Overhead, Without Edit

Among the other treasures of Rubbish Palace, I had inherited Stillfleet’s liqueur-case. It was on a generous scale, — a grand old oaken chest, bristling with griffins’ heads and claws, armed with massive iron handles, and big enough to hold all the favorite tipples of a royal household, or to hide a royal pair if they heard a Revolution coming up the stairs.

Stillfleet had traced the pedigree of his chest to within three generations of Ginevra, in her family. He had no doubt that this was the identical coffer which that sportive lady had made her coffin.

“Clip!” said Stillfleet, shutting down the lid as he told me this legend in the afternoon. “Clip! listen to that snap-lock! Fancy her feelings! Taste that gin! ‘Geniévre’ from Ginevra’s box. I like to keep my nectars in a coffin; it’s my edition of the old plan of drinking from a scull. Life is short. ‘Come, my lad, and drink some beer!’”

To this grand sarcophagus I proceeded to seek a restorative for Cecil Dreeme. Locksley’s alternative, “opodildoc,” was not at hand.

Lifting the heavy lid, instead of poor Ginevra’s bare bones, I found a joyous array of antique flasks and goblets. They flashed at me as the gas-light struck them, each with the merry wink of a practised bacchanal. I saw the tawny complexion of the brandy shining through a tall bottle, old enough to have figured at the banquet of the Borgia. Around this stately personage, and gaping for the generous juices he might impart, was a circle of glasses, the finest work of the best days of Venice, clear and thin as bubbles, and graceful as the cups of opening flowers.

I took the decanter and a glass, and, thus armed, followed Locksley into the corridor.

His prickly scare had so teazled the poor fellow that he was now quite like a picture of Remorse or Despair. It was entirely dark in the building. Our single candle carried its little sphere of light along with it. Beyond and overhead might have been the vaults and chambers of a cavern, for all we could see.

Passing Densdeth’s padlocked door, we turned toward the side staircase. I looked up and down the well of the stairs. No oubliette ever showed a blacker void. It almost seemed to my excited imagination that we ought to hear the gurgle of a drowning prisoner, flung down into that darkness by us, his executioners.

“Awful black!” said Locksley, and the shadow of his bristly hair on the wall stiffened with alarm.

By the dim gleam of the candle, the paint of the wood and stucco of the walls of Chrysalis changed to oak and marble. The sham antique vanished. It became an actual place, not mere theatrical scenery. Seen by daylight, the whole edifice was so unreal and incongruous, that I should not have been surprised to see a squad of scene-shifters at work sliding it off and rolling it up, and leaving Ailanthus Square nothing but its bald brick houses to stare at. Now, as we climbed up the stairs, torch-bearer ahead, cupbearer behind, Chrysalis passed very well for a murky old castle of the era of plots, masks, poison, and vendetta.

“Yes,” thought I, “Locksley’s three knocks did announce a new act in my drama. Cecil Dreeme is the new actor. He follows Densdeth and Churm, he precedes Emma Denman. Is he in the plot? Is he underplot, counterplot, or episode? I hope, poor lonely fellow, that he has not already passed off the stage, as Locksley dreads. That would be a dismal opening of my life in Chrysalis.”

The janitor now pushed open the partition-door from the upper landing into the northern corridor.

The haggard moon, in its last quarter, hung just above a chimney of Mannering Place opposite, like a pale flame struggling up from a furnace. Its weird light slanted across the mullion of the narrow window.

There was just enough of this feeble pallor to nullify the peering light of Locksley’s candle. Ghostly, indeed, the spot appeared! My anxiety and my companion’s alarm were lively enough to shape a score of ghosts out of a streak of moonshine.

“To Let,” the tenant of the left-hand rooms, had no business with us, nor we with him. On the other side was the modest little card: —


Destiny had brought us together. I was about to know him, alive or dead.

Alive or dead! That doubt in both our minds made us hesitate an instant. Locksley looked up to me for orders.

“Knock!” whispered I.

He knocked gently. If there were a sick man within, his hearing, sharpened by silence, would abhor a noise.

We both listened, without whisper or sigh. Locksley deposited his candle on the floor and put his ear to the keyhole. The low light flung a queer, distorted shadow of him on the wall. It seemed a third person, of impish aspect, not meddling with our proceedings, but watching them scornfully.

No answer. Not even the weak “Come in” of an invalid.

Locksley “laid his fist to the door,” without respect to his knuckles.

“Nothing,’’ whispered he, “except a sound of emptiness.”

We now both knocked loudly, and gave the door a rough shake, as if it merited ungentle handling for obstructing the entrance of well-wishers.

After this uproar, dead silence again, except a low grumble of echoes, turning over in their sleep, to mutter anathemas at the disturbers of their repose.

“Locksley,” I whispered, “we are wasting time. Try your pass-key.”

He introduced the key. His shadow, exaggerated and sinister, bent over him as he worked.

“I must pick it,” said he, turning to me with a dogged burglar-look on his honest face.” His key is in the lock inside. But I haven’t been poking into keyholes ever since I was knee-high to a katydid for nothing.”

He took from his pocket a pair of delicate pincers. He manipulated for a moment. Presently I heard the key rattle and then drop inside.

That unlawful noise should awake any sleeper! We paused and listened. No sound. Awe flowed in and filled the silent stillness. Again we looked at each other, shrinking from an interchange of apprehension.

“I’m afraid he is — not living,” Locksley breathed at last.

“Don’t stop! Open!”

He put in his pass-key and turned. The bolt of the latch also yielded to this slight pressure. The door opened a crack without warning. Our candle, standing on the floor, bent its flame over, peering through into the darkness within. Before I could snatch it up, the inquisitive little bud of fire had been dragged from its stem by the draught. The candle was out.

By the pallid moonlight we could just see each other’s anxious faces. We could also see, through the narrow crack of the door, that the same faint, unsubstantial glimmer filled the room. This ghostly light repelled me more than the darkness. It could show the form, but not the expression of objects; and form without expression is death.

“I have matches,” whispered Locksley.

He drew one across the sole of his shoe. It flashed phosphoric, illuminated the breadth of sturdy cowhide upon which the janitor trod, and went out.

“Take time with the next,” said I. “I must go in at once.”