The Strange Story of Martin Colby

by Ward Sterling

Black Mask | Aug. 1920 | Vol. 1, No. 5

This is Martin Colby’s story, not mine. Three of us heard him tell it — Willoughby, the eminent English clergyman, who is now filling a number of lecture engagements in this country, Mosby, the attorney, and myself—and we are all firmly convinced that he spoke the truth. I write it just as he gave it to us.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Talk of Haunted Houses, Life After Death & the Supernatural

This is Martin Colby’s story, not mine. Three of us heard him tell it — Willoughby, the eminent English clergyman, who is now filling a number of lecture engagements in this country, Mosby, the attorney, and myself—and we are all firmly convinced that he spoke the truth. I write it just as he gave it to us.

We were spending a few days in early spring at Mosby’s country place.

Possibly the weather had something to do with the way the story impressed us. It was a dark, stormy night, with drizzling grists of rain and a shrieking, howling wind that shook the window panes and whistled and moaned through the leafless trees—one of those nights that make the shivers run up and down your backbone in pleasurable anticipation of the scare that never comes—a night created especially for tales of yawning graves and spiritual manifestations.

Seated in front of the huge, open fireplace in Mosby’s big living room—a room so large that there were shadows in every corner—it was only natural that the talk should drift onto haunted houses, life after death and the supernatural in all its varying phases.

Mosby, who is something of an amateur psychologist, had been reading Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir Arthur Doyle and other writers on spiritual lines and was filled with enthusiasm and a working idea of Ouija boards, spirit rappings and table tipping. On the other hand, Willoughby, like most clergyman, was an open scoffer. The argument continued for an hour or two without result.

Finally Colby, who had been listening and saying nothing, was appealed to.

“There is no question in my mind,” he answered, weighing his words carefully, as he always does when he speaks seriously, “that our departed friends watch over us and, given half a chance, will offer us a helping hand.”

“Bosh!” shouted the clergyman. “Give us proofs, man! Don’t deal in generalities. Offer us something tangible!”

Colby hesitated before answering. “What I am about to tell you,” he said, finally, “is a true story. I have never repeated it to anyone before, because I do not care to have people doubt my word—and the average man is prone to scoff at what he cannot understand. To me, there is only one explanation—that of spirit intervention. Perhaps you, as a clergyman, with a supposedly better knowledge of the hereafter than is given us ordinary mortals, can offer a solution to the puzzle.”

And this is the story that Martin Colby told:

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Chapter 2

Martin Colby’s Story

“I was suffering from brain fag. The novel on which I was at work—my latest, by the way—threatened to be a dismal failure, as a result. For weeks I had not touched the typewriter, lacking ideas to put on paper. My publishers were clamoring for the manuscript. The book had been announced through the press and the advance royalties were already banked to my credit. I owed it to them as well as myself, to bring my work to a close.

“But I was dissatisfied. The plot, itself, was the best thing that I had ever done. But the story lacked that indescribable something that marks the really finished product from the machine-made drivel. It sounded forced and strained. In other words, it had no punch. And my heroine! Heavens, what a woman! She had as much life as a wilted rag doll.

“Anyone who is familiar with my work knows that I write of the wilds, the prairies, the forests, the icy barrens. But this story was to be a departure. It was to be a tale of human emotions—a drama seething with passion and depicting the under side of life among the dwellers of the great city. But my heroine was to be a woman of the Northland, transplanted from her native snows and ice, hedged in on all sides by wickedness, yet keeping herself clean and pure in spite of her surroundings.

“I wanted to make her a girl of unusual strength of character, one who dominated every page of the book and held the reader’s undivided love, rather than the insipid, white-livered anaemic who wandered through the story like an automaton. But, in spite of everything, I was unable to concentrate on her—to inject any life into her. Every writer has such experiences at times. I have had them before and I expect to have them again.

“And then, one afternoon, like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky, came a working streak. I tackled the story with renewed vim and enthusiasm. For hours I wrote and rewrote, hacked and edited. From somewhere in the hidden recesses of my brain evolved a new heroine—Edith Morley—a sweet-faced, golden haired, full-breasted, red-blooded woman—a lovable girl and a true daughter of the Vikings I love so well.

“Far into the night I worked. Under my flying thoughts, Edith Morley grew, developing with every change, blossoming forth into radiant womanhood. I tell you, I was obsessed with her. And, gentlemen, without egotism, I say frankly that she became so real to me that she walks through the pages of my book a living, pulsating character instead of a creature of my imagination. But as for that, you can judge for yourselves when the story comes out next month.

“I forgot dinner, everything, in the enthusiasm of my work. I have no idea how long I worked. It was far into the night and, sometime during the evening, I had automatically switched on the lights. But, finally, flesh and blood could stand it no longer. I fell across the table, my head pillowed in my arms. Whether I fainted or whether it was the sleep following exhaustion, I do not pretend to say.

“Was I really asleep? I do not know. I’ll swear that I could hear the clock ticking in the adjoining room and the thousand-and-one other odd, mysterious, little sounds that come in the middle of the night. Yet I must have been asleep. There is no other explanation.”

“Suddenly, I heard a scream—a piercing, terror-stricken shriek — coming out of the darkness of the night.

“Edith Morley stood before me!

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“Have you ever seen a poor, hunted creature at bay? She was panting desperately. Her arms were outstretched towards me, her fingers working convulsively. Her dress was torn so that a glimpse of the round, white shoulder showed. In her eyes was a look of despair, of helpless appeal. Her long, golden hair hung about her waist in tangled disarray. I knew that she was asking me for help. I attempted to arouse myself from the horrible, paralyzing constriction that held me to my chair. But I was helpless, bound down by invisible bands.

“And then, into the focus leaped a man—a human beast—a thick-lipped, coarse-featured creature with snapping black eyes that glowered and blazed between red, swollen lids, and a bluish-dark growth of whisker that only served to emphasize the brutal viciousness of his undershot lower jaw. I tell you, he was a creature straight from the Inferno.

“At sight of the girl, the bestial lips parted, showing a glimpse of decaying, tobacco-stained teeth. He raised one black, hairy hand and beckoned. The girl drew back a trifle further, the look of desperation kindled anew in her eyes, one white, slender hand pressed against her palpitating breast.

“As Heaven is my witness, I saw that tragedy unfold itself in front of my eyes with all the vividness of a motion picture thrown upon the screen. I struggled with every bit of strength at my command to tear myself loose from the invisible hands that glued me to my chair. But in vain. I watched the beast slowly drawing himself forward like a snake about to strike. I could not move. Nearer and nearer he came, passing so close to me that I could smell his whiskey-and-tobacco-laden breath, moving with cat-like stealth. And, as he approached her, she drew farther and farther away until she found her back against the wall. Her wild, blue eyes looked into mine, tense with fear, desperate—and I was helpless.

“God! The sweat poured from every pore in my body. Then, suddenly, he launched himself at her. What a fight she put up to keep him from her, striking, clawing, biting. She was like a wounded tigress at bay. Her waist was torn into shreds. On the white flesh of her arms, the bruises stood out with startling vividness.

“With an almost superhuman effort, she twisted herself from his grasp and leaped away. Once more he drove her into a corner. Again that look of piteous appeal to me. Then, before he could seize her again, her convulsive fingers reached into the bosom of her dress and returned with a tiny bottle on which the death’s head showed a brilliant scarlet under the electric lamp.

“Before she could convey it to her mouth, the beast was upon her, his talons tightened about her wrist. She battled now with the energy of despair. Backward he bent her arm until I listened for the snap that tells of the agony of broken bones. But again, through some strange twist of fate, she tore herself from his grasp. Her freedom was but for an instant. Yet it was long enough for her to carry the tiny vial to her lips.

“Then she crumpled up in a little heap on the floor. And, gentlemen, I will swear that there was a smile of happiness on her face.

“I awoke with a start. For a second I gazed about me, wide-eyed, trying to collect myself even in the midst of my own apartments. Then, with every nerve tingling in response to some psychic force, I rushed out of the building into the blackness of the night.

“Of course, up to this point, you will simply say that I had been dreaming—that so strong an impression had the character of my brain made upon me that it was a case of self-hypnosis. Wait until you have heard my story to the end. It will prove to you, if your minds are open, that there is some unknown, subtle force at work in our behalf, of which we know nothing. To me, the only explanation is that our loved ones who have gone before us are constantly seeking to serve us if we will but give them the opportunity.

“That Edith Morley was a real woman of flesh and blood, I am willing to testify. I never saw her until I met her in my dream, vision, or whatever you care to call it, yet I had described her accurately, even to her little traits of character, hours before when my sudden working streak had brought her into my story. It may have been telepathy, but to me it was the work of the unseen forces I have just mentioned. I will show you that she had been thinking of me at the very minute I was writing of her—or, at least, there is no doubt of it in my mind. And, too, my mind was open to suggestion. But I digress.

“Drawn by unseen hands, I walked on and on through the blackness of the night until I reached an unfamiliar part of the city.

“I swear that I had never been in that vicinity before, yet I knew exactly where to turn and what streets to take. I am not a sleep walker; I have a perfect recollection of making that long trip across the town, and on foot, mind you, yet I am certain that I was not fully awake. I was more in the condition of a man in a daze.

“My feet carried me to the door of a battered old brick tenement house. I climbed up four flights of stairs, rickety and dirty, lighted by smoky kerosene lamps. I had no idea where I was going, yet unseen hands were guiding me, pulling me along whenever I seemed to hesitate.

“Before one of the doors on the fourth floor, I stopped. I rapped. Receiving no answer, I opened the door and entered.

“She—Edith Morley—the girl of my dream—lay in a crumpled heap on the floor! Every detail, even to the torn dress and the dark bruises on her white flesh, was just as it had appeared in my dream. Scattered about, near where she had fallen, were the pieces of glass from the broken bottle. On one of them the death’s head grinned up at me as if chuckling at the grimness of it all. The pungent odor of bitter almonds filled the air.

“In the corner stood a battered old dresser. Tucked in the cracked mirror was my picture, clipped from a newspaper review of one of my books. Below it was spread a letter, face upwards. It read :

“ ‘I have done everything possible to fight off the inevitable. Death is all that remains. I am without money and without friends. If Twiggs comes again tonight, I will kill myself. Please notify Mr. Martin Colby, the novelist. He knows the North—my North! He does not know me, but I would like him to know that I died like a true daughter of God’s country—the land we both love so well.’ ”

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Chapter 3

Edith Morley

Colby arose and stretched his long arms above his head.

“If you care for further proof, I have the letter that she left behind.” For a second there was silence. Then Willoughby broke the strain. “Was she—”

Colby nodded and said:

“We never learned her name. I paid the expenses of her funeral and for the headstone over her grave. On it I had carved the only name I knew her by, ‘Edith Morley.’ And beneath it I had these words engraved:

“‘She left the world as clean as she, came into it’ ”

~ The End ~