Summer Vacation Special:
A quintessential weird tale.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“The Man Who Found Out
Professor Mark Ebor, the scientist, led a double life, and the only persons who knew it were his assistant, Dr. Laidlaw, and his publishers. But a double life need not always be a bad one, and, as Dr. Laidlaw and the gratified publishers well knew, the parallel lives of this particular man were equally good, and indefinitely produced would certainly have ended in a heaven somewhere that can suitably contain such strangely opposite characteristics as his remarkable personality combined.
For Mark Ebor, F.R.S., etc., etc., was that unique combination hardly ever met with in actual life, a man of science and a mystic.
As the first, his name stood in the gallery of the great, and as the second—but there came the mystery! For under the pseudonym of “Pilgrim” (the author of that brilliant series of books that appealed to so many), his identity was as well concealed as that of the anonymous writer of the weather reports in a daily newspaper. Thousands read the sanguine, optimistic, stimulating little books that issued annually from the pen of “Pilgrim,” and thousands bore their daily burdens better for having read; while the Press generally agreed that the author, besides being an incorrigible enthusiast and optimist, was also—a woman; but no one ever succeeded in penetrating the veil of anonymity and discovering that “Pilgrim” and the biologist were one and the same person.
Mark Ebor, as Dr. Laidlaw knew him in his laboratory, was one man; but Mark Ebor, as he sometimes saw him after work was over, with rapt eyes and ecstatic face, discussing the possibilities of “union with God” and the future of the human race, was quite another.
“I have always held, as you know,” he was saying one evening as he sat in the little study beyond the laboratory with his assistant and intimate, “that Vision should play a large part in the life of the awakened man—not to be regarded as infallible, of course, but to be observed and made use of as a guide-post to possibilities—”
“I am aware of your peculiar views, sir,” the young doctor put in deferentially, yet with a certain impatience.
“For Visions come from a region of the consciousness where observation and experiment are out of the question,” pursued the other with enthusiasm, not noticing the interruption, “and, while they should be checked by reason afterwards, they should not be laughed at or ignored. All inspiration, I hold, is of the nature of interior Vision, and all our best knowledge has come—such is my confirmed belief—as a sudden revelation to the brain prepared to receive it—”
“Prepared by hard work first, by concentration, by the closest possible study of ordinary phenomena,” Dr. Laidlaw allowed himself to observe.
“Perhaps,” sighed the other; “but by a process, none the less, of spiritual illumination. The best match in the world will not light a candle unless the wick be first suitably prepared.”
It was Laidlaw’s turn to sigh. He knew so well the impossibility of arguing with his chief when he was in the regions of the mystic, but at the same time the respect he felt for his tremendous attainments was so sincere that he always listened with attention and deference, wondering how far the great man would go and to what end this curious combination of logic and “illumination” would eventually lead him.
“Only last night,” continued the elder man, a sort of light coming into his rugged features, “the vision came to me again—the one that has haunted me at intervals ever since my youth, and that will not be denied.”
Dr. Laidlaw fidgeted in his chair.
“About the Tablets of the Gods, you mean—and that they lie somewhere hidden in the sands,” he said patiently. A sudden gleam of interest came into his face as he turned to catch the professor’s reply.
“And that I am to be the one to find them, to decipher them, and to give the great knowledge to the world—”
“Who will not believe,” laughed Laidlaw shortly, yet interested in spite of his thinly-veiled contempt.
“Because even the keenest minds, in the right sense of the word, are hopelessly—unscientific,” replied the other gently, his face positively aglow with the memory of his vision. “Yet what is more likely,” he continued after a moment’s pause, peering into space with rapt eyes that saw things too wonderful for exact language to describe, “than that there should have been given to man in the first ages of the world some record of the purpose and problem that had been set him to solve? In a word,” he cried, fixing his shining eyes upon the face of his perplexed assistant, “that God’s messengers in the far-off ages should have given to His creatures some full statement of the secret of the world, of the secret of the soul, of the meaning of life and death—the explanation of our being here, and to what great end we are destined in the ultimate fullness of things?”
Dr. Laidlaw sat speechless. These outbursts of mystical enthusiasm he had witnessed before. With any other man he would not have listened to a single sentence, but to Professor Ebor, man of knowledge and profound investigator, he listened with respect, because he regarded this condition as temporary and pathological, and in some sense a reaction from the intense strain of the prolonged mental concentration of many days.
He smiled, with something between sympathy and resignation as he met the other’s rapt gaze.
“But you have said, sir, at other times, that you consider the ultimate secrets to be screened from all possible—”
“The ultimate secrets, yes,” came the unperturbed reply; “but that there lies buried somewhere an indestructible record of the secret meaning of life, originally known to men in the days of their pristine innocence, I am convinced. And, by this strange vision so often vouchsafed to me, I am equally sure that one day it shall be given to me to announce to a weary world this glorious and terrific message.”
And he continued at great length and in glowing language to describe the species of vivid dream that had come to him at intervals since earliest childhood, showing in detail how he discovered these very Tablets of the Gods, and proclaimed their splendid contents—whose precise nature was always, however, withheld from him in the vision—to a patient and suffering humanity.
“The Scrutator, sir, well described ‘Pilgrim’ as the Apostle of Hope,” said the young doctor gently, when he had finished; “and now, if that reviewer could hear you speak and realize from what strange depths comes your simple faith—”
The professor held up his hand, and the smile of a little child broke over his face like sunshine in the morning.
“Half the good my books do would be instantly destroyed,” he said sadly; “they would say that I wrote with my tongue in my cheek. But wait,” he added significantly; “wait till I find these Tablets of the Gods! Wait till I hold the solutions of the old world-problems in my hands! Wait till the light of this new revelation breaks upon confused humanity, and it wakes to find its bravest hopes justified! Ah, then, my dear Laidlaw—”
He broke off suddenly; but the doctor, cleverly guessing the thought in his mind, caught him up immediately.
“Perhaps this very summer,” he said, trying hard to make the suggestion keep pace with honesty; “in your explorations in Assyria—your digging in the remote civilization of what was once Chaldea, you may find—what you dream of—”
The professor held up his hand, and the smile of a fine old face.
“Perhaps,” he murmured softly, “perhaps!”
And the young doctor, thanking the gods of science that his leader’s aberrations were of so harmless a character, went home strong in the certitude of his knowledge of externals, proud that he was able to refer his visions to self-suggestion, and wondering complaisantly whether in his old age he might not after all suffer himself from visitations of the very kind that afflicted his respected chief.
And as he got into bed and thought again of his master’s rugged face, and finely shaped head, and the deep lines traced by years of work and self-discipline, he turned over on his pillow and fell asleep with a sigh that was half of wonder, half of regret.
It was in February, nine months later, when Dr. Laidlaw made his way to Charing Cross to meet his chief after his long absence of travel and exploration. The vision about the so-called Tablets of the Gods had meanwhile passed almost entirely from his memory.
There were few people in the train, for the stream of traffic was now running the other way, and he had no difficulty in finding the man he had come to meet. The shock of white hair beneath the low-crowned felt hat was alone enough to distinguish him by easily.
“Here I am at last!” exclaimed the professor, somewhat wearily, clasping his friend’s hand as he listened to the young doctor’s warm greetings and questions. “Here I am—a little older, and much dirtier than when you last saw me!” He glanced down laughingly at his travel-stained garments.
“And much wiser,” said Laidlaw, with a smile, as he bustled about the platform for porters and gave his chief the latest scientific news.
At last they came down to practical considerations.
“And your luggage—where is that? You must have tons of it, I suppose?” said Laidlaw.
“Hardly anything,” Professor Ebor answered. “Nothing, in fact, but what you see.”
“Nothing but this hand-bag?” laughed the other, thinking he was joking.
“And a small portmanteau in the van,” was the quiet reply. “I have no other luggage.”
“You have no other luggage?” repeated Laidlaw, turning sharply to see if he were in earnest.
“Why should I need more?” the professor added simply.
Something in the man’s face, or voice, or manner—the doctor hardly knew which—suddenly struck him as strange. There was a change in him, a change so profound—so little on the surface, that is—that at first he had not become aware of it. For a moment it was as though an utterly alien personality stood before him in that noisy, bustling throng. Here, in all the homely, friendly turmoil of a Charing Cross crowd, a curious feeling of cold passed over his heart, touching his life with icy finger, so that he actually trembled and felt afraid.
He looked up quickly at his friend, his mind working with startled and unwelcome thoughts.
“Only this?” he repeated, indicating the bag. “But where’s all the stuff you went away with? And—have you brought nothing home—no treasures?”
“This is all I have,” the other said briefly. The pale smile that went with the words caused the doctor a second indescribable sensation of uneasiness. Something was very wrong, something was very queer; he wondered now that he had not noticed it sooner.
“The rest follows, of course, by slow freight,” he added tactfully, and as naturally as possible. “But come, sir, you must be tired and in want of food after your long journey. I’ll get a taxi at once, and we can see about the other luggage afterwards.”
It seemed to him he hardly knew quite what he was saying; the change in his friend had come upon him so suddenly and now grew upon him more and more distressingly. Yet he could not make out exactly in what it consisted. A terrible suspicion began to take shape in his mind, troubling him dreadfully.
“I am neither very tired, nor in need of food, thank you,” the professor said quietly. “And this is all I have. There is no luggage to follow. I have brought home nothing—nothing but what you see.”
His words conveyed finality. They got into a taxi, tipped the porter, who had been staring in amazement at the venerable figure of the scientist, and were conveyed slowly and noisily to the house in the north of London where the laboratory was, the scene of their labours of years.
And the whole way Professor Ebor uttered no word, nor did Dr. Laidlaw find the courage to ask a single question.
It was only late that night, before he took his departure, as the two men were standing before the fire in the study—that study where they had discussed so many problems of vital and absorbing interest—that Dr. Laidlaw at last found strength to come to the point with direct questions. The professor had been giving him a superficial and desultory account of his travels, of his journeys by camel, of his encampments among the mountains and in the desert, and of his explorations among the buried temples, and, deeper, into the waste of the pre-historic sands, when suddenly the doctor came to the desired point with a kind of nervous rush, almost like a frightened boy.
“And you found—” he began stammering, looking hard at the other’s dreadfully altered face, from which every line of hope and cheerfulness seemed to have been obliterated as a sponge wipes markings from a slate—”you found—”
“I found,” replied the other, in a solemn voice, and it was the voice of the mystic rather than the man of science—”I found what I went to seek. The vision never once failed me. It led me straight to the place like a star in the heavens. I found—the Tablets of the Gods.”
Dr. Laidlaw caught his breath, and steadied himself on the back of a chair. The words fell like particles of ice upon his heart. For the first time the professor had uttered the well-known phrase without the glow of light and wonder in his face that always accompanied it.
“You have—brought them?” he faltered.
“I have brought them home,” said the other, in a voice with a ring like iron; “and I have—deciphered them.”
Profound despair, the bloom of outer darkness, the dead sound of a hopeless soul freezing in the utter cold of space seemed to fill in the pauses between the brief sentences. A silence followed, during which Dr. Laidlaw saw nothing but the white face before him alternately fade and return. And it was like the face of a dead man.
“They are, alas, indestructible,” he heard the voice continue, with its even, metallic ring.
“Indestructible,” Laidlaw repeated mechanically, hardly knowing what he was saying.
Again a silence of several minutes passed, during which, with a creeping cold about his heart, he stood and stared into the eyes of the man he had known and loved so long—aye, and worshipped, too; the man who had first opened his own eyes when they were blind, and had led him to the gates of knowledge, and no little distance along the difficult path beyond; the man who, in another direction, had passed on the strength of his faith into the hearts of thousands by his books.
“I may see them?” he asked at last, in a low voice he hardly recognized as his own. “You will let me know—their message?”
Professor Ebor kept his eyes fixedly upon his assistant’s face as he answered, with a smile that was more like the grin of death than a living human smile.
“When I am gone,” he whispered; “when I have passed away. Then you shall find them and read the translation I have made. And then, too, in your turn, you must try, with the latest resources of science at your disposal to aid you, to compass their utter destruction.” He paused a moment, and his face grew pale as the face of a corpse. “Until that time,” he added presently, without looking up, “I must ask you not to refer to the subject again—and to keep my confidence meanwhile—ab—so—lute—ly.”
Continued in part 2.