The pencil in the hand of Allen Parker refused to obey his will. A strange unseen force pushed his will aside and took possession of the pencil point so that what he drew was not his own. It was the same when he turned from drawing board to typewriter. The sentences were not of his framing; the ideas were utterly foreign to him. This was the first hint he received of the fate that was drawing in like night upon him and his beautiful wife.
Parker, a young writer of growing reputation who illustrated his own work, was making a series of pencil sketches for a romance partly finished. The story was as joyous and elusive as sunlight, and until to-day his sketches had held the same quality. Now he could not tap the reservoir from which he had taken the wind-blown hair and smiling eyes of Madelon, his heroine.
When he drew or wrote he seemed to be submerged in the dark waters of a measureless evil pit. The face that mocked him from the paper was stamped with a world-old knowledge of forbidden things.
Parker dropped his pencil and leaned back, tortured. He and his wife, Betty, had taken this house in Pine Hills, a small and extremely quiet suburban village, solely for the purpose of concentration on the book which was to be the most important work he had done. He went to the door of the room that he used for a studio and called:
“Betty! Can you come here a moment, please?”
There was a patter of running feet on the stairs and then a girl of twenty, or thereabout, came into the room. Any man would have said she was a blessing. Her hair “was yellow like ripe corn,” and her vivid blue eyes held depth and character and charm.
“Look!” exclaimed Parker. “What do you think of this stuff?”
For a moment there was silence. Then Allen Parker saw something he had never before seen in his wife’s face for him or his work--a look of complete disgust.
“I wouldn’t have believed you capable of doing anything so ... so horrid!” she said coldly. “How could you?”
“I don’t know!” His arms, which had been ready to take her to him for comfort, dropped. “The work has been ... difficult, lately. As though something were pulling at my mind. But not like this! It isn’t me!”
“It must be you, since it came out of you!” She turned away and moved restlessly to one of the windows.
“Through me!” muttered Parker. “Ideas come!”
“You’ll have to do something!”
“But what? I don’t know what to do!”
“Why not go to see that new doctor?” asked Betty, over her shoulder. “Dr. Friedrich von Stein?”
“Von Stein?” repeated Parker, vaguely. “Don’t know him. Anyhow, I don’t need a doctor. What in the world made you think of that?”
“Nothing, except that I can see his house from here. He’s taken what they call ‘the old Reynolds place.’ You know--opposite the church. We looked at it and thought it was too large for us. He’s made a lot of alterations.”
“Oh, yes!” Parker had placed the newcomer, more recent than himself. “I had an idea that he was a doctor of philosophy, not medicine.”
“He has half a dozen degrees, they say. Certainly he’s a stunning looking man. I saw him on the street.”
“Maybe he doesn’t practice.” The artist was gazing, baffled and sick at heart, upon what he had wrought. “And what could he do, unless it’s my liver?”
“He might be a psycho-analyst, or something like that,” she replied, slowly.
“But why the wild interest in this particular doctor?” Parker roused himself and looked at her. He felt irritable, and was ashamed of it.
“Only for your work,” said Betty. A faint pink touched her cheeks.
Allen Parker had a sudden feeling of certainty that his wife was lying to him. To one who knew the Parkers it would have been equally impossible to think of Betty as lying, or of her husband as believing such a thing. Parker was outraged by his own suspicion. He sprang up and began to pace the floor.
“All right, then!” he exploded. “My work is going to the dogs! Why, there’s an appointment with Cartwright to-morrow to show him these sketches, and the last few chapters I’ve done! We’ll go now! If this man can’t do anything for me I’ll try somebody else!”
In ten minutes they were walking up the quiet street toward the present home of Dr. Friedrich von Stein. Despite his self-absorption Parker could not help noticing that his wife had never looked more attractive than she did at this moment. Her color had deepened, little wisps of hair curled against her cheeks, and there was a sparkle in her eyes which he knew came only on very particular occasions.
Even from the outside it was apparent that many strange things had been done to the staid and dignified house of Reynolds. A mass of aerials hung above the roof. Some new windows had been cut at the second floor and filled with glass of a peculiar reddish-purple tinge. A residence had been turned into a laboratory, in sharp contrast to the charming houses up and down the street and the church of gray stone that stood opposite.
Beside the door, at the main entrance, a modest plate bore the legend: “Dr. Friedrich von Stein.” Parker pressed the bell. Then he squared his broad shoulders and waited: a very miserable, very likeable young man, with a finely shaped head and a good set of muscles under his well cut clothes. He had brought his sketches, but he was uncomfortable with the portfolio under his arm. It seemed to contaminate him.
The door opened to reveal a blocky figure of a man in a workman’s blouse and overalls. The fellow was pale of eye, towheaded; he appeared to be good natured but of little intelligence. The only remarkable thing about him was a livid welt that ran across one cheek, from nose to ear. Beside him a glossy-coated dachshund wagged furiously, after having barked once as a matter of duty.
“May we see Dr. von Stein?” asked Parker. “If he is in?”
“I will ask the Herr Doktor if he iss in,” replied the man, stiffly.
“Dummkopf!“ roared a voice from inside the house. An instant later man and dog shrank back along the hall and there appeared in their place one of the most striking personalities Allen Parker had ever seen.
Dr. Friedrich von Stein was inches more than six feet tall and he stood perfectly erect, with the unmistakable carriage of a well drilled soldier. He was big boned, but lean, and every movement was made with military precision. More than any other feature his eyes impressed Parker: they were steady, penetrating, and absolutely black. But for a thread of gray here and there his well-kept beard and hair were black. He might have been any age from forty to sixty, so deceptive was his appearance.
“Come in, if you please,” he said, before Parker could speak. Von Stein’s voice was rich and deep, but with a metallic quality which somehow corresponded with his mechanical smile. Except for the guttural r’s there was hardly a hint of the foreigner in his speech. “It is Mr. and Mrs. Parker, I believe? I am Dr. von Stein.”
He stood aside for them to pass into the hallway, and while they murmured their thanks he shot a volley of German at the man, whom he called Heinrich. The frightened servant vanished; and the Parkers were taken into a living room furnished carelessly, but in good enough taste. Betty took her place on a couch, to which the doctor led her with a bow. Parker sank into an overstuffed chair not far from a window.
“I learned your names because of the beauty of madame,” said Von Stein, as he stood looming above the mantel. Again he bowed. “One could not see her without wishing to know how such a charming woman was called. You are my neighbors from down the street, I believe.”
“Yes,” replied Allen. He wanted to be agreeable, but found it difficult. “And I think Mrs. Parker has developed a great admiration for you. She persuaded me to come here to-day. Are you, by chance, a psycho-analyst? I don’t even know that you are a doctor of medicine, but--”
“I know a very great deal about the human mind,” interrupted Dr. von Stein calmly. “I know a great deal about many things. I am not going to practice medicine here in Pine Hills because I have research work to do, but I will help you if I can. What is your trouble?”
The question brought back to Parker the mood of half an hour ago. Almost savagely he snapped the portfolio open and spread out a few of his recent drawings, with some of the earlier ones for comparison.
“Look!” he cried. “These vicious things are what I am doing now! I can’t help myself! The pencil does not obey me! Apparently I have no emotional control. It’s as though my normal ideas were shouldered aside, like people in a crowd. And my writing to-day was as bad as these illustrations. I’m doing a book. Consider these things carefully, Doctor. They are not obscene, except by inference. They can’t be censored. The book would go through the mails. Yet they are deadly! Look at my heroine in these two pictures. In one she is like--like violets! In the other she looks capable of any crime! What is she? A vampire, if there is such a thing? A witch? I can almost believe in demonology since I made these last drawings!”
Parker, in spite of his excitement, tried to read the face of Dr. Friedrich von Stein. He found nothing but the automatic smile upon that mask. Yet it seemed to the artist that this time there was a hint of real pleasure in the curve of the lips. Was it possible that anyone could like those drawings? Parker began to think that he was going insane.
“This is most unfortunate for you,” rumbled the doctor. “I understand. But I trust that the condition can be remedied, if it persists. You, Mr. Parker, and you, Madame, do you understand something of physics, of psychology, of metaphysics?”
“I fear that I’m rather ignorant,” answered Betty. “Certainly I am in comparison with a man of your attainments.”
Dr. von Stein bowed. He turned his black eyes upon Parker.
“And you, sir? I must adjust my explanation to--what shall I say? To your knowledge of the higher reaches of scientific thought?”
“Why, I majored in philosophy in college,” said Parker, hesitatingly. “But that’s quite a time ago, Herr Doktor. Of course I’ve tried to keep up with the conclusions of science. But a writer or a painter doesn’t have any too much opportunity. He has his own problems to concern him.”
“Yes, indeed!” Dr. von Stein was thoughtful. “So, and especially for the benefit of madame, I shall speak in terms of the concrete.”
“Please consider me stupid!” begged Betty. “But I want to understand!”
“Certainly, except that you are not stupid, Madame. I will proceed. Both of you, I assume, know something of the radio? Very good! You know that an etheric wave transmits the message, and that it is received and amplified so that it is within the range of the human ear. These waves were there when paleolithic man hunted his meat with a stone-tipped club. To use them it was necessary to invent the microphone, and a receiving instrument.
“What I have said you already know. But here is what may startle you. Human thought is an etheric wave of the same essential nature as the radio wave. They are both electrical currents external to man. Thoughts sweep across the human mind as sound currents sweep across the aerials of a radio--”
“I told you!” Allen Parker turned a triumphant face to his wife. “Pardon me, Herr Doktor! I have tried to convince Mrs. Parker that my idea came from outside!”
“Exactly!” Dr. von Stein took no offense. “And a difference between the mind and the radio set is that with the radio you tune in upon whatever you choose, and when you choose. The mind is not under such control, although it should be. It receives that to which it happens to be open. Or that thought which has been intensified and strengthened by having been received and entertained by other minds. In India they say: ‘Five thousand died of the plague and fifty thousand died of fear.’ Do you both follow me?”
It was unnecessary to ask. Betty sat on the edge of the couch, intent upon every word. Parker, although more restrained, was equally interested. Moreover he was delighted to have what he had felt instinctively confirmed, in a way, by a man of science.
“Herbert Spencer said,” continued the doctor, “that no thought, no feeling, is ever manifested save as the result of a physical force. This principle will before long be a scientific commonplace. And Huxley predicted that we would arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness. But I will not attempt to bolster my position with authorities. I know, and I can prove what I know.
“You, Mr. Parker, have been receiving some particularly annoying thoughts which have been intensified, it may be, by others, or another. Human will power can alter the rate of vibration of the line of force, or etheric wave. So-called good thoughts have a high rate of vibration, and those which are called bad ordinarily have a low rate. Have you, perhaps, an enemy?”
“Not that I know of,” replied Parker, in a low voice.
“Then it would follow that this is accidental.”
“Good heavens! Do you mean to say that someone could do this to me maliciously?”
“So far my experiments leave something to be desired,” said Dr. von Stein, without answering directly. “No doubt you are peculiarly susceptible to thoughts which bear in any way on your work.”
“But isn’t there any help for it?” asked Betty. She was regarding her husband with the eyes of a stranger.
“I believe I can do something for Mr. Parker.”
There was a knock at the door. The doctor boomed an order to come in. Heinrich, with the dachshund at his heels, entered bearing a tray with a bottle of wine and some slices of heavy fruit cake. He drew out a table and placed the tray.
“Do not bring that dog in when I have guests,” said Von Stein. He spoke with a gleam of white teeth. “You know what will happen, Heinrich?”
“Ja, Herr Doktor! I take Hans oudt!” The man was terrified. He gathered the dog into his arms and fairly fled from the room. Dr. von Stein turned with a smile.
“I have to discipline him,” he explained. “He’s a stupid fellow, but faithful. I can’t have ordinary servants about. There are scientific men who would be willing to bribe them for a look at my laboratory.”
“I did not know such things were done among scholars,” said Betty, slowly.
“What I have accomplished means power, Madame!” exclaimed the doctor. “There are jackals in every walk of life. If an unscrupulous man of science got into my laboratory, a physicist for instance, he might ... find out things!”
Dr. von Stein turned to his duties as host. He filled their glasses, and watched with satisfaction Betty’s obvious enjoyment of the cake. A box of mellow Havanas appeared from a cabinet: imported cigarettes from a smoking stand. But Parker, in spite of a liking for good wine and tobacco, was far too much concerned about his work to forget the errand that had brought him there.
“So you think,” he said, when there was opportunity, “that you can help me, Dr. von Stein?”
“I can,” replied von Stein, firmly; “but before attempting anything I’d like to wait a day or two. The attacking thoughts may become less violent, or your resistance greater, in either of which cases the condition will fade out. You will either get better or much worse. If you are worse come to see me again, and I promise you that I will do something!”
“I’ll come, and thank you!” Parker felt better, and more cheerful than he had since the beginning of the disturbance. “Few things could make me suffer so much as trouble with my work.”
“That is what I thought,” agreed Dr. von Stein.
Betty rose. Her husband caught the look in her eyes as they met the bright, black gaze of Dr. von Stein, and he went cold. That look had always been for him alone. Her feet seemed to linger on the way to the door.
“He’s wonderful!” she breathed, as they started down the uneventful street. “Scientific things never interested me before. But he makes them vital, living!”
“And yet,” said Parker, thoughtfully, “there’s something uncanny about that man!”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Betty. “It’s because he’s a genius! Don’t be small, Allen!”
Parker gasped, and remained silent. He could not remember that his wife had ever spoken to him in quite that way. They finished the little journey home without speaking again and Parker went directly to studio. He sat down, with drooping shoulders, and considered the mess he had made of his book. Well, there was nothing to do but see Cartwright to-morrow and face the music!
Dinner that night was a mournful affair. The soft footsteps of the servant going in and out of the dining room, the ticking of the clock, were almost the only sounds. Betty was deep in her own thoughts; Parker was too miserable to talk. He went to bed early and lay staring into the darkness for what seemed like an eternity of slow moving hours.
The tall, deep voiced clock in the hall downstairs had just struck one when suddenly Parker’s room was flooded with light. He sat up, blinking, and saw Betty standing near his bed. Her fingers twisted against each other; her face was drawn and white.
“Allen!” she whispered. “I’m afraid!”
Instantly he was on his feet; his arms went around her and the yellow head dropped wearily against his shoulder.
“Afraid of what?” he cried. “What is it, sweetheart?”
“I don’t know!” All at once her body stiffened and she pulled away from him. Then she laughed--”What nonsense! I must have been having a bad dream ... it’s nothing. Sorry I bothered you, Allen!”
She was gone before his could stop her. Bewildered, he did not know whether to follow. Better not, he thought. She would sleep now, and perhaps he would. But he was worried. Betty was becoming less and less like herself.
At last Parker did sleep, to awake shortly after daylight. He got a hasty breakfast and took an early train to New York. When John Cartwright, a shrewd and kindly man well advanced in years, arrived at his office Allen Parker was right there waiting for him.
Cartwright had shown a real affection for the younger man, a paternal interest. He beamed, as usual, until he sat down with the new drawings. Slowly the smile faded from his face. He went over them twice, three times, and then he looked up.
“My boy,” he said, “did you do these?”
“Do you know that you are turning a delicate and beautiful romance into a lascivious libel on the human race?”
“It is being done,” replied Parker, in a low voice. “And I--I can’t help myself!”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that when I start to draw Madelon my hand produces that woman of Babylon! The writing is just as bad. It’s full of sneering hints, double meanings ... I shall destroy the stuff. I’ve been to see a psycho-analyst.”
“Ah!” thoughtfully. “Perhaps you’re tired, Allen. Why not take Betty for a sea trip? There’ll still be time for fall publication.”
“I’m going to try everything possible. I’d rather be dead than do work like this!”
When Parker left his friend he was somewhat encouraged. After the first shock Cartwright had been inclined to make light of the difficulty, and by the time Allen Parker reached Pine Hills his stride had the usual swing and snap.
He ran up the steps of his house and burst into the living room with a smile. Betty was sitting by one of the windows, her hands lying relaxed in her lap. She turned a somber face toward her husband, and spoke before he had time to say a word of greeting.
“You knew that Cordelia Lyman died a short time ago, didn’t you?”
“What’s that?” exclaimed Parker, bewildered. “Lyman? Oh, the old lady down the street who left her money to found a home for aged spinsters? What about it?”
“But she didn’t leave her money to found a home for aged spinsters, Allen. She had said she was going to, and everybody thought so. Her will was admitted to probate, or whatever they call it, yesterday. She left half a million, all she had, to Dr. Friedrich von Stein, to be used as he thinks best for the advancement of science!”
“Good heavens!” Parker stared. “Why, I didn’t know she knew him. He’d only been here a week or so when she died.”
“There isn’t a flaw in the will, they say. You can imagine that Pine Hills is talking!”
“Well,” said Parker philosophically, “he’s lucky. I hope he does something with it.”
“He will,” replied Betty, with conviction. “He’ll do a great many things!”
Parker told her of his interview with Cartwright, but she seemed little interested. He did not try to work that day but, after he had put the offending drawings and manuscript out of sight, he wandered, read, smoked, and in the evening persuaded Betty to take a moonlight walk with him.
They passed the house of Dr. von Stein, from which came a faint humming that sounded like a dynamo. Across the street the church was alight for some service. Triumphant music drifted to them. The moon hung above the spire, with its cross outlined darkly against the brilliant sky. The windows were great jewels. Betty drew a deep breath.
“Sometimes, Allen,” she said, “I feel like praying!”
“You are a beautiful prayer,” whispered Parker.
She walked close to him, holding his arm, and repeated softly:
“Are not two prayers a perfect strength?
And shall I feel afraid?”
But that was the end of that mood. By the time they arrived home Betty was again the strange, aloof, cold, slightly hard woman of the past few days. Again depression settled upon Allen Parker.
The next morning he breakfasted alone and went directly to the studio, without seeing Betty. Sun streamed into the room; the pencil moved swiftly. For a brief time Parker thought that he was himself again, as Madelon grew upon the block of paper. But the end was terrible. The last few strokes made her grotesque. This time the woman he had drawn was not merely evil; she was a mocking parody of his heroine. He threw drawing and pencil across the room.
But no real artist can be discouraged short of death. He went to work again and labored until luncheon time. The results were no better, although they varied. Now it seemed that some malevolent power was playing with him, torturing him to the accompaniment of devilish laughter. He was haggard and actually stooped of body when he bathed his face and went down to the dining room. From across the table Betty regarded him curiously.
“Fleming Proctor shot himself last night,” she announced, calmly. “This morning they found him dead in his office.”
“Proctor? You don’t mean the president of the Pine Hills National Bank?”
“Yes.” The expression of Betty’s face did not change. “There was a note saying that he was sorry. It seems he’d made a large loan without security to an unknown person, and the bank examiner was coming to-day. Proctor said he couldn’t help what he did. The note was confused as though he were trying to tell something and couldn’t. They think his mind must have given way, particularly as they can’t trace the loan, although the money is undoubtedly gone.”
“That kind of thing doesn’t happen!” Parker was stunned. He had known Fleming Proctor, and liked him. They met often at the country club. “Proctor was honest, and a fine business man!”
“It did happen, Allen!”
“I’d like to know more about it. That would have been a case for Dr. von Stein to take in hand.”
“Perhaps,” said Betty, in a voice like ice. “But I’m more interested in finding out how soon you are going to return to normal. Frankly, I’m beginning to get bored.”
Without a word Parker rose and left the room. Never before had his wife hurt him like this. Doubly sensitive just now, he was suffering alone in the studio when the telephone rang.
“Dr. von Stein speaking. Are you better, Mr. Parker?”
“Worse! Much worse!”
“Then come to my house this evening at nine. May I expect you? And alone?”
“Yes.” There was much Parker wanted to say, but he choked the words back. “I’ll be there, and alone.”
“I shall be ready for you. Good-by.”
Allen Parker hung up the receiver. He did not leave the studio again until evening.
As Parker approached the house of Dr. Friedrich von Stein he saw that the church was lighted as it had been the night before. In a clear sky the moon rode above the spire. He paused to let his glance sweep up along the beautiful line that ran from earth to the slender cross. That was how he felt. He wanted to rise, as that line rose, from cumbering earth to clarity and beauty.
He mounted the steps and rang. Dr. von Stein met him, with eyes and teeth agleam in the hall light. Wearily Parker stepped inside. His mood of the moment before was fading.