Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 89 of 274

I think I was paralysed for an instant. Imitating Pickman’s listening, I fancied I heard a faint scurrying sound somewhere, and a series of squeals or beats in a direction I couldn’t determine. I thought of huge rats and shuddered. Then there came a subdued sort of clatter which somehow set me all in gooseflesh–a furtive, groping kind of clatter, though I can’t attempt to convey what I mean in words. It was like heavy wood falling on stone or brick–wood on brick–what did that make me think of?

It came again, and louder. There was a vibration as if the wood had fallen farther than it had fallen before. After that followed a sharp grating noise, a shouted gibberish from Pickman, and the deafening discharge of all six chambers of a revolver, fired spectacularly as a lion tamer might fire in the air for effect. A muffled squeal or squawk, and a thud. Then more wood and brick grating, a pause, and the opening of the door–at which I’ll confess I started violently. Pickman reappeared with his smoking weapon, cursing the bloated rats that infested the ancient well.

‘The deuce knows what they eat, Thurber,’ he grinned, ‘for those archaic tunnels touched graveyard and witch-den and sea-coast. But whatever it is, they must have run short, for they were devilish anxious to get out. Your yelling stirred them up, I fancy. Better be cautious in these old places–our rodent friends are the one drawback, though I sometimes think they’re a positive asset by way of atmosphere and colour.’

Well, Eliot, that was the end of the night’s adventure. Pickman had promised to show me the place, and Heaven knows he had done it. He led me out of that tangle of alleys in another direction, it seems, for when we sighted a lamp-post we were in a half-familiar street with monotonous rows of mingled tenement blocks and old houses. Charter Street, it turned out to be, but I was too flustered to notice just where we hit it. We were too late for the elevated, and walked back downtown through Hanover Street. I remember that walk. We switched from Tremont up Beacon, and Pickman left me at the corner of Joy, where I turned off. I never spoke to him again.

Why did I drop him? Don’t be impatient. Wait till I ring for coffee. We’ve had enough of the other stuff, but I for one need something. No–it wasn’t the paintings I saw in that place; though I’ll swear they were enough to get him ostracised in nine-tenths of the homes and clubs of Boston, and I guess you won’t wonder now why I have to steer clear of subways and cellars. It was–something I found in my coat the next morning. You know, the curled-up paper tacked to the frightful canvas in the cellar; the thing I thought was a photograph of some scene he meant to use as a background for that monster. That last scare had come while I was reaching to uncurl it, and it seems I had vacantly crumpled it into my pocket. But here’s the coffee–take it black, Eliot, if you’re wise.

Yes, that paper was the reason I dropped Pickman; Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known–and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot–old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone–back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt. Here, let’s have the chandelier going.

Don’t ask me to explain or even conjecture about what I burned. Don’t ask me, either, what lay behind that mole-like scrambling Pickman was so keen to pass off as rats. There are secrets, you know, which might have come down from old Salem times, and Cotton Mather tells even stranger things. You know how damned lifelike Pickman’s paintings were–how we all wondered where he got those faces.

Well–that paper wasn’t a photograph of any background, after all. What it showed was simply the monstrous being he was painting on that awful canvas. It was the model he was using–and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life!

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