Wylder's Hand

by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Chapter XII


I was growing most uncomfortably like one of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe's heroes—a nervous race of demigods.

I walked like a sentinel up and down my chamber, puffing leisurely the solemn incense, and trying to think of the Opera and my essay on 'Paradise Lost,' and other pleasant subjects. But it would not do. Every now and then, as I turned towards the door, I fancied I saw it softly close. I can't the least say whether it was altogether fancy. It was with the corner, or as the Italians have it, the 'tail' of my eye that I saw, or imagined that I saw, this trifling but unpleasant movement.

I called out once or twice sharply—'Come in!' 'Who's there?' 'Who's that?' and so forth, without any sort of effect, except that unpleasant reaction upon the nerves which follows the sound of one's own voice in a solitude of this kind.

The fact is I did not myself believe in that stealthy motion of my door, and set it down to one of those illusions which I have sometimes succeeded in analysing—a half-seen combination of objects which, rightly placed in the due relations of perspective, have no mutual connection whatever.

So I ceased to challenge the unearthly inquisitor, and allowed him, after a while, serenely enough, to peep as I turned my back, or to withdraw again as I made my regular right-about face.

I had now got half-way in my second cheroot, and the clock clanged 'one.' It was a very still night, and the prolonged boom vibrated strangely in my excited ears and brain. I had never been quite such an ass before; but I do assure you I was now in an extremely unpleasant state. One o'clock was better, however, than twelve. Although, by Jove! the bell was 'beating one,' as I remember, precisely as that king of ghosts, old Hamlet, revisited the glimpses of the moon, upon the famous platform of Elsinore.

I had pondered too long over the lore of this Satanic family, and drunk very strong tea, I suppose. I could not get my nerves into a comfortable state, and cheerful thoughts refused to inhabit the darkened chamber of my brain. As I stood in a sort of reverie, looking straight upon the door, I saw—and this time there could be no mistake whatsoever—the handle—the only modern thing about it—slowly turned, and the door itself as slowly pushed about a quarter open.

I do not know what exclamation I made. The door was shut instantly, and I found myself standing at it, and looking out upon the lobby, with a candle in my hand, and actually freezing with foolish horror.

I was looking towards the stair-head. The passage was empty and ended in utter darkness. I glanced the other way, and thought I saw—though not distinctly—in the distance a white figure, not gliding in the conventional way, but limping off, with a sort of jerky motion, and, in a second or two, quite lost in darkness.

I got into my room again, and shut the door with a clap that sounded loudly and unnaturally through the dismal quiet that surrounded me, and stood with my hand on the handle, with the instinct of resistance.

I felt uncomfortable; and I would have secured the door, but there was no sort of fastening within. So I paused. I did not mind looking out again. To tell you the plain truth, I was just a little bit afraid. Then I grew angry at having been put into such remote, and, possibly, suspected quarters, and then my comfortable scepticism supervened. I was yet to learn a great deal about this visitation.

So, in due course having smoked my cheroot, I jerked the stump into the fire. Of course I could not think of depriving myself of candle-light; and being already of a thoughtful, old-bachelor temperament, and averse from burning houses, I placed one of my tall wax-lights in a basin on the table by my bed—in which I soon effected a lodgment, and lay with a comparative sense of security.

Then I heard two o'clock strike; but shortly after, as I suppose, sleep overtook me, and I have no distinct idea for how long my slumber lasted. The fire was very low when I awoke, and saw a figure—and a very odd one—seated by the embers, and stooping over the grate, with a pair of long hands expanded, as it seemed, to catch the warmth of the sinking fire.

It was that of a very tall old man, entirely dressed in white flannel—a very long spencer, and some sort of white swathing about his head. His back was toward me; and he stooped without the slightest motion over the fire-place, in the attitude I have described.

As I looked, he suddenly turned toward me, and fixed upon me a cold, and as it seemed, a wrathful gaze, over his shoulder. It was a bleached and a long-chinned face—the countenance of Lorne's portrait—only more faded, sinister, and apathetic. And having, as it were, secured its awful command over me by a protracted gaze, he rose, supernaturally lean and tall, and drew near the side of my bed.

I continued to stare upon this apparition with the most dreadful fascination I ever experienced in my life. For two or three seconds I literally could not move. When I did, I am not ashamed to confess, it was to plunge my head under the bed-clothes, with the childish instinct of terror; and there I lay breathless, for what seemed to me not far from ten minutes, during which there was no sound, nor other symptom of its presence.

On a sudden the bed-clothes were gently lifted at my feet, and I sprang backwards, sitting upright against the back of the bed, and once more under the gaze of that long-chinned old man.

A voice, as peculiar as the appearance of the figure, said:—

'You are in my bed—I died in it a great many years ago. I am Uncle Lorne; and when I am not here, a devil goes up and down in the room. See! he had his face to your ear when I came in. I came from Dorcas Brandon's bed-chamber door, where her evil angel told me a thing;—and Mark Wylder must not seek to marry her, for he will be buried alive if he does, and he will, maybe, never get up again. Say your prayers when I go out, and come here no more.'

He paused, as if these incredible words were to sink into my memory; and then, in the same tone, and with the same countenance, he asked—

'Is the blood on my forehead?'

I don't know whether I answered.

'So soon as a calamity is within twelve hours, the blood comes upon my forehead, as they found me in the morning—it is a sign.'

The old man then drew back slowly, and disappeared behind the curtains at the foot of the bed, and I saw no more of him during the rest of that odious night.

So long as this apparition remained before me, I never doubted its being supernatural. I don't think mortal ever suffered horror more intense. My very hair was dripping with a cold moisture. For some seconds I hardly knew where I was. But soon a reaction came, and I felt convinced that the apparition was a living man. It was no process of reason or philosophy, but simply I became persuaded of it, and something like rage overcame my terrors.


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