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CHAPTER XIV.

AN EVENING LECTURE.

 

     The Nightmare

Shall call thee when it walks.

 

                   MIDDLETON.—The Witch.

 

THE inn to which Hugh had betaken himself, though not the first in the town, was yet what is called a respectable house, and was possessed of a room of considerable size, in which the farmers of the neighbourhood were accustomed to hold their gatherings. While eating his dinner, Hugh learned from the conversation around him—for he sat in the kitchen for the sake of the fire—that this room was being got ready for a lecture on Bilology, as the landlady called it. Bills in red and blue had been posted all over the town; and before he had finished his dinner, the audience had begun to arrive. Partly from curiosity about a subject of which he knew nothing, and partly because it still rained, and, having got nearly dry, he did not care about a second wetting if he could help it, Hugh resolved to make one of them. So he stood by the fire till he was informed that the lecturer had made his appearance, when he went up-stairs, paid his shilling, and was admitted to one of the front seats. The room was tolerably lighted with gas; and a platform had been constructed for the lecturer and his subjects. When the place was about half-filled, he came from another room alone—a little, thick-set, bull-necked man, with vulgar face and rusty black clothes; and, mounting the platform, commenced his lecture; if lecture it could be called, in which there seemed to be no order, and scarcely any sequence. No attempt even at a theory, showed itself in the mass of what he called facts and scientific truths; and he perpeturated the most awful blunders in his English. It will not be desired that I should give any further account of such a lecture. The lecturer himself seemed to depend chiefly for his success, upon the manifestations of his art which he proceeded to bring forward. He called his familiar by the name of Willi-am, and a stunted, pale-faced, dull-looking youth started up from somewhere, and scrambled upon the platform beside his master. Upon this tutored slave a number of experiments was performed. He was first cast into whatever abnormal condition is necessary for the operations of biology, and then compelled to make a fool of himself by exhibiting actions the most inconsistent with his real circumstances and necessities. But, aware that all this was open to the most palpable objection of collusion, the operator next invited any of the company that pleased, to submit themselves to his influences. After a pause of a few moments, a stout country fellow, florid and healthy, got up and slouched to the platform. Certainly, whatever might be the nature of the influence that was brought to bear, its operative power could not, with the least probability, be attributed to an over-activity of imagination in either of the subjects submitted to its exercise. In the latter, as well as in the former case, the operator was eminently successful; and the clown returned to his seat, looking remarkably foolish and conscious of disgrace—a sufficient voucher to most present, that in this case at least there had been no collusion. Several others volunteered their negative services; but with no one of them did he succeed so well; and in one case the failure was evident. The lecturer pretended to account for this, in making some confused and unintelligible remarks about the state of the weather, the thunder-storm, electricity, &c., of which things he evidently did not understand the best known laws.

 

"The blundering idiot!" growled, close to Hugh's ear, a voice with a foreign accent.

 

He looked round sharply.

 

A tall, powerful, eminently handsome man, with a face as foreign as his tone and accent, sat beside him.

 

"I beg your pardon," he said to Hugh; "I thought aloud."

 

"I should like to know, if you wouldn't mind telling me, what you detect of the blunderer in him. I am quite ignorant of these matters."

 

"I have had many opportunities of observing them; and I see at once that this man, though he has the natural power, is excessively ignorant of the whole subject."

 

This was all the answer he vouchsafed to Hugh's modest inquiry. Hugh had not yet learned that one will always fare better by concealing than by acknowledging ignorance. The man, whatever his capacity, who honestly confesses even a partial ignorance, will instantly be treated as more or less incapable, by the ordinary man who has already gained a partial knowledge, or is capable of assuming a knowledge which he does not possess. But, for God's sake! let the honest and modest man stick to his honesty and modesty, cost what they may.

 

Hugh was silent, and fixed his attention once more on what was going on. But presently he became aware that the foreigner was scrutinizing him with the closest attention. He knew this, somehow, without having looked round; and the knowledge was accompanied with a feeling of discomfort that caused him to make a restless movement on his seat. Presently he felt that the annoyance had ceased; but not many minutes had passed, before it again commenced. In order to relieve himself from a feeling which he could only compare to that which might be produced by the presence of the dead, he turned towards his neighbour so suddenly, that it seemed for a moment to embarrass him, his eyes being caught in the very act of devouring the stolen indulgence. But the stranger recovered himself instantly with the question:

 

"Will you permit me to ask of what country you are?"

 

Hugh thought he made the request only for the sake of covering his rudeness; and so merely answered:

 

"Why, an Englishman, of course."

 

"Ah! yes; it is not necessary to be told that. But it seems to me, from your accent, that you are a Scotchman."

 

"So I am."

 

"A Highlander?"

 

"I was born in the Highlands. But if you are very anxious to know my pedigree, I have no reason for concealing the fact that I am, by birth, half a Scotchman and half a Welchman."

 

The foreigner riveted his gaze, though but for the briefest moment sufficient to justify its being called a gaze, once more upon Hugh; and then, with a slight bow, as of acquiescence, turned towards the lecturer.

 

When the lecture was over, and Hugh was walking away in the midst of the withdrawing audience, the stranger touched him on the shoulder.

 

"You said that you would like to know more of this science: will you come to my lodging?" said he.

 

"With pleasure," Hugh answered; though the look with which he accompanied the words, must have been one rather of surprise.

 

"You are astonished that a stranger should invite you so. Ah! you English always demand an introduction. There is mine."

 

He handed Hugh a card: Herr von Funkelstein. Hugh happened to be provided with one in exchange.

 

The two walked out of the inn, along the old High Street, full of gables and all the delightful irregularities of an old country-town, till they came to a court, down which Herr von Funkelstein led the way.

 

He let himself in with a pass-key at a low door, and then conducted Hugh, by a stair whose narrowness was equalled by its steepness, to a room, which, though not many yards above the level of the court, was yet next to the roof of the low house. Hugh could see nothing till his conductor lighted a candle. Then he found himself in a rather large room with a shaky floor and a low roof. A chintz-curtained bed in one corner had the skin of a tiger thrown over it; and a table in another had a pair of foils lying upon it. The German—for such he seemed to Hugh—offered him a chair in the politest manner; and Hugh sat down.

 

"I am only in lodgings here," said the host; "so you will forgive the poverty of my establishment."

 

"There is no occasion for forgiveness, I assure you," answered Hugh.

 

"You wished to know something of the subject with which that lecturer was befooling himself and the audience at the same time."

 

"I shall be grateful for any enlightenment."

 

"Ah! it is a subject for the study of a benevolent scholar, not for such a clown as that. He jumps at no conclusions; yet he shares the fate of one who does: he flounders in the mire between. No man will make anything of it who has not the benefit of the human race at heart. Humanity is the only safe guide in matters such as these. This is a dangerous study indeed in unskilful hands."

 

Here a frightful caterwauling interrupted Herr von Funkelstein. The room had a storm-window, of which the lattice stood open. In front of it, on the roof, seen against a white house opposite, stood a demon of a cat, arched to half its length, with a tail expanded to double its natural thickness. Its antagonist was invisible from where Hugh sat. Von Funkelstein started up without making the slightest noise, trod as softly as a cat to the table, took up one of the foils, removed the button, and, creeping close to the window, made one rapid pass at the enemy, which vanished with a shriek of hatred and fear. He then, replacing the button, laid the foil down, and resumed his seat and his discourse. This, after dealing with generalities and commonplaces for some time, gave no sign of coming either to an end or to the point. All the time he was watching Hugh—at least so Hugh thought—as if speculating on him in general. Then appearing to have come to some conclusion, he gave his mind more to his talk, and encouraged Hugh to speak as well. The conversation lasted for nearly half an hour. At its close, Hugh felt that the stranger had touched upon a variety of interesting subjects, as one possessed of a minute knowledge of them. But he did not feel that he had gained any insight from his conversation. It seemed rather as if he had been giving him a number of psychological, social, literary, and scientific receipts. During the course of the talk, his eye had appeared to rest on Hugh by a kind of compulsion; as if by its own will it would have retired from the scrutiny, but the will of its owner was too strong for it. In seemed, in relation to him, to be only a kind of tool, which he used for a particular purpose.

 

At length Funkelstein rose, and, marching across the room to a cupboard, brought out a bottle and glasses, saying, in the most by-the-bye way, as he went:

 

"Have you the second-sight, Mr. Sutherland?"

 

"Certainly not, as far as I am aware."

 

"Ah! the Welch do have it, do they not?"

 

"Oh! yes, of course," answered Hugh laughing. "I should like to know, though," he added, "whether they inherit the gift as Celts or as mountaineers."

 

"Will you take a glass of—?"

 

"Of nothing, thank you," answered and interrupted Hugh. "It is time for me to be going. Indeed, I fear I have stayed too long already. Good night, Herr von Funkelstein."

 

"You will allow me the honour of returning your visit?"

 

Hugh felt he could do no less, although he had not the smallest desire to keep up the acquaintance. He wrote Arnstead on his card.

 

As he left the house, he stumbled over something in the court. Looking down, he saw it was a cat, apparently dead.

 

"Can it be the cat Herr Funkelstein made the pass at?" thought he. But presently he forgot all about it, in the visions of Euphra which filled his mind during his moonlight walk home. It just occurred to him, however, before those visions had blotted everything else from his view, that he had learned simply nothing whatever about biology from his late host.

 

When he reached home, he was admitted by the butler, and retired to bed at once, where he slept soundly, for the first time for many nights.

 

But, as he drew near his own room, he might have seen, though he saw not, a little white figure gliding away in the far distance of the long passage. It was only Harry, who could not lie still in his bed, till he knew that his big brother was safe at home.

 

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