< The Cave of the Echoes (continued from page 1-119) >
they proceeded to the cave; that it was the latter’s purpose to have the jewelry reset, as he intended it for a wedding present for his bride, and that he, Ivan, would willingly give his own life to recall that of his benefactor, if he knew him to be dead. No heed was paid to him, however, and he was arrested upon the charge of foul murder, though no definite sentence could be passed on him, as, under the old Russian law, a criminal cannot be sentenced for any crime, however conclusive the evidence, unless he confesses his guilt; yet the poor man had the prospect of prison for the whole of his life, unless he did confess
After a week spent in useless search the family arrayed themselves in deep mourning, and, as the will as originally drawn remained without a codicil, the whole of the estate passed into the hands of the nephew. The old teacher and his fair daughter bore this sudden reverse of fortune with true Germanic phlegm, and prepared to depart Taking again his zither under one arm, the father was about to lead his Minchen by the other, when the nephew stopped him by offering himself as groom instead of his departed uncle The change was found an agreeable one, and, without much ado, the young couple were married.
Ten years roll away again, and we find the happy family at the beginning of 1855 The fair, blue-eyed Minchen had become fat and vulgar. From the day of the old man’s disappearance Nicholas had been morose and retired in his habits. Many wondered at the change in him, for now he was never seen to smile. It seemed as if his only aim in life, since the catastrophe, was to find out his uncle’s murderer or rather to bring Ivan to confess his guilt. But the man still persisted that he was innocent.
An only son had been born to the young couple, and it was hoped that this would have brought a ray of sunshine to the father’s heart. But it was such a weak and puny little creature that it seemed scarce able to catch its breath; and so, according to the Russian custom in such cases, the family priest was called to christen it the same evening, lest, dying, it might go to the place prepared for unbaptized infants by Christian theology. The family and servants were gathered at the ceremony in the large reception room of the house, and the priest was about to dip the babe thrice in the water, when he was seen to stop abruptly, turn deadly pale, and stare into vacancy, while his hands shook so violently that he almost dropped the child into the baptismal font. At the same time, the nurse, who stood at the end of the first row of spectators, gave a wild shriek, and pointing to the direction of the library room used by the old Izvertzoff, ran away in terror. No one could understand the panic of these two personages, for, except them, no one had seen anything extraordinary. Some had remarked the library door swing slowly open, but it must have been caused by the wind, which was now wailing all through the old mansion. After the ceremony, the priest, corroborated by the hysterically sobbing maid, solemnly averred that he had seen, for one moment, the apparition of the deceased master upon the threshold of his library, then swiftly glide toward the font, and instantly disappear. Both witnesses described the spectre as having on its features an expression of menace. The priest, after crossing himself and muttering prayers, insisted that the whole family should have Masses said for the space of seven weeks for the repose of the “troubled soul.”
It was a strange child, this babe of Nicholas and Minchen, and seemed to have an uncanny atmosphere about it. Small, delicate, and ever ailing, his frail life appeared to hang by a thread as he grew. When his features were in repose, his resemblance to his grand uncle was so striking that the members of the family often shrank from him in terror. It was the pale, shrivelled face of a man of sixty upon the shoulders of a child of nine years. He was never seen to either laugh or play; but, perched in his high chair, gravely sat, folding his arms in a way peculiar to the late Izvertzoff. He would remain so for hours, motionless and drowsy. His nurse was often seen furtively crossing herself, at night upon approaching him; and not one of his attendants would consent to sleep alone with him in the nursery. His father’s behaviour toward him was still more strange. He seemed to love him passionately, and yet to hate him bitterly at moments. He never embraced or caressed the boy, but would pass long hours watching him, with livid cheek and staring eye, as he sat quietly in a corner, in his goblin-like, old-fashioned way. The child had never left the estate, and few outside the family knew him.
About the middle of July, a tall Hungarian traveller, preceded by a great reputation for eccentricity, wealth, and most extraordinary mesmeric powers, arrived at P— from Kamchatka, where, as was rumoured, he had resided for some time, surrounded by Shamans. He settled in the little town, with one of this sect, and was said to experiment in mesmerism on this North Siberian "sorcerer,” as he was called by the inhabitants. He gave dinners and parties, and during such receptions, invariably exhibited his Shaman of whom he felt very proud. One day, the notables of P—––made an unexpected invasion of the domain of Nicholas Izvertzoff, and requested of him the loan of his “Cave” for an evening entertainment. Nicholas consented with great reluctance, and with still greater hesitancy was he prevailed upon to join the party, among whom was my own relative.
The first cavern and the platform beside the bottomless lake glittered that evening with lights. Hundreds of flickering torches and lamps, stuck in the clefts of the rocks, illuminated the place, and drove the shadows from the mossy nooks and corners, where they had been undisturbed for many years. The stalactites on the walls sparkled brightly, and the sleeping echoes were suddenly awakened by a confusion of joyous laughter and conversation. The Shaman, who was never lost sight of by his friend and patron, sat in a corner, half entranced as usual. Crouched on a projecting rock, about midway between the entrance and the water, with his orange-yellow wrinkled face, flat nose, and thin beard, he looked more like an ugly stone idol than a human being. Many of the company pressed round him and received correct answers from the oracle to their questions, the Hungarian cheerfully submitting his mesmerized “subject” to cross examination.
Suddenly one of the party, a lady, thoughtlessly remarked that it was in that very cave that old Mr. Izvertzoff had so unaccountably disappeared ten years before. The foreigner appeared interested, and desired to learn more of the mysterious circumstances. Nicholas was sought in the crowd, and led before the eager group. He was the host, and he found it impossible to refuse the narrative demanded by a sympathizing guest. He repeated the sad tale in a trembling voice, with a pallid cheek, and a tear was seen to glitter in his feverish eye. The company was greatly affected, and encomiums upon the behaviour of the loving nephew, who so honoured the memory of his uncle and benefactor, freely circulated in sympathetic whispers. Suddenly the voice of Nicholas became choked, his eyes started from their sockets, and, with a suppressed groan, he staggered back. Every eye in the crowd followed with curiosity his haggard look, as it remained riveted upon a weazened little face that peeped from behind the back of the Shaman.
“Where do you come from? Who brought you here, child?” lisped out Nicholas, as pale as death itself.
“I was in bed, papa; this man came to me and brought me here in his arms,” simply answered the boy, pointing to the Shaman, beside whom he stood on the rock, and who, with his eyes closed, kept swaying himself to and fro like a living pendulum.
“That is very strange,” remarked one of the guests; “why, the man has never moved from his place!”
“Good God! What an extraordinary resemblance!” muttered an old resident of the town, a friend of the dead man.
“You lie, boy!” fiercely exclaimed the father. “Return to your bed; this is no place for you. . . “
“Come, come,” interposed the Hungarian, with a strange expression of authority on his face, and encircling with his arm, as if in protection, the slender, childish figure. “The little fellow has seen my Shaman’s double, which roams sometimes far away from his body, and has mistaken the astral man for the outward phantom itself. Let the child remain with us awhile.”
At these strange words the guests stared at each other in mute surprise, and some of them looked upon the speaker with real terror.
“By the bye,” continued the Hungarian, with a very peculiar firmness of accent, and addressing the public rather than any one in particular, “why should we not try to unravel the mystery hanging over that tragedy, with the help of the clairvoyant powers of my Shaman? Is the suspected party still lying in prison? . What? . . . not confessed till now? This is indeed strange. But now we will learn the truth in a few minutes. . . . My Shaman’s second sight, when properly directed, never errs. Let all keep silent!”
He then approached the Tehuktchene, and making as though drawing an imaginary circle with his hand around himself, the Shaman, and boy, immediately began his operations over the subject without so much as asking the consent of the master of the place. The latter stood rooted to the spot as if petrified with horror, and unable to articulate a sound. Except by him, the suggestion was met with general approbation, and the “Police-Master,” Colonel S——, was the first to approve the idea.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” then said the mesmerizer in amiable tone, “allow me for this once to proceed otherwise than I generally do. I will employ the method of native magic. It is more appropriate to this wild place, and, I dare say, we will find it far more effective than our European mode of mesmerization.”
Without waiting for an answer he drew from a bag that, as he explained, never left his person, first, a small drum, and then two little vials—one full of liquid, the other empty. With the contents of the former he sprinkled the Shaman, who fell to trembling and nodding more violently than ever. The air was filled with the perfumes of spicy odors, and the atmosphere itself seemed to become clearer. Then, to the horror of those present, he approached the Shaman, and taking a miniature, antiquated-looking knife from his bosom, quietly plunged the sharp steel into the man’s forearm and, drew blood from it, which he caught in the empty vial. When it was half-filled he pressed the orifice of the wound with his thumb, and stopped the flow as easily as if he had corked a bottle; after which he sprinkled the blood over the little boy’s head. He then suspended the drum from his neck, and with two ivory drumsticks which were covered with strange carved letters and signs, be began beating a sort of reveille——he said to drum up the Shaman’s “spirits.”
The bystanders, half shocked and half terrified at these extraordinary proceedings, eagerly, yet half timidly, crowded around him, and for a few moments a dead silence reigned throughout the lofty cavern. Nicholas, with his face livid and corpse-like, stood speechless as before.
And now the mesmerizer magician had placed himself between the Shaman and the platform, and continued slowly drumming. The first notes were muffled, and vibrating so softly in the air that they awakened no echo; only the Shaman quickened still more his pendulum-like motion, and the child became restless. The mysterious drummer then began a low chant, slow, impressive and solemn.
As the unknown words issued from his lips, the flames of the torches, lamps and candles wavered and flickered, until they began dancing in rhythm with the chant. A cold wind came wheezing from the dark corridors beyond the water, leaving a plaintive echo in its trail. Then a sort of nebulous vapor, which seemed to ooze from the rocky ground and walls, gathered about the Shaman and the boy. Around the latter the aura was silvery and transparent, but the cloud which enveloped the former was red and sinister. Approaching nearer the platform, the adept beat a louder call on his drum, and this time the echo caught it up with terrific effect. It reverberated near and far in incessant peals; one wail followed another, louder and louder, until the thundering roar seemed the chorus of a thousand demon voices rising from the fathomless depths of the dark lake. The water itself, whose tranquil surface, illuminated by many lights, had previously been smooth as a sheet of glass, became suddenly agitated, as if a powerful gust of wind had swept over its face.
Another chant and a roll of the drum, and the mountain trembled to its foundation with the cannon-like peals which rolled through the dark and distant corridors. The Shaman’s body rose two yards in the air, and, nodding and swaying, he sat, self-suspended, like a hideous apparition. But the transformation which now occurred in the boy chilled everyone with fear as they speechlessly watched the scene. The silvery cloud about the child now seemed to lift him, too, into the air; but, unlike the Shaman, his feet never left the ground. The little boy began to grow as if the work of years was to be miraculously accomplished in a few seconds. He became tall and large, and his senile features grew older, in harmony with the body. A few more seconds and the youthful form had entirely disappeared: it was totally absorbed in another individuality! and, to the horror of those present who had been familiar with his appearance, this individuality was old Izvertzoff! . . .
On his left temple was a large, gaping wound from which trickled great drops of blood. The phantom now moved directly in front of Nicholas, who, with his hair standing erect, gazed at his own son, transformed into his uncle, with the look of a raving madman. This sepulchral silence was broken by the Hungarian, who, addressing the child phantom, asked him in solemn voice: “In the name of Them who have all powers, answer the truth, and nothing but the truth. Restless soul, was thy body lost by accident, or foully murdered?”
The spectre’s lips moved, but it was the echo from afar which answered in lugubrious shouts:
“Murdered! Murde-red! Mur-de-red!”
“Where? How? By whom?” asked the adept.
The apparition pointed a finger at Nicholas, and without removing its gaze or lowering its arm, retreated backward slowly towards the lake. At every step it took, the young Izvertzoff, as if compelled by some irresistible fascination, advanced a step toward it, until the phantom reached the edge of the water, and the next moment was seen gliding on its surface. It was a fearful, ghostly scene!
When Nicholas had come to within two steps of the brink of the watery abyss, a violent convulsion ran through the frame of the guilty man. Flinging himself upon his knees, he clung to one of the rustic seats with a desperate clutch, and, staring wildly, uttered one long, piercing cry of agony, which rang through the ears of the crowd, but was unable to arouse even one of them from the lethargy into which they seemed all plunged. Like one in the clutches of a nightmare, they saw, heard, and remembered all, but were unable to stir a finger. The phantom now remained motionless on the water, and, bending its extended hand, slowly beckoned the assassin to come. Crouched in abject terror, the wretched man shrieked until the cavern rang again:
“I did not . . . no, I did not murder you! . . .”
Then came a splash, and now there was the boy in the dark water, struggling for his life in the middle of the lake, with the same motionless, stern apparition brooding over him, from whose very substance the child seemed to have dropped out.
“Papa! papa! save me!—I am drowning!” cried the piteous little voice amid the uproar of the echoes.
“My boy!” shrieked Nicholas in the accents of a maniac, springing to his feet, “My boy! save, oh, save him! . . . Yes, I confess—I am the murderer! . . . I killed him!”
“Killed . . . him . . . killed . . . killed! . . .” repeated hundreds of echoes like peals of laughter from a legion of infuriated demons.
Another splash, and the phantom suddenly disappeared. With one cry of unutterable terror the company, released from the spell which had hitherto paralyzed them, rushed toward the platform to the rescue of both father and child. But their feet were rooted to the ground anew as they beheld amid the swirling eddies a whitish, shapeless mass, holding the murderer in tight embrace, and slowly and slowly sinking into the bottomless lake! . . .
* * *
On the morning after these occurrences, when, after a sleepless night, some of the party went to the residence of the Hungarian gentleman, they found it closed and deserted. He and the Shaman had disappeared. To add to the general consternation, the Izvertzoff mansion took fire on that same night, and was completely destroyed. The archbishop himself performed the ceremony of exorcism, but the locality is considered accursed to this day. The government investigated the facts, and—ordered silence.
- ↑ image by unknown author. Picture of forest in mountains