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The Black Cat





For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I
neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it in
a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet mad am I
not--and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I
would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the
world plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere
household events. In their consequences these events have
terrified--have tortured--have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to
expound them. To me they presented little but horror--to many they will
seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect
may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace--some
intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own,
which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing
more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my
disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make
me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was
indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent
most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing
them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and in my
manhood I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To
those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog,
I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the
intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the
unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute which goes directly to
the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry
friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.

I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not
uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she
lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We
had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.

This latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black,
and sagacious to an astonishing degree. In speaking of his intelligence,
my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made
frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion which regarded all black
cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this
point, and I mention the matter at all for no better reason than that it
happens just now to be remembered.

Pluto--this was the cat's name--was my favourite pet and playmate. I
alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house. It
was even with difficulty that I could prevent him from following me
through the streets.

Our friendship lasted in this manner for several years, during which my
general temperament and character--through the instrumentality of the
Fiend Intemperance--had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical
alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more
irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself
to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her
personal violence. My pets of course were made to feel the change in my
disposition. I not only neglected but ill-used them. For Pluto, however,
I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him,
as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the
dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my
disease grew upon me--for what disease is like Alcohol!--and at length
even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat
peevish--even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill-temper.

One night, returning home much intoxicated from one of my haunts about
town, I fancied that the cat avoided my presence. I seized him, when, in
his fright at my violence, he inflicted a slight wound upon my hand with
his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no
longer. My original soul seemed at once to take its flight from my body,
and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nurtured, thrilled every fiber
of my frame. I took from my waistcoat-pocket a penknife, opened it,
grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its
eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the
damnable atrocity.

When reason returned with the morning--when I had slept off the fumes of
the night's debauch--I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of
remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty, but it was at best a
feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again
plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.

In the meantime the cat slowly recovered. The socket of the lost eye
presented, it is true, a frightful appearance, but he no longer appeared
to suffer any pain. He went about the house as usual, but, as might be
expected, fled in extreme terror at my approach. I had so much of my old
heart left as to be at first grieved by this evident dislike on the part
of a creature which had once so loved me. But this feeling soon gave
place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable
overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes
no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives than I am that
perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart--one of
the indivisible primary faculties or sentiments which gave direction to
the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself
committing a vile or a silly action for no other reason than because he
knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth
of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we
understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my
final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex
itself--to offer violence to its own nature--to do wrong for the
wrong's sake only--that urged me to continue and finally to consummate
the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. One morning, in
cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of
a tree; hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the
bitterest remorse at my heart; hung it because I knew it had loved me,
and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; hung it
because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin--a deadly sin
that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it, if such a
thing were possible, even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the
Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.

On the night of the day on which this cruel deed was done, I was aroused
from sleep by the cry of fire. The curtains of my bed were in flames.
The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that my wife,
a servant, and myself, made our escape from the conflagration. The
destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and
I resigned myself forward to despair.

I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and
effect between the disaster and the atrocity. But I am detailing a chain
of facts, and wish not to leave even a possible link imperfect. On the
day succeeding the fire, I visited the ruins. The walls with one
exception had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall,
not very thick, which stood about the middle of the house, and against
which had rested the head of my bed. The plastering had here in great
measure resisted the action of the fire, a fact which I attributed to
its having recently spread. About this wall a dense crowd were
collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion
of it with very minute and eager attention. The words "Strange!"
"Singular!" and other similar expressions, excited my curiosity. I
approached and saw, as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface
the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an
accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal's neck.

When I first beheld this apparition--for I could scarcely regard it as
less--my wonder and my terror were extreme. But at length reflection
came to my aid. The cat, I remembered, had been hung in a garden
adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire this garden had been
immediately filled by the crowd, by some one of whom the animal must
have been cut from the tree and thrown through an open window into my
chamber. This had probably been done with the view of arousing me from
sleep. The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my
cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of
which, with the flames and the ammonia from the carcass, had then
accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.

Although I thus readily accounted to my reason, if not altogether to my
conscience, for the startling fact just detailed, it did not the less
fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy. For months I could not rid
myself of the phantasm of the cat, and during this period there came
back into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not, remorse.
I went so far as to regret the loss of the animal, and to look about me
among the vile haunts which I now habitually frequented for another pet
of the same species, and of somewhat similar appearance, with which to
supply its place.

One night, as I sat half-stupefied in a den of more than infamy, my
attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, reposing upon the
head of one of the immense hogsheads of gin or of rum, which constituted
the chief furniture of the apartment. I had been looking steadily at the
top of this hogshead for some minutes, and what now caused me surprise
was the fact that I had not sooner perceived the object thereupon. I
approached it, and touched it with my hand. It was a black cat--a very
large one--fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every
respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his
body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white,
covering nearly the whole region of the breast.

Upon my touching him he immediately arose, purred loudly, rubbed against
my hand, and appeared delighted with my notice. This, then, was the very
creature of which I was in search. I at once offered to purchase it of
the landlord; but this person made no claim to it--knew nothing of
it--had never seen it before.

I continued my caresses, and when I prepared to go home the animal
evinced a disposition to accompany me. I permitted it to do so,
occasionally stooping and patting it as I proceeded. When it reached the
house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great
favourite with my wife.

For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This
was just the reverse of what I had anticipated, but--I know not how or
why it was--its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and
annoyed. By slow degrees these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose
into the bitterness of hatred. I avoided the creature; a certain sense
of shame, and the remembrance of my former deed of cruelty, preventing
me from physically abusing it. I did not, for some weeks, strike or
otherwise violently ill-use it, but gradually--very gradually--I came to
look upon it with unutterable loathing, and to flee silently from its
odious presence as from the breath of a pestilence.

What added, no doubt, to my hatred of the beast was the discovery, on
the morning after I brought it home, that, like Pluto, it also had been
deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared
it to my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed in a high degree
that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait,
and the source of my simplest and purest pleasures.

With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed
to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would
be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would
crouch beneath my chair or spring upon my knees, covering me with its
loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and
thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my
dress, clamber in this manner to my breast. At such times, although I
longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing,
partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly--let me confess it at
once--by absolute dread of the beast.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil--and yet I should be
at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own--yes,
even in this felon's cell, I am almost ashamed to own--that the terror
and horror with which the animal inspired me had been heightened by one
of the merest chimeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had
called my attention more than once to the character of the mark of white
hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible
difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The
reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally
very indefinite, but by slow degrees--degrees nearly imperceptible, and
which for a long time my reason struggled to reject as fanciful--it had
at length assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the
representation of an object that I shudder to name--and for this above
all I loathed and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had
I dared--it was now, I say, the image of a hideous--of a ghastly
thing--of the GALLOWS!--O, mournful and terrible engine of horror and of
crime--of agony and of death!

And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere humanity.
And a brute beast--whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed--a
brute beast to work out for me--for me a man, fashioned in the image
of the High God--so much of insufferable woe! Alas! neither by day nor
by night knew I the blessing of rest any more! During the former the
creature left me no moment alone; and in the latter I started hourly
from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing
upon my face, and its vast weight--an incarnate nightmare that I had no
power to shake off--incumbent eternally upon my heart!

Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of
the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole
intimates--the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my
usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while
from the sudden frequent and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I
now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most
usual and the most patient of sufferers.

One day she accompanied me upon some household errand into the cellar of
the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit. The cat
followed me down the steep stairs, and nearly throwing me headlong,
exasperated me to madness. Uplifting an ax, and forgetting in my wrath
the childish dread which had hitherto stayed my hand, I aimed a blow at
the animal, which of course would have proved instantly fatal had it
descended as I wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of my
wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, I
withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the ax in her brain. She fell
dead upon the spot without a groan.

This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith and with entire
deliberation to the task of concealing the body. I knew that I could not
remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of
being observed by the neighbours. Many projects entered my mind. At one
period I thought of cutting the corpse into minute fragments and
destroying them by fire. At another I resolved to dig a grave for it in
the floor of the cellar. Again, I deliberated about casting it in the
well in the yard--about packing it in a box, as if merchandise, with the
usual arrangements, and so getting a porter to take it from the house.
Finally I hit upon what I considered a far better expedient than either
of these. I determined to wall it up in the cellar--as the monks of the
middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims.

For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted. Its walls were
loosely constructed and had lately been plastered throughout with a
rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from
hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection caused by a
false chimney or fireplace, that had been filled up and made to resemble
the rest of the cellar. I made no doubt that I could readily displace
the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as
before, so that no eye could detect anything suspicious.

And in this calculation I was not deceived. By means of a crowbar I
easily dislodged the bricks, and having carefully deposited the body
against the inner wall, I propped it in that position, while with little
trouble I relaid the whole structure as it originally stood. Having
procured mortar, sand, and hair with every possible precaution, I
prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and
with this I very carefully went over the new brick-work. When I had
finished I felt satisfied that all was all right. The wall did not
present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed. The rubbish
on the floor was picked up with the minutest care. I looked around
triumphantly, and said to myself--"Here at last, then, my labour has not
been in vain."

My next step was to look for the beast which had been the cause of so
much wretchedness, for I had at length firmly resolved to put it to
death. Had I been able to meet with it at the moment there could have
been no doubt of its fate, but it appeared that the crafty animal had
been alarmed at the violence of my previous anger, and forbore to
present itself in my present mood. It is impossible to describe or to
imagine the deep, the blissful sense of relief which the absence of the
detested creature occasioned in my bosom. It did not make its appearance
during the night--and thus for one night at least since its introduction
into the house I soundly and tranquilly slept, aye, slept even with
the burden of murder upon my soul!

The second and the third day passed, and still my tormentor came not.
Once again I breathed as a freeman. The monster, in terror, had fled the
premises forever! I should behold it no more! My happiness was supreme!
The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little. Some few inquiries
had been made, but these had been readily answered. Even a search had
been instituted--but of course nothing was to be discovered. I looked
upon my future felicity as secured.

Upon the fourth day of the assassination, a party of the police came
very unexpectedly into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous
investigation of the premises. Secure, however, in the inscrutability of
my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever. The officers
bade me accompany them in their search. They left no nook or corner
unexplored. At length, for the third or fourth time they descended into
the cellar. I quivered not in a muscle. My heart beat calmly as that of
one who slumbers in innocence. I walked the cellar from end to end. I
folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police
were thoroughly satisfied, and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart
was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word by way
of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my
guiltlessness.

"Gentlemen," I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, "I delight
to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little
more courtesy. By the by, gentlemen, this--this is a very
well-constructed house," [In the rabid desire to say something easily, I
scarcely knew what I uttered at all,] "I may say an excellently
well-constructed house. These walls--are you going, gentlemen?--these
walls are solidly put together;" and here, through the mere frenzy of
bravado, I rapped heavily with a cane which I held in my hand upon that
very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife
of my bosom.

But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the arch-fiend! No
sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence than I was
answered by a voice from within the tomb!--by a cry, at first muffled
and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into
one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman--a
howl--a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as
might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the
damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.

Of my own thoughts it is folly to speak. Swooning, I staggered to the
opposite wall. For one instant the party upon the stairs remained
motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe. In the next a dozen
stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already
greatly decayed and clotted with gore, stood erect before the eyes of
the spectators. Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye
of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder,
and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled
the monster up within the tomb.

EDGAR ALLAN POE.





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Previous: Dick Baker's Cat



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