THE twelve guests gasped when, at the last stroke of midnight, their host ushered them into the room where the supper was laid. Its grim aspect quite confounded them and held them breathless while they rapidly surveyed its grotesquerie.
The room, they saw at once, was built within the great dining-room in which Novalis ordinarily entertained his guests. The drab walls were of unadorned gray. The ceiling appeared uncannily high, for the horizontal proportions of the enclosure were considerably less than those of the chamber which contained it. The floor was superimposed and, like the walls, of lifeless gray. The nervous clatter of heels upon its uncarpeted surface was metallic. The walls, too, seemed to be of metal, though it was difficult to make certain in the dim light. The sole illumination was afforded by heavily barred and loftily situated windows through which penetrated the pale blue rays of artificially created moonlight.
But that which struck the open-mouthed guests as being the most singular of the appointments was the unique set of chairs placed about the two sides and one end of the rectangular table on which the supper was laid. A shudder escaped from the awed group as it recognized these pieces to be clever duplicates of the electric chair. It dawned upon them at once that this bizarrely outfitted room was meant to represent a prison death-house.
A nervous laugh broke the silence; then various strained exclamations, no doubt intended to be uttered in a tone both light and appreciative, resounded in the metallic enclosure. “Well, Novalis, you’ve done it again!” . . . “By heaven! this is weird!” . . . “Wherever did you get the idea?” . . . “Good old Novalis! he never bores!” . . . “Another brilliant supper party!” etc.
Throughout this effusion of compliments, Novalis maintained an air of complete indifference, smiling dryly at the undercurrent of vague uneasiness which the vociferous enthusiasm only partly concealed. A slight motion of his head caused thirteen servitors costumed as prison guards to materialize suddenly from the shadows.
The guests, perceptibly intimidated by these grim figures, moved to the chairs as if under compulsion. To their discomfort and dismay, the servitors, acting simultaneously, strapped electrodes to their ankles and lowered black helmets upon their heads. As one man, they looked to Novalis, seated at the end of the table, and were reassured to discover that he, too, was subjected to the same indignities. Despite this assurance, perspiration beaded their brows and moistened their strained cheeks. Even the most nonchalant among them felt that Novalis’ eccentricity had carried him beyond the bounds of propriety. His zeal to astonish and amuse his guests had gotten the better of him. This nonsense of rigging them up in death chairs was pretty far-fetched. Worse—it was decidedly annoying.
ILL at ease, they eyed one another in a restrained fashion, the heavy cord to their hcad-gear just flexible enough to allow moderate movement.
“I wonder,” remarked Tannen, the painter, “that you did not put us in strait-jackets.”
The other guests, their pent-up excitation momentarily loosed, burst into exaggerated laughter. With mingled emotions, they saw the servitors retire and heard the steel-paneled doors close after them, the key grate in the lock.
“Are we locked in, then?” asked Morrison, the music critic, in a tone that fell short of levity.
Novalis nodded carelessly. His guests, resigned to his eccentricity, sought to distract themselves in the supper laid upon the deal table before them. This was quite easy to do, for the food was indeed seductive. Exquisite viands, rare and odd game, delicacies from all over the world were prepared for them. A fairly inexhaustible supply of wine of priceless vintages—Roussillon, Tenedos, Oporto—soon dissipated their coldness and brought them gay assurance. Even the most timid became voluble. Anecdotes were freely related, and it is not surprizing that their subjects were gruesome and weird. Each guest had his tale of murder or death, his story of ghosts or of sorcery.
At first, the tone was light and frivolous, each raconteur endeavoring to impress his listeners with the fact of his own disbelief.
De Severas, the author—a professional liar—affected from habit to be more sincere. He related the story of a famous bibliophile who all his life waged a war upon the censorship and expurgation of literature. After his death, his widow nightly visited his tomb and read to him from his favorite books, expurgating, however, such passages as offended her mid-Victorian taste.
By almost imperceptible stages, the mood became more serious and the contents of the yarns more factual. Tales which the guests had heretofore not dared to recount were now freely told. The story related by Bartram, the physician, was typical:
“Some years ago, I had as patient a very wealthy man who was unhappily married to a woman much younger than himself. I suspected that she would be overjoyed if I failed to save his life. My patient, too, voiced my feeling. ’Every day that I live,’ he once confided to me, ’my death becomes twenty-four hours less timely’
“I prescribed for the unhappy man an arsenical drug which was to be administered at very definite intervals. At first, it brought about an improved condition; then, to my surprize, the patient died. It was not until his widow had rushed the body to the crematory that it dawned upon me that she might have poisoned him by lessening the intervals between the doses. The more I brooded over the matter, the more I became certain that my suspicions were well founded. Of course, it was too late for an autopsy.
“Some months later the widow became stricken by the same disease which had threatened the life of her husband. I was called, and I prescribed again the arsenical drug. ’These capsules must not be taken oftener than once every hour,’ I warned both her and the nurse. ’To decrease the interval even by a very few minutes would prove fatal.’
“The stricken woman shrilly laughed. ’Oh! my dear, departed husband will guard over me!’ she exclaimed enigmatically. This remark puzzled me, and I privately questioned the nurse as to its meaning. She explained that the widow had placed her late husband’s ashes in a specially constructed hour-glass. It tickled her perverted sense of humor to watch these ashes filter through the glass. Her assertion that her husband would guard over her implied that she intended that the doses of the arsenical drug were to be spaced by this appalling toy. If I had had any doubt as to the woman’s guilt in the mysterious death of her husband, it was dissipated by this singular information.
“Early the following morning, I was summoned by the almost hysterical nurse. I arrived upon the scene to find the patient dead. The tearful girl explained that she had faithfully given the drug as prescribed and had spaced the doses with the hour-glass as her patient had requested. She discovered to her dismay that the ashes had passed through the glass so rapidly that she had given fifteen doses within a space of ten hours. By this time, her patient was dying and shortly thereafter she succumbed.
“Of course, I checked up on the hourglass, as did the coroner and a committee from the medical association. The strange thing is that we found it to be invariably accurate. I have it now in my office, and I have never since known it to err a second. Often I have regarded the slowly filtering ashes of the murdered man with awe and have wondered if the true cause of death was accidental. Every day, I am inclined more and more to the belief that the death of the murderess was the vengeance wreaked by her victim, and that his ashes, by the unwonted rapidity with which they passed through the hourglass, caused her to die the death which he had died at her hands.”
AFTER many such tales had been told, the guests turned to their host. He had listened to the story-telling apathetically, his mind ostensibly preoccupied. He was, and always had been, unfathomable to his acquaintances—it would perhaps be presumption to refer to any man as his friend. There was about the expression of his eyes a hint of madness which had often disturbed his associates and now disconcerted these guests tonight. One had always the impression, no matter how dense the crowd of which he formed a part, that he was alone. His thoughts appeared to be many thousands of miles removed. Those who had been introduced into his house felt that they had been invited to afford amusement. They were lured only by the knowledge that his invitations bespoke an evening of rare and original entertainment. He never offered those sophomoric bacchanals which are the height of diversion to the would-be sophisticated. He never failed to devise some highly ingenious treat for jaded minds.
“Why don’t you contribute to our lore?” asked Arbuthnot, the lawyer. “It isn’t fair for you to shirk your duty while we regale you with yarns.”
“I have not been entertained,” replied Novalis coldly; “therefore it is not incumbent upon me to entertain.”
The amour-propre of the story-tellers winced under this blow.
“And why have you not been entertained?” demanded De Severas savagely, for, being a professional, he was the most resentful.
Novalis’ fine-drawn features distorted themselves into a derisive grimace.
“Your murderers and murderesses invariably act upon some sordid and tawdry motivation. They always murder for gain. They are unconscionable materialists with neither imagination nor ideals. They study the technique of murder only to prostitute it to base ends. They do not murder for murder’s sake, but for the sake of some material advancement. Murder for murder’s sake is seldom, if ever, accounted. It was a long time before artists had the courage to cultivate art for art’s sake; the time is remote when the murderer may apply himself with equal disinterestedness to his art.”
“Tell us, then, of a murderer who murdered for murder’s sake,” suggested Ingalls, the sculptor.
“I shall do more,” said Novalis simply. “Tonight I shall offer for your delectation the actual enactment of such a crime.”
“Oh, ho!” laughed the guests, some of their nervousness, however, returning upon them. “Bring on your murderer and produce his victims!”
Novalis smiled without mirth and eyed his guests severally. His face, like their own, was rendered ghastly by the artificial moonlight. His manner was so apathetic and uninterested that it was hard to believe he was sincere.
“I am the murderer,” he said lazily, “and you are my victims.”
For a fraction of a second there was a burst of laughter; then it abruptly subsided, and those who had been so amused eyed Novalis sternly.
“Just what do you mean?” demanded Arbuthnot.
Novalis silently reached forward and lifted from the table a huge silver cover which the guests had supposed to conceal a neglected roast. They looked stupidly at the two copper switches which were revealed. These were both open, and without ado Novalis seized the handle of one and closed it. There was a slight flashing of sparks, and then was heard the low drone of a distant dynamo. The muffled hum brought an indefinable terror to the hearts of the huddled guests. They eyed Novalis fearfully.
“I assure you, my friends, that I bear you no malice. My motives in this instance are purely artistic. I sacrifice you to art alone. You should be proud to be the victims in such an artistically and ingeniously contrived murder. Forgive my pride.”
The twelve men started in their chairs. “Surely——”
There was a wild scramble to be free of the harness, but Novalis was too quick. With a swift, decisive effort, he drew down the handle of the second switch. The flash of sparks illuminated the gloom as the thirteen men plunged forward upon the table, their faces distorted, their every muscle drawn taut by the terrific voltage which surged through their bodies. An odor of burning flesh began to suffuse the room. The hand of the murderer still grasped the switch as a burst of flame from the littered table made a roaring furnace of the metallic room.
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