Life Among The Savages, Part 17.

[NOTE: If you want to start from the beginning, here's Part 1  or, if you reject linear storytelling, here's a link to all the parts so you can choose for yourself.]

Once again, my attentions were divided. The enigmatic note I held resonated in my mind as if it were a clear and musical note, as if it possessed a familiarity beyond its recent arrival in my possession, or, perhaps, that it served as a reminder of some thing I had long forgotten. I thought for a moment someone had spoken these exact words to me before, and recently, while I had been a passenger aboard the Holy Diver, but the exact moment escaped me. My struggle to regain conscious knowledge of the source of these words seemed only to push them farther out of my mental reach, and proved to be a great frustration.

Even the message itself resisted comprehension. BEWARE THE FALSE MAN. In what way was the man false? How was I to know the nature of his falseness, for there are many kinds of falseness available to a man, and furthermore how might I recognize it? And why had the deckhand come to me with this warning. If there were some rogue onboard planning mischief and this deckhand had caught wind of it, would not one of the officers been the most appropriate audience for such information. An intelligent person may have been able to assemble a clear answer to all these questions, but my mind was already occupied with the tracking of my attacker’s footprints and had no reasoning to spare for the unraveling of such an esoteric dispatch. The surest way to dispel the mystery would be to pursue the youthful deckhand and entreat him for an explanation of his curious warning.

However, such action would surely delay what I had resolved to do – namely, seek out the clay-laden traces of my assailant’s movements and follow them to their source, that I might reveal him to all the world as the cad and coward he was. Though the Captain and others were actively seeking his capture, he must be confident that he would not be found, for he had hidden onboard for several days without alerting anyone to his existence. Only I, having had my revelation about the means to track him, could flush him out of his hiding and force him to pay the penalty he so richly deserved for his injuries to me, and of course, to the sensibilities of the widow von Kant. No: the deckhand, being a member of the crew whose identity was known, could be easily sought at a less urgent time, through inquiry to Jones or Turner or even the Captain. (No doubt his delicate features and flashing eyes would make him easy to distinguish from the rest of the crew, who were generally of a more weathered and hardened sort.) Better now that I continue in my original pursuit, and waste no more time about it!

I held high my lanthorn and let its meager yellow light penetrate the blackness of the corridor. As I had expected, faint ovals of the same pale clay marked out the path of the blackguard. I smiled to myself; the fool could not have provided simpler means for revealing himself had he tried. The footprints continued down the hallway only a short distance, stopping in front of a cabin door, the same cabin, in fact, wherein the widow’s parcel was housed. I considered my own previous experience with that dark and ominous crate and felt my courage flag a little. Truly, there was something unnatural about that cabinet, and something within the crate that was equally unnatural. Circumstance (and my own deduction) had led me back to the eldritch artifact, however, and it compelled me to open the door to the cabinet and determine who – or what – had been housed inside.

Preparing myself for yet another attack, I turned the doorknob and pulled open the door with great speed, hoping to surprise any occupant of the cabin. My tactic was unnecessary, though, as the room was empty, save for the widow’s cabinet. The tracks led up to the cabinet’s edge, still as seamless and unbroken as it had been days ago when I had survived my first encounter. This cabinet, then, had been the intruder’s hiding place, unbeknownst even to the widow von Kant herself, for she had checked upon the parcel and declared it intact. But how had the blackguard freed himself from this wooden box? I studied the cabinet’s corners and edges, feeling the surfaces with my fingertips and scrutinizing the grain by the light of my lanthorn. If I had been told that the object was a single block of hewn wood, I would have believed such was the case, and could not prove otherwise, as whatever doors or hatches or compartments the cabinet contained were so expertly crafted and ingeniously hidden that I could not find where any such entrance began or ended. I wondered, what cunning woodworker brought this closet into existence? From whence, and from what tradition, does such singular craftsmanship derive? I had never before seen a wooden cabinet so flawlessly conceived that it completely withheld the details of its own construction.

I set my lanthorn on top of the cabinet and began to more thoroughly study its most accessible surface, the side which faced the cabin door, which I labeled its “front”. With great methodicality, I once again grazed the cabinet’s front with my fingers, attempting to account for any irregularities in the wood, fraction of an inch by fraction of an inch, and though my powers of observation were at their keenest, still I could find no sign of a point of entry. I rose from my crouched position and took up again my lanthorn. Obviously, the cabinet was impenetrable, and would only reveal its contents to those who possessed the obscure knowledge needed to unravel its sphinxian workings. Frustrated, I leaned against the cabinet to collect my thoughts, and the front panel of the cabinet slid open, causing me to lose my balance and fall headlong to the floor.

My readers will be pleasantly surprised to learn that I was not rendered unconscious by this particular fall, which was in actuality more of a stumble than a full-fledged drop, and I recovered my balance with ample time to avoid any new injury. I did not even drop my lanthorn. Being a educated man, well-acquainted with the concept of irony, I could not help but feel as though I were something of a plaything of Providence, as the goal of my meticulous searching had only been granted me once I desisted in my quest. I did not dwell on this fateful twist; instead I raised my lanthorn anew, in hope of revealing the cabinet’s contents and the answers also housed therein.

The interior of the widow’s cabinet was dark, noticeably darker than even the dim cabin, and my lanthorn failed to illuminate it to my satisfaction while I stood outside its confines. I crouched down and took one step into the cabinet, placing my head and right hand (which held my lanthorn) past the threshold of the cabinet’s newly-opened door. The deep blackness within the cabinet still failed to disperse, even with the lanthorn’s increased proximity; the lanthorn’s light seemed to move only a few inches beyond its glass. I leaned in farther and the darkness persisted. Truly, this was an undocumented scientific phenomenon – the inside of the widow’s cabinet seemed to absorb light itself!

I held the lanthorn low near the floor and saw the faint remnants of a single pale gray footprint on the threshold of the cabinet itself. I smiled, as my deductions had been proven correct; the fiend had concealed himself here, and was none the wiser to the fact that I had uncovered his “impenetrable” hiding place. Ha! I thought to myself. The blackguard’s outsize self-confidence would be his undoing. I leaned in even farther, so that I might place the lantern as close as possible to the nearest wall of the cabinet and see if the wall would show itself, and as I steadied my position, I was kicked firmly in the buttocks by some unseen assailant. I toppled into the cabinet and the door shut with a smooth and silent motion behind me.

This new attack had caught me unawares, engrossed as I was in the strangeness of the cabinet’s interior, and after falling, it took a few moments for my full mental faculties to return. The profound darkness of the cabinet did not aid me in re-orienting myself. Time was impossible to measure accurately, but I am relatively certain it took several minutes for me to locate and retrieve my lanthorn, even though I found it a few mere inches from my hand. Thankfully, its flame had not gone out.

The light of the lanthorn remained less effective than it should have been, but perhaps due to the acclimation of my eyes to cabinet’s strange darkness, I felt I could see farther now than I could whilst still outside the cabinet. I stood and turned in several directions, trying to find a wall. Again, the widow’s cabinet proved a bizarre and unpredictable object. The height of the cabinet seemed the same as it had been; outside, it had reached the bridge of my nose or thereabouts, and inside, I was forced to adopt a stooped posture while standing. However, while from outside the cabinet had appeared to be cubical, inside, no matter how far I reached or wandered in any direction (though I could not bring myself to wander very far, given the circumstances), I could not locate another wall. I found this exceedingly peculiar, as my ability to wander should be severely constrained by the dimensions of the cabinet. More peculiar still was the state of the floor of the cabinet, which was littered with a voluminous assortment of human femurs.

 

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