The House of the Vampire/XXI
Reginald's revelations were followed by a long silence, interrupted only by the officiousness of the waiter. The spell once broken, they exchanged a number of more or less irrelevant observations. Ethel's mind returned, again and again, to the word he had not spoken. He had said nothing of the immediate bearing of his monstrous power upon her own life and that of Ernest Fielding.
At last, somewhat timidly, she approached the subject. “You said you loved me,” she remarked.
“But why, then—”
“I could not help it.”
“Did you ever make the slightest attempt?”
“In the horrible night hours I struggled against it. I even implored you to leave me.”
“Ah, but I loved you!”
“You would not be warned, you would not listen. You stayed with me, and slowly, surely, the creative urge went out of your life.”
“But what on earth could you find in my poor art to attract you? What were my pictures to you?”
“I needed them, I needed you. It was a certain something, a rich colour effect, perhaps. And then, under your very eyes, the colour that vanished from your canvases reappeared in my prose. My style became more luxurious than it had been, while you tortured your soul in the vain attempt of calling back to your brush what was irretrievably lost.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“You would have laughed in my face, and I could not have endured your laugh. Besides, I always hoped, until it was too late, that I might yet check the mysterious power within me. Soon, however, I became aware that it was beyond my control. The unknown god, whose instrument I am, had wisely made it stronger than me.”
“But why,” retorted Ethel, “was it necessary to discard me, like a cast-off garment, like a wanton who has lost the power to please?”
Her frame shook with the remembered emotion of that moment, when years ago he had politely told her that she was nothing to him.
“The law of being,” Reginald replied, almost sadly, “the law of my being. I should have pitied you, but the eternal reproach of your suffering only provoked my anger. I cared less for you every day, and when I had absorbed all of you that my growth required, you were to me as one dead, as a stranger you were. There was between us no further community of interest; henceforth, I knew, our lives must move in totally different spheres. You remember that day when we said good-bye?”
“You mean that day when I lay before you on my knees,” she corrected him.
“That day I buried my last dream of personal happiness. I would have gladly raised you from the floor, but love was utterly gone. If I am tenderer to-day than I am wont to be, it is because you mean so much to me as the symbol of my renunciation. When I realised that I could not even save the thing I loved from myself, I became hardened and cruel to others. Not that I know no
kindly feeling, but no qualms of conscience lay their prostrate forms across my path. There is nothing in life for me but my mission.”
His face was bathed in ecstasy. The pupils were luminous, large and threatening. He had the look of a madman or a prophet.
After a while Ethel remarked: “But you have grown into one of the master-figures of the age. Why not be content with that? Is there no limit to your ambition?”
Reginald smiled: “Ambition! Shakespeare stopped when he had reached his full growth, when he had exhausted the capacity of his contemporaries. I am not yet ready to lay down my pen and rest.”
“And will you always continue in this criminal course, a murderer of other lives?” He looked her calmly in the face. “I do not know.”
“Are you the slave of your unknown god?”
“We are all slaves, wire-pulled marionettes: You, Ernest, I. There is no freedom on the face of the earth nor above. The tiger that tears a lamb is not free, I am not free, you are not free. All that happens must happen; no word that is said is said in, vain, in vain is raised no hand.”
“Then,” Ethel retorted, eagerly, “if I attempted to wrest your victim from you, I should also be the tool of your god?”'
“Assuredly. But I am his chosen.”
“Can you—can you not set him free?”
“I need him—a little longer. Then he is yours.”
“But can you not, if I beg you again on my knees, at least loosen his chains before he is utterly ruined?”
“It is beyond my power. If I could not rescue you, whom I loved, what in heaven or on earth can save him from his fate? Besides, he will not be utterly ruined. It is only a part of him that I absorb. In his soul are chords that I have not touched. They may vibrate one day, when he has gathered new strength. You, too, would have spared yourself much pain had you striven to attain success in different fields—not where I had garnered the harvest of a lifetime. It is only a portion of his talent that I take from him. The rest I cannot harm. Why should he bury that remainder?”
His eyes strayed through the window to the firmament, as if to say that words could no more bend his indomitable will than alter the changeless course of the stars.
Ethel had half-forgotten the wrong she herself had suffered at his hands. He could not be measured by ordinary standards, this dazzling madman, whose diseased will-power had assumed such uncanny proportions. But here a young life was at stake. In her mind's eye she saw Reginald crush between his relentless hands the delicate soul of Ernest Fielding, as a magnificent carnivorous flower might close its glorious petals upon a fly.
Love, all conquering love, welled up in her. She would fight for Ernest as a tiger cat fights for its young. She would place herself in the way of the awful force that had shattered her own aspirations, and save, at any cost, the brilliant boy who did not love her.