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.’
I was surprised, knowing that predilection of Amberville for scenic brilliance and gaiety which had caused him to be likened to Sorolla. ‘The painting will be a novelty for you,’ I commented. ‘I’ll have to come and take a look at the place myself, before long. It should really be more in my line than yours. There ought to be a weird story in it somewhere, if it lives up to your drawings and description.’
Several days passed. I was deeply preoccupied, at the time with the toilsome and intricate problems offered by the concluding chapters of a new novel; and I put off my proposed visit to the meadow discovered by Amberville. My friend, on his part, was evidently engrossed by his new theme. He sallied forth each morning with his easel and oil-colours, and returned later each day, forgetful of the luncheon-hour that had formerly brought him back from such expeditions, On the third day, he did not reappear till sunset. Contrary to his custom, he did not show me what he had done, and his answers to my queries regarding the progress of the picture were somewhat vague and evasive. For some reason, he was unwilling to talk about it. Also, he was apparently loath to discuss the meadow itself, and in answer to direct questions, merely reiterated in an absent and perfunctory manner the account he had given me following his discovery of the place. In some mysterious way that I could not define, his attitude seemed to have changed.
There were other changes, too. He seemed to have lost his usual bitterness. Often I caught him frowning intently, and surprised the lurking of some equivocal shadow in his frank eyes
There was a moodiness, a morbidity, which, as far as our five years’ friendship enabled me to observe, was a new aspect of his temperament. Perhaps, if I had not been so preoccupied with my own difficulties, I might have wondered more as to the causatiom of his gloom, which I attributed readily enough at first to some technical dilemma that was baffling him. He was less and less the Amberville that I knew; and on the fourth day, when he came back at twilight, I perceived an actual surliness that was quite foreign to his nature.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ventured to inquire. ‘Have you struck a snag? Or is old Chapman’s meadow getting on your nerves with its ghostly influences?’
He seemed, for once, to make an effort to throw off his gloom, his taciturnity and ill humour.
‘It’s the infernal mystery of the thing,’ he declared, ‘I’ve simply got to solve it, in one way or another. The place has an entity of its own — an indwelling personality. It’s there, like the soul in a human body, but I can’t pin it down or touch it. You know that I’m not superstitious — but, on the other hand, I’m not a bigoted materialist, either; and I’ve run across some odd phenomena in my time. That meadow, perhaps, is inhabited by what the ancients called a Genius Loci. More than once, before this, I have suspected that such things might exist — might reside, inherent, in some particular spot. But this is the first time that I’ve had reason to suspect anything of an actively malignant or inimical nature. The other influences, whose presence I have felt, were benign in some large, vague, impersonal way — or were else wholly indifferent to human welfare — perhaps oblivious of human existence. This thing, however, is hatefully aware and watchful: I feel that the meadow itself — or the force embodied in the meadow – is scrutinizing me all the time. The place has the air of a thirsty vanpire, waiting to drink me in somehow, if it can. It is a cul-de-sac of everything evil, in which an unwary soul might well be caught and absorbed. But I tell you, Murray, I can’t keep away from it.’
‘It looks as if the place were getting you,’. I said, thoroughly astonished by his extraordinary declaration, and by the air of fearful and morbid conviction with which he uttered it.
Apparently he had not heard me, for he made no reply to my observation. ‘There’s another angle,’ he went on, with a feverish intensity in his voice. ‘You remember my impression of an old man lurking in the background and watching me, on my first visit. Well, I have seen him again, many times, out of the corner of my eye; and during the last two days, he has appeared more directly, though in a queer, partial way. Sometimes, when I am studying the dead willow very intently, I see his scowling filthy-bearded face as a part of the hole. Then, again, it will float among the leafless twigs, as if it had been caught there. Sometimes a knotty hand, a tattered coat-sleeve, will emerge through the mantling in the pool, as if a drowned body were rising to the surface. Then, a moment later — or simultaneously — there will be something of him among the alders or the cat-tails. These apparitions are always brief, and when I try to scrutinize them closely, they melt like films of vapour into the surrounding scene. But the old scoundrel, whoever or whatever he may be, is a sort of fixture. He is no less vile than everything else about the place, though I feel that he isn’t the main element of the vileness.’
‘Good Lord!’ I exclaimed. ‘You certainly have been seeing things. If you don’t mind, I’ll come down and join you for a while, tomorrow afternoon. The mystery begins to inveigle me.’
‘Of course I don’t mind, Come ahead.’ His manner, all at once, for no tangible reason, had resumed the unnatural taciturnity of the past four days. He gave me a furtive look that was sullen and almost unfriendly. It was as if an obscure barrier, temporarily laid aside, had again risen between us. The shadows of his strange mood returned upon him visibly; and my efforts to continue the conversation were rewarded only by half-surly, half- absent monosyllables. Feeling an aroused concern, rather than any offence, I began to note, for the first time, the unwonted pallor of his face, and the bright, febrile lustre of his eyes, He looked vaguely unwell, I thought, as if something of his exuberant vitality had gone out of him, and had left in its place an alien energy of doubtful and less healthy nature. Tacitly, I gave up any attempt to bring him back from the secretive twilight into which he had withdrawn. For the rest of the evening, I pretended to read a novel, while Amberville maintained his singular abstraction. Somewhat inconclusively, I puzzled over the matter till bedtime. I made up my mind, however, that I would visit Chapman’s meadow. I did not believe in the supernatural, but it seemed apparent that the place was exerting a deleterious influence upon Amberville.
The next morning, when I arose, my Chinese servant informed me that the painter had already breakfasted and had gone out with his easel and colours. This further proof of his obsession troubled me; but I applied myself rigorously to a forenoon of writing.
Immediately after luncheon, I drove down the highway, followed the narrow dirt road that branched off towards Bear River, and left my car on the pine-thick hill above the old Chapman place. Though I had never visited the meadow, I had a pretty clear idea of its location. Disregarding the grassy, half-obliterated road into the upper portion of the property, I struck down through the woods into the little blind valley, seeing more than once, on the opposite slope, the dying orchard of pear and apple trees, and the tumbledown shanty that had belonged to the Chapmans.
It was a warm October day; and the serene solitude of the forest, the autumnal softness of light and air, made the idea of anything malign or sinister seem impossible. When I came to the meadow-bottom, I was ready to laugh at Amberville’s notions; and the place itself, at first sight, merely impressed me as being rather dreary and dismal. The features of the scene were those that he had described so clearly, but I could not find the open evil that had leered from the pool, the willow, the alders and the cat-tails in his drawings.
Amberville, with his back towards me, was seated on a folding stool before his easel, which he had placed among the plots of dark green wire-grass in the open ground above the pool. He did not seem to be working, however, but was staring intently at the scene beyond him, while a loaded brush drooped idly in his fingers. The sedges deadened my footfalls, and he did not hear me as I drew near.
With much curiosity, I peered over his shoulder at the large canvas on which he had been engaged. As far as I could tell, the picture had already been carried to a consummate degree of technical perfection. It was an almost photographic rendering of the scummy water, the whitish skeleton of the leaning willow, the unhealthy, half-disrooted alders, and the cluster of nodding mace-reeds. But in it I found the macabre and demoniac spirit of the sketches: the meadow seemed to wait and watch like an evilly distorted face. It was a deadfall of malignity and despair, lying from the autumn world around it; a plague-spot of nature, forever accursed and alone.
Again I looked at the landscape itself — and saw that the spot was indeed as Amberville had depicted it. It wore the grimace of a mad vampire, hateful and alert! At the same time, I became disagreeably conscious of the unnatural silence. There were no birds, no insects, as the painter had said; and it seemed that only spent and dying winds could ever enter that depressed valley- bottom. The thin stream that lost itself in the boggy ground was like a soul that went down to perdition. It was part of the mystery, too; for I could not remember any stream on the lower side of the barring hill that would indicate a subterranean outlet.
Amberville’s intentness, and the very posture of his head and shoulders, were like those of a man who has been mesmerized. I was about to make my presence known to him; but at that instant there came to me the apperception that we were not alone in the meadow. Just beyond the focus of my vision, a figure seemed to stand in a furtive attitude, as if watching us both. I whirled about and there was no one. Then I heard a startled cry from Amberville and turned to find him staring at me. His features wore a look of terror and surprise, which had not wholly erased a hypnotic absorption.
‘My God!’ he said, ‘I thought you were the old man!’
I can not be sure whether anything more was said by either of us. I have, however, the impression of a blank silence. After his single exclamation of surprise, Amberville seemed to retreat into an impenetrable abstraction, as if he were no longer conscious of my presence; as if, having identified me, he had forgotten me at once. On my part, I felt a weird and overpowering constraint. That infamous, eerie scene depressed me beyond measure. It seemed that the boggy bottom was trying to drag me down in some intangible way. The boughs of the sick alders beckoned. The pool, over which the bony willow presided like an arboreal death, was wooing me foully with its stagnant waters.
Moreover, apart from the ominous atmosphere of the scene itself, I was painfully aware of a further change in Amberville — a change that was an actual alienation, His recent mood, whatever it was, had strengthened upon him enormously: he had gone deeper into its morbid twilight, and was lost to the blithe and sanguine personality I had known. It was as if an incipient madness had seized him; and the possibility of this terrified me.
In a slow, somnambulistic manner, without giving me a second glance, he began to work at his painting, and I watched him for a while, hardly knowing what to do or say. For long intervals he would stay and peer with dreamy intentness at some feature of the landscape. I conceived the bizarre idea of a growing kinship, a mysterious rapport between Amberville and the meadow. In some intangible way, it seemed as if the place had taken some- thing from his very soul — and had given something of itself in exchange. He wore the air of one who participates in some unholy secret, who has become the acolyte of an unhuman knowledge. In a flash of horrible definitude, I saw the place as an actual vampire, and Amberville as its willing victim.
How long I remained there, I can not say. Finally I stepped over to him and shook him roughly by the shoulder.
‘You’re working too hard,’ I said. ‘Take my advice, and lay off for a day or two.’
He turned to me with the dazed look of one who is lost in some narcotic dream. This, very slowly, gave place to a sullen, evil anger.
‘Oh, go to hell!’ he snarled. ‘Can’t you see that I’m busy?’
I left him then, for there seemed nothing else to do under the circumstances. The mad and spectral nature of the whole affair was enough to make me doubt my own reason. My impressions of the meadow — and of Amberville — were tainted with an insidious horror such as I had ever before felt in any moment of waking life and normal consciousness.
At the bottom of the slope of yellow pine, I turned back with repugnant curiosity for a parting glance. The painter had not moved, he was still confronting the malignant scene like a charmed bird that faces a lethal serpent. Whether or not the impression was a double optic image, I have never been sure: but at that instant I seemed to discern a faint, unholy aura, neither light nor mist, that flowed and wavered about the meadow, preserving the outlines of the willow, the alders, the weeds, the pool Stealthily it appeared to lengthen, reaching towards Amberville like ghostly arms. The whole image was extremely tenuous, and may well have been an illusion; but it sent me shuddering into the shelter of the tall, benignant pines.
The remainder of that day, and, the evening that followed, were tinged with the shadowy horror I had found in Chapman’s meadow. I believe that I spent most of the time in arguing vainly with myself, in trying to convince the rational part of my mind that all I had seen and felt was utterly preposterous. I could arrive at no conclusion, other than a conviction that Amberville’s mental health was endangered by the damnable thing, whatever it was, that inhered in the meadow. The malign personality of the place, the impalpable terror, mystery and lure, were like webs that had been woven upon my brain, and which I could not dissipate by any amount of conscious effort.
I made two resolves, however: one was, that I should write immediately to Amberville’s fiancй, Miss Avis Olcott, and invite her to visit me as a fellow-guest of the artist during the remainder of his stay at Bowman. Her influence, I thought, might help to counteract whatever was affecting him so perniciously. Since I knew her fairly well, the invitation would not seem out of the way. I decided to say nothing about it to Amberville: the element of surprise, I hoped, would be especially beneficial.
My second resolve was, that I should not again visit the meadow myself, if I could avoid it. Indirectly — for I knew the folly of trying to combat a mental obsession openly — I should also try to discourage the painter’s interest in the place, and divert his attention to other themes, Trips and entertainments, too, could be devised, at the minor cost of delaying my own work.
The smoky autumn twilight overtook me in such meditations as these; but Amberville did not return. Horrible premonitions, without coherent shape or name, began to torment me as I waited for him. The night darkened; and dinner grew cold on the table. At last, about nine o’clock, when I was nerving myself to go out and hunt for him, he came in hurriedly. He was pale, dishevelled, out of breath; and his eyes held a painful glare, as if everything had frightened him beyond endurance.
He did not apologize for his lateness; nor did he refer to my own visit to the meadow-bottom. Apparently he had forgotten the whole episode — had forgotten his rudeness to me.
‘I’m through!’ he cried. ‘I’ll never go back again — never take another chance. That place is more hellish at night than in the daytime. I can’t tell you what I’ve seen and felt — I must forget it, if I can. There’s an emanation – something that comes out openly in the absence of the sun, but is latent by day. It lures me, it tempted me to remain this evening — and it nearly got me… God! I didn’t believe that such things were possible — that abhor- rent compound of–‘ He broke off, and did not finish the sentence. His eyes dilated, as if with the memory of something too awful to be described. At that moment, I recalled the poisonously haunted eyes of old Chapman whom I had sometimes met about the hamlet. He had not interested me particularly, since I had deemed him a common type of rural character, with a tendency to some obscure and unpleasant aberration. Now, when I saw the same look in the eyes of a sensitive artist, I began to wonder, with a shivering speculation, whether Chapman too had been aware of the weird evil that dwelt in his meadow. Perhaps, in some way that was beyond human comprehension, he had been its victim. … He had died there; and his death had not seemed at all mysterious. But perhaps, in the light of all that Amberville and I had perceived, there was more in the matter than any one had suspected.
‘Tell me what you saw,’ I ventured to suggest. At the question, a veil seemed to fall between us, impalpable but terrific. He shook his head morosely and made no reply. The human terror, which perhaps had driven him back towards his normal self, and had made him almost communicative for the nonce, fell away from Amberville. A shadow that was darker than fear, an impenetrable alien umbrage, again submerged him. I felt a sudden chill, of the spirit rather than the flesh; and once more there came to me the outrй thought of his growing kinship with the ghoulish meadow. Beside me, in the lamplit room, behind the mask of his humanity, a thing that was not wholly human seemed to sit and wait.
Of the nightmarish days that followed, I shall offer only a summary. It would be impossible to convey the eventless, fantasmal horror in which we dwelt and moved.
I wrote immediately to Miss Olcott, pressing her to pay me a visit during Amberville’s stay, and, in order to insure acceptance, I hinted obscurely at my concern for his health and my need of her coadjutation. In the meanwhile, waiting her answer, I tried to divert the artist by suggesting trips to sundry points of scenic interest in the neighbourhood. These suggestions he declined, with an aloof curtness, an air that was stony and cryptic rather than deliberately rude. Virtually, he ignored my existence, and made it more than plain that he wished me to have him to his own devices. This, in despair, I finally decided to do, pending the arrival of Miss Olcott. He went out early each morning, as usual, with his paints and easel, and returned about sunset or a little later. He did not tell me where he had been; and I refrained from asking.
Miss Olcott came on the third day following my letter, in the afternoon. She was young, lissome, ultra-feminine, and was altogether devoted to Amberville. In fact, I think she was a little in awe of him. I told her as much as I dared, and warned her of the morbid change in her fiancй, which I attributed to nervousness and overwork. I simply could not bring myself to mention Chapman’s meadow and its baleful influence: the whole thing was too unbelievable, too fantasmagoric, to be offered as an explanation to a modern girl. When I saw the somewhat helpless alarm and bewilderment with which she listened to my story, I began to wish that she were of a more wilful and determined type, and were less submissive towards Amberville than I surmised her to be, A stronger woman might have saved him; but even then I began to doubt whether Avis could do anything to combat the imponderable evil that was engulfing him.
A heavy crescmt moon was hanging like a blood-dipped horn in the twilight, when he returned. To my immense relief, the presence of Avis appeared to have a highly salutary effect. The very moment that he saw her, Amberville came out of the singular eclipse that had claimed him, as I feared, beyond redemption, and was almost his former affable self, Perhaps it was all make- believe, for an ulterior purpose; but this, at the time, I could not suspect. I began to congratulate myself on having applied a sovereign remedy. The girl, on her part, was plainly relieved; though I saw her eyeing him in a slightly hurt and puzzled way, when he sometimes fell for a short interval into moody abstraction, as if he had temporarily forgotten her. On the whole, however, there was a transformation that appeared no less than magical, in view of his recent gloom and remoteness. After a decent interim, I left the pair together, and retired.
I rose very late the next morning, having overslept. Avis and Amberville I learned, had gone out together, carrying a lunch which my Chinese cook had provided. Plainly he was taking her along on one of his artistic expeditions; and I augured well for his recovery from this. Somehow, it never occurred to me that he had taken her to Chapman’s meadow. The tenuous, malignant shadow of the whole affair had begun to lift from my mind; I rejoiced in a lightened sense of responsibility; and, for the first time in a week, was able to concentrate clearly on the ending of my novel.
The two returned at dusk, and I saw immediately that I had been mistaken on more points than one. Amberville had again retired into a sinister, saturnine reserve. The girl, beside his looming height and massive shoulders, looked very small, forlorn and pitifully bewildered and frightened. It was as if she had encountered something altogether beyond her comprehension something with which she was humanly powerless to cope.
Very little was said by either of them. They did not tell me where they had been; but, for that matter, it was unnecessary to inquire. Amberville’s taciturnity, as usual, seemed due to an absorption in some dark mood or sullen reverie. But Avis gave me the impression of a dual constraint — as if, apart from some enthralling terror, she had been forbidden to speak of the day’s events and experiences. I knew that they had gone to that accursed meadow; but I was far from sure whether Avis had been personally conscious of the weird and baneful entity of the place, or had merely been frightened by the unwholesome change in her lover beneath its influence. In either case, it was obvious that she was wholly subservient to him, I began to damn myself for a fool in having invited her to Bowman — though the true bitterness of my regret was still to come.
A week went by, with the same daily excursions of the painter and his fiancй — the same baffling, sinister estrangement and secrecy in Amberville — the same terror, helplessness, constraint and submissiveness in the girl. How it would all end, I could not imagine; but I feared, from the ominous alteration of his character,’ that Amberville was heading for some form of mental alienation, if nothing worse, My offers of entertainment and scenic journeys were rejected by the pair; and several blunt efforts to question Avis were met by a wall of almost hostile evasion which convinced me that Amberville had enjoined her to secrecy — and had perhaps, in some sleightful manner, misrepresented my own attitude towards him.
‘You don’t understand him,’ she said, repeatedly. ‘He is very temperamental.’
The whole affair was a maddening mystery, but it seemed more and more that the girl herself was being drawn, either directly or indirectly, into the same fantasmal web that had enmeshed the artist.
I surmised that Amberville had done several new pictures of the meadow; but he did not show them to me, nor even mention them, My own impressions of the place, as time went on, assumed an unaccountable vividness that was almost hallucinatory. The incredible idea of some inherent force or personality, malevolent and even vampirish, became an unavowed conviction against my will. The place haunted me like a fantasm, horrible but seductive. I felt an impelling morbid curiosity, an unwholesome desire to visit it again, and fathom, if possible, its enigma. Often I thought of Amberville’s notion about a Genius Loci that dwelt in the meadow, and the hints of a human apparition that was somehow associated with the spot. Also, I wondered what it was that the artist had seen on the one occasion when he had lingered in the meadow after nightfall, and had returned to my house in driven terror. It seemed that he had not ventured to repeat the experiment, in spite of his obvious subjection to the unknown lure.
The end cane, abruptly and without premonition. Business had taken me to the county seat, one afternoon, and I did not return till late in the evening. A full moon was high above the pine-dark hills. I expected to find Avis and the painter in my drawing-room; but they were not there. Li Sing, my factotum, told me that they had returned at dinnertime. An hour later, Amberville had gone out quietly while the girl was in her room. Coming down a few minutes later, Avis had. shown excessive perturbation when she found him absent, and had also left the house, as if to follow him, without telling Li Sing where she was going or when she might return. All this had occurred three hours previously; and neither of the pair had yet reappeared.
A black and subtly chilling intuition of evil seized me as I listened to Li Sing’s account. All too well I surmised that Amberville had yielded to the temptation of a second nocturnal visit to that unholy meadow. An occult attraction, somehow, had overcome the horror of his first experience, whatever it had been. Avis, knowing where he was, and perhaps fearful of his sanity — or safety — had gone out to find him. More and more, I felt an imperative conviction of some peril that threatened them both — some hideous and innominable thing to whose power, perhaps, they had already yielded.
Whatever my previous folly and remissness in the matter, I did not delay now. A few minutes of driving at precipitate speed through the mellow moonlight brought me to the piny edge of the Chapman property. There, as on my former visit, I left the car, and plunged headlong through the shadowy forest, Far down, in the hollow, as I went, I heard a single scream, shrill with terror, and abruptly terminated. I felt sure that the voice was that of Avis; but I did not hear it again.
Running desperately, I emerged in the meadow-bottom, Neither Avis nor Amberville was in sight; and it seemed to me, in my hasty scrutiny, that the place was full of mysteriously coiling and moving vapours that permitted only a partial view of the dead willow and the other vegetation. I ran on towards the scummy pool, and nearing it, was arrested by a sudden and twofold horror.
Avis and Amberville were floating together in the shallow pool, with their bodies half hidden by the mantling masses of algae. The girl was clasped tightly in the painter’s arms, as if he had carried her with him, against her will, to that noisome death. Her face was covered by the evil, greenish scum; and I could not see the face of Amberville, which was averted against her shoulder. It seemed that there had been a struggle; but both were quiet now, and had yielded supinely to their doom.
It was not this spectacle alone, however, that drove me in mad and shuddering flight from the meadow, without making even the most tentative attempt to retrieve the drowned bodies. The true horror lay in the thing, which, from a little distance, I had taken for the coils of a slowly moving and rising mist. It was not vapour, nor anything else that could conceivably exist — that malign, luminous, pallid emanation that enfolded the entire scene before me like a restless and hungrily wavering extension of its outlines — a phantom projection of the pale and deathlike willow, the dying alders, the reeds, the stagnant pool and its suicidal victims. The landscape was visible through it, as through a film; but it seemed to curdle and thicken gradually in places, with some unholy, terrifying activity. Out of these curdlings, as ifdisgorged by the ambient exhalation, I saw the emergence of three human faces that partook of the same nebulous matter, neither mist nor plasma. One of these faces seemed to detach itself from the bole of the ghostly willow; the second and third swirled upwards from the seething of the phantom pool, with their bodies trailing formlessly among the tenuous boughs. The faces were those of old Chapman, of Francis Amberville, and Avis Olcott.
Behind this eerie, wraith-like projection of itself, the actual landscape leered with the same infernal and vampirish air which it had worn by day. But it seemed now that the place was no longer still — that it seethed with a malignant secret life — that it reached out towards me with its scummy waters, with the bony fingers of its trees, with the spectral faces it had spewed forth from its lethal deadfall.
Even terror was frozen within me for a moment. I stood watching, while the pale, unhallowed exhalation rose higher above the meadow. The three human faces, through a further agitation of the curdling mass, began to approach each other. Slowly, inexpressibly, they merged in one, becoming an androgynous face, neither young nor old, that melted finally into the lengthening phantom boughs of the willow — the hands of the arboreal death, that were reaching out to enfold me. Then, unable to bear the spectacle any longer, I started to run.
There is little more that need be told, for nothing that I could add to this narrative would lessen the abomiable mystery of it all in any degree. The meadow — or the thing that dwells in the meadow — has already claimed three victims… and I sometimes wonder if it will have a fourth. I alone, it would seem, among the living, have guessed the secret of Chapman’s death, and the death of Avis and Amberville; and no one else, apparently, has felt the malign genius of the meadow. I have not returned there, since the morning when the bodies of the artist and his fiancйe were removed from the pool… nor have I summoned up the resolution to destroy or otherwise dispose of the four oil paintings and two watercolor-drawings of the spot that were made by Amberville. Perhaps… in spite of all that deters me… I shall visit it again.