"THE GODDESS OF DEATH"
by William Hope Hodgson
It was in the latter end of November when I reached T_____worth to find the little town almost in a panic. In answer to my half-jesting inquiry as to whether the French were attempting to land, I was told a harrowing tale of some restless statute that had a habit of running amuck among the worthy townspeople. Nearly a dozen had already fallen victims, the first having been pretty Sally Morgan, the town belle.
These and other matters I learnt. Wherever I went it was the same story. “Good Heavens! what ignorance, what superstition!” This I thought, imagining that they were the dupes of some murderous rogue. Afterwards I was to change my mind. I gathered that the tragedies had all happened in some park near by, where, during the day, this Walking Marble rested innocently enough upon its pedestal.
Though I scouted the story of the walking statue, I was greatly interested in the matter. Already it had come to me to look into it and show these benighted people how mistaken they had been; besides, the thing promised some excitement. As I strolled through the town I laughed, picturing to myself the absurdity of some people believing in a walking marble statute. Pooh! What fools there are! Arriving at my hotel, I was pleased to learn from my landlord that my old friend and schoolmate, William Turner, had been staying there for some time.
That evening while I was at dinner he burst into my room, and was delighted at seeing me.
“I’ve suppose you’ve heard of the town bogey by now?” he said presently, dropping his voice. “It’s a dangerous enough bogey, and we’re all puzzled to explain how on earth it has escaped detection so long. Of course,” he went on, “this story about the walking statue is all rubbish, though it’s surprising what a number of people believe it.”
“What do you say to trying our hands at catching it?” I said. “There would be a little excitement, and we should be doing the town a public benefit.”
Will smiled. “I’m game if you are, Herton—we could take a stroll in the park to-night, if you like; perhaps we might see something.”
“Right,” I answered heartily. “What time do you propose going?”
Will pulled out his watch. “It’s half-past eight now; shall we say eleven o’clock? It ought to be late enough then.”
I assented and invited him to join me at my wine. He did so, and we passed the time away very pleasantly in reminiscences of old times.
“What about weapons?” I asked presently. “I suppose it will be advisable to take something in that line?”
For answer Will unbuttoned his coat, and I saw the gleam of a brace of pistols. I nodded, and, going to my trunk, opened it and showed him a couple of beautiful little pistols I often carried. Having loaded them, I put them in my side pockets. Shortly afterwards, eleven chimed, and getting into our cloaks, we left the house.
It was very cold, and a wintry wind moaned through the night. As we entered the park, we involuntarily kept closer together.
Somehow, my desire for adventure seemed to be ebbing away, and I wanted to get out from the place, and into the lighted streets.
“We’ll just have a look at the statue,” said Will; “then home and to bed.”
A few minutes later we reached a little clearing among the bushes.
“Here we are,” Will whispered. “I wish the moon would come out a moment; it would enable us to get a glance at the thing.” He peered into the gloom on our right. “I’m hanged,” he muttered, “if I can see it at all!”
Glancing to our left, I noticed that the path now led along the edge of a steep slope, at the bottom of which, some considerable distance below us, I caught the gleam of water.
“The park lake,” Will explained in answer to a short query on my part. “Beastly deep too!”
He turned away, and we both gazed into the dark gap among the bushes.
A moment afterwards the clouds cleared for an instant, and a ray of light struck down full upon us, lighting up the little circle of bushes and showing the clearing plainly. It was only a momentary gleam, but quite sufficient. There stood a pedestal great and black; but there was no statue upon it!
Will gave a quick gasp, and for a minute we stood stupidly; then we commenced to retrace our steps hurriedly. Neither of us spoke. As we moved we granted fearfully from side to side. Nearly half the return journey was accomplished, when, happening to look behind me, I saw in the dim shadows to my left the bushes part, and a huge, white, carven face, crowned with black, suddenly protrude.
I gave a sharp cry and reeled backwards. Will turned. “Oh, mercy upon us!” I heard him shout, and he started to run.
The Thing came out of the shadow. It looked like a giant. I stood rooted; then it came towards me, and I turned and ran. In the hands I had seen something that looked like a twisted cloth. Will was some dozen yards ahead. Behind, silent and vast, ran that awful being.
We neared the park entrance. I looked over my shoulder. It was gaining on us rapidly. Onwards we tore. A hundred yards further lay the gates; and safety in the lighted streets. Would we do it? Only fifty yards to go, and my chest seemed bursting. The distance shortened. The gates were close to. …We were through. Down the street we ran; then turned to look. It had vanished.
“Thank Heaven!” I gasped, panting heavily.
A minute later Will said: “What a blue funk we’ve been in.” I said nothing. We were making towards the hotel. I was bewildered and wanted to get by myself to think.
Next morning, while I was sitting dejectedly at breakfast, Will came in. We looked at one another shamefacedly. Will sat down. Presently he spoke:
“What cowards we are!”
I said nothing. It was too true; and the knowledge weighed on me like lead.
“Look here!” and Will spoke sharply and sternly. “We’ve got to go through with this matter to the end, if only for our own sakes.”
I glanced at him eagerly. His determined tone seemed to inspire me with fresh hope and courage.
“What we’ve got to do first,” he continued, “is to give that marble god a proper overhauling, and make sure no one has been playing tricks with us—perhaps it’s possible to move it in some way.”
I rose from the table, and went to the window. It had snowed heavily the preceding day, and the ground was covered with an even layer of white. As I looked out, a sudden idea came to me, and I turned quickly to Will.
“The snow!” I cried. “It will show the footprints, if there are any.”
Will stared, puzzled.
“Round the statue,” I explained, “if we go at once.”
He grasped my meaning, and stood up. A few minutes later we were striding out briskly for the Park. A sharp walk brought us to the place. As we came in sight, I gave a cry of astonishment. The pedestal was occupied by a figure, identical with the thing that had chased us the night before. There it stood, erect and rigid, its sightless eyes glaring into space.
Will’s face wore a look of expectation.
“See,” he said, “it’s back again. It cannot have managed that by itself, and we shall see by the footprints how many scoundrels there are in the affair.”
He moved forward across the snow. I followed. Reaching the pedestal, we made a careful examination of the ground; but to our utter perplexity the snow was undisturbed. Next, we turned our attention to the figure itself, and though Will, who had seen it often before, searched carefully, he could find nothing amiss.
This it must be remembered, was my first sight of it, for—now that my mind was rational—I would not admit, even to myself, that what we had seen in the darkness was anything more than a masquerade, intended to lead people to the belief that it was the dead marble they saw walking.
Seen in the broad daylight, the thing looked what it was, a marble statue, intended to represent some deity. Which, I could not tell; and when I asked Will he shook his head.
In height it might have been eight feet, or perhaps a trifle under. The face was large—as indeed was the whole figure—and in expression cruel to the last degree.
Above his brow was a large, strangely shaped headdress, carved out of some jet-black substance. The body was carved from a single block of milk-white marble, and draped gracefully and plainly in a robe confined at the waist by a narrow black girdle. The arms drooped loosely by the sides, and in the right hand hung a twisted cloth of a similar hue to the girdle. The left was empty and half gripped.
Will had always spoken of the statue as a god. Now, however, as my eyes ran over the various details, a doubt formed itself in my mind, and I suggested to Will that he was possibly mistaken as to the intended sex of the image.
For a moment he looked interested; then remarked gloomily that he didn’t see it mattered much whether the thing was a man-god or a woman-god. The point was, had it the power to come off its pedestal or not?
I looked at him reproachfully.
“Surely you are not really going to believe that silly superstition?” I expostulated.
He shook his head moodily. “No, but can you or anyone else explain away last night’s occurrences in any ordinary manner?”
To this there was no satisfactory reply, so I held my tongue.
“Pity,” remarked Will presently, “that we know so little about this god. And the one man who might have enlightened us dead and gone—goodness knows where!”
“Who’s that?” I queried.
“Oh, of course. I was forgetting, you don’t know! Well, it’s the way: For some years an old Indian colonel, called Whigman, lived here. He was a queer old stick, and absolutely refused to have anything to do with anybody. In fact, with the exception of an old Hindoo serving-man, he saw no one. About nine months ago he and his servant were found brutally murdered—strangled, so the doctors said. And now comes the most surprising part of it all. In his will he had left the whole of his huge estate to the citizens of T_____worth to be used as a park.”
“Strangled, I think you said?” and I looked at Will questioningly.
He glanced at me a moment absently, then the light of comprehension flashed across his face. He looked startled. “Jove! You don’t mean that?”
“I do though, old chap. The murder of these others has in every case been accomplished by strangling—their bodies, so you’ve told me, have shown that much. Then there are other things that point to my theory being the right one.”
“What! you really think that the Colonel met his death at the same hands as---?”
He did not finish.
I nodded assent.
“Well, if you are correct, what about the length of time between them and Sally Morgan’s murder—seven months, isn’t it—and not a soul hurt all that time, and now--” He threw up his arms with an expressive gesture.
“Heaven knows!” I replied, “I don’t.”
For some length of time we discussed the matter in all its bearings, but without arriving at any satisfactory conclusion.
On our way back to town Will showed me a tiny piece of white marble which he had surreptitiously chipped from the statue. I examined it closely. Yes, it was marble, and somehow the certainty of that seemed to give us more confidence.
“Marble is marble,” Will said, “and it’s ridiculous to suppose anything else.” I did not attempt to deny this.
During the next few days we paid visits to the park, but without result. The statue remained as we had left it.
A week passed. Then, one morning early, before the dawn, we were roused by a frightful scream, followed by a cry of deepest agony. It ended in a murmuring gurgle, and all was silent.
Without hesitation, we seized pistols, and with lighted candles rushed from our rooms to the great entrance door. This we hurriedly opened. Outside, the night was very quiet. It had been snowing and the ground was covered with a sheet of white.
For a moment we saw nothing. Then we distinguished the form of a woman lying across the steps leading up to the door. Running out, we seized her and carried her into the hall. There we recognized her as one of the waitresses of the hotel. Will turned back her collar and exposed the throat, showing a livid weal round it.
He was very serious, and his voice trembled, though not with fear, as he spoke to me. “We must dress and follow the tracks; there is no time to waste.” He smiled gravely. “I don’t think we shall do the running away this time.”
At this moment the landlord appeared. On seeing the girl, and hearing our story, he seemed thunderstruck with fear and amazement, and could do nothing save wring his hands helplessly. Leaving him with the body, we went to our rooms and dressed quickly; then down again into the hall, where we found a crowd of fussy womenfolk around the poor victim.
In the taproom I heard voices, and pushing my way in, discovered several of the serving men discussing the tragedy in excited tones. As they turned at my entrance, I called to them to know who would volunteer to accompany us. At once a strongly-built young fellow stepped forward, followed, after a slight hesitation, by two older men. Then, as we had sufficient for our purpose, I told them to get heavy sticks and bring lanterns.
As soon as they were ready we sallied out: Will and I first, the others following and keeping well together. The night was not particularly dark—the snow seemed to lighten it. At the bottom of High Street one of the men gave a short gasp, and pointed ahead.
There, dimly seen, and stealing across the snow with silent strides, was a giant form draped in white. Signing to the men to keep quiet, we ran quickly forward, the snow muffling our footsteps. We neared it rapidly. Suddenly Will stumbled and fell forward on his face, one of his pistols going off with the shock.
Instantly the Thing ahead looked round, and next moment was bounding from us in great leaps. Will was on his feet in a second, and, with a muttered curse at his own clumsiness, joined in the chase again. Through the park gates it went, and we followed hard. As we got nearer, I could plainly see the black headdress, and in the right hand there was a dark something; but what struck me most was the enormous size of the thing; it was certainly quite as tall as the marble goddess.
On we went. We were within a hundred feet of it when it stopped dead and turned towards us, and never shall I forget the fear that chilled me, for there, from head to foot, perfect in every detail, stood the marble goddess. At the movement, we had brought up standing; but now I raised a pistol and fired. That seemed to break the spell, and like one man we leapt forward. As we did so, the thing circled like a flash, and resumed its flight at a speed that bade fair to leave us behind in short time.
Then the thought came to me to head it off. This I did by sending the three men round to the right-hand side of the park lake, while Will and I continued the pursuit. A minute later, the monster disappeared around a bend in the path; but this troubled me little, as I felt convinced that it would blunder right into the arms of the men, and they would turn it back, and then—ah! then this mystery and horror would be solved.
On we ran. A minute, perhaps, passed. All at once I heard a hoarse cry ahead followed by a loud scream, which ceased suddenly. With fear plucking at my heart, I spurted forward, Will close behind. Round the corner we burst, and I saw the two men bending over something on the ground.
“Have you got it?” I shouted excitedly. The men turned quickly, and, seeing me, beckoned hurriedly. A moment later I was with them, and kneeling alongside a silent form. Alas! it was the brave young fellow who had been the first to volunteer. His neck seemed to be broken. Standing up, I turned to the men for an explanation.
“It was this way, sir; Johnson, that’s him,” nodding to the dead man, “he was smarter on his legs than we be, and he got ahead. Just before we reached him we heered him shout. We was close behind, and I don’t think it could ha’ been half a minute before we was up and found him.”
“Did you see anything---” I hesitated. I felt sick. Then I continued, “anything of That—you know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir; leastways, my mate did. He saw it run across to those bushes an’--”
“Come on, Will,” I cried, without waiting to hear more; and throwing the light of our lanterns ahead of us, we burst into the shrubberies. Scarcely had we gone a dozen paces when the light struck full upon a towering figure. There was a crash, and my lantern was smashed all to pieces. I was thrown to the ground, and something slid through the bushes. Springing to the edge, we were just in time to catch sight of it running in the direction of the lake. Simultaneously we raised our pistols and fired. As the smoke cleared away, I saw the Thing bound over the railings into the water. A faint splash was borne to our ears, then—silence.
Hurriedly we ran to the spot, but could see nothing.
“Perhaps we hit it,” I ventured.
“You forget,” laughed Will hysterically, “marble won’t float.”
“Don’t talk rubbish,” I answered angrily. Yet I felt that I would have given something to know what it was really.
For some minutes we waited; then, as nothing came to view, we moved away towards the gate—the mean going on ahead, carrying their dead comrade. Our way lead past the little clearing where the statue stood. It was still dark when we reached it.
“Look, Herton, look!” Will’s voice rose to a shriek. I turned sharply. I had been lost momentarily in perplexing thought. Now, I saw that we were right opposite the place of the marble statue, and Will was shining the light of the lantern in its direction; but it showed me nothing save the pedestal, bare and smooth.
I glanced at Will. The lantern was shaking visibly in his grasp. Then I looked towards the pedestal again in a dazed manner. I stepped up to it and passed my hand slowly over the top. I felt very queer.
After that, I walked round it once or twice, No use! there was no mistake this time. My eyes showed me nothing, save that vacant place, where, but a few hours previously, had stood the massive marble.
Silently we left the spot. The men had preceded us with their sad burden. Fortunately, in the dim light, they had failed to note the absence of the goddess.
Dawn was breaking as in mournful procession we entered the town. Already the news seemed to have spread, and quite a body of the town people escorted us to the hotel.
During the day a number of men went up to the park, armed with hammers, intending to destroy the statue, but returned later silent and awestruck, declaring that it had disappeared bodily, only the great altar remaining.
I was feeling unwell. The shock thoroughly upset me, and a sense of helplessness assailed me.
About midnight, feeling worn out, I went to bed. It was late on the following morning when I woke with a start. An idea had some to me, and, rising, I dressed quickly and went downstairs. In the bar I found the landlord, and to him I applied for information as to where the library of the late Colonel Whigman had been removed.
He scratched his head a moment reflectively.
“I couldn’t rightly say, sir; but I know Mr. Jepson, the town clerk, will be able to, and I daresay he wouldn’t mind telling you anything you might want to know.”
Having inquired where I was likely to meet this official, I set off, and in a short while found myself chatting to a pleasant, ruddy-faced man of about forty.
“The late colonel’s library!” he said genially, “certainly, come this way, Sir Horton,” and he ushered me into a long room, lined with books.
What I wanted was to find if the colonel had left among his library any diary or written record of his life in India. For a couple of hours I searched persistently. Then, just as I was giving up hope, I found it—a little green-backed book, filled with closely-written and crabbed writing.
Opening it, I found staring me in the face, a rough pen-and-ink sketch of—the marble goddess.
The following pages I read eagerly. They told a strange story of how, while engaged in the work of exterminating Thugs, the colonel and his men had found a large idol of white marble, quite unlike any Indian Deity the colonel had ever seen.
After a full description—in which I recognized once more the statue in Bungalow Park—there was some reference to an exciting skirmish with the priests of the temple, in which the colonel had a narrow escape from death at the hands of the high priest, “who was a most enormous man and mad with fury.”
Finally, having obtained possession, they found among other things that the Deity of the temple was another—and, to Europeans, unknown—form of Kali, the Goddess of Death. The temple itself being a sort of Holy of Holies of Thugdom, where they carried on their brutal and disgusting rites.
After this, the diary went on to say that, loath to destroy the idol, the colonel brought it back with him from Calcutta, having first demolished the temple in which it had been found.
Later, he found occasion to ship it off to England. Shortly after this his life was attempted, and, his time of service being up, he came home.
Here it ended, and yet I was no nearer to the solution than I had been when first I opened the book.
Standing up, I placed it on the table; then, as I reached for my hat, I noticed on the floor a half-sheet of paper, which had evidently fallen from the diary as I read. Stooping, I picked it up. It was soiled, and in parts illegible; but what I saw there filled me with astonishment. Here, at last, in my hands, I held the key to the horrible mystery that surrounded us!
Hastily I crumpled the paper into my pocket, and, opening the door, rushed from the room. Reaching the hotel, I bounded upstairs to where Will sat reading.
“I’ve found it out! I’ve found it out!” I gasped. Will sprang from his seat, his eyes blazing with excitement. I seized him by the arm and, without stopping to explain, dragged him hatless into the street.
“Come on,” I cried.
As we ran through the streets people looked up wonderingly, and many joined in the race.
At last we reached the open space and the open pedestal. Here I paused a moment to gain breath. Will looked at me curiously. The crowd formed round in a semi-circle, at some little distance.
Then without a word I stepped up to the altar, and, stooping, reached up under it. There was a loud click, and I sprang back sharply. Something rose from the center of the pedestal with a slow, stately movement. For a second no one spoke; then a great cry of fear came from the crowd: “The image! The image!” and some began to run. There was another click and Kali, the Goddess of Death, stood fully revealed.
Again I stepped up to the altar. The crowd watched me breathlessly and the timid ceased to fly. For a moment I fumbled. Then one side of the pedestal swung back. I held up my hand for silence. Someone procured a lantern, which I lit and lowered through the opening. It went down some ten feet, then rested on the earth beneath. I peered down, and as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I made out a square-shaped pit in the ground directly below the pedestal.
Will came to my side and looked over my shoulder.
“We must get a ladder,” he said. I nodded, and he sent a man for one. When it came we pushed it through until it rested firmly; then after a final survey, we climbed cautiously down.
I remember feeling surprised at the size of the place. It was as big as a good-sized room. At this moment, as I stood glancing round, Will called to me. His voice denoted great perplexity. Crossing over, I found him staring at a litter of things which strewed the ground: tins, bottles, cans, rubbish, a bucket with some water in it, and, further on, a kind of rude bed.
“Someone’s been living here!” and he looked at me blankly. “It wasn’t---” he began, then hesitated. “It wasn’t that after all,” and he indicated with his head.
“No,” I replied, “It wasn’t that.”
I assented. Will’s face was a study. Then he seemed to grasp the full significance of the fact, and a great look of relief crossed his features.
A moment later I made a discovery. On the left side in the far corner was a low curved entrance, like a small tunnel. On the opposite side was a similar opening. Lowering the lantern, I looked into the right-hand one, but could see nothing. By stooping somewhat we could walk along it, which we did for some distance, until it ended in a heap of stones and earth. Returning to the hollow under the pedestal, we tried the other, and, after a little, noticed that it trended steadily downwards.
“It seems to be going in the direction of the lake,” I remarked; “we had better be careful.”
A few feet further on the tunnel broadened and heightened considerably, and I saw a faint glimmer, which, on reaching, proved to be water.
“Can’t get any further,” Will cried. “You were right. We have got down to the level of the lake.”
“But what on earth was this tunnel designed for?” I asked, glancing around. “You see it reaches below the surface of the lake.”
“Goodness knows,” Will answered. I expect it was one of those secret passages made centuries ago—most likely in Crowell’s time. You see, Colonel Whigman’s was a very old place, built I can’t say how long ago. It belonged once to an old baron. However, there is nothing here; we might as well go.”
“Just a second, Will,” I said, the recollection of the statue’s wild leap into the lake at the moment recurring to me.
I stooped and held the lantern close over the water which blocked our further progress.
As I did so I thought I saw something of an indistinct whiteness floating a few inches beneath the surface. Involuntarily my left hand took a firmer grip of the lantern, and the fingers of my right hand opened out convulsively.
What was it I saw? I could feel myself becoming as icy cold as the water itself. I glanced at Will. He was standing disinterestedly a little behind me. Evidently he had, so far, seen nothing.
Again, I looked, and a horrible sensation of fear and awe crept over me as I seemed to see, staring up at me, the face of Kali, the goddess of Death.
“See, Will!” I said quickly. “Is it fancy?”
Following the direction of my grimace, he peered down into the gloomy water, then started back with a cry.
“What is it Herton? I seemed to see a face like---”
“Take the lantern, Will.” I said, as a sudden inspiration came to me: “I’ve an idea what it is”; and leaning forward, I plunged my arms in up to the elbows, and grasped something cold and hard. I shuddered, but held on, and pulled, and slowly up from the water rose a vast white face, which came away in my hands. It was a huge mask—an exact facsimile of the features of the statue above us.
Thoroughly shaken, we retreated to the pedestal with our trophy, and from thence up the ladder into the blessed daylight.
Here, to a crowd of eager listeners, we told our story; and so left it.
Little remains to be told.
Workmen were sent down, and from the water they drew forth the dead body of an enormous Hindoo, draped from head to foot in white. In the body were a couple of bullet wounds. Our fire had been true that night, and he had evidently died trying to enter the pedestal through the submerged opening of the passage.
Who we was, or where he came from, no one could explain.
Afterwards, among the colonel’s papers, we found a reference to the High Priest which led us to suppose that it was he, who, in vengeance for the sacrilege against his appalling deity, had, to such terrible purpose, impersonated Kali, the Goddess of Death.
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