The Thing On The Hearth
"THE first confirmatory evidence of the thing, Excellency, was
the print of a woman's bare foot."
He was an immense creature. He sat in an upright chair that
seemed to have been provided especially for him. The great bulk
of him flowed out and filled the chair. It did not seem to be
fat that enveloped him. It seemed rather to be some soft, tough
fiber, like the pudgy mass making up the body of a deep-sea
thing. One got an impression of strength.
The country was before the open window; the clusters of
cultivated shrub on the sweep of velvet lawn extending to the
great wall that inclosed the place, then the bend of the river
and beyond the distant mountains, blue and mysterious, blending
indiscernibly into the sky. A soft sun, clouded with the haze of
autumn, shone over it.
"You know how the faint moisture in the bare foot will make an
He paused as though there was some compelling force in the
reflection. It was impossible to say, with accuracy, to what
race the man belonged. He came from some queer blend of Eastern
peoples. His body and the cast of his features were Mongolian.
But one got always, before him, a feeling of the hot East lying
low down against the stagnant Suez. One felt that he had risen
slowly into our world of hard air and sun out of the vast
sweltering ooze of it.
He spoke English with a certain care in the selection of the
words, but with ease and an absence of effort, as though
languages were instinctive to him - as though he could speak any
language. And he impressed one with this same effortless
facility in all the things he did.
It is necessary to try to understand this, because it explains
the conception everybody got of the creature, when they saw him
in charge of Rodman. I am using precisely the descriptive words;
he was exclusively in charge of Rodman, as a jinn in an Arabian
tale might have been in charge of a king's son.
The creature was servile - with almost a groveling servility.
But one felt that this servility resulted from something potent
and secret. One looked to see Rodman take Solomon's ring out of
his waistcoat pocket.
I suppose there is no longer any doubt about the fact that Rodman
was one of those gigantic human intelligences who sometimes
appear in the world, and by their immense conceptions dwarf all
human knowledge - a sort of mental monster that we feel nature
has no right to produce. Lord Bayless Truxley said that Rodman
was some generations in advance of the time; and Lord Bayless
Truxley was, beyond question, the greatest authority on synthetic
chemistry in the world.
Rodman was rich and, everybody supposed, indolent; no one ever
thought very much about him until he published his brochure on
the scientific manufacture of precious stones. Then instantly
everybody with any pretension to a knowledge of synthetic
chemistry turned toward him.
The brochure startled the world.
It proposed to adapt the luster and beauty of jewels to commercial
uses. We were being content with crude imitation colors in our
commercial glass, when we could quite as easily have the actual
structure and the actual luster of the jewel in it. We were
painfully hunting over the earth, and in its bowels, for a few
crystals and prettily colored stones which we hoarded and
treasured, when in a manufacturing laboratory we could easily
produce them, more perfect than nature, and in unlimited
Now, if you want to understand what I am printing here about
Rodman, you must think about this thing as a scientific
possibility and not as a fantastic notion. Take, for example,
Rodman's address before the Sorbonne, or his report to the
International Congress of Science in Edinburgh, and you will
begin to see what I mean. The Marchese Giovanni, who was a
delegate to that congress, and Pastreaux, said that the something
in the way of an actual practical realization of what Rodman
outlined was the formulae. If Rodman could work out the
formulae, jewel-stuff could be produced as cheaply as glass, and
in any quantity - by the carload. Imagine it; sheet ruby, sheet
emerald, all the beauty and luster of jewels in the windows of
the corner drugstore!
And there is another thing that I want you to think about. Think
about the immense destruction of value - not to us, so greatly,
for our stocks of precious stones are not large; but the thing
meant, practically, wiping out all the assembled wealth of Asia
except the actual earth and its structures.
The destruction of value was incredible.
Put the thing some other way and consider it. Suppose we should
suddenly discover that pure gold could be produced by treating
common yellow clay with sulphuric acid, or that some genius
should set up a machine on the border of the Sahara that received
sand at one end and turned out sacked wheat at the other! What,
then, would our hoarded gold be worth, or the wheat-lands of
Australia, Canada or our Northwest?
The illustrations are fantastic. But the thing Rodman was after
was a practical fact. He had it on the way. Giovanni and Lord
Bayless Truxley were convinced that the man would work out the
formulae. They tried, over their signatures, to prepare the world
The whole of Asia was appalled. The rajahs of the native states
in India prepared a memorial and sent it to the British
The thing came out after the mysterious, incredible tragedy. I
should not have written that final sentence. I want you to
think, just now, about the great hulk of a man that sat in his
big chair beyond me at the window.
It was like Rodman to turn up with an outlandish human creature
attending him hand and foot. How the thing came about reads like
a lie; it reads like a lie; the wildest lie that anybody ever put
forward to explain a big yellow Oriental following one about.
But it was no lie. You could not think up a lie to equal the
actual things that happened to Rodman. Take the way he died!....
The thing began in India. Rodman had gone there to consult with
the Marchese Giovanni concerning some molecular theory that was
involved in his formulas. Giovanni was digging up a buried
temple on the northern border of the Punjab. One night, in the
explorer's tent, near the excavations, this inscrutable creature
walked in on Rodman. No one knew how he got into the tent or
where he came from.
Giovanni told about it. The tent-flap simply opened, and the big
Oriental appeared. He had something under his arm rolled up in a
prayer-carpet. He gave no attention to Giovanni, but he salaamed
like a coolie to the little American.
"Master," he said, "you were hard to find. I have looked over
the world for you."
And he squatted down on the dirty floor by Rodman's camp stool.
Now, that's precisely the truth. I suppose any ordinary person
would have started no end of fuss. But not Rodman, and not, I
think, Giovanni. There's the attitude that we can't understand
in a genius - did you ever know a man with an inventive mind who
doubted a miracle? A thing like that did not seem unreasonable
The two men spent the remainder of the night looking at the
present that the creature brought Rodman in his prayer-carpet.
They wanted to know where the Oriental got it, and that's how his
story came out.
He was something - searcher, seems our nearest English word to it
- in the great Shan Monastery on the southeastern plateau of the
Gobi. He was looking for Rodman because he had the light - here
was another word that the two men could find no term in any
modern language to translate; a little flame, was the literal
The present was from the treasure-room of the monastery; the very
carpet around it, Giovanni said, was worth twenty thousand lire.
There was another thing that came out in the talk that Giovanni
afterward recalled. Rodman was to accept the present and the man
who brought it to him. The Oriental would protect him, in every
way, in every direction, from things visible and invisible. He
made quite a speech about it. But, there was one thing from
which he could not protect him.
The Oriental used a lot of his ancient words to explain, and he
did not get it very clear. He seemed to mean that the creative
Forces of the spirit would not tolerate a division of worship
with the creative forces of the body - the celibate notion in the
Giovanni thought Rodman did not understand it; he thought he
himself understood it better. The monk was pledging Rodman to a
high virtue, in the lapse of which something awful was sure to
Giovanni wrote a letter to the State Department when he learned
what had happened to Rodman. The State Department turned it over
to the court at the trial. I think it was one of the things that
influenced the judge in his decision. Still, at the time, there
seemed no other reasonable decision to make. The testimony must
have appeared incredible; it must have appeared fantastic. No
man reading the record could have come to any other conclusion
about it. Yet it seemed impossible - at least, it seemed
impossible for me - to consider this great vital bulk of a man as
a monk of one of the oldest religious orders in the world. Every
common, academic conception of such a monk he distinctly
negatived. He impressed me, instead, as possessing the ultimate
qualities of clever diplomacy - the subtle ambassador of some new
Oriental power, shrewd, suave, accomplished.
When one read the yellow-backed court-record, the sense of old,
obscure, mysterious agencies moving in sinister menace,
invisibly, around Rodman could not be escaped from. You believed
it. Against your reason, against all modern experience of life,
you believed it.
And yet it could not be true! One had to find that verdict or
topple over all human knowledge - that is, all human knowledge as
we understand it. The judge, cutting short the criminal trial,
took the only way out of the thing.
There was one man in the world that everybody wished could have
been present at the time. That was Sir Henry Marquis. Marquis
was chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland
Yard. He had been in charge of the English secret service on the
frontier of the Shan states, and at the time he was in Asia.
As soon as Scotland Yard could release Sir Henry, it sent him.
Rodman's genius was the common property of the world. The
American Government could not, even with the verdict of a trial
court, let Rodman's death go by under the smoke-screen of such a
weird, inscrutable mystery.
I was to meet Sir Henry and come here with him. But my train
into New England was delayed, and when I arrived at the station,
I found that Marquis had gone down to have a look at Rodman's
country-house, where the thing had happened.
It was on an isolated forest ridge of the Berkshires, no human
soul within a dozen miles of it - a comfortable stone house in
the English fashion. There was a big drawing-room across one end
of it, with an immense fireplace framed in black marble under a
great white panel to the ceiling. It had a wide black-marble
hearth. There is an excellent photograph of it in the record,
showing the single andiron, that mysterious andiron upon which
the whole tragedy seemed to turn as on a hinge.
Rodman used this drawing-room for a workshop. He kept it
close-shuttered and locked. Not even this big, yellow, servile
creature who took exclusive care of him in the house was allowed
to enter, except under Rodman's eye. What he saw in the final
scenes of the tragedy, he saw looking in through a crack under
the door. The earlier things he noticed when he put logs on the
fire at dark.
Time is hardly a measure for the activities of the mind. These
reflections winged by in a scarcely perceptible interval of it.
They have taken me some time to write out here, but they crowded
past while the big Oriental was speaking - in the pause between
"The print," he continued, "was the first confirmation of
evidence, but it was not the first indicatory sign. I doubt if
the Master himself noticed the thing at the beginning. The
seductions of this disaster could not have come quickly; and
besides that, Excellency, the agencies behind the material world
get a footing in it only with continuous pressure. Do not
receive a wrong impression, Excellency; to the eye a thing will
suddenly appear, but the invisible pressure will have been for
some time behind that materialization."
"The Master was sunk in his labor, and while that enveloped him,
the first advances of the lure would have gone by unnoticed - and
the tension of the pressure. But the day was at hand when the
Master was receptive. He had got his work completed; the
formula, penciled out, were on his table. I knew by the
relaxation. Of all periods this is the one most dangerous to the
He sat silent for a moment, his big fingers moving on the arms of
"I knew," he added. Then he went on: "But it was the one thing
against which I could not protect him. The test was to be
He made a vague gesture.
"The Master was indicated - but the peril antecedent to his
elevation remained . . . . It was to be permitted, and at its
leisure and in its choice of time."
He turned sharply toward me, the folds of his face unsteady.
"Excellency!" he cried. "I would have saved the Master, I would
have saved him with my soul's damnation, but it was not
permitted. On that first night in the Italian's tent I said all
His voice went into a higher note.
"Twice, for the Master, I have been checked and reduced in merit.
For that bias I was myself encircled. I was in an agony of
spirit when I knew that the thing was beginning to advance, but
my very will to aid was at the time environed."
His voice descended.
He sat motionless, as though the whole bulk of him were
devitalized, and maintained its outline only by the inclosing
frame of the chair.
"It began, Excellency, on an August night. There is a chill in
these mountains at sunset. I had put wood into the fireplace,
and lighted it, and was about the house. The Master, as I have
said, had worked out his formulae. He was at leisure. I could
not see him, for the door was closed, but the odor of his cigar
escaped from the room. It was very silent. I was placing the
Master's bed-candle on the table in the hall, when I heard his
voice. . . . You have read it, Excellency, as the scriveners
wrote it down before the judge."
"It was an exclamation of surprise, of astonishment. Then I
heard the Master get up softly and go over to the fireplace. . .
Presently he returned. He got a new cigar, Excellency, clipped
it and lighted it. I could hear the blade of the knife on the
fiber of the tobacco, and of course, clearly the rasp of the
match. A moment later I knew that he was in the chair again.
The odor of ignited tobacco returned. It was some time before
there was another sound in the room; then suddenly I heard the
Master swear. His voice was sharp and astonished. This time,
Excellency, he got up swiftly and crossed the room to the
fireplace. . . I could hear him distinctly. There was the sound
of one tapping on metal, thumping it, as with the fingers."
He stopped again, for a brief moment, as in reflection.
"It was then that the Master unlocked the door and asked for the
liquor." He indicated the court record in my pocket. "I brought
it, a goblet of brandy, with some carbonated water. He drank it
all without putting down the glass . . . . His face was strange,
Excellency . . . . Then he looked at me.
"`Put a log on the fire,' he said.
"I went in and added wood to the fire and came out.
"The Master remained in the doorway; he reentered when I came
out, and closed the door behind him . . . . There was a long
silence after that; them I heard the voice, permitted to the
devocation thin, metallic, offering the barter to the Master. It
began and ceased because the Master was on his feet and before
the fireplace. I heard him swear again, and presently return to
his place by the table."
The big Oriental lifted his face and looked out at the sweep of
country before the window.
"The thing went on, Excellency, the voice offering its lure, and
presenting it in brief flashes of materialization, and the Master
endeavoring to seize and detain the visitations, which ceased
instantly at his approach to the hearth."
The man paused.
"I knew the Master contended in vain against the thing; if he
would acquire possession of what it offered, he must destroy what
the creative forces of the spirit had released to him."
Again he paused.
"Toward morning he went out of the house. I could hear him
walking on the gravel before the door. He would walk the full
length of the house and return. The night was clear; there was a
chill in it, and every sound was audible.
"That was all, Excellency. The Master returned a little later
and ascended to his bedroom as usual."
Then he added:
"It was when I went in to put wood on the fire that I saw the
footprint on the hearth."
There was a force, compelling and vivid, in these meager details,
the severe suppression of things, big and tragic. No elaboration
could have equaled, in effect, the virtue of this restraint.
The man was going on, directly, with the story.
"The following night, Excellency, the thing happened. The Master
had passed the day in the open. He dined with a good appetite,
like a man in health. And there was a change in his demeanor.
He had the aspect of men who are determined to have a thing out
at any hazard.
"After his dinner the Master went into the drawing-room and
closed the door behind him. He had not entered the room on this
day. It had stood locked and close-shuttered!"
The big Oriental paused and made a gesture outward with his
fingers, as of one dismissing an absurdity.
"No living human being could have been concealed in that room.
There is only the bare floor, the Master's table and the
fireplace. The great wood shutters were bolted in, as they had
stood since the Master took the room for a workshop and removed
the furniture. The door was always locked with that special
thief-proof lock that the American smiths had made for it. No
one could have entered."
It was the report of the experts at the trial. They showed by
the casing of rust on the bolts that the shutters had not been
moved; the walls, ceiling and floor were undisturbed; the throat
of the chimney was coated evenly with old soot. Only the door
was possible as an entry, and this was always locked except when
Rodman was himself in the room. And at such times the big
Oriental never left his post in the hall before it. That seemed
a condition of his mysterious overcare of Rodman.
Everybody thought the trial court went to an excessive care. It
scrutinized in minute detail every avenue that could possibly
lead to a solution of the mystery. The whole country and every
resident was inquisitioned. The conclusion was inevitable.
There was no human creature on that forest crest of the
Berkshires but Rodman and his servant.
But one can see why the trial judge kept at the thing; he was
seeking an explanation consistent with the common experience of
mankind. And when he could not find it, he did the only thing he
could do. He was wrong, as we now know. But he had a hold in
the dark on the truth - not the whole truth by any means; he
never had a glimmer of that. He never had the faintest
conception of the big, amazing truth. But as I have said, he had
his fingers on one essential fact.
The man was going on with a slow, precise articulation as though
he would thereby make a difficult matter clear.
"The night had fallen swiftly. It was incredibly silent. There
was no sound in the Master's room, and no light except the
flicker of the logs smoldering in the fireplace. The thin line
of it appeared faintly along the sill of the door."
"The fireplace, Excellency, is at the end of the great room,
directly opposite this door into the hall, before which I always
sat when the Master was within. The fireplace is of black marble
with an immense black-marble hearth. And the gift which I had
brought the Master stands on one side of the fire, on this marble
hearth, as though it were a single andiron."
The man turned back into the heart of his story.
"I knew by the vague sense of pressure that the devocations of
the thing were again on the way. And I began to suffer in the
spirit for the Master's safety. Interference, both by act and by
the will, were denied me. But there is an anxiety of spirit,
Excellency, that the uncertainty of an issue makes intolerable."
The man paused.
"The pressure continued - and the silence. It was nearly
midnight. I could not distinguish any act or motion of the
Master, and in fear I crept over to the door and looked in
through the crevice along the threshold.
"The Master sat by his table; he was straining forward, his hands
gripping the arms of his chair. His eyes and every tense
instinct of the man were concentrated on the fireplace. The red
light of the embers was in the room. I could see him clearly,
and the table beyond him with the calculations; but the fireplace
seemed strangely out of perspective - it extended above me.
"My gift to the Master, not more than four handbreaths in length,
including the base, stood now like an immense bronze on an
extended marble slab beside a gigantic fireplace. This effect of
extension put the top of the fireplace and the enlarged andiron,
above its pedestal, out of my line of vision. Everything else in
the chamber, holding its normal dimensions, was visible to me.
"The Master's face was a little lifted. He was looking at the
elevated portions of the andiron which were invisible to me. He
did not move. The steady light threw half of his face into
shadow. But in the other half every feature stood out sharply as
in a delicate etching. It had that refined sharpness and
distinction which intense moments of stress stamp on the human
face. He did not move, and there was no sound.
"I have said, Excellency, that my angle of vision along the
crevice of the doorsill was sharply cut midway of this now
enlarged fireplace. From the direction and lift of the Master's
face, he was watching something above this line and directly over
the pedestal of the andiron. I watched, also, flattening my face
against the sill, for the thing to appear.
"And it did appear.
"A naked foot became slowly visible, as though some one were
descending with extreme care from the elevation of the andiron to
the great marble hearth, under this strange enlargement, now some
The big Oriental paused, and looked down at me.
"I knew then, Excellency, that the Master was lost! The creative
energies of the Spirit suffer no division of worship; those of
the body must be wholly denied. I had warned the Master. And in
travail, Excellency, I turned over with my face to the floor.
"But there is always hope, hope over the certainties of
experience, over the certainties of knowledge. Perhaps the
Master, even now, sustained in the spirit, would put away the
devocation . . . . No, Excellency, I was not misled. I knew the
Master was beyond hope! But the will to hope moved me, and I
turned back to the crevice at the doorsill."
"There was now a delicate odor, everywhere, faintly, like the
blossom of the little bitter apple here in your country. The red
embers in the fireplace gave out a steady light; and in the glow
of it, on the marble hearth, stood the one who had descended from
the elevation of the andiron."
Again the man hesitated, as for an accurate method of expression.
"In the flesh, Excellency, there was color that would not appear
in the image. The hair was yellow, and the eyes were blue; and
against the black marble of the fireplace the body was
conspicuously white. But in every other aspect of her,
Excellency, the woman was on the hearth in the flesh as she is in
the clutch of the savage male figure in the image.
"There is no dress or ornament, as you will recall, Excellency.
Not even an ear-jewel or an anklet, as though the graver of the
image felt that the inherent beauty of his figure could take
nothing from these ostentations. The woman's heavy yellow hair
was wound around her head, as in the image. She shivered a
little, faintly, like a naked child in an unaccustomed draught of
air, although she stood on the warm marble hearth and within the
red glow of the fire.
"The voice from the male figure of the image, which I had brought
the Master, and which stood as the andiron, now so immensely
enlarged, was beginning again to speak. The thin metallic sounds
seemed to splinter against the dense silence, as it went forward
in the ritual prescribed.
"But the Master had already decided; he stood now on the great
marble hearth with his papers crushed together. And as I looked
on, through the crevice under the doorsill, he put out his free
hand and with his finger touched the woman gently. The flesh
under his finger yielded, and stooping over, he put the formulas
into the fire."
Like one who has come to the end of his story, the huge Oriental
stopped. He remained for some moments silent. Then he continued
in an even, monotonous voice
"I got up from the floor then, and purified myself with water.
And after that I went into an upper chamber, opened the window to
the east, and sat down to write my report to the brotherhood.
For the thing which I had been sent to do was finished."
He put his hand somewhere into the loose folds of his Oriental
garment and brought out a roll of thin vellum like onion-skin,
painted in Chinese characters. It was of immense length, but on
account of the thinness of the vellum, the roll wound on a tiny
cylinder of wood was not above two inches in thickness.
"Excellency," he said, "I have carefully concealed this report
through the misfortunes that have attended me. It is not certain
that I shall be able to deliver it. Will you give it for me to
the jewel merchant Vanderdick, in Amsterdam? He will send it to
Mahadal in Bombay, and it will go north with the caravans."
His voice changed into a note of solicitation.
"You will not fail me, Excellency - already for my bias to the
Master I am reduced in merit."
I put the scroll into my pocket and went out, for a motorcar had
come into the park, and I knew that Marquis had arrived.
I met Sir Henry and the superintendent in the long corridor; they
had been looking in at my interview through the elevated grating.
"Marquis," I cried, "the judge was right to cut short the
criminal trial and issue a lunacy warrant. This creature is the
maddest lunatic in this whole asylum. The human mind is capable
of any absurdity."
Sir Henry looked at me with a queer ironical smile.
"The judge was wrong," he said. "The creature, as you call him,
is as sane as any of us."
"Then you believe this amazing story?" I said.
"I believe Rodman was found at daylight dead on the hearth, with
practically every bone in his body crushed," he replied.
"Certainly," I said. "We all know that is true. But why was he
Again Sir Henry regarded me with his ironical smile.
"Perhaps," he drawled, "there is some explanation in the report
in your pocket, to the Monastic Head. It's only a theory, you
He smiled, showing his white, even teeth.
We went into the superintendent's room, and sat down by a
smoldering fire of coals in the gate. I handed Marquis the roll
of vellum. It was in one of the Shan dialects. He read it
aloud. With the addition of certain formal expressions, it
contained precisely the Oriental's testimony before the court,
and no more.
"Ah!" he said in his curiously inflected Oxford voice.
And he held the scroll out to the heat of the fire. The vellum
baked slowly, and as it baked, the black Chinese characters faded
out and faint blue ones began to appear.
Marquis read the secret message in his emotionless drawl:
"`The American is destroyed, and his accursed work is destroyed
with him. Send the news to Bangkok and west to Burma. The
treasures of India are saved."'
I cried out in astonishment.
"An assassin! The creature was an assassin! He killed Rodman
simply by crushing him in his arms!"
Sir Henry's drawl lengthened.
"It's Lal Gupta," he said, "the cleverest Oriental in the whole of
Asia. The jewel-traders sent him to watch Rodman, and to kill
him if he was ever able to get his formulae worked out. They
must have paid him an incredible sum."
"And that is why the creature attached himself to Rodman!" I
"Surely," replied Sir Henry. "He brought that bronze Romulus
carrying off the Sabine woman and staged the supernatural to work
out his plan and to save his life. I knew the bronze as soon as
I got my eye on it - old Franz Josef gave it as a present to
Mahadal in Bombay for matching up some rubies."
I swore bitterly.
"And we took him for a lunatic!"
"Ah, yes!" replied Sir Henry. "What was it you said as I came
in? `The human mind is capable of any absurdity!'"
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