A Most Unaccountable Feeling
For the last twenty-five years I have lived in New York, the drab, unadventurous life of a city bookkeeper. I have been left pretty much out of the running, but, with money sufficient to pay my unassuming bachelor expenses, I have long ago settled down in my shabbily comfortable lodgings on Fourteenth Street.
Nothing ever happening to relieve its monotony, I grew to think that life was to hold little else save humdrum contentment for me during the quiet remainder of my days.
Now all this is changed, and changed forever. I shall never be the same man again.
A few months ago there came to take lodgings in one of the two rooms on my floor a very strange man.
The evening upon which he moved into his room my landlady knocked at my door the way she does occasionally for a little chat.
“Evenin’, Mr. Scrimgeour,” she said. “I suppose you heard him movin’ in his things?”
“Oh, your new lodger,” I replied. “Well, Mrs. Muzzard, you’ve had the room a long while idle on your hands.”
“Yes, Mr. Scrimgeour, but I can’t ezac’ly say as I’m overjoyed that it’s rented.”
“Mr. Scrimgeour, I don’t like him!”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“Why, there ain’t nothin’ the matter with him as far as that goes. It’s on’y that I have a kind of presentiment. that’s all. He’s so—so queer.”
“That needn’t worry you, Mrs. Muzzard, if he pays his rent. That is, as long as he doesn’t look like a Bolshevik or any other kind of dangerous lunatic.”
“He ain’t no Bolshy and I guess he ain’t no loonier than most of the artists and writers around Greenwich Village here. And as I’ve been living down among them for twenty-odd years I guess I can stand it. No, it ain’t that, Mr. Scrimgeour; I can’t say ezac’ly what it is. I think he’s one of them Spiritualists we hear so much about these days in the papers. Now he asks me for an oil lamp with a heavy shade. Why ain’t the gas light good enough for the likes of him? I’d like to know. I never heard of such a queer thing. What can he be wantin’ a ‘soft light,’ as he calls it, for, if it ain’t so as he can see the spirits? They say them mediums works in the dark. Ugh! It fair makes me creep!”
“Well, if he raises any objectionable spirits around here, you just let me know,” I laughed. “I’ll see what can be done toward exorcising them.”
As my interest was aroused in my fellow lodger by this conversation with my landlady I lingered about in the hallway the following morning in the hope of catching a glimpse of the stranger. But my curiosity was unrewarded.
Every evening during a whole week I heard him climb the uncarpeted stairs and enter his room. Often, during the course of the evening, I could hear his heavy, measured tread as he paced the floor sometimes late into the night.
One evening as I arrived home slightly later than usual, having been detained at the office upon some special work, I passed him in the dark stairway.
He was coming downstairs, and as the light from the upper hall shone upon his back and full into my face, I was unable to see what he looked like. I got the impression only of the hugeness of the man.
Tall, heavily built, his body enveloped in a large black cloak, he appeared, in the exaggerated half-light of the stairway, to be some great giant hovering threateningly over me.
He stood courteously aside, however, pressing himself against the wall to allow me to pass. As I did so I glanced into his face. But he wore a very wide-brimmed Quaker-like hat and, in the shadow which it cast, I could note little save that he wore large, black-rimmed spectacles.
“Good evening,” I murmured.
His reply came to me in a deep, resonant voice, soft and almost tender. There was the rich quality in it of the deep notes of an organ.
A most unaccountable feeling came over me as I brushed past him; something from the inscrutable alchemy of an unusual personality. I felt like a little child that had got lost in an empty house.
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No Longer Blinded By Our Eyes
One evening I discovered, upon trying to light the gas in my room, that I was without matches. Seeing a light shining under the stranger’s door, I ventured to knock and to beg a match of him.
He answered with a sonorous “Come in.” which, considering the secrecy of the man, filled me with surprise.
I found myself in a meagrely furnished room of nondescript threadbareness akin to my own. The apartment was lighted not with gas, as in my room, but by the small table oil-lamp, which had so excited the landlady’s suspicions. The soft yellow glow, repressed by a heavy shade, poured its light over the table, covered, as I noticed, with a confusion of papers.
“You will pardon my intrusion,” I began, explaining my forgetfulness about the matches.
“Indeed,” he replied, “I am glad, if I may put it that way, that you have forgotten them, as it affords me an opportunity of meeting you other than in the stairway.”
Why was it that, as he spoke, I fancied he must be smiling? Something in the genial raillery of his words, I suppose, for when I looked at him no trace of amusement could be seen. His face was as calm, as unemotional as the placid features of a Chinese idol. His cheeks did not crease, nor were there any wrinkles about his eyes.
The impression which he made upon me now was only one of great good nature. I wondered why, recalling our first meeting, I had been so eerily moved.
Then I looked into his eyes and again that strange, haunted feeling crept over me, as it had done that evening upon the stairs.
His eyes were so large that I fancied their unusualness must be caused by the lenses of his glasses, or perhaps by a trick of the shadows. Yet there was something in their expression which I was unable to fathom. Could it be drugs? No, for there was a look of grandeur about them. They baffled me. We humans, who trust so innocently to our sight, we are all so pitifully blind! …
This was only the first of many evenings spent with Nathaniel Broome. Diffidently, almost timidly at first, our acquaintance then ripened into a quiet friendship.
What I am most conscious of having gathered from him is beauty; beauty in the commonplace; beauty in the song of a sparrow ; beauty in the drowsy hum of the city’s impersonal noises.
Nathaniel Broome changed my outlook upon life until we together saw “no longer blinded by our eyes.”
The low, quiet tone of his magnetic voice lent a magic to his strange unusualness; his great, expressive hands shaping the gestures of his speech.
When I listened to him talking I seemed to be swept up, enveloped in his personality. I felt as a child must feel when a playful senior stoops and smothers it in the skirts of his overcoat I felt helpless, yet cared for. I was strangely happy.
And, more than his voice, his eyes, always his eyes, sometimes a little terrifying to me even now, held the secret fascination of his remarkable character.
That immobile face; that calm, inscrutable Buddha. Behind his huge, horn-rimmed spectacles those great, kindly eyes of his beamed in gentle merriment at some jest or some quaint conceit of his fancy.
He showed me once the portrait of a young girl—a dark-haired, hauntingly beautiful child.
“My daughter,” he replied to my look of inquiry, putting the photograph back into the drawer of his writing-table. I knew that he was a widower and, for some reason, by his manner perhaps, I supposed that his daughter was dead, too.
Naturally, I did not press him for these confidences. The subject seemed to move him so deeply that, after he had once spoken, I had never voluntarily mentioned it of my own accord. If he told me about himself it was because he felt the need of companionship, the want of a sympathetic ear.
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No Answer at the Door
One morning—it was a holiday, one of those rare occasions when one is permitted to enjoy the meagre privilege of seeing his home surroundings by the unfamiliar light of day—Mrs. Muzzard rapped sharply at my door.
“Mr. Scrimgeour, for heaven’s sake come and see what can have happened to Mr. Broome. I’ve knocked and knocked at his door, but I can’t get no answer.”
“He’s probably asleep still,” I replied. “I wouldn’t disturb him yet, Mrs. Muzzard.”
“Oh, Mr. Scrimgeour, I don’t think he’s asleep! Please come and try to get him to talk to you. I’m … terribly frightened of him and those creepy eyes of his. You mark my words, Mr. Scrimgeour, there’s something uncanny about that terrible man! Oh, why did I ever let him have me room! Why did I ever let him come into me house? Him with his strange ways, talking to departed sperits all night long!”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Muzzard. You mustn’t let all this newspaper talk get the better of your good, Irish common sense!”
“I know what I know, Mr. Scrimgeour, him with his wide-brimmed bats and his shaded lamps! Skulking around like an old mole afraid to show his face in the light o’ day! That man has a guilty secret!” she whispered melodramatically into my ear.
“Oh, I see!” I laughed. “That explains it! Nathaniel Broome is a mysterious bandit—cut-throat—murderer, masquerading incognito.”
“I don’t know what he’s in, Mr. Scrimgeour, and I don’t say he’s no murderer nor nothing. All I got to say, and if it was over me dead body I’d say it—that man’s hiding from the police!”
I laughed aloud as much at the absurd melodramatics as at the idea of my old friend having so lugubrious a history.
“Well, let’s knock at the terrible bandit’s portals, Mrs. Muzzard,” I said mockingly, “and see if we can persuade him to show himself.”
I pulled the cord of my dressing-gown tightly about my waist, and the action as I did so seemed whimsically like that of an ancient warrior “girding up his loins.”
“Come,” I said, “I shall do the bearding of the Hon. You may shelter yourself behind me. Surely if there are any evil spirits to confront they will have to tackle me first!”
We crossed the dark hallway and stopped in the shadows at the closed door of the mysterious room.
I tapped gently upon the panel.
There was no answer.
Again I rapped upon the door.
“He must be out, after all,” I muttered, as there came no reply, and, to my own amazement, I breathed a sigh of relief!
“I swear to God, Mr. Scrimgeour,” exclaimed Mrs. Muzzard in a hoarse whisper, “I swear to God he ain’t set foot outside this door today!”
She crouched close behind me, her whole body shaking with excitement, her breath coming in sharp gasps through her set teeth. Unaccountably I thought of a terrier bristling with fear at something it cannot understand.
As we listened, something of her perturbation communicated itself to me.
“Can it be,” I thought, “that the woman has some reason for her fantastic premonitions?” Then, “Preposterous! Incredible!”
“He may not have come in at all last night,” I ventured, trying now to reassure myself as well as my frightened companion.
“You must have heard him as plain as I did, Mr. Scrimgeour,” she replied with startling vehemence. “He’s so heavy on the stairs.”
I remembered now that I had heard.
“Surely, then, he is asleep. We had better not wake him.”
“Knock again, Mr. Scrimgeour, for God’s sake knock again!”
Seized by a sudden excitement I rapped heavily, frantically upon the panel of the door. So hard did I use my knuckles that a sharp pain shot through them, and, glancing down at my fingers, I saw that I had broken the skin.
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Tense now with inexplicable excitement we both stood listening, our heads bent toward the closed door.
“Good God, what was that!” sobbed Mrs. Muzzard hysterically, as I fancied that I could hear a low groan.
“Broome! Broome!” I called, all my eerie apprehension vanished. The man was sick, perhaps dying—
“Broome!” I called again, jerking at the handle of the door.
Again we heard the groan, this time louder than before.
“For God’s sake. Broome, open the door, man!” I called.
The words were spoken with very great difficulty, as if the unfortunate man were suffering in intense agony.
“Are you ill?” I called. “It is I, Scrimgeour! Don’t be afraid, but tell me, Broome. If you are ill we must help you. You have locked the door.”
“I am—not—ill.” Again the same tortured voice, forcing itself to speak through an ecstasy of pain. “You—must —not—come—in!”
“Oh, God!—God!—God I” shrieked Mrs. Muzzard in terror. “I tell you that man’s a devil. He’s at some of his ghost tricks now. He’ll have all the powers of hell down on us! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may me sins be forgiven! Oh, Blessed Mary, stand betune us and harm!”
“Shut up, you idiot!” I cried, “Can’t you realize that the man’s been taken suddenly ill? He naturally locked the door last night, when he went to bed, and he’s too sick to get up and open it for us!”
“Then what are we to do?” she I moaned, making ineffectual gestures in the air with her hands.
“We’ll have to break open the door. Get me a hammer, or, if you have an axe or something heavy …”
“I’ll run right away and get Mrs. Seagle’s next door.”
“You—must not—open—the—door!” came again slowly, ominously from the inner room.
During several moments—moments that were age-long—I stood still, rooted to the floor, unable to move my limbs; utterly powerless to cry out.
At my sharp command Mrs. Muzzard had disappeared, more than eagerly I fancied, in search of a battering implement.
She returned, a few minutes later, with an axe, which she had succeeded In borrowing from her neighbor.
There seemed such a feeling of actuality in the stout wooden handle of the axe that, as I gripped it in my hands, I felt my courage returning.
“Look out, Broome!” I shouted. “If you’re up keep away from the door! I’m going to break it in!” And with that I dealt a heavy blow upon the upper panel.
The voice inside became a strangled, inarticulate scream.
Behind me Mrs. Muzzard cowered, a heap of jabbering fear, upon the floor.
Seized in a sort of panic, I rained blow after blow with my stout axe upon the door. I remember, even in my excitement, comparing the scene with a similar one as it would be staged in moving pictures. How quickly upon the screen the door would have been burst open, and how, in actuality, it was so difficult to split such resisting wood.
At last I managed to make an opening through which I might insert my hand and turn the key in the lock.
Then the door swung open.
The window shades had been drawn closely, so that the place was in darkness. I groped my way to the bed.
“Broome!” I cried, still breathless from the unusual exertion, “what’s the matter?” And I leaned over the blurred form that lay crouched in an unnatural attitude upon the bed.
“A little light, Mrs. Muzzard,” I said over my shoulder, as the landlady crept shuddering into the room.
She walked obediently to the window.
The dark form seemed to writhe in agony. Then the shade was lifted and the late morning light poured into the room.
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A Silenic Grin
What I saw there will remain a fearful image in my memory until the day I die.
As I looked at that face upon the pillow the cold chill of horror pricked at the roots of my hair. Clammy drops of perspiration stood out upon my forehead. I could feel the skin drawing into gooseflesh over my spine.
Nathaniel Broome, fully dressed, his body twisted unnaturally in the grip of some strange paralytic seizure, lay huddled upon the bed, his knees drawn up until they touched his chin.
I called that creature by the name of my old friend, but the distorted mask which I saw upon the pillow bore no resemblance to that placid face. It was the face of the fiend which mediaeval sculptors have carved with Gothic monstrousness in imperishable stone.
There was no nose; only two terrible holes where the flesh had been eaten away.
The cheeks were hideously twisted into gnarled, unnatural shapes. The dreadful mouth, perverted to a Silenic grin, leered lasciviously up at me until I shrank back, dizzy, nauseated, at the repulsive sight of it.
I felt myself shaking with terror. This—this nightmare! This phantasmal I could not take my eyes away. For above that horrible disfigurement of flesh, the deep, soul-fathoming eyes of my friend looked up wonderfully into mine, and held me in spite of all my horror at the almost obscene ugliness beneath them.
There was the same old immortal patience, the world of understanding, the illimitable depths of pity. Pity for me! And there, too, at last I divined what I could never interpret before. There was the look which I had for so long been unable to understand. That look was Pain!
Our gazes met: mine telling all my horror, my terror, my fear, my abject cowardice, my disgust; his, immortal, patient, all-wise, all-knowing, like the eyes of God.
“My poor friend—” the gargoyle’s mouth twisted and contorted shockingly in an effort to form the words, “I cannot speak. This seizure has taken sudden hold upon me. This face—this ghoul’s head—”
“Have pity—have pity upon my weakness,” I faltered in the tremulous whisper of a frightened child, I was too much unnerved even to attempt a concealment of my horror. “I can’t help myself. I know that this is only physical with you. I know that we have no mastery of our flesh. When you are well again I will show you how really much I feel for you in your terrible misfortune.”
I looked appealingly down into the all-pitying light of those unfathomable eyes. I tried to see only his eyes. I tried with all my soul to forget the frightful contortion beneath them. And slowly there stole over me a sense of illimitable calm.
“My very good friend,” the low voice, articulating slowly and painfully, came to me as through a mist of dreams, “I am dying I have been waiting, trying to prepare for this during several months. Now it has come. After I have been laid away you may care to know … some day you may wish to understand. , . .
“I have made provision for that, both for you and for one other whom you will meet after I have gone.”
His face working in frightful contortion, my friend lifted a hand, pointing tremulously to the paper-littered table.
I had forgotten Mrs. Muzzard, who had apparently been standing by the window. As I moved from the bedside, where my body had been screening the dying man, she caught sight of his face upon the pillow.
With a shrill scream, lifting her hands to cover her eyes, she fell a crumpled heap upon the floor.
Managing to control myself until a doctor was summoned, I had my tragically unfortunate friend removed to a hospital.
Poor Mrs. Muzzard went out of one fit of hysterics into another, so that I was obliged to lay sufficient hold upon myself to plead with one of the neighbors for aid in attending her.
All these necessary duties served to keep my mind from dwelling upon the terrible ordeal through which we had gone. But late into the night I lay tossing upon my bed unable to sleep. I did not dare put out the light in my room, so fearful was I of the shadows of the dark.
All night long I was haunted, haunted, afraid to close my eyes lest I should see that grim vision of distorted flesh.
Once a window-shutter, loose from its fastenings, swayed noisily in the wind, and I screamed in terror.
But when the dawn came and the gas grew wan against the light of day, with weariness and exhaustion I fell at last into a deep sleep.
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The Letters of Nathaniel Broome
I was awakened by a knocking at the door.
“Come in!” I called, but in a voice which I could scarce recognize as my own.
Mrs. Seagle, the neighbor who had taken care of my stricken landlady, pushed an untidy head through the open doorway.
“There’s someone to see you, sir,” she said.
It was someone from the office, I fancied, to know why I had not gone to work. I felt a wave of rebellious annoyance, because, for this one dreadful day, I might not be left in peace.
“Well!” I cried petulantly as Mrs. Seagle did not move, “show the man up!”
“It’s a lady.”
“A lady,” I echoed in consternation.
The woman grinned meaningly at me.
“Confound your impudence!” I cried, “show the lady into Mrs. Muzzard’s parlor.”
“Mrs. Muzzard ain’t got no parlor,” the woman retorted, retreating in some apprehension at my vehemence.
“Well, then, show her into one of the vacant rooms downstairs while I put my coat on.”
As I entered the stuffy room a few moments later a tall figure clad in black arose from one of the hideous horsehair chairs and approached me.
“Are you Mr. Scrimgeour?” she asked. Her voice was low and musically soft. I looked into a pair of large, wistful eyes. Something about them seemed familiar to me.
“You are …” I hesitated wonderingly.
“I am the daughter of Nathaniel Broome,” she replied, and for a moment the heavy lids lowered over her eyes.
“I have come from Montreal. The day before yesterday I received a telegram from my father saying that he was ill, so, of course, I came at once.”
“But have you seen your father. Miss Broome?”
“I called here early this morning and was told of my poor father’s seizure.”
“I wasn’t told that anyone had called,” I observed. “It’s perhaps due to the fact that Mrs. Muzzard is ill. You see, everything is in confusion here … a neighbor …”
“Yes, I have learned that.”
“And your father?” I asked.
“My father, Mr. Scrimgeour, is dead.”
I could only stare, dumb and astonished. “Why haven’t I been told?” I exclaimed at last. “To die like that, friendless and forsaken!”
“I have just come from my father’s bedside,” she replied. “I am here to bring you the sad news.”
“Good God!” I exclaimed, suddenly remembering. “You saw … you saw … ?” I dreaded to ask, yet wanted most frantically to know.
“I can’t understand why,” the young girl went on, looking inquiringly at me, “but the nurses at the hospital wouldn’t let me take the cloth from my father’s face.”
I did not dare to look into her eyes. I could not reply.
“My father once told me in one of his letters that in case of anything happening to him I was to come to you for advice and for guidance. I have come now. Will you tell me what you know? It all seems very strange. I … I’m at a loss to understand. You will not refuse?”
With the pleading charm of her eyes her overwhelming beauty encompassed me like a wave of some divine ether carrying me off my middle-aged feet.
“Dear friend,” I replied, scarce able to keep the agitation from my voice, “I shall refuse you nothing in my power. Your father has left a number of papers which he hinted to me in words I didn’t understand would tell us all we wished to know.” My heart warmed under the look of gratitude in her eyes.
“And those papers, where are they?” she cried eagerly.
“The room, I fancy, is still untouched as we left it yesterday.”
“Let us go then; I am all impatience.”
Gravely I led the way upstairs to the ill-fated room. The naked boards of the old stairs creaked abominably as we trod upon them, and, thinking of the wretchedness of the upper rooms, I was ashamed.
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The papers upon the table lay just as they had been left upon the previous day.
“Each page is numbered,” said Miss Broome, looking them over. “We shall find little difficulty in reading them.”
She busied herself collating the scattered leaves, bending her head to hide the turbulent emotion in her eyes.
Turning, with a wistful smile, she handed them to me.
“Here they are in their correct order,” she said. “Would you care to read them aloud to me?”
“As you wish,” I replied gravely, accepting the papers.
I hesitated for a moment, glancing at the young girl. Her radiant freshness seemed to be smothered in that tawdry setting.
“I’ll open the window,” I ventured; “the place is airless.”
The manuscript bore every evidence of hasty writing and was difficult, at first, to read; but after a page or two I grew accustomed to it and went on smoothly enough, my companion, listening quietly, not uttering a word.
What follows here has been copied down word for word from that astounding narrative known as “The Strange Case of Nathaniel Broome”:
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The Strange Case of Nathaniel Broome
Feeling that I have only a short while to live, I must try to set down, as clearly and as concisely as possible, the true story of my unfortunate life.
Scrimgeour, who has proved so big-hearted a friend, has a right to know. How often have I not seen that look of baffled inquiry in his gentle eyes when they rested upon my seemingly quiet, untroubled face!
And Marguerite, my daughter, who has been the object of my deepest affection, what must she think of me! Poor child, she, too, has every right to be told.
But such a tale: fantastic, incredible as the ravings of an opium-tainted nightmare… .
My hand trembles; my eyes grow misty; I must make haste before it is too late.
My father, Lemuel Broome, was an artist, and from him, together with great physical beauty, I inherited a deep, esthetic feeling for the beautiful.
My mother died upon giving birth to me. I was their only child.
I learned, in my childish years, to seek for Beauty and to know Beauty in everything.
“Beauty is Virtue; Ugliness is Sin.”
“That,” my father used to say to me, “is all you know and all you need to know.”
Small wonder is it then that as I grew from boyhood, through youth to manhood, sheltered and alone with my father, this doctrine of Beauty grew with me, became a part of my very soul.
I shunned all ugliness ; ugly thoughts, ugly places, ugly people. The servants about my father’s house and estate were chosen for their good looks and not for their trustworthiness or their honesty.
My education was given me by private tutor at home, so that I need not suffer the vulgar contamination of a public school. In fact, until after his death, I had scarce set foot outside the high stone walls of my father’s home.
When I was twenty years of age my father died.
Ignorant as I was of business or of the ugly ways of the world, I was a fair target for the cunning of any scoundrel who might chance to come into my path.
Such an enterprising person was my tutor, James Shirley. He was probably the most physically perfect specimen of a man that I have ever seen; but to that flawless beauty there was added an equally flawless lack of moral principle.
The details of his swindles and more heinous crimes may be found among the prison records. Suffice it to say that before James Shirley died he had succeeded in robbing me of almost everything I possessed. Then, reduced practically to beggary, I met the woman who since became my wife.
Though Angela has been dead fifteen years, I still cannot think of her without emotion. She was the most beautiful woman whom I have ever seen, the most radiantly lovely; a wealth of grace, of tender sweetness and charm. For five years we lived a life of well-nigh perfect happiness.
It is true my wife could never quite understand my unusual outlook upon life. She was amazed and sometimes a little fearful of my acute physical horror of ugliness. Yet, secure in her own surpassing loveliness, she sought only to please me and to be pleasing in my eyes.
Shortly after our daughter Marguerite was born I began to notice a change in Angela. It was not that she had grown less beautiful, for motherhood had only added a new tenderness to her charms. No, the subtle change which I divined in her and mutely wondered at was to be found only in the expression of her eyes. The change which I thought could be noticed in them, however, was something that for a long time I could not find words to explain.
One evening as we sat together talking in the twilight, following some odd remark of hers, I glanced sharply at her and caught the weird expression for a moment in her face.
“My dearest,” I exclaimed, “is there something the matter?”
She smiled and the strange look vanished.
“Why do you ask that question?” she returned. Then I told her of the fears which I had lately felt concerning her.
My explanation seemed deeply to move her.
“Oh, my dear, my dear,” she cried, “you fill me with horror. For days past I have been trying to argue with myself that it has all been my childish fancy. I have told myself that over and over again. But now … if you, too, have seen it, it must be true!”
“Tell me, for heaven’s sake,” I cried in alarm, “tell me what it is!”
“Oh, I’m so much afraid! The terror of it has haunted me for so long! And yet you will protect me—if it’s humanly possible to be protected.”
“That is my right, dear,” I answered. “Tell me.”
“Come, then,” she replied, and led me to the large mirror hanging above the mantel-piece.
“Stand perfectly still behind me, so, and look with all your courage at my reflection in the glass.”
White with excitement engendered by the deathly seriousness of her words, I stood as she bade me, and gazed at our two faces, pale and drawn, reflected in the mirror,
Her countenance, beautiful as a madonna’s, was aglow from the flickering, mellow light of the grate fire. I stared at her, half mad with her loveliness.
“You have never been so beautiful,” I began. The scent from her hair and the nearness of her adorable self; the smoothness of her bare shoulders, made the blood leap intoxicatingly in my veins. I wanted to kneel to her. I yearned with all my soul to worship, to abase my body at her exquisite feet.
“You are wonderfully beautiful—”
“Wait—wait! Keep looking into the mirror!” she whispered. -
“Is there—is there any change?” she asked fearfully.
“No,” I replied, and she gave a deep sigh of relief. Then slowly her image in the mirror began to grow misty and indistinct.
“It’s a trick!” I cried, and my voice seemed high and strained. “It’s a trick! You are playing a joke upon me!”
“Then, it is true,” I heard her say in a hard, cold voice.
“What—in God’s name I”
“Look, look and you shall see!”
The blurred image in the looking-glass started to clear.
But instead of the face of my wife there began to take shape an image so hideous, so ghoulish, that I can only compare it to the disintegration of—of a human corpse!
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The Panic Of Fear
At this point in the extraordinary narrative I stopped reading. For, happening to glance up from the manuscript, I saw such horror in my listener’s eyes that I had not the courage to continue.
“It is too harrowing,” I said. “I must not go on.”
“Read, read, my friend,” replied Miss Broome, shielding her eyes with her hands. I wondered at the remarkable nervous force displayed by one so young.
“Then first allow me to get you a drink of water,” I replied.
She thanked me with a gracious inclination of her head as I returned with the glass. As she accepted it from my hand her cool fingers touched me. Something leaped in my turgid veins at the contact, and I resumed the reading of the story.
This was something, however, which I was able to notice even during the panic of fear that possessed me. I saw that the mysterious transmission of flesh had not changed the eyes. I seized my wife by the shoulders and turned her sharply about.
Her face was as I had always seen it, radiantly, hauntingly beautiful. The only change was in her eyes. Staring searchingly into them I tried with all my mind to read what I saw there. And the look that was in them was Pain.
We were both of us horribly frightened after our extraordinary experience, and sat up discussing it all night long, while little Marguerite, all unsuspecting, lay sleeping peacefully upstairs.
The gruesome illusion hung over our spirits for days. Neither one of us dared to leave the other for a moment alone. The shadows were peopled with ghosts, and dark places became hideous with the hidden menace.
I had all the mirrors in the house removed, and when we went out into the streets I hurried my wife past shop windows with averted eyes, afraid to see in some chance looking-glass the spectre that had become the terror of our lives.
I awoke each morning afraid to look into her eyes; I went to sleep beside her with dread in my miserable soul. For always the terror haunted us, that some day I should look into her face and see without the mirror’s baleful aid that festering putrefaction of flesh and bone.
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We sent Marguerite to a convent near Montreal, so that she, poor child, might be spared the agonies that kept us fearful and eternal company.
Then, at last, the menace that for so many weeks had hung over us took tangible shape.
We had been trying to talk lightly together one evening, trying pitifully to avoid the one subject uppermost in our minds.
I was sitting close to my wife with an arm about her waist. Suddenly I felt her body shiver slightly under my touch.
“What is it?” I asked. “Are you cold?”
The answer came to me in halting, distorted words, as if she were speaking with very great difficulty.
“You’ll not escape from me if I have to follow you from the grave!” But the voice that spoke was not the voice of my wife. Labored, pain-wracked though it was, I could recognize it. It was the voice of my old tutor, James Shirley!
I leaped from my chair, and in the horror that was written in my face my wife needed no mirror to see that at last the dreaded visitation had come and that the fleshly metamorphosis had taken place.
For one agonizing moment I caught the look of pain, of unutterable agony in her eyes, then, with a strangled scream, she fled from me to hide the loathsome body which had taken possession of her from my sight.
I followed wildly to her bedroom, pounding ineffectually upon the door. I could hear her inside, screaming and jabbering meaningless noises. She must have gone completely out of her mind.
Then followed the sound of something falling and the smash of breaking glass. I knew that the lamp had been overturned. A moment later the smell of burning came to me through the door.
My desperate efforts finally succeeded in getting the door open.
I found the room ablaze, the oil from the lamp having spread ail over the carpet. The window curtains had caught fire and the place was thick with smoke.
But writhing on the floor, a mass of leaping, venomous flame, my wife lay, filling the choking air with agonizing shrieks and heart-rending groans.
I seized her with one arm, attempting with the other hand to beat out the flames; but they only leaped about her more triumphantly than before.
By this time the conflagration had spread about us and I was obliged to carry her downstairs and out into the street.
I found shelter for my melancholy burden with some kind neighbors. Meanwhile my home was given over to the flames.
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Sanity And Reason
Angela never spoke again. Her charred and mutilated body was buried, but I alone knew what it was which we had put into the grave. For the malignity which had pursued her, finding an easier entry into her passive mind, did not rest with her death. The evil spirit transferred itself to me!
In the phantom-haunted, grisly years that followed, through nights of fiendish mental torture and of bodily agony I learned a terrible intimacy with her ghostly murderer.
What I have found out will be incredible and preposterous to those who know nothing of spirit visitation or possession; to those narrow-minded skeptics who brush aside all evidence of psychic phenomena as the unhinged ravings of the insane.
Scrimgeour, who has known me intimately during the last few months, can vouch, however, for my sanity and my reason.
But I have other evidences to support my statements. I have the testimony of a host of scientific investigators as well as the indisputable experiences of countless men and women who have given years to the study of this extraordinary mystery.
And more than all these, I know!—I know! I, who write these lines, trembling with fear at the fate awaiting me, lurking here in my very room! Waiting patiently, craftiness, cunning incarnate. Sometimes he sits in that far-off corner leering at me, contorting his ghastliness into still more loathsome expressions. There he taunts me, dares me, whispering to me words so lewd, so obscene, so frightful that I wonder the very walls do not tumble about us at their lascivious echoes.
And I know that, soon, soon, he will come nearer, he will dare to come nearer as he dared with my wife’s most beautiful body. He will take possession of me as he took possession of her.
Already I have seen his shadow in the glass, and I know that it is the beginning of the end.
James Shirley, who lived a life of crime, of loathsome debauch and lasciviousness upon earth; James Shirley, whose body has long lain putrescent in its convict’s grave, will creep at last into my soul, my brain; will take possession of my very body, leaving me only his rotting carcass which lies mouldering in its tomb… .
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The Delicate Aroma Of An Impending Doom
Here the manuscript ended. The papers dropped from my fingers and fell rustling to the floor.
Between us for several moments there was complete silence. The girl’s cheeks were white as marble; her eyes big with terror.
Through the open window the quiet hum of the street traffic reached us, borne on the summer breeze. There the day’s occupation spent itself in calm, unhurrying routine … .
I could hear a messenger boy whistling merrily … .
A young girl laughed.
The clanging of insistent bells mingled with the occasional drone of motor horns. Life, with its unimaginative sameness, was near, was all about us, yet we had no part in it.
Robbed by death of his earth body, James Shirley had killed twice in his feverish yearning to live again. I seemed to feel the presence of his malevolent spirit hovering about us, an eidolon, reaching out lustful, discarnate arms, trying, longing, aching for life.
Marguerite Broome, transcendently beautiful, with all the delicate aroma, the fresh intoxication of flowers about her, sat before me under the shadow of an impending doom. And I, old, withered, ridiculous in my new-found emotions, I who loved her, I who worshipped her, could only stare at her, impotent and pitifully afraid… .
~ 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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