Dein Antlitz gnädig meinem Glück!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Faust, zweiter Teil, 5. Akt
Melancholy has long dwelt within our house, but not from the very beginning. Before it had passed into my possession, it was my father’s, and before him, his. Generations were born here, lived, and died in due course, and joy and grief alternated their hegemony as they do in every healthy house. So was it for my family, and though my parents died early in my adulthood, and I grieved as truly as any good son, it brought no taint to my soul nor its lodging. I regretted that they could not meet my lovely wife, Tisiphone, let alone our dear son, but thus had Fate decreed, and we accepted this judgment in good cheer.
My first years as master of the estate were solitary ones, and my expansive home seemed full of empty spaces yearning earnestly to be filled, but therein lay no undue sorrow. The deaths of my parents had forced me to turn a page, and before me was a blank leaf upon which I could scribe my own chapter in the family’s tale. And then I met Tisiphone, and at once I began to write my entry. Following a courtship just long enough to be respectable, she consented to be my wife and took residence as the lady of the estate.
That Tisiphone was beautiful was known to all. Her jetty hair hung in wispy tresses to gather upon her delicate shoulders. She was tall — nearly as tall as I — and slender, with a graceful bearing that might have marked her for a career on the stage, had she been born to humbler folk than her own stately family. Against the backdrop of her raven locks stood faultless skin with the hue and smoothness of porcelain, and the swanlike grace of her neck was exaggerated by the shadows that played beneath the cover of her ebon hair. The pallid canvas of her face, bordered by its jetty frame, threw into sharp relief the full and florid curvature of her lips, and the piercing blue of her playful eyes.
Tisiphone was an exquisite beauty, but she was moreover a loving wife and devoted partner. Her eye was tasteful, and her soul was a kindly one. She it was who made my house a home again, and she filled it with an attention to beauty that made of that ancient domicile a work of art in its own right. After three years, she made her greatest contribution of all in the birth of our only son, whom I cannot bear to name here.
Four years we had in his delightful company, a paltry sum of time even by the fleeting standards of humanity. A crippling illness robbed that lively child of his vitality for eight months before it stripped him of his life, and somewhere in that epoch of worry and despair came Melancholy to our home, a lodger at first who showed increasingly no intention of departing.
Instead it was our son who departed, and Melancholy claimed possession of our house. Neither Tisiphone nor I had strength left with which to contest the claim. Our grief consumed the full extent of every day, and sleep itself offered us no succor. The departure of Tisiphone’s much-loved playfulness was mirrored by the decline reflected in her lovely face. Her lips drew tighter, their hue receding to the faintest hint of pink, and her eyes no longer danced, assuming a dullness that brimmed over with the bitter brine of her sorrow. Certainly, they had blinded themselves to beauty, where before they were its most devoted and perceptive adherent, and our once magnificent and colorful home sank to the gray depths that threatened to drown us all.
I know not when the wasting sickness took hold in her bosom, but she said several times that it happened when she cradled our son’s cold head there. It matters little whether she spoke truly, for it was near enough, and soon the decline of her spirit mirrored itself in the clay that housed it. I could not guess at how long she could remain in our world, for the grip of consumption is a slowly strangling one, but it was clear to me that the sands could not run through the hourglass quickly enough for her satisfaction. Daily she bade me pray with her for her release, and I did so, but deep within, I could not accept that solace would come only in the grave. Though I knew it was hardly possible, I yearned for a recovery of health and hope that would allow us to build again the happiness we had known before.
While I dared to hope, if only in the feeblest manner, Tisiphone granted not herself even so much. A mere two years after the passing of our son, though seemingly a yawning gulf of time in our estimation, Tisiphone chose to make an end of her wretched existence. I can say with an honest heart that I did not discern the signs of that conviction, although with the benefit of hindsight they point out clearly the path of her dissolution.
At the time of her death, she remained capable of independent action, though the disease clung with a smothering embrace about her. Her needless hours abed were conditioned more by the ailment of her heart than by that of her dying lungs. Happily then did I draw her a bath when she so bade me that fateful morning. I dared hope that the latest fever had abated, and she meant to rise to meet the new day. Life could return but by tiny increments, and I earnestly wished that I was witnessing such a one. I drew that bath, and then betook myself to my study, where I devoted myself to some long-neglected business.
An hour had passed before her failure to emerge had caught my mislaid attention. Thinking, perhaps, that she had fallen asleep and might be in danger of drowning, I knocked loudly upon her door, hoping to rouse her where the gradual chilling of the water had not. Met with no response, I tried the door, but found it latched from within. Feeling now the presentiment of what I would find beyond, I forced the door, only to see that my beloved was beyond salvation. Though she had been named in a Grecian manner, and had once shared their delight in all the world, she had spent her final years in the somber temper of the antique Roman, and made her departure from the world in their fashion. The water with which I had filled the tub was now stained with the red pigmentation that should have colored her lips; they, in their turn, were nearer in shade to the glassy eyes that stared, uncomprehending, into my own frantic gaze.
Mighty Melancholy had claimed dominion over our house, and when it demanded sacrifice, my dearest Tisiphone had offered herself its victim. No course of action remained to me, and so for a lengthy period, perhaps an hour, perhaps more, I ventured none, but knelt there beside the bath, her cold head against my agonized chest. Several times I mused on how she had held our boy in like fashion, and thought of the dismal consequence that she had perceived in that action. I cared not; gladly would I have foreseen my own departure from this world, for all the good that I saw in my future. But oh! that she bore it not, and flung herself into the yawning gulf before her time! This alone could I not comprehend, nor could I dream of emulating it.
When at last sense stirred again in my breast, I quit that lamentable chamber and hastened from the house, to return with such aid as I might rouse. Goodly Doctor Cathcart rose at once to my summons, though he was more than eighty. Father Simmons recoiled in horror upon my words, but rapidly gave in to my frenzied efforts at pursuasion. The three of us proceeded to my home in a state of disconsolate gloom, impermeable in the face of that bright summer afternoon.
Crossing again the threshold of my estate, my gaze beset by the gravest shadows of all, the echoes of joy lost and irretrievable, I found again my sense of the passage of time twisted beyond recognition, as it has remained ever since. Hours might seem as days, but then, with a suddenness beyond my imagining, a week or a month would pass and I could not possibly account for it. So it was as we three entered the stately sepulchre. I guided my companions to my wife’s side with the precision and the sentience of a clockwork automaton; I remember nothing of that journey. I remember only the sight of the good doctor as he rose from my wife’s side and proclaimed her dead, and that sadly by her own hand. Father Simmons struggled in vain to form words of consolation, but it was as well, for none could have taken hold.
We stood in silence, until I could no more bear the standing, and sank to my knees at my wife’s side. I know not how long I there remained, but it seems that it was I who broke the silence when I asked after my next step. Dr. Cathcart pledged that he would compose a certificate of death, and then the matter would pass from worldly hands entirely, unless she had deposited an unknown testament with a law firm in town; in which case the matter would come to light soon enough. Then I turned to Father Simmons, who naturally would have been the next to speak; yet he did not, nor would he meet my questing gaze. I pressed him — I charged him on his duty to his flock — to speak, and at last he made answer of a sort in timid tones. With an avuncular hand upon my shoulder, he promised to reimburse me for the unused gravesite.
Little enough had I comprehended that day; only the very thing from which I would happily have hid, the certainty of a future without Tisiphone, was indelibly inscribed upon my mind. I stared at him a short while, or perhaps it was significantly longer. In any case, my gaze did not leave him until he made answer, which he did in defensive tones, saying that a self-murderer could not be laid to rest on holy ground. Suicide is the gravest of sins, he told me, and her soul was already in the clutches of the Fiend. I could dispose of her remains as I saw fit, but she would not answer the Trump in the midst of the faithfully departed.
The strain of that unhappy day then proved too much for me, and I lashed out in unseemly fashion. I bade Father Simmons leave at once, saying that he was no more welcome in my house than I would feel in his. He could have his damned churchyard earth; I would prepare a suitable tomb on my own estate, and when it was complete, I would send a man to collect the remains of my son for re-interment. Then he might have all three plots available for some worthier patrons.
I clad Tisiphone’s body in the mourning dress she wore for our son’s funeral. She had been more haggard at her death even than that somber occasion, and I had no difficulty in vesting her corpse. I laid her out upon a table in the parlor, taking care that this most haphazard bier be tastefully appointed. Even as I accomplished this, my mind raced ahead towards the planning of her more permanent entombment. There would be neither wake nor funeral, at least not for the attendance of outsiders. The community had abandoned her for her crime, one for which she had already paid sufficiently; and the community would then have no opportunity to bid her farewell. That right was held by me alone.
She would remain in the parlor, in this my private wake, until the place for her interment was ready. It was clear that she must be laid to rest on my own property, and it was with ease that I concluded it must be in the house itself. With the remains of my wife and child inside the home, at least the shade of my family would live on. Small comforts were all for which I could hope.
No more would I entertain; this much was clear. As such, the grand dining room no longer held any meaning for me in its present form. Surely, however, it was large enough to do justice to the memory of Tisiphone, of our son, of the family we had once been. Moreover, there was no basement beneath the main floor, and the solid earth could support the marble monumentation that my mind conceived. At once I had the heavy oaken table, the elegant chairs, the crystal chandelier, and all other accoutrements of the dining party removed, sold to finance more enduring decor for the welcoming of more permanent guests.
Three marble sarcophagi I commissioned: one for Tisiphone, a smaller one for our son, and one that would in time accomodate my own mortal remains. Tisiphone’s sarcophagus and mine would lie side by side, while that of our son, whose soul had preceded both of ours into the hereafter, would lie perpendicular to both, resting above our heads. At Tisiphone’s feet would stand a large onyx urn, to be filled with craftily forged silken facsimiles of flowers. Roses there would be, and lilies, but one modification I demanded: these floral offerings must undeviatingly be made of black silk. Beauty there would be, but not cheer, for all joy had abandoned our house. Four ebon stands to support black candles would mark the four corners suggested by the arrangement of sarcophagi. Statuary must also be commissioned, to commemorate the deceased and offer such little comfort as they might, but here I hesitated. The traditional motifs of our funerary practice seemed ill-suited to Tisiphone and her circumstances. If, after all, she were irrevocably damned, a dweller in ineffable darkness cut off eternally from the Source of all life, then what comfort might be found in the placement of an angel over her tomb? It would seem, instead, a mockery of her fate, some guardian charged with warding off her memory.
If I would offer Tisiphone some comfort, if indeed it were in my power to do so, I must accomplish it with symbols more apposite to her present circumstances and station. Not a glorious angel would weep over her charnel clay, but instead a disconsolate demon. Winged skulls and enshrouded corpses would populate the reliefs of her sarcophagus, where even the Archfiend himself might shed a tear at the terrible fall of such a glorious creature. Both entrances to the shrine I would erect in her memory would be guarded by the images of shrouded spectres, proclaiming at their bases the Silence demanded in such a holy place. And the heartbreaking portrait of my dear Tisiphone, painted in those merry days before sorrow claimed this house for its own, would hang, wreathed in black silk, upon the long wall beside its model’s unyielding bed.
Such were the remembrances I had envisioned, and I placed a significant portion of my family’s fortune towards their realization. The cost was to me beneath consideration; this was the true fortune of my family — should not its mere money follow the same path? First of all must come Tisiphone’s sarcophagus, for the parlor would not do for long, and I would not entrust her to common earth for such a short span. Then, when she was at rest in her final abode, that of our son would be introduced, and his remains would be summoned to join her. Last of all came my own future bed; I feared as much as believed that I would have more time than necessary to see my preparations completed. The statuary was to be provided by other sculptors, and of course such supplies as the counterfeit flowers came from still other sources. The delivery of my own sarcophagus would mark the completion of the chamber, which then would await nothing but my entombment. The house would then be held in trust in perpetuity, and only such human contact as would be necessary to maintain the condition of our manorial tomb would be permitted.
Though I would gladly have paid five times the stated price to take delivery of the first sarcophagus within a week, the sculptor assured me that the requested level of detail necessitated a far longer period of time to carve. Knowing that its delivery would immediately be followed by its occupation by the dead, no financial inducement could persuade him to send the roughly hewn sarcophagus to my house and then finish it at leisure in situ. This being the case, a temporary shelter for my wife’s body became necessary, for it would not do to allow it to fall into corruption in plain sight and open air. Thus, on the second day of the wake which I alone attended, I commissioned a coffin to be made, and to be delivered to my home no later than the following morning.
The undertaker was true to his pledge, and two hardened workmen of his shop brought the coffin to my home before ten o’clock the next day. Accustomed as they were to such work, they lifted Tisiphone’s body from the table on which it rested and placed it inside the coffin. They did not seal the coffin, knowing I was not yet ready for such finality, but urged me to close it by the end of the day, for noxious vapours that attend the dead do no good to the living, and to keep it closed until I was ready to inter it in its house of stone.
Much as I had hated to hear it, upon reflection I concluded that it was sound advice, and so I remained with her body until eight in the evening, at which time I bade her farewell and placed the lid upon the casket. Though I had done nothing all day, I felt profoundly exhausted, and retired even before the sun had set.
I slept deeply and long, experiencing perhaps my first healthy rest since Tisiphone had died. Some comfort, perhaps, may have come from the impression that she, too, was at such rest as she could hope to enjoy. This house remained hers, as well, and would be so forevermore. This notion affected me deeply, if my dreams be any measure of its impact. No details survived my first waking, but my initial impression as I greeted the day was the heartfelt expectation that I might see Tisiphone leaning into the room to bid me good morning. Whatever the matter may have been, it involved the house and my dear departed wife, dwelling therein.
The thought provided some comfort, and inspired me to begin my day with a tradition that I have maintained ever since. After making my ablutions and dressing appropriately, I proceeded at once to the parlor, where I gently caressed her coffin lid and wished her well this day. Some might protest that this were an unhealthy conceit, an attempt to dodge the reality of my loss, but few such curmudgeons had the experience of losing a beloved spouse. For me, it was a way to make it through my day, and wherein is that unhealthy? I should protest that it was a sound and sensible measure.
My peace made with the stark realities of day, I was then able to attend to my affairs until evening loomed, and I returned eagerly to bed, wherein I could feel in dream the nearness, indeed the all-encompassing pervasiveness, of Tisiphone. Never in these nightly visions did I see her clearly, but ever did I perceive various tokens of her presence. In such dreams as I remembered more clearly, I saw her shadow upon a wall, or heard her voice echoing through the hall behind me. A door that I knew to have closed yawned open before me later, or peering into my mirror for my morning shave, I espied a darkly clad woman passing behind me. Many a time in such dreams did I wander into the parlor, and gazed upon the lamentable shape of the coffin, that undeniable symbol of the finality of death. At such times a hateful compulsion descended upon me, to prise open the lid and gaze again upon the mouldering remains that lay within. Ever did I succeed in overpowering such an impulse, wishing to cling to the memory of the freshly cut rose, until the sarcophagus was ready and I must face the horror of what she had become.
So passed my days without variation, until at last Tisiphone’s sarcophagus was delivered to the estate. The erstwhile dining hall had long been emptied of its baser contents, and such accoutrements as the candleholders and the urn filled with the flowers of black silk had taken their appointed places. The sarcophagus proved every bit as striking as I had envisioned. The minor deaths were cunningly realized, displaying their ill-favored truths to dread-gripped mortals, and demons and damned alike beheld her radiance. The tragedy was strong enough to claim a tear even from Mephistopheles himself.
Expressing my profound thanks, and my fond expectations of the next piece to be delivered, I paid the men and sent them back to their shop before making a short trip to the undertaker, to secure the aid of his two assistants. They returned home with me, and bore her coffin from the parlor to her mortuary shrine, where the stone lay open in anticipation. The men tied perfumed handkerchieves before their faces, and bade me make similar preparation, for the opening of the casket would unleash an unwholesome foetor upon the air. I doused my kerchief with some of my late wife’s perfume, a fragrance which she would never again wear in any event, and so fortified, I watched as they removed the lid. An unpleasant smell did indeed assail us, but it seemed to me that they had exaggerated the claim; or at least, the prescribed measure had accomplished its task.
I gazed with wonder upon Tisiphone’s body. She had not suffered the level of corruption that I had feared; there remained almost the similitude of life, belied only by the azure cast to her lips and eyelids. I yearned to reach out for her, but held back, knowing that such contact with the dead was unwholesome for the living. These men, presumably, knew how to touch her safely, and placed her shell into the waiting marble with an alacrity I had not anticipated. I was actually a trifle disappointed with the rapidity with which they pushed the heavy lid into place, for the experience of seeing Tisiphone’s corpse was far less unpleasant than I had anticipated, indeed I felt somehow enchanted and longed to spend more time with her ere I must bid her sweet face farewell for the rest of time.
Their task complete, the lads protested their need to return at once; I fear that my entranced and wholly unexpected demeanor had unnerved them. Knowing that I would need their assistance again when my son’s sarcophagus was in place, I accepted their protestations with aplomb and sent them on their way with more handsome reward than they had expected.
Alone at last, I lingered in that shrine in an effort to commune with the dead. My fingers caressed the cold white marble, wishing that it were of more yielding nature, but with the somber remembrance that the flesh would be equally cold and white. I wept there for a time; in the absence of a proper funeral, this interment served the same purpose, and the finality of her state at last dawned upon me. I said many things in those hours of diurnal darkness, most of which is lost to my memory, but I am sure that I expressed the wistful desire that we might somehow be reunited, here and now, despite the impossibility of such a reunion. It was only with great reluctance that I quit the chamber, pressed to that expedient by the weakness and yearning for sleep that still characterized my every day.
Summer passed in favor of a gloomy autumn. I saw not the wondrous display of color that so delighted Tisiphone in the years of innocence before our boy’s demise — and for which display she often proclaimed the autumn her most esteemed season — but instead perceived everywhere in nature the portents of death and decay. Oddly enough, it was only inside my house, from which I seldom ventured, and more particularly, in the shrine wherein I guarded Tisiphone’s earthly remains, that corruption was forestalled. That bleak chamber, which I visited every day, changed not, but remained whole and complete in itself, a small island of permanence in a transitory world. In my imagination, I could indulge the phantasy that sealed within her ornate grave of marble, Tisiphone herself could cheat decay even if she could not escape death — indeed, precisely because she had embraced her decease, she might elude the creeping grasp of corruption! — and so, to my agonized mind, she could remain whole and beautiful even if she could not be alive and gay.
These were ever the pleasantest hours that I spent in those dreary days, but I could not yet dedicate my every attention to the contemplation of her whom I adored — and adore still — but whom I lost. I attended yet to business, if with a heavy heart and but half of my mind. Could I dispense with such mundane matters entirely, I would have done so without a moment’s hesitation.
The opportunity soon came for me to give life to such wistful musings. The family’s business interests had suffered somewhat from my preoccupation, enough to catch the attention of competitors, but not so much as to devalue my holdings. I soon received a visit from one such competitor, a certain Jonathan Lane of Virginia, who much desired to expand his own interests, and saw a golden opportunity in my loss. I felt no rancor for his effort to profit in the face of my own tragedy; as I listened to his proposals, I saw the opportunity to escape the doldrums of mere commerce and attend to that contemplation that alone gave meaning to my twilit life. If truth be known, his offer was decidedly to my advantage even in gross financial terms; he had valued too highly a few of my assets and connections, and moreover, he was prepared to pay even more handsomely for the chance to secure the deal before any of our mutual competitors took notice.
I made a show of reluctance, but in the end, I accepted his offer without any effort to wrench from him further consideration. As it was, his generous recompense had filled anew my depleted resources, and promised to make a reality of my dream to seal in perpetuity that morose temple in which I, too, would one day lie alongside Tisiphone; and in the company of our lost son, the family that will end in life when I breathe my last will endure for all time in the shadows of death. I bade him farewell and good fortune, likely leaving him with the illusion that he had somehow gotten the better of me in my disconsolate state, but fortified in my own mind with the certainty that I had dispensed, under the best possible circumstances, with matters that no longer contributed to mental and moral well-being; and in dispensing with them, I secured my material well-being as surely as I could have done by clinging to them.
Having attended with finality to my business affairs, I was free to dedicate more time to my melancholy vigils in the company of the late Tisiphone. In those days, I kept aloof from living company, and but rarely required the purchase of necessities, and so these visits came ever more to dominate my experience of the day. I will admit that I slept more than I was wont in that now-distant age before my wife’s death; ten hours now became a norm, where previously I had considered myself lazy when I had indulged in a full seven hours! Still, the waning of the sun meant that even with the unnatural abundance of my soporific regimen, dusk had fallen before I retired. It was not so during the summer, and now I learned that the onset of nightfall had a curiously relaxing effect upon me. I felt as if her hold upon the house and all of its contents, myself included, were somehow stronger during the hours of darkness. With the benefit of hindsight, such a conclusion struck me as shockingly elementary, given that she was necessarily to be counted amongst the Fallen, but it had not occurred to me until I had opportunity to experience night in our house.
During those early hours of night, ere I clambered into my bed with the hope of experiencing in dream what was denied to me in life, Tisiphone seemed nearer my mind even than during the day, and any unexpected sound or sight seemed to herald her presence. The creak of a board, surely one of those sounds that fill any ancient home, was to me the proclamation of her step in my direction. The raising of the hackles on my neck, itself born of a momentary sensation that she must be present, seemed the response to her breath upon me as she inclined herself toward me. My heart soared at such moments, and once, it poured out through my mouth an entreaty snatched from the works of Goethe: “Incline, incline, you incomparable, you radiant being, your gracious countenance to my happiness!” But I stood, and looked behind me, and all happiness fled with the realization that her countenance was nowhere to be found, but in that obvious place wherein I had not the heart to look.
Still, the frisson of her presence took hold upon me often in the early hours of evening. Sometimes, I would be struck with the impression of movement at the corner of my eye, and if I were but quick enough to react, I thought that I might behold her in my presence, and it mattered not if it were in spirit only or in the flesh. The thought gradually took form that if I had the courage to visit her shrine during her hours, I might find her there, wakeful and welcoming. I would linger upon this thought when it struck me, but I did not put it into action. We shared this house, I knew, but the barrier between life and death was such that we could not share it fully at the same time. I might hold my somber vigil during the hours of the sun, but while the sun lay cool in its grave and I did not, I could not continue the vigil into the night, for that was her time. I cannot explain it more clearly than that; my unwillingness to attempt such a visit may have been born in equal measure of my philosophical considerations and of a fear to see what might be waiting.
What I feared, I cannot clearly say, either. Did I fear to see her there, her mouldering flesh beckoning me to an unholy reunion? Did I fear, instead, that I would not see her there, and prove to my imaginative soul once and for all that my perceptions were merest phantasy? However it may have been, I told myself that I would leave her in peace in her time until I was ready to face whatever truth may lie in that chamber.
Perhaps, in the end, it was a kind of game that the deepest recesses of my mind played with my wakeful self, to keep me going throughout that dark autumn. The time did pass, and with the early chill of November came word that my son’s sarcophagus had been completed. Eagerly did I take delivery of that article, and at once I hastened to the undertaker to obtain his aid in the recovery of my son’s remains from Father Simmons’ churchyard.
I was sorry to see that one of the lads who had assisted me with Tisiphone’s body, so strapping a youth at the time, had withered to a shadow of his earlier self. I suspected some grave illness had taken hold of him, for the pallor of his face and the deathly cast that ringed his eyes. His burliness had gone, too, withered into a slackness of flesh that threatened equally to waste away into skeletal weakness or to grow into corpulence. My sense of decorum kept me from saying a word, but my glance alone must have enjoyed a certain eloquence, for the lad explained that he was actually improving steadily after his bout with the grippe, and he was fully capable of assisting me with so delicate a matter as the disposition of my son’s diminutive body. So reassured, I journeyed with them to the churchyard, heeding the advice of my weaker companion to keep some distance from him and from all others in the town; for the illness that so robbed him of his vitality was making its way at random through the population.
Due in all likelihood to my newfound antipathy toward Father Simmons, I felt a curious discomfort in the churchyard. I stood, in fact, upon the ground that had been meant for Tisiphone and myself, land for which, truth to tell, I had paid some years before, and yet I felt an unwelcome interloper. Cautiously my gaze passed every so often to the doors and windows of the church, for fear, I suppose, that the priest might impose upon me his undesired company. Still, that could not have explained my feelings fully; several times, I crept aside to avoid standing in the shadow of the steeple.
The young man had been true to his word when he said he was recovering; he dug with an ardor, if not with the strength, equal to his healthy companion. It could hardly have been more than half an hour before the tiny casket was unearthed. I had paid well for the best coffin possible, and it remained intact, but the for ugly scratch across its surface where the spade had raked it. My heart broke to think that its human cargo had not withstood the passage of time so handily.
After two years beneath the mould, my son could not have been more than a collection of sadly delicate bones. I knew this to be fact, and that the proof of it would come all too soon; but for the moment, I chased the thought from my head, hoping for a half hour of innocence before I must face the truth. While I gazed down at that somber little coffin, my companions filled the shaft again with the displaced earth. That task completed, each took one end of the diminutive box — more to maintain the dignity that it represented than to support a weight that either could have borne with ease — and followed me to my estate.
At last, in that shrine to the sorrow and death that so completely ruled my family, came the moment I had dreaded. The undertaker’s helpers slid open the marble sarcophagus, and then wrenched the lid off the delicate casket. My breath caught in my throat as I beheld the pitiable collection of bones, dispersed and again commingled by the jarring of the coffin in its journey hence. My eyes growing bleary under the influence of mourning dew, I watched as the lads carefully gathered up each piece and placed it in the sarcophagus, taking care to grant it a reasonable facsimile of its proper place. Wiping away the obstructing drops, I gazed one last time on the skeletal approximation of a boy I had loved dearly, before the marble was slid over it. When next I saw it open, my son would be alive and whole and vibrant in the world’s new dawn.
In the meantime, the long night continued for him, as it did for me. I ached to think of the countless hours that must pass before I could join him, let alone the unknowable expanse that would stretch before us until we could all stand together in the flesh. I would happily join them in that chamber to await that day, but I knew I must endure a little while longer the blandishments of mundane existence. If nothing else, I must hold on until my own sarcophagus were ready to join them; and as the winter stood poised upon the horizon, it seemed likely that spring must come before I might take delivery of the final article in my macabre tableau.
Steadying myself for that delay, I turned my attention to more immediate concerns. I thanked the lads for their help, pledging that when next I needed them, I would not be able to thank them properly. Again I paid them more generously than necessary, and sent them on their way. Alone at last, I thought anew of the illness of which the sickly lad had spoken, and wondered what manner of plague was visiting itself upon our town. I cared but little, and would gladly surrender my life when it was claimed, but meant to see my own funerary arrangements in place before I experienced them; and so I hoped, if that word applies here, to endure the winter before making my quietus.
I sat for an hour in their company, wedged between my wife and our son, pouring out my heart with words intended only for them. At last my sense of time returned to me, and bidding them good night, I hastened from their presence, knowing that the hour of Tisiphone’s dominion was approaching.
Although I doubted that I might ever again account myself happy, I felt a certain contentment in that moment. My family had been reunited in my household, and I could console myself with their unceasing proximity until the day came that I might join them fully. With this morose satisfaction began the long winter.
November passed into December with bitter cold and periodic gentle snows, but we had escaped any serious storms until the middle of the month. Scarcely more than a week before the Christmas holiday brought half-hearted words of cheer to the jaded lips of those who hoped that protestations of happiness might simulate its actual presence, a powerful storm came down from the north, blanketing the southern reaches of our state with nearly two feet of snow.
On the day that the storm came, this crystalline deluge was already well underway as I prepared myself for bed. Safely ensconced in my home, and having no need to leave for days, I looked upon the exaggerated accumulation of snow with mild satisfaction, and thought no more of it as I clambered into bed.
I had more important things to contemplate, as my sleeping soul decided. As I had so often done in the past, I dreamt of Tisiphone, living, here in our mutual home. She walked into my bedroom, clad in the very same dusky-hued vestments in which I had buried her, and fairly glided to my side. She bent down to look me closely in the face, and at once I was awash in the pure blue depths of her eyes. My heart bounded at her touch, cold though it was, and I reached out to meet her embrace. Often had I dreamt of her presence in the darkened corners of my sleeping house, but for the first time, I beheld her lustrous beauty, I clasped that yielding flesh, and experienced her company for the first time in months. I drank deeply of this cup of comfort, and slept more peacefully than I had since her decease.
Bitter, then was my disillusionment when I awakened, and saw that she was not there beside me. I lay there perhaps an hour before bestirring myself for the day. I know not why I cared, or why I maintained my daily regimen when I knew without looking that I would be trapped in the house for a day or two, but I performed my ablutions in traditional manner. Whilst shaving, I looked down into the basin and found several small crimson drops afloat in the water. Moving my mirror to and fro, I searched my face for any sign of injury, and discovered that I had cut myself with the razor on the side of my neck! I chided myself for my carelessness. I resolved to allow my beard to grow out, for the winter at least. In the meantime, I put plasters upon the cut, and then covered them with a high collar and cravat.
I had managed these efforts with the manner of an automaton, but having accomplished them, I found myself so exhausted that I needed betake myself, fully clad, to bed, and lay awash in a stupor filled with the strangest dreams. During my more lucid moments, I concluded that I must have contracted some wintry sickness, and so I accepted the need to remain abed.
Three days passed before I felt ready to rise and undertake any activity. The snow had receded to a point that would permit me passage into town, and by this time I was ready for a diversion. In this, my journey proved a disappointment, for the town seemed in the grip of powerful drowsiness, aching for a return to sleep. I found my attorney in his office, and passed some time with him discussing matters of import to the local denizens. The grippe was clearly taking its toll on my fellow creatures, leaving little work accomplished. Many people remained abed for days at a time. Even among those who had not been stricken with this illness, many wished to quit our town for Baltimore or some other major city. Indeed, my factor indicated, there were many who sought to sell their property, and at highly advantageous prices, no less. After a moment’s consideration, I deemed the notion valuable for my long-term plans, and empowered him to purchase any property where the offer met given criteria.
Returning home, I found that I inadvertently startled several townspeople as they peered cautiously from their homes. Two young boys, playing around the corner of a building, ran in fright at what could only have been my shadow. I puzzled at this skittishness, and then decided to share it in jest with the shade of my wife. Surely, were she alive and her heart untouched by shadow, she would have laughed most heartily at such foibles!
Though I jibed, I could muster no mirth to animate my words. I passed a gloomy Christmas in the company of the dead, and welcomed a new year with the firm aspiration never to see it end. The best hours of the day were spent in the memorial shrine, but it was at night that I felt more alive. Tisiphone seemed more alive then, and so by extension did I. It was always the little things that kept that faith alive, merest tokens that seem to evaporate even when I contemplate putting them to paper.
Once, near the middle of January, I had a little more than such tokens to fortify my belief. I had been sitting in my study, perusing one of my volumes in a vain attempt to occupy time, when I thought I heard a strange sound in the parlor. I hastened to that room, only to find nothing out of place. I chided myself for foolishness, and almost left the room, when the walls were buffeted by unusually strong gusts of wind. I approached the window, and gazed out upon the grounds to see the state of the weather.
Those gusts proved an isolated occurrence; the snow was not swirling about in the air, but in fact lay peacefully upon the ground by the time I peered out. Nothing, in fact, seemed out of place, but for the movement of a dark shape upon the grounds. This form was gradually receding as I watched, but I was struck for a moment by its humanlike aspect. It seemed, in fact, to be a woman, her flowing black skirt billowing as she walked. I thought of Tisiphone, herself buried in such ebon costume, and a cry died in my throat.
I scrambled to the door, and thrust it open, but by then, the figure had disappeared into the night, if ever it had been there. I looked upon the ground, and saw no fresh tracks, and decided that my imagination had wrested dominance from my very senses. Tisiphone was much on my mind, and when I saw movement, I ascribed it to her, though it flew in the face of every argument of reason. Were I to dare my makeshift crypt by night, and pull away the marble slab that o’erlies my dearest wife, I would find her there, waiting patiently for me. If I so dared, I would know at last that her death was final, and the desiccation of her corpse would assure me that her beauty held no greater permanence than her life. And then, the magic of the evening would be stolen away, and night would be a more empty space even than day. Chastened at heart, I left the parlor and repaired at once to bed.
Upon rising the following morning, however, I found myself unable to dispel the notion from my mind. It was Tisiphone! I thought. She lives still! Be it ever in so strange a manner as I could not fathom it, it was so. Should I pull back the marble slab, I would find the sarcophagus tenantless. She visits me at night, unseen, when it is her wont, and leaves the premises at will. Torn between the despairing doubts of the night before, and the soaring hopes that arose in my breast with the sun, I steeled myself at last to confront my tumultuous emotions. I would shine my lamp inside the tomb.
It was a difficult task for me to undertake. In physical terms alone, it was formidable; as smooth a stone as marble is, it is also heavy, and for a man of gentlemanly breeding such as I, it was no mean effort to push it aside sufficiently to look within. There was also the psychic struggle, that climactic battle between the boundless need to know and the fierce will to evade an unpleasant truth. In the end, I mastered it all, and lamp in hand, I peered inside.
Crushing disappointment gripped my soul. Black shadows parted to reveal the inky raiment that my dear wife wore into her rest, and the polished white surface of marble gave way to the waxy white surface of her face and hands, framed as they were by her jetty hair and the black fabric of her dress. A faint but distinct smell of death assaulted my nose. My dreams that she, like the phoenix of Grecian lore, had somehow abandoned death and decay altogether to rise in revitalized form, were ground into sand as if by a fiendish mill powered by the flow of the river of time.
A moment later, however, I realized how hastily I had given myself over unto despair. There was, indeed, something wondrous at work here. Dead she was, if my eyes deceived me not, but decay had still not alighted upon her gentle brow. For half a year had her body lain prostrate in the embrace of death, and still the corruption of the grave had not worked its fell magic upon her. Her face, her hands, were clean and whole as they were when I pulled her from her bath, and her hair glistened like obsidian.
I stood entranced, knowing the singular nature of what I was seeing. Had Hell, too, its Saints, those chosen few endowed with miraculous workings beyond the grave? The incorrupt state of Tisiphone’s body was, indeed, nothing short of a miracle. Remained her soul, I wondered, tied still to a body that the Earth could and would not reclaim, but free to speak in the common sounds of night to those who would hear her, even upon occasion to grant a fleeting vision of her presence?
Moved powerfully by the wonder that had been worked within my house, I reached out to clasp her right hand, which rested placidly above her left at her breast, and found it cold but yielding, not stiff with rictus. A joy unknown in three years swelled in my own breast, and I raised that chill member to my cheek. I wept and trembled as I knelt there at her side, enjoying a contact I had not known in my waking life for months. It was as if my strongest dream had come, if even partially, to life.
One thing more remained to raise my state to one of utter astonishment. Sated at last with the meagre and yet overwhelming comfort of her cold hand against my cheek, I wiped my eyes and made to restore her arm to its proper place at her breast. As I did so, I noticed that her wrist was as clean and whole as the rest of her body. Surely, I thought, I must be mistaken. The wound upon her right wrist was, after all, a superficial one; her mortally wounded left hand had not the strength to work her fiendish will upon the right. Alone, the wound at her right wrist could not have killed her. It was the left that told the true story.
My eyes were wide as I raised her left hand to examine her wrist. It too was intact, with not even a scar to mark the passage of her life’s blood. I felt weak, and my head swam, as if my own blood ran out to stain the bathwater, and I simply allowed the feeling to wash over me. And then, robbed of all capacity to think, I composed her body anew. I placed her hands in their appointed places, clasped for a moment my own warm hand to her smooth, cold cheek, and then with the superhuman effort of the man deprived of all thought, pulled the slab back into its proper place.
I left the shrine in a glow of astonishment that kept me going all through the day. So much had been taken from me, that in return some small blessing had been bestowed. That this grace must be of an infernal nature, I did not doubt, but the wonder had still been worked. I thought again of the weeping Lucifer in the marble relief, and echoed Prince Hamlet in crediting my soul with the gift of prophecy. I could think of nothing else that day, but replayed the scene over and again in my mind, seeking out each detail for eternal preservation in my memory. Even the foul smell that had assailed my nostrils upon the opening of the sarcophagus returned to mind, and I recognized it as the same smell I had detected when Tisiphone was laid to rest in her marble domicile. It was unpleasant, true, but it was far weaker than I had expected. It was the weakness of the smell, and not the strength of her perfume, that made the odor so much more bearable than the undertaker’s apprentices had led me to believe. It was the smell of death, yes, but not the overpowering stench of putrefaction!
My discovery had buoyed my spirits far more than I might have expected. My thoughts dwelt ever more strongly on Tisiphone than before, but at last the notion of her continuing presence had claimed supremacy over my fears of her eternal absence. Each day I betook myself to the shrine of my dead family, knowing of the miracle that dwelt within the stone, and it brought me some comfort, enough at least to keep me going until I joined them forever. Several times I slid open the marble cover, to gaze again upon the wondrous visage of my wife, to touch again the skin that remained supple and dry. In this way I passed several weeks, and as the month of February began to mature, I knew that I would not need to wait too much longer. Soon the winter would yield to spring, and in that vernal awakening, I would take delivery of the third sarcophagus.
Ere the second week of February had ended, I made another visit into town to inquire after my affairs and procure a few supplies. I was shocked to see that the languor which had earlier gripped the townsfolk had seemed to intensify. The day was fairly warm, and I had expected many to take advantage of winter’s loosening grasp to see to any number of matters. I had not expected to find that the only eyes that met my gaze as I walked could be found behind the panes of their sturdy windows.
Fortunately, my attorney had remained healthy both in body and in mind, and I found him in his appointed place. Attending first to business, I found him in high spirits, indeed. More plots had become available for purchase than he had expected, and for far better prices. By the end of winter, he surmised, I should be the foremost landowner in town, and when this winter’s illnesses and other unpleasantness were forgotten, more people would come to make their homes here; I would enjoy a most healthy return upon my investment. I said nothing of my hope not to live so long. Instead, I inquired after the unpleasantness of which he had spoken.
There was a great fear in town that its people had somehow been cursed, and that unholy forces had conspired to sap them of their vitality. Until recently, this had been nothing more than the subject of idle mutterings by those half-delirious under the influence of the grippe. The voices of discontent were much strengthened, however, when Father Simmons began to echo their concerns, though he himself was never taken ill. In fact, he tried to stir the people out of their lethargy, into a state of vigilance against the unholy powers that he saw at work in their sorry state. In point of fact, he accomplished little more than to drive many from the town entirely, and to seal many more inside their homes for as long as humanly possible. Father Simmons, my attorney told me, had surely gone mad, God rest his soul.
He answered my questioning glance with the intelligence that Father Simmons had been found dead eight days previously. He had been summoned in the night from his rooms alongside the church to bring aid to an unusually unfortunate family, in which five members lay prostrate under the baneful influence of the grippe. Dr. Cathcart had hesitated to exaggerate the concerns that the priest’s death aroused, and stressed that at night, and under such slippery conditions as surely obtained in the event, Father Simmons’ death could have been mere accident. The youngest son, however, who had ventured into the night to bring aid in the first instance, swore that it was a case of murder by a person unknown.
With a smile and a knowing wink, I thanked my attorney, anxious to reinforce his disbelief in the fancies of simpler folk. Unfortunately, I too believed that dark forces exerted their influence in this town, and for my part, I could not account them hostile. I must know more, I thought, and to that end I paid a visit to Dr. Cathcart, to see what the old gentleman believed in this matter.
He saw me readily. He began with an inquiry after my health, both physical and psychic, in these recent months; and in light of his profession, I must concede that it was no idle question, but fully germane. Still, I was uninterested in pursuing that matter, and passed it off with the observation that I had been much better in my time. The good doctor accepted my decision a trifle more readily than I might have expected, but this permitted me to broach the subject that had brought me thence: I understood that Father Simmons had died recently, and under strange circumstances. I was greatly interested in knowing more.
Dr. Cathcart had known me since my birth, and deemed me a man of discretion; it should, therefore, arouse no consternation that he would so readily relate to me the facts in this case. In any event, the salient details were a matter of public record. Father Simmons had left his rooms alongside the church that night in order to grant succor to some troubled parishioners, but he never made it to his destination. He had been accompanied by twelve-year-old Lucas Cragswell, the youngest son of the family that sought his aid. The excitable boy had run for help with the claim that the priest was under assault by some ill-defined figure. When the lad brought two strong men to the place where this attack had taken place, they found only the good father, lying dead at the base of a large tree. Two sets of footprints led toward that place, and only the smaller of the two led away from it. The two men were therefore skeptical of the claim, but Father Simmons was equally dead regardless of the agency involved, and it was incumbent upon them to bring his body to the doctor, and make report in the morning to the chief constable of the town.
The doctor assured me that he examined the body as thoroughly as he might, given that there was a claim of violence, however improbable it might seem. The priest had seemed in good condition, but for three factors that had exerted some influence in his death. The first and most important fact was that his neck was broken, apparently the result of a powerful impact with some sturdy object, and this was most evidently the cause of death. A blunt weapon of some kind could certainly have dealt him that blow, if perchance a very strong man were perched in a tree above him when he passed below; at least, this hypothetical assailant could not have been standing on the ground, for he would have left behind his footprints in the snow! The more reasonable conclusion, however, was that the goodly priest had simply slipped upon ice or snow and collided in a most unfortunate manner with the tree beneath which his body had been found. The conclusion was also supported by the second factor, namely, a small injury to the side of the neck, which injury surely marked the point of impact. It was an ugly wound, in which the abrasion of the tree’s bark was compounded by the passage of several pieces of broken bone, but it was clearly secondary to the breaking of the neck, without which it could not have claimed his life. The third observation was that Father Simmons could not have been in such good health when he embarked upon that journey as all had assumed. Even a cursory look at his skin revealed the evidence of anaemia, which would have left him sufficiently weak as to facilitate the kind of catastrophic fall that killed him. His first inclination was to suppose some kind of serious blood loss, but the men who had recovered the body had assured him that there was no great profusion of blood in evidence at the place of death, and so he had to conclude that the priest was seriously ill at the time. Such, at least, was Dr. Cathcart’s professional opinion; he had no intention to call young Master Cragswell a liar, but boys of that age are often prone to excitable imaginations, and the circumstances were exceptional by all accounts.
Making an effort to keep my tone conversational, I asked him if he knew anything of the nature of the trouble the Cragswells had experienced, leading them to seek clerical support. He replied that like several other large families in town, the grippe had hit them hard. No fewer than five family members had been prostrated by the illness at one time or another during the course of the winter, and some had suffered relapses after initial recovery. Medically speaking, it was all perfectly predictable; the more people who dwell under the same roof, the greater the impact of any disease stalking the vicinity. As the immediate victims of the mysterious illness, however, they could not see it with the requisite scientific detachment. Instead, they chose to view it with the kind of fatuous superstition that, unfortunately, Father Simmons in his own undiagnosed illness was beginning to support. The Cragswells patently believed that Father Simmons’ visit might somehow permit them to ward off whatever miasma had vexed them. He may as well have tried to ward off the snow.
At this point, I asked him what he knew of this grippe; clearly, it was a more powerful illness than usual. Here the doctor hesitated; he could not really say that it was more powerful, and indeed, in some respects it was noticeably weaker. Normally, a victim suffered significant effects for ten to fourteen days; here, recovery was usually effected in four. The onset of the illness was more rapid and generally more potent than normal, but nothing that demanded the immediate care of a physician. Indeed, Dr. Cathcart had been consulted on only a few cases, and they usually a day or two after onset. His difficulties had been compounded by the fact that the victim’s weakness made him more susceptible to conventional illnesses, and this winter has been generally more sickly than usual. What was most troubling about this grippe, however, was its aptitude for relapse, something that generally does not occur. Psychically speaking, it was a most debilitating fact, for it instilled in its less fortunate victims a sense of being persecuted somehow, a sense that made fertile ground for the priest’s assertion that an unholy force were afflicting the community.
I thanked him for his time, and after leaving his office, I turned toward the Cragswell abode. It seemed a small home for such a large household, containing as it did eight members. Knowing, too, that this house had been singularly unhealthy, I hesitated to bother its inhabitants. Under the best of circumstances, I should be an unwelcome interloper. My hope, however, was to speak with Lucas, the youngest child and thus far one of that minority who had remained untouched by the illness. If I were fortunate, I might find him outside, performing some chore, such as collecting water from the stream. Were that the case, I might find him all too willing to pause for a few minutes to answer my inquiries.
My instincts proved justified; following the crack of an axe against wood, I found him collecting firewood on the far side of his house. I begged his indulgence, which he granted, and I asked him about the night that Father Simmons died. There was no pretense or condescension in my question about what he had seen when the priest was attacked; for, despite the considered opinion of my medical friend, I had cause to believe in the lad’s story, or in its plausibility at any rate. My sincerity blended with the boy’s natural gregariousness and the tensions of a frightful winter to inspire most thorough answers to my queries.
Lucas was leading Father Simmons toward his house; thus, his first indication of trouble was the sound of his companion stumbling. Lucas turned to find his view of the priest obstructed by a dark figure. It had been a dark night, with a generous snowfall and prodigious gusts of wind; moreover, this figure had had her back to him, but he was confident in having identified it as a woman dressed entirely in black, with long, jetty tresses that seemed to merge with her raiment. The only exception to that ebon uniformity was effected by her hands, which for cadaverous waxiness seemed almost to blend into the snow.
Father Simmons had been knocked half prostrate by his fall, which may have been natural or may have been occasioned by the woman. Ere he had found the strength to rise again, however, the woman grasped his head with her left hand, and his shoulder in her right, and bent closely over his face. It was then that Lucas ran for help, knowing that he could do nothing against her, and when he returned with two stout-hearted companions, it was too late save the priest. Lucas had enjoyed precious little hope of assisting the man, in any event; he had intended rather to bring the man’s corpse into shelter, and to see his story told. Having seen how easily the clergyman had fallen, Lucas no longer had any hope of escaping from the Woman’s baleful influence.
I asked him what he knew of this Woman; for surely he had enjoyed neither light nor time enough to have forged such a clear impression of her appearance. This, it so emerged, was not a problem with which he had needed contend. Twice before he had seen her, hastening from his house, and while he had never had occasion to see her face clearly, he had noted the same pallor upon her face and neck. Indeed, given any modicum of illumination, her exposed skin would seem almost luminous set against the inky backdrop of her attire. Were she not so unnatural in her demeanor as to inspire in him an instinctive terror, he would have ventured to accord her a surpassing beauty.
I found it most fortunate that young Master Cragswell had never before met my wife, nor had either of us encountered him, for I was now certain that it was none other than Tisiphone whom he described; and could he but surmise that I was his fearsome apparition’s lawful husband, he would have turned me away with at least a curse, and perhaps, with a swing of that axe. And though he was young, I could not doubt that he would have proven most capable with the implement. I could only hope that neither he, nor any other of the more credulous townsfolk, would yet manage to establish a link between my wife and their suffering, for a spontaneous convocation of such believers outside my abode would prove beyond my ability to repel. I still cared little for my own life, but the prospect that I had regained Tisiphone’s presence despite her decease gave me something that I might, but would not, lose.
This being so, I felt I must know how much he knew, or suspected, so I pressed him on the nature of the Woman and her connection with the grippe that so discomfited the town. Lucas felt these questions well beyond his capacity for understanding, but told me as much as he did know. The grippe had begun slowly in the early autumn, but had not struck the Cragswell house until after winter had set in. He remembered clearly that first night, when his grandfather fell victim to its grasp. It was a bitterly cold night, with a fierce wind that blew about the barest dusting of snow. The family was seated around the warmth of its fireplace for a few stories before retiring for the night, when a gentle rapping sounded at the door. At first, none seemed to credit it, but took it instead for the actions of the wind. When the knocking persisted, however, his father rose from his seat and approached the door, asking who begged entrance at such an hour.
It was a woman’s voice that answered, though the content of her response was lost to the wind. Daniel Cragswell was a kindly man, however, despite his rough exterior, and would not consign a woman to the blandishments of such a night without cause. And so, though muttering some imprecation as he did the deed, he unbolted the door and opened it, offering the woman a place by the fire as she told her tale.
Great was his astonishment when he found no one there; it was only the wind that answered his invitation, and only a gust of powder-laden breeze made entrance in the home. Shivering, he shut the door as quickly as he might, and hastened over to the fire to warm himself. Everyone thought that the sounds outside had been a trick of the wind, and expected no further consequence of that action.
Nor did they associate the circumstance with the gentle knocking of the night before when, that morning, they found the grandfather still sitting before the cold ashes of yesternight’s fire. Chilled to the bone, he sat shivering under his blanket, which he kept tightly wrapped about his upper body. That he was ill was readily apparent — it was not cold enough in the room to account for his state — and his mind was trapped in a state of delirium. Two of Lucas’ brothers carried the grandfather to his bed, where he was unable to do more than mutter cryptically for hours. The only words of which a listener might make any sense seemed to be “The ice — the ice!”
This had been the first attack of the grippe in the Cragswell household, but not the last. The grandfather, fortunately, had recovered and never suffered a relapse, but Lucas’ father and all three brothers had subsequently suffered attacks; moreover, Daniel Cragswell and two of his sons had suffered it more than once. None remembered much from his period of delirium, save for an impression of a visitation by some unearthly being, of which the most potent recollection seemed to be the power of its eyes. This, then, was the most likely identification of the grandfather’s delirious mutterings, a conclusion with which Lucas wholeheartedly concurred.
Lucas also proved more discerning than I might have expected. He had noted, when his grandfather was found insensate in the sitting room, that a faint, unwholesome odor seemed to linger in that chamber. At the time, he had ascribed it only to the old man, but on each occasion that a family member fell under the influence of the grippe, that same smell hung elusively in the room. On two occasions, he had been wakeful for some reason, and espied the darkly-clad woman on her way out of the house, noting that the scent was stronger in her presence. Here his descriptive capacity failed him, but I inferred easily enough that he meant to suggest that she partook somehow of the stench of death, albeit gently. Here I recalled the diminished odor that rose from the opened sarcophagus of Tisiphone, and my heart raced.
I thanked the lad warmly, and submitted that I too had had my own brush with this illness, whatever its true nature may be. I lied when I said that I had not personally seen the authoress of woe that he had described, and again when I suggested that the advent of spring should free the town of her influence, but I did not wish that someone older and more capable than Lucas should heed his observations.
My heart thrilled as I journeyed home. Could it be, I wondered, that I might again see Tisiphone alive, if only after a fashion? Could this be the explanation for the miracle of her incorrupt state? I resolved to test my theory that very night. I would feign sleep, and then, in the very depths of night, I would enter my makeshift crypt, and see with my own eyes whether my wife’s sarcophagus be tenanted or not.
The first part was the most easily accomplished. The excitement that coursed through my veins would have precluded sleep, even had I sought its embrace. It was not so simple a matter to maintain, or even to achieve, the semblance of somnolence. For hours I struggled to preserve my outer quiescence, even though my inner world was full of tumult. Nor was it any simple matter to mark the passage of time. It remained to me only to trust my instincts when the time was right to rise.
Can anyone imagine the thrill that coursed through my veins when, at some unheralded hour, the handle of my bedchamber door gently creaked down, and by slow progress of inches that door eased towards me? It cost me every effort of will to keep my eyes shut, and to effect the stately cadence of nocturnal breath. To think that, had I opened my eyes, I would have beheld my dearest wife, standing in my doorway in every appearance of natural life! Soon, I swore to myself, that joy would fall to me, but tonight would be dangerously premature.
For many minutes — or was it merely the briefest moment in time? — there was silence at my door, and then by slow degrees the aperture was sealed. The last I heard was the mechanical click of the handle swinging back into its horizontal norm, and then all was silence.
I redoubled my efforts to muster the full force of my patience. Tisiphone was still in our home, for a short while at least, before she left her sanctuary for the world beyond. I understood fully; in the winter, darkness fell too early, and ordinary mortals slept not for several hours. Only when most people were abed could she wander in safety. I knew not precisely what could harm her, but I understood instinctively that the fairest things in all the world are also the most vulnerable. Manna from heaven crumbled in the very effort to preserve it, and even mighty Achilles in all his strength and puissance was disastrously unguarded about his heel; so too must the Chosen Ones of Hell take care to protect their weaknesses. Who knows what Father Simmons might have accomplished, had he determined the truth before succumbing to it? Regarding these contemplations in numerous forms, I whiled away the time before I felt it safe to rise.
I struck a match and ignited the tapers in a small candelabrum at the side of my bed, and light in hand, I made my way to the heart of my house, that inner sanctum wherein I would one day rest with my wife and my son. I held the candles aloft as I took stock of the scene. My first impression was one of disappointment when I saw the marble slab still in place; had I been dreaming, I wondered, when I fancied the opening of my door? Bitter indeed would be my sorrow if that should prove the case. I steadied myself, however, to explore further. Perhaps, I thought, Tisiphone had put the stone back in place before leaving, should I rise during the night, and finding myself wakeful, wander into this temple of the dead? I considered it even possible that she had no need of removing the slab to leave her abode. Regardless of the true circumstance, only one course would sate my burning curiosity: I must open the sarcophagus.
Placing the candelabrum on the plinth of the statue of the disconsolate demon, the shrine was bathed in a sinister interplay of shadow and light. The dancing of the tiny flames made the room seem somehow alive, a most distressing impression, given the fact that it was dedicated to the dead. Posting myself at the head of her sarcophagus, I placed both hands upon the lid, and slowly but forcefully I pushed.
The light, of course, was now situated below the aperture, and nothing but darkness was visible therein. The smell of death insinuated itself in my nostrils, but as delicately as ever, and I could not determine what that aroma should signify. Bolstering my nerves, I grasped the candelabrum in my left hand, and again held it aloft.
The tenement of the dead was empty.
My hand trembled, causing the lights that danced about the room to flutter with greater ferocity. My hackles rose as my arm descended, extending golden tendrils into every corner of the sarcophagus. Its tenant was clearly absent. My heart sang with the revelation — Tisiphone walked again!
I replaced the candelabrum upon the plinth, and pulled the slab back into its proper place. Then I hastened to my room in the hope of achieving a sleep that now seemed more remote than ever. I had been tempted, I admit, to remain in the crypt, ready to welcome Tisiphone when she arrived from her journey. What I did not know, however, was precisely how she should respond to my presence. I was transfixed with the certainty that my life would change irrevocably when next we met. It were best, I was sure, that I postponed our much-desired reunion until my own sarcophagus had been delivered, and I was ready to take my place at her side.
It is now spring, and I took delivery of that article this morning. I now hurry to complete this document before nightfall. Should things go ill for me — for us — these words will provide the only possible account of what has transpired and why.
When I finish these final words, I will place the papers in the drawer of my desk. Picking up the candelabrum at my side, I will then repair to the very soul of my house, the crypt that was once a dining room — now Tisiphone’s bedchamber, and soon to be mine as well. There I will await the failing of the sun, and when Tisiphone rises from her breathless sleep, I shall fall to my knees, and exclaim to her, after Goethe’s eloquent words, “Your once beloved, no longer clouded, returns!”
Der früh Geliebte,
Nicht mehr Getrübte,
Er kommt zurück.