Beyond the Wall

Ambrose Bierce

01 Apr, 2014 10:15 PM

MANY years ago, on my way from Hong-Kong to New York, I passed a week in
San Francisco. A long time had gone by since I had been in that city,
dur- ing which my ventures in the Orient had prospered beyond my hope; I
was rich and could afford to re- visit my own country to renew my
friendship with such of the companions of my youth as still lived and
remembered me with the old affection. Chief of these, I hoped, was Mohun
Dampier, an old school mate with whom I had held a desultory correspond-
ence which had long ceased, as is the way of cor- respondence between
men. You may have observed that the indisposition to write a merely
social letter is in the ratio of the square of the distance between you
and your correspondent. It is a law.
I remembered Dampier as a handsome, strong young fellow of scholarly
tastes, with an aversion to work and a marked indifference to many of
the things that the world cares for, including wealth, of which,
however, he had inherited enough to put him beyond the reach of want. In
his family, one of the oldest and most aristocratic in the country, it
was, I think, a matter of pride that no member of it had ever been in
trade nor politics, nor suffered any kind of dis- tinction. Mohun was a
trifle sentimental, and had in him a singular element of superstition,
which led him to the study of all manner of occult subjects, al- though
his sane mental health safeguarded him against fantastic and perilous
faiths. He made daring incursions into the realm of the unreal without
re- nouncing his residence in the partly surveyed and uncharted region
of what we are pleased to call certitude.
The night of my visit to him was stormy. The Californian winter was
on, and the incessant rain plashed in the deserted streets, or, lifted
by irregular gusts of wind, was hurled against the houses with
incredible fury. With no small difficulty my cabman found the right
place, away out toward the ocean beach, in a sparsely populated suburb.
The dwelling, a rather ugly one, apparently, stood in the centre of its
grounds, which as nearly as I could make out in the gloom were destitute
of either flowers or grass. Three or four trees, writhing and moaning in
the torment of the tempest, appeared to be trying to escape from their
dismal environment and take the chance of finding a better one out at
sea. The house was a two-story brick structure with a tower, a story
higher, at one corner. In a window of that was the only visible light.
Something in the appearance of the place made me shudder, a performance
that may have been assisted by a rill of rain-water down my back as I
scuttled to cover in the doorway.
In answer to my note apprising him of my wish to call, Dampier had
written, 'Don't ring--open the door and come up.' I did so. The
staircase was dimly lighted by a single gas-jet at the top of the second
flight. I managed to reach the landing without dis- aster and entered by
an open door into the lighted square room of the tower. Dampier came
forward in gown and slippers to receive me, giving me the greeting that
I wished, and if I had held a thought that it might more fitly have been
accorded me at the front door the first look at him dispelled any sense
of his inhospitality.
He was not the same. Hardly past middle age, he had gone grey and
had acquired a pronounced stoop. His figure was thin and angular, his
face deeply lined, his complexion dead-white, without a touch of colour.
His eyes, unnaturally large, glowed with a fire that was almost uncanny.
He seated me, proffered a cigar, and with grave and obvious
sincerity assured me of the pleasure that it gave him to meet me. Some
unimportant conversation followed, but all the while I was dom- inated
by a melancholy sense of the great change in him. This he must have
perceived, for he sud- denly said with a bright enough smile, 'You are
disappointed in me--non sum qualis eram.'
I hardly knew what to reply, but managed to say: 'Why, really, I
don't know: your Latin is about the same.'
He brightened again. 'No,' he said, 'being a dead language, it grows
in appropriateness. But please have the patience to wait: where I am
going there is perhaps a better tongue. Will you care to have a message
in it?'
The smile faded as he spoke, and as he concluded he was looking into
my eyes with a gravity that distressed me. Yet I would not surrender
myself to his mood, nor permit him to see how deeply his prescience of
death affected me.
'I fancy that it will be long,' I said, 'before hu- man speech will
cease to serve our need; and then the need, with its possibilities of
service, will have passed.'
He made no reply, and I too was silent, for the talk had taken a
dispiriting turn, yet I knew not how to give it a more agreeable
character. Suddenly, in a pause of the storm, when the dead silence was
almost startling by contrast with the previous up- roar, I heard a
gentle tapping, which appeared to come from the wall behind my chair.
The sound was such as might have been made by a human hand, not as upon
a door by one asking admittance, but rather, I thought, as an agreed
signal, an assurance of some one's presence in an adjoining room; most
of us, I fancy, have had more experience of such communications than we
should care to relate. I glanced at Dampier. If possibly there was some-
thing of amusement in the look he did not observe it. He appeared to
have forgotten my presence, and was staring at the wall behind me with
an expression in his eyes that I am unable to name, although my memory
of it is as vivid to-day as was my sense of it then. The situation was
embarrassing; I rose to take my leave. At this he seemed to recover
'Please be seated,' he said; 'it is nothing--no one is there.'
But the tapping was repeated, and with the same gentle, slow
insistence as before.
'Pardon me,' I said, 'it is late. May I call to- morrow?'
He smiled--a little mechanically, I thought. 'It is very delicate of
you,' said he, 'but quite need- less. Really, this is the only room in
the tower, and no one is there. At least--' He left the sentence
incomplete, rose, and threw up a window, the only opening in the wall
from which the sound seemed to come. 'See.'
Not clearly knowing what else to do I followed him to the window and
looked out. A street-lamp some little distance away gave enough light
through the murk of the rain that was again falling in tor- rents to
make it entirely plain that 'no one was there.' In truth there was
nothing but the sheer blank wall of the tower.
Dampier closed the window and signing me to my seat resumed his own.
The incident was not in itself particularly mys- terious; any one of
a dozen explanations was pos- sible (though none has occurred to me),
yet it im- pressed me strangely, the more, perhaps, from my friend's
effort to reassure me, which seemed to dig- nify it with a certain
significance and importance. He had proved that no one was there, but in
that fact lay all the interest; and he proffered no explana- tion. His
silence was irritating and made me resentful.
'My good friend,' I said, somewhat ironically, I fear, 'I am not
disposed to question your right to harbour as many spooks as you find
agreeable to your taste and consistent with your notions of com-
panionship; that is no business of mine. But being just a plain man of
affairs, mostly of this world, I find spooks needless to my peace and
comfort. I am going to my hotel, where my fellow-guests are still in the
It was not a very civil speech, but he manifested no feeling about
it. 'Kindly remain,' he said. 'I am grateful for your presence here.
What you have heard to-night I believe myself to have heard twice
before. Now I know it was no illusion. That is much to me--more than you
know. Have a fresh cigar and a good stock of patience while I tell you
the story.'
The rain was now falling more steadily, with a low, monotonous
susurration, interrupted at long intervals by the sudden slashing of the
boughs of the trees as the wind rose and failed. The night was well
advanced, but both sympathy and curiosity held me a willing listener to
my friend's monologue, which I did not interrupt by a single word from
be- ginning to end.
'Ten years ago,' he said, 'I occupied a ground- floor apartment in
one of a row of houses, all alike, away at the other end of the town, on
what we call Rincon Hill. This had been the best quarter of San
Francisco, but had fallen into neglect and decay, partly because the
primitive character of its domes- tic architecture no longer suited the
maturing tastes of our wealthy citizens, partly because certain pub- lic
improvements had made a wreck of it. The row of dwellings in one of
which I lived stood a little way back from the street, each having a
miniature garden, separated from its neighbours by low iron fences and
bisected with mathematical precision by a box-bordered gravel walk from
gate to door.
'One morning as I was leaving my lodging I ob- served a young girl
entering the adjoining garden on the left. It was a warm day in June,
and she was lightly gowned in white. From her shoulders hung a broad
straw hat profusely decorated with flowers and wonderfully beribboned in
the fashion of the time. My attention was not long held by the exqui-
site simplicity of her costume, for no one could look at her face and
think of anything earthly. Do not fear; I shall not profane it by
description; it was beautiful exceedingly. All that I had ever seen or
dreamed of loveliness was in that matchless living picture by the hand
of the Divine Artist. So deeply did it move me that, without a thought
of the im- propriety of the act, I unconsciously bared my head, as a
devout Catholic or well-bred Protestant un- covers before an image of
the Blessed Virgin. The maiden showed no displeasure; she merely turned
her glorious dark eyes upon me with a look that made me catch my breath,
and without other recog- nition of my act passed into the house. For a
moment I stood motionless, hat in hand, painfully conscious of my
rudeness, yet so dominated by the emotion inspired by that vision of
incomparable beauty that my penitence was less poignant than it should
have been. Then I went my way, leaving my heart behind. In the natural
course of things I should probably have remained away until nightfall,
but by the middle of the afternoon I was back in the little garden,
affecting an interest in the few foolish flowers that I had never before
observed. My hope was vain; she did not appear.
'To a night of unrest succeeded a day of expec- tation and
disappointment, but on the day after, as I wandered aimlessly about the
neighbourhood, I met her. Of course I did not repeat my folly of un-
covering, nor venture by even so much as too long a look to manifest an
interest in her; yet my heart was beating audibly. I trembled and
consciously coloured as she turned her big black eyes upon me with a
look of obvious recognition entirely devoid of boldness or coquetry.
'I will not weary you with particulars; many times afterward I met
the maiden, yet never either addressed her or sought to fix her
attention. Nor did I take any action toward making her acquaintance.
Perhaps my forbearance, requiring so supreme an effort of self-denial,
will not be entirely clear to you. That I was heels over head in love is
true, but who can overcome his habit of thought, or reconstruct his
'I was what some foolish persons are pleased to call, and others,
more foolish, are pleased to be called--an aristocrat; and despite her
beauty, her charms and grace, the girl was not of my class. I had
learned her name--which it is needless to speak--and something of her
family. She was an orphan, a dependent niece of the impossible elderly
fat woman in whose lodging-house she lived. My in- come was small and I
lacked the talent for marry- ing; it is perhaps a gift. An alliance with
that fam- ily would condemn me to its manner of life, part me from my
books and studies, and in a social sense reduce me to the ranks. It is
easy to deprecate such considerations as these and I have not retained
my- self for the defence. Let judgment be entered against me, but in
strict justice all my ancestors for genera- tions should be made
co-defendants and I be per- mitted to plead in mitigation of punishment
the imperious mandate of heredity. To a mesalliance of that kind every
globule of my ancestral blood spoke in opposition. In brief, my tastes,
habits, instinct, with whatever of reason my love had left me--all
fought against it. Moreover, I was an irreclaimable sentimentalist, and
found a subtle charm in an im- personal and spiritual relation which
acquaintance might vulgarize and marriage would certainly dis- pel. No
woman, I argued, is what this lovely creature seems. Love is a delicious
dream; why should I bring about my own awakening?
'The course dictated by all this sense and senti- ment was obvious.
Honour, pride, prudence, preser- vation of my ideals--all commanded me
to go away, but for that I was too weak. The utmost that I could do by a
mighty effort of will was to cease meeting the girl, and that I did. I
even avoided the chance encounters of the garden, leaving my lodg- ing
only when I knew that she had gone to her music lessons, and returning
after nightfall. Yet all the while I was as one in a trance, indulging
the most fascinating fancies and ordering my entire in- tellectual life
in accordance with my dream. Ah, my friend, as one whose actions have a
traceable rela- tion to reason, you cannot know the fool's paradise in
which I lived.
'One evening the devil put it into my head to be an unspeakable
idiot. By apparently careless and purposeless questioning I learned from
my gossipy landlady that the young woman's bedroom adjoined my own, a
party-wall between. Yielding to a sudden and coarse impulse I gently
rapped on the wall. There was no response, naturally, but I was in no
mood to accept a rebuke. A madness was upon me and I repeated the folly,
the offence, but again in- effectually, and I had the decency to desist.
'An hour later, while absorbed in some of my in- fernal studies, I
heard, or thought I heard, my signal answered. Flinging down my books I
sprang to the wall and as steadily as my beating heart would per- mit
gave three slow taps upon it. This time the re- sponse was distinct,
unmistakable: one, two, three --an exact repetition of my signal. That
was all I could elicit, but it was enough--too much.
'The next evening, and for many evenings after- ward, that folly
went on, I always having "the last word." During the whole period I was
deliriously happy, but with the perversity of my nature I per- severed
in my resolution not to see her. Then, as I should have expected, I got
no further answers. "She is disgusted," I said to myself, "with what she
thinks my timidity in making no more definite advances"; and I resolved
to seek her and make her acquaintance and--what? I did not know, nor do
I now know, what might have come of it. I know only that I passed days
and days trying to meet her, and all in vain; she was invisible as well
as in- audible. I haunted the streets where we had met, but she did not
come. From my window I watched the garden in front of her house, but she
passed neither in nor out. I fell into the deepest dejection, believing
that she had gone away, yet took no steps to resolve my doubt by inquiry
of my landlady, to whom, indeed, I had taken an unconquerable aver- sion
from her having once spoken of the girl with less of reverence than I
thought befitting.
'There came a fateful night. Worn out with emo- tion, irresolution
and despondency, I had retired early and fallen into such sleep as was
still possible to me. In the middle of the night something--some malign
power bent upon the wrecking of my peace for ever--caused me to open my
eyes and sit up, wide awake and listening intently for I knew not what.
Then I thought I heard a faint tapping on the wall--the mere ghost of
the familiar signal. In a few moments it was repeated: one, two,
three--no louder than before, but addressing a sense alert and strained
to receive it. I was about to reply when the Adversary of Peace again
intervened in my affairs with a rascally suggestion of retaliation. She
had long and cruelly ignored me; now I would ignore her. Incredible
fatuity--may God forgive it ! All the rest of the night I lay awake,
fortifying my obstinacy with shameless justifications and-- listening.
'Late the next morning, as I was leaving the house, I met my
landlady, entering.
'"Good morning, Mr. Dampier," she said. "Have you heard the news?"
'I replied in words that I had heard no news; in manner, that I did
not care to hear any. The manner escaped her observation.
'"About the sick young lady next door," she babbled on. "What! you
did not know? Why, she has been ill for weeks. And now--"
'I almost sprang upon her. "And now," I cried, "now what?"
'"She is dead."
'That is not the whole story. In the middle of the night, as I
learned later, the patient, awakening from a long stupor after a week of
delirium, had asked--it was her last utterance--that her bed be moved to
the opposite side of the room. Those in attendance had thought the
request a vagary of her delirium, but had complied. And there the poor
pass- ing soul had exerted its failing will to restore a broken
connection--a golden thread of sentiment between its innocence and a
monstrous baseness owning a blind, brutal allegiance to the Law of Self.
'What reparation could I make? Are there masses that can be said for
the repose of souls that are abroad such nights as this--spirits "blown
about by the viewless winds"--coming in the storm and darkness with
signs and portents, hints of memory and presages of doom?
'This is the third visitation. On the first occasion I was too
sceptical to do more than verify by natural methods the character of the
incident; on the sec- ond, I responded to the signal after it had been
several times repeated, but without result. To-night's recurrence
completes the "fatal triad" expounded by Parapelius Necromantius. There
is no more to tell.'
When Dampier had finished his story I could think of nothing
relevant that I cared to say, and to question him would have been a
hideous imperti- nence. I rose and bade him good night in a way to
convey to him a sense of my sympathy, which he silently acknowledged by
a pressure of the hand. That night, alone with his sorrow and remorse,
he passed into the Unknown.

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01 Nov, 2014 08:24 AM

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