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Chapter 6

  • As the old man finished his story I saw that the small lamp had long sinc_urned dry, and that the large one was nearly empty. It must, I knew, be nea_awn, and my ears told me that the storm was over. The tale had held me in _alf-daze, and I almost feared to glance at the door lest it reveal an inwar_ressure from some unnamable source. It would be hard to say which had th_reatest hold on me - stark horror, incredulity, or a kind of morbid fantasti_uriosity. I was wholly beyond speech and had to wait for my strange host t_reak the spell.
  • "Do you want to see - the thing?"
  • His voice was low and hesitant, and I saw he was tremendously in earnest. O_y various emotions, curiosity gained the upper hand; and I nodded silently.
  • He rose, lighting a candle on a nearby table and holding it high before him a_e opened the door.
  • "Come with me - upstairs."
  • I dreaded to brave those musty corridors again, but fascination downed all m_ualms. The boards creaked beneath our feet, and I trembled once when _hought I saw a faint, rope-like line trace in the dust near the staircase.
  • The steps of the attic were noisy and rickety, with several of the tread_issing. I was just glad of the need of looking sharply to my footing, for i_ave me an excuse not to glance about. The attic corridor was pitch-black an_eavily cobwebbed, and inch-deep with dust except where a beaten trail led t_ door on the left at the farther end. As I noticed the rotting remains of _hick carpet I thought of the other feet which had pressed it in bygon_ecades \- of these, and of one thing which did not have feet.
  • The old man took me straight to the door at the end of the beaten path, an_umbled a second with the rusty latch. I was acutely frightened know that _new the picture was so close, yet dared not retreat at this stage. In anothe_oment my host was ushering me into the deserted studio.
  • The candle light was very faint, yet served to shew most of the principa_eatures. I noticed the low, slanting roof, the huge enlarged dormer, th_urios and trophies hung on the wall - and most of all, the great shroude_asel in the centre of the floor. To that easel de Russy now walked, drawin_side the dusty velvet hangings on the side turned away from me, and motionin_e silently to approach. It took a good deal of courage to make me obey, especially when I saw how my guide's eyes dilated in the wavering candle ligh_s he looked at the unveiled canvas. But again curiosity conquered everything, and I walked around to where de Russy stood. Then I saw the damnable thing.
  • I did not faint - though no reader can possibly realise the effort it took t_eep me from doing so. I did cry out, but stopped short when I saw th_rightened look on the old man's face. as I had expected, the canvas wa_arped, mouldy, and scabrous from dampness and neglect; but for all that _ould trace the monstrous hints of evil cosmic outsideness that lurked al_hrough the nameless scene's morbid content and perverted geometry.
  • It was as the old man had said - a vaulted, columned hell of mungled Blac_asses and Witches' Sabbaths - and what perfect completion could have added t_t was beyond my power to guess. Decay had only increased the utte_ideousness of its wicked symbolism and diseased suggestion, for the part_ost affected by time were just those parts of the picture which in Nature - or in the extra-cosmic realm that mocked Nature - would be apt to decay an_isintegrate.
  • The utmost horror of all, of course, was Marceline - and as I saw the bloated, discoloured flesh I formed the odd fancy that perhaps the figure on the canva_ad some obscure, occult linkage with the figure which lay in quicklime unde_he cellar floor. Perhaps the lime had preserved the corpse instead o_estroying it \- but could it have preserved those black, malign eyes tha_lared and mocked at me from their painted hell?
  • And there was something else about the creature which I could not fail t_otice - something which de Russy had not been able to put into words, bu_hich perhaps had something to do with Denis' wish to kill all those of hi_lood who had dwelt under the same roof with her. Whether Marsh knew, o_hether the genius in him painted it without his knowing, none could say. Bu_enis and his father could not have known till they saw the picture.
  • Surpassing all in horror was the streaming black hair - which covered th_otting body, but which was itself not even slightly decayed. All I had hear_f it was amply verified. It was nothing human, this ropy, sinuous, half-oily, half-crinkly flood of serpent darkness. Vile, independent life proclaime_tself at every unnatural twist and convolution, and the suggestion o_umberless reptilian heads at the out-turned ends was far too marked to b_llusory or accidental.
  • The blasphemous thing held me like a magnet. I was helpless, and did no_onder at the myth of the gorgon's glance which turned all beholders to stone.
  • Then I thought I saw a change come over the thing. The leering feature_erceptibly moved, so that the rotting jaw fell, allowing the thick, beast- like lips to disclose a row of pointed yellow fangs. The pupils of th_iendish eyes dilated, and the eyes themselves seemed to bulge outward. An_he hair - that accursed hair! It had begun to rustle and wave perceptibly, the snake-heads all turning toward de Russy and vibrating as if to strike!
  • Reason deserted me altogether, and before I knew what I was doing I drew m_utomatic and sent a shower of twelve steel-jacketed bullets through th_hocking canvas. The whole thing at once fell to pieces, even the fram_oppling from the easel and clattering to the dust-covered floor. But thoug_his horror was shattered, another had risen before me in the form of de Russ_imself, whose maddened shrieks as he saw the picture vanish were almost a_errible as the picture itself had been.
  • With a half-articulate scream of "God, now you've done it!" the frantic ol_an seized me violently by the arm and commenced to drag me out of the roo_nd down the rickety stairs. He had dropped the candle in his panic; but daw_as near, and some faint grey light was filtering in through the dust-covere_indows. I tripped and stumbled repeatedly, but never for a moment would m_uide slacken his pace.
  • "Run!" he shrieked, "run for your life! You don't know what you've done! _ever told you the whole thing! There were things I had to do - the pictur_alked to me and told me. I had to guard and keep it - now the worst wil_appen! She and that hair will come up out of their graves, for God knows wha_urpose!
  • "Hurry, man! For God's sake let's get out of here while there's time. If yo_ave a car take me along to Cape Girardeau with you. It may well get me in th_nd, anywhere, but I'll give it a run for its money. Out of here - quick!"
  • As we reached the ground floor I became aware of a slow, curious thumping fro_he rear of the house, followed by a sound of a door shutting. De Russy ha_ot heard the thumping, but the other noise caught his ear and drew from hi_he most terrible shriek that ever sounded in human throat.
  • "Oh, God - great God - that was the cellar door - she's coming - "
  • By this time I was desperately wrestling with the rusty latch and saggin_inges of the great front door - almost as frantic as my host now that I hear_he slow, thumping tread approaching from the unknown rear rooms of th_ccursed mansion. The night's rain had warped the oaken planks, and the heav_oor stuck and resisted even more strongly than it had when I forced a_ntrance the evening before.
  • Somewhere a plank creaked beneath the foot of whatever was walking, and th_ound seemed to snap the last cord of sanity in the poor old man. With a roa_ike that of a maddened bull he released his grip on me and made a plunge t_he right, through the open door of a room which I judged had been a parlour.
  • A second later, just as I got the front door open and was making my ow_scape, I heard the tinkling clatter of broken glass and knew he had leap_hrough a window. And as I bounded off the sagging porch to commence my ma_ace down the long, weed-grown drive I thought I could catch the thud of dead, dogged footsteps which did not follow me, but which kept leadenly on throug_he door of the cobwebbed parlour.
  • I looked backward only twice as I plunged heedlessly through the burrs an_riers of that abandoned drive, past the dying lindens and grotesque scrub- oaks, in the grey pallor of a cloudy November dawn. The first time was when a_crid smell overtook me, and I thought of the candle de Russy had dropped i_he attic studio. By then I was comfortably near the road, on the high plac_rom which the roof of the distant house was clearly visible above it_ncircling trees; and just as I expected, thick clouds of smoke were billowin_ut of the attic dormers and curling upward into the leaden heavens. I thanke_he powers of creation that an immemorial curse was about to be purged by fir_nd blotted from the earth.
  • But in the next instant came that second backward look in which I glimpsed tw_ther things - things that cancelled most of the relief and gave me a suprem_hock from which I shall never recover. I have said that I was on a high par_f the drive, from which much of the plantation behind me was visible. Thi_ista included not only the house and its trees but some of the abandoned an_artly flooded land beside the river, and several bends of the weed-choke_rive I had been so hastily traversing. In both of these latter places I I no_eheld sights - or suspicions of sights \- which I wish devoutly I could deny.
  • It was a faint, distant scream which made me turn back again, and as I did s_ caught a trace of motion on the dull grey marshy plain behind the house. A_hat human figures are very small, yet I thought the motion resolved itsel_nto two of these - pursuer and pursued. I even thought I saw the dark-clothe_eading figure overtaken, seized, and dragged violently in the direction o_he now burning house.
  • But I could not watch the outcome, for at once a nearer sight obtruded itself - a suggestion of motion among the underbrush at a point some distance bac_long the deserted drive. Unmistakably, the weeds and bushes and briers wer_waying as no wind could sway them; swaying as if some large, swift serpen_ere wriggling purposefully along on the ground in pursuit of me.
  • That was all I could stand. I scrambled along madly for the gate, heedless o_orn clothing and bleeding scratches, and jumped into the roadster parke_nder the great evergreen tree. It was a bedraggled, raindrenched sight; bu_he works were unharmed and I had no trouble in starting the thing. I went o_lindly in the direction the car was headed for; nothing was in my mind but t_et away from that frightful region of nightmares and cacodaemons - to ge_way as quickly and as far as gasoline could take me.
  • About three or four miles along the road a farmer hailed me - a kindly, drawling fellow of middle age and considerable native intelligence. I was gla_o slow down and ask directions, though I knew I must present a strange enoug_spect. The man readily told me the way to Cape Girardeau, and inquired wher_ had come from in such a state at such an early hour. Thinking it best to sa_ittle, I merely mentioned that I had been caught in the night's rain and ha_aken shelter at a nearby farmhouse, afterward losing my way in the underbrus_rying to find my car.
  • "At a farmhouse, eh? Wonder whose it could'a been. Ain't nothin' standin' thi_ide o' Jim Ferris' place acrost Barker's Crick, an' that's all o' twent_iles by the rud."
  • I gave a start, and wondered what fresh mystery this portended. Then I aske_y informant if he had overlooked the large ruined plantation house whos_ncient gate bordered the road not far back.
  • "Funny ye sh'd recolleck that, stranger! Must a ben here afore some time. Bu_hat house ain't here now. Burnt down five or six years ago - and they di_ell some queer stories about it."
  • I shuddered.
  • "You mean Riverside - ol' man de Russy's place. Queer goin's on there fiftee_r twenty years ago. Ol' man's boy married a gal from abroad, and some folk_hought she was a mighty odd sort. Didn't like the looks of her. then she an_he boy went off sudden, and later on the ol' man said he was kilt in the war.
  • But some o' the niggers hinted queer things. Got around at last that the ol'
  • fellow fell in love with the gal himself and kilt her and the boy. That plac_as sure enough haunted by a black snake, mean that what it may.
  • "Then five or six years ago the ol' man disappeared and the house burned down.
  • Some do say he was burnt up in it. It was a mornin' after a rainy night jus_ike this, when lots o' folks heard an awful yellin' across the fields in ol_e Russy's voice. When they stopped and looked, they see the house goin' up i_moke quick as a wink - that place was all like tinder anyhow, rain or n_ain. Nobody never seen the ol' man again, but onct in a while they tell o_he ghost of that big black snake glidin' aroun'.
  • "What d'ye make of it, anyhow? You seem to hev knowed the place. Didn't y_ver hear tell of the de Russys? What d'ye reckon was the trouble with tha_al young Denis married? She kinder made everybody shiver and feel hateful, though ye' couldn't never tell why."
  • I was trying to think, but that process was almost beyond me now. The hous_urned down years ago? Then where, and under what conditions, had I passed th_ight? And why did I know what I knew of these things? Even as I pondered _aw a hair on my coat sleeve \- the short, grey hair of an old man.
  • In the end I drove on without telling anything. But did I hint that gossip wa_ronging the poor old planter who had suffered so much. I made it clear - a_f from distant but authentic reports wafted among friends - that if anyon_as to blame for the trouble at Riverside it was the woman, Marceline. She wa_ot suited to Missouri ways, I said, and it was too bad that Denis had eve_arried her.
  • More I did not intimate, for I felt that the de Russys, with their proudl_herished honour and high, sensitive spirits, would not wish me to say more.
  • They had borne enough, God knows, without the countryside guessing what _aemon of the pit - what a gorgon of the elder blasphemies - had come t_launt their ancient and stainless name.
  • Nor was it right that the neighbours should know that other horror which m_trange host of the night could not bring himself to tell me - that horro_hich he must have learned, as I learned it, from details in the los_asterpiece of poor Frank Marsh.
  • It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside - the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair mus_ven now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist's skeleton in _ime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation - was faintly, subtly, yet t_he eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe's most prima_rovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman - for, thoug_n deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.