Etidorhpa or the End of Earth - Cover

Etidorhpa or the End of Earth

Public Domain

Chapter 1


More than thirty years ago occurred the first of the series of remarkable events I am about to relate. The exact date I can not recall; but it was in November, and, to those familiar with November weather in the Ohio Valley, it is hardly necessary to state that the month is one of possibilities. That is to say, it is liable to bring every variety of weather, from the delicious, dreamy Indian summer days that linger late in the fall, to a combination of rain, hail, snow, sleet, --in short, atmospheric conditions sufficiently aggravating to develop a suicidal mania in any one the least susceptible to such influences. While the general character of the month is much the same the country over, --showing dull grey tones of sky, abundant rains that penetrate man as they do the earth; cold, shifting winds, that search the very marrow, --it is always safe to count more or less upon the probability of the unexpected throughout the month.

The particular day which ushered in the event about to be chronicled, was one of these possible heterogeneous days presenting a combination of sunshine, shower, and snow, with winds that rang all the changes from balmy to blustery, a morning air of caloric and an evening of numbing cold. The early morning started fair and sunny; later came light showers suddenly switched by shifting winds into blinding sleet, until the middle of the afternoon found the four winds and all the elements commingled in one wild orgy with clashing and roaring as of a great organ with all the stops out, and all the storm-fiends dancing over the key-boards! Nightfall brought some semblance of order to the sounding chaos, but still kept up the wild music of a typical November day, with every accompaniment of bleakness, gloom, and desolation.

Thousands of chimneys, exhaling murky clouds of bituminous soot all day, had covered the city with the proverbial pall which the winds in their sport had shifted hither and yon, but as, thoroughly tired out, they subsided into silence, the smoky mesh suddenly settled over the houses and into the streets, taking possession of the city and contributing to the melancholy wretchedness of such of the inhabitants as had to be out of doors. Through this smoke the red sun when visible had dragged his downward course in manifest discouragement, and the hastening twilight soon gave place to the blackness of darkness. Night reigned supreme.

Thirty years ago electric lighting was not in vogue, and the system of street lamps was far less complete than at present, although the gas burned in them may not have been any worse. The lamps were much fewer and farther between, and the light which they emitted had a feeble, sickly aspect, and did not reach any distance into the moist and murky atmosphere. And so the night was dismal enough, and the few people upon the street were visible only as they passed directly beneath the lamps, or in front of lighted windows; seeming at other times like moving shadows against a black ground.

As I am like to be conspicuous in these pages, it may be proper to say that I am very susceptible to atmospheric influences. I figure among my friends as a man of quiet disposition, but I am at times morose, although I endeavor to conceal this fact from others. My nervous system is a sensitive weather-glass. Sometimes I fancy that I must have been born under the planet Saturn, for I find myself unpleasantly influenced by moods ascribed to that depressing planet, more especially in its disagreeable phases, for I regret to state that I do not find corresponding elation, as I should, in its brighter aspects. I have an especial dislike for wintry weather, a dislike which I find growing with my years, until it has developed almost into positive antipathy and dread. On the day I have described, my moods had varied with the weather. The fitfulness of the winds had found its way into my feelings, and the somber tone of the clouds into my meditations. I was restless as the elements, and a deep sense of dissatisfaction with myself and everything else, possessed me. I could not content myself in any place or position. Reading was distasteful, writing equally so; but it occurred to me that a brisk walk, for a few blocks, might afford relief. Muffling myself up in my overcoat and fur cap, I took the street, only to find the air gusty and raw, and I gave up in still greater disgust, and returning home, after drawing the curtains and locking the doors, planted myself in front of a glowing grate fire, firmly resolved to rid myself of myself by resorting to the oblivion of thought, reverie, or dream. To sleep was impossible, and I sat moodily in an easy chair, noting the quarter and half-hour strokes as they were chimed out sweetly from the spire of St. Peter’s Cathedral, a few blocks away.

Nine o’clock passed with its silver-voiced song of “Home, Sweet Home”; ten, and then eleven strokes of the ponderous bell which noted the hours, roused me to a strenuous effort to shake off the feelings of despondency, unrest, and turbulence, that all combined to produce a state of mental and physical misery now insufferable. Rising suddenly from my chair, without a conscious effort I walked mechanically to a book-case, seized a volume at random, reseated myself before the fire, and opened the book. It proved to be an odd, neglected volume, “Riley’s Dictionary of Latin Quotations.” At the moment there flashed upon me a conscious duality of existence. Had the old book some mesmeric power? I seemed to myself two persons, and I quickly said aloud, as if addressing my double: “If I can not quiet you, turbulent Spirit, I can at least adapt myself to your condition. I will read this book haphazard from bottom to top, or backward, if necessary, and if this does not change the subject often enough, I will try Noah Webster.” Opening the book mechanically at page 297, I glanced at the bottom line and read, “Nunquam minus solus quam cum solus” (Never less alone than when alone). These words arrested my thoughts at once, as, by a singular chance, they seemed to fit my mood; was it or was it not some conscious invisible intelligence that caused me to select that page, and brought the apothegm to my notice?

Again, like a flash, came the consciousness of duality, and I began to argue with my other self. “This is arrant nonsense,” I cried aloud; “even though Cicero did say it, and, it is on a par with many other delusive maxims that have for so many years embittered the existence of our modern youth by misleading thought. Do you know, Mr. Cicero, that this statement is not sound? That it is unworthy the position you occupy in history as a thinker and philosopher? That it is a contradiction in itself, for if a man is alone he is alone, and that settles it?”

I mused in this vein a few moments, and then resumed aloud: “It won’t do, it won’t do; if one is alone--the word is absolute, --he is single, isolated, in short, alone; and there can by no manner of possibility be any one else present. Take myself, for instance: I am the sole occupant of this apartment; I am alone, and yet you say in so many words that I was never less alone than at this instant.” It was not without some misgiving that I uttered these words, for the strange consciousness of my own duality constantly grew stronger, and I could not shake off the reflection that even now there were two of myself in the room, and that I was not so much alone as I endeavored to convince myself.

This feeling oppressed me like an incubus; I must throw it off, and, rising, I tossed the book upon the table, exclaiming: “What folly! I am alone, --positively there is no other living thing visible or invisible in the room.” I hesitated as I spoke, for the strange, undefined sensation that I was not alone had become almost a conviction; but the sound of my voice encouraged me, and I determined to discuss the subject, and I remarked in a full, strong voice: “I am surely alone; I know I am! Why, I will wager everything I possess, even to my soul, that I am alone.” I stood facing the smoldering embers of the fire which I had neglected to replenish, uttering these words to settle the controversy for good and all with one person of my dual self, but the other ego seemed to dissent violently, when a soft, clear voice claimed my ear:

“You have lost your wager; you are not alone.”


I turned instantly towards the direction of the sound, and, to my amazement, saw a white-haired man seated on the opposite side of the room, gazing at me with the utmost composure. I am not a coward, nor a believer in ghosts or illusions, and yet that sight froze me where I stood. It had no supernatural appearance--on the contrary, was a plain, ordinary, flesh-and-blood man; but the weather, the experiences of the day, the weird, inclement night, had all conspired to strain my nerves to the highest point of tension, and I trembled from head to foot. Noting this, the stranger said pleasantly: “Quiet yourself, my dear sir; you have nothing to fear; be seated.” I obeyed, mechanically, and regaining in a few moments some semblance of composure, took a mental inventory of my visitor. Who is he? what is he? how did he enter without my notice, and why? what is his business? were all questions that flashed into my mind in quick succession, and quickly flashed out unanswered.

The stranger sat eying me composedly, even pleasantly, as if waiting for me to reach some conclusion regarding himself. At last I surmised: “He is a maniac who has found his way here by methods peculiar to the insane, and my personal safety demands that I use him discreetly.”

“Very good,” he remarked, as though reading my thoughts; “as well think that as anything else.”

“But why are you here? What is your business?” I asked.

“You have made and lost a wager,” he said. “You have committed an act of folly in making positive statements regarding a matter about which you know nothing--a very common failing, by the way, on the part of mankind, and concerning which I wish first to set you straight.”

The ironical coolness with which he said this provoked me, and I hastily rejoined: “You are impertinent; I must ask you to leave my house at once.”

“Very well,” he answered; “but if you insist upon this, I shall, on behalf of Cicero, claim the stake of your voluntary wager, which means that I must first, by natural though violent means, release your soul from your body.” So saying he arose, drew from an inner pocket a long, keen knife, the blade of which quiveringly glistened as he laid it upon the table. Moving his chair so as to be within easy reach of the gleaming weapon, he sat down, and again regarded me with the same quiet composure I had noted, and which was fast dispelling my first impression concerning his sanity.

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