When we say Ambrose Bierce was a western writer, we aren’t referring to western civilization. Rather, Bierce lived and wrote in the western United States, based in San Francisco for much of his career. A journalist by trade, Bierce left his indelible stamp on the short story with the twist at the end, and found his style and temperament ideal for gothic horror. Born in 1842, Bierce witnessed the horrors of the Civil War, including the bloody battle of Shiloh. Daring and courageous, his war career more or less came to an end after suffering a serious head wound at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, a short ways from Atlanta.
Following the war Bierce continued for a short time, till an expedition landed him in San Francisco, where he stayed and took up writing. Bierce’s style was described by H.P. Lovecraft as “grim” and “savage.” Bierce had spent some time in the war as a cartographer, mapping out likely locations for battle, and this skill shows in his descriptions of the landscapes in which his stories are set, which often become part of the stories themselves. Bierce might have drawn motive if not inspiration from real life. One son died from complications of alcoholism, the other a suicide, distraught over a woman. Bierce himself divorced his wife after suspecting infidelity on her part.
In 1913, Bierce is said to have left for Washington D.C., to explore the sites of battles in which he had fought. According to popular belief he then crossed in Mexico and caught up with Pancho Villa, tagging along in his campaigns as an observer. Some say he met his end in front of a Mexican firing squad, others that he likely died to complications from asthma. His female companion claims to have received a letter from Bierce telling her of his Mexican adventures, and that he was leaving in the morning for an unknown location. Nothing more was heard from the writer.
Though some doubt the story of his Mexican adventure, as he was already in ill-health and unlikely able to make the journey, others stand by it. At any rate, the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce is still today one of the great American vanishing acts.
The Death of Halpin FrayserÂwas originally published in 1893, as part of the collection Can Such Things Be?.
For by death is wrought greater change than hath been shown. Whereas in general the spirit that removed cometh back upon occasion, and is sometimes seen of those in flesh (appearing in the form of the body it bore) yet it hath happened that the veritable body without the spirit hath walked. And it is attested of those encountering who have lived to speak thereon that a lich so raised up hath no natural affection, nor remembrance thereof, but only hate. Also, it is known that some spirits which in life were benign become by death evil altogether. – HALL.
One dark night in midsummer a man waking from a dreamless sleep in a forest lifted his head from the earth, and staring a few moments into the blackness, said: ‘Catharine Larue.’ He said nothing more; no reason was known to him why he should have said so much.
The man was Halpin Frayser. He lived in St. Helena, but where he lives now is uncertain, for he is dead. One who practises sleeping in the woods with nothing under him but the dry leaves and the damp earth, and nothing over him but the branches from which the leaves have fallen and the sky from which the earth has fallen, cannot hope for great longevity, and Frayser had already attained the age of thirty-two. There are persons in this world, millions of persons, and far and away the best persons, who regard that as a very advanced age. They are the children. To those who view the voyage of life from the port of departure the bark that has accomplished any considerable distance appears already in close approach to the farther shore. However, it is not certain that Halpin Frayser came to his death by exposure.
He had been all day in the hills west of the Napa Valley, looking for doves and such small game as was in season. Late in the afternoon it had come on to be cloudy, and he had lost his bearings; and although he had only to go always downhill — everywhere the way to safety when one is lost — the absence of trails had so impeded him that he was overtaken by night while still in the forest. Unable in the darkness to penetrate the thickets of manzanita and other undergrowth, utterly bewildered and overcome with fatigue, he had lain down near the root of a large madrono and fallen into a dreamless sleep. It was hours later, in the very middle of the night, that one of God’s mysterious messengers, gliding ahead of the incalculable host of his companions sweeping westward with the dawn line, pronounced the awakening word in the ear of the sleeper, who sat upright and spoke, he knew not why, a name, he knew not whose.
Halpin Frayser was not much of a philosopher, nor a scientist. The circumstance that, waking from a deep sleep at night in the midst of a forest, he had spoken aloud a name that he had not in memory and hardly had in mind did not arouse an enlightened curiosity to investigate the phenomenon. He thought it odd, and with a little perfunctory shiver, as if in deference to a seasonal presumption that the night was chill, he lay down again and went to sleep. But his sleep was no longer dreamless.
He thought he was walking along a dusty road that showed white in the gathering darkness of a summer night. Whence and whither it led, and why he travelled it, he did not know, though all seemed simple and natural, as is the way in dreams; for in the Land Beyond the Bed surprises cease from troubling and the judgment is at rest. Soon he came to a parting of the ways; leading from the highway was a road less travelled, having the appearance, indeed, of having been long abandoned, because, he thought, it led to something evil; yet he turned into it without hesitation, impelled by some imperious necessity.
As he pressed forward he became conscious that his way was haunted by invisible existences whom he could not definitely figure to his mind. From among the trees on either side he caught broken and incoherent whispers in a strange tongue which yet he partly understood. They seemed to him fragmentary utterances of a monstrous conspiracy against his body and soul.
It was now long after nightfall, yet the interminable forest through which he journeyed was lit with a wan glimmer having no point of diffusion, for in its mysterious lumination nothing cast a shadow. A shallow pool in the guttered depression of an old wheel rut, as from a recent rain, met his eye with a crimson gleam. He stooped and plunged his hand into it. It stained his fingers; it was blood! Blood, he then observed, was about him everywhere. The weeds growing rankly by the roadside showed it in blots and splashes on their big, broad leaves. Patches of dry dust between the wheel-ways were pitted and spattered as with a red rain. Defiling the trunks of the trees were broad maculations of crimson, and blood dripped like dew from their foliage.
All this he observed with a terror which seemed not incompatible with the fulfilment of a natural expectation. It seemed to him that it was all in expiation of some crime which, though conscious of his guilt, he could not rightly remember. To the menaces and mysteries of his surroundings the consciousness was an added horror. Vainly he sought, by tracing life backward in memory, to reproduce the moment of his sin; scenes and incidents came crowding tumultuously into his mind, one picture effacing another, or commingling with it in confusion and obscurity, but nowhere could he catch a glimpse of what he sought. The failure augmented his terror; he felt as one who has murdered in the dark, not knowing whom nor why. So frightful was the situation — the mysterious light burned with so silent and awful a menace; the noxious plants, the trees that by common consent are invested with a melancholy or baleful character, so openly in his sight conspired against his peace; from overhead and all about came so audible and startling whispers and the sighs of creatures so obviously not of earth — that he could endure it no longer, and with a great effort to break some malign spell that bound his faculties to silence and inaction, he shouted with the full strength of his lungs! His voice, broken, it seemed, into an infinite multitude of unfamiliar sounds, went babbling and stammering away into the distant reaches of the forest, died into silence, and all was as before. But he had made a beginning at resistance and was encouraged. He said:
‘I will not submit unheard. There may be powers that are not malignant travelling this accursed road. I shall leave them a record and an appeal. I shall relate my wrongs, the persecutions that I endure — I, a helpless mortal, a penitent, an unoffending poet!’ Halpin Frayser was a poet only as he was a penitent: in his dream.
Taking from his clothing a small red-leather pocket-book one half of which was leaved for memoranda, he discovered that he was without a pencil. He broke a twig from a bush, dipped it into a pool of blood and wrote rapidly. He had hardly touched the paper with the point of his twig when a low, wild peal of laughter broke out at a measureless distance away, and growing ever louder, seemed approaching ever nearer; a soulless, heartless, and unjoyous laugh, like that of the loon, solitary by the lakeside at midnight; a laugh which culminated in an unearthly shout close at hand, then died away by slow gradations, as if the accursed being that uttered it had withdrawn over the verge of the world whence it had come. But the man felt that this was not so — that it was near by and had not moved.
A strange sensation began slowly to take possession of his body and his mind. He could not have said which, if any, of his senses was affected; he felt it rather as a consciousness — a mysterious mental assurance of some overpowering presence — some supernatural malevolence different in kind from the invisible existences that swarmed about him, and superior to them in power. He knew that it had uttered that hideous laugh. And now it seemed to be approaching him; from what direction he did not know — dared not conjecture. All his former fears were forgotten or merged in the gigantic terror that now held him in thrall. Apart from that, he had but one thought: to complete his written appeal to the benign powers who, traversing the haunted wood, might sometime rescue him if he should be denied the blessing of annihilation. He wrote with terrible rapidity, the twig in his fingers rilling blood without renewal; but in the middle of a sentence his hands denied their service to his will, his arms fell to his sides, the book to the earth; and powerless to move or cry out, he found himself staring into the sharply drawn face and blank, dead eyes of his own mother, standing white and silent in the garments of the grave!
In his youth Halpin Frayser had lived with his parents in Nashville, Tennessee. The Fraysers were well-to-do, having a good position in such society as had survived the wreck wrought by civil war. Their children had the social and educational opportunities of their time and place, and had responded to good associations and instruction with agreeable manners and cultivated minds. Halpin being the youngest and not over robust was perhaps a trifle ‘spoiled.’ He had the double disadvantage of a mother’s assiduity and a father’s neglect. Frayser pere was what no Southern man of means is not — a politician. His country, or rather his section and State, made demands upon his time and attention so exacting that to those of his family he was compelled to turn an ear partly deafened by the thunder of the political captains and the shouting, his own included.
Young Halpin was of a dreamy, indolent and rather romantic turn, somewhat more addicted to literature than law, the profession to which he was bred. Among those of his relations who professed the modern faith of heredity it was well understood that in him the character of the late Myron Bayne, a maternal great-grandfather, had revisited the glimpses of the moon — by which orb Bayne had in his lifetime been sufficiently affected to be a poet of no small Colonial distinction. If not specially observed, it was observable that while a Frayser who was not the proud possessor of a sumptuous copy of the ancestral ‘poetical works’ (printed at the family expense, and long ago withdrawn from an inhospitable market) was a rare Frayser indeed, there was an illogical indisposition to honour the great deceased in the person of his spiritual successor. Halpin was pretty generally deprecated as an intellectual black sheep who was likely at any moment to disgrace the flock by bleating in metre. The Tennessee Fraysers were a practical folk — not practical in the popular sense of devotion to sordid pursuits, but having a robust contempt for any qualities unfitting a man for the wholesome vocation of politics.
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In justice to young Halpin it should be said that while in him were pretty faithfully reproduced most of the mental and moral characteristics ascribed by history and family tradition to the famous Colonial bard, his succession to the gift and faculty divine was purely inferential. Not only had he never been known to court the Muse, but in truth he could not have written correctly a line of verse to save himself from the Killer of the Wise. Still, there was no knowing when the dormant faculty might wake and smite the lyre.
In the meantime the young man was rather a loose fish, anyhow. Between him and his mother was the most perfect sympathy, for secretly the lady was herself a devout disciple of the late and great Myron Bayne, though with the tact so generally and justly admired in her sex (despite the hardy calumniators who insist that it is essentially the same thing as cunning) she had always taken care to conceal her weakness from all eyes but those of him who shared it. Their common guilt in respect of that was an added tie between them. If in Halpin’s youth his mother had ‘spoiled’ him he had assuredly done his part toward being spoiled. As he grew to such manhood as is attainable by a Southerner who does not care which way elections go, the attachment between him and his beautiful mother — whom from early childhood he had called Katy — became yearly stronger and more tender. In these two romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity. The two were nearly inseparable, and by strangers observing their manners were not infrequently mistaken for lovers.
Entering his mother’s boudoir one day Halpin Frayser kissed her upon the forehead, toyed for a moment with a lock of her dark hair which had escaped from its confining pins, and said, with an obvious effort at calmness:
‘Would you greatly mind, Katy, if I were called away to California for a few weeks?’
It was hardly needful for Katy to answer with her lips a question to which her tell-tale cheeks had made instant reply. Evidently she would greatly mind; and the tears, too, sprang into her large brown eyes as corroborative testimony.
‘Ah, my son,’ she said, looking up into his face with infinite tenderness,’ I should have known that this was coming. Did I not lie awake a half of the night weeping because, during the other half, Grandfather Bayne had come to me in a dream, and standing by his portrait — young, too, and handsome as that — pointed to yours on the same wall? And when I looked it seemed that I could not see the features; you had been painted with a face cloth, such as we put upon the dead. Your father has laughed at me, but you and I, dear, know that such things are not for nothing. And I saw below the edge of the cloth the marks of hands on your throat — forgive me, but we have not been used to keep such things from each other. Perhaps you have another interpretation. Perhaps it does not mean that you will go to California. Or maybe you will take me with you?’
It must be confessed that this ingenious interpretation of the dream in the light of newly discovered evidence did not wholly commend itself to the son’s more logical mind; he had, for the moment at least, a conviction that it foreshadowed a more simple and immediate, if less tragic, disaster than a visit to the Pacific Coast. It was Halpin Frayser’s impression that he was to be garroted on his native heath.
‘Are there not medicinal springs in California?’ Mrs. Frayser resumed before he had time to give her the true reading of the dream — ‘places where one recovers from rheumatism and neuralgia? Look — my fingers feel so stiff; and I am almost sure they have been giving me great pain while I slept.’ She held out her hands for his inspection. What diagnosis of her case the young man may have thought it best to conceal with a smile the historian is unable to state, but for himself he feels bound to say that fingers looking less stiff, and showing fewer evidences of even insensible pain, have seldom been submitted for medical inspection by even the fairest patient desiring a prescription of unfamiliar scenes. The outcome of it was that of these two odd persons having equally odd notions of duty, the one went to California, as the interest of his client required, and the other remained at home in compliance with a wish that her husband was scarcely conscious of entertaining.
While in San Francisco Halpin Frayser was walking one dark night along the water-front of the city, when, with a suddenness that surprised and disconcerted him, he became a sailor. He was in fact ‘shanghaied’ aboard a gallant, gallant ship, and sailed for a far countree. Nor did his misfortunes end with the voyage; for the ship was cast ashore on an island of the South Pacific, and it was six years afterward when the survivors were taken off by a venturesome trading schooner and brought back to San Francisco.
Though poor in purse, Frayser was no less proud in spirit than he had been in the years that seemed ages and ages ago. He would accept no assistance from strangers, and it was while living with a fellow survivor near the town of St. Helena, awaiting news and remittances from home, that he had gone gunning and dreaming.
The apparition confronting the dreamer in the haunted wood — the thing so like, yet so unlike, his mother — was horrible! It stirred no love nor longings in his heart; it came unattended with pleasant memories of a golden past — inspired no sentiment of any kind; all the finer emotions were swallowed up in fear. He tried to turn and run from before it, but his legs were as lead; he was unable to lift his feet from the ground. His arms hung helpless at his sides; of his eyes only he retained control, and these he dared not remove from the lustreless orbs of the apparition, which he knew was not a soul without a body, but that most dreadful of all existences infesting that haunted wood — a body without a soul! In its blank stare was neither love, nor pity, nor intelligence — nothing to which to address an appeal for mercy. ‘An appeal will not lie,’ he thought, with an absurd reversion to professional slang, making the situation more horrible, as the fire of a cigar might light up a tomb.
For a time, which seemed so long that the world grew grey with age and sin, and the haunted forest, having fulfilled its purpose in this monstrous culmination of its terrors, vanished out of his consciousness with all its sights and sounds, the apparition stood within a pace, regarding him with the mindless malevolence of a wild brute; then thrust its hands forward and sprang upon him with appalling ferocity! The act released his physical energies without unfettering his will; his mind was still spellbound, but his powerful body and agile limbs, endowed with a blind, insensate life of their own, resisted stoutly and well. For an instant he seemed to see this unnatural contest between a dead intelligence and a breathing mechanism only as a spectator — such fancies are in dreams; then he regained his identity almost as if by a leap forward into his body, and the straining automaton had a directing will as alert and fierce as that of its hideous antagonist.
But what mortal can cope with a creature of his dream? The imagination creating the enemy is already vanquished; the combat’s result is the combat’s cause. Despite his struggles — despite his strength and activity, which seemed wasted in a void, he felt the cold fingers close upon his throat. Borne backward to the earth, he saw above him the dead and drawn face within a hand’s-breadth of his own, and then all was black. A sound as of the beating of distant drums — a murmur of swarming voices, a sharp, far cry signing all to silence, and Halpin Frayser dreamed that he was dead.
A warm, clear night had been followed by a morning of drenching fog. At about the middle of the afternoon of the preceding day a little whiff of light vapour — a mere thickening of the atmosphere, the ghost of a cloud — had been observed clinging to the western side of Mount St. Helena, away up along the barren altitudes near the summit. It was so thin, so diaphanous, so like a fancy made visible, that one would have said: ‘Look quickly! in a moment it will be gone.’
In a moment it was visibly larger and denser. While with one edge it clung to the mountain, with the other it reached farther and farther out into the air above the lower slopes. At the same time it extended itself to north and south, joining small patches of mist that appeared to come out of the mountain-side on exactly the same level, with an intelligent design to be absorbed. And so it grew and grew until the summit was shut out of view from the valley, and over the valley itself was an everextending canopy, opaque and grey. At Calistoga, which lies near the head of the valley and the foot of the mountain, there were a starless night and a sunless morning. The fog, sinking into the valley, had reached southward, swallowing up ranch after ranch, until it had blotted out the town of St. Helena, nine miles away. The dust in the road was laid; trees were adrip with moisture; birds sat silent in their coverts; the morning light was wan and ghastly, with neither colour nor fire.
Two men left the town of St. Helena at the first glimmer of dawn, and walked along the road north-ward up the valley toward Calistoga. They carried guns on their shoulders, yet no one having knowledge of such matters could have mistaken them for hunters of bird or beast. They were a deputy sheriff from Napa and a detective from San Francisco — Holker and Jaralson, respectively. Their business was man-hunting.
‘How far is it?’ inquired Holker, as they strode along, their feet stirring white the dust beneath the damp surface of the road.
‘The White Church? Only a half mile farther,’ the other answered. ‘By the way,’ he added, ‘it is neither white nor a church; it is an abandoned schoolhouse, grey with age and neglect. Religious services were once held in it — when it was white, and there is a graveyard that would delight a poet. Can you guess why I sent for you, and told you to come armed?’
‘Oh, I never have bothered you about things of that kind. I’ve always found you communicative when the time came. But if I may hazard a guess, you want me to help you arrest one of the corpses in the graveyard.’
‘You remember Branscom?’ said Jaralson, treating his companion’s wit with the inattention that it deserved.
‘The chap who cut his wife’s throat? I ought; I wasted a week’s work on him and had my expenses for my trouble. There is a reward of five hundred dollars, but none of us ever got a sight of him. You don’t mean to say — ‘
‘Yes, I do. He has been under the noses of you fellows all the time. He comes by night to the old graveyard at the White Church.’
‘The devil! That’s where they buried his wife.’
‘Well, you fellows might have had sense enough to suspect that he would return to her grave some time!’
‘The very last place that anyone would have expected him to return to.’
‘But you had exhausted all the other places. Learning your failure at them, I “laid for him” there.’
‘And you found him?’
‘Damn it! he found me. The rascal got the drop on me — regularly held me up and made me travel. It’s God’s mercy that he didn’t go through me. Oh, he’s a good one, and I fancy the half of that reward is enough for me if you’re needy.’
Holker laughed good-humouredly, and explained that his creditors were never more importunate.
‘I wanted merely to show you the ground, and arrange a plan with you,’ the detective explained. ‘I thought it as well for us to be armed, even in daylight.’
‘The man must be insane,’ said the deputy sheriff. ‘The reward is for his capture and conviction. If he’s mad he won’t be convicted.’
Mr. Holker was so profoundly affected by that possible failure of justice that he involuntarily stopped in the middle of the road, then resumed his walk with abated zeal.
‘Well, he looks it,’ assented Jaralson. ‘I’m bound to admit that a more unshaven, unshorn, unkempt, and uneverything wretch I never saw outside the ancient and honourable order of tramps. But I’ve gone in for him, and can’t make up my mind to let go. There’s glory in it for us, anyhow. Not another soul knows that he is this side of the Mountains of the Moon.’
‘All right,’ Holker said; ‘we will go and view the ground,’ and he added, in the words of a once favourite inscription for tombstones: ‘”where you must shortly lie” — I mean if old Branscom ever gets tired of you and your impertinent intrusion. By the way, I heard the other day that “Branscom” was not his real name.’
‘I can’t recall it. I had lost all interest in the wretch and it did not fix itself in my memory — something like Pardee. The woman whose throat he had the bad taste to cut was a widow when he met her. She had come to California to look up some relatives — there are persons who will do that sometimes. But you know all that.’
‘But not knowing the right name, by what happy inspiration did you find the right grave? The man who told me what the name was said it had been cut on the headboard.’
‘I don’t know the right grave.’ Jaralson was apparently a trifle reluctant to admit his ignorance of so important a point of his plan. ‘I have been watching about the place generally. A part of our work this morning will be to identify that grave. Here is the White Church.’
For a long distance the road had been bordered by fields on both sides, but now on the left there was a forest of oaks, madronos, and gigantic spruces whose lower parts only could be seen, dim and ghostly in the fog. The undergrowth was, in places, thick, but nowhere impenetrable. For some moments Holker saw nothing of the building, but as they turned into the woods it revealed itself in faint grey outline through the fog, looking huge and far away. A few steps more, and it was within an arm’s length, distinct, dark with moisture, and insignificant in size. It had the usual country-schoolhouse form — belonged to the packing-box order of architecture; had an underpinning of stones, a moss-grown roof, and blank window spaces, whence both glass and sash had long departed. It was ruined, but not a ruin — a typical Californian substitute for what are known to guide-bookers abroad as ‘monuments of the past.’ With scarcely a glance at this uninteresting structure Jaralson moved on into the dripping undergrowth beyond.
‘I will show you where he held me up,’ he said. ‘This is the graveyard.’
Here and there among the bushes were small enclosures containing graves, sometimes no more than one. They were recognized as graves by the discoloured stones or rotting boards at head and foot, leaning at all angles, some prostrate; by the ruined picket fences surrounding them; or, infrequently, by the mound itself showing its gravel through the fallen leaves. In many instances nothing marked the spot where lay the vestiges of some poor mortal — who, leaving ‘a large circle of sorrowing friends,’ had been left by them in turn — except a depression in the earth, more lasting than that in the spirits of the mourners. The paths, if any paths had been, were long obliterated; trees of a considerable size had been permitted to grow up from the graves and thrust aside with root or branch the enclosing fences. Over all was that air of abandonment and decay which seems nowhere so fit and significant as in a village of the forgotten dead.
As the two men, Jaralson leading, pushed their way through the growth of young trees, that enterprising man suddenly stopped and brought up his shotgun to the height of his breast, uttered a low note of warning, and stood motionless, his eyes fixed upon something ahead. As well as he could, obstructed by brush, his companion, though seeing nothing, imitated the posture and so stood, prepared for what might ensue. A moment later Jaralson moved cautiously forward, the other following.
Under the branches of an enormous spruce lay the dead body of a man. Standing silent above it they noted such particulars as first strike the attention — the face, the attitude, the clothing; whatever most promptly and plainly answers the unspoken question of a sympathetic curiosity.
The body lay upon its back, the legs wide apart. One arm was thrust upward, the other outward; but the latter was bent acutely, and the hand was near the throat. Both hands were tightly clenched. The whole attitude was that of desperate but ineffectual resistance to — what?
Near by lay a shotgun and a game bag through the meshes of which was seen the plumage of shot birds. All about were evidences of a furious struggle; small sprouts of poison-oak were bent and denuded of leaf and bark; dead and rotting leaves had been pushed into heaps and ridges on both sides of the legs by the action of other feet than theirs; alongside the hips were unmistakable impressions of human knees.
The nature of the struggle was made clear by a glance at the dead man’s throat and face. While breast and hands were white, those were purple — almost black. The shoulders lay upon a low mound, and the head was turned back at an angle otherwise impossible, the expanded eyes staring blankly backward in a direction opposite to that of the feet. From the froth filling the open mouth the tongue protruded, black and swollen. The throat showed horrible contusions; not mere finger-marks, but bruises and lacerations wrought by two strong hands that must have buried themselves in the yielding flesh, maintaining their terrible grasp until long after death. Breast, throat, face, were wet; the clothing was saturated; drops of water, condensed from the fog, studded the hair and moustache.
All this the two men observed without speaking — almost at a glance. Then Holker said:
‘Poor devil! he had a rough deal.’
Jaralson was making a vigilant circumspection of the forest, his shotgun held in both hands and at full cock, his finger upon the trigger.
‘The work of a maniac,’ he said, without withdrawing his eyes from the enclosing wood. ‘It was done by Branscom — Pardee.’
Something half hidden by the disturbed leaves on the earth caught Holker’s attention. It was a redleather pocket-book. He picked it up and opened it. It contained leaves of white paper for memoranda, and upon the first leaf was the name ‘Halpin Frayser.’ Written in red on several succeeding leaves — scrawled as if in haste and barely legible — were the following lines, which Holker read aloud, while his companion continued scanning the dim grey confines of their narrow world and hearing matter of apprehension in the drip of water from every burdened branch:
‘Enthralled by some mysterious spell, I stood
In the lit gloom of an enchanted wood.
The cypress there and myrtle twined their boughs,
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Significant, in baleful brotherhood.
‘The brooding willow whispered to the yew;
Beneath, the deadly nightshade and the rue,
With immortelles self-woven into strange
Funereal shapes, and horrid nettles grew.
‘No song of bird nor any drone of bees,
Nor light leaf lifted by the wholesome breeze:
The air was stagnant all, and Silence was
A living thing that breathed among the trees.
‘Conspiring spirits whispered in the gloom,
Half-heard, the stilly secrets of the tomb.
With blood the trees were all adrip; the leaves
Shone in the witch-light with a ruddy bloom.
‘I cried aloud! — the spell, unbroken still,
Rested upon my spirit and my will.
Unsouled, unhearted, hopeless and forlorn,
I strove with monstrous presages of ill!
‘At last the viewless — ‘
Holker ceased reading; there was no more to read. The manuscript broke off in the middle of a line.
‘That sounds like Bayne,’ said Jaralson, who was something of a scholar in his way. He had abated his vigilance and stood looking down at the body.
‘Who’s Bayne?’ Holker asked rather incuriously.
‘Myron Bayne, a chap who flourished in the early years of the nation — more than a century ago. Wrote mighty dismal stuff; I have his collected works. That poem is not among them, but it must have been omitted by mistake.’
‘It is cold,’ said Holker; ‘let us leave here; we must have up the coroner from Napa.’
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Jaralson said nothing, but made a movement in compliance. Passing the end of the slight elevation of earth upon which the dead man’s head and shoulders lay, his foot struck some hard substance under the rotting forest leaves, and he took the trouble to kick it into view. It was a fallen headboard, and painted on it were the hardly decipherable words, ‘Catharine Larue.’
‘Larue, Larue!’ exclaimed Holker, with sudden animation. ‘Why, that is the real name of Branscom — not Pardee. And — bless my soul! how it all comes to me — the murdered woman’s name had been Frayser!’
‘There is some rascally mystery here,’ said Detective Jaralson. ‘I hate anything of that kind.’ There came to them out of the fog — seemingly from a great distance — the sound of a laugh, a low, deliberate, soulless laugh which had no more of joy than that of a hyena night-prowling in the desert; a laugh that rose by slow gradation, louder and louder, clearer, more distinct and terrible, until it seemed barely outside the narrow circle of their vision; a laugh so unnatural, so unhuman, so devilish, that it filled those hardy man-hunters with a sense of dread unspeakable! They did not move their weapons nor think of them; the menace of that horrible sound was not of the kind to be met with arms. As it had grown out of silence, so now it died away; from a culminating shout which had seemed almost in their ears, it drew itself away into the distance until its failing notes, joyous and mechanical to the last, sank to silence at a measureless remove.