From The Witch's Tale—that highly popular radio broadcast which thrilled you so often over the air—comes a story specially adapted for the magazine by that famous program's author and director, Alonzo Deen Cole.
|Spirits of the Lake|
Was it at the bidding of the "Old Ones" that slime—loathsome, hideously green—rose from the lake's dreadful depths to exact monstrous vengeance...?
Roger Benton slammed the bungalow door behind him and stamped down the path to the shore. Another month in this wilderness and Bernice would be going about dressed in a blanket and beads, he angrily told himself—for she acted and thought more like a damned Indian every day. He'd been a fool to let her buy this island a stone's throw from the reservation on the advice of these dumb doctors. Her lungs hadn't shown any improvement here; her condition was worse, if anything—and as for the effects of this "Back to Nature" stuff on him—! He cursed aloud, bitterly.
From across the placid lake a monotonous Indian chant beat at his eardrums, and weak tears of self pity welled into his eyes. Back in Chicago, his marriage to the semi-invalid Bernice had seemed a good bargain, for she was wealthy, very generous, and had never attempted to pry too deeply into his outside affairs. But here, where he saw no one but her and a handful of stinking red-skins; where he heard nothing but that savage caterwauling and her incessant coughing—! He flung himself into the canoe and paddled furiously toward the mainland—and Hilda Johannson.
What a difference that Swedish farmer's daughter could make in his exile, if she would only cast aside her backwoods scruples! He railed inwardly at her now, for her frigid aloofness had long since fired him with a consuming infatuation. Nothing was right on this damn Michigan peninsula!
Floating across the slimy lake in ceaseless, maddening rhythm, the savage chant intruded itself upon his mind again and drove out thoughts of Hilda. He laid aside the paddle for a moment to stop his ears, so unbearable had the sound become. It had begun early this evening when the pale new moon cast its first reflection on the waters, and it would continue every night until this moon had waned. It had been Bernice's infantile delight in its crazy significance that precipitated his furious departure from the house. She had said:
"It's a ceremony the tribe holds every year at this time to appease the Spirits of the Lake—the Neebanawbaigs, they call them. This is a holy lake to the Indians, you know; and they say if anyone affronts it, or harms its friends, the Neebanawbaigs take terrible vengeance!" Here she had laughed self-consciously—as well she might!—before she went on:
"Two Horses—that's our old housekeeper's cousin, you know—spoke so convincingly of its terrors that I made it a peace offering this afternoon. I cast a bouquet of garden flowers on the waters, and said a prayer Two Horses taught me. Now, no one may harm me, for fear the Spirits of the Lake will punish them."
That last bit of addle-brained nonsense had marked the limit of Roger's endurance.
What civilized man wouldn't have blown up and flown out of the house in disgust after that? And, because Bernice's silliness had driven him away so early in the evening, he would arrive at his rendezvous with Hilda half an hour too soon. Roger Benton felt terribly abused.
Hilda, following the custom of her sex, did not appear until much later than the waiting man expected.
When she finally came in sight, she presented a striking contrast to the thin, dark, ailing woman he had left in anger. Tall, strong, blonde as her Viking forebears, she strode with lithe grace along the forest path.
Eyes that were too cold, and a thin lipped mouth too firmly set, marred the beauty of her face. But Roger Benton had never noted these imperfections. His long wait had sharpened his desire. Forgetting past rebuffs, he rushed to meet her and clasped her in his arms.
She coolly disengaged herself and sat down upon a fallen tree.
Irritably, he threw himself beside her. "Hilda, why do you hold me off like this?" he pouted. "You know I'm mad—insane about you."
Her thin lips curled in a faint smile. "You have no right to be mad about me—you're a married man."
"We're not children! You know how little I care about my wife! Besides, it's only a question of time before—" He paused.
"Before she will die, you mean," she finished simply.
He turned his head away. "Yes. She thinks she's getting better; but the doctors don't tell her what they tell me." His arms clasped her again, "And the moment I'm free, I'll marry you—I swear it! But I can't wait for you till then—I've got to have you!"
She thrust him away, roughly this time. "You will have me only as your wife. I have told you that before."
His hands fell helplessly to his sides. Petulantly, resentfully, he complained, "If you really mean that, why don't you stop making a fool of me? Why do you meet me here by the lake each night, playing with me as a cat does with a mouse?"
She looked at him silently for a moment; then quietly, "Because I hope you will not always be a mouse. If you are as mad about me as you say, you will not let a woman you hate stand between us much longer.'
"What can I do? Divorce is out of the question."
"Of course—then her money would be taken from you."
He was annoyed. "I'm not thinking only of money!"
She leaned close to him, "I'm not thinking only of divorce."
He stared at her for a long moment, and her cold, unwavering eyes returned his gaze. His eyes fell and she began to talk rapidly in her low, compelling voice.
THE pathetic little cough rasped out again. At the sound, the man in the stern dipped his paddle more deeply into the faint shimmer of the scum-covered water.
After a struggling, breathless moment, the coughing spell abated and its victim spoke:
"It's wonderful to be on the lake with you again, Roger—it's been so long since we've been in the canoe together." She laughed happily. "I feel as though we were beginning a second honeymoon."
Roger Benton glanced briefly at his frail wife, grunted, and returned his attention to the paddle. In the silence that followed the throbbing hum of the Indian chant slid steadily over the water—a brooding monotone of endless cadence.
Finally Bernice spoke again.
"How solemn the chant sounds tonight: Like the hymn it really is—a prayer for the dying."
"For the—dying?" His voice held a sharp, uncertain quality.
"Yes. This is Indian Summer, you know—the Moon of Falling Leaves, of dying things. That song is a tribute to fading nature. Rather beautiful, don't you think?"
The paddle trailed unheeded, as he repeated abstractedly: "The Moon of Falling Leaves—of dying things."
She leaned forward a little, her dark eyes searching his face anxiously. "Roger—you act so strangely tonight. Aren't you well, dear?"
He straightened, recovered himself. "I'm quite all right." He resumed his jerky, erratic stroke, as she reached to place a small hand tenderly on his knee.
"I know how unhappy you are here. But I'll be well again soon, and we'll go back to the city." She laughed self-consciously, "I would like to return here for just one day each year, though—to renew my offering to the Spirits of the Lake. I've taken their protection very seriously, you see."
The muscles of his jaw working spasmodically under the tanned skin, and he opened his mouth as though to speak.
Quickly, placatingly, she forestalled him.
"Please don't be annoyed, dear, it's such a pretty legend."
He turned his head abruptly away; as though in anger or to avoid her eyes. His strokes grew faster, clumsier; stabbing angry slashes that sent the frail craft forward in plunging leaps. The woman, a little fearfully, looked behind her to see where this mad race was heading. Then she spoke again, with patently assumed unconcern:
"Roger, sharp rocks are just ahead—those the Indians call the "Spirits Talons'." She continued, as though to herself, "They say the Road to the Villages of the Happy Dead leads over such rocks as those—rocks with a knife-like edge, upon which only the Good can keep their footing; the Bad fall off into an abyss of eternal torment."
His hysterical snarl brought her rudely to a stop.
"Stop talking that filthy savage rot! It can't frighten me!"
Her eyes grew wide in amazement. His voice rose in a crazy yell:
"I'm not afraid of 'spirits'! They can't hurt me—and men will say it was an accident! An accident!"
Madly he continued, repeating again and again, "An accident!"
Her hands mounted in futile gesture to her throat and she began to cough; gasping, terror laden words tumbling out between the spasms.
"You're making for the rocks on purpose—you know I can't swim—you mean to drown me—Roger—don't—Turn back—turn back—"
His voice and stroke beat on. "Accident—accident—"
The blood drained from her face, she clawed frantically at the gunwales—tried terribly to scream.
With a rending crash, the canoe splintered to matchwood on the razor-edged rocks.
Roger Benton swam to shore and fell, sobbing, to the ground. From far away, the savage chant in honor of the Moon of Falling Leaves—of dying things—still rose and fell. But he didn't hear it now. The sound of a canoe ripping upon sharp rocks was repeating over and over inside his mind. He was hearing again the horrible, choking struggles of a drowning woman. He was hearing again the words she'd cried before the waters closed about her—words that would reverberate within his brain forever:
"Oh, God—great gitche Manitou—Spirits of the Lake—" she'd prayed, "—punish—punish—punish—"
Up the rough path from the water's edge toiled the grim little cortege Roger Benton had been dreading for a week. He watched the two approaching Indians and their grisly burden from his bedroom window, then steeled his nerves for the inevitable knock upon his door. When it came, he almost screeched his answer.
The voice of Nahma, the old squaw who Bernice had engaged as housekeeper, replied, "Men of my tribe—they find Missis."
He quavered. "I'll be down."
How he managed to descend the stairs to the living room, he didn't know, nor how he forced his rebellious eyes to focus themselves on the horror before him. But he did manage, somehow.
His gaze took in the sodden divan, on which they'd placed her, huge spots of lake water darkening the upholstery; the dripping figure with gaping mouth and wide eyes staring out of a pulpy mask the weeds and moss that trailed from the streaming hair to the rug below.
And, in a corner of his chaotic mind a thought intruded that some element was missing from the scene. He searched for it vaguely.
It was the brisk little county coroner who, later that day, found it for him.
Wagging his head sympathetically as he prepared to leave after completion of his professional duties, "Folks round here were mighty shocked when they heard 'bout your accident on th' lake an' Mrs. Benton's drownin'. 'Course, we haven't known your wife long; but everyone who met her thought she was a mighty fine lady—th' Injuns especially." He paused, and looked thoughtfully at the floor. "Funny thing 'bout the slime, ain't it?"
Something clicked in Roger Benton's brain. "Slime?"
The little man nodded. "You know, the slime that covers the whole lake this time o' year. There wasn't none on her. The body should've been covered with it, by rights, after bein' over a week in th' water. Don't seem natteral like, does it?" He grinned rather sheepishly. "'Course, I don't hold with what them Injuns says 'bout it."
With an effort the other murmured, "What do they say about it?"
"Some heathen stuff 'bout th' d'ceased bein' a friend of the lake sperits, an' them savin' her from th' deefilement o' th' slime." He chuckled. "What stuff them dumb savages do think up!"
Roger Benton didn't answer. He sat very still, listening to the chant that drummed against his ears through the open window.
As he paddled evenly through the water the copper-skinned boatman rested a stolid gaze upon the back of the cringing figure who sat in the center of his canoe.
A very different look burned from the eyes of the expensively dressed blonde woman who reclined beside the cringing figure—a look of disgust and contempt which soon took form in rancid words; "If you could only see yourself!" she sneered. "You're white as a sheet and trembling like a frightened dog."
Benton turned bloodshot, pleading eyes upon her. "Won't you change your mind, Hilda? Please tell him to take us back."
"When we're nearly there?" Her jaw set grimly. "Not much I won't! It's taken me two years to get you this far—and now you're going the rest of the way; you won't cheat me any longer out of the pleasure of swelling it over my old neighbors in that swanky island bungalow."
He stretched a quivering hand toward her, "Hilda, I'll buy you a nicer place. I'll buy you anything you like, if you won't make me go back there."
She knocked his hand aside roughly. "You could buy me the most expensive mansion on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn't give me the kick of living on that island across from Paw's farm where I used to be so poor."
A flash of forgotten spirit was in his voice as he leaned toward her out of earshot of the oarsman: "Haven't you done enough to me already? Have you forgotten the reason you're not poor now is that you made me commit a murder you had planned?"
"Shut up, you fool!" she hissed through clenched teeth, "And get this through your head, once and for all: I planned nothing—I knew nothing—I did nothing! And you or nobody else can prove otherwise!"
The canoe slid to a stop upon the island shore. "We're here. Get up and help me out," she commanded.
For a long moment he remained motionless, glaring at her with a burning hatred. Under her own steady stare, his gaze wavered, dropped. When he raised it again it was a vacant, hopeless thing.
As his wife picked a fastidious way through the shells and weed that covered the shore, old Nahma waddled down the hilly path toward them. Hilda peered past her at the coveted bungalow. Satisfied with what she saw she turned patronizingly to the squaw.
"Well old woman looks from here like you've taken pretty good care of things." Nahma returned an impassive nod then gazed silently into her eyes. Hilda felt vaguely uncomfortable and abruptly ordered:
"I want you to go back to the mainland with Two Horses." She indicated the Indian who had brought them. "You can help him bring back our baggage." With a grunt Nahma swung herself into the canoe and followed the two with her beady eyes as they mounted the path to the house.
Roger Benton reached the porch steps, stumbled as he mounted them, and was cursed for his clumsiness. As Hilda opened the door, a sudden swell of sound smote his ears. He raised his head quickly, like a startled animal.
The tribesmen had begun their yearly chant across the lake.
Hilda chuckled dryly, "You've heard that before. This is the singing season for these fools."
"Yes—" he muttered, "it's the 'Moon of Falling Leaves—of dying things'." Then he fell groveling at her feet. "I can't go in that house," he sobbed, "I've got to leave this island! I'm afraid here—I'm afraid!"
She swung the door open, pushed him inside and down on the nearest chair. Then she cursed, sneered, threatened and cajoled until his hysteria had spent itself. When his sobs of unreasoning terror ceased, she thrust a flask of whiskey in his hand and told him, "I'm going to have a look through the house and make sure that squaw's taken care of things. You stay quiet here till I come back and,"—with a sneer—"don't let that conscience of yours get going again."
The chant from across the lake beat monotonously against his ears. After awhile he became aware of another sound—a dry little rasping that seemed somehow familiar, native to the place. He found a kind of peace in the strangely wonted sound—until his mind snapped open and he realized what it was.
It was an invalid's rasping cough.
His scream brought Hilda down the stairs almost instantly.
Voice breaking to treble pitch in his terror, he indicated the closed door that led to the living room, "I heard Bernice coughing—in there!"
She slammed him back into the chair. "You've got her on your brain, that's all."
"No—no," he whispered. "I heard her, I tell you!"' He stiffened, sat upright.
Behind that closed door something had coughed again. Hilda wheeled, a light of bewilderment in her face. "Say, I heard something that time!" She strode purposefully to the door.
He found her laughing. "Absolutely empty—not a soul here but ourselves." Then both heard the cough again.
He stood as if frozen she, puzzled. "Funny — we both hear it, yet this room is empty. Oh—!" impatiently, she threw off the unaccustomed fear that strove to grip her—"You've got me imagining things now, that's the whole answer."
Neither spoke for a full minute. Both stood tense. Listening. Waiting. Finally, Hilda shivered slightly. "Must be going to rain," she muttered, "feel how damp it's grown suddenly?"
"Yes," he quavered, "very damp—suddenly." She followed his gaze, riveted to a spot on the floor.
"Where did that come from? A minute ago this room was as neat as a pin. What is it?"
He mumbled thickly, his hands shaking: "It's slime—green slime, from the bottom of the lake."
"That squaw didn't clean——"
He interrupted her, "It wasn't there a minute ago. You said that yourself."
"I must have overlooked it!" Her voice was wavering, uncertain now. "There's another—and another, right on the divan!"
"Yes! And there—and there——"
All over the room began to appear patch after patch of the filthy slime forming silently under their horrified eyes. As they stared, the patch on the divan spread—grew till it almost covered the cushions.
He gibbered, pointing a shaking finger at it. "That's where they laid her, after—"
She turned on him savagely. "If you don't stop that, I'll brain you! There's a natural explanation for this. Ugh!" She broke off, revulsed, as she felt the cold spat of the green stuff on her hand.
"The room is full of it," he shrieked. "It's from the lake! From the Spirits of the Lake she prayed to punish me! I knew they would if I came back here!"
"They have nothing against me—I had nothing to do with—!" She was interrupted by his scream of terror. Her eyes followed his, and stark panic fell upon her.
On the sodden divan lay a dripping figure with wisps of weed and moss hanging from its matted hair.
An instant later they were racing madly down the wet, crumbling path to the beach and a canoe. From the sky above them, from trees, bushes, even rocks it seemed, sprang the clammy, fetid slime, hurling itself into their faces, raising their gorge with its noxious odor, chilling their hearts with each wet impact.
Suddenly, the man stopped short. The woman ran on, screamed back at him to follow.
"No!" he sobbed. "Nut out on that lake. Can't you see that's what it wants—to get us on the water!"
Apparently she did not hear him for she continued to call on him to follow. She reached the canoe, clambered in, and beckoned to him wildly. All at once her voice soared frantically higher. She pointed.
"Look behind you!"
He pivoted, saw the grisly specter of the drowned Bernice, its dripping arms outstretched. He floundered down the path, fell into the canoe, and grasped the paddle Hilda pressed into his hands. With the strength of despair he propelled the frail shell into the lake. After a dozen strokes, he turned to glimpse the misty figure, standing at the marge; still with arms outstretched.
A moment later the paddle broke.
He sat staring at the pieces. Then "Worms" he mumbled. "It was eaten through by worms—worms from the lake."
"We're drifting—drifting toward the rocks!" The woman strove to waken him, to stir him to action. "DO something. We'll be killed!"
He shook his head. The canoe wasn't drifting—some force, powerful, utterly irresistible, was drawing them along!
The woman screeched, "The rocks!—we're going to strike!"
He nodded slowly. A terrible quiet descended upon him; the quiet of the long condemned. Slowly he said, as though repeating a lesson from memory, "The Indians call these rocks the Spirit's Talons—the road to death leads over rocks like those—only the Good can keep their footing—the Bad fall off into an abyss of eternal torment."
"They won't harm ME!" Hilda shouted. "I'm going to swim—swim to safety."
He raised a deterring hand, "It's no use to try. The Spirits of the Lake will punish—as she said they would."
She shook him off, plunged into the foaming water. He quietly watched her useless struggles as the canoe bore ever faster toward the rocks.
Nahma, the old Indian woman, found their bodies days later where the lake had cast them out. The green slime which had long since disappeared from the surface of the waters, its season past, sheathed Hilda and Roger Benton in its viscous embrace. She looked for a time out of her expressionless dark face at the grisly sight, then waddled heavily away.
On the other side of the island that night, she and Two Horses each flung a handful of late garden flowers on the quiet bosom of the lake.