MORE than thirty years ago occurred the first of the series of remarkable events I am about to relate. The exact date I can not recall; but it was in November, and, to those familiar with November weather in the Ohio Valley, it is hardly necessary to state that the month is one of possibilities. That is to say, it is liable to bring every variety of weather, from the delicious, dreamy Indian summer days that linger late in the fall, to a combination of rain, hail, snow, sleet,—in short, atmospheric conditions sufficiently aggravating to develop a suicidal mania in any one the least susceptible to such influences. While the general character of the month is much the same the country over, showing dull grey tones of sky, abundant rains that penetrate man as they do the earth; cold, shifting winds, that search the very marrow,—it is always safe to count more or less upon the probability of the unexpected throughout the month.
The particular day which ushered in the event about to be chronicled, was one of these possible heterogeneous days presenting a combination of sunshine, shower, and snow, with winds that rang all the changes from balmy to blustery, a morning air of caloric and an evening of numbing cold. The early morning started fair and sunny; later came light showers suddenly switched by shifting winds into blinding sleet, until the middle of the afternoon found the four winds and all the elements commingled in one wild orgy with clashing and roaring as of a great organ with all the stops out, and all the storm-fiends dancing over the key-boards! Nightfall brought some semblance of order to the sounding chaos, but still kept up the wild music of a typical November day, with every accompaniment of bleakness, gloom, and desolation.
Thousands of chimneys, exhaling murky clouds of bituminous soot all day, had covered the city with the proverbial pall which the winds in their sport had shifted hither and yon, but as, thoroughly tired out, they subsided into silence, the smoky mesh suddenly settled over the houses and into the streets, taking possession of the city and contributing to the melancholy wretchedness of such of the inhabitants as had to be out of doors. Through this smoke the red sun when visible had dragged his downward course in manifest discouragement, and the hastening twilight soon gave place to the blackness of darkness. Night reigned supreme.
Thirty years ago electric lighting was not in vogue, and the system of street lamps was far less complete than at present, although the gas burned in them may not have been any worse. The lamps were much fewer and farther between, and the light which they emitted had a feeble, sickly aspect, and did not reach any distance into the moist and murky atmosphere. And so the night was dismal enough, and the few people upon the street were visible only as they passed directly beneath the lamps, or in front of lighted windows; seeming at other times like moving shadows against a black ground.
As I am like to be conspicuous in these pages, it may be proper to say that I am very susceptible to atmospheric influences. I figure among my friends as a man of quiet disposition, but I am at times morose, although I endeavor to conceal this fact from others. My nervous system is a sensitive weather-glass. Sometimes I fancy that I must have been born under the planet Saturn, for I find myself unpleasantly influenced by moods ascribed to that depressing planet, more especially in its disagreeable phases, for I regret to state that I do not find corresponding elation, as I should, in its brighter aspects. I have an especial dislike for wintry weather, a dislike which I find growing with my years, until it has developed almost into positive antipathy and dread. On the day I have described, my moods had varied with the weather. The fitfulness of the winds had found its way into my feelings, and the somber tone of the clouds into my meditations. I was restless as the elements, and a deep sense of dissatisfaction with myself and everything else, possessed me. I could not content myself in any place or position. Reading was distasteful, writing equally so; but it occurred to me that a brisk walk, for a few blocks, might afford relief. Muffling myself up in my overcoat and fur cap, I took the street, only to find the air gusty and raw, and I gave up in still greater disgust, and returning home, after drawing the curtains and locking the doors, planted myself in front of a glowing grate fire, firmly resolved to rid myself of myself by resorting to the oblivion of thought, reverie, or dream. To sleep was impossible, and I sat moodily in an easy chair, noting the quarter and half-hour strokes as they were chimed out sweetly from the spire of St. Peter's Cathedral, a few blocks away.
Nine o'clock passed with its silver-voiced song of "Home, Sweet Home"; ten, and then eleven strokes of the ponderous bell which noted the hours, roused me to a strenuous effort to shake off the feelings of despondency, unrest, and turbulence, that all combined to produce a state of mental and physical misery now insufferable. Rising suddenly from my chair, without a conscious effort I walked mechanically to a book-case, seized a volume at random, reseated myself before the fire, and opened the book. It proved to be an odd, neglected volume, "Riley's Dictionary of Latin Quotations." At the moment there flashed upon me a conscious duality of existence. Had the old book some mesmeric power? I seemed to myself two persons, and I quickly said aloud, as if addressing my double: "If I can not quiet you, turbulent Spirit, I can at least adapt myself to your condition. I will read this book haphazard from bottom to top, or backward, if necessary, and if this does not change the subject often enough, I will try Noah Webster." Opening the book mechanically at page 297, I glanced at the bottom line and read, "Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus" (Never less alone than when alone). These words arrested my thoughts at once, as, by a singular chance, they seemed to fit my mood; was it or was it not some conscious invisible intelligence that caused me to select that page, and brought the apothegm to my notice?
Again, like a flash, came the consciousness of duality, and I began to argue with my other self. "This is arrant nonsense," I cried aloud; "even though Cicero did say it, and, it is on a par with many other delusive maxims that have for so many years embittered the existence of our modern youth by misleading thought. Do you know, Mr. Cicero, that this statement is not sound? That it is unworthy the position you occupy in history as a thinker and philosopher? That it is a contradiction in itself, for if a man is alone he is alone, and that settles it?"
I mused in this vein a few moments, and then resumed aloud: "It won't do, it won't do; if one is alone—the word is absolute,—he is single, isolated, in short, alone; and there can by no manner of possibility be any one else present. Take myself, for instance: I am the sole occupant of this apartment; I am alone, and yet you say in so many words that I was never less alone than at this instant." It was not without some misgiving that I uttered these words, for the strange consciousness of my own duality constantly grew stronger, and I could not shake off the reflection that even now there were two of myself in the room, and that I was not so much alone as I endeavored to convince myself.
This feeling oppressed me like an incubus; I must throw it off, and, rising, I tossed the book upon the table, exclaiming: "What folly! I am alone,—positively there is no other living thing visible or invisible in the room." I hesitated as I spoke, for the strange, undefined sensation that I was not alone had become almost a conviction; but the sound of my voice encouraged me, and I determined to discuss the subject, and I remarked in a full, strong voice: "I am surely alone; I know I am! Why, I will wager everything I possess, even to my soul, that I am alone." I stood facing the smoldering embers of the fire which I had neglected to replenish, uttering these words to settle the controversy for good and all with one person of my dual self, but the other ego seemed to dissent violently, when a soft, clear voice claimed my ear:
"You have lost your wager; you are not alone."
I turned instantly towards the direction of the sound, and, to my amazement, saw a white-haired man seated on the opposite side of the room, gazing at me with the utmost composure. I am not a coward, nor a believer in ghosts or illusions, and yet that sight froze me where I stood. It had no supernatural appearance—on the contrary, was a plain, ordinary, flesh-and-blood man; but the weather, the experiences of the day, the weird, inclement night, had all conspired to strain my nerves to the highest point of tension, and I trembled from head to foot. Noting this, the stranger said pleasantly: "Quiet yourself, my dear sir; you have nothing to fear; be seated." I obeyed, mechanically, and regaining in a few moments some semblance of composure, took a mental inventory of my visitor. Who is he? what is he? how did he enter without my notice, and why? what is his business? were all questions that flashed into my mind in quick succession, and quickly flashed out unanswered.
The stranger sat eying me composedly, even pleasantly, as if waiting for me to reach some conclusion regarding himself. At last I surmised: "He is a maniac who has found his way here by methods peculiar to the insane, and my personal safety demands that I use him discreetly."
"Very good," he remarked, as though reading my thoughts; "as well think that as anything else."
"But why are you here? What is your business?" I asked.
"You have made and lost a wager," he said. "You have committed an act of folly in making positive statements regarding a matter about which you know nothing—a very common failing, by the way, on the part of mankind, and concerning which I wish first to set you straight."
The ironical coolness with which he said this provoked me, and I hastily rejoined: "You are impertinent; I must ask you to leave my house at once."
"Very well," he answered; " but if you insist upon this, I shall, on behalf of Cicero, claim the stake of your voluntary wager, which means that I must first, by natural though violent means, release your soul from your body." So saying he arose, drew from an inner pocket a long, keen knife, the blade of which quiveringly glistened as he laid it upon the table. Moving his chair so as to be within easy reach of the gleaming weapon, he sat down, and again regarded me with the same quiet composure I had noted, and which was fast dispelling my first impression concerning his sanity.
I was not prepared for his strange action; in truth, I was not prepared for anything; my mind was confused concerning the whole night's doings, and I was unable to reason clearly or consecutively, or even to satisfy myself what I did think, if indeed I thought at all.
The sensation of fear, however, was fast leaving me; there was something reassuring in my unbidden guest's perfect ease of manner, and the mild, though searching gaze of his eyes, which were wonderful in their expression. I began to observe his personal characteristics, which impressed me favorably, and yet were extraordinary. He was nearly six feet tall, and perfectly straight; well proportioned, with no tendency either to leanness or obesity. But his head was an object from which I could not take my eyes,—such a head surely I had never before seen on mortal shoulders. The chin, as seen through his silver beard, was rounded and well developed, the mouth straight, with pleasant lines about it, the jaws square and, like the mouth, indicating decision, the eyes deep set and arched with heavy eyebrows, and the whole surmounted by a forehead so vast, so high, that it was almost a deformity, and yet it did not impress me unpleasantly; it was the forehead of a scholar, a profound thinker, a deep student. The nose was inclined to aquiline, and quite large. The contour of the head and face impressed me as indicating a man of learning, one who had given a lifetime to experimental as well as speculative thought. His voice was mellow, clear, and distinct, always pleasantly modulated and soft, never loud nor unpleasant in the least degree. One remarkable feature I must not fail to mention—his hair; this, while thin and scant upon the top of his head, was long, and reached to his shoulders; his beard was of unusual length, descending almost to his waist; his hair, eyebrows, and beard were all of singular whiteness and purity, almost transparent, a silvery whiteness that seemed an aureolar sheen in the glare of the gaslight. What struck me as particularly remarkable was that his skin looked as soft and smooth as that of a child; there was not a blemish in it. His age was a puzzle none could guess; stripped of his hair, or the color of it changed, he might be twenty-five,—given a few wrinkles, he might be ninety. Taken altogether, I had never seen his like, nor anything approaching his like, and for an instant there was a faint suggestion to my mind that he was not of this earth, but belonged to some other planet.
I now fancy he must have read my impressions of him as these ideas shaped themselves in my brain, and that he was quietly waiting for me to regain a degree of self-possession that would allow him to disclose the purpose of his visit.
He was first to break the silence: "I see that you are not disposed to pay your wager any more than I am to collect it, so we will not discuss that. I admit that my introduction to-night was abrupt, but you can not deny that you challenged me to appear." I was not clear upon the point, and said so. " Your memory is at fault," he continued, "if you can not recall your experiences of the day just past. Did you not attempt to interest yourself in modern book lore, to fix your mind in turn upon history, chemistry, botany, poetry, and general literature? And all these failing, did you not deliberately challenge Cicero to a practical demonstration of an old apothegm of his that has survived for centuries, and of your own free will did not you make a wager that, as an admirer of Cicero's, I am free to accept?" To all this I could but silently assent. "Very good, then; we will not pursue this subject further, as it is not relevant to my purpose, which is to acquaint you with a narrative of unusual interest, upon certain conditions, with which if you comply, you will not only serve yourself, but me as well."
"Please name the conditions," I said.
"They are simple enough," he answered. "The narrative I speak of is in manuscript. I will produce it in the near future, and my design is to read it aloud to you, or to allow you to read it to me, as you may select. Further, my wish is that during the reading you shall interpose any objection or question that you deem proper. This reading will occupy many evenings, and I shall of necessity be with you often. When the reading is concluded, we will seal the package securely, and I shall leave you forever. You will then deposit the manuscript in some safe place, and let it remain for thirty years. When this period has elapsed, I wish you to publish this history to the world."
"Your conditions seem easy," I said, after a few seconds' pause.
"They are certainly very simple; do you accept?"
I hesitated, for the prospect of giving myself up to a succession of interviews with this extraordinary and mysterious personage seemed to require consideration. He evidently divined my thoughts, for, rising from his chair, he said abruptly: "Let me have your answer now." I debated the matter no further, but answered: "I accept, conditionally."
"Name your conditions," the guest replied.
"I will either publish the work, or induce some other man to do so."
"Good," he said; "I will see you again," with a polite bow; and turning to the door which I had previously locked, he opened it softly, and with a quiet "Good night" disappeared in the hall-way.
I looked after him with bewildered senses; but a sudden impulse caused me to glance toward the table, when I saw that he had forgotten his knife. With the view of returning this, I reached to pick it up, but my finger tips no sooner touched the handle than a sudden chill shivered along my nerves. Not as an electric shock, but rather as a sensation of extreme cold was the current that ran through me in an instant. Rushing into the hall-way to the landing of the stairs, I called after the mysterious being, "You have forgotten your knife," but beyond the faint echo of my voice, I heard no sound. The phantom was gone. A moment later I was at the foot of the stairs, and had thrown open the door. A street lamp shed an uncertain light in front of the house. I stepped out and listened intently for a moment, but not a sound was audible, if indeed I except the beating of my own heart, which throbbed so wildly that I fancied I heard it. No footfall echoed from the deserted streets; all was silent as a churchyard, and I closed and locked the door softly, tiptoed my way back to my room, and sank collapsed into an easy chair. I was more than exhausted; I quivered from head to foot, not with cold, but with a strange nervous chill that found intensest expression in my spinal column, and seemed to flash up and down my back vibrating like a feverous pulse. This active pain was succeeded by a feeling of frozen numbness, and I sat I know not how long, trying to tranquilize myself and think temperately of the night's occurrence. By degrees I recovered my normal sensations, and directing my will in the channel of sober reasoning, I said to myself: "There can be no mistake about his visit, for his knife is here as a witness to the fact. So much is sure, and I will secure that testimony at all events." With this reflection I turned to the table, but to my astonishment I discovered that the knife had disappeared. It needed but this miracle to start the perspiration in great cold beads from every pore. My brain was in a whirl, and reeling into a chair, I covered my face with my hands. How long I sat in this posture I do not remember. I only know that I began to doubt my own sanity, and wondered if this were not the way people became deranged. Had not my peculiar habits of isolation, irregular and intense study, erratic living, all conspired to unseat reason? Surely here was every ground to believe so; and yet I was able still to think consistently and hold steadily to a single line of thought. Insane people can not do that, I reflected, and gradually the tremor and excitement wore away. When I had become calmer and more collected, and my sober judgment said, "Go to bed; sleep just as long as you can; hold your eyelids down, and when you awake refreshed, as you will, think out the whole subject at your leisure," I arose, threw open the shutters, and found that day was breaking. Hastily undressing I went to bed, and closed my eyes, vaguely conscious of some soothing guardianship. Perhaps because I was physically exhausted, I soon lost myself in the oblivion of sleep.
I did not dream,—at least I could not afterwards remember my dream if I had one, but I recollect thinking that somebody struck ten distinct blows on my door, which seemed to me to be of metal and very sonorous. These ten blows in my semi-conscious state I counted. I lay very quiet for a time collecting my thoughts and noting various objects about the room, until my eye caught the dial of a French clock upon the mantel. It was a few minutes past ten, and the blows I had heard were the strokes of the hammer upon the gong in the clock. The sun was shining into the room, which was quite cold, for the fire had gone out. I arose, dressed myself quickly, and after thoroughly laving my face and hands in ice-cold water, felt considerably refreshed.
Before going out to breakfast, while looking around the room for a few things which I wanted to take with me, I espied upon the table a long white hair. This was indeed a surprise, for I had about concluded that my adventure of the previous night was a species of waking nightmare, the result of overworked brain and weakened body. But here was tangible evidence to the contrary, an assurance that my mysterious visitor was not a fancy or a dream, and his parting words, "I will see you again," recurred to me with singular effect. "He will see me again; very well; I will preserve this evidence of his visit for future use." I wound the delicate filament into a little coil, folded it carefully in a bit of paper, and consigned it to a corner in my pocket-book, though not without some misgiving that it too might disappear as did the knife.
The strange experience of that night had a good effect on me; I became more regular in all my habits, took abundant sleep and exercise, was more methodical in my modes of study and reasoning, and in a short time found myself vastly improved in every way, mentally and physically.
The days went fleeting into weeks, the weeks into months, and while the form and figure of the white-haired stranger were seldom absent from my mind, he came no more.