It was not till after the adventurer had been interred that we learned that the man had been married. My editor, Cheltenwick, did not even let the graveyard mud dry decently on his boots before he dispatched me to the widow’s house with instructions for a full interview, which I had no doubt he would embellish even more than his wont.
“Delicate sighs, Greene,” he said, hurrying me into a cab and pushing a fresh notebook into my hands. “A crystal-like droplet that rolls down her wan face. I want that, and a most particular description of the house, and don’t botch it up!”
“Do it your precious self, Wick-Dick!” I wished to shout, but it was too late, and my career would be worth less than an apple-fed horsefart if I did botch this article. Henley Dorsett Penhallick had been a living legend for fifty years; any description of a life-imperiling venture or terrifying journey was known as a “Dorsett tale” in these parts. One never knew of his comings and goings—he was either thousands of miles away, or hunkered in his house ignoring the doorknocker. Every few years, his publisher would release a booklet of his exploits, copied verbatim—at his insistence—complete with the spelling errors and lavish illustrations in his letters. I had seen a few around the newsroom, the long elegant script tipped exaggeratedly over on its side, as if racing to get to its destination. I was quite sure he had never mentioned a wife. Everyone would have gone quite mad at such a discovery.
Indeed, I expected the house to be mobbed with reporters when I arrived, but the street was empty, thick oaks nodding absently in the heat. Did I have the right address? All I had had to go on was Cheltenwick’s scribbled note and a vague memory he had of visiting, once, to deliver a package. A tall, reserved, grey house, he had said. A mass of ivy.
I could see the white curtains twitch as I came up the steps. I wondered if the widow could stand to stay in the empty house, or if she had gone to stay with family, as ladies often did after a death. My own mother had left us for a fortnight after her brother died and gone to stay with my aunts out west. When she returned, I recalled, nothing more had been said about it; it had been as if no death had occurred.
The widow answered the door herself, petite and slender in her weeds, face hidden behind a veil so thick I doubted she could see, black silk gloves covering small hands. I felt a wellspring of guilt for intruding on her grief, but Cheltenwick’s face hovered in my mind’s eye for a moment: Don’t botch this up!
“Mrs. Penhallick,” I said, stymied for a moment simply by not having a face to address. “Please, allow me to . . . let me say how very sorry I am for your loss. We all feel it keenly, I assure you. Er, my editor, Mr. Cheltenwick, corresponded occasionally with your husband and . . . I . . . I am so very sorry.”
“Thank you,” she said, voice muffled by the veil. “Mr . . . ?”
“Oh!” I fumbled in my pockets for my card case. Finally, I found one, lone dog-eared card in my breast pocket and shamefacedly handed it to her. “Mr. Greene, madame. Of the Tribune.”
She studied it, then put her hand back to her side. “Of the Tribune.”
The question she hadn’t asked, or the invitation she did not wish to extend, hung in the air for a moment and I finally dipped my head and said, “I’ve . . . been sent to interview you, Mrs. Penhallick, about your husband. May I please come in?”
There was another pause so long and painful that I almost walked down the steps again, but she eventually stepped away from the door and let me in. I scraped my boots so vigorously on the hedgehog that I nearly fell, and then the door was closing behind me and there was a tremendous smell of incense, old wood, and flowers. The parlor was filled with arrangements, hiding the outlines of several bookcases and a grand piano. A few had spilled out into the hallway, red-and-yellow roses and white lilies and chrysanthemums. Ahead of us, the staircase was graced with a wooden statue on each step—an elephant, a jaguar, matched tigers, a woman carrying a jug of water. Paintings and sketches papered the exposed wall above the railing. At the landing, there was an enormous world map covered in little flagged brass pins. It took all my strength not to run up the stairs and note them down; how many dozens, hundreds of places he had been!
The widow apologized as she went, in her curiously fuzzy voice, and explained that we must be inconvenienced to take tea in the kitchen, for the parlor was occupied with flowers, and she had given the house staff a week off, wishing to be alone in the house.
“Oh, madame,” I said, reflexively, almost hearing my mother’s voice as I spoke. “You should not be alone in the house at a time like this. Do you have family nearby? A mother, sisters?”
“No,” she said, after a moment. “No one nearby, Mr. Greene.” I watched her smoothly fill the kettle, bracing her hand with a well-worn pad, and secure pot, cups, saucers, sugar, lemon, and milk. I scribbled that in my notebook, bracing it on my thigh so she could not see what I was writing. The widow is well-versed in the little felicities of a kitchen—unusual, for a lady of good family who would have a lady’s maid making her tea. Perhaps she was a servant herself? No one nearby. Where was her family from, then?
She did not speak again until after the tea had been made. I sniffed mine unobtrusively before I sipped—a very strange tea, gray-green pellets, steam redolent of smoke and grass and iron, not your average cup of Darjeeling at all. The widow picked her cup up and adjusted her veil. The house was sweltering. I made another note: She ceases not her mourning, even in the privacy of her domicile, and now that I have intruded, she wishes to not be seen weeping. I thought about Cheltenwick’s “crystal droplet” and cursed him. What would have been the harm, had we waited a month or a year? I already knew his answer, though: Someone else, some other newspaper, a loathed enemy of an editor, would have sent someone out before us and the story would not be exclusive. Damn him, for true. This poor, bereaved, dignified woman, drinking her tea with her veil on—not to mention depriving me of a good look at her face.
I said, “You may be surprised to hear that no one knew your husband was . . . was your husband. Which is to say, we had become quite used to hearing of Mr. Penhallick as an affirmed bachelor.”
“No,” she said, a tone not quite of surprise but resignation, which I still had to strain to hear through her headgear. “That doesn’t surprise me, Mr. Greene. He’s . . . he was a private man. To have even friends and family inquire about our marriage, let alone strangers, would have upset him greatly.”
She had given me an opening; I dashed through it before it closed. “Oh, I agree, I quite agree; many of us corresponded with your husband and never met him in person. I believe he liked it that way—as you say. When were you married?”
“Two years ago,” she said softly, putting her tea back down with shaking hands. “We made no announcement, although it was in the local registry, of course.”
“Of course,” I said, irritated. How could we have missed that? One of the office toadies did nothing but scan the local and state registries for interesting stories. Man dies in tragic fall into river. Twins born to local industrial magnate. Marriage of world-renowned explorer to mystery . . . beauty? Damn, damn, damn.
Just as I began to speak again, she seemed to come to some kind of decision, and with one swift movement, unpinned her hat and removed her veil. I froze to hide my surprise—then, to cover my obvious lack of movement, took a gulp of tea and burned my mouth. For his wife—whom he had legally married, God only knew how or where—was no purse-mouthed old bat from a leading family, but a girl with the huge, steady eyes of a deer and burnished young skin as dark and flawless as the carved mahogany jaguar on the third stairstep. Her head was wrapped in a brightly patterned silk scarf, flowers and leaves and birds, underneath the black weeds. She smiled, seeing me so clearly discomfited, and put her hat and veil neatly on the table. “We did not announce it here, Mr. Greene.”
“Er . . . I . . . .” I swallowed, compounding my rudeness with a rude noise. “I did not mean to stare, madame. I only . . . .”
“The story,” she said. “That’s what you want?”
I nodded, half-holding my breath, as if it might break a spell. She sipped her tea and said, “Then come and look at the house with me.”
We returned to the front hall and she led me up the stairs to the big map. She said, “My name is Sima. A name from my land. We met here.” She pointed to a place in Africa dense with pins where no borders had been marked. “My home is beautiful,” she went on, sitting smoothly and quite naturally on a stair; I moved down a decorous three steps.
“Beautiful, Mr. Greene, and very, very old. I am not sure how old the nation of the white man is, but it was in its infancy when we had been who we were for fifty thousand years. And it was into this culture that my husband first strayed, more than ten years ago. I was young, and was not permitted to go with him and the men from my village as they explored the holy ruins nearby. But every evening when they returned, he would sit by the fire, tell stories . . . he liked to draw pictures while he spoke, and he eventually taught a few of us English. You could easily say that several of us became his friends, including myself, as silly as that may sound—a grown man, and of his age! But we were friends all, nonetheless.
“All during the dry season, they made trips out to the holy ruins and the priests told him: You may draw what you see; you may copy the inscriptions, but you must take nothing. And the men from my village ensured that he did not, though Henley, you know, he’s . . . he was a very fiend for collecting things. Everywhere he went, his hands darted out, so, so, like the head of a bird, and he would pick up a little rock, or a fossil, or a feather or a flower or a seed, and put it in his pockets. How we loved to laugh at his pockets! We had none; everything we valued had a life and a place, and we would never have moved it.
“He filled books and books with this trip—he showed me, later—and he waved goodbye and left, on the funny things we had finally learned to call horses, all alone. And we did not think of him much again for a few years, when he returned once again at the end of the rainy season, with photographic equipment and more blank notebooks, and even hammers and chisels and shovels. The first night, we sat around the fire as always and when he saw me, he cried, ‘My friend Sima! How have you been?’ and I said, ‘I have been well!’
“Oh, my father laughed so loudly at the English we spoke. He said I sounded like our gray local bird, who imitates the things he hears. But I was pleased that he remembered me and I begged him to let me come with them the next day. ‘I know the ruins,’ I told him. ‘Every part of them, I know. We play there so often. Let me come with you!’ ‘Oh, no, my little parrot,’ he said. ‘That I shall not allow.’
“Well, Mr. Greene, I was a wild and wilful child, if you will believe it, and when they set off the next dawn, I followed. They swiftly outpaced me, being ahorse, but I knew well where they were going. Our ruins were circular, with a great tower at each of eight points on the circle, though much tumbledown, and one tall structure in the center. We sometimes called it the Sun Stones, for the shape, like the sun. Although the walls were so beaten down by wind and rain that a man could walk through at many points if he cut away the vines, there was only one place where anything so big as a horse could pass, a great gate built of neatly cut basalt blocks, and it was for there that they made. As I followed them in, one of the men, Lemba, saw me and cried out for me to leave, but Henley said that I might stay, for I might have some use, perhaps to squeeze in the tight spaces that the grown men could not reach.
“Henley was asking the men about the ruins—who had made them? How long had they been there? Well, the second question we could not answer, none of us. Until the white man came, in fact, we did not realize that we measured time differently than he did. But we could answer the first, so my father’s friend Olumbi, who knew many stories, told him it was our own men doing the bidding of the old gods who could not speak. Who were these gods? asked Henley.
“Olumbi explained: All the gods of our land speak, and it was they who gave the power of speech to the lion and the jaguar, the buffalo, the eagle and the snake and the elephant. But the old gods had come before, so there had been no opportunity for them to be given this power from the gods who came after. The old gods who could not speak could still command, of course, because they were gods, so they commanded the men who lived there to build these structures, to carve them with holy words, and to bring the stone from far away. Henley had noticed that there was no basalt for many days’ walk around our village, which we had not noticed, us in the village, for of course we did not need to work stone; we had clay and wood enough. He taught us the words for basalt and granite, limestone and chalk, while we walked, and he showed us where it seemed as if the stones covering holes in the ground were also basalt, like the gate. I climbed the great tower and took rubbings for him.
“The men who built the ruins did not know just what they were doing, Olumbi explained—only that they must do it. And when it was done, the old gods came through freely, in silence. The men had built a door—as if all the world, Mr. Greene, was a hut, yet it had been built with no way in, and the men had chopped a door into the hut. When the men realized that this had been done, they cried out in regret and tried to destroy what they had made, but the old gods sent forth their servants, called shoggoths, and killed some men, and enslaved some, and went breaking and eating and burning all over the wide world, for the shoggoths could not be seen by man. They were terrible—like things seen in bad dreams. Then some wise men from a different land made the necessary magicks to hurl the old gods back to their unholy realm, and everyone began to rebuild our world, and soon this door was forgotten. It is a wonderful story.
“Henley was mad for it—what were the old gods? What were these magicks? But Olumbi did not answer him. These were not part of the story that he knew. Near sundown, the guides left the ruins to get wood for torches. Henley pried loose a small stone with a carving on it of a thing with snakes for a face, and slipped it into his bag. He jumped when he saw that I was watching him, for we both knew he had been told to never take anything from the ruins, never, never.
“‘Say nothing, Sima,’ he whispered to me. I worried about it, what he had done, but . . . it was one little stone, just the size of his hand and as thick. There were hundreds of the snake-faced creature carvings all over the ruins. What calamity, I thought, could come from just one of so many going missing? And yet . . . as we walked to the village, I felt a cold wind at our backs, and no birds sang.
“He left a few days later, promising extravagant gifts and tales the next time he returned. But his doom was already upon him. We all saw it. He was pale as the moon; he could not sleep. In the night, he walked and wandered instead, and talked to himself. During the day he seemed his normal self, and laughed and ate with us, and boasted of his adventures. But he was restless. He could not meet the eye. He avoided the fire. It was another three years before he rode back, and he was so ill I wondered how he had made the trip. He was half his weight; he looked like a drought-stricken animal about to die. At first, I did not even recognize him. I thought how surprising it was that another white man had come to us. The chief sent for the best healers he knew. Where before, Henley would have waved them away like flies, he lay in the chief’s hut without moving except to weep.
“Of myself, he asked for news of the area. Nothing, I said. The hunts are well, our gardens grow. Many babies have been born. There have been dust storms, stripping away the vegetation at Sun Stones. But the old women say there have been storms like that before. ‘There have been no noises? Earthquakes? No cries in the night? No blood on your sand?’ No, no,’ I promised him.
“He had come at midday. When night fell, I thought he would surely die while we slept, but he did not; in fact, he rose and dressed, and woke me. ‘Sima, my only friend,’ he whispered. ‘Help me. You must. I am cursed; I carried home a curse with me.’ I did not know what a curse was, but I knew what ‘help’ meant, and I could not say no. By the time we reached the ruins, I was nearly carrying him. It was so frightening, Mr. Greene—he weighed nothing; it was like carrying a child. We came in through one of the small side gates, moving quickly, for the trees and brush had all been blown down and killed by the wind. He directed me to the center of the ruins—it took hours, as we had not brought light with us and the moonlight was treacherous. Finally, we stopped, and he withdrew from his satchel the ugly carving I had seen him remove all those years before. He put it back in place and looked at it for a long time. I gasped as the ground moved and made a noise, like a lion’s roar, but under our feet. ‘May this end; may this end,’ he said to the wall. ‘Give me my freedom, though it is not deserved.’
“He did not recover, though he stayed for a long time. When he left, he called together my family to ask if I could come with him. ‘If it is her wish,’ said my father. ‘She has a heart, for which we do not speak.’ I had never been so excited in my life, Mr. Greene. I agreed at once; we married in Italy a short while later.”
“So, he died from his affliction?” I said, astonished. “We knew him as the heartiest, the most robust of men. What was it? Malaria? Yellow Fever?”
“It did not seem that way,” she said, looking up at the map. “He wrote to Miskatonic University and they sent professors to talk to him; he was on the telephone at all hours. He even made a trip up there, carrying his notes from Africa. When he returned, he had copied out great reams from one of their old books—a medical book, I took it to be, not knowing any better—and stayed up late for weeks, reciting from it. I could barely sleep, hearing his voice all night, imagining the house was shaking. But then he did recover. He began to do his exercises again. He began to eat and write letters again. He slept soundly. He even began to speak of the adventures we would have again—all the places we would go together. I felt hunted; I dismissed it. His doom was with us, though. I did not realize what he was doing until it was too late. I did not believe he would do such a thing. I learned the word penance. A word we had no concept of in my language.”
“Mrs. Penhallick,” I said, when she gave no signs of speaking again, though I dreaded to ask, “. . . how did he die?”
She looked down at me, her great doe eyes suddenly hard and wary. “You’ll think me mad.”
“The old gods who could not speak,” she said. “He had struck a devil’s deal with them, and the cost was his life. They sent a shoggoth for him in the night. To collect payment.”
I stared at her. Yes, quite mad, I thought. Her head had been filled with these stories. The old man had made it worse, for a young girl from a land far away, whose mind eventually snapped from living here, alone in the great house . . . . After a moment, I said, weakly, “I see.”
“Don’t put that in your article, Mr. Greene.”
I was beginning to wonder if I had an article at all now, but shrugged and said, “As you wish.”
As she was showing me out, I said, unthinkingly, “What a great pity that the man died without issue; my deepest sympathies for that, in addition to your great loss.”
“Why, I believe I said nothing of the sort,” she said softly, taking my hat and coat from the stand. “If you must know, part of the deal for my freedom was poor Henley’s life . . . but I was well-compensated with a child.”
“But . . . .”
She stepped aside just as the thing came racing down the stairs, all unseen save for the brass pins torn loose in its wake.