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XXIIEdit

The last rays of the late afternoon sun fell slanting through Ernest's window. He was lying on his couch, in a leaden, death-like slumber that, for the moment at least, was not even perturbed by the presence of Reginald Clarke.

The latter was standing at the boy's bedside, calm, unmoved as ever. The excitement of his conversation with Ethel had left no trace on the chiselled contour of his forehead. Smilingly

fastening an orchid of an indefinable purple tint in his evening coat, radiant, buoyant with life, he looked down upon the sleeper. Then he passed his hand over Ernest's forehead, as if to wipe off beads of sweat. At the touch of his hand the boy stirred uneasily. When it was not withdrawn his countenance twitched in pain. He moaned as men moan under the influence of some anæsthetic, without possessing the power to break through the narrow partition that separates them from death on the one side and from consciousness on the other. At last a sigh struggled to his seemingly paralysed lips, then another. Finally the babbling became articulate.

“For God's sake,” he cried, in his sleep, “take that hand away!” And all at once the benignant smile on Reginald's features was changed to a look of savage fierceness. He no longer resembled the man of culture, but a disappointed, snarling beast of prey. He took his hand from Ernest's forehead and retired cautiously through the half-open door.

Hardly had he disappeared when Ernest awoke. For a moment he looked around, like a hunted animal, then sighed with relief and buried his head in his hand. At that moment a knock at the door was heard, and Reginald re-entered, calm as before.

“I declare,” he exclaimed, “you have certainly been sleeping the sleep of the just.”

“It isn't laziness,” Ernest replied, looking up rather pleased at the interruption. “But I've a splitting headache.”

“Perhaps those naps are not good for your health.”

“Probably. But of late I have frequently found it necessary to exact from the day-hours the sleep which the night refuses me. I suppose it is all due to indigestion, as you have suggested. The stomach is the source of all evil.”

“It is also the source of all good. The Greeks made it the seat of the soul. I have always claimed that the most important item in a great poet's biography is an exact reproduction of his menu.”

“True, a man who eats a heavy beefsteak for breakfast in the morning is incapable of writing a sonnet in the afternoon.”

“Yes,” Reginald added, “we are what we eat and what our forefathers have eaten before us. I ascribe the staleness of American poetry to the griddle-cakes of our Puritan ancestors. I am sorry we cannot go deeper into the subject at present. But I have an invitation to dinner where I shall study, experimentally, the influence of French sauces on my versification.”

“Good-bye.”

“Au revoir.” And, with a wave of the hand, Reginald left the room. When the door had closed behind him, Ernest's thoughts took a more serious turn. The tone of light bantering in which the preceding conversation had taken place had been assumed on his part. For the last few weeks evil dreams had tortured his sleep and cast their shadow upon his waking hours. They had ever increased in reality, in intensity and in hideousness. Even now he could see the long, tapering fingers that every night were groping in the windings of his brain. It was a well-formed, manicured hand that seemed to reach under his skull, carefully feeling its way through the myriad convolutions where thought resides.

And, oh, the agony of it all! A human mind is not a thing of stone, but alive, horribly alive to pain. What was it those fingers sought, what mysterious treasures, what jewels hidden in the under-layer of his consciousness? His brain was like a human gold-mine, quaking under the blow of the pick and the tread of the miner. The miner! Ah, the miner! Ceaselessly, thoroughly, relentlessly, he opened vein after vein and wrested untold riches from the quivering ground; but each vein was a live vein and each nugget of gold a thought!

No wonder the boy was a nervous wreck. Whenever a tremulous nascent idea was formulating itself, the dream-hand clutched it and took it away, brutally severing the fine threads that bind thought to thought. And when the morning came, how his head ached! It was not an acute pain, but dull, heavy, incessant.

These sensations, Ernest frequently told himself, were morbid fancies. But then, the monomaniac who imagines that his arms have been mangled or cut from his body, might as well be without arms. Mind can annihilate obstacles. It can also create them. Psychology was no unfamiliar ground to Ernest, and it was not difficult for him to seek in some casual suggestion an explanation for his delusion, the fixed notion that haunted him day and night. But he also realized that to explain a phenomenon is not to explain it away. The man who analyses his emotions cannot wholly escape them, and the shadow of fear—primal, inexplicable fear—may darken at moments of weakness the life of the subtlest psychologist and the clearest thinker.

He had never spoken to Reginald of his terrible nightmares. Coming on the heel of the fancy that he, Ernest, had written “The Princess With the Yellow Veil,” a fancy that, by the way, had again possessed him of late, this new delusion would certainly arouse suspicion as to his sanity in Reginald's mind. He would probably send him to a sanitarium; he certainly would not keep him in the house. Beneficence itself in all other things, his host was not to be trifled with in any matter that interfered with his work. He would act swiftly and without mercy.

For the first time in many days Ernest thought of Abel Felton. Poor boy! What had become of him after he had been turned from the house? He would not wait for any one to tell him to pack his bundle. But then, that was impossible; Reginald was fond of him.

Suddenly Ernest's meditations were interrupted by a noise at the outer door. A key was turned in the lock. It must be he—but why so soon? What could have brought him back at this hour? He opened the door and went out into the hall to see what had happened. The figure that he beheld was certainly not the person expected, but a woman, from whose shoulders a theatre-cloak fell in graceful folds,—probably a visitor for Reginald. Ernest was about to withdraw discreetly, when the electric light that was burning in the hallway fell upon her face and illumined it.

Then indeed surprise overcame him. “Ethel,” he cried, “is it you?”