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THE SMOKE CLOUD AT DAWN
HE two men strode along without speaking for way.
Their feet echoed in the empty streets.
Suddenly Schuabe turned to Basil. "Well, Mr. Gortre," he said, "I have given you your opportunity. Are you not going to speak the word in season after all ?”
The young man started violently. Who was this man who had been reading his inner thoughts? How could his companion have fathomed his sternly repressed desire as he sat in the vicarage study? And why did he speak now, when he knew that some chilling influence had him in its grip, that his tongue was tied, his power weakened ?
"It is late, Mr. Schuabe," he said at length, and very gravely. “My brain is tired and my enthusiasm chilled. Nor are you anxious to hear what I have to say. But your taunt is ungenerous. It almost seems as if you are not always so tolerant as men think !" The other laughed-a cold laugh, but not an unkindly
' Forgive me," he said, “one should not jest with conviction. But I should like to talk with you also. There are lusts of the brain just as there are lusts of the flesh, and to-night I am in the mood and humour for conversation." They were approaching a side road which led to
Gortre's rooms. Schuabe's great stone house was still a quarter of a mile away up the hill.
“Do not go home yet,” said Schuabe, “come to my house, see my books, and let us talk. Make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, Mr. Gortre ! You are disturbed and unstrung to-night. You will not sleep. Come with me."
Gortre hesitated for a moment, and then continued with him. He was hardly conscious why he did so, but even as he accepted the invitation his nerves seemed recovered as by some powerful tonic. A strange confidence possessed him, and he strode on with the air and manner of a man who has some fixed purpose in his brain.
And as he talked casually with Schuabe, he felt towards him no longer the cold fear, the inexplicable shrinking. He regarded him rather as a vast and powerful enemy, an evil, sinister influence, indeed, but one against which he was armed with an armour not his own, with weapons forged by great and terrible hands.
So they entered the drive and walked up among the gaunt black trees towards the house.
Mount Prospect was a large, castellated modern building of stone. In a neighbourhood where architectural monstrosities abounded, perhaps it outdid them all in its almost brutal ugliness and vulgarity. It had been built by Constantine Schuabe's grandfather,
The present owner was little at Walktown. His Parliamentary and social duties bound him to London, and when he had time for recreation the newspapers announced that he had gone abroad,” and until he was actually seen again in the midst of his friends his disappearances were mysterious and complete.
In London he had a private set of rooms at one of the great hotels.
But despite his rare visits, the hideous stone palace in the smoky North held all the treasures which he himself had collected and which had been left to him by his father.
It was understood that at his death the pictures and library were to become the property of the citizens of Manchester, held in trust for them by the corporation.
Schuabe took a key from his pocket and opened the heavy door in the porch.
"I always keep the house full of servants,” he said, “even when I am away, for a dismantled house and caretakers are horrible. But they will be all gone to bed now, and we must look after ourselves."
Opening an inner door, they passed through some heavy padded curtains, which fell behind then with a dull thud, and came out into the great hall.
Ugly as the shell of the great building was, the interior was very different.
Here, set like a jewel in the midst of the harsh, forbidding country, was a treasure-house of ordered beauty which had few equals in England.
Gortre drew a long, shuddering breath of pleasure as he looked round. Every æsthetic influence within him responded to what he saw. And how simple and severe it all was! Simply a great domed hall of white marble, brilliantly lit by electric light hidden high above their heads. On every side slender columns rose towards the dome, beyond them were tall archways leading to the rooms of the house ; dull, formless curtains, striking no note of colour, hung from the archways.
In the centre of the vast space, exactly under the dome, was a large pool of still green water, a square basin with abrupt edges, having no fountain nor gaudy fish to break its smoothness.
And that was all, literally all. No rugs covered the tesselated floor, not a single seat stood anywhere. There was not the slightest suggestion of furniture or habitation. White, silent, and beautiful! As Gortre stood there, he knew, as if some special message had been given him, that he had come for some great hidden purpose, that it had been foreordained. His whole soul seemed filled with a holy power, unseen powers and principalities thronged round him like sweet but awful friends.
He turned inquiringly towards his host. Schuabe's face was very pale ; the calm, cruel eyes seemed agitated ; he was staring at the priest. “Come," he said in a voice which seemed to be without its usual confidence ; "come, this place is cold-I have sometimes thought it a little too bare and fantastic-come into the library ; let us eat and talk.”
He turned and passed through the pillars on the right. Gortre followed him through the dark, heavy curtains which led to the library.
They found themselves in an immense low-ceilinged room. The floor was covered with a thick carpet of dull blue, and their feet made no sound as they passed over it towards the blazing fire, which glowed in an old oak framework of panelling and ingle-nook brought from an ancient manor-house in Norfolk.
At one end of the room was a small organ, cased, modern as the mechanism was, in priceless Renaissance painted panels from Florence and set in a little octagonal alcove hung with white and yellow.
The enormous writing-table of dark wood stood in front of the fireplace and was covered with books and papers. By it was a smaller circular table laid with a white cloth and shining glass and silver for a meal.
"My valet is in bed," said Schuabe ; "I hate any one about me at night, and I prefer to wait on myself then. 'From the cool cisterns of the midnight air my spirit drinks repose. If you will wait here a few moments I will go and get some food. I know where to find some. Pray amuse yourself by looking at my books."
He left the room noiselessly, and Basil turned towards the walls. From ceiling to floor the immense room was lined with shelves of enamelled white wood, here and there carved with tiny florid bunches of fruit and flowers -Jacobean work it seemed.
A few pictures here and there in spaces between the shelves—the hectic Aummery of a Whistler nocturne ; a woman avec cerises, by Manet ; a green silk fan, painted with fêtes gallantes, by Conder-alone broke the manycoloured monotony of the books.
Gortre had, from his earliest Oxford days, been a lover of books and a collector in a moderate, discriminating way. As a rule he was roused to a mild enthusiasm by a fine library. But as his practised eye ran over the shelves, noting the beauty and variety of the contents, he was unmoved by any special interest. His brain, still, so it seemed, under some outside and compelling instinct or influence, was singularly detached from ordinary interests and rejected the books' appeal.
Close to where he stood the shelves were covered with theological works. Müller's Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy, Romane's Reply to Dr. Lightfoot, De la Saussaye's Manual, stood together. His hand had been wandering unconsciously over the books when it was suddenly arrested, and stopped on a familiar black binding with plain gold letters. It was an ordinary reference edition of the Holy Bible, the “pearl” edition from the Oxford University Press.
There was something familiar and homely in the little dark volume, which showed signs of constant use. A few feet away was a long shelf of Bibles of all kinds, rare edi. tions, expensive copies bound up with famous comment