That Murky Hole of Hell
“I’ve been pretty much all over the world. For the last twelve years I’ve traveled about the United States and I’ve learned a few things,” remarked Jim Chamberlin, structural engineer and my closest friend and co-worker.
“Yeah?” I answered. “What, for instance?”
“Well,” drawled Chamberlin, a husky Westerner, “the most beautiful natural park within a city is Glen Oak in Peoria; the most beautiful city is St. Joseph, Missouri, in summer; the most gorgeous and breath-taking scenery is among the Colorado Rockies, and the backdoor to Hell is this same Snake Swamp.”
“No doubt about that,” I agreed, “but I am not going to swallow any old ladies’ yarns about spooks. I am of the opinion that we will find a perfectly sane cause for every one of the many deaths in that devilish morass. They certainly cannot claim that ghosts are responsible for those who died by bullets.”
“They can claim most anything. There is no reason to believe that gunmen don’t have spooks, the same as medieval maiden ladies, is there?” he replied jocularly.
“Oh, go to the devil, with your spooks!” I exploded, but nevertheless I was forced to confess defeat in the next breath. I said:
“But to be frank I must admit the local lore about that Snake Swamp has got me plumb cuckoo, and I’m no chicken-hearted parlor pet, either. It all sounds like a damned joke, but you can’t fake bullet-riddled and fume-poisoned cadavers and that’s that.”
“The place must be crowded with spooks,” ventured Jim.
“It’s crowded with snakes, but all I’ve seen so far are harmless and they surely don’t account for the fatalities. There is something mighty uncanny about that swamp. Anyway you look at it,” I gazed off into the murky depths of the forbidding morass as Jim emptied his pipe by knocking it against the log on which we were sitting. He put the pipe in its case with a snap, and arose to his full six feet.
“Well then, what do you say?” queried my pal Jim.
“You’re on.” I agreed finally as we started to walk back along the trail. “I’ll stay here with you and hunt spooks. It will be a change and a chance for some excitement, anyway.”
Had I known the fate that awaited me in the dank depths of that murky hole of Hell, there is little doubt that I would have taken the first train back to New York, instead of walking to our backwoods lodgings and preparing to stalk phantoms in an almost impassable bog.
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Mail-Carrier’s Long Walk
I’m Matthew Walters, so you’ll know, and my forte is salesmanship. I began by selling breakfast food by the case. Then I sold it by the carload. Then I began selling railroad locomotives and finally steel and concrete bridges.
When I took my job with the Swenson Steel & Construction Company, I teamed with Chamberlin to sell bridges at $650,000 and up. Jim was the engineer and I was the orator and convincer. We drew down a straight ten percent gross for actual sales and paid our own expenses. The smallest commission we could earn was $65,000, so if we made one sale a year we were not doing so rotten. As a matter of record we sold fourteen bridges in ten years, and one of them was a $6,000,000 structure. We were the same age within a week—just thirty-five years—and we had banked more than $2,000,000 between us.
After each sale it was our habit to take a protracted vacation. It is true that in ten years we had not worked on actual sales longer than three months of each year. Our success and our fees were such that we did not have to work long at a time, although we did work unceasingly while we were putting over a deal.
Our vacations we spent like the mail-carrier who took a long walk on his day off. We traveled about looking for spots where somebody might need a steel and concrete bridge.
It was in this way we found Snake Swamp in Southeastern Virginia. A railroad had to bridge this two-mile reeking, deadly hell-hole and we sold them the bridge. So we were ready for another vacation. This time Jim suggested we take a real vacation and chase spooks around in muddy circles. It will be easier to realize the appeal of this undertaking to a moderately rich and adventurous young galoot like myself when more has been told about Snake Swamp.
I get goose pimples and shiver a little even now when I look back over it all and I have my scars to show for my part in as strange a real-life drama as ever has been recorded. I do believe.
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An Almost Unbelievable Account
Snake Swamp was really a part of the Great Dismal Swamp. While there were quite a few settlers around its edges, the country was what might have been described as primitive. The natives for the most part had never seen a railroad train, and were weirdly superstitious.
The railroad to which we sold the bridge was traversing the country to reach coal and iron deposits further inland.
We had put up at a farmhouse with a native named Jim Todd, his wife and sixteen children of all ages. The girls were dainty and the boys strong and hearty. They were good people but illiterate and ignorant of all modern scientific progress. All the natives believed firmly in ghosts, demons and phantoms, but for that matter so did my pal Jim. the engineer. With him psychic research was a well-coddled hobby.
“Now listen,” I said to Jim as we ambled back over the trail, through a wild but beautiful country. “The natives hereabouts cannot be relied upon for accuracy. They are like children, fond of fairy tales and goblin lore. Our only chance to get a true account of these snake swamp murders is from old Dr. Long. He must be an educated man and I am sure a sane one.”
“O. K.,” said Jim and we walked the remaining distance back to the Todd farmhouse in silence.
Todd was waiting for us surrounded by his younger children. The girls were like flowers, the boys like cornstalks.
“Well how be ye?” sang out Todd.
“Fair ter middlin,” sang back Jim good naturedly, imitating Todd’s Southern twang.
“Ye all bin down by Snake Swamp?” queried Todd.
“Yep.” twanged Jim.
“Wall I thought so an’ we was all mighty fidgety fearin’ ye might not come back. I’d stay plumb outen that neck o’ the woods if I wuz you all.”
Neither of us answered, but went to a shed where we kept our general-utility car. It was a big car, that is, it had a big engine and a good one. It was an altogether good car but the outside of it did not look good, it had been battered around too many rough roads. Style and class do not mix with selling steel and concrete bridges.
“Goin’ ter hitch up the ole wagon?” laughed Todd and the children giggled.
“Yep.” twanged Jim again.
We tuned up the old boat and piling in, started on the five-mile trip to Dr. Long’s place.
We had heard a lot about the demons of Snake Swamp and we wanted to hear more, but I am not exaggerating when I say that we were in no way prepared for the weird uncanny and almost unbelievable account we were to hear at Dr. Long’s.
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A Toll of Forty-Two Human Lives
The Longs were childless.
The doctor greeted us and when we had started our mission he waved us to chairs in his neat combination reception and living room and said:
“I have to go away on a call. I am always busy, so is my wife, for that matter, but she can spare you some time. She is the historian and statistician of the family. She’ll be in when she has tidied up a bit. Just wait.” He was out and away.
“So the Mrs. is going to tell us.” said Jim in a low tone, as soon as the doctor had left, “well. Matt, prepare yourself for an ‘Old Wives’ Tale.”’
The “Mrs.” entered as the words were still on Jim’s lips. If she heard them she gave them no notice at the moment.
We looked up and beheld a strikingly beautiful middle-aged woman. She was neatly garbed and held her spectacles in one hand as she extended the other in greeting.
“You gentlemen are connected with the railroad?” she ventured.
“Indirectly,” I replied for I could see that Jim was ill at ease.
“Well, I am overjoyed that the road is coming through here. It will give our people a connection with the outside world and will educate them. I tried when I first came here. I started a school but I found the people prejudiced against what they called, ‘book-larnin’,” she smiled. “Later the doctor got so busy and I had all I could do to help him.”
Then, before we could reply, she let us know that she had heard Jim’s remark about the ‘Old Wives’ Tale.’
“I am a graduate of Vassar, and took a scientific and post-graduate course at Columbia. We are from New England. I am a physician, surgeon, registered nurse, analytical chemist and I majored in science. Anything I tell you, I believe, will be well grounded in science. I say this only because I do not want you to judge me by the people hereabouts, not that they are not good people.”
Jim and me both interrupted her, stumbling in our words of apology.
“Never mind,” she said sweetly. “Snake Swamp should be investigated. We tried to get the State to do it but we are so isolated here that after losing one man the State gave it up.”
“Losing one man?” repeated Jim.
“Yes, he went into the Swamp, came out again, and was preparing a report when he keeled over dead. We shipped his body back. They called it pneumonia.”
We gasped our astonishment.
“You will hardly believe the story,” resumed Mrs. Long. “Few’ people do. At the state capital I am told they laugh at our letters and regard us as an illiterate community of hex and ghost believers. They think the doctor and I have come under the spell through association with the natives. We would have penetrated and investigated the swamp ourselves but we never have had time. We are the only physicians in a radius of forty miles and we cannot let sick people die while we go ghosthunting.”
“Oh. I see.” said Jim, “I had wondered how this mystery could exist with even two intelligent people around.”
Quick to defend the natives, Mrs. Long replied:
“The people hereabouts are not unintelligent, they are just uneducated. But let me tell you about the swamp and you will need to bolster your credulity with all the strength you have or you w ill believe we are all insane.
“Since we came here twelve years ago the swamp has taken a toll of forty-two human lives that we know of, besides numerous cattle, horses, dogs, birds and small game animals. Six of the humans have died of bullet wounds. Seven have entered the swamp and have never been seen again.
“I have seen birds fly out of the swamp and fall dead at my feet. This happened recently. Humans have learned to stay out of the swamp of late years, so that the human death rate has fallen off but now and then, a human, a horse, a dog or a cow wanders in and out of the swamp only to die within from one to twenty-eight days.”
“For the love of God!” said Jim.
“It is the truth,” said Mrs. Long, biting her lips.
“Do the animals show bullet wounds?”
“Never. Just some of the humans. The State insists that the humans who are shot are victims of hunting accidents, but so far as we know, no one hunts there. The gun-shot victims, we happen to know, are all men who have entered the swamp in an attempt to solve its horrible mysteries.”
“And those whose bodies which do not show’ bullet wounds?” I insisted, “have you performed autopsies?”
“Positively, yes. The lungs are just eaten away. It is not pneumonia as the State has always insisted but I believe some slow-acting gas poison. I cannot classify the gas positively but I believe whoever fires the bullets also releases this gas.”
“How in the name of sanity?” blurted Jim.
“I know what you would say,” said Mrs. Long, interrupting him, “but I do not know who it could be,” she shook her head sadly. “I could find out, but my husband and I are unable to spare the time. As health-officers all we can do is to warn everyone to keep out of the morass.”
“And all this.” I concluded, “has given rise to the superstitions about the demons of Snake Swamp?”
Mrs. Long arose and paced the room thoughtfully for some minutes. There was a dreamy, far-away look in her eyes. It seemed she hesitated to speak her mind. We watched her breathlessly. It seemed we could not disbelieve this calm, brilliant woman. Her story had impressed us both deeply, yet it seemed that there were more startling revelations yet to come.
Finally Mrs. Long paused and, facing us, she looked me squarely in the eyes.
“I will tell you all,” she said. “It is not only the murders that has given rise to the ghost stories. Besides its demons. Snake Swamp has its angel—the seeming specter of a beautiful young girl, garbed in a flimsy bridal costume, her head upturned, her arms outstretched. This specter walks a path at the south edge of the swamp, at midnight, in the moonlight.”
“You believe this?” challenged Jim. jumping to his feet and almost glaring at our hostess.
“Jim.” I admonished, “you are forgetting yourself.” but the truth is I, too, was astonished almost beyond belief.
“I am sorry,” said Jim, partly recovering his composure.
“Oh, it is perfectly all right.” sighed Mrs. Long wearily seating herself. Then after a moment:
“Yes. I am forced to believe it. I have seen this seeming apparition, more than once, with my own eyes. Once I saw this spirit or human form at a distance of twenty-five feet, in the full moonlight. Her features were plainly visible. Even in the big cities I seldom have seen such beauty.”
We all pondered for some time before a word was spoken. Jim was first to arouse himself.
“Hum-m-m-m—” he muttered—long drawn out.
This gave me the courage to remark:
“She might have been a native. Many of the girls, hereabouts, are surprisingly beautiful.”
“They are,” agreed Mrs. Long, “but you forget that I knew all the girls for forty miles around. They came to me with their troubles. No girl is free from the need of the advice I can give. I am sure I know all the girls. I meet them in childhood with the croup or the measles. I am with them in early womanhood and they each like to have me with them when their first baby is born.”
Mrs. Long’s eyes sparkled as she continued, “Although I have no children of my own I am a sort of second mother to all the babies and there seems to be no limit to the fecundity of these beautiful native girls. I wonder at their health and vitality. All the families are large. That is just one of the conditions that makes the Doctor and me so hard pressed for time. We have never been able to spare the time from other folks’ babies to have one of our own.” This last was said wistfully, almost sadly.
Jim and I said nothing. There was no answer that either of us could think of for the moment. We had already used too much of this most interesting woman’s valuable time. Mrs. Long offered to make tea for us, but we declined and arose to go. As we did so Mrs. Long’s countenance took on a sudden expression of deep concern.
“I sincerely trust that you young men will not lose your lives in that dreadful swamp,” she said as we walked toward our car.
“We’ll be careful,” I assured her. She waved to us from the door, calling:
“I wish you luck. Be sure and let me know of your findings.”
“We will,” I called as we rode away.
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A Scientific Exploration
For the next two weeks we were busy preparing to thoroughly, safely and scientifically explore Snake Swamp.
Jim drove to the nearest coalmining town and ordered two gas masks and a battery of oxygen tanks such as are used by rescue workers in penetrating gas-ridden coal-pits. We armed ourselves, equipped a flat-bottomed boat of slight draught with lunch kits, flashlights, light axes, broad paddles and a pole.
The sun was shining when we entered the swamp. We had planned to penetrate to a depth for a half mile, to circumnavigate and then to cruise diametrically through the middle in two trips from opposed angles of 45 degrees. We wore our gas masks and had a four day’s supply of oxygen. We were taking no chances whatever of breathing the air of the swamp because of our knowledge that poison gases were to be encountered there. We, too, had equipped the hoods of the oxygen masks with a batten-phone line, so we could communicate.
This, we regarded as a necessity. You see Jim and I had been together so long that, without each others’ conversation, we would be like tail-less cows in a fly-brushing contest.
It was our idea to stay in the swamp, if necessary, day and night, until our oxygen tanks were nearly depleted. We desired to explore the swamp by day and also to be present at night to get acquainted with any ghosts that might be fluttering or cavorting around.
We joked about this but it was not for long. A dismal rain started falling; the surroundings grew dark and forbidding, the thermometer dropped and our spirits dropped with it. But the rain proved only a passing shower and the sun was soon out again.
The growth as we penetrated the morass proved to be mostly straggling scrub oak, heavy cane and cat tails, with some tough vines and floating water vegetations. There was a cloud of mosquitoes about us and we saw many muskrats, birds and other small animals.
“It is strange!” I remarked, “that so much vegetable and animal life can exist where there is supposed to be lung-rotting poison gas?” but as I said this a bird fluttered into our boat. Jim picked it up and turned it over. It was stone dead.
Within another instant a swimming snake stretched out in the water and sank to the bottom. Later, we saw a muskrat roll over on its back and curl its claws in death. Yet many other small animals scampered about and seemed to be enjoying life in a happy and playful manner.
It was positively weird. It was ghastly.
Jim sensed the revulsion in my nerves.
“Positively uncanny,” he said, agreeing with my thoughts.
I continued poling the boat in silence when, suddenly, Jim veiled:
I instinctively ducked, just missing a snake that trailed down from a broad limb of a scrub oak like a thick swinging vine. It was a copperhead. I shot it. It proved the fallacy of my idea that all the snakes in the swamp were harmless.
There were many hummocks in the swamp—little hills that stood above the water and were dry save for the moisture due to the recent sprinkle of rain. On one of these hummocks Jim and I caught sight of three rattlesnakes and shot two of them.
One had seven rattles and was fat with a feed of muskrat. Naturally, it should have been about four-and-a-half feet long.
We had to hack our way through the growth now and then, and we soon found it would be impossible to come out our original idea of exploration. We began following lanes of open water. These crisscrossed the growth and permitted quite thorough forays.
Night fell as we reached a point probably about a half mile from the southern edge of the morass. We had traversed it for a mile-and-three-quarters and were disappointed with results. We were glad, though, that we had found no deep water and that poling the boat had been possible all the way. We tied up against a scrub oak for the night.
The first hour after dusk was as dark as night can get, with a thrilling display of stars overhead. We could not enjoy the display of celestial pyrotechnics, however, for we were now ghostgazing in dead earnest. We spent the first hour of darkness in this way and without result.
Then the moon came out. As it did so we were treated to a real surprise.
We were talking of loosening the boat and poling over to the south rim. where the “Swamp Angel” had been seen. It was plenty light enough in the glorious moonlight.
“O. K.,” said Jim, relieving me of the pole. Then it happened!
With a whine that was unmistakable, a bullet sizzed just over our heads out of the southwest. It was followed within a few seconds by another. This one was dangerously low but wide.
“Head right into where he’s shooting from and pole like hell!” I shouted to Jim. Then I emptied my automatic in the direction of the attacker, as I felt the boat glide swiftly forward.
Soon we bumped violently against a hummock at what seemed to be the very edge of the swamp. The growth was rank and we found ourselves trapped in it. We could not advance and we had no idea whatever of retreating.
Jim dropped the pole, finally and sat down and cussed novel and spectacular cuss words for a full ten minutes—or it seemed ten minutes. Jim was dazzling as a profane linguist. He could cuss as musically as Caruso could sing. I always bowed to his superiority in this regard and let him do all my cussing for me.
There was a marked and pleasing feature to Jim’s cussing. No matter how lavishly or long he would swear I never had known him to blaspheme.
Once our boat had grounded and tangled the shooting stopped, but we were not to remain long without excitement.
Two more shots rang out, not simultaneously, but one following the other and the lead clipped the bulrushes at Jim’s elbow.
“Almost got me,” said Jim as we returned the fire. “Where’s the devil?”
“Search me,” I answered, “and we can’t go after him for we are either mired or tangled here.”
The bullets came, this time, it seemed, from the edge of the swamp. After we had spent probably a dozen shots in a wild effort to wing the unseen gunner, without any further shots in return we, too, ceased firing.
“I do not like the idea of being trapped here,” I said, “I am going to try and get loose.” I poled around the boat and found we were in about three feet of water, but in thick vegetation—a veritable net of cane and rushes.
The hummock against which we had banged was fringed with the growth. I brought the electric torches to bear as an aid to the bright moonlight. I believed I could make out the south road at the edge of the swamp with the path beside it. It was on this road that Mrs. Long had attested she had seen the “Swamp Angel.”
I did not spend much time in this exploration, but after remarking the discovery of the road and the path to Jim, I grabbed an ax and began chopping around the boat. Jim also took to hacking.
Suddenly he vented a characteristic exclamation. I turned and saw he had his flash turned down into the water. I looked close and beheld what, at first, appeared to be the body of a long snake. Jim held the torch closer.
“It’s a pipeline,” he explained in surprise, “a lead pipeline. I knew it wasn’t a root the minute my ax hit it.”
“A what?” I exploded.
“A pipeline as sure as your name is Matt, and in this sort of country. It leads from the shore off into the swamp. I wonder where it goes to?”
“Damfino,” I replied, excitedly. “Let’s follow it—” but our boat was not yet free so we hacked some more.
Finally I was able to pole the boat away from the tangle and we easily followed the pipeline which ran along about four inches under the water. It was supported, here and there, by branches of scrub oak, to which it was wired and by hummocks where it rested on the surface. It appeared to follow along a physically cleared canal deep into the swamp.
At last we found where it ended in the middle of a hummock about sixty feet across. We threw our flashlights over this hummock, amplifying the moonlight and—horror of horrors—
The Arabian Nights hardly could have described the ghastly scene which met our startled eyes!
Skeletons!—bones were strewn about in wild confusion. Bones of birds, of beasts…skulls of horses, cattle, sheep and dogs. The bones overlapped the hummock and extended on down into the water.
We were speechless, that is, we were until Jim uttered a cry of horror.
“Look Matt! Oh, Matt, look!” he shouted and pointed a palsied finger.
There close together were the skeletons of what appeared to be a man and a boy. We stood dazed. When we had recovered sufficiently to look further we found other human bones strewn in the litter.
We grasped each others’ hands and walked dazedly to the center of the hummock where the pipeline ended. We turned our flashes into one small focus on the end of the lead pipe which dripped a liquid. It was good we had our gas masks on!
Under the dripping pipe on the rock were erosions and discolorations.
It came to us both in a flash. An acid drain pipe was dripping into a sump in solid rock that was almost pure iron.
Every drop of that acid waste w as producing a lung-rotting gas, the nature of which it would be dangerous to reveal here. Any chemist will readily recognize its identity, nature and hellish properties.
This gas we knew was the lung tissue-destroying poison that had caused the legend of the “Demons of Snake Swamp.”
We grabbed the pipe with one identical motion and bent it so that it dripped far out into the water.
Then we jumped into our boat and feverishly poled it back the way we had come, simply because this was the easiest and quickest way to escape from the skeleton-strewn hummock of horrible death.
We were not talking now, something unusual for us. Both of us were shoving on the pole. Our boat sped through the water and soon we were back at the edge of the swamp, having missed the tangle that first trapped us. We brought up at the side of the road with its parallel pathway.
We sat in our boat panting from our exertions.
I w as the first to speak.
“No need for these gas masks now,” I said. “What fumes remain are blowing away from us”; and I held a leaf aloft in the light to test the wind.
“As a chemist,” noted Jim with fine sarcasm, “you have proved yourself to be an excellent pole- pusher.” He threw his mask aside. “There is no danger here whatever,” he continued, “or any place else around the edge of the swamp, regardless of the wind.
“The danger point is almost the dead-center of the swamp and the heavy gas will cling, more or less, within a quarter-mile radius. That leaves all swamp territory perfectly safe from the edge to about a quarter-mile in from the edge. The gas is dissipated by the time it gets a quarter of a mile from the source. We’ve removed the source.”
I took off my mask. It was a relief to be unhooded. Jim went on:
“That is why some of the animals in the swamp could be perfectly healthy and living, while others were dying by breaths. The dying animals had been within the death zone. The others had not. but all life in the swamp existed on the brink of eternity. Migration of a few yards might mean horrible death. Hellish prospect—” and Jim unlimbered his trusty tobacco pipe.
We settled back to enjoy a cool smoke, but on this night of weird adventure it was not like Fate to permit us to be comfortable long—
We both saw it at the same instant and jumped up, almost upsetting the broad-bottomed tomato of a flatboat. We stood breathless, awed—
There in the clear moonlight, coming down the path towards us, was the “Angel of Snake Swamp.”
A scene of such rare beauty, following the horrors of a skeleton-strewn islet, was something to stir our already frayed emotions.
I do not expect to live to behold such a scene again.
A girl—slender, willowy, of such rare beauty as to remind one of a Madonna gracing one of the old masterpieces, approaching us with slow, stately, graceful, measured tread.
Her hands, like carven alabaster, outstretched before her; her marvelous profile upturned to the stars. She came nearer, while I held my breath and Jim continued to stare in awe.
Soon she was within a few feet of us—then abreast of us.
As was our habit of long association, we both acted at once. We reached out to seize her.
As suddenly as a flash of lightning a shot rang out!
I felt a blow in my chest, then a pain. I reeled and fell.
Jim had reached the girl. I was conscious of seeing Jim seize the frail form of the “Swamp Angel.” She did not turn to flee. …Shades of the Saints! …She stumbled and threw her arms around Jim’s neck. Jim, naturally, held her tightly.
I was suffering now from a nagging pain in my chest and a growing weakness. My thoughts were scrambled. I was wondering who had shot me and why no more shots were fired … .
My eyes closed. That is the last I remember.
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A Beautiful Spook
I learned later that it was loss of blood that caused me to lose consciousness there on the moonlit trail. The bullet had broken one of my ribs and ranged backward and upward, emerging near my left armpit. So I cannot tell you first hand of the extraordinary events which followed. But I learned something that bothered me more than my wound, which was more severe than any of us, at first, had imagined.
You see, by fainting there in the road like an old woman, I missed one grand and glorious fight with a madman and at a time when I most craved adventure. As it turned out, Jim got all the credit and glory—he deserved both—but it struck me as ill fate that all I got was a bullet in the ribs. I guess I was born unlucky.
When I awoke to consciousness I was in a strange room, which I learned was in Dr. Long’s house. Jim, the doctor and Mrs. Long were with me.
Of course I said, “Where am I?” and “What happened?” Then I felt a sting of pain, and when I tried to move I found I was very weak. I learned later that only blood transfusions had saved my life. It was days before Jim was able to tell me a most surprising story.
At that, it was not the biggest surprise that awaited me, for the big event was to come, even later, with Mrs. Long as the Mistress of Ceremonies. Her knowledge of phantomology—if that is a good word—stood her in stead in solving the most uncanny feature of all our adventures.
Two weeks passed before they regarded me as strong enough to hear long stories and in the meantime I had learned that there was another stranger in the house besides Jim and me. Finally, when they would let me talk, I said to Jim:
“Did you find out who shot me?”
“Sure did.” said Jim. “You were shot by an arch-murderer, but not an accountable one, for he is as mad as the proverbial March hare. He is now shackled and awaiting transportation to a State institution, which it seems, in these parts, is a slow process.”
I am not going to let Jim tell the story, for he is altogether too modest. As near as I have been able to learn, this is about what happened after I succumbed for the time being:
Jim grasped the ghost—that is, the ‘‘Angel of Snake Swamp,” and held on tight—not because she had fallen into his arms, but because he did not intend to let her get away.
I fell, and with his arms full of beautiful spook, Jim could not reach me. He had no time, anyway, because the beautiful ghost had no sooner fallen into his arms than a wild and frenzied man. carrying a repeating rifle, dashed out of a canebrake, yelling incoherently. Then the madman’s words found form and, as Jim stood awed—speechless—with the fair ghost still in his arms, the wild man shouted:
“Don’t you harm my daughter or I’ll kill you.”
He came up to where Jim and the ghost bride stood and before Jim could find words to answer him, he screamed in blood-curdling tones:
“I’ll kill you anyway!” and he raised the gun as if to bash out Jim’s brains.
With lightning quickness Jim thrust the girl from him and jumped just in time to avoid the descending bludgeon. Then Jim closed in and grasped the gun still held by the madman.
They struggled for possession of the weapon, bending this way and that, like schoolboys contesting for possession of a broomstick, only, naturally, much more violently.
The wild man was possessed of maniacal strength, and it was only after a terrific struggle that Jim gained possession of the rifle and flung it far from him. Jumping away from the madman. Jim drew his automatic and covered his adversary, shouting:
“Put up your hands and don’t move, either of you, or I’ll kill you.”
Then the ghost bride started to wring her hands and moan. The madman raised his arms, but the girl ignored the order, just continuing to wring her hands and moan and sob. Finally she addressed Jim:
“Please don’t harm my poor father.”
“I won’t harm either of you,” assured Jim. “as long as you stay put and do just as I say. You both will have to come along with me, and one false move of either of you, and I’ll kill you deader than Hell.”
The ghost bride answered. “We’ll go with you, only don’t hurt poor father, he is highly excitable.”
Jim admits that he was puzzled by the girl’s demeanor. She seemed thoroughly cool and possessed, once she had ceased to wring her hands and sob. Her recovery was sudden and complete. She looked at Jim as she might have had they met casually on the street. It struck Jim that she appeared the soul of gentleness and refinement, but he regarded her as a mad person, and he was taking no chances.
“Line up, the two of you, and walk ahead of me.” he commanded.
Then for the first time he w as able to think of me. He believed me dead. I am a big man, and a heavy one. To carry me was a big undertaking, especially with two prisoners to cover and guard. He hesitated for a moment, considering. Then the mellow glow of dawn broke and with it came the clatter of a farm wagon, along the road.
The whistling lout of a country boy drew’ his team up short at the strange sight. His bulging eyes roved over the strange trio and then took in my prone form lying beside the path.
Jim lost no time with explanations. At the point of his automatic he compelled the farmer boy to do as he ordered and ask no questions. He loaded me into the wagon and then commanded the madman and the ghost bride to pile into the rude conveyance ahead of him. Then he ordered the farm boy to proceed quickly to Dr. Long’s place, a mile and a quarter away, around the edge of the swamp.
Mrs. Long took charge of the “Swamp Angel,” and to her the girl later told her story.
When she was a small child, she recited, her parents died. The madman, identified now as an educated recluse, named Pitt Farrling, was a college mate of her father. He brought her to his home. Farrling’s wife died a few years later.
Farrling, a man of means, spent all his time trying to produce diamonds from salt, which he had carted to his place by wagonloads, at intervals. He succeeded in producing only soda. The byproduct of this process was the acid carried away by the lead drain into Snake Swamp, where its action on the iron deposits produced the deadly gas. This accounted for many of the deaths of men and beasts.
The eccentric recluse feared his “ideas” would be stolen, and as his mental quirks—hallucinations and delusions—became more acute, he mistrusted all who approached the swamp, his cabin home and his laboratory. From ambush at the edge of the swamp he fired on many of these believed “trespassers” and “persecutors,” killing several.
Wild, insane fear also caused him to hide his girl companion through her whole childhood and young womanhood. She was given no opportunity to associate with anyone, and after many years her very existence was forgotten by the natives.
Mrs. Long believed she had all the native girls card-indexed, but here was one that had escaped her list. No one, it seems, ever thought of Farrling as having a foster daughter, and all regarded Farrling, himself, as a harmless eccentric. They did not know that his “fooling with salt all the time” was producing wholesale death.
The girl told Mrs. Long that her foster father had educated her at home and had always been kind to her, even though he did keep her a prisoner. She said he forbade her associating with or even being seen by the neighbors. Her only opportunity for exercise was late at night after her foster father had retired.
But Farrling was generous with the girl. He gratified her every wish for material things, and he did not question her when she asked him to buy her the wedding finery, garbed in which she delighted to stroll in the moonlight.
The Longs gave the girl a home after her dangerously insane foster father had been taken away to an asylum.
I had convalesced to a degree where I was able to sit up, when I questioned Mrs. Long about the girl, who sometimes aided in attending me.
“She is very kind, gentle and attentive,” I observed, “but she refuses to be drawn into conversation. It is too bad she is not altogether normal mentally.”
“Who said so?” blustered Mrs. Long. “The girl is positively, absolutely normal, mentally and in every other way. There is no saner or healthier girl in the world.”
“Do you mean,” I questioned incredulously, “that a normal girl would parade at midnight, in the moonlight, dressed as a bride?”
“None but a normal girl would have acted so, under the circumstances,” heatedly asserted Mrs. Long.
“Yes?” I drawled, puzzled.
“Positively. Any normal girl, deprived of the natural sex outlet—that is the right to the usual associations with youths of her own age and the natural right of a girl to seek love and a lover, will act as she acted. Under such conditions any healthy girl will create, in her own mind, a phantom lover. These phantoms are just as real, in girls’ minds, as flesh and blood lovers could be. Many girls, under such circumstances, garb themselves in wedding clothes and pose before a mirror or walk abroad in the moonlight. It was only when I could not account for the girl, that I wondered.
“Under such conditions it is the normal and not the abnormal thing for any girl to do. The first handsome male they meet takes the place of the ‘Prince Charming’—the phantom—and then the phantom fades.
“If no satisfactory male appears, the girl goes on loving the phantom until her death. Some mystics believe these phantoms are real spiritual lovers from a higher realm. Anyway, the condition is perfectly sane and normal.”
“You surprise me.” I mumbled.
“No doubt,” observed the kindly but thoroughly practical Mrs. Long. “You are due for another surprise. We have learned that that girl’s name is Bernice Horton, and that she comes of a yen good family. She is an heiress in her own right. Furthermore, her phantom has finally come to life. She is going to marry your lovable, no account friend, Jim Chamberlin—bless both their foolish hearts.”
And Mrs. Long flounced from my presence, fussing with her apron strings as she disappeared through the doorway.
“Big Jim, a phantom?” I mused, “Well, the space between here and the beyond is the only thing he has not already’ bridged. It was only natural—” I was glad I felt well enough to chuckle a little.
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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