SURELY it had been a curious wooing; for Astro, Seer of Secrets, so confident in other matters, so keen in his insight into human nature, so quick to think and bold to act, had shown from the first a strange timidity when it came to a personal relation with Valeska, his assistant. His manner had long been merely brotherly, modified only by his relation as instructor to her. But of late he had begun to make tentative suggestions, as if to try and sound her affection. From these Valeska had instinctively warned him off, and his tact had made him accede to her wishes. It seemed as if he feared to lose her by speaking too soon.
But at last he had spoken. The words had sprung unpremeditated from his lips, on the surging impulse of the moment. Nor were they the fruit of any dramatic moment. Merely the sight of her in a characteristic attitude at the table, her blond head illumined by the electric light, and a sudden terror struck him lest destiny should sweep them apart and write the story of their two years' friendship in the chronicles of the past. So many things in his life had faded like autumn leaves! He must be sure of her, sure of having her beside him always, sure of the inspiration of her companionship. The speech came on the instant in a passionate demand.
It had appeared to frighten her for the moment, as if it were a question she had long been dreading. She had asked for time in which to consider it, and he had reluctantly consented. Since then he had not mentioned the subject; but he had watched her silently with fear and constraint in his manner.
Valeska found it hard to explain why she had been unwilling to answer; but, as she went over and over the question, it seemed to her that their friendship had been merely the product of propinquity. They had been thrown together continually, had incurred danger, and had enjoyed victory. How, then, could she be sure that it was no more than friendship, a common interest in their work? Love, she had always thought, should come with a flash of sudden illumination, as a divine gift, as a sudden wonder, convincing in its very mystery. But her feeling—was it not the mere result of a daily comradeship? Was it a fatal irresistible appeal of the soul? She found him aristocratic, generous, talented, finely perceptive, and delicate; but was this all? Her love, if it were love, spoke a commonplace tongue—and she had wanted words of fire. So, for a week, she went over and over the subject, subjecting herself and Astro to a searching criticism, and as yet she had found no answer.
He came into the room one morning, carrying from his laboratory a large black square object, which he set on the table. She looked at it, and then her eyes questioned him.
"It is a lantern of a special kind," he said. "It casts black light."
"Black light!" Her delicate brows rose.
"That's what Doctor Le Bon calls it. You see, the visible spectrum (or all the light we can see) is only about one per cent. of all the vibrant energy emitted by the sun or any other luminous body. Beyond that visible spectrum lie, at one end the ultraviolet rays, and at the other the infra-red. I have here a lighted lantern enclosed in an opaque box, which cuts off all the visible rays, but permits the other ninety-nine per cent, to pass through. The flame inside is now casting rays of black light through the opaque sides, black, because they are invisible; light, because they will illuminate certain objects.
"I want you to witness an experiment. You recall the celebrated interference experiment of Fresnel, in which light added to light produced darkness? Well, I shall show you how darkness added to darkness may give birth to light. It is Le Bon's discovery. Now come into my dark room, and I'll show it to you."
At the farther end of the laboratory he opened a door which led into a small dark room. Entering this, and closing the laboratory door, he opened one into another dark room beyond, carrying the dark lantern. They both entered the inner dark room, which was ventilated through a circuitous light-proof pipe. The room was absolutely black; but Astro, well used to the place, feeling his way with his hands, set the lantern on a table.
"Upon a shelf here," he said, "is a Chinese image of Buddha, which some weeks ago I coated with phosphorescent sulfid of calcium. By this time all its luminosity is gone, and it is absolutely invisible. But now I shall direct the invisible rays of black light from this lantern upon it. Watch!"
As she waited there in the silence and the dark, Valeska strained her eyes for nearly a minute in vain. Then a faint luminous blur was apparent. It gathered intensity and showed a triangle of violet radiance. In another minute it had taken the form of a squatting Buddha and glowed plainly, the only visible thing in the room.
"It's wonderful!" she breathed.
"Oh, that's not half that can be done with black light," Astro said, as he took the lantern and led the way out. "With it one can photograph objects through an opaque screen, when they are illuminated by ordinary sunlight. By using a screen of sulfid of zinc, and training this black light upon an object, one could see it even at midnight, half a mile away."
When they came out into the great studio, he dropped to his favorite place on the divan and went on. "Phosphorescence, opalescence and fluorescence are queer things, Valeska. They haven't been half understood till lately, when what is called 'the new physics' came into being through the discoveries in radioactivity by Monsieur and Madame Curie. It used to be thought that after a phosphorescent object had remained in the dark for a while and had ceased to be luminous, it ceased its radioactivity, and needed a new bath of light to make it act again. But Le Bon found that it would radiate for months after all visible glow had disappeared. We have proved it with this black light just now."
He had taken up his narghile and sat looking off into space with a mystic expression on his face. It was one of his dreamy, philosophical moments. Valeska recognized the mood and waited for the inevitable parable. For, to Astro the Seer, modern science was but an allegory of the intellect and the emotions. By it he explained even his own charlatanry.
"Isn't it like absence? While our friend is present, he is bathed in the matter-of-fact light of day; he is radiant, luminous. When he disappears, for a time that impression of him lasts, like the phosphorescent glow. Then, the light fades and we begin to forget, all save those who truly love, who truly know, whose soul can still perceive the mysterious astral black light he radiates through the dark. His influence persists, transmuted from mental into psychic energy. Selah!"
He dropped his narghile and sat with folded hands, looking at her as if she were miles away. His smile was the calm expression of his own bronze Buddha.
But Valeska took the parable to herself eagerly. "Yes, yes, it's true, and that's just what I need to know before I give you the answer you want! I don't know whether I really love you or not,—you're too near me, too intermingled with my life and my work. If I could try that test of absence, if I could wait till your phosphorescence fades out, then I could tell whether or not I was affected by your black light. I'd know then just what you were to me—alone in the dark!"
"Shall we try it?" he asked gently. "Shall I disappear for a week, say?"
"Ah, I'm afraid it would take at least a month!" she said.
He laughed. "Well, as long as you like."
"Will you really?"
He bowed gravely. "I shall disappear to-morrow. You may use the studio as you please; and, when you've found out whether or not you can be affected by my psychic black light,—you will let me know."
"Do I care? Do I care enough for him?" Valeska asked herself the next morning as she walked to the studio. She had thought of it almost all night; she had risen with the question on her lips. She had seen him every day for two years. The thought that today, and perhaps for a week or a month, she would not see him, gave her a strange feeling. Was it a relief, or a pain? As yet, she could not decide.
As she entered the studio it seemed strange not to find him there, at first. Then, insensibly she began to find it hard to believe that he was not there. Everything suggested his presence,—the curiosities he had collected, the weapons, the Egyptian sculptures, tapestries, gems,—all evidences of his taste and his researches. She could not rid herself of the feeling that at any moment he might come in. He was near her, somewhere, waiting and watching for her.
But this, she said to herself, was only the effect of the familiar environment in which she had been used to see him. But it became at last too strong, too insistent. Surely she could never decide till she sought a new atmosphere. She was sorry that she had not disappeared, instead of Astro. But at least she could leave the studio and be alone for a while, to think it out. As she opened the outer door, she heard the soft ringing of the electric bell in the studio which warned them of visitors. It still rang as she closed the door, and it gave her an uncanny feeling,—the one spark of life in that dead empty place. She hurried away and walked swiftly toward the park.
"Shall we try it?" he asked gently. "Shall I disappear for a week, say?"
Again the empty studio smote her with the strange feeling that, despite the fact that she did not meet him there, he was near her. Now it was a tantalizing thought. Why had she not arranged how to notify him? She had been so sure she would need a month that she had not asked where he was going, and she had now no means of letting him know. It was absurd! Must she wait for him to write?
After all, had she really no means of discovering his whereabouts? She looked eagerly about the studio. For two years she had been his assistant in unraveling mysteries. Why should she not now profit by her apprenticeship? But how?
It came to her then that it was, so to speak, by means of black light that he himself had always worked. Most people saw only the outward and visible signs,—the one per cent. of facts that were luminous and obvious. His delicate mind registered the infra-red rays of psychic action. He vibrated to the ultraviolet waves. Could she not do so as well? She was a woman and had intuitions as well as intellect; she had emotions finer than men's. But her emotions told her somehow, irrationally, that Astro was still there in the studio. She could not believe, quite, in his absence. Everything shrieked his name to her. She could close her eyes and see him before the porphyry sphinx, examining thumb prints at his table, poring over the mimic planets of the orrery, figuring out nativities, gazing into his crystal ball.
That would never do! She must keep her imagination as an instrument with which to work on facts. Where, then, were the facts that could help her? She set herself to investigate the studio thoroughly, inch by inch.
At the first round, she found nothing not in its accustomed place, nothing new, nothing significant. She sat down at his table to think, putting her elbows on the blotter and letting her head drop into her palms. Her eyes fell on the blue blotter. It was changed every morning, ordinarily; but now she noticed pencil markings, a small square drawn with its diagonals. Would this be mere thoughtless penciling, or perhaps a clue? Next, an envelope lying beside the inkstand attracted her attention. Surely that could mean nothing, and yet, as it lay with its face down, the X shaped cross of its gummed edges suggested the diagonals of the square. Either one alone might have no significance; but the two taken together—the hint, perhaps, repeated? She smiled at the very absurdity of so frail a clue.
Then her eyes dropped to the waste-paper basket. This should have been emptied yesterday morning, yet it contained a few scraps of paper. She stooped and drew them out, one by one. Three were blank. On the fourth she found the following:
"St. Patrick's Cath. . . . . . . 115 10th-Ave.
Pier 83 N. R. . . . . . . . . . 320 3d-Ave."
She gave a little cry of triumph. Here at last was something to work on! She considered the addresses carefully. What did they mean? Astro had never mentioned such places; yet the notes were in his crabbed handwriting. She knew of a certainty that the studio had been cleaned the day before yesterday. This writing, then, must have been put into the basket after they had had their talk. If so, then they meant something. The first thing to do was, of course, to look up these localities and see what she could find there. Saint Patrick's Cathedral and the Pier 83 seemed unlikely places to discover news of Astro's whereabouts; but she determined to visit all four before she returned.
She called a taxicab and set out first for Pier 83. This, she found, was at the end of the Forty-second-Street side of the Weehawken ferry. She walked along the wharf, and found a tug laid up there. Besides this, there was no sign of life. What should she do? Ask the tugboat men if they knew where Astro was? That was nonsense! She walked up and down for a half-hour, and discovered nothing which she could possibly twist into evidence. She decided, then, that she would visit the other places, and then, if she found nothing suspicious, return over the ground again.
Saint Patrick's Cathedral next. There it stood, on the corner of the avenue, and she recalled how Astro had once called her attention to its resemblance to a vast Gothic rabbit. The two transepts did resemble a bunny's haunches, and the front towers were like ears. She smiled at the thought; but got no nearer Astro by the pleasantry. She walked inside, sat down on a seat, and thought. What associations could this have with his whereabouts? Why, he was not even a Catholic! He always said he was a Buddhist. Well, if this were a part of the black light his memory emanated, it was black indeed!
In Third Avenue her hopes went up. Number 320 was the entrance to a brick apartment-house. There was a sign indicating that flats were to let, and she rang for the janitor. By him she was shown a very pleasant "four rooms and bath", whose windows were on a level with the elevated railroad; but it was as bare as the palm of one's hand, with no lines she could read. She asked tentatively of the other occupants, and found that all, with the exception of a couple of old men, were married families. Yes, a man had been to look at the flat yesterday; but he had worn a beard. Was this a disguise? But if Astro had come there with the intention of renting a flat temporarily, why should he have left the address in the waste basket? And, moreover, why should he have coupled its address with Pier 83?
There remained only the Tenth Avenue address, and this she found to be a huge unoccupied building with shuttered windows, belonging to a gas company. Opposite was a vacant lot piled with lumber refuse, beams and timbers; on the other side was the gas-tank's cylindrical bulk. She could find no watchman to give her permission to enter. What pretext could she give for wanting to see the premises, even if she inquired at the office on Eighteenth Street? She could think of none. Better think it over and plan a campaign. She had this much information, at least. Now what she had to do was to find some plausible theory to utilize it.
Back she went to her room and cried herself to sleep, as any other woman would. She missed Astro more than ever. Before, she had a hunger and thirst for his presence; now she wanted his help and protection. Oh, she was sure enough, now! She felt lost without him; she saw how necessary he was to her, how he had made life different, romantic, picturesque.
It was a sad little Valeska that crept to the studio next day. She took up one of the cushions of his divan and kissed it passionately, buried her face in it for a while, then sat resolutely down at his desk to work out the mystery of his location. The more she thought of it now, the surer she became that he must have left these clues on purpose to guide her in her search. It would be like him to test her that way; there was a sort of humor in it that, at last, she saw. Well, then, she would be a worthy pupil. She would prove that his lessons had not been without effect. She, too, would be a seer of secrets!
With a smile on her lips now, she began the problem. But again she stopped. It was absurd to think of him as being away. She was so used to seeing him here in the studio that she could not take her task seriously. Could not she go into a trance, as he had so often pretended to, and summon him to her, or project her spirit to meet his? Could she not perceive the radiance of his secret black light directly through her intuitions, without this tedious and stupid analytical logical process? As she sat there she could almost feel him at her side, leaning over her shoulder, looking from the door of his laboratory. She looked up with a start from her reverie, and was a little frightened to find herself alone in the great studio with its shadowy corners. Then she went back conscientiously to her study.
What was the meaning of the four addresses? It seemed evident that he could not be in any one of the places; that would be too easy an explanation of the mystery. Was there any esoteric significance to the Weehawken ferry or Pier 83? She laughed at the idea. All she could gather from the addresses was that Astro was probably in New York. Well, that was something. Her mind jumped to the square with diagonals, to the cross on the envelope. How did they fit in? Why, for all she knew, the pattern on the carpet, or the legs of the chairs could solve the mystery!
No, there must be some relationship between these things. If these evidences were left purposely, they were correlated one to another. Her mind went back to memories of Astro. He used to jump up and walk back and forth as he considered his problems. So up rose Valeska and began to pace the room.
As she passed the book-shelves, she noticed that one book stuck out a little from the others. It was a volume of Poe's Tales. She pushed it back and continued her promenade. She went over the addresses again, Saint Patrick's, Pier 83, 320 Third Avenue, the gas works. It came to her vaguely that these places were about equal distances apart. Now could that mean anything? Then she thought that she could consider them more clearly if she had a map.
She went to the shelf, therefore, took down and unfolded a large map of New York, and laid it on the table. She next took four pins and marked each place. They were indeed equal distances apart; she measured them with a ruler. Then she noticed that they seemed to form a square, and tested it with a little transparent celluloid triangle Astro used for plotting horoscopes, and found it was true. The sides were about a mile and a quarter long. Again she dropped her chin on her palms and her elbows on the table and studied the pins.
But her thoughts wandered. It seemed as if Astro should be there to help her as he always had. She thought, with a smile, that if it were propinquity that had made her love him, propinquity was what she wanted most. But she forced her mind to the subject and remembered the diagram drawn on the blotter of the table. Why, that was a square, too! And it had its diagonals drawn. The hint reached her at last and, seizing a pencil and ruler, she drew in the diagonals on the map, and looked curiously to see where they intersected. On Thirty-fourth Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. But the studio itself was at 234 West Thirty-fourth Street.
She jumped up, then, her hand on her beating heart. Her intuitions, then, were true! She had felt the black light of his presence, though he was invisible! He was in the studio, and had been from the first! He had, perhaps, even looked from the doorway, as she had fancied. She trembled as if at the presence of a ghost, and feared to see him.
But where was he? Must she look in every nook and corner? Should she call him out loud? Hungry for him as she was, she could not yet do that; her heart beat too fast. Yet she longed to tear the mystery open and let in the light again—the old-fashioned sunlight of his actual visible presence—and break into tears on his shoulder. She moved across the room on tiptoe now, as if she were guilty of some crime in being there, threw herself on the divan, and tried to think it out.
As she calmed herself, the thought of the book she had replaced on the shelf came to her, and she ran across the studio to take it from its shelf. It fell open of itself to The Purloined Letter, and she smiled to herself. That proved her hypothesis to be right. Was not the purloined letter concealed in plain sight, so prominently placed that it escaped the search? Then Astro's hiding-place would be as obvious, if she reasoned aright. Could she solve that as she had solved the other, by her intuitions, by means of his black light?
Black light! The very words were enough to tell her. Where should he be, but in the dark room where she first witnessed his experiment, where the little phosphorescent Buddha, though invisible in the dark, still radiated its mysterious waves of energy?
So it was solved! She hugged herself with delight, and smiled at the prettiness of his plans. How well he knew her and her mental processes—indeed, he must know her very soul, to be so sure of her and her ways! Indeed, he was the Seer of secrets; for he had seen hers before she had discovered it for herself, had waited with patience and tact till she should know and be sure of her own love for him. A wave of impatience to see him, speak to him, touch him, swept over her.
Of course he had retreated to his hiding-place when he had heard the ringing of the bell on the door. She had been there for an hour, and he must be tired of waiting there, well ventilated as the dark room was. So she crossed to the laboratory door, opened the door of the little anteroom, shut it behind her, and put her hand to the inner door, opened it, and listened.
It was black and still. For a moment she almost fainted with the fear that, after all, she might be mistaken and he was not there. Her childhood's terror of the dark returned; but she put it away and tried to speak aloud. Her voice came thin and small in that closed space.
"Astro, I have found you!" she said tremblingly. "I have seen your black light in the dark, and I know, now! I want you, dear!"
She gave a little cry as she felt two arms take her in their grasp. Then the touch of his lips thrilled her, and she laid her head on his shoulder in peace and contentment.
When Astro took her out into the light, it blinded them with sunshine so that they staggered and could hardly see.
The thrilling of the electric bell interrupted them in their dream.
"It is the clergyman and the witnesses," said Astro, smiling. "They are just five minutes ahead of time. I didn't expect you'd find me till eleven o'clock at least!"