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During the winter of 1927–28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting — under suitable precautions — of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the abandoned waterfront. Uninquiring souls let this occurrence pass as one of the major clashes in a spasmodic war on liquor.
Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the prodigious number of arrests, the abnormally large force of men used in making them, and the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners. No trials, or even definite charges were reported; nor were any of the captives seen thereafter in the regular gaols of the nation. There were vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons, but nothing positive ever developed. Innsmouth itself was left almost depopulated, and it is even now only beginning to show signs of a sluggishly revived existence.
Complaints from many liberal organizations were met with long confidential discussions, and representatives were taken on trips to certain camps and prisons. As a result, these societies became surprisingly passive and reticent. Newspaper men were harder to manage, but seemed largely to cooperate with the government in the end. Only one paper — a tabloid always discounted because of its wild policy — mentioned the deep diving submarine that discharged torpedoes downward in the marine abyss just beyond Devil Reef. That item, gathered by chance in a haunt of sailors, seemed indeed rather far-fetched; since the low, black reef lay a full mile and a half out from Innsmouth Harbour.
People around the country and in the nearby towns muttered a great deal among themselves, but said very little to the outer world. They had talked about dying and half-deserted Innsmouth for nearly a century, and nothing new could be wilder or more hideous than what they had whispered and hinted at years before. Many things had taught them secretiveness, and there was no need to exert pressure on them. Besides, they really knew little; for wide salt marshes, desolate and unpeopled, kept neighbors off from Innsmouth on the landward side.
But at last I am going to defy the ban on speech about this thing. Results, I am certain, are so thorough that no public harm save a shock of repulsion could ever accrue from a hinting of what was found by those horrified men at Innsmouth. Besides, what was found might possibly have more than one explanation. I do not know just how much of the whole tale has been told even to me, and I have many reasons for not wishing to probe deeper. For my contact with this affair has been closer than that of any other layman, and I have carried away impressions which are yet to drive me to drastic measures.
It was I who fled frantically out of Innsmouth in the early morning hours of July 16, 1927, and whose frightened appeals for government inquiry and action brought on the whole reported episode. I was willing enough to stay mute while the affair was fresh and uncertain; but now that it is an old story, with public interest and curiosity gone, I have an odd craving to whisper about those few frightful hours in that ill-rumored and evilly-shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps me to restore confidence in my own faculties; to reassure myself that I was not the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination. It helps me, too, in making up my mind regarding a certain terrible step which lies ahead of me.
I never heard of Innsmouth till the day before I saw it for the first and — so far — last time. I was celebrating my coming of age by a tour of New England — sightseeing, antiquarian, and genealogical — and had planned to go directly from ancient Newburyport to Arkham, whence my mother’s family was derived. I had no car, but was travelling by train, trolley and motor-coach, always seeking the cheapest possible route. In Newburyport they told me that the steam train was the thing to take to Arkham; and it was only at the station ticket-office, when I demurred at the high fare, that I learned about Innsmouth. The stout, shrewd-faced agent, whose speech shewed him to be no local man, seemed sympathetic toward my efforts at economy, and made a suggestion that none of my other informants had offered.
“You could take that old bus, I suppose,” he said with a certain hesitation, “but it ain’t thought much of hereabouts. It goes through Innsmouth — you may have heard about that — and so the people don’t like it. Run by an Innsmouth fellow — Joe Sargent — but never gets any custom from here, or Arkham either, I guess. Wonder it keeps running at all. I s’pose it’s cheap enough, but I never see mor’n two or three people in it — nobody but those Innsmouth folk. Leaves the square — front of Hammond’s Drug Store — at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. unless they’ve changed lately. Looks like a terrible rattletrap — I’ve never been on it.”
That was the first I ever heard of shadowed Innsmouth. Any reference to a town not shown on common maps or listed in recent guidebooks would have interested me, and the agent’s odd manner of allusion roused something like real curiosity. A town able to inspire such dislike in it its neighbors, I thought, must be at least rather unusual, and worthy of a tourist’s attention. If it came before Arkham I would stop off there and so I asked the agent to tell me something about it. He was very deliberate, and spoke with an air of feeling slightly superior to what he said.
“Innsmouth? Well, it’s a queer kind of a town down at the mouth of the Manuxet. Used to be almost a city — quite a port before the War of 1812 — but all gone to pieces in the last hundred years or so. No railroad now — B. and M. never went through, and the branch line from Rowley was given up years ago.
“More empty houses than there are people, I guess, and no business to speak of except fishing and lobstering. Everybody trades mostly either here or in Arkham or Ipswich. Once they had quite a few mills, but nothing’s left now except one gold refinery running on the leanest kind of part time.
“That refinery, though, used to be a big thing, and old man Marsh, who owns it, must be richer’n Croesus. Queer old duck, though, and sticks mighty close in his home. He’s supposed to have developed some skin disease or deformity late in life that makes him keep out of sight. Grandson of Captain Obed Marsh, who founded the business. His mother seems to’ve been some kind of foreigner — they say a South Sea islander — so everybody raised Cain when he married an Ipswich girl fifty years ago. They always do that about Innsmouth people, and folks here and hereabouts always try to cover up any Innsmouth blood they have in ’em. But Marsh’s children and grandchildren look just like anyone else far’s I can see. I’ve had ’em pointed out to me here — though, come to think of it, the elder children don’t seem to be around lately. Never saw the old man.
“And why is everybody so down on Innsmouth? Well, young fellow, you mustn’t take too much stock in what people here say. They’re hard to get started, but once they do get started they never let up. They’ve been telling things about Innsmouth — whispering ’em, mostly — for the last hundred years, I guess, and I gather they’re more scared than anything else. Some of the stories would make you laugh — about old Captain Marsh driving bargains with the devil and bringing imps out of hell to live in Innsmouth, or about some kind of devil-worship and awful sacrifices in some place near the wharves that people stumbled on around 1845 or thereabouts — but I come from Panton, Vermont, and that kind of story don’t go down with me.
“You ought to hear, though, what some of the old-timers tell about the black reef off the coast — Devil Reef, they call it. It’s well above water a good part of the time, and never much below it, but at that you could hardly call it an island. The story is that there’s a whole legion of devils seen sometimes on that reef — sprawled about, or darting in and out of some kind of caves near the top. It’s a rugged, uneven thing, a good bit over a mile out, and toward the end of shipping days sailors used to make big detours just to avoid it.
“That is, sailors that didn’t hail from Innsmouth. One of the things they had against old Captain Marsh was that he was supposed to land on it sometimes at night when the tide was right. Maybe he did, for I dare say the rock formation was interesting, and it’s just barely possible he was looking for pirate loot and maybe finding it; but there was talk of his dealing with demons there. Fact is, I guess on the whole it was really the Captain that gave the bad reputation to the reef.
“That was before the big epidemic of 1846, when over half the folks in Innsmouth was carried off. They never did quite figure out what the trouble was, but it was probably some foreign kind of disease brought from China or somewhere by the shipping. It surely was bad enough — there was riots over it, and all sorts of ghastly doings that I don’t believe ever got outside of town — and it left the place in awful shape. Never came back — there can’t be more’n 300 or 400 people living there now.
“But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice — and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know — though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk — what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.
“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people. The place always was badly cut off from the rest of the country by marshes and creeks and we can’t be sure about the ins and outs of the matter; but it’s pretty clear that old Captain Marsh must have brought home some odd specimens when he had all three of his ships in commission back in the twenties and thirties. There certainly is a strange kind of streak in the Innsmouth folks today — I don’t know how to explain it but it sort of makes you crawl. You’ll notice a little in Sargent if you take his bus. Some of ’em have queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. Rough and scabby, and the sides of the necks are all shriveled or creased up. Get bald, too, very young. The older fellows look the worst — fact is, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a very old chap of that kind. Guess they must die of looking in the glass! Animals hate ’em — they used to have lots of horse trouble before the autos came in.
“Nobody around here or in Arkham or Ipswich will have anything to do with ’em, and they act kind of offish themselves when they come to town or when anyone tries to fish on their grounds. Queer how fish are always thick off Innsmouth Harbour when there ain’t any anywhere else around — but just try to fish there yourself and see how the folks chase you off! Those people used to come here on the railroad — walking and taking the train at Rowley after the branch was dropped — but now they use that bus.
“Yes, there’s a hotel in Innsmouth — called the Gilman House — but I don’t believe it can amount to much. I wouldn’t advise you to try it. Better stay over here and take the ten o’clock bus tomorrow morning; then you can get an evening bus there for Arkham at eight o’clock. There was a factory inspector who stopped at the Gilman a couple of years ago and he had a lot of unpleasant hints about the place. Seems they get a queer crowd there, for this fellow heard voices in other rooms — though most of ’em was empty — that gave him the shivers. It was foreign talk he thought, but he said the bad thing about it was the kind of voice that sometimes spoke. It sounded so unnatural — slopping like, he said — that he didn’t dare undress and go to sleep. Just waited up and lit out the first thing in the morning. The talk went on most all night.
“This fellow — Casey, his name was — had a lot to say about how the Innsmouth folk watched him and seemed kind of on guard. He found the Marsh refinery a queer place — it’s in an old mill on the lower falls of the Manuxet. What he said tallied up with what I’d heard. Books in bad shape, and no clear account of any kind of dealings. You know it’s always been a kind of mystery where the Marshes get the gold they refine. They’ve never seemed to do much buying in that line, but years ago they shipped out an enormous lot of ingots.
“Used to be talk of a queer foreign kind of jewelry that the sailors and refinery men sometimes sold on the sly, or that was seen once or twice on some of the Marsh women-folks. People allowed maybe old Captain Obed traded for it in some heathen port, especially since he always ordered stacks of glass beads and trinkets such as seafaring men used to get for native trade. Others thought and still think he’d found an old pirate cache out on Devil Reef. But here’s a funny thing. The old Captain’s been dead these sixty years, and there’s ain’t been a good-sized ship out of the place since the Civil War; but just the same the Marshes still keep on buying a few of those native trade things — mostly glass and rubber gewgaws, they tell me. Maybe the Innsmouth folks like ’em to look at themselves — Gawd knows they’ve gotten to be about as bad as South Sea cannibals and Guinea savages.
“That plague of ‘46 must have taken off the best blood in the place. Anyway, they’re a doubtful lot now, and the Marshes and other rich folks are as bad as any. As I told you, there probably ain’t more’n 400 people in the whole town in spite of all the streets they say there are. I guess they’re what they call ‘white trash’ down South — lawless and sly, and full of secret things. They get a lot of fish and lobsters and do exporting by truck. Queer how the fish swarm right there and nowhere else.
“Nobody can ever keep track of these people, and state school officials and census men have a devil of a time. You can bet that prying strangers ain’t welcome around Innsmouth. I’ve heard personally of more’n one business or government man that’s disappeared there, and there’s loose talk of one who went crazy and is out at Danvers now. They must have fixed up some awful scare for that fellow.
“That’s why I wouldn’t go at night if I was you. I’ve never been there and have no wish to go, but I guess a daytime trip couldn’t hurt you — even though the people hereabouts will advise you not to make it. If you’re just sightseeing, and looking for old-time stuff, Innsmouth ought to be quite a place for you.”