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."
"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.