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A Dead Finger
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There was a faint sound of rattling at the brass knob, and the door was
pushed open a couple of inches. A pause of a few seconds, and it was
pushed open still further. Without a sound of footsteps that was
appreciable to my ears, the two figures glided into the room, and the
man behind gently closed the door after him.

They were alone with me between the four walls. Could they see me
standing there, so still and straight in my corner? Had they, perhaps,
already seen me? My blood surged and sang like the roll of drums in an
orchestra; and though I did my best to suppress my breathing, it sounded
like the rushing of wind through a pneumatic tube.

My suspense as to the next move was soon at an end--only, however, to
give place to a new and keener alarm. The men had hitherto exchanged no
words and no signs, but there were general indications of a movement
across the room, and whichever way they went they would have to pass
round the table. If they came my way they would have to pass within six
inches of my person. While I was considering this very disagreeable
possibility, I perceived that the smaller Indian (smaller by comparison)
suddenly raised his arm and pointed to the ceiling. The other fellow
raised his head and followed the direction of his companion's arm. I
began to understand at last. They were going upstairs, and the room
directly overhead to which they pointed had been until this night my
bedroom. It was the room in which I had experienced that very morning so
strange a sensation of fear, and but for which I should then have been
lying asleep in the narrow bed against the window.

The Indians then began to move silently around the room; they were going
upstairs, and they were coming round my side of the table. So stealthy
were their movements that, but for the abnormally sensitive state of the
nerves, I should never have heard them. As it was, their cat-like tread
was distinctly audible. Like two monstrous black cats they came round
the table toward me, and for the first time I perceived that the smaller
of the two dragged something along the floor behind him. As it trailed
along over the floor with a soft, sweeping sound, I somehow got the
impression that it was a large dead thing with outstretched wings, or a
large, spreading cedar branch. Whatever it was, I was unable to see it
even in outline, and I was too terrified, even had I possessed the power
over my muscles, to move my neck forward in the effort to determine its
nature.

Nearer and nearer they came. The leader rested a giant hand upon the
table as he moved. My lips were glued together, and the air seemed to
burn in my nostrils. I tried to close my eyes, so that I might not see
as they passed me; but my eyelids had stiffened, and refused to obey.
Would they never get by me? Sensation seemed also to have left my legs,
and it was as if I were standing on mere supports of wood or stone.
Worse still, I was conscious that I was losing the power of balance, the
power to stand upright, or even to lean backwards against the wall. Some
force was drawing me forward, and a dizzy terror seized me that I should
lose my balance, and topple forward against the Indians just as they
were in the act of passing me.

Even moments drawn out into hours must come to an end some time, and
almost before I knew it the figures had passed me and had their feet
upon the lower step of the stairs leading to the upper bedrooms. There
could not have been six inches between us, and yet I was conscious only
of a current of cold air that followed them. They had not touched me,
and I was convinced that they had not seen me. Even the trailing thing
on the floor behind them had not touched my feet, as I had dreaded it
would, and on such an occasion as this I was grateful even for the
smallest mercies.

The absence of the Indians from my immediate neighbourhood brought
little sense of relief. I stood shivering and shuddering in my corner,
and, beyond being able to breathe more freely, I felt no whit less
uncomfortable. Also, I was aware that a certain light, which, without
apparent source or rays, had enabled me to follow their every gesture
and movement, had gone out of the room with their departure. An
unnatural darkness now filled the room, and pervaded its every corner so
that I could barely make out the positions of the windows and the glass
doors.

As I said before, my condition was evidently an abnormal one. The
capacity for feeling surprise seemed, as in dreams, to be wholly absent.
My senses recorded with unusual accuracy every smallest occurrence, but
I was able to draw only the simplest deductions.

The Indians soon reached the top of the stairs, and there they halted
for a moment. I had not the faintest clue as to their next movement.
They appeared to hesitate. They were listening attentively. Then I heard
one of them, who by the weight of his soft tread must have been the
giant, cross the narrow corridor and enter the room directly
overhead--my own little bedroom. But for the insistence of that
unaccountable dread I had experienced there in the morning, I should at
that very moment have been lying in the bed with the big Indian in the
room standing beside me.

For the space of a hundred seconds there was silence, such as might
have existed before the birth of sound. It was followed by a long
quivering shriek of terror, which rang out into the night, and ended in
a short gulp before it had run its full course. At the same moment the
other Indian left his place at the head of the stairs, and joined his
companion in the bedroom. I heard the "thing" trailing behind him along
the floor. A thud followed, as of something heavy falling, and then all
became as still and silent as before.

It was at this point that the atmosphere, surcharged all day with the
electricity of a fierce storm, found relief in a dancing flash of
brilliant lightning simultaneously with a crash of loudest thunder. For
five seconds every article in the room was visible to me with amazing
distinctness, and through the windows I saw the tree trunks standing in
solemn rows. The thunder pealed and echoed across the lake and among the
distant islands, and the flood-gates of heaven then opened and let out
their rain in streaming torrents.

The drops fell with a swift rushing sound upon the still waters of the
lake, which leaped up to meet them, and pattered with the rattle of shot
on the leaves of the maples and the roof of the cottage. A moment later,
and another flash, even more brilliant and of longer duration than the
first, lit up the sky from zenith to horizon, and bathed the room
momentarily in dazzling whiteness. I could see the rain glistening on
the leaves and branches outside. The wind rose suddenly, and in less
than a minute the storm that had been gathering all day burst forth in
its full fury.

Above all the noisy voices of the elements, the slightest sounds in the
room overhead made themselves heard, and in the few seconds of deep
silence that followed the shriek of terror and pain I was aware that the
movements had commenced again. The men were leaving the room and
approaching the top of the stairs. A short pause, and they began to
descend. Behind them, tumbling from step to step, I could hear that
trailing "thing" being dragged along. It had become ponderous!

I awaited their approach with a degree of calmness, almost of apathy,
which was only explicable on the ground that after a certain point
Nature applies her own anaesthetic, and a merciful condition of numbness
supervenes. On they came, step by step, nearer and nearer, with the
shuffling sound of the burden behind growing louder as they approached.

They were already half-way down the stairs when I was galvanised afresh
into a condition of terror by the consideration of a new and horrible
possibility. It was the reflection that if another vivid flash of
lightning were to come when the shadowy procession was in the room,
perhaps when it was actually passing in front of me, I should see
everything in detail, and worse, be seen myself! I could only hold my
breath and wait--wait while the minutes lengthened into hours, and the
procession made its slow progress round the room.

The Indians had reached the foot of the staircase. The form of the huge
leader loomed in the doorway of the passage, and the burden with an
ominous thud had dropped from the last step to the floor. There was a
moment's pause while I saw the Indian turn and stoop to assist his
companion. Then the procession moved forward again, entered the room
close on my left, and began to move slowly round my side of the table.
The leader was already beyond me, and his companion, dragging on the
floor behind him the burden, whose confused outline I could dimly make
out, was exactly in front of me, when the cavalcade came to a dead halt.
At the same moment, with the strange suddenness of thunderstorms, the
splash of the rain ceased altogether, and the wind died away into utter
silence.

For the space of five seconds my heart seemed to stop beating, and then
the worst came. A double flash of lightning lit up the room and its
contents with merciless vividness.

The huge Indian leader stood a few feet past me on my right. One leg was
stretched forward in the act of taking a step. His immense shoulders
were turned toward his companion, and in all their magnificent
fierceness I saw the outline of his features. His gaze was directed upon
the burden his companion was dragging along the floor; but his profile,
with the big aquiline nose, high cheek-bone, straight black hair and
bold chin, burnt itself in that brief instant into my brain, never again
to fade.

Dwarfish, compared with this gigantic figure, appeared the proportions
of the other Indian, who, within twelve inches of my face, was stooping
over the thing he was dragging in a position that lent to his person the
additional horror of deformity. And the burden, lying upon a sweeping
cedar branch which he held and dragged by a long stem, was the body of a
white man. The scalp had been neatly lifted, and blood lay in a broad
smear upon the cheeks and forehead.

Then, for the first time that night, the terror that had paralysed my
muscles and my will lifted its unholy spell from my soul. With a loud
cry I stretched out my arms to seize the big Indian by the throat, and,
grasping only air, tumbled forward unconscious upon the ground.

I had recognised the body, and _the face was my own_! . . .

It was bright daylight when a man's voice recalled me to consciousness.
I was lying where I had fallen, and the farmer was standing in the room
with the loaves of bread in his hands. The horror of the night was still
in my heart, and as the bluff settler helped me to my feet and picked up
the rifle which had fallen with me, with many questions and expressions
of condolence, I imagine my brief replies were neither self-explanatory
nor even intelligible.

That day, after a thorough and fruitless search of the house, I left the
island, and went over to spend my last ten days with the farmer; and
when the time came for me to leave, the necessary reading had been
accomplished, and my nerves had completely recovered their balance.

On the day of my departure the farmer started early in his big boat with
my belongings to row to the point, twelve miles distant, where a little
steamer ran twice a week for the accommodation of hunters. Late in the
afternoon I went off in another direction in my canoe, wishing to see
the island once again, where I had been the victim of so strange an
experience.

In due course I arrived there, and made a tour of the island. I also
made a search of the little house, and it was not without a curious
sensation in my heart that I entered the little upstairs bedroom. There
seemed nothing unusual.

Just after I re-embarked, I saw a canoe gliding ahead of me around the
curve of the island. A canoe was an unusual sight at this time of the
year, and this one seemed to have sprung from nowhere. Altering my
course a little, I watched it disappear around the next projecting point
of rock. It had high curving bows, and there were two Indians in it. I
lingered with some excitement, to see if it would appear again round the
other side of the island; and in less than five minutes it came into
view. There were less than two hundred yards between us, and the
Indians, sitting on their haunches, were paddling swiftly in my
direction.

I never paddled faster in my life than I did in those next few minutes.
When I turned to look again, the Indians had altered their course, and
were again circling the island.

The sun was sinking behind the forests on the mainland, and the
crimson-coloured clouds of sunset were reflected in the waters of the
lake, when I looked round for the last time, and saw the big bark canoe
and its two dusky occupants still going round the island. Then the
shadows deepened rapidly; the lake grew black, and the night wind blew
its first breath in my face as I turned a corner, and a projecting bluff
of rock hid from my view both island and canoe.





Next: A Case Of Eavesdropping

Previous: A Haunted Island



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