In December of the fatal winter, Lee and his wife stopped down at the Lodge for ten days or thereabouts.
They were en route to Cuba at the time, intending to be away five or six weeks. Their original plan had been only to wait over a day or so in the piney-woods, but something caused an amendment to the scheme.
The two dallied. Lee seemed to have become vastly absorbed in something—so much absorbed that it was only when Peggy insisted upon continuing their trip that he could tear himself away.
It was during those ten days that he began buying meat. Meager bits of it at first—a rabbit, a pair of squirrels, or perhaps a few quail beyond the number he and Peggy shot. Rori furnished the game, thinking nothing of it except that Lee paid double prices—and insisted upon keeping the purchases secret from other members of the household.
“I’m putting it across on the Governor, Rori!” he said once with a wink. “Going to give him the shock of his life. So you mustn’t let on, even to Joe, about what I want you to do. Maybe it won’t work out, but if it does…! Dad’ll have the scientific world at his feet! He doesn’t blow his own horn anywhere near enough, you know.”
Rori didn’t know. Hadn’t a suspicion what Lee was talking about. Still, if this rich, young idiot wanted to pay him a half dollar in good silver coin for a quail that anyone—himself included—could knock down with a five-cent shell, Rori was well satisfied to keep his mouth shut. Each evening he brought some of the small game. And each day Lee Cranmer seemed to have use for an additional quail or so…
When he was ready to leave for Cuba, Lee came forward with the strangest of propositions. He fairly whispered his vehemence and desire for secrecy! He would tell Rori, and would pay the Cajan five hundred dollars—half in advance, and half at the end of five weeks when Lee himself would return from Cuba—provided Rori agreed to adhere absolutely to a certain secret program! The money was more than a fortune to Rori; it was undreamt of affluence. The Cajan acceded.
“He wuz tellin’ me then how the ol’ man had raised some kind of pet,” Rori confided, “an’ wanted to get shet of it. So he give it to Lee, tellin’ him to kill it, but Lee was sot on foolin’ him. W’at I ask yer is, w’at kind of a pet is it w’at lives down in a mud sink an’ eats a couple hawgs every night?”
I couldn’t imagine, so I pressed him for further details. Here at last was something which sounded like a clue!
He really knew too little. The agreement with Lee provided that if Rori carried out the provisions exactly, he should be paid extra and at his exorbitant scale of all additional outlay, when Lee returned.
The young man gave him a daily schedule which Rori showed. Each evening he was to procure, slaughter and cut up a definite—and growing—amount of meat. Every item was checked, and I saw that they ran from five pounds up to forty!
“What in heaven’s name did you do with it?” I demanded, excited now and pouring him an additional drink for fear caution might return to him.
“Took it through the bushes in back an’ slung it in the mud sink there! An’ suthin’ come up an’ drug it down!”
“Diable! How should I know? It was dark. I wouldn’t go close.” He shuddered, and the fingers which lifted his glass shook as with sudden chill. “Mebbe you’d of done it, huh? Not me, though! The young fellah tole me to sling it in, an’ I slung it.
“A couple times I come around in the light, but there wasn’t nuthin’ there you could see. Jes’ mud, an’ some water. Mebbe the thing didn’t come out in daytimes…”
“Perhaps not,” I agreed, straining every mental resource to imagine what Lee’s sinister pet could have been. “But you said something about two hogs a day? What did you mean by that? This paper, proof enough that you’re telling the truth so far, states that on the thirty-fifth day you were to throw forty pounds of meat—any kind—into the sink. Two hogs, even the piney-woods variety, weigh a lot more than forty pounds!”
“Them was after—after he come back!”
From this point onward, Rori’s tale became more and more enmeshed in the vagaries induced by bad liquor. His tongue thickened. I shall give his story without attempt to reproduce further verbal barbarities, or the occasional prodding I had to give in order to keep him from maundering into foolish jargon.
Lee had paid munificently. His only objection to the manner in which Rori had carried out his orders was that the orders themselves had been deficient. The pet, he said, had grown enormously. It was hungry; ravenous. Lee himself had supplemented the fare with huge pails of scraps from the kitchen.
From that day Lee purchased from Rori whole sheep and hogs! The Cajan continued to bring the carcasses at nightfall, but no longer did Lee permit him to approach the pool. The young man appeared chronically excited. He had a tremendous secret—one the extent of which even his father did not guess, and one which would astonish the world! Only a week or two more and he would spring it. First he would have to arrange certain data.
Then came the day when everyone disappeared from Dead House. Rori came around several times, but concluded that all of the occupants had folded tents and departed—doubtless taking their mysterious “pet” along. Only when he saw from a distance Joe, the octoroon servant, returning along the road on foot toward the Lodge, did his slow mental processes begin to ferment. That afternoon Rori visited the strange place for the next to last time.
He did not go to the Lodge himself—and there were reasons. While still some hundreds of yards away from the place a terrible, sustained screaming reached his ears! It was faint, yet unmistakably the voice of Joe! Throwing a pair of number two shells into the breech of his shotgun, Rori hurried on, taking his usual path through the brush at the back.
He saw—and as he told me, even “shinny” drunkenness fled his chattering tones—Joe, the octoroon. Aye, he stood in the yard, far from the pool into which Rori had thrown the carcasses—and Joe could not move!
Rori failed to explain in full, but something, a slimy, amorphous something, which glistened in the sunlight, already engulfed the man to his shoulders! Breath was cut off. Joe’s contorted face writhed with horror and beginning suffocation. One hand—all that was free of the rest of him!— beat feebly upon the rubbery, translucent thing that was engulfing his body!
Then Joe sank from sight…