Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The cry in the dark
THE CRY IN THE DARK.
It was on Windermere, one sunny evening last autumn but one, that the following adventure was told me by a kindly middle-aged gentleman, whose pleasant acquaintance I had made at the hotel where I was staying. We had come out with the intention of fishing, and were anchored about twenty yards off shore on the farther side of the lake; but finding the perch in no humour to bite while the sun was so high, we sat chatting and smoking, and watching the purple shadows steal slowly up the sides of the great hills that guard the head of the lake, biding our time patiently till the fish should be hungry enough to be tempted by our bait. I had been taking a walking tour through Lakeland, and my companion had made the ascent of Fairfield on the previous day; so that our conversation, working gradually round from divergent points, at length fell naturally on pedestrianism, and the amount of health and pleasure to be derived from travelling through a country on foot; and it was upon this hint that my companion spake as follows:
When I was a young fellow (said he), that is to say, more than thirty summers ago, I was as fond of walking tours as anybody. The first I ever took was through Cornwall, when I was but a lad of seventeen; on which occasion I met with a little adventure which, with your good pleasure, I will relate to you as soon as I have lighted another cigar.
With a six weeks’ holiday in view before returning to the drudgery of my father’s office, and with a purse not badly supplied, I set out on my tour, determined to enjoy myself after my own free and independent fashion; and to thoroughly explore the romantic country I had chosen as the scene of my wanderings, which was at that time little better than a terra incognita to the ordinary run of tourists, who firmly believed they had seen everything that was worth seeing after staying for a few hours in each of the principal towns, and viewing the intermediate country from the top of a coach, or the windows of a post-chaise. For my part, I disdained all guide-books and road maps; and never knew, when I set out in a morning, what spot would be my resting-place at night. I delighted in cross-roads, and country lanes, and sheep tracks among the hills; any footpath or bye-way that led from the dusty prosaic high-road had allurements for me that I could rarely resist. I had been leading this pleasant sort of life for about a fortnight, gradually working my way south-westward towards the sea, when late one afternoon—a gloomy overcast afternoon, as I well remember—I overtook a pedlar among the hills, a German-Jew fellow, with a box hanging from a strap over his shoulder; and as the road was very lonely, and we both happened to be going the same way, we naturally fell into conversation; for in those days I was always ready to make the acquaintance of anybody. The road we were travelling was little more than a bridle path among the hills which I had taken by chance, neither knowing nor caring whither it might lead me; and it was to such effect that I answered my companion, when he asked me for what place I was bound. He greeted my answer with a smile, and a little shrug of the shoulders, which might either be one of pity at the idea of any rational being finding pleasure or profit in such aimless wanderings, or one of disbelief at what he perhaps considered a too transparent attempt to impose upon his credulity. After trudging along in silence for a short time, he remarked that he was bound for a certain town which he named, some dozen miles away; that he had taken the road through the hills, hoping to find it a near cut; that he had never been that way before; and that he had heard there was a roadside inn some mile or two further on, where we could probably obtain accommodation for the night, as it would be dark in less than an hour, and to attempt to find one’s way across the moors after dark would be the height of folly. He concluded by asking me whether I did not want a splendid gold watch, or a chain, or a ring, or a breastpin, or a set of studs—any or all of which he would let me have at a ridiculously low figure. Finding all his attempts to trade of no avail, he shrugged his shoulders again, pulled up his box a little higher on his back, and, becoming bon camarade on the instant, offered me his box full of choice foreign tobacco, and suggested a friendly pipe as the best alleviation of the toils of the way; a proposition to which I readily agreed, for, young as I was, I had learnt the art of smoking. And so, walking, smoking, and chatting pleasantly together, an hour or more sped quickly away; and I hardly knew how nearly dark it was till my companion pointed to a faint light shining in the distance, and declared that it must proceed from the inn of which we were in quest. I have said nothing hitherto as to the personal appearance of my pedlar friend. In person he was thin and wiry, with keen mobile features, sharpened and intensified by the close bargaining of many years. In age he might be fifty, or rather more; and his hair and beard, both of them long and tangled, and once black, were now fast becoming grey. He wore small gold circlets through his ears. He spoke good English, but with a slight foreign accent; and, finally, I gathered from his brass-lettered box that his name was Max Jacoby.
Toiling slowly upward, we at length reached the summit of the hill, and found ourselves close to the inn of which we were in search. The light we had seen so far away proceeded from a lantern suspended from the roof of a rude shed close to the inn, where a tall brawny young savage, of most forbidding aspect, was effecting some rude repairs to a rickety tumble-down cart. There was a light, too, in at least one room of the inn, as we saw through a chink in the wooden shutter with which the window was jealously guarded: otherwise the place seemed dark, silent, and tenantless. On inquiring of the young savage whether we could be accommodated for the night, he replied that he did not know, but that we had better knock at the door and ask the master. Not being in the habit of knocking at the doors of country inns, I lifted the latch, intending to walk in without ceremony; but finding the door would not yield to my efforts, I was obliged, after all, to accept the suggestion offered me, and knock. A delay of half a minute or so, and then the door was opened as far as the chain within would allow, and the landlord stood before us and inquired what we wanted. Could he accommodate us for the night? we asked. He rubbed his hand slowly over his chin, mused a moment, and then replied that he thought he could perhaps do so, unfastening the chain at the same time to admit us.
We found ourselves in a room of considerable size, poorly furnished with a few chairs, and two tables of the commonest kind, but looking cheerful just then in the light of the large fire burning in a grate at one end of the room. Jacoby drew a chair up to the fire with an air of enjoyment, and relieved himself of his box, placing it close by his side where he could keep a half-eye constantly upon it, requesting me at the same time to order what I pleased for supper. The landlord had disappeared into an inner room or kitchen, from which there now issued, in answer to my summons, a tall big-boned mulatto woman, attired in a check cotton gown, and having a red ’kerchief bound round her head. This apparition was so unexpected, and seemed to me so ludicrous and out of place in a lonely Cornish inn, that I could not help bursting into an irrepressible fit of laughter as the woman stepped forward into the room; but the dark scowl that chased away the good-natured grin with which she had just greeted me, warned me not to carry my amusement too far. On strict inquiry, the capabilities of the house resolved themselves into an unlimited supply of eggs and bacon; so we were fain to give our orders accordingly. After the remnants of the meal had been cleared away, the landlord himself entered the room to ask what we would like to drink. Certainly a very low, smooth, insinuating voice, very different from that of a rude country landlord. He was a large-built fleshy man, with a red, fresh-coloured, whiskerless face, which gave you at the first glance the idea of great good-nature, combined with an equal amount of stolid indolence; but when those heavy overhanging lids were fairly raised, and you caught a full glance from the grey restless eyes beneath them—restless and treacherous as those of a tiger—then you felt that there was something more than somnolent good nature about this man,—that there was an iron will to do and to dare beneath that impassive exterior.
Jacoby chose some whisky on the landlord’s recommendation, and I ordered a tumbler of the same, more for “the good of the house,” as the saying is, than because I cared to drink it. On Jacoby’s invitation the landlord came and joined us; for the pedlar was fond of society, and probably thought he saw some chance of driving a bargain; at all events, after imbibing a glass or two of whisky, he grew more talkative than ever, and at last lifted his box on to his knees, opened it, and spread out on the table a quantity of cheap jewellery, which looked very bright and glittering by candlelight, but was, in reality, of very small intrinsic value; and endeavoured, by a voluble and energetic harangue, to tempt the landlord into becoming a purchaser. That calm and sententious individual examined the baubles one by one, replaced them carefully on the table, and ended by expressing his opinion of them by a little silent laugh, and two or three extra puffs from his pipe; thereby intimating, as plainly as though he had said so in as many words, “Rubbish, every bit of it: don’t attempt to deceive me!”
Jacoby, with a shrug, put away his wares, closed his box, and resumed his pipe. A grateful space of silence intervened. The pedlar was drinking heavily, and the landlord took care to keep his glass constantly replenished. Before long the effects of the fiery liquor began to make themselves visible in his flushed face, and thick unsteady tones; that mixture of shrewdness and caution which, so far as I could judge, characterised his dealings with every one, seemed suddenly to desert him; he became at once noisy, boastful, and confiding.
“I’ve something here, now, that it will do your, eyes good to look at,” he exclaimed, drawing a small leather bag from some hidden pocket. “Gems of the first water. See here, and here! What do you say to these?” and he poured into his hand a number of small brilliants, all of them unset, which, even in that wretched light, shone and scintillated like star dust, or chippings from the great belt of Orion. “Oh, my darlings, how I love you!” said Jacoby, fondly. “You’re easier to carry than silver or gold, and far prettier to look at. A ragged coat is not always the sign of a poor man, master landlord.”
He shook his head with drunken gravity; gave another fond look at his treasures; then deposited them in the bag; and by a sleight-of-hand movement disposed of the bag and its contents about his person. The landlord’s heavy eyelids were lifted with surprise as the pedlar held out the brilliants in his palm; and he greeted them with a long stealthy glance from the corners of his greedy, treacherous eyes, then let his eyelids fall again, and went on with his smoking as though there were no such things as diamonds in the world.
“You do not drink, young gentleman,” said the landlord to me after a while. “I am afraid the whisky is not to your taste.”
“The whisky is very excellent, I have no doubt,” I replied; “but I rarely drink spirits of any kind, more especially when I have a long day’s walk before me on the morrow.”
“Then perhaps you will allow me to brew you a cup of café-au-lait. I learnt the art when I was a young fellow knocking about Paris, and I flatter myself that I can do it tolerably well. And you too, Mr. Pedlar, would be none the worse for a drop of coffee. What say you?”
“Just as you like, mein Knabe; just as you like. This drink which I have here is very good, but I suppose I’ve had enough of it.”
The landlord set to work with alacrity, and in a few minutes produced an excellent cup of coffee, such, certainly, as I had never tasted before. Immediately after the coffee was ready, the little clock in the corner struck ten, and on hearing it, both Jacoby and I arose, and asked to be shown to our rooms, for we had the prospect of a long tramp before us next day. The mulatto woman and the young savage had retired some time before; so the landlord in person lighted our candles, and ushered us up the rickety stairs, on the top of which we found ourselves in a gloomy corridor lighted from the roof, having doors opening out of it on either side. My room was at one end of this passage, and Jacoby’s at the other. The landlord having seen each of us into his room, bade us a cheerful good-night; and next moment I heard the creaking of the stairs as he went down into the lower parts of the house. I was about to close my door, when Jacoby called to me from his room, “Good-night, ole fellow! Don’t overshleep y’self in th’ morning.” I responded to his greeting, and then closed and locked the door. The bedroom, like every other part of the house I had seen, was poorly and scantily furnished, and was of an old-fashioned, tumble-down appearance. Across the whole length of the low ceiling ran a thick heavy beam, from the middle of which stood out conspicuously a small strong hook, which at once connected itself in my mind with the idea of some antecedent suicide; the floor in many places was rough and uneven; the window consisted of small diamond panes set in lead, and barred with iron; the door was of old black oak; and there was a descent of two steps into the room.
I had sat down to note these things, and was partly undressed, when I suddenly stumbled forward, and found that I had unconsciously gone to sleep while sitting in the chair. A deadly stupor and lethargy, such as I had never experienced before, seemed suddenly to weigh down both my body and brain. I got up, but could scarcely stand; and when I attempted to walk, I reeled forward towards the bed like a drunken man; and sank with my head on the pillow, weighed down by a heaviness unspeakable; and knew nothing more. The coffee had undoubtedly been drugged.
How long I had slept I cannot tell—whether hours, or minutes only—when I suddenly found myself sitting up in bed, trembling with horror, and with a wild cry of agony ringing shrilly through my brain.
The sharp intense cry of one in dire extremity. Whose voice it was that gave utterance to it, and from what part of the house it proceeded, I could not tell; I only knew that without any preliminary waking, as it seemed to me, I found myself sitting up in bed, staring, with wildly-beating heart, into the intense darkness around me, not remembering for the moment where I was, my brain still ringing with that terrible cry. But I had scarcely time to gather my scattered wits together, when, following quickly on the cry, came the sound of a pistol-shot, evidently close at hand; then a heavy fall on the floor; and then all was still.
I had called to mind by this time where I was, and all the occurrences of the evening; and on hearing the shot I leaped out of bed, and made for the door, and after groping about for a moment or two found it. I had locked the door before getting into bed, and now unfastened it; but on attempting to open it, found that I could not do so. It was evidently fastened outside; but for what purpose? Had it been done to prevent me from going to the assistance of the pedlar? That cry, that pistol-shot—poor Jacoby must have been murdered in his bed, and it would doubtless be my turn next! Dead men tell no tales.
I was without arms, except a small clasp knife; a knife which I had had when a school-lad, and still carried from long habit. This would probably be of little or no service in any coming encounter, but I got it ready nevertheless, tying my handkerchief round the haft so as to obtain a firmer grip. Nothing in the room that I could have piled against the door could have opposed for one moment the entrance of anyone determined on coming in. I examined the window again, hoping to find sufficient space between the bars to allow of my creeping through and dropping to the ground; but the hope proved futile. I groped my way back to the bed, and sat down on the edge of it. I trembled no longer. The first surprise was over, and although the suspense was terrible, I prepared like a man to meet the worst that could happen to me. I felt very cold, chilled to the marrow, so I laid down my knife for a moment, and wrapped my travelling plaid carefully round me. My thoughts wandered away to my mother. How she would wonder what had become of her boy, and sit at home with sad patience, month after month, waiting to greet him who would never cross the threshold more; but a little sob that burst irrepressibly from my heart warned me not to give way, and recalled my thoughts to the imminent danger before me. Yes, I would sell my life dearly, if they did not shoot me down before I had time to make one effort for my deliverance. But why did they not come? A deathlike silence reigned through the house; not a whisper, not a footfall; a silence and darkness as of the grave, intense and horrible, not long to be borne without madness. Was my bedroom door really fast? Had I, in my nervous haste, examined it sufficiently to be sure of the fact? I rose, and groped my way to the door, and examined it carefully again, assuring myself this time that it must really be secured on the other side. As I said before, there was a descent of two steps into the room; and as I moved my bare feet along these steps in my efforts to open the door, I slid one of them into a cold liquid pool of something which was trickling slowly into the room. I fell back as though I had been shot. I was but a boy, remember, and scarcely recovered from a long illness brought on by over-study: my nerves were still weak, and this last horror was more than I could bear. A sickness, as of death, crept over me; my senses left me; and I fell to the ground.
When I regained my consciousness the room was still quite dark; but the outline of the window stood out, a faint gray square, from the surrounding blackness, and I knew that the blessed daylight was at hand. With a shudder I drew myself farther away from the door, away into the farthest corner of the room, and there crouched up against the wall, sat, expecting I knew not what.
The terrible stillness which had oppressed me so heavily before, still reigned through the house. Not the faintest murmur of a voice, not the lightest footfall on the floor, anywhere to be heard. Why had I been fastened up in that gloomy room? Did they intend to leave me there to starve? But for what purpose? What was to be gained by such a step? What had become of Jacoby? Was it he who had given utterance to that cry of agony in the dark? I exhausted a thousand conjectures as I crouched in my corner watching the dawn slowly brighten, and still keeping my eyes fixed on the door, under which I knew a thin red stream was slowly oozing. I could see it at last, a shining patch on the dark oak step, where it had fallen drop by drop during the long night hours. I could not take my eyes off it, they seemed -wedded to it by a terrible fascination. I watched it while the day broadened by imperceptible degrees. I got up after a time and went slowly towards it. I must try the door again. Perhaps with daylight to assist me, I might discover some mode of escape. Ah, what a great dark patch still creeping slowly under the door! Slowly I approached it. Nearer and nearer.
Thank Heaven! not blood, but water!
In the revulsion of feeling caused by this discovery, I sank on my knees by the side of the bed, and burst into a passion of sobs and tears; and became thereby stronger and calmer, and again felt the sweet hopes of life nestle warmly round my heart.
On again trying the door, which was strong and heavy, and made of dark old oak, I ascertained for a fact that it was fastened outside; the keyhole I found to be covered by a plate on the other side. I carefully examined the window once more, but the iron bars were too close and strong to afford me the slightest chance of escape that way. The chimney, too, after a glance, was abandoned as hopeless. That unaccountable stillness still continued, although it was now broad day. I would break it at any risk, happen what might. I went back to the door and shook it, and hallooed with all my strength, calling Jacoby and the landlord by name; but there came no response save a few dull echoes, and when they died away, silence fell on the place once more.
There was a small semicircular opening near the top of the door, probably intended originally as a means of ventilation to the room, and while casting about for some way of escape, the thought struck me that by getting on a chair and looking through the opening, I might ascertain something that would be of service to me. Next moment I had placed one of the two rickety chairs close to the door, and mounting it with caution, found that my eyes were exactly on a level with the opening. On looking through, my glance traversed, first, the floor of the passage, following the thread of water, and tracing it back by degrees to the door of Jacoby’s room, which, as stated before, was opposite mine, at the other end of the passage, and which, I now saw, as I followed the stream with my eyes, was standing wide open. Having traced the thread of water till it was lost behind the angle of the entrance to the pedlar’s room, my glance fell on a small dressing-table standing in the room exactly opposite the door; and from the dressing table went up to an oval looking-glass placed thereon, and then stopped, suddenly transfixed with horror at seeing the reflection of a ghastly face staring intently at me from the glass.
It was the face of Jacoby without doubt, so much I could clearly distinguish; but although the eyes were wide open, and staring with grim fixity of purpose; and although the half-open lips seemed grinning at me in bitter derision; it was none the less the face of a dead man.
That my poor friend had been foully murdered I could no longer doubt; but how did it happen that I had escaped a similar fate? There was the white face, changeless and speechless; but beyond that all was conjecture and vague surmise, got down gently from my post of observation, feeling very sick at heart, and more overcome just then, I think, with pity for the sad fate of my friend, than with apprehension for what might happen to myself. Still that same deathlike and oppressive silence, so that the buzzing of a fly on the window sounded in the stillness unnaturally loud and intrusive.
More impressed than ever with the necessity for immediate action, I began, as soon as I had in some measure recovered from the effect of seeing the face in the glass, to cast about in my mind again for some means of effecting my escape. Picking up my knife from the floor where it had lain neglected for some hours past, I at once set to work to try to cut away one of the panels of the stout old door; but I broke my knife before I had been at work five minutes, and then gave up the attempt in despair. There was a dreadful fascination about that face in the glass which I found it impossible to resist, and standing on the chair, I again looked through the opening in the door, and turned my eyes slowly towards it, half expecting to find that it had disappeared. But it was still there, as grim, ghastly, and immovable as before. The pallid lips seemed to stir with inaudible words as I looked; but the wide-open eyes stared steadfastly into mine with a glassy changelessness of expression that chilled my blood to look upon.
Gathering heart somewhat after a time, I again went to work on the door with my broken knife; labouring on, hour after hour, with wearying persistency, but making such small progress that had I not felt that my life depended on the success of my efforts, I should have given up the task a hundred times in despair.
Noon came and went. A dull gnawing pain began to make itself felt, which I knew proceeded from the want of food, though hunger in the ordinary sense of the word I did not feel; I began to get weaker, too, as the afternoon advanced, and to labour like a man in a dream. I think that after a time I must have fallen into a kind of stupor, induced by weariness and exhaustion, as Isat before the door with my head resting in my hands. When I came to myself again, I found that the wind had risen, and that the first shades of evening were beginning to creep into the room. I stood up, weary, sick, and faint at heart, and asked myself how it would be possible to live through another night all alone in that terrible house. I calculated that even with daylight and my full strength, it would have been a work of several hours to cut my way out; and now both daylight and strength were failing me rapidly.
A dull lowering evening, with rain and heavy: wind. Hark! what a blast was that! it seemed to shake the rickety old house to its foundations, making the floors creak, and the windows rattle, and the whole tumble-down edifice to shiver and groan in the grasp of its invisible arms. Suddenly I was startled by the clashing of some distant door; then there was a faint rustle and whisper up the stairs and along the passage, as though the ghost of the murdered man were coming back to revisit its tenement; then the strong gust outside swept swiftly away down the valley inland; and a brief lull followed. It was needful that I should look once more on the face in the glass while there was still sufficient daylight left to see it by. I felt drawn to do this by some inward necessity, some occult magnetism working against my better nature. What, then, was my surprise and horror when, on looking once more through the opening in the door, and staring steadfastly into the glass, I saw that it was blank—that the face was no longer there!
I looked, and looked again, but with the same result; the face had certainly disappeared; the glass reflected nothing but the opposite wall of the room, and part of the furniture of a bed. The blood round my heart grew cold as I looked; I got off the chair, and went and sat down in the corner of the room farthest from the door, and peered fearfully into the gathering gloom; struggling hard to crush down the dim ghostly fancies, and vague hauntings of terror, which began to troop wildly around me, and claim me for their own. Whither had that white face vanished? I kept on asking myself the question again and again. In the first strangeness of the discovery I had flung aside my broken knife, and I now felt an utter and invincible disinclination to rise from that far corner, search for it on the floor, and resume my labours on the door. How suddenly the evening had darkened! Was that a hand which touched my cheek in the dusk? Whose hand? And hush! was not that a whisper—a rustle close beside me? Would the floor creak so loudly unless some one whom I could not see were walking across it?
Above the loud howling of the wind, I heard wild shrieks of demoniac laughter. There were creatures abroad that night, such as the daylight never looked upon. They called me by name—they shouted to me to join them; and far away, along the flinty high-road, I heard more of them coming with a quick tramp. They were mounted on their demon steeds, and they would carry me away with them out of that terrible house, and we should gallop all night with the storm.
Be still ye throbbing pulses! Grant me a moment’s respite—give me time for one last prayer, ere sense and reason desert me altogether!
Louder and louder came the tramp of the horses: no demon steeds those, but veritable animals of flesh and blood. A minute of terrible suspense, and then I heard a loud knocking at the front door, and the confused sound of several voices all talking at once. The first knock dissipated all those weird cobweb fancies of an over-wrought brain, which had held me powerless but a moment before. I sprang to the window, flung open the casement, and cried aloud for help. I know not what I said, but next moment, as it seemed to me, I saw myself surrounded by half-a-dozen kindly faces, and felt that I was safe.
My rescuers proved to be a party of jovial farmers, returning from a distant fair. In a few brief sentences, I gave them an outline of my story—a story which received a ghastly confirmation when they entered the pedlar’s room. Both Jacoby and the treacherous landlord lay dead—the latter in a corner of the room, close to an overturned water-jug, with a bullet through his brain; holding in one hand a long, sharp bowie-knife, and a dark lantern in the other. Jacoby was in the bed, in a half-sitting posture, stabbed to the heart; holding, firmly clenched in one hand, the pistol with which, in the one last moment granted him on earth, he had wrought such swift vengeance on his murderer. When we entered the room the face of Jacoby was invisible—hidden from us by the loose, dimity curtain, which hung from the head of the bed; and which the wind, when it burst open the badly-secured casement, and rushed into the room, had lifted up, and flung tenderly over the dead man’s face, as if in reverent pity at so sad a spectacle. The bed stood just behind the angle of the entrance into the room; and from the position of the body, the face, when uncovered, was fully reflected in the oval glass, which stood on the dressing-table, nearly opposite the foot of the bed. A further examination revealed that both the pedlar’s box and pockets had been rifled of their contents. This, evidently, could not have been the work of the landlord; his career had been cut short too soon for that, whatever his ultimate intentions might have been. The robbery was, therefore, set down as the work of the mulatto woman and the young savage, and steps were at once taken to procure their arrest; which desirable consummation was effected some three weeks later at Liverpool, as they were about to embark for Australia. Some of the property of the murdered man was found in their possession. The woman’s version of the affair was as follows:
She stated, that she was awakened sometime in the night by a loud cry of “Murder!” quickly followed by a pistol-shot, and a heavy fall. That being too frightened to get out of bed, she lay trembling and listening for more than an hour, after which she summoned sufficient courage to creep stealthily out of the house, and make her way to the loft over the stable, where the young savage slept; that together they had, after a time, ventured up-stairs, where they found both Jacoby and the landlord dead. This must have occurred while I lay insensible in the room. That, thereupon, they had loaded themselves with the property of the dead man, and absconded together. As there was no evidence to prove any complicity on their part in the murder, their version of the affair was taken as the correct one, and punishment meted out to them accordingly.
I may just say, in conclusion, that it was afterwards discovered by the police that the landlord of the lonely inn was a notorious forger of whom they had long been in search—a man originally of some education and breeding, but whose numerous misdeeds had at length made his ordinary haunts so hot for him, that he found it advisable to withdraw himself for a year or two from public notice, and bury his talents in the distant wilds of Cornwall.