The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. II: In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
Part 4 out of 4
"We?--why--why," Helberson stammered, losing his self-possession
utterly, "we had nothing to do with it."
"Didn't I say you were Drs. Hell-born and Sharper?" inquired the man,
"My name is Helberson, yes; and this gentleman is Mr. Harper," replied
the former, reassured by the laugh. "But we are not physicians now; we
are--well, hang it, old man, we are gamblers."
And that was the truth.
"A very good profession--very good, indeed; and, by the way, I hope
Sharper here paid over Jarette's money like an honest stakeholder. A
very good and honorable profession," he repeated, thoughtfully, moving
carelessly away; "but I stick to the old one. I am High Supreme Medical
Officer of the Bloomingdale Asylum; it is my duty to cure the
THE MAN AND THE SNAKE
It is of veritabyll report, and attested of so many that there be nowe
of wyse and learned none to gaynsaye it, that y'e serpente hys eye
hath a magnetick propertie that whosoe falleth into its svasion is
drawn forwards in despyte of his wille, and perisheth miserabyll by
y'e creature hys byte.
Stretched at ease upon a sofa, in gown and slippers, Harker Brayton
smiled as he read the foregoing sentence in old Morryster's _Marvells of
Science._ "The only marvel in the matter," he said to himself, "is that
the wise and learned in Morryster's day should have believed such
nonsense as is rejected by most of even the ignorant in ours." A train
of reflection followed--for Brayton was a man of thought--and he
unconsciously lowered his book without altering the direction of his
eyes. As soon as the volume had gone below the line of sight, something
in an obscure corner of the room recalled his attention to his
surroundings. What he saw, in the shadow under his bed, was two small
points of light, apparently about an inch apart. They might have been
reflections of the gas jet above him, in metal nail heads; he gave them
but little thought and resumed his reading. A moment later something--
some impulse which it did not occur to him to analyze--impelled him to
lower the book again and seek for what he saw before. The points of
light were still there. They seemed to have become brighter than before,
shining with a greenish lustre that he had not at first observed. He
thought, too, that they might have moved a trifle--were somewhat nearer.
They were still too much in shadow, however, to reveal their nature and
origin to an indolent attention, and again he resumed his reading.
Suddenly something in the text suggested a thought that made him start
and drop the book for the third time to the side of the sofa, whence,
escaping from his hand, it fell sprawling to the floor, back upward.
Brayton, half-risen, was staring intently into the obscurity beneath the
bed, where the points of light shone with, it seemed to him, an added
fire. His attention was now fully aroused, his gaze eager and
imperative. It disclosed, almost directly under the foot-rail of the
bed, the coils of a large serpent--the points of light were its eyes!
Its horrible head, thrust flatly forth from the innermost coil and
resting upon the outermost, was directed straight toward him, the
definition of the wide, brutal jaw and the idiot-like forehead serving
to show the direction of its malevolent gaze. The eyes were no longer
merely luminous points; they looked into his own with a meaning, a
A snake in a bedroom of a modern city dwelling of the better sort is,
happily, not so common a phenomenon as to make explanation altogether
needless. Harker Brayton, a bachelor of thirty-five, a scholar, idler
and something of an athlete, rich, popular and of sound health, had
returned to San Francisco from all manner of remote and unfamiliar
countries. His tastes, always a trifle luxurious, had taken on an added
exuberance from long privation; and the resources of even the Castle
Hotel being inadequate to their perfect gratification, he had gladly
accepted the hospitality of his friend, Dr. Druring, the distinguished
scientist. Dr. Druring's house, a large, old-fashioned one in what is
now an obscure quarter of the city, had an outer and visible aspect of
proud reserve. It plainly would not associate with the contiguous
elements of its altered environment, and appeared to have developed some
of the eccentricities which come of isolation. One of these was a
"wing," conspicuously irrelevant in point of architecture, and no less
rebellious in matter of purpose; for it was a combination of laboratory,
menagerie and museum. It was here that the doctor indulged the
scientific side of his nature in the study of such forms of animal life
as engaged his interest and comforted his taste--which, it must be
confessed, ran rather to the lower types. For one of the higher nimbly
and sweetly to recommend itself unto his gentle senses it had at least
to retain certain rudimentary characteristics allying it to such
"dragons of the prime" as toads and snakes. His scientific sympathies
were distinctly reptilian; he loved nature's vulgarians and described
himself as the Zola of zooelogy. His wife and daughters not having the
advantage to share his enlightened curiosity regarding the works and
ways of our ill-starred fellow-creatures, were with needless austerity
excluded from what he called the Snakery and doomed to companionship
with their own kind, though to soften the rigors of their lot he had
permitted them out of his great wealth to outdo the reptiles in the
gorgeousness of their surroundings and to shine with a superior
Architecturally and in point of "furnishing" the Snakery had a severe
simplicity befitting the humble circumstances of its occupants, many of
whom, indeed, could not safely have been intrusted with the liberty that
is necessary to the full enjoyment of luxury, for they had the
troublesome peculiarity of being alive. In their own apartments,
however, they were under as little personal restraint as was compatible
with their protection from the baneful habit of swallowing one another;
and, as Brayton had thoughtfully been apprised, it was more than a
tradition that some of them had at divers times been found in parts of
the premises where it would have embarrassed them to explain their
presence. Despite the Snakery and its uncanny associations--to which,
indeed, he gave little attention--Brayton found life at the Druring
mansion very much to his mind.
Beyond a smart shock of surprise and a shudder of mere loathing Mr.
Brayton was not greatly affected. His first thought was to ring the call
bell and bring a servant; but although the bell cord dangled within easy
reach he made no movement toward it; it had occurred to his mind that
the act might subject him to the suspicion of fear, which he certainly
did not feel. He was more keenly conscious of the incongruous nature of
the situation than affected by its perils; it was revolting, but absurd.
The reptile was of a species with which Brayton was unfamiliar. Its
length he could only conjecture; the body at the largest visible part
seemed about as thick as his forearm. In what way was it dangerous, if
in any way? Was it venomous? Was it a constrictor? His knowledge of
nature's danger signals did not enable him to say; he had never
deciphered the code.
If not dangerous the creature was at least offensive. It was _de trop_--
"matter out of place"--an impertinence. The gem was unworthy of the
setting. Even the barbarous taste of our time and country, which had
loaded the walls of the room with pictures, the floor with furniture and
the furniture with bric-a-brac, had not quite fitted the place for this
bit of the savage life of the jungle. Besides--insupportable thought!--
the exhalations of its breath mingled with the atmosphere which he
himself was breathing.
These thoughts shaped themselves with greater or less definition in
Brayton's mind and begot action. The process is what we call
consideration and decision. It is thus that we are wise and unwise. It
is thus that the withered leaf in an autumn breeze shows greater or less
intelligence than its fellows, falling upon the land or upon the lake.
The secret of human action is an open one: something contracts our
muscles. Does it matter if we give to the preparatory molecular changes
the name of will?
Brayton rose to his feet and prepared to back softly away from the
snake, without disturbing it if possible, and through the door. Men
retire so from the presence of the great, for greatness is power and
power is a menace. He knew that he could walk backward without error.
Should the monster follow, the taste which had plastered the walls with
paintings had consistently supplied a rack of murderous Oriental weapons
from which he could snatch one to suit the occasion. In the mean time
the snake's eyes burned with a more pitiless malevolence than before.
Brayton lifted his right foot free of the floor to step backward. That
moment he felt a strong aversion to doing so.
"I am accounted brave," he thought; "is bravery, then, no more than
pride? Because there are none to witness the shame shall I retreat?"
He was steadying himself with his right hand upon the back of a chair,
his foot suspended.
"Nonsense!" he said aloud; "I am not so great a coward as to fear to
seem to myself afraid."
He lifted the foot a little higher by slightly bending the knee and
thrust it sharply to the floor--an inch in front of the other! He could
not think how that occurred. A trial with the left foot had the same
result; it was again in advance of the right. The hand upon the chair
back was grasping it; the arm was straight, reaching somewhat backward.
One might have said that he was reluctant to lose his hold. The snake's
malignant head was still thrust forth from the inner coil as before, the
neck level. It had not moved, but its eyes were now electric sparks,
radiating an infinity of luminous needles.
The man had an ashy pallor. Again he took a step forward, and another,
partly dragging the chair, which when finally released fell upon the
floor with a crash. The man groaned; the snake made neither sound nor
motion, but its eyes were two dazzling suns. The reptile itself was
wholly concealed by them. They gave off enlarging rings of rich and
vivid colors, which at their greatest expansion successively vanished
like soap-bubbles; they seemed to approach his very face, and anon were
an immeasurable distance away. He heard, somewhere, the continuous
throbbing of a great drum, with desultory bursts of far music,
inconceivably sweet, like the tones of an aeolian harp. He knew it for
the sunrise melody of Memnon's statue, and thought he stood in the
Nileside reeds hearing with exalted sense that immortal anthem through
the silence of the centuries.
The music ceased; rather, it became by insensible degrees the distant
roll of a retreating thunder-storm. A landscape, glittering with sun and
rain, stretched before him, arched with a vivid rainbow framing in its
giant curve a hundred visible cities. In the middle distance a vast
serpent, wearing a crown, reared its head out of its voluminous
convolutions and looked at him with his dead mother's eyes. Suddenly
this enchanting landscape seemed to rise swiftly upward like the drop
scene at a theatre, and vanished in a blank. Something struck him a hard
blow upon the face and breast. He had fallen to the floor; the blood ran
from his broken nose and his bruised lips. For a time he was dazed and
stunned, and lay with closed eyes, his face against the floor. In a few
moments he had recovered, and then knew that this fall, by withdrawing
his eyes, had broken the spell that held him. He felt that now, by
keeping his gaze averted, he would be able to retreat. But the thought
of the serpent within a few feet of his head, yet unseen--perhaps in the
very act of springing upon him and throwing its coils about his throat--
was too horrible! He lifted his head, stared again into those baleful
eyes and was again in bondage.
The snake had not moved and appeared somewhat to have lost its power
upon the imagination; the gorgeous illusions of a few moments before
were not repeated. Beneath that flat and brainless brow its black, beady
eyes simply glittered as at first with an expression unspeakably
malignant. It was as if the creature, assured of its triumph, had
determined to practise no more alluring wiles.
Now ensued a fearful scene. The man, prone upon the floor, within a yard
of his enemy, raised the upper part of his body upon his elbows, his
head thrown back, his legs extended to their full length. His face was
white between its stains of blood; his eyes were strained open to their
uttermost expansion. There was froth upon his lips; it dropped off in
flakes. Strong convulsions ran through his body, making almost
serpentile undulations. He bent himself at the waist, shifting his legs
from side to side. And every movement left him a little nearer to the
snake. He thrust his hands forward to brace himself back, yet constantly
advanced upon his elbows.
Dr. Druring and his wife sat in the library. The scientist was in rare
"I have just obtained by exchange with another collector," he said, "a
splendid specimen of the _ophiophagus_."
"And what may that be?" the lady inquired with a somewhat languid
"Why, bless my soul, what profound ignorance! My dear, a man who
ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek is entitled
to a divorce. The _ophiophagus_ is a snake that eats other snakes."
"I hope it will eat all yours," she said, absently shifting the lamp.
"But how does it get the other snakes? By charming them, I suppose."
"That is just like you, dear," said the doctor, with an affectation of
petulance. "You know how irritating to me is any allusion to that vulgar
superstition about a snake's power of fascination."
The conversation was interrupted by a mighty cry, which rang through the
silent house like the voice of a demon shouting in a tomb! Again and yet
again it sounded, with terrible distinctness. They sprang to their feet,
the man confused, the lady pale and speechless with fright. Almost
before the echoes of the last cry had died away the doctor was out of
the room, springing up the stairs two steps at a time. In the corridor
in front of Brayton's chamber he met some servants who had come from the
upper floor. Together they rushed at the door without knocking. It was
unfastened and gave way. Brayton lay upon his stomach on the floor,
dead. His head and arms were partly concealed under the foot rail of the
bed. They pulled the body away, turning it upon the back. The face was
daubed with blood and froth, the eyes were wide open, staring--a
"Died in a fit," said the scientist, bending his knee and placing his
hand upon the heart. While in that position, he chanced to look under
the bed. "Good God!" he added, "how did this thing get in here?"
He reached under the bed, pulled out the snake and flung it, still
coiled, to the center of the room, whence with a harsh, shuffling sound
it slid across the polished floor till stopped by the wall, where it lay
without motion. It was a stuffed snake; its eyes were two shoe buttons.
A HOLY TERROR
There was an entire lack of interest in the latest arrival at
Hurdy-Gurdy. He was not even christened with the picturesquely
descriptive nick-name which is so frequently a mining camp's word of
welcome to the newcomer. In almost any other camp thereabout this
circumstance would of itself have secured him some such appellation as
"The White-headed Conundrum," or "No Sarvey"--an expression naively
supposed to suggest to quick intelligences the Spanish _quien sabe_. He
came without provoking a ripple of concern upon the social surface of
Hurdy-Gurdy--a place which to the general Californian contempt of men's
personal history superadded a local indifference of its own. The time
was long past when it was of any importance who came there, or if
anybody came. No one was living at Hurdy-Gurdy.
Two years before, the camp had boasted a stirring population of two or
three thousand males and not fewer than a dozen females. A majority of
the former had done a few weeks' earnest work in demonstrating, to the
disgust of the latter, the singularly mendacious character of the person
whose ingenious tales of rich gold deposits had lured them thither--
work, by the way, in which there was as little mental satisfaction as
pecuniary profit; for a bullet from the pistol of a public-spirited
citizen had put that imaginative gentleman beyond the reach of aspersion
on the third day of the camp's existence. Still, his fiction had a
certain foundation in fact, and many had lingered a considerable time in
and about Hurdy-Gurdy, though now all had been long gone.
But they had left ample evidence of their sojourn. From the point where
Injun Creek falls into the Rio San Juan Smith, up along both banks of
the former into the canon whence it emerges, extended a double row of
forlorn shanties that seemed about to fall upon one another's neck to
bewail their desolation; while about an equal number appeared to have
straggled up the slope on either hand and perched themselves upon
commanding eminences, whence they craned forward to get a good view of
the affecting scene. Most of these habitations were emaciated as by
famine to the condition of mere skeletons, about which clung unlovely
tatters of what might have been skin, but was really canvas. The little
valley itself, torn and gashed by pick and shovel, was unhandsome with
long, bending lines of decaying flume resting here and there upon the
summits of sharp ridges, and stilting awkwardly across the intervals
upon unhewn poles. The whole place presented that raw and forbidding
aspect of arrested development which is a new country's substitute for
the solemn grace of ruin wrought by time. Wherever there remained a
patch of the original soil a rank overgrowth of weeds and brambles had
spread upon the scene, and from its dank, unwholesome shades the visitor
curious in such matters might have obtained numberless souvenirs of the
camp's former glory--fellowless boots mantled with green mould and
plethoric of rotting leaves; an occasional old felt hat; desultory
remnants of a flannel shirt; sardine boxes inhumanly mutilated and a
surprising profusion of black bottles distributed with a truly catholic
The man who had now rediscovered Hurdy-Gurdy was evidently not curious
as to its archaeology. Nor, as he looked about him upon the dismal
evidences of wasted work and broken hopes, their dispiriting
significance accentuated by the ironical pomp of a cheap gilding by the
rising sun, did he supplement his sigh of weariness by one of
sensibility. He simply removed from the back of his tired burro a
miner's outfit a trifle larger than the animal itself, picketed that
creature and selecting a hatchet from his kit moved off at once across
the dry bed of Injun Creek to the top of a low, gravelly hill beyond.
Stepping across a prostrate fence of brush and boards he picked up one
of the latter, split it into five parts and sharpened them at one end.
He then began a kind of search, occasionally stooping to examine
something with close attention. At last his patient scrutiny appeared to
be rewarded with success, for he suddenly erected his figure to its full
height, made a gesture of satisfaction, pronounced the word "Scarry" and
at once strode away with long, equal steps, which he counted. Then he
stopped and drove one of his stakes into the earth. He then looked
carefully about him, measured off a number of paces over a singularly
uneven ground and hammered in another. Pacing off twice the distance at
a right angle to his former course he drove down a third, and repeating
the process sank home the fourth, and then a fifth. This he split at the
top and in the cleft inserted an old letter envelope covered with an
intricate system of pencil tracks. In short, he staked off a hill claim
in strict accordance with the local mining laws of Hurdy-Gurdy and put
up the customary notice.
It is necessary to explain that one of the adjuncts to Hurdy-Gurdy--one
to which that metropolis became afterward itself an adjunct--was a
cemetery. In the first week of the camp's existence this had been
thoughtfully laid out by a committee of citizens. The day after had been
signalized by a debate between two members of the committee, with
reference to a more eligible site, and on the third day the necropolis
was inaugurated by a double funeral. As the camp had waned the cemetery
had waxed; and long before the ultimate inhabitant, victorious alike
over the insidious malaria and the forthright revolver, had turned the
tail of his pack-ass upon Injun Creek the outlying settlement had become
a populous if not popular suburb. And now, when the town was fallen into
the sere and yellow leaf of an unlovely senility, the graveyard--though
somewhat marred by time and circumstance, and not altogether exempt from
innovations in grammar and experiments in orthography, to say nothing of
the devastating coyote--answered the humble needs of its denizens with
reasonable completeness. It comprised a generous two acres of ground,
which with commendable thrift but needless care had been selected for
its mineral unworth, contained two or three skeleton trees (one of which
had a stout lateral branch from which a weather-wasted rope still
significantly dangled), half a hundred gravelly mounds, a score of rude
headboards displaying the literary peculiarities above mentioned and a
struggling colony of prickly pears. Altogether, God's Location, as with
characteristic reverence it had been called, could justly boast of an
indubitably superior quality of desolation. It was in the most thickly
settled part of this interesting demesne that Mr. Jefferson Doman staked
off his claim. If in the prosecution of his design he should deem it
expedient to remove any of the dead they would have the right to be
This Mr. Jefferson Doman was from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where six
years before he had left his heart in the keeping of a golden-haired,
demure-mannered young woman named Mary Matthews, as collateral security
for his return to claim her hand.
"I just _know_ you'll never get back alive--you never do succeed in
anything," was the remark which illustrated Miss Matthews's notion of
what constituted success and, inferentially, her view of the nature of
encouragement. She added: "If you don't I'll go to California too. I can
put the coins in little bags as you dig them out."
This characteristically feminine theory of auriferous deposits did not
commend itself to the masculine intelligence: it was Mr. Doman's belief
that gold was found in a liquid state. He deprecated her intent with
considerable enthusiasm, suppressed her sobs with a light hand upon her
mouth, laughed in her eyes as he kissed away her tears, and with a
cheerful "Ta-ta" went to California to labor for her through the long,
loveless years, with a strong heart, an alert hope and a steadfast
fidelity that never for a moment forgot what it was about. In the
mean time, Miss Matthews had granted a monopoly of her humble talent for
sacking up coins to Mr. Jo. Seeman, of New York, gambler, by whom it was
better appreciated than her commanding genius for unsacking and
bestowing them upon his local rivals. Of this latter aptitude, indeed,
he manifested his disapproval by an act which secured him the position
of clerk of the laundry in the State prison, and for her the _sobriquet_
of "Split-faced Moll." At about this time she wrote to Mr. Doman a
touching letter of renunciation, inclosing her photograph to prove that
she had no longer had a right to indulge the dream of becoming Mrs.
Doman, and recounting so graphically her fall from a horse that the
staid "plug" upon which Mr. Doman had ridden into Red Dog to get the
letter made vicarious atonement under the spur all the way back to camp.
The letter failed in a signal way to accomplish its object; the fidelity
which had before been to Mr. Doman a matter of love and duty was
thenceforth a matter of honor also; and the photograph, showing the once
pretty face sadly disfigured as by the slash of a knife, was duly
instated in his affections and its more comely predecessor treated with
contumelious neglect. On being informed of this, Miss Matthews, it is
only fair to say, appeared less surprised than from the apparently low
estimate of Mr. Doman's generosity which the tone of her former letter
attested one would naturally have expected her to be. Soon after,
however, her letters grew infrequent, and then ceased altogether.
But Mr. Doman had another correspondent, Mr. Barney Bree, of
Hurdy-Gurdy, formerly of Red Dog. This gentleman, although a notable
figure among miners, was not a miner. His knowledge of mining consisted
mainly in a marvelous command of its slang, to which he made copious
contributions, enriching its vocabulary with a wealth of uncommon
phrases more remarkable for their aptness than their refinement, and
which impressed the unlearned "tenderfoot" with a lively sense of the
profundity of their inventor's acquirements. When not entertaining a
circle of admiring auditors from San Francisco or the East he could
commonly be found pursuing the comparatively obscure industry of
sweeping out the various dance houses and purifying the cuspidors.
Barney had apparently but two passions in life--love of Jefferson Doman,
who had once been of some service to him, and love of whisky, which
certainly had not. He had been among the first in the rush to
Hurdy-Gurdy, but had not prospered, and had sunk by degrees to the
position of grave digger. This was not a vocation, but Barney in a
desultory way turned his trembling hand to it whenever some local
misunderstanding at the card table and his own partial recovery from a
prolonged debauch occurred coincidently in point of time. One day Mr.
Doman received, at Red Dog, a letter with the simple postmark, "Hurdy,
Cal.," and being occupied with another matter, carelessly thrust it into
a chink of his cabin for future perusal. Some two years later it was
accidentally dislodged and he read it. It ran as follows:--
HURDY, June 6.
FRIEND JEFF: I've hit her hard in the boneyard. She's blind and lousy.
I'm on the divvy--that's me, and mum's my lay till you toot.
P.S.--I've clayed her with Scarry.
With some knowledge of the general mining camp _argot_ and of Mr. Bree's
private system for the communication of ideas Mr. Doman had no
difficulty in understanding by this uncommon epistle that Barney while
performing his duty as grave digger had uncovered a quartz ledge with no
outcroppings; that it was visibly rich in free gold; that, moved by
considerations of friendship, he was willing to accept Mr. Doman as a
partner and awaiting that gentleman's declaration of his will in the
matter would discreetly keep the discovery a secret. From the postscript
it was plainly inferable that in order to conceal the treasure he had
buried above it the mortal part of a person named Scarry.
From subsequent events, as related to Mr. Doman at Red Dog, it would
appear that before taking this precaution Mr. Bree must have had the
thrift to remove a modest competency of the gold; at any rate, it was at
about that time that he entered upon that memorable series of potations
and treatings which is still one of the cherished traditions of the San
Juan Smith country, and is spoken of with respect as far away as Ghost
Rock and Lone Hand. At its conclusion some former citizens of
Hurdy-Gurdy, for whom he had performed the last kindly office at the
cemetery, made room for him among them, and he rested well.
Having finished staking off his claim Mr. Doman walked back to the
centre of it and stood again at the spot where his search among the
graves had expired in the exclamation, "Scarry." He bent again over the
headboard that bore that name and as if to reinforce the senses of sight
and hearing ran his forefinger along the rudely carved letters.
Re-erecting himself he appended orally to the simple inscription the
shockingly forthright epitaph, "She was a holy terror!"
Had Mr. Doman been required to make these words good with proof--as,
considering their somewhat censorious character, he doubtless should
have been--he would have found himself embarrassed by the absence of
reputable witnesses, and hearsay evidence would have been the best he
could command. At the time when Scarry had been prevalent in the mining
camps thereabout--when, as the editor of the _Hurdy Herald_ would have
phrased it, she was "in the plenitude of her power"--Mr. Doman's
fortunes had been at a low ebb, and he had led the vagrantly laborious
life of a prospector. His time had been mostly spent in the mountains,
now with one companion, now with another. It was from the admiring
recitals of these casual partners, fresh from the various camps, that
his judgment of Scarry had been made up; he himself had never had the
doubtful advantage of her acquaintance and the precarious distinction of
her favor. And when, finally, on the termination of her perverse career
at Hurdy-Gurdy he had read in a chance copy of the _Herald_ her
column-long obituary (written by the local humorist of that lively sheet
in the highest style of his art) Doman had paid to her memory and to her
historiographer's genius the tribute of a smile and chivalrously
forgotten her. Standing now at the grave-side of this mountain Messalina
he recalled the leading events of her turbulent career, as he had heard
them celebrated at his several campfires, and perhaps with an
unconscious attempt at self-justification repeated that she was a holy
terror, and sank his pick into her grave up to the handle. At that
moment a raven, which had silently settled upon a branch of the blasted
tree above his head, solemnly snapped its beak and uttered its mind
about the matter with an approving croak.
Pursuing his discovery of free gold with great zeal, which he probably
credited to his conscience as a grave digger, Mr. Barney Bree had made
an unusually deep sepulcher, and it was near sunset before Mr. Doman,
laboring with the leisurely deliberation of one who has "a dead sure
thing" and no fear of an adverse claimant's enforcement of a prior
right, reached the coffin and uncovered it. When he had done so he was
confronted by a difficulty for which he had made no provision; the
coffin--a mere flat shell of not very well-preserved redwood boards,
apparently--had no handles, and it filled the entire bottom of the
excavation. The best he could do without violating the decent sanctities
of the situation was to make the excavation sufficiently longer to
enable him to stand at the head of the casket and getting his powerful
hands underneath erect it upon its narrower end; and this he proceeded
to do. The approach of night quickened his efforts. He had no thought of
abandoning his task at this stage to resume it on the morrow under more
advantageous conditions. The feverish stimulation of cupidity and the
fascination of terror held him to his dismal work with an iron
authority. He no longer idled, but wrought with a terrible zeal. His
head uncovered, his outer garments discarded, his shirt opened at the
neck and thrown back from his breast, down which ran sinuous rills of
perspiration, this hardy and impenitent gold-getter and grave-robber
toiled with a giant energy that almost dignified the character of his
horrible purpose; and when the sun fringes had burned themselves out
along the crest line of the western hills, and the full moon had climbed
out of the shadows that lay along the purple plain, he had erected the
coffin upon its foot, where it stood propped against the end of the open
grave. Then, standing up to his neck in the earth at the opposite
extreme of the excavation, as he looked at the coffin upon which the
moonlight now fell with a full illumination he was thrilled with a
sudden terror to observe upon it the startling apparition of a dark
human head--the shadow of his own. For a moment this simple and natural
circumstance unnerved him. The noise of his labored breathing frightened
him, and he tried to still it, but his bursting lungs would not be
denied. Then, laughing half-audibly and wholly without spirit, he began
making movements of his head from side to side, in order to compel the
apparition to repeat them. He found a comforting reassurance in
asserting his command over his own shadow. He was temporizing, making,
with unconscious prudence, a dilatory opposition to an impending
catastrophe. He felt that invisible forces of evil were closing in upon
him, and he parleyed for time with the Inevitable.
He now observed in succession several unusual circumstances. The surface
of the coffin upon which his eyes were fastened was not flat; it
presented two distinct ridges, one longitudinal and the other
transverse. Where these intersected at the widest part there was a
corroded metallic plate that reflected the moonlight with a dismal
lustre. Along the outer edges of the coffin, at long intervals, were
rust-eaten heads of nails. This frail product of the carpenter's art had
been put into the grave the wrong side up!
Perhaps it was one of the humors of the camp--a practical manifestation
of the facetious spirit that had found literary expression in the
topsy-turvy obituary notice from the pen of Hurdy-Gurdy's great
humorist. Perhaps it had some occult personal signification impenetrable
to understandings uninstructed in local traditions. A more charitable
hypothesis is that it was owing to a misadventure on the part of Mr.
Barney Bree, who, making the interment unassisted (either by choice for
the conservation of his golden secret, or through public apathy), had
committed a blunder which he was afterward unable or unconcerned to
rectify. However it had come about, poor Scarry had indubitably been put
into the earth face downward.
When terror and absurdity make alliance, the effect is frightful. This
strong-hearted and daring man, this hardy night worker among the dead,
this defiant antagonist of darkness and desolation, succumbed to a
ridiculous surprise. He was smitten with a thrilling chill--shivered,
and shook his massive shoulders as if to throw off an icy hand. He no
longer breathed, and the blood in his veins, unable to abate its
impetus, surged hotly beneath his cold skin. Unleavened with oxygen, it
mounted to his head and congested his brain. His physical functions had
gone over to the enemy; his very heart was arrayed against him. He did
not move; he could not have cried out. He needed but a coffin to be
dead--as dead as the death that confronted him with only the length of
an open grave and the thickness of a rotting plank between.
Then, one by one, his senses returned; the tide of terror that had
overwhelmed his faculties began to recede. But with the return of his
senses he became singularly unconscious of the object of his fear. He
saw the moonlight gilding the coffin, but no longer the coffin that it
gilded. Raising his eyes and turning his head, he noted, curiously and
with surprise, the black branches of the dead tree, and tried to
estimate the length of the weather-worn rope that dangled from its
ghostly hand. The monotonous barking of distant coyotes affected him as
something he had heard years ago in a dream. An owl flapped awkwardly
above him on noiseless wings, and he tried to forecast the direction of
its flight when it should encounter the cliff that reared its
illuminated front a mile away. His hearing took account of a gopher's
stealthy tread in the shadow of the cactus. He was intensely observant;
his senses were all alert; but he saw not the coffin. As one can gaze at
the sun until it looks black and then vanishes, so his mind, having
exhausted its capacities of dread, was no longer conscious of the
separate existence of anything dreadful. The Assassin was cloaking the
It was during this lull in the battle that he became sensible of a
faint, sickening odor. At first he thought it was that of a
rattle-snake, and involuntarily tried to look about his feet. They were
nearly invisible in the gloom of the grave. A hoarse, gurgling sound,
like the death-rattle in a human throat, seemed to come out of the sky,
and a moment later a great, black, angular shadow, like the same sound
made visible, dropped curving from the topmost branch of the spectral
tree, fluttered for an instant before his face and sailed fiercely away
into the mist along the creek.
It was the raven. The incident recalled him to a sense of the situation,
and again his eyes sought the upright coffin, now illuminated by the
moon for half its length. He saw the gleam of the metallic plate and
tried without moving to decipher the inscription. Then he fell to
speculating upon what was behind it. His creative imagination presented
him a vivid picture. The planks no longer seemed an obstacle to his
vision and he saw the livid corpse of the dead woman, standing in
grave-clothes, and staring vacantly at him, with lidless, shrunken eyes.
The lower jaw was fallen, the upper lip drawn away from the uncovered
teeth. He could make out a mottled pattern on the hollow cheeks--the
maculations of decay. By some mysterious process his mind reverted for
the first time that day to the photograph of Mary Matthews. He
contrasted its blonde beauty with the forbidding aspect of this dead
face--the most beloved object that he knew with the most hideous that he
The Assassin now advanced and displaying the blade laid it against the
victim's throat. That is to say, the man became at first dimly, then
definitely, aware of an impressive coincidence--a relation--a parallel
between the face on the card and the name on the headboard. The one was
disfigured, the other described a disfiguration. The thought took hold
of him and shook him. It transformed the face that his imagination had
created behind the coffin lid; the contrast became a resemblance; the
resemblance grew to identity. Remembering the many descriptions of
Scarry's personal appearance that he had heard from the gossips of his
camp-fire he tried with imperfect success to recall the exact nature of
the disfiguration that had given the woman her ugly name; and what was
lacking in his memory fancy supplied, stamping it with the validity of
conviction. In the maddening attempt to recall such scraps of the
woman's history as he had heard, the muscles of his arms and hands were
strained to a painful tension, as by an effort to lift a great weight.
His body writhed and twisted with the exertion. The tendons of his neck
stood out as tense as whip-cords, and his breath came in short, sharp
gasps. The catastrophe could not be much longer delayed, or the agony of
anticipation would leave nothing to be done by the _coup de grace_ of
verification. The scarred face behind the lid would slay him through the
A movement of the coffin diverted his thought. It came forward to within
a foot of his face, growing visibly larger as it approached. The rusted
metallic plate, with an inscription illegible in the moonlight, looked
him steadily in the eye. Determined not to shrink, he tried to brace his
shoulders more firmly against the end of the excavation, and nearly fell
backward in the attempt. There was nothing to support him; he had
unconsciously moved upon his enemy, clutching the heavy knife that he
had drawn from his belt. The coffin had not advanced and he smiled to
think it could not retreat. Lifting his knife he struck the heavy hilt
against the metal plate with all his power. There was a sharp, ringing
percussion, and with a dull clatter the whole decayed coffin lid broke
in pieces and came away, falling about his feet. The quick and the dead
were face to face--the frenzied, shrieking man--the woman standing
tranquil in her silences. She was a holy terror!
Some months later a party of men and women belonging to the highest
social circles of San Francisco passed through Hurdy-Gurdy on their way
to the Yosemite Valley by a new trail. They halted for dinner and during
its preparation explored the desolate camp. One of the party had been at
Hurdy-Gurdy in the days of its glory. He had, indeed, been one of its
prominent citizens; and it used to be said that more money passed over
his faro table in any one night than over those of all his competitors
in a week; but being now a millionaire engaged in greater enterprises,
he did not deem these early successes of sufficient importance to merit
the distinction of remark. His invalid wife, a lady famous in San
Francisco for the costly nature of her entertainments and her exacting
rigor with regard to the social position and "antecedents" of those who
attended them, accompanied the expedition. During a stroll among the
shanties of the abandoned camp Mr. Porfer directed the attention of his
wife and friends to a dead tree on a low hill beyond Injun Creek.
"As I told you," he said, "I passed through this camp in 1852, and was
told that no fewer than five men had been hanged here by vigilantes at
different times, and all on that tree. If I am not mistaken, a rope is
dangling from it yet. Let us go over and see the place."
Mr. Porfer did not add that the rope in question was perhaps the very
one from whose fatal embrace his own neck had once had an escape so
narrow that an hour's delay in taking himself out of that region would
have spanned it.
Proceeding leisurely down the creek to a convenient crossing, the party
came upon the cleanly picked skeleton of an animal which Mr. Porfer
after due examination pronounced to be that of an ass. The
distinguishing ears were gone, but much of the inedible head had been
spared by the beasts and birds, and the stout bridle of horsehair was
intact, as was the riata, of similar material, connecting it with a
picket pin still firmly sunken in the earth. The wooden and metallic
elements of a miner's kit lay near by. The customary remarks were made,
cynical on the part of the men, sentimental and refined by the lady. A
little later they stood by the tree in the cemetery and Mr. Porfer
sufficiently unbent from his dignity to place himself beneath the rotten
rope and confidently lay a coil of it about his neck, somewhat, it
appeared, to his own satisfaction, but greatly to the horror of his
wife, to whose sensibilities the performance gave a smart shock.
An exclamation from one of the party gathered them all about an open
grave, at the bottom of which they saw a confused mass of human bones
and the broken remnants of a coffin. Coyotes and buzzards had performed
the last sad rites for pretty much all else. Two skulls were visible and
in order to investigate this somewhat unusual redundancy one of the
younger men had the hardihood to spring into the grave and hand them up
to another before Mrs. Porfer could indicate her marked disapproval of
so shocking an act, which, nevertheless, she did with considerable
feeling and in very choice words. Pursuing his search among the dismal
debris at the bottom of the grave the young man next handed up a rusted
coffin plate, with a rudely cut inscription, which with difficulty Mr.
Porfer deciphered and read aloud with an earnest and not altogether
unsuccessful attempt at the dramatic effect which he deemed befitting to
the occasion and his rhetorical abilities:
Born at the Mission San Pedro--Died in
Hell's full of such.
In deference to the piety of the reader and the nerves of Mrs. Porfer's
fastidious sisterhood of both sexes let us not touch upon the painful
impression produced by this uncommon inscription, further than to say
that the elocutionary powers of Mr. Porfer had never before met with so
spontaneous and overwhelming recognition.
The next morsel that rewarded the ghoul in the grave was a long tangle
of black hair defiled with clay: but this was such an anti-climax that
it received little attention. Suddenly, with a short exclamation and a
gesture of excitement, the young man unearthed a fragment of grayish
rock, and after a hurried inspection handed it up to Mr. Porfer. As the
sunlight fell upon it it glittered with a yellow luster--it was thickly
studded with gleaming points. Mr. Porfer snatched it, bent his head over
it a moment and threw it lightly away with the simple remark:
"Iron pyrites--fool's gold."
The young man in the discovery shaft was a trifle disconcerted,
Meanwhile, Mrs. Porfer, unable longer to endure the disagreeable
business, had walked back to the tree and seated herself at its root.
While rearranging a tress of golden hair which had slipped from its
confinement she was attracted by what appeared to be and really was the
fragment of an old coat. Looking about to assure herself that so
unladylike an act was not observed, she thrust her jeweled hand into the
exposed breast pocket and drew out a mouldy pocket-book. Its contents
were as follows:
One bundle of letters, postmarked "Elizabethtown, New Jersey."
One circle of blonde hair tied with a ribbon.
One photograph of a beautiful girl.
One ditto of same, singularly disfigured.
One name on back of photograph--"Jefferson Doman."
A few moments later a group of anxious gentlemen surrounded Mrs. Porfer
as she sat motionless at the foot of the tree, her head dropped forward,
her fingers clutching a crushed photograph. Her husband raised her head,
exposing a face ghastly white, except the long, deforming cicatrice,
familiar to all her friends, which no art could ever hide, and which now
traversed the pallor of her countenance like a visible curse.
Mary Matthews Porfer had the bad luck to be dead.
THE SUITABLE SURROUNDINGS
One midsummer night a farmer's boy living about ten miles from the city
of Cincinnati was following a bridle path through a dense and dark
forest. He had lost himself while searching for some missing cows, and
near midnight was a long way from home, in a part of the country with
which he was unfamiliar. But he was a stout-hearted lad, and knowing his
general direction from his home, he plunged into the forest without
hesitation, guided by the stars. Coming into the bridle path, and
observing that it ran in the right direction, he followed it.
The night was clear, but in the woods it was exceedingly dark. It was
more by the sense of touch than by that of sight that the lad kept the
path. He could not, indeed, very easily go astray; the undergrowth on
both sides was so thick as to be almost impenetrable. He had gone into
the forest a mile or more when he was surprised to see a feeble gleam of
light shining through the foliage skirting the path on his left. The
sight of it startled him and set his heart beating audibly.
"The old Breede house is somewhere about here," he said to himself.
"This must be the other end of the path which we reach it by from our
side. Ugh! what should a light be doing there?"
Nevertheless, he pushed on. A moment later he had emerged from the
forest into a small, open space, mostly upgrown to brambles. There were
remnants of a rotting fence. A few yards from the trail, in the middle
of the "clearing," was the house from which the light came, through an
unglazed window. The window had once contained glass, but that and its
supporting frame had long ago yielded to missiles flung by hands of
venturesome boys to attest alike their courage and their hostility to
the supernatural; for the Breede house bore the evil reputation of being
haunted. Possibly it was not, but even the hardiest sceptic could not
deny that it was deserted--which in rural regions is much the same
Looking at the mysterious dim light shining from the ruined window the
boy remembered with apprehension that his own hand had assisted at the
destruction. His penitence was of course poignant in proportion to its
tardiness and inefficacy. He half expected to be set upon by all the
unworldly and bodiless malevolences whom he had outraged by assisting to
break alike their windows and their peace. Yet this stubborn lad,
shaking in every limb, would not retreat. The blood in his veins was
strong and rich with the iron of the frontiersman. He was but two
removes from the generation that had subdued the Indian. He started to
pass the house.
As he was going by he looked in at the blank window space and saw a
strange and terrifying sight,--the figure of a man seated in the centre
of the room, at a table upon which lay some loose sheets of paper. The
elbows rested on the table, the hands supporting the head, which was
uncovered. On each side the fingers were pushed into the hair. The face
showed dead-yellow in the light of a single candle a little to one side.
The flame illuminated that side of the face, the other was in deep
shadow. The man's eyes were fixed upon the blank window space with a
stare in which an older and cooler observer might have discerned
something of apprehension, but which seemed to the lad altogether
soulless. He believed the man to be dead.
The situation was horrible, but not with out its fascination. The boy
stopped to note it all. He was weak, faint and trembling; he could feel
the blood forsaking his face. Nevertheless, he set his teeth and
resolutely advanced to the house. He had no conscious intention--it was
the mere courage of terror. He thrust his white face forward into the
illuminated opening. At that instant a strange, harsh cry, a shriek,
broke upon the silence of the night--the note of a screech-owl. The man
sprang to his feet, overturning the table and extinguishing the candle.
The boy took to his heels.
THE DAY BEFORE
"Good-morning, Colston. I am in luck, it seems. You have often said that
my commendation of your literary work was mere civility, and here you
find me absorbed--actually merged--in your latest story in the
_Messenger_. Nothing less shocking than your touch upon my shoulder
would have roused me to consciousness."
"The proof is stronger than you seem to know," replied the man
addressed: "so keen is your eagerness to read my story that you are
willing to renounce selfish considerations and forego all the pleasure
that you could get from it."
"I don't understand you," said the other, folding the newspaper that he
held and putting it into his pocket. "You writers are a queer lot,
anyhow. Come, tell me what I have done or omitted in this matter. In
what way does the pleasure that I get, or might get, from your work
depend on me?"
"In many ways. Let me ask you how you would enjoy your breakfast if you
took it in this street car. Suppose the phonograph so perfected as to be
able to give you an entire opera,--singing, orchestration, and all; do
you think you would get much pleasure out of it if you turned it on at
your office during business hours? Do you really care for a serenade by
Schubert when you hear it fiddled by an untimely Italian on a morning
ferryboat? Are you always cocked and primed for enjoyment? Do you keep
every mood on tap, ready to any demand? Let me remind you, sir, that the
story which you have done me the honor to begin as a means of becoming
oblivious to the discomfort of this car is a ghost story!"
"Well! Has the reader no duties corresponding to his privileges? You
have paid five cents for that newspaper. It is yours. You have the right
to read it when and where you will. Much of what is in it is neither
helped nor harmed by time and place and mood; some of it actually
requires to be read at once--while it is fizzing. But my story is not of
that character. It is not 'the very latest advices' from Ghostland. You
are not expected to keep yourself _au courant_ with what is going on in
the realm of spooks. The stuff will keep until you have leisure to put
yourself into the frame of mind appropriate to the sentiment of the
piece--which I respectfully submit that you cannot do in a street car,
even if you are the only passenger. The solitude is not of the right
sort. An author has rights which the reader is bound to respect."
"For specific example?"
"The right to the reader's undivided attention. To deny him this is
immoral. To make him share your attention with the rattle of a street
car, the moving panorama of the crowds on the sidewalks, and the
buildings beyond--with any of the thousands of distractions which make
our customary environment--is to treat him with gross injustice. By God,
it is infamous!"
The speaker had risen to his feet and was steadying himself by one of
the straps hanging from the roof of the car. The other man looked up at
him in sudden astonishment, wondering how so trivial a grievance could
seem to justify so strong language. He saw that his friend's face was
uncommonly pale and that his eyes glowed like living coals.
"You know what I mean," continued the writer, impetuously crowding his
words--"you know what I mean, Marsh. My stuff in this morning's
_Messenger_ is plainly sub-headed 'A Ghost Story.' That is ample notice
to all. Every honorable reader will understand it as prescribing by
implication the conditions under which the work is to be read."
The man addressed as Marsh winced a trifle, then asked with a smile:
"What conditions? You know that I am only a plain business man who
cannot be supposed to understand such things. How, when, where should I
read your ghost story?"
"In solitude--at night--by the light of a candle. There are certain
emotions which a writer can easily enough excite--such as compassion or
merriment. I can move you to tears or laughter under almost any
circumstances. But for my ghost story to be effective you must be made
to feel fear--at least a strong sense of the supernatural--and that is a
difficult matter. I have a right to expect that if you read me at all
you will give me a chance; that you will make yourself accessible to the
emotion that I try to inspire."
The car had now arrived at its terminus and stopped. The trip just
completed was its first for the day and the conversation of the two
early passengers had not been interrupted. The streets were yet silent
and desolate; the house tops were just touched by the rising sun. As
they stepped from the car and walked away together Marsh narrowly eyed
his companion, who was reported, like most men of uncommon literary
ability, to be addicted to various destructive vices. That is the
revenge which dull minds take upon bright ones in resentment of their
superiority. Mr. Colston was known as a man of genius. There are honest
souls who believe that genius is a mode of excess. It was known that
Colston did not drink liquor, but many said that he ate opium. Something
in his appearance that morning--a certain wildness of the eyes, an
unusual pallor, a thickness and rapidity of speech--were taken by Mr.
Marsh to confirm the report. Nevertheless, he had not the self-denial to
abandon a subject which he found interesting, however it might excite
"Do you mean to say," he began, "that if I take the trouble to observe
your directions--place myself in the conditions that you demand:
solitude, night and a tallow candle--you can with your ghostly work give
me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you
accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous
chill along my spine and cause my hair to rise?"
Colston turned suddenly and looked him squarely in the eyes as they
walked. "You would not dare--you have not the courage," he said. He
emphasized the words with a contemptuous gesture. "You are brave enough
to read me in a street car, but--in a deserted house--alone--in the
forest--at night! Bah! I have a manuscript in my pocket that would kill
Marsh was angry. He knew himself courageous, and the words stung him.
"If you know such a place," he said, "take me there to-night and leave
me your story and a candle. Call for me when I've had time enough to
read it and I'll tell you the entire plot and--kick you out of the
That is how it occurred that the farmer's boy, looking in at an unglazed
window of the Breede house, saw a man sitting in the light of a candle.
THE DAY AFTER
Late in the afternoon of the next day three men and a boy approached the
Breede house from that point of the compass toward which the boy had
fled the preceding night. The men were in high spirits; they talked very
loudly and laughed. They made facetious and good-humored ironical
remarks to the boy about his adventure, which evidently they did not
believe in. The boy accepted their raillery with seriousness, making no
reply. He had a sense of the fitness of things and knew that one who
professes to have seen a dead man rise from his seat and blow out a
candle is not a credible witness.
Arriving at the house and finding the door unlocked, the party of
investigators entered without ceremony. Leading out of the passage into
which this door opened was another on the right and one on the left.
They entered the room on the left--the one which had the blank front
window. Here was the dead body of a man.
It lay partly on one side, with the forearm beneath it, the cheek on the
floor. The eyes were wide open; the stare was not an agreeable thing to
encounter. The lower jaw had fallen; a little pool of saliva had
collected beneath the mouth. An overthrown table, a partly burned
candle, a chair and some paper with writing on it were all else that the
room contained. The men looked at the body, touching the face in turn.
The boy gravely stood at the head, assuming a look of ownership. It was
the proudest moment of his life. One of the men said to him, "You're a
good 'un"--a remark which was received by the two others with nods of
acquiescence. It was Scepticism apologizing to Truth. Then one of the
men took from the floor the sheet of manuscript and stepped to the
window, for already the evening shadows were glooming the forest. The
song of the whip-poor-will was heard in the distance and a monstrous
beetle sped by the window on roaring wings and thundered away out of
hearing. The man read:
"Before committing the act which, rightly or wrongly, I have resolved
on and appearing before my Maker for judgment, I, James R. Colston,
deem it my duty as a journalist to make a statement to the public. My
name is, I believe, tolerably well known to the people as a writer of
tragic tales, but the somberest imagination never conceived anything
so tragic as my own life and history. Not in incident: my life has
been destitute of adventure and action. But my mental career has been
lurid with experiences such as kill and damn. I shall not recount them
here--some of them are written and ready for publication elsewhere.
The object of these lines is to explain to whomsoever may be
interested that my death is voluntary--my own act. I shall die at
twelve o'clock on the night of the 15th of July--a significant
anniversary to me, for it was on that day, and at that hour, that my
friend in time and eternity, Charles Breede, performed his vow to me
by the same act which his fidelity to our pledge now entails upon me.
He took his life in his little house in the Copeton woods. There was
the customary verdict of 'temporary insanity.' Had I testified at that
inquest--had I told all I knew, they would have called _me_ mad!"
Here followed an evidently long passage which the man reading read to
himself only. The rest he read aloud.
"I have still a week of life in which to arrange my worldly affairs
and prepare for the great change. It is enough, for I have but few
affairs and it is now four years since death became an imperative
"I shall bear this writing on my body; the finder will please hand it
to the coroner.
"JAMES R. COLSTON.
"P.S.--Willard Marsh, on this the fatal fifteenth day of July I hand
you this manuscript, to be opened and read under the conditions agreed
upon, and at the place which I designated. I forego my intention to
keep it on my body to explain the manner of my death, which is not
important. It will serve to explain the manner of yours. I am to call
for you during the night to receive assurance that you have read the
manuscript. You know me well enough to expect me. But, my friend, it
_will be after twelve o'clock._ May God have mercy on our souls!
Before the man who was reading this manuscript had finished, the candle
had been picked up and lighted. When the reader had done, he quietly
thrust the paper against the flame and despite the protestations of the
others held it until it was burnt to ashes. The man who did this, and
who afterward placidly endured a severe reprimand from the coroner, was
a son-in-law of the late Charles Breede. At the inquest nothing could
elicit an intelligent account of what the paper had contained.
FROM "THE TIMES"
"Yesterday the Commissioners of Lunacy committed to the asylum Mr.
James R. Colston, a writer of some local reputation, connected with
the _Messenger_. It will be remembered that on the evening of the 15th
inst. Mr. Colston was given into custody by one of his fellow-lodgers
in the Baine House, who had observed him acting very suspiciously,
baring his throat and whetting a razor--occasionally trying its edge
by actually cutting through the skin of his arm, etc. On being handed
over to the police, the unfortunate man made a desperate resistance,
and has ever since been so violent that it has been necessary to keep
him in a strait-jacket. Most of our esteemed contemporary's other
writers are still at large."
THE BOARDED WINDOW
In 1830, only a few miles away from what is now the great city of
Cincinnati, lay an immense and almost unbroken forest. The whole region
was sparsely settled by people of the frontier--restless souls who no
sooner had hewn fairly habitable homes out of the wilderness and
attained to that degree of prosperity which to-day we should call
indigence than impelled by some mysterious impulse of their nature they
abandoned all and pushed farther westward, to encounter new perils and
privations in the effort to regain the meagre comforts which they had
voluntarily renounced. Many of them had already forsaken that region for
the remoter settlements, but among those remaining was one who had been
of those first arriving. He lived alone in a house of logs surrounded on
all sides by the great forest, of whose gloom and silence he seemed a
part, for no one had ever known him to smile nor speak a needless word.
His simple wants were supplied by the sale or barter of skins of wild
animals in the river town, for not a thing did he grow upon the land
which, if needful, he might have claimed by right of undisturbed
possession. There were evidences of "improvement"--a few acres of ground
immediately about the house had once been cleared of its trees, the
decayed stumps of which were half concealed by the new growth that had
been suffered to repair the ravage wrought by the ax. Apparently the
man's zeal for agriculture had burned with a failing flame, expiring in
The little log house, with its chimney of sticks, its roof of warping
clapboards weighted with traversing poles and its "chinking" of clay,
had a single door and, directly opposite, a window. The latter, however,
was boarded up--nobody could remember a time when it was not. And none
knew why it was so closed; certainly not because of the occupant's
dislike of light and air, for on those rare occasions when a hunter had
passed that lonely spot the recluse had commonly been seen sunning
himself on his doorstep if heaven had provided sunshine for his need. I
fancy there are few persons living to-day who ever knew the secret of
that window, but I am one, as you shall see.
The man's name was said to be Murlock. He was apparently seventy years
old, actually about fifty. Something besides years had had a hand in his
aging. His hair and long, full beard were white, his gray, lustreless
eyes sunken, his face singularly seamed with wrinkles which appeared to
belong to two intersecting systems. In figure he was tall and spare,
with a stoop of the shoulders--a burden bearer. I never saw him; these
particulars I learned from my grandfather, from whom also I got the
man's story when I was a lad. He had known him when living near by in
that early day.
One day Murlock was found in his cabin, dead. It was not a time and
place for coroners and newspapers, and I suppose it was agreed that he
had died from natural causes or I should have been told, and should
remember. I know only that with what was probably a sense of the fitness
of things the body was buried near the cabin, alongside the grave of his
wife, who had preceded him by so many years that local tradition had
retained hardly a hint of her existence. That closes the final chapter
of this true story--excepting, indeed, the circumstance that many years
afterward, in company with an equally intrepid spirit, I penetrated to
the place and ventured near enough to the ruined cabin to throw a stone
against it, and ran away to avoid the ghost which every well-informed
boy thereabout knew haunted the spot. But there is an earlier chapter--
that supplied by my grandfather.
When Murlock built his cabin and began laying sturdily about with his ax
to hew out a farm--the rifle, meanwhile, his means of support--he was
young, strong and full of hope. In that eastern country whence he came
he had married, as was the fashion, a young woman in all ways worthy of
his honest devotion, who shared the dangers and privations of his lot
with a willing spirit and light heart. There is no known record of her
name; of her charms of mind and person tradition is silent and the
doubter is at liberty to entertain his doubt; but God forbid that I
should share it! Of their affection and happiness there is abundant
assurance in every added day of the man's widowed life; for what but the
magnetism of a blessed memory could have chained that venturesome spirit
to a lot like that?
One day Murlock returned from gunning in a distant part of the forest to
find his wife prostrate with fever, and delirious. There was no
physician within miles, no neighbor; nor was she in a condition to be
left, to summon help. So he set about the task of nursing her back to
health, but at the end of the third day she fell into unconsciousness
and so passed away, apparently, with never a gleam of returning reason.
From what we know of a nature like his we may venture to sketch in some
of the details of the outline picture drawn by my grandfather. When
convinced that she was dead, Murlock had sense enough to remember that
the dead must be prepared for burial. In performance of this sacred duty
he blundered now and again, did certain things incorrectly, and others
which he did correctly were done over and over. His occasional failures
to accomplish some simple and ordinary act filled him with astonishment,
like that of a drunken man who wonders at the suspension of familiar
natural laws. He was surprised, too, that he did not weep--surprised and
a little ashamed; surely it is unkind not to weep for the dead.
"To-morrow," he said aloud, "I shall have to make the coffin and dig the
grave; and then I shall miss her, when she is no longer in sight; but
now--she is dead, of course, but it is all right--it _must_ be all
right, somehow. Things cannot be so bad as they seem."
He stood over the body in the fading light, adjusting the hair and
putting the finishing touches to the simple toilet, doing all
mechanically, with soulless care. And still through his consciousness
ran an undersense of conviction that all was right--that he should have
her again as before, and everything explained. He had had no experience
in grief; his capacity had not been enlarged by use. His heart could not
contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it. He did not know
he was so hard struck; _that_ knowledge would come later, and never go.
Grief is an artist of powers as various as the instruments upon which he
plays his dirges for the dead, evoking from some the sharpest, shrillest
notes, from others the low, grave chords that throb recurrent like the
slow beating of a distant drum. Some natures it startles; some it
stupefies. To one it comes like the stroke of an arrow, stinging all the
sensibilities to a keener life; to another as the blow of a bludgeon,
which in crushing benumbs. We may conceive Murlock to have been that way
affected, for (and here we are upon surer ground than that of
conjecture) no sooner had he finished his pious work than, sinking into
a chair by the side of the table upon which the body lay, and noting how
white the profile showed in the deepening gloom, he laid his arms upon
the table's edge, and dropped his face into them, tearless yet and
unutterably weary. At that moment came in through the open window a
long, wailing sound like the cry of a lost child in the far deeps of the
darkening wood! But the man did not move. Again, and nearer than before,
sounded that unearthly cry upon his failing sense. Perhaps it was a wild
beast; perhaps it was a dream. For Murlock was asleep.
Some hours later, as it afterward appeared, this unfaithful watcher
awoke and lifting his head from his arms intently listened--he knew not
why. There in the black darkness by the side of the dead, recalling all
without a shock, he strained his eyes to see--he knew not what. His
senses were all alert, his breath was suspended, his blood had stilled
its tides as if to assist the silence. Who--what had waked him, and
where was it?
Suddenly the table shook beneath his arms, and at the same moment he
heard, or fancied that he heard, a light, soft step--another--sounds as
of bare feet upon the floor!
He was terrified beyond the power to cry out or move. Perforce he
waited--waited there in the darkness through seeming centuries of such
dread as one may know, yet live to tell. He tried vainly to speak the
dead woman's name, vainly to stretch forth his hand across the table to
learn if she were there. His throat was powerless, his arms and hands
were like lead. Then occurred something most frightful. Some heavy body
seemed hurled against the table with an impetus that pushed it against
his breast so sharply as nearly to overthrow him, and at the same
instant he heard and felt the fall of something upon the floor with so
violent a thump that the whole house was shaken by the impact. A
scuffling ensued, and a confusion of sounds impossible to describe.
Murlock had risen to his feet. Fear had by excess forfeited control of
his faculties. He flung his hands upon the table. Nothing was there!
There is a point at which terror may turn to madness; and madness
incites to action. With no definite intent, from no motive but the
wayward impulse of a madman, Murlock sprang to the wall, with a little
groping seized his loaded rifle, and without aim discharged it. By the
flash which lit up the room with a vivid illumination, he saw an
enormous panther dragging the dead woman toward the window, its teeth
fixed in her throat! Then there were darkness blacker than before, and
silence; and when he returned to consciousness the sun was high and the
wood vocal with songs of birds.
The body lay near the window, where the beast had left it when
frightened away by the flash and report of the rifle. The clothing was
deranged, the long hair in disorder, the limbs lay anyhow. From the
throat, dreadfully lacerated, had issued a pool of blood not yet
entirely coagulated. The ribbon with which he had bound the wrists was
broken; the hands were tightly clenched. Between the teeth was a
fragment of the animal's ear.
A LADY FROM REDHORSE
CORONADO, JUNE 20.
I find myself more and more interested in him. It is not, I am sure,
his--do you know any good noun corresponding to the adjective
"handsome"? One does not like to say "beauty" when speaking of a man. He
is beautiful enough, Heaven knows; I should not even care to trust you
with him--faithfulest of all possible wives that you are--when he looks
his best, as he always does. Nor do I think the fascination of his
manner has much to do with it. You recollect that the charm of art
inheres in that which is undefinable, and to you and me, my dear Irene,
I fancy there is rather less of that in the branch of art under
consideration than to girls in their first season. I fancy I know how my
fine gentleman produces many of his effects and could perhaps give him a
pointer on heightening them. Nevertheless, his manner is something truly
delightful. I suppose what interests me chiefly is the man's brains. His
conversation is the best I have ever heard and altogether unlike any one
else's. He seems to know everything, as indeed he ought, for he has been
everywhere, read everything, seen all there is to see--sometimes I think
rather more than is good for him--and had acquaintance with the
_queerest_ people. And then his voice--Irene, when I hear it I actually
feel as if I ought to have paid at the door, though of course it is my
I fear my remarks about Dr. Barritz must have been, being thoughtless,
very silly, or you would not have written of him with such levity, not
to say disrespect. Believe me, dearest, he has more dignity and
seriousness (of the kind, I mean, which is not inconsistent with a
manner sometimes playful and always charming) than any of the men that
you and I ever met. And young Raynor--you knew Raynor at Monterey--tells
me that the men all like him and that he is treated with something like
deference everywhere. There is a mystery, too--something about his
connection with the Blavatsky people in Northern India. Raynor either
would not or could not tell me the particulars. I infer that Dr. Barritz
is thought--don't you dare to laugh!--a magician. Could anything be
finer than that?
An ordinary mystery is not, of course, so good as a scandal, but when it
relates to dark and dreadful practices--to the exercise of unearthly
powers--could anything be more piquant? It explains, too, the singular
influence the man has upon me. It is the undefinable in his art--black
art. Seriously, dear, I quite tremble when he looks me full in the eyes
with those unfathomable orbs of his, which I have already vainly
attempted to describe to you. How dreadful if he has the power to make
one fall in love! Do you know if the Blavatsky crowd have that power--
outside of Sepoy?
The strangest thing! Last evening while Auntie was attending one of the
hotel hops (I hate them) Dr. Barritz called. It was scandalously late--I
actually believe that he had talked with Auntie in the ballroom and
learned from her that I was alone. I had been all the evening contriving
how to worm out of him the truth about his connection with the Thugs in
Sepoy, and all of that black business, but the moment he fixed his eyes
on me (for I admitted him, I'm ashamed to say) I was helpless. I
trembled, I blushed, I--O Irene, Irene, I love the man beyond expression
and you know how it is yourself.
Fancy! I, an ugly duckling from Redhorse--daughter (they say) of old
Calamity Jim--certainly his heiress, with no living relation but an
absurd old aunt who spoils me a thousand and fifty ways--absolutely
destitute of everything but a million dollars and a hope in Paris,--I
daring to love a god like him! My dear, if I had you here I could tear
your hair out with mortification.
I am convinced that he is aware of my feeling, for he stayed but a few
moments, said nothing but what another man might have said half as well,
and pretending that he had an engagement went away. I learned to-day (a
little bird told me--the bell-bird) that he went straight to bed. How
does that strike you as evidence of exemplary habits?
That little wretch, Raynor, called yesterday and his babble set me
almost wild. He never runs down--that is to say, when he exterminates a
score of reputations, more or less, he does not pause between one
reputation and the next. (By the way, he inquired about you, and his
manifestations of interest in you had, I confess, a good deal of
_vraisemblance._.) Mr. Raynor observes no game laws; like Death (which
he would inflict if slander were fatal) he has all seasons for his own.
But I like him, for we knew each other at Redhorse when we were young.
He was known in those days as "Giggles," and I--O Irene, can you ever
forgive me?--I was called "Gunny." God knows why; perhaps in allusion to
the material of my pinafores; perhaps because the name is in
alliteration with "Giggles," for Gig and I were inseparable playmates,
and the miners may have thought it a delicate civility to recognize some
kind of relationship between us.
Later, we took in a third--another of Adversity's brood, who, like
Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy, had a chronic inability to
adjudicate the rival claims of Frost and Famine. Between him and misery
there was seldom anything more than a single suspender and the hope of a
meal which would at the same time support life and make it
insupportable. He literally picked up a precarious living for himself
and an aged mother by "chloriding the dumps," that is to say, the miners
permitted him to search the heaps of waste rock for such pieces of "pay
ore" as had been overlooked; and these he sacked up and sold at the
Syndicate Mill. He became a member of our firm--"Gunny, Giggles, and
Dumps" thenceforth--through my favor; for I could not then, nor can I
now, be indifferent to his courage and prowess in defending against
Giggles the immemorial right of his sex to insult a strange and
unprotected female--myself. After old Jim struck it in the Calamity and
I began to wear shoes and go to school, and in emulation Giggles took to
washing his face and became Jack Raynor, of Wells, Fargo & Co., and old
Mrs. Barts was herself chlorided to her fathers, Dumps drifted over to
San Juan Smith and turned stage driver, and was killed by road agents,
and so forth.
Why do I tell you all this, dear? Because it is heavy on my heart.
Because I walk the Valley of Humility. Because I am subduing myself to
permanent consciousness of my unworthiness to unloose the latchet of Dr.
Barritz's shoe. Because, oh dear, oh dear, there's a cousin of Dumps at
this hotel! I haven't spoken to him. I never had much acquaintance with
him,--but do you suppose he has recognized me? Do, please give me in
your next your candid, sure-enough opinion about it, and say you don't
think so. Do you suppose He knows about me already, and that that is why
He left me last evening when He saw that I blushed and trembled like a
fool under His eyes? You know I can't bribe _all_ the newspapers, and I
can't go back on anybody who was civil to Gunny at Redhorse--not if I'm
pitched out of society into the sea. So the skeleton sometimes rattles
behind the door. I never cared much before, as you know, but now--_now_
it is not the same. Jack Raynor I am sure of--he will not tell Him. He
seems, indeed, to hold Him in such respect as hardly to dare speak to
Him at all, and I'm a good deal that way myself. Dear, dear! I wish I
had something besides a million dollars! If Jack were three inches
taller I'd marry him alive and go back to Redhorse and wear sackcloth
again to the end of my miserable days.
We had a perfectly splendid sunset last evening and I must tell you all
about it. I ran away from Auntie and everybody and was walking alone on
the beach. I expect you to believe, you infidel! that I had not looked
out of my window on the seaward side of the hotel and seen Him walking
alone on the beach. If you are not lost to every feeling of womanly
delicacy you will accept my statement without question. I soon
established myself under my sunshade and had for some time been gazing
out dreamily over the sea, when he approached, walking close to the edge
of the water--it was ebb tide. I assure you the wet sand actually
brightened about his feet! As he approached me he lifted his hat,
saying, "Miss Dement, may I sit with you?--or will you walk with me?"
The possibility that neither might be agreeable seems not to have
occurred to him. Did you ever know such assurance? Assurance? My dear,
it was gall, downright _gall!_ Well, I didn't find it wormwood, and
replied, with my untutored Redhorse heart in my throat, "I--I shall be
pleased to do _anything_." Could words have been more stupid? There are
depths of fatuity in me, friend o' my soul, that are simply bottomless!
He extended his hand, smiling, and I delivered mine into it without a
moment's hesitation, and when his fingers closed about it to assist me
to my feet the consciousness that it trembled made me blush worse than
the red west. I got up, however, and after a while, observing that he
had not let go my hand I pulled on it a little, but unsuccessfully. He
simply held on, saying nothing, but looking down into my face with some
kind of smile--I didn't know--how could I?--whether it was affectionate,
derisive, or what, for I did not look at him. How beautiful he was!--
with the red fires of the sunset burning in the depths of his eyes. Do
you know, dear, if the Thugs and Experts of the Blavatsky region have
any special kind of eyes? Ah, you should have seen his superb attitude,
the god-like inclination of his head as he stood over me after I had got
upon my feet! It was a noble picture, but I soon destroyed it, for I
began at once to sink again to the earth. There was only one thing for
him to do, and he did it; he supported me with an arm about my waist.
"Miss Dement, are you ill?" he said.
It was not an exclamation; there was neither alarm nor solicitude in it.
If he had added: "I suppose that is about what I am expected to say," he
would hardly have expressed his sense of the situation more clearly. His
manner filled me with shame and indignation, for I was suffering
acutely. I wrenched my hand out of his, grasped the arm supporting me
and pushing myself free, fell plump into the sand and sat helpless. My
hat had fallen off in the struggle and my hair tumbled about my face and
shoulders in the most mortifying way.
"Go away from me," I cried, half choking. "O _please_ go away, you--you
Thug! How dare you think _that_ when my leg is asleep?"
I actually said those identical words! And then I broke down and sobbed.
Irene, I _blubbered_!
His manner altered in an instant--I could see that much through my
fingers and hair. He dropped on one knee beside me, parted the tangle of
hair and said in the tenderest way: "My poor girl, God knows I have not
intended to pain you. How should I?--I who love you--I who have loved
you for--for years and years!"
He had pulled my wet hands away from my face and was covering them with
kisses. My cheeks were like two coals, my whole face was flaming and, I
think, steaming. What could I do? I hid it on his shoulder--there was no
other place. And, O my dear friend, how my leg tingled and thrilled, and
how I wanted to kick!
We sat so for a long time. He had released one of my hands to pass his
arm about me again and I possessed myself of my handkerchief and was
drying my eyes and my nose. I would not look up until that was done; he
tried in vain to push me a little away and gaze into my face. Presently,
when all was right, and it had grown a bit dark, I lifted my head,
looked him straight in the eyes and smiled my best--my level best, dear.
"What do you mean," I said, "by 'years and years'?"
"Dearest," he replied, very gravely, very earnestly, "in the absence of
the sunken cheeks, the hollow eyes, the lank hair, the slouching gait,
the rags, dirt, and youth, can you not--will you not understand? Gunny,
In a moment I was upon my feet and he upon his. I seized him by the
lapels of his coat and peered into his handsome face in the deepening
darkness. I was breathless with excitement.
"And you are not dead?" I asked, hardly knowing what I said.
"Only dead in love, dear. I recovered from the road agent's bullet, but
this, I fear, is fatal."
"But about Jack--Mr. Raynor? Don't you know--"
"I am ashamed to say, darling, that it was through that unworthy
person's suggestion that I came here from Vienna."
Irene, they have roped in your affectionate friend,
MARY JANE DEMENT.
P.S.--The worst of it is that there is no mystery; that was the
invention of Jack Raynor, to arouse my curiosity. James is not a Thug.
He solemnly assures me that in all his wanderings he has never set foot
THE EYES OF THE PANTHER
ONE DOES NOT ALWAYS MARRY WHEN INSANE
A man and a woman--nature had done the grouping--sat on a rustic seat,
in the late afternoon. The man was middle-aged, slender, swarthy, with
the expression of a poet and the complexion of a pirate--a man at whom
one would look again. The woman was young, blonde, graceful, with
something in her figure and movements suggesting the word "lithe." She
was habited in a gray gown with odd brown markings in the texture. She
may have been beautiful; one could not readily say, for her eyes denied
attention to all else. They were gray-green, long and narrow, with an
expression defying analysis. One could only know that they were
disquieting. Cleopatra may have had such eyes.
The man and the woman talked.
"Yes," said the woman, "I love you, God knows! But marry you, no. I
cannot, will not."
"Irene, you have said that many times, yet always have denied me a
reason. I've a right to know, to understand, to feel and prove my
fortitude if I have it. Give me a reason."
"For loving you?"
The woman was smiling through her tears and her pallor. That did not
stir any sense of humor in the man.
"No; there is no reason for that. A reason for not marrying me. I've a
right to know. I must know. I will know!"
He had risen and was standing before her with clenched hands, on his
face a frown--it might have been called a scowl. He looked as if he
might attempt to learn by strangling her. She smiled no more--merely sat
looking up into his face with a fixed, set regard that was utterly
without emotion or sentiment. Yet it had something in it that tamed his
resentment and made him shiver.
"You are determined to have my reason?" she asked in a tone that was
entirely mechanical--a tone that might have been her look made audible.
"If you please--if I'm not asking too much."
Apparently this lord of creation was yielding some part of his dominion
over his co-creature.
"Very well, you shall know: I am insane."
The man started, then looked incredulous and was conscious that he ought
to be amused. But, again, the sense of humor failed him in his need and
despite his disbelief he was profoundly disturbed by that which he did
not believe. Between our convictions and our feelings there is no good
"That is what the physicians would say," the woman continued--"if they
knew. I might myself prefer to call it a case of 'possession.' Sit down
and hear what I have to say."
The man silently resumed his seat beside her on the rustic bench by the
wayside. Over-against them on the eastern side of the valley the hills
were already sunset-flushed and the stillness all about was of that
peculiar quality that foretells the twilight. Something of its
mysterious and significant solemnity had imparted itself to the man's
mood. In the spiritual, as in the material world, are signs and presages
of night. Rarely meeting her look, and whenever he did so conscious of
the indefinable dread with which, despite their feline beauty, her eyes
always affected him, Jenner Brading listened in silence to the story
told by Irene Marlowe. In deference to the reader's possible prejudice
against the artless method of an unpractised historian the author
ventures to substitute his own version for hers.
A ROOM MAY BE TOO NARROW FOR THREE, THOUGH ONE IS OUTSIDE
In a little log house containing a single room sparely and rudely
furnished, crouching on the floor against one of the walls, was a woman,
clasping to her breast a child. Outside, a dense unbroken forest
extended for many miles in every direction. This was at night and the
room was black dark: no human eye could have discerned the woman and the
child. Yet they were observed, narrowly, vigilantly, with never even a
momentary slackening of attention; and that is the pivotal fact upon
which this narrative turns.
Charles Marlowe was of the class, now extinct in this country, of
woodmen pioneers--men who found their most acceptable surroundings in
sylvan solitudes that stretched along the eastern slope of the
Mississippi Valley, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. For more
than a hundred years these men pushed ever westward, generation after
generation, with rifle and ax, reclaiming from Nature and her savage
children here and there an isolated acreage for the plow, no sooner
reclaimed than surrendered to their less venturesome but more thrifty
successors. At last they burst through the edge of the forest into the
open country and vanished as if they had fallen over a cliff. The
woodman pioneer is no more; the pioneer of the plains--he whose easy
task it was to subdue for occupancy two-thirds of the country in a
single generation--is another and inferior creation. With Charles
Marlowe in the wilderness, sharing the dangers, hardships and privations
of that strange, unprofitable life, were his wife and child, to whom, in
the manner of his class, in which the domestic virtues were a religion,
he was passionately attached. The woman was still young enough to be
comely, new enough to the awful isolation of her lot to be cheerful. By
withholding the large capacity for happiness which the simple
satisfactions of the forest life could not have filled, Heaven had dealt
honorably with her. In her light household tasks, her child, her husband
and her few foolish books, she found abundant provision for her needs.
One morning in midsummer Marlowe took down his rifle from the wooden
hooks on the wall and signified his intention of getting game.
"We've meat enough," said the wife; "please don't go out to-day. I
dreamed last night, O, such a dreadful thing! I cannot recollect it, but
I'm almost sure that it will come to pass if you go out."
It is painful to confess that Marlowe received this solemn statement
with less of gravity than was due to the mysterious nature of the
calamity foreshadowed. In truth, he laughed.
"Try to remember," he said. "Maybe you dreamed that Baby had lost the
power of speech."
The conjecture was obviously suggested by the fact that Baby, clinging
to the fringe of his hunting-coat with all her ten pudgy thumbs was at
that moment uttering her sense of the situation in a series of exultant
goo-goos inspired by sight of her father's raccoon-skin cap.
The woman yielded: lacking the gift of humor she could not hold out
against his kindly badinage. So, with a kiss for the mother and a kiss
for the child, he left the house and closed the door upon his happiness
At nightfall he had not returned. The woman prepared supper and waited.
Then she put Baby to bed and sang softly to her until she slept. By this
time the fire on the hearth, at which she had cooked supper, had burned
out and the room was lighted by a single candle. This she afterward
placed in the open window as a sign and welcome to the hunter if he
should approach from that side. She had thoughtfully closed and barred
the door against such wild animals as might prefer it to an open window
--of the habits of beasts of prey in entering a house uninvited she was
not advised, though with true female prevision she may have considered
the possibility of their entrance by way of the chimney. As the night
wore on she became not less anxious, but more drowsy, and at last rested
her arms upon the bed by the child and her head upon the arms. The
candle in the window burned down to the socket, sputtered and flared a
moment and went out unobserved; for the woman slept and dreamed.
In her dreams she sat beside the cradle of a second child. The first one
was dead. The father was dead. The home in the forest was lost and the
dwelling in which she lived was unfamiliar. There were heavy oaken
doors, always closed, and outside the windows, fastened into the thick
stone walls, were iron bars, obviously (so she thought) a provision
against Indians. All this she noted with an infinite self-pity, but
without surprise--an emotion unknown in dreams. The child in the cradle
was invisible under its coverlet which something impelled her to remove.
She did so, disclosing the face of a wild animal! In the shock of this
dreadful revelation the dreamer awoke, trembling in the darkness of her
cabin in the wood.
As a sense of her actual surroundings came slowly back to her she felt
for the child that was not a dream, and assured herself by its breathing
that all was well with it; nor could she forbear to pass a hand lightly
across its face. Then, moved by some impulse for which she probably
could not have accounted, she rose and took the sleeping babe in her
arms, holding it close against her breast. The head of the child's cot
was against the wall to which the woman now turned her back as she
stood. Lifting her eyes she saw two bright objects starring the darkness
with a reddish-green glow. She took them to be two coals on the hearth,
but with her returning sense of direction came the disquieting
consciousness that they were not in that quarter of the room, moreover
were too high, being nearly at the level of the eyes--of her own eyes.
For these were the eyes of a panther.
The beast was at the open window directly opposite and not five paces
away. Nothing but those terrible eyes was visible, but in the dreadful
tumult of her feelings as the situation disclosed itself to her
understanding she somehow knew that the animal was standing on its
hinder feet, supporting itself with its paws on the window-ledge. That
signified a malign interest--not the mere gratification of an indolent
curiosity. The consciousness of the attitude was an added horror,
accentuating the menace of those awful eyes, in whose steadfast fire her
strength and courage were alike consumed. Under their silent questioning
she shuddered and turned sick. Her knees failed her, and by degrees,
instinctively striving to avoid a sudden movement that might bring the
beast upon her, she sank to the floor, crouched against the wall and
tried to shield the babe with her trembling body without withdrawing her
gaze from the luminous orbs that were killing her. No thought of her
husband came to her in her agony--no hope nor suggestion of rescue or
escape. Her capacity for thought and feeling had narrowed to the
dimensions of a single emotion--fear of the animal's spring, of the
impact of its body, the buffeting of its great arms, the feel of its
teeth in her throat, the mangling of her babe. Motionless now and in
absolute silence, she awaited her doom, the moments growing to hours, to
years, to ages; and still those devilish eyes maintained their watch.
Returning to his cabin late at night with a deer on his shoulders
Charles Marlowe tried the door. It did not yield. He knocked; there was
no answer. He laid down his deer and went round to the window. As he
turned the angle of the building he fancied he heard a sound as of
stealthy footfalls and a rustling in the undergrowth of the forest, but
they were too slight for certainty, even to his practised ear.
Approaching the window, and to his surprise finding it open, he threw
his leg over the sill and entered. All was darkness and silence. He
groped his way to the fire-place, struck a match and lit a candle.
Then he looked about. Cowering on the floor against a wall was his wife,
clasping his child. As he sprang toward her she rose and broke into
laughter, long, loud, and mechanical, devoid of gladness and devoid of
sense--the laughter that is not out of keeping with the clanking of a
chain. Hardly knowing what he did he extended his arms. She laid the
babe in them. It was dead--pressed to death in its mother's embrace.
THE THEORY OF THE DEFENSE
That is what occurred during a night in a forest, but not all of it did
Irene Marlowe relate to Jenner Brading; not all of it was known to her.
When she had concluded the sun was below the horizon and the long summer
twilight had begun to deepen in the hollows of the land. For some
moments Brading was silent, expecting the narrative to be carried
forward to some definite connection with the conversation introducing
it; but the narrator was as silent as he, her face averted, her hands
clasping and unclasping themselves as they lay in her lap, with a
singular suggestion of an activity independent of her will.
"It is a sad, a terrible story," said Brading at last, "but I do not
understand. You call Charles Marlowe father; that I know. That he is old
before his time, broken by some great sorrow, I have seen, or thought I
saw. But, pardon me, you said that you--that you--"
"That I am insane," said the girl, without a movement of head or body.
"But, Irene, you say--please, dear, do not look away from me--you say
that the child was dead, not demented."
"Yes, that one--I am the second. I was born three months after that
night, my mother being mercifully permitted to lay down her life in
giving me mine."
Brading was again silent; he was a trifle dazed and could not at once
think of the right thing to say. Her face was still turned away. In his
embarrassment he reached impulsively toward the hands that lay closing
and unclosing in her lap, but something--he could not have said what--
restrained him. He then remembered, vaguely, that he had never
altogether cared to take her hand.
"Is it likely," she resumed, "that a person born under such
circumstances is like others--is what you call sane?"
Brading did not reply; he was preoccupied with a new thought that was
taking shape in his mind--what a scientist would have called an
hypothesis; a detective, a theory. It might throw an added light, albeit
a lurid one, upon such doubt of her sanity as her own assertion had not
The country was still new and, outside the villages, sparsely populated.
The professional hunter was still a familiar figure, and among his
trophies were heads and pelts of the larger kinds of game. Tales
variously credible of nocturnal meetings with savage animals in lonely
roads were sometimes current, passed through the customary stages of
growth and decay, and were forgotten. A recent addition to these popular
apocrypha, originating, apparently, by spontaneous generation in several
households, was of a panther which had frightened some of their members
by looking in at windows by night. The yarn had caused its little ripple
of excitement--had even attained to the distinction of a place in the
local newspaper; but Brading had given it no attention. Its likeness to
the story to which he had just listened now impressed him as perhaps
more than accidental. Was it not possible that the one story had
suggested the other--that finding congenial conditions in a morbid mind
and a fertile fancy, it had grown to the tragic tale that he had heard?
Brading recalled certain circumstances of the girl's history and
disposition, of which, with love's incuriosity, he had hitherto been
heedless--such as her solitary life with her father, at whose house no
one, apparently, was an acceptable visitor and her strange fear of the
night, by which those who knew her best accounted for her never being
seen after dark. Surely in such a mind imagination once kindled might
burn with a lawless flame, penetrating and enveloping the entire
structure. That she was mad, though the conviction gave him the acutest
pain, he could no longer doubt; she had only mistaken an effect of her
mental disorder for its cause, bringing into imaginary relation with her
own personality the vagaries of the local myth-makers. With some vague
intention of testing his new "theory," and no very definite notion of
how to set about it he said, gravely, but with hesitation:
"Irene, dear, tell me--I beg you will not take offence, but tell me--"
"I have told you," she interrupted, speaking with a passionate
earnestness that he had not known her to show--"I have already told you
that we cannot marry; is anything else worth saying?"
Before he could stop her she had sprung from her seat and without
another word or look was gliding away among the trees toward her
father's house. Brading had risen to detain her; he stood watching her
in silence until she had vanished in the gloom. Suddenly he started as
if he had been shot; his face took on an expression of amazement and
alarm: in one of the black shadows into which she had disappeared he had
caught a quick, brief glimpse of shining eyes! For an instant he was
dazed and irresolute; then he dashed into the wood after her, shouting:
"Irene, Irene, look out! The panther! The panther!"
In a moment he had passed through the fringe of forest into open ground
and saw the girl's gray skirt vanishing into her father's door. No
panther was visible.
AN APPEAL TO THE CONSCIENCE OF GOD
Jenner Brading, attorney-at-law, lived in a cottage at the edge of the
town. Directly behind the dwelling was the forest. Being a bachelor, and
therefore, by the Draconian moral code of the time and place denied the
services of the only species of domestic servant known thereabout, the
"hired girl," he boarded at the village hotel, where also was his
office. The woodside cottage was merely a lodging maintained--at no
great cost, to be sure--as an evidence of prosperity and respectability.
It would hardly do for one to whom the local newspaper had pointed with
pride as "the foremost jurist of his time" to be "homeless," albeit he
may sometimes have suspected that the words "home" and "house" were not
strictly synonymous. Indeed, his consciousness of the disparity and his
will to harmonize it were matters of logical inference, for it was
generally reported that soon after the cottage was built its owner had
made a futile venture in the direction of marriage--had, in truth, gone
so far as to be rejected by the beautiful but eccentric daughter of Old
Man Marlowe, the recluse. This was publicly believed because he had told
it himself and she had not--a reversal of the usual order of things
which could hardly fail to carry conviction.
Brading's bedroom was at the rear of the house, with a single window
facing the forest.
One night he was awakened by a noise at that window; he could hardly
have said what it was like. With a little thrill of the nerves he sat up
in bed and laid hold of the revolver which, with a forethought most
commendable in one addicted to the habit of sleeping on the ground floor
with an open window, he had put under his pillow. The room was in
absolute darkness, but being unterrified he knew where to direct his
eyes, and there he held them, awaiting in silence what further might
occur. He could now dimly discern the aperture--a square of lighter
black. Presently there appeared at its lower edge two gleaming eyes that
burned with a malignant lustre inexpressibly terrible! Brading's heart
gave a great jump, then seemed to stand still. A chill passed along his
spine and through his hair; he felt the blood forsake his cheeks. He
could not have cried out--not to save his life; but being a man of
courage he would not, to save his life, have done so if he had been
able. Some trepidation his coward body might feel, but his spirit was of
sterner stuff. Slowly the shining eyes rose with a steady motion that
seemed an approach, and slowly rose Brading's right hand, holding the
pistol. He fired!
Blinded by the flash and stunned by the report, Brading nevertheless
heard, or fancied that he heard, the wild, high scream of the panther,
so human in sound, so devilish in suggestion. Leaping from the bed he
hastily clothed himself and, pistol in hand, sprang from the door,
meeting two or three men who came running up from the road. A brief
explanation was followed by a cautious search of the house. The grass
was wet with dew; beneath the window it had been trodden and partly
leveled for a wide space, from which a devious trail, visible in the
light of a lantern, led away into the bushes. One of the men stumbled
and fell upon his hands, which as he rose and rubbed them together were
slippery. On examination they were seen to be red with blood.
An encounter, unarmed, with a wounded panther was not agreeable to their
taste; all but Brading turned back. He, with lantern and pistol, pushed
courageously forward into the wood. Passing through a difficult
undergrowth he came into a small opening, and there his courage had its
reward, for there he found the body of his victim. But it was no
panther. What it was is told, even to this day, upon a weather-worn
headstone in the village churchyard, and for many years was attested
daily at the graveside by the bent figure and sorrow-seamed face of Old
Man Marlowe, to whose soul, and to the soul of his strange, unhappy
child, peace. Peace and reparation.
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