First published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, volume 17:100 (September 1858)
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It was oppressively warm. The sun had long disappeared but seemed to have left its vital spirit of heat behind it. The air rested; the leaves of the acacia-trees that have shrouded my windows, hung plumb-like on the delicate stalks. The smoke of my cigar scarce rose above my head, but hung about me in a pale blue cloud, which I had to dissipate with a languid wave of my hand. My shirt was open at the throat, and my chest heaved laboriously in the effort to catch some breaths of fresher air. The very noises of the city seemed to be wrapped in slumber, and the shrilling of the mosquitoes were the only sounds that broke the stillness.
As I lay with my feet elevated on the back of a chair, wrapped in that peculiar frame of mind in which thought assumes a species of lifeless motion, the strange fancy seized me of making a languid inventory of the principal articles of furniture in my room. It was a task well suited to the mood in which I found myself. Their forms were duskily defined in the dim twilight that floated shadowily through the chamber; it was no labor to note and particularize each, and from the place where I sat I could command a view of all my possessions without even turning my head.
There was, imprimus, that ghostly lithograph by Calame. It was a mere black spot on the white wall, but my inner vision scrutinized every detail of the picture. A wild, desolate, midnight heath, with a spectral oak-tree in the centre of the foreground. The wind blows fiercely, and the jagged branches, clothed scantily with ill-grown leaves, are swept to the left continually by its giant force. A formless wrack of clouds streams across the awful sky, and the rain sweeps almost parallel with the horizon. Beyond, the heath stretches off into endless blackness, in the extreme of which either fancy or art has conjured up some undefinable shapes that seem riding into space. At the base of the huge oak stands a shrouded figure. His mantle is wound by the blast in tight folds around his form, and the long cock’s feather in his hat is blown upright, till it seems as if it stood on end with fear. His features are not visible, for he has grasped his cloak with both hands, and drawn it from either side across his face. The picture is seemingly objectless. It tells no tale, but there is a weird power about it that haunts one, and it was for that I bought it.
Next to the picture comes the round blot that hangs below it, which I know to be a smoking-cap. It has my coat of arms embroidered on the front, and for that reason I never wear it; though, when properly arranged on my head with its long blue silken tassel hanging down by my cheek, I believe it becomes me well. I remember the time when it was in the course of manufacture. I remember the tiny little hands that pushed the colored silks so nimbly through the cloth that was stretched on the embroidery-frame — the vast trouble I was put to get a colored copy of my armorial bearings for the heraldic work which was to decorate the front of the band — the pursings up of the little mouth, and the contractions of the young forehead, as their possessor plunged into a profound sea of cogitation touching the way in which the cloud should be represented from which the armed hand, that is my crest, issues — the heavenly moment when the tiny hands placed it on my head, in a position that I could not bear for more than a few seconds, and I, king-like, immediately assumed my royal prerogative after the coronation, and instantly levied a tax on my only subject, which was, however, not paid unwillingly. Ah! the cap is there, but the embroiderer has fled; for Atropos was severing the web of life above her head while she was weaving that silken shelter for mine!
How uncouthly the huge piano that occupies the corner at the left of the door looms out in the uncertain twilight! I neither play nor sing, yet I own a piano. It is a comfort to me to look at it, and to feel that the music is there, although I am not able to break the spell that binds it. It is pleasant to know that Bellini and Mozart, Cimarosa, Porpora, Gluck, and all such — or at least their souls — sleep in that unwieldy case. There He embalmed, as it were, all operas, sonatas, oratorios, notturnos, marches, songs, and dances, that ever climbed into existence through the four bars that wall in melody. Once I was entirely repaid for the investment of my funds in that instrument which I never use. Blokeeta, the composer, came to see me. Of course his instincts urged him as irresistibly to my piano as if some magnetic power lay within it compelling him to approach. He tuned it, he played on it. All night long, until the gray and spectral dawn rose out of the depths of the midnight, he sat and played, and I lay smoking by the window listening. Wild, unearthly, and sometimes insufferably painful, were the improvisations of Blokeeta. The chords of the instrument seemed breaking with anguish. Lost souls shrieked in his dismal preludes; the half-heard utterances of spirits in pain, that groped at inconceivable distances from any thing lovely or harmonious, seemed to rise dimly up out of the waves of sound that gathered under his hands. Melancholy human love wandered out on distant heaths, or beneath dank and gloomy cypresses, murmuring its unanswered sorrow, or hateful gnomes sported and sang in the stagnant swamps, triumphing in unearthly tones over the knight whom they had lured to his death. Such was Blokeeta’s night’s entertainment; and when he at length closed the piano, and hurried away through the cold morning, he left a memory about the instrument from which I could never escape.
Those snow-shoes, that hung in the space between the mirror and the door, recall Canadian wanderings. A long race through the dense forests over the frozen snow, through whose brittle crust the slender hoofs of the cariboo that we were pursuing sank at every step, until the poor creature despairingly turned at bay in a small juniper coppice, and we heartlessly shot him down. And I remember how Gabriel, the habitant, and Francois, the half-breed, cut his throat, and how the hot blood rushed out in a torrent over the snowy soil; and I recall the snow cabane that Gabriel built, where we all three slept so warmly, and the great fire that glowed at our feet painting all kinds of demoniac shapes on the black screen of forest that lay without, and the deer-steaks that we roasted for our breakfast, and the savage drunkenness of Gabriel in the morning, he having been privately drinking out of my brandy-flask all the night long.
That long haftless dagger that dangles over the mantle-piece makes my heart swell. I found it when a boy, in a hoary old castle in which one of my maternal ancestors once lived. That same ancestor — who, by-the-way, yet lives in history — was a strange old sea-king, who dwelt on the extremest point of the southwestern coast of Ireland. He owned the whole of that fertile island called Inniskeiran, which directly faces Cape Clear, where between them the Atlantic rolls furiously, forming what the fishermen of the place call “the Sound.” An awful place in winter is that same Sound. On certain days no boat can live there for a moment, and Cape Clear is frequently cut off for days from any communication with the main land.
This old sea-king — Sir Florence O’Driscoll by name — passed a stormy life. From the summit of his castle he watched the ocean, and when any richly laden vessels, bound from the south to the industrious Galway merchants, hove in sight, Sir Florence hoisted the sails of his galley, and it went hard with him if he did not tow into harbor ship and crew. In this way he lived; not a very honest mode of livelihood certainly, according to our modern ideas, but quite reconcilable with the morals of his time. As may be supposed, Sir Florence got into trouble. Complaints were laid against him at the English Court by the plundered merchants, and the Irish viking set out for London to plead his own cause before good Queen Bess, as she was called. He had one powerful recommendation; he was a marvelously handsome man. Not Celtic by descent, but half Spanish, half Danish in blood, he had the great northern stature with the regular features, flashing eyes, and dark hair of the Iberian race. This may account for the fact that his stay at the English Court was much longer than was necessary, as also for the tradition, which a local historian mentions, that the English Queen evinced a preference for the Irish chieftain of other nature than that usually shown from monarch to subject.
Previous to his departure Sir Florence had intrusted the care of his property to an Englishman named Hull. During the long absence of the knight this person managed to ingratiate himself with the local authorities, and gain their favor so far that they were willing to support him in almost any scheme. After a protracted stay Sir Florence, pardoned of all his misdeeds, returned to his home. Home no longer. Hull was in possession, and refused to yield an acre of the lands he had so nefariously acquired. It was no use appealing to the law, for its officers were in the opposition interest. It was no use appealing to the Queen, for she had another lover, and had forgotten the poor Irish knight by this time; and so the viking passed the best portion of his life in unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his vast estates, and was eventually, in his old age, obliged to content himself with his castle by the sea, and the island of Inniskeiran, the only spot of which the usurper was unable to deprive him. So this old story of my kinsman’s fate looms up out of the darkness that enshrouds that haftless dagger hanging on the wall.
It was somewhat after the foregoing fashion that I dreamily made the inventory of my personal property. As I turned my eyes on each object, one after the other, or the places where they lay — for the room was now so dark that it was almost impossible to see with any distinctness — a crowd of memories connected with each rose up before me, and, perforce, I had to indulge them. So I proceeded but slowly, and at last my cigar shortened to a hot and bitter morsel that I could barely hold between my lips, while it seemed to me that the night grew each moment more insufferably oppressive. While I was revolving some impossible means of cooling my wretched body, the cigar stump began to burn my lips. I flung it angrily through the open window, and stooped out to watch it falling. It first lighted on the leaves of the acacia, sending out a spray of red sparkles, then rolling off, it fell plump on the dark walk in the garden, faintly illuminating for a moment the dusky trees and breathless flowers. Whether it was the contrast between the red flash of the cigar stump and the silent darkness of the garden, or whether it was that I detected by the sudden light a faint waving of the leaves, I know not, but something suggested to me that the garden was cool. I will take a turn there, thought I, just as I am; it can not be warmer than this room, and however still the atmosphere, there is always a feeling of liberty and spaciousness in the open air that partially supplies one’s wants. With this idea running through my head I arose, lit another cigar, and passed out into the long, intricate corridors that led to the main stair-case. As I crossed the threshold of my room, with what a different feeling I should have passed it had I known that I was never to set foot in it again!
I lived in a very large house, in which I occupied two rooms on the second floor. The house was old-fashioned, and all the floors communicated by a huge circular stair-case that wound up through the centre of the building, while at every landing long rambling corridors stretched off into mysterious nooks and corners. This palace of mine was very high, and its resources, in the way of crannies and windings, seemed to be interminable. Nothing seemed to stop any where. Cul de sacs were unknown on the premises. The corridors and passages, like mathematical lines, seemed capable of indefinite extension, and the object of the architect must have been to erect an edifice in which people might go ahead forever. The whole place was gloomy, not so much because it was large, but because an unearthly nakedness seemed to pervade its structure. The stair-cases, corridors, halls, and vestibules all partook of a desert-like desolation. There was nothing on the walls to break the sombre monotony of those long vistas of shade. No carvings on the wainscoting, no moulded masks peering down from the simply severe cornices, no marbles vases on the landings. There was an eminent dreariness and want of life — so rare in an American establishment — all over the abode. It was Hood’s haunted house put in order, and newly painted. The servants, too, were shadowy and chary of their visits. Bells rang three times before the gloomy chambermaid could be induced to present herself, and the negro waiter, a ghoul-like looking creature from Congo, obeyed the summons only when one’s patience was exhausted, or one’s want satisfied in some other way. When he did come, one felt sorry that he had not staid away altogether, so sullen and savage did he appear. He moved along the echoless floors with a slow, noiseless shamble, until his dusky figure, advancing from the gloom, seemed like some reluctant afreet, compelled, by the superior power of his master, to disclose himself. When the doors of all the chambers were closed, and no light illuminated the long corridor, save the red, unwholesome glare of a small oil lamp on a table at the end, where late lodgers lit their candles, one could not by any possibility conjure up a sadder or more desolate prospect.
Yet the house suited me. Of meditative and sedentary habits, I rather enjoyed the extreme quiet. There were but few lodgers, from which I infer that the landlord did not drive a very thriving trade; and these, probably oppressed by the sombre spirit of the place, were quiet and ghost-like in their movements. The proprietor I scarcely ever saw. My bills were deposited by unseen hands every month on my table while I was out walking or riding, and my pecuniary response was intrusted to the attendant afreet. On the whole, when the bustling, wide-awake spirit of New York is taken into consideration, the sombre, half-vivified character of the house in which I lived was an anomaly that no one appreciated better than I who lived there.
I felt my way down the wide, dark stair-case in my pursuit of zephyrs. The garden, as I entered it, did feel somewhat cooler than my own room, and I puffed my cigar along the dim, cypress-shrouded walks with a sensation of comparative relief. It was very dark. The tall-growing flowers that bordered the path were so wrapped in gloom as to present the aspect of solid pyramidal masses, all the details of leaves and blossoms being buried in an embracing darkness, while the trees had lost all form, and seemed like masses of overhanging cloud. It was a place and time to excite the imagination; for in the impenetrable cavities of endless gloom there was room for the most riotous fancies to play at will. I walked and walked, and the echoes of my footsteps on the ungraveled and mossy path suggested a double feeling. I felt alone and yet in company at the same time. The solitariness of the place made itself distinct enough in the stillness, broken alone by the hollow reverberations of my step, while those very reverberations seemed to imbue me with an undefined feeling that I was not alone. I was not, therefore, much startled when I was suddenly accosted from beneath the solid darkness of an immense cypress by a voice saying,
“Will you give me a light, Sir?”
“Certainly,” I replied, trying in vain to distinguish the speaker amidst the impenetrable dark.
Somebody advanced, and I held out my cigar. All I could gather definitively about the individual that thus accosted me was, that he must have been of extremely small stature; for I, who am by no means an overgrown man, had to stoop considerably in handing him my cigar. The vigorous puff that he gave his own lighted up my Havana for a moment, and I fancied that I caught a glimpse of a pale, weird countenance, immersed in a background of long, wild hair. The flash was, however, so momentary that I could not even say certainly whether this was an actual impression or the mere effort of imagination to embody that which the senses had failed to distinguish.
“Sir, you are out late,” said this unknown to me, as he, with a half-uttered thanks, handed me back my cigar, for which I had to grope in the gloom.
“Not later than usual,” I replied, dryly.
“Hum! you are fond of late wanderings, then?”
“That is just as the fancy seizes me.”
“Do you live here?”
“Queer house, isn’t it?”
“I have only found it quiet.”
“Hum! But you will find it queer, take my word for it.” This was earnestly uttered; and I felt, at the same time, a bony finger laid on my arm that cut it sharply, like a blunted knife.
“I can not take your word for any such assertion,” I replied, rudely, shaking off the bony finger with an irrepressible motion of disgust.
“No offense, no offense,” muttered my unseen companion rapidly, in a strange, subdued voice, that would have been shrill had it been louder; “your being angry does not alter the matter. You will find it a queer house. Everybody finds it a queer house. Do you know who live there?”
“I never busy myself, Sir, about other people’s affairs,” I answered, sharply, for the individual’s manner, combined with my utter uncertainty as to his appearance, oppressed me with an irksome longing to be rid of him.
“Oh! you don’t? Well, I do. I know what they are — well, well, well;” and as he pronounced the three last words his voice rose with each, until, with the last, it reached a shrill shriek that echoed horribly among the lonely walks. “Do you know what they eat?” he continued.
“No, Sir — nor care.”
“Oh! but you will care. You must care. You shall care. I’ll tell you what they are. They are enchanters. They are ghouls. They are cannibals. Did you never remark their eyes, and how they gloated on you when they passed? Did you never remark the food that they served up at your table? Did you never, in the dead of night, hear muffled and unearthly footsteps gliding along the corridors, and stealthy hands turning the handle of your door? Does not some magnetic influence fold itself continually around you when they pass, and send a thrill through spirit and body, and a cold shiver that no sunshine will chase away? Oh, you have! You have felt all these things! I know it!”
The earnest rapidity, the subdued tones, the eagerness of accent with which all this was uttered, impressed me most uncomfortably. It really seemed as if I could recall all those weird occurrences and influences of which he spoke; and I shuddered in spite of myself in the midst of that impenetrable darkness that surrounded me.
“Hum!” said I, assuming, without knowing it, a confidential tone, “may I ask how you know of these things?”
“How I know them? Because I am their enemy. Because they tremble at my whisper. Because I hang upon their track with the perseverance of a blood-hound and the stealthiness of a tiger — because — because — I was of them once!”
“Wretch!” I cried, excitedly, for involuntarily his eager tones had wrought me up to a high pitch of spasmodic nervousness, “then you mean to say that you —”
As I uttered this word, obeying an uncontrollable impulse, I stretched forth my hand in the direction of the speaker and made a blind clutch. The tips of my fingers seemed to touch a surface as smooth as glass, that glided suddenly from under them. A sharp, angry hiss sounded through the gloom, followed by a whirring noise, as if some projectile passed rapidly by, and the next moment I felt instinctively that I was alone.
A most disagreeable sensation instantly assailed me. A prophetic instinct that some terrible misfortune menaced me; an eager and overpowering anxiety to get back to my own room without loss of time. I turned and ran blindly along the dark cypress alley, every dusky clump of flowers that arose blackly in the borders making my heart each moment cease to beat. The echoes of my own footsteps seemed to redouble and assume the sounds of unknown pursuers following fast upon my track. The boughs of lilac-bushes and syringas that here and there stretched partly across the walk seemed to have been furnished suddenly with hooked hands that sought to grasp me as I flew by, and each moment I expected to behold some awful and impassable barrier fall right across my track, and wall me up forever.
At length I reached the wide entrance. With a single leap I sprang up the four or five steps that formed the stoop, and dashing along the hall, up the wide, echoing stairs, and again along the dim funereal corridors until I paused, breathless and panting, at the door of my room. Once so far, I stopped for an instant and leaned heavily against one of the panels, panting lustily after my late run. I had, however, scarcely rested my whole weight against the door, when it suddenly gave way, and I staggered in head foremost. To my utter astonishment the room that I had left in profound darkness was now a blaze of light. So intense was the illumination that, for a few seconds while the pupils of my eyes were contracting under the sudden change, I saw absolutely nothing save the dazzling glare. This fact in itself coming on me with such utter suddenness, was sufficient to prolong my confusion and it was not until after several moments had elapsed that I perceived the room was not alone illuminated but occupied. And such occupants! Amazement at the scene took such possession of me that I was incapable of either moving or uttering a word. All that I could do was to lean against the wall, and stare blankly at the whole business.
It might have been a scene out of Faublas, or Grammont’s Memoirs, or happened in some palace of Minister Fouque.
Round a large table in the centre of the room, where I had left a student-like litter of books and papers, were seated half a dozen persons. Three were men, and three were women. The table was heaped with a prodigality of luxuries. Luscious Eastern fruits were piled up in silver filagree vases, through whose meshes their glowing rinds shone in the contrasts of a thousand hues. Small silver dishes that Benvenuto might have designed, filled with succulent and aromatic meats, were distributed upon a cloth of snowy damask. Bottles of every shape, slender ones from the Rhine, stout fellows from Holland, sturdy ones from Spain, and quaint basket-woven flasks from Italy, absolutely littered the board. Drinking glasses of every size and hue filled up the interstices, and the thirsty German flagon stood side by side with the aerial bubbles of Venetian glass that rested so lightly on their thread-like stems. An odor of luxury and sensuality floated through the apartment. The lamps that burned in every vacant spot where room for one could be found, seemed to diffuse a subtle incense on the air, and in a large vase that stood on the floor I saw a mass of magnolias, tuberoses, and jasmines grouped together, stifling each other with their honeyed and heavy fragrance.
The inhabitants of my room seemed beings well suited to so sensual an atmosphere. The women were strangely beautiful, and all were attired in dresses of the most fantastic devices and brilliant hues. Their figures were round, supple, and elastic; their eyes dark and languishing; their lips full, ripe, and of the richest bloom. The three men wore half-masks, so that all I could distinguish were heavy jaws, pointed beards, and brawny throats that rose like massive pillars out of their doublets. All six lay reclining on Roman couches about the table, drinking down the purple wines in large draughts, and tossing back their heads and laughing wildly.
I stood, I suppose, for some three minutes, with my back against the wall staring vacantly at the bacchanal vision, before any of the revelers appeared to notice my presence. At length, without any expression to indicate whether I had been observed from the beginning or not, two of the women arose from their couches, and, approaching, took each a hand and led me to the table. I obeyed their motions mechanically. I sat on a couch between them as they indicated. I unresistingly permitted them to wind their arms about my neck.
“You must drink,” said one, pouring out a large glass of red wine, “here is Clos Vougeot of a rare vintage; and here,” pushing a flask of amber-hued wine before me, “is Lachrima Christa.”
“You must eat,” said the other, drawing the silver dishes toward her. “Here are cutlets stewed with olives, and here are slices of a filet stuffed with bruised sweet chestnuts;” and as she spoke, she, without waiting for a reply, proceeded to help me.
The sight of the food recalled to me the warnings I had received in the garden. This sudden effort of memory restored to me my other faculties at the same instant. I sprang to my feet, thrusting the women from me with each hand.
“Demons!” I almost shouted, “I will have none of your accursed food. I know you. You are cannibals, you are ghouls, you are enchanters. Begone, I tell you! Leave my room in peace!”
A shout of laughter from all six was the only effect that my passionate speech produced. The men rolled on their couches, and their half-masks quivered with the convulsions of their mirth. The women shrieked, and tossed the slender wine-glasses wildly aloft, and turned to me and flung themselves on my bosom, fairly sobbing with laughter.
“Yes,” I continued, as soon as the noisy mirth had subsided, “yes, I say, leave my room instantly! I will have none of your unnatural orgies here!”
“His room!” shrieked the woman on my right.
“His room!” echoed she on my left.
“His room! He calls it his room!” shouted the whole party, as they rolled once more into jocular convulsions.
“How know you that it is your room?” said one of the men who sat opposite to me, at length, after the laughter had once more somewhat subsided.
“How do I know?” I replied, indignantly, “How do I know my own room? How could I mistake it, pray? There’s my furniture — my piano —”
“He calls that a piano!” shouted my neighbors, again in convulsions as I pointed to the corner where my huge piano, sacred to the memory of Blokeeta, used to stand. “Oh, yes! It is his room. There — there is his piano!”
The peculiar emphasis they laid on the word “piano” caused me to scrutinize the article I was indicating more thoroughly. Up to this time, though utterly amazed at the entrance of these people into my chamber, and connecting them somewhat with the wild stories I had heard in the garden, I still had a sort of indefinite idea that the whole thing was a masquerading freak got up in my absence, and that the bacchanalian orgy I was witnessing was nothing more than a portion of some elaborate hoax of which I was to be the victim. But when my eyes turned to the corner where I had left a huge and cumbrous piano, and beheld a vast and sombre organ lifting its fluted front to the very ceiling, and convinced myself, by a hurried process of memory, that it occupied the very spot in which I had left my own instrument, the little self-possession that I had left forsook me. I gazed around me bewildered.
In like manner every thing was changed. In the place of that old haftless dagger, connected with so many historic associations personal to myself, I beheld a Turkish yataghan dangling by its belt of crimson silk, while the jewels in the hilt blazed as the lamplight played upon them. In the spot where hung my cherished smoking-cap, memorial of a buried love, a knightly casque was suspended, on the crest of which a golden dragon stood in the act of springing. That strange lithograph by Calame was no longer a lithograph, but it seemed to me that the portion of the wall which it had covered, of the exact shape and size, had been cut out, and, in place of the picture, a real scene on the same scale, and with real actors, was distinctly visible. The old oak was there, and the stormy sky was there; but I saw the branches of the oak sway with the tempest, and the clouds drive before the wind. The wanderer in his cloak was gone; but in his place I beheld a circle of wild figures, men and women, dancing with linked hands around the bole of the great tree, chanting some wild fragment of a song, to which the winds roared an unearthly chorus. The snow-shoes, too, on whose sinewy woof I had sped for many days amidst Canadian wastes, had vanished, and in their place lay a pair of strange up-curled papooshes, that had, perhaps, been many a time shuffled off at the doors of mosques, beneath the steady blaze of an Orient sun.
All was changed. Wherever my eyes turned they missed familiar objects, yet encountered strange representatives. Still in all the substitutes there seemed to me a reminiscence of what they replaced. They seemed only for a time transmuted into other shapes, and there lingered around them the atmosphere of what they once had been. Thus I could have sworn the room to have been mine, yet there was nothing in it that I could rightly claim. Every thing reminded me of some former possession that it was not. I looked for the acacia at the window, and lo! long, silken palm-leaves swayed in through the open lattice; yet they had the same motion and the same air of my favorite tree, and seemed to murmur to me, “Though we seem to be palm-leaves, yet are we acacia-leaves; yea, those very ones on which you used to watch the butterflies alight and the rain patter while you smoked and dreamed!” So in all things. The room was, yet was not mine; and a sickening consciousness of my utter inability to reconcile its identity with its appearance overwhelmed me, and choked my reason.
“Well, have you determined whether or not this is your room?” asked the girl on my left, proffering me a huge tumbler creaming over with champagne, and laughing wickedly as she spoke.
“It is mine,” I answered, doggedly, striking the glass rudely with my hand, and dashing the aromatic wine over the white cloth. “I know that it is mine; and ye are jugglers and enchanters that want to drive me mad.”
“Hush hush!” she said, gently, not in the least angered at my rough treatment. “You are excited. Alf shall play something to soothe you.”
At her signal one of the men arose and sat down at the organ. After a short, wild, spasmodic prelude, he began what seemed to me to be a symphony of recollections. Dark and sombre, and all through full of quivering and intense agony, it appeared to recall a dark and dismal night, on a cold reef, around which an unseen but terribly audible ocean broke with eternal fury. It seemed as if a lonely pair were on the roof, one living, the other dead; one clasping his arms around the tender neck and naked bosom of the other, striving to warm her into life, when his own vitality was being each moment sucked from him by the icy breath of the storm. Here and there a terrible wailing minor key would tremble through the chords like the shriek of sea-birds, or the warning of advancing death. While the man played I could scarce restrain myself. It seemed to be Blokeeta whom I listened to, and on whom I gazed. That wondrous night of pleasure and pain that I had once passed listening to him seemed to have been taken up again at the spot where it had been broken off, and the same hand was continuing it. I stared at the man called Alf. There he sat with his cloak and doublet, and long rapier and mask of black velvet. But there was something in the air of the peaked beard, a familiar mystery in the wild mass of raven hair that fell as if wind-blown over his shoulders, which riveted my memory.
“Blokeeta! Blokeeta!” I shouted, starting up furious from the couch on which I was lying, and bursting the fair arms that were linked around my neck as if they had been hateful chains —“Blokeeta! my friend, speak to me I entreat you! Tell these horrid enchanters to leave me. Say that I hate them. Say that I command them to leave my room!”
The man at the organ stirred not in answer to my appeal. He ceased playing, and the dying sound of the last note he had touched faded off into a melancholy moan. The other men and women burst once more into peals of mocking laughter.
“Why will you persist in calling this your room?” said the woman next me, with a smile meant to be kind, but to me inexpressibly loathsome. “Have we not shown you by the furniture, by the general appearance of the place, that you are mistaken, and that this can not be your apartment? Rest content, then, with us. You are welcome here, and need no longer trouble yourself about your room.”
“Rest content!” I answered, madly; “live with ghosts! eat of awful meats, and see awful sights! Never, never!! You have cast some enchantment over the place that has disguised it; but for all that I know it to be my room. You shall leave it!”
“Softly, softly!” said another of the sirens. “Let us settle this amicably. This poor gentleman seems obstinate and inclined to make an uproar. Now we do not want an uproar. We love the night and its quiet; and there is no night that we love so well as that on which the moon is coffined in clouds. Is it not so, my brothers?”
An awful and sinister smile gleamed on the countenances of her unearthly audience, and seemed to glide visibly from underneath their masks.
“Now,” she continued, “I have a proposition to make. It would be ridiculous for us to surrender this room simply because this gentleman states that it is his; and yet I feel anxious to gratify, as far as may be fair, his wild assertion of ownership. A room, after all, is not much to us; we can get one easily enough, but still we would be loth to give this apartment up to so imperious a demand. We are willing, however, to risk its loss. That is to say”— turning to me —“I propose that we play for the room. If you win, we will immediately surrender it to you just as it stands; if, on the contrary, you lose, you shall bind yourself to depart and never molest us again.”
Agonized at the over-darkening mysteries that seemed to thicken around me, and despairing of being able to dissipate them by the mere exercise of my own will, I caught almost gladly at the chance thus presented to me. The idea of my loss or my gain scarce entered into my calculations. All I felt was an indefinite knowledge that I might, in the way proposed, regain, in an instant, that quiet chamber and that peace of mind, which I had so strangely been deprived of.
“I agree!” I cried, eagerly; “I agree. Any thing to rid myself of such unearthly company!”
The woman touched a small golden bell that stood near her on the table, and it had scarce ceased to tinkle when a negro dwarf entered with a silver tray on which were dice-boxes and dice. A shuddered passed over me as I thought in this stunted African I could trace a resemblance to the ghoul-like black servant to whose attendance I had been accustomed.
“Now,” said my neighbor, seizing one of the dice-boxes and giving me the other, “the highest wins. Shall I throw first?”
I nodded assent. She rattled the dice, and I felt an inexpressible load lifted from my heart as she threw fifteen.
“It is your turn,” she said, with a mocking smile; “but before you throw, I repeat the offer I made you before. Live with us. Be one of us. We will initiate you into our mysteries and enjoyments — enjoyments of which you can form no idea unless you experience them. Come; it is not too late yet to change your mind. Be with us!”
My reply was a fierce oath as I rattled the dice with spasmodic nervousness and flung them on the board. They rolled over and over again, and during that brief instant I felt a suspense the intensity of which I have never known before or since. At last they lay before me. Shout of the same horrible, maddening laughter rang in my ears. I peered in vain at the dice, but my sight was so confused that I could not distinguish the amount of the cast. This lasted for a few moments. Then my sight grew clear, and I sank back almost lifeless with despair as I saw that I had thrown but twelve!
“Lost! lost!” screamed my neighbor, with a wild laugh. “Lost! lost!” shouted the deep voices of the masked men. “Leave us, coward!” they all cried; “you are not fit to be one of us. Remember your promise; leave us!”
Then it seemed as if some unseen power caught me by the shoulders and thrust me toward the door. In vain I resisted. In vain I screamed and shouted for help. In vain I implored them for pity. All the reply I had were those mocking peals of merriment, while, under the invisible influence, I staggered like a drunken man toward the door. As I reached the threshold the organ pealed out a wild triumphal strain. The power that impelled me concentrated itself into one vigorous impulse that sent me blindly staggering out into the echoing corridor, and, as the door closed swiftly behind me, I caught one glimpse of the apartment I had left forever. A change passed like a shadow over it. The lamps died out, the siren women and masked men vanished, the flowers, the fruits, the bright silver and bizarre furniture faded swiftly, and I saw again, for the tenth of a second, my own old chamber restored. There was the acacia waving darkly; there was the table littered with books; there was the ghostly lithograph, the dearly-beloved smoking cap, the Canadian snow-shoes, the ancestral dagger. And there, at the piano, organ no longer, sat Blokeeta playing.
The next instant the door closed violently, and I was left standing in the corridor stunned and despairing.
As soon as I had partially recovered my comprehension I rushed madly to the door with the dim idea of beating it in. My fingers beat against a cold and solid wall. There was no door! I felt all along the corridor for many yards on both sides. There was not even a crevice to give me hope. I rushed down stairs shouting madly. No one answered. In the vestibule I met the negro; I seized him by the collar, and demanded my room. The demon showed his white and awful teeth, which were filed into a saw-like shape, and extricating himself from my grasp with a sudden jerk, fled down the passage with a gibbering laugh. Nothing but echo answered to my despairing shrieks. The lonely garden resounded with my cries as I strode madly through the dark walks, and the tall funereal cypresses seemed to bury me beneath their heavy shadows. I met no one. Could find no one. I had to bear my sorrow and despair alone.
Since that awful hour I have never found my room. Every where I look for it, yet never see it. Shall I ever find it?
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