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Monday 25 March 2013

'Black Coffee' by Jeffery Farnol


Professor Jarvis sat among piles of reference-books, and stacks of notes and jottings, the silence about him unbroken save for the ceaseless scratching of his pen.

Professor Jarvis hated bustle and noise of all sorts, for they destroyed that continuity of thought, that following out of proved facts to their primary hypotheses, which was to him the chief end and aim of existence; therefore he inhabited the thirtieth storey.

He had seen none but John, his valet, for nearly a month, sitting night after night, perched high above the great city, busied upon the work of which he had dreamed for years, his treatise upon "The Higher Ethics of Philosophy," and already it neared completion. A spirit of work had come upon him these last few weeks, a spirit that was a devil, cruel, relentless, allowing of no respite from the strain of intricate thought and nerve-racking effort; hence the Professor sat writing night after night, and had of late done with little sleep and much black coffee.

To-night, however, he felt strangely tired, he laid down his pen, and, resting his throbbing temples between his hands, stared down vacantly at the sheets of manuscript before him.

As he leaned thus, striving against a feeling of nausea that had recurred frequently the last few days, the long, close-written lines became to him "things" endowed with sinuous life, that moved, squirming a thousand legs across the white paper.

Professor Jarvis closed his eyes and sighed wearily. "I really must get some sleep," he said to himself, "I wonder when it was I slept last?" As he spoke he tried unsuccessfully to yawn and stretch himself. His glance, wandering aimlessly, paused at the lamp upon the desk before him, and as he stared at it, he noticed that the "things" had got from the paper and were writhing and creeping up the green shade. He sighed again, and his fingers fumbled among the papers beside him for the electric bell. Almost immediately, it seemed to him, he heard John's voice rather faint and far-away, responding from the shadow that lay beyond the light of the lamp.

"John, if you are really there, be so good as to switch on the light," said the Professor. "John," he continued, blinking at his valet in the sudden glare, "when did I sleep last?"

"Why, sir, you haven't rightly slept for a week now, just a doze now and then on the couch, sir, but that's nothing; if you'll allow me to advise you, sir, the best thing you could do would be to go to bed at once."

"Humph!" said the Professor. "Thank you, John, but your advice, though excellent, is impracticable. I am engaged upon my last chapter, and sleep is impossible until it is finished."

"Begging your pardon, sir," began John, "but if you were to try undressing and going to bed properly——"

"Don't be a fool, John!" cried the Professor, with a sudden access of anger that was strangely at variance with his usual placid manner, "do you think I wouldn't sleep if I could? Can't you see I'm sick for sleep? I tell you I'd sleep if I could, but I can't—there can be no rest for me I know now, until I've finished my book, and that will be somewhere about dawn," and the Professor glared up at John, his thick brows twitching, and his eyes glowing within the pale oval of his face with an unpleasant light.

"If you would only give up drinking so much black coffee, sir; they do say it's very bad for the nerves——"

"And I think they are right," put in the Professor, and his voice was as gentle as ever. "Yes, I think they are right. For instance, John, at this precise moment I have a feeling that there is a hand groping behind the curtains yonder. Yet this mental attitude harmonises in a manner with the subject of this last chapter, which deals with the psychic forces of nature. I allude, John, more especially to the following passage:

"'That mysterious power which some call the soul, if sufficiently educated, may cast off for a time this bodily flesh, and precipitate itself into illimitable spaces, riding upon the winds, walking upon the beds of seas and rivers, and indeed may even re-inhabit the bodies of those that have been long dead, provided they could be kept from corruption.'" The Professor leaned back in his chair, and continued in the voice of one thinking aloud:

"All this was known centuries ago, notably to the priests of Isis and the early Chaldeans, and is practised to-day in some small part by the fakirs of India and the lamas of Tibet, and yet is looked upon by the ignorant world as little more than cheap trickery. By the way," he broke off, becoming suddenly aware of John's presence, "didn't you ask for leave of absence until to-morrow?"

"Well, yes, sir, I did," admitted John, "but I thought I'd put it off, seeing you are so—so busy, sir."

"Nonsense, John, don't waste the evening, it must be getting late, just brew some more coffee in the samovar, and then you can go." John hesitated, but meeting the Professor's eye, obeyed; and having set the steaming samovar on a small table at his master's elbow and put the room in order, he turned to the door.

"I shall be back in the morning at eight o'clock, sir."

"Very good, John," said the Professor, sipping his coffee. "Good-night, John."

"Good-night, sir," returned John, and, closing the door behind him, stood for a moment to shake his head. "He isn't fit to be left alone," he muttered, "but I'll get back before eight to-morrow morning, yes, I'll take good care to be back before eight." So saying, he turned, and went softly along the passage.


For a long time the Professor had sat crouched above his desk, yet in the last half-hour he had not added a single word to the page before him, for somewhere beneath his brain a small hammer seemed tap-tapping, soft and slow and regular, rendering the stillness about him but the more profound. Slowly and gradually a feeling of expectation grew upon him, a foolishly persistent expectation of something that was drawing near and nearer to him with every stroke of the hammer—something that he could neither guess at, nor hope to arrest, only, he knew that it was coming, coming, and he waited with straining ears, listening for the unknown.

Suddenly, from somewhere in the world far below, a clock chimed midnight, and as the last strokes died there was a hurry of footsteps along the corridor without, a knock, and a fumbling at the handle. As the Professor rose, the door opened, and a shortish, stoutish individual, chiefly remarkable for a round, red face, and a bristle of grey hair, trotted in, and was shaking him by the hand—talking meanwhile in that quick jerky style that was characteristic of Magnus McManus, whose researches in Lower Egypt and along the Nile during the last ten years had made his name famous.

"My dear Dick," he began, "good God, how ill you look!—frightful—overwork as usual, eh?"

"Why, Magnus!" exclaimed the Professor, "I thought you were in Egypt?"

"Exactly—so I was—came back last week with a specimen—been in New York three days—must get back to the Nile at once—booked passage yesterday—sail to-morrow—noon. You see, Dick," continued Magnus, trotting up and down the room, "I received a cable from Tarrant—overseer of the excavations, you know—to say they've come upon a monolith—Coptic inscriptions—curious—may be important—very."

"Yes," nodded the Professor.

"So just looked you up, Dick—to ask you to take charge of this specimen I brought over—thought you wouldn't mind keeping it until I got back."

"Certainly, of course," said the Professor rather absently.

"Undoubtedly the greatest find of the age," pursued Magnus, "stupendous—will throw a new light on Egyptian history—there is not in the whole world, so far as is known, such another mummy."

"A what?" exclaimed the Professor, "did you say 'mummy'?"

"To be sure," nodded Magnus, "though the term is inapt—this is something more than your ordinary dried-up mummy."

"And have you—have you brought it with you, Magnus?"

"Certainly—it's waiting outside in the corridor."

For no apparent reason the Professor shivered violently, and the nausea came upon him again.

"The deuce of a time getting it here—awkward to handle, you know," and as he spoke Magnus turned and trotted from the room. There came a murmur of voices outside, a shuffle and stagger of approaching footsteps as of men who bore a heavy burden, and above all the excited tones of Magnus.

"Easy there—mind that corner—steady, steady, don't jar it; now, gently—so." And Magnus reappeared, followed by four men who bent beneath something in shape between a packing-case and a coffin, which by the direction of Magnus they sat carefully down in a convenient corner.

"Now," cried he, as soon as they were alone, drawing a small screwdriver from his pocket, "I'm going to show you something that will make you doubt the evidence of your eyes—as I did myself at first—a wonder, Dick—that will set all the societies gaping—open-mouthed—like fools."

One by one Magnus extracted the screws that held down the lid, while the Professor watched, wide-eyed, waiting—waiting.

"This specimen will be a revelation on the art of embalming," continued Magnus, busy upon the last screw. "Here is no stuffed and withered, dried-up wisp of humanity. Whoever did this was a genius—positively—there has been no disembowelling here—deuce take this screw—body is as perfect as when life first left it—and mark me, Dick—it can't be less than six thousand years old at the very least—probably older. I tell you it's beyond all wonder, but there—judge for yourself!" and with these words, Magnus laid down the screwdriver, lifted off the heavy lid and stood aside.

The Professor drew a deep breath, his fingers clutching convulsively at his chair-arms, as he stared at that which lay, or rather stood, within the glass-fronted shell or coffin.

And what he saw was an oval face framed in black hair, a face full and unshrunken, yet of a hideous ashen-grey, a high, thin, aquiline nose with delicate proud-curving nostrils, and below, a mouth, blue-lipped, yet in whose full, cruel lines lurked a ghastly mockery that carried with it a nameless horror.

"Must have been handsome at one time," said Magnus. "Very much so indeed—regular features and all that—pure Egyptian type, but——"

"It's—the—the face of a devil," muttered the Professor thickly. "I wonder what—what lies behind those eyelids, they seem as if they might lift at any moment, and if they did——Oh, I tell you it is horrible."

Magnus laughed. "Thought she'd astonish you—will knock science deaf and dumb—not a doubt. The setting of these stones," he continued with a complacent air, "round her neck—uncut emeralds they are—dates quite back to the Fifth Dynasty—yet that scarab on her breast seems even earlier still—the gold embroidery on her gown beats me—quite—and the thumb-ring by its shape would almost seem to belong to the Fifteenth Dynasty. Altogether she's a puzzle. Another peculiar thing was that—mouth and nostrils had been—plugged by a kind of cement—deuce of a time getting it out.

"The inscription upon her sarcophagus," he ran on, "describes her as: 'Ahasuera, Princess of the House of Ra, in the reign of Raman Kau Ra,' possibly another title for Seti The Second. I also came upon a papyrus—very important—and three tablets, have only had time to dip into them hastily—but from what I gather, Ahasuera appears to have been of a very evil reputation—combination of Semiramis, Cleopatra, and Messalina, multiplied by three! One of her lovers was a certain Ptomes, High Priest of the Temple of Osiris, who is spoken of as 'one greatly versed in the arts and mysteries of Isis and the high Gods.' When I first opened her sarcophagus, from the strange disorder of the wrappings—almost seemed as if she must have moved—also the golden death-mask that had covered her face had fallen off—which was curious—very. Upon examining this mask—found an inscription across the forehead—puzzled me for days—meaning came to me all at once—in bed—might be translated by a line of doggerel verse something like this:

'Isis awhile hath stayed my breath,
Whoso wakes me shall find death.'

which is also curious, eh? Why, Great heavens, man! What ails you?" Magnus broke off, for he had turned and looked at his friend for the first time.

"Nothing," returned the Professor in the same thick voice. "Nothing—only cover it up—cover it up in God's name."

"Certainly—to be sure," said Magnus, staring. "Had no idea it would affect you like that, nerves must be at sixes and sevens, should take more care of yourself, Dick, and stop that confounded black coffee."

As the last screw was driven home, the Professor laughed, a little wildly. "There are eighteen screws, about two and a half inches long, eh, Magnus?"

"Yes," said Magnus and turned to stare again.

"Good," the Professor rejoined with the same strange laugh. Magnus forced a smile.

"Why, Dick," he began, "you almost talk as though you imagined——"

"Those eyes," the Professor broke in, "they haunt me, they are the eyes of one who waits to take you unawares, they are eyes that watch and follow you behind your back——"

"Pooh! nonsense, Dick," cried Magnus, rather hastily. "This is nothing but imagination—sheer imagination. You ought to take a holiday or you will be suffering from hallucinations next."

"Sit still and listen," said the Professor, and he began to read from the manuscript before him:

"'That mysterious power which some call the soul, if sufficiently educated, may cast off for a time this bodily flesh and precipitate itself into illimitable spaces, riding upon the winds, walking upon the beds of seas and rivers, and indeed may even re-inhabit the bodies of those that have been long dead, provided that body could be kept free from corruption.'"

"Humph!" said Magnus, crossing his legs. "Well?"

"'Provided that body could be kept free from corruption,'" repeated the Professor, then, raising his arm with a sudden gesture, he pointed at the thing in the corner: "That is not death," he said.

Magnus leaped to his feet. "Man, are you mad," he cried, "what do you mean?"

"Suspended animation!" said the Professor.

For a long moment there was silence, during which the two men stared into each other's eyes; the face of Magnus had lost some of its colour, and the Professor's fingers moved nervously upon his chair-arms. Suddenly Magnus laughed, though perhaps a trifle too boisterously.

"Bosh!" he exclaimed, "what folly are you talking, Dick? What you require is a good stiff glass of brandy and bed afterwards," and with the knowledge and freedom of an old friend, he crossed to a corner cabinet, and took thence a decanter and glasses, pouring out a stiff peg into each.

"So you don't agree with me, Magnus?" "Agree, no," said Magnus, swallowing his brandy at a gulp, "it's all nerves—damn 'em."

The Professor shook his head. "There are more things in heaven and earth——"

"Yes—yes, I know—I have cursed Shakespeare frequently for that same quotation."

"But you yourself wrote a paper, Magnus, only a few years ago, on the hypnotic trances practised by the Egyptians."

"Now, Dick," expostulated Magnus, "be reasonable, for heaven's sake! Is it possible that any trance could extend into six or seven thousand years? Preposterous, utterly. Come, get to bed, man, like a sensible chap—where's John?"

"I gave him leave of absence until to-morrow."

"The deuce you did?" exclaimed Magnus, glancing round the room with an uneasy feeling. "Well, I'll take his place—see you into bed and all that."

"Thanks, Magnus, but it's no good," returned the Professor, shaking his head. "I couldn't sleep until I've finished this last chapter, and it won't take long."

"One o'clock, by Gad!" exclaimed Magnus, glancing at his watch. "Must hurry off, Dick—hotel—sail to-morrow, you know."

The Professor shivered, and rose to his feet. "Good-bye, Magnus," he said as they shook hands. "I hope your monolith will turn out a good find. Good-bye!"

"Thanks, old fellow," said Magnus, returning the pressure. "Now, no more poisonous coffee, mind." So saying he trotted to the door, nodded, and was gone.

The Professor sat for a moment with puckered brows, then, rising hastily, crossed to the door, turned the handle, and peered out into the dim light of the corridor.

"Magnus," he called in a hoarse whisper. "Magnus."

"Well?" came the answer.

"Then you don't think It will open Its eyes, do you, Magnus?"

"Good God—no!"

"Ah!" said the Professor, and closed the door.


"I wish," said the Professor, as he took up his pen, "I wish that I had not let John go, I feel strangely lonely to-night, and John is so very matter of fact," so saying he bent to his writing again. His brain had grown singularly bright and clear, all his faculties seemed strung to their highest pitch, a feeling of exaltation had taken possession of him. His ideas grew luminous, intricate thoughts became coherent, the words shaping themselves beneath his pen with a subtle power and eloquence.

Yet all at once, and for no apparent reason, in the very middle of a sentence, a desire seized upon him to turn his head and look back over his shoulder at that which stood in the corner. He checked it with an effort, and his pen resumed its scratching; though all the time he was conscious that the desire was growing, and that sooner or later it would master him. Not that he expected to see anything unusual, that was absurd, of course. He began trying to remember how many screws there were holding down the lid upon that Thing, whose lips had mocked at God and man through centuries and whose eyes—ah, whose eyes—— The Professor turned suddenly, and with his pen extended before him, began counting the glinting screw-heads to himself in an undertone.

"One, two three, four, five, six—six along each side, and three along the top and bottom—eighteen in all. And they were steel screws, too, a quarter of an inch thick, and two and a half inches in length; they ought to be strong enough, and yet eighteen after all was not many; why hasn't Magnus used more of them, it would have been so much——" The Professor checked himself, and turned back to his work; but he tried vainly to write, for now the impulse held him without respite, growing more insistent each moment, an impulse that had fear beneath it, fear born of things that move behind one. 'Ah, yes, behind one—why had he let It be placed in the corner that was directly behind his chair?' He rose and began pulling and dragging at his desk, but it was heavy, and defied his efforts; yet the physical exertion, futile though it was, seemed to calm him, but though he bent resolutely above his task—the finishing of his great book—his mind was absent, and the pen between his fingers traced idle patterns and meaningless scribbles upon the sheet before him, so he tossed it aside, and buried his face in his hands.

Could it be possible that in the darkness behind the lid with the eighteen screws the eyes were still shut, or were they——? The Professor shivered. Ah, if he could but know, if he could only be certain—he wished John was here—John was so very matter of fact—he might have sat and watched It—yes, he had been foolish to let John go. The Professor sighed, and, opening his eyes, remained motionless—staring down at the sheet of foolscap before him—staring at the two uneven lines scrawled across it in ragged capitals that were none of his:

"Isis awhile hath stayed my breath,
Whoso wakes me shall find death."

A sudden piping, high-pitched laugh startled him—"Could it really be issuing from his own lips?" he asked himself, and indeed he knew it must be so. He sat with every nerve tingling—hoping, praying for something to break the heavy silence—the creak of a footstep—a shout—a scream—anything rather than that horrible laugh; and as he waited it came again, louder, wilder than before. And now he felt it quivering between his teeth, rattling in his throat, shaking him to and fro in its grip, then, swift as it had come it was gone, and the Professor was looking down at a litter of torn paper at his feet. He reached out a trembling hand to the rack upon his desk and taking down a pipe already filled, lighted it. The tobacco seemed to soothe him, and he inhaled it deeply, watching it rise in blue, curling spirals above his head, watched it roll in thin clouds across the room, until he noticed that it always drifted in the same direction, to hang like a curtain above one point, an ever-moving curtain behind which were shadowy "somethings" that moved and writhed.

The Professor got unsteadily to his legs.

"Magnus was right," he muttered, "I am ill, I must try to sleep—I must—I must." But as he stood there, leaning his shaking hands upon the table-edge, the blind fear, the unreasoning dread against which he had battled so vainly all night swept over him in an irresistible wave; his breath choked, a loathing horror shook him from head to foot, yet all the time his gaze never left the great white box, with its narrow screw-heads that stared at him like little searching eyes. Something glittered upon the floor beside it, and almost before he knew he had snatched up the screwdriver. He worked feverishly until but one screw remained, and as he stopped to wipe the sweat from his cheek he was surprised to find himself singing a song he had heard at a music-hall years before, in his college days; then he held his breath as the last screw gave.

... The oval face framed in a mist of black hair, the long voluptuous eyes with their heavy lids, the aquiline nose, the cruel curve of the nostrils, and the full-lipped sensual mouth, with its everlasting mockery; he had seen it all before, and yet as he gazed he was conscious of a change, subtle and horrible, a change that he could not define, yet which held him as one entranced. With an effort he turned away his eyes, and tried to replace the lid, but could not; he looked about him wildly, then snatching up a heavily fringed rug, covered the horror from sight.

"Magnus was right," he repeated, "I must sleep," and crossing to the couch, he sank upon it and hid his face among the cushions.

A long time he lay there, but sleep was impossible, for the sound of the hammers was in his ears again, but louder now and seeming to beat upon his very brain. What was that other sound—that came to him beneath the hammer-strokes—could it be a footstep? He sat up listening, and then he noticed that the fringe upon the rug was moving. He rubbed his eyes, disbelieving, until all at once it was shaken by another movement that ran up it with a strange rippling motion. He rose, trembling, and creeping forward, tore away the rug. Then he saw and understood the change that had baffled him before; and with the knowledge, the might of his learning, the strength of his manhood, deserted him, and covering his face, Professor Jarvis rocked his body to and fro making a strange whimpering noise, like a little child; for the ashen grey was gone from the face, and the lips which had been black were blood-red. For a while the Professor continued to rock to and fro, whimpering behind his hands, till with a sudden gesture, wild and passionate, he tossed his arms above his head.

"My God!" he cried, "I'm going mad—I am mad, oh, anything but that—not mad, no, not mad—I am not mad—-no." Chancing to catch sight of himself in a mirror, he shook his head and chuckled. "Not mad," he whispered to his reflection, "oh, no," then he turned to the case once more, and began patting and stroking the glass.

"Oh, Eyes of Death, lift thy lashes, for I am fain to know the mystery beyond. What though I be the Priest Ptomes, even he that put this magic upon thee, yet am I come back to thee, Beloved, and my soul calleth unto thine even as in Thebes of old. Oh, Eyes of Death, lift thy lashes, for I am fain to know the mystery beyond. While thy soul slept, mine hath hungered for thee through countless ages, and now is the time of waiting accomplished. Oh, Eyes of Death, lift thy lashes, for I am fain to know the mystery beyond. Ah, God," he broke out suddenly, "she will not wake—I cannot wake her." And he writhed his fingers together. All at once his aspect changed, his mouth curved with a smile of cunning, he crept to where a small mirror hung upon the wall, and, with a swift movement, hid it beneath his coat, and, crossing to his desk, propped it up before him.

"They will not open while I look and wait for it," he said, nodding and smiling to himself. "They are the eyes of one who waits to take you unawares, that watch and follow you behind your back, yet I shall see them, yes, I shall see them."

From the world below came the long-drawn tooting of a steamer on the river, and with the sound, faint and far-away though it was, reason reasserted itself.

"Good heavens!" he exclaimed, trying to laugh. "What a fool I am to let a pitiful bit of dead humanity drive me half-wild with fear, and in New York too, it seems inconceivable." So saying the Professor crossed to the brandy, and, with his back turned resolutely, slowly drained his glass, yet even then he was vaguely conscious of eyes that watched him, followed his every movement, and with difficulty he forbore from swinging round on his heel. With the same iron will crushing down his rebellious nerves, he arranged his papers and took up his pen.

The human body after all has certain attributes of the cur, for let that master, the mind, chastise it, and it will cringe, let him command and it will obey. So the Professor sat, his eye clear, his hand firm, scarcely noticing the mirror beside him, even when he paused to take a fresh sheet.

The sickly grey of dawn was at the windows as he paused to glance at his watch. "Another half-hour," he muttered, "and my work is done, ended, fin——" The word died upon his lips, for his glance by accident had fallen upon the mirror, and the eyes were wide open. For a long moment they looked into his ere their lids fluttered and fell.

"I am suffering from hallucinations," he groaned. "It is one of the results of loss of sleep, but I wish John was back, John is such a matter-of-fact——"

There was a sound behind him, a sound soft and gentle like the whisper of wind in trees, or the brushing of drapery against a wall—and it was moving across the floor behind him. A chill as of death shuddered through him, and he knew the terror that is dumb.

Scarcely daring to look, full of a dread of expectation, he lifted his eyes to the mirror. The case behind him was empty; he turned swiftly, and there, so close that he might almost touch it was, the "Thing" he had called a pitiful bit of dead humanity. Slowly, inch by inch, it moved towards him, with a scrape and rustle of stiff draperies:

"Isis awhile hath stayed my breath,
Whoso wakes me, shall find—death!"

With a cry that was something between a scream and a laugh he leaped to his feet and hurled himself upon It; there was the sound of a dull blow, a gasp, and Professor Jarvis was lying upon the floor, his arms wide-tossed, and his face hidden in the folds of a rug.

*   *   *   *   *

Next day there was a paragraph in the papers, which read as follows:


"Yesterday at his chambers in —— Street, Professor Jarvis, the famous Scientist, was found dead, presumably of heart-failure. A curious feature of the case was that a mummy which had stood in a rough travelling-case in a corner on the opposite side of the room was found lying across the Professor's dead body."


Written by Jeffery Farnol
Published: 'Black Coffee'

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