A CLERK brought me up for signature a number of cheques already drawn. The clock on the mantelpiece pointed to eleven. The meeting of the directors of the Deep Rand Mines was to be at twelve.
My private office opened out of the Board Room. This den of mine was plainly but solidly furnished. I had made scarcely any change during the thirty years I had occupied it. The American ticker, it is true, had been replaced by a valuable Empire timepiece,—I had a passion for objets d’art and this was crowded out of my house in Park Lane for positive want of space. But the shabby upholstery and dingy appurtenances had grown to have a dear familiarity, — they were part, of the history that had been made in this room. For here was the centre of a web which spread its intricacies to the farthest parts of the earth, — a spider’s web, my enemies called it. Infinite ramifications of wire ran from this nucleus through air and under sea, bearing the autocratic message of my will,— a system of nerves responsive to my least dictation. So multiple were my interests, and so vast my resources, that it was no exaggeration to say I could control empires. A loan from me made war possible; by refusing financial aid I brought about the downfall of nations. And since all my deals had been planned and negotiated from this room, its very furniture came to be associated in my mind with the triumphs of my career. I would not even let the cheap looking-glass be removed which had reflected my face when I first came to the office, — a smart, dapper, pretty self-satisfied youngster of twenty-five, the discoverer and sole proprietor of Hermaphrode, that Mexican earth now so largely used to cheapen various manufactures, which had been the foundation of my fortunes,
A man in my position is bound to have bitter enemies: success creates jealousy. As I advanced in power there were not wanting busybodies eager to rake over the ashes of my past. It was hinted that I had gone behind, and finally ruined, the German company whose interests I was supposed to serve in Mexico. It was suggested that I had obtained my concessions through false representation, that the evictions of the natives from the land were carried out with unnecessary cruelty, and that the conditions of the labor I employed were a disgrace to civilization. Now every trade and profession has its own code of honor, and it is absurd to apply to the commercial code a standard that belongs to mediæval chivalry. The aim of commerce is not philanthropy, though in increasing the scope of employment it goes far beyond philanthropy. Commerce is at once autocratic and scientific: it succeeds best where huge interests are centred under one control, and where those interests are pursued with ruthless determination, unhampered by sickly sentiment or flabby altruism. The law of nature works through commerce as through life: the weakest goes to the wall; the cripple falls behind in the race. The outsider, prejudiced, limited in his experience, could not measure the stupendous difficulties that had encumbered my operations: if there had been any cruelties in my administration, they had been necessary and inevitable cruelties; if people chose to make ducks and drakes of their money, their ignorant greed was the primary cause of their ruin.
Hermaphrode gave me the means of entering the financial arena. My instinct was sure, and whatever I touched proved fortunate. There were at the moment few successful speculations on the market with which I was not directly or indirectly connected. The biggest of all was the Deep Rand Mines, — it was controlled by a ring of some ten of us, who kept the complete holding in our hands, and year after year the concern yielded over one hundred per cent. Unfortunately we had been obliged to admit among us one or two representatives of rival firms, who had threatened blackmail and exposure; there were, as a matter of fact, circumstances connected with our negotiations that were not intended to become public; but gorged with plunder, these doubtful elements were easy enough to handle, and at the Board meetings our whilom competitors generally remained dumb with admiration at the ingenuity of our devices.
I went over to the looking-glass in the corner, arranged my tie, and looked at myself critically. I showed my fifty-five years, though I was not bald, and my black hair was only beginning to turn gray. My face was heavy in type, and the skin somewhat coarse in texture, scored with deep lines. My eyes, overhung with bushy eyebrows, had a very useful power of making people quail; my nose gave token of my somewhat remote Jewish origin, but my physiognomy showed no trace of my German ancestry; I was the son of a German farmer, and was born at Elbingerode in the Harz Mountains.
It was half past eleven. I returned to my desk, and continued signing the cheques.
Suddenly I heard a distant carillon of bells, faint and liquid, seeming to come nearer: a run of notes, the phrase of some melody repeated over and over again, more compelling with each iteration. I saw the cheques before me, the familiar room, and was aware that this sound was wholly and entirely in my mind, heard, not by the physical ear, but by some subtler organ. And carried on the sound, came a poignant sense of freshness, of pure air and mountain spaces; and hosts of old memories seemed pressing at the door of consciousness, asking for recognition. Then for a while I lost myself.
The next thing I remember was the clock striking the quarter, and a feeble face with sandy-colored hair — the face of one of my clerks — bending close to mine. There was a loud sound of voices in the adjoining room. “Should I send for the doctor?” gasped the clerk.
“ What have you seen ? Have you told them anything?” I whispered hoarsely.
“I came in — to say they were waiting — and found you sitting — like as if you were in a daze —” he stuttered, “quite still and queer-like.”
“Now understand this,” I said emphatically. “I had a bad night last night, and took some sleeping-stuff that disagreed with me. And mind you hold your tongue about it,” I added harshly, “or out of this place you go, bag and baggage. I’m not going to have any sneaking gossiping behind my back. And let me tell you that if that happens, I’ll take care that you don’t find it easy to get another bed of roses to repose on.”
I pushed past the fellow, who went quite white. I was quite safe with him. My subordinates had a wholesome terror of me, and my word was law. It would never do for rumors to get abroad, — people might say I had had a stroke; and confidence in my ventures rested solely on the public’s confidence in me. My association with any business enterprise was regarded as giving it the hall-mark of success, and if I ceased to be looked upon as a kind of financial Atlas, I should soon be buried in the ruin of my own undertakings. I pulled myself together as best I could, and went into the Board Room, showing little trace of the strange possession that had overcome me.
That evening in my smoking-room I considered the matter in all its bearings. It seemed to me a case of some abnormal recrudescence of memory. I had been brought up on my father’s farm until the age of fifteen, and had spent much of my boyhood wandering among the hills, picking up here, there, and everywhere the legends with which the countryside teems. It is practically a pastoral country: the cows are led out in herds to graze along the rich riversides, and on the mountain meadows. As in Alpine pastures, each cow has a bell at its neck, so that the herd moves to a faint unending clash of music, which in the distance runs into a reiterated memory, But why should this trivial recollection of the sound of cattle-bells, which had lain dormant for so many years, suddenly recur with such overwhelming persistence ?
I traced out the reason for this, too. My little boy, the only creature on earth I had cared for, had died some months before. When he lay there, ill and white and patient, he asked me to tell him some stories; and searching about in the forgotten parts of my mind, I found they were full of such absurdities as a child delights in, — legends of goblins and pixies, and gnomes working in the bowels of the earth, — tales of the Rhine Maidens, and dwarfs and dragons guarding elfin gold, lore of the witches who danced on the Hexentanzplatz, and held wild revel on the Brocken. Every square inch of my native country is crammed with fairy history, and all unknown to myself this was stored in the recesses of my mind, whence there came to amuse my little sick child an unending host of lovely and grotesque creatures; and while I talked to him the cattle-bells seemed to be chiming all the while through my words, as they had been the continuous accompaniment of my walks in the old days.
Well, the boy was dead, and the door closed on that love and that suffering. But it would be a hard thing if this one weakness of mine were to prove the ruin of my career, — if in admitting this one softness into my nature I had opened the way to all manner of incongruous distractions and flimsy sentimentalities, to a whole army of false idealisms and bombastic heroics, suitable enough to the ages of childhood and boyhood, but absolutely fatal to the clear judgment and unswerving decision essential to a man in my position.
For this obsession, which after that day came upon me frequently, was undoubtedly accompanied by a slackening of fibre. The music of the bells became at once detested and desired: detested, as a positive symptom of nerve disease that complicated the simplicity of my way by suggesting all manner of ridiculous hesitations and scruples, — desired, as a mental intoxication, a kind of crystal exhilaration, inducing a wide sense of purities and freshnesses, as unreal, as impossible, as paralyzing as the dreams of the opium-eater.
My fear was so great that these illusions might become known, — illusions damning in their childishness, — that for a time I refrained from consulting a specialist. When at last I sought him out I took every precaution that my visit should remain secret, though of course I was too well known to conceal my identity from the doctor himself.
His keen questioning defined to me my condition more clearly than before. He elicited that the music of the bells was only a vehicle carrying on it a whole tide of sensation. At times the sounds called up scenes of undimmable brightness, — green and sunny tracts of mountain, valleys hoarding shadowy sweetness, grave smooth cattle coming down lanes in grave twilight and separating to their several byres; faces, whether of man or of fairy I knew not, wrinkled with elfin humor and with elfin wisdom. Moods also were induced by the melody, — always that same repeated phrase, — moods of exaltation, of reckless adventure, of splendid sacrifice.
Next I explained the havoc that this obsession was playing in my career: how it would take me at the most critical moments, once even at an important meeting of shareholders: how it clouded my judgment and unsettled my convictions, and how I was walling to do everything in reason toward effecting a cure, — even to the taking of a short rest, or going a sea voyage.
The specialist asked me if I had read Professor William James. He said that a certain school of psychologists were inclined to regard these so-called illusions as realities. In my case, he added, a suppressed and yet vital part of my nature seemed to be bodying itself forth in the first mental images that came to hand. These moods that I described, of heroism, of sacrifice, suggested capabilities still inherent in my being. I had assured him there was no artificial stimulant at work, — no alcohol, no drugs, no undue brainwork even. I told him that recently I had been through a crisis of excessive sentimentality —
He nodded. “I saw about that in the papers, — your little son; but after all, the pain you suffered was natural emotion, purging and salutary, — an emotion which would no doubt enlarge your sympathy, and give you an increase of fellow-feeling.” I thought I detected a note of sarcasm in his voice. “I’m afraid we doctors can’t be of much use to you,” he added; “it’s a question of the ancient fight between two antagonistic constituents of character, — the constituents that wore uppermost in youth, and the constituents that are uppermost now —”
“Do you mean to imply that this illusion is a reality, — do you suggest that I hear the actual bells that tinkled forty years ago?” I asked indignantly.
“The obsession, as you call it, merely clothes itself in the sound of bells, because you are a modern German born in the Harz Mountains. If you were a mediæval monk it would clothe itself, perhaps, in the voice of St. Michael. The particular image is variable and unimportant. All that matters is the spirit animating it. Sir Thomas Browne asserts, you remember, that any miscellaneous dust will serve God to build up the body on the day of resurrection.”
He was playing with me, of course, trying to make me feel my lack of culture, mocking at my nationality, which is supposed to love metaphysical subtleties, and making a flank attack upon my commercial methods. “ Since you choose to clothe your diagnosis in theological terms,” I said, “I gather that you imply that these two antagonistic elements represent what are known theologically as the principles of good and evil. I might perhaps ask you to which period of my life you assign the supremacy of the good principle, and to which period the supremacy of the evil.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Into that it is not for me to enter. I can only point out that you are guided alternately by two entirely different sets of aims and ideals, one having manifested itself in youth and the other in manhood; and that the elimination of either of these is outside the domain of science. Either your life will continue to the end a conflict between these two principles, or by some violent means, some terrible struggle, you will succeed in killing out one or other of these principles. It is for you to consider which of them you deem the more worthy of preservation.”
This I thought gross insolence, considering the object of my visit. “That is all you have to say ? ” I asked.
“That is all.”
The memory of this conversation was bitter to me. I had been a fool to go to the man, — a fool to unveil my secrets to him, — and all to no purpose. Recent newspaper attacks I had not minded, — mere pinprick criticisms on technical points; but this wholesale condemnation of my business career as evil, — for such I took to be the tenor of his observations, — a condemnation based on assumption, without evidence, unjust, untrue, did grievous hurt to my pride, to my confidence, to my sense of commercial honor. The man was evidently a fanatic, selfbewildered in fine-drawn metaphysical subtleties, — an idealist dazzled by the shimmer of his bubble-blowing, and lacking the most primary knowledge of life. Anything more inept than his definition of my obsession as a reality, as a guiding principle fighting for recognition, could not well be imagined.
He evidently wished to turn me into another Don Quixote, obedient to the phantoms of my own brain. If it had been possible, without revealing our connection, to expose him as a dangerous enemy to society, who on the plea of curing nervous diseases drove his patients straight into the madhouse, I should have considered it a public duty to do so. But in the circumstances this satisfaction was out of the question. I must rely upon myself, — must make large draughts upon my will-power to clear my way of obstacles and justify my career by still further successes in the eyes of the world.
Next to the haunting bells — whose music continued and even increased in frequency and persistency after my visit to the specialist — the Deep Rand Mines were my chief anxiety. I had been obliged to miss one board meeting, owing to this wretched infirmity of mine, and I had heard that a good deal of discontent had shown its head, with a very ugly look. I recognized that my presence on these occasions was vital just now, if my stupendous undertakings were to weather the time of crisis.
After some months of continuous labor I allowed myself to accept an invitation to a week-end’s shooting in Wales. On the Sunday, after an excellent day’s sport, I was just preparing about midnight to go to bed, when a confidential clerk brought me a letter from the managing director of the Deep Rand Mines, informing me that certain cablegrams from the mines, involving serious consequences, had necessitated the immediate calling of a special board in London on Monday at ten o’clock. The letter added that some ugly rumors had got into the Sunday press. Consulting the timetable, I found there was a train leaving Llangwydyr Junction at 4.30 A. M. There was no local train service at that hour, but as Llangwydyr Junction was only a little over ninety miles off, I could catch the train easily by motor car. It was essential for me to be at that, board.
I drove myself, and went alone, as no chauffeur was immediately available. The roads were in a bad condition, and on the way I had a break-down. Providentially it was a matter I could attend to myself, but it caused me nearly an hour’s delay. This made me exceedingly tight for time, and I knew I could only just catch the train if I drove the car for all it was worth.
The moon was down, and the world dark before dawn. I had just whizzed past a village when the car went over something.
It might have been a sack of flour on the road, or a sheep, — it was unlikely that any child would be abroad so early. The impetus of the car carried me along, and it hardly occurred to me to stop. What was done was done, — I would make inquiries to-morrow, and put all right; the train must be caught, — if I were not at the meeting everything would collapse and bring wholesale ruin. So the car continued its mad career, swooping down the roads like a flying demon, and filling my ears with the noise of its rush.
Then suddenly there jangled through my brain the sound as if all the bells of the world had been struck at once, — a discord piercing, maddening, terrifying, mingled with cries and shrieks. I felt as if a phantom hand were placed upon my hand to turn the car, and as if the whole air were alive with shuddering whispers, bidding me go back. But my will was fierce to pursue its goal unhampered by unnecessary compunctions, and as I drove I seemed to be mowing a way for the car through hosts of intangible presences, — moving whitenesses, like the mists of morning, which flung themselves in the path, moaning and with wringing hands. And through the din the cattle-bells sounded in little snatches of melody, infinitely peaceful, calling me away, away, out of all this turmoil.
The car was really slackening in speed. The phantom voices and bells were gaining direction over my movements. I was driving like one who is drunk, swaying the car from side to side, as if in some confused dream trying to turn her. What did the train matter ? What did the Deep Rand Mines matter ? If I turned, I should ride straight back into a new country, — into the Country of Youth, — into Fairyland.
One faintest swerve more at the crossroads would have brought the car round, and made of me a hopeless dreamer, a futile altruist. But the instincts, the habits of forty years were not to be lightly set aside. In quick revulsion there flashed across my mind the reckless folly of sacrificing enormous interests to some problematical pig or sack of oats, — a folly accompanied by such grotesque associations that it verged on insanity. Reason suddenly assumed sway over my delirious fancy, — hard common sense, showing me the duty of commercial obligations, pointing out the only road it was possible for me to take, I was the pilot intrusted with a galleon of incalculable riches, and I must be at the helm.
The car steadied; a fierce determination kept it to its course. The clang of bells and sounds of weeping were left behind in the distance.
At last I was being jostled over the streets of a waking town. The clocks chimed the half hour. The train steamed into the station.
I caught the train. I attended the board meeting and managed to pull everything into shape again. The Deep Rand Mines continue to pay over one hundred per cent.
It was a child I had run over and injured, He died a few days after. The poor little brat had been sent out to feed some pigs that had been forgotten. I had the relatives well compensated, but it did not prove necessary to make myself known, as I was able to keep the thing out of the papers.
Strangely enough, that night worked a complete cure in me. I suppose that headlong dash through the air had a salutory effect upon the nerves. I never again heard any remotest sound of the cattlebells with their accompanying illusions, and thenceforward I was able to pursue the path I had marked out for myself without hindrance or disturbance of any kind.
So I have reached a calm and venerable old age, trusted by my colleagues, and enjoying that universal respect which preëminent success always commands.