One day, a man proposes marriage to a woman while they are sitting on a bench near the woods. The man is named Jenner Brading and the woman Irene Marlow. She is remarkable for her intense gray-green eyes. Irene tells him that she cannot marry him, much to his confusion and outrage. When he asks why, she calmly explains that she is insane.
At his confusion, she further explains that she herself would call it a case of possession, though a doctor might characterize it as insanity. She launches into an extended explanation, which is relayed in abridged form by the author.
The tale begins in a log house in the middle of the woods, where a woman clutches a child alone. They are being watched, however, and the rest of Irene's tale describes what watches them.
Charles Marlow is a fearless pioneer who has created a small homestead in the wilderness together with his wife and child. Though their life together is dangerous and often lonely, the woman is beautiful and content with her lot in life. One morning, though, when Charles takes down his rifle in order to go hunting, she begs him to stay. She explains that she has had an awful dream. He lightly dismisses her fears, heading off to hunt.
The wife cooks supper and waits up late for her husband Charles, who has still not returned by nightfall. She leaves a window open and places a candle in it to welcome him home, but falls asleep long before he arrives. She dreams that her child is dead and she sits by the cradle of a second child in an unfamiliar house. She peers at the face of the child, and is horrified to behold the face of a wild animal.
Waking from her dream, she takes her child in her arms. However, she is horrified to behold two bright coals in the darkness, at the level of the window - the eyes of a panther peering in through the darkness. Under the gaze of those frightening eyes, she feels herself shrinking and cringing away. She is certain that the panther will pounce on and kill her at any moment, but instead the beast simply gazes at her. When Charles Marlowe finally returns to the cabin late at night, he is surprised when his wife does not greet him at the door and more surprised when he opens the door to only darkness.
A greater horror greets him when he strikes a match - he sees his wife cowering on the floor. She breaks out into cold, insane laughter when she sees him. He pries the child out of her arms, only to find that she has crushed the infant to death in her panic.
Jenner Brading does not know what to make of this story. He knows that Charles Marlowe is Irene's father, but the child in the story died. Irene explains that she is the second child, born three months after that terrible night. She asks if Jenner could ever consider a child born under such circumstances sane. Jenner pauses. In the wild frontier country in which they live, there have been numerous reports of a panther that seems to observe people with evil intention, so he is very sure that Irene is not making the story up. It fits with other features of her life, such as the fact that she lives alone in a house no one ever visits with her aging father, and is never seen outside after dark. He is quite certain indeed that she is insane. Jenner begins to ask her a question, but she tells him that he already knows everything he needs to know, and stalks off into the night. He sees a gleam of eyes in the dark and runs after her, screaming that the panther is there. Irene, however, is already gone.
Jenner Brading returns to his home, a small cottage. He has constructed it only recently, however, and generally sleeps and eats at the village hotel, where his law offices are also located. News of his rejection by Irene slowly spreads around town.
One night, he sees two bright orbs at his window, and instantly recognizes them as the eyes of a panther. He grabs his pistol and fires at the animal's face - it screams and runs away. He grabs a few men from the town and follows the panther's trail. He finds the body of his victim, but is horrified to discover that it is not a panther, but that of Irene Marlowe.
This story plays on aspects of werewolf mythos found in European folklore, in particular the origin of the human-animal creature in a mysterious interaction with a beast, and the revelation of the human aspect when the animal is killed.
This story involves extensive use of foreshadowing, such as the description of Irene as "lithe" (a word often used to describe a cat or panther) and her "feline beauty" (2). The dream of Charles Marlowe's wife is another example of foreshadowing, as she envisions the awful fate that will overtake the little family.
It is not entirely clear if Jenner realizes that Irene is the panther; ST Joshi insists that Jenner was inspired by a madness to kill. He does accept her refusal of his marriage offer when he realizes that she may well be insane, and does connect her story with reports of a malevolent panther seen around the countryside. However, Jenner's alarm when he sees the panther's eyes in the darkness after Irene walks away from him indicates that he does not believe she was the panther, and that his accidental murder of her is a tragic accident.
This story also draws on aspects of a superstition that a sight beheld by a pregnant woman might affect the child growing inside her womb; this belief stretches back to the ancient physician Galen, who said that a pregnant woman only needed to gaze upon a handsome person in order to have a good-looking child. In the case of Irene, the trauma endured by her mother while pregnant with her was not only enough to make the infant Irene insane, it also ensured that Irene would have the shapeshifting abilities of a panther.
The story has been adapted for television twice, once for Shelley Duvall's Nightmare Classics series in 1989, and once in 2006 by director Michael Barton.