The Golgotha Dancers
By MANLY WADE WELLMAN
A curious and terrifying story about an artist who sold his
soul that he might paint a living picture
I had come to the Art Museum to see the special show of Goya prints, but
that particular gallery was so crowded that I could hardly get in, much
less see or savor anything; wherefore I walked out again. I wandered
through the other wings with their rows and rows of oils, their Greek
and Roman sculptures, their stern ranks of medieval armors, their
Oriental porcelains, their Egyptian gods. At length, by chance and not
by design, I came to the head of a certain rear stairway. Other habitués
of the museum will know the one I mean when I remind them that Arnold
Böcklin's The Isle of the Dead hangs on the wall of the landing.
I started down, relishing in advance the impression Böcklin's picture
would make with its high brown rocks and black poplars, its midnight sky
and gloomy film of sea, its single white figure erect in the bow of the
beach-nosing skiff. But, as I descended, I saw that The Isle of the
Dead was not in its accustomed position on the wall. In that space,
arresting even in the bad light and from the up-angle of the stairs,
hung a gilt-framed painting I had never seen or heard of in all my
I gazed at it, one will imagine, all the way down to the landing. Then I
had a close, searching look, and a final appraising stare from the lip
of the landing above the lower half of the flight. So far as I can
learn—and I have been diligent in my research—the thing is unknown
even to the best-informed of art experts. Perhaps it is as well that I
describe it in detail.
It seemed to represent action upon a small plateau or table rock, drab
and bare, with a twilight sky deepening into a starless evening. This
setting, restrainedly worked up in blue-grays and blue-blacks, was not
the first thing to catch the eye, however. The front of the picture was
filled with lively dancing creatures, as pink, plump and naked as
cherubs and as patently evil as the meditations of Satan in his rare
I counted those dancers. There were twelve of them, ranged in a
half-circle, and they were cavorting in evident glee around a central
object—a prone cross, which appeared to be made of two stout logs with
some of the bark still upon them. To this cross a pair of the pink
things—that makes fourteen—kneeling and swinging blocky-looking
hammers or mauls, spiked a human figure.
I say human when I speak of that figure, and I withhold the word in
describing the dancers and their hammer-wielding fellows. There is a
reason. The supine victim on the cross was a beautifully represented
male body, as clear and anatomically correct as an illustration in a
surgical textbook. The head was writhed around, as if in pain, and I
could not see the face or its expression; but in the tortured tenseness
of the muscles, in the slaty white sheen of the skin with jagged streaks
of vivid gore upon it, agonized nature was plain and doubly plain. I
could almost see the painted limbs writhe against the transfixing nails.
By the same token, the dancers and hammerers were so dynamically done as
to seem half in motion before my eyes. So much for the sound skill of
the painter. Yet, where the crucified prisoner was all clarity, these
others were all fog. No lines, no angles, no muscles—their features
could not be seen or sensed. I was not even sure if they had hair or
not. It was as if each was picked out with a ray of light in that
surrounding dusk, light that revealed and yet shimmered indistinctly;
light, too, that had absolutely nothing of comfort or honesty in it.
"Hold on, there!" came a sharp challenge from the stairs behind and
below me. "What are you doing? And what's that picture doing?"
I started so that I almost lost my footing and fell upon the
speaker—one of the Museum guards. He was a slight old fellow and his
thin hair was gray, but he advanced upon me with all the righteous,
angry pluck of a beefy policeman. His attitude surprised and nettled me.
"I was going to ask somebody that same question," I told him as
austerely as I could manage. "What about this picture? I thought there
was a Böcklin hanging here."
The guard relaxed his forbidding attitude at first sound of my voice.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, sir. I thought you were somebody else—the man
who brought that thing." He nodded at the picture, and the hostile glare
came back into his eyes. "It so happened that he talked to me first,
then to the curator. Said it was art—great art—and the Museum must
have it." He lifted his shoulders, in a shrug or a shudder. "Personally,
I think it's plain beastly."
So it was, I grew aware as I looked at it again. "And the Museum has
accepted it at last?" I prompted.
He shook his head. "Oh, no, sir. An hour ago he was at the back door,
with that nasty daub there under his arm. I heard part of the argument.
He got insulting, and he was told to clear out and take his picture with
him. But he must have got in here somehow, and hung it himself." Walking
close to the painting, as gingerly as though he expected the pink
dancers to leap out at him, he pointed to the lower edge of the frame.
"If it was a real Museum piece, we'd have a plate right there, with the
name of the painter and the title."
I, too, came close. There was no plate, just as the guard had said. But
in the lower left-hand corner of the canvas were sprawling capitals,
pale paint on the dark, spelling out the word GOLGOTHA. Beneath these,
in small, barely readable script:
I sold my soul that I might paint a living picture.
No signature or other clue to the artist's identity.
The guard had discovered a great framed rectangle against the wall to
one side. "Here's the picture he took down," he informed me, highly
relieved. "Help me put it back, will you, sir? And do you suppose," here
he grew almost wistful, "that we could get rid of this other thing
before someone finds I let the crazy fool slip past me?"
I took one edge of The Isle of the Dead and lifted it to help him hang
it once more.
"Tell you what," I offered on sudden impulse; "I'll take this Golgotha
piece home with me, if you like."
"Would you do that?" he almost yelled out in his joy at the suggestion.
"Would you, to oblige me?"
"To oblige myself," I returned. "I need another picture at my place."
And the upshot of it was, he smuggled me and the unwanted painting out
of the Museum. Never mind how. I have done quite enough as it is to
jeopardize his job and my own welcome up there.
It was not until I had paid off my taxi and lugged the unwieldy
parallelogram of canvas and wood upstairs to my bachelor apartment that
I bothered to wonder if it might be valuable. I never did find out, but
from the first I was deeply impressed.
Hung over my own fireplace, it looked as large and living as a scene
glimpsed through a window or, perhaps, on a stage in a theater. The
capering pink bodies caught new lights from my lamp, lights that glossed
and intensified their shape and color but did not reveal any new
details. I pored once more over the cryptic legend: I sold my soul that
I might paint a living picture.
A living picture—was it that? I could not answer. For all my honest
delight in such things, I cannot be called expert or even knowing as
regards art. Did I even like the Golgotha painting? I could not be sure
of that, either. And the rest of the inscription, about selling a soul;
I was considerably intrigued by that, and let my thoughts ramble on the
subject of Satanist complexes and the vagaries of half-crazy painters.
As I read, that evening, I glanced up again and again at my new
possession. Sometimes it seemed ridiculous, sometimes sinister. Shortly
after midnight I rose, gazed once more, and then turned out the parlor
lamp. For a moment, or so it seemed, I could see those dancers, so many
dim-pink silhouettes in the sudden darkness. I went to the kitchen for a
bit of whisky and water, and thence to my bedroom.
I had dreams. In them I was a boy again, and my mother and sister were
leaving the house to go to a theater where—think of it!—Richard
Mansfield would play Beau Brummell. I, the youngest, was told to stay
at home and mind the troublesome furnace. I wept copiously in my
disappointed loneliness, and then Mansfield himself stalked in, in full
Brummell regalia. He laughed goldenly and stretched out his hand in warm
greeting. I, the lad of my dreams, put out my own hand, then was
frightened when he would not loosen his grasp. I tugged, and he laughed
again. The gold of his laughter turned suddenly hard, cold. I tugged
with all my strength, and woke.
Something held me tight by the wrist.
In my first half-moment of wakefulness I was aware that the room was
filled with the pink dancers of the picture, in nimble, fierce-happy
motion. They were man-size, too, or nearly so, visible in the dark with
the dim radiance of fox-fire. On the small scale of the painting they
had seemed no more than babyishly plump; now they were gross, like huge
erect toads. And, as I awakened fully, they were closing in, a menacing
ring of them, around my bed. One stood at my right side, and its grip,
clumsy and rubbery-hard like that of a monkey, was closed upon my arm.
I saw and sensed all this, as I say, in a single moment. With the
sensing came the realization of peril, so great that I did not stop to
wonder at the uncanniness of my visitors. I tried frantically to jerk
loose. For the moment I did not succeed and as I thrashed about,
throwing my body nearly across the bed, a second dancer dashed in from
the left. It seized and clamped my other arm. I felt, rather than heard,
a wave of soft, wordless merriment from them all. My heart and sinews
seemed to fail, and briefly I lay still in a daze of horror, pinned down
crucifix-fashion between my two captors.
Was that a hammer raised above me as I sprawled?
There rushed and swelled into me the sudden startled strength that
sometimes favors the desperate. I screamed like any wild thing caught in
a trap, rolled somehow out of bed and to my feet. One of the beings I
shook off and the other I dashed against the bureau. Freed, I made for
the bedroom door and the front of the apartment, stumbling and
staggering on fear-weakened legs.
One of the dim-shining pink things barred my way at the very threshold,
and the others were closing in behind, as if for a sudden rush. I flung
my right fist with all my strength and weight. The being bobbed back
unresistingly before my smash, like a rubber toy floating through water.
I plunged past, reached the entry and fumbled for the knob of the outer
They were all about me then, their rubbery palms fumbling at my
shoulders, my elbows, my pajama jacket. They would have dragged me down
before I could negotiate the lock. A racking shudder possessed me and
seemed to flick them clear. Then I stumbled against a stand, and purely
by good luck my hand fell upon a bamboo walking-stick. I yelled again,
in truly hysterical fierceness, and laid about me as with a whip. My
blows did little or no damage to those unearthly assailants, but they
shrank back, teetering and dancing, to a safe distance. Again I had the
sense that they were laughing, mocking. For the moment I had beaten them
off, but they were sure of me in the end. Just then my groping free hand
pressed a switch. The entry sprang into light.
On the instant they were not there.
Somebody was knocking outside, and with trembling fingers I turned the
knob of the door. In came a tall, slender girl with a blue lounging-robe
caught hurriedly around her. Her bright hair was disordered as though
she had just sprung from her bed.
"Is someone sick?" she asked in a breathless voice. "I live down the
hall—I heard cries." Her round blue eyes were studying my face, which
must have been ghastly pale. "You see, I'm a trained nurse, and
"Thank God you did come!" I broke in, unceremoniously but honestly, and
went before her to turn on every lamp in the parlor.
It was she who, without guidance, searched out my whisky and siphon and
mixed for me a highball of grateful strength. My teeth rang nervously on
the edge of the glass as I gulped it down. After that I got my own
robe—a becoming one, with satin facings—and sat with her on the divan
to tell of my adventure. When I had finished, she gazed long at the
painting of the dancers, then back at me. Her eyes, like two chips of
the April sky, were full of concern and she held her rosy lower lip
between her teeth. I thought that she was wonderfully pretty.
"What a perfectly terrible nightmare!" she said.
"It was no nightmare," I protested.
She smiled and argued the point, telling me all manner of comforting
things about mental associations and their reflections in vivid dreams.
To clinch her point she turned to the painting.
"This line about a 'living picture' is the peg on which your slumbering
mind hung the whole fabric," she suggested, her slender fingertip
touching the painted scribble. "Your very literal subconscious self
didn't understand that the artist meant his picture would live only
"Are you sure that's what the artist meant?" I asked, but finally I let
her convince me. One can imagine how badly I wanted to be convinced.
She mixed me another highball, and a short one for herself. Over it she
told me her name—Miss Dolby—and finally she left me with a last
comforting assurance. But, nightmare or no, I did not sleep again that
night. I sat in the parlor among the lamps, smoking and dipping into
book after book. Countless times I felt my gaze drawn back to the
painting over the fireplace, with the cross and the nail-pierced wretch
and the shimmering pink dancers.
After the rising sun had filled the apartment with its honest light and
cheer I felt considerably calmer. I slept all morning, and in the
afternoon was disposed to agree with Miss Dolby that the whole business
had been a bad dream, nothing more. Dressing, I went down the hall,
knocked on her door and invited her to dinner with me.
It was a good dinner. Afterward we went to an amusing motion picture,
with Charles Butterworth in it as I remember. After bidding her
good-night, I went to my own place. Undressed and in bed, I lay awake.
My late morning slumber made my eyes slow to close. Thus it was that I
heard the faint shuffle of feet and, sitting up against my pillows, saw
the glowing silhouettes of the Golgotha dancers. Alive and magnified,
they were creeping into my bedroom.
I did not hesitate or shrink this time. I sprang up, tense and defiant.
"No, you don't!" I yelled at them. As they seemed to hesitate before the
impact of my wild voice, I charged frantically. For a moment I scattered
them and got through the bedroom door, as on the previous night. There
was another shindy in the entry; this time they all got hold of me, like
a pack of hounds, and wrestled me back against the wall. I writhe even
now when I think of the unearthly hardness of their little gripping
paws. Two on each arm were spread-eagling me upon the plaster. The
cruciform position again!
I swore, yelled and kicked. One of them was in the way of my foot. He
floated back, unhurt. That was their strength and horror—their ability
to go flabby and non-resistant under smashing, flattening blows.
Something tickled my palm, pricked it. The point of a spike....
"Miss Dolby!" I shrieked, as a child might call for its mother. "Help!
The door flew open; I must not have locked it. "Here I am," came her
She was outlined against the rectangle of light from the hall. My
assailants let go of me to dance toward her. She gasped but did not
scream. I staggered along the wall, touched a light-switch, and the
parlor just beyond us flared into visibility. Miss Dolby and I ran in to
the lamp, rallying there as stone-age folk must have rallied at their
fire to face the monsters of the night. I looked at her; she was still
fully dressed, as I had left her, apparently had been sitting up. Her
rouge made flat patches on her pale cheeks, but her eyes were level.
This time the dancers did not retreat or vanish; they lurked in the
comparative gloom of the entry, jigging and trembling as if mustering
their powers and resolutions for another rush at us.
"You see," I chattered out to her, "it wasn't a nightmare."
She spoke, not in reply, but as if to herself. "They have no faces," she
whispered. "No faces!" In the half-light that was diffused upon them
from our lamp they presented the featurelessness of so many huge
gingerbread boys, covered with pink icing. One of them, some kind of
leader, pressed forward within the circle of the light. It daunted him a
bit. He hesitated, but did not retreat.
From my center table Miss Dolby had picked up a bright paper-cutter. She
poised it with the assurance of one who knows how to handle cutting
"When they come," she said steadily, "let's stand close together. We'll
be harder to drag down that way."
I wanted to shout my admiration of her fearless front toward the
dreadful beings, my thankfulness for her quick run to my rescue. All I
could mumble was, "You're mighty brave."
She turned for a moment to look at the picture above my dying fire. My
eyes followed hers. I think I expected to see a blank canvas—find that
the painted dancers had vanished from it and had grown into the living
ones. But they were still in the picture, and the cross and the victim
were there, too. Miss Dolby read aloud the inscription:
"A living picture ... The artist knew what he was talking about, after
"Couldn't a living picture be killed?" I wondered.
It sounded uncertain, and a childish quibble to boot, but Miss Dolby
exclaimed triumphantly, as at an inspiration.
"Killed? Yes!" she shouted. She sprang at the picture, darting out with
the paper-cutter. The point ripped into one of the central figures in
the dancing semicircle.
All the crowd in the entry seemed to give a concerted throb, as of
startled protest. I swung, heart racing, to front them again. What had
happened? Something had changed, I saw. The intrepid leader had
vanished. No, he had not drawn back into the group. He had vanished.
Miss Dolby, too, had seen. She struck again, gashed the painted
representation of another dancer. And this time the vanishing happened
before my eyes, a creature at the rear of the group went out of
existence as suddenly and completely as though a light had blinked out.
The others, driven by their danger, rushed.
I met them, feet planted. I tried to embrace them all at once, went over
backward under them. I struck, wrenched, tore. I think I even bit
something grisly and bloodless, like fungoid tissue, but I refuse to
remember for certain. One or two of the forms struggled past me and
grappled Miss Dolby. I struggled to my feet and pulled them back from
her. There were not so many swarming after me now. I fought hard before
they got me down again. And Miss Dolby kept tearing and stabbing at the
canvas—again, again. Clutches melted from my throat, my arms. There
were only two dancers left. I flung them back and rose. Only one left.
They were gone, gone into nowhere.
"That did it," said Miss Dolby breathlessly.
She had pulled the picture down. It was only a frame now, with ragged
ribbons of canvas dangling from it.
I snatched it out of her hands and threw it upon the coals of the fire.
"Look," I urged her joyfully. "It's burning! That's the end. Do you
"Yes, I see," she answered slowly. "Some fiend-ridden artist—his evil
genius brought it to life."
"The inscription is the literal truth, then?" I supplied.
"Truth no more." She bent to watch the burning. "As the painted figures
were destroyed, their incarnations faded."
We said nothing further, but sat down together and gazed as the flames
ate the last thread of fabric, the last splinter of wood. Finally we
looked up again and smiled at each other.
All at once I knew that I loved her.
Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Weird
Tales October 1937. Extensive research did not uncover
any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication