The Tell Tale Heart - Next Street Over

“True, nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been, and am, but why will you say that I am mad?”

He sat prim and upright in his wooden, straight-backed chair, directly across the dimly lit room from Constable Phaall and myself. His demeanor bespoke his agitation, even if his eyes looked for recognition that he was in full composure. A flip of his dainty, white hand at the end of his question, punctuated his desire to appear serene, if not collected. However the small, electric tics and jumps vibrating his lean, compact, almost petite frame put the lie to his expostulations to the contrary. We sat, silently, Phaall and I, allowing him to elaborate; knowing he would be compelled to tell all.

“I assure you, constables, there is nothing amiss upon this establishment which would occasion your professional intervention. Oh, I did cry out earlier in the evening, thinking that some feral animal, a cat perhaps, had gained entrance to the downstairs pantry through a window, unmindfully left unclosed - I do so fear cats - but a cry in the night from one such as I should hardly occasion the arousal of neighborhood suspicion to the extent of summoning two such manifestly capable constables.”

“One constable, sir,” said I. “I am in fact, a detective, if you will allow me to be so bold. And I surely do not think you mad, sir, since you have given me no instance to do so and I have never before met you.”

He smiled and nodded, crossed and re-crossed his thin, black serge-clad legs, flapped his elbows out to his sides in a peculiar, bird-like motion in order to shoot his fraying cuffs, fluttered his fingers to his velveteen cravat, fussed briefly, then settled his hands, folded and ever white, into his bony lap.

“Of course, Detective, my apologies. Had I but known, no such insult would have been given, I assure you.”

“And I assure you, sir, it is of little consequence. For I do not take insult as readily as that. One in my profession cannot afford to be insulted, or indeed to have personal feelings at all.

“Now, as to why we are here; our station sergeant has received a number of reports of suspicious lights, wild movements and loud racketing emanating from this abode. Hardly a single cry in the night as you aver, sir, I am sure you see. And we are obliged to investigate, as you will understand. Can you lay the fears of your neighbors to rest in this regard and offer to us a mundane rationale?”

“Nothing,” he insisted most heatedly for one so small and delicate. “There has been nothing untoward committed in this establishment, this evening, to which I should confess guilt. I have been here alone, all night, with no company and no motive and no desire to kill any one. I must assure you most sincerely and allay any doubts you or the good constable may harbor, I have killed no one this night and hidden his body under the floorboards of this very room.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” I began, “but that sounds very like a confession in hiding, if I may make so bold as to offer. Are you quite certain there is nothing upon your mind that you would not wish to be rid of in order to lighten your heart?”

He shifted from side to side by means of lifting first one shoulder and then the other, pulling his lower body, in that fashion, delicately off the chair, crossed and re-crossed his bird’s legs, reconsidered then, and planted his feet firmly before himself and leaned forward in a most conspiratorial manner, crooking a forefinger at Constable Phaall and myself, bidding us into his circle of avowal.

“Very well. You will surely think me mad if you do not already hold such an opinion of me, but I must bear unto you that I have, in truth, committed indeed far more than a cry in the night. Gentlemen, I am guilty of nothing less than the most heinous of crimes against society and against mankind; I am guilty of murder!”

He nodded sharply, sat back in the chair and ratcheted his head from left to right, capturing both Constable Phaall and I squarely in the eyes with his declaration. He smiled a quick affirming smile, nodded again, crossed his legs and placed his tiny white hands back in their accustomed position in his hollow lap.

“You, sir? Murder, sir? I find that most difficult to comprehend, sir.”

It was the first time Constable Phaall had addressed the gentleman under interrogation and his voice, unused as it was to speaking thus far in our proceedings, held a coughing, barking, guttural quality as he cleared his throat to speak. Its abrupt reverberation under these close conditions, we being still leant forward, almost head-to-head as we were, caused me to jump with fright. And the gentleman in black took it to be a comment on his admission and began again to nod his head, pointing to me and saying;

“Yes, yes, you see even a worldly detective such as you, inured of the horrors of the world cannot help but recoil in disgust and terror at what I have confided this night. I will not blame you if you remove your revolver and put a bullet in my head this instant, for I deserve nothing less than corruption and dissolution.”

“However, sir, Detective Pym, if you will allow me,” continued Constable Phaall, “I shall attempt to ascertain the exact cause of the concerns which precipitated your neighbors, as one, to fall upon our police station with such wild complaints against you, sir. For it is certain that you have been up to nasty doings, indeed.

“Let me exercise what I like to call ‘ratiocination’ in order to come to the bottom of things,” said he, bringing his thick, round body fully erect in his own straight-backed chair and causing our suspect to shrink into his.

“The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis. Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood. I will take occasion, now, to assert that the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess.”

“How dare you, constable, imply that draughts have any superiority, whatsoever, over the sublime game of chess? You are a cad, a coward and a liar, sir, and I wish you to vacate my premises immediately,” sputtered the suspect, his pale face assuming an alarmingly sanguine quality.

Constable Phaall barreled on, for once begun it was a Herculean task to avert him from his mental gyrations;

“The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater, indeed, than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”

“You do, I assume, have a point to make, Constable Phaall,” I asked?

“Why surely sir, you see where I’m heading with my ratiocinational peregrination? I direct your memory to the case, last year, in Paris. More specifically, I direct you to the Rue Morgue and the beastly murders committed upon the persons of Madame L'Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L'Espanaye.”

“And that,“ said I, “is relevant to this particular instance of a noise complaint in which specific particular?”

“Well, Detective Pym, I should have thought it obvious from the similarities. In that case there were a flurry, a virtual inundation of conflicting reports from neighbors as to the nature of the disturbance and in this case, not dissimilarly, we have a conflict between what the neighbors claim and what is offered now by this gentleman. Ergo, it only follows that he has a pet monkey which has cleverly escaped his charge and is running amok doing any manner of damage.

Constable Phaall presented me his doughy face, eyes wide and glistening, expression one of needfulness and waited for my congratulations. When they were not forthcoming, he added to his ratiocination;

“You will recall, detective, that our suspect confessed to being frightened by a feral animal which had somehow invaded his surroundings and he even thought to send us off the scent by inferring it was merely a cat, he being afraid of cats? Well, there is no doubt in my mind that the feral animal was, in fact, not a cat but a monkey. A wild, villainous, ferocious monkey from some distant land, where such monkeys live and torment the inhabitants with their destructive behavior,” he concluded, never changing the needful expression on his doughy face. Once again I confronted the reason for Constable Phaall’s meteoric ascension to his stagnant plateau of professional promotion.

I did not shake my head in disgust as I may have done were we alone in the station deliberating over the police blotter. It would have been too cruel.

“How then, Constable Phaall, does this recent confession of murder enter into your deductions relating to an escaped monkey?” I spoke quietly, but looked loudly into the chasms of his face.

“Why, Detective Pym, I thought you keener of mind than this. It is surely obfuscation, a paradiddle to forefend punishment for disturbing the peace and harboring a dangerous animal.”

At this I did shake my head in disgust. And likewise did our birdlike suspect, fidgeting in his chair, exploding to continue his confession.

I brought my attention to our suspect and gently insisted, “Do forgive the good constable, sir, for his heart is open and honest, yet his brain is overfull with the reading of penny dreadful's and dictionary entries and sometimes he cannot reconcile the combination as diverse from mundane police work. Please continue, and leave no detail out, no matter how small.”

Immediately he perched forward in his chair and brought his elbows onto his tightly closed knees, stabbing me with his gaze; completely ignoring Constable Phaall.

“It was the tormenting, I think. Yes it was this. He tormented me day and night with his metonymic ticking. Whenever it fell upon my ears, my blood ran cold; when first we sat to commence he ticked. During all our encounters he would tick, and deny it! Sitting right before me and audibly emitting that hideous tick-tick-tick-tick, muffled albeit by his clothing and hidden deep within his countenance, yet for all that, still loudly, tormentingly, incessantly pervading my burning ears with that droning and drilling tick!

“Never a tock. Oh no, that would have been at least bearable. I could have forgiven the rest had he just tocked! He was inhuman, I say, and he grew louder, louder, louder until the sound was in my ears even when he was not near. And so by degrees -- very gradually -- I made up my mind to take his life, and thus rid myself of the ticking forever.

“You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight -- with what dissimulation I went to work! For the whole day I was never kinder to him. I attended his every need, saw to his wants, and entertained his company with decorum and aplomb. Would a madman have been so wise as this?

“Then, late this evening, I secreted a small axe upon my person and went to sit in my accustomed place at the table before him, to play the game. My heart grew bold with my secret plan and I played with confidence and with insight. Constable Phaall talks of ingenious intellect and deep analysis. These are what I possessed as I played the game with him this evening. These and a godlike assurance that this would be his last game.

“But all the while he ticked. Subtly at first, as always, but as the game progressed and his moves became more convoluted and intricate, it grew louder. Louder I say until the sound was the distracting torment it always is at this point in the game. Louder, do you hear? Louder. He checked me and I escaped adroitly. He checked me again and I could see no way to save my queen until the last instant where I skirted disaster with a seldom used maneuver. Yet he checked me again, and again until I was soundly and firmly mated.

“Damn him! Damn his ticking smugness! I withdrew the axe and brought it down upon the offending hand that held his victorious pawn, and chopped it from the wrist. Then, methodically and with great precision, for such was necessary, I hacked and hewed through the entirety of his person, dismembering and distributing death with each downward motion of my villainous hand, until he was no more and the hellish ticking was no longer heard. I have rid myself of the torment forever.”

“Indeed, sir,” said I, “this puts an entirely new light upon things. I shall have to insist you take us to where you have disposed of the poor gentleman’s remains”

“Hark! Can you hear it? Even now as I tell you the whole tale, there is that hideous ticking enveloping my senses. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Here, here.”

He fell from his chair and producing the aforementioned axe took to attacking the floorboards with a fury, until he had dislodged sufficient scantlings to lay bare his crime to our gaze.

“Look upon my evil deed, my crime. Dissemble no more. Mock me no longer! It is the ticking of his hideous heart. It is the dismembered corpse of Maelzel’s Chess-Player.”

“But, it’s only a doll, sir,” said Constable Phaall. “It’s not a monkey at all.”

 “He should have let me win. He should have let me win just once.”


The End