PseudoPod 648: The Canal
A surprisingly in depth look at the origin of the Campbell quote Alasdair uses: https://quoteinvestigator.com/
by Everil Worrell
Past the sleeping city the river sweeps; along its left bank the old canal creeps.
I did not intend that to be poetry, although the scene is poetic—somberly, gruesomely poetic, like the poems of Poe. Too well I know.it— too often have I walked over the grass-grown path beside the reflections of black trees and tumble-down shacks and distant factory chimneys in the sluggish waters that moved so slowly, and ceased to move at all.
I shall be called mad, and I shall be a suicide. I shall take no pains to cover up my trail, or to hide the thing that I shall do. What will it matter, afterward, what they say of me? If they knew the truth—if they could vision, even dimly, the beings with whom I have consorted—if the faintest realization might be theirs of the thing I am becoming, and of the fate from which I am saving their city—then they would call me a great hero. But it does not matter what they call me, as I have said before. Let me write down the things I am about to write down, and let them be taken, as they will be taken, for the last ravings of a madman. The city will be in mourning for the thing I shall have done—but its mourning will be of no consequence beside that other fate from which I shall have saved it.
I have always had a taste for nocturnal prowling. We as a race have grown too intelligent to take seriously any of the old, instinctive fears that preserved us through preceding generations. Our sole remaining salvation, then, has come to be our tendency to travel in herds. We wander at night—but our objective is somewhere on the brightly lighted streets, or still somewhere where men do not go alone. When we travel far afield, it is in company. Few of my acquaintance, few in the whole city here, would care to ramble at midnight over the grass-grown path I have spoken of; not because they would fear to do so, but because such things are not being done.
Well, it is dangerous to differ individually from one’s fellows. It is dangerous to wander from the beaten road. And the fears that guarded the race in the dawn of time and through the centuries were real fears, founded on reality.
A month ago, I was a stranger here. I had just taken my first position—I was graduated from college only three months before, in the spring. I was lonely, and likely to remain so for some time, for I have always been of a solitary nature, making friends slowly.
I had received one invitation out —to visit the camp of a fellow employee in the firm for which I worked, a camp which was located on the farther side of the wide river—the side across from the city and the canal, where the bank was high and steep and heavily wooded, and little tents blossomed all along the water’s edge. At night these camps were a string of sparkling lights and tiny, leaping campfires, and the tinkle of music carried faintly far across the calmly flowing water. That far bank of the river was no place for an eccentric, solitary man to love. But the near bank, which would have been an eyesore to the campers had not the river been so wide,—the near bank attracted me from my first glimpse of it.
We embarked in a motor-boat at some distance downstream, and swept up along the near bank, and then out and across the current. I turned my eyes backward. The murk of stagnant water that was the canal, the jumble of low buildings beyond it; the lonely, low-lying waste of the narrow strip of land between canal and river, the dark, scattered trees growing there—I intended to see more of these things.
That week-end bored me, but I repaid myself no later than Monday evening, the first evening when I was back in the city, alone and free. I ate a solitary dinner immediately after leaving the office. I went to my room and slept from seven until nearly midnight. I wakened naturally, then, for my whole heart was set on exploring the alluring solitude I had discovered. I dressed, slipped out of the house and into the street, started the motor in my roadster which I had left parked at the curb, and drove through the lighted streets.
I left behind that part of town which was thick with vehicles carrying people home from their evening engagements, and began to thread my way through darker and narrower streets. Once I had to back out of a cul-de-sac, and once I had to detour around a closed block. This part of town was not alluring, even to me. It was dismal without being solitary.
But when I had parked my car on a rough, cobbled street that ran directly down into the inky waters of the canal, and crossed a narrow bridge, I was repaid. A few minutes set my feet on the old tow-path where mules had drawn river-boats up and down only a year or so ago. Across the canal now, as I walked upstream at a swinging pace, the miserable shacks where miserable people lived seemed to march with me, and then fell behind. They looked like places in which murders might be committed, every one of them.
The bridge I had crossed was near the end of the city going north, as the canal marked its western extremity. Ten minutes of walking, and the dismal shacks were quite a distance behind, the river was farther away and the strip of waste land much wider and more wooded, and tall trees across the canal marched with me as the evil-looking houses had done before. Far and faint, the sound of a bell in the city reached my ears. It was midnight.
I stopped, enjoyed the desolation around me. It had the savor I had expected and hoped for. I stood for some time looking up at the sky, watching the low drift of heavy clouds, which were visible in the dull reflected glow from distant lights in the heart of the city, so that they appeared to have a lurid phosphorescence of their own. The ground under my feet, on the contrary, was utterly devoid of light. I had felt my way carefully, knowing the edge of the canal partly by instinct, partly by the even more perfect blackness of the water in it, and even holding pretty well to the path, because it was perceptibly sunken below the ground beside it.
Now as I stood motionless in this spot, my eyes upcast, my mind adrift with strange fancies, suddenly my feelings of satisfaction and well-being gave way to something different. Fear was an emotion unknown to me—for those things which make men fear, I had always loved. A graveyard at night was to me a charming place for a stroll and meditation.
But now, the roots of my hair seemed to move upright on my head, and along all the length of my spine I was conscious of a prickling, tingling sensation—such as my forefathers may have felt in the jungle when the hair on their backs stood up as the hair of my head was doing now. Also, I was afraid to move; and I knew that there were eyes upon me, and that that was why I was afraid to move. I was afraid of those eyes—afraid to see them, to look into them.
All this while, I stood perfectly still, my face uptilted toward the sky. But after a terrible mental effort, I mastered myself.
Slowly—slowly, with an attempt to propitiate the owner of the unseen eyes by my casual manner, I lowered my own. I looked straight ahead— at the softly swaying silhouette of the tree-tops across the canal as they moved gently in the cool night wind; at the mass of blackness that was those trees, and the opposite shore; at the shiny blackness where the reflections of the clouds glinted vaguely and disappeared, that was the canal. And again I raised my eyes a little, for just across the canal where the shadows massed most heavily, there was that at which I must look more closely. And now, as I grew accustomed to the greater blackness and my pupils expanded, I dimly discerned the contours of an old boat or barge, half sunken in the water.
An old, abandoned canal-boat.
But was I dreaming, or was there a white-clad figure seated on the roof of the low cabin aft; a pale, heart-shaped face gleaming strangely at me from the darkness, the glow of two eyes seeming to light up the face, and to detach it from the darkness?
Surely, there could be no doubt as to the eyes. They shone as the eyes of animals shine in the dark—with a phosphorescent gleam, and a glimmer of red! Well, I had heard that some human eyes have that quality at night.
But what a place for a human being to be—a girl, too, I was sure. That daintily heart-shaped face was the face of a girl, surely—I was seeing it clearer and clearer, either because my eyes were growing more accustomed to peering into the deeper shadows, or because of that phosphorescence in the eyes that stared back at me.
I raised my voice softly, not to break A too much the stillness of the night.
“Hello! Who’s there? Are you lost, or marooned, and can I help?”
There was a little pause. I was conscious of a soft lapping at my feet. A stronger night wind had sprung up, was ruffling the dark waters. I had been over-warm, and where it struck me the perspiration turned cold on my body, so that I shivered uncontrollably.
“You can stay—and talk awhile, if you will. I am lonely, but not lost—I—I live here.”
I could hardly believe my ears. The voice was little more than a whisper, but it had carried clearly—a girl’s voice, sure enough. And she lived there—in an old, abandoned canal-boat, half submerged in the stagnant water.
“You are not alone there?”
“No, not alone. My father lives here with me, but he is deaf—and he sleeps soundly.”
Did the night wind blow still colder, as though it came to us from some unseen, frozen sea—or was there something in her tone that chilled me, even as a strange attraction drew me toward her? I wanted to draw near to her, to see closely the pale, heart-shaped face, to lose myself in the bright eyes that I had seen shining in the darkness. I wanted—I wanted to hold her in my arms, to find her mouth with mine, to kiss it-
With a start, I realized the nature of my thoughts, and for an instant lost all thought in surprize. Never in my twenty-two years had I felt love before. My fancies had been otherwise directed—a moss-grown, fallen gravestone was a dearer thing to me to contemplate than the fairest face in all the world. Yet, surely, what I felt now was love!
I took a reckless step nearer the edge of the bank.
“Could I come over to you?” I begged. “It’s warm, and I don’t mind a wetting. It’s late, I know— but I would give a great deal to sit beside you and talk, if only for a few minutes before I go back to town.
It’s a lonely place here for a girl like you to live—your father should not mind if you exchange a few words with someone occasionally.”
Was it the unconventionality of my request that made her next words sound like a long-drawn shudder of protest? There was a strangeness in the tones of her voice that held me wondering, every time she spoke.
“No—no. Oh, no! You must not swim across.”
“Then—could I come tomorrow, or someday soon, in the daytime; and would you let me come on board then —or would you come on shore and talk to me, perhaps?”
“Not in the daytime—never in the daytime!”
Again the intensity of her low-toned negation held me spellbound.
It was not her sense of the impropriety of the hour, then, that had dictated her manner. For surely, any girl with the slightest sense of the fitness of things would rather have a tryst by daytime than after midnight —yet there was an inference in her last words that if I came again it should be again at night.
Still feeling the spell that had enthralled me, as one does not forget the presence of a drug in the air that is stealing one’s senses, even when those senses begin to wander and to busy themselves with other things, I yet spoke shortly.
“Why do you say, ‘Never in the daytime’? Do you mean that I may come more than this once at night, though now you won’t let me cross the canal to you at the expense of my own clothes, and you won’t put down your plank or drawbridge, or whatever you come on shore with, and talk to me here for only a moment? I’ll come again, if you’ll let me talk to you instead of calling across the water. I’ll come again, any time you will let me—day or night, I don’t care. I want to come to you. But I only ask you to explain. If I came in the daytime and met your father, wouldn’t that be the best thing to do? Then we could be really acquainted— we could be friends.”
“In the night time, my father sleeps. In the daytime, I sleep. How could I talk to you, or introduce you to my father then? If you came on board this boat in the daytime, you would find my father—and you would be sorry. As for me, I would be sleeping. I could never introduce you to my father, do you see?”
“You sleep soundly, you and your father.” Again there was pique in my voice.
“Yes, we sleep soundly.”
“And always at different times?”
“Always at different times. We are on guard—one of us is always on guard. We have been hardly used, down there in your city. And we have taken refuge here. And we are always—always—on guard.”
The resentment vanished from my breast, and I felt my heart go out to her anew. She was so pale, so pitiful in the night. My eyes were learning better and better how to pierce the darkness, they were giving me a more definite picture of my companion— if I could think of her as a companion, between myself and whom stretched the black water.
The sadness of the lonely scene, the perfection of the solitude itself, these things contributed to her pitifulness. Then there was that strangeness of atmosphere of which, even yet, I had only partly taken note. There was the strange, shivering chill, which yet did not seem like the healthful chill of a cool evening. In fact, it did not prevent me from feeling the oppression of the night, which was unusually sultry. It was like a little breath of deadly cold that came and went, and yet did not alter the temperature of the air itself, as the small ripples on the surface of water do not concern the water even a foot down.
And even that was not all. There was an unwholesome smell about the night—a dank, moldy smell that might have been the very breath of death and decay. Even I, the connoisseur in all things dismal and unwholesome, tried to keep my mind from dwelling overmuch upon that smell. What it must be to live breathing it constantly in, I could not think. But no doubt the girl and her father were used to it; and no doubt it came from the stagnant water of the canal and from the rotting wood of the old, half-sunken boat that was their refuge.
My heart throbbed with pity again. Their refuge—what a place! And my clearer vision of the girl showed me that she was pitifully thin, even though possessed of the strange face that drew me to her. Her clothes hung around her like old rags, but hers’ was no scarecrow aspect. Although little flesh clothed her bones, her very bones were beautiful. I was sure the little, pale, heart-shaped face would be more beautiful still, if I could only see it closely. I must see it closely—I must establish some claim to consideration as a friend of the strange, lonely crew of the half-sunken wreck.
“This is a poor place to call a refuge,” I said finally. “One might have very little money, and yet do somewhat better. Perhaps I might help you—I am sure I could. If your ill-treatment in the city was because of poverty—I am not rich, but I could help that. I could help you a little with money—if you would let me— or, in any case, I could find a position for you. I’m sure I could do that.”
The eyes that shone fitfully toward me like two small pools of water intermittently lit by a cloud-swept sky seemed to glow more brightly. She had been half crouching, half sitting on top of the cabin; now she leaped to her feet with one quick, sinuous, abrupt motion, and took a few rapid, restless steps to and fro before she answered.
When she spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper; yet surely rage was in its shrill sibilance.
“Fool! Do you think you would be helping me, to tie me to a desk, to shut me behind doors, away from freedom, away from the delight of doing my own will, of seeking my own way? Never, never would I let you do that. Rather this old boat, rather a deserted grave under the stars, for my home!”
A boundless surprize swept over me, and a positive feeling of kinship with this strange being, whose face I had hardly seen, possessed me. So I myself might have spoken—so I had often felt, though I had never dreamed of putting my thoughts so definitely, so forcibly. My regularized daytime life was a thing I thought little of; I really lived only in my nocturnal prowlings. Why, this girl was right! All of life should be free—and spent in places that interested and attracted.
How little, how little I knew, that night, that dread forces were tugging at my soul, were finding entrance to it and easy access through the morbid weakness of my nature! How little I knew at what a cost I deviated so radically from my kind, who herd in cities and love well-lit ways and the sight of man, and sweet and wholesome places to be solitary in, when the desire for solitude comes over them!
That night it seemed to me that there was but one important thing in life—to allay the angry passion my unfortunate words had aroused in the breast of my beloved, and to win from her some answering feeling.
“I understand—much better than you think,” I whispered tremulously.
“What I want is to see you again, to come to know you. And to serve you in any way that I may. Surely, there must be something in which I can be of use to you. All you have to do from tonight on forever, is to command me. I swear it!”
“You swear that—you do swear it?”
Delighted at the eagerness of her words, I lifted my hand toward the dark heavens.
“I swear it. From this night on, forever—I swear it.”
“Then listen. Tonight you may not come to me, nor I to you. I do not want you to board this boat, not tonight, not any night. And most of all, not any day. But do not look so sad. I will come to you. No, not tonight. Perhaps not for many nights —yet before very long. I will come to you there, on the bank of the canal, when the water in the canal ceases to flow.”
I must have made a gesture of impatience, or of despair. It sounded like a way of saying “never”—for why should the water in the canal cease to flow? She read my thoughts in some way, for she answered them.
“You do not understand. I am speaking seriously—I am promising to meet you there on the bank, and soon. For the water within these banks is moving slower, always slower. Higher up, I have heard that the canal has been drained. Between these lower locks, the water still seeps in and. drops slowly, slowly downstream. But there will come a night when it will be quite, quite stagnant —and on that night I will come to you. And when I come, I will ask of you a favor. And you will keep your oath.”
It was all the assurance I could get that night. She had come back to the side of the cabin where she had sat crouched before, and she resumed again that posture and sat still and silent, watching me. Sometimes I could see her eyes upon me, and sometimes not. But I felt that their gaze was unwavering. The little cold breeze, which I had finally forgotten while I was talking with her, was blowing again, and the unwholesome smell of decay grew heavier before the dawn.
She would not speak again, nor answer me when I spoke to her, and I grew nervous, and strangely ill at ease.
At last I went away. And in the first faint light of dawn I slipped up the stairs of my rooming-house, and into my own room.
I was deadly tired at the office next day. And day after day slipped away and I grew more and more weary. For a man cannot wake day and night without suffering, especially in hot weather, and that was what I was doing. I haunted the old tow-path and waited, night after night, on the bank opposite the sunken boat. Sometimes I saw my lady of the darkness, and sometimes not. When I saw her, she spoke little; but sometimes she sat there on the top of the cabin and let me watch her till the dawn, or until the strange uneasiness that was like fright drove me from her and back to my room, where I tossed restlessly in the heat and dreamed strange dreams, half waking, till the sun shone in on my forehead and I tumbled into my clothes and down to the office again.
Once I asked her why she had made the fanciful condition that she would not come ashore to meet me until the waters of the canal had ceased to run. (How eagerly I studied those waters; how I stole away at noontime more than once, not to approach the old boat, but to watch the almost imperceptible downward drift of bubbles, bits of straw, twigs, rubbish!)
My questioning displeased her, and I asked her that no more. It was enough that she chose to be whimsical. My part was to wait.
It was more than a week later that I questioned her again, this time on a different subject. And after that, I curbed my curiosity relentlessly.
“Never speak to me of things you do not understand about me. Never again, or I will not show myself to you again. And when I walk on the path yonder, it will not be with you.”
I had asked her what form of persecution she and her father had suffered in the city, that had driven them out to this lonely place, and where in the city they had lived.
Frightened seriously lest I lose the ground I was sure I had gained with her, I was about to speak of something else. But before I could find the words, her low voice came to me again.
“It was horrible—horrible! Those little houses below the bridge, those houses along the canal—tell me, are they not worse than my boat? Life there was shut in, and furtive. I was not free as I am now—and the freedom I will soon have will make me forget the things I have not yet forgotten. The screaming, the reviling and cursing! Fear and flight! As you pass back by those houses, think how you would like to be shut in one of them, and in fear of your life. And then think of them no more—for I would forget them, and I will never speak of them again!”
I dared not answer her. I was surprized that she had vouchsafed me so much. But surely her words meant this—that before she had come to live on the decaying, water-rotted old boat, she had lived in one of those horrible houses I passed by on my way to her. Those houses, each of which looked like the predestined scene of a murder!
As I left her that night, I felt that I was very daring.
“One or two nights more and you will walk beside me,” I called to her. “I have watched the water at noon, and it hardly moves at all. I threw a scrap of paper into the canal, and it whirled and swung a little where a thin skim of oil lay on the water down there—oil from the big, dirty city you are well out of. But though I watched and watched, I could not see it move downward at all. Perhaps tomorrow night, or the night after, you will walk on the bank with me. I hope it will be clear and moonlight; and I will be near enough to see you clearly—as well as you seem always to see me in darkness or moonlight, equally well.
And perhaps I will kiss you—but not unless you let me.”
And yet, the next day, for the first time my thoughts were definitely troubled. I had been living in a dream—I began to speculate concerning the end of the path on which my feet were set.
I had conceived, from the first, such a horror of those old houses by the canal! They were well enough to walk past, nursing gruesome thoughts for a midnight treat. But, much as I loved all that was weird and eery about the girl I was wooing so strangely, it was a little too much for my fancy that she had come from them.
By this time, I had become decidedly unpopular in my place of business. Not that I had made enemies, but that my peculiar ways had caused too much adverse comment. It would have taken very little, I think, to have made the entire office force decide that I was mad. After the events of the next twenty-four hours, and after this letter is found and read, they will be sure that they knew it all along! At this time, however, they were punctiliously polite to me, and merely let me alone as much as possible—which suited me perfectly. I dragged wearily through day after day, exhausted for lack of sleep, conscious of their speculative glances, living only for the night to come.
But on this day, I approached the man who had invited me to the camp across the river, who had unknowingly shown me the way that led to my love.
“Have you ever noticed the row of tumble-down houses along the canal on the city side?” I asked him.
He gave me an odd look. I suppose he sensed the significance of my breaking silence after so long to speak of them—sensed that in some way I had a deep interest in them.
“You have odd tastes, Morton,” he said after a moment. “I suppose you wander into strange places sometimes —I’ve heard you speak of an enthusiasm for graveyards at night. But my advice to you is to keep away from those houses. They’re unsavory, and their reputation is unsavory. Positively, I think you’d be in danger of your life, if you go poking around there. They have been the scene of several murders, and a dope den or two has been cleaned out of them. Why in the world you should want to investigate them—”
“I don’t expect to investigate them,” I said testily. “I was merely interested in them—from the outside. To tell you the truth, I’d heard a story, a rumor—never mind where. But you say there have been murders there—I suppose this rumor I heard may have had to do with an attempted one. There was a girl who lived there with her father once—and they were set upon there, or something of the sort, and had to run away. Did you ever hear that story?”
Barrett gave me an odd look such as one gives in speaking of a past horror so dreadful that the mere speaking of it makes it live terribly again.
“What you say reminds me of a horrible thing that was said to have happened down there once,” he said. “It was in all the papers. A little child disappeared in one of those houses—and a couple of poor lodgers who lived there, a girl and her father, were accused of having made away with it. They were accused—they were accused—oh, well, I don’t like to talk about such things. It was too dreadful. The child’s body was found—part of it was found. It was mutilated, and the people in the house seemed to believe it had been mutilated in order to conceal the manner of its death—there was an ugly wound in the throat, it finally came out, and it seemed as if the child might have been bled to death. It was found in the girl’s room, hidden away. The old man and his daughter escaped, before the police were called. The countryside was scoured for them —the whole country was scoured, but they were never found. Why, you must have read it in the papers, several years ago.”
I nodded, with a heavy heart. I had read it in the papers, I remembered now. And again, a terrible questioning came over me. Who was this girl, what was this girl, who seemed to have my heart in her keeping?
Why did not a merciful God let me die then?
Befogged with exhaustion, bemused in a dire enchantment, my mind was incapable of thought. And yet, some soul-process akin to that which saves the sleepwalker poised at perilous heights sounded its warning now.
My mind was filled with doleful images. There were women—I had heard and read—who slew to satisfy a blood-lust. There were ghosts, specters—call them what you will, their names have been legion in the dark pages of that lore which dates back to the infancy of the races of the earth—who retained even in death this blood-lust. Vampires—they had been called that. I had read of them. Corpses by day, spirits of evil by night, roaming abroad in their own forms or in the forms of bats or unclean beasts, killing body and soul of their victims—for whoever dies of the repeated “kiss” of the vampire, which leaves its mark on the throat and draws the blood from the body, becomes a vampire also—of such beings I had read.
And, horror of horrors! In that last cursed day at the office, I remembered reading of these vampires— these undead—that in their nocturnal flights they had one limitation—they could not cross running water.
That night I went my usual nightly way with tears of weakness on my face—for my weakness was supreme, and I recognized fully at last the misery of being the victim of an enchantment stronger than my feeble will. But I went.
I approached the neighborhood of the canal-boat as the distant city clock chimed the first stroke of 12. It was the dark of the moon and the sky was overcast. Heat-lightning flickered low in the sky, seeming to come from every point of the compass and circumscribe the horizon, as if unseen fires burned behind the rim of the world. By its fitful glimmer, I saw a new thing—between the old boat and the canal bank stretched a long, slim; solid-looking shadow—a plank had been let down! In that moment, I realized that I had been playing with powers of evil which had no intent now to let me go, which were indeed about to lay hold upon me with an inexorable grasp. Why had I come tonight? Why, but that the spell of the enchantment laid upon me was a thing more potent, and far more unbreakable, than any wholesome spell of love? The creature I sought out—oh, I remembered now, with the cold perspiration beading my brow, the lore hidden away between the covers of the dark old book which I had read so many years ago and half forgotten!—until dim memories of it stirred within me, this last day and night.
My lady of the night! No woman of wholesome flesh and blood and odd perverted tastes that matched my own, but one of the undead. In that moment, I knew it, and knew that the vampires of old legends polluted still, in these latter days, the fair surface of the earth.
And on the instant, behind me in the darkness there was the crackle of a twig, and something brushed against my arm!
This, then, was the fulfilment of my dream. I knew, without turning my head, that the pale, dainty face with its glowing eyes was near my own—that I had only to stretch out my arm to touch the slender grace of the girl I had so longed to draw near. I knew, and should have felt the rapture I had anticipated. Instead, the roots of my hair prickled coldly, unendurably, as they had on the night when I had first sighted the old boat. The miasmic odors of the night, heavy and oppressive with heat and unrelieved by a breath of air, all but overcame me, and I fought with myself to prevent my teeth clicking in my head. The little waves of coldness I had felt often in this spot were chasing over my body; yet they were not from any breeze; the leaves on the trees hung down motionless, as though they were actually wilting on their branches.
With an effort, I turned my head.
Two hands caught me around my neck. The pale face was so near, that I felt the warm breath from its nostrils fanning my cheek.
And, suddenly, all that was wholesome in my perverted nature rose uppermost. I longed for the touch of the red mouth, like a dark flower opening before me in the night. I longed for it—and yet more I dreaded it. I shrank back, catching in a powerful grip the fragile wrists of the hands that strove to hold me. I must not—I must not yield to the faintness that I felt stealing languorously over me.
I was facing down the path toward the city. A low rumble of thunder— the first—broke the torrid hush of the summer night. A glare of lightning seemed to tear the night asunder, to light up the whole universe. Overhead, the clouds were careening madly in fantastic shapes, driven by a wind that swept the upper heavens without as yet causing even a trembling in the air lower down. And far down the canal, that baleful glare seemed to play around and hover over the little row of shanties—murder-cursed, and haunted by the ghost of a dead child.
My gaze was fixed on them, while I held away from me the pallid face and fought off the embrace that sought to overcome my resisting will. And so a long moment passed. The glare faded out of the sky, and a greater darkness took the world. But there was a near, more menacing glare fastened upon my face—the glare of two eyes that watched mine, that had watched me as I, unthinking, stared down at the dark houses.
This girl—this woman who had come to me at my own importunate requests, did not love me, since I had shrunk from her. She did not love me; but it was not only that. She had watched me as I gazed down at the houses that held her dark past—and I was sure that she divined my thoughts. She knew my horror of those houses—she knew my new-born horror of her. And she hated me for it, hated me more malignantly than I had believed a human being could hate.
And at that point in my thoughts, I felt my skin prickle and my scalp rise again: could a human being cherish such hatred as I read, trembling more and more, in those glowing fires lit with what seemed to me more like the fires of hell than any light that ought to shine in a woman’s eyes?
And through all this, not a word had passed between us!
So far I have written calmly. I wish that I could write on so, to the end. If I could do that there might be one or two of those who will regard this as the document of a maniac, who would believe the horrors of which I am about to write.
But I am only flesh and blood. At this point in the happenings of the awful night, my calmness deserted me —at this point I felt that I had been drawn into the midst of a horrible nightmare from which there was no escape, no waking! As I write, this feeling again overwhelms me, until I can hardly write at all—until, were it not for the thing which I must do, I would rush out into the street and run, screaming, until I was caught and dragged away, to be put behind strong iron bars. Perhaps I would feel safe there—perhaps!
I know that, terrified at the hate I saw confronting me in those redly gleaming eyes, I would have slunk away. The two thin hands that caught my arm again were strong enough to prevent that, however. I had been spared her kiss—I was not to escape from the oath I had taken to serve her.
“You promised—you swore,” she hissed in my ear. “And tonight you are to keep your oath.”
I felt my senses reel. My oath— yes, I had an oath to keep. I had lifted my hand toward the dark heavens, and sworn to serve her in any way she chose—freely, and of my own volition, I had sworn.
I sought to evade her.
“Let me help you back to your boat,” I begged. “You have no kindly feeling for me—and—you have seen it—I love you no longer. I will go back to the city—you can go back to your father, and forget that I broke your peace.”
The laughter that greeted my speech I shall never forget—not in the depths under the scummy surface of the canal—not in the empty places between the worlds, where my tortured soul may wander.
“So you do not love me, and I hate you! Fool! Have I waited these weary months for the water to stop, only to go back now? After my father and I returned here and found the old boat rotting in the drained canal, and took refuge in it; when the water was turned into the canal while I slept, so that I could never escape until its flow should cease, because of the thing that: I am—even then I dreamed of tonight.
“When the imprisonment we still shared ceased to matter to my father —come on board the deserted boat tomorrow, and see why, if you dare!— still I dreamed on, of tonight!
“I have been lonely, desolate, starving—now the whole world shall be mine! And by your help!”
I asked her, somehow, what she wanted of me, and a madness overcame me so that I hardly heard her reply. Yet somehow, I knew that there was that on the opposite shore of the great river where the pleasure camps were, that she wanted to find. In the madness of my terror, she made me understand and obey her.
I must carry her in my arms across the long bridge over the river, deserted in the small hours of the night!
The way back to the city was long tonight—long. She walked behind me, and I turned my eyes neither to right nor left. Only as I passed the tumble-down houses, I saw their reflection in the canal and trembled so that I could have fallen to the ground, at the thoughts of the little child this woman had been accused of slaying there, and at the certainty I felt that she was reading my thoughts.
And now the horror that engulfed me darkened my brain.
I know that we set our feet upon the long, wide bridge that spanned the river. I know the storm broke there, so that I battled for my footing, almost for my life, it seemed, against the pelting deluge. And the horror I had invoked was in my arms, clinging to me, burying its head upon my shoulder. So increasingly dreadful had my pale-faced companion become to me, that I hardly thought of her now as a woman at all—only as a demon of the night.
The tempest raged still as she leaped down out of my arms on the other shore. And again I walked with her against my will, while the trees lashed their branches madly around me, showing the pale undersides of their leaves in the vivid frequent flashes that rent the heavens.
On and on we went, branches flying through the air and missing us by a miracle of ill fortune. Such as she and I are not slain by falling branches. The river was a welter of whitecaps, flattened down into strange shapes by the pounding rain. The clouds as we glimpsed them were like devils flying through the sky.
Past dark tent after dark tent we stole, and past a few where lights burned dimly behind their canvas walls. And at last we came to an old quarry. Into its artificial ravine she led me, and up to a crevice in the rock wall.
“Reach in your hand and pull out the loose stone you will feel,” she whispered. “It closes an opening that leads into deep caverns. A human hand must remove that stone—your hand must move it!”
Why did I struggle so to disobey her? Why did I fail? It was as though I knew—but my failure was foreordained—I had taken oath!
If you who read have believed that I have set down the truth thus far, the little that is left you will call the ravings of a madman overtaken by his madness. Yet these things happened.
I stretched out my arm, driven by a compulsion I could not resist. At arm’s length in the niche in the rock, I felt something move—the loose rock, a long, narrow fragment, much larger than I had expected. Yet it moved easily, seeming to swing on a natural pivot. Outward it swung, toppling toward me—a moment more and there was a swift rush of the ponderous weight I had loosened. I leaped aside and went down, my forehead grazed by the rock.
For a brief moment I must have been unconscious. But only for a moment. My head a stabbing agony of pain, unreal lights flashing before my eyes, I yet knew the reality of the storm that beat me down as I struggled to my feet. I knew the reality of the dark, loathsome shapes that passed me in the dark, crawling out of the orifice in the rock and flapping through the wild night, along the way that led to the pleasure camps.
So the caverns I had laid open to the outer world were infested with bats. I had been inside unlit caverns, and had heard there the squeaking of the things, felt and heard the flapping of their wings—but never in all my life before had I seen bats as large as men and women!
Sick and dizzy from the blow on my head, and from disgust, I crept along the way they were going. If I touched one of them, I felt that I should die of horror.
Now, at last, the storm abated, and a heavy darkness made the whole world seem like the inside of a tomb.
Where the tents stood in a long row, the number of the monster bats seemed to diminish. It was as though — horrible thought! — they were creeping into the tents, with their slumbering occupants.
At last I came to a lighted tent, and paused, crouching so that the dim radiance that shone through the canvas did not touch me in the shadows. And there I waited, but not for long. There was a dark form silhouetted against the tent—a movement of the flap oft-the tent—a rustle and confusion, and the dark thing was again in silhouette—but with a difference in the quality of the shadow. The dark thing was inside the tent now, its bat wings extending across the entrance through which it had crept.
Fear held me spellbound. And as I looked the shadow changed again— imperceptibly, so that I could not have told how it changed.
But now it was not the shadow of a bat, but of a woman.
“The storm—the storm! I am lost, exhausted—I crept in here, to beg for refuge until the dawn!”
That low, thrilling, sibilant voice— too well I knew it!
Within the tent I heard a murmur of acquiescent voices. At last I began to understand.
I knew the nature of the woman I had carried over the river in my arms, the woman who would not even cross the canal until the water should have ceased utterly to flow. I remembered books I had read—Dracula—other books, and stories. I knew they were true books and stories, now—I knew those horrors existed for me.
I had indeed kept my oath to the creature of darkness—I had brought her to her kind, under her guidance. I had let them loose in hordes upon the pleasure camps. The campers were doomed—and through them, others-
I forgot my fear. I rushed from my hiding-place up to the tent door, and there I screamed and called aloud.
“Don’t take her in—don’t let her stay—nor the others, that have crept into the other tents! Wake all the campers—they will sleep on to their destruction! Drive out the interlopers—drive them out quickly! They are not human—no, and they are not bats. Do you hear me?—do you understand?”
I was fairly howling, in a voice that was strange to me.
“She is a vampire—they are all vampires. Vampires!”
Inside the tent I heard a new voice. “What can be the matter with that poor man?” the voice said. It was a woman’s, and gentle.
“Crazy—somebody out of his senses, dear,” a man’s voice answered. “Don’t be frightened.”
And then the voice I knew so well —so well: “I saw a falling rock strike a man on the head in the storm. He staggered away, but I suppose it crazed him.”
I waited for no more. I ran away, madly, through the night and back across the bridge to the city.
Next day—today—I boarded the sunken canal-boat. It is the abode of death—no woman could have lived there—only such a one as she. The old man’s corpse was there—he must have died long, long ago. The smell of death and of decay on the boat was dreadful.
Again, I felt that I understood. Back in those awful houses, she had committed the crime when first she became the thing she is. And he— her father—less sin-steeped, and less accursed, attempted to destroy the evidence of her crime, and fled with her, but died without becoming like her. She had said that one of those two was always on watch—did he indeed divide her vigil on the boat? What more fitting—the dead standing watch with the undead! And no wonder that she would not let me board the craft of death, even to carry her away.
And still I feel the old compulsion. I have been spared her kiss—but for a little while. Yet I will not let the power of my oath to her draw me back, till I enter the caverns with her and creep forth in the form of a bat to prey upon mankind. Before that can happen, I too will die.
Today in the city I heard that a horde of strange insects or small animals infested the pleasure camps last night. Some said, with horror-bated breath, that they perhaps were rats. None of them was seen; but in the morning nearly every camper had a strange, deep wound in his throat. I almost laughed aloud. They were so horrified at the idea of an army of rats, creeping into the tents and biting the sleeping occupants on their throats! If they had seen what I saw—if they knew that they are doomed to spread corruption-
So my own death will not be enough. Today I bought supplies for blasting. Tonight I will set my train of dynamite, from the hole I made in the cliff where the vampires creep in and out, along the row of tents, as far as the last one—then I shall light my fuse. It will be done before the dawn. Tomorrow, the city will mourn its dead and execrate my name.
And then, at last, in the slime beneath the unmoving waters of the canal, I shall find peace! But perhaps it will not be peace—for I shall seek it midway between the old boat with its cargo of death and the row of dismal houses where a little child was done to death when first she became the thing she is. That is my expiation.
About the Author
Everil Worrell wrote no less than 19 stories for Weird Tales and made the cover three times: “The Bird of Space” (September 1926) with art by E.M Stevenson; “The Gray Killer” (November 1929) with art by C.C. Senf; and “Once There Was a Little Girl” (January 1953) with art by Frank Kelly Freas. Having published stories in Weird Tales between 1926 and the mid-1950s, when the publication first gave up the ghost, Worrell is considered the magazine’s most frequent contributor over such a long expanse of time. Worrell’s daughter recounted that her parents “had the walls of their apartment decorated with the artwork for her stories and the covers of issues of Weird Tales. When I was born, however, they thought they’d better take the pictures down because they didn’t want to frighten the baby!”
About the Narrator
Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath PseudoPod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.
Scott is an associate editor at PseudoPod starting in 2016, He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets. He become Web Wrangler in 2021, and promoted to Assistant Editor in 2022. He is an invaluable resource for not only his assistance with reviewing stories but also helping to build all the blog posts and ensuring our website and bios are up to date.