."

        The Professor answered her with brutal frankness. "I don't love you at all. I think you're no better than a fool. I think you're a very beautiful girl, with about the best figure that I ever saw, and you'll breed well. I don't make mistakes. . . . You'll know how silly you've been," he added, in a kinder tone, "when you look back. You may feel a bit nervous beforehand, but you'll be glad enough afterwards. . . . But you'll have to remember this. There'll be no coming again. I never have the same woman twice. Life's too short for that. . . . But I know how to deal with a girl like you, to give you a good time. . . . So we'll have no more talk now. I've wasted nearly half an hour here, and your boy friend's probably round the door. . . . It's to be twelve-fifteen at the corner of Berners Street. An automatic brougham, with A. V. on the panel. Never mind what that means. You'll be back at three a.m., and no one will ever know. My people don't talk."

        He was turning to the door, when she stopped him in a last effort to gain at least some delay - some time for thought, for decision, perhaps to think out some fresh appeal.

        "Not tomorrow night!" she said, "not that, anyway; perhaps, next week."

        He asked her a question, at which she flushed angrily, but did not answer.

        "Nonsense," he said, "there's no better time than now. You ought to be glad of the chance."

        He slid the door back as he spoke and went out without exacting a promise, and it increased her terror. He was so sure of his power.

        The next day Joselyn kept to her own room, cancelling her engagements of the day, and then disconnecting her photo-phone, and instructing her maid that she was to be left undisturbed till evening.

        She wanted to think. She must think. And thought brought no comfort, and no decision. . . . She would never, never. . . . Would it really be such a very terrible thing, being so compelled, so trapped, in such a dreadful power? . . . She would never be so coerced, so degraded. She would not go. . . . Dare she refuse? . . . She knew that she had not listened to unmeaning threats. . . . If he had said that he loved her, it would be different - at least, a little. If she had not loved Selwyn, as she now knew that she did - knew it so much more clearly, more passionately, under the shadow of this experience. Selwyn who loved her. She knew that also now. The knowledge had come to both of them after that moment of tension, when she had refused to tell him anything that had passed with Cawstin, though she had not been able entirely to conceal her trouble.

        No, she never would. She would rather kill herself than that. But would she, really? She had seen death. She had seen burial. The grave is cold for the young. She did not want to die. She wanted Selwyn. Death was no way to him. . . . She stood before the mirror, slim, and bare, and beautiful. She fancied that his touch was upon her, and her shoulder shrank suddenly aside. Those hateful hairy hands. He had said that she would have his child. She shrank inwardly as though her body were polluted. She thought of it as a disfigured thing. Selwyn's child would not disfigure it. She would be so proud - so glad.

        Could she always conceal it, if this thing must be? Would Selwyn never know? Would she have no weak moment of confession, such as may be regretted afterwards but can never be changed again?. . . But such thoughts were idle, for it was a thing that she would not do. . . .Never, never, never, so help her God! But there was no God. Everyone knew that. There was just Science and Law. Just those, and some foolish atavistic instincts and superstitions, such as vexed her now.

        She must try to be reasonable. After all, it was for not more than two or three generations that reason had ruled the world. She remembered the superstition that her grandmother had practiced, and in which she had professed belief. She would open her Bible with a random hand, and be guided by the text on which her eyes should fall. You could not easily think of a sillier thing than that. . . . Yet she was tempted to try. . . . She was tempted to do anything, however foolish, which would give guidance when she could find none in the counsel of her own heart.

        There was a little shelf of books against the wall. Not for reading. The printed book was an obsolete curiosity now. They were inherited books of a sentimental interest, of ornamental value only. Among them was the actual Bible that her grandmother had used and, at the last, had given her.

        It was a silly thing, but it could do no harm to try. . . . If she did it, she would do it as it should be done. She knew that the book must be opened with averted eyes, so that there should be no subconscious choice of Old Testament or of New. . . . That she must look once, and once only - must attempt no second appeal. . . .

        She put the thought aside. She had no time, at least no heart, for trifling. Her trouble was too real, too near, for such absurdity. . . . Yet the thought returned. She would just do it, knowing that it could have no meaning, and get it over. It could do no harm to try. . . .

        Joselyn read the words, and her face paled. It seemed to her that there could be no chance in that. But there was no guidance either. This night thy soul shall be required of thee. Not her body. Not her life. Did it mean that she was to lose her soul? And what did the loss of a soul mean? She had learnt many things, but her education had taught her nothing of that.

        You can think of them as you will, but they were very terrible words. . . . And while she thought of them she began to get ready to go. Her mind was still undecided whether to resist or to yield. She might try to destroy her persecutor. She had thought of that many times during the day, though with little comfort in the thought. She had no practice in homicide, and little confidence in her ability to overcome such an adversary. She felt that he would have taken his own precautions even against that. Nor could she tell how she might be able to escape; nor what consequences might follow. It would not be like an ordinary murder. Professor Cawstin was a man apart.

        There has been a time, in the earlier part of the century, when the world had awakened to the fact that the advances in scientific knowledge threatened the destruction of the race - were even putting the power of that destruction into any ignorant or criminal hand which might be disposed to use it. . . . The scientists had replied that the pursuit of knowledge could not be stayed, but that the remedy lay in restricting the circulation of that which would be dangerous in unworthy hands. Laws had been passed to this end, and in twenty years they had borne such fruit that the scientists had become a caste who were above the obligations of their fellows and beyond their laws. They had resurrected a forgotten tongue, which only the elect among them were allowed to learn, and in which their records were kept. No one had more than a vague conception of what their knowledge had become, or the power it gave them. So they ruled by a great fear.

        Joselyn did not know what had decided her to go. The words had been like a Delphic oracle. They were pregnant with a meaning which she could not read. She was no more disposed to yield than she had been before. Perhaps less. But she had been overcome by a mood of fatalism. She went without thought, almost without emotion, to see what she should find. So she came to the corner of Berners Street.

        She reached that spot just as the clock had struck the quarter, and as she approached she saw the brougham for which she had been told to look glide to the kerb and stop.

        She stood for a moment, as in a dazed uncertainty, and then opened the door and got in. She sank back into the comfort of its silken interior, as it started in response to her entrance. She had a vague wish that some sudden accident might destroy it and her together. She could not bring herself to lift a hand against her own life, but she felt that she could have welcomed death from some assaulting evil. But there were no accidents now.

        The brougham ran swiftly and smoothly on, only slackening at times sufficiently to avoid contact with some contiguous vehicle. Its course had been so set as to carry her accurately to the appointed place; its controls, and those of the other vehicles among which it moved, would maintain sufficient distance to avoid collision, and was held off by the same power at least three inches from the kerbs it passed.

        The pavement was only dimly lighted, for the automatic cars of the period required no guidance, and pedestrianism, though no longer a penal offence, as it had been fifteen years earlier, was not encouraged in the London streets. As the brougham slid smoothly to the kerb, a footman came forward to open the door. She was within the house in a moment, and the car, as it felt the loss of her weight, was already gliding away to its garage.

        There was a cold severity in the aspect of the sage-green passage through which she was being led by a female servant, with an expressionless face and an air of unemotional efficiency; but the thickest carpet would have been less soft than was the smooth-faced material on which she trod, for comfort still remained, though art had fallen with the disorders and freedoms of life on which it thrives.

        The woman led the way through a curtained door, and then turned to withdraw, saying: "There is food here and everything you will need. There is some wine, but not much. The Professor said you were not to have much of that. He will want you in twenty minutes in the further room. You will go through that door. He said you were not to be later than that. You will leave your clothes here."

        Saying this, she went at once, not inviting reply.

        There was a small, old-fashioned clock on the wall, which ticked audibly. Joselyn watched it dumbly, as the minutes passed, standing as she had entered. She did not look at the food. She did not even throw off the white fur with which she had covered her shoulders as she had crossed the frosty street from the heated brougham to the heated hall. Her eyes were hard with a new anger, and, as is the way of women, she weighed the small thing and the great in different scales, so that they became equal, if not reversed. Every inexperienced instinct in mind and body resented the impersonal brutality of this reception.

        And as she stood thus her resolution hardened. She would not do it. She would know how to protect herself. She looked round for a weapon, but she did not see it. People did not cut their food with knives on the table in the later half of the twentieth century. . . . Anyway, weapon or none, she could protect herself. She would not go through that door, as though she were a slave for his bidding. She would await him here.

        It was nearly half an hour now. Would he never come? She felt that she would have the courage to meet him now, but she did not think it would last. Would it not be better to go forward and face him where she supposed that he must be, waiting beyond that dreadful door? But she could not do that. Her courage was of the passive kind, that can meet but cannot provoke.

        She could not stand there for ever. She had been a coward to come. She would go back now and face what tomorrow brought, as best she might.

        She went to the door, but it would not open. There was no handle on the inside.

        She did not waste herself in a useless effort. She might have known she was trapped. No wonder that there had been no sign. He could afford to wait. Better, in fact, than she. For the more time she wasted there she supposed vaguely that the later it would be before he would let her go.

        Well, she would waste no more time. Having come at all, it was an ignominious thing to stand there as she did. What must be must. She would face this thing that required her soul tonight. To her life's end she would ask herself what she had meant to do as she crossed to the further door, and would find no answer.

        Only, as she did so, she saw the whiteness of her face in a mirror upon the wall. She saw the glossy blackness of her head against its background of snowy fur, and for the first time in her life its beauty gave her no joy. She threw the fur from her neck, opened the door, and stepped into the room beyond.

        And then she saw he was dead.

        There was an after-difference in her memory of that night, in that while every feature of the commonplace anteroom in which she had waited was impressed upon her, so that she could have described it to the smallest detail, she could draw from the well of memory no clear impression of the exotic viciousness of the larger one into which she came, with its sensuous perfumes of ten thousand flowers. She saw nothing but the dead man.

        From the first moment she did not doubt he was dead. She would never fear him again. She went across the room, straight forward to where he lay. The resilient floor sloped very slightly downward from every side, and in the centre there was a hollow, saucer-shaped, of a width of about eight feet, which had been filled to heaping with tropic flowers, and which she passed unheeding. They were forest flowers of Brazil, gathered that morning, doubtless at his order, and brought here by a speeding plane.

        There was another door at the further side of the room. Near this door, on the right-hand of one who entered, there was a depression in the sloping floor, very shallow, into which a fountain played, and which was filled with water continually. There was nothing strange in that. Every important heated room in the great houses of the time had such a fountain of ice-cooled water. They were as common as had been the grates of an earlier century They were seldom more than three inches deep. They were sometimes fenced, in different ornamental ways. But not always. Not in such rooms as this.

        He lay with his head in this shallow pool, and so that the fountain played upon it, and the water splashed continually to the floor beyond. She thought at first that he had slipped and fallen, and had been suffocated by the sparkling water that was around his mouth. But his face was swollen, a congested purple, and the hands she hated, the hands that she had feared to feel upon her, were of an unnatural size.

        It was plain enough. He had lifted an armful of the flowers - perhaps for the perfume that they gave, perhaps only to confirm their freshness, to be satisfied that his order had been well served. And the little snake was still twisted around his wrist.

        Joselyn was not afraid now. She had no fear of the dead man. No fear, even, of that thin, black-speckled band of yellow-green that braceleted the hairy wrist, and was as quiet as death itself.

        But she must think. She saw that there would be time for thought. He would have given orders that he should not be disturbed in the thing that he had meant to do. She could not tell what would happen if this were discovered while she was still there, nor what sinister construction might be placed upon it. But she thought that she would be safe if she could once get clear of the house, if she could leave as quietly as she had come. Yet it might create suspicion, even inquiry, if she should attempt to leave too soon.

        So she stood there, as silent and unmotioned as she had done in the other room. For she could not take her eyes from the snake. She felt that if she withdrew them, and looked again, it might have disappeared. To where? She did not know how quickly it could move. She kept her eyes on the snake.

        She could not go back by the way she came. She knew that way was closed. She must use the one by which he had entered, and find her way to the exit as best she might. And she found that this was easy to do. Meeting no one, she went by stairs and passages that were silent-floored, till she came to the outer door. . . . And it was just then that she remembered that she had left her fur.

        She did not analyse the instinct, but it seemed to her of a supreme importance for her own safety that she should leave no material evidence that she had been there that night. And there was her monomark on the fur.

        Yet she felt that, so near to safety, with the door offering to her hand, she could not risk return. Yet, trembling now, she went back.

        No one met her as she did this. She passed the dead man. The snake was still on his wrist. It seemed asleep. She went on to the further room and picked up the fur. As she went out at last, closing the door for ever upon the sight of the dead, the woman met her whom she had seen before. Joselyn wondered for a moment whether she must not have seen the sprawling body as the door moved.

        But it was evident that she had not done so. She gave Joselyn a dull yet inquisitive glance, the meaning of which she could not read.

        The woman led her silently by the way that she had already learnt. She passed out into the cold mist of the winter night, and entered the vehicle which was waiting for her again.

        She sank back into the softness of that cushioned interior, and knew that she was trembling violently, now that the need of self-control was over, and the danger past.

        This night thy soul. . . . It had been a message indeed, though it had not been meant for her.

        Knowledge had triumphed, and the old faith was dead. She knew that. It proved its power in a hundred complications of life, in a thousand tyrannies. Men had told their Creator to stand aside while they took more competent control, and He had made no protest at all. Or no protest that they could hear. Perhaps He could speak an unknown language too.

        When she was back in the familiar security of her own softly-lighted room courage came again, and the consciousness of a great joy.

        She got into bed, but she did not feel tired at all. She reached for the photo-phone and called Belle Templeton. When she knew that she was alone, she adjusted the instrument, so that Belle could see her while they talked.

        "Belle," she said, "I'm going to marry Selwyn. When? Now." Belle said she was glad. But she recognised a note of anxiety, of inquiry, underlying the tone in which her friend replied, Did Belle suspect? Did Belle know? Had Belle herself . . . ? Anyway, she could trust Belle. She would like someone to know. "Wait a moment," she said, "I've got something to show you."

        She adjusted the instrument again so that it could convey the vision of anything which should be pictured in her own mind. She said nothing, but Belle saw her alight from the automatic brougham and go up the steps, the footman leading. Belle saw every detail of the room in which the clock ticked and the hands moved on. She could not see much of the room beyond. It was blurred, except just where the dead man lay. (But she knew that room.) The man was very clear, and so was the thin, little band, black-speckled, of yellow-green, that was around his wrist.

        "So that's that," said Joselyn very happily as the picture ended. Belle said she was glad.

        "And I'm going to cut you off," Joselyn added. "I want Selwyn now."

        "You're not going to tell him that?"

        "No, of course. I've got more important things to say to him. Much !" Belle found that she was cut off.

        "That you, Selwyn? Alone? So I supposed at this hour. You didn't take long to wake, I'll say that. Got the lights on? Well, you can see me here, if you like." Her hand moved among the studs. "Listen, Selwyn. You're in luck. I'm going to marry you now. Yes, now. Don't I always mean what I say? Now. While we're safe. Never mind what I mean by that. Probably nothing at all. Girls never do. You'll go now and get the marriage registered, which won't take more than ten minutes, and come straight up. . . . Yes, I should just think you would !"

        She disconnected before he could answer further, turned over and went to sleep.

        After all, it wasn't such a bad night.

*        *        *        *        *

End of this file.