A WILD NIGHT.- I AM PREMATURELY AGED.
In the depths of night I was awakened by a noise made by the opening of a door, and one by one seven masked figures silently stalked into my prison. Each bore a lighted torch, and they passed me as I lay on the floor in my clothes ( for I had no bedding ), and ranged themselves in a line. I arose, and seated myself as directed to do, upon the only stool in the room. Swinging into a semi-circle, the weird line wound about me, and from the one seat on which I rested in the center of the room, I gazed successively upon seven pairs of gleaming eyes, each pair directed at myself; and as I turned from one to another, the black cowl of each deepened into darkness, and grew more hideous.
" Men or devils," I cried, " do your worst! Make me, if such is your will, as that sunken corpse beside which I was once seated; but cease your persecutions. I have atoned for my indiscretions a thousand fold, and this suspense is unbearable; I demand to know what is to be my doom, and I desire its fulfilment."
Then one stepped forward, facing me squarely,- the others closed together around him and me. Raising his forefinger, he pointed it close to my face, and as his sharp eyes glittered from behind the black mask, piercing through me, he slowly said: " Why do you not say brothers?"
" Horrible," I rejoined; " stop this mockery. Have I not suffered enough from your persecutions to make me reject that word as applied to yourselves? You can but murder; do your duty to your unseen masters, and end this prolonged torture!"
" Brother," said the spokesman, " you well know that the sacred rules of our order will not permit us to murder any human being. We exist to benefit humanity, to lead the wayward back across the burning desert into the pathways of the righteous; not to destroy or persecute a brother. Ours is an eleemosynary institution, instructing its members, helping them to seek happiness. You are now expiating the crime you have committed, and the good in your spirit rightfully revolts against the bad, for in divulging to the world our mystic signs and brotherly greetings, you have sinned against yourself more than against others. The sting of conscience, the bitings of remorse punish you."
" True," I cried, as the full significance of what he said burst upon me, " too true; but I bitterly repent my treachery. Others can never know how my soul is harrowed by the recollection of the enormity of that breach of confidence. In spite of my open, careless, or defiant bearing, my heart is humble, and my spirit cries out for mercy. By night and by day I have in secret cursed myself for heeding an unhallowed mandate, and I have long looked forward to the judgment that I should suffer for my perfidy, for I have appreciated that the day of reckoning would surely appear. I do not rebel, and I recall my wild language; I recant my ‘ Confession,’ I renounce myself! I say to you in all sincerity, brothers, do your duty, only I beg of you to slay me at once, and end my suspense. I await my doom. What might it be?"
Grasping my hand, the leader said: " You are ready as a member of our order; we can now judge you as we have been commanded; had you persisted in calling us devils in your mistaken frenzy, we should have been forced to reason with you until you returned again to us, and became one of us. Our judgment is for you only; the world must not now know its nature, at least so far as we are concerned. Those you see here, are not your judges; we are agents sent to labor with you, to draw you back into our ranks, to bring you into a condition that will enable you to carry out the sentence that you have drawn upon yourself, for you must be your own doomsman. In the first place, we are directed to gain your voluntary consent to leave this locality. You can no longer take part in affairs that interested you before. To the people of this State, and to your home, and kindred, you must become a stranger for all time. Do you consent?"
" Yes," I answered, for I knew that I must acquiesce.
" In the next place, you must help us to remove all traces of your identity. You must, so far as the world is concerned, leave your body where you have apparently been drowned, for a world's benefit, a harmless mockery to deceive the people, and also to make an example for others that are weak. Are you ready?"
" Then remove your clothing, and replace it with this suit."
I obeyed, and changed my garments, receiving others in return. One of the party then, taking from beneath his gown a box containing several bottles of liquids, proceeded artfully to mix and compound them, and then to paint my face with the combination, which after being mixed, formed a clear solution.
" Do not fear to wash;" said the spokesman, " the effect of this lotion is permanent enough to stay until you are well out of this State."
I passed my hand over my face; it was drawn into wrinkles as a film of gelatine might have been shrivelled under the influence of a strong tannin or astringent liquid; beneath my fingers it felt like the furrowed face of a very old man, but I experienced no pain. I vainly tried to smooth the wrinkles; immediately upon removing the pressure of my hand, the furrows reappeared.
Next, another applied a colorless liquid freely to my hair and beard; he rubbed it well, and afterward wiped it dry with a towel. A mirror was thrust beneath my gaze. I started back, the transformation was complete. My appearance had entirely changed. My face had become aged and wrinkled, my hair as white as snow.
I cried aloud in amazement: " Am I sane, is this a dream?"
" It is not a dream; but, under methods that are in exact accordance with natural physiological laws, we have been enabled to transform your appearance from that of one in the prime of manhood into the semblance of an old man, and that, too, without impairment of your vitality." Another of the masked men opened a curious little casket that I perceived was surmounted by an alembic and other alchemical figures, and embossed with an Oriental design. He drew from it a lamp which he lighted with a taper; the flame that resulted, first pale blue,- then yellow, next violet and finally red, seemed to become more weird and ghastly with each mutation, as I gazed spellbound upon its fantastic changes. Then, after these transformations, it burned steadily with the final strange blood-red hue, and he now held over the blaze a tiny cup, which, in a few moments, commenced to sputter and then smoked, exhaling a curious, epipolic, semi-luminous vapor. I was commanded to inhale the vapor.
1 hesitated ; the thought rushed upon me, " Now I am another person, so cleverly disguised that even my own friends would perhaps not know me, this vapor is designed to suffocate me, and my body, if found, will not now be known, and could not be identified when discovered."
" Do not fear," said the spokesman, as if divining my thought, " there is no danger," and at once I realized, by quick reasoning, that if my death were demanded, my body might long since have been easily destroyed, and all this ceremony would have been unnecessary.
I hesitated no longer, but drew into my lungs the vapor that arose from the mysterious cup, freely expanding my chest several times, and then asked, " Is not that enough?" Despair now overcame me. My voice, no longer the full, strong tone of a man in middle life and perfect strength, squeaked and quavered, as if impaired by palsy. I had seen my image in a mirror, an old man with wrinkled face and white hair; I now heard myself speak with the voice of an octogenarian.
" What have you done?" I cried.
" We have obeyed your orders; you told us you were ready to leave your own self here, and the work is complete. The man who entered has disappeared. If you should now stand in the streets of your village home, and cry to your former friends, ‘ It is I, for whom you seek,’ they would smile, and call you a madman. Know," continued the voice, " that there is in Eastern metaphysical lore, more true philosophy than is embodied in the sciences of to-day, and that by means of the ramifications of our order it becomes possible, when necessary, for him who stands beyond the inner and upper Worshipful Master, to draw these treasures from the occult Wisdom possessions of Oriental sages who forget nothing and lose nothing. Have we not been permitted to do his bidding well?"
" Yes," I squeaked; " and I wish that you had done it better. I would that I were dead."
" When the time comes, if necessary, your dead body will be fished from the water," was the reply; " witnesses have seen the drowning tragedy, and will surely identify the corpse."
" And may I go? am I free now?" I asked.
" Ah," said he, " that is not for us to say; our part of the work is fulfilled, and we can return to our native lands, and resume again our several studies. So far as we are concerned, you are free, but we have been directed to pass you over to the keeping of others who will carry, forward this judgment- there is another step."
" Tell me," I cried, once more desponding, " tell me the full extent of my sentence."
" That is not known to us, and probably is not known to any one man. So far as the members of our order are concerned, you have now vanished. When you leave our sight this night, we will also separate from one another, we shall know no more of you and your future than will those of our working order who live in this section of the country. We have no personal acquaintance with the guide that has been selected to conduct you farther, and who will appear in due season, and we make no surmise concerning the result of your journey, only we know that you will not be killed, for you have a work to perform, and will continue to exist long after others of your age are dead. Farewell, brother; we have discharged our duty, and by your consent, now we must return to our various pursuits. In a short time all evidence of your unfortunate mistake, the crime committed by you in printing our sacred charges, will have vanished. Even now, emissaries are ordained to collect and destroy the written record that tells of your weakness, and with the destruction of that testimony, for every copy will surely be annihilated, and with your disappearance from among men, for this also is to follow, our responsibility for you will cease."
Each of the seven men advanced, and grasped my hand, giving me the grip of brotherhood, and then, without a word, they severally and silently departed into the outer darkness. As the last man disappeared, a figure entered the door, clad and masked exactly like those who had gone. He removed the long black gown in which he was enveloped, threw the mask from his face and stood before me, a slender, graceful, brightlooking young man. By the light of the candle I saw him distinctly, and was at once struck by his amiable, cheerful countenance, and my heart bounded with a sudden hope. I had temporarily forgotten the transformation that had been made in my person, which, altogether painless, had left no physical sensation, and thought of myself as I had formerly existed; my soul was still my own, I imagined; my blood seemed unchanged, and must flow as rapidly as before; my strength was unaltered, indeed I was in self-consciousness still in the prime of life.
" Excuse me, Father," said the stranger, " but my services have been sought as a guide for the first part of a journey that I am informed you intend to take."
His voice was mild and pleasant, his bearing respectful, but the peculiar manner in which he spoke convinced me that he knew that, as a guide, he must conduct me to some previously designated spot, and that he purposed to do so was evident, with or without my consent.
" Why do you call me Father?" I attempted to say, but as the first few words escaped my lips, the recollection of the events of the night rushed upon me, for instead of my own, I recognized the piping voice of the old man I had now become, and my tongue faltered ; the sentence was unspoken.
" You would ask me why I called you Father, I perceive; well, because I am directed to be a son to you, to care for your wants, to make your journey as easy and pleasant as possible, to guide you quietly and carefully to the point that will next prove of interest to you."
I stood before him a free man, in the prime of life, full of energy, and this stripling alone interposed between myself and liberty. Should I permit the slender youth to carry me away as a prisoner? Would it not be best to thrust him aside, if necessary, crush him to the earth? go forth in my freedom? Yet I hesitated, for he might have friends outside; probably he was not alone.
" There are no companions near us," said he, reading my mind, " and, as I do not seem formidable, it is natural you should weigh in your mind the probabilities of escape; but you can not evade your destiny, and you must not attempt to deny yourself the pleasure of my company. You must leave this locality and leave without a regret. In order that you may acquiesce willingly I propose that together we return to your former home, which you will, however, find no longer to be a home. I will accompany you as a companion, as your son. You may speak, with one exception, to whomever you care to address; may call on any of your old associates, may assert openly who you are, or whatever and whoever you please to represent yourself, only I must also have the privilege of joining in the conversation."
"Agreed," I cried, and extended my hand; he grasped it, and then by the light of the candle, I saw a peculiar expression flit overhisface, as he added:
" To one person only, as I have said, and you have promised, you must not speak- your wife."
I bowed my head, and a flood of sorrowful reflections swept over me. Of all the world the one whom I longed to meet, to clasp in my arms, to counsel in my distress, was the wife of my bosom, and I begged him to withdraw his cruel injunction.
" You should have thought of her before; now it is too late. To permit you to meet, and speak with her would be dangerous; she might pierce your disguise. Of all others there is no fear."
" Must I go with you into an unknown future without a farewell kiss from my little child or from my babe scarce three months old?"
" It has been so ordained."
I threw myself on the floor and moaned. " This is too hard, too hard for human heart to bear. Life has no charm to a man who is thrust from all he holds most dear, home, friends, family."
" The men who relinquish such pleasures and such comforts are those who do the greatest good to humanity," said the youth. " The multitude exist to propagate the, race, as animal progenitors of the multitudes that are to follow, and the exceptional philanthropist is he who denies himself material bliss, and punishes himself in order to work out a problem such as it has been ordained that you are to solve. Do not argue furtherthe line is marked, and you must walk direct."
Into the blaze of the old fireplace of that log house, for, although it was autumn, the night was chilly, he then cast his black robe and false face, and, as they turned to ashes, the last evidences of the vivid acts through which I had passed, were destroyed. As I lay moaning in my utter misery, I tried to reason with myself that what I experienced was all a hallucination. I dozed, and awoke startled, half conscious only, as one in a nightmare; I said to, myself, " A dream! a dream!" and slept again.