, October 6, 1917
THE smoking-room of the club was gray with twilight, and nearly
deserted. In one corner an elderly man showing perhaps sixty-five years
in his lined, thoughtful face, sat buried in the Révue Philosophique.
Behind him a group of young members stretched their long legs around
the dying fire, in desultory chat of one thing and another. Presently,
led perhaps by a chance remark on the waning light, the talk touched,
strangely enough, on fear.
I wonder how many of us, if we were quite truthful, would not
confess to some sort of fear, mused the young novelist. His glance
about the group was whimsical. Don't worry, I'm not thinking of
third-degreeing any of you for copy, but it just occurred to me. I'll
wager there isn't a man among us or anywhere else who hasn't some pet,
private dread locked away in his own soul where even his wife doesn't
know of its presence.
What do you mean by fear? objected his neighbor. The bravest man I
ever knew was an army captain, with a V. C. for gallantry in ten
engagements, who confessed to me once that he had a deadly horror of
That proves my point. The novelist puffed his brier complacently.
Cats, the toothache, death, ridiculeit doesn't matter what. That
poor devil of a policeman who was stripped of his shield the other day
for failing to follow an armed thief into a dark cellarway was probably
no worse a coward at heart than you or I. We're luckier in never having
come up against our own particular phobia, that's all.
Do you remember the verse of Coleridge's about a man walking along a
lonely road? hesitated a third voice. The young physician leaned
forward to light his cigar on his neighbor's. Let's see, how does it
And having once looked round, walks on, and no more turns his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend doth-close behind him tread.
Do you know, I've thought of that sometimes when I was driving
through the country at midnight? And, well, you couldn't hire me to
look around for love or money at that moment!
Fear of the darkness seems to be born in us, nodded the novelist.
I suppose there wasn't a night when I was a child that I felt really
safe going upstairs to bed.
But did you ever hear of a man who was afraid of the light? asked a
deep voice unexpectedly from behind them. The gray-haired man stood on
the outskirts of the group, dimly sketched against the grayness.
I trust you will pardon my intrusion, he went on, almost shyly. I
am a stranger herean old member. I happened to overhear your
conversation, and it singularly interested me.
No apologies, sir; draw up your chair and welcome, the physician
assured him heartily.
We'll be everlastingly grateful if you can spin us a new yarn. We're
stale on each other's stories. Have a cigar.
No, thanks, I don't smoke. The stranger settled back in the leather
armchair, and gazed steadily into the glowing coals. It was almost as
though the light hurt his eyes, yet he forced himself to look at it.
The unusual in his attitude whetted the appetite of the group for
strange disclosures. Finally, without taking his gaze from the fire, he
began to talk in a level, colorless voice.
The man I was thinking about when I spoke just now used to live in
this town. He glanced an instant about the circle. I wonderperhaps
you may have heard of him. He left before your times, I suppose; almost
thirty year ago. The name was Peter Van Dorn.
Van Dorn? the novelist leaned forward interestedly. There was a
Van Dorn I've heard my father speak of; a wealthy young rake who left
his gay life suddenly without any explanation and became a hermit.
People said it was the fault of the girl he was in love with.
People were wrong, said the stranger slowly. Peter Van Dorn
suffered from no one's fault but his own. You will wonder how I know
this story. You see, I was a friend and schoolmate of the man, and he
told me the truth that the world only guessed and gossiped about. The
real reason Peter became a recluse was because he was afraid. I said
when I joined you that he was afraid of the light, but that is not
quite accurate. He was afraid of what the light might show him, and
that was his own shadow!
A stir ran around the group. On the tips of half a dozen cigars the
ashes gathered. Only the stranger seemed unmoved by his own words.
You were right when you summed up the man's character, just
now'young rake.' Yet, the Van Dorns belonged to one of the oldest
families in the state. There were governors among them before the line
dwindled down to Peter. And up to the time he went to college, and then
to a foreign university, the lad was harmless enough; a slight, pretty
youngster, with girl's hair and eyes. Even then, Eleanor Hammond,
daughter of the old judge, was his sweetheart in a childish fashion,
and every one supposed that Peter would come home in a few years, marry
her, and settle down.
But five years went by, six, and seven, and all of Peter that
returned were sly rumors and shreds of gossip that drift in the wake of
a careless young blackguard: gossip of gambling, drinking, and gay
companions, though nothing worse. Then, one day, on the heels of the
tales, appeared Peter himself, broadened and thickened into a fine
figure of a man, with no hint of evil in his frank ways.
By that time Eleanor Hammond was a
lovely woman of twenty-five, with more suitors than you could count,
but none of them favored. She could have married well a dozen times,
but she hadn't, and as soon as Peter came upon the scene it was plain
that she had kept the thankless young scoundrel's image in her pure
heart all these years.
It was on a moonlight evening, a month later, that he asked her to
marry him; one of those white, unstirring nights when every twig is
doubled by its shadow, like a cameo on the grass. For a moment after
the question had left his lips she did not answer, then she raised her
head and looked him straight in the eyes.
'Are you coming to me quite free, Peter?' she asked him slowly.
'There is nothing or no one else in the wide world with a claim on
me,' he told her. 'Not a shadow even, sweetheart, between you and me.'
But before the words were out of his mouth, the sudden horror in her
eyes warned him, and, following their shrinking gaze, he saw it the
Thing on the grass where his shadow should have been, black and
distinct in the white pools of the moon. He did not know, he told me,
how long he stood there staringstaring, or just when she went. It was
the sound of a door closing that broke the spell at last, for he knew
that with that door he was shut out from her, from love and happiness,
he and the Thing on the grass, in a world where the darkness that hides
sin and horrors is kinder than the day.
Like a lost soul, Peter Van Dorn fled from the tell-tale moon,
plunging into the grove, over tree-stumps, through close-growing
bushes, panting like a hounded animal, moaning, muttering, beating his
breast. In a close covert of evergreensas the spicy smell told
himhe stopped and cast a hunted look behind; but the shadows of the
woods had erased the Thing he feared.
He drew long, sobbing breaths and tried to think the matter over
calmly. It was impossible, against nature, reason, beliefyet it was
true! He had seen itshe had seen.
There had been no mistaking the slender figure, the fragile, piquant
profile, every line the same. Yet she was dead; she and the child that
had shamed her.
'It is a bad dream!' cried Peter aloud. 'Why, such things cannot
happen in this world!'
But, when later he had to cross a field of white, pure moonlight, he
did it on a run, hands clasped across his eyes.
She wrote the next day. My friend showed me the letter, kissed
almost illegible. 'I do not pretend to judge you,' she wrote sadly, 'I
do not even question. Yet, with that between us, Peter, I can never
marry you. If it were an illusion, some strange freak of the leaves!
But, Peter, Peter, where was your own shadow on the grass?'
At the end there was a hint of hope. 'If it goes awaythat black
woman-shadow, Peter, come to me, for I have waited a long time for you,
and I will wait longer. And, dear, if you can make any reparation, do
But Peter Van Dorn sat in his darkened room, and knew without hope
that the shadow of his old sin would never let him go to her.
Tongues clacked, of course. People said he was crazy to shut himself
up in his darkened house, and one of his chums who had gone to
expostulate with him, ratified this belief.
'Peter, old man,' he had begun, jovially, 'what are you doing, shut
up with the shadows'
He had not finished his sentence, he said, for Peter had sprung to
him, gripping his arm with frenzied fingers like claws. 'Shadows
where?' he had gasped 'What shadows can there be where there is no
light?' And then, with a wild cry of despair,' What would you do if you
had lost your shadow?'
After that, you may believe, no one was anxious to visit Peter. His
servants left, telling strange tales of how their master refused to
have a lamp, or so much as a candle, lighted in the room with him. Soon
there was fresher gossip to occupy people's tongues, and they left off
wondering about poor Peter. Sometimes men coming home late on a clouded
night would see a shadowy figure slipping along furtively in the covert
of the building; but for ten years Peter Van Dorn lived, the ghost of
himself, hidden from the eyes of mankind and the revelation of the sun.
Always, he told me, he felt the Thing with him, ready to spring out in
the place of his shadow whenever he dared the light but he never saw it
during that time. Then, one day, he heard somehow that Eleanor Hammond
was dying. Wellhe went to her. The old judge met him at the door, as
naturally as though he had seen him yesterday.
'She has been calling for you, Peter,' he told him, 'come in.'
The sick-room was darkened. On the pillow was a whiter blur that
Peter knew for her face. Kneeling by the bedside, he cried like a
child. He thought, you see, that she was dead, she lay so still; but it
was not so. The door behind opened suddenly to admit the physician,
also the father, carrying an oil-lamp in his shaking, veined old hands.
The room sprang into lights and shadows, and the dying woman opened her
eyes with a great cry.
'Your shadow has come back, Peter!' she said. 'The other one is
gone. There is nothing between us now, my dear, my dear!'
Even as she spoke she fell back, dead. And Peter saw the old lost
shadow of himself rise up and stagger before him from the room. From
that hour, the shadow of the woman he had wronged never returned, for
she, dead, had had her triumph, and had kept what was hers.
The stranger's voice sank to a whisper. The coals in the grate fell
apart with a hiss and flared into a brief glow. In the circle several
men started up and cast furtive looks over their shoulders. The
stranger laughed grimly.
It never fails, he mused aloud, as though to himself. I have told
that story many times, and at the end there is always some one who
looks hurriedly over his shoulder for his own shadow! Strange how
conscience makes us cowards.
You had not finished, interposed the novelist hastily. What became
of Peter afterward?
He went to foreign lands in search of forgetfulness, said the deep
voice tonelessly; then gave up the search and came home. But always he
preferred the darkness to the light, for he was afraid of his own
shadow the rest of his days.
The novelist knocked his pipe against the chimney-piece with a hand
that was not quite steady.
That's quite a good yarn, friend, he yawned carelessly. But
altogether too strained to be true. Of course, you admit it is only a
The stranger rose and faced them. In the fire-flicker they saw the
lines in his face and the infinite sadness in his eyes.
Yes, yes, of course it is fiction, he assented wearily. As you
say, it is too strained to be true.
The soft-footed butler of the club had entered as they were speaking,
and now, suddenly, without warning, the room sprang into warm light
from the two great chandeliers.
With a sharp cry the gray-haired stranger covered his eyes with his
Turn off the light! he cried. I am afraid!
EText from pulpgen.com - 2007 Blackmask