The Flute Of Seven Stops was a short story written by Dion Fortune and published in 1936 by Selwyn & Blount Ltd. It was one of fifteen stories included in the horror collection, Nightmare By Daylight, selected and edited by literary agent, Co-Mason and one-time Fraternity of the Inner Light initiate, Christine Campbell Thomson. CCT also published one of her own short stories, Empty Stockings, within its pages, under the pseudonym of Flavia Richardson.
I suspect ardent readers of Dion Fortune will immediately recognise her style and thoroughly enjoy the read. The story does not appear to have ever been republished and the copyright has now expired. I have edited a small handful of words which were acceptable at the time, but which some modern readers may find now stick in the throat. Any spelling mistakes, omissions or layout foibles are exclusively my own.
The Flute Of Seven Stops
~ by Dion Fortune
A big man with a stern, deeply lined face walked on to the platform at Euston where the boat train stood drawn ready for its long race to the North. There was but a minute to the time of departure, and he hastily opened the door of the first empty compartment he came to and got it was the last coach of the train, and most experienced travellers would have avoided such a location ; but he preferred the oscillation to the enforced companionship of other passengers, who might have tried to force a shipboard acquaintance upon him, for he was a solitary man, preferred the companionship of his books and his gramophone to that of his fellows.
He had hardly settled himself in the corner of his compartment when the whistle blew and the great boat train moved slowly forward on its long journey to the North. Hauled by two powerful racing-engines, it rapidly got up speed, and before the end of the long platform was reached vas settling into its stride—when suddenly there was a rush and a crash as a man leapt on to the footboard, tore open the door, and fell into the carriage. He recovered himself quickly, but before he could close the door behind him a second man had hurled himself through the aperture. The first-comer whirled upon him, drove his fist full in his face, and sent him hurtling backwards on to the metals. The original occupant of the carriage had a momentary glimpse of a broad squat form and a flat sallow face—and all was over.
The man who had effected an entrance, having succeeded in getting the door shut, dropped on to the seat in a half fainting condition, and would have rolled down to the floor if his fellow traveller had not sprung to his assistance and got him safely on to the seat. This task accomplished, he was stretching up his hand to pull the communication cord and apprise the officials that an accident had occurred —for no one could have hit the ground at the pace the train was moving and escape injury—when, before he could carry out his intention, the stranger caught his arm.
"One moment, I implore you. You little know what you will involve yourself in if you pull that communication cord; for your own sake I beg you to desist."
John Austen paused, arrested, his hand in mid-air. "But the man is certain to be injured," he said. ' 'He may be run over by the next train."
"Then the world will be the better for it. A fouler reptile never moved upon its surface."
"But I can't have the man's death on my conscience."
'Yow will have a man's death on your conscience if you pull that cord, for if you save him it will certainly cost me my life. Look, he has made one attempt already." And thrusting his hand under his waistcoat he withdrew it covered with blood.
John Austen paused, irresolute. The face that had flashed upon his vision for a moment certainly bore out the statement, for it was the face of an animal inspired by a human cunning, whereas the man lying on the seat had the head of a scholar and the refined hands of a cultured man. He hesitated, and was lost. Anyway, as the man had fallen just outside the station, he had probably been picked up long ago; besides, why should he involve himself in what was manifestly a shady business?
The man on the seat lay resting a while. Then, turning his head, he looked his companion full in the face and spoke.
"You saw that man's face as he fell?"
“What would you do if you were dying and were leaving your only daughter in the hands of him and his fellows?"
Austen was nonplussed, but before he could answer the dining-car attendant put his head in at the door and bade them take their seats for the first luncheon. He rose, glad the excuse to terminate the conversation, and then, with his hand on the door, paused, for he suddenly remembered that the man was bleeding, might possibly be seriously injured.
"Can I be of any assistance to you?” he said. "I am afraid you have had some injury."
"I am perfectly all right. The greatest service you can me is to leave me entirely alone." And he turned his face to the cushions and closed his eyes.
Austen perforce left him, but throughout the lunch he pondered upon the strange events whose fringe he had touched.
The meal concluded, he made his way down the length of the swaying train and re-entered his compartment, which, to his relief, was now empty. He was about to take his seat when he noticed that his dispatch-case, which had been upon the rack, now lay in the corner he occupied. It contained important papers, and was unlocked, and, cursing himself for his carelessness, he hastily opened it to see whether it had been tampered with. A parcel met his eye. He wrenched it open and found lying in his hand a flute, some ten inches long, made of pale-green jade and curiously carved; the workmanship was of an Oriental type, and there were only seven stops instead of the usual eight of the European octave; round the flute was a bundle of bank-notes, and, enclosing all, a letter.
The letter began without preamble.
I can only ask your pardon for the burden I am laying upon you. I would not do it for my own sake, but for our children we will do many things. My daughter, Averil Allinson, you will find on board the boat when you arrive. Give her the enclosed money and tell her what has happened to me, and I beg and implore you to do all in your power to safeguard her until she can join her relations, for she is in grave danger. As to the flute, guard it with the utmost care, for attempts will be made to steal it, and when you are in mid-ocean, beyond any chance of its being washed ashore, fling it overboard. May the Unseen Powers, Who rule all things, do unto you, and more also, as you do unto my child in her hour of need.
As for me, I have been stabbed in the abdomen, and am bleeding to death from internal haemorrhage. Nothing can save me. I am a doctor and know what I am talking about. There is nothing to be done but to think of the living, and I believe that I can serve their interests best by going to seek death before death seeks me. I therefore intend to throw myself from the train. If you give the alarm, you will very probably be detained in England while the matter is being inquired into; which will do me no manner of good and prevent you from assisting the one person who most urgently needs your help.
I give you my grateful thanks, for, if I am any judge of men, you will not fail me.
John Austen gave an exclamation of anger as he read; it was the letter of a lunatic. As the man was not in the carriage, he might quite well have carried out his threat of suicide; but on the other hand, prompted by some insane love of notoriety, he might have merely concealed himself in another compartment. To search the train effectively would need the co-operation of the officials and inevitably involve Austen himself in the affair, which was extremely undesirable, in whatever way one might look at it. If the man had flung himself from the train at the pace they were going, he would, of a surety, be past all human assistance; and if he had not, then he was all right. Austen made up his mind that he would deliver the money to the daughter, provided she herself were not an hallucination …. As to the jade flute, he would give her that also, and she could do with it as she saw fit. If she were in need of personal protection she could apply to the ship's officials. His resolution taken, he settled back in his corner, and, with more impatience and anxiety than he cared to admit, awaited the train's arrival at the quayside.
The usual rush of stewards took place as the train ran the gloomy harbour station, and John Austen presently found himself moving slowly up the gangway on to the ship's deck. At the head of the gangway there stood a young girl, eagerly scanning every face that came aboard. She could have been little more than twenty, and her slight form was swathed in heavy brown furs. On her head was a close-fitting fur cap beneath which curls of red-gold hair escaped bright against the sable. Austen, in whose life women played no part, would have given her no more than a passing glance had he not suddenly become aware that half hidden behind a deck door was a man of the same squat type as the fellow who had been hurled from the train outside Euston Station, and that his whole attention was absorbed in narrowly watching the girl in the brown furs.
Austen gritted his teeth. Here was indeed confirmation of the story; his fellow traveller was of an age to have a grown-up daughter, and the Lett, or Finn, or whatever he was who was observing her so narrowly, was certainly not a person one would wish to have anything to do with a woman. Still, the father might turn up after all; he had no intention of involving himself in this affair unless he absolutely had to, so he likewise ensconced himself in a secluded corner, and set himself to watch both Finn and girl.
As the stream of passengers from London ceased, the girl’s agitation increased, and she leant over the rail and scanned the quay anxiously. Then, as the quartermaster's bugle sounded "All off for the shore" and the deckhands began to cast loose the lashings, she went up to the officer in charge of the gangway and touched him timidly on the arm. Austen could not hear what she said, but the man's deeper tones reached him:
"Very sorry, but it can't be done. We have to get over the bar on top of the tide."
The girl turned away with a look of despair and absolute terror on her face, and Austen, who, resolutely though he had walled up his soul, was a man of warm feelings at heart, went quickly up to her.
"Miss Allinson, I believe," he said.
She turned eagerly towards him.
"Come," he said, "I want to speak to you. I have a message for you from your father," and he led her into the lounge. There, in a secluded alcove, they seated themselves, unobserved amidst the bustle, the girl gazing at the man with anxious attention, and he gazing at the carpet, unable to broach his painful news, for he had now little doubt of the truth of the stranger's statement.
Finally, he felt in his pocket.
"I think that if I give you this it will explain things to you better than I can, for I am afraid I am the bearer of bad news,” and he handed her her father's letter.
She took it very quietly. He gathered that the blow that had fallen had long been dreaded, and, now that it had come, was accepted stoically by one inured to anxiety. Not knowing how to console her or what to say, he resumed his uneasy contemplation of the carpet.
It was the girl who broke the silence.
"The flute of seven stops—the jade flute—where is it?"
"In my dispatch-case."
"And your dispatch-case?
"In my cabin."
The girl's hand rose nervously to her throat.
"It will not be safe there," she said.
"I will go at once and make sure of it," said the man, rising hurriedly.
As he entered the long, white-painted, brilliantly lit alleyway that led to his stateroom he saw a broad squat figure disappearing round the corner at the far end. Quickening his steps, he hastened to his cabin. There lay the dispatch-case, burst open. The jade flute was gone.
In great perturbation he returned to Miss Allinson an announced his loss.
"You must allow me to make good its value," he said, "for I feel that my carelessness is responsible for this happening. I had not realized the seriousness of the matter."
The girl shook her head. "It is not a question of value. The thing would be better at the bottom of the sea, where my father wished it; but—this is not an ordinary flute." She looked up at him uneasily. "Do you know anything about—the hidden side of things?"
"I am afraid I have no idea what you mean," said Austen stiffly. He dreaded being drawn into any confidential position, and longed to turn his charge over to some motherly stewardess upon whose ample bosom she could weep in the normal way instead of keeping herself in hand with this stony tenseness. "Won't you let me take you along to your cabin and find your stewardess for you? This must have been a great shock to you. There is no need to trouble yourself with explanations."
The girl turned wide grey eyes upon him. "Listen, she said. "If a person is used to being hypnotized, they go off into a trance very easily. I am used to being hypnotized to the sound of that flute, and whenever I hear it slide straight off into an hypnotic state, and then I have no power over myself; I just follow the person who plays it. There—there were some people who wanted that flute, and they also wanted me. It is no use telling you why, you wouldn't understand, but it would be better for me that I should go overboard than that they should get me. But I will not trouble you further; you have been troubled too much already. I am sorry; I will go now.” And before he could prevent her, she had left him.
She did not appear in the saloon that evening, and Austen chided himself angrily for his lack of kindness to her. He hated his task, and yet he felt himself responsible for her in her bereaved and friendless condition. He had had very little to do with women since, after one disastrous experience, he had excluded them from his life; and now that he was a man of forty he had grown accustomed to his solitude and asked nothing of Fate but to allow him to pursue his way undisturbed. It might be that half of him was dead, but, at any rate, it no longer caused him any pain.
Next morning, out early on deck, he saw ahead of him a brown cap fringed with a halo of red-gold curls and, quickening his stride, he came up with the owner of it. Naturally shy and reserved, and now thoroughly vexed with himself, he plunged into his subject with unintentional brusqueness.
"Very sorry I wasn't able to be of more assistance to you yesterday, Miss Allinson, but I shall be very glad to do anything I can for you."
“It is very kind of you," replied the girl quietly, “but I have no wish to be a burden to you. The only thing I would ask of you is that you will, if you possibly can, recover the flute. I should be much easier in my mind if I knew that it were safely destroyed."
"I am more sorry than I can say about the loss of that flute, but, you know, Miss Allinson, you must really pull yourself together and not get imagining things."
"It is not imagination," replied the girl. “If you knew anything about hypnosis, you would know that what I say is true."
"But who could want to lure you away? The Pied Piper of Hamelin does not exist nowadays. Besides, no one could kidnap you on board ship; they would have nowhere to put you."
"In three minutes they could do all they required of me, and then …” She spread out her hands with a little gesture that was more expressive than words.
"Look here, Miss Allinson what is it that you are afraid If you would tell me frankly, I might be able to give you some help."
The girl looked up at him with a quick, searching glance. "You wouldn't understand," she said.
"I might if you would explain to me. At any rate, I will promise to keep an open mind."
The girl pondered a while, and then she said, "Do you know anything about hypnotism?"
''Very little; only the ordinary inaccurate knowledge of the man in the street. I know that hypnotists used to be credited with extraordinary powers, but that is all exploded now.”
''It is not entirely exploded. It is true that hypnotists cannot just look you straight in the eye and send you off into trance as it was once believed they could, but if you are accustomed to being hypnotized, you pass very much under the influence of the person who hypnotizes you, and if he has used a flashing mirror or bright light to hypnotize you with, whenever you see such a bright flashing object—in the street, anywhere—you are apt to slide off into a trance condition of your own accord.
"My father was a doctor, and he did a lot of experimental work in hypnosis; he probably knew more about it than anyone in Europe, and I used to help him with his experiments. One day a Viennese doctor whom he had known in his student days came to the house, and he had a long talk with Father and gave him that queer little jade flute which you have seen. Now, Father studied other things besides medicine and psychology; he studied occultism, and I believe the Viennese doctor studied it too. At any rate, the flute he brought Father was not an ordinary flute; it had come from the East, and it was used to invoke the water spirits, the elemental forces behind water; they are live things, you know, though they belong to a different order of evolution to ours.
"Now, it seems that, supposing one could find someone who was in sympathy with the water forces—someone who was born under one of the watery signs of the Zodiac— and that person could be made absolutely passive, even if only for a few seconds, then they could be used as a channel of evocation; the elemental forces behind water could flow through them, as it were, from one plane of existence to another. Father wanted to bring through those forces because he believed that they could be used in medicine, for they are cleansing, healing, soothing forces. Now, I was born on the first of July, when the sun is right in the middle of the sign of Cancer, the Crab, the most positive of the watery signs, so my father asked me if I could co-operate with him in his experiments, and I said I would, so he set to work to train me to go into a trance condition to the sound of the jade flute. I was a good subject, and soon learnt to go into a somnambulistic state.
"Then the trouble began. A Tartar from South Russia, came to see my father, and he tried to make a bargain with him over the flute; he was willing to give my father anything he wanted if he would allow him to be present when the evocation was made; but my father would not; he refused to let him have anything whatever to do with the experiment. Then the man began to threaten; he said that if he could not get what he wanted by fair means, he would get it by foul, and we soon found that he meant what he said. Moreover, he had many friends to help him; there seemed to be a whole organisation of them, and as soon as we got rid of one, another turned up. That was why we were going to America. My father planned to leave Europe altogether and so throw them off our trail; but we did not succeed, as you know. They wanted to get hold of me, and they wanted to get hold of the flute; they have got the flute, and now ...”
"They won't get hold of you," said Austen, “if it is in my power to prevent it. I don't know anything about elementals, or signs of the Zodiac, but I have seen more than one suspicious person hanging around, and now that I have got my eyes open, I will take care that they do not get any further opportunity for mischief."
Just then a quartermaster came up. "The captain would be glad to see you, sir," he said.
Austen accompanied the man to the chartroom, and there found the captain, purser, and doctor assembled, ready to go round the ship for inspection, as the daily custom is upon liners.
"With regard to the theft of a curio from your cabin," said the former, “do you think you could identify the man you saw in the alleyway?"
"I am certain I could," replied Austen. “He was a short, thick-set, dark chap, with almost a Chinese type of face."
"I am afraid a good many in the steerage will answer to that description," replied the captain, "for we are taking out a lot of Lithuanians for work on the railroads. They go out in gangs under their own bosses, who contract for their labour with the railroad engineers; kind of slave trade really, for they are too ignorant to look after their own interests. But come along ; you shall go round the with us, and if you are able to pick out your man, we will have him and his belongings searched; but as you may have some difficulty in doing so, for all these chaps look exactly like one another, I should like you to put on one of the officers' overcoats and caps, and then, in case there is nothing doing, you will not attract any attention."
Austen was speedily equipped with the gold-banded coat and cap, and set out for the steerage. There, in the lower deck, the emigrants were drawn up in long rows for the inspection. As the captain had said, the hundred and fifty Lithuanian labourers were all of a type, the high cheekbones, flat noses, and squat figures bearing witness to the wanderings of the nations. It was impossible to swear to a short, thickset, swarthy man when the whole hundred and fifty answered to that description.
Austen noticed, however, as he passed down the lines in the wake of the captain, that certain of the men had not got the hands of manual labourers. He counted seven of these men in all, but he said nothing of this to the captain; it was useless as evidence of theft; the fact that a man's nails were unbroken did not prove him dishonest. Moreover, Austen had no wish to embark upon explanations if it could possibly be avoided; every hour he realized more clearly the equivocal position he had placed himself in by yielding to his unfortunate fellow-traveller's plea for secrecy.
He determined to safeguard the girl to the best of his ability. During the daytime this was easy enough, and he was her constant companion, whether she walked the deck or sat in one of the lounges. This was not lost on the shipboard gossips, and Austen was quite aware of the significance of their glances as he stalked sullenly at the side of his pretty companion, and he raged impotently against them. That he, who had resolutely excluded women from his life, should be suspected of a vulgar shipboard flirtation, was unendurable, and the knowledge did not make him the pleasantest of comrades to the girl whom he had taken under his care. She speedily became aware that his guardianship over her was of the nature of a hated duty; no woman likes to find her society regarded in that light, so a coolness sprang up between them. It was tacitly recognized that neither, if they consulted their personal wishes, would be in the company of the other, but that they were making the best of that which a grim necessity compelled. The girl sat in her deckchair silently knitting a jumper; the man pulled at a briar pipe and gazed steadfastly at the horizon. It was not an enjoyable time for either of them.
By night, however, Austen could not mount guard over his charge, and it was with anxiety that he awaited her advent in the saloon each morning. The boat was timed for five days, and four of them had passed uneventfully. Tomorrow they expected to make the landfall and to land shortly after noon.
On the night of the fourth day, Austen, his charge having retired to her cabin, sat in the lounge at the head of the stairs reading and, as usual, smoking his gurgling bulldog pipe. The deck door stood open, for the weather was close and warm, and the steady wash of the waves along the ship's side sounded in the ears of the reading man. It was; save for a belated bridge party in the smoking-room, the passengers had retired to bed.
A sound, however, presently began to mingle with the steady wash, wash, of the waves; it was a water sound, but not a sound of the open sea, being rather the treble tinkling of a streamlet over stones. Its little gurgling trills and runs repeated and repeated, and would never have penetrated the consciousness of the reading man if the sound of a footstep had not roused him to attention, and he raised his eyes just in time to see Averil Allinson disappearing through the open door on to the deck. He had only one second's glance before she was swallowed up in the darkness of the starlit night, but he saw that she was not moving with the free, springing step with which he had grown so familiar, but with the gliding, balancing gait of a somnambulist. In an instant he was after her, and was just in time to see, disappearing round the canvas windscreens, a squat figure to whose lips was raised the jade flute and to whose lure the slim figure of the girl was advancing.
He sprang round the wind-screens and caught the man by the throat, drove his knee into the pit of his stomach and sent him sprawling down the steep companion ladder that led to the steerage deck; then he paused, anxiously listening, lest a hail from the bridge should announce that the fracas had been observed. With a sigh of relief he heard the steps of the watch offer die away at the far end of the bridge, but suddenly caught his breath again as other footsteps approached slowly down the deck and Averil Allinson came round the windscreens. The blank, unseeing eyes and outstretched hands told their own story; she was in deep trance.
For a moment she paused irresolute, and then, seeming to perceive some influence that emanated from the flute that Austen held clenched in his hand, she advanced slowly towards it as a blind man might advance towards the heat of a fire. Austen put up his hand to hold her off, and her own came in contact with it; instantly they closed upon it and held him in a grip of iron, the arms as rigid and unbending as bars of steel. The strong sea wind blew past them, fluttering the girl's thin draperies, and she stood, poised upon tiptoe, like a flowing, translucent wave, about to fall upon the black rock of a man who held her off. Second followed second as they stood thus, one of the man's hands clenched by the motionless girl and the other grasping the jade flute.
Then a strange thing happened. The wind, blowing steady and strong, drove through the mouthpiece of the flute, and its stops began to breathe, and strange chords and undertones mingled with the shipboard sounds. The tones were not of this plane of things, and, to the hearer, it seemed that primeval nature was about to close in upon him. A wave broke over the bows, and the overcarried spray fell around them like the baptism of some forgotten faith. The man found hallucinations beginning to rise before his eyes; dim forms rose from the wave-tops and flowed inboard; the voice of many waters was about him and the earth and humanity grew far away and remote. Then a vibration began, like the humming of a great organ stop; and as it gathered power, he felt the hands that held him begin to vibrate with the rhythm of it; it seemed as if the girl were humming with her whole body like a windblown shroud. Then the vibration began to communicate itself to him, and his fingers tingled with the beat of it. It spread up his arm, along his shoulder, down his spine, and the beat of his heart began to synchronize with it also. Then, as it had begun, it faded away; the girl's hand ceased to throb; the vibrations died out of his arms; his brain cleared, and he found himself standing upon the empty and silent ship's deck with two limp hands holding his.
The girl's eyes had the blank, bewildered expression of one suddenly awakened from deep sleep, and in answer to their unspoken question he said: "It is all over now, and I have got the flute."
She looked uncomprehendingly at the quaint green thing in his hand, and then realization seemed to come to her.
"Yes, I heard it," she said. "I was in my cabin and I heard it, but how did I get here?"
"You followed the man who was playing it. It was just like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I never saw anything so queer in my life."
"Who—who was playing it?" asked the girl breathlessly. "One of the passengers from the steerage. I kicked him back where he belongs. I do not think he will trouble you again; and, anyway, this is the last night of the voyage."
"Did—did anything happen? Some tense anxiety evidently weighed upon the girl, and the man, conscious that something had happened, though he was entirely ignorant of its nature and significance, was at a loss how to answer her.
"I can't say that anything actually happened; nothing definite, or that one could put into words; it was a sensation rather than an occurrence, more like a dream than anything else."
"Did you feel anything at the time?"
"Only a kind of tingling sensation, but I think I caught it from you; you were vibrating like a bell."
"Did -- did I touch you? "
"Well, I should just about say you did; you had me gripped like a vice."
"And the vibration?"
"Seemed to pass down your arm and up mine, and then go off into space."
The girl looked at him with a face transfixed with horror.
"What is the matter?" said Austen. "I am afraid I don't understand."
"No," said the girl, "but you soon will." And before he could stop her, she had vanished round the windscreens.
The man went to his cabin, but sleep did not readily come to him; it seemed as if some echo of the vibrations he had experienced still rang in him, filling him with a sense of pulsating life, a pressure of vitality that made all existence appear bright-coloured, like the scenes of a theatre, instead of the grey dimness of ordinary existence ; and he who had shut himself away from life all these years suddenly found life flowing in upon him like a rising tide. He, a man of forty, a town-dweller habituated to a sedentary life, felt the keen desire of movement for movement's sake that sends a boy to athletics. The moment he closed his eyes the leaping forms of the wave-tops appeared before him, and he longed to leap and race with them, flinging himself up and falling back with the motion of the waves.
When he awoke it was dawn, and the level rays of the rising sun came slantwise into his cabin. It was long since he had awakened at dawn, for, like most city dwellers, he was a night worker, sleeping late and heavily in the mornings; but here was the dawn, and the dawn-wind calling him. He rose and flung on his clothes and in a few minutes was out on deck. Right astern the sun was rising, and the gulls swooped and shrieked round the vessel. Every wave was golden-crested, and the hollows were the wonderful indigo-black of deep water. No land was in sight, though the presence of the gulls showed that it was not far off. Austen stood there, drawing in deep breaths of the sparkling air. Wind and water seemed pulsating with vitality, and the lift and send of the ship was like the stride of a living creature. He strode down the deck, giving easily to the motion as he swung along, and for the first time in his life realized the joy of pure movement. Ito seemed to him that in his long, powerful lifting stride he approached very close to the motion of the waves. And so he walked, round and round the deck, mile after mile, until the bugle summoned him to breakfast.
He watched the door eagerly for the entrance of Averil Allinson, not with the usual anxiety that he felt when she been beyond his guardianship, but with a strange sense incompleteness, as if something were lacking that was essential to him. But she did not appear, and having completed a restless meal, he again went on deck, for the pulsing vitality within him would not permit him to remain indoors.
Still no Averil. They had made the landfall, and the cloudlike coast of America was steadily taking form. They would land after lunch, and still there was no Averil. The man paced the decks in a fever. The whole of the strange new vitality that had awakened within him was gathered up and concentrated upon the girl. In her presence the vitality was like wine in his veins; without her, it was a rending torment and a fire.
At lunch, instead of Averil, a note lay upon the table before him.
Dear Mr. Austen [it began, I cannot possibly express my gratitude for all you have done for me, but I am afraid you will think that I am expressing it in a strange way when I tell you that it is much better that we should not see each other again. Do not attempt to speak to me; and, if you can, avoid even the sight of me. Something happened last night, and it will be very difficult for us to avoid the consequences, which, I think, neither of us wish to face.
With the most sincere gratitude and thanks,
John Austen sat gazing at the letter as if it had been his own death sentence. Not see her again? Why, good gracious, it had been bad enough to pass the morning without seeing her. Oblivious of the steward who solicited his attention to the menu, he sat staring into space, and then got up and hastily left the saloon; he could not eat in the face of this intelligence.
Not see her again? He had got to see her; he could not exist without her. He had got to see her every day and all day; he could hardly bear her out of his sight. Suddenly he stopped, arrested in his stride.
'Why, you fool," he said out loud, "you are in love with her!”
The lady beside whose chair he had halted, looked up in manifest excitement to see if the words were addressed to her; but Austen, oblivious of all things save his own torment, had turned aside to the rail, and, resting his elbows on it, buried his face in his hands.
Here was he, a man of forty, madly, insanely in love like a boy of twenty, and with a girl young enough to be his daughter. The only thing for him to do was to ask her to marry him—but suppose she would not have him? He gritted his teeth when he remembered the pains he had taken during the voyage to make her realize that his interest in her was purely impersonal and that she need not think to play upon his susceptibilities, and he could have shouted aloud when he thought of the proud aloofness into which he had turned the ready friendliness with which she had first greeted him.
They were steaming up New York harbour now, and still no Averil. She remained hidden in her stateroom. One hope remained to him, however: she would have to come out and face the customs officers, and he rejoiced when he remembered that their names both began with A and consequently a meeting would be inevitable when the baggage was graded alphabetically for its inquisition. If she had been Smith or he had been Tompkins, they would have found themselves at opposite ends of the quay, but as it was, a meeting was inevitable, and he awaited it eagerly.
As soon as the slow docking of the great liner was over, he rushed down the gangway, suitcases in hand. In the section labelled "A" the derricks had already deposited several large trunks labelled Allinson, and beside them he
took his stand, well aware that their owner must inevitably arrive with the keys sooner or later.
A slight figure swathed in brown furs was approaching across the quay. Austen, unable to resist the impulse, went quickly to meet her. She looked up at him with reproachful eyes.
"I warned you! Oh, I warned you!" she said. "We shall never break loose now."
"I don't want to break loose," replied the man. "You have simply got to have me. It is no use trying to send me away, because I can't go. Averil will you marry me?"
The girl turned on him proudly. "No," she said, "I most certainly will not. This is simply an infatuation caused by the power that flowed in through me and returned through you. It is always the way with an invocation; one has to have the negative body of a woman for the power to flow in through and the positive body of a man for it to return through, and it binds the two together by a magnetic bond; that was why I so dreaded one of those horrible men getting the flute … lest I should become bound to him."
"Then—then," cried Austen, “you too are aware of the bond?"
Averil drew herself up proudly. "I am not so foolish as to give way to my feelings," she replied. "I am quite well aware that you, in your normal state, do not even like me, and do you think I would marry a man who had to be 'glamoured' into loving me?"
"Are you so sure of that?"
"You were at great pains to make it plain to me. I have never had such a horrid week in my life."
"If you want to know the truth, I was afraid of liking you too much; I knew you could have no use for a man like me, old enough to be your father, and I was afraid of getting hurt. And now I am desperate. Averil, you must hear me."
But she had turned on her heel and was walking away.
"Averil, stop! You can't leave me like this; you are tied to me just as much as I am to you. What does it matter how love came to us now that it has come?"
But she continued her walk. She was evidently going to abandon her luggage and take flight from love and him before it was too late and her resolution should weaken. He looked after her as the shadows of the great echoing shed swallowed her up. There was between them the finest thing that can come to a man and a woman—a union of the spirit, and she, in the pride of her despised beauty, was throwing it aside. She, he felt certain, was bound to him even as he was bound to her; her eyes had told him that even while her lips rejected him. Should he let her go, or should he hold her? His hand went to his breast pocket and drew out the jade flute, the flute of seven stops that had made all the mischief; well, it should now make atonement. He raised it to his lips, and above all the turmoil of the disembarkation there sounded the liquid purling of a mountain stream. Unobserved by the hurrying crowd about him he played upon the jade flute, fingering its seven stops lovingly as the strange harmonies flowed out and it seemed that, even from the foul, oil-stained water of the dock, there came a stirring of response, as if, beneath all the grime, a sweet and pure soul was touched and answered.
But it was on the far end of the gloomy shed that the man's attention was focused. Would a shadow disengage itself from the shadows and come towards him? He walked slowly over the sodden timbers of the quay piping like Arcadian Pan, and the dark, hideous place filled with the sound of running water.
Then he saw that which he sought. Out of the shadows the girl was coming. She came swiftly, with the undulating movement of the waves of the open sea, but this time her eyes were open, and she was smiling. He took her hand, and at his touch the strange thrilling vibration again leapt from hand to hand; the bond, re-forged, drew tight from heart to heart, and, looking deeply into her eyes, he knew that they twain had become one.