A Stranger within the Gates
– Annie Getchell Gale
When Mr. Holcomb saw Dr. Riter start out on his round of evening visits he joined him. "Where are you going first?", he asked.
"Down to Mr. Lester's", the doctor answered.
"Then I will walk along with you. There's a piece of land down that way that I want to call your attention to. The thought occurred to me that perhaps you and I had better invest a few hundreds in it. Is Lester's boy going to pull through?"
"I see no reason why he shouldn't, though the fever has not run its course yet. He is rather a delicate child; he has a fair constitution, but not much vitality."
"My boy speaks of him as a good-natured little chap who takes to books and pets."
"Yes; he has a good mind and a good disposition. He is rather an unusually promising child."
"I suppose his father and mother will try to make a preacher of him - if he lives. It runs in the blood."
"It has run in the blood, as you say, but it may have run out. The time is coming, Mr. Holcomb, when there will be no preachers - using the word in the sense in which we use it now. The time is coming when men will look within for guidance in matters of religion."
"Undoubtedly; and I fancy when that time comes every man will be his own physician."
"I hope he will; there are signs in the air now that he who runs may read - if he runs with his eyes wide open."
"This is the property that I had reference to", said Mr. Holcomb, stopping before a dilapidated old house, half-concealed by trees. "The buildings are of no value, but the land will bring a good price some day. We can buy it for two thousand dollars. What do you think of investing a thousand in it?"
"It strikes me as a good bargain, and I will talk with you further about it to night, as I may have to go out of the city in the morning, and if we buy it at all we may as well do so immediately. But I must go on to Mr. Lester's now. I may not be detained five minutes; suppose you wait here for me, and we will walk down town together. I have an errand at the drug store before making my next call."
Mr. Holcomb assented, and Dr, Riter went on. He was not gone long, but when he returned the sky was growing dark and lights shone through the windows of the buildings along the street. While passing a saloon their attention was attracted by sounds of angry voices, scuffling, and the crash of glass. They stopped and looked through a window; in the middle of the room two men, bent on murder, faced each other like wild animals about to spring. One held a revolver, the other a knife. For an instant they stood there, leaning forward, intent, alert, calculating the moment for action - the knife flashed in the air, and the report of the revolver was heard. One fell to the floor with a bullet in his heart; the other, unhurt, laid his smoking revolver on the bar.
"That was a close shave", he said coolly. "Another second and that knife would have done me."
Following his professional instinct, Dr. Riter went inside and made a hasty examination of the body. The heart had ceased to beat and he told the bystanders that the man was dead.
A crowd had gathered, and comments on the affair were made without reserve. "That was a neat bit of work", said one.
"Caldwell was a tough and a bully, and it's a good thing for the community that he's gone where he can do no more harm", said another.
"That's a fact."
"He made the row in the first place", said the bartender, who had seen the beginning of the difficulty. "He wanted to fight, and he got what he deserved."
"The world is well rid of him."
"What are you men talking about?" Dr. Riter demanded. "How do any of you know that he can do no more harm?"
The respect in which Dr. Riter was held prevented any open derision of his question, but several men exchanged significant glances. One, however, attempted to justify what he had said: "Dead men don't handle guns or knives - at least not that I ever heard of."
"You are speaking according to your knowledge; you never heard of their ever handling guns or knives; that is well put in. But what lies behind the hand that fires the gun? Some one's mind supplies a motive. That is the real thing."
"You're too deep for me, doctor; I don't know what you are driving at."
"Do you think the soul of a man dies with his body?"
"No - no; I don't believe that."
"Very well; Caldwell had a soul, and according to your belief and mine it didn't die with his body, but it can't control it any longer because his body is dead. Don't you think it might like to instigate some other man to commit crime, now, or do you imagine it has become changed in the twinkling of an eye, from what it was, to pure goodness?"
"I don't know anything about it; I'm no spiritualist."
"Neither am I; but for all we know to the contrary Caldwell's power to do evil may be ten times as great as it was half an hour ago."
Mr. Holcomb and the doctor went out. "The man who said Caldwell had gone where he could do no more harm expressed the ideas of a great many people", Mr. Holcomb remarked. "You gave those people something to think about."
"If they were in the habit of thinking they would question what becomes of a soul intent on crime at the moment it is set free. But they haven't learned to think. What would any one of that crowd say if I were to take him into an insane asylum and explain to him the real meaning of what he saw? He would be of the opinion that I was quite as much of a lunatic as any one there. How many generations do you imagine must pass before the masses have become fairly enlightened as to the facts of nature?"
"About five, I should say."
Willie Lester lost strength so fast that when the fever had run its course Dr. Riter doubted whether he could recover. For days he lay in a stupor of complete exhaustion; and when, at length, an increase of strength became perceptible, it was so very slight that weeks had passed before Dr. Riter could say that he was certainly recovering.
As his strength returned certain peculiarities became apparent; his moods changed constantly, but none of them were pleasant. He was irritable, reserved, watchful, suspicious, and he frequently indulged in violent fits of anger, for which neither his mother nor Dr. Riter could find a cause, and which he could not, or would not, explain. He no longer cared for books, pets, schoolmates, or for anything which had formerly given him pleasure, but occupied himself in making feeble, but determined, efforts to kill the flies which occasionally came within his reach.
Dr. Riter observed the change with some anxiety. His constitution was shattered, and his mind was weak; that he would be an easy victim to any strong and persistent influence was certain, and that some evil thing, seeing his weakness, would attack him, was more than possible. In the doctor's opinion his changing moods indicated real danger; two individuals, he argued, contending for supremacy in one body, would produce a discord which would be manifested externally by moodiness and irritability. Unfortunately, Dr. Riter was working in the dark; all that he could do was to exert his own will against the intruder - if such there was - whom he was unable to see, and there was not a well developed clairvoyant in the city.
Going in very quietly one day, Dr. Riter heard him talking, with an expression of mingled fear and loathing: "Get away! get away, I say!"
"To whom are you talking, Willie?" the Doctor asked.
Willie started up, confused: "O, nothing - I don't know."
"But you were talking to some one who was here; I would like to know. Don't you think you had better tell me?"
Confused emotions flitted over his face, - fear, suspicion, and anger. "I tell you I don't know", he answered. "I wasn't talking. I wish folks wouldn't ask me so many questions."
"Some one annoys you", Dr. Riter continued; "I will tell him to go away and let you alone."
A strange expression came over Willie's face - a leer of triumph and defiance. It passed as quickly as it came, but its full significance was not lost on Dr. Riter. "It may be too late", he thought,
In another room he questioned Mrs. Lester, adroitly, so as not to alarm her: "I heard Willie talking to himself just now; does he often amuse himself in this way?"
"No, not now; he's getting over that."
"Do you mean that he has been in the habit of talking to himself?"
"Since he was ill he has talked and muttered to himself a good deal. Something annoys him, but he doesn't seem able to tell me what it is. He acts as though he was afraid of something. Have you noticed how moody he is? Sometimes he is like himself, and then, in a minute, he isn't like my Willie at all."
"I wish you would observe him closely, without allowing him to suspect that you are watching him, and tell me what you see. He doesn't like to answer my questions."
"I have noticed that; and it seems strange, because he used to like you, and to be pleased when you came."
"He may like me well enough now", said the doctor, giving Mrs. Lester a look of keen enquiry and speculation.
"Doctor", she said quickly, "I don't know precisely what you mean, but you mean a little more than you say. I feel it. And I have felt that something is wrong with Willie; I see now that you know there is - and you may as well tell me."
"I will tell you, but not this morning, because I have not time. Tomorrow I will explain it to you - so far as I understand it myself. In the meantime, observe him and draw your own inferences."
"Five generations", Dr. Riter said to himself as he went out; "well, it may be, but people are waking up pretty fast. Here's Mrs. Lester; she has intuitions; last week I ran across a case of clairvoyance. And if some kind of a plague should remove all the cattle and sheep and pigs from the face of the earth, there would be a great deal more intuition and clairvoyance."
On his human side Dr. Riter regretted the tragedy which he believed was being enacted before his eyes, but on his scientific side he felt deeply interested in what he regarded as a tolerably clear illustration of a fact in nature; it was a case for observation and investigation, and for record in a certain private notebook. This notebook contained records of cases usually denominated "mental", which he had seen in many years of experience, and would, as he knew well, constitute sufficient proof in the minds of any court and jury that the writer was a lunatic - sane, perhaps, on all subjects but one, and on that one a monomaniac, a person who must not be permitted to tamper with precious lives. But as he had, in fact, a well-balanced mind, and was aware that he was moving along in the direction in which nature had fitted him to move, he did not impair his usefulness by leaving this interesting, but dangerous, book within reach of any hands but his own.
The next day he had a talk with Mrs. Lester. "We must build Willie up'', he said, "build him up so that he will be strong enough to resist and crowd out this individuality which has begun to fasten itself upon him. He is weak and passive; he must become strong and positive. I am aware that it is easier to talk about bringing about this result than it is to accomplish it. Casting out devils is not an easy matter, I fancy. But we must try. Continue to give him a strengthening diet, but not a particle of meat, as that would tend to build up the animal within him - which is what we want to overcome. Keep him as much as possible in the fresh air, and occupy his mind in every way that you can think of; we must trust him to nature while he's asleep. We must make the conditions as unfavorable as possible to the will of the intruder. When he learns that he can no longer use Willie's brain and hands we must suppose he will seek some other victim, weakened by disease and without power of resistance. Meanwhile, watch him closely; some purpose or desire will become apparent if the obsessing influence increases; and, on the other hand, if Willie's power of resistance becomes stronger you will notice these strange moods less and less, and they will gradually disappear."
"In your judgment, are the chances for or against him?" Mrs. Lester asked.
"I am sorry to be obliged to say that in my judgment it is an even question; we do not know who or what the obsessing force is, and therefore we cannot estimate its strength. I have no personal knowledge of any one who can assist us in this matter at all. I have seen instances in which those who were affected in this way threw off the influence and regained their normal mental condition; and I have seen other instances in which they did not."
One afternoon in November, six months later, Dr. Riter and Mr. Holcomb went with a probable purchaser to look at the old house which stood on their land.
"We will let you have the old lumber cheap", Mr. Holcomb said as they walked along. "It is of no present use to us."
"I understand it's headquarters for some rough boys - the Lester boy and the crowd he draws around him. I was in the lot yesterday, trying to get a look at the inside of the house, but the doors were fastened and the windows were boarded up outside and covered with old papers inside, so I got only a glimpse here and there."
Dr. Riter and Mr. Holcomb looked at each other in surprise. "If the doors are fastened and the windows boarded up it must be the work of those boys."
"What is Lester's boy coming to, doctor? It looks to some people as though he's a proper subject for the reform school."
"He will land in prison or in an insane asylum before he is many years older. The reform school will do him no good. The fact is, we don't know what to do with just such cases as his. I have told Mr. Lester that Willie should be under strict authority. Moral suasion has no effect upon him, because he has lost his moral sense, but, and very naturally, his parents are unwilling to send him to strangers."
Two policemen and a boy rushed past them, and turning a corner disappeared from sight, and when they also turned the corner and approached the old house they perceived that something of an unusual nature had occurred, or was taking place there, and that the policemen whom they had seen were trying to break in one of the doors, while an excited crowd looked on.
"What is the matter?" Dr. Riter asked, addressing one of the officers.
"Some boys say that the Lester boy has killed a little chap in here - pounded him to pieces. They looked in through a crack somewhere. They're too excited to tell a straight story, but they must have seen something, for the boy that came for us was pretty near scared to death".
"The child may not be dead", said the doctor, "but we must lose no time. Here - one of you men who live near - go for an axe. We must get that door open."
"Mr. Lester must know of this; has any one gone to tell him?" Mr. Holcomb asked.
"Yes" a man in the crowd answered. "The boy seems to have a devil in him. He wants to torture and kill".
"He killed my dog last week", said a boy. "I guess he buried it in the cellar of that house. That's where he buries the cats and dogs that he kills."
"He tried to kill his little sister a while ago", exclaimed another.
The door was broken in at last, but it was not an easy matter to capture Willie Lester. He resisted the officers, striking furiously with an old ramrod at all who came near him, and being very quick and strong he succeeded in disabling several hands before he was finally overcome.
In one of the rooms the body of a child five or six years old-was found, perfectly dead and horribly mutilated. While Dr. Riter was looking at it Mr. Lester came: "If I had taken your advice this would not have occurred", he said.
The body was carried out and laid on the ground. Demoniacal fury had been spent upon it; men turned away from the sickening sight, but Willie Lester's eyes did not shrink from it, as he was carried past by the officers, struggling, screaming, and biting with uncontrollable rage.
(The Path, May, 1894)