The Salem Horror (1/2)

When Carson first noticed the sounds in his cellar, he ascribed them to the rats. Later he began to hear the tales which were whispered by the superstitious Polish mill workers in Derby Street regarding the first occupant of the ancient house, Abigail Prinn. There was none living today who could remember the diabolical old hag, but the morbid legends which thrive in the “witch district” of Salem like rank weeds on a neglected grave gave disturbing particulars of her activities, and were unpleasantly explicit regarding the detestable sacrifices she was known to have made to a worm-eaten, crescent-horned image of dubious origin. The oldsters still muttered of Abbie Prinn and her monstrous boasts that she was high priestess of a fearfully potent god which dwelt deep in the hills. Indeed, it was the old witch’s reckless boasting which had led to her abrupt and mysterious death in 1692, about the time of the famous hangings on Gallows Hill. No one liked to talk about it, but occasionally a toothless crone would mumble fearfully that the flames could not burn her, for her whole body had taken on the peculiar anesthesia of her witch-mark.

Abbie Prinn and her anomalous statue had long since vanished, but it was still difficult to find tenants for her decrepit, gabled house, with its overhanging second story and curious diamond-paned casement windows. The house’s evil notoriety had spread throughout Salem. Nothing had actually happened there of recent years which might give rise to the inexplicable tales, but those who rented the house had a habit of moving out hastily, generally with vague and unsatisfactory explanations connected with the rats.

And it was a rat which led Carson to the Witch Room. The squealing and muffled pattering within the rotting walls had disturbed Carson more than once during the nights of his first week in the house, which he had rented to obtain the solitude that would enable him to complete a novel for which his publishers had been asking— another light romance to add to Carson’s long string of popular successes. But it was not until sometime later that he began to entertain certain wildly fantastic surmises regarding the intelligence of the rat that scurried from under his feet in the dark hallway one evening.

The house had been wired for electricity, but the bulb in the hall was small and gave a dim light. The rat was a misshapen, black shadow as it darted a few feet away and paused, apparently watching him.

At another time Carson might have dismissed the animal with a threatening gesture and returned to his work. But the traffic on Derby Street had been unusually noisy, and he had found it difficult to concentrate upon his novel. His nerves, for no apparent reason, were taut; and somehow it seemed that the rat, watching just beyond his reach, was eyeing him with sardonic amusement.

Smiling at the conceit, he took a few steps toward the rat, and it rushed away to the cellar door, which he saw with surprise was ajar. He must have neglected to close it the last time he had been in the cellar, although he generally took care to keep the doors shut, for the ancient house was drafty. The rat waited in the doorway.

Unreasonably annoyed, Carson hurried forward, sending the rat scurrying down the stairway. He switched on the cellar light and observed the rat in a corner. It watched him keenly out of glittering little eyes.

As he descended the stairs he could not help feeling that he was acting like a fool. But his work had been tiring, and subconsciously he welcomed any interruption. He moved across the cellar to the rat, seeing with astonishment that the creature remained unmoving, staring at him. A strange feeling of uneasiness began to grow within him. The rat was acting abnormally, he felt; and the unwinking gaze of its cold shoe-button eyes was somehow disturbing.

Then he laughed to himself, for the rat had suddenly whisked aside and disappeared into a little hole in the cellar wall. Idly he scratched a cross with his toe in the dirt before the burrow, deciding that he would set a trap there in the morning.

The rat’s snout and ragged whiskers protruded cautiously. It moved forward and then hesitated, drew back. Then the animal began to act in a singular and unaccountable manner—almost as though it were dancing, Carson thought. It moved tentatively forward, retreated again. It would give a little dart forward and be brought up short, then leap back hastily, as though—the simile flashed into Carson’s mind—a snake were coiled before the burrow, alert to prevent the rat’s escape. But there was nothing there save the little cross Carson had scratched in the dust.

No doubt it was Carson himself who blocked the rat’s escape, for he was standing within a few feet of the burrow. He moved forward, and the animal hurriedly retreated out of sight.

His interest piqued, Carson found a stick and poked it exploringly into the hole. As he did so his eye, close to the wall, detected something strange about the stone slab just above the rat burrow. A quick glance around its edge confirmed his suspicion. The slab was apparently movable.

Carson examined it closely, noticed a depression on its edge which would afford a handhold. His fingers fitted easily into the groove, and he pulled tentatively. The stone moved a trifle and stopped. He pulled harder, and with a sprinkling of dry earth the slab swung away from the wall as though on hinges.

A black rectangle, shoulder-high, gaped in the wall. From its depths a musty, unpleasant stench of dead air welled out, and involuntarily Carson retreated a step. Suddenly he remembered the monstrous tales of Abbie Prinn and the hideous secrets she was supposed to have kept hidden in her house. Had he stumbled upon some hidden retreat of the long-dead witch?

Before entering the dark gap he took the precaution of obtaining a flashlight from upstairs. Then he cautiously bent his head and stepped into the narrow, evil-smelling passage, sending the flashlight’s beam probing out before him.

He was in a narrow tunnel, scarcely higher than his head, and walled and paved with stone slabs. It ran straight ahead for perhaps fifteen feet, and then broadened out into a roomy chamber. As Carson stepped into the underground room—no doubt a hidden retreat of Abbie Prinn’s, a hiding-place, he thought, which nevertheless could not save her on the day the fright-crazed mob had come raging along Derby Street—he caught “his breath in a gasp of amazement. The room was fantastic, astonishing.

It was the floor which held Carson’s gaze. The dull gray of the circular wall gave place here to a mosaic of varicolored stone, in which blues and greens and purples predominated—indeed, there were none of the warmer colors. There must have been thousands of bits of colored stone making up that pattern, for none was larger than a walnut. And the mosaic seemed to follow some definite pattern, unfamiliar to Carson; there were curves of purple and violet mingled with angled lines of green and blue, intertwining in fantastic arabesques. There were circles, triangles, a pentagram, and other, less familiar, figures. Most of the lines and figures radiated from a definite point: the center of the chamber, where there was a circular disk of dead black stone perhaps two feet in diameter.

It was very silent. The sounds of the cars that occasionally went past overhead in Derby Street could not be heard. In a shallow alcove in the wall Carson caught a glimpse of markings on the walls, and he moved slowly in that direction, the beam of his light traveling up and down the walls of the niche.

The marks, whatever they were, had been daubed upon the stone long ago, for what was left of the cryptic symbols was indecipherable. Carson saw several partly effaced hieroglyphics which reminded him of Arabic, but he could not be sure. On the floor of the alcove was a corroded metal disk about eight feet in diameter, and Carson received the distinct impression that it was movable. But there seemed no way to lift it.

He became conscious that he was standing in the exact center of the chamber, in the circle of black stone where the odd design centered. Again he noticed the utter silence. On an impulse he clicked off the ray of his flashlight. Instantly he was in dead blackness.

At that moment a curious idea entered his mind. He pictured himself at the bottom of a pit, and from above a flood was descending, pouring down the shaft to engulf him. So strong was this impression that he actually fancied he could hear a muffled thundering, the roar of the cataract. Then, oddly shaken, he clicked on the light, glanced around swiftly. The drumming, of course, was the pounding of his blood, made audible in the complete silence—a familiar phenomenon. But, if the place was so still—

The thought leaped into his mind, as though suddenly thrust into his consciousness. This would be an ideal place to work. He could have the place wired for electricity, have a table and chair brought down, use an electric fan if necessary—although the musty odor he had first noticed seemed to have disappeared completely. He moved to the tunnel mouth, and as he stepped from the room he felt an inexplicable relaxation of his muscles, although he had not realized that they had been contracted. He ascribed it to nervousness, and went upstairs to brew black coffee and write to his landlord in Boston about his discovery.

*****

The visitor stared curiously about the hallway after Carson had opened the door, nodding to himself as though with satisfaction. He was a lean, tll figure of a man, with thick steel-gray eyebrows overhanging keen gray eyes. His face, although strongly marked and gaunt, was unwrinkled.

“About the Witch Room, I suppose?” Carson said ungraciously. His landlord had talked, and for the last week he had been unwillingly entertaining antiquaries and occultists anxious to glimpse the secret chamber in which Abbie Prinn had mumbled her spells. Carson’s annoyance had grown, and he had considered moving to a quieter place; but his inherent stubbornness had made him stay on, determined to finish his novel in spite of interruptions. Now, eyeing his guest coldly, he said, “I’m sorry, but it’s not on exhibition anymore.”

The other looked startled, but almost immediately a gleam of comprehension came into his eyes. He extracted a card and offered it to Carson.

“Michael Leigh . . . occultist, eh?” Carson repeated. He drew a deep breath. The occultists, he had found, were the worst, with their dark hints of nameless things and their profound interest in the mosaic pattern on the floor of the Witch Room. “I’m sorry, Mr. Leigh, but—I’m really quite busy. You’ll excuse me.”

Ungraciously he turned back to the door.

“Just a moment,” Leigh said swiftly.

Before Carson could protest he had caught the writer by the shoulders and was peering closely into his eyes. Startled, Carson drew back, but not before he had seen an extraordinary expression of mingled apprehension and satisfaction appear on Leigh’s gaunt face. It was as though the occultist had seen something unpleasant—but not unexpected.

“What’s the idea?” Carson asked harshly. “I’m not accustomed—”

“I’m very sorry,” Leigh said. His voice was deep, pleasant. “I must apologize. I thought—well, again I apologize. I’m rather excited, I’m afraid. You see, I’ve come from San Francisco to see this Witch Room of yours. Would you really mind letting me see it? I should be glad to pay any sum—”

Carson made a deprecatory gesture.

“No,” he said, feeling a perverse liking for this man growing within him—his well-modulated, pleasant voice, his powerful face, his magnetic personality. “No, I merely want a little peace—you have no idea how I’ve been bothered,” he went on, vaguely surprised to find himself speaking apologetically. “It’s a frightful nuisance. I almost wish I’d never found the room.”

Leigh leaned forward anxiously. “May I see it? It means a great deal to me—I’m vitally interested in these things. I promise not to take up more than ten minutes of your time.”

Carson-hesitated, then assented. As he led his guest into the cellar he found himself telling the circumstances of his discovery of the Witch Room. Leigh listened intently, occasionally interrupting with questions.

“The rat—did you see what became of it?” he asked.

Carson looked bemused. “Why, no. I suppose it hid in its burrow. Why?”

“One never knows,” Leigh said cryptically as they came into the Witch Room.

Carson switched on the light. He had had an electrical extension installed, and there were a few chairs and a table, but otherwise, the chamber was unchanged. Carson watched the occultist’s face, and with surprise saw it become grim, almost angry.

Leigh strode to the center of the room, staring at the chair that stood on the black circle of stone. “You work here?” he asked slowly.

“Yes. It’s quiet—I found I couldn’t work upstairs. Too noisy. But this is ideal—somehow I find it very easy to write here. My mind feels”—he hesitated—”free; that is, disassociated with other things. It’s quite an unusual feeling.”

Leigh nodded as though Carson’s words had confirmed some idea in his own mind. He turned toward the alcove and the metal disk in the floor. Carson followed him. The occultist moved close to the wall, tracing out the faded symbols with a long forefinger. He muttered something under his breath—words that sounded like gibberish to Carson.

“Nyogtha . . . k’yarnak . . .”

He swung about, his face grim and pale. “I’ve seen enough,” he said softly. “Shall we go?” Surprised, Carson nodded and led the way back into the cellar.

Upstairs Leigh hesitated, as though finding it difficult to broach his subject. At length he asked, “Mr. Carson—would you mind telling me if you have had any peculiar dreams lately.”

Carson stared at him, mirth dancing in his eyes. “Dreams?” he repeated. “Oh—I see. Well, Mr. Leigh, I may as well tell you that you can’t frighten me. Your compatriots—the other occultists I’ve tertained— have already tried it.”

Leigh raised his thick eyebrows. “Yes? Did they ask you whether you’d dreamed?”

“Several did—yes.”

“And you told them?”

“No.” Then as Leigh leaned back in his chair, a puzzled expression on his face, Carson went on slowly, “Although, really, I’m not quite sure.”

“You mean?”

“I think—I have a vague impression—that I have dreamed lately. But I can’t be sure. I can’t remember anything of the dream, you see. And—oh, very probably your brother occultists put the idea into my mind!”

“Perhaps,” Leigh said non-committally, getting up. He hesitated. “Mr. Carson, I’m going to ask you a rather presumptuous question. Is it necessary for you to live in this house?”

Carson sighed resignedly. “When I was first asked that question I explained that I wanted a quiet place to work on a novel, and that any quiet place would do. But it isn’t easy to find ’em. Now that I have this Witch Room, and I’m turning out my work so easily, I see no reason why I should move and perhaps upset my program. I’ll vacate this house when I finish my novel, and then you occultists can come in and turn it into a museum or do whatever you want with it. I don’t care. But until the novel is finished I intend to stay here.”

Leigh rubbed his chin. “Indeed. I can understand your point of view. But—is there no other place in the house where you can work?” He watched Carson’s face for a moment, and then went on swiftly.

“I don’t expect you to believe me. You are a materialist. Most people are. But there are a few of us who know that above and beyond what men call science there is a greater science that is built on laws and principles which to the average man would be almost incomprehensible. If you have read Machen you will remember that he speaks of the gulf between the world of consciousness and the world of matter. It is possible to bridge that gulf. The Witch Room is such a bridge! Do you know what a whispering-gallery is?”

“Eh?” Carson said, staring. “But there’s no—”

“An analogy—merely an analogy. A man may whisper a word in gallery—or a cave—and if you are standing in a certain spot a hundred feet away you will hear that whisper, although someone ten feet away will not. It’s a simple trick of acoustics—bringing the sound to a focal point. And this principle can be applied to other things besides sound. To any wave impulse—even to thought!”

Carson tried to interrupt, but Leigh kept on.

“That black stone in the center of your Witch Room is one of those focal points. The design on the floor—when you sit on the black circle there you are abnormally sensitive to certain vibrations— certain thought commands—dangerously sensitive! Why do you suppose your mind is so clear when you are working there? A deception, a false feeling of lucidity—for you are merely an instrument, a microphone, tuned to pick up certain malign vibrations the nature of which you could not comprehend!”

Carson’s face Was a study in amazement and incredulity. “But—you don’t mean you actually believe—”

Leigh drew back, the intensity fading from his eyes, leaving them grim and cold. “Very well. But I have studied the history of your Abigail Prinn. She, too, understood the super-science of which I speak. She used it for evil purposes—the black art, as it is called. I have read that she cursed Salem in the old days—and a witch’s curse can be a frightful thing. Will you—” He got up, gnawing at his lip. “Will you, at least, allow me to call on you tomorrow?”

Almost involuntarily Carson nodded. “But I’m afraid you’ll be wasting your time. I don’t believe—I mean, I have no—” He stumbled, at a loss for words.

“I merely wish to assure myself that you—oh, another thing. If you dream tonight, will you try to remember the dream? If you attempt to recapture it immediately after waking, it is often possible to recall it.”

“All right. If I dream—”

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