Two A. M. that morning found Dr. John Vanaman in a place where yesterday he would have least expected to spend half the night. That is, he was ensconced in a large comfortable chair in the richly furnished bedchamber of old Jesse Robinson, the wealthiest — also some said the meanest — man in Tremont.
But if Robinson were mean, the meanness did not apply to expenditures on himself or his house. The mellow light of a shaded night lamp showed his lean, yellow, sleeping face pillowed in a bed, the cost of which would have paid Vanaman’s house rent and all other expenses for some years. The elaborate brocaded silk of the curtains, the bizarre splendor of the Chinese robe flung over a chair by the bedside, were like all else in the room: very beautiful and in almost distressing contrast with the lean, ravenous hawkishness of their owner.
Dr. Vanaman sighed and stirred uneasily.
He was not altogether pleased with his position. He had suggested that a nurse be sent for; and had immediately begun to learn why Miss Robinson had not called in the police without her uncle’s authorization, and also a possible reason for that slightly bored weariness which seemed to be her habitual manner.
Mr. Robinson, in fact, was “difficult.” Very soon after recovering consciousness he had demanded the reason for Vanaman’s presence, been surprisingly disagreeable over his niece’s act in sending for a doctor at all, and then abruptly reversed his faultfinding to all but literally hurl curses at Vanaman because the young man proposed to leave him and go home.
A nurse? Never! No she-cat, whisky-guzzling nurse was going to watch over him. His niece? No, indeed! Leilah must go straight to bed; just a little night-watching made any woman as ugly as an owl. He hated ugly people, and he would not have them around when he was sick. As for the servants, they were a stupid, addleheaded lot whom no man with the brains of a mouse would rely on.
He wanted Vanaman with him the rest of the night, and Vanaman he would have. A doctor was supposed to have some sense. Vanaman probably hadn’t much, but at least he was better than the others. And there were reasons — yes, there were very good reasons indeed why he wanted somebody with sense beside him the rest of that night.
Vanaman had yielded finally, and stayed, although it was not for the amiable Jesse J. Robinson’s sake. Rather, it was for Leilah’s.
“You will stay, won’t you?” she had pleaded, in her drawling, sweet voice. “I— I can’t tell you exactly why, but I’m afraid!”
The man who could resist that, thought Vanaman, must be less than human. Sitting there, his eyes on that really terrible old countenance on the pillow, he remembered the amazing loveliness of Leilah’s face beneath its delicate crown of moonbeam hair, and wondered. How might it be that in her veins flowed even a trace of the blood of that — that hawk-thing? The silken coverlid stirred, and he knew that the old man was even in his sleep making sure that his precious box was safe. Like a child with a treasured toy, he had insisted on taking it to bed with him, What was the mystery of that box? Was there any real mystery?
Robinson had firmly declined to tell what had happened after the butler left him alone in his study with the strange tramplike visitor. Questioned tentatively by Leilah, he had grown instantly secretive in a queer, half-frightened, half-defiant way; told them that his business with the stranger was his own, not theirs, and that if they knew what was good for them they would cease to try to pry into it.
Vanaman remembered the peculiar optical effect of infinite green depths into which his vision had sickeningly plunged — till Leilah’s touch on his arm had recalled him. Leilah! A beautiful name — very, very — beautiful —
It must have been some time after this last reflection that Dr. Vanaman became aware that he had slept. Moreover, he opened his eyes with an unpleasant, though still heavily drowsy consciousness that all was not well in the room about him.
Without moving his head — he was sitting in such an ideally comfortable attitude, that he hated to move — he could see his patient well enough. The hawk-faced one slept quietly. The movement of his long, easy respiration stirred the coverlid reassuringly. Nothing wrong there, but — Vanaman wondered dreamily if the weather had changed, and it was raining outside. Not that he heard any sounds of rain, but the air in the room breathed damp, as if fairly saturated with water vapor. There was a strange, chill, fresh tang to it, too, that dimly puzzled him. The very feel of the air was reminiscent of — of something familiar, but what? He was too drowsy for clear thinking.
This wouldn’t do. He must rouse himself. In one way or another a very wrong condition — was present about him. He fought his own inertia in the helpless, utterly futile manner peculiar to nightmare.
Without turning his head — and now he knew to his own dismay that he could not turn it, try as he would — not only the bed but the closed door leading into the outer passage was visible. And from somewhere beyond that door a sound gradually invaded his trance-like misery.
At first it seemed to come faintly, as from a very long way off, and it approached by rhythmic stages of progression and retrogression. That is, there would be a long, even rush of oncoming; then a failing and subsiding and running back of the noise till it was again almost inaudible. But Vanaman felt assured that in each time of the sound’s swelling what approached came nearer than in the preceding time.
The sound had a seething, hissing quality that seemed somehow congruous with the fresh, damp tang in the air, though the doctor’s numbed mind could not quite make the association and learn what either of them meant. He was not really thinking at all. He was feeling merely, and even to struggle for thought was mental agony.
The seething hiss of what approached had come very near on its last onrush — appallingly near, and Vanaman was afraid as he had never feared in his life before. But this was no normal terror. This was the frightful, will-paralyzing horror of a dream. He tacitly recognized it as such, and was at the same time helpless to dissipate it by a full awakening.
From afar the hissing invader came on nearer — nearer — nearer — Vanaman’s eyes were fixed in fascination on the door, and next moment he saw the dreaded thing happen. What claimed entry here needed not to open the door, nor to break it down. With the door closed, it came in under. Vanaman saw a white, frothing line appear that slid forward, curvingly at floor level, hissing as it came, with behind it — a flat, polished darkness. It entered, spread out, rushed forward almost to his feet and retreated again.
He recognized the thing well enough now. He had seen it flood devouringly up and across smooth beaches where the gray-brown sand gleamed wetly and the clean salt tang of its breath filled one’s lungs with life. But what was it doing here, far from its boundaries on a — yes, on the second floor of a house. He mustn’t forget that.
He was sitting in the bedroom on the second floor of a house in Tremont, over fifty miles from the Atlantic shore. For the seatide to enter here was impossible. Gripped by a nightmarish condition, he was suffering from illusion-hallucination.
Again the frothing white line intruded and rushed forward, spreading this time from wall to wall. It had curled by over his feet, and his feet were wet and cold.
Minute after minute passed, and still the rhythmic and horribly incongruous phenomenon persisted. After its first three infloodings, the invader no longer entirely retreated beneath the door, and very soon it fell no lower on the outgo than the seated man’s ankles; on the influx, green as emerald and laced with frothing foam, it was washing about his knees.
Moreover, the water seemed real; the wetness and coldness of it were chilling him to the bone. Only afterward did he recall that the sea-tide, in its common, physical phase, has certain powers not displayed by this strange similitude of it. Nothing against which it washed was stirred or floated. The brocaded bed curtains hung straight, not even swayed by the surging waves that swept past their lower edges.
A light woven reed tabouret near Vanaman’s chair kept its place, submerging and reemerging sedately, as if the law of specific gravity, like the law which chains the sea within its boundaries, had been suspended for this night.
And now Vanaman grew aware that with the green sea-tide something else had entered the room. He could not see it. The evidence of its presence was as yet purely intuitional. But the mere blind knowledge of its presence gripped Vanaman’s soul with a terror that far surpassed his previous fear. He felt that he was dying. No agony like this could be long endured by mere human life.
And that sleeping hawk face in the bed, which had slumbered on undisturbed till now, seemed at last aware that an awful danger impended. Though the eyes did not open, the brows knotted with a writhing motion, the jaws set, and the sucked-in lips strained slightly apart, exposing the jagged yellow teeth behind.
Presently a rush of half-articulate words passed the straining lips. To Vanaman it seemed that he muttered something of “horses,” “white horses,” and “the bloody throats of white horses;” but perhaps because of the water’s seething and continuous noise he could make no coherent meaning of the words.
Then with frightful abruptness came the climax.
That which was in the room beneath the tide, and which had pushed the tide hither — before it, now gathered, took form, and rose up, sudden and monstrous.
Exactly what shape it had, Vanaman could not later clearly remember. He could recall only his own fear and intuitive sense of it as a thing of awful force and of a potential destructiveness terrific beyond finite comprehension.
As it rose, the green brine surged and swirled up with it in a cone-shaped, swirling mass.
The old man on the bed sat bolt upright, and as that dreadful power loomed over him his mouth opened to an oblong aperture. Out of his stringy old throat there issued forth a long, wild, bubbling shriek.
Like a knife the keen sound of it cut and drove away the intangible bonds which had held Vanaman powerless. In one leap he had sprung from his chair and flung himself recklessly between his patient and the nameless horror that threatened.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00