me to explain why I am afraid of a draught of cool air; why I shiver more
than others upon entering a cold room, and seem nauseated and repelled
when the chill of evening creeps through the heat of a mild autumn day.
There are those who say I respond to cold as others do to a bad odour,
and I am the last to deny the impression. What I will do is to relate the
most horrible circumstance I ever encountered, and leave it to you to judge
whether or not this forms a suitable explanation of my peculiarity.
a mistake to fancy that horror is associated inextricably with darkness,
silence, and solitude. I found it in the glare of mid-afternoon, in the
clangour of a
metropolis, and in the teeming
midst of a shabby and commonplace rooming-house with a prosaic landlady
and two stalwart men by my side. In the spring of 1923 I had secured some
dreary and unprofitable magazine work in the city of New York; and being
unable to pay any substantial rent, began drifting from one cheap boarding
establishment to another in search of a room which might combine the qualities
of decent cleanliness, endurable furnishings, and very reasonable price.
It soon developed that I had only a choice between different evils, but
after a time I came upon a house in West Fourteenth Street which disgusted
me much less than the others I had sampled.
place was a four-story mansion of brownstone, dating apparently from the
late forties, and fitted with woodwork and marble whose stained and sullied
splendour argued a descent from
high levels of tasteful opulence. In the rooms, large and lofty, and decorated
with impossible paper and ridiculously ornate stucco cornices, there lingered
a depressing mustiness and hint of obscure cookery; but the floors were
clean, the linen tolerably regular, and the hot water not too often cold
or turned off, so that I came to regard it as at least a bearable place
to hibernate till one might really live again. The landlady, a slatternly,
Spanish woman named Herrero,
did not annoy me with gossip or with criticisms of the late-burning electric
light in my third-floor front hall room; and my
fellow-lodgers were as quiet
and uncommunicative as one might desire, being mostly Spaniards a little
above the coarsest and crudest grade. Only the din of street cars in the
thoroughfare below proved a serious annoyance.
been there about three weeks when the first odd incident occurred. One
evening at about eight I heard a spattering on the floor and became suddenly
aware that I had been smelling the pungent odour of ammonia for some time.
Looking about, I saw that the ceiling was wet and dripping; the soaking
apparently proceeding from a corner on the side toward the street. Anxious
to stop the matter at its source, I hastened to the basement to tell the
landlady; and was assured by her that the trouble would quickly be set
Muñoz," she cried as she rushed upstairs ahead of me, "he have speel
hees chemicals. He ees too seeck for doctair heemself--seecker and seecker
time--but he weel not have no
othair for help. He ees vairy queer in hees seeckness--all day he take
funnee-smelling baths, and he cannot get excite or warm. All hees own housework
he do--hees leetle room are full of bottles and machines, and he do not
work as doctair. But he was great once--my fathair in Barcelona have hear
of heem--and only joost now he feex a arm of the plumber that get hurt
of sudden. He nevair go out, only on roof, and my boy Esteban he breeng
heem hees food and laundry and mediceens and chemicals. My Gawd, the sal-ammoniac
that man use for keep heem cool!"
Herrero disappeared up the staircase to the fourth floor, and I returned
to my room. The ammonia ceased to drip, and as I cleaned up what had spilled
opened the window for air, I
heard the landlady's heavy footsteps above me. Dr. Muñoz I had never
heard, save for certain sounds as of some gasoline-driven
mechanism; since his step was
soft and gentle. I wondered for a moment what the strange affliction of
this man might be, and whether his obstinate refusal of outside
aid were not the result of a
rather baseless eccentricity. There is, I reflected tritely, an infinite
deal of pathos in the state of an eminent person who has come down in
never have known Dr. Muñoz had it not been for the heart attack
that suddenly seized me one forenoon as I sat writing in my room. Physicians
had told me of the danger of those spells, and I knew there was no time
to be lost; so remembering what the landlady had said about the invalid's
help of the injured workman, I dragged myself upstairs and knocked feebly
at the door above mine. My knock was answered in good English by a curious
voice some distance to the right, asking my name and business; and these
things being stated, there came an opening of the door next to the one
I had sought.
of cool air greeted me; and though the day was one of the hottest of late
June, I shivered as I crossed the threshold into a large apartment whose
tasteful decoration surprised
me in this nest of squalor and seediness. A folding couch now filled its
diurnal role of sofa, and the mahogany furniture, sumptuous
hangings, old paintings, and
mellow bookshelves all bespoke a gentleman's study rather than a boarding-house
bedroom. I now saw that the hall room above
mine--the "leetle room" of bottles
and machines which Mrs. Herrero had mentioned--was merely the laboratory
of the doctor; and that his main living quarters lay in the spacious adjoining
room whose convenient alcoves and large contiguous bathroom permitted him
to hide all dressers and obtrusively utilitarian devices. Dr. Muñoz,
most certainly, was a man of birth, cultivation, and discrimination.
figure before me was short but exquisitely proportioned, and clad in somewhat
formal dress of perfect cut and fit. A high-bred face of masterful though
not arrogant expression was adorned by a short iron-grey full beard, and
an old-fashioned pince-nez shielded the full, dark eyes and surmounted
an aquiline nose which gave a Moorish touch to a physiognomy otherwise
dominantly Celtiberian. Thick, well-trimmed hair that argued the punctual
calls of a barber was parted gracefully above a high forehead; and the
whole picture was one of striking intelligence and superior blood and breeding.
as I saw Dr. Muñoz in that blast of cool air, I felt a repugnance
which nothing in his aspect could justify. Only his lividly inclined complexion
coldness of touch could have
afforded a physical basis for this feeling, and even these things should
have been excusable considering the man's known invalidism. It might, too,
have been the singular cold that alienated me; for such chilliness was
abnormal on so hot a day, and the abnormal always excites aversion, distrust,
repugnance was soon forgotten in admiration, for the strange physician's
extreme skill at once became manifest despite the ice-coldness and shakiness
of his bloodless-looking hands. He clearly understood my needs at a glance,
and ministered to them with a master's deftness; the while reassuring me
in a finely modulated though oddly hollow and timbreless voice that he
was the bitterest of sworn enemies to death, and had sunk his fortune and
lost all his friends in a lifetime of bizarre experiment devoted to its
bafflement and extirpation. Something of the benevolent fanatic seemed
to reside in him, and he rambled on almost garrulously as he sounded my
chest and mixed a suitable draught of drugs fetched from the smaller laboratory
room. Evidently he found the society of a well-born man a rare novelty
in this dingy environment, and was moved to unaccustomed speech as memories
of better days surged over him.
voice, if queer, was at least soothing; and I could not even perceive that
he breathed as the fluent sentences rolled urbanely out. He sought to distract
my mind from my own seizure by speaking of his theories and experiments;
and I remember his tactfully consoling me about my weak heart by insisting
that will and
consciousness are stronger than
organic life itself, so that if a bodily frame be but originally healthy
and carefully preserved, it may through a scientific enhancement of these
qualities retain a kind of nervous animation despite the most serious impairments,
defects, or even absences in the battery of specific organs. He might,
he half jestingly said, some day teach me to live--or at least to possess
some kind of conscious existence--without any heart at all! For his part,
he was afflicted with a
complication of maladies requiring
a very exact regimen which included constant cold. Any marked rise in temperature
might, if prolonged, affect him fatally; and the frigidity of his habitation--some
55 or 56 degrees Fahrenheit--was maintained by an absorption system of
ammonia cooling, the gasoline engine of whose pumps I had often heard in
my own room below.
of my seizure in a marvellously short while, I left the shivery place a
disciple and devotee of the gifted recluse. After that I paid him frequent
calls; listening while he told
of secret researches and almost ghastly results, and trembling a bit when
I examined the unconventional and astonishingly ancient volumes on his
shelves. I was eventually, I may add, almost cured of my disease for all
time by his skillful ministrations. It seems that he did not scorn the
incantations of the mediaevalists, since he believed these cryptic formulae
to contain rare psychological stimuli which might conceivably have singular
effects on the substance of a nervous system from which organic pulsations
had fled. I was touched by his account of the aged Dr. Torres of Valencia,
who had shared his earlier experiments and nursed him through the great
illness of eighteen years before, whence his present disorders proceeded.
No sooner had the venerable practitioner saved his colleague than he himself
succumbed to the grim enemy he had fought. Perhaps the strain had been
too great; for Dr. Muñoz made it whisperingly clear--though not
in detail--that the methods of healing had been most extraordinary, involving
scenes and processes not welcomed by elderly and conservative Galens.
weeks passed, I observed with regret that my new friend was indeed slowly
but unmistakably losing ground physically, as Mrs. Herrero had suggested.
The livid aspect of his countenance was intensified, his voice became more
hollow and indistinct, his muscular motions were less perfectly coordinated,
and his mind and will displayed less resilience and initiative. Of this
sad change he seemed by no means unaware, and little by little his expression
and conversation both took on a
gruesome irony which restored
in me something of the subtle repulsion I had originally felt.
strange caprices, acquiring a fondness for exotic spices and Egyptian incense
till his room smelled like a vault of a sepulchred Pharaoh in the Valley
of Kings. At the same time his demands for cold air increased, and with
my aid he amplified the ammonia piping of his room and modified the pumps
and feed of his refrigerating machine till he could keep the temperature
as low as 34 degrees or 40 degrees, and finally even 28 degrees; the bathroom
and laboratory, of course, being less chilled, in order that water might
not freeze, and that chemical processes might not be impeded. The tenant
adjoining him complained of the icy air from around the connecting door,
so I helped him fit heavy hangings to obviate the difficulty. A kind of
growing horror, of outre and morbid cast, seemed to possess him.
He talked of death incessantly, but laughed hollowly when such things as
burial or funeral arrangements were gently suggested.
in all, he became a disconcerting and even gruesome companion; yet in my
gratitude for his healing I could not well abandon him to the strangers
around him, and was careful to dust his room and attend to his needs each
day, muffled in a heavy ulster which I bought especially for the purpose.
I likewise did much of his
shopping, and gasped in bafflement
at some of the chemicals he ordered from druggists and laboratory supply
and unexplained atmosphere of panic seemed to rise around his apartment.
The whole house, as I have said, had a musty odour; but the smell in his
room was worse--and in spite of all the spices and incense, and the pungent
chemicals of the now incessant baths which he insisted on taking unaided.
I perceived that it must be connected with his ailment, and shuddered when
I reflected on what that ailment might be. Mrs. Herrero crossed herself
when she looked at him, and gave him up unreservedly to me; not even letting
her son Esteban continue to run errands for him. When I suggested other
physicians, the sufferer would fly into as much of a rage as he seemed
to dare to entertain. He evidently feared the physical effect of violent
emotion, yet his will and driving force waxed rather than waned, and he
refused to be confined to his bed. The lassitude of his earlier ill days
gave place to a return of his fiery purpose, so that he seemed about to
hurl defiance at the death-daemon even as that ancient enemy seized him.
The pretence of eating, always curiously like a formality with him, he
virtually abandoned; and mental power alone appeared to keep him from total
a habit of writing long documents of some sort, which he carefully sealed
and filled with injunctions that I transmit them after his death to certain
persons whom he named--for the most part lettered East Indians, but including
a once celebrated French physician now generally thought dead, and about
whom the most inconceivable things had been whispered. As it happened,
I burned all these papers undelivered and unopened. His aspect and voice
became utterly frightful, and his presence almost unbearable. One September
day an unexpected glimpse of him induced an epileptic fit in a man who
had come to repair his electric desk lamp; a fit for which he prescribed
effectively whilst keeping himself well out of sight. That man, oddly enough,
had been through the terrors of the Great War without having incurred any
fright so thorough.
in the middle of October, the horror of horrors came with stupefying suddenness.
One night about eleven the pump of the refrigerating machine broke down,
so that within three hours the process of ammonia cooling became impossible.
Dr. Muñoz summoned me by thumping on the floor, and I worked desperately
to repair the injury while my host cursed in a tone whose lifeless, rattling
hollowness surpassed description. My amateur efforts, however, proved of
no use; and when I had brought in a mechanic from a neighbouring all-night
garage, we learned that nothing could be done till morning, when a new
piston would have to be obtained. The moribund hermit's rage and
fear, swelling to grotesque proportions, seemed likely to shatter what
remained of his failing physique, and once a spasm caused him to clap his
hands to his eyes and rush into the bathroom. He groped his way out with
face tightly bandaged, and I never saw his eyes again.
frigidity of the apartment was now sensibly diminishing, and at about 5
a.m. the doctor retired to the bathroom, commanding me to keep him supplied
with all the ice I could obtain at all-night drug stores and cafeterias.
As I would return from my sometimes discouraging trips and lay my spoils
before the closed bathroom door, I could hear a restless splashing within,
and a thick voice croaking out the order for "More--more!" At length a
warm day broke, and the shops opened one by one. I asked Esteban either
to help with the ice-fetching whilst I obtained the pump piston, or to
order the piston while I continued with the ice; but instructed by his
mother, he absolutely refused.
I hired a seedy-looking loafer whom I encountered on the corner of Eighth
Avenue to keep the patient supplied with ice from a little shop where I
introduced him, and applied myself diligently to the task of finding a
pump piston and engaging workmen competent to install it. The task seemed
interminable, and I raged almost as violently as the hermit when I saw
the hours slipping by in a breathless, foodless round of vain telephoning,
and a hectic quest from place to place, hither and thither by subway and
surface car. About noon I encountered a suitable supply house far downtown,
and at approximately 1:30 p.m. arrived at my
boarding-place with the necessary
paraphernalia and two sturdy and intelligent mechanics. I had done all
I could, and hoped I was in time.
terror, however, had preceded me. The house was in utter turmoil, and above
the chatter of awed voices I heard a man praying in a deep basso. Fiendish
things were in the air, and
lodgers told over the beads of their rosaries as they caught the odour
from beneath the doctor's closed door. The lounger I had hired, it seems,
had fled screaming and mad-eyed not long after his second delivery of ice;
perhaps as a result of excessive curiosity. He could not, of course, have
the door behind him; yet it
was now fastened, presumably from the inside. There was no sound within
save a nameless sort of slow, thick dripping.
consulting with Mrs. Herrero and the workmen despite a fear that gnawed
my inmost soul, I advised the breaking down of the door; but the landlady
found a way to turn the key from the outside with some wire device. We
had previously opened the doors of all the other rooms on that hall, and
flung all the windows to the very top. Now, noses protected by handkerchiefs,
we tremblingly invaded the accursed south room which blazed with the warm
sun of early afternoon.
of dark, slimy trail led from the open bathroom door to the hall door,
and thence to the desk, where a terrible little pool had accumulated. Something
was scrawled there in pencil in an awful, blind hand on a piece of paper
hideously smeared as though by the very claws that traced the hurried last
words. Then the trail led to the couch and ended unutterably.
was, or had been, on the couch I cannot and dare not say here. But this
is what I shiveringly puzzled out on the stickily smeared paper before
I drew a match
and burned it to a crisp; what
I puzzled out in terror as the landlady and two mechanics rushed frantically
from that hellish place to babble their incoherent stories at the nearest
police station. The nauseous words seemed well-nigh incredible in that
yellow sunlight, with the clatter of cars and motor trucks ascending clamorously
from crowded Fourteenth Street, yet I confess that I believed them then.
Whether I believe them now I honestly do not know. There are things about
which it is better not to speculate, and all that I can say is that I hate
the smell of ammonia, and grow faint at a draught of unusually cool air.
end," ran that noisome scrawl, "is here. No more ice--the man looked and
ran away. Warmer every minute, and the tissues can't last. I fancy you
know--what I said about the will and the nerves and the preserved body
after the organs ceased to work. It was good theory, but couldn't keep
up indefinitely. There was a
gradual deterioration I had
not foreseen. Dr. Torres knew, but the shock killed him. He couldn't stand
what he had to do--he had to get me in a strange, dark place when he minded
my letter and nursed me back. And the organs never would work again. It
had to be done my way--preservation--for you see I died that time
eighteen years ago."