F. D. Millet ~ A Faded Scapular

We are seldom able to trace our individual superstitions to any definite cause, nor can we often account for the peculiar sensations developed in us by the inexplicable and mysterious incidents in our experience. Much of the timidity of childhood may be traced to early training in the nursery, and sometimes the moral effects of this weakness cannot be eradicated through a lifetime of severe self-control and mental suffering. The complicated disorders of the imagination which arise from superstitious fears can frequently be accounted for only by inherited characteristics, by peculiar sensitiveness to impressions, and by an overpowering and perhaps abnormally active imagination. I am sure I am confessing to no unusual characteristic when I say that I have felt from childhood a certain sentiment or sensation in regard to material things which I can trace to no early experience, to the influence of no literature, and to no possible source, in fact, but that of inherited disposition.

The sentiment I refer to is this: whatever has belonged to or has been used by any person seems to me to have received some special quality, which, though often invisible and still oftener indefinable, still exists in a more or less strong degree according to the amount of the impressionable power, if I may call it so, which distinguished the possessor. I am aware that this sentiment may be stigmatized as of the school-girl order; that it is, indeed, of the same kind and class with that which leads an otherwise honest person to steal a rag from a famous battle flag, a leaf from a historical laurel wreath, or even to cut a signature or a title-page from a precious volume; but with me the feeling has never taken this turn, else I should never have confessed to the possession of it. Whatever may be said or believed, however, I must refer to it in more or less comprehensible terms, because it may explain the conditions, although it will not unveil the causes, of the incidents I am about to describe with all honesty and frankness.

Nearly twenty years ago I made my first visit to Rome, long before it became the centre of the commercial and political activity of Italy, and while it was yet unspoiled for the antiquarian, the student, the artist, and the traveller. Never shall I forget the first few hours I spent wandering aimlessly through the streets, so far as I then knew a total stranger in the city, with no distinct plan of remaining there, and with only the slight and imperfect knowledge of the place that one gains from the ordinary travellers’ descriptions. The streets, the houses, the people, the strange sounds and stranger sights, the life so entirely different from what I had hitherto seen, all this interested me greatly. Far more powerful and far more vivid and lasting, however, was the impression of an inconceivable number of presences—I hesitate to call them spirits—not visible, of course, nor tangible, but still oppressing me mentally and morally, exactly the same as my physical self is often crushed and overpowered in a great assembly of people. I walked about, visited the cafés and concert halls, and tried in various ways to shake off the uncomfortable feeling of ghostly company, but was unsuccessful, and went to my lodgings much depressed and nervous. I took my note-book, and wrote in it: “Rome has been too much lived in. Among the multitude of the dead there is no room for the living.” It seemed then a foolish memorandum to write, and now, as I look at the half-effaced pencil lines, I wonder why I was not ashamed to write it. Yet there it is before me, a witness to my sensations at the time, and the scrawl has even now the power to bring up to me an unpleasantly vivid memory of that first evening in Rome.

After a few days passed in visiting the galleries and the regular sights of the town, I began to look for a studio and an apartment, and finally found one in the upper story of a house on the Via di Ripetta. Before moving into the studio, I met an old friend and fellow-artist, and as there was room enough for two, gladly took him in with me.

The studio, with apartment, in the Via di Ripetta was by no means unattractive. It was large, well lighted, comfortably and abundantly furnished. It was, as I have said, at the top of the house, the studio overlooked the Tiber, and the sitting-room and double-bedded sleeping-room fronted the street. The large studio window was placed rather high up, so that the entrance door—a wide, heavy affair, with large hinges and immense complicated lock and a “judas”—opened from the obscurity of the hall directly under the large window into the full light of the studio. The roof of the house slanted from back to front, so that the two rooms were lower studded than the studio, and an empty space or low attic opening into the studio above them was partly concealed by an ample and ragged curtain. The fireplace was in the middle of the left wall as you entered the studio; the door into the sitting-room was in the further right-hand corner, and the bedroom was entered by a door on the right-hand wall of the sitting-room, so that the bedroom formed a wing of the studio and sitting-room, and from the former, looking through two doors, the bedroom window and part of the street wall could be seen. Both the beds were hidden from sight of any one in the studio, even when the doors were open.

The apartment was furnished in a way which denoted a certain amount of liberality, but everything was faded and worn, though not actually shabby or dirty. The carpets were threadbare, the damask-covered sofa and chairs showed marks of the springs, and the gimp was fringed and torn off in places. The beds were not mates; the basin and ewer were of different patterns; the few pictures on the wall were, like everything else in the place, curiously gray and dusty-looking, as if they had been shut up in the darkened rooms for a generation. Beyond the fireplace in the studio, the corner of the room was partitioned off by a dingy screen, six feet high or more, fixed to the floor for the space of two yards, with one wing which shut like a door, enclosing a small space fitted up like a miniature scullery, with a curious and elaborate collection of pots and pans and kitchen utensils, all hung in orderly rows, but every article with marks of service on it, and more recent and obtrusive trace of long disuse.

In one of the first days of my search for a studio I had found and inspected this very place, but it had given me such a disagreeable feeling—it had seemed so worn out, so full of relics of other people—that I could not make up my mind to take it. After a thorough search and diligent inquiry, however, I came to the conclusion that there was absolutely no other place in Rome at that busy season where I could set up my easel, and after having the place recommended to me by all the artists I called upon as a well-known and useful studio, and a great find at the busy season of the year, I took a lease of the place for four months.

My friend and I moved in at the same time, and I will not deny that I planned to be supported by the presence of my friend at the moment of taking possession. When we arrived and had our traps all deposited in the middle of the studio, there came over the spirits of us both a strange gloom, which the bustle and confusion of settling did not in the least dispel. It was nearly dark that winter afternoon before we had finished unpacking, and the street lights were burning before we reached the little restaurant in the Via Quattro Fontano, where we proposed to take our meals. There was a cheerful company of artists and architects assembled there that evening, and we sat over our wine long after dinner. When the jolly party at last dispersed, it was well past midnight.

How gloomy the outer portal of the high building looked as we crossed the dimly lighted street and pushed open the black door! A musty, damp smell, like the atmosphere of the catacombs, met us as we entered. Our footsteps echoed loud and hollow in the empty corridor, and the large wax match I struck as we came in gave but a flickering light, which dimly shadowed the outline of the stone stairway, and threw the rest of the corridor into a deep and mysterious gloom. We tramped up the five long flights of stone stairs without a word, the echo of our footsteps sounding louder and louder, and the murky space behind us deepening into the damp darkness of a cavern. At last, after what seemed an interminable climb, we came to the studio entrance. I put the large key in the lock, turned it, and pushed open the door. A strong draught, like the lifeless breath from the mouth of a tunnel, extinguished the match and left us in darkness. I hesitated an instant, instinctively dreading to enter, and then went in, followed by my friend, who closed the door behind us. The heavy hinges creaked, the door shut into the jambs with a solid thud, the lock sprang into place with a sharp click, and a noise like the clanging of a prison gate resounded and re-echoed through the corridor and through the spacious studio. I felt as if we were shut in from the whole world.

Lighting all the candles at hand and stirring up the fire, we endeavored to make the studio look cheerful, and neither of us being inclined to go to bed, we sat for a long time talking and smoking. But even the bright fire and the soothing tobacco smoke did not wholly dispel the gloom of the place, and when we finally carried the candles into the bedroom, I felt a vague sense of dismal anticipation and apprehension. We left both doors open, so that the light from our room streamed across the corner of the sitting-room, and threw a great square of strong reflection on the studio carpet. While undressing, I found that I had left my match-box on the studio table, and thought I would return for it. I remember now what a mental struggle I went through before I made up my mind to go without a candle. I glanced at my friend’s face, partly to see if he noticed any indication of nervousness in my expression, and partly because I was conscious of a kind of psychological sympathy between us. But fear that he would laugh at me made me effectually conceal my feelings, and I went out of the room without speaking. As I walked across the non-resonant, carpeted stone floor I had the most curious set of sensations I have ever experienced. At nearly every step I took I came into a different stratum or perpendicular layer of air. First it was cool to my face, then warm, then chill again, and again warm. Thinking to calm my nervous excitement, I stood still and looked around me. The great window above my head dimly transmitted the sky reflection, but threw little light into the studio. The folds of the curtain over the open space above the sitting-room appeared to wave slightly in the uncertain light, and the easels and lay-figure stood gaunt and ghostly along the further wall. I waited there and reasoned with myself, arguing that there was no possible cause for fear, that a strong man ought to control his nerves, that it was silly at my time of life to begin to be afraid of the dark, but I could not get rid of the sensation. As I went back to the bedroom I experienced the same succession of physical shocks; but whether they followed each other in the same order or not I was unable to determine.

It was some time before I could get to sleep, and I opened my eyes once or twice before I lost consciousness. From the bedroom window there was a dim, very dim light on the lace curtains, but the window itself was visible as a square mass, and did not appear to illuminate the room in the least. Suddenly, after a dreamless sleep of some duration, I awoke as completely as if I had been startled by a loud noise. The lace curtains were now quite brilliantly lighted from somewhere, I could not tell where, but the window itself seemed to be as little luminous as when I went to sleep. Without moving my head, I turned my eyes in the direction of the studio, and could see the open door as a dark patch in the gray wall, but nothing more. Then, as I was looking again at the curious illumination of the curtains, a moving mass came into the angle of my vision out of the corner of the room near the head of the bed, and passed slowly into full view between me and the curtain. It was unmistakably the figure of a man, not unlike that of the better type of Italian, and was dressed in the commonly worn soft hat and ample cloak. His profile came out clearly against the light background of the lace curtain, and showed him to be a man of considerable refinement of feature. He did not make an actually solid black silhouette against the light, neither was the figure translucent, but was rather like an object seen through a vapor or through a sheet of thin ground glass.

I tried to raise my head, but my nerve force seemed suddenly to fail me, and while I was wondering at my powerlessness, and reasoning at the same time that it must be a nightmare, the figure had moved slowly across in front of the window, and out through the open door into the studio.

I listened breathlessly, but not a sound did I hear from the next room. I pinched myself, opened and shut my eyes, and noticed that the breathing of my roommate was irregular, and unlike that of a sleeping man. I am unable to understand why I did not sit up or turn over or speak to my friend to find out if he was awake. I was fully conscious that I ought to do this, but something, I know not what, forced me to lie perfectly motionless watching the window. I heard my roommate breathing, opened and shut my eyes, and was certain, indeed, that I was really awake. As I reasoned on the phenomenon, and came naturally to the unwilling conclusion that my hallucination was probably premonitory of malaria, my nerves grew quiet, I began to think less intensely, and then I fell asleep.

The next morning I awoke with a feeling of disagreeable anticipation. I was loath to rise, even though the warm Italian sunlight was pouring into the room and gilding the dingy interior with brilliant reflections. In spite of this cheering glow of sunshine, the rooms still had the same dead and uninhabited appearance, and the presence of my friend, a vigorous and practical man, seemed to bring no recognizable vitality or human element to counteract the oppressiveness of the place. Every detail of my waking dream or hallucination of the night before was perfectly fresh in my mind, and the sense of apprehension was still strong upon me.

The distracting operations of settling the studio, and the frequent excursions to neighboring shops to buy articles necessary to our meagre housekeeping, did much towards taking my mind off the incident of the night, but every time I entered the sitting-room or the bedroom it all came up to me with a vividness that made my nerves quiver. We explored all the corners and cupboards of the place. We even crawled up over the sitting-room behind the dingy curtain, where a large quantity of disused frames and old stretchers were packed away. We familiarized ourselves, in fact, with every nook and cranny of each room; moved the furniture about in a different order; hung up draperies and sketches, and in many ways changed the character of the interior. The faded, weary-looking widow from whom I hired the place, and who took care of the rooms, carried away to her own apartment many of the most obnoxious trifles which encumbered the small tables, the étagère, and the wall spaces. She sighed a great deal as we were making the rapid changes to suit our own taste, but made no objection, and we naturally thought it was the regular custom of every new occupant to turn the place upside down.

Late in the afternoon I was alone in the studio for an hour or more, and sat by the fire trying to read. The daylight was not gone, and the rumble of the busy street came plainly to my ears. I say “trying to read,” for I found reading quite impossible. The moment I began to fix my attention on the page, I had a very powerful feeling that some one was looking over my shoulder. Do what I would, I could not conquer the unreasonable sensation. Finally, after starting up and looking about me a dozen times, I threw down the book and went out. When I returned, after an hour in the open air, I found my friend walking up and down in the studio with open doors and two guttering candles alight.

“It’s a curious thing,” he said, “I can’t read this book. I have been trying to put my mind on it a whole half-hour, and I can’t do it. I always thought I could get interested in Gaborieau in a moment under any circumstances.”

“I went out to walk because I couldn’t manage to read,” I replied, and the conversation ended.

We went to the theatre that evening, and afterwards to the Café Greco, where we talked art in half a dozen languages until midnight, and then came home. Our entrance to the house and the studio was much the same as on the previous night, and we went to bed without a word. My mind naturally reverted to the experience of the night before, and I lay there for a long time with my eyes open, making a strong effort of the imagination to account for the vision by the dim shapes of the furniture, the lace curtains, and the suggestive and shadowy perspective. But, although the interior was weird enough, by reason of the dingy hangings and the diffused light, I was unable to trace the origin of the illusion to any object within the range of my vision, or to account for the strange illumination which had startled me. I went to sleep thinking of other things, and with my nerves comparatively quiet.

Some time in the early morning, about three o’clock, as near as I could judge, I slowly awoke, and saw the lace curtains illuminated as before. I found myself in an expectant frame of mind, neither calm nor excited, but rather in that condition of philosophical quiet which best prepared me for an investigation of the phenomenon which I confidently expected to witness. Perhaps this is assuming too eagerly the position of a philosopher, but I am certain no element of fear disturbed my reason, that I was neither startled nor surprised at awakening as I did, and that my mind was active and undoubtedly prepared for the investigation of the mystery.

I was therefore not at all shocked to observe the same shape come first into the angle of my eye, and then into the full range of my vision, next appear as a silhouette against the curtains, and finally lose itself in the darkness of the doorway. During the progress of the shape across the room I noticed the size and general aspect of it with keen attention to detail and with satisfactory calmness of observation. It was only after the figure had passed out of sight, and the light on the window curtains grew dim again, much as an electric light loses its brilliancy with the diminution of the strength of the current, that it occurred to me to consider the fact that during the period of the hallucination I had been utterly motionless. There was not the slightest doubt of my being awake. My friend in the adjoining bed was breathing regularly, the ticking of my watch was plainly audible, and I could feel my heart beating with unusual rapidity and vigor.

The strange part of the whole incident was this incapacity of action, and the more I reasoned about it the more I was mystified by the utter failure of nerve force. Indeed, while the mind was actively at work on this problem the physical torpor continued, a languor not unlike the incipient drowsiness of anæsthesia came gradually over me, and, though mentally protesting against the helpless condition of the body, and struggling to keep awake, I fell asleep, and did not stir till morning.

With the bright clear winter’s day returned the doubts and disappointments of the day before—doubts of the existence of the phenomenon, disappointment at the failure of any solution of the hallucination. A second day in the studio did little towards dispelling the mental gloom which possessed us both, and at night my friend confessed that he thought we must have stumbled into a malarial quarter.

At this distance of time it is absolutely incomprehensible to me how I could have gone on as I did from day to day, or rather from night to night—for the same hallucination was repeated nightly—without speaking to my friend, or at least taking some energetic steps towards an investigation of the mystery. But I had the same experience every night for fully a week before I really began to plan serious means of discovering whether it was a hallucination, a nightmare, or a flesh-and-blood intruder. First, I had some curiosity each night to see whether there would be a repetition of the incident. Second, I was eager to note any physical or mental symptom which would serve as a clew to the mystery. Pride, or some other equally authoritative sentiment, continued to keep me from disclosing my secret to my friend, although I was on the point of doing so on several occasions. My first plan was to keep a candle burning all night, but I could invent no plausible excuse to my comrade for this action. Next I proposed to shut the bedroom door, and on speaking of it to my friend, he strongly objected on the ground of the lack of ventilation, and was not willing to risk having the window open on account of the malaria. After all, since this was an entirely personal matter, it seemed to me the only thing to do was to depend on my own strength of mind and moral courage to solve this mystery unaided. I put my loaded revolver on the table by the bedside, drew back the lace curtain before going to bed, and left the door only half open, so I could not see into the studio. The night I made these preparations I awoke as usual, saw the same figure, but, as before, could not move a hand. After it had passed the window, I tried hard to bring myself to take my revolver, and find out whether I had to deal with a man or a simulacrum. But even while I was arguing with myself, and trying to find out why I could not move, sleep came upon me before I had carried out my purposed action.

The shock of the first appearance of the vision had been nearly overbalanced by my eagerness to investigate, and my intense interest in the novel condition of mind or body which made such an experience possible. But after the utter failure of all my schemes and the collapse of my theories as to evident causes of the phenomenon, I began to be harassed and worried, almost unconsciously at first, by the ever-present thought, the daily anticipation, and the increasing dread of the hallucination. The self-confidence that first supported me in my nightly encounter diminished on each occasion, and the curiosity which stimulated me to the study of the phenomenon rapidly gave way to the sentiment akin to terror when I proved myself incapable of grappling with the mystery.

The natural result of this preoccupation was inability to work and little interest in recreation, and as the long weeks wore away I grew morose, morbid, and hypochondriacal. The pride which kept me from sharing my secret with my friend also held me at my post and nerved me to endure the torment in the rapidly diminishing hope of finally exorcising the spectre or recovering my usual healthy tone of mind. The difficulty of my position was increased by the fact that the apparition failed to appear occasionally, and while I welcomed each failure as a sign that the visits were to cease, they continued spasmodically for weeks, and I was still as far away from the interpretation of the problem as ever. Once I sought medical advice, but the doctor could discover nothing wrong with me except what might be caused by tobacco, and, following his advice, I left off smoking. He said I had no malaria; that I needed more exercise, perhaps; but he could not account for my insomnia, for I, like most patients, had concealed the vital facts in my case, and had complained of insomnia as the cause of my anxiety about my health.

The approach of spring tempted me out-of-doors, and in the warm villa gardens and the sun-bathed Campagna I could sometimes forget the nightmare that haunted me. This was not often possible unless I was in the company of cheerful companions, and I grew to dread the hour when I was to return to the studio after an excursion into the country among the soothing signs of returning summer. To shut the clanging door of the studio was to place an impenetrable barrier between me and the outside world, and the loneliness of that interior seemed to be only intensified by the presence of my companion, who was apparently as much depressed in spirits as myself.

We made various attempts at the entertainment of friends, but they all lacked that element of spontaneous fun which makes such occasions successful, and we gave it up. On pleasant days we threw open the windows on the street to let in the warm air and sunshine, but this did not seem to drive away the musty odors of the interior. We were much too high up to feel any neighborly proximity to the people on the other side of the street. The chimney-pots and irregular roofs below and beyond were not very cheerful objects in the view, and the landlady, who, as far as we knew, was the only other occupant of the upper story, did not give us a great sense of companionship. Never once did I enter the studio without feeling the same curious sensation of alternate warm and cool strata of air. Never for a quarter of an hour did I succeed in reading a book or a newspaper, however interesting it might be. We frequently had two models at a time, and both my friend and myself made several beginnings of pictures, but neither of us carried the work very far.

On one occasion a significant remark was made by a lady friend who came to call. She will undoubtedly remember now when she reads these lines that she said, on leaving the studio: “This is a curiously draughty place. I feel as if it had been blowing hot and cold on me all the time I have been here, and yet you have no windows open.”

At another time my comrade burst out as I was going away one evening about eleven o’clock to a reception at one of the palaces: “I wish you wouldn’t go in for society so much. I can’t go to the café; all the fellows go home about this time of the evening. I don’t like to stay here in this dismal hole all cooped up by myself. I can’t read, I can’t sleep, and I can’t think.”

It occurred to me that it was a little queer for him to object to being left alone, unless he, like myself, had some disagreeable experiences there, and I remembered that he had usually gone out when I had, and was seldom, if ever, alone in the studio when I returned. His tone was so peevish and impatient that I thought discussion was injudicious, and simply replied, “Oh, you’re bilious; I’ll be home early,” and went away. I have often thought since that it was the one occasion when I could have easily broached the subject of my mental trouble, and I have always regretted I did not do so.

Matters were brought to a climax in this way: My friend was summoned to America by telegraph a little more than two months after we took the studio, and left me at a day’s notice. The amount and kind of moral courage I had to summon up before I could go home alone the first evening after my comrade left me can only be appreciated by those who have undergone some similar torture. It was not like the bracing up a man goes through when he has to face some imminent known danger, but was of a more subtle and complex kind. “There is nothing to fear,” I kept saying to myself, and yet I could not shake off a nameless dread. “You are in your right mind and have all your senses,” I continually argued, “for you see and hear and reason clearly enough. It is a brief hallucination, and you can conquer the mental weakness which causes it by persistent strength of will. If it be a simulacrum, you as a practical man, with good physical health and sound enough reasoning powers, ought to investigate it to the best of your ability.” In this way I endeavored to nerve myself up, and went home late, as usual. The regular incident of the night occurred. I felt keenly the loss of my friend’s companionship, and suffered accordingly, but in the morning I was no nearer to the solution of the mystery than I was before.

For five weary, torturing nights did I go up to that room alone, and, with no sound of human proximity to cheer me or to break the wretched feeling of utter solitude, I endured the same experience. At last I could bear it no longer, and determined to have a change of air and surroundings. I hastily packed a travelling-bag and my color-box, leaving all my extra clothes in the wardrobes and the bureau drawers, told the landlady I should return in a week or two, and paid her for the remainder of the time in advance. The last thing I did was to take my travelling-cap, which hung near the head of my bed. A break in the wallpaper showed that there was a small door here. Pulling the knob which had held my cap, the door was readily opened, and disclosed a small niche in the wall. Leaning against the back of the niche was a small crucifix with a rude figure of Christ, and suspended from the neck of the image by a small cord was a triangular object covered with faded cloth. While I was examining with some interest the hiding-place of these relics, the landlady entered.

“What are these?” I asked.

“Oh, signore!” she said, half sobbing as she spoke. “Those are relics of my poor husband. He was an artist like yourself, signore. He was—he was—ill, very ill—and in mind as well as body, signore. May the Blessed Virgin rest his soul! He hated the crucifix, he hated the scapular, he hated the priests. Signore, he—he died without the sacrament, and cursed the holy water. I have never dared to touch those relics, signore. But he was a good man, and the best of husbands”; and she buried her face in her hands.

I took the first train for Naples, and have never been in Rome since.

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