Beware those books you can tell by their cover.
|"I mean the cleft!" my friend Luther Caldwell exclaimed. He pressed a finger to the picture in the book. "Do you not see it between her eyes!"
There was indeed a shadow, as of a deep fold, between the eyes of the old woman that glared up at us from the daguerrotype. But if anything about the face marked her as a witch, I thought, it would be her squint, and I jocularly remarked as much to Luther.
He snorted. "Naturally, the squint! But that follows in course!" He slapped his hand on the book. "But it's the cleft that signifies! That is the mark branded upon the brow of one who has abased herself before the powers of darkness!"
We were at our club, and I urged Luther to lower his voice. He complied, but spoke in such a hot and sibilant hiss that it could scarce fail to carry as before.
Laying aside the subject of Hephzibah Emerson, reputed the last true witch of New England, he spoke to me now in fevered tones of the researches that had carried him from those colorful tales out of the time of Hawthorne and Whittier into the darker chronicles of the Spanish Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade, and thence to and behind the blackest pages in the histories of Old Akkad and Ur. He spoke of secret annals passed down by rejected prophets—of accursed old wisdom scribbled in hurried terror by uncomprehending monks, only to be abjured and burned even by the likes of John Dee and Athanasius Kircher. He spoke of the secret rites of Caligula; the drowned libraries of Knossos; even of the most blasphemous of all, the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.
"And like a thread woven by a malignant spider," he told me, "there runs through every one reference to a mark, set like a seal, upon the eyes and brow of those who have drunk of that boiled root preserved from the original Tree of Knowledge, and bled themselves into the cup set at the Last Supper for the absent Judas Iscariot." He pointed to the picture of the Last Witch of Concord, then shut his eyes. "And I have seen it upon my betrothed!"
Before he could speak further, we were interrupted by one of the staff, bearing a note for me upon a silver tray, and I was obliged to excuse myself. I left him, looking harrowed and guilty, for more agreeable company.
"I'm sorry to tear you away, darling," trilled my darling Letitia, who was waiting for me in the lobby, "but I was passing by, and thought—"
"No fear, darling." I kissed her on the cheek. "You have rescued me. Luther Caldwell was just sharing his worries about Zenobia. Apparently, she is developing a squint."
Letitia gasped. "He's not thinking of throwing her over, is he?"
I didn't answer. The fact was that I didn't much like Zenobia Penobscot, and suspected her of being something of a gold digger. She may have come from a good family, but if she had her thousands, Luther Caldwell had his tens of millions.
Still, when Luther sought me out on two more occasions, to rehearse again his apprehensions of terror, I fear that I somewhat abruptly shook him off. And yet his whispered ravings must have had some effect on me, for on the one occasion, just before their wedding, that I had to speak directly with Zenobia, I found myself almost physically repulsed by her. Though she was a handsome woman, I found I could hardly tear my gaze from the deep fold of skin that deeply furrowed the brow between her eyes. So distracted was I that not until some time later, as I recalled our conversation to Letitia, did I recognize how slightingly she spoke of the man who was to be her husband. Her talk was only of what she would do with his money, and it seemed not to occur to her that he himself might want some say in how she spent it.
But the wedding came off, and never have I seen a gloomier bridegroom, or a free man who looked more like a condemned criminal being led to the gallows, than Luther Caldwell.
Perhaps there was some premonition upon him, for he was carried off by a sudden fever only two weeks later, leaving his widow that freedom of action with her new wealth she had seemingly anticipated.
Then it wasn't ten days later that my own Letitia assaulted me with the question, "Darling, when are we going to get married?"
I confess the question flustered me. I knew there had been some sense of expectation between us, but I was still rattled by the bad business with Luther, and so only made some gruff retort.
"Only Zenobia Caldwell said—"
"Zenobia Caldwell?" I exclaimed in what, even to my ears, sounded like an angry whinny. "And what business have you had with that—? That—?"
"With that what?"
I cut her off, rather savagely I fear, and retreated to my club. There, my tongue loosened by spirits, I gave some vent to my feelings about the clutching manner of certain unnamed women, and even let the word "coven" slip when the name of Zenobia Caldwell was dropped. She was making a splash in society with her late husband's money, and was gathering a circle to herself.
"I must say," said one of my friends, "that I'm glad your eyes are opening at last."
"Opening to what?"
"To a certain similarity between Zenobia and Letitia."
"And what resemblance would that be?"
I got a curious stare in reply, and a veiled comment to the effect that Letitia, like Zenobia, would financially benefit from matrimony. I departed in a small rage, and the next afternoon, when I saw Letitia, I proposed on the spot.
It was only afterward that I noticed the girl had acquired a deep, folded cleft between her eyebrows.