His partner grumbled audibly, for in turning he had knocked his hand against the desk.
“Leave me my only economy, Haswell,” he answered with a hard little laugh. “Electricity is strength and I hate to see strength burning to waste. Why do you mind?” he went on as he stepped towards the door. “Is it the contrast? In all times of our wealth, in all times of our tribulation, from sickness and from sudden death——”
“Good Lord deliver us,” chimed in Mr. Haswell in a shaking voice behind him. “What the devil’s that?”
Sir Robert looked round and saw, or thought that he saw, something very strange. From the pillar on which it stood the golden fetish with a woman’s face, appeared to have floated. The firelight showed it gliding towards them across, but a few inches above the floor of the great room. It came very slowly, but it came. Now it reached them and paused, and now it rose into the air until it attained the height of Mr. Champers-Haswell and stayed there, staring into his face and not a hand’s breadth away, just as though it were a real woman glaring at him.
He uttered a sound, half whistle and half groan, and fell back, as it chanced on to a morocco-covered seat behind him. For a moment or two the gleaming, golden mask floated in the air. Then it turned very deliberately, rose a little way, and moving sidelong to where Sir Robert stood, hung in front of his face.
Presently Aylward staggered to the mantelpiece and began to fumble for the switch; in the silence his nails scratching at the panelling made a sound like to that of a gnawing mouse. He found it at last, and next instant the office broke into a blaze of light, showing Mr. Haswell, his rubicund face quite pale, his hat and umbrella on the floor, gasping like a dying man upon the couch, and Sir Robert himself clinging to the mantel-shelf as a person might do who had received a mortal wound, while the golden fetish reposed calmly on its pillar, to all appearance as immovable and undisturbed as the antique Venus which matched it at the other end of the room. For a while there was silence. Then Sir Robert, recovering himself, asked:
“Did you notice anything unusual just now, Haswell?”
“Yes,” whispered his partner. “I thought that hideous African thing which Vernon brought here, came sliding across the floor and stared into my face with its glittering eyes, and in the eyes——”
“Well, what was in the eyes?”
“I can’t remember. It was a kind of picture and the meaning of it was Sudden Death—oh Lord! Sudden Death. Tell me it was a fancy bred of that ill-omened talk of yours?”
“I can’t tell you anything of the sort,” answered Aylward in a hollow voice, “for I saw something also.”
“What?” asked his partner.
“Death that wasn’t sudden, and other things.”
Again the silence fell till it was broken by Aylward.
“Come,” he said, “we have been over-working—too much strain, and now the reaction. Keep this rubbish to yourself, or they will lock you up in an asylum.”