Woman Or What?

A poem by Madison Julius Cawein

"It is a subject suited to the genius of the poet who wrote 'Bad Dreams,'" remarked the Professor as he abandoned himself wearily to the luxuriance of his armchair. What was there to be done? Absolutely nothing; and the fabric of the mystery accumulating around the letter and the lady began to occupy so great a portion of the gray matter of his brain that, instead of viewing the dream merely as a dream, he was almost persuaded to regard it, in connection with these other things, in the light of an actual occurrence, so vividly was it impressed upon his mind.

It might have been an hour, or only the fractional part of an hour, that he sat there stolidly staring into vacancy, when with a"What can it mean? Strange! But this won't do! I'll become as fantastic as night if I continue in this manner, " he arose and lighting the gas, proceeded to the window. Drawing the heavy oriental curtains that during the daytime made perpetual twilight of the room, he stood looking out upon the deserted square. It was near midnight and late in August. The waning moon shone above the black roofs, subduing and softening all the ugly angles of the buildings into silvery blurs of shadow, and touching with pearl the tops of a few sickly maples that kept up a withered rustling under his window. Abruptly turning away from the serene sadness of the night, the Professor moved in the direction of his writing table, intending to obliterate the persistent sub-consciousness of the dream in a practical appeal to a book and a pipe.

A great student of mental philosophy, it was difficult for him to deliberately relegate the analysis of his condition to that puzzling limbo wherein the uninitiated easily discard all visionary impressions. Although an able psychologist, he did not attain to this conclusion of mental agitation at one bound; it was a slow and gradual process assisted by numerous soporific puffs of the pipe and concentrated attention on the volume before him. At last he laid them aside, the degree of indifference desired having been attained. He was about to retire, to drown in sleep whatever speculations his fancy might conjure up again, when his eye lighted upon a manuscript translation he had been engaged upon for the past several days.

It was late, but he could not resist taking the writing up and glancing over it now that it was completed. He did not care to compare it with the original German scrawl, with its angular and distorted letters in faded ink and its ragged and bewildering blots, that, after infinite application, he had succeeded in deciphering. He was done with that. And now he felt a certain degree of satisfaction in looking upon the finished work as it confronted him with its new face, the familiar English one, which he had given it. His efforts had been rewarded by what appeared to be a disconnected legend, detached from a rich mass of now scattered, and perhaps lost, German folk-lore, relating to some remote ancestors on his father's side. He had expected something quite different from the final result of the writing when he undertook its translation.

The manuscript had been included among a lot of old papers, faded almost beyond deciphering, of a grand-uncle of his, Herr Hermann, a bachelor and a misanthrope, who, recently dying, had left to the Professor, as sole heir and last scion of the once mighty House of Otto, the decrepit and partially ruined remains of an ancient castle on the Rhine, along with a musty bundle of yellow parchment manuscripts.

The knowledge of this hitherto unknown relationship, together with the importance of being sole representative of a powerful line of German pfalzgrafs who in mediæval times had ruled the Rhine lands with a hand of iron was very disturbing to the gentle-minded professor. He immediately busied himself with investigating the authenticity of these new genealogical claims, and confirming the order of his descent. And so at last was established his right to the coat-of-arms, which he had always had stamped on his writing paper and envelopes as a mere matter of fashion, consisting of three spiked bludgeons, argent on a field sable, cresting which, above a wreath of golden thistle, shone out a blood-red gauntlet. He could not say that he was proud of being the descendant of so wicked a line of feudal counts and viscounts, or of the legacy of the tottering and tumbling castle, litigation had about stripped to a kreutzer's worth of antique finery and furniture. His coat-of-arms was useful to him; his castle was not. The one was an everyday visual demonstration; the other merely a visionary expectation appertaining more to the past than to the present. Both were curious, likewise interesting to him as directly relating to himself and as being identified with his name and blood. Yet he, in this new country, speaking a different language, living such a different life, seemed so far removed, so remote from all that they suggested and symbolized, that it seemed impossible that it should be so, and also preposterous.

The translation of the manuscripts left him by Herr Hermann would have been a difficult task for even a native-born-German scholar, how much more so for him, written as they were in an ancient, small, crabbed and aguish hand, hardly decipherable. As it was, after several days of vexatious vacillation between confirmations, doubts and guesses, the Professor had only been able to secure the following from the deplorable mass of obscurity:

"Pfalzgraf Otto, from whom the Hermanns are descended, was a man of ferocious and brutal nature. Not only did he delight in the torture and oppression of his peasantry and people, but it was his boast that he could blaspheme God and His angels with impunity; that if there was a God why did He not protect the weak and innocent to say nothing of resenting an insult to Himself? No! there was no God; and what the foolish people worshipped was merely a creation of the minds of the ignorant and licentious monks, of whom the Pope was the great arch-hypocrite and scoundrel. And as to the Bible why, that was merely a fabrication of superstition of the Hebrews, identical with the similar mythologies of Greece and Italy. The Old Testament was the record of many myths; the New, of but one Christ. Indeed, if Otto believed in anything it must have been Satan himself, with whom, it was whispered, he had struck up a contract, swearing cheek by jowl, for services received, one tempestuous night in the Harz mountains, to be the Fiend's leal brother-in-arms in this world, and in case there did prove to be another, then forever after for all eternity.

"The liberty and license of his predatory retainers were limited only by his own. The goods of the husbandman, the wife and the daughter of the husbandman, were the ruffian sport of this despot and his butchers. Murder, fire, and rapine were the three croaking ravens that attended, as black familiars, the blacker banner of Graff yon Otto when he led his bearded and beer-blown bullies, with curse and song, from the ponderous gates of the Schloss.

"It was by might alone that the Pfalzgraf had won three wives. These had all died suddenly when they had ceased to be pleasing to the fastidious monster, in horrible agonies, it was affirmed by eye witnesses, and while banqueting in the great hall. Graff yon Otto had seen some younger, some more flaxen-haired fraülein who interested him more, pleased him more perhaps, than the present Pfalzgrafinn. His confidential servant had received secret orders but who shall say how the terrible mistake was made of spicing the boiled wine of the last incumbent with wolf's-bane instead of sweet basil?

"It was in the year 14 that the Graff determined to take unto himself another wife, the fourth it is said, and this time his choice had fallen upon the daughter of the respectable burgermeister of Mühlhofen. He had only to make public his intention of interesting himself in the welfare of any maiden in the community and straightway, behold, all other suitors disappeared; some vanished mysteriously but utterly, while others discreetly retired, generously leaving the field open to his worshipful possession, while the parents meekly and hastily arranged about the dowry. In this case, however, there were murmurs of disapproval, discontent, and even of resistance. For you must remember the villagers of Mühlhofen had the recent monstrous deaths of the Graff's former wives before them as an everlasting warning as to the probable fate that awaited any future successor. Moreover, this was the daughter of their beloved burgermeister; and a more beautiful and lovable damsel than she was not to be found in the Rheinpfalz.

"It came to pass that Otto and his robbers got wind of this disaffection of Mühlhofen, through spies some said, through his sworn friend and boon companion, the Fiend, others said. However it was, one afternoon, with a volley of oaths, armed to the teeth, he and his desperadoes galloped thunderingly over the drawbridge of the Schloss down the winding road of rock and root, to wreak vengeance upon the unsuspecting burgers of Mühlhofen.

"'Not one rat of them shall escape! Fools and sots! I will reduce the place to a desert, roof and cellar, and make an owl's roost of it!'

"But in the decrees of destiny this was not to be. For as he rode breakneck, devil-may-care over stock and stone through the forest, that stretched its dark miles between his castle and the village, he happened to startle a wolf, snow-white, as it were a shaft of moonlight. Mühlhofen, burgers, and burgermeister were all forgotten in the excitement of the chase and the securing of such a quarry. He must have the skin of the white wolf to match the whiter skin of his bride. In his eagerness the Pfalzgraf never once noticed that he at first had distanced and then completely lost his retinue of retainers. Not a solitary junker followed him. Blind to everything but the beast before him, onward he spurred, mad with the intoxication of pursuit, the wolf gleaming and bounding through the tangled and deepening vistas of the trees, now vanishing like a long ray of hurrying moonlight, now reappearing like a silvery shaft of shadow.

"At last the Graff was compelled to abandon his horse; and without even taking the trouble to tie him to some tree, eagerly continued the chase on foot among the wild rocks and matted roots of the forest. At last he came to a tar-black torrent that foamed darkly down savage and bewildering stones through fantastic and hideous foliage. Where the sullen water emptied itself into a dismal pool, covered with a sulphurous sort of scum and green and yellow duck-weed, he saw what appeared to be the white wolf standing outlined against the sombre crimson of the west, seemingly awaiting him on a rock high above the sinister water. With a ferocious laugh of exultation, stumbling and clutching at the evil and hairy weeds and roots that covered the hillside and the rocks, Graff von Otto hurled himself awkwardly and heavily in his weight of armor, sword in hand, at the creature quietly awaiting him there above the stagnant pool.

"But what had become of the wolf? That was no wolf that confronted him with burning gaze! but a woman, white as a star and with eyes of yellow fire, like lucid topazes, and hair as black as a stormy night. She looked at him steadily, and the Pfalzgraf felt the very marrow of his bones and his heart's blood freezing, slowly freezing, beneath that cat-like gaze. Then she spoke; and the sound of her voice was as the sound of distant winds in the moonlit woods, mixed with the music of limpid waters falling over pebbles of spar into basins of crystal, and yet terrible as doom:

"'Blasphemer of God! behold in me the hereditary spirit of the House of Otto. I appear only to those who are about to perish violently. Farewell!' . .

"It is said that many days elapsed before they found the body of the Pfalzgraf, bloated and blistered beyond recognition, tangled in his rusty mail, among the slime and oozy spawn and waterweeds of a forest pool."
. . . . .

The Professor laid aside the manuscript. The fact that he was the sole descendant, the only surviving representative, of such a family was gruesome to him to say the least. Yet, repellant and attractive at the same time, he brooded over the idea with a fascination that he could not explain.

Again the insistent expression of the eyes of the lady of his dream occurred to him, and his mind would persist in associationg that look with a certain passage in the manuscript. He understood it now, yes; but he must sleep and see how all this ratiocination bore the explanation in the rational light of morning. If he again received a letter, precisely similar to the two already received on the preceding mornings, and if the lady of his dreams of the two preceding nights again visited him to-night with the same peculiar look, then these, the lady and the letters, must be something more than mere coincidences.

It was three o'clock before he fell into a frail, uneasy slumber, wherein Graff von Otto and his bandit bravos played battledore and shuttlecock with milk-white wolves' heads and the glowing golden eyes of star-white women: that finally resolved themselves into the eyes of one woman, the woman of his dreams, who regarded him steadily and fearfully from a gradually decreasing distance.

The day was far advanced; indeed, the buhl clock on his mantel had chimed the hour of noon ere he arose. He had dreaded it as we dread the inevitable, but would have been disappointed, after having dreamed that dream again, had the letter not been there. There it was, however, characterized by its foreign-looking envelope of vivid yellow inclosing a slip of spotless paper, perfectly blank, and nothing more. Not a line. He curiously examined the address. It was correct, and written in a fine, angular, female hand. The script was German, but the postmark was American his own city's. Placing it in an inside pocket the Professor left his apartments; they seemed to compress and stifle his soul that seemed dilating and expanding beyond his comprehension and unto what? He was as one dazed, wandering he knew not whither. Some mysterious influence seemed governing all his movements. He appeared to have no will of his own. Could it be that he was on the verge of some serious sickness, and did this persistent dream, always the same, never varying an iota in its strange details, indicate this? Were the letters merely illusions? At this thought mechanically he felt in his pocket, drew forth the letter that had arrived that morning and stared at it as at some curious and horrible thing, then slowly tore it across, shredding it into small bits which he tossed into the street.

Now he would go into the country. There he would forget it all. In a long ramble dissipate this haunting thought, this nightmare which had made horror of three past days and nights. . .

The electric lights had commenced to dot the evening glimmer as he returned on foot by an unfrequented way. He was in an unknown quarter of the town which had been his residence for twenty years; a quarter distinguished by nothing that he knew; its houses older than any he had ever seen in any other part of the city; most of them great, square, colonial-columned buildings sitting far back from the street each one in its grove of old trees. In the course of his saunter, curiosity led him into a quaint old cemetery with queer, gaunt tombstones and cellared vaults. Rusty iron railings enclosed little squares of myrtled and mounded silence pathetic with tottering or fallen headstones. Here and there flat and lichened tombs covered and hid a sad handful of dust and remembrance. The fireflies were twinkling like elfin lanterns, or will-o'-the-wisps, up and down the plaintive vistas of elm and cedar and weeping willow. A pleasant feeling of melancholy, dreamy and undefined, pervaded the soul of the Professor as he strolled among the gray, neglected graves. He had forgotten entirely the disagreeable things that had impelled him away from the city at noon. The letter, the lady, even Herr Hermann and his unholy manuscript were completely forgotten. Absorbed upon the sorrowful beauty of the neglected place in which so strangely he found himself, he continued to wander among the tall weeds and flowers that had overgrown all its walks. He had intended going in a quite different direction, but suddenly seemed compelled, by some strange power, in an opposite one from that he desired to take; and in a little while he found himself, like the poet in Ulalume, standing in the uncertain twilight before a"legended tomb, " a looming and crumbling vault of mossy stone at the extreme western end of the cemetery.

Could he be mistaken? No, he was not. There under the sorrowful trees, near the ghostly entrance of the tomb, among a wilderness of weeds and roses and ruined headstones, wavered the white of a woman's dress. He had hardly recovered from his surprise, and, embarrassed, for he was a very shy, retired man, was about to turn away, when the wearer of the white dress came hastily and eagerly towards him. Stopping suddenly in front of him she regarded him fixedly from head to foot as if desirous of identifying before addressing him.

He, by the fast-fading light of the west, dimly discerned that she was very beautiful and very pale. A large, foreign hat of some fleecy material, white and white-feathered, partially shaded her face, concealing her eyes completely. The grace and elegance of her form would have indicated her from white-shawled shoulders to white-shod feet a woman of distinction, even had it not been for the costly lace and lawn that hung like draperies of foam about her. One long, white-gloved hand held a white lace fan of wonderful workmanship. Extending the Professor her disengaged hand she said quietly, as if she had expected him, had known him for a long time, addressing him by name:

"You have kept me waiting. Why are you not more prompt with your engagements? Did you not receive my letters? or could you not find the place appointed?" Here she broke into a little musical laugh that seemed familiar to him, but, after a hopeless effort to place it, he helplessly gave it up. For a moment he stood staring at her, unable to answer her fusillade of questions. Then before he could courteously reply, assuring her that she had made a mistake, that it was not he whom she had expected, she quietly took his arm, and leaning lightly upon it, said, "Let us walk in this direction;" indicating a long dark avenue of larch and elm trees, along which the gravestones glimmered like ghosts, and at whose far end, like a torch at the end of a cavern, glittered and hissed the globe of an electric light. After a pause she continued questioningly:"You are glad to see me? You do not object to walking with me?"

The Professor could only stammer a breathless reply in the affirmative and the negative to both her questions; but which one he said"yes " to, and which one he said"no" to, he could not for the life of him tell. He was so entirely under the sway of some strange influence that it seemed he had lost complete control of all his faculties, mental and physical, and possessed no preference that did not first defer to this woman's; no impulse that did not emanate from the dominating intentions of herself. He wondered if he had not fallen asleep and if he were not dreaming that strange dream again; dreaming as he had dreamed only last night; that dream which had so absorbed and possessed him for the past three days. Only how different was this woman from the supernatural creature of his dream, the stately, mournful beauty in trailing black! Here was coquettish loveliness clad in happy white, defiant and yielding, compliant and resistant. He could see that her hair was intensely black, and from the glimpses now and then of the classic purity of her delicate cheek, chin, and throat, he suspicioned marvels of loveliness the darkness kept unrevealed.

They had almost reached the end of the avenue of trees, and the gate by the sexton's bell-hung, dilapidated, old brick cottage, and were passing under the electric light at the entrance to the cemetery, when she stopped, turned facing him, and suddenly looked up as if about to put a direct and abrupt question to him. In that moment he got a full view of her face and eyes a face white as marble, and eyes, two lucid topazes, a luminous yellow.

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