Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Out of the body
OUT OF THE BODY.
In a room in the Great Quadrangle of the College of Holy Bottle some dozen of us sat. It was after “hall” (that is to say dinner), and we were “wining” (another uncouth University expression), with my friend Allen. Undergraduates all of us, and all members of the aforesaid college, which I have chosen to call (stealing from “Rabelais”) by the name “Holy Bottle.” I am not going to describe a wine-party, or to indulge in boyish slang. In the first place, we were not freshmen; and that queer verb “to wine” expresses, when the agents have overpassed the freshman-stage, no extraordinary or unreasonable process: port, and sherry and claret, with a few dry biscuits—a jar of tobacco and a box of tolerable cigars—only these and nothing more. When the delights of too much wine and a surfeit of sweets have been proved to be no longer surreptitious, they soon lose their attractions. In the second place, I write from memory of a distant period; and if slang was talked on that evening, it would be slang which has now ceased to be current. How soon those choice flowers of speech die away! The very titles of the utterers of those flash notes change every few years—Maccaronies, bloods, bucks, dandies, fast men. I do not remember what women were the toasts, or what horses were the favourites, or where the hounds used to meet; or, if I do, all is changed since then. The women are no longer fair; the horses, if any survive, are perhaps cab-horses; and the hunting, I hear, is by no means what it was. The Dean, whom we then execrated is dead; the tutors have disappeared into the seclusion of fat country livings; the Master—well, everybody who knows Holy Bottle knows that the Master of Holy Bottle is unassailable by time as by all other ills of life. He still rules supreme in his ancient seat, and if need be, can vouch for and confirm the truth of my story.
My readers will perceive that the conversation which follows was not taken down verbatim—is, in fact, a mere generalisation from memory. I may have put speeches into wrong mouths, or into the mouths of interlocutors not present or non-existent. But the bearing and tone of the conversation is given truly. I have cause to remember that evening, and the talk in which I joined in Allen’s rooms was preparative to—nay, the cause which led to the experiences which follow.
It was a Saturday in the October Term, and evening was already settling down. A dull heavy mist filled the quadrangle and quite hid its opposite side. We were gathered round the blazing fire, which gave forth that throbbing vital kind of light which contrasts so forcibly and pleasantly with the deadness of winter twilight. Other light there was none, save such as twinkled from red cigar ends, or glowing pipe-bowls. Smoke within and mist without. The party of ten or a dozen young men felt, I have no doubt, that sense of snug isolation from outer discomforts which the limited radius of fire-light, especially when bounded by smoke wreaths, is apt to impress on us. Vexatious for those who would have to turn out into the cold, raw, damp night for “evening chapel.”
“A strange fellow,” said Hawkins. “He never does anything. He never boats, nor rides, nor walks—or if he does walk, it is at night. I met him the other night at twelve o’clock coming round the corner of Aureole Street, and he gave me much the same sort of impression that I fancy a ghost would do, though I never tried it. How he manages to come over the Dons I cannot think. He cuts lectures and chapels from week’s end to week’s end, and seems to be out of college at all hours of the night.”
“He is a queer fellow,” said Graham. “Why the deuce doesn’t he have his hair cut? I never saw a more barbarous figure in my life.”
“Does anybody know anybody that knows him?” asked Allen. “I never saw him speak to a soul yet. I pity the poor devil. He seems quite friendless and alone.”
“You are talking of Mauleverer, I suppose,” I said. “Yes, I may say that I know him. A neighbour of mine in the country asked me to look him up, and I did so on his first arrival.”
“Did you find him in?”
“Yes, and stayed chatting with him for some time. He is by no means a fool—though strange, as you say. He seemed to me to be a little wrong in the head. And from what I remember of my friend’s letter, there was some hint of the kind dropped in it. He spoke of Mauleverer being eccentric, having had a long illness and so forth, and said it would be a kindness to do what I could for him.”
“A little cracked, you think?” said Hawkins. “Can he talk? I bid him good night at the corner of Aureole Street when I met him, as I told you, and he did not answer a word.”
“Oh yes, he can talk, though he is a little shy and absent. He reads hard, I should think from his books. He has a very extensive library. He seems foggy, as hard readers always do. The chief thing about him that struck me, I think, was the shaking hands with him. I never felt such a cold damp hand in my life. It gives one quite a shock.”
“A fishy kind of hand,” said some one.
“The very same thing struck me,” said Wyatt, the only freshman of our company. “Mauleverer is a friend of mine. We are on quite intimate terms.”
“By Jove!” cried one.
“What sort of a fellow is he?” asked another.
“The way I became acquainted with him was this. I was up the river the other day, and, not being a swell at pulling, I managed to get an upset. This was not far from the ‘Harrow.’ I went in there to dry myself, and to get some egg-flip, which seemed necessary under the circumstances. There was a crowd in the left-hand room, and upon inquiry I found that a University man had been taken suddenly ill. I went into the left-hand room. The sick man was Mauleverer. He was in a fit—a strange kind of fit. He was perfectly stiff—he had been struck standing, they said—and was propped, not sitting, against the bench and against the wall. One arm, from the elbow, was stretched out horizontally. He was bluish-white in the face, his eyes open and glazed. You were never at the Morgue on Mount St. Bernard, were you? Well, he was very much like one of the figures there. I took hold of his out-stretched hand—why, I don’t know—and the freezing stiff fingers closed upon mine. By Jove! I didn’t get over it for days. My hand became quite dead, white in the flesh and purple in the nails, and all the sensation I had in it for a week was that of what they call pins and needles. I have seen men in fits before, but never a fit like that. He looked exactly like a corpse.”
“Catalepsy?” said Allen.
“Oh, bless you, he’s quite used to it,” said Wyatt. “I know how to manage him now, though I did not then. He came round after a time, and I saw him back to his rooms. There happened to be a dog-cart at the ‘Harrow,’ and the men who had come in it gave it up to us, and went back in my boat. Anybody else would have done as much, of course; but you can’t think how grateful the poor fellow was to me. We struck up a friendship there and then, and since that I see him almost every day.”
“He is subject to fits then?” I asked.
“Yes. Has been subject to them, he says, ever since a severe fall which he got out hunting. His spine was injured, and he lay for weeks insensible. He has had fits from that time. Cataleptic, I suppose they are—no convulsions—only a sudden swooning and stiffening of the whole body. But the strangest thing is, that he can bring on these fits whenever he pleases.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, he himself makes a distinction. He says that the fits, which come upon him against his will, are ordinary cataleptic fits; but, over and above this affliction, he lays claim to a power of putting himself into a trance whenever he pleases. For myself, I don’t see much difference between the two. He declares that the trances into which he throws himself are absolutely a separating of the soul from the body. He talks in the most mysterious manner about this power that he possesses. He asserts most solemnly that when he uses this power he is consciously out of and separate from his body, which is to all intents and purposes dead. I can’t express myself clearly—but you understand what I mean.”
There were exclamations of surprise.
“He only fancies this, I suppose,” said Allen; “it is a hallucination. He cannot really bring on these fits when he likes, can he?”
“He certainly can, though.”
“Have you ever seen him do it?”
“Yes; once only. That was enough for me.”
“By Jove! tell us about it,” cried a chorus of voices.
“There is not much to tell. He had been talking about these trances of his, and I was curious, and not a little sceptical. I challenged him to do it, and, by Heaven, in five minutes he lay before me seemingly quite dead. I don’t like to talk of it!”
“You don’t mean to say that he really did go off in this way, of his own will and act?”
“Not a doubt of it.”
“And how did he do it?”—
“How long did he remain so?”—
“Did he come to again, all right?”—
There was a shower of questions.
“He seemed to me to remain in the trance a long time, but, I confess, I was desperately frightened, and the time would seem long. He says himself that he cannot continue so for more than two or three minutes—that it is great labour to keep body and soul apart. He describes the connection between them as something like an elastic string at full stretch. If the tension is relaxed, they fly together again.”
“And how did he go off? Tell us about it?”
“He cautioned me at first not to speak, and on no account to touch him. Then he fixed his eyes, and seemed to hold his breath. After a few moments he began to grow pale. This pallor increased rapidly till he was quite white. Then there was a bubbling sound in his throat, and he gave a long expiration. The breath came out of his mouth like a bluish stream. Then all was over—he lay quite dead. It was perfectly awful. The first sign of his coming to was a rush of colour into his face: from white it became crimson. He awoke up as from a dream, seeming a little bewildered at first, and much exhausted. He says it is very hard work. He describes the soul—or the life-principle, or the breath, or whatever it is—as first collecting in the heart, and then passing from that up the spine, and so out from the body at the top of the head. He says an aperture is formed in the head, through which the soul goes out, and that it is very difficult to keep this aperture open while the soul is absent. I suppose if it closed he would never revive. He assured me that he was perfectly conscious of existing apart from his body, and of the presence of the body as a thing separate and distinct from himself. I asked whether his soul went far away from the body, and he said, ‘No; that the separation was not absolutely complete; that there was some link of connection,’ which he likened to an elastic string, as I said before. He distinguishes between his fits and the voluntary exercise of this power. He did not possess the power previous to his fall. Thus he allows it to be in some way connected with the fits, though he says that the symptoms of the two are quite different.”
“I never heard such an extraordinary story in my life!” said Allen.
I confess that I (the writer) had listened to Wyatt with an absorbing interest. Unhappily the case of Mauleverer aroused in me an unquenchable curiosity. I resolved on the instant to use my slight acquaintance with him to put this strange preternatural power of his to the test.
I had some dim remembrance of having read of cases of the kind before. Marvellous instances of cataleptic trances were on record. I mingled remembrances of accounts of such physical wonders with remembrances of more mysterious legends of ancient philosophers and mystics. All my notions on the subject were vague, and for that reason, probably, my curiosity was the stronger. One point, however, in Wyatt’s account seemed familiar to me. Of the aperture in the head, through which the vital principle issued from the body, I had certainly heard before. Where, I could not tell; but this one point coming clearly before me as a fact known before, impressed me forcibly.
“Is Mauleverer ashamed of exhibiting this power which he possesses?” I asked. “I suppose he does not wish it to be known or talked of.”
“On the contrary,” said Wyatt, “I think he is rather proud of it. He is fond of obtruding the subject, and has several times, since that first, proposed to exhibit, as you call it, before me. That one exhibition, however, was quite enough. I never will submit to another. It must be awfully dangerous to himself; and the sight of it is not entertaining. It is a kind of thing that one dreams about afterwards.”
“I should very much like to see the performance, nevertheless,” I said. “As to danger, I should think there could be little, if it is a habitual thing with him.”
“Nothing easier than to see it, if you are so inclined. You know him. Call on him, and just introduce the subject, and I bet that he will at once offer to gratify your curiosity. He has a morbid kind of pride in the possession of this gift.”
“Will you go with me?”
“Yes, any day you please.”
I looked at my watch.
“Why not at once?” I said. “Are you going to chapel? There will just be time before it begins.”
Wyatt gave a glance towards the darkening windows, and shrugged his shoulders.
“I will go with you,” he said, “on condition that I am not to stay for the performance. I will introduce the subject and put matters in proper train, and then you shall have your séance to yourself.”
“Don’t go to-night,” said Allen; “it only wants half-an-hour of chapel time. I know you will not give up the anthem for Mauleverer.”
However, I was determined to satisfy my curiosity at once. Even the anthem (a nuisance to most men, from the fact of its lengthening the service), to which I always looked forward as a pleasure, became of secondary importance to the gratification of my sudden whim.
Wyatt swung his surplice across his shoulders, and we descended from Allen’s rooms.
Mauleverer “kept” (another University word) on the opposite side of the court, between the great gateway which opened on Holy Bottle Street and the chapel.
As we crossed the court the moon was struggling through the thick damp mists. The fountain in the centre of the open space, the lantern of the Hall and the tower of the chapel loomed large and vague through the white fog.
“It is a hundred to one if his oak is not sported,” said Wyatt, “and then you will be disappointed. I half hope you will. You will never wish to repeat the experiment.”
When we had ascended the stairs, however, Mauleverer had just opened his door, and was standing in the gap.
Of course we entered. The cold dampness of Mauleverer’s hand again struck me with a kind of shock. He seemed shy and absent, as I had found him on my first visit; but he evidently made exertions to talk and to receive us in a friendly manner. We all lighted cigars, as a necessary preliminary.
There was no lamp in the room on our entrance, but light streamed through a doorway in one corner.
“Grinding, as usual, I suppose,” said Wyatt; and he followed Mauleverer towards the light.
The door led into a small circular closet, groined, after a fashion, in the roof. This roof and the walls bore fading traces of colour. Opposite to and just above the table on which stood the lamp, was painted a ghastly, pain-tortured face. This fixed my attention on entering.
“You have never seen my little snuggery before?” said Mauleverer to me. “Some former tenant of these rooms, they tell me, was a Roman Catholic, and he fitted up this closet as an oratory.”
As he spoke, he traced with his finger about and beneath the ghastly face the faint outlines of a crucifix.
“This little room,” he continued, “is in one of the small towers that flank the gateway.”
We went back through the doorway, Mauleverer bringing the lamp.
The room, as I had before observed, was lined with books. This was the only point remarkable in it. There were no pictures, no whips, or fishing-tackle, or gun-cases, or fencing foils—the ordinary furniture of a young man’s sanctum—books, and books only.
“You are a great reader?” I asked. “Classics or mathematics—which do you take to?”
“To neither,” he answered, laughing. “I read only for my own amusement. I have read a great deal more astrology than mathematics proper; and I understand mediæval Latin much better than classical.”
I gave a glance round his book-shelves. Of the names ranged there I then knew nothing—a strange collection of folios, big and little, in decayed bindings, and with a decidedly musty odour.
Wyatt, apropos of the turn of conversation, cleverly managed to lead up to the subject of my curiosity.
Mauleverer was silent and grave at first. He blushed, and appeared uneasy. I feared that the subject was painful to him, and that he would shrink from discussing it.
“I am afraid you must think me a very strange sort of fellow?” he at length said to me, in a tone that was apologetic. “But I expect, if the truth were known, other people could do just the same as—as—as this that I can do, if they were to try. I daresay it appears to you a very eerie proceeding, but really there is not much in it. It is no more unnatural after the first time or two than simply going to sleep.”
His uneasiness seemed to be caused only by fear lest I should look upon his peculiarity with horror and disgust.
“My dear Mauleverer,” I said, “I take the greatest interest in the matter. I heard for the first time, half an hour ago, that you had this power. I hope you will forgive my feeling what I suppose I can call by no better name than an intense curiosity. If to talk of the subject is disagreeable to you, pray let us drop it at once; but if it is not so, I shall be very much obliged to you to satisfy the interest which I feel.”
“Oh no, it is not disagreeable to me. I am so used to it, that I suppose I look upon it in a different light to what other people do.”
The chapel bell had been ringing for some minutes. Wyatt put on his surplice and left us. Mauleverer, who seemed a little flushed and excited, walked to one of the windows, and, throwing it open, sat down on the window-seat. I leaned against the shutter-case, and listened as he spoke.
Through the window the court, full of mist, rendered semi-transparent by faint moonlight, lay before us. I can see the scene at this moment. The men were pouring into chapel, rushing along from all directions, their wide white surplices floating behind them as they ran. Now a flock came together, now a single figure; and as the time for closing the chapel gates drew nigh, the whole quadrangle became alive with the fluttering white draperies. Through the moonlit mist these figures assumed an indefiniteness mysterious and solemn. Light slanted down through the long array of chapel windows, showing the wavering movement of the vapour; and the music of the organ was audible, now reaching us in a gush of tumultuous sounds, now dying away till only the tremor of it was felt rather than heard.
Mauleverer began to describe, nervously and incoherently at first, afterwards with much animation, the symptoms which I was so eagerly desirous to witness.
I will say here, once for all, that I do not attempt to defend my conduct. It was reckless, cruel, unnatural,—I agree to all that my readers can think about it. My curiosity overmastered all other feelings. I was terribly punished, as will be seen in the end.
Mauleverer’s account agreed with the outline which Wyatt had given us in Allen’s rooms. It was a perfectly voluntary act. Body and soul did become actually separated from each other, though some kind of connection was retained. The thing being willed to be done, the first sensation was of a collecting of all the vital forces about the region of the heart. From the heart these forces passed off into the spinal column, and, streaming upwards, exhaled from the body through an aperture which apparently opened in the cerebellum. To cause this aperture to form, and afterwards to retain it unclosed, required a strong effort, painful through the fatigue it occasioned.
I mentioned that this particular of the aperture in the head seemed familiar to me.
“It is one of the symptoms related by Cardan,” said Mauleverer. “He—if he is to be believed—could exercise precisely the same power that I can. By his own confession, he was neither an honest nor a trustworthy man; but he certainly speaks truth in this account of his own experience. His diagnosis is singularly correct and complete. No one, however learned in physiology, could have hit precisely on these symptoms. Cardan’s case is a noted one, and probably you have seen it referred to in some book. Such cases, however, are not so rare as is generally supposed. That they are rare at all is, I believe, simply owing to people’s ignorance of the extent of the natural powers they possess. I am quite sure that this gift is not preternatural, but natural, possessed dormantly by everybody, and capable of being used by everybody, if they knew of it, and were disposed to use it. Sleep is a much more incomprehensible affair. Sleep is clearly a disease of tired nature, while this species of trance, or semi-separation of soul and body, is a legitimate exertion of the forces of nature in their highest strength. If it is half-way on the road to death, it nevertheless puts death in a new light, taking away from it all that mystery which ordinarily surrounds it. All that is required is an exercise of the will—a powerful exercise; but not more powerful than is used daily by many men upon trivial matters.”
“And you really think that anybody—that I, for instance,—could do the same if I chose to do it?”
“I feel certain of it. As I said before, instances are not so rare as they are supposed to be. From the very earliest times, and in all nations, cases are handed down to us. If you look into Montfaucon and Denon, you will find this power represented as clearly as it can be in the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The figure on the couch with the attendant priests and the symbol of the soul hovering above—this most common of their pictures—what else does it mean? Then, among the Greeks, the mysteries of the oracles, the sacred sleeps,—a thousand matters point the same way. The philosophers often, when they are interpreted as speaking metaphorically of abstract contemplation, are referring literally to this physical power; and from whence do they derive their analogy, when they are speaking metaphorically, unless from this well-known fact? The very teaching of the antagonism of soul and senses comes from this. The legends of Pythagoras, of Hermotimus, and of many more of the early philosophers, claim for them the power of leaving the body and returning to it. And when we come down to Alexandria and the Neo-Platonists, the exercise of the power is ordinary and common. The sages of that city, heathen or Christian, possessed it alike. The religious books of the Jews, again, teem with allusions and more certain illustrations; and we Christians have surely instances enough in our own writings.”
“But,” I objected, “these old stories are so vague (are they not? I speak ignorantly), and so mixed up with manifest superstitions and lies, as to afford little acceptable evidence. Besides, in almost all cases these stories claim to be miraculous and supernatural.”
“Any power,” he answered, smiling, “not yet accepted as natural and ordinary, is sure to be looked on as a miracle, and to be surrounded by superstitious additions and interpretations. All that I argue for is for the existence of some natural cause lying beneath. Although we have ceased to believe that thunder is a divine voice, yet none the less do we believe in the thunder. The books of the middle ages are full of instances. Cardan, as you know, affirms that he himself possessed the gift, and his account has in it the surest evidences of truth. The mediæval saints afford cases as numerous as the Alexandrian mystics. Whole communities of nuns and monks knew and practised the secret, and often turned it artfully as an instrument to their own ends.”
“Surely,” I said, “those middle-age legends were cases of disease or of imposture.”
“Hardly of disease,” he said; “though of course unhealthy people might discover this latent power as well as healthy. Because whole communities exhibited the same symptoms it is said that it was an epidemic. The simpler explanation is that one learned of the latent power from another. Of imposture, no doubt. They deceived others, and often deceived themselves, mixing the physical fact with a thousand superstitious fancies and lies.”
“They described the most wonderful visions as having occurred in these trances, did they not? I have some dim general notion of that class of stories. But, if I remember right, their trances were often of long continuance—many days. You said just now that you could not continue yours for more than two or three minutes. Tell me, too, pray, about these visions. Do you experience anything of the kind? What difference is there between your ordinary consciousness and your consciousness while in that state of trance?”
“As to time,” he said, “we must allow for exaggeration in those old stories. But the possible duration would depend, no doubt, on the strength of the person, and the degree to which he had used the power. Myself, I am as yet still recovering from a severe illness—a person in perfect health would probably find no difficulty in remaining in that state of trance on first trial for double the time that I can last out now. I have discovered this power only of late, and was on first discovery afraid to use it. I have had little practice. But already the duration which I can bear is rapidly increasing. It was only for a few moments at first. This morning I extended the period to five minutes, timing myself by my watch.”
“And your consciousness while in that state?”
He paused again.
“I cannot speak on that point,” he said at last. “I can tell you that I do not experience the impossible visions that stand recorded in saintly legends; but as to the kind or degree of my consciousness, I have arrived at no accurate knowledge on that point myself. The duration of the separation is so very short. Consciousness wholly distinct from the senses is such a strange process. It is only after many months that infants learn to use their senses—to think and feel through them. And I suffer the reverse process,—and only for a few moments at a time. I could not say that I heard or saw in that state, and yet I am conscious. It is impossible to explain. I myself have as great a curiosity and eagerness to learn more as you can have.”
We were both silent.
Then Mauleverer continued.
“You disbelieve those old stories that come down to us, intermixed with superstitious additions. But there are plenty of later stories, of cases here in England, well-attested, and without a shadow of imposture or superstition in them. Take, for example, the case of Colonel Townshend.”
He got up, went to a book-case, and taking down a book, searched through the leaves for a moment or two, and at length handed it open to me.
I glanced through it. The case was related by a physician, and other physicians attested it. The details were told at length, and with perfect clearness. No explanation, physical or other, was attempted. Colonel Townshend died, and returned to life—could do so habitually. There it was under the hands of the doctors.
“But,” I said, after consideration of the case, “Colonel Townshend was at this time in ill health—a ‘nephritic complaint,’ as the book says—was, in fact, in the last stage of a long-continuing disease. This was surely some pre-monitor of death, no normal power of healthful nature.”
Mauleverer’s face darkened—it became very sad and weary.
I do not think at that time I at all took in the drift of his argument. Thinking over it many, many times afterwards, I can see plainly now that, feeling the awful separation between himself and his fellow-men, he was eager to prove himself not different from, but like them. “All others have this awful power that I possess; the only difference is, that they have not discovered that they possess it. It is simply a natural gift, little used.” That was his argument. A victim to catalepsy, he found—he made up his mind to find—in this strange accompaniment of the disease (undoubtedly one of its symptoms) a new tie between himself and the ordinary people of the world—a discovery made by him, the weak, which the strong had failed to make. He triumphed in this awful force of diseased nature with an altogether morbid pride. I learned afterwards that before his fall in hunting he had been another man to what he became subsequently to it. A revulsion had taken place in his character. Previously devoted to active exercises, he had become during his long illness a student. The ambition which had before been directed to bodily superiority was of necessity turned into another channel. The terrible burden and disgrace of his involuntary cataleptic fits, he managed by an insane self-deception to counteract by pride in that cataleptic trance which he could bring on at will.
My observation on the story of Colonel Townshend was unwittingly cruel. Far more cruel, however, my persistence in my original curiosity.
What I write here as our conversation is derived from memory at the distance of a long period. It is of little consequence if I pass on abruptly to its conclusion.
Mauleverer had resumed his place in the window-seat. The chapel service was not yet over. During his previous monologue, the antiphonic chants of the psalms, the silences of the spoken portion of the service, the momentary but long-drawn sounds of the choral Amens had accompanied his animated utterance. It was about this time that the anthem began—an anthem of Beethoven’s, which under influence of (what I believe they call) the tremulato stop of the organ quivered down the long chapel, and out into the air, in measured waves of distinct and separated sound. An echo in the opposite corner of the quadrangle gave back these musical waves vaguely and faintly, as the reflection of a rainbow repeats dimly the colours of its original.
“Of course,” said Mauleverer, “you have never tried to exercise this power? Will you try to-night for the first time? I am most anxious to attempt experiments in this way, and it is impossible for one person alone to do much. I will show you first how it is done, then, if you have no objection, you shall try.”
“I will,” I said.
“Then,” he said, stretching his legs on the window-seat, his back and head being propped against the shutter, “then in the first place you must be silent; stand by me without making any noise; even hold your breath if you can; I am peculiarly sensitive to noise. In the next place, do not on any account touch me; I have always a fear of some fate like that of Hermotimus.” He paused and then added, “It is fair to tell you. Take care of your thoughts. You asked me about my consciousness. In the trance I fancy I do become conscious of the thoughts of those who are present.”
The light from the lamp fell upon his face, and, although the misty moonlight somewhat mingled with and confused it, was sufficient for me to watch the changes that came quickly one on the other.
He fixed his eyes upon the opposite shutter. They soon lost intelligence and became filmy. A shade, as it seemed to me, rather than a paleness, came over his face. A slight wind through the open window moved a lock of his long hair to and fro, and gave a flickering movement to the light. He had said that noise disturbed him. I suppose he meant noises close at hand. The organ, arrived at the conclusion of the anthem, was pouring forth tempests of sound. The air throbbed to the deep tumultuous notes. Of this he was quite unconscious.
That which had seemed to me a shadow upon his face whitened, not gradually, but by distinct changes, degree upon degree. Perhaps it was the flickering light and the measured notes of music which caused this appearance of regular and successive gradations in the changes. My own heart was beating in time to these outward pulses. I have seen twilight in summer deepen in very much the same way, veil after veil seeming to be dropped suddenly between the sunset and the earth, the exact moment when each fell being apparent. To me it seemed as if each increase of pallor marked a fresh movement of the will—as if by successive impulses it were driving the life out of the body.
The face had become intensely white; the eyes were fixed; the eyelids dropped slowly over them. There was a subsidence of the whole body; the head slowly declined over the right shoulder towards the window.
Suddenly the tumults of the organ ceased, and with the silence came a spasm at my heart. The regular beating died into a convulsion or a paralysis, I scarcely know which. I stooped over the body, there was a bubbling in the throat; then (whether it was imagination or fact I cannot say), I saw a bluish-white vapour issue from the mouth. That was all. I was in the presence of a corpse. The man, who a few minutes before had been talking with me, lay dead in my sight.
Appalled as I was I took out my watch. Five minutes was to be the greatest duration. By Heaven, how slowly the minutes crept by!
The five minutes were up. I fancied I saw a change in the body, the air of distress and pain and effort had left the face and given place to a perfect quietude; the contour of the limbs had subsided yet more.
The minute hand of my watch was creeping past the five minutes, and into the next five. A terror seized me . . . . . .
It is impossible for me to describe what I felt; the horror of what was, the dread of what might be; the impression of a great crime upon my conscience, and the first overshadowing of an awful remorse. I cannot realise that scene again, save in a bewilderment of grief and terror; description of it is impossible.
Ten minutes had passed, it might have been years; there was no difference in the body, save that, as I fancied, it settled down yet more and more into the quietness and vacancy of death.
I fell upon my knees beside it, I tried to pray. Heaven knows what I did or how I got through the time.
While I was still on my knees, still counting the tardy minutes on my watch, I became conscious of a darkening of the room. I turned round. The lamp was becoming dimmer. Soon the sound at intervals of the suction of the last drops of oil impressed upon me that the lamp was going out. This measured sound, and the accompanying flash of the expiring flame throbbed through me. In many ways on that night my attention had been drawn by the pulsing of exterior things. The musical waves of the organ, this noise from the lamp recurring at regular intervals, the ticking of my watch, all connected themselves with the measured and successive shades of change which had passed over the face of the corpse. Any audible throbbing to this day brings at once before me that scene.
The light grew dimmer and dimmer. The figures on my watch became invisible. More than a quarter of an hour had passed when I ceased to be able to watch the movement of the hands further. The face of the corpse, no longer illumined by the red lamplight, looked yet more ghastly in the wan glimmer of the moon.
An uncontrollable panic took possession of me. I started to my feet and rushed out of the room. I shut-to the outer door as I came out. Every barrier that I placed between me and that fearful thing in the window-seat seemed a relief.
My sudden panic has often reminded me of an adventure that Rousseau relates of himself somewhere in his Confessions. A friend with whom he had for long been travelling, being seized with a fit in the market-place of some foreign town through which they were passing, Rousseau, on the instant, deserted him and hastened away, never seeing him again. There was no cause for the desertion; reason had no influence in it; it was merely an impulse of blind terror.
It was an impulse of blind terror in my case. Anything to get clear of the horror which had gradually accumulated in that room.
Instead of at once giving the alarm and calling in medical aid, I never spoke to a soul. For the life of me I could not have spoken on the subject. I hastened from the college, through the streets to the outskirts of the town. When I began to get among the hedges, I, in part, recovered my power of reasoning. I acknowledged that I ought to have given the alarm. It came home to me that I was little less than the murderer of Mauleverer. Still I kept moving away from, not on my return to the town. It was too late now. With that thought I comforted myself—yes, comforted myself, for it was a relief to me to dismiss, or determine to dismiss, the whole matter from my thoughts in any possible manner.
I remained wandering about the outskirts of the town for the greater part of the night, and returned to my rooms at length (I was in lodgings) utterly worn out.
I went to bed, not to sleep, however. I will not attempt to give a notion of the agonies of that night. I was haunted by the idea of Mauleverer’s soul pursuing me. Strange to say, not the face of the corpse upon the window-seat, but the pain-tortured head painted upon the wall of the circular closet was the visible image which would not loose itself from my memory. The idea of Mauleverer’s soul joined itself in some inexplicable way with the remembrance of that face. In a waking nightmare the hours passed by. As morning dawned a hope dawned, too, in my mind. Mauleverer might have recovered. Oh! please Heaven it might be so!—that all this fearful agony might turn out to be as causeless and unreal as a dream! Against myself the hope grew. I remembered how I had left Mauleverer, seated in the window-seat with his face turned towards the open window. I could see at once from the court if he were still there. I would get up. I sprung out of bed, and dressed with trembling hands. Even with my mind full of the figure on the window-seat, and of the face turned towards the window, I could not realise that face. No image, no remembrance of it, would come to me, try to reach it as I would. Instead of that face came the other. Why this was I cannot tell; but at other times in my life I have been unable to recall a countenance which should, according to ordinary judgment, have stamped itself indelibly in my mind. I have heard other people remark upon the same marvel.
I hastened to the college. As I turned into the court through the great gateway, I saw obliquely that the window of Mauleverer’s rooms was still open. Going forward I soon got within sight of that which I had come to see. Good God! there was the dead face turned towards me!
There was an inquest on Mauleverer, and there were medical examinations. They decided that he died in one of his customary fits.
I will tell the truth, here, as to my conduct then.
I denied all knowledge of his death. Wyatt, of course, affirmed that he had left me in Mauleverer’s rooms at chapel-time. This I could not deny; but I did deny that I was with Mauleverer when he died, and that I had any knowledge of his death.
I have never confessed the truth to a soul till now. After this I had a terrible fever. My cousin, who helped to nurse me through it, told me of my ravings about this dreadful story. She, who knew nothing of Mauleverer or of his death, attributed them wholly to fever delusions. I did not betray myself.
If my cousin (now my wife) were to see these pages, I believe she would still think the story a fever-delusion, and nothing more. People say that a fever always leaves some searing mark upon the mind which it has once held in torment. . . . I wish it might be only this.