Weird Tales/Volume 30/Issue 3/School for the Unspeakable
BART SETWICK DROPPED OFF the train at Carrington and stood for a moment on the station platform, an honest-faced, well-knit lad in tweeds. This little town and its famous school would be his home for the next eight months; but which way to the school? The sun had set, and he could barely see the shop signs across Carrington’s modest main street.
He hesitated, and a soft voice spoke at his very elbow:
“Are you for the school?”
Startled, Bart Setwick wheeled. In the gray twilight stood another youth, smiling thinly and waiting as if for an answer. The stranger was all of nineteen years old—that meant maturity to young Setwick, who was fifteen—and his pale face had shrewd lines to it. His tall, shambling body was clad in high-necked jersey and unfashionably tight trousers. Bart Setwick skimmed him with the quick, appraising eye of young America.
“I just got here,” he replied. “My name’s Setwick.”
“Mine’s Hoag.” Out came a slender hand. Setwick took it and found it froggy-cold, with a suggestion of steel-wire muscles. “Glad to meet you. I came down on the chance someone would drop off the train. Let me give you a lift to the school.”
Hoag turned away, felinely light for all his un-gainliness, and led his new acquaintance around the corner of the little wooden railway station. Behind the structure, half hidden in its shadow, stood a shabby buggy with a lean bay horse in the shafts.
“Get in,” invited Hoag, but Bart Setwick paused for a moment. His generation was not used to such vehicles. Hoag chuckled and said, “Oh, this is only a school wrinkle. We run to funny customs. Get in.”
Setwick obeyed. “How about my trunk?”
“Leave it.” The taller youth swung himself in beside Setwick and took the reins. “You’ll not need it tonight.”
He snapped his tongue and the bay horse stirred, drew them around and off down a bush-lined side road. Its hoof-beats were oddly muffled.
They turned a corner, another, and came into open country. The lights of Carrington, newly kindled against the night, hung behind like a constellation settled down to Earth. Setwick felt a hint of chill that did not seem to fit the September evening.
“How far is the school from town?” he asked.
“Four or five miles,” Hoag replied in his hushed voice. “That was deliberate on the part of the founders—they wanted to make it hard for the students to get to town for larks. It forced us to dig up our own amusements.” The pale face creased in a faint smile, as if this were a pleasantry. “There’s just a few of the right sort on hand tonight. By the way, what did you get sent out for?”
Setwick frowned his mystification. “Why, to go to school. Dad sent me.”
“But what for? Don’t you know that this is a high-class prison prep? Half of us are lunkheads that need poking along, the other half are fellows who got in scandals somewhere else. Like me.” Again Hoag smiled.
Setwick began to dislike his companion. They rolled a mile or so in silence before Hoag again asked a question:
“Do you go to church, Setwick?”
The new boy was afraid to appear priggish, and made a careless show with, “Not very often.”
“Can you recite anything from the Bible?” Hoag’s soft voice took on an anxious tinge.
“Not that I know of.”
“Good,” was the almost hearty response. “As I was saying, there’s only a few of us at the school tonight—only three, to be exact. And we don’t like Bible-quoters.”
Setwick laughed, trying to appear sage and cynical. “Isn’t Satan reputed to quote the Bible to his own——”
“What do you know about Satan?” interrupted Hoag. He turned full on Setwick, studying him with intent, dark eyes. Then, as if answering his own question: “Little enough, I’ll bet. Would you like to know about him?”
“Sure I would,” replied Setwick, wondering what the joke would be.
“I’ll teach you after a while,” Hoag promised cryptically, and silence fell again.
Half a moon was well up as they came in sight of a dark jumble of buildings.
“Here we are,” announced Hoag, and then, throwing back his head, he emitted a wild, wordless howl that made Setwick almost jump out of the buggy. “That’s to let the others know we’re coming,” he explained. “Listen!”
Back came a seeming echo of the howl, shrill, faint, and eery. The horse wavered in its muffled trot, and Hoag clucked it back into step. They turned in at a driveway well grown up in weeds, and two minutes more brought them up to the rear of the closest building. It was dim gray in the wash of moonbeams, with blank inky rectangles for windows. Nowhere was there a light, but as the buggy came to a halt Setwick saw a young head pop out of a window on the lower floor.
“Here already, Hoag?” came a high, reedy voice.
“Yes,” answered the youth at the reins, “and I’ve brought a new man with me.”
Thrilling a bit to hear himself called a man, Setwick alighted.
“His name’s Setwick,” went on Hoag. “Meet Andoff, Setwick. A great friend of mine.”
Andoff flourished a hand in greeting and scrambled out over the window-sill. He was chubby and squat and even paler than Hoag, with a low forehead beneath lank, wet-looking hair, and black eyes set wide apart in a fat, stupid-looking face. His shabby jacket was too tight for him, and beneath worn knickers his legs and feet were bare. He might have been an overgrown thirteen or an undeveloped eighteen.
“Felcher ought to be along in half a second,” he volunteered.
“Entertain Setwick while I put up the buggy,” Hoag directed him.
Andoff nodded, and Hoag gathered the lines in his hands, but paused for a final word.
“No funny business yet, Andoff,” he cautioned seriously. “Setwick, don’t let this lard-bladder rag you or tell you wild stories until I come back.”
Andoff laughed shrilly. “No, no wild stories,” he promised. “You’ll do the talking, Hoag.”
The buggy trundled away, and Andoff swung his fat, grinning face to the new arrival.
“Here comes Felcher,” he announced. “Felcher, meet Setwick.”
Another boy had bobbed up, it seemed, from nowhere. Setwick had not seen him come around the corner of the building, or slip out of a door or window. He was probably as old as Hoag, or older, but so small as to be almost a dwarf, and frail to boot. His most notable characteristic was his hairiness. A great mop covered his head, bushed over his neck and ears, and hung unkemptly to his bright, deep-set eyes. His lips and cheeks were spread with a rank down, and a curly thatch peeped through the unbuttoned collar of his soiled white shirt. The hand he offered Setwick was almost simian in its shagginess and in the hardness of its palm. Too, it was cold and damp. Setwick remembered the same thing of Hoag’s handclasp.
“We’re the only ones here so far,” Felcher remarked. His voice, surprizingly deep and strong for so small a creature, rang like a great bell.
“Isn’t even the head-master here?” inquired Setwick, and at that the other two began to laugh uproariously, Andoff’s fife-squeal rendering an obbligato to Felcher’s bell-boom. Hoag, returning, asked what the fun was.
“Setwick asks,” groaned Felcher, “why the head-master isn’t here to welcome him.”
More fife-laughter and bell-laughter.
“I doubt if Setwick would think the answer was funny,” Hoag commented, and then chuckled softly himself.
Setwick, who had been well brought up, began to grow nettled.
“Tell me about it,” he urged, in what he hoped was a bleak tone, “and I’ll join your chorus of mirth.”
Felcher and Andoff gazed at him with eyes strangely eager and yearning. Then they faced Hoag.
“Let’s tell him,” they both said at once, but Hoag shook his head.
“Not yet. One thing at a time. Let’s have the song first.”
They began to sing. The first verse of their offering was obscene, with no pretense of humor to redeem it. Setwick had never been squeamish, but he found himself definitely repelled. The second verse seemed less objectionable, but it hardly made sense:
All they tried to teach here
Now goes untaught.
Ready, steady, each here,
Knowledge we sought.
What they called disaster
Killed us not, O master!
Rule us, we beseech here,
Eye, hand, and thought.
It was something like a hymn, Setwick decided; but before what altar would such hymns be sung? Hoag must have read that question in his mind.
“You mentioned Satan in the buggy on the way out,” he recalled, his knowing face hanging like a mask in the half-dimness close to Setwick. “Well, that was a Satanist song.”
“It was? Who made it?”
“I did,” Hoag informed him. “How do you like it?”
Setwick made no answer. He tried to sense mockery in Hoag’s voice, but could not find it. “What,” he asked finally, “does all this Satanist singing have to do with the head-master?”
“A lot,” came back Felcher deeply, and “A lot,” squealed Andoff.
Hoag gazed from one of his friends to the others, and for the first time he smiled broadly. It gave him a toothy look.
“I believe,” he ventured quietly but weightily, “that we might as well let Setwick in on the secret of our little circle.”
Here it would begin, the new boy decided—the school hazing of which he had heard and read so much. He had anticipated such things with something of excitement, even eagerness, but now he wanted none of them. He did not like his three companions, and he did not like the way they approached whatever it was they intended to do. He moved backward a pace or two, as if to retreat.
Swift as darting birds, Hoag and Andoff closed in at either elbow. Their chill hands clutched him and suddenly he felt light-headed and sick. Things that had been clear in the moonlight went hazy and distorted.
“Come on and sit down, Setwick,” invited Hoag, as though from a great distance. His voice did not grow loud or harsh, but it embodied real menace. “Sit on that window-sill. Or would you like us to carry you?”
At the moment Setwick wanted only to be free of their touch, and so he walked unresistingly to the sill and scrambled up on it. Behind him was the blackness of an unknown chamber, and at his knees gathered the three who seemed so eager to tell him their private joke.
“The head-master was a proper churchgoer,” began Hoag, as though he were the spokesman for the group. “He didn’t have any use for devils or devil-worship. Went on record against them when he addressed us in chapel. That was what started us.”
“Right,” nodded Andoff, turning up his fat, larval face. “Anything he outlawed, we wanted to do. Isn’t that logic?”
“Logic and reason,” wound up Felcher. His hairy right hand twiddled on the sill near Setwick’s thigh. In the moonlight it looked like a big, nervous spider.
Hoag resumed. “I don’t know of any prohibition of his it was easier or more fun to break.”
Setwick found that his mouth had gone dry. His tongue could barely moisten his lips. “You mean,” he said, “that you began to worship devils?”
Hoag nodded happily, like a teacher at an apt pupil. “One vacation I got a book on the cult. The three of us studied it, then began ceremonies. We learned the charms and spells, forward and backward——”
“They’re twice as good backward,” put in Felcher, and Andoff giggled.
“Have you any idea, Setwick,” Hoag almost cooed, “what it was that appeared in our study the first time we burned wine and sulfur, with the proper words spoken over them?”
Setwick did not want to know. He clenched his teeth. “If you’re trying to scare me,” he managed to growl out, “it certainly isn’t going to work.”
All three laughed once more, and began to chatter out their protestations of good faith.
“I swear that we’re telling the truth, Setwick,” Hoag assured him. “Do you want to hear it, or don’t you?”
Setwick had very little choice in the matter, and he realized it. “Oh, go ahead,” he capitulated, wondering how it would do to crawl backward from the sill into the darkness of the room.
Hoag leaned toward him, with the air as of one confiding. “The head-master caught us. Caught us red-handed.”
“Book open, fire burning,” chanted Felcher.
“He had something very fine to say about the vengeance of heaven,” Hoag went on. “We got to laughing at him. He worked up a frenzy. Finally he tried to take heaven’s vengeance into his own hands—tried to visit it on us, in a very primitive way. But it didn’t work.”
Andoff was laughing immoderately, his fat arms across his bent belly.
“He thought it worked,” he supplemented between high gurgles, “but it didn’t.”
“Nobody could kill us,” Felcher added. “Not after the oaths we’d taken, and the promises that had been made us.”
“What promises?” demanded Setwick, who was struggling hard not to believe. “Who made you any promises?”
“Those we worshipped,” Felcher told him. If he was simulating earnestness, it was a supreme bit of acting. Setwick, realizing this, was more daunted than he cared to show.
“When did all these things happen?” was his next question.
“When?” echoed Hoag. “Oh, years and years ago.”
“Years and years ago,” repeated Andoff.
“Long before you were born,” Felcher assured him.
They were standing close together, their backs to the moon that shone in Setwick’s face. He could not see their expressions clearly. But their three voices—Hoag’s soft, Felcher’s deep and vibrant, Andoff’s high and squeaky—were absolutely serious.
“I know what you’re arguing within yourself,” Hoag announced somewhat smugly. “How can we, who talk about those many past years, seem so young? That calls for an explanation, I’ll admit.” He paused, as if choosing words. “Time—for us—stands still. It came to a halt on that very night, Setwick; the night our headmaster tried to put an end to our worship.”
“And to us,” smirked the gross-bodied Andoff, with his usual air of self-congratulation at capping one of Hoag’s statements.
“The worship goes on,” pronounced Felcher, in the same chanting manner that he had affected once before. “The worship goes on, and we go on, too.”
“Which brings us to the point,” Hoag came in briskly. “Do you want to throw in with us, Setwick?—make the fourth of this lively little party?”
“No, I don’t,” snapped Setwick vehemently.
They fell silent, and gave back a little—a trio of bizarre silhouettes against the pale moon-glow. Setwick could see the flash of their staring eyes among the shadows of their faces. He knew that he was afraid, but hid his fear. Pluckily he dropped from the sill to the ground. Dew from the grass spattered his sock-clad ankles between oxfords and trouser-cuffs.
“I guess it’s my turn to talk,” he told them levelly. “I’ll make it short. I don’t like you, nor anything you’ve said. And I’m getting out of here.”
“We won’t let you,” said Hoag, hushed but emphatic.
“We won’t let you,” murmured Andoff and Felcher together, as though they had rehearsed it a thousand times.
Setwick clenched his fists. His father had taught him to box. He took a quick, smooth stride toward Hoag and hit him hard in the face. Next moment all three had flung themselves upon him. They did not seem to strike or grapple or tug, but he went down under their assault. The shoulders of his tweed coat wallowed in sand, and he smelled crushed weeds. Hoag, on top of him, pinioned his arms with a knee on each bicep. Felcher and Andoff were stooping close.
Glaring up in helpless rage, Setwick knew once and for all that this was no schoolboy prank. Never did practical jokers gather around their victim with such staring, green-gleaming eyes, such drawn jowls, such quivering lips.
Hoag bared white fangs. His pointed tongue quested once over them.
“Knife!” he muttered, and Felcher fumbled in a pocket, then passed him something that sparkled in the moonlight.
Hoag’s lean hand reached for it, then whipped back. Hoag had lifted his eyes to something beyond the huddle. He choked and whimpered inarticulately, sprang up from Setwick’s laboring chest, and fell back in awkward haste. The others followed his shocked stare, then as suddenly cowered and retreated in turn.
“It’s the master!” wailed Andoff.
“Yes,” roared a gruff new voice. “Your old head-master—and I’ve come back to master you!”
Rising upon one elbow, the prostrate Setwick saw what they had seen—a tall, thick-bodied figure in a long dark coat, topped with a square, distorted face and a tousle of white locks. Its eyes glittered with their own pale, hard light. As it advanced slowly and heavily it emitted a snigger of murderous joy. Even at first glance Setwick was aware that it cast no shadow.
“I am in time,” mouthed the newcomer. “You were going to kill this poor boy.”
Hoag had recovered and made a stand. “Kill him?” he quavered, seeming to fawn before the threatening presence. “No. We’d have given him life——”
“You call it life?” trumpeted the long-coated one. “You’d have sucked out his blood to teem your own dead veins, damned him to your filthy condition. But I’m here to prevent you!”
A finger pointed, huge and knuckly, and then came a torrent of language. To the nerve-stunned Setwick it sounded like a bit from the New Testament, or perhaps from the Book of Common Prayer. All at once he remembered Hoag’s avowed dislike for such quotations.
His three erstwhile assailants reeled as if before a high wind that chilled or scorched. “No, no! Don’t!” they begged wretchedly.
The square old face gaped open and spewed merciless laughter. The knuckly finger traced a cross in the air, and the trio wailed in chorus as though the sign had been drawn upon their flesh with a tongue of flame.
Hoag dropped to his knees. “Don’t!” he sobbed.
“I have power,” mocked their tormenter. “During years shut up I won it, and now I’ll use it.” Again a triumphant burst of mirth. “I know you’re damned and can’t be killed, but you can be tortured! I’ll make you crawl like worms before I’m done with you!”
Setwick gained his shaky feet. The long coat and the blocky head leaned toward him.
“Run, you!” dinned a rough roar in his ears. “Get out of here—and thank God for the chance!”
Setwick ran, staggering. He blundered through the weeds of the driveway, gained the road beyond. In the distance gleamed the lights of Carrington. As he turned his face toward them and quickened his pace he began to weep, chokingly, hysterically, exhaustingly.
He did not stop running until he reached the platform in front of the station. A clock across the street struck ten, in a deep voice not unlike Felcher’s. Setwick breathed deeply, fished out his handkerchief and mopped his face. His hand was quivering like a grass stalk in a breeze.
“Beg pardon!” came a cheery hail. “You must be Setwick.”
As once before on this same platform, he whirled around with startled speed. Within touch of him stood a broad-shouldered man of thirty or so, with horn-rimmed spectacles. He wore a neat Norfolk jacket and flannels. A short briar pipe was clamped in a good-humored mouth.
“I’m Collins, one of the masters at the school,” he introduced himself. “If you’re Setwick, you’ve had us worried. We expected you on that seven o’clock train, you know. I dropped down to see if I couldn’t trace you.”
Setwick found a little of his lost wind. “But I’ve—been to the school,” he mumbled protestingly. His hand, still trembling, gestured vaguely along the way he had come.
Collins threw back his head and laughed, then apologized.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s no joke if you really had all that walk for nothing. Why, that old place is deserted—used to be a catch-all for incorrigible rich boys. They closed it about fifty years ago, when the head-master went mad and killed three of his pupils. As a matter of coincidence, the master himself died just this afternoon, in the state hospital for the insane.”