The Manchester Empire News, Sunday February 13, 1938

The Manchester Empire News, Sunday February 13, 1938

Pipe Dreams

Dancing Girl of Egypt
The Green Eyes of Bast

by Sax Rohmer

But as I entered softly in
   I saw a woman there,
The line of neck and cheek and chin,
   The darkness of her hair,
The form of one I did not know
   Sitting in my chair.
I stood a moment fierce and still,
   Watching her neck and hair.
I made a step to her; and saw
   That there was no one there.

One of my most interesting experiences occurred shortly after I had resigned a job in Fleet Street---at the urgent request of my editor, Sir Leo (then Mr.) Chiozza Money, strongly supported by his brilliant assistant, my friend Swinborne Sheldrake.
    I cannot pretend that I had set Fleet Street on fire, but I had created a moderately high temperature in the office of the newspaper which employed me.
    Returning for a time to my first love, Art, I pottered idly about various schools.
    I sent black-and-white drawings to illustrated publications, but most of them were sent back.
    Those that were not sent back had been mislaid in the waste-paper basket.
    I determined to try fiction, in which I had already dabbled without success.
    In fact, during this earlier attack on the fiction market I had a whole wall of my room papered with editorial regrets. In order to complete the colour scheme I sent one MS. to the same magazine three times. The third time they lost it.

Confidence of

Two short stories resulted -- "The Leopard Couch" and "The Mysterious Mummy."
Exhausted by this creative outburst, I went away on holiday.
    I was staying in Guernsey, and coming back one evening drenched to the skin (I had been caught in a thunderstorm) to my modest hotel, I saw two letters for me in the rack.
    The thrill which I experienced at that moment was one that I have never recaptured.
    You see, I had flown high, but had intended to work down the scale. To my profound astonishment I discovered that a leading London fiction magazine had purchased "The Mysterious Mummy," and Chambers 's Journal "The Leopard Couch."
    This, I think, would have dizzied any youngster. I was not twenty at the time.
    I saw a rose-strewn path ahead of me; quite clearly I had mistaken my vocation hitherto. The stuff of genius was in me and I had failed to recognize it.
    How bucked I was! How vain we are at twenty!

Banquet Hall

On returning to London I determined to produce a novel. Magazine stories were beneath my dignity.
    I was deeply interested in Ancient Egypt---an interest which has remained---and I set out to write a romance of the days of the Pharaohs which should place me at one bound beside Rider Haggard, or perhaps Flaubert.
    My knowledge of Egypt in those days was entirely based upon reading. As I learned later, it was scanty.
    But I began the great work---Zalithea it was called---with a courage which today amazes me.
    I wrote the first six chapters. It was a story of a daughter of Seti I, but early in the narrative she disguises herself as a dancing girl in order to penetrate to a banquet at which her lover is present.
    I got as far as the banquet without encountering any serious difficulty, and then realised that my Egyptology was failing me.
    In what sort of room would the entertainment be held?
    What did people eat and what did they drink?
    How were they dressed on festive occasions at that period?
    Above all, what did a dancing girl wear? Rather less than she wears today, the figures on the monuments assured me; but of what was that rather less composed?

The Ancient

At a late hour I abandoned Chapter VII of Zalithea and went to bed. And that night I was translated to Ancient Egypt . . . .
    In a dream I discovered myself to be one of the guests at such a banquet as I had vainly tried to describe.
    I had one foot in the conscious world---the other in Ancient Egypt.
    By this I mean that I recognised myself , and recognised the fact that the pages of history had been turned back for me---that I had been granted a glimpse of a feast in Ancient Egypt. At that banquet I must be a good reporter; I must absorb every detail.
    Marking this experience as distinct from an ordinary dream are the following outstanding facts:---The room as I saw it, the mural decorations, the character of the guests and of the attendant slaves, their dresses, the wine, the jars which contained it, the fruit on large dishes---most of these things were new to me.
    In short, the scene was utterly unlike anything I had imagined; my authorities had misled me.
    Yet I lived to know, when my knowledge grew greater and I had visited Egypt many times and studied the life of that distant past, that the scene I saw was authentic in every particular.

The Scene

Although, as I have said, I was one of the guests, none of them took the slightest notice of my presence. I was there, yet apparently an unseen spectator.
    Costumes which hitherto I had known only in the conventional figures from the monuments marched around me in their surprising reality.
    The complexions of my neighbours were much lighter than I had supposed; and a spirit of childish gaiety dominated the place.
    It was a sort of courtyard or piazza, partly covered by a brightly-striped canopy of what appeared to be silk, but more probably was some vegetable fibre. 
    Brilliant moonlight flooded the garden upon which one side of the courtyard opened, and a number of lamps were set in niches in the wall.
    There was a painted or finely-embroidered curtain draping an opening almost directly in front of me, and at the moment that a chord of music came from this direction (several harps, apparently, and some reed instrument resembling an oboe) I realised that the company was exclusively masculine.
    The curtain parted and a dancer came out. The story which I had been endeavouring to write was now being enacted before me! 
    She wore a violet coloured robe of transparent gauze, which merely accentuated the lines of her body and limbs; arms and shoulders were bare, and she wore many bangles. 
    An apparently endless chain of tiny pink flowers was wound around her hair, around her shoulders and waist, and terminated in a sort of floral girdle.
    The dance was a series of postures, the significance of which eluded me. A few steps and she was very near. 
    For some reason I was surprised to learn that she wore a heavy make-up: her lashes blackened and her eyelids darkened. 
    Her hair was of a dull, lustre-less red colour---dyed, as I realised. Her fingernails and toenails were stained and varnished. 
    I could see the veins under her skin, and detect a faint perfume as the rope of tiny flowers swung immediately in front of me. I drew back slightly . . . and woke up!
    I found myself in bed, moonlight streaming in at the window. 
    Half-right there was an armchair on which my clothes lay as I had thrown them when I had turned in. 
    Just beyond, clearly visible in the bright moonlight, was a familiar chest of drawers. I was wide awake.
    And between me and the armchair, as I lay, I saw a dancer!
    She was substantial as any woman of flesh and blood, and she watched me with a set smile. The faint perfume was still perceptible.
    Her feet moving on my threadbare carpet in the slow steps of the dance, she drew nearer and nearer. 

    By extending my hand I could have touched her. The background of the dream had gone, the scene, the company, the music; but the central figure was here in my room!
    Rarely, if ever, have I been more terrified. I thought I had suddenly lost my reason. 
    I sat up in bed, shrinking back further and further from that supernatural figure, trying to collect my scattered senses, trying desperately to convince myself that I still dreamed.
    The feat was beyond me. Indisputably the dancer was there. 
    I could hear now the faint sound made by her bare feet as she twisted slowly on the carpet---the chink of bangles . . . 
    Cold perspiration trickled down my skin as I watched and watched, fascinated but terrified.
    How long I watched I cannot say, but, as an opaque cloud slowly becomes transparent, to vanish at last in silver wisps, the dancer from Ancient Egypt dissolved.  
    Through a series of all but imperceptible gradations, from firmly material to shimmering vapour, her body passed into invisibility.
    We live in a know-all age, an age which has forgotten what Shakespeare knew: that there are more things in heaven and earth . . .

On Haunted

Equally interesting, in a somewhat different category, were experiences in the house at Bruton-street in which I lived for several years.
    The building had been considerably altered in modern times, but it dated back, I believe, to a notorious gambling house of Regency days.
    This part of the house's history may have had some bearing on many queer things which occured there.
    First and foremost was an indescribable and nearly unendurable awareness of an unseen and malignant presence.
    The habitation of this thing seemed to be on the stair between a large lounge on the first floor--at the further end of which I had my writing-room in a curtained recess--and the floor above, on which the dining-room was situated.
    Visitors ignorant of the reputation of the placeascending the stair after dark have over and over again said: "I was certain there was someone coming up behind me."
    I don't mean that they have been frightened; I mean that they have supposed someone who had come out of the room to be following them upstairs.
    After a time I learned to say that it was probably a maid who had gone back having forgotten to turn the lights off below.
    No servant would stay in the house alone. Sensitive characters refused to remain alone in my room; it seemed to very near to the centre of the trouble.
    It was separated only by a fairly new party wall from the landing upon which the haunted stair opened.

    What was more difficult to put up with was an almost constant sound of mounting and descending another stair long since demolished!
    The existence of these former stairs could be traced, however, under the modern alterations. I assumed that they had passed at some time right through the recess which I used as a study.
    Until I had grown accustomed to these mysterious footsteps on stairs which were not there, I found it quite impossible to work in the room.
    But the peremtory rapping which from time to time sounded upon almost every door in the house was more difficult to ignore.
    There was nothing muffled or explainable by vibration of traffic about these sounds; they were the hard rapping of knuckles on the panel as by someone impatient to enter.
    During perhaps the first six months of our residence we would all say "Come in" when this rapping occurred, because it was so definite--so unmistakable.
    Since no one ever did come in, this response was given up by the family   but still carried on by unhappy guests who knew no better.
    Another sound, which never came until the small hours and then but rarely--resembled that which would be caused by dragging a heavy burden across the floor. This one was particularly unpleasant.
    The commercialising of Bruton-street--indeed, of all the streets opening out of Berkely-square and of the square itself--in regard to the house where I spent some years as an unwelcome guest 9judging from the manifestations which occurred) may be a boon.
    There is an office to-day on the site of my haunted study, and so far as I know, nobody actually lives upon the premises.
    Although an ominous atmosphere which I can only describe as an unheard but persistent whisper  prompting evil, was at all times present, the business of footsteps and rapping on doors, together with those other odd occurrences which earned the place its eerie reputation, never got really well going until nightfall.

At this time I was writing a serial which dealt with somewhat eerie happenings, and I found the going rather heavy.
    For some reason, inspiration was lacking. My output was regrettably small.
    I decided to tear up all that I had written, open the story with a scene in my own writing-room, and see if the fresh start would carry me any further than the old one.
    It seemed to me that if I could establish closer contact with the Extra Inhabitant instead of rudely ignoring him, I might might get a new angle on the plot.
    The story was one which at the beginning demanded a house saturated with mysterious traditions. There could be no house more suitable than the one in which I was working!
    But the elusive Extra was unsatisfactory. His tricks were too much out of the prop basket.
    I wondered if I were to expose myself, passively, to the hidden forces within the house whether I should learn something more of their true nature.
    I decided to try.
    Solitude is essential to concentration, and concentration is essential to receptivity. I selected a weekend when everybody would be away.
    And it was owing to this that I began to notice the odd behavior of Black, a Manx cat, a small, amusing, but very truculent  animal which someone had presented to my wife  in a silk-lined ribboned basket when Black was so tiny that she used to sleep in an ashtray on my writing desk.
    Up to the time of her departing this life, Black laconically presented us with 58 kittens.
    The first two or three editions were tailless like mother or had parodies of tails. They were also black.


    But as the years passed and, presumably, the supply of Manx Romeos failed to meet the demand, later publications were just ordinary little cats, some of them were not even black--indeed, impudent blondes.
    But this modern Messalina was strangely psychic. All cats  are psychic. Black was peculiarly endowed in this respect.
    No sooner were we left alone in the house than I noted a curious fact.
    Black, at this stage of her career, did not particularly seek my company, but now, no matter which room I might be in, Black would appear, purring ingratiatingly.
    On the night of my first experiment in receptivity Black was with me.
    She stood by firmly on the two succeeding nights when I forced my mind to become crystal blank and waited for the Extra Inhabitant to establish contact.
    Only one definite impression emerged.
    It was an impression of sniggering! Someone, very near, invisible and otherwise silent, was mocking me.
    I got no other results, although I "listened in" to the Bruton-street ghost on three successive nights.
    I am disposed to say that the thought-form haunting the house was that of a malignant lunatic--probably a suicide.
    On all three occasions when I gave up and surrendered myself to my physical environment again, Black was asleep. . . .

Cat's Strange

Black's indifference to the sniggerer, the rapper, the stair-walker is curious in relation to what followed.
    In fact, I am disposed to believe that the Extra Inhabitant was dispossessed from time to time by an altogether more formidable ghost.
    It was fear of this Second Thing which urged Black to avoid being left alone.
    Of course, I have no means of knowing if the Manx cat had seen the Second Thing before. She saw it only once to my knowledge--and it reduced her to a state of terror all but unbelievable  in so fearless a little beast.
    I might add here that there is a possible alternative to my theory of the Second Thing.
    Bearing in mind the fact that thought is creation, the terror  of the black cat may have been caused by a thought-form which I, myself, had conjured up.
    In that queer house I wrote a story called "The Green Eyes of Bast."
    It dealt with a cat-woman, controlled or influenced by Bast, the cat goddess of Bubastis in Ancient Egypt (now known as Zagazig).
    I was actually working on it at the time that Black saw Something. This point should not be overlooked.

Fighting the

The cat was asleep in front of a fire in that large lounge which I have mentioned. As the curtains of the recess were not drawn, from my writing desk there I could see her lying on the rug.
    It was about half-past eleven at night.
    Black suddenly sprang up with a loud and fierce hiss!
    I twisted in my chair and stared into the big room, which was dimly lighted.
    The cat shot at high speed under a bureau set between windows overlooking the street and almost directly facing me as I turned. Her eyes, as she crouched there in shadow, resembled green lamps!
    I was naturally amazed. The little animal was not only an old companion, but a doughty campaigner and tried friend. I stood up and walked toward her.
    As I approached the bureau under which she was crouching I became aware of a most curious thing.      Black was moving her head from side to side as I advanced. Clearly, I was obstructing her view of something upon wwhich those firey eyes had fixed--something in the recess from which I had come!
    When I actually reached the bureau and stooped down, Black darted feverishly to one side and continued to stare with those luminous eyes in the direction of my writing-desk!
    I saw now that every hair on her body was on end. The little animal was quivering with fear.
    I reached out to caress her. Without glancing aside, she snapped viciously and tried to claw my hand!
   She was insane with fright. . . .
    I turned and looked in the same direction, but I could see nothing unusual in my writing room.

My wife had been to a theatre and at this stage in the curious episode returned and walked in.
    "Look!" I said, pointed to the cat and explained what had occurred.
    Recognising  the dreadful state of panic to which the poor little animal was reduced, she in turn approached . . . and as she crossed Black's field of vision, again the cat ducked to one side, continuing to stare fixedly into the recess.
    Her attempted caresses were savagely repulsed.
    We decided, since no other course was possible at themoment, to wait and watch.
    I think fully five minutes must have elapsed before Black, ignoring our existence entirely, emerged from the shadows, crawling, belly touching the carpet, towards that distant corner where my lighted table stood.
    The upstanding fur was not quite so prominent. Her fear was subsiding. But the animal's behaviour was extraordinary.
    She crawled along in this fashion, as if prepared at any moment to spring, passed thecurtained opening and crept right into the recess.
    It became more clear than ever that my chair or my table, or both, provided the focus of Black's interest.
    She approached the chair stealthily, hesitated for a long time--and then sprang onto it.
    From there, she leaped on to my table (a liberty she would never have dreamed of taking in saner moments), stepping daintily among the loose papers,  and raised her eyes to the top of a bookcase which surrounded the recess.
    She sprang on to this bookcase, jerking her head nervously right and left, as if an always instant danger lay hidden around the next corner.
    Having crawled entirely around the bookcase, sniffing and searching, she finally descended on to a settee on the other side of the recess, and looking at us where we watched from the outer room, seemed at last to become conscious of our presence--our identities.
    She crawled out, still glancing back from time to time. My wife took her up and soothed her.
    "Feel how her heart beats," she said.
    I did. The little animal was recovering from a state of mad panic for which to this day I have never been able to account satisfactorily--except that it occurred in that badly haunted house. . .


Note: The above transcription retains the newspaper column formatting and use of bold facing of the original. The partial transcription in The Rohmer Review, No. 15, September, 1976,  is slightly reformatted into longer paragraphs and has some clarifying material inserted.

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