The Thing on the Doorstep, by H.P. Lovecraft

Chapter 7

It was in the night — after that second evening — that stark, utter horror burst over me and weighted my spirit with a black, clutching panic from which it can never shake free. It began with a telephone call just before midnight. I was the only one up, and sleepily took down the receiver in the library. No one seemed to be on the wire, and I was about to hang up and go to bed when my ear caught a very faint suspicion of sound at the other end. Was someone trying under great difficulties to talk? As I listened I thought I heard a sort of half-liquid bubbling noise —“glub . . . glub . . . glub”— which had an odd suggestion of inarticulate, unintelligible word and syllable divisions. I called “Who is it?” But the only answer was “glub . . . glub . . . glub-glub.” I could only assume that the noise was mechanical; but fancying that it might be a case of a broken instrument able to receive but not to send, I added, “I can’t hear you. Better hang up and try Information.” Immediately I heard the receiver go on the hook at the other end.

This, I say, was just about midnight. When the call was traced afterward it was found to come from the old Crowninshield house, though it was fully half a week from the housemaid’s day to be there. I shall only hint what was found at that house — the upheaval in a remote cellar storeroom, the tracks, the dirt, the hastily rifled wardrobe, the baffling marks on the telephone, the clumsily used stationery, and the detestable stench lingering over everything. The police, poor fools, have their smug little theories, and are still searching for those sinister discharged servants — who have dropped out of sight amidst the present furore. They speak of a ghoulish revenge for things that were done, and say I was included because I was Edward’s best friend and adviser.

Idiots! Do they fancy those brutish clowns could have forged that handwriting? Do they fancy they could have brought what later came? Are they blind to the changes in that body that was Edward’s? As for me, I now believe all that Edward Derby ever told me. There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man’s evil prying calls them just within our range. Ephraim — Asenath — that devil called them in, and they engulfed Edward as they are engulfing me.

Can I be sure that I am safe? Those powers survive the life of the physical form. The next day — in the afternoon, when I pulled out of my prostration and was able to walk and talk coherently — I went to the madhouse and shot him dead for Edward’s and the world’s sake, but can I be sure till he is cremated? They are keeping the body for some silly autopsies by different doctors — but I say he must be cremated. He must be cremated — he who was not Edward Derby when I shot him. I shall go mad if he is not, for I may be the next. But my will is not weak — and I shall not let it be undermined by the terrors I know are seething around it. One life — Ephraim, Asenath, and Edward — who now? I will not be driven out of my body . . . I will not change souls with that bullet-ridden lich in the madhouse!

But let me try to tell coherently of that final horror. I will not speak of what the police persistently ignored — the tales of that dwarfed, grotesque, malodorous thing met by at least three wayfarers in High Street just before two o’clock, and the nature of the single footprints in certain places. I will say only that just about two the doorbell and knocker waked me — doorbell and knocker both, applied alternately and uncertainly in a kind of weak desperation, and each trying to keep Edward’s old signal of three-and-two strokes.

Roused from sound sleep, my mind leaped into a turmoil. Derby at the door — and remembering the old code! That new personality had not remembered it . . . was Edward suddenly back in his rightful state? Why was he here in such evident stress and haste? Had he been released ahead of time, or had he escaped? Perhaps, I thought as I flung on a robe and bounded downstairs, his return to his own self had brought raving and violence, revoking his discharge and driving him to a desperate dash for freedom. Whatever had happened, he was good old Edward again, and I would help him!

When I opened the door into the elm-arched blackness a gust of insufferably foetid wind almost flung me prostrate. I choked in nausea, and for a second scarcely saw the dwarfed, humped figure on the steps. The summons had been Edward’s, but who was this foul, stunted parody? Where had Edward had time to go? His ring had sounded only a second before the door opened.

The caller had on one of Edward’s overcoats — its bottom almost touching the ground, and its sleeves rolled back yet still covering the hands. On the head was a slouch hat pulled low, while a black silk muffler concealed the face. As I stepped unsteadily forward, the figure made a semi-liquid sound like that I had heard over the telephone —“glub . . . glub . . . ”— and thrust at me a large, closely written paper impaled on the end of a long pencil. Still reeling from the morbid and unaccountable foetor, I seized the paper and tried to read it in the light from the doorway.

Beyond question, it was in Edward’s script. But why had he written when he was close enough to ring — and why was the script so awkward, coarse and shaky? I could make out nothing in the dim half light, so edged back into the hall, the dwarf figure clumping mechanically after but pausing on the inner door’s threshold. The odour of this singular messenger was really appalling, and I hoped (not in vain, thank God!) that my wife would not wake and confront it.

Then, as I read the paper, I felt my knees give under me and my vision go black. I was lying on the floor when I came to, that accursed sheet still clutched in my fear-rigid hand. This is what it said.

“Dan — go to the sanitarium and kill it. Exterminate it. It isn’t Edward Derby any more. She got me — it’s Asenath — and she has been dead three months and a half. I lied when I said she had gone away. I killed her. I had to. It was sudden, but we were alone and I was in my right body. I saw a candlestick and smashed her head in. She would have got me for good at Hallowmass.

“I buried her in the farther cellar storeroom under some old boxes and cleaned up all the traces. The servants suspected next morning, but they have such secrets that they dare not tell the police. I sent them off, but God knows what they — and others of the cult — will do.

“I thought for a while I was all right, and then I felt the tugging at my brain. I knew what it was — I ought to have remembered. A soul like hers — or Ephraim’s — is half detached, and keeps right on after death as long as the body lasts. She was getting me — making me change bodies with her — seizing my body and putting me in that corpse of hers buried in the cellar.

“I knew what was coming — that’s why I snapped and had to go to the asylum. Then it came — I found myself choked in the dark — in Asenath’s rotting carcass down there in the cellar under the boxes where I put it. And I knew she must be in my body at the sanitarium — permanently, for it was after Hallowmass, and the sacrifice would work even without her being there — sane, and ready for release as a menace to the world. I was desperate, and in spite of everything I clawed my way out.

“I’m too far gone to talk — I couldn’t manage to telephone — but I can still write. I’ll get fixed up somehow and bring this last word and warning. Kill that fiend if you value the peace and comfort of the world. See that it is cremated. If you don’t, it will live on and on, body to body forever, and I can’t tell you what it will do. Keep clear of black magic, Dan, it’s the devil’s business. Goodbye — you’ve been a great friend. Tell the police whatever they’ll believe — and I’m damnably sorry to drag all this on you. I’ll be at peace before long — this thing won’t hold together much more. Hope you can read this. And kill that thing — kill it.

Yours — Ed.”

It was only afterward that I read the last half of this paper, for I had fainted at the end of the third paragraph. I fainted again when I saw and smelled what cluttered up the threshold where the warm air had struck it. The messenger would not move or have consciousness any more.

The butler, tougher-fibred than I, did not faint at what met him in the hall in the morning. Instead, he telephoned the police. When they came I had been taken upstairs to bed, but the — other mass — lay where it had collapsed in the night. The men put handkerchiefs to their noses.

What they finally found inside Edward’s oddly-assorted clothes was mostly liquescent horror. There were bones, too — and a crushed-in skull. Some dental work positively identified the skull as Asenath’s.

This web edition published by:

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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lovecraft/hp/thing/chapter7.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49