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by C. A. Stearns


The Colonel’s young wife had suffered a bereavement that left her in that state of melancholia which is the first stage of insanity. Nothing could rouse her from her dull, listless brooding. The surgeon of the post, of course advised complete change of scene; but that was out of the question. Yet an immediate change of mental attitude was imperative. How could it be brought about?

While pondering deeply on this urgent problem, a chance word suggested to the Colonel a desperate expedient. Would it succeed? Might not the remedy prove more dangerous than the disease? Anything, he felt, would be better than that alarming lethargy.

Seating himself by his wife’s couch, he with difficulty secured her wandering attention, and this is the story he told:

At the close of a hot, sultry afternoon, threatening a thunderstorm, a young lieutenant of engineers, in charge of a government surveying party, had gone on some distance in advance of his men to select a camping place for the night. Emerging from the forest, he entered a glade of considerable size, bounded on one side by a perpendicular ledge of rock, fifteen or twenty feet in height. Following the ledge, he came upon a decaying log cabin, built against the rock. Only a part of the thickly moss-grown roof remained, and above it projected he trunk of a large tree, built into the log wall of the shack at one of its angles nearest the ledge.

Startled by the loneliness of this wreck of a human shelter in the dense wilderness, the lieutenant pushed open the door, hung on wooden pins, which creaked dismally as it stiffly yielded. The earthen floor was littered with fragments of the broken roof and a few rusty cooking utensils. There were a mouldy table and bench, roughly hewn from tree trunks, and a three-legged stool. At the rear, which he had naturally expected to find of solid rock, the wooden wall was continued, and no light came through the wide chinks from which the clay had fallen out. From a common centre in the largest of these crannies charred streaks radiated, as though burnt into the solid wood by tongues of flame.

As the young engineer stood there gazing around the mouldering ruin, he wondered vaguely why he should care to waste a moment in such a desolate and uninviting spot. Yet he could not make up his mind to go. The daylight seemed to fade away, and was replaced by a strange, dull, yellowish glare. Several times he resolved to leave, but still he stayed. In a little while he felt a sensation of numbness in his feet. His eyelids grew heavy and drowsiness stole over him, bringing with it the terrible paralysis of nightmare. He felt that he could not move if he tried — and dared not try.

Just then a distant shout came to his ears. It drew nearer and nearer, and the surveyors, crossing the glade in search of him, reached the open door, hanging on one of its pegs. With feet as heavy as lead he stepped over its threshold and almost with effusion greeted Sergeant Lawson, the hardest-leaded man in the party, who came up first. The sergeant stared at him and into the gloomy hut, and lingered, looking curiously after the lieutenant, as with ever-lightening feet he led the men away from the cabin to a camping spot at some distance.

When camp was pitched, the lieutenant gave orders that the men should be waked and camp broken at half-past three in the morning, for a long march before breakfast in the cool of the day. As they sat about the fire after supper, enjoying a short smoke before turning in, the lieutenant could not keep his thoughts from the deserted cabin and his strange experience there. Pointing with his pipestem, he said to Lawson:

Queer old shack over there.”

The sergeant nodded and continued to look at him steadily with such an expression that the officer felt impelled to relate what had happened to him. Again Lawson nodded, knocked the ashes from his own pipe and said:

I went in myself and had exactly the same sensations.”

Each continued to look steadily into the other’s face. They were men of action, not words. At length the lieutenant said:

There’s a moon for an hour before daylight, and an hour’s sleep won’t be missed—even if we can sleep. What do you say to an exploration of the ruined cabin before we march?”  

It was so agreed.

When they stood again in the moonlight before the old hut, half buried in its mossy shroud, an unaccountable depression crept over them, like a miasmatic fog. Entering silently, they sat down on the bench, and looked about as their eyes became accustomed to the darkness. The moonlight, filtering through the broken roof, grew dimmer and dimmer as they gazed, and was gradually replaced by the faint, yellowish light they seen in the afternoon, like that of the sun in an eclipse. The symptoms they had before experienced returned — the tingling sensation in the feet, creeping up through the body. Then the yellow light itself failed, and they were left in pitchy darkness. Both men fumbled for matches, but their fingers were numb and useless, and they felt the same dreadful numbness stealing over their senses.

At that moment they were startled into consciousness by an awful sight. At the point among the logs of the rear wall where the lieutenant had noticed the charred streaks, a straight, dagger-shaped dart of flame shot downward toward the floor and remained there quivering. Then a second flashed and wavered beside the first. They gave out a lurid, sulphurous light, like flames seen through a dense fog or smoke. Rapidly this smoky light, pouring through the crevices, shaped itself, until there appeared before them, nebulous but distinct, a towering form in the semblance of humanity. It seemed to glow with fiercest heat, yet far from giving warmth, it only added to the deathly chill. As the lieutenant saw that fearful shape, solidifying out of the fiery vapor, he was assailed by an unreasoning, overwhelming, unconquerable fear. He groped toward his companion, who sat rigid as marble, and laid a cold hand upon his arm. At his touch he trooper shrieked and dropped to the floor, leaving his officer alone with the Shape.

[As the Colonel’s low, impressive tones put vivid life into this thrilling verbal picture, he noted the light of concentrated attention in the eyes of his wife, followed by the welcome gleam of returning interest in human affairs.].

There the lieutenant sat, continued the narrator, his gaze held by a horrible fascination. He tried to speak, to stir, to move. He could not lift a finger. Not a muscle would answer his will. Even his eyes followed the quivering, swaying form of fire without his control.

The Shape grew more and more into the likeness of a human being of malignant type. Its color changed to a pale, greenish tint, like the phosphorescence of decaying wood. Faintly outlined in this dreadful medium could be traced a sunken, retreating brow, shadowed by a mat of hair, a hawklike nose, and long, wolfish teeth gleaming through a drooping moustache above a brutal jaw.

The eyes, compared with the face, seemed dark spots, yet they glistened with a ghastly light of their own. The engineer officer was conscious that those glowing orbs, bursting into intermittent flame like the embers of a dying fire, were fixed upon him with consuming hatred, and he vainly tried to evade their baleful glare.

His strength was slipping away with his enthralled volition, but he feared not bodily harm as much as he dreaded the assault and capture of his will, for he realized that some more potent psychic force than he possessed was striving to wrest from him his individuality. Physical death were welcome, compared with the unspeakable horror of the annihilation of his soul, as the result of its obsession by demoniac powers.

He struggled to retain his reason. With an effort of will that brought the dew of agony to his brow, he almost flung himself upright upon his feet, in an effort to escape. As he did so, the hideous Shape advanced, projected by the weird flames playing through the gaping chinks of the rear wall, and crept stealthily forward like an animal seeking its prey. The lieutenant could in fancy feel those horrible fangs piercing his very soul. As the dread Form was upon him, he instinctively threw up his arm, as if to ward off a physical blow, when a shock — a searing of the flesh as at the touch of liquid air — an etching jet of flame that burned to the bone, ran through his wrist. Then he felt himself caught and dragged over the ground.

When he looked about with returning consciousness, he found himself surrounded by his men, some yards from the crumbling cabin, with Lawson stretched upon the grass, still unconscious. Missing the lieutenant and the sergeant at the hour set for breaking camp, the surveyors, attracted by a bright light in the ruined shack, had sought and found them there, insensible, and apparently overcome by mephitic fumes that filled the place. Both were as weak as though convalescing from a lingering fever, and the early morning march was abandoned.

By sunrise the leaders had so far recovered as to superintend the demolition of the cabin in which they had suffered such frightful fear. When the rotting log walls were thrown down and burnt, an extraordinary sight was revealed. As the blazing logs fell away from the face of the cliff, it was seen that the rear wall — in which there had been a movable section on pegs like the entrance door —masked a second chamber, a cavern in the rock. There was a rude fireplace in it, deep with ashes. Over it hung iron hooks and pots; crucibles and various instruments and utensils were scattered about. Beyond the fireplace and a rough workbench something was vaguely outlined in the dim light. Approached with a torch, it proved to be a human skeleton of unusual height, whose bleached bones were cracked and distorted. It was complete, except the feet, which were missing. The stumps of the ankle bones rested in a deep vat, sunk in the floor of the cave. One bony hand, split and blackened, grasped a wire that connected with the great growing tree trunk in the cabin wall.

 It was with feelings of awe that the little party gazed at this strange sight, but the two leaders were glad to find themselves entirely free from the oppressive symptoms which had overpowered them when on the spot before. They looked at each other intently in silence, but afterwards exchanged confidences.

Was that the last page in the dread history of some student of unknown forces—some searcher into forbidden mysteries — trapped to his death amid the strange devices of his unholy occupation? It seemed so. Eagerly absorbed in some experiment while a great storm was raging without, his feet by an awful accident had slipped into the vat, containing no one knows what rightful mixture. To save himself, he had grasped the wire attached to the tree, which at that moment, by some strange chance or merited fatality, was riven by lightning, which followed the wire and passed through his body.

 Had the sultry summer air, heavily charged with electricity, enabled the restless spirit of the sorcerer to utilize again that fateful circuit, impregnate the very ground with a resistless, benumbing power, and materialize itself electrically into the lambent, flaming figure they had seen? So they always believed, and the deep scar, an inch long, in the lieutenant’s wrist, which he will carry to his grave, confirms him in that belief.

The Colonel’s wife started up as he concluded his story, and following her gaze, his eyes also rested on a livid scar on his own right hand, reaching from the base of the thumb to the wrist.

“O Richard!” she cried, rising and walking the room in her excitement, “I know at last the secret of that dreadful burn. It was you who suffered that awful experience. Oh, what if I had lost you too!”

Raising his eyes to hers, he saw with joy the wholesome brightness of sanity and health. As she sprang to her feet, the shackles of her morbid fancies dropped away, and she stood there glowing, once more the winsome and vivacious bride. The story had cured her.




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All text contents of these pages copyright © 2008 by R.J. Warren, all rights reserved.

All graphic contents of these pages copyright © 2008 by R.J. Warren, all rights reserved.