The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce
- Statement of Joel Hetman, Jr.
I AM the most unfortunate of men. Rich, respected,
fairly well educated and of sound health--with
many other advantages usually valued by those
having them and coveted by those who have them
not--I sometimes think that I should be less unhappy
if they had been denied me, for then the
contrast between my outer and my inner life would
not be continually demanding a painful attention. In
the stress of privation and the need of effort I might
sometimes forget the sombre secret ever baffling the
conjecture that it compels.
I am the only child of Joel and Julia Hetman. The
one was a well-to-do country gentleman, the other
a beautiful and accomplished woman to whom he
was passionately attached with what I now know
to have been a jealous and exacting devotion.
The family home was a few miles from Nashville,
Tennessee, a large, irregularly built dwelling
of no particular order of architecture, a
little way off the road, in a park of trees and
At the time of which I write I was nineteen years
old, a student at Yale. One day I received a telegram
from my father of such urgency that in compliance
with its unexplained demand I left at once
for home. At the railway station in Nashville a distant
relative awaited me to apprise me of the reason
for my recall: my mother had been barbarously
murdered--why and by whom none could conjecture,
but the circumstances were these.
My father had gone to Nashville, intending to return
the next afternoon. Something prevented his
accomplishing the business in hand, so he returned
on the same night, arriving just before the dawn.
In his testimony before the coroner he explained
that having no latchkey and not caring to disturb the
sleeping servants, he had, with no clearly defined
intention, gone round to the rear of the house. As he
turned an angle of the building, he heard a sound as
of a door gently closed, and saw in the darkness, indistinctly,
the figure of a man, which instantly disappeared
among the trees of the lawn. A hasty pursuit
and brief search of the grounds in the belief
that the trespasser was some one secretly visiting
a servant proving fruitless, he entered at the unlocked
door and mounted the stairs to my mother's
chamber. Its door was open, and stepping into black
darkness he fell headlong over some heavy object
on the floor. I may spare myself the details; it was
my poor mother, dead of strangulation by human
Nothing had been taken from the house, the servants
had heard no sound, and excepting those terrible
finger-marks upon the dead woman's throat--
dear God! that I might forget them!--no trace of
the assassin was ever found.
I gave up my studies and remained with my
father, who, naturally, was greatly changed. Always
of a sedate, taciturn disposition, he now fell into so
deep a dejection that nothing could hold his attention,
yet anything--a footfall, the sudden closing
of a door--aroused in him a fitful interest; one
might have called it an apprehension. At any small
surprise of the senses he would start visibly and
sometimes turn pale, then relapse into a melancholy
apathy deeper than before. I suppose he was what
is called a 'nervous wreck.' As to me, I was younger
then than now--there is much in that. Youth is
Gilead, in which is balm for every wound. Ah, that
I might again dwell in that enchanted land! Unacquainted
with grief, I knew not how to appraise
my bereavement; I could not rightly estimate the
strength of the stroke.
One night, a few months after the dreadful event,
my father and I walked home from the city. The
full moon was about three hours above the eastern
horizon; the entire countryside had the solemn stillness
of a summer night; our footfalls and the ceaseless
song of the katydids were the only sound, aloof.
Black shadows of bordering trees lay athwart the
road, which, in the short reaches between, gleamed
a ghostly white. As we approached the gate to our
dwelling, whose front was in shadow, and in which
no light shone, my father suddenly stopped and
clutched my arm, saying, hardly above his breath:
'God! God! what is that?'
'I hear nothing,' I replied.
'But see--see!' he said, pointing along the road,
I said: 'Nothing is there. Come, father, let us go
in--you are ill.'
He had released my arm and was standing rigid
and motionless in the centre of the illuminated roadway,
staring like one bereft of sense. His face in the
moonlight showed a pallor and fixity inexpressibly
distressing. I pulled gently at his sleeve, but he had
forgotten my existence. Presently he began to retire
backward, step by step, never for an instant
removing his eyes from what he saw, or thought he
saw. I turned half round to follow, but stood irresolute.
I do not recall any feeling of fear, unless
a sudden chill was its physical manifestation. It
seemed as if an icy wind had touched my face and
enfolded my body from head to foot; I could feel the
stir of it in my hair.
At that moment my attention was drawn to a
light that suddenly streamed from an upper window
of the house: one of the servants, awakened by what
mysterious premonition of evil who can say, and in
obedience to an impulse that she was never able to
name, had lit a lamp. When I turned to look for my
father he was gone, and in all the years that have
passed no whisper of his fate has come across the
borderland of conjecture from the realm of the
2: Statement of Caspar Grattan
To-day I am said to live, to-morrow, here in this
room, will lie a senseless shape of clay that all too
long was I. If anyone lift the cloth from the face of
that unpleasant thing it will be in gratification of a
mere morbid curiosity. Some, doubtless, will go
further and inquire, 'Who was he?' In this writing
I supply the only answer that I am able to make--
Caspar Grattan. Surely, that should be enough.
The name has served my small need for more than
twenty years of a life of unknown length. True, I
gave it to myself, but lacking another I had the right.
In this world one must have a name; it prevents
confusion, even when it does not establish identity.
Some, though, are known by numbers, which also
seem inadequate distinctions.
One day, for illustration, I was passing along a
street of a city, far from here, when I met two men
in uniform, one of whom, half pausing and looking
curiously into my face, said to his companion, 'That
man looks like 767.' Something in the number
seemed familiar and horrible. Moved by an uncontrollable
impulse, I sprang into a side street and ran
until I fell exhausted in a country lane.
I have never forgotten that number, and always
it comes to memory attended by gibbering obscenity,
peals of joyless laughter, the clang of iron doors. So
I say a name, even if self-bestowed, is better than a
number. In the register of the potter's field I shall
soon have both. What wealth!
Of him who shall find this paper I must beg a
little consideration. It is not the history of my life;
the knowledge to write that is denied me. This is only
a record of broken and apparently unrelated memories,
some of them as distinct and sequent as brilliant
beads upon a thread, others remote and strange,
having the character of crimson dreams with interspaces
blank and black--witch-fires glowing still
and red in a great desolation.
Standing upon the shore of eternity, I turn for a
last look landward over the course by which I came.
There are twenty years of footprints fairly distinct,
the impressions of bleeding feet. They lead through
poverty and pain, devious and unsure, as of one
staggering beneath a burden--
Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow.
Ah, the poet's prophecy of Me--how admirable,
how dreadfully admirable!
Backward beyond the beginning of this via dolorosa
--this epic of suffering with episodes of sin
--I see nothing clearly; it comes out of a cloud.
I know that it spans only twenty years, yet I am an
One does not remember one's birth--one has to
be told. But with me it was different; life came to
me full-handed and dowered me with all my faculties
and powers. Of a previous existence I know no
more than others, for all have stammering intimations
that may be memories and may be dreams.
I know only that my first consciousness was of maturity
in body and mind--a consciousness accepted
without surprise or conjecture. I merely found myself
walking in a forest, half-clad, footsore, unutterably
weary and hungry. Seeing a farmhouse, I approached
and asked for food, which was given me by one
who inquired my name. I did not know, yet knew
that all had names. Greatly embarrassed, I retreated,
and night coming on, lay down in the forest and
The next day I entered a large town which I shall
not name. Nor shall I recount further incidents of
the life that is now to end--a life of wandering,
always and everywhere haunted by an overmastering
sense of crime in punishment of wrong and of
terror in punishment of crime. Let me see if I can
reduce it to narrative.
I seem once to have lived near a great city, a
prosperous planter, married to a woman whom I
loved and distrusted. We had, it sometimes seems,
one child, a youth of brilliant parts and promise.
He is at all times a vague figure, never clearly
drawn, frequently altogether out of the picture.
One luckless evening it occurred to me to test my
wife's fidelity in a vulgar, commonplace way familiar
to everyone who has acquaintance with the
literature of fact and fiction. I went to the city, telling
my wife that I should be absent until the following
afternoon. But I returned before daybreak and
went to the rear of the house, purposing to enter by
a door with which I had secretly so tampered that it
would seem to lock, yet not actually fasten. As I
approached it, I heard it gently open and close, and
saw a man steal away into the darkness. With murder
in my heart, I sprang after him, but he had
vanished without even the bad luck of identification.
Sometimes now I cannot even persuade myself that
it was a human being.
Crazed with jealousy and rage, blind and bestial
with all the elemental passions of insulted manhood,
I entered the house and sprang up the stairs to the
door of my wife's chamber. It was closed, but having
tampered with its lock also, I easily entered, and
despite the black darkness soon stood by the side of
her bed. My groping hands told me that although
disarranged it was unoccupied.
'She is below,' I thought, 'and terrified by my
entrance has evaded me in the darkness of the hall.'
With the purpose of seeking her I turned to leave
the room, but took a wrong direction--the right
one! My foot struck her, cowering in a corner of the
room. Instantly my hands were at her throat, stifling
a shriek, my knees were upon her struggling body;
and there in the darkness, without a word of accusation
or reproach, I strangled her till she died!
There ends the dream. I have related it in the past
tense, but the present would be the fitter form, for
again and again the sombre tragedy re-enacts itself
in my consciousness--over and over I lay the plan,
I suffer the confirmation, I redress the wrong. Then
all is blank; and afterward the rains beat against the
grimy windowpanes, or the snows fall upon my
scant attire, the wheels rattle in the squalid streets
where my life lies in poverty and mean employment.
If there is ever sunshine I do not recall it; if there
are birds they do not sing.
There is another dream, another vision of the
night. I stand among the shadows in a moonlit road.
I am aware of another presence, but whose I cannot
rightly determine. In the shadow of a great dwelling
I catch the gleam of white garments; then the figure
of a woman confronts me in the road--my murdered
wife! There is death in the face; there are
marks upon the throat. The eyes are fixed on mine
with an infinite gravity which is not reproach, nor
hate, nor menace, nor anything less terrible than
recognition. Before this awful apparition I retreat in
terror--a terror that is upon me as I write. I can
no longer rightly shape the words. See! they--
Now I am calm, but truly there is no more to tell:
the incident ends where it began--in darkness and
Yes, I am again in control of myself: 'the captain
of my soul.' But that is not respite; it is another stage
and phase of expiation. My penance, constant in degree,
is mutable in kind: one of its variants is tranquillity.
After all, it is only a life-sentence. 'To Hell
for life'--that is a foolish penalty: the culprit
chooses the duration of his punishment. To-day my
To each and all, the peace that was not mine.
3: Statement of the Late Julia Hetman, through the
I had retired early and fallen almost immediately
into a peaceful sleep, from which I awoke with that
indefinable sense of peril which is, I think, a common
experience in that other, earlier life. Of its
unmeaning character, too, I was entirely persuaded,
yet that did not banish it. My husband, Joel Hetman,
was away from home; the servants slept in
another part of the house. But these were familiar
conditions; they had never before distressed me.
Nevertheless, the strange terror grew so insupportable
that conquering my reluctance to move I sat
up and lit the lamp at my bedside. Contrary to my
expectation this gave me no relief; the light seemed
rather an added danger, for I reflected that it would
shine out under the door, disclosing my presence to
whatever evil thing might lurk outside. You that
are still in the flesh, subject to horrors of the imagination,
think what a monstrous fear that must be
which seeks in darkness security from malevolent
existences of the night. That is to spring to close
quarters with an unseen enemy--the strategy of
Extinguishing the lamp I pulled the bedclothing
about my head and lay trembling and silent, unable
to shriek, forgetful to pray. In this pitiable state I
must have lain for what you call hours--with us
there are no hours, there is no time.
At last it came--a soft, irregular sound of footfalls
on the stairs! They were slow, hesitant, uncertain,
as of something that did not see its way; to my disordered
reason all the more terrifying for that, as
the approach of some blind and mindless malevolence
to which is no appeal. I even thought that I
must have left the hall lamp burning and the groping
of this creature proved it a monster of the night.
This was foolish and inconsistent with my previous
dread of the light, but what would you have? Fear
has no brains; it is an idiot. The dismal witness that
it bears and the cowardly counsel that it whispers
are unrelated. We know this well, we who have
passed into the Realm of Terror, who skulk in
eternal dusk among the scenes of our former lives,
invisible even to ourselves, and one another, yet
hiding forlorn in lonely places; yearning for speech
with our loved ones, yet dumb, and as fearful of
them as they of us. Sometimes the disability is removed,
the law suspended: by the deathless power
of love or hate we break the spell--we are seen by
those whom we would warn, console, or punish. What
form we seem to them to bear we know not; we
know only that we terrify even those whom we most
wish to comfort, and from whom we most crave
tenderness and sympathy.
Forgive, I pray you, this inconsequent digression
by what was once a woman. You who consult us in
this imperfect way--you do not understand. You
ask foolish questions about things unknown and
things forbidden. Much that we know and could
impart in our speech is meaningless in yours. We
must communicate with you through a stammering
intelligence in that small fraction of our language
that you yourselves can speak. You think that we
are of another world. No, we have knowledge of no
world but yours, though for us it holds no sunlight,
no warmth, no music, no laughter, no song of birds,
nor any companionship. O God! what a thing it is
to be a ghost, cowering and shivering in an altered
world, a prey to apprehension and despair!
No, I did not die of fright: the Thing turned and
went away. I heard it go down the stairs, hurriedly,
I thought, as if itself in sudden fear. Then I rose to
call for help. Hardly had my shaking hand found
the door-knob when--merciful heaven!--I heard
it returning. Its footfalls as it remounted the stairs
were rapid, heavy and loud; they shook the house. I
fled to an angle of the wall and crouched upon the
floor. I tried to pray. I tried to call the name of my
dear husband. Then I heard the door thrown open.
There was an interval of unconsciousness, and when
I revived I felt a strangling clutch upon my throat--
felt my arms feebly beating against something that
bore me backward--felt my tongue thrusting itself
from between my teeth! And then I passed into this
No, I have no knowledge of what it was. The sum
of what we knew at death is the measure of what we
know afterward of all that went before. Of this existence
we know many things, but no new light falls
upon any page of that; in memory is written all of it
that we can read. Here are no heights of truth overlooking
the confused landscape of that dubitable
domain. We still dwell in the Valley of the Shadow,
lurk in its desolate places, peering from brambles and
thickets at its mad, malign inhabitants. How should
we have new knowledge of that fading past?
What I am about to relate happened on a night.
We know when it is night, for then you retire to your
houses and we can venture from our places of concealment
to move unafraid about our old homes, to
look in at the windows, even to enter and gaze upon
your faces as you sleep. I had lingered long near the
dwelling where I had been so cruelly changed to what
I am, as we do while any that we love or hate remain.
Vainly I had sought some method of manifestation,
some way to make my continued existence
and my great love and poignant pity understood by
my husband and son. Always if they slept they
would wake, or if in my desperation I dared approach
them when they were awake, would turn
toward me the terrible eyes of the living, frightening
me by the glances that I sought from the purpose
that I held.
On this night I had searched for them without
success, fearing to find them; they were nowhere
in the house, nor about the moonlit dawn. For, although
the sun is lost to us for ever, the moon, fullorbed
or slender, remains to us. Sometimes it shines
by night, sometimes by day, but always it rises and
sets, as in that other life.
I left the lawn and moved in the white light and
silence along the road, aimless and sorrowing. Suddenly
I heard the voice of my poor husband in
exclamations of astonishment, with that of my son
in reassurance and dissuasion; and there by the
shadow of a group of trees they stood--near, so
near! Their faces were toward me, the eyes of the
elder man fixed upon mine. He saw me--at last, at
last, he saw me! In the consciousness of that, my
terror fled as a cruel dream. The death-spell was
broken: Love had conquered Law! Mad with exultation
I shouted--I must have shouted,' He sees, he
sees: he will understand!' Then, controlling myself,
I moved forward, smiling and consciously beautiful,
to offer myself to his arms, to comfort him with endearments,
and, with my son's hand in mine, to
speak words that should restore the broken bonds
between the living and the dead.
Alas! alas! his face went white with fear, his eyes
were as those of a hunted animal. He backed away
from me, as I advanced, and at last turned and fled
into the wood--whither, it is not given to me to
To my poor boy, left doubly desolate, I have never
been able to impart a sense of my presence. Soon he,
too, must pass to this Life Invisible and be lost to
me for ever.