Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 146 of 274

The first-comer now went to a cupboard on the inner side of the room and extracted a coil of rope. Mounting a chair, he attached one end of the rope to a hook in the great exposed central beam of black oak, and began making a noose with the other end. Realizing he was about to hang himself, I started forward to dissuade or save him. He saw me and ceased his preparations, looking at me with a kind of triumph which puzzled and disturbed me. He slowly stepped down from the chair and began gliding toward me with a positively wolfish grin on his dark, thin-lipped face.

I felt somehow in deadly peril, and drew out the peculiar ray-projector as a weapon of defense. Why I thought it could help me, I do not know. I turned it on–full in his face, and saw the sallow features glow first with violet and then with pinkish light. His expression of wolfish exultation began to be crowded aside by a look of profound fear–which did not, however, wholly displace the exultation. He stopped in his tracks–then, flailing his arms wildly in the air, began to stagger backwards. I saw he was edging toward the open stair-well in the floor, and tried to shout a warning, but he did not hear me. In another instant he had lurched backward through the opening and was lost to view.

I found difficulty in moving toward the stair-well, but when I did get there I found no crushed body on the floor below. Instead there was a clatter of people coming up with lanterns, for the spell of phantasmal silence had broken, and I once more heard sounds and saw figures as normally tri-dimensional. Something had evidently drawn a crowd to this place. Had there been a noise I had not heard?

Presently the two people (simple villagers, apparently) farthest in the lead saw me–and stood paralyzed. One of them shrieked loudly and reverberantly:

Ahrrh!…It be’ee, zur? Again?

Then they all turned and fled frantically. All, that is, but one. When the crowd was gone I saw the grave-bearded man who had brought me to this place–standing alone with a lantern. He was gazing at me gaspingly and fascinatedly, but did not seem afraid. Then he began to ascend the stairs, and joined me in the attic. He spoke:

“So you didn’t let it alone! I’m sorry. I know what has happened. It happened once before, but the man got frightened and shot himself. You ought not to have made him come back. You know what he wants. But you mustn’t get frightened like the other man he got. Something very strange and terrible has happened to you, but it didn’t get far enough to hurt your mind and personality. If you’ll keep cool, and accept the need for making certain radical readjustments in your life, you can keep right on enjoying the world, and the fruits of your scholarship. But you can’t live here–and I don’t think you’ll wish to go back to London. I’d advise America.

“You mustn’t try anything more with that–thing. Nothing can be put back now. It would only make matters worse to do–or summon–anything. You are not as badly off as you might be–but you must get out of here at once and stay away. You’d better thank Heaven it didn’t go further…

“I’m going to prepare you as bluntly as I can. There’s been a certain change–in your personal appearance. He always causes that. But in a new country you can get used to it. There’s a mirror up at the other end of the room, and I’m going to take you to it. You’ll get a shock–though you will see nothing repulsive.”

I was now shaking with a deadly fear, and the bearded man almost had to hold me up as he walked me across the room to the mirror, the faint lamp (i.e., that formerly on the table, not the still fainter lantern he had brought) in his free hand. This is what I saw in the glass:

A thin, dark man of medium stature attired in the clerical garb of the Anglican church, apparently about thirty, and with rimless, steel-bowed glasses glistening beneath a sallow, olive forehead of abnormal height.

It was the silent first-comer who had burned his books.

For all the rest of my life, in outward form, I was to be that man!

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