IV. The Momentous Adventure with the Stranger with the Silver Ear-rings
 

So our hero stood stunned and bedazed, gazing down upon his victim, like a man turned into a stone. His brain appeared to him to expand like a bubble, the blood surged and bummed in his ears with every gigantic beat of his heart, his vision swam, and his trembling hands were bedewed with a cold and repugnant sweat. The dead figure upon the floor at his feet gazed at him with a wide, glassy stare, and in the confusion of his mind it appeared to Jonathan that he was, indeed, a murderer.

What monstrous thing was this that had befallen him who, but a moment before, had been so entirely innocent of the guilt of blood? What was he now to do in such an extremity as this, with his victim lying dead at his feet, a poniard in his heart? Who would believe him to be guiltless of crime with such a dreadful evidence as this presented against him? How was he, a stranger in a foreign land, to totally defend himself against an accusing of mistaken justice? At these thoughts a developed terror gripped at his vitals and a sweat as cold as ice bedewed his entire body. No, he must tarry for no explanation or defense! He must immediately fly from this terrible place, or else, should he be discovered, his doom would certainly be sealed!

At that moment, and in the very extremity of his apprehensions, there fell of a sudden a knock upon the door, sounding so loud and so startling upon the silence of the room that every shattered nerve in our hero's frame tingled and thrilled in answer to it. He stood petrified, scarcely so much as daring to breathe; and then, observing that his mouth was agape, he moistened his dry and parching lips, and drew his jaws together with a snap.

Again there fell the same loud, insistent knock upon the panel, followed by the imperative words: "Open within!"

The wretched Jonathan flung about him a glance at once of terror and of despair, but there was for him no possible escape. He was shut tight in the room with his dead victim, like a rat in a trap. Nothing remained for him but to obey the summons from without. Indeed, in the very extremity of his distraction, he possessed reason enough to perceive that the longer he delayed opening the door the less innocent he might hope to appear in the eyes of whoever stood without.

With the uncertain and spasmodic movements of an ill-constructed automaton, he crossed the room, and stepping very carefully over the prostrate body upon the floor, and with a hesitating reluctance that he could in no degree master, he unlocked, unbolted, and opened the door.

The figure that outlined itself in the light of the candle, against the blackness of the passageway without was of such a singular and foreign aspect as to fit extremely well into the extraordinary tragedy of which Jonathan was at once the victim and the cause.

It was that of a lean, tall man with a thin, yellow countenance, embellished with a long, black mustache, and having a pair of forbidding, deeply set, and extremely restless black eyes. A crimson handkerchief beneath a lace cocked hat was tied tightly around the head, and a pair of silver earrings, which caught the light of the candle, gleamed and twinkled against the inky darkness of the passageway beyond.

This extraordinary being, without favoring our hero with any word of apology for his intrusion, immediately thrust himself forward into the room, and stretching his long, lean, bird-like neck so as to direct his gaze over the intervening table, fixed a gaping and concentrated stare upon the figure lying still and motionless in the centre of the room.

"Vat you do dare," said he, with a guttural and foreign accent, and thereupon, without waiting for a reply, came forward and knelt down beside the dead man. After thrusting his hand into the silent and shrunken bosom, he presently looked up and fixed his penetrating eyes upon our hero's countenance, who, benumbed and bedazed with his despair, still stood like one enchained in the bonds of a nightmare. "He vas dead!" said the stranger, and Jonathan nodded his head in reply.

"Vy you keel ze man?" inquired his interlocutor.

"Indeed," cried Jonathan, finding a voice at last, but one so hoarse that he could hardly recognize it for his own, "I know not what to make of the affair! But, indeed, I do assure thee, friend, that I am entirely innocent of what thou seest."

The stranger still kept his piercing gaze fixed upon our hero's countenance, and Jonathan, feeling that something further was demanded of him, continued: "I am, indeed, a victim of a most extravagant and extraordinary adventure. This evening, coming an entire stranger to this country, I was introduced into the house of a beautiful female, who bestowed upon me a charge that appeared to me to be at once insignificant and absurd. Behold this little ivory ball," said he, drawing the globe from his pocket, and displaying it between his thumb and finger. "It is this that appears to have brought all this disaster upon me; for, coming from the house of the young woman, the man whom thou now beholdest lying dead upon the floor induced me to come to this place. Having inveigled me hither, he demanded of me to give him at once this insignificant trifle. Upon my refusing to do so, he assaulted me with every appearance of a mad and furious inclination to deprive me of my life!"

At the sight of the ivory ball the stranger quickly arose from his kneeling posture and fixed upon our hero a gaze the most extraordinary that he had ever encountered. His eyes dilated like those of a cat, the breath expelled itself from his bosom in so deep and profound an expiration that it appeared as though it might never return again. Nor was it until Jonathan had replaced the ball in his pocket that he appeared to awaken from the trance that the sight of the object had sent him into. But no sooner had the cause of this strange demeanor disappeared into our hero's breeches-pocket than he arose as with an electric shock. In an instant he became transformed as by the touch of magic. A sudden and baleful light flamed into his eyes, his face grew as red as blood, and he clapped his hand to his pocket with a sudden and violent motion. "Ze ball!" he cried, in a hoarse and strident voice. "Ze ball! Give me ze ball!" And upon the next instant our hero beheld the round and shining nozzle of a pistol pointed directly against his forehead.

For a moment he stood as though transfixed; then in the mortal peril that faced him, he uttered a roar that sounded in his own ears like the outcry of a wild beast, and thereupon flung himself bodily upon the other with the violence and the fury of a madman.

The stranger drew the trigger, and the powder flashed in the pan. He dropped the weapon, clattering, and in an instant tried to draw another from his other pocket. Before he could direct his aim, however, our hero had caught him by both wrists, and, bending his hand backward, prevented the chance of any shot from taking immediate effect upon his person. Then followed a struggle of extraordinary ferocity and frenzy--the stranger endeavoring to free his hand, and Jonathan striving with all the energy of despair to prevent him from effecting his murderous purpose.

In the struggle our hero became thrust against the edge of the table. He felt as though his back were breaking, and became conscious that in such a situation he could hope to defend himself only a few moments longer. The stranger's face was pressed close to his own. His hot breath, strong with the odor of garlic, fanned our hero's cheek, while his lips, distended into a ferocious and ferine grin, displayed his sharp teeth shining in the candlelight.

"Give me ze ball!" he said, in a harsh and furious whisper.

At the moment there rang in Jonathan's ears the sudden and astounding detonation of a pistol-shot, and for a moment he wondered whether he had received a mortal wound without being aware of it. Then suddenly he beheld an extraordinary and dreadful transformation take place in the countenance thrust so close to his own; the eyes winked several times with incredible rapidity, and then rolled upward and inward; the jaws gaped into a dreadful and cavernous yawn; the pistol fell with a clatter to the floor, and the next moment the muscles, so rigid but an instant before, relaxed into a limp and listless flaccidity. The joints collapsed, and the entire man fell into an indistinguishable heap upon and across the dead figure stretched out upon the floor, while at the same time a pungent and blinding cloud of gunpowder smoke filled the apartment. For a few moments the hands twitched convulsively; the neck stretched itself to an abominable length; the long, lean legs slowly and gradually relaxed, and every fibre of the body gradually collapsed into the lassitude of death. A spot of blood appeared and grew upon the collar at the throat, and in the same degree the color ebbed from the face leaving it of a dull and leaden pallor.

All these terrible and formidable changes of aspect our hero stood watching with a motionless and riveted attention, and as though they were to him matters of the utmost consequence and importance; and only when the last flicker of life had departed from his second victim did he lift his gaze from this terrible scene of dissolution to stare about him, this way and that, his eyes blinded, and his breath stifled by the thick cloud of sulphurous smoke that obscured the objects about him in a pungent cloud.