Collected Plays and Short Stories
The Phantom Hour
Sturge Maynard rose from the fireside and looked out on the blackish yellow blinding fog that swathed London in the dense folds of its amplitude. In his hand he carried the old book he was reading, his finger was still in the page, his mind directed, not with entire satisfaction, to the tenor1 of the writerís imaginations, for if these pleased his sense of the curious they disgusted his reason. A mystic, mediaeval in epoch and temperament, the old Latinist dealt with psychological fancies the modern world has long discarded in order to bustle to the polling booth and the counting-house. Numerous subtleties occurred repulsive to the rigid and definite solutions of an age which, masterful with knowledge in the positive and external, tries to extend its autocracy in the shape of a confident ignorance over the bounds of the occult2 world within, occult ó declared the author ó only because we reject a key that is in everyoneís hand, himself.
“Prosaist of mysteries,” thought Sturge, “trafficker in devious imaginations, if one could find only the thinnest fact to support the cumbrous web that is here woven! But the fog is less thick than the uncertainty in which these thoughts were content to move.”
In a passage of unusual but bizarre interest the German mystic maintained that the principle of brilliancy attended with a ceaseless activity the motions of thought, which in their physical aspect are flashes of a pure, a lurid or a murky light. It was, he said, a common experience with seers in intense moments of rapid cerebration to see their heads, often their whole surroundings besieged by a brilliant atmosphere coruscating with violet lightnings. Even while he wondered at these extravagances, it flashed across Sturgeís memory that he himself in his childhood had been in the habit of seeing precisely such violet coruscations about his head and had indulged his childish fancy with them until maturer years brought wonder, distrust and the rapid waning of the phenomenon.
Was there then some justification of experience for the fancies of the German? With an impulse he tried vainly to resist, he fixed his eye piercingly on the fog outside the window, and waited. At the moment he was aware of a curious motion in his head, a crowding of himself and all his faculties to the eye; then came the sight of violet flashes in the fog and a growing excitement in his nerves watched by a brain that was curiously, abnormally calm. A whole world of miraculous vision, of marvellous sound, of ancient and future experience was surely pressing upon him, surging against some barrier that opposed intercourse. Astonished and interested, but not otherwise disturbed his reason attempted to give itself some account of what was happening. The better to help the effort, he fixed his eye again on the fog for repetition or disproof of what he had seen. There were no further violet flashes, but something surely was hinting, forming, manifesting in the grey swathe outside. It became bright, it became round, it became distinct. Was it a face or a globe? With a disappointed revulsion of feeling he saw himself face to face with nothing more romantic than a clock. He smiled and turned to compare with that strong visualised clock3 his own substantial, unmystic, workaday4 companion on the mantelpiece. His body grew tense with a shock of surprise. There indeed was the clock, his ebony-faced, gold-lettered recorder of hours, balanced lightly on a conventional Father Time in the centre and two winged goddesses at the edge5; the hands, he noted, were closing upon the twelve and the five, and there would soon ring out the sound of the hour. But, by its side, what was this phantasmal and unwonted companion, fixed, distinct, aping reality, ebony-faced also, but silver-lettered, solidly pedestalled, not lightly balanced, pointing to the hour eight with the same closeness as the real clock pointed to the hour five? He had time to notice that the four of this timepiece was not lettered in the ordinary Roman numerals, but with the four vertical and parallel strokes; then the apparition disappeared.
An optical hallucination! Probably, the mental image intensely visualised of some familiar timepiece in a friendly sitting room. Indeed, was it not more than familiar? Surely, he knew it, ó had seen it, clearly6, insistently, ó that ebony face, that silver-lettering, that strong ornamented pedestal, even that figure four! But where was it, when was it? Some curious bar in his memory baffled his7 mind wandering vainly for the lost details.
Suddenly the clock, his own clock, struck five. He counted mechanically the familiar sounds, sharp, clear, attended with a metallic reverberation. And then, before the ear could withdraw itself from its object, another clock began, not sharp, not clear, not metallic but with a soft, harmonious chime and a musical jangling at the end. And the number of the strokes was eight!
Sturge sat down at the table and opened his book at random. If this were a hallucination, it was a carefully arranged and well-executed hallucination. Was someone playing hypnotic tricks with his brain? Was he hypnotising himself? His eye fell on the page and met not mediaeval Latin, but ancient Greek, though un-Homeric hexameters. Very clear was the lettering, very plain the significance.
“For the gods immortal wander always over the earth and come unguessed to the dwellings of mortals; but rare is the eye that can look on them and rarer the mind that can distinguish the disguise from the deity.”8.
Hypnotism again! for he knew that the original lucubrations of the old mystic, subtle in substance, but in expression rough, deviated, tedious,9 amorphous, persecuted10 from the beginning to the end in crabbed11 Latin, and flowered12 nowhere into Greek, nowhere13 into poetry. There was yet more of the hexameter14, he noticed, and he read on.
“And men too live disguised in the sunlight and never from their birth to their death shalt thou see the mask uplifted. Nay, thou thyself, O Pelops, hast thou seen even once the daemon within thee?”15
There the hexameters ceased and the next moment the physical page reappeared with its native lettering. But sweet, harmonious, clear in his hearing jangled once more the chimes of the phantom hour. And again the number of strokes was eight.
Sturge Maynard rose and waited for some more definite sign. For he divined now that some extraordinary mental state, some unforgettable experience was upon him. His expectation was not deceived. Once more the chimes rang out, but this time it seemed to him as if a womanís voice were crying to him passionately under cover of that perfectly familiar melody. But were the two phantasmal sounds memories of this English land and birth or was it out of some past existence they challenged him, insisting and appealing, inviting him to remember some poignant hour of a form he had worn and discarded, a name he had answered to and forgotten. Whatever it was, it was near to him, it touched potently his heart-strings. And then immediately following the eighth stroke, there came as if far off, an unmistakable explosion of sound, the report of a modern revolver.
Sturge Maynard left the fireplace and the room, descended the stairs, put on his hat and overcoat, and moved towards the door of his house. He had no clear idea where he would go or what he must do, but whatever it might be it had to be done. Then it occurred to him that he had forgotten his revolver which was lying in the drawer of his wardrobe. He went up, possessed himself of the weapon, loaded it, put it in his right-hand side-pocket, assured himself that the pocket carried his two latchkeys, once more descended the stairs and walked out into one of the densest of London fogs, damp, choking and impenetrable.
He moved through a world that seemed to have no existence except in memory. There was no speed of traffic. Only an occasional cartman hoarsely announced from time to time the cautious progress of his vehicle. Sturge could not see anything before or around him, ó except when he neared the curb and a lamp post strove to beam16 out on him shadowily or on the other side a spectral fragment of wall brushed his coat-sleeve. But he was certain of the pavement under his feet, and he felt he could make no false turn. A surer guide than his senses and memory led him.
He crossed the road, entered the gates of Hyde Park, traversed in a sure and straight line of advance the fogbound invisible open, passed through the Marble Arch, and in Oxford Street for the first time, hesitated. There were two women who were dear to him, either of whom by her death could desolate half his existence. To whom should he go? Then his mind, or something within it, decided for him. These speculations were otiose. He need not go to his sister Imogen. What possible evil could happen to her in her uncleís well-appointed, well-guarded, comfortable home, in the happy round of her life full of things innocently careless and harmlessly beautiful. But Renée! Renée was different.
He pursued his walk in a familiar direction. As he went, it flashed across his memory that she had forbidden him to visit her today. There was some living reminiscence of her past life coming to her, someone she did not care for Sturge to meet, she had said with her usual frank carelessness; he must not come. He had not questioned. Since he first knew her, he had never questioned, and the past of Renée Beauregard was a void even for the man to whom she had surrendered everything. There was room in that void for unusual incidents, supreme perils. He remembered now that her parting clasp had been almost convulsive in its strength and intensity, her speech vibrant with some unexplained emotion. He had been aware of it, without observing it, being preoccupied with his passion. Whatever part of his mind had noted it, had confined its possible cause within the limits of the usual, as men are in the habit of doing, ignoring the unusual until it seizes and surprises them.
He reached the square and the house in which she lived, opened the door with one of the latchkeys in his pocket, divested himself of his coat and hat, and directed his steps to the drawing-room. A girl of nineteen or twenty rose, calm and pale, fronting the open doorway. The clutch of her hand on the chair, the rigid forward impulse in her frame were the index of a great emotion and an intense expectation. But her face flushed, the hand and figure relaxed, when she saw her visitor. Renée Beauregard was a Frenchwoman of the South, rich in physical endowment, in nervous vitality, in the élan of her tongue and her spirit. Her exquisitely17 full limbs, her buoyant gait, the mobility of her crimson lips, her smiling dark eyes made great demands on life, on success, on pleasure, on love. But in the invincibly happy flame of the eyes there was at the moment the shadow of a tragic disappointment haunting and disfiguring their natural expression. This was plainly a woman with a past, ó and a present. And her nature, if not her fate, demanded a future.
“Sturge!” she took a step towards the door. Sturge walked over to the fireplace and took her hand.
“I forgot your prohibition till I was too near to turn back. And there was the fog; and return was cheerless and you were here!”
“You should not have forgotten!” she said, but she smiled, well-pleased at his coming. Then the dark look reusurped those smiling eyes. “And you must go back. No, not now. In a quarter of an hour. You may stop for quarter of an hour.”
She had glanced at the clock, and his eyes followed hers. He saw an ebony-faced time-piece, silver-lettered, solidly-pedestalled, rendering the figure four in parallel strokes, and smiled at the curious tricks that his memory had played him. It was five minutes past six.
“I will go to Imogenís,” he said, very deliberately. She looked at him, looked at the clock, then cried impulsively, leaning towards him, “And you will come at eight and dine with me! Rachel shall lay the covers for two,” then drew back, as if repenting her invitation.
Eight! Yes, he would dine with her ó after he had done his work. That seemed to be the arrangement, ó not hers, but whose? The daemonís perhaps, the godís within or without. They sat talking for a while, and it seemed to him that never had their talk been so commonplace in form or so vibrant with emotion. At twenty past six he rose, took his farewell and moved out to the fog; but she followed him to the door, helped him on with his overcoat, trembling visibly as she did so. And before he went, she embraced and kissed him once, not vehemently, but with a strong quietude and as if with some18 fateful resolution which had19 at that moment been formed in her heart, and expressed itself in her caress.
“I shall be back by eight,” he said quietly. He had accepted, but not returned her embrace.
By eight! Yes, and before. But he did not tell her that. He swung through the fog to his uncleís residence, with a light, clear and careless mind, but an intense quiet in his heart. He reached the place, in a very aristocratic neighbourhood, and was invited in by a portly footman. Sir John was out, at the House, but Miss Imogen Maynard was at home. The next hour Sturge passed calmly and lightly enough; for in his sisterís everyday attractive personal talk coursing lightly over the surface of life, amusements and theatres, books, music, paintings varied with politics and a shade of politely hinted scandal, even his heart insensibly lost its tension and slipped20 back into the usual, forgetting the within in the without.
The next hour and more. It was Imogen Maynard who rose and said:
“Ten minutes to eight, Sturge. I must go and dress. You are sure you wonít dine?”
Sturge Maynard looked at the clock and his heart stood still. He bid his sister a hasty adieu, ran down the stairs, clutched his hat and coat and was out in the fog, donning his overcoat as he walked. He made sure of the revolver and the latchkeys, then broke into a run. His great dread was that he might lose the turning in his haste and arrive after the stroke of the hour. But it was difficult to miss it, the only open space for half a mile! And the daemon? was he a spirit of prophecy only? Did he not visit to save?
He turned into Renéeís square and, as he strode to the house and ascended the steps, the agitation passed from him and it was with an even pulse and a steady nerve that he turned to the drawing-room door. He had flung aside his hat but not waited to divest himself of the coat. His hand was in the pocket and the butt of the revolver was in his hand.
The door was open and, unusual circumstance, veiled by the Japanese screen. He stood at its edge and looked into the room which was intensely still, but not untenanted ó for on the rug before the fireplace, at either end of it, stood Renée Beauregard and a man unknown to Sturge ó he looking at her as if waiting for her speech; she calm, pale, resolute in silence, with the heavy burden of her past in her eyes. The strangerís back was half turned to Sturge and only part of his profile was visible, but the Englishman quivered with his hatred even as he looked at him. Was this what he had to do? He took out the revolver and put his finger on the trigger. Then he glanced at the clock, ó it wanted four minutes to the hour; and at the stranger again, ó in his hand, too, was a revolver and his finger also rested on the trigger. Sturge Maynard smiled.
Then the manís voice was heard. “It has to be then, Idalie,” he said, in a thin, terrible, mournful plaint. “You have decided it. Donít bear any grudge. You know it canít be helped. You have to die.”
Sturge remembered that Idalie was Renéeís second name, but she had always forbidden him to use it. The thin voice continued, this time with a note of curious excitement in its plaintiveness.
“And you throw it all on me! What does it matter how I got you, what I did afterwards? Everythingís allowed to a lover. And I loved you. Itís dangerous to play with love, Idalie. You find it now!”
Sturge looked at the man. Danger for her there was none, but great danger for this rigid, thin-voiced assassin, this man whom Sturge Maynard hated with every muscle in his body, with every cell of his brain. It seemed to him that each limb of him greatened and vibrated with the energy of the homicide, with the victorious impulse to slay. There was a fog outside, what a fog! and he could easily dispose of the body. Really that was a good arrangement. God did things very cleverly sometimes. And he laughed in himself at the grimness of his conceit. Yet somehow he believed it. Godís work, not his. And yet his, too, pre-ordained ó since when? But the doomed voice was going on:
“I give you still a chance, Idalie ó always, always a chance. Will you go with me? Youíve been false to me, false with your body, false with your heart. But Iíll forgive. I forgive21 your desertion, Iíll forgive this too. Come with me, Idalie. And if not, ó Renée Idalie Marviranne22, it is going to strike eight, and when the hour has done striking, I strike. Itís God shoots you with this hand of mine, ó the God of Justice, the God of Love. Itís both you have offended. Will you come?”
She shook her head. A deadly pallor swept over the man. “Itís done then,” he cried, “youíve done it. You have got to die.” He trained the pistol on her and his finger closed on the trigger. Sturge remained motionless. Nothing could happen before the hour struck. That was the moment destined, and no one could outrun Fate by a second. The man went on:
“Donít say it till the clock strikes! Thereís time till then. When I shoot you, Rachel will run up and I will shoot her, I left the door open so that she might hear the sound. Who else in England knows that I exist? I shall go out ó oh, when you are both dead, not before. Thereís a fog, thereís not a soul about, and I shall walk away very quietly. No one will see, no one will hear. God with his fog has blinded and deafened the world. You see itís He or it would not have been so perfectly arranged for me.”
Very grimly Sturge Maynard smiled. Men who hated each other might, it seemed, have very similar minds. Perhaps that was why they clashed. Well, if it was God, He was a tragic artist too and knew the poetical effectiveness of dramatic irony! Everything this man reckoned on or had arranged for his deed and his safety had been or would be helpful to his own executioner! And the23 consciousness then came24 upon him that this had all happened before. But not here, not in these English surroundings! A great blur of green came before his eyes, obscuring the clock. Then it leaped on him ó green grass, green trees, green-covered rocks, a green sea, and on the sward a man face downward, stabbed in the back, over him his murderer, the stiletto fresh-stained with blood. A boat rocked on the waters; it had been arranged for the assassinís escape, and in it there lay a woman, bound. Sturge knew those strange faces very well and remembered how he had lain dead on that sward. It was strange to see it all again in this drawing-room with the fateful modern ebony-faced timepiece seen through the green of Mediterranean trees! But it was going to end very differently this time.
Then the voice of the woman rang out, cold, strong, like the clang of iron. “I will not go,” she said, simply. And the hour struck. It struck once, it struck twice, thrice, four times. And then she lifted her eyes and saw Sturge Maynard walking forward from the side of the screen. He was a good shot and there was no chance of his bungling it and killing her. But he would make sure!
The woman in her intensity had summoned up a marvellous self-control, and it did not break now, she neither moved, nor uttered a sound. But a look came into her eyes poignant in its appeal, terrible in its suggestion. For it was a cry for life, a command to murder.
The doomed man was looking at the clock, not at her, still less at any possible danger behind. He looked up as the eighth musical jangle died away and Sturge saw his light, steady, cruel eyes gleaming like those of a beast. He pressed his finger on the trigger.
“It is finished!” cried the man. And as he spoke, Sturge Maynard fired. The room rang with the shot, filled with the smoke. When the smoke cleared, the stranger was seen prostrate on the rug: his head lay at the feet of the woman he had doomed.
There was a running of steps in the passage and the maid Rachel entered, ó as the man who lay there had foreseen. She was trembling when she came, but she saw the man on the rug, paused, steadied herself, and smiled. “We must carry it out at once into the fog,” she said simply, in French. With a simultaneous impulse both she and Sturge approached the corpse. Then Renée, breaking into excited motion, ran to Sturge and putting her hand on his shoulder made as if to push him out of the room.
“I will see to that!” she panted, “Go!”
He turned to her with a smile.
“You must go at once,” she reiterated, “For my sake, do not be found in this house. Others besides Rachel may have heard the shot.”
But he took her by the wrists, drew her away from the fireplace and set her in a chair.
“We lose time, Monsieur,” said Rachel, again.
“It is better to lose time, Rachel,” he said, “we will give ten minutes to Fate.” And the serving woman nodded and proceeding to the corpse began to tie up the wound methodically in her apron. The others waited in absolute stillness, Sturge arranging in his mind the explanation he would give, if any had heard the report and broke in on them. But silence and fog persisted around the house.
They took up the body. “If anyone notices, we are carrying a drunken man home,” said Sturge. “Carry it carefully; there must be no trail of blood.” And so into the English fog they carried out the man who had come living from foreign lands, and laid him down in the public road, far from the house and the square where he had perished. When they returned to the room, Rachel took up the blood-stained rug and apron, sole witnesses of the thing that had been done.
“I will destroy these,” she said, “and bring the rug from Madameís room. And then,” she said, as simply as before, “Monsieur and Madame will dine.”
Renée shuddered and looked at Sturge.
“I remain here,” he said, “till the body is found. We are linked henceforth indissolubly and for ever, Idalie.” And as he stressed lightly the unwonted name, there was a look in his eyes she dared not oppose.
That night, when Renée had gone to her room, Sturge, sitting over the fire, remembered that he had not told her the strange incident which had brought about one tragedy today and prevented another. When he went into her chamber, she came to him, deeply agitated, and clasped him with violence.
“Oh, Sturge, Sturge!” she cried, “to think that if you had not chanced to come, I should be dead now, taken from you, taken from Godís beautiful world!”
Chanced! There is no such thing in this creation as chance, thought Sturge. But then who25 had given him that mystic warning? Who had put the revolver in his hand? or sent him on a mission of slaughter? Who had made Imogen rise just in time? Who had fired that shot in the drawing-room? The God within? The God without? The Easterns spoke of God in a man. This might well be He. And then there returned to his memory those fierce emotions, the hatred that had surged in him, the impulse and delight of slaughter, the song of exultation that his blood yet sang in his veins, because a man that had lived was dead and could not return to life again. He remembered, too, the command in Renéeís eyes. God in a man? Was God in a man a murderer then? In him? and in her?
“It is to enquire too curiously to think so,” he concluded, “but very strangely indeed has He made His world.”
Then he told her about the German mystic and the chime of the phantom hour that had brought him to her in the tragic moment of their destinies. And when he spoke of the daemon within, the woman understood better than the man.
Later edition of this work: The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo: Set in 37 volumes.- Volumes 3-4.- Collected Plays and Stories.- Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998.- 1008 p.
1 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: tenour
2 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: occulter
3 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: image
4 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: workday
5 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: side
6 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: daily
7 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: the
8 Aiei gar theoi ahanatoi peri gaian alontai
Thneton di anthropon epi domata prosbainousi
Kruptoi tousde tis au prosderketai ommasi kruptous?
Eita ti daimonion ti kenon kai okhema tis oide?
9 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: tedious
10 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: persisted
11 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: in their crabbed
12 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: deviated
13 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: flowered nowhere
14 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: hexameters
15 Aiei gar theoi ahanatoi peri gaian alontai
Thneton di anthropon epi domata prosbainousi
Kruptoi tousde tis au prosderketai ommasi kruptous?
Eita ti daimonion ti kenon kai okhema tis oide?
16 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: loom
17 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: exquisite
18 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: if some
19 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: had
20 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: and he slipped
21 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: forgave
22 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: Idalie
23 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: then the
24 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: came
25 1998 ed. CWSA, volumes 3-4: who then