Weirdness and crime and insanity come to a head of horror.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“The Repairer of Reputations”
from The King in Yellow
Robert W. Chambers
One morning early in May I stood before the steel safe in my bedroom, trying on the golden jewelled crown. The diamonds flashed fire as I turned to the mirror, and the heavy beaten gold burned like a halo about my head. I remembered Camilla’s agonized scream and the awful words echoing through the dim streets of Carcosa. They were the last lines in the first act, and I dared not think of what followed—dared not, even in the spring sunshine, there in my own room, surrounded with familiar objects, reassured by the bustle from the street and the voices of the servants in the hallway outside. For those poisoned words had dropped slowly into my heart, as death-sweat drops upon a bed-sheet and is absorbed. Trembling, I put the diadem from my head and wiped my forehead, but I thought of Hastur and of my own rightful ambition, and I remembered Mr. Wilde as I had last left him, his face all torn and bloody from the claws of that devil’s creature, and what he said—ah, what he said. The alarm bell in the safe began to whirr harshly, and I knew my time was up; but I would not heed it, and replacing the flashing circlet upon my head I turned defiantly to the mirror. I stood for a long time absorbed in the changing expression of my own eyes. The mirror reflected a face which was like my own, but whiter, and so thin that I hardly recognized it. And all the time I kept repeating between my clenched teeth, “The day has come! the day has come!” while the alarm in the safe whirred and clamoured, and the diamonds sparkled and flamed above my brow. I heard a door open but did not heed it. It was only when I saw two faces in the mirror:—it was only when another face rose over my shoulder, and two other eyes met mine. I wheeled like a flash and seized a long knife from my dressing-table, and my cousin sprang back very pale, crying: “Hildred! for God’s sake!” then as my hand fell, he said: “It is I, Louis, don’t you know me?” I stood silent. I could not have spoken for my life. He walked up to me and took the knife from my hand.
“What is all this?” he inquired, in a gentle voice. “Are you ill?”
“No,” I replied. But I doubt if he heard me.
“Come, come, old fellow,” he cried, “take off that brass crown and toddle into the study. Are you going to a masquerade? What’s all this theatrical tinsel anyway?”
I was glad he thought the crown was made of brass and paste, yet I didn’t like him any the better for thinking so. I let him take it from my hand, knowing it was best to humour him. He tossed the splendid diadem in the air, and catching it, turned to me smiling.
“It’s dear at fifty cents,” he said. “What’s it for?”
I did not answer, but took the circlet from his hands, and placing it in the safe shut the massive steel door. The alarm ceased its infernal din at once. He watched me curiously, but did not seem to notice the sudden ceasing of the alarm. He did, however, speak of the safe as a biscuit box. Fearing lest he might examine the combination I led the way into my study. Louis threw himself on the sofa and flicked at flies with his eternal riding-whip. He wore his fatigue uniform with the braided jacket and jaunty cap, and I noticed that his riding-boots were all splashed with red mud.
“Where have you been?” I inquired.
“Jumping mud creeks in Jersey,” he said. “I haven’t had time to change yet; I was rather in a hurry to see you. Haven’t you got a glass of something? I’m dead tired; been in the saddle twenty-four hours.”
I gave him some brandy from my medicinal store, which he drank with a grimace.
“Damned bad stuff,” he observed. “I’ll give you an address where they sell brandy that is brandy.”
“It’s good enough for my needs,” I said indifferently. “I use it to rub my chest with.” He stared and flicked at another fly.
“See here, old fellow,” he began, “I’ve got something to suggest to you. It’s four years now that you’ve shut yourself up here like an owl, never going anywhere, never taking any healthy exercise, never doing a damn thing but poring over those books up there on the mantelpiece.”
He glanced along the row of shelves. “Napoleon, Napoleon, Napoleon!” he read. “For heaven’s sake, have you nothing but Napoleons there?”
“I wish they were bound in gold,” I said. “But wait, yes, there is another book, The King in Yellow.” I looked him steadily in the eye.
“Have you never read it?” I asked.
“I? No, thank God! I don’t want to be driven crazy.”
I saw he regretted his speech as soon as he had uttered it. There is only one word which I loathe more than I do lunatic and that word is crazy. But I controlled myself and asked him why he thought The King in Yellow dangerous.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, hastily. “I only remember the excitement it created and the denunciations from pulpit and Press. I believe the author shot himself after bringing forth this monstrosity, didn’t he?”
“I understand he is still alive,” I answered.
“That’s probably true,” he muttered; “bullets couldn’t kill a fiend like that.”
“It is a book of great truths,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “of ‘truths’ which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don’t care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It’s a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages.”
“Is that what you have come to tell me?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I came to tell you that I am going to be married.”
I believe for a moment my heart ceased to beat, but I kept my eyes on his face.
“Yes,” he continued, smiling happily, “married to the sweetest girl on earth.”
“Constance Hawberk,” I said mechanically.
“How did you know?” he cried, astonished. “I didn’t know it myself until that evening last April, when we strolled down to the embankment before dinner.”
“When is it to be?” I asked.
“It was to have been next September, but an hour ago a despatch came ordering our regiment to the Presidio, San Francisco. We leave at noon to-morrow. To-morrow,” he repeated. “Just think, Hildred, to-morrow I shall be the happiest fellow that ever drew breath in this jolly world, for Constance will go with me.”
I offered him my hand in congratulation, and he seized and shook it like the good-natured fool he was—or pretended to be.
“I am going to get my squadron as a wedding present,” he rattled on. “Captain and Mrs. Louis Castaigne, eh, Hildred?”
Then he told me where it was to be and who were to be there, and made me promise to come and be best man. I set my teeth and listened to his boyish chatter without showing what I felt, but—
I was getting to the limit of my endurance, and when he jumped up, and, switching his spurs till they jingled, said he must go, I did not detain him.
“There’s one thing I want to ask of you,” I said quietly.
“Out with it, it’s promised,” he laughed.
“I want you to meet me for a quarter of an hour’s talk to-night.”
“Of course, if you wish,” he said, somewhat puzzled. “Where?”
“Anywhere, in the park there.”
“What time, Hildred?”
“What in the name of—” he began, but checked himself and laughingly assented. I watched him go down the stairs and hurry away, his sabre banging at every stride. He turned into Bleecker Street, and I knew he was going to see Constance. I gave him ten minutes to disappear and then followed in his footsteps, taking with me the jewelled crown and the silken robe embroidered with the Yellow Sign. When I turned into Bleecker Street, and entered the doorway which bore the sign—
REPAIRER OF REPUTATIONS.
I saw old Hawberk moving about in his shop, and imagined I heard Constance’s voice in the parlour; but I avoided them both and hurried up the trembling stairways to Mr. Wilde’s apartment. I knocked and entered without ceremony. Mr. Wilde lay groaning on the floor, his face covered with blood, his clothes torn to shreds. Drops of blood were scattered about over the carpet, which had also been ripped and frayed in the evidently recent struggle.
“It’s that cursed cat,” he said, ceasing his groans, and turning his colourless eyes to me; “she attacked me while I was asleep. I believe she will kill me yet.”
This was too much, so I went into the kitchen, and, seizing a hatchet from the pantry, started to find the infernal beast and settle her then and there. My search was fruitless, and after a while I gave it up and came back to find Mr. Wilde squatting on his high chair by the table. He had washed his face and changed his clothes. The great furrows which the cat’s claws had ploughed up in his face he had filled with collodion, and a rag hid the wound in his throat. I told him I should kill the cat when I came across her, but he only shook his head and turned to the open ledger before him. He read name after name of the people who had come to him in regard to their reputation, and the sums he had amassed were startling.
“I put on the screws now and then,” he explained.
“One day or other some of these people will assassinate you,” I insisted.
“Do you think so?” he said, rubbing his mutilated ears.
It was useless to argue with him, so I took down the manuscript entitled Imperial Dynasty of America, for the last time I should ever take it down in Mr. Wilde’s study. I read it through, thrilling and trembling with pleasure. When I had finished Mr. Wilde took the manuscript and, turning to the dark passage which leads from his study to his bed-chamber, called out in a loud voice, “Vance.” Then for the first time, I noticed a man crouching there in the shadow. How I had overlooked him during my search for the cat, I cannot imagine.
“Vance, come in,” cried Mr. Wilde.
The figure rose and crept towards us, and I shall never forget the face that he raised to mine, as the light from the window illuminated it.
“Vance, this is Mr. Castaigne,” said Mr. Wilde. Before he had finished speaking, the man threw himself on the ground before the table, crying and grasping, “Oh, God! Oh, my God! Help me! Forgive me! Oh, Mr. Castaigne, keep that man away. You cannot, you cannot mean it! You are different—save me! I am broken down—I was in a madhouse and now—when all was coming right—when I had forgotten the King—the King in Yellow and—but I shall go mad again—I shall go mad—”
His voice died into a choking rattle, for Mr. Wilde had leapt on him and his right hand encircled the man’s throat. When Vance fell in a heap on the floor, Mr. Wilde clambered nimbly into his chair again, and rubbing his mangled ears with the stump of his hand, turned to me and asked me for the ledger. I reached it down from the shelf and he opened it. After a moment’s searching among the beautifully written pages, he coughed complacently, and pointed to the name Vance.
“Vance,” he read aloud, “Osgood Oswald Vance.” At the sound of his name, the man on the floor raised his head and turned a convulsed face to Mr. Wilde. His eyes were injected with blood, his lips tumefied. “Called April 28th,” continued Mr. Wilde. “Occupation, cashier in the Seaforth National Bank; has served a term of forgery at Sing Sing, from whence he was transferred to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane. Pardoned by the Governor of New York, and discharged from the Asylum, January 19, 1918. Reputation damaged at Sheepshead Bay. Rumours that he lives beyond his income. Reputation to be repaired at once. Retainer $1,500.
“Note.—Has embezzled sums amounting to $30,000 since March 20, 1919, excellent family, and secured present position through uncle’s influence. Father, President of Seaforth Bank.”
I looked at the man on the floor.
“Get up, Vance,” said Mr. Wilde in a gentle voice. Vance rose as if hypnotized. “He will do as we suggest now,” observed Mr. Wilde, and opening the manuscript, he read the entire history of the Imperial Dynasty of America. Then in a kind and soothing murmur he ran over the important points with Vance, who stood like one stunned. His eyes were so blank and vacant that I imagined he had become half-witted, and remarked it to Mr. Wilde who replied that it was of no consequence anyway. Very patiently we pointed out to Vance what his share in the affair would be, and he seemed to understand after a while. Mr. Wilde explained the manuscript, using several volumes on Heraldry, to substantiate the result of his researches. He mentioned the establishment of the Dynasty in Carcosa, the lakes which connected Hastur, Aldebaran and the mystery of the Hyades. He spoke of Cassilda and Camilla, and sounded the cloudy depths of Demhe, and the Lake of Hali. “The scolloped tatters of the King in Yellow must hide Yhtill forever,” he muttered, but I do not believe Vance heard him. Then by degrees he led Vance along the ramifications of the Imperial family, to Uoht and Thale, from Naotalba and Phantom of Truth, to Aldones, and then tossing aside his manuscript and notes, he began the wonderful story of the Last King. Fascinated and thrilled I watched him. He threw up his head, his long arms were stretched out in a magnificent gesture of pride and power, and his eyes blazed deep in their sockets like two emeralds. Vance listened stupefied. As for me, when at last Mr. Wilde had finished, and pointing to me, cried, “The cousin of the King!” my head swam with excitement.
Controlling myself with a superhuman effort, I explained to Vance why I alone was worthy of the crown and why my cousin must be exiled or die. I made him understand that my cousin must never marry, even after renouncing all his claims, and how that least of all he should marry the daughter of the Marquis of Avonshire and bring England into the question. I showed him a list of thousands of names which Mr. Wilde had drawn up; every man whose name was there had received the Yellow Sign which no living human being dared disregard. The city, the state, the whole land, were ready to rise and tremble before the Pallid Mask.
The time had come, the people should know the son of Hastur, and the whole world bow to the black stars which hang in the sky over Carcosa.
Vance leaned on the table, his head buried in his hands. Mr. Wilde drew a rough sketch on the margin of yesterday’s Herald with a bit of lead pencil. It was a plan of Hawberk’s rooms. Then he wrote out the order and affixed the seal, and shaking like a palsied man I signed my first writ of execution with my name Hildred-Rex.
Mr. Wilde clambered to the floor and unlocking the cabinet, took a long square box from the first shelf. This he brought to the table and opened. A new knife lay in the tissue paper inside and I picked it up and handed it to Vance, along with the order and the plan of Hawberk’s apartment. Then Mr. Wilde told Vance he could go; and he went, shambling like an outcast of the slums.
I sat for a while watching the daylight fade behind the square tower of the Judson Memorial Church, and finally, gathering up the manuscript and notes, took my hat and started for the door.
Mr. Wilde watched me in silence. When I had stepped into the hall I looked back. Mr. Wilde’s small eyes were still fixed on me. Behind him, the shadows gathered in the fading light. Then I closed the door behind me and went out into the darkening streets.
I had eaten nothing since breakfast, but I was not hungry. A wretched, half-starved creature, who stood looking across the street at the Lethal Chamber, noticed me and came up to tell me a tale of misery. I gave him money, I don’t know why, and he went away without thanking me. An hour later another outcast approached and whined his story. I had a blank bit of paper in my pocket, on which was traced the Yellow Sign, and I handed it to him. He looked at it stupidly for a moment, and then with an uncertain glance at me, folded it with what seemed to me exaggerated care and placed it in his bosom.
The electric lights were sparkling among the trees, and the new moon shone in the sky above the Lethal Chamber. It was tiresome waiting in the square; I wandered from the Marble Arch to the artillery stables and back again to the lotos fountain. The flowers and grass exhaled a fragrance which troubled me. The jet of the fountain played in the moonlight, and the musical splash of falling drops reminded me of the tinkle of chained mail in Hawberk’s shop. But it was not so fascinating, and the dull sparkle of the moonlight on the water brought no such sensations of exquisite pleasure, as when the sunshine played over the polished steel of a corselet on Hawberk’s knee. I watched the bats darting and turning above the water plants in the fountain basin, but their rapid, jerky flight set my nerves on edge, and I went away again to walk aimlessly to and fro among the trees.
The artillery stables were dark, but in the cavalry barracks the officers’ windows were brilliantly lighted, and the sallyport was constantly filled with troopers in fatigue, carrying straw and harness and baskets filled with tin dishes.
Twice the mounted sentry at the gates was changed while I wandered up and down the asphalt walk. I looked at my watch. It was nearly time. The lights in the barracks went out one by one, the barred gate was closed, and every minute or two an officer passed in through the side wicket, leaving a rattle of accoutrements and a jingle of spurs on the night air. The square had become very silent. The last homeless loiterer had been driven away by the grey-coated park policeman, the car tracks along Wooster Street were deserted, and the only sound which broke the stillness was the stamping of the sentry’s horse and the ring of his sabre against the saddle pommel. In the barracks, the officers’ quarters were still lighted, and military servants passed and repassed before the bay windows. Twelve o’clock sounded from the new spire of St. Francis Xavier, and at the last stroke of the sad-toned bell a figure passed through the wicket beside the portcullis, returned the salute of the sentry, and crossing the street entered the square and advanced toward the Benedick apartment house.
“Louis,” I called.
The man pivoted on his spurred heels and came straight toward me.
“Is that you, Hildred?”
“Yes, you are on time.”
I took his offered hand, and we strolled toward the Lethal Chamber.
He rattled on about his wedding and the graces of Constance, and their future prospects, calling my attention to his captain’s shoulder-straps, and the triple gold arabesque on his sleeve and fatigue cap. I believe I listened as much to the music of his spurs and sabre as I did to his boyish babble, and at last we stood under the elms on the Fourth Street corner of the square opposite the Lethal Chamber. Then he laughed and asked me what I wanted with him. I motioned him to a seat on a bench under the electric light, and sat down beside him. He looked at me curiously, with that same searching glance which I hate and fear so in doctors. I felt the insult of his look, but he did not know it, and I carefully concealed my feelings.
“Well, old chap,” he inquired, “what can I do for you?”
I drew from my pocket the manuscript and notes of the Imperial Dynasty of America, and looking him in the eye said:
“I will tell you. On your word as a soldier, promise me to read this manuscript from beginning to end, without asking me a question. Promise me to read these notes in the same way, and promise me to listen to what I have to tell later.”
“I promise, if you wish it,” he said pleasantly. “Give me the paper, Hildred.”
He began to read, raising his eyebrows with a puzzled, whimsical air, which made me tremble with suppressed anger. As he advanced, his eyebrows contracted, and his lips seemed to form the word “rubbish.”
Then he looked slightly bored, but apparently for my sake read, with an attempt at interest, which presently ceased to be an effort. He started when in the closely written pages he came to his own name, and when he came to mine he lowered the paper, and looked sharply at me for a moment. But he kept his word, and resumed his reading, and I let the half-formed question die on his lips unanswered. When he came to the end and read the signature of Mr. Wilde, he folded the paper carefully and returned it to me. I handed him the notes, and he settled back, pushing his fatigue cap up to his forehead, with a boyish gesture, which I remembered so well in school. I watched his face as he read, and when he finished I took the notes with the manuscript, and placed them in my pocket. Then I unfolded a scroll marked with the Yellow Sign. He saw the sign, but he did not seem to recognize it, and I called his attention to it somewhat sharply.
“Well,” he said, “I see it. What is it?”
“It is the Yellow Sign,” I said angrily.
“Oh, that’s it, is it?” said Louis, in that flattering voice, which Doctor Archer used to employ with me, and would probably have employed again, had I not settled his affair for him.
I kept my rage down and answered as steadily as possible, “Listen, you have engaged your word?”
“I am listening, old chap,” he replied soothingly.
I began to speak very calmly.
“Dr. Archer, having by some means become possessed of the secret of the Imperial Succession, attempted to deprive me of my right, alleging that because of a fall from my horse four years ago, I had become mentally deficient. He presumed to place me under restraint in his own house in hopes of either driving me insane or poisoning me. I have not forgotten it. I visited him last night and the interview was final.”
Louis turned quite pale, but did not move. I resumed triumphantly, “There are yet three people to be interviewed in the interests of Mr. Wilde and myself. They are my cousin Louis, Mr. Hawberk, and his daughter Constance.”
Louis sprang to his feet and I arose also, and flung the paper marked with the Yellow Sign to the ground.
“Oh, I don’t need that to tell you what I have to say,” I cried, with a laugh of triumph. “You must renounce the crown to me, do you hear, to me.”
Louis looked at me with a startled air, but recovering himself said kindly, “Of course I renounce the—what is it I must renounce?”
“The crown,” I said angrily.
“Of course,” he answered, “I renounce it. Come, old chap, I’ll walk back to your rooms with you.”
“Don’t try any of your doctor’s tricks on me,” I cried, trembling with fury. “Don’t act as if you think I am insane.”
“What nonsense,” he replied. “Come, it’s getting late, Hildred.”
“No,” I shouted, “you must listen. You cannot marry, I forbid it. Do you hear? I forbid it. You shall renounce the crown, and in reward I grant you exile, but if you refuse you shall die.”
He tried to calm me, but I was roused at last, and drawing my long knife barred his way.
Then I told him how they would find Dr. Archer in the cellar with his throat open, and I laughed in his face when I thought of Vance and his knife, and the order signed by me.
“Ah, you are the King,” I cried, “but I shall be King. Who are you to keep me from Empire over all the habitable earth! I was born the cousin of a king, but I shall be King!”
Louis stood white and rigid before me. Suddenly a man came running up Fourth Street, entered the gate of the Lethal Temple, traversed the path to the bronze doors at full speed, and plunged into the death chamber with the cry of one demented, and I laughed until I wept tears, for I had recognized Vance, and knew that Hawberk and his daughter were no longer in my way.
“Go,” I cried to Louis, “you have ceased to be a menace. You will never marry Constance now, and if you marry any one else in your exile, I will visit you as I did my doctor last night. Mr. Wilde takes charge of you to-morrow.” Then I turned and darted into South Fifth Avenue, and with a cry of terror Louis dropped his belt and sabre and followed me like the wind. I heard him close behind me at the corner of Bleecker Street, and I dashed into the doorway under Hawberk’s sign. He cried, “Halt, or I fire!” but when he saw that I flew up the stairs leaving Hawberk’s shop below, he left me, and I heard him hammering and shouting at their door as though it were possible to arouse the dead.
Mr. Wilde’s door was open, and I entered crying, “It is done, it is done! Let the nations rise and look upon their King!” but I could not find Mr. Wilde, so I went to the cabinet and took the splendid diadem from its case. Then I drew on the white silk robe, embroidered with the Yellow Sign, and placed the crown upon my head. At last I was King, King by my right in Hastur, King because I knew the mystery of the Hyades, and my mind had sounded the depths of the Lake of Hali. I was King! The first grey pencillings of dawn would raise a tempest which would shake two hemispheres. Then as I stood, my every nerve pitched to the highest tension, faint with the joy and splendour of my thought, without, in the dark passage, a man groaned.
I seized the tallow dip and sprang to the door. The cat passed me like a demon, and the tallow dip went out, but my long knife flew swifter than she, and I heard her screech, and I knew that my knife had found her. For a moment I listened to her tumbling and thumping about in the darkness, and then when her frenzy ceased, I lighted a lamp and raised it over my head. Mr. Wilde lay on the floor with his throat torn open. At first I thought he was dead, but as I looked, a green sparkle came into his sunken eyes, his mutilated hand trembled, and then a spasm stretched his mouth from ear to ear. For a moment my terror and despair gave place to hope, but as I bent over him his eyeballs rolled clean around in his head, and he died. Then while I stood, transfixed with rage and despair, seeing my crown, my empire, every hope and every ambition, my very life, lying prostrate there with the dead master, they came, seized me from behind, and bound me until my veins stood out like cords, and my voice failed with the paroxysms of my frenzied screams. But I still raged, bleeding and infuriated among them, and more than one policeman felt my sharp teeth. Then when I could no longer move they came nearer; I saw old Hawberk, and behind him my cousin Louis’ ghastly face, and farther away, in the corner, a woman, Constance, weeping softly.
“Ah! I see it now!” I shrieked. “You have seized the throne and the empire. Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!”
[EDITOR’S NOTE.—Mr. Castaigne died yesterday in the Asylum for Criminal Insane.]