The Black Gondolier
The Phantom Slayer
The Dead Man
The Thirteenth Step
The Repair People
What's He Doing In There?
Daloway lived alone in a broken-down trailer beside an oil well on the bank of a canal in Venice near the café La Gondola Negra on the Grand Canal not five blocks from St. Mark's Plaza.
I mean, he lived there until after the fashion of intellectual lone wolves he got the wander-urge and took himself off, abruptly and irresponsibly, to parts unknown. That is the theory of the police, who refuse to take seriously my story of Daloway's strange dreads and my hints at the weird world-spanning power which was menacing him. The police even make light of the very material clues which I pointed out to them.
Or else Daloway was taken off, grimly and against his will, to parts utterly unknown and blackly horrible.
That is my own theory, especially on lonely nights when I remember the dreams he told me of the Black Gondolier.
Of course the canal is a rather small one, showing much of its rough gravel bottom strewn with rusted cans and blackened paper, except when it is briefly filled by one of our big winter rains. But gondolas did travel it in the illusion-packed old days and it is still spanned by a little sharply humped concrete bridge wide enough for only one car. I used to cross that bridge coming to visit Daloway and I remember how I'd slow down and tap my horn to warn a possible car coming the other way, and the momentary roller-coaster illusion I'd get as my car heaved to the top and poised there and then hurtled down the opposite dusty slope for all of a breathless second. From the top of the little bridge I'd get my first glimpse of the crowded bungalows and Daloway's weed-footed trailer and close behind it the black hunch-shouldered oil well which figured so strangely in his dreads. "Their closest listening post," he sometimes called it during the final week, when he felt positively besieged.
And of course the Grand Canal is pretty dismal these days, with its several gracefully arching Bridges of Sighs raddled with holes showing their cement-shell construction and blocked off at either end by heavy wire barricades to keep off small boys, and with both its banks lined with oil wells, some still with their towering derricks and some--mostly those next to beach side houses--with their derricks dismantled , but all of them wearily pumping twenty-four hours a day with a soft slow syncopated thumping that the residents don't hear for its monotony, interminably sucking up the black petroleum that underlies Venice, lazily ducking and lifting their angularly oval metal heads like so many iron dinosaurs or donkeys forever drinking--donkeys moving in the somnambulistic rhythm of Ferde Grofe's Grand-Canyon donkey when it does its sleepy hee... haw. Daloway had a very weird theory about that--about the crude oil, I mean--a theory which became the core of his dreads and which for all its utter black wildness may still best explain his disappearance.
And La Gondola Negra is only a beatnik coffee house, successor to the fabulous Gashouse, though it did boast a rather interesting dirty drunken guitarist, whose face always had blacker smears on it than those of his stubbly beard and who wore a sweatshirt that looked like the working garment of a coal miner and whom Daloway and I would hear trailing off (I won't venture to say home) in the small hours of the morning, picking out on his twangy instrument his dinky "Texas Oilman Suite", which he'd composed very much in imitation of Ferde Grofe's one about the Grand Canyon, or raucously wailing his eerie beatnik ballad of the Black Gondola. He got very much on Daloway's nerves, especially towards the end, though I was rather amused by him and at the same time saw no harm in his caterwauling, except to would-be sleepers. Well, he's gone now, like Daloway, though not by the same route... I think. At least Daloway never suggested that the guitarist was one of their agents. No, as it turned out, their agent was a rather more formidable figure.
And they don't call the plaza St. Mark's, but it was obviously laid out to approximate that Adriatic-lapped area when it was created a half century ago. The porticos still shade the sidewalks in front of the two blocks of bars and grimy shops and there are still authentic Venetian pillars, now painted salmon pink and turquoise blue--you may have seen them in a horror movie called Delirium where a beautiful crazy slim Mexican girl is chased round and round the deserted porticos by a car flashing its headlights between the pillars.
And of course the Venice isn't Venice, Italy, but Venice, USA--Venice, California--now just another district and postal address in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, but once a proud little beach side city embodying the laughably charming if grotesque dream of creating Venice, Italy, scaled down but complete with canals and arched bridges and porticos, on the shores of the Pacific.
Yet for all the childish innocence of its bizarre glamor, Venice developed an atmosphere, or became the outpost of a sinister deep-rooted power, that did in Daloway. It is a place of dreams, not only the tinseled ones, but also the darker sort such as tormented and terrified my friend at the end.
For a while toward the beginning of this century the movie folk and real estate agents and retired farmers and the sailors from San Pedro went to spanking-new Venice to ride the gondolas--they had authentic ones poled by Italian types possibly hired from Central Casting--and eat exotic spaghetti and gambol romantically a bit with their wide-hatted long-skirted lady friends who also wore daring bathing suits with bare arms and rather short skirts and long black stockings--and gamble too with piled big yellow-backed green bills--and, with their caps turned front to rear, roar their wooden-spoked or wire-wheeled open touring cars along the Speedway, which is now a cramped one-way street that changes direction every block.
But then Redondo and Laguna and Malibu called away the film folk and the other people with fat pocketbooks, but as if to compensate for that they struck oil in Venice and built wells almost everywhere, yet despite this influx of money the gambling never regained its éclat, it became just bingo for housewives, and the Los Angeles police fought that homely extramural vice for a weary decade, until sprawling LA reached out a pseudopod one day and swallowed Venice up. Then the bingo stopped and Venice became very crowded indeed with a beach home or a beach apartment or a beach shack on every square yard that wasn't sidewalk or street--or oil well!--and with establishments as disparate as Bible Tabernacle and Colonic Irrigation Clinic and Mother Goldberg's Home for the Aged. It would have been going too far to have called Venice a beach slum, but it was trending in that direction.
And then, much later, the beats came, the gutter geniuses, the holy barbarians, migrating south in driblets from Big Sur and from North Beach in Frisco and from Disillusion, USA, everywhere, bringing their ratty art galleries and meager avant garde bookstalls and their black-trousered insolent women and their Zen and their guitars, including the one on which was strummed the Ballad of the Black Gondola.
And with the beats, but emphatically not of them, came the solitary oddballs and lone-wolf intellectuals like Daloway.
I met Daloway at a check-out desk of the excellent Los Angeles downtown public library, where our two stacks of books demonstrated so many shared interests--world history, geology, abnormal psychology, and psychic phenomena were some of them--that we paused outside to remark on it. This led to a conversation, in which I got some first intimations of his astonishing mentality, and eventually to my driving him home to save him a circuitous bus-trip, or, more likely, as I learned later, a weary hitch-hike.
Our conversation continued excitingly throughout most of the long drive, though even in that first exploratory confabulation Daloway made so many guarded references to a malefic power menacing us all and perhaps him in particular, that I wondered if he mightn't have a bee in this bonnet about World Communism or the Syndicate or the John Birch Society. But despite this possible paranoid obsession, he was clearly a most worthy partner for intellectual disputation and discourse.
Toward the end of the drive Daloway suddenly got nervous and didn't want me to take him the last few blocks. However, I overcame his reluctance. I remarked on the oil well next to his trailer--not to have done so would have implied I thought he was embarrassed by it--and he retorted sardonically, "My mechanical watchdog! Innocent-looking ugly beast, isn't it? But you've got to keep in mind that much more of it or of its domain is below the surface, like an iceberg. Which reminds me that I once ran across a seemingly well-authenticated report of a black iceberg--"
Thereafter I visited Daloway regularly in his trailer, often late at night, and we made our library trips together and even occasional brief expeditions to sleazily stimulating spots like La Gondola Negra. At first I thought he had merely been ashamed of his battered aluminum-walled home, though it was neat enough inside, almost austere, but then I discovered that he hated to reveal to anyone where he lived, in part because he hesitated to expose anyone else to the great if shadowy danger he believed overhung him.
Daloway was a spare man yet muscular, with the watchful analytic gaze of an intellectual, but the hands of a mechanic. Like too many men of our times, he was amazingly learned and knowledgeable, yet unable to apply his abilities to his own advancement--for lack of connections and college degrees and because of nervous instabilities and emotional blockages. He had more facts at his fingertips than a Ph. D.
candidate, but he used them to buttress off-trail theories and he dressed with the austere cleanly neatness and simplicity of a factory hand or a man newly released from prison.
He'd work for a while in a machine shop or garage and then live very thriftily on his savings while he fed his mind and pondered all the problems of the universe, or sometimes--this was before our meeting and the period of his dreads--organized maverick mental-therapy or para-psychology groups.
This unworldly and monetarily unprofitable pattern of existence at least made Daloway an exciting thinker. For him the world was a great conundrum or a series of puzzle boxes and he a disinterested yet childishly sensitive and enthusiastic observer trying to unriddle them. A scientist, or natural philosopher, rather, without the blinkered conformity of thought which sometimes characterizes men with professional or academic standing to lose, but rather with a fiercely romantic yet clear-headed and at times even cynical drive toward knowledge. Atoms, molecules, the stars, the unconscious mind, bizarre drugs and their effects, (he'd tried out LSD and mescaline), the play of consciousness, the insidious interweaving of reality and dream (as climatically in his dreams of the Black Gondola), the bafflingly twisted and folded strata of Earth's crust and man's cerebrum and all history, the subtle mysterious swings of world events and literature and sub-literature and politics--he was interested in all of them, and forever searching for some unifying purposeful power behind them, and sensitive to them to a preternatural degree.
Well, in the end he did discover the power, or at least convinced himself he did, and convinced me too for a time--and still does convince me, on lonely nights--but he got little enough satisfaction from his knowledge, that I know of, and it proved to be as deadly a discovery, to the discoverer, as finding out who is really back of Organized Crime or the Dope Traffic or American Fascism. Gunmen and poisoners and scientifically-coached bombers would be loosed against anyone making any of the last three discoveries; the agent who did away with Daloway was murkier-minded and deadlier even than the man who shot Kennedy.
But I mentioned sensitivity. In many ways, it was the hallmark of Daloway. He'd start at sounds I couldn't hear, or that were blanked out for me by the ceaseless ponderous low throb of the oil wells, especially the one a few yards beyond the thin wall of this trailer. He'd narrow his eyes at changes in illumination that didn't register on my retinas, or dart them at little movements I usually missed. He'd twitch his nostrils for special taints that to me were blanketed, at least in Venice, by the stench of the petroleum and the salt-fishy reek of the ocean. And he'd read meanings in newspaper articles and in paragraphs of books that I would never have seen except for his pointing them out, and I am not exactly unsubtle.
His sensitivity was almost invariably tinged with apprehension. For example, my arrivals seemed always to startle and briefly upset him, no matter how quiet or deliberately noisy I made them, and regardless of how much he seemed afterwards to enjoy my company--or at the very least the audience-of-one with which I provided him. Indeed this symptom--this jitteriness or jumpiness--was so strong in him that, taken together with his solitary fugitive mode of life and his unwillingness to have his dwelling known, it led me to speculate early in our relationship whether he might not be in flight from the law, or the criminal underworld, or some fearsomely ruthless political or sub-political organization, or from some less tangible mafia.
Well, considering the nature of the power Daloway really feared, its utter black inhumanity, its near-omnipresence and almost timeless antiquity, his great apprehension was most understandable--provided of course that you accepted his ideas, or at least were willing to consider them.
It was a long time before he would unequivocally identify the power to me--give me a specific name to his They. Perhaps he dreaded my disbelief, my skeptical laughter, even feared I would cut him off from me as a hopeless crank. Perhaps--and this I credit--he honestly believed that he would subject me to a very real danger by telling me, the same danger he was darkly shadowed by, or at least put me into its fringes--and only took the risk of doing so when the urge to share his suspicions, or rather convictions, with someone capable of comprehending them, became an overpowering compulsion.
He made several false starts and retreats. Once he began, "When you consider the source of the chemical fuels which alone make modern civilization possible, and modern warfare too, and the hope--or horror--of reaching other planets--" and then broke off.
Another time he launched off with, "If there is one single substance that has in it all of life and the potentiality for life, all past life by reason of its sources and all future life by the innumerable infinitely subtle compounds it provides--" and then shut tight his lips and opened them only to change the subject.
Another of these abortive revelations began with, "I firmly believe that there is no validity whatever in the distinction between the organic and the inorganic--I think it's every bit as false as that between the artificial and the natural. It's my absolute conviction that consciousness goes down to the level of the electrons--yes, and below that to the strata of the yet-undiscovered sub-particles. The substance which before all others convinces me that this is so, is--"
And once when I asked him without warning, "Daloway, what is it you're afraid of, anyhow?" he replied,
"Why, the oil, of course," and then immediately insisted he was thinking of the possible role of hydrocarbons and coal tars--and their combustion products--in producing cancer.
I had better state as simply as possible Daloway's ideas about the power, as he finally revealed them to me.
Daloway's theory, based on his wide readings in world history, geology, and the occult, was that crude oil--petroleum--was more than figuratively the life-blood of industry and the modern world and modern lightning-war, that it truly had a dim life and will of its own, an inorganic consciousness or sub-consciousness, that we were all its puppets or creatures, and that its chemical mind had guided and even enforced the development of modern technological civilization. Created from the lush vegetation and animal fats of the Carboniferous and adjoining periods, holding in itself the black essence of all life that had ever been, constituting in fact a great deep-digged black graveyard of the ultimate eldritch past with blackest ghosts, oil had waited for hundreds of millions of years, dreaming its black dreams, sluggishly pulsing beneath Earth's stony skin, quivering in lightless pools roofed with marsh gas and in top-filled rocky tanks and coursing through myriad channels and through spongy rocky bone, until a being evolved on the surface with whom it could realize and expend itself. When man had appeared and had attained the requisite sensitivity, and technical sophistication, then oil-like some black collective unconscious--had begun sending him its telepathic messages.
"Daloway, this is beyond belief!" I burst out here the first time he revealed to me his theory in toto .
"Telepathy by itself is dubious enough, but telepathic communication between a lifeless substance and man--"
"Do you know that many companies hunting oil spend more money for dowsers than they do for geologists?" he shot back at me instantly. "For dowsers and for those psionic-electronic gadgets they call doodlebugs. The people whose money's at stake and who know the oil lands in a practical way believe in dowsing, even if most scientists don't. And what is dowsing but a man moving about on the surface until he gets a telepathic signal from... something below?"
In brief, Daloway's theory was that man hadn't discovered oil, but that oil had found man. Venice hadn't struck oil; oil had thrust up its vicious feelers like some vast blind monster, and finally made contact with Venice.
Everyone admits that oil is the lifeblood of modern technological culture--its automobiles and trucks and airplanes, its battleships and military tanks, its ballistic missiles and reekingly fueled space vehicles. In a sense Daloway only carried the argument one step further, positing behind the blood a heart--and behind the heart, a brain.
Surely in a great age-old oil pool with all its complex hydrocarbons--the paraffin series, the asphalt series, and many others--and with its subtle gradients of heat, viscosity, and electric charge, and with all its multiform microscopic vibrations echoing and re-echoing endlessly from its lightless walls, there can be the chemical and physical equivalent of nerves and brain-cells; and if of brain-cells, then of thought. Some computers use pools of mercury for their memory units. The human brain is fantastically isolated, guarded by bony walls and by what they call the blood-brain barrier; how much more so subterranean oil, within its thick stony skull and earthen flesh.
Or consider it from another viewpoint. According to scientific materialism and anthropologic determinism, man's will is an illusion, his consciousness but an epiphenomenon--a useless mirroring of the atomic swirlings and molecular churnings that constitute ultimate reality. In any such world-picture, oil is a far more appropriate primal power than man.
Daloway even discovered the chief purpose animating oil's mentality, or thought he did. Once when we were discussing spaceflight, he said suddenly, "I've got it! Oil wants to get to other planets so that it can make contact with the oil there, converse with extraterrestrial pools--fatten on their millennial strength, absorb their wisdom..."
Of course a theory like that is something to laugh at or tell a psychiatrist. And of course Daloway may have been crazy or seeking a dark sort of laughter himself. I mean it is quite possible that Daloway was deceiving and mystifying me for his own amusement, that he elaborated his whole theory and repeatedly simulated his dreads simply as part of a long-drawn-out practical joke, that he noted a vein of credulity in me and found cruel delight in fooling me to the top of my bent, and that--as the police insist--even the starkly material evidence for the horror of his disappearance which I pointed out to them was only a final crude hoax on his part, a farewell jest.
Yet I knew the man for months, knew his dreads, saw him start and shiver and shake, heard him rehearse his arguments with fierce sincerity, witnessed the birth-quivers of many of his ideas--and I do not think so.
Oh, there were many times when I doubted Daloway, doubted his every word, but in the end his grotesque theory about the oil did not elicit from me the skepticism it might have from another hearing it elsewhere--perhaps, it occurs to me now, because it was advanced in a metropolis that is such a strange confirmation of it.
To the average tourist or the reader of travel brochures, Los Angeles is a gleaming city or vast glamorous suburb of movie studios and orange groves and ornate stucco homes and green-tiled long swimming pools and beaches and now great curving freeways and vast white civic centers and sleekly modern plants--aviation, missile, computer, research and development. What is overlooked here is that the City of the Angels, especially in its southern reaches stretching toward Long Beach, is almost half oil-field.
These odorous grim industrial barrens interweave elaborately with airfields and showy tract housing developments--with an effect of savage irony. There is hardly a point from which one cannot see in the middle or farther distance, looming through the faintly bluish haze of the acrid smog, a hill densely studded with tall oil derricks. Long Beach herself is dominated by Signal Hill with oil towers thick as an army's spears and cruel as the murders which have been committed on its lonely slopes.
The first time I ever saw one of those hills--that near Culver City--I instantly thought of H. G. Wells'
War of the Worlds and of his brain-heavy Martians on their lofty metal tripods wherewith they strode ruthlessly about the British countryside. It seemed to me that I was seeing a congeries of such tower-high beings and that the next moment they might begin to stride lurchingly toward me, with something of the feeling, modernistically distorted, of Macbeth's Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane.
And here and there along with the oil derricks, like their allies or reinforcements, one sees the gleaming distillation towers and the monstrous angular-shouldered cracking plants with muscles of knotted pipe, and the fields of dull silver oil tanks, livid in the smog, and the vaster gas tanks and the marching files of high-tension-wire towers, which look at a distance like oil derricks.
And as for Venice herself, with the oil's omnipresent reek, faint or heavy, and with her oil wells cheek-by-jowl with houses and shacks and eternally throbbing, as if pulsing the beat of a vast subterranean chemic heart--well, it was only too easy to believe something like Daloway's theory there.
It was from the beach by Venice, in 1926, that Aimee Semple McPherson was mysteriously vanished, perhaps teleported, to the sinisterly-named Mexican town of Black Water--Agua Prieta. The coming of the illusioneers to Venice, and of the beatniks--and of the black oil, aceite prieto --all seemed alike mindless mechanic movements, or compulsive unconscious movements, whether of molecules or people, and in either case a buttressing of Daloway's wild theory--and at the very least an ironic picture of modern man's industrial predicament.
At all events the black savage sardonicism of that picture, along with Daloway's extreme sensitivity, made it easy to understand why his nerves were rasped acutely by the Ballad of the Black Gondola, as the black-smeared lurching beatnik guitarist came wailing it past the thin-walled trailer in the small hours of the night. I heard it only two or three times and the fellow's voice was thick to unintelligibility, though abominably raucous, so it was mostly from Daloway that I got the words of the few scattered lines I remember. They were a half-plagiarized melange of ill-fitted cadences, but with a certain garishly eerie power:
Oh, the Black Gondola's gonna take you for a ride
With a cargo of atom bombs and Atlases and nightmares...
The Black Gondola's gonna stop at your door
With a bow-wave of asphalt and a gravel spray...
The Black Gondola'll... get... you... yet!
Even of those five lines, the second comes--with a few changes of word--from a short poem by Yeats, the fifth derives from Vachel Lindsay's The Congo , while the Black Gondola itself sounds suspiciously like the nihilism-symbolizing Black Freighter in Brecht's and Weill's The Three-Penny Opera .
Nevertheless, this crude artificial ballad, in which the Black Gondola seems to stand for our modern industrial civilization--and so, very easily, for petroleum too--may well have shaped or at least touched off Daloway's dreams, though his Black Gondola was of a rather different sort.
But before I describe Daloway's dreams, I had better round out his picture of the power which he believed dominated the modern world and, because he was coming to know too much about it, menaced his own existence.
According to Daloway, oil had intelligence, it had purpose... and it also had its agents. These beings, Daloway speculated, might be parts of itself, able to move independently man-shaped and man-sized for purposes of camouflage, composed of a sort of infernal black ectoplasm or something more material than that--a darkly oleaginous humanoid spawn. Or they might be, at least to begin with, living men who had become oil's worshipers and slaves, who had taken the Black Baptism or the Sable Consecration--as he put it with a strange facetiousness.
"The Black Man in the Witch-cult!" he once said to me abruptly. "I think he was a forerunner--spying out the ground, as it were. We have to remember too that oil was first discovered, so far as the modern world is concerned, in Pennsylvania, the hexing state, though in another corner than the Dutch territory--at Titusville, in fact, in 1859, just on the eve of a great and tragic war that made fullest use of new industrial technologies. It's important to keep in mind, incidentally, that the Black Man wasn't a Negro, which would have made him brown, but simply a man of Caucasian features with a dead-black complexion. Though there are dark brown petroleums, for that matter, and greenish ones. Of course many people used to equate the Black Man with the Devil, but Margaret Murray pretty well refuted that in her God of the Witches and elsewhere.
"Which is not to say that the Negro's not mixed up in it," Daloway continued on that occasion, his thoughts darting and twisting and back-tracking as rapidly as they always did. "I think that the racial question and--as with space flight--the fact that it's come to the front today, is of crucial significance.
Oil's using the black as another sort of camouflage."
"What about atomic energy? You haven't brought that in yet," I demanded a little crossly, or more likely nervously.
Daloway gave me a strange penetrating look. "Nuclear energy is, I believe, an entirely separate subterranean mentality," he informed me. "Helium instead of marsh gas. Pitchblende instead of pitch. It's more introspective than oil, but it may soon become more active. Perhaps the conflict of these two vampiristic mentalities will be man's salvation!--though more likely, I'm afraid, only a further insurance of his immediate destruction."
Oil's dark agents not only spied, according to Daloway, but also dispersed clues leading to the discovery of new oil fields and new uses for oil, and on occasion removed interfering and overly perceptive human beings.
"There was Rudolf Diesel for one, inventor of the all-important engine," Daloway asserted. "What snatched him off that little North Sea steamer back in 1913?--just before the first war to prove the supremacy of petro-powered tanks and armored cars and zeppelins and planes. No one has ever begun to explain that mystery. People didn't realize so well then that oil is as much a thing of the salt water--especially the shallows above the continental shelves--as it is of the shores. I say that Diesel knew too much--and was snatched because he did! The same may have been true of Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared at almost the same time down in the oil lands between Mexico and Texas, though I don't insist on that. The history of the oil industry is studded with what some call legends, but I believe are mostly true accounts, of men who invented new fuels, or made other key discoveries, and then dropped out of existence without another word spoken. And the oil millionaires aren't exactly famous for humanitarianism and civilized cosmopolitan outlook. And every oil field has its tales of savagery and its black ghosts--the fields of Southern California as much as the rest."
I found it difficult--or, more truthfully, uncomfortable--to adjust to Daloway's new mood of piled revelations and wild sudden guesses, in contrast to his previous tight-lipped secrecy, and especially to these last assertions about a black lurking infernal host--here, in the ultramodern, garishly new American Southwest. But not too difficult. I have never been one to be dogmatically skeptical about preternatural agencies, or to say that Southern California cannot have ghosts because its cities are young and philistine and raw that sprawl across so much of the inhospitable desert coast and because the preceding Amerind and Mission cultures were rather meager--the Indians dull and submissive, the padres austere and cruel.
Ghostliness is a matter of atmosphere, not age. I have seen an unsuccessful subdivision in Hollywood that was to me more ghostly than the hoariest building I ever viewed in New England. Only thirty years ago they had scythed and sawed down the underbrush and laid out a few streets and put in sidewalks and a water pipe and a few hydrants. But then the lot-buyers and home-builders never materialized and now the place is a wilderness of towering weeds and brush, with the thin-topped streets eroded so that at some points they are a dozen feet below the hanging under-eaten sidewalks, and the water pipe is exposed and rusting and each hydrant is in the midst of a yellow thicket and the only living things to be seen are the tiny darting lizards and an occasional swift sinuous snake or velvet dark shifty tarantula and whatever else it is that rustles the dry near-impassable vegetation.
Southern California is full of such ghost-districts and ghost-towns despite the spate of new building and hill-chopping and swamp-draining that has come with the rocket plants and television and the oil refineries and the sanatoria and the think-factories and all the other institutions contributing to the area's exploding population.
Or I could let you look down into Potrero Canyon, an eroded earthquake crack which cuts through populous Pacific Palisades, another postal address in Los Angeles. But I could hardly lead you down into it, because its sides are everywhere too steep and choked with manzanita and sumac and scrub oak, where they don't fall away altogether to the clay notch of its bottom. Trackless and almost impenetrable, Potrero Canyon dreams there mysteriously, the home of black foxes and coyotes and silently-soaring sinister hawks, oblivious to the bright costly modern dwellings at its top--"that deep romantic chasm... a savage place... holy and enchanted," to borrow the words of Coleridge.
Or I could invite you on any clear day to look out across the Pacific at the mysterious, romantically crested Santa Barbara Islands--all of their 218,000 acres, save for Santa Catalina's 55,000, forbidden territory by Government ukase or private whim.
Even the earth of Southern California, sedimentary, lacking a strongly knit rocky skeleton, seems instinct with strange energies hardly known in geologically stabler areas and lending a weird plausibility to Daloway's theory of sentient, seeking, secretive oil. Every year there are unforeseen earth-falls--and falls of houses too--and mud-slides that drown dwellings and engulf cars. Only in 1958 one of them sent half of a hundred-foot-high hill slumping forward to bury the Pacific Coast Highway; they were more than six months filling in beach, trucks running rock night and day, to get a bed on which to lay the road around it.
Once, not too long ago, they called that road Roosevelt Highway, but now it is Cabrillo Highway or even El Camino Real. Just as the street names, straining for glamor, have progressed from Spanish to British to Italian and back to Spanish again, and the favorite subdivision names from Palisades to Heights to Knolls to Acres to Rivieras to Mesas to Condominiums. In Southern California, seemingly, history can run backwards, with an unconscious fierce sardonicism.
And then there are all the theosophists and mystics and occultists, genuine and sham, who came swarming to Southern California in the early decades of the century. A good many of those were sensitive to the uncanny forces here, I think, and were drawn by them--as well as by the lavish gypsy camp of the movie-makers, the bankrolls of the retired and the elderly, and a health-addict's climate, the last somewhat marred by chilly damp western winds and by burningly dry Santa Anas, threatening vast brush fires, and now by smog. And the occultists keep swarming here--the I Am folk with their mysterious mountain saints and glittering meetings in evening dress; the barefoot followers of Krishna Venta and the mysterious errand-of-mercy appearances they made at local disasters and finally their own great Box Canyon mystery-explosion of December 7, 1958, which claimed ten lives, including--possibly--their leader's; the Rosicrucians and Theosophists; Katherine Tingley and Annie Besant; the latter's World Master, Krishnamurti, still living quietly in Ojai Valley; the high-minded Self-Realization movement, the dead body of whose founder Paramhansa Yogananda resisted corruption for at least twenty days, as testified by Forest Lawn morticians; Edgar Rice Burroughs, who fictionalized the fabulous worlds of theosophy on Mars and is immortalized in Tarzana; the flying-saucer cultists with their great desert conventions; beautiful Gloria Lee listening raptly to her man on Jupiter--there is no end to them.
So when Daloway began to rehearse to me his fearful suspicions, or beliefs rather, about oil's black ghosts--or acolytes, or agents, or budded-off black ameboid humanoid creatures, or whatever they exactly might be--I was uneasily sympathetic to the idea if not consciously credulous. Good Lord, if there could be such things as ghosts, it would be easy to imagine them in Venice--ghosts of the Channel Indians and those whom the Indians called "the Ancient Ones," ghosts of Cabrillo's men when he discovered this coast in 1592 before he died on windswept forbidden San Miguel, westernmost of the Santa Barbara Islands; ghosts from the harsh theocratic Mission days and the lawless Mexican years that followed, ghosts of the Spanish and Yankee Dons, ghosts of gold-seekers and vigilantes, anarchists and strike-breakers, and ghosts of the gamblers and gondoliers and the other folk from the illusion-packed years. Especially now that the illusions are edging back again: in the swampy south end of Venice they've just built a great marina or small-boat harbor, with fingers of sea interlocking fingers of low-lying land and with all sorts of facilities for luxurious dockside apartments and homes--if the buyers materialize and if they fully subdue the strange tidal waves which first troubled the marina. There is even talk of linking the marina to the old canal system and cleaning that up and filling it all year round and perhaps bringing back the gondolas. Though at the same time, by a cackling irony, a battle goes on in the courts as to whether or not industry may be licensed to drill for offshore oil, setting up its derricks in the shallows off the Pacific, just beyond the breakers that beat against the beaches of Venice--Wells' Martians submerged to their chests in waves. In our modern world, illusion and greed generally walk hand in hand.
So it was by no means with complete skepticism about his wild theory of black buried oil and its creatures that I listened to Daloway's accounts of his dreams of the Black Gondola, or rather his dream, since it was always basically the same, with minor variations. I will tell it one time in his words, as he most fully told it, remembering too how I heard it--in his cramped trailer, late at night, perhaps just after the passing of the wailing drunken guitarist, no other sound but the faint distant rattle of the breaking waves and the slow throb of the oil pump a few yards beyond the thin metal wall with the small half-curtained window in it, the edges of my mind crawling with thoughts of the black preternatural creatures that might be on watch outside that same wall and pressing even closer.
"I'm always sitting in the Black Gondola when the dream begins," Daloway said. "I'm facing the prow and my hands grip the gunwales to either side. Apparently I've just left the trailer and got aboard her, though I never remember that part, for we're in the canal outside, which is full to the top of its banks, and we're headed down the middle of it toward the Grand Canyon. There's oil on my clothes, I can feel it, but I don't know how it got there.
"It's night, of course, dark night. The street lights are all out. There's just enough glow in the sky to silhouette the houses. No light shows in any of their windows, only the glimmer coming between them--a glimmer no brighter than the phosphorescence that paints the breakers some summer nights when the sewage breeds too big an algae crop and there's a fish-kill. Yet the glimmer and glow are enough to show the tiny ripples angling out from the gondola's prow as we move along.
"It's a conventional gondola, narrow and with a high prow, but it's black--sooty black--no highlights reflect from it. You know, gondola also means coal car, those black open-topped cars on the railroads.
I've ridden the freights often enough--perhaps there's a connection there.
"I can hear the swish and the faint fluid-muffled thump of the gondolier's pole against the bottom as he drives us along. It's thudding in the same slow rhythm as the pumping of the oil wells. But I cannot look around at him--I daren't! The fact is, I'm frozen with terror, both of the voiceless gondolier standing behind me and of our destination, though I cannot yet conceive or name that. My grip on the gunwales tightens convulsively.
"Sometimes I try to visualize what the gondolier looks like--never in my dreams, but at times like this--what his appearance would be if I had the courage to turn my head, or if the dream changed so that I was forced to look at him. And then I get a glimpse of a thin figure about seven feet tall. His shoulders are twisted and his head, bent forward, is hooded. The rest of his clothing is tight-fitting, down to his long narrow sharply pointed shoes. His big long-fingered hands grip the black pole strongly. And everywhere he himself is black, not dull black like the gondola, but gleaming black as if he were thickly coated with black oil which had just the faintest greenish sheen to it--as if he were some infernal merman newly swum up from the depths of a great oil ocean.
"But in my dream I dare not look or even think of him. We turn into the Grand Canal and head toward the marina, but there are no lights there or on the heights of Playa del Rey beyond. There are no stars in the sky, only that exceedingly faint shimmer. I watch for the lights of a plane mounting from the International Airport. Even one tiny red-green pair moving across the sky out to sea so far away would be a great comfort to me. But none comes.
"The reek of the oil is strong. (In how many dreams do we experience odors? This is the only one where it's happened to me.) We pass under two of the bridges. The glimmer shows me their curving ruin-notched outlines and one or two ragged fragments of cement dangling by the wires imbedded in them.
"The reek grows stronger. And now at last I notice a change in our movement, although the bow ripples have the same angles and the muffled thud of the pole has the same slow rhythm. The change is simply that the gondola has settled a little deeper in the water, not more than two or three inches.
"I ponder the problem. Nothing has entered the boat--nothing before me that I have seen or behind me that I have felt. I scrape my feet against the bottom--it is dry, no water has entered. Yet the gondola is riding deeper. Why?
"The reek grows stronger still--suffocatingly so, almost. The gondola settles still deeper in the water, so deep that the ends of my fingers on the outside of the gunwales are immersed. And now the problem is solved. Touch tells me that the gondola is riding not in water, but in oil. Or rather in an ever-thickening layer of oil floating on top of the water. The thicker the layer gets, the deeper the boat sinks."
Daloway stared at me sharply. "That would actually be true, you know," he interjected. "A boat would ride very high in a sea of mercury, because the stuff is heavier than lead, but low in a sea of gasoline or petroleum--sink, in fact, if it hadn't enough freeboard--because the stuff is light. Petroleum may have as little as seven-tenths the weight of water. Which is odd considering the thick greases we get out of it. Yet thick greases like Vaseline float.
"And it would be true, too, that a boat riding in a layer of oil floating atop water--an oil-layer thinner than the boat's draught--would sink proportionately deeper as the layer got thicker, until it was riding wholly in oil. Then it would steady--or sink for good.
"The layer of oil in which my gondola is riding is getting thicker, at all events," he went on, resuming the narration of his dream.
"I get the impression that we are reaching a length of the Grand Canal in which there is nothing but oil.
The black stuff begins to pour over the gunwales in a thin sleek waterfall. Yet the Black Gondola is moving ahead as steadily and strongly as ever and even more swiftly. We are like an airplane taking off--downward. Or like a submarine diving.
"I nerve myself to loosen my grip on the gunwales and make a wild plunge toward the bank, although I fear I will drown in even that short distance. But at that instant the gondolier's pole comes down firmly on my right shoulder, projecting perhaps a yard ahead of me and pinning me to my seat. Though its injunction not to move is more hypnotic, or magical, than physical, it is absolute. I cannot stir, or break my grip on the submerging gondola.
"I know this is Death. I peer yearningly one last time for the lights of a mounting airplane. Then as the oil, moving past me in an unending sleep caress, mounts to my face, I shut my lips, I hold my breath, I close my eyes.
"The oil covers me. I am aware in those last paralyzed seconds that we are moving still more swiftly through the black stuff. Yet the solid oil rushing past does not unseat me from the gondola, or even tug at me. The effect is always of a great unending caress.
"Death and Agony do not come. I wait for the urge to breathe to become overpowering. There is no urge. The straining muscles of my chest and jaw and face relax.
"I open my eyes. I can see through the oil. It has become my medium of vision. By a darkly green shimmering I can see that, still descending and even more swiftly now, we are traversing a great rocky cavern filled with oil. Evidently we plunged into it from the Grand Canal, by way of some unsuspected gate or lock, while I waited with closed eyes for my death-spasm.
"During the same period of blindness, the Black Gondolier has moved from behind me and taken up a position below and a little ahead of the Black Gondola, dragging it along like some mythic slim long dolphin or infernal merman. Now and again past the forward gunwales I glimpse, greenly outlined in midkick, the black soles of his long narrow sharply pointed feet--or bifid narrow tail-fin.
"I say to myself, 'I have received the Black Baptism. I have partaken of the Black Communion.'
"Our speed ever increasing, we pass through weird grottos, we twist and turn through narrow passageways whose irregular walls flash with precious gems and nuggets of gold and copper, we soar across great vaults domed with crusty salt crystals glittering like thick-packed diamonds.
"I know, even in my dream, that this picture of underground oil in vast interconnected lakes and tanks is false by all geology--that untapped oil is mixed with earth and porous rocks and shales and sand, not free--but the picture and experience remain the same and exquisitely real. Perhaps I have suffered a size-change, become microscopic. Perhaps I have suffered a sense-change and see things symbolically.
Perhaps geology is false.
"Our speed becomes impossible. We flash about like a single black corpuscle in the oil plasma of the great world-creature. I know, intuitively, that one instant we are beneath Caracas; the next Ploesti; then Baku, Iraq, Iran, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Columbia, Oklahoma, Algeria, Antarctica, Atlantis...
"It is more as if we were flashing through black outer space, softly gleaming with galaxies, than through earth's depths.
"There is a feeling of nightmare-ride now... wild whirlings and spiralings... a blurred glitter... a blessed sense of fatigue...
"Yet at the same time I become aware that the white-green sinuous gleamings I see are the nerves of oil, which stretch everywhere to every tiniest well; that I am approaching the great brain; that I will soon see God.
"And I never, even in this nightmare phase, lose the awareness of the close presence of my conductor.
From time to time I still glimpse, in frozen instants, standing out sharply against the glistening green, the black shapes of his long narrow sharply pointed lower extremities.
"There the dream ends. I can no longer endure its flashing transitions. I am out wearied. I awake sweating and groaning or fall into a deeper dreamless sleep from which I slowly arouse hours later, lethargic and spent."
As he finished his narrative he would generally give me a tired questioning look, smiling thinly as if at the extravagance of it all, but with a loneliness in his eyes that made me think of him looking hopelessly in his dream for the lights of a distant plane as the Black Gondola went under.
That was Daloway's dream. To describe my reactions to it is more difficult. Remember that he did not tell it to me all at once, but only sketchily at first with an air of, "Here's a ridiculous dream;" later much more seriously, putting in the details, building the picture. Also remembering that he dreamed it about six times during the period of our friendship, and that each time the dream was somewhat fuller and he told me more of it--and between times revealed to me more of his wild theory of world oil, bit by bit, and revealed, bit by bit, too, how deeply he believed or at least felt this theory. Remember finally that his nerves were in pretty good shape when he first told me the dream, but pretty bad toward the last.
I seem to recall that the first time or two, we both poked at the dream psychoanalytically. There were obvious birth and death and sex symbols in it: trips through fluid, return to the womb, the caress of oil, the gondolier's punting pole, passage under bridges, twisting tunnels, difficulties in breathing, flying sensations, all the usual stuff. I think he advanced the rather farfetched notion that his disappearing into strangling darkness with an unknown menacing male indicated unconscious fears of homosexuality, while I championed the prosier explanation that the whole horror of oil might merely stand for his resentment at having to work as a mechanic to earn a living. We speculated as to whether the racial question might not be tied up in it--Daloway had a touch of Indian blood--and tried to identify the person in his early life whom the Black Gondolier might represent.
But the last time he told it to me, we just looked at each other for a long while and I went over stoopingly and drew the curtain fully across the little window in the side of the low-ceilinged trailer toward the oil well and the night, and we began to talk about something else, something trivial.
By that time, you see, he'd had the first of his outbursts of more active fear. It had been touched off by a rumor or report that petroleum was leaking into the Grand Canal through some underground fissure, perhaps from a defective well. He wanted us to walk over to the spot and have a look, but the sun set before we got there and we couldn't see any lights indicating men at work or hunting for the leak, and he suddenly decided it would be too much trouble and we turned back. The dark comes quite quickly in Venice--Los Angeles is near enough to the Tropic of Cancer so you can see all of Scorpius and the Southern Crown too, while Fomalhaut rides high in the southern sky. And Venice's narrow streets, half of them only pedestrian passageways blocked off to cars, swiftly grow gloomy. I remember that going back we hurried a bit, stumbling through sand and around rubbish, but hardly enough to account for the way Daloway was gasping by the time we reached his trailer.
Once during that unconfessed flight, while we were crossing an empty lot by the Grand Canal, he stopped me by catching hold of my elbow and then he led us in a circle around a slightly darker stretch of ground--almost as if he feared it were a scummed-over dust-camouflaged oil pool which might engulf us.
You do run into such things in oil fields, though I've never heard of them in Venice.
And two or three times, later that night, Daloway made excuses to go out and scan the light-patched darkness toward the Grand Canal, almost as if he expected to see tongues of petroleum running toward us across the low ground, or other shapes approaching.
To quiet his nerves and put the thing on a more rational basis, I pointed out that, as he himself had told me, natural oil leakages are by no means uncommon in the Pacific Southland. Ocean bathers are apt to get bits of tar on their feet and they usually blame it on modern industry and its poorly-disposed wastes, seldom discovering that it is asphalt from undersea leakages which were recurring regularly long before Cabrillo's time. Another example, this one in the heart of western Los Angeles, is La Brea tar pits, which trapped many saber-toothed tigers and their prey, as the asphalt-impregnated bones testify. (There's a tautology there: brea means tar. Other glamorous-sounding old Los Angeles street names have equally ugly or homely meanings: Las Pulas means "the fleas," Temescal means "sweat house," while La Ciénega, street of the wonder-restaurants, means "the swamp.") My effort was ill-considered. Daloway's nerves were not quieted. He muttered, "Damned oil killing animals too! Well, at least it got the exploiters as well as the exploited," and he stepped out again to scan the night, the growl of the pump growing suddenly louder as he opened the door.
The report of the petroleum leakage turned out to have been much exaggerated. I don't recall hearing how they fixed it up, if they ever did. But it gave me an uncomfortable insight into the state of Daloway's nerves--and didn't do my own any good, either.
Then there was the disastrous business of Daloway's car. He bought
an old jalopy for almost nothing at about this time and put it in good
shape, expending most of his dwindling cash reserve buying essential
replacements at second hand. I inwardly applauded--I thought the manual
work would be therapeutic.
Incidentally, Daloway repeatedly refused my offers of a small loan.
Then one evening I dropped over to find the car gone and Daloway just returned from a long, half hitch-hiked trudge and pitifully strained and shaky. It seemed he'd been driving the car along the San Bernadino Freeway when a huge kerosene truck just ahead of him had jack knifed in an underpass and split its tank and spilled its load and caught afire. I'd heard about the accident on the radio a few hours earlier--it tied up the freeway for almost half a day. Daloway had managed to bring his car to a swerving stop in the swift-shooting oil. Two other cars, also skidding askew, crashed him lightly from behind, preventing his car's escape. He managed to leap out and run away before the fire got to it--the truck driver escaped too, miraculously--but Daloway's car, uninsured of course, was burned to a shriveled black ruin along with several others.
Daloway never admitted to me straight out that he had been escaping from Venice and LA, leaving them for good, when that catastrophe on the San Bernardino Freeway thwarted him. I suppose he was ashamed to admit he would go away without telling me his plans or even saying goodby. (I would have understood, I think: some partings have to be made with ruthless suddenness, before the fire of decision burns out.) But a big old suitcase that had used to stand inside the door of the trailer was gone and I imagine it burned with the car.
Later the police neatly turned all this into an argument for their theory that Daloway's ultimate departure from Venice was voluntary. He'd once started to leave without informing me, they pointed out--and would have, except for the accident. His money was running out. (There was a month's rent owing on the trailer at the end.) He had a history of briefly-held jobs alternating with periods of roving or dropping out of sight--or so they claimed. What more natural than that he should have seized on some sudden opportunity or inspiration to decamp?
I had to admit they had a point, of sorts. It turned out that the police had an old grudge against Daloway: they'd once suspected him of being mixed up in the marijuana traffic. Well, that may have been true, I suppose; he admitted to me having smoked hemp a few times, years before.
I used to carp at horror stories in which the protagonist could at any time have departed from the focus of horror--generally some lonely dismal spot, like Daloway's trailer--but instead insisted on staying there, though shaking with fear, until he was engulfed. Since my experience with Daloway, I've changed my mind. Daloway did try to leave. He made that one big effort with the car and it was foiled. He lacked the energy to make another. He became fatalistic. And perhaps the urge to stay and see what would happen--always strong, I imagine, curiosity being a fundamental human trait--at that point became somewhat stronger than the opposing urge to flee.
That evening after the freeway accident I stayed with him a long time, trying to cheer him up and get him to look at the accident as a chance occurrence, not some cat-and-mousing malignancy aimed directly and solely at him. After a while I thought I was succeeding.
"You know, I hung back of that truck for fully ten minutes, afraid to pass, though I had enough speed," he admitted. "I kept thinking something would happen while I was passing it."
"You see," I said. "If you'd passed it right off, you wouldn't have been involved in the accident. You courted danger by sticking close behind a vehicle that you probably knew, at least subconsciously, was behaving dangerously. We can all have accidents that way."
"No," Daloway replied, shaking his head. "Then the accident would have come earlier. Don't you understand?--it was an oil truck! And if I had got by it, the oil would have stopped me some way, I'm convinced of that now--even if it had to burst out in a spontaneous gusher beside the highway and skid my car into a wreck! Remember how the oil burst out of Signal Hill in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and flowed inches thick down the streets?"
"Well, at any rate you escaped with your life," I pointed out, trying to salvage a little of my imagined advantage.
"It didn't want to kill me there," Daloway countered gloomily. "It just wanted to herd me back. It's got something else in store for me."
"Now look here, Daloway," I burst out, a little angry and trying to sound more so, "if we all argued that way, there wouldn't be any trifling mischance that couldn't be twisted into a murder-attempt by some weird power. Just this morning I found a little gas-leak in my kitchen. Am I to suppose--?"
"It's after you too now!" he interrupted me, paling and starting to his feet. "Natural gas--petroleum--the same thing--siblings. Keep off me, it's not safe! I've warned you before. You better get out now."
I wouldn't agree to that, of course, but the couple hours more I stayed with Daloway didn't improve his mood, or mine either. He set himself to analyzing last year's Los Angeles catastrophe, when a three hundred million gallon water reservoir broke its thick earthen wall in the Baldwin Hills and did tens of millions of dollars worth of damage, floating and tumbling cars and flooding thousands of homes and smashing hundreds of buildings with a deluge of water and mud--though only a few lives were lost because of efficient warning by motorcycle police and a helicopter cruising with a bullhorn.
"There were oil wells by the reservoir," he said. "Even the purblind officials admit that soil subsidence from oil drilling may have started the leaks. But do you remember the east west bounds of the flood?
From La Brea to La Ciénega--the tar to the swamp! And what was the substance lining the reservoir?
What was the stuff that craftily weakened from point to point and then gave way at the crucial moment, triggering the thing? Asphalt!"
"Men did the drilling, Daloway," I argued wearily. "Asphalt is inert..."
"Inert!" he almost snarled back at me. "Yes, like the uranium atom! What moves the dowsers' wands?
Do you still think that men run things up here?"
By the time I left I was glad to be gone and disgusted with myself for wasting too much time, and very irked at Daloway too and glad I had an engagement the next evening that would prevent me from visiting him.
For the first time in weeks, going home that night, I wondered if Daloway mightn't be an all-out psychopath. At the same time I found myself so nervous about the very faint stench of oil in my car that I opened all the windows, though there was a chilly fog, and even then I kept worrying about the motor and the oil in it, as it heated. Damn it, the man was poisoning my life with his paranoid suspicions and dreads! He was right, I'd better keep off him.
But the next night a thunder stroke woke me about two; there was rain sizzling and rattling on the roof and gurgling loudly in the resonating metal drain pipes, and right away I was thinking how much louder it must be pounding on Daloway's trailer and wondering how apt lightning striking an oil well was to cause a fire--things like that. It was our first big downpour of the season, rather early in the fall too, and it kept on and on, a regular cloudburst, and the lightning too. I must have listened to them for a couple of hours, thinking about Daloway and his wild ideas, which didn't seem so wild now with the storm going, and picturing Venice with its canals filling fast and with its low crowded houses and oil wells and derricks under the fist of the rain and the lightning's shining spear.
I think it was chiefly the thought of the canals being full that finally got me up and dressed around five and off in the dark to see how Daloway was faring. The rain had stopped by now and of course the thunder too, but there were signs of the storm everywhere--my headlights showed me falling branches, fans of eroded mud and gravel crossing the street, gutters still brimming, a few intersections still shallowly flooded, and a couple of wide buttons of water still pouring up from manholes whose heavy tops had been displaced by the pressure from brim-filled flumes.
Hardly any private automobiles were abroad yet, but I met a couple of fire trucks and light-and-power trucks and cars off on emergency errands, and when I got to Venice, Daloway's end was dark--there'd evidently been a major power failure there. I kept on, a bit cautious now that my headlights were just about the only illumination there was. Venice seemed like a battered city of the dead--a storm-bombed ruin--I hardly saw a soul or a light, only a candle back of a window here and there. But the streets weren't flooded too deep anywhere along my usual route and just as I sensed the eastern sky paling a little I crossed the narrow high-humped bridge--no need to tap my horn this time!--and swung into my usual parking place and stopped my car and switched off the lights and got out.
I must be very careful to get things right now.
My first impression, which the motor of my car had masked up to now, was of the great general silence.
All the sounds of the storm were gone except for the tiny occasional drip of the last drop off a leaf or a roof.
The oil well by Daloway's trailer was still pumping though. But there was an odd wheezy hiss in it I'd never heard before, and after each hiss a faint tinkly spatter, as of drops hitting sheet metal.
I walked over to the edge of the canal. There was just enough light for me to manage that safely. I stooped beside it. Just as I'd imagined, it was full to the brim.
Then I heard the other sounds: a faint rhythmic swish and, spaced about three seconds apart, the faint muffled thuds that would be made by a gondolier's pole.
I stared down the black canal, my heart suddenly pounding and my neck cold. For a moment I thought I saw, in murkiest silhouette, the outlines of a gondola, with gondolier and passenger, going away from me, but I simply couldn't be sure.
Fences blocked the canal for me that way, even if I'd had the courage to follow, and I ran back to my car for my flashlight. Halfway back with it, I hesitated, wondering if I shouldn't drive the car to the canal edge and use my high headlight beams, but I wasn't sure I could position it right.
I kept onto the canal and directed my flashlight beam down it.
In the first flare of light and vision, I again thought I saw the Black Gondola, much smaller now, near the turn into the Grand Canal.
But the beam wavered and when I got it properly directed again--a matter of a fraction of a second--the canal seemed empty. I kept swinging my flashlight a little, up and down, side to side, for quite a few seconds and studying the canal, but it stayed empty.
I was half inclined to jump into my car and take the long swing around to the road paralleling the Grand Canal. I did do that, somewhat later on, but now I decided to go to the trailer first. After all, I hadn't made any noise to speak of and Daloway might well be there asleep--it would take only seconds to check. Everything I had heard and seen so far might conceivably be imagination, the auditory and visual impressions had both been very faint, though they still seemed damnably real.
There was a hint of pink in the east now. I heard again that unfamiliar hissing wheeze from the oil well, with subsequent faint splatter, and I paused to direct my light at it and then, after a bit, at the wall of Daloway's trailer.
Something had gone wrong with the pump so that it had sprung a leak and with every groaning stroke a narrow stream of petroleum was sprayed against the wall of Daloway's trailer, blotching it darkly, and through the little window, which stood open.
It was never afterwards established whether a lightning stroke had something to do with this failure of the valves of the pump, though several people living around there later assured me that two of the lightning strokes had been terrific, seeming to hit their roofs. Personally I've always had the feeling that the lightning unlocked something .
The door to the trailer was shut, but not locked. I opened it and flashed my light around the walls.
Daloway wasn't anywhere there, nobody was.
The first thing I flashed my light steadily on was Daloway's bunk under the little open window. At that moment there came the hissing wheeze and oil rattled against the wall of the trailer and some came through the window, pattering softly on the rough brown blankets, adding a little to the great black stain on them. The oil stank.
Then I directed my flashlight another way... and was frozen by horror.
What I'd heard and seen by the bank of the canal might have been imagination. One has to admit he can always be fooled along the faint borderlines of sensation.
But this that I saw now was starkly and incontrovertibly real and material.
The accident to the oil pump, no matter how sardonically grim and suggestive in view of Daloway's theories, could be... merely an accident.
But this that I saw now could be no accident. It was either evidence of a premeditated supernormal malignancy, or--as the police insist--of a carefully planned and executed hoax. Incidentally, the police looked at me speculatively as they made this last suggestion.
After a while I got control of myself to the point where I could trace what I saw to its ending and then back again, still using my flashlight to supplement the gathering dawn.
A little later I made the round-about car trip I mentioned earlier to the Grand Canal and searched furiously along it, running down to its bank at several spots and venturing out on a couple of the ruined bridges.
I saw no signs of any boat or body at all, or of any oil either, for that matter, though the odor is always strong there.
Then I went to the police. Almost at once, a little to my shame, I found myself resorting to the subterfuge of emphasizing the one point that my friend Daloway had an almost crazily obsessive fear of drowning in the Grand Canal and that this might be a clue to his disappearance.
I guess I had to take that line. The police were at least willing to give some serious attention to the possibility of a demented suicide, whereas they could hardly have been expected to give any to the hypothesis of a black inanimate, ancient, almost ubiquitous liquid engineering a diabolical kidnaping.
Later they assured me that they had inspected the canal and found no evidence of bodies or sunken boats in it. They didn't drag it, at least not all of it.
That ended the investigation for them. As for the real and material evidence back at the trailer, well, as I've said at least twice before, the police insist that was a hoax, perpetuated either by Daloway or myself.
And now the investigation is ended for me too. I dare not torture my mind any longer with a theory that endows with purposeful life the deepest buried darkness, that makes man and his most vaunted technological achievements the sardonic whim of that darkness and invests it with a hellish light visible only to its servitors, or to those about to become its slaves. No, I dare no longer think in this direction, no matter how conclusive the evidence I saw with my own eyes. I almost flipped when I saw it, and I will flip if I go on thinking about it.
What that evidence was--what I saw back at the trailer when I directed my flash another way, froze in horror, and later traced the thing from end to end--was simply this: a yard-long black straight indentation in the bank of the canal by Daloway's trailer, as if cut by one end of the keel of an oil-drenched boat, and then, leading from that point to Daloway's oil-soaked bunk and back again--a little wider and more closely spaced on the way back, as if something were being carried-- the long narrow sharply pointed footprints, marked in blackest thickest oil, of the Black Gondolier.
His ghastly shadow hung over block upon block of dingy city buildings--and his theme song was the nervous surge of traffic along infrequent boulevards...
"So this is the room?" I said, setting down my cardboard suitcase. The landlord nodded.
"Nothing been changed in it since your uncle died." It was small and dingy, but pretty clean. I took it in.
The imitation oak dresser. The cupboard, the bare table. The green-shaded drop light. The easy chair.
The kitchen chair. The cast-iron bed. "Except the sheets and stuff," the landlord added. "They been washed."
"He died unexpectedly, didn't he?" I said in a sort of apologetic voice.
"Yeah. In his sleep. You know, his heart."
I nodded vaguely and, on an impulse, walked over and opened the cupboard door. Two of the shelves were filled with canned stuff and other supplies. There was an old coffee pot and two saucepans, and some worn china covered with a fine network of brownish cracks.
"Your uncle had cooking privileges," the landlord said. "Of course you can have them, too, if you want."
I went over and looked down three stories at the dirty street. Some boys were pitching pennies. I studied the names of the stores. When I turned around I thought maybe the landlord would be going, but he was still watching me. The whites of his eyes looked discolored.
"There's twenty-five cents for the washing I told you about." I dug in my pocket for a quarter. That left me forty-seven cents.
He laboriously wrote me a receipt. "There's your key on the table," he remarked, "and the one for the outside door. Well, Mister, the place is yours for the next three months an' two weeks."
He walked out, shutting the door behind him. From below came the rackety surge of a passing street car.
I dropped down into the easy chair.
People can inherit some pretty queer things. I had inherited some canned goods and the rent of a room, just because my Uncle David, whom I never remembered seeing, paid for things in advance. The court had been decent about it, especially after my telling them I was broke. The landlord had refused to make a refund, but you could hardly blame him for that. Of course, after hitch-hiking all the way to the city, I'd been disappointed to hear there was no real money involved. The policeman's pension had stopped with my uncle's death, and funeral expenses had eaten up the rest. Still, I was thankful I had a place to sleep.
They said my uncle must have made his will just a little while after I was born. I don't think my father and mother knew about it, or they'd have mentioned it--at least when they died. I never heard much about him except that he was my father's elder brother.
I vaguely knew he was a policeman, that was all. You know how it is; families split up, and only the old folks keep in touch, and they don't talk to the young folks about it, and pretty soon the whole connection is forgotten, unless something special happens. I guess that sort of thing has been going on since the world began. Forces are at work that break up people, and scatter them, and make them lonely. You feel it most of all in a big city.
They say there's no law against being a failure, but there is, as I'd found out. After a childhood in easy circumstances, things got harder and harder. The depression. Family dying. Friends going off. Jobs uncertain and difficult to find. Delays and uncertainties about government assistance. I'd tried my hand at bumming around, but found I lacked the right temperament. Even being a tramp or a sponger or a scavenger takes special ability. Hitch-hiking to the city had left me feeling nervous and unwell. And my feet hurt. I'm one of those people who aren't much good at taking it.
* * * *
Sitting there in my dead uncle's worn, old, easy chair with night coming on I felt the full impact of my loneliness. Through the walls I heard people moving around and talking faintly, but they weren't people I knew or had ever seen. From outside came the mixed-up rumbling and murmuring of a big city. Far away I could hear a steam-engine grunting heavily; nearer, the monotonous buzz of a defective neon sign. There was a steady thumping from some machinery I couldn't identify, and I thought I heard the whine of a sewing machine. Lonely unfriendly sounds, all of them. The dusty square of window kept getting darker, but it was more like heavy smoke settling than a regular evening.
Some trivial thing was bothering me. Something unconnected with the general gloominess. I tried to figure out what it was, and after a while it came to me suddenly. It was very simple. Although I usually slump to one side when I sit in an easy chair, I was now leaning straight back, because the upholstery was deeply indented toward the center. And that, as I immediately realized, must have been because my uncle had always leaned straight back. The sensation was a little frightening, as if he had somehow taken hold of me. But I resisted the impulse to jump up. Instead I found myself wondering what sort of man he'd been and how he'd lived, and I began to picture him moving around and sitting down and sleeping in the bed, and occasionally having some friend from the police force in to visit with him. I wondered how he passed the time after he was retired.
There weren't any books in sight. I didn't notice any ash-trays, and there wasn't a tobacco smell. It had probably been pretty lonely for the old man, without family or anything. And here I was inheriting his loneliness.
Then I did get up, and started to walk around aimlessly. It struck me that the furniture looked sort of uncomfortable all stuck back against the walls, so I pulled some of it out. I went over to the dresser.
There was a framed picture on it, lying face down. I took it over to the window. Yes, it was my uncle, all right, for "David Rhode, Lieutenant of Police, retired July 1, 1927," was inscribed on it in small, careful handwriting. He had on his policeman's cap, and his cheeks were thin, and his eyes were more intelligent and penetrating than I'd expected. He didn't look so old. I put it back on the dresser and then changed my mind and propped it up on top of the cupboard. I still felt too nervous and sickish to want anything to eat. I knew I should have gone to bed and tried to get a good rest, but I was on edge after the day at court. I was lonely, yet I didn't want to take a walk or be near people.
So I decided to put in some time looking through my inheritance in detail. It was the obvious thing to do, but a sort of embarrassment had been holding me back. Once I started, I became quite curious. I didn't expect to find anything of value. I was mostly interested in learning more about my uncle. I began by taking another look at the cupboard. There was canned stuff and coffee enough for maybe a month. That was fortunate. It would give me time to rest up and hunt for a job. On the bottom shelf were a few old tools, screws, wire and other junk.
When I opened the closet door I got a momentary shock. Hanging against the wall was a policeman's uniform, with a blue cap on the hook above and two heavy shoes jutting out underneath, and a night stick hung alongside on a nail. It looked lifelike in the shadows. I realized it was getting dark and switched on the green-shaded drop light. I found a regular suit and an overcoat and some other clothes in the closet--not many. On the shelf was a box containing a service revolver and a belt with some cartridges stuck in the leather loops. I wondered if I ought to do anything about it. I was puzzled by the uniform, until I realized he must have had two, one for summer, the other for winter. They had buried him in the other one.
This far I hadn't found much, so I started on the dresser. The two top drawers contained shirts and handkerchiefs and socks and underwear, all washed and neatly folded but frayed a little at the edges.
They were mine now. If they fitted me, I had a right to wear them. It was an unpleasant thought, but there was no getting away from it.
The third drawer was filled with newspaper clippings, carefully arranged into separate piles and bundles.
I glanced at the top ones. They all seemed to be concerned with police cases, two of them fairly recent.
Here I figured, was a clue to what my uncle did after his retirement. He kept up an interest in his old job.
The bottom drawer contained a heterogeneous assortment of stuff. A pair of spectacles, a curiously short, silver-headed cane, an empty briefcase, some green ribbon, a toy wooden horse that looked very old (I wondered idly, if he had bought if for me when I was a baby and then forgotten to send it) and other things.
Quickly I shoved in the drawer and walked away. This business wasn't as interesting as I'd expected. I got a picture of things all right, but it made me think of death and feel shivery and lost. Here I was in the midst of a big city, and the only person I felt at all close to was three weeks buried. The personality of the room was getting a tighter hold on me all the time.
Still, I figured I'd better finish the job, so I pulled out the shallow drawer under the table top. I found two recent newspaper, a pair of scissors and a pencil, a small bundle of receipts in the landlord's laborious hand, and a detective story from a lending library. Would they want me to pay the rental on it? I guess they would not insist.
* * * *
That was all I could find. And, as I thought it over, it seemed very little. Didn't he use to get any letters?
The general neatness had led me to expect a couple of boxes of them, carefully tied in packets. And weren't there any photographs or other mementoes? Or magazines or notebooks? Why, I hadn't even come across that jumble of advertisements and folders and cards and other worthless stuff you find somewhere in almost every home. It suddenly struck me that his last years must have been awfully empty and barren, in spite of the clippings and the detective story.
There wasn't any knock, but the door opened and the landlord stepped inside, moving softly in big, loose slippers. It startled me and made me a trifle angry--a jumpy sort of anger.
"I just wanted to tell you," he said, "that we don't like to have any noise after eleven o'clock. Oh, and your uncle used to cook at eight-thirty and five."
"Okay. Okay," I said quickly and was about to add something sarcastic when a thought struck me.
"Did my uncle keep a trunk or box in the basement, or anything like that?" I asked. I was thinking of letters, photographs.
He looked at me stupidly for a moment, then shook his head. "No. Everything he had is right here," and he indicated the room with a sideways movement of his big, thick-fingered hand.
"Did he have many visitors?" I asked. I thought the landlord hadn't heard this question but after a while he came to and shook his head.
"Thank you," I said, moving off. "Well, good-night."
When I turned back he was still standing in the doorway, staring sleepily around the room. Again I noticed how the whites of his eyes were discolored.
"Say," he remarked. "I see you've moved the furniture back the way your uncle had it."
"Yes, it was all up against the walls, and I pulled it out."
"You put his picture back on the top of the cupboard."
"That's where it used to be?" I asked. He nodded, looked around again, yawned and turned to go.
"Well--" he said, "sleep well."
The last two words sounded unnatural as if dragged out with prodigious effort. He closed the door noiselessly behind him. Immediately I had snatched the key from the table and was locking it. I wasn't going to stand for him prying around without knocking, not if I could help it. Again loneliness closed in on me.
So I had rearranged the furniture in the old pattern, and put the picture back in its proper place, had I?
The thought frightened me a little. Made me think I was getting too near the dead policeman and his habits. I wished I didn't have to sleep in that ugly cast-iron bed. But where else could I go with my forty-seven cents and my lack of gumption?
I realized suddenly, that I was being foolish. It was perfectly natural that I should feel a little uneasy.
Anyone would in such queer circumstances. But I mustn't let it get me down. I would have to live in this room for some time. The thing to do was to get used to it. So I got out some of the newspaper clippings that were in the dresser and began to go through them. They covered a period of twenty years or so. The older ones were yellow and stiff, and cracked easily. They were mostly about murders. I kept turning them over, looking at the headlines and here and there reading a little. After a while I found myself plunged into accounts of a "Phantom Slayer": who killed wantonly and for no apparent motive. His crimes were similar to those with which the uncaught "Jack the Ripper" horrified London in 1888, except that men and children, as well as women, were numbered among his victims. I vaguely remembered hearing about two of the cases years ago--there were seven or eight altogether. Now I read the details.
They were not conducive to pleasant thought. My uncle's name was mentioned among the investigators in some of the earlier cases.
That was by far the biggest pile of clippings. All the piles were carefully arranged, but I couldn't find any notes or comments, except a tiny scrap of paper with an address on it, 2318 Robey Street. It puzzled me. Just that solitary address without any explanation. I planned to look it up some day.
* * * *
It was night outside now, and the upward slanting light from the street lamp made it easier to see the dust on the window-pane. There weren't so many noises coming through the walls, just the low, sharp drone of some radio voices. I could still hear the buzz of the defective neon sign, and another engine puffing in the distant yards. To my relief, I found I was getting sleepy. As I undressed and hung my clothes on the kitchen chair, I found myself wondering if my uncle had arranged his in the same way: coat over the back, trousers over the seat, shoes underneath with the socks tucked inside them, shirt and tie draped on top of the coat.
I opened the window three inches from the top and bottom, then remembered that I seldom opened my bedroom window from the top. Was I conforming to my uncle's custom here, too? I was thankful I still felt sleepy, and able to conquer the faint desire I had to keep glancing over my shoulder. I pulled back the covers of the bed, switched off the drop light, and quickly jumped in.
My first thought was, "Here his head lay." I wondered if he died in his sleep like they told me, or if he waked paralyzed, an old man alone in the dark. That wouldn't do, I told myself, and tried to think of how tired and tense my muscles were, of how good it was to rest my feet and be able to stretch and relax.
That helped a little. As my eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, I noted the dim outlines of the objects in the room. The chair piled with my clothes. The table. A queer little highlight reflected from my uncle's picture on top of the cupboard. The walls seemed to press in close.
Gradually my imagination went to work picturing the great city beyond the walls, the city I hardly knew. I visualized block after block of dingy buildings, with here and there clusters of higher structures, where the stores and the street-car lines lay. The great looming masses of warehouses and factories. The dismal expanse of track and cinders in the railroad yards, with the rank and file of empty cars. Lightless alleys, and the nervous surge of traffic along infrequent boulevards. Row after row of ugly two story frame houses, crowded close together. Human forms that , in my imagination, never walked upright, but slunk through the shadows close to the walls. Criminals. Murderers.
Abruptly I broke off this train of thought, a little frightened at its vividness. It was almost as if my mind had been outside my body, spying and peering. I tried to laugh at the idea, so obviously a result of my tiredness and tension as I told myself. No matter how alien the city seemed, I was here in my little room with the door locked. A policeman's room. David Rhode, Lieutenant of Police, retired July 1, 1927. I dozed and fell asleep.
My dream was simple, vivid, and singularly realistic. I seemed to be standing in a cobblestoned alley.
There was an unpainted fence with a board fallen from it, and beyond it the dark brick wall of an apartment building with out jutting back porches of wooden framework painted gray. It was the hour of dawn, when life is at low ebb and sleep clings everywhere like a chilly mist. Formless clouds hid the sky.
I could see a yellow shade flapping out of a window on the first floor, yet I could not hear the sound.
That was all. But the feeling of cold fear that got hold of me was difficult to describe. I seemed to be looking for something and yet afraid to move.
The scene changed, although my emotions remained the same. It was night, and an empty lot, with a great billboard shutting off the harsh light of the street lamp from most of it. Dimly I could see the things in the lot: a pile of bricks and old bottles, some broken barrels, and the stripped wrecks of two automobiles, their fenders rusted and broken away. Weeds and rank grass grew in the sprawling clumps.
Then I noticed there was a narrow, bumpy path crossing the lot diagonally and along it a little boy was moving slowly, as if he had come back to look for something he had lost earlier in the evening. The horror brooding over the place was directed at him, and I felt terribly afraid for him. I tried to warn him, to shout and tell him to run home. But I could not speak or move.
Again the scene changed. Again it was the hour of dawn. I was standing in front of a two-story stucco house, set back a little from the street. There was a neat lawn and two flower beds. A block away I could see a policeman slowly walking his beat. Then a force seemed to take hold of me and move me toward the house. I could not resist the force. I saw a cement walk and a coil of hose and then, in a kind of little nook of trees, a huddled form. The force bent me down toward it and I saw it was a young woman, that her skull was beaten in and her face splotched with blood. Then I struggled and tried to cry out, and I made a great effort and came awake.
* * * *
For what seemed a long time I lay tense and afraid to move, feeling my heart pounding in my throat. The dim room swam around me, and figures moved about, and for a while the window wasn't where it should be. Gradually I got control of my panic, and forced things to return to their normal forms by looking at them closely. Then I sat up, still shivering. It was one of the worst nightmares I could remember having. I reached for a cigarette and lit it shakily, and pulled the bedclothes around me.
Suddenly I remembered something. That stucco house, I'd seen it before, very recently, and I thought I knew where. I got out of bed, switched on the light, and riffled through the newspaper clippings. I found the photograph, all right. The house was the same as the one in my dream. I read the caption. "Where Girl Victim of Phantom Slayer Was Found." So that was what had caused my nightmare. I might have known it.
I thought I heard a noise in the hall outside, and I jumped to the door to make sure it was still locked. As I returned to the table I realized I was trembling. That wouldn't do. I had to conquer that silly fear, that feeling that someone was trying to get at me. I sat down and puffed at my cigarette. I looked at the clippings on the table. Had my uncle used to set them out in that way, study them, ponder over them?
Did he ever wake in the middle of the night and sit up, waiting for sleepiness to return? Strongly I felt his presence in the personality of the room. I didn't want to feel it.
Abruptly I got to my feet, swept the clippings into one big pile, and returned them to the dresser. By mistake I opened the bottom drawer and saw again that queer conglomeration of objects. The spectacles, the silver-headed cane, the empty briefcase, the green ribbon, the toy horse, the tortoise-shell comb, and the rest. As I shut the clippings away, I again thought I heard a faint noise, and whirled around quickly. This time I didn't go to the door, since I could still see my key in it, unmoved. But I couldn't resist the temptation to look inside the closet. There hung the blue uniform, the cap above, the shoes below, the night stick at one side. David Rhode, Lieutenant of Police, retired July 1, 1927. I shut the door.
I knew I had to get hold of myself. I rehearsed in my mind the obvious and logical reasons for my mood and those unnerving dreams. I was tired and unwell. I hadn't had much sleep for two nights. I was in a strange city. I was sleeping in the room of an uncle whom I had never seen or remembered seeing anyway, and who had been dead for three weeks. I was surrounded by that man's belongings, by the aura of his habits. I had been reading about some particularly gruesome murders. Reasons enough, surely!
If only I could get rid of the conviction that someone was trying to get at me! What could anyone want with me? I had no money. I was a stranger. If only I could get rid of the feeling that my dead uncle was trying to warn me about something, trying to tell me something, make me do something!
I stopped pacing up and down. My glance caught the table top, worn and covered with scratches, but bright under the drop light. It was not quite bare though. I hadn't forgotten any of the clippings, but near one corner lay the scrap of paper I had discovered earlier in the evening. I reached for it and again read the penciled address, 2318 Robey Street.
I can only explain the strange feeling that gripped me by saying it was as if I had for an instant been plunged back into the atmosphere of my dreams. In dreams, perfectly commonplace objects can be invested with an inexplicable horrible significance. It was that way with the slip of paper. I had no idea what the address meant, yet it stared at me like some sentence of doom, like some secret too terrible for a man to know. With a single, quick clutch of my fingers I crumpled it into a ball, dropped it to the floor, and sank down onto the edge of the bed. God help me, I thought, if I went reacting to things is this way.
The beginnings of insanity must be like that.
Presently my heart stopped pounding and things got a little clearer in my mind. My senseless terror was subdued, but I realized it might come back at any moment. The thing to do was to get to sleep again before that happened, and take a chance on the dreams.
Once again as I lay in bed, I felt the pressure and the presence of the room. Once again I saw the whole city around me. I had a sensation of a breaking down of walls and of floating over an alien expanse of dingy buildings. It was stronger this time.
* * * *
And then the dream returned. I seemed to be at a meeting of two
streets. On my right hand loomed tall structures with many windows, none
of which showed a light. On my left hand flowed a broad, ugly river.
In its oily, slow moving surface were dimly reflected the street lamps on the opposite side. I could see the outlines of a moored barge. One of the streets followed the river and, a little way beyond, ducked under the approach of a bridge made of great steel girders. It was very dark under the bridge. The other street went off at right angles. The sidewalk was littered with old newspapers, swirled there by the wind. I could not hear their rustling, nor could I smell the chemical stench I knew the river must be exuding. A sick horror seemed to hang over the whole scene.
A small elderly man was approaching along the side street. I knew I must cry out to him, warn him, but I was powerless. He was looking around uncertainly, but I could tell that had nothing to do with my presence. He was carrying a briefcase, and he tapped the torn newspapers out of his way with a silver-headed cane. As he reached the intersection, another figure stepped out from behind me. It was a dark indistinct figure. I couldn't make out the face. It seemed to be wrapped in shadows. The elderly man's first look of frightened apprehension turned to one of unmixed relief. He seemed to be asking questions and the other, the dark figure, to be making replies. I could not hear the voices.
The dark figure pointed down the street that led under the bridge. The other smiled and nodded as if he were expressing thanks. Fright and terror held me in a vise. I exerted all my will power, but could neither speak nor move closer. Slowly the two figures began to move along the river's edge, side by side. I was like a man frozen. Finally they disappeared in the darkness under the bridge.
There was a long wait. Then the dark figure returned alone. It seemed to see me and move toward me.
Terror gripped me and I made a violent effort to escape from the spell that held me.
Then, abruptly, I was free. I seemed to shoot upward at a fantastic speed. In an instant I was so high above the city that I could see the checkerboard of blocks, like a map through smoked glass. The river was no more than a leaden streak. Off to one side I observed tiny chimneys spurting ghostly fire--mills working a night shift. A feeling of terrible and frantic loneliness assailed me. I forgot the scene I had just witnessed on the river bank. My sole desire was to flee from the limitless emptiness in which I was poised. To flee, and find a place of refuge.
At this point my dream became both more and less realistic. Less, because of my impossible swimming and swooping through space, and my sensation of being disembodied. More realistic, because I knew where I was and wanted to get back to my uncle's room, in which my body lay sleeping.
Downward I shot like a stone, until I was only a hundred feet above the city. Then my motion changed and I skimmed over what seemed to be miles of rooftops. I noted the soot-covered chimneys and oddly shaped ventilator, the ragged tar-paper, the rain-streaked corrugated iron. Larger buildings--offices and factories--loomed up ahead of me like cliffs. I plunged straight through them without retardation, glimpsing flashes of metal and machinery, corridors and partitions. At one time I seemed to be racing a street car and beating it. At another I hurtled across several brightly lighted streets, in which many people and automobiles were moving. Finally my speed began to lessen and I swerved. A dark wall came into view, moved closer, engulfed me, and I was inside my uncle's room.
The most terrible phase of a nightmare is often that in which the dreamer believes himself to be in the very room in which he is sleeping. He recognizes each object but it is subtly distorted. Hideous shapes peer from the darker corners. If he then chances to waken, the dream room is for a time superimposed on the real room. That was the way in my case, except the dream refused to come to an end. I seemed to be hovering near the ceiling, looking down. Most of the objects were as I had last seen them. The table, the cupboard, the dresser, the chairs. But both doors, the one to the closet and the one to the hall, were ajar.
And my body was not in the bed. I could see the crumpled sheets, the indented pillow, the blankets flung back. Yet my body was not in the bed.
Immediately my feelings of terror and loneliness rose to a new pitch. I knew that something was dreadfully wrong. I knew that I must find myself quickly. As I hovered, I became aware of an insistent tugging, like the pull a magnetic field exerts on a piece of iron. Instinctively I gave way to it and was immediately drawn out through the walls into the night.
Again I sped across the darkened city. And now the strangest thoughts were whirling through my mind.
They were not dream thoughts but waking thoughts. Horrible suspicions and accusations. Wild trains of deductive reasoning. Buy my emotions were dream emotions--helpless panic and mounting fear. The house tops over which I skimmed became dingier, grimier and more decrepit. Two-story houses gave way to sagging huddles of shacks. Coal dust choked the clumps of sickly grass. What ground showed was bare or heaped with refuse. My speed lessened and simultaneously my fear mounted.
I noted a dirty sign. "Robey Street," it read. I noted a number. I was in the 2300 block.
"2318 Robey Street."
The address written on the slip of paper in my uncle's dresser.
It was a ramshackle cottage, but neater than its neighbors. I turned off back of the house, where the muddy alley was and the dim shapes of packing cases.
It was at this time I began to realize I wasn't dreaming.
There was a light in the back of the house. The door opened and a little girl stepped out, carrying a small tin pail with a cover on it. She wore a short dress and her legs were thin and her hair was straight and smoky yellow. She turned back for a moment in the doorway and I heard a coarse female voice say,
"Now mind you, get over there fast. Your Pa likes to have his food hot. And don't stop on the way and don't let nobody see you." I could hear again.
The little girl nodded meekly and started toward the dark alley. Then I saw the other figure, the one crouching in the shadows at a spot that she must pass. At first I saw only a dark form. Then I came nearer. I saw the face.
It was my own face.
I hope to heaven no one ever sees me as I looked then. The indolent mouth twisted up into something between a grin and a snarl. Nostrils twitching. The nondescript eyes bulging from their sockets so that the white showed all around the pupils. More animal than human.
The little girl was coming nearer. Waves of blackness seemed to oppose me, driving me back, but with one last despairing effort I threw myself at the distorted face I recognized as my own. There was one supreme moment of pain and terror, and then I realized I was looking down at the little girl and she was looking up at me. She was saying, "My, but you scared me. I didn't know who you were at first."
I was in my own body and I knew I wasn't dreaming. Ill-fitting clothes cramped my waist and shoulders, pulled at my wrists. I looked down at the lead-weighted night stick I held in my hand. I reached up and felt for the stiff visored cap on my head, then downward, where in the dim light I could see that I was wearing the dark blue uniform of a policeman.
I do not know what my reaction would have been, if I hadn't realized that the little girl was still staring up at me, puzzled, half-smiling, but frightened. I forced my lips to smile. I said, "It's all right, little girl. I'm sorry I scared you. Where does your pa work? I'll see that you get there safely and I'll bring you home again."
And I did that.
Mercifully, my emotions were exhausted, paralyzed, for the next few hours. By questioning the little girl cautiously, I found out the way to the section of the city in which my uncle's rooming house was situated.
Afterwards I managed to return there undetected and strip off those hateful clothes, hang them in the closet from which I had taken them.
Next morning I went to the police. I told them nothing of my dreams, my uncanny experience. I only said that the queer assortment of objects in the bottom dresser drawer, in conjunction with the things mentioned in the clippings had awakened certain ghastly suspicions in my mind. They were unwilling to believe, and obviously skeptical, but consented to a routine investigation, which had startling and conclusive results. Most of the objects in the bottom drawer, the silver-headed cane and the rest, were identified as having been in the personal possession of the victims of the "Phantom Slayer," and as having disappeared at the time of the murders. For example, the cane and briefcase had been carried by an old man found dead under a viaduct near the river; the toy horse had belonged to a boy murdered in an empty lot; the tortoise-shell comb was similar to one missing from the battered head of a woman whose dead body was found in a residential district; the green ribbon had come from another battered head. A close examination of my uncle's assignments and beats completed the damning evidence by showing that in almost every case he had been patrolling or stationed near the scene of the murder.
For many reasons this horrible discovery was not made public in its entirety. There had been at least eight murders, all told. They had begun while my uncle was still on the force, and continued after his retirement.
But apparently he had always worn his uniform to lull his victim's suspicions. The collection of newspaper clippings was attributed to his vanity. The incriminating objects he had kept by him were explained as
"symbols" of his crimes--ghastly mementoes. "Fetishes" one man called them.
* * * *
There is no need to describe the degree to which my nerves were shaken by this confirmation of my dreams and my fearful sleep-walking experience. Most of all I was terrified by the notion that some murderous taint in the blood of our family had been communicated to me as well as my uncle. I was only slightly relieved when the passing weeks brought no further horrors.
A considerable time afterwards I related the whole matter, in strict confidence, to a doctor whom I trust.
He did not question my sanity, as I feared he might. He took my story at face value. But he attributed it to the workings of my unconscious mind. He said that, during my perusal of the clippings, my unconscious mind had realized that my uncle was a murderer, but that my conscious mind had refused to accept the idea. This resulted in a kind of mental turmoil, magnified by my distraught and highly suggestible state. The "will to murder" in my own mind was wakened without my knowing it. The slip of paper with the address written on it somehow focused that force. In my sleep I had got up, dressed myself in my uncle's uniform and walked to the address. While I was sleep-walking my mind imagined it was on all sorts of wild journeys through space and into the past.
The doctor has told me of some very remarkable actions performed by other sleep-walkers. And, as he says, I have no way of proving my uncle was really planning to commit that last murder.
I hope his explanation is correct.
LIE STILL, SNOW WHITE
I tiptoed into Vivian's bedroom and softly closed the door behind me. She was lying outside the covers, wrapped in a white silk kimono. She had a little sleeping mask on--a narrow black oval without eye holes, but it had sequin eyes stitched on it with black velvet pupils staring at the ceiling.
Her legs were stretched out straight and close together, her arms were at her side, her head was thrown back on a little silk pillow, emphasizing her cameo-perfect profile and the long swan-line of her throat.
The moon was chilly and the blue lights were all on, making the white coverlet and the kimono and Vivian's flesh one pale blue marble. It would only have taken a sleeping wolfhound at her feet, his back against their soles, to have perfected the illusion of a medieval tomb statue.
"Lie still, my darling," I called gently on a sudden impulse. "I'll be with you in a moment. Don't say a word. You're so beautiful just as you are."
I am a man of very odd impulses. But following all faint cues from the unknown is the only way I know of wresting a little beauty from life. And beauty is everything.
I have a great instinct for beauty. I can see subtle possibilities for it where the average intelligent person beholds a blank. For instance, I don't think I'd have gotten the inspiration for this midnight rendezvous if it hadn't been for Vivian's strange penchant for blue-tinted electric light bulbs--a penchant which she told me annoyed her female friends quite a bit. Vivian has always been most imaginative, but sly with it.
True, blue light is cold and does disastrous things to a normal complexion or makeup job. But it can cover up things too. By turning everything blue, it can disguise a blue skin. There are persons with blue skin, you know. Some of them got that way by taking patent medicines containing silver nitrate. The chemical circulates through the body and sunlight striking it breaks it up and precipitates the silver as a fine powder throughout the cells just under the skin. Harmless, but the person turns a slate blue color if he keeps it up. Most such blue people got that way fifty years ago, when patent medicines were uncontrolled. There also was almost no sunbathing then, so I suppose such oldsters are only blue on their faces, throats and arms, though I really don't know. But now, especially with sunlamps, a person can easily be blue all over from silver nitrate.
Then there are the ancient Britons with their woad, though you don't see any of those these days--at least I never have.
And then there are heart conditions that give a person a blue tinge. And there are other reasons--or perhaps I'm only thinking of extreme heart conditions.
My dear Vivian, I knew, had a bluish skin, but the blue light disguised, or shall I say tempered the fact, harmonized it with the background.
The blue light also gave an uncanny, enchanted underwater feeling to the bedroom as I slowly circled around to the bedside table. I didn't look at Vivian steadily but only stole glances at her from time to time.
It seemed more fun that way, more of a game, and perhaps I was still suffering a little from my old shyness--the terrified, guilty shyness that always locks me up tight as soon as I get within kissing distance of a woman or just alone in the same room or landscape with her.
"Don't take any notice of me, dear Sleeping Beauty," I said with a tender chuckle. "It's just me, just Arch the Warch, the distinguished-looking but harmless gaffer who's your older friend and who talks insightful-sympathetic with you, especially about your problems with younger men, and who takes you to museums and parks and restaurants and theaters and does half your office work and helps you work off your head of imaginative steam for you--and who gets tongue-tied and involuntarily jerks back whenever you give him that speculative smile.
"Don't let Arch disturb you. Please just lie there and go on dreaming or meditating or uniting with the cosmic all or savoring the delights of Heaven or suffering the pains of Hell, or whatever it is you're doing now."
You know, it's a funny thing. I hadn't intended to say a word when I came into the bedroom, but here I was talking and talking. I guess that sex or the sure prospect of sex opens a man up. I decided to experiment a little more.
"The trouble with everything is sex repression," I hadn't known I was going to say all that , or so loudly.
"I know this is supposed to be an age of sexual freedom," I continued, "but that's a big lie. How can sex be free if they still bend every effort to make you scared of it? How can it be free if it's still surrounded with taboos and crazy complexes and awful warnings and the dread of ridicule and disapproval and even legal penalties and all sorts of other stop signs?
"How can sex be free if they make as much a secret and a shame of it as they do of death these aseptic days?--rating the goat-odor as vile as the corpse-odor.
"How can sex be free if the priests still want the privilege of doling it out like medicine, happy if they convince you it tastes nasty? And if the social workers and counselors give it to you like a wonder drug that must only be taken under their supervision, according to their rules. As if your sex urge didn't belong to you, but to society--meaning whoever currently rules society.
"How can a thing be free if nine-tenths of the people are really against it for anyone else and self-appoint themselves a secret police and spy constantly to make sure that nobody gets more than the legal maximum, which is a stale and uncertain minimum at best and sometimes completely unavailable. They say out of one side of their mouths that sex is okay and beautiful, but out of the other side they say that any real enthusiasm for sex is a sign of immaturity, Don Juanism, nymphomania, satyriasis, and social irresponsibility.
"Go ahead and enjoy sex, they say, if you're willing to make everybody else murderously jealous and maybe drive them crazy and if you're willing to degrade the girl and deal with the leering motel proprietress and the abortionist and the police. Go ahead and enjoy it, and then boast about it and snicker and sneer at it for the dirty thing it is. ( They lie when they say it's beautiful, though not I.) Go ahead and enjoy it, they say, if you're willing to pay the price. But remember there's always a price. My God, the price you sometimes have to pay!"
I shut my mouth. The breath whistled through my nose for a while. I was standing by the bedside table now. The drinking glass had a half inch of water left in it and a lipstick print that looked purple in the blue light. The pillbox I'd given Vivian that morning was sitting beside it, open and empty. I was glad of that because I'd been afraid all along she might have taken only one of the two capsules and one might not have worked so completely or so cleanly.
I let myself look at Vivian now for several seconds. She hadn't vomited at all or been sick in any way that I could see. I'd somehow guessed all along that the effects of the cyanide wouldn't be as unpleasantly violent as the books described--they always exaggerate those things and try to throw an extra scare into you, about death as well as sex!--though I had been prepared to clean Vivian up if that had been necessary, clean her up in all tenderness and reverence.
I lightly touched the hand nearest me. It rocked a little, as though there were something under it liquid and gurgling. And it was icy cold.
Somehow the fact that her hand was cold shocked me and I quicky drew back my fingers. Naive of me, I suppose, but really except for her pale blue complexion, which was justified by the blue light, and the cold of her hand, and of course the empty pillbox, there was no way of knowing she was dead.
Then, gaining in boldness, I leaned closer to her and for the first time I caught the sweet musky rotten odor of corruption.
That jarred, I didn't want it, and I started for the bathroom, but before I got there I saw the slim fanciful bottles on her dressing table. I selected a lilac spray cologne and passed it back and forth at arm's length above her, from feet to head, several times.
Then, as the floral alcoholic mist settled, I plunged my hands through it and reverently parted the white silk kimono above her waist and drew back a little and looked at her breasts.
At that moment I experienced ecstasy, awe, and a kind of stubborn astonishment. Why, why , is it that two curving cones of flesh should exercise such a fiendish hold on man's imagination? They must mean something, be something; they can't be just a meaningless arbitrary target for man's fixation. I do not buy that theory about remembering mother's good milk and being cuddled into mother's warm protective bosom. Grown men aren't milk maniacs. Surely giving milk and pillowing a squirming brat are only subordinate functions of a woman's breasts, the sort of work they can do when they're broken down and good for nothing else. No, a woman's breasts must be designed for something fundamentally much more important. They're organs for voiceless communication, dear helpless hands, lovely mouthless snouts.
They're trying to say or do something. They're like soft-nosed velvet creatures pushing out of a woman's body, wanting to feel and sense intensely--maybe Shelley was getting at something deep when he thought of a woman's breasts with each nipple replaced by a peering eye. Breasts are sacraments--an outward sign of some mysterious hidden glory. They're beautiful, beautiful, beautiful--and I don't understand it at all.
Once I saw some pornographic movies of what I suppose are the ordinary sort--at any rate, men and live women doing it together--and after the first second or so I didn't feel any of the ususal delightful hot excitement (such as comes to me when I have someone undress a woman in my imagination or as used to come to me at burlesque shows) but only a cold intense awe like watching live birth or death might awaken or observing some completely inorganic phenomenon on a grand scale, such as the creep of a glacier or the surging of the sea in storm or the implacable rush and leap of a forest fire and the flight of large animals before it, or the slow wheeling of the stars.
"No, Vivian, I don't understand it at all," I heard myself say, quite loudly. It hit me that I could freely talk to Vivian now, talk to her about all the things I'd never been able to hint at before, talk to her about the things beyond those things--the things you couldn't even think of until you'd talked about the others first--why, there was no end to it.. What's more, I realized I wouldn't have minded if Vivian had been able to listen to me, yes, and answer me too, comment on what I said, show me her view of things and maybe bring new light into my own brain that way; in fact, I even wished she would.
It hit me hard, let me tell you, it struck me all in a heap as our country cousins say, to realize that in one way I was sorry now I had killed Vivian. I decided that I would have to get this thing straightened out, I would have to explain myself to myself, before I did anything else.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to go back and change what I'd done. I was still delighted that I had Vivian in a situation where I could enjoy her just as I wanted to. My gaze kept licking back every few seconds to her naked breasts and every time it did I re-experienced that same mixed ecstasy. But I was secure in the knowledge that I could find fulfillment with Vivian whenever I wanted: I had all the night ahead of me. It was just that it was beginning to seem a necessary or at least a desirable part of my fulfillment that I explain myself first. And if I talked to Vivian while doing it, that wasn't because I really wanted her alive or had any superstitious notions about a listening spirit, but just because it made the words come out of me easier. It was for the same general reason that I didn't take off, though I'd been going to, her black sleeping mask with its velvet-pupiled sequin eyes staring at the ceiling. It was easier for me to talk to her with her real eyes covered, whether they were open or closed underneath. (And the mask did add to my excitement.)
"I had to kill you, Vivian, didn't you see?" I began. "I've fought against this warped and cowardly urge of mine most of my life, and I was beginning to think I had it licked, that the delights of art and knowledge would be enough for me as I grew older and finally faded away. But then you came along, Vivian, and you fascinated me so, you were so fearfully lovely and dreadfully desirable, and you had an imagination that innocently teetered so close to the verge of my dirtiest most delightful inner pits--like the night you wondered what Persephone thought when she was stolen by Hades--that all my old dreams reawakened and I simply had to possess you. And the only way I could possess you was to kill you.
Each man kills the thing he loves--a great poet said that, Vivian, Oscar Wilde. Man has always killed his gods--the least study of anthropology shows you that, Vivian. The god has to be sacrificed so that there can be that great release, that great fulfillment. And the same is true of the goddess.
"It's not altogether my fault I'm the way I am, though I do like to take a little credit for the things I do," I continued. I had begun to pace now, back and forth past the foot of the bed, glancing at Vivian at the turns. "But I have to admit that my family background and some chance circumstances were largely responsible. I was a lonely and yearning child and pretty much unloved. I had a couple of parents who were very severe with me and with themselves, but who also drank too much. You know, Vivian, I sometimes think America is inhabited solely by a race of puritanical drunks--some of whom admittedly never take a drink all their lives. I also had a sister two years older named Beatrice.
"I've told you about Beatrice, Vivian, and especially about her tragic death from flu when I was only thirteen, how she died while I was alone in the house with her, my mother being alcoholically occupied. I often tell that anecdote to get a little sympathy. What I never tell was that Beatrice was a big prig and a tattletale and a tease--I call her big because she was two years older than me. As soon as she realized that I, her brother, was curious about her body, she started to make a great show of modesty and propriety. 'Ma, Archie tried to come into the bathroom while I was taking my bath;' 'Ma, Archie climbed on the top of the porch and peeked in my bedroom'--that sort of thing. Naturally it made my curiosity wilder. She also deliberately created situations to tease and frustrate and shame me and get me punished. One hot summer afternoon she pretended to be taking a nap--I swear she was just pretending--and her door was open and I couldn't help myself, I just had to tiptoe in and slowly, very slowly, frightened half to death, draw back the sheet. I was just starting to ease open the buttons of her pyjamas when she jerked up and let off an awful scream. I said I had just been going to tickle her, but it was no good; I got a severe whipping, an unnecessarily severe one by any standards, but then Beatrice was just an age for my father to be deeply in love with her--unconsciously, no doubt!--in that disgustingly pontifical, possessive, sentimental, self-satisfied way that hairy-chested fathers always seem to feel about their nubile daughters.
"After that I stayed strictly away from Beatrice and wouldn't bite on any of her traps--until the afternoon I came home from school and found mother snoring on the floor in the living room and Beatrice dead in bed upstairs. I satisfied my curiosity then--oh, I knew she was my sister and in a way I sincerely loved and respected her, and I knew what incest meant and that it was supposed to be very terrible, and I was very frightened of death and the dead and I was really scared of catching the flu, but I simply had to. Or maybe I wasn't entirely frightened of death. I mean, maybe I was frightened of death in the same way I was of sex--because they'd both been made horror-mysteries for me--and maybe I wanted to penetrate both mysteries at the same time.
"Anyway, I satisfied my curiosity, and it went further than that, further than I'd expected.
"You know, sex is a funny thing, Vivian. You start out just being overpoweringly curious and you end up getting hooked. You do something once and it can set a pattern forever. Why? How? I get the strangest feeling of reality-unreality whenever I think back to that cold bleak bedroom and the smoky twilight closing down and the burnt-linen stink of flu coming through the smell of mother's lilac toilet water--"
I got the damndest scare just then. I thought Vivian moved. I thought her body moved just a little. But I decided right away that it was because I'd been frightening myself remembering that afternoon with Beatrice so long ago.
"That was how I got hooked, Vivian. The fixation might have gradually faded, or it might not, but I was slow in getting social and starting to go with the girls and then about four or five years later there came the fiendish wonderful coincidence of moving to the city and discovering that my uncle there had the job of night attendant at the morgue. He had the family weakness for liquor; I hung around and played up to him. Pretty soon he took to leaving me to answer the phone while he sneaked out to get a drink. I won't go into that much, it didn't last long, but for a few evenings I inhabited a temple of Edgar Allan Poe--Poe had my weakness, Vivian, or at least he understood it damned well, just read 'Premature Burial,' 'The Oblong Box,' 'Usher,' 'Berenice,' and 'Ligeia.' Yes, for a brief space I had my dark-faned shrine, my Ulalumes and Annabel Lees. Most of the bodies were horrible, but not all.
"It only lasted three nights. On the fourth someone came checking up. I wasn't suspected, I got things hidden in time, but my uncle was reprimanded both for being away and for leaving me in charge, and he was transferred to another job.
"Right then I realized I was up against a big choice. I could go into the undertaking business and find a spot where I'd be able to fulfill myself from time to time--someday even in my own parlor!--or I could turn my back on the whole thing for the childish disgusting obsession I sometimes knew it was. I could try to fight it.
"I stewed around for quite a while making my decision. I once even contemplated trying to work my way through medical school and become a doctor, but it occurred to me in time that the temptations I'd be subjected to then would be too dreadful. I've never wanted to hurt society, Vivian, believe me! What little I've done, I've been driven to by overpowering urges.
"I finally decided I would try to fight it, and for the next twenty years I must say I made a pretty good job of the battle. I even went so far as to achieve relations of a sort with a couple of women--it wasn't so much completely successful as dull and troublesome. It never led anywhere. I found more satisfaction in certain aspects of art and literature and fantasies.
"I'm no dunce, Vivian. I know there are some women who are supposed to enjoy playing dead, but neither of mine did. One of them laughed at my suggestion, the other tried but was no good at it. Or maybe the pretense meant nothing to me, like some people can't enjoy sex with mechanical contraceptives, or even achieve it.
"I also seriously tried out a number of different churches, figuring they'd help me control myself and achieve some serenity, but I eventually discovered that most religions put so much emphasis on death and on sex as an evil or dangerous thing that they contributed to my urge instead of dissipating it. I stayed away from the church then and did a better job of keeping myself in line.
"But you know how it is with men in their forties, Vivian--or maybe you don't--anyway, they wake up one morning and realize that things they've always told themselves they'd do some day, in some sweet never-never land of success, are suddenly a matter of now-or-never.
"And then you came along, Vivian dear, and you were so damnably attractive that all my old urges awakened at a bound. You looked like a Poe heroine, a Pre-Raphaelite sorceress, a Bronte-Hepburn type; your eyes were dark-circled, you were delightfully thin, so that I was always conscious of your lovely skeleton, as if it were trying to burst out and join in a dance of death. And you were obviously neurotic, restless, easily frightened, very nervous, habitually melancholy and depressed, so that from the very start I thought of you as the Little Sister of Death. And then I finally got to know you, I found that you were very intelligent, sensitive, charming, and compassionate, full of little insights that hovered around the out-skirts of my secret. You liked to walk in cemeteries and romance about the old gravestones. You liked to hear about the pastel tombs of Mexico, the narrow vaults of New Orleans, the Aztec maidens thrown in the well, and the nuns who died in their cells a-fever with love of Christ. And once you imagined you were Persephone, Queen of the Dead, and I stopped you quick, because I knew I couldn't keep my secret for long if you went on like that.
"You know, Vivian, I think that if I ever could have really loved a living woman, it would have been you.
With you it could have happened, Vivian.
"You know why it never happened, Vivian, why it never had a chance of happening? It was because during those first months I only watched you from a distance--remember how long I was in saying more than two words?--and during that time I built you up into a symbol, I watched you die and I handled your dead body in my fantasies every night, so that by the time I got to know you better the pattern was set and only some impossible explosion of the mind could have changed it. I could only go on seeing as much of you as I dared, enduring the bittersweet torture of your presence, having my fantasies get more complex and unsatisfactory, and imperious every night, feeling the pressure build up, fighting to hold myself in check.
"I've always thought you were at least partly aware of what was going on those two times I almost killed you on impulse. First, there was the night I almost threw you into the lagoon in the park. I was going to go in with you and hold you under. There was a faint blue light around us from the distant boulevard lamps, remember? You always have been my Blue Girl, Vivian, moody and pale, though now you're painted by electricity rather than Gainsborough. Yes, there was a blue light around us and we were talking about suicide and there was nobody near--"
Again I thought Vivian moved! Just as though she'd shuddered and I'd caught the end of the shudder as my eyes turned to her. I was certain that once again I'd been scaring myself remembering eerie things, but this time I had more difficulty putting what I thought I'd seen out of my mind. I watched her motionless chest for several seconds before I went on.
"The second time was when I almost brained you with the stone ashtray out there in the living room. You suddenly turned round and caught me holding it back over my shoulder and I had to do a ridiculous pirouette to pass it off as a jape. You know why I checked myself that time, Vivian? It was solely because I had thought : 'I don't want her all bloodied up, I don't want even the back of her skull crushed, I'll do it a better way.'
"Once I'd thought of that I had no choice. It was just a matter of moving efficiently with a minimum waste of time, of stealing the cyanide from the photoengraving department and refilling the two Nembutal capsules, of getting a duplicate set of keys to this apartment the noon you let me come here from the office to fetch the homework you'd forgotten, of waiting for the time in your mood-cycle when you'd make the big complaint about not being able to sleep and, when it came this morning, taking you aside and offering you my two yellow capsules with much insistence that you take them both tonight and with repeated warnings that you tell no one--because, I said, most people these days are so irrationally critical of sleeping pills and especially of anyone not a doctor handing them out.
"I was afraid afterwards that I'd overdone it. You know, Vivian, I've often wondered during this last month of preparation whether you hadn't caught on, at least in some nebulous way, to what I was up to.
I've been behaving in such a flighty, abstracted way, or at least it's seemed so to me. I'm no actor, you know. I never could play it cool. My repressions don't make me restrained, only tongue-tied and jumpy.
So I've often wondered whether you hadn't caught on as to what I had in mind and were letting me go ahead with it because you yourself wanted it that way. Oh, not that you've asked me to kill you in so many words, but you've liked talking about suicide and you thought the Mexican candy skull I bought you was charming and you've told me how you keep coming back to the line in Keats' 'Nightingale'
about being 'half in love with easeful death' and after all you are my Blue Girl, my Dancing Skeleton, my Sleeping Beauty, my Snow White, my Little Sister of Death...
"Yes, I really thought you knew the cyanide or some swift death was in the capsules when you took them from me. But if you did know that, Vivian, I wonder now if you really had to take them. If you were so much in love with death, I might have been able to love you alive. I'm actually beginning to think I could.
My God, Vivian, if that was the way you felt, why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you open my eyes blinded by my mania-habits and my fears? Vivian, why--"
For a third time I thought that Vivian moved! Only this time it was I who shuddered. What if she should get up now, I asked myself, and come at me grinding her teeth and tear off the sleeping mask, and open her eyes to show just the whites and throw her arms around my neck stranglingly? I've never believed in the supernatural, though I've had an aesthetic taste for the weird, but now in that blue-litten room the whole impossible universe of vampires and zombies and werewolves suddenly came alive for me. What if the dead did come back... in the body?
No, no, I told myself, it was clearly an illusion born of my nervousness and self-dramatizing. And even if Vivian's body actually had twitched a little, there were natural causes. I mustn't forget rigor mortis--my uncle told me the ususal horrendous stories and I had done enough reading on the subject.
Besides, in all my rather absurd oratory I had lost sight temporarily of my chief purpose in coming here tonight. Thinking of that, I almost laughed. I moved toward the bed. Once again I caught the sweet foul odor of corruption--upsetting but reassuring too. Once again I sprayed the lilac cologne.
And then--you know, it's hard to believe this, but it's true--I discovered that I had lost my desire, or rather the hot, male intensity of it. Either my somewhat ridiculous spouting and melodramatic self-justification had sublimated it, or that moment of supernatural dread had chilled it. At any rate, there was Vivian lying there, more beautiful than I've ever seen her, infinitely desirable, all ready for me, and here I was worse than a eunuch. It was a scene for the gods to snicker at as they watched our painful antics from their lecherous couches on Olympus.
But I wasn't going to be cheated that way, no, I told myself, I'd murdered to get Vivian and I was going to have her. So I rang up the red curtain that had been closed ever since I met Vivian, and my girls came out of the wings and began to put on their thousandth performance, or something like that, of Lesbian Gang, Miss Satan's School, Sisters of the Whip, Hell's Sorority House, and the other little dramas I have concocted over the years. I don't know why it's so exciting to imagine girls torturing girls, but it is for me and I gather from pornographic books and photographs that my taste is not unique.
I must say my girls never seemed such cheap and sleazy creatures as they did tonight, even Miss Satan herself and poor frightened Lovey-Dovey. Or maybe they put on a brilliant performance and it was just me that felt cheap, having to use them that way.
At any rate, they eventually had the desired effect on me. They always do. I turned once more to the bed.
And then--oh, I didn't lose my ardor, quite the contrary, but Vivian looked so very beautiful and lovely and loving, as if she were somehow making an effort to make herself nice for me in death, that I wished her alive with that understanding of me and I felt lonely and sad to my core, though still loving, and I knelt down beside the bed at her feet to kiss, not her icy hand, but the sleeve of her white silk kimono, begging for forgiveness, yearning for her pardon.
As I did so, I noticed that the white bedclothes were wet at that
point, so wet that droplets were forming at the hanging edge of the
white coverlet and dripping noiselessly onto the thick carpet. The
liquid was absolutely colorless and odorless too--I touched my nose to
it. And it was very cold.
It had to be ice water--as if a rubber sheet full of ice water under the bedclothes were leaking.
I didn't move. I didn't breathe.
Then I got the odor of corruption, stronger than ever, but clearly not from the ice water. I stooped lower then on my knees, still holding the hem of Vivian's kimono to my lips, and looked under the bed.
Not two feet away from me was a dishpan full of garbage. A purple-gray hunk of meat was the main part of it, flanked by crescents of mold-spotted cantaloupe rind, and scattered over with gardenia blossoms.
Beyond it was a little, gray, grill-faced microphone lying on its back with thin wires going from it toward the head of the bed.
Still holding the hem of her kimono and kneeling and bending so that my face almost touched the carpet, I followed the inconspicuous wires with my eyes. They traveled around the foot of the baseboard and disappeared under the bathroom door.
I instantly realized exactly what had happened--there was no reasoning to it, no deduction; one moment ten thousand facts and ideas weren't in my head, the next moment they were.
Just as I'd guessed, Vivian had suspected me all along. She'd gone to the police--maybe not for the first time--as soon as I gave her the capsules--during lunch hour, of course. The powder in the capsules had been easily identified as cyanide, but because they only had Vivian's word that I'd given her the capsules and because in any case they wanted to nail me--and because policemen have as hot nasty tastes as other men--they'd laid this little trap for me with Vivian's cooperation. Maybe the blue lights had helped give them the idea, though if the lights hadn't been blue they'd have simply turned them off.
Yes, it must have been the police who had planted this microphone, and maybe the police who had hit on the point about the blue lights, but it must have been Vivian who had thought of concealing her eyes, which no one can keep from blinking, with the black sleeping mask. As for her breathing, she'd have kept it shallow and I hadn't even looked at her five consecutive seconds.
And I was somehow certain that it was Vivian who had thought of the rubber sheet full of ice cubes and the dishpan full of garbage. I could imagine the police chuckling enthusiastically as she suggested those items. The police are our guardians, but they like their pornography as much as the next chap.
Yes, I was curiously sure they'd enjoyed my little performance, even been thrilled by it, both Vivian and the police--and I rather wished I'd gotten the bit about Miss Satan's School on the tape, and Lovey-Dovey's last torments.
Yes, Archie, I told myself, Vivian will have nightmares about it, or maybe pleasant dreams, all the rest of her life. And those crooked-brained, blue-coated voyeurs will keep the tape in their secret black museum and play it for kicks for the next fifty years. But after all, you did put the cyanide in those capsules, Archie old boy, and for killing the thing you love there's no pardon to the end of time, or at least until the end of you.
I knew exactly what was going to happen next, but just the same I stood up and quietly started for the door to the living room.
Before I was halfway there it began to open. I stopped where I was.
Vivian sat up in bed with a jerk. Jill-in-the-box. The mask stared at me.
Through both doors the cops came into the bedroom. One of them switched on the big yellow ceiling light. Under it, Vivian's skin was pinkly flushed.
The cops came toward me, but I stood there aloof, looking at Vivian. Now I could see her eyes through the mask.
She jerked the sheet up to her neck, but kept staring at me.
A hand grabbed my shoulder and jerked me one way, but almost immediately another hand jerked me the other. My coat tore. It was comic. I pretended not to notice, and really I hardly did.
Vivian's face was contorted with fury, but whether at me--and why--or at the cops--and why--I couldn't tell. Maybe if she'd taken the mask off, baring all her expression, I'd have been able to. For instance, was the flush merely anger?
It was an interesting problem. I still ponder it when the bare globe turns out in the concrete ceiling overhead and I wait for sleep.
A tremendous splash of lightning gave us our first glimpse of the pillared front of the Old Orne House--a pale Colonial mask framed by wildly whipping leaves. Then, even before the lightning faded, it was blotted out by a solid sheet of muddy water sloshing up against the windshield.
"But I still don't like midgets," Helen said for the third time, "and besides--" Close thunder, like thick metal ripping drowned out the rest.
"It's gotten beyond a question of your or my personal taste in heights," I argued, squinting for a sight of the road between mud splashes. "Sure Malcolm Orne's a midget, but you don't know how slippery the road is ahead or how deep those Jersey salt marshes are on either side of it. And no garages or even houses for miles. Too risky, in this storm. Anyway, we figured all along we might visit him on the way.
That's why we took this road."
"Yes, this lonely, god-forsaken road." Helen's voice was as strained and uneasy as her face, pallidly revealed by another lightning flash. "Oh, I know it's silly of me, but I still feel that--"
Again cracking thunder blanketed her words. Our coupe was progressing by heaves, as if through a gelatinous sea. I spotted the high white posts a little ahead, and swung out for the turn-in.
"Still really want to go on?" I asked.
Maybe it was the third blast of thunder, loudest of the lot, that decided her against further argument. She gave me a "You win" look, and even grinned a little, being a much better sport that I probably deserved for a wife.
The coupe slithered between the posts, lurched around squishily on a sharp slippery rise, made it on the last gasp, and lunged toward the house through a flail of lasting, untrimmed branches.
The windows in front were dark and those to the right were tightly shuttered, but light flickered faintly through the antique white fanlight above the six-paneled Colonial door. Helen hugged my arm tight as we ducked through the drenching rain up onto the huge porch, with its two-story pillars. I reached for the knocker.
Just at that moment there came one of those brief hushes in the storm. The lightning held off, and the wind stopped. I felt Helen jump at the ugly rustling, scraping sound of a branch which, released from the wind's pressure, brushed against a pillar as it swung back into place. I remembered noting that the paint was half-peeled away from the pillar.
Then things happened fast. Groping for the knocker, I felt the door give inward. There was a deafening blast from inside the house. A ragged semi-circle of wood disappeared from the jamb about a foot from the ground. Splinters flew from a point in the floor eight inches from my shoe. The door continued to swing slowly open from the first push I had given it, revealing a Negro with grizzled hair and fear-wide eyes, clad in the threadbare black of an out-dated servant's costume. Despite his slouching posture he still topped six feet. Smoke wreathed from the muzzle of the shotgun held loosely in his huge pink-palmed hands.
"Oh, Lordy," he breathed in quaking tones. "Dat rustlin' soun'--I t'ought it was--"
Something, then, checked my angry retort and the lunge I was about to make forward for the weapon. It was the appearance of another face--a white man's--over the Negro's shoulder. A saturnine face with aristocratic features and bulging forehead. Judging from the way he towered over the gigantic Negro, the second man could hardly be more than a few inches short of seven feet. But that wasn't what froze me dead in my tracks. It was that the face was unmistakably that of Malcolm Orne, the midget.
The Negro was grasped and swung aside as if he were a piece of furniture. The gun was lifted from his nerveless fingers as if it were a child's toy. Then the giant bowed low and said, "A thousand pardons!
Welcome to Orne House!"
Helen's scream, long delayed, turned to hysterical laughter. Then the storm, recommencing with redoubled fury, shattered the hush and sent us hurrying into the hall.
The giant's teeth flashed in a smile. "One moment, please," he murmured to us, then turned and seized the cowering Negro by the slack of the coat, slapped his face twice, hard.
"You are never to touch that gun, Buford!" Again the Negro's head was buffeted by a solid blow. "You almost killed my guests. They would be well within their rights if they demanded your arrest."
But what caught my attention was the fact that the Negro hardly seemed to notice either the words or the stinging blows. His eyes were fixed in a peculiarly terrified way on the open door, seemingly staring at a point about a foot from the floor. Only when a back-draft slammed it shut, did he begin to grovel and whine.
The giant cut him short with a curt, "Send Milly to show my guests their room. Then stay in the kitchen." The Negro hurriedly shambled off without a backward glance.
The giant turned to us again. He looked very much in place in this darkly wainscoted hall. On the wall behind him were a pair of crossed sabers of Civil War vintage.
"Ah, Mrs. Egan, I am glad to see that you are taking this deplorable affair so calmly." His smile flashed at Helen. "And I am delighted to make your acquaintance, though just now you have every reason to be angry with me." He took her hand with a courtly gesture. His face grew grave. "Almost--a hideous accident occurred. I can explain, though not excuse it. Poor Buford lives in abnormal terror of a large mastiff I keep chained outside--an animal quite harmless to myself or my guests, I hasten to add. A little while ago it broke loose. Evidently Buford thought it was attempting to force its way in. His fear is irrational and without bounds--though otherwise he is a perfect servant. I only hope you will let my hospitality serve as an apology."
He turned to me. "Your wife is charming," he said. "You're a very lucky man, Tom."
Then he seemed to become aware of my dumbfounded look, and the way my gaze was stupidly traveling up and down his tremendous though well-proportioned form. A note of secret amusement was added to his smile.
Helen broke the silence with a little laugh, puzzled but not unpleased.
"But, excuse me, who are you? " she asked.
The wavering candlelight made queer highlights, emphasizing the massive forehead and the saturnine features.
"Malcolm Orne, Madam!" he answered with a little bow.
"But I thought," said Helen, "that Malcolm Orne was..." An involuntary expression of disgust crossed her face.
"A midget?" His voice was silky. "Ah, yes. I can understand your distaste." Then he turned slowly toward me. "I know what's bothering you, Tom," he said. "But that is a long and very strange story, which can best wait until after dinner. Milly will take you up to your room. Your luggage will be brought up. Dinner in about three-quarters of an hour? Good!"
An impassive-faced Negress had appeared silently from the back of the hall, bearing in her ebony hands a branched candlestick. There were a dozen questions hammering at my brain, but instead of asking them I found myself following the Negress up the curving stairs, Helen at my side, watching the fantastic shadows cast by the candles.
* * * *
As soon as we were alone, Helen bombarded me with a dozen incredulous questions of her own. I did my best to convince her that the giant downstairs was really Malcolm Orne--there was the birthmark below his left ear and curious thin scar on his forehead to back up the rest of the evidence--and that Malcolm Orne had been, when I last saw him, a midget who missed four feet by several inches.
I wasn't very successful and no wonder, since I could hardly believe it myself. Helen seemed to think I was mixing him up with someone else.
"You mentioned a brother--" she said.
I shook my head doggedly. "No possibility there," I told her. "Malcolm Orne did have an elder brother, but he died a year ago."
"And you're sure it's only a year and a half since you last saw Malcolm?" she persisted. "What was the brother like?"
"He was short, though no midget. About five feet. So don't go getting any wild theories of murder and impersonation. Marvin Orne was his name. A doctor. Made quite a reputation in New York, then came down here to start a country clinic in connection with research he was doing. Some of his work was supposed to be very important. Embryology. Cellular development. Hormones. Obscure vitamin factors.
There I stopped, suddenly realizing the implications of what I was saying. It was farfetched, of course, but--
"Go on, dear!" Helen prodded. "You've thought of something! Don't keep me in suspense." She looked interested and eager now, her uneasiness completely departed.
"I know it sounds awfully pseudo-scientific," I began cautiously, "but I suppose it's barely possible that, before his death, Marvin Orne discovered some serum or extract or whatever you call it, something to stimulate growth, and used it on--"
"Wonderful!" Helen interrupted, catching my idea. "That's the first sensible thing you've said tonight. I could believe that."
"It's only a wild theory," I hedged quickly. "The kind I warned you against. Better wait. Remember he hinted he'd tell us about it after dinner."
"Oh, but what a wonderful theory!" Helen cut in. "Just think what it would mean to a man to be changed from a pygmy into a giant almost overnight. The psychological implications--why, it opens up all sorts of vistas. He seems to be a very charming man, you know."
The last remark had a trace of impishness in it. I nodded though I didn't quite agree.
When we went down to dinner, she was still flushed with excitement, and I realized for the thousandth time what a thoroughly charming woman I had married. As if in response to a challenge emanating from the high courtly halls and rich though dusty woodwork, she wore her formal black evening gown with silver trimmings. And of course she had wheedled me into putting on a somewhat travel-crumpled dinner jacket.
There was no one in the hall, so we waited at the bottom of the stairs. The storm had died away and it was very quiet. I tried the high double doors to what was surely the living room, but they were stuck or locked. A faint but sharply nauseous stench rose to my nostrils. I noticed that Helen wrinkled her nose, and I took the opportunity to whisper, "There are some drawbacks, it seems to ancient grandeur.
Ancient plumbing, for one."
Then we became aware of the Negro Buford standing uneasily at the very far end of the hall. As soon as he saw that we were looking at him, he bowed and motioned to us, then quickly turned and went out.
We followed after. There was something very ridiculous about his long-distance courtesy. "I suppose he's embarrassed because of what happened, and afraid we're still going to have him arrested," Helen speculated lightly. "The poor superstitious savage."
"Just the same, it was a narrow squeak," I reminded her. "But if Malcolm keeps the firearms safely locked up hereafter, I'll forgive the villain."
The dining room, where antique cut glass chandeliers glittered softly with candle-light, held another surprise.
"Tom... and Mrs. Egan," said our host, "I wish to present my wife, Cynthia."
She was literally one of the most lavishly beautiful women I have ever seen. Really creamy skin. Masses of warmly golden hair. A Classic face, but with the Classic angularity alluringly softened and the Classic strength missing. The strapless evening gown of red velvet emphasized a narrow waist, a richly molded bosom and perfectly rounded, almost plump shoulders. Lavish was the only word for her. More like one of Titian's or Renoir's models than a modern or a Greek. She was Venus to Helen's slim Diana. There was a gleam of old gold from her hands and the pendant at her neck. Like a picture on exhibition.
She seemed a singularly reserved woman for one so gorgeous, acknowledging the introduction with a smile and a little nod. Helen too for some reason did not break into the lively if artificial feminine chatter one expects at dinner parties, and the meal began in silence, with Buford pouring the white wine and serving the seafood in crystal hemispheres set in silver. The seafood was not iced, however, and as the meal progressed other deficiencies became apparent. The grizzled Negro avoided looking at Helen or myself, as he moved softly around the table.
While the seafood was being replaced by a thick meaty soup, Malcolm Orne leaned back sipping his wine, and said to me, "Quite a surprise to find that I was married? Well, there was a time when we too would have found it surprising, eh, dear?" The last remark was directed at his wife. She smiled and nodded quickly. I thought her throat moved as if she swallowed hard. His gaze lingered on her, his own smile becoming more expansive. "Yet things have a way of changing, or being changed, eh dear? But that's part of the mystery which must wait until coffee."
From then on conversation picked up, though one peculiar feature of it soon became obvious. Cynthia Orne did not join in at all, except for the most voiceless of polite murmurings--more gesture than word.
Moreover, Malcolm Orne deliberately answered any questions directed at her. He did it with a casual cleverness, but it was none the less apparent. For a while what was almost a verbal duel developed between Helen and him, she directing one remark after another at our hostess, he deftly or bluntly interposing. Helen was responding with mounting excitement to the atmosphere of mystery and tension.
After the soup the culinary pretensions of Buford and Milly rapidly collapsed. There followed a peppery stew, float--with fat, which sought to make up in quantity what it lacked in quality. It made a disagreeable contrast with the thick silver service and rich damask. And then I began to notice the other false notes; the great blotches of damp on the ceiling, the peeling wall-paper, the thumb-marks on the crystal, the not-quite-eradicated stains on the thick, hand-embroidered linen.
With the stew was served--inappropriately enough--a sugary port wine. Helen and I, our appetites satisfied, toyed with the meat. Cynthia Orne hardly touched a thing; she'd grow thin soon enough on this diet, I thought. But Malcolm ate enormously, voraciously, knife and fork moving with a perfectly correct yet machinelike rapidity.
Gradually I found myself loathing the man. I think his attitude toward his wife was chiefly responsible, at first. He so obviously gloated in possessing her and dominating her, so that she dared not speak a word for herself. He was showing her off, drinking in our admiration. And he gloated in his mystification of us, too; his veiled references to coming revelations, his unwillingness to discuss even the lesser mystery of Buford and the mastiff. Oh, I was still devilishly curious to know the explanation of the baffling phenomenon with which we were faced--a phenomenon which had changed a midget into a giant--but my curiosity was dulled, and I felt that the solution would somehow be sickening. Again and again I studied his face, racking my memory for the exact appearance of Malcolm Orne the midget, comparing, contrasting. Even the head seemed larger, the forehead more swollen, though these features had been characteristic of the midget too. I tried hard to pretend that this was a different man--and I failed. The identity was too apparent. I went over in my mind the manner of Malcolm Orne the midget. Sardonic he had been, I recalled, and at times overly in love with his own cleverness.
A not very pleasant or kindly person. One expects such behavior in an individual seeking to compensate for marked physical deficiencies. Malcolm Orne the giant retained all these qualities, but there was added to them supreme self-satisfaction along with a wanton delight in exercising power. His sense of inferiority
, which had been the balance wheel in his nature, was now gone, and the result was not very nice. And beyond all this I sensed something else--some unguessed, almost inhuman power or some equally unguessed, equally inhuman striving. Unwholesome force emanated from him. I recalled Helen's words:
"...changed from a pygmy into a giant almost overnight. The psychological implications... why it opens us all sort of vistas." I did not like the look of those vistas.
Buford splashed stew, a great puddle of it, on the tablecloth. I looked at him. His face was muddy with fear. It was the sound from outside that was affecting him--an excited growling and yapping, growing louder every moment. Malcolm Orne, frowning, half rose. I expected him to strike Buford, but he did not. He was listening too.
"Sounds as if your mastiff's caught something," I remarked. Malcolm Orne impatiently motioned me to be silent.
Suddenly the sound changed in character, became a wail of terror, one vast horrid squeal that rose and fell without ever ceasing, like a siren. Moving with startling rapidity for so tall a man, Malcolm Orne darted toward the door. I rose to follow. He turned and rapped out a peremptory command, "None of you are to leave this room until I return." Then, seeing my angry look, he added with obvious effort, "If you please, Tom. I can best handle this alone." The door slammed behind him.
The wailing decreased in volume, though becoming more pitifully agonized. With a shrug I sat down. The Negress Milly had come in from the kitchen, and she and Buford were clinging together in abject terror, though he if anything seemed the more frightened.
"Caught another dog, I suppose--" ventured Helen. Her voice trailed off.
"Very likely," I replied. But I was thinking that if there were a second dog involved he had a very similar voice.
"Well, I'm sure your husband knows just how to handle him, Mrs. Orne," Helen remarked with an attempt at reassurance.
Mrs. Orne did not reply. I looked at her more closely. Her lips were moving wordlessly, as though she were seeking to reply and unable to. Beads of sweat stood out on her white forehead, and trickled from the line of her golden hair. Her whole body was trembling, so slightly that you hardly noticed it at first, but continuously. Gradually it was borne in on me that this was no mere anxiety for her husband. She was in the grip of ultimate panic.
The wailing sank to a coughing moan, then mercifully ceased. And now we heard the voice of Malcolm Orne, in sharp accents of command.
Again Mrs. Orne seemed to be attempting unsuccessfully to speak. Her eyes were fixed on Helen's beseechingly. Then, with rapid nervous movements, she spread out her tiny handkerchief on the tablecloth and began to write something on it in lipstick with shaking hand. We watched her, fascinated.
There came the sound of slamming doors, and then, during one moment of stillness, a rustling, so very faint that I could hardly be sure I had heard, yet it wrung from Buford a pitiful groan of horror. I recalled the first words we had heard him speak, "Dat rustlin' soun'--" Hardly a noise that one would associate with a mastiff.
Another door slammed. There were footsteps in the hall. In frantic haste, Mrs. Orne wadded up the handkerchief and held it out to Helen, who quickly tucked it in the bosom of her dress. Then the door opened, and Malcolm Orne stood regarding us. His shoes and trouser legs were muddied.
"A dangerous beast--to outsiders," he remarked, breathing a little heavily. "A stray hound wandered in, and he tore it to ribbons before I could interfere." He looked around as if challenging us to say that what we had heard hadn't sounded like a dog-fight.
"I shouldn't think you'd want to have such a brute around," said Helen rapidly.
He seemed about to reply when his gaze lighted on Buford and Milly. "What do you mean coming in here?" he snarled at the Negress. "Get out! Buford, we will take coffee now."
His urbane manner returned when he had settled himself again at the table. "Sorry I can't offer you coffee in the living room. But I've shut it up. It's a great barn of a place two stories high, very hard to heat.
Besides, before his death, my brother had begun to use it as a sort of laboratory, for his experiments." Again the gloating, secretive smile.
Night-black coffee, in fragile eggshell china, was something I welcomed. Malcolm Orne drained his cup, refilled it and began abruptly to speak.
"I'm hardly the right one to tell this story, since I'm no scientist. But I'm the only one who knows it all. So bear with me if I fumble for words." His manner belied what he said. He was obviously supremely self-confident, savoring the dramatic quality of his introduction. "Well, you may have heard something of my brother's work on growth processes. His early investigating created quite a stir. But first I should try to explain something.
"Growth, as I understand it, is not a process that has any absolutely fixed stopping point. It may stop early in the teens, or continue on well into the twenties. It may seem to stop, and then start again.
Moreover, there are well authenticated cases of growth during middle age. Though usually in such cases the growth is of an unbalanced or localized sort, as in acromegaly, where the bones of the hands or jaw become abnormally enlarged. Factors of heredity, diet, and climate are all of importance. Scientists today are of course able to exert some control over growth by influencing glandular secretions. If they knew enough, their control would become complete. They would know how to start growth when it had seemed to stop forever.
"Perhaps my being a midget turned my brother's mind to this problem. But once he had begun, he pursued it with a single-mindedness that crowded out all other interests. Not that he had a narrow range of thought--he was a genius!--but he saw in every phenomenon some aspect of the process of growth.
His country clinic here was a part of it--he made extensive statistical studies of the sizes and growth rates of country and city people.
"Growth Factor One--that was what he called the thing he was looking for. The hormone or sub-vitamin that influenced all others. The ultimate physiological catalyst. The master-switch to turn on or shut off the whole process of growth."
Helen and I were leaning forward now, hanging on his words. He waited for a moment, relishing the suspense, then said lazily, "Well, that's about all there is to the story. Except that eventually he found it.
Found Growth Factor One." He rolled the words on his tongue.
"What was it, you ask? That's something I'd like to know too, now. But I'm no scientist. It was...
something that was injected. That much I know, since after the preliminary experiments on animals and insects, I insisted on being his first human subject. You can readily guess why."
His gloating smile and his air of utter superiority were fast becoming insufferable, but you just had to listen.
"Yes," he repeated. "I think you can all readily imagine why a midget should want to grow. No one loves a midget, eh dear?" His words caressed his wife cruelly, like a whip dragged slowly across the naked skin. "And a midget loves no one. Or at least that midget didn't."
He seemed then to become lost in reverie, but I felt sure he was only taking time to let his words sink in, and to absorb our unwilling interest. Helen gripped my hand under the table and I could feel her shivering.
Then, staring past us, he continued in a low dreamy voice, "An interesting thing, the way this Growth Factor One works. It doesn't merely increase the size of and number of body cells already existing. After the fashion of true growth, it develops new kinds of cells. I have, for example, in my brain, neurons of a sort that probably have never existed before. Very likely they have--new powers. The same holds for muscular cells. I could demonstrate. But it would be rather melodramatic, wouldn't it, if I crumpled this coffee urn in one hand? Incidentally, the growth process would work in the same way with animals. By careful use of Growth Factor One you might make an animal, as intelligent, almost, as a man."
He broke off and looked around at us, patronizingly. "Well, now you've heard it. A year ago my brother died. His work was turned over to a group of distinguished scientists. But his notes were inadequate and very confusing. I don't think they'll ever be able to learn much from them. I remain the sole product of his labors. The other creatures he experimented with were all destroyed."
Helen gave a little squeal of fright and jerked away from the table. A tiny black spider was scuttling among the silverware. Malcolm Orne calmly reached out the gravy ladle left from the stew, and crashed it with a little thwack. Then, as Helen began to apologize for being so startled, we noticed that Cynthia Orne had fainted.
Her husband made no movement. For a moment I stared at him, then hurried around and did what I could to revive her, chafing her temples with a wet napkin, lowering her head to bring the blood back.
Finally her lips twitched and her eyes shuddered open. Leaning over her, close to her face, I seemed to hear her murmur over and over again a peculiar phrase: "Not the web again. Not the web." Mechanically, almost inaudibly, but with an accent of extreme fear. Then she realized where she was and quickly sat up. She seemed embarrassed by my attempts to help her.
Malcolm Orne sipped the last of his coffee, and stood up. "It's time we were all in bed," he remarked.
"Our guests must be tired from their trip. Come, dear."
She struggled to her feet, swaying a little, and took his arm. Helen and I followed silently, though angry words were on the tip of my tongue.
Right then and there I suppose I ought to have had it out with him, but after all it was his house, so I held myself in.
In the hall the unpleasant odor that I had ascribed to defective plumbing was more noticeable, and as we passed the high double doors of the living room I fancied I heard a faint sibilant rustling. Up the stairs we followed them, Cynthia Orne leaning heavily on her husband's arm. He did not look down at her. At the first door at the head of the stairs he paused, "Good night, dear. I'll be coming considerably later," he said. She unlinked her arm from his, nodded at us with the specter of a smile, and went in.
At the door of our bedroom he said good night, adding, "If you want anything, there's the bell-pull.
Please don't consider stirring out of this room. The servants or I can attend to all your wants."
The door closed and his footsteps moved away. Helen drew out Cynthia Orne's handkerchief, spread it out on the table. We read it together. The lipstick had smudged, and the printing was hurried, but there was no question as to what the words were.
"Get out. For your lives."
Half an hour later I was tiptoeing in my stockinged feet down the almost pitch-black hall toward Cynthia Orne's bedroom. I felt slightly ridiculous and not altogether sure of myself. Meddling with the affairs of a married couple is undiplomatic to say the least. But Helen and I had decided there was nothing else we could do. Malcolm Orne certainly gave the impression of being vindictive, cruel, and dangerous. For her own sake as well as our own, it seemed imperative that one of us talk with her alone and find out what it was all about.
I had successfully negotiated the turn in the hall and was approaching the head of the stairs when the noise of talking from below brought me to a stop. It sounded like Malcolm Orne. After a few moments I inched forward past the bedroom door and peered over the ornately carved balustrade down the well of the stairs. There were no candles below, but the storm had blown over and moonlight shone through the fanlight--enough to illuminate vaguely the face of our host. An oblong of darkness showed me that the door of the living room was open, and there mounted to my nostrils that now-familiar stench, stronger than before. Somehow that odor, more than anything else, cut through my conscious mind to the hidden levels of fear below.
Orne was looking in that open doorway. At first I thought he was talking to someone, but afterward I became certain that he was conducting a wild moody monologue. At least, one does not expect a sane man to talk with the dead.
"You'll rot forever, eternally embalmed in hell," were the first words I heard. He intoned them like a malign indignation. "Yes, dear brother, you're well taken care of. You who always felt so 'sorry' for me and wanted to make a 'real' man out of me, yet were so contemptuous of my intelligence that you treated me as a child. You with your babbling about 'humanity' and your moralizing lectures. Well, you succeeded all right. You made a man--or perhaps more than a man--out of me. But you found out too late what the consequences are. I wish you comfort, dear brother. I hope you like my wife's company.
She's not been behaving well of late. Again good night, brother."
A mocking laugh ended this murderous confession. Then he whistled and snapped his fingers impatiently, as if calling a dog, and moved off toward the dining room.
It is not pleasant to confess that one has ever been literally paralyzed by fear, but what happened then did just that to me. I saw nothing. The moonlight struck too high to illuminate what issued from the living room and hurried down the hall after him. But there was a rustling, clicking sound--Merciful heavens, how I tried to convince myself a dog might make such a sound!--and it carried an indescribable impression of swift scurrying movement. With it came a sharp increase in the fetid stench.
I am not certain how long I crouched there with the cold sweat of terror breaking out from my forehead.
Hardly a minute probably. Then my mind began to work again, returning automatically to the problem with which it had previously been engaged--the urgent need of conferring with Cynthia Orne.
Cautious rapping at her door brought no response. I tried it and found it locked. Then I risked a little louder rapping, and, with my lips close to the keyhole, softly called her name. Still no response. Memory of Orne's fantastic words rose in my numbed mind, "I hope you like my wife's company." And with those words the chilling possibility of murder rose in my mind.
Then, as I stepped back from the door, I heard again that abominable rustling, but this time behind me, in the direction of our bedroom. And then I heard Helen scream. That stung me into instant action. But in my reckless haste I misjudged the turn in the corridor and crashed against the wall. Half stunned, I staggered onward and wrenched open the bedroom door. The flickering light from the branched candelabrum revealed an undisturbed empty room. Helen was gone.
My first move was toward the open window. Below, rapidly crossing the moon-silvered unkempt lawn, I saw two figures. But they were not the ones I expected. Burdened with an ancient carpetbag and several ragged bundles, Buford and Milly were hurrying away from Orne House.
My next move, after quickly rummaging in my suitcase for the flashlight, was back toward the stair. I had remembered the crossed sabers on the wall in the hall below, and it seemed to me essential that I procure a weapon of some sort before I start my search. But I was stopped short at the head of the stairs, for again Malcolm Orne was standing at the library door. Only this time the front door was open too and this time his words were brief.
"After 'em boy. Get 'em boy," he called, snapping his fingers and then pointing outside. There was a momentary pause. Then something scuttled like a shadow across the path of moonlight, moving with such rapidity that I could make out nothing of its shape except that it was squat but not small. Malcolm Orne gave a low laugh and followed it, closing the door behind him. With a sickening heart I realized that the desperately fleeing figures I had seen crossing the lawn were to be hunted down.
But at least I was momentarily safe to pursue my search. I switched on the flashlight, hurried down the stairs and lifted one of the sabers from the wall. It was a heavy yet well-balanced weapon. Then I entered the living room.
The stench was nauseously thick here, the very air a sea of decay. My flashlight, directed at random, fell twice on moldering tapestries and then on something so incredible that I believed I must be going mad.
Suspended in midair at the far end of the room, still clad in that red velvet evening gown, was the body of Cynthia Orne.
The head, its golden hair disarranged, lolled backward. The arms stretched taut to either side. Then I began to see the thin opalescently grayish strands that twined around her wrists and arms, and wrapped around her skirt, drawing it tight against her legs. The strands seemed to radiate off in all directions. My flashlight roved outward across the glimmering net-work. Horror and revulsion rooted me to the spot where I stood. The thing was a gigantic spiderweb.
I saw that there were other victims. Here and there, thickest at the corners of the web, were forms suggestive of small animals, each wrapped in a shimmering cocoon. Shudderingly I recalled the eating habits of spiders, how they preserve their prey for the future. In the lower right hand corner was the shape of a large dog, his silken wrappings only half completed. This, I told myself, must be the mastiff which had howled so horribly in the night.
And then I saw the man. He was suspended close to the wall; a drab fearfully emaciated thing whose shrunken face awoke groping, incredulous thoughts in my mind.
Filled with a mad desire to destroy that loathsome web, I stepped forward with upraised sword.
And then my staggered senses reeled at another blow directed at the seat of sanity itself. For the man, whom I thought could be nothing else but dead, spoke. His voice was a thin cracked whisper, but it carried a note of terrible urgency.
"Back, for your life! One touch of these strands, and you would be trapped forever, like a fly. Your sword would be entangled by the very strands it cut. Get that can of heavy grease behind you. There, by the table! Smear your hands and the swordblade with it. And bring the hooked pole that stands in the corner, and those things that look like fire tongs. Smear them with grease too."
I do not like to think of the next half hour. I have never done work one-tenth as ugly and revolting--and always behind me the threat of the creature's return. Choking on the fetid air and with that fiendish webwork often only a few inches from my body, I hooked and sliced, dodged the flicking ends of cut strands, like a damned soul performing some endless task in hell. I think it was the voice of the man that kept me sane, directing me, warning me, sometimes rambling off, but never ceasing, like the voice of a hypnotist.
"First cut the strands above her head--the inside of the hook is sharp as a sickle. That will bring her down a good three feet. Now the strands below, and then those to either side, one by one. Carefully, man! And watch that loose one swinging by your neck. Flip it to one side so it catches! That's right. Oh, I know how to do this thing backward. A dozen times I've watched him and the beast hang her up there and then hours later, take her down. It's his way of punishing her because she once laughed when Malcolm Orne the midget asked her to marry him. Her mistake was that she fell in love with him after he grew tall, and let him marry her. Through her, he seeks to revenge himself on all womankind. I tell you, to watch that man and beast work together is the most hideous sight in existence. He hasn't let it poison her yet. That distinction is reserved for me. A slight bite produces paralysis--you know the habits of spiders?
How they preserve their prey? I was last bitten a month ago. The creature was loose for a while tonight, killed the dog. But he lets it range around pretty freely. Boasts of his power over it.
"Gently now! Mind those strands to the left. There, that's done it. Now pull her away from it. Don't try to lift her. Slowly. Slowly."
I turned to the task of releasing the man, his voice still directing me. But now it rambled more often on to sidetracks.
"It must be a year I've hung here. And all because I was fool enough to change him from a midget into a giant--and a devil. He's literally no longer human. His schemes are those of a mad malign god. Do you know what he wants to make me do, besides tell him the secret of growth? He wants to force me to search for a Negative Growth Factor One, a degenerative hormone, something that will make living things decrease evenly in size so that he can infect all mankind with it, in order that he may ultimately rule over a race of pygmies. But I won't! I tell you I won't!" His voice rose in a thin scream of defiance. But his next words were sane again. "More grease on your sword. It's sticking. And now sever that strand to the left, so I swing away from the main web."
Finally I got him down. He tried to stand, but his wasted limbs would not support him, and with a groan he sank to his knees. I saw that Cynthia Orne had recovered consciousness, and was pushing herself up from the floor. My mind, gradually emerging from the half-hour nightmare of frantic action, was beginning to function under its own power. I realized the danger that remained, and I remembered that Helen was still to be found. Perhaps she had been confined somewhere at the back of the house. I started for the door.
But through that door strode the towering form of Malcolm Orne. In his right hand was a flickering candelabrum. Slung effortlessly over his left arm like a bundle of cloth was a limp form--Helen's. Acting instinctively, I directed the flashlight at his face. It seemed hardly to startle him.
"So the fly has obligingly walked into the spider's parlor," he murmured, with a laugh. "Most convenient.
First the charming Mrs. Egan, who does not like midgets, brought to join my dear brother and wife. Then those black fools finished off for good. And last but not least my dear friend Tom, who used to pity me so much in the old days."
But now his eyes, despite the dazzling beam of the flashlight, perceived that something was wrong with the web. Helen slipped from his arm as he placed the candelabrum on the table and called peremptorily,
In that instant I flung the tongs. They struck him full across the forehead, and he swayed like a great tree and crashed headlong to the floor. I snatched up the sword and directed the flashlight at the open door.
Then, before I could move to close it, there came a rustling and scurrying, and the horror was upon us.
Big as the dog it had killed, it regarded us from the doorway, its eight reddish eyes glowing evilly. I could see the swollen black abdomen and the black poison-dripping chelicerae, fangs that projected inches forward from its ugly little mouth. Then it struck with a rush, one spring sufficing to carry it across Helen's supine silk-clad form. With instinctive cunning it had chosen me as the most active opponent and therefore the one first to dispose of. Blindly I thrust out my sword, and, as it swerved away from the point, slashed out toward it. The wound it received was only slight, but it scuttled away to the shadows.
Someone was standing beside me. It was Cynthia Orne. Without a word she took the flashlight from me.
I never expected such courage from her, but during all that hideous duel she kept the light fixed on the creature, leaving me free to wield the sword alone. The beam never once wavered, nor did the creature manage to escape from the circle of light.
And then I noted that Marvin Orne was painfully crawling straight toward his prostrate brother, unmindful of the scuttling monster. Death was in Marvin Orne's sere face!
When my sword found its black body for a second time, the spider changed its tactics, ran with incredible rapidity up the tapestry, and launched itself down at me. I sidestepped. It only missed my sword by an inch!
And Malcolm Orne had risen dizzily to his knees, but simultaneously his brother was upon him, clawing at his throat. It was an unequal contest, but for a moment Marvin Orne had the advantage. They rolled against the table, knocking off the candelabrum, whose flames began to lick at the bone-dry tapestry.
The glance I spared on this other conflict nearly cost me my life. A sticky strand whipped around the hilt of my sword, almost wrenching it from my hand.
I tore at the sword to free it. Malcolm Orne, I saw, had warded off his brother's feeble attack. And now for the first time I realized the full strength of the giant. His fist rose and fell, again and again, smashing in the skull of Marvin Orne as if it were an eggshell. Flame was roaring up the tapestry now, and the whole room was illuminated by a wild reddish glow.
The monster swooped down at me like a nightmare. I threw myself down, thrusting upward with the sword. This time it went home, thick blood oozing from the wound. I scrambled to my feet, raising my weapon for a second blow. But the monster, badly hurt, was moving away from me now toward Malcolm Orne. What the giant saw in those eight evil eyes I do not know--perhaps some long-nurtured hate for its master--but he threw up his hands and screamed horribly. The dying monster ran up his body. I followed it thrusting again at the black abdomen. But the chelicerae had done their work.
Malcolm Orne screamed once again, a tortured bellow of anguish. Then Cynthia Orne was pulling me backward, out of the path of the falling tapestries, which collapsed with a roar, wrapping the monster and its master--and the dead body of Marvin Orne--in a flaming shroud.
It missed Helen by inches. But before the flames could reach out across the carpet, I had dragged her aside. As I raised her in my arms I saw her eyes blinking wonderingly open, and felt her hand tighten on my shoulder.
Then, like lost souls escaping from some hell, we fled from that house of monstrous growth and forbidden secrets, lost to science. As I sent the coupe roaring down the drive, I spared time for one glance over my shoulder. Flames were already eating through the shutters below the pillared facade. Soon, I knew, the whole white mask of Orne House would be one roaring holocaust.
Professor Max Redford opened the frosted glass door of the reception room and beckoned to me. I followed him eagerly. When the most newsworthy doctor at one of America's foremost medical schools phones a popular-science writer and asks him to drop over, but won't tell him why, there is cause for excitement. Especially when that doctor's researches, though always well-founded, have tended towards the sensational. I remembered the rabbits so allergic to light that an open shade raised blisters on their shaved skins, the hypnotized heart patient whose blood-pressure slowly changed, the mold that fed on blood clots in a living animal's brain. Fully half my best articles with a medical slant came from Max. We had been close friends for several years.
As we hurried along the hushed corridor, he suddenly asked me, "What is death?"
That wasn't the sort of question I was expecting. I gave him a quick look. His bullet-shaped head, with its shock of close-cropped grizzled hair, was hunched forward. The eyes behind the thick lenses were bright, almost mischievous. He was smiling.
"I have something to show you," he said.
He shook his head. "At present I don't want a word released to the public or the profession."
"But some day--?" I suggested.
"Maybe one of the biggest."
We entered his office. On the examination table lay a man, the lower half of his body covered by a white sheet. He seemed to be asleep.
Right there I got a shock. For although I hadn't the faintest idea who the man was, I did recognize him. I was certain that I had seen that handsome face once before--through the French windows of the living room of Max's home, some weeks ago. It had been pressed passionately to the face of Velda, Max's attractive young wife, and those arms had been cradling her back. Max and I had just arrived at his lonely suburban place after a long evening session at the laboratory, and he had been locking the car when I glanced through the window. When we had got inside, the man had been gone, and Max had greeted Velda with his usual tenderness. I had been bothered by the incident, but of course there had been nothing I could do about it.
I turned from the examination table, trying to hide my surprise. Max sat down at his desk and began to rap on it with a pencil. Nervous excitement, I supposed.
From the man on the examination table, now behind me, came a dry, hacking cough.
"Take a look at him," said Max, "and tell me what disease he's suffering from."
"I'm no doctor," I protested.
"I know that, but there are some symptoms that should have an obvious meaning even to a layman."
"But I didn't even notice he was ill," I said.
Max goggled his eyes at me, "You didn't?"
Shrugging my shoulders, I turned--and wondered how in the world I could have missed it at the first glance. I supposed I had been so flustered at recognizing the man that I hadn't noticed anything about him--I had been seeing the memory image more than the actual person. For Max was right. Anyone could have hazarded a diagnosis of this case. The general pallor, the hectic spots of color over the cheek bones, the emaciated wrists, the prominent ribs, the deep depressions around the collar bones, and above all the continued racking cough that even as I watched brought a bit of blood specked mucous to the lips--all pointed at an advanced stage of chronic tuberculosis. I told Max so.
Max stared at me thoughtfully, rapping again on the table. I wondered if he sensed what I was trying to hide from him. Certainly I felt very uncomfortable. The presence of that man, presumably Velda's lover, in Max's office, unconscious and suffering from a deadly disease, and Max so sardonic-seeming and full of suppressed excitement, and then that queer question he had asked me about death--taken all together, they made a peculiarly nasty picture.
What Max said next didn't help either.
"You're quite sure it's tuberculosis?"
"Naturally I could be wrong," I admitted uneasily. "It might be some other disease with the same symptoms or--" I had been about to say "or the effects of some poison," but I checked myself. "But the symptoms are there, unmistakably," I finished.
"You're positive?" He seemed to enjoy drawing it out.
He smiled. "Take another look."
"I don't need to," I protested. For the first time in our relationship I was wondering if there wasn't something extremely unpleasant about Max.
"Take one, just the same."
Unwillingly I turned--and for several moments there was room in my mind for nothing but astonishment.
"What kind of trick is this?" I finally asked Max, shakily.
For the man on the examination table had changed. Unmistakably the same man, though for a moment I questioned even that, for now instead of the cadaverous spectre of tuberculosis, a totally different picture presented itself. The wrist, so thin a minute ago, was now swollen, the chest had become so unhealthily puffy that the ribs and collar bones were lost to view, the skin had a bluish tinge, and from between the sagging lips came a labored, wheeze breathing.
I still had a sense of horror, but now it was overlaid with an emotion that can be even stronger, an emotion that can outweigh all considerations of human personality and morals: the excitement of scientific discovery. Whoever this man was, whatever Max's motives might be, whatever unsuspected strain of evil there might exist deep in his nature, he had hit on something here, something revolutionary. I didn't know what it was, but my heart pounded and little chills of excitement chased over my skin.
Max refused to answer any of the questions I bombarded him with. All he would do was sit back and smile at me and say, "And now, after your second look, what do you think's wrong with him?"
He finally badgered me into making a statement.
"Well of course there's something fishy about it, but if you insist, here's my idea: Heart disease, perhaps caused by kidney trouble. In any case, something badly out of order with his pump."
Max's smile was infuriatingly bland. Again he rapped with his pencil, like some supercilious teacher.
"You're sure of that?" he prodded.
"Just as sure as I was the first time that it was tuberculosis."
"Well, take another look... and meet John Fearing."
I turned, and almost before I realized it, my hand had been firmly clasped and was being vigorously shaken by that of one of the finest physical specimens I have ever seen. I remember thinking dazedly,
"Yes, he's as incredibly handsome and beautifully built as he seemed to me when I glimpsed him kissing Velda. And along with it a strange sort of smoothness, like you felt in Rudolf Valentino. No wonder a woman might find him irresistible."
"I could have introduced you to John long ago," Max was saying. "He lives right near us, with his mother and often drops over. But, well..." he chuckled, "...I've been a little jealous about John. I haven't introduced him to anyone connected with the profession. I've wanted to keep him to myself until we got a little further along with our experiments.
"And John," Max went on, "this is Fred Alexander, the writer. He's one science popularizer who never strays a hairs-breadth into sensationalism and who takes infinite pains to make his reporting accurate. We can trust him not to breathe a word about our experiments until we tell him to. I've been thinking for some time now that we ought to let a third person in on our work, and I didn't want it to be a scientist or yet an ordinary layman. Fred here struck me as having just the right sort of general knowledge and sympathetic approach. So I rang him up--and I believe we've succeeded in giving him quite a surprise."
"You certainly have," I agreed fervently.
John Fearing dropped my hand and stepped back. I was still running my eyes over his marvelously proportioned athletic body. I couldn't spot a trace of the symptoms of the two dreadful diseases that had seemed to be wracking it minutes ago, or of any other sort of ill health. As he stood there so cooly, with the sheet loosely caught around his waist and falling in easy folds, it seemed to me that he might well be the model for one of the great classical Greek statues. His eyes had something of the same tranquil, ox-like "all-body" look.
Turning towards Max, I was conscious of a minor shock. I had never thought of Max as ugly. If I'd ever thought of him at all in regard to looks, it had been as a man rather youthful for his middle age, stalwart, and with pleasingly rugged features.
Now, compared to Fearing, Max seemed a humped and dark-browned dwarf.
But this feeling of mine was immediately swallowed up in my excited curiosity.
Fearing looked at Max. "What diseases did I do this time?" he asked casually.
"Tuberculosis and nephritis," Max told him. They both acted pleased. In fact, mutual trust and affection showed so plainly in their manner toward each other that I was inclined to dismiss my suspicions of some sinister underlying hatred.
After all, I told myself, the embrace I had witnessed might have been merely momentary physical intoxication on the part of the two young and lovely people, if it had been even that much. Certainly what Max had said about his desire to keep Fearing a secret from his friends and colleagues might very well explain why Fearing had disappeared that night. On the other hand, if a deeper and less fleeting feeling did exist between Max's pretty wife and protege, Max might very well be aware of it and inclined to condone it. I knew him to be a remarkably tolerant man in some respects. In any case, I had probably exaggerated the importance of the matter.
And I certainly didn't want any such speculations distracting my thoughts now, when I was bending all my mental efforts to comprehend the amazing experiment that had just been conducted before my eyes.
Suddenly I got a glimmer of part of it.
"Hypnotism?" I asked Max.
He nodded, beaming.
"And the pencil-rappings were 'cues?' I mean, signals for him to carry out instructions given to him in an earlier stage of the trance?"
"I seem to recall now," I said, "that the raps were different in each case. I suppose each combination of raps was hooked up with a special set of instructions you'd given him."
"Exactly," said Max. "John won't respond until he gets the right signal. It seems a rather complicated way of going about it, but it isn't really. You know how a sergeant will give his men a set of orders and then bark out 'March!'? Well, the raps are John's marching signals. It works out better than giving him the instructions at the same time he's supposed to be carrying them out. Besides," and he looked at me roguishly, "it's a lot more dramatic."
"I'll say it is!" I assured him. "Max, let's get to the important point. How in the world did John fake those symptoms?"
Max raised his hands. "I'll explain everything. I didn't call you in just to mystify you. Sit down."
I hurriedly complied. Fearing effortlessly lifted himself onto the edge of the examination table and sat there placidly attentive, forearms loosely dropped along his thighs.
"As you know," Max began, "it's a well-established fact that the human mind can create all sorts of tangible symptoms of disease, without the disease itself being present in any way. Statistics show that about half the people who consult doctors are suffering from such imaginary ailments."
"Yes," I protested, "but the symptoms are never so extreme, or created with such swiftness. Why, there was even blood in the mucus. And those swollen wrists--"
Again Max raised his hands. "The difference is only one of degree. Please hear me out."
"Now John here," he continued, "is a very well adjusted, healthy-minded person, but a few years ago he was anything but that." He looked at Fearing, who nodded his agreement. "No, our John was a regular bad boy of the hospitals. Rather his subconscious mind was, for of course there is no question of faking in these matters, the individual sincerely believes that he is sick. At all events, our John seemed to go through an unbelievable series of dangerous illnesses that frightened his mother to distraction and baffled his doctors, until it was realized that the illnesses were of emotional origin. That discovery wasn't made for a long time because of the very reason you mentioned--the unusual severity of the symptoms.
"However in the end it was the extraordinary power of John's subconscious to fake symptoms that gave the show away. It began to fake the symptoms of too many diseases, the onsets and recoveries were too fast, it jumped around too much. And then it made the mistake of faking the symptoms of germ diseases, when laboratory tests showed that the germs in question weren't present.
"The truth having been recognized, John was put in the hands of a competent psychiatrist, who eventually succeeded in straightening out the personality difficulties that had caused him to seek refuge in sickness.
They turned out to be quite simple ones--an overprotective and emotionally demanding mother and a jealous and unaffectionate father, whose death a few years back had burdened John with guilt feelings.
"It was at that time--just after the brilliant success of the psychiatrist's treatment--that I ran across the case. It happened through Velda. She became friends with the Fearings, mother and son, when they moved into our neighborhood, and she visited with them a lot."
As he said that, I couldn't resist shooting a quick glance at Fearing, but I couldn't see any signs of uneasiness or smugness. I felt rather abashed.
"One evening when John was over at our place, he mentioned his amazing history of imaginary illnesses, and pretty soon I wormed the whole story out of him. I was immediately struck with something about his case that the other doctors had missed. Or if they had noticed it, they hadn't seen the implications--or the possibilities.
"Here was a person whose body was fantastically obedient to the dictates of his subconscious mind. All people are to some degree psychosomatic, to give it its technical name-- you know, psyche and soma , mind and body. But our John was psychosomatic to a vastly greater degree. One in a million. Perhaps unique.
"Very likely some rare hereditary strain was responsible for this. I don't believe John will be angry with me if I tell you that his mother used to be--she's really changed herself a great deal under the psychiatrist's guidance--but that she used to be an excessively hysterical and emotionally tempestuous person, with all sorts of imaginary ailments herself, though not as extreme as John's, of course. And his father was almost exactly the same type."
"That's quite right, Dr. Redford," Fearing said earnestly.
Max nodded. "Apparently the combination of these two hereditary strains in John produced far more than a doubling of his parents' sensitivities.
"Just as the chameleon inherits a color-changing ability that other animals lack, so John had inherited a degree of psychosomatic control that is not apparent in other people--at least not without some kind of psychological training of which at present I have only a glimmering.
"All this was borne in on me as I absorbed John's story, hanging on every word. You know, I think both John and Velda were quite startled at the intensity of my interest." Max chuckled. "But they didn't realize that I was on to something. Here, right in my hands, was a person with, to put it popularly, only the most tenuous of boundaries between his mental and material atoms--for of course, as you know, both mind and matter are ultimately electrical in nature. Our John's subconscious mind had perfect control of his heartbeat and circulatory system. It could flood his tissue with fluids, producing instant swellings, or dehydrate them, giving the effect of emaciation. It could play on his internal organs and ductless glands as if they were musical instruments, creating any life-time it wanted. It could produce horrible discords, turn John into an idiot, say, or an invalid, as it tried to do, or perhaps an acromegalic monster, with gigantic hands and head, by stimulating bone-growth after maturity.
"Or his subconscious mind could keep all his organs in perfect tune, making him the magnificently healthy creature you see today."
I looked at John Fearing and realized that my earlier impression of the excellence of his physique had, if anything, fallen short of the mark. It wasn't just that he was a clear-eyed, unblemished, athletically-built young man. There was more to it than that--something intangible. It occurred to me that if any man could be said to radiate health, in the literal meaning of that ridiculous cliche, it was John Fearing. I knew it was just my imagination, but I seemed to see a pulsating, faintly golden aura about him.
And his mind appeared to be in as perfect balance as his body. He was wonderfully poised as he sat there with just the sheet pulled around him.. Not the faintest suggestion of nerves. Completely alive, yet in a sense completely impassive.
It was only too easy to imagine such a man making love successfully, with complete naturalness and confidence, without any of the little haltings and clumsiness, the jarrings of rhythm, the cowardices of body, the treacheries of mind that betray the average neurotic--which is to say, the average person.
Suddenly it hit me, right between the eyes as they say, that Velda must love John, that no woman could avoid becoming infatuated with such a man. Not just a football star or a muscle maniac, but a creature infinitely subtler.
And yet, in spite of all this, I was conscious of something a shade repellent about Fearing. Perhaps it was that he seemed too well-balanced, too smooth-running, like a gleaming dynamo say, or a beautiful painting without that little touch of ugliness or clashing contrast which creates individuality. In most people, too, one senses the eternal conflict between the weak and indecisive tyrant Mind and the stubborn and rebellious slave Body, but in Fearing the conflict seemed completely absent, which struck me as unpleasant. There was a kind of deep-seated toughness about him, a suggestion of indestructibility.
One might have said, "He'd make a nasty ghost."
Of course all this may just have been envy on my part for Fearing's poise and physique, or some sort of jealousy I felt on Max's account.
But whatever the sources of my feeling of revulsion, I now began to believe that Max shared it. Not that Max had slackened in his genial, affectionate, almost fatherly manner toward John, but that he was so effortful about it. Those elephantine "our Johns," for example. I didn't get the feeling that he was concealing a jealous hatred, however, but that he was earnestly fighting an irrational inward aversion.
As for Fearing, he seemed completely unaware of any hostile feeling on Max's part. His manner was completely open and amiable.
For that matter, I wondered if Max himself were aware of his own feeling. All these thoughts didn't take much time. I was intent on Max's story.
* * * *
Max leaned across the desk. He was blinking excitedly, which, with his glasses, gave an odd effect of flashing eyes.
"My imagination was stirred," he went on. "There was no end to the things that might be learned from such a super-psychosomatic individual. We could study disease symptoms under perfect conditions, by producing them in controlled amounts in a healthy individual. All sorts of physiological mysteries could be explored. We could trace out the exact patterns of all the nervous processes that are normally beyond the mind's reach. Then if we could learn to impart John's ability to other people--but that's getting a bit ahead of my story.
"I talked to John. He saw my point, realized the service he might render mankind, and gladly agreed to undergo some experiments.
"But at the first attempt a snag appeared. John could not produce any symptoms by a conscious effort, no matter how hard he tried. As I said before, you can't consciously fake a psychosomatic illness, and that was what I was asking John to do. And since he'd undergone psychiatric treatment his subconscious mind was so well behaved that it wouldn't yield to any ordinary blandishments.
"At that point we almost gave up the project. But then I thought of a way we might be able to get around the snag: suggestions given directly to the subconscious mind through hypnotism.
"John proved a good hypnotic subject. We tried it--and it worked!"
Max's eyes looked bright as stars as he said that.
"That's about how matters stand today," he finished off, sinking back in his chair. "We've started a little special work on arterial tension, the lymphatic glands and their nerve supply, one or two other things. But mainly we've been perfecting our setup, getting used to the hypnotic relationship. The important work still lies ahead."
I exhaled appreciatively. Then an unpleasant thought struck me. I wasn't going to voice it, but Max asked, "What is it, Fred?" and I couldn't think of anything else to say, and after all it was a thought that would have occurred to anyone.
"Well, with all this creation of extreme symptoms," I began, "isn't there a certain amount of--"
Max supplied the word. "Danger?" He shook his head. "We are always very careful."
"And in any case," Fearing's bell-like voice broke in, "the possibilities being what they are, I would consider almost any risks worth running." He smiled cheerfully.
The double meaning I momentarily fancied in his words nettled me. I went on impulsively, "But surely some people would be apt to consider it extremely dangerous. Your mother, for instance, or Velda."
Max looked at me sharply.
"Neither my mother nor Mrs. Redford know anything of the extent of our experiments," Fearing assured me.
There was a pause. Unexpectedly, Max grinned at me, stretched, and said to Fearing, "How do you feel now?"
"Feel up to another little demonstration?"
"That reminds me, Max," I said abruptly, "out in the corridor you mentioned something about--"
He shot me a warning glance.
"We'll go into that some other time," he said.
"What disease are you going to have me do this time?" Fearing queried.
Max wagged his finger. "You know you're never told that. Can't have your conscious mind messing things up. We'll have some new signals, though. And, Fred, I hope you won't mind waiting outside while I put John under and give him his instructions--acquaint him with the new signals. I'm afraid we still haven't gotten far along enough to risk the possibly disturbing presence of a third person during the early stages of an experiment. One or two more sessions and it should be all right, though. Understand, Fred, this is just the first of a large number of experiments I want you to witness. I'm asking a great deal of you, you see. The only tangible compensation I can offer you is exclusive rights to break the story to the public when we feel the time is ripe."
"Believe me, I consider it a great honor," I assured him sincerely as I went out.
In the corridor I lit a cigarette, puffed it a moment, and then the tremendous implications of Max's experiments really hit me.
Suppose, as Max had hinted, that it proved possible to impart Fearing's ability to other people?
The benefits would be incalculable. People would be able to help their bodies in the fight against disease and degenerative processes. For instance, they could cut down the flow of blood from a wound, or even stop it completely. They could marshal all the body's resources to fight local infections and stop disease germs before they ever got started. Conceivably, they could heal sick organs, get them working in the right rhythm, unharden arteries, avert or stifle cancers.
It might be possible to prevent disease, even aging, altogether.
We might look forward to a race of immortals, immune to time and decay.
A happy race, untroubled by those conflicts of body and mind, of instinct and conscience, that sap Mankind's best energies and are at the root of all discords and wars.
There was literally no limit to the possibilities.
I hardly felt I'd been in the corridor a minute, my mind was soaring so, when Max softly opened the door and beckoned to me.
Again Fearing lay stretched on the table. His eyes were closed, but he still looked every whit as vibrantly healthy as before. His chest rose and fell rhythmically with his breathing. I almost fancied I could see the blood coursing under the fair skin.
I was aware of a tremendous suppressed excitement in Max.
"We can talk, of course," he said. "Best keep it low, though."
"He's hypnotized?" I asked.
"And you've given him the instructions?"
"What are they this time, Max?"
Max's lips jerked oddly.
He rapped with the pencil.
I watched. For five, ten seconds nothing seemed to happen.
Fearing's chest stopped moving.
His skin was growing pale.
There was a weak convulsive shudder. His eyelids fell open, showing only the whites. Then there was no further movement whatever.
"Approach him," Max ordered, his voice thick. "Take his pulse."
Almost shaking with excitement, I complied.
To my fumbling fingers, Fearing's wrist felt cold. I could not find a pulse.
"Fetch that mirror," Max's finger stabbed at a nearby shelf. "Hold it to his lips and nostrils."
The polished surface remained unclouded.
I backed away. Wonder gave place to fear. All my worst suspicions returned intensified. Once again I seemed to sense a strain of submerged evil in my friend.
"I told you I would show you something with a bearing on the question, 'What is death?'" Max was saying huskily. "Here you see death perfectly counterfeited--death-in-life. I would defy any doctor in the world to prove this man alive." There was a note of triumph in his voice.
My own was uneven with horror. "You instructed him to be dead?"
"And he didn't know it ahead of time?"
"Of course not."
For an interminable period--perhaps three or four seconds--I stared at the blanched form of Fearing.
Then I turned to Max.
"I don't like this," I said. "Get him out of it."
There was something sneering about the smile he gave me.
"Watch!" He commanded fiercely, and rapped again.
It was only some change in the light, I told myself, that was giving Fearing's flesh a greenish tinge.
Then I saw the limp arms and legs stiffen and the face tighten into a sardonic mask.
Unwillingly, only to get the thing over with as swiftly as possible, I obeyed. Fearing's arm felt as stiff as a board and, if anything, colder than before.
But that faint odor of putrescence--I knew that could only be my imagination.
"For God's sake, Max," I pleaded, "you've got to get him out of it." Then, throwing aside reserve, "I don't know what you're trying to do, but you can't. Velda--"
Max jerked as I spoke the name. Instantly the terrifying shell that had gathered around him seemed to drop away. It was as if that one word had roused him from a dream. "Of course," he said, in his natural voice. He smiled reassuringly and rapped.
Eagerly I watched Fearing.
Max rapped again: three--one.
It takes time, I told myself. Now the muscles were beginning to relax, weren't they?
But Max was rapping again. The signal printed itself indelibly on my brain: three--one.
And yet again. Three--one. Three--one. THREE--ONE.
I looked at Max. In his tortured expression I read a ghastly certainty.
I wouldn't ever want to relive the next few hours. I imagine that in all history there was never a trick conceived for reviving the dying that Max didn't employ, along with all the modern methods--injections, even into the heart itself, electrical stimulation, use of a new lightweight plastic version of the iron lung, surgical entry into the chest and direct massage of the heart.
Whatever suspicions I had of Max vanished utterly during those hours. The frantic genuineness and inspired ingenuity of his efforts to revive Fearing couldn't possibly have been faked. No more could his tragic, rigidly suppressed grief have been simulated. I saw Max's emotions stripped to the raw during those hours, and they were all good.
One of the first things he did was call in several of the other faculty doctors. They helped him, though I could tell that from the first they looked upon the case as hopeless, and would have considered the whole business definitely irregular, if it hadn't been for their extreme loyalty to Max, far beyond any consideration of professional solidarity. Their attitude showed me, as nothing else ever had, Max's stature as a medical man.
Max was completely frank with them and everyone else. He made no effort whatsoever to suppress the slightest detail of the events leading up to the tragedy. He was bitter in his self-accusations, insisting that his judgment had been unforgivably at fault in the final experiment. He would have gone even further than that if it hadn't been for his colleagues. It was they who dissuaded him from resigning from the faculty and describing his experiments in such inaccurately harsh terms as to invite criminal prosecution.
And then there was Max's praiseworthy behavior toward Fearing's mother. While they were still working on Fearing, though without any real hope, she burst in. Whatever reforms the psychiatrist may have achieved in her personality, were washed out now. I still can close my eyes and visualize that hateful, overdressed woman stamping around like an angry parrot, screaming the vilest accusations at Max at the top of her voice and talking about her son and herself in the most disgusting terms. But although he was near the breaking point, Max was never anything but compassionate toward her, accepting all the blame she heaped on his head.
A little later Velda joined Ma. If I'd still had any of my early suspicions, her manner would have dissipated them. She was completely practical and self-possessed, betraying no personal concern whatsoever in Fearing's death. If anything, she was too cool and unmoved. But that may have been what Max needed at the time.
The next days were understandably difficult. While most of the newspapers were admirably reserved and judicious in reporting the case, one of the tabloids played up Max as "The Doctor Who Ordered a Man to Die," featuring an exclusive interview with Fearing's mother.
The chorus of wild bleats from various anti-science cults was of course to be expected. It led to a number of stories that crept into the fringe of print and would have been more unpleasant if they hadn't been so ridiculous. One man, evidently drawing on Poe's story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," demanded that a "death watch" be maintained on Fearing and, on the morning of the funeral, hinted darkly that they were interring a man who was somehow still alive.
Even the medical profession was by no means wholly behind Max. A number of local doctors, unconnected with the medical school, were severe in their criticisms of him. Such sensational experiments reflected on the profession, were of doubtful value in any case, and so forth. Though none of these criticisms were released to the public.
The funeral was held on the third day. I attended it out of friendship for Max, who felt it his duty to be present. Fearing's mother was there, of course, dressed in a black outfit that somehow managed to look loud and common. Since the tabloid interview there had been a complete break between her and our group, so that her wailing tirades and nauseous sobbing endearments could only be directed at the empty air and the bronze-fitted casket.
Max looked old. Velda stood beside him, holding his arm. She was as impassive as on the day of Fearing's death.
There was only one odd thing about her behavior. She insisted that we remain at the cemetery until the casket had been placed in the tomb and the workman had fixed in place the marble slab that closed it.
She watched the whole process with a dispassionate intentness.
I thought that perhaps she did it on Max's account, to impress on him that the whole affair was over and done with. Or she may conceivably have feared some unlikely final demonstration or foray on the part of the wilder anti-science groups and felt that the presence of a few intelligent witnesses was advisable to prevent some final garish news item from erupting into print.
And there may actually have been justification for such a fear. Despite the efforts of the cemetery authorities, a number of the morbidly curious managed to view the interment and as I accompanied Max and Velda the few blocks to their home, there were altogether too many people roaming the quiet, rather ill-kempt streets of the scantily populated suburb. Undoubtedly we were being followed and pointed at.
When with feelings of considerable relief, we finally got inside, there was a sharp, loud knock on the door we had just closed.
Someone had thrown a stone at the house.
For the next six months I saw nothing of Max. Actually this was as much due to my friendship for him as to the press of my work, which did keep me unusually busy at the time. I felt that Max didn't want to be reminded in any way, even by the presence of a friend, of the tragic accident that had clouded his life.
I think, you see, that only I, and perhaps a few of Max's most imaginative colleagues, had any inkling of how hard Max had been hit by the experience and, especially, why it had hit him so hard. It wasn't so much that he had caused the death of a man through a perhaps injudicious experiment. That was the smaller part. It was that, in so doing, he had wrecked a line of research that promised tremendous benefits to mankind. Fearing, you see, was irreplaceable. As Max had said, he was probably unique.
And their work had been barely begun. Max had obtained almost no results of a measured scientific nature and he hadn't as yet any ideas whatever of the crucial thing: how to impart Fearing's ability to other people, if that were possible. Max was a realist. To his clear, unsuperstitious mind, the death of one man was not nearly so important as the loss of possible benefits to millions. That he had played fast and loose with humanity's future--yes, he'd have put it that way--was, I knew, what hurt him most. It would be a long time before he regained his old enthusiasm.
One morning I ran across a news item stating that Fearing's mother had sold her house and gone for a European tour.
Of Velda I had no information.
Naturally I recalled the affair from time to time, turning it over in my mind. I reviewed the suspicions I'd had at the time, seeking some clue that might have escaped me, but always coming to the conclusion that the suspicions were more than wiped out my Max's tragic sincerity and Velda's composure after the event.
I tried to visualize the weird and miraculous transformations I had witnessed in Max's office. Somehow, try as I might, they began to seem more and more unreal. I had beeen excited that morning, I told myself, and my mind had exaggerated what I had seen. This unwillingness to trust my own memory filled me at times with a strange poignant grief, perhaps similar to what Max must have felt at the breakdown of his research, as if some marvelous imaginative vision had faded from the world.
And occasionally I pictured Fearing as I'd seen him that morning, so radiantly healthy, his mind and body so unshakably knit. It was very hard to think of a man like that being dead.
Then, after six months, I received a brief message from Max. If I were free, would I visit him at his home that evening? Nothing more.
I felt a thrill of elation. Perhaps the period of thralldom to the past was over and the brilliant old mind was getting to work again. I had to break an engagement, but of course I went.
It had just stopped raining when I swung down from the interurban. Remnants of daylight showed a panorama of dripping trees, weed-bordered sidewalks, and gloom-infested houses. Max had happened to build in one of those sub-divisions that doesn't quite make the grade, while the unpredictable pulse of suburban life begins to beat more strongly farther out.
I passed the cemetery in which Fearing had been interred. The branches of unpruned trees brushed the wall, making sections of the sidewalk a leafy tunnel. I was glad I had a flashlight in my pocket for the walk back. It occurred to me that it was unfortunate Max had this unnecessary reminder almost on his doorstep.
I walked rapidly past houses that were more and more frequently separated by empty lots, and along a sidewalk that became progressively more cracked and weed-grown. There popped into my mind a conversation I had with Max a couple of years ago. I had asked him if Velda didn't find it lonely out here, and he had laughingly assured me that both he and Velda had a passion for being alone and like to be as far away as possible from spying neighbors.
I wondered if one of the houses I had passed had been that belonging to the Fearings.
Eventually I arrived at Max's place, a compact two-story dwelling. There were only a few more houses beyond it on the street. Beyond those, I knew, the weeds reigned supreme, the once hopeful sidewalks were completely silted and grown over, and the lamp-poles rusted lightlessly. Unsuccessful subdivisions are dismal spots.
In my nostrils, all the way had been the smell of wet cold earth and stone.
The living room lights were on, but I saw no one through the French window where I had once glimpsed Velda and Fearing. The hall was dark. I rapped on the door. It opened instantly. I faced Velda.
I haven't described Velda. She was one of those very beautiful, dignified, almost forbidding, yet quite sexy girls that a successful, cultured man is apt to marry if he waits until he's middle-aged. Tall. Slim.
Small head. Blonde hair drawn tightly across it. Blue eyes. Compact, distinguished features. Sloping shoulders, and then a body that a cynic would call the main attraction. And perhaps with partial inaccuracy, because an alert, well-informed, quite courageous mind went with it. Exquisite manners, but not much apparent warmth.
That was Velda as I remembered her.
The Velda I faced now was different. She was wearing a gray silk dressing gown. In the dim light from the street lamp behind me, the tight-drawn hair looked, not gray, but brittle. The tall beautiful body somehow seemed sterile, weed-like. She crouched like an old woman. The distinguished features in the face she lifted toward mine were pinched. The blue eyes, white circled, were much too staring.
She touched a finger to her thinned lips, and with the other hand timidly took hold of the lapel of my coat, as if to draw me away to some place where we could talk secretly.
Max stepped out of the darkness behind her and put his hand on her shoulders. She didn't stiffen. In fact, she hardly reacted except to softly drop her hand from my coat. She may have winked at me, as if to say, "Later, perhaps," but I can't be sure.
"You'd better be getting upstairs, dear," he said gently. "It's time you took a little rest."
At the foot of the stairs he switched on the light. We watched her as she went up, slowly holding on to the rail.
When she was out of sight Max shook his head and said rather lightly, "Too bad about Velda. I'm afraid that in a little while--However, I didn't ask you out here to talk about that."
I was shocked at his seeming callousness. A moment later, however, he said something which gave me a hint of the philosophy that underlay it.
"We're so mysteriously fragile, Fred. Some slight change in a gland's function, some faint shadow falling on a knot of nerve tissue, and--pouf. And there's nothing we can do about it, because we don't know, Fred, we simply don't know. If we could trace the thoughts in their courses, if we could set their healing magic radiating through the brain--but that's not to be for awhile yet. Meanwhile, there's nothing we can do about it, except to face it cheerfully. Though it is hard when the person whose mind goes develops a murderous hatred of you at the same time. However, as I said, I don't want to talk about that, and you'll please me if you don't either."
We were still standing at the bottom of the stairs. Abruptly he changed his manner, clapped me on the shoulder, steered me into the living room, insisted that I have a drink, and busied himself starting a fire in the open grate, all the while chatting loudly about recent doings at the medical school and pressing me for details of my latest articles.
Then, giving me no time whatever to think, he settled himself in the opposite chair, the fire blazing between us, and launched into a description of a new research project he was getting started on. It concerned the enzymes and the mechanisms of temperature-control of insects, and seemed to have far-reaching implications in fields as diverse as insecticide manufacture and the glandular physiology of human beings.
There were times when he got so caught up in his subject that it almost seemed to me it was the old Max before me, as if all the events of the past year had been a bad dream.
Once he broke off momentarily, to lay his hand on a bulky typescript on the table beside him.
"This is what I've been keeping myself busy with these last few months, Fred," he said quickly. "A complete account of my experiments with Fearing, along with the underlying theories, as well as I can present them, and all pertinent material from other fields. I can't touch the thing again, of course, but I hope someone else will, and I want him to have the benefit of my mistakes. I'm rather doubtful if any of the journals will accept it, but if they don't I'll publish it at my own expense."
It really gave me a pang to think of how much he must have suffered pounding out that typescript, meticulously, of course, knowing that it was the account of a failure and a personal tragedy, knowing that it wouldn't be at all well received by his profession, but feeling duty-bound to pass on information that might some day kindle another mind and prove scientific value to mankind.
And then the tragedy of Velda, which I hadn't yet been able to properly assimilate, with its faint, last-twist-of-the-screw suggestion that if Max had continued his research with Fearing, he might conceivably have learned enough to be able to avert the cloud shadowing her mind.
Yes, I thought then, and I still think, that Max's behavior that night, especially his enthusiasm about his new research project, into which he'd obviously thrown himself wholeheartedly, was an inspiring and at the same time heartrending example of the sort of unsentimental courage you find in the best scientists.
Yet at the same time I had the feeling that his new project wasn't the real reason for his summoning me.
He had something very different on his mind, I felt, and as an unhappy person will, was taking himself out on other subjects as a preliminary to getting around to it. After a while he did.
The fire had died down somewhat. We had temporarily exhausted the topic of his new project. I was conscious of having smoked too many cigarettes. I asked Max some inconsequential question about a new advance in aviation medicine.
He frowned at the crawling flames, as if he were carefully weighing his answer. Then abruptly he said, without looking towards me, "Fred, there's something I want to tell you, something I felt I must tell you, but something I haven't been able to bring myself to tell you until now. I hated John Fearing, because I knew he was having a love affair with my wife."
I looked down at my hands. After a moment I heard Max's voice again. It wasn't loud, but it was rough with emotion.
"Oh come on, Fred, don't pretend you didn't know. You saw them through the window that night. You'll be surprised to know, Fred, how hard it was for me not to avoid you, or pick some quarrel with you, after that happened. Just the thought that you knew..."
"That's all I did see or know," I assured him. "Just that one glimpse." I turned and looked at him. His eyes were bright with tears.
"And yet you know, Fred," he went on, "that's the real reason I picked you to sit in on our experiments. I felt that knowing what you did, you would be better able than anyone else to check on my relationship with John."
There was one thing I had to say. "You are quite certain, Max, that your suspicions of Velda and Fearing were justified?"
One look at his face told me I needn't press that line of questioning any further. Max sat for a while with his head bowed. It was very quiet. The wind had died which earlier had splattered a few drops from nearby branches against the windowpanes.
Finally he said, "You know, Fred, it's very difficult to recapture lost emotions, either jealousy or scientific zeal. And yet those were the two main ones in this drama. For of course it wasn't until I had begun my experiments with Fearing that I found out about him and Velda." He paused, then went on with difficulty.
"I'm afraid I'm not a very broad-minded man, Fred, when it comes to sex and possession. I think that if John had been some ordinary person, or if I had found out earlier, I would have behaved differently.
Rather brutally, perhaps, I don't know. But the fact that our experiments had begun, and that they promised so much, changed everything.
"You know, I really try to be a scientist, Fred," he went on with the ghost, or cadaver rather, of a rueful smile. "And as a scientist, or just as a rational man, I had to admit that the possible benefits of our experiments infinitely out-weighed any hurt to my vanity or manhood. It may sound grotesque, but as a scientist I even had to consider whether this love affair wasn't necessary to keep my subject cooperative and in a proper state of mind, and whether I shouldn't go out of my way to further it. As it was, I didn't have to vary my routine in order to give them plenty of opportunities, though I think that if that had been necessary, I might even have done it."
He clenched his fist. "You see, so very much depended on those experiments of ours. Though it's awfully hard for me to remember that now. The feeling's all gone... The tremendous vision... this typescript here is just dead stuff... an obligation...
"I feel differently about a lot of things now. About Velda and John, too. Velda wasn't exactly the girl I thought I was marrying. I've realized lately that she had a tremendous need to be adored, a kind of cold lust for beauty and ecstacy, like some pagan priestess. And I cooped her up here--the old story--and tried to feed her on my enthusiasms. Not exactly the right diet. And yet, you know, Fred, my life's work was inspired by Velda to an extent that you might find hard to believe. Even before I'd met Velda. The expectancy of her.
"And John? I don't think anyone will ever know the truth about John. I was only beginning to understand him, and there were sides to his nature I couldn't touch. A remarkable creature. In one sense, a true superman. In another, a mindless animal. Astonishing weaknesses, or blind spots. The influence of his mother. And then the way his instincts and conscience went hand in hand. I feel that John may have been completely sincere both about his desire for Velda and his desire to help me aid mankind. It may never have occurred to him that the two desires didn't exactly go together. It's quite possible he felt that he was being very nice to both of us.
"Yes, and if John and Velda's affair were something that could happen now, I think I would feel very differently about it.
"But then--? God, Fred, it's so hard to think truthfully about them! Then there existed in me, side by side, every moment of the day and night, the highest pinnacles of scientific excitement and the deepest pits of jealous rage. The one strictly subordinated!" A note of passionate anger came into his voice. "For don't think I was weak, Fred. Don't think I ever deviated so much as a hair's-breadth from the course that was scientifically and humanistically right. I kept my hatred for John in absolute check. And when I say that, I mean that. I'm no ignoramus, Fred. I know that when one tries to suppress feelings, they have a way of bursting out through unsuspected channels, due to the trickery of the subconscious mind. Well, I was on the watch for that. I provided every conceivable safeguard. I was fantastically cautious about each experiment. I know it may not have looked that way to you, but even that last one--heavens, we had often done experiments twice as dangerous, or as seemingly dangerous, testing every step of the way.
Why, Soviet scientists have had people technically dead for over five minutes. With John it couldn't have been one!
"That's what tormented me so, don't you see, Fred, when I couldn't revive him. The thought that my unconscious mind had somehow tricked me and opened a channel for my all-too-conscious hatred, found a chink in the wall that I'd neglected to stop up, a doorway unguarded for a second. As he lay there dead before my eyes, I was tortured by the conviction that there was some little thing that would revive him at once if only I could remember what it was.
"Some little mistake or omission I'd made, which only had to be thought of to be corrected, but which my subconscious mind wouldn't let me remember. I felt that if only I could have relaxed my mind completely--but of course that was the one thing I couldn't do.
"I tried every way I knew to revive John, I reviewed every step I'd taken without finding a flaw, and yet that feeling of guilt persisted.
"Everything seemed to intensify it. Velda's frozen, suicidal calm, worse than the bitterest and most tempestuous accusations. The most childish things--even that silly occultist with his talk of a deathwatch on John.
"How John must hate me, I'd tell myself irrationally. Commanded to be dead, tricked into dying, not given the faintest hint of what was intended.
"And Velda. Never a reproachful word to me. Just freezing up, more and more, until her mind began to whither.
"And John. That miraculous body rotting in the tomb. Those magnificently knit muscles and nerves, falling apart cell by cell."
Max slumped in his chair exhausted. The last flame in the grate flickered out and the embers began to smoke. The silence was deadly.
And then I began to talk. Quietly. Nothing brilliant. I merely reviewed what I knew and what Max had told me. Pointed out how, being the scientist he was, he couldn't have done anything but what he did.
Reminded him of how he'd checked and double-checked his every action. Showed him that he hadn't the shred of reason for feeling guilty any longer.
And finally my talk began to take effect, though, as Max said, "I don't think it's anything you've said. I've been all over that. It's that at last I've unburdened myself to someone. But I do feel better."
And I'm sure he did. For the first time I truly sensed the old Max in him. Battered and exhausted of course, and deeply seared by a new wisdom, but something of the old Max, nevertheless.
"You know," he said, sinking back in his chair, "I think I can really relax now for the first time in six months."
Immediately the silence settled down again. I remember thinking, queerly, that it was dreadful that a place could be so silent.
The fire had stopped smoking. Its odor had been replaced by that seeping in from the outside--the smell of cold wet earth and stone.
My taut muscles jerked spasmodically at the sudden grating of Max's chair against the floor. His face was ghastly. His lips formed words, but only choking sounds came out. Then he managed to get control of his voice.
"The cue! The cue for him to come alive again! I forgot I changed the signals. I thought it was still--"
He tore a pencil from his pocket and rapped on the arm of the chair: three--one.
"But it should have been--" and he rapped: three--two.
It is hard for me to describe the feeling that went through me as he rapped that second signal.
The intense quiet had something to do with it. I remember wishing that some other sound would break in--the patter of raindrops, the creaking of a beam, the hollow surge of the interurban.
Just five little raps, unevenly spaced, but imbued with a quality, force, and rhythm that was Max's and nobody else's in the world--as individual as his fingerprint, as inimitable as his signature.
Just five little raps--you'd think they'd be lost in the walls, gone in a second. But they say that no sound, however faint, ever dies. It becomes weaker and weaker as it dissipates, the agitations of the molecules less and less, but still it goes on to the end of the world and back, to the end of eternity.
I pictured that sound struggling through the walls, bursting into the night air with an eager upward sweep, like a black insect, darting through the wet tangled leaves, soaring crazily into the moist tattered clouds, perhaps dipping inquisitively to circle one of the rusted lamppoles, before it streaked purposefully off along the dark street, up, up, over the trees, over the wall, and then swooped down toward wet cold earth and stone.
And I thought of Fearing, not yet quite rotted in his tomb.
Max and I looked at each other.
There came a piercing, blood-chilling scream from over our heads.
A moment of paralyzed silence. Then the wild clatter of footsteps down the stairs in the hall. As we sprang up together, the outside door slammed.
We didn't exchange a word. I stopped in the hall to snatch up my flashlight.
When we got outside we couldn't see Velda. But we didn't ask each other any questions as to which direction she'd taken.
We started to run. I caught sight of Velda almost a block ahead.
I'm not in too bad physical condition. I slowly drew ahead of Max as we ran. But I couldn't lessen the distance between myself and Velda. I could see her quite plainly as she passed through the pools of light cast by the street lamps. With the gray silk dressing gown flying out behind her, she sometimes looked like a skimming bat.
I kept repeating to myself, "But she couldn't have heard what we were saying. She couldn't have heard those raps."
Or could she?
I reached the cemetery. I shone my flashlight down the dark, leafy tunnel. There was no one in sight, but almost halfway down the block I noticed branches shaking where they dipped to the wall.
I ran to that point. The wall wasn't very high. I could lay my hand on its top. But I felt broken glass. I stripped off my coat, laid it over the top, and pulled myself up.
My flashlight showed a rag of gray silk snagged on a wicked barb of glass near my coat.
Max came up gasping. I helped him up the wall. We both dropped down inside. The grass was very wet.
My flashlight wandered over wet, pale stones. I tried to remember where Fearing's tomb was. It couldn't.
We started to hunt. Max began to call, "Velda! Velda!"
I suddenly thought I remembered the layout of the place. I pushed on hurriedly. Max lagged behind, calling.
There was a muffled crash. It sounded some distance away. I couldn't tell the direction. I looked around uncertainly.
I saw that Max had turned back and was running. He vanished around a tomb.
I hurried after him as fast as I could, but I must have taken the wrong turning. I lost him.
I raced futilely up and down two aisles of tombstones and tomb. I kept flashing my light around, now near, now far. It showed pale stone, dark trees, wet grass, gravel path.
I heard a horrible, deep, gasping scream--Max's.
I ran wildly. I tripped over a headstone and sprawled flat on my face.
I heard another scream--Velda's. It went on and on.
I raced down another aisle.
I thought I would go on for ever, and forever hearing that scream, which hardly seemed to pause for inhalation.
Then I came around a tangled clump of trees and saw them.
My flashlight wavered back and forth across the scene twice before I dropped it.
They were there, all three of them.
I know that the police have a very reasonable explanation for what I saw, and I know that explanation must be right, if there is any truth in what we have been taught to believe about mind and body and death.
Of course there are always those who will not quite believe, who will advance other theories. Like Max, with his experiments.
The only thing the police can't decide for certain is whether Velda managed to break into the tomb and open the casket unaided--they did find a rusty old screwdriver nearby--or whether tomb and casket hadn't been broken into at an earlier date by some sort of cultists or, more likely, pranksters inspired by cultists. They have managed to explain away almost completely, all evidence that tomb and casket were burst from the inside.
Velda can't tell them. Her mind is beyond reach.
The police have no doubts whatsoever about Velda's ability to strangle Max to death. After all, it took three strong men to get her out of the cemetery. And it is from my own testimony that the police picked up Max's statement that Velda hated him murderously.
The odd position of Fearing's remains they attribute to some insane whim on Velda's part.
And of course, as I say, the police must be right. The only thing against their theory is the raps. And of course I can't make them understand just how tremendously significant those raps of Max's, that diabolic three--two, seemed to me at the time.
I can only tell what I saw, in the flashlight's wavering gleam.
The marble slab closing Fearing's tomb had fallen forward. The tomb was open.
Velda was backed against the tombstone opposite it. Her gray silk dressing gown was wet and torn to ribbons. Blood dribbled from a gash above her knee. Her blond hair streamed down tangledly. Her features were contorted. She was staring down at the space between herself and Fearing's tomb. She was still screaming.
There before her, in the wet grass, Max lay on his back. His head was twisted backward.
And across the lower part of Max's body, the half-fleshed fingers stretching toward his throat, the graveclothes clinging in tatters to the blackened, shrunken body, was all that was left of Fearing.
The leader cut short the last chuckles of laughter by measuredly spanking the rostrum with the flat of his hand. He grinned broadly at the forty-or-so people occupying, along with their ashtrays and coffee cups, the half dozen rows of folding chairs facing him.
He said, "If anyone came here tonight thinking that the life story of an alcoholic couldn't be hilariously funny as well as heart-breakingly tragic, I imagine he changed his mind after the pitch we just heard. Any way you slice it, it's a Happy Program--sometimes even slaphappy."
His face grew serious. He said, "Our last speaker is a gal. She's surprisingly young, just out of her teens.
Some of the old timers used to think you couldn't make the Program until you'd drunk your way through a dozen jobs and four or five wives and light housekeepers--or husbands!--but they've had to change their minds in recent years. This gal's only been on the Program a short time--two months--but I heard her make a great pitch at the open meetings last week. She'd so new she still gets a little emotionally disturbed from time to time--" (He paused for a brief warning frown, his eyes roving) "but I asked her about it and she told me that as long as she knows we're all pulling for her everything'll be all right. So without more ado--"
A pucker-mouthed woman with hennaed hair in the second row whispered loudly to her neighbor, "If she's that disturbed, she ought to be in a mental hospital, not an A.A. meeting."
Faces turned. The room grew very still. The leader glared steadily at the woman with the hennaed hair.
She tilted her chin at him and said loudly, "I was speaking of someone else." He frowned at her skeptically, nodded once more, then put on the big grin and said, "So without more ado I'll turn the meeting over to Sue! I'm sure she's got a great message for us. Let's give her a big hand."
Forty-or-so people pounded their palms together--some enthusiastically, some dutifully, but only the woman with hennaed hair abstaining completely--as a thin ash-blonde in a dark green dress rose from the last row and made her way to the rostrum with the abstracted deliberateness of a sleepwalker. As the leader stepped back and aside for her, he simultaneously smiled warmly, sketched a bow and gave her elbow a reassuring squeeze. She nodded her thanks without looking at him. He seated himself in an empty chair at the end of the front row, switching around enough so that he had the hennaed woman within view.
Looking straight in front of her, just over the heads of her audience, the ash-blonde said in a low but somewhat harsh voice, "My name is Sue and I'm an alcoholic."
"Hi, Sue," a score-or-so voices responded, some brightly, some dully.
Sue did not immediately start her pitch. Instead she slowly swung her face from side to side, her gaze still just brushing the tops of her audience's heads with the suggestion of a heavy machine gun ranging over an enemy crouched in foxholes. Never smiling, she looked back and forth--from the inappropriate "Come Dressed as Beatniks" party poster of some other organization on the right hand wall across the leader's and the other assorted heads to the left hand wall where a row of open doors let in the balmy night and the occasional low growl of a passing car beyond the wide lawn and shrubbery. Then just as the pause was becoming unbearable--
"I accepted you people and your Twelve Steps only because I was frightened to death," Sue said with measured, almost mannered intensity. "Every day I dwelt with fear. Every hour I knew terror. Every night I slept--blacked out, that is--with horror! Believe me I know what it means to drink with desperation because the Fifth Horseman is waiting outside for me in the big black car with the two faceless drivers."
"Oh, one of those," the hennaed woman could be heard to say. She tossed her head as the leader scowled at her sharply from his seat by the inner wall.
Sue did not react except that the knuckles of her hands grasping the side of the rostrum grew white. She continued, "I had my first snort of hard liquor at the age of seven--brandy for a toothache. I liked it. I liked what it did for me. From that day on I snitched liquor whenever and wherever I could get it. The way was made easy for me because both of my parents were practicing alcoholics. By the age of thirteen I had passed over the invisible line and I was a confirmed alcoholic myself, shakes, morning drink, blackouts, hidden bottles, sleeping pills and all."
A gaunt-faced man in the third row folded his arms across his chest, creaked his metal chair and snorted skeptically. The hennaed woman quickly looked back to him with an emphatic triple nod, then smiled triumphantly at the anxious-eyed leader as she faced front again.
Sue did not take direct note of either of her hecklers, but she sent her next remarks skimming just above the silvery thatch of the gaunt-faced man.
"Why is it that even you people find difficulty in accepting the child alcoholic?" she said. "Children can do everything bad that adults can do. Children can formulate dark evil plots. Children can suffer obsessions and compulsions. Children can go insane. Children can commit suicide. Children can torture. Children can commit... yes! my dear friends... murder!"
"--self-dramatizing little... herself."
Ignoring the mostly indistinct whisper, Sue took a slow deep breath and continued, "I emphasize murder because soon after my thirteenth year I was to be subjected, again and again, to that hideous temptation.
You see, by the time I was fifteen the big black car had begun to draw up and park in front of my home every afternoon at four thirty--or so soon as I had managed to snitch my first four or five drinks of the day."
"--just can't stand the scare-you-to-death school!" The last part of the hennaed woman's whisper to her neighbor came across very clearly. The neighbor, a white-haired woman with rimless glasses, went so far as to nod briefly and cover the other's hand reassuringly yet warningly.
The knuckles of Sue's hands grasping the sides of the rostrum grew white again. She went on, "I knew who was waiting in that car, invisible between the two faceless drivers. You people often speak of the Four Horsemen of Fear, Frustration, Disillusionment, and Despair. You seldom mention the Fifth Horseman, but you know that he's always there."
"--can't stand the let's-share-my-aberration school either!"
"And I knew whom he was waiting for! I knew that some afternoon, or some evening, or very late some night--for the big black car stayed there at the curb until the first gray ray of morning--I knew that I would have to walk out to it and get inside and drive away with him to his dark land. But I also knew that it would not be that easy for me, not nearly that easy."
For the first time Sue smiled at her audience--a lingering half-tranced smile. "You see, my dear friends, I knew that if I ever went out to the car, before we could drive away I would first have to bring him and the two faceless drivers back into the house and take away with us my mother, my father, my brothers, my sister and whomever else happened to be inside on however innocent a pretext."
"Look, I came here to an A. A. meeting, not to listen to ghost stories." All of the hennaed woman's whisper was quite audible this time. There was a general disapproving murmur, possibly shot here and there with approval.
Sue seemed to have difficulty going on. She took three deep, heaving breaths, not quite looking at the hennaed woman. The leader started to get up, but just then --
"That is why I had to drink," Sue resumed strongly. "That is why I had to keep my brain numbed with alcohol, day after day, month after month. Yet that is also why I feared to drink, for if I blacked out at the wrong time I might walk out to the car unknowing. That is why I drank, fearing to!
"Let me tell you, my friends, that big black car became the realest thing in my life. Hour after hour I'd sit at the window, watching it, getting up only to sneak a drink. Sometimes it would change into a big black tiger with glossy fur lying by the curb with his jaw on his folded paws, occupying all the space a parked car would and a little more, looking almost like a black Continental except that every hour or so he'd swing his great green eyes up toward me. At those times the two faceless drivers would turn black as ebony, with silver turbans and silver loin-cloths--"
"Purple, if you ask me!"
"But whether I saw it as a black tiger or a black car, it regularly drew up at my curb every evening or night. It got so that by the time I was seventeen, it came even on the rare days when I couldn't get a drink or hold one down."
Just at that moment a passing car, growling more softly than others, became silent, as if its motor had been switched off, followed by the faintest dying whisper of rubber on asphalt, as if it had parked just outside, beyond the dark lawn and shrubs.
"She's got confederates!" the hennaed woman whispered with a flash of sour humor. Two or three people giggled nervously.
At last Sue looked straight into her adversary's eyes. "I prayed to a god I didn't believe in that I wouldn't become a confederate!--that he wouldn't trick me into leading him and the two faceless drivers inside." Her gaze left the hennaed woman and ranged just over their heads again. "The Fifth Horseman is tricky, you know, he's endlessly subtle. I talked with him in my mind for hours at a time as I sat at the window watching him invisible in the car. When I first learned to tell time and found there was twelve hours, he told me he was the thirteenth. Later, when I learned that some people count twenty-four hours, he told me he was the twenty-fifth. When they instructed me at church that there were three persons in the godhead, he told me he was the fourth--"
"I don't think I can stand much more of this. And flouting religion--" The hennaed woman half rose from her chair, her neighbor clinging to her arm, trying to draw her down again.
Three more heaving breaths and Sue continued, though seeming to speak with the greatest difficulty, "The Fifth Horseman still talks to me. You know our Twelve Steps, from the First where we admit we are powerless over alcohol, to the Twelfth, where we try to carry the Message to others. We sometimes joke about a Thirteenth Step--where we carry the Message to someone because we've got a crush on them, or for some other illegitimate reason--but he tells me that he is the Thirteenth Step, which I will someday be forced to take no matter how earnestly I try to avoid it!"
"No, I cannot stand any more of this! I refuse to!" The hennaed woman spoke out loud at last, shaking off her neighbor's hand and standing up straight. She made no move to leave, just faced the rostrum.
The leader stood up too, angry-browed, and started toward her, but just then--
"I'm sorry," Sue said quickly, looking at them all, "I really am," and she walked rapidly to the door opposite the rostrum and into the night.
For three or four seconds nobody did a thing. Then the leader started after her past the rostrum, taking long strides, but when he got a few feet short of the open doors, he suddenly checked and turned around.
"Where's her sponsor?" he called toward the back of the room. "She said her sponsor was bringing her to the meeting. It would be a lot better if her sponsor went out and talked to her now, rather than me."
No one stepped forward. The hennaed woman chuckled knowingly, "I wouldn't admit to being her sponsor after that performance. If you ask me, it'll be a lot better if she just keeps on walking until the police pick her up and throw her in the psycho ward!"
"Nobody's asking you!" the leader rasped. "Look, everybody, I suppose the next best thing would be if a couple of you ladies would go out after her and quietly talk to her..."
The half dozen or so other women in the room looked around at each other, but none of them moved.
"If you're... well... nervous," the leader said, "I suppose a couple of the guys could go out with you..."
The thirty-odd men in the room looked at each other. None of them moved either.
"Oh my God," the leader said disgustedly and himself started to turn, though somewhat slowly, toward the huge rectangle of darkness just behind him.
"You'll just be making a big fool of yourself, Charlie Pierce," the hennaed woman said stingingly.
"Look here," he retorted angrily, whirling back toward her a bit eagerly, "you're the one who's been making fools and worse of us all and of the Program. You're--"
He got no further. The hennaed woman, staring mad-eyed and mouth a-grimace over his shoulder, had started to scream. The others in the room, following her gaze, took it up.
The leader looked around.
Then he screamed too.
Ann looked at the mutilated big gray clay figure bedded in pale yellow excelsior in the coffin-size shipping crate that came jerking in and bumped to a stop before Jack and her. Its crude man-shape, its tortured muteness, and in particular the signs stenciled on its partly-dismembered sections--FOOT, KNEE, GENITALS, BELLY--squeezed tears from her eyes.
"The poor guy, what he must have been through," she managed to get out.
Jack kicked the crate.
He said, "Whatever shape he's in, he brought it on himself. First lesson for apprentices down here: you can't be sympathetic."
Ann fought back outrage. Jack didn't seem to have just the professional unfeeling of a journeyman, but personal vindictiveness too. She wished she's never seen that ad: HELP THE POOR BLOBS, THEY
NEED YOU, BECOME A REPAIR PERSON. She wished she'd strangled the surge of idealism it had roused in her. Besides, the remembered advertisement kept blurring and changing words and spellings in her mind.
"Those stencils now," Jack was saying, "they just show what the guy was thinking of when he fouled up.
I'll give you a clue: it wasn't other people."
He squatted by the hacked gray shoulders and ran his eye from end to clay end.
"God has it easy, He only has to create 'em." He looked sideways down the line of crates. "Gotta get started!"
Stiffening two fingers and bracing them with a thumb, he suddenly drove them down in an obscene karate blow knuckle-deep in the clay forehead two inches above the blind eyes. Wet grayness splashed like mud. He swiftly jerked his fingers out.
"Stung me," he mumbled, sucking the tips. He eyed Ann. "That's a good sign."
The clay head vibrated. Something small and dark and round and heavy-looking like a musket ball came buzzing out of the hole and hovered like a horsefly. Ann shrank away. Barely glancing at its zig-zag path, Jack snatched up a close-meshed butterfly net and snagged it at arm's stretch, instantly flipping the metal hoop to confine it. Then he laid the net down beside him. From time to time the dark thing hummed enraged and humped the netting as it tunneled about under the net, seeking escape.
"The psyche? The consciousness?" Ann quavered. Then, more softly still, "His soul? A bit of God?"
"You name it, kid," Jack quipped. "Here, smooth these out."
He was handing her swiftly, one by one, brightly colored gossamer films he was drawing out of the widening hole in the clay head, like a stage magician taking silk handkerchiefs out of a fishbowl.
They rippled and tugged irrationally as she smoothed and tried to flatten them--a mischievous spectrum, blue as Heaven, red as Hell, all colors. As she spread them out on the surgically gleaming table, she got the impression that there were fantastically detailed pictures lined on them, but she was unable to study them, it was all she could do to keep up with Jack. (Straighten out there! Lie down, damn you!) Journeymen seemed to have one working speed, apprentices another. Soon there were enough square films for a rainbow chessboard.
"Dreams," Jack told her. "Crumpled spectral planes inside the skull. Angel dreams. Devil dreams.
Wrapping the core--" he touched with his elbow the bump in the buzzing net--"to soothe it. Comfiest blanketing. No wonder when it got away from them and snagged in the black unconsciousness it bezerked!" He shoved his hand wrist-deep in the clay, swivelled his fingers around all the way, paused, then withdrew a wet-looking black silk bag. "There!--that's the lot! Get ready a three by five inch one-way frontal window."
"What color?--on the opaque side?" she asked, shuffling through the frontal blanks in her bin.
"Flesh, what'd you think?" he told her with heavy patience. "Now lemme see." As she trimmed the blank to size by eye, he swiftly selected four films from the rainbow field, then dove his other hand into the humping net and captured the dark thing there. The buzzing grew louder. He winced but didn't let go as he wrapped it up orderly in the films, like a bumblebee in silk handkerchiefs, changing his hold on it at every moment.
"Gotta keep it well wrapped and comforted," he explained. "The power of illusion." (Ann noted the angry buzz had sunk almost to a purring) "Yellow for sunlight and kicks," he said of the first and outmost film as he checked them off. Then, "Blue for the sky and God. Green for the forest and deeps. Red for blood and danger. There, that's the bunch." He carefully replaced the four-times-wrapped packet, as if setting it on a central needlepoint inside the clay skull. To Ann's surprise it stayed there, humming softly.
Then with a sweep of his long arm Jack gathered together all the other films and crumpled them swiftly into the wet black silk bag and tossed it after the packet. It hung in the hole a moment, a puffy cushion, then fell--or was sucked--out of sight.
"You gotta put back every least thing you take out," he told Ann. "There's another basic for you. And you gotta leave 'em unconscious. We'll hope that this time the surplus dreams stay there. Now gimme that window."
As Jack fitted the flexible pane into the clay, Ann said, grieving at the uncouth gray, "He'll never be able to hide his mind from the outside now. Not for the tiniest time."
Jack said, "Nope."
The advert flared in Ann's memory: BE A HELP PERSON, REPAIR THE SLOBS, THEY HURT. Oh, why, why had she...? She asked, "How'll he ever be able to sleep with the light always coming in his forehead?"
Jack said, "He can go in the real dark if he has to. Not everything's a motel with pale curtains."
Ann said, "But in the day with the sunlight or bright glows always pouring down it'll be so hot."
Jack shrugged. "Better to burn than go bats, kid."
He got the flesh-colored window flush in the gray clay and pressed that flat, making a seal. He touched a button and blue light pulsed on the gray clay. Then he leaned back and said, "Arba da Carba."
Ann asked, "Who's that?"
Jack said, "Not who, what, kid. Say it backwards. God doesn't use words at all, just breath."
The hacked clay worked rhythmically and grew smooth--and pink as the window in its forehead. Its eyes opened and rolled blindly from side to side. Its mouth gaped and it began to breath noisily. The left corner of its mouth started to convulse in a two-second tic. Ann watched with wonder, then her expression became one of staring hopelessness and distaste.
"Oh why," she asked, "oh why did they ever decide to replace most regular people with these miserable globs?"
"Because they're cheaper," Jack told her. "They don't cause trouble, they don't rebel, they just suffer.
And they never die, they only break down."
The crate slid away and was replaced by another. Ann continued to stare.
"Break's over, let's get going," Jack barked, placing his fisted hand, thumb turned down, over the new shape's livid brow. What's a matter, kid, you got something better to do?"
He went where no Martian ever went before--but would he come out--or had he gone for good?
The Professor was congratulating Earth's first visitor from another planet on his wisdom in getting in touch with a cultural anthropologist before contacting any other scientists (or governments, God forbid!), and in learning English from radio and TV before landing from his orbit-parked rocket, when the Martian stood up and said hesitantly, "Excuse me, please, but where is it?"
That baffled the Professor and the Martian seemed to grow anxious--at least his long mouth curved upward, and he had earlier explained that it curling downward was his smile--and he repeated, "Please, where is it?"
He was surprisingly humanoid in most respects, but his complexion was textured so like the rich dark armchair he'd just been occupying that the Professor's pin-striped gray suit, which he had eagerly consented to wear, seemed an arbitrary interruption between him and the chair--a sort of Mother Hubbard dress on a phantom conjured from its leather.
The Professor's Wife, always a perceptive hostess, came to her husband's rescue by saying with equal rapidity, "Top of the stairs, end of the hall, last door."
The Martian's mouth curled happily downward and he said, "Thank you very much," and was off.
Comprehension burst on the Professor. He caught up with his guest at the foot of the stairs.
"Here, I'll show you the way," he said.
"No, I can find it myself, thank you," the Martian assured him.
* * *
Something rather final in the Martian's tone made the Professor desist, and after watching his visitor sway up the stairs with an almost hypnotic softly jogging movement, he rejoined his wife in the study, saying wonderingly, "Who'd have thought it, by George! Function taboos as strict as our own!"
"I'm glad some of your professional visitors maintain 'em," his wife said darkly.
"But this one's from Mars, darling, and to find out he's--well, similar in an aspect of his life is as thrilling as the discovery that water is burned hydrogen. When I think of the day not far distant when I'll put his entries in the cross-cultural index ..."
He was still rhapsodizing when the Professor's Little Son raced in.
"Pop, the Martian's gone to the bathroom!"
"Hush, dear. Manners."
"Now it's perfectly natural, darling, that the boy should notice and be excited. Yes, Son, the Martian's not so very different from us."
"Oh, certainly," the Professor's Wife said with a trace of bitterness. "I don't imagine his turquoise complexion will cause any comment at all when you bring him to a faculty reception. They'll just figure he's had a hard night--and that he got that baby-elephant nose sniffing around for assistant professorships."
"Really, darling! He probably thinks of our noses as disagreeably amputated and paralyzed."
"Well, anyway, Pop, he's in the bathroom. I followed him when he squiggled upstairs."
"Now, Son, you shouldn't have done that. He's on a strange planet and it might make him nervous if he thought he was being spied on. We must show him every courtesy. By George, I can't wait to discuss these things with Ackerly-Ramsbottom! When I think of how much more this encounter has to give the anthropologist than even the physicist or astronomer ..."
He was still going strong on his second rhapsody when he was interrupted by another high-speed entrance. It was the Professor's Coltish Daughter.
"Mom, Pop, the Martian's--"
"Hush, dear. We know."
The Professor's Coltish Daughter regained her adolescent poise, which was considerable. "Well, he's still in there," she said. "I just tried the door and it was locked."
"I'm glad it was!" the Professor said while his wife added, "Yes, you can't be sure what--" and caught herself. "Really, dear, that was very bad manners."
"I thought he'd come downstairs long ago," her daughter explained. "He's been
in there an awfully long time. It must have been a half hour ago that I saw him
gyre and gimbal upstairs in that real gone way he has, with Nosy here following
him." The Professor's Coltish Daughter was currently soaking up both jive and
* * *
When the Professor checked his wristwatch, his expression grew troubled. "By George, he is taking his time! Though, of course, we don't know how much time Martians ... I wonder."
"I listened for a while, Pop," his son volunteered. "He was running the water a lot."
"Running the water, eh? We know Mars is a water-starved planet. I suppose that in the presence of unlimited water, he might be seized by a kind of madness and ... But he seemed so well adjusted."
Then his wife spoke, voicing all their thoughts. Her outlook on life gave her a naturally sepulchral voice.
"What's he doing in there?"
Twenty minutes and at least as many fantastic suggestions later, the Professor glanced again at his watch and nerved himself for action. Motioning his family aside, he mounted the stairs and tiptoed down the hall.
He paused only once to shake his head and mutter under his breath, "By George, I wish I had Fenchurch or von Gottschalk here. They're a shade better than I am on intercultural contracts, especially taboo-breakings and affronts ..."
His family followed him at a short distance.
The Professor stopped in front of the bathroom door. Everything was quiet as death.
He listened for a minute and then rapped measuredly, steadying his hand by clutching its wrist with the other. There was a faint splashing, but no other sound.
Another minute passed. The Professor rapped again. Now there was no response at all. He very gingerly tried the knob. The door was still locked.
When they had retreated to the stairs, it was the Professor's Wife who once more voiced their thoughts. This time her voice carried overtones of supernatural horror.
"What's he doing in there?"
"He may be dead or dying," the Professor's Coltish Daughter suggested briskly. "Maybe we ought to call the Fire Department, like they did for old Mrs. Frisbee."
The Professor winced. "I'm afraid you haven't visualized the complications, dear," he said gently. "No one but ourselves knows that the Martian is on Earth, or has even the slightest inkling that interplanetary travel has been achieved. Whatever we do, it will have to be on our own. But to break in on a creature engaged in--well, we don't know what primal private activity--is against all anthropological practice. Still--"
"Dying's a primal activity," his daughter said crisply.
"So's ritual bathing before mass murder," his wife added.
"Please! Still, as I was about to say, we do have the moral duty to succor him if, as you all too reasonably suggest, he has been incapacitated by a germ or virus or, more likely, by some simple environmental factor such as Earth's greater gravity."
"Tell you what, Pop--I can look in the bathroom window and see what he's doing. All I have to do is crawl out my bedroom window and along the gutter a little ways. It's safe as houses."
* * *
The Professor's question beginning with, "Son, how do you know--" died unuttered and he refused to notice the words his daughter was voicing silently at her brother. He glanced at his wife's sardonically composed face, thought once more of the Fire Department and of other and larger and even more jealous--or would it be skeptical?--government agencies, and clutched at the straw offered him.
Ten minutes later, he was quite unnecessarily assisting his son back through the bedroom window.
"Gee, Pop, I couldn't see a sign of him. That's why I took so long. Hey, Pop, don't look so scared. He's in there, sure enough. It's just that the bathtub's under the window and you have to get real close up to see into it."
"The Martian's taking a bath?"
"Yep. Got it full up and just the end of his little old schnozzle sticking out. Your suit, Pop, was hanging on the door."
The one word the Professor's Wife spoke was like a death knell.
"No, Ma, I don't think so. His schnozzle was opening and closing regular like."
"Maybe he's a shape-changer," the Professor's Coltish Daughter said in a burst of evil fantasy. "Maybe he softens in water and thins out after a while until he's like an eel and then he'll go exploring through the sewer pipes. Wouldn't it be funny if he went under the street and knocked on the stopper from underneath and crawled into the bathtub with President Rexford, or Mrs. President Rexford, or maybe right into the middle of one of Janey Rexford's Oh-I'm-so-sexy bubble baths?"
"Please!" The Professor put his hand to his eyebrows and kept it there, cuddling the elbow in his other hand.
"Well, have you thought of something?" the Professor's Wife asked him after a bit. "What are you going to do?"
The Professor dropped his hand and blinked his eyes hard and took a deep breath.
"Telegraph Fenchurch and Ackerly-Ramsbottom and then break in," he said in a resigned voice, into which, nevertheless, a note of hope seemed also to have come. "First, however, I'm going to wait until morning."
And he sat down cross-legged in the hall a few yards from the bathroom door
and folded his arms.
* * *
So the long vigil commenced.
The Professor's family shared it and he offered no objection. Other and sterner men, he told himself, might claim to be able successfully to order their children to go to bed when there was a Martian locked in the bathroom, but he would like to see them faced with the situation.
Finally dawn began to seep from the bedrooms. When the bulb in the hall had grown quite dim, the Professor unfolded his arms.
Just then, there was a loud splashing in the bathroom. The Professor's family looked toward the door. The splashing stopped and they heard the Martian moving around. Then the door opened and the Martian appeared in the Professor's gray pin-stripe suit. His mouth curled sharply downward in a broad alien smile as he saw the Professor.
"Good morning!" the Martian said happily. "I never slept better in my life, even in my own little wet bed back on Mars."
He looked around more closely and his mouth straightened. "But where did you all sleep?" he asked. "Don't tell me you stayed dry all night! You didn't give up your only bed to me?"
His mouth curled upward in misery. "Oh, dear," he said, "I'm afraid I've made a mistake somehow. Yet I don't understand how. Before I studied you, I didn't know what your sleeping habits would be, but that question was answered for me--in fact, it looked so reassuringly homelike--when I saw those brief TV scenes of your females ready for sleep in their little tubs. Of course, on Mars, only the fortunate can always be sure of sleeping wet, but here, with your abundance of water, I thought there would be wet beds for all."
He paused. "It's true I had some doubts last night, wondering if I'd used the right words and all, but then when you rapped 'Good night' to me, I splashed the sentiment back at you and went to sleep in a wink. But I'm afraid that somewhere I've blundered and--"
"No, no, dear chap," the Professor managed to say. He had been waving his hand in a gentle circle for some time in token that he wanted to interrupt. "Everything is quite all right. It's true we stayed up all night, but please consider that as a watch--an honor guard, by George!--which we kept to indicate our esteem."