To the right of the wrought-iron gate tree after tree rose into the sky, silhouettes against the night brilliant and electric, their branches appearing over the roof of the house like lightning bolts, striking shadows across the benches in the garden and the carriages parked in the drive drawing mysterious lines across the immaculate lawn and shrubbery, the flower garden which was spotted with green stalks but not blooming, and over single shoe that lay on the black soil like a small and unsatisfactory offering; but the garden was empty, the lights were on in the house but no shadows visible within it, the trees cast their own strange forms across the walls as they stood there like ancient and terrifying gods. Beyond the garden the sea stretched out into infinite darkness; even the stars dared not to reflect off it, making the water seem a dull platform, a giant pebble spread across the dark horizon that beseeches solitary viewers to walk across and find what lay on the other side. Because beyond that, only sky.
I moved through the great stillness to the entrance where I met six guests, all in various stages of disarray and leaning quite heavily on the arms of one another. The women wore wigs of the latest fashion which seemed to recommended piling the hair heavily atop the head like a coiling stairway to Olympus. And they wore beautiful gowns of cream, pink, or azure that rustled and slipped off their shoulders as they danced. There was no distinction of sound, laughter and champagne flutes ringing and tinkling mixed together and with the contrast of light and dark from the candelabras on the wall and the depths that their shadows cast everything seemed to swirl and seethe and as we moved further in the hallway more and more colorful gowns spun and the glow from the candles was electric. I imagined I saw the host standing at the top of a long stairway but between the sifting bodies I could only make out his blue uniform and the long stem of his meerschaum sprouting from his fist as he gesticulated to someone else far away.
A stranger to these kinds of parties, I was not entirely comfortable; I moved through the tangled web of torsos and appendages towards the basement stairs, knowing the air would be cooler there and more private. Before reaching the first step I found a man leaning against the railing, a beautiful wood-carved pipe in his hand which he brought, with a considerable air of nonchalance, to the small dark opening beneath his upper lip. I wished to pass him unnoticed, but his pale blue eyes focused on my person as I attempted to shrug out of the light.
“You can’t be half as drunk as the rest of them,” he said, the corner of his mustache faintly turning up, the “you” accentuated by a jab of his pipe.
“No, actually I just arrived. I heard the host has a fine array of wines from Portugal just in and…thought I would take a look.” The dead weight of his gaze complicated my excuse. He pulled on his pipe, brow raised in amusement or mockery and his stance shifted from leaning to towering.
“Ah well, the host is a good friend of mine, feel free to have a look around” he blew a stream of smoke from his pipe at my eyes. Something must have happened then because after the sting, after I reopened my eyes the wall began to lose its stability, soft shadows danced across it; it could perhaps have been the smoke, the man was gone and the only thing solid in my vision were the cool dark stairs leading down into the basement.
The shriek of the guests trailed behind me; it grew more faded as I receded from the chaos of the party, and by the eighth step all noise was lost. It occurred to me to think of what I was doing at this overdressed, stumbling party. I was newly come over from America and had met the host only a few times at the fishing dock and, as we both had sailed to India, our conversations had been limited to architecture and the mystical culture of those strange and beautiful people. I suppose I was meant to introduce myself to some of guests, but these were not my type, they were too bold, too gaudy, almost like a menagerie of magnificently plumed peacocks vying for scattered breadcrumbs in the bright cage of the hall.
It was damp as I stepped onto the packed dirt floor of the basement. It took a moment until I was able to perceive a light glowing on the right side of the winding tunnel. I moved toward it, I should say that I am something of a connoisseur and I was a bit interested in finding out if there really were any special blends from Portugal as one never knows what rumors one will hear out on the fishing docks. Yet my desire was not extreme, something else seemed to persuade me, tempting me to go deeper into those catacombs; I had a hazy image of blue smoke and a dazzling white smile lurking in the recesses of my consciousness.
A sudden crash and the broken racket of falling glass echoed behind me just as a man brusquely charged the depths, the golden glint of a woman’s gown followed soon after. They stopped abruptly in front of me taking a considerable amount of time to focus.
“I say…you don’t happen to have…” the man stammered and leaned close, causing my to pull back.
“A smoke Charlie, a smoke,” the woman’s voice was high and nasal and her European accent was blurred by champagne. Suddenly she grabbed his arm and they disappeared further down the tunnel.
I realized I had been holding my breath and now let it out in quick pants. My hand was spotted with white and red; I had been gripping the doorknob of the wine cellar as they stood in front of me dumbly swaying. Nothing could persuade me to find out what vulgarity they were to engage in, but I was worried they might stumble into the room and I was compelled to lock it after me. The glow in the hall came from a small opening cut into the doorway of the wine cellar; the room was brightly lit and immediately presented me with rows upon rows of green and black bottles with many colored wax-tops some of them new and shiny and others coated in a soft white dust, presumably from the wooden rafters that latticed the ceiling. I pulled a long silk handkerchief from my trouser pocket and went to the bottles, rubbing the ones too coated to read the label. What a find! 1847, 1823! Wines from not only South America but North America Spain, France, and Portugal. I closed my eyes and was inundated with imagined smells. The heady metallic scent of the wine itself, the salt air from the ship that brought each bottle over, I could even smell the musky barrels, the grapes on the vine. I was lost in this dream-like composition, each sound layered over another and blending to create a symphony –
But there was something else. Something distinctly off, almost sweaty invading my sense. It was not coming from my imagination but from inside the room and maybe beyond the shelves. It was only a matter of minutes before I had become sweaty myself. I had carefully piled the right half of the bottles in a corner of the room and was removing the shelves and stacking them against the wall. The smell was getting stronger, a strange, human smell not unlike the rank smell of birthing rags.
I could have been down there for hours; the guests were certainly still there, I could hear footsteps pounding away upstairs. I wondered briefly about the drunk couple but I was not nervous yet, t[hey would probably be asleep and I would have plenty of time to get the shelves back and the wine before anyone came down to look for them.] Several minutes later I had broken through; I was able to step into a small recess which was illuminated enough by the light in the room. Looking back now I am able to remark how strange a thing I did not wonder how the lights came to be— I assumed perhaps our host had them burning for guests who wanted to spy his collection. However clouded of mind I may have been my sight was clear and when I peered inside the secluded area I was amazed at what my eyes presented me. Standing upright in this space that was not so tall as the average man, was a man of pale complexion, his eyes were dark and slightly bugging, but his mouth was handsome and he was very well dressed. I brought a hand up to my forehead to check for an unusual temperature and this apparition— this man standing behind the wall of wine bottles! — brought his own long and elegant fingers to touch the same spot of temple that I had. The horror on my face must have shown because he mocked and mimicked my very shock back at me. The fellow had no obvious manners, and as astounded I was this insult enabled me to call out to him.
“What are you doing here?” my voice came out surprisingly stable, for I felt I was standing on deck of a ship tossed up by Neptune’s heaving shoulders.
He was mute, his mouth moved akin to mine, but no words came and he remained standing there, arms now on his hips, and with an accusatory glare I repeated my question.
“I say, how is it you came to be here? Are you deaf? Mute? Do you want to come out? You can come out, you see,” I stepped back and showed him the way and he moved backwards and was swallowed up by shadow.
I can’t recall how long I stood in that room. The next I remember I was back outside walking down the path to my own home passing Alder, Birch, Hazel, Hornbeam, the names of trees the only way to keep my mind focused, to keep each foot moving in front of the other, Juniper, Poplar, Pine, Maple; my mind felt unclouded but I was moving with a heaviness of step accustomed to heavy drinkers, but not to one so sober as myself. For I don’t think I’d ever been so sober in my life. My eyes were able trace distinct patterns in the branches of the trees as they wound their skinny fingers across the sky. I was shaken, stunned. I could not tell in what direction I was walking except that I knew my house to be just beyond the next fence. Elm, Cherry, Plum, and I was at my doorstep, shoving past the doorman and huddled safe beneath the blankets, though so cold that I would not remove my overcoat.
I believe I slept, and with the rise of the sun felt all infections purged. I had not drawn the curtains and the side-walk traffic slowly chugged by. I lay unashamed as passerby peeked through my window in wonder at the man lying tangled in the sheets, coat, shoes and watch all still hanging off his body. In the waking light images ran across my eyes in heavy contrast: I saw the glow of the dancers, their horrible gaping mouths as they shrieked and laughed and pulled at my clothes, I saw their bodies dance past me as if I still ran through the hall sweat-soaked and they kept after me, cheering and laughing with their horrible yawning mouths until I rushed the doors and thrust out into the great black open. And the man with the mustache, the host and his blue, and both with the slender handled pipes sprouting like vines from their mouths, rising up to their bright laughing eyes. And of course I remembered the man. I could see the skin stretched so across the bones like it was the only thing holding them together. I shudder now to think of his eyes, the empty black holes and the silence of his speech.
A month went by; I was able to go about my daily business with only a slight tremor that followed me until night time. And then the shaking would begin, slow at first, hardly noticeable, but while I tossed in bed it would set on stronger until I was forced to rise and pace by the window. Most of time I could control it, and when I was able to sleep I was unhampered by dreams. It was soon that I was sleeping almost every night; another month passed, and then another. The snows came and began to clear by the time I met him again. The day was actually my birthday; I was thirty three and had just treated myself to some crème glace as he came down the walk, swinging his cane.
Instead of the wooden pipe he smoked a fat white cigarette, it hung lazily at the side of his mouth. I hoped he wouldn’t recognize me, pulled my hat down over my eyes and stuffed my hands in my trouser pockets. And he came on, and when we passed I chanced to glance sideways at him and met his cold blue eyes with my own.
“By Jove!” he exclaimed. “You have grown rather peaked my boy; winter was a hard one, eh? You should go on vacation, I heard you sail, maybe get out on the open sea?” His manner was effusive and warm but there was something sinister about him.
“It was a pleasure to see you,” I said to him, “I really do have to be on my way, I’m off to the office and it would be terrible if I were late.”
“Of course, I completely understand. But just one moment, please,” he had changed direction and was walking with me, his hand steered me by the elbow. “Rumor has it that you’ve steered clear of our wonderful hosts’ dance parties. I admit myself I haven’t seen you since the night we met, but you’ve received several such invitations, haven’t you? And I dare say it would be rude to continue to refuse them, after all, it was so kind of you to come in the first place. You can’t hole yourself away in some terrible apartment forever, I’ve lived in this blasted country for twelve years and I know it won’t do. You must enjoy some friendships or you’ll go mad, alone all the time. I’ve asked some great friends to join me at the next party and I’ve told them all about you, no excuses, we’ll see you on Saturday night. Now, run off to the office, good-bye.” With that he let go of my elbow and walked off into the park.
I didn’t go to the office that day. I sat on a bench and stared at the curling grass, each tender point seeming a blade edge and if I dared to move, a number of tiny swords would pierce the bottom of my shoes and I would be rooted to the spot forever— a statue that is appreciated only by the crows who come to roost.
Saturday came and I lay in bed when a knock sounded at the door. I heard the doorman’s feet as he pattered over to answer it, murmured voices and a soft rap on my bedroom door. He had come for me.
I attempted to immerse myself in the party. I moved my feet in time with the throbbing music, I bowed my head to a talking mouth, I even drank from my champagne, and soon I was able to forget about the imperceptible tug at my curiosity. I did not see the host or the mustachioed man, and I was a little embarrassed at the manner of my departure the last party. I did not thank nor say good-bye to the host, and I imagine the wine-cellar remained torn apart, the smell of my own sweat perhaps still lingering on the air. But I did not mind that now; with these raving lunatics, these vapid dancers, I could be completely free and unrestrained. And in the midst of all the chaos, of the beating bodies and waves of hair flapping in my vision, I caught another glimpse: on the top of the stairs, where I once saw the host in his blue and white sailor’s uniform, now appeared the pallid face, the dark empty soul looking out from behind glassy eyes, his full lips parted, panting and hands frozen in front of him—one a balled fist that suddenly relaxed and I felt my glass of champagne shatter on the floor.
I looked wildly around but everyone was consumed in the sin and splendor of the dance. I grabbed the nearest man and shouted: “Look! Look there, on the stairs, do you see?” but I was only met with a blank stare and the hot sour breath of a man so full of liquor he couldn’t even see himself. I was transformed by a swirling passion. I bolted for the stairs, and to my surprise and horror, the man bolted back at me. I froze on the second landing just before we collided. I was close enough to touch him, could smell the mysterious scent emanating from him, something so old yet prenatal.
“Who are you?” I
whispered fiercely into his ear.
“Who are you?” I heard whispered back.
Oh the horror that struck as this apparition voiced my same words! I charged down the crowded, jangling hallway, glass after glass fell and crashed behind me as I ran blind to the lights, deaf to the voices raised in alarm I was spinning dizzy spit rolled down my chin, I ran my lungs heaving until I was in the dark, struck down by the cold I fell to my knees sobbing nearly at this thing which so possessed me. I felt the heat of the guests’ stare as a single body they stood, accusatory in the doorway, just a shining silhouette against the burning lights, a single, seething mass—
But for some air, fresh sea air and the mingled scent of wet grass. It had the effect of smelling salts. I hunched over a small Buckthorn while my breath argued for air with my lungs. The moon was up and shone dully on the wide stretch of ocean before me, I looked at the silhouette of the trees, each branch an arm threatening to lift me up and hurl me into the sky. It almost seemed preferable than being on this deserted lawn, the sounds from the house so muffled I could not hear a thing. The house loomed over me, the fire from the windows cast a long shadow behind me and it was all I could to keep from crying out. My own muted form reflected back at me on the ground had a haunting feel, I wished it away and ran to the beach behind the house where the lights would not shine and where I could be lost in the quiet dark.
Water near frozen; I rolled my trouser legs to the knee and stood in the cold until my feet went numb. Some of the water I cupped in my hands and through the pale light of the moon I could see my reflection staring back at me. I don’t know how long it had been since seeing myself—my apartment had no mirrors, it was a modest dwelling and the doorman wasn’t paid to shine the silver. In this emptying pool I saw how pale my skin had become, how sunken my cheekbones. I picked up another small pool; my eyes! Once set deep and marked by dashing shadows, they appeared to bulge, and my hair lay in sweaty streaks across my forehead. I looked ghastly. With a shudder I splashed the water on my face, cleansing, calming, and made up my mind to get out of England, take a vacation, maybe to Spain or Portugal. I would leave on the next train to Paris and stay there for a couple of weeks before moving on. I would telegram the office at once. After solidifying the plans in my head I turned and I felt the full weight of cold on my legs and walked heavy home.
When I had reached my home and climbed into bed, he was there. I yet was so overwhelmed by the desire to sleep that I did not get up to check. His laughter followed me as I drifted off to sleep.
In the morning I woke unmolested and spent only enough time to pack a small suitcase, before hurrying off for the train station. The sun had not yet torn through the fog and the absence of any warmth quickened my steps. All at once I perceived I was being followed by the man with the mustache. He must have followed me as I left the house, alerted by the ghostly stranger in my room. His steps echoed mine as I pounded across town. We reached the station in minutes; the train stood at the platform its column of smoke adding to the morning haze. It was a towering edifice, so much steel, so much power, it towered over the passengers shuffling about, hugging each other and fumbling about as they prepared for the journey The man took up a position by the ticket stand; I heard him rustle a newspaper as I whispered urgently to the ticket seller. He remained by the wall with his newspaper as I boarded the train with the other passengers bound for Paris. Once on the train I allowed myself to relax and think over my experience in London. I was not able to clearly go over the details of my experiences, -when I tried to recall the strangeness of my excursion into the cellar I was overcome with a headache. I could not make out the distinct shapes of the trees as they passed by the train and the blur of colors and variations in intensity made me uneasy. I lay back to rest until we reached Paris.
I arrived and checked in to the Hotel des Voyageurs, where I was provided with a bed, a desk, and a set of drawers where I placed my belongings before setting off to find a suitable apartment. Mornings were often the same, I would set out in search of lodging, roaming the narrow streets looking for a sign “for rent” or sitting in the corner of some dark café reading Le Nouvelliste. The landlords were often the same, they would come to the door of a small top-floor apartment, hardly larger than my room at the Hotel and extol mightily the virtues of such a cramped living space, “elle est tres charmante, non?” I watched them watching me, they were often suspicious, but greedy, their quick eyes and quicker fingers. I felt a welling of disgust as I entered each new abode, but finally I found an acceptable room near a patisserie and moved my things in immediately.
The woman who runs the building is nosy, fat and ugly, always ready with a conspiratory wink. I have had to bar the door from her to keep my privacy, she always tries to enter to clean the room, or change the sheets or to make sure the monsieur has enough wood for the fireplace. The roughness of her hands sickens me, her face, her unkempt hair....
I do not leave my room anymore, I have commissioned this woman to bring me bread and cheese and the occasional apple, and I sit and read and write but do not go further than the outside hall. First, I was afraid of an encounter. Each man in Paris wears a mustache, swings a cane and walks forward with a piercing, accusatory glare. I am afraid of the man, afraid of seeing the smoke billowing from his nostrils like a clever dragon. And the apparition which he heralds. I am haunted. He made it so that I could no longer eat, no longer sleep for fear of dreaming, but awake I was still afraid.
It happened after a month of seclusion. I was so careful not to be seen! Even my bedroom window shaded its bright face with curtains, but still he came. That first night when he stood with his back to me, pale figure silhouetted against the parted curtains, the tremors began. I tried to sill the rustle of the bed sheets but as he stood there musing, his ear was turned toward the noise.
“What are you doing here?” my demand was made soft with fear. When he talked, his words came out slow and with a strange echo that was not so much an added sound, but an added sense to his speech. “I am unable to go farther,” he said then, turning to me. “I came for you, dear Conrad.” Bless me if this apparition didn’t speak my own name! How came he by it? How did he find his way into my sealed and bolted room? He appeared sullen, a gentle sorrow etched lines the skin of his face. He moved then, slowly, every thing about him bespoke a man so heavy with sadness that he can no longer move as a man but as a thing buried, struggling through a mist that tries everything to push him back. I felt then a sort of pity for this figure, I stopped backing away— I was near halfway up the headboard! and he stopped coming towards me and then the a sort of silence. And a connection. I had in my mind the image of a broken hammer, the handle lay on the dark black soil of a dying garden. This hand that came towards me and touched my cheek burned like fire, and I was unable to see in the room. I felt his weight press against the mattress and I was folded into the warmth of a dying fire. I’ve gone blind! I thought and the convulsions grew, the sky above wheeled and dove towards the reaching trees stark naked and growing, the lighting! the fear! the holy glory that encapsulates all mankind and as my own skin touched the very flesh of my face I was blossomed, dying anew in the rage of the sea and could not open my eyes for the pattern of rain that fell from my lashes.