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The Merewigs






During the time that I lived in Essex, I had the pleasure of knowing
Major Donelly, retired on half-pay, who had spent many years in India;
he was a man of great powers of observation, and possessed an
inexhaustible fund of information of the most valuable quality, which he
was ready to communicate to his intimates, among whom was I.

Major Donelly is now no more, and the world is thereby the poorer. Major
Donelly took an interest in everything--anthropology, mechanics,
archaeology, physical science, natural history, the stock market,
politics. In fact, it was not possible in conversation to broach a
subject with which he was wholly unacquainted, and concerning which he
was not desirous of acquiring further information. A man of this
description is not to be held by lightly. I grappled him to my heart.

One day when we were taking a constitutional walk together, I casually
mentioned the "Red Hills." He had never heard of them, inquired, and I
told him what little I knew on the matter. The Red Hills are mounds of
burnt clay of a brick-red colour, found at intervals along the fringe of
the marshes on the east coast. Of the date of their formation and the
purpose they were destined to discharge, nothing has been certainly
ascertained. Theories have been formed, and have been held to with
tenacity, but these are unsupported by sound evidence. And yet, one
would have supposed that these mysterious mounds would have been
subjected to a careful scientific exploration to determine by the
discovery of flint tools, potsherds, or coins to what epoch they belong,
and that some clue should be discovered as to their purport. But at the
time when I was in Essex, no such study had been attempted; whether any
has been undertaken since I am unable to say.

I mentioned to Donelly some of the suppositions offered as to the origin
of these Red Hills; that they represented salt-making works, that they
were funereal erections, that they were artificial bases for the huts of
fishers.

"That is it," said the major, "no doubt about it. To keep off the ague.
Do you not know that burnt clay is a sure protection against ague, which
was the curse of the Essex marsh land? In Central Africa, in the
districts that lie low and there is morass, the natives are quite aware
of the fact, and systematically form a bed of burnt clay as a platform
on which to erect their hovels. Now look here, my dear friend, I'd most
uncommonly like to take a boat along with you, and explore both sides of
the Blackwater to begin with, and its inlets, and to tick down on the
ordnance map every red hill we can find."

"I am quite ready," I replied. "There is one thing to remember. A vast
number of these hills have been ploughed down, but you can certainly
detect where they were by the colour of the soil."

Accordingly, on the next fine day we engaged a boat--not a rower--for we
could manage it between us, and started on our expedition.

The country around the Blackwater is flat, and the land slides into the
sea and river with so slight an incline, that a good extent of debatable
ground exists, which may be reckoned as belonging to both. Vast marshes
are found occasionally flooded, covered with the wild lavender, and in
June flushed with the seathrift. They nourish a coarse grass, and a
bastard samphire. These marshes are threaded, cobweb fashion, by myriads
of lines of water and mud that intercommunicate. Woe to the man who
either stumbles into, or in jumping falls into, one of these breaks in
the surface of land. He sinks to his waist in mud. At certain times,
when no high tides are expected, sheep are driven upon these marshes and
thrive. They manage to leap the runnels, and the shepherd is aware when
danger threatens, and they must be driven off.

Nearer the mainland are dykes thrown up, none know when, to reclaim
certain tracts of soil, and on the land side are invariably stagnant
ditches, where mosquitoes breed in myriads. Further up grow oak trees,
and in summer to these the mosquitoes betake themselves in swarms, and
may be seen in the evening swaying in such dense clouds above the trees
that these latter seem to be on fire and smoking. Major Donelly and I
leisurely paddled about, running into creeks, leaving our boat,
identifying our position on the map, and marking in the position of such
red hills or their traces as we lighted on.

Major Donelly and I pretty well explored the left bank up to a certain
point, when he proposed that we should push across to the other.

"I should advise doing thoroughly the upper reach of the Blackwater,"
said he, "and we shall then have completed one section."

"All right," I responded, and we turned the boat's head to cross.
Unhappily, we had not calculated that the estuary was full of mudbanks.
Moreover, the tide was ebbing, and before very long we grounded.

"Confound it!" said the major, "we are on a mudbank. What a fix we are
in."

We laboured with the oars to thrust off, but could touch no solid
ground, to obtain purchase sufficient for our purpose.

Then said Donelly: "The only thing to be done is for one of us to step
onto the bank and thrust the boat off. I will do that. I have on an old
shabby pair of trousers that don't matter."

"No, indeed, you shall not. I will go," and at the word I sprang
overboard. But the major had jumped simultaneously, and simultaneously
we sank in the horrible slime. It had the consistency of spinach. I do
not mean such as English cooks send us to table, half-mashed and often
gritty, but the spinach as served at a French table d'hote, that has
been pulped through a fine hair sieve. And what is more, it apparently
had no bottom. For aught I know it might go down a mile in depth towards
the centre of the globe, and it stank abominably. We both clung to the
sides of the boat to save ourselves from sinking altogether.

There we were, one on each side, clinging to the bulwarks and looking at
one another. For a moment or two neither spoke. Donelly was the first to
recover his presence of mind, and after wiping his mouth on the gunwale
from the mud that had squirted over it, he said: "Can you get out?"

"Hardly," said I.

We tugged at the boat, it squelched about, splashing the slime over us,
till it plastered our heads and faces and covered our hands.

"This will never do," said he. "We must get in together, and by
instalments. Look here! when I say 'three,' throw in your left leg if
you can get it out of the mud."

"I will do my best."

"And," he said further, "we must do so both at the same moment. Now,
don't be a sneak and try to get in your body whilst I am putting in my
leg, or you will upset the boat."

"I never was a sneak," I retorted angrily, "and I certainly will not be
one in what may be the throes of death."

"All right," said the major. "One--two--three!"

Instantly both of us drew our left legs out of the mud, and projected
them over the sides into the boat.

"How are you?" asked he. "Got your leg in all right?"

"All but my boot," I replied, "and that has been sucked off my foot."

"Oh, bother the boot," said the major, "so long as your leg is safe
within, and has not been sucked off. That would have disturbed the
equipoise. Now then--next we must have our trunks and right legs within.
Take a long breath, and wait till I call 'three.'"

We paused, panting with the strain; then Donelly, in a stentorian voice,
shouted: "One--two--three!"

Instantly we writhed and strained, and finally, after a convulsive
effort, both were landed in the bottom of the boat. We picked ourselves
up and seated ourselves, each on one bulwark, looking at one another.

We were covered with the foul slime from head to foot, our clothes were
caked, so were our hands and faces. But we were secure.

"Here," said Donelly, "we shall have to remain for six hours till the
tide flows, and the boat is lifted. It is of no earthly use for us to
shout for help. Even if our calls were heard, no one could come out to
us. Here, then, we stick and must make the best of it. Happily the sun
is hot, and will cake the mud about us, and then we can pick off some of
it."

The prospect was not inviting. But I saw no means of escape.

Presently Donelly said: "It is good that we brought our luncheon with
us, and above all some whisky, which is the staff of life. Look here, my
dear fellow. I wish it were possible to get this stinking stuff off our
hands and faces; it smells like the scouring poured down the sink in
Satan's own back kitchen. Is there not a bottle of claret in the
basket?"

"Yes, I put one in."

"Then," said he, "the best use we can put it to is to wash our faces and
hands in it. Claret is poor drink, and there is the whisky to fall back
on."

"The water has all ebbed away," I remarked "We cannot clean ourselves in
that."

"Then uncork the Saint Julien."

There was really no help for it. The smell of the mud was disgusting,
and it turned one's stomach. So I pulled out the cork, and we performed
our ablutions in the claret.

That done, we returned to our seats on the gunwale, one on each side,
and looked sadly at one another. Six hours! That was an interminable
time to spend on a mudflat in the Blackwater. Neither of us was much
inclined to speak. After the lapse of a quarter of an hour, the major
proposed refreshments. Accordingly we crept together into the bottom of
the boat and there discussed the contents of the hamper, and we
certainly did full justice to the whisky bottle. For we were wet to the
skin, and beplastered from head to foot in the ill-savoured mud.

When we had done the chicken and ham, and drained the whisky jar, we
returned to our several positions vis-a-vis. It was essential that the
balance of the boat should be maintained.

Major Donelly was now in a communicative mood.

"I will say this," observed he; "that you are the best-informed and most
agreeable man I have met with in Colchester and Chelmsford."

I would not record this remark but for what it led up to.

I replied--I dare say I blushed--but the claret in my face made it red,
anyhow. I replied: "You flatter me."

"Not at all. I always say what I think. You have plenty of information,
and you'll grow your wings, and put on rainbow colours."

"What on earth do you mean?" I inquired.

"Do you not know," said he, "that we shall all of us, some day, develop
wings? Grow into angels! What do you suppose that ethereal pinions
spring out of? They do not develop out of nothing. Ex nihilo nihil fit.
You cannot think that they are the ultimate produce of ham and chicken."

"Nor of whisky."

"Nor of whisky," he repeated. "You know it is so with the grub."

"Grub is ambiguous," I observed.

"I do not mean victuals, but the caterpillar. That creature spends its
short life in eating, eating, eating. Look at a cabbage-leaf, it is
riddled with holes; the grub has consumed all that vegetable matter, and
I will inform you for what purpose. It retires into its chrysalis, and
during the winter a transformation takes place, and in spring it breaks
forth as a glorious butterfly. The painted wings of the insect in its
second stage of existence are the sublimated cabbage it has devoured in
its condition of larva."

"Quite so. What has that to do with me?"

"We are also in our larva condition. But do not for a moment suppose
that the wings we shall put on with rainbow painting are the produce of
what we eat here--of ham and chicken, kidneys, beef, and the like. No,
sir, certainly not. They are fashioned out of the information we have
absorbed, the knowledge we have acquired during the first stage of
life."

"How do you know that?"

"I will tell you," he answered. "I had a remarkable experience once. It
is a rather long story, but as we have some five hours and a half to sit
here looking at one another till the tide rises and floats us, I may as
well tell you, and it will help to the laying on of the colours on your
pinions when you acquire them. You would like to hear the tale?"

"Above all things."

"There is a sort of prologue to it," he went on. "I cannot well dispense
with it as it leads up to what I particularly want to say."

"By all means let me have the prologue, if it be instructive."

"It is eminently instructive," he said. "But before I begin, just pass
me the bottle, if there is any whisky left."

"It is drained," I said.

"Well, well, it can't be helped. When I was in India, I moved from one
place to another, and I had pitched my tent in a certain spot. I had a
native servant. I forget what his real name was, and it does not matter.
I always called him Alec. He was a curious fellow, and the other
servants stood in awe of him. They thought that he saw ghosts and had
familiar dealings with the spiritual world. He was honest as natives go.
He would not allow anyone else to rob me; but, of course, he filched
things of mine himself. We are accustomed to that, and think nothing of
it. But it was a satisfaction that he kept the fingers of the others off
my property. Well, one night, when, as I have informed you, my tent was
pitched on a spot I considered eminently convenient, I slept very
uncomfortably. It was as though a centipede were crawling over me. Next
morning I spoke to Alec, and told him my experiences, and bade him
search well my mattress and the floor of my tent. A Hindu's face is
impassive, but I thought I detected in his eyes a twinkle of
understanding. Nevertheless I did not give it much thought. Next night
it was as bad, and in the morning I found my panjams slit from head to
foot. I called Alec to me and held up the garment, and said how
uncomfortable I had been. 'Ah! sahib,' said he, 'that is the doings of
Abdulhamid, the blood-thirsty scoundrel!'"

"Excuse me," I interrupted. "Did he mean the present Sultan of Turkey?"

"No, quite another, of the same name."

"I beg your pardon," I said. "But when you mentioned him as a
blood-thirsty scoundrel, I supposed it must be he."

"It was not he. It was another. Call him, if you like, the other Abdul.
But to proceed with my story."

"One inquiry more," said I. "Surely Abdulhamid cannot be a Hindu name?"

"I did not say that it was," retorted the major with a touch of asperity
in his tone. "He was doubtless a Mohammedan."

"But the name is rather Turkish or Arabic."

"I am not responsible for that; I was not his godfathers and godmothers
at his baptism. I am merely repeating what Alec told me. If you are so
captious, I shall shut up and relate no more."

"Do not take umbrage," said I. "I surely have a right to test the
quality of the material I take in, out of which my wings are to be
evolved. Go ahead; I will interrupt no further."

"Very well, then, let that be understood between us. Are you caking?"

"Slowly," I replied. "The sun is hot; I am drying up on one side of my
body."

"I think that we had best shift sides of the boat," said the major. "It
is the same with me."

Accordingly, with caution, we crossed over, and each took the seat on
the gunwale lately occupied by the other.

"There," said Donelly. "How goes the enemy? My watch got smothered in
the mud, and has stopped."

"Mine," I explained, "is plastered into my waistcoat pocket, and I
cannot get at it without messing my fingers, and there is no more claret
left for a wash; the whisky is all inside us."

"Well," said the major, "it does not matter; there is plenty of time
before us for the rest of my story. Let me see--where was I? Oh! where
Alec mentioned Abdulhamid, the inferior scoundrel, not the Sultan. Alec
went on to say that he was himself possessed of a remarkably keen scent
for blood, even though it had been shed a century before his time, and
that my tent had been pitched and my bed spread over a spot marked by a
most atrocious crime. That Abdul of whom he had made mention had been a
man steeped in crimes of the most atrocious character. Of course, he
did not come up in wickedness to his illustrious namesake, but that was
because he lacked the opportunities with which the other is so favoured.
On the very identical spot where I then was, this same bloodstained
villain had perpetrated his worst iniquity--he had murdered his father
and mother, and aunt, and his children. After that he was taken and
hanged. When his soul parted from his body, in the ordinary course it
would have entered into the shell of a scorpion or some other noxious
creature, and so have mounted through the scale of beings, by one
incarnation after another, till he attained once more to the high estate
of man."

"Excuse the interruption," said I, "but I think you intimated that this
Abdulhamid was a Mohammedan, and the sons of the Prophet do not believe
in the transmigration of souls."

"That," said Donelly, "is precisely the objection I raised to Alec. But
he told me that souls after death are not accommodated with a future
according to the creeds they hold, but according to Destiny: that
whatever a man might suppose during life as to the condition of his
future state, there was but one truth to which they would all have their
eyes opened--the truth held by the Hindus, viz. the transmigration of
souls from stage to stage, ever progressing upward to man, and then to
recommence the interminable circle of reincarnation. 'So,' said I, 'it
was Abdul in the form of a scorpion who was tickling my ribs all night.'
'No, sahib,' replied my native servant very gravely. He was too wicked
to be suffered to set his foot, so to speak, on the lowest rung of the
ladder of existences. The doom went forth against him that he must haunt
the scenes of his former crimes, till he found a man sleeping over one
of them, and on that man must be a mole, and out of that mole must grow
three hairs. These hairs he must pluck out and plant on the grave of his
final victims, and water them with his tears. And the flowing of these
first drops of penitence would enable him to pass at once into the first
stage of the circle of incarnations.' 'Why,' said I, 'that unredeemed
ruffian was mole-hunting over me the last two nights! But what do you
say to these slit panjams?' 'Sahib,' replied Alec, 'he did that with his
nails. I presume he turned you over, and ripped them so as to get at
your back and feel for the so-much-desired mole.' 'I'll have the tent
shifted,' said I. 'Nothing will induce me to sleep another night on this
accursed spot.'"

Donelly paused, and proceeded to take off some flakes of mud that had
formed on his sleeve. We really were beginning to get drier, but in
drying we stiffened, as the mud became hard about us like pie-crust.

"So far," said I, "we have had no wings."

"I am coming to them," replied the major; "I have now concluded the
prologue."

"Oh! that was the prologue, was it?"

"Yes. Have you anything against it? It was the prologue. Now I will go
on with the main substance of my story. About a year after that incident
I retired on half-pay, and returned to England. What became of Alec I
did not know, nor care a hang. I had been in England for a little over
two years, when one day I was walking along Great Russell Street, and
passing the gates of the British Museum, I noticed a Hindu standing
there, looking wretchedly cold and shabby. He had a tray containing
bangles and necklaces and gewgaws, made in Germany, which he was selling
as oriental works of art. As I passed, he saluted me, and, looking
steadily at him, I recognised Alec. 'Why, what brings you here?' I
inquired, vastly astonished. 'Sahib may well ask,' he replied. 'I came
over because I thought I might better my condition. I had heard speak of
a Psychical Research Society established in London; and with my really
extraordinary gifts, I thought that I might be of value to it, and be
taken in and paid an annuity if I supplied it continuously with
well-authenticated, first-hand ghost stories.' 'Well,' said I, 'and have
you succeeded?' 'No, sahib. I cannot find it. I have inquired after it
from several of the crossing-sweepers, and they could not inform me of
its whereabouts; and if I applied to the police, they bade me take
myself off, there was no such a thing. I should have starved, sahib, if
it had not been that I had taken to this line'; he pointed to his tray.
'Does that pay well?' I asked. He shook his head sadly. 'Very poorly. I
can live--that is all. There goes in a Merewig.' 'How many of these
rubbishy bangles can you dispose of in a day?' I inquired. 'That
depends, sahib. It varies so greatly, and the profits are very small. So
small that I can barely get along. There goes in another Merewig.'
'Where are all these things made?' I asked. 'In Germany or in
Birmingham?' 'Oh, sahib, how can I tell? I get them from a Jew dealer.
He supplies various street-hawkers. But I shall give it up--it does not
pay--and shall set up a stall and dispose of Turkish Delight. There is
always a run on that. You English have a sweet tooth. That's a Merewig,'
and he pointed to a dowdy female, with a reticule on her arm, who, at
that moment, went through the painted iron gates. 'What do you mean by
Merewigs?' said I. 'Does not sahib know?' Alec's face expressed genuine
surprise. 'If sahib will go into the great reading-room, he will see
scores of them there. It is their great London haunt; they pass in all
day, mainly in the morning--some are in very early, so soon as the
museum is open at nine o'clock. And they usually remain there all day
picking up information, acquiring knowledge.' 'You mean the students.'
'Not all the students, but a large percentage of them. I know them in a
moment. Sahib is aware that I have great gifts for the discernment of
spirits.'

"By the way," broke off Donelly, "do you understand Hindustani?"

"Not a word of it," I replied.

"I am sorry for that," said he, "because I could tell you what passed
between us so much easier in Hindustani. I am able to speak and
understand it as readily as English, and the matter I am going to relate
would come off my tongue so much easier in that language."

"You might as well speak it in Chinese. I should be none the wiser. Wait
a moment. I am cracking."

It was so. The heat of the sun was sensibly affecting my crust of mud. I
think I must have resembled a fine old painting, the varnish of which is
stained and traversed by an infinity of minute fissures, a perfect
network of cracks. I stood up and stretched myself, and split in several
places. Moreover, portions of my muddy envelope began to curl at the
edges.

"Don't be in too great a hurry to peel," advised Donelly.

"We have abundance of time still before us, and I want to proceed with
my narrative."

"Go on, then. When are we coming to the wings?"

"Directly," replied he. "Well, then--if you cannot receive what I have
to say in Hindustani, I must do my best to give you the substance of
Alec's communication in the vulgar tongue. I will epitomise it. The
Hindu went on to explain in this fashion. He informed me that with us,
Christians and white people, it is not the same as with the dusky and
the yellow races. After death we do not pass into the bodies of the
lower animals, which is a great privilege and ought to afford us immense
satisfaction. We at once progress into a higher condition of life. We
develop wings, as does the butterfly when it emerges from its condition
of grub. But the matter out of which the wings are produced is nothing
gross. They are formed, or form themselves, out of the information with
which we have filled our brains during life. We lay up, during our
mortal career here, a large amount of knowledge, of scientific,
historical, philosophic, and like acquisitions, and these form the
so-to-speak psychic pulp out of which, by an internal and mysterious
and altogether inexplicable process, the transmutation takes place into
our future wings. The more we have stored, the larger are our wings; the
more varied the nature, the more radiant and coloured is their painting.
When, at death, the brain is empty, there can be no wing-development.
Out of nothing, nothing can arise. That is a law of nature absolutely
inexorable in its application. And this is why you will never have to
regret sticking in the mud to-day, my friend. I have supplied you with
such an amount of fresh and valuable knowledge, that I believe you will
have pinions painted hereafter with peacock's eyes."

"I am most obliged to you," said I, splitting into a thousand cakes with
the emotion that agitated me.

Donelly proceeded. "I was so interested in what Alec told me, that I
said to him, 'Come along with me into the Nineveh room, and we shall be
able to thrash this matter out.' 'Ah, sahib,' he replied, 'they will not
allow me to take in my tray.' 'Very well,' said I, 'then we will find a
step before the portico, one not too much frequented by the pigeons, and
will sit there.' He agreed. But the porter at the gate demurred to
letting the Hindu through. He protested that no trafficking was allowed
on the premises. I explained that none was purposed; that the man and I
proposed a discussion on psychological topics. This seemed to content
the porter, and he suffered Alec to pass through with me. We picked out
as clean a portion of the steps as we could, and seated ourselves on it
side by side, and then the Hindu went on with what he was saying."

Donelly and I were now drying rapidly. As we sat facing each other we
must have looked very much like the chocolate men one sees in
confectioners' shops--of course, I mean on a much larger scale, and not
of the same warm tint, and, of course, also, we did not exhale the same
aromatic odour.

"When we were seated," proceeded Donelly, "I felt the cold of the stone
steps strike up into my system, and as I have had a touch or two of
lumbago since I came home, I stood up again, took a copy of the
Standard out of my pocket, folded it, and placed it between myself and
the step. I did, however, pull out the inner leaf, that containing the
leaders, and presented it to Alec for the same purpose. Orientals are
insensible to kindness, and are deficient in the virtue of gratitude.
But this delicate trait of attention did touch the benighted heathen.
His lip quivered, and he became, if possible, more than ever
communicative. He nudged me with his tray and said, 'There goes out a
Merewig. I wonder why she leaves so soon?' I saw a middle-aged woman in
a gown of grey, with greasy splotches on it, and the braid unsewn at the
skirt trailing in a loop behind. 'What are the Merewigs?' I asked. I
will give you what I learned in my own words. All men and women--I
allude only to Europeans and Americans--in the first stage of their life
are bound morally, and in their own interest, to acquire and store up in
their brains as much information as these will hold, for it is out of
this that their wings will be evolved in their second stage of
existence. Of course, the more varied this information is, the better.
Men inevitably accumulate knowledge. Even if they assimilate very little
at school, yet, as young men, they necessarily take in a good deal--of
course, I exempt the mashers, who never learn anything. Even in sport
they obtain something; but in business, by reading, by association, by
travel, they go on piling up a store. You see that in common
conversation they cannot escape doing this; politics, social questions,
points of natural history, scientific discoveries form the staple of
their talk, so that the mind of a man is necessarily kept replenished.
But with women this is not the case. Young girls read nothing whatever
but novels--they might as well feed on soap-bubbles. In their
conversation with one another they twaddle, they do not talk."

"But," protested I, "in our civilised society young women associate
freely with men."

"That is true," replied he. "But to what is their dialogue limited?--to
ragging, to frivolous jokes. Men do not talk to them on rational topics,
for they know well enough that such topics do not interest girls, and
that they are wholly incapable of applying their minds to them. It is
wondered why so many Englishmen look out for American wives. That is
because the American girl takes pains to cultivate her mind, becomes a
rational and well-educated woman. She can enter into her husband's
interests, she can converse with him on almost every topic. She becomes
his companion. That the modern English girl cannot be. Her head is as
hollow as a drum. Now, if she grows up and marries, or even remains an
old maid, the case is altered; she takes to keeping poultry, she becomes
passionately fond of gardening, and she acquires a fund of information
on the habits and customs of the domestic servant. The consequence of
this is, that the vast majority of English young women who die early,
die with nothing stored up in their brains out of which the wings may be
evolved. In the larva condition they have consumed nothing that can
serve them to bring them into the higher state."

"So," said I, "we are all, you and I, in the larva condition as well as
girls."

"Quite so, we are larvae like them, only they are more so. To proceed.
When girls die, without having acquired any profitable knowledge, as you
well see, they cannot rise. They become Merewigs."

"Oh, that is Merewigs," said I, greatly astonished.

"Yes, but the Merewigs I had seen pass in and out of the British Museum,
whether to study the collections or to work in the reading-room, were
middle-aged for the most part."

"How do you explain that?" I asked.

"I give you only what I received from Alec. There are male Merewigs, but
they are few and far between, for the reasons I have given to you. I
suppose there are ninety-nine female Merewigs to one male."

"You astonish me."

"I was astonished when I learned this from Alec. Now I will tell you
something further. All the souls of the girls who have died empty-headed
in the preceding twenty-four hours in England assemble at four o'clock
every morning, or rather a few minutes before the stroke of the clock,
about the statue of Queen Anne in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, with a
possible sprinkling of male masher souls among them. At the stroke of
the clock, off the whole swarm rushes up Holborn Hill, along Oxford
Street, whither I cannot certainly say. Alec told me that it is for all
the world like the rush of an army of rats in the sewers."

"But what can that Hindu know of underground London?"

"He knows because he lodges in the house of a sewer-man, with whom he
has become on friendly terms."

"Then you do not know whither this galloping legion runs?"

"Not exactly, for Alec was not sure. But he tells me they tear away to
the great garde-robe of discarded female bodies. They must get into
these, so as to make up for the past, and acquire knowledge, out of
which wings may be developed. Of course there is a scramble for these
bodies, for there are at least half a dozen applicants. At first only
the abandoned husks of old maids were given them, but the supply having
proved to be altogether inadequate, they are obliged to put up with
those of married women and widows. There was some demur as to this, but
beggars must not be choosers. And so they become Merewigs. There are
more than a sufficiency of old bachelors' outer cases hanging up in the
garde-robe, but the girls will not get into them at any price. Now you
understand what Merewigs are, and why they swarm in the reading-room of
the British Museum. They are there picking up information as hard as
they can pick."

"This is extremely interesting," said I, "and novel."

"I thought you would say so. How goes on the drying?"

"I have been picking off clots of clay while you have been talking."

"I hope you are interested," said Donelly.

"Interested," I replied, "is not the word for it."

"I am glad you think so," said the major; "I was intensely interested in
what Alec told me, so much so that I proposed he should come with me
into the reading-room, and point out to me such as he perceived by his
remarkable gift of discernment of spirits were actual Merewigs. But
again the difficulty of his tray was objected, and Alec further
intimated that he was missing opportunities of disposing of his trinkets
by spending so much time conversing with me. 'As to that,' said I, 'I
will buy half a dozen of your bangles and present them to my lady
friends; as coming from me, an oriental traveller, they will believe
them to be genuine----'"

"As your experiences," interpolated I.

"What do you mean by that?" he inquired sharply.

"Nothing more than this," rejoined I, "that faith is grown weak among
females nowadays."

"That is certainly true. It is becoming a sadly incredulous sex. I
further got over Alec's difficulty about the tray by saying that it
could be left in the custody of one of the officials at the entrance.
Then he consented. We passed through the swing-door and deposited the
tray with the functionary who presides over umbrellas and
walking-sticks. Then I went forward along with my Hindu towards the
reading-room. But here another hindrance arose. Alec had no ticket, and
therefore might not enter beyond the glass screen interposed between the
door and the readers. Some demur was made as to his being allowed to
remain there for any considerable time, but I got over that by means of
a little persuasion. 'Sahib,' said Alec 'I should suggest your marking
the Merewigs, so as to be able to recognise them elsewhere.' 'How can I
do that?' I inquired. 'I have here with me a piece of French chalk,' he
answered. 'You go within, sahib, and walk up and down by the tables,
behind the chairs of the readers, or around the circular cases that
contain the catalogues, and where the students are looking out for the
books they desire to consult. When you pass a female, either seated or
standing, glance towards the glass screen, and when you are by a Merewig
I will hold up my hand above the screen, and you will know her to be
one; then just scrawl a W or M, or any letter or cabalistic symbol that
occurs to you, upon her back with the French chalk. Then whenever you
meet her in the street, in society, at an A. B. C. place of refreshment,
on a railway platform, you will recognise her infallibly.' 'Not likely,'
I objected. 'Of course, so soon as she gets home, she will brush off the
mark.' 'You do not know much of the Merewigs,' he said. 'When the
spirits of those frivolous girls were in their first stage of existence,
they were most particular about their personal appearance, about the
neatness and stylishness of their dress, and the puffing and piling up
of their hair. Now all that is changed. They are so disgusted at having
to get into any unsouled body that they can lay hold of in the
garde-robe, such a body being usually plain in features, middle-aged,
and with no waist to speak of, or rather too ample in the waist to be
elegant, that they have abandoned all concern about dress and tidiness.
Besides, they are engrossed in the acquisition of knowledge, and the
burning desire that consumes them is to get out of these borrowed cases
as speedily as may be. Consequently, so long as they are dressed and
their hair done up anyhow, that is all they care about. As to threads,
or feathers, or French chalk marks on their clothes, they would not
think of looking for them.' Then Alec handed to me a little piece of
French chalk, such as tailors and dressmakers employ to indicate
alterations when fitting on garments. So provided, I passed wholly into
the spacious reading-room, leaving the Hindu behind the screen.

"I slowly strayed down the first line of desks and chairs, which were
fully engaged. There were many men there, with piles of books at their
sides. There were also some women. I stepped behind one, and turned my
head towards the screen, but Alec made no sign. At the second, however,
up went his hand above it, and I hastily scrawled M, on her back as she
stooped over her studies. I had time, moreover, to see what she was
engaged upon. She was working up deep-sea soundings, beginning with that
recorded by Schiller in his ballad of 'The Diver,' down to the last
scientific researches in the bottom of the Atlantic and the Pacific, and
the dredgings in the North Sea. She was engrossed in her work, and was
picking up facts at a prodigious rate. She was a woman of, I should say,
forty, with a cadaverous face, a shapeless nose, and enormous hands. Her
dress was grey, badly fitted, and her boots were even worse made. Her
hair was drawn back and knotted in a bunch behind, with the pins
sticking out. It might have been better brushed. I passed on behind her
back; the next occupants of seats were gentlemen, so I stepped to
another row of desks, and looking round saw Alec's hand go up. I was
behind a young lady in a felt hat, crunched in at top, and with a
feather at the side; she wore a pea-jacket, with large smoked buttons,
and beneath it a dull green gown, very short in the skirt, and brown
boots. Her hair was cut short like that of a man. As I halted, she
looked round, and I saw that she had hard, brown eyes, like pebbles,
without a gleam of tenderness or sympathy in them. I cannot say whether
this was due to the body she had assumed, or to the soul which had
entered into the body--whether the lack was in the organ, or in the
psychic force which employed the organ. I merely state the fact. I
looked over her shoulder to see what she was engaged upon, and found
that she was working her way diligently through Herbert Spencer. I
scored a W on her back and went on. The next Merewig I had to scribble
on was a wizen old lady, with little grey curls on the temples, very
shabby in dress, and very antiquated in costume. Her fingers were dirty
with ink, and the ink did not appear to me to be all of that day's
application. Besides, I saw that she had been rubbing her nose. I
presume it had been tickling, and she had done this with a finger still
wet with ink, so that there was a smear on her face. She was engaged on
the peerage. She had Dod, Burke, and Foster before her, and was getting
up the authentic pedigrees of our noble families and their
ramifications. I noticed with her as with the other Merewigs, that when
they had swallowed a certain amount of information they held up their
heads much like fowls after drinking.

"The next that I marked was a very thin woman of an age I was quite
unable to determine. She had a pointed nose, and was dressed in red. She
looked like a stick of sealing-wax. The gown had probably enough been
good and showy at one time, but it was ripped behind now, and the
stitches showed, besides, a little bit of what was beneath. There was a
frilling, or ruche, or tucker, about the throat that I think had been
sewn into it three weeks before. I drew a note of interrogation on her
back with my bit of French chalk. I wanted much to find out what she was
studying, but could not. She turned round and asked sharply what I was
stooping over for and breathing on the back of her neck. So I was forced
to go on to the next. This was a lady fairly well dressed in the
dingiest of colours, wearing spectacles. I believe that she wore divided
skirts, but as she did not stand up and walk, I cannot be certain. I am
particular never to make a statement of which I am not absolutely
certain. She was engaged upon the subject of the land laws in various
countries, on common land, and property in land; and she was at that
time devoting her special attention to the constitution of the Russian
mir, and the tenure of land under it. I scrawled on her back the
zodiacal sign for Venus, the Virgin, and went further. But when I had
marked seventeen I gave it up. I had already gone over the desks to L,
beginning backward, and that sufficed, so I returned to Alec, paid him
for the bangles, and we separated. I did, however, give him a letter to
the Secretary of the Psychical Research Society, and addressed it,
having found what I wanted in the London Directory, which was in the
reading-room of the British Museum. Two days later I met, by
appointment, my Hindu once more, and for the last time. He had not been
received as he had anticipated by the Psychical Research Society, and
thought of getting back to India at the first opportunity.

"It is remarkable that, a few days later, I saw in the Underground one
of those I had marked. The chalk mark was still quite distinct. She was
not in my compartment, but I noticed her as she stepped out on to the
platform at Baker Street. I suspect she was on her way to Madame
Tussaud's waxwork exhibition, to instruct her mind there. But I was more
fortunate a week later when I was at St. Albans. I had an uncle living
there from whom I had expectations, and I paid him a visit. Whilst
there, a lecture was to be given on the spectroscope, and as my
acquaintance with that remarkable invention of modern times was limited,
I resolved to go. Have you, my friend, ever taken up the subject of the
photosphere of the sun?"

"Never."

"Then let me press it upon you. It will really supply a large amount of
wing-pulp, if properly assimilated. It is a most astonishing thought
that we are able, at the remote distance at which we are from the solar
orb, to detect the various incandescent metals which go to make up the
luminous envelope of the sun. Not only so, but we are able to discover,
by the bars in the spectroscope, of what Jupiter, Saturn, and so on are
composed. What a stride astronomy has made since the days of Newton!"

"No doubt about it. But I do not want to hear about the bars, but of the
chalk marks on the Merewigs."

"Well, then, I noticed two elderly ladies sitting in the row before me,
and there--as distinctly as if sketched in only yesterday--were the
symbols I had scribbled on their backs. I did not have an opportunity of
speaking with them then; indeed, I had no introduction to them, and
could hardly take on me to address them without it. I was, however, more
successful a week or two later. There was a meeting of the Hertfordshire
Archaeological Society organised, to last a week, with excursions to
ancient Verulam and to other objects of interest in the county.
Hertfordshire is not a large county. It is, in fact, one of the smallest
in England, but it yields to none in the points of interest that it
contains, apart from the venerable abbey church that has been so
fearfully mauled and maltreated by ignorant so-called restoration. One
must really hope that the next generation, which will be more
enlightened than our own, will undo all the villainous work that has
been perpetrated to disfigure it in our own. The local secretaries and
managers had arranged for char-a-bancs and brakes to take the party
about, and men--learned, or thinking themselves to be learned, on the
several antiquities--were to deliver lectures on the spot explanatory of
what we saw. On three days there were to be evening gatherings, at which
papers would be read. You may conceive that this was a supreme
opportunity for storing the mind with information, and knowing what I
did, I resolved on taking advantage of it. I entered my name as a
subscriber to all the excursions. On the first day we went over the
remains of the old Roman city of Verulam, and were shown its plan and
walls, and further, the spot where the protomartyr of Britain passed
over the stream, and the hill on which he was martyred. Nothing could
have been more interesting and more instructive. Among those present
were three middle-aged personages of the female sex, all of whom were
chalk-marked on the back. One of these marks was somewhat effaced, as
though the lady whose gown was scored had made a faint effort to brush
it off, but had tired of the attempt and had abandoned it. The other two
scorings were quite distinct.

"On this, the first day, though I sidled up to these three Merewigs, I
did not succeed in ingratiating myself into their favour sufficiently to
converse with them. You may well understand, my friend, that such an
opportunity of getting out of them some of their Merewigian experiences
was not to be allowed to slip. On the second day I was more successful.
I managed to obtain a seat in a brake between two of them. We were to
drive to a distant spot where was a church of considerable architectural
interest.

"Well, in these excursions a sort of freemasonry exists between the
archaeologists who share in them, and no ceremonious introductions are
needed. For instance, you say to the lady next to you, 'Am I squeezing
you?' And the ice is broken. I did not, however, attempt to draw any
information from those between whom I was seated, till after luncheon, a
most sumptuous repast, with champagne, liberally given to the Society by
a gentleman of property, to whose house we drove up just about one
o'clock. There was plenty of champagne supplied, and I did not stint
myself. I felt it necessary to take in a certain amount of Dutch courage
before broaching to my companions in the brake the theme that lay near
my heart. When, however, we got into the conveyance, all in great
spirits, after the conclusion of the lunch, I turned to my right-hand
lady, and said to her: 'Well, miss, I fear it will be a long time before
you become angelic.' She turned her back upon me and made no reply.
Somewhat disconcerted, I now addressed myself to the chalk-marked lady
on my left hand, and asked: 'Have you anything at all in your head
except archaeology?' Instead of answering me in the kindly mood in which
I spoke, she began at once to enter into a lively discussion with her
neighbour on the opposite side of the carriage, and ignored me. I was
not to be done in this way. I wanted information. But, of course, I
could enter into the feelings of both. Merewigs do not like to converse
about themselves in their former stage of existence, of which they are
ashamed, nor of the efforts they are making in this transitional stage
to acquire a fund of knowledge for the purpose of ultimately discarding
their acquired bodies, and developing their ethereal wings as they pass
into the higher and nobler condition.

"We left the carriage to go to a spot about a mile off, through lanes,
muddy and rutty, for the purpose of inspecting some remarkable stones.
All the party would not walk, and the conveyances could proceed no
nearer. The more enthusiastic did go on, and I was of the number. What
further stimulated me to do so was the fact that the third Merewig, she
who had partially cleaned my scoring off her back, plucked up her
skirts, and strode ahead. I hurried after and caught her up. 'I beg your
pardon,' said I. 'You must excuse the interest I take in antiquities,
but I suppose it is a long time since you were a girl.' Of course, my
meaning was obvious; I referred to her earlier existence, before she
borrowed her present body. But she stopped abruptly, gave me a withering
look, and went back to rejoin another group of pedestrians. Ha! my
friend, I verily believe that the boat is being lifted. The tide is
flowing in."

"The tide is flowing," I said; and then added, "really, Major Donelly,
your story ought not to be confined to the narrow circle of your
intimates."

"That is true," he replied. "But my desire to make it known has been
damped by the way in which Alec was received, or rather rejected, by the
Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research."

"But I do not mean that you should tell it to the Society for Psychical
Research."

"To whom, then?"

"Tell it to the Horse Marines."





Next: The Bold Venture

Previous: Colonel Halifax's Ghost Story



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