This one's my take on a "weird tale" in the vein of Robert Chambers or Algernon Blackwood... which means it's slow-moving and there's nary a psycho killer or tentacle monster in sight. Also, there's not a lot of sex here, so if you're looking for fast action this may not be your thing.
* * * * *
From September of 1928 a weekly advertisement accompanied by a portrait appeared in all the major European newspapers:
REWARD OF $1000 OFFERED — to any person providing information leading to the location of Josephine Hart, late of Massachusetts, daughter of Mr and Mrs Joseph Hart. Miss Hart is aged twenty-three, five feet eight inches tall, with brown hair and green eyes. Small round scar on back of left hand, beauty mark above left eye. Last seen in Paris, July 19th. Reward may be claimed at any office of Hart and Hayworth Shipping, Inc.
The affair became something of a nine days' wonder in those same papers, for the details might have been calculated to provoke public curiosity. Miss Hart was the sole surviving heiress to her father's considerable fortune; her mother had died in 1927, and an older brother had gone missing in action in the Great War. She had attended Vesey, a respectable ladies' college in West Massachusetts. After graduating cum laude she had embarked on a tour of Europe, escorted by two of the family's trusted servants. In Paris she had slipped away from her guardians to visit an unidentified acquaintance and had returned distraught, then vanished into thin air two days later.
Beyond that, the facts of the matter were unclear, but the journalists and letter-writers of the day were more than happy to interpolate. Week after week the papers embraced one speculation after another. Miss Hart had eloped to Munich with a penniless novelist — or perhaps to Moscow with a Bolshevik. She had been kidnapped for ransom — no, by white slavers.
The publicity and the size of the reward attracted a great many applicants offering information on Miss Hart. Many were simple cases of mistaken identity, and some were obvious frauds or fantasists, but a few told stories that seemed credible. A well-dressed woman with a beauty mark had been seen boarding a train in Munich. A brunette speaking very bad Swedish had lodged for a week in Stockholm. Gendarmes in Vienna brought up a drowned woman of the right height from the Danube, her face unrecognizable.
Hart and Hayworth employed private investigators to follow up the most promising of these leads, but in every direction they were disappointed. The Viennese woman's clothes matched those of a local actress who had fallen out with her husband. The Stockholm woman had departed with no forwarding address. Nobody had noticed where the woman from Munich had left the train.
By the end of the year, interest in the case had waned. Even after the events of October 1929 dealt a drastic blow to the Hart fortune, the advertisements continued to run — although less frequently and in smaller type. They ceased only in 1938 when old Joseph Hart passed away.
And there, for more than seventy years, the matter rested.
* * * * *
Northern Sweden, 1928
Josephine had passed from a world that was white and empty and achingly cold, into a dream of cool implacable vastness. After that, she was not sure when — or even if — she had drifted from the dream back into waking. She was conscious enough to think that the cold was less than it had been. There were other aches still, buried under the chill until now, but she was still too torpid to remember them... and there was a presence nearby.
"Are you there?" she whispered. "Is somebody there?"
"I am here." A light touch on her ankle, on her arm. She tried to sit up, but her limbs might as well have been made of lead.
"Where..." Her consciousness sharpened, she tried to open her eyes, but there was a flare of such brightness and pain that instantly she gasped and closed them again.
"You have snow-blindness. Let me cover your eyes."
Was it a man's voice? No, it sounded more like a woman's, although low and soft. Something across her face — snow perhaps? Cold enough to quench the fire in her eyes, anyway.
Her hair. She had cut it short, smudged her face to pass as a lad. Did her savior realize? "Josephine. Josephine Hart."
"I am called Karin. You lay down on the glacier, a few miles just after Norrkvarn. Now you are in my home, in my bed."
"Oh. Thank you." Piecemeal memories of a foolhardy journey, overconfidence fueled by the powder a pharmacist had given her to fend off sleep. Walking too fast, impatient with the goggles that had seemed unnecessary on a cloudy day. She had reached the first shelter near midday and continued on, determined to make two days' journey in one. She might have made it if she hadn't mistaken the path and wasted an hour in retracing her steps...
"Thank you... you live here? Are you a Lapplander? But you speak English?"
A low chuckle. "There is a little Saami in me, a little bit of everything, but I am not Saami. My family, we wander all over Sweden and beyond when the mood takes us. We are always going down to the sea and coming back here, and so we speak all the languages of the sea."
"In Norrkvarn they told me there was nothing out here but snow and ice and reindeer and Lapps."
"Oh, they know of me. My family have been living around here a long time. I stay here all year long. I lie here in the mountains all winter and I don't even get up to piss until the spring thaws. But we have no use for them and they don't like to speak of us. They think we're unlucky."
"Your family are here?"
"Here? Only me, in this valley, but I have cousins nearby. My brother lived in the next valley, carrying water and stone. But one summer he went down the river to Luleå and the sea took him."
"Oh, I am sorry... I know what it is to lose a brother. Mine was killed in the Argonne, two weeks before the Armistice."
Distant recollections of Mama crying over a telegram, swiftly displaced by more recent memories: bad weather closing in, a short-cut to make up lost time. A treacherous foothold, and a sudden slip down a scree slope. An instant's terror, visions of jagged rocks and splintered bone, and then nothing worse than a thump and a wrenched knee. She might still have propped herself up and limped along — but then the sudden weariness, the thought that this would be as good a place as any to sit a few minutes, and rest, and sleep forever without dreams...
"I thought I would never be warm again."
A touch on her cheek. "You are not warm yet. Give me leave and I will lie with you."
Josephine murmured her assent. The bed shifted, the covers moved, and then she could feel the stranger's bulk against her.
Karin was big, powerfully built, and Josephine felt an instant of fear in her embrace. But only an instant. For all Karin's strength she was gentle, cradling Josephine like a stray lamb. Soon her shivers began to subside; she still felt a chill, but it was something to be held, when she had thought to die alone in the wilderness...
"Josephine? Why are you here, so far from home?"
"I can't talk about it. I really can't." But she wanted to, she realized. She had been carrying it too long, all alone. "You wouldn't believe me. You'd despise me if you did."
Karin rumbled with laughter, and it rippled through Josephine's body. "I have seen a great deal in my time. I have heard many secrets, and I keep them all to the grave. I do not judge, Josephine."
"Well." She shifted back, pressing herself against Karin. As she began to speak, her teeth chattered. "If you promise..."
* * * * *
I don't even remember when I first met Ruth Summers. I must have seen her around when I started at Vesey, for we had several of the same classes. But she was a mousy, inconsequential sort of woman — or so I thought — and I was a princess from Boston money. I had no time to notice a country clergyman's daughter who mended her own clothes.
But we had a connection. My mother was a suffragist and bluestocking, one of Mrs. Gardner's circle, and she endowed a scholarship for gifted young ladies of limited means. That was how Ruth came to be at Vesey; if I didn't know her, she sure knew who I was.
Back in school I thought I was pretty smart — well, I was, and I ought to have been. After Peter died in France my parents pinned all their hopes on me. I had Mama's brains and the best tutors my parents could buy. I took it for granted I'd always be top of the class. But at Vesey, without Mama at my back and living away from home for the first time... let's just say my mid-year examinations came as a nasty shock. The Dean hauled me over the coals, and Mama did worse when I got home.
That's when I remembered that Ruth Summers owed my family a favor. I would have paid her — I was going to offer — but as soon as I mentioned that I needed a little help she blurted out 'yes, of course'. She was like a puppy-dog, delighted just to be noticed.
Truth be told, she wasn't a very good tutor at first. It wasn't that she didn't know her stuff, far from it! No, she was so far ahead of me that she had trouble slowing down enough that I could keep up. And she'd stutter terribly when I asked anything.
Still, after a couple of weeks we settled into it. She got my Greek verbs straightened out and taught me the difference between iambs and trochees, even sharpened up my geometry. Her specialty was history and languages —not just the classics, she was teaching herself Finnish and Russian and two different kinds of Chinese — but her knowledge ran broad as well as deep. There seemed to be nothing I was studying that she couldn't help me with.
We were spending several hours a week together, and I could see she was having trouble making ends meet. A couple of times I offered to pay her, but she knocked it back. At first I didn't understand why; heaven knows she could have made better use of the money than me.
In the end I was so perplexed, I mentioned it to Mama in a letter home, and she made sense of it for me: "The girl doesn't want to be your employee, she wants to be your friend." I hadn't thought of it that way. You have to understand, I grew up with a nanny and half a dozen servants in the house, and all the friends I'd had were from my kind of upbringing.
After that I found other ways to help Ruth. Even little things like pencils — I made sure that I brought a few new ones every time I visited her room, and left the extras behind, so she wouldn't have to buy them. I passed on some of my old clothes — she wasn't my size but she knew how to resize a dress — and I made sure she was eating properly. I even tried to get her out of her shell, bring her along to a ball or two. She drew the line at that, said she'd be quite out of place.
I was sorry to hear that. I didn't just mean it as a kindness, I'd come to enjoy her company. I think she worshipped me a little, and I didn't mind that at all, but it wasn't just that. Though I didn't let on to her, I was starting to feel awestruck myself. I don't think anybody else at Vesey really saw quite what they had in Ruth Summers, she was such a little mouse that they just looked straight through her.
Me, I'd spent enough time with her that I'd started to see glimpses. I read books from cover to cover and learned one fact after another; she had merely to glance through them and she'd notice deeper patterns that held those facts together. Listening to her talk was like watching a great steam engine at work, all gleaming brass and whirring machinery, complex and powerful.
Only when it was just the two of us, mind. Around anybody else it was stammering little Ruth again. None of my other friends understood what I saw in her, and I couldn't have explained it even if I'd cared to do so.
At the end of my freshman year, when they posted up the results, I was pretty pleased with myself. Thanks to Ruth's coaching and my own hard work, I could hold my head up in front of Mama and the Dean. But Ruth was right there in the middle of the pack. In English composition she'd finished below me! I felt sorry for her and I couldn't understand how it might have happened, so at the start of the summer break I borrowed my father's Pierce-Arrow and motored down to Connecticut.
Ruth had told me she lived with her widowed father in Avon, where he was the pastor to a tiny Episcopalian congregation. They didn't have a telephone so I didn't call ahead. No matter; I guessed, correctly, that Ruth would be at home and glad to see me no matter when I showed up.
When I arrived the Reverend Montgomery Summers was in his study beavering away at a sermon, Not To Be Disturbed, so Ruth and I walked out in the garden and talked. I thought she might be feeling pretty sore about the results, so I sounded her out as delicately as I could, but she laughed it off. "I did well enough to keep my scholarship. That's enough for me."
"But Ruth, I know you have more than that in you. You could be valedictorian if you wanted. You should be ahead of us all."
"Me? M-m-m-me?" She was mocking her own stammer. "Jo, you'd be a splendid valedictorian, if you work for it. I'm content with what I have."
At the time I thought she might have had the same trouble with the examiners as when she started tutoring me: taking too much for granted, not coming down to the level they were looking for. Maybe that's true, and maybe she just got bored. But looking back on it, I wonder if there was more to it. Was she deliberately handicapping herself, trying to bring her grades down to my level, to shrink the gap between us?
At any rate, she didn't seem to mind about the exam results, so I let it go. As we walked, Monty came out to meet us and invite us in for tea.
He was an odd little fellow. He had Ruth's stammer but he didn't let that slow him down, it just filled in the gaps where somebody else might otherwise have squeezed in a word. For he only really had one topic of conversation, and there his enthusiasm bordered on monomania; I think he talked for an hour with barely a pause for breath.
I don't know if you've heard of Frazer's book 'The Golden Bough'? No? Well, James Frazer collected myths from all over the world and put them together to find common themes, like the old sacrificial king representing the harvest-god who dies and is reborn every year. Well, Monty was fascinated by that approach. Problem was, Frazer treated Christianity as just another religion with its own echoes of the same myths, and Monty couldn't abide that.
He was convinced that if he only dug deep enough and wide enough, he'd be able to show that Christianity was the source from which everything else descended. Odin hanging on the tree to purchase knowledge of the runes for mankind — to Monty, that was nothing but a confusion of the Crucifixion and of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He set out to transcend Frazer's work and put it on a Christian footing.
Problem was, poor old Monty wasn't much of a linguist. He had difficulty enough with the Latin and Greek that a man in his occupation ought to know, let alone anything else. Fortunately for him, Ruth's mother was the daughter of missionary parents who'd worked in Hong Kong and India, and she could read about a dozen different languages. They worked together, her providing the translations and him figuring out how it tied in with Scripture.
It was a perfect partnership, but she died of T.B. in 1912, when Ruth was only eight, and that brought things to a crashing halt. Ruth was already showing her mother's gift for languages, so Monty decided to get her educated so she could act as his amanuensis. He encouraged her to learn every language she could, and all the history and theology and anything else that would help with this project. That's how she came to be at Vesey.
Afterwards I asked her how she felt about it — did she really want to dedicate her life to this obsession of her father's? She shrugged her shoulders. "What else would I be doing, Jo? We can't all keep busy fending off handsome suitors." That was a good-natured jab at me; I'd had a couple of would-be beaux vying for my attention that year, both quite eligible young men. (I wasn't especially interested and it'd been all I could do to keep them from one another's throats long enough to tell them so.)
Ruth went on: "And d'you know, it's not just Father's work now. I've been reading a lot this summer — some books from St. Petersburg that we've had since before Mama died. I've been developing some ideas of my own. Poor Father, he made up his mind thirty years ago about what he was going to discover, before he looked at the evidence himself. Well, I think he got it wrong... there are other strands there, things that have no relation to the Bible."
"Have you talked to him about this?"
She shook her head. "Jo, if I'm going to tell my father he's been barking up the wrong tree for thirty years, I want to be absolutely sure of myself. I don't know if he would ever speak to me again, if I broke with him on this. And... oh, this sounds mercenary, even with the scholarship I can't stay at Vesey without his support. I need time to think about it."
"Well, let me know if you need anything. Anything at all."
She squeezed my hand. It was the first time I can remember her making a gesture like that, quite at odds with her usual reserve. "I will."
I had things to occupy myself during the rest of the break — social commitments, and my own reading for next year. But I thought of Ruth often. Every time I got stuck on a difficult idea, I thought how much easier it'd be with her to help me through it. Even when I worked it out for myself, I found myself missing the look of pride that Ruth would have given me; I knew it warmed her heart to hear me say "I understand it now!" and that knowledge, in turn, warmed mine.
I wrote to her and she wrote back. Her letters were short and formal and said little, and I wondered if I had somehow offended her. But when we both returned to Vesey as sophomores she embraced me without hesitation.
That year she began to blossom. Her shyness didn't altogether disappear, but it faded considerably. The professors began to notice her, and she made new friends among her classmates. I was surprised to feel pangs of jealousy as I realized the jewel I'd discovered in her was no longer my secret alone, but those pangs disappeared whenever we met up in my rooms or hers, and spoke about her work on mythology. That, I knew, was still ours and ours alone.
I had no great expertise in the area, but from time to time she'd use me as a sounding board. She'd read me similar stories from different cultures and ask what I thought, then tell me her interpretation. We didn't always agree, but I felt all the closer knowing that I could contradict her without giving offense; she'd merely push her spectacles up (they were forever sliding down her face) and think about what I'd said, then tell me what I'd missed — or on rare occasions, admit the possibility that I had a point.
I didn't follow the detail of her work but I caught enough to make out the gist of it. She had succeeded in dividing most of mythology into half a dozen families. It wasn't always easy to classify them, but after looking at enough of the stuff you started to feel a sort of flavor to each of them. There was Judaism and its successors, with an all-powerful god and all steeped in notions of sin and purity. Then there were pagan gods, representing human foibles on a grand scale — drunkenness, hunting, lechery, you know the sort. And then there were beliefs rooted in a notion of balance between opposing forces: the four humors, yin and yang.
Before those, there were nature-spirits like the Nixe of Germany and the trolls of Scandinavia. Although they might pass for humans sometimes, they had a kind of alien sensibility — godless, if you like, standing outside of notions of good and evil. At least, Ruth said, that's how the oldest versions went; later on they got modified to fit in with Christianity, the sprites turned into angels and devils.