One picture represented Mrs. Li as I had seen her last in my dreams: old and withered and white-haired. But in spite of the evident feebleness of body, a dreadful exuberance and vitality shone through the envelope of flesh, an exuberance wholly malign, a vitality that foamed and frothed with unimaginable evil. An evil that beamed from the narrow, leering eyes and laughed in the demon-like mouth. The whole face was instinct with some secret and appalling mirth; the hands, clasped together on the knee, seemed shaking with suppressed and nameless glee. Then I saw also that it was signed in the left-hand bottom corner, and wondering who the artist could be, I looked more closely and read the inscription, “Julia Li by Julia Li.”
There came a tap at the door of my flat in The Denizen and Wang Yu, who had a key for the apartment, entered.
“Got everything you want?” he asked.
“Rather more than I want,” I said as I led him through to the bedroom and pointed at the picture of Julia Li.
“Hard-featured old lady,” he said. “Painted it herself too. She hasn’t flattered herself much.”
“But don’t you see?” said I. “It’s scarcely a human face at all. It’s the face of some witch, of some devil.”
He looked at it more closely.
“It’s not pleasant,” he said. “I can imagine getting nightmares if I went to sleep with that close by my bed. I’ll take it down if you like.”
“I really wish you would,” I said. Together we took the picture off the wall and carried it down to the private cinema in the basement, where we left it with its face to the wall.
“By Yanluo, the old lady is a weight,” said Wang, mopping his forehead. “I wonder if she had something on her mind.”
The extraordinary weight of the picture had struck me too. I was about to reply when I caught sight of my own hand. There was blood on it, in considerable quantities, covering the whole palm.
“I’ve cut myself somehow,” I said.
Wang gave a little startled exclamation.
“Why I have too,” he said.
Wang and I went back to my apartment and washed the blood off; but neither on his hand nor on mine was there the slightest trace of a scratch or cut. It seemed to me that having ascertained this, we both by a sort of tacit consent, did not allude to it again. Something in my case had dimly occurred to me that I did not wish to think about. It was a conjecture but I fancied that I knew the same thing had occurred to him.
The heat and oppression of the air, for the storm we had expected was still undischarged, increased very much after dinner, and for some time most of the party, among whom were Wang Yu and myself, sat outside on the roof terrace, where we had had tea. The night was absolutely dark and no twinkle of star or moon ray could penetrate the pall of cloud that overset the sky. By degrees our assembly thinned, the women went up to bed, men dispersed to the games room and by eleven o’clock my host and I were the only two left. All the evening I thought that he had something on his mind and as soon as we were alone he spoke.
“What about that blood on our hands?” he said.
“Now where did that blood come from?”
By dint of telling myself that I was not going to think about it, I had succeeded in not doing so and I did not want, especially just before bedtime, to be reminded of it.
“I don’t know,” Wang replied.
“I don’t really care so long as the picture of Mrs. Li is not by my bed.” I told him.
He got up.
“But it’s odd,” he said. “Ha! Now you’ll see another odd thing.”
A dog, an Irish terrier by breed, was being walked in Golden Lane as we talked. He had his hackles up, bristling with rage and fright; his lips were curled back from his teeth, as if he was ready to spring at something and he was growling to himself. Then all of a sudden his courage seemed to desert him: he gave one long howl and scuttled behind the man walking him with a curious crouching sort of movement.
“He does that every night.” said Wang. “He sees something which he hates and fears.”
At that moment I remembered a horrible detail of my dreams when I saw through the gate, at the very spot that frightened the dog, the white tombstone with the sinister inscription. But before I could answer the rain began as suddenly and heavily as if a tap had been turned on.
With the portrait of Julia Li in the basement cinema, the apartment on the ground floor held absolutely no terror for me. As I went to bed, feeling very sleepy and heavy, I had nothing more than interest about the curious incident of our bleeding hands and the conduct of the dog. The last thing I looked at before I put out my light was the square empty space by my bed where the portrait had been.
My awaking was equally instantaneous and I sat bolt upright under the impression that some bright light had been flashed in my face, though it was absolutely pitch dark. I knew exactly where I was, in the room which I had dreaded in dreams but no horror that I ever felt when asleep approached the fear that now invaded and froze my brain. Immediately after a peal of thunder crackled just above the house, but the probability that it was only a flash of lightning which awoke me gave no reassurance to my galloping heart. Something I knew was in the room with me and instinctively I put out my right hand, which was nearest the wall, to keep it away. And my hand touched the edge of a picture-frame hanging close to me.
I sprang out of bed upsetting the small table that stood by it. I heard my watch, iPhone and charger clatter to the floor. But for the moment there was no need of light, for a blinding flash leaped out of the clouds, and showed me that by my bed again hung the picture of Mrs. Li. And instantly the room was plunged into blackness again. But in that flash I saw another thing also, namely a figure that leaned over the end of my bed, watching me. It was dressed in some close-clinging white garment, spotted and stained with mold, and the face was that of the portrait.
Overhead the thunder cracked and roared and when it ceased and the deathly stillness succeeded, I heard the rustle of movement coming nearer me and, more horrible yet, perceived an odor of corruption and decay. And then a hand was laid on the side of my neck and close beside my ear I heard quick-taken, eager breathing. Yet I knew that this thing, though it could be perceived by touch, by smell, by eye and by ear, was still not of this earth, but something that had passed out of the body and had power to make itself manifest. Then a voice already familiar to me spoke.
“I knew you would come to the apartment on the ground floor,” it said. “I have been long waiting for you. At last you have come. Tonight I shall feast. Before long we will feast together.”
And the quick breathing came closer to me. I could feel it on my neck.
At that the terror, which I think had paralyzed me for the moment, gave way to the wild instinct of self-preservation. I hit wildly with both arms, kicking out at the same moment, and heard a little animal-squeal and something soft dropped with a thud beside me. I took a couple of steps forward, nearly tripping up over whatever it was that lay there, and by the merest good-luck found the handle of the door. In another second I ran out into the corridor and had banged the door behind me. I made my way to the entrance of Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen. The night concierge called up for my friend and shortly afterwards Wang Yu emerged from the lift.
“What is it?” he said. “Good grief there’s blood on your shoulder.”
I stood there, so he told me afterwards, swaying from side to side, white as a sheet, with the mark on my shoulder as if a hand covered with blood had been laid there.
“It’s in there,” I said pointing. “She you know. The portrait is in there too, hanging up in the place we took it from.”
At that he laughed.
“My dear fellow, this is a mere nightmare,” he said.
He walked me down the corridor and opened the door of the apartment. I was inert with terror, unable to stop him, unable to move.
“Fuck! It smells rank,” he said.
Then there was silence;. He had passed out of my sight behind the open door. Next moment he came out again, as white as myself, and instantly shut it.
“Yes, the portrait’s there,” he said, “and on the floor is a thing — a thing spotted with earth, like what they bury people in. Come away quick!”
How we got out of The Denizen I hardly know. An awful shuddering and nausea of the spirit rather than of the flesh had seized me, and more than once Wang had to kick me from behind to get me to walk, while every now and then he cast glances of terror and apprehension behind us. But in time we came to the Thistle City Barbican Hotel on Central Street, where we asked for rooms. Once we’d checked in I told Wang what I have here described.
The sequel can be made short. Some will remember that inexplicable affair in Bunhill Fields eight weeks ago, where permission for a burial was obtained by a businessman whose wife had committed suicide. Getting approval had cost a fortune. On each occasion the coffin was found in the course of a few days again protruding from the ground. After the third attempt, in order that the thing should not be talked about, the body was buried elsewhere in unconsecrated ground. Where it was secretly buried was just inside the iron gate of Fortune Street Park. This was the body of the woman who had committed suicide in the ground floor apartment I’d been given in The Denizen. Her name was Julia Li.
Subsequently the body was again secretly dug up and the coffin was found to be full of blood.