I stopped walking and peered into the darkness ahead, searching for a human shape.
There was no visible outline, figure, shadow, or form. Just the most intense, almost palpable darkness such as one faces only in nightmares.
“You there!” the voice called again in a quick rasp. As if the two words were one threatening syllable.
I stood frozen in place. The rasp had a menacing tone, and I was afraid because I could not see the body that it belonged to.
“Do you hear me?”
The rasp was closer this time; I guessed about ten feet away. I might have responded had I been able to judge its accompanying body or face, but the moon didn’t pierce through the blackness, and the stars did not shine.
“You inquired about the house,” the voice rasped quickly.
I did not answer. I nearly dashed around the spot on which I guessed the menacing speaker to stand—so terrified had I become of the gloom and the ruin—but I couldn’t tell if I would run into something that would stop me in place and set me off balance. I thought it best, instead, to rejoin, and just as I was about to confirm the speaker’s observation—
“I know who owns it,” came the rasp.
My voice was meek—I was weak with fear, fatigue, and hunger—I had postponed supper to explore this old neighborhood—
“You do?” I queried at last, with more timidity than I cared to display.
“I shall take you to him,” the voice said.
It had come closer. It seemed to come from a vantage significantly lower than that of my own shoulder. I still could not discern the form in the dark, but I entertained the sudden fancy that the voice adjoined the person of a hunchback!
I could not help linking the ostensibly diminutive stranger to Hugo’s misshapen hero. I envisioned the stranger to be stunted—if indeed he was—owing to some deformity. It was a vision that existed solely in my mind, for it was just a flash of intuition that had sparked it—but the image stuck on my mind’s eye because it was sharper than my hand before my face.
“I—I thank you, sir,” I responded with dredged-up courage. “But I must catch the next train—it leaves quite soon.”
“As you wish,” came the conceding reply. “There’s a heap of rubbish before you—pray step to your right to avoid it.”
The voice was milder now, no longer so disconcerting—courteous, even—so I took the gamble to heed it. Only later did I wonder how the person could have discerned a heap in that murky abyss.
“Come tomorrow while it is still light,” the voice advised. “I will show you where to inquire.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I will think tonight on whether the house will suit me, and perhaps I will return tomorrow afternoon.”
“Pray come early,” the voice called through the gloom. “The darkness comes quicker and quicker this time of year.”
I stumbled on, cautious of obstacles, and as my heart raced and my mind ran in a thousand directions, I began to weigh the value of beauty and old houses against the cost to one’s soul of ugliness and cheerless apartments.