Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 72 of 274

“The sight of me seemed to bring back a trifle of sanity–or at least of memory–in the poor boy. He straightened up and began to toss his head about as if trying to shake free from some enveloping influence. I could not speak a word, but moved my lips in an effort to get back my voice. My eyes wandered for a moment to the figure on the floor in front of the heavily draped easel–the figure toward which the strange blood-trail led, and which seemed to be tangled in the coils of some dark, ropy object. The shifting of my glance apparently produced some impression in the twisted brain of the boy, for suddenly he began to mutter in a hoarse whisper whose purport I was soon able to catch.

“‘I had to exterminate her–she was the devil–the summit and high-priestess of all evil–the spawn of the pit–Marsh knew, and tried to warn me. Good old Frank–I didn’t kill him, though I was ready to before I realised. But I went down there and killed her–then that cursed hair–‘

“I listened in horror as Denis choked, paused, and began again.

“‘You didn’t know–her letters got queer and I knew she was in love with Marsh. Then she nearly stopped writing. He never mentioned her–I felt something was wrong, and thought I ought to come back and find out. Couldn’t tell you–your manner would have given it away. Wanted to surprise them. Got here about noon today–came in a cab and sent the house-servants all off–let the field hands alone, for their cabins are all out of earshot. Told McCabe to get me some things in Cape Girardeau and not bother to come back until tomorrow. Had all the niggers take the old car and let Mary drive them to Bend Village for a vacation–told ’em we were all going on some sort of outing and wouldn’t need help. Said they’d better stay all night with Uncle Scip’s cousin, who keeps that nigger boarding house.’

“Denis was getting very incoherent now, and I strained my ears to grasp every word. Again I thought I heard that wild, far-off wail, but the story had first place for the present.

“‘Saw you sleeping in the parlour, and took a chance you wouldn’t wake up. Then went upstairs on the quiet to hunt up Marsh and that woman!’

“The boy shuddered as he avoided pronouncing Marceline’s name. At the same time I saw his eyes dilate in unison with a bursting of the distant crying, whose vague familiarity had now become very great.

“‘She was not in her room, so I went up to the studio. Door was shut, and I could hear voices inside. Didn’t knock–just burst in and found her posing for the picture. Nude, but with the hellish hair all draped around her. And making all sorts of sheep’s eyes at Marsh. He had the easel turned half away from the door, so I couldn’t see the picture. Both of them were pretty well jolted when I shewed up, and Marsh dropped his brush. I was in a rage and told him he’d have to shew me the portrait, but he got calmer every minute. Told me it wasn’t quite done, but would be in a day or two–said I could see it then–she–hadn’t seen it.

“‘But that didn’t go with me. I stepped up, and he dropped a velvet curtain over the thing before I could see it. He was ready to fight before letting me see it, but that–that–she–stepped up and sided with me. Said we ought to see it. Frank got horrible worked up, and gave me a punch when I tried to get at the curtain. I punched back and seemed to have knocked him out. Then I was almost knocked out myself by the shriek that–that creature–gave. She’d drawn aside the hangings herself, and caught a look at what Marsh had been painting. I wheeled around and saw her rushing like mad out of the room–then I saw the picture.’

“Madness flared up in the boy’s eyes again as he got to this place, and I thought for a minute he was going to spring at me with his machete. But after a pause he partly steadied himself.

“‘Oh, God–that thing! Don’t ever look at it! Burn it with the hangings around it and throw the ashes into the river! Marsh knew–and was warning me. He knew what it was–what that woman–that leopardess, or gorgon, or lamia, or whatever she was–actually represented. He’d tried to hint to me ever since I met her in his Paris studio, but it couldn’t be told in words. I thought they all wronged her when they whispered horrors about her–she had me hypnotised so that I couldn’t believe the plain facts–but this picture has caught the whole secret–the whole monstrous background!

“‘God, but Frank is an artist! That thing is the greatest piece any living soul has produced since Rembrandt! It’s a crime to burn it–but it would be a greater crime to let it exist–just as it would have been an abhorrent sin to let–that she-daemon–exist any longer. The minute I saw it I understood what–she–was, and what part she played in the frightful secret that has come down from the days of Cthulhu and the Elder Ones–the secret that was nearly wiped out when Atlantis sank, but that kept half alive in hidden traditions and allegorical myths and furtive, midnight cult-practices. For you know she was the real thing. It wasn’t any fake. It would have been merciful if it had been a fake. It was the old, hideous shadow that philosophers never dared mention–the thing hinted at in the Necronomicon and symbolised in the Easter Island colossi.

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