Cut Quill


A chandelier hung, suspended from the darkness above, swaying gently with the weight of a mouse that had climbed down the chain. The mouse went over a crossbar to the inmost ring, and clambered pertly along. It stopped and mounted the nub of a tallow candle and began to nibble at it sparingly.

A torch mounted in a sconce on the sandstone wall cast its flickering light through the rotunda. A carpet blanketing the cold floor beneath the chandelier was marked with a sun-moon having sixteen rays. The sun-moon smiled beneficently up at the mouse, and wished for its company.

There was a slight draft in the chamber, which came somehow from the stairwell near the torch, and from the depths below the house. Every time it swelled, it would lend the torch-flame a new vigour. The torch, fed by this uprising, flared high, and probed even the height of the dome. The cedar-wood beam from which hung the chandelier stood thick and imposing from one round wall to the other. Higher up, and faintly, could be seen an encircling balcony, hemmed by broken and decaying rails.

The torch, when dancing higher in the draft, also opened the far side of the room, otherwise swathed in shadow. Set in the curved wall was a handle. It was painted black, but the brass knob showed through in places, and attracted the glimmer of the torch.

The handle governed a door, curved also, like the wall, and also of sandstone. Beyond the door was a twisted hallway. It was lighted at intervals by torches, dimmer than the one that lit the rotunda. They gave no warmth to the walls, but rather made them the more chill by their contrast; and their light merely cast a pall over the stone. They perfumed the air with the scent of pine-pitch and oil, and underlaid it with the burning oakum used as wicking.

At the end of the serpentine hall was a stair leading up. It was of the spiral sort, and was dotted with torches intended to illumine it. They were out. They were out, or they were never lit, for they were as cold as the dark stone walls. A trickle of water made a path down one wall, sparkling in the near-darkness with the dim light from below, and giving the feeling that, as it went up, the staircase plunged deeper underground and below the foundations of the house.

Perched atop the ultimate step was a door, oak, and strapped with iron. Surprisingly, it pushed opened easily.

Through the door was a room filled with pillars and replete with mirrors of silver, polished, but blackening. Scattered among the pillars were brass lampstands. Each stand held a tall taper with a dancing orange flame crowning it. These lights were reflected even from the ceiling, and from the round pillars, and, dancing still, filled the room. It was like being in a starry night, rather than merely observing one, as polished plates all around the room made the few lights legion.

Between two pillars could be seen, by a light infinitely dimmer, broken and decaying rails. They marched about the edge of a balcony edging the vast divide. Out of the field of stars, and between the guardian pillars, was the balcony. Around the balcony, across the gulf which contained the mouse, was a room small, and lit only from below and across the vast chasm.

Within the room was a man everlastingly old. He lay on a crude wooden cot, with no pillow, blanket, or bed. He rose quickly and greeted me.

“Good, good, my boy. Just follow me, now. I’ll only take a minute.”

He stepped out of his room and onto the balcony, rounding that great, dim, well. Its timbres creaked beneath him in a way I had not noticed before. He entered the Hall of Pillars and proceeded to extinguish each flame, cupping his soot-blackened hand behind it, protectively, and destroying it with a dry, rustling puff from his pursed lips. Soon every star was dead, and I had to follow him by ear. When he reached the stairwell, he made a dismayed cluck.

“Dreadful, dreadful. Leaving doors open, dreadful thing,” he muttered.

I followed him down the winding stone decline, and into the twisting hallway. As he came to each torch, he laboriously snuffed it with a large brass bell produced from his immense robe. We reached the door at the end of the winding corridor, and he pushed it open.

The mouse was still feasting on the chandelier’s tallow. The old man stepped into the rotunda, and walked across the rug to the valiently leaping torch. He looked at it a moment, then placed its life, too, within his brass bell. At last, there was complete darkness.

“Don’t know what the fuss is about light anyhow,” he said. “Beastly substance, light.”

He pattered back across the room to the door, and stepped into the hall. Just before he closed the door, he said, “Dreadful, dreadful. Don’t know what use light is to anyone, anyhow.”

He closed the door, and the only sound heard was the mouse. Frightened by the fallen darkness, it tried to find again the crossbar and chain. First one foot slipped, then another, and then the mouse obeyed the summons of the sun-moon. There was silence.