“In order to take that train,” said Colonel Levering, sitting in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, “you will have to remain nearly all night in Atlanta. That is a fine city, but I advise you not to put up at the Breathitt House, one of the principal hotels. It is an old wooden building in urgent need of repairs. There are breaches in the walls that you could throw a cat through. The bedrooms have no locks on the doors, no furniture but a single chair in each, and a bedstead without bedding just a mattress. Even these meager accommodations you cannot be sure that you will have in monopoly; you must take your chance of being stowed in with a lot of others. Sir, it is a most abominable hotel.
“The night that I passed in it was an uncomfortable night. I got in late and was shown to my room on the ground floor by an apologetic night-clerk with a tallow candle, which he considerately left with me. I was worn out by two days and a night of hard railway travel and had not entirely recovered from a gunshot wound in the head, received in an altercation. Rather than look for better quarters I lay down on the mattress without removing my clothing and fell asleep.”
“Along toward morning I awoke. The moon had risen and was shining in at the uncurtained window, illuminating the room with a soft, bluish light which seemed, somehow, a bit spooky, though I dare say it had no uncommon quality; all moonlight is that way if you will observe it. Imagine my surprise and indignation when I saw the floor occupied by at least a dozen other lodgers!”
“I sat up, earnestly damning the management of that unthinkable hotel, and was about to spring from the bed to go and make trouble for the night clerk him of the apologetic manner and the tallow candle when something in the situation affected me with a strange indisposition to move. I suppose I was what a story-writer might call ‘frozen with terror.’ For those men were obviously all dead!”
They lay on their backs, disposed orderly along three sides of the room, their feet to the walls against the other wall, farthest from the door, stood my bed and the chair. All the faces were covered, but under their white cloths the features of the two bodies that lay in the square patch of moonlight near the window showed in sharp profile as to nose and chin.
“I thought this a bad dream and tried to cry out, as one does in a nightmare, but could make no sound.”
“At last, with a desperate effort I threw my feet to the floor and passing between the two rows of clouted faces and the two bodies that lay nearest the door, I escaped from the infernal place and ran to the office. The night- clerk was there, behind the desk, sitting in the dim light of another tallow candle just sitting and staring. He did not rise: my abrupt entrance produced no effect upon him, though I must have looked a veritable corpse myself. It occurred to me then that I had not before really observed the fellow. He was a little chap, with a colorless face and the whitest, blankest eyes I ever saw. He had no more expression than the back of my hand. His clothing was a dirty gray.”
“Damn you!” I said; “what do you mean?”
“Just the same, I was shaking like a leaf in the wind and did not recognize my own voice.”
“The night-clerk rose, bowed (apologetically) and well, he was no longer there, and at that moment I felt a hand laid upon my shoulder from behind. Just fancy that if you can!” Unspeakably frightened, I turned and saw a portly, kind-faced gentleman, who asked:
“What is the matter, my friend?”
I was not long in telling him, but before I made an end of it he went pale himself. ‘See here,’ he said, ‘are you telling the truth?’
I had now got myself in hand and terror had given place to indignation. ‘If you dare to doubt it,’ I said, ‘I’ll hammer the life out of you!’
‘No,’ he replied, ‘don’t do that; just sit down till I tell you. This is not a hotel. It used to be; afterward, it was a hospital. Now it is unoccupied, awaiting a tenant. The room that you mention was the dead-room there were always plenty of dead. The fellow that you call the night-clerk used to be that, but later he booked the patients as they were brought in. I don’t understand his being here. He has been dead a few weeks.’
‘And who are you?’ I blurted out.
‘Oh, I look after the premises. I happened to be passing just now, and seeing a light in here came in to investigate. Let us have a look into that room,’ he added, lifting the sputtering candle from the desk.
‘I’ll see you at the devil first!’ said I, bolting out of the door into the street.
“Sir, that Breathitt House, in Atlanta, is a beastly place! Don’t you stop there.”
“God forbid! Your account of it certainly does not suggest comfort. By the way, Colonel, when did all that occur?”
“In September 1864 shortly after the siege.”
Written by Ambrose Bierce