A portrait of weirdness and insanity and horror, indulgence and love, the city in springtime, forbidden knowledge, foreboding.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“The Repairer of Reputations”
from The King in Yellow
Robert W. Chambers
I climbed the three dilapidated flights of stairs, which I had so often climbed before, and knocked at a small door at the end of the corridor. Mr. Wilde opened the door and I walked in.
When he had double-locked the door and pushed a heavy chest against it, he came and sat down beside me, peering up into my face with his little light-coloured eyes. Half a dozen new scratches covered his nose and cheeks, and the silver wires which supported his artificial ears had become displaced. I thought I had never seen him so hideously fascinating. He had no ears. The artificial ones, which now stood out at an angle from the fine wire, were his one weakness. They were made of wax and painted a shell pink, but the rest of his face was yellow. He might better have revelled in the luxury of some artificial fingers for his left hand, which was absolutely fingerless, but it seemed to cause him no inconvenience, and he was satisfied with his wax ears. He was very small, scarcely higher than a child of ten, but his arms were magnificently developed, and his thighs as thick as any athlete’s. Still, the most remarkable thing about Mr. Wilde was that a man of his marvellous intelligence and knowledge should have such a head. It was flat and pointed, like the heads of many of those unfortunates whom people imprison in asylums for the weak-minded. Many called him insane, but I knew him to be as sane as I was.
I do not deny that he was eccentric; the mania he had for keeping that cat and teasing her until she flew at his face like a demon, was certainly eccentric. I never could understand why he kept the creature, nor what pleasure he found in shutting himself up in his room with this surly, vicious beast. I remember once, glancing up from the manuscript I was studying by the light of some tallow dips, and seeing Mr. Wilde squatting motionless on his high chair, his eyes fairly blazing with excitement, while the cat, which had risen from her place before the stove, came creeping across the floor right at him. Before I could move she flattened her belly to the ground, crouched, trembled, and sprang into his face. Howling and foaming they rolled over and over on the floor, scratching and clawing, until the cat screamed and fled under the cabinet, and Mr. Wilde turned over on his back, his limbs contracting and curling up like the legs of a dying spider. He was eccentric.
Mr. Wilde had climbed into his high chair, and, after studying my face, picked up a dog’s-eared ledger and opened it.
“Henry B. Matthews,” he read, “book-keeper with Whysot Whysot and Company, dealers in church ornaments. Called April 3rd. Reputation damaged on the race-track. Known as a welcher. Reputation to be repaired by August 1st. Retainer Five Dollars.” He turned the page and ran his fingerless knuckles down the closely-written columns.
“P. Greene Dusenberry, Minister of the Gospel, Fairbeach, New Jersey. Reputation damaged in the Bowery. To be repaired as soon as possible. Retainer $100.”
He coughed and added, “Called, April 6th.”
“Then you are not in need of money, Mr. Wilde,” I inquired.
“Listen,” he coughed again.
“Mrs. C. Hamilton Chester, of Chester Park, New York City. Called April 7th. Reputation damaged at Dieppe, France. To be repaired by October 1st. Retainer $500.
“Note.—C. Hamilton Chester, Captain U.S.S. ‘Avalanche’, ordered home from South Sea Squadron October 1st.”
“Well,” I said, “the profession of a Repairer of Reputations is lucrative.”
His colourless eyes sought mine, “I only wanted to demonstrate that I was correct. You said it was impossible to succeed as a Repairer of Reputations; that even if I did succeed in certain cases it would cost me more than I would gain by it. To-day I have five hundred men in my employ, who are poorly paid, but who pursue the work with an enthusiasm which possibly may be born of fear. These men enter every shade and grade of society; some even are pillars of the most exclusive social temples; others are the prop and pride of the financial world; still others, hold undisputed sway among the ‘Fancy and the Talent.’ I choose them at my leisure from those who reply to my advertisements. It is easy enough, they are all cowards. I could treble the number in twenty days if I wished. So you see, those who have in their keeping the reputations of their fellow-citizens, I have in my pay.”
“They may turn on you,” I suggested.
He rubbed his thumb over his cropped ears, and adjusted the wax substitutes. “I think not,” he murmured thoughtfully, “I seldom have to apply the whip, and then only once. Besides they like their wages.”
“How do you apply the whip?” I demanded.
His face for a moment was awful to look upon. His eyes dwindled to a pair of green sparks.
“I invite them to come and have a little chat with me,” he said in a soft voice.
A knock at the door interrupted him, and his face resumed its amiable expression.
“Who is it?” he inquired.
“Mr. Steylette,” was the answer.
“Come to-morrow,” replied Mr. Wilde.
“Impossible,” began the other, but was silenced by a sort of bark from Mr. Wilde.
“Come to-morrow,” he repeated.
We heard somebody move away from the door and turn the corner by the stairway.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“Arnold Steylette, Owner and Editor in Chief of the great New York daily.”
He drummed on the ledger with his fingerless hand adding: “I pay him very badly, but he thinks it a good bargain.”
“Arnold Steylette!” I repeated amazed.
“Yes,” said Mr. Wilde, with a self-satisfied cough.
The cat, which had entered the room as he spoke, hesitated, looked up at him and snarled. He climbed down from the chair and squatting on the floor, took the creature into his arms and caressed her. The cat ceased snarling and presently began a loud purring which seemed to increase in timbre as he stroked her. “Where are the notes?” I asked. He pointed to the table, and for the hundredth time I picked up the bundle of manuscript entitled—
“THE IMPERIAL DYNASTY OF AMERICA.”
One by one I studied the well-worn pages, worn only by my own handling, and although I knew all by heart, from the beginning, “When from Carcosa, the Hyades, Hastur, and Aldebaran,” to “Castaigne, Louis de Calvados, born December 19th, 1877,” I read it with an eager, rapt attention, pausing to repeat parts of it aloud, and dwelling especially on “Hildred de Calvados, only son of Hildred Castaigne and Edythe Landes Castaigne, first in succession,” etc., etc.
When I finished, Mr. Wilde nodded and coughed.
“Speaking of your legitimate ambition,” he said, “how do Constance and Louis get along?”
“She loves him,” I replied simply.
The cat on his knee suddenly turned and struck at his eyes, and he flung her off and climbed on to the chair opposite me.
“And Dr. Archer! But that’s a matter you can settle any time you wish,” he added.
“Yes,” I replied, “Dr. Archer can wait, but it is time I saw my cousin Louis.”
“It is time,” he repeated. Then he took another ledger from the table and ran over the leaves rapidly. “We are now in communication with ten thousand men,” he muttered. “We can count on one hundred thousand within the first twenty-eight hours, and in forty-eight hours the state will rise en masse. The country follows the state, and the portion that will not, I mean California and the Northwest, might better never have been inhabited. I shall not send them the Yellow Sign.”
The blood rushed to my head, but I only answered, “A new broom sweeps clean.”
“The ambition of Caesar and of Napoleon pales before that which could not rest until it had seized the minds of men and controlled even their unborn thoughts,” said Mr. Wilde.
“You are speaking of the King in Yellow,” I groaned, with a shudder.
“He is a king whom emperors have served.”
“I am content to serve him,” I replied.
Mr. Wilde sat rubbing his ears with his crippled hand. “Perhaps Constance does not love him,” he suggested.
I started to reply, but a sudden burst of military music from the street below drowned my voice. The twentieth dragoon regiment, formerly in garrison at Mount St. Vincent, was returning from the manoeuvres in Westchester County, to its new barracks on East Washington Square. It was my cousin’s regiment. They were a fine lot of fellows, in their pale blue, tight-fitting jackets, jaunty busbys and white riding breeches with the double yellow stripe, into which their limbs seemed moulded. Every other squadron was armed with lances, from the metal points of which fluttered yellow and white pennons. The band passed, playing the regimental march, then came the colonel and staff, the horses crowding and trampling, while their heads bobbed in unison, and the pennons fluttered from their lance points. The troopers, who rode with the beautiful English seat, looked brown as berries from their bloodless campaign among the farms of Westchester, and the music of their sabres against the stirrups, and the jingle of spurs and carbines was delightful to me. I saw Louis riding with his squadron. He was as handsome an officer as I have ever seen. Mr. Wilde, who had mounted a chair by the window, saw him too, but said nothing. Louis turned and looked straight at Hawberk’s shop as he passed, and I could see the flush on his brown cheeks. I think Constance must have been at the window. When the last troopers had clattered by, and the last pennons vanished into South Fifth Avenue, Mr. Wilde clambered out of his chair and dragged the chest away from the door.
“Yes,” he said, “it is time that you saw your cousin Louis.”
He unlocked the door and I picked up my hat and stick and stepped into the corridor. The stairs were dark. Groping about, I set my foot on something soft, which snarled and spit, and I aimed a murderous blow at the cat, but my cane shivered to splinters against the balustrade, and the beast scurried back into Mr. Wilde’s room.
Passing Hawberk’s door again I saw him still at work on the armour, but I did not stop, and stepping out into Bleecker Street, I followed it to Wooster, skirted the grounds of the Lethal Chamber, and crossing Washington Park went straight to my rooms in the Benedick. Here I lunched comfortably, read the Herald and the Meteor, and finally went to the steel safe in my bedroom and set the time combination. The three and three-quarter minutes which it is necessary to wait, while the time lock is opening, are to me golden moments. From the instant I set the combination to the moment when I grasp the knobs and swing back the solid steel doors, I live in an ecstasy of expectation. Those moments must be like moments passed in Paradise. I know what I am to find at the end of the time limit. I know what the massive safe holds secure for me, for me alone, and the exquisite pleasure of waiting is hardly enhanced when the safe opens and I lift, from its velvet crown, a diadem of purest gold, blazing with diamonds. I do this every day, and yet the joy of waiting and at last touching again the diadem, only seems to increase as the days pass. It is a diadem fit for a King among kings, an Emperor among emperors. The King in Yellow might scorn it, but it shall be worn by his royal servant.
I held it in my arms until the alarm in the safe rang harshly, and then tenderly, proudly, I replaced it and shut the steel doors. I walked slowly back into my study, which faces Washington Square, and leaned on the window sill. The afternoon sun poured into my windows, and a gentle breeze stirred the branches of the elms and maples in the park, now covered with buds and tender foliage. A flock of pigeons circled about the tower of the Memorial Church; sometimes alighting on the purple tiled roof, sometimes wheeling downward to the lotos fountain in front of the marble arch. The gardeners were busy with the flower beds around the fountain, and the freshly turned earth smelled sweet and spicy. A lawn mower, drawn by a fat white horse, clinked across the green sward, and watering-carts poured showers of spray over the asphalt drives. Around the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, which in 1897 had replaced the monstrosity supposed to represent Garibaldi, children played in the spring sunshine, and nurse girls wheeled elaborate baby carriages with a reckless disregard for the pasty-faced occupants, which could probably be explained by the presence of half a dozen trim dragoon troopers languidly lolling on the benches. Through the trees, the Washington Memorial Arch glistened like silver in the sunshine, and beyond, on the eastern extremity of the square the grey stone barracks of the dragoons, and the white granite artillery stables were alive with colour and motion.
I looked at the Lethal Chamber on the corner of the square opposite. A few curious people still lingered about the gilded iron railing, but inside the grounds the paths were deserted. I watched the fountains ripple and sparkle; the sparrows had already found this new bathing nook, and the basins were covered with the dusty-feathered little things. Two or three white peacocks picked their way across the lawns, and a drab coloured pigeon sat so motionless on the arm of one of the “Fates,” that it seemed to be a part of the sculptured stone.
As I was turning carelessly away, a slight commotion in the group of curious loiterers around the gates attracted my attention. A young man had entered, and was advancing with nervous strides along the gravel path which leads to the bronze doors of the Lethal Chamber. He paused a moment before the “Fates,” and as he raised his head to those three mysterious faces, the pigeon rose from its sculptured perch, circled about for a moment and wheeled to the east. The young man pressed his hand to his face, and then with an undefinable gesture sprang up the marble steps, the bronze doors closed behind him, and half an hour later the loiterers slouched away, and the frightened pigeon returned to its perch in the arms of Fate.
I put on my hat and went out into the park for a little walk before dinner. As I crossed the central driveway a group of officers passed, and one of them called out, “Hello, Hildred,” and came back to shake hands with me. It was my cousin Louis, who stood smiling and tapping his spurred heels with his riding-whip.
“Just back from Westchester,” he said; “been doing the bucolic; milk and curds, you know, dairy-maids in sunbonnets, who say ‘haeow’ and ‘I don’t think’ when you tell them they are pretty. I’m nearly dead for a square meal at Delmonico’s. What’s the news?”
“There is none,” I replied pleasantly. “I saw your regiment coming in this morning.”
“Did you? I didn’t see you. Where were you?”
“In Mr. Wilde’s window.”
“Oh, hell!” he began impatiently, “that man is stark mad! I don’t understand why you—”
He saw how annoyed I felt by this outburst, and begged my pardon.
“Really, old chap,” he said, “I don’t mean to run down a man you like, but for the life of me I can’t see what the deuce you find in common with Mr. Wilde. He’s not well bred, to put it generously; he is hideously deformed; his head is the head of a criminally insane person. You know yourself he’s been in an asylum—”
“So have I,” I interrupted calmly.
Louis looked startled and confused for a moment, but recovered and slapped me heartily on the shoulder. “You were completely cured,” he began; but I stopped him again.
“I suppose you mean that I was simply acknowledged never to have been insane.”
“Of course that—that’s what I meant,” he laughed.
I disliked his laugh because I knew it was forced, but I nodded gaily and asked him where he was going. Louis looked after his brother officers who had now almost reached Broadway.
“We had intended to sample a Brunswick cocktail, but to tell you the truth I was anxious for an excuse to go and see Hawberk instead. Come along, I’ll make you my excuse.”
We found old Hawberk, neatly attired in a fresh spring suit, standing at the door of his shop and sniffing the air.
“I had just decided to take Constance for a little stroll before dinner,” he replied to the impetuous volley of questions from Louis. “We thought of walking on the park terrace along the North River.”
At that moment Constance appeared and grew pale and rosy by turns as Louis bent over her small gloved fingers. I tried to excuse myself, alleging an engagement uptown, but Louis and Constance would not listen, and I saw I was expected to remain and engage old Hawberk’s attention. After all it would be just as well if I kept my eye on Louis, I thought, and when they hailed a Spring Street horse-car, I got in after them and took my seat beside the armourer.
The beautiful line of parks and granite terraces overlooking the wharves along the North River, which were built in 1910 and finished in the autumn of 1917, had become one of the most popular promenades in the metropolis. They extended from the battery to 190th Street, overlooking the noble river and affording a fine view of the Jersey shore and the Highlands opposite. Cafés and restaurants were scattered here and there among the trees, and twice a week military bands from the garrison played in the kiosques on the parapets.
We sat down in the sunshine on the bench at the foot of the equestrian statue of General Sheridan. Constance tipped her sunshade to shield her eyes, and she and Louis began a murmuring conversation which was impossible to catch. Old Hawberk, leaning on his ivory headed cane, lighted an excellent cigar, the mate to which I politely refused, and smiled at vacantly. The sun hung low above the Staten Island woods, and the bay was dyed with golden hues reflected from the sun-warmed sails of the shipping in the harbour.
Brigs, schooners, yachts, clumsy ferry-boats, their decks swarming with people, railroad transports carrying lines of brown, blue and white freight cars, stately sound steamers, déclassé tramp steamers, coasters, dredgers, scows, and everywhere pervading the entire bay impudent little tugs puffing and whistling officiously;—these were the craft which churned the sunlight waters as far as the eye could reach. In calm contrast to the hurry of sailing vessel and steamer a silent fleet of white warships lay motionless in midstream.
Constance’s merry laugh aroused me from my reverie.
“What are you staring at?” she inquired.
“Nothing—the fleet,” I smiled.
Then Louis told us what the vessels were, pointing out each by its relative position to the old Red Fort on Governor’s Island.
“That little cigar shaped thing is a torpedo boat,” he explained; “there are four more lying close together. They are the Tarpon, the Falcon, the Sea Fox, and the Octopus. The gun-boats just above are the Princeton, the Champlain, the Still Water and the Erie. Next to them lie the cruisers Faragut and Los Angeles, and above them the battle ships California, and Dakota, and the Washington which is the flag ship. Those two squatty looking chunks of metal which are anchored there off Castle William are the double turreted monitors Terrible and Magnificent; behind them lies the ram, Osceola.”
Constance looked at him with deep approval in her beautiful eyes. “What loads of things you know for a soldier,” she said, and we all joined in the laugh which followed.
Presently Louis rose with a nod to us and offered his arm to Constance, and they strolled away along the river wall. Hawberk watched them for a moment and then turned to me.
“Mr. Wilde was right,” he said. “I have found the missing tassets and left cuissard of the ‘Prince’s Emblazoned,’ in a vile old junk garret in Pell Street.”
“998?” I inquired, with a smile.
“Mr. Wilde is a very intelligent man,” I observed.
“I want to give him the credit of this most important discovery,” continued Hawberk. “And I intend it shall be known that he is entitled to the fame of it.”
“He won’t thank you for that,” I answered sharply; “please say nothing about it.”
“Do you know what it is worth?” said Hawberk.
“No, fifty dollars, perhaps.”
“It is valued at five hundred, but the owner of the ‘Prince’s Emblazoned’ will give two thousand dollars to the person who completes his suit; that reward also belongs to Mr. Wilde.”
“He doesn’t want it! He refuses it!” I answered angrily. “What do you know about Mr. Wilde? He doesn’t need the money. He is rich—or will be—richer than any living man except myself. What will we care for money then—what will we care, he and I, when—when—”
“When what?” demanded Hawberk, astonished.
“You will see,” I replied, on my guard again.
He looked at me narrowly, much as Doctor Archer used to, and I knew he thought I was mentally unsound. Perhaps it was fortunate for him that he did not use the word lunatic just then.
“No,” I replied to his unspoken thought, “I am not mentally weak; my mind is as healthy as Mr. Wilde’s. I do not care to explain just yet what I have on hand, but it is an investment which will pay more than mere gold, silver and precious stones. It will secure the happiness and prosperity of a continent—yes, a hemisphere!”
“Oh,” said Hawberk.
“And eventually,” I continued more quietly, “it will secure the happiness of the whole world.”
“And incidentally your own happiness and prosperity as well as Mr. Wilde’s?”
“Exactly,” I smiled. But I could have throttled him for taking that tone.
He looked at me in silence for a while and then said very gently, “Why don’t you give up your books and studies, Mr. Castaigne, and take a tramp among the mountains somewhere or other? You used to be fond of fishing. Take a cast or two at the trout in the Rangelys.”
“I don’t care for fishing any more,” I answered, without a shade of annoyance in my voice.
“You used to be fond of everything,” he continued; “athletics, yachting, shooting, riding—”
“I have never cared to ride since my fall,” I said quietly.
“Ah, yes, your fall,” he repeated, looking away from me.
I thought this nonsense had gone far enough, so I brought the conversation back to Mr. Wilde; but he was scanning my face again in a manner highly offensive to me.
“Mr. Wilde,” he repeated, “do you know what he did this afternoon? He came downstairs and nailed a sign over the hall door next to mine; it read:
REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS.
“Do you know what a Repairer of Reputations can be?”
“I do,” I replied, suppressing the rage within.
“Oh,” he said again.
Louis and Constance came strolling by and stopped to ask if we would join them. Hawberk looked at his watch. At the same moment a puff of smoke shot from the casemates of Castle William, and the boom of the sunset gun rolled across the water and was re-echoed from the Highlands opposite. The flag came running down from the flag-pole, the bugles sounded on the white decks of the warships, and the first electric light sparkled out from the Jersey shore.
As I turned into the city with Hawberk I heard Constance murmur something to Louis which I did not understand; but Louis whispered “My darling,” in reply; and again, walking ahead with Hawberk through the square I heard a murmur of “sweetheart,” and “my own Constance,” and I knew the time had nearly arrived when I should speak of important matters with my cousin Louis.
Continued in part 3.