The Moonlit Road

Ambrose Bierce

04 Apr, 2014 09:17 PM

1: Statement of Joel Hetman, Jr.

I AM the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected, fairly well educated
and of sound health--with many other advantages usually valued by those
having them and coveted by those who have them not--I sometimes think
that I should be less un- happy if they had been denied me, for then the
contrast between my outer and my inner life would not be continually
demanding a painful attention. In the stress of privation and the need
of effort I might sometimes forget the sombre secret ever baffling the
conjecture that it compels.
I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The one was a
well-to-do country gentleman, the other a beautiful and accomplished
woman to whom he was passionately attached with what I now know to have
been a jealous and exacting devotion. The family home was a few miles
from Nash- ville, Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwell- ing of no
particular order of architecture, a little way off the road, in a park
of trees and shrubbery.
At the time of which I write I was nineteen years old, a student at
Yale. One day I received a tele- gram from my father of such urgency
that in com- pliance with its unexplained demand I left at once for
home. At the railway station in Nashville a dis- tant relative awaited
me to apprise me of the reason for my recall: my mother had been
barbarously murdered--why and by whom none could conjec- ture, but the
circumstances were these.
My father had gone to Nashville, intending to re- turn the next
afternoon. Something prevented his accomplishing the business in hand,
so he returned on the same night, arriving just before the dawn. In his
testimony before the coroner he explained that having no latchkey and
not caring to disturb the sleeping servants, he had, with no clearly
defined intention, gone round to the rear of the house. As he turned an
angle of the building, he heard a sound as of a door gently closed, and
saw in the darkness, in- distinctly, the figure of a man, which
instantly dis- appeared among the trees of the lawn. A hasty pur- suit
and brief search of the grounds in the belief that the trespasser was
some one secretly visiting a servant proving fruitless, he entered at
the un- locked door and mounted the stairs to my mother's chamber. Its
door was open, and stepping into black darkness he fell headlong over
some heavy object on the floor. I may spare myself the details; it was
my poor mother, dead of strangulation by human hands!
Nothing had been taken from the house, the serv- ants had heard no
sound, and excepting those ter- rible finger-marks upon the dead woman's
throat-- dear God! that I might forget them!--no trace of the assassin
was ever found.
I gave up my studies and remained with my father, who, naturally,
was greatly changed. Always of a sedate, taciturn disposition, he now
fell into so deep a dejection that nothing could hold his atten- tion,
yet anything--a footfall, the sudden closing of a door--aroused in him a
fitful interest; one might have called it an apprehension. At any small
surprise of the senses he would start visibly and sometimes turn pale,
then relapse into a melancholy apathy deeper than before. I suppose he
was what is called a 'nervous wreck.' As to me, I was younger then than
now--there is much in that. Youth is Gilead, in which is balm for every
wound. Ah, that I might again dwell in that enchanted land! Un-
acquainted with grief, I knew not how to appraise my bereavement; I
could not rightly estimate the strength of the stroke.
One night, a few months after the dreadful event, my father and I
walked home from the city. The full moon was about three hours above the
eastern horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn still- ness of a
summer night; our footfalls and the cease- less song of the katydids
were the only sound, aloof. Black shadows of bordering trees lay athwart
the road, which, in the short reaches between, gleamed a ghostly white.
As we approached the gate to our dwelling, whose front was in shadow,
and in which no light shone, my father suddenly stopped and clutched my
arm, saying, hardly above his breath:
'God! God! what is that?'
'I hear nothing,' I replied.
'But see--see!' he said, pointing along the road, directly ahead.
I said: 'Nothing is there. Come, father, let us go in--you are ill.'
He had released my arm and was standing rigid and motionless in the
centre of the illuminated road- way, staring like one bereft of sense.
His face in the moonlight showed a pallor and fixity inexpressibly
distressing. I pulled gently at his sleeve, but he had forgotten my
existence. Presently he began to re- tire backward, step by step, never
for an instant removing his eyes from what he saw, or thought he saw. I
turned half round to follow, but stood ir- resolute. I do not recall any
feeling of fear, unless a sudden chill was its physical manifestation.
It seemed as if an icy wind had touched my face and enfolded my body
from head to foot; I could feel the stir of it in my hair.
At that moment my attention was drawn to a light that suddenly
streamed from an upper window of the house: one of the servants,
awakened by what mysterious premonition of evil who can say, and in
obedience to an impulse that she was never able to name, had lit a lamp.
When I turned to look for my father he was gone, and in all the years
that have passed no whisper of his fate has come across the borderland
of conjecture from the realm of the unknown.

2: Statement of Caspar Grattan
To-day I am said to live, to-morrow, here in this room, will lie a
senseless shape of clay that all too long was I. If anyone lift the
cloth from the face of that unpleasant thing it will be in gratification
of a mere morbid curiosity. Some, doubtless, will go further and
inquire, 'Who was he?' In this writing I supply the only answer that I
am able to make-- Caspar Grattan. Surely, that should be enough. The
name has served my small need for more than twenty years of a life of
unknown length. True, I gave it to myself, but lacking another I had the
right. In this world one must have a name; it prevents confusion, even
when it does not establish identity. Some, though, are known by numbers,
which also seem inadequate distinctions.
One day, for illustration, I was passing along a street of a city,
far from here, when I met two men in uniform, one of whom, half pausing
and looking curiously into my face, said to his companion, 'That man
looks like 767.' Something in the number seemed familiar and horrible.
Moved by an uncon- trollable impulse, I sprang into a side street and
ran until I fell exhausted in a country lane.
I have never forgotten that number, and always it comes to memory
attended by gibbering obscenity, peals of joyless laughter, the clang of
iron doors. So I say a name, even if self-bestowed, is better than a
number. In the register of the potter's field I shall soon have both.
What wealth!
Of him who shall find this paper I must beg a little consideration.
It is not the history of my life; the knowledge to write that is denied
me. This is only a record of broken and apparently unrelated memo- ries,
some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant beads upon a thread,
others remote and strange, having the character of crimson dreams with
inter- spaces blank and black--witch-fires glowing still and red in a
great desolation.
Standing upon the shore of eternity, I turn for a last look landward
over the course by which I came. There are twenty years of footprints
fairly distinct, the impressions of bleeding feet. They lead through
poverty and pain, devious and unsure, as of one staggering beneath a
Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow.
Ah, the poet's prophecy of Me--how admirable, how dreadfully
Backward beyond the beginning of this via do- lorosa--this epic of
suffering with episodes of sin --I see nothing clearly; it comes out of
a cloud. I know that it spans only twenty years, yet I am an old man.
One does not remember one's birth--one has to be told. But with me
it was different; life came to me full-handed and dowered me with all my
facul- ties and powers. Of a previous existence I know no more than
others, for all have stammering intima- tions that may be memories and
may be dreams. I know only that my first consciousness was of ma- turity
in body and mind--a consciousness accepted without surprise or
conjecture. I merely found myself walking in a forest, half-clad,
footsore, unutterably weary and hungry. Seeing a farmhouse, I approached
and asked for food, which was given me by one who inquired my name. I
did not know, yet knew that all had names. Greatly embarrassed, I
retreated, and night coming on, lay down in the forest and slept.
The next day I entered a large town which I shall not name. Nor
shall I recount further incidents of the life that is now to end--a life
of wandering, always and everywhere haunted by an overmaster- ing sense
of crime in punishment of wrong and of terror in punishment of crime.
Let me see if I can reduce it to narrative.
I seem once to have lived near a great city, a prosperous planter,
married to a woman whom I loved and distrusted. We had, it sometimes
seems, one child, a youth of brilliant parts and promise. He is at all
times a vague figure, never clearly drawn, frequently altogether out of
the picture.
One luckless evening it occurred to me to test my wife's fidelity in
a vulgar, commonplace way fa- miliar to everyone who has acquaintance
with the literature of fact and fiction. I went to the city, tell- ing
my wife that I should be absent until the follow- ing afternoon. But I
returned before daybreak and went to the rear of the house, purposing to
enter by a door with which I had secretly so tampered that it would seem
to lock, yet not actually fasten. As I approached it, I heard it gently
open and close, and saw a man steal away into the darkness. With mur-
der in my heart, I sprang after him, but he had vanished without even
the bad luck of identification. Sometimes now I cannot even persuade
myself that it was a human being.
Crazed with jealousy and rage, blind and bestial with all the
elemental passions of insulted manhood, I entered the house and sprang
up the stairs to the door of my wife's chamber. It was closed, but
having tampered with its lock also, I easily entered, and despite the
black darkness soon stood by the side of her bed. My groping hands told
me that although disarranged it was unoccupied.
'She is below,' I thought, 'and terrified by my entrance has evaded
me in the darkness of the hall.' With the purpose of seeking her I
turned to leave the room, but took a wrong direction--the right one! My
foot struck her, cowering in a corner of the room. Instantly my hands
were at her throat, stifling a shriek, my knees were upon her struggling
body; and there in the darkness, without a word of accusa- tion or
reproach, I strangled her till she died! There ends the dream. I have
related it in the past tense, but the present would be the fitter form,
for again and again the sombre tragedy re-enacts itself in my
consciousness--over and over I lay the plan, I suffer the confirmation,
I redress the wrong. Then all is blank; and afterward the rains beat
against the grimy windowpanes, or the snows fall upon my scant attire,
the wheels rattle in the squalid streets where my life lies in poverty
and mean employment. If there is ever sunshine I do not recall it; if
there are birds they do not sing.
There is another dream, another vision of the night. I stand among
the shadows in a moonlit road. I am aware of another presence, but whose
I cannot rightly determine. In the shadow of a great dwelling I catch
the gleam of white garments; then the figure of a woman confronts me in
the road--my mur- dered wife! There is death in the face; there are
marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine with an infinite
gravity which is not reproach, nor hate, nor menace, nor anything less
terrible than recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in
terror--a terror that is upon me as I write. I can no longer rightly
shape the words. See! they--
Now I am calm, but truly there is no more to tell: the incident ends
where it began--in darkness and in doubt.
Yes, I am again in control of myself: 'the captain of my soul.' But
that is not respite; it is another stage and phase of expiation. My
penance, constant in de- gree, is mutable in kind: one of its variants
is tran- quillity. After all, it is only a life-sentence. 'To Hell for
life'--that is a foolish penalty: the culprit chooses the duration of
his punishment. To-day my term expires.
To each and all, the peace that was not mine.

3: Statement of the Late Julia Hetman, through the Medium Bayrolles
I had retired early and fallen almost immediately into a peaceful
sleep, from which I awoke with that indefinable sense of peril which is,
I think, a com- mon experience in that other, earlier life. Of its
unmeaning character, too, I was entirely persuaded, yet that did not
banish it. My husband, Joel Het- man, was away from home; the servants
slept in another part of the house. But these were familiar conditions;
they had never before distressed me. Nevertheless, the strange terror
grew so insupport- able that conquering my reluctance to move I sat up
and lit the lamp at my bedside. Contrary to my expectation this gave me
no relief; the light seemed rather an added danger, for I reflected that
it would shine out under the door, disclosing my presence to whatever
evil thing might lurk outside. You that are still in the flesh, subject
to horrors of the imagi- nation, think what a monstrous fear that must
be which seeks in darkness security from malevolent existences of the
night. That is to spring to close quarters with an unseen enemy--the
strategy of despair!
Extinguishing the lamp I pulled the bedclothing about my head and
lay trembling and silent, unable to shriek, forgetful to pray. In this
pitiable state I must have lain for what you call hours--with us there
are no hours, there is no time.
At last it came--a soft, irregular sound of footfalls on the stairs!
They were slow, hesitant, uncertain, as of something that did not see
its way; to my dis- ordered reason all the more terrifying for that, as
the approach of some blind and mindless malevo- lence to which is no
appeal. I even thought that I must have left the hall lamp burning and
the grop- ing of this creature proved it a monster of the night. This
was foolish and inconsistent with my previous dread of the light, but
what would you have? Fear has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal
witness that it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers are
unrelated. We know this well, we who have passed into the Realm of
Terror, who skulk in eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives,
invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet hiding forlorn in
lonely places; yearning for speech with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as
fearful of them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is re- moved,
the law suspended: by the deathless power of love or hate we break the
spell--we are seen by those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What
form we seem to them to bear we know not; we know only that we terrify
even those whom we most wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave
tenderness and sympathy.
Forgive, I pray you, this inconsequent digression by what was once a
woman. You who consult us in this imperfect way--you do not understand.
You ask foolish questions about things unknown and things forbidden.
Much that we know and could impart in our speech is meaningless in
yours. We must communicate with you through a stammering intelligence in
that small fraction of our language that you yourselves can speak. You
think that we are of another world. No, we have knowledge of no world
but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight, no warmth, no music, no
laughter, no song of birds, nor any companionship. O God! what a thing
it is to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered world, a prey
to apprehension and despair!
No, I did not die of fright: the Thing turned and went away. I heard
it go down the stairs, hurriedly, I thought, as if itself in sudden
fear. Then I rose to call for help. Hardly had my shaking hand found the
door-knob when--merciful heaven!--I heard it returning. Its footfalls as
it remounted the stairs were rapid, heavy and loud; they shook the
house. I fled to an angle of the wall and crouched upon the floor. I
tried to pray. I tried to call the name of my dear husband. Then I heard
the door thrown open. There was an interval of unconsciousness, and when
I revived I felt a strangling clutch upon my throat-- felt my arms
feebly beating against something that bore me backward--felt my tongue
thrusting itself from between my teeth! And then I passed into this
No, I have no knowledge of what it was. The sum of what we knew at
death is the measure of what we know afterward of all that went before.
Of this exist- ence we know many things, but no new light falls upon any
page of that; in memory is written all of it that we can read. Here are
no heights of truth over- looking the confused landscape of that
dubitable domain. We still dwell in the Valley of the Shadow, lurk in
its desolate places, peering from brambles and thickets at its mad,
malign inhabitants. How should we have new knowledge of that fading
What I am about to relate happened on a night. We know when it is
night, for then you retire to your houses and we can venture from our
places of con- cealment to move unafraid about our old homes, to look in
at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon your faces as you sleep. I
had lingered long near the dwelling where I had been so cruelly changed
to what I am, as we do while any that we love or hate re- main. Vainly I
had sought some method of manifes- tation, some way to make my continued
existence and my great love and poignant pity understood by my husband
and son. Always if they slept they would wake, or if in my desperation I
dared ap- proach them when they were awake, would turn toward me the
terrible eyes of the living, frightening me by the glances that I sought
from the purpose that I held.
On this night I had searched for them without success, fearing to
find them; they were nowhere in the house, nor about the moonlit dawn.
For, al- though the sun is lost to us for ever, the moon, full- orbed or
slender, remains to us. Sometimes it shines by night, sometimes by day,
but always it rises and sets, as in that other life.
I left the lawn and moved in the white light and silence along the
road, aimless and sorrowing. Sud- denly I heard the voice of my poor
husband in exclamations of astonishment, with that of my son in
reassurance and dissuasion; and there by the shadow of a group of trees
they stood--near, so near! Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the
elder man fixed upon mine. He saw me--at last, at last, he saw me! In
the consciousness of that, my terror fled as a cruel dream. The
death-spell was broken: Love had conquered Law! Mad with exulta- tion I
shouted--I must have shouted,' He sees, he sees: he will understand!'
Then, controlling myself, I moved forward, smiling and consciously
beautiful, to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with en-
dearments, and, with my son's hand in mine, to speak words that should
restore the broken bonds between the living and the dead.
Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes were as those of
a hunted animal. He backed away from me, as I advanced, and at last
turned and fled into the wood--whither, it is not given to me to know.
To my poor boy, left doubly desolate, I have never been able to
impart a sense of my presence. Soon he, too, must pass to this Life
Invisible and be lost to me for ever.

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