The Three Imposters (or The Transmutations)
An Occult Novel of Horror
Arthur Machen, 1894
Part 2: Adventure of the Gold Tiberius
The acquaintance between Mr. Dyson and Mr. Charles Phillipps arose from one of those myriad chances which are every day doing their work in the streets of London. Mr. Dyson was a man of letters, and an unhappy instance of talents misapplied. With gifts that might have placed him in the flower of his youth among the most favored of Bentley’s favorite novelists, he had chosen to be perverse; he was, it is true, familiar with scholastic logic, but he knew nothing of the logic of life, and he flattered himself with the title of artist, when he was in fact but an idle and curious spectator of other men’s endeavors. Amongst many delusions, he cherished one most fondly, that he was a strenuous worker; and it was with a gesture of supreme weariness that he would enter his favorite resort, a small tobacco shop in Great Queen Street, and proclaim to any one who cared to listen that he had seen the rising and setting of two successive suns. The proprietor of the shop, a middle-aged man of singular civility, tolerated Dyson partly out of good nature, and partly because he was a regular customer; he was allowed to sit on an empty cask, and to express his sentiments on literary and artistic matters till he was tired or the time for closing came; and if no fresh customers were attracted, it is believed that none were turned away by his eloquence. Dyson, was addicted to wild experiments in tobacco; he never wearied of trying new combinations, and one evening he had just entered the shop and given utterance to his last preposterous formula, when a young fellow, of about his own age, who had come in a moment later, asked the shopman to duplicate the order on his account, smiling politely, as he spoke, to Mr. Dyson’s address. Dyson felt profoundly flattered, and after a few phrases the two entered into conversation, and in an hour’s time the tobacconist saw the new friends sitting side by side on a couple of casks, deep in talk.
“My dear sir,” said Dyson, “I will give you the task of the literary man in a phrase. He has got to do simply this: to invent a wonderful story, and to tell it in a wonderful manner.”
“I will grant you that,” said Mr. Phillipps, “but you will allow me to insist that in the hands of the true artist in words all stories are marvellous, and every circumstance has its peculiar wonder. The matter is of little consequence, the manner is everything. Indeed, the highest skill is shown in taking matter apparently commonplace and transmuting it by the high alchemy of style into the pure gold of art.”
“That is indeed a proof of great skill, but it is great skill exerted foolishly, or at least unadvisedly. It is as if a great violinist were to show us what marvellous harmonies he could draw from a child’s banjo.”
“No, no, you are really wrong. I see you take a radically mistaken view of life. But we must thresh this out. Come to my rooms; I live not far from here.”
It was thus that Mr. Dyson became the associate of Mr. Charles Phillipps, who lived in a quiet square not far from Holborn. Thenceforth they haunted each other’s rooms at intervals, sometimes regular, and occasionally the reverse, and made appointments to meet at the shop in Queen Street, where their talk robbed the tobacconist’s profit of half its charm. There was a constant jarring of literary formulas, Dyson exalting the claims of the pure imagination, while Phillipps, who was a student of physical science and something of an ethnologist, insisted that all literature ought to have a scientific basis. By the mistaken benevolence of deceased relatives both young men were placed out of reach of hunger, and so, meditating high achievements, idled their time pleasantly away, and revelled in the careless joys of a Bohemianism devoid of the sharp seasoning of adversity.
One night in June Mr. Phillipps was sitting in his room in the calm retirement of Red Lion Square. He had opened the window, and was smoking placidly, while he watched the movement of life below. The sky was clear, and the afterglow of sunset had lingered long about it; and the flushing twilight of a summer evening, vying with the gas-lamps in the square, had fashioned a chiaroscuro that had in it something unearthly; and the children, racing to and fro upon the pavement, the lounging idlers by the public, and the casual passers-by rather flickered, and hovered in the play of lights than stood out substantial things. By degrees in the houses opposite one window after another leaped out a square of light, now and again a figure would shape itself against a blind and vanish, and to all this semi-theatrical magic the runs and flourishes of brave Italian opera played a little distance off on a piano-organ seemed an appropriate accompaniment, while the deep-muttered bass of the traffic of Holborn never ceased. Phillipps enjoyed the scene and its effects; the light in the sky faded and turned to darkness, and the square gradually grew silent, and still he sat dreaming at the window, till the sharp peal of the house bell roused him, and looking at his watch he found that it was past ten o’clock. There was a knock at the door, and his friend Mr. Dyson entered, and, according to his custom, sat down in an armchair and began to smoke in silence.
“You know, Phillipps,” he said at length, “that I have always battled for the marvellous. I remember your maintaining in that chair that one has no business to make use of the wonderful, the improbable, the odd coincidence in literature, and you took the ground that it was wrong to do so, because, as a matter of fact, the wonderful and the improbable don’t happen, and men’s lives are not really shaped by odd coincidence. Now, mind you, if that were so, I would not grant your conclusion, because I think the “criticism-of-life” theory is all nonsense; but I deny your premise. A most singular thing has happened to me tonight.”
“Really, Dyson, I am very glad to hear it. Of course I oppose your argument, whatever it may be; but if you would be good enough to tell me of your adventure I should be delighted.”
“Well, it came about like this. I have had a very hard day’s work; indeed, I have scarcely moved from my old bureau since seven o’clock last night. I wanted to work out that idea we discussed last Tuesday, you know, the notion of the fetish-worshipper.”
“Yes, I remember. Have you been able to do anything with it?”
“Yes; it came out better than I expected; but there were great difficulties, the usual agony between the conception and the execution. Anyhow I got it done at about seven o’clock tonight, and I thought I should like a little of the fresh air. I went out and wandered rather aimlessly about the streets; my head was full of my tale, and I didn’t much notice where I was going. I got into those quiet places to the north of Oxford Street as you go west, the genteel residential neighborhood of stucco and prosperity. I turned east again without knowing it, and it was quite dark when I passed along a sombre little by-street, ill lighted and empty. I did not know at the time in the least where I was, but I found out afterwards that it was not very far from Tottenham Court Road. I strolled idly along, enjoying the stillness; on one side there seemed to be the back premises of some great shop; tier after tier of dusty windows lifted up into the night, with gibbet-like contrivances for raising heavy goods, and below large doors, fast closed and bolted, all dark and desolate. Then there came a huge pantechnicon warehouse; and over the way a grim blank wall, as forbidding as the wall of a jail, and then the headquarters of some volunteer regiment, and afterwards a passage leading to a court where wagons were standing to be hired. It was, one might almost say, a street devoid of inhabitants, and scarce a window showed the glimmer of a light. I was wondering at the strange peace and dimness there, where it must be close to some roaring main artery of London life, when suddenly I heard the noise of dashing feet tearing along the pavement at full speed, and from a narrow passage, a mews or something of that kind, a man was discharged as from a catapult under my very nose and rushed past me, flinging something from him as he ran. He was gone and down another street in an instant, almost before I knew what had happened, but I didn’t much bother about him, I was watching something else. I told you he had thrown something away; well, I watched what seemed a line of flame flash through the air and fly quivering over the pavement, and in spite of myself I could not help tearing after it. The impetus lessened, and I saw something like a bright half-penny roll slower and slower, and then deflect towards the gutter, hover for a moment on the edge, and dance down into a drain. I believe I cried out in positive despair, though I hadn’t the least notion what I was hunting; and then to my joy I saw that, instead of dropping into the sewer, it had fallen flat across two bars. I stooped down and picked it up and whipped it into my pocket, and I was just about to walk on when I heard again that sound of dashing footsteps. I don’t know why I did it, but as a matter of fact I dived down into the mews, or whatever it was, and stood as much in the shadow as possible. A man went by with a rush a few paces from where I was standing, and I felt uncommonly pleased that I was in hiding. I couldn’t make out much feature, but I saw his eyes gleaming and his teeth showing, and he had an ugly-looking knife in one hand, and I thought things would be very unpleasant for gentleman number one if the second robber, or robbed, or what you like, caught him up. I can tell you, Phillipps, a fox hunt is exciting enough, when the horn blows clear on a winter morning, and the hounds give tongue, and the red-coats charge away, but it’s nothing to a man hunt, and that’s what I had a slight glimpse of tonight. There was murder in the fellow’s eyes as he went by, and I don’t think there was much more than fifty seconds between the two. I only hope it was enough.”
Dyson leant back in his armchair and relit his pipe, and puffed thoughtfully. Phillipps began to walk up and down the room, musing over the story of violent death fleeting in chase along the pavement, the knife shining in the lamplight, the fury of the pursuer, and the terror of the pursued.
“Well,” he said at last, “and what was it, after all, that you rescued from the gutter?”
Dyson jumped up, evidently quite startled. “I really haven’t a notion. I didn’t think of looking. But we shall see.”
He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and drew out a small and shining object, and laid it on the table. It glowed there beneath the lamp with the radiant glory of rare old gold; and the image and the letters stood out in high relief, clear and sharp, as if it had but left the mint a month before. The two men bent over it, and Phillipps took it up and examined it closely.
“Imp. Tiberius Cæsar Augustus,” he read the legend, and then, looking at the reverse of the coin, he stared in amazement, and at last turned to Dyson with a look of exultation.
“Do you know what you have found?” he said.
“Apparently a gold coin of some antiquity,” said Dyson, coolly.
“Quite so, a gold Tiberius. No, that is wrong. You have found the gold Tiberius. Look at the reverse.”
Dyson looked and saw the coin was stamped with the figure of a faun standing amidst reeds and flowing water. The features, minute as they were, stood out in delicate outline; it was a face lovely and yet terrible, and Dyson thought of the well-known passage of the lad’s playmate, gradually growing with his growth and increasing with his stature, till the air was filled with the rank fume of the goat.
“Yes,” he said, “it is a curious coin. Do you know it?”
“I know about it. It is one of the comparatively few historical objects in existence; it is all storied like those jewels we have read of. A whole cycle of legend has gathered round the thing; the tale goes that it formed part of an issue struck by Tiberius to commemorate an infamous excess. You see the legend on the reverse: ‘Victoria.’ It is said that by an extraordinary accident the whole issue was thrown into the melting pot, and that only this one coin escaped. It glints through history and legend, appearing and disappearing, with intervals of a hundred years in time and continents in place. It was discovered by an Italian humanist, and lost and rediscovered. It has not been heard of since 1727, when Sir Joshua Byrde, a Turkey merchant, brought it home from Aleppo, and vanished with it a month after he had shown it to the virtuosi, no man knew or knows where. And here it is!”
“Put it into your pocket, Dyson,” he said, after a pause. “I would not let any one have a glimpse of the thing, if I were you. I would not talk about it. Did either of the men you saw see you?”
“Well, I think not. I don’t think the first man, the man who was vomited out of the dark passage, saw anything at all; and I am sure that the second could not have seen me.”
“And you didn’t really see them. You couldn’t recognize either the one or the other if you met him in the street tomorrow?”
“No, I don’t think I could. The street, as I said, was dimly lighted, and they ran like mad-men.”
The two men sat silent for some time, each weaving his own fancies of the story; but lust of the marvellous was slowly overpowering Dyson’s more sober thoughts.
“It is all more strange than I fancied,” he said at last. “It was queer enough what I saw; a man is sauntering along a quiet, sober, every-day London street, a street of gray houses and blank walls, and there, for a moment, a veil seems drawn aside, and the very fume of the pit steams up through the flagstones, the ground glows, red hot, beneath his feet, and he seems to hear the hiss of the infernal caldron. A man flying in mad terror for his life, and furious hate pressing hot on his steps with knife drawn ready; here indeed is horror. But what is all that to what you have told me? I tell you, Phillipps, I see the plot thicken, our steps will henceforth be dogged with mystery, and the most ordinary incidents will teem with significance. You may stand out against it, and shut your eyes, but they will be forced open; mark my words, you will have to yield to the inevitable. A clue, tangled if you like, has been placed by chance in our hands; it will be our business to follow it up. As for the guilty person or persons in this strange case, they will be unable to escape us, our nets will be spread far and wide over this great city, and suddenly, in the streets and places of public resort, we shall in some way or other be made aware that we are in touch with the unknown criminal. Indeed, I almost fancy I see him slowly approaching this quiet square of yours; he is loitering at street corners, wandering, apparently without aim, down far-reaching thoroughfares, but all the while coming nearer and nearer, drawn by an irresistible magnetism, as ships were drawn to the Loadstone Rock in the Eastern tale.”
“I certainly think,” replied Phillipps, “that, if you pull out that coin and flourish it under people’s noses as you are doing at the present moment, you will very probably find yourself in touch with the criminal, or a criminal. You will undoubtedly be robbed with violence. Otherwise, I see no reason why either of us should be troubled. No one saw you secure the coin, and no one knows you have it. I, for my part, shall sleep peacefully, and go about my business with a sense of security and a firm dependence on the natural order of things. The events of the evening, the adventure in the street, have been odd, I grant you, but I resolutely decline to have any more to do with the matter, and, if necessary, I shall consult the police. I will not be enslaved by a gold Tiberius, even though it swims into my ken in a manner which is somewhat melodramatic.”
“And I for my part,” said Dyson, “go forth like a knight-errant in search of adventure. Not that I shall need to seek; rather adventure will seek me; I shall be like a spider in the midst of his web, responsive to every movement, and ever on the alert.”
Shortly afterwards Dyson took his leave, and Mr. Phillipps spent the rest of the night in examining some flint arrow-heads which he had purchased. He had every reason to believe that they were the work of a modern and not a palæolithic man, still he was far from gratified when a close scrutiny showed him that his suspicions were well founded. In his anger at the turpitude which would impose on an ethnologist, he completely forgot Dyson and the gold Tiberius; and when he went to bed at first sunlight, the whole tale had faded utterly from his thoughts.