Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch, as distinct too, yet as intimately blended.
Overreaching the wide horizon like the rainbow! How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? — from the covenant of Peace a simile of sorrow? But thus is it. And as, in ethics, Evil is a consequence of Good, so, in fact, out of Joy is sorrow born. Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.
I have a tale to tell in its own essence rife with horror — I would suppress it were it not a record more of feelings than of facts.
My baptismal name is Egæus — that of my family I will not mention. Yet there are no towers in the land more time-honored than my gloomy, grey, hereditary halls. Our line has been called a race of visionaries: and in many striking particulars — in the character of the family mansion — in the frescos of the chief saloon — in the tapestries of the dormitories — in the chiseling of some buttresses in the armory — but more especially in the gallery of antique paintings — in the fashion of the library chamber — and, lastly, in the very peculiar nature of the library’s contents, there is more than sufficient evidence to warrant the belief.
The recollections of my earliest years are connected with that chamber, and its volumes — I’ll say no more of them. Here died my mother. Herein was I born. But it is mere idleness to say that I had not lived before — that the soul has no previous existence. You deny it. Let us not argue the matter. Convinced myself I seek not to convince. There is, however, a remembrance of ærial forms — of spiritual and meaning eyes — of sounds musical yet sad — a remembrance which will not be excluded: a memory like a shadow, vague, variable, indefinite, unsteady — and like a shadow too, in the impossibility of my getting rid of it, while the sunlight of my reason shall exist.
In that chamber was I born. Thus awaking, as it were, from the long night of what seemed, but was not, nonentity at once into the very regions of fairy land — into a palace of imagination — into the wild dominions of monastic thought and erudition — it is not singular that I gazed around me with a startled and ardent eye — that I loitered away my boyhood in books, and dissipated my youth in reverie — but it is singular that as years rolled away, and the noon of manhood found me still in the mansion of my fathers — it is wonderful what stagnation there fell upon the springs of my life — wonderful how total an inversion took place in the character of my common thoughts.
The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, — not the material of my every-day existence — but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself.
* * * * * *
Berenice and I were cousins, and we grew up together in my paternal halls — Yet differently we grew. I, ill of health and buried in gloom — she agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy. Hers the ramble on the hillside — mine the studies of the cloister. I, living within my own heart, and addicted body and soul to the most intense and painful meditation — she roaming carelessly through life with no thought of the shadows in her path, or the silent flight of the raven-winged hours.
Berenice! — I call upon her name — Berenice! — and from the grey ruins of memory a thousand tumultuous recollections are startled at the sound! Ah! vividly is her image before me now, as in the early days of her light-heartedness and joy! Oh! gorgeous yet fantastic beauty! Oh! Sylph amid the shrubberies of Arnheim! — Oh! Naiad among her fountains! — and then — then all is mystery and terror, and a tale which should not be told. Disease — a fatal disease — fell like the Simoom upon her frame, and, even while I gazed upon her, the spirit of change swept over her, pervading her mind, her habits, and her character, and, in a manner the most subtle and terrible, disturbing even the very identity of her person! Alas! the destroyer came and went, and the victim — where was she? I knew her not — or knew her no longer as Berenice.
Among the numerous train of maladies, superinduced by that fatal and primary one which effected a revolution of so horrible a kind in the moral and physical being of my cousin, may be mentioned as the most distressing and obstinate in its nature, a species of epilepsy not unfrequently terminating in trance itself — trance very nearly resembling positive dissolution, and from which her manner of recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt. In the meantime my own disease — for I have been told that I should call it by no other appellation — my own disease, then, grew rapidly upon me, and, aggravated in its symptoms by the immoderate use of opium, assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary form — hourly and momentarily gaining vigor — and at length obtaining over me the most singular and incomprehensible ascendancy.
This monomania — if I must so term it — consisted in a morbid irritability of the nerves immediately affecting those properties of the mind, in metaphysical science termed the attentive. It is more than probable that I am not understood — but I fear that it is indeed in no manner possible to convey to the mind of the merely general reader, an adequate idea of that nervous intensity of interest with which, in my case, the powers of meditation (not to speak technically) busied, and, as it were, buried themselves in the contemplation of even the most common objects of the universe.
To muse for long unwearied hours with my attention rivetted to some frivolous device upon the margin, or in the typography of a book — to become absorbed for the better part of a summer’s day in a quaint shadow falling aslant upon the tapestry, or upon the floor — to lose myself for an entire night in watching the steady flame of a lamp, or the embers of a fire — to dream away whole days over the perfume of a flower — to repeat monotonously some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind — to lose all sense of motion or physical existence in a state of absolute bodily quiescence long and obstinately persevered in — Such were a few of the most common and least pernicious vagaries induced by a condition of the mental faculties, not, indeed, altogether unparalleled, but certainly bidding defiance to anything like analysis or explanation. [page 334:]
Yet let me not be misapprehended. The undue, intense, and morbid attention thus excited by objects in their own nature frivolous, must not be confounded in character with that ruminating propensity common to all mankind, and more especially indulged in by persons of ardent imagination. By no means. It was not even, as might be at first supposed, an extreme condition, or exaggeration of such propensity, but primarily and essentially distinct and different. In the one instance the dreamer, or enthusiast, being interested by an object usually not frivolous, imperceptibly loses sight of this object in a wilderness of deductions and suggestions issuing therefrom, until, at the conclusion of a day-dream often replete with luxury, he finds the incitamentum or first cause of his musings utterly vanished and forgotten.
In my case the primary object was invariably frivolous, although assuming, through the medium of my distempered vision, a refracted and unreal importance. Few deductions — if any — were made; and those few pertinaciously returning in, so to speak, upon the original object as a centre. The meditations were never pleasurable; and, at the termination of the reverie, the first cause, so far from being out of sight, had attained that supernaturally exaggerated interest which was the prevailing feature of the disease. In a word, the powers of mind more particularly exercised were, with me, as I have said before, the attentive, and are, with the day-dreamer, the speculative.
My books, at this epoch, if they did not actually serve to irritate the disorder, partook, it will be perceived, largely, in their imaginative, and inconsequential nature, of the characteristic qualities of the disorder itself. I well remember, among others, the treatise of the noble Italian Cœlius [[Cælius]] Secundus Curio “de amplitudine beati regni Dei” — St. Austin’s great work the “City of God” — and Tertullian [[Tertullian’s]] “de Carne Christi,” in which the unintelligible sentence “Mortuus est Dei filius; credible est quia ineptum est: et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile est” occupied my undivided time, for many weeks of laborious and fruitless investigation.
Thus it will appear that, shaken from its balance only by trivial things, my reason bore resemblance to that ocean-crag spoken of by Ptolemy Hephestion, which steadily resisting the attacks of human violence, and the fiercer fury of the waters and the winds, trembled only to the touch of the flower called Asphodel. And although, to a careless thinker, it might appear a matter beyond doubt, that the fearful alteration produced by her unhappy malady, in the moral condition of Berenice, would afford me many objects for the exercise of that intense and morbid meditation whose nature I have been at some trouble in explaining, yet such was not by any means the case.
In the lucid intervals of my infirmity, her calamity indeed gave me pain, and, taking deeply to heart that total wreck of her fair and gentle life, I did not fail to ponder frequently and bitterly upon the wonder-working means by which so strange a revolution had been so suddenly brought to pass. But these reflections partook not of the idiosyncrasy of my disease, and were such as would have occurred, under similar circumstances, to the ordinary mass of mankind. True to its own character, my disorder revelled in the less important but more startling changes wrought in the physical frame of Berenice, and [column 2:] in the singular and most appalling distortion of her personal identity.
During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her. In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings, with me, had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind. Through the grey of the early morning — among the trellissed shadows of the forest at noon-day — and in the silence of my library at night, she had flitted by my eyes, and I had seen her — not as the living and breathing Berenice, but as the Berenice of a dream — not as a being of the earth — earthly — but as the abstraction of such a being — not as a thing to admire, but to analyze — not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse although desultory speculation.
And now — now I shuddered in her presence, and grew pale at her approach; yet, bitterly lamenting her fallen and desolate condition, I knew that she had loved me long, and, in an evil moment, I spoke to her of marriage.
And at length the period of our nuptials was approaching, when, upon an afternoon in the winter of the year, one of those unseasonably warm, calm, and misty days which are the nurse of the beautiful Halcyon,* I sat, and sat, as I thought alone, in the inner apartment of the library. But uplifting my eyes Berenice stood before me.
Was it my own excited imagination — or the misty influence of the atmosphere — or the uncertain twilight of the chamber — or the grey draperies which fell around her figure — that caused it to loom up in so unnatural a degree? I could not tell. Perhaps she had grown taller since her malady. She spoke, however, no word, and I — not for worlds could I have uttered a syllable. An icy chill ran through my frame; a sense of insufferable anxiety oppressed me; a consuming curiosity pervaded my soul; and, sinking back upon the chair, I remained for some time breathless, and motionless, and with my eyes rivetted upon her person. Alas! its emaciation was excessive, and not one vestige of the former being lurked in any single line of the contour. My burning glances at length fell upon her face.
The forehead was high, and very pale, and singularly placid; and the once golden hair fell partially over it, and overshadowed the hollow temples with ringlets now black as the raven’s ring [[wing]], and jarring discordantly, in their fantastic character, with the reigning melancholy of the countenance. The eyes were lifeless, and lustreless, and I shrunk involuntarily from their glassy stare to the contemplation of the thin and shrunken lips. They parted: and, in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!
* * * * * *
The shutting of a door disturbed me, and, looking up, I found my cousin had departed from the chamber. But from the disordered chamber of my brain, had not, alas! departed, and would not be driven away, the white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth. Not a speck upon their surface — not a shade on their enamel — not a line in their configuration — not an indenture in their [page 335:] edges — but what that period of her smile had sufficed to brand in upon my memory.
I saw them now even more unequivocally than I beheld them then. The teeth! — the teeth! — they were here, and there, and every where, and visibly, and palpably before me, long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.
Then came the full fury of my monomania, and I struggled in vain against its strange and irresistible influence. In the multiplied objects of the external world I had no thoughts but for the teeth. All other matters and all different interests became absorbed in their single contemplation. They — they alone were present to the mental eye, and they, in their sole individuality, became the essence of my mental life.
I held them in every light — I turned them in every attitude. I surveyed their characteristics — I dwelt upon their peculiarities — I pondered upon their conformation — I mused upon the alteration in their nature — and shuddered as I assigned to them in imagination a sensitive and sentient power, and even when unassisted by the lips, a capability of moral expression. Of Mad’selle Sallé it has been said, “que tous ses pas etoient [[etaient]] des sentiments,” and of Berenice I more seriously believed que touts ses dents etaient des ideés.
And the evening closed in upon me thus — and then the darkness came, and tarried, and went — and the day again dawned — and the mists of a second night were now gathering around — and still I sat motionless in that solitary room, and still I sat buried in meditation, and still the phantasma of the teeth maintained its terrible ascendancy as, with the most vivid and hideous distinctness, it floated about amid the changing lights and shadows of the chamber.
At length there broke forcibly in upon my dreams a wild cry as of horror and dismay; and thereunto, after a pause, succeeded the sound of troubled voices intermingled with many low moanings of sorrow, or of pain. I arose hurriedly from my seat, and, throwing open one of the doors of the library, there stood out in the antechamber a servant maiden, all in tears, and she told me that Berenice was — no more. Seized with an epileptic fit she had fallen dead in the early morning, and now, at the closing in of the night, the grave was ready for its tenant, and all the preparations for the burial were completed.
With a heart full of grief, yet reluctantly, and oppressed with awe, I made my way to the bed-chamber of the departed. The room was large, and very dark, and at every step within its gloomy precincts I encountered the paraphernalia of the grave. The coffin, so a menial told me, lay surrounded by the curtains of yonder bed, and in that coffin, he whisperingly assured me, was all that remained of Berenice. Who was it asked me would I not look upon the corpse? I had seen the lips of no one move, yet the question had been demanded, and the echo of the syllables still lingered in the room. It was impossible to refuse; and with a sense of suffocation I dragged myself to the side of the bed. Gently I uplifted the sable draperies of the curtains.
As I let them fall they descended upon my shoulders, and shutting me thus out from the living, enclosed me in the strictest communion with the deceased.
The very atmosphere was redolent of death. The peculiar smell of the coffin sickened me; and I fancied [column 2:] a deleterious odor was already exhaling from the body. I would have given worlds to escape — to fly from the pernicious influence of mortality — to breathe once again the pure air of the eternal heavens. But I had no longer the power to move — my knees tottered beneath me — and I remained rooted to the spot, and gazing upon the frightful length of the rigid body as it lay outstretched in the dark coffin without a lid.
God of heaven! — is it possible? Is it my brain that reels — or was it indeed the finger of the enshrouded dead that stirred in the white cerement that bound it? Frozen with unutterable awe I slowly raised my eyes to the countenance of the corpse. There had been a band around the jaws, but, I know not how, it was broken asunder. The livid lips were wreathed into a species of smile, and, through the enveloping gloom, once again there glared upon me in too palpable reality, the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice. I sprang convulsively from the bed, and, uttering no word, rushed forth a maniac from that apartment of triple horror, and mystery, and death.
* * * * * *
I found myself again sitting in the library, and again sitting there alone. It seemed that I had newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream. I knew that it was now midnight, and I was well aware that since the setting of the sun Berenice had been interred. But of that dreary period which had intervened I had no positive, at least no definite comprehension. Yet its memory was rife with horror — horror more horrible from being vague, and terror more terrible from ambiguity. It was a fearful page in the record of my existence, written all over with dim, and hideous, and unintelligible recollections. I strived to decypher them, but in vain — while ever and anon, like the spirit of a departed sound, the shrill and piercing shriek of a female voice seemed to be ringing in my ears. I had done a deed — what was it? And the echoes of the chamber answered me — “what was it?”
On the table beside me burned a lamp, and near it lay a little box of ebony. It was a box of no remarkable character, and I had seen it frequently before, it being the property of the family physician; but how came it there upon my table, and why did I shudder in regarding it? These things were in no manner to be accounted for, and my eyes at length dropped to the open pages of a book, and to a sentence underscored therein. The words were the singular but simple words of the poet Ebn Zaiat. “Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicæ visit arem [[visitarem]] curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.”* Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body congeal within my veins?
There came a light tap at the library door, and, pale as the tenant of a tomb, a menial entered upon tiptoe. His looks were wild with terror, and he spoke to me in a voice tremulous, husky, and very low. What said he? — some broken sentences I heard. He told of a wild cry heard in the silence of the night — of the gathering together of the household — of a search in the direction of the sound — and then his tones grew thrillingly distinct as he whispered me of a violated grave — [page 336:] of a disfigured body discovered upon its margin — a body enshrouded, yet still breathing, still palpitating, still alive!
He pointed to my garments — they were muddy and clotted with gore. I spoke not, and he took me gently by the hand — but it was indented with the impress of human nails. He directed my attention to some object against the wall — I looked at it for some minutes — it was a spade. With a shriek I bounded to the table, and grasped the ebony box that lay upon it. But I could not force it open, and in my tremor it slipped from out my hands, and fell heavily, and burst into pieces, and from it, with a rattling sound, there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with many white and glistening substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.
[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 334, column 2:]
*For as Jove, during the winter season, gives twice seven days of warmth, men have called this clement and temperate time the nurse of the beautiful Halcyon. — Simonides.
[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 335, column 2:]
*My companions told me I might find some little alleviation of my misery, in visiting the grave of my beloved.
Click on link above to view the classic film adaptation of this great horror tale.Video will open in new window.
“Off there to the right–somewhere–is a large island,” said Whitney. “It’s rather a mystery–”
“What island is it?” Rainsford asked.
“The old charts call it ‘Ship-Trap Island’,” Whitney replied. “A suggestive name, isn’t it? Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don’t know why. Some superstition–”
“Can’t see it,” remarked Rainsford, trying to peer through the dank tropical night that was palpable as it pressed its thick warm blackness in upon the yacht.
“You’ve good eyes,” said Whitney, with a laugh,” and I’ve seen you pick off a moose moving in the brown fall bush at four hundred yards, but even you can’t see four miles or so through a moonless Caribbean night.”
“Nor four yards,” admitted Rainsford. “Ugh! It’s like moist black velvet.”
A bad one
“It will be light enough in Rio,” promised Whitney. “We should make it in a few d noays. I hope the jaguar guns have come from Purdey’s. We should have some good hunting up the Amazon. Great sport, hunting.”
“The best sport in the world,” agreed Rainsford.
“For the hunter,” amended Whitney. “Not for the jaguar.”
“Don’t talk rot, Whitney,” said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”
“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney. “If you were lost in the jungle without a gun perhaps you would view the Jaguar differently.”
“Bah! They’ve no understanding.”
“Even so, I rather think they understand one thing–fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.”
“Nonsense,” laughed Rainsford. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes–the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. Do you think we’ve passed that island yet?”
“I can’t tell in the dark. I hope so.”
“Why? “ asked Rainsford.
“The place has a reputation–a bad one.”
“Cannibals?” suggested Rainsford.
“Hardly. Even cannibals wouldn’t live in such a God-forsaken place. But it’s gotten into sailor lore, somehow. Didn’t you notice that the crew’s nerves seemed a bit jumpy today?”
“They were a bit strange, now you mention it. Even Captain Nielsen–”
“Yes, even that tough-minded old Swede, who’d go up to the devil himself and ask him for a light. Those fishy blue eyes held a look I never saw there before. All I could get out of him was ‘This place has an evil name among seafaring men, sir.’ Then he said to me, very gravely, ‘Don’t you feel anything?’–as if the air about us was actually poisonous. Now, you mustn’t laugh when I tell you this–I did feel something like a sudden chill.
“There was no breeze. The sea was as flat as a plate-glass window. We were drawing near the island then. What I felt was a–a mental chill; a sort of sudden dread.”
“Pure imagination,” said Rainsford.
“One superstitious sailor can taint the whole ship’s company with his fear.”
“Maybe. But sometimes I think sailors have an extra sense that tells them when they are in danger. Sometimes I think evil is a tangible thing–with wave lengths, just as sound and light have. An evil place can, so to speak, broadcast vibrations of evil. Anyhow, I’m glad we’re getting out of this zone. Well, I think I’ll turn in now, Rainsford.”
“I’m not sleepy,” said Rainsford. “I’m going to smoke another pipe up on the afterdeck.”
“Good night, then, Rainsford. See you at breakfast.”
“Right. Good night, Whitney.”
Someone had fired
There was no sound in the night as Rainsford sat there but the muffled throb of the engine that drove the yacht swiftly through the darkness, and the swish and ripple of the wash of the propeller.
Rainsford, reclining in a steamer chair, indolently puffed on his favorite brier. The sensuous drowsiness of the night was on him.” It’s so dark,” he thought, “that I could sleep without closing my eyes; the night would be my eyelids–”
An abrupt sound startled him. Off to the right he heard it, and his ears, expert in such matters, could not be mistaken. Again he heard the sound, and again. Somewhere, off in the blackness, someone had fired a gun three times.
He struggled up to the surface and tried to cry out, but the wash from the speeding yacht slapped him in the face and the salt water in his open mouth made him gag and strangle. Desperately he struck out with strong strokes after the receding lights of the yacht, but he stopped before he had swum fifty feet.
A certain coolheadedness had come to him; it was not the first time he had been in a tight place. There was a chance that his cries could be heard by someone aboard the yacht, but that chance was slender and grew more slender as the yacht raced on. He wrestled himself out of his clothes and shouted with all his power. The lights of the yacht became faint and ever-vanishing fireflies; then they were blotted out entirely by the night.
Rainsford remembered the shots. They had come from the right, and doggedly he swam in that direction, swimming with slow, deliberate strokes, conserving his strength.
For a seemingly endless time he fought the sea. He began to count his strokes; he could do possibly a hundred more and then —
Rainsford heard a sound. It came out of the darkness, a high screaming sound, the sound of an animal in an extremity of anguish and terror.
Despite an effort he did not recognize the animal that made the sound; he did not try to; with fresh vitality he swam toward the sound. He heard it again; then it was cut short by another noise, crisp, staccato.
“Pistol shot,” muttered Rainsford, swimming on.
Ten minutes of determined effort brought another sound to his ears–the most welcome he had ever heard–the muttering and growling of the sea breaking on a rocky shore. He was almost on the rocks before he saw them; on a night less calm he would have been shattered against them. With his remaining strength he dragged himself from the swirling waters.
Jagged crags appeared to jut up into the opaqueness; he forced himself upward, hand over hand. Gasping, his hands raw, he reached a flat place at the top. Dense jungle came down to the very edge of the cliffs. What perils that tangle of trees and underbrush might hold for him did not concern Rainsford just then. All he knew was that he was safe from his enemy, the sea, and that utter weariness was on him. He flung himself down at the jungle edge and tumbled headlong into the deepest sleep of his life.
When he opened his eyes he knew from the position of the sun that it was late in the afternoon. Although sleep had given him new vigor, a sharp hunger was picking at him. He looked about him, almost cheerfully.
“Where there are pistol shots, there are men. Where there are men, there is food,” he thought. But what kind of men, he wondered, in so forbidding a place? An unbroken front of snarled and ragged jungle fringed the shore.
He saw no sign of a trail through the closely knit web of weeds and trees; it was easier to go along the shore, and Rainsford floundered along by the water. Not far from where he landed, he stopped.
Some wounded thing–by the evidence, a large animal–had thrashed about in the underbrush; the jungle weeds were crushed down and the moss was lacerated; one patch of weeds was stained crimson. A small, glittering object not far away caught Rainsford’s eye and he picked it up. It was an empty cartridge.
“A twenty-two,” he remarked. “That’s odd. It must have been a fairly large animal too. The hunter had his nerve with him to tackle it with a light gun. It’s clear that the brute put up a fight. I suppose the first three shots I heard was when the hunter flushed his quarry and wounded it. The last shot was when he trailed it here and finished it.”
He examined the ground closely and found what he had hoped to find–the print of hunting boots. They pointed along the cliff in the direction he had been going. Eagerly he hurried along, now slipping on a rotten log or a loose stone, but making headway; night was beginning to settle down on the island.
Bleak darkness was blacking out the sea and jungle when Rainsford sighted the lights. He came upon them as he turned a crook in the coast line; and his first thought was that be had come upon a village, for there were many lights. But as he forged along he saw to his great astonishment that all the lights were in one enormous building–a lofty structure with pointed towers plunging upward into the gloom. His eyes made out the shadowy outlines of a palatial chateau; it was set on a high bluff, and on three sides of it cliffs dived down to where the sea licked greedy lips in the shadows.
“Mirage,” thought Rainsford. But it was no mirage, he found, when he opened the tall spiked iron gate. The stone steps were real enough; the massive door with a leering gargoyle for a knocker was real enough; yet above it all hung an air of unreality.
He lifted the knocker, and it creaked up stiffly, as if it had never before been used.
He let it fall, and it startled him with its booming loudness. Although he thought he heard steps within, the door remained closed. Again Rainsford lifted the heavy knocker, and let it fall. The door opened then–opened as suddenly as if it were on a spring–and Rainsford stood blinking in the river of glaring gold light that poured out. The first thing Rainsford’s eyes discerned was the largest man Rainsford had ever seen–a gigantic creature, solidly made and black bearded to the waist. In his hand the man held a long-barreled revolver, and he was pointing it straight at Rainsford’s heart.
Out of the snarl of beard two small eyes regarded Rainsford.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said Rainsford, with a smile which he hoped was disarming.
“I’m no robber. I fell off a yacht. My name is Sanger Rainsford of New York City.”
The menacing look in the eyes did not change. The revolver pointing as rigidly as if the giant were a statue. He gave no sign that he understood Rainsford’s words, or that he had even heard them. He was dressed in uniform–a black uniform trimmed with gray astrakhan.
“I’m Sanger Rainsford of New York,” Rainsford began again. “I fell off a yacht. I am hungry.”
The man’s only answer was to raise with his thumb the hammer of his revolver.
Then Rainsford saw the man’s free hand go to his forehead in a military salute, and he saw him click his heels together and stand at attention. Another man was coming down the broad marble steps, an erect, slender man in evening clothes. He advanced to Rainsford and held out his hand.
In a cultivated voice marked by a slight accent that gave it added precision and deliberateness, he said, “It is a very great pleasure and honor to welcome Mr. Sanger Rainsford, the celebrated hunter, to my home.”
Automatically Rainsford shook the man’s hand.
“I’ve read your book about hunting snow leopards in Tibet, you see,” explained the man. “I am General Zaroff.”
He is a Cossack
Rainsford’s first impression was that the man was singularly handsome; his second was that there was an original, almost bizarre quality about the general’s face. He was a tall man past middle age, for his hair was a vivid white; but his thick eyebrows and pointed military mustache were as black as the night from which Rainsford had come.
His eyes, too, were black and very bright. He had high cheekbones, a sharpcut nose, a spare, dark face–the face of a man used to giving orders, the face of an aristocrat.
Turning to the giant in uniform, the general made a sign. The giant put away his pistol, saluted, withdrew.
“Ivan is an incredibly strong fellow,” remarked the general, “but he has the misfortune to be deaf and dumb. A simple fellow, but, I’m afraid, like all his race, a bit of a savage.”
“Is he Russian?”
“He is a Cossack,” said the general, and his smile showed red lips and pointed teeth.
“So am I.”
“Come,” he said, “we shouldn’t be chatting here. We can talk later. Now you want clothes, food, rest. You shall have them. This is a most-restful spot.”
Ivan had reappeared, and the general spoke to him with lips that moved but gave forth no sound.
“Follow Ivan, if you please, Mr. Rainsford,” said the general. “I was about to have my dinner when you came. I’ll wait for you. You’ll find that my clothes will fit you, I think.”
It was to a huge, beam-ceilinged bedroom with a canopied bed big enough for six men that Rainsford followed the silent giant. Ivan laid out an evening suit, and Rainsford, as he put it on, noticed that it came from a London tailor who ordinarily cut and sewed for none below the rank of duke.
The dining room to which Ivan conducted him was in many ways remarkable. There was a medieval magnificence about it; it suggested a baronial hall of feudal times with its oaken panels, its high ceiling, its vast refectory tables where twoscore men could sit down to eat. About the hall were mounted heads of many animals–lions, tigers, elephants, moose, bears; larger or more perfect specimens Rainsford had never seen. At the great table the general was sitting, alone.
“You’ll have a cocktail, Mr. Rainsford,” he suggested. The cocktail was surpassingly good; and, Rainsford noted, the table appointments were of the finest–the linen, the crystal, the silver, the china.
They were eating borsch, the rich, red soup with whipped cream so dear to Russian palates. Half apologetically General Zaroff said, “We do our best to preserve the amenities of civilization here. Please forgive any lapses. We are well off the beaten track, you know. Do you think the champagne has suffered from its long ocean trip?”
“Not in the least,” declared Rainsford. He was finding the general a most thoughtful and affable host, a true cosmopolite. But there was one small trait of the general’s that made Rainsford uncomfortable. Whenever he looked up from his plate he found the general studying him, appraising him narrowly.
“Perhaps,” said General Zaroff, “you were surprised that I recognized your name.
You see, I read all books on hunting published in English, French, and Russian. I have but one passion in my life, Mr. Rainsford, and it is the hunt.”
The most dangerous
“You have some wonderful heads here,” said Rainsford as he ate a particularly well-cooked filet mignon. “ That Cape buffalo is the largest I ever saw.”
“Oh, that fellow. Yes, he was a monster.”
“Did he charge you?”
“Hurled me against a tree,” said the general. “Fractured my skull. However I got the brute.”
“I’ve always thought,” said Rainsford, “that the Cape buffalo is the most dangerous of all big game.”
For a moment the general did not reply; he was smiling his curious red-lipped smile.
Then he said slowly, “No. You are wrong, sir. The Cape buffalo is not the most dangerous big game.” He sipped his wine. “Here in my preserve on this island,” he said in the same slow tone, “I hunt more dangerous game.”
Rainsford expressed his surprise. “Is there big game on this island?”
The general nodded. “The biggest.”
“Oh, it isn’t here naturally, of course. I have to stock the island.”
“What have you imported, general?” Rainsford asked. “Tigers?”
The general smiled. “No,” he said. “Hunting tigers ceased to interest me some years ago. I exhausted their possibilities, you see. No thrill left in tigers, no real danger. I live for danger, Mr. Rainsford.”
The general took from his pocket a gold cigarette case and offered his guest a long black cigarette with a silver tip; it was perfumed and gave off a smell like incense.
“We will have some capital hunting, you and I,” said the general. “I shall be most glad to have your society.”
“But what game–” began Rainsford.
“I’ll tell you,” said the general. “You will be amused, I know. I think I may say, in all modesty, that I have done a rare thing. I have invented a new sensation. May I pour you another glass of port?”
“Thank you, general.”
The general filled both glasses, and said, “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter.
My hand was made for the trigger, my father said. He was a very rich man with a quarter of a million acres in the Crimea, and he was an ardent sportsman. When I was only five years old he gave me a little gun, specially made in Moscow for me, to shoot sparrows with. When I shot some of his prize turkeys with it, he did not punish me; he complimented me on my marksmanship. I killed my first bear in the Caucasus when I was ten. My whole life has been one prolonged hunt. I went into the army–it was expected of noblemen’s sons–and for a time commanded a division of Cossack cavalry. But my real interest was always the hunt. I have hunted every kind of game in every land. It would be impossible for me to tell you how many animals I have killed.”
The general puffed at his cigarette.
“After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. I, luckily, had invested heavily in American securities, so I shall never have to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris. Naturally, I continued to hunt–grizzlies in your Rockies, crocodiles in the Ganges, rhinoceroses in East Africa. It was in Africa that the Cape buffalo hit me and laid me up for six months.
As soon as I recovered I started for the Amazon to hunt jaguars, for I had heard they were unusually cunning. They weren’t.” The Cossack sighed. “They were no match at all for a hunter with his wits about him, and a high-powered rifle. I was bitterly disappointed. I was lying in my tent with a splitting headache one night when a terrible thought pushed its way into my mind. Hunting was beginning to bore me! And hunting, remember, had been my life. I have heard that in America businessmen often go to pieces when they give up the business that has been their life.”
“Yes, that’s so,” said Rainsford.
The general smiled. “I had no wish to go to pieces,” he said. “I must do something.
Now, mine is an analytical mind, Mr. Rainsford. Doubtless that is why I enjoy the problems of the chase.”
“No doubt, General Zaroff.”
“So,” continued the general, “I asked myself why the hunt no longer fascinated me.
You are much younger than I am, Mr. Rainsford, and have not hunted as much, but you perhaps can guess the answer.”
“What was it?”
“Simply this: hunting had ceased to be what you call `a sporting proposition.’ It had become too easy. I always got my quarry. Always. However there is no greater bore than perfection.”
A new animal
The general lit a fresh cigarette.
“No animal had a chance with me any more. That is no boast; it is a mathematical certainty. The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason. When I thought of this it was a tragic moment for me, I can tell you.”
Rainsford leaned across the table, absorbed in what his host was saying.
“It came to me as an inspiration what I must do,” the general went on.
“And that was?”
The general smiled the quiet smile of one who has faced an obstacle and surmounted it with success. “I had to invent a new animal to hunt,” he said.
“A new animal? You’re joking.” “Not at all,” said the general. “I never joke about hunting. I needed a new animal and I found one. That’s why I bought this island, built this house, and here I do my hunting. The island is perfect for my purposes–there are jungles with a maze of trails in them, hills, swamps–”
“But the animal, General Zaroff?”
“Oh,” said the general, “it supplies me with the most exciting hunting in the world.
No other hunting compares with it for an instant. Every day I hunt, and I never grow bored now, for I have a quarry with which I can match my wits.”
Rainsford’s bewilderment showed in his face.
“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. “So I said, `What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.’”
“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.
“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”
“But you can’t mean–” gasped Rainsford.
“And why not?”
“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”
“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”
“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”
The general laughed with entire good nature. He regarded Rainsford quizzically. “I refuse to believe that so modern and civilized a young man as you seem to be harbors romantic ideas about the value of human life. Surely your experiences in the war–”
“Did not make me condone cold-blooded murder,” finished Rainsford stiffly.
Laughter shook the general. “How extraordinarily droll you are!” he said. “One does not expect nowadays to find a young man of the educated class, even in America, with such a naive, and, if I may say so, mid-Victorian point of view. It’s like finding a snuffbox in a limousine. Ah, well, doubtless you had Puritan ancestors. So many Americans appear to have had. I’ll wager you’ll forget your notions when you go hunting with me. You’ve a genuine new thrill in store for you, Mr. Rainsford.”
“Thank you, I’m a hunter, not a murderer.”
“Dear me,” said the general, quite unruffled, “again that unpleasant word. But I think I can show you that your scruples are quite ill founded.”
“Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong.
“The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships — lassars, Chinese, whites, mongrels–a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them.”
“But they are men,” said Rainsford hotly.
“Precisely,” said the general. “That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. Hence they are dangerous.”
“But where do you get them?”
The general’s left eyelid fluttered down in a wink. “This island is called Ship Trap,” he answered. “Sometimes an angry god of the high seas sends them to me. But sometimes, as well, when Providence is not so kind, I help Providence a bit. Come to the window with me.”
Rainsford went to the window and looked out toward the sea.
“Watch! Out there!” exclaimed the general, pointing into the night. Rainsford’s eyes saw only blackness, and then, as the general pressed a button, far out to sea Rainsford saw the flash of lights.
See for yourself
The general chuckled. “They indicate a channel,” he said, “where there’s none; giant rocks with razor edges crouch like a sea monster with wide-open jaws. They can crush a ship as easily as I crush this nut.” He dropped a walnut on the hardwood floor and brought his heel grinding down on it. “Oh, yes,” he said, casually, as if in answer to a question, “I have electricity. We try to be civilized here.”
“Civilized? And you shoot down men?”
A trace of anger was in the general’s black eyes, but it was there for but a second; and he said, in his most pleasant manner, “Dear me, what a righteous young man you are!
I assure you I do not do the thing you suggest. That would be barbarous. I treat these visitors with every consideration. They get plenty of good food and exercise. They get into splendid physical condition. You shall see for yourself tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll visit my training school,” smiled the general. “It’s in the cellar. I have about a dozen pupils down there now. They’re from the Spanish bark San Lucar that had the bad luck to go on the rocks out there. A very inferior lot, I regret to say. Poor specimens and more accustomed to the deck than to the jungle.” He raised his hand, and Ivan, who served as waiter, brought thick Turkish coffee. Rainsford, with an effort, held his tongue in check.
“It’s a game, you see,” pursued the general blandly. “I suggest to one of them that we go hunting. him a supply of food and an excellent hunting knife, I give him three hours’ star follow, armed only with a pistol of the smallest caliber and range. If my quarry eludes me for three whole days, he wins the game. If I find him” –the general smiled– “he loses.”
“Suppose he refuses to be hunted?”
“Oh,” said the general, “I give him his option, of course. He need not play that game if he doesn’t wish to. If he does not wish to hunt, I turn him over to Ivan. Ivan once had the honor of serving as official knouter to the Great White Czar, and he has his own ideas of sport. Invariably, Mr. Rainsford, invariably they choose the hunt.”
“And if they win?”
The smile on the general’s face widened. “To date I have not lost,” he said. Then he added, hastily: “I don’t wish you to think me a braggart, Mr. Rainsford. Many of them afford only the most elementary sort of problem. Occasionally I strike a tartar. One almost did win. I eventually had to use the dogs.”
“This way, please. I’ll show you.”
The general steered Rainsford to a window. The lights from the windows sent a flickering illumination that made grotesque patterns on the courtyard below, and Rainsford could see moving about there a dozen or so huge black shapes; as they turned toward him, their eyes glittered greenly.
“A rather good lot, I think,” observed the general. “They are let out at seven every night. If anyone should try to get into my house — or out of it — something extremely regrettable would occur to him.” He hummed a snatch of song from the Folies Bergere.
“And now,” said the general, “I want to show you my new collection of heads. Will you come with me to the library?”
“I hope,” said Rainsford, “that you will excuse me tonight, General Zaroff. I’m really not feeling well.”
“Ah, indeed?” the general inquired solicitously. “Well, I suppose that’s only natural, after your long swim. You need a good, restful night’s sleep. Tomorrow you’ll feel like a new man, I’ll wager. Then we’ll hunt, eh? I’ve one rather promising prospect–”
Collection of heads
Rainsford was hurrying from the room.
“Sorry you can’t go with me tonight,” called the general. “I expect rather fair sport — a big, strong, mongrel. He looks resourceful. Well, good night, Mr. Rainsford; I hope you have a good night’s rest.”
The bed was good, and the pajamas of the softest silk, and he was tired in every fiber of his being, but nevertheless Rainsford could not quiet his brain with the opiate of sleep.
He lay, eyes wide open. Once he thought he heard stealthy steps in the corridor outside his room. He sought to throw open the door; it would not open. He went to the window and looked out. His room was high up in one of the towers. The lights of the chateau were out now, and it was dark and silent; but there was a fragment of sallow moon, and by its wan light he could see, dimly, the courtyard.
There, weaving in and out in the pattern of shadow, were black, noiseless forms; the hounds heard him at the window and looked up, expectantly, with their green eyes. Rainsford went back to the bed and lay down. By many methods he tried to put himself to sleep. He had achieved a doze when, just as morning began to come, he heard, far off in the jungle, the faint report of a pistol.
Leave this island
General Zaroff did not appear until luncheon. He was dressed faultlessly in the tweeds of a country squire. He was solicitous about the state of Rainsford’s health.
“As for me,” sighed the general, “I do not feel so well. I am worried, Mr. Rainsford.
Last night I detected traces of my old complaint.”
To Rainsford’s questioning glance the general said, “Ennui. Boredom.”
Then, taking a second helping of crêpes Suzette, the general explained: “The hunting was not good last night. The fellow lost his head. He made a straight trail that offered no problems at all. That’s the trouble with these sailors; they have dull brains to begin with, and they do not know how to get about in the woods. They do excessively stupid and obvious things. It’s most annoying. Will you have another glass of Chablis, Mr. Rainsford?”
My idea of sport
“General,” said Rainsford firmly, “I wish to leave this island at once.”
The general raised his thickets of eyebrows; he seemed hurt. “But, my dear fellow,” the general protested, “you’ve only just come. You’ve had no hunting–”
“I wish to go today,” said Rainsford. He saw the dead black eyes of the general on him, studying him. General Zaroff’s face suddenly brightened.
He filled Rainsford’s glass with venerable Chablis from a dusty bottle.
“Tonight,” said the general, “we will hunt–you and I.”
Rainsford shook his head. “No, general,” he said. “I will not hunt.”
The general shrugged his shoulders and delicately ate a hothouse grape. “As you wish, my friend,” he said. “The choice rests entirely with you. But may I not venture to suggest that you will find my idea of sport more diverting than Ivan’s?”
He nodded toward the corner to where the giant stood, scowling, his thick arms crossed on his hogshead of chest.
Avoid the big swamp
“You don’t mean–” cried Rainsford.
“My dear fellow,” said the general, “have I not told you I always mean what I say about hunting? This is really an inspiration. I drink to a foeman worthy of my steel–at last.” The general raised his glass, but Rainsford sat staring at him.
“You’ll find this game worth playing,” the general said enthusiastically.” Your brain against mine. Your woodcraft against mine. Your strength and stamina against mine. Outdoor chess! And the stake is not without value, eh?”
“And if I win–” began Rainsford huskily.
“I’ll cheerfully acknowledge myself defeated if I do not find you by midnight of the third day,” said General Zaroff. “My sloop will place you on the mainland near a town.”
The general read what Rainsford was thinking.
“Oh, you can trust me,” said the Cossack. “I will give you my word as a gentleman and a sportsman. Of course you, in turn, must agree to say nothing of your visit here.”
“I’ll agree to nothing of the kind,” said Rainsford.
“Oh,” said the general, “in that case — But why discuss that now? Three days hence we can discuss it over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, unless–”
The general sipped his wine.
Then a businesslike air animated him. “Ivan,” he said to Rainsford, “will supply you with hunting clothes, food, a knife. I suggest you wear moccasins; they leave a poorer trail. I suggest, too, that you avoid the big swamp in the southeast corner of the island.
We call it Death Swamp. There’s quicksand there. One foolish fellow tried it. The deplorable part of it was that Lazarus followed him. You can imagine my feelings, Mr. Rainsford. I loved Lazarus; he was the finest hound in my pack. Well, I must beg you to excuse me now. I always’ take a siesta after lunch. You’ll hardly have time for a nap, I fear. You’ll want to start, no doubt. I shall not follow till dusk. Hunting at night is so much more exciting than by day, don’t you think? Au revoir, Mr. Rainsford, au revoir.”
General Zaroff, with a deep, courtly bow, strolled from the room.
From another door came Ivan. Under one arm he carried khaki hunting clothes, a haversack of food, a leather sheath containing a long-bladed hunting knife; his right hand rested on a cocked revolver thrust in the crimson sash about his waist.
Played the fox
Rainsford had fought his way through the bush for two hours. “I must keep my nerve. I must keep my nerve,” he said through tight teeth.
He had not been entirely clearheaded when the chateau gates snapped shut behind him. His whole idea at first was to put distance between himself and General Zaroff; and, to this end, he had plunged along, spurred on by the sharp rowers of something very like panic. Now he had got a grip on himself, had stopped, and was taking stock of himself and the situation. He saw that straight flight was futile; inevitably it would bring him face to face with the sea. He was in a picture with a frame of water, and his operations, clearly, must take place within that frame.
“I’ll give him a trail to follow,” muttered Rainsford, and he struck off from the rude path he had been following into the trackless wilderness. He executed a series of intricate loops; he doubled on his trail again and again, recalling all the lore of the fox hunt, and all the dodges of the fox. Night found him leg-weary, with hands and face lashed by the branches, on a thickly wooded ridge. He knew it would be insane to blunder on through the dark, even if he had the strength. His need for rest was imperative and he thought, “I have played the fox, now I must play the cat of the fable.”
The devil himself
A big tree with a thick trunk and outspread branches was near by, and, taking care to leave not the slightest mark, he climbed up into the crotch, and, stretching out on one of the broad limbs, after a fashion, rested. Rest brought him new confidence and almost a feeling of security. Even so zealous a hunter as General Zaroff could not trace him there, he told himself; only the devil himself could follow that complicated trail through the jungle after dark. But perhaps the general was a devil–
An apprehensive night crawled slowly by like a wounded snake and sleep did not visit Rainsford, although the silence of a dead world was on the jungle. Toward morning when a dingy gray was varnishing the sky, the cry of some startled bird focused Rainsford’s attention in that direction. Something was coming through the bush, coming slowly, carefully, coming by the same winding way Rainsford had come. He flattened himself down on the limb and, through a screen of leaves almost as thick as tapestry, he watched. . . . That which was approaching was a man.
It was General Zaroff. He made his way along with his eyes fixed in utmost concentration on the ground before him. He paused, almost beneath the tree, dropped to his knees and studied the ground. Rainsford’s impulse was to hurl himself down like a panther, but he saw that the general’s right hand held something metallic–a small automatic pistol.
The hunter shook his head several times, as if he were puzzled. Then he straightened up and took from his case one of his black cigarettes; its pungent incenselike smoke floated up to Rainsford’s nostrils.
Rainsford held his breath. The general’s eyes had left the ground and were traveling inch by inch up the tree. Rainsford froze there, every muscle tensed for a spring. But the sharp eyes of the hunter stopped before they reached the limb where Rainsford lay; a smile spread over his brown face. Very deliberately he blew a smoke ring into the air; then he turned his back on the tree and walked carelessly away, back along the trail he had come. The swish of the underbrush against his hunting boots grew fainter and fainter.
The pent-up air burst hotly from Rainsford’s lungs. His first thought made him feel sick and numb. The general could follow a trail through the woods at night; he could follow an extremely difficult trail; he must have uncanny powers; only by the merest chance had the Cossack failed to see his quarry.
Rainsford’s second thought was even more terrible. It sent a shudder of cold horror through his whole being. Why had the general smiled? Why had he turned back?
Rainsford did not want to believe what his reason told him was true, but the truth was as evident as the sun that had by now pushed through the morning mists. The general was playing with him! The general was saving him for another day’s sport! The Cossack was the cat; he was the mouse. Then it was that Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror.
“I will not lose my nerve. I will not.”
He slid down from the tree, and struck off again into the woods. His face was set and he forced the machinery of his mind to function. Three hundred yards from his hiding place he stopped where a huge dead tree leaned precariously on a smaller, living one.
Throwing off his sack of food, Rainsford took his knife from its sheath and began to work with all his energy.
The job was finished at last, and he threw himself down behind a fallen log a hundred feet away. He did not have to wait long. The cat was coming again to play with the mouse.
Following the trail with the sureness of a bloodhound came General Zaroff. Nothing escaped those searching black eyes, no crushed blade of grass, no bent twig, no mark, no matter how faint, in the moss. So intent was the Cossack on his stalking that he was upon the thing Rainsford had made before he saw it. His foot touched the protruding bough that was the trigger.
Even as he touched it, the general sensed his danger and leaped back with the agility of an ape. But he was not quite quick enough; the dead tree, delicately adjusted to rest on the cut living one, crashed down and struck the general a glancing blow on the shoulder as it fell; but for his alertness, he must have been smashed beneath it. He staggered, but he did not fall; nor did he drop his revolver. He stood there, rubbing his injured shoulder, and Rainsford, with fear again gripping his heart, heard the general’s mocking laugh ring through the jungle.
“Rainsford,” called the general, “if you are within sound of my voice, as I suppose you are, let me congratulate you. Not many men know how to make a Malay mancatcher.
Luckily for me I, too, have hunted in Malacca. You are proving interesting, Mr. Rainsford. I am going now to have my wound dressed; it’s only a slight one. But I shall be back. I shall be back.”
Tore his feet loose
When the general, nursing his bruised shoulder, had gone, Rainsford took up his flight again. It was flight now, a desperate, hopeless flight, that carried him on for some hours. Dusk came, then darkness, and still he pressed on. The ground grew softer under his moccasins; the vegetation grew ranker, denser; insects bit him savagely.
Then, as he stepped forward, his foot sank into the ooze. He tried to wrench it back, but the muck sucked viciously at his foot as if it were a giant leech. With a violent effort, he tore his feet loose. He knew where he was now. Death Swamp and its quicksand.
His hands were tight closed as if his nerve were something tangible that someone in the darkness was trying to tear from his grip. The softness of the earth had given him anidea. He stepped back from the quicksand a dozen feet or so and, like some huge prehistoric beaver, he began to dig.
Burmese Tiger Pit
Rainsford had dug himself in also in France when a second’s delay meant death. That had been a placid pastime compared to his digging now. The pit grew deeper; when it was above his shoulders, he climbed out and from some hard saplings cut stakes and sharpened them to a fine point. These stakes he planted in the bottom of the pit with the points sticking up. With flying fingers he wove a rough carpet of weeds and branches and with it he covered the mouth of the pit. Then, wet with sweat and aching with tiredness, he crouched behind the stump of a lightning-charred tree.
He knew his pursuer was coming; he heard the padding sound of feet on the soft earth, and the night breeze brought him the perfume of the general’s cigarette. It seemed to Rainsford that the general was coming with unusual swiftness; he was not feeling his way along, foot by foot. Rainsford, crouching there, could not see the general, nor could he see the pit. He lived a year in a minute. Then he felt an impulse to cry aloud with joy, for he heard the sharp crackle of the breaking branches as the cover of the pit gave way; he heard the sharp scream of pain as the pointed stakes found their mark. He leaped up from his place of concealment. But t he cowered back. Three feet from the pit a man was standing, with an electric torch in his hand.
“You’ve done well, Rainsford,” the voice of the general called. “Your Burmese tiger pit has claimed one of my best dogs. Again you score. I think, Mr. Rainsford, I’ll see what you can do against my whole pack. I’m going home for a rest now. Thank you for a most amusing evening.”
At daybreak Rainsford, lying near the swamp, was awakened by a sound that made him know that he had new things to learn about fear. Although it was a distant sound, faint and wavering, he knew it. It was the baying of a pack of hounds.
Rainsford knew he could do one of two things. He could stay where he was and wait.
That was suicide. He could flee. That was postponing the inevitable. For a moment he stood there, thinking. An idea that held a wild chance came to him, and, tightening his belt, he headed away from the swamp.
The baying of the hounds drew nearer, then still nearer, nearer, ever nearer. On a ridge Rainsford climbed a tree. Down a watercourse, not a quarter of a mile away, he could see the bush moving. Straining his eyes, he saw the lean figure of General Zaroff; just ahead of him Rainsford made out another figure whose wide shoulders surged through the tall jungle weeds; it was the giant Ivan, and he seemed pulled forward by some unseen force; Rainsford knew that Ivan must be holding the pack in leash.
They would be on him any minute now. His mind worked frantically. He thought of a native trick he had learned in Uganda. First he slid down the tree. Second he caught hold of a springy young sapling and to it he fastened his hunting knife, with the blade pointing down the trail; with a bit of wild grapevine he tied back the sapling. Third he ran for his life. The hounds raised their voices as they hit the fresh scent. Rainsford knew now how an animal at bay feels.
He had to stop to get his breath. The baying of the hounds stopped abruptly, and Rainsford’s heart stopped too. They must have reached the knife.
He shinned excitedly up a tree and looked back. His pursuers had stopped. But the hope that was in Rainsford’s brain when he climbed died, for he saw in the shallow valley that General Zaroff was still on his feet. But Ivan was not. The knife, driven by the recoil of the springing tree, had not wholly failed.
Rainsford had hardly tumbled to the ground when the pack took up the cry again.
“Nerve, nerve, nerve!” he panted, as he dashed along. A blue gap showed between the trees dead ahead. Ever nearer drew the hounds. Rainsford forced himself on toward that gap. He reached it. It was the shore of the sea. Across a cove he could see the gloomy gray stone of the chateau. Twenty feet below him the sea rumbled and hissed. Rainsford hesitated. He heard the hounds. Then he leaped far out into the sea. . . .
When the general and his pack reached the place by the sea, the Cossack stopped.
For some minutes he stood regarding the blue-green expanse of water. He shrugged his shoulders. Then be sat down, took a drink of brandy from a silver flask, lit a cigarette, and hummed a bit from Madame Butterfly.
General Zaroff had an exceedingly good dinner in his great paneled dining hall that evening. With it he had a bottle of Pol Roger and half a bottle of Chambertin. Two slight annoyances kept him from perfect enjoyment. One was the thought that it would be difficult to replace Ivan; the other was that his quarry had escaped him; of course, the American hadn’t played the game–so thought the general as he tasted his after-dinner liqueur. In his library he read, to soothe himself, from the works of Marcus Aurelius. At ten he went up to his bedroom. He was deliciously tired, he said to himself, as he locked himself in. There was a little moonlight, so, before turning on his light, he went to the window and looked down at the courtyard. He could see the great hounds, and he called,
“Better luck another time,” to them. Then he switched on the light.
A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.
“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”
“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”
The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”
Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice.
“Get ready, General Zaroff.”
The general made one of his deepest bows. “I see,” he said. “Splendid! One of us is to furnish a repast for the hounds. The other will sleep in this very excellent bed. On guard, Rainsford.” . . .
He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.
The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.
The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease were the incidents of half an hour.
But the Prince Prospero ordered a masque for he was happy and dauntless. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted “friends” from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated cays. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron.
The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or frenzy from within. This was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
It was towards the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand guests at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.
It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. These were seven—an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different, as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect.
To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose colour varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example in blue—and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange—the fifth with white—the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue.
But in this chamber only, the colour of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood colour. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances.
But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound.
Thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation.
But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.
But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colours and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.
He had directed, in great part, the movable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fête; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm—much of what has been since seen in “Hernani”. Many were the arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were much of the beautiful, the wanton, the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not little that excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these—the dreams—writhed in and about taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps.
Anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. Then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away—they have endured but an instant—and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods.
But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-coloured panes; further, the blackness of the sable drapery appals; yet to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulged in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.
But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. But then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps, that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled.
Thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumour of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.
Assembly of phantasms
In an assembly of phantasms it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade licence of the night was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.
The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse. The closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat.
And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood. And his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.
When the eyes of the Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which, with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.
“Who dares,”—he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him—”who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him—that we may know whom we have to hang, at sunrise, from the battlements!”
It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly, for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.
It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker.
To arrest him
But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince’s person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple—through the purple to the green—through the green to the orange—through this again to the white—and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him.
It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer.
There was a sharp cry—and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero.
Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask, which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. Even the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
What a river! To think of all the distance and varied waters we’ve traveled from its source.
The river won’t stand much nonsense now, though, will it? That first week in the Black Forest, in contrast, was all getting out and slogging through shallows and pushing our boat, eh? We’ll have scary chat stories to share on our phones for years!
But today we were only concerned about the boat possibly being ripped open by the jagged shale beneath those rapids. Yet despite it all, we made it! Now you rest on the sand right where you are. You single-handedly tugged our boat ashore, after all, so rest and I’ll survey this little willow island of ours in preparation for camping here. *********
I’m back, and it really is a small place and quite as overgrown with willow bushes as the shopkeeper warned. It’s enough to make walking unpleasant, but I made the tour. The island is triangular, wind-swept — with almost no full trees — and quite unwelcoming.
Certainly, I could see those last features from here. Any luck?
Yes, there is a slight depression in the island’s center, where we may pitch the tent. The surrounding willows break the wind quite a bit there.
The rising wind
A poor camp it is, with no stones and precious little firewood. This sandbar won’t hold up against the flood for many hours; I’m for moving on early tomorrow — you?
Sure. Later this evening we can set about collecting a store of wood to last until bedtime.
With that incessant cold wind, this is not a fit place for a man.
What’s worse, willow bushes drop no branches, and so driftwood will be our only source of fuel. I hunted the shores pretty thoroughly. Everywhere the banks are crumbling as the rising flood tears at our tiny island and carries away great portions of it every few minutes.
The place is much smaller than when we landed. 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.
‘The wind is still rising’
Ho-ho-ho, ha-ha-ha! By Jove!
I heard your laugh, but now you are hidden by the willows, where are you?
But what in the world’s this?
Suddenly you sounded quite serious. Stand still; I’m coming right over.
Good heavens, it’s a man’s body out there! Look!
All I see is that black thing, turning over and over in the waves. It keeps disappearing and coming up to the surface again.
No, it’s an otter, by gad! Ho-ho, ah, ha-hah!
It is an otter, very alive, and out on the hunt, yet it looked just now like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current.
You saw it too? Thank heavens, for the mind plays tricks when you’re tired. Look, there goes a boatman along the far shore!
He’s crossing himself! Look, he’s making the sign of the Cross!
I believe you’re right.
He tried to call to us beforehand, but the wind is still rising and it drowned him out.
But what in the world is he doing at nightfall on this flooded river?
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, ha-ha, ha-hah! These Hungarians believe in all sorts of rubbish; you remember the shopwoman at Pressburg warning us that no one ever landed here?
She said it’s 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 island for the first time in his life, and it gave him a scary story to chat about, that’s all.
Heh. If they had enough imagination, they might very well people a place like this with the old gods of antiquity.
The river’s still rising, though, and will be under water in two days.
‘The psychology of places’
True, two days at most.
I wish the wind would go down. I don’t care a fig for the river.
The scarcity of wood will make it a business to keep the fire going. The wind that’s driving the smoke into our faces right now will make a fierce cross draught.
We can take turns fighting it and making expeditions to grub in among the bushes for wood. **********
When this next bundle of branches is in camp, I shall turn in. So I’ll make this final expedition brief.
Good. I’m dog tired.
Glad to hear you are tired, it proves you can get tired. I’m bushed and all your loads of wood have been twice as heavy as mine. So long for the moment, Swede!
(Thinking) The psychology of places is vivid for the wanderer; thus camps have a note, either of welcome or rejection. And the note of this willow-camp has become unmistakably plain to me; we are interlopers, trespassers; we are not welcome. The damn willows are against us.
(Thinking) And talking of bad omens, I could swear that boatman, if it was actually a man, was warning us against some danger, warning us off this filthy island.
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I have been gone so long you probably thought something happened to me, so you came out after me! (Thinking: But there is a look on your face that conveys concern. I certainly see the real reason now for your coming after me: the spell of the place has entered your soul too, and you did not like being alone with your own scary chat stories about this.)
River’s still rising, and the wind’s relentless.
Luckily our tent’s in the hollow. I think it’ll hold up. But I can’t hold up searching for wood in this wind much longer, what with the increasing difficulty of finding any.
(Nodding) We will be lucky if we can get away from this island without disaster!
I am almost angry at you for putting my own thought into words. There is trouble coming, and soon.
I awoke at around midnight and looked out. Feeling some disquiet, I crawled quietly out of the tent. I noticed the tops of the bushes opposite, with their moving tracery of leaves. It was incredible, surely, but there, opposite and slightly above me, were shapes of some indeterminate sort, and as the moonlit branches swayed in the wind they grouped themselves about these, forming a series of monstrous outlines that shifted rapidly.
The village shopkeeper was right.
Then you saw these beings?
Yes. 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.
You saw them plainly?
I saw them plainly and noted, when 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.
Were they malevolent?
Certainly. Men fear this place with good reason, clearly.
I have felt that was a possibility since we landed.
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 swayed and twisted spirally in the wind.
What did their faces look like?
I never could see. They were nude, dull bronze, fluid shapes, passing up the bushes, within the leaves, almost—rising up in a living column into the heavens.
What proof have you?
I admit, none. It may have been an optical illusion. It must be a subjective experience, I argued to myself — none the less real for that, but subjective. These pictures formed upon the mirror of my imagination, and for some reason I projected them outwards and made them appear objective. Perhaps it is just that.
I’d have thought so, of course, if I had not had the opportunity to observe otherwise.
You too? What was your experience?
Outside on the tent there was a sound of many little patterings. In spite of the hot night, I woke feeling clammy and cold. Something was pressing steadily against the sides of the tent and weighing down on it.
Was it possibly caused by wind or the spray and rain?
No. I raised a flap and rushed out to see. But when I stood upright I saw that the tent was free. There was nothing impinging, no fallen bough, no rain or spray, nothing approaching, either. I walked around it and then into the bush to look.
What did you see?
From the shadows a large figure went swiftly by. Someone passed me, as sure as ever a man did….
So you saw one of them!
Yes, and arriving here, a dreadful discovery leaped out at me, as well, and compared to it my terror of the walking one seemed like nothing.
For a change, I thought, had somehow come about in the arrangement of the landscape. The bushes now crowded much closer—unnecessarily, unpleasantly close. Certainly they had moved nearer!
I noticed it, too, but I was afraid to believe my eyes.
Denial was my first reaction, as well. Then the truth followed quickly. Their attack will come, and is coming.
Well, we can do nothing tonight. We must rest, sleep or no.
The porridge is cooked and there is just time to bathe.
I welcome the aroma of that frizzling bacon.
River waters around this wild island are still rising, and several islands out in mid-stream have disappeared. Our own island’s become much smaller.
Any wood left?
The wood and the island will finish tomorrow in a dead heat, but there’s enough to last us till then.
I plan to plunge in to bathe from the point of the island.
I did the same. But stay in close.
Right, and I will be quick about it, for we’d better get off sharp in an hour.
(Thinking: The island has changed a lot in size and shape overnight. The water feels icy, and chunks of sand are flying by like countryside from a speeding car. Bathing under such conditions will be at best exhilarating.)
(Thinking: What did Swede imply? He no longer wishes to leave quickly? “Enough to last till tomorrow”—he said. What changed his thinking?
But the state of his mind is more interesting than anything in his words. He has changed it overnight. His manner is different—a trifle excited, and shy, with a sort of suspicion. I am certain he has gotten frightened, this brave man who is not given to imagining things. He ate little at breakfast.
We’d better get away within the hour.
Agreed. If they’ll let us.
Who’ll let us? The elements?
The powers of this awful place, whoever they are. The gods are here, if they are anywhere in the world.
Stop looking down at that map. You can’t tell me you believe the elements can stop us.
Yes. The elements are always the true immortals.
So you have said, and I agree if you mean the weather, however we can handle the things going on right now. Agreed?
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 asking the direct question.
Further disaster? Why, what’s happened?
First — the steering paddle’s gone.
The steering paddle gone! This was our rudder, and canoing the Danube in flood without a rudder is suicide. But what could —
Secondly, there’s a tear in the bottom of the canoe.
A tear in it?
There’s only one. But here it is.
Yes, a long, finely made tear. Thank heavens you spotted it.
Had we launched without observing it, we’d have foundered.
At first the water would have made the wood swell so as to close the hole, but once out in mid-stream the water would have poured in and our low-riding boat would have filled and sunk rapidly.
There you see an attempt to prepare a victim for the sacrifice. Mmmph, two victims, rather.
It wasn’t there last night.
We must have scratched her in landing, of course. The stones are very sharp. I know just as well as you do how impossible my explanation sounds. We both examined the boat last night, but we were tired.)
And then there’s this to explain too. The paddle, look at this blade.
(Thinking: The blade is scraped down all over, beautifully scraped, as though someone had sand-papered it with care, making it so thin that the first vigorous stroke would snap it.)
One of us walked in his sleep and did this thing.
Ah, you can explain everything. (Turning away) Ha-ha-ha.
One of us must have done this thing, and it certainly was not me.
(Thinking: To even suppose that my friend, the trusted companion of a dozen similar expeditions, could have knowingly had a hand in this sabotage is a thought not to be entertained. But just as absurd is to say this imperturbable, densely practical fellow has suddenly gone mad and is busied with insane purposes.)
But he is suddenly nervous, timid, suspicious, aware of goings on he does not speak about.
What do you make of the many deep hollows formed in the sand around our tent?
I noticed them: basin-shaped and of various depths and sizes. The biggest is like a large bowl. The wind, no doubt, was responsible, just as it was for lifting the paddle and tossing it to where it got caught among the willows as the eroding sand and the flood sanded it down.
The rent in the canoe is the only thing that seems quite inexplicable; and, after all, it is conceivable that a sharp point caught it when we landed.
(Thinking: My examination of the shore does not support this theory, yet I must cling to it with my diminishing reason. An explanation of some kind, however, is an absolute necessity.)
Please set the pitch melting, and soon I’ll join you, although the canoe can’t be safe for traveling until tomorrow.
Of course it won’t.
You know those hollows in the sand? They’re all over the island. But you can explain them, no doubt!
Wind, of course. Have you never watched those little whirlwinds in the street that twirl everything into a circle? This sand’s loose enough to yield, that’s all.
(Thinking: He is watching me, and yet listening attentively for something I cannot hear. Why else keep turning and staring into the bushes, and up, and out across the water through the willow branches?) Sometimes he even puts his hand to his ear. Why?)
(Thinking: Fortunately he says nothing as he works, because I vaguely dread he will speak of the reason for the willows’ changed aspect. And, if he has reached the same conclusion, my thought that “it’s just our imagination” will no longer be a sufficient response!)
Ha-ha! I had expected another of your scary chat stories or at least something totally different.
I mean—do you—did you think it really was an otter?
What else, in the name of heaven?
You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed—so much bigger than an otter.
The sunset as you looked up-stream magnified it, or something.
It had such extraordinary yellow eyes.
That was the sun too. I guess you’ll wonder next if that fellow in the boat—
You just decided not to finish that sentence, I notice.
Damned if you are not listening for them again, turning your head to the wind, with something in your expression that makes me wonder.
I did rather wonder, too, if you want to know, 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.
Excuse me but I must laugh, only this time out of impatience, and a strain of anger too.
You are angry at me?
Look here now, 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 just a man, and they were both going down-stream very fast. And that otter was an otter, so don’t play games!
And, for Heaven’s sake, 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 thundering wind.
You fool! That’s just the way all victims talk. As if you didn’t understand just as well as I do!
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.
Well, please don’t sneer! (Thinking: I do know your words are true, and that I have been the fool, not you. Up to a certain stage in the adventure you kept ahead of me easily, and I think I felt annoyed to be out of it!)
But you’re right about one thing, 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.
A good thing the wind has died down.
Come and tell me what you make of it. Hold a hand to your ear. Now do you hear anything?
I hear only the water’s roaring and hissing.
Wait. The willows for once are silent, so it should be a good chance to hear the other sound.
Yes, faintly I hear a peculiar sound—something like the humming of a distant gong. It is repeated at regular intervals, but it is 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.
A fair description.
The wind blowing in those sand-funnels, or the bushes rubbing together after the storm perhaps.
It comes off the whole swamp and from everywhere at once. It comes from the willow bushes somehow—
But now the wind has dropped. The willows can hardly make a noise by themselves, can they?
It is because the wind has dropped that we now hear it. It was drowned before. It is the cry, I believe, of the—oops!”
Oh, the stew was about to burn! No wonder you dashed back without finishing your thought. Come and cut up bread for the pot. This stew-pot holds sanity for us both, and that silly thought makes me laugh. (Thinking: He has emptied the entire contents of the provisions bag on the ground-sheet!)
Hurry up! It’s boiling.
There’s nothing here! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Bread, I mean. It’s gone. There is no bread. They’ve taken it! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Hah-hah, hah-ha. Must be the strain, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Hah-hah, hah. But, no! How criminally stupid of me! I clean forgot to buy a loaf at Pressburg. But 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.
There’s enough for tomorrow, 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. Unless we’re claimed first as victims for the sacrifice. He-he, Heh-heh, he. Mumble, mmmph –.
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.
There are things about us, I’m sure, that make for disorder, disintegration, destruction, our destruction. We are in unsafe modes, somehow.
I don’t think a tape recorder would show any record of that ‘gong.’ The sound doesn’t come to me by the ears. The vibrations seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard.
I agree that we have strayed into some region or some set of conditions where the risks are great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lays close about us.
What made you decide to become the spokesman for it?
Face the terrible facts. This is a new order of experience, of horror, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.
It’s the deliberate, calculating purpose that reduces one’s courage to zero. Otherwise imagination might account for much of it. But the paddle, the canoe, the lessening food—
Haven’t I explained all that once?
You have; you have indeed, however unconvincingly. These outsiders have demonstrated a plain determination to provide a victim.
I can’t disguise it any longer, I don’t like this place. There’s something here that beats me. I’m in a funk. If the other shore was—different, I swear I’d be inclined to swim for it!
(Staring me down) It’s not a physical condition we can run away from. We must sit tight. There are forces close here that I expect 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 generally still. Our insignificance may save us.
That seems rather far fetched. What do you mean?
I mean that so far, although aware of our disturbing presence, they have not found us—not ‘located’ us, as the Americans say.
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?
Worse—by far. 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—a horror portal!
But who are aware?
All my life, I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region—not far removed from our own 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 more expressions of the soul—
I suggest just now you hold back — stop your exposition!
You think it is the spirit 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 have absolutely nothing to do with man, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own.
Your words somehow are so convincing, they’ve set me shaking a little. So what do you propose?
A sacrifice, a victim, might save us by distracting them until we could get away, 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.
But you really think a sacrifice would solve our problem? Thanks for another of your scary ghost stories—
If we can hold out through the night, we may get off in the daylight unnoticed, or rather, undiscovered.
Wait! The gong-like humming just came down very close over our heads as you spoke. Hush! They’re nearby!
Do not mention them or refer to them by name. The name is the inevitable clue, so our only hope lies in ignoring them, in order that they may ignore us.
Even in thought?
Especially in thought. Our thoughts make something like spirals in their world. We must keep them out of our minds. Here, rake the fire.
Certainly. I have never longed for the sun as I long for it now in the awful blackness of this summer night.
Were you awake all last night?
I slept badly a little after dawn, but the wind, of course—
I know. However the wind won’t account for all the noises.
Then you heard it too?
The multiplying countless little footsteps I heard, and that other sound—
You mean above the tent, and the pressing down upon us of something tremendous, gigantic?
It was like the beginning of a sort of inner suffocation?
Partly, yes. It seemed to me that the weight of the atmosphere had been altered—had increased enormously, so that we should have been crushed.
And that gong overhead. What do you make of that?
It’s their sound. It’s the sound of their world, the humming in their region. The division between us 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.
I could not follow exactly what you meant by that, yet the thought and idea in my mind are beyond question the thought and idea in yours.
I realized what he realized, only with less power of analysis than his. Then 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, we’ll go on as though nothing had happened, follow our habits; 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, all right, I’ll try, but tell me one more thing first. What do you make of those hollows in the ground, the sand-funnels?
No! I dare not, just 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 to prevent their putting it into yours.
I will not press you to explain. There is already just about as much horror in me as I can hold. Please be qui-I —
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—the 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. The terror had caught him at last.
After that close call, we must go! We can’t stay now; we must strike camp this very instant and go on—down the river.
In the dark? That’s madness! The river’s in flood, and we’ve only got one paddle. Besides, we only go deeper into their country! There’s nothing ahead for fifty miles but willows, willows, willows!
What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?
It is all right, my friend. You will soon be eating roast beef in London with me and we will laugh at this all.
I was as frightened as any man ever before. But when you looked in my eyes and mentioned roast beef, I forgot all of it.
I as well. We’ll make one more blaze, and then turn in for the night. At sunrise we’ll be off at full speed for Komorn. Now, pull yourself together a bit, and remember your own advice about not thinking fear!
The commonplace feeling introduced by your food mention broke the spell. I shall say no more.
In some measure it will be a relief for us both to get up and make an excursion into the darkness for more wood. We’ll keep close together, and look 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!
Look! By my soul! There, in front of the dim glow, something is moving.
I see it through this veil that hangs before our eyes like the gauze drop-curtain used at the back of a theater—hazily. It is neither a human figure nor an animal.
It’s 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.
It is settling down through the willows.
Look, by God! It’s coming this way! Oh, o no! Ehh! 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.
But it was the 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 passed out at the next moment, and that was what saved him.
I lost consciousness for a moment or two. That’s what saved me. It made me stop thinking about them.
You nearly broke my arm in two.
That’s what saved you! Between us, we’ve managed to set them off on a false tack somewhere. The humming has ceased. It’s gone—for the moment!
A wave of hysterical laughter is about to seize me again.
Neither of us said a word. We both knew that sleep was the safest thing we could do, and to bed we went without delay, having first thrown sand on the fire and brought the provision sack and paddle inside the tent with us. The canoe, too, we propped at the end of the tent so 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.”
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 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 breathing was difficult.
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 on 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 down breathless and cursing, where I held him with one foot until his 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. For he had 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!
I feel it, too.
River’s falling at last; that’s one good thing.
The humming has stopped too.
Everything has stopped, because—
Because they’ve found another victim’?
Exactly. I feel as positive of it as though—as though—I feel quite safe again, I mean.
How do you know?
Come, I think if we look, we shall find it.
Wait half a mo-, I’m coming.
We will need a stick of wood from here!
To poke among the sandy bays and caves and little back-waters. Here now, to the river banks.
I am right behind you, Swede!
He was pointing with his stick at a large black object that lay half in the water and 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, the victim that made our escape possible! If I can turn it over, umph! There! It is the body of a peasant, and the face was hidden in the sand.
Clearly the man has been drowned, but a few hours ago, and his body must have been swept down upon our island somewhere about the hour of dawn—at the very time the fit passed.
We must give it a decent burial, you know.
I suppose so. Poor fellow, poor, poor old man.
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 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.
Oww! What in the –! It’s them! They are humming inside the corpse, like hornets in the nest!
We must get away. But the filthy things are leaving him, ascending into the air. It seems we disturbed the rotten creatures at work.
But before either of us had time properly to recover from the unexpected shock, we saw that the current was turning the corpse round so that it became released from the grip of the willow roots.
We must save the man. He must have a proper burial! Oh dear God!
I saw it! The skin and flesh of the face and chest are indented with small hollows, perfectly formed, quite similar to those beings’ damned sand funnels.
Their mark! Their awful mark!
And when I turned my eyes again from the dead man’s ghastly face to the river, the current had done its work, and the body had been swept away into mid-stream and was already beyond our reach and almost out of sight, turning over and over on the waves like an otter.
The first of four scary chat stories under this title.
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You are nervous! I must say as an experienced detective, nervousness could be a sign of madness.
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
Not I, but some may say it. Doubtless you have a nervous disorder, some disease perhaps dulling or destroying your ability to sense what is real.
True, but the disease has sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them.
Please explain the difference. And pray tell how then you did not hear anything of the old man’s destruction and disappearance?
Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
The whole story
Let’s back up to the beginning of this scary chat story of yours. Tell me the whole tale, by all means; you clever fellow!
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object? There was none. Passion? There was none.
You did not dislike the old man?
I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.
You must have disliked something about him! What could it have been?
I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
But that’s so trivial, so pointless! And yet you say you are not mad?
Now this is the point, you fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.
I did see you.
Now that, too, seems mad. You are the detective, as you stated, although how you came here so quickly after—
You were saying?
: You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.
Ah! So, you admit you actually did it!
Every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!
But I dared not laugh in observing you! Any audible sound might have been your undoing, or the old man’s, who you loved! The lantern revealed an angelic face in slumber, did it not?
I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this?
Doubtless it seemed wise to you at the time. But does it still seem so wise after your confession? However, I digress; pray continue, and tell us why we have not found the corpse.
Adapted to chat format and condensed by Captivated Chat
I am recording the scary plague story of mankind only for myself, for my own sanity, perhaps even from some age-old sense of duty. For I have not the slightest hope that it will ever be read by any living human being.
I was a professor in the great university at San Francisco, Professor James Smith, a man who believed in reason and abhorred blood, but that was before the terror and the madness. This morning I killed a small animal with my bare hands, then squatting down I tore a hunk from my prey and ate it raw.
It began simply on a Monday morning. I was having breakfast at the counter in the campus cafeteria. A friend was glancing over some news sites on his cell phone.
I don’t know why I do it, Jim.
Read these news updates every morning. Nothing changes: senators all back on the Hill after a whirlwind Asian tour; crimes of passion in Louisville; bomb threats.
Good citizenship compels you, maybe.
Perhaps, but what about this item down in the corner? Way down in the corner: New York fights scarlet death! Some news reporter’s pipe dream, I suppose: nine persons have died since last night of a strange malady that has left doctors at Manhattan hospitals admittedly baffled.
The disease strikes without warning and slays its victim in less than an hour.
How sensationalistic that reporter is!
The first symptom is a feeling of well-being, with a slight rise in temperature. Then a fiery red rash appears on the hands and face and spreads rapidly over the body. Within thirty minutes comes a coma and death.
What do you think?
Ridiculous, after all there’s no disease that attacks like that. It’s food poisoning, Botulism, something of that sort.
Bill, I’m eating!
Medical authorities are unanimously agreed, however, that no general danger exists, and that there is no cause for public concern or alarm. That’s double-talk for we don’t know what it is yet.
Hmm. What about a mutation?
Mutation apart, how do I know?
You’re a physiologist!
Oh you’re talking about those occasional scary plague stories, I suppose, harmless virus or bacteria mutates and grows into some new deadly bug. Antibiotics won’t touch it. Medical science helpless, a million people wiped out overnight?
Sure, it’s a possibility, isn’t it?
No, Jim, bacterial and viral strains are always mutating and usually the mutation is less harmful than the parent. But that other idea’ has been overworked for years! Pass the cream, please.
Hmm. Is it a possibility or not?
Yes, it’s a possibility.
You’re stalling, Jim, that rook’s the only piece you can move, and you know it.
Don’t rush me; we’ve still got the queen back here!
Let’s see, and here is the latest development on the Red Death: up to now the death toll in greater New York is 321 persons; in Boston, 94; in Chicago, 181. Medical findings expected soon, with every liklihood that the cause will be isolated and an effective treatment prescribed.
How can it spread so fast?
It’s hard to tell, not knowing the period of incubation, whether it’s airborne, contagious by contact, or how long it’s contagious before the symptoms show up. However, just one thing is sure, something’s got to be done fast!
I guess we can call ourselves lucky out here; fact is, there hasn’t been a case reported in San Francisco.
No, not yet.
* * * * * * * * *
Ten minutes later
I sat for a long time in my empty classroom paralyzed with shock by a fear of the unknown. A girl had walked in the class smiling and talking and now she lay dead at the back of the room. But why, and why so fast? I went to the Faculty Club where Bill was sharing a scary plague story.
Greater New York estimated two hundred eighty-four thousand deaths! Philadelphia, estimated 220,000 deaths. Here’s a bulletin! London: the scarlet plague is raging in Europe. The death toll in Moscow at 180,000.
No word of any cure, Jim? I just walked across the campus: it’s completely deserted.
Guess the back of the club here is the only holdout, and at that there are only four, four counting you and the security guy, plus our Blake. She went over to her room to pack. Dr. Barnes is out in the kitchen getting us all some drinks.
Bill, that girl who died in my class a while ago? One minute she was all right, and a minute later she was dead!
Well it’s fast, that’s one thing.
Can you get it from contact? I touched her forehead with the back of my hand.
Nobody knows how you get it. Transmission couldn’t be mainly from contact, not millions of cases in less than 48 hours.
Why can’t they find a cure? They’ve had two days now, what are they all doing?
Dying, Jim, like everybody else.
There you are! Have a Zombie, Smith?
Oh, hey Dr. Barnes.
Yeah, maybe this will help.
Certainly, Why not, there’s a whole case of it out there. I think it might be a good idea to turn that radio on. How much longer?
Vehicles are being stopped and turned back at army control points. Stay where you are: do not attempt to travel!
Yes, you’re right, Dr. Barnes, we’d better learn from media while we can. How much longer can services like radio, television, and transportation go on?
Sure, I guess you are no safer in one place than another: after all, the plague is everywhere.
I’ll try to raise some news somewhere else, maybe my cellphone.
…The United States and by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a bulletin just handed to me. Johns Hopkins states that Dr. Theodore Von Zwickler who had announced near success in identifying the cause of the plague has just died. But unfortunately Dr. Zwickler left no notes on his work.
What’s happened to the lights?
A power failure. I guess it was bound to happen soon. There’s a flashlight in that desk drawer.
I got it.
There’s a portable radio with batteries in the game room.
Oh let’s leave it for the moment.
Oh yes, the liquor sounds better than the news!
Well in that case, wonder what’s keeping Miss Blake? After all, she said she was coming right back.
Hey, wait a minute, where’s that light coming from?
Looks like a fire.
Maybe we can tell more from the windows.
It’s not one fire, but a thousand fires, down there toward the bay. Berkeley, Oakland, and over in the city.
Why? What started them?
Yes, they’re not waiting for the plague to do the job.
No, and they’re already out in force.
Looters, neighbors, robbers.
Certainly, anyone with a hate or a grievance. It’s started already.
“Poor old Fred,” sighed Lucy, as she watched a smoke ring slowly rise to the ceiling. She and Ricky had just finished their third cup of Irish coffee, emphasis on the Irish,and things were moving at a leisurely pace.
“Poor old Fred,” echoed Ricky, oblivious to the fact that he was, again, repeating what his wife had just said. He had been doing it all morning, to her irritation.
“Well, it isn’t as if he wasn’t a lot older than us…it shouldn’t come as that big of a shock,”snapped Lucy. The friendly feelings produced by the whisky were beginning to wear off. She ground out her cigarette and lit another.
“That would be fine, ‘cept he din’t die of old age.”
“I know he “din’t”— really — can’t you speak proper English? You “din’t” just get off the boat. I just can’t get over it — Fred falling down those basement stairs like that — he knew every inch of this building.”
“Even if he din–PARDON ME–DIDN’T–take care of every inch of it,” murmured Ricky scratching a flurry of paint flakes loose from a place near the window. Looking down on him from the ceiling were several large, brown stains. They served as reminders of how wet spring weather and a landlord’s scrimping on roof maintenance could add color to a room.
“Ricky, don’t speak ill of the dead!,” hissed Lucy, as if she was afraid it was Fred’s spirit, and not tobacco smoke, floating above their heads. “He’s only been gone three weeks. So he wasn’t perfect and didn’t keep the building up the way he should have. So he was miserly where money was concerned, whether it was for repairs or for Ethel — he hardly ever let her get a new hat or dress. She had to fight him for the money to get her hair done, even though the building was in her name and she did most of the work! I don’t know how she put up with him for all those years…”
“Poor ol’ Fred,” repeated Ricky mournfully as he stared out the window. He wasn’t listening. Again. Lucy stuck her tongue out at his back.
“I think I’ll go give Ethel a call and see how she’s holding up.”
As soon as Lucy left, Ricky regained conciousness. He furiously ground his cigarette to bits. Finally some time alone. And some quiet. Two things he was constantly seeking and rarely found in his life with Lucy.
Poor old Fred — Ha! That’s a good one! That old ham — always pesterin’ me for a part in my show — thinkin’ people would still get a kick out of his stale, third-rate, vaudeville routines. A real flint-skin — he din’t fix a thin’ in this broken-down, rat-trap unless it was an emergency. And all of that money I “loaned” him! Like I had a choice, when it’s winter and he’s controllin’ the heat! Never saw THAT money again. Always puttin’ me off when I brought it up, sayin’ he couldn’t get his hands on it now, but he’d have it for me soon, then changin’ the subject.
I wonder what he wanted it for. Gambling probably.
Ricky had come across some racing forms when he’d gone to the basement to get Fred for a card game. The basement (and the roof when the weather was good) was Fred’s not-so-secret hideout, and Ricky knew he spent a large part of each day there with his tip sheet and forms, his radio and a bottle, ducking work and his wife, dreaming of hitting it big.
And eavesdropping. Fred had told him he had a pretty good thing going: he found he could (plainly) hear his tenants through the furnace pipe whenever the furnace wasn’t on. Seeing Ricky’s shocked face, Fred had hurried to defend himself:
“It’s just smart business Rick! A landlord always has to be a step ahead of his tenants. He has to know who’s planning to skip out before the end of the month; who’s gonna try to hand you what hard-luck story, instead of cash. Ethel may fall for their stories, but not me, brother. You don’t get ahead in this business by being a pushover.”
Then he’d wiped off his bottle with his sleeve and offered Ricky what was left, which, declined, Fred finished off in one loud gulp, followed by an even louder burp. As he wiped his mouth on his other sleeve, he chuckled and began talking, almost to himself:
“Yep, a landlord has to know every trick in the book…a master key helps…but this clues you in to things you’d miss, a lot of things…”
Then he’d roused himself (from his reverie) and painfully clapped Ricky on the back.
“And Rick, old boy! You wouldn’t believe the goings-on!
It’s better than television! It’s right up there with goin’ to the track and winning a bundle!”
Then he said that the h’actin’ bug had been bitin’ him again an’ maybe I could “find” a part for him–better yet, why not plan a bunch of shows aroun’ him and his vaudeville bits,ay-yi-yi! Din’t seem to care if the club folded–an’ when I told him, sorry ol’ man but no, he said no, HE was sorry but he would have to tell Lucy ’bout Valerie.
Ricky pressed his forehead against the window and listened to the pigeons cooing on the ledge.
Ah, Valerie! Complete opposite from Lucy — quiet, almost shy. He smiled thinking of the peaceful hours they’d shared and winced as he compared them to the shrill voice, the quarrels, the questions. Where had he been? Why was he so late and why didn’t he call? Why can’t I be in the show, Ricky?
He poured another drink, minus the coffee this time, and lifted his glass. Sorry ol’ man, but I like to eat my cake and have it too. An’ you thought you were goin’ to put a stop to that…
Lucy slammed the receiver down on another busy signal.
Drat–will you look at that nail? A perfectly manicured, blood-red polished nail had torn, threatening her nylons.
Honestly–there’s so much”upkeep” to keep up with, Lucy thought, filing the nail smooth. That done, she sat down at her vanity and began to brush her naturally curly, naturally red hair. (She divided the recommended hundred strokes throughout the day.) She glanced sideways at the bedroom door, remembered it was locked and parted the mass of curls covering her forehead. Brown and silver roots were now visible in what had been uniformly, if artificially, red. Darn it! It seems like I was just at Henri’s! I’ll have to see if he can fit me in for a touch-up. I can’t afford to look less than perfect with all the glamorous dancers Ricky works with.
Lucy eyed herself critically. She was paler than usual and her makeup couldn’t completely hide the circles under her eyes. She hadn’t been sleeping well. For the last several months, Ricky had been keeping more late nights. Much later. He used to come home directly from the club. He used to bring her flowers for no other reason than that he thought she might enjoy them. There were a lot of things he used to do. Now, a couple of nights a week he’d get in at dawn and tiptoe around, trying not to wake her. Fat chance of that; she’d been listening for him and only pretended sleep on hearing his key in the door.
One day after discussing her suspicions with Ethel, she’d run into Fred coming up from the basement where he claimed he’d been working on the furnace. He said he hoped she and Ethel weren’t too sore about the late nights he and Rick had been keeping lately. They’d been taking in some late fights, with drinks afterwards, and started up their old poker sessions again. One of the boys had it pretty rough right now and they were just trying to be pals.
Now that Fred was gone, Lucy thought Ricky would keep more regular hours, but he stayed out just as late as before. Unasked, Ricky said that he and the”boys” were now keeping the poker games going in Fred’s honor and that he didn’t know what he would do without them.
At first, Lucy felt relieved. It was a perfectly reasonable explanation but she couldn’t help wondering if it was the real one. Was Ricky running around on her? With one of those big-eyed dancers with the twenty-three inch waists? She looked at her waist. It seemed enormous–surely it wasn’t THAT big. Add “diet” to the list of things I need to do, she wrote down mentally. And where on earth did all these wrinkles come from? With her forehead free of curls for the moment, the lines stood out plainly. There weren’t that many yesterday. She’d had plenty of chances to see those dancers up close–everything about them was taut and smooth. Even their foreheads.
Lucy furiously brushed and rearranged her hair, dabbed on some rouge and re-did her lips, admiring the crimson impression they made when she blotted them. That’s better. She stood up, smoothed her dress and checked her front and rear views. If I ever found out that Ricky was cheating on me and that someone was covering for him … the thought brought more color to her face than rouge ever could.
From the Captivating app on Android, and the web app CaptivatedChat.com
Stella, this is Lois, what do you mean one of my scary stories for kids? This is big news: that heart thing’s still growing!
Hello, rewrite? Give me Regan, fast! Mr. Regan, this is Lois. Listen, it is still growing! No, it’s the truth, the corridor’s choked with living, crawling flesh. No, no, no! I’m not drunk; I’m telling you the truth! That little piece of flesh they grew in the lab? Now it’s jamming that building, all inside the space of an hour!
You’ve got to believe me! It’s the greatest news story of the generation, and here you argue with me! I tell you, it’s gospel! You’ve got to believe me! The only hope is to burn the building to the ground!
It doesn’t matter that I am just a stringer and still in high school. I am a reporter! Experts say burn it to the ground, I tell you!
Take it easy! OK, send over a cop! What don’t you understand? For some reason I cannot even imagine, it’ll be twice the size it is now long before they get here! It will break open the building.
[Minutes later] Horror began
Colleagues, it was in my Institute this horror began. If you give me a chance, perhaps I can stop it! Yes, what is your question doctor?
Tell us first what that monster really is!
Yes, I will! It’s a great, ever-growing, mass of flesh! I tell you, that mass of flesh was a chicken heart we kept alive, which for some reason is undergoing constant, rapidly accelerating growth! With every passing hour, its growth is doubling! Do you know what that means?
If it is now one square block in size, within 30 hours that cannibal flesh will have increased in size to one square block to the 30th power; in 30 hours every inch of this whole city will be crushed under that moving flesh; within 60 hours it will have covered the entire state; within two weeks, the entire United States! You asked for the National Guard? I say call up the entire military for active! Scary stories for kids
[background broadcast from two blocks away]
All ready, troopers? All hoses will now flood that thing with water from all angles! On!
What good is water? I told them the only hope is artillery!
All national guardsmen, report to your armories!
Battery in position sir!
Yes, but it’s useless.
Yes, it has grown too large, and it grows too quickly! The flesh is already engulfing the guns; they came too late!
You all right, Lois? I sure am glad I located you! I stalled as long as I could. Another ten minutes we couldn’t take you off that blasted protoplasm, or whatever it is!
It must stop growing! See how the protoplasmic gray edges jump away. The government must send bombers. Poison gas! Oh, listen to me! If you remember, only a handful of days ago you asked me my prophecy of the end of the earth.
A lot has happened since then!
You remember my answer, my prophecy: cessation of rotation.
Mighty big sounding astronomical theory, but now this is reality! My editor still says it is just more of my scary stories for kids.
Lois, the end has come for humanity, not in the red of atomic fission, not in the glory of interstellar combustion, but in a chicken growth experiment.
No, no, we won’t die! We can’t die! We’ll find a way to fight this! Ready to give up
I am ready to give up, Lois. Maybe it’s useless to fight it!
You can’t just quit! You are the expert on this growth experiment!
Wasn’t there anything that seemed to inhibit it’s expansion in the laboratory?
It’s like we have to fight something from another world!
Perhaps that’s the way to kill it! Professor, have you ever read H.G. Wells’ book The War of the Worlds?
I see where you’re going with this. It was the pathogens, our earth’s microscopic germs, that destroyed the invaders in that story.
Yes, Lois, perhaps the chicken flesh might die from exposure to something like a bird flu virus or a bacteria!
We must try it! If it works, it will just prove what I always tell my students. You must get involved, for it is your world that needs to be saved, not the exclusive property of some experts or the powers that be. As Lois just demonstrated, you must never surrender your right to save your world!
The dead do talk, Sam. They’re all around you, but you won’t listen to them.
You’re mad as a March hare!
A match for you, then. Speaking of matches, take one out, strike it. Beautiful flame, isn’t it?
So? If I throw it away, it’s horrible: it may cost me my life.
Don’t worry, be happy!
You know you ought to be just about the happiest guy in the world: great grades, a fine career ahead, money, now Barbara.
Yeah, I know.
She’s the loveliest girl in town.
In the world Sam, in the world.
My fireplace agrees with you, Art.
So who’s to disagree? Therefore, let’s Talk more about my idea.
When are you going to grow up! I don’t mind you risking your own neck, but think of Barbara. What does GQ say about a wedding in white tie and bandages?
Well, fires have always fascinated me.
That doesn’t mean we have to jeopardize our lives chasing them all the freakin’ time.
Maybe it does seem odd, chasing fires. Look though, Sam, don’t flames get to you?
What do you mean?
Look in your fireplace; look at those flames, orange and red, like small living things.
We need to change the topic!
What’s the matter, Sam, did I scare you?
No, you were talking like an idiot! Living things?
Was I? I said that flames seem alive; others have said that. Earlier generations. They worshipped flame as a living thing, a god-like thing.
Artie Nicolas, are you out of your freakin’ mind!
I’m talking facts!
That’s lame! Contrary to your statement, fire is not a living thing.
How can you, or I, or anyone else, say that it isn’t alive? How do we know that it isn’t?
Because it isn’t intelligent, there is no evidence of intelligence.
No? Do you know the definition of life? It is a living thing, moving about; it not only moves by itself but it feeds by itself!
Big deal. So what?
When a man chokes to death, why does he die?
Because, well, because his air supply is cut off.
Exactly! That’s just how you kill a flame, by cutting the air supply. I tell you, I’ve sat for hours watching flames. Flame is a living, breathing, entity.
Yeah? You’re talking out of your head! Come on, let’s meet up, and I’ll buy you a drink.
Wait, Sam, there’s something I want to read to you, a book I just found. Spirits?
While you’re getting it, do you mind if I throw another piece of wood on this living entity of mine? It’s getting chilly in here.
I have the book, listen. But first let me say, it tells of a race of fire worshippers who lived in medieval times, people who believed that every flame held its own godlike being.
I still want to go to Joe’s Bar!
In here is a prayer these fire worshippers used to call up the spirit of the flame!
Wait a minute, Artie! They did what with that prayer?
Conjured up the flame spirit, so that they could see it.
You mean they’d recite some hocus-pocus and have something pop out at them?
Yes, but I need to find just how to read this prayer to the fire in a fireplace, say! If I knew just what inflections to use, I would be able to see the spirit of the flame, too, Sam. Joking
In other words, you think it exists?
Maybe, I’m not sure.
Good thing you’re not sure, dude. Or I’d call for a straitjacket! Come on, buddy. Let’s bust out of our cabins and go meet for a drink someplace!
No thanks, Sam, I’m not going.
Oh, okay. Go ahead, sit at home and stew, but don’t let anyonewho isn’t a friend of yours hear all that stuff about flame spirits or you’re gonna find yourself in front of a looney doctor.
Don’t deny the possibility.
But all this nonsense, you were just kidding me along, right!
What? Yeah, yeah, that’s right! LOL!
And you wanna marry my sister!
That’s so. Well, you know how it is.
But a joke’s a joke, huh?
Of course, ha, ha. So I’ll be in touch, bud.
Later, man! “Beautiful flame,” huh? LOL!
…and I humbly give unto thee this sacrifice. A sacrifice? But what? Barbara’s ring! I have it here. Oh yeah, and I humbly give unto thee this sacrifice, Great Most High! I beseech thee to reveal unto me the life within life, the heart of life that beats within the heart of fire, as I repeat the sacred words…”
Sylvia stretched and wriggled her toes, still pleasantly aware of wearing slippers at ten a.m. Retirement agreed with her. Being home agreed with her. She took another sip of coffee and looked happily around the kitchen. After years of re-modeling and re-decorating, everything was exactly the way she wanted it.
Recalling the junk she had thrown away, she wished every irritation could be disposed of as easily. She had in mind a particularly nettlesome one: her neighbor Agnes Braxton.
Agnes was an annoying woman who always scheduled noisy outdoor projects for the break of day, often on Saturdays and, almost psychically, on her neighbor’s days off. Also, she conducted one sprawling, ongoing garage sale from April to December.
Agnes would wrap up business early in the evenings so she could get what she dubbed her “beauty sleep.” Her calls complaining about Harry’s barking, other sounds and bright lights could be expected shortly after eight o’clock.
For once Agnes’ early-to-bed habit was about to benefit, rather than disturb, her neighbor.
Walking Harry, a wire-haired terrier, Sylvia checked to see if Agnes’s lights were out. All but one. She always left the light in the bathroom turned on “so burglars will think someone’s awake.”
By eleven-thirty, the surrounding homes would be dark, despite Mrs. Braxton’s complaints of late-night parties. At midnight, Sylvia slipped out her freshly oiled side door, crept close along her juniper bushes, then darted across her neighbor’s yard and onto the front porch. Patches of ice still remained there.
Sylvia planned to turn the woman’s front porch into a skating rink and cause one of those accidents she had read about so often. She laid a section of her garden soaker-hose over the porch, supported by a pair of stone gnomes. She turned it on.
Sylvia had found it all too easy to get used to sleeping late again. She had to force herself to open her eyes and keep them open. Ten-thirty! She jumped out of bed and tore open her curtains. Nothing had happened. The street was deserted.
She pulled on sweats, attached Harry to his leash, and strolled out. To Harry’s dismay, Sylvia stopped abruptly. Everything was melting — it must be at least forty degrees!
She had called for the latest forecast before setting her plan in motion. The robust voice had advised her to expect “flurries tonight and much colder temperatures toward morning, well-below freezing, and wind chills in the single digits.
“What did we ever do to deserve such great weather?,” asked Mrs. Darby brightly as she surveyed the world from her driveway.
“Just lucky I guess.”
Returning home, Sylvia noticed the light flashing on her answering machine. So she pressed the message button releasing a booming voice.
“Hello? Are you there? (A large pause. . .I know you’re there, pick up the phone!) This is Connie Braxton. (Another pause. . .now that you know it’s me, I’m sure you’ll want to pick up.) Aunt Agnes had an accident. . .she fell down the escalator at the mall. They took her away in an ambulance! It was just a bad sprained leg and some deep bruises. Of course, she’ll be on crutches and painkillers for a while. I know you’ll want to get her mail and help her out. Aunt Agnes said you wouldn’t mind, with all the time you have on your hands now. Bye-bye.”
She watched the light blink, dumbly. Her plan ruined, only to be drafted to help Agnes. Pushiness thy name is Braxton! She considered her next move.
Sylvia’s mind drifted back to last summer:
“What are you up to Syl? Pulling weeds I hope. I was wondering why I have so many dandelions this year. . .must’ve come from your yard. While you’re at it, yank those tiger lilies—they’re over for the year—I wish you’d dig ’em up and plant something nice.
Now that the pain was lessening, Sylvia could think. Press your advantage; she’ll be more wobbly than ever; any accident now will be put down to her injury.
Many of the next-door neighbors held each other’s key as insurance against being locked out; Sylvia had Agnes Braxton’s.
The rusty black box sporting the name BRAXTON in curling plastic letters was stuffed with catalogs, bills and ads. No letters.
She remembered the times Agnes had said she was so sorry but the mail carrier must have made a mistake. She’d already opened it before realizing it wasn’t addressed to her.
Now Sylvia let herself in, dropped the mail on a dusty entry table and went into the kitchen.
Dirty coffee cups smeared with lipstick dotted the counter and table. Smatters of dried egg and bits of burnt toast decorated dishes stacked in the sink.
In the midst of the clutter, four throw-rugs caught her attention. The worn chenille had not been attractive when new. She tested one rug with her foot. It immediately bunched and slid forward. Sylvia knew just what would set things in motion: the silicone spray she used to lubricate her treadmill.
But how could she get Agnes to come out here? She needed her to come tearing into the room, not paying attention to what she was doing. She would not be moving around much, let alone racing into rooms.
Something would have to demand her attention. Something impossible to ignore. The smoke detector!
She had seen one in the kitchen. It didn’t take much to set these older models off: dust, a wisp of smoke or steam from the stove. The ear-splitting noise had led many people to remove the batteries, including Mrs. Braxton.
Sylvia wondered whether she had the right batteries at home. Her gaze wandered to an empty humidifier. Its mist could set off the smoke detector. The rugs could be arranged just so. Hurriedly, she straightened the room. She refilled the humidifier and then darted home, undetected.
She gave Harry food and water and retrieved the silicone spray and some thin latex gloves. Next she found a fresh battery. She shoved everything in her coat pockets and popped next door.
Sylvia took a stepladder from the laundry room. She climbed up, attached the battery and pressed a button. The shrieking was immediate. After resetting the detector, she returned the ladder and took out the silicone. She sprayed the linoleum and rearranged the rugs in the path to the detector.
While admiring her handiwork, she heard a car pull up. From the peephole, she watched Connie attempt to help her aunt out of the car. Sylvia bounded outside. “Sorry to hear about your accident, Agnes. How do you feel?”
“How d’ja think I feel? Damn pills. Want to go to bed.”
Connie rolled her eyes and muttered: “She’s a load.”
“Stop griping and let’s go. I’m cold,” snapped Agnes.
Connie looked as though she might use what energy she had left to push her aunt onto the driveway before peeling out.
“I’ll get her inside,” Sylvia said quickly. She offered a shoulder and arm to Mrs. Braxton who leaned on them heavily.
Connie fished around in her aunt’s bag for her medicine with no success until, exasperated, she took it to the more brightly lit bathroom and dumped it on the counter.
“It says `take one pill every four hours,’” yelled Connie. “I’ll get some water.”
“If that doctor thinks I’m wakin’ up just to take his damn pills,” said Agnes.
Connie returned with the water and medicine.
“I heard that. Just take this pill and I’ll set your alarm for four hours. You must follow the doctor’s instructions,” said Connie.
“I can cope,” mumbled Agnes. “Gonna sleep late. I’ll call when I want you.”
“I’d be glad to check on her tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks Sylvia, but I have some early errands to run anyway.”
“Quit gabbing and go! I’m tired!”
They laughed their way to the front door as Connie regaled her with a less-than-flattering anecdote about Aunt Agnes.
“I’ll lock up.”
Sylvia waved as Connie sped away. Then, she turned off all but the kitchen light and glanced at the clock. The second hand lurched between ceramic bunches of now-gray grapes. Her gloved hand switched on the humidifier, pointed the nozzle at the smoke detector and adjusted the mist to high. She turned off the light and locked the door behind her.
Sylvia made coffee and waited. She wasn’t sure how long it would take. She decided she’d return in two hours. If her plan failed and Mrs. Braxton was still alive, she’d say she’d come to check on her. If her plan succeeded, everything would have to be cleaned up and put back. Nothing must seem out of place.
She tried to read but couldn’t concentrate. The coffee wasn’t helping her nerves. How could she have thought she’d need it to stay awake? She began to pace and, with increasing frequency, to stare out her bedroom window at Mrs. Braxton’s house.
The house sat as quiet and dark as any other on the street. An hour crept to an end. Sylvia couldn’t stand it any longer. She would get Harry and take a closer look from outside. Then “hearing something,” and being the good and concerned neighbor she was, she’d go in to check on Mrs. Braxton.
Harry strained at his leash, determined to go everywhere, smell everything and claim new territory. Sylvia struck a pose of annoyance mixed with boredom at being dragged out of bed at this hour by her dog, in case any wayward neighbor might be driving by or looking out a window on the way to get an antacid. She was anything but bored, however, and all her senses were primed for any clue as to what was happening next door. But it was no use. The only one getting anything out of this expedition was Harry. She couldn’t detect anything from the front.
Harry didn’t need any prodding to redirect his operations to the back of the house.
The kitchen window shouldn’t be dark. She should have turned on the light when she went to disconnect the alarm. So what is going on?
Sylvia took Harry home, then returned and let herself in through the back door. The only sound she heard was the muffled whooshing of the furnace. From the kitchen doorway, she saw the steady stream of mist continue its climb towards the smoke detector. On the floor lay an overturned stepladder and a crumpled heap of flannel that had once been Mrs. Braxton.
It had worked. Finally.
“I wondered when you’d get here,” said a familiar voice from the darkened living room.
Sylvia jumped. Trying to keep her voice calm, she said, “I didn’t know you were here, Connie…I was out walking Harry and thought I heard a noise so I came over…”
“To check on my poor aunt,” Connie finished. “That’s very neighborly of you. I think that’s the main reason I’m going to enjoy living here. . .the neighborliness.”
“My aunt objected to relatives living too nearby, but that obstacle has been removed…thanks to you.”
“Me? I was just coming by to check on her and see about the noise…”
“Oh yes, the noise,” said Connie as she shifted her position on the couch and drew her aunt’s afghan closer around her. “Do you think it might have come from something like this?”
Connie held up something small that Sylvia had trouble making out. She had a sinking feeling she knew what it was.
“In case your eyes haven’t adjusted, it’s the battery you installed in the smoke detector tonight.”
“Don’t interrupt,” snapped Connie. “She always used to interrupt: another of my aunt’s lovable traits. The smoke detector used to go off while she was cooking, so she disabled it years ago. Said she’d rather take her chances. But when I came by to check on her, it was blaring away.
I found her on the floor. Thought she must’ve lost her balance, but when I got out the stepladder to stop the noise, I slipped on one of those damn throw rugs I’ve been asking her to get rid of for years and almost broke my neck.”
Sylvia, who was periodically wiping her sweaty hands on her jacket and eyeing the nearest door, managed an “oh?”
“When I went to put the rug back, I slipped again and noticed the floor there was slick. I checked under the other rugs and found the same thing. I assume that’s your doing, also? It sure isn’t from cleaning. My aunt was never one for cleanliness…I don’t know the last time she mopped the linoleum. A lot will have to be done to bring this place up to my standards.”
Sylvia could only nod as though hypnotized. Connie seemed to know everything; what was the point of denying it?
“I don’t see any reason why you should have to spend your retirement in prison…if you do as I say.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Sylvia eased herself carefully onto her couch, groaning as she did so. She was stiff and sore all over, as if she’d been in a gardening marathon. She was engaged in a type of marathon, though it involved nothing as enjoyable as gardening. Every day now, beginning at dawn, she started a long-distance relay race whose seemingly unreachable goal was to carry out Connie’s wishes.
Connie’s wishes, her orders, were relentless and exacting. From morning til night Sylvia had to divide her time between the moderate sprucing up of Connie’s soon-to-be previous residence and the extensive, cleaning, repainting and redecorating required to make Agnes Braxton’s home habitable.
It was just past nine now; pleased with her progress, Connie had let her knock off early.
A real treat, thought Sylvia, bitterly sipping her cup of decaf. She gathered a week’s worth of unread newspapers toward her and began skimming them, starting with the oldest. In a matter of minutes she tossed it aside. The news was stale. The radio she listened to while working kept her abreast of major stories. She was just looking for items of local interest: weddings, divorces, births, deaths. A couple more, then bed. (Now that mornings were so ridiculously early, bedtime had to be too.)
Sylvia skimmed several more papers and yawned. Responding to the noise, Harry rearranged himself on the floor but still slept with his back to her, silently protesting all the recent departures from his routine.
Sylvia was about to toss the last paper on the pile when a small item caught her eye: “Accidental overdose causes death.”
She read on: “The coroner’s jury, Wednesday, ruled an accidental overdose was the cause of death of Agnes Braxton, age 76. Braxton was found dead in her home at 64 Laurel Lane, February 23. Autopsy results indicated an overdose of a painkiller recently prescribed for injuries received in a fall. Interviews with relatives led to the verdict of accidental overdose.”
Sylvia was suddenly wide awake. An overdose killed her, not the fall. She read it again. There was no mention of injuries from a fall as the cause, or even a contributing cause, of death.
She took another gulp of coffee. Sylvia tried to recall exactly what happened when they were getting Agnes ready for bed. She remembered Connie saying something about how often the doctor wanted her to take the pills, then Agnes arguing, Connie bringing in the medicine and the water to take it with…
“Interviews with relatives led to the verdict…”
Connie had been Agnes Braxton’s only living relative. And she had handled the medicine. And the water. Plus she was there waiting for Sylvia that night. And wasn’t Connie with Agnes when she had that fall on the escalator?
Sylvia jumped up and began to do a little jig, until her sore muscles reminded her who was boss. She was free!
Tomorrow she would sleep in. Have a big breakfast. Read the morning paper at an unhurried pace. Not dress until noon. When Connie called, threatening her for being late, Sylvia would inform her she had recently caught up on her reading and found it most interesting. So would her attorney if ever anything should happen to her.
Sylvia smiled and (painfully) bent down to pat Harry before turning out the light.
So, Connie Braxton was going to be living next door.
For the most wild, yet homely, narrative that I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not — and very surely do I not dream.
But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.
In their consequences, these events have terrified—have tortured—have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but horror—to many they will seem less terrible than barroques.
Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place. Some intellect may prove more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own. It may perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing unusual. It may perceive just an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions.
I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with me, and in my manhood I derived from it a principal source of pleasure.
To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute that goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.
I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.
This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. My wife, at heart superstitious, frequently recited the ancient popular myth that all black cats are witches in disguise.
Not that she was ever serious upon this point. I mention the matter at all mainly because I happen, just now, to remember it.
Pluto—this was the cat’s name—was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me through the streets.
Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years; during that time, my general temperament and character suffered. Through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance, it had (I blush to confess it) radically declined. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others.
I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence.
My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him. In contrast I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog. But my disease grew upon me — for what disease is like Alcohol! At length even Pluto, now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish — began to experience the effects of my ill temper.
One night, returning home much intoxicated, from one of my haunts about town, I fancied the cat avoided my presence. I seized him; when, in his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fibre of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and fully intended to deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! But the beast screeched and wriggled free while receiving only a surface wound! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity I attempted.
When reason returned with the morning—when I had slept off the fumes of the night’s debauch—I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the intended crime; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.
In the meantime the cat soon recovered. The wound above the eye presented, it is true, a frightful appearance for days, but he no longer appeared to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach.
I had so much of my old heart left, as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man.
Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?
This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to be my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only—that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.
One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;—hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;—hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence;—I hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I roused from sleep at the cry of fire. The curtains of my bed were in flames. The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.
When I first beheld this apparition—for I could scarcely regard it as less—my wonder and my terror were extreme. But at length reflection came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd; someone must have cut the animal from the tree and thrown it through an open window, into my chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which plaster, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then sketched in the portrait.
I am above seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts—and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls, with one exception, had fallen in.
This exception was in a compartment wall, not very thick, that stood about the middle of the house, and against which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here, in great measure, resisted the action of the fire—a fact which I attributed to its having been recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention. The words “strange!” “singular!” and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The artist lent this impression with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal’s neck.
Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid myself of the phantasm of the cat; and, during this period, there came back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse. I went so far as to regret the loss of the animal, and to look about me for another. I sought for a replacement among the vile haunts I now habitually frequented, searching out another cat of similar appearance.
One night as I sat, half stupefied, in a den of more than infamy, my attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin, or of rum, which constituted the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I approached it, and touched it with my hand.
It was a black cat — very large — fully as large as Pluto, and resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast. Upon my touching him, he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against my hand, and appeared delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of the landlord; but this person made no claim to it—knew nothing of it—had never seen it before.
I continued my caresses, and, when I prepared to go home, the animal evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted it to do so; occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with my wife.
For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but—I know not how or why it was—its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided the creature; a certain sense of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed of cruelty, preventing me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks, strike, or otherwise violently ill use it; but gradually—very gradually—I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its odious presence, as from the breath of a pestilence.
What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after I brought it home, that, like Pluto, it also had been injured above of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures.
With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly—let me confess it at once—by absolute dread of the beast.
This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil—and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own—yes, even in this felon’s cell, I am almost ashamed to own—that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimaeras it would be possible to conceive.
My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees—degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my reason struggled to reject as fanciful—it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name—and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared—it was now, I say, the image of a hideous—of a ghastly thing—of the GALLOWS!—oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime—of Agony and of Death!
And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast —whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed—a brute beast to work out for me—for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God—so much of insufferable woe! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone, and in the latter I started hourly from dreams of unutterable fear to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight—an incarnate nightmare that I had no power to shake off—incumbent eternally upon my heart!
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates—the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas, was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One day she accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat followed me down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing me headlong, exasperated me to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting, in my wrath, the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at the animal which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal had it descended as I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded, by the interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot, without a groan.
This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the neighbors.
Many projects entered my mind. At one period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments, and destroying them by fire. At another, I resolved to dig a grave for it in the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the well in the yard—about packing it in a box, as if merchandise, with the usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house. Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either of these. I vowed to wall it up in the cellar—as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.
For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace, that had been filled up, and made to resemble the red of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect any thing suspicious. And in this calculation I was not deceived.
By means of a crow-bar I easily dislodged the bricks, and, having carefully deposited the body against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while, with little trouble, I re-laid the whole structure as it originally stood. Having procured mortar, sand, and hair, with every possible precaution, I prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this I very carefully went over the new brickwork.
When I had finished, I felt satisfied that all was right. The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish on the floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around triumphantly, and said to myself: “Here at least, then, my labor has not been in vain.”
My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so much wretchedness; for I had, at length, firmly resolved to put it to death. Had I been able to meet with it, at the moment, there could have been no doubt of its fate; but it appeared that the crafty animal had been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger, and forebore to present itself in my present mood. It is impossible to describe, or to imagine, the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the detested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not make its appearance during the night; and thus for one night at least, since its introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul!
The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not. Once again I breathed as a freeman. The monster, in terror, had fled the premises forever! I should behold it no more! My happiness was supreme! The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries had been made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had been instituted—but of course nothing was to be discovered. I looked upon my future felicity as secured.
Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever.
“Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this—this is a very well-constructed house.” (In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.)—“I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These walls—are you going, gentlemen?—these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tomb!—by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman—a howl—a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.
Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily.
The officers bade me accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner unexplored. At length, for the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.
The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb!