by Michael Minnis
Nothing good ever came out of Innsmouth, even antiques bought at dirt cheap prices. What seems a bargain is exactly that, except exactly who is the bargain with, anyway? From the modern master of Mythos macabre, Michael Minnis.
Selection of the right furniture requires more than mere good taste...
I couldnt tell Anne Hutchins that it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen; I was
her guest, after all. Nor could I look away. It was too imposing. One might as well try
and ignore a Gothic cathedral. It all but obscured the wall it was set against, towered
nearly to the ceiling of the guest bedroom. That I should be spending the night with the
thing vaguely disturbed me, but the days weather did not permit me to continue my
"Well?" Anne asked. "What do you think of it?"
"Its certainly an interesting cabinet," I replied, at a loss for words.
Annes hopeful smile faded the slightest bit. It was as small and nervous as herself, just as vulnerable to disapproval. She timidly touched the back of her short, auburn hair, clearly uncertain of the situation. One would have thought her a fearful painter and I a glowering patron of the arts, a critic steeped in vitriol and steel, rather than two old friends.
Say something nice, I thought, offer a good word. But I was interrupted.
"Its an armoire, Wentworth," said a cultured voice with patient good humor. It was Annes husband, David. He entered the room.
I heaved an inward sigh. D.G. Hutchins. David George Hutchins. Old Arkham money, and a pompous ass of the first water. He was impeccably groomed, as always, his arrogant chin sharply angled like a letter opener, his hair as slick as his mannerisms. In one hand he held a cup of tea.
As always, he took immediate control of his surroundings. His hand went about Annes shoulder, gently pulled her to his side.
"You should really brush up on your vocabulary, old boy," Hutchins said, smiling. Old boy, indeed. His pale blue eyes brimmed with amused camaraderie. Almost no one called him by his first name, except Anne. It was some small allowance he had bestowed upon her, I imagine.
"Yes, I should, shouldnt I?" I replied, doing my best to ignore him. For once, it was easy to do. The cabinet excuse me, the armoire commanded my attention. It was a triumph of the grotesque and not merely because of its unlikely size taller than a tall man and easily as wide. No, there was something more to it than that.
First, it was of some very dark lusterless wood of a distinctly peculiar grain. As a matter of fact, it was more like stone to the touch. Even more curious was its coloration. Or should I say discoloration, for its shade was somewhere between near-black and a deep, bilious green, so mottled and diffuse that it resembled a bank of roiling, poisonous storm clouds. Strangest of all were the bas-relief carvings upon its borders and lintel. The work was of tremendous skill, but what it depicted left me frankly puzzled. There was nothing implicitly sinister about the graceful, human-like nereids that sported among serpentine tritons, seashells and driftwood, the lesser flora and fauna of the ocean floor. I was actually very impressed with the unknown artisans exquisite technique. But what had possessed him to carve the vaguely humanoid, half-fish, half-frog figurines that thronged about the bottom and legs of the cabinet like a Biblical plague of toads, teeth and claws grasping upward? And why had he placed above the arched doors a single large opal in a luridly carved socket, so that it resembled nothing so much as a dead eye?
Hutchins seemed to sense my unease. Leaving Anne, he clapped the side of the cabinet. Its short legs gave it a squat, froggish presence despite its size. I half-expected it to suddenly stir and paw its clumsy way toward me.
"Ill admit, it takes a little getting used to," he said. "But they dont make furniture like this anymore. And they certainly dont sell it for what I paid for this."
"How much did you pay?" I asked.
He scratched at his thin moustache and told me the amount. It was surprisingly trivial.
I began to ask him where he had bought it, but his wife interrupted me.
"Its from Innsmouth," she said, seeming slightly embarrassed.
"Innsmouth?" I asked doubtfully, as if I had not quite understood her, though she and I knew better. It is a name all Arkhamites all decent folk, actually hold in suspicion. But Hutchins was from Boston and I doubt he had ever heard much of that ancient and ill-favored village.
"Yes. Innsmouth," Hutchins said, sipping tea. "Little fishing town just north of well, Im sure you know the details. Right?"
"How did you come by it?" I asked.
Hutchins smirked with polite self-satisfaction. "Some judicious hunting and a little luck. Actually, a lot of luck, and I have the Feds to thank for it. That raid of theirs wasnt as big a secret as they like to think. Word got around."
"The Innsmouth Raid, you mean," I replied.
Hutchins put a finger to his lips, and smiled. "Yes, that raid. Put a lot of bootleggers away, I understand. It also bankrupted a number of the more prominent families the Waites, the Gilmans, the Marshes. Pity, really. They sold anything and everything to keep their heads above water, afterward. Property. Family heirlooms. Furniture. I understand that even the Marsh refinery was up for sale at one point but that no one wanted it. Odd but that was the case with anything that couldnt be moved out of the town. No one wanted it."
Hutchins ran his finger along the rim of his cup. Anne sat beside him, in a straight-backed chair of the Victorian era.
"And all that dirt-cheap property," Hutchins said meditatively, "we couldve made a killing. Right, darling?"
He took Annes hand in his own. It was hard to determine if the gesture was genuine or for my own benefit. Hutchins always behaved as if he were playing to an audience.
"But Anne didnt want any of it," he said. "She didnt like the idea of owning property in Innsmouth. Not even a single house, for Gods sake. It was ridiculous. She wouldnt even accompany me on the one or two trips I made there after the raid."
"It was a dangerous thing to do, David," Anne said.
He released her hand and waved his own derisively. "Oh, hell dangerous. It was all over by then. And it didnt come to much, anyway. Any property I might have been interested in was beyond repair. Nearly all the shorefront property has been dynamited by the Feds. And the Marsh estate is tied up in legal cases until God knows when "
"Youve been to Innsmouth, then?" I asked, intrigued.
"Well, yes. What, does it take an old Bowery boy to venture into that place?" He laughed pleasantly. "I swear, Wentworth, you Arkhamites always jumping at shadows."
"I think thats hardly the case," I replied.
Hutchins merely shook his head and smiled. He was one of those fools who are, quite literally, fearless. Football player, avid skier, former big game hunter and frustrated war hero he would have gone over there had his father not arranged his appointment at a stateside military training camp. That was Hutchins always talking of organizing another polar expedition, of flying around the world, of besting Byrd and Lindbergh and anyone else. There was always someone, somewhere, to be outdone. Given his background, I could understand his good-natured contempt for the old legends and folklore surrounding Innsmouth.
"Is it hardly the case?" he asked. "Ill grant you, Wentworth, that it isnt a pleasant place to visit, and probably even a worse place to live but I dont see anything markedly different between Innsmouth and the sort of squalor youd see in the back hills of the Appalachians, or the slums of any major city. And true, the inhabitants are skittish. They tend not to say much and to stay out of sight. But can you blame them? Theyre probably ashamed of themselves and their situation. And since when have small-town Yankees ever been overly talkative?"
"I suppose youre right, up to a point. But Anne is right. It is a dangerous place. You really dont have any business there, Hutchins. Suppose something bad had happened to you while you were there? Who would be there to take care of Anne, then?"
Hutchins looked slightly irritated, a cat-like testiness. He had never appreciated reminders of his own mortality, that his cleverness was not without limit. Enjoying myself, I pressed forward.
"I mean, here you are hunting up curios in a some godforsaken place a place where people have been killed, no doubt worrying to death this wonderful woman here -"
Anne dropped her eyes and smiled mildly. Hutchins waved his hand. "Wentworth Wentworth I was never in any danger. Yes, I received my share of cold stares. Yes, there were places I knew I shouldnt go. Did anything happen to me? Evidently not."
He drank the last of his tea. He gave the cup to his wife. "Anne be a dear and please brew some more, if you would. Wentworth? Tea?"
"Um yes, if you would. Thank you," I replied.
Anne glided soundlessly from the room, phantasmal, intangible, and like a phantom there was sadness, ennui to her movements. We watched her go, Hutchins with complacent pleasure, I with concern.
"Shes quite a woman, really," he said, when she was gone. "The way they used to be, before all this recent nonsense. Flappers and all. I just wish shed-"
I was scarcely listening to him. I crouched beside the cabinet, ran a finger along its sculpted monstrosities, the fish-frogs with their bulging eyes and pointed teeth, their scaled hides and misshapen faces. Was the work exquisite? Grotesque? Or a bizarre melding of the two, a beautiful corpse, blood drops upon marble? I could not decide. It was all too alien, too far removed from this world.
"Where did you find this, in Innsmouth?" I asked Hutchins, interrupting him.
"At a small shop, on the corner of Bates and Eliot, on my second visit there. It was a pawnbrokers. I can still see the chipped sign out front: "Gold and silver exchanged here!" Nasty-looking, stuffy little place run by a nasty-looking, stuffy little fellow he looked like a toad in gold-rimmed spectacles. He didnt seem too happy to see me. Probably thought I was a Federal agent.
"But, my God, Wentworth, you should have seen what he had in his shop! It was an antiquarians dream, sheer history on all sides! Colonial spinning wheels and cooking pots Victorian paintings old books you could scarcely walk through the shop for it all.
"But it was the armoire, here, which caught my eye.
"I tried making some small talk with Mr. Toad I didnt want to betray my enthusiasm - but he stayed behind his cluttered desk and pretended to be occupied with paperwork. Reticent folk, I will say that. So after wandering his shop for ten or fifteen minutes, I eventually asked about the armoire.
"Mr. Toad didnt even look up from his pile of bills and receipts and accounts and I swear, Wentworth, some of them looked as if they were from the last century, they were so dog-eared and worn. He very flatly stated the price. One hundred dollars. That was all. And Im glad he didnt look up. Otherwise, he wouldve seen that my jaw had hit the floor. One hundred dollars it was worth five times that, at least. Maybe ten."
"A steal, in other words," I said.
"For the most part," Hutchins replied. "And I have to think that the proprietor knew that. But I was interested in more than just the price, so I asked him who the previous owners had been. He ignored the question Im sure he heard me. I asked him again and he said it had belonged to one of the more prominent families, the Waites or the Gilmans. They were behind on their payments far, far behind, so it was up for sale. Now was I interested in buying it, or not?
"I told him I was interested, and I asked him what kind of wood it was made of Id never seen anything quite like it before.
"He said it was Innsmouth Wood, and that it had special properties, was his word for it. I would discover them, in time."
Anne returned with the tea, and filled our cups. I thanked her. She lay teapot and tray on a table and sat in the high-backed chair. Sipping tea, neither Hutchins nor I said anything, for a brief period. Autumn wind pressed against the tall windows to either side of the cabinet, icy rain ticking and crackling like frozen fire November can be a truly dreadful month. Then Anne broke the silence. "It was in our bedroom, originally," she said, at length.
"The cab the armoire?" I asked.
Anne nodded. In the dim light of the room she looked rather too pale, somewhat unwell, as if her nights had been little better than the fitful gloom outside.
"Yes," she said, "our bedroom. David thought it would be a marvelous addition."
"It was," Hutchins said, a testiness entering his tone, "until Anne decided she didnt want it there, anymore."
He leaned against the wall, next to his prize. Anne glared at him, briefly, which was about as much rebellion as Hutchins ever tolerated, from anyone.
"Why dont you tell Wentworth here why you wanted it out of our room, dear? Im sure hed be interested. Well?"
Anne delicately pressed her lips. "I didnt like it in there."
"Good," Hutchins said, sipping tea. "Good, thats half the story. Now, the rest. This is good, Wentworth. You should listen."
"Theres nothing to tell, David," Anne said. A blush had begun to creep up her slender throat. I disliked Hutchins more than usual in that moment. Awkward silence fell again. Hutchins sighed.
"She was having nightmares, is why," he said, "about the armoire. If you can believe that. Quite awful ones, too, to judge by the way she woke up screaming on more than one occasion-"
"First, she wanted me to give it up," Hutchins said. An annoyed laugh escaped him. "I said no, for Gods sakes. Then she wanted it moved. So it ended up here, in the guest bedroom. If you ask me, its too big for this room. Its too close to the bed. It doesnt belong here. It should be in our bedroom."
"No, it shouldnt," Anne said, in a voice barely perceptible. Hutchins looked at his wife in askance.
"It belongs there, Anne."
"It doesnt belong in this house, David," she replied acidly.
Hutchins sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Again, with the practiced, world-weary, slight laugh. "Honestly youd have to wonder if she isnt daft sometimes, to judge by what comes out of her mouth. Doesnt belong in this-"
Anne, evidently, had had enough. She rose suddenly and went to the table.
"Wait where are you going?" Hutchins asked.
"To bed," she replied, gathering teapot and tray. "Its late."
"Arent you forgetting something?"
She turned and said, evenly enough: "Wentworth should it get too cold tonight, there is a quilt in the linen closet. My husband will also prepare a fire for you in the grate if it isnt too much trouble, of course."
And with that, she was gone, her footsteps receding down the hallway. I was quite embarrassed. I had known for some months that things were slowly deteriorating between Hutchins and his wife. If Hutchins shared my concerns, he didnt reveal them. Instead, he simply finished his tea.
"Bit of a pill, sometimes, isnt she?" he asked.
"You were rather harsh, dont you think?"
"Oh I suppose. But then you havent been through what Ive endured for the past two weeks, either."
He glanced out the large, arched window to his left. "Beastly, out, isnt it? I dont care much for this time of year, you-"
"About the nightmares "
Hutchins eyed me curiously. The odd half-smile returned. "Gods sake theyre barely worth discussing, in all honesty."
"Im interested, though."
Hutchins turned to the window again. It was dark outside. The dull shades of brown and gray that had dominated the landscape, the bitterness of late autumn, had given way to black. Gloomy, dissolute reproductions of El Greco served only to underscore my sense of vague apprehension the pale, painted, attenuated figures were ghostly, victims drowned in the waters of another world. In the corner, the grandfather clock went through its minute brass motions, quietly ticking, ticking. Hutchins was wrong. The hideous cabinet was entirely appropriate here, a dead king within a sealed tomb.
"Annes nightmares," he said, "began not long after we moved the armoire into our bedroom. But then she never did really like the thing. She thought it was hideous. She even asked that if I could have the opal pried out, because it seemed like an eye, and that the armoire was watching her. No appreciation whatsoever for the workmanship involved.
"It sat in our bedroom against the far wall, facing the foot of our bed. Perhaps thats what caused the nightmares. I dont know but then Annes the sort who wont go to sleep if the closet is open.
"In the beginning it wasnt so much nightmares as it was Anne suddenly startling awake in the dead of the night. Did I hear a noise? Something made a noise. Get up and have a look, David. That sort of thing. Its some sort of psychological phenomenon, isnt it?"
"Im not entirely sure," I replied.
"She claimed that it was coming from the armoire scrapes, as if someone were sliding it inch by inch across the floor. Then, fumbling and thumps as if someone were bumping around inside the thing for what reason, God only knows. She said the sounds were never loud. More secretive, if anything. I examined the armoire myself several times. I never found anything amiss.
"Eventually, the supposed noises stopped, but then the nightmares began. Quite conventional, if you ask me the doors swinging silently open. Darkness within. But from what I understand, it was the nature of the darkness that disturbed her."
Hutchins went to the fireplace - a relic from another era, faced by dark marble and tiles and piled dry kindling on the grate.
"The nature of the darkness?" I asked at length. Hutchins struck a long sulfur match and lit the tinder. Gradually the feeble flames took hold and a fitful, isolated light without real warmth edged all the objects within the room. Still, I was glad for whatever meager comfort a fire could provide. Hutchins prodded it with a poker.
"She said she knew the darkness wasnt right."
Hutchins sighed. The earlier, easy contempt was evaporating by degrees. "Im not entirely sure, but she said it was far deeper and further than it should be as if the armoire contained some vast space. Or a void, I imagine."
"I see," I replied, glancing uneasily at the enigmatic thing beside my bed. "What else?"
"For a while, nothing. Then she said she began hearing voices from inside the armoire, from the darkness. It was more muttering and whispering, really. Unintelligible. She couldnt tell if they were talking to each other, or her, or simply babbling."
I sipped tea. The fire, small and struggling, seemed disinclined to grow further. I silently cursed the weather. Night was too close and daybreak could not come soon enough.
"And these dreams they never came to you?"
Hutchins stirred sparks with the poker, bemused. "No, they didnt, as a matter of fact. I realize Im not the most imaginative of persons. Oh, on occasion, when Im alone, I might think that I hear something or that something is in the room with me. Its usually when Im up alone, late at night, reading. But then, consider our surroundings an old house thats belonged to my family for generations. Im sure it could set to work on an impressionable mind
"But Im puzzled by the consistency of Annes dreams, their progression from one step to the next
"It got worse from there. She said the voices in her nightmares were no longer content to stay in the armoire, that they came out at night and she heard them gathered about our bed. Whispering and muttering to each other."
"What were they like?"
"Its difficult for me to describe she said they seemed human, for the most part. Male and female. She said it was difficult to tell the exact number, but there were never less than two and sometimes several, and they sounded as if they were muted, as if they were in another room. Though she understood something one of them said, once. It was a female voice, and it said, she isnt listening."
"You seem rather disturbed by them, yourself, Hutchins," I said.
He scowled briefly. "Im not so much bothered by that thing, as I am by the effect it seems to have on my wife. I mean, Gods sake, its just antique furniture, after all. God knows we have enough of that here. And it all sits and does nothing, day in, day out."
"Do you think its haunted?" I asked.
The easy grin came to his face again.
"What? That thing? Haunted? Are you serious, Wentworth?"
"No," he replied, with the faintest tone of youve a bit of the fool in you, dont you? "No, I dont go in for that sort of thing, old boy, ghosts and all. Besides, it seems like itd be somewhat crowded in there, dont you think? I always thought ghosts preferred a little room."
"But it is in this room, now, isnt it?" I asked.
Hutchins sat with his back to the fire, and his shadow loomed misshapen and uneasy upon the far wall. He sighed and gently shook his head. "The nightmares just kept getting worse, is why. She said the voices were growing ever more strange. Inhuman.
"We were both losing sleep, by then. Eventually, it came to Anne sleeping in here, by herself, or with Duke, when hes around."
"Our cat. He sleeps in here on occasion, especially when the weathers bad. You might see him, tonight, if-"
"What do you mean, precisely, by inhuman?"
"Wentworth how far do you want to get into this nonsense? I dont need to remind you that youre the one wholl be sleeping in here."
"Ill be all right," I said. "The voices?"
With a sigh Hutchins sat in the high-backed Victorian chair, crossed his legs, and templed his fingers. The tenuous fire snapped and popped. "Its difficult for me to say. She described it as being sludgy and slopping, and that it was far more frightening than the other voices. The others acquiesced to it.
"I think I think thats what eventually led to her sleepwalking."
"Its only happened once Thank God I woke one night to find her missing from the house. I found her in the yard. The garden, to be precise. She was soaked through it was drizzling, you see. And she was headed, slowly, toward the pond, as if in a trance. I called to her. She didnt answer. Instead she stepped into the black water I caught her by the arm. I said, Anne! What are you doing? No reply. She pulled against me, pale and deadly cold. Over and over, I repeated her name but she only came about when I finally pulled her from the water. She said they were waiting for her. She was utterly confused and frightened. God, if I had been too late
"It happened again, a few days later. This time I found her on the front lawn, headed toward God knows where not long afterward we had the armoire moved into here.
"And the dreams seemed to have stopped."
Hutchins sighed and closed his eyes, briefly. Rain pattered against the windowpanes.
"Who do you suppose they are?" I asked.
"The voices?" he replied, "I dont know
"Wentworth I know things arent well between Anne and I but I wish no harm to her, either. These recent events have been very taxing, for the both of us.
"So are you sure youll be all right in here?"
I assured him that I would.
He rose, seemed infinitely perplexed and weary. "I think I will be going to bed as well, old boy. I really dont like to leave Anne alone for long, these days, if you understand. Duke might be by, later. Good night."
I nodded, and bid Hutchins good night.
How strange is sleep in unfamiliar surroundings. It is unsettling enough to hear doubtful, stealthy, midnight sounds in shadowed corners and be forced into conjecture at their cause and nature. But perhaps even worse is to hear little beyond the beat of ones heart as the small, dead hours while away, for not long after I had retired, the rain had ceased. The fire, meanwhile, diminished until it was little more than sullen shifting orange-red shapes within the grate. The clock went through its measures. The phantom silence began to tell upon me, and I was reminded of a half-forgotten poem that I had once read concerning a house rather like this one:
There were no trackless footsteps on the floor
Above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere
Sleep eluded me, in no small part because of that thing so near the foot of the
bed. I tried to keep from looking at it
but found myself, again and again, peering at
it from over my covers. From the bed, its black bulk appeared oddly angled and immense,
and it did seem to lean ever so slightly toward a sleeper. I contemplated pushing it
toward the far corner, away from me
but that would make too much noise. And I did not
relish the idea of touching that curious, cold, stone-like surface again.
I shifted, trying to make myself comfortable, and forced my eyes shut. This made my environment slightly more tolerable. For a few moments, at least. My mind was like an old woman, going to her windows, peering through the curtains. Was something out there? There must be. The darkness was tenebrous with formless things, the dying firelight could not possibly keep them away...
After some time I do not know how long - I opened my eyes again. The room was an abstract pattern of angled wan light and translucent shadow, upon the walls, upon my bed. Of course. I pulled aside the curtain. Outside, clouds scudded across the sky. A bright moon, cold as the coming winter and iridescent as an opal, hung high in the night.
A suspicious glance at the cabinet. Nothing. Christ, what an ugly thing. Truly the stuff of nightmares. Not that the room itself was much better. Heavy wainscoting, dark wallpaper, glum oil paintings.
I pulled the covers high, to my chin. Sleep remained as remote as the moon. I would leave first thing in the morning -
A sudden, thin, high squeal froze me, like a rabbit. It was the sound of wood upon wood. My breath lodged in my throat. Unbearable silence followed, the sand grains of nightmare falling endlessly, timelessly into terror.
Steeling myself, I counted mentally to ten. I sat bolt upright.
A black cat, tucked comfortably upon a cushion near the fireplace and scarcely visible in its glow, stared at me with polite astonishment and some alarm. This, I gathered, must be Duke.
Limp with relief, feeling more than slightly foolish, I settled back upon the pillows. The cat watched my movements closely. He was a big, handsome fellow with yellow eyes, and evidently none too comfortable with my company. I, on the contrary, was quite happy with his. It is odd how the presence of even a simple animal dispels unwelcome imaginings.
After a while, the cat relaxed. But not entirely. He stared instead at the ugly cabinet, his feet tucked neatly beneath his body, a small and phantasmal sentinel in the night.
I reminded myself that cats are particular creatures, wed to familiarity and routine. Anything new myself, the cabinet was cause for concern. But I wished he would stop staring at Hutchins hideous prize.
I closed my eyes. Eventually, he would sleep as well. But when I stirred again not much later, the cat was still awake.
"Stop that," I finally said.
Duke looked at me and then resumed his weird vigil.
"Duke," I said, "stop that."
Again, the questioning, half-interested look. His watch would not be broken. Whatever comfort his presence had provided was ebbing away.
Sudden inspiration. "Here," I said, to one in particular, and got out of bed.
I cast aside the heavy blankets and began removing the sheet with brisk, efficient motions. Gathering it up, I went to the cabinet and draped the sheet over the thing. There. It did not entirely cover the cabinet, but fair enough. Out of sight, out of mind.
"Now go to sleep," I said to the puzzled feline and returned to bed.
I cannot speak for Duke, but I finally heeded my own advice.
My dreams, however, were troubled. Unsurprising, perhaps, considering my surroundings
and the strange talk of the day. I have always been confounded by an active imagination.
As a youth, it was a blessing the most ordinary of places were made suddenly
exotic, full of grandeur and danger, my room become a sultans chambers, my
spotty-faced peers Blackbeards crew. But there were vile moments, too, in the dead
of night. It should have withered long ago, in the cold light of work, marriage and
responsibility, but it didnt. And in darkness, it grew.
I cannot clearly recollect what happened. I am not even entirely sure if I was awake or asleep, but I was hideously, frightfully aware, after a fashion.
There was a great sound, more a vast, rhythmic susurration felt in the bones, which pervaded consciousness. The wind, outside? Waves? I could not tell.
In the dream if it was that I awoke to find the fire gray ashes and the cat departed. The windows were open, and the room was deadly cold. In gusted the November night, the moonlit, luminous curtains trailing and fluttering dreamily like the wake of a ghost. The sheet covering the cabinet had fallen off. Perturbed, I sat up in bed and searched the nearby nightstand for a candle. No luck. Best to shut the windows, instead.
I got out of bed, shivering in the cold air and went to the first window.
It was then that it happened.
I cannot adequately describe my horror upon hearing muted, stealthy sounds of fumbling from within the room. I then realized the disturbance came from the cabinet. My terror was compounded tenfold when one of the cabinet doors slowly clicked open. I watched in utter incomprehension the trickery of midnight, this sudden affront to sanity.
It was the cat, I told myself. Somehow, he had gotten into the cabinet. The door had shut behind him and only now was he making his escape. Yes! Of course!
But the cat did not emerge. In fact, nothing happened. Full of dread, I crept slowly toward the hulking cabinet. I would shut the door. Simple enough.
I could not bring myself to touch the thing, however.
The curtains fluttered dreamily in the wind.
The prickling of my skin was not entirely the work of the cold.
The cabinet stood there, one door open, as if waiting. The opal was almost blue in the strange half-light. The multitude of carved tiny black figures seemed to regard me with mocking glee.
"Hutchins?" My voice was scarcely above a whisper. I cleared my throat. "Hutchins?"
That was when I heard them: voices, whispering like my own, a conspiracy of sibilant exchanges within that Stygian darkness. Whispering and muttering to one another, unintelligibly, as if passing along terrible secrets and insane plots in some unknown language. I could almost understand what they were saying or I imagined I could, at least. One spoke, then another. A third interrupted. A fourth and fifth. Ominous silence. Then, more whispering. To whom were they speaking? To me? To each other? To themselves, or no one?
I would have fled, then, but I was rooted to the floor. I doubt a strong man could have moved me. Which is unfortunate, because what happened next was what hell is beside purgatory.
The voices subsided, all at once. I was left to the sighing wind and the dutiful ticking of the clock. Weak with shock, numbed by the night air, I had finally begun to stir, to reenter the realm of the living again, when I heard that last, ponderous, slopping monstrosity rumble forth from its improbable confines. Unlike the other, lesser voices, I understood it quite clearly, despite its protean timbre, its queer sibilant resonance and inhuman inflection the abyss itself might have such a voice, for all I know, as might the things that squirm and crawl within. In fact, I am certain of it.
It said, "There are things here."
That was all. Silence. Nothing came forth from that impenetrable darkness. No raptor eyes gleamed forth. No rattling of chains, nor groaning of souls. No sheeted figure appeared beneath the doleful painting on the far wall. There were no trackless footsteps on the floor above us, and there were no sounds elsewhere. Only the mental echo of that pragmatic, improbable, incontestably physical voice from within that hideous, half-open cabinet.
Not entirely certain of what I intended, I went to the fireplace and took hold of the poker. Then, trembling, I walked slowly toward the huge, hunched thing, sitting there toad-like on its squat animal legs. A thought, crawling with awful possibility: would it allow me to hit it? Or, toad-like, would it clumsily move away to avoid the blow?
The cabinet door suddenly swung shut.
I would have cried out then, had not another voice outside my room already done so.
It was Hutchins. He was at the end of the hall, lamp in hand. The yellow glow of the
latter threw his face into painful, medieval relief. Shadows disported upon the dark wood
paneling and heavy tapestries in his wake. He was in his robe and nothing else. The
carefully appointed hair was twisted and corkscrewed.
"Wentworth!" Wentworth!" he said. "Have you seen her?"
This surreal scene and the events before had left me speechless, and I could not answer clearly, for a moment. "H-her? Who?"
"Anne!" he said, storming toward me. My visage must have made an impression on him, for even in his fear and outrage, he was taken aback and said, "Wentworth whats happened to you? Youre white as a sheet and your hand Christs sake, its freezing! Wentworth, are you all right?"
"I suppose Im all right," I said, and made an attempt at a smile. "Ive been better, though, quite honestly."
He released me and made for the stairs. "I cant believe this is happening again," he said, "we have to Wentworth, what are you doing?"
In all honesty, I did not know. I had found a comfortably upholstered chair in the hall, and decided to sit and think, I suppose. Or tremble. One or the other.
Hutchins returned and took me by the wrist. "Come on! There isnt time!"
Oddly, I resisted. Baffled, Hutchins could do little more than mutter, "then at least get your coat and wake one of the servants, for Christs sake!"
Then, he was down the wide steps, taking them two at a time, the lamp bobbing like a will-o-wisp.
It was my mistake to allow Hutchins to leave me there, alone in that house, alone in that phantasmal hall, luminous with the wan light of a November moon. Spectral silhouetted patterns, born of the high Gothic windows above and the bare branches beyond, broke over the floor, over the walls, over me. Why had Hutchins not turned on the lights? And where were the servants he spoke of?
Half blind in the darkness, I made for the stairs. My footsteps echoed on oak. There was no sign of Hutchins in the vast foyer only the ceremonial heraldry of his family, somber wallpaper and scrolled teak, the pompous ancestral portraits in their elaborate, dusty frames. Before it had all spoke of nothing more than questionable taste and a need for light. It had never bothered me then. Now, beneath the moon, it all seemed full of vague ill purpose. Fitful. Restless. Something forever at the periphery of the senses, watching and waiting.
Worse, Hutchins passion for historic authenticity left me bereft of modern conveniences. They were there, somewhere, but I couldnt find them. I searched, briefly, for a light switch. Nothing. No evidence of a phone, either but who was I to call at this hour? The police? And just what would I say, that an old friend of mine was missing, and that I suspected the cabinet upstairs of wrongdoing? Oh, no, you should see it, Officer. Its quite sinister looking. I wouldnt doubt that its at the bottom of this
Anne. My God, what was I thinking? What was I doing, standing there as helpless and impotent as Roderick Usher? I had to help Hutchins find her.
I found my coat, scarf and hat nearby. I eyed the stairs while I fumbled into my boots. My erstwhile bedroom was to the left. The door was open, that angle of darkness so much like that within the cabinet. I half-expected something to emerge from it. Nervously, I began buttoning my coat, wound my scarf about my neck. It had been a bitter day I expected no better from the night.
There was a sound, then, from above small, inconsequential under most circumstances.
The door to my room had clicked shut.
"Fine, then," I whispered to myself or to that high, shadowy house, I dont know and stepped out, shuddering, into the November night.
The absence of the bone-chilling rain was the only comfort. The clouds had broken
before the wind like a routed army and were in tattered, phantom flight across the sky.
The few stars I saw were manifestly cold and astringent in their sharp clarity. They
looked as if they could draw blood. In moments my face was numb. The remainder of
Octobers leaves hurried past me through the dead grass. I found my penlight in my
coat pocket. There was neither sign of Hutchins, nor Anne.
I made a cursory examination of my surroundings. Towering hedges. Ivied stone walls discolored by time and fierce New England winters. The twin black rows of great mossy bare oaks that marched nearly up to the portico, between them and in their midst, the dwarfed gazebo where we had whiled away the hours of summer, masters of the season. We had drank tea. Anne had worn white and laughed. Now no one was there. It belonged to the wind, to the dead leaves now, a ghostly reminder, its white remains among great black bones.
There are things here, the voice had said. A chill not wholly attributable to autumn coursed through me, and I shuddered, shuddered at the memory of that sepulchral voice and the passing of all things.
The Hutchins manor was dark, its windows as empty as the vault of night. I clutched my coat tightly and began my search. The grounds proved empty, as well; the feeble penlight beam only revealed the sepia ruin that proceeds winter yet they were not empty. I am not sure I can adequately describe it. The hollows where pale lilies had once lurked, the recesses where translucent, spectral marble figures now dwelled, the spaces between something was here. The barriers were down, the weird hour had been struck. It was in the black space where the voices muttered to themselves like the dead of Gehenna, sealed forever in darkness. It was in the creak and whine of the great windswept branches above me, clutching at the inaccessible stars, at the universe.
I saw something at the edge of the manor grounds, far away, near the front gate. Lightly colored, it stood in marked contrast to the sullen dull shades of its surroundings. Its draperies twisted in the wind. I was briefly, terrifyingly convinced, at first, that it was a ghost, bound upon some deathly comet course. Then I realized it was Anne, clad in no more than her nightgown.
"Hutchins!" I shouted. "Ive found her!"
There was no answer. Where could he be? The orchard behind the house? The goldfish pond? The curious little summer cottage even further beyond? "Hutchins!" I shouted again.
Anne, however, heard me. She turned her head. Had I awakened her?
"Anne!" I said. "Its me, Wentworth! Its-"
Something in her movements gave me pause. Did she still sleep? I dont know, but she turned and ran to the front gate, opened it, and slipped out.
I shouted her name again and set off in pursuit.
And I did not get far. There is an ancient cobblestone path from the last century, which gently winds its way through the grounds, from the front gate, past the oak trees and the front of the manor to the garage further back. In recent years the Hutchins had had it widened and repaired for the use of cars. But there are still uneven and loose stones on its edge, which I discovered, in rather dramatic fashion.
My foot caught on one such stone and I fell painfully on my knees and forearms. The penlight went flying. The pain in my right foot was such that I was sure I had broken a toe. Clutching my foot which throbbed as if struck with a hammer - I groaned and let loose with any number of unseemly words. When the worst of the agony had passed, I tested my foot, hobbled about a few paces. To my relief, nothing seemed broken, though the pain made me wince. And my pace was cut by nearly half.
The Hutchins house sits on Saltonstall Street, in east Arkham, where the city begins to gave way to country. Anne was headed west a flicker of moonlit blue-white in the darkness, moving swiftly. How could she stand the cold? I was shivering in my coat and scarf but I hobbled off after her, flinching at every other step.
A curious thing is a city in the dead of the night, when all windows are dark Nothing
lingers within empty yards but shadows and moonlight and belated dead leaves and there is
nothing to hear but ones own footsteps, the sly trickle of water in gutters. In
summer, such circumstances are tolerable. The night is gentle, the crickets its soliloquy.
But in the dreary, abbreviated weeks before white descends upon the landscape, it is all far more ominous. The bacchanalia of All Hallows Eve is ended. Now there is only silence, isolation, endurance, death, and should that within the walls that rise to either side be any more or less than that without? The streets are as deserted as the heart of the one whom walks them, alone as I did, limping, falling further and further behind a maddened dreamer.
Perhaps I should have summoned help. Rapped upon a window. Pounded upon a door. But there was nothing to suggest that I would have been heeded. In fact, I feared that there just might be an answer blackness, a void, an opening. I do not like to think just what might have replied. It was as if I pressed against a membrane as fine as gossamer between this world and otherness, a barrier the dreamer had somehow slipped through.
When Anne came to a corner, she stopped, as if to gauge my progress. The wind shrieked thinly, pulled at her hair and gown. She moved on before I drew too close, northward, up East Street. She did not run but walked. I lost sight of her behind an overgrown hedge.
I reiterate the idea that something strange was at work that night, for when I rounded the hedge, she was nowhere to be seen. East Street was deserted. Prosaic clapboard houses, here and there a sunken-faced jack-o-lantern in the shadows, leering like a toothless old madman. An empty lot. But nothing of Anne. She couldnt have disappeared that quickly.
My disorientation was such that I momentarily convinced myself that it was a dream. A very lucid, unpleasantly realistic dream. I even gave my arm a half-hopeful pinch. Nothing.
Trusting to chance, I continued up East Street. By now other pains were making themselves known and I was fairly sure a knee was bleeding. My palms felt as if they had been scraped raw with sandpaper. Dismal evidence I was entirely awake. How often does one feel physical pain in dreams?
Whether by fate, or Providence, I came upon Anne again how had she gotten so far ahead, I dont know - this time in a field of dead weeds and scrub and scattered blackberry, somewhat away from the street. The ground was wet and soft. Smallish, twisted trees spoke of a former orchard of some sort; there was a slight, sweetish taint of rot in the air. She resembled a ghost in an old woodcut, there in that abandoned field and it was only with reluctance that I drew close. Her back was to me, her hand rested upon a black trunk.
"Anne," I said, gently. No shouting, this time. "Anne, dont run its me, Wentworth. Its all right, dear. Everythings all right."
I stumbled toward her, picking my way through old undergrowth. "Went and dropped my penlight," I said.
She did not reply or even heed my presence. Unnerved, I swallowed, began talking again to fill the uncanny silence. "Youve given your husband quite a start, you know, and a nasty spill for me. Dont doubt Ill be black and blue tomorrow. But like I said everythings all-"
"Dont you hear them?" she asked.
I stopped, scarcely several steps from her.
"Them? What do you mean, them?"
She did not answer. Instead, she started forward again. Attempting to forestall another chase, I seized her wrist. She twisted and turned violently, with a strength she should not have possessed. I lost my grip. Moving swiftly, she passed through the stunted bare trees, white flickering amid black. She sprang away from me like a hart. Did her feet even touch the moonlit ground?
Pursuit took us back to East Street, and to a part of Arkham not particularly well-favored. It is the old trade district, known to many locals as "Rivertown; an Old World toadstool cluster of vaguely foreign shops, tradesmen, immigrant homes, mills, charities, and abandoned waterfront properties, dominated by a brickyard that has stood empty since 1912. I have never been there often, have never grown accustomed to the queer customs and strange Eastern rites of the Hungarians and Poles who dwell there. By day, the district is prosaic enough. But night had subtly altered it, had made it a mosaic of frosted shadows, of mystery and threat.
The brick-paved street began to descend. Beyond, I caught glimpses of the Miskatonic between the black rooftops and chimney pots. The moon had pooled into it like mother-of-pearl. I would lose Anne here. She would glide down some narrow, snaking alley, pass beneath some dark doorway, and be gone forever. They would have her, whomever they were, and night would pass and the sun would rise. The weird chiaroscuro of moonlight would fade. The swarthy inhabitants, untouched by night terrors, would stir and come forth, never knowing what had unfolded here as they slept
But Anne did not veer from her course. Like a shade returning to its crypt, she hurried to the river, passing between the great rotting hulks of warehouses and moss-covered masonry walls. I followed her, picking my way through the detritus.
"Anne!" I shouted. "Anne! Come back!" Hutchins words returned to me, chilling in their implications: Over and over, I repeated her name but she only came about when I finally pulled her from the water. She said they were waiting for her God, if I had been too late
I could smell the river here, the faint fishy stink of stagnation, of mud and wet stone and wood rot. Crumbling wharves of earth and brick projected outward into darkness. Water slapped and slopped against the shore. It was a scene by Munch, a nightmare out of Poe, rimed by the first delicate ice of approaching winter.
Anne half-slid, half-hopped down a muddy embankment. At the bottom, she fell to her knees and I saw my opportunity, my one slim hope.
I stumbled down the slope, fell upon Anne and somehow managed to pin her arms to her sides. Her body was deadly cold, writhing as if full of snakes. She struggled with the strength of a wolf. She squealed, kicked, and twisted. She tried to bite me.
Her struggles only ceased, in fact, when she saw them.
Without warning, she went still. Exhaustion was what I attributed her sudden collapse to, at first, and I prayed she had finally awakened.
But she had not. Rather, it was they who had awakened, who had come forth from whatever dreams that haunt the universe to claim their own.
It is at this point that my imagination is at a loss. The sleep of ancestral ages is disturbed, and reality confounded forever. I had stepped through the dark soundless space that is the gulf between the waking world and ringing nightmare. Lights, I thought. They are merely distant lights reflected upon the river. But we lay in darkness, and as did the opposite shore. And these lights neither shifted nor rippled, but were cold and steady and phosphorescent as the moon above, and I knew they were beneath the surface, as I knew with dread that they were eyes - large, livid yellow-green and rottenly luminous.
They were coming toward the shore.
With a final, desperate effort Anne broke away from me and splashed into the water. "I am here!" she cried in terrible ecstasy. "I am here!"
I lunged after her the icy water bit into me like teeth and with a thunderous splash, pulled her violently away, back to the shore. She screamed in protest. The multitude of dead glaring eyes gave pause I am grateful the things never broke the surface as if in sudden doubt. How many were there? Ten? Perhaps twenty? How many more might have lingered in the freezing muck, brought forth from untold depths to these quiet waters? I cannot say. But our struggles had summoned unexpected help. From the shore behind us came urgent voices, thick Middle-European accents, and bobbing lights, the lights of our prosaic, circumscribed world.
"Here!" I shouted. "Were down here! Hurry!"
The dead, alien eyes began to wink out, like snuffed candles, long before our rescuers arrived. Almost immediately, Annes struggles ceased, and she went limp in my arms. I didnt know if she was unconscious, or dead. I held her cold hand in my own.
When I saw lantern-lights bumbling down the embankment, I lay my head against a mossy projection of stone, freezing, utterly exhausted. There is not much to remember after that.
I was more villain than hero to the Arkham police for some time afterward, though their
suspicions could not be confirmed and I was later released. Far more commodious were the
immigrants who found Anne and I, and hurried us indoors beside a fire worthy of
Hepaesthus, where we were given blankets and hot soup until the doctor arrived. An elderly
grandmother, with wispy whiskers upon her chin, held my hand in her own all the while,
speaking gently to me in what I think was Polish.
Anne and I were treated for exposure, and I for my injuries scrapes, a sprained toe and various bruises. The doctor, a stern and bluff fellow whose name I cannot recall, was rather surprised that Anne and I had not succumbed to the near-freezing temperatures of that night. I attributed it to our exertions. The doctor gave me a doubtful, disapproving look. Thought I was being pert, I imagine.
Hutchins, meanwhile, was reunited with his wife. How had I found her? He had torn apart the grounds looking for her! I sensed a slight resentment on his part, though the hero, upstaged by his loyal fellow but he was deeply grateful to have Anne back, alive and unhurt.
The entire incident, however, will most likely go unnoticed. Anne remembered almost nothing of her midnight flight. Like most wealthy, well to do elders of Arkham families, the Hutchins patriarch James Lee used his influence to quash mention of the incident, and no one pays much heed to the strange, superstitious people who live near the river.
And I never spoke of what I saw there, beneath the water not even to bearded James Lee Hutchins, seated in his great leather chair beneath the portraits of his Civil War ancestors, who questioned me even more closely than the police. Even wine did not loosen my tongue. I feel he still suspects something, but has decided not to pursue the matter any further. That is just as well. He is possessed of a far sharper and more inquisitive mind than his son, and I believe he would get the answers he seeks in due time. I should not like to tell him of what I saw in the river, or that on occasion, they return to me in my own dreams.
But all is not doubtful or ill. That horrible cabinet, that armoire so beloved of Hutchins, is finally gone. Hutchins, in what I hope is a sign of rapprochement with Anne, disposed of it.
While on a Thanksgiving visit, I saw it at the end of their drive, outside the gate, awaiting the junkman. It was a blustery day, but bright, and the cabinet was dusted lightly with snow. Odd, how impotent and ordinary it seemed now. A lapse of taste, a junkyard curio shoved rudely to the curbside and nothing more. Innsmouth Wood, indeed. But I kept my distance.
I rang the gate bell, and waited. The wind nipped at my face. It was then that I heard a slight, familiar, horrible sound. I told myself it is simply the wind, Wentworth. It can do nothing now. It is simply the wind but I looked, anyway.
One of the cabinet doors had swung half-open, as if in invitation.