The apparition confronting the dreamer in the haunted wood-the thing so
like, yet so unlike, his mother-was horrible! It stirred no love nor longings
in his heart; it came unattended with pleasant memories of a golden past-inspired
no sentiment of any kind; all the finer emotions were swallowed up in fear.
He tried to turn and run from before it, but his legs were as lead; he
was unable to lift his feet from the ground. His arms hung helpless at
his sides; of his eyes only he retained control, and these he dared not
remove from the lustreless orbs of the apparition, which he knew was not
a soul without a body, but that most dreadful of all existences infesting
that haunted wood-a body without a soul! In its blank stare was neither
love, nor pity, nor intelligence-nothing to which to address an appeal
for mercy. “An appeal will not lie,” he thought, with an absurd reversion
to professional slang, making the situation more horrible, as the fire
of a cigar might light up a tomb.
For a time, which seemed so long that the world grew grey with age and
sin, and the haunted forest, having fulfilled its purpose in this monstrous
culmination of its terrors, vanished out of his consciousness with all
its sights and sounds, the apparition stood within a pace, regarding him
with the mindless malevolence of a wild brute; then thrust its hands forward
and sprang upon him with appalling ferocity! The act released his physical
energies without unfettering his will; his mind was still spellbound, but
his powerful body and agile limbs, endowed with a blind, insensate life
of their own, resisted stoutly and well. For an instant he seemed to see
this unnatural contest between a dead intelligence and a breathing mechanism
only as a spectator -such fancies are in dreams; then he regained his identity
almost as if by a leap forward into his body, and the straining automaton
had a directing will as alert and fierce as that of its hideous antagonist.
But what mortal can cope with a creature of his dream? The imagination
creating the enemy is already vanquished; the combat's result is the combat's
cause. Despite his struggles-despite his strength and activity, which seemed
wasted in a void, he felt the cold fingers close upon his throat. Borne
backward to the earth, he saw above him the dead and drawn face within
a hand's-breadth of his own, and then all was black. A sound as of the
beating of distant drums-a murmur of swarming voices, a sharp, far cry
signing all to silence, and Halpin Frayser dreamed that he was dead.
A warm, clear night had been followed by a morning of drenching fog. At
about the middle of the afternoon of the preceding day a little whiff of
light vapour-a mere thickening of the atmosphere, the ghost of a cloud-had
been observed clinging to the western side of Mount St. Helena, away up
along the barren altitudes near the summit. It was so thin, so diaphanous,
so like a fancy made visible, that one would have said: “Look quickly!
in a moment it will be gone.”
In a moment it was visibly larger and denser. While with one edge it clung
to the mountain, with the other it reached farther and farther out into
the air above the lower slopes. At the same time it extended itself to
north and south, joining small patches of mist that appeared to come out
of the mountain-side on exactly the same level, with an intelligent design
to be absorbed. And so it grew and grew until the summit was shut out of
view from the valley, and over the valley itself was an ever-extending
canopy, opaque and grey. At Calistoga, which lies near the head of the
valley and the foot of the mountain, there were a starless night and a
sunless morning. The fog, sinking into the valley, had reached southward,
swallowing up ranch after ranch, until it had blotted out the town of St.
Helena, nine miles away. The dust in the road was laid; trees were adrip
with moisture; birds sat silent in their coverts; the morning light was
wan and ghastly, with neither colour nor fire.
Two men left the town of St. Helena at the first glimmer of dawn, and walked
along the road northward up the valley toward Calistoga. They carried guns
on their shoulders, yet no one having knowledge of such matters could have
mistaken them for hunters of bird or beast. They were a deputy sheriff
from Napa and a detective from San Francisco- Holker and Jaralson, respectively.
Their business was man-hunting.
“How far is it?” inquired Holker, as they strode along, their feet stirring
white the dust beneath the damp surface of the road.
“The White Church? Only a half mile farther,” the other answered. “By the
way,” he added, “it is neither white nor a church; it is an abandoned schoolhouse,
grey with age and neglect. Religious services were once held in it-when
it was white, and there is a graveyard that would delight a poet. Can you
guess why I sent for you, and told you to come armed?”
“Oh, I never have bothered you about things of that kind. I've always found
you communicative when the time came. But if I may hazard a guess, you
want me to help you arrest one of the corpses in the graveyard.”
“You remember Branscom?” said Jaralson, treating his companion's wit with
the inattention that it deserved.
“The chap who cut his wife's throat? I ought; I wasted a week's work on
him and had my expenses for my trouble. There is a reward of five hundred
dollars, but none of us ever got a sight of him. You don't mean to say-“
“Yes, I do. He has been under the noses of you fellows all the time. He
comes by night to the old graveyard at the White Church.”
“The devil! That's where they buried his wife.”
“Well, you fellows might have had sense enough to suspect that he would
return to her grave some time!”
“The very last place that anyone would have expected him to return to.”
“But you had exhausted all the other places. Learning your failure at them,
I ‘laid for him’ there.”
“And you found him?”
“Damn it! he found me. The rascal got the drop on me-regularly held me
up and made me travel. It's God's mercy that he didn't go through me. Oh,
he's a good one, and I fancy the half of that reward is enough for me if
Holker laughed good-humouredly, and explained that his creditors were never
“I wanted merely to show you the ground, and arrange a plan with you,”
the detective explained. “I thought it as well for us to be armed, even
“The man must be insane,” said the deputy sheriff. “The reward is for his
capture and conviction. If he's mad he won't be convicted.”
Mr. Holker was so profoundly affected by that possible failure of justice
that he involuntarily stopped in the middle of the road, then resumed his
walk with abated zeal.
“Well, he looks it,” assented Jaralson. “I'm bound to admit that a more
unshaven, unshorn, unkempt, and uneverything wretch I never saw outside
the ancient and honourable order of tramps. But I've gone in for him, and
can't make up my mind to let go. There's glory in it for us, anyhow. Not
another soul knows that he is this side of the Mountains of the Moon.”
“All right,” Holker said; “we will go and view the ground,” and he added,
in the words of a once favourite inscription for tombstones: “‘where you
must shortly lie’-I mean if old Branscom ever gets tired of you and your
impertinent intrusion. By the way, I heard the other day that ‘Branscom’
was not his real name.”
“I can't recall it. I had lost all interest in the wretch. and it did not
fix itself in my memory- something like Pardee. The woman whose throat
he had the bad taste to cut was a widow when he met her. She had come to
California to look up some relatives-there are persons who will do that
sometimes. But you know all that.”
“But not knowing the right name, by what happy inspiration did you find
the right grave? The man who told me what the name was said it had been
cut on the headboard.”
“I don't know the right grave.” Jaralson was apparently a trifle reluctant
to admit his ignorance of so important a point of his plan. “I have been
watching about the place generally. A part of our work this morning will
be to identify that grave. Here is the White Church.”
For a long distance the road had been bordered by fields on both sides,
but now on the left there was a forest of oaks, madronos, and gigantic
spruces whose lower parts only could be seen, dim and ghostly in the fog.
The undergrowth was, in places, thick, but nowhere impenetrable. For some
moments Holker saw nothing of the building, but as they turned into the
woods it revealed itself in faint grey outline through the fog, looking
huge and far away. A few steps more, and it was within an arm's length,
distinct, dark with moisture, and insignificant in size. It had the usual
country-schoolhouse form-belonged to the packing-box order of architecture;
had an underpinning of stones, a moss-grown roof, and blank window spaces,
whence both glass and sash had long departed. It was ruined, but
not a ruin -a typical Californian substitute for what are known to guide-bookers
abroad as “monuments of the past.” With scarcely a glance at this uninteresting
structure Jaralson moved on into the dripping undergrowth beyond.
“I will show you where he held me up,” he said. “This is the graveyard.”
Here and there among the bushes were small enclosures containing graves,
sometimes no more than one. They were recognized as graves by the discoloured
stones or rotting boards at head and foot, leaning at all angles, some
prostrate; by the ruined picket fences surrounding them; or, infrequently,
by the mound itself showing its gravel through the fallen leaves. In many
instances nothing marked the spot where lay the vestiges of some poor mortal
-who, leaving “a large circle of sorrowing friends,” had been left by them
in turn-except a depression in the earth, more lasting than that in the
spirits of the mourners. The paths, if any paths had been, were long obliterated;
trees of a considerable size had been permitted to grow up from the graves
and thrust aside with root or branch the enclosing fences. Over all was
that air of abandonment and decay which seems nowhere so fit and significant
as in a village of the forgotten dead.
As the two men, Jaralson leading, pushed their way through the growth of
young trees, that enterprising man suddenly stopped and brought up his
shotgun to the height of his breast, uttered a low note of warning, and
stood motionless, his eyes fixed upon something ahead. As well as he could,
obstructed by brush, his companion, though seeing nothing, imitated the
posture and so stood, prepared for what might ensue. A moment later Jaralson
moved cautiously forward, the other following.
Under the branches of an enormous spruce lay the dead body of a man. Standing
silent above it they noted such particulars as first strike the attention-
the face, the attitude, the clothing; whatever most promptly and plainly
answers the unspoken question of a sympathetic curiosity.
The body lay upon its back, the legs wide apart. One arm was thrust upward,
the other outward; but the latter was bent acutely, and the hand was near
the throat. Both hands were tightly clenched. The whole attitude was that
of desperate but ineffectual resistance to-what?
Near by lay a shotgun and a game bag through the meshes of which was seen
the plumage of shot birds. All about were evidences of a furious struggle;
small sprouts of poison-oak were bent and denuded of leaf and bark; dead
and rotting leaves had been pushed into heaps and ridges on both sides
of the legs by the action of other feet than theirs; alongside the hips
were unmistakable impressions of human knees.
The nature of the struggle was made clear by a glance at the dead man's
throat and face. While breast and hands were white, those were purple-
almost black. The shoulders lay upon a low mound, and the head was turned
back at an angle otherwise impossible, the expanded eyes staring blankly
backward in a direction opposite to that of the feet. From the froth filling
the open mouth the tongue protruded, black and swollen. The throat showed
horrible contusions; not mere finger-marks, but bruises and lacerations
wrought by two strong hands that must have buried themselves in the yielding
flesh, maintaining their terrible grasp until long after death. Breast,
throat, face, were wet; the clothing was saturated; drops of water, condensed
from the fog, studded the hair and moustache.
All this the two men observed without speaking- almost at a glance. Then
“Poor devil! he had a rough deal.”
Jaralson was making a vigilant circumspection of the forest, his shotgun
held in both hands and at full cock, his finger upon the trigger.
“The work of a maniac,” he said, without withdrawing his eyes from the
enclosing wood. “It was done by Branscom-Pardee.”
Something half hidden by the disturbed leaves on the earth caught Holker's
attention. It was a red-leather pocket-book. He picked it up and opened
it. It contained leaves of white paper for memoranda, and upon the first
leaf was the name “Halpin Frayser.” Written in red on several succeeding
leaves- scrawled as if in haste and barely legible-were the following lines,
which Holker read aloud, while his companion continued scanning the dim
grey confines of their narrow world and hearing matter of apprehension
in the drip of water from every burdened branch:
“Enthralled by some mysterious
spell, I stood In the lit gloom of an enchanted wood.
The cypress there and myrtle twined their boughs, Significant, in baleful
“The brooding willow whispered to
the yew; Beneath, the deadly nightshade and the rue,
With immortelles self-woven into strange Funereal shapes, and horrid nettles
“No song of bird nor any drone of
bees, Nor light leaf lifted by the wholesome breeze:
The air was stagnant all, and Silence was A living thing that breathed
among the trees.
“Conspiring spirits whispered in
the gloom, Half-heard, the stilly secrets of the tomb.
With blood the trees were all adrip; the leaves Shone in the witch-light
with a ruddy bloom.
“I cried aloud!-the spell, unbroken
still, Rested upon my spirit and my will.
Unsouled, unhearted, hopeless and forlorn, I strove with monstrous presages
“At last the viewless-“
Holker ceased reading; there was no more to read. The manuscript broke
off in the middle of a line.
“That sounds like Bayne,” said Jaralson, who was something of a scholar
in his way. He had abated his vigilance and stood looking down at the body.
“Who's Bayne?” Holker asked rather incuriously.
“Myron Bayne, a chap who flourished in the early years of the nation-more
than a century ago. Wrote mighty dismal stuff; I have his collected works.
That poem is not among them, but it must have been omitted by mistake.”
“It is cold,” said Holker; “let us leave here; we must have up the coroner
Jaralson said nothing, but made a movement in compliance. Passing the end
of the slight elevation of earth upon which the dead man's head and shoulders
lay, his foot struck some hard substance under the rotting forest leaves,
and he took the trouble to kick it into view. It was a fallen headboard,
and painted on it were the hardly decipherable words, “Catharine Larue.”
“Larue, Larue!” exclaimed Holker, with sudden animation. “Why, that is
the real name of Branscom-not Pardee. And-bless my soul! how it all comes
to me-the murdered woman's name had been Frayser!”
“There is some rascally mystery here,” said Detective Jaralson. “I hate
anything of that kind.” There came to them out of the fog-seemingly from
a great distance-the sound of a laugh, a low, deliberate, soulless laugh
which had no more of joy than that of a hyena night-prowling in the desert;
a laugh that rose by slow gradation, louder and louder, clearer, more distinct
and terrible, until it seemed barely outside the narrow circle of their
vision; a laugh so unnatural, so unhuman, so devilish, that it filled those
hardy man-hunters with a sense of dread unspeakable! They did not move
their weapons nor think of them; the menace of that horrible sound was
not of the kind to be met with arms. As it had grown out of silence, so
now it died away; from a culminating shout which had seemed almost in their
ears, it drew itself away into the distance until its failing notes, joyous
and mechanical to the last, sank to silence at a measureless remove.