Collected Stories – Part 2 – Day 77 of 274

“And God! The shapes of nightmare that float around in that perpetual daemon twilight! The blasphemies that lurk and leer and hold a Witches’ Sabbat with that woman as a high-priestess! The black shaggy entities that are not quite goats–the crocodile-headed beast with three legs and a dorsal row of tentacles–and the flat-nosed Egyptians dancing in a pattern that Egypt’s priests knew and called accursed!

“But the scene wasn’t Egypt–it was behind Egypt; behind even Atlantis; behind fabled Mu, and myth–whispered Lemuria. It was the ultimate fountainhead of all horror on this earth, and the symbolism shewed only too clearly how integral a part of it Marceline was. I think it must be the unmentionable R’lyeh, that was not built by any creatures of this planet–the thing Marsh and Denis used to talk about in the shadows with hushed voices. In the picture it appears that the whole scene is deep under water–though everybody seems to be breathing freely.

“Well–I couldn’t do anything but look and shudder, and finally I saw that Marceline was watching me craftily out of those monstrous, dilated eyes on the canvas. It was no mere superstition–Marsh had actually caught something of her horrible vitality in his symphonies of line and color, so that she still brooded and hated, just as if most of her weren’t down in the cellar under quicklime. And it was worst of all when some of those Hecate-born snaky strands of hair began to lift themselves up from the surface and grope out into the room toward me.

“Then it was that I knew the last final horror, and realised I was a guardian and a prisoner forever. She was the thing from which the first dim legends of Medusa and the Gorgons had sprung, and something in my shaken will had been captured and turned to stone at last. Never again would I be safe from those coiling snaky strands–the strands in the picture, and those that lay brooding under the lime near the wine casks. All too late I recalled the tales of the virtual indestructibility, even through centuries of burial, of the hair of the dead.

“My life since has been nothing but horror and slavery. Always there had lurked the fear of what broods down in the cellar. In less than a month the niggers began whispering about the great black snake that crawled around near the wine casks after dark, and about the curious way its trail would lead to another spot six feet away. Finally I had to move everything to another part of the cellar, for not a darky could be induced to go near the place where the snake was seen.

“Then the field hands began talking about the black snake that visited old Sophonisba’s cabin every night after midnight. One of them shewed me its trail–and not long afterward I found out that Aunt Sophy herself had begun to pay strange visits to the cellar of the big house, lingering and muttering for hours in the very spot where none of the other blacks would go near. God, but I was glad when that old witch died! I honestly believe she had been a priestess of some ancient and terrible tradition back in Africa. She must have lived to be almost a hundred and fifty years old.

“Sometimes I think I hear something gliding around the house at night. There will be a queer noise on the stairs, where the boards are loose, and the latch of my room will rattle as if with an inward pressure. I always keep my door locked, of course. Then there are certain mornings when I seem to catch a sickish musty odour in the corridors, and notice a faint, ropy trail through the dust of the floors. I know I must guard the hair in the picture, for if anything were to happen to it, there are entities in this house which would take a sure and terrible revenge. I don’t even dare to die–for life and death are all one to those in the clutch of what came out of R’lyeh. Something would be on hand to punish my neglect. Medusa’s coil has got me, and it will always be the same. Never mix up with secret and ultimate horror, young man, if you value your immortal soul.”

As the old man finished his story I saw that the small lamp had long since burned dry, and that the large one was nearly empty. It must, I knew, be near dawn, and my ears told me that the storm was over. The tale had held me in a half-daze, and I almost feared to glance at the door lest it reveal an inward pressure from some unnamable source. It would be hard to say which had the greatest hold on me–stark horror, incredulity, or a kind of morbid fantastic curiosity. I was wholly beyond speech and had to wait for my strange host to break the spell.

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