Story 17 - the Sphinx by Spitoufs
Story 17 - the Sphinx by Spitoufs
During the dread reign of the Cholera in New York, I had
accepted the invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight
with him in the retirement of his cottage ornee on the banks
of the Hudson. We had here around us all the ordinary means of
of summer amusement and what with rambling in the woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music, and books,
we should have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the
fearful intelligence which reached us every morning from the
populous city. Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news
of the decease of some acquaintance. Then as the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the
loss of some friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very air from the South seemed to us
redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire
possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream
of any thing else. My host was of a less excitable temperament,
and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself to
sustain my own. His richly philosophical intellect was not at
any time affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror
he was sufficiently alive, but of its shadows he had no
His endeavors to arouse me from the condition of abnormal gloom into
which I had fallen, were frustrated, in great measure, by certain
volumes which I had found in his library.
These were of a character to force into germination whatever seeds of
hereditary superstition lay latent in my bosom. I had been reading
these books without his knowledge, and thus he was often at a loss to
account for the forcible impressions which had been made upon my fancy.
A favorite topic with me was the popular belief in omens - a belief
which, at this one epoch of my life, I was almost seriously disposed to defend. On this subject we had long and animated discussions -
he maintaining the utter groundlessness of faith in such matters, - I contending that a popular sentiment arising with absolute
spontaneity- that is to say, without apparent traces of suggestion -
had in itself the unmistakable elements of truth, and was entitled to
as much respect as that intuition which is the idiosyncrasy of the
individual man of genius.
The fact is, that soon after my arrival at the cottage there had
occured to myself an incident so entirely inexplicable, and which
had in it so much of the portentous character, that I might well have
been excused for regarding it as an omen. It appalled, and at the
same time so confounded and bewildered me, that many days elapsed
before I could make up my mind to communicate the circumstances to
my friend.
Near the close of exceedingly warm day, I was sitting, book in hand,
at an open window, commanding, through a long vista of the river
banks, a view of a distant hill, the face of which nearest my
position had been denuded by what is termed a land-slide, of the
principal portion of its trees. My thoughts had been long wandering
from the volume before me to the gloom and desolation of the
neighboring city. Uplifting my eyes from the page, they fell upon the naked face of the hill, and upon an object - upon some living monster
of hideous conformation, which very rapidly made its way from the summit to the bottom, disappearing finally in the dense forest
below. As this creature first came in sight, I doubted my own sanity -
or at least the evidence of my own eyes and many minutes passed
before I succeeded in convincing myself that I was neither mad nor in
a dream. Yet when I described the monster which I distinctly saw,
and calmly surveyed through the whole period of its progress, my
readers, I fear, will feel more difficulty in being convinced of
these points than even I did myself.
Estimating the size of the creature by comparison with the diameter
of the large trees near which it passed - the few giants of the forest which had escaped the fury of the land-slide - I concluded it
to be far larger than any ship of the line in existence. I say ship of the line, because the shape of the monster suggested the idea-
the hull of one of our seventy-four might convey a very tolerable
conception of the general outline. The mouth of the animal was situated
at the extremity of a proboscis some sixty or seventy feet in length,
and about as thick as the body of an ordinary elephant.
Near the root of this trunk was an immense quantity of black shaggy
hair- more than could have been supplied by the coats of a score of
buffaloes and projecting from this hair downwardly and laterally,
sprang two gleaming tusks not unlike those of the wild boar, but of
infinitely greater dimensions. Extending forward, parallel with the
proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty or
forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal and in shape a
perfect prism, - it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays
of the declining sun.
The trunk was fashioned like a wedge with the apex to the earth.
From it there were outspread two pairs of wings- each wing nearly
one hundred yards in length - one pair being placed above the other,
and all thickly covered with metal scales each scale apparently some
ten or twelve feet in diameter. I observed that the upper and lower
tiers of wings were connected by a strong chain. But the chief
peculiarity of this horrible thing was the representation of a Deaths Head, which covered nearly the whole surface of its breast,
and which was as accurately traced in glaring white, upon the dark ground of the body, as if it had been there carefully designed by
an artist. While I regarded the terrific animal, and more especially
the appearance on its breast, with a feeling or horror and awe -
with a sentiment of forthcoming evil, which I found it impossible to
quell by any effort of the reason, I perceived the huge jaws at the
extremity of the proboscis suddenly expand themselves, and from them
there proceeded a sound so loud and so expressive of wo, that it
struck upon my nerves like a knell and as the monster disappeared
at the foot of the hill, I fell at once, fainting, to the floor.
Upon recovering, my first impulse, of course, was to inform my friend
of what I had seen and heard - and I can scarcely explain what
feeling of repugnance it was which, in the end, operated to prevent me.
At length, one evening, some three or four days after the occurrence,
we were sitting together in the room in which I had seen the
apparition - I occupying the same seat at the same window, and he
lounging on a sofa near at hand. The association of the place and
time impelled me to give him an account of the phenomenon. He heard me
to the end - at first laughed heartily - and then lapsed into an
excessively grave demeanor, as if my insanity was a thing beyond suspicion. At this instant I again had a distinct view of the monster-
to which, with a shout of absolute terror, I now directed his attention. He looked eagerly - but maintained that he saw nothing-
although I designated minutely the course of the creature, as it
made its way down the naked face of the hill.
I was now immeasurably alarmed, for I considered the vision either as
an omen of my death, or, worse, as the fore-runner of an attack of
mania. I threw myself passionately back in my chair, and for some
moments buried my face in my hands. When I uncovered my eyes,
the apparition was no longer apparent.
My host, however, had in some degree resumed the calmness of his
demeanor, and questioned me very rigorously in respect to the
conformation of the visionary creature. When I had fully satisfied
him on this head, he sighed deeply, as if relieved of some intolerable
burden, and went on to talk, with what I thought a cruel calmness, of
various points of speculative philosophy, which had heretofore
formed subject of discussion between us.
I remember his insisting very especially among other things upon
the idea that the principle source of error in all human investigations
lay in the liability of the understanding to under-rate or to
over-value the importance of an object, through mere mis-admeasurement of its propinquity. To estimate properly, for example, he said,
the influence to be exercised on mankind at large by the thorough diffusion of Democracy, the distance of the epoch at which such
diffusion may possibly be accomplished should not fail to form an
item in the estimate. Yet can you tell me one writer on the subject
of government who has ever thought this particular branch of the
subject worthy of discussion at all?
He here paused for a moment, stepped to a book-case, and brought
forth one of the ordinary synopses of Natural History. Requesting me
then to exchange seats with him, that he might the better distinguish
the fine print of the volume, he took my armchair at the window,
and, opening the book, resumed his discourse very much in the same
tone as before.
But for your exceeding minuteness, he said, in describing the
monster, I might never have had it in my power to demonstrate to you
what it was. In the first place, let me read to you a schoolboy account
of the genus Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia of the order
Lepidoptera, of the class of Insecta - or insects. The account runs
Four membranous wings covered with little colored scales of metallic appearance mouth forming a rolled proboscis, produced by
an elongation of the jaws, upon the sides of which are found the rudiments of mandibles and downy palpi the inferior wings retained to
the superior by a stiff hair antennae in the form of an elongated
club, prismatic abdomen pointed, The Deaths - headed Sphinx has
occasioned much terror among the vulgar, at times, by the melancholy
kind of cry which it utters, and the insignia of death which it
wears upon its corslet.
He here closed the book and leaned forward in the chair, placing
himself accurately in the position which I had occupied at the
moment of beholding the monster.
Ah, here it is, he presently exclaimed - it is reascending the
face of the hill, and a very remarkable looking creature I admit it
to be. Still, it is by no means so large or so distant as you
imagined it, - for the fact is that, as it wriggles its way up this
thread, which some spider has wrought along the window-sash, I find
it to be about the sixteenth of an inch in its extreme length, and
also about the sixteenth of an inch distant from the pupil of
my eye.