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Title: What Was It?
Author: Fitz-James O'Brien
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Language: English
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What Was It? A Mystery
Fitz-James O'Brien

It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence that I approach the
strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I
purpose detailing are of so extraordinary and unheard-of a character
that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity
and scorn. I accept all such beforehand. I have, I trust, the literary
courage to face unbelief. I have, after mature consideration, resolved
to narrate, in as simple and straightforward a manner as I can
compass, some facts that passed under my observation in the month of
July last, and which, in the annals of the mysteries of physical
science, are wholly unparalleled.

I live at No.-- Twenty-sixth Street, in this city. The house is in
some respects a curious one. It has enjoyed for the last two years the
reputation of being haunted. It is a large and stately residence,
surrounded by what was once a garden, but which is now only a green
inclosure used for bleaching clothes. The dry basin of what has been a
fountain, and a few fruit-trees, ragged and unpruned, indicate that
this spot, in past days, was a pleasant, shady retreat, filled with
fruits and flowers and the sweet murmur of waters.

The house is very spacious. A hall of noble size leads to a vast
spiral staircase winding through its center, while the various
apartments are of imposing dimensions. It was built some fifteen or
twenty years since by Mr. A--, the well-known New York merchant, who
five years ago threw the commercial world into convulsions by a
stupendous bank fraud. Mr. A--, as every one knows, escaped to Europe,
and died not long after of a broken heart. Almost immediately after
the news of his decease reached this country, and was verified, the
report spread in Twenty-sixth Street that No.---was haunted. Legal
measures had dispossessed the widow of its former owner, and it was
inhabited merely by a care taker and his wife, placed there by the
house agent into whose hands it had passed for purposes of renting or
sale. These people declared that they were troubled with unnatural
noises. Doors were opened without any visible agency. The remnants of
furniture scattered through the various rooms were, during the night,
piled one upon the other by unknown hands. Invisible feet passed up
and down the stairs in broad daylight, accompanied by the rustle of
unseen silk dresses, and the gliding of viewless hands along the
massive balusters. The care taker and his wife declared that they
would live there no longer. The house agent laughed, dismissed them,
and put others in their place. The noises and supernatural
manifestations continued. The neighborhood caught up the story, and
the house remained untenanted for three years. Several persons
negotiated for it; but somehow, always before the bargain was closed,
they heard the unpleasant rumors, and declined to treat any further.

It was in this state of things that my landlady--who at that time kept
a boarding-house in Bleecker Street, and who wished to move farther up
town--conceived the bold idea of renting No.---Twenty-sixth Street.
Happening to have in her house rather a plucky and philosophical set
of boarders, she laid down her scheme before us, stating candidly
everything she had heard respecting the ghostly qualities of the
establishment to which she wished to remove us. With the exception of
two timid persons,--a sea captain and a returned Californian, who
immediately gave notice that they would leave,--all of Mrs. Moffat's
guests declared that they would accompany her in her chivalric
incursion into the abode of spirits.

Our removal was effected in the month of May, and we were all charmed
with our new residence. The portion of Twenty-sixth Street where our
house is situated--between Seventh and Eighth Avenues--is one of the
pleasantest localities in New York. The gardens back of the houses,
running down nearly to the Hudson, form, in the summer time, a perfect
avenue of verdure. The air is pure and invigorating, sweeping, as it
does, straight across the river from the Weehawken heights, and even
the ragged garden which surrounded the house on two sides, although
displaying on washing days rather too much clothesline, still gave us
a piece of greensward to look at, and a cool retreat in the summer
evenings, where we smoked our cigars in the dusk, and watched the
fireflies flashing their dark-lanterns in the long grass.

Of course we had no sooner established ourselves at No.---than we
began to expect the ghosts. We absolutely awaited their advent with
eagerness. Our dinner conversation was supernatural. One of the
boarders, who had purchased Mrs. Crowe's "Night Side of Nature" for
his own private delectation, was regarded as a public enemy by the
entire household for not having bought twenty copies. The man led a
life of supreme wretchedness while he was reading this volume. A
system of espionage was established, of which he was the victim. If he
incautiously laid the book down for an instant and left the room, it
was immediately seized and read aloud in secret places to a select
few. I found myself a person of immense importance, it having leaked
out that I was tolerably well versed in the history of
supernaturalism, and had once written a story, entitled "The Pot of
Tulips," for Harper's Monthly, the foundation of which was a ghost. If
a table or a wainscot panel happened to warp when we were assembled in
the large drawing-room, there was an instant silence, and every one
was prepared for an immediate clanking of chains and a spectral form.

After a month of psychological excitement, it was with the utmost
dissatisfaction that we were forced to acknowledge that nothing in the
remotest degree approaching the supernatural had manifested itself.
Once the black butler asseverated that his candle had been blown out
by some invisible agency while he was undressing himself for the
night; but as I had more than once discovered this colored gentleman
in a condition when one candle must have appeared to him like two, I
thought it possible that, by going a step farther in his potations, he
might have reversed his phenomenon, and seen no candle at all where he
ought to have beheld one.

Things were in this state when an incident took place so awful and
inexplicable in its character that my reason fairly reels at the bare
memory of the occurrence. It was the tenth of July. After dinner was
over I repaired with my friend, Dr. Hammond, to the garden to smoke my
evening pipe. The Doctor and myself found ourselves in an unusually
metaphysical mood. We lit our large meerschaums, filled with fine
Turkish tobacco; we paced to and fro, conversing. A strange perversity
dominated the currents of our thought. They would not flow through the
sun-lit channels into which we strove to divert them. For some
unaccountable reason they constantly diverged into dark and lonesome
beds, where a continual gloom brooded. It was in vain that, after our
old fashion, we flung ourselves on the shores of the East, and talked
of its gay bazaars, of the splendors of the time of Haroun, of harems
and golden palaces. Black afreets continually arose from the depths of
our talk, and expanded, like the one the fisherman released from the
copper vessel, until they blotted everything bright from our vision.
Insensibly, we yielded to the occult force that swayed us, and
indulged in gloomy speculation. We had talked some time upon the
proneness of the human mind to mysticism, and the almost universal
love of the Terrible, when Hammond suddenly said to me, "What do you
consider to be the greatest element of Terror?"

The question, I own, puzzled me. That many things were terrible, I
knew. Stumbling over a corpse in the dark; beholding, as I once did, a
woman floating down a deep and rapid river, with wildly lifted arms,
and awful, upturned face, uttering, as she sank, shrieks that rent
one's heart, while we, the spectators, stood frozen at a window which
overhung the river at a height of sixty feet, unable to make the
slightest effort to save her, but dumbly watching her last supreme
agony and her disappearance. A shattered wreck, with no life visible,
encountered floating listlessly on the ocean, is a terrible object,
for it suggests a huge terror, the proportions of which are veiled.
But it now struck me for the first time that there must be one great
and ruling embodiment of fear, a King of Terrors to which all others
must succumb. What might it be? To what train of circumstances would
it owe its existence?

"I confess, Hammond," I replied to my friend, "I never considered the
subject before. That there must be one Something more terrible than
any other thing, I feel. I cannot attempt, however, even the most
vague definition."

"I am somewhat like you, Harry," he answered. "I feel my capacity to
experience a terror greater than anything yet conceived by the human
mind,--something combining in fearful and unnatural amalgamation
hitherto supposed incompatible elements. The calling of the voices in
Brockden Brown's novel of 'Wieland' is awful; so is the picture of the
Dweller of the Threshold, in Bulwer's 'Zanoni'; but," he added,
shaking his head gloomily, "there is something more horrible still
than these."

"Look here, Hammond," I rejoined, "let us drop this kind of talk, for
Heaven's sake!"

"I don't know what's the matter with me to-night," he replied, "but my
brain is running upon all sorts of weird and awful thoughts. I feel as
if I could write a story like Hoffman to night, if I were only master
of a literary style."

"Well, if we are going to be Hoffmanesque in our talk, I'm off to bed.
How sultry it is! Good night, Hammond."

"Good night, Harry. Pleasant dreams to you."

"To you, gloomy wretch, afreets, ghouls, and enchanters."

We parted, and each sought his respective chamber. I undressed quickly
and got into bed, taking with me, according to my usual custom, a
book, over which I generally read myself to sleep. I opened the volume
as soon as I had laid my head upon the pillow, and instantly flung it
to the other side of the room. It was Goudon's "History of Monsters"--
a curious French work, which I had lately imported from Paris, but
which, in the state of mind I had then reached, was anything but an
agreeable companion. I resolved to go to sleep at once; so, turning
down my gas until nothing but a little blue point of light glimmered
on the top of the tube, I composed myself to rest.

The room was in total darkness. The atom of gas that still remained
lighted did not illuminate a distance of three inches round the
burner. I desperately drew my arm across my eyes, as if to shut out
even the darkness, and tried to think of nothing. It was in vain. The
confounded themes touched on by Hammond in the garden kept obtruding
themselves on my brain. I battled against them. I erected ramparts of
would-be blankness of intellect to keep them out. They still crowded
upon me. While I was lying still as a corpse, hoping that by a perfect
physical inaction I should hasten mental repose, an awful incident
occurred. A Something dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plumb
upon my chest, and the next instant I felt two bony hands encircling
my throat, endeavoring to choke me.

I am no coward, and am possessed of considerable physical strength.
The suddenness of the attack, instead of stunning me, strung every
nerve to its highest tension. My body acted from instinct, before my
brain had time to realize the terrors of my position. In an instant I
wound two muscular arms around the creature, and squeezed it, with all
the strength of despair, against my chest. In a few seconds the bony
hands that had fastened on my throat loosened their hold, and I was
free to breathe once more. Then commenced a struggle of awful
intensity. Immersed in the most profound darkness, totally ignorant of
the nature of the Thing by which I was so suddenly attacked, finding
my grasp slipping every moment, by reason, it seemed to me, of the
entire nakedness of my assailant, bitten with sharp teeth in the
shoulder, neck, and chest, having every moment to protect my throat
against a pair of sinewy, agile hands, which my utmost efforts could
not confine--these were a combination of circumstances to combat which
required all the strength and skill and courage that I possessed.

At last, after a silent, deadly, exhausting struggle, I got my
assailant under by a series of incredible efforts of strength. Once
pinned, with my knee on what I made out to be its chest, I knew that I
was victor. I rested for a moment to breathe. I heard the creature
beneath me panting in the darkness, and felt the violent throbbing of
a heart. It was apparently as exhausted as I was; that was one
comfort. At this moment I remembered that I usually placed under my
pillow, before going to bed, a large yellow silk pocket handkerchief,
for use during the night. I felt for it instantly; it was there. In a
few seconds more I had, after a fashion, pinioned the creature's arms.

I now felt tolerably secure. There was nothing more to be done but to
turn on the gas, and, having first seen what my midnight assailant was
like, arouse the household. I will confess to being actuated by a
certain pride in not giving the alarm before; I wished to make the
capture alone and unaided.

Never losing my hold for an instant, I slipped from the bed to the
floor, dragging my captive with me. I had but a few steps to make to
reach the gas-burner; these I made with the greatest caution, holding
the creature in a grip like a vice. At last I got within arm's-length
of the tiny speck of blue light which told me where the gas-burner
lay. Quick as lightning I released my grasp with one hand and let on
the full flood of light. Then I turned to look at my captive.

I cannot even attempt to give any definition of my sensations the
instant after I turned on the gas. I suppose I must have shrieked with
terror, for in less than a minute afterward my room was crowded with
the inmates of the house. I shudder now as I think of that awful
moment. I saw nothing! Yes; I had one arm firmly clasped round a
breathing, panting, corporeal shape, my other hand gripped with all
its strength a throat as warm, and apparently fleshly, as my own; and
yet, with this living substance in my grasp, with its body pressed
against my own, and all in the bright glare of a large jet of gas, I
absolutely beheld nothing! Not even an outline,--a vapor!

I do not, even at this hour, realize the situation in which I found
myself. I cannot recall the astounding incident thoroughly.
Imagination in vain tries to compass the awful paradox.

It breathed. I felt its warm breath upon my cheek. It struggled
fiercely. It had hands. They clutched me. Its skin was smooth, like my
own. There it lay, pressed close up against me, solid as stone,--and
yet utterly invisible!

I wonder that I did not faint or go mad on the instant. Some wonderful
instinct must have sustained me; for, absolutely, in place of
loosening my hold on the terrible Enigma, I seemed to gain an
additional strength in my moment of horror, and tightened my grasp
with such wonderful force that I felt the creature shivering with

Just then Hammond entered my room at the head of the household. As
soon as he beheld my face--which, I suppose, must have been an awful
sight to look at--he hastened forward, crying, "Great heaven, Harry!
what has happened?"

"Hammond! Hammond!" I cried, "come here. Oh! this is awful! I have
been attacked in bed by something or other, which I have hold of; but
I can't see it--I can't see it!"

Hammond, doubtless struck by the unfeigned horror expressed in my
countenance, made one or two steps forward with an anxious yet puzzled
expression. A very audible titter burst from the remainder of my
visitors. This suppressed laughter made me furious. To laugh at a
human being in my position! It was the worst species of cruelty. Now,
I can understand why the appearance of a man struggling violently, as
it would seem, with an airy nothing, and calling for assistance
against a vision, should have appeared ludicrous. Then, so great was
my rage against the mocking crowd that had I the power I would have
stricken them dead where they stood.

"Hammond! Hammond!" I cried again, despairingly, "for God's sake come
to me. I can hold the--the Thing but a short while longer. It is
overpowering me. Help me! Help me!"

"Harry," whispered Hammond, approaching me, "you have been smoking too

"I swear to you, Hammond, that this is no vision," I answered, in the
same low tone. "Don't you see how it shakes my whole frame with its
struggles? If you don't believe me, convince yourself. Feel it,--touch

Hammond advanced and laid his hand on the spot I indicated. A wild cry
of horror burst from him. He had felt it!

In a moment he had discovered somewhere in my room a long piece of
cord, and was the next instant winding it and knotting it about the
body of the unseen being that I clasped in my arms.

"Harry," he said, in a hoarse, agitated voice, for, though he
preserved his presence of mind, he was deeply moved, "Harry, it's all
safe now. You may let go, old fellow, if you're tired. The Thing can't

I was utterly exhausted, and I gladly loosed my hold.

Hammond stood holding the ends of the cord that bound the Invisible,
twisted round his hand, while before him, self-supporting as it were,
he beheld a rope laced and interlaced, and stretching tightly round a
vacant space. I never saw a man look so thoroughly stricken with awe.
Nevertheless his face expressed all the courage and determination
which I knew him to possess. His lips, although white, were set
firmly, and one could perceive at a glance that, although stricken
with fear, he was not daunted.

The confusion that ensued among the guests of the house who were
witnesses of this extraordinary scene between Hammond and myself,--who
beheld the pantomime of binding this struggling Something,--who beheld
me almost sinking from physical exhaustion when my task of jailer was
over--the confusion and terror that took possession of the bystanders,
when they saw all this, was beyond description. The weaker ones fled
from the apartment. The few who remained clustered near the door, and
could not be induced to approach Hammond and his Charge. Still
incredulity broke out through their terror. They had not the courage
to satisfy themselves, and yet they doubted. It was in vain that I
begged of some of the men to come near and convince themselves by
touch of the existence in that room of a living being which was
invisible. They were incredulous, but did not dare to undeceive
themselves. How could a solid, living, breathing body be invisible,
they asked. My reply was this. I gave a sign to Hammond, and both of
us--conquering our fearful repugnance to touch the invisible
creature--lifted it from the ground, manacled as it was, and took it
to my bed. Its weight was about that of a boy of fourteen.

"Now, my friends," I said, as Hammond and myself held the creature
suspended over the bed, "I can give you self-evident proof that here
is a solid, ponderable body which, nevertheless, you cannot see. Be
good enough to watch the surface of the bed attentively."

I was astonished at my own courage in treating this strange event so
calmly; but I had recovered from my first terror, and felt a sort of
scientific pride in the affair which dominated every other feeling.

The eyes of the bystanders were immediately fixed on my bed. At a
given signal Hammond and I let the creature fall. There was the dull
sound of a heavy body alighting on a soft mass. The timbers of the bed
creaked. A deep impression marked itself distinctly on the pillow, and
on the bed itself. The crowd who witnessed this gave a sort of low,
universal cry, and rushed from the room. Hammond and I were left alone
with our Mystery.

We remained silent for some time, listening to the low, irregular
breathing of the creature on the bed, and watching the rustle of the
bedclothes as it impotently struggled to free itself from confinement.
Then Hammond spoke.

"Harry, this is awful."

"Aye, awful."

"But not unaccountable."

"Not unaccountable! What do you mean? Such a thing has never occurred
since the birth of the world. I know not what to think, Hammond. God
grant that I am not mad, and that this is not an insane fantasy!"

"Let us reason a little, Harry. Here is a solid body which we touch,
but which we cannot see. The fact is so unusual that it strikes us
with terror. Is there no parallel, though, for such a phenomenon? Take
a piece of pure glass. It is tangible and transparent. A certain
chemical coarseness is all that prevents its being so entirely
transparent as to be totally invisible. It is not theoretically
impossible, mind you, to make a glass which shall not reflect a single
ray of light--a glass so pure and homogeneous in its atoms that the
rays from the sun shall pass through it as they do through the air,
refracted but not reflected. We do not see the air, and yet we feel

"That's all very well, Hammond, but these are inanimate substances.
Glass does not breathe, air does not breathe. This thing has a heart
that palpitates,--a will that moves it,--lungs that play, and inspire
and respire."

"You forget the strange phenomena of which we have so often heard of
late," answered the Doctor, gravely. "At the meetings called 'spirit
circles,' invisible hands have been thrust into the hands of those
persons round the table--warm, fleshly hands that seemed to pulsate
with mortal life."

"What? Do you think, then, that this thing is--"

"I don't know what it is," was the solemn reply; "but please the gods
I will, with your assistance, thoroughly investigate it."

We watched together, smoking many pipes, all night long, by the
bedside of the unearthly being that tossed and panted until it was
apparently wearied out. Then we learned by the low, regular breathing
that it slept.

The next morning the house was all astir. The boarders congregated on
the landing outside my room, and Hammond and myself were lions. We had
to answer a thousand questions as to the state of our extraordinary
prisoner, for as yet not one person in the house except ourselves
could be induced to set foot in the apartment.

The creature was awake. This was evidenced by the convulsive manner in
which the bedclothes were moved in its efforts to escape. There was
something truly terrible in beholding, as it were, those second-hand
indications of the terrible writhings and agonized struggles for
liberty which themselves were invisible.

Hammond and myself had racked our brains during the long night to
discover some means by which we might realize the shape and general
appearance of the Enigma. As well as we could make out by passing our
hands over the creature's form, its outlines and lineaments were
human. There was a mouth; a round, smooth head without hair; a nose,
which, however, was little elevated above the cheeks; and its hands
and feet felt like those of a boy. At first we thought of placing the
being on a smooth surface and tracing its outline with chalk, as
shoemakers trace the outline of the foot. This plan was given up as
being of no value. Such an outline would give not the slightest idea
of its conformation.

A happy thought struck me. We would take a cast of it in plaster of
Paris. This would give us the solid figure, and satisfy all our
wishes. But how to do it? The movements of the creature would disturb
the setting of the plastic covering, and distort the mold. Another
thought. Why not give it chloroform? It had respiratory organs--that
was evident by its breathing. Once reduced to a state of
insensibility, we could do with it what we would. Doctor X---was sent
for; and after the worthy physician had recovered from the first shock
of amazement, he proceeded to administer the chloroform. In three
minutes afterward we were enabled to remove the fetters from the
creature's body, and a well-known modeler of this city was busily
engaged in covering the invisible form with the moist clay. In five
minutes more we had a mold, and before evening a rough fac simile of
the mystery. It was shaped like a man,--distorted, uncouth, and
horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some
inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that
was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had
ever seen. Gustave Dor, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived
anything so horrible. There is a face in one of the latter's
illustrations to "Un Voyage o il vous plaira," which somewhat
approaches the countenance of this creature, but does not equal it. It
was the physiognomy of what I should have fancied a ghoul to be. It
looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.

Having satisfied our curiosity, and bound every one in the house to
secrecy, it became a question what was to be done with our Enigma. It
was impossible that we should keep such a horror in our house; it was
equally impossible that such an awful being should be let loose upon
the world. I confess that I would have gladly voted for the creature's
destruction. But who would shoulder the responsibility? Who would
undertake the execution of this horrible semblance of a human being?
Day after day this question was deliberated gravely. The boarders all
left the house. Mrs. Moffat was in despair, and threatened Hammond and
myself with all sorts of legal penalties if we did not remove the
Horror. Our answer was, "We will go if you like, but we decline taking
this creature with us. Remove it yourself if you please. It appeared
in your house. On you the responsibility rests." To this there was, of
course, no answer. Mrs. Moffat could not obtain for love or money a
person who would even approach the Mystery.

The most singular part of the transaction was that we were entirely
ignorant of what the creature habitually fed on. Everything in the way
of nutriment that we could think of was placed before it, but was
never touched. It was awful to stand by, day after day, and see the
clothes toss, and hear the hard breathing, and know that it was

Ten, twelve days, a fortnight passed, and it still lived. The
pulsations of the heart, however, were daily growing fainter, and had
now nearly ceased altogether. It was evident that the creature was
dying for want of sustenance. While this terrible life struggle was
going on, I felt miserable. I could not sleep of nights. Horrible as
the creature was, it was pitiful to think of the pangs it was

At last it died. Hammond and I found it cold and stiff one morning in
the bed. The heart had ceased to beat, the lungs to inspire. We
hastened to bury it in the garden. It was a strange funeral, the
dropping of that viewless corpse into the damp hole. The cast of its
form I gave to Dr. X--, who keeps it in his museum in Tenth Street.

As I am on the eve of a long journey from which I may not return, I
have drawn up this narrative of an event the most singular that has
ever come to my knowledge.

NOTE.--It was rumored that the proprietors of a well-known museum in
this city had made arrangements with Dr. X--- to exhibit to the public
the singular cast which Mr. Escott deposited with him. So
extraordinary a history cannot fail to attract universal attention.


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