A thick fog rolled in from the sea, sliding eerily through the deep woods on Stark Island. Wetness dripped from the low branches and fell upon Inez Thayer as she moved wraith-like between the tree trunks. The heat was suffocating in this early evening in mid-August; it formed a weight that pressed upon the flesh, that wilted the spirit.
Inez raised her hands to the buttons of her ruffled blouse and undid them. She looked back, then up ahead to be certain she was all alone. The ground mist hid her for twenty feet on all sides, she saw. With a faint smile on her lips, she tugged the blouse out of her slacks.
She strode along more easily, now, for the path between the trees was opening, and up ahead was Deepdene Pool where the Stark family had swum for almost three centuries. Inez did not like Stark Island; it had a brooding air, a psychic darkness that reached inside her and touched her very nerve ends. There were strange tales told about the place. . . .
She paused, listening.
The sound had not been loud, and it was not repeated. Yet its effect lingered inside her, where the lurking fear of the island and its gaunt white house crouched ready to flower in full terror. She put a hand on a sapling branch, shrank against its bole, letting her eyes dart here and there. Uneasiness ran along her flesh, causing it to moisten even more than it had from the August heat.
Her tongue licked her lips. “Why ever did I come to this island?” she whispered. “I hate it, along with the house and the rocks and all these trees. There’s something unnatural here. . . .”
Her voice trailed off and she straightened slowly. In the night stillness she could hear the boom of the ocean waves slamming against the solid rock that formed a natural bastion to the west, where the Atlantic heaved its waters. It was not the surf crashing onto stone that had momentarily frightened her, it was something else.
As if a foot had broken a twig to one side of her where a living thing watched, waiting a chance to spring. Her stare moved as far as the gray fog that shrouded the big chestnuts and the elms. She could see nothing but the encroaching mist and the steadily dripping trees, yet she had the uncomfortable feeling that something waited there for her.
“I’m silly,” she breathed.
She raised trembling hands to her long brown hair, pushed it back from her face.
As though to hear the sound of her own voice, she said, “I know very well why I’m on Stark Island. I needed a job. It was the money, and a chance to eat steadily, and have a roof over my head, that brought me here.”
Short weeks ago in Boston, she had been employed as a secretary by an engineering firm. The engineering firm had had to cut expenses, she had been let go. A little desperate—there were bills to pay, a recent illness had required hospitalization and a vacation to recuperate with a consequent loss of working time—she had grabbed at an ad in the paper for a librarian to annotate old books and manuscripts on a place called Stark Island off the coast of Maine.
She had been a librarian, years back in her little home town of Hampton. She still remembered enough of that work, the cataloging, the reference requests, the checking in and out of books, to qualify her, she felt. It had been sufficient experience, apparently, because a letter had come with an airplane ticket enclosed, only eight days ago.
Now she was here, and enjoying her work.
But not her surroundings. Not the eternal mists and the booming surf to the steady poundings of which she fell asleep nights, and the oddness of the Stark family. Oh, Lyle Burkett was all right, but then he was not really a Stark, though there was Stark blood in his veins on his maternal side.
The only true Stark, dark and brooding, tall and lean, was Edwin who owned Stark House and the island. He wore smoking jackets in the evening, of all things! And he played the violin—haunting tunes with undertones of terror in them—and smoked pipes which he collected from all corners of the world. He was scholarly, an antiquarian. There seemed to be nothing wrong with him, if she overlooked that touch of the Victorian in his makeup.
Nothing perhaps—except the way he looked at her.
It was not just the lust that she could see in his black, somber eyes. It was something else, something—evil.
“What utter rot,” she half laughed, moving more swiftly between the trees. Her eyes saw moonlight silvering the smooth surface of the little lake which was named Deepdene Pool; it was living enchantment in the night with the mists along its banks hiding the undergrowth and a little of the trees, so that it might well have been a corner of a forgotten fairyland.
She halted, frozen.
The sound was closer. She had heard it very clearly this time; she thought uneasily that she might have come nearer to its source, or it may have come after her. She was aware that a fine line of nervous perspiration was rising on her forehead.
Her mind was remembering that Edwin Stark’s secretary—Angela Prentice—had whispered to her a few nights ago that the curse of the Starks was running free again after nearly a hundred years.
“I really am an idiot,” she muttered in vexation. “There’s nothing out here with me. Nothing!”
It was just an animal in the brush. There were still a few wild animals on Stark Island. Edwin liked to have rabbits and a boar or two, even a few foxes, running free on his land. He put out food for them, as a matter of fact.
The animals had never been known to harm anyone. Even the boars were placid, content with their life, if left undisturbed. Perhaps one of them had scented her, she may have disturbed it at its feeding. Somewhat reassured, she went on toward the water.
The pool spread before her, wide and silvery in the moonlight. A loon called from far away, lonely, mournful in the night. The sense of enchantment which she had felt earlier was still upon her as she sent her glance roving along the edges of the water.
In this dreaming mood, she dropped her blouse and bent to remove her slacks. Under them she was wearing her bikini, and as her clothes dropped away she felt suddenly cooler.
She had thought about this swim all afternoon while immersed in the manuscripts dry from age in the Stark House library. The touch of water along her flesh, the sense of freedom with only the moon and stars above, was almost symbolic in her mind. With them, she would be washing away her old life; the struggle in the city to compete, the aches and pains of daily commuting to a desk job, the disappointments and occasional despair, were now all a part of her past.
As she put a hand on a branch to balance herself while she removed her shoes, she told herself that the wildness of this island appealed to her, even if there was an aura of evil about it. Maybe she only imagined that bit about the evil; she might well be overtired.
Inez stretched, arms above her head, laughing a little as the breeze blew her hair about her shoulders. She was a country girl, she had been born and raised where wide meadows ran, and long country lanes wound their way to distant foothills. No pollution here, the wind was clean, the . . .
A twig snapped.
Her breath caught in her throat as she whirled. A boar was moving through the mists a dozen feet away, trotting behind the trees. Inez sagged against a tree-bole, giggling.
“Dunce that I am,” she cried, and laughed.
Her bare feet paced carefully between stones, seeking always the grass and the pine needles on which to step. The ground sloped here, ran in a shallow dip toward the water. In moments she was up to her ankles, then her knees, and the soft mud was squishing between her toes. She leaned forward, gave a push with her legs and went down into cool, embracing water.
The pool was dark beneath its surface. Like sleep, she thought as she glided, feet kicking her toward the surface, taking one into its folds and letting care slip slowly away. She swam easily, with smooth strokes of her arms and her feet that churned the water. It was like being in another world, here in Deepdene Pool at night, with the quiet all around, as though the world held its breath.
She had come here before, but always when the sun had been shining. She and Angela at first, then sometimes Lyle would join them. The August heat was overpowering this year, it seemed the heat spell would never break.
Deepdene Pool was large, more of a small lake than a pool. She could swim across it easily, and had once, with Lyle beside her. Now as she came to the middle, she debated within herself whether to go on to the other side or turn back. It was then that she heard the sound for the third time.
Her feet trod water. Anxiously, her heart hammering more wildly than normal, she stared along the shore. The moon was full, it shed a glowing radiance upon the water and the trees half hidden in the mists.
“Ohhh,” she whimpered.
There was something standing in the moonlight.
It was half hidden behind the thick leaves of the trees, and she could not obtain a clear view of it. It seemed to be a man wreathed with foliage, but otherwise naked. It stood motionless, like a statue, as if it were a humanized Pan out of Greek myth. She could not make out its features in the moonlight, just parts of its powerful body glimpsed vaguely here and there. Yet there was something—evil—about it, it gave off an aura of waiting—wickedness, something hinted at that was not quite normal. . . .
It stood on that flat rock and stared at her. A sick terror churned her middle, making her nauseated. She wanted to turn away her head in the childlike notion that if she didn’t see it, it could not see her. Yet she was frozen here, arms and legs moving in the water, eyes fastened on that nightmare creature, and she felt her throat tighten with panic.
“Oh, God! Oh, dear God—help me,” she breathed.
She was helpless here, if that thing could swim. Her eyes went wildly about her, scanning the trees which appeared to dip closer to her, to gather more closely together like a fence walling her in. The lake waters were cold, suddenly, freezing her flesh. And a chill that was not from Deepdene Pool ran far inside her.
But suddenly the crazy thing was gone. In the briefest blink of her eyelashes, the flat rock was empty. It was just a big stone in the moonlight, and the forest was still and dark, the trees their normal selves, no longer hiding that apparition.
Tears blurred her eyes in reaction to her terror. Yet relief was washing across her mind. Lips trembling, she whispered a prayer of utter thankfulness. I must get back to shore, grab my clothes and run for the house. Her dazed mind refused to think, she was numb from her toes up. Another thought touched the frightened corners of her mind.
Suppose the apparition were waiting for her among the trees?
Her heart turned over in her rib-cage, began thundering out its fear-laden message. She could not stay here, she was freezing! Yet the mere idea of meeting that unknown thing in the woods where it could lay its hands on her made blind panic surge through her.
In desperation, she struck out for the shore where she had dropped her clothes, hoping to make it there before the creature could run around the lake. It was her only chance. If that thing is waiting for me on the pool bank—I’ll die!
She was vaguely aware that she was swimming clumsily in her panic, that it was harder and harder to move her arms and legs. Tiredness was seeping into her muscles. She did not think, all she wanted to do was to get away—get away. . . .
She swallowed water as she churned her body, and a buzzing came into her ears. She floundered, her head going under. I’m going to drown, her brain told her. And with this realization came a more terrible fright, worse than anything she had experienced so far.
She cried out, not swimming any longer, just treading water. “Help—somebody! Help me. Oh, please . . . please. . . .”
Then she heard the sound of movement through water close beside her. She went rigid, not daring to look. It’s come into the water after me! If I look, I’ll see it and I’ll die even before it touches me.
Her scream was loud and shrill.
It rang out across the water, over and through the trees and was lost in the gray mist. Yet her mouth stayed open and her throat muscles hurt from the sheer violence, the raw terror that went into that yell.
“Oh, shut up,” a man said close by, amusement in his voice.
She blinked through the tears and the water running down her face. Her eyes could not focus, she discovered. The panic in her was so deep, she seemed to have lost control of her body.
The—apparition—could not have spoken like that!
What she had just heard was a cultured voice, a voice she knew. It was familiar, deep and resonant. A male voice. If only the clouds had not hidden the moon, if only the tears were not streaming from her eyes and down her cheeks! The night was so black around her, she could not see a dozen feet away.
Then it was on top of her, this phantom out of the night. The splashing sounds halted and a hand was brushing her bare arm and the fear and terror overwhelmed her. She fought, sobbing and crying out unintelligible words. I’ll go down fighting, she told herself, and lashed out with both fists.
“Hey, for Pete’s sake! Easy, girl. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her eyes widened. She knew that voice, now.
“Oh, Lyle,” she blubbered, and flung herself against him, both arms tight around his neck. “Ohhhh, Lyle—it was so scary I thought it was coming after me.”
“You thought—what was coming after you?”
Surprise made her look up at him. “The thing on the rock. Didn’t you see it? It was like something out of a Grade-B horror movie, all over leaves and sort of naked like a pagan god.”
She shivered against him, aware that he was kicking water with both legs to keep them afloat, aware also that she was in a bikini and uncomfortably close to him. She pushed away, realizing that he was smiling down at her as he might smile at a child.
Inez wanted to stamp a foot in vexation, but she was in water over her head. She spluttered angrily, “The apparition I saw! It was standing on that big flat stone, watching me. It was—terrifying.”
The smile vanished from his face. Was that fear that darted into his blue eyes and was so suddenly gone? No, no. Lyle Burkett would not be afraid of anything. Just the same. . . .
“You sure you really saw something? That you didn’t imagine it? Maybe a broken branch was dangling down—its leaves fleshing it out—all you needed to see something that wasn’t there.”
“I know what I saw,” she snapped.
He nodded gravely. He was a handsome man, she told herself through the fear that crowded her shuddering body. His eyes were such a deep, intense blue that they looked almost black in the dark night. His tawny hair was worn slightly long. His shoulders were wide, ridged with muscles, and against her will, she felt her heart slamming excitedly at his nearness.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, pushing away from him. “It wasn’t fair of me to get annoyed with you. You came to help me. But I did see—something awful standing on that rock.”
His mere presence had quieted her nerves. Oddly enough, there was no more fear in her. Not with Lyle Burkett here. She wondered if he realized his effect on her.
Even his voice was soothing as he said, “All right Let’s say you did see something that frightened you. Now you’re an adult, sensible woman. You know the only living things on this island—outside the sheep and a few wild animals—are you, Edwin, Angela and me. I’m not counting the servants, they all leave at sundown.”
“Lucky them,” she muttered.
His laughter rang out. “Come on, race you to shore. You’re cold, you must be exhausted from the strain, no matter what you saw.”
His big hand at the small of her back turned her, headed her toward the grassy bank. She swam easily, now, with him just a stroke behind her, ready if she should need him. Inez told herself she was foolish, there hadn’t been anything on that rock. Lyle was right. But she could have sworn! She had good eyes, perfect vision. She had seen—something . . .
The shoreline came closer, bursting into view as the last of the dark clouds blew away overhead so that the moon was in full view as well as the stars. Inez walked along the last few feet of oozy bottom, wondering if Lyle Burkett might think she had a good figure. Goodness knows he could see enough of it, in the bikini. Well, he was no Victorian the way Edwin Stark was.
She went up the grassy bank, his hand at her elbow to steady her. Her eyes touched the ground, searching for her clothes. Helplessly, she turned toward him.
“They aren’t here. My clothes, I mean.”
“Oh! I walked from the house in my bathing trunks, it was so hot. I guess you didn’t want to do that, not in that bikini.”
He grinned when he said it, but his gaze did not dip below her throat as so many male eyes would have done. She laughed a little, answering the faint amusement in his glance.
“I left my clothes somewhere!” she exclaimed, peering through the mist. “But this fog is so thick, I can’t make out a thing.”
“I know this lake as well as I do my face,” he said calmly. “All I need is a hint of where you were when you undressed. Just relax, don’t be nervous. Try and think back.”
Inez bit her lower lip, frowning in concentration. “Butternut trees. That’s where it was. There were butternut trees all around me.”
“That’s to the south. Come along.”
His hand caught her, drew her after his big body as he moved easily along the lake edge. The night breezes were drying their bodies, she could enjoy that warmth now, after the swim, although she knew that later in her room the heat would be as thickly suffocating as ever. Still, for a little time she had been cool.
Her eyes brushed his head, his wide shoulders. It was nice to have a man around, she had been too long alone. It had been a long time since a man had treated her in this manner, not since her days in Hampton. She’d had only a couple of dinner or theater dates with men during her few years in the city, and none of them had appealed to her in quite the same way as Lyle Burkett.
With a faint smile on her full mouth, she admitted that she would not have minded if her clothes were a dozen miles away instead of a few hundred feet, it was so pleasant to be here in the moon-drenched night with this man, his hand warmly firm around her own, his nearness an almost tangible thing. Once when they came to a big rock jutting between two elms, Lyle put his arm about her naked middle to give her a boost up and over the rock.
And she liked the feeling of their flesh touching, Inez admitted in her mind. It added an intimacy to their companionship she found extremely pleasant. I’m not falling for him, am I? She asked herself, and then mentally laughed at her own romanticism.
Lyle had let go of her waist as soon as her feet were on the grassy stretch beyond the rock. Maybe he felt the same way and—confirmed bachelor that he was!—wanted no part of any affection between them. He was a man, he would see her safely home; his attentions meant no more than that, and she had to understand it.
A cooler wind was blowing in from the ocean to the east, sliding between the trees and stirring the fog to mere wisps, blowing them here and there, scattering them. And the moon was at its brightest, for the dark clouds were gone and the stars were clear overhead. They walked on grass that gave like a velvet carpet under their bare feet, yet now they went side by side, and Lyle still clung to her fingers.
Then they saw it.
The creature was a long distance away, loping across a moonlit glade, arms swinging easily as its head turned one way and then another. Once it stood motionless, so far away they could barely see it, as if it listened to the night sounds all around.
To Inez, it seemed she stared on Pan or a satyr out of folklore.
“Ohhh,” she cried, her terror returning. She shrank back against Lyle who put his arms about her once again.
“Good lord,” he breathed.
It could not have heard them, there was the width of a meadow between them, and some trees. Yet it whirled, crouched low and with its long arms swinging, its face turned toward them.
Its features were not recognizable. All that Inez Thayer was certain of, now that the moonlight illumined its distant body, was that it was—human. It wore some sort of garment about its middle, and there was a wreath of leaves about its head. Could a madman have landed on this island, from an overturned boat? She realized she was shivering steadily.
Then the man—or whatever it was—turned and leaped for the nearby woods. The trees swallowed him up, hid him from their straining eyes.