It was almost midnight.
I was sitting in the parlous of a quaint old ivy-clad house, over whose high-gabled, red-tiled roof rose the tower of a church, the side of which formed the wall of the room in which I sat.
I had been reading, but had closed my book, and now sat on a low chair before the fire, gazing into the red embers, my head resting on one hand.
The house was still; no sound was heard by the faint, low peal of the organ for some midnight vigil.
The lamp had burned low, and the room was only lighted by the faint glow of the fire on the oak ceiling. Outside a pale moon shone fitfully through the drifting vapours.
The casement of lozenge-shaped panes opened outward into a little garden with low ivy-draped wall, beyond which lay the churchyard with tombstones gleaming white in the moonlight, and a gaunt bare chestnut stretching its long black arms up into the night.
I was gazing into the fire, listening to the faint music of the organ stealing from the church, when suddenly a smothered sob at my side startled me.
I looked up and saw on the chair beside the fire a white figure just visible in the faint light; it seemed to e draped in a robe of some dull, white, lustreless material, hanging in stiff folds down to the floor; the thin, white, nerveless, and almost skeleton hands were clasped together convulsively. I then glanced up to the face; it was pallid, emaciated, and terribly drawn as if in great pain; the eyes seemed to peer from the great round sockets like the yes of a death’s head; the hair falling round the neck seemed stiff and full and lifeless.
It was the figure of a woman, a woman who must once have been beautiful, as the clear outlines of the face showed.
She was convulsed with an expression of intense supplication, and looked at me beseechingly.
At last a voice, like the night wine moaning among the trees, issued from the parched lips.
I caught the words, which sounded like a despairing cry. “O listen to me, listen to me; perhaps if I tell it I may be able to endure it a little. I have been wandering on and on, madly eager to escape from it; but it always pressed in on me to overwhelm me. O listen, listen; if I can only tell it once it will not be so terrible.”
Here she stopped and seemed to be gathering strength, her hands clasped over her eyes. She shuddered as if some dreadful memory were haunting her. The only sound was the faint and distant pealing of the organ, as some solemn chant rose to heaven. As I gazed on the agonized face, she again gathered strength to speak:
“If you will listen to me, I will tell you all from the beginning. O alas! Alas! the terror and the horror have never left me. I do not know how long ago; but the first thing I remember I was lying as if stunned on some hard, cold, rocky floor; all was darkness around me, and a deep, terrible pain was pressing on my brow.
“I gradually became more conscious; a regularly recurring sound broke in upon the stillness, like a dropping of water oozing from a fissure of rock; it fell on me and on my face, ice-cold and thick, like drops of blood. Gleams of faint phosphorescent light occasionally appeared, only deepening the black darkness when they were gone.
“I cannot tell how long I lay there; it may have been years, or days, or minutes; all was dark, cold, and hard as rock; only the drip, drip of the water kept for ever falling.
“While lying thus in dull stupor of pain, I gradually perceived dim rugged walls and roof, as of some gloomy corridor, looming out of the darkness. I was lying on the floor of this passage; which stretched int black night on each side. The floor, the sides, and the roof were wet and slimy, and from the slime the faint phosphoric light now and then gleamed, making the desolate picture gradually visible to me, little by little.
“At last I arose, and leaning against the dripping wall for support I tried to collect my strength.
“I was cold, cold to the very soul.
“After a time I went forward a little way along the passage, feeling my way in the murky darkness. When my hand touched the slime on the dank wall, a dull gleam of lurid light shone out. I roamed on and on, ever in the same darkness, and hearing only the drip of the falling water. The air was heavy and laden with a damp, close, charnel vapour.
“The sharp pain on my brow remained ever pressing on me; at last I knew it was there because I had forgotten, O I had forgotten—forgotten—forgotten” . . .
Here she broke off, burying her face in her hands, and now and then torn with a convulsive sob.
The organ had ceased; the moon was clouded over; nothing was heard but the wind moaning in the church tower. The lamp went out; the red embers in the fire still cast a fitful light on the ceiling and walls.
Her sobbing ceased, and she seemed again preparing to speak:
“I went on and on, trying to remember, the pain still pressing on me. Gradually I became too weary even to try; I could only grope my way along the winding, never-ending passages, slipping on the damp uneven floor. I once started; I heard some sound, not now the dripping water. I heard a sharp cry, as of pain, and hoarse laughter. O joy! I shall be no more alone. I ran towards the sound, tearing myself upon the jagged rocks, and slipping and stumbling on the broken path. I came nearer; the shrieks and laughter grew more distinct. I ran on. At least I thought I was just about to reach the voices, when I fell sharply against a wall of rock, barring my way; the way was closed, the passage was ended, there was no outlet. Both voices now changed to mocking laughter, hoarse and cruel, which gradually receded and died out in the distance.
“I fell, fainting in agony on the floor, and lay for a long time silent, unable even to weep. At last I arose, hopelessly, wearily, and slowly retraced my steps. The passage was endless, and from it on every side branches of other passages, stretching into the darkness.”
She continued speaking. Hitherto I had been watching her face intently; I now moved my eyes to a carved crest in the old oak mantlepiece before me, on which I kept them fixed while her story continued.
Her figure seemed gradually and imperceptibly to change; what had been before hard and angular, softened into beautiful curves; the voice grew rich and strong, and swelled into a full strain of silvery melody, though, oddly enough, I seemed unable to understand what she was saying. Her face gained colour and light; the eyes, formerly dull and sunken in their hollow sockets, grew clear and bright, and from their dark and liquid depths a world of passionate love seemed to pour. The hair, which at first was dull and lustreless, now seemed to hang in rich dark brown glossy curls round her temples, and to fall in rich profusion round her neck. Her complextion seemed to grow to a rich rose and brown, a beautiful brunette. The rope, too, before lank and stiff, seemed to grow soft and flowing.
As the new appearance gradually developed, a likeness grew ever more perfect to a beautiful girl I had once known, years before. Even the voice gradually moulded itself to those well-known tones; but now she seemed to speak in some strange and unknown tongue. I had met her in France, and again in the South of Germany, where she was travelling with her invalid mother. She had gone to Eison-Gebirge, and had just agreed to settle on the border of a great dark forest of pines, which stretches up to the inaccessible crags of the mountains.
On the evening of the day they arrived, leaving her mother comfortably settled on a sofa at a cosy fire, she had gone a little way into the forest with her maid, as she loved to walk over the elastic fir-needles which carpeted the forest, and to breath the rich aromatic odour exuded by the pines. Her maid stooped for a moment to pick up some curious fir-cone; while stooping she felt a chill dread creeping over her, she knew not why; she seemed paralysed and rigid, unable to move or speak.
At last, by a supreme effort, she raised herself, and looked up, saw her mistress already some distance from her, moving as if in obedience to some inexorable power which dragged her on. A terrible dark figure went before her—black, indefinite, horrible; her mistress seemed to clasp her hands before her eyes in agony, unable to cry out or to stop!
The maid stood rooted to the spot, watching her young mistress gradually receding among the pines, dragged on by this terrible inexorable power. When she was at last lost to sight, the maid fell in convulsions, and was found lying insensible by a search party at midnight.
When she recovered consciousness, she was in a raging delirium of fever, which lasted upwards of a month; at last recovering, she told what has been related of her mistress’s disappearance. No trace of her was ever found either by the search party that night, and the next day, or afterwards. I had instituted inquiries for her all over Europe, but had never found even the slightest clue to her fate.
An impenetrable veil of the darkest mystery hung over it. While these memories rushed over me, the melodious voice, so like that which I had known so well, still continued to pout out its passionate strain. I was spell-bound, I could neither turn nor speak. I kept gazing fixedly at the oak carving. At last a pause came in her words; I exerted my will to the utmost, and crying “O my love! my love!” I turned quickly towards her with outstretched arms, and gazed full in her face.
O horror! what dreadful transformation was this!
No sooner did I look her full in the face than the beautiful form changed at once into the dreadful and agonized figure I had seen at first; the rich brown complexion and glossy curls changed into the dreadful pale and livid face and dank colorless masses of hair.
The dark brown eyes lost their brilliancy, and became once more dull and cavernous. Even the soft creamy white of the robe became again hard, dull and rigid. The dreadful moaning voice seemed to resume the tale of woe just where it had broken off:
“I traversed several of the other passages, but all were the same—black, dripping, endless. I wandered on in dreadful loneliness: purposeless, despairing. Whenever I sank down exhausted, the fearful echo in my head—’Forgotten, forgotten, forgotten’—grew ever louder and more awful; at last seemed about to crush and overwhelm me, till I started up in agony and ran on and on, trying to escape from it, and rushing madly against the protruding rocks. It seemed a vast dark network of infinite corridors leading nowhere, and steeped in impenetrable night; the loneliness was terrible, and weighed down on my very soul; I could not think, I could only feel: I cried our in terror, but the hollow echoing of my voice was more terrible than the silence, broken only by the eternal drip, drip, of the water. Once again, when traversing a long passage which seemed to be alone and had no branches from it, I heard whispering voices just before me; I rushed on to where they were; immediately they receded into the walls and became silent. After waiting for some time I went back to where I had heard them first. They were again audible; I hastened forward as before, only to lose them again as they shrank into the walls. In my agony I tried to know myself against the walls—to force myself through the rock after the mysterious whispers. All was in vain; I was unable even to stun myself; I only felt my dreadful terror more keenly. At last I retreated a few steps, and crouched don against the wall, trying to press my heart into the silence that I might overhear the whispers. I heard them approach; I felt them come nearer. Oh! If I can only overhear—they are speaking the words of fate. If I can overhear, I shall remember and be released. Oh! alas! alas! they speak too low! Oh! speak louder! louder! I have forgotten! Oh! I have forgotten! . . .”
She ended with a bitter cry of pent up sorrow and agony, and her whole frame seemed to be convulsed with heart-rending sobs.
As she had been speaking, I had gradually relaxed my fixed gaze on her face; I felt unable to speak or rise, but again my eyes slowly returned to their former position, fixed on the oak mantlepiece.
As my eyes gradually left her, the subtle transformation again took place.
The beautiful girl was again sitting there, as she had often say beside me, in the long summer evenings, talking over her hopes, and pleasures, and pains, or relating some beautiful legend which she had learned from the superstitious peasantry. Her hands were folded in her lap, just as she used to fold them, when beginning a tale. “I’ll tell you a beautiful story I heard of the Rose-Maiden, who was a beautiful princess.” For we were collecting together a series of stories of the old folk-lore.
The whole scene came back with such vivid reality, but all the while a dread chilly doubt paralyzed my heart.
I felt some terrible doom was hanging over her; what I knew not. I felt stunned. The scene grew dark and indistinct.
I was recalled to consciousness by a groan at my side. On looking round, that other terrible figure was sitting as before; she had grown calmer, and seemed about to speak—
“At last, tortured beyond endurance, I left the dreadful whispers, though I knew they were my only hope; I knew that they only could quench the fierce cry in my brain—’forgotten, forgotten, forgotten!’—and release me from my pain. I wandered as before, through dark, dripping passages, till at last I could go no further. I sank down utterly worn out and exhausted; even the fierce voice could not rouse me; the water dripped on me and around me, every falling drop caused a momentary flash of phosphoric light; a new horror menaced me; the walls seemed to approach, to descend, to lower, ready to fall on me; they come nearer! they fall! Oh! Horror!
“I am crushed, overwhelmed, suffocated.
“When my stunned, crushed mind began again to be conscious, a faint, steady light seemed to approach. It came nearer, gradually expanding and growing more defined; in it I saw a shape slowly becoming visible; it grew clearer, and seemed to be a figure sitting reading by a fire. It gradually came closer, till I could almost touch it. It was YOU; I knew somehow that you might be able to make me remember, and then I would no longer be alone and desolate.
“But you would not look round at me; and at last I grew almost hopeless, full of fear that you would never look round at all. At last you did, and I told you all, and I can now endure it better.
“But you cannot speak to me; Oh! you can never answer me; you cannot make me remember; all is useless, and I have forgotten for ever. Oh! I am lost! I am lost! I am lost!——”
While speaking she had gradually grown fainter and more distant, till at last she disappeared, uttering one piercing shriek, so full of heart-rending sorrow that the sudden shock stunned me, and I fell senseless!
While in this dream I saw the figure sink back and fall on the rocky floor, where she had described herself as lying. One of two lurid gleams showed me her eyes, gradually closing; then all was dark.
* * * * *
It must have been some hours later when I again opened my eyes, and found myself lying before the fireplace, which was filled now with grey, cold ashes, while the faint grey dawn stole in at the windows, the only sound which broke the stillness being the cawing of the awakening rocks in the old church tower.