The Stone Dog.



IT was drawing towards sunset, and I had reached the outskirts of the city, which here came to an abrupt end upon the very edge of the marshes. The marshes stretched before me bare and gray, with here and there a flush of evening color, serving but to emphasize their utterness of desolation. Here and there, also, lay broad pools, their shore and water gradually intermerging through a sullen fringe of reeds. The river, which had been my day-long companion—a noisy stream flowing through breezy hills, and villages, and vineyards—having loitered to draw its circle about the city walls [Page 232], had fallen under a spell. It met me here a featureless, brimming ditch, and wound away in torpid coils to the monotonous horizon. And now this shrunken city, its edges dead and fallen to decay, these naked levels, where not even a bittern’s voice had courage to startle the stillness, filled me, in spite of myself, with a vague apprehensiveness. Just as one who is groping in profound darkness feels his eyes dilate in the effort to catch the least glimmer of light, I found my senses all on the strain, attentive to their very utmost. Though the atmosphere was heavy and deadening, my eyes were so watchful that not even the uprising of some weeds, trodden down, perhaps, hours before by a passing foot, escaped their notice. My nostrils were keenly conscious of the sick metallic odor from the marshes, of the pleasanter perfume of dry reed panicles, of the chill, damp smell of mouldering [Page 233] stone-work, and of a strangely disagreeable haunting essence from a certain dull-colored weed, whose leaves, which shot up within tempting reach of my hand, I had idly bruised in passing. My ears, for all their painful expectancy, heard at first no sound save the rustle of a frightened mouse in the dead grass near; but at length they detected the gurgle of running water, made audible by a faint stray wind which breathed in my direction.
    Instinctively I turned and followed the sound. On my right a huge fragment of the wall jutted into the marsh, and passing this I saw before me, brightened by the sunset, a narrow stretch of dry, baked soil, raised somewhat above the level of the pools, and strewn with shattered bricks and scraps of tilling and potsherds. The musical lapsing of the water now fell upon my ears distinctly, and I saw a little way off a [Page 234] quaint old fountain, standing half a stonecast clear of the wall. With the sunlight bathing it, the limpid water sparkling away from its base, it was the only cheerful object in the landscape; yet I felt an unaccountable reluctance to approach it. The evil enchantment which seemed to brood over the place, the weird fantasies chasing each other through my unconsenting brain, annoyed me greatly, for I profess to hold my imagination pretty well under control, and to have but small concern for ghostly horrors. Shaking aside my nervousness, I began to whistle softly as I strolled up to examine the old fountain. But on noticing how lugubrious, how appropriate to the neighborhood and my feelings was the air that came to my lips, I laughed aloud. At the sudden sound of my voice I felt both startled and somewhat abashed. Laughter here was clearly out of place; and besides [Page 235], the echo that followed was obtrusively and unpleasantly distinct, appearing to come both from a deep-arched doorway in the wall near by, and from the vaulted hollow of the basin of the fount, which lay just beneath the dog’s jaws. As I should have said before, the fountain was a great cube of darkish stone, along the top of which a stone dog crouched; and the water gushed from between its carved fore-paws into a deep basin, the side of which was cleft two thirds of the way to its base. Through this break, which I saw to be an old one from the layers of green film lining it, the stream bubbled out and ran off among barren heaps of débris, to sink itself in the weeds of some stagnant pool. The head of the dog was thrust forward and rested upon the fore-paws as if the brute were sleeping; but its half-open eyes seemed to watch the approaches to the doorway in the wall. As a piece [Page 236] of sculpture, the animal was simply marvellous. In its gathered limbs, though relaxed and perfectly at rest, a capacity for swift and terrible action seemed to hold itself in reserve, and a breath almost appeared to come from the half-opened jaws, momentarily dimming the crystal that smoothly gushed beneath. No scrap of vegetation could the rill persuade out of the inexorable sterility around, saving for some curdled greenish mosses that waved slowly from the sides of the basin, or pointed from roothold on brick and shard, where the small current loitered a little. I am not a taker of notes, nor, for all my vagrant and exploring tendencies, am I a very close observer. Nevertheless, though it is now a year and a half since what I am telling of took place, the minutest details of that strange fountain, and of the scene about it, are as definitely before me as if I had been there but yesterday. I am not [Page 237] going to inflict them all upon my reader, yet would do so without a spark of compunction, if by such means I could dim the all too vivid remembrance. The experiences that befell me by this fountain have shaken painfully the confidence I once enjoyed as to the fulness of my knowledge of the powers of things material. I cannot say that I have become credulous; but I have ceased to regard as necessarily absurd whatever I find it difficult to explain.

    From the fountain it was not a score of paces to the doorway in the wall, which was sunk below the surface of the ground, so that the crumbling arch surmounting it was scarcely on a level with my feet. Steep narrow stairs of brick work, consisting, I think, of seven steps, let down to it. The doorway had once been elaborately ornamented with mouldings in yellow stucco, most of which had fallen, and all but choked the [Page 238] stairs. The crude pale color of these fragments jarred harshly against the olive of the damp stone foundations and the stained brown of the mouldy brick. After my usual fashion, I set myself to explore this doorway, in my interest half forgetting my apprehensions. As I descended the steps the sound of the running water faded out, with a suddenness which caught my ear, though failing to fix my attention. But as I made to grasp the great rusty iron door-handle, which was curiously wrought of two dragons intertwisted neck and tail, again my every sense sprang on the alert, and a chill of terror crept tingling through my frame. My straining ears could detect not the slightest sound from the fountain, which was within plain view behind me. I felt as if some eye were fixed upon me. I faced sharply about and set foot on the steps to ascend. And I saw the water at that very moment [Page 239] burst forth afresh between the feet of the dog, from whose eye a dull white glow seemed just vanishing. It must be borne in mind that the beast’s flank was toward the doorway, and, in consequence, only one of its half-closed eyes visible from where I stood. I ascended and went straight to the fountain. I grasped the great stone head and gave it a wrench, but found it just as immovable as it looked. Vexed at my idiotic fears, I vowed to take my fill of investigating that doorway, and to find out if there lay anything of interest beyond it. I knew this part of the city was quite deserted, and that no outraged householder in the flesh was likely to confront my trespassings. But the last of the daylight was now upon me, and I thought best to postpone my enterprise till the morrow. As I betook myself back toward humanity and lodgings, I felt that eye piercing me [Page 240] till I rounded the buttress of the wall; but I denied my folly permission to look back.
    The following morning was spent among the curious old cafés, the unexpected squares, and the gorgeous but dilapidated churches of the inhabited city. All these things, however, failed to interest me. With more time on my hands than I quite knew what to do with, I yet felt as if my time were being wasted. The spell of the dead outskirts, of the shadowless dead marshes, of that mysterious and inscrutable dog, clung to me with unrelenting persistence. And the early afternoon found me standing again by the fountain.

    Familiarly I scooped the cool water and drank it from my palm. I scattered it over the parched bricks and clay, which instantly soaked it in. I dashed in a few drops also, playfully, upon the image of the dog, which had taken, the evening before [Page 241], such fantastic liberties with my overwrought fancy. But these drops gathered themselves up nimbly into little shining balls, and fled off to the ground like so much quicksilver. I looked out upon the wan pools and marshes, whence a greenish mist steamed up, and seemed to poison the sunlight streaming through it. It is possible that this semblance of an unwholesome mist was not so much the fault of the marshes as a condition of the atmosphere, premonitory of the fierce electric storms and the earthquake which visited the city that same night. The greenish light beat full on the sunken doorway, so that only the lowermost steps remained in shadow. However unattractive the temporary complexion of the sun, I was glad of his company as I descended the steps. The twisting dragons of the door-handle attracted me as I drew near. As for the dog, I had exorcised it [Page 242] from my imagination with those nimble drops of water; and for the old door, it looked as if a little persuasion would make it yield whatever secret it might chance to have in keeping. But certainly, if I might credit my ears, which had once more grown abnormally attentive, the sound of the water had ceased. My flesh began to creep a little, though I told myself the fading of the sound was entirely due to my position,—that the walls of the stairway intercepted it. At the same time I felt that eye watching me, and a chilly sweat broke out upon my limbs; but I execrated my folly, and refused to turn my head. Meanwhile, so alert had become my hearing that the escape of some gases, bubbling up from the bottom of a pool far out in the marsh, resounded as if close beside me. I tried to force the bolt back, but in vain; and I had just come to the conclusion that a sharp wrench [Page 243] would break away bolt, socket, and all, when an uncontrollable instinct of fear turned me about to see what peril threatened. The head of the dog was facing directly toward me, and its eyes, now wide open, flamed upon me with strange and awful whiteness. I sprang up the steps and was at the beast’s side in an instant; but I found the head, as before, resting upon the paws, the eyes half closed and dull, the water gushing down into the basin.
    As I bathed my shaking hands and clammy forehead, I laughed with deep irritation. I said then to myself that the ignorant could hardly be blamed for even the wildest superstitions, when a cool-headed and enlightened modern like myself was so wrought upon by the fictions of his brain. I philosophized for some time, however, before I got the better of my repugnance to that doorway. I humorously assured myself [Page 244] that, at the worst, this incomprehensible beast was securely anchored to his fountain; and that if anything terrible were at the other side of the door which I was going to open, it surely could not be capable of much, good or ill, after its century or so of imprisonment. Then I walked firmly straight to the doorway and down the seven steps; and I knew that first one eye was turned upon me, then both; the water was silent before I had gone ten paces.
    It was useless trying to conquer the creeping of my skin, the fear that pricked along my nerves; so, bidding my reason ignore these minor discomforts, I busied myself with the problem of loosening the bolt-socket. It occurred to me at the time that there might be an easier entrance at the other side of the wall, as nothing in this neighborhood was in good enough repair to boast of more than three walls standing; but [Page 245] no, that would have been a concession to my illusions. I chipped away at the soft stone with my knife. I jerked hard upon the bolt, which gave a little, with clatter of falling stucco; and on the instant I faced around like lightning, in an indescribable horror. There, at the very top of the steps, crouched the dog, its head thrust down close to my face. The stone jaws were grinning apart. A most appalling menace was in the wide, white eyes. I know I tugged once more upon the bolt, for a great piece of the door and arch crumbled and came away; and I thought, as the head closed down, that I made a wild spring to get past the crouching form. Then reason and consciousness forsook me.
    When sense returned, I found myself lying on a pile of rags, in a darkish, garlicky hut, with the morning sunlight streaming in through the open door. I sat up, with the memory [Page 246] of my horror vivid upon me, and wondered, with a sigh of relief at the change, what sort of a place I had got to. I was in a very different quarter of the city from the neighborhood of the fountain. Here were still the ruined outskirts, still the desolate marshes, but the highlands backing the city on the north began to rise just beyond the hut’s door. I got up, but found my right shoulder almost disabled. I could not lift my arm without great pain. Yet my clothing was not torn, and bore no marks save of dust and travel. I was about to uncover and examine the damaged shoulder, when in came the owner of the hut, an honest-looking, heavy-set muleteer, who showed all his teeth in his gratification at observing my recovery.
    As I gathered from my host, he had had occasion to pass what he called the “Fonte del Cano” near sunset of the afternoon preceding [Page 247]. He had found me lying in a stupor, face down, across the basin of the fount, and directly beneath the jaws of the dog, which he piously crossed himself on mentioning. Not stopping to look for explanations, though he saw the old door was partly broken away, he had put me on his mule and made haste homeward, in fear of the coming of twilight in that grim place. There had come up a great storm in the night, and then an earthquake, shaking down many old walls that had long been toppling to their fall. After sunrise, being a bold fellow, he had gone again to the place, in hope of finding some treasure revealed by the disturbance. Report said there was treasure of some kind hidden within the wall; but none had dared to look for it since the day, years before his birth, when two men undertaking the search had gone mad, with the great white eyes of the dog turned terribly upon [Page 248] them. There were other strange things said about the spot, he acknowledged reluctantly, which, however, he would not talk of even in daylight; and for himself, in truth, he knew but little of them. Now, he continued, in place of anything having been laid bare, the whole top of the wall had fallen down and buried steps and doorway in masses of ruin. But the fountain and the dog were untouched, and he had not cared to go nearer than was necessary.
    Having reached my lodgings, I rewarded the honest fellow and sent him away in high feather, all-forgetful of the treasure which the earthquake had failed to unearth for him. Once alone in my room, I made haste to examine my shoulder. I found it green and livid. I found also, with a sick feeling which I shall not soon forget, that it was bruised on either side with deep prints of massive teeth [Page 249].