"There is little difference — barring our Occidental subtlety — between Chinese philosophy and English," observed Cyril Grey. "The Chinese bury a man alive in an ant heap; the English introduce him to a woman."
Lisa la Giuffria was startled into normality by the words. They were not spoken in jest.
And she began to take stock of her surroundings.
Cyril Grey himself was radically changed. In fashionable London he had worn a claret-coloured suit, an enormous grey butterfly tie hiding a soft silk collar. In bohemian Paris his costume was diabolically clerical in its formality. A frock coat, tightly buttoned to the body, fell to the knees; its cut was as severe as it was distinguished; the trousers were of sober grey. A big black four-in-hand tie was fastened about a tall uncompromising collar by a cabochon sapphire so dark as to be hardly noticeable. A rimless monocle was fixed in his right eye. His manner had changed to parallel his dress. The supercilious air was gone; the smile was gone. He might have been a diplomatist at the crisis of an empire: he looked even more like a duellist.
The studio in which she stood was situated on the Boulevard Arago, below the Santé prison. It was reached from the road through an archway, which opened upon an oblong patch of garden. Across this, a row of studios nestled; and behind these again were other gardens, one to each studio, whose gates gave on to a tiny pathway. It was not only private — it was rural. One might have been ten miles from the city limits.
The studio itself was severely elegant — simplex munditiis; its walls were concealed by dull tapestries. In the centre of the room stood a square carved ebony table, matched by a sideboard in the west and a writing-desk in the east.
Four chairs with high Gothic backs stood about the table; in the north was a divan, covered with the pelt of a Polar bear. The floor was also furred, but with black bears from the Himalayas. On the table stood a Burmese dragon of dark green bronze. The smoke of incense issued from its mouth.
But Simon Iff was the strangest object in that strange room. She had heard of him, of course; he was known for his writings on mysticism and had long borne the reputation of a crank. But in the last few years he had chosen to use his abilities in ways intelligible to the average man; it was he who had saved Professor Briggs, and, incidentally, England when that genius had been accused of and condemned to death for, murder, but was too preoccupied with the theory of his new flying-machine to notice that his fellows were about to hang him. And it was he who had solved a dozen other mysteries of crime, with apparently no other resource than pure capacity to analyse the minds of men. People had consequently begun to revise their opinions of him; they even began to read his books. But the man himself remained unspeakably mysterious. He had a habit of disappearing for long periods, and it was rumoured that he had the secret of the Elixir of Life. For although he was known to be over eighty years of age, his brightness and activity would have done credit to a man of forty; and the vitality of his whole being, the fire of his eyes, the quick conciseness of his mind, bore witness to an interior energy almost more than human.
He was a small man, dressed carelessly in a blue serge suit with a narrow dark red tie. His iron-grey hair was curly and irrepressible; his complexion, although wrinkled, was clear and healthy; his small mouth was a moving wreath of smiles; and his whole being radiated an intense and contagious happiness.
His greeting to Lisa had been more than cordial; at Cyril's remark he took her friendlily by the arm, and sat her down on the divan." I'm sure you smoke," he said, "never mind Cyril! Try one of these; they come from the Khedive's own man."
He extracted an immense cigar-case from his pocket. One side was full of long Partagas, the other of cigarettes. "These are musk scented the dark ones; the yellowish kind are ambergris; and the thin white ones are scented with attar of roses." Lisa hesitated; then she chose the ambergris. The old man laughed happily. "Just the right choice: the Middle Way! Now I know we are going to be friends." He lit her cigarette, and his own cigar. "I know what is in your mind, my dear young lady: you are thinking that two's company and three's none; and I agree; but we are going to put that right by asking Brother Cyril to study his Qabalah for a little; for before leaving him in the ant-heap — he has really a shocking turn of mind — I want a little chat with you. You see, you are one of Us now, my dear."
"I don't understand," uttered the girl, rather angrily, as Cyril obediently went to his desk, pulled a large square volume out of it, and became immediately engrossed.
Brother Cyril has told me of your three interviews with him, and I am perfectly prepared to give a description of your mind. You are in rude health, and yet you are hysterical; you are fascinated and subdued by all things weird and unusual, though to the world you hold yourself so high, proud, and passionate. You need love, it is true; so much you know yourself; and you know also that no common love attracts you; you need the sensational, the bizarre, the unique. But perhaps you do not understand what is at the root of that passion. I will tell you. You have an inexpressible hunger of the soul; you despise earth and its delusions; and you aspire unconsciously to at higher life than anything this planet can offer.
"I will tell you something that may convince you of my right to speak. You were born on October the eleventh; so Brother Cyril told me. But he did not tell me the hour; you never told him; it was a little before sunrise."
Lisa was taken aback; the mystic had guessed right.
"The Order to which I belong," pursued Simon Iff," does not believe anything; it knows, or it doubts, as the case may be; and it seeks ever to increase human knowledge by the method of science, that is to say by observation and experiment. Therefore you must not expect me to satisfy your real craving by answering your questions as to the existence of the Soul; but I will tell you what I know, and can prove; further, what hypotheses seem worthy of consideration; lastly what experiments ought to be tried. For it is in this last matter that you can aid us; and with this in mind I have come up from St. Jean de Luz to see you."
Lisa's eyes danced with pleasure. "Do you know," she cried, "you are the first man that ever understood me?"
"Let me see whether I do understand you fully. I know very little of your life. You are half Italian, evidently; the other half probably Irish."
"You come of peasant stock, but you were brought up in refined surroundings, and your nature developed on the best lines possible without check. You married early."
"Yes; but there was trouble. I divorced my husband, and married again two years later."
"That was the Marquis la Giuffria?"
"Well, then, you left him, although he was a good husband, and devoted to you, to throw in your lot with Lavinia King."
"I have lived with her for five years, almost to a month."
"Then why? I used to know her pretty well myself. She was, even in those days, heartless, and mercenary; she was a sponger, the worst type of courtezan; and she was an intolerable poseuse. Every word of hers must have disgusted you. Yet you stick to her closer than a brother."
"That's all true! But she's a sublime genius, the greatest artist the world has ever seen."
"She has a genius," distinguished Simon Iff. "Her dancing is a species of angelic possession, if I may coin a phrase. She comes off the stage from an interpretation of the subtlest and most spiritual music of Chopin or Tschaikowsky; and forthwith proceeds to scold, to wheedle, or to blackmail. Can you explain that reasonably by talking of 'two sides to her character'? It is nonsense to do so. The only analogy is that of a noble thinker and his stupid, dishonest, and immoral secretary. The dictation is taken down correctly, and given to the world. The last person to be enlightened by it is the secretary himself! So, I take it, is the case with all genius; only in many cases the man is in more or less conscious harmony with his genius, and strives eternally to make himself a worthier instrument for his master's touch. The clever man, so-called, the man of talent, shuts out his genius by setting up his conscious will as a positive entity. The true man of genius deliberately subordinates himself, reduces himself to a negative, and allows his genius to play through him as It will. We all know how stupid we are when we try to do things. Seek to make any other muscle work as consistently as your heart does without your silly interference — you cannot keep it up for forty-eight hours. (I forget what the record is, but it's not much over twenty-four.) All this, which is truth ascertained and certain, lies at the base of the Taoistic doctrine of non-action; the plan of a doing everything by seeming to do nothing. Yield yourself utterly to the Will of Heaven, and you become the omnipotent instrument of that Will. Most systems of mysticism have a similar doctrine; but that it is true in action is only properly expressed by the Chinese. Nothing that any man can do will improve that genius; but the genius needs his mind, and he can broaden that mind, fertilize it with knowledge of all kinds, improve its powers of expression; supply the genius, in short, with an orchestra instead of a tin whistle. All our little great men, our one-poem poets, our one-picture painters, have merely failed to perfect themselves as instruments. The Genius who wrote The Ancient Mariner is no less sublime than he who wrote The Tempest; but Coleridge had some incapacity to catch and express the thoughts of his genius — was ever such wooden stuff as his conscious work? — while Shakespeare had the knack of acquiring the knowledge necessary to the expression of every conceivable harmony, and his technique was sufficiently fluent to transcribe with ease. Thus we have two equal angels, one with a good secretary, the other with a bad one. I think this is the only explanation of genius — in the extreme case of Lavinia King it stands out as the one thing thinkable."
Lisa la Giuffria listened with constantly growing surprise and enthusiasm.
"I don't say," went on the mystic, "that the genius and his artist are not inseparably connected. It may be a little more closely than the horse and his rider. But there is at least a distinction to be drawn. And here is a point for you to consider: the genius appears to have all knowledge, all illumination, and to be limited merely by the powers of his medium's mind. Even this is not always a bar: how often do we see a writer gasp at his own work? 'I never knew that,' he cries, amazed, although only a minute previously he has written it down in plain English. In short, the genius appears to be a being of another plane, a soul of light and immortality! I know that much of this may be explained by supposing what I have called the genius to be a bodily substance in which the consciousness of the whole race (in his particular time) may become active under certain stimuli. There is much to be said for this view; language itself confirms it; for the words 'to know', 'gnosis', are merely sub-echoes of the first cries implying generation in the physical sense; for the root GAN means 'to know' only in the second place; its original sense is 'to beget.' Similarly 'spirit' only means 'breath'; 'divine' and most other words of identical purport imply no more than 'shining.' So it is one of the limitations of our minds that we are fettered by language to the crude ideas of our savage ancestors; and we ought to be free to investigate whether there may not be something in the evolution of language besides a monkey-trick of metaphysical abstractions; whether, in short, men have not been right to sophisticate primitive ideas; whether the growth of language is not evidence of a true growth of knowledge; whether, when all is said and done, there may not be some valid evidence for the existence of a soul."
"The soul!" exclaimed Lisa, joyfully. "Oh, I believe in the soul!"
"Very improper!" rejoined the mystic; "Belief is the enemy of knowledge. Skeat tells us that Soul probably comes from SU, to beget."
"I wish you would speak simply to me, you lift me up, and throw me down again all the time."
"Only because you try to build without foundations. Now I am going to try to show you some good reasons for thinking that the soul exists, and is omniscient and immortal, other than that about genius which we have discussed already. I am not going to bore you with the arguments of Socrates, for, although, as a member of the Hemlock Club, which he founded, I perhaps ought not to say so, the Phaedo is a tissue of the silliest sophistry.
"But I am going to tell you one curious fact in medicine. In certain cases of dementia, where the mind has long been gone, and where subsequent examination has shown the brain to be definitely degenerated, there sometimes occur moments of complete lucidity, where the man is in possession of his full powers. If the mind depended absolutely on the physical condition of the brain, this would be difficult to explain.
"Science, too, is beginning to discover that in various abnormal circumstances, totally different personalities may chase each other through a single body. Do you know what is the great difficulty with regard to spiritualism? It is that of proving the identity of the dead man. In practice, since we have lost the sense of smell on which dogs, for instance, principally rely, we judge that a man is himself either by anthropometric methods, which have nothing to do with the mind or the personality, or by the sound of the voice, or by the handwriting, or by the contents of the mind. In the case of a dead man, only the last method is available. And here we are tossed on a dilemma. Either the 'spirit' says something which he is known to have known during his life, or something else. In the first case, somebody else must have known it, and may conceivably have informed the medium; in the second case, it is rather disproof than proof of the identity!
"Various plans have been proposed to avoid this difficulty; notably the device of the sealed letter to be opened a year after death. Any medium divulging the contents before that date receives the felicitations of her critics. So far no one has succeeded, though success would mean many thousands of pounds in the medium's pocket; but even if it happened, proof of survival would still be lacking. Clairvoyance, telepathy, guesswork-there are plenty of alternative explanations.
"Then there is the elaborate method of cross-correspondences: I won't bore you with that; Brother Cyril will have plenty of time to talk to you at Naples."
Lisa sat up with a shock. Despite her interest in the subject, her brain had tired. The last words galvanized her.
"I shall explain after lunch," continued the mystic, lighting a third Partaga; "meanwhile, I have wandered slightly from the subject, as you were too polite to remark. I was going to show you how a soul with a weak hold on its tenant could be expelled by another; how, indeed, half-a-dozen personalities could take turns to live in one body. That they are real, independent souls is shown by the fact that not only do the contents of the mind differ — which might conceivably be a fake but their handwritings, their voices, and that in ways which are quite beyond anything we know in the way of conscious simulation, or even possible simulation.
"These personalities are constant quantities; they depart and return unchanged. It is then sure that they do not exist merely by manifestation; they need no body for existence."
"You are coming back to the theory of possession, like the Gadarene swine," cried Lisa, delighted. she could hardly say why.
Cyril Grey interrupted the conversation for the first time. He swung round in his arm chair, and deliberately cleared his throat while he refixed his eyeglass.
"In these days," he observed, "when devils enter into swine, they do not rush violently down a steep place. They call themselves moral reformers, and vote the Prohibition ticket." He shut up with a snap, swung his chair round again, and returned to the study of his big square book.
"I hope you realize," remarked Simon Iff, "what you have let yourself in for?"
Lisa blushed laughingly. "You have set me at my ease. I should certainly never know how to talk to him."
"Always talk," observed Cyril Grey, without looking up. "Words! Words! Words! It's an awful thing to be Hamlet when Ophelia takes after Polonius. She wants to know how to talk to me! And I want to teach her to be silent — even as the friend of Catullus turned his uncle into a statue of Harpocrates."
"Oh yes! I know Harpocrates, the Egyptian God of Silence," gushed the Irish-Italian girl.
Simon Iff gave her a significant glance, and she was wise enough to take it. There are subjects which it is better to drop.
"You know, Mr. Iff," said Lisa, to lighten the sudden tension, "I've been most fearfully interested in all you have said, and I think I have understood quite a part of it; but I don't see the practical application. Do you want me to get messages from the Mighty Dead?"
"Just at present," said the mystic, "I want you to digest what you have heard, and the dejeuner which Brother Cyril is about to offer us. After that we shall feel better able to cope with the problems of the Fourth Dimension."
"Dear me! And poor little Lisa has to do all that before she learns the reason of your leaving St. Jean de Luz?"
"All that, and the whole story of the Homunculus!"
But as it turned out, it was a very long while before lunch. The bell of the studio rang brusquely.
Cyril Grey went to the door; and once again Lisa had the impression of a duellist. No: it was a sentinel that stood there. Her vivid power of visualization put a spear in his hand.
It was his own studio, but he announced his visitors as if he had been a butler. "Akbar Pasha and Countess Helena Mottich." Simon Iff sprang to the door. It was not his studio, but he welcomed the visitors with both hands outstretched.
"Since you have crossed our threshold," he cried, "I am sure you will stay to dejeuner." The visitors murmured a polite acceptance. Cyril Grey was frowning formidably. It was evident that he knew and detested his guests; that he feared their coming; that he suspected — who could say what? He acquiesced instantly in his master's words; yet if silence ever spoke, this was the moment when it beggared curses.
He had not given his hand to his guests. Simon Iff did so: but he did it in such a way that each of them was obliged to take a hand at the same moment as the other.
Lisa had risen from the divan. She could see that some intricacy was on foot, but could form no notion of its nature.
When the newcomers were seated, Lisa found that she was expected to regale them with the news of Paris. It was rather a relief to her to get away from the mystic's theories. The others left everything to her. She rattled off some details of Lavinia King's latest success. Then suddenly noticed that Cyril Grey had laid the table. For his eager cynical voice broke into the conversation. "I was there," he said, "I liked the first number: the Dying Grampus Phantasy in B flat was extraordinarily realistic. I didn't care so much for the 'Misadventures of a pat of butter' Sonata. But the Tschaikowsky symphony was best: that was Atmosphere; it put me right back among the old familiar scenes; I thought I was somewhere on the South-Eastern Railway waiting for a train."
Lisa flamed indignation. "She's the most wonderful dancer in the world." "Yes, she is that," said her lover, with affected heavy sadness. "Wonderful! My father used to say, too, that she used even to dance well when she was forty."
The nostrils of la Giuffria dilated. She understood that it was a monster that had carried her away; and she made ready for a last battle.
But Simon Iff announced the meal. "Pray you, be seated!" he said. "Unfortunately, to-day is a fast-day with us; we have but some salt fish with our bread and wine."
Lisa wondered what kind of a fast-day it might be: it was certainly not Friday. The Pasha made a wry face. "Ah!" said Iff, as if he had just remembered it, "but we have some Caviar." The Pasha refused coldly. "I do not really want dejeuner," he said. "I only came to ask whether you would care for a seance with the Countess."
"Delighted! Delighted!" cried Iff, and again Lisa understood that he was on the alert; that he sensed some deadly yet invisible peril; that he loathed the visitors, and yet would be careful to do every thing that they suggested. Already she had a sort of intuition of the nature of "the way of the Tao."