Transmigration by Dora Sigerson Shorter
Many men have tasted Hell some moments of their livesa Hell of
their own making, perhaps; but I, oh God! I have been in the Hell of
I cannot remember my father or my mother; oh, wretched that I am! Had
I either to love one whom no man loves? No, I cannot remember. My
memory goes back three monthsno further. Every day I live those three
months over and over again.
I had too much money when I came of age. I knew not how to use it. I
threw it here and there, ever indulging in my own pleasure. Playing in
the world till the dust of it rose up and clouded my eyestill the
hand of innocence I held in mine was changed for the hand of sin.
Playing in a world that I was sent to work in, I forgot I had a soul
or that there was a God who had given it to me. I played until my
selfish indulgences brought upon me the sickness of death. And then my
three months of Hell commenced. Unloved, unfriended, I tossed upon my
bed, blaspheming a God I did not believe in, swearing I would not die.
Shrieking in my terror of that Hell, I felt myself approaching a Hell I
had so often scoffed at. I heard my screams re-echo through the empty
house, unreplied to, making my desolation complete. Then I lay still,
gasping on my bed; so would my prayers soar up to Heaven, I thought,
unanswered, unheard. But stay! a step on the stairsnearer, nearer;
the door has opened, and a man stands upon the threshold. Oh, eyes that
beamed peace and love, you saved me from Heaven's vengeance for the
momentat what a cost! He came forward into the room when he saw me,
and I thought for an instant it was an angel sent to comfort my misery.
I heard you call, he said; and, fearing you were ill, I entered. I
am your neighbour, my latch-key fits your door. You must pardon my
coming, but, thinking you were illand alone
I am alone, I saidalone, alone, deserted alike by God and man.
Body and soul I am alone, and sick unto death.
Despair not, my friend, said he. I will attend you; you are sick,
and morbid from being left alone. Rouse yourself, and I will try and
Help me! no man can help me; I have helped no man. Unless you can
give me another life to live with the knowledge I have of this.
My dear friend, God alone can do that, his voice went on
soothingly; but you are truly sorry for your past?
Man, I cried, there are no such things as death-bed repentances.
Death is ever beside us a yawning precipice; as we walk along its edge
we know that it is there. We look at the sky above it, at the
flowers by its brink, but we never look at it; we turn our heads away,
but we know that it is there. We feel the chill of it in the heat of
the sun. We see its shadow on the petals of the flowers. We know that a
false step, a stumble, and we are gone, plunged into Eternity in a
moment. We say that sometime this path must come to an end, as we but
follow it to our extermination, and when we see before us the black
doors of death, then will we lay aside our flowers, and still
our songs and laughter. And Heaven will pity our prayers and sighs.
Talk not to me of such repentances; I believe them not, nor you, nor
You are very ill, the stranger said, as I raved on.
I will not die, I must live, though Heaven itself has shut its gates
upon me. Hellif such is my destinationmust give me a year of life.
I say, I will not die. A strange strength seemed to flow through my
veins. I raised myself on my elbow. The stranger was standing at my
bedside looking with divine pity at my convulsed face.
You, I said. Oh, the horror of it! You must die, you with your
life of purity behind you; death should have no fears for you. The
gates of Heaven are open for you; give me your body, your life, and let
Friend, he said, as though humouring me, I cannot die; I have a
mother who is old and requires my care, and a child, a darling little
You must die! I cried again. I will care for your mother and
child. You must die and let me liveI say, I will not die.
You are very ill, was all he said, laying his hand upon my brow.
And then, I know not how it came to pass, whether my cry to Heaven or
Hell had been answered, or, whatever it was, by some great effort of my
will, but I stood by the bed looking down at my own sleeping body.
I dashed across the room to the glass. It was the stranger it reflected
backyes, the same high forehead, with fair, wavy hair, the same
large, dreamy eyes; but his soul, ah! his soul lay sleeping in that
motionless form upon the bed. I turned and left the haunted room,
living, living, living!
Living, livingoh, the joy of it! I had died and was born again. How
it came about, what cared I? Who, I thought, as I bounded down the
stairs, so fortunate as I? What man or woman thinking over the past
has not saidOh, could I but live my life over again, I would not
have done this thing or that? And I, with my evil past laid out before
me, could live it again, casting out the weeds and cultivating the
trodden flowers; with nothing to hinder me, not even the sensual flesh
that lay upstairs, a prison-house for the spirit of that good man whose
body I was inhabiting and whose life I proposed to live.
I closed the door of my own house and went up the tiny garden to the
next; as I did so, I heard the patter of little feet and a childish
voice calling, Here's papa! Here's papa!
I opened the door and took the little darling into my arms. Never had
I felt such happiness as when the innocent parted lips met mine and the
soft baby-hands went round my neck. I stood still to take in the joy of
it, but the child drew back in my arms and for a moment she sat quite
quiet, and then she struggled until I had to let her down.
It's not my papa! she sobbed, running into the little sitting-room.
Oh, gran'ma, 'tis not my own papa!
Mechanically I hung my hat upon the rack in the hall and followed the
child. The room was small, but very bright and cosy; an old lady was
seated in an arm-chair before the blazing fire; one withered hand was
laid caressingly upon the golden head of the little girl, the other
shaded her eyes as she anxiously watched the door. When I entered she
smiled and turned to the weeping child.
Why, what ailed you, darling? Look, Rosy, it is your own papa. Rosy
looked up through her tears, and, seeing me standing in the full glare
of the lamp and fire, ran to me again. I sat down in a low chair
opposite the old woman, and the little child climbed on to my knees.
It's my dood papa, she said, laying her wet cheek against mine.
For an hour I sat thus tasting for the first time the joy of a home,
and listening to the old woman as she told me tales of her son's
youthmy youth now.
For some time she rambled on, in the fashion of the old, and at last
for very joy I laughed aloud, waking the child, who had fallen asleep
in my arms.
Will you take her up to bed, Gilbert, said her grandmother; she
sat up for you that you might put her to sleep to-night.
I raised the child in my arms, the pretty little babe with her soft
curls falling across her face, and she laid her drowsy head upon my
shoulder. I pressed her with joy to my breast as I turned up the
narrow, dark stairs; at my movement she sat up suddenly and pushed me
from her with both her tiny hands. Oh, wonderful instinct of the child
that in the light beheld her father, but in darkness knew me for a
You're not my papa! Oh, I want papa!
Hush, hush! I whispered; I am your papa.
You're not, you're not! and she beat upon my breast with both her
tiny fists. Give me my own papa, you bad, bad man!
Then a great fury seized me, and I held her over the banisters. Call
me your father, or I let you go.
No, no; I want my own papa!
Call me your father, or I let you go.
I want my dood papa!
I did not mean it, Heaven knows I did not mean it, but my fingers
loosed their hold. I shook the little hands from their terrified grasp
upon my coat. The hall echoed the screams of a child and a sickening
thud on the flags beneath. A terrible laugh followed, a laugh that
might have come from the lowest pits of Hell. Was it I who uttered it?
I looked into the hall beneath me. A trembling old woman knelt there,
and, at her side, a servant with a lighted candle, but their white
faces were not turned to the motionless body at their feet, but towards
me, unspeaking, as though they were frozen by some terrible sight or
sound. Had a devil entered into the body Gilbert Graham during the time
my spirit was passing from my own to ita devil who, making me work
its will, thus laughed in its hideous triumph. Surely devils were many
round my bed when I lay dying. Its power had left me now, and I went,
in bitter remorse, to the little child.
She slipped from my arms, I whispered. She slipped, mother. She
answered me nothing; but, as I raised the senseless babe, the servant
sobbed, Oh, Master Gilbert, we thought the shock had sent you mad!
I laid the child upon the sofa, while the girl ran for a doctor. I
stood as though stunned until he came, watching him then in a dream as
he examined the soft limbs of the poor babe, and he shook his head as
I am sorry to have to tell you that if she lives she will be a
cripple all her life.
Tell my mother, I whispered. I was not the one to tell her this.
I am sorry, he said ; I am very sorry, Madam.
Hush! the old woman answered; hush! You will waken her.
She may never waken, he whispered. Bear up, dear Madam.
Hush! the old woman said again, touching the golden curls that were
stained with blood. Hush! The fairies have come to her and laid red
poppies in her hair.
And thus had I fulfilled my trust to care for his mother and
childone a cripple or dead, the other a muttering idiot.
I had launched my new life, and the waters that bore it were red
human blood; but who or what was the dread pilot that guided it?
I stole out into the dimly lighted street. Of what use was I at home?
The little child still lingered. The old woman was still happy in her
ignorance, babbling of fairies and red poppies. My hands were the
fairies that had laid those terrible flowers on her babe's fair head,
the sleep-giving poppies on her eyes.
The paper-boys were shouting in my ears as I passed, but I paid no
attention to them. Their terrible tragedies could not equal mine;
their cries of Murder! woke no horror in my heart; they only cried
aloud the word that echoed there. I dare not think of the imprisoned
soul that lay as dead in my roomthe only one who sought me out in my
hour of death's despair. My horrible cries, that had frightened the
very servants from my house, but hastened his feet to my side; and now
he slept, a thin wall between him and the reward I had given hima
Oh, how could I hear the city noises and a thousand cries within my
breasta thousand little hands beating upon my heart, Give back! give
And so I strode through the damp fog, caring not, thinking not where
I was going. At last a bright light flashed in my eyes, and I started
as though awaking. Before me was a lighted doorway, and above it, in
the light of the lamp, hung a board, and upon it in red letters the
word Billiards. The place was a gambling-hell. I had known it but too
well in the old days. I gazed about, half-hearing some one speaking,
and saw a young man before me, his face flushed and his eyelids
I could not help it, Graham; indeed I could not! I tried to keep
away because of my promise to you and for my mother's sake.
His promise to me! I almost laughed aloud. Yes, I knew that boyish,
effeminate face. It had been often opposite to me at the gambling-table
inside. I had seen it grow white and tortured as the game went on. I
had made its hairless lips grow sweet in a smile, or quiver
pathetically like a girl's, by the turn of my hand; I had lured him on
night after night with a hope I held between my fingers. His promise to
me! I had forgotten. Something evil was rising in my heart. I felt it
would claim my lips if I did not speak. I seized his arm.
Go home, I said; heed not what I may say to you after this, heed
not what I may seem to you. The most beautiful statue is but hollow and
moulded in common clay. The tiger's claws are soft as a lady's cheek,
but they will tear you to pieces if you trust them. The moth sees the
candle's flame, and, thinking it fair, he dies. I am not as you
I do not know what you mean, Graham. If you mean this den has any
fairness for me, it is not so, unless it be the fascination of the bird
to the serpent's eye.
Leave me! I cried despairingly, for devils' words were rising to my
lips; and as he did not heed me, I turned and spoke them.
Come in with me, I said, and laughed. Come in with me, and I shall
see fair play.
With you! He started. With you, Graham! you who have preached of
its dangers to me and its temptations and wickedness; you to whom I
looked to save me from where it will lead me. Oh, Graham! I could
laugh, 'tis so absurd!
I'll see fair play, I said again; besides, you could not break
yourself of the habit so easily and abruptlyI will wean you from it
I took his arm, and we passed inside. No one took any notice of me
when we entered, but they all gathered around my companion.
Why, Varen, we thought you were going to leave us?
Did you hear of the discovery in Harrington Street last night? Poor
Bulger! You remember Bulger, don't you? You lost a cool hundred to him
one night here over the cards, eh? Got a cataleptic fit, they say; most
interesting case. Went home in a most distressing state of mind the
other night, commenced shouting like the devil, frightened the servant
out of her wits and out of the housesays she hid in a doorway till
dawn, afraid to go back; then she screwed up her courage and stole to
the house; finding no answer to her knocks, and being unable to open
the door, became alarmed, started for the police-station, and returned
with some of the force. One got into the house by a low window and
opened the door to the rest; they found poor Bulger lying on his
bedthey thoughtdead as a herring, but the doctors say 'tis a most
interesting case of catalepsy.
I listened without speaking. What a queer old world it is! I
thought; we must have a name for everything, no matter how wonderful,
or where would our doctors and men of science be? Nothing is left to
the God who designed the whole. Our beliefs are superstitions, we laugh
them away; we would explain the very law of life itself.
A hand was laid upon my arm.
Play a game of cards, Graham? The fellows are asking me.
No, no; this is no place for youfor me. Come out of it quickly.
But the men surrounded us.
You are not going yet? just one game, then?
Fool that I was, I complied, and took my seat at the table. They
thought I was a green one, as was evident from their surprised looks
when I swept up their little pile of silver at the end of the first
You would think it was old Bulger himself, I heard one say; he
seems to have his accursed luck.
One game led to another; my companion's face grew pale; some demon
arose within me, and I took a pleasure in its paleness.
Why is it innocence attracts the guilty so? Behind the bar connected
with this card-room there was a young girl serving. I heard men make
rude jests that brought the colour to her cheeks; she would hang her
head if they called her endearing names, and the angry tears would
spring to her eyes: she would shake off their hands with passion. For
this girl they would leave their billiards and their cards to watch the
red and white fly to her face; and now, when they speak to her, she
answers their jests with similar ones; she answers their calls with a
simper; she courts their caresses and their company; she is no longer
attractive to themshe is one of themselves.
Why did I not pick out my prey among those evil, coarse faceswhy
did I seek to destroy the one exception? I know not; life preys upon
that which is weaker than itself, not that which is its equal.
I swept pile after pile of silver into my pockets, Varen's white face
growing whiter and whiter. At last he started to his feet
I'm cleared outI have only a shilling left; I'm going home.
Put it down, I said to him. Why, man, you may win a pile on it
yet. Finish this round, anyway.
Sullenly he sat down again and took up his cards.
I let him win game after game, and when he rose to depart he had won
back a third of his losses.
I'll come again to-morrow night and win the rest, he said, with a
smile. Why follow the downfall of that young life? Night after night we
met in the same place, I hastening away from the ceaseless crying of a
little, suffering child, calling for the father I had robbed her of; he
from the complaints of a broken-hearted mother, powerless to draw her
only son from the snare I had set for him. Night after night I robbed
him of his earnings, leaving him to win back a third, to lure him with
a hope, never to be fulfilled, that the next time he might win a
Paler each night grew the young face, shabbier the clothes, thinner
the hands that grasped the cards so eagerly. Now he spoke no word of
greeting to me; only his eyes revealed his thoughts: therein I could
see the light of hope gleam faintly each night, fading, fading to give
place to despair, returning again as the closing hours approached and
the waiter's voice warned us it was time to stop.
One night Varen came hastily in, staggering as though he were drunk.
Flinging himself down in a chair, he took his cards. There was no hope
in his eyes; I saw only terrible anguish and despair. On one sleeve of
his shabby coat I saw a broad band of crape.
He played wildlyand won. I had slain my devil; he won again; I was
glad. I saw his silver flow back to him; I was happy for the first time
in many a weary hour. I shall no longer be his curse, I thought;
through me he shall win back his fortune, his mother's blessing, his
lost youth. I shall restore all.
A cry recalled me. I had been dreaming. I gazed around bewildered;
the candles were spluttering in their sockets, and on the side of one
was a great roll of wax. It was turned towards VarenI had heard old
wives call it a winding-sheet. The dust of the day before lay white on
the sideboard and table, disturbed only where the cards fell and by the
track of our fingers. The dawn was creeping through the half-closed
shutters of the window, making our faces grey and ghastly in the two
Young Varen was staring at me with mad eyes, and on the table at my
side lay a heap of silver. It was I who had been winning.
Varen leaned across the table and gazed into my face. Are you a
man, he said, or are you a devil?
I did not answer, but that terrible thing within me broke into a
laugh. The men beside me started in horror as the sound came forth and
echoed round the room as though a demon were in each corner to repeat
Varen's hand went to his breast.
Devil in the shape of a man, he said, your work is done! Cruelest
of enemies in the guise of a friend! You won my trust and led me to
this. What is pure, since you I believed so pure are as you are? What
is the reward of love, since you I have loved reward me so? Through
your aid I was fighting the old life from me, and rising to honour and
esteem, to the knowledge of a mother's proud heart. And through your
aid I fell to meanness and disgrace, to see a mother robbed of her
necessaries, and worseto lose her son's love and care and to die
broken-hearted alone. Your hand had saved me from the precipice of
Hell, and your hand it is that flings me into its hottest fire. Finish,
then, your devil's work, for I dare not!
He drew a pistol from his breast and handed it to me. I felt the cold
steel in my hand, and saw the horrified looks of the men around us;
they seemed powerless to cry out or interrupt us; before me the ghastly
face of young Varen. A wild rage rose up in my heart; I panted like a
mad dog, and foam fell from my mouth. I tried to pray, but could not.
A pistol-shot rang through the room, and the white face before me
vanished. There was hot blood upon my hands; a terror seized mewhat
had I done? Hands were upon my shoulders. But I escaped them. I flew
down the creaking stairs. People were shouting. Steps were coming after
me. I flung wide the door and flew wildly, blindly, down the street.
Feet were repeating the echo of mine. People were calling Murder!
murder! Windows were flung open, men joined in the chase. People were
calling Murder!and my hands were red with blood. Ha! the well-known
doorit was my own; his latch-key opened it. I let myself in
and flew upstairs; there was a light in my old room; a nurse sat
nodding over the fire. I saw my old form lying motionless upon the bed.
I sprang to its side. Voices were calling at the hall-doormen were
breaking it in. They had tracked me.
I seized the hand that lay upon the counterpane; a shudder ran
through it. Steps were at the door, Murder ran through the house.
There was a moment of nothingness and I woke.
It was all a terrible dream; I lay upon my own bed. The kind
neighbour, hearing my cry, had called in to see if I needed anything;
he was looking down with pity in his eyes, his hands cooling minehe
had dipped them in water. No! it was blood, BLOOD! and the room rang
with the cries of MURDERER! I started up; they were putting manacles
on his wrists. He was stunned, he knew not what to say; he answered not
their insinuations, but passed his manacled hands now and again across
his eyes, like a man who had been long sleeping.
A terrible laugh sounded round the room; it seemed to float through
the doorway, and we heard it echo down the house, fading away into
stillness. I tried to rise and speak, but fell back unconscious.
I awoke to misery and despair. Lying still a moment, to gather my
thoughts together, I heard some persons talking at the head of my bed.
It was the nurse and a couple of men, doctors I soon knew them to be.
They were talking excitedly, but in subdued voices; I heard every word
distinctly: Graham is to be hanged for the murder of young Varen. I
started up, gazing at them in agony.
He did not do it. I, and I alone, am guilty.
They had started back when I moved, in astonishment; but when I spoke
they came beside me, trying to soothe me and make me lie down and rest
again. To rest! O Heaven! there was no more rest for me in this world.
I told them I would explain, but they would not let me speak. I heard
them whisper of my most extraordinary case. They thought I had gained
consciousness while they were speaking of Graham, and, hearing their
words at that critical moment, took the idea into my head that I had
committed the crime.
Let me go! I moaned; let me go!
But they held me down in their cruel kindness till I had to do their
bidding from very weakness.
But when the night came on, and when the old nurse was nodding in her
chair, I arose in the darkness and went from the house. Up and down the
streets I wandered till dawn grew grey, but no dawn arose in my heart,
only black night for ever. Through the streets, never stopping, I
walked till the sun grew hot and bright, and people crowded out into
the pathways. I bought a
paper from a newsvendor, and read the trial of Gilbert Graham. It was
nearly over; all the evidence was against him. He had nothing to say
for himself; once he spoke to ask if he might see his little child, and
he was told she was dead. They said he seemed stunned, or as though in
a dream. I read no more.
When the court was opened, and the trial came on again, I hid myself
among the crowd that attended it. I saw the prisoner at the bar; he was
not pale; a colour tinged his cheeks. He seemed as if he were asleep. I
do not think he heard anything of what was going on. Witness after
witness came to condemn him. I could not bear it. I put myself forward
as a witness for the defence. They allowed me into the box. I tried to
tell my story, but they would not listen to me; some laughed; some
pitied me; but they would not let me speak.
Will you not hear me? I cried. You cannot understand, but do not
laugh; there are so many things men know nothing of, but do not scorn
them because you do not understand them. Can you know what gives life
to the smallest insect living on this earth? Can you explore a step
beyond the grave? You cannot. I alone am guilty of this murder; by my
own act, or by the act of Heaven or Hell, I know not.
A gentleman rose in the court; he sent a message to the Judge,
whispered to a constable, and I was dragged out of the house. I heard a
murmur of excited voices and a whisper.
'Tis that poor fellow Bulger; they say his brain is turned since he
had his cataleptic attack. I was forced along by my doctor, his arm
linked in mine. Calling a cab, he put me inside, and was about to
follow, when a friend of his came up and spoke to him.
Oh, yes, he answered, I thought I'd find him there. He woke to
consciousness just as Dr. Gill and myself were speaking of young
Varen's death, and he seemed to get it into his head that he was the
murderer. He escaped from the house last night, but from his ravings I
thought it probable I should find him at court to-day.
I heard no more. Silently opening the door furthest from the speaker,
I slipped out, and in the dusk of the evening made my escape.
How the night passed I know not, but, when the light came, I had but
one thought: to seek out Graham and beg his forgiveness. Again I bought
a morning paper, and read the finish of the trial. Graham was condemned
After a day's wandering, or maybe moreI knew nothing of time in
those blank hoursI found out the prison where he lay awaiting his
doom, and craved admittance, saying I was a particular frienda
They let me see him for a moment, but he did not know me. He even
smiled when I asked his forgiveness; even he would not believe me.
I do not understand it at all, he said, laying his head on his hand
wearily. I cannot think, I cannot even feel these last few days, and
then raised his head and gazed at me eagerly. Do you know anything of
I did not know of her, and turned away my face.
I had a child! he cried. Oh, tell me of my little child!
Do you not remember?she is dead, I told him, weeping. He leaned
his head upon his hand again. I had forgotten. He spoke no more to
me, and I was taken out of the place. He will forgive me tomorrow, I
But, hidden away in a low lodging-house, I was too ill to stir for
many days; then early one morning I found myself at the prison door
again; it opened for me readily, and when it closed I found myself
confronted by my doctor and some of his friends.
I thought our patient would turn up sooner or later, he said. How
fortunate you should choose the time we are here!
I will go anywhere you will if you but let me see him once again, I
cried; only once till he forgives me. Let me go! I must! I cried,
fighting them. I cannot live unless I get his pardon.
You cannot see him, they said. But I willI must!
You cannothe was hanged this morning at seven.