The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"A Stray Reveler" (1884)    

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“A Stray Reveler” was created by “Emma Dawson” and first appeared in The Wasp (Christmas issue, 1884). Emma Frances Dawson (1851-1926) was a San Franciscan poet and author who was a protégée and friend of Ambrose Bierce.

“A Stray Reveler” is about Aura, a San Franciscan woman. Aura’s lover, Penniel, has committed suicide and left Aura all his wealth and property. The story’s narrator visits Aura after a long absence. But Penniel’s will had three conditions which Aura is forced to obey: Aura is forced to stay in the apartment Penniel left her; Aura must keep one of his paintings in the apartment; and Aura must keep a knotted rope always in sight in the apartment. Aura is oddly taken with the painting and has “felt impelled to copy everything painted there, and to banish all my room held before.”1 The end result is a twinned room, appearing in the painting and duplicated in real life:

The picture filled nearly one side of the room, which was arranged as an exact copy of it, even having a lattice window opening lengthwise, put in to match the painted one. Carpet, Navajo rugs, chairs, tables, draperies were alike. A strip of carpet hid the lower part of the frame, so that one might fancy he saw double parlors instead of one room and a painting. The screen in the room stood at just such an angle as just such a screen stood in the painted scene. Tall Japanese vases, low bookcase, hanging shelves filled with rare, odd trifles, were all thus doubled.2 

But there are a few differences between the painting and the room. The painting also portrays a Christmas revel and a female figure who clearly resembles Aura. Beside the female figure is an empty seat. And as the narrator quickly discovers, more is wrong with Aura than simply an odd apartment arrangement. Aura had set her sights on Penniel when she first met him, but she was “starving–genteelly starving,”3 while Penniel was engaged to Helen, an heiress. Aura says, “I reasoned with myself that she did not need his money as I did. I used every art to win him from her.”4 And Aura did. She told Penniel a lie about Helen, which he believed, and he broke off his engagement to Helen. Helen died soon after that: “some say broken-hearted; but, of course, we know that is a mere phrase. I presume she got a cold, or something.”5 Unfortunately, a friend of Penniel’s told him that Aura had lied to him about Helen. Penniel took this badly:

He also sent me a letter telling me of these discoveries and taking leave. “I shall avenge Helen’s wrongs,” he wrote. “I shall avenge my own wrongs, but in my own time and in my own way. You shall suffer for what you have done, if I have to come back from the next world to make you. Poor or rich, old or young, sad or gay, remember that I have not forgotten.”6 

And then, on Christmas Eve, Penniel died, leaving Aura the painting, the apartment, and the rope. Things get worse. Aura discovers the words “Lex talionis” (“the law of revenge”) skillfully and subtly painted on the screen. And then she begins to dream herself in the picture. The first time this happens, she merely sees a sunset, but the second time (which happens as Aura dozes in front of the narrator) things take a turn for the ominous:

There were two vacant places at the table. I no longer sat there, but wandered about the outer room while the guests at supper were watching and whispering and pointing, and a murmur of "Lex talionis!" ran from mouth to mouth. I felt that some horror waited for me and drew me to that screen, but I tried not to go. I went to the window, but the view was changed to the blackness of midnight. I looked in the mirror, yet saw nothing reflected but the room behind me. I was not to be seen.7 

After some prompting and wine, she continues telling the narrator what she saw:

“What did you think you saw?”

“Think! I saw it.”


“Don’t ask me!” she cried, shuddering. “I cannot describe it. Can you imagine the aspect of a corpse, long dead, mouldering, luminous, all blue light, and threads and tatters of its burial robe? O God, save us!”8 

In a fury she throws the rope into the fire, "We watched it as the fire consumed it and for a few moments held its charred outlines as it had fallen in a distinct semblance of a closed hand with index finger pointing toward the screen!"9 

The narrator is distracted for a moment by Christmas revelers knocking on the door, and Aura darts behind the screen, not wanting others to see what has happened. Then there is a scream and the narrator finds Aura, behind the screen, dead. “Her face was full of terror. Was it only a shadow, that livid line around her neck as if she had been strangled?”10 The narrator finds out that the rope was the one with which Penniel had hung himself.

“A Stray Reveler” is a well-crafted and intelligent horror story which works on several levels. The story’s change of plot pleasantly confounds the reader’s expectations: the reader anticipates that the painting will be haunted, but when Aura says “I have been in the picture” the reader gets an unexpected, and welcome, horripilation. Intercalated into the story are four poems and villanelles. They seem to be benign, but given the story’s creeping sense of wrongness the reader tends to reread the poems to see if there is anything the least bit ominous in them. The poems also lend an intellectual air to the story, in a more subtle way than, for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s invocation of technical and scientific information. This effectively contrasts with the horror that the reader knows will come. And the story conveys a slightly dreamy air about what is inside the painting, and this feeling goes from hazy to nightmarish all too quickly.

Recommended Edition

Print: Everett F. Bleiler, ed., A Treasury of Great Victorian Ghost Stories (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981).



1 Emma Dawson, An Itinerant House and Other Stories (San Francisco: William Doxey, 1897), 76.

2 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 75-76.

3 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 80.

4 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 80.

5 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 80.

6 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 82.

7 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 84-85.

8 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 86.

9 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 87.

10 Dawson, An Itinerant House, 88.