Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Horror of the Drowned" by Ellen Lynn

Horror of the Drowned
Ellen Lynn

The news of Tom's death came to Arlene as a terrible shock.

I loved my niece Arlene as a daughter and tried to take her mother's place when my sister Grace died; I was with Arlene when the tragic news about Tom reached her.

When Arlene fell in love with Tom Bradley she was only sixteen, but she gave her whole romantic heart to the quiet, handsome young man the moment she met him—and he knew he had become equally smitten with her. Their love was a beautiful thing to see—a charming idyll. And I felt sure my dead sister would have been pleased with Arlene's choice of a husband. But, perhaps because she was so very young and romantic, Arlene's love was so intense it worried me. She seemed only to live for the moment when she could be with Tom, and everything else became subordinate to their meetings. Just because she sensed my worry, she grew pale and thin, and I was deciding in my own mind that an early marriage might restore the normal balance of her life. Then Tom came with the news that he was to leave almost at once for—KOREA—with his regiment.

For Tom's sake Arlene knew she had to take this blow calmly; she did not even suggest that they be married before Tom left for Korea. When they said goodbye she was pale and her eyes were red-rimmed, but no tears were shed. Only a soft promise from Tom that he would come back soon and claim his bride.

She waited for Tom's letters as she had previously waited for him. She retreated into herself living only for Tom's return and finally I took her away to my little place in the country where I thought she might better adjust herself to Tom's absence. The long quiet lake on which my house was situated proved a strong attraction for her and every possible day she was out in her canoe or small outboard motorboat, mostly thinking of Tom.

Then the day arrived when the fatal telegram about Tom reached her. His boat had been hit and he had been drowned while they were trying to make a landing near Seoul. I'll never forget how Arlene looked reading that wire. She was very still—then she looked up at me, wild-eyed, frightened, the sheet fluttering from her fingers. A piercing, shrill scream came from her lips, and she rushed from the house. I started after her but could not catch up with that fleet-footed creature as she sped to the lake front and got into the small motorboat floating at the little pier. Quickly she got the motor started and the chug-chug-chug faded into the distance as she rounded a bend.

I was terrified of what she might do and phoned a few neighbors around the lake to keep an eye out for Arlene. I told them the tragic news about Tom's drowning and they understood my anxiety for Arlene.

But toward dusk I could hear the chug-chug-chug once more and rushed out to the terrace to see my niece pulling the boat beside our dock. She walked up to the house slowly but soon I could see she had quieted down. I took her in my arms and kissed her with relief.

The next few days, Arlene behaved very well. In fact after her daily boat ride she'd return in rather cheerful spirits—for her. I knew that somehow she felt closer to Tom, alone on that silent lake.

Then one day she came running up from the lake, breathless, eyes shining. "Oh, Aunt Betty—Aunt Betty! I've seen him! I've seen Tom!"

My heart stopped beating. Had her mind snapped? My poor, poor, little girl! "But darling," I soothed, "how could you? Poor Tom's body is still in Korea..."

"No—no! He's on the bottom of the lake—over in the cove. I saw him, I saw him. He was smiling at me with that crooked little smile I love so much..."

I was heavy-hearted but I tried to divert Arlene as well as I could and one day I suggested we drive over to the state's fine, if small, art gallery where a loan collection was being shown, donated by local townsfolk. Arlene agreed and I was delighted that she would be willing to do anything that would take her "out of herself."

At the gallery I found the borrowed collection fascinating but Arlene wandered about by herself. Finally, just as I wished, I found her staring intently at the oil which I had donated to the exhibit. The artist, Sloan Farraday, was not first rate—but in this particular work he had risen to unsuspected heights of talent and it had actually won the coveted Beardsley Award. The subject was somewhat poetic and nebulous—an exquisite girl with alabaster face and enormous black eyes, flowing black hair, was floating gracefully in the arms of a creature half-man, half sea nymph; he seemed to be drawing her down, down through the jade green waters. Both of them wore ambiguous smiles of great tenderness. There was a disturbing, haunting quality in the picture which had brought Farraday unexpected acclaim.

"Aunt—Aunt Betty. Tell me about this painting, please," Arlene asked, not taking her eyes away from it.

Then suddenly it dawned on me that Arlene may have heard some time the story of the picture and was transferring it to her own experience. Perhaps if I told her the legend behind it she'd realize what a fantasy she was building up in her mind, about Tom.

"Had you never heard the story of your great-great-great Aunt Annalee?" I asked her. "The artist of this picture, Sloan Farraday, had been in love with her and after her—her tragedy, he was inspired to paint this picture."

"I don't remember," Arlene answered, her eyes still glued to the canvas. "Tell me about it, Aunt Betty!" And this time her words were almost a command. A feeling of helplessness came over me and I proceeded to tell her the story.

"When our ancestor, Annalee, was a young girl she was betrothed to Sloan Farraday. Our house was the very house in which she lived and he lived with his family a short distance away. He had always been in love with her but she kept putting off a date of marriage. One day she came crying to her mother—that she would never marry Sloan, that she loved another man. She looked dreamily into her mother's eyes saying, 'Mother, you'll think me mad—but there's a beautiful man—at the bottom—of our lake. He's the most handsome creature I've ever seen and I love him with all my heart. He speaks to me and I know he loves me, too.' Her mother did indeed think her mad and tried to keep her protected from the world, hoping no one would find out. But some of the villagers in town had found out about Annalee's visions at the bottom of the lake. A strange fever spread in the community. People began to accuse Annalee of being a witch. A number of sudden tragedies, inexplicable, hit hard in the Maine village. With no previous illness, a baby suddenly screamed in the night and the next morning died. Cows and sheep were barren—without apparent cause! Fires started up out of nowhere. The superstitious townsfolk became panicky and looked for a scapegoat on which to pin all these terrible incidents. It was the age of witches. Rumor having gotten around about Annalee and her man at the bottom of the lake, the cry of Witch! Witch! began to be heard. Annalee's poor mother trembled for the safety of her daughter and one day a furious crowd, inflamed by a new onset of tragic occurrences, came to this house and tore Annalee from her mother's arms. They tried her. She protested her own innocence, the poor girl begged them to go see for themselves that the man she loved who was at the bottom of the lake, but paying no attention to the ravings of a sick girl they tied her to a stake in the village and threw faggots around the base. Matches were struck and a crackling fire started to roar upward when suddenly a silence fell on the angry crowd and Annalee's lips parted in a joyful smile. A handsome young man, his green silk clothes dripping water, came through as the people, horrified, stepped aside. He loosened the cords binding Annalee, put out the fire with the constantly streaming water and carried the lovely, smiling girl away. Some who had followed them said he walked straight into the lake with Annalee in his arms—until they both disappeared under the water.

"So, dear Arlene," I ended the tale, "that's the fairy-tale legend of our ancestor, which they say, inspired her lovesick sweetheart, Sloan Farraday, to paint this charming poem in oils."

Arlene had listened to the whole story intently. Obviously just as I intended, she was thinking about the strange similarity between her vision—seeing Tom at the bottom of the lake—and that of our ancestor Annalee. I was sure that her mother, or someone, had told her the same legend, perhaps in her childhood, and by some quirk of the mind she imagined seeing Tom in the same way. I had hoped the story would cure her. I found it difficult to tear her away from her preoccupation with the picture. Something else must be done, I decided. We'll go back to the city and see if a psychiatrist can unravel the strange knots in my niece's mind. When I told her we were leaving, I saw her tremble violently.

When the packing was finished I looked about for Arlene, ready to start back to the city. My hand leaped to my mouth in an impulse of fear as I saw her in her hat and coat running wildly down to the boat, saying, "I am coming, Tom." I let out a scream, calling her to come back—but she got in the boat. Just as it was rounding the bend, I saw—I saw—my niece stand up—wave back at me and jump. Her body was not recovered.

The next morning, grieving and wretched, I walked down to the dock to gaze into the watery grave Arlene had chosen when I saw something, bright-colored, drifting in toward me. It was a scarf. Fascinated, I picked up a long twig and pulled it in. I gasped when I recognized the scarf. It was the one Arlene had given Tom before he sailed for Korea!

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