The Devil's Dance [MultiFormat]
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eBook by V.J. Banis
eBook Category: Mystery/Crime/Suspense/Thriller
eBook Description: THE DEVIL'S DANCE! A ring of evil buried in an ancient forest, the Devil's Dance belongs to the country of the Melungeons, that strange race of outcasts whose prehistoric origin is unknown. People believe that they worship the Devil himself, practicing obscene rites and drinking the blood of their victims during their debauched rituals. When Christine arrives at the ancient mansion where her sister's staying, she hears all the lurid stories about the curious country folk. Then she discovers she has a Melungeon name herself. Will this be her ticket to a final dance with death?
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, Published: USA, 1972
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2007
2 Reader Ratings:
The Devil's Dance is a work of fiction. The names I have used in this novel--e.g., Mullins, Goins, Collins, et al.--are typical Melungeon names, and so, I felt, added verisimilitude. The characters, however, are entirely fictitious and of my own invention, and resemblance to any real persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. * * * * Chapter One
The Wild and disordered dance, with Satan, Death and Mischief on the floor.
--Gotthold Lessing, Theological Writings * * * *
It was The Bozo that did it. The Bozo and the Melungeons. Had it not been for that formidable pair, I would have gone as planned to Florida, and enjoyed a month of warm sun and white beaches. I would have come home with my skin golden and my hair nearly white, as it is after a vacation in the sun. There would perhaps have been a few mildly romantic memories of brief flirtations that, in the telling at the office, would take on a luster that had not been theirs at the time.
I traded those pallid and harmless memories for packs of wild dogs that attack unwary travelers, for Big Betsy, the she-devil moonshine queen, for romance and mystery and terror. And all because my sister--half sister, actually--signed her letter Bozo instead of Pam.
Since we were little girls together, that name had been a signal between us. We had never been very strong on expressing fear or worry toward one another, and had taken early to doing so indirectly, by attributing most unpleasantness to Bozo, the little stuffed clown I had: "Pam, I think Bozo is afraid with all the lights off," or, "Chris, Bozo thinks we'll get spanked if we do that."
So, when her letter came signed Bozo rather than Pam, I knew that her use of that old signal meant something. It meant that she was unhappy where she was, or afraid, or lonely--something, at any rate, contradictory to what she said in the body of the letter: "...everything is fine." It meant, as well as I could interpret it, that she would like me to come to Tennessee, but didn't want to ask me to give up my Florida vacation. Besides, I'll admit that I missed Pam and had been wishing I could see her.
Then there were the Melungeons: "They're completely fascinating," she wrote, and I could hear the little half laugh in her voice, running beneath the surface tone like a rippling current beneath the seemingly placid surface of a stream. "The only authentically American monster myth that I know of. And the stories--devil worship and bloodshed and things that would make a good Christian's spine freeze. And I can hardly wait to tell you about Big Betsy, the she-devil moonshine queen."
She did wait, though, leaving me only my own conjured images of who or what Big Betsy might be. I read the letter, and reread it. I thought of Florida, the reservations that had been made, the beaches that were waiting. They were probably already overcrowded. Anyway, what need had I of white beaches and golden sun, when Bozo and Big Betsy awaited me. * * * *
That was how I came to be driving along this narrow curving road that wound through the rolling hills, hills green with foliage and spring flowers, cut at dramatic intervals by gashes of red soil and granite rock. I marveled at blackberry brambles and spangles of Cherokee roses that draped the red earth, and the glistening white of the flowering dogwood that gave the impression of snow lingering beyond its season. There were flowering crab trees, too, that fairly burst with riotous blossoms from delicate white to deep, deep pink. Wild honeysuckle provided a gay carpet of scarlet and orange and rose. The air, after that of New York City, smelled sweet with the heady fragrances of shrubs and flowers.
Surrounded by all this beauty, it was difficult to make myself face one unpleasant fact: I was lost. At least, I could not seem to find my destination. Pam's careful directions had brought me this far, to Dog's Leg Road, but they seemed to have petered out at that point. The drive leading up to the Andrews' house, where Pam was staying, was to be a mile or so along this road, but I was sure I had traveled that far and more, and still there was no sign of a driveway that I could see.
Ahead of me I saw a man clambering down one of the hills through which the road cut. I stopped the car, thinking he might be able to give me directions. He saw me, hesitating in his climb down the hill, then finished his descent to stand facing in my direction by the side of the road. I got out of the car and started toward him.
I had an odd sensation as I walked in his direction, a feeling of everything else diminishing, slipping away from us, so that, in all of the universe, there were only our two forms, coming toward one another.
It came and went in an instant, that eerie feeling, gone so quickly that I could scarce analyze it. I think it was because he was so large that everything about him shrank in perspective. He was quite tall, and lean, too thin, almost, with a tensed, keen look. I thought of the long, thin blade of a fine sword.
His face was striking, good-looking and overly soft perhaps for a man, although in no way feminine, with smooth planes and a mouth deep and straight.
"Hello," I said as I came up. He nodded, showing neither welcome nor coolness, only waiting.
"I'm afraid I may be lost," I said, breathless, and not only from the quick walk to where he was standing. "I'm looking for a place called Home Acres. Do you know where it is?"
He stared full at me. His eyes were deep-set, and of a hard and brilliant blue. They were sensual, in the same, unordinary way that those hard lips were sensual, though they should have suggested coldness.
He smiled all at once, softening all the hard lines of that handsome face, and said, "Why do you want to go there?"
He had a soft, deep voice, with that southern hill accent that fondled each vowel into two sounds and slithered over the consonants as if they, hard and jangling, didn't matter much.
His question was impertinent, though, so that, without thinking, I stiffened and said rather curtly, "Because it's where I want to go. Do you know where it is?"
Far from annoying him, my sharp reply only seemed to amuse him, which certainly did nothing to quell my impatience. Fresh from New York City, I was thinking: country bumpkin, no manners, never mind that he's handsome as the devil.
"It's just around that bend," he said, and the drawl was thicker than ever, so that "bend" because almost two separate words. He pointed down the road to where it twisted about an outcropping of rock. "You can't miss it."
He brought his hand back to his side and stood looking down at me, grinning in that annoying way. There was something mischievous in his manner that grated on my sensibilities. He wore jeans, faded until they were hardly blue at all, but a misty gray-white, and a shirt open nearly to the waist, revealing a lot of deeply tanned muscles. It was warm and he had been climbing, so that his body glistened in the sunlight with sweat. He looked altogether--irritatingly--masculine.
A bird broke from a tree with a loud cry, swooping up toward the sun. I realized I was staring, saying nothing, and the moment had become long.
"Thank you," I said, and without waiting for a reply, I turned and went back toward my little Honda. I felt certain he was watching me the whole time. I could sense his eyes on me, and they made me feel graceless, trying to walk on an unpaved country road in heels that threatened with each step to send me sprawling.
I don't know which was worse, that long walk to the car, sure that he was staring, or the discovery, when I got there and turned around, that he had disappeared and hadn't been watching me at all.
With a gesture of impatience at myself as well as him, I got into the car and started it up again. I rounded the next curve and found the drive, as he had said. It was marked with crude pillars of heaped up stones, surmounted by a weathered old sign reading "Home Acres." Beyond the gateposts ran an avenue of cedars, leading up a rise. My sense of adventure, flagging before, quickened again. I forgot for now my encounter with that strange young man and thought only of what lay ahead.
I came over the rise, driving slowly, and had to stop. I was expecting to approach a little house hidden among the hills, but there below me stood a veritable plantation manor house, a splendid white structure poised in perfect symmetry. Its wide verandahs with their French windows, its towering columns, its sprawling roofs, all seemed to belong to another world and another time entirely apart from those I had known.
Pam had told me the Andrews' home was lovely, but that word now seemed painfully inadequate. A little yellow house in the suburbs, with white shutters and a few shrubs, can be lovely and still be a world apart from this. Here was more than mere beauty of line and form--here was the charm and grace that epitomized the Old South. One could almost see the curving drive that led to the house lined with carriages, as it must have been in the past. Elegant ladies, crinolines ballooning their skirts, nodded and smiled at one another, while children played with hoops and jacks beneath the magnolia trees. And all Pam had said was, "The Andrews' home is lovely."
Well, Pam was less a romantic than I. To her it was probably only an example of ante-bellum architecture, whose various parts she would name for me if I asked. She knew the working parts of everything, people included. She could list not only feet and hands and fingers, but each complex and neurosis and motivational force, without ever remembering the color of anyone's eyes.
Dear Pam, I thought, and started up the car again. I was twenty-two and she only nineteen, so chronologically she was my young sister, but in every other respect she was the older. And all of my romantic notions notwithstanding, it was she who was engaged to be married, although, sensibly, not until she had gotten her degree from college, and to none other than the same young man who would one day inherit all this. I, the romantic, had lately found the word spinster sticking on my tongue. I had nothing but the memory of a young man I met briefly last year, whose name had been either Robert or Richard, and who was studying law somewhere. So much for romance.
I pulled up at last before the house, sitting for a moment to compose myself. I had just started to get out of the car when there was a loud yell and Pam ran down the wide steps toward me, her dark hair flying and her glasses slipping precariously down her nose.
"Chris," she cried and I cried at the same moment, "Pam," and we ran into one another's arms, laughing and squealing and acting like a couple of kids.
"It's so wonderful seeing you," Pam said when at last we had regained a modicum of decorum.
"And you," I said. "And all this. Pam, it's fabulous. I had no idea."
"Oh, the house," she said, crinkling her nose. "It's falling apart. If the South ever rises again, they'll need a major housing boom to start."
She was right, of course. The house was falling apart. At a distance it had been stunning in its beauty, but as I had come closer I had tried to ignore the all too obvious truth: it was crumbling. The grounds, at a closer look, were poorly tended. The front of the house had been recently painted, but I saw that one wing was still gray with age. One of the chimneys had lost some bricks, which lay unretrieved upon the roof, and at least one window upstairs displayed a broken pane of glass. Here and there were sporadic indications of interest, as if from time to time there had been little outbursts of renovation that had soon sputtered out--here was a freshly planted flowerbed, there a new shutter that did not quite match the others. I thought of an aging dowager, painting blossoms on her cheeks long after their proper season.
"You aren't going to Florida?" Pam asked, leading the way up to the huge front door. She asked it with altogether too casual an air.
"Undecided," I replied. "I've got a full month, you know, so I thought I could spare a few days to stop off here. I'll put myself up in the local inn. If they have one, that is."
"You'll do no such thing," she said. "I've already told Mrs. Andrews you were coming and she insisted we make you completely welcome. You're to stay here as long as you like. You've got the room next to mine. We have no shortage of rooms."
"It's enormous," I said.
"This place wears on my nerves, if you want the truth, but you'll love it, romantic that you are."
We had come into a hall, bigger in itself than my entire apartment in Manhattan, floored in black and white marble and dripping crystal and gilt which reflected in a dozen or so mirrors along the walls. In the center--actually in our way, so that we had to circle it--was a great round table with claw feet, and atop that was an urn of flowers in an artless profusion. Beyond the table, a wide staircase sloped upward in a gentle curve. I looked up, counting three rows of galleries.
"And to think," I said, awed, "Someday this will all be yours."
"Not for decades," she said. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Mrs. Andrews will live to be three hundred, if I'm any judge. Pioneer stock, you know."
I laughed. From anyone else, that remark would have sounded dreadful, as if Pam were ardently coveting the place, or resented Mrs. Andrews' longevity, but I knew full well that Pam had little if any interest in becoming mistress here, and that she was rather fond of her future mother-in-law.
"Speaking of whom," I said, "Isn't she here? I thought I'd meet her firsthand." We had come into a lavishly furnished sitting room, which was empty of people.
"In a little while. She always lies down after lunch, but she should be down shortly. She said I was to greet you for her and make you feel at home. Have you eaten, by the way?"
"I stopped on the road, thanks, but I'll have some coffee if there is any. Which way is the kitchen?"
"Lord, I'm not sure I could find my way there," she said, "And even if I could, we wouldn't be welcomed. There's a dragon-faced lady by the name of Mrs. Maywood, who's in charge there, and she brooks no ... oh, hello."
She was looking beyond me, over my shoulder. I turned and guessed from Pam's disconcerted manner and the newcomer's coolness that the woman standing in the open door was Mrs. Maywood.
"Mrs. Maywood," Pam said brightly, recovering, "This is my sister, Christine Collins."
Mrs. Maywood, whose grim visage matched exactly with Pam's description of her as dragon-faced, had been watching us with a cold stare--but that expression was like one of warm hospitality in contrast to the reaction that Pam's introduction produced. The old woman actually seemed to shrink back away from us. Her eyes, dark and wide, grew wider still with an expression that must surely be fear. I had an impression that only years of rigid self-discipline enabled her to remain where she was instead of fleeing.
Yet with all the violence of her reaction, she said nothing. Her lips were shut in a tight thin line that grew tighter still.
I was too embarrassed and startled myself to say anything, but Pam was rarely silent for long, and again it was she who took the initiative.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
Mrs. Maywood gave her head a violent shake and said in a shrill voice that threatened to break, "No, miss."
Assuming what I had always jokingly called her executive voice, Pam said, "We'd like some coffee. Is there any?"
"Yes, miss, I'll bring some. Will there be anything else?"
Pam told her there would not, and Mrs. Maywood fled with an unmistakable air of relief.
"Well," I said with an embarrassed little laugh, "I know I'm not awfully pretty, but I had no idea that my appearance was so frightening."
Pam did not appear amused, however. "We're going to have a long talk," she said in a low voice, "Later, when we aren't likely to be disturbed."
I remembered that she had signed her letter Bozo, and looking now into her rather plain, honest face, I could see that something was bothering her. I was intrigued, but I knew better than to try to interrogate Pam. She'd tell me just what she thought I ought to know, and just when she thought I ought to know it, and until that time arrived, I might just as well be patient.
I had a sweater over my shoulders. I slipped it off and said, "I thought by now I would have met a few Melungeons."
"They aren't allowed in the house," she replied.
That gave me a start. From Pam's letter, I had somehow put Melungeons in the same category as ghosts and werewolves and other frightening but imaginary creatures. Pam's matter-of-fact tone, however, did not quite fit that picture.
"You don't mean they're real," I said.
"Oh, yes, they're real people."
"But, the devil worship and the bloodshed and all," I said. "I thought they were like witches."
She smiled and said, "Witches were real, too, you know--are real, for that matter. The question is not whether one believes in witches, because they did exist, people who were called or who called themselves witches. So did witchcraft. They did do remarkable things. The question is whether what they did was magic, or the use of natural laws in ways not then generally understood."
"All right," I agreed, remembering that Pam had done a paper on this subject in school. "What you're telling me then is that the Melungeons were real, too, some sort of local bogeyman, but the bogey part was made up?"
"Not entirely. The bloodshed was certainly real, at least some of it was. As for the devil worship, well, it's one of those things where history and myth have gotten all tangled up together till they can hardly be separated. It's quite fascinating, really, and very mysterious."
I would have prodded her with more questions, because I did indeed find the subject increasingly fascinating, imbued as it was with an aura of romance and mystery that naturally appealed to me--but we were interrupted by a sound from the hall, announcing another arrival at the door. I turned in that direction, thinking Mrs. Maywood had returned with our coffee.
The woman who appeared in the doorway this time, however, was no servant. It took no witchcraft to identify her as the mistress of the house. Although she was short and plump, her erect carriage and the high tilt of her chin made her seem taller and more imposing than she otherwise would have been. She came into the room, pausing just inside, with the air of one accustomed to ruling, and very much at home in her kingdom.
"Ah, Pam," she said, pausing to fix her steely gray eyes upon me. "And this is your sister, Christine. Welcome, Miss Evans, to Home Acres."
"Oh, dear," Pam said, stepping into the breach. "I guess I wasn't very clear about that. I hardly ever think of it myself. Chris and I are only half-sisters, actually. Mrs. Andrews, may I introduce Christine Collins?"
My smile of greeting froze on my lips. It was disconcerting, to put it mildly, to have everyone that you met react with fear and astonishment, but there it was again. Mrs. Andrews, no less than Mrs. Maywood had been, was struck with fear at the very mention of my name. She held an elaborately carved silver-handled cane, and I could see that it trembled in her hands.
"One of them," she said in a voice no more than a whisper. Then, as if she had been struck a violent blow, she gasped and sank in a dead faint to the floor at our feet. * * * * Chapter Two
There is a devil haunts thee.
--William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, I * * * *
It was certainly a dramatic beginning to my visit--and what, I found myself wondering, could I have expected in Florida on the vacation I had originally planned--a flirtatious desk clerk?
Our coffee was entirely forgotten for the time being in the flurry of activity that followed. Mrs. Maywood appeared as suddenly and as silently as if she had been waiting outside the door for just such a thing to happen. It did not occur to me until much later that this might actually have been the case. In another moment or so, a second servant arrived, a girl whose name, I gathered from the conversation, was Annie, and on her heels, a slow moving man in work clothes whose name, so far as the conversation told me anything, might have been "You."
Making up in exclamations of alarm what they lacked in efficiency, this task force soon had Mrs. Andrews off to her bedroom. More dismayed than I cared to show, I stood discreetly in the background and wondered. It was frightening, this reaction that these people had to me, and completely puzzling as well. I could hardly be expected to feel welcome under the circumstances.
"And you are being a selfish prig," I told myself when the others had gone. "Mrs. Andrews might be seriously ill. That faint might have been a stroke or something of that sort, and here you are worrying about your wounded vanity."
"I guess we'll have to forego the coffee," Pam said when we were alone in the parlor again. "How about a drink instead. There's some really nice sherry."
"Oughtn't you to be with Mrs. Andrews?" I asked a bit hesitantly.
"Forgive me if I sound a little hard-hearted," she said, "But I've learned since I've been here that fainting is practically de rigueur with these ladies of the old school. When in doubt, drop to the floor."
"It looked awfully authentic to me," I said doubtfully. Pam could indeed be hard-hearted if she chose. She was not a sentimental girl.
"Don't worry. In any event, Mrs. Maywood is with her, and, take my word for it, she'd as soon we stay out of her way until she gets things running smoothly again. Believe me, when I even walk toward the dining room, she grabs the crystal to her bosom lest I should knock it to the floor. That's how much she thinks of my capabilities."
Pam had gone to the little table by the window. It held bottles and some glasses. She poured sherry for both of us and brought mine across the room. "I just wish Peter had been here to see it all. He'd fairly howl."
"Isn't he here?" I sat in one of the massive chairs, its wings seeming to wrap themselves around me, and sipped my wine. I was not much of a drinker, but just now I thought it might do more good than harm. "I was looking forward to meeting him."
"Only if you stay around for a while. He's doing his thesis on the pre-Spanish explorers of North America, and he learned about some relics in a museum in Maine, so off he went. To tell the truth, I think he wanted to avoid any fireworks between his family and me. Not that there have been any yet, but just in case."
"It looks as if all the fireworks were saved for my arrival," I said in a gloomy voice.
"Poor Chris," she said with a little laugh. "You did give them a start, didn't you?"
I swirled the sherry in my glass, watching the little patterns the liquid made upon itself, like watching a storm tossed sea in miniature. "You know, I didn't get the impression it was me, exactly. Mrs. Andrews looked perfectly happy to see me, until she heard my name. That was when everything snapped."
"Oh, Lord," Pam said, clapping a hand to her forehead. "How absolutely stupid of me. That's it, of course. Your name is Collins."
"Well, good heavens, yes, and has been as long as I can remember. What's so startling about that? Don't tell me that someone named Collins was the local ax murderer or some such thing?"
"It's every bit as bad," Pam said, "Maybe even worse, in Mrs. Andrews' eyes. Collins is a Melungeon name."
I set the sherry aside with a clunk. "That does it," I said, settling back in my chair. "Now you've got to tell me about those blooming Melungeons. If I've been named after one, I have a right to know, and I won't be put off, either, so don't try. I don't care if he was green and had horns in the middle of his forehead."
Not that Pam looked as if she intended to put me off. Far from it, she looked positively delighted with the explanation she gave me.
"It's really terrific," she said, leaning forward in the way she had when she was truly interested in something. That was what I liked best about Pam, her lack of artifice. She might step on your toes if you didn't watch out--frequently did, in fact--but at least you knew just how she felt about anything.
At first," she said, "I thought it was charming simply because it was such a fun accumulation of monster stories, but actually, it's much more than that. It's a genuinely fascinating historical mystery. Peter's been digging into the Melungeon legends for years. That's what got him started on this thesis of his on the pre-Spanish explorers. They're related subjects, you see."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Pam, don't give me one of your classroom introductions. I thought they were awful creatures that gobbled up unsuspecting girls from above the Mason Dixon line."
"You won't joke about them with people around here, I can tell you that much," Pam said soberly. "Some of them still believe that if you're fool enough to wander into Melungeon country after dark and you get back without being shot, you're certain to wizen and perish with some ailment that nobody can cure."
"Witchcraft?" I asked quickly.
"More than that, though. To begin with, the Melungeons themselves are a puzzle. They are often, though not always, a dark-skinned people, and nobody knows where they came from. That's the mystery, or part of it, at any rate. There is evidence to suggest they might have been in the country a thousand years before Columbus. Peter thinks maybe longer than that, even. By the time the white settlers got to Tennessee, the Melungeons had long since settled all the good bottom land."
"Pam, darling, wait," I said, finding myself instantly as interested as she was. "How on earth did they get to Tennessee, of all places? I mean, I can see a coastal region, or even along one of the major rivers, but, here?"
Pam gave her head a shake. "Nobody knows that, either," she said. "There's a Professor Gordon of Brandeis who thinks that they're linked with the ancient Hebrews, one of the lost tribes of Israel. He hasn't any real theory for how they got to this country, but he thinks they did, about fifteen hundred years ago, and that they somehow found their way through North Carolina and Virginia."
She grinned mischievously. "I've talked to some of the Melungeons themselves--Lord, Mrs. Andrews would turn positively purple if she knew that--but they don't know much more than anybody else about their history. One of the women says she heard from an uncle that their people came from North Carolina, and she thinks they originated with deserters from De Soto's Spanish expedition of Fifteen-forty. Some historians do think he managed to reach what is now east Tennessee."
"Spanish?" I thought for a moment. "But the word Melungeon doesn't sound Spanish, does it? Or Hebrew. And for that matter, neither does the name Collins. I would have thought my name was of English derivation."
"Yes, the word is a mystery, too. There is a theory that it derives from the French word, mélange, meaning mixture, and another that it derives from the Afro-Portuguese melungo, meaning shipmate. That, at least, would tie in with another theory held by many Melungeons themselves, that the people are of Portuguese descent, somehow related to a long-ago band of shipwrecked sailors. And with a little imagination, some of the Melungeon names, like Collins, Mullins, Goins, and so on, can take on a Portuguese flavor--Collinso, for instance, and Mollen."
"Maybe," I said, still not entirely convinced.
"There's plenty of other theories, too, if you don't like that one," she went on. "One, for instance, that says they're descendants of Raleigh's colony at Roanoke. That disappeared about 1560, if you remember your history. And even the Phoenicians get their share of the credit, too."
"All right," I said, laughing lightly, "I'll grant that their history is a puzzle, and a very fascinating one, but you haven't explained the devil worship and all the rest. Whoever they are, and wherever they come from, how did they become such monsters?"
She laughed too. "Well, that's much less mysterious, but pretty scary in its own way. I've already told you, when the white settlers got here, they found the Melungeons inhabiting the best lands. That didn't earn them any affection on the part of the new settlers, as you can imagine. Greed is an ugly business, and ever has been. And the Melungeons were, for the most part, a dark skinned people--not Negroid, more Latin looking, but certainly darker than the pale English settlers. The Melungeons had straight black hair, and different social habits, and they were inclined to stay off to themselves rather than mix with the newcomers."
"I think I'm beginning to get the picture," I said.
Pam nodded. "Exactly. They were the inevitable targets for prejudice, and, of course, the more the new settlers looked at those good bottom lands, the more prejudiced they became against the Melungeons. They began to pass laws. By this time, the Melungeons were a minority, and in no time at all, they couldn't vote or hold office or bear witness in court.
"It wasn't long before the Melungeons had been forced off their lands and driven onto the high ridges. The result was inevitable, too. You can imagine how the Melungeons felt, being treated so badly, robbed of their homeland. They began to make raids, burning and stealing--and the legends were born."
Pam paused, and I said, "That's the way most of those myths start, isn't it, a little foundation in truth, and a lot of imagination? In this case, mixed generously with guilt and a justifiable fear."
She nodded and said, "Yes. There was undoubtedly some very real murder and bloodshed. The light-skinned settlers began to talk of devil worship and blood drinking. You know, all the usual monster tales. The sort of thing Hitler told of the Jews in Germany to stir up popular opinion against them, so that he could be horrible to them without anyone else minding or objecting. Children boiled and eaten, so the Melungeons stories went, and heaven alone knows what else. In a short time, the Melungeons had become bogeymen to the people about here, and they have remained so ever since."
"But surely today, in our enlightened society, people don't still believe in those stories?" Pam was right in thinking the story of the Melungeons was fascinating in its way, but I could scarcely credit anyone in our time with being genuinely frightened of devil worship and the sort of monster tales she was relating.
"People will give up almost anything else before they will surrender their prejudices, or their fears," Pam said with a cocked eyebrow. "You saw how Mrs. Andrews reacted, just to your name." Her eyes went beyond me. "Oh, Mrs. Maywood," she said, standing abruptly. The servant had glided in as silently as before. "How is Mrs. Andrews?"
"She's recovering," Mrs. Maywood said. Her look added silently, "No thanks to you."
She fixed her cold eyes on me and said, "She's asked to see Miss Collins." She spoke my name in a flatly disapproving tone. I could understand a little of what the Melungeons must have felt in their years of persecution.
I stood too. "You will come with me, won't you?" I said to Pam. I knew that Mrs. Andrews was a harmless and probably a genuinely nice person, but after our first dramatic encounter, I could not help being a little uneasy about a second meeting.
Pam put no great stock in that sort of timidity, however. "If she had wanted me along, she'd have asked for the two of us," she said, patting my shoulder to show that she did understand at least what I was thinking. "You go along. She probably wants to apologize for your poor welcome here, and she won't want me glowering over your shoulder."
Pam was right, of course. Mrs. Andrews did indeed want to apologize, which she did profusely. She was propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows. The bed itself was a museum piece, with lush canopies and draperies at all four sides.
"You must think us dreadful," she said, offering me her hand for all the world as if she expected me to kiss it. "I'm afraid I've been under a strain lately, and when I heard your name ... but that's rather a long story, too long to get into now."
"Pam did explain a little," I said, "About the Melungeons.
She gave me a sharp look. "Did she?" she asked. "Her version, of course." She sounded rather disinclined to trust Pam's version of the facts. "Well, the real story can wait, in any case, until tomorrow. In the meantime, do forgive me, please, and I hope your stay with us will be pleasant despite its beginning."
"I'm certain that it will be," I assured her, "And, please, don't fret over that unfortunate misunderstanding."
She smiled and I saw the ghost of a faded beauty that lingered still. I could not help thinking of the house in which we were, a beauty from the past, too, faded and crumbling, but still regal.
"It was so silly of me," she said, looking me over. "You're so fair, and that blonde hair, and coming from New York. You could hardly be.... "She caught herself and gave a little wave of her hand, in which she clasped a lacy handkerchief. "Ah, well, let it alone. Now you must excuse me, my dear, I think I shall rest."
"Surely," I said, standing. I wished her well and started from the room. As I turned from her bed, I was thinking that before I had come up to her room, I had been undecided as to whether I would be staying or not, but in my conversation with Mrs. Andrews, it had been taken for granted that I was staying.
And why not, I thought? I had nothing better to do. It was a lovely old home in a romantic setting, and beset with mysterious and frightening, if actually harmless, legends.
Mrs. Andrews, however, did not consider the legends harmless. I was reminded of that as I reached the door and she called after me, "Miss Collins?"
I turned and with an uneasy little smile, she asked, "Your family didn't come from Tennessee, did they?"
"I'm afraid not," I said, returning her smile. "We're northerners as far back as anyone has dared to look."
She bade me good day then, and I went out, but I knew why she had asked. The possibility that I might have Melungeon blood in me, fair skin and blonde hair notwithstanding, had lingered in her mind.
Nor had that smile she had given me hidden the fear in her eyes. The old woman's elegance and charming manners could not quite conceal the fact that she was frightened out of her wits.