Beyond the Wall - Ambrose Bierce

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Beyond the Wall

I was born in the United States, but I lived in Hong Kong for many years. My business in Asia was successful and I became rich. After twenty years, I decided to visit my home in New York. On my way from Hong Kong to New York, I stayed one week in California.

I had a friend who lived in the city of San Francisco and I wanted to see him again. His name was Mohun Dampier and he had been my friend for many years. We had written many letters to each other. But recently, I had not received any news from him.

Dampier had never had a job. His father gave him a little money, so Dampier had never worked.

Dampier was a superstitious man. He believed that luck or magic could make things happen in his life. He spent most of his time reading books-strange books. Most of the books were about occult philosophy. I called them books about magic.

As soon as I arrived in San Francisco, I sent a message to Dampier's house. The message said: I am staying in San Francisco for three days. May I visit you?

Dampier surprised me. An hour later, he sent a servant to my hotel with a reply.

Come to my house at once, my dear friend, he wrote. Come this evening. You'll remember the house-'I'm sure. It was my fathers' home. I live in a tower at one end of the house. You don't have to ring the bell or knock on the door. Il tell the servants to go to bed. And I'll leave the front door of the tower open. Come up the stairs immediately. I'll he waiting for you. Please come soon.

I rode in a cab to Dampier's house. That evening, the weather was stormy. A strong wind was blowing and cold rain was falling. I had forgotten that California is cold and wet in winter. I only remembered the sunshine, not the wind and the rain.

Dampier's house was near the Pacific Ocean. It was an ugly, two-story building that was made of bricks. There was a tower at one end. The house was surrounded by a garden of many trees and beautiful plants. But now it was winter and there were no leaves on the trees or flowers on the plants.

The driver stopped his cab near the tower. Although the front door was only five yards away, I became soaked with rain as soon as I stepped out of the cab. I ran to the door of the tower and turned the handle.

The door was unlocked and I opened it. One small lamp burned on the stairway and it did not give much light. The hall was full of shadows and I could not see clearly. I climbed the stairs slowly, touching the wall with my fingers. At the top of the stairs there was another door. I opened it and went into a room that was lit with another small lamp.

Dampier came forward, held my hand and shook it. He was wearing a long silk coat and soft leather slippers on his feet. His clothes were old-fashioned and strange.

We looked at each other and I was shocked. I had not seen Dampier for many years. My friend had changed a lot! He had been a handsome man but now his hair was gray and his face was very pale. There were many lines around his eyes and mouth. Dampier looked like a thin old man, but he was not older than fifty. His large and bright eyes shone strangely in the shadowy room.

«Welcome, my friend! Please sit down,» he said.

Dampier offered me some wine and a cigar and we talked a little. But I am afraid that our conversation was not very interesting. Meeting friends after many years can be difficult and it can make you sad. Maybe Dampier guessed my thoughts.

«Non sum qualis eram-I'm not as I was,» he said.

I tried to make a joke. «Your Latin hasn't improved,» I replied.

My friend smiled. «Latin is a dead language and I'm a dead man,» he said. Then his smile disappeared and he said, «I'll die very soon.»

I did not know what to say. I smoked my cigar and drank my wine. We were both silent for several minutes. Outside, the wind had stopped blowing. I wanted to leave the house.

Suddenly I heard a strange noise. TAP. TAP. TAP. It was the sound of someone, or something, knocking. Was the sound coming from one wall of the tower? TAP. TAP. TAP. The sound was not quick or loud. It was not the sound of someone knocking loudly on a door. The soft tapping sounded like someone sending a signal-a message.

Dampier had forgotten me. He was staring at the wall. There was a strange expression on his face. My friend looked excited and afraid. His eyes shone brightly.

I did not know what to do. Should I go or stay? I stood up.

«I-I see that you are very tired,» I said. «I'll leave. May I visit you tomorrow?»

Dampier turned his head and looked at me.

«Please stay,» he said. «There's no problem. Nobody is there.»

He walked to a small window and opened it. I had not noticed' the window earlier.

«Look,» he said.

I walked across the room and looked out of the window.

I could see nothing except the light of a street lamp and rain falling. No one was standing outside. There was no one near the wall of the tower.

«Please don't leave me,» said Dampier. «I must tell you a story. You're the only man that I can tell it to. Will you listen to my story?»

I wanted to go back to my hotel. Dampier, his house and the strange noise made me feel uncomfortable. I think that I am a sensible and intelligent man. But I felt unhappy and frightened in that old tower room. However, I did not want to upset my old friend.

«Very well,» I said. «I'll stay and listen.»

Dampier poured me another drink and offered me another cigar. Then he began to tell his story.

«I didn't move into this house until my father died,» Dampier said. «That was ten years ago, when I was about forty years old. When my father died, I got his business, his property and his money.

»Before his death, I lived in a large apartment building on Rincon Hill," said Dampier. «Maybe you know that area of San Francisco? Rincon Hill was a fashionable area fifty years ago, but now it is run-down and neglected. The owner of the apartment building rented out many of its small rooms. The walls of the rooms were thin. You could almost put your hand through them.

»I was lucky," Dampier went on. «The rent was cheap and I had a large room in the building. No one visited me. And no one disturbed me-I could study my books quietly. I lived happily on Rincon Hill.

»One morning, as I was leaving the apartment, I saw a young girl," Dampier continued. «It was a warm day in June. She was wearing a white dress and a straw hat. There were brightly-colored flowers and ribbons around the brim of the hat. Then I saw the girls face. It's difficult to find words to describe it. Her face was strange and beautiful. I had never seen such a beautiful face before. Without thinking, I lifted my hat and bowed. She looked at me with shining brown eyes, but she didn't speak. I knew that she was pleased to see me, but she didn't smile. She went into the house and shut the door. I stood and stared at the closed door. Would I see her again? Should I speak to her? Would she speak to me?

»Maybe you think that these are the thoughts of a much younger man," said Dampier. «And maybe you're right. But these feelings were new to me. I'd never been in love before. I'd spent too many years with books and too little time with people. Now I believe that you're my only friend. Soon, none of this will matter. I don't feel foolish when I talk to you.»

Dampier stopped speaking for a few moments, then he went on with his story.

«The next day, I waited in my apartment. For many hours, I stared out of the window. I watched the street, but the girl didn't come out of the building. I didn't know her name, so I couldn't ask anyone about her. That night I couldn't sleep. The next morning, I sat by the window again and waited.

»Then suddenly, she came out of the apartment building and I went out too. But when I reached the street, she had disappeared. I didn't see where she had gone, so I walked around the neighborhood. At last I saw her in a narrow street. We smiled at each other. She recognized me, I'm sure of that. From that time, I often went out when the girl went out. She always wore the straw hat with the brightly-colored flowers and ribbons on its brim. I didn't follow her. I simply walked around the neighborhood, and hoped to see her again.

«At last, I went to the landlady of the apartment. 'Who is the girl with the pretty face and the straw hat?' I asked her. 'She's my niece, sir,' the landlady replied. 'She's a servant in this house. She lives here because her parents are dead. She works for me-she cooks and cleans the building. I also send her to buy our food. She lives at the top of the house. Her room is next to yours, but at the top of the other staircase.'

»Oh, my friend! I wish that I'd never heard that piece of information," Dampier said to me. «The girl's room was next to mine. She was on the other side of the thin wall. At night,

I put my hand on the wall and I thought of her. Was her bed by the wall? Was she sleeping only a few inches from my hand?

»I couldn't study because of the girl," said Dampier. «My mind wasn't clear. I only thought about the girl. I couldn't study my books about the occult.

»I'd never wanted to marry," Dampier went on. «I'd never wanted a wife and children. I was only interested in learning. And I could never marry a poor, uneducated servant girl. My father would never have given his permission. All my money came from my father. If he had stopped giving me money… well...»

«What happened next?» I asked.

My friend looked at me sadly.

«I stopped waiting for her and I stopped watching her. I only studied. I spent all my time reading my books. But one hot night I couldn't sleep. Thoughts were racing around and around in my mind. I thought again and again about the beautiful girl. I wanted to be with her. She was only on the other side of the wall! I tapped on the wall. I tapped very gently three times. TAP. TAP. TAP. I tapped again. TAP. TAP. TAP. Then I felt foolish. I was behaving like a boy who is in love for the first time. I got out of my bed and began to study my books.

»I was reading a strange book," Dampier said. «It was a book of occult philosophy by Necromantius. You would call it a book of magic and superstition. In his book, Necromantius describes how to be a fortune-teller. Necromantius also wrote about strange and terrible things that happen three times. When these things happened three times, death would come. Necromantius called this a 'fatal triad'. I believe that a fatal triad has happened to me.»

«Why?» I asked. «What happened?»

«While I was alone, reading that strange book by Necromantius,» said Dampier, «I heard a sound. It was a soft tapping sound. It came from beyond the wall. It was the answer to my own signal! TAP. TAP. TAP. I knew that the pretty servant girl was sending a message to me. She wanted me to come to her. I ran to the wall and tapped my signal again. TAP. TAP. TAP. But after that, there was silence. She didn't reply to any of my other signals. I listened for many hours, but I heard nothing more.

»For many days after this, I looked for the girl," Dampier said. «But I never saw her again. I tried to forget her. Then one evening, I went to bed early because I was very tired. In the middle of the night, I awoke suddenly. I had heard a soft sound. I opened my eyes and sat up. I heard a soft tapping on the wall beside the bed. In a few moments, it was repeated. TAP. TAP. TAP. I was going to reply to the signal, then I stopped. The girl hadn't replied to my last messages. I would not reply to her now!»

Dampier drank a little wine and then continued.

«I lay in the bed listening,» he said. «But I didn't reply. At last, I must have slept. When I awoke, it was late and I felt tired. I needed some fresh air, so I went out of my apartment. The landlady was outside my door. 'Oh, Mr Dampier,' she said. 'Have you heard the terrible news?'

»My heart began to beat quickly. My voice shook when I answered. 'W-what news?' I asked her. 'My poor niece was sick for a week,' the landlady replied. 'Didn't you know? I've seen you watching her. Didn't you know that she was ill?'

«I was shocked,» said Dampier. «I didn't know what to say. Yes. I had looked at the girl, but I'd never spoken to her. My mind was always full of thoughts of my books and thoughts of her. How much time had passed since I had seen the girl? A few days? A week? I couldn't remember.

»'And how is your niece now?' I asked the landlady. 'I'm sorry, sir,' the landlady replied. 'She was very ill last night and I took care of her. The poor girl made only one request. She wanted her bed to be moved. She wanted her bed to be beside the wall-the wall next to your room. So we moved her bed. This made her feel happier, poor thing. Then she touched the wall and smiled. A few hours later, she died.'" The expression on Dampier's face was terrible. There were tears in his eyes as he continued his story.

«When I heard this news, I nearly died too,» said my friend. «I didn't know what to say. What had I done? I had sent my thoughts to the girl and she had answered. I had not called out in words. I had used occult philosophy-magic-to send her a message.»

Dampier was silent for a few minutes. Then he went on.

«A few days later, I heard of my father's death,» said Dampier sadly. «I left the apartment on Rincon Hill and came to his house-this house. It's been my home since then. I've been waiting here, in this tower, for ten years. I've been waiting for a visitor. I wasn't expecting to see you, but your visit wasn't a surprise. Necromantius tells us how signs are repeated three times. You've heard my story. You must decide if my story has happened because of a fatal triad. I heard the tapping twice before. The first time, I tried to find the person who made the noise. The second time, many signals were sent to me but I didn't reply. Now you've heard the tapping too. That was the third time. The fatal triad is complete.»

I stood up and shook Dampier's hand. My friend knew that I understood his sadness and pain. He pressed my hand with his fingers and smiled. I said goodnight. There was nothing more to say.

The next morning, a servant came from Dampier's house. He brought a sad message for me. My friend, Mohun Dampier, had died in the night.

— THE END -

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