The Shadow over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft, part 4

Attempt to escape — across rooftops, along railbeds — from the horror of Innsmouth.
⁓The Voice before the Void

The Shadow over Innsmouth

H.P. Lovecraft

edited by The Voice before the Void

part 4

The old man screamed horribly.

Before I could recover my scattered wits, he had let go of my shoulder and ran inland.

I glanced back at the sea… but there was nothing there. And when I reached the street and looked along it, there was no remaining trace of Zadok Allen.

I can hardly describe the mood in which I was left by this harrowing episode. Old Zadok’s insane earnestness and horror had communicated to me a mounting unrest that joined with my earlier sense of loathing for the town and its blight of intangible shadow.

Later I might think over the story; just now I wished to put it out of my head. The hour had grown perilously late — my watch said 7:15, and the Arkham bus left Town Square at eight — so I tried to calm my thoughts, meanwhile walking rapidly through the deserted streets of gaping roofs and leaning houses toward the hotel where I had checked my bag and would find my bus.

As I neared Town Square, I began to see scattered groups of furtive whisperers, and when I finally reached the Square I saw that almost all the loiterers were congregated around the door of the Gilman House. It seemed as if many bulging, watery, unwinking eyes looked oddly at me as I claimed my bag in the lobby, and I hoped that none of these unpleasant creatures would be my fellow-passengers on the bus.

I would surely be very glad to get out of Innsmouth, and wished there were some vehicle other than the bus driven by that sinister-looking fellow Sargent.

The bus, rather early, rattled in with three passengers somewhat before eight, and an evil-looking fellow on the sidewalk muttered a few indistinguishable words to the driver. Sargent threw out a mail-bag and a roll of newspapers, and entered the hotel; while the passengers — the same men whom I had seen arriving in Newburyport that morning — shambled to the sidewalk and exchanged some faint guttural words with a loafer in a language I could have sworn was not English. I boarded the empty bus and took the seat I had taken before, but was hardly settled before Sargent re-appeared and began mumbling in a throaty voice of peculiar repulsiveness.

I was, it appeared, in very bad luck. There had been something wrong with the engine, despite the excellent time made from Newburyport, and the bus could not complete the journey to Arkham. No, it could not possibly be repaired that night, nor was there any other way of getting transportation out of Innsmouth either to Arkham or elsewhere. He was sorry, but I would have to stop over at the Gilman House. Probably the clerk would make the price easy for me, but there was nothing else to do. Dazed by this sudden obstacle, and violently dreading the fall of night in this decaying and half-unlighted town, I left the bus and reentered the hotel lobby; where the sullen strange-looking night clerk told me I could have Room 428 on the top floor for a dollar.

Despite what I had heard of this hotel, I signed the register, paid my dollar, let the clerk take my bag, and followed him up three creaking flights of stairs past dusty corridors which seemed wholly devoid of life. My room was a dismal rear one with two windows and bare, cheap furnishings; overlooked a dingy courtyard hemmed in by low, deserted brick blocks; and commanded a view of decrepit roofs with a marshy countryside beyond. At the end of the corridor was a bathroom — an ancient and discouraging relic.

It being still daylight, I descended to the Square and looked around for a dinner of some sort; noticing as I did so the strange glances I received from the unwholesome loafers. Since the grocery was closed, I was forced to patronize the restaurant I had shunned before; a stooped man with staring, unblinking eyes, and a narrow-headed woman with unbelievably thick, clumsy hands being in attendance. The service was all of the counter type, and it relieved me to find that much was evidently served from cans and packages. A bowl of vegetable soup with crackers was enough for me, and I soon headed back to my cheerless room at the Gilman House, getting a newspaper and a fly-specked magazine from the sour-faced hotel clerk.

As twilight deepened, I turned on the one feeble electric bulb over the cheap, iron-framed bed, and tried to read. I wanted to keep my mind wholesomely occupied, for it would not be good to brood over the abnormalities of this blighted town while I was still within it. It would perhaps have been easier to keep my thoughts from disturbing topics had the room not been so gruesomely musty. As it was, the mustiness blended with the town’s general fishy odor and persistently focused my thoughts on death and decay.

Another thing that disturbed me was the absence of a bolt on the door of my room. There had been one, as marks clearly showed, but there were signs it had been recently removed. No doubt it had been out of order, like so many other things in this decrepit building. In my nervousness, I looked around and discovered a bolt on the bureau which seemed to be of the same size as the one formerly on the door. I attached this bolt to the door with the aid of a small multi-tool which I kept on my key-ring. The bolt fitted perfectly, and I was somewhat relieved. Not that I had any real apprehension of its need, but any symbol of security was welcome in this environment. There were adequate bolts on the two side doors to connecting rooms, and these I fastened.

I did not undress, but decided to read until I was sleepy and then lie down with only my coat and shoes off. I took a pocket flashlight from my bag so that I could read my watch if I woke up later in the dark. Drowsiness, however, did not come; and when I stopped to analyze my thoughts, I found to my disquiet that I was really unconsciously listening for something — something which I dreaded but could not name. Again I tried to read, but found that I could not.

After a time I seemed to hear the stairs and corridors creak as if with footsteps, and wondered if the other rooms were beginning to fill up. There were no voices, however. I did not like it, and debated whether I should try to sleep at all. This town had some strange people, and there had undoubtedly been several disappearances. Was this one of those hotels where travelers were killed for their money? Surely I did not look wealthy. Or were the townsfolk really so resentful about curious visitors? It occurred to me that I must be in a highly nervous state to let a few random creakings set me thinking in this fashion — but nonetheless, I regretted that I was unarmed.

At length, feeling a fatigue which had nothing to do with drowsiness, I turned off the light and threw myself down on the hard bed — coat, shoes, and all. In the darkness every faint noise of the night seemed magnified. Then, after a long interval, and preceded by a fresh creaking of the stairs and corridor, there came a soft, unmistakable sound. The lock on my door was being tried… with a key.

The change in the menace from vague premonition to immediate reality was a shock. It never once occurred to me that the fumbling might be a mere mistake. Evil purpose was all I could think of, and I kept deathly quiet, awaiting the would-be intruder’s next move.

After a time the rattling ceased, and I heard the adjoining room to the north entered with a pass key. Then the lock of the connecting door to my room was softly tried. The bolt held, of course, and I heard the floor creak as the prowler left the room. After a moment there came another soft rattling, and I knew that the room to the south of me was being entered. Again the furtive trying of a bolted connecting door, and again a receding creaking. This time the creaking went along the hall and down the stairs, so I knew that the prowler had realized that my doors were bolted and was giving up his attempt, for now.

The one thing to do now was to get out of that hotel alive as quickly as I could, and by some way other than the front stairs and lobby.

I rose softly and threw the lightswitch. Nothing happened, however, and I saw that the power had been cut off. As I stood thinking with my hand on the now useless switch I heard a muffled creaking on the floor below, and thought I could barely distinguish voices in conversation. A moment later, I felt less sure that the sounds were voices, since the hoarse croakings sounded so little like human speech. Then I thought again of what the factory inspector had heard in the night in this building.

Having filled my pockets with the help of my flashlight, I put on my hat and tiptoed to the windows. Despite the state’s safety regulations, there was no fire escape, and I saw that my windows commanded only a sheer three-story drop to the courtyard. On the right and left, however, some ancient brick building abutted on the hotel; their roofs coming up to a reasonable jumping distance from my fourth-story level. However, to reach either of these buildings, I would have to be two rooms over from where I was now, either to the north or to the south.

I could not, I decided, risk going into the corridor, where my footsteps would be heard, and from where it would be too difficult to enter the necessary room. My route would have to be through the weaker connecting doors of the rooms; the locks and bolts of which I would have to force, using my shoulder as a battering-ram. This, I thought, would be possible owing to the rickety nature of the hotel; but I realized I could not do it quietly. I would have to depend on sheer speed, and the chance of getting to a window before any hostile forces became coordinated enough to open the right door. My own outer door I reinforced by pushing the bureau against it — little by little, in order to make as little noise as possible.

I perceived that my chances were very slim. Even getting to another roof, there would then remain the problem of reaching the ground and escaping from the town. In my favor was the deserted state of the next building and the number of skylights gaping open in the roof.

The grocery boy’s map showed that the best route out of town was southward, but the door on the south side of the room was designed to open in my direction and therefore no good for forcing; the door on the north was hung to open away from me, so I knew that it must be my path. I cautiously moved the bed against the south door.

I looked out the window over the decaying roofs below me, now brightened by the moon. On the right, the river-gorge cut the panorama, abandoned factories and the railway station clinging barnacle-like to its sides. Beyond it, the rusted railway and the road to Rowley led off through a flat marshy terrain. On the left, the creek-threaded countryside was nearer, the narrow road to Ipswich gleaming white in the moonlight. I could not see from here the southward route toward Arkham which I had determined to take.

I was thinking how I could most quietly attack the northward connecting door, when I noticed that the vague noises below me had given place to a fresh and heavier creaking of the stairs; the boards of the corridor began to groan with a heavy load; muffled sounds of possible voices approached, and then a firm knock came at my outer door.

For a moment I simply held my breath and waited. The nauseous fishy odor of my environment seemed to suddenly increase. Then the knocking was repeated — continuously, and with growing insistence. The time for action had come. I drew the bolt of the northward connecting door and braced myself to bash it open. The knocking became louder, and I hoped that it would cover the sound of my efforts. I lunged now, again and again, at the thin paneling of the door with my left shoulder, heedless of pain. The door resisted more than I expected. The clamorous knocking at the outer door increased.

Finally the connecting door gave, but with such a crash that I knew those outside must have heard. Instantly the outside knocking became a violent battering, while keys sounded in the hall doors of the rooms on both sides of me. Rushing through the smashed door, I succeeded in bolting the northerly hall door before the lock could be turned; but even as I did so I heard the hall door of the next room — the one from whose window I had hoped to reach the roof below — being tried with a pass key.

For an instant I felt absolute despair, since my trapping in a room with no escape seemed complete. Additional horror swept over me as my flashlight picked up the strange prints in the dust made by the intruder who had previously tried my door from this room. Then, acting automatically despite hopelessness, I made for the next connecting door and pushed at it blindly.

Sheer luck saved me — for this connecting door was not only unlocked but actually ajar. In an instant I was though, and had my right knee and shoulder against a hall door which was opening inward. My pressure took the opener off guard, for the door shut as I pushed, so that I could slip the bolt. As I gained this respite I heard the battering at the two other doors stop, while a clatter came from the connecting door I had barricaded with the bed. Evidently the bulk of my assailants had entered the southerly room and were massing for an attack. But at the same moment a pass key sounded in the next door to the north, and I knew that a closer danger was at hand.

The northward connecting door in this room was wide open, but there was no time to get through it to stop the already turning lock in the hall. All I could do was to shut and bolt the open connecting door, as well as its mate on the opposite side — pushing a bed against the one and a bureau against the other, and moving a washstand in front of the hall door. I saw that I must trust these makeshift barriers to shield me till I could get out the window and on the roof of the next building. But even in this acute moment, my chief horror was something apart from the weakness of my defenses. I was shuddering because, despite some hideous panting and grunting at odd intervals, not one of my pursuers was speaking an intelligible vocal word.

Outside, the moon played on the roof of the building below. I planned to land on the inner slope of the roof and make for the nearest skylight. Once outside, I would have to reckon with pursuit, but I hoped to descend and dodge in and out of doorways, eventually slipping out of town toward the south.

The panelling of the northward connecting door suddenly splintered. The besiegers in the next room were apparently using something as a battering-ram. I opened the window, climbed through it, and leapt, leaving behind me the morbid and horror-infested Gilman House.

I landed safely on the roof, and gained the gaping black skylight without slipping. Glancing up at the window I had left, I saw that it was still dark, but across the crumbling chimneys to the north, I could see lights blazing in the Order of Dagon Hall and two of the churches. I hoped that I would be able to get away before the spreading of a general alarm. I dropped through the skylight to a dusty floor littered with crumbling boxes and barrels.

The place was ghoulish, but I ran for the staircase revealed by my flashlight. The steps creaked but seemed sound, and I raced to the ground floor. The desolation was complete, and only echoes answered my footfalls. I saw a luminous rectangle marking the ruined doorway to the street, and darted out.

The fish odor was awful.

For the moment, I saw no living thing nor any light save that of the moon. From several directions in the distance, however, I could hear the sound of hoarse voices, footsteps, and a curious pattering which sounded not quite like footsteps. Plainly I had no time to lose. Some of the sounds came from the south, yet I retained my plan of escaping in that direction. There would, I knew, be plenty of deserted doorways to shelter me in case I met any pursuers.

I walked rapidly, softly, and close to the ruined houses.

I came to an open space at an intersection of streets. There was no use trying to avoid it. The only thing to do was to cross it boldly and openly, and hope that no one would be there.

The street was very wide, leading directly down to the waterfront and commanding a long view out to the sea. I let my pace slacken for a moment to take in the sight of the sea, gorgeous in the burning moonlight. Far out beyond the breakwater was the dim, dark line of Devil Reef.

Then, without warning, I saw flashes of light on the distant reef. They were definite and unmistakable, and awaked in my mind a blind horror. My muscles tightened for panic flight, held in only by a certain unconscious caution and half-hypnotic fascination. But then, there flashed forth from the tall cupola of the Gilman House a series of similar lights which could be nothing other than an answering signal.

What it all meant, I could not imagine, unless it involved some strange rite connected with Devil Reef, or unless some party had landed from a ship on that sinister rock. I resumed my brisker pace, still gazing toward the ocean as it blazed in the spectral summer moonlight, and watching the cryptic flashing of those nameless, unexplainable lights.

It was then that the most horrible impression of all was borne in upon me — the impression which destroyed my last vestige of self-control and sent me running frantically through that nightmare town. For at a closer glance, I saw that the moonlit waters between the reef and the shore were not empty. They were alive with a teeming horde of shapes swimming inward toward the town.

But my frantic running ceased when I began to hear the hue and cry of organized pursuit. Footsteps and guttural sounds and a rattling motor wheezed southward along a parallel street. In a moment all of my plans were changed, for since the pursuit was down another street, it was clear that the pursuers were not following me directly. They had not seen me, but were simply executing a general plan of cutting off my escape. This implied that all roads out of Innsmouth would be blocked. If this were so, then I would have to make my escape away from any road, but how could I do that in the marsh of the surrounding country? My brain reeled from sheer hopelessness.

Then I thought of the abandoned railroad, off to the northwest. There was just a chance that the townsfolk would not think of that. I had seen it clearly from my hotel window and knew about where it lay. It was my only chance, and there was nothing to do but try it.

Moving quickly and quietly, I clung as closely as possible to the sagging, uneven buildings, twice pausing in a doorway as the noises behind me momentarily increased.

At an open space at another intersection of streets, I watched a motor car dart away, and then — choked by a sudden rise in the fishy odor — I saw a band of uncouth shapes shambling in the same direction. Two of the figures wore voluminous robes, and one wore a peaked tiara which glistened in the moonlight. The gait of this figure was so odd that it sent a chill through me — for it seemed to me the figure was almost hopping.

I resumed my progress. I passed two houses showing signs of habitation, one of which had faint lights in upper rooms, yet I met no obstacle. Finally I reached the dismal ruins of the warehouses.

It was a long jog to the wrecked railway station, and the great blank warehouse walls around me seemed somehow more terrifying than the fronts of private houses. At last I saw the ancient station — or what was left of it — and made directly for the tracks that started from its farther end.

The rails were rusty, and half the ties had rotted away. Running on such a surface was difficult; but on the whole I made very fair time. The old tracks veered off into a region increasingly rural and with less and less of Innsmouth’s abhorrent fishy odor. The marshy region began very abruptly.

I glanced behind me, but saw no pursuer. The ancient roofs of decaying Innsmouth gleamed lovely in the magic yellow moonlight, and I thought of how they must have looked in the old days before the shadow fell. Then, as my gaze circled inland from the town, something caught my eye and held me frozen for a moment.

What I saw — or fancied I saw — was a suggestion of motion far to the south; a disturbing suggestion which made me conclude that a very large horde must be pouring out of the city along the Ipswich road. How could there be so many pursuers in a town as empty as Innsmouth? I did not like the look of that moving column; it glistened too brightly in the rays of the moon. There was a suggestion of sound, too, though the wind was blowing the other way — a suggestion of scraping and croaking.

Then the sounds suddenly grew in volume. And that damnable fishy odor again rose.

It was then that I remembered that the Rowley road drew very close to the old railroad before crossing it. A mob was coming along that road as well, and I must hide until its passage. Crouching in the tall weeds, I felt reasonably safe, even though I knew the searchers would have to cross the railway track directly in front of me not much more than a hundred yards away. I would be able to see them, but hopefully they could not see me.

The stench became overpowering, and the noise swelled to a bestial babel of baying and bellowing sounds without the least suggestion of human speech.

The horde was very close now, the ground almost shaking with their strange-rhythmed footfalls. My breath ceased to come, and I put every ounce of will-power into the task of staying still.

Where does madness leave off and reality begin?

I thought I was prepared for the worst, and I really should have been considering what I had already seen.

It was the end of whatever remains to me of life on the surface of this earth, and of my every vestige of confidence in the integrity of nature and the human mind. Nothing that I could have imagined — even if I had believed the legends literally — could have been in any way comparable to the blasphemous reality that I saw — or believe I saw.

In a limitless stream they moved, a nightmare in the moonlight. White bellies… shiny, slippery… ridged, scaly backs… webbed paws… enormous eyes… pulsing gills… Is it possible that this planet has actually spawned such things? Some of them wore tall tiaras of that whitish-gold metal… some of them wore strange robes… and the gigantic leader, with a gruesome humped back, wore a man’s felt hat perched atop its utterly shapeless head.

In the next instant, everything was blotted out by a merciful fit of fainting; the first I had ever had.

 

Continued in part 5.

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