When I first saw it move I became skeptical as to the worth of my vision. A dead man’s heart, cut from his body, sealed in a glass jar of alcohol—why should it move, how could it move? This heart was by far the most horrible thing in Leon Campeau’s collection of human debris.
As his roommate and fellow student in medicine I had tolerated the clutter of bones and skulls he had picked up, also the immaculate skeleton which leered grotesquely at me from its tall, glass-doored case. But to me this heart, this lump of muscle and tissue, seemed hardly appropriate as a companionable ornament. Leon had brought it in that very morning, delighted in its acquisition, for it was on the heart that he was specializing. He had secured it, he explained, with the connivance of a keeper of the morgue. He had bribed this keeper, he told me, to allow him to remove the heart from the body of a derelict who was to be buried that morning in the potter’s field. A clever fellow, Leon! The heart was now where he had placed it—in its jar on the mantel—a reddish-brown lump that seemed but a deep shadow against the vestal whiteness of wall that rose behind and above. With one elbow propped on my littered study table, I watched the tiling nervously. Had it really moved, or was my imagination flighty?
There! It moved again—I was sure. Yes, it moved; an almost imperceptible flutter in its liquid preservative. I stared. It jerked again … again … the jerks were weak, clumsy, measured.
The thing was coming to life; it was heating.
I shuddered and glanced quickly behind me, all about the room. But I was alone—alone except for a dead man’s heart.
Leon was away on one of his nightly amours, and Francois Bourlin, a fellow student who was specializing in diseases of the lungs, my own major, had spent the earlier part of the night with me. We had little of the brilliance of Leon, who at a glance could grasp the meaning of an entire page and retain it, who could hear more with a stethoscope than we could see with our eyes, whose skill with the knife had aroused admiration from the greatest surgeons of the faculty. No, we were grubs. We worked for what knowledge we got. But when we got it we did not boast of it as Leon boasted of his accomplishments.
Françoise had left at nine-thirty, and it was after ten when I noticed the first movement from the heart.
Its beats were now growing stronger. I could see the alcohol ripple in tiny waves with each rhythmic beat. I listened—and heard a gentle splash, splash, splash, as regular yet not so metallic as the ticking of a watch.
Suddenly the heart flopped convulsively and drifted with the gentlest movement to the top of the jar. It was beating steadily now. It circled slowly about the jar, like an exhausted bird not sure of its direction.
“It’s impossible.” I muttered to myself. “It can’t be. It’s my nerves, my mind. I’ve worked too hard. I must be careful.”
By a supreme effort I forced my eyes from the devilish thing. I rummaged wildly in my desk till I found my syringe, my bottle of morphine. I drew up my sleeve and among the many almost indistinguishable pits in my arm I pricked another.
Calm came instantaneously. I laughed at my fruitful imagination.
“It was my nerves,” I thought. “I will tell no one.”
And, with freshened courage, I turned and gave a bold stare at the jar on the mantel. The heart had stopped beating, was lying silent, inert, in its diaphanous grave.
When Leon came hurrying in a half-hour later I was getting ready for bed. His sallow, carelessly-wrought features were splashed with the high color that is raised by much wine and aroused ardor.
“Henri,” he cried, throwing aside his hat and ulster, “it has been a wonderful night! You should have had a girl and been with me, mon ami.”
I was surfeited on this kind of talk every night. But I hid my shrug and asked:
“And where was it—the wonderful time?”
“At the Cafe Noir. Sacre, Fanchette is delightful! A wonderful companion! But you know her, mon Henri.”
Yes, I knew her—Fanchette—a mischievous imp of femininity. I had been with Leon to the Cafe Noir, a modest tavern owned and managed by Fanchette’s husband, M. Leblanc, a jolly little fellow so amorous-hearted and so trustful of Fanchette that before his very eyes she had carried on a flirtation with Leon. She was infatuated with him—that I could see; and here of late he had become infatuated with her.
“But,” I said to Leon, “what of the little girl back in Bayonne—Nina, the girl who writes to you each day, the girl you are to marry? What of her? Have you written to her this week?”
He eyed me for a moment of hostility. “Certes, I have written to her.”
But I knew he lied; lying was a habit with him.
“Quel diable!” he burst out angrily, after a moment. “Why do you ask me that? How does it concern you? Am I an old owl like you, to sit around poring over books hour after hour, day after day? Non, non! I am no owl. I have life. I love. I enjoy myself. I am happy—till I see your gloomy face. Tiens, I provide for you, I give you room, I give you clothes; yet you correct me!”
I did not argue with him, for I knew that he was partly right: he was rich, I was poor.
And, after all, his amours were none of my business.
Francois came to study with me the next night, for on the day following a final examination yawned before us. We worked bard, nervously. And when Francois finally took his leave, my head was near bursting with thumpy aches.
But, obsequious to duty, I bent over my study table and began to review some of Rollier’s pamphlets—wonderful treatises on heliotherapy and artificial pneumo-thorax. Outside, rain splashed down heavily, as if to crush my night-blackened window panes. The cry of the storm was the mourning cry of wretched, lonely beasts. But I read on and on till the words of Rollier became but dancing specks before my eyes.
Suddenly, as if drawn by some subconscious power, I raised my head, turned slowly and stared—at the mantel.
My eyes found the heart in its tall glass jar, its reddish-brown shape sharply defined against the white background of wall.
It was beating more stanchly than on the night before, as if it had regained a lost vitality.
At the top of the jar the alcohol rocked and lowered in gentle wavelets with each heartbeat.
I listened—intently, fearfully. And above the dull beating of rain and the whistle and howl of the wind, I at last managed to detect a sound of splashing in the jar. The sound came steadily—a gentle, purring splash, splash, splash—with each heart beat, with each wavelet.
I tried to take my eyes away, but I could not: I was held by the thing’s devilish charm. As I watched, the beats became thuds; the heart gave a clumsy jerk, then floated slowly to the top of the jar. For a moment it swam about uncertainly, from top to bottom, from one side to the other. Then its movements became rapid, agitated, violent. It dashed about frenziedly, like a frightened bird vainly trying to escape from its cage. The jar rocked with the violent motion—I heard it, I saw.
With a jerky hand I wiped the cold sweat from my forehead.
“My God!” I thought. “Am I going mad?”
I tried to take my eyes away—and failed. I must do something! With all the power of will and muscle I could summon I sent my right hand groping about the table. At last my fingers found the syringe—and later the magic bottle of morphine.
Somehow I managed the injection. Calm came again. My eyes dropped from the gruesome thing … . And when, in a spirit of bravado, I raised them again a few moments later, it had stopped its beating and lay motionless at the bottom of the jar.
I looked at my watch; it was 11:30. And fully a half-hour passed before Leon came home.
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He came stumbling hilariously into the study room, plainly drunk.
“Tiens, mon Henri!” he cried, slapping me on the shoulder. “It was a happy night! There was wine and my Fanchette and I—ah, what happiness!”
And he babbled on foolishly till he had led me through the entire course of his happy night.
While he was talking I was silent, but as he began clumsily to hang up his clothes I could no longer restrain a warning comment.
“One of these nights when you go to the Cafe Noir, mon Leon, M. Leblanc will tire of your love-making to his wife. You had better watch out for him. He is a man who loves much, and if he discovers your attentions he will be dangerous.”
“M. Leblanc?” Leon laughed drunkenly as he turned to hang up his hat. “I do not fear Monsieur Leblanc. He is like you, mon ami; he is an owl; he sees nothing. Besides, he is away now. He has gone to the country for a few days. He would buy a farm; he would put my Fanchette on a farm! Pécaire! But while he is gone Fanchette and I are happy. She has hired a waitress to take her place—a lean waitress with brick-colored hair. Fanchette acts as manager, I am her assistant. Hah! It is amusing. But is it not an ideal arrangement?”
My silence seemed to anger him. As he watched me his leer changed to a glare, and finally he burst out:
“But why do you tell me to be careful? You have corrected me again! How is it your affair? I will mind my own business and you shall mind yours … . You disgust me!”
But he was in a better humor the next morning, and when I came into the study room I found him staring rapturously into the glass jar on the mantel.
“Come, man ami,” he exclaimed, “and admire with me the consummate skill with which I removed this organ. Ah, was it not an artistic job? A wonderful specimen, mon Henri; just what I need for study. I will be a great surgeon, n’est ce pas? … You should have specialized in the heart, Henri, The old lungs that you study are of no use except for breathing, like bellows such as blacksmiths use. But the heart—ah, it is the organ magnifique! It is the heart that sends out blood that is like the richest of wine. It is the heart that puts the glow to my Fanchette’s cheeks. It is the heart that gives us happiness, emotion, love. A wonderful thing, Henri—wonderful!”
I failed miserably in my examinations that day, but from the triumphant expression on Leon’s face when I met him early in the evening I knew that he had succeeded as completely as I had failed. The situation was galling to me: I had worked slavishly, he had trifled and loafed; yet I had lost and he had won.
After a hasty dinner at my pension, I hurried to my room. As usual, Leon was gone. Partly because of a crushing headache and wracked nerves and partly because of a desire to be entirely alone in enduring the day’s disappointments, I went to bed. But I did not sleep—I tossed and rolled; I thought, suffered, despaired.
Finally I got up, jerked one of Leon’s richly-hued robes about me and went into the study room. It was eleven o’clock.
The night was black—a desolation of disturbing quietude. The wind and rain of the night before had gone. Not a whisper, not a sound of any kind came to break the silence of the room—it was like a void, a vacuity, of the portentous stillness.
Suddenly, yet inexorably, I was gripped by that same subconscious force that had come to me the night before. It raised my head from my propping hands. It turned me in my chair. It focused my eyes on the tall glass jar that sat on the mantel.
Surely, regularly, its every motion accentuated against the pure white background of wall, the heart was beating, beating.
A sudden anger rose within me.
“I am going mad!” I thought desperately. I would seize the jar and its devilish contents;
I would smash it, hurl it from the window. But to carry out my resolution I could not summon the strength of a single muscle. I was helpless.
As I watched, the reddish-brown lump began to swim about the jar. Its beating was measured, like a funeral tramp. I could hear it, its splashing sound thudding mightily in the deep stillness.
Suddenly there came a tremendous splash. The heart dived to the bottom, floundered for a moment, then again shot to the top. Its motion was so rapid that my eyes could scarcely follow it. It churned the liquid. It dashed and darted about, madly, frantically. It thrashed about in the alcohol like a wounded shark in the agony of death.
“The thing has a soul,” I thought; “and it is troubled, disturbed.”
The jar rocked, almost overturned, from the violent movement within. The heart veered, dodged, banged upward, then shot down. Yes, the thing must have a soul.
I tried to take my eyes away—fruitless effort! The thing was possessing me, was my master. It bade me watch, and I did. But as I watched I think I must have prayed.
I tried to reach for my syringe; but my hand hung motionless at my side. I was powerless.
A quick thought almost calmed me.
“I will see now—” I told myself—”I will see whether it is my nerves, whether I am going mad, I will fight it without the morphine. I will fight it, and if it ceases moving, I will have won.”
My situation was no longer terrifying; it became a game, a battle. I was fighting, playing against the reddish-brown streak that thrashed continuously against its background of white; I was fighting its monotonous beats, its zigzagging progress, its splashing sounds, the agitated wavelets it made.
A mellow-toned clock boomed faintly in the distance. I counted its strokes —one—two—three—
The heart shot to the middle of the jar—for a moment became wholly rigid. Then its beating slowed, I stared, listened. Yes, its beats were timed exactly with each stroke of the clock. They came slowly, relentlessly, like a knell. I kept on counting.
At the last stroke the heart again became rigid. Then it sank slowly to the bottom of the jar and lay there motionless.
“I have won!” I told myself fiercely, exultingly, “I have beaten it! It was my nerves, but I have conquered them.”
Surely a sedative could do no harm now, I thought. The crisis had passed; I had shown my strength. So I hastily bared my arm and pricked into it a double dosage of morphine.
Languor came speedily. I decided to not wait for Leon. So I went to bed, fell into a heavy sleep—and dreamed.
I dreamed about the heart—this reddish-brown lump on the mantel. I dreamed that it had eyes, that it watched me. I dreamed that it had a soul, a soul that was troubled and that troubled me. I dreamed that it had power, invisible and terrible; power that charmed me, cowed me, molded me, tortured me.
I must have slept solidly throughout the night. I do not remember of awaking a single time. All I remember is that it was a night of hideous dreams against which I was powerless.
I was awakened by a clatter at the stairs, by a pounding on the door, by a voice crying shrilly, queerly:
“Henri! Let me in, Henri! Let me in!”
I sprang up, into the study room, and opened the door.
Francois Bourlin stumbled in, his face as chalklike as the white of his eyes.
“Henri—haven’t you heard—” he began in a panicky tremolo.
“Heard?” I stammered. “What?”
“About Leon. Ah, it is terrible I All on account of that woman—Fanchette! Leon has been arrested—has confessed! Last night at twelve o’clock the police found Leblanc’s mutilated body in a sewer in the Rue de Loix. He had been dead for at least two days.”
François clutched my arm fearfully, and his voice fell to a husky whisper:
“Leon—Leon had cut his heart out!”
I recoiled. Then my eyes flashed to the jar on the mantel. Glistening in the fresh morning light, against the white background of wall was a shriveled lump, inert, silent, dead. And I knew that it would never beat again.
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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