Gargoyle the dwarf slept in the sewers by day, and by night he haunted the high regions of a decaying and abandoned theater, where he concealed his ugliness beneath a cloak of darkness. His broad and shaggy brow overhung small black eyes which gleamed like coals from deep within their shadowed sockets, and a small clump of coarse hairs sprang from a wart high on one craggy cheekbone. His body was a dark, blasted shell, a thing of gristly lumps and bent limbs, and cursed withal with a bad heart. Curiously, though, Gargoyle had lovely hands. They were milky white and almost hairless, with long, tapering fingers and beautifully formed nails. Gargoyle would spend the long hours of the night squatting on a wobbly catwalk, his eyes glazed in dreamy rapture as he turned those slender fingers in the moonlight, and his fat lips, with their one great tooth protruding like a tusk, twisted into a grotesque parody of contentment.
Late one night Gargoyle was occupied thus when a lump of plaster crumbled from the ceiling of the theater and plummeted to the stage below. It smashed on impact and threw a cloud of fine white dust into the stagnant gloom. The dwarf twitched into sudden watchfulness, and his sharp gaze raked the great ruin like a hawk. Here and there, where moonlight penetrated the rotting roof, he could make out groups of seats damp and tattered and spotted with fungus, and elsewhere the shattered fragments of a fallen chandelier glinting in the rubble. But the only movement in the shadowy auditorium was the white dust stirring in the still, heavy air.
Gargoyle scampered along the catwalk and hunkered on a ledge by the far western wall. His shifting weight triggered fresh stresses among the struts and crossbeams of the scaffolding, and an eerie chorus of groans pursued his fleeting shadow. He clung to a moldering baroque projection as the structure settled into equilibrium once more; and then, when the final tremors had subsided and all was still, he watched the form of a woman in white materialize within the drifting powdery cloud far below him.
This was not the first time. She stood center stage, far forward and close to the pit, and from Gargoyle’s high dark point of view she seemed to radiate a pale ethereal glow. Her body was, as ever, utterly motionless, and draped in a long white gown of some shimmering, diaphanous fabric that fell in sheer sweeping lines from her shoulders to the dusty boards below. Her head was slightly lifted, her eyes somewhere in the gods, and her hair tumbled down her back in thick golden tresses. One bare arm, white as marble, hung by her side; the other was half-raised, splayed fingers pointing vaguely upward. But though the moonbeam fell upon her as a spotlight, Gargoyle could see nothing of her face, for it remained shrouded in deep shadow.
For some moments nothing moved. Gargoyle gazed down entranced as the woman in white then slowly dropped her outstretched arm and sank to the stage. He barely breathed, for she was to him a sort of miracle, a sign of transcendence, an elaboration of the mystery of his own pale hands: beauty within ruin. His eyes still never leaving her fallen figure, he swung his lumpy little body onto a ladder and clambered quickly to a lower level. He sprang onto a crossbeam and a faint wheeze discharged deep in the superstructure, the barest gasp of accommodation to his presence. But at the sound the woman in white started up and, gathering her gown about her, darted to the side of the stage and hurriedly descended into the auditorium. From Gargoyle’s lips there slipped a cry of pain, and he stretched a pale hand into the darkness. But the woman fled through the vast hall without once looking back, and was soon lost to sight beneath the balconies at the far end.
Gargoyle swung himself back into the high regions then, and loss rose up within him as fresh and sharp as ever. When he was once more settled on the catwalk he glimpsed through a crack the first faint fingers of dawn clawing into the eastern sky. The night had passed, and he must return to the sewers.
Deep within the pipes and chambers of the sewer system Gargoyle made his nest of sacking and rags; and before the day was much advanced he was curled up in it like a foetus. Liquid dripping from an outer chamber echoed down the tunnel with a damp and steady pulse. Gargoyle lay still as death, and only one white, long-fingered hand extended from the dark knot of his closed form, like a lily sprouting from a clump of black earth.
Suddenly a huge rat appeared at the end of the tunnel. Its fur was matted with filth and its tiny eyes gleamed in the darkness. It paused, twitching, as it caught the odor of the sleeping dwarf. Then it scurried down the gutter and sniffed at the still and lovely hand. A drop fell wetly in the chamber beyond and the blood throbbed dark and heavy in Gargoyle’s veins. Warily the rat nuzzled its snout into the snowy whiteness of the dwarfs palm. As another drop fell, and echoed down the slimy tunnel, Gargoyle’s left eye slid open.
Then like lightning long fingers clamped tight about the rat’s throat, and with a cry of fury the dwarf leapt from his nest, rags flying, eyes blazing, his fist shaking as he tightened his grip on the beast. The big rat, held aloft at arm’s length, thrashed wildly in the gloom, but all in vain; its struggles grew gradually weaker, and soon it twitched feebly in the throes of death.
When the rat was finally limp, Gargoyle flung it into his nest, and then, on his knees, he slowly and tenderly touched his own face all over with his fingertips. He trembled at the contact, and closed his eyes; he caressed his eyelids, his cheekbones, his thick damp lips; he grinned in the darkness, whimpering slightly; and turned at last to the dead rat.
With tooth and nails Gargoyle the man tore the skin off the rat’s back. And as the water echoed down the pipes and chambers he picked the meat from the rat’s bones, and ate it raw in small mouthfuls.
In the high regions of the crumbling theater Gargoyle sat gazing at his left hand and picking tiny clots of rat flesh from under the nails. Ragged clouds drifted across the face of the moon. A great cable now dangled by the catwalk; it plunged down to coil thickly in a dark corner of the stage.
Gargoyle picked out a shred of meat and put it between his lips. He examined his long fingers in the moonlight, and dreamed of the woman in white.
She came again, as he knew she would; and he watched her intently as she turned slowly in the shifting half-light far below him. As her gown swept about her she threw back her head and covered her face with her hands. Gargoyle gazed wondering at her silent pantomime; then clouds drifted across the moon, obscuring her body and masking her movements, and desire sprang up in the heart of the dwarf. He reached for his cable, and carefully gave his weight to it; and then he slithered down through the shadows.
She heard him coming and fled before he reached the bottom. This time she did not plunge into the auditorium, however, but ran backstage, and by the time Gargoyle sprang from the cable she was nowhere to be seen. He limped after her into a long passageway with doors on either side, his one hand clutching his chest, within which the bad heart was beating painfully fast. He threw open the first of the doors, and found a dressing room. As the moonlight glimmered into the long-neglected chamber, all he could make out was his own face peering back at him from a cracked and dusty mirror. And then he saw, piled up around the walls and hanging from rusty hooks and rails, the forgotten hardware of dramatic illusion: moldy wigs and costumes, perished masks and broken props, all crumbling within a fragile membrane of dust and cobwebs; and he slammed the door in a fury, and hastened on to the next.
But again he found only old theatrical clutter, and his own reflection frowning back at him. Door after door he flung open, only to be met with the same shaggy little face growing more and more furious as the night and the chase advanced.
After a while the crippled, limping dwarf suspected that he was going round in circles, entering the same dressing rooms over and over. He began to leave the doors open behind him, but strange winds gusted in those regions, and they would slam shut before he’d turned the next corner. So on he went, struggling for breath, panting and frantic—and then at last the drama seemed close to its end, for he was staring at a brick wall, and only three doors remained.
Gargoyle’s advance was cautious now. He turned the handle of the first door and flung it open.
The second door also yielded—nothing.
Gargoyle seized the handle of the third and last door. A heavy, evil-smelling sweat had broken out upon his thick brow, his eyes were wild, and his dark mind a chaos of conflicting emotions. He turned the handle and pushed open the door.
She was seated before the mirror with her back to him, combing her hair. Gargoyle stood rooted in the doorway. Within his warped frame a new feeling leapt to life, some compound of awe and fulfillment, and he stepped into the room.
“I—” he stammered, and reached a pale hand toward the woman at the mirror, “I—”
She began to turn toward him and befell to his knees, his heart now dangerously excited. Until this moment he had never seen her face; but yes, she was as he had known she would be, a deep inner beauty irradiating her pale and perfect features, and as she smiled upon him a large limpid tear welled up and hung trembling on his cheek. Not for a moment did he allow her to escape his gaze; and then she lifted her hands, lovely white hands that mirrored Gargoyle’s own, and she reached beneath the golden tresses tumbling over her neck.
Suddenly Gargoyle started up with a wild shriek of horror; and his furiously pumping heart began to clog in its chamber. For the woman in white was peeling off her face and hair like a glove, and the stale air was filled with a hideous stench, a rich sweet smell of corruption; and where before had been the head of a lovely woman, there now appeared a rotting, crumbling thing, a grinning skull with clots of stinking flesh still clinging to it.
Gargoyle staggered to his feet, his one lilywhite hand groping in the gloom while the other clawed at his chest. The crusted vessels of his heart were fast collapsing and the great bloody cognac itself was rapidly choking on its own excess. His eyes bulged grotesquely as the grinning ghoul rose to her feet and advanced upon him across the room.
Gargoyle stood aghast a moment more, then crumpled to the floor, his eyelids flickering and his breath coming in short hoarse gasps. The thing in white sank down beside him, and as he gazed into its hideous stinking half-face, it opened his collar with those same lovely hands, and gently bared his throat.
Gargoyle’s last agony was now upon him. His eyeballs rolled back into his skull and his tongue poked monstrously from his purpling lips. The ghoul’s hands went again to its own neck, and began to peel away the layer of corruption. Gargoyle saw none of this, for he had slipped abruptly into death; but now there reared above him the twitching, whiskered head of a giant rat, its red eyes glittering in the gloom. For a long moment there was a deep, reverential hush in that room of dust and shadows; and then the rat buried its fanged snout in Gargoyle’s flesh, and slowly began to consume him.