The Novel of the White Powder (part 3/4)

My brother remained in his room. He called out to me in a voice I hardly recognized, that he was very busy, and would like his meals brought to his door and left there, and I gave the order to the servants. From that day it seemed as if the arbitrary conception we call time had been annihilated for me. I lived in an ever present sense of horror, going through the routine of the house mechanically, and only speaking a few necessary words to the servants. Now and then I went out and paced the streets for an hour or two and came home again; but whether I were without or within, my spirit delayed before the closed door of the upper room, and, shuddering, waited for it to open. I have said that I scarcely reckoned time, but I suppose it must have been a fortnight after Dr. Haberden’s visit that I came home from my stroll a little refreshed and lightened. The air was sweet and pleasant, and the hazy form of green leaves, floating cloud-like in the square, and the smell of blossoms, had charmed my senses, and I felt happier and walked more briskly. As I delayed a moment at the verge of the pavement, waiting for a van to pass by before crossing over to the house, I happened to look up at the windows, and instantly there was the rush and swirl of deep cold waters in my ears, and my heart leapt up, and fell down, down as into a deep hollow, and I was amazed with a dread and terror without form or shape. I stretched out a hand blindly through folds of thick darkness, from the black and shadowy valley, and held myself from falling, while the stones beneath my feet rocked and swayed and tilted, and the sense of solid things seemed to sink away from under me. I had glanced up at the window of my brother’s study, and at that moment the blind was drawn aside, and something that had life stared out into the world. Nay, I cannot say I saw a face or any human likeness; a living thing, two eyes of burning flame glared at me, and they were in the midst of something as formless as my fear, the symbol and presence of all evil and all hideous corruption. I stood shuddering and quaking as with the grip of ague, sick with unspeakable agonies of fear and loathing, and for five minutes I could not summon force or motion to my limbs. When I was within the door, I ran up the stairs to my brother’s room, and knocked.

“Francis, Francis,” I cried, “for heaven’s sake answer me. What is the horrible thing in your room? Cast it out, Francis, cast it from you!”

I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a choking, gurgling sound, as if some one was struggling to find utterance, and then the noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words that I could scarcely understand.

“There is nothing here,” the voice said, “Pray do not disturb me. I am not very well to-day.”

I turned away, horrified and yet helpless. I could do nothing, and I wondered why Francis had lied to me, for I had seen the appearance beyond the glass too plainly to be deceived, though it was but the sight of a moment. And I sat still, conscious that there had been something else, something I had seen in the first flash of terror before those burning eyes had looked at me. Suddenly I remembered; as I lifted my face the blind was being drawn back, and I had had an instant’s glance of the thing that was moving it, and in my recollection I knew that a hideous image was engraved forever on my brain. It was not a hand: there were no fingers that held the blind, but a black stump pushed it aside; the mouldering outline and the clumsy movement as of a beast’s paw had glowed into my senses before the darkling waves of terror had overwhelmed me as I went down quick into the pit. My mind was aghast at the thought of this, and of the awful presence that dwelt with my brother in his room; I went to his door and cried to him again, but no answer came. That night one of the servants came up to me and told me in a whisper that for three days food had been regularly placed at the door and left untouched; the maid had knocked, but had received no answer; she had heard the noise of shuffling feet that I had noticed. Day after day went by, and still my brother’s meals were brought to his door and left untouched; and though I knocked and called again and again, I could get no answer. The servants began to talk to me; it appeared they were as alarmed as I. The cook said that when my brother first shut himself up in his room, she used to hear him come out at night and go about the house; and once, she said, the hall door had opened and closed again, but for several nights she had heard no sound. The climax came at last. It was in the dusk of the evening, and I was sitting in the darkening dreary room when a terrible shriek jarred and rang harshly out of the silence, and I heard a frightened scurry of feet dashing down the stairs. I waited, and the servant maid staggered into the room and faced me, white and trembling.

“O Miss Helen,” she whispered. “Oh, for the Lord’s sake, Miss Helen, what has happened? Look at my hand, miss; look at that hand!” I drew her to the window, and saw there was a black wet stain upon her hand.

“I do not understand you,” I said. “Will you explain to me?”

“I was doing your room just now,” she began. “I was turning down the bedclothes, and all of a sudden there was something fell upon my hand wet, and I looked up, and the ceiling was black and dripping on me.”

I looked bard at her, and bit my lip. “Come with me,” I said. “Bring your candle with you.”

The room I slept in was beneath my brother’s, and as I went in I felt I was trembling. I looked up at the ceiling, and saw a patch, all black and wet and a dew of black drops upon it, and a pool of horrible liquor soaking into the white bedclothes.

I ran upstairs and knocked loudly.

“O Francis, Francis, my dear brother,” I cried, “what has happened to you?”

And I listened. There was a sound of choking, and a noise like water bubbling and regurgitating, but nothing else, and I called louder, but no answer came.

In spite of what Dr. Haberden had said, I went to him, and with tears streaming down my cheeks, I told him of all that had happened, and he listened to me with a face set hard and grim.

“For your father’s sake,” he said at last, “I will go with you, though I can do nothing.”

We went out together; the streets were dark and silent, and heavy with heat and a drought of many weeks. I saw the doctor’s face white under the gas-lamps, and when we reached the house his hand was shaking. We did not hesitate, but went upstairs directly. I held the lamp, and he called out in a loud, determined voice:–

“Mr. Leicester, do you hear me? I insist on seeing you. Answer me at once.”

There was no answer, but we both heard that choking noise I have mentioned.

“Mr. Leicester, I am waiting for you. Open the door this instant, or I shall break it down.” And he called a third time in a voice that rang and echoed from the walls.

“Mr. Leicester! For the last time I order you to open the door.”

“Ah!” he said, after a pause of heavy silence, “we are wasting time here. Will you be so kind as to get me a poker, or something of the kind?”

I ran into a little room at the back where odd articles were kept, and found a heavy adze-like tool that I thought might serve the doctor’s purpose.

“Very good,” he said, “that will do, I dare say. I give you notice, Mr. Leicester,” he cried loudly at the keyhole, “that I am now about to break into your room.”

Then I heard the wrench of the adze, and the woodwork split and cracked under it, and with a loud crash the door suddenly burst open; and for a moment we started back aghast at a fearful screaming cry, no human voice, but as the roar of a monster, that burst forth inarticulate and struck at us out of the darkness.

“Hold the lamp,” said the doctor, and we went in and glanced quickly round the room. “There it is,” said Dr. Haberden, drawing a quick breath; “look, in that corner.”

I looked, and a pang of horror seized my heart as with a white-hot iron. There upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes, and bubbling with unctuous oily bubbles like boiling pitch. And out of the midst of it shone two burning points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring as of limbs, and something moved and lifted up that might have been an arm. The doctor took a step forward, and raised the iron bar and struck at the burning points, and drove in the weapon, and struck again and again in a fury of loathing. At last the thing was quiet.

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