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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN

PAINTING OF THE PROPHET

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First published in Fantastic Adventures, May 1947
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-02-27
Produced by Paul Sandery, Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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Fantastic Adventures<, May 1947, with "Painting of the Prophet"



Illustration

Ilsa stood before the painting, her eyes transfixed as the
colors blurred before her and a weird scene came into focus...



He was strange, this seller of antiques. But even stranger was
the painting he loved. For on its surface all things were foretold.





IT was a dismally dreary little town, and Ilsa was heartily sick of it. She was weary, too, with the dusty, cheap little room which she and John shared at the "best" of the town's half dozen more habitable hotels.

And she was thoroughly fed up with this business of being an Army wife. Which undoubtedly was the major cause for her short- tempered, sullen state of mind as she and John were taking their regular stroll that evening after dinner.

John had been whistling the chorus of the song she sang that night of their first meeting. This was a habit of his which had of late become increasingly irritating.

"I wish you'd stop that," she exclaimed suddenly.

He stopped instantly. His gait slowed, and his handsome, sun- bronzed features registered surprise and hurt.

"What's wrong, Ilsa, darling?" he demanded.

She stopped then, and turned to face him. He was tall and wide shouldered. The splash of colored ribbons on his chest, the clean fit of his uniform, the sergeant's stripes on his sleeves, all struck the same chords that they had when she'd first met him. But now it was different. Now she knew better. She was unimpressed.

"I don't like it, that's what's wrong!" Ilsa snapped.

He put his strong hands on her shoulders, gently. The hurt left his eyes, his white smile was kind, understanding, reassuring.

"Don't let your nerves get you, baby," he said huskily. "You've got to brace up. Lots of wives go through the same thing every moment of the day. It isn't easy to think of it. The doubt, the fear, the uncertainty. I understand all that. But I'll get through. I came back once, and I'll come back again. The first time I didn't have anything to come back for. I hadn't met you then. But this time, with so much more reason to return, there isn't a Jap this side of hell who can keep me from returning."

She wanted to laugh at this. Near hysteria gripped her. She wanted to laugh in his face. To tell the crazy fool shrilly, definitely, that—quite as usual—he had no idea of what she was thinking. He was thinking that her worries over his imminent departure for the combat zones had left her nerves taut, her disposition upset. He was thinking that she was distraught with the knowledge that the time they had left together was a mere matter of hours.

This was funny. This was screamingly hilarious. The fool! She wanted to beat her fists against his big, be-ribboned chest and howl the truth at him. She wanted to tell him that she loathed him, despised him, regretted the day she'd met him and the glamorous illusions that had so blinded her that she'd married him.


SHE had been singing at an Air Base on the coast. Ilsa Perry, beautiful Hollywood screen songstress. Ilsa Perry, entertaining the boys in uniform as a necessary part of her publicity agents' campaign to make her the darling of the services.

They had picked a soldier from the camp audience that night to have a "date" with the glamorous Ilsa Perry after the show. Sgt. John Carrin had been the lucky G.I. selected as her date.

Sgt. Carrin had a chest full of ribbons. He was just back from overseas—a hero. He was tall, good-looking, extremely photogenic in the magazine publicity pictures released on that "date" a few weeks later.

Bert Talbot, Ilsa's number one publicity man, had first suggested the idea of her "chasing" the handsome soldier. Their romance would make good copy—would give Ilsa's pictures access to every newspaper in the country. It was an excellent idea.

It had gotten a little out of Ilsa's control after a few weeks however. And a champagne party, followed by a trip to Las Vegas, resulted in a tremendous publicity presentation on the front pages of all newspapers the following morning.

"Hollywood Star Weds War Hero," the papers proclaimed.

Ilsa's press agents rubbed their hands. Her studio announced that box office returns on her current picture jumped a hundred per cent. Ilsa, now owning a handsome husband, didn't mind. She rather liked it at first. But the public attention couldn't hold forever.

And the handsome soldier—she learned to her horror—began to take it all much too seriously.

She remembered that talk he'd had with her the first week. He had wanted her to quit pictures, to give up a career that was just beginning to prosper.

"When this damned war is over darling," he'd told her. "We're going to settle down. We'll be the plain people living in a plain little house in Kansas, and I'll be the guy who owns the garage down the street. We ought to begin adjusting ourselves to that now."

Ilsa had laughed in his face, that night.

John had walked out on her, and she had felt a blessed sense of relief. Plain people, indeed. Kansas—my God! She was Ilsa Perry, beautiful, gay, glamorous. And the fool thought that his silly illusions—it was ridiculous.

But a gossip columnist had printed a hint of their ruptured marital state the following day. Ilsa's press agents, Ilsa's studio's big shots, had all telephoned to her frantically.

They were firm, logical, adamant.

"A divorce from a hero would ruin you. Even the hint of trouble with him is bad box office, Ilsa," Bert Talbot had said, among others. "Go back to him, get him back. Do whatever you can to keep up the illusion. Hell, he'll be going overseas again soon. Then you can have a strictly legitimate vacation from the guy, if that's how you feel. But we can't afford any bad publicity on your marriage. He's a war hero, see? You just can't afford that."

The studio executives had even hinted that they might tear up Ilsa's contract, if such "bad publicity" ever broke.

And she had been forced to bring him back, to make him think that she was sorry, that her feelings on the matter of quitting her career had changed, that their life together was going to be an incredible pattern of that he wanted.

She had told him that she'd quit pictures. Just as soon as her present contract expired, of course. She had—after much violent protest—agreed to his demand that they live on what he was earning, stay only at places that his meager savings could afford, eat only food which he could pay for. His handsome, stupid pride had to be satisfied. She couldn't afford to break with him. Not after the edict her studio and press agents had laid down on the matter.

The studio gave her a month's leave, so that she could be with him in the dirty little town outside his Air Base for the five weeks before he went back overseas.

And when the photographers from Picture Magazine had come to their hotel room to get a series of photographs on the simple, honest, American-army-wife life Ilsa Perry was leading, Sgt. John Carrin, her husband, had refused to permit them to exploit their privacy.

Ilsa had been furious at this. Picture Magazine was a national institution. The publicity would have been tremendous. It was worth a freight train of gold to her career. But when she had called Hollywood wildly in her rage, her studio bosses and the press agent boys had advised her to give in to his wishes, to skip the pictures, to avoid any break in their publicly labeled "bliss."

"Hell, kid, the guy'll be going back over in another week or so," she was reminded. "Stick it out. Don't be a fool. You got a career to think of."

They didn't have to tell Ilsa that he'd be going back in another week or more. She was counting the days.


NOW she stood there under the street lamp near an alley in this dreary, dingy little town, staring up into the handsome features of her war-hero husband, fighting to control her emotions, wishing to God that she could tell him exactly how she felt.

John took his hands from her shoulders, touched her lovely little nose lightly with a big closed, fist in mock reproach.

"Get a grip on yourself, baby. Nothing can hurt us," he said.

Ilsa fought to contain herself. She detested the way he called her "baby."

She'd thought it cute, once. But now it was cheap, stupid. Like the cheap, stupid life that the idiot thought he could drag her down to.

She wanted to scream at him that the days when Ilsa Perry had to live frugally, almost niggardly—the days when Ilsa Perry had to live in cheap hotels and eat in cheap restaurants—were long past and that he could never drag her back to them.

He was grinning now, his teeth white and even against the clean bronze of his skin.

"Come on, baby. Let's perk up. We've still got a few hours left together. Let's not think about anything else." Ilsa closed her eyes, her lovely hands clenching and unclenching into angry fists. Then she forced a smile.

"All right, John. I'll try."

But John was already trying to change the subject, to strike a light hearted note. He was staring across the street at something.

"Say, baby. Look over there. What on earth can that be?"

Ilsa turned instinctively, her eyes moving in the direction his finger pointed.

All she saw was a line of drab little shop fronts, the wooden frame-work of which was smoke-gray and paint-peeled.

"See that little shop in the center of the bunch?" John demanded. "The one with all the junk in the window?"

Ilsa saw the shop he referred to. It was incredibly junky, to judge from the conglomeration of curious objects piled in view before its dirty windows.

"Yes," she said flatly. "It's a disgusting little place, isn't it?"

John looked good-naturedly surprised. "Disgusting?" he echoed indignantly. "Why, baby, the place looks marvelous. I've never seen such a fascinating collection of junk in all my life. What say we go over and have a look?"


ILSA was about to protest. Then she changed her mind. It was just a matter of hours, she told herself grimly. Just a matter of hours. Let the fool prowl around in the dirty little shop if he liked. That was the sort of thing his childish mentality appreciated best. Make the idiot happy.

John took her arm, and they crossed the street together. When they were a few feet away from the shop, they were able to make out the faded lettering on its windows.


THE CURIO STUDIO—UNUSUAL ITEMS"

John read the inscription aloud, and it irritated her to hear him do so. Did he think she couldn't read?

Then they were standing in front of the littered windows, and John was chuckling delightedly at the mad array of items heaped in them.

"Look, baby. An Algerian sword, and those prayer rugs. Say, what do you know—isn't that the darndest looking lamp you ever saw? Looks like some of the ones I ran into in China."

There were innumerable other items of all descriptions. Chairs of early New England stamp, conch shells from Africa, old coins dating to Caesar, a tri-cornered hat of the Napoleonic era, snuff boxes of Colonial vintage, chains and fetlocks that might have been relics of slaving days, a vest of chain mail looking like it might have been used in the Crusades. All that, and much, much more. John pointed out each item enthusiastically, happily unaware that his ardor was not shared by Ilsa.

"Where do you suppose that thing came from?" John was saying, "And what do you suppose it was used for?"

It was then that the little bell in the shop door tinkled, and the door opened to reveal the proprietor of the shop standing there smiling at him.

They didn't notice him for the first few moments. And then he spoke.

"Why don't you come inside? There are many fascinating items here."

They turned at the sound of his rich, deep, melodious voice. They turned and saw an immense figure of a man, a person of Falstaffian paunch and unusual height, a man with a head of silken, carefully combed white hair, and a fat, red, jovial face half hidden by a cleanly trimmed moustache and spade beard. His moustache and beard were as white and silken as his hair. He was smiling amiably at them.

John answered him, touching Ilsa's arm eagerly as he did so.

"Thank you, I'd certainly like to. But we're not quite solvent enough to buy anything."

Ilsa shuddered at this last remark of John's in reference to his financial state. The boor—cheerfully presenting them as paupers. The thought that she had a salary of several thousand dollars a week was enough to make her humiliation doubly obnoxious.

"You aren't obliged to buy," the gargantuan proprietor was answering smilingly. "I enjoy showing my things to people who are appreciative of them. That is often more than enough remuneration for me. Do come in."

"Thanks," John grinned. He slipped his arm around Ilsa's waist, and before she could collect herself, was ushering her into the shop in the wake of the huge, white haired proprietor.

Ilsa knew instantly that she loathed the little place.


THE musty odors that struck her nostrils as they entered were enough to make her detest it. But the dim light, the crowded, junk-littered aisles, and the general gloom and dustiness of the place added further to her distaste. Too, it seemed damp, and your voice when it rang forth came with a sort of echoing, hollow sound that was disquieting to the nerves. It was the proprietor's voice that was ringing forth now.

"I scarcely know where to begin," he was saying. "It might be best just to let you browse around, poke about a bit. But I think it will be more fun if I conduct your tour. You see, almost every object in this shop entailed no little search on my part. Many of them, I have journeyed to distant lands to find."

The huge shopkeeper paused before a silken gown carelessly draped over the top of a counter. He turned to face Ilsa and John, smiling reminiscently as he touched the hem of the garment gently to point it out.

"This robe," he said, "I picked up in Tibet. It was once worn by a lovely lady believed to be a Goddess by the natives."

Ilsa scarcely heard the huge old man as he went on into a short narration on the history of the gown. She was making a conscious effort not to listen. She looked about the weird little place with lofty, obvious disdain. She hoped to snub the proprietor into silence and thereby cut short this dismal "tour" of a stinking little antique mart. Several times, during this display of rudeness, she glanced covertly at the tremendous old man to see if he noticed it. It seemed to her as if he did notice it, but was not offended. He was smiling broadly as he went on with his narrative.

The articles he pointed out, and those that had "histories" which he briefly sketched, were endlessly piled throughout the place. And Ilsa found herself, a good half hour later, moving along behind John and the proprietor to another gloomy corner of the shop where, their host assured them, there were still other items to see.

Ilsa was now fretfully angry and brazenly insulting in her manner. She yawned, stared frostily, glanced at her watch, and tapped her foot impatiently while the old man talked.

John had begun to notice this, and was obviously growing somewhat uncomfortable over her state of mind. But as they stepped to the corner of the room, his sudden exclamation was evidence that his thoughts were suddenly again oblivious to everything but the curio shop.

"Good Lord!" he cried. "What on earth is that painting?"

Even Ilsa forgot herself long enough to move up hastily beside John and the old man to see what it was that they were staring at. The tone of John's voice had been arresting enough to arouse her curiosity.

It was a canvas some four feet long and two feet wide, handsomely framed in old fashioned oak and gold. It lay atop a small stand in the very corner of the room, several yards from them, secured from reach by piles of bric--brac which lay between.

It was, obviously, a painting. And yet, it was, just as obviously, a painting of nothing. Nothing, that is, but a blue gray vapor, a writhing mist in which there was no form, no line—and yet, substance.


AS Ilsa stared at it, she felt a curious compulsion to move back, and away from it. It seemed almost alive, almost moving, writhing. And then the old man's voice broke the illusion. "It seems to be possessed with life of its own, doesn't it?" he chuckled.

"Good God, yes!" John exclaimed. "An illusion, of course," said the old man. "A most remarkable illusion of line. Yet no line is apparent to it, though lines are there. Neither is substance certain, though substance is there."

"But, but what is it?" John demanded. "It isn't a painting of anything at all, is it? It's just a study in the motion of line. Is that right?"

The towering old shopkeeper shook his head.

"Not exactly," he said. "You see, this, ah, painting, has a very peculiar history. It dates back to the Middle Ages. It is called the 'Painting of the Prophet'—"

"Painting of the Prophet?" John echoed puzzledly.

The massive, white bearded old man nodded solemnly. "Yes. The Prophet was a Monk. A certain Friar Boniface. He was a very saintly, very talented, and very peculiar old gentleman. In a minor way he had established a reputation in his country as a sort of Nostradamus, a foreteller of the future."

"Ohhh, I see," John exclaimed. "Then he painted this, and, being a prophet, the painting was named as it is?"

"That is correct," said the old man. "He was an unusually talented artist, and most of his work was futuristic and prophetic in nature."

"Actually so?" John asked. "I mean, were his painting forecasts correct?"

The old man smiled, shrugged. "I really couldn't say. You see, all but this painting was destroyed. The good Friar Boniface's minor fame as a prophet did not please his superior at the Abbey, a very jealous monk named Paul. Friar Paul, it seems, accused Friar Boniface of having league with the Devil. He maintained that good Boniface's insight to the future came from Lucifer, rather than heaven. He finally succeeded in having Friar Boniface formally imprisoned for trial as a heretical fiend in league with Satan."

The old shopkeeper paused, ran his well manicured hand through his silken white hair. He smiled at John and Ilsa.

"The rest of the story is tragic. Friar Paul had all of Friar Boniface's paintings publicly burned. The old monk, Friar Boniface, was imprisoned in a local castle. There, he found, somehow, canvas and oils of a sort which enabled him to paint this, his last, work."

"But wasn't this known to the jealous Friar, or to Boniface's captors?" John demanded.

The massive old man shook his head.

"No. The work was done secretly. It is believed that a jailer, a confidant of the persecuted old Monk's, perhaps, was in on the secret. Possibly he smuggled Friar Boniface the crude materials with which to work. At any rate, this last painting of the prophet Friar's was smuggled out of the castle prison without anyone's knowledge. It was hidden away in an old church. There it was discovered many many years later. I bought it from the poor curate who had found it."

"What came of Friar Boniface's trial?"

"He was convicted, he died on the rack, poor old man, still maintaining his innocence. He prayed for God to forgive his tormentors. If I were God, I'm sure I wouldn't forgive them."

John Shook his head. "That's really quite a story."

"And it's really quite true," said the old man. "At least that much of it. The rest, I suppose, you could call superstition."

"The rest?" John asked.

"Yes, you see all the Friar's paintings, until this one, had been paintings of prophecy," the Old man said. "It seemed peculiar to those who knew that small, unimportant fragment of history, that the poor old man's last work should be nothing but a most unusual study of line and motion. It seemed odd that the old monk's final masterpiece, you might say, was not also a prophecy in painting."

John nodded reflectively. "It does seem odd, at that."

"Perhaps," said the old shopkeeper, "that is what started the superstition about this painting. The superstition is that this picture you're looking at now, is actually old Friar Boniface's ultimate gift to posterity—a painting that is capable of all-encompassing prophecy."

John frowned. "I don't believe I understand."


THE old man smiled. "Of course not. It's quite fantastic. However, the superstition claims that this painting can predict anything of the future one desires to know."

"But it's only a blur of gray and—" John began.

"I know," the old man said. "However, the superstition maintains that the apparently moving blur of blue-gray on that canvas is but an animated curtain, concealing innumerable paintings of prophecy beneath it."

"You mean a wash of the canvas—" John started.

The old man cut him off, shaking, his head. "No. I don't mean that. The blue of gray you see now is supposed to leave the picture when a prophecy is about to be revealed. When the blur is gone, a painting is supposed to be visible beneath. A painting predicting whatever vision of the future one desires. The forecast stated in oils, then the blur comes back to cover the canvas until the next prediction is desired."

"Why, that's fascinating. Utterly fantastic, as you said, but really interesting," John exclaimed.

The old man's smile this time was even more kindly.

"Yes," he said. "It is indeed interesting."

Ilsa had endured all she could. Her voice was sharp, rude, as she broke in.

"May I make a prediction?"

John, not noticing her tight-lipped expression, grinned and said, "Go right ahead, baby."

"I predict that I'll be too exhausted to stand, if we don't leave at once." She turned an acrid sweet smile on the old shopkeeper.

"I'm sure," she said, voice thick with irony, "that we've monopolized much too much of your time. Thank you. I'm sure John enjoyed himself. Quaint bric--brac and old wives tales have always been amusing to him."

John flushed in embarrassment at his wife's obvious sarcasm. He turned, red-faced, to the old man, starting to speak.

The huge old storekeeper intercepted his words.

"I've really enjoyed this," he smiled. "Perhaps we've been inconsiderate of your wife in our mutual, interest of the curios. However, I do wish you'd both drop in again. It was most enjoyable to show you around. There's much much more to be seen, you know."

"I'm sure there is," Ilsa snapped.

"I'd really like to," John declared. "Maybe I'll be able to do so. Perhaps tomorrow night."

"I can think of nothing," purred Ilsa nastily, "more delightful."

John took her arm, flushing in embarrassment again and started toward the door. The old shopkeeper was still smiling warmly, was still unruffled. He followed them, to the door and bade them both good-night.


BACK in their small hotel room, John turned to Ilsa.

"Why were you so rude to that old fellow, baby?" he demanded.

Ilsa had just removed her coat. She was peering into the dresser mirror, wiping lipstick from her mouth with a handkerchief. She turned to face her husband, her lovely features hard in anger.

"Did it ever occur to you that your tours through junk shops bored me to death? Did it ever occur to you that—" she saw the look on John's face, and a sudden shrewdness made her change her sentence, "that you'll be leaving any moment, any hour, any day, and that the time we've left together shouldn't be wasted over trinkets and paintings?"

The hurt drained from John's face, and contrition came to his eyes.

"God, I'm sorry, baby. I didn't think. It was stupid of me, utterly selfish. I wanted only to change your mood when you were feeling so low there under the street lamp. When we started touring the little shop, I guess I got carried away. Forgive me, will you?"

Ilsa laughed within herself. He was such a fool. Such a damned fool. She congratulated herself on her cleverness in having sidestepped a nasty scene and regained her control. Hell, there were only a few hours, maybe a day or so more, remaining. She'd be crazy to risk a break with the boob before he left.

She smiled at him, contempt hidden behind her baby blue eyes. He was a boob, a loathsome nobody, an irksome dolt. But he was undeniably handsome... and there was a great deal of animal in Ilsa Perry. She held out her arms.

"I forgive you, darling," she purred.


THE ringing of the telephone woke Ilsa the following morning. She opened her eyes and saw that John, sitting on the edge of the bed, had answered it. His conversation came somewhat fuzzily to her sleep-webbed mind.

"Yes. Yes, Sir. At once."

There was a pause.

"No, of course not. So long as I can get back here for a few hours this evening. Fine. Thank you, Sir."

He put the telephone in the cradle, turned to see if Ilsa had been wakened.

"Ilsa?" he asked softly.

Ilsa had closed her eyes swiftly, and was feigning sleep. Her heart, however, was hammering excitedly, joyously, and the fog of sleep had cleared from her mind.

She heard her husband whisper her name cautiously once again, then sigh. He rose from the bed, obviously sure that she was still asleep.

Ilsa heard him dressing swiftly, heard the splash of water in the bathroom as he washed and shaved. She kept her eyes closed. But she thought: It's come. He's going to ship out. That's what the call was. He's shipping out today. Tonight, probably. That's probably what he meant about getting back here for a few hours this evening. Yes, that's it. He's shipping tonight. If it were this morning, he'd wake me to say goodbye.

She heard him return to the bedroom, sensed, rather than heard, him slip into his coat. Then she heard him pause by the writing desk, heard a pencil scratching on paper.

His footsteps returned to her bedside. The clean, astringent, masculine smell of his cheek was suddenly close to her.

Then she felt his light, almost reverent kiss on her lips.

The door closed softly behind him a moment later and he was gone.

Ilsa waited a few moments. He might come back. He might have forgotten something. No. It was safe now to "wake up." She opened her eyes, sprang out of bed.

Breathlessly she moved to the writing desk. There was a sheet of stationery there, and on it was a note in his hand.


"Darling," it read. "Didn't want to wake you. Am on shipping alert for midnight. Just got a call to that effect. Will be able to be back here at six tonight, but will have to get back to the base by ten o'clock. That will give us at least three wonderful hours of goodbye. Love, John."


Ilsa read the note twice more, and each reading made her joy greater. She felt suddenly, utterly free. It was wonderful, glorious, like being released from a nightmare.

She wanted to laugh, to sing. But she did neither. She went back to the bed, found her cigarettes on the night table beside it, lighted one, and leaned back rapturously on the pillows, her mouth set in a smile of triumph.

Before she woke to face another morning, she would be rid of him. The thought was almost too wonderful to bear.

Suddenly she leaned forward and picked up the telephone from its cradle on the night table.

"Operator," she said a moment later, "I want to place a long distance call. To Hollywood. That's right. Hollywood, California."


SHE gave the operator the number she wanted. Then she hummed lightly for a moment.

"All right, operator. Call me back as soon as the connection is through."

Ilsa smoked several more cigarettes before the telephone tang. She picked it up eagerly.

"Hello, Bert," she purred, "you old dear."

Bert Talbot, Ilsa's number one publicity man seemed surprised.

"What on earth is up, Ilsa? Why are you calling me at this hour?"

"Don't you like it?" Ilsa was coy.

"My God," Bert said. "Don't be kittenish, darling. Of course I like it. I'm thrilled to the marrow. Only, how come you're calling at this early hour?"

"John's moving out," Ilsa said exuberantly.

"You've had a fight?" Bert's voice was suddenly panicky.

"Nooo," Ilsa was patient, amused. "No, darling. I mean shipping out He'll be heading overseas in a matter of hours. Isn't it heavenly?"

Bert's tone was guarded. "That's fine, darling. That's just swell, if that's how you want it."

"That's how I want it," Ilsa said, a trifle sharply.

"Sure, sure," said Bert Talbot. "Well that's just grand. That means we'll be seeing you very shortly, huh? You can count on our having everyone at the airport to meet you."

"I don't think I want to come right back to the studio, Bert," Ilsa said slyly. "I think I want about a week's vacation. I need it."

"Sure, sure, darling, anything you like," Talbot said. "Take a week if you want it, kid. You've earned it."

"I want to go to Brandon Lodge," Ilsa said. "Tomorrow."

Brandon Lodge was a mountain resort, an exclusive playground for the financially and socially solvent.

"Uh-huh," Bert said, his voice growing guarded again.

"With you, darling," Ilsa added impishly. "There's that lovely eight room cabin there. It's almost deserted at the lodge this time of year. We can be positively alone—together."

There was a loud silence on the other end of the wire.

"Bert," Ilsa said irritably, "What did you say?"

"My God!" her press agent exclaimed. "My God!"

"Bert!" Ilsa's voice was angered. "What do you mean by that? We've been there before together and—"

"But you're married, now. You're married to a war hero. He's going back overseas. You can't afford to risk a clandestine meeting in a luxury lodge under those circumstances. My God, Ilsa, I appreciate your delightful little thoughtfulness of me as a partner. But it just won't go. Why, if anything leaked out in the newspapers, or even in gossip, I'd lose my job at the studio, and you'd be washed up as a star!"

"Bert!" wailed Ilsa. "He's leaving. He'll be gone. My God, I don't have to carry this on any longer, now that he's going, do I?"

Bert's answer was emphatic.

"My God, Ilsa. Just because he's going over doesn't mean that he's any less your husband in the public eye. It's all the more reason for you to keep up a front. Wife on home front, if you get me. Stiff upper lip, smiling through tears, waiting for him to return. You know the angle. Great schmalz—the public'll gobble it up."

"But Bert!" wailed Ilsa.

"Look, darling," her press agent was talking rapidly, urgently. "Just because we begged you to stick it out until he left, and gave you a million concrete reasons why it was the only smart thing to do, that didn't mean anything but that you wouldn't have to have him around personally after he'd gone. We didn't mean that you'd then be free to raise hell and kick over the traces because he was out of your way."

"But Bert!" Ilsa began again.

Her press agent wouldn't let her get started.

"You gotta remember, darling, he isn't dead, and you can't divorce him, not until the war's over. Then it won't mean a damn thing. There's nothing you can do about it, if you value your career. If he got knocked off in some air battle, that'd be different, after a few months. But as it is, you gotta play patience, kid. That's all there is to it."

Ilsa didn't answer. Her mouth was tight with anger, and her lovely eyes sparkling wrath. She slammed the telephone down on its cradle, ending the conversation.

For several hours she paced the room like a female panther, chain-smoking cigarettes, smashing out the stubs savagely on the glass top of the dresser.

"I hope to God they get him. I hope to God those little Japs blow his bomber to bits!" she muttered time and time again.

Finally, still enraged, she dressed and left the hotel.


ILSA walked furiously, aimlessly through the drab streets of the dreary little town for over an hour. Finding herself at last near a small restaurant, she entered and ordered breakfast.

The breakfast was surprisingly tempting. But Ilsa had little appetite for it. Her anger had filled her until there was no room for anything but its aching sickness.

She left the restaurant some ten minutes later, and began her aimless walking again.

It must have been twenty minutes later when she realized, that she had gone from one end of the little town to the other, and was starting back in the direction of the dingy hotel again.

Her rage and her furious pace had exhausted her a little, and now she walked more slowly, conscious, for the first time, of the things surrounding her.

It was then that, with sharp remembrance, she realized that she was on the same street in which John had found the dreadful little curio shop the night before.

And it was almost before she realized it, that she found herself directly across the street from it.

She was not able to explain to herself why she paused there. Nor was she able to explain why she suddenly crossed the street and stepped up to the window of the little curio store.

She knew only that something had prompted her to do what she did, without being conscious of what that something was.

But she stood there, staring at the array of curios behind the murkily filtering light of the little shop's greasy windows.

It was then that the bell of the shop door tinkled. It was then that Ilsa looked up and saw the towering old man with the white beard and the white moustache and white hair smiling amiably in recognition.

"Good morning," he said. "It's nice to see you again. Won't you step in?"

His voice, was as rich and mellow as Ilsa remembered its being the night before.

She started to say something brittle and insulting, but instead heard herself saying, "Why, yes. Yes, I will. Thank you."

The old man didn't answer this. He merely smiled, opened the door widely to permit her to enter, then followed her inside.

The sharp, damp musty smell of the place was the same as it had been the previous night. It was also just as gloomy and dark inside as before. The littered shelves, the narrow aisle, everything was the same.

Ilsa turned to face the old man. She didn't know what to say, how to begin, although she knew why she was here. She knew, though it was mad, idiotic, utterly ridiculous, that she wanted to see—

"You'd like to see the prophet's painting?" the old man's voice broke in on her thoughts.

Ilsa flushed, startled.

The old man was smiling warmly at her. She found a strange courage from this.

"Yes," she said. "As a matter of fact I would like to. I know it's silly of me, but I, ah—" she faltered.

"There's something you'd like to know," said the huge old man, and his smile was even more understanding and kindly than before, "about the future."

The expression on Ilsa's face made the old man's smile even more richly engraved on his warm, reassuring features.

"You feel somewhat foolish for having come here, I know," he said understandingly. "And yet many people have their palms read, their horoscopes foretold, their futures predicted, in a thousand silly little ways day after day, and never feel foolish about the faint, unshakable hope they have in them afterwards."


IF Ilsa had felt she needed some shred of justification in what she was about to do, the old man's words gave her just that. Not that they contained any particular logic when analyzed. It was the reassuring manner in which they were spoken—the solid, trustworthy timbre of the voice that gave them sound.

"Yes," she said. "I would like—"

The old man held up his hand.

"You needn't tell me what you would like to know. Suppose we go to the painting of the prophet. Perhaps, if you stand there before it, concentrating utterly on one key word containing the essence of what you seek to learn, you may be rewarded with the glimpse of the future you seek."

Ilsa was scarcely aware that she was following the old man down the crowded little aisle of the shop toward the corner where the painting was. She was thinking: I must know. I have to know. Will he die in combat? Will his bomber fail to return from some mission? Will I be free of him? Will he be killed, this time?

They stopped before the picture, and it was fully a minute before Ilsa's eyes adjusted themselves to the gloom of the corner in which it reposed. Then she was able to see the handsome old fashioned frame of oak and gold.

It was a moment later when she made out the blue gray movement of it, the vaporish mist that lent it substance, gave essence to the nothingness of its canvas.

The old man spoke.

"I shall be discreet enough to retire to the front of the shop. Remember, concentrate solely on a key word. Perhaps you will be fortunate enough to find what you want revealed."

Ilsa nodded mutely, and the old man moved noiselessly off.

She shivered uncontrollably an instant, then closed her eyes. She sought for a key word on which to concentrate. The mental image of John's plane was in her mind. She could think of a key word now.

"Death," she whispered softly. "Death."

She closed her eyes again, clenching her hands into fists. Her palms were moist, faint perspiration beaded her brow.

"Death," she whispered.

She concentrated to the utmost power of her will on that word. She heard it then.

It was almost inaudible. It was a sound similar to nothing she had ever heard before, soft, sibilant, something like silk slithering against silk, and yet not that.

She opened her eyes.

The vapor which had been the shroud of the canvas was parting. It moved back to either side, vanishing into nothingness, like a curtain parting into wings of blackness.

And the painting of the prophet revealed—a painting!

It was faint, foggily obscure, but she was able to discern the line of it, the meaning of it. She could see it well enough to know instantly, clearly, what it was.

It was an object smashed and twisted and smouldering against the jagged rocks of a huge mountain. It was the tortured, smoking framework of a large plane, crumpled like a bird in death splattered against a ragged masonry of stone.

"John's ship!"

The words came in an involuntary gasp from her lips. Then, instantly, she put her hand to her mouth.

Her heart was pounding madly, and she felt a wild, dizzying giddiness that left her weak with exultation.

The vapor had reappeared and was now covering the canvas again, but Ilsa didn't notice.

She had turned, and was walking quickly back up the aisle to the front of the shop, her heels clicking the furious tempo of her heartbeats.

"He'll die. He'll get it. He won't come back. I'm free!"

The words rang again and again through her mind, with the wild, pealing insistence of bells caroling the chorus of a chant.

"John will die. John will die. I'll be free!"

The old man was waiting for her in the front of the shop. The dazed glance she gave him showed scarcely recognition. She was laughing now, and tears were running down her cheeks.

"You are pleased," he said kindly.

"You'll never know how pleased," she said. "It's wonderful. It's incredibly wonderful."

Hastily she searched her handbag, found three hundred dollar bills in a place where she had secreted them against John's knowledge.

She stuffed these into the old man's, hand, and without another word, dashed from the shop.


AT the desk in the hotel the clerk stopped her.

"Your husband telephoned," he said. "It was urgent. He left a message that he had to leave sooner than he expected. He will not be back this evening. He says he will get in touch with you just as soon as possible."

This was marvelous! This was too perfect for words! John was shipping out sooner than he'd thought. He wouldn't be able to get back. There'd be no mushy farewells. She'd not have to put up with him another instant. Not another instant in all her life. He was leaving, and she'd never have to see him again!

She tried to look composed, for the benefit of the desk clerk.

"Thank you," she said. "I understand." Then: "Will you place a long distance call for me? To Hollywood? I Want Mr. Talbot, at the Cosmos Picture Corporation."

Ilsa turned for the elevator as the clerk wrote this down. Then she stopped, turned back.

"And I'd like you to get a plane reservation for me. Call the airport and find out what's the quickest plane to Los Angeles, will you?"

When she walked to the elevator, on her way to her room, she was humming.


Headline, Los Angeles Times, Date-lined, following day:

ILSA PERRY, SCREEN STAR, DIES IN
AIRLINER CRASH ENROUTE HOLLYWOOD

SEVEN OTHERS PERISH IN
PASSENGER SHIP SMASHUP
OVER NEVADA MOUNTAINS

"Ilsa Perry, glamorous star of Cosmos Pictures, in private life the wife of heroic Army Airman, Sgt. John Carrin, died late last night in an airliner tragedy, when the plane in which she was returning from a sojourn with her husband crashed into the Sierra Nevada chain north of Las Vegas."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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