The following sections of this BookRags Literature Study Guide is offprint from Gale's For Students Series: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Works: Introduction, Author Biography, Plot Summary, Characters, Themes, Style, Historical Context, Critical Overview, Criticism and Critical Essays, Media Adaptations, Topics for Further Study, Compare & Contrast, What Do I Read Next?, For Further Study, and Sources.
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The following sections, if they exist, are offprint from Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: "Social Concerns", "Thematic Overview", "Techniques", "Literary Precedents", "Key Questions", "Related Titles", "Adaptations", "Related Web Sites". (c)1994-2005, by Walton Beacham.
The following sections, if they exist, are offprint from Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults: "About the Author", "Overview", "Setting", "Literary Qualities", "Social Sensitivity", "Topics for Discussion", "Ideas for Reports and Papers". (c)1994-2005, by Walton Beacham.
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|Table of Contents|
|Start of eBook||1|
|INTRODUCTION: THE IMPERISHABLE GHOST||1|
|The Shadows on the Wall||38|
|THE KING’S CRADLE SONG||71|
|BY LEONID ANDREYEV||71|
|The Beast with Five Fingers||85|
|The Mass of Shadows||104|
|BY FITZ-JAMES O’BRIEN||108|
|The Middle Toe of the Right Foot||118|
|The Shell of Sense||124|
|The Woman at Seven Brothers||132|
|At the Gate||146|
|The Haunted Orchard||162|
BY ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
THE SHADOWS ON THE WALL
BY MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN
BY ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
BY LEONID ANDREYEV
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS
BY W. F. HARVEY
THE MASS OF SHADOWS
BY ANATOLE FRANCE
WHAT WAS IT?
BY FITZ-JAMES O’BRIEN
THE MIDDLE TOE OF THE RIGHT FOOT
BY AMBROSE BIERCE
THE SHELL OF SENSE
BY OLIVIA HOWARD DUNBAR
THE WOMAN AT SEVEN BROTHERS
BY WILBUR DANIEL STEELE
AT THE GATE
BY MYLA JO CLOSSER
BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
THE HAUNTED ORCHARD
BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
BY ARTHUR MACHEN
BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT
BY ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
From The Listener,
by Algernon Blackwood. Published in America by
E.P. Dutton, and in England by Everleigh Nash, Ltd. By permission
of the publishers and Algernon Blackwood.
After leaving Vienna, and long before you come to Buda-Pesth, the Danube enters a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes. On the big maps this deserted area is painted in a fluffy blue, growing fainter in color as it leaves the banks, and across it may be seen in large straggling letters the word Suempfe, meaning marshes.
In high flood this great acreage of sand, shingle-beds, and willow-grown islands is almost topped by the water, but in normal seasons the bushes bend and rustle in the free winds, showing their silver leaves to the sunshine in an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty. These willows never attain to the dignity of trees; they have no rigid trunks; they remain humble bushes, with rounded tops and soft outline, swaying on slender stems that answer to the least pressure of the wind; supple as grasses, and so continually shifting that they somehow give the impression that the entire plain is moving and alive. For the wind sends waves rising and falling over the whole surface, waves of leaves instead of waves of water, green swells like the sea, too, until the branches turn and lift, and then silvery white as their under-side turns to the sun.
Happy to slip beyond the control of stern banks, the Danube here wanders about at will among the intricate network of channels intersecting the islands everywhere with broad avenues down which the waters pour with a shouting sound; making whirlpools, eddies, and foaming rapids; tearing at the sandy banks; carrying away masses of shore and willow-clumps; and forming new islands innumerable which shift daily in size and shape and possess at best an impermanent life, since the flood-time obliterates their very existence.
Properly speaking, this fascinating part of the river’s life begins soon after leaving Pressburg, and we, in our Canadian canoe, with gipsy tent and frying-pan on board, reached it on the crest of a rising flood about mid-July. That very same morning, when the sky was reddening before sunrise, we had slipped swiftly through still-sleeping Vienna, leaving it a couple of hours later a mere patch of smoke against the blue hills of the Wienerwald on the horizon; we had breakfasted below Fischeramend under a grove of birch trees roaring in the wind; and had then swept on the tearing current past Orth, Hainburg, Petronell (the old Roman Carnuntum of Marcus Aurelius), and so under the frowning heights of Theben on a spur of the Carpathians, where the March steals in quietly from the left and the frontier is crossed between Austria and Hungary.
Racing along at twelve kilometers an hour soon took us well into Hungary, and the muddy waters—sure sign of flood—sent us aground on many a shingle-bed, and twisted us like a cork in many a sudden belching whirlpool before the towers of Pressburg (Hungarian, Poszony) showed against the sky; and then the canoe, leaping like a spirited horse, flew at top speed under the gray walls, negotiated safely the sunken chain of the Fliegende Bruecke ferry, turned the corner sharply to the left, and plunged on yellow foam into the wilderness of islands, sand-banks, and swamp-land beyond—the land of the willows.
The change came suddenly, as when a series of bioscope pictures snaps down on the streets of a town and shifts without warning into the scenery of lake and forest. We entered the land of desolation on wings, and in less than half an hour there was neither boat nor fishing-hut nor red roof, nor any single sign of human habitation and civilization within sight. The sense of remoteness from the world of human kind, the utter isolation, the fascination of this singular world of willows, winds, and waters, instantly laid its spell upon us both, so that we allowed laughingly to one another that we ought by rights to have held some special kind of passport to admit us, and that we had, somewhat audaciously, come without asking leave into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic—a kingdom that was reserved for the use of others who had a right to it, with everywhere unwritten warnings to trespassers for those who had the imagination to discover them.
Though still early in the afternoon, the ceaseless buffetings of a most tempestuous wind made us feel weary, and we at once began casting about for a suitable camping-ground for the night. But the bewildering character of the islands made landing difficult; the swirling flood carried us in-shore and then swept us out again; the willow branches tore our hands as we seized them to stop the canoe, and we pulled many a yard of sandy bank into the water before at length we shot with a great sideways blow from the wind into a backwater and managed to beach the bows in a cloud of spray. Then we lay panting and laughing after our exertions on hot yellow sand, sheltered from the wind, and in the full blaze of a scorching sun, a cloudless blue sky above, and an immense army of dancing, shouting willow bushes, closing in from all sides, shining with spray and clapping their thousand little hands as though to applaud the success of our efforts.
“What a river!” I said to my companion, thinking of all the way we had traveled from the source in the Black Forest, and how we had often been obliged to wade and push in the upper shallows at the beginning of June.
“Won’t stand much nonsense now, will it?” he said, pulling the canoe a little farther into safety up the sand, and then composing himself for a nap.
I lay by his side, happy and peaceful in the bath of the elements—water, wind, sand, and the great fire of the sun—thinking of the long journey that lay behind us, and of the great stretch before us to the Black Sea, and how lucky I was to have such a delightful and charming traveling companion as my friend, the Swede.
We had made many similar journeys together, but the Danube, more than any other river I knew, impressed us from the very beginning with its aliveness. From its tiny bubbling entry into the world among the pinewood gardens of Donaueschingen, until this moment when it began to play the great river-game of losing itself among the deserted swamps, unobserved, unrestrained, it had seemed to us like following the growth of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.
How, indeed, could it be otherwise, since it told us so much of its secret life? At night we heard it singing to the moon as we lay in our tent, uttering that odd sibilant note peculiar to itself and said to be caused by the rapid tearing of the pebbles along its bed, so great is its hurrying speed. We knew, too, the voice of its gurgling whirlpools, suddenly bubbling up on a surface previously quite calm; the roar of its shallows and swift rapids; its constant steady thundering below all mere surface sounds; and that ceaseless tearing of its icy waters at the banks. How it stood up and shouted when the rains fell flat upon its face! And how its laughter roared out when the wind blew upstream and tried to stop its growing speed! We knew all its sounds and voices, its tumblings and foamings, its unnecessary splashing against the bridges; that self-conscious chatter when there were hills to look on; the affected dignity of its speech when it passed through the little towns, far too important to laugh; and all these faint, sweet whisperings when the sun caught it fairly in some slow curve and poured down upon it till the steam rose.
It was full of tricks, too, in its early life before the great world knew it. There were places in the upper reaches among the Swabian forests, when yet the first whispers of its destiny had not reached it, where it elected to disappear through holes in the ground, to appear again on the other side of the porous limestone hills and start a new river with another name; leaving, too, so little water in its own bed that we had to climb out and wade and push the canoe through miles of shallows!
And a chief pleasure, in those early days of its irresponsible youth, was to lie low, like Brer Fox, just before the little turbulent tributaries came to join it from the Alps, and to refuse to acknowledge them when in, but to run for miles side by side, the dividing line well marked, the very levels different, the Danube utterly declining to recognize the new-comer. Below Passau, however, it gave up this particular trick, for there the Inn comes in with a thundering power impossible to ignore, and so pushes and incommodes the parent river that there is hardly room for them in the long twisting gorge that follows, and the Danube is shoved this way and that against the cliffs, and forced to hurry itself with great waves and much dashing to and fro in order to get through in time. And during the fight our canoe slipped down from its shoulder to its breast, and had the time of its life among the struggling waves. But the Inn taught the old river a lesson, and after Passau it no longer pretended to ignore new arrivals.
This was many days back, of course, and since then we had come to know other aspects of the great creature, and across the Bavarian wheat plain of Straubing she wandered so slowly under the blazing June sun that we could well imagine only the surface inches were water, while below there moved, concealed as by a silken mantle, a whole army of Undines, passing silently and unseen down to the sea, and very leisurely too, lest they be discovered.
Much, too, we forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores. Cormorants lined the banks in lonely places in rows like short black palings; gray crows crowded the shingle-beds; storks stood fishing in the vistas of shallower water that opened up between the islands, and hawks, swans, and marsh birds of all sorts filled the air with glinting wings and singing, petulant cries. It was impossible to feel annoyed with the river’s vagaries after seeing a deer leap with a splash into the water at sunrise and swim past the bows of the canoe; and often we saw fawns peering at us from the underbrush, or looked straight into the brown eyes of a stag as we charged full tilt round a corner and entered another reach of the river. Foxes, too, everywhere haunted the banks, tripping daintily among the driftwood and disappearing so suddenly that it was impossible to see how they managed it.
But now, after leaving Pressburg, everything changed a little, and the Danube became more serious. It ceased trifling. It was halfway to the Black Sea, within scenting distance almost of other, stranger countries where no tricks would be permitted or understood. It became suddenly grown-up, and claimed our respect and even our awe. It broke out into three arms, for one thing, that only met again a hundred kilometers farther down, and for a canoe there were no indications which one was intended to be followed.
“If you take a side channel,” said the Hungarian officer we met in the Pressburg shop while buying provisions, “you may find yourselves, when the flood subsides, forty miles from anywhere, high and dry, and you may easily starve. There are no people, no farms, no fishermen. I warn you not to continue. The river, too, is still rising, and this wind will increase.”
The rising river did not alarm us in the least, but the matter of being left high and dry by a sudden subsidence of the waters might be serious, and we had consequently laid in an extra stock of provisions. For the rest, the officer’s prophecy held true, and the wind, blowing down a perfectly clear sky, increased steadily till it reached the dignity of a westerly gale.
It was earlier than usual when we camped, for the sun was a good hour or two from the horizon, and leaving my friend still asleep on the hot sand, I wandered about in desultory examination of our hotel. The island, I found, was less than an acre in extent, a mere sandy bank standing some two or three feet above the level of the river. The far end, pointing into the sunset, was covered with flying spray which the tremendous wind drove off the crests of the broken waves. It was triangular in shape, with the apex upstream.
I stood there for several minutes, watching the impetuous crimson flood bearing down with a shouting roar, dashing in waves against the bank as though to sweep it bodily away, and then swirling by in two foaming streams on either side. The ground seemed to shake with the shock and rush while the furious movement of the willow bushes as the wind poured over them increased the curious illusion that the island itself actually moved. Above, for a mile or two, I could see the great river descending upon me: it was like looking up the slope of a sliding hill, white with foam, and leaping up everywhere to show itself to the sun.
The rest of the island was too thickly grown with willows to make walking pleasant, but I made the tour, nevertheless. From the lower end the light, of course, changed, and the river looked dark and angry. Only the backs of the flying waves were visible, streaked with foam, and pushed forcibly by the great puffs of wind that fell upon them from behind. For a short mile it was visible, pouring in and out among the islands, and then disappearing with a huge sweep into the willows, which closed about it like a herd of monstrous antediluvian creatures crowding down to drink. They made me think of gigantic sponge-like growths that sucked the river up into themselves. They caused it to vanish from sight. They herded there together in such overpowering numbers.
Altogether it was an impressive scene, with its utter loneliness, its bizarre suggestion; and as I gazed, long and curiously, a singular emotion began stir somewhere in the depths of me. Midway in my delight of the wild beauty, there crept unbidden and unexplained, a curious feeling of disquietude, almost of alarm.
A rising river, perhaps, always suggests something of the ominous: many of the little islands I saw before me would probably have been swept away by the morning; this resistless, thundering flood of water touched the sense of awe. Yet I was aware that my uneasiness lay deeper far than the emotions of awe and wonder. It was not that I felt. Nor had it directly to do with the power of the driving wind—this shouting hurricane that might almost carry up a few acres of willows into the air and scatter them like so much chaff over the landscape. The wind was simply enjoying itself, for nothing rose out of the flat landscape to stop it, and I was conscious of sharing its great game with a kind of pleasurable excitement. Yet this novel emotion had nothing to do with the wind. Indeed, so vague was the sense of distress I experienced, that it was impossible to trace it to its source and deal with it accordingly, though I was aware somehow that it had to do with my realization of our utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements about me. The huge-grown river had something to do with it too—a vague, unpleasant idea that we had somehow trifled with these great elemental forces in whose power we lay helpless every hour of the day and night. For here, indeed, they were gigantically at play together, and the sight appealed to the imagination.
But my emotion, so far as I could understand it, seemed to attach itself more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening. And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.
Great revelations of nature, of course, never fail to impress in one way or another, and I was no stranger to moods of the kind. Mountains overawe and oceans terrify, while the mystery of great forests exercises a spell peculiarly its own. But all these, at one point or another, somewhere link on intimately with human life and human experience. They stir comprehensible, even if alarming, emotions. They tend on the whole to exalt.
With this multitude of willows, however, it was something far different, I felt. Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart. A sense of awe awakened, true, but of awe touched somewhere by a vague terror. Their serried ranks growing everywhere darker about me as the shadows deepened, moving furiously yet softly in the wind, woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain—where we ran grave risks perhaps!
The feeling, however, though it refused to yield its meaning entirely to analysis, did not at the time trouble me by passing into menace. Yet it never left me quite, even during the very practical business of putting up the tent in a hurricane of wind and building a fire for the stew-pot. It remained, just enough to bother and perplex, and to rob a most delightful camping-ground of a good portion of its charm. To my companion, however, I said nothing, for he was a man I considered devoid of imagination. In the first place, I could never have explained to him what I meant, and in the second, he would have laughed stupidly at me if I had.
There was a slight depression in the center of the island, and here we pitched the tent. The surrounding willows broke the wind a bit.
“A poor camp,” observed the imperturbable Swede when at last the tent stood upright; “no stones and precious little firewood. I’m for moving on early to-morrow—eh? This sand won’t hold anything.”
But the experience of a collapsing tent at midnight had taught us many devices, and we made the cosy gipsy house as safe as possible, and then set about collecting a store of wood to last till bedtime. Willow bushes drop no branches, and driftwood was our only source of supply. We hunted the shores pretty thoroughly. Everywhere the banks were crumbling as the rising flood tore at them and carried away great portions with a splash and a gurgle.
“The island’s much smaller than when we landed,” said the accurate Swede. “It won’t last long at this rate. We’d better drag the canoe close to the tent, and be ready to start at a moment’s notice. I shall sleep in my clothes.”
He was a little distance off, climbing along the bank, and I heard his rather jolly laugh as he spoke.
“By Jove!” I heard him call, a moment later, and turned to see what had caused his exclamation; but for the moment he was hidden by the willows, and I could not find him.
“What in the world’s this?” I heard him cry again, and this time his voice had become serious.
I ran up quickly and joined him on the bank. He was looking over the river, pointing at something in the water.
“Good Heavens, it’s a man’s body!” he cried excitedly. “Look!”
A black thing, turning over and over in the foaming waves, swept rapidly past. It kept disappearing and coming up to the surface again. It was about twenty feet from the shore, and just as it was opposite to where we stood it lurched round and looked straight at us. We saw its eyes reflecting the sunset, and gleaming an odd yellow as the body turned over. Then it gave a swift, gulping plunge, and dived out of sight in a flash.
“An otter, by gad!” we exclaimed in the same breath, laughing.
It was an otter, alive, and out on the hunt; yet it had looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current. Far below it came to the surface once again, and we saw its black skin, wet and shining in the sunlight.
Then, too, just as we turned back, our arms full of driftwood, another thing happened to recall us to the river bank. This time it really was a man, and what was more, a man in a boat. Now a small boat on the Danube was an unusual sight at any time, but here in this deserted region, and at flood time, it was so unexpected as to constitute a real event. We stood and stared.
Whether it was due to the slanting sunlight, or the refraction from the wonderfully illumined water, I cannot say, but, whatever the cause, I found it difficult to focus my sight properly upon the flying apparition. It seemed, however, to be a man standing upright in a sort of flat-bottomed boat, steering with a long oar, and being carried down the opposite shore at a tremendous pace. He apparently was looking across in our direction, but the distance was too great and the light too uncertain for us to make out very plainly what he was about. It seemed to me that he was gesticulating and making signs at us. His voice came across the water to us shouting something furiously but the wind drowned it so that no single word was audible. There was something curious about the whole appearance—man, boat, signs, voice—that made an impression on me out of all proportion to its cause.
“He’s crossing himself!” I cried. “Look, he’s making the sign of the cross!”
“I believe you’re right,” the Swede said, shading his eyes with his hand and watching the man out of sight. He seemed to be gone in a moment, melting away down there into the sea of willows where the sun caught them in the bend of the river and turned them into a great crimson wall of beauty. Mist, too, had begun to rise, so that the air was hazy.
“But what in the world is he doing at nightfall on this flooded river?” I said, half to myself. “Where is he going at such a time, and what did he mean by his signs and shouting? D’you think he wished to warn us about something?”
“He saw our smoke, and thought we were spirits probably,” laughed my companion. “These Hungarians believe in all sorts of rubbish: you remember the shopwoman at Pressburg warning us that no one ever landed here because it belonged to some sort of beings outside man’s world! I suppose they believe in fairies and elementals, possibly demons too. That peasant in the boat saw people on the islands for the first time in his life,” he added, after a slight pause, “and it scared him, that’s all.” The Swede’s tone of voice was not convincing, and his manner lacked something that was usually there. I noted the change instantly while he talked, though without being able to label it precisely.
“If they had enough imagination,” I laughed loudly—I remember trying to make as much noise as I could—“they might well people a place like this with the old gods of antiquity. The Romans must have haunted all this region more or less with their shrines and sacred groves and elemental deities.”
The subject dropped and we returned to our stew-pot, for my friend was not given to imaginative conversation as a rule. Moreover, just then I remember feeling distinctly glad that he was not imaginative; his stolid, practical nature suddenly seemed to me welcome and comforting. It was an admirable temperament, I felt: he could steer down rapids like a red Indian, shoot dangerous bridges and whirlpools better than any white man I ever saw in a canoe. He was a grand fellow for an adventurous trip, a tower of strength when untoward things happened. I looked at his strong face and light curly hair as he staggered along under his pile of driftwood (twice the size of mine!), and I experienced a feeling of relief. Yes, I was distinctly glad just then that the Swede was—what he was, and that he never made remarks that suggested more than they said.
“The river’s still rising, though,” he added, as if following out some thoughts of his own, and dropping his load with a gasp. “This island will be under water in two days if it goes on.”
“I wish the wind would go down,” I said. “I don’t care a fig for the river.”
The flood, indeed, had no terrors for us; we could get off at ten minutes’ notice, and the more water the better we liked it. It meant an increasing current and the obliteration of the treacherous shingle-beds that so often threatened to tear the bottom out of our canoe.
Contrary to our expectations, the wind did not go down with the sun. It seemed to increase with the darkness, howling overhead and shaking the willows round us like straws. Curious sounds accompanied it sometimes, like the explosion of heavy guns, and it fell upon the water and the island in great flat blows of immense power. It made me think of the sounds a planet must make, could we only hear it, driving along through space.
But the sky kept wholly clear of clouds, and soon after supper the full moon rose up in the east and covered the river and the plain of shouting willows with a light like the day.
We lay on the sandy patch beside the fire, smoking, listening to the noises of the night round us, and talking happily of the journey we had already made, and of our plans ahead. The map lay spread in the door of the tent, but the high wind made it hard to study, and presently we lowered the curtain and extinguished the lantern. The firelight was enough to smoke and see each other’s faces by, and the sparks flew about overhead like fireworks. A few yards beyond, the river gurgled and hissed, and from time to time a heavy splash announced the falling away of further portions of the bank.
Our talk, I noticed, had to do with the far-away scenes and incidents of our first camps in the Black Forest, or of other subjects altogether remote from the present setting, for neither of us spoke of the actual moment more than was necessary—almost as though we had agreed tacitly to avoid discussion of the camp and its incidents. Neither the otter nor the boatman, for instance, received the honor of a single mention, though ordinarily these would have furnished discussion for the greater part of the evening. They were, of course, distinct events in such a place.
The scarcity of wood made it a business to keep the fire going, for the wind, that drove the smoke in our faces wherever we sat, helped at the same time to make a forced draught. We took it in turn to make foraging expeditions into the darkness, and the quantity the Swede brought back always made me feel that he took an absurdly long time finding it; for the fact was I did not care much about being left alone, and yet it always seemed to be my turn to grub about among the bushes or scramble along the slippery banks in the moonlight. The long day’s battle with wind and water—such wind and such water!—had tired us both, and an early bed was the obvious program. Yet neither of us made the move for the tent. We lay there, tending the fire, talking in desultory fashion, peering about us into the dense willow bushes, and listening to the thunder of wind and river. The loneliness of the place had entered our very bones, and silence seemed natural, for after a bit the sound of our voices became a trifle unreal and forced; whispering would have been the fitting mode of communication, I felt, and the human voice, always rather absurd amid the roar of the elements, now carried with it something almost illegitimate. It was like talking out loud in church, or in some place where it was not lawful, perhaps not quite safe, to be overheard.
The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows. And we, in our rashness, had dared to invade it, even to make use of it! Something more than the power of its mystery stirred in me as I lay on the sand, feet to fire, and peered up through the leaves at the stars. For the last time I rose to get firewood.
“When this has burnt up,” I said firmly, “I shall turn in,” and my companion watched me lazily as I moved off into the surrounding shadows.
For an unimaginative man I thought he seemed unusually receptive that night, unusually open to suggestion of things other than sensory. He too was touched by the beauty and loneliness of the place. I was not altogether pleased, I remember, to recognize this slight change in him, and instead of immediately collecting sticks, I made my way to the far point of the island where the moonlight on plain and river could be seen to better advantage. The desire to be alone had come suddenly upon me; my former dread returned in force; there was a vague feeling in me I wished to face and probe to the bottom.
When I reached the point of sand jutting out among the waves, the spell of the place descended upon me with a positive shock. No mere “scenery” could have produced such an effect. There was something more here, something to alarm.
I gazed across the waste of wild waters; I watched the whispering willows; I heard the ceaseless beating of the tireless wind; and, one and all, each in its own way, stirred in me this sensation of a strange distress. But the willows especially: for ever they went on chattering and talking among themselves, laughing a little, shrilly crying out, sometimes sighing—but what it was they made so much to-do about belonged to the secret life of the great plain they inhabited. And it was utterly alien to the world I knew, or to that of the wild yet kindly elements. They made me think of a host of beings from another plane of life, another evolution altogether, perhaps, all discussing a mystery known only to themselves. I watched them moving busily together, oddly shaking their big bushy heads, twirling their myriad leaves even when there was no wind. They moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.
There they stood in the moonlight, like a vast army surrounding our camp, shaking their innumerable silver spears defiantly, formed all ready for an attack.
The psychology of places, for some imaginations at least, is very vivid; for the wanderer, especially, camps have their “note” either of welcome or rejection. At first it may not always be apparent, because the busy preparations of tent and cooking prevent, but with the first pause—after supper usually—it comes and announces itself. And the note of this willow-camp now became unmistakably plain to me: we were interlopers, trespassers, we were not welcomed. The sense of unfamiliarity grew upon me as I stood there watching. We touched the frontier of a region where our presence was resented. For a night’s lodging we might perhaps be tolerated; but for a prolonged and inquisitive stay—No! by all the gods of the trees and the wilderness, no! We were the first human influences upon this island, and we were not wanted. The willows were against us.
Strange thoughts like these, bizarre fancies, borne I know not whence, found lodgment in my mind as I stood listening. What, I thought, if, after all, these crouching willows proved to be alive; if suddenly they should rise up, like a swarm of living creatures, marshaled by the gods whose territory we had invaded, sweep towards us off the vast swamps, booming overhead in the night—and then settle down! As I looked it was so easy to imagine they actually moved, crept nearer, retreated a little, huddled together in masses, hostile, waiting for the great wind that should finally start them a-running. I could have sworn their aspect changed a little, and their ranks deepened and pressed more closely together.
The melancholy shrill cry of a night bird sounded overhead, and suddenly I nearly lost my balance as the piece of bank I stood upon fell with a great splash into the river, undermined by the flood. I stepped back just in time, and went on hunting for firewood again, half laughing at the odd fancies that crowded so thickly into my mind and cast their spell upon me. I recall the Swede’s remark about moving on next day, and I was just thinking that I fully agreed with him, when I turned with a start and saw the subject of my thoughts standing immediately in front of me. He was quite close. The roar of the elements had covered his approach.
“You’ve been gone so long,” he shouted above the wind, “I thought something must have happened to you.”
But there was that in his tone, and a certain look in his face as well, that conveyed to me more than his actual words, and in a flash I understood the real reason for his coming. It was because the spell of the place had entered his soul too, and he did not like being alone.
“River still rising,” he cried, pointing to the flood in the moonlight, “and the wind’s simply awful.”
He always said the same things, but it was the cry for companionship that gave the real importance to his words.
“Lucky,” I cried back, “our tent’s in the hollow. I think it’ll hold all right.” I added something about the difficulty of finding wood, in order to explain my absence, but the wind caught my words and flung them across the river, so that he did not hear, but just looked at me through the branches, nodding his head.
“Lucky if we get away without disaster!” he shouted, or words to that effect; and I remember feeling half angry with him for putting the thought into words, for it was exactly what I felt myself. There was disaster impending somewhere, and the sense of presentiment lay unpleasantly upon me.
We went back to the fire and made a final blaze, poking it up with our feet. We took a last look round. But for the wind the heat would have been unpleasant. I put this thought into words, and I remember my friend’s reply struck me oddly: that he would rather have the heat, the ordinary July weather, than this “diabolical wind.”
Everything was snug for the night; the canoe lying turned over beside the tent, with both yellow paddles beneath her; the provision sack hanging from a willow stem, and the washed-up dishes removed to a safe distance from the fire, all ready for the morning meal.
We smothered the embers of the fire with sand, and then turned in. The flap of the tent door was up, and I saw the branches and the stars and the white moonlight. The shaking willows and the heavy buffetings of the wind against our taut little house were the last things I remembered as sleep came down and covered all with its soft and delicious forgetfulness.
Suddenly I found myself lying awake, peering from my sandy mattress through the door of the tent. I looked at my watch pinned against the canvas, and saw by the bright moonlight that it was past twelve o’clock—the threshold of a new day—and I had therefore slept a couple of hours. The Swede was asleep still beside me; the wind howled as before something plucked at my heart and made me feel afraid. There was a sense of disturbance in my immediate neighborhood.
I sat up quickly and looked out. The trees were swaying violently to and fro as the gusts smote them, but our little bit of green canvas lay snugly safe in the hollow, for the wind passed over it without meeting enough resistance to make it vicious. The feeling of disquietude did not pass however, and I crawled quietly out of the tent to see if our belongings were safe. I moved carefully so as not to waken my companion. A curious excitement was on me.
I was halfway out, kneeling on all fours, when my eye first took in that the tops of the bushes opposite, with their moving tracery of leaves, made shapes against the sky. I sat back on my haunches and stared. It was incredible, surely, but there, opposite and slightly above me, were shapes of some indeterminate sort among the willows, and as the branches swayed in the wind they seemed to group themselves about these shapes, forming a series of monstrous outlines that shifted rapidly beneath the moon. Close, about fifty feet in front of me, I saw these things.
My first instinct was to waken my companion that he too might see them, but something made me hesitate—the sudden realization, probably, that I should not welcome corroboration; and meanwhile I crouched there staring in amazement with smarting eyes. I was wide awake. I remember saying to myself that I was not dreaming.
They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes—immense bronze-colored, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying of the branches. I saw them plainly and noted, now I came to examine them more calmly, that they were very much larger than human, and indeed that something in their appearance proclaimed them to be not human at all. Certainly they were not merely the moving tracery of the branches against the moonlight. They shifted independently. They rose upwards in a continuous stream from earth to sky, vanishing utterly as soon as they reached the dark of the sky. They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. They were nude, fluid shapes, passing up the bushes, within the leaves almost—rising up in a living column into the heavens. Their faces I never could see. Unceasingly they poured upwards, swaying in great bending curves, with a hue of dull bronze upon their skins.
I stared, trying to force every atom of vision from my eyes. For a long time I thought they must every moment disappear and resolve themselves into the movements of the branches and prove to be an optical illusion. I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon.
Far from feeling fear, I was possessed with a sense of awe and wonder such as I have never known. I seemed to be gazing at the personified elemental forces of this haunted and primeval region. Our intrusion had stirred the powers of the place into activity. It was we who were the cause of the disturbance, and my brain filled to bursting with stories and legends of the spirits and deities of places that have been acknowledged and worshiped by men in all ages of the world’s history. But, before I could arrive at any possible explanation, something impelled me to go farther out, and I crept forward on to the sand and stood upright. I felt the ground still warm under my bare feet; the wind tore at my hair and face; and the sound of the river burst upon my ears with a sudden roar. These things, I knew, were real, and proved that my senses were acting normally. Yet the figures still rose from earth to heaven, silent, majestically, in a great spiral of grace and strength that overwhelmed me at length with a genuine deep emotion of worship. I felt that I must fall down and worship—absolutely worship.
Perhaps in another minute I might have done so, when a gust of wind swept against me with such force that it blew me sideways, and I nearly stumbled and fell. It seemed to shake the dream violently out of me. At least it gave me another point of view somehow. The figures still remained, still ascended into heaven from the heart of the night, but my reason at last began to assert itself. It must be a subjective experience, I argued—none the less real for that, but still subjective. The moonlight and the branches combined to work out these pictures upon the mirror of my imagination, and for some reason I projected them outwards and made them appear objective. I knew this must be the case, of course. I was the subject of a vivid and interesting hallucination. I took courage, and began to move forward across the open patches of sand. By Jove, though, was it all hallucination? Was it merely subjective? Did not my reason argue in the old futile way from the little standard of the known?
I only know that great column of figures ascended darkly into the sky for what seemed a very long period of time, and with a very complete measure of reality as most men are accustomed to gauge reality. Then suddenly they were gone!
And, once they were gone and the immediate wonder of their great presence had passed, fear came down upon me with a cold rush. The esoteric meaning of this lonely and haunted region suddenly flamed up within me and I began to tremble dreadfully. I took a quick look round—a look of horror that came near to panic—calculating vainly ways of escape; and then, realizing how helpless I was to achieve anything really effective, I crept back silently into the tent and lay down again upon my sandy mattress, first lowering the door-curtain to shut out the sight of the willows in the moonlight, and then burying my head as deeply as possible beneath the blankets to deaden the sound of the terrifying wind.
As though further to convince me that I had not been dreaming, I remember that it was a long time before I fell again into a troubled and restless sleep; and even then only the upper crust of me slept, and underneath there was something that never quite lost consciousness, but lay alert and on the watch.
But this second time I jumped up with a genuine start of terror. It was neither the wind nor the river that woke me, but the slow approach of something that caused the sleeping portion of me to grow smaller and smaller till at last it vanished altogether, and I found myself sitting bolt upright—listening.
Outside there was a sound of multitudinous little patterings. They had been coming, I was aware, for a long time, and in my sleep they had first become audible. I sat there nervously wide awake as though I had not slept at all. It seemed to me that my breathing came with difficulty, and that there was a great weight upon the surface of my body. In spite of the hot night, I felt clammy with cold and shivered. Something surely was pressing steadily against the sides of the tent and weighing down upon it from above. Was it the body of the wind? Was this the pattering rain, the dripping of the leaves? The spray blown from the river by the wind and gathering in big drops? I thought quickly of a dozen things.
Then suddenly the explanation leaped into my mind: a bough from the poplar, the only large tree on the island, had fallen with the wind. Still half caught by the other branches, it would fall with the next gust and crush us, and meanwhile its leaves brushed and tapped upon the tight canvas surface of the tent. I raised the loose flap and rushed out, calling to the Swede to follow.
But when I got out and stood upright I saw that the tent was free. There was no hanging bough; there was no rain or spray; nothing approached.
A cold, gray light filtered down through the bushes and lay on the faintly gleaming sand. Stars still crowded the sky directly overhead, and the wind howled magnificently, but the fire no longer gave out any glow, and I saw the east reddening in streaks through the trees. Several hours must have passed since I stood there before, watching the ascending figures, and the memory of it now came back to me horribly, like an evil dream. Oh, how tired it made me feel, that ceaseless raging wind! Yet, though the deep lassitude of a sleepless night was on me, my nerves were tingling with the activity of an equally tireless apprehension, and all idea of repose was out of the question. The river I saw had risen further. Its thunder filled the air, and a fine spray made itself felt through my thin sleeping shirt.
Yet nowhere did I discover the slightest evidences of anything to cause alarm. This deep, prolonged disturbance in my heart remained wholly unaccounted for.
My companion had not stirred when I called him, and there was no need to waken him now. I looked about me carefully, noting everything: the turned-over canoe; the yellow paddles—two of them, I’m certain; the provision sack and the extra lantern hanging together from the tree; and, crowding everywhere about me, enveloping all, the willows, those endless, shaking willows. A bird uttered its morning cry, and a string of duck passed with whirring flight overhead in the twilight. The sand whirled, dry and stinging, about my bare feet in the wind.
I walked round the tent and then went out a little way into the bush, so that I could see across the river to the farther landscape, and the same profound yet indefinable emotion of distress seized upon me again as I saw the interminable sea of bushes stretching to the horizon, looking ghostly and unreal in the wan light of dawn. I walked softly here and there, still puzzling over that odd sound of infinite pattering, and of that pressure upon the tent that had wakened me. It must have been the wind, I reflected—the wind beating upon the loose, hot sand, driving the dry particles smartly against the taut canvas—the wind dropping heavily upon our fragile roof.
Yet all the time my nervousness and malaise increased appreciably.
I crossed over to the farther shore and noted how the coast line had altered in the night, and what masses of sand the river had torn away. I dipped my hands and feet into the cool current, and bathed my forehead. Already there was a glow of sunrise in the sky and the exquisite freshness of coming day. On my way back I passed purposely beneath the very bushes where I had seen the column of figures rising into the air, and midway among the clumps I suddenly found myself overtaken by a sense of vast terror. From the shadows a large figure went swiftly by. Some one passed me, as sure as ever man did....
It was a great staggering blow from the wind that helped me forward again, and once out in the more open space, the sense of terror diminished strangely. The winds were about and walking, I remember saying to myself; for the winds often move like great presences under the trees. And altogether the fear that hovered about me was such an unknown and immense kind of fear, so unlike anything I had ever felt before, that it woke a sense of awe and wonder in me that did much to counteract its worst effects; and when I reached a high point in the middle of the island from which I could see the wide stretch of river, crimson in the sunrise, the whole magical beauty of it all was so overpowering that a sort of wild yearning woke in me and almost brought a cry up into the throat.
But this cry found no expression, for as my eyes wandered from the plain beyond to the island round me and noted our little tent half hidden among the willows, a dreadful discovery leaped out at me, compared to which my terror of the walking winds seemed as nothing at all.
For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the landscape. It was not that my point of vantage gave me a different view, but that an alteration had apparently been effected in the relation of the tent to the willows, and of the willows to the tent. Surely the bushes now crowded much closer—unnecessarily, unpleasantly close. They had moved nearer.
Creeping with silent feet over the shifting sands, drawing imperceptibly nearer by soft, unhurried movements, the willows had come closer during the night. But had the wind moved them, or had they moved of themselves? I recalled the sound of infinite small patterings and the pressure upon the tent and upon my own heart that caused me to wake in terror. I swayed for a moment in the wind like a tree, finding it hard to keep my upright position on the sandy hillock. There was a suggestion here of personal agency, of deliberate intention, of aggressive hostility, and it terrified me into a sort of rigidity.
Then the reaction followed quickly. The idea was so bizarre, so absurd, that I felt inclined to laugh. But the laughter came no more readily than the cry, for the knowledge that my mind was so receptive to such dangerous imaginings brought the additional terror that it was through our minds and not through our physical bodies that the attack would come, and was coming.
The wind buffeted me about, and, very quickly it seemed, the sun came up over the horizon, for it was after four o’clock, and I must have stood on that little pinnacle of sand longer than I knew, afraid to come down at close quarters with the willows. I returned quietly, creepily, to the tent, first taking another exhaustive look round and—yes, I confess it—making a few measurements. I paced out on the warm sand the distances between the willows and the tent, making a note of the shortest distance particularly.
I crawled stealthily into my blankets. My companion, to all appearances, still slept soundly, and I was glad that this was so. Provided my experiences were not corroborated, I could find strength somehow to deny them, perhaps. With the daylight I could persuade myself that it was all a subjective hallucination, a fantasy of the night, a projection of the excited imagination.
Nothing further came to disturb me, and I fell asleep almost at once, utterly exhausted, yet still in dread of hearing again that weird sound of multitudinous pattering, or of feeling the pressure upon my heart that had made it difficult to breathe.
The sun was high in the heavens when my companion woke me from a heavy sleep and announced that the porridge was cooked and there was just time to bathe. The grateful smell of frizzling bacon entered the tent door.
“River still rising,” he said, “and several islands out in midstream have disappeared altogether. Our own island’s much smaller.”
“Any wood left?” I asked sleepily.
“The wood and the island will finish to-morrow in a dead heat,” he laughed, “but there’s enough to last us till then.”
I plunged in from the point of the island, which had indeed altered a lot in size and shape during the night, and was swept down in a moment to the landing place opposite the tent. The water was icy, and the banks flew by like the country from an express train. Bathing under such conditions was an exhilarating operation, and the terror of the night seemed cleansed out of me by a process of evaporation in the brain. The sun was blazing hot; not a cloud showed itself anywhere; the wind, however, had not abated one little jot.
Quite suddenly then the implied meaning of the Swede’s words flashed across me, showing that he no longer wished to leave posthaste, and had changed his mind. “Enough to last till to-morrow”—he assumed we should stay on the island another night. It struck me as odd. The night before he was so positive the other way. How had the change come about?
Great crumblings of the banks occurred at breakfast, with heavy splashings and clouds of spray which the wind brought into our frying-pan, and my fellow-traveler talked incessantly about the difficulty the Vienna-Pesth steamers must have to find the channel in flood. But the state of his mind interested and impressed me far more than the state of the river or the difficulties of the steamers. He had changed somehow since the evening before. His manner was different—a trifle excited, a trifle shy, with a sort of suspicion about his voice and gestures. I hardly know how to describe it now in cold blood, but at the time I remember being quite certain of one thing, viz., that he had become frightened!
He ate very little breakfast, and for once omitted to smoke his pipe. He had the map spread open beside him, and kept studying its markings.
“We’d better get off sharp in an hour,” I said presently, feeling for an opening that must bring him indirectly to a partial confession at any rate. And his answer puzzled me uncomfortably: “Rather! If they’ll let us.”
“Who’ll let us? The elements?” I asked quickly, with affected indifference.
“The powers of this awful place, whoever they are,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the map. “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world.”
“The elements are always the true immortals,” I replied, laughing as naturally as I could manage, yet knowing quite well that my face reflected my true feelings when he looked up gravely at me and spoke across the smoke:
“We shall be fortunate if we get away without further disaster.”
This was exactly what I had dreaded, and I screwed myself up to the point of the direct question. It was like agreeing to allow the dentist to extract the tooth; it had to come anyhow in the long run, and the rest was all pretense.
“Further disaster! Why, what’s happened?”
“For one thing—the steering paddle’s gone,” he said quietly.
“The steering paddle gone!” I repeated, greatly excited, for this was our rudder, and the Danube in flood without a rudder was suicide. “But what——”
“And there’s a tear in the bottom of the canoe,” he added, with a genuine little tremor in his voice.
I continued staring at him, able only to repeat the words in his face somewhat foolishly. There, in the heat of the sun, and on this burning sand, I was aware of a freezing atmosphere descending round us. I got up to follow him, for he merely nodded his head gravely and led the way towards the tent a few yards on the other side of the fireplace. The canoe still lay there as I had last seen her in the night, ribs uppermost, the paddles, or rather, the paddle, on the sand beside her.
“There’s only one,” he said, stooping to pick it up. “And here’s the rent in the base-board.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I had clearly noticed two paddles a few hours before, but a second impulse made me think better of it, and I said nothing. I approached to see.
There was a long, finely made tear in the bottom of the canoe where a little slither of wood had been neatly taken clean out; it looked as if the tooth of a sharp rock or snag had eaten down her length, and investigation showed that the hole went through. Had we launched out in her without observing it we must inevitably have foundered. At first the water would have made the wood swell so as to close the hole, but once out in midstream the water must have poured in, and the canoe, never more than two inches above the surface, would have filled and sunk very rapidly.
“There, you see, an attempt to prepare a victim for the sacrifice,” I heard him saying, more to himself than to me, “two victims rather,” he added as he bent over and ran his fingers along the slit.
I began to whistle—a thing I always do unconsciously when utterly nonplused—and purposely paid no attention to his words. I was determined to consider them foolish.
“It wasn’t there last night,” he said presently, straightening up from his examination and looking anywhere but at me.
“We must have scratched her in landing, of course,” I stopped whistling to say, “The stones are very sharp——”
I stopped abruptly, for at that moment he turned round and met my eye squarely. I knew just as well as he did how impossible my explanation was. There were no stones, to begin with.
“And then there’s this to explain too,” he added quietly, handing me the paddle and pointing to the blade.
A new and curious emotion spread freezingly over me as I took and examined it. The blade was scraped down all over, beautifully scraped, as though someone had sand-papered it with care, making it so thin that the first vigorous stroke must have snapped it off at the elbow.
“One of us walked in his sleep and did this thing,” I said feebly, “or—or it has been filed by the constant stream of sand particles blown against it by the wind, perhaps.”
“Ah,” said the Swede, turning away, laughing a little, “you can explain everything!”
“The same wind that caught the steering paddle and flung it so near the bank that it fell in with the next lump that crumbled,” I called out after him, absolutely determined to find an explanation for everything he showed me.
“I see,” he shouted back, turning his head to look at me before disappearing among the willow bushes.
Once alone with these perplexing evidences of personal agency, I think my first thought took the form of “One of us must have done this thing, and it certainly was not I.” But my second thought decided how impossible it was to suppose, under all the circumstances, that either of us had done it. That my companion, the trusted friend of a dozen similar expeditions, could have knowingly had a hand in it, was a suggestion not to be entertained for a moment. Equally absurd seemed the explanation that this imperturbable and densely practical nature had suddenly become insane and was busied with insane purposes.
Yet the fact remained that what disturbed me most, and kept my fear actively alive even in this blaze of sunshine and wild beauty, was the clear certainty that some curious alteration had come about in his mind—that he was nervous, timid, suspicious, aware of goings on he did not speak about, watching a series of secret and hitherto unmentionable events—waiting, in a word, for a climax that he expected, and, I thought, expected very soon. This grew up in my mind intuitively—I hardly knew how.
I made a hurried examination of the tent and its surroundings, but the measurements of the night remained the same. There were deep hollows formed in the sand, I now noticed for the first time, basin-shaped and of various depths and sizes, varying from that of a teacup to a large bowl. The wind, no doubt, was responsible for these miniature craters, just as it was for lifting the paddle and tossing it towards the water. The rent in the canoe was the only thing that seemed quite inexplicable; and, after all, it was conceivable that a sharp point had caught it when we landed. The examination I made of the shore did not assist this theory, but all the same I clung to it with that diminishing portion of my intelligence which I called my “reason.” An explanation of some kind was an absolute necessity, just as some working explanation of the universe is necessary—however absurd—to the happiness of every individual who seeks to do his duty in the world and face the problems of life. The simile seemed to me at the time an exact parallel.
I at once set the pitch melting, and presently the Swede joined me at the work, though under the best conditions in the world the canoe could not be safe for traveling till the following day. I drew his attention casually to the hollows in the sand.
“Yes,” he said, “I know. They’re all over the island. But you can explain them, no doubt!”
“Wind, of course,” I answered without hesitation. “Have you never watched those little whirlwinds in the street that twist and twirl everything into a circle? This sand’s loose enough to yield, that’s all.”
He made no reply, and we worked on in silence for a bit. I watched him surreptitiously all the time, and I had an idea he was watching me. He seemed, too, to be always listening attentively to something I could not hear, or perhaps for something that he expected to hear, for he kept turning about and staring into the bushes, and up into the sky, and out across the water where it was visible through the openings among the willows. Sometimes he even put his hand to his ear and held it there for several minutes. He said nothing to me, however, about it, and I asked no questions. And meanwhile, as he mended that torn canoe with the skill and address of a red Indian, I was glad to notice his absorption in the work, for there was a vague dread in my heart that he would speak of the changed aspect of the willows. And, if he had noticed that, my imagination could no longer be held a sufficient explanation of it.
At length, after a long pause, he began to talk.
“Queer thing,” he added in a hurried sort of voice, as though he wanted to say something and get it over. “Queer thing, I mean, about that otter last night.”
I had expected something so totally different that he caught me with surprise, and I looked up sharply.
“Shows how lonely this place is. Otters are awfully shy things—”
“I don’t mean that, of course,” he interrupted. “I mean—do you think—did you think it really was an otter?”
“What else, in the name of Heaven, what else?”
“You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed—so much bigger than an otter.”
“The sunset as you looked upstream magnified it, or something,” I replied.
He looked at me absently a moment, as though his mind were busy with other thoughts.
“It had such extraordinary yellow eyes,” he went on half to himself.
“That was the sun too,” I laughed, a trifle boisterously. “I suppose you’ll wonder next if that fellow in the boat——”
I suddenly decided not to finish the sentence. He was in the act again of listening, turning his head to the wind, and something in the expression of his face made me halt. The subject dropped, and we went on with our caulking. Apparently he had not noticed my unfinished sentence. Five minutes later, however, he looked at me across the canoe, the smoking pitch in his hand, his face exceedingly grave.
“I did rather wonder, if you want to know,” he said slowly, “what that thing in the boat was. I remember thinking at the time it was not a man. The whole business seemed to rise quite suddenly out of the water.”
I laughed again boisterously in his face, but this time there was impatience and a strain of anger too, in my feeling.
“Look here now,” I cried, “this place is quite queer enough without going out of our way to imagine things! That boat was an ordinary boat, and the man in it was an ordinary man, and they were both going downstream as fast as they could lick. And that otter was an otter, so don’t let’s play the fool about it!”
He looked steadily at me with the same grave expression. He was not in the least annoyed. I took courage from his silence.
“And for heaven’s sake,” I went on, “don’t keep pretending you hear things, because it only gives me the jumps, and there’s nothing to hear but the river and this cursed old thundering wind.”
“You fool!” he answered in a low, shocked voice, “you utter fool. That’s just the way all victims talk. As if you didn’t understand just as well as I do!” he sneered with scorn in his voice, and a sort of resignation. “The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you’re forced to meet it.”
My little effort was over, and I found nothing more to say, for I knew quite well his words were true, and that I was the fool, not he. Up to a certain stage in the adventure he kept ahead of me easily, and I think I felt annoyed to be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less sensitive than himself to these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant all the time of what was going on under my very nose. He knew from the very beginning, apparently. But at the moment I wholly missed the point of his words about the necessity of there being a victim, and that we ourselves were destined to satisfy the want. I dropped all pretense thenceforward, but thenceforward likewise my fear increased steadily to the climax.
“But you’re quite right about one thing,” he added, before the subject passed, “and that is that we’re wiser not to talk about it, or even to think about it, because what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens.”
That afternoon, while the canoe dried and hardened, we spent trying to fish, testing the leak, collecting wood, and watching the enormous flood of rising water. Masses of driftwood swept near our shores sometimes, and we fished for them with long willow branches. The island grew perceptibly smaller as the banks were torn away with great gulps and splashes. The weather kept brilliantly fine till about four o’clock, and then for the first time for three days the wind showed signs of abating. Clouds began to gather in the southwest, spreading thence slowly over the sky.
This lessening of the wind came as a great relief, for the incessant roaring, banging, and thundering had irritated our nerves. Yet the silence that came about five o’clock with its sudden cessation was in a manner quite as oppressive. The booming of the river had everything its own way then: it filled the air with deep murmurs, more musical than the wind noises, but infinitely more monotonous. The wind held many notes, rising, falling, always beating out some sort of great elemental tune; whereas the river’s song lay between three notes at most—dull pedal notes, that held a lugubrious quality foreign to the wind, and somehow seemed to me, in my then nervous state, to sound wonderfully well the music of doom.
It was extraordinary, too, how the withdrawal suddenly of bright sunlight took everything out of the landscape that made for cheerfulness; and since this particular landscape had already managed to convey the suggestion of something sinister, the change of course was all the more unwelcome and noticeable. For me, I know, the darkening outlook became distinctly more alarming, and I found myself more than once calculating how soon after sunset the full moon would get up in the east, and whether the gathering clouds would greatly interfere with her lighting of the little island.
With this general hush of the wind—though it still indulged in occasional brief gusts—the river seemed to me to grow blacker, the willows to stand more densely together. The latter, too, kept up a sort of independent movement of their own, rustling among themselves when no wind stirred, and shaking oddly from the roots upwards. When common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and hostile to us. The forces of the region drew nearer with the coming of night. They were focusing upon our island, and more particularly upon ourselves. For thus, somehow, in the terms of the imagination, did my really indescribable sensations in this extraordinary place present themselves.
I had slept a good deal in the early afternoon, and had thus recovered somewhat from the exhaustion of a disturbed night, but this only served apparently to render me more susceptible than before to the obsessing spell of the haunting. I fought against it, laughing at my feelings as absurd and childish, with very obvious physiological explanations, yet, in spite of every effort, they gained in strength upon me so that I dreaded the night as a child lost in a forest must dread the approach of darkness.
The canoe we had carefully covered with a waterproof sheet during the day, and the one remaining paddle had been securely tied by the Swede to the base of a tree, lest the wind should rob us of that too. From five o’clock onwards I busied myself with the stew-pot and preparations for dinner, it being my turn to cook that night. We had potatoes, onions, bits of bacon fat to add flavour, and a general thick residue from former stews at the bottom of the pot; with black bread broken up into it the result was most excellent, and it was followed by a stew of plums with sugar and a brew of strong tea with dried milk. A good pile of wood lay close at hand, and the absence of wind made my duties easy. My companion sat lazily watching me, dividing his attentions between cleaning his pipe and giving useless advice—an admitted privilege of the off-duty man. He had been very quiet all the afternoon, engaged in re-caulking the canoe, strengthening the tent ropes, and fishing for driftwood while I slept. No more talk about undesirable things had passed between us, and I think his only remarks had to do with the gradual destruction of the island, which he declared was now fully a third smaller than when we first landed.
The pot had just begun to bubble when I heard his voice calling to me from the bank, where he had wandered away without my noticing. I ran up.
“Come and listen,” he said, “and see what you make of it.” He held his hand cupwise to his ear, as so often before.
“Now do you hear anything?” he asked, watching me curiously.
We stood there, listening attentively together. At first I heard only the deep note of the water and the hissings rising from its turbulent surface. The willows, for once, were motionless and silent. Then a sound began to reach my ears faintly, a peculiar sound—something like the humming of a distant gong. It seemed to come across to us in the darkness from the waste of swamps and willows opposite. It was repeated at regular intervals, but it was certainly neither the sound of a bell nor the hooting of a distant steamer. I can liken it to nothing so much as to the sound of an immense gong, suspended far up in the sky, repeating incessantly its muffled metallic note, soft and musical, as it was repeatedly struck. My heart quickened as I listened.
“I’ve heard it all day,” said my companion. “While you slept this afternoon it came all round the island. I hunted it down, but could never get near enough to see—to localize it correctly. Sometimes it was overhead, and sometimes it seemed under the water. Once or twice, too, I could have sworn it was not outside at all, but within myself—you know—the way a sound in the fourth dimension is supposed to come.”
I was too much puzzled to pay much attention to his words. I listened carefully, striving to associate it with any known familiar sound I could think of, but without success. It changed in direction, too, coming nearer, and then sinking utterly away into remote distance. I cannot say that it was ominous in quality, because to me it seemed distinctly musical, yet I must admit it set going a distressing feeling that made me wish I had never heard it.
“The wind blowing in those sand-funnels,” I said, determined to find an explanation, “or the bushes rubbing together after the storm perhaps.”
“It comes off the whole swamp,” my friend answered. “It comes from everywhere at once.” He ignored my explanations. “It comes from the willow bushes somehow——”
“But now the wind has dropped,” I objected “The willows can hardly make a noise by themselves, can they?”
His answer frightened me, first because I had dreaded it, and secondly, because I knew intuitively it was true.
“It is because the wind has dropped we now hear it. It was drowned before. It is the cry, I believe of the——”
I dashed back to my fire, warned by a sound of bubbling that the stew was in danger, but determined at the same time to escape from further conversation. I was resolute, if possible, to avoid the exchanging of views. I dreaded, too, that he would begin again about the gods, or the elemental forces, or something else disquieting, and I wanted to keep myself well in hand for what might happen later. There was another night to be faced before we escaped from this distressing place, and there was no knowing yet what it might bring forth.
“Come and cut up bread for the pot,” I called to him, vigorously stirring the appetizing mixture. That stew-pot held sanity for us both, and the thought made me laugh.
He came over slowly and took the provision sack from the tree, fumbling in its mysterious depths, and then emptying the entire contents upon the ground-sheet at his feet.
“Hurry up!” I cried; “it’s boiling.”
The Swede burst out into a roar of laughter that startled me. It was forced laughter, not artificial exactly, but mirthless.
“There’s nothing here!” he shouted, holding his sides.
“Bread, I mean.”
“It’s gone. There is no bread. They’ve taken it!”
I dropped the long spoon and ran up. Everything the sack had contained lay upon the ground-sheet, but there was no loaf.
The whole dead weight of my growing fear fell upon me and shook me. Then I burst out laughing too. It was the only thing to do: and the sound of my own laughter also made me understand his. The strain of psychical pressure caused it—this explosion of unnatural laughter in both of us; it was an effort of repressed forces to seek relief; it was a temporary safety valve. And with both of us it ceased quite suddenly.
“How criminally stupid of me!” I cried, still determined to be consistent and find an explanation. “I clean forgot to buy a loaf at Pressburg. That chattering woman put everything out of my head, and I must have left it lying on the counter or——”
“The oatmeal, too, is much less than it was this morning,” the Swede interrupted.
Why in the world need he draw attention to it? I thought angrily.
“There’s enough for to-morrow,” I said, stirring vigorously, “and we can get lots more at Komorn or Gran. In twenty-four hours we shall be miles from here.”
“I hope so—to God,” he muttered, putting the things back into the sack, “unless we’re claimed first as victims for the sacrifice,” he added with a foolish laugh. He dragged the sack into the tent, for safety’s sake, I suppose, and I heard him mumbling on to himself, but so indistinctly that it seemed quite natural for me to ignore his words.
Our meal was beyond question a gloomy one, and we ate it almost in silence, avoiding one another’s eyes, and keeping the fire bright. Then we washed up and prepared for the night, and, once smoking, our minds unoccupied with any definite duties, the apprehension I had felt all day long became more and more acute. It was not then active fear, I think, but the very vagueness of its origin distressed me far more than if I had been able to ticket and face it squarely. The curious sound I have likened to the note of a gong became now almost incessant, and filled the stillness of the night with a faint, continuous ringing rather than a series of distinct notes. At one time it was behind and at another time in front of us. Sometimes I fancied it came from the bushes on our left, and then again from the clumps on our right. More often it hovered directly overhead like the whirring of wings. It was really everywhere at once, behind, in front, at our sides and over our heads, completely surrounding us. The sound really defies description. But nothing within my knowledge is like that ceaseless muffled humming rising off the deserted world of swamps and willows.
We sat smoking in comparative silence, the strain growing every minute greater. The worst feature of the situation seemed to me that we did not know what to expect, and could therefore make no sort of preparation by way of defense. We could anticipate nothing. My explanations made in the sunshine, moreover, now came to haunt me with their foolish and wholly unsatisfactory nature, and it was more and more clear to me that some kind of plain talk with my companion was inevitable, whether I liked it or not. After all, we had to spend the night together, and to sleep in the same tent side by side. I saw that I could not get along much longer without the support of his mind, and for that, of course, plain talk was imperative. As long as possible, however, I postponed this little climax, and tried to ignore or laugh at the occasional sentences he flung into the emptiness.
Some of these sentences, moreover, were confoundedly disquieting to me, coming as they did to corroborate much that I felt myself: corroboration, too—which made it so much more convincing—from a totally different point of view. He composed such curious sentences, and hurled them at me in such an inconsequential sort of way, as though his main line of thought was secret to himself, and these fragments were the bits he found it impossible to digest. He got rid of them by uttering them. Speech relieved him. It was like being sick.
“There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction,” he said once, while the fire blazed between us. “We’ve strayed out of a safe line somewhere.”
And another time, when the gong sounds had come nearer, ringing much louder than before, and directly over our heads, he said, as though talking to himself:
“I don’t think a phonograph would show any record of that. The sound doesn’t come to me by the ears at all. The vibrations reach me in another manner altogether, and seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimension sound might be supposed to make itself heard.”
I purposely made no reply to this, but I sat up a little closer to the fire and peered about me into the darkness. The clouds were massed all over the sky and no trace of moonlight came through. Very still, too, everything was, so that the river and the frogs had things all their own way.
“It has that about it,” he went on, “which is utterly out of common experience. It is unknown. Only one thing describes it really: it is a non-human sound; I mean a sound outside humanity.”
Having rid himself of this indigestible morsel, he lay quiet for a time; but he had so admirably expressed my own feeling that it was a relief to have the thought out, and to have confined it by the limitation of words from dangerous wandering to and fro in the mind.
The solitude of that Danube camping-place, can I ever forget it? The feeling of being utterly alone on an empty planet! My thoughts ran incessantly upon cities and the haunts of men. I would have given my soul, as the saying is, for the “feel” of those Bavarian villages we had passed through by the score; for the normal, human commonplaces, peasants drinking beer, tables beneath the trees, hot sunshine, and a ruined castle on the rocks behind the red-roofed church. Even the tourists would have been welcome.
Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of. We had “strayed,” as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us. It was a spot held by the dwellers
It took us in different fashion, each according to the measure of his sensitiveness and powers of resistance. I translated it vaguely into a personification of the mightily disturbed elements, investing them with the horror of a deliberate and malefic purpose, resentful of our audacious intrusion into their breeding-place; whereas my friend threw it into the unoriginal form at first of a trespass on some ancient shrine, some place where the old gods still held sway, where the emotional forces of former worshipers still clung, and the ancestral portion of him yielded to the old pagan spell.
At any rate, here was a place unpolluted by men, kept clean by the winds from coarsening human influences, a place where spiritual agencies were within reach and aggressive. Never, before or since, have I been so attacked by indescribable suggestions of a “beyond region,” of another scheme of life, another evolution not parallel to the human. And in the end our minds would succumb under the weight of the awful spell, and we should be drawn across the frontier into their world.
Small things testified to this amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect—as it existed across the border in that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was new not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
“It’s the deliberate, calculating purpose that; reduces one’s courage to zero,” the Swede said suddenly, as if he had been actually following my thoughts. “Otherwise imagination might count for much. But the paddle, the canoe, the lessening food——”
“Haven’t I explained all that once?” I interrupted viciously.
“You have,” he answered dryly; “you have indeed.”
He made other remarks too, as usual, about what he called the “plain determination to provide a victim”; but, having now arranged my thoughts better, I recognized that this was simply the cry of his frightened soul against the knowledge that he was being attacked in a vital part, and that he would be somehow taken or destroyed. The situation called for a courage and calmness of reasoning that neither of us could compass, and I have never before been so clearly conscious of two persons in me—the one that explained everything, and the other that laughed at such foolish explanations, yet was horribly afraid.
Meanwhile, in the pitchy night the fire died down and the woodpile grew small. Neither of us moved to replenish the stock, and the darkness consequently came up very close to our faces. A few feet beyond the circle of firelight it was inky black. Occasionally a stray puff of wind set the billows shivering about us, but apart from this not very welcome sound a deep and depressing silence reigned, broken only by the gurgling of the river and the humming in the air overhead.
We both missed, I think, the shouting company of the winds.
At length, at a moment when a stray puff prolonged itself as though the wind were about to rise again, I reached the point for me of saturation, the point where it was absolutely necessary to find relief in plain speech, or else to betray myself by some hysterical extravagance that must have been far worse in its effect upon both of us. I kicked the fire into a blaze, and turned to my companion abruptly. He looked up with a start.
“I can’t disguise it any longer,” I said; “I don’t like this place, and the darkness, and the noises, and the awful feelings I get. There’s something here that beats me utterly. I’m in a blue funk, and that’s the plain truth. If the other shore was—different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!”
The Swede’s face turned very white beneath the deep tan of sun and wind. He stared straight at me and answered quietly, but his voice betrayed his huge excitement by its unnatural calmness. For the moment, at any rate, he was the strong man of the two. He was more phlegmatic, for one thing.
“It’s not a physical condition we can escape from by running away,” he replied, in the tone of a doctor diagnosing some grave disease; “we must sit tight and wait. There are forces close here that could kill a herd of elephants in a second as easily as you or I could squash a fly. Our only chance is to keep perfectly still. Our insignificance perhaps may save us.”
I put a dozen questions into my expression of face, but found no words. It was precisely like listening to an accurate description of a disease whose symptoms had puzzled me.
“I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not found us—not ‘located’ us, as the Americans say,” he went on. “They’re blundering about like men hunting for a leak of gas. The paddle and canoe and provisions prove that. I think they feel us, but cannot actually see us. We must keep our minds quiet—it’s our minds they feel. We must control our thoughts, or it’s all up with us.”
“Death you mean?” I stammered, icy with the horror of his suggestion.
“Worse—by far,” he said. “Death, according to one’s belief, means either annihilation or release from the limitations of the senses, but it involves no change of character. You don’t suddenly alter just because the body’s gone. But this means a radical alteration, a complete change, a horrible loss of oneself by substitution—far worse than death, and not even annihilation. We happen to have camped in a spot where their region touches ours where the veil between has worn thin”—horrors! he was using my very own phrase, my actual words—“so that they are aware of our being in their neighborhood.”
“But who are aware?” I asked.
I forgot the shaking of the willows in the windless calm, the humming overhead, everything except that I was waiting for an answer that I dreaded more than I can possibly explain.
He lowered his voice at once to reply, leaning forward a little over the fire, an indefinable change in his face that made me avoid his eyes and look down upon the ground.
“All my life,” he said, “I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region—not far removed from our own world in one sense, yet wholly different in kind—where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs, the rise and fall of nations, the destinies of empires, the fate of armies and continents, are all as dust in the balance; vast purposes, I mean, that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with mere expressions of the soul—”
“I suggest just now—” I began, seeking to stop him, feeling as though I was face to face with a madman. But he instantly overbore me with his torrent that had to come.
“You think,” he said, “it is the spirits of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own.”
The mere conception, which his words somehow made so convincing, as I listened to them there in the dark stillness of that lonely island, set me shaking a little all over. I found it impossible to control my movements.
“And what do you propose?” I began again.
“A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could get away,” he went on, “just as the wolves stop to devour the dogs and give the sleigh another start. But—I see no chance of any other victim now.”
I stared blankly at him. The gleam in his eyes was dreadful. Presently he continued.
“It’s the willows, of course. The willows mask the others, but the others are feeling about for us. If we let our minds betray our fear, we’re lost, lost utterly.” He looked at me with an expression so calm, so determined, so sincere, that I no longer had any doubts as to his sanity. He was as sane as any man ever was. “If we can hold out through the night,” he added, “we may get off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered.”
“But you really think a sacrifice would——”
That gong-like humming came down very close over our heads as I spoke, but it was my friend’s scared face that really stopped my mouth.
“Hush!” he whispered, holding up his hand. “Do not mention them more than you can help. Do not refer to them by name. To name is to reveal: it is the inevitable clue, and our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may ignore us.”
“Even in thought?” He was extraordinarily agitated.
“Especially in thought. Our thoughts make spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds at all costs if possible.”
I raked the fire together to prevent the darkness having everything its own way. I never longed for the sun as I longed for it then in the awful blackness of that summer night.
“Were you awake all last night?” he went on suddenly.
“I slept badly a little after dawn,” I replied evasively, trying to follow his instructions, which I knew instinctively were true, “but the wind, of course—”
“I know. But the wind won’t account for all the noises.”
“Then you heard it too?”
“The multiplying countless little footsteps I heard,” he said, adding, after a moment’s hesitation, “and that other sound—”
“You mean above the tent, and the pressing down upon us of something tremendous, gigantic?”
He nodded significantly.
“It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?” I said.
“Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been altered—had increased enormously, so that we should be crushed.”
“And that,” I went on, determined to have it all out, pointing upwards where the gong-like note hummed ceaselessly, rising and falling like wind. “What do you make of that?”
“It’s their sound,” he whispered gravely. “It’s the sound of their world, the humming in their region. The division here is so thin that it leaks through somehow. But, if you listen carefully, you’ll find it’s not above so much as around us. It’s in the willows. It’s the willows themselves humming, because here the willows have been made symbols of the forces that are against us.”
I could not follow exactly what he meant by this, yet the thought and idea in my mind were beyond question the thought and idea in his. I realized what he realized, only with less power of analysis than his. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him at last about my hallucination of the ascending figures and the moving bushes, when he suddenly thrust his face again close into mine across the firelight and began to speak in a very earnest whisper. He amazed me by his calmness and pluck, his apparent control of the situation. This man I had for years deemed unimaginative, stolid!
“Now listen,” he said. “The only thing for us to do is to go on as though nothing had happened, follow our usual habits, go to bed, and so forth; pretend we feel nothing and notice nothing. It is a question wholly of the mind, and the less we think about them the better our chance of escape. Above all, don’t think, for what you think happens!”
“All right,” I managed to reply, simply breathless with his words and the strangeness of it all; “all right, I’ll try, but tell me one thing more first. Tell me what you make of those hollows in the ground all about us, those sand-funnels?”
“No!” he cried, forgetting to whisper in his excitement. “I dare not, simply dare not, put the thought into words. If you have not guessed I am glad. Don’t try to. They have put it into my mind; try your hardest to prevent their putting it into yours.”
He sank his voice again to a whisper before he finished, and I did not press him to explain. There was already just about as much horror in me as I could hold. The conversation came to an end, and we smoked our pipes busily in silence.
Then something happened, something unimportant apparently, as the way is when the nerves are in a very great state of tension, and this small thing for a brief space gave me an entirely different point of view. I chanced to look down at my sand-shoe—the sort we used for the canoe—and something to do with the hole at the toe suddenly recalled to me the London shop where I had bought them, the difficulty the man had in fitting me, and other details of the uninteresting but practical operation. At once, in its train, followed a wholesome view of the modern skeptical world I was accustomed to move in at home. I thought of roast beef and ale, motor-cars, policemen, brass bands, and a dozen other things that proclaimed the soul of ordinariness or utility. The effect was immediate and astonishing even to myself. Psychologically, I suppose, it was simply a sudden and violent reaction after the strain of living in an atmosphere of things that to the normal consciousness must seem impossible and incredible. But, whatever the cause, it momentarily lifted the spell from my heart, and left me for the short space of a minute feeling free and utterly unafraid. I looked up at my friend opposite.
“You damned old pagan!” I cried, laughing aloud in his face. “You imaginative idiot! You superstitious idolator! You——”
I stopped in the middle, seized anew by the old horror. I tried to smother the sound of my voice as something sacrilegious. The Swede, of course, heard it too—that strange cry overhead in the darkness—and that sudden drop in the air as though something had come nearer.
He had turned ashen white under the tan. He stood bolt upright in front of the fire, stiff as a rod, staring at me.
“After that,” he said in a sort of helpless, frantic way, “we must go! We can’t stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on—down the river.”
He was talking, I saw, quite wildly, his words dictated by abject terror—the terror he had resisted so long, but which had caught him at last.
“In the dark?” I exclaimed, shaking with fear after my hysterical outburst, but still realizing our position better than he did. “Sheer madness! The river’s in flood, and we’ve only got a single paddle. Besides, we only go deeper into their country! There’s nothing ahead for fifty miles but willows, willows, willows!”
He sat down again in a state of semi-collapse. The positions, by one of those kaleidoscopic changes nature loves, were suddenly reversed, and the control of our forces passed over into my hands. His mind at last had reached the point where it was beginning to weaken.
“What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?” he whispered, with the awe of genuine terror in his voice and face.
I crossed round to his side of the fire. I took both his hands in mine, kneeling down beside him and looking straight into his frightened eyes.
“We’ll make one more blaze,” I said firmly, “and then turn in for the night. At sunrise we’ll be off full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself together a bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!”
He said no more, and I saw that he would agree and obey. In some measure, too, it was a sort of relief to get up and make an excursion into the darkness for more wood. We kept close together, almost touching, groping among the bushes and along the bank. The humming overhead never ceased, but seemed to me to grow louder as we increased our distance from the fire. It was shivery work!
We were grubbing away in the middle of a thickish clump of willows where some driftwood from a former flood had caught high among the branches, when my body was seized in a grip that made me half drop upon the sand. It was the Swede. He had fallen against me, and was clutching me for support. I heard his breath coming and going in short gasps.
“Look! By my soul!” he whispered, and for the first time in my experience I knew what it was to hear tears of terror in a human voice. He was pointing to the fire, some fifty feet away. I followed the direction of his finger, and I swear my heart missed a beat.
There, in front of the dim glow, something was moving.
I saw it through a veil that hung before my eyes like the gauze drop-curtain used at the back of a theater—hazily a little. It was neither a human figure nor an animal. To me it gave the strange impression of being as large as several animals grouped together, like horses, two or three, moving slowly. The Swede, too, got a similar result, though expressing it differently, for he thought it was shaped and sized like a clump of willow bushes, rounded at the top, and moving all over upon its surface—“coiling upon itself like smoke,” he said afterwards.
“I watched it settle downwards through the bushes,” he sobbed at me. “Look, by God! It’s coming this way! Oh, oh!”—he gave a kind of whistling cry. “They’ve found us.”
I gave one terrified glance, which just enabled me to see that the shadowy form was swinging towards us through the bushes, and then I collapsed backwards with a crash into the branches. These failed, of course, to support my weight, so that with the Swede on the top of me we fell in a struggling heap upon the sand. I really hardly knew what was happening. I was conscious only of a sort of enveloping sensation of icy fear that plucked the nerves out of their fleshly covering, twisted them this way and that, and replaced them quivering. My eyes were tightly shut; something in my throat choked me; a feeling that my consciousness was expanding, extending out into space, swiftly gave way to another feeling that I was losing it altogether, and about to die.
An acute spasm of pain passed through me, and I was aware that the Swede had hold of me in such a way that he hurt me abominably. It was the way he caught at me in falling.
But it was this pain, he declared afterwards, that saved me: it caused me to forget them and think of something else at the very instant when they were about to find me. It concealed my mind from them at the moment of discovery, yet just in time to evade their terrible seizing of me. He himself, he says, actually swooned at the same moment, and that was what saved him.
I only know that at a later time, how long or short is impossible to say, I found myself scrambling up out of the slippery network of willow branches, and saw my companion standing in front of me holding out a hand to assist me. I stared at him in a dazed way, rubbing the arm he had twisted for me. Nothing came to me to say, somehow.
“I lost consciousness for a moment or two,” I heard him say. “That’s what saved me. It made me stop thinking about them.”
“You nearly broke my arm in two,” I said, uttering my only connected thought at the moment. A numbness came over me.
“That’s what saved you!” he replied. “Between us, we’ve managed to set them off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It’s gone—for the moment at any rate!”
A wave of hysterical laughter seized me again, and this time spread to my friend too—great healing gusts of shaking laughter that brought a tremendous sense of relief in their train. We made our way back to the fire and put the wood on so that it blazed at once. Then we saw that the tent had fallen over and lay in a tangled heap upon the ground.
We picked it up, and during the process tripped more than once and caught our feet in sand.
“It’s those sand-funnels,” exclaimed the Swede, when the tent was up again and the firelight lit up the ground for several yards about us. “And look at the size of them!”
All round the tent and about the fireplace where we had seen the moving shadows there were deep funnel-shaped hollows in the sand, exactly similar to the ones we had already found over the island, only far bigger and deeper, beautifully formed, and wide enough in some instances to admit the whole of my foot and leg.
Neither of us said a word. We both knew that sleep was the safest thing we could do, and to bed we went accordingly without further delay, having first thrown sand on the fire and taken the provision sack and the paddle inside the tent with us. The canoe, too, we propped in such a way at the end of the tent that our feet touched it, and the least motion would disturb and wake us.
In case of emergency, too, we again went to bed in our clothes, ready for a sudden start.
It was my firm intention to lie awake all night and watch, but the exhaustion of nerves and body decreed otherwise, and sleep after a while came over me with a welcome blanket of oblivion. The fact that my companion also slept quickened its approach. At first he fidgeted and constantly sat up, asking me if I “heard this” or “heard that.” He tossed about on his cork mattress, and said the tent was moving and the river had risen over the point of the island; but each time I went out to look I returned with the report that all was well, and finally he grew calmer and lay still. Then at length his breathing became regular and I heard unmistakable sounds of snoring—the first and only time in my life when snoring has been a welcome and calming influence.
This, I remember, was the last thought in my mind before dozing off.
A difficulty in breathing woke me, and I found the blanket over my face. But something else besides the blanket was pressing upon me, and my first thought was that my companion had rolled off his mattress on to my own in his sleep. I called to him and sat up, and at the same moment it came to me that the tent was surrounded. That sound of multitudinous soft pattering was again audible outside, filling the night with horror.
I called again to him, louder than before. He did not answer, but I missed the sound of his snoring, and also noticed that the flap of the tent door was down. This was the unpardonable sin. I crawled out in the darkness to hook it back securely, and it was then for the first time I realized positively that the Swede was not there. He had gone.
I dashed out in a mad run, seized by a dreadful agitation, and the moment I was out I plunged into a sort of torrent of humming that surrounded me completely and came out of every quarter of the heavens at once. It was that same familiar humming—gone mad! A swarm of great invisible bees might have been about me in the air. The sound seemed to thicken the very atmosphere, and I felt that my lungs worked with difficulty.
But my friend was in danger, and I could not hesitate.
The dawn was just about to break, and a faint whitish light spread upwards over the clouds from a thin strip of clear horizon. No wind stirred. I could just make out the bushes and river beyond, and the pale sandy patches. In my excitement I ran frantically to and fro about the island, calling him by name, shouting at the top of my voice the first words that came into my head. But the willows smothered my voice, and the humming muffled it, so that the sound only traveled a few feet round me. I plunged among the bushes, tripping headlong, tumbling over roots, and scraping my face as I tore this way and that among the preventing branches.
Then, quite unexpectedly, I came out upon the island’s point and saw a dark figure outlined between the water and the sky. It was the Swede. And already he had one foot in the river! A moment more and he would have taken the plunge.
I threw myself upon him, flinging my arms about his waist and dragging him shorewards with all my strength. Of course he struggled furiously, making a noise all the time just like that cursed humming, and using the most outlandish phrases in his anger about “going inside to Them,” and “taking the way of the water and the wind,” and God only knows what more besides, that I tried in vain to recall afterwards, but which turned me sick with horror and amazement as I listened. But in the end I managed to get him into the comparative safety of the tent, and flung him breathless and cursing upon the mattress, where I held him until the fit had passed.
I think the suddenness with which it all went and he grew calm, coinciding as it did with the equally abrupt cessation of the humming and pattering outside—I think this was almost the strangest part of the whole business perhaps. For he just opened his eyes and turned his tired face up to me so that the dawn threw a pale light upon it through the doorway, and said, for all the world just like a frightened child:
“My life, old man—it’s my life I owe you. But it’s all over now anyhow. They’ve found a victim in our place!”
Then he dropped back upon his blankets and went to sleep literally under my eyes. He simply collapsed, and began to snore again as healthily as though nothing had happened and he had never tried to offer his own life as a sacrifice by drowning. And when the sunlight woke him three hours later—hours of ceaseless vigil for me—it became so clear to me that he remembered absolutely nothing of what he had attempted to do, that I deemed it wise to hold my peace and ask no dangerous questions.
He woke naturally and easily, as I have said, when the sun was already high in a windless hot sky, and he at once got up and set about the preparation of the fire for breakfast. I followed him anxiously at bathing, but he did not attempt to plunge in, merely dipping his head and making some remark about the extra coldness of the water.
“River’s falling at last,” he said, “and I’m glad of it.”
“The humming has stopped too,” I said.
He looked up at me quietly with his normal expression. Evidently he remembered everything except his own attempt at suicide.
“Everything has stopped,” he said, “because——”
He hesitated. But I knew some reference to that remark he had made just before he fainted was in his mind, and I was determined to know it.
“Because ’They’ve found another victim’?” I said, forcing a little laugh.
“Exactly,” he answered, “exactly! I feel as positive of it as though—as though—I feel quite safe again, I mean,” he finished.
He began to look curiously about him. The sunlight lay in hot patches on the sand. There was no wind. The willows were motionless. He slowly rose to feet.
“Come,” he said; “I think if we look, we shall find it.”
He started off on a run, and I followed him. He kept to the banks, poking with a stick among the sandy bays and caves and little back-waters, myself always close on his heels.
“Ah!” he exclaimed presently, “ah!”
The tone of his voice somehow brought back to me a vivid sense of the horror of the last twenty-four hours, and I hurried up to join him. He was pointing with his stick at a large black object that lay half in the water and half on the sand. It appeared to be caught by some twisted willow roots so that the river could not sweep it away. A few hours before the spot must have been under water.
“See,” he said quietly, “the victim that made our escape possible!”
And when I peered across his shoulder I saw that his stick rested on the body of a man. He turned it over. It was the corpse of a peasant, and the face was hidden in the sand. Clearly the man had been drowned but a few hours before, and his body must have been swept down upon our island somewhere about the hour of the dawn—at the very time the fit had passed.
“We must give it a decent burial, you know.”
“I suppose so,” I replied. I shuddered a little in spite of myself, for there was something about the appearance of that poor drowned man that turned me cold.
The Swede glanced up sharply at me, and began clambering down the bank. I followed him more leisurely. The current, I noticed, had torn away much of the clothing from the body, so that the neck and part of the chest lay bare.
Halfway down the bank my companion suddenly stopped and held up his hand in warning; but either my foot slipped, or I had gained too much momentum to bring myself quickly to a halt, for I bumped into him and sent him forward with a sort of leap to save himself. We tumbled together on to the hard sand so that our feet splashed into the water. And, before anything could be done, we had collided a little heavily against the corpse.
The Swede uttered a sharp cry. And I sprang back as if I had been shot.
At the moment we touched the body there arose from its surface the loud sound of humming—the sound of several hummings—which passed with a vast commotion as of winged things in the air about us and disappeared upwards into the sky, growing fainter and fainter till they finally ceased in the distance. It was exactly as though we had disturbed some living yet invisible creatures at work.
My companion clutched me, and I think I clutched him, but before either of us had time properly to recover from the unexpected shock, we saw that a movement of the current was turning the corpse round so that it became released from the grip of the willow roots. A moment later it had turned completely over, the dead face uppermost, staring at the sky. It lay on the edge of the main stream. In another moment it would be swept away.
The Swede started to save it, shouting again something I did not catch about a “proper burial” and then abruptly dropped upon his knees on the sand and covered his eyes with his hands. I was beside him in an instant.
I saw what he had seen.
For just as the body swung round to the current the face and the exposed chest turned full towards us, and showed plainly how the skin and flesh were indented with small hollows, beautifully formed, and exactly similar in shape and kind to the sand-funnels that we had found all over the island.
“Their mark!” I heard my companion mutter under his breath. “Their awful mark!”
And when I turned my eyes again from his ghastly face to the river, the current had done its work, and the body had been swept away into midstream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter.
BY MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN
From The Wind in
the Rose-bush, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
Copyright by Harper and Brothers. By permission of the publishers
and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.
“Henry had words with Edward in the study the night before Edward died,” said Caroline Glynn.
She spoke not with acrimony, but with grave severity. Rebecca Ann Glynn gasped by way of assent. She sat in a wide flounce of black silk in the corner of the sofa, and rolled terrified eyes from her sister Caroline to her sister Mrs. Stephen Brigham, who had been Emma Glynn, the one beauty of the family. The latter was beautiful still, with a large, splendid, full-blown beauty, she filled a great rocking-chair with her superb bulk of femininity, and swayed gently back and forth, her black silks whispering and her black frills fluttering. Even the shock of death—for her brother Edward lay dead in the house—could not disturb her outward serenity of demeanor.
But even her expression of masterly placidity changed before her sister Caroline’s announcement and her sister Rebecca Ann’s gasp of terror and distress in response.
“I think Henry might have controlled his temper, when poor Edward was so near his end,” she said with an asperity which disturbed slightly the roseate curves of her beautiful mouth.
“Of course he did not know,” murmured Rebecca Ann in a faint tone.
“Of course he did not know it,” said Caroline quickly. She turned on her sister with a strange, sharp look of suspicion. Then she shrank as if from the other’s possible answer.
Rebecca gasped again. The married sister, Mrs. Emma Brigham, was now sitting up straight in her chair; she had ceased rocking, and was eyeing them both intently with a sudden accentuation of family likeness in her face.
“What do you mean?” said she impartially to them both. Then she, too, seemed to shrink before a possible answer. She even laughed an evasive sort of laugh.
“Nobody means anything,” said Caroline firmly. She rose and crossed the room toward the door with grim decisiveness.
“Where are you going?” asked Mrs. Brigham.
“I have something to see to,” replied Caroline, and the others at once knew by her tone that she had some solemn and sad duty to perform in the chamber of death.
“Oh,” said Mrs. Brigham.
After the door had closed behind Caroline, she turned to Rebecca.
“Did Henry have many words with him?” she asked.
“They were talking very loud,” replied Rebecca evasively.
Mrs. Brigham looked at her. She had not resumed rocking. She still sat up straight, with a slight knitting of intensity on her fair forehead, between the pretty rippling curves of her auburn hair.
“Did you—ever hear anything?” she asked in a low voice with a glance toward the door.
“I was just across the hall in the south parlor, and that door was open and this door ajar,” replied Rebecca with a slight flush.
“Then you must have——”
“I couldn’t help it.”
“Most of it.”
“What was it?”
“The old story.”
“I suppose Henry was mad, as he always was, because Edward was living on here for nothing, when he had wasted all the money father left him.”
Rebecca nodded, with a fearful glance at the door.
When Emma spoke again her voice was still more hushed. “I know how he felt,” said she. “It must have looked to him as if Edward was living at his expense, but he wasn’t.”
“No, he wasn’t.”
“And Edward had a right here according to the terms of father’s will, and Henry ought to have remembered it.”
“Yes, he ought.”
“Did he say hard things?”
“Pretty hard, from what I heard.”
“I heard him tell Edward that he had no business here at all, and he thought he had better go away.”
“What did Edward say?”
“That he would stay here as long as he lived and afterward, too, if he was a mind to, and he would like to see Henry get him out; and then——”
“Then he laughed.”
“What did Henry say?”
“I didn’t hear him say anything, but——”
“I saw him when he came out of this room.”
“He looked mad?”
“You’ve seen him when he looked so.”
Emma nodded. The expression of horror on her face had deepened.
“Do you remember that time he killed the cat because she had scratched him?”
Then Caroline reentered the room; she went up to the stove, in which a wood fire was burning—it was a cold, gloomy day of fall—and she warmed her hands, which were reddened from recent washing in cold water.
Mrs. Brigham looked at her and hesitated. She glanced at the door, which was still ajar; it did not easily shut, being still swollen with the damp weather of the summer. She rose and pushed it together with a sharp thud, which jarred the house. Rebecca started painfully with a half-exclamation. Caroline looked at her disapprovingly.
“It is time you controlled your nerves, Rebecca,” she said.
Mrs. Brigham, returning from the closed door, said imperiously that it ought to be fixed, it shut so hard.
“It will shrink enough after we have had the fire a few days,” replied Caroline.
“I think Henry ought to be ashamed of himself for talking as he did to Edward,” said Mrs. Brigham abruptly, but in an almost inaudible voice.
“Hush,” said Caroline, with a glance of actual fear at the closed door.
“Nobody can hear with the door shut. I say again I think Henry ought to be ashamed of himself. I shouldn’t think he’d ever get over it, having words with poor Edward the very night before he died. Edward was enough sight better disposition than Henry, with all his faults.”
“I never heard him speak a cross word, unless he spoke cross to Henry that last night. I don’t know but he did from what Rebecca overheard.”
“Not so much cross, as sort of soft, and sweet, and aggravating,” sniffed Rebecca.
“What do you really think ailed Edward?” asked Emma in hardly more than a whisper. She did not look at her sister.
“I know you said that he had terrible pains in his stomach, and had spasms, but what do you think made him have them?”
“Henry called it gastric trouble. You know Edward has always had dyspepsia.”
Mrs. Brigham hesitated a moment. “Was there any talk of an—examination?” said she.
Then Caroline turned on her fiercely.
“No,” said she in a terrible voice. “No.”
The three sisters’ souls seemed to meet on one common ground of terrified understanding through their eyes.
The old-fashioned latch of the door was heard to rattle, and a push from without made the door shake ineffectually. “It’s Henry,” Rebecca sighed rather than whispered. Mrs. Brigham settled herself, after a noiseless rush across the floor, into her rocking-chair again, and was swaying back and forth with her head comfortably leaning back, when the door at last yielded and Henry Glynn entered. He cast a covertly sharp, comprehensive glance at Mrs. Brigham with her elaborate calm; at Rebecca quietly huddled in the corner of the sofa with her handkerchief to her face and only one small uncovered reddened ear as attentive as a dog’s, and at Caroline sitting with a strained composure in her armchair by the stove. She met his eyes quite firmly with a look of inscrutable fear, and defiance of the fear and of him.
Henry Glynn looked more like this sister than the others. Both had the same hard delicacy of form and aquilinity of feature. They confronted each other with the pitiless immovability of two statues in whose marble lineaments emotions were fixed for all eternity.
Then Henry Glynn smiled and the smile transformed his face. He looked suddenly years younger, and an almost boyish recklessness appeared in his face. He flung himself into a chair with a gesture which was bewildering from its incongruity with his general appearance. He leaned his head back, flung one leg over the other, and looked laughingly at Mrs. Brigham.
“I declare, Emma, you grow younger every year,” he said.
She flushed a little, and her placid mouth widened at the corners. She was susceptible to praise.
“Our thoughts to-day ought to belong to the one of us who will never grow older,” said Caroline in a hard voice.
Henry looked at her, still smiling. “Of course, we none of us forget that,” said he, in a deep, gentle voice; “but we have to speak to the living, Caroline, and I have not seen Emma for a long time, and the living are as dear as the dead.”
“Not to me,” said Caroline.
She rose and went abruptly out of the room again. Rebecca also rose and hurried after her, sobbing loudly.
Henry looked slowly after them.
“Caroline is completely unstrung,” said he.
Mrs. Brigham rocked. A confidence in him inspired by his manner was stealing over her. Out of that confidence she spoke quite easily and naturally.
“His death was very sudden,” said she.
Henry’s eyelids quivered slightly but his gaze was unswerving.
“Yes,” said he, “it was very sudden. He was sick only a few hours.”
“What did you call it?”
“You did not think of an examination?”
“There was no need. I am perfectly certain as to the cause of his death.”
Suddenly Mrs. Brigham felt a creep as of some live horror over her very soul. Her flesh prickled with cold, before an inflection of his voice. She rose, tottering on weak knees.
“Where are you going?” asked Henry in a strange, breathless voice.
Mrs. Brigham said something incoherent about some sewing which she had to do—some black for the funeral—and was out of the room. She went up to the front chamber which she occupied. Caroline was there. She went close to her and took her hands, and the two sisters looked at each other.
“Don’t speak, don’t, I won’t have it!” said Caroline finally in an awful whisper.
“I won’t,” replied Emma.
That afternoon the three sisters were in the study.
Mrs. Brigham was hemming some black material. At last she laid her work on her lap.
“It’s no use, I cannot see to sew another stitch until we have a light,” said she.
Caroline, who was writing some letters at the table, turned to Rebecca, in her usual place on the sofa.
“Rebecca, you had better get a lamp,” she said.
Rebecca started up; even in the dusk her face showed her agitation.
“It doesn’t seem to me that we need a lamp quite yet,” she said in a piteous, pleading voice like a child’s.
“Yes, we do,” returned Mrs. Brigham peremptorily. “I can’t see to sew another stitch.”
Rebecca rose and left the room. Presently she entered with a lamp. She set it on the table, an old-fashioned card-table which was placed against the opposite wall from the window. That opposite wall was taken up with three doors; the one small space was occupied by the table.
“What have you put that lamp over there for?” asked Mrs. Brigham, with more of impatience than her voice usually revealed. “Why didn’t you set it in the hall, and have done with it? Neither Caroline nor I can see if it is on that table.”
“I thought perhaps you would move,” replied Rebecca hoarsely.
“If I do move, we can’t both sit at that table. Caroline has her paper all spread around. Why don’t you set the lamp on the study table in the middle of the room, then we can both see?”
Rebecca hesitated. Her face was very pale. She looked with an appeal that was fairly agonizing at her sister Caroline.
“Why don’t you put the lamp on this table, as she says?” asked Caroline, almost fiercely. “Why do you act so, Rebecca?”
Rebecca took the lamp and set it on the table in the middle of the room without another word. Then she seated herself on the sofa and placed a hand over her eyes as if to shade them, and remained so.
“Does the light hurt your eyes, and is that the reason why you didn’t want the lamp?” asked Mrs. Brigham kindly.
“I always like to sit in the dark,” replied Rebecca chokingly. Then she snatched her handkerchief hastily from her pocket and began to weep. Caroline continued to write, Mrs. Brigham to sew.
Suddenly Mrs. Brigham as she sewed glanced at the opposite wall. The glance became a steady stare. She looked intently, her work suspended in her hands. Then she looked away again and took a few more stitches, then she looked again, and again turned to her task. At last she laid her work in her lap and stared concentratedly. She looked from the wall round the room, taking note of the various objects. Then she turned to her sisters.
“What is that?” said she.
“What?” asked Caroline harshly.
“That strange shadow on the wall,” replied Mrs. Brigham.
Rebecca sat with her face hidden; Caroline dipped her pen in the inkstand.
“Why don’t you turn around and look?” asked Mrs. Brigham in a wondering and somewhat aggrieved way.
“I am in a hurry to finish this letter,” replied Caroline shortly.
Mrs. Brigham rose, her work slipping to the floor, and began walking round the room, moving various articles of furniture, with her eyes on the shadow.
Then suddenly she shrieked out:
“Look at this awful shadow! What is it? Caroline, look, look! Rebecca, look! What is it?”
All Mrs. Brigham’s triumphant placidity was gone. Her handsome face was livid with horror. She stood stiffly pointing at the shadow.
Then after a shuddering glance at the wall Rebecca burst out in a wild wail.
“Oh, Caroline, there it is again, there it is again!”
“Caroline Glynn, you look!” said Mrs. Brigham. “Look! What is that dreadful shadow?”
Caroline rose, turned, and stood confronting the wall.
“How should I know?” she said.
“It has been there every night since he died!” cried Rebecca.
“Yes; he died Thursday and this is Saturday; that makes three nights,” said Caroline rigidly. She stood as if holding her calm with a vise of concentrated will.
“It—it looks like—like—” stammered Mrs. Brigham in a tone of intense horror.
“I know what it looks like well enough,” said Caroline. “I’ve got eyes in my head.”
“It looks like Edward,” burst out Rebecca in a sort of frenzy of fear. “Only——”
“Yes, it does,” assented Mrs. Brigham, whose horror-stricken tone matched her sisters’, “only—Oh, it is awful! What is it, Caroline?”
“I ask you again, how should I know?” replied Caroline. “I see it there like you. How should I know any more than you?”
“It must be something in the room,” said Mrs. Brigham, staring wildly around.
“We moved everything in the room the first night it came,” said Rebecca; “it is not anything in the room.”
Caroline turned upon her with a sort of fury. “Of course it is something in the room,” said she. “How you act! What do you mean talking so? Of course it is something in the room.”
“Of course it is,” agreed Mrs. Brigham, looking at Caroline suspiciously. “It must be something in the room.”
“It is not anything in the room,” repeated Rebecca with obstinate horror.
The door opened suddenly and Henry Glynn entered. He began to speak, then his eyes followed the direction of the others. He stood staring at the shadow on the wall.
“What is that?” he demanded in a strange voice.
“It must be due to something in the room,” Mrs. Brigham said faintly.
Henry Glynn stood and stared a moment longer. His face showed a gamut of emotions. Horror, conviction, then furious incredulity. Suddenly he began hastening hither and thither about the room. He moved the furniture with fierce jerks, turning ever to see the effect upon the shadow on the wall. Not a line of its terrible outlines wavered.
“It must be something in the room!” he declared in a voice which seemed to snap like a lash.
His face changed, the inmost secrecy of his nature seemed evident upon his face, until one almost lost sight of his lineaments. Rebecca stood close to her sofa, regarding him with woeful, fascinated eyes. Mrs. Brigham clutched Caroline’s hand. They both stood in a corner out of his way. For a few moments he raged about the room like a caged wild animal. He moved every piece of furniture; when the moving of a piece did not affect the shadow he flung it to the floor.
Then suddenly he desisted. He laughed.
“What an absurdity,” he said easily. “Such a to-do about a shadow.”
“That’s so,” assented Mrs. Brigham, in a scared voice which she tried to make natural. As she spoke she lifted a chair near her.
“I think you have broken the chair that Edward was fond of,” said Caroline.
Terror and wrath were struggling for expression on her face. Her mouth was set, her eyes shrinking. Henry lifted the chair with a show of anxiety.
“Just as good as ever,” he said pleasantly. He laughed again, looking at his sisters. “Did I scare you?” he said. “I should think you might be used to me by this time. You know my way of wanting to leap to the bottom of a mystery, and that shadow does look—queer, like—and I thought if there was any way of accounting for it I would like to without any delay.”
“You don’t seem to have succeeded,” remarked Caroline dryly, with a slight glance at the wall.
Henry’s eyes followed hers and he quivered perceptibly.
“Oh, there is no accounting for shadows,” he said, and he laughed again. “A man is a fool to try to account for shadows.”
Then the supper bell rang, and they all left the room, but Henry kept his back to the wall—as did, indeed, the others.
Henry led the way with an alert motion like a boy; Rebecca brought up the rear. She could scarcely walk, her knees trembled so.
“I can’t sit in that room again this evening,” she whispered to Caroline after supper.
“Very well; we will sit in the south room,” replied Caroline. “I think we will sit in the south parlor,” she said aloud; “it isn’t as damp as the study, and I have a cold.”
So they all sat in the south room with their sewing. Henry read the newspaper, his chair drawn close to the lamp on the table. About nine o’clock he rose abruptly and crossed the hall to the study. The three sisters looked at one another. Mrs. Brigham rose, folded her rustling skirts compactly round her, and began tiptoeing toward the door.
“What are you going to do?” inquired Rebecca agitatedly.
“I am going to see what he is about,” replied Mrs. Brigham cautiously.
As she spoke she pointed to the study door across the hall; it was ajar. Henry had striven to pull it together behind him, but it had somehow swollen beyond the limit with curious speed. It was still ajar and a streak of light showed from top to bottom.
Mrs. Brigham folded her skirts so tightly that her bulk with its swelling curves was revealed in a black silk sheath, and she went with a slow toddle across the hall to the study door. She stood there, her eye at the crack.
In the south room Rebecca stopped sewing and sat watching with dilated eyes. Caroline sewed steadily. What Mrs. Brigham, standing at the crack in the study door, saw was this:
Henry Glynn, evidently reasoning that the source of the strange shadow must be between the table on which the lamp stood and the wall, was making systematic passes and thrusts with an old sword which had belonged to his father all over and through the intervening space. Not an inch was left unpierced. He seemed to have divided the space into mathematical sections. He brandished the sword with a sort of cold fury and calculation; the blade gave out flashes of light, the shadow remained unmoved. Mrs. Brigham, watching, felt herself cold with horror.
Finally Henry ceased and stood with the sword in hand and raised as if to strike, surveying the shadow on the wall threateningly. Mrs. Brigham toddled back across the hall and shut the south room door behind her before she related what she had seen.
“He looked like a demon,” she said again. “Have you got any of that old wine in the house, Caroline? I don’t feel as if I could stand much more.”
“Yes, there’s plenty,” said Caroline; “you can have some when you go to bed.”
“I think we had all better take some,” said Mrs. Brigham. “Oh, Caroline, what——”
“Don’t ask; don’t speak,” said Caroline.
“No, I’m not going to,” replied Mrs. Brigham; “but——”
Soon the three sisters went to their chambers and the south parlor was deserted. Caroline called to Henry in the study to put out the light before he came upstairs. They had been gone about an hour when he came into the room bringing the lamp which had stood in the study. He set it on the table, and waited a few minutes, pacing up and down. His face was terrible, his fair complexion showed livid, and his blue eyes seemed dark blanks of awful reflections.
Then he took up the lamp and returned to the library. He set the lamp on the center table and the shadow sprang out on the wall. Again he studied the furniture and moved it about, but deliberately, with none of his former frenzy. Nothing affected the shadow. Then he returned to the south room with the lamp and again waited. Again he returned to the study and placed the lamp on the table, and the shadow sprang out upon the wall. It was midnight before he went upstairs. Mrs. Brigham and the other sisters, who could not sleep, heard him.
The next day was the funeral. That evening the family sat in the south room. Some relatives were with them. Nobody entered the study until Henry carried a lamp in there after the others had retired for the night. He saw again the shadow on the wall leap to an awful life before the light.
The next morning at breakfast Henry Glynn announced that he had to go to the city for three days. The sisters looked at him with surprise. He very seldom left home, and just now his practice had been neglected on account of Edward’s death.
“How can you leave your patients now?” asked Mrs. Brigham wonderingly.
“I don’t know how to, but there is no other way,” replied Henry easily. “I have had a telegram from Dr. Mitford.”
“Consultation?” inquired Mrs. Brigham.
“I have business,” replied Henry.
Doctor Mitford was an old classmate of his who lived in a neighboring city and who occasionally called upon him in the case of a consultation.
After he had gone, Mrs. Brigham said to Caroline that, after all, Henry had not said that he was going to consult with Doctor Mitford, and she thought it very strange.
“Everything is very strange,” said Rebecca with a shudder.
“What do you mean?” inquired Caroline.
“Nothing,” replied Rebecca.
Nobody entered the study that day, nor the next. The third day Henry was expected home, but he did not arrive and the last train from the city had come.
“I call it pretty queer work,” said Mrs. Brigham. “The idea of a doctor leaving his patients at such a time as this, and the idea of a consultation lasting three days! There is no sense in it, and now he has not come. I don’t understand it, for my part.”
“I don’t either,” said Rebecca.
They were all in the south parlor. There was no light in the study; the door was ajar.
Presently Mrs. Brigham rose—she could not have told why; something seemed to impel her—some will outside her own. She went out of the room, again wrapping her rustling skirts round that she might pass noiselessly, and began pushing at the swollen door of the study.
“She has not got any lamp,” said Rebecca in a shaking voice.
Caroline, who was writing letters, rose again, took the only remaining lamp in the room, and followed her sister. Rebecca had risen, but she stood trembling, not venturing to follow.
The doorbell rang, but the others did not hear it; it was on the south door on the other side of the house from the study. Rebecca, after hesitating until the bell rang the second time, went to the door; she remembered that the servant was out.
Caroline and her sister Emma entered the study. Caroline set the lamp on the table. They looked at the wall, and there were two shadows. The sisters stood clutching each other, staring at the awful things on the wall. Then Rebecca came in, staggering, with a telegram in her hand. “Here is—a telegram,” she gasped. “Henry is—dead.”
BY ROBERT W. CHAMBERS
Little gray messenger,
Robed like painted Death,
Your robe is dust.
Whom do you seek
Among lilies and closed buds
Among lilies and closed buds
Whom do you seek,
Little gray messenger,
Robed in the awful panoply
Of painted Death?
From The Mystery of Choice,
by Robert W. Chambers. Published,
1897, by D. Appleton and Company. Copyright by Robert W. Chambers.
By permission of Robert W. Chambers.
Hast thou seen all there is to see with thy two eyes?
Dost thou know all there is to know, and so,
Darest thou still to say thy brother lies?
“The bullet entered here,” said Max Fortin, and he placed his middle finger over a smooth hole exactly in the center of the forehead.
I sat down upon a mound of dry seaweed and unslung my fowling piece.
The little chemist cautiously felt the edges of the shot-hole, first with his middle finger, and then with his thumb.
“Let me see the skull again,” said I.
Max Fortin picked it up from the sod.
“It’s like all the others,” he repeated, wiping his glasses on his handkerchief. “I thought you might care to see one of the skulls, so I brought this over from the gravel pit. The men from Bannalec are digging yet. They ought to stop.”
“How many skulls are there altogether?” I inquired.
“They found thirty-eight skulls; there are thirty-nine noted in the list. They lie piled up in the gravel pit on the edge of Le Bihan’s wheat field. The men are at work yet. Le Bihan is going to stop them.”
“Let’s go over,” said I; and I picked up my gun and started across the cliffs, Portin on one side, Mome on the other.
“Who has the list?” I asked, lighting my pipe. “You say there is a list?”
“The list was found rolled up in a brass cylinder,” said the chemist. He added: “You should not smoke here. You know that if a single spark drifted into the wheat—”
“Ah, but I have a cover to my pipe,” said I, smiling.
Fortin watched me as I closed the pepper-box arrangement over the glowing bowl of the pipe. Then he continued:
“The list was made out on thick yellow paper; the brass tube has preserved it. It is as fresh to-day as it was in 1760. You shall see it.”
“Is that the date?”
“The list is dated ‘April, 1760.’ The Brigadier Durand has it. It is not written in French.”
“Not written in French!” I exclaimed.
“No,” replied Fortin solemnly, “it is written in Breton.”
“But,” I protested, “the Breton language was never written or printed in 1760.”
“Except by priests,” said the chemist.
“I have heard of but one priest who ever wrote the Breton language,” I began.
Fortin stole a glance at my face.
“You mean—the Black Priest?” he asked.
Fortin opened his mouth to speak again, hesitated, and finally shut his teeth obstinately over the wheat stem that he was chewing.
“And the Black Priest?” I suggested encouragingly. But I knew it was useless; for it is easier to move the stars from their courses than to make an obstinate Breton talk. We walked on for a minute or two in silence.
“Where is the Brigadier Durand?” I asked, motioning Mome to come out of the wheat, which he was trampling as though it were heather. As I spoke we came in sight of the farther edge of the wheat field and the dark, wet mass of cliffs beyond.
“Durand is down there—you can see him; he stands just behind the mayor of St. Gildas.”
“I see,” said I; and we struck straight down, following a sun-baked cattle path across the heather.
When we reached the edge of the wheat field, Le Bihan, the mayor of St. Gildas, called to me, and I tucked my gun under my arm and skirted the wheat to where he stood.
“Thirty-eight skulls,” he said in his thin, high-pitched voice; “there is but one more, and I am opposed to further search. I suppose Fortin told you?”
I shook hands with him, and returned the salute of the Brigadier Durand.
“I am opposed to further search,” repeated Le Bihan, nervously picking at the mass of silver buttons which covered the front of his velvet and broadcloth jacket like a breastplate of scale armor.
Durand pursed up his lips, twisted his tremendous mustache, and hooked his thumbs in his saber belt.
“As for me,” he said, “I am in favor of further search.”
“Further search for what—for the thirty-ninth skull?” I asked.
Le Bihan nodded. Durand frowned at the sunlit sea, rocking like a bowl of molten gold from the cliffs to the horizon. I followed his eyes. On the dark glistening cliffs, silhouetted against the glare of the sea, sat a cormorant, black, motionless, its horrible head raised toward heaven.
“Where is that list, Durand?” I asked.
The gendarme rummaged in his despatch pouch and produced a brass cylinder about a foot long. Very gravely he unscrewed the head and dumped out a scroll of thick yellow paper closely covered with writing on both sides. At a nod from Le Bihan he handed me the scroll. But I could make nothing of the coarse writing, now faded to a dull brown.
“Come, come, Le Bihan,” I said impatiently, “translate it, won’t you? You and Max Fortin make a lot of mystery out of nothing, it seems.”
Le Bihan went to the edge of the pit where the three Bannalec men were digging, gave an order or two in Breton, and turned to me.
As I came to the edge of the pit the Bannalec men were removing a square piece of sailcloth from what appeared to be a pile of cobblestones.
“Look!” said Le Bihan shrilly. I looked. The pile below was a heap of skulls. After a moment I clambered down the gravel sides of the pit and walked over to the men of Bannalec. They saluted me gravely, leaning on their picks and shovels, and wiping their sweating faces with sunburned hands.
“How many?” said I in Breton.
“Thirty-eight,” they replied.
I glanced around. Beyond the heap of skulls lay two piles of human bones. Beside these was a mound of broken, rusted bits of iron and steel. Looking closer, I saw that this mound was composed of rusty bayonets, saber blades, scythe blades, with here and there a tarnished buckle attached to a bit of leather hard as iron.
I picked up a couple of buttons and a belt plate. The buttons bore the royal arms of England; the belt plate was emblazoned with the English arms and also with the number “27.”
“I have heard my grandfather speak of the terrible English regiment, the 27th Foot, which landed and stormed the fort up there,” said one of the Bannalec men.
“Oh!” said I; “then these are the bones of English soldiers?”
“Yes,” said the men of Bannalec.
Le Bihan was calling to me from the edge of the pit above, and I handed the belt plate and buttons to the men and climbed the side of the excavation.
“Well,” said I, trying to prevent Mome from leaping up and licking my face as I emerged from the pit, “I suppose you know what these bones are. What are you going to do with them?”
“There was a man,” said Le Bihan angrily, “an Englishman, who passed here in a dog-cart on his way to Quimper about an hour ago, and what do you suppose he wished to do?”
“Buy the relics?” I asked, smiling.
“Exactly—the pig!” piped the mayor of St. Gildas. “Jean Marie Tregunc, who found the bones, was standing there where Max Fortin stands, and do you know what he answered? He spat upon the ground, and said: ’Pig of an Englishman, do you take me for a desecrator of graves?’”
I knew Tregunc, a sober, blue-eyed Breton, who lived from one year’s end to the other without being able to afford a single bit of meat for a meal.
“How much did the Englishman offer Tregunc?” I asked.
“Two hundred francs for the skulls alone.”
I thought of the relic hunters and the relic buyers on the battlefields of our civil war.
“Seventeen hundred and sixty is long ago,” I said.
“Respect for the dead can never die,” said Fortin.
“And the English soldiers came here to kill your fathers and burn your homes,” I continued.
“They were murderers and thieves, but—they are dead,” said Tregunc, coming up from the beach below, his long sea rake balanced on his dripping jersey.
“How much do you earn every year, Jean Marie?” I asked, turning to shake hands with him.
“Two hundred and twenty francs, monsieur.”
“Forty-five dollars a year,” I said. “Bah! you are worth more, Jean. Will you take care of my garden for me? My wife wished me to ask you. I think it would be worth one hundred francs a month to you and to me. Come on, Le Bihan—come along, Fortin—and you, Durand. I want somebody to translate that list into French for me.”
Tregunc stood gazing at me, his blue eyes dilated.
“You may begin at once,” I said, smiling, “if the salary suits you?”
“It suits,” said Tregunc, fumbling for his pipe in a silly way that annoyed Le Bihan.
“Then go and begin your work,” cried the mayor impatiently; and Tregunc started across the moors toward St. Gildas, taking off his velvet-ribboned cap to me and gripping his sea rake very hard.
“You offer him more than my salary,” said the mayor, after a moment’s contemplation of his silver buttons.
“Pooh!” said I, “what do you do for your salary except play dominoes with Max Portin at the Groix Inn?”
Le Bihan turned red, but Durand rattled his saber and winked at Max Fortin, and I slipped my arm through the arm of the sulky magistrate, laughing.
“There’s a shady spot under the cliff,” I said; “come on, Le Bihan, and read me what is in the scroll.”
In a few moments we reached the shadow of the cliff, and I threw myself upon the turf, chin on hand, to listen.
The gendarme, Durand, also sat down, twisting his mustache into needlelike points. Fortin leaned against the cliff, polishing his glasses and examining us with vague, near-sighted eyes; and Le Bihan, the mayor, planted himself in our midst, rolling up the scroll and tucking it under his arm.
“First of all,” he began in a shrill voice, “I am going to light my pipe, and while lighting it I shall tell you what I have heard about the attack on the fort yonder. My father told me; his father told him.”
He jerked his head in the direction of the ruined fort, a small, square stone structure on the sea cliff, now nothing but crumbling walls. Then he slowly produced a tobacco pouch, a bit of flint and tinder, and a long-stemmed pipe fitted with a microscopical bowl of baked clay. To fill such a pipe requires ten minutes’ close attention. To smoke it to a finish takes but four puffs. It is very Breton, this Breton pipe. It is the crystallization of everything Breton.
“Go on,” said I, lighting a cigarette.
“The fort,” said the mayor, “was built by Louis XIV, and was dismantled twice by the English. Louis XV restored it in 1730. In 1760 it was carried by assault by the English. They came across from the island of Groix—three shiploads, and they stormed the fort and sacked St. Julien yonder, and they started to burn St. Gildas—you can see the marks of their bullets on my house yet; but the men of Bannalec and the men of Lorient fell upon them with pike and scythe and blunderbuss, and those who did not run away lie there below in the gravel pit now—thirty-eight of them.”
“And the thirty-ninth skull?” I asked, finishing my cigarette.
The mayor had succeeded in filling his pipe, and now he began to put his tobacco pouch away.
“The thirty-ninth skull,” he mumbled, holding the pipe stem between his defective teeth—“the thirty-ninth skull is no business of mine. I have told the Bannalec men to cease digging.”
“But what is—whose is the missing skull?” I persisted curiously.
The mayor was busy trying to strike a spark to his tinder. Presently he set it aglow, applied it to his pipe, took the prescribed four puffs, knocked the ashes out of the bowl, and gravely replaced the pipe in his pocket.
“The missing skull?” he asked.
“Yes,” said I, impatiently.
The mayor slowly unrolled the scroll and began to read, translating from the Breton into French. And this is what he read:
THE CLIFFS OF ST. GILDAS,
APRIL 13, 1760.
“On this day, by order of the Count of Soisic, general in chief of the Breton forces now lying in Kerselec Forest, the bodies of thirty-eight English soldiers of the 27th, 50th, and 72d regiments of Foot were buried in this spot, together with their arms and equipments.”
The mayor paused and glanced at me reflectively.
“Go on, Le Bihan,” I said.
“With them,” continued the mayor, turning the scroll and reading on the other side, “was buried the body of that vile traitor who betrayed the fort to the English. The manner of his death was as follows: By order of the most noble Count of Soisic, the traitor was first branded upon the forehead with the brand of an arrowhead. The iron burned through the flesh and was pressed heavily so that the brand should even burn into the bone of the skull. The traitor was then led out and bidden to kneel. He admitted having guided the English from the island of Groix. Although a priest and a Frenchman, he had violated his priestly office to aid him in discovering the password to the fort. This password he extorted during confession from a young Breton girl who was in the habit of rowing across from the island of Groix to visit her husband in the fort. When the fort fell, this young girl, crazed by the death of her husband, sought the Count of Soisic and told how the priest had forced her to confess to him all she knew about the fort. The priest was arrested at St. Gildas as he was about to cross the river to Lorient. When arrested he cursed the girl, Marie Trevec——”
“What!” I exclaimed, “Marie Trevec!”
“Marie Trevec,” repeated Le Bihan; “the priest cursed Marie Trevec, and all her family and descendants. He was shot as he knelt, having a mask of leather over his face, because the Bretons who composed the squad of execution refused to fire at a priest unless his face was concealed. The priest was l’Abbe Sorgue, commonly known as the Black Priest on account of his dark face and swarthy eyebrows. He was buried with a stake through his heart.”
Le Bihan paused, hesitated, looked at me, and handed the manuscript back to Durand. The gendarme took it and slipped it into the brass cylinder.
“So,” said I, “the thirty-ninth skull is the skull of the Black Priest.”
“Yes,” said Fortin. “I hope they won’t find it.”
“I have forbidden them to proceed,” said the mayor querulously. “You heard me, Max Fortin.”
I rose and picked up my gun. Mome came and pushed his head into my hand.
“That’s a fine dog,” observed Durand, also rising.
“Why don’t you wish to find his skull?” I asked Le Bihan. “It would be curious to see whether the arrow brand really burned into the bone.”
“There is something in that scroll that I didn’t read to you,” said the mayor grimly. “Do you wish to know what it is?”
“Of course,” I replied in surprise.
“Give me the scroll again, Durand,” he said; then he read from the bottom: “I, l’Abbe Sorgue, forced to write the above by my executioners, have written it in my own blood; and with it I leave my curse. My curse on St. Gildas, on Marie Trevec, and on her descendants. I will come back to St. Gildas when my remains are disturbed. Woe to that Englishman whom my branded skull shall touch!”
“What rot!” I said. “Do you believe it was really written in his own blood?”
“I am going to test it,” said Fortin, “at the request of Monsieur le Maire. I am not anxious for the job, however.”
“See,” said Le Bihan, holding out the scroll to me, “it is signed, ‘L’Abbe Sorgue.’”
I glanced curiously over the paper.
“It must be the Black Priest,” I said. “He was the only man who wrote in the Breton language. This is a wonderfully interesting discovery, for now, at last, the mystery of the Black Priest’s disappearance is cleared up. You will, of course, send this scroll to Paris, Le Bihan?”
“No,” said the mayor obstinately, “it shall be buried in the pit below where the rest of the Black Priest lies.”
I looked at him and recognized that argument would be useless. But still I said, “It will be a loss to history, Monsieur Le Bihan.”
“All the worse for history, then,” said the enlightened Mayor of St. Gildas.
We had sauntered back to the gravel pit while speaking. The men of Bannalec were carrying the bones of the English soldiers toward the St. Gildas cemetery, on the cliffs to the east, where already a knot of white-coiffed women stood in attitudes of prayer; and I saw the somber robe of a priest among the crosses of the little graveyard.
“They were thieves and assassins; they are dead now,” muttered Max Fortin.
“Respect the dead,” repeated the Mayor of St. Gildas, looking after the Bannalec men.
“It was written in that scroll that Marie Trevec, of Groix Island, was cursed by the priest—she and her descendants,” I said, touching Le Bihan on the arm. “There was a Marie Trevec who married an Yves Trevec of St. Gildas——”
“It is the same,” said Le Bihan, looking at me obliquely.
“Oh!” said I; “then they were ancestors of my wife.”
“Do you fear the curse?” asked Le Bihan.
“What?” I laughed.
“There was the case of the Purple Emperor,” said Max Fortin timidly.
Startled for a moment, I faced him, then shrugged my shoulders and kicked at a smooth bit of rock which lay near the edge of the pit, almost embedded in gravel.
“Do you suppose the Purple-Emperor drank himself crazy because he was descended from Marie Trevec?” I asked contemptuously.
“Of course not,” said Max Fortin hastily.
“Of course not,” piped the mayor. “I only—Hellow! what’s that you’re kicking?”
“What?” said I, glancing down, at the same time involuntarily giving another kick. The smooth bit of rock dislodged itself and rolled out of the loosened gravel at my feet.
“The thirty-ninth skull!” I exclaimed. “By jingo, it’s the noddle of the Black Priest! See! there is the arrowhead branded on the front!”
The mayor stepped back. Max Fortin also retreated. There was a pause, during which I looked at them, and they looked anywhere but at me.
“I don’t like it,” said the mayor at last, in a husky, high voice. “I don’t like it! The scroll says he will come back to St. Gildas when his remains are disturbed. I—I don’t like it, Monsieur Darrel—”
“Bosh!” said I; “the poor wicked devil is where he can’t get out. For Heaven’s sake, Le Bihan, what is this stuff you are talking in the year of grace 1896?”
The mayor gave me a look.
“And he says ‘Englishman.’ You are an Englishman, Monsieur Darrel,” he announced.
“You know better. You know I’m an American.”
“It’s all the same,” said the Mayor of St. Gildas, obstinately.
“No, it isn’t!” I answered, much exasperated, and deliberately pushed the skull till it rolled into the bottom of the gravel pit below.
“Cover it up,” said I; “bury the scroll with it too, if you insist, but I think you ought to send it to Paris. Don’t look so gloomy, Fortin, unless you believe in werewolves and ghosts. Hey! what the—what the devil’s the matter with you, anyway? What are you staring at, Le Bihan?”
“Come, come,” muttered the mayor in a low, tremulous voice, “it’s time we got out of this. Did you see? Did you see, Fortin?”
“I saw,” whispered Max Fortin, pallid with fright.
The two men were almost running across the sunny pasture now, and I hastened after them, demanding to know what was the matter.
“Matter!” chattered the mayor, gasping with exasperation and terror. “The skull is rolling up hill again,” and he burst into a terrified gallop, Max Fortin followed close behind.
I watched them stampeding across the pasture, then turned toward the gravel pit, mystified, incredulous. The skull was lying on the edge of the pit, exactly where it had been before I pushed it over the edge. For a second I stared at it; a singular chilly feeling crept up my spinal column, and I turned and walked away, sweat starting from the root of every hair on my head. Before I had gone twenty paces the absurdity of the whole thing struck me. I halted, hot with shame and annoyance, and retraced my steps.
There lay the skull.
“I rolled a stone down instead of the skull,” I muttered to myself. Then with the butt of my gun I pushed the skull over the edge of the pit and watched it roll to the bottom; and as it struck the bottom of the pit, Mome, my dog, suddenly whipped his tail between his legs, whimpered, and made off across the moor.
“Mome!” I shouted, angry and astonished; but the dog only fled the faster, and I ceased calling from sheer surprise.
“What the mischief is the matter with that dog!” I thought. He had never before played me such a trick.
Mechanically I glanced into the pit, but I could not see the skull. I looked down. The skull lay at my feet again, touching them.
“Good heavens!” I stammered, and struck at it blindly with my gunstock. The ghastly thing flew into the air, whirling over and over, and rolled again down the sides of the pit to the bottom. Breathlessly I stared at it, then, confused and scarcely comprehending, I stepped back from the pit, still facing it, one, ten, twenty paces, my eyes almost starting from my head, as though I expected to see the thing roll up from the bottom of the pit under my very gaze. At last I turned my back to the pit and strode out across the gorse-covered moorland toward my home. As I reached the road that winds from St. Gildas to St. Julien I gave one hasty glance at the pit over my shoulder. The sun shone hot on the sod about the excavation. There was something white and bare and round on the turf at the edge of the pit. It might have been a stone; there were plenty of them lying about.
When I entered my garden I saw Mome sprawling on the stone doorstep. He eyed me sideways and flopped his tail.
“Are you not mortified, you idiot dog?” I said, looking about the upper windows for Lys.
Mome rolled over on his back and raised one deprecating forepaw, as though to ward off calamity.
“Don’t act as though I was in the habit of beating you to death,” I said, disgusted. I had never in my life raised whip to the brute. “But you are a fool dog,” I continued. “No, you needn’t come to be babied and wept over; Lys can do that, if she insists, but I am ashamed of you, and you can go to the devil.”
Mome slunk off into the house, and I followed, mounting directly to my wife’s boudoir. It was empty.
“Where has she gone?” I said, looking hard at Mome, who had followed me. “Oh! I see you don’t know. Don’t pretend you do. Come off that lounge! Do you think Lys wants tan-colored hairs all over her lounge?”
I rang the bell for Catherine and Fine, but they didn’t know where “madame” had gone; so I went into my room, bathed, exchanged my somewhat grimy shooting clothes for a suit of warm, soft knickerbockers, and, after lingering some extra moments over my toilet—for I was particular, now that I had married Lys—I went down to the garden and took a chair out under the fig-trees.
“Where can she be?” I wondered, Mome came sneaking out to be comforted, and I forgave him for Lys’s sake, whereupon he frisked.
“You bounding cur,” said I, “now what on earth started you off across the moor? If you do it again I’ll push you along with a charge of dust shot.”
As yet I had scarcely dared think about the ghastly hallucination of which I had been a victim, but now I faced it squarely, flushing a little with mortification at the thought of my hasty retreat from the gravel pit.
“To think,” I said aloud, “that those old woman’s tales of Max Fortin and Le Bihan should have actually made me see what didn’t exist at all! I lost my nerve like a schoolboy in a dark bedroom.” For I knew now that I had mistaken a round stone for a skull each time, and had pushed a couple of big pebbles into the pit instead of the skull itself.
“By jingo!” said I, “I’m nervous; my liver must be in a devil of a condition if I see such things when I’m awake! Lys will know what to give me.”
I felt mortified and irritated and sulky, and thought disgustedly of Le Bihan and Max Fortin.
But after a while I ceased speculating, dismissed the mayor, the chemist, and the skull from my mind, and smoked pensively, watching the sun low dipping in the western ocean. As the twilight fell for a moment over ocean and moorland, a wistful, restless happiness filled my heart, the happiness that all men know—all men who have loved.
Slowly the purple mist crept out over the sea; the cliffs darkened; the forest was shrouded.
Suddenly the sky above burned with the afterglow, and the world was alight again.
Cloud after cloud caught the rose dye; the cliffs were tinted with it; moor and pasture, heather and forest burned and pulsated with the gentle flush. I saw the gulls turning and tossing above the sand bar, their snowy wings tipped with pink; I saw the sea swallows sheering the surface of the still river, stained to its placid depths with warm reflections of the clouds. The twitter of drowsy hedge birds broke out in the stillness; a salmon rolled its shining side above tidewater.
The interminable monotone of the ocean intensified the silence. I sat motionless, holding my breath as one who listens to the first low rumor of an organ. All at once the pure whistle of a nightingale cut the silence, and the first moonbeam silvered the wastes of mist-hung waters.
I raised my head.
Lys stood before me in the garden.
When we had kissed each other, we linked arms and moved up and down the gravel walks, watching the moonbeams sparkle on the sand bar as the tide ebbed and ebbed. The broad beds of white pinks about us were atremble with hovering white moths; the October roses hung all abloom, perfuming the salt wind.
“Sweetheart,” I said, “where is Yvonne? Has she promised to spend Christmas with us?”
“Yes, Dick; she drove me down from Plougat this afternoon. She sent her love to you. I am not jealous. What did you shoot?”
“A hare and four partridges. They are in the gun room. I told Catherine not to touch them until you had seen them.”
Now I suppose I knew that Lys could not be particularly enthusiastic over game or guns; but she pretended she was, and always scornfully denied that it was for my sake and not for the pure love of sport. So she dragged me off to inspect the rather meager game bag, and she paid me pretty compliments, and gave a little cry of delight and pity as I lifted the enormous hare out of the sack by his ears.
“He’ll eat no more of our lettuce,” I said attempting to justify the assassination.
“Unhappy little bunny—and what a beauty! O Dick, you are a splendid shot, are you not?”
I evaded the question and hauled out a partridge.
“Poor little dead things’” said Lys in a whisper; “it seems a pity—doesn’t it, Dick? But then you are so clever——”
“We’ll have them broiled,” I said guardedly, “tell Catherine.”
Catherine came in to take away the game, and presently ’Fine Lelocard, Lys’s maid, announced dinner, and Lys tripped away to her boudoir.
I stood an instant contemplating her blissfully, thinking, “My boy, you’re the happiest fellow in the world—you’re in love with your wife’”
I walked into the dining-room, beamed at the plates, walked out again; met Tregunc in the hallway, beamed on him; glanced into the kitchen, beamed at Catherine, and went up stairs, still beaming.
Before I could knock at Lys’s door it opened, and Lys came hastily out. When she saw me she gave a little cry of relief, and nestled close to my breast.
“There is something peering in at my window,” she said.
“What!” I cried angrily.
“A man, I think, disguised as a priest, and he has a mask on. He must have climbed up by the bay tree.”
I was down the stairs and out of doors in no time. The moonlit garden was absolutely deserted. Tregunc came up, and together we searched the hedge and shrubbery around the house and out to the road.
“Jean Marie,” said I at length, “loose my bulldog—he knows you—and take your supper on the porch where you can watch. My wife says the fellow is disguised as a priest, and wears a mask.”
Tregunc showed his white teeth in a smile. “He will not care to venture in here again, I think, Monsieur Darrel.”
I went back and found Lys seated quietly at the table.
“The soup is ready, dear,” she said. “Don’t worry; it was only some foolish lout from Bannalec. No one in St. Gildas or St. Julien would do such a thing.”
I was too much exasperated to reply at first, but Lys treated it as a stupid joke, and after a while I began to look at it in that light.
Lys told me about Yvonne, and reminded me of my promise to have Herbert Stuart down to meet her.
“You wicked diplomat!” I protested. “Herbert is in Paris, and hard at work for the Salon.”
“Don’t you think he might spare a week to flirt with the prettiest girl in Finistere?” inquired Lys innocently.
“Prettiest girl! Not much!” I said.
“Who is, then?” urged Lys.
I laughed a trifle sheepishly.
“I suppose you mean me, Dick,” said Lys, coloring up.
“Now I bore you, don’t I?”
“Bore me? Ah, no, Dick.”
After coffee and cigarettes were served I spoke about Tregunc, and Lys approved.
“Poor Jean! He will be glad, won’t he? What a dear fellow you are!”
“Nonsense,” said I; “we need a gardener; you said so yourself, Lys.”
But Lys leaned over and kissed me, and then bent down and hugged Mome—who whistled through his nose in sentimental appreciation.
“I am a very happy woman,” said Lys.
“Mome was a very bad dog to-day,” I observed.
“Poor Mome!” said Lys, smiling.
When dinner was over and Mome lay snoring before the blaze—for the October nights are often chilly in Finistere—Lys curled up in the chimney corner with her embroidery, and gave me a swift glance from under her dropping lashes.
“You look like a schoolgirl, Lys,” I said teasingly. “I don’t believe you are sixteen yet.”
She pushed back her heavy burnished hair thoughtfully. Her wrist was as white as surf foam.
“Have we been married four years? I don’t believe it,” I said.
She gave me another swift glance and touched the embroidery on her knee, smiling faintly.
“I see,” said I, also smiling at the embroidered garment. “Do you think it will fit?”
“Fit?” repeated Lys. Then she laughed
“And,” I persisted, “are you perfectly sure that you—er—we shall need it?”
“Perfectly,” said Lys. A delicate color touched her cheeks and neck. She held up the little garment, all fluffy with misty lace and wrought with quaint embroidery.
“It is very gorgeous,” said I; “don’t use your eyes too much, dearest. May I smoke a pipe?”
“Of course,” she said selecting a skein of pale blue silk.
For a while I sat and smoked in silence, watching her slender fingers among the tinted silks and thread of gold.
Presently she spoke: “What did you say your crest is, Dick?”
“My crest? Oh, something or other rampant on a something or other——”
“Don’t be flippant.”
“But I really forget. It’s an ordinary crest; everybody in New York has them. No family should be without ’em.”
“You are disagreeable, Dick. Send Josephine upstairs for my album.”
“Are you going to put that crest on the—the—whatever it is?”
“I am; and my own crest, too.”
I thought of the Purple Emperor and wondered a little.
“You didn’t know I had one, did you?” she smiled.
“What is it?” I replied evasively.
“You shall see. Ring for Josephine.”
I rang, and, when ’Fine appeared, Lys gave her some orders in a low voice, and Josephine trotted away, bobbing her white-coiffed head with a “Bien, Madame!”
After a few minutes she returned, bearing a tattered, musty volume, from which the gold and blue had mostly disappeared.
I took the book in my hands and examined the ancient emblazoned covers.
“Lilies!” I exclaimed.
“Fleur-de-lis,” said my wife demurely.
“Oh!” said I, astonished, and opened the book.
“You have never before seen this book?” asked Lys, with a touch of malice in her eyes.
“You know I haven’t. Hello! What’s this? Oho! So there should be a de before Trevec? Lys de Trevec? Then why in the world did the Purple Emperor——”
“Dick!” cried Lys.
“All right,” said I. “Shall I read about the Sieur de Trevec who rode to Saladin’s tent alone to seek for medicine for St. Louise? Or shall I read about—what is it? Oh, here it is, all down in black and white—about the Marquis de Trevec who drowned himself before Alva’s eyes rather than surrender the banner of the fleur-de-lis to Spain? It’s all written here. But, dear, how about that soldier named Trevec who was killed in the old fort on the cliff yonder?”
“He dropped the de, and the Trevecs since then have been Republicans,” said Lys—“all except me.”
“That’s quite right,” said I; “it is time that we Republicans should agree upon some feudal system. My dear, I drink to the king!” and I raised my wine glass and looked at Lys.
“To the king,” said Lys, flushing. She smoothed out the tiny garment on her knees; she touched the glass with her lips; her eyes were very sweet. I drained the glass to the king.
After a silence I said: “I will tell the king stories. His majesty shall be amused.”
“His majesty,” repeated Lys softly.
“Or hers,” I laughed. “Who knows?”
“Who knows?” murmured Lys; with a gentle sigh.
“I know some stories about Jack the Giant-Killer,” I announced. “Do you, Lys?”
“I? No, not about a giant-killer, but I know all about the werewolf, and Jeanne-la-Flamme, and the Man in Purple Tatters, and—O dear me, I know lots more.”
“You are very wise,” said I. “I shall teach his majesty, English.”
“And I Breton,” cried Lys jealously.
“I shall bring playthings to the king,” said I—“big green lizards from the gorse, little gray mullets to swim in glass globes, baby rabbits from the forest of Kerselec——”
“And I,” said Lys, “will bring the first primrose, the first branch of aubepine, the first jonquil, to the king—my king.”
“Our king,” said I; and there was peace in Finistere.
I lay back, idly turning the leaves of the curious old volume.
“I am looking,” said I, “for the crest.”
“The crest, dear? It is a priest’s head with an arrow-shaped mark on the forehead, on a field——”
I sat up and stared at my wife.
“Dick, whatever is the matter?” she smiled. “The story is there in that book. Do you care to read it? No? Shall I tell it to you? Well, then: It happened in the third crusade. There was a monk whom men called the Black Priest. He turned apostate, and sold himself to the enemies of Christ. A Sieur de Trevec burst into the Saracen camp, at the head of only one hundred lances, and carried the Black Priest away out of the very midst of their army.”
“So that is how you come by the crest,” I said quietly; but I thought of the branded skull in the gravel pit, and wondered.
“Yes,” said Lys. “The Sieur de Trevec cut the Black Priest’s head off, but first he branded him with an arrow mark on the forehead. The book says it was a pious action, and the Sieur de Trevec got great merit by it. But I think it was cruel, the branding,” she sighed.
“Did you ever hear of any other Black Priest?”
“Yes. There was one in the last century, here in St. Gildas. He cast a white shadow in the sun. He wrote in the Breton language. Chronicles, too, I believe. I never saw them. His name was the same as that of the old chronicler, and of the other priest, Jacques Sorgue. Some said he was a lineal descendant of the traitor. Of course the first Black Priest was bad enough for anything. But if he did have a child, it need not have been the ancestor of the last Jacques Sorgue. They say he was so good he was not allowed to die, but was caught up to heaven one day,” added Lys, with believing eyes.
“But he disappeared,” persisted Lys.
“I’m afraid his journey was in another direction,” I said jestingly, and thoughtlessly told her the story of the morning. I had utterly forgotten the masked man at her window, but before I finished I remembered him fast enough, and realized what I had done as I saw her face whiten.
“Lys,” I urged tenderly, “that was only some clumsy clown’s trick. You said so yourself. You are not superstitious, my dear?”
Her eyes were on mine. She slowly drew the little gold cross from her bosom and kissed it. But her lips trembled as they pressed the symbol of faith.
About nine o’clock the next morning I walked into the Groix Inn and sat down at the long discolored oaken table, nodding good-day to Marianne Bruyere, who in turn bobbed her white coiffe at me.
“My clever Bannalec maid,” said I, “what is good for a stirrup-cup at the Groix Inn?”
“Schist?” she inquired in Breton.
“With a dash of red wine, then,” I replied.
She brought the delicious Quimperle cider, and I poured a little Bordeaux into it. Marianne watched me with laughing black eyes.
“What makes your cheeks so red, Marianne?” I asked. “Has Jean Marie been here?”
“We are to be married, Monsieur Darrel,” she laughed.
“Ah! Since when has Jean Marie Tregunc lost his head?”
“His head? Oh, Monsieur Darrel—his heart, you mean!”
“So I do,” said I. “Jean Marie is a practical fellow.”
“It is all due to your kindness—” began the girl, but I raised my hand and held up the glass.
“It’s due to himself. To your happiness, Marianne”; and I took a hearty draught of the schist. “Now,” said I, “tell me where I can find Le Bihan and Max Fortin.”
“Monsieur Le Bihan and Monsieur Fortin are above in the broad room. I believe they are examining the Red Admiral’s effects.”
“To send them to Paris? Oh, I know. May I go up, Marianne?”
“And God go with you,” smiled the girl.
When I knocked at the door of the broad room above little Max Fortin opened it. Dust covered his spectacles and nose; his hat, with the tiny velvet ribbons fluttering, was all awry.
“Come in, Monsieur Darrel,” he said; “the mayor and I are packing up the effects of the Purple Emperor and of the poor Red Admiral.”
“The collections?” I asked, entering the room. “You must be very careful in packing those butterfly cases; the slightest jar might break wings and antennas, you know.”
Le Bihan shook hands with me and pointed to the great pile of boxes.
“They’re all cork lined,” he said, “but Fortin and I are putting felt around each box. The Entomological Society of Paris pays the freight.”
The combined collection of the Red Admiral and the Purple Emperor made a magnificent display.
I lifted and inspected case after case set with gorgeous butterflies and moths, each specimen carefully labelled with the name in Latin. There were cases filled with crimson tiger moths all aflame with color; cases devoted to the common yellow butterflies; symphonies in orange and pale yellow; cases of soft gray and dun-colored sphinx moths; and cases of grayish nettle-bed butterflies of the numerous family of Vanessa.
All alone in a great case by itself was pinned the purple emperor, the Apatura Iris, that fatal specimen that had given the Purple Emperor his name and quietus.
I remembered the butterfly, and stood looking at it with bent eyebrows.
Le Bihan glanced up from the floor where he was nailing down the lid of a box full of cases.
“It is settled, then,” said he, “that madame, your wife, gives the Purple Emperor’s entire Collection to the city of Paris?”
“Without accepting anything for it?”
“It is a gift,” I said.
“Including the purple emperor there in the case? That butterfly is worth a great deal of money,” persisted Le Bihan.
“You don’t suppose that we would wish to sell that specimen, do you?” I answered a trifle sharply.
“If I were you I should destroy it,” said the mayor in his high-pitched voice.
“That would be nonsense,” said I, “like your burying the brass cylinder and scroll yesterday.”
“It was not nonsense,” said Le Bihan doggedly, “and I should prefer not to discuss the subject of the scroll.”
I looked at Max Portin, who immediately avoided my eyes.
“You are a pair of superstitious old women,” said I, digging my hands into my pockets; “you swallow every nursery tale that is invented.”
“What of it?” said Le Bihan sulkily; “there’s more truth than lies in most of ’em.”
“Oh!” I sneered, “does the Mayor of St. Gildas and St. Julien believe in the loup-garou?”
“No, not in the loup-garou.”
“In what, then—Jeanne-la-Flamme?”
“That,” said Le Bihan with conviction, “is history.”
“The devil it is!” said I; “and perhaps, Monsieur the mayor, your faith in giants is unimpaired?”
“There were giants—everybody knows it,” growled Max Fortin.
“And you a chemist!” I observed scornfully.
“Listen, Monsieur Darrel,” squeaked Le Bihan; “you know yourself that the Purple Emperor was a scientific man. Now suppose I should tell you that he always refused to include in his collection a Death’s Messenger?”
“A what?” I exclaimed.
“You know what I mean—that moth that flies by night; some call it the Death’s Head, but in St. Gildas we call it ‘Death’s Messenger.’”
“Oh!” said I, “you mean that big sphinx moth that is commonly known as the ‘death’s-head moth.’ Why the mischief should the people here call it death’s messenger?”
“For hundreds of years it has been known as death’s messenger in St. Gildas,” said Max Fortin. “Even Froissart speaks of it in his commentaries on Jacques Sorgue’s Chronicles. The book is in your library.”
“Sorgue? And who was Jacques Sorgue? I never read his book.”
“Jacques Sorgue [Transcriber’s note: the original reads “Sorque”] was the son of some unfrocked priest—I forget. It was during the crusades.”
“Good Heavens!” I burst out, “I’ve been hearing of nothing but crusades and priests and death and sorcery ever since I kicked that skull into the gravel pit, and I am tired of it, I tell you frankly. One would think we lived in the dark ages. Do you know what year of our Lord it is, Le Bihan?”
“Eighteen hundred and ninety-six,” replied the mayor.
“And yet you two hulking men are afraid of a death’s-head moth.”
“I don’t care to have one fly into the window,” said Max Fortin; “it means evil to the house and the people in it.”
“God alone knows why he marked one of his creatures with a yellow death’s head on the back,” observed Le Bihan piously, “but I take it that he meant it as a warning; and I propose to profit by it,” he added triumphantly.
“See here, Le Bihan,” I said; “by a stretch of imagination one can make out a skull on the thorax of a certain big sphinx moth. What of it?”
“It is a bad thing to touch,” said the mayor wagging his head.
“It squeaks when handled,” added Max Fortin.
“Some creatures squeak all the time,” I observed, looking hard at Le Bihan.
“Pigs,” added the mayor.
“Yes, and asses,” I replied. “Listen, Le Bihan: do you mean to tell me that you saw that skull roll uphill yesterday?”
The mayor shut his mouth tightly and picked up his hammer.
“Don’t be obstinate,” I said; “I asked you a question.”
“And I refuse to answer,” snapped Le Bihan. “Fortin saw what I saw; let him talk about it.”
I looked searchingly at the little chemist.
“I don’t say that I saw it actually roll up out of the pit, all by itself,” said Fortin with a shiver, “but—but then, how did it come up out of the pit, if it didn’t roll up all by itself?”
“It didn’t come up at all; that was a yellow cobblestone that you mistook for the skull again,” I replied. “You were nervous, Max.”
“A—a very curious cobblestone, Monsieur Darrel,” said Fortin.
“I also was a victim to the same hallucination,” I continued, “and I regret to say that I took the trouble to roll two innocent cobblestones into the gravel pit, imagining each time that it was the skull I was rolling.”
“It was,” observed Le Bihan with a morose shrug.
“It just shows,” said I, ignoring the mayor’s remark, “how easy it is to fix up a train of coincidences so that the result seems to savor of the supernatural. Now, last night my wife imagined that she saw a priest in a mask peer in at her window——”
Fortin and Le Bihan scrambled hastily from their knees, dropping hammer and nails.
“W-h-a-t—what’s that?” demanded the mayor.
I repeated what I had said. Max Fortin turned livid.
“My God!” muttered Le Bihan, “the Black Priest is in St. Gildas!”
“D-don’t you—you know the old prophecy?” stammered Fortin; “Froissart quotes it from Jacques Sorgue:
“’When the Black
Priest rises from the dead,
St. Gildas folk shall shriek in bed;
When the Black Priest rises from his grave,
May the good God St. Gildas save!’”
“Aristide Le Bihan,” I said angrily, “and you, Max Fortin, I’ve got enough of this nonsense! Some foolish lout from Bannalec has been in St. Gildas playing tricks to frighten old fools like you. If you have nothing better to talk about than nursery legends I’ll wait until you come to your senses. Good-morning.” And I walked out, more disturbed than I cared to acknowledge to myself.
The day had become misty and overcast. Heavy, wet clouds hung in the east. I heard the surf thundering against the cliffs, and the gray gulls squealed as they tossed and turned high in the sky. The tide was creeping across the river sands, higher, higher, and I saw the seaweed floating on the beach, and the lancons springing from the foam, silvery threadlike flashes in the gloom. Curlew were flying up the river in twos and threes; the timid sea swallows skimmed across the moors toward some quiet, lonely pool, safe from the coming tempest. In every hedge field birds were gathering, huddling together, twittering restlessly.
When I reached the cliffs I sat down, resting my chin on my clenched hands. Already a vast curtain of rain, sweeping across the ocean miles away, hid the island of Groix. To the east, behind the white semaphore on the hills, black clouds crowded up over the horizon. After a little the thunder boomed, dull, distant, and slender skeins of lightning unraveled across the crest of the coming storm. Under the cliff at my feet the surf rushed foaming over the shore, and the lancons jumped and skipped and quivered until they seemed to be but the reflections of the meshed lightning.
I turned to the east. It was raining over Groix, it was raining at Sainte Barbe, it was raining now at the semaphore. High in the storm whirl a few gulls pitched; a nearer cloud trailed veils of rain in its wake; the sky was spattered with lightning; the thunder boomed.
As I rose to go, a cold raindrop fell upon the back of my hand, and another, and yet another on my face. I gave a last glance at the sea, where the waves were bursting into strange white shapes that seemed to fling out menacing arms toward me. Then something moved on the cliff, something black as the black rock it clutched—a filthy cormorant, craning its hideous head at the sky.
Slowly I plodded homeward across the somber moorland, where the gorse stems glimmered with a dull metallic green, and the heather, no longer violet and purple, hung drenched and dun-colored among the dreary rocks. The wet turf creaked under my heavy boots, the black-thorn scraped and grated against knee and elbow. Over all lay a strange light, pallid, ghastly, where the sea spray whirled across the landscape and drove into my face until it grew numb with the cold. In broad bands, rank after rank, billow on billow, the rain burst out across the endless moors, and yet there was no wind to drive it at such a pace.
Lys stood at the door as I turned into the garden, motioning me to hasten; and then for the first time I became conscious that I was soaked to the skin.
“However in the world did you come to stay out when such a storm threatened?” she said. “Oh, you are dripping! Go quickly and change; I have laid your warm underwear on the bed, Dick.”
I kissed my wife, and went upstairs to change my dripping clothes for something more comfortable.
When I returned to the morning room there was a driftwood fire on the hearth, and Lys sat in the chimney corner embroidering.
“Catherine tells me that the fishing fleet from Lorient is out. Do you think they are in danger, dear?” asked Lys, raising her blue eyes to mine as I entered.
“There is no wind, and there will be no sea,” said I, looking out of the window. Far across the moor I could see the black cliffs looming in the mist.
“How it rains!” murmured Lys; “come to the fire, Dick.”
I threw myself on the fur rug, my hands in my pockets, my head on Lys’s knees.
“Tell me a story,” I said. “I feel like a boy of ten.”
Lys raised a finger to her scarlet lips. I always waited for her to do that.
“Will you be very still, then?” she said.
“Still as death.”
“Death,” echoed a voice, very softly.
“Did you speak, Lys?” I asked, turning so that I could see her face.
“No; did you, Dick?”
“Who said ’death’?” I asked, startled.
“Death,” echoed a voice, softly.
I sprang up and looked about. Lys rose too, her needles and embroidery falling to the floor. She seemed about to faint, leaning heavily on me, and I led her to the window and opened it a little way to give her air. As I did so the chain lightning split the zenith, the thunder crashed, and a sheet of rain swept into the room, driving with it something that fluttered—something that flapped, and squeaked, and beat upon the rug with soft, moist wings.
We bent over it together, Lys clinging to me, and we saw that it was a death’s-head moth drenched with rain.
The dark day passed slowly as we sat beside the fire, hand in hand, her head against my breast, speaking of sorrow and mystery and death. For Lys believed that there were things on earth that none might understand, things that must be nameless forever and ever, until God rolls up the scroll of life and all is ended. We spoke of hope and fear and faith, and the mystery of the saints; we spoke of the beginning and the end, of the shadow of sin, of omens, and of love. The moth still lay on the floor quivering its somber wings in the warmth of the fire, the skull and ribs clearly etched upon its neck and body.
“If it is a messenger of death to this house,” I said, “why should we fear, Lys?”
“Death should be welcome to those who love God,” murmured Lys, and she drew the cross from her breast and kissed it.
“The moth might die if I threw it out into the storm,” I said after a silence.
“Let it remain,” sighed Lys.
Late that night my wife lay sleeping, and I sat beside her bed and read in the Chronicle of Jacques Sorgue. I shaded the candle, but Lys grew restless, and finally I took the book down into the morning room, where the ashes of the fire rustled and whitened on the hearth.
The death’s-head moth lay on the rug before the fire where I had left it. At first I thought it was dead, but when I looked closer I saw a lambent fire in its amber eyes. The straight white shadow it cast across the floor wavered as the candle flickered.
The pages of the Chronicle of Jacques Sorgue were damp and sticky; the illuminated gold and blue initials left flakes of azure and gilt where my hand brushed them.
“It is not paper at all; it is thin parchment,” I said to myself; and I held the discolored page close to the candle flame and read, translating laboriously:
“I, Jacques Sorgue, saw all these things. And I saw the Black Mass celebrated in the chapel of St. Gildas-on-the-Cliff. And it was said by the Abbe Sorgue, my kinsman: for which deadly sin the apostate priest was seized by the most noble Marquis of Plougastel and by him condemned to be burned with hot irons, until his seared soul quit its body and fly to its master the devil. But when the Black Priest lay in the crypt of Plougastel, his master Satan came at night and set him free, and carried him across land and sea to Mahmoud, which is Soldan or Saladin. And I, Jacques Sorgue, traveling afterward by sea, beheld with my own eyes my kinsman, the Black Priest of St. Gildas, borne along in the air upon a vast black wing, which was the wing of his master Satan. And this was seen also by two men of the crew.”
I turned the page. The wings of the moth on the floor began to quiver. I read on and on, my eyes blurring under the shifting candle flame. I read of battles and of saints, and I learned how the Great Soldan made his pact with Satan, and then I came to the Sieur de Trevec, and read how he seized the Black Priest in the midst of Saladin’s tents and carried him away and cut off his head first branding him on the forehead. “And before he suffered,” said the Chronicle, “he cursed the Sieur de Trevec and his descendants, and he said he would surely return to St. Gildas. ’For the violence you do to me, I will do violence to you. For the evil I suffer at your hands, I will work evil on you and your descendants. Woe to your children, Sieur de Trevec!’” There was a whirr, a beating of strong wings, and my candle flashed up as in a sudden breeze. A humming filled the room; the great moth darted hither and thither, beating, buzzing, on ceiling and wall. I flung down my book and stepped forward. Now it lay fluttering upon the window sill, and for a moment I had it under my hand, but the thing squeaked and I shrank back. Then suddenly it darted across the candle flame; the light flared and went out, and at the same moment a shadow moved in the darkness outside. I raised my eyes to the window. A masked face was peering in at me.
Quick as thought I whipped out my revolver and fired every cartridge, but the face advanced beyond the window, the glass melting away before it like mist, and through the smoke of my revolver I saw something creep swiftly into the room. Then I tried to cry out, but the thing was at my throat, and I fell backward among the ashes of the hearth.
* * * * *
When my eyes unclosed I was lying on the hearth, my head among the cold ashes. Slowly I got on my knees, rose painfully, and groped my way to a chair. On the floor lay my revolver, shining in the pale light of early morning. My mind clearing by degrees, I looked, shuddering, at the window. The glass was unbroken. I stooped stiffly, picked up my revolver and opened the cylinder. Every cartridge had been fired. Mechanically I closed the cylinder and placed the revolver in my pocket. The book, the Chronicles of Jacques Sorgue, lay on the table beside me, and as I started to close it I glanced at the page. It was all splashed with rain, and the lettering had run, so that the page was merely a confused blur of gold and red and black. As I stumbled toward the door I cast a fearful glance over my shoulder. The death’s-head moth crawled shivering on the rug.
The sun was about three hours high. I must have slept, for I was aroused by the sudden gallop of horses under our window. People were shouting and calling in the road. I sprang up and opened the sash. Le Bihan was there, an image of helplessness, and Max Fortin stood beside him polishing his glasses. Some gendarmes had just arrived from Quimperle, and I could hear them around the corner of the house, stamping, and rattling their sabres and carbines, as they led their horses into my stable.
Lys sat up, murmuring half-sleepy, half-anxious questions.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “I am going out to see what it means.”
“It is like the day they came to arrest you,” Lys said, giving me a troubled look. But I kissed her and laughed at her until she smiled too. Then I flung on coat and cap and hurried down the stairs.
The first person I saw standing in the road was the Brigadier Durand.
“Hello!” said I, “have you come to arrest me again? What the devil is all this fuss about, anyway?”
“We were telegraphed for an hour ago,” said Durand briskly, “and for a sufficient reason, I think. Look there, Monsieur Darrel!”
He pointed to the ground almost under my feet.
“Good heavens!” I cried, “where did that puddle of blood come from?”
“That’s what I want to know, Monsieur Darrel. Max Fortin found it at daybreak. See, it’s splashed all over the grass, too. A trail of it leads into your garden, across the flower beds to your very window, the one that opens from the morning room. There is another trail leading from this spot across the road to the cliffs, then to the gravel pit, and thence across the moor to the forest of Kerselec. We are going to mount in a minute and search the bosquets. Will you join us? Bon Dieu! but the fellow bled like an ox. Max Fortin says it’s human blood, or I should not have believed it.”
The little chemist of Quimperle came up at that moment, rubbing his glasses with a colored handkerchief.
“Yes, it is human blood,” he said, “but one thing puzzles me: the corpuscles are yellow. I never saw any human blood before with yellow corpuscles. But your English Doctor Thompson asserts that he has——”
“Well, it’s human blood, anyway—isn’t it?” insisted Durand, impatiently.
“Ye-es,” admitted Max Fortin.
“Then it’s my business to trail it,” said the big gendarme, and he called his men and gave the order to mount.
“Did you hear anything last night?” asked Durand of me.
“I heard the rain. I wonder the rain did not wash away these traces.”
“They must have come after the rain ceased. See this thick splash, how it lies over and weighs down the wet grass blades. Pah!”
It was a heavy, evil-looking clot, and I stepped back from it, my throat closing in disgust.
“My theory,” said the brigadier, “is this: Some of those Biribi fishermen, probably the Icelanders, got an extra glass of cognac into their hides and quarreled on the road. Some of them were slashed, and staggered to your house. But there is only one trail, and yet—and yet, how could all that blood come from only one person? Well, the wounded man, let us say, staggered first to your house and then back here, and he wandered off, drunk and dying, God knows where. That’s my theory.”
“A very good one,” said I calmly. “And you are going to trail him?”
“At once. Will you come?”
“Not now. I’ll gallop over by-and-bye. You are going to the edge of the Kerselec forest?”
“Yes; you will hear us calling. Are you coming, Max Fortin? And you, Le Bihan? Good; take the dog-cart.”
The big gendarme tramped around the corner to the stable and presently returned mounted on a strong gray horse, his sabre shone on his saddle; his pale yellow and white facings were spotless. The little crowd of white-coiffed women with their children fell back as Durand touched spurs and clattered away followed by his two troopers. Soon after Le Bihan and Max Fortin also departed in the mayor’s dingy dog-cart.
“Are you coming?” piped Le Bihan shrilly.
“In a quarter of an hour,” I replied, and went back to the house.
When I opened the door of the morning room the death’s-head moth was beating its strong wings against the window. For a second I hesitated, then walked over and opened the sash. The creature fluttered out, whirred over the flower beds a moment, then darted across the moorland toward the sea. I called the servants together and questioned them. Josephine, Catherine, Jean Marie Tregunc, not one of them had heard the slightest disturbance during the night. Then I told Jean Marie to saddle my horse, and while I was speaking Lys came down.
“Dearest,” I began, going to her.
“You must tell me everything you know, Dick,” she interrupted, looking me earnestly in the face.
“But there is nothing to tell—only a drunken brawl, and some one wounded.”
“And you are going to ride—where, Dick?”
“Well, over to the edge of Kerselec forest. Durand and the mayor, and Max Fortin, have gone on, following a—a trail.”
“Where did they find it?”
“Out in the road there.” Lys crossed herself.
“Does it come near our house?”
“It comes up to the morning room window,” said I, giving in.
Her hand on my arm grew heavy. “I dreamed last night——”
“So did I—” but I thought of the empty cartridges in my revolver, and stopped.
“I dreamed that you were in great danger, and I could not move hand or foot to save you; but you had your revolver, and I called out to you to fire——”
“I did fire!” I cried excitedly.
I took her in my arms. “My darling,” I said “something strange has happened—something that I cannot understand as yet. But, of course, there is an explanation. Last night I thought I fired at the Black Priest.”
“Ah!” gasped Lys.
“Is that what you dreamed?”
“Yes, yes, that was it! I begged you to fire——”
“And I did.”
Her heart was beating against my breast. I held her close in silence.
“Dick,” she said at length, “perhaps you killed the—the thing.”
“If it was human I did not miss,” I answered grimly. “And it was human,” I went on, pulling myself together, ashamed of having so nearly gone to pieces. “Of course it was human! The whole affair is plain enough. Not a drunken brawl, as Durand thinks; it was a drunken lout’s practical joke, for which he has suffered. I suppose I must have filled him pretty full of bullets, and he has crawled away to die in Kerselec forest. It’s a terrible affair; I’m sorry I fired so hastily; but that idiot Le Bihan and Max Fortin have been working on my nerves till I am as hysterical as a schoolgirl,” I ended angrily.
“You fired—but the window glass was not shattered,” said Lys in a low voice.
“Well, the window was open, then. And as for the—the rest—I’ve got nervous indigestion, and a doctor will settle the Black Priest for me, Lys.”
I glanced out of the window at Tregunc waiting with my horse at the gate.
“Dearest, I think I had better go to join Durand and the others.”
“I will go, too.”
“I shall suffer every moment you are away.”
“The ride is too fatiguing, and we can’t tell what unpleasant sight you may come upon. Lys, you don’t really think there is anything supernatural in this affair?”
“Dick,” she answered gently, “I am a Bretonne.” With both arms around my neck, my wife said, “Death is the gift of God. I do not fear it when we are together. But alone—oh, my husband, I should fear a God who could take you away from me!”
We kissed each other soberly, simply, like two children. Then Lys hurried away to change her gown, and I paced up and down the garden waiting for her.
She came, drawing on her slender gauntlets. I swung her into the saddle, gave a hasty order to Jean Marie, and mounted.
Now, to quail under thoughts of terror on a morning like this, with Lys in the saddle beside me, no matter what had happened or might happen was impossible. Moreover, Mome came sneaking after us. I asked Tregunc to catch him, for I was afraid he might be brained by our horses’ hoofs if he followed, but the wily puppy dodged and bolted after Lys, who was trotting along the highroad. “Never mind,” I thought; “if he’s hit he’ll live, for he has no brains to lose.”
Lys was waiting for me in the road beside the Shrine of Our Lady of St. Gildas when I joined her. She crossed herself, I doffed my cap, then we shook out our bridles and galloped toward the forest of Kerselec.
We said very little as we rode. I always loved to watch Lys in the saddle. Her exquisite figure and lovely face were the incarnation of youth and grace; her curling hair glistened like threaded gold.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the spoiled puppy Mome come bounding cheerfully alongside, oblivious of our horses’ heels. Our road swung close to the cliffs. A filthy cormorant rose from the black rocks and flapped heavily across our path. Lys’s horse reared, but she pulled him down, and pointed at the bird with her riding crop.
“I see,” said I; “it seems to be going our way. Curious to see a cormorant in a forest, isn’t it?”
“It is a bad sign,” said Lys. “You know the Morbihan proverb: ’When the cormorant turns from the sea, Death laughs in the forest, and wise woodsmen build boats.’”
“I wish,” said I sincerely, “that there were fewer proverbs in Brittany.”
We were in sight of the forest now; across the gorse I could see the sparkle of gendarmes’ trappings, and the glitter of Le Bihan’s silver-buttoned jacket. The hedge was low and we took it without difficulty, and trotted across the moor to where Le Bihan and Durand stood gesticulating.
They bowed ceremoniously to Lys as we rode up.
“The trail is horrible—it is a river,” said the mayor in his squeaky voice. “Monsieur Darrel, I think perhaps madame would scarcely care to come any nearer.”
Lys drew bridle and looked at me.
“It is horrible!” said Durand, walking up beside me; “it looks as though a bleeding regiment had passed this way. The trail winds and winds about here in the thickets; we lose it at times, but we always find it again. I can’t understand how one man—no, nor twenty—could bleed like that!”
A halloo, answered by another, sounded from the depths of the forest.
“It’s my men; they are following the trail,” muttered the brigadier. “God alone knows what is at the end!”
“Shall we gallop back, Lys?” I asked.
“No; let us ride along the western edge of the woods and dismount. The sun is so hot now, and I should like to rest for a moment,” she said.
“The western forest is clear of anything disagreeable,” said Durand.
“Very well,” I answered; “call me, Le Bihan, if you find anything.”
Lys wheeled her mare, and I followed across the springy heather, Mome trotting cheerfully in the rear.
We entered the sunny woods about a quarter of a kilometer from where we left Durand. I took Lys from her horse, flung both bridles over a limb, and, giving my wife my arm, aided her to a flat mossy rock which overhung a shallow brook gurgling among the beech trees. Lys sat down and drew off her gauntlets. Mome pushed his head into her lap, received an undeserved caress, and came doubtfully toward me. I was weak enough to condone his offense, but I made him lie down at my feet, greatly to his disgust.
I rested my head on Lys’s knees, looking up at the sky through the crossed branches of the trees.
“I suppose I have killed him,” I said. “It shocks me terribly, Lys.”
“You could not have known, dear. He may have been a robber, and—if—not—did—have you ever fired your revolver since that day four years ago when the Red Admiral’s son tried to kill you? But I know you have not.”
“No,” said I, wondering. “It’s a fact, I have not. Why?”
“And don’t you remember that I asked you to let me load it for you the day when Yves went off, swearing to kill you and his father?”
“Yes, I do remember. Well?”
“Well, I—I took the cartridges first to St. Gildas chapel and dipped them in holy water. You must not laugh, Dick,” said Lys gently, laying her cool hands on my lips.
“Laugh, my darling!”
Overhead the October sky was pale amethyst, and the sunlight burned like orange flame through the yellow leaves of beech and oak. Gnats and midges danced and wavered overhead; a spider dropped from a twig halfway to the ground and hung suspended on the end of his gossamer thread.
“Are you sleepy, dear?” asked Lys, bending over me.
“I am—a little; I scarcely slept two hours last night,” I answered.
“You may sleep, if you wish,” said Lys, and touched my eyes caressingly.
“Is my head heavy on your knees?”
I was already in a half doze; still I heard the brook babbling under the beeches and the humming of forest flies overhead. Presently even these were stilled.
The next thing I knew I was sitting bolt upright, my ears ringing with a scream, and I saw Lys cowering beside me, covering her white face with both hands.
As I sprang to my feet she cried again and clung to my knees. I saw my dog rush growling into a thicket, then I heard him whimper, and he came backing out, whining, ears flat, tail down. I stooped and disengaged Lys’s hand.
“Don’t go, Dick!” she cried. “O God, it’s the Black Priest!”
In a moment I had leaped across the brook and pushed my way into the thicket. It was empty. I stared about me; I scanned every tree trunk, every bush. Suddenly I saw him. He was seated on a fallen log, his head resting in his hands, his rusty black robe gathered around him. For a moment my hair stirred under my cap; sweat started on forehead and cheek bone; then I recovered my reason, and understood that the man was human and was probably wounded to death. Ay, to death; for there at my feet, lay the wet trail of blood, over leaves and stones, down into the little hollow, across to the figure in black resting silently under the trees.
I saw that he could not escape even if he had the strength, for before him, almost at his very feet, lay a deep, shining swamp.
As I stepped forward my foot broke a twig. At the sound the figure started a little, then its head fell forward again. Its face was masked. Walking up to the man, I bade him tell where he was wounded. Durand and the others broke through the thicket at the same moment and hurried to my side.
“Who are you who hide a masked face in a priest’s robe?” said the gendarme loudly.
There was no answer.
“See—see the stiff blood all over his robe,” muttered Le Bihan to Fortin.
“He will not speak,” said I.
“He may be too badly wounded,” whispered Le Bihan.
“I saw him raise his head,” I said, “my wife saw him creep up here.”
Durand stepped forward and touched the figure.
“Speak!” he said.
“Speak!” quavered Fortin.
Durand waited a moment, then with a sudden upward movement he stripped off the mask and threw back the man’s head. We were looking into the eye sockets of a skull. Durand stood rigid; the mayor shrieked. The skeleton burst out from its rotting robes and collapsed on the ground before us. From between the staring ribs and the grinning teeth spurted a torrent of black blood, showering the shrinking grasses; then the thing shuddered, and fell over into the black ooze of the bog. Little bubbles of iridescent air appeared from the mud; the bones were slowly engulfed, and, as the last fragments sank out of sight, up from the depths and along the bank crept a creature, shiny, shivering, quivering its wings.
It was a death’s-head moth.
* * * * *
I wish I had time to tell you how Lys outgrew superstitions—for she never knew the truth about the affair, and she never will know, since she has promised not to read this book. I wish I might tell you about the king and his coronation, and how the coronation robe fitted. I wish that I were able to write how Yvonne and Herbert Stuart rode to a boar hunt in Quimperle, and how the hounds raced the quarry right through the town, overturning three gendarmes, the notary, and an old woman. But I am becoming garrulous and Lys is calling me to come and hear the king say that he is sleepy. And his highness shall not be kept waiting.
Seal with a seal
The scroll of a life unrolled;
Swathe him deep in his purple stole;
Ashes of diamonds, crystalled coal,
Drops of gold in each scented fold.
Crimson wings of the Little
Stir his hair with your silken breath;
Flaming wings of sins to be,
Splendid pinions of prophecy,
Smother his eyes with hues and dyes,
While the white moon spins and the winds arise,
And the stars drip through the skies.
Wave, O wings
of the Little Death!
Seal his sight and stifle his breath,
Cover his breast with the gemmed shroud pressed;
From north to north, from west to west,
Wave, O wings of the Little Death!
Till the white moon reels in the cracking skies,
And the ghosts of God arise.
TRANSLATED BY ABRAHAM YARMOLINSKY
From Lazarus and
the Gentleman from San Francisco. Published
The Stratford Company. By permission of the publishers.
When Lazarus left the grave, where, for three days and three nights he had been under the enigmatical sway of death, and returned alive to his dwelling, for a long time no one noticed in him those sinister oddities, which, as time went on, made his very name a terror. Gladdened unspeakably by the sight of him who had been returned to life, those near to him caressed him unceasingly, and satiated their burning desire to serve him, in solicitude for his food and drink and garments. And they dressed him gorgeously, in bright colors of hope and laughter, and when, like to a bridegroom in his bridal vestures, he sat again among them at the table, and again ate and drank, they wept, overwhelmed with tenderness. And they summoned the neighbors to look at him who had risen miraculously from the dead. These came and shared the serene joy of the hosts. Strangers from far-off towns and hamlets came and adored the miracle in tempestuous words. Like to a beehive was the house of Mary and Martha.
Whatever was found new in Lazarus’ face and gestures was thought to be some trace of a grave illness and of the shocks recently experienced. Evidently, the destruction wrought by death on the corpse was only arrested by the miraculous power, but its effects were still apparent; and what death had succeeded in doing with Lazarus’ face and body, was like an artist’s unfinished sketch seen under thin glass. On Lazarus’ temples, under his eyes, and in the hollows of his cheeks, lay a deep and cadaverous blueness; cadaverously blue also were his long fingers, and around his fingernails, grown long in the grave, the blue had become purple and dark. On his lips the skin, swollen in the grave, had burst in places, and thin, reddish cracks were formed, shining as though covered with transparent mica. And he had grown stout. His body, puffed up in the grave, retained its monstrous size and showed those frightful swellings, in which one sensed the presence of the rank liquid of decomposition. But the heavy corpse-like odor which penetrated Lazarus’ graveclothes and, it seemed, his very body, soon entirely disappeared, the blue spots on his face and hands grew paler, and the reddish cracks closed up, although they never disappeared altogether. That is how Lazarus looked when he appeared before people, in his second life, but his face looked natural to those who had seen him in the coffin.
In addition to the changes in his appearance, Lazarus’ temper seemed to have undergone a transformation, but this circumstance startled no one and attracted no attention. Before his death Lazarus had always been cheerful and carefree, fond of laughter and a merry joke. It was because of this brightness and cheerfulness, with not a touch of malice and darkness, that the Master had grown so fond of him. But now Lazarus had grown grave and taciturn, he never jested, himself, nor responded with laughter to other people’s jokes; and the words which he uttered, very infrequently, were the plainest, most ordinary, and necessary words, as deprived of depth and significance, as those sounds with which animals express pain and pleasure, thirst and hunger. They were the words that one can say all one’s life, and yet they give no indication of what pains and gladdens the depths of the soul.
Thus, with the face of a corpse which for three days had been under the heavy sway of death, dark and taciturn, already appallingly transformed, but still unrecognized by anyone in his new self, he was sitting at the feasting table, among friends and relatives, and his gorgeous nuptial garments glittered with yellow gold and bloody scarlet. Broad waves of jubilation, now soft, now tempestuously sonorous surged around him; warm glances of love were reaching out for his face, still cold with the coldness of the grave; and a friend’s warm palm caressed his blue, heavy hand. And music played the tympanum and the pipe, the cithara and the harp. It was as though bees hummed, grasshoppers chirped and birds warbled over the happy house of Mary and Martha.
One of the guests incautiously lifted the veil. By a thoughtless word he broke the serene charm and uncovered the truth in all its naked ugliness. Ere the thought formed itself in his mind, his lips uttered with a smile:
“Why dost thou not tell us what happened yonder?”
And all grew silent, startled by the question. It was as if it occurred to them only now that for three days Lazarus had been dead, and they looked at him, anxiously awaiting his answer. But Lazarus kept silence.
“Thou dost not wish to tell us,”—wondered the man, “is it so terrible yonder?”
And again his thought came after his words. Had it been otherwise, he would not have asked this question, which at that very moment oppressed his heart with its insufferable horror. Uneasiness seized all present, and with a feeling of heavy weariness they awaited Lazarus’ words, but he was silent, sternly and coldly, and his eyes were lowered. And as if for the first time, they noticed the frightful blueness of his face and his repulsive obesity. On the table, as though forgotten by Lazarus, rested his bluish-purple wrist, and to this all eyes turned, as if it were from it that the awaited answer was to come. The musicians were still playing, but now the silence reached them too, and even as water extinguishes scattered embers, so were their merry tunes extinguished in the silence. The pipe grew silent; the voices of the sonorous tympanum and the murmuring harp died away; and as if the strings had burst, the cithara answered with a tremulous, broken note. Silence.
“Thou dost not wish to say?” repeated the guest, unable to check his chattering tongue. But the stillness remained unbroken, and the bluish-purple hand rested motionless. And then he stirred slightly and everyone felt relieved. He lifted up his eyes, and lo! straightway embracing everything in one heavy glance, fraught with weariness and horror, he looked at them,—Lazarus who had arisen from the dead.
It was the third day since Lazarus had left the grave. Ever since then many had experienced the pernicious power of his eye, but neither those who were crushed by it forever, nor those who found the strength to resist in it the primordial sources of life,—which is as mysterious as death,—never could they explain the horror which lay motionless in the depth of his black pupils. Lazarus looked calmly and simply with no desire to conceal anything, but also with no intention to say anything; he looked coldly, as he who is infinitely indifferent to those alive. Many carefree people came close to him without noticing him, and only later did they learn with astonishment and fear who that calm stout man was, that walked slowly by, almost touching them with his gorgeous and dazzling garments. The sun did not cease shining, when he was looking, nor did the fountain hush its murmur, and the sky overhead remained cloudless and blue. But the man under the spell of his enigmatical look heard no more the fountain and saw not the sky overhead. Sometimes, he wept bitterly, sometimes he tore his hair and in frenzy called for help; but more often it came to pass that apathetically and quietly he began to die, and so he languished many years, before everybody’s very eyes, wasted away, colorless, flabby, dull, like a tree, silently drying up in a stony soil. And of those who gazed at him, the ones who wept madly, sometimes felt again the stir of life; the others never.
“So thou dost not wish to tell us what thou hast seen yonder?” repeated the man. But now his voice was impassive and dull, and deadly gray weariness showed in Lazarus’ eyes. And deadly gray weariness covered like dust all the faces, and with dull amazement the guests stared at each other and did not understand wherefore they had gathered here and sat at the rich table. The talk ceased. They thought it was time to go home, but could not overcome the flaccid lazy weariness which glued their muscles, and they kept on sitting there, yet apart and torn away from each other, like pale fires scattered over a dark field.
But the musicians were paid to play and again they took their instruments and again tunes full of studied mirth and studied sorrow began to flow and to rise. They unfolded the customary melody but the guests hearkened in dull amazement. Already they knew not wherefore is it necessary, and why is it well, that people should pluck strings, inflate their cheeks, blow in thin pipes, and produce a bizarre, many-voiced noise.
“What bad music,” said someone.
The musicians took offense and left. Following them, the guests left one after another, for night was already come. And when placid darkness encircled them and they began to breathe with more ease, suddenly Lazarus’ image loomed up before each one in formidable radiance: the blue face of a corpse, grave-clothes gorgeous and resplendent, a cold look, in the depths of which lay motionless an unknown horror. As
No one was taking care of Lazarus, for no friends no relatives were left to him, and the great desert which encircled the holy city, came near the very threshold of his dwelling. And the desert entered his house, and stretched on his couch, like a wife and extinguished the fires. No one was taking care of Lazarus. One after the other, his sisters—Mary and Martha—forsook him. For a long while Martha was loath to abandon him, for she knew not who would feed him and pity him, she wept and prayed. But one night, when the wind was roaming in the desert and with a hissing sound the cypresses were bending over the roof, she dressed noiselessly and secretly left the house. Lazarus probably heard the door slam; it banged against the side-post under the gusts of the desert wind, but he did not rise to go out and to look at her that was abandoning him. All the night long the cypresses hissed over his head and plaintively thumped the door, letting in the cold, greedy desert.
Like a leper he was shunned by everyone, and it was proposed to tie a bell to his neck, as is done with lepers, to warn people against sudden meetings. But someone remarked, growing frightfully pale, that it would be too horrible if by night the moaning of Lazarus’ bell were suddenly heard under the windows,—and so the project was abandoned.
And since he did not take care of himself, he would probably have starved to death, had not the neighbors brought him food in fear of something that they sensed but vaguely. The food was brought to him by children; they were not afraid of Lazarus, nor did they mock him with naive cruelty, as children are wont to do with the wretched and miserable. They were indifferent to him, and Lazarus answered them with the same coldness; he had no desire to caress the black little curls, and to look into their innocent shining eyes. Given to Time and to the Desert, his house was crumbling down, and long since had his famishing, lowing goats wandered away to the neighboring pastures. And his bridal garments became threadbare. Ever since that happy day, when the musicians played, he had worn them unaware of the difference of the new and the worn. The bright colors grew dull and faded; vicious dogs and the sharp thorn of the Desert turned the tender fabric into rags.
By day, when the merciless sun slew all things alive, and even scorpions sought shelter under stones and writhed there in a mad desire to sting, he sat motionless under the sunrays, his blue face and the uncouth, bushy beared lifted up, bathing in the fiery flood.
When people still talked to him, he was once asked:
“Poor Lazarus, does it please thee to sit thus and to stare at the sun?”
And he had answered:
“Yes, it does.”
So strong, it seemed, was the cold of his three days’ grave, so deep the darkness, that there was no heat on earth to warm Lazarus, nor a splendor that could brighten the darkness of his eyes. That is what came to the mind of those who spoke to Lazarus, and with a sigh they left him.
And when the scarlet, flattened globe would lower, Lazarus would set out for the desert and walk straight toward the sun, as though striving to reach it. He always walked straight toward the sun and those who tried to follow him and to spy upon what he was doing at night in the desert, retained in their memory the black silhouette of a tall stout man against the red background of an enormous flattened disc. Night pursued them with her horrors, and so they did not learn of Lazarus’ doings in the desert, but the vision of the black on red was forever branded on their brain. Just as a beast with a splinter in its eye furiously rubs its muzzle with its paws, so they too foolishly rubbed their eyes, but what Lazarus had given was indelible, and Death alone could efface it.
But there were people who lived far away, who never saw Lazarus and knew of him only by report. With daring curiosity, which is stronger than fear and feeds upon it, with hidden mockery, they would come to Lazarus who was sitting in the sun and enter into conversation with him. By this time Lazarus’ appearance had changed for the better and was not so terrible. The first minute they snapped their fingers and thought of how stupid the inhabitants of the holy city were; but when the short talk was over and they started homeward, their looks were such that the inhabitants of the holy city recognized them at once and said:
“Look, there is one more fool on whom Lazarus has set his eye,”—and they shook their heads regretfully, and lifted up their arms.
There came brave, intrepid warriors, with tinkling weapons; happy youths came with laughter and song; busy tradesmen, jingling their money, ran in for a moment, and haughty priests leaned their crosiers against Lazarus’ door, and they were all strangely changed, as they came back. The same terrible shadow swooped down upon their souls and gave a new appearance to the old familiar world.
Those who still had the desire to speak, expressed their feelings thus:
“All things tangible and visible grew hollow, light, and transparent,—similar to lightsome shadows in the darkness of night;
“for, that great darkness, which holds the whole cosmos, was dispersed neither by the sun or by the moon and the stars, but like an immense black shroud enveloped the earth and, like a mother, embraced it;
“it penetrated all the bodies, iron and stone,—and the particles of the bodies, having lost their ties, grew lonely; and it penetrated into the depth of the particles, and the particles of particles became lonely;
“for that great void, which encircles the cosmos, was not filled by things visible: neither by the sun, nor by the moon and the stars, but reigned unrestrained, penetrating everywhere, severing body from body, particle from particle;
“in the void hollow trees spread hollow roots threatening a fantastic fall; temples, palaces, and horses loomed up and they were hollow; and in the void men moved about restlessly but they were light and hollow like shadows;
“for, Time was no more, and the beginning of all things came near their end: the building was still being built, and builders were still hammering away, and its ruins were already seen and the void in its place; the man was still being born, but already funeral candles were burning at his head, and now they were extinguished, and there was the void in place of the man and of the funeral candles.
“and wrapped by void and darkness the man in despair trembled in the face of the Horror of the Infinite.”
Thus spake the men who had still a desire to speak. But, surely, much more could have told those who wished not to speak, and died in silence.
At that time there lived in Rome a renowned sculptor. In clay, marble, and bronze he wrought bodies of gods and men, and such was their beauty, that people called them immortal. But he himself was discontented and asserted that there was something even more beautiful, that he could not embody either in marble or in bronze. “I have not yet gathered the glimmers of the moon, nor have I my fill of sunshine,” he was wont to say, “and there is no soul in my marble, no life in my beautiful bronze.” And when on moonlight nights he slowly walked along the road, crossing the black shadows of cypresses, his white tunic glittering in the moonshine, those who met him would laugh in a friendly way and say:
“Art thou going to gather moonshine, Aurelius? Why then didst thou not fetch baskets?”
And he would answer, laughing and pointing to his eyes:
“Here are the baskets wherein I gather the sheen of the moon and the glimmer of the sun.”
And so it was: the moon glimmered in his eyes and the sun sparkled therein. But he could not translate them into marble and therein lay the serene tragedy of his life.
He was descended from an ancient patrician race, had a good wife and children, and suffered from no want.
When the obscure rumor about Lazarus reached him, he consulted his wife and friends and undertook the far journey to Judea to see him who had miraculously risen from the dead. He was somewhat weary in those days and he hoped that the road would sharpen his blunted senses. What was said of Lazarus did not frighten him: he had pondered much over Death, did not like it, but he disliked also those who confused it with life.
“In this life,—life
beyond,—Death, the enigmatical”—
thought he, and there is no better thing for a man to do than to delight in life and in the beauty of all things living. He had even a vainglorious desire to convince Lazarus of the truth of his own view and restore his soul to life, as his body had been restored. This seemed so much easier because the rumors, shy and strange, did not render the whole truth about Lazarus and but vaguely warned against something frightful.
Lazarus had just risen from the stone in order to follow the sun which was setting in the desert, when a rich Roman attended by an armed slave, approached him and addressed him in a sonorous tone of voice:
And Lazarus beheld a superb face, lit with glory, and arrayed in fine clothes, and precious stones sparkling in the sun. The red light lent to the Roman’s face and head the appearance of gleaming bronze—that also Lazarus noticed. He resumed obediently his place and lowered his weary eyes.
“Yes, thou art ugly, my poor Lazarus,”—quietly said the Roman, playing with his golden chain; “thou art even horrible, my poor friend; and Death was not lazy that day when thou didst fall so heedlessly into his hands. But thou art stout, and, as the great Caesar used to say, fat people are not ill-tempered; to tell the truth, I don’t understand why men fear thee. Permit me to spend the night in thy house; the hour is late, and I have no shelter.”
Never had anyone asked Lazarus’ hospitality.
“I have no bed,” said he.
“I am somewhat of a soldier and I can sleep sitting,” the Roman answered. “We shall build a fire.”
“I have no fire.”
“Then we shall have our talk in the darkness, like two friends. I think thou wilt find a bottle of wine.”
“I have no wine.”
The Roman laughed.
“Now I see why thou art so somber and dislikest thy second life. No wine! Why, then we shall do without it: there are words that make the head go round better than the Falernian.”
By a sign he dismissed the slave, and they remained all alone. And again the sculptor started speaking, but it was as if, together with the setting sun, life had left his words; and they grew pale and hollow, as if they staggered on unsteady feet, as if they slipped and fell down, drunk with the heavy lees of weariness and despair. And black chasms grew up between the words—like far-off hints of the great void and the great darkness.
“Now I am thy guest, and thou wilt not be unkind to me, Lazarus!”—said he. “Hospitality is the duty even of those who for three days were dead. Three days, I was told, thou didst rest in the grave. There it must be cold ... and that is whence comes thy ill habit of going without fire and wine. As to me, I like fire; it grows dark here so rapidly.... The lines of thy eyebrows and forehead are quite, quite interesting: they are like ruins of strange palaces, buried in ashes after an earthquake. But why dost thou wear such ugly and queer garments? I have seen bridegrooms in thy country, and they wear such clothes—are they not funny—and terrible.... But art thou a bridegroom?”
The sun had already disappeared, a monstrous black shadow came running from the east—it was as if gigantic bare feet began rumbling on the sand, and the wind sent a cold wave along the backbone.
“In the darkness thou seemest still larger, Lazarus, as if thou hast grown stouter in these moments. Dost thou feed on darkness, Lazarus? I would fain have a little fire—at least a little fire, a little fire. I feel somewhat chilly, your nights are so barbarously cold.... Were it not so dark, I should say that thou wert looking at me, Lazarus. Yes, it seems to me, thou art looking.... Why, thou art looking at me, I feel it,—but there thou art smiling.”
Night came, and filled the air with heavy blackness.
“How well it will be, when the sun will rise to-morrow anew.... I am a great sculptor, thou knowest; that is how my friends call me. I create. Yes, that is the word ... but I need daylight. I give life to the cold marble, I melt sonorous bronze in fire, in bright hot fire.... Why didst thou touch me with thy hand?”
“Come”—said Lazarus—“Thou art my guest.”
And they went to the house. And a long night enveloped the earth.
The slave, seeing that his master did not come, went to seek him, when the sun was already high in the sky. And he beheld his master side by side with Lazarus: in profound silence were they sitting right under the dazzling and scorching sunrays and looking upward. The slave began to weep and cried out:
“My master, what has befallen thee, master?”
The very same day the sculptor left for Rome. On the way Aurelius was pensive and taciturn, staring attentively at everything—the men, the ship, the sea, as though trying to retain something. On the high sea a storm burst upon them, and all through it Aurelius stayed on the deck and eagerly scanned the seas looming near and sinking with a thud.
At home his friends were frightened at the change which had taken place in Aurelius, but he calmed them, saying meaningly:
“I have found it.”
And without changing the dusty clothes he wore on his journey, he fell to work, and the marble obediently resounded under his sonorous hammer. Long and eagerly worked he, admitting no one, until one morning he announced that the work was ready and ordered his friends to be summoned, severe critics and connoisseurs of art. And to meet them he put on bright and gorgeous garments, that glittered with yellow gold—and—scarlet byssus.
“Here is my work,” said he thoughtfully.
His friends glanced and a shadow of profound sorrow covered their faces. It was something monstrous, deprived of all the lines and shapes familiar to the eye, but not without a hint at some new, strange image.
On a thin, crooked twig, or rather on an ugly likeness of a twig rested askew a blind, ugly, shapeless, outspread mass of something utterly and inconceivably distorted, a mad leap of wild and bizarre fragments, all feebly and vainly striving to part from one another. And, as if by chance, beneath one of the wildly-rent salients a butterfly was chiseled with divine skill, all airy loveliness, delicacy, and beauty, with transparent wings, which seemed to tremble with an impotent desire to take flight.
“Wherefore this wonderful butterfly, Aurelius?” said somebody falteringly.
“I know not”—was the sculptor’s answer.
But it was necessary to tell the truth, and one of his friends who loved him best said firmly:
“This is ugly, my poor friend. It must be destroyed. Give me the hammer.”
And with two strokes he broke the monstrous man into pieces, leaving only the infinitely delicate butterfly untouched.
From that time on Aurelius created nothing. With profound indifference he looked at marble and bronze, and on his former divine works, where everlasting beauty rested. With the purpose of arousing his former fervent passion for work and, awakening his deadened soul, his friends took him to see other artists’ beautiful works,—but he remained indifferent as before, and the smile did not warm up his tightened lips. And only after listening to lengthy talks about beauty, he would retort wearily and indolently:
“But all this is a lie.”
And by the day, when the sun was shining, he went into his magnificent, skilfully built garden and having found a place without shadow, he exposed his bare head to the glare and heat. Red and white butterflies fluttered around; from the crooked lips of a drunken satyr, water streamed down with a splash into a marble cistern, but he sat motionless and silent,—like a pallid reflection of him who, in the far-off distance, at the very gates of the stony desert, sat under the fiery sun.
And now it came to pass that the great, deified Augustus himself summoned Lazarus. The imperial messengers dressed him gorgeously, in solemn nuptial clothes, as if Time had legalized them, and he was to remain until his very death the bridegroom of an unknown bride. It was as though an old, rotting coffin had been gilt and furnished with new, gay tassels. And men, all in trim and bright attire, rode after him, as if in bridal procession indeed, and those foremost trumpeted loudly, bidding people to clear the way for the emperor’s messengers. But Lazarus’ way was deserted: his native land cursed the hateful name of him who had miraculously risen from the dead, and people scattered at the very news of his appalling approach. The solitary voice of the brass trumpets sounded in the motionless air, and the wilderness alone responded with its languid echo.
Then Lazarus went by sea. And his was the most magnificently arrayed and the most mournful ship that ever mirrored itself in the azure waves of the Mediterranean Sea. Many were the travelers aboard, but like a tomb was the ship, all silence and stillness, and the despairing water sobbed at the steep, proudly curved prow. All alone sat Lazarus exposing his head to the blaze of the sun, silently listening to the murmur and splash of the wavelets, and afar seamen and messengers were sitting, a vague group of weary shadows. Had the thunder burst and the wind attacked
With utter indifference did Lazarus set his feet on the street of the eternal city. As though all her wealth, all the magnificence of her palaces built by giants, all the resplendence, beauty, and music of her refined life were but the echo of the wind in the wilderness, the reflection of the desert quicksand. Chariots were dashing, and along the streets were moving crowds of strong, fair, proud builders of the eternal city and haughty participants in her life; a song sounded; fountains and women laughed a pearly laughter; drunken philosophers harangued, and the sober listened to them with a smile; hoofs struck the stone pavements. And surrounded by cheerful noise, a stout, heavy man was moving, a cold spot of silence and despair, and on his way he sowed disgust, anger, and vague, gnawing weariness. Who dares to be sad in Rome, wondered indignantly the citizens, and frowned. In two days the entire city already knew all about him who had miraculously risen from the dead, and shunned him shyly.
But some daring people there were, who wanted to test their strength, and Lazarus obeyed their imprudent summons. Kept busy by state affairs, the emperor constantly delayed the reception, and seven days did he who had risen from the dead go about visiting others.
And Lazarus came to a cheerful Epicurean, and the host met him with laughter on his lips:
“Drink, Lazarus, drink!”—shouted he. “Would not Augustus laugh to see thee drunk!”
And half-naked drunken women laughed, and rose petals fell on Lazarus’ blue hands. But then the Epicurean looked into Lazarus’ eyes, and his gaiety ended forever. Drunkard remained he for the rest of his life; never did he drink, yet forever was he drunk. But instead of the gay reverie which wine brings with it, frightful dreams began to haunt him, the sole food of his stricken spirit. Day and night he lived in the poisonous vapors of his nightmares, and death itself was not more frightful than her raving, monstrous forerunners.
And Lazarus came to a youth and his beloved, who loved each other and were most beautiful in their passions. Proudly and strongly embracing his love, the youth said with serene regret:
“Look at us, Lazarus, and share our joy. Is there anything stronger than love?”
And Lazarus looked. And for the rest of their life they kept on loving each other, but their passion grew gloomy and joyless, like those funeral cypresses whose roots feed on the decay of the graves and whose black summits in a still evening hour seek in vain to reach the sky. Thrown by the unknown forces of life into each other’s embraces, they mingled tears with kisses, voluptuous pleasures with pain, and they felt themselves doubly slaves, obedient slaves to life, and patient servants of the silent Nothingness. Ever united, ever severed, they blazed like sparks and like sparks lost themselves in the boundless Dark.
And Lazarus came to a haughty sage, and the sage said to him:
“I know all the horrors thou canst reveal to me. Is there anything thou canst frighten me with?”
But before long the sage felt that the knowledge of horror was far from being the horror itself, and that the vision of Death, was not Death. And he felt that wisdom and folly are equal before the face of Infinity, for Infinity knows them not. And it vanished, the dividing-line between knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood, top and bottom, and the shapeless thought hung suspended in the void. Then the sage clutched his gray head and cried out frantically:
“I cannot think! I cannot think!”
Thus under the indifferent glance for him, who miraculously had risen from the dead, perished everything that asserts life, its significance and joys. And it was suggested that it was dangerous to let him see the emperor, that it was better to kill him and, having buried him secretly, to tell the emperor that he had disappeared no one knew whither. Already swords were being whetted and youths devoted to the public welfare prepared for the murder, when Augustus ordered Lazarus to be brought before him next morning, thus destroying the cruel plans.
If there was no way of getting rid of Lazarus, at least it was possible to soften the terrible impression his face produced. With this in view, skillful painters, barbers, and artists were summoned, and all night long they were busy over Lazarus’ head. They cropped his beard, curled it, and gave it a tidy, agreeable appearance. By means of paints they concealed the corpse-like blueness of his hands and face. Repulsive were the wrinkles of suffering that furrowed his old face, and they were puttied, painted, and smoothed; then, over the smooth background, wrinkles of good-tempered laughter and pleasant, carefree mirth were skillfully painted with fine brushes.
Lazarus submitted indifferently to everything that was done to him. Soon he was turned into a becomingly stout, venerable old man, into a quiet and kind grandfather of numerous offspring. It seemed that the smile, with which only a while ago he was spinning funny yarns, was still lingering on his lips, and that in the corner of his eye serene tenderness was hiding, the companion of old age. But people did not dare change his nuptial garments, and they could not change his eyes, two dark and frightful glasses through which looked at men, the unknowable Yonder.
Lazarus was not moved by the magnificence of the imperial palace. It was as though he saw no difference between the crumbling house, closely pressed by the desert, and the stone palace, solid and fair, and indifferently he passed into it. And the hard marble of the floors under his feet grew similar to the quicksand of the desert, and the multitude of richly dressed and haughty men became like void air
Already did the emperor know who Lazarus was, and prepared to meet him. But the monarch was a brave man, and felt his own tremendous, unconquerable power, and in his fatal duel with him who had miraculously risen from the dead he wanted not to invoke human help. And so he met Lazarus face to face:
“Lift not thine eyes upon me, Lazarus,” he ordered. “I heard thy face is like that of Medusa and turns into stone whomsoever thou lookest at. Now, I wish to see thee and to have a talk with thee, before I turn into stone,”—added he in a tone of kingly jesting, not devoid of fear.
Coming close to him, he carefully examined Lazarus’ face and his strange festal garments. And although he had a keen eye, he was deceived by his appearance.
“So. Thou dost not appear terrible, my venerable old man. But the worse for us, if horror assumes such a respectable and pleasant air. Now let us have a talk.”
Augustus sat, and questioning Lazarus with his eye as much as with words, started the conversation:
“Why didst thou not greet me as thou enteredst?”
Lazarus answered indifferent:
“I knew not it was necessary.”
“Art thou a Christian?”
Augustus approvingly shook his head.
“That is good. I do not like Christians. They shake the tree of life before it is covered with fruit, and disperse its odorous bloom to the winds. But who art thou?”
With a visible effort Lazarus answered:
“I was dead.”
“I had heard that. But who art thou now?”
Lazarus was silent, but at last repeated in a tone of weary apathy:
“I was dead.”
“Listen to me, stranger,” said the emperor, distinctly and severely giving utterance to the thought that had come to him at the beginning, “my realm is the realm of Life, my people are of the living, not of the dead. Thou art here one too many. I know not who thou art and what thou sawest there; but, if thou liest, I hate thy lies, and if thou tellst the truth, I hate thy truth. In my bosom I feel the throb of life; I feel strength in my arm, and my proud thoughts, like eagles, pierce the space. And yonder in the shelter of my rule, under the protection of laws created by me, people live and toil and rejoice. Dost thou hear the battle-cry, the challenge men throw into the face of the future?”
Augustus, as in prayer, stretched forth his arms and exclaimed solemnly:
“Be blessed, O great and divine Life!”
Lazarus was silent, and with growing sternness the emperor went on:
“Thou art not wanted here, miserable remnant, snatched from under Death’s teeth, thou inspirest weariness and disgust with life; like a caterpillar in the fields, thou gloatest on the rich ear of joy and belchest out the drivel of despair and sorrow. Thy truth is like a rusty sword in the hands of a nightly murderer,—and as a murderer thou shalt be executed. But before that, let me look into thine eyes. Perchance, only cowards are afraid of them, but in the brave they awake the thirst for strife and victory; then thou shalt be rewarded, not executed.... Now, look at me, Lazarus.”
At first it appeared to the deified Augustus that a friend was looking at him,—so soft, so tenderly fascinating was Lazarus’ glance. It promised not horror, but sweet rest and the Infinite seemed to him a tender mistress, a compassionate sister, a mother. But stronger and stronger grew its embraces, and already the mouth, greedy of hissing kisses, interfered with the monarch’s breathing, and already to the surface of the soft tissues of the body came the iron of the bones and tightened its merciless circle,—and unknown fangs, blunt and cold, touched his heart and sank into it with slow indolence.
“It pains,” said the deified Augustus, growing pale. “But look at me, Lazarus, look.”
It was as though some heavy gates, ever closed, were slowly moving apart, and through the growing interstice the appalling horror of the Infinite poured in slowly and steadily. Like two shadows there entered the shoreless void and the unfathomable darkness; they extinguished the sun, ravished the earth from under the feet, and the roof from over the head. No more did the frozen heart ache.
“Look, look, Lazarus,” ordered Augustus tottering.
Time stood still, and the beginning of each thing grew frightfully near to its end. Augustus’ throne just erected, crumbled down, and the void was already in the place of the throne and of Augustus. Noiselessly did Rome crumble down, and a new city stood on its site and it too was swallowed by the void. Like fantastic giants, cities, states, and countries fell down and vanished in the void darkness—and with uttermost indifference did the insatiable black womb of the Infinite swallow them.
“Halt!”—ordered the emperor.
In his voice sounded already a note of indifference, his hands dropped in languor, and in the vain struggle with the onrushing darkness his fiery eyes now blazed up, and now went out.
“My life thou hast taken from me, Lazarus,”—said he in a spiritless, feeble voice.
And these words of hopelessness saved him. He remembered his people, whose shield he was destined to be, and keen salutary pain pierced his deadened heart. “They are doomed to death,” he thought wearily. “Serene shadows in the darkness of the Infinite,” thought he, and horror grew upon him. “Frail vessels with living seething blood with a heart that knows sorrow and also great joy,” said he in his heart, and tenderness pervaded it.
Thus pondering and oscillating between the poles of Life and Death, he slowly came back to life, to find in its suffering and in its joys a shield against the darkness of the void and the horror of the Infinite.
“No, thou hast not murdered me, Lazarus,” said he firmly, “but I will take thy life. Be gone.”
That evening the deified Augustus partook of his meats and drinks with particular joy. Now and then his lifted hand remained suspended in the air, and a dull glimmer replaced the bright sheen of his fiery eye. It was the cold wave of Horror that surged at his feet. Defeated, but not undone, ever awaiting its hour, that Horror stood at the emperor’s bedside, like a black shadow all through his life; it swayed his nights, but yielded the days to the sorrows and joys of life.
The following day, the hangman with a hot iron burned out Lazarus’ eyes. Then he was sent home. The deified Augustus dared not kill him.
* * * * *
Lazarus returned to the desert, and the wilderness met him with hissing gusts of wind and the heat of the blazing sun. Again he was sitting on a stone, his rough, bushy beard lifted up; and the two black holes in place of his eyes looked at the sky with an expression of dull terror. Afar-off the holy city stirred noisily and restlessly, but around him everything was deserted and dumb. No one approached the place where lived he who had miraculously risen from the dead, and long since his neighbors had forsaken their houses. Driven by the hot iron into the depth of his skull, his cursed knowledge hid there in an ambush. As though leaping out from an ambush it plunged its thousand invisible eyes into the man,—and no one dared look at Lazarus.
And in the evening, when the sun, reddening and growing wider, would come nearer and nearer the western horizon, the blind Lazarus would slowly follow it. He would stumble against stones and fall, stout and weak as he was; would rise heavily to his feet and walk on again; and on the red screen of the sunset his black body and outspread hands would form a monstrous likeness of a cross.
And it came to pass that once he went out and did not come back. Thus seemingly ended the second life of him who for three days had been under the enigmatical sway of death, and rose miraculously from the dead.
BY W.F. HARVEY
From The New Decameron,
by Various Hands. Copyright, 1919, by
Robert M. McBride and Company. By permission of the publishers.
When I was a little boy I once went with my father to call on Adrian Borlsover. I played on the floor with a black spaniel while my father appealed for a subscription. Just before we left my father said, “Mr. Borlsover, may my son here shake hands with you? It will be a thing to look back upon with pride when he grows to be a man.”
I came up to the bed on which the old man was lying and put my hand in his, awed by the still beauty of his face. He spoke to me kindly, and hoped that I should always try to please my father. Then he placed his right hand on my head and asked for a blessing to rest upon me. “Amen!” said my father, and I followed him out of the room, feeling as if I wanted to cry. But my father was in excellent spirits.
“That old gentleman, Jim,” said he, “is the most wonderful man in the whole town. For ten years he has been quite blind.”
“But I saw his eyes,” I said. “They were ever so black and shiny; they weren’t shut up like Nora’s puppies. Can’t he see at all?”
And so I learnt for the first time that a man might have eyes that looked dark and beautiful and shining without being able to see.
“Just like Mrs. Tomlinson has big ears,” I said, “and can’t hear at all except when Mr. Tomlinson shouts.”
“Jim,” said my father, “it’s not right to talk about a lady’s ears. Remember what Mr. Borlsover said about pleasing me and being a good boy.”
That was the only time I saw Adrian Borlsover. I soon forgot about him and the hand which he laid in blessing on my head. But for a week I prayed that those dark tender eyes might see.
“His spaniel may have puppies,” I said in my prayers, “and he will never be able to know how funny they look with their eyes all closed up. Please let old Mr. Borlsover see.”
* * * * *
Adrian Borlsover, as my father had said, was a wonderful man. He came of an eccentric family. Borlsovers’ sons, for some reason, always seemed to marry very ordinary women, which perhaps accounted for the fact that no Borlsover had been a genius, and only one Borlsover had been mad. But they were great champions of little causes, generous patrons of odd sciences, founders of querulous sects, trustworthy guides to the bypath meadows of erudition.
Adrian was an authority on the fertilization of orchids. He had held at one time the family living at Borlsover Conyers, until a congenital weakness of the lungs obliged him to seek a less rigorous climate in the sunny south coast watering-place where I had seen him. Occasionally he would relieve one or other of the local clergy. My father described him as a fine preacher, who gave long and inspiring sermons from what many men would have considered unprofitable texts. “An excellent proof,” he would add, “of the truth of the doctrine of direct verbal inspiration.”
Adrian Borlsover was exceedingly clever with his hands. His penmanship was exquisite. He illustrated all his scientific papers, made his own woodcuts, and carved the reredos that is at present the chief feature of interest in the church at Borlsover Conyers. He had an exceedingly clever knack in cutting silhouettes for young ladies and paper pigs and cows for little children, and made more than one complicated wind instrument of his own devising.
When he was fifty years old Adrian Borlsover lost his sight. In a wonderfully short time he had adapted himself to the new conditions of life. He quickly learned to read Braille. So marvelous indeed was his sense of touch that he was still able to maintain his interest in botany. The mere passing of his long supple fingers over a flower was sufficient means for its identification, though occasionally he would use his lips. I have found several letters of his among my father’s correspondence. In no case was there anything to show that he was afflicted with blindness and this in spite of the fact that he exercised undue economy in the spacing of lines. Towards the close of his life the old man was credited with powers of touch that seemed almost uncanny: it has been said that he could tell at once the color of a ribbon placed between his fingers. My father would neither confirm nor deny the story.
Adrian Borlsover was a bachelor. His elder brother George had married late in life, leaving one son, Eustace, who lived in the gloomy Georgian mansion at Borlsover Conyers, where he could work undisturbed in collecting material for his great book on heredity.
Like his uncle, he was a remarkable man. The Borlsovers had always been born naturalists, but Eustace possessed in a special degree the power of systematizing his knowledge. He had received his university education in Germany, and then, after post-graduate work in Vienna and Naples, had traveled for four years in South America and the East, getting together a huge store of material for a new study into the processes of variation.
He lived alone at Borlsover Conyers with Saunders his secretary, a man who bore a somewhat dubious reputation in the district, but whose powers as a mathematician, combined with his business abilities, were invaluable to Eustace.
Uncle and nephew saw little of each other. The visits of Eustace were confined to a week in the summer or autumn: long weeks, that dragged almost as slowly as the bath-chair in which the old man was drawn along the sunny sea front. In their way the two men were fond of each other, though their intimacy would doubtless have been greater had they shared the same religious views. Adrian held to the old-fashioned evangelical dogmas of his early manhood; his nephew for many years had been thinking of embracing Buddhism. Both men possessed, too, the reticence the Borlsovers had always shown, and which their enemies sometimes called hypocrisy. With Adrian it was a reticence as to the things he had left undone; but with Eustace it seemed that the curtain which he was so careful to leave undrawn hid something more than a half-empty chamber.
* * * * *
Two years before his death Adrian Borlsover developed, unknown to himself, the not uncommon power of automatic writing. Eustace made the discovery by accident. Adrian was sitting reading in bed, the forefinger of his left hand tracing the Braille characters, when his nephew noticed that a pencil the old man held in his right hand was moving slowly along the opposite page. He left his seat in the window and sat down beside the bed. The right hand continued to move, and now he could see plainly that they were letters and words which it was forming.
“Adrian Borlsover,” wrote the hand, “Eustace Borlsover, George Borlsover, Francis Borlsover Sigismund Borlsover, Adrian Borlsover, Eustace Borlsover, Saville Borlsover. B, for Borlsover. Honesty is the Best Policy. Beautiful Belinda Borlsover.”
“What curious nonsense!” said Eustace to himself.
“King George the Third ascended the throne in 1760,” wrote the hand. “Crowd, a noun of multitude; a collection of individuals—Adrian Borlsover, Eustace Borlsover.”
“It seems to me,” said his uncle, closing the book, “that you had much better make the most of the afternoon sunshine and take your walk now.” “I think perhaps I will,” Eustace answered as he picked up the volume. “I won’t go far, and when I come back I can read to you those articles in Nature about which we were speaking.”
He went along the promenade, but stopped at the first shelter, and seating himself in the corner best protected from the wind, he examined the book at leisure. Nearly every page was scored with a meaningless jungle of pencil marks: rows of capital letters, short words, long words, complete sentences, copy-book tags. The whole thing, in fact, had the appearance of a copy-book, and on a more careful scrutiny Eustace thought that there was ample evidence to show that the handwriting at the beginning of the book, good though it was was not nearly so good as the handwriting at the end.
He left his uncle at the end of October, with a promise to return early in December. It seemed to him quite clear that the old man’s power of automatic writing was developing rapidly, and for the first time he looked forward to a visit that combined duty with interest.
But on his return he was at first disappointed. His uncle, he thought, looked older. He was listless too, preferring others to read to him and dictating nearly all his letters. Not until the day before he left had Eustace an opportunity of observing Adrian Borlsover’s new-found faculty.
The old man, propped up in bed with pillows, had sunk into a light sleep. His two hands lay on the coverlet, his left hand tightly clasping his right. Eustace took an empty manuscript book and placed a pencil within reach of the fingers of the right hand. They snatched at it eagerly; then dropped the pencil to unloose the left hand from its restraining grasp.
“Perhaps to prevent interference I had better hold that hand,” said Eustace to himself, as he watched the pencil. Almost immediately it began to write.
“Blundering Borlsovers, unnecessarily unnatural, extraordinarily eccentric, culpably curious.”
“Who are you?” asked Eustace, in a low voice.
“Never you mind,” wrote the hand of Adrian.
“Is it my uncle who is writing?”
“Oh, my prophetic soul, mine uncle.”
“Is it anyone I know?”
“Silly Eustace, you’ll see me very soon.”
“When shall I see you?”
“When poor old Adrian’s dead.”
“Where shall I see you?”
“Where shall you not?”
Instead of speaking his next question, Borlsover wrote it. “What is the time?”
The fingers dropped the pencil and moved three or four times across the paper. Then, picking up the pencil, they wrote:
“Ten minutes before four. Put your book away, Eustace. Adrian mustn’t find us working at this sort of thing. He doesn’t know what to make of it, and I won’t have poor old Adrian disturbed. Au revoir.”
Adrian Borlsover awoke with a start.
“I’ve been dreaming again,” he said; “such queer dreams of leaguered cities and forgotten towns. You were mixed up in this one, Eustace, though I can’t remember how. Eustace, I want to warn you. Don’t walk in doubtful paths. Choose your friends well. Your poor grandfather——”
A fit of coughing put an end to what he was saying, but Eustace saw that the hand was still writing. He managed unnoticed to draw the book away. “I’ll light the gas,” he said, “and ring for tea.” On the other side of the bed curtain he saw the last sentences that had been written.
“It’s too late, Adrian,” he read. “We’re friends already; aren’t we, Eustace Borlsover?”
On the following day Eustace Borlsover left. He thought his uncle looked ill when he said good-by, and the old man spoke despondently of the failure his life had been.
“Nonsense, uncle!” said his nephew. “You have got over your difficulties in a way not one in a hundred thousand would have done. Every one marvels at your splendid perseverance in teaching your hand to take the place of your lost sight. To me it’s been a revelation of the possibilities of education.”
“Education,” said his uncle dreamily, as if the word had started a new train of thought, “education is good so long as you know to whom and for what purpose you give it. But with the lower orders of men, the base and more sordid spirits, I have grave doubts as to its results. Well, good-by, Eustace, I may not see you again. You are a true Borlsover, with all the Borlsover faults. Marry, Eustace. Marry some good, sensible girl. And if by any chance I don’t see you again, my will is at my solicitor’s. I’ve not left you any legacy, because I know you’re well provided for, but I thought you might like to have my books. Oh, and there’s just one other thing. You know, before the end people often lose control over themselves and make absurd requests. Don’t pay any attention to them, Eustace. Good-by!” and he held out his hand. Eustace took it. It remained in his a fraction of a second longer than he had expected, and gripped him with a virility that was surprising. There was, too, in its touch a subtle sense of intimacy.
“Why, uncle!” he said, “I shall see you alive and well for many long years to come.”
Two months later Adrian Borlsover died.
Eustace Borlsover was in Naples at the time. He read the obituary notice in the Morning Post on the day announced for the funeral.
“Poor old fellow!” he said. “I wonder where I shall find room for all his books.”
The question occurred to him again with greater force when three days later he found himself standing in the library at Borlsover Conyers, a huge room built for use, and not for beauty, in the year of Waterloo by a Borlsover who was an ardent admirer of the great Napoleon. It was arranged on the plan of many college libraries, with tall, projecting bookcases forming deep recesses of dusty silence, fit graves for the old hates of forgotten controversy, the dead passions of forgotten lives. At the end of the room, behind the bust of some unknown eighteenth-century divine, an ugly iron corkscrew stair led to a shelf-lined gallery. Nearly every shelf was full.
“I must talk to Saunders about it,” said Eustace. “I suppose that it will be necessary to have the billiard-room fitted up with book cases.”
The two men met for the first time after many weeks in the dining-room that evening.
“Hullo!” said Eustace, standing before the fire with his hands in his pockets. “How goes the world, Saunders? Why these dress togs?” He himself was wearing an old shooting-jacket. He did not believe in mourning, as he had told his uncle on his last visit; and though he usually went in for quiet-colored ties, he wore this evening one of an ugly red, in order to shock Morton the butler, and to make them thrash out the whole question of mourning for themselves in the servants’ hall. Eustace was a true Borlsover. “The world,” said Saunders, “goes the same as usual, confoundedly slow. The dress togs are accounted for by an invitation from Captain Lockwood to bridge.”
“How are you getting there?”
“I’ve told your coachman to drive me in your carriage. Any objection?”
“Oh, dear me, no! We’ve had all things in common for far too many years for me to raise objections at this hour of the day.”
“You’ll find your correspondence in the library,” went on Saunders. “Most of it I’ve seen to. There are a few private letters I haven’t opened. There’s also a box with a rat, or something, inside it that came by the evening post. Very likely it’s the six-toed albino. I didn’t look, because I didn’t want to mess up my things but I should gather from the way it’s jumping about that it’s pretty hungry.”
“Oh, I’ll see to it,” said Eustace, “while you and the Captain earn an honest penny.”
Dinner over and Saunders gone, Eustace went into the library. Though the fire had been lit the room was by no means cheerful.
“We’ll have all the lights on at any rate,” he said, as he turned the switches. “And, Morton,” he added, when the butler brought the coffee, “get me a screwdriver or something to undo this box. Whatever the animal is, he’s kicking up the deuce of a row. What is it? Why are you dawdling?”
“If you please, sir, when the postman brought it he told me that they’d bored the holes in the lid at the post-office. There were no breathin’ holes in the lid, sir, and they didn’t want the animal to die. That is all, sir.”
“It’s culpably careless of the man, whoever he was,” said Eustace, as he removed the screws, “packing an animal like this in a wooden box with no means of getting air. Confound it all! I meant to ask Morton to bring me a cage to put it in. Now I suppose I shall have to get one myself.”
He placed a heavy book on the lid from which the screws had been removed, and went into the billiard-room. As he came back into the library with an empty cage in his hand he heard the sound of something falling, and then of something scuttling along the floor.
“Bother it! The beast’s got out. How in the world am I to find it again in this library!”
To search for it did indeed seem hopeless. He tried to follow the sound of the scuttling in one of the recesses where the animal seemed to be running behind the books in the shelves, but it was impossible to locate it. Eustace resolved to go on quietly reading. Very likely the animal might gain confidence and show itself. Saunders seemed to have dealt in his usual methodical manner with most of the correspondence. There were still the private letters.
What was that? Two sharp clicks and the lights in the hideous candelabra that hung from the ceiling suddenly went out.
“I wonder if something has gone wrong with the fuse,” said Eustace, as he went to the switches by the door. Then he stopped. There was a noise at the other end of the room, as if something was crawling up the iron corkscrew stair. “If it’s gone into the gallery,” he said, “well and good.” He hastily turned on the lights, crossed the room, and climbed up the stair. But he could see nothing. His grandfather had placed a little gate at the top of the stair, so that children could run and romp in the gallery without fear of accident. This Eustace closed, and having considerably narrowed the circle of his search, returned to his desk by the fire.
How gloomy the library was! There was no sense of intimacy about the room. The few busts that an eighteenth-century Borlsover had brought back from the grand tour, might have been in keeping in the old library. Here they seemed out of place. They made the room feel cold, in spite of the heavy red damask curtains and great gilt cornices.
With a crash two heavy books fell from the gallery to the floor; then, as Borlsover looked, another and yet another.
“Very well; you’ll starve for this, my beauty!” he said. “We’ll do some little experiments on the metabolism of rats deprived of water. Go on! Chuck them down! I think I’ve got the upper hand.” He turned once again to his correspondence. The letter was from the family solicitor. It spoke of his uncle’s death and of the valuable collection of books that had been left to him in the will.
“There was one request,” he read, “which certainly came as a surprise to me. As you know, Mr. Adrian Borlsover had left instructions that his body was to be buried in as simple a manner as possible at Eastbourne. He expressed a desire that there should be neither wreaths nor flowers of any kind, and hoped that his friends and relatives would not consider it necessary to wear mourning. The day before his death we received a letter canceling these instructions. He wished his body to be embalmed (he gave us the address of the man we were to employ—Pennifer, Ludgate Hill), with orders that his right hand was to be sent to you, stating that it was at your special request. The other arrangements as to the funeral remained unaltered.”
“Good Lord!” said Eustace; “what in the world was the old boy driving at? And what in the name of all that’s holy is that?”
Someone was in the gallery. Someone had pulled the cord attached to one of the blinds, and it had rolled up with a snap. Someone must be in the gallery, for a second blind did the same. Someone must be walking round the gallery, for one after the other the blinds sprang up, letting in the moonlight.
“I haven’t got to the bottom of this yet,” said Eustace, “but I will do before the night is very much older,” and he hurried up the corkscrew stair. He had just got to the top when the lights went out a second time, and he heard again the scuttling along the floor. Quickly he stole on tiptoe in the dim moonshine in the direction of the noise, feeling as he went for one of the switches. His fingers touched the metal knob at last. He turned on the electric light.
About ten yards in front of him, crawling along the floor, was a man’s hand. Eustace stared at it in utter astonishment. It was moving quickly, in the manner of a geometer caterpillar, the fingers humped up one moment, flattened out the next; the thumb appeared to give a crab-like motion to the whole. While he was looking, too surprised to stir, the hand disappeared round the corner Eustace ran forward. He no longer saw it, but he could hear it as it squeezed its way behind the books on one of the shelves. A heavy volume had been displaced. There was a gap in the row of books where it had got in. In his fear lest it should escape him again, he seized the first book that came to his hand and plugged it into the hole. Then, emptying two shelves of their contents, he took the wooden boards and propped them up in front to make his barrier doubly sure.
“I wish Saunders was back,” he said; “one can’t tackle this sort of thing alone.” It was after eleven, and there seemed little likelihood of Saunders returning before twelve. He did not dare to leave the shelf unwatched, even to run downstairs to ring the bell. Morton the butler often used to come round about eleven to see that the windows were fastened, but he might not come. Eustace was thoroughly unstrung. At last he heard steps down below.
“Morton!” he shouted; “Morton!”
“Has Mr. Saunders got back yet?”
“Not yet, sir.”
“Well, bring me some brandy, and hurry up about it. I’m up here in the gallery, you duffer.”
“Thanks,” said Eustace, as he emptied the glass. “Don’t go to bed yet, Morton. There are a lot of books that have fallen down by accident; bring them up and put them back in their shelves.”
Morton had never seen Borlsover in so talkative a mood as on that night. “Here,” said Eustace, when the books had been put back and dusted, “you might hold up these boards for me, Morton. That beast in the box got out, and I’ve been chasing it all over the place.”
“I think I can hear it chawing at the books, sir. They’re not valuable, I hope? I think that’s the carriage, sir; I’ll go and call Mr. Saunders.”
It seemed to Eustace that he was away for five minutes, but it could hardly have been more than one when he returned with Saunders. “All right, Morton, you can go now. I’m up here, Saunders.”
“What’s all the row?” asked Saunders, as he lounged forward with his hands in his pockets. The luck had been with him all the evening. He was completely satisfied, both with himself and with Captain Lockwood’s taste in wines. “What’s the matter? You look to me to be in an absolute blue funk.”
“That old devil of an uncle of mine,” began Eustace—“oh, I can’t explain it all. It’s his hand that’s been playing old Harry all the evening. But I’ve got it cornered behind these books. You’ve got to help me catch it.”
“What’s up with you, Eustace? What’s the game?”
“It’s no game, you silly idiot! If you don’t believe me take out one of those books and put your hand in and feel.”
“All right,” said Saunders; “but wait till I’ve rolled up my sleeve. The accumulated dust of centuries, eh?” He took off his coat, knelt down, and thrust his arm along the shelf.
“There’s something there right enough,” he said. “It’s got a funny stumpy end to it, whatever it is, and nips like a crab. Ah, no, you don’t!” He pulled his hand out in a flash. “Shove in a book quickly. Now it can’t get out.”
“What was it?” asked Eustace.
“It was something that wanted very much to get hold of me. I felt what seemed like a thumb and forefinger. Give me some brandy.”
“How are we to get it out of there?”
“What about a landing net?”
“No good. It would be too smart for us. I tell you, Saunders, it can cover the ground far faster than I can walk. But I think I see how we can manage it. The two books at the end of the shelf are big ones that go right back against the wall. The others are very thin. I’ll take out one at a time, and you slide the rest along until we have it squashed between the end two.”
It certainly seemed to be the best plan. One by one, as they took out the books, the space behind grew smaller and smaller. There was something in it that was certainly very much alive. Once they caught sight of fingers pressing outward for a way of escape. At last they had it pressed between the two big books.
“There’s muscle there, if there isn’t flesh and blood,” said Saunders, as he held them together. “It seems to be a hand right enough, too. I suppose this is a sort of infectious hallucination. I’ve read about such cases before.”
“Infectious fiddlesticks!” said Eustace, his face white with anger; “bring the thing downstairs. We’ll get it back into the box.”
It was not altogether easy, but they were successful at last. “Drive in the screws,” said Eustace, “we won’t run any risks. Put the box in this old desk of mine. There’s nothing in it that I want. Here’s the key. Thank goodness, there’s nothing wrong with the lock.”
“Quite a lively evening,” said Saunders. “Now let’s hear more about your uncle.”
They sat up together until early morning. Saunders had no desire for sleep. Eustace was trying to explain and to forget: to conceal from himself a fear that he had never felt before—the fear of walking alone down the long corridor to his bedroom.
“Whatever it was,” said Eustace to Saunders on the following morning, “I propose that we drop the subject. There’s nothing to keep us here for the next ten days. We’ll motor up to the Lakes and get some climbing.”
“And see nobody all day, and sit bored to death with each other every night. Not for me thanks. Why not run up to town? Run’s the exact word in this case, isn’t it? We’re both in such a blessed funk. Pull yourself together Eustace, and let’s have another look at the hand.”
“As you like,” said Eustace; “there’s the key.” They went into the library and opened the desk. The box was as they had left it on the previous night.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Eustace.
“I am waiting for you to volunteer to open the lid. However, since you seem to funk it, allow me. There doesn’t seem to be the likelihood of any rumpus this morning, at all events.” He opened the lid and picked out the hand.
“Cold?” asked Eustace.
“Tepid. A bit below blood-heat by the feel. Soft and supple too. If it’s the embalming, it’s a sort of embalming I’ve never seen before. Is it your uncle’s hand?”
“Oh, yes, it’s his all right,” said Eustace. “I should know those long thin fingers anywhere. Put it back in the box, Saunders. Never mind about the screws. I’ll lock the desk, so that there’ll be no chance of its getting out. We’ll compromise by motoring up to town for a week. If we get off soon after lunch we ought to be at Grantham or Stamford by night.”
“Right,” said Saunders; “and to-morrow—Oh, well, by to-morrow we shall have forgotten all about this beastly thing.”
If when the morrow came they had not forgotten, it was certainly true that at the end of the week they were able to tell a very vivid ghost story at the little supper Eustace gave on Hallow E’en.
“You don’t want us to believe that it’s true, Mr. Borlsover? How perfectly awful!”
“I’ll take my oath on it, and so would Saunders here; wouldn’t you, old chap?”
“Any number of oaths,” said Saunders. “It was a long thin hand, you know, and it gripped me just like that.”
“Don’t Mr. Saunders! Don’t! How perfectly horrid! Now tell us another one, do. Only a really creepy one, please!”
* * * * *
“Here’s a pretty mess!” said Eustace on the following day as he threw a letter across the table to Saunders. “It’s your affair, though. Mrs. Merrit, if I understand it, gives a month’s notice.”
“Oh, that’s quite absurd on Mrs. Merrit’s part,” Saunders replied. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Let’s see what she says.”
“DEAR SIR,” he read, “this is to let you know that I must give you a month’s notice as from Tuesday the 13th. For a long time I’ve felt the place too big for me, but when Jane Parfit, and Emma Laidlaw go off with scarcely as much as an ‘if you please,’ after frightening the wits out of the other girls, so that they can’t turn out a room by themselves or walk alone down the stairs for fear of treading on half-frozen toads or hearing it run along the passages at night, all I can say is that it’s no place for me. So I must ask you, Mr. Borlsover, sir, to find a new housekeeper that has no objection to large and lonely houses, which some people do say, not that I believe them for a minute, my poor mother always having been a Wesleyan, are haunted.
“P.S.—I should be obliged if you would give my respects to Mr. Saunders. I hope that he won’t run no risks with his cold.”
“Saunders,” said Eustace, “you’ve always had a wonderful way with you in dealing with servants. You mustn’t let poor old Merrit go.”
“Of course she shan’t go,” said Saunders. “She’s probably only angling for a rise in salary. I’ll write to her this morning.”
“No; there’s nothing like a personal interview. We’ve had enough of town. We’ll go back to-morrow, and you must work your cold for all it’s worth. Don’t forget that it’s got on to the chest, and will require weeks of feeding up and nursing.”
“All right. I think I can manage Mrs. Merrit.”
But Mrs. Merrit was more obstinate than he had thought. She was very sorry to hear of Mr. Saunders’s cold, and how he lay awake all night in London coughing; very sorry indeed. She’d change his room for him gladly, and get the south room aired. And wouldn’t he have a basin of hot bread and milk last thing at night? But she was afraid that she would have to leave at the end of the month.
“Try her with an increase of salary,” was the advice of Eustace.
It was no use. Mrs. Merrit was obdurate, though she knew of a Mrs. Handyside who had been housekeeper to Lord Gargrave, who might be glad to come at the salary mentioned.
“What’s the matter with the servants, Morton?” asked Eustace that evening when he brought the coffee into the library. “What’s all this about Mrs. Merrit wanting to leave?”
“If you please, sir, I was going to mention it myself. I have a confession to make, sir. When I found your note asking me to open that desk and take out the box with the rat, I broke the lock as you told me, and was glad to do it, because I could hear the animal in the box making a great noise, and I thought it wanted food. So I took out the box, sir, and got a cage, and was going to transfer it, when the animal got away.”
“What in the world are you talking about? I never wrote any such note.”
“Excuse me, sir, it was the note I picked up here on the floor on the day you and Mr. Saunders left. I have it in my pocket now.”
It certainly seemed to be in Eustace’s handwriting. It was written in pencil, and began somewhat abruptly.
“Get a hammer, Morton,” he read, “or some other tool, and break open the lock in the old desk in the library. Take out the box that is inside. You need not do anything else. The lid is already open. Eustace Borlsover.”
“And you opened the desk?”
“Yes, sir; and as I was getting the cage ready the animal hopped out.”
“The animal inside the box, sir.”
“What did it look like?”
“Well, sir, I couldn’t tell you,” said Morton nervously; “my back was turned, and it was halfway down the room when I looked up.”
“What was its color?” asked Saunders; “black?”
“Oh, no, sir, a grayish white. It crept along in a very funny way, sir. I don’t think it had a tail.”
“What did you do then?”
“I tried to catch it, but it was no use. So I set the rat-traps and kept the library shut. Then that girl Emma Laidlaw left the door open when she was cleaning, and I think it must have escaped.”
“And you think it was the animal that’s been frightening the maids?”
“Well, no, sir, not quite. They said it was—you’ll excuse me, sir—a hand that they saw. Emma trod on it once at the bottom of the stairs. She thought then it was a half-frozen toad, only white. And then Parfit was washing up the dishes in the scullery. She wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. It was close on dusk. She took her hands out of the water and was drying them absent-minded like on the roller towel, when she found that she was drying someone else’s hand as well, only colder than hers.”
“What nonsense!” exclaimed Saunders.
“Exactly, sir; that’s what I told her; but we couldn’t get her to stop.”
“You don’t believe all this?” said Eustace, turning suddenly towards the butler.
“Me, sir? Oh, no, sir! I’ve not seen anything.”
“Nor heard anything?”
“Well, sir, if you must know, the bells do ring at odd times, and there’s nobody there when we go; and when we go round to draw the blinds of a night, as often as not somebody’s been there before us. But as I says to Mrs. Merrit, a young monkey might do wonderful things, and we all know that Mr. Borlsover has had some strange animals about the place.”
“Very well, Morton, that will do.”
“What do you make of it?” asked Saunders when they were alone. “I mean of the letter he said you wrote.”
“Oh, that’s simple enough,” said Eustace. “See the paper it’s written on? I stopped using that years ago, but there were a few odd sheets and envelopes left in the old desk. We never fastened up the lid of the box before locking it in. The hand got out, found a pencil, wrote this note, and shoved it through a crack on to the floor where Morton found it. That’s plain as daylight.”
“But the hand couldn’t write?”
“Couldn’t it? You’ve not seen it do the things I’ve seen,” and he told Saunders more of what had happened at Eastbourne.
“Well,” said Saunders, “in that case we have at least an explanation of the legacy. It was the hand which wrote unknown to your uncle that letter to your solicitor, bequeathing itself to you. Your uncle had no more to do with that request than I. In fact, it would seem that he had some idea of this automatic writing, and feared it.”
“Then if it’s not my uncle, what is it?”
“I suppose some people might say that a disembodied spirit had got your uncle to educate and prepare a little body for it. Now it’s got into that little body and is off on its own.”
“Well, what are we to do?”
“We’ll keep our eyes open,” said Saunders, “and try to catch it. If we can’t do that, we shall have to wait till the bally clockwork runs down. After all, if it’s flesh and blood, it can’t live for ever.”
For two days nothing happened. Then Saunders saw it sliding down the banister in the hall. He was taken unawares, and lost a full second before he started in pursuit, only to find that the thing had escaped him. Three days later, Eustace, writing alone in the library at night, saw it sitting on an open book at the other end of the room. The fingers crept over the page, feeling the print as if it were reading; but before he had time to get up from his seat, it had taken the alarm and was pulling itself up the curtains. Eustace watched it grimly as it hung on to the cornice with three fingers, flicking thumb and forefinger at him in an expression of scornful derision.
“I know what I’ll do,” he said. “If I only get it into the open I’ll set the dogs on to it.”
He spoke to Saunders of the suggestion.
“It’s jolly good idea,” he said; “only we won’t wait till we find it out of doors. We’ll get the dogs. There are the two terriers and the under-keeper’s Irish mongrel that’s on to rats like a flash. Your spaniel has not got spirit enough for this sort of game.” They brought the dogs into the house, and the keeper’s Irish mongrel chewed up the slippers, and the terriers tripped up Morton as he waited at table; but all three were welcome. Even false security is better than no security at all.
For a fortnight nothing happened. Then the hand was caught, not by the dogs, but by Mrs. Merrit’s gray parrot. The bird was in the habit of periodically removing the pins that kept its seed and water tins in place, and of escaping through the holes in the side of the cage. When once at liberty Peter would show no inclination to return, and would often be about the house for days. Now, after six consecutive weeks of captivity, Peter had again discovered a new means of unloosing his bolts and was at large, exploring the tapestried forests of the curtains and singing songs in praise of liberty from cornice and picture rail.
“It’s no use your trying to catch him,” said Eustace to Mrs. Merrit, as she came into the study one afternoon towards dusk with a step-ladder. “You’d much better leave Peter alone. Starve him into surrender, Mrs. Merrit, and don’t leave bananas and seed about for him to peck at when he fancies he’s hungry. You’re far too softhearted.”
“Well, sir, I see he’s right out of reach now on that picture rail, so if you wouldn’t mind closing the door, sir, when you leave the room, I’ll bring his cage in to-night and put some meat inside it. He’s that fond of meat, though it does make him pull out his feathers to suck the quills. They do say that if you cook—”
“Never mind, Mrs. Merrit,” said Eustace, who was busy writing. “That will do; I’ll keep an eye on the bird.”
There was silence in the room, unbroken but for the continuous whisper of his pen.
“Scratch poor Peter,” said the bird. “Scratch poor old Peter!”
“Be quiet, you beastly bird!”
“Poor old Peter! Scratch poor Peter, do.”
“I’m more likely to wring your neck if I get hold of you.” He looked up at the picture rail, and there was the hand holding on to a hook with three fingers, and slowly scratching the head of the parrot with the fourth. Eustace ran to the bell and pressed it hard; then across to the window, which he closed with a bang. Frightened by the noise the parrot shook its wings preparatory to flight, and as it did so the fingers of the hand got hold of it by the throat. There was a shrill scream from Peter as he fluttered across the room, wheeling round in circles that ever descended, borne down under the weight that clung to him. The bird dropped at last quite suddenly, and Eustace saw fingers and feathers rolled into an inextricable mass on the floor. The struggle abruptly ceased as finger and thumb squeezed the neck; the bird’s eyes rolled up to show the whites, and there was a faint, half-choked gurgle. But before the fingers had time to loose their hold, Eustace had them in his own.
“Send Mr. Saunders here at once,” he said to the maid who came in answer to the bell. “Tell him I want him immediately.”
Then he went with the hand to the fire. There was a ragged gash across the back where the bird’s beak had torn it, but no blood oozed from the wound. He noticed with disgust that the nails had grown long and discolored.
“I’ll burn the beastly thing,” he said. But he could not burn it. He tried to throw it into the flames, but his own hands, as if restrained by some old primitive feeling, would not let him. And so Saunders found him pale and irresolute, with the hand still clasped tightly in his fingers.
“I’ve got it at last,” he said in a tone of triumph.
“Good; let’s have a look at it.”
“Not when it’s loose. Get me some nails and a hammer and a board of some sort.”
“Can you hold it all right?”
“Yes, the thing’s quite limp; tired out with throttling poor old Peter, I should say.”
“And now,” said Saunders when he returned with the things, “what are we going to do?”
“Drive a nail through it first, so that it can’t get away; then we can take our time over examining it.”
“Do it yourself,” said Saunders. “I don’t mind helping you with guinea-pigs occasionally when there’s something to be learned; partly because I don’t fear a guinea-pig’s revenge. This thing’s different.”
“All right, you miserable skunk. I won’t forget the way you’ve stood by me.”
He took up a nail, and before Saunders had realised what he was doing had driven it through the hand, deep into the board.
“Oh, my aunt,” he giggled hysterically, “look at it now,” for the hand was writhing in agonized contortions, squirming and wriggling upon the nail like a worm upon the hook.
“Well,” said Saunders, “you’ve done it now. I’ll leave you to examine it.”
“Don’t go, in heaven’s name. Cover it up, man, cover it up! Shove a cloth over it! Here!” and he pulled off the antimacassar from the back of a chair and wrapped the board in it. “Now get the keys from my pocket and open the safe. Chuck the other things out. Oh, Lord, it’s getting itself into frightful knots! and open it quick!” He threw the thing in and banged the door.
“We’ll keep it there till it dies,” he said. “May I burn in hell if I ever open the door of that safe again.”
* * * * *
Mrs. Merrit departed at the end of the month. Her successor certainly was more successful in the management of the servants. Early in her rule she declared that she would stand no nonsense, and gossip soon withered and died. Eustace Borlsover went back to his old way of life. Old habits crept over and covered his new experience. He was, if anything, less morose, and showed a greater inclination to take his natural part in country society.
“I shouldn’t be surprised if he marries one of these days,” said Saunders. “Well, I’m in no hurry for such an event. I know Eustace far too well for the future Mrs. Borlsover to like me It will be the same old story again: a long friendship slowly made—marriage—and a long friendship quickly forgotten.”
But Eustace Borlsover did not follow the advice of his uncle and marry. He was too fond of old slippers and tobacco. The cooking, too, under Mrs. Handyside’s management was excellent, and she seemed, too, to have a heaven-sent faculty in knowing when to stop dusting.
Little by little the old life resumed its old power. Then came the burglary. The men, it was said, broke into the house by way of the conservatory. It was really little more than an attempt, for they only succeeded in carrying away a few pieces of plate from the pantry. The safe in the study was certainly found open and empty, but, as Mr. Borlsover informed the police inspector, he had kept nothing of value in it during the last six months.
“Then you’re lucky in getting off so easily, sir,” the man replied. “By the way they have gone about their business, I should say they were experienced cracksmen. They must have caught the alarm when they were just beginning their evening’s work.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “I suppose I am lucky.”
“I’ve no doubt,” said the inspector, “that we shall be able to trace the men. I’ve said that they must have been old hands at the game. The way they got in and opened the safe shows that. But there’s one little thing that puzzles me. One of them was careless enough not to wear gloves, and I’m bothered if I know what he was trying to do. I’ve traced his finger-marks on the new varnish on the window sashes in every one of the downstairs rooms. They are very distinct ones too.”
“Right hand or left, or both?” asked Eustace.
“Oh, right every time. That’s the funny thing. He must have been a foolhardy fellow, and I rather think it was him that wrote that.” He took out a slip of paper from his pocket. “That’s what he wrote, sir. ‘I’ve got out, Eustace Borlsover, but I’ll be back before long.’ Some gaol bird just escaped, I suppose. It will make it all the easier for us to trace him. Do you know the writing, sir?”
“No,” said Eustace; “it’s not the writing of anyone I know.”
“I’m not going to stay here any longer,” said Eustace to Saunders at luncheon. “I’ve got on far better during the last six months than ever I expected, but I’m not going to run the risk of seeing that thing again. I shall go up to town this afternoon. Get Morton to put my things together, and join me with the car at Brighton on the day after to-morrow. And bring the proofs of those two papers with you. We’ll run over them together.”
“How long are you going to be away?”
“I can’t say for certain, but be prepared to stay for some time. We’ve stuck to work pretty closely through the summer, and I for one need a holiday. I’ll engage the rooms at Brighton. You’ll find it best to break the journey at Hitchin. I’ll wire to you there at the Crown to tell you the Brighton address.”
The house he chose at Brighton was in a terrace. He had been there before. It was kept by his old college gyp, a man of discreet silence, who was admirably partnered by an excellent cook. The rooms were on the first floor. The two bedrooms were at the back, and opened out of each other. “Saunders can have the smaller one, though it is the only one with a fireplace,” he said. “I’ll stick to the larger of the two, since it’s got a bathroom adjoining. I wonder what time he’ll arrive with the car.”
Saunders came about seven, cold and cross and dirty. “We’ll light the fire in the dining-room,” said Eustace, “and get Prince to unpack some of the things while we are at dinner. What were the roads like?”
“Rotten; swimming with mud, and a beastly cold wind against us all day. And this is July. Dear old England!”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “I think we might do worse than leave dear old England for a few months.”
They turned in soon after twelve.
“You oughtn’t to feel cold, Saunders,” said Eustace, “when you can afford to sport a great cat-skin lined coat like this. You do yourself very well, all things considered. Look at those gloves, for instance. Who could possibly feel cold when wearing them?”
“They are far too clumsy though for driving. Try them on and see,” and he tossed them through the door on to Eustace’s bed, and went on with his unpacking. A minute later he heard a shrill cry of terror. “Oh, Lord,” he heard, “it’s in the glove! Quick, Saunders, quick!” Then came a smacking thud. Eustace had thrown it from him. “I’ve chucked it into the bathroom,” he gasped, “it’s hit the wall and fallen into the bath. Come now if you want to help.” Saunders, with a lighted candle in his hand, looked over the edge of the bath. There it was, old and maimed, dumb and blind, with a ragged hole in the middle, crawling, staggering, trying to creep up the slippery sides, only to fall back helpless.
“Stay there,” said Saunders. “I’ll empty a collar box or something, and we’ll jam it in. It can’t get out while I’m away.”
“Yes, it can,” shouted Eustace. “It’s getting out now. It’s climbing up the plug chain. No, you brute, you filthy brute, you don’t! Come back, Saunders, it’s getting away from me. I can’t hold it; it’s all slippery. Curse its claw! Shut the window, you idiot! The top too, as well as the bottom. You utter idiot! It’s got out!” There was the sound of something dropping on to the hard flagstones below, and Eustace fell back fainting.
* * * * *
For a fortnight he was ill.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” the doctor said to Saunders. “I can only suppose that Mr. Borlsover has suffered some great emotional shock. You had better let me send someone to help you nurse him. And by all means indulge that whim of his never to be left alone in the dark. I would keep a light burning all night if I were you. But he must have more fresh air. It’s perfectly absurd this hatred of open windows.”
Eustace, however, would have no one with him but Saunders. “I don’t want the other men,” he said. “They’d smuggle it in somehow. I know they would.”
“Don’t worry about it, old chap. This sort of thing can’t go on indefinitely. You know I saw it this time as well as you. It wasn’t half so active. It won’t go on living much longer, especially after that fall. I heard it hit the flags myself. As soon as you’re a bit stronger we’ll leave this place; not bag and baggage, but with only the clothes on our backs, so that it won’t be able to hide anywhere. We’ll escape it that way. We won’t give any address, and we won’t have any parcels sent after us. Cheer up, Eustace! You’ll be well enough to leave in a day or two. The doctor says I can take you out in a chair to-morrow.”
“What have I done?” asked Eustace. “Why does it come after me? I’m no worse than other men. I’m no worse than you, Saunders; you know I’m not. It was you who were at the bottom of that dirty business in San Diego, and that was fifteen years ago.”
“It’s not that, of course,” said Saunders. “We are in the twentieth century, and even the parsons have dropped the idea of your old sins finding you out. Before you caught the hand in the library it was filled with pure malevolence—to you and all mankind. After you spiked it through with that nail it naturally forgot about other people, and concentrated its attention on you. It was shut up in the safe, you know, for nearly six months. That gives plenty of time for thinking of revenge.”
Eustace Borlsover would not leave his room, but he thought that there might be something in Saunders’s suggestion to leave Brighton without notice. He began rapidly to regain his strength.
“We’ll go on the first of September,” he said.
* * * * *
The evening of August 31st was oppressively warm. Though at midday the windows had been wide open, they had been shut an hour or so before dusk. Mrs. Prince had long since ceased to wonder at the strange habits of the gentlemen on the first floor. Soon after their arrival she had been told to take down the heavy window curtains in the two bedrooms, and day by day the rooms had seemed to grow more bare. Nothing was left lying about.
“Mr. Borlsover doesn’t like to have any place where dirt can collect,” Saunders had said as an excuse. “He likes to see into all the corners of the room.”
“Couldn’t I open the window just a little?” he said to Eustace that evening. “We’re simply roasting in here, you know.”
“No, leave well alone. We’re not a couple of boarding-school misses fresh from a course of hygiene lectures. Get the chessboard out.”
They sat down and played. At ten o’clock Mrs. Prince came to the door with a note. “I am sorry I didn’t bring it before,” she said, “but it was left in the letter-box.”
“Open it, Saunders, and see if it wants answering.”
It was very brief. There was neither address nor signature.
“Will eleven o’clock to-night be suitable for our last appointment?”
“Who is it from?” asked Borlsover.
“It was meant for me,” said Saunders. “There’s no answer, Mrs. Prince,” and he put the paper into his pocket. “A dunning letter from a tailor; I suppose he must have got wind of our leaving.”
It was a clever lie, and Eustace asked no more questions. They went on with their game.
On the landing outside Saunders could hear the grandfather’s clock whispering the seconds, blurting out the quarter-hours.
“Check!” said Eustace. The clock struck eleven. At the same time there was a gentle knocking on the door; it seemed to come from the bottom panel.
“Who’s there?” asked Eustace.
There was no answer.
“Mrs. Prince, is that you?”
“She is up above,” said Saunders; “I can hear her walking about the room.”
“Then lock the door; bolt it too. Your move, Saunders.”
While Saunders sat with his eyes on the chessboard, Eustace walked over to the window and examined the fastenings. He did the same in Saunders’s room and the bathroom. There were no doors between the three rooms, or he would have shut and locked them too.
“Now, Saunders,” he said, “don’t stay all night over your move. I’ve had time to smoke one cigarette already. It’s bad to keep an invalid waiting. There’s only one possible thing for you to do. What was that?”
“The ivy blowing against the window. There, it’s your move now, Eustace.”
“It wasn’t the ivy, you idiot. It was someone tapping at the window,” and he pulled up the blind. On the outer side of the window, clinging to the sash, was the hand.
“What is it that it’s holding?”
“It’s a pocket-knife. It’s going to try to open the window by pushing back the fastener with the blade.”
“Well, let it try,” said Eustace. “Those fasteners screw down; they can’t be opened that way. Anyhow, we’ll close the shutters. It’s your move, Saunders. I’ve played.”
But Saunders found it impossible to fix his attention on the game. He could not understand Eustace, who seemed all at once to have lost his fear. “What do you say to some wine?” he asked. “You seem to be taking things coolly, but I don’t mind confessing that I’m in a blessed funk.”
“You’ve no need to be. There’s nothing supernatural about that hand, Saunders. I mean it seems to be governed by the laws of time and space. It’s not the sort of thing that vanishes into thin air or slides through oaken doors. And since that’s so, I defy it to get in here. We’ll leave the place in the morning. I for one have bottomed the depths of fear. Fill your glass, man! The windows are all shuttered, the door is locked and bolted. Pledge me my uncle Adrian! Drink, man! What are you waiting for?”
Saunders was standing with his glass half raised. “It can get in,” he said hoarsely; “it can get in! We’ve forgotten. There’s the fireplace in my bedroom. It will come down the chimney.”
“Quick!” said Eustace, as he rushed into the other room; “we haven’t a minute to lose. What can we do? Light the fire, Saunders. Give me a match, quick!”
“They must be all in the other room. I’ll get them.”
“Hurry, man, for goodness’ sake! Look in the bookcase! Look in the bathroom! Here, come and stand here; I’ll look.”
“Be quick!” shouted Saunders. “I can hear something!”
“Then plug a sheet from your bed up the chimney. No, here’s a match.” He had found one at last that had slipped into a crack in the floor.
“Is the fire laid? Good, but it may not burn. I know—the oil from that old reading-lamp and this cotton-wool. Now the match, quick! Pull the sheet away, you fool! We don’t want it now.”
There was a great roar from the grate as the flames shot up. Saunders had been a fraction of a second too late with the sheet. The oil had fallen on to it. It, too, was burning.
“The whole place will be on fire!” cried Eustace, as he tried to beat out the flames with a blanket. “It’s no good! I can’t manage it. You must open the door, Saunders, and get help.”
Saunders ran to the door and fumbled with the bolts. The key was stiff in the lock.
“Hurry!” shouted Eustace; “the whole place is ablaze!”
The key turned in the lock at last. For half a second Saunders stopped to look back. Afterwards he could never be quite sure as to what he had seen, but at the time he thought that something black and charred was creeping slowly, very slowly, from the mass of flames towards Eustace Borlsover. For a moment he thought of returning to his friend, but the noise and the smell of the burning sent him running down the passage crying, “Fire! Fire!” He rushed to the telephone to summon help, and then back to the bathroom—he should have thought of that before—for water. As he burst open the bedroom door there came a scream of terror which ended suddenly, and then the sound of a heavy fall.
BY ANATOLE FRANCE
From Mother of Pearl,
by Anatole France. Copyright by John Lane
Company. By permission of the publishers.
This tale the sacristan of the church of St. Eulalie at Neuville d’Aumont told me, as we sat under the arbor of the White Horse, one fine summer evening, drinking a bottle of old wine to the health of the dead man, now very much at his ease, whom that very morning he had borne to the grave with full honors, beneath a pall powdered with smart silver tears.
“My poor father who is dead” (it is the sacristan who is speaking,) “was in his lifetime a grave-digger. He was of an agreeable disposition, the result, no doubt, of the calling he followed, for it has often been pointed out that people who work in cemeteries are of a jovial turn. Death has no terrors for them; they never give it a thought. I, for instance, monsieur, enter a cemetery at night as little perturbed as though it were the arbor of the White Horse. And if by chance I meet with a ghost, I don’t disturb myself in the least about it, for I reflect that he may just as likely have business of his own to attend to as I. I know the habits of the dead, and I know their character. Indeed, so far as that goes, I know things of which the priests themselves are ignorant. If I were to tell you all I have seen, you would be astounded. But a still tongue makes a wise head, and my father, who, all the same, delighted in spinning a yarn, did not disclose a twentieth part of what he knew. To make up for this he often repeated the same stories, and to my knowledge he told the story of Catherine Fontaine at least a hundred times.
“Catherine Fontaine was an old maid whom he well remembered having seen when he was a mere child. I should not be surprised if there were still, perhaps, three old fellows in the district who could remember having heard folks speak of her, for she was very well known and of excellent reputation, though poor enough. She lived at the corner of the Rue aux Nonnes, in the turret which is still to be seen there, and which formed part of an old half-ruined mansion looking on to the garden of the Ursuline nuns. On that turret can still be traced certain figures and half-obliterated inscriptions. The late cure of St. Eulalie, Monsieur Levasseur, asserted that there are the words in Latin, Love is stronger than death, ‘which is to be understood,’ so he would add, ’of divine love.’
“Catherine Fontaine lived by herself in this tiny apartment. She was a lace-maker. You know, of course, that the lace made in our part of the world was formerly held in high esteem. No one knew anything of her relatives or friends. It was reported that when she was eighteen years of age she had loved the young Chevalier d’Aumont-Clery, and had been secretly affianced to him. But decent folk didn’t believe a word of it, and said it was nothing but a tale concocted because Catherine Fontaine’s demeanor was that of a lady rather than that of a working woman, and because, moreover, she possessed beneath her white locks the remains of great beauty. Her expression was sorrowful, and on one finger she wore one of those rings fashioned by the goldsmith into the semblance of two tiny hands clasped together. In former days folks were accustomed to exchange such rings at their betrothal ceremony. I am sure you know the sort of thing I mean.
“Catherine Fontaine lived a saintly life. She spent a great deal of time in churches, and every morning, whatever might be the weather, she went to assist at the six o’clock Mass at St. Eulalie.
“Now one December night, whilst she was in her little chamber, she was awakened by the sound of bells, and nothing doubting that they were ringing for the first Mass, the pious woman dressed herself, and came downstairs and out into the street. The night was so obscure that not even the walls of the houses were visible, and not a ray of light shone from the murky sky. And such was the silence amid this black darkness, that there was not even the sound of a distant dog barking, and a feeling of aloofness from every living creature was perceptible. But Catherine Fontaine knew well every single stone she stepped on, and, as she could have found her way to the church with her eyes shut, she reached without difficulty the corner of the Rue aux Nonnes and the Rue de la Paroisse, where the timbered house stands with the tree of Jesse carved on one of its massive beams. When she reached this spot she perceived that the church doors were open, and that a great light was streaming out from the wax tapers. She resumed
“’Monseigneur, you who were my friend, and to whom in days gone by I gave all that a girl holds most dear, may God keep you in His grace! O, that He would at length inspire me with regret for the sin I committed in yielding to you; for it is a fact that, though my hair is white and I approach my end, I have not yet repented of having loved you. But, dear dead friend and noble seigneur, tell me, who are these folk, habited after the antique fashion, who are here assisting at this silent Mass?’
“The Chevalier d’Aumont-Clery replied in a voice feebler than a breath, but none the less crystal clear:
“’Catherine, these men and women are souls from purgatory who have grieved God by sinning as we ourselves sinned through love of the creature, but who are not on that account cast off by God, inasmuch as their sin, like ours, was not deliberate.
“’Whilst separated from those whom they loved upon earth, they are purified in the cleansing fires of purgatory, they suffer the pangs of absence, which is for them the most cruel of tortures. They are so unhappy that an angel from heaven takes pity upon their love-torment. By the permission of the Most High, for one hour in the night, he reunites each year lover to loved in their parish church, where they are permitted to assist at the Mass of Shadows, hand clasped in hand. These are the facts. If it has been granted to me to see thee before thy death, Catherine, it is a boon which is bestowed by God’s special permission.’
“And Catherine Fontaine answered him:
“’I would die gladly enough, dear, dead lord, if I might recover the beauty that was mine when I gave you to drink in the forest.’
“Whilst they thus conversed under their breath, a very old canon was taking the collection and proffering to the worshipers a great copper dish, wherein they let fall, each in his turn, ancient coins which have long since ceased to pass current: ecus of six livres, florins, ducats and ducatoons, jacobuses and rose-nobles, and the pieces fell silently into the dish. When at length it was placed before the Chevalier, he dropped into it a louis which made no more sound than had the other pieces of gold and silver.
“Then the old canon stopped before Catherine Fontaine, who fumbled in her pocket without being able to find a farthing. Then, being unwilling to allow the dish to pass without an offering from herself, she slipped from her finger the ring which the Chevalier had given her the day before his death, and cast it into the copper bowl. As the golden ring fell, a sound like the heavy clang of a bell rang out, and on the stroke of this reverberation the Chevalier, the canon, the celebrant, the servers, the ladies and their cavaliers, the whole assembly vanished utterly; the candles guttered out, and Catherine Fontaine was left alone in the darkness.”
Having concluded his narrative after this fashion, the sacristan drank a long draught of wine, remained pensive for a moment, and then resumed his talk in these words:
“I have told you this tale exactly as my father has told it to me over and over again, and I believe that it is authentic, because it agrees in all respects with what I have observed of the manners and customs peculiar to those who have passed away. I have associated a good deal with the dead ever since my childhood, and I know that they are accustomed to return to what they have loved.
“It is on this account that the miserly dead wander at night in the neighborhood of the treasures they conceal during their life time. They keep a strict watch over their gold; but the trouble they give themselves, far from being of service to them, turns to their disadvantage; and it is not a rare thing at all to come upon money buried in the ground on digging in a place haunted by a ghost. In the same way deceased husbands come by night to harass their wives who have made a second matrimonial venture, and I could easily name several who have kept a better watch over their wives since death than they ever did while living.
“That sort of thing is blameworthy, for in all fairness the dead have no business to stir up jealousies. Still I do but tell you what I have observed myself. It is a matter to take into account if one marries a widow. Besides, the tale I have told you is vouchsafed for in the manner following:
“The morning after that extraordinary night Catherine Fontaine was discovered dead in her chamber. And the beadle attached to St. Eulalie found in the copper bowl used for the collection a gold ring with two clasped hands. Besides, I’m not the kind of man to make jokes. Suppose we order another bottle of wine?...”
What Was It?
It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence, that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I purpose detailing are of so extraordinary a character that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity and scorn. I accept all such beforehand. I have, I trust, the literary courage to face unbelief. I have, after mature consideration resolved to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can compass, some facts that passed under my observation, in the month of July last, and which, in the annals of the mysteries of physical science, are wholly unparalleled.
I live at No. —— Twenty-sixth Street, in New York. The house is in some respects a curious one. It has enjoyed for the last two years the reputation of being haunted. It is a large and stately residence, surrounded by what was once a garden, but which is now only a green enclosure used for bleaching clothes. The dry basin of what has been a fountain, and a few fruit trees ragged and unpruned, indicate that this spot in past days was a pleasant, shady retreat, filled with fruits and flowers and the sweet murmur of waters.
The house is very spacious. A hall of noble size leads to a large spiral staircase winding through its center, while the various apartments are of imposing dimensions. It was built some fifteen or twenty years since by Mr. A——, the well-known New York merchant, who five years ago threw the commercial world into convulsions by a stupendous bank fraud. Mr. A——, as everyone knows, escaped to Europe, and died not long after, of a broken heart.
It was in this state of things that my landlady, who at that time kept a boarding-house in Bleecker Street, and who wished to move further up town, conceived the bold idea of renting No. —— Twenty-sixth Street. Happening to have in her house rather a plucky and philosophical set of boarders, she laid her scheme before us, stating candidly everything she had heard respecting the ghostly qualities of the establishment to which she wished to remove us. With the exception of two timid persons,—a sea-captain and a returned Californian, who immediately gave notice that they would leave,—all of Mrs. Moffat’s guests declared that they would accompany her in her chivalric incursion into the abode of spirits.
Our removal was effected in the month of May, and we were charmed with our new residence. The portion of Twenty-sixth Street where our house is situated, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, is one of the pleasantest localities in New York. The gardens back of the houses, running down nearly to the Hudson, form, in the summer time, a perfect avenue of verdure. The air is pure and invigorating, sweeping, as it does, straight across the river from the Weehawken heights, and even the ragged garden which surrounded the house, although displaying on washing days rather too much clothesline, still gave us a piece of greensward to look at, and a cool retreat in the summer evenings, where we smoked our cigars in the dusk, and watched the fireflies flashing their dark lanterns in the long grass.
Of course we had no sooner established ourselves at No. —— than we began to expect ghosts. We absolutely awaited their advent with eagerness. Our dinner conversation was supernatural. One of the boarders, who had purchased Mrs. Crowe’s Night Side of Nature for his own private delectation, was regarded as a public enemy by the entire household for not having bought twenty copies. The man led a life of supreme wretchedness while he was reading this volume. A system of espionage was established, of which he was the victim. If he incautiously laid the book down for an instant and left the room, it was immediately seized and read aloud in secret places to a select few. I found myself a person of immense importance, it having leaked out that I was tolerably well versed in the history of supernaturalism, and had once written a story the foundation of which was a ghost. If a table or a wainscot panel happened to warp when we were assembled in the large drawing-room, there was an instant silence, and everyone was prepared for an immediate clanking of chains and a spectral form.
After a month of psychological excitement, it was with the utmost dissatisfaction that we were forced to acknowledge that nothing in the remotest degree approaching the supernatural had manifested itself. Once the black butler asseverated that his candle had been blown out by some invisible agency while he was undressing himself for the night; but as I had more than once discovered this colored gentleman in a condition when one candle must have appeared to him like two, thought it possible that, by going a step further in his potations, he might have reversed this phenomenon, and seen no candle at all where he ought to have beheld one.
Things were in this state when an accident took place so awful and inexplicable in its character that my reason fairly reels at the bare memory of the occurrence. It was the tenth of July. After dinner was over I repaired, with my friend Dr. Hammond, to the garden to smoke my evening pipe. Independent of certain mental sympathies which existed between the Doctor and myself, we were linked together by a vice. We both smoked opium. We knew each other’s secret, and respected it. We enjoyed together that wonderful expansion of thought, that marvelous intensifying of the perceptive faculties, that boundless feeling of existence when we seem to have points of contact with the whole universe,—in short, that unimaginable spiritual bliss, which I would not surrender for a throne, and which I hope you, reader, will never—never taste.
Those hours of opium happiness which the Doctor and I spent together in secret were regulated with a scientific accuracy. We did not blindly smoke the drug of paradise, and leave our dreams to chance. While smoking, we carefully steered our conversation through the brightest and calmest channels of thought. We talked of the East, and endeavored to recall the magical panorama of its glowing scenery. We criticized the most sensuous poets,—those who painted life ruddy with health, brimming with passion, happy in the possession of youth and strength and beauty. If we talked of Shakespeare’s Tempest, we lingered over Ariel, and avoided Caliban. Like the Guebers, we turned our faces to the East, and saw only the sunny side of the world.
This skillful coloring of our train of thought produced in our subsequent visions a corresponding tone. The splendors of Arabian fairyland dyed our dreams. We paced the narrow strip of grass with the tread and port of kings. The song of the rana arborea, while he clung to the bark of the ragged plum-tree, sounded like the strains of divine musicians. Houses, walls, and streets melted like rain clouds, and vistas of unimaginable glory stretched away before us. It was a rapturous companionship. We enjoyed the vast delight more perfectly because, even in our most ecstatic moments, we were conscious of each other’s presence. Our pleasures, while individual, were still twin, vibrating and moving in musical accord.
On the evening in question, the tenth of July, the Doctor and myself drifted into an unusually metaphysical mood. We lit our large meerschaums, filled with fine Turkish tobacco, in the core of which burned a little black nut of opium, that, like the nut in the fairy tale, held within its narrow limits wonders beyond the reach of kings; we paced to and fro, conversing. A strange perversity dominated the currents of our thought. They would not flow through the sun-lit channels into which we strove to divert them. For some unaccountable reason, they constantly diverged into dark and lonesome beds, where a continual gloom brooded. It was in vain that, after our old fashion, we flung ourselves on the shores of the East, and talked of its gay bazaars, of the splendors of the time of Haroun, of harems and golden palaces. Black afreets continually arose from the depths of our talk, and expanded, like the one the fisherman released from the copper vessel, until they blotted everything bright from our vision. Insensibly, we yielded to the occult force that swayed us, and indulged in gloomy speculation. We had talked some time upon the proneness of the human mind to mysticism, and the almost universal love of the terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me. “What do you consider to be the greatest element of terror?”
The question puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly lifted arms, and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she drifted, shrieks that rent one’s heart while we, spectators, stood frozen at a window which overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her last supreme agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible, encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object, for it suggests a huge terror, the proportions of which are veiled. But it now struck me, for the first time, that there must be one great and ruling embodiment of fear,—a King of Terrors, to which all others must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would it owe its existence?
“I confess, Hammond,” I replied to my friend, “I never considered the subject before. That there must be one Something more terrible than any other thing, I feel. I cannot attempt, however, even the most vague definition.”
“I am somewhat like you, Harry,” he answered. “I feel my capacity to experience a terror greater than anything yet conceived by the human mind;—something combining in fearful and unnatural amalgamation hitherto supposed incompatible elements. The calling of the voices in Brockden Brown’s novel of Wieland is awful; so is the picture of the Dweller of the Threshold, in Bulwer’s Zanoni; but,” he added, shaking his head gloomily, “there is something more horrible still than those.”
“Look here, Hammond,” I rejoined, “let us drop this kind of talk, for Heaven’s sake! We shall suffer for it, depend on it.”
“I don’t know what’s the matter with me to-night,” he replied, “but my brain is running upon all sorts of weird and awful thoughts. I feel as if I could write a story like Hoffman, to-night, if I were only master of a literary style.”
“Well, if we are going to be Hoffmanesque in our talk, I’m off to bed. Opium and nightmares should never be brought together. How sultry it is! Good-night, Hammond.”
“Good-night, Harry. Pleasant dreams to you.”
“To you, gloomy wretch, afreets, ghouls, and enchanters.”
We parted, and each sought his respective chamber. I undressed quickly and got into bed, taking with me, according to my usual custom, a book, over which I generally read myself to sleep. I opened the volume as soon as I had laid my head upon the pillow, and instantly flung it to the other side of the room. It was Goudon’s History of Monsters,—a curious French work, which I had lately imported from Paris, but which, in the state of mind I had then reached, was anything but an agreeable companion. I resolved to go to sleep at once; so, turning down my gas until nothing but a little blue point of light glimmered on the top of the tube, I composed myself to rest.
The room was in total darkness. The atom of gas that still remained alight did not illuminate a distance of three inches round the burner. I desperately drew my arm across my eyes, as if to shut out even the darkness, and tried to think of nothing. It was in vain. The confounded themes touched on by Hammond in the garden kept obtruding themselves on my brain. I battled against them. I erected ramparts of would-be blackness of intellect to keep them out. They still crowded upon me. While I was lying still as a corpse, hoping that by a perfect physical inaction I should hasten mental repose, an awful incident occurred. A Something dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plumb upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling my throat, endeavoring to choke me.
I am no coward, and am possessed of considerable physical strength. The suddenness of the attack, instead of stunning me, strung every nerve to its highest tension. My body acted from instinct, before my brain had time to realize the terrors of my position. In an instant I wound two muscular arms around the creature, and squeezed it, with all the strength of despair, against my chest. In a few seconds the bony hands that had fastened on my throat loosened their hold, and I was free to breathe once more. Then commenced a struggle of awful intensity. Immersed in the most profound darkness, totally ignorant of the nature of the Thing by which I was so suddenly attacked, finding my grasp slipping every moment, by reason, it seemed to me, of the entire nakedness of my assailant, bitten with sharp teeth in the shoulder, neck, and chest, having every moment to protect my throat against a pair of sinewy, agile hands, which my utmost efforts could not confine,—these were a combination of circumstances to combat which required all the strength, skill, and courage that I possessed.
At last, after a silent, deadly, exhausting struggle, I got my assailant under by a series of incredible efforts of strength. Once pinned, with my knee on what I made out to be its chest, I knew that I was victor. I rested for a moment to breathe. I heard the creature beneath me panting in the darkness, and felt the violent throbbing of a heart. It was apparently as exhausted as I was; that was one comfort. At this moment I remembered that I usually placed under my pillow, before going to bed, a large yellow silk pocket handkerchief. I felt for it instantly; it was there. In a few seconds more I had, after a fashion, pinioned the creature’s arms.
I now felt tolerably secure. There was nothing more to be done but to turn on the gas, and, having first seen what my midnight assailant was like, arouse the household. I will confess to being actuated by a certain pride in not giving the alarm before; I wished to make the capture alone and unaided.
Never losing my hold for an instant, I slipped from the bed to the floor, dragging my captive with me. I had but a few steps to make to reach the gas-burner; these I made with the greatest caution, holding the creature in a grip like a vice. At last I got within arm’s length of the tiny speck of blue light which told me where the gas-burner lay. Quick as lightning I released my grasp with one hand and let on the full flood of light. Then I turned to look at my captive.
I cannot even attempt to give any definition of my sensations the instant after I turned on the gas. I suppose I must have shrieked with terror, for in less than a minute afterward my room was crowded with the inmates of the house. I shudder now as I think of that awful moment. I saw nothing! Yes; I had one arm firmly clasped round a breathing, panting, corporeal shape, my other hand gripped with all its strength a throat as warm, as apparently fleshy, as my own; and yet, with this living substance in my grasp, with its body pressed against my own, and all in the bright glare of a large jet of gas, I absolutely beheld nothing! Not even an outline,—a vapor!
I do not, even at this hour, realize the situation in which I found myself. I cannot recall the astounding incident thoroughly. Imagination in vain tries to compass the awful paradox.
It breathed. I felt its warm breath upon my cheek. It struggled fiercely. It had hands. They clutched me. Its skin was smooth, like my own. There it lay, pressed close up against me, solid as stone,—and yet utterly invisible!
I wonder that I did not faint or go mad on the instant. Some wonderful instinct must have sustained me; for, absolutely, in place of loosening my hold on the terrible Enigma, I seemed to gain an additional strength in my moment of horror, and tightened my grasp with such wonderful force that I felt the creature shivering with agony.
Just then Hammond entered my room at the head of the household. As soon as he beheld my face—which, I suppose, must have been an awful sight to look at—he hastened forward, crying, “Great heaven, Harry! what has happened?”
“Hammond! Hammond!” I cried, “come here. O, this is awful! I have been attacked in bed by something or other, which I have hold of; but I can’t see it,—I can’t see it!”
Hammond, doubtless struck by the unfeigned horror expressed in my countenance, made one or two steps forward with an anxious yet puzzled expression. A very audible titter burst from the remainder of my visitors. This suppressed laughter made me furious. To laugh at a human being in my position! It was the worst species of cruelty. Now, I can understand why the appearance of a man struggling violently, as it would seem, with an airy nothing, and calling for assistance against a vision, should have appeared ludicrous. Then, so great was my rage against the mocking crowd that had I the power I would have stricken them dead where they stood.
“Hammond! Hammond!” I cried again, despairingly, “for God’s sake come to me. I can hold the—the thing but a short while longer. It is overpowering me. Help me! Help me!”
“Harry,” whispered Hammond, approaching me, “you have been smoking too much opium.”
“I swear to you, Hammond, that this is no vision,” I answered, in the same low tone. “Don’t you see how it shakes my whole frame with its struggles? If you don’t believe me, convince yourself. Feel it,—touch it.”
Hammond advanced and laid his hand in the spot I indicated. A wild cry of horror burst from him. He had felt it!
In a moment he had discovered somewhere in my room a long piece of cord, and was the next instant winding it and knotting it about the body of the unseen being that I clasped in my arms.
“Harry,” he said, in a hoarse, agitated voice, for, though he preserved his presence of mind, he was deeply moved, “Harry, it’s all safe now. You may let go, old fellow, if you’re tired. The Thing can’t move.”
I was utterly exhausted, and I gladly loosed my hold.
Hammond stood holding the ends of the cord that bound the Invisible, twisted round his hand, while before him, self-supporting as it were, he beheld a rope laced and interlaced, and stretching tightly around a vacant space. I never saw a man look so thoroughly stricken with awe. Nevertheless his face expressed all the courage and determination which I knew him to possess. His lips, although white, were set firmly, and one could perceive at a glance that, although stricken with fear, he was not daunted.
The confusion that ensued among the guests of the house who were witnesses of this extraordinary scene between Hammond and myself,—who beheld the pantomime of binding this struggling Something,—who beheld me almost sinking from physical exhaustion when my task of jailer was over,—the confusion and terror that took possession of the bystanders, when they saw all this, was beyond description. The weaker ones fled from the apartment. The few who remained clustered near the door and could not be induced to approach Hammond and his Charge. Still incredulity broke out through their terror. They had not the courage to satisfy themselves, and yet they doubted. It was in vain that I begged of some of the men to come near and convince themselves by touch of the existence in that room of a living being which was invisible. They were incredulous, but did not dare to undeceive themselves. How could a solid, living, breathing body be invisible, they asked. My reply was this. I gave a sign to Hammond, and both of us—conquering our fearful repugnance to touch the invisible creature—lifted it from the ground, manacled as it was, and took it to my bed. Its weight was about that of a boy of fourteen.
“Now my friends,” I said, as Hammond and myself held the creature suspended over the bed, “I can give you self-evident proof that here is a solid, ponderable body, which, nevertheless, you cannot see. Be good enough to watch the surface of the bed attentively.”
I was astonished at my own courage in treating this strange event so calmly; but I had recovered from my first terror, and felt a sort of scientific pride in the affair, which dominated every other feeling.
The eyes of the bystanders were immediately fixed on my bed. At a given signal Hammond and I let the creature fall. There was a dull sound of a heavy body alighting on a soft mass. The timbers of the bed creaked. A deep impression marked itself distinctly on the pillow, and on the bed itself. The crowd who witnessed this gave a low cry, and rushed from the room. Hammond and I were left alone with our Mystery.
We remained silent for some time, listening to the low, irregular breathing of the creature on the bed, and watching the rustle of the bedclothes as it impotently struggled to free itself from confinement. Then Hammond spoke.
“Harry, this is awful.”
“But not unaccountable.”
“Not unaccountable! What do you mean? Such a thing has never occurred since the birth of the world. I know not what to think, Hammond. God grant that I am not mad, and that this is not an insane fantasy!”
“Let us reason a little, Harry. Here is a solid body which we touch, but which we cannot see. The fact is so unusual that it strikes us with terror. Is there no parallel, though, for such a phenomenon? Take a piece of pure glass. It is tangible and transparent. A certain chemical coarseness is all that prevents its being so entirely transparent as to be totally invisible. It is not theoretically impossible, mind you, to make a glass which shall not reflect a single ray of light,—a glass so pure and homogeneous in its atoms that the rays from the sun will pass through it as they do through the air, refracted but not reflected. We do not see the air, and yet we feel it.”
“That’s all very well, Hammond, but these are inanimate substances. Glass does not breathe, air does not breathe. This thing has a heart that palpitates,—a will that moves it,—lungs that play, and inspire and respire.”
“You forget the phenomena of which we have so often heard of late,” answered the Doctor, gravely. “At the meetings called ‘spirit circles,’ invisible hands have been thrust into the hands of those persons round the table,—warm, fleshly hands that seemed to pulsate with mortal life.”
“What? Do you think, then, that this thing is——”
“I don’t know what it is,” was the solemn reply; “but please the gods I will, with your assistance, thoroughly investigate it.”
We watched together, smoking many pipes, all night long, by the bedside of the unearthly being that tossed and panted until it was apparently wearied out. Then we learned by the low, regular breathing that it slept.
The next morning the house was all astir. The boarders congregated on the landing outside my room, and Hammond and myself were lions. We had to answer a thousand questions as to the state of our extraordinary prisoner, for as yet not one person in the house except ourselves could be I induced to set foot in the apartment.
The creature was awake. This was evidenced by the convulsive manner in which the bedclothes were moved in its efforts to escape. There was something truly terrible in beholding, as it were, those second-hand indications of the terrible writhings and agonized struggles for liberty which themselves were invisible.
Hammond and myself had racked our brains during the long night to discover some means by which we might realize the shape and general appearance of the Enigma. As well as we could make out by passing our hands over the creature’s form, its outlines and lineaments were human. There was a mouth; a round, smooth head without hair; a nose, which, however, was little elevated above the cheeks; and its hands and feet felt like those of a boy. At first we thought of placing the being on a smooth surface and tracing its outlines with chalk, as shoemakers trace the outline of the foot. This plan was given up as being of no value. Such an outline would give not the slightest idea of its conformation.
A happy thought struck me. We would take a cast of it in plaster of Paris. This would give us the solid figure, and satisfy all our wishes. But how to do it? The movements of the creature would disturb the setting of the plastic covering, and distort the mold. Another thought. Why not give it chloroform? It had respiratory organs,—that was evident by its breathing. Once reduced to a state of insensibility, we could do with it what we would. Doctor X—— was sent for; and after the worthy physician had recovered from the first shock of amazement, he proceeded to administer the chloroform. In three minutes afterward we were enabled to remove the fetters from the creature’s body, and a modeler was busily engaged in covering the invisible form with the moist clay. In five minutes more we had a mold, and before evening a rough facsimile of the Mystery. It was shaped like a man—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen. Gustav Dore, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived anything so horrible. There is a face in one of the latter’s illustrations to Un Voyage ou il vous plaira, which somewhat approaches the countenance of this creature, but does not equal it. It was the physiognomy of what I should fancy a ghoul might be. It looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.
Having satisfied our curiosity, and bound every one in the house to secrecy, it became a question what was to be done with our Enigma? It was impossible that we should keep such a horror in our house; it was equally impossible that such an awful being should be let loose upon the world. I confess that I would have gladly voted for the creature’s destruction. But who would shoulder the responsibility? Who would undertake the execution of this horrible semblance of a human being? Day after day this question was deliberated gravely. The boarders all left the house. Mrs. Moffat was in despair, and threatened Hammond and myself with all sorts of legal penalties if we did not remove the Horror. Our answer was, “We will go if you like, but we decline taking this creature with us. Remove it yourself if you please. It appeared in your house. On you the responsibility rests.” To this there was, of course, no answer. Mrs. Moffat could not obtain for love or money a person who would even approach the Mystery.
The most singular part of the affair was that we were entirely ignorant of what the creature habitually fed on. Everything in the way of nutriment that we could think of was placed before it, but was never touched. It was awful to stand by, day after day, and see the clothes toss, and hear the hard breathing, and know that it was starving.
Ten, twelve days, a fortnight passed, and it still lived. The pulsations of the heart, however, were daily growing fainter, and had now nearly ceased. It was evident that the creature was dying for want of sustenance. While this terrible life-struggle was going on, I felt miserable. I could not sleep. Horrible as the creature was, it was pitiful to think of the pangs it was suffering.
At last it died. Hammond and I found it cold and stiff one morning in the bed. The heart had ceased to beat, the lungs to inspire. We hastened to bury it in the garden. It was a strange funeral, the dropping of that viewless corpse into the damp hole. The cast of its form I gave to Doctor X——, who keeps it in his museum in Tenth Street.
As I am on the eve of a long journey from which I may not return, I have drawn up this narrative of an event the most singular that has ever come to my knowledge.
BY AMBROSE BIERCE
From Can Such Things
Be? by Ambrose Bierce. Copyright by the
Neale Publishing Company. By permission of the publishers.
It is well known that the old Manton house is haunted. In all the rural district near about, and even in the town of Marshall, a mile away, not one person of unbiased mind entertains a doubt of it; incredulity is confined to those opinionated persons who will be called “cranks” as soon as the useful word shall have penetrated the intellectual demesne of the Marshall Advance. The evidence that the house is haunted is of two kinds; the testimony of disinterested witnesses who have had ocular proof, and that of the house itself. The former may be disregarded and ruled out on any of the various grounds of objection which may be urged against it by the ingenious; but facts within the observation of all are material and controlling.
In the first place the Manton house has been unoccupied by mortals for more than ten years, and with its outbuildings is slowly falling into decay—a circumstance which in itself the judicious will hardly venture to ignore. It stands a little way off the loneliest reach of the Marshall and Harriston road, in an opening which was once a farm and is still disfigured with strips of rotting fence and half covered with brambles overrunning a stony and sterile soil long unacquainted with the plow. The house itself is in tolerably good condition, though badly weather-stained and in dire need of attention from the glazier, the smaller male population of the region having attested in the manner of its kind its disapproval of dwelling without dwellers. It is two stories in height, nearly square, its front pierced by a single doorway flanked on each side by a window boarded up to the very top. Corresponding windows above, not protected, serve to admit light and rain to the rooms of the upper floor. Grass and weeds grow pretty rankly all about, and a few shade trees, somewhat the worse for wind, and leaning all in one direction, seem to be making a concerted effort to run away. In short, as the Marshall town humorist explained in the columns of the Advance, “the proposition that the Manton house is badly haunted is the only logical conclusion from the premises.” The fact that in this dwelling Mr. Manton thought it expedient one night some ten years ago to rise and cut the throats of his wife and two small children, removing at once to another part of the country, has no doubt done its share in directing public attention to the fitness of the place for supernatural phenomena.
To this house, one summer evening, came four men in a wagon. Three of them promptly alighted, and the one who had been driving hitched the team to the only remaining post of what had been a fence. The fourth remained seated in the wagon. “Come,” said one of his companions, approaching him, while the others moved away in the direction of the dwelling—“this is the place.”
The man addressed did not move. “By God!” he said harshly, “this is a trick, and it looks to me as if you were in it.”
“Perhaps I am,” the other said, looking him straight in the face and speaking in a tone which had something of contempt in it. “You will remember, however, that the choice of place was with your own assent left to the other side. Of course if you are afraid of spooks—”
“I am afraid of nothing,” the man interrupted with another oath, and sprang to the ground. The two then joined the others at the door, which one of them had already opened with some difficulty, caused by rust of lock and hinge. All entered. Inside it was dark, but the man who had unlocked the door produced a candle and matches and made a light. He then unlocked a door on their right as they stood in the passage. This gave them entrance to a large, square room that the candle but dimly lighted. The floor had a thick carpeting of dust, which partly muffled their footfalls. Cobwebs were in the angles of the walls and depended from the ceiling like strips of rotting lace making undulatory movements in the disturbed air. The room had two windows in adjoining sides, but from neither could anything be seen except the rough inner surfaces of boards a few inches from the glass. There was no fireplace, no furniture; there was nothing: besides the cobwebs and the dust, the four men were the only objects there which were not a part of the structure.
Strange enough they looked in the yellow light of the candle. The one who had so reluctantly alighted was especially spectacular—he might have been called sensational. He was of middle age, heavily built, deep chested, and broad shouldered. Looking at his figure, one would have said that he had a giant’s strength; at his features, that he would use it like a giant. He was clean shaven, his hair rather closely cropped and gray. His low forehead was seamed with wrinkles above the eyes, and over the nose these became vertical. The heavy black brows followed the same law, saved from meeting only by an upward turn at what would otherwise have been the point of contact. Deeply sunken beneath these, glowed in the obscure light a pair of eyes of uncertain color, but obviously enough too small. There was something forbidding in their expression, which was not bettered by the cruel mouth and wide jaw. The nose was well enough, as noses go; one does not expect much of noses. All that was sinister in the man’s face seemed accentuated by an unnatural pallor—he appeared altogether bloodless.
The appearance of the other men was sufficiently commonplace; they were such persons as one meets and forgets that he met. All were younger than the man described, between whom and the eldest of the others, who stood apart, there was apparently no kindly feeling. They avoided looking at each other.
“Gentlemen,” said the man holding the candle and keys, “I believe everything is right. Are you ready, Mr. Rosser?”
The man standing apart from the group bowed and smiled.
“And you, Mr. Grossmith?”
The heavy man bowed and scowled.
“You will be pleased to remove your outer clothing.”
Their hats, coats, waistcoats, and neckwear were soon removed and thrown outside the door, in the passage. The man with the candle now nodded, and the fourth man—he who had urged Grossmith to leave the wagon—produced from the pocket of his overcoat two long, murderous-looking bowie-knives, which he drew now from their leather scabbards.
“They are exactly alike,” he said, presenting one to each of the two principals—for by this time the dullest observer would have understood the nature of this meeting. It was to be a duel to the death.
Each combatant took a knife, examined it critically near the candle and tested the strength of the blade and handle across his lifted knee. Their persons were then searched in turn, each by the second of the other.
“If it is agreeable to you, Mr. Grossmith,” said the man holding the light, “you will place yourself in that corner.”
He indicated the angle of the room farthest from the door, whither Grossmith retired, his second parting from him with a grasp of the hand which had nothing of cordiality in it. In the angle nearest the door Mr. Rosser stationed himself, and after a whispered consultation his second left him, joining the other near the door. At that moment the candle was suddenly extinguished, leaving all in profound darkness. This may have been done by a draught from the opened door; whatever the cause, the effect was startling.
“Gentlemen,” said a voice which sounded strangely unfamiliar in the altered condition affecting the relations of the senses—“gentlemen, you will not move until you hear the closing of the outer door.”
A sound of trampling ensued, then the closing of the inner door; and finally the outer one closed with a concussion which shook the entire building.
A few minutes afterward a belated farmer’s boy met a light wagon which was being driven furiously toward the town of Marshall. He declared that behind the two figures on the front seat stood a third, with its hands upon the bowed shoulders of the others, who appeared to struggle vainly to free themselves from its grasp. This figure, unlike the others, was clad in white, and had undoubtedly boarded the wagon as it passed the haunted house. As the lad could boast a considerable former experience with
The events that led up to this “duel in the dark” were simple enough. One evening three young men of the town of Marshall were sitting in a quiet corner of the porch of the village hotel, smoking and discussing such matters as three educated young men of a Southern village would naturally find interesting. Their names were King, Sancher, and Rosser. At a little distance, within easy hearing, but taking no part in the conversation, sat a fourth. He was a stranger to the others. They merely knew that on his arrival by the stage-coach that afternoon he had written in the hotel register the name of Robert Grossmith. He had not been observed to speak to anyone except the hotel clerk. He seemed, indeed, singularly fond of his own company—or, as the personnel of the Advance expressed it, “grossly addicted to evil associations.” But then it should be said in justice to the stranger that the personnel was himself of a too convivial disposition fairly to judge one differently gifted, and had, moreover, experienced a slight rebuff in an effort at an “interview.”
“I hate any kind of deformity in a woman,” said King, “whether natural or—acquired. I have a theory that any physical defect has its correlative mental and moral defect.”
“I infer, then,” said Rosser, gravely, “that a lady lacking the moral advantage of a nose would find the struggle to become Mrs. King an arduous enterprise.”
“Of course you may put it that way,” was the reply; “but, seriously, I once threw over a most charming girl on learning quite accidentally that she had suffered amputation of a toe. My conduct was brutal if you like, but if I had married that girl I should have been miserable for life and should have made her so.”
“Whereas,” said Sancher, with a light laugh, “by marrying a gentleman of more liberal view she escaped with a parted throat.”
“Ah, you know to whom I refer. Yes, she married Manton, but I don’t know about his liberality; I’m not sure but he cut her throat because he discovered that she lacked that excellent thing in woman, the middle toe of the right foot.”
“Look at that chap!” said Rosser in a low voice, his eyes fixed upon the stranger.
That chap was obviously listening intently to the conversation.
“Damn his impudence!” muttered King—“what ought we to do?”
“That’s an easy one,” Rosser replied, rising. “Sir,” he continued, addressing the stranger, “I think it would be better if you would remove your chair to the other end of the veranda. The presence of gentlemen is evidently an unfamiliar situation to you.”
The man sprang to his feet and strode forward with clenched hands, his face white with rage. All were now standing. Sancher stepped between the belligerents.
“You are hasty and unjust,” he said to Rosser; “this gentleman has done nothing to deserve such language.”
But Rosser would not withdraw a word. By the custom of the country and the time there could be but one outcome to the quarrel.
“I demand the satisfaction due to a gentleman,” said the stranger, who had become more calm. “I have not an acquaintance in this region. Perhaps you, sir,” bowing to Sancher, “will be kind enough to represent me in this matter.”
Sancher accepted the trust—somewhat reluctantly it must be confessed, for the man’s appearance and manner were not at all to his liking. King, who during the colloquy had hardly removed his eyes from the stranger’s face and had not spoken a word, consented with a nod to act for Rosser, and the upshot of it was that, the principals having retired, a meeting was arranged for the next evening. The nature of the arrangements has been already disclosed. The duel with knives in a dark room was once a commoner feature of Southwestern life than it is likely to be again. How thin a veneering of “chivalry” covered the essential brutality of the code under which such encounters were possible we shall see.
In the blaze of a midsummer noonday the old Manton house was hardly true to its traditions. It was of the earth, earthy. The sunshine caressed it warmly and affectionately, with evident disregard of its bad reputation. The grass greening all the expanse in its front seemed to grow, not rankly, but with a natural and joyous exuberance, and the weeds blossomed quite like plants. Full of charming lights and shadows and populous with pleasant-voiced birds, the neglected shade trees no longer struggled to run away, but bent reverently beneath their burdens of sun and song. Even in the glassless upper windows was an expression of peace and contentment, due to the light within. Over the stony fields the visible heat danced with a lively tremor incompatible with the gravity which is an attribute of the supernatural.
Such was the aspect under which the place presented itself to Sheriff Adams and two other men who had come out from Marshall to look at it. One of these men was Mr. King, the sheriff’s deputy; the other, whose name was Brewer, was a brother of the late Mrs. Manton. Under a beneficent law of the State relating to property which has been for a certain period abandoned by an owner whose residence cannot be ascertained, the sheriff was legal custodian of the Manton farm and appurtenances thereunto belonging. His present visit was in mere perfunctory compliance with some order of a court in which Mr. Brewer had an action to get possession of the property as heir to his deceased sister. By a mere coincidence, the visit was made on the day after the night that Deputy King had unlocked the house for another and very different purpose. His presence now was not of his own choosing: he had been ordered to accompany his superior, and at the moment could think of nothing more prudent than simulated alacrity in obedience to the command.
Carelessly opening the front door, which to his surprise was not locked, the sheriff was amazed to see, lying on the floor of the passage into which it opened, a confused heap of men’s apparel. Examination showed it to consist of two hats, and the same number of coats, waistcoats, and scarves all in a remarkably good state of preservation, albeit somewhat defiled by the dust in which they lay. Mr. Brewer was equally astonished, but Mr. King’s emotion is not of record. With a new and lively interest in his own actions the sheriff now unlatched and pushed open a door on the right, and the three entered. The room was apparently vacant—no; as their eyes became accustomed to the dimmer light something was visible in the farthest angle of the wall. It was a human figure—that of a man crouching close in the corner. Something in the attitude made the intruders halt when they had barely passed the threshold. The figure more and more clearly defined itself. The man was upon one knee, his back in the angle of the wall, his shoulders elevated to the level of his ears, his hands before his face, palms outward, the fingers spread and crooked like claws; the white face turned upward on the retracted neck had an expression of unutterable fright, the mouth half open, the eyes incredibly expanded. He was stone dead. Yet with the exception of a bowie-knife, which had evidently fallen from his own hand, not another object was in the room.
In thick dust that covered the floor were some confused footprints near the door and along the wall through which it opened. Along one of the adjoining walls, too, past the boarded-up windows was the trail made by the man himself in reaching his corner. Instinctively in approaching the body the three men followed that trail. The sheriff grasped one of the outthrown arms; it was as rigid as iron, and the application of a gentle force rocked the entire body without altering the relation of its parts. Brewer, pale with excitement, gazed intently into the distorted face. “God of mercy!” he suddenly cried, “it is Manton!”
“You are right,” said King, with an evident attempt at calmness: “I knew Manton. He then wore a full beard and his hair long, but this is he.”
He might have added: “I recognized him when he challenged Rosser. I told Rosser and Sancher who he was before we played him this horrible trick. When Rosser left this dark room at our heels, forgetting his outer clothing in the excitement, and driving away with us in his shirt sleeves—all through the discreditable proceedings we knew with whom we were dealing, murderer and coward that he was!”
But nothing of this did Mr. King say. With his better light he was trying to penetrate the mystery of the man’s death. That he had not once moved from the corner where he had been stationed; that his posture was that of neither attack nor defense; that he had dropped his weapon; that he had obviously perished of sheer horror of something that he saw—these were circumstances which Mr. King’s disturbed intelligence could not rightly comprehend.
Groping in intellectual darkness for a clew to his maze of doubt, his gaze, directed mechanically downward in the way of one who ponders momentous matters, fell upon something which, there, in the light of day and in the presence of living companions, affected him with terror. In the dust of years that lay thick upon the floor—leading from the door by which they had entered, straight across the room to within a yard of Manton’s crouching corpse—were three parallel lines of footprints—light but definite impressions of bare feet, the outer ones those of small children, the inner a woman’s. From the point at which they ended they did not return; they pointed all one way. Brewer, who had observed them at the same moment, was leaning forward in an attitude of rapt attention, horribly pale.
“Look at that!” he cried, pointing with both hands at the nearest print of the woman’s right foot, where she had apparently stopped and stood. “The middle toe is missing—it was Gertrude!”
Gertrude was the late Mrs. Manton, sister to Mr. Brewer.
BY OLIVIA HOWARD DUNBAR
Magazine, December, 1908. By permission of Harper
Brothers and Olivia Howard Dunbar.
It was intolerably unchanged, the dim, dark-toned room. In an agony of recognition my glance ran from one to another of the comfortable, familiar things that my earthly life had been passed among. Incredibly distant from it all as I essentially was. I noted sharply that the very gaps that I myself had left in my bookshelves still stood unfilled; that the delicate fingers of the ferns that I had tended were still stretched futilely toward the light; that the soft agreeable chuckle of my own little clock, like some elderly woman with whom conversation has become automatic, was undiminished.
Unchanged—or so it seemed at first. But there were certain trivial differences that shortly smote me. The windows were closed too tightly; for I had always kept the house very cool, although I had known that Theresa preferred warm rooms. And my work-basket was in disorder; it was preposterous that so small a thing should hurt me so. Then, for this was my first experience of the shadow-folded transition, the odd alteration of my emotions bewildered me. For at one moment the place seemed so humanly familiar, so distinctly my own proper envelope, that for love of it I could have laid my cheek against the wall; while in the next I was miserably conscious of strange new shrillnesses. How could they be endured—and had I ever endured them?—those harsh influences that I now perceived at the window; light and color so blinding that they obscured the form of the wind, tumult so discordant that one could scarcely hear the roses open in the garden below?
But Theresa did not seem to mind any of these things. Disorder, it is true, the dear child had never minded. She was sitting all this time at my desk—at my desk—occupied, I could only too easily surmise how. In the light of my own habits of precision it was plain that that sombre correspondence should have been attended to before; but I believe that I did not really reproach Theresa, for I knew that her notes, when she did write them, were perhaps less perfunctory than mine. She finished the last one as I watched her, and added it to the heap of black-bordered envelopes that lay on the desk. Poor girl! I saw now that they had cost her tears. Yet, living beside her day after day, year after year, I had never discovered what deep tenderness my sister possessed. Toward each other it had been our habit to display only a temperate affection, and I remember having always thought it distinctly fortunate for Theresa, since she was denied my happiness, that she could live so easily and pleasantly without emotions of the devastating sort.... And now, for the first time, I was really to behold her.... Could it be Theresa, after all, this tangle of subdued turbulences? Let no one suppose that it is an easy thing to bear, the relentlessly lucid understanding that I then first exercised; or that, in its first enfranchisement, the timid vision does not yearn for its old screens and mists.
Suddenly, as Theresa sat there, her head, filled with its tender thoughts of me, held in her gentle hands, I felt Allan’s step on the carpeted stair outside. Theresa felt it, too,—but how? for it was not audible. She gave a start, swept the black envelopes out of sight, and pretended to be writing in a little book. Then I forgot to watch her any longer in my absorption in Allan’s coming. It was he, of course, that I was awaiting. It was for him that I had made this first lonely, frightened effort to return, to recover.... It was not that I had supposed he would allow himself to recognize my presence, for I had long been sufficiently familiar with his hard and fast denials of the invisible. He was so reasonable always, so sane—so blindfolded. But I had hoped that because of his very rejection of the ether that now contained me I could perhaps all the more safely, the more secretly, watch him, linger near him. He was near now, very near,—but why did Theresa, sitting there in the room that had never belonged to her, appropriate for herself his coming? It was so manifestly I who had drawn him, I whom he had come to seek.
The door was ajar. He knocked softly at it “Are you there, Theresa?” he called. He expected to find her, then, there in my room? I shrank back, fearing, almost, to stay.
“I shall have finished in a moment,” Theresa told him, and he sat down to wait for her.
No spirit still unreleased can understand the pang that I felt with Allan sitting almost within my touch. Almost irresistibly the wish beset me to let him for an instant feel my nearness. Then I checked myself, remembering—oh, absurd, piteous human fears!—that my too unguarded closeness might alarm him. It was not so remote a time that I myself had known them, those blind, uncouth timidities. I came, therefore, somewhat nearer—but I did not touch him. I merely leaned toward him and with incredible softness whispered his name. That much I could not have forborne; the spell of life was still too strong in me.
But it gave him no comfort, no delight. “Theresa!” he called, in a voice dreadful with alarm—and in that instant the last veil fell, and desperately, scarce believingly, I beheld how it stood between them, those two.
She turned to him that gentle look of hers.
“Forgive me,” came from him hoarsely. “But I had suddenly the most—unaccountable sensation. Can there be too many windows open? There is such a—chill—about.”
“There are no windows open,” Theresa assured him. “I took care to shut out the chill. You are not well, Allan!”
“Perhaps not.” He embraced the suggestion. “And yet I feel no illness apart from this abominable sensation that persists—persists.... Theresa, you must tell me: do I fancy it, or do you, too, feel—something—strange here?”
“Oh, there is something very strange here,” she half sobbed. “There always will be.”
“Good heavens, child, I didn’t mean that!” He rose and stood looking about him. “I know, of course, that you have your beliefs, and I respect them, but you know equally well that I have nothing of the sort! So—don’t let us conjure up anything inexplicable.”
I stayed impalpably, imponderably near him. Wretched and bereft though I was, I could not have left him while he stood denying me.
“What I mean,” he went on, in his low, distinct voice, “is a special, an almost ominous sense of cold. Upon my soul, Theresa,”—he paused—“if I were superstitious, if I were a woman, I should probably imagine it to seem—a presence!”
He spoke the last word very faintly, but Theresa shrank from it nevertheless.
“Don’t say that, Allan!” she cried out. “Don’t think it, I beg of you! I’ve tried so hard myself not to think it—and you must help me. You know it is only perturbed, uneasy spirits that wander. With her it is quite different. She has always been so happy—she must still be.”
I listened, stunned, to Theresa’s sweet dogmatism. From what blind distances came her confident misapprehensions, how dense, both for her and for Allan, was the separating vapor!
Allan frowned. “Don’t take me literally, Theresa,” he explained; and I, who a moment before had almost touched him, now held myself aloof and heard him with a strange untried pity, new born in me. “I’m not speaking of what you call—spirits. It’s something much more terrible.” He allowed his head to sink heavily on his chest. “If I did not positively know that I had never done her any harm, I should suppose myself to be suffering from guilt, from remorse.... Theresa, you know better than I, perhaps. Was she content, always? Did she believe in me?”
“Believe in you?—when she knew you to be so good!—when you adored her!”
“She thought that? She said it? Then what in Heaven’s name ails me?—unless it is all as you believe, Theresa, and she knows now what she didn’t know then, poor dear, and minds——”
“Minds what? What do you mean, Allan?”
I, who with my perhaps illegitimate advantage saw so clear, knew that he had not meant to tell her: I did him that justice, even in my first jealousy. If I had not tortured him so by clinging near him, he would not have told her. But the moment came, and overflowed, and he did tell her—passionate, tumultuous story that it was. During all our life together, Allan’s and mine, he had spared me, had kept me wrapped in the white cloak of an unblemished loyalty. But it would have been kinder, I now bitterly thought, if, like many husbands, he had years ago found for the story he now poured forth some clandestine listener; I should not have known. But he was faithful and good, and so he waited till I, mute and chained, was there to hear him. So well did I know him, as I thought, so thoroughly had he once been mine, that I saw it in his eyes, heard it in his voice, before the words came. And yet, when it came, it lashed me with the whips of an unbearable humiliation. For I, his wife, had not known how greatly he could love.
And that Theresa, soft little traitor, should, in her still way, have cared too! Where was the iron in her, I moaned within my stricken spirit, where the steadfastness? From the moment he bade her, she turned her soft little petals up to him—and my last delusion was spent. It was intolerable; and none the less so that in another moment she had, prompted by some belated thought of me, renounced him. Allan was hers, yet she put him from her; and it was my part to watch them both.
Then in the anguish of it all I remembered, awkward, untutored spirit that I was, that I now had the Great Recourse. Whatever human things were unbearable, I had no need to bear. I ceased, therefore, to make the effort that kept me with them. The pitiless poignancy was dulled, the sounds and the light ceased, the lovers faded from me, and again I was mercifully drawn into the dim, infinite spaces.
* * * * *
There followed a period whose length I cannot measure and during which I was able to make no progress in the difficult, dizzying experience of release. “Earth-bound” my jealousy relentlessly kept me. Though my two dear ones had forsworn each other, I could not trust them, for theirs seemed to me an affectation of a more than mortal magnanimity. Without a ghostly sentinel to prick them with sharp fears and recollections, who could believe that they would keep to it? Of the efficacy of my own vigilance, so long as I might choose to exercise it, I could have no doubt, for I had by this time come to have a dreadful exultation in the new power that lived in me. Repeated delicate experiment had taught me how a touch or a breath, a wish or a whisper, could control Allan’s acts, could keep him from Theresa. I could manifest myself as palely, as transiently, as a thought. I could produce the merest necessary flicker, like the shadow of a just-opened leaf, on his trembling, tortured consciousness. And these unrealized perceptions of me he interpreted, as I had known that he would, as his soul’s inevitable penance. He had come to believe that he had done evil in silently loving Theresa all these years, and it was my vengeance to allow him to believe this, to prod him ever to believe it afresh.
I am conscious that this frame of mind was not continuous in me. For I remember, too, that when Allan and Theresa were safely apart and sufficiently miserable I loved them as dearly as I ever had, more dearly perhaps. For it was impossible that I should not perceive, in my new emancipation, that they were, each of them, something more and greater than the two beings I had once ignorantly pictured them. For years they had practiced a selflessness of which I could once scarcely have conceived, and which even now I could only admire without entering into its mystery. While I had lived solely for myself, these two divine creatures had lived exquisitely for me. They had granted me everything, themselves nothing. For my undeserving sake their lives had been a constant torment of renunciation—a torment they had not sought to alleviate by the exchange of a single glance of understanding. There were even marvelous moments when, from the depths of my newly informed heart, I pitied them—poor creatures, who, withheld from the infinite solaces that I had come to know, were still utterly within that
So frail, so piteously contrived for pain.
Within it, yes; yet exercising qualities that so sublimely transcended it. Yet the shy, hesitating compassion that thus had birth in me was far from being able to defeat the earlier, earthlier emotion. The two, I recognized, were in a sort of conflict; and I, regarding it, assumed that the conflict would never end; that for years, as Allan and Theresa reckoned time, I should be obliged to withhold myself from the great spaces and linger suffering, grudging, shamed, where they lingered.
* * * * *
It can never have been explained, I suppose, what, to devitalized perception such as mine, the contact of mortal beings with each other appears to be. Once to have exercised this sense-freed perception is to realize that the gift of prophecy, although the subject of such frequent marvel, is no longer mysterious. The merest glance of our sensitive and uncloyed vision can detect the strength of the relation between two beings, and therefore instantly calculate its duration. If you see a heavy weight suspended from a slender string, you can know, without any wizardry, that in a few moments the string will snap; well, such, if you admit the analogy, is prophecy, is foreknowledge. And it was thus that I saw it with Theresa and Allan. For it was perfectly visible to me that they would very little longer have the strength to preserve, near each other, the denuded impersonal relation that they, and that I, behind them, insisted on; and that they would have to separate. It was my sister, perhaps the more sensitive, who first realized this. It had now become possible for me to observe them almost constantly, the effort necessary to visit them had so greatly diminished; so that I watched her, poor, anguished girl, prepare to leave him. I saw each reluctant movement that she made. I saw her eyes, worn from self-searching; I heard her step grown timid from inexplicable fears; I entered her very heart and heard its pitiful, wild beating. And still I did not interfere.
For at this time I had a wonderful, almost demoniacal sense of disposing of matters to suit my own selfish will. At any moment I could have checked their miseries, could have restored happiness and peace. Yet it gave me, and I could weep to admit it, a monstrous joy to know that Theresa thought she was leaving Allan of her own free intention, when it was I who was contriving, arranging, insisting.... And yet she wretchedly felt my presence near her; I am certain of that.
A few days before the time of her intended departure my sister told Allan that she must speak with him after dinner. Our beautiful old house branched out from a circular hall with great arched doors at either end; and it was through the rear doorway that always in summer, after dinner, we passed out into the garden adjoining. As usual, therefore, when the hour came, Theresa led the way. That dreadful daytime brilliance that in my present state I found so hard to endure was now becoming softer. A delicate, capricious twilight breeze danced inconsequently through languidly whispering leaves. Lovely pale flowers blossomed like little moons in the dusk, and over them the breath of mignonette hung heavily. It was a perfect place—and it had so long been ours, Allan’s and mine. It made me restless and a little wicked that those two should be there together now.
For a little they walked about together, speaking of common, daily things. Then suddenly Theresa burst out:
“I am going away, Allan. I have stayed to do everything that needed to be done. Now your mother will be here to care for you, and it is time for me to go.”
He stared at her and stood still. Theresa had been there so long, she so definitely, to his mind, belonged there. And she was, as I also had jealously known, so lovely there, the small, dark, dainty creature, in the old hall, on the wide staircases, in the garden.... Life there without Theresa, even the intentionally remote, the perpetually renounced Theresa—he had not dreamed of it, he could not, so suddenly, conceive of it.
“Sit here,” he said, and drew her down beside him on a bench, “and tell me what it means, why you are going. Is it because of something that I have been—have done?”
She hesitated. I wondered if she would dare tell him. She looked out and away from him, and he waited long for her to speak.
The pale stars were sliding into their places. The whispering of the leaves was almost hushed. All about them it was still and shadowy and sweet. It was that wonderful moment when, for lack of a visible horizon, the not yet darkened world seems infinitely greater—a moment when anything can happen, anything be believed in. To me, watching, listening, hovering, there came a dreadful purpose and a dreadful courage. Suppose for one moment, Theresa should not only feel, but see me—would she dare to tell him then?
There came a brief space of terrible effort, all my fluttering, uncertain forces strained to the utmost. The instant of my struggle was endlessly long and the transition seemed to take place outside me—as one sitting in a train, motionless, sees the leagues of earth float by. And then, in a bright, terrible flash I knew I had achieved it—I had attained visibility. Shuddering, insubstantial, but luminously apparent, I stood there before them. And for the instant that I maintained the visible state I looked straight into Theresa’s soul.
She gave a cry. And then, thing of silly, cruel impulses that I was, I saw what I had done. The very thing that I wished to avert I had precipitated. For Allan, in his sudden terror and pity, had bent and caught her in his arms. For the first time they were together; and it was I who had brought them.
Then, to his whispered urging to tell the reason of her cry, Theresa said:
“Frances was here. You did not see her, standing there, under the lilacs, with no smile on her face?”
“My dear, my dear!” was all that Allan said. I had so long now lived invisibly with them, he knew that she was right.
“I suppose you know what it means?” she asked him, calmly.
“Dear Theresa,” Allan said, slowly, “if you and I should go away somewhere, could we not evade all this ghostliness? And will you come with me?”
“Distance would not banish her,” my sister confidently asserted. And then she said, softly: “Have you thought what a lonely, awesome thing it must be to be so newly dead? Pity her, Allan. We who are warm and alive should pity her. She loves you still,—that is the meaning of it all, you know—and she wants us to understand that for that reason we must keep apart. Oh, it was so plain in her white face as she stood there. And you did not see her?”
“It was your face that I saw,” Allan solemnly told her—oh, how different he had grown from the Allan that I had known!—“and yours is the only face that I shall ever see.” And again he drew her to him.
She sprang from him. “You are defying her, Allan!” she cried. “And you must not. It is her right to keep us apart, if she wishes. It must be as she insists. I shall go, as I told you. And, Allan, I beg of you, leave me the courage to do as she demands!”
They stood facing each other in the deep dusk, and the wounds that I had dealt them gaped red and accusing. “We must pity her,” Theresa had said. And as I remembered that extraordinary speech, and saw the agony in her face, and the greater agony in Allan’s, there came the great irreparable cleavage between mortality and me. In a swift, merciful flame the last of my mortal emotions—gross and tenacious they must have been—was consumed. My cold grasp of Allan loosened and a new unearthly love of him bloomed in my heart.
I was now, however, in a difficulty with which my experience in the newer state was scarcely sufficient to deal. How could I make it plain to Allan and Theresa that I wished to bring them together, to heal the wounds that I had made?
Pityingly, remorsefully, I lingered near them all that night and the next day. And by that time had brought myself to the point of a great determination. In the little time that was left, before Theresa should be gone and Allan bereft and desolate, I saw the one way that lay open to me to convince them of my acquiescence in their destiny.
In the deepest darkness and silence of the next night I made a greater effort than it will ever be necessary for me to make again. When they think of me, Allan and Theresa, I pray now that they will recall what I did that night, and that my thousand frustrations and selfishnesses may shrivel and be blown from their indulgent memories.
Yet the following morning, as she had planned, Theresa appeared at breakfast dressed for her journey. Above in her room there were the sounds of departure. They spoke little during the brief meal, but when it was ended Allan said:
“Theresa, there is half an hour before you go. Will you come upstairs with me? I had a dream that I must tell you of.”
“Allan!” She looked at him, frightened, but went with him. “It was of Frances you dreamed,” she said, quietly, as they entered the library together.
“Did I say it was a dream? But I was awake—thoroughly awake. I had not been sleeping well, and I heard, twice, the striking of the clock. And as I lay there, looking out at the stars, and thinking—thinking of you, Theresa,—she came to me, stood there before me, in my room. It was no sheeted specter, you understand; it was Frances, literally she. In some inexplicable fashion I seemed to be aware that she wanted to make me know something, and I waited, watching her face. After a few moments it came. She did not speak, precisely. That is, I am sure I heard no sound. Yet the words that came from her were definite enough. She said: ’Don’t let Theresa leave you. Take her and keep her.’ Then she went away. Was that a dream?”
“I had not meant to tell you,” Theresa eagerly answered, “but now I must. It is too wonderful. What time did your clock strike, Allan?”
“One, the last time.”
“Yes; it was then that I awoke. And she had been with me. I had not seen her, but her arm had been about me and her kiss was on my cheek. Oh. I knew; it was unmistakable. And the sound of her voice was with me.”
“Then she bade you, too——”
“Yes, to stay with you. I am glad we told each other.” She smiled tearfully and began to fasten her wrap.
“But you are not going—now!” Allan cried. “You know that you cannot, now that she has asked you to stay.”
“Then you believe, as I do, that it was she?” Theresa demanded.
“I can never understand, but I know,” he answered her. “And now you will not go?”
* * * * *
I am freed. There will be no further semblance of me in my old home, no sound of my voice, no dimmest echo of my earthly self. They have no further need of me, the two that I have brought together. Theirs is the fullest joy that the dwellers in the shell of sense can know. Mine is the transcendent joy of the unseen spaces.
BY WILBUR DANIEL STEELE
End, by Wilbur Daniel Steele. Copyright, 1908,
Harper and Brothers. By permission of the publishers and Wilbur
I tell you sir, I was innocent. I didn’t know any more about the world at twenty-two than some do at twelve. My uncle and aunt in Duxbury brought me up strict; I studied hard in high school, I worked hard after hours, and I went to church twice on Sundays, and I can’t see it’s right to put me in a place like this, with crazy people. Oh yes, I know they’re crazy—you can’t tell me. As for what they said in court about finding her with her husband, that’s the Inspector’s lie, sir, because he’s down on me, and wants to make it look like my fault.
No, sir, I can’t say as I thought she was handsome—not at first. For one thing, her lips were too thin and white, and her color was bad. I’ll tell you a fact, sir; that first day I came off to the Light I was sitting on my cot in the store-room (that’s where the assistant keeper sleeps at the Seven Brothers), as lonesome as I could be, away from home for the first time, and the water all around me, and, even though it was a calm day, pounding enough on the ledge to send a kind of a woom-woom-woom whining up through all that solid rock of the tower. And when old Fedderson poked his head down from the living-room with the sunshine above making a kind of bright frame around his hair and whiskers, to give me a cheery, “Make yourself to home, son!” I remember I said to myself: “He’s all right. I’ll get along with him. But his wife’s enough to sour milk.” That was queer, because she was so much under him in age—’long about twenty-eight or so, and him nearer fifty. But that’s what I said, sir.
Of course that feeling wore off, same as any feeling will wear off sooner or later in a place like the Seven Brothers. Cooped up in a place like that you come to know folks so well that you forget what they do look like. There was a long time I never noticed her, any more than you’d notice the cat. We used to sit of an evening around the table, as if you were Fedderson there, and me here, and her somewhere back there, in the rocker, knitting. Fedderson would be working on his Jacob’s-ladder, and I’d be reading. He’d been working on that Jacob’s-ladder a year, I guess, and every time the Inspector came off with the tender he was so astonished to see how good that ladder was that the old man would go to work and make it better. That’s all he lived for.
If I was reading, as I say, I daren’t take my eyes off the book, or Fedderson had me. And then he’d begin—what the Inspector said about him. How surprised the member of the board had been, that time, to see everything so clean about the light. What the Inspector had said about Fedderson’s being stuck here in a second-class light—best keeper on the coast. And so on and so on, till either he or I had to go aloft and have a look at the wicks.
He’d been there twenty-three years, all told, and he’d got used to the feeling that he was kept down unfair—so used to it, I guess, that he fed on it, and told himself how folks ashore would talk when he was dead and gone—best keeper on the coast—kept down unfair. Not that he said that to me. No, he was far too loyal and humble and respectful, doing his duty without complaint, as anybody could see.
And all that time, night after night, hardly ever a word out of the woman. As I remember it, she seemed more like a piece of furniture than anything else—not even a very good cook, nor over and above tidy. One day, when he and I were trimming the lamp, he passed the remark that his first wife used to dust the lens and take a pride in it. Not that he said a word against Anna, though. He never said a word against any living mortal; he was too upright.
I don’t know how it came about; or, rather, I do know, but it was so sudden, and so far away from my thoughts, that it shocked me, like the world turned over. It was at prayers. That night I remember Fedderson was uncommon long-winded. We’d had a batch of newspapers out by the tender, and at such times the old man always made a long watch of it, getting the world straightened out. For one thing, the United States minister to Turkey was dead. Well, from him and his soul, Fedderson got on to Turkey and the Presbyterian college there, and from that to heathen in general. He rambled on and on, like the surf on the ledge, woom-woom-woom, never coming to an end.
You know how you’ll be at prayers sometimes. My mind strayed. I counted the canes in the chair-seat where I was kneeling; I plaited a corner of the table-cloth between my fingers for a spell, and by and by my eyes went wandering up the back of the chair.
The woman, sir, was looking at me. Her chair was back to mine, close, and both our heads were down in the shadow under the edge of the table, with Fedderson clear over on the other side by the stove. And there were her two eyes hunting mine between the spindles in the shadow. You won’t believe me, sir, but I tell you I felt like jumping to my feet and running out of the room—it was so queer.
I don’t know what her husband was praying about after that. His voice didn’t mean anything, no more than the seas on the ledge away down there. I went to work to count the canes in the seat again, but all my eyes were in the top of my head. It got so I couldn’t stand it. We were at the Lord’s prayer, saying it singsong together, when I had to look up again. And there her two eyes were, between the spindles, hunting mine. Just then all of us were saying, “Forgive us our trespasses—” I thought of it afterward.
When we got up she was turned the other way, but I couldn’t help seeing her cheeks were red. It was terrible. I wondered if Fedderson would notice, though I might have known he wouldn’t—not him. He was in too much of a hurry to get at his Jacob’s-ladder, and then he had to tell me for the tenth time what the Inspector’d said that day about getting him another light—Kingdom Come, maybe, he said.
I made some excuse or other and got away. Once in the store-room, I sat down on my cot and stayed there a long time, feeling queerer than anything. I read a chapter in the Bible, I don’t know why. After I’d got my boots off I sat with them in my hands for as much as an hour, I guess, staring at the oil-tank and its lopsided shadow on the wall. I tell you, sir, I was shocked. I was only twenty-two remember, and I was shocked and horrified.
And when I did turn in, finally, I didn’t sleep at all well. Two or three times I came to, sitting straight up in bed. Once I got up and opened the outer door to have a look. The water was like glass, dim, without a breath of wind, and the moon just going down. Over on the black shore I made out two lights in a village, like a pair of eyes watching. Lonely? My, yes! Lonely and nervous. I had a horror of her, sir. The dinghy-boat hung on its davits just there in front of the door, and for a minute I had an awful hankering to climb into it, lower away, and row off, no matter where. It sounds foolish.
Well, it seemed foolish next morning, with the sun shining and everything as usual—Fedderson sucking his pen and wagging his head over his eternal “log,” and his wife down in the rocker with her head in the newspaper, and her breakfast work still waiting. I guess that jarred it out of me more than anything else—sight of her slouched down there, with her stringy, yellow hair and her dusty apron and the pale back of her neck, reading the Society Notes. Society Notes! Think of it! For the first time since I came to Seven Brothers I wanted to laugh.
I guess I did laugh when I went aloft to clean the lamp and found everything so free and breezy, gulls flying high and little whitecaps making under a westerly. It was like feeling a big load dropped off your shoulders. Fedderson came up with his dust-rag and cocked his head at me.
“What’s the matter, Ray?” said he.
“Nothing,” said I. And then I couldn’t help it. “Seems kind of out of place for society notes,” said I, “out here at Seven Brothers.”
He was the other side of the lens, and when he looked at me he had a thousand eyes, all sober. For a minute I thought he was going on dusting, but then he came out and sat down on a sill.
“Sometimes,” said he, “I get to thinking it may be a mite dull for her out here. She’s pretty young, Ray. Not much more’n a girl, hardly.”
“Not much more’n a girl!” It gave me a turn, sir, as though I’d seen my aunt in short dresses.
“It’s a good home for her, though,” he went on slow. “I’ve seen a lot worse ashore, Ray. Of course if I could get a shore light——”
“Kingdom Come’s a shore light.”
He looked at me out of his deep-set eyes, and then he turned them around the light-room, where he’d been so long.
“No,” said he, wagging his head. “It ain’t for such as me.”
I never saw so humble a man.
“But look here,” he went on, more cheerful. “As I was telling her just now, a month from yesterday’s our fourth anniversary, and I’m going to take her ashore for the day and give her a holiday—new hat and everything. A girl wants a mite of excitement now and then, Ray.”
There it was again, that “girl.” It gave me the fidgets, sir. I had to do something about it. It’s close quarters for last names in a light, and I’d taken to calling him Uncle Matt soon after I came. Now, when I was at table that noon I spoke over to where she was standing by the stove, getting him another help of chowder.
“I guess I’ll have some, too, Aunt Anna,” said I, matter of fact.
She never said a word nor gave a sign—just stood there kind of round-shouldered, dipping the chowder. And that night at prayers I hitched my chair around the table, with its back the other way.
You get awful lazy in a lighthouse, some ways. No matter how much tinkering you’ve got, there’s still a lot of time and there’s such a thing as too much reading. The changes in weather get monotonous, too, by and by; the light burns the same on a thick night as it does on a fair one. Of course there’s the ships, north-bound, south-bound—wind-jammers, freighters, passenger-boats full of people. In the watches at night you can see their lights go by, and wonder what they are, how they’re laden, where they’ll fetch up, and all. I used to do that almost every evening when it was my first watch, sitting out on the walk-around up there with my legs hanging over the edge and my chin propped on the railing—lazy. The Boston boat was the prettiest to see, with her three tiers of port-holes lit, like a string of pearls wrapped round and round a woman’s neck—well away, too, for the ledge must have made a couple of hundred fathoms off the Light, like a white dog-tooth of a breaker, even on the darkest night.
Well, I was lolling there one night, as I say, watching the Boston boat go by, not thinking of anything special, when I heard the door on the other side of the tower open and footsteps coming around to me.
By and by I nodded toward the boat and passed the remark that she was fetching in uncommon close to-night. No answer. I made nothing of that, for oftentimes Fedderson wouldn’t answer, and after I’d watched the lights crawling on through the dark a spell, just to make conversation I said I guessed there’d be a bit of weather before long.
“I’ve noticed,” said I, “when there’s weather coming on, and the wind in the northeast, you can hear the orchestra playing aboard of her just over there. I make it out now. Do you?”
“Yes. Oh—yes—! I hear it all right!”
You can imagine I started. It wasn’t him, but her. And there was something in the way she said that speech, sir—something—well—unnatural. Like a hungry animal snapping at a person’s hand.
I turned and looked at her sidewise. She was standing by the railing, leaning a little outward, the top of her from the waist picked out bright by the lens behind her. I didn’t know what in the world to say, and yet I had a feeling I ought not to sit there mum.
“I wonder,” said I, “what that captain’s thinking of, fetching in so handy to-night. It’s no way. I tell you, if ’twasn’t for this light, she’d go to work and pile up on the ledge some thick night——”
She turned at that and stared straight into the lens. I didn’t like the look of her face. Somehow, with its edges cut hard all around and its two eyes closed down to slits, like a cat’s, it made a kind of mask.
“And then,” I went on, uneasy enough—“and then where’d all their music be of a sudden, and their goings-on and their singing——”
“And dancing!” She clipped me off so quick it took my breath.
“D-d-dancing?” said I.
“That’s dance-music,” said she. She was looking at the boat again.
“How do you know?” I felt I had to keep on talking.
Well, sir—she laughed. I looked at her. She had on a shawl of some stuff or other that shined in the light; she had it pulled tight around her with her two hands in front at her breast, and I saw her shoulders swaying in tune.
“How do I know?” she cried. Then she laughed again, the same kind of a laugh. It was queer, sir, to see her, and to hear her. She turned, as quick as that, and leaned toward me. “Don’t you know how to dance, Ray?” said she.
“N-no,” I managed, and I was going to say “Aunt Anna,” but the thing choked in my throat.
I tell you she was looking square at me all the time with her two eyes and moving with the music as if she didn’t know it. By heavens, sir, it came over me of a sudden that she wasn’t so bad-looking, after all. I guess I must have sounded like a fool.
“You—you see,” said I, “she’s cleared the rip there now, and the music’s gone. You—you hear?”
“Yes,” said she, turning back slow. “That’s where it stops every night—night after night—it stops just there—at the rip.”
When she spoke again her voice was different. I never heard the like of it, thin and taut as a thread. It made me shiver, sir.
“I hate ’em!” That’s what she said. “I hate ’em all. I’d like to see ’em dead. I’d love to see ’em torn apart on the rocks, night after night. I could bathe my hands in their blood, night after night.”
And do you know, sir, I saw it with my own eyes, her hands moving in each other above the rail. But it was her voice, though. I didn’t know what to do, or what to say, so I poked my head through the railing and looked down at the water. I don’t think I’m a coward, sir, but it was like a cold—ice-cold—hand, taking hold of my beating heart.
When I looked up finally, she was gone. By and by I went in and had a look at the lamp, hardly knowing what I was about. Then, seeing by my watch it was time for the old man to come on duty, I started to go below. In the Seven Brothers, you understand, the stair goes down in a spiral through a well against the south wall and first there’s the door to the keeper’s room and then you come to another, and that’s the living-room, and then down to the store-room. And at night, if you don’t carry a lantern, it’s as black as the pit.
Well, down I went, sliding my hand along the rail, and as usual I stopped to give a rap on the keeper’s door, in case he was taking a nap after supper. Sometimes he did.
I stood there, blind as a bat, with my mind still up on the walk-around. There was no answer to my knock. I hadn’t expected any. Just from habit, and with my right foot already hanging down for the next step, I reached out to give the door one more tap for luck.
Do you know, sir, my hand didn’t fetch up on anything. The door had been there a second before, and now the door wasn’t there. My hand just went on going through the dark, on and on, and I didn’t seem to have sense or power enough to stop it. There didn’t seem any air in the well to breathe, and my ears were drumming to the surf—that’s how scared I was. And then my hand touched the flesh of a face, and something in the dark said, “Oh!” no louder than a sigh.
Next thing I knew, sir, I was down in the living-room, warm and yellow-lit, with Fedderson cocking his head at me across the table, where he was at that eternal Jacob’s-ladder of his.
“What’s the matter, Ray?” said he. “Lord’s sake, Ray!”
“Nothing,” said I. Then I think I told him I was sick. That night I wrote a letter to A.L. Peters, the grain-dealer in Duxbury, asking for a job—even though it wouldn’t go ashore for a couple of weeks, just the writing of it made me feel better.
It’s hard to tell you how those two weeks went by. I don’t know why, but I felt like hiding in a corner all the time. I had to come to meals, but I didn’t look at her, though, not once, unless it was by accident. Fedderson thought I was still ailing and nagged me to death with advice and so on. One thing I took care not to do, I can tell you, and that was to knock on his door till I’d made certain he wasn’t below in the living-room—though I was tempted to.
Yes, sir; that’s a queer thing, and I wouldn’t tell you if I hadn’t set out to give you the truth. Night after night, stopping there on the landing in that black pit, the air gone out of my lungs and the surf drumming in my ears and sweat standing cold on my neck—and one hand lifting up in the air—God forgive me, sir! Maybe I did wrong not to look at her more, drooping about her work in her gingham apron, with her hair stringing.
When the Inspector came off with the tender, that time, I told him I was through. That’s when he took the dislike to me, I guess, for he looked at me kind of sneering and said, soft as I was, I’d have to put up with it till next relief. And then, said he, there’d be a whole house-cleaning at Seven Brothers, because he’d gotten Fedderson the berth at Kingdom Come. And with that he slapped the old man on the back.
I wish you could have seen Fedderson, sir. He sat down on my cot as if his knees had given ’way. Happy? You’d think he’d be happy, with all his dreams come true. Yes, he was happy, beaming all over—for a minute. Then, sir, he began to shrivel up. It was like seeing a man cut down in his prime before your eyes. He began to wag his head.
“No,” said he. “No, no; it’s not for such as me. I’m good enough for Seven Brothers, and that’s all, Mr. Bayliss. That’s all.”
And for all the Inspector could say, that’s what he stuck to. He’d figured himself a martyr so many years, nursed that injustice like a mother with her first-born, sir; and now in his old age, so to speak, they weren’t to rob him of it. Fedderson was going to wear out his life in a second-class light, and folks would talk—that was his idea. I heard him hailing down as the tender was casting off:
“See you to-morrow, Mr. Bayliss. Yep. Coming ashore with the wife for a spree. Anniversary. Yep.”
But he didn’t sound much like a spree. They had, robbed him, partly, after all. I wondered what she thought about it. I didn’t know till night. She didn’t show up to supper, which Fedderson and I got ourselves—had a headache, be said. It was my early watch. I went and lit up and came back to read a spell. He was finishing off the Jacob’s-ladder, and thoughtful, like a man that’s lost a treasure. Once or twice I caught him looking about the room on the sly. It was pathetic, sir.
Going up the second time, I stepped out on the walk-around to have a look at things. She was there on the seaward side, wrapped in that silky thing. A fair sea was running across the ledge and it was coming on a little thick—not too thick. Off to the right the Boston boat was blowing, whroom-whroom! Creeping up on us, quarter-speed. There was another fellow behind her, and a fisherman’s conch farther offshore.
I don’t know why, but I stopped beside her and leaned on the rail. She didn’t appear to notice me, one way or another. We stood and we stood, listening to the whistles, and the longer we stood the more it got on my nerves, her not noticing me. I suppose she’d been too much on my mind lately. I began to be put out. I scraped my feet. I coughed. By and by I said out loud:
“Look here, I guess I better get out the fog-horn and give those fellows a toot.”
“Why?” said she, without moving her head—calm as that.
“Why?” It gave me a turn, sir. For a minute I stared at her. “Why? Because if she don’t pick up this light before very many minutes she’ll be too close in to wear—tide’ll have her on the rocks—that’s why!”
I couldn’t see her face, but I could see one of her silk shoulders lift a little, like a shrug. And there I kept on staring at her, a dumb one, sure enough. I know what brought me to was hearing the Boston boat’s three sharp toots as she picked up the light—mad as anything—and swung her helm a-port. I turned away from her, sweat stringing down my face, and walked around to the door. It was just as well, too, for the feed-pipe was plugged in the lamp and the wicks were popping. She’d have been out in another five minutes, sir.
When I’d finished, I saw that woman standing in the doorway. Her eyes were bright. I had a horror of her, sir, a living horror.
“If only the light had been out,” said she, low and sweet.
“God forgive you,” said I. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
She went down the stair into the well, winding out of sight, and as long as I could see her, her eyes were watching mine. When I went, myself, after a few minutes, she was waiting for me on that first landing, standing still in the dark. She took hold of my hand, though I tried to get it away.
“Good-by,” said she in my ear.
“Good-by?” said I. I didn’t understand.
“You heard what he said to-day—about Kingdom Come? Be it so—on his own head. I’ll never come back here. Once I set foot ashore—I’ve got friends in Brightonboro, Ray.”
I got away from her and started on down. But I stopped. “Brightonboro?” I whispered back. “Why do you tell me?” My throat was raw to the words, like a sore.
“So you’d know,” said she.
Well, sir, I saw them off next morning, down that new Jacob’s-ladder into the dinghy-boat, her in a dress of blue velvet and him in his best cutaway and derby—rowing away, smaller and smaller, the two of them. And then I went back and sat on my cot, leaving the door open and the ladder still hanging down the wall, along with the boat-falls.
I don’t know whether it was relief, or what. I suppose I must have been worked up even more than I’d thought those past weeks, for now it was all over I was like a rag. I got down on my knees, sir, and prayed to God for the salvation of my soul, and when I got up and climbed to the living-room it was half past twelve by the clock. There was rain on the windows and the sea was running blue-black under the sun. I’d sat there all that time not knowing there was a squall.
It was funny; the glass stood high, but those black squalls kept coming and going all afternoon, while I was at work up in the light-room. And I worked hard, to keep myself busy. First thing I knew it was five, and no sign of the boat yet. It began to get dim and kind of purplish-gray over the land. The sun was down. I lit up, made everything snug, and got out the night-glasses to have another look for that boat. He’d said he intended to get back before five. No sign. And then, standing there, it came over me that of course he wouldn’t be coming off—he’d be hunting her, poor old fool. It looked like I had to stand two men’s watches that night.
Never mind. I felt like myself again, even if I hadn’t had any dinner or supper. Pride came to me that night on the walk-around, watching the boats go by—little boats, big boats, the Boston boat with all her pearls and her dance-music. They couldn’t see me; they didn’t know who I was; but to the last of them, they depended on me. They say a man must be born again. Well, I was born again. I breathed deep in the wind.
Dawn broke hard and red as a dying coal. I put out the light and started to go below. Born again; yes, sir. I felt so good I whistled in the well, and when I came to the first door on the stair I reached out in the dark to give it a rap for luck. And then, sir, the hair prickled all over my scalp, when I found my hand just going on and on through the air, the same as it had gone once before, and all of a sudden I wanted to yell, because I thought I was going to touch flesh. It’s funny what their just forgetting to close their door did to me, isn’t it?
Well, I reached for the latch and pulled it to with a bang and ran down as if a ghost was after me. I got up some coffee and bread and bacon for breakfast. I drank the coffee. But somehow I couldn’t eat, all along of that open door. The light in the room was blood. I got to thinking. I thought how she’d talked about those men, women, and children on the rocks, and how she’d made to bathe her hands over the rail. I almost jumped out of my chair then; it seemed for a wink she was there beside the stove watching me with that queer half-smile—really, I seemed to see her for a flash across the red table-cloth in the red light of dawn.
“Look here!” said I to myself, sharp enough; and then I gave myself a good laugh and went below. There I took a look out of the door, which was still open, with the ladder hanging down. I made sure to see the poor old fool come pulling around the point before very long now.
My boots were hurting a little, and, taking them off, I lay down on the cot to rest, and somehow I went to sleep. I had horrible dreams. I saw her again standing in that blood-red kitchen, and she seemed to be washing her hands, and the surf on the ledge was whining up the tower, louder and louder all the time, and what it whined was, “Night after night—night after night.” What woke me was cold water in my face.
The store-room was in gloom. That scared me at first; I thought night had come, and remembered the light. But then I saw the gloom was of a storm. The floor was shining wet, and the water in my face was spray, flung up through the open door. When I ran to close it, it almost made me dizzy to see the gray-and-white breakers marching past. The land was gone; the sky shut down heavy overhead; there was a piece of wreckage on the back of a swell, and the Jacob’s-ladder was carried clean away. How that sea had picked up so quick I can’t think. I looked at my watch and it wasn’t four in the afternoon yet.
When I closed the door, sir, it was almost dark in the store-room. I’d never been in the Light before in a gale of wind. I wondered why I was shivering so, till I found it was the floor below me shivering, and the walls and stair. Horrible crunchings and grindings ran away up the tower, and now and then there was a great thud somewhere, like a cannon-shot in a cave. I tell you, sir, I was alone, and I was in a mortal fright for a minute or so. And yet I had to get myself together. There was the light up there not tended to, and an early dark coming on and a heavy night and all, and I had to go. And I had to pass that door.
You’ll say it’s foolish, sir, and maybe it was foolish. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten. But I began thinking of that door up there the minute I set foot on the stair, and all the way up through that howling dark well I dreaded to pass it. I told myself I wouldn’t stop. I didn’t stop. I felt the landing underfoot and I went on, four steps, five—and then I couldn’t. I turned and went back. I put out my hand and it went on into nothing. That door, sir, was open again.
I left it be; I went on up to the light-room and set to work. It was Bedlam there, sir, screeching Bedlam, but I took no notice. I kept my eyes down. I trimmed those seven wicks, sir, as neat as ever they were trimmed; I polished the brass till it shone, and I dusted the lens. It wasn’t till that was done that I let myself look back to see who it was standing there, half out of sight in the well. It was her, sir.
“Where’d you come from?” I asked. I remember my voice was sharp.
“Up Jacob’s-ladder,” said she, and hers was like the syrup of flowers.
I shook my head. I was savage, sir. “The ladder’s carried away.”
“I cast it off,” said she, with a smile.
“Then,” said I, “you must have come while I was asleep.” Another thought came on me heavy as a ton of lead. “And where’s he?” said I. “Where’s the boat?”
“He’s drowned,” said she, as easy as that. “And I let the boat go adrift. You wouldn’t hear me when I called.”
“But look here,” said I. “If you came through the store-room, why didn’t you wake me up? Tell me that!” It sounds foolish enough, me standing like a lawyer in court, trying to prove she couldn’t be there.
She didn’t answer for a moment. I guess she sighed, though I couldn’t hear for the gale, and her eyes grew soft, sir, so soft.
“I couldn’t,” said she. “You looked so peaceful—dear one.”
My cheeks and neck went hot, sir, as if a warm iron was laid on them. I didn’t know what to say. I began to stammer, “What do you mean—” but she was going back down the stair, out of sight. My God sir, and I used not to think she was good-looking!
I started to follow her. I wanted to know what she meant. Then I said to myself, “If I don’t go—if I wait here—she’ll come back.” And I went to the weather side and stood looking out of the window. Not that there was much to see. It was growing dark, and the Seven Brothers looked like the mane of a running horse, a great, vast, white horse running into the wind. The air was a-welter with it. I caught one peep of a fisherman, lying down flat trying to weather the ledge, and I said, “God help them all to-night,” and then I went hot at sound of that “God.”
I was right about her, though. She was back again. I wanted her to speak first, before I turned, but she wouldn’t. I didn’t hear her go out; I didn’t know what she was up to till I saw her coming outside on the walk-around, drenched wet already. I pounded on the glass for her to come in and not be a fool; if she heard she gave no sign of it.
There she stood, and there I stood watching her. Lord, sir—was it just that I’d never had eyes to see? Or are there women who bloom? Her clothes were shining on her, like a carving, and her hair was let down like a golden curtain tossing and streaming in the gale, and there she stood with her lips half open, drinking, and her eyes half closed, gazing straight away over the Seven Brothers, and her shoulders swaying, as if in tune with the wind and water and all the ruin. And when I looked at her hands over the rail, sir, they were moving in each other as if they bathed, and then I remembered, sir.
A cold horror took me. I knew now why she had come back again. She wasn’t a woman—she was a devil. I turned my back on her. I said to myself: “It’s time to light up. You’ve got to light up”—like that, over and over, out loud. My hand was shivering so I could hardly find a match; and when I scratched it, it only flared a second and then went out in the back draught from the open door. She was standing in the doorway, looking at me. It’s queer, sir, but I felt like a child caught in mischief.
“I—I—was going to light up,” I managed to say, finally.
“Why?” said she. No, I can’t say it as she did.
“Why?” said I. “My God!”
She came nearer, laughing, as if with pity, low, you know. “Your God? And who is your God? What is God? What is anything on a night like this?”
I drew back from her. All I could say anything about was the light.
“Why not the dark?” said she. “Dark is softer than light—tenderer—dearer than light. From the dark up here, away up here in the wind and storm, we can watch the ships go by, you and I. And you love me so. You’ve loved me so long, Ray.”
“I never have!” I struck out at her. “I don’t! I don’t!”
Her voice was lower than ever, but there was the same laughing pity in it. “Oh yes, you have.” And she was near me again.
“I have?” I yelled. “I’ll show you! I’ll show you if I have!”
I got another match, sir, and scratched it on the brass. I gave it to the first wick, the little wick that’s inside all the others. It bloomed like a yellow flower. “I have?” I yelled, and gave it to the next.
Then there was a shadow, and I saw she was leaning beside me, her two elbows on the brass, her two arms stretched out above the wicks, her bare forearms and wrists and hands. I gave a gasp:
“Take care! You’ll burn them! For God’s sake——”
She didn’t move or speak. The match burned my fingers and went out, and all I could do was stare at those arms of hers, helpless. I’d never noticed her arms before. They were rounded and graceful and covered with a soft down, like a breath of gold. Then I heard her speaking close to my ear.
“Pretty arms,” she said. “Pretty arms!”
I turned. Her eyes were fixed on mine. They seemed heavy, as if with sleep, and yet between their lids they were two wells, deep and deep, and as if they held all the things I’d ever thought or dreamed in them. I looked away from them, at her lips. Her lips were red as poppies, heavy with redness. They moved, and I heard them speaking:
“Poor boy, you love me so, and you want to kiss me—don’t you?”
“No,” said I. But I couldn’t turn around. I looked at her hair. I’d always thought it was stringy hair. Some hair curls naturally with damp, they say, and perhaps that was it, for there were pearls of wet on it, and it was thick and shimmering around her face, making soft shadows by the temples. There was green in it, queer strands of green like braids.
“What is it?” said I.
“Nothing but weed,” said she, with that slow, sleepy smile.
Somehow or other I felt calmer than I had any time. “Look here,” said I. “I’m going to light this lamp.” I took out a match, scratched it, and touched the third wick. The flame ran around, bigger than the other two together. But still her arms hung there. I bit my lip. “By God, I will!” said I to myself, and I lit the fourth.
It was fierce, sir, fierce! And yet those arms never trembled. I had to look around at her. Her eyes were still looking into mine, so deep and deep, and her red lips were still smiling with that queer, sleepy droop; the only thing was that tears were raining down her cheeks—big, glowing round, jewel tears. It wasn’t human, sir. It was like a dream.
“Pretty arms,” she sighed, and then, as if those words had broken something in her heart, there came a great sob bursting from her lips. To hear it drove me mad. I reached to drag her away, but she was too quick, sir; she cringed from me and slipped out from between my hands. It was like she faded away, sir, and went down in a bundle, nursing her poor arms and mourning over them with those terrible, broken sobs.
The sound of them took the manhood out of me—you’d have been the same, sir. I knelt down beside her on the floor and covered my face.
“Please!” I moaned. “Please! Please!” That’s all I could say. I wanted her to forgive me. I reached out a hand, blind, for forgiveness, and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I had hurt her so, and she was afraid of me, of me, sir, who loved her so deep it drove me crazy.
I could see her down the stair, though it was dim and my eyes were filled with tears. I stumbled after her, crying, “Please! Please!” The little wicks I’d lit were blowing in the wind from the door and smoking the glass beside them black. One went out. I pleaded with them, the same as I would plead with a human being. I said I’d be back in a second. I promised. And I went on down the stair, crying like a baby because I’d hurt her, and she was afraid of me—of me, sir.
She had gone into her room. The door was closed against me and I could hear her sobbing beyond it, broken-hearted. My heart was broken too. I beat on the door with my palms. I begged her to forgive me. I told her I loved her. And all the answer was that sobbing in the dark.
And then I lifted the latch and went in, groping, pleading. “Dearest—please! Because I love you!”
I heard her speak down near the floor. There wasn’t any anger in her voice; nothing but sadness and despair.
“No,” said she. “You don’t love me, Ray. You never have.”
“I do! I have!”
“No, no,” said she, as if she was tired out.
“Where are you?” I was groping for her. I thought, and lit a match. She had got to the door and was standing there as if ready to fly. I went toward her, and she made me stop. She took my breath away. “I hurt your arms,” said I, in a dream.
“No,” said she, hardly moving her lips. She held them out to the match’s light for me to look and there was never a scar on them—not even that soft, golden down was singed, sir. “You can’t hurt my body,” said she, sad as anything. “Only my heart, Ray; my poor heart.”
I tell you again, she took my breath away. I lit another match. “How can you be so beautiful?” I wondered.
She answered in riddles—but oh, the sadness of her, sir.
“Because,” said she, “I’ve always so wanted to be.”
“How come your eyes so heavy?” said I.
“Because I’ve seen so many things I never dreamed of,” said she.
“How come your hair so thick?”
“It’s the seaweed makes it thick,” said she smiling queer, queer.
“How come seaweed there?”
“Out of the bottom of the sea.”
She talked in riddles, but it was like poetry to hear her, or a song.
“How come your lips so red?” said I.
“Because they’ve wanted so long to be kissed.”
Fire was on me, sir. I reached out to catch her, but she was gone, out of the door and down the stair. I followed, stumbling. I must have tripped on the turn, for I remember going through the air and fetching up with a crash, and I didn’t know anything for a spell—how long I can’t say. When I came to, she was there, somewhere, bending over me, crooning, “My love—my love—” under her breath like, a song.
But then when I got up, she was not where my arms went; she was down the stair again, just ahead of me. I followed her. I was tottering and dizzy and full of pain. I tried to catch up with her in the dark of the store-room, but she was too quick for me, sir, always a little too quick for me. Oh, she was cruel to me, sir. I kept bumping against things, hurting myself still worse, and it was cold and wet and a horrible noise all the while, sir; and then, sir, I found the door was open, and a sea had parted the hinges.
I don’t know how it all went, sir. I’d tell you if I could, but it’s all so blurred—sometimes it seems more like a dream. I couldn’t find her any more; I couldn’t hear her; I went all over, everywhere. Once, I remember, I found myself hanging out of that door between the davits, looking down into those big black seas and crying like a baby. It’s all riddles and blur. I can’t seem to tell you much, sir. It was all—all—I don’t know.
I was talking to somebody else—not her. It was the Inspector. I hardly knew it was the Inspector. His face was as gray as a blanket, and his eyes were bloodshot, and his lips were twisted. His left wrist hung down, awkward. It was broken coming aboard the Light in that sea. Yes, we were in the living-room. Yes, sir, it was daylight—gray daylight. I tell you, sir, the man looked crazy to me. He was waving his good arm toward the weather windows, and what he was saying, over and over, was this:
“Look what you done, damn you! Look what you done!”
And what I was saying was this:
“I’ve lost her!”
I didn’t pay any attention to him, nor him to me. By and by he did, though. He stopped his talking all of a sudden, and his eyes looked like the devil’s eyes. He put them up close to mine. He grabbed my arm with his good hand, and I cried, I was so weak.
“Johnson,” said he, “is that it? By the living God—if you got a woman out here, Johnson!”
“No,” said I. “I’ve lost her.”
“What do you mean—lost her?”
“It was dark,” said I—and it’s funny how my head was clearing up—“and the door was open—the store-room door—and I was after her—and I guess she stumbled, maybe—and I lost her.”
“Johnson,” said he, “what do you mean? You sound crazy—downright crazy. Who?”
“Her,” said I. “Fedderson’s wife.”
“Her,” said I. And with that he gave my arm another jerk.
“Listen,” said he, like a tiger. “Don’t try that on me. It won’t do any good—that kind of lies—not where you’re going to. Fedderson and his wife, too—the both of ’em’s drowned deader ’n a door-nail.”
“I know,” said I, nodding my head. I was so calm it made him wild.
“You’re crazy! Crazy as a loon, Johnson!” And he was chewing his lip red. “I know, because it was me that found the old man laying on Back Water Flats yesterday morning—me! And she’d been with him in the boat, too, because he had a piece of her jacket tore off, tangled in his arm.”
“I know,” said I, nodding again, like that.
“You know what, you crazy, murdering fool?” Those were his words to me, sir.
“I know,” said I, “what I know.”
“And I know,” said he, “what I know.”
And there you are, sir. He’s Inspector. I’m—nobody.
BY MYLA JO CLOSSER
From the Century
Magazine. By permission of the Century Company
and Myla J. Closser.
A shaggy Airedale scented his way along the highroad. He had not been there before, but he was guided by the trail of his brethren who had preceded him. He had gone unwillingly upon this journey, yet with the perfect training of dogs he had accepted it without complaint. The path had been lonely, and his heart would have failed him, traveling as he must without his people, had not these traces of countless dogs before him promised companionship of a sort at the end of the road.
The landscape had appeared arid at first, for the translation from recent agony into freedom from pain had been so numbing in its swiftness that it was some time before he could fully appreciate the pleasant dog-country through which he was passing. There were woods with leaves upon the ground through which to scurry, long grassy slopes for extended runs, and lakes into which he might plunge for sticks and bring them back to—But he did not complete his thought, for the boy was not with him. A little wave of homesickness possessed him.
It made his mind easier to see far ahead a great gate as high as the heavens, wide enough for all. He understood that only man built such barriers and by straining his eyes he fancied he could discern humans passing through to whatever lay beyond. He broke into a run that he might the more quickly gain this inclosure made beautiful by men and women; but his thoughts outran his pace, and he remembered that he had left the family behind, and again this lovely new compound became not perfect, since it would lack the family.
The scent of the dogs grew very strong now, and coming nearer, he discovered, to his astonishment that of the myriads of those who had arrived ahead of him thousands were still gathered on the outside of the portal. They sat in a wide circle spreading out on each side of the entrance, big, little, curly, handsome, mongrel, thoroughbred dogs of every age, complexion, and personality. All were apparently waiting for something, someone, and at the pad of the Airedale’s feet on the hard road they arose and looked in his direction.
That the interest passed as soon as they discovered the new-comer to be a dog puzzled him. In his former dwelling-place a four-footed brother was greeted with enthusiasm when he was a friend, with suspicious diplomacy when a stranger, and with sharp reproof when an enemy; but never had he been utterly ignored.
He remembered something that he had read many times on great buildings with lofty entrances. “Dogs not admitted,” the signs had said, and he feared this might be the reason for the waiting circle outside the gate. It might be that this noble portal stood as the dividing-line between mere dogs and humans. But he had been a member of the family, romping with them in the living-room, sitting at meals with them in the dining-room, going upstairs at night with them, and the thought that he was to be “kept out” would be unendurable.
He despised the passive dogs. They should be treating a barrier after the fashion of their old country, leaping against it, barking, and scratching the nicely painted door. He bounded up the last little hill to set them an example, for he was still full of the rebellion of the world; but he found no door to leap against. He could see beyond the entrance dear masses of people, yet no dog crossed the threshold. They continued in their patient ring, their gaze upon the winding road.
He now advanced cautiously to examine the gate. It occurred to him that it must be fly-time in this region, and he did not wish to make himself ridiculous before all these strangers by trying to bolt through an invisible mesh like the one that had baffled him when he was a little chap. Yet there were no screens, and despair entered his soul. What bitter punishment these poor beasts must have suffered before they learned to stay on this side the arch that led to human beings! What had they done on earth to merit this? Stolen bones troubled his conscience, runaway days, sleeping in the best chair until the key clicked in the lock. These were sins.
At that moment an English bull-terrier, white, with liver-colored spots and a jaunty manner, approached him, snuffling in a friendly way. No sooner had the bull-terrier smelt his collar than he fell to expressing his joy at meeting him. The Airedale’s reserve was quite thawed by this welcome, though he did not know just what to make of it.
“I know you! I know you!” exclaimed the bull-terrier, adding inconsequently, “What’s your name?”
“Tam o’Shanter. They call me Tammy,” was the answer, with a pardonable break in the voice.
“I know them,” said the bull-terrier. “Nice folks.”
“Best ever,” said the Airedale, trying to be nonchalant, and scratching a flea which was not there. “I don’t remember you. When did you know them?”
“About fourteen tags ago, when they were first married. We keep track of time here by the license-tags. I had four.”
“This is my first and only one. You were before my time, I guess.” He felt young and shy.
“Come for a walk, and tell me all about them,” was his new friend’s invitation.
“Aren’t we allowed in there?” asked Tam, looking toward the gate.
“Sure. You can go in whenever you want to. Some of us do at first, but we don’t stay.”
“Like it better outside?”
“No, no; it isn’t that.”
“Then why are all you fellows hanging around here? Any old dog can see it’s better beyond the arch.”
“You see, we’re waiting for our folks to come.”
The Airedale grasped it at once, and nodded understandingly.
“I felt that way when I came along the road. It wouldn’t be what it’s supposed to be without them. It wouldn’t be the perfect place.”
“Not to us,” said the bull-terrier.
“Fine! I’ve stolen bones, but it must be that I have been forgiven, if I’m to see them here again. It’s the great good place all right. But look here,” he added as a new thought struck him, “do they wait for us?”
The older inhabitant coughed in slight embarrassment.
“The humans couldn’t do that very well. It wouldn’t be the thing to have them hang around outside for just a dog—not dignified.”
“Quite right,” agreed Tam. “I’m glad they go straight to their mansions. I’d—I’d hate to have them missing me as I am missing them.” He sighed. “But, then, they wouldn’t have to wait so long.”
“Oh, well, they’re getting on. Don’t be discouraged,” comforted the terrier. “And in the meantime it’s like a big hotel in summer—watching the new arrivals. See, there is something doing now.”
All the dogs were aroused to excitement by a little figure making its way uncertainly up the last slope. Half of them started to meet it, crowding about in a loving, eager pack.
“Look out; don’t scare it,” cautioned the older animals, while word was passed to those farthest from the gate: “Quick! Quick! A baby’s come!”
Before they had entirely assembled, however, a gaunt yellow hound pushed through the crowd, gave one sniff at the small child, and with a yelp of joy crouched at its feet. The baby embraced the hound in recognition, and the two moved toward the gate. Just outside the hound stopped to speak to an aristocratic St. Bernard who had been friendly:
“Sorry to leave you, old fellow,” he said, “but I’m going in to watch over the kid. You see, I’m all she has up here.”
The bull-terrier looked at the Airedale for appreciation.
“That’s the way we do it,” he said proudly.
“Yes, but—” the Airedale put his head on one side in perplexity.
“Yes, but what?” asked the guide.
“The dogs that don’t have any people—the nobodies’ dogs?”
“That’s the best of all. Oh, everything is thought out here. Crouch down,—you must be tired,—and watch,” said the bull-terrier.
Soon they spied another small form making the turn in the road. He wore a Boy Scout’s uniform, but he was a little fearful, for all that, so new was this adventure. The dogs rose again and snuffled, but the better groomed of the circle held back, and in their place a pack of odds and ends of the company ran down to meet him. The Boy Scout was reassured by their friendly attitude, and after petting them impartially, he chose an old-fashioned black and tan, and the two passed in.
Tam looked questioningly.
“They didn’t know each other!” he exclaimed.
“But they’ve always wanted to. That’s one of the boys who used to beg for a dog, but his father wouldn’t let him have one. So all our strays wait for just such little fellows to come along. Every boy gets a dog, and every dog gets a master.”
“I expect the boy’s father would like to know that now,” commented the Airedale. “No doubt he thinks quite often, ’I wish I’d let him have a dog.’”
The bull-terrier laughed.
“You’re pretty near the earth yet, aren’t you?”
Tam admitted it.
“I’ve a lot of sympathy with fathers and with boys, having them both in the family, and a mother as well.”
The bull-terrier leaped up in astonishment.
“You don’t mean to say they keep a boy?”
“Sure; greatest boy on earth. Ten this year.”
“Well, well, this is news! I wish they’d kept a boy when I was there.”
The Airedale looked at his new friend intently.
“See here, who are you?” he demanded.
But the other hurried on:
“I used to run away from them just to play with a boy. They’d punish me, and I always wanted to tell them it was their fault for not getting one.”
“Who are you, anyway?” repeated Tam. “Talking all this interest in me, too. Whose dog were you?”
“You’ve already guessed. I see it in your quivering snout. I’m the old dog that had to leave them about ten years ago.”
“Their old dog Bully?”
“Yes, I’m Bully.” They nosed each other with deeper affection, then strolled about the glades shoulder to shoulder. Bully the more eagerly pressed for news. “Tell me, how are they getting along?”
“Very well indeed; they’ve paid for the house.”
“I—I suppose you occupy the kennel?”
“No. They said they couldn’t stand it to see another dog in your old place.”
Bully stopped to howl gently.
“That touches me. It’s generous in you to tell it. To think they missed me!”
For a little while they went on in silence, but as evening fell, and the light from the golden streets inside of the city gave the only glow to the scene, Bully grew nervous and suggested that they go back.
“We can’t see so well at night, and I like to be pretty close to the path, especially toward morning.”
“And I will point them out. You might not know them just at first.”
“Oh, we know them. Sometimes the babies have so grown up they’re rather hazy in their recollection of how we look. They think we’re bigger than we are; but you can’t fool us dogs.”
“It’s understood,” Tam cunningly arranged, “that when he or she arrives you’ll sort of make them feel at home while I wait for the boy?”
“That’s the best plan,” assented Bully, kindly. “And if by any chance the little fellow should come first,—there’s been a lot of them this summer—of course you’ll introduce me?”
“I shall be proud to do it.”
And so with muzzles sunk between their paws, and with their eyes straining down the pilgrims’ road, they wait outside the gate.
BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mystery of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.—Joseph Glanvill.
I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia. Long years have since elapsed, and my memory is feeble through much suffering. Or, perhaps, I cannot now bring these points to mind, because, in truth, the character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low musical language, made their way into my heart by paces so steadily and stealthily progressive, that they have been unnoticed and unknown. Yet I believe that I met her first and most frequently in some large, old, decaying city near the Rhine. Of her family—I have surely heard her speak. That it is of a remotely ancient date cannot be doubted. Ligeia! Ligeia! Buried in studies of a nature more than all else adapted to deaden impressions of the outward world, it is by that sweet word alone—by Ligeia—that I bring before mine eyes in fancy the image of her who is no more. And now, while I write, a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my bethrothed, and who became the partner of my studies, and finally the wife of my bosom. Was it a playful charge on the part of my Ligeia? or was it a test of my strength of affection, that I should institute no inquiries upon this point? or was it rather a caprice of my own—a wildly romantic offering on the shrine of the most passionate devotion? I but indistinctly recall the fact itself—what wonder that I have utterly forgotten the circumstances which originated or attended it? And, indeed, if ever that spirit which is entitled Romance—if ever she, the wan misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt, presided, as they tell, over marriages ill-omened, then most surely she presided over mine.
There is one dear topic, however, on which my memory fails me not. It is the person of Ligeia. In stature she was tall, somewhat slender, and, in her latter days, even emaciated. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the quiet ease of her demeanor, or the incomprehensible lightness and elasticity of her footfall. She came and departed as a shadow. I was never made aware of her entrance into my closed study, save by the dear music of her low sweet voice, as she placed her marble hand upon my shoulder.
For eyes we have no models in the remotely antique. It might have been, too, that in these eyes of my beloved lay the secret to which Lord Verulam alludes. They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad. Yet it was only at intervals—in moments of intense excitement—that this peculiarity became more than slightly noticeable in Ligeia. And at such moments was her beauty—in my heated fancy thus it appeared perhaps—the beauty of beings either above or apart from the earth—the beauty of the fabulous Houri of the Turk. The hue of the orbs was the most brilliant of black, and,
There is no point, among the many incomprehensible anomalies of the science of mind, more thrillingly exciting than the fact—never, I believe, noticed in the schools—than in our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten, we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember. And thus how frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligeia’s eyes, have I felt approaching the full knowledge of their expression—felt it approaching—yet not quite be mine—and so at length entirely depart! And (strange, oh, strangest mystery of all!) I found, in the commonest objects of the universe, a circle of analogies to that expression. I mean to say that, subsequently to the period when Ligeia’s beauty passed into my spirit, there dwelling as in a shrine, I derived, from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I felt always around, within me, by her large and luminous orbs. Yet not the more could I define that sentiment, or analyze, or even steadily view it. I recognized it, let me repeat, sometimes in the survey of a rapidly growing vine—in the contemplation of a moth, a butterfly, a chrysalis, a stream of running water. I have felt it in the ocean—in the falling of a meteor. I have felt it in the glances of unusually aged people. And there are one or two stars in heaven (one especially, a star of the sixth magnitude, double and changeable, to be found near the large star in Lyra) in a telescopic scrutiny of which I have been made aware of the feeling. I have been filled with it by certain sounds from stringed instruments, and not unfrequently by passages from books. Among innumerable other instances, I well remember something in a volume of Joseph Glanvill, which (perhaps merely from its quaintness—who shall say?) never failed to inspire me with the sentiment: “And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
Length of years and subsequent reflection have enabled me to trace, indeed, some remote connection between this passage in the English moralist and a portion of the character of Ligeia. An intensity in thought, action, or speech was possibly, in her, a result, or at least an index, of that gigantic volition which, during our long intercourse, failed to give other and more immediate evidence of its existence. Of all the women whom I have ever known, she, the outwardly calm, the ever-placid Ligeia, was the most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion. And of such passion I could form no estimate, save by the miraculous expansion of those eyes which at once so delighted and appalled me,—by the almost magical melody, modulation, distinctness, and placidity of her very low voice,—and by the fierce energy (rendered doubly effective by contrast with her manner of utterance) of the wild words which she habitually uttered.
I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia: it was immense—such as I have never known in woman. In the classical tongues was she deeply proficient, and as far as my own acquaintance extended in regard to the modern dialects of Europe, I have never known her at fault. Indeed upon any theme of the most admired because simply the most abstruse of the boasted erudition of the Academy, have I ever found Ligeia at fault? How singularly—how thrillingly, this one point in the nature of my wife has forced itself, at this late period only, upon my attention! I said her knowledge was such as I have never known in woman—but where breathes the man who has traversed, and successfully, all the wide areas of moral, physical, and mathematical science? I saw not then what I now clearly perceive that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic, were astounding; yet I was sufficiently aware of her infinite supremacy to resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation at which I was most busily occupied during the earlier years of our marriage. With how vast a triumph—with how vivid a delight—with how much of all that is ethereal in hope did I feel, as she bent over me in studies but little sought—but less known,—that delicious vista by slow degrees expanding before me, down whose long, gorgeous, and all untrodden path, I might at length pass onward to the goal of a wisdom too divinely precious not to be forbidden.
How poignant, then, must have been the grief with which, after some years, I beheld my well-grounded expectations take wings to themselves and fly away! Without Ligeia I was but as a child groping benighted. Her presence, her readings alone, rendered vividly luminous the many mysteries of the transcendentalism in which we were immersed. Wanting the radiant luster of her eyes, letters, lambent and golden, grew duller than Saturnian lead. And now those eyes shone less and less frequently upon the pages over
That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry. How had I deserved to be so blessed by such confessions?—how had I deserved to be so cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of my making them? But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only, that in Ligeia’s more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length, recognized the principle of her longing, with so wildly earnest a desire, for the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing—it is this eager vehemence of desire for life—but for life—that I have no power to portray—no utterance capable of expressing.
At high noon of the night in which she departed, beckoning me, peremptorily, to her side, she bade me repeat certain verses composed by herself not many days before. I obeyed her. They were these:—
Lo! ’tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.
Mimes, in the form of God
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly;
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their condor wings
That motley drama!—oh,
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot;
And much of Madness, and more of Sin
And Horror, the soul of the plot!
But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.
Out—out are the
And over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm—
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero, the conqueror Worm.
“O God!” half shrieked Ligeia, leaping to her feet and extending her arms aloft with a spasmodic movement, as I made an end of these lines—“O God! O Divine Father!—shall these things be undeviatingly so?—shall this conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who—who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
And now, as if exhausted with emotion, she suffered her white arms to fall, and returned solemnly to her bed of death. And as she breathed her last sighs, there came mingled with them a low murmur from her lips. I bent to them my ear, and distinguished, again, the concluding words of the passage in Glanvill: “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
She died: and I, crushed into the very dust with sorrow, could no longer endure the lonely desolation of my dwelling in the dim and decaying city by the Rhine. I had no lack of what the world calls wealth. Ligeia had brought me far more, very far more, than ordinarily falls to the lot of mortals. After a few months, therefore, of weary and aimless wandering, I purchased and put in some repair, an abbey, which I shall not name, in one of the wildest and least frequented portions of fair England. The gloomy and dreary grandeur of the building, the almost savage aspect of the domain, the many melancholy and time-honored memories connected with both, had much in unison with the feelings of utter abandonment which had driven
There is no individual portion of the architecture and decoration of that bridal chamber which is not visibly before me. Where were the souls of the haughty family of the bride, when, through thirst of gold, they permitted to pass the threshold of an apartment so bedecked, a maiden and a daughter so beloved? I have said, that I minutely remember the details of the chamber—yet I am sadly forgetful on topics of deep moment; and here there was no system, no keeping, in the fantastic display to take hold upon the memory. The room lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey, was pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size. Occupying the whole southern face of the pentagonal was the sole window—an immense sheet of unbroken glass from Venice—a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either the sun or moon passing through it, fell with a ghastly luster on the objects within. Over the upper portion of this huge window extended the trellis-work of an aged vine, which clambered up the massy walls of the turret. The ceiling, of gloomy-looking oak, was excessively lofty, vaulted, and elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical device. From out the most central recess of this melancholy vaulting, depended, by a single chain of gold with long links, a huge censer of the same metal, Saracenic in pattern, and with many perforations so contrived that there writhed in and out of them, as if endued with a serpent vitality, a continual succession of parti-colored fires.
Some few ottomans and golden candelabra, of Eastern figure, were in various stations about; and there was the couch, too—the bridal couch—of an Indian model, and low, and sculptured of solid ebony, with a pall-like canopy above. In each of the angles of the chamber stood on end a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite, from the tombs of the kings over against Luxor, with their aged lids full of immemorial sculpture. But in the draping of the apartment lay, alas! the chief phantasy of all. The lofty walls, gigantic in height—even unproportionably so—were hung from summit to foot, in vast folds, with a heavy and massive-looking tapestry—tapestry of a material which was found alike as a carpet on the floor, as a covering for the ottomans and the ebony bed, as a canopy for the bed, and as the gorgeous volutes of the curtains which partially shaded the window. The material was the richest cloth of gold. It was spotted all over, at irregular intervals, with arabesque figures, about a foot in diameter, and wrought upon the cloth in patterns of the most jetty black. But these figures partook of the true character of the arabesque only when regarded from a single point of view. By a contrivance now common, and indeed traceable to a very remote period of antiquity, they were made changeable in aspect. To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a farther advance, this appearance gradually departed; and, step by step, as the visitor moved his station in the chamber, he saw himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.
In halls such as these—in a bridal chamber such as this—I passed, with the Lady of Tremaine, the unhallowed hours of the first month of our marriage—passed them with but little disquietude. That my wife dreaded the fierce moodiness of my temper—that she shunned me, and loved me but little—I could not help perceiving; but it gave me rather pleasure than otherwise. I loathed her with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man. My memory flew back (oh, with what intensity of regret!) to Ligeia, the beloved, the august, the beautiful, the entombed. I reveled in recollections of her purity, of her wisdom, of her lofty—her ethereal nature, of her passionate, her idolatrous love. Now, then, did my spirit fully and freely burn with more than all the fires of her own. In the excitement of my opium dreams (for I was habitually fettered in the shackles of the drug), I would call aloud upon her name, during the silence of the night, or among the sheltered recesses of the glens by day, as if, through the wild eagerness, the solemn passion, the consuming ardor of my longing for the departed, I could restore her to the pathways she had abandoned—ah, could it be forever?—upon the earth.
About the commencement of the second month of the marriage, the Lady Rowena was attacked with sudden illness, from which her recovery was slow. The fever which consumed her rendered her nights uneasy; and in her perturbed state of half-slumber, she spoke of sounds, and of motions, in and about the chamber of the turret, which I concluded had no origin save in the distemper of her fancy, or perhaps in the phantasmagoric influences of the chamber itself. She became at length convalescent—finally, well. Yet but a second more violent disorder again threw her upon a bed of suffering; and from this attack her frame, at all times feeble, never altogether recovered. Her illnesses were, after this epoch, of alarming character, and of more alarming recurrence, defying alike the knowledge and the great exertions of her physicians. With the increase of the chronic disease, which had thus, apparently, taken too sure hold upon her constitution to be eradicated by human means, I could not fail to observe a similar increase in the nervous irritation of her temperament, and in her excitability by trivial causes of fear. She spoke again, and now more frequently and pertinaciously, of the sounds—of the slight sounds—and of the unusual motions among the tapestries, to which she had formerly alluded.
One night, near the closing in of September, she pressed this distressing subject with more than usual emphasis upon my attention. She had just awakened from an unquiet slumber, and I had been watching, with feelings half of anxiety, half of vague terror, the workings of her emaciated countenance. I sat by the side of her ebony bed, upon one of the ottomans of India. She partly arose, and spoke, in an earnest low whisper, of sounds which she then heard, but which I could not hear—of motions which she then saw, but which I could not perceive. The wind was rushing hurriedly behind the tapestries, and I wished to show her (what, let me confess it, I could not all believe) that those almost inarticulate breathings, and those very gentle variations of the figures upon the wall, were but the natural effects of that customary rushing of the wind. But a deadly pallor, overspreading her face, had proved to me that my exertions to reassure her would be fruitless. She appeared to be fainting, and no attendants were within call. I remembered where was deposited a decanter of light wine which had been ordered by her physicians, and hastened across the chamber to procure it. But, as I stepped beneath the light of the censer, two circumstances of a startling nature attracted my attention. I had felt that some palpable although invisible object had passed lightly by my person; and I saw that there lay upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich luster thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect—such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade. But I was wild with the excitement of an immoderate dose of
Yet I cannot conceal [Transcriber’s note: The original reads “coneal".] it from my own perception that, immediately subsequent to the fall of the ruby drops, a rapid change for the worse took place in the disorder of my wife; so that, on the third subsequent night, the hands of her menials prepared her for the tomb, and on the fourth, I sat alone, with her shrouded body, in that fantastic chamber which had received her as my bride. Wild visions, opium-engendered, flitted, shadow-like, before me. I gazed with unquiet eye upon the sarcophagi in the angles of the room, upon the varying figures of the drapery, and upon the writhing of the parti-colored fires in the censer overhead. My eyes then fell, as I called to mind the circumstances of a former night, to the spot beneath the glare of the censer where I had seen the faint traces of the shadow. It was there, however, no longer; and breathing with greater freedom, I turned my glances to the pallid and rigid figure upon the bed. Then rushed upon me a thousand memories of Ligeia—and then came back upon my heart, with the turbulent violence of a flood, the whole of that unutterable woe with which I had regarded her thus enshrouded. The night waned; and still, with a bosom full of bitter thoughts of the one only and supremely beloved, I remained gazing upon the body of Rowena.
It might have been midnight, or perhaps earlier, or later, for I had taken no note of time, when a sob, low, gentle, but very distinct, startled me from my revery. I felt that it came from the bed of ebony—the bed of death. I listened in an agony of superstitious terror—but there was no repetition of the sound. I strained my vision to detect any motion in the corpse—but there was not the slightest perceptible. Yet I could not have been deceived. I had heard the noise, however faint, and my soul was awakened within me. I resolutely and perseveringly kept my attention riveted upon the body. Many minutes
An hour thus elapsed, when (could it be possible?) I was a second time aware of some vague sound issuing from the region of the bed. I listened—in extremity of horror. The sound came again—it was a sigh. Rushing to the corpse, I saw—distinctly saw—a tremor upon the lips. In a minute afterward they relaxed, disclosing a bright line of the pearly teeth. Amazement now struggled in my bosom with the profound awe which had hitherto reigned there alone. I felt that my vision grew dim, that my reason wandered; and it was only by a violent effort that I at length succeeded in nerving myself to the task which duty thus once more had pointed out. There was now a partial glow upon the forehead and upon the cheek and throat; a perceptible warmth pervaded the whole frame; there was even a slight pulsation at the heart. The lady lived; and with redoubled ardor I betook myself to the task of restoration. I chafed and bathed the temples and the hands and used every exertion which experience, and no little medical reading, could suggest. But in vain. Suddenly, the color fled, the pulsation ceased, the lips resumed the expression of the dead, and, in an instant afterward, the whole body took upon itself the icy chilliness, the livid hue, the intense rigidity, the sunken outline, and all the loathsome peculiarities of that which has been, for many days, a tenant of the tomb.
And again I sunk into visions of Ligeia—and again (what marvel that I shudder while I write?), again there reached my ears a low sob from the region of the ebony bed. But why shall I minutely detail the unspeakable horrors of that night? Why shall I pause to relate how, time after time, until near the period of the gray dawn, this hideous drama of revivification was repeated; how each terrific relapse was only into a sterner and apparently more irredeemable death; how each agony wore the aspect of a struggle with some invisible foe; and how each struggle was succeeded by I know not what of wild change in the personal appearance of the corpse? Let me hurry to a conclusion.
The greater part of the fearful night had worn away, and she who had been dead once again stirred—and now more vigorously than hitherto, although arousing from a dissolution more appalling in its utter hopelessness than any. I had long ceased to struggle or to move, and remained sitting rigidly upon the ottoman, a helpless prey to a whirl of violent emotions, of which extreme awe was perhaps the least terrible, the least consuming. The corpse, I repeat, stirred, and now more vigorously than before. The hues of life flushed up with unwonted energy into the countenance—the limbs relaxed—and, save that the eyelids were yet pressed heavily together, and that the bandages and draperies of the grave still imparted their charnel character to the figure, I might have dreamed that Rowena had indeed shaken off, utterly, the fetters of Death. But if this idea was not, even then, altogether adopted, I could at least doubt no longer, when, arising from the bed, tottering, with feeble steps, with closed eyes, and with the manner of one bewildered in a dream, the thing that was enshrouded advanced boldly and palpably into the middle of the apartment.
I trembled not—I stirred not—for a crowd of unutterable fancies connected with the air, the stature, the demeanor, of the figure, rushing hurriedly through my brain, had paralyzed—had chilled me into stone. I stirred not—but gazed upon the apparition. There was a mad disorder in my thoughts—a tumult unappeasable. Could it, indeed, be the living Rowena who confronted me? Could it, indeed, be Rowena at all—the fair-haired, the blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine? Why, why should I doubt it? The bandage lay heavily about the mouth—but then might it not be the mouth of the breathing Lady of Tremaine? And the cheeks—there were the roses as in her noon of life—yes, these might indeed be the fair cheeks of the living Lady of Tremaine. And the chin, with its dimples, as in health, might it not be hers?—but had she then grown taller since her malady? What inexpressible madness seized me with that thought? One bound, and I had reached her feet! Shrinking from my touch, she let fall from her head, unloosened, the ghastly cerements which had confined it, and there streamed
BY RICHARD LE GALLIENNE
Magazine, January, 1912. By permission of
and Brothers and Richard Le Gallienne.
Spring was once more in the world. As she sang to herself in the faraway woodlands her voice reached even the ears of the city, weary with the long winter. Daffodils flowered at the entrances to the Subway, furniture removing vans blocked the side streets, children clustered like blossoms on the doorsteps, the open cars were running, and the cry of the “cash clo’” man was once more heard in the land.
Yes, it was the spring, and the city dreamed wistfully of lilacs and the dewy piping of birds in gnarled old apple-trees, of dogwood lighting up with sudden silver the thickening woods, of water-plants unfolding their glossy scrolls in pools of morning freshness.
On Sunday mornings, the outbound trains were thronged with eager pilgrims, hastening out of the city, to behold once more the ancient marvel of the spring; and, on Sunday evenings, the railway termini were aflower with banners of blossom from rifled woodland and orchard carried in the hands of the returning pilgrims, whose eyes still shone with the spring magic, in whose ears still sang the fairy music.
And as I beheld these signs of the vernal equinox I knew that I, too, must follow the music, forsake awhile the beautiful siren we call the city, and in the green silences meet once more my sweetheart Solitude.
As the train drew out of the Grand Central, I hummed to myself,
“I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden, in a greener, cleaner land”
and so I said good-by to the city, and went forth with beating heart to meet the spring.
I had been told of an almost forgotten corner on the south coast of Connecticut, where the spring and I could live in an inviolate loneliness—a place uninhabited save by birds and blossoms, woods and thick grass, and an occasional silent farmer, and pervaded by the breath and shimmer of the Sound.
Nor had rumor lied, for when the train set me down at my destination I stepped out into the most wonderful green hush, a leafy Sabbath silence through which the very train, as it went farther on its way, seemed to steal as noiselessly as possible for fear of breaking the spell.
After a winter in the town, to be dropped thus suddenly into the intense quiet of the country-side makes an almost ghostly impression upon one, as of an enchanted silence, a silence that listens and watches but never speaks, finger on lip. There is a spectral quality about everything upon which the eye falls: the woods, like great green clouds, the wayside flowers, the still farm-houses half lost in orchard bloom—all seem to exist in a dream. Everything is so still, everything so supernaturally green. Nothing moves or talks, except the gentle susurrus of the spring wind swaying the young buds high up in the quiet sky, or a bird now and again, or a little brook singing softly to itself among the crowding rushes.
Though, from the houses one notes here and there, there are evidently human inhabitants of this green silence, none are to be seen. I have often wondered where the countryfolk hide themselves, as I have walked hour after hour, past farm and croft and lonely door-yards, and never caught sight of a human face. If you should want to ask the way, a farmer is as shy as a squirrel, and if you knock at a farm-house door, all is as silent as a rabbit-warren.
As I walked along in the enchanted stillness, I came at length to a quaint old farm-house—“old Colonial” in its architecture—embowered in white lilacs, and surrounded by an orchard of ancient apple-trees which cast a rich shade on the deep spring grass. The orchard had the impressiveness of those old religious groves, dedicated to the strange worship of sylvan gods, gods to be found now only in Horace or Catullus, and in the hearts of young poets to whom the beautiful antique Latin is still dear.
The old house seemed already the abode of Solitude. As I lifted the latch of the white gate and walked across the forgotten grass, and up on to the veranda already festooned with wistaria, and looked into the window, I saw Solitude sitting by an old piano, on which no composer later than Bach had ever been played.
In other words, the house was empty; and going round to the back, where old barns and stables leaned together as if falling asleep, I found a broken pane, and so climbed in and walked through the echoing rooms. The house was very lonely. Evidently no one had lived in it for a long time. Yet it was all ready for some occupant, for whom it seemed to be waiting. Quaint old four-poster bedsteads stood in three rooms—dimity curtains and spotless linen—old oak chests and mahogany presses; and, opening drawers in Chippendale sideboards, I came upon beautiful frail old silver and exquisite china that set me thinking of a beautiful grandmother of mine, made out of old lace and laughing wrinkles and mischievous old blue eyes.
There was one little room that particularly interested me, a tiny bedroom all white, and at the window the red roses were already in bud. But what caught my eye with peculiar sympathy was a small bookcase, in which were some twenty or thirty volumes, wearing the same forgotten expression—forgotten and yet cared for—which lay like a kind of memorial charm upon everything in the old house. Yes, everything seemed forgotten and yet everything, curiously—even religiously—remembered. I took out book after book from the shelves, once or twice flowers fell out from the pages—and I caught sight of a delicate handwriting here and there and frail markings. It was evidently the little intimate library of a young girl. What surprised me most was to find that quite half the books were in French—French poets and French romancers: a charming, very rare edition of Ronsard, a beautifully printed edition of Alfred de Musset, and a copy of Theophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin. How did these exotic books come to be there alone in a deserted New England farm-house?
This question was to be answered later in a strange way. Meanwhile I had fallen in love with the sad, old, silent place, and as I closed the white gate and was once more on the road, I looked about for someone who could tell me whether or not this house of ghosts might be rented for the summer by a comparatively living man.
I was referred to a fine old New England farm-house shining white through the trees a quarter of a mile away. There I met an ancient couple, a typical New England farmer and his wife; the old man, lean, chin-bearded, with keen gray eyes flickering occasionally with a shrewd humor, the old lady with a kindly old face of the withered-apple type and ruddy. They were evidently prosperous people, but their minds—for some reason I could not at the moment divine—seemed to be divided between their New England desire to drive a hard bargain and their disinclination to let the house at all.
Over and over again they spoke of the loneliness of the place. They feared I would find it very lonely. No one had lived in it for a long time, and so on. It seemed to me that afterwards I understood their curious hesitation, but at the moment only regarded it as a part of the circuitous New England method of bargaining. At all events, the rent I offered finally overcame their disinclination, whatever its cause, and so I came into possession—for four months—of that silent old house, with the white lilacs, and the drowsy barns, and the old piano, and the strange orchard; and, as the summer came on, and the year changed its name from May to June, I used to lie under the apple-trees in the afternoons, dreamily reading some old book, and through half-sleepy eyelids watching the silken shimmer of the Sound.
I had lived in the old house for about a month, when one afternoon a strange thing happened to me. I remember the date well. It was the afternoon of Tuesday, June 13th. I was reading, or rather dipping here and there, in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. As I read, I remember that a little unripe apple, with a petal or two of blossom still clinging to it, fell upon the old yellow page. Then I suppose I must have fallen into a dream, though it seemed to me that both my eyes and my ears were wide open, for I suddenly became aware of a beautiful young voice singing very softly somewhere among the leaves. The singing was very frail, almost imperceptible, as though it came out of the air. It came and went fitfully, like the elusive fragrance of sweetbrier—as though a girl was walking to and fro, dreamily humming to herself in the still afternoon. Yet there was no one to be seen. The orchard had never seemed more lonely. And another fact that struck me as strange was that the words that floated to me out of the aerial music were French, half sad, half gay snatches of some long-dead singer of old France, I looked about for the origin of the sweet sounds, but in vain. Could it be the birds that were singing in French in this strange orchard? Presently the voice seemed to come quite close to me, so near that it might have been the voice of a dryad singing to me out of the tree against which I was leaning. And this time I distinctly caught the words of the sad little song:
"Chante, rossignol, chante, Toi qui as le coeur gai; Tu as le coeur a rire, Moi, je l’ai-t-a pleurer."
But, though the voice was at my shoulder, I could see no one, and then the singing stopped with what sounded like a sob; and a moment or two later I seemed to hear a sound of sobbing far down the orchard. Then there followed silence, and I was left to ponder on the strange occurrence. Naturally, I decided that it was just a day-dream between sleeping and waking over the pages of an old book; yet when next day and the day after the invisible singer was in the orchard again, I could not be satisfied with such mere matter-of-fact explanation.
"A la claire fontaine,"
went the voice to and fro through the thick orchard boughs,
"M’en allant promener, J’ai trouve l’eau si belle Que je m’y suis baigne, Lui y a longtemps que je t’aime, Jamais je ne t’oubliai."
It was certainly uncanny to hear that voice going to and fro the orchard, there somewhere amid the bright sun-dazzled boughs—yet not a human creature to be seen—not another house even within half a mile. The most materialistic mind could hardly but conclude that here was something “not dreamed of in our philosophy.” It seemed to me that the only reasonable explanation was the entirely irrational one—that my orchard was haunted: haunted by some beautiful young spirit, with some sorrow of lost joy that would not let her sleep quietly in her grave.
And next day I had a curious confirmation of my theory. Once more I was lying under my favorite apple-tree, half reading and half watching the Sound, lulled into a dream by the whir of insects and the spices called up from the earth by the hot sun. As I bent over the page, I suddenly had the startling impression that someone was leaning over my shoulder and reading with me, and that a girl’s long hair was falling over me down on to the page. The book was the Ronsard I had found in the little bedroom. I turned, but again there was nothing there. Yet this time I knew that I had not been dreaming, and I cried out:
“Poor child! tell me of your grief—that I may help your sorrowing heart to rest.”
But, of course, there was no answer; yet that night I dreamed a strange dream. I thought I was in the orchard again in the afternoon and once again heard the strange singing—but this time, as I looked up, the singer was no longer invisible. Coming toward me was a young girl with wonderful blue eyes filled with tears and gold hair that fell to her waist. She wore a straight, white robe that might have been a shroud or a bridal dress. She appeared not to see me, though she came directly to the tree where I was sitting. And there she knelt and buried her face in the grass and sobbed as if her heart would break. Her long hair fell over her like a mantle, and in my dream I stroked it pityingly and murmured words of comfort for a sorrow I did not understand.... Then I woke suddenly as one does from dreams. The moon was shining brightly into the room. Rising from my bed, I looked out into the orchard. It was almost as bright as day. I could plainly see the tree of which I had been dreaming, and then a fantastic notion possessed me. Slipping on my clothes, I went out into one of the old barns and found a spade. Then I went to the tree where I had seen the girl weeping in my dream and dug down at its foot.
I had dug little more than a foot when my spade struck upon some hard substance, and in a few more moments I had uncovered and exhumed a small box, which, on examination, proved to be one of those pretty old-fashioned Chippendale work-boxes used by our grandmothers to keep their thimbles and needles in, their reels of cotton and skeins of silk. After smoothing down the little grave in which I had found it, I carried the box into the house, and under the lamplight examined its contents.
Then at once I understood why that sad young spirit went to and fro the orchard singing those little French songs—for the treasure-trove I had found under the apple-tree, the buried treasure of an unquiet, suffering soul, proved to be a number of love-letters written mostly in French in a very picturesque hand—letters, too, written but some five or six years before. Perhaps I should not have read them—yet I read them with such reverence for the beautiful, impassioned love that animated them, and literally made them “smell sweet and blossom in the dust,” that I felt I had the sanction of the dead to make myself the confidant of their story. Among the letters were little songs, two of which I had heard the strange young voice singing in the orchard, and, of course, there were many withered flowers and such like remembrances of bygone rapture.
Not that night could I make out all the story, though it was not difficult to define its essential tragedy, and later on a gossip in the neighborhood and a headstone in the churchyard told me the rest. The unquiet young soul that had sung so wistfully to and fro the orchard was my landlord’s daughter. She was the only child of her parents, a beautiful, willful girl, exotically unlike those from whom she was sprung and among whom she lived with a disdainful air of exile. She was, as a child, a little creature of fairy fancies, and as she grew up it was plain to her father and mother that she had come from another world than theirs. To them she seemed like a child in an old fairy-tale strangely found on his hearth by some shepherd as he returns from the fields at evening—a little fairy girl swaddled in fine linen, and dowered with a mysterious bag of gold.
Soon she developed delicate spiritual needs to which her simple parents were strangers. From long truancies in the woods she would come home laden with mysterious flowers, and soon she came to ask for books and pictures and music, of which the poor souls that had given her birth had never heard. Finally she had her way, and went to study at a certain fashionable college; and there the brief romance of her life began. There she met a romantic young Frenchman who had read Ronsard to her and written her those picturesque letters I had found in the old mahogany work-box. And after a while the young Frenchman had gone back to France, and the letters had ceased. Month by month went by, and at length one day, as she sat wistful at the window, looking out at the foolish sunlit road, a message came. He was dead. That headstone in the village churchyard tells the rest. She was very young to die—scarcely nineteen years; and the dead who have died young, with all their hopes and dreams still like unfolded buds within their hearts, do not rest so quietly in the grave as those who have gone through the long day from morning until evening and are only too glad to sleep.
* * * * *
Next day I took the little box to a quiet corner of the orchard, and made a little pyre of fragrant boughs—for so I interpreted the wish of that young, unquiet spirit—and the beautiful words are now safe, taken up again into the aerial spaces from which they came.
But since then the birds sing no more little French songs in my old orchard.
BY ARTHUR MACHEN
From The Bowmen,
by Arthur Machen. Published in England by
Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., and in America by
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. By permission of the publishers and Arthur
It was during the Retreat of the Eighty Thousand, and the authority of the Censorship is sufficient excuse for not being more explicit. But it was on the most awful day of that awful time, on the day when ruin and disaster came so near that their shadow fell over London far away; and, without any certain news, the hearts of men failed within them and grew faint; as if the agony of the army in the battlefield had entered into their souls.
On this dreadful day, then, when three hundred thousand men in arms with all their artillery swelled like a flood against the little English company, there was one point above all other points in our battle line that was for a time in awful danger, not merely of defeat, but of utter annihilation. With the permission of the Censorship and of the military expert, this corner may, perhaps, be described as a salient, and if this angle were crushed and broken, then the English force as a whole would be shattered, the Allied left would be turned, and Sedan would inevitably follow.
All the morning the German guns had thundered and shrieked against this corner, and against the thousand or so of men who held it. The men joked at the shells, and found funny names for them, and had bets about them, and greeted them with scraps of music-hall songs. But the shells came on and burst, and tore good Englishmen limb from limb, and tore brother from brother, and as the heat of the day increased so did the fury of that terrific cannonade. There was no help, it seemed. The English artillery was good, but there was not nearly enough of it; it was being steadily battered into scrap iron.
There comes a moment in a storm at sea when people say to one another, “It is at its worst; it can blow no harder,” and then there is a blast ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British trenches.
There were no stouter hearts in the whole world than the hearts of these men; but even they were appalled as this seven-times-heated hell of the German cannonade fell upon them and overwhelmed them and destroyed them. And at this very moment they saw from their trenches that a tremendous host was moving against their lines. Five hundred of the thousand remained, and as far as they could see the German infantry was pressing on against them, column upon column, a gray world of men, ten thousand of them, as it appeared afterwards.
There was no hope at all. They shook hands, some of them. One man improvised a new version of the battle-song, “Good-by, good-by to Tipperary,” ending with “And we shan’t get there.” And they all went on firing steadily. The officer pointed out that such an opportunity for high-class fancy shooting might never occur again; the Tipperary humorist asked, “What price Sidney Street?” And the few machine guns did their best. But everybody knew it was of no use. The dead gray bodies lay in companies and battalions, as others came on and on and on, and they swarmed and stirred, and advanced from beyond and beyond.
“World without end. Amen,” said one of the British soldiers with some irrelevance as he took aim and fired. And then he remembered—he says he cannot think why or wherefore—a queer vegetarian restaurant in London where he had once or twice eaten eccentric dishes of cutlets made of lentils and nuts that pretended to be steak. On all the plates in this restaurant there was printed
For as the Latin scholar uttered his invocation he felt something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body. The roar of the battle died down in his ears to a gentle murmur; instead of it, he says, he heard a great voice and a shout louder than a thunder-peal crying, “Array, array, array!”
His heart grew hot as a burning coal, it grew cold as ice within him, as it seemed to him that a tumult of voices answered to his summons. He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting: “St. George! St. George!”
“Ha! Messire, ha! sweet Saint, grant us good deliverance!”
“St. George for merry England!”
“Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St. George, succor us!”
“Ha! St. George! Ha! St. George! a long bow and a strong bow.”
“Heaven’s Knight, aid us!”
And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.
The other men in the trench were firing all the while. They had no hope; but they aimed just as if they had been shooting at Bisley.
Suddenly one of them lifted up his voice in the plainest English.
“Gawd help us!” he bellowed to the man next to him, “but we’re blooming marvels! Look at those gray ... gentlemen, look at them! D’ye see them? They’re not going down in dozens nor in ’undreds; it’s thousands, it is. Look! look! there’s a regiment gone while I’m talking to ye.”
“Shut it!” the other soldier bellowed, taking aim, “what are ye gassing about?”
But he gulped with astonishment even as he spoke, for, indeed, the gray men were falling by the thousands. The English could hear the guttural scream of the German officers, the crackle of their revolvers as they shot the reluctant; and still line after line crashed to the earth.
All the while the Latin-bred soldier heard the cry:
“Harow! Harow! Monseigneur, dear Saint, quick to our aid! St. George help us!”
“High Chevalier, defend us!”
The singing arrows fled so swift and thick that they darkened the air, the heathen horde melted from before them.
“More machine guns!” Bill yelled to Tom.
“Don’t hear them,” Tom yelled back.
“But, thank God, anyway; they’ve got it in the neck.”
In fact, there were ten thousand dead German soldiers left before that salient of the English army, and consequently there was no Sedan. In Germany, a country ruled by scientific principles, the Great General Staff decided that the contemptible English must have employed shells containing an unknown gas of a poisonous nature, as no wounds were discernible on the bodies of the dead German soldiers. But the man who knew what nuts tasted like when they called themselves steak knew also that St. George had brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English.
BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT
Translated for this volume by M. Charles Sommer.
We were speaking of sequestration, alluding to a recent lawsuit. It was at the close of a friendly evening in a very old mansion in the Rue de Grenelle, and each of the guests had a story to tell, which he assured us was true.
Then the old Marquis de la Tour-Samuel, eighty-two years of age, rose and came forward to lean on the mantelpiece. He told the following story in his slightly quavering voice.
“I, also, have witnessed a strange thing—so strange that it has been the nightmare of my life. It happened fifty-six years ago, and yet there is not a month when I do not see it again in my dreams. From that day I have borne a mark, a stamp of fear,—do you understand?
“Yes, for ten minutes I was a prey to terror, in such a way that ever since a constant dread has remained in my soul. Unexpected sounds chill me to the heart; objects which I can ill distinguish in the evening shadows make me long to flee. I am afraid at night.
“No! I would not have owned such a thing before reaching my present age. But now I may tell everything. One may fear imaginary dangers at eighty-two years old. But before actual danger I have never turned back, mesdames.
“That affair so upset my mind, filled me with such a deep, mysterious unrest that I never could tell it. I kept it in that inmost part, that corner where we conceal our sad, our shameful secrets, all the weaknesses of our life which cannot be confessed.
“I will tell you that strange happening just as it took place, with no attempt to explain it. Unless I went mad for one short hour it must be explainable, though. Yet I was not mad, and I will prove it to you. Imagine what you will. Here are the simple facts:
“It was in 1827, in July. I was quartered with my regiment in Rouen.
“One day, as I was strolling on the quay, I came across a man I believed I recognized, though I could not place him with certainty. I instinctively went more slowly, ready to pause. The stranger saw my impulse, looked at me, and fell into my arms.
“It was a friend of my younger days, of whom I had been very fond. He seemed to have become half a century older in the five years since I had seen him. His hair was white, and he stooped in his walk, as if he were exhausted. He understood my amazement and told me the story of his life.
“A terrible event had broken him down. He had fallen madly in love with a young girl and married her in a kind of dreamlike ecstasy. After a year of unalloyed bliss and unexhausted passion, she had died suddenly of heart disease, no doubt killed by love itself.
“He had left the country on the very day of her funeral, and had come to live in his hotel at Rouen. He remained there, solitary and desperate, grief slowly mining him, so wretched that he constantly thought of suicide.
“‘As I thus came across you again,’ he said, ’I shall ask a great favor of you. I want you to go to my chateau and get some papers I urgently need. They are in the writing-desk of my room, of our room. I cannot send a servant or a lawyer, as the errand must be kept private. I want absolute silence.
“’I shall give you the key of the room, which I locked carefully myself before leaving, and the key to the writing-desk. I shall also give you a note for the gardener, who will let you in.
“‘Come to breakfast with me to-morrow, and we’ll talk the matter over.’
“I promised to render him that slight service. It would mean but a pleasant excursion for me, his home not being more than twenty-five miles from Rouen. I could go there in an hour on horseback.
“At ten o’clock the next day I was with him. We breakfasted alone together, yet he did not utter more than twenty words. He asked me to excuse him. The thought that I was going to visit the room where his happiness lay shattered, upset him, he said. Indeed, he seemed perturbed, worried, as if some mysterious struggle were taking place in his soul.
“At last he explained exactly what I was to do. It was very simple. I was to take two packages of letters and some papers, locked in the first drawer at the right of the desk of which I had the key. He added:
“‘I need not ask you not to glance at them.’
“I was almost hurt by his words, and told him so, rather sharply. He stammered:
“‘Forgive me. I suffer so much!’
“And tears came to his eyes.
“I left about one o’clock to accomplish my errand.
“The day was radiant, and I rushed through the meadows, listening to the song of the larks, and the rhythmical beat of my sword on my riding-boots.
“Then I entered the forest, and I set my horse to walking. Branches of the trees softly caressed my face, and now and then I would catch a leaf between my teeth and bite it with avidity, full of the joy of life, such as fills you without reason, with a tumultuous happiness almost indefinable, a kind of magical strength.
“As I neared the house I took out the letter for the gardener, and noted with surprise that it was sealed. I was so amazed and so annoyed that I almost turned back without fulfilling my mission. Then I thought that I should thus display over-sensitiveness and bad taste. My friend might have sealed it unconsciously, worried as he was.
“The manor looked as though it had been deserted the last twenty years. The gate, wide-open and rotten, held, one wondered how. Grass filled the paths; you could not tell the flower-beds from the lawn.
“At the noise I made kicking a shutter, an old man came out from a side-door and was apparently amazed to see me there. I dismounted from my horse and gave him the letter. He read it once or twice, turned it over, looked at me with suspicion, and asked:
“‘Well, what do you want?’
“I answered sharply:
“’You must know it as you have read your master’s orders. I want to get in the house.’
“He appeared overwhelmed. He said:
“‘So—you are going in—in his room?’
“I was getting impatient.
“‘Parbleu! Do you intend to question me, by chance?’
“’No—monsieur—only—it has not been opened since—since the death. If you will wait five minutes, I will go in to see whether——’
“I interrupted angrily:
“’See here, are you joking? You can’t go in that room, as I have the key!’
“He no longer knew what to say.
“‘Then, monsieur, I will show you the way.’
“’Show me the stairs and leave me alone. I can find it without your help.’
“Then I lost my temper.
“‘Now be quiet! Else you’ll be sorry!’
“I roughly pushed him aside and went into the house.
“I first went through the kitchen, then crossed two small rooms occupied by the man and his wife. From there I stepped into a large hall. I went up the stairs, and I recognized the door my friend had described to me.
“I opened it with ease and went in.
“The room was so dark that at first I could not distinguish anything. I paused, arrested by that moldy and stale odor peculiar to deserted and condemned rooms, of dead rooms. Then gradually my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, and I saw rather clearly a great room in disorder, a bed without sheets having still its mattresses and pillows, one of which bore the deep print of an elbow or a head, as if someone had just been resting on it.
“The chairs seemed all in confusion. I noticed that a door, probably that of a closet, had remained ajar.
“I first went to the window and opened it to get some light, but the hinges of the outside shutters were so rusted that I could not loosen them.
“I even tried to break them with my sword, but did not succeed. As those fruitless attempts irritated me, and as my eyes were by now adjusted to the dim light, I gave up hope of getting more light and went toward the writing-desk.
“I sat down in an arm-chair, folded back the top, and opened the drawer. It was full to the edge. I needed but three packages, which I knew how to distinguish, and I started looking for them.
“I was straining my eyes to decipher the inscriptions, when I thought I heard, or rather felt a rustle behind me. I took no notice, thinking a draft had lifted some curtain. But a minute later, another movement, almost indistinct, sent a disagreeable little shiver over my skin. It was so ridiculous to be moved thus even so slightly, that I would not turn round, being ashamed. I had just discovered the second package I needed, and was on the point of reaching for the third, when a great and sorrowful sigh, close to my shoulder, made me give a mad leap two yards away. In my spring I had turned round, my hand on the hilt of my sword, and surely had I not felt that, I should have fled like a coward.
“A tall woman, dressed in white, was facing me, standing behind the chair in which I had sat a second before.
“Such a shudder ran through me that I almost fell back! Oh, no one who has not felt them can understand those gruesome and ridiculous terrors! The soul melts; your heart seems to stop; your whole body becomes limp as a sponge, and your innermost parts seem collapsing.
“I do not believe in ghosts; and yet I broke down before the hideous fear of the dead; and I suffered, oh, I suffered more in a few minutes, in the irresistible anguish of supernatural dread, than I have suffered in all the rest of my life!
“If she had not spoken, I might have died. But she did speak; she spoke in a soft and plaintive voice which set my nerves vibrating. I could not say that I regained my self-control. No, I was past knowing what I did; but the kind of pride I have in me, as well as a military pride, helped me to maintain, almost in spite of myself, an honorable countenance. I was making a pose, a pose for myself, and for her, for her, whatever she was, woman, or phantom. I realized this later, for at the time of the apparition, I could think of nothing. I was afraid.
“‘Oh, you can be of great help to me, monsieur!’
“I tried to answer, but I was unable to utter one word. A vague sound came from my throat.
“’Will you? You can save me, cure me. I suffer terribly. I always suffer. I suffer, oh, I suffer!’
“And she sat down gently in my chair. She looked at me.
“I nodded my head, being still paralyzed.
“Then she handed me a woman’s comb of tortoise-shell, and murmured:
“’Comb my hair! Oh, comb my hair! That will cure me. Look at my head—how I suffer! And my hair—how it hurts!’
“Her loose hair, very long, very black, it seemed to me, hung over the back of the chair, touching the floor.
“Why did I do it? Why did I, shivering, accept that comb, and why did I take between my hands her long hair, which left on my skin a ghastly impression of cold, as if I had handled serpents? I do not know.
“That feeling still clings about my fingers, and I shiver when I recall it.
“I combed her, I handled, I know not how, that hair of ice. I bound and unbound it; I plaited it as one plaits a horse’s mane. She sighed, bent her head, seemed happy.
“Suddenly she said, ‘Thank you!’ tore the comb from my hands, and fled through the door which I had noticed was half opened.
“Left alone, I had for a few seconds the hazy feeling one feels in waking up from a nightmare. Then I recovered myself. I ran to the window and broke the shutters by my furious assault.
“A stream of light poured in. I rushed to the door through which that being had gone. I found it locked and immovable.
“Then a fever of flight seized on me, a panic, the true panic of battle. I quickly grasped the three packages of letters from the open desk; I crossed the room running, I took the steps of the stairway four at a time. I found myself outside, I don’t know how, and seeing my horse close by, I mounted in one leap and left at a full gallop.
“I didn’t stop till I reached Rouen and drew up in front of my house. Having thrown the reins to my orderly, I flew to my room and locked myself in to think.
“Then for an hour I asked myself whether I had not been the victim of an hallucination. Certainly I must have had one of those nervous shocks, one of those brain disorders such as give rise to miracles, to which the supernatural owes its strength.
“And I had almost concluded that it was a vision, an illusion of my senses, when I came near to the window. My eyes by chance looked down. My tunic was covered with hairs, long woman’s hairs which had entangled themselves around the buttons!
“I took them off one by one and threw them out of the window with trembling fingers.
“I then called my orderly. I felt too perturbed, too moved, to go and see my friend on that day. Besides, I needed to think over what I should tell him.
“I had his letters delivered to him. He gave a receipt to the soldier. He inquired after me and was told that I was not well. I had had a sunstroke, or something. He seemed distressed.
“I went to see him the next day, early in the morning, bent on telling him the truth. He had gone out the evening before and had not come back.
“I returned the same day, but he had not been seen. I waited a week. He did not come back. I notified the police. They searched for him everywhere, but no one could find any trace of his passing or of his retreat.
“A careful search was made in the deserted manor. No suspicious clue was discovered.
“There was no sign that a woman had been concealed there.
“The inquest gave no result, and so the search went no further.
“And in fifty-six years I have learned nothing more. I never found out the truth.”