“By his dead smile I knew that place for Hell.”—Wilfrid Owen
How different that place appeared from all that fancy had limned or stern morality foreshadowed! No Dantean warning overarched the door which swung lightly at my touch. Still I crossed that threshold with one hand at stretch behind me to preserve the possibility of my return, my eyes braced for darkness and my nostrils for sulfur.
Instead I came into the well-lit dining-room of a hostelry. The clothing of the diners was elegant and their faces not unhandsome. The babble of their voices drowned the sound of the closing door.
Talk like theirs might be heard at any fashionable watering-place; gossip grown slightly stale, and secondhand wit; and they smiled on one another, though with no great warmth. Only when I passed close by a table the conversation died, and the company turned their eyes on me with a terrible longing. I essayed a smile and asked them if dinner was to be served soon. At this they looked reproachfully on me and turned away. The conversation resumed, halting and hurrying, disjointed as the ticking of a clock gone mad.
There were more tables than I could count, but no food on any, and around all of them the same false laughter. Cold bedewed my brow. I no longer desired understanding or anything but flight. As I passed the last table before the door she spoke to me.
“You do not belong here. I can talk to you.” Her figure was shapely and well-nourished, almost beautiful, but her eyes were starving. “He won’t serve us. Oh, there’s food, and he takes our orders, but he’ll never serve us.” She spoke even lower. “I know why. He believes there’s a famine. Believes no more will come. He told me why, once; he told me, when I was new here. Now no one will talk to me. And I won’t talk to them. It’s not safe. You know they’re all waiting..”
As she leaned closer I beheld my face reflected in her eyes, and behind my face the door. But between me and the door a shadow loomed, half-formed, hideous, waiting to engulf the fool who dared to try to leave. With horrible clarity I realized that they all had seen this and now waited with desperate hope for someone else to test the door and prove their fear false, or at least to distract that loathly guardian. Not me; surely not me! I could not approach that fearsome shadow. But could I join them? I had disappointed them, and what vengeance might they not take?
Again I met my mirrored eyes, and they were frenzied as hers.