Archive for the ‘Prose’ Category

L.A.G. Strong: Breakdown

Oktober 8, 2017


JUliE HAD planned it all exactly. Muriel was going up to town on the 11:52, and he was supposed to be going with her. They were to be independent of each other till half past four, when he was to meet her for tea at the Chadwickes‘; and they were coming home by the 6:05.

He told Muriel to start for the station ahead of him, as he might be kept late at the office.

It was a necessary part of the plan that he should not arrive on the platform till a minute or so before the train started. He had taken his ticket beforehand, at the office in the town where they knew him well, and where they entered up the number of each ticket in a ledger.

The train was in when he reached the incline leading up to the station, and the big engine, shining in the sunlight, let off important clouds of steam and uttered every now and again a raucous, sustained snort. Maurice pulled his hat over his forehead, took a platform ticket, and hurried through the barrier.

As he expected, Muriel was in the very front of the train. She gave him the inexpressive smile which she kept for public occasions.

„I’ve kept a seat for you,“ she said, with a hint of emphasis in her even tones, suggesting that the keeping had caused some resentment to the other occupants of the compartment.

She would get her own way; but she was perhaps just as glad that he had turned up to prove that she was keeping the seat legitimately.

„Thanks.“ He stood fumbling at the pockets of his overcoat, which was hanging open. Then he looked up at her with a well-feigned dismay.

„Oh Lord, I’ve nothing to read. I must get a magazine. I’ve just time.“

„Maurice — surely? The train’s just off.“

„That’s all right. I’ll get in further down.“

And he ran down the platform without waiting for further argument. General Waiting Room — this would do. He dived in, huddling down into his coat, and a minute later had the satisfaction of seeing the train slide past the yellow windows. Almost at once a little crowded local came bustling in, and it was easy to join the crowd and give up his platform ticket at the barrier; the collector was too busy to do anything but watch the hands that offered him tickets.

That was all right. He had a clear hour now.

He would go back by a different bus route, which landed him half a mile from home, and get into the fiat by the back way. There was a bare chance that someone he knew might see him, but it was very unlikely; and, after all, one had to take some chances. He had lots of , time to dodge back by the most improbable little streets.What was that tag out of „Patience“?— „You can’t love two women at once,“ or something to that effect; to which the fool answered „Can’t you though!“

Maurice’s face twitched. He had had ample opportunity lately to consider that proposition in all its aspects. You might be able to be in love with two women at once, but you couldn’t carry on the business as if each was the only one and cope with a full day’s work as well. Since Merrick had been ill, he’d had more than he could manage at the office. Scarcely time for Muriel, let alone Vera.

Oh, hell, hell, hell! It all ran round in his head like Catherine wheels — great aching circles of fire. He had all he could do not to stand still and stamp on the pavement and cry out in sheer nervous exasperation at the burden of it.

Steady, though! He must keep a clear head for what lay before him.

The problem was going to be solved all right — the Gordian knot cut. He gave a quick little snigger, tucking his chin down inside his coat collar. That was more like it, perhaps.

Something had to be done. To go on as he had been was simply to court a breakdown. And he knew what a nervous breakdown meant. Collapse, mental and physical. He had had as much as he could stand. Just about as much as he could stand.

No one knew him on this bus route. Strange in what narrow channels the streams of a community ran! A small town, fifty miles from London; yet by simply getting into a bus that traveled almost parallel to his own, he was plunged at once into a quite unknown stream people whom he had never seen, and who had never seen him. It was twenty to three when he walked up the back stairs to the flat. He had put on his shoes with the crepe soles. No one heard him, no one saw him. The door opened noiselessly, and he slipped inside. He went into the little sitting room, fit the fire, dragged the sofa forward from the wall, and drew the one curtain that faced a neighboring house. Then he went into the bedroom and returned with an eiderdown and a rug, which he threw over the end of the sofa. Back again to the bedroom, he pulled out the bottom drawer of the wardrobe, groped in the back of it, and took out a long, narrow box.

There was something inside it, wrapped in tissue paper. He felt it to make sure it was there, and put the box on the bed. Lastly, he took out his pocketbook and looked into a pocket in which there were two or three little slips of paper.

Satisfied, he laid it on the bed beside the box.

Now there was nothing to do but wait.

IT WAS JUST seven minutes past three when his strained ears heard a light step, followed by a rattle of the letter box. Instantly he was at the door, and the tall, graceful figure stood silhouetted, smiling, before him. It was a picture he had seen very often in the last six months. The same actions and sensations were precisely repeated: her soft „Hullo, Maurice dear,“ the shutting of the door, the darkness, her cool fragrance as he penned her in against the wall and took her in his arms. Then, with a trembling hand, he opened the sitting room door and she stepped in front of him, taking in everything with a glance, pulling off her fur gloves, making some trivial remark, still smiling.

What was it that made her so damnably attractive? She wasn’t beautiful, with her snub nose and her wide, strong mouth. Her hands and feet were rather large too. Yet she had some indefinable neatness, an elasticity, a buoyance in her step, the carriage of her head, something provocative and yet endearing, which made people call her „little Vera“ — though in fact she stood well above the average height. It was an outside which expressed uncommonly well her -vivid, careless personality.

Her marriage had not been a success, far less of a success than his with Muriel. She admitted that. Yet she made light of it, never complained, appeared philosophically to take it as all in the game. „Oh, I thought that was part of a wife’s job,“ she would say, and smile at him with innocent eyes as he scolded her for not resisting some fresh enormity.

He watched her now as she took off her scarf.

She always stood in front of the fire to do this, and put it with her gloves on the corner of the mantelpiece.

Then he would take her hand and lead her to the sofa, sitting her down beside him. „Well, Uttle Vera.“


„How are you?“

„I’m all right. How are you?“ — all prelude to the first kiss upon her cool, steady lips that always smelled of lavender.

Well — since he could no longer bear the strain of both, it had to be Vera or Muriel.

Vera was an exotic, a temptress; Muriel was his own, his companion, till death them did part. Death?

Good Lord, they were right about hell being here, on earth. Even the good times were paid for by wretched fits of nerves and depression. The notes, the furtive appointments, the necessity of finding out where Muriel was going to be — he wasn’t made for carrying on an intrigue. What seemed to exhilarate some men only tormented him. The sense of treachery . . . absurd, illogical, oh, he knew that. He had reasoned it all out long ago, yet he somehow found it hard to meet Muriel’s eyes.

The affair wasn’t really serious, in the sense that it would have been if Vera and Muriel were rivals. There was no question as to which of the two he chose to live with. In that, the fundamental sense, he was perfectly loyal. Yet, telling himself all this savagely over and over again, he felt guilty, and, latterly, distraught. It had become unbearable — and he would end it to-day. Even with the familiar cool touch of Vera’s lips upon his own, he was resolute.

Gently he loosed himself from her. „Just a minute,“ he whispered, and made a little gesture toward the next room.

She held him with her eyes, looking up into his, strangely earnest.

„Don’t be long,“ she said.

He tried to speak, swallowed angrily, and answered „I won’t“ more loudly than he had intended; then went out and closed the door.

Once in the bedroom, he pulled off his coat and waistcoat, rolled his sleeves up above the elbow, and took from the back of the wardrobe a faded old yellow bathgown, all stained and smeared. He had used it to protect his clothes while making up a troupe for amateur theatricals, and the front of it was a mass of grease paint. No one would be likely to find it, stuffed away in the bottom of the old trunk whence he had that morning taken it out.

He stood for a moment in front of the long glass,looking at himself.

A pale, serious face looked back at him. The brown eyes confessed nothing of their intent. They looked the same as usual. Turning away with a sigh, he picked up the box and the pocketbook. This was a time to act on impulse.

He did not know when the chance would come.

He went back to the living room, softly closing the door behind him. Vera was sitting on the .floor in front of the fire, holding out her hands to it. The red, steady glow fell softly upon her bare arms and shoulders. She did not look up as he came in.

Moving very softly, he came behind her. With demoralizing suddenness, his heart began to beat frantically, like the crying of a bird upon which a cat has pounced.

Steadying himself, he put the pocketbook on the sofa and opened the box.

Vera half turned her head at the rustle of the tissue paper; then she leaned forward and laid it sideways on her knees, with a little contented sound. She was waiting for his arms to steal round her and draw her back to him.

Very quietly he put the box down beside the pocketbook. In his right hand was a long Indian knife with carved blade and handle, and his left hand moved across to join the other upon the long hilt. He took a step forward.

„Mau — rice.“ It was a slow, lazy whisper.

She would rouse and turn round. His chance would be gone.

Fixing his gaze on a point just inside her left shoulder blade, he grasped the knife in both hands, raised it, and literally fell upon her with all his might. The blow came straight down; her body in its doubled-up position resisted the impact, and Maurice fell sprawling to one side. Picking himself up like lightning, he sprang away. The knife had gone in almost up to the hilt.

For a moment she remained doubled forward, her head on her knees.

Then the head craned back; she tried to straighten herself up, stuck — like a hen he had seen, crushed by a car and desperately trying to rise — and fell suddenly sideways. She kicked, thrusting one foot against the stove, but seeming not to feel it; her hands reached out, clutched the sofa, and she began to drag herself up.

Her head was thrown back, the forehead a mask of wrinkles, her eyes staring, fixed on the wall, seemingly quite unconscious of him; and through her open mouth she made a queer indrawn sound, “ Aw-w-aw-aw-aw-w-w-w — “

As he watched, she pulled the top part of her body upright, leaning backward over the knife — farther, farther back — her lips drawn away from the gums; she coughed, and went all limp, rolling over with her face toward him on the carpet.

Her eyebrows rose once or twice as if in surprise. Then her face became sleepy and peaceful as a child’s.

She uttered a little, gentle sigh, and was still.

It was a full minute before he dared to move.

His hands were shaking uncontrollably in reaction from the effort. Holding them out in front of him, he steadied them somewhat by an effort of his will. Then, going as near to the window as he dared, he scanned the front of his bathgown. Not a speck of blood on it! One long streak on his right forearm — that was all.

Get rid of that first.

He went swiftly into the bathroom, and in a few seconds that splash of evidence was gone.

Now then, he must get a move on. Hesitating with his hand on the door, he had the idea that when he went in he might find her sitting in front of the fire, as before. That would be disconcerting. A mistress with nine lives, eh? It was almost a relief to find her lying as he had left her. A dark stain was slowly spreading over the carpet.

He crossed to the sofa, opened the pocketbook, and took out three little slips of thin paper. If they were going to get him, if he had to swing for it, he’d give the public something to talk about. This was to be no commonplace murder. Each of the little slips had typed on it a bizarre and meaningless sentence. „So Time goes by, whitening old city churches,“read one. That would get them guessing. Another was a text from the Epistle to the Romans, about Sodom and Gomorrah.

They might think he was mad, but they would notice them all right. Headlines. . . . He might even get off as a madman.

The slips were typed — not on his own typewriter — not by any means. He had tapped them out under pretense of trying a machine for sale in a stationer’s in the town, while the assistant was getting him a particular size of envelope he knew was kept upstairs. The paper might be identified, though he had kept the type clear of the watermark; but what if it were?

Hundreds of people used it.

Rolling up the slips, he bent over the body, inserted one in each nostril, and the third in the mouth, between the teeth and underlip. That was all. Now to get away.

I2 MINUTES later he was hurrying to the terminus of the bus which had brought him out. By good luck, he had hardly any wait at all.

The winter dusk was already beginning to fall; it was a foggy, dull day.

Seated in the bus, he reviewed his plans.

He had a ticket, which the clerk at the office would swear to giving him, and the number of which was checked up in the ledger. This ticket he was now going to use. The 3:57 would get him up to town too late to join Muriel at the Chadwickes‘, but in plenty of time to meet her on the 6:05 and explain that his businesshad kept him. That business was a weak spot, of course, but he would put in one or two quick calls which would show he had at any rate been in town that afternoon. Muriel would be ready to say he had come up by the ia, and his ticket would be found among the day’s collection at Paddington. (He only hoped they didn’t check them after each train!)

At this end no one knew where Vera had gone. She lived only a few hundred yards away, and she had come straight to the flat, so that her maids would be witness that she had not left home till three. Actually, she was dead within ten minutes of entering the flat, and he was away in less than ten minutes after that.

Flimsy though his alibi might be, this point at least was in his favor. When on earth, his counsel would ask, could he have found time to commit the murder? The 3:57 got to town by a quarter to five. From then on he would contrive to be seen by several people. The prosecution would not have matters all their own way, even if they did run him in.

Unless someone had seen him coming in or going out of the flat, that is to say; and he was pretty sure nobody had.

„Have you ever seen this in your husband’s possession, madam?“ (Holding up the knife.)

„Never,“ Muriel would reply, with perfect truth; for he had bought it in an old curiosity shop in Devonport a long time ago, and it had been stowed away somewhere among his things ever since.

Or perhaps they didn’t examine a wife when her husband was on trial? He couldn’t remember.

When they reached the station, he wrapped a scarf round his mouth and scuffled through the barrier with his head down, enduring as best he might the agonizing minutes before the train arrived. It was not long, but it might have been a whole year of his life. At last the train came. Getting into a carriage crowded with country folk, he at once disappeared behind a newspaper, and, by a queer trick of the mind which was a complete surprise to him, managed to forget what had happened for whole minutes together. He wasn’t well, that’s what was at the back of it all. He wasn’t well; the strain had been taking it out of him frightfully.

The moment the train reached Paddington, he jumped into a taxi and made for an address in Notting Hill, to a friend of his who had a small, one-man office, and who could therefore be relied upon to be in. Dismissing the taxi at the corner of the street, Maurice went quickly along and mounted the rickety stair. „Come in and wait — back in five minutes,“ said a confiding message on a card pinned to the door.

Excellent. He went in and picked up a paper.

It took him two or three minutes to realize that it was the same paper he had been reading in the train.

A reckless plunging on the stair suddenly announced the owner’s return, and a second later he entered, apologetic and breathless.

„Oh, it’s you! I say, I’m awfully sorry. I was kept much longer than I expected. You haven’t been waiting long, I hope?“

Maurice glanced at the clock. „Not long. Only about twenty minutes.“

„I say, I am sorry. I’d no idea they’d—“

„Oh, that’s all right. I’ve nothing particular to do. Fact is,“ he forced a smile, „I was just wondering if I’d drawn another blank.“


„Yes.I went all the way out to see Baines, and he wasn’t in.“ That was good. It had only just come into his head. Baines was out that afternoon; he happened to know, indirectly. He was covering up his tracks in grand style.

„Oh well,“ his host stretched out a cigarette case, „I’m glad you found me, anyway.“

IT HARDLY Seemed worth while making other calls, after that, but he looked in at two places on his way back to the station. Then there seemed to be a queer gap in his memory, for the next thing he knew, he found himself walking up the platform carrying some of Muriel’s parcels, with no clear idea of how he got there.

„Here,“ she said, halting beside a door, „this will do.“

Going back. Home. Up from the station, up the stairs, in the door. . . .

He turned his mind away, rubbed a clear patch on the window, and tried to look out.

The lights of a factory whirled derisively by.

He shuddered and steeled himself to endure the long, barren, eternal journey. Why did people nod their heads in a train, the fools? His head was nodding too, he supposed. How idiotic they must all look — nodding in fatuous rhythmic assent to some unheard proposition; replying in the only way they could devise to the unanswerable question — why did they exist at all? The whole thing was symbolic of humanity answering the major riddles — obstinate, endless assertion instead of reason.

And other questions. Was she dead? Nod — nod — nod. Did they know who had killed her? Nod — nod. Would he be caught? Nod — nod — nod. Would he hang?

The train rushed over the joints of a junction and swung away on a new path in the darkness.

And every nod, every clitter-clock, clitterclock of the wheels, was carrying him so much nearer to — to what had happened.

He turned his mind away resolutely and tried to read the back of the man’s paper opposite. Muriel was in her corner, her eyes closed, one hand delicately against her cheek. She met all the disagreeable things of life like that, gracefully, fastidiously. Her composure was very precious to her. Well, she’d need it soon.

He fell to reviewing all the steps he had taken to build up an alibi. Flimsy enough, they looked — full of great black gaps through which the huge arm of the law could suddenly shoot and grab him. A light shiver ran down his spine. But, so far,he was not so much frightened of the consequences as curious — academically, disinterestedly curious — to see how it would all work out. Would the local police tackle it, or would they call in the Yard at once? Recalling himself with a jolt, he fixed his eyes upon the joggling paper opposite him, and with great concentration read something very silly about an actress who was being sued for breach of contract.

At last, after ages so long that his whole Life and several previous existences seemed to have been spent in the same hideous compartment, the train slowed down, and they stepped out into the chill air of the platform. They took a taxi, because of Muriel’s parcels. In precisely the same way as one turns one’s mind away while the dentist fixes a drill in his machine, Maurice turned his mind to any externals it could seize upon during the journey up.

„Two and six, is it?“ he was repeating presently. „Two and six, eh?“ And he took the money out of his pocket and counted it over twice, with great deliberation, before the action would register in his consciousness at all. „Oh, ah, yes— two and six.“

The man was looking at him. „Well. Here you are. Good night.“

He was walking up the stairs, his arms full of parcels. His heart seemed to be beating distinctly, sharply, rather than fast; and at once he saw a picture of it, as a sort of cylinder with two convex ends, swinging imperatively against the surrounding tissues.

„All right. I have a key.“

Muriel’s manner seemed a bit constrained.

She had looked at him strangely, he thought.

Pooh! All fancy. It shows how one’s conscience can run away with you. Oh my God, here they were, in the dark little hall, only a few yards, only a door away from it! He almost ran down the passage to the bedroom, stumbling in at the door and shedding his parcels on the bed in a heap. He kept his back turned on Muriel, for the lower part of his face seemed to have become all loose and uncontrolled. Muriel put down her bag, took off her hat, leaned forward to scrutinize her face in the dressing table mirror; then went out of the room, without speaking.

Sick and shaking, he caught hold of the bedpost and held on. She went along the passage.

She was outside the living room door. No — she had gone into the bathroom. He brushed his forehead and tried vainly to moisten his lips.

This was awful, awful, awful, his mind kept saying. It — ah. She had come out again.

He heard her turn the handle of the living room door, switch on the light. . . . Shutting his eyes,he nerved himself for her scream.

It did not come. He could hear her moving about in the room. He – she — oh God, this was past all bearing, worse than any outcry.

Something told him that his eyes were staring in his head; he ducked, not daring to look in the glass, and ran out into the passage, falling, lurching, swaying, with hands outstretched against the cold walls; tottered to the open door of light; grasped the doorpost, the knuckles sticking out white from the back of his hand, and, with a rending, terrible effort, pulled himself into the room and looked on the floor in front of the fireplace.

There was no body. Nothing at all.

„Ah —ha — ha-ha!“ A little shrill whimpering laugh sounded in the room, and he realized that it had come from his own throat.

Frantically he raised his eyes. Muriel was staring at him in amazement and distaste.

„Whatever is the matter with you, Maurice!“she exclaimed.

„The matter?“


She came a step nearer. „You’ve been behaving in the queerest way, all the afternoon,“ She gave a half laugh, looking closely into his eyes. „You haven’t been drinking, have you?“

„Queer? I —why, what’s been the matter with me?“ He got the words out, but all the time his mind was trying to cope with the staggering thing she had just said. All the afternoon. Queer all the afternoon. That’s what she had said.

Muriel laughed again. It was her way of turning aside her irritation. „I don’t know what’s the matter with you,“ she answered.

„All I know is that you’ve been behaving very queerly all the afternoon. They were all wondering what was the matter with you. I could see they were.“

His mouth fell open. „They — who were?“

„Why, at the Chadwickes‘, of course. You wouldn’t say a word to a soul, except once, when you were quite unnecessarily rude to old General McKie.“

„At the Chadwickes‘!“ he shouted. „You don’t know what you’re saying! At the Chadwickes‘?“

“ Why, Maurice, whateveris the matter with you! Of course you were at -— oh, my darling! Maurice! My darhng boy!“

For he had begun to laugh — soundlessly at first, a horrible, silent shaking; and then he was screaming, sobbing, laughing, calling out. . . . how SOON afterward he did not know, he found himself on his knees, holding on tight to her, his head in her lap; and she was stroking his hair, soothing him, comforting him as if he were a tiny child. „There, there, my darling, Maurice my darling, it will be all right. There’s nothing to be frightened of. Nothing. Nothing. There, darling, there.“

And presently he was calmer; quite quiet. He knelt, his arms around her, looking over toward the bookcase with wide eyes, realizing the truth. The breakdown — what he had been afraid of— it had come. This was it; all this.

Everything. He had spent the afternoon unconsciously, an automaton, while his consciousness had been busy . . . here.

The whole story ~ the precautions, the details, the vivid enactment — he could see it all now, the fantastic, pettifogging logic of the disordered mind. And the imagination — what he had done to Vera. Good God, if that was delusion, what was there to hold on to in life?

Steady — that was the way to go off again.

He held on tight to Muriel for a minute; then, calmer, he took another look at the floor, grimacing oddly.

„Do you know,“ he blurted, „I- thought I’d —-“ And then he broke off short. He’d have enough troubles without that. Least said, eh? With gradually narrowing eyes, he listened to all the soothing things Muriel was saying over the top of his head.

She’d been noticing how tired he was getting, how overdone. He needed a change. A nice rest, and a change.

They’d go off together, down to the sea — „That knife,“ he exclaimed suddenly, looking up at her. „I haven’t had that for years. I remember now. I gave it away, years ago.“

„Yes, darling. Of course you did. Don’t worry about it any more,“ and she was on again, haw all he needed was a rest.

Then he realized he needn’t trouble to guard his tongue.

Anything he said she would attribute to his breakdown. Poor little Muriel! She was frightened, badly frightened, and putting a splendidly brave face on it.

He got up and sat beside her on the sofa, putting his arms around her, telling her not to be frightened.


Alfred Edgar Coppard: Clorinda Walks in Heaven

September 24, 2017

Eric Millen: Grim Quiet – A Long Walk Alone (via

September 20, 2017

Eric Millen: Grim Quiet – Waiting for Mom and Dad To Get Home

September 20, 2017

Eric Millen: Grim Quiet – Where Do Spiders Come From

September 20, 2017

Eric Millen: Grim Quiet – The Babysitter Was Not Alone

September 20, 2017

Clark Ashton Smith: The Devotee of Evil (via Eldritch Dark)

August 13, 2017

The old Larcom house was a mansion of considerable size and dignity, set among oaks and cypresses on the hill behind Auburn’s Chinatown, in what had once been the aristocratic section of the village. At the time of which I write, it had been unoccupied for several years and had begun to present the signs of desolation and dilapidation which untenanted houses so soon display. The place had a tragic history and was believed to be haunted. I had never been able to procure any first-hand or precise accounts of the spectral manifestations that were accredited to it. But certainly it possessed all the necessary antecedents of a haunted house. The first owner, Judge Peter Larcom, had been murdered beneath its roof back in the seventies by a maniacal Chinese cook; one of his daughters had gone insane; and two other members of the family had died accidental deaths. None of them had prospered: their legend was one of sorrow and disaster.

Some later occupants, who had purchased the place from the one surviving son of Peter Larcom, had left under circumstances of inexplicable haste after a few months, moving permanently to San Francisco. They did not return even for the briefest visit; and beyond paying their taxes, they gave no attention whatever to the place. Everyone had grown to think of it as a sort of historic ruin, when the announcement came that it had been sold to Jean Averaud, of New Orleans.

My first meeting with Averaud was strangely significant, for it revealed to me, as years of acquaintance would not necessarily have done, the peculiar bias of his mind. Of course, I had already heard some odd rumors about him; his personality was too signal, his advent too mysterious, to escape the usual fabrication and mongering of village tales. I had been told that he was extravagantly rich, that he was a recluse of the most eccentric type, that he had made certain very singular changes in the inner structure of the old house; and last, but not least, that he lived with a beautiful mulatress who never spoke to anyone and who was believed to be his mistress as well as his housekeeper. The man himself had been described to me by some as an unusual but harmless lunatic, and by others as an all-round Mephistopheles.

I had seen him several times before our initial meeting. He was a sallow, saturnine Creole, with the marks of race in his hollow cheeks and feverish eyes. I was struck by his air of intellect, and by the fiery fixity of his gaze — the gaze of a man who is dominated by one idea to the exclusion of all else. Some medieval alchemist, who believed himself to be on the point of attaining his objective after years of unrelenting research, might have looked as he did.

I was in the Auburn library one day, when Averaud entered. I had taken a newspaper from one of the tables and was reading the details of an atrocious crime — the murder of a woman and her two infant children by the husband and father, who had locked his victims in a clothes-closet, after saturating their garments with oil. He had left the woman’s apron-string caught in the shut door, with the end protruding, and had set fire to it like a fuse.

Averaud passed the table where I was reading. I looked up, and saw his glance at the headlines of the paper I held. A moment later he returned and sat down beside me, saying in a low voice:

„What interests me in a crime of that sort, is the implication of unhuman forces behind it. Could any man, on his own initiative, have conceived and executed anything so gratuitously fiendish?“

„I don’t know,“ I replied, somewhat surprised by the question and by my interrogator. „There are terrifying depths in human nature — more abhorrent than those of the jungle.“

„I agree. But how could such impulses, unknown to the most brutal progenitors of man, have been implanted in his nature, unless through some ulterior agency?“

„You believe, then, in the existence of an evil force or entity — a Satan or an Ahriman?“

„I believe in evil — how can I do otherwise when I see its manifestations everywhere? I regard it as an all-controlling power; but I do not think that the power is personal in the sense of what we know as personality. A Satan? No. What I conceive is a sort of dark vibration, the radiation of a black sun, of a center of malignant eons — a radiation that can penetrate like any other ray — and perhaps more deeply. But probably I don’t make my meaning clear at all.“

I protested that I understood him; but, after his burst of communicativeness, he seemed oddly disinclined to pursue the conversation. Evidently he had been prompted to address me; and no less evidently, he regretted having spoken with so much freedom. He arose; but before leaving, he said:

„I am Jean Averaud — perhaps you have heard of me. You are Philip Hastane, the novelist. I have read your books and I admire them. Come and see me sometime — we may have certain tastes in common.“

Averaud’s personality, the conception he had avowed, and the intense interest and value which he so obviously attached to these conceptions, made a singular impression on my mind, and I could not forget him. When, a few days later, I met him on the street and he repeated his invitation with a cordialness that was unfeignedly sincere, I could do no less than accept. I was interested, though not altogether attracted, by his bizarre, well-nigh morbid individuality, and was impelled by a desire to learn more concerning him. I sensed a mystery of no common order — a mystery with elements of the abnormal and the uncanny.

The grounds of the old Larcom place were precisely as I remembered them, though I had not found occasion to pass them for some time. They were a veritable tangle of Cherokee rose-vines, arbutus, lilac, ivy and crepe-myrtle, half overshadowed by the great cypresses and somber evergreen oaks. There was a wild, half-sinister charm about them — the charm of rampancy and ruin. Nothing had been done to put the place in order, and there were no outward repairs in the house itself, where the white paint of bygone years was being slowly replaced by mosses and lichens that flourished beneath the eternal umbrage of the trees. There were signs of decay in the roof and pillars of the front porch; and I wondered why the new owner, who was reputed to be so rich, had not already made the necessary restorations.

I raised the gargoyle-shaped knocker and let it fall with a dull, lugubrious clang. The house remained silent; and I was about to knock again, when the door opened slowly and I saw for the first time the mulatress of whom so many village rumors had reached me.

The woman was more exotic than beautiful, with fine, mournful eyes and bronze-colored features of a semi-negroid irregularity. Her figure, though, was truly perfect, with the curving lines of a lyre and the supple grace of some feline animal. When I asked for Jean Averaud, she merely smiled and made signs for me to enter. I surmised at once that she was dumb.

Waiting in the gloomy library to which she conducted me, I could not refrain from glancing at the volumes with which the shelves were congested. They were an ungodly jumble of tomes that dealt with anthropology, ancient religions, demonology, modern science, history, psychoanalysis and ethics. Interspersed with these were a few romances and volumes of poetry. Beausobre’s monograph on Manichaeism was flanked with Byron and Poe; and „Les Fleurs du Mal“ jostled a late treatise on chemistry.

Averaud entered, after several minutes, apologizing profusely for his delay. He said that he had been in the midst of certain labors when I came; but he did not specify the nature of these labors. He looked even more hectic and fiery-eyed than when I had seen him last. He was patently glad to see me, and eager to talk.

„You have been looking at my books,“ he observed immediately. „Though you might not think so at first glance, on account of their seeming diversity, I have selected them all with a single object: the study of evil in all its aspects, ancient, medieval and modern. I have traced it in the religions and demonologies of all peoples; and, more than this, in human history itself. I have found it in the inspiration of poets and romancers who have dealt with the darker impulses, emotion and acts of man. Your novels have interested me for this reason: you are aware of the baneful influences which surround us, which so often sway or actuate us. I have followed the working of these agencies even in chemical reactions, in the growth and decay of trees, flowers, minerals. I feel that the processes of physical decomposition, as well as the similar mental and moral processes, are due entirely to them.

„In brief, I have postulated a monistic evil, which is the source of all death, deterioration, imperfection, pain, sorrow, madness and disease. This evil, so feebly counteracted by the powers of good, allures and fascinates me above all things. For a long time past, my life-work has been to ascertain its true nature, and trace it to its fountain-head. I am sure that somewhere in space there is the center from which all evil emanates.“

He spoke with a wild air of excitement, of morbid and semi-maniacal intensity. His obsession convinced me that he was more or less unbalanced; but there was an unholy logic in the development of his ideas; and I could not but recognize a certain disordered brilliancy and range of intellect.

Scarcely waiting for me to reply, he continued his monologue:

„I have learned that certain localities and buildings, certain arrangements of natural or artificial objects, are more favorable to the reception of evil influences than others. The laws that determine the degree of receptivity are still obscure to me; but at least I have verified the fact itself. As you know, there are houses or neighborhoods notorious for a succession of crimes or misfortunes; and there are also articles, such as certain jewels, whose possession is accompanied by disaster. Such places and things are receivers of evil… I have a theory, however, that there is always more or less interference with the direct flow of the malignant force; and that pure, absolute evil has never yet been manifested.

„By the use of some device which would create a proper field or form a receiving station, it should be possible to evoke this absolute evil. Under such conditions, I am sure that the dark vibration would become a visible and tangible thing, comparable to light or electricity.“ He eyed me with a gaze that was disconcertingly exigent. Then:

„I will confess that I have purchased this old mansion and its grounds mainly on account of their baleful history. The place is unusually liable to the influences of which I have spoken. I am now at work on an apparatus by means of which, when it is perfected, I hope to manifest in their essential purity the radiations of malign force.“

At this moment, the mulatress entered and passed through the room on some household errand. I thought that she gave Averaud a look of maternal tenderness, watchfulness and anxiety. He, on his part seemed hardly to be aware of her presence, so engrossed was he in the strange ideas and the stranger project he had been expounding. However, when she had gone, he remarked:

„That is Fifine, the one human being who is really attached to me. She is mute, but highly intelligent and affectionate. All my people, an old Louisiana family, are long departed… and my wife is doubly dead to me.“ A spasm of obscure pain contracted his features, and vanished. He resumed his monologue; and at no future time did he again refer to the presumably tragic tale at which he had hinted: a tale in which, I sometimes suspect, were hidden the seeds of the strange moral and mental perversion which he was to manifest more and more.

I took my leave, after promising to return for another talk. Of course, I considered now that Averaud was a madman; but his madness was of a most uncommon and picturesque variety. It seemed significant that he should have chosen me for a confidant. All others who met him found him uncommunicative and taciturn to an extreme degree. I suppose he had felt the ordinary human need of unburdening himself to someone; and had selected me as the only person in the neighborhood who was potentially sympathetic.

I saw him several times during the month that followed. He was indeed a strange psychological study; and I encouraged him to talk without reserve — though such encouragement was hardly necessary. There was much that he told me — a strange medley of the scientific and the mystic. I assented tactfully to all that he said, but ventured to point out the possible dangers of his evocative experiments, if they should prove successful. To this, with the fervor of an alchemist or a religious devotee, he replied that it did not matter — that he was prepared to accept any and all consequences.

More than once he gave me to understand that his invention was progressing favorably. And one day he said, with abruptness:

„I will show you my mechanism, if you care to see it.“ I protested my eagerness to view the invention, and he led me forthwith into a room to which I had not been admitted before. The chamber was large, triangular in form, and tapestried with curtains of some sullen black fabric. It had no windows. Clearly, the internal structure of the house had been changed in making it; and all the queer village tales, emanating from carpenters who had been hired to do the work, were now explained. Exactly in the center of the room, there stood on a low tripod of brass the apparatus of which Averaud had so often spoken.

The contrivance was quite fantastic, and presented the appearance of some new, highly complicated musical instrument. I remember that there were many wires of varying thickness, stretched on a series of concave sounding-boards of some dark, unlustrous metal; and above these, there depended from three horizontal bars a number of square, circular and triangular gongs. Each of these appeared to be made of a different material; some were bright as gold, or translucent as jade; others were black and opaque as jet. A small hammer-like instrument hung opposite each gong, at the end of a silver wire.

Averaud proceeded to expound the scientific basis of his mechanism. The vibrational properties of the gongs, he said, were designed to neutralize with their sound-pitch all other cosmic vibrations than those of evil. He dwelt at much length on this extravagant theorem, developing it in a fashion oddly lucid. He ended his peroration:

„I need one more gong to complete the instrument; and this I hope to invent very soon. The triangular room, draped in black, and without windows, forms the ideal setting for my experiment. Apart from this room, I have not ventured to make any change in the house or its grounds, for fear of deranging some propitious element or collocation of elements.“

More than ever, I thought that he was mad. And, though he had professed on many occasions to abhor the evil which he planned to evoke, I felt an inverted fanaticism in his attitude. In a less scientific age he would have been a devil-worshipper, a partaker in the abominations of the Black Mass; or would have given himself to the study and practice of sorcery. His was a religious soul that had failed to find good in the scheme of things; and lacking it, was impelled to make of evil itself an object of secret reverence.

„I fear that you think me insane,“ he observed in a sudden flash of clairvoyance. „Would you like to watch an experiment? Even though my invention is not completed, I may be able to convince you that my design is not altogether the fantasy of a disordered brain.“

I consented. He turned on the lights in the dim room. Then he went to an angle of the wall and pressed a hidden spring or switch. The wires on which the tiny hammers were strung began to oscillate, till each of the hammers touched lightly its companion gong. The sound they made was dissonant and disquieting to the last degree — a diabolic percussion unlike anything I have ever heard, and exquisitely painful to the nerves. I felt as if a flood of finely broken glass was pouring into my ears.

The swinging of the hammers grew swifter and heavier; but, to my surprise, there was no corresponding increase of loudness in the sound. On the contrary, the clangor became slowly muted, till it was no more than an undertone which seemed to be coming from an immense depth or distance — an undertone still full of disquietude and torment, like the sobbing of far-off winds in hell, or the murmur of demonian fires on coasts of eternal ice.

Said Averaud at my elbow:

„To a certain extent, the combined notes of the gongs are beyond human hearing in their pitch. With the addition of the final gong, even less sound will be audible.“

While I was trying to digest this difficult idea, I noticed a partial dimming of the light above the tripod and its weird apparatus. A vertical shaft of faint shadow, surrounded by a still fainter penumbra, was forming in the air. The tripod itself, and the wires, gongs and hammers, were now a trifle indistinct, as if seen through some obscuring veil. The central shaft and its penumbra seemed to widen; and looking down at the flood, where the outer adumbration, conforming to the room’s outline, crept toward the walls, I saw that Averaud and myself were now within its ghostly triangle.

At the same time there surged upon me an intolerable depression, together with a multitude of sensations which I despair of conveying in language. My very sense of space was distorted and deformed as if some unknown dimension had somehow been mingled with those familiar to us. There was a feeling of dreadful and measureless descent, as if the floor were sinking beneath me into some nether pit; and I seemed to pass beyond the room in a torrent of swirling, hallucinative images, visible but invisible, felt but intangible, and more awful, more accurst than that hurricane of lost souls beheld by Dante.

Down, down, I appeared to go, in the bottomless and phantom hell that was impinging upon reality. Death, decay, malignity, madness, gathered in the air and pressed me down like Satanic incubi in that ecstatic horror of descent. I felt that there were a thousand forms, a thousand faces about me, summoned from the gulfs of perdition. And yet I saw nothing but the white face of Averaud, stamped with a frozen and abominable rapture as he fell beside me.

Like a dreamer who forces himself to awaken, he began to move away from me. I seemed to lose sight of him for a moment in the cloud of nameless, immaterial horrors that threatened to take on the further horror of substance. Then I realized that Averaud had turned off the switch, and that the oscillating hammers had ceased to beat on those infernal gongs. The double shaft of shadow faded in mid-air, the burden of terror and despair lifted from my nerves and I no longer felt the damnable hallucination of nether space and descent.

„My God!“ I cried. „What was it?“ Averaud’s look was full of a ghastly, gloating exultation as he turned to me.

„You saw and felt it, then?“ he queried — „that vague, imperfect manifestation of the perfect evil which exists somewhere in the cosmos? I shall yet call it forth in its entirety, and know the black, infinite, reverse raptures which attend its epiphany.“

I recoiled from him with an involuntary shudder. All the hideous things that had swarmed upon me beneath the cacophonous beating of those accursed gongs, drew near again for an instant; and I looked with fearful vertigo into hells of perversity and corruption. I saw an inverted soul, despairing of good, which longed for the baleful ecstasies of perdition. No longer did I think him merely mad: for I knew the thing which he sought and could attain; and I remembered, with a new significance, that line of Baudelaire’s poem — „The hell wherein my heart delights.“

Averaud was unaware of my revulsion, in his dark rhapsody. When I turned to leave, unable to bear any longer the blasphemous atmosphere of that room, and the sense of strange depravity which emanated from its owner, he pressed me to return as soon as possible.

„I think,“ he exulted, „that all will be in readiness before long. I want you to be present in the hour of my triumph.“

I do not know what I said, nor what excuses I made to get away from him. I longed to assure myself that a world of unblasted sunlight and undefiled air could still exist. I went out; but a shadow followed me; and execrable faces leered or mowed from the foliage as I left the cypress-shaded grounds.

For days afterward I was in a condition verging upon neurotic disorder. No one could come as close as I had been to the primal effluence of evil, and go thence unaffected. Shadowy noisome cobwebs draped themselves on all my thoughts, and presences of unlineamented fear, of shapeless horror, crouched in the half-lit corners of my mind but would never fully declare themselves. An invisible gulf, bottomless as Malebolge, seemed to yawn before me wherever I went.

Presently, though, my reason reasserted itself, and I wondered if my sensations in the black triangular room had not been wholly a matter of suggestion or auto-hypnosis. I asked myself if it were credible that a cosmic force of the sort postulated by Averaud could really exist; or, granting it existed, could be evoked by any man through the absurd intermediation of a musical device. The nervous terrors of my experience faded a little in memory; and, though a disturbing doubt still lingered, I assured myself that all I had felt was of purely subjective origin. Even then, it was with supreme reluctance, with an inward shrinking only to be overcome by violent resolve, that I returned to visit Averaud once more.

For an even longer period than usual, no one answered my knock. Then there were hurrying footsteps, and the door was opened abruptly by Fifine. I knew immediately that something was amiss, for her face wore a look of unnatural dread and anxiety, and her eyes were wide, with the whites showing blankly, as if she gazed upon horrific things. She tried to speak, and made that ghastly inarticulate sound which the mute is able to make on occasion as she plucked my sleeve and drew me after her along the somber hall to the triangular room.

The door was open; and as I approached it, I heard a low, dissonant, snarling murmur, which I recognized as the sound of the gongs. It was like the voice of all the souls in a frozen hell, uttered by lips congealing slowly toward the ultimate torture of silence. It sank and sank till it seemed to be issuing from pits below the nadir.

Fifine shrank back on the threshold, imploring me with a pitiful glance to precede her . The lights were all turned on and Averaud, clad in a strange medieval costume, in a black gown and cap such as Faustus might have worn, stood near the percussive mechanism. The hammers were all beating with a frenzied rapidity; and the sound became still lower and tenser as I approached. Averaud did not seem to see me: his eyes, abnormally dilated, and flaming with infernal luster like those of one possessed, were fixed upon something in mid-air.

Again the soul-congealing hideousness, the sense of eternal falling, of myriad harpy-like incumbent horrors, rushed upon me as I looked and saw. Vaster and stronger than before, a double column of triangular shadow had materialized and was becoming more and more distinct. It swelled, it darkened, it enveloped the gong-apparatus and towered to the ceiling. The double column grew solid and opaque as ebony; and the face of Averaud, who was standing well within the broad penumbral shadow, became dim as if seen through a film of Stygian water.

I must have gone utterly mad for a while. I remember only a teeming delirium of things too frightful to be endured by a sane mind, that peopled the infinite gulf of hell-born illusion into which I sank with the hopeless precipitancy of the damned. There was a sickness inexpressible, a vertigo of redeemless descent, a pandemonium of ghoulish phantoms that reeled and swayed about the column of malign omnipotent force which presided over all. Averaud was only one more phantom in this delirium, when with arms outstretched in his perverse adoration, he stepped toward the inner column and passed into it till he was lost to view. And Fifine was another phantom when she ran by me to the wall and turned off the switch that operated those demoniacal hammers.

As one who re-emerges from a swoon, I saw the fading of the dual pillar, till the light was no longer sullied by any tinge of that satanic radiation. And where it had been, Averaud still stood beside the baleful instrument he had designed. Erect and rigid he stood, in a strange immobility; and I felt an incredulous horror, a chill awe, as I went forward and touched him with a faltering hand. For that which I saw and touched was no longer a human being but an ebon statue, whose face and brow and fingers were black as the Faust-like raiment or the sullen curtains. Charred as by sable fire, or frozen by black cold, the features bore the eternal ecstasy and pain of Lucifer in his ultimate hell of ice. For an instant, the supreme evil which Averaud had worshipped so madly, which he had summoned from the vaults of incalculable space, had made him one with itself; and passing, it had left him petrified into an image of its own essence. The form that I touched was harder than marble; and I knew that it would endure to all time as a testimony of the infinite Medusean power that is death and corruption and darkness.

Fifine had now thrown herself at the feet of the image and was clasping its insensible knees. With her frightful muted moaning in my ears, I went forth for the last time from that chamber and from that mansion. Vainly, through delirious months and madness-ridden years, I have tried to shake off the infrangible obsession of my memories. But there is a fatal numbness in my brain as if it too had been charred and blackened a little in that moment of overpowering nearness to the dark ray of the black statue that was Jean Averaud, the impress of awful and forbidden things has been set like an everlasting seal.

Back to the Gothics: Die Elbjungfer, aus `Abendländische Tausend und eine Nacht´ (J.P. Lyser), 1838

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Carl Weisflog: Der Teufel und sein Liebchen, aus `Phantasiestücke und Historien´, 1824 – 29 (via (2)

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