The Will of Claude Ashur
C. Hall Thompson, 1947
One of the earliest “Lovecraft Mythos”* stories to be published after H. P. Lovecraft’s untimely death in 1937 at age 46, “The Will of Claude Ashur” was originally published in Weird Tales Magazine in July 1947—one of only four stories written by C. hall Thomoson, it is considered a fine example of the type of tale Lovecraft’s fiction would inspire in other authors into the 20th century and beyond.
They have locked me in. A moment since, for what well may have been the last time, I heard the clanking of the triple-bolts as they were shot into place. The door to this barren white chamber presents no extraordinary appearance, but it is plated with impenetrable steel. The executives of the Institution have gone to great pains to ensure the impossibility of escape. They know my record. They have listed me among those patients who are dangerous and “recurrently violent.” I haven’t contradicted them; it does no good to tell them that my violence is long since spent; that I have no longer the inclination nor the strength requisite to make yet another attempted break for freedom. They cannot understand that my freedom meant something to me only so long as there was hope of saving Gratia Thane from the horror that returned from the flesh-rotting brink of the grave to reclaim her. Now, that hope is lost; there is nothing left but the welcome release of death. I can die as well in an insane asylum as elsewhere.
Today, the examinations, both physical and mental, were quickly dispensed with. They were a formality; routine gone through “for the record.” The doctor has left. He wasn’t the man who usually examines me. I presume he is new at the Institution. He was a tiny man, fastidiously dressed, with a narrow, flushed face and a vulgar diamond stickpin. There were lines of distaste and fear about his mouth from the moment he looked into the loathsome mask that is my face. Doubtless one of the white-suited attendants warned him of the particular horror of my case. I didn’t resent it when he came no nearer me than necessary. Rather, I pitied the poor devil for the awkwardness of his situation; I have known men of obviously stronger stomach to stumble away from the sight of me, retching with sick terror. My name, the unholy whisperings of my story, the remembrance of the decaying, breathing half-corpse that I am, are legendary in the winding gray halls of the Asylum. I cannot blame them for being relieved by the knowledge that they will soon shed the burden I have been—that, before long, they will consign this unhuman mass of pulsating flesh to maggots and oblivion.
Before the doctor left, he wrote something in his notebook; there would be the name: Claude Ashur. Under today’s date he has written only a few all-explanatory words. “Prognosis negative. Hopelessly insane. Disease in most advanced stage. Demise imminent.”
Watching the slow, painful progress of his pen across the paper, I experienced one last temptation to speak. I was overwhelmed with a violent need to scream out my now-familiar protest to this new man, in the desperate hope that he might believe me. The blasphemous words welled for an instant in my throat, sending forth a thick nasal sob. Quickly, the doctor glanced up, and the apprehensive loathing of his gaze told me the truth. It would do no good to speak. He was like all the rest, with their soothing voices and unbelieving smiles. He would listen to the hideous nightmare that is the story of Gratia and my brother and myself, and, in the end, he would nod calmly, more convinced than ever that I was stark, raving mad. I remained silent. The last flame of hope guttered and died. I knew in that moment, that no one would ever believe that I am not Claude Ashur.
Claude Ashur is my brother.
Do not misunderstand me. This is no mundane instance of confused identity. It is something infinitely more evil. It is a horror conceived and realized by a warped brain bent upon revenge; a mind in league with the powers of darkness, attuned to the whimpering of lost, forbidden rites and incantations. No one ever could have mistaken me for Claude Ashur. To the contrary, from the earliest days of our childhood, people found it difficult to believe that we were brothers. There could not have been two creatures more unlike than he and I. If you will imagine the average boy and man, the medium-built creature of normal weight and nondescript features, whose temperament is safely, if somewhat dully balanced—in short, the product of normalcy—you will have before you a portrait of myself. My brother, Claude, was the precise antithesis of all these things.
He was always extremely delicate of health, and given to strange moodiness. His head seemed too large for the fragility of his body, and his face was constantly shadowed by a pallor that worried my father dreadfully.
His nose was long and thin with supersensitive nostril-volutes, and his eyes, set well apart in deep sockets, held a sort of mirthless brilliance. From the outset, I was the stronger as well as the elder, and yet it was always Claude with his frail body and powerful will who ruled Inneswich Priory.
At a certain point in the road that fingers its way along the lifeless, Atlantic-clawed stretches of the Northern New Jersey coast, the unsuspecting traveler may turn off into a bramble-clotted byway. There is (or was, at one time), a signpost pointing inland that proclaims: “INNESWICH—½ MILE.” Not many take that path today. People who know that part of the country give wide berth to Inneswich and the legends that hang like a slimy caul over the ancient coastal village. They have heard infamous tales of the Priory that lies on the northernmost edge of Inneswich, and of late years, the town, the Priory, the few intrepid villagers who cling to their homes, have fallen into ill-repute. Things were different in the days before the coming of Claude Ashur.
My father, Edmund Ashur, was the pastor of the Inneswich Lutheran Church; he had come to the Priory, a timid, middle-aged man with his young bride, two years before I was born. The night Claude Ashur was born Inneswich Priory became the house of death.
The night Claude was born. I have never really thought of it that way; to me, it has always been the night my mother died. Even I, child that I was, had been caught in the web of the pervading sense of doom that hung over Inneswich Priory all that day. A damp sea-breeze, smelling of rain, had swept westward, and perforce, I had spent the day indoors. The house had been uncannily quiet, with only the muffled footfalls of my father, pacing in the library, trying to smile when his gaze chanced to meet mine. I did not know, then, that the time for the accouchement was near. I knew only that, in the last weeks, my mother had been too pale, and the huge, cold rooms seemed lonely for her laughter. Toward nightfall, the village physician, a round apple-cheeked man named Ellerby, was summoned; he brought me taffy from the general store as he always did, and shortly after he disappeared up the wide staircase, I was packed off to bed. For what seemed like hours I lay in the dark, while a leaden bulwark of clouds rolled inland with the storm. Rain lashing against my casement, I fell to sleep at last, crying because my mother hadn’t come to kiss me goodnight.
I thought it was the screaming that woke me. I know, now, that the pain-torn cries had died long-since with my mother’s last shuddering breath. Perhaps some final plaintive echo had slithered along the blackened halls finding my sleep-fogged, child’s brain at last. A cold, nameless terror numbed me as I crept down the winding carpeted stairs. At the newelpost, a soft, desperate lost sound stopped me. And then, through the open library door, I saw them. My father was sunken in a leather armchair by the fireless grate; candlelight wavered on the hands that covered his face. Uncontrollable sobs wracked his bowed shoulders. After a moment, his face more solemn and pallid than I had ever seen it, Dr. Ellerby came from the shadow beyond my view. His thin, ineffectual hand touched Father’s arm gently. His voice was thick.
“I … I know how little words help, Edmund … I just want you to know, I did all I could. Mrs. Ashur was …” He shrugged his plump shoulders in impotent rage at fate. “She just wasn’t strong enough. It was odd; as if the baby were too much for her—too powerful—taking all the strength, the will from her. It was as if …”
His words withered into nothingness, and crawling abysmal darkness clawed me. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Fear and loneliness knotted in my chest. I could barely breathe. Years later, the completion of that last unfinished sentence of Ellerby’s became horribly clear to me. “It was as if he had killed her, so that he could live …”
They buried Mother in a shaded corner of the graveyard behind the church. The villagers came and stood in the needling downpour, their heads bowed in voiceless grief. And through all of it, irreverent and demanding, came the belligerent howling of the infant Claude; there was something blasphemous and terribly wrong about those dominant cries. It was as though, somehow, this dark-browed bawling child was an intimate of death and felt no need to grieve or be frightened in the face of it.
From that day forth, Inneswich Priory was Claude Ashur’s private domain. It is true that the howling, open belligerence soon quieted, and even in his early boyhood, Claude’s voice attained an unusually sibilant modulation. But, never did it become less dominant. On the contrary, the very calm softness of it seemed to lend it more strength, more power to influence the listener. It was Claude’s will, not his voice, that ruled the Priory and everyone in it. The voice was merely an instrument of the will.
My father was Claude’s slave. All the tender unpretentious love he had given my mother before her death was now lavished on Claude. I believe Father saw in him a final remembrance of the gentle creature whose grave was never bare of flowers. I was sorry for Father. For, from the outset, that brooding, frail creature seemed not to need love or help. All his life, Claude Ashur was coldly self-sufficient, and completely capable of getting anything he wanted.
Worry over the dubious condition of Claude’s health led my father into further extravagances. Rather than send Claude to school, which would necessitate his leaving the gloomy protection of the Priory, Father brought in a series of tutors. The plan was never a success. Time and again, it started off well, and some bookish, middle-aged man or woman would think that he or she had a perfectly priceless berth at the Priory. The tutelage of one boy seemed like the easiest job in the world. But, invariably, the tutors eventually developed a violent dislike, hidden or overt, for Claude. They never remained at Inneswich Priory more than a fortnight. Often, when one of them had just gone, I would chance to look up from the garden to find Claude’s pale, thin face framed in a window. The colorless lips were always haunted by a satisfied, malignant smile. And, once more, the brash intruder cast out, the furtive shadow of my brother’s isolationism would settle, shroud-like, over the Priory.
In the East Wing of Inneswich Priory, beyond a massive, baroque door, lay a chamber I had never seen. Unholy stories of that room have haunted the hamlet of Inneswich since one ghastly night late in the eighteenth century. My father never spoke of the awesome legends that cluttered, murmuring obscenely, behind that carven portal. It was enough for him that, for more than a hundred years, the room had been sealed off and forgotten. But, Claude and I had heard others—the hired help who came by day from the village to the Priory—whisper the hideous details many times, seeming to relish the vicarious thrill they experienced while discussing past and hidden evil.
In the year 1793, one Jabez Driesen, then pastor of Inneswich Church, returned from a sabbatical spent in Europe. He brought with him the woman he had met and married on the Continent. There are written reports of her beauty in the archives of the library at Inneswich, but, for the most part, they are at cross-purposes and garbled. On one issue alone, every report is in accord. The wife of Jabez Driesen was a secret disciple of witchcraft; she had been born in some obscure Hungarian village of ill-repute, and it was whispered through the streets of Inneswich that this sorceress—this consort of the darkness—must die. The whispering grew to an open protest that reached Jabez Driesen’s ears, and one night a frantic, witless crone who served the Driesens ran screaming from the Priory. Investigating the reason for her babbling hysteria, the villagers found the answer in that chamber in the East Wing. The charred remains of Jabez Driesen’s bride were discovered, manacled to a stake in the tremendous, ancient fireplace, and, swinging noiselessly from one of the massive, hand-squared ceiling beams, was the corpse of the pastor of Inneswich Church. Next day, the bodies were removed and buried, and the room was sealed. When Claude Ashur was twelve years of age, he claimed that chamber for his own.
Father was more worried than ever; at last, he openly admitted that he was frightened of Claude’s tendency to isolationism. With the acquisition of the room in the East Wing, Claude withdrew almost entirely from the outer world. There was something alarming and unhealthy in the way he spent whole days and nights alone in his inviolable sanctum. The heavy, exquisitely carved door was kept locked at all times. Occasionally, on clear, dry days, Claude would wander aimlessly for hours along the bleached desert of the beach; he always carried the key to that door with him. Prompted by my own curiosity and my father’s concern, I tried often to find some basis of mutual interest that would draw me closer to Claude—that would put me in a position where I might learn the nature of the secrets he hid so jealously in his lonely, ghost-ridden room. Once or twice, I even made a move to join him in his solitary expeditions along the edge of the sea. His dark, resentful taciturnity soon made it obvious that I wasn’t welcome. In the end, nagged by a vague sense of frustration, I gave it up. I should probably never have had the courage to defy Claude, and break into the forbidden chamber, had it not been for my Irish setter, Tam.
Aware, as he was, of my affection for dogs, on the eve of my twenty-second birthday, Father presented me with Tam. Then little more than a year old, the dog was already well-trained; he had the keen intelligence, the gentle eyes, the shining russet hair that somehow set his breed in a special niche. In no time at all, Tam and I were inseparable companions. Wherever I went, Tam was at my heels. His coltish, often hilarious adventures served to lighten somewhat the gloom that had coated Inneswich Priory like some loathsome, smothering scum that happiness and sunlight could not penetrate. And, from the moment he laid eyes on him, Claude resented Tam.
As though by some inborn instinct, the dog avoided my brother on every possible occasion. It was nothing new. Without exception, animals of every sort displayed an often vicious aversion to Claude. It was as if their antediluvian sensitiveness warned them against some buried evil of which the duller senses of humans were unaware. Generally, this open enmity caused nothing but a rather sardonic amusement on Claude’s part. But, in the case of Tam, he seemed unusually irritated. Perhaps it was because, unwittingly, the dog was violating the domain so long controlled by Claude’s will alone. In any event, in a manner that somehow roused uneasy suspicion in me, he made an unwonted effort to befriend Tam.
On that particular afternoon, Tam and I had been having our habitual romp in the ash-shaded quiet of the Priory garden. I remember laughing at the way Tam bounded off after an autumn-decayed twig of ash I had tossed in the direction of the flagstone terrace that lay just without the French casements of the library. Then, abruptly, before he had reached the twig, the setter stopped short. I saw his lean rusty body, dappled by late-afternoon sun, grow tense; his muzzle trembled, baring vicious canines. The frolicsome, gentle Tam of a moment before had turned into a terrified animal at bay.
I looked up and saw Claude standing over the ash-twig Tam had been chasing. He was smiling, his pale lips warped, showing small white teeth, but there was no humor in his eyes. Behind them lay the shadow of angry annoyance. I thought he winced at the snarl that sounded in Tam’s throat. And then, before I could interfere, with a harsh furious laugh, Claude made a wild grab for the dog. I heard him say, “Come here, you little devil!” I heard Tam’s hysterical yelp, and then, a sharp exclamation of pain.
“Tam!” I cried. “Down, Tam! Down!”
As suddenly as it had begun, the terrible furor quieted. A pregnant, awful stillness settled on the ash-grove. A single leaf quivered to the chilled stones at my feet. Tam whimpered plaintively as he slunk toward me, and cowered, shivering, against my leg. Claude didn’t swear; he didn’t even speak. He stood very still, staring down at the blood that oozed obscenely from the wicked gashes that scored the back of his white-skinned hand. When his eyes shifted to the shuddering beast at my side, they were seething with pent-up malevolence that whispered of satanic hatred older than man himself; a fury born of lost eons when such hatred ruled the world. After a long moment, Claude turned on his heel, and disappeared through the French windows into the murky dimness of the library. The hand with which I gave Tam a reassuring pat trembled. I told myself I was being foolish; there was no need to be afraid. But, the following evening, Tam disappeared.
At dusk, I had gone to the kennel to unleash Tam and take him for his nightly run into the village. I had found only the ragged end of the leash tethered to a metal ring by the kennel door. And standing there, in the gathering, mist-choked darkness, I had a sudden vision of the controlled rage in Claude’s bloodless face, and that forbidding, truth-hiding door in the East Wing. I shuddered. I argued that I was letting my imagination run away with me. It was possible that Tam had gnawed his way to freedom, and dashed on to the village ahead of me. But, even before I walked the nightroad to Inneswich, before I made inquiries at the tavern, and questioned the children who played Lie-Low-Sheepy in the streets, I knew what the answers would be. No one had seen or heard of Tam since last night when he’d been to the village with me. A strange, frozen anger took possession of me as I returned to Inneswich Priory that night. I knew that I was going to violate Claude Ashur’s sanctuary.
Before retiring, the housekeeper had left a tray in the library for me. There were sandwiches and scones and a pot of chocolate. I didn’t touch any of it. Strangely wary, I crept through the catacombs of the lower hall, and in the sepulchral gloom of the pantry, found what I wanted. From a rusty, seldom-used tool-chest, I extracted a length of heavy wire; I bent one end of it into a neat hook, then, soundlessly, tensely, as before, I went back along the hall and climbed the wide, winding staircase. Somewhere in the house, a weary joist groaned eerie, century-old protest. From his room at the head of the stairs, came Father’s heavy reassuringly human snore. A little further on, the door to Claude’s bedchamber was ajar. There was no light. I paused, not breathing, and stared into the stygian blackness of the room. Slowly, cold watery moonlight picked out Claude’s form sprawled across the great canopied bed. His breathing came slow and deep. With a painstaking furtiveness that somewhat surprised me, I closed his door and moved on through cloying shadows toward the chamber in the East Wing.
I was not sure I could do it. The twisted wire wavered in my unsteady fingers, rattling like hell-wrought ghost chains in the antiquated lock. I don’t know how long I manipulated the wire before I was rewarded by the sullen, rasping click of reluctant tumblers. Under the pressure of my sweat-damp hand, the massive door swung inward. At first, there was nothing but a swimming, thickened darkness that seemed to suck me into the vortex of a black whirlpool. Then, I felt suddenly sick. A horrible, grave-smelling effluvium pressed in upon me from every quarter. It was the stench of lost ages, the noisome, ectoplasmic aura of carrion-flesh.
I lit a candle and by its luminance saw in a small cleared circle, surrounded by the baleful, winking-glass anachronism of test-tubes and retorts, a statuette that seemed to have been carved from damp, half rotten wood. I took a step forward and stared down at a form of craftsmanship that was at once exquisite and indescribably evil; I had the feeling that the hands which chiseled this thing must have been directed by some unholy genius. No human art could have wrought so uncannily perfect an image of Tam. Sprawled on its side, the miniature animal glazed into the candleglow with hideously blank eyes. There was an ugly gash in the full throat that ran from ear to ear, and from that carven wound pulsed the vile, greenish ichor that spread in a slow pool upon the scarred surface of the table!
I cannot say for certain how long I stood staring at that fetid, putrescent tableau of death. Disjointed, unbearable visions of the gentle animal that had come to mean so much to me infested the darkness about me. Physical illness returned, knotting my stomach, and I thought of Tam, alone somewhere, whimpering away the last of his brief life. At breakfast the next morning, the housekeeper bustled in to say that a fisherman from the village wanted urgently to speak with me. They had found Tam.
A dank mist fingered inland from the bleakness of the Atlantic. It swirled like séance-conjured ectoplasm among the dew-chilled fronds that spiked the crest of the dune. I knelt for a time beside the pitiful, limp form that lay half-covered with wind-blown sand. The rich rusty hair at Tam’s throat was matted with a darker crimson stickiness. The horrid slit gaped redly, like the grotesque smile of a cretin. Tam had been dead for hours. I stood erect and the little fisherman wiped a furtive tear from the salt-burned seams of his face.
“Us at the village liked Tam, sir. He was so gentle-like with the children …” He snuffled and shook his head. “Musta been a awful big beast as could make such a tear in his gullet …”
I didn’t say anything. I sent the little man for a spade and a length of tarpaulin. We wrapped Tam in the canvas and buried him there on the dune. The sand was damp and cold; icy mist settled in the shallow pit of the grave. When we had filled it in, I marked it with a single, bleached seashell. All the time we worked, I thought of the fisherman’s words, and I knew that nothing natural, neither beast nor human, had destroyed Tam.
Father never knew the truth; I let him believe the story that circulated among the villagers—the tale of some wandering animal that had fought with Tam and killed him. I had no desire to aggravate my father’s uneasiness in connection with Claude. He was getting on in years and had not been really well since Mother’s death, and I wanted him to spend his declining days in peace.
When, shortly after dinner, I decided to retire, Claude climbed the long stairway at my side. He didn’t speak but at my door he paused. Involuntarily, I looked at him. He was smiling, his pallid, mature visage an odd contrast against the boyishness of his clothes; I had seen that face before. It held the same triumphant, cruelly-humorous smile that had been framed in the window the day the last tutor deserted Inneswich Priory. Once again, Claude Ashur’s will had conquered the transgressor. After a long moment, softly, he said, “Goodnight,” and walked off along the shade-clotted corridor that led to the room in the East Wing. I didn’t see him again for nearly four years.
The following morning, before Claude was up and about, I bade goodbye to my father, and, as I’d been planning to do for some time, left for Princeton to study journalism. For several months the darkling memory of those last hours at the Priory hovered always at the rim of consciousness, but, gradually, forgetfulness pressed the horrible fate of Tam into a cobwebbed niche of the past. My life at the university became a comfortably mundane round that was far removed from the existence I had led under the shadow of my brother at Inneswich Priory. My sole material connection with Claude during those four happily crowded years was the correspondence I carried on with Father. With the passage of time his letters grew increasingly strained; try, as he obviously did, to seem cheerful and satisfied, he could never quite keep apprehensive references to Claude from slipping into them. Those scant phrases, hinting that Claude was becoming more and more secretive and unmanageable, invariably cast me backward through endless corridors of gloom, evoking a terrible picture of the loathsome, grinning face I wanted only to forget. Then, too, beyond the transient uneasiness caused by my father’s restrained messages, there were moments when I felt certain that, even here, the fetid spectre of Claude’s influence could touch me. To certain more conservative elements at the university, groups that numbered among them students indigenous to Inneswich or its surrounding country, I had become an object of rather distasteful curiosity. I was avoided as “that fellow from Inneswich Priory—Claude Ashur’s brother …”
When Father came down to Princeton for my commencement, Claude came with him. Looking back upon that last night in my sitting room, I realize, now, that, had we not been blinded by our wish to believe something good of Claude, Father and I should have guessed at the odious truth from the beginning. As things were, we were only too anxious to accept my brother’s soft-voiced, trite lecture about having decided that he could best serve humanity through medicine. Happy for the first time in years, Father drank in every syllable of Claude’s blasphemous lies. Before he retired, he told me confidentially that he would be grateful if I advised Claude on the choice of the most suitable university. It wasn’t the sort of job one looked forward to; giving advice to my brother seemed like a rather pretentious idea. I was not at all sure he wouldn’t laugh at me.
I returned to the sitting room to find Claude slouched in a battered leather armchair by the fireplace. Even in the roseate glow of a log-fire, his face seemed exceptionally pallid. I remember reflecting that it was as though he were suffering a blood-draining chill; a chill that went deeper than flesh to clutch the soul in icy fingers. His eyes came up quickly as I took the chair opposite him and lit my pipe. I fancied that the ancient, cryptic malevolence of the smile he turned on me was inexplicably tinged with anxiety. It gave me rather a start, when, while I was still searching for a proper approach to the subject, he said, softly:
“I’ve already decided on the college, you know …”
“Well … No … I didn’t know …”
“Yes …” Quite suddenly the opaque cold eyes glinted with quiet cunning. In that moment I should have sensed the malefic import of Claude’s choice. I confess I felt nothing but a vague uneasy puzzlement at his next words. “I’ve decided to go to Miskatonic University …”
He spoke the name with an unusually resonant clarity, and as he did, I saw again the unwonted hint of anxiety that seethed behind his reserved smiling mask. One would have said that Claude was afraid I might recognize that name; that it bore some corrupt connotation of which he hoped I was ignorant. Almost imperceptibly, when I asked where Miskatonic was located and what sort of reputation it had, he relaxed. In sibilant, strangely hypnotic tones, he drew a pleasant picture of a well-endowed college, abounding in charming tradition, nestled in the domed hills of Arkham, in Northern New England. He did not speak, that night, of what obnoxious horrors lay hidden within the ivy-strangled walls of the Library of Miskatonic. He told his fetching lies with brilliant ease. And, despite the warning voice of danger that had nagged me from the outset, in the end I sanctioned Claude’s choice. For, watching the frozen, grinning determination of his face, I knew I could never change his mind.
That first year at Miskatonic was a brilliant success; Claude’s grades were so far above average as to exact an enthusiastic, complimentary letter from the Dean of Men. I remember how the pallor of doubt ebbed from Father’s face as he read that message; there was a child-like pride in the way he handed it to me. I myself was inordinately pleased by this unqualified praise of Claude; the apprehension that had tortured me all that year began to melt away. Then, I read the list of subjects in which my brother had excelled, and the warm glow of the library hearth seemed to smother suddenly under an intangible, chill blanket of corruption. “Medieval Lore; Ancient Cults and Sects; History of Necromancy; Examination of Extant Literature on Witchcraft.” The vile titles floated, smiling evilly, in the shadowed corners of the room. It was then that I realized the gross impudence, the monstrous significance of Claude’s selection of Miskatonic University.
In his second year at Miskatonic, Claude came home for the Christmas holidays. He had been at the Priory only three days when Father suffered a sudden and irreparable relapse.
It was the argument that brought it on. I was passing the half-open library door when I heard Father’s voice. I turned in at the threshold, my cold-stiffened face already wreathed in a holiday grin; then, I stopped. They had not heard me. Father sat slumped in a chair by his reading-table; in the lamplight his mouth looked twisted, his eyes anxious. A sickly pallor coated his parchment-dry skin. Claude, his back to me, stared silently at the raw orange corpse of a dying log in the fireplace.
“Claude …” My father spoke, as though some insupportable burden crushed his chest. “You must try to understand …”
“I understand,” Claude’s voice was barely audible, yet brutally hard.
“No … You don’t …” Father waved an ineffectual, blue-veined hand. “You’ve got to see that I’m doing this for your own good. Yes; your mother left you some money in her will—she left equal amounts to you and your brother—but, it was put in trust, to be controlled by me, until you come of age, or … or, until I die … Claude, you must stay at Miskatonic. You …”
“I tell you I’m sick of college! I’ve learned all I can, there. I’ve got to have the money! I want to travel. I want to see Tibet and China. I want to live in the Bayous and the Indies …” Abruptly, Claude spun to face Father. For the first time, I saw the feverish, seething hate, the uncontrollable rage in his eyes. I watched my father wilt before the power of an unhuman gaze. Claude’s voice rose to a demented, grinding cry. He lurched toward the cowering form in the chair. “I tell you, I’ve got to have that money!”
As I stumbled into the room, bundles spilled from my arms. Tree-decorations crashed to the floor, splintering into myriad scarlet and green slivers. Claude stood frozen, only a few feet from the easy-chair. Terrified, prayerful relief flooded the wide eyes Father turned on me. He raised that hopeless, gentle hand as though he would speak, then suddenly sank back, death-pale and senseless, against the cushions of the chair. Choking with sick fury, I brushed past Claude, and knelt at my father’s side. The pulse in his withered wrist was pitifully feeble.
“Why can’t you let him be?” I said hoarsely. “Why can’t you get the hell out of here, and let him alone?”
“One way or the other,” he said softly, “I mean to have what I want.”
Only the terrible urgency of Father’s condition enabled me to struggle to sanity through the cold, throttling web of terror Claude’s words had woven. Almost before the library door closed behind my brother, I had rung Dr. Ellerby’s number on the desk-phone. He came at once. He had grown fatter and nearly bald with the passage of years, but that night, as he prescribed a sedative and several days in bed for my father, there was in his jowly, florid visage the same impotent puzzlement I had seen there the night Mother died. In a professional matter-of-fact tone, he advised that Father should have as little excitement as possible, and all the while I could feel him thinking that, here, in this ancient Priory, throve a malady that no worldly knowledge of medicine could cure.
Doctor Ellerby called every evening; after each mechanical, forcedly-cheerful examination of his patient, he would come down to the library for a much-needed drink. I would watch the dejected slope of his shoulders, as he stood, before the casement, gazing at the winter-mauve shadows of the ash-grove. After a time, he would shake his head slowly and his voice would be heavy and beaten.
“It’s so odd. I can’t explain it. I’ve known your father ever since he came to Inneswich; he never had a blood-condition. He has none now . . . And yet, it’s as though . . . well, as though, somehow, the blood were being drained from his body …”
Sometimes his words varied; their hopeless, frustrated meaning was always the same. Ellerby’s tones echoed softly in some hidden corner of my brain, warping into the cold, venomous cadences of another voice. Once more I heard the brittle snapping of splintered Christmas decorations, under Claude’s shifting feet. I listened as the pale spectre of him murmured that hideous warning again and again. “One way or the other, I mean to have what I want …”
It was on a sleet-chilled morning in mid-February that the letter arrived at Inneswich Priory. Addressed to Father, it was signed by one Jonathan Wilder, Dean of Men, Miskatonic University. The expensive bond paper rustled faintly in my trembling fingers. Apprehension rose in a gelatinous tide, clogging my lungs. It was a short letter; the sentences cryptic and strangely self-conscious. They said little and yet, they hinted strongly at some darkling fear that haunted the mind of the writer. Jonathan Wilder confessed that what he had to say was not meant to be committed to paper. He said he would be grateful if Father would visit him in his office on the campus at Miskatonic, so that they might discuss in private the strange circumstances which had brought about this unfortunate turn of events in the college career of his son, Claude.
Father never saw the letter. The next Saturday, I was aboard the late evening train bound for Arkham. I lay back wearily against the dusty green Pullman seat, and stared into the square of impenetrable light that was my window. I saw nothing of the spectral landscape through which the train rattled like some phosphorescent worm crawling endlessly in the subterranean darkness of a tomb. Before my burning, sleepless eyes, only the final sentence of Jonathan Wilder’s message writhed in a depraved, hypnotic danse macabre. “Believe me, I am indeed sorry to have to inform you that, after long deliberation, the Board of Directors can see no other course. Claude Ashur has been expelled from Miskatonic University.”
Jonathan Wilder was a tall, cadaverous man who tried to hide the sombre distaste in his eyes behind a blinking barrier of pince-nez. He made a bony steeple of his fingers, and, for a long time, gazed wordlessly at the barren expanses of the university campus beyond the window. His eyes studied the distant, gray coldness of the hills that hemmed in Arkham; they squinted against the icy glint of winter sun on the sluggish winding ribbon of the Miskatonic. Then, abruptly, decisively, Jonathan Wilder turned back to me. He cleared his throat.
“I do hope you’ll appreciate our position in this matter, Mr. Ashur. The Board has bent over backward to be lenient with your brother; they know what a brilliant mind he has. But …” He shrugged faintly, wiping the pince-nez on the sleeve of his oxford-gray coat. “The fact is, from the very beginning Claude has shown a rather … shall we say, unwholesome? … yes … a decidedly unwholesome interest in subjects that are directly opposed to the concepts of medical science. He has spent virtually all his time in the University Library. . . .
“You … ah … You haven’t heard about the library here at Miskatonic, Mr. Ashur? … No. I see you haven’t … Well, I might begin by saying that our library is reputed to contain the most extensive collection of forbidden and esoteric lore in existence today. Under lock and key, we have the only extant copies of such things as the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Juntz, and the loathsome Book of Eibon … Yes, even the dreadful Necronomicon …” I fancied that I saw an irrepressible shudder pass through Jonathan Wilder as he said those damnable names; when he spoke again, his voice was scarcely more than a whisper.
“Your brother, Mr. Ashur, has been seen to copy whole pages of that horrible lore. Once, long after closing hours, one of our librarians—a wholly reliable girl, I assure you—found Claude Ashur crouched in a shadowy corner among the bookstacks, muttering some weird incantation. She swore his face was … not human …” The tall man drew a long shivering breath. “There are other stories, too. There have been whisperings of strange doings in your brother’s lodgings in Pickham Square. People speak of foul odors and whimpering agonized voices … Of course …” He raised one hand palm-up. “Some of this may be conjecture; possibly it’s been exaggerated. But, in any case, the tales about Claude Ashur are doing Miskatonic definite harm. Enrollment has fallen off. Students have left, midterm, without apparent reason, after a short period of friendliness with your brother. You see, the esoteric learning our library affords is all very well when assimilated by a normal mind … But, a mind like Claude Ashur’s …” He broke off, self-consciously. “Well … I’m sure you see our point …” “Yes,” I said, slowly. “Yes … I see …”
A man opened the door of Claude’s house, his unfriendly, age-scared face stiffened at mention of the name.
“Mr. Ashur’s out,” he said flatly.
“I see … Well, I’ll wait in his rooms …” I took a step forward and the door all but slammed in my face. The jaundiced glow of a streetlamp winked in the old man’s hard, wary eyes. I got out my wallet. “It’s all right. I’m his brother …” He took the dollar bill without thanking me.
“Top floor.” He opened the door to let me pass.
“Thanks …” I paused. “By the way, Mr. Ashur will be leaving here tonight … for good …”
I couldn’t be certain, but in the dubious glare of a garish hall light, it seemed to me that the old man’s face grew suddenly soft with unspoken relief. As I moved carefully upward through the Cimmerean darkness of the stairwell, I heard him mutter, “Yes, sir!” He said it with the fervor of one who was murmuring: “Thank God!”
From the moment I entered his room, I had been vaguely aware of an indefinable odor, at once sickly-sweet and stinging in the nostrils, that seemed to permeate every corner of the room. Now, I knew I had been inhaling the pungent fumes of oily pigment mixed with turpentine. For, the thing beneath the skylight was an artist’s easel, and, propped on its cross-bar, hidden by a cotton veil, was what I took to be a canvas in progress. To the right of the easel stood an antique work-cabinet, its scarred top littered with paint-clogged brushes and a pallet. Mechanically, as though driven by some mystic compulsion, I went to the table. Not until I was standing directly over it did I see the open book that lay half-buried beneath the melange of brushes and paint.
A malicious gleam from one of the lamps slanted across the tissue-fine texture of the volume-pages. A stench of immeasurable age swirled upward to me as I bent to decipher the ancient hieroglyphs that crawled like obscene insects across the paper. The book before me was one of the earliest editions of Albertus Magnus; at the bottom of the right-hand page, a single passage had been underscored. Revulsion knotted my stomach as I read those accursed lines.
“… Three drops of blood I draw from thee. The first from thy heart, the other from thy liver, the third from thy vigorous life. By this I take all thy strength, and thou losest the strife …”
Beside this medieval sorcerer’s chant, on the wide, yellowed margin, Claude Ashur’s spidery script confided: “There has been no news from the Priory, but I am certain the spell will work. The portrait is completed. Before long, I shall know victory; I shall have what I want …”
I cannot say for certain what wild conjectures seethed through my mind in that instant. I only know that some instinctive, fearful hatred warped my hand into the vicious claw that ripped the veil from the painting on the easel. A terrified cry snagged in my throat, and I staggered backward, staring sickly at the festering, noisome thing my brother had created. To this day, here in the white-walled sanctuary of my asylum cell, there are hideous moments in the night when I lie horrified, on the paralytic brink of sleep, while the loathsome creatures of that canvas of the damned writhe against the dark curtains of my eyelids. I pray God no other mortal eye shall ever be seared by any such horror as I beheld that night in Pickham Square.
In the slimy colors of some subterranean spectrum, Claude Ashur had wrought cancerous images of the slobbering, gelatinous beings that lurk on the threshold of outer night. Diabolically smiling, amoebic, gangrenous creatures seethed in the shadows of that hateful canvas, and slowly, as I watched, there emerged from its crawling depths, the portrait of what once had been a man. The visage that confronted me was barely covered with discolored, maggot-eaten skin. Its blue-tinted lips were twisted in agony, and in their corrupted sockets, the eyes held a pitiful, pleading expression. Not one feature of that ruined face was whole, and yet there was something terribly familiar about it. I took an unsteady step toward the picture, then stopped. Awful suspicion reeled madly in my head as I noticed for the first time the tiny scarlet globules that oozed from that decaying skin. It was as though every pore had exuded a dew of blood!
“You always were an incurable busybody, Richard …”
Echoing icily in the dim corners of that low-ceilinged room, the sibilant hardness of the voice seemed unreal. Only when I had turned to find Claude’s angular, dark-suited figure framed in the doorway, was I certain that my confused brain wasn’t playing tricks on me. There was no mistaking the malevolent reality of the half-smile that curled my brother’s lips. Sunken in his pallid, immobile face, onyx eyes flashed with caustic humor.
“I’m afraid my little creation gave you rather a turn,” he murmured. “You know, Richard, it’s always best for sensitive souls to mind their own business.”
The old, impotent rage blurred my vision; Claude’s venomous smile faded and grew horribly clear again. When my voice came, it was thick and ill-controlled: “You’d better do your packing, now I’ve made reservations on the midnight train for Inneswich …”
We reached Inneswich Priory at noon the following day. A winter storm had swept inland, and gray, needling rain made the ivy-choked walls glisten evilly. There was a fire on the library hearth; before it, Doctor Ellerby stood waiting for us. One look at his face, and the vile suspicion that had been spawned last night in that dark, narrow room blazed into putrescent reality. In that instant, I knew who had been the subject of the hellish portrait in Pickham Square. I knew my father was dead.
Claude made no display of pretended grief. He made no secret of his eagerness to have the will settled. There was whispering in the village; the simple, superstitious people of Inneswich spoke of daemons and the consorts of hell who could laugh in the face of Death. My brother’s terrible, inhuman cheerfulness became a festering legend muttered by witch-hunting nonegenarians. Only the brave, the few who had been closest to the Church and my father, attended the lonely burial service, and even they departed in haste, glancing apprehensively backward at the figure of Claude Ashur, black against the bleak and threatening sky. Two weeks after the interment, one week after the reading of the will, Claude cashed a check for the full amount of his monetary inheritance and disappeared.
You can make a religion of escape. You can run away from the memory of horror, and hide yourself in willful forgetfulness. You can fill your life with feverish activity that crowds out the shadows of diseased evil. I know. I did just that for nearly eight years. And, in a certain measure, I succeeded. Having acquired a modest, white-stuccoed cottage on the outskirts of a southern Jersey resort, I divided my time between it and the Priory. I made new friends. I forced myself to mingle with worldly society as I’d never done before. After a time, I was able to resume my neglected literary career. I told myself I had escaped. Actually, I was never able to pass that carven, padlocked door in the East Wing without having to suppress a nauseous chill. There were still moments when, alone in the dusk-dimmed library, I broke into a cold sweat and Claude Ashur’s voice echoed demoniacally in the shadowed corners of the room. At worst, however, these terrible sensations were transient illnesses that could be cured by friendly laughter or concentrated creative work. Somewhere, I knew, the malign genius of my brother still existed, but I hoped and slowly grew to believe that he had passed out of my life forever. I never spoke his name. I knew and wanted to know nothing about him. Only once, in all those years, did I have any direct news of Claude.
By a lucky chance my first book excited friendly interest among certain groups, and I found myself on the invitation lists of the literati. I attended countless cocktail parties and dinners, and it was at one such soirée that I met Henry Boniface. He was a small man, almost effeminate, with a sandy top-knot and straggling beard to match. He shook my hand timidly, but I fancied a sudden brightness in his pale eyes as he repeated my name. I wanted to get away from him. Thinking of what my hostess had said of Henry Boniface as she guided me toward him through the crowd, I felt a sudden oppressive apprehension close in upon me. He was a surrealist painter who just returned from the West Indies, and, a few years back, he had taught at Miskatonic University.
“Ashur,” his soft, persistent voice murmured. “But, of course! I knew I’d heard that name!” That odd, brilliant interest blinked in his eyes again. “You must be Claude Ashur’s brother. . . .”
For years no one had referred to me in that manner. The loathsome phrase whispered in my head maliciously. Claude Ashur’s brother. The sound of it seemed to throw open some tremendous portal within me; all the ancient deliberately forgotten terror swelled in my chest like a rising, slimy tide. “Yes,” I said thickly. “That’s right …”
It seemed to me that Boniface’s gaze narrowed, biting into my face. His tone was light, diffident, but mercilessly probing. “I suppose you haven’t heard from Claude in some time? No. I daresay not. Well, in that case, I have a bit of news for you …”
I wanted to tell him to shut up, to quit opening old cancerous sores with his rotten chatter. I only stared at him.
“Yes … The fact is, I heard about Claude while I was in the Indies. Amazing. He was always a most amazing fellow. I knew him quite well while he was at Miskatonic. He was in one of my art classes. Said he wanted to learn to paint so that he could do some sort of portrait …”
Cold beads of perspiration coated my palms. The worm-eaten monstrosity of Pickham Square reeled evilly in my brain. Henry Boniface droned on. “
But, to get back to the Indies. The blacks there told me of a white man who was living in the back-country among their witch-doctors, studying voodoo. Seems he’d wormed his way into their confidence. He’d been admitted into the cult and took part in all those repulsive doings at the humfortt. They … ah … They said his name was Claude Ashur …” Boniface shook his tiny head slowly. “Amazing. Extraordinary fellow, indeed. What strikes me is how he can go on living there in immunity. He was never what you’d call robust, was he? And there are all sorts of horribly fatal diseases in the back-country … It’s a miracle he’s alive.”
I felt a hard smile curl the stiffness of my lips. “Don’t worry about Claude,” I said bitterly. “He has a tremendous will to live. Nothing will kill him …”
The words fell flat and cold between us, and after a moment of awkward silence, I excused myself, leaving Henry Boniface to stare after me with those bird-bright, curious eyes. I never saw him again, but more than once in the horror-ridden years that followed, my mind reached back through limitless dark to the night I uttered that damnable prophecy. “Nothing will kill him.” Had I realized then the corrupt truth of those words, I might have saved Gratia Thane—and myself. I might have destroyed Claude Ashur before he was beyond destruction.
Early in October, 1926, I returned once more to the monastic quiet of Inneswich Priory, intending to pass the winter there, and complete the last chapters of my second book. After so extended a period of freedom from my brother’s influence, the Priory had to all intents and purposes reverted to kind. It had become again the sequestered, peaceful home I had known in early childhood. Settled down to work, living comfortably but simply, I was almost happy. My second novel was never finished. Less than a month after my arrival at the Priory, I received the letter:
My dear Richard:
I know that you hoped never to hear from me again. I’m indeed sorry to disappoint you. But, the fact is, the prodigal has grown weary of wandering, and is ready to come home. And, much as you might dislike the idea, you can’t deny your devoted brother his right to live in the ancestral manse, can you? Be so good as to prepare one of the better bedchambers, Richard. The blue one in the West Wing would be ideal. For, you see, I’m not returning as I left—alone. I’m bringing home my bride.
In the week that followed the arrival of Claude’s letter, the news had spread with awesome rapidity, and fear had flowered anew in the shadows of Inneswich, blooming like some malignant cancer whose growth had been hidden for a while, but never checked. Wild conjecture muttered from street to street. Who was this creature Claude Ashur had married? What could she be like? There were predictions that murmured of a woman of strange and evil beauty; there were hints at a reincarnation of the hell-spawned witch Jabez Dreisen had burned at the stake more than a century ago. Long before they had ever seen her, the people of Inneswich were haunted by an abject fear of my brother’s life. I too was growing strangely fearful of the nameless woman who was Claude’s bride. I had finished the sixth brandy before I sprang to my feet at the sound of a car turning into the Priory drive.
Memories of that night have always returned to me in fitful, nightmarish segments, haunting impressions that flash brilliantly in some secret crevice of the brain then fade once more into the cloying yellow mist of remembered horror. I hear again the metallic summons of the wrought-iron knocker echoing through the darkened halls of the Priory. I recall a faint rustle of clothes and the housekeeper’s awed murmur: “Mister Richard is in the library.” I remember turning to face the door. Then, Claude Ashur stood on the threshold. He had changed. He seemed taller than when last I’d seen him. The aquiline face was paler and more emaciated, and yet it had taken on a certain regularity of feature that made it handsome in a striking, sardonic way. Claude, as I remembered him, had always been pointedly negligent of his attire. Now, his expensive, well-cut tweeds, soft-collared shirt and knitted tie were in the best of taste. He moved easily across the room toward me; his hand in mine was abnormally cold. He smiled.
“Richard, old man! It’s been a long time!”
The casual heartiness of his tone gave me a start. In that moment, I decided that, if Claude had lived in the hideous back-country of the Indies, he had also spent some time in Europe. For that sibilantly powerful voice had taken on a very definite Continental cadence. He spoke with a faintly Germanic accent.
“Sorry we’re so late. The trains, you know. They’re always so …” He must have seen that I wasn’t listening; my gaze had gone beyond him to the library doorway. His face vaguely puzzled, he turned, and then smiled again. “Ah … Gratia, my dear …”
I had never seen anyone like Gratia Thane. Her face was a softly squared oval framed by wind-blown auburn hair that emphasized the soft whiteness of her skin. A hesitant smile touched the corners of full, perfectly-rouged lips, and as she came nearer, I saw that the rather wide-set eyes were sloe-black and strangely docile. The traveling tweeds she wore couldn’t conceal the exquisite grace of her carriage. She stood only a few feet from me now. Her eyes had not left my face for a moment. As though from a great distance, I heard Claude’s quiet laughter.
“Well, my dear? Aren’t you going to say ‘hello’ to Richard?”
As the dark eyes swung slowly to meet Claude’s, they underwent a remarkably subtle change. In the flickering amber glow of the fire, they seemed to grow suddenly warmer; they caressed Claude’s face with a kind of hypnotic, voiceless adoration. Only when my brother had given her a barely perceptible nod of assent did Gratia turn back to me. I took her extended hand in mine. When she spoke, her voice was throaty and beautifully modulated, but she said the words with the diffident air of a little girl who has learned her lesson well.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Richard …”
I cannot recall my mumbled reply. I know that the moment those warm, soft fingers touched mine an unwonted, boyish confusion swelled in my throat. For a time, I only stared at the loveliness of Gratia Thane, and then, suddenly realizing that I had held her hand too long, I let it go. I think I flushed. I was conscious of Claude’s steady scrutiny of my face, and when I looked at him, I saw the tight, malicious curl of his lips. All the old, corrupt malevolence was in that smile. I knew, then, that despite his Continental manner, Claude Ashur hadn’t really changed.
The dinner was not a success. I was frightened. It was strange, selfless fear that turned cold inside me, as I sat, pretending to eat, and studied Gratia Thane. Time and again, I saw that childlike devotion soften her lovely face; she never failed to smile when Claude chanced to look her way. It was a gentle, worshiping smile, and still, the longer I watched it, the more convinced I was that it was a mask—a mask that could not quite hide the mute, unutterable weariness that crept into her eyes in unguarded moments. I was no longer afraid of my brother’s wife; I was afraid for her. I was haunted by the feeling that, somehow, the subtle, cancerous evil that had followed Claude Ashur since birth was reaching out its vile, slime-coated tentacles to claim this girl, to destroy her as it had destroyed everything it ever touched. And, quite suddenly, I knew I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want anything to happen to Gratia. She was the loveliest woman I had ever known.
After Claude and Gratia had climbed the wide staircase, disappearing into the gloom of the upper hallway, I didn’t retire immediately. I went back to the cold hearth and poured myself a stiff drink from the decanter. The liquor didn’t warm me. I felt tired and confused, but I knew that if I went to bed, I wouldn’t sleep. I don’t know how long I sat slumped in the chair by the lifeless grate. I lost count of the drinks I poured. I lost touch with everything but the pale, frightened image that floated before my closed eyes—the image of Gratia Thane.
The shadow-shrouded corners of the room closed in upon me, and through the French casements seething, icy fog swirled as though no earthy barrier could stop it. Terror clutched at my chest as slowly, out of the blinding, jaundiced mist there emerged two wavering figures. Horror warped Gratia’s face, wrenching all beauty from it. Her lips parted as though she would scream, but, no sound came. Madly she stumbled through the scum-coated labyrinths of outer darkness, and at her heels, its saturnine laughter shrieking in her ears, ran the swollen, slime-dripping thing that was Claude Ashur. The running feet thrummed rhythmically, like the sacrificial drums of some demon-worshiping tribe. Nearer, they beat. Nearer. Nearer.
I thought I was still dreaming. Cold sweat-beads crawled from the hair in my armpits along the sides of my body. My hands trembled. My eyes were open. Gradually, the familiar, shadowy objects of the library came into focus. But, the hellish throbbing of those ceremonial drums did not stop! For one horrible moment, I doubted my own sanity. Then, slowly, painfully, my numbed limbs obeyed the orders of my brain. I stumbled unsteadily to the darkened threshold of the library, and, clutching at the door for support, I knew that what I heard was no product of a diseased imagination. No one could deny the ghastly reality of the rhythmic sound that swelled like some obscene heartbeat in the blackness of the stairwell.
It came from the chamber in the East Wing. Even before my uncertain legs had carried me up the endless hill of the stair, I knew where I was going. With each step the demoniac thrumming grew louder, crashing madly against the walls of the high, narrow corridor that led to the East Wing. My lips were dry; breath made a rasping sound in my throat. For an incalculable moment, I stood staring at the rust-coated padlock that hung open on the latch of that hateful, carven portal. The doorknob was cold in my clammy grasp. The heathen tattoo of the drums exploded like thunder against my eardrums, as the door swung inward without a sound.
My brother, seated cross-legged on the floor with his back to the door, was swathed in the folds of a scarlet cloak. It was his bloodless hands, stretched outward, to the slimy skins of weirdly-painted native tomtoms, that beat out that hypnotic rhythm of the damned. In an ancient sacrificial brazier which stood between him and Gratia, glowed the blue-white flame that was the only light in the room; with each turgid heart-throb of the drums, the tongue of fire hissed and flared to unholy brightness. And, in that eerie, pulsating luminescence, I saw the change that had come over Claude’s bride.
The pallid face that seemed to float in a phosphorescent nimbus was no longer that of Gratia Thane. The soft oval had grown suddenly angular; wan, dry skin stretched tautly over high cheek-bones. The eyes I remembered as wide and innocent had sunken into shadow-tinged sockets and turned oddly bright and crafty. Her mouth was a thin, bloodless gash that curled bitterly at the corners. It was a face that tainted the virginal loveliness of her white-gowned body. And, even as I watched, the horrible change grew more and more profound. At every thud of the tom-toms, wiser, subtler evil gleamed from those wary eyes.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, while I stood horror-frozen in the doorway, the erotic thrumming had been muted. Now, above the distant rumbling, there rose a thin, godless wail that was more animal than human. Alien syllables, tumbling from Claude Ashur’s parted lips, burst in the gloom like poisonous tropical flowers; the unholy tones of his incantation flowed through the stagnant air like pus that drained from a lanced abscess.
I saw the face that had been Gratia’s grow tense. A caustic, horribly familiar grin warped the lips, and slowly, as a snake weaves to the mesmeric rhythm of the charmer’s pipe, the firm white body swayed in time with the ghastly threnody Claude Ashur chanted. Then, abruptly, the shrill wild voice rose, and strangely accented but recognizable words trembled in the putrescent shadows of the room.
“Be gone, O will more frail than mine! Be gone, and leave me room! Gratia Thane is cast out, and this flesh belongs to me! Through these eyes shall I see; through these fingertips shall I feel. Through these lips I shall speak! Speak! Speak!”
The furious command whined coldly above the drums. The flame in the brazier snapped and leapt high. And, staring into its blue-white depths, Gratia was suddenly still. Only pale lips moved in the expressionless mask of her face. The voice that came was calm and sibilant; it was the soft voice of a man who spoke with just the hint of a Germanic accent!
“This body is mine. Henceforth, this flesh is the house of my spirit. Claude Ashur. I am Claude Ashur! I am! I …”
“Gratia!” Her name was an anguished cry in my fear-dried throat.
“Claude . . .” The bewildered murmur trembled on Gratia’s lips. The hideous gauntness, the unhealthy eye-shadows had faded from her face, leaving it flushed and gentle. Her gaze moved slowly from Claude to me, and the frightened puzzlement behind her warm, dark eyes was that of a child awakened in a strange room. “Richard . . . Where are we? What’s happened? I feel so weak, I …”
Her voice trailed off in a husky sigh; the tenseness drained from her body. The filmy white gown rustled faintly as she slid forward to the floor and lay still. I was the first to reach her. Her hand was icy in mine and coated with a clammy dew. I think I whispered her name and cradled her in my arms. Then, I became conscious of the shadow that was Claude Ashur looming over us.
“I’ll take care of my wife, Richard.” The familiar, stony calm had returned to his voice. I stared up into the colorless mask that was his face. In the glow of the guttering brazier-flame, it seemed to me that his pallid skin was spotted with faint, brownish blotches. I said thickly:
“We’d better get a doctor …”
“She’ll be all right …”
“She’s only fainted,” Claude said levelly. “She needs rest. I’ll take her to her room …”
As she passed me, the cool whiteness of Gratia’s gown whispered against my hand. I listened to the funereal murmur of his tread moving away down the corridor. Bewildered fear shuddered within me at each breath I drew. I wanted a drink. I stood staring into the phosphorescent glow of the brazier. A confused impulse to get to a telephone and call Dr. Ellerby swelled in me and died. I didn’t move. Somewhere, in the seething tenebrosity of that chamber a hateful echo grew suddenly shrill and distinct. I heard again the sibilant, accented voice that had spoken with Gratia Thane’s lips. “… This flesh is the house of my spirit. Claude Ashur. I am Claude Ashur.”
I started violently at the sound of his laughter. Turning, I saw him standing once more on the threshold of that loathsome chamber. The tawny facial stains I had noted before were very pronounced, now; his face was scarcely more than a skull enshrouded by dry, unpigmented skin, and he seemed to breathe with difficulty. But, his rage had subsided into bland secrecy again. The old, cat-like smile had come back. The brilliant eyes laughed mirthlessly.
“Poor Richard. Really, you must learn not to intrude if you’re going to continue being your old squeamish self. . . .” There was an undercurrent of warning in the bantering tone. It stirred boiling coals of anger that seared across the chilled numbness of my terror. I had a fleeting vision of Gratia’s weary, child-like face. Fury made my voice harsh.
“What are you doing to her, Claude?”
He didn’t answer immediately. He sank into the chair Gratia had occupied, and, for a long moment, did nothing but stare into the white-hot heart of the dancing flame. I saw the smile rebend his lips; an obscene light flickered in the shadowed depths of his eye-sockets.
“She’s really quite exquisite, isn’t she?” he said softly.
I said: “She’s decent. She’s a fine person and you’re doing something to her. I want to know what’s behind all this rotten display. . . .”
“Do you?” The seering gaze flashed up to meet mine. “Do you really, Richard? Are you sure you want to know? Are you sure it wouldn’t offend your tender sensibilities?
“The lovely lady has inspired you, my dear Richard. She’s made you a knight in shining armor.” Abruptly, the lips drew into a taut line. “If I were you, I’d give up the notion of ‘rescuing’ the lady Gratia. You see, what you so vulgarly refer to as a ‘rotten display’ is really a scientific experiment. Gratia is my assistant. I’ve no intention of giving her up. She’s the perfect subject. Perhaps that’s because she’s so completely in love with me. . . .”
Claude must have sensed the revulsion that shuddered through me at the foul suggestiveness of his tone. The taunting smile returned and he nodded slowly.
“Yes. My wife is quite devoted, Richard. That’s why my experiments have been so successful. You see, I believe that, under proper conditions, a will that is powerful enough can take over the body of another person—transplanting its dominant personality in fresh soil, as it were—forcing the other person to exchange bodies with it. It requires only concentration and a suitable subject; one that is highly susceptible to the will of the experimenter. . . .” Claude’s eyes had grown maniacally bright as he spoke. Now, he breathed each word as though it were some heathen incantation. “I’ve found that subject …”
“You can’t,” I said dully. “You can’t do this to Gratia. She’s lovely. She …”
“That’s just the point!” Claude’s voice was a feverish whisper. “Lovely! She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. Think, Richard! Think what I could do with such loveliness. Think of a woman possessed of such beauty, and of my personality, my brain directing that beauty! A woman such as that could rule any man … a million men … an empire … a world!”
I struggled to keep my voice level. “I tell you, you can’t do it. I won’t let you. I know your ‘experiments.’ I know what they did to Father and Tam! Well, you’re not going to hurt Gratia. Either you’ll let her alone or I’ll go to the police!”
“No, Richard,” he said softly. “You won’t go to the police. In a little while, you’ll grow calm; you’ll think. And, then, you’ll realize the truth of what I told you about Gratia. She is entirely mine. She would never support any insane stories you might tell the authorities. On the contrary, if you should talk, she would readily agree with my testimony that you were quite mad.”
He went out, closing the door soundlessly behind him.
There was nothing I could do. Like an outsider, I stood by and watched while Claude Ashur’s malignant genius slowly, inevitably reclaimed Inneswich Priory. By the end of the first week, I had grown to feel like some helpless intruder who has stumbled upon unspeakable horror and dares do nothing but turn his back. My nerves were like the strings of a sensitive instrument, keyed to the breaking point. Day by day I watched Gratia move through the gloom-infested hallways of the Priory; I saw the growing pallor of her gentle face; I saw the sickly fear that lurked behind the shallow mask of her eyes. Time and again, I set out upon walks that I meant to end in the local constabulary, but, I could never escape the horrible rationality of Claude’s warning.
In the night, I would start awake, trembling on the brink of mad rage, as the pulsing of drums thundered through the cavern of the house; always, after such nights, there was a marked improvement, a new vitality in my brother and Gratia seemed more wan, more silent than ever. I knew that the girl who drifted, wraithlike, from room to room, smiling obediently, adoringly at Claude, was not the real Gratia. I was convinced that she was controlled, that her voiceless devotion to Claude was a manifestation of some hideous form of mesmerism. But, I had no way of proving my theory. It is probable that I should never have known the real Gratia Thane, had it not been for the fever.
It came upon Claude quite suddenly toward the middle of the third week. The day had been overcast and unpleasantly cold; a sea-dampness had seeped into the massive Priory rooms, settling upon them a chill that no fire could dispel. Claude had spent the afternoon locked in his East Wing chamber, and when he appeared for dinner, it occurred to me that his wan face was tinted with an unwonted flush; his eyes were red-rimmed and oddly ill-at-ease when they chanced to meet mine. More than once during the oppressive silent course of the meal I saw Gratia’s worried gaze seeking his. He didn’t look at her. Directly after dinner, he retired.
It was well past midnight before I drifted into a fitful doze; for hours, I had puzzled over the strange silence of my brother. Since that first night of his return, the evil in Claude had grown into a bold, bantering thing that throve on barbed innuendo and secret, poisonous laughter. I wondered what had caused the change. The answer came in the form of a misty presence that floated at my bedside, like some troubled spirit. I think I must have cried out at the touch of a cool hand on my arm, for soft fingertips pressed warningly against my lips. Breathing heavily, I stared up into the moon-washed loveliness of Gratia Thane’s face.
“Richard …” There was a timid urgency in her throaty whisper. “Richard, you must come … I’m afraid … I …” She fought to still the trembling of her lips. “It’s Claude. I heard him moaning. It was horrible. He’s in his bedroom … and he won’t let me in … I’m afraid, Richard, he’s ill … I feel it … We … we’ve got to do something for him …”
As I watched the wide darkness of Gratia’s eyes, heard the mixture of anxiety and terror that throbbed in her voice, an odd thrill of hope shot through me. The girl who stood by my bed in that moment was no longer the will-less automaton I had come to know. For the first time since I’d met her, Gratia Thane was honestly, tremblingly alive. Her palm was moist against mine as we made our way through the Cimmerean blackness of the upper hall; I cannot say how long we stood before the door of Claude’s bedchamber, listening, and scarcely breathing. I can only remember the sudden, terrified vise of her fingers on mine, when, from beyond the heavy oaken panels, there came a muted, agonized groan. I clutched the icy metal latch and twisted it sharply, throwing the ponderous door ajar.
The wild howl that rent the stillness then was not one of pain; it was the vicious snarl of an outraged animal. For one terrible instant, I beheld, thrown into ghastly relief upon Claude’s bedstead, the fever-bright eyes, the blotched skin, the raw scar-of-a-mouth that had uttered that fury-torn cry. I heard Gratia gasp. Then, violently, Claude Ashur turned from us, twisting in the bed until we could see nothing but the frail mound of his body beneath the covers.
“Get out! Get out of this room and stay out!”
“Claude … you’re ill … You’ve got to let us help you …” Gratia took a hesitant forward step.
“Stay away from me!” the voice commanded in a harsh whisper. “I told you not to come in here. I want to be left alone!”
I said levelly: “You’d better let me call Ellerby, Claude.”
“No! I don’t need a doctor! I don’t need anyone! It’s nothing, I tell you. Just a recurrence of a fever I had in the tropics. It’ll pass. Just leave me alone! Alone!”
It was no different in the morning. Despite his wife’s repeated entreaties, Claude stubbornly refused to let anyone enter his room. I stood by, silent, listening while Gratia begged him to be reasonable—to call in a doctor. He spoke only once in a quiet, desperate voice. He instructed her to have his food left on trays outside the door; he told her everything would be quite all right in a few days. After that, there was no answer to Gratia’s anxious pleadings. There was only an occasional soft rustling beyond the bolted door, and the nauseous odor of putrefaction that seemed to grow more foul by the minute. As he always had, Claude Ashur won. We left him alone. The door to his hateful sanctuary remained closed for more than a week, and, as time passed, I began to entertain a strange hope that at once horrified and thrilled me. I began to wonder how it would be if that door never opened again.
That week was a jungle flower that blossomed with pitifully brief magnificence in the midst of a fungus-choked swamp of evil. It was the only beautiful thing born of those final hideous days at Inneswich Priory. It was a brilliant tender touch of normalcy caught in a cesspool of malignant madness. For, in those few hours, I came to know the true Gratia Thane. Set free of the vile will that lay prisoner in that upper chamber, she became the girl I’d always known she must be; a gentle creature, full of gay laughter, and quiet tenderness; a carefree child who loved to run along the white stretches of the beach with the salt air brushing her cheek, and ruffling the bronze softness of her hair; a Gratia who, despite the lingering shadow of Claude Ashur, soon endeared herself to those villagers she chanced to meet on the evening walks that became our habit. It was as though some dark curtain that had separated her from reality, that had let her see only Claude, had been lifted. And, watching the lovely aliveness of her face, listening to her warm laughter, feeling the excitement of her hand in mine, I knew that I was in love with my brother’s wife.
The curtain fell again. As suddenly as I had found Gratia, I lost her. On the evening of the ninth day, Claude reclaimed his bride. Gratia and I had been playing backgammon in the library window seat; I remember the way the dying amber rays of the sun glinted in her eyes when she laughed almost tenderly at my run of ill-luck. And, I remember how the laughter died, so abruptly, so completely. I looked up from the game and saw the blood drain from the warm mounds of her cheeks; the dark wells of her eyes grew suddenly shallow and secretive; her pallid lips moved, but no words came. A faint sibilant rustle made me start and turn my head. And, then, I saw it—standing in the gloom that shrouded the library threshold—the smiling, animated corpse that was Claude Ashur.
In that wasted visage, only the curled gash of the mouth and the pitted blazing eyes gave testimony to the corrupt flame of life that still burned within that fleshless body. The dry, achromatic skin of the massive forehead seemed swollen, and the hairline had receded markedly. The unwholesome brown splotches had disappeared, leaving the facial flesh seamed and sallow. A heavy, dark-colored scarf was muffled about his throat, and (oddest of all, I thought), pale, kidskin gloves covered his hands. From that day forward, I never saw Claude without them.
“Well!” The twisted lips scarcely moved, but his soft, insinuating voice held all the old malicious humor. “This is a most touching little domestic scene …” Shifting in their sockets, the seering pin-points of fire ate into the wan softness of Gratia’s face. “I’m sure Richard has been a charming substitute, my dear, but really … Shouldn’t you be just a bit more enthusiastic about your husband’s recovery?”
With the hypnotic grace of a delicately-wrought puppet, Gratia rose from the window-seat; her pale hand brushed against the game-board, and several scarlet backgammon pieces spilled to the carpet. She didn’t notice them. Slowly, she crossed the dusk-dimmed room to where Claude stood. Her firm, bare arms went around his neck and, passionately, she kissed the ugly wound that was his mouth. For a long time, they stood embracing in the shadows, and all the while, over Gratia’s shoulder, my brother’s evil face smiled at me. That night, I heard the drums again.
I thought I’d had a nightmare. A moment before, the demoniac thrumming had been pounding against my eardrums, throbbing in the depths of the nighted Priory. But, when I started up from my sweaty pillow, peering into the dark that swarmed in upon me, abruptly, the sound was gone. I sat forward, taut and waiting. The silence was profound, limitless; the silence of the tomb. It was as though some titanic heart-beat had been suddenly stilled. I tried to relax. I passed a clammy hand over my forehead, and attempted a laugh. There was nothing but a dry rasping in my throat. Determinedly, I lay back; I told myself I was letting my nerves get the better of me.
It didn’t work; the longer I lay there, forcing my icy hands to stillness, listening tensely to every silken, uncertain whisper of the night, the more conscious I became of the caul of impending danger that had spread its slimy veil over Inneswich Priory. The silence was unnatural; it was the seething quietness of the demented killer before he strikes. Cursing my nerves, I threw back the counterpane and struggled into robe and slippers. Clammy air swirled about my bare ankles as I opened the bedroom door and ventured warily into the Stygian gloom of the corridor. Instinctively, I turned in the direction of the East Wing. Through the single massive casement of the upper hall, moonlight fell, making a pale, shadow-latticed desert of the floor. It was as I passed through that livid pool of moonglow that I saw her.
She seemed not to hear; as she came toward me from the shadows, her white gown murmured. It was like the warning hiss of a poisonous snake. I stared at the hueless angularity of her wasted face. The deep-set eyes burned into mine and the narrow slit that was her mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. Her tongue, pink and strangely pointed, flicked out to moisten dry lips. The mouth worked.
“Kill!” it whispered in the accented, venomous voice that didn’t belong to Gratia Thane. “I must kill … It’s the only way … The sure way … He could cause trouble … It’s best this way … Yes … He must be destroyed. Killed … Kill! Kill! Kill!”
I caught her waist as a knife slashed downward toward my chest; razor-edged steel grazed my left cheek; I felt blood trickle along my jaw. It wasn’t easy to hold her; she struggled with a vicious strength that was out of keeping with the fragility of her body . . . with the power of a desperate madman. The colorless lips curled back from her teeth.
“You!” she hissed. “I must kill you! Kill! Destroy! Silence forever!”
“Gratia!” I shook her violently. “Stop it! You hear me? Cut it out!”
There was the flat, brutal slap of my hand across her hysteria-twisted face, and suddenly, she was still. Insane anger melted into bewilderment; her eyes widened and gained warmth and depth; the shadows faded. Gratia’s lips, pink and moist, trembled. For an instant, she could only stare; her terrified gaze moved from the flesh-wound of my face to the glinting blade of the knife she still held. She gasped. I saw her fingers open convulsively; the knife thudded to the floor. Again, our eyes met, and then she was in my arms.
“Richard … Rick, I didn’t mean to … I didn’t know what I was doing … He made me … It was the drums … and his voice … Here … here in my head …”
The fresh perfume of her hair was in my nostrils; her cheek brushed mine. Gently, she was wiping the blood from my face with the sleeve of her gown.
“It’s all right,” I murmured. “It’s all right, now …”
I held her close again; her body was trembling. She cried. It was the soft, bewildering cry of a little girl.
“I’m scared. Rick, I’m so scared! He’s doing something to me … He’s …” She shook her head frantically and clung to me. “Don’t let him … Please … You won’t let him! Promise you won’t let him …”
“No.” My voice sounded flat and hard in my own ears. “He won’t hurt you … He won’t hurt you ever again …”
“The triumph of true love!”
Bitter, weighted with sarcasm, the softly spoken words seemed to tear Gratia from my arms. Standing on the edge of the shadows, his eyes slitted in their blue-black wells, the desiccated flesh of his face more livid than ever in the moonlight, Claude Ashur laughed.
“You can’t have her. You know that, don’t you, Richard? I’ve tried to be patient with you; but, I’m afraid you’ve interfered once too often. You see, Gratia is more than a woman and wife to me. She’s my very life; my one hope of survival. I’ll never let you take that hope from me …”
He had begun to move slowly toward me through the moonlight; each stride had a fluid, evil grace that was almost feline. The brilliant gaze flashed to where Gratia stood, then back to me. Again, briefly, that loathsome smiled toyed with the corners of his mouth.
“You don’t quite understand, do you, my dear brother? You’re wondering how Gratia could be my sole hope of survival. No matter. It’s better that you never know. We don’t want to trouble your sensitive mind on your last night in this life. Indeed, no! We want you to be at peace. We want you to be ready—for death!”
What happened then I cannot clearly remember; the murderous violence of those few minutes returns only in disparate snatches. I recall the maniacal force of Claude’s lunge, the cold, bony vise of his fingers closing on my windpipe. I think I heard Gratia scream. That pale, hateful face was horribly close to mine; his putrid breath hissed, hot against my skin. I remember crashing backward under the impact of his charge. Darkness and moonlight spun in my head. I thought my lungs would burst. Then, by some desperate, instinctive twist of the body, I was free. Wind rasped in my chest. I had Claude crushed between me and the damp stone wall. My fingers clamped in his hair, jolting his head forward and back viciously. When his skull pounded against the stone for the third time, his frenzied grasp relaxed. He slid to the floor at my feet, twitched once, and was still. He wasn’t dead. With the brilliant eyes shuttered by blank, purplish lids, the pale waste of his face had every aspect of death, but, under my searching hand, his evil heart still pounded feebly. Mechanically, possessed of a strange, decisive calm, I bound him hand and foot with the heavy sash-cords of the window-drapes. I carried him to his room and laid him on the huge antique bedstead. I locked him in.
Gratia had stopped crying, but her hand was cold and trembling in mine as we descended through the chill darkness to the library. I talked, then; I told her gently that there was nothing more to be afraid of; I said it was all over now. I built a fire and poured drinks for both of us. And, the whole time, a single, inescapable thought coursed with harrowing persistence beneath my outward calm. I knew that, for the safety of everyone concerned, there was only one place for Claude Ashur: the State Asylum for the Criminally Insane. When I had finished my drink, I made two telephone calls. I asked Dr. Ellerby and the police to come to Inneswich Priory as quickly as possible.
It was all handled very quietly. None of the facts got into the papers. The few reporters whose editors sent them to cover the trial were refused admission. They returned, disgruntled, to their respective phone booths and dictated brief, barren items that only hinted at the abominable truth; these articles, if printed at all, were mercifully swallowed by some obscure corner of an inner page. For a while, the newspaper men tried another angle. They spent a good deal of time in the Tavern at Inneswich; they asked questions. They learned nothing. The people of the village, perhaps out of respect for the memory of my father, met all inquiries with a cold stare and locked lips. So, the loathsome secret of Inneswich Priory, the shame that had scummed the name of Ashur, remained hidden beyond a barrier of clement silence.
The only formal charge against Claude Ashur was one of assault with intent to kill. I stood in the witness box and muttered the details of his attempt on my life. That was all I had to do. The alienists did the rest. It wasn’t difficult. It was simply a matter of subjecting Claude to countless cross-examinations; of recording the awed, reluctant testimony of various villagers who knew of my brother’s “oddity”; of questioning the timid, uneasy man who was Dean of Men at Miskatonic University, and reading a letter from one Henry Boniface, who had taught Claude Ashur to paint.
The strange, exalted manner in which Claude accepted Father’s death was brought to light, and, in the end, I admitted the story of that odious portrait in Pickham Square, and the murder-incantation of Albertus Magnus. In mid-September, 1925, the alienists reached a decision. They declared my brother incurably insane.
On that last day of his examination, I went alone to the State Asylum; alone, I felt the final, brutal impact of his hate-filled unblinking stare, and glimpsed again the cold anger of the calculating mind that lay hidden behind that emaciated mask. He showed no signs of hysteria or violence. Between white-coated attendants, he walked quietly to the doorway of the consultation room. Then he turned, and, for an instant, his face gray in the gloom of a rainy afternoon, the features somehow broadened and blurred, he was again the old, cynically smiling, indestructible Claude.
“You mustn’t suppose that you’ve won, Richard,” he said softly. “You mustn’t delude yourself. They can lock me up. They can bolt doors and bar windows. But they can never imprison the real Claude Ashur. I’ll be free again. Some day, some how, I’ll reach out to you—to you and my devoted wife. Sooner or later, I’ll have my revenge.” His muted laughter whispered through tight lips. “You don’t believe that, now. But you will. Wait, Richard … Just wait, and see …”
I tried to listen to the quiet reassurances of the doctors; I saw my brother disappear around a bend in the corridor; I heard a door opened and closed. The metallic grind of bolts drifted back to me through the dimness. I told myself that Claude had gone out of my life forever. But I didn’t believe it. That last, soft-spoken warning echoed ceaselessly in my head; I had the terrible conviction that this was not the end of Claude Ashur.
The semblance of contentment which settled over Inneswich Priory was a thing born of our desperate need for peace of mind. The happiness wasn’t real. It was as though our determination to shut out the hideous past had pushed back a musty drapery of gloom, letting in the feeble, timorous sunlight of normalcy. In the next months, I saw Gratia slowly reclaim the young, fresh vitality I’d first known to be a part of her during the week of Claude’s illness. She laughed again; she walked with me along the winter-bleak strand of the beach; she planned little surprises in the way of food delicacies; and it was she who finally convinced me that I should go back to my writing.
Had anyone asked us, I know we should have said we were quite happy. It would have been a lie. I wrote; but the several literary articles I managed were somehow weak; they lacked spontaneity. The prose was stunted and overcast with a strange uneasiness. Gratia and I made plans. We talked of travel and marriage, but there was always a ghost of unrest that hovered between us—the knowledge that our plans could come to nothing. The realization that while that twisted, hateful creature in the asylum went on drawing the breath of life, Gratia would never be free. We were like lonely children, playing desperately at some pitiful game, trying to ignore the horror-infested night that closed slowly in on every side.
It is difficult to trace the stages by which the change overtook me. I think it began with an unwonted restlessness that laid siege to my mind scant days after Claude had been committed to the asylum. I took to wandering, alone, along the most desolate, brine-eaten stretches of the coast; a seething uneasiness pounded mercilessly in my brain. There were horrible moments of blank detachment—moments when a wild exhilaration crawled along my spine, and I would prowl the nigh-dark labyrinths of the Priory, full of a sense of illimitable power. More than once I came to myself, damp with sweat, chilled, standing before that carven door in the East Wing; the door leading to the hellish tomb that housed everything that stood for the blasphemous evil of Claude Ashur.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, the moment would pass, and, shaken, bewildered, I would fall across my bed, sinking into a deep, restless sleep. I never mentioned those horrible nocturnal seizures to Gratia, and yet, there were times when her eyes met mine, and I saw the half-fearful question that lurked behind her gentle gaze. She sensed that something was wrong. Her unspoken suspicions became a hideous reality the night I played the piano.
As I crossed the room and sat down on the oval bench, I told myself music might have a soothing effect on my nerves. It was only a rationalization of the sudden, inordinately passionate desire to play that had overwhelmed me. The yellowing keys were cold and slimy to the touch; my fingers moved over them with a grace, a sense of ease I had never known before. The saccharine melancholy of a Chopin Nocturne billowed into the twilit room; thrumming bass notes pulsed darkly against my hypersensitive eardrums; then, abruptly, the music was no longer Chopin’s. The pounding, demented chords that trembled under my feverish touch grew cruel and malignant. Through the drumming of the bass, treble notes blended wildly into the unholy wailing of myriad lost souls. Godless rhythm crashed against shadows that writhed obscenely, keeping time. Only once before had I heard such hellish music drawn from the whining bowels of a piano. The song that shrilled beneath my fingers, now, was the chant of the damned that Gratia had played for Claude Ashur.
I knew she was behind me. My nostrils quivered tautly; the scent of her hair and skin seemed to permeate the very air of the room. My fingers stiffened and were still; the final broken wail of the music lashed out, hung like some poisonous vapor in the stillness, and died. I turned slowly on the bench, and then rose. Her sports-dress was a vivid yellow blur in the dusk-shadowed doorway; her face, the soft fullness of her lips, the ripe body that was at once chaste and subtly sensual, wavered before my burning eyes. I was before her, now, and my hand touched the warm firmness of her arm. The smile that had trembled on her lips a moment before, shadowed away. Her eyes were suddenly bright with fear. I think I smiled; I felt my lips curl, slowly, stiffly. My tongue moved, and from some vast nothingness, a voice that wasn’t mine spoke through my mouth.
“Gratia, my dear … my bride … my beloved!”
Sheer, hysterical terror twisted her face as I bent to kiss her; she tore free of my hand and cringed against the wall; the words tumbled, shrill and frantically pleading, from her colorless lips.
“No! Let me alone! No. Please! You have got to let me alone!”
Somewhere in an obscure corner of my brain there was a sharp snapping sound. The stinging blur of my eyes seemed to clear abruptly, and, for the first time, I actually saw the utter loathing and fear that warped Gratia’s face. I felt weak; sweat trickled along my jaw and down my neck. Fear-fraught bewilderment did tricks with my stomach. I stared helplessly at the frail creature who cowered before me, her hands covering her face. My throat was terribly dry; it made words difficult.
“What is it? … Gratia, what have I done? … What …”
I stopped short; she had taken her hands from before her eyes. For a long moment she only stared, puzzled, terrified; then she was in my arms, crying gently. There was a strange note of relief in the sobs that quivered through her warm body. My dull puzzlement deepened.
“What is it?” I repeated softly. “What frightened you so …”
“Nothing …” She shook her head and a tinkle of brittle, half-hysterical laughter sounded in her throat. “Forgive me, darling … I had the oddest feeling just then … It must have been the music … his music … And … and, your face … It was so pale; the way you smiled at me … that crooked, rotten smile … I …” The laughter bubbled again and broke on a sob. “It’s fantastic, I know … But for a minute … I thought you were Claude!”
I had not slept. The fire on my bedroom hearth had long since died to a few blood-red embers, and, well after midnight, the storm that had threatened all day had broken viciously over Inneswich.
I sat very still, strangely tense, listening, and the muttering of the sea echoed mockingly the tones of Gratia Thane: “… thought you were Claude, I thought you were Claude, Claude, Claude!” Chilled, trembling, I sprang to my feet and paced the floor aimlessly; lightning slit the blackness beyond my casement. I started and swore. My hand shook when I opened a fresh bottle of rye, and poured a stiff one. I sank into the chair again, trying to shut out the maddening chant of the surf. Time and again, in the last night-shadowed hours, I had done all these things. But, I had not slept. I was not dreaming when I heard the drums.
And, then, in some forgotten crevice of my consciousness, the unconquerable danger-signal flashed redly. No! the brain screamed, soundlessly. Don’t. You can’t give in! You can’t let Claude win! Return! You must return … to yourself … to your own body! You must! I felt my numb lips twisting in an agonized last effort at speech.
“No!” my own voice roared hoarsely above the drums. “No! Go back! I must go back … must …”
With a tremendous effort I forced myself to stand. My legs were like jelly under me. I don’t remember how I managed to stumble through the foul-smelling gloom! I remember only the door—the yawning, black rectangle of that final hope of escape—and that the hissing tongue of the flame seemed to leap higher in the brazier, stretching forth cruel, blazing fingers to hold me back. I had almost reached the threshold when it happened.
The dull, throbbing sound stabbed like a needle through my brain. The drums! I staggered and slammed into the doorjamb; leaden paralysis tangled my legs; I lurched crazily and slid to the floor. I tried to scream. It was no good. Voiceless, I careened downward through a bottomless pit of hate. And, out of the black, viscid whirlpool that swallowed me, Claude Ashur’s voice wailed softly.
“Mine, Richard! I tell you, this flesh is mine! I have returned! I’ve come back to claim my freedom—freedom in the body that once was yours! You hear? I shall be free, and you shall be the entombed one! You, my dear brother! You!”
Babbling laughter echoed spitefully through the smothering night that welled up before my eyes; with a last frantic effort, I tried to gain my feet, then, gasping for breath, pitched forward, and lay there, utterly powerless …
Through all of it, as though from some tremendous distance, some other moment of time, Claude Ashur’s muted cynical voice hissed in my ears.
“You see, Richard … It wasn’t hard. It wasn’t hard at all. This body is mine, now. You hear? Mine! Directed by my brain, thinking my thoughts, speaking my words, doing the bidding of my will …”
The blasphemous words dribbled off into whining laughter that echoed mockingly, and died along the sterile stillness of endless corridors …
The first conscious sensation was one of gnawing pain that seemed to pervade every inch of my body, eating at my flesh like some needle-fanged cannibalistic monster. With an exhausting effort, I opened my eyes. The lids felt oddly swollen, and I saw only mistily through narrow slits. The whiteness wavered before me again; I made out a whitewashed ceiling and tall, colorless walls; pallid moonlight slanted through a window on my right. I blinked and tried to bring the ghostly rectangle of the casement into better focus. Then, the razor-edged knife of terror sliced into my brain. The moonlight that seeped into that barren chamber was cut into segments by shadowy stripes; the window was reinforced—with steel bars!
A dry scream tore through my stiff, swollen lips. No! These weren’t my legs; these horrible bony stilts that stretched before me, the pale skin of them bloated and desiccated, covered with suppurating brown sores! Frantically, I tore at the nightshirt that cloaked me, and then, turned violently sick. The white flesh was raw and running, as though myriad maggots had fed upon it; a foul, noisome stench stung my nostrils. Madly whimpering, I rose and staggered to the barred casement. I think I prayed. I know I was crying. And, then, reflected in a window-glass made opaque by outer darkness, I saw the moon-washed horror of the face.
The thing that stared at me from the viscid depths of the casement-pane was more bestial than human. Its tremendous white forehead was swollen beyond all proportion; the thickened nose, scarred by two gaping holes of nostrils, was like nothing but the snout of a leonine animal, and below it, quivered a slavering, decayed gash that was the mouth. Sunken in the blue-black sockets, twin pin-dots of demented flame flashed evilly. There were no eyebrows, and the sweat-damp, straggling patches of hair that studded a sore-covered scalp gave it the aspect of some monstrous Medusa risen from the bowels of the sea. And, even as I watched, strangled with loathing, those corrupt lips curled slowly in a malevolent grin, and I knew that the thing before me, wreathed in that vicious smile of insane triumph, was the face of Claude Ashur!
I think I screamed. Realization flooded in upon me like a rising, slimy tide. In that moment I saw and understood the unholy motive that had lain behind the rites I had witnessed in the East Wing of Inneswich Priory. I knew, now, why my brother had wanted the body of Gratia Thane; I knew that the added power he might have gained through her beauty was only incidental. Claude Ashur had needed a new body. For the flesh in which his spirit had been housed since birth was riddled with disease, tottering on the brink of the grave.
The normal, healthy body of his wife had been his only hope of survival. He had wanted it in exchange for the putrescent thing I saw, now, in the mirror of the window. And, when I had destroyed his hope of claiming Gratia’s body, he had claimed mine, instead!
Reeling blindly to the steel-plated door, I pounded frantically at its heavy panels until the sickening pulp of those rotten hands bled. I felt these stiff lips working. I heard a voice that wasn’t mine screaming from this diseased, alien throat. Words crashed wildly against the nighted stillness of the asylum.
“My brother! Claude! Find Claude! My body … I tell you, he’s stolen my body! He’s won! He’s free! You’ve got to find him … He’ll destroy Gratia … He’ll claim her as he did me … Please! You’ve got to let me out! I’ve got to stop him! Please!”
They came. They came in their white tunics and shook their heads and talked in pitying undertones. They smiled kind, wise smiles that said: The poor devil is completely mad; humor him. They strapped me to the bed and went off a bit to whisper among themselves. After a while, the gray-haired one came over to me; he had the hypodermic in his right hand. I winced as the needle plunged into the crook of my arm. The gray-haired one spoke in a lulling voice.
“You must take things more calmly, Claude. Everything is all right, but you’re ill, and you must let us make you well …” He smiled automatically. “You’ve been a very naughty boy for nearly a month now. That’s why we must use the needle. I’ve told you many times; you must try to remember, Claude. Your brother, Richard, left the country nearly a week ago …”
I shook my head dully; my tongue worked in the foul-tasting hole that was my mouth.
“Gratia?” I gasped. “Where’s Gratia?”
The gray-haired one looked away; the blurred white figures of the other doctors shifted on uneasy feet and mumbled sympathetically. The hypo was beginning to take effect; the voices were only a thick murmur in my brain now. The gray-haired doctor was trying to explain something to me in the same calm tones. The words didn’t reach me. But I knew what he was saying. Soft, triumphant laughter gurgled bitterly in the white void, and I knew that, wherever my brother had gone, Gratia had gone with him. I knew that Claude Ashur had won.
There is no longer any fear in me. Fear died with the hope of saving Gratia. I know now that I could never have won out against the infernal evil of Claude Ashur. He was, and is, too strong. Too strong for all of us. I know that at this moment, somewhere, his foul mind lives on. Perhaps he has destroyed Gratia as he destroyed me. Often I wonder how many others have met the same monstrous fate. God only knows. But we, at least, are at rest; the destroyed have come to an end of horror. There is nothing left for us to do but give warning.
People will read this and scoff; they will call it the wild scrawling of a madman on the crumbling lip of the grave. They will laugh. But it will be a nervous, sickly laughter that doesn’t ring true. For in the end, when they have correlated the things I have told with the accepted facts, they will know that I am right. Claude Ashur will go on. For, strangely enough, insane as he is, I think perhaps he has captured the vagrant dream of every man—the only true immortality; the immortality of the mind that will not be imprisoned in one fleshly tomb, but will find others, and, somehow, forever escape the ravages of disease, the oblivion of the grave.
It is ironic and cruel that such a man should have made the discovery. But it is more than just that. It is dangerous. Not to me; not to Gratia and the others who have fought with Claude and lost. Nothing can touch us now. But Claude Ashur can touch you. Perhaps, even now, he is near you; perhaps he speaks with the lips of a lover, or watches through the eyes of an old and trusted friend, smiling that ancient, enigmatic smile. Laugh, if you will, but remember:
The will of Claude Ashur is possessed of a strength that goes beyond flesh and blood. One by one, it has met and vanquished every obstacle in his path. Before it, even Death has bowed a humbled head. And what it could not conquer, it has destroyed. If you doubt such power, you have only to think of me. It was that unholy strength of will that usurped my clean, healthy body, and left me entombed in this swollen, putrescent mass of flesh that has been rotting these twenty years with leprosy.