Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 75 of 274

“I wonder to this day that I didn’t go stark mad in that instant–or in the moments and hours afterward. In front of me was the slain body of my boy–the only human being I had to cherish–and ten feet away, in front of that shrouded easel, was the body of his best friend, with a nameless coil of horror wound around it. Below was the scalped corpse of that she-monster, about whom I was half-ready to believe anything. I was too dazed to analyse the probability of the hair story–and even if I had not been, that dismal howling coming from Aunt Sophy’s cabin would have been enough to quiet doubt for the nonce.

“If I’d been wise, I’d have done just what poor Denis told me to–burned the picture and the body-grasping hair at once and without curiosity–but I was too shaken to be wise. I suppose I muttered foolish things over my boy–and then I remembered that the night was wearing on and that the servants would be back in the morning. It was plain that a matter like this could never be explained, and I knew that I must cover things up and invent a story.

“That coil of hair around Marsh was a monstrous thing. As I poked at it with a sword which I took from the wall I almost thought I felt it tighten its grip on the dead man. I didn’t dare touch it–and the longer I looked at it the more horrible things I noticed about it. One thing gave me a start. I won’t mention it–but it partly explained the need for feeding the hair with queer oils as Marceline had always done.

“In the end I decided to bury all three bodies in the cellar–with quicklime, which I knew we had in the storehouse. It was a night of hellish work. I dug three graves–my boy’s a long way from the other two, for I didn’t want him to be near either the woman’s body or her hair. I was sorry I couldn’t get the coil from around poor Marsh. It was terrible work getting them all down to the cellar. I used blankets in carting the woman and the poor devil with the coil around him. Then I had to get two barrels of lime from the storehouse. God must have given me strength, for I not only moved them but filled all three graves without a hitch.

“Some of the lime I made into whitewash. I had to take a stepladder and fix over the parlour ceiling where the blood had oozed through. And I burned nearly everything in Marceline’s room, scrubbing the walls and floor and heavy furniture. I washed up the attic studio, too, and the trail and footprints that led there. And all the time I could hear old Sophy’s wailing in the distance. The devil must have been in that creature to let her voice go on like that. But she always was howling queer things. That’s why the field niggers didn’t get scared or curious that night. I locked the studio door and took the key to my room. Then I burned all my stained clothes in the fireplace. By dawn the whole house looked quite normal so far as any casual eye could tell. I hadn’t dared touch the covered easel, but meant to attend to that later.

“Well, the servants came back the next day, and I told them all the young folks had gone to St. Louis. None of the field hands seemed to have seen or heard anything, and old Sophonisba’s wailing had stopped at the instant of sunrise. She was like a sphinx after that, and never let out a word of what had been on her brooding brain the day and night before.

“Later on I pretended that Denis and Marsh and Marceline had gone back to Paris and had a certain discreet agency mail me letters from there–letters I had fixed up in forged handwriting. It took a good deal of deceit and reticence in several things to various friends, and I knew people have secretly suspected me of holding something back. I had the deaths of Marsh and Denis reported during the war, and later said Marceline had entered a convent. Fortunately Marsh was an orphan whose eccentric ways had alienated him from his people in Louisiana. Things might have been patched up a good deal better for me if I had had the sense to burn the picture, sell the plantation, and give up trying to manage things with a shaken and overstrained mind. You see what my folly has brought me to. Failing crops–hands discharged one by one–place falling apart to ruin–and myself a hermit and a target for dozens of queer countryside stories. Nobody will come around here after dark anymore–or any other time if it can be helped. That’s why I knew you must be a stranger.

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