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

impression."



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

quantity.



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

for it.



The whole of Asia was appalled. The rajahs of the native states

in India prepared a memorial and sent it to the British

Government.



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

to Rodman.



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

meaning.



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

monastic idea.



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

happen.



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

his words.



"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."



He paused.



"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

human spirit."



He sat silent for a moment, his big fingers moving on the arms of

the chair.



"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

permitted."



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

I could."



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."



He paused.



"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."



He paused.



"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

distance below."



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."



He paused.



"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

killed?'



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

know."



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

said.



"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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