Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 62 of 274

“But of course there were lots of fellows who were on a sort of dividing line between serious studies and the devil. The aesthetes–the decadents, you know. Experiments in life and sensation–the Baudelaire kind of a chap. Naturally Denis ran up against a good many of these, and saw a good deal of their life. They had all sorts of crazy circles and cults–imitation devil-worship, fake Black Masses, and the like. Doubt if it did them much harm on the whole–probably most of ’em forgot all about it in a year or two. One of the deepest in this queer stuff was a fellow Denis had known at school–for that matter, whose father I’d known myself. Frank Marsh, of New Orleans. Disciple of Lafcadio Hearn and Gauguin and Van Gogh–regular epitome of the yellow ’nineties. Poor devil–he had the makings of a great artist, at that.

“Marsh was the oldest friend Denis had in Paris, so as a matter of course they saw a good deal of each other–to talk over old times at St. Clair academy, and all that. The boy wrote me a good deal about him, and I didn’t see any especial harm when he spoke of the group of mystics Marsh ran with. It seems there was some cult of prehistoric Egyptian and Carthaginian magic having a rage among the Bohemian element on the left bank–some nonsensical thing that pretended to reach back to forgotten sources of hidden truth in lost African civilisations–the great Zimbabwe, the dead Atlantean cities in the Haggar region of the Sahara–and they had a lot of gibberish concerned with snakes and human hair. At least, I called it gibberish, then. Denis used to quote Marsh as saying odd things about the veiled facts behind the legend of Medusa’s snaky locks–and behind the later Ptolemaic myth of Berenice, who offered up her hair to save her husband-brother, and had it set in the sky as the constellation Coma Berenices.

“I don’t think this business made much impression on Denis until the night of the queer ritual at Marsh’s rooms when he met the priestess. Most of the devotees of the cult were young fellows, but the head of it was a young woman who called herself ‘Tanit-Isis’–letting it be known that her real name–her name in this latest incarnation, as she put it–was Marceline Bedard. She claimed to be the left-handed daughter of Marquis de Chameaux, and seemed to have been both a petty artist and an artist’s model before adopting this more lucrative magical game. Someone said she had lived for a time in the West Indies–Martinique, I think–but she was very reticent about herself. Part of her pose was a great show of austerity and holiness, but I don’t think the more experienced students took that very seriously.

“Denis, though, was far from experienced, and wrote me fully ten pages of slush about the goddess he had discovered. If I’d only realised his simplicity I might have done something, but I never thought a puppy infatuation like could mean much. I felt absurdly sure that Denis’ touchy personal honour and family pride would always keep him out of the most serious complications.

“As time went, though, his letters began to make me nervous. He mentioned this Marceline more and more, and his friends less and less, and began talking about the ‘cruel and silly way’ they declined to introduce her to their mothers and sisters. He seems to have asked her no questions about herself, and I don’t doubt but that she filled him full of romantic legendry concerning her origin and divine revelations and the way people slighted her. At length I could see that Denis was altogether cutting his own crowd and spending the bulk of his time with his alluring priestess. At her especial request he never told the old crowd of their continual meetings; so nobody over there tried to break the affair up.

“I suppose she thought he was fabulously rich; for he had the air of a patrician, and people of a certain class think all aristocratic Americans are wealthy. In any case, she probably thought this a rare chance to contract a genuine right-handed alliance with a really eligible young man. By the time my nervousness burst into open advice, it was too late. The boy had lawfully married her, and wrote that he was dropping his studies and bringing the woman home to Riverside. He said she had made a great sacrifice and resigned her leadership of the magical cult, and that henceforward she would be merely a private gentlewoman–the future mistress of Riverside, and mother of de Russys to come.

“Well, sir, I took it the best way I could. I knew that sophisticated Continentals have different standards from our old American ones–and anyway, I really knew nothing against the woman. A charlatan, perhaps, but why necessarily any worse? I suppose I tried to keep as naïve as possible about such things in those days, for the boy’s sake. Clearly, there was nothing for a man of sense to do but let Denis alone so long as his new wife conformed to de Russy ways. Let her have a chance to prove herself–perhaps she wouldn’t hurt the family as much as some might fear. So I didn’t raise any objections or ask any penitence. The thing was done, and I stood ready to welcome the boy back, whatever he brought with him.

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