Wednesday, September 12, 2007
It is not pleasant to have one's mental responsibility brought in question, and the result of my interview with Professor Chickering was, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory. Not that he had exactly questioned my sanity, but it was all too evident that he was disposed to accept my statement of a plain matter-of-fact occurrence with a too liberal modicum of salt. I say " matter-of-fact occurrence " in full knowledge of the truth that I myself had at first regarded the whole transaction as a fantasia or flight of mind, the result of extreme nervous tension; but in the interval succeeding I had abundant opportunity to correlate my thoughts, and to bring some sort of order out of the mental and physical chaos of that strange, eventful night. True, the preliminary events leading up to it were extraordinary; the dismal weather, the depression of body and spirit under which I labored, the wild whirl of thought keeping pace with the elements-in short, a general concatenation of events that seemed to be ordered especially for the introduction of some abnormal visitor-the night would indeed have been incomplete without a ghost! But was it a ghost? There was nothing ghostly about my visitor, except the manner of his entrance and exit. In other respects, he seemed substantial enough. He was, in his manners, courteous and polished as a Chesterfield; learned as a savant in his conversation; human in his thoughtful regard of my fears and misgivings; but that tremendous forehead, with its crown of silver hair, the long, translucent beard of pearly whiteness, and above all the astounding facility with which he read my hidden thoughts- these were not natural.
The Professor had been patient with me- I had a right to expect that; he was entertaining to the extent of reading such excerpts as he had with him on the subject of hallucinations and their supposed causes, but had he not spoiled all by assigning me at last to a place with the questionable, unbalanced characters he had cited? I thought so, and the reflection provoked me; and this thought grew upon me until I came to regard his stories and attendant theories as so much literary trash.
My own reflections had been sober and deliberate, and had led me to seek a rational explanation of the unusual phenomena. I had gone to Professor Chickering for a certain measure of sympathy, and what was more to the point, to secure his suggestions and assistance in the further unraveling of a profound mystery that might contain a secret of untold use to humanity. Repulsed by the mode in which my confidence had been received, I decided to do what I should have done from the outset- to keep my own counsel, and to follow alone the investigation to the end, no matter what the result might be. I could not forget or ignore the silver hair I had so religiously preserved. That was genuine; it was as tangible, as real, as convincing a witness as would have been the entire head of my singular visitant, whatever might be his nature.
I began to feel at ease the moment my course was decided, and the feeling was at once renewed within me that the gray head would come again, and by degrees that expectation ripened into a desire, only intensified as the days sped by. The weeks passed into months; summer came and went; autumn was fast fading, but the mysterious unknown did not appear. A curious fancy led me now to regard him as my friend, for the mixed and indefinite feelings I felt at first towards him had almost unaccountably been changed to those of sincere regard. He was not always in my thoughts, for I had abundant occupation at all times to keep both brain and hands busy, but there were few evenings in which I did not, just before retiring, give myself up for a brief period to quiet communion with my own thoughts, and I must confess at such times the unknown occupied the larger share of attention. The constant contemplation of any theme begets a feeling of familiarity or acquaintance with the same, and if that subject be an individual, as in the present instance, such contemplation lessens the liability to surprise from any unexpected development. In fact, I not only anticipated a visit, but courted it. The old Latin maxim that I had played with, " Never less alone than when alone " had domiciled itself within my brain as a permanent lodger- a conviction, a feeling rather than a thought defined, and I had but little difficulty in associating an easy-chair which I had come to place in a certain position for my expected visitor, with his presence.
Indian summer had passed, and the fall was nearly gone when for some inexplicable reason the number seven began to haunt me. What had I to do with seven, or seven with me? When I sat down at night this persistent number mixed itself in my thoughts, to my intense annoyance. Bother take the mystic numeral! What was I to do with seven? I found myself asking this question audibly one evening, when it suddenly occurred to me that I would refer to the date of my friend's visit. I kept no journal, but reference to a record of some business transactions that I had associated with that event showed that it took place on November seventh. That settled the importunate seven! I should look for whomever he was on the first anniversary of his visit, which was the seventh, now close at hand. The instant I had reached this conclusion the number left me, and troubled me no more.
November third had passed, the fourth, and the fifth had come, when a stubborn, protesting notion entered my mind that I was yielding to a superstitious idea, and that it was time to control my vacillating will. Accordingly on this day I sent word to a friend that, if agreeable to him, I would call on him on the evening of the seventh for a short social chat, but as I expected to be engaged until later than usual, would he excuse me if I did not reach his apartments until ten? The request was singular, but as I was now accounted somewhat odd, it excited no comment, and the answer was returned, requesting me to come. The seventh of November came at last. I was nervous during the day, which seemed to drag tediously, and several times it was remarked of me that I seemed abstracted and ill at ease, but I held my peace. Night came cold and clear, and the stars shone brighter than usual, I thought. It was a sharp contrast to the night of a year ago. I took an early supper, for which I had no appetite, after which I strolled aimlessly about the streets, revolving how I should put in the time till ten o'clock, when I was to call upon my friend. I decided to go to the theater, and to the theater I went. The play was spectacular, " Aladdin; or, The Wonderful Lamp." The entertainment, to me, was a flat failure, for I was busy with my thoughts, and it was not long until my thoughts were busy with me, and I found myself attempting to answer a series of questions that finally became embarrassing. " Why did you make an appointment for ten o'clock instead of eight, if you wished to keep away from your apartments?" I hadn't thought of that before; it was stupid to a degree, if not ill-mannered, and I frankly admitted as much. " Why did you make an appointment at all, in the face of the fact that you not only expected a visitor, but were anxious to meet him?" This was easily answered: because I did not wish to yield to what struck me as superstition. " But do you expect to extend your call until morning ?" Well, no, I hadn't thought or arranged to do so. " Well, then, what is to prevent your expected guest from awaiting your return? Or, what assurance have you that he will not encounter you in the street, under circumstances that will provoke or, at the least, embarrass you?" None whatever." Then what have you gained by your stupid perversity?" Nothing, beyond the assertion of my own individuality. " Why not go home and receive your guest in becoming style?" No; I would not do that. I had started on this course, and I would persevere in it. I would be consistent. And so I persisted, at least until nine o'clock, when I quit the theater in sullen dejection, and went home to make some slight preparation for my evening call.
With my latch-key I let myself into the front door of the apartment house wherein I lodged, walked through the hall, up the staircase, and paused on the threshold of my room, wondering what I would find inside. Opening the door I entered, leaving it open behind me so that the light from the hallway would shine into the room, which was dark, and there was no transom above the door. The grate fire had caked into a solid mass of charred bituminous coal, which shed no illumination beyond a faint red glow at the bottom, showing that it was barely alive, and no more. I struck a match on the underside of the mantel shelf, and as I lit the gas I heard the click of the door latch. I turned instantly; the door had been gently closed by some unknown force if not by unseen hands, for there was no breath of air stirring. This preternatural interference was not pleasant, for I had hoped in the event of another visit from my friend, if friend he was, that he would bring no uncanny or ghostly manifestation to disturb me. I looked at the clock; the index pointed to half past nine. I glanced about the room; it was orderly, everything in proper position, even to the arm-chair that I had been wont to place for my nondescript visitor. It was time to be going, so I turned to the dressing case, brushed my hair, put on a clean scarf, and moved towards the wash-stand, which stood in a little alcove on the opposite side of the room. My self-command well-nigh deserted me as I did so, for there, in the arm-chair that a moment before was empty, sat my guest of a year ago, facing me with placid features! The room began to revolve, a faint, sick feeling came over me, and I reeled into the first convenient chair, and covered my face with my hands. This depression lasted but an instant, however, and as I recovered self-possession, I felt or fancied I felt a pair of penetrating eyes fixed upon me with the same mild, searching gaze I remembered so well. I ventured to look up; sure enough, there they were, the beaming eyes, and there was he! Rising from his chair, he towered up to his full height, smiled pleasantly, and with a slight inclination of the head, murmured: " Permit me to wish you good evening; I am profoundly glad to meet you again."
It was full a minute before I could muster courage to answer " I wish I could say as much for myself."
" And why shouldn't you?" he said, gently and courteously; " you have realized, for the past six months, that I would return; more than that- you have known for some time the very day and almost the exact hour of my coming, have even wished for it, and, in the face of all this, I find you preparing to evade the requirements of common hospitality; are you doing either me or yourself justice?"
I was nettled at the knowledge he displayed of my movements, and of my very thoughts; my old stubbornness asserted itself, and I was rude enough to say: " Perhaps it is as you say; at all events, I am obligated to keep an engagement, and with your permission will now retire."
It was curious to mark the effect of this speech upon the intruder. He immediately became grave, reached quietly into an inner pocket of his coat, drew thence the same glittering, horrible, mysterious knife that had so terrified and bewildered me a year before, and looking me steadily in the eye, said coldly, yet with a certain tone of sadness: " Well, I will not grant permission. It is unpleasant to resort to this style of argument, but I do it to save time and controversy."
I stepped back in terror, and reached for the old-fashioned bell-cord, with the heavy tassel at the end, that depended from the ceiling, and was on the point of grasping and giving it a vigorous pull.
" Not so fast, if you please," he said, sternly, as he stepped forward, and gave the knife a rapid swish through the air above my head, causing the cord to fall in a tangle about my hand, cut cleanly, high above my reach!
I gazed in dumb stupor at the rope about my hand, and raised my eyes to the remnant above. That was motionless; there was not the slightest perceptible vibration, such as would naturally be expected. I turned to look at my guest; he had resumed his seat, and had also regained his pleasant expression, but he still held the knife in his hand with his arm extended, at rest, upon the table, which stood upon his right.
" Let us have an end to this folly," he said; " think a moment, and you will see that you are in fault. Your error we will rectify easily, and then to business. I will first show you the futility of trying to escape this interview, and then we will proceed to work, for time presses, and there is much to do." Having delivered this remark, he detached a single silvery hair from his head, blew it from his fingers, and let it float gently upon the upturned edge of the knife, which was still resting on the table. The hair was divided as readily as had been the bell-cord. I was transfixed with astonishment, for he had evidently aimed to exhibit the quality of the blade, though he made no allusion to the feat, but smilingly went on with his discourse: " It is just a year ago to-night since we first met. Upon that occasion you made an agreement with me which you are in honor bound to keep, and " - here he paused as if to note the effect of his words upon me, then added significantly-" will keep. I have been at some pains to impress upon your mind the fact that I would be here tonight. You responded, and knew that I was coming, and yet in obedience to a silly whim, deliberately made a meaningless engagement with no other purpose than to violate a solemn obligation. I now insist that you keep your prior engagement with me, but I do not wish that you should be rude to your friend, so you had better write him a polite note excusing yourself, and dispatch it at once."
I saw that he was right, and that there was no shadow of justification for my conduct, or at least I was subdued by his presence, so I wrote the note without delay, and was casting about for some way to send it, when he said: " Fold it, seal it, and address it; you seem to forget what is proper." I did as he directed, mechanically, and, without thinking what I was doing, handed it to him. He took it naturally, glanced at the superscription, went to the door which he opened slightly, and handed the billet as if to some messenger who seemed to be in waiting outside,- then closed and locked the door. Turning toward me with the apparent object of seeing if I was looking, he deftly drew his knife twice across the front of the door knob, making a deep cross, and then deposited the knife in his pocket, and resumed his seat.
As soon as he was comfortably seated, he again began the conversation: " Now that we have settled the preliminaries, I will ask if you remember what I required of you a year ago?" I thought that I did. " Please repeat it; I wish to make sure that you do, then we will start fair."
" In the first place, you were to present me with a manuscript ".
" Hardly correct," he interrupted; " I was to acquaint you with a narrative which is already in manuscript, acquaint you with it, read it to you, if you preferred not to read it to me "-
" I beg your pardon," I answered ; " that is correct. You were to read the manuscript to me, and during the reading I was to interpose such comments, remarks, or objections, as seemed proper; to embody as interludes, in the manuscript, as my own interpolations, however, and not as part of the original."
I noted afterward that the door-knob, which was of solid metal, was cut deeply, as though made of putty.
" Very good," he replied, " you have the idea exactly; proceed."
" I agreed that when the reading had been completed, I would seal the complete manuscript securely, deposit it in some safe place, there to remain for thirty years, when it must be published."
" Just so," he answered; " we understand each other as we should. Before we proceed further, however, can you think of any point on which you need enlightenment? If so, ask such questions as you choose, and I will answer them."
I thought for a moment, but no query occurred to me; after a pause he said: " Well, if you think of nothing now, perhaps hereafter questions will occur to you which you can ask; but as it is late, and you are tired, we will not commence now. I will see you just one week from to-night, when we will begin. From that time on, we will follow the subject as rapidly as you choose, but see to it that you make no engagements that will interfere with our work, for I shall be more exacting in the future." I promised, and he rose to go. A sudden impulse seized me, and I said: " May I ask one question?"
" What shall I call you ?"
" Why call me aught? It is not necessary in addressing each other that any name be used."
" But what are you?" I persisted.
A pained expression for an instant rested upon his face, and he said, sadly, pausing between the words: " I-Am-The-Man Who-Did-It."
" Did what?"
" Ask not; the manuscript will tell you. Be content, Llewellyn, and remember this, that I-Am-The-Man."
So saying he bade me good night, opened the door, and disappeared down the broad staircase.
One week thereafter he appeared promptly, seated himself, and producing a roll of manuscript, handed it to me, saying, " I am listening; you may begin to read."
On examination I found each page to be somewhat larger than a sheet of letter paper, with the written matter occupying a touch smaller space, so as to leave a wide white border. One hundred pages were in the package. The last sentence ending abruptly indicated that my guest did not expect to complete his task in one evening, and, I may anticipate by saying that with each successive interview he drew about the same amount of writing from his bosom. Upon attempting to read the manuscript I at first found myself puzzled by a style of chirography very peculiar and characteristic, but execrably bad. Vainly did I attempt to read it; even the opening sentence was not deciphered without long inspection and great difficulty.
The old man, whom I had promised that I would fulfill the task, observing my discomfiture, relieved me of the charge, and without a word of introduction, read fluently as follows:
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