Villainy preys where heroes slumber! [Weird Tales Contest Co-Winner]
|Yes, gentlemen, I confess an acquaintance with Mr. William Elias Clarke. The tenor of that statement may surprise you, for am I not Mr. William Elias Clarke himself? When you look at me do you not see Mr. Clarke's face? Am I not composing this statement with his hands? Was it not under his name that I was arrested in the Marysburg cemetery last night? And if I am able to relate with all intimate details Mr. Clarke's motives upon entering that cemetery and executing therein the most abhominable rites conceived by demons and gods, is it not because I possess his brain?
Yes, I am most intimately acquainted with Mr. Clarke. But my reasons for speaking of him so coldly and disinterestedly will, I trust, become clearer as I explain myself.
The magistrates of this village are themselves acquainted with Mr. Clarke, so I will not relate his biography. I will however with great pleasure confess his guilt in every atrocity ever lodged against or suspected of him, and more. He not only fired the village church two years ago but (as was never suspected) he on the same occasion caught and strangled the sexton's cat, hiding its corpse in the hollow of the churchyard oak. With a stick of candy he poisoned the Tituses' youngest babe last December—though it only took sick and recovered—and it was he, not the vagrant Brown, who assaulted Dr. Fitzhugh in his buggy on the highway to Richmond.
I could feel pity for him if I did not feel lapping at my nerves the same self-pity in which he wallowed himself. Born of a poor sharecropper and suspecting he was of mixed blood—fruit of a crime that his pappy in his cups frequently accused his mother of committing—he nursed his resentments with bile until they flowered into a great, brooding garden of envy. In his pride, baulked of recognition, he conceived that he had been cheated of high dessert. Lacking the talent to elevate himself over others, he sought to pull others beneath himself.
His fiercest envies fastened—as they so naturally would—upon the gentry of our county, and they fixed with particular and peculiar morbidity upon Peyton Beverley Randolph, the most tragic scion of our greatest family. The image of that lithe cavalier, fatally cut down in the flower of youth and power in the late War, preyed constantly upon Clarke. I suppose in his way Clarke loved that marquis of nature resplendent, for he constantly attended the memorial portrait that graces our courthouse, admiring Randolph's flowing locks, his golden Van Dyke, his sword uplifted against the eyes of the quailing enemy. He crept anon in the sultry nights over the lawns of Montremont, spying at the now decayed mansion and imagining the cotillions in its days of antebellum glory, and imagining himself in attendance; imagining himself, indeed, as their host.
"Morbid," I said, was his fascination with the Randolphs. Glory has not altogether forsaken that family, but it has been eclipsed, and I suspect Clarke glutted even more hungrily upon the memories of its departed days than do its descendants. At any rate, it was his desire to possess what their fathers possessed—and what Peyton in particular had possessed—that led him into committing that most ghoulish act whose blasphemous contours you have no conception.
I will not tell you of where he found that damned book of foul craft—what noisome corners he snuffled in, what acts of perversion he performed to find and claim it. I burned it at once upon recognizing it as the engine of a cosmic crime. (It was that fire the village constable detected, though I would have sought him out and surrendered myself had he not seen the flames burning before Peyton's mausoleum.) Suffice it to say that Clarke had sundered all claims to humanity's sympathies before he had even peeled back its cover of human skin and pored with sweaty anticipation over the blood-inked incantations scrawled therein.
I shudder now as I recall the agonies of anticipation that wrenched his frame as he awaited the night when the stars would align. The materials needed—twine and hay, the ear of a dog and the sweat of a fresh corpse, and certain of Clarke's own liquid effusions—were no great strain to procure, for the power that transmuted them for their hideous ends lay in the book. Only one thing did he quail from somewhat: the dust of Peyton Randolph himself. But it was only a sense of caution, not propriety, that stayed him from opening the mausoleum and scooping up a fistful of Randolph's dust until the night itself had come.
O! that I could blot from this burdensome brain those memories, like a leprous mildew, that infect it! The finger, palsied with excitement, scratching the arcane symbols into the dust of Peyton Randolph spread with a trembling hand before his mausoleum door; the placing of the materials; the hands clasped over the evil altar and the prayerful incantation howled into the earth. Then the quickening blood and breath, the arcing of the spirit, the ecstatic leap across an abyss infinite in its depths—
And then my own waking to living nightmare from the soft embrace of slumber eternal.
Such spells I now know there are, gentlemen, that would put your soul behind the eyes of another man, and his behind yours. But it was William Elias Clarke's perverted pleasure to encompass such an exchange upon one who, had he ever dreamed of such malice, would have believed himself immune to it.
William Elias Clarke could not live as Peyton Beverley Randolph, but he could sleep as him, in his tomb, in the traces of the valor of his deeds, and in the admiring estimation of his countrymen.
And it is the soul of him whom Clarke so obscenely disinherited that addresses you now with Clarke's mouth, and prays heaven for restitution and vengeance.
P. B. Randolph
Entry for the Weird Tales Contest: March 2019.