Overhead, Within Edit

The same door which we had battered and shaken so rudely I now pushed open with quiet, almost reverent hand.

Was I entering into the presence of Death? No sleep but that, it seemed to me, could hug a sleeper so close as to silence his answer or his protest at our noise.

So I stole into the tacit chamber, eagerly, and yet with my nerves in that timorous tremor when they catch influences, as lifting ripples catch sunrise before the calms.

I pushed back the door against the close, repellent atmosphere within. Holding it, still, as it were a shield against some sorrowful shock I was to encounter, I paused a breath to see my way.

The force of the faint moonlight brought it only as far as the middle of the room. There was a neutral ground, not light, not dark, a vague in which forms could be discerned by intent vision.

I involuntarily closed my eyes, to give sight the recoil before the leap. When I opened them, and flung my look forward to grapple with what it could find, the first object it seized was a small splash of white light, half drowned in the dimness. The moonbeams were also, without much vigor, diving to examine this sunken object. Their entrance, or perhaps my own trembling eagerness, seemed to make a little fluctuation about it. I steadied and accustomed my glance, and presently deciphered the spot as a mass of white drapery in a picture, standing upon an easel.

While I was making this out, I heard behind me the crack and fizz of Locksley’s second failure with his matches.

The little sound was both ally and stimulant. I advanced another step, and my groping sight detected a large arm-chair posted before the easel.

Hanging over the arm of the chair, where the moonlight could not reach, I saw another faint, pale spot. It was where a hand would rest. Was it a hand?

Beckoned forward by this doubt, I moved on and saw, flung back in the arm-chair, a shadowy figure. A man? Yes; dim form and deathly face, — a man!

The air of the room was close and sickly. 1 choked for breath. Life needs a double portion at such moments.

Dead? Is he dead? I seemed to scream the unspoken question to my heart.

It cost me an effort to master the involuntary human shudder at such an encounter. I sprang forward where the pale hand without motion beckoned, and the pale face pleaded for succor.

Nothing of the repellent magnetism of a corpse as my hand approached the forehead.

But as little the responsive thrill of life wakening at life’s touch, and renewing with a start the old delicious agony of conscious being.

I laid my hand upon the brow.

Cold! But surely not the cold of death! This was no dead man whom I anxiously, and the moon impassively, were studying. Tranced, not dead, so instinct told me. Life might be latent, but it was there.

I felt tears of relief start into my eyes.

Whoever has lived knows that timely death is the great prize of life; who can regret when a worthy soul wins it? But this untimely perishing of a brother-man, alone and helpless in the dark and cold, was pure waste and ruin.

Locksley now came to my side, sheltering his lighted candle.

“Dead?” gasped he, and stopped silent before the arm-chair.

“No, no,” I whispered, and the curdling whisper showed me how deep my horror had been. “No; only fainted, I trust. Open the window! Fresh air is the first want.”

“Fresh air he shall have, if there’s any blowing,” says Locksley, briskly. “Fresh air beats the world for stiddy vittles.”

While he worked at the window, I poured a compactor restorative than air out of Stillfleet’s flask. I gently forced a few drops of the brandy down the unconscious man’s throat, and expended a few sprinkles to bathe his forehead.

“It is the painter, Locksley?” I asked.

“Yes sir.”

And so began my acquaintance with Cecil Dreeme.