Genius Loci by Clark Ashton Smith

Genius Loci

Clark Ashton Smith

‘It is a very strange place,’ said Amberville, ‘but I scarcely know how to convey the impression it made upon me. It will all sound so simple and ordinary. There is nothing but a sedgy meadow, surrounded on three sides by slopes of yellow pine. A dreary little stream flows in from the open end, to lose itself in a cul-de-sac of cat-tails and boggy ground. The stream, running slowly and more slowly, forms a stagnant pool of some extent from which several sickly-looking alders seem to fling themselves backwards, as if unwilling to approach it. A dead willow leans above the pool, tangling its wan, skeleton-like reflection with the green scum that mottles the water. There are no blackbirds, no kildees, no dragon-flies even, such as one usually finds in a place of that sort. It is all silent and desolate. The spot is evil — it is unholy in a way that I simply can’t describe. I was compelled to make a drawing of it, almost against my will, since anything so outrй is hardly in my line. In fact, I made two drawings. I’ll show them to you, if you like.’

Since I had a high opinion of Amberville’s artistic abilities and had long considered him one of the foremost landscape painters of his generation, I was naturally eager to see the drawings. He, however, did not even pause to await my avowal of interest, but began at once to open his portfolio. His facial expression, the very movements of his hands, were somehow eloquent of a strange mixture of compulsion and repugnance as he brought out and displayed the two water-colour sketches he had mentioned.

I could not recognize the scene depicted from either of them, Plainly it was one that I had missed in my desultory rambling about the foot-hill environs of the tiny hamlet of Bowman, where, two years before, I had purchased an uncultivated ranch and had retired for the privacy so essential to prolonged literary effort. Francis Amberville, in the one fortnight of his visit, through his flair for the pictorial potentialities of landscape, had doubtless grown more familiar with the neighbourhood than I. It had been his habit to roam about in the forenoon, armed with sketching-materials; and in this way he had already found the theme of more than one lovely painting. The arrangement was mutually convenient, since I, in his absence was wont to apply myself assiduously to an antique Remington typewriter.

I examined the drawings attentively. Both, though of hurried execution, were highly meritorious, and showed the characteristic grace and vigour of Amberville’s style. And yet, even at first glance, I found a quality that was more alien to the spirit of his work. The elements of the scene were those he had described. In one picture, the pool was half hidden by a fringe of mace- weeds, and the dead willow was leaning across it at a prone, despondent angle, as if mysteriously arrested in its fall towards the stagnant waters. Beyond, the alders seemed to strain away from the pool, exposing their knotted roots as if in eternal effort. In the other drawing, the pool formed the main portion of the foreground, with the skeleton tree looming drearily at one side. At the water’s farther end, the cat-tails seemed to wave andwhisper among themselves in a dying wind; and the steeply barring slope of pine at the meadow’s terminus was indicated as a wall of gloomy green that closed in the picture, leaving only a pale of autumnal sky at the top.

All this, as the painter had said, was ordinary enough. But I was impressed immediately by a profound horror that lurked in these simple elements and was expressed by them as if by the balefully contorted features of some demoniac face. In both drawings, this sinister character was equally evident, as if the same face had been shown in profile and front view. I could not trace the separate details that composed the impressions; but ever, as I looked, the abomination of a strange evil, a spirit of despair, malignity, desolation, leered from the drawing more openly and hatefully. The spot seemed to wear a macabre and Satanic grimace. One felt that it might speak aloud, might utter the imprecations of some gigantic devil, or the raucous derision of a thousand birds of ill omen. The evil conveyed was something wholly outside of humanity — more ancient than man. Somehow — fantastic as this will seem — the meadow had the air of a vampire, grown old and hideous with unutterable infamies. Subtly, indefinably, it thirsted for other things than the sluggish trickle of water by which it was fed.

‘Where is the place?’ I asked, after a minute or two of silent inspection. It was incredible that anything of the sort could really exist — and equally incredible that a nature so robust as Amberville should have been sensitive to its quality.

‘It’s in the bottom of that abandoned ranch, a mile or less down the little road towards Bear River,’ he replied. ‘You must know it. There’s a small orchard about the house, on the upper hillside; but the lower portion, ending in that meadow, is all wild land.’

I began to visualize the vicinity in question. ‘Guess it must be the old Chapman place,’ I decided, ‘No other ranch along that road would answer your specifications.’

‘Well, whoever it belongs to, that meadow is the most horrible spot.I have ever encountered. I’ve known other landscapes that had something wrong with them, but never anything lihe this.’

‘Maybe it’s haunted,’ I said, half in jest. ‘From your description, it must be the very meadow where old Chapman was found dead one morning by his youngest daughter, It happened a few months after I moved here. He was supposed to have died of heart failure. His body was quite cold, and he had probably been lying there all night, since the family had missed him at suppertime. I don’t remember him very clearly, but I remember that he had a reputation for eccentricity. For some time before his death, people thought he was going mad. I forget the details, Anyway, his wife and children left, not long after he died, and no one has occupied the house or cultivated the orchard since. It was a commonplace rural tragedy.’

‘I’m not much of a believer in spooks,’ observed Amberville, who seemed to have taken my suggestion of haunting in a literal sense. ‘Whatever the influence is, it’s hardly of human origin, Come to think of it, though, I received a very silly impressiom once or twice –‘ the idea that some one was watching me while I, did those drawings. Queer — I had almost forgotten that, till you brought up the possibility of haunting. I seemed to see him out of the tail of my eye, just beyond the radius that I was putting into the picture: a dilapidated old scoundrel with dirty grey whiskers, and an evil scowl. It’s odd, too, that I should have gotten such a definite conception of him, without ever seeing him squarely. I thought it was a tramp who had strayed into the meadow bottom. But when I turned to give him a level glance, he simply wasn’t there. It was as if he melted into the miry ground, the cat-tails, the sedges.’

‘That isn’t a bad description of Chapman,’ I said. ‘I remember his whiskers — they were almost white, except for the tobacco juice. A battered antique, if there ever was one — and very unamiable, too. He had a poisonous glance towards the end, which no doubt helped along the legend of his insanity. Some of the tales about him come back to me now. People said that he neglected the care of his orchard more and more. Visitors used to find him in that lower meadow, standing idly about and staring vacantly at the trees and water. Probably that was one reason they thought he was losing his mind. But I’m sure I never heard that there was anything unusual or queer about the meadow, either at the time of Chapman’s death, or since. It’s a lonely spot, and I don’t imagine that any one ever goes there now.’

‘I stumbled on it quite by accident,’ said Amberville. ‘The place isn’t visible from the road, on account of the thick pines… But there’s another odd thing. I went out this morning with a strong and clear intuition that I might find something of uncommon interest. I made a bee-line for the meadow, so to speak; and I’ll have to admit that the intuition justified itself. The place repels me – but it fascinates me, too. I’ve simply got to solve the mystery, if it has a solution,’ he added, with a slightly defensive air. ‘I’m going back early tomorrow, with my oils, to start a real painting of it.’

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