The Ship of Shadows by H. Bedford-Jones
1. Dr. Venable Has a Caller


Dr. Venable Has a Caller

WERE this to be the tale, simply, of how Eric Venable fell and rose again from the depths, much might be said of his voyage to Tientsin River. It would bear much dwelling upon; it would in itself make, from the Horatio-Algerian view point, an excellent moral tale. But it would delete all about Shinski and Marie, and the Shirvan diamond, and the burlap-wrapped parcel; it would have to touch upon Mrs. Ivanoff’s pistol with discretion; and of course it could say little about the poet Gerin’s company of shadows, or the devil Boris Kryalpin, or the ending of the Kum Chao. And these things, from a worldly and unmoral viewpoint, make up a glorious tale—a sordid and tragic and human tale, if you will, but a stirring and glorious one withal!

It is hard to speak of the downfall of a learned and respected man of God; doubly hard to speak of the piteous snare of drugs which had trapped Eric Venable. None the less, with his downfall began that tale of the Kum Chao and Garrity the magnificent—although such things were far from the mind of Venable as he sat in his gray house and waited for the hand of Fate to guide Mrs. Ivanoff to his doorstep.

Death stalked that gaunt gray house; it was no secret in the town. Everyone knew it now. Death, and stark tragedy, and utter ruination, gibbered on the shoulders of the man who sat in that house and faced his damnation with steely fortitude. In his darkened study sat Eric Venable and looked himself squarely in the eye. He scarcely recognized his face in the mirror. What was it the doctor had said—the doctor who had been his friend?

“You fool! You fool! I gave you that prescription temporarily—to help you to sleep and relax during that week your wife died. You kept on getting it filled, forging my name, for months. Heaven help you, Venable! I can’t. I give up—I’ve fought with you to the end. Heaven help you!”

In those last three words was grim and tragic irony, perhaps unintended. For the gaunt gray house was St. Brendan’s rectory, and Eric Venable was a servant of the Lord. A doctor of divinity, a doctor of philosophy, a man deeply learned and wisely read, Venable now faced the absolute destruction of his past life. He had come to ruin. The drug had cost him his parish, the respect of his people, the welfare of his soul—everything!

While filled with charity for the errant humans who sought his help, Eric Venable had ever been a savagely intolerant man in regard to things of his faith. To him there had been one denomination and one only; its tenets he had preached and followed narrowly, rigidly. Himself a man of iron, he had refused all compromise in theology. He was a fighter, a great battler in this arena. It gave him outlet for his furious energy. And now—was Heaven helping him or damning him?

He laughed savagely into the mirror. What was it the parish leaders had said?

“A younger man, Doctor!” They had evaded, but they had in a way spoken truth. “The parish needs a younger man. We have considered an assistant for you—”

Venable had given them his resignation on the spot. It was accepted.

Now he looked again in the mirror and scarce knew himself. The beetling, iron-cast features were gaunt, thinned down to skin and bone. Venable lowered his face in his hands, shrinking from the sight of himself as he was.

Somehow the dread secret had leaked out, reaching even to the higher councils of the church. And what had they said, those who sat so high? Venable thought of the letter, and groaned to himself. Vague but firmly impressed hints, eating into his soul like acid! He was suddenly shaken loose from all his foundations; he was rejected of men.

An acrid reek of smoke brought its unlovely odor to his nostrils. Out there in the yard lay in glowering ruin all the most sacred things of his past life—pictures, books, little loved things of the home. His home was gone, and on the morrow everything would be sold; but some things he had to burn.

His once rugged body was a whited sepulchre, a shaking wreck. Nobody wanted him—least of all the army. A year previously he had refused a chaplaincy, and now he could not have one for the begging. His church! Well, he would never be unfrocked, of course; but he could be delicately discouraged. Venable thought of the letters he had written, and the letters he had received; once again he laughed savagely, indomitably.

“You had it right, Tom Hood!” he muttered. “‘Alas, for the rarity of Christian charity!’ I’ve always denied that quotation, denied it vehemently, smashed it down with theological sophistry. But now—where is there a place to receive me? I’m fit for nothing. I’m conquered. I’ve nothing ahead but an empty future of degradation. I can’t let go of the cursed thing that has overcome me. I’ve no future.”

He started suddenly. Through the empty house of death thrilled the peal of the doorbell, the bell which now so seldom answered the touch of those who had once come there in friendship and love and respect. Who was coming here?

“More misery, I suppose,” reflected Venable, starting up. “More humiliation and shame to be heaped on my head! Very well. I deserve the worst that can come.”

He squared his massive shoulders, threw back his iron-gray head, went to the door.

HE was astonished at sight of the woman who stood outside. She was a stranger; her clothes vaguely conveyed to him the idea that she might be a foreigner, begging for some charity. He had many such callers, for he had been a prominent man in church and city.

Yet had he noticed details,—which he did not—he should have known that her clothes might be a trifle odd in cut, but were of very expensive material. It was her face that astonished him. There was sorrow in it, and the strength of sorrow, but it also held a firm resilience. Her face fairly conquered him; and it disturbed him with its inner element of appeal. It reached into him somehow—particularly the eyes.

It was a scarred face, the strong, though womanly, contours marred by a slight red weal across the left cheek which though not a disfigurement, was a distinct mar. Yet it could not spoil the fine, level poise of those eyes that so stirred Venable—eyes sea-gray like his own, deeper and steadier than his own just now.

“You are Doctor Venable?” Her voice was full and richly vigorous, expressive of an intense and womanly personality. “If you can spare me a few moments—”

Venable had not meant to admit her or anyone else, but somehow he found her entering, and found himself asking her to be seated in the empty study. Then he excused himself for a moment and went swiftly to the dining-room. On the table there was a whisky-bottle; he poured himself a drink, feeling need of the stimulant. Then he returned to the study, quite care less whether his breath betrayed the indulgence. He was past much of his shame by this time.

“You wish to see me, madam?” he inquired in ministerial accents.

“That is why I am here.” As she spoke, the woman opened a small handbag of metal studded with turquoise, and produced a letter which she extended to him. “If you will read this, Doctor Venable, you will better comprehend my mission. I have two other gentlemen to see in this city, and I shall have need of your services—”

Had she gone to anyone else first, thought Venable grimly, she would have heard some news about him!

He impatiently opened the letter, taking for granted that it was the usual begging epistle of doubtful credentials but with plausible appeal. Somewhat to his surprise, he saw that it had been written some months previously by one of the Eastern officials of his own church, and it was addressed to him personally. Written, he reflected, before his disgrace had become public property!

THE words that met his eyes formed a bitter comment upon what he had been, and what he now was. Indeed, he was thinking of this more than of the letter itself, as he read, so that the curious phrases and unusually strong indorsement of the woman were entirely lost upon him. Otherwise he would have realized that no ordinary charity-beggar could have drawn such a letter:

Reverend and dear brother:

As one of the most outstanding ministers of the church, and a man of powerful influence among those who know you, I am appealing to you as a brother in Christ to give to the bearer of this letter every aid in money or influence at your command.

Mrs. Ivanoff’s errand is not primarily concerned with the church itself; it is an errand of broad humanity, as you will realize when she makes you aware of its nature.

I have told her that you can put her in touch with the two or three prominent men in your city whom she wishes to interview. She is securing the backing of a dozen or so men for her cause—all of them men of the largest affairs in the country. You will see for yourself that her cause is a large one, above dollars and cents. I esteem it an honor to send her to you with the strongest indorsement within my power to give.

Venable silently folded up the letter, replaced it in its envelope and returned it to the woman.

“I am very sorry, Mrs. Ivanoff,” he said bluntly, “that I am unable to serve you.”

The shock in her sea-gray eyes made him stagger a little mentally.

“Unable!” she said, her rich voice thrilling him. “Why, you—I have not yet told you my mission!”

Venable shrugged his shoulders.

“No matter,” he said. “If you had gone to anyone else in this city, you would not have come to me.”

A slight frown of puzzled wonder creased her brow. He noted that she was older than he had at first thought; her hair was streaked with gray.

“I do not understand,” she said slowly. “I was told that—that you—”

“Very likely,” broke in Venable, bitterness tincturing his voice. “And if you had come to anyone else in this city first, you would have been told that I am leaving here to-morrow in disgrace. You would have been told that I am a drug-fiend, that I have been cast out by society and all who knew me formerly, and that my influence would be useless to you.”

She did not seem startled by his disclosure. It seemed to him that he found a new depth to her eyes, a motherly solicitude in her voice.

“I am sorry, Doctor Venable,” she said. “I knew nothing of all this—if indeed you mean your words literally, which is hard to believe! However, that does not affect my errand here. If you will let me briefly sketch who I am and what I am doing—”

“No!” struck in Venable harshly, throwing out his hands in an emphatic gesture. His craggy features bristled in vehement negation; he glared at the woman with animosity that was unconcealed.

“No! I can’t be burdened with your troubles, madam; I can’t even stand up beneath my own! I don’t want to hear your story at all. There is nothing that I can do for you, in any case. You will do better in the community if you leave me alone.”

STILL Mrs. Ivanoff seemed to take no umbrage at his manner or words. Her eyes dwelt upon him in a quiet steadiness, a poised searching, as though they probed for the wounds under his harsh exterior.

“But perhaps,” she said softly, “I could help you, Doctor Venable.”

He broke into a bitter laugh.

“You help me?” His voice was acid with a sneer. “My dear madam, the good Lord Himself can’t help me!

“That,” she said, “is blasphemy.”

A hint of iron in her voice carried the words to him with full force. He passed a hand across his brow.

“Blasphemy?” he muttered. “No—it is the truth! The truth.”

Mrs. Ivanoff rose. A placid dignity filled her manner.

“I would not force aid upon your unwilling spirit,” she said; “nor would I force

aid from you to my cause. You doubtless think you are suffering; but I, a mere woman, have suffered far more than your imagination can conceive. And I think that I am better qualified to speak of God’s goodness than are you.

“I am sorry, very sorry, that this unfortunate state of affairs has arisen between us. I am sorry for your sake, sir, not for my own. If—”

“Can’t you see that I want to be left alone?” said Venable brutally.

He was startled by the effect of his words. Mrs. Ivanoff’s face whitened, be came rigid; her eyes glittered with a flashing blaze of anger that reminded Venable of his younger days, when among the northern woodsmen he had fought and been fought in primitive, ungodly passion.

“I am not used to such bald discourtesy,” she said, and again her voice held the ring of steel, “—especially when I came here seeking Christian charity. Good-by.”

She passed him by, went to the door and was gone.

Venable slowly followed her to the front door and closed it. Now that it was too late, he regretted the gusty irritation that had mastered him, the ill temper, the vicious lack of decency. He now realized that she must have been no ordinary woman; the impression of her personality was strong upon him.

However, what was done was done. Shrugging his shoulders, he dismissed the matter for all time, as he thought, and returned to the dining-room. He poured himself another drink of whisky and downed it with a grimace. His only thought now was to dull his mind to grief and disaster, as soon as might be. He had given up hope, given up all things. Had he been a coward, he would have fallen to the temptation of suicide.

He thought how quickly, how terribly, he had succumbed; and he poured himself another drink. With the liquor, his mood changed.

“Where to go?” he asked himself. “Where is there a place that will receive me?”

Framed in the window he saw a strip of blue sky, and laughed.

“Out under the blue sky—in the north woods, on the sea! And chiefly, away from here and everywhere I am known! I have a little money. Out to the West, and the lumber-camps, and the sea, and the blue sky—first of all, San Francisco!”

He had taken three drinks, and was nearly drunk. His-brain and body were in a ferment. Ahead of him he could see only the path to hell—that was the effect of the drug. His moral fibers were being destroyed as though by quicklime.