The Familiar, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 5

Mr. Barton States His Case

“MY dear sir,” said Doctor — — after a brief pause, “I fear you have been very unhappy, indeed; but I venture to predict that the depression under which you labour will be found to originate in purely physical causes, and that with a change of air, and the aid of a few tonics, your spirits will return, and the tone of your mind be once more cheerful and tranquil as heretofore. There was, after all, more truth than we are quite willing to admit in the classic theories which assigned the undue predominance of any one affection of the mind to the undue action or torpidity of one or other of our bodily organs. Believe me, that a little attention to diet, exercise, and the other essentials of health, under competent direction, will make you as much yourself as you can wish.”

“Doctor — — ” said Barton, with something like a shudder, “I cannot delude myself with such a hope. I have no hope to cling to but one, and that is, that by some other spiritual agency more potent than that which tortures me, it may be combated, and I delivered. If this may not be, I am lost — now and for ever lost.”

“But, Mr. Barton, you must remember,” urged his companion, “that others have suffered as you have done, and ——”

“No, no, no,” interrupted he, with irritability — “no, sir, I am not a credulous — far from a superstitious man. I have been, perhaps, too much the reverse — too sceptical, too slow of belief; but unless I were one whom no amount of evidence could convince, unless I were to contemn the repeated, the perpetual evidence of my own senses, I am now — now at last constrained to believe — I have no escape from the conviction — the overwhelming certainty — that I am haunted and dogged, go where I may, by — by a DEMON!”

There was a preternatural energy of horror in Barton’s face, as, with its damp and death-like lineaments turned towards his companion, he thus delivered himself.

“God help you, my poor friend,” said Dr. — — much shocked, “God help you; for, indeed, you are a sufferer, however your sufferings may have been caused.”

“Ay, ay, God help me,” echoed Barton, sternly; “but will He help me — will He help me?”

“Pray to Him — pray in an humble and trusting spirit,” said he.

“Pray, pray,” echoed he again; “I can’t pray — I could as easily move a mountain by an effort of my will. I have not belief enough to pray; there is something within me that will not pray. You prescribe impossibilities — literal impossibilities.”

“You will not find it so, if you will but try,” said Doctor ——.

“Try! I have tried, and the attempt only fills me with confusion: and, sometimes, terror: I have tried in vain, and more than in vain. The awful, unutterable idea of eternity and infinity oppresses and maddens my brain whenever my mind approaches the contemplation of the Creator: I recoil from the effort scared. I tell you, Doctor — — if I am to be saved, it must be by other means. The idea of an eternal Creator is to me intolerable — my mind cannot support it.”

“Say, then, my dear sir,” urged he, “say how you would have me serve you — what you would learn of me — what I can do or say to relieve you?”

“Listen to me first,” replied Captain Barton; with a subdued air, and an effort to suppress his excitement, “listen to me while I detail the circumstances of the persecution under which my life has become all but intolerable — a persecution which has made me fear death and the world beyond the grave as much as I have grown to hate existence.”

Barton then proceeded to relate the circumstances which I have already detailed, and then continued:

“This has now become habitual — an accustomed thing. I do not mean the actual seeing him in the flesh — thank God, that at least is not permitted daily. Thank God, from the ineffable horrors of that visitation I have been mercifully allowed intervals of repose, though none of security; but from the consciousness that a malignant spirit is following and watching me wherever I go, I have never, for a single instant, a temporary respite. I am pursued with blasphemies, cries of despair, and appalling hatred. I hear those dreadful sounds called after me as I turn the corners of the streets; they come in the night-time, while I sit in my chamber alone; they haunt me everywhere, charging me with hideous crimes, and — great God! — threatening me with coming vengeance and eternal misery. Hush! do you hear that?” he cried, with a horrible smile of triumph; “there — there, will that convince you?”

The clergyman felt a chill of horror steal over him, while, during the wail of a sudden gust of wind, he heard, or fancied he heard, the half-articulate sounds of rage and derision mingling in the sough.

“Well, what do you think of that?” at length Barton cried, drawing a long breath through his teeth.

“I heard the wind,” said Doctor ——. “What should I think of it — what is there remarkable about it?”

“The prince of the powers of the air,” muttered Barton, with a shudder.

“Tut, tut! my dear sir,” said the student, with an effort to reassure himself; for though it was broad daylight there was nevertheless something disagreeably contagious in the nervous excitement under which his visitor so miserably suffered. “You must not give way to these wild fancies; you must resist these impulses of the imagination.”

“Ay, ay; ‘resist the devil and he will flee from thee,’” said Barton, in the same tone; “but how resist him? ay, there it is — there is the rub. What — what am I to do? what can I do?”

“My dear sir, this is fancy,” said the man of folios; “you are your own tormentor.”

“No, no, sir — fancy has no part in it,” answered Barton, somewhat sternly. “Fancy! was it that made you, as well as me, hear, but this moment, those accents of hell? Fancy, indeed! No, no.”

“But you have seen this person frequently,” said the ecclesiastic; “why have you not accosted or secured him? Is it not a little precipitate, to say no more, to assume, as you have done, the existence of preternatural agency; when, after all, everything may be easily accountable, if only proper means were taken to sift the matter.”

“There are circumstances connected with this — this appearance,” said Barton, “which it is needless to disclose, but which to me are proofs of its horrible nature. I know that the being that follows me is not human — I say I know this; I could prove it to your own conviction.” He paused for a minute, and then added, “And as to accosting it, I dare not, I could not; when I see it I am powerless; I stand in the gaze of death, in the triumphant presence of infernal power and malignity. My strength, and faculties, and memory, all forsake me. O God, I fear, sir, you know not what you speak of. Mercy, mercy; heaven have pity on me!”

He leaned his elbow on the table, and passed his hand across his eyes, as if to exclude some image of horror, muttering the last words of the sentence he had just concluded again and again.

“Doctor — — ” he said, abruptly raising himself, and looking full upon the clergyman with an imploring eye, “I know you will do for me whatever may be done. You know now fully the circumstances and the nature of my affliction. I tell you I cannot help myself; I cannot hope to escape; I am utterly passive. I conjure you, then, to weigh my case well, and if anything may be done for me by vicarious supplication — by the intercession of the good — or by any aid or influence whatsoever, I implore of you, I adjure you in the name of the Most High, give me the benefit of that influence — deliver me from the body of this death. Strive for me, pity me; I know you will; you cannot refuse this; it is the purpose and object of my visit. Send me away with some hope — however little — some faint hope of ultimate deliverance, and I will nerve myself to endure, from hour to hour, the hideous dream into which my existence has been transformed.”

Doctor assured him that all he could do was to pray earnestly for him, and that so much he would not fail to do. They parted with a hurried and melancholy valediction. Barton hastened to the carriage that awaited him at the door, drew down the blinds, and drove away, while Doctor returned to his chamber, to ruminate at leisure upon the strange interview which had just interrupted his studies.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49