Brian Stableford’s recent fiction includes the collection of Mythos stories The Womb of Time (Perilous Press, 2010), which includes “The Legacy of Erich Zann,” the first item in a series of novellas and novels featuring Edgar Allan Poe’s proto-detective C. August Dupin, all published by Borgo Press. The later items in the series include the Myths novel The Cthulhu Encryption. He is also working on a series of translations of French scientific romances and supernatural fiction from the 19th and 20th centuries, published by Black Coat Press, recent inclusions in which are Louise Michel’s The Human Microbes and Félicien Champsaur’s Ouha, King of the Apes.
“That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator, for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action: despair, if he fail in his quest, and terrors unutterable and imaginable if he succeed.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “From Beyond”
I had known, of course, that Crawford Tillinghast had correspondents—one might almost say colleagues—with whom he discussed his work in progress, for science is not, like sorcery, the work of isolated and secretive individuals working from the pages of soiled grimoires. It is the work of men who know that they are engaged in a collective endeavor directed toward understanding, who know that clear and far sight is only available to those who stand on the shoulders of giants, willing to debate what they glimpse. Even so, I was surprised when they began to contact me, in the aftermath of Tillinghast’s tragic demise, eager to know whether I had removed any notes, diagrams, or calculations from his house on the night of the disaster—or where such documents might be located if I had not—and eager, too, for a more complete account of my experience on that occasion than I had been prepared to give to the police.
His former correspondents were not the only ones who got in touch with me; nor was I the only one with whom they got in touch. When Tillinghast’s widow, Rachel, wrote to me, asking whether I would grant her an interview, she mentioned that she had heard from three of the philosophical vultures circling the corpse of his ambition—although she did not, of course, express it in those terms. The image was mine, born not only from my unsympathetic attitude to Tillinghast’s scientific endeavors, but also of the state of mind in which his fatal experiment had left me. I was always looking up, afraid of what I might see…and what I was afraid of seeing was cruel, sinister and raptorial.
I say “state of mind” because I was careful, then, not to say “state of being.” I did not want to consider, let alone admit, that the experiment could have wrought a permanent change in me. I did not even want to imagine the possibility that the radiation of Tillinghast’s machine, rather than administering a momentary and transient stimulation to the pineal body in my brain, had somehow triggered a slow but definitive alteration of its anatomy and its sensory capacity. What I wanted to imagine was that what I had experienced on that fateful night was, in fact, no more than the immediate product of my own frightened imagination, suggestively stimulated by Tillinghast’s fragile mental condition.
What I wanted to imagine, in addition, was that Gregory, and Tillinghast’s other servants, had not been murdered at all, either by human hands or by some horrid creature from a world parallel to our own, hidden from our senses in some subtle realm of dark matter. I wanted to imagine, or at least to hope, that they were still alive and happy, if not in our world then in the other, perhaps having undergone some benign metamorphosis. If I were to entertain the notion of metamorphosis at all, I dearly wanted to think of such processes as benign. Tillinghast had, after all, been quite insistent in the course of his final mad tirade that his “pets” hadn’t hurt his servants at all.
The “vultures” who took the trouble to press their suit with Rachel as well as with me were three in number. Their names were Patterway, Crisson, and Dove. Patterway was a professor of natural aciences at Miskatonic University. Crisson was, like Tillinghast, an amateur—the scion of a family enriched in the distant past by the slave trade and in the nearer past by shrewd capitalist dabbling—who had elected to devoted himself to a passion for electrical science, probably moved by the inspiration of the Wizard of Menlo Park. Dove was…well, I have to confess that I never have found out exactly what Dove considers himself to be. I know that he will not accept the label “psychic researcher,” or that of “parapsychologist,” any more than he will condescend to describe himself as a “medium.” I have always had the impression that he was a failed literary man before interesting himself in the mysteries of the plenum, as so many lifestyle fantasists are, but such evidence as he has provided has always been suggestive and indirect, and no one any longer expects clarity from him.
My immediate response to the inquiries of the vultures had been negative, not merely in the trivial sense of flatly denying that I had any of Tillinghast’s papers in my possession but also in the more assertive sense of telling them that I had no wish to see any of them, or speak or write to them about what I had experienced, or anything else. I stopped short of telling them to go to hell in so many words, although I was tempted.
Rachel’s appeal was, however, a different matter. She was Tillinghast’s widow—Tillinghast’s relict, as the jargon has it.
Tillinghast had been my closest friend for many years, and our friendship had deep roots; it could not have been sustained otherwise, given that we had drifted apart intellectually to such an extent as no longer to have anything much in common in our ideas and interests by the time he died. We had known each other as boys, however, when we had been inseparable, and it had seemed both natural and inevitable to maintain our friendship at college in spite of the divergence of our academic interests. Even then, our fellow students thought Tillinghast eccentric and ill-tempered, and felt slightly uneasy in his company, but I knew him better than they did. Perhaps he was eccentric, and he did occasionally lack self-control, but he was also brilliant and steadfastly loyal. I knew that the trust he had in me was as indissoluble as his love for Rachel, even if it did not arise from the passionate element of his character—and he knew that he could always depend on me, even though others thought me cold and indifferent to everything.
When Tillinghast and Rachel had separated in the seventh year of their marriage, casual acquaintances suggested that it was because his love of science was greater than his love for her, and that she had been wounded by neglect as well as intimidated by occasional outbursts of wrath, but that was not so. It was simply that he found it far easier to express his love of science than his love for Rachel in the conventional ways expected—demanded—by New England society. It was not the depth of his passion that was at fault but its mask, and it was not neglect that wounded her but an intensity of feeling that seemed to her too awkwardly formed, even when it was expressed very differently than in wrath, to be easily bearable. They lived apart for more years than they had lived together, but neither ever sued for divorce or sought solace elsewhere.
I knew Rachel, of course, as my friend’s wife, but we never had any relationship outside my friendship with him. It was through science that he met her—she was a laboratory technician at the college where he and I were students—and it always seemed to me that the bond between them was somehow located on the opposite side of his personality to the bond that linked him to me. Ours was a linear rather than a triangular community, and Tillinghast loomed so large between myself and Rachel that she often seemed invisible to me: a significant presence in my life as well as his, while they were together, but always in shadow. Even so, I could not hesitate over my response to an appeal from her. Whatever she wanted of me she had a right to ask, and I had a duty to provide.
I wrote to say that she was very welcome to visit me in the suburbs of Providence, or that I would be equally glad to visit her in the coastal village where she had taken up residence, not far from New Bedford, but she replied that, as the sole heir to Tillinghast’s estate, she would need to spend at least a week in the house of which she was now the owner, in order to take inventory of its contents and decide what was to be done with both the movable and immovable property. She asked me to come and see her there on the evening following her arrival, and to stay long enough to lend her what assistance I could in her sad task. I could not refuse, no matter how intimidated I was by the prospect.
Because time was short, I telephoned in order to agree to her proposal. “There’s a small hotel where the by-road that leads to Tillinghast’s house joins the highway,” I told her. “It’s only a mile away. I’ll reserve a room there.”
“Pease don’t, David,” she said. “To be honest, I’d much rather have you stay in the house. I’ll bring my chauffeur and my maid-of-all-work with me, so we won’t have to fend for ourselves. Besides which, you might have difficulty booking a room. It’s only a small hotel, and they’ll be there.”
“Who?” I asked, a trifle stupidly.
“The unholy trinity: Patterway, Crisson, and Dove. They’re all exceedingly keen to acquire the wreckage of Crawford’s machine, and all his other equipment—not to mention his papers. Only Crisson has so far put in a cash bid, but Patterway is insistent that everything ought to go to Miskatonic, in order that it might be properly preserved and evaluated, and I suspect that I could stage an interesting auction—or perhaps start a war—if I assembled them all in the same room, with the wreckage of the machine and any papers I can find in the house. Before I let any of them in, though, I feel that I need some moral and intellectual support—support that only you, in all probability, could meaningfully provide. Will you be my knight in shining armor, to defend my confusion and poor Crawford’s honor?”
What could I say? While feeling that things were going from bad to worse—that not only would I have to confront that damnable haunted house again, but that I would have to do so in the presence of avid carrion-birds—I could not possibly turn down an appeal so phrased. There is a code of behavior imposed on anyone summoned to play the knight, which forbids any refusal to enter the lists, even against dragons, giants and ogres. There is no specific mention of migraines in medieval romance, but plenty of vaguer references to illness, and to visions of all sorts; knights are supposed to suffer such things bravely, and conquer them—or die trying.
“I shall be delighted,” I assured her, more politely than sincerely. Delighted or not, though, I was determined.
I was very well aware of the time required to complete a journey between my home and Tillinghast’s, so it was not miscalculation that led me to arrive a full two hours early, some thirty minutes ahead of the estimate that Rachel had given me of the time of her own arrival. Given that I had to go, and to go in the capacity of a lady’s champion, I wanted to check the place out in advance—or, rather, I wanted to check myself out in proximity to the house, to make sure that I could tolerate the environment. For that reason, I took care to reach the house while the sun had not yet begun to turn crimson as it sank into the wilderness of the west, but was still blazing benignly yellow in a clear blue sky.
I did not take a motorized cab, having always felt more comfortable in horse-drawn transport, but I regretted that slightly, for the final section of the road that led to Tillinghast’s house was even more replete with ruts and potholes than I remembered it, and I felt certain that I would not have been jolted nearly as much by a vehicle with pneumatic tires as I was in the two-wheeled trap. In the past, I had ridden out the jolts with casual disdain, but now, I was frightened that they might start my head aching, with the henceforth-inevitable accompaniment of spots before my eyes. The driver, too, seemed direly resentful of the road’s condition—for which he naturally blamed me personally—and set off on the return journey sulkily, with a pained expression on his face, as if fearful that his frail vehicle might disintegrate under the stress.
I carried my bags to the front porch and set them down beside the door. Then I began a circumnavigation of the house. I could have gone inside immediately—I knew where Tillinghast had hid his spare key and was sure that no one would have removed it—but it did not seem polite to anticipate Rachel in that respect, and I was confident that I could make an initial assessment of my own state of mind as easily by peering in through the windows as by going inside.
I ambled around the house and its annexes. I peered through the windows, which seemed to have attracted an unusual amount of grime since they had been washed. I tested the kitchen door to make sure that it was locked. I sat down briefly in the back garden. I even looked up, once or twice, at the windows on the first floor and the eaves—but not at the ridge of the roof or the weathervane—and I kept my hat on while I did so, so that the slightest adjustment of my head would bring its censorious brim into play.
I did not see anything untoward. I could hear the weathervane, though; there was an unsteady breeze blowing, sometimes from the east and sometimes from the southeast, from the not-so-distant sea. The vane—whose ornament, I knew from memory, was shaped like a fish rather than the conventional cockerel—creaked as it swayed, obedient to the atmospheric indecision.
I knew that the sound of the weathervane was perfectly natural, but there was something else, perhaps beyond hearing as well as beyond sight, that did not seem quite right. I remembered that Tillinghast’s machine had somehow retained a visible glow even when its electricity supply was switched off, once his experiments had begun. Tillinghast had suggested that it was ultraviolet light somehow made visible, but that made no sense, and I had realized at the time that the interpretation was a symptom of his mental derangement—but however nonsensical his suggested explanation might have been, the glow had been real. The machine had been affected by its experimental use. Perhaps, I thought, the house had been affected too, in a subtler but nevertheless substantial way—and the weathervane most of all, given its metal constitution and its proximity to the machine.
Then I told myself not be silly, and that it was all in my mind—that even the glow in the machine had been in my mind, the first symptom of hallucination. When I returned to the front of the house again, after twelve or fifteen minutes, a little more confident in my sanity, there was a man on the porch, looking down pensively at my luggage. There was no horse or vehicle outside the gate; he must have walked—although I did not remember passing any pedestrians as I was following my own jolting course along the road.
We looked one another up and down. He was tall and bony, perhaps forty years of age, with a tanned leathery complexion and eyes as dark as his near-black hair. He had the advantage of me. Of the three vultures who had contacted me, the only one I had ever met in the flesh was Patterway; this was not him. Given that he was staying in the same hotel as his two rivals, he presumably knew that I was neither of them, and that allowed him to jump to the correct conclusion.
“Mr. Dearden, I presume,” he said.
I almost hazarded a guess when he paused, but he saved me the trouble. “Lyman Dove,” he supplied. “I wrote to you, if you recall.”
“I recall,” I said, curtly. “Mrs. Tillinghast isn’t here yet—didn’t she give you an appointment?”
“Oh yes,” she said, “but I wanted I take a look at the place in advance—to soak up a little of the atmosphere, as it were. Mrs. Tillinghast mentioned that you would be here, but I didn’t know that you would be coming in advance. I apologize if I’ve inconvenienced you in any way.”
I did not accept the apology—nor did I offer him one, although I suspected that my presence might be inconveniencing him more than his was inconveniencing me.
“The breeze is always welcome at this time of year,” I observed, although I knew perfectly well that the “atmosphere” in which he was interested was no mere matter of molecules of air. “Cooling, without bringing the odor of fish from the coastal canneries.”
“Do you still find that noticeable nowadays?” he asked. “Since the cod began to shun the cape that bears their name, I rarely catch a whiff. I’m almost nostalgic for it, on occasion—although I ought to be grateful for anything that helps to keep my sensory channels clear. How are you coping with your migraines, Mr. Dearden?”
The immediate temptation was to reply “What migraines?”—but to do so would have seemed like an admission of weakness, conceding the tempo of the contest to him. I did not jump to the conclusion that he had been investigating me, although I was aware that a private detective had been asking questions, presumably having been hired to discover whether I had any of Tillinghast’s papers. Indeed, I was more inclined to believe that he was taking a guess based on something else he knew—or thought he knew. Two could play at that game.
“Under control,” I lied. “How are yours?”
“Too controlled, alas,” he replied, serenely. “Consciousness is such a traitor, at times. We think of it as the vehicle of the will, but that is too narrow a view. Such will-power as we have is, for the most part, channeled through it, but its principal role is to function as a protective wall. Patterway, of course, thinks that was erected to filter experience wisely rather than simply to imprison us, but he’s an exceptionally narrow-minded man. Do you know James Patterway?”
“We’ve met,” I confirmed.
“Then you know what I mean; he wears his narrowness as a badge of pride. To be expected in a university man, I suppose, though less so at Miskatonic than elsewhere. Have you met Robert Crisson too?”
“No,” I said, not wanting to stretch insincerity to the point of blatant irony by saying that I hadn’t had the pleasure.
“He’s open-minded, as befits a dilettante condemned to unorthodoxy—but I fear that he’s one of those in which openness sometimes tends to vacancy. He’s the real adversary, of course, if we’re in competition—or rather, his money is. Patterway has his professorial status, though, and you have…the appeal of friendship, I suppose.”
Dove seemed to be assuming that I was there for the same reason as everyone else—to try to take possession of Tillinghast’s work, or part of it—but I didn’t bother to correct his misapprehension, or rise to his bait, if he was merely attempting a ploy.
“And what do you have, Mr. Dove?” I asked.
“Only my charm,” he said, smiling as if it were a joke. He must have read in my face, however, that I’d taken the remark the wrong way. “Oh, I’ve no intention of behaving toward Mrs. Tillinghast in any way unbefitting a gentleman. What I hope to do is to seduce all five of us into an amicable and fruitful collaboration. Crisson’s not malicious or jealous by nature; it’s only the possession of his money tempts him to play the monopolist. He can be persuaded. Patterway’s more of an intellectual hoarder, but he’s not unreasonable; he’ll bend if necessary. How about you, Mr. Dearden? Are you a team player or a one-man band?”
I was saved from the necessity of answering that particular impertinence by the sight and sound of Rachel Tillinghast’s Ford powering along the roadway, lurching from side to side as it hit the potholes. I hoped that the pneumatic tires and the suspension-springs were cushioning Rachel and her maid from any substantial bruising.
Dove and I watched the automobile draw to a halt. I was quicker off the mark in racing to help the widow with her luggage—although, in truth, the chauffeur did not need much help. I left Dove to introduce himself, rather hoping that Rachel might tell him to go away and come back at the agreed time—but she seemed a trifle flustered and evidently wanted to give further instructions to the chauffeur, presumably to do with laying in supplies. While she was outside the house doing that and I was carrying various bags upstairs, the front door remained open, and Dove was inside before anyone could devise a stratagem for keeping him out.
Rachel settled for ignoring him and concentrating all her attention on me when I came down again. She didn’t tell me that I hadn’t aged a bit since the last time she had seen me, because it would have been too evidently untrue. I might have paid her the equivalent compliment, but it didn’t seem necessary. She had not put on much weight—remarkable in a woman who had been a trifle stout even in her twenties—and her angular face was still relatively wrinkle-free, but her hair had begun to go gray and she had not condescended to begin dyeing it. Her best feature was still her frank blue-green eyes.
She thanked me profusely for coming and insisted a trifle too lavishly on her regret at not having seen me for so long and her gratitude to me for keeping my friendship with her husband so firm. “When the police told me that you had been arrested, I was outraged,” she said. “If you had fired a gun, I told them, it was certainly not at my husband. That was unthinkable. You might very well, I said, have been defending him—but attacking him, never.”
“The error was of short duration,” I assured her. “The lack of a bullet-hole in the body told that story for me—although it took a little longer for the medical examiner to determine the true cause of death.”
“Crawford was always a victim of his unreliable capacity for passion,” she said. “His explosive excitability was bound to expose any flaw in his make-up eventually—and the brain is such a delicate organ, so prone to sudden hemorrhages.”
“He had been working too hard, I fear,” I told her. “Science benefits from commitment—one might almost say obsession—in a purely methodological sense, but there is often a human cost to be paid for such long hours and deep commitment. I urged him to take more rest and more exercise, but he felt that he was reaching a climax in his achievement and could not be persuaded.” I had to be a trifle diplomatic; I did not know whether she had seen his body before its cremation, and whether she knew the extent to which he had changed.
“I’m glad that you were with him at the end,” she said.
I had no reply to that—certainly not “So am I”—and Dove, who was not even bothering to pretend that he was not eavesdropping on the conversation, could contain himself no longer.
“It’s a great shame that your defense proved unavailing,” he remarked, belying his claim to natural charm, “and an even greater shame, from the viewpoint of science, that your bullet hit the machine.” He did not ask what I had been firing at, perhaps slyly hoping to prompt Rachel into asking the question—but she did not rise to his bait either.
“I believe we have an appointment for eight, Mr. Dove,” she said, coldly. “In the meantime, David and I have private matters go discuss. I don’t mean to be rude, but I must ask you to leave now, and come back at eight.”
He had grace enough not to scowl at the summary dismissal, and merely said “Of course. Until eight, Mrs. Tillinghast, Mr. Dearden,” before putting his hat back on and closing the door behind him.
“It could have been worse,” I said. “You might have found all three camped on the doorstep.” She was already moving away, though, in the direction of Tillinghast’s attic laboratory.
I took my courage in both hands and followed her.
Although they had figured out soon enough that the laboratory was not, in fact, a “crime scene,” the police had nevertheless made a start at gathering “evidence,” and had also sent in a cleaning crew to sanitize the carpet where Tillinghast had fallen and died. The fragments of the machine had been packed away in a tea-chest, although the batteries that the scientist had employed to supply it with current were still lined up in the customary stern array. None of the fragments was glowing; there was not the slightest trace of any uncanny radiance in the room, although the light of the electric bulb in the ceiling, drawing power from the batteries, did seem a trifle unsteady.
Rachel looked around carefully. She inspected the wreckage of the machine with a keen gaze, although she did not remove the debris from the tea-chest, but she also examined the rest of the room carefully, opening the drawers in the table and examining the various items of apparatus on the shelves at close range.
“I suppose he kept his papers in the study,” she said, eventually.
I did not want to ask whether she was actually contemplating selling anything she could find to Crisson. “I fear that his record-keeping became somewhat lax in the last few months of his endeavor,” I told her, truthfully. “Doubtless he would have written it all up eventually, but he was too caught up in the fervor of creativity. It might well be the case that you’ll find nothing in his desk and filing-cabinet that he hasn’t already communicated to his correspondents while consulting their expertise.”
“But he talked to you about what he was doing—even in those last weeks?”
“He talked,” I agreed, “but I fear that my understanding of what he said was rather limited. Patterway would have understood what he was saying and would have known what questions to ask in order to obtain more precision, but I didn’t. I fear that Crisson’s private detective was probably wasting his time—I doubt that there’s any document here or elsewhere that would provide a vital clue to anyone seeking to replicate Crawford’s work.”
She did not seem surprised at my mention of the detective and did not query the assumption that Crisson must have been the one who had hired him. Her eyes went back to the tea-chest, but her gaze did not seem avid; it was not the commercial value of the fragments that was on her mind. I watched her silently, preoccupied myself with a feeling of oddity in my head, which was not exactly a pain, as yet, but did not seem to bode well. I was not yet suffering the visual distortions that were the invariable prelude to my migraines, however, and that reassured me that no peril was imminent.
“What’s that noise?” Rachel asked, suddenly, with a hint of alarm in her voice. She, too, appeared to have become gradually uneasy—unsurprisingly, given the circumstances.
“Only the weathervane,” I told her. “It’s quite close at hand here, on top of that chimney-stack.” I pointed to the bare bricks of the flue that rose up in the middle of the attic floor, rudely cutting through the improvised boards, and disappeared into the slanting joists to protrude through the tiles. The roof was designed in the French mansard style, with two distinct pitches, in order to offer more space within for storage or living; but Tillinghast, ever the utilitarian, had never seen fit to tack lath and plaster over the brickwork or the joists and paper over the surface, in order to make the space look more like a conventional room.
“I thought it might be rats,” she said, defensively.
“There’s not so much as a mouse up here,” I assured her. “No birds’ nests or roosting bats.” All that was true; I did not care to think about what it might leave unmentioned.
She had had enough procrastination. She looked me squarely in the eye and said: “What happened, David?”
She meant, of course: “What were you shooting at?”
I had told the police that I had made a mistake—that the strange electric lighting associated with Tillinghast’s experiment had generated peculiar shadows, and that I had mistakenly believed that there was an intruder in the room with us, whose manner had seemed threatening. The medical examiner—a man possessed of pet theories—had told me, with an odd combination of sympathy and imperiousness, that I must have been hypnotized, but I did not want to repeat that to Rachel. The doctor had met Tillinghast more than once while he was still alive and had obviously formed the impression that he had mesmeric powers, but Rachel and I both knew that any such supposition was nonsense. The medical examiner had not found any evidence of any modification to Tillinghast’s pineal body apart from the hemorrhage, of course; he had not looked for it, and probably would not have been able to detect anything untoward if he had.
“I thought the machine was doing us harm,” I told her, after a slight pause, opting for the truth, if not quite the whole truth. “Its effect was causing us to see things that were not there. The sensation was deeply disturbing—even more so in Crawford’s case, I think, than in mine, because he had exposed himself to it before. Perhaps it was foolish of me to take out the gun, but I hit what I aimed at—although that might, in all honesty, have been an unlikelier event than my hitting the machine by accident, having fired at something else entirely.”
“Is that what killed him?” she asked, bluntly. “Something he saw, or thought he saw?”
“How can I tell?” I countered, accurately enough. “Does it matter?”
She was still looking into my eyes, as if trying to read my mind. What she saw, I cannot tell, beyond the obvious—but I felt, as I looked into her blue-green eyes, that I could see grief therein, and an irreducible residue of love and regret.
It occurred to me, suddenly, that she blamed herself. She was thinking that if she had not left her husband—if she had stuck to her vows and stayed with him no matter what—perhaps he would never have built the machine…or even if he had, perhaps she would have been able to save him, somehow, from its dire effects.
Perhaps, I thought, she was right.
“It was my fault,” I told her, feeling that I ought at least to share her burden. “I saw what was happening to him in the weeks before he gave me that final demonstration. I should have known that it was leading to disaster. I should have stopped him. I had the opportunity.”
“But you didn’t have the motive or the means,” she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “No, David, it wasn’t your fault. He was a grown man—in his forties, for God’s sake—fully responsible for himself.”
“The machine is dangerous,” I told her. “I can’t be sure exactly how, but it is. That’s not going to stop Crisson wanting to buy the pieces, though, or Patterway wanting to get them into the laboratories at Miskatonic for painstaking investigation, or Dove wanting to charm himself into some kind of collaboration with either or both of them. Nor will it stop them if the pieces prove unhelpful and there are no specific plans—they’ll just take the view that it will take them a little longer to duplicate the work, starting from an earlier stage.”
“They’re grown men too,” she said. “Patterway’s older than Crawford, Dove must be almost the same age, and Crisson only four or five years younger. They’re entitled to be architects of their own fate—and they’ve already had a demonstrative warning, even if they didn’t have the front-row seat that you did.”
She was right. I went with the flow. “Perhaps you should hand everything over to one or all of them and wish them luck,” I said, judging that to be what she wanted me to say, by way of endorsement. “But the one thing you shouldn’t do is involve yourself.”
She nodded slowly—but only to indicate that she understood, not that she had come to a decision. She relaxed her stare, though.
“Thank you for being here, David,” she said. “Alone, I’m not sure that I’d have had the strength….Let’s go back down. I’m hungry, aren’t you? Craven should be back with the supplies by now, and Janine’s a tolerable cook…tolerable in every capacity, in fact.” She didn’t have to explain why the servants’ presence didn’t count, in terms of her being—or feeling—alone.
“Yes,” I said, “best get something to eat, ready for the vultures’ landing.”
“Vultures?” she queried.
“Jackals?” I suggested, as a potential alternative.
“Let’s hope so,” she said. “I wouldn’t want them turning into Hydes.”
I laughed, although, as macabre wordplay went, it really didn’t seem to be very funny.
Having survived the attic laboratory unscathed, I felt that I was holding up well, fully capable of playing the knight all night, if necessary—but I was overconfident. Absurd as it may seem, it was the dinner that seemed to do the damage. Not that there was anything wrong with the preparation, which was pedestrian but competent, or even the choice of menu, which was predictable enough and quite familiar…but there was something about it that had a triggering effect.
Craven had done what everyone in the state tended to do when shopping for a meal to be eaten the same day, and had bought fresh seafood—not cod, which was still considered commonplace even though the fish themselves no longer arrived at the Grand Banks every year in vast profusion, nor lobster, which was also considered a trifle vulgar, but herring and octopus. I had eaten both hundreds of times before, sometimes even in the same meal, and had never feared either, although I had the normal anxieties regarding mussels and oysters—but not all octopodes are alike, it seems. Indeed, if I judged correctly, in spite of its careful slicing, the one of which I ate the greater share must have had more than eight limbs; I almost commented on it, wondering aloud whether a ten-tentacled octopus might have the same status as a good luck charm as a four-leafed shamrock, but refrained. Perhaps I had a premonition that the effect might be opposite…if the octopus really was the guilty party.
At any rate, I had hardly finished drinking my coffee when I began to feel ill—not merely odd, but genuinely ill. I began to see the floaters too.
I had consulted my doctor about the migraines and their hallucinatory spinoff, of course, and he had referred me to a specialist ophthalmologist, who taken the usual hobby-horse rider’s delight in explaining to me a great length what was going on. He assured me that visual phenomena often preceded migraines, and that recent study had begun to produce an elaborate classification of them. He waxed lyrical about floaters—that was the term he used, and seemed delighted that I had come up with it independently—and gave me an uncannily accurate description of their appearance and behavior without my giving him any substantial hints in advance. He was duly proud of the acumen of his science when I confirmed his observations.
“Is it really normal for them to appear to pass through walls and other solid objects?” I had asked him.
“But of course,” he had replied. “They’re an illusion conjured up by your brain; they have no need to obey the laws of solid-state physics, or those of optics. They’re phantoms. I have patients who suffer much worse, believe me. When people begin to lose their sight, because of the deterioration of the retina or the clouding of the cornea, the brain often substitutes for the lack of information received by producing hallucinations far more complex than yours—sinister enough, merely by virtue of their unreality, even when the imaginary objects are perfectly ordinary, but they often seem menacing, even monstrous.”
“Monstrous?” I repeated. “How monstrous?”
“I suspect that that depends on the personality of the individual. None of us has an entirely clear conscience, alas, and our poor brains are sometimes at the mercy of our fears. You have no need to worry unduly yet, though. Having passed forty, you’re beginning to suffer from the effects of a hardened lens and the fact that the muscles controlling it are getting weaker—that’s why you’re more prone to suffer disturbing effects late in the day, when the eye-muscles get tired—and the fact that you’ve always been short-sighted means that the developing long-sightedness is causing you particular confusions. But I can’t see any other signs of physical deterioration: no glaucoma, no cataracts, no retinal detachment. There’s just the migraines. When they come on, you need to lie down in a dark room and keep still. I’ll give you a prescription that will help numb the effects.”
In fact, he had given me several prescriptions, in series, for various sedatives, beginning with chloral and moving via tincture of cannabis to laudanum. None of them had helped; all of them, in fact, seemed to have made things worse. I had abandoned them all.
“I’m truly sorry,” I said to Rachel, “but I shall have to lie down for a while, in order to dispel a headache. I promise that I’ll be ready and able to lend you any support you might need by eight, when the vultures descend; but in order to be ready and able, I need to get my body and brain under control, and the only way to do that is by means of careful self-discipline.”
“Of course,” she said. “Poor David—have you been working too hard?”
In fact, I had hardly been working at all. Although we schoolteachers always claim that the notion that the long summer break is pure holiday is a myth, we are mostly trying to conceal our indolence. I had not opened a book or picked up a pen since mid-July. Fortunately, Rachel took my denial as a further sign of heroic modesty.
The bedroom I had been assigned was next to Tillinghast’s study, and when I lay down with a blindfold over my eyes, attempting perfect stillness, I could hear her rummaging through the drawers of the desk and the filing-cabinet, each of which made an individually distinguishable creak as it opened and closed. I could tell that she was being assiduous, but I knew that she was merely being methodical. She was not searching with the avid determination that the jackals would have brought to the task, eager to fall upon some scrap of paper containing a hopefully crucial wiring-diagram or list of instrument-settings. She had always been a neat and orderly housekeeper while she was living in the house—habits carried over, I assumed, from her earlier career as a laboratory technician.
As the migraine developed, however, I soon lost interest in creaks from the study and in Rachel’s subsequent movements as she continued to take inventory of her shabby inheritance. No matter how hard I tried to instruct my brain to see only what my eyes registered was really present, the floaters continued to swim around the inner space of my mind.
Had I not been wearing the blindfold, I knew, I would have seen them moving back and forth through the walls and ceiling of my room—and also moving through the bed, my own body, and one another. When they seemed to be paradoxically present in the three-dimensional world revealed to sight, they often gave the impression of being living things, akin to sea-creatures—more often jellyfish and sea-cucumbers than cephalopods or fish, but not obedient to any very rigid system of classification. Exiled to the dark behind my eyes, however, they seemed more alien than that, as if they were no longer completely defined by their shapes, or any resemblance to earthly species.
Perhaps it is absurd to say so—the most bizarre of all my hallucinations—but I was beginning to conceive of the inner spaces of my mind not as a three-dimensional space analogous to the framework of sight, but as something more complex and convoluted. I deem that absurd because, after all, we have no other way of imagining any space other than by analogy with the model created by sight. I say “created by sight” rather than “perceived by sight” because one has to maintain a certain intellectual awareness of the difference between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds, even if perception will not allow us to be aware of any. Intellectual respectability demands Kantian doubt, lest we surrender to the mere brutality of sensory tyranny; we are human, after all.
Even so, the mere awareness of the theoretical possibility of other modes of sensory perception should not be enough to allow us to imagine them. Conceiving of the idea of a fourth dimension, or any kind of multidimensional plenum of parallel worlds, cannot be enough to allow us to imagine such a fourth dimension or some such plenum inside our heads, whether we are dreaming or focusing our attention as intently as possible, because the analogical apparatus simply is not there…or should not be there.
And yet…when my eyes were firmly closed, and the illusory floaters produced by my malfunctioning brain were exiled to a purely theoretical space, where they could no longer mimic creatures of the sea, I sometimes began to imagine that I could see beyond their shape, into the dimensions of which those apparent shapes were mere cross-sections, and that in seeing them in that augmented fashion, I could see the imaginary space in which they seemed to be framed as something more, something more far-reaching, something far more complex.
According to Tillinghast’s thesis, there is no such thing as empty space—merely space whose fabric and contents are inaccessible to our senses: “dark matter,” he called it, although he was at pains to assert that it was neither dark nor matter, and that only the restrictions of the language necessitated the use of such an inadequate label. According to Tillinghast, even before his mental distortion became multidimensional, the space between a man’s eye and his outstretched hand actually contained billons or trillions of parallel universes, which ought not to be imagined as the passages of a book, neatly stacked and similar, but as entities possessed of all manner of shapes and sizes, entangled in unimaginably complex ways, some so tiny as to fit in labyrinthine fashion within the atoms of our universe and others so vast as to fit ours within one of their own atoms.
“And are there monsters there?” I had asked him once.
“In some, no doubt,” he said, “but only those few sufficiently similar to ours to have imaginable contents.”
I tried to put those memories out of my mind while I fought the migraine and tried to force my pineal body to regain its erstwhile quietness. I told myself, sternly, that it did not matter whether the body in question was actually functioning as an organ of perceptions, or whether it was merely a source of illusory nightmares, or whether it really was, as Descartes had proposed, the true seat of the soul. The point was to calm its excitement, reduce it to frigidity and indifference—as Tillinghast clearly had not been able to do. Sometimes I thought that I ought to have been the scientist and he the schoolteacher, but men are paradoxical creatures, whose vocations are not always in harmony with their temperaments.
The pain didn’t help, of course. Quite the contrary. As it increased, in fact, it almost blotted out the capacity for conscious thought—and without the accompaniment of conscious thought, perception itself becomes incoherent. I wish I could say “impossible,” but far from it; however incoherent it becomes, perception remains—and such is the tyranny that three-dimensional perception exerts on conscious rationality that it is when perception becomes incoherent that is becomes most ambitious, and most perilous.
I tried to concentrate, very hard, on the real: the disparate sounds of three sets of footfalls, in three different parts of the house; the creaking of the weathervane, more insistent now that nightfall was freshening the sea-breeze; the slight odor of dead fish that the breeze brought with it and insinuated through the cracks in the walls of the house; the tangible beating of my own heart and the susurrus of the blood in my arteries. It worked, to the extent that it could, but the pain grew worse, and distortion of the dimensions became subversive, rebellious, anarchic….
I have no sympathy with people who describe their pain as “unbearable.” If it were truly unbearable, it would kill them. Whatever we have survived was, ipso facto, bearable. There are times, however, when one cannot help but wonder whether one might, in fact, be on the point of dying—or, at least, on the point of fracture—when pain is hammering away inside one, especially inside one’s head. All pain is, of course, felt within the brain, even when it seems to be coming from an ankle, a finger, or the abdomen, but there is something about the self-referential experience that one’s brain is actually doing the hurting that seems to add an extras twist to the agony….
But I mustn’t go on. For one thing, there’s nothing more to say. I had a headache—a migraine, in more pretentious terms. It lasted for an hour or so and then began to calm down. That was it. It was bad, but it was manifestly not unbearable. In the beginning, there were strange impressions, odd ideas, wild fancies, but after a while there was only pain. Anything else I might say is retrospective, hypothetical—and perhaps, of necessity, a little crazy.
The problem I had with sedatives, especially cannabis and laudanum, was that they enhance the craziness. If they numbed the pain—and I’m not entirely sure that they did, in the particular case of my migraines—they compensated by enhancing its illusory side-effects. Given that the pain was, and had proven itself to be, bearable, it seemed to me that what had to be combated, above all else, was the craziness. It was, after all, the craziness that had killed Tillinghast. He had seen something other than mere floaters, something infinitely more terrible. Perhaps, as my kindly ophthalmologist had suggested, it had just been a product of his own particular personality, his idiosyncratic burden of common-or-garden accumulated guilt feelings…but what reassurance was there in that?
Perhaps, I thought then, if the craziness got too solid a grip on me, I wouldn’t see the same things that Tillinghast saw when he looked up—or, to be strictly accurate, in the direction beyond up—but that might only mean that I would see something even more terrible to me. I honestly didn’t know which was the worse alternative: that I might see the ultimate imaginary incarnation of my own private guilt and fear, or that I might see something real, reaching out from some dimension elsewhere in the plenum to capture me, devour me, rip me apart, or compel me to undergo some kind of radical metamorphosis…which might, hypothetically speaking, be benign, but probably wouldn’t.
I came downstairs at seven-thirty precisely. I wasn’t completely well, as yet, but the pain was ebbing away and I knew that mere movement and conversation could not turn that particular tide. The floaters hadn’t entirely vanished, but they were fading, in a manner that I could not help but deem discreet and polite. It was almost as if the haunters of the house, if any remained from Tillinghast’s unwise evocation, were eager to hear what might come of the confrontation between Rachel and myself on the one hand, and the vultures or jackals on the other, and did not want any of the participants to be unduly inhibited.
Rachel already had a glass of bourbon in her hand when I appeared in the drawing-room, where the chairs were already set out in the appropriate number and conformation, in accordance with her tidy habits. Craven had brought down the tea-chest containing the remains of the fatal machine, and there were three stacks of paper on an occasional table beside it, with the edges squared to the extent that they could be. She poured me a glass of liquor without asking; she knew that my habits, too, would not have changed overmuch.
“Are you feeling better?” she inquired, solicitously.
“Much. Did you find any useful documents in Crawford’s study?” I squirmed in my chair in search of a comfortable position.
“I’m hardly competent to judge,” she said, “but you were right, of course. He was scrupulous in dating his observations, and I could find nothing bearing any date within ten weeks of his death. He might well have taken his ultimate secret to the grave. Is there any reason apart from the implicit danger of the line of research, do you think, why I shouldn’t hand them over to Patterway or Crisson?”
“If you’re wondering whether there might be any practical application of the work, which might one day make Crisson a fortune to compare with Edison’s, then I’m no more competent to judge than you are. I doubt it—but who can tell?”
“I’m not worried about money,” she said. “Like Crawford—and you—I have enough, and am content with that.” There was the briefest of pauses before she added: “Are you content, David?”
“With my income, yes,” I said. The implied exception was my state of health; in the circumstances, my ebbing migraine was still uppermost in my mind as a barrier to contentment. She, however, had obviously been thinking along other lines.
“Why did you never marry?” she asked.
“I never met the right woman,” I replied, almost reflexively. I didn’t meet her eyes. Had I not been feeling uncomfortable anyway, I think I might have begun at the point—especially if I had met her eyes.
“Do you feel lonely,” she asked, “now that Crawford’s gone? You’d been fast friends for such a long time.”
“I suppose I do,” I admitted.
“I do,” she said. “It may seem absurd to say so, given that we were living apart and very rarely saw one another, but…”
“But knowing that he was there, somewhere within reach, made a difference,” I finished for her. “I understand.” I thought I did. I had never been in love myself, but I thought I knew enough of human nature to understand why there was a difference between loving someone who was absent but alive, and loving someone who was dead.
“You’re not too old,” she said—meaning not too old to find the right woman, to marry, to obtain a cure for loneliness, to achieve the goal of contentment. She was right, in a way; age wasn’t the problem. The migraines were. Life may depend on the liver, but true love depends on the frontal lobes. If the brain is out of kilter, contentment is out of reach.
“No, I’m not,” was what I said aloud, in a politely dismissive fashion.
“I’m sorry you felt ill,” she said. “It was the octopus, I think. Seafood can be untrustworthy, sometimes. The sea may be the mother of all life, but her cornucopia isn’t entirely reliable.” There was a slight hint of bitterness in her voice. I had no idea whether she and Tillinghast had ever tried to determine why it was that they had never had children, or what the doctor might have given them by way of an explanation of they hadn’t.
“It might have been partly the octopus,” I agreed, “but I’ve been getting he migraines quite frequently of late, so there must be some kind of inherent flaw.”
“You’ve consulted a doctor?”
“Of course, and an eye-specialist. They’re still groping for an effective treatment—but these things sometimes pass of their own accord.” And sometimes don’t, I didn’t add.
I was feeling more comfortable now, even though I’d hardy touched the bourbon. I took a substantial gulp when the doorbell rang, though. I felt that in order to provide Rachel with moral support, I might well need some of my own.
Her three visitors had obviously traveled together, on foot rather than by any kind of cab. None of them was out of breath, though—not even Patterway, who must have been ten years older than Dove and fifteen years older than Crisson. Patterway was taller than Dove, and thinner, and had far less hair on his head; of the three, he bore the greatest physical resemblance to a vulture. Crisson was short and plump, but possessed of a kind of healthy glow and exuberance of manner that distanced him from any resemblance to any kind of scavenger.
There were the customary formal introductions, polite handshakes, and conventional offers of refreshment, but the vultures hastened through all that, keen to get down to business.
They took the pieces of Tillinghast’s machine out of the tea-chest and laid them out on the carpet, reverently but with a hint of careless disorder that must have offended poor Rachel. They picked them up, passed them from hand to hand, turned them over, and bemoaned their parlous state. They took turns poring over the three piles of documents, no more enthused.
Eventually, they got around to the inevitable question.
“Are you sure that there isn’t anything more?” Patterway asked Rachel.
“Quite certain,” she said. “There’s nothing hidden away in some safe or secret drawer—my husband wasn’t that kind of man, as you know.”
“Which leaves us,” Crisson said, “with only one as-yet-untapped resource.” He was looking at me.
“I can’t help you, gentlemen,” I said. “Mrs. Tillinghast didn’t ask me here in order that I might give you information, but merely as a family friend. In any case, Tillinghast never gave me any papers to look after. I really don’t have anything to offer you.”
“Don’t be disingenuous, Mr. Dearden,” said Dove, silkily. “Tillinghast talked to you, and even if you didn’t fully understand what he said, you heard it. More importantly, you saw the machine set up and working, and even if you didn’t understand what you saw, you did see it. You may not know how much you know, or appreciate the importance of its details, but you certainly know things that no one else knows.”
And how, I thought.
What I said aloud was: “I really don’t remember how the components of the machine were configured, and I’m perfectly certain that Tillinghast said nothing to me that would be of use to you. He treated me as any scientist would treat a high-school history teacher, as an ignoramus incapable of understanding the words that he would normally employ in communication with his fellow scientists, only able to follow the most rudimentary explanations couched in layman’s terms. I’m sure that he went into greater detail regarding the fundamentals and direction of his research when writing to you than he ever did in talking to me.”
They weren’t satisfied. How could they be? They were no longer paying much attention to Rachel, although I daresay that she could have reclaimed their attention, had she wanted to, by initiating some kind of bargaining process with regard to the scattered remnants of Tillinghast’s machine. She, however, was content to let me take the pressure off, to serve as her protective knight—and the vultures wanted to know what had happened when Tillinghast’s machine had functioned, as exactly as I could remember it. It was not going to be easy to keep them at bay, now that they were gathered around me.
“Perhaps we can give you some guidance,” Patterway suggested. “If we can spell out the extent of our knowledge, you might be in a better position to judge whether you can add anything to it. What I understand is that Tillighast was attempting to deploy electrical current in the generation of a new form of energy, distinct from light, heat, or Hertzian waves, and perhaps from the entire electromagnetic spectrum. I’m not entirely clear as to what detection and measuring devices he intended to use in order to register the presence and estimate the properties of this new energy, but…”
“I do,” Dove put in. “You’re looking at it. Dearden was the detector, and the measuring device—or, to be more precise, his brain.”
“I don’t want to get into all your nonsense about sixth senses and other dimensions at present, Dove,” Patterway interjected. “Fundamentally, this is a problem in physics—or, at least, the physics is prior to any question of application. That’s why the apparatus has to be examined carefully and properly, in a university laboratory, rather than simply being handed over to Crisson so that he can tinker with it. If there’s any possibility that Tillinghast was on the track of some fundamental discovery—however slim the probability might be—then it needs expert and disciplined investigation. It’s unlikely that he obtained a significant result, but the man was certainly no fool. The components of his machine aren’t very exotic, but that’s not surprising. The key will lie in the way they were connected up—and any chance we had of establishing that easily has gone, not so much because of Mr. Dearden’s unfortunate stray bullet as the casual way in which the police dealt with the damaged apparatus thereafter.”
“That’s why we need you to do your utmost to remember every last detail that you can,” Crisson put in. “If we can put the jigsaw together, as it were, sufficiently to reveal some sort of tangible effect—any sort of effect—then we’ll be able to set off on the track of Patterway’s novel radiation…and any practical applications it might have.”
“Producing the radiation isn’t the central issue,” Dove said, sounding slightly exasperated. “For all we know, the radiation might be all around us, in the same way that all sorts of electromagnetic radiation are around us, unapprehended by our senses and measuring devices—indeed, it almost certainly is, although Tillinghast’s machine presumably intensifies it in some way. In the same way that Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays depended on the accidental presence of a photogenic plate in a drawer to render their properties evident, however, we need some way of detecting and paving the way to an analysis of Tillinghast rays…or whatever they might end up being called. Tillinghast was convinced that, under the right conditions, his radiation would be directly perceptible by the human sensorium, and if he was right…well, Mr. Dearden ought to be able to tell us far more about that than about the set-up of the machine, any details of which he can remember will probably turn out to be trivial. What I’m particularly interested to know, Mr. Dearden, is what else you saw, in addition to the assembled machine.”
It is easy to refuse such requests when they come by letter, or even when they come singly in person—but under the right conditions, they can build up a pressure that is hard to resist. However skeptical Patterway the pure physicist and Crisson the technological tinkerer might have been about the mystical aspects of Dove’s theories, they knew that he had a point. In any case, I had already let go of part of my secret in making Rachel party to it, and the only reason I had for holding on to the rest was the fear that talking about it might make me seem crazy.
“Tillinghast’s machine caused hallucinations,” I said, wearily. “I don’t pretend to know how, exactly, but I know that it did—and if hallucinations can be produced chemically, by opium and other compounds, then I can’t see any a priori reason why they shouldn’t be produced by some kind of radiation. Perhaps they are, routinely, when consciousness relaxes and we become vulnerable to dreams; perhaps all that opium and other chemical hallucinogens do is relax consciousness in such a way as to let ambient Tillinghast radiation take fuller effect. That isn’t my province. On the other hand, even though you might think that being a high-school history teacher isn’t much of an intellectual qualification, I’m no fool, and I’ve been carrying out my own retrospective investigation of what I saw.”
I told them, then, what the ophthalmologist had told me about floaters and migraines, and how I’d extrapolated it to take account of what I had seen while Tillinghast’s machine had been operative—and what he had seen, to the extent that he had communicated it to me. I even admitted to having fired at the machine deliberately, to cut short its terrible effect.
“You couldn’t just have unplugged it?” suggested Crisson, bitterly.
“I wasn’t thinking entirely logically,” I admitted.
“How come you had a gun, anyway?” Crisson demanded.
“I was robbed at gunpoint in East Providence last year,” I told him. “It shook me up rather badly. I began carrying a gun because it restored something of my shattered sense of security.”
“You’re not carrying one now, I hope?” Patterway observed.
I didn’t answer that. “The point is,” I said, “that the machine is dangerous, Tillinghast radiation is dangerous. Perhaps, if my nerves hadn’t still been a little raw after the robbery, I wouldn’t have been so vulnerable to it. I don’t know what caused Tillinghast’s vulnerability, although it can’t have helped that he’d probably been going without sleep for days on end.
It can’t have helped, either, that his servants had packed up and left, so determinedly that the police couldn’t find them—although I don’t suppose they looked very hard, once they were told that his death was perfectly natural. Whatever the reason was, though, he was frightened, and he was always a trifle volatile. My one regret, looking back, is that I didn’t act sooner…much sooner. I don’t regret the gunshot—only that took me so long to fire it. And if I had simply unplugged the machine, I dread to think what might have happened when Tillinghast activated it again—because he would have done so, terrified as he was.”
“Of course he would,” said Patterway. “He was a scientist.”
“As you would, James,” said Crisson, “and will, when we solve the mystery he left behind.”
“Do you have such confidence in your own ability to resist terror, gentlemen?” asked Rachel, a trifle mischievously.
“Although he was a scientist of distinction, Madame,” said Patterway, trying to choose his words carefully, “your late husband did have slight tendency to…volatility, as Mr. Dearden put it. Not that there is anything wrong in a scientist having passion, of course, but firmness in objectivity is an invaluable asset, and…”
“And you believe that you have it in excess, Professor,” Dove interjected. “I agree—and before Mr. Crisson begins boasting on his account, I will agree that he too have a valuable dullness of feeling to compliment his natural energy and intellectual acuity…but there are times when mental flexibility is an asset too. Would it be presumptuous of me to suggest that there might be strength in numbers in an inquiry of this sort—that the four of us might constitute a much stronger unit than any one or two of us in isolation.”
“Four?” Rachel queried, perhaps having counted five.
“Four?” queried Patterway and Crisson, undoubtedly reluctant to go beyond three, even if they could be persuaded to go that far.
“Whatever you do,” I said, “you must do it without any collaboration from me. But aren’t you getting ahead of yourselves, gentlemen? At present, even if Mrs. Tillinghast is willing to sell or give it you, you have only the remnants of a shattered machine, and whatever information Tillinghast communicated to you while his project was still at a relatively early stage.”
They barely glanced at Rachel, having evidently concluded that she would hand over the machine, one way or another. Their attention was focused on me; all three were convinced that I had to know more. I met their silent censure as forthrightly as I could.
“Are you sure that noise is coming from the weathervane, David?” Rachel put in, perhaps thinking that moral support ought to be mutual, and that I might be in need of a certain relief. “Surely we shouldn’t be able to hear it all the way down here as loudly as we could in the attic.”
I suspect that the three visitors hadn’t paid any conscious attention to the creaking until then, dismissing it from consciousness as a mere trifle unworthy of concern—but when Rachel mentioned the word “weathervane” all three of them looked up, reflexively.
I didn’t. Instead, I said: “It’s louder because the wind has increased in force since we were in the laboratory. Local breezes often generate turbulence once darkness has fallen, because the land cools more rapidly than the sea, and…”
“You know, Dearden,” said Dove, interrupting me with a slight edge of anxiety in his voice, “I believe you were right about the canneries. I can detect the odor….”
“That’s not the canneries,” said Patterway. “I’ve lived in these parts all my life, and I know what the canneries smell like. That’s the distant stink a dead whale washed up on the shore.”
“No it’s not,” said Crisson. He leapt to his feet and went to the front door, and threw it open. “It’s not coming on the breeze at all—it’s coming from somewhere in the house.” He stepped out on to the verandah and then leapt down the wooden steps, in order to look back at the house—and up.
Rachel made as if to follow him, but I grabbed her by the shoulders. Save for polite handshakes, it was the first time I had ever made physical contact with her. “Don’t,” I said, urgently. “Hold your nose, close your eyes, and try not to listen to that infernal weathervane. Where are Janine and Craven?”
“In the kitchen, I think.”
“Good. Go and join them. Talk to them. Make sure they stay there. Leave this to me. I’m your knight in rusty armor, remember. Trust me now.”
Her blue-green eyes bored into me. Had I been on my own, I think she would have objected, perhaps even thought me mad—but Dove stepped forward and said, rapidly: “Dearden’s right, Madame. I felt it when I was here this afternoon—and I knew that he felt it too, although he was still in denial then. Don’t be afraid—I really do believe that the four of us can face it together…but something is coming, is it not, Dearden?”
I nodded my head, wanting to get on with it—and whatever Rachel read in my face, she decided that this was no time to argue.
Dove was only half-right, of course. Nothing was coming, because it had been here all along, since long before the fatal night of Tillinghast’s last experiment. It had been dormant, but it had been here, or at least lurking in some vaster multidimensional space in which here was located, waiting for…what? A trigger? An invitation? A catalyst?
Waiting, at any rate, for me.
From outside, I heard Crisson’s voice asking, presumably of Patterway: “What do you make of that glow, James? What could cause a weathervane to shine like that, when the moon’s a mere crescent?”
And I heard Patterway reply, in a similarly intimate fashion: “It’s not the vane itself, Bob—it’s definitely some kind of reflection, but I can’t make out whether it’s coming from above not below, or…” He ran out of alternatives then.
“Get them,” I said to Dove. “I’m not so sure that an army could face them, but I’m damned if I’m going up there on my own.” And doubly damned if I don’t go up at all, I didn’t add.
The stairs up to the attic were too narrow to allow us to go up four abreast, but not so narrow that we had to go up in single file. I was glad to have Dove by my side and Patterway and Crisson at my back. Suddenly, we were all friends, all ready to stand together, needing to believe that were capable of standing together. I felt direly ungrateful at having thought of them as vultures, or jackals. Now, I wanted them to be knights now, like me: knights questing for a Holy Grail, who might actually be about to confront it, and might—please God—prove worthy, if not to touch it, at least to withstand its accusing glare, its merciless judgment.
I wanted them to be cool, too, and mentally disciplined, immune to the passionate flaws that had made Tillinghast so vulnerable. I was confident of my own icy objectivity; I had to hope that they could match it, no matter what the monster in the house—the monster above the house—proved capable of doing, now that it had been enabled by Tillighast’s recklessness and my clairvoyance.
I opened the door and stepped through, as if entering another world rather than another room. When all four of us were inside, able to stand in a line again, Crisson closed the door behind him.
I couldn’t be sure whether the fear I could feel was mine or theirs, but I knew that I shouldn’t let the fear feed itself, amplifying itself in a positive feedback loop. I’d made that mistake before.
“What is that?” Crisson whispered, referring to the source of the glow.
I had the advantage; I recognized it.
“It’s either a hallucination,” I said, “or you’re not the only ones who’ve been trying to duplicate Tillinghast’s machine.”
“That’s impossible,” said Patterway—but he only meant that it was “impossible” in the vulgar sense that none of his colleagues or rivals could have got in ahead of him, and certainly couldn’t have sneaked up the stairs while we were in the drawing-room, in order to connect it up to Tillinghast’s batteries. He didn’t mean “impossible” in the sense that it was impossible that there was someone or something out in the wilderness of the manifold of parallel worlds clustered in and around the attic that had observed Tillinghast’s experiments from afar—an afar of which Patterway had no conception—and had been far better able than I had been to understand it, to piece it together, and to set it in operation. Clearly, that wasn’t impossible at all. It had happened.
“Now’s your chance,” I told them all. “Real or illusory, every detail that I saw, you can now see. Brace yourselves, because you’re about to see a lot more….”
I was really talking to myself, because I knew, in my hearts of hearts, or the hidden depths of my brain, that I was about to see far more than I had seen before. I had known all along that I what I had seen before was not purely hallucination, but consciousness is such a valiant shield, such a loving traitor, that I had actually contrived to talk myself out of knowing it while the new sight still lay dormant in me. I had known all along that Tillinghast had been at least half-right, or at least not completely deluded, that his machine hadn’t simply produced hallucinations, however monstrous, but really had made contact of a sort with the dark matter and dark energy making up the infinite leaves of the ever-present plenum…and that once the pineal body had been altered to recall its ancestral sensory functions, it couldn’t possibly forget them again.
Some kinds of eyes can’t be closed—but they can open further to let more light in.
Distantly, I heard Patterway—I think it was Patterway—start screaming. I heard someone else—Crisson, I presume—battering the closed door with his fists, unable to find the handle or to remember how to turn it. You couldn’t just have unplugged it? I thought, unkindly. Most of all, however, I heard the screech of the whizzing weathervane, registering a storm like none that New England, or any other place on Earth, had ever experienced.
The attic was crowded now, not with mere floaters, but with creatures that were undoubtedly solid, in their own frameworks of existence, but could only form phantoms in our narrow three-dimensional space, which was far too narrow to contain them. I saw jellyfish that were not jellyfish, cephalopods that were not octopodes, and dead whales that were neither dead nor whales, although they surely stank to high heaven. I heard hisses that were not made by snakes, gurgles that were not made by fermentation in swamps or sewers, and screams that were probably not those of the damned in hell.
And all that was before I looked up.
I did not see a monster. Indeed, I did not see any kind of object at all, solid, liquid, or vaporous, sharp, sticky, or slimy. There were no fangs, no tentacles, no glutinous maws. I could see beyond that now. I could see beyond whatever substitutes for hands had forged the replica of Tillinghast’s machine out of whatever elements they had found to substitute for those of tidy periodic table. I could see the entire mass of the dark matter constituting the unseen plenum, and the interplay of the dark energy that gave it activity, and light, and life.
I could see everything.
And in seeing everything, I could see how pathetically tiny, infinitely thin, and direly tawdry our mere universe of stars really is, how forlorn the chasms between the stars are, how feeble the fires in the hearts of stars.
Mercifully, there was nothing there to perform the function of a mirror. I could not see myself.
What, in any case, was there to see? Some poor matchstick figure, some pathetic drop of bloody pulp, with a gun in his hand.
Yes, obviously I was still carrying the gun. How could Patterway have imagined, even for a moment, that that my mind could have settled sufficiently not to need that absurd prop any longer, even while I was utterly convinced that I was a victim of hallucination?
Had I been a volatile man, I dread to think what might have happened, but I am not. I am an unemotional man, a soul of granite, unbreakable even in the face of the unbearable: an intellectual knight in icy armor.
I took aim, and I fired.
I didn’t fire at anything, because there was nothing at which to fire. There was no monster. But I did take aim, however paradoxical that might sound. I took aim at what I could see, even though it was as infinite as it was incoherent and insubstantial. I took aim, not with my dazzled, terrified eyes, but with my other sight, the sight of my pineal eye.
In this universe, the bullet went between two of the roof-beams, crashed clean through the roof-tile and its supporting felt, and hit the ancient weathervane, whose iron must have been exceedingly fatigued, because it shattered into smithereens.
But the space through which the bullet passed, in our universe, wasn’t empty. It was full. In normal circumstances, its fullness would have been utterly irrelevant to the flight of the bullet, because its substance and momentum would not have been perceptible in any of the universes it traversed—but the circumstances were for from normal. The replica of Tillinghast’s machine had been displaced from one of those other universes, and it had been activated.
If its activators had known what its effect might be, how dangerous it might be, would they have dared? Perhaps, if they were scientists, more passionate for discovery than safety.
However paradoxical it might seem, I didn’t just fire the bullet in our universe. At any other moment of my life, with one possible exception, I could not have fired it in any other universe but this one, but at that particular moment, when the replica of Tillinghast’s machine had opened not merely a gateway between the parallel worlds of the plenum, but an infinite series of gateways, that single bullet, or its ricochets, or the backwash of its passing, smashed through a whole series of universes—only a tiny fraction of those packed into the relevant space, in all likelihood, but trillions, of all sorts of shapes and sizes. In some, no doubt, the bullet or its effects would have been no more significant than a drifting particle of dust, but in others…
Size is relative, but size matters.
I cannot be certain, but I firmly believe that I destroyed entire universes. I cannot be certain, but I firmly believe that I created others. I cannot be certain, but I firmly believe that I precipitated metamorphoses in others, Or rather, whatever it was that had opened that catastrophic series of gateways, whatever it was that had created that uniquely privileged instant, that unparalleled opportunity, had allowed and caused me to wreak havoc on a literally unimaginable scale.
Should I have held my fire? Perhaps—but think on this: if I had not fired that shot so rapidly, or had my aim not been as true, what might have happened to our universe?
Maybe nothing. Maybe the intentions of the duplicators of Tillinghast’s machine were benign. Maybe they had no intention of destruction, and maybe any metamorphosis they wrought, accidentally or deliberately, would have been paradisal in its consequences. I don’t know. But I know that I was afraid. I know that that I was terrified. I know that when I saw everything, in spite of my coolness of mind and my indomitable indifference, I was overwhelmed by such an appalling cosmic horror that I was not at all sure that I could return from that existential brink alive or sane.
I honestly believe that firing that shot saved my life, and the lives of my companions, and the lives of Rachel and her servants, if not those of the entire human race, even though my dutiful, mercilessly objective conscience persists in telling me, coldly, that my miserable, wretched, discontented life—even if multiplied a billion times—could not possibly counterbalance a trillionth of the damage that I did, in the pan of any reasonable scales of cosmic justice. In the ultimate scheme of things, there is probably no evil greater than mine, for the time being.
But I did live through it, and I believe that I have conserved my sanity…or the better part of it, at least…or, if not the better part, the remainder….
My companions lived too, and perhaps it was as well, for my sake, that they were there, to lend me their tacit support. They swore afterwards that no replica of Tillinghast’s machine had ever been there, and that all the entities they had seen were mere hallucinations, precursors of terrible migraines. They lost all interest in reconstituting Tillinghsast’s machine themselves, however, even though they had seen its constitution for themselves, before it was folded away into some fourth-dimensional pocket, or sewer, or bottomless abyss.
James Patterway resigned his professorship at Miskatonic and went on a long sea voyage—for the benefit of his health, he said. Robert Crisson gave up his attempts at invention and devoted himself go collecting art instead, although his tastes were far too avant garde for respectable New England. Lyman Dove wrote book after book summarizing the supposed secrets of the occult, of which no one understood a word. Crisson kept financing their publication regardless, because he and Dove had become fast friends, in spite of the differences in their social origins and philosophies. I still see Dove occasionally, and we do chat about the mysteries of the plenum, but I have to confess that even I can’t understand a word of what he says about it.
Rachel was curious, of course—extremely curious—but, as her loyal knight and shield against misfortune, I told her that the four of us had been affected by some kind of residual miasma left over from her late husband’s experiment, but that it had been dispelled and that there was no further danger. I apologized for having put a hole in her roof, but explained that I obviously did not react well to hallucination and had an unfortunate tendency to panic. I told her that I was going to stop carrying a gun and would simply have to learn to live with my sense of insecurity.
She donated all of Tillinghast’s papers to the library at Miskatonic, where they were filed away in some obscure corner. Whether anyone will ever consult them, I don’t know. She gave the university the shards of the machine as well, but without Patterway there to protect them, I think they were eventually condemned as rubbish and thrown out. She sold the house, but the new owners did not live in it long, moving out because they felt uneasy there. It gained the reputation of being haunted, but at least the commercial loss wasn’t Rachel’s.
I still see Rachel occasionally, in the suburbs of Providence or in her house by the sea, but there’s nothing between us. Neither of us is content, but there is nothing we can do to alleviate that condition. I could never substitute, in her strange eyes, for her beloved Crawford—and how can I ever marry? How can I ever forgive myself, knowing what I have done, and knowing that I did it deliberately, having taken aim?
How can I even live with myself?
I’m not sure—except when I have my migraines, and my pineal body allows my brain to see what it can now see, under the right conditions. Then I’m sure, alas. According to my ophthalmologist, things can only get worse. One day, I’ll go blind—and what will I see then? What will I be unable to avoid seeing, for lack of any possible distraction?
Monsters might come to devour me in the interim, I suppose—but that, believe me, is the least of my worries.