Weird Tales/Volume 31/Issue 3/The Head in the Window
|The||Head in the Window|
(Adapted from the German of Wilhelm von Scholz)
By ROY TEMPLE HOUSE
What strange prescience had the bearded man of his approaching
death? An odd little story
In the art gallery of a North German city hangs a lurid oil painting which represents two Italians way-laying and attacking a third. I will tell you the history of the painting.
In the nineties of the last century, a young German painter was living in the outskirts of Rome, in an isolated little house surrounded by a vineyard. One fine, bright moonlight night, after sitting over the wine till a late hour with two or three friends down in the city, he came home about midnight. He had to walk some distance beyond the end of the street-car line, through a narrow road that ran between high walls. He never came through that lane late at night without a feeling of apprehension. He was a poor man, he never wore jewelry, his modest brown cape and dilapidated broad-brimmed hat were very much like the clothing of many of his modest neighbors, visibly not the appurtenances of a man of means, and he had had no love affairs in Rome; so that it did not seem as if any sort of ambush was likely. He thought a good deal about his fiancée back in Germany, and he almost always carried a letter from her in his left inside vest pocket, just over his heart. As he walked home he was in the habit of whistling to keep his courage up, of talking aloud to himself, bursting out every now and then with "That's certainly a fact!" or "Yes, I think that's what I'll do!" And he was likely to call out at intervals to his little dog, a Spitz who never strayed far from his master's heels. He always carried a revolver on his person, although in all the years since he had acquired it, he had never once had occasion to fire it off.
But when he came near his garden gate, he never failed to find himself shivering with apprehension till his slightly trembling fingers had the gate unlocked. He could almost visualize a big fellow gliding around the corner and stepping out threateningly in front of him. He always had his key in his hand before he had reached the gate, and he always pushed the key into the lock with nervous haste; on dark nights he would hold his lighted cigar toward the lock with the other hand. Then he would lock the gate behind him in a great hurry, unlock his house door just as nervously, light the candle which stood waiting for him to the left of the door on the uneven tile floor, try the door which led into the ground-floor rooms, all of them unoccupied except the kitchen and utilized as lumber-rooms to store his artist's supplies, and climb the creaking stairs to the upper floor where were located his spacious studio and his little bedroom. The bedroom was scarcely more than an alcove, and it always stood wide open into the studio, so that as he lay in bed he could see the great wide window and the starry heavens outside.
His trip home on this particular evening had not been without disquieting incidents. Nothing very definite had happened, and he might have attached no importance to anything that had occurred if he had not been made a little apprehensive by the eery turn the conversation in the artist group had taken. His Spitz had stopped and barked furiously into a linden-tree alley a few hundred yards from his garden gate. It was true that the dog had a nervous streak in him and often grew excited over nothing at all. A little earlier, as the artist was getting off the street-car, a very suspicious looking and acting man in ragged work-clothes had asked him how to reach the Valle San Giorgio, a lonely little valley with a chapel in the center of it, a sort of ravine which lay behind and below the eminence on which his house was built and which no human being in his senses would have thought of visiting at that hour of the night. Then, as he came through the narrow street between the high walls, he would have sworn he heard steps on the hard ground behind him. The impression was so strong that he turned and looked back more than once. But no one was visible, and it was only while he himself was walking that he seemed to hear the steps. They must have been only the echo of his own steps in the uncanny stillness of the night.
Finally, at a turn of the crooked little street, he had come suddenly within a few feet of a man who was going in the same direction, but more slowly. The man turned and looked at him, then walked slowly away on a path that branched off from the little street. The painter had had only an indefinite impression of the man's bearded face. But his artist eye had taken in the squat, heavy frame, which stood out plainly in the moonlight, the peculiar swing of the man's walk, and even the wavering shadow which showed rather distinctly on the wall beyond him before he turned into the foot-path. When he had himself come abreast the path and peered fearfully down it, the man had disappeared. There were no buildings along the path, and it was distinctly visible for some distance. It seemed as if the earth had swallowed the man. Or he might have dodged behind a clump of bushes. But why would he have done that? It was strange.
For a few minutes the young painter had been almost uneasy. Then all at once the artist in him had gained the upper hand. He realized that the shape and manner of the bearded pedestrian had been very much what he had had in mind for a figure in a violent night scene which he was planning to paint, and he regretted that he had not seen the man's face more distinctly. He began to lay plans for sketching what he remembered of the face and figure before he went to bed, and in his cheerful planning he completely forgot his apprehension—till his dog had begun to bark frantically at the entrance of the linden alley.
Arrived at home, the painter had hauled his preliminary sketch out of a corner, set it up on an easel and rapidly drawn in with charcoal the outlines of the man with the beard. He had originally planned to make this person the aggressor in an encounter. He had thought of him as rushing out from his concealment behind a wall and running with drawn sword at a favored rival who had just said good-bye to a lady at the gate of an imposing palazzo. But some mysterious influence seemed to guide him into a change of plan. He of the beard must needs be the victim, not the attacker, and he must be set upon by two men.
The painter took out a fresh sheet and sketched in the new idea. It was curious how definitely the impression had come to him. He knew exactly where to place each individual, how to direct each motion. But the face of the bearded defender, the man whose life was forfeit to these vicious assassins, would not come clear to him. Finally he grew tired of searching, undressed and went to bed. Tomorrow, he said to himself, when I am fresher, I shall be able to think the thing out better.
He went to sleep at once and slept soundly. But in the course of the night—he had no idea how long he had. been asleep—he started up in bed with the definite impression that he had heard something, a call, a cry, or voices talking together. He listened. Complete silence. If he had heard anything, it must have been in his dream. It did seem to him as if he had had a dream, and that he had dreamed about something disturbing, something alarming. But he could not remember what the dream had been about. He was in the act of lying down again, when he glanced into his studio, which lay bathed in the moonlight from the great window. He saw his dog standing erect in the center of the room, his head thrust forward and turned toward the window, watching and listening intently, without barking. He had never seen the animal act like that before. The painter called softly. The dog gave no sign of hearing him. He did not change in the slightest his attitude of absorbed interest. Then the painter raised his eyes to the window.
At first it seemed to him as if he must be dreaming still. He threw the bedclothes aside, stared at the window, brushed his hands across his eyes and gazed again. There was no doubt about it. The painter's eyes were looking into the eyes of the bearded man whose conduct had puzzled him the night before. It looked as if the man had climbed up and stood on something that lifted him breast-high before the second-story window. The rough-boned, carelessly kept face with the tangled hair and beard was unmistakably the face he had caught a glimpse of on his way home a few hours before. It was frightfully distorted. The eyes were wide open and staring, the lips were open and drawn back from the teeth—it seemed almost as if the man were uttering a terrified cry for help, but not a sound was audible. On the left temple there was an ugly wound, with the hair matted over it but with the blood still trickling down over the face. There was no sign of the hands; the arms fell straight down from the shoulders. It almost seemed to the painter, as he studied the figure and its attitude a little more calmly, as if someone had pushed a dead man up into the window from below. Then, all at once, the horrible apparition disappeared, noiselessly, and the painter saw the trees and the quiet sky behind and above them.
At that moment the dog's muscles relaxed from his position of tense watchfulness. He ran to his master, cowered against him as if he were seeking protection, turned his head back toward the window. Then he sat down expectantly before the painter, exactly as he was in the habit of doing when he saw the artist take down his hat and his caped cloak to go out.
For a moment the distracted artist could do nothing but stare at the rectangle of moonlight where the ghastly figure had been. Then he realized the changed attitude of the dog, and spoke to the animal. When the little creature saw that he had his master's attention, he stood up, wagged his tail, and looked around expectantly toward the stairway. The artist took his revolver and went to the window. The moonlit landscape was calm and silent. Not a sight or a sound. If a gang of assassins had held a murdered man up to his window, a minute or two before, they could scarcely have made so complete a get-away in so short a time. The shutters on the window below were closed and locked. There was nothing to climb up by. And except for the feeling that he had heard something in his dream, the painter was sure that not a sound had reached him from outside the building.
The dog ran back and forth between the artist and the stairway. Animals have remarkable leadings, and the painter thought seriously of making the round of the garden. But it seemed to him, as he thought it over, that such a procedure would be useless at best, and that at worst it would be courting trouble. If bandits were about, what could one timid citizen, armed with an old revolver that had never been fired in its life, do against them? All that could be expected of him, certainly, was to watch from inside his house till morning. He closed his window, and ordered the dog back to his cushion.
Just before he drew the window down, he had had the impression that he heard steps run rapidly along the stone pavement that lay just below it. He raised it again, and looked down. No one was in sight, and not a sound was to be heard. He stood by the window; struggling to get a grip on himself. He wondered if he could be ill. He knew that various delusions come from physical causes within the one who experiences them. He had tried so desperately hard to visualize the head which he needed for his picture, that his effort, combined with the effect of the heavy Falerno wine he had drunk, might easily have produced a psychic effect which caused him to see visions and hear sounds that had transpired only in his imagination. He had almost convinced himself that he had found the key to the enigma, when his glance fell on his dog, obediently crouching on his cushion, but still wide-eyed and excited. It seemed to him exactly as if someone spoke out from right behind him: "But what about the dog? Does your psychopathic theory explain the way the dog is acting?"
Suddenly the painter's mood of anxiety and puzzlement gave way to one of impatience. He was tired and nervous. He was disgusted with the whole annoying affair. He dropped on his bed again, and in a mood of something like defiance, he flung off the perplexity and dropped into a heavy sleep.
Nothing happened till morning. When the bright sun shone into the window instead of the ghostly moon, he was ready to laugh the whole matter off as a half-tipsy dream, and to class the dog's strange conduct with various other evidences of unaccountable nervousness which that animal had shown at various times. He sat down at his easel and went seriously to work at his new sketch. He discovered that lie knew the bearded face now, feature by feature, and the task went smoothly. It was marvelous how vividly the face and form of the heavy fellow came out under the artist's eager fingers. This would be his best picture, he was sure of that.
As he was working, he heard somebody knock at the door downstairs. He made a few rapid strokes still, hastily kicked off his slippers and pulled on his shoes, and went down. It was doubtless the peasant woman, he thought, who brought him his milk every morning, but who brought it at the most unaccountably irregular hours. If she wasn't willing to follow a fairly even schedule, there was no reason why he should discommode himself to keep her from waiting a minute or two.
When he opened the door, there was no woman there, and no milk-can. He strolled down the walk toward the fountain at which the milk-woman often stopped to water her donkey. As he came near the fountain he heard voices. When he passed the clump of bushes that had hidden the place from his sight, he discovered an excited group arguing and gesticulating about some object which lay on the ground. There were two policemen in the group.
"Has something happened?" he inquired as he joined the circle.
"They killed a man last night," said one of the bystanders. One of the policemen asked the painter if he had seen or heard anything that might throw any light on the mystery. He was about to tell his ghost-story, when it occurred to him how improbable it was, and he contented himself with replying that as he had walked home late at night a man in front of him had turned into the little side path, and that before he had left the street-car, a man had asked the way to the Valle San Giorgio.
"Would you know the man in front of you if you saw him again?"
The painter was not sure. But he thought he remembered certain things about him. For example, he remembered very distinctly that the man had a beard.
The policeman looked up quickly. "Is this the man?" he asked, and drew off the sack which had covered the head of the prostrate form.
The painter started back in terror, and for a moment his voice failed him completely. There was the head he had seen in the window, the eyes still staring wide, the matted hair clinging about the wound over the left temple, the wild, scraggly beard. The look of anguish and appeal was still in the eyes that gazed up into the eyes of the painter, as if the deed were not yet committed and the man were begging him to come to his aid. And as the living man gazed with fascinated horror into the eyes of the dead man, the expression of the eyes seemed to change to one of reproach. The little dog had been ready and anxious to dash out and help defend the victim of a band of assassins, but his master had been too stupid, too selfish, too cowardly to come to the succor of a fellow-being in distress.
The painter recovered his self-control and said dully to the policeman:
"Yes, I think that was the man."
"Did you know him?" asked one of the neighbors with whom the German painter had a bowing acquaintance. And when the painter shook his head, the voluble Italian prattled on:
"It is much better that the bandits made away with this man than if they had killed a gentleman like you. He was——"
And he touched his finger compassionately to his forehead.
From the general discussion that followed, the artist learned that the dead man, who for a good part of his life had been a shepherd in the Alban Hills, was a strange dreamer of a fellow who claimed to have the gift of second sight, to be able to foretell the future, and to have the power to cure disease by prayer. Members of the group told various stories of strange proofs of his psychic powers, notably of one instance in which he had described in great detail a fire which was raging at that same moment in a town a hundred miles away, and of which he had no possible means of knowledge.
"It is strange," said one of the neighbors thoughtfully, "that he didn't foresee what would happen to him when he came out here last night!"
"Perhaps he did foresee it," said one of the policemen, who had been looking through a handful of papers which had come from one of the dead man's pockets. Among these papers, many of them old and worn from long friction in the pocket, was a dean sheet on which was printed out very carefully: "I AM GOING A HARD WAY. PERHAPS I SHALL NOT COME BACK. BUT I AM SAVING ANOTHER MAN'S LIFE."
The murderers were caught a few days later. They were two vagabonds of known evil habits, both of whom had already served prison sentences. When they were examined, they confessed that they had intended to kill the painter and plunder his isolated house at their leisure, but that in their excitement they had mistaken one man for another who was dressed very similarly. They had intended, they said, to break into the studio that same night, but had been so frightened when the dying shepherd had called their attention to their blunder and had warned them solemnly never to carry out their murderous plan against the painter, that they had taken to their heels in a panic.
And so it comes that the picture of the half-crazy Italian shepherd who saved the life of the young German painter is hanging today in a German art gallery.