The Phial of Dread: By An Analytic Chemist
by Fitz Hugh Ludlow
- Fitz Hugh Ludlow
- First Day's Journal.
- Second Day's Journal.
- Third Day's Journal.
- Fourth Day's Journal.
I believe that I am now safe. This part of Columbia Street is not
much visited by any people who ever knew me. The other end is in Grand
Street. I doubt whether any of my acquaintance have vivid recollection
of that end either. As for myself, I was aware of neither end nor
middle till three days ago. Being in Broadway, with an infinite terror
hanging on my shoulders like a cloak—starting at every louder voice of
man, woman, or child— recoiling from every rapidly approaching
stranger who looked me in the face—I naturally enough wished to get
away—any where out of the bustle. On my left hand was Grand Street; to
turn into it was the most obvious method of escaping from Broadway. So
I _did_ turn. For a block beyond Brooks's great limbo of possible but
undeveloped pantaloons Grand Street keeps a fashionable air. Thus far
are whiffs of Broadway sucked into its draft; thus far you meet
Broadway faces; thus far you are reminded of Broadway— are not quite
at ease with the idea of being out of it—may at any moment be accosted
by somebody you have met before on the great pave. I walked faster,
therefore. Broadway began to fade out; the Bowery character become
slowly dominant. I reached—I crossed the Bowery. Now I began to
breathe freer. I was pretty sure—growing surer—that I should not be
recognized; and the cloak lifted from my shoulders. The terror did not
leave me, but it followed quietly afar off.
A strange place is the part of Grand Street I was going through
now, to be sure! Quite a Broadway by itself, though not _the_ Broadway,
thank Heaven! but a sort of shabby Broadway come to New York to visit
its merchant prince-cousin; and not being recognized as a connection,
going off in a huff and setting up for itself—the Broadway of the east
to west, entirely independent of the north to south aristocrat. Or to
the speculative mind it might seem an old shell shed by Broadway the
Magnificent thirty years ago, while marble and Albert granite were
unconceived—a shell captured by the hermit crab called Grand Street,
and peacefully lived in ever since; the ghost of old Broadway, as known
to our fathers, reappearing across the track of young Broadway, yet a
ghost, sociable, responsive, fearless of daylight, not to be laid. All
such thoughts as these whirled through my brain as I strode along with
nervous, devious feet, and they seemed to fight back for a short
farther distance _the terror_. I hailed them gladly, therefore, and
Here were tailors, from the plethora of their shops evidently
rejoicing in abundant custom, famous, blessed, well-to-do; and all this
within the world of Grand Street—elsewhere unknown. So many
green-grocers, with fresh Bermuda potatoes and cucumbers piled up in
front of them, supplying a class of citizens who never gave one thought
to Washington Market. So many celebrated doctors, all in black and gilt
on the dull sides of the two-story brick houses. Dentists, on great
door-plates of tarnished mock silver—and I had never heard of them
before. Mouths filled, teeth pulled, backs clothed, children
educated—all trades and professions going on—even a wholesale
dry-goods store taking up two numbers, like a Murray Street or Liberty
Street firm, and selling dollars' worths to its small neighbors who did
the pennyworth business; and evidently none of all these depended in
the least on any other part of New York for a living. I breathed free
in Grand Street, more and more.
All the baggage that it was at present convenient for my to carry
was a carpet-bag, not over heavy. I had that in my hand. What, then,
was to prevent my taking lodgings in Grand Street? I should not be
traced here; the chances were a thousand to one against my ever seeing
a known face; and these were the qualifications which just now would
make the most miserable tenement worth double the most sumptuous parlor
of the St. Nicholas. Why not take lodgings here?—yes, why not?
As I asked myself this question I stood, with the carpet-bag in my
hand, vacillating from one foot to the other, and once or twice turning
completely around. Take lodgings? Yes, to be sure. Why not?
But my eye struck a building somewhat taller than the rest, on the
opposite side of the street. In its door stood a bent man, with the
general air about him of being up all night, drinking beer and eating
Limburger cheese. His poll was bald; in his hand was a dispensatory,
and he peered down over it through some very round spectacles, as if he
were suspecting arsenic in the bricks and meant to sublimate it by a
look; on his right was a great green bottle; over his head, a blue; on
his left, a red one; and far up, under the third-story windows, in very
black letters, was printed all across the house-front,
The cold sweat came out in large drops upon my forehead. The German
on the opposite side lifted his eyes from the arsenical bricks and
fixed them upon me! Was I—? No! He quietly put up his dispensary, and
drawing a meerschaum from the depths of his loose greasy coat, filled
it, lighted it, and began to smoke. But he had given me a start—such a
start! I would not have lived in that vicinity for untold gold. All
trembling, I pushed on.
Supposing they had come in search of me even into Grand Street?
Who? Why, any body—any body that I had ever known. Supposing they
should track me even into that improbable locality, how would they seek
me? By my affinities, no doubt. I was a chemist; among chemists they
would seek me; and to be near that man of drugs there beyond
were—well, to speak plainly, death! I hoped Heaven he had not seen me
clearly with those horrible round goggles of his!
Fleeing from him, I passed street after street, still keeping in
Grand, when of a sudden, at one corner, my eye was arrested by the
faded word "Columbia" in dead old paint, on a dead old billet, on a
dead old brick wall. The rains had plowed its impress for how many
years only the Heaven from which they came could tell, scrubbing at it
assiduously, but as yet not quite able, with all their housemaid
energy, to obliterate the stain. "Columbia"—I paused and looked north.
The street descends a little, as if it were going to lead down into
pleasant valleys, then remembers itself, recalls the fact that it is a
city street, and mounts to go staidly on again. But afar I could
perceive signs of almost country quiet. There were some green trees—
green still, while all the urban parks were taking their dust- baptism,
and the lilac leaves, mad for thirst, in St. John's church-yard, might
be written on with the finger and keep their record a week. There was
one lazy omnibus utterly empty hurrying through it, far, far up, as if
astray there by mistake, and running what seemed homeward with much
bewilderment and sense of not having any business there. I saw no one
on the east sidewalk as far as the eye reached. On the west a workman
sat about midway between me and the farthest visible point, on the
grass which sprung up along the curb, his feet in the dry gutter,
eating his dinner out of a tin pail quite pastorally. He had not been
building any thing. He had only been taking down a row of decayed
tree-boxes; they lay in a neat pile near him, waiting for some unlikely
cart. When he went away business there would be none in that street.
My mind was made up. I would get lodgings in Columbia Street. If
possible, just a little northward of the middle.
If I were a bank-defaulter—a traitor to government—a fallen
clergyman—a gallant who had brought gall into the heart— oblivion
upon the head of a once pure wife, and were flying the mad, tireless
husband—if I were any thing disgraced—in danger— I would make this
same point my aim—I would run hither to hide me. If I were a
murderer— But oh, hush! that word is too awful!
For when people came to hunt me, the first supposition would be
that I was escaping to foreign parts. That idea would draw off a large
part of my pursuers in the direction of the steamers, the foreign
police journals, efforts for extradition. There would be other who
would say, "He is in the States—he is too cunning to try such a
common, such a well-watched mode of escape as the steamers;" but being
of a somewhat timid mind themselves, they would be little likely to
conceive of a man in peril staying in the great, public city. These the
suburbs and the country would draw off. A few astute, alert, resolute,
fearless persons, clinging to the theory that I had never left New
York, would stay here to unearth me. And by them I should be looked for
through all the kennels of the lower wards—Leonard, Worth, Thomas
streets, and such like, and the upper tenement houses, as in further
West Thirty-first Street, for instance, and the ungraded streets still
higher. I do not suppose that of those pursuers who remained in New
York to look for me _three_ would consider for a moment the likelihood
of my being in the mid-heart of New York at the spot I mentioned. Grant
even that these three together came on my trail through Grand Street.
At the Bowery such an entirely different life and population from that
of Broadway begins to appear—the side-streets lose so entirely all
reference to the direction of that main artery, that two of the three
would be drawn up or down the Bowery in pursuit of me through these
branching ways, and to all of them it would appear most likely that I
had involved myself in this new current, this turbulent swirl, obeying
no Broadway laws, to escape discovery. One, perhaps, perplexed with
misgivings, would go on his lonely track, from mere perversity, through
Grand Street. There is no transverse way into which I fancy he would be
less likely to turn than this one. For, in the first place, the air of
respectability and quietude about it would turn him away, on the ground
that a man in peril of discovery might as sensibly put himself within
range of the lynx-eyes and gossiping tongues of a country town as to
come here—there would seem no hurly-burly to merge one's criminal
identity in. In the second place, he _would_ have his attention
attracted to the mysterious look of that billet on the corner wall,
bearing the name—its blank, faded, sympathetic-ink appearance would
certainly seem ominous to him—it has a theatrical likeness, seems full
of secret meaning, and strongly attracts the man on a murder scent—on
a defaulter's or a traitor's scent, I mean. But as he drew closer and
read the name—read it and found it, after all its bad looks, to be
something as patriotic, as frank, as world-wide as "Columbia," he would
say to himself, "Pish! I'm a fool! One would have expected such a
piratical-looking signal to spell out Brinvilliere Street, Tofana,
Borgia, Burke, or Daval Street! Columbia! as soon expect to find a
villain on the steps of the Merchants' Exchange!" And so, led by the
force of his own false reasoning, made false at first by the
disappointment of his sentiment of mystery, he would pass on and seek
me in some of the streets parallel but nearer the river.
I am not a defaulter. I am not a seducer. I am not— Well, there
are a great many things which I am not. But I am in Columbia Street. On
the day when this clinging terror I have told of chased me from
Broadway, I stole into Columbia Street as into a shadow—rather as a
moose with the dog hanging to his flank will take to the water, deeper
and still deeper, so that if he can not drown off his persecutor he can
at least bear him easier in that denser fluid.
I could not content myself with any of the houses for a
considerable distance from Grand Street. This one was too full of
windows—this one had children playing in its front court— this had
too much air of ostentatious mystery in its closed blinds, its
dull-papered side-lights at the listed front door— and tying up the
overgrown shoot of a strangling Madeira vine, a young girl, eager-eyed,
bare-shouldered, flushed, and with lips half-parted, stood by a trellis
just before this one. Oh! ugh! the terror-cloud wrapped me like a cloak
of nightmare. I could not walk freely, but merely shuddered along. I
moved away by palpitating like a sea-jelly rather than with feet like a
man. It was a long way before I could recover myself at all. The terror
would not endure the sight of a young girl. She was water to its
By-and-by I came to a house two stories high—brick, and left
unpainted, so that time had made its original scarlet a grave and staid
dark red—shaded by two paper mulberries at the lower windows, and
above catching shadow from the lime-tree on the street. The front fence
was a picket—dark brown and rather higher than ordinary. I touched the
gate, and it did not creak. On a dark door-plate, of old, silvery
metal, with mourning lines about its rim, was the name John L. Jones.
The door was grained in imitation of mahogany, and its _tout ensemble_
was coffiny. You might almost expect, if you opened that door, to see
John L. Jones lying pale and still in cerements behind it—a most
respectable man with no nonsense about him—and dead. I was drawn to
this house. Who would ever come to look for me in the house of a man
named John L. Jones! Who would seek for me, the living, among the
dead—or those who looked so dead as the inhabitants of this house
must? Had there been a _morgue_ in New York, among _its_ dead they
might have sought me, but not here— not here!
It suited me. I swung the noiseless gate and passed into the silent
yard—over the sweating, mould-chinked flag-stones of the shady
approach, that echoed not to the foot—up the damp, green, bordered
steps of cracked freestone. Ah! there is a bell—a brass handle, very
small, and lurking in a deep little recess by the architrave, as if it
would not break the deadness by being pulled—hiding from the sound of
its own tongue. And this alone took away from the coffiny look of the
entrance. But when my shaky, undecided hand pulled it I found it not so
incongruous with the general keeping—a slow, long-measured succession
of muffled tinkles followed the pull—a trickling of mournful drops of
sound far down through some dank, cellary air—not a ringing, but a
tolling, as if the ghost of some long-dead man had died a second time
to become a still fainter ghost—a ghost of a ghost— and the spirits
in the first stage—the undiluted survivors—were tolling their chapel
chime at his funeral. Link—link—link— link—link.
It suited me better. Presently I heard the steady, unimpassioned
tread of middle-aged footsteps—the skeleton of a sexton walking in
slippers of cemetery-moss, it might have been, coming to let me in to
the burial-yard. The door opened like the gate, equally without
creaking, and I saw a quiet, pale face looking languidly into my
own—listlessly, not forcefully, inquiring—the face of a woman weary
with long griefs which had worn out her resistance to them—a face
forty in years, a thousand in cares.
"Mrs Jones—Mrs. John L. Jones?" said I.
The woman nodded feebly without change of expression.
"I have come," I continued, "to ask if I can have a room in your
house—a back one if possible—in which I may sleep and have my meals
quietly by myself. I am willing to pay liberally. All I need is
_quiet_, and you seem to have that here."
"Myfi Cymraes—Shawad Sais Dembid."
This, as nearly as I can spell it, was the sound that came from
those wan, changeless lips in reply. I understood it to mean—"I am a
Welsh woman, and speak no English"—for I had been with the Welse, at
their settlemnet in Remson, in Middle New York, for a month of one
summer, and caught just a smattering of their strange tongue. I brought
all my vocabulary to the occasion, and rejoined,
"Bawarch—Odur—Gwelly—Tan," which is, being interpreted, "bread,
water, a bed, and a fire." This I intended as a concise symbol for my
whole want of food and lodging, at the same time pulling a handful of
silver and a roll of bills from my wallet to aid the intelligence of
The woman motioned me in. I was left standing in the entry while
she retreated to the basement; and then, from below, I heard her voice
mix with a gruffer one, which seemed to indicate that John L. Jones,
contrary to all appearances, was _not_ in his coffin, but at his
dinner. After which she returned, and led the way up a narrow and
greasy-carpeted flight of stairs. At the top of it she turned a knob,
and disclosed to me a vacant room. No, not vacant in the sense of being
unfurnished; but there was a dead smell in it, and nobody sat there;
and the only fly on the window-panes was dead, and stuck steadily
there, held by stiffened gluey moisture. There were clothes hanging on
the walls on rusty iron books—coats, vests, pantaloons. And over the
mantle-piece was a dim, bleared daguerrotype. It was a man's—a man who
looked as Mrs. John L. Jones might have done when she was, a long time
ago, young and handsome. On the frame was pasted a scrap out of some
fine-print paper like the _Herald_. I drew close to it and read:
"John L. Jones, Jun., in the 25th year of his age, being the last
of twelve children born to his afflicted parents, John J. and
Bendigedig Winifred Jones, died of heart complaint, at the residence of
his father in this city, June the 12th.
This was June the 19th, one week exactly.
As the woman saw me looking at it, she pointed to it, then to the
bed. It was the bed where her last son died! And our interview ended in
my taking the room, at eight dollars a week, my food to be sent up to
me, and my solitude never to be invaded by the sweeper, the bedmaker,
or any living being.
I was suited. The position, as I said when I began this day's
journal, strikes me, just as it struck me then, favorably in respect to
safety. The hunters who chance to come after me, and in all this vast
chaos of houses, this hive of involved yet separate and distinct
cities, New York, track me out to No.__ Columbia Street, must be
omniscient! This number of all—this street of all.
I keep this journal, because if I hold my secret I shall go mad. I
keep this journal, because to tell it but on paper were ruin—death.
And I think in this way I shall be safe from pursuit—safe also from
I have gone out of the house into the street but once since I came
here. I crept forth this evening at dusk, and found, as far off from my
lodgings as possible, a hardware store. I bought a saw, a screw-driver,
some screws, a couple of gimlets, and a chisel. The saw is thin and
fine, of that description known as a compass-saw. I then went to a
grocer's and purchased a bottle of sweet-oil. Saws go quite silently
well oiled, unless you strike knots. Lastly, I found a carpenter's
shop, still open. There were journeymen doing jobs for themselves after
hours, inside, and I easily got some nice pine boards of them, fair and
smooth planed. I shall go to work tomorrow.
I have done good work to-day. I have put the memorial of my terror
out of sight. It is safe; no one can know where it is but I.
Quietly, at dawn, I began operations. I am sure none of the family
were awake. I listened at the key-hole of John L. Jones; he and his
wife were in heavy slumber. And the one maid-servant they did keep did
not come down from her garret for three hours after.
There is a closet which opens out of my room, just large enough to
turn around in, and used as a clothes-press. A row of nails runs around
its plaster wall. There are a couple of large drawers close to the
floor. From all these conveniences every trace of John L. Jones, Jun.,
has been removed, and I am installed therein. The contents of my
carpet-bag are spread about the closet as widely as possible, to make a
show of occupying it. A poor show it is, however. When the terror first
seized me I had only time to snatch this bag and be off. I would not go
back for the rest of my baggage for the world.
But what is the terror? Yes, I must tell it. I must faithfully
disclose every thing, or this journal will have been merely a fruitless
trouble, and I _shall_ go mad after all. I am coming to the revelation.
I said I began operations at dawn. This was the fashion of it. I
drew one of the drawers in the closet completely out of its case, so
gradually that it made no rumbling, no creaking. This left the floor
beneath it bare. I brushed away the dust that had been accumulating
ever since the drawer was first slid in. I measured out upon the floor
an area just six inches square. At each of the four corners of it I
bored a hole with my gimlet. And then, after thoroughly oiling my
compass-saw, I inserted it, and speedily had a square hole, of the
dimensions I have told, through the plank, and all without noise. The
square piece that came out I put carefully by, that it might not be
abraded on the edges and lose its accuracy for the purpose of a cover.
With the pieces of thin and smooth pine board I had procured of the
carpenters I framed a square box, exactly fitting within the hole, and
just deep enough not to strike the lath of the ceiling below when I
sunk its upper edges half the thickness of the floor-plank. This box I
fastened in its piece by noiseless screws. I then plowed the edge of
the cover which I had sawed out in making the hole, so that it fitted
in its place perfectly over the top of the box. I had thus a little pit
in the floor, with a lid admirably adjustable, and in a place quite
unimaginable to anybody but myself.
And now, what was all this for? Ugh! It freezes me to tell, but I
I go very quietly to my carpet-bag. It lies in an unusual place for
baggage—between the tick and the mattress of my bed. I have slept on
it thus ever since I came to the house of John L. Jones. I put my hand
in to draw it out—Hark! I withdraw my hand quickly! There is a
footstep outside; is any body looking in at the key-hole? No! the foot
goes up the garret stairs—it is the servant's—but I hang a coat over
the lock to make sure. I draw out the carpet-bag. I said I had arranged
its contents in the closet. Yes; but not all. In the very bottom of the
bag is a very carefully tied and sealed bundle; cylindrical, and
wrapped in strong papers. I take it out; I tremble from head to foot
while I am doing so; and even in the blurred, cheap looking-glass which
hangs on the pier I can see that my face is as white as his who last
lay on the bed before me. Both dim and pale, not so much as if it were
I as the only son of John L. Jones coming back to haunt me out of the
damp wall. But I break the seals with a twitching hand, laying the
fragments of wax carefully in one place, where I may gather and destroy
them; I unfold one by one the many layers of paper, and place them also
by themselves. And with the cold beads standing on my brow and cheeks,
as on a flask in an ice-house, I come to the core of the bundle. I hold
it in my hand.
A bloody dagger? No. A roll of bank-notes? No. A coining die? Not
at all. A harmless-looking, ordinary, stout glass phial, with a ground
glass stopper, cemented hermetically in the neck. A phial whose
capacity is about four fluid ounces. It is full almost to the top of a
transparent greenish liquid, and as I tip it the small bubble of air
which lies above it floats slowly up and down with a gradual sliding
motion and shows the liquid to be of a somewhat oily consistency, like
the stronger acids. I lift it to my nostrils, forced to do so by an
irresistible fascination; and even through that hermetical sealing it
seems to me as if I perceived a whiff of death—a charnel odor that is
horrible. It may be, nevertheless, only fancy working on me with the
heavy air of this recent corpse-chamber in which I live. But at any
rate I sicken, I faint, so that the phial nearly falls from my hands.
It is not poison—perhaps any one but I might drink it all and be
unharmed; but that fluid, even through its stout glass walls, _murders
me like a slow lightning_! O my God! would that I could bury it, burn
it, dash it from me where it would never return! But it is an
indestructible phial of vengeance—a fluid doom of hell—never, never,
never to be exiled from me any more!
It is this for which I have made the hiding-place in the closet. I
summon all my strength and will—I carry it, hardly opening my eyes to
look where I go, to that little pit which I have made—I lay it
therein—I cram down the layers of wrapping paper over it—I replace
the tight-fitting wood cover, and, finally, I slide the drawer back
over all to its former place. Then the horror lifts again from my
shoulders a little space, and I lie down on my bed, convulsed in every
nerve of my whole body.
The work is done. Through a broken shutter of my closed window one
clear, sharp pencil of sunlight, showing that the day is now
high-mounted, streams in, flushing the moty space about me, and falls
like an unescapable, omniscient finger right on the threshold of the
O God! the very sun knows my secret and tells it!
But I will not put down my revelations to-day. No. I am too sick. I
will stop till to-morrow.
It is—as I see on looking at my last date—five days since I wrote
in this record. I have been very ill; part of the time quite delirious,
I think. How fortunate that I have been alone! Yes, even if I had died
alone, how fortunate. The red-haired Denbighshire girl, who brings up
my meals sometimes, I am quite sure, knocked in vain for entrance, so
stertorous have been my slumbers; for although she has not a command of
English sufficient to communicate that fact to me, I infer it from
having found the salver, with my food all cold upon it, placed on the
floor outside my room, long after meal-hours. And at the times when I
have answered her knock, the pitying, half-fearful look she has cast
upon me seemed to prove that, in her experience, no much more miserable
man had manifested himself.
How fortunate that I am alone! For I have been doing, saying very
strange things, and I am not aware whether all of them, as I know part
to be, are dreams.
Take, for instance, the night after my last entry in my journal. I
had hardly closed my eyes in sleep before this vision came into my
presence. A beautiful girl of twenty knelt before me, her black hair
rushing down over her fair neck in great free waves, like a mid-forest
waterfall looked at in the first darkness of a summer evening, when the
white floor of pebbles below it could still be seen glimmering up here
and there through the water. A passionate melancholy made her face
shadowy, and at the same time glowed in it with unearthly light, making
a strange Rembrandt _chiar-oscuro_ that pained me mystically. With her
small white hands she beat her still whiter breast, and ever, as her
left side was disclosed, a deadly fresh wound showed ghastly in the
vague light of the dream—a wound to the very heart, and still slowly
dropping, dropping blood, like life telling itself away on beads of
coral. She spoke no word, but looked at me— looked me to stone. I
could not cry out; I could not move; yet I heard many voices as of
people coming behind me. I tried to flee, but I could not even wake up.
At this moment of intense pain the dream changed. A shining mosque
of pure glass, with a single minaret, whose crystals blazed in the sun
like solid fire, rose suddenly from the ground- -up-builded in an
instant by magic. Gravitation lost all power over me, and I flew to the
very pinnacle of the minaret with the ease of a wind-wafted gossamer.
Till I reached it I thought myself alone, but just as I alighted I
discovered that I had a burden in my arms. In surprise, I scrutinized
it—it was a woman. Oh horror! it was she of the raven hair—the
bleeding heart! I sought to loose her grasp from me, but I could not;
it was the death-clutch. At last, in my despair, seeing a trap-door
open in the bulb of the minaret, I hurled the girl down through it, and
saw her strike, fathoms below, on the crystal pavement. So released, I
flow leagues away across the air. But still I was plagued. The mosque,
also taking wings, pursued me. At last, in a desert place, I dropped
down breathless, and in anguish of fear cowered shrinking into myself,
for shelter there was none. A moment more, and the mosque of glass
dropped beside me. But how changed! It had grown—it was still
growing—smaller, and its rate of diminution increased constantly. At
last, with one great spiral whirl, it shrunk to a gigantic flask, and
in it, beating her breast, showing her red heart's wound, knelt the
girl! Another whirl, and it was the phial—_the_ phial of dread! As
small as the phial I thought I had buried out of sight; but in it knelt
clear as before, and seen through a green fluid medium, though almost
infinitesimally little and delicate, the girl of the pierced heart. And
as the apothecary labels his phials, so this was labelled. In letters
black as ink could be, yet burning into my eyes like a calcium light,
was written on the label, "Charlotte Lynde, in the 21st year of her
age." Then I _did_ wake! I leaped from my bed crying, "Who labeled the
phial? My God! who labeled the phial? Who told you that I had put her
in it? I am lost!" As I woke more thoroughly I stilled myself; I think
I was not heard; and then, to reassure myself, I went to the closet,
laboriously got out the phial from its tomb, and, striking a light
found it was _not_ labeled. Then putting it back I slid the drawer home
again, and sat on the closet-floor all night, keeping watch in the
darkness with my hand on the drawer knob.
Among the Post-office advertisements in the _Herald_ of today
(kindly sent upon the salver with my breakfast) I saw my name. It
seemed to speak itself from the column—it gave me almost such a shock
as hearing it called at my side by a familiar voice. Ah! these
newspapers! that can shout their recognitions into your utmost dungeon
privacies; how dreadful would they be had they power of return to their
starting-place with answers! The reflection that they could not
reassured me, and I read my name over again with calmness.
It may seem fool-hardy, but I resolved to go for that letter. It
would be a relief to the intense silence and self-devourings of my own
mind to see what somebody else had to say—somebody who could not see
me. So I stole down by the extreme east edge of town. Along the piers,
through South Street, then across to the Post-office.
It was agony to stand in that string of applicants who, keeping
painful lock-step, march to the prison-looking window where advertised
letters are to be had! A slow ordeal of torture, truly, to a man who
hardly dares to stand in one place for an instant, lest he should
multiply the probability of recognition. The man in front of me, when,
after ages, it came his turn, higgled with the feverish, question-sick
clerk about the extra postal charge for advertising. I could have
knocked him down in my terrible agony of haste to be away. But he paid
his pennies and took himself off, and I stood at the grating.
"What name?" said the clerk.
"Edgar Sands," I answered, feeling my voice twitch at the muscles
of my throat like a horse at the rein. But I held it firm, it did not
tremble. Just then a hand fell on my shoulder. I started as if the
executioner grasped me, looked around, and found that it was only a
drunken sailor, who begged my pardon when he saw my astonishment. But
the shock he gave me I did not recover from for hours.
"Sands—Sands—what first name?" repeated the clerk, slowly.
"Edgar, I said," was my reply. I fancied he was longer in looking
over the bundle in his hand than there was need, and made a gesture of
impatience. His motions quickened perceptibly, but he seemed (though
that may have been fancy) scrutinizing me in an underbrowed way as much
as he did the letters. It was very disagreeable even to fancy it.
"Ah, here it is—Edgar Sands! By-the-way, Mr. Sands, could you give
us your address, so that the postman may call on you on his rounds when
you have any thing? We have so many Sandses come into the advertised
department that they give us a great deal of trouble; in fact, my own
sands nearly run out sorting them—ha, ha, ha! Heh?"
This sally of wit, coming as it did from a being whose particular
routine is usually supposed to have withered all the faculties save
those of quick reading and manipulation, so staggered me that I stood
regarding him fixedly for a moment, half suspecting him, half
overwhelmed by him, and then answered,
"I will come for my letters as I want them," and passed out the
The letter was in my pocket, and if possible, it brought me still
nearer than I had been to the further verge of miserableness. I thought
I knew the handwriting; I durst not open it to see. I durst not stop
for an instant on any account. The whole trial at the Post-office had
brought back the old dread in all its relentlessness of clinging,
freezing weight. I feared myself watched. Who could tell but that
unusual conversation of the delivery clerk had been meant to detain me
till I could be marked? How did I know but at that very instant I was
tracked by some lynx-eyed emissary? And what if, after all my careful
calculation, I should be followed to my improbable concealment?
I knew the horror of Cain; I seemed moving before an omniscient
persecutor! Yet I have not done his wrong. Nay—but my soul
answers—nay, but thou hast done a dreadful thing!
One hope of escape from the Nemesis I could not see (but felt as if
all my body were covered with eyes), one hope remained. I sauntered
into the Hotel Jellalich, a foreign inn, full of lounging men whose
beards were wet with beer, and cutting my way through the smoke of
pipes as up to a battery, demanded a room of the barkeeper. I had been
traveling—I was weary—I would sleep till the Cape May boat went out.
Monsieur would be called? Yes, at a quarter to four precisely. Would it
please Monsieur to take dinner? No dinner. The man handed me a key. On
which floor was the room? The second, Monsieur. I prefer the first, the
ground- floor. The man looked surprise[d], but changed my key. I laid
down the price on the counter, and a boy went before me to show the
way, carrying a whisk broom and slippers. I locked the door after me as
soon as I had entered, and then looked out of the window. It opened on
a court full of unsavory garlic steams, but just now entirely empty of
aught but that. A sensitive nose would have thought it fully occupied.
But I had not time to think of such odors. I seemed to breathe in
the charnel smell of the dreadful phial, and behind me I fancied
footsteps, whispers, all sorts of sounds that tremble and cause to
tremble. I placed a chair against the door, on the chair a pillow from
the dingy bed to hide the keyhole, and then I tried the sash. It was
damp and swollen; it had lost one cord and weight, so that I made slow
progress, and was in an agony of fear to hear it creak. But then ten
minutes' patient, gradual pushing lifted it far enough to admit my head
and shoulders, after which I fell rather than clambered out. Still
there was no one in the court, and, thanking God, I slunk through it to
the farther side, out of which a dark porte-chochere led into the
street. I came into the open air; I was unperceived; I was safe! Ah!
safe? As safe as _I_ could be.
Thus I escaped, and by degrees got back to my room at John L.
Jones's. Once there, I sank trembling into a chair and drew forth the
letter. I tore open the envelope, and hungriedly read these words:
"Albany, June 3, 18—
"Edgar Sands, Esq.
"Very dear Sir, —It is now a week since my daughter Charlotte left
home in your charge, to spend a couple of days in the city of New York.
No one but a widowed father like myself, with this only child, can
fancy the distress with which I tell you that, in all this time, I have
not received a word of tidings from her. She was intending to stop with
her mother's sister in East Eleventh Street; and when two days had
elapsed beyond her furthest proposed stay, and I got no letter
relieving my anxiety, my fears became so extreme that I telegraphed to
that lady for some information relative to my poor girl. In three hours
the answer came back that she had not been seen or heard from! I went
immediately to New York by the earliest train and sought out your
laboratory. You were not there, nor have I been able to find you. As a
last resource, I take this means of reaching you. If it fails—and
nothing more reveals itself—I go down to the grave in bitterness that
has no name. For God's sake, dear Sir, let me hear from you
immediately! Telegraph me fully as you would write on paper.
"I can form but one hypothesis to keep me from utter despair.
Charlotte's mother and her family were all subject to fits of
insanity—sometimes occurring most unexpectedly—once resulting
fatally. And in my daughter's childhood I remember her having shown
strange indications, which gave us much anxiety for the future. She may
have reached New York with you, and then wandered away, under the
influence of her first attack of this awful malady.
"Pity me! pity me! for God's sake. All you know, let me have; and
if she is dead, I shall be better satisfied than if she, the beautiful,
the lovely, is lost, without any guiding soul, in that dark, dangerous
city. Telegraph instantly! And God deal with you as you deal with her
heart-broken father, your father's friend and yours,
"Edgar Sands., Esq, New York."
You might tell me till my dying day that it was rats beneath the
floor; but it was not. With my last breath I would swear not. I heard
distinctly, as I read aloud the last words of this letter, a rattling
in the closet—a dull, heavy clink, as of that phial with its contents
shaken up and down, trying to escape from the pit in the floor! And
then there came up through the planks, and out of the crevices of the
door, a low, prolonged, bitter wail, as of a woman in soul-pain. Rats!
Do rats cry like dying women?
I ran to the closet, feeling my head full of molten lead, which was
about to pour out through my eyes. I tore out the drawer without much
regard to noise—I pried up the cover of my pit and looked down. The
phial _had_ moved; from the centre where I had placed it it had shrunk
into one corner. I had left it upright; it was lying flat! I took it
into my hand; it seemed blistered all over with icy drops of sweat!
I brought it out into the light of the room—a muffled light, but
brighter than the closet's. Did I dream again? I chafed my forehead to
wake me up, if all this was but another freak of sleep. I looked once
_Charlotte Lynde was kneeling in that phial—the blood-red spot
showing between the fingers that she pressed upon her heart_!
I shook the phial—I whispered madly, "If thou be now a fiend in
the life which thou livest, in God's name, _depart_! If thou be
gathered among the angels, pity me for Christ's mercy and _depart_!
She never moved at atom's breadth. I set the phial down upon the
table, and felt a devil-calmness take possession of me. I looked the
dread full in the face, and sat down to write a _lie_ to the girl's
"Russell Lynde, Esq.
"Respected Sir, —On the day that I left Albany in company with
your daugher, I fully expected to take charge of her as far as New
York. We reached Poughkeepsie, where the train stopped ten minutes, and
Miss Lynde, who had seemed dejected during the whole three hours of our
journey, complained of feeling ill and desired me to bring her a glass
of water. I left our seat to comply with the request and returned as
soon as possible, but found her gone. Supposing her absence temporary,
I made no search for her until just before the train was to start, and
then, feeling somewhat anxious, rose and passed through to ascertain
whether she might not by mistake have got into the wrong car on her
return. She was nowhere to be seen. I then got off and looked for her
through the rooms of the station—alas! with the same result. My fears
became extreme, and I abandoned my project of taking that train to New
York, left it, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in looking for
her through the hotels of Poughkeepsie. My search was equally fruitless
there. At length I remembered her speaking of relatives in the place,
whom she very much wished to see, and came to the conclusion that she
had determined to change her plan and visit them. But as their name was
unknown to me, I could pursue my quest no farther. I therefore returned
to the station and took a late train to the city. I have been out of
town ever since, or would have received your letter long ago and
answered it immediately.
"I can understand your agony. I agree with your hypothesis of
derangement, but further information I am unable to give.
"May God pity and help you!
"Your humble servant—"
Thus far had I come in the written lie and was about to sign my
name to it, when I heard the very same dull ringing of the phial that
had driven me mad before. It was moving toward me on the table, and in
it I clearly beheld the figure shake its finger at
me—once—twice—thrice—and the pen fell from my hand.
I was _compelled_ to resume it. Within that horrible glass prison I
saw a gesture _commanding_ me to. I could have sooner disobeyed the
pitiless sweep of an engire crank to which I was lashed by cords! Then,
not audibly to the external sense, but ringing like a bell to the inner
ear, I heard a low voice dictating, and seizing another sheet of paper
"Thrice miserable Father, —I have no longer any hand which can
hold human pen, but I use Edgar Sands to write for me. I was going mad
slowly for days. Days and days, nights and nights, when no soul but I
knew it. When I left Albany, I was sure I should never see you again.
Death went riding at my side between me and my useless protector all
the way to New York. Protector! who _could_ protect me from the slayer
that he could not see, feel or hear? Though on the seat by my side, by
Edgar's, he sat to my eyes plainly visible, muttering, `It comes! It
comes!' and when we were half-way down the road, `It hastens! It
"Reaching New York, I asked Edgar Sands to show me his laboratory.
_It_ made me ask him. That was the place for the end of all things,
_it_ said. He took me there as I desired, immediately. We were alone
together among the strange poisons, each one of whom, with a quicker or
a slower death-devil in his eye, sat in his glass or porcelain
sentry-box, a living force of bale. Should it be Hemp? No, that was too
slow, uncertain, painful. Morphine? Too many antidotes—too much
commonness, ostentation in _that_. Daturin? I did not like to ask how
much of that was certain. I saw a small glass bottle full of crystals,
labeled `Anhydrous Cyanic Acid.' I knew that was sure, quick as
thought. I slyly took down the bottle, opened it, withdraw a slender
diamond spear, and was just putting it to my tongue, when Edgar turned
around, saw me, caught my hand soon enough, and I was cheated of that
conclusion. He eyed me in surprise, cried, `Are you crazy?' and I
answered, looking innocent, that I thought the thing was harmless. `It
would have killed you like a thunderbolt!' he replied, pale as death
and trembling. `Ah, indeed! how terrible!' I answered, and turned away.
There was a long, thin knife lying by the charcoal pan of a blowpipe,
used, I saw, to chip off small fragments of minerals to be tested. That
was bitter, but quick, and before Edgar had recovered from his first
alarm it was in my heart to the hilt.
"We were all alone, locked into the laboratory. I made only one
faint moan, and fell on my knees at his feet, the blood darting out
between the fingers, which I pressed against the faint, fierce pain.
And he only cried, `My God! My God! we are lost, both lost!' He ran for
help, for a witness at the least, but before he could open the door I
had fallen upon the marble floor—_dead_!
"In the air, hovering among strange voices and shapes, I still saw
him. There must have been madness in my cold face, lying below there,
which he caught; for, instead of leaving the place, he went calmly to
work, with an awful despair in his eyes, and cut the shell of me—the
husk I had left—to pieces; as a surgeon would, on a table in a
laboratory. These fragments he screwed down into a large retort, and
placed in the fiercest of flames, fed with pure oxygen. Though still
above, apart from them and him, and in the spirit, I knew that all of
me that had been seen on earth was reducing there to the ultimates—I
was distilled there by degrees. Through the worm of the still my
physical life came over in a fluid; and, drop by drop, he saw it fall
into the receiver, watching through the whole night, with lips blue as
corruption in the flame which he moved only to feed. That motionless,
bloodless face of his, by its terrrible attraction, called back my soul
into the fluid, though from the solid body my life had parted long
hours before. I was becoming enthralled—dungeon- covered in a pit of
glass. At four in the morning he had done the heaviest part of his
work. He let the fire go down; the ashy residuum in the bottom of the
retort he treated with acid; it cleared; and he poured the fluid result
into the receiver, which held my distilled being. Then it was that my
soul came wholly back into the liquid body thus prepared for it—I was
one with a strange, greenish, phosphorescent oil. Ah! that was agony
which, in the life of the frame of bone, nerve, muscle, had no
parallel! Agony—hellish agony—with no prospect of an end! For he knew
not what he was subjecting me to; the fiend used him for my misery,
while he only thought of obliterating all traces of the damning crime
humanity would lay at his door, finding me stabbed to the heart.
"He poured all my life from the receiver into a phial. He sealed
the phial hermetically—yes, hermetically, for my shrieks within, which
cracked my own ears, were utterly inaudible to him. Then he deluged
with strong acids all the blood-spots on the floor, the table, and fled
the laboratory in the first gray light of morning, taking me with him
in his satchel.
"I am with him now—shut up to this liquid life of hell— a hell
that will never cease till the phial be broken, the liquid outpoured,
and I set free to fly to Heaven's court of pardon for forgiveness. I am
worthy of pardon: I was mad when I did the crime.
"God pity thee, poor, poor Father, and thy daughter,
I had finished this letter mechanically, not meaning aught else in
my pen but scrawls, never knowing what word was coming next, and wholly
forced along, by an outer will. I had signed the name; and then, for
the first time, I saw that the hand in which I had traced every letter
of the whole—was _Charlotte Lynde's_!
Heavy feet came up the front steps. They sounded like the feet
visiting a vault, on the damp stones in front of John L. Jones's. The
ghostly bell said link, link, link, link, link, as when I had pulled
it; it was answered by the same grim warder; and then I heard eager
voices in conversation. O God! I heard my own name mentioned distinctly
in the dark, wet entry below!
Then the heavy footsteps came up the stairs, trampling each step
behind angrily, each step in front, hungrily—all doomfully! They
reached the landing, stopped at my door, and my name was uttered again.
There was a large tub of water standing by the side of my
washstand. I ran to it, snatching the phial form the table as I went.
With one blow against the edge of the tub I broke off the neck of the
phial, and let the dreadful fluid run out. A violent vapor, variegated
with amber and leek-green, filled the room; a strangling grave odor
pervaded my very brain—my eyes were nigh burned out by the pungency of
it—and still the fluid trickled slowly down into the water.
No, not _into_ it, for it floated upon the water, utterly refusing
to mingle. At first it lay in a broad, shallow, iridescent pellicle
over the whole surface. My name was spoken louder at the door, and
hard, eager hands shook the lock. Then that concentrated essence of a
mad life gathered itself, by the same law of grouping which had given
its original members birth as one body, and turning an agonized face up
into my own—(a strong man's shoulder forges against the door!)—trying
to hide a red, pierced heart, there lay on the top of the water, clear
as in clearest life, Charlotte Lynde!
The door gave way. Three men came into the room. One was John L.
Jones, one was the delivery clerk, and one—the father of the dead
"Fiend!" he cried, making at me, while the two others scarcely held
his struggling arms, "what have you done with my child?"
I said not a word, but pointed first at the last letter I had
written, lying on the table; then at the surface of the water. The
three men bent over and gazed—two of them with looks of blank
amazement, but one with an agony that paralyzed every muscle of his
face. And just then the shape smiled full into the father's face,
looked and pointed toward heaven, then gathered itself above the water,
and flew up between us; for an instant lingering caressingly upon the
old man's white head—then disappeared forever.
I fell to the floor—not from dread, but because peace at last came
too suddenly. And this last day of my journal is written at the first
lodging I moved to after I was discharged from Bloomingdale Insane