I was living at that time with my mother in a little seaside town. I was in my seventeenth year, while my mother was not quite five-and-thirty; she had married very young. When my father died, I was only seven years old, but I remember him well. My mother was a fair-haired woman, not very tall, with a charming, but always sad-looking face, a soft, tired voice and timid gestures. In her youth she had been reputed a beauty, and to the end she remained attractive and pretty. I have never seen deeper, tenderer, and sadder eyes, finer and softer hair; I never saw hands so exquisite. I adored her, and she loved me. . . . But our life was not a bright one; a secret, hopeless, undeserved sorrow seemed for ever gnawing at the very root of her being. This sorrow could not be accounted for by the loss of my father simply, great as that loss was to her, passionately as my mother had loved him, and devoutly as she had cherished his memory. . . . No! something more lay hidden in it, which I did not understand, but of which I was aware, dimly and yet intensely aware, whenever I looked into those soft and unchanging eyes, at those lips, unchanging too, not compressed in bitterness, but, as it were, for ever set in one expression.
I have said that my mother loved me; but there were moments when she repulsed me, when my presence was oppressive to her, unendurable. At such times she felt a sort of involuntary aversion for me, and was horrified afterwards, blamed herself with tears, pressed me to her heart. I used to ascribe these momentary outbreaks of dislike to the derangement of her health, to her unhappiness. . . . These antagonistic feelings might indeed, to some extent, have been evoked by certain strange outbursts of wicked and criminal passions, which arose from time to time in me, though I could not myself account for them. . . .
But these evil outbursts were never coincident with the moments of aversion. My mother always wore black, as though in mourning. We were in fairly good circumstances, but we hardly knew any one.
My mother concentrated her every thought, her every care, upon me. Her life was wrapped up in my life. That sort of relation between parents and children is not always good for the children . . . it is rather apt to be harmful to them. Besides, I was my mother’s only son . . . and only children generally grow up in a one-sided way. In bringing them up, the parents think as much of themselves as of them. . . . That’s not the right way. I was neither spoiled nor made hard by it (one or the other is apt to be the fate of only children), but my nerves were unhinged for a time; moreover, I was rather delicate in health, taking after my mother, whom I was very like in face. I avoided the companionship of boys of my own age; I held aloof from people altogether; even with my mother I talked very little. I liked best reading, solitary walks, and dreaming, dreaming! What my dreams were about, it would be hard to say; sometimes, indeed, I seemed to stand at a half-open door, beyond which lay unknown mysteries, to stand and wait, half dead with emotion, and not to step over the threshold, but still pondering what lay beyond, still to wait till I turned faint . . . or fell asleep. If there had been a vein of poetry in me, I should probably have taken to writing verses; if I had felt an inclination for religion, I should perhaps have gone into a monastery; but I had no tendency of the sort, and I went on dreaming and waiting.
I have just mentioned that I used sometimes to fall asleep under the influence of vague dreams and reveries. I used to sleep a great deal at all times, and dreams played an important part in my life; I used to have dreams almost every night. I did not forget them, I attributed a significance to them, regarded them as fore-warnings, tried to divine their secret meaning; some of them were repeated from time to time, which always struck me as strange and marvellous. I was particularly perplexed by one dream. I dreamed I was going along a narrow, ill-paved street of an old-fashioned town, between stone houses of many stories, with pointed roofs. I was looking for my father, who was not dead, but, for some reason or other, hiding away from us, and living in one of these very houses. And so I entered a low, dark gateway, crossed a long courtyard, lumbered up with planks and beams, and made my way at last into a little room with two round windows. In the middle of the room stood my father in a dressing-gown, smoking a pipe. He was not in the least like my real father; he was tall and thin, with black hair, a hook nose, with sullen and piercing eyes; he looked about forty. He was displeased at my having found him; and I too was far from being delighted at our meeting, and stood still in perplexity. He turned a little away, began muttering something, and walking up and down with short steps. . . . Then he gradually got farther away, never ceasing his muttering, and continually looking back over his shoulder; the room grew larger and was lost in fog. . . . I felt all at once horrified at the idea that I was losing my father again, and rushed after him, but I could no longer see him, I could only hear his angry muttering, like a bear growling. . . . My heart sank with dread; I woke up and could not for a long while get to sleep again. . . . All the following day I pondered on this dream, and naturally could make nothing of it.
The month of June had come. The town in which I was living with my mother became exceptionally lively about that time. A number of ships were in the harbour, a number of new faces were to be seen in the streets. I liked at such times to wander along the sea front, by cafés and hotels, to stare at the widely differing figures of the sailors and other people, sitting under linen awnings, at small white tables, with pewter pots of beer before them.
As I passed one day before a café, I caught sight of a man who at once riveted my whole attention. Dressed in a long black full coat, with a straw hat pulled right down over his eyes, he was sitting perfectly still, his arms folded across his chest. The straggling curls of his black hair fell almost down to his nose; his thin lips held tight the mouthpiece of a short pipe. This man struck me as so familiar, every feature of his swarthy yellow face were so unmistakably imprinted in my memory, that I could not help stopping short before him, I could not help asking myself, ‘Who is that man? where have I seen him?’ Becoming aware, probably, of my intent stare, he raised his black, piercing eyes upon me. . . . I uttered an involuntary ‘Ah!’ . . .
The man was the father I had been looking for, the father I had beheld in my dream!
There was no possibility of mistake — the resemblance was too striking. The very coat even, that wrapped his spare limbs in its long skirts, in hue and cut, recalled the dressing-gown in which my father had appeared in the dream.
‘Am I not asleep now?’ I wondered. . . . No. . . . It was daytime, about me crowds of people were bustling, the sun was shining brightly in the blue sky, and before me was no phantom, but a living man.
I went up to an empty table, asked for a pot of beer and a newspaper, and sat down not far off from this enigmatical being.
Putting the sheet of newspaper on a level with my face, I continued my scrutiny of the stranger. He scarcely stirred at all, only from time to time raising his bowed head. He was obviously expecting some one. I gazed and gazed. . . . Sometimes I fancied I must have imagined it all, that there could be really no resemblance, that I had given way to a half-unconscious trick of the imagination . . . but the stranger would suddenly turn round a little in his seat, or slightly raise his hand, and again I all but cried out, again I saw my ‘dream-father’ before me! He at last noticed my uncalled-for attention, and glancing at first with surprise and then with annoyance in my direction, was on the point of getting up, and knocked down a small walking-stick he had stood against the table. I instantly jumped up, picked it up, and handed it to him. My heart was beating violently.
He gave a constrained smile, thanked me, and as his face drew closer to my face, he lifted his eyebrows and opened his mouth a little as though struck by something.
‘You are very polite, young man,’ he began all at once in a dry, incisive, nasal voice, ‘That’s something out of the common nowadays. Let me congratulate you; you must have been well brought up?’
I don’t remember precisely what answer I made; but a conversation soon sprang up between us. I learnt that he was a fellow-countryman, that he had not long returned from America, where he had spent many years, and was shortly going back there. He called himself Baron . . . the name I could not make out distinctly. He, just like my ‘dream-father,’ ended every remark with a sort of indistinct inward mutter. He desired to learn my surname. . . . On hearing it, he seemed again astonished; then he asked me if I had lived long in the town, and with whom I was living. I told him I was living with my mother.
‘And your father?’ ‘My father died long ago.’ He inquired my mother’s Christian name, and immediately gave an awkward laugh, but apologised, saying that he picked up some American ways, and was rather a queer fellow altogether. Then he was curious to know what was our address. I told him.
The excitement which had possessed me at the beginning of our conversation gradually calmed down; I felt our meeting rather strange and nothing more. I did not like the little smile with which the baron cross-examined me; I did not like the expression of his eyes when he, as it were, stuck them like pins into me. . . . There was something in them rapacious, patronising . . . something unnerving. Those eyes I had not seen in the dream. A strange face was the baron’s! Faded, fatigued, and, at the same time, young-looking — unpleasantly young-looking! My ‘dream-father’ had not the deep scar either which ran slanting right across my new acquaintance’s forehead, and which I had not noticed till I came closer to him.
I had hardly told the baron the name of the street, and the number of the house in which we were living, when a tall negro, swathed up to the eyebrows in a cloak, came up to him from behind, and softly tapped him on the shoulder. The baron turned round, ejaculated, ‘Aha! at last!’ and with a slight nod to me, went with the negro into the café. I was left under the awning; I meant to await the baron’s return, not so much with the object of entering into conversation with him again (I really did not know what to talk about to him), as to verify once more my first impression. But half-an-hour passed, an hour passed. . . . The baron did not appear. I went into the café, passed through all the rooms, but could see nowhere the baron or the negro. . . . They must both have gone out by a back-door.
My head ached a little, and to get a little fresh air, I walked along the seafront to a large park outside the town, which had been laid out two hundred years ago.
After strolling for a couple of hours in the shade of the immense oaks and plane-trees, I returned home.
Our maid-servant rushed all excitement, to meet me, directly I appeared in the hall; I guessed at once from the expression of her face, that during my absence something had gone wrong in our house. And, in fact, I learnt that an hour before, a fearful shriek had suddenly been heard in my mother’s bedroom, the maid running in had found her on the floor in a fainting fit, which had lasted several moments. My mother had at last regained consciousness, but had been obliged to lie down, and looked strange and scared; she had not uttered a word, had not answered inquiries, she had done nothing but look about her and shudder. The maid had sent the gardener for a doctor. The doctor came and prescribed soothing treatment; but my mother would say nothing even to him. The gardener maintained that, a few instants after the shriek was heard in my mother’s room, he had seen a man, unknown to him, running through the bushes in the garden to the gate into the street. (We lived in a house of one story, with windows opening on to a rather large garden.) The gardener had not time to get a look at the man’s face; but he was tall, and was wearing a low straw hat and long coat with full skirts . . . ‘The baron’s costume!’ at once crossed my mind. The gardener could not overtake him; besides, he had been immediately called into the house and sent for the doctor. I went in to my mother; she was lying on the bed, whiter than the pillow on which her head was resting. Recognising me, she smiled faintly, and held out her hand to me. I sat down beside her, and began to question her; at first she said no to everything; at last she admitted, however, that she had seen something which had greatly terrified her. ‘Did some one come in here?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she hurriedly replied —‘no one came in, it was my fancy . . . an apparition. . . . ’ She ceased and hid her face in her hands. I was on the point of telling her, what I had learnt from the gardener, and incidentally describing my meeting with the baron . . . but for some reason or other, the words died away on my lips. I ventured, however, to observe to my mother, that apparitions do not usually appear in the daytime. . . . ‘Stop,’ she whispered, ‘please; do not torture me now. You will know some time. . . . ’ She was silent again. Her hands were cold and her pulse beat fast and unevenly. I gave her some medicine and moved a little away so as not to disturb her. She did not get up the whole day. She lay perfectly still and quiet, and now and then heaving a deep sigh, and timorously opening her eyes. Every one in the house was at a loss what to think.
Towards night my mother became a little feverish, and she sent me away. I did not, however, go to my own room, but lay down in the next room on the sofa. Every quarter of an hour I got up, went on tiptoe to the door, listened. . . . Everything was still — but my mother hardly slept that night. When I went in to her early in the morning, her face looked hollow, her eyes shone with an unnatural brightness. In the course of the day she got a little better, but towards evening the feverishness increased again. Up till then she had been obstinately silent, but all of a sudden she began talking in a hurried broken voice. She was not wandering, there was a meaning in her words — but no sort of connection. Just upon midnight, she suddenly, with a convulsive movement raised herself in bed — I was sitting beside her — and in the same hurried voice, continually taking sips of water, from a glass beside her, feebly gesticulating with her hands, and never once looking at me, she began to tell her story. . . . She would stop, make an effort to control herself and go on again. . . . It was all so strange, just as though she were doing it all in a dream, as though she herself were absent, and some one else were speaking by her lips, or forcing her to speak.
‘Listen to what I am going to tell you,’ she began. ‘You are not a little boy now; you ought to know all. I had a friend, a girl. . . . She married a man she loved with all her heart, and she was very happy with her husband. During the first year of their married life they went together to the capital to spend a few weeks there and enjoy themselves. They stayed at a good hotel, and went out a great deal to theatres and parties. My friend was very pretty — every one noticed her, young men paid her attentions — but there was among them one . . . an officer. He followed her about incessantly, and wherever she was, she always saw his cruel black eyes. He was not introduced to her, and never once spoke to her — only perpetually stared at her — so insolently and strangely. All the pleasures of the capital were poisoned by his presence. She began persuading her husband to hasten their departure — and they had already made all the preparations for the journey. One evening her husband went out to a club — he had been invited by the officers of the same regiment as that officer — to play cards. . . . She was for the very first time left alone. Her husband did not return for a long while. She dismissed her maid, and went to bed. . . . And suddenly she felt overcome by terror, so that she was quite cold and shivering. She fancied she heard a slight sound on the other side of the wall, like a dog scratching, and she began watching the wall. In the corner a lamp was burning; the room was all hung with tapestry. . . . Suddenly something stirred there, rose, opened. . . . And straight out of the wall a black, long figure came, that awful man with the cruel eyes! She tried to scream, but could not. She was utterly numb with terror. He went up to her rapidly, like some beast of prey, flung something on her head, something strong-smelling, heavy, white. . . . What happened then I don’t remember I . . . don’t remember! It was like death, like a murder. . . . When at last that fearful darkness began to pass away — when I . . . when my friend came to herself, there was no one in the room. Again, and for a long time, she had not the strength to scream, she screamed at last . . . then again everything was confusion. . . . Then she saw her husband by her side: he had been kept at the club till two o’clock at night. . . . He looked scared and white. He began questioning her, but she told him nothing. . . . Then she swooned away again. I remember though when she was left alone in the room, she examined the place in the wall. . . . Under the tapestry hangings it turned out there was a secret door. And her betrothal ring had gone from off her hand. This ring was of an unusual pattern; seven little gold stars alternated on it with seven silver stars; it was an old family heirloom. Her husband asked her what had become of the ring; she could give him no answer. Her husband supposed she had dropped it somewhere, searched everywhere, but could not find it. He felt uneasy and distressed; he decided to go home as soon as possible and directly the doctor allowed it — they left the capital. . . . But imagine! On the very day of their departure they happened suddenly to meet a stretcher being carried along the street. . . . On the stretcher lay a man who had just been killed, with his head cut open; and imagine! the man was that fearful apparition of the night with the evil eyes. . . . He had been killed over some gambling dispute!
Then my friend went away into the country . . . became a mother for the first time . . . and lived several years with her husband. He never knew anything; indeed, what could she have told him? — she knew nothing herself.
But her former happiness had vanished. A gloom had come over their lives, and never again did that gloom pass out of it. . . . They had no other children, either before or after . . . and that son. . . . ’
My mother trembled all over and hid her face in her hands.
‘But say now,’ she went on with redoubled energy, ‘was my friend to blame in any way? What had she to reproach herself with? She was punished, but had she not the right to declare before God Himself that the punishment that overtook her was unjust? Then why is it, that like a criminal, tortured by stings of conscience, why is it she is confronted with the past in such a fearful shape after so many years? Macbeth slew Bancho — so no wonder that he could be haunted . . . but I. . . . ’
But here my mother’s words became so mixed and confused, that I ceased to follow her. . . . I no longer doubted that she was in delirium.
The agitating effect of my mother’s recital on me — any one may easily conceive! I guessed from her first word that she was talking of herself, and not any friend of hers. Her slip of the tongue confirmed my conjecture. Then this really was my father, whom I was seeking in my dream, whom I had seen awake by daylight! He had not been killed, as my mother supposed, but only wounded. And he had come to see her, and had run away, alarmed by her alarm. I suddenly understood everything: the feeling of involuntary aversion for me, which arose at times in my mother, and her perpetual melancholy, and our secluded life. . . . I remember my head seemed going round, and I clutched it in both hands as though to hold it still. But one idea, as it were, nailed me down; I resolved I must, come what may, find that man again? What for? with what aim? I could not give myself a clear answer, but to find him . . . find him — that had become a question of life and death for me! The next morning my mother, at last, grew calmer . . . the fever left her . . . she fell asleep. Confiding her to the care of the servants and people of the house, I set out on my quest.
First of all I made my way, of course, to the café where I had met the baron; but no one in the café knew him or had even noticed him; he had been a chance customer there. The negro the people there had observed, his figure was so striking; but who he was, and where he was staying, no one knew. Leaving my address in any case at the café, I fell to wandering about the streets and sea front by the harbour, along the boulevards, peeped into all places of public resort, but could find no one like the baron or his companion! . . . Not having caught the baron’s surname, I was deprived of the resource of applying to the police; I did, however, privately let two or three guardians of the public safety know — they stared at me in bewilderment, and did not altogether believe in me — that I would reward them liberally if they could trace out two persons, whose exterior I tried to describe as exactly as possible. After wandering about in this way till dinner-time, I returned home exhausted. My mother had got up; but to her usual melancholy there was added something new, a sort of dreamy blankness, which cut me to the heart like a knife. I spent the evening with her. We scarcely spoke at all; she played patience, I looked at her cards in silence. She never made a single reference to what she had told me, nor to what had happened the preceding evening. It was as though we had made a secret compact not to touch on any of these harrowing and strange incidents. . . . She seemed angry with herself, and ashamed of what had broken from her unawares; though possibly she did not remember quite what she had said in her half delirious feverishness, and hoped I should spare her. . . . And indeed this was it, I spared her, and she felt it; as on the previous day she avoided my eyes. I could not get to sleep all night. Outside, a fearful storm suddenly came on. The wind howled and darted furiously hither and thither, the window-panes rattled and rang, despairing shrieks and groans sounded in the air, as though something had been torn to shreds up aloft, and were flying with frenzied wailing over the shaken houses. Before dawn I dropped off into a doze . . . suddenly I fancied some one came into my room, and called me, uttered my name, in a voice not loud, but resolute. I raised my head and saw no one; but, strange to say! I was not only not afraid — I was glad; I suddenly felt a conviction that now I should certainly attain my object. I dressed hurriedly and went out of the house.
The storm had abated . . . but its last struggles could still be felt. It was very early, there were no people in the streets, many places were strewn with broken chimney-pots and tiles, pieces of wrecked fencing, and branches of trees. . . . ‘What was it like last night at sea?’ I could not help wondering at the sight of the traces left by the storm. I intended to go to the harbour, but my legs, as though in obedience to some irresistible attraction, carried me in another direction. Ten minutes had not gone by before I found myself in a part of the town I had never visited till then. I walked not rapidly, but without halting, step by step, with a strange sensation at my heart; I expected something extraordinary, impossible, and at the same time I was convinced that this extraordinary thing would come to pass.
And, behold, it came to pass, this extraordinary, this unexpected thing! Suddenly, twenty paces before me, I saw the very negro who had addressed the baron in the café! Muffled in the same cloak as I had noticed on him there, he seemed to spring out of the earth, and with his back turned to me, walked with rapid strides along the narrow pavement of the winding street. I promptly flew to overtake him, but he, too, redoubled his pace, though he did not look round, and all of a sudden turned sharply round the corner of a projecting house. I ran up to this corner, turned round it as quickly as the negro. . . . Wonderful to relate! I faced a long, narrow, perfectly empty street; the fog of early morning rilled it with its leaden dulness, but my eye reached to its very end, I could scan all the buildings in it . . . and not a living creature stirring anywhere! The tall negro in the cloak had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared! I was bewildered . . . but only for one instant. Another feeling at once took possession of me; the street, which stretched its length, dumb, and, as it were, dead, before my eyes, I knew it! It was the street of my dream. I started, shivered, the morning was so fresh, and promptly, without the least hesitation, with a sort of shudder of conviction, went on!
I began looking about. . . . Yes, here it was; here to the right, standing cornerwise to the street, was the house of my dream, here too the old-fashioned gateway with scrollwork in stone on both sides. . . . It is true the windows of the house were not round, but rectangular . . . but that was not important. . . . I knocked at the gate, knocked twice or three times, louder and louder. . . . The gate was opened slowly with a heavy groan as though yawning. I was confronted by a young servant girl with dishevelled hair, and sleepy eyes. She was apparently only just awake. ‘Does the baron live here?’ I asked, and took in with a rapid glance the deep narrow courtyard. . . . Yes; it was all there . . . there were the planks and beams I had seen in my dream.
‘No,’ the servant girl answered, ‘the baron’s not living here.’
‘He’s not here now. He left yesterday.’
‘Where’s he gone?’
‘To America!’ I repealed involuntarily. ‘But he will come back?’
The servant looked at me suspiciously.
‘We don’t know about that. May be he won’t come back at all.’
‘And has he been living here long?’
‘Not long, a week. He’s not here now.’
‘And what was his surname, the baron’s?’ The girl stared at me.
‘You don’t know his name? We simply called him the baron. — Hi! Piotr!’ she shouted, seeing I was pushing in. ‘Come here; here’s a stranger keeps asking questions.’
From the house came the clumsy figure of a sturdy workman.
‘What is it? What do you want?’ he asked in a sleepy voice; and having heard me sullenly, he repeated what the girl had told me.
‘But who does live here?’ I asked.
‘Who is he?’
‘A carpenter. They’re all carpenters in this street.’
‘Can I see him?’
‘You can’t now, he’s asleep.’
‘But can’t I go into the house?’
‘No. Go away.’
‘Well, but can I see your master later on?’
‘What for? Of course. You can always see him. . . . To be sure, he’s always at his business here. Only go away now. Such a time in the morning, upon my soul!’
‘Well, but that negro?’ I asked suddenly.
The workman looked in perplexity first at me, then at the servant girl.
‘What negro?’ he said at last. ‘Go away, sir. You can come later. You can talk to the master.’
I went out into the street. The gate slammed at once behind me, sharply and heavily, with no groan this time.
I carefully noted the street and the house, and went away, but not home — I was conscious of a sort of disillusionment. Everything that had happened to me was so strange, so unexpected, and meanwhile what a stupid conclusion to it! I had been persuaded, I had been convinced, that I should see in that house the room I knew, and in the middle of it my father, the baron, in the dressing-gown, and with a pipe. . . . And instead of that, the master of the house was a carpenter, and I could go and see him as much as I liked — and order furniture of him, I dare say.
My father had gone to America. And what was left for me to do? . . . To tell my mother everything, or to bury for ever the very memory of that meeting? I positively could not resign myself to the idea that such a supernatural, mysterious beginning should end in such a senseless, ordinary conclusion!
I did not want to return home, and walked at random away from the town.
I walked with downcast head, without thought, almost without sensation, but utterly buried in myself. A rhythmic hollow and angry noise raised me from my numbness. I lifted my head; it was the sea roaring and moaning fifty paces from me. I saw I was walking along the sand of the dunes. The sea, set in violent commotion by the storm in the night, was white with foam to the very horizon, and the sharp crests of the long billows rolled one after another and broke on the flat shore. I went nearer to it, and walked along the line left by the ebb and flow of the tides on the yellow furrowed sand, strewn with fragments of trailing seaweed, broken shells, and snakelike ribbons of sea-grass. Gulls, with pointed wings, flying with a plaintive cry on the wind out of the remote depths of the air, soared up, white as snow against the grey cloudy sky, fell abruptly, and seeming to leap from wave to wave, vanished again, and were lost like gleams of silver in the streaks of frothing foam. Several of them, I noticed, hovered persistently over a big rock, which stood up alone in the midst of the level uniformity of the sandy shore. Coarse seaweed was growing in irregular masses on one side of the rock; and where its matted tangles rose above the yellow line, was something black, something longish, curved, not very large. . . . I looked attentively. . . . Some dark object was lying there, lying motionless beside the rock. . . . This object grew clearer, more defined the nearer I got to it. . . .
There was only a distance of thirty paces left between me and the rock. . . . Why, it was the outline of a human form! It was a corpse; it was a drowned man thrown up by the sea! I went right up to the rock.
The corpse was the baron, my father! I stood as though turned to stone. Only then I realised that I had been led since early morning by some unknown forces, that I was in their power, and for some instants there was nothing in my soul but the never-ceasing crash of the sea, and dumb horror at the fate that had possession of me. . . .
He lay on his back, turned a little to one side, with his left arm behind his head . . . the right was thrust under his bent body. The toes of his feet, in high sailor’s boots, had been sucked into the slimy sea-mud; the short blue jacket, drenched through with brine, was still closely buttoned; a red scarf was fastened in a tight knot about his neck. The dark face, turned to the sky, looked as if it were laughing; the small close-set teeth could be seen under the lifted upper lip; the dim pupils of the half-closed eyes were scarcely discernible in the darkened eyeballs; the clotted hair, covered with bubbles of foam, lay dishevelled on the ground, and bared the smooth brow with the purple line of the scar; the narrow nose rose, a sharp white line, between the sunken cheeks. The storm of the previous night had done its work. . . . He would never see America again! The man who had outraged my mother, who had spoiled and soiled her life; my father — yes! my father — of that I could feel no doubt — lay helplessly outstretched in the mud at my feet. I experienced a sensation of satisfied revenge, and of pity, and repulsion, and horror, more than all . . . a double horror, at what I saw, and at what had happened. The wicked criminal feelings of which I have spoken, those uncomprehended impulses of rage rose up in me . . . choked me. ‘Aha!’ I thought, ‘so that is why I am like this . . . that is how my blood shows itself!’ I stood beside the corpse, and stared in suspense. Would not those dead eyes move, would not those stiff lips quiver? No! all was still; the very seaweed seemed lifeless where the breakers had flung it; even the gulls had flown; not a broken spar anywhere, not a fragment of wood, nor a bit of rigging. On all sides emptiness . . . only he and I, and in the distance the sounding sea. I looked back; the same emptiness there: a ridge of lifeless downs on the horizon . . . that was all! My heart revolted against leaving this luckless wretch in this solitude, on the briny sand of the seashore, to be devoured by fishes and birds; an inner voice told me I ought to find people, call them, if not to help — what help could there be now! — at least to lift him up, to carry him into some living habitation . . . but an indescribable panic suddenly seized on me. It seemed to me that this dead man knew I had come here, that he had himself planned this last meeting. I even fancied I heard the indistinct mutter I knew so well. . . . I ran away . . . looked back once. . . . Something glittering caught my eye; it brought me to a halt. It was a hoop of gold on the hand of the corpse. . . . I knew it for my mother’s betrothal ring. I remember how I forced myself to turn back, to go up, to bend down . . . I remember the clammy touch of the chill fingers; I remember how I held my breath, and half-closed my eyes, and set my teeth, tearing off the obstinate ring. . . .
At last, it was off . . . and I was running, running away at full speed, with something flying behind me, upon my heels, overtaking me.
All I had felt and gone through was probably written on my face when I got home. My mother abruptly drew herself up directly I went into her room, and looked with such urgent inquiry at me, that, after an unsuccessful attempt to explain, I ended by holding out the ring to her in silence. She turned fearfully white, her eyes opened extraordinarily and looked dead, like those eyes; she uttered a faint cry, snatched the ring, reeled, fell on my breast, and fairly swooned away, her head falling back, and her blank wide-open eyes staring at me. I threw both my arms about her, and standing where I was, without moving, told her slowly, in a subdued voice, everything, without the slightest concealment: my dream, and the meeting, and everything, everything. . . . She heard me to the end without uttering a single word, only her bosom heaved more and more violently, and her eyes suddenly flashed and sank. Then she put the ring on her third finger, and, moving away a little, began getting her cape and hat. I asked her where she was going. She lifted eyes full of surprise upon me, and tried to answer, but her voice failed her. She shuddered several times, rubbed her hands, as though she were trying to warm them, and at last said, ‘Let us go there at once.’
‘Where he is lying . . . I want to see . . . I want to know . . . I will know. . . . ’
I endeavoured to persuade her not to go; but she almost fell into a nervous attack. I saw it was impossible to oppose her wish, and we set off.
And now I was again walking along the sand; but this time not alone. I had my mother on my arm. The sea had ebbed away, had retreated farther still; it was calmer, but its roar, though fainter, was still menacing and malignant. There, at last, rose the solitary rock before us; there was the seaweed too. I looked intently, I tried to distinguish that curved object lying on the ground — but I saw nothing. We went closer; instinctively I slackened my pace. But where was the black still object? Only the tangles of seaweed rose black against the sand, which had dried up by now. We went right up to the rock. . . . There was no corpse to be seen; and only where it had been lying there was still a hollow place, and one could see where the arms and where the legs had lain. . . . The seaweed around looked as it were crushed, and prints were visible of one man’s feet; they crossed the dune, then were lost, as they reached the heaped-up shingle.
My mother and I looked at each other, and were frightened at what we saw in each other’s faces. . . .
Surely he had not got up of himself and gone away?
‘You are sure you saw him dead?’ she asked in a whisper.
I could only nod in assent. Three hours had not passed since I had come upon the baron’s corpse. . . . Some one had discovered and removed it. I must find out who had done it, and what had become of it.
But first I had to look after my mother.
While she had been walking to the fatal spot she had been in a fever, but she controlled herself. The disappearance of the dead body came upon her as a final blow. She was struck dumb. I feared for her reason. With great difficulty I got her home. I made her lie down again on her bed, again I sent for the doctor, but as soon as my mother had recovered herself a little, she at one desired me to set off without delay to find out ‘that man.’ I obeyed. But, in spite of every possible effort, I discovered nothing. I went several times to the police, visited several villages in the neighbourhood, put several advertisements in the papers, collected information in all directions, and all in vain! I received information, indeed, that the corpse of a drowned man had been picked up in one of the seaside villages near. . . . I at once hastened off there, but from all I could hear the body had no resemblance to the baron. I found out in what ship he had set sail for America; at first every one was positive that ship had gone down in the storm; but a few months later there were rumours that it had been seen riding at anchor in New York harbour. Not knowing what steps to take, I began seeking out the negro I had seen, offering him in the papers a considerable sum of money if he would call at our house. Some tall negro in a cloak did actually call on us in my absence. . . . But after questioning the maid, he abruptly departed, and never came back again.
So all traces were lost of my . . . my father; so he vanished into silence and darkness never to return. My mother and I never spoke of him; only one day, I remember, she expressed surprise that I had never told her before of my strange dream; and added, ‘It must mean he really. . . . ’, but did not utter all her thought. My mother was ill a long while, and even after her recovery our former close relations never returned. She was ill at ease with me to the day of her death. . . . Ill at ease was just what she was. And that is a trouble there is no cure for. Anything may be smoothed over, memories of even the most tragic domestic incidents gradually lose their strength and bitterness; but if once a sense of being ill at ease installs itself between two closely united persons, it can never be dislodged! I never again had the dream that had once so agitated me; I no longer ‘look for’ my father; but sometimes I fancied — and even now I fancy — that I hear, as it were, distant wails, as it were, never silent, mournful plaints; they seem to sound somewhere behind a high wall, which cannot be crossed; they wring my heart, and I weep with closed eyes, and am never able to tell what it is, whether it is a living man moaning, or whether I am listening to the wild, long-drawn-out howl of the troubled sea. And then it passes again into the muttering of some beast, and I fall asleep with anguish and horror in my heart.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01