Nothing, George Gammell Angell had decided long ago, stirred the heart of a Providence man like the sight of his hometown from the water. The ferry carrying him back to Providence had set out from Newport several hours ago, but as far as George was now concerned, every second spent at sea was a second too long.
Hideous secrets uncovered in the latter years of his life and the horrors he had witnessed aboard the rotted hulk of the Persephone in Kingsport’s mist-haunted waters had soured any pleasure he might previously have taken in the slap of the sea on the ship’s hull or the rolling sway of its onward motion.
George stood at the starboard rail of the chugging ferry as it bullied its way through the heavy swells of Narranganset Bay, staring out over the rambling colonial townhouses of East Providence with a look of wistful longing. Like great Rome of antiquity, Providence was built on seven hills, a comparison President Faunce of Brown University was never shy of reminding his staff in faculty meetings when he perceived standards were slipping.
George’s own modest dwelling on Williams Street stood at the top of a precipitous climb from the wharfs, and his researches had taken him from its comforting warmth for too long. Though this visit promised to be just as brief as the last, there was still something uplifting in returning to any place that had earned the name home.
A freezing November wind cut across the bay, and George’s long, woollen coat was pulled tightly about his ninety-two year old frame. A fleece-lined deerstalker was pulled down over his ears, and his careworn features were canyoned by lines of age and unwished-for knowledge.
George was alone on the forward deck, the weather too inclement for his few fellow travellers, and he took pleasure in the solitude. The ferry was almost entirely empty. Only a few passengers were making their way back to the mainland: a studious looking young man, a drunken man and wife who argued constantly, and a few burly nautical types of indeterminate heritage.
The wealthy elite of America summered in Newport’s great mansions, but the brief social season had long since passed and the likes of the Astors and the Vanderbilts had returned to the fashionable parlours of New York, where thick walls and intransigent doormen kept the cold and unwashed at bay.
A boisterous wave struck the ferry’s hull, the cold spray stinging George’s face and causing him to almost lose his grip on the tin lockbox held tight to his chest. The contents of the box were more valuable than any Texan oilman’s fortune, more dangerous than any anarchist’s bomb and more hateful than anything penned by Donatien François or von Juntz.
They were also what had driven George to make the unseasonable crossing to Newport.
For the briefest moment, George was tempted to release his grip on the box, to let its contents fall into the ocean and be erased from the sight of Man. Perhaps it would be better for the ink to run, the words to be obliterated and the paper to disintegrate than allow such knowledge to exist a moment longer. The temptation passed, and George clamped down on his flight of fantasy, knowing it to be the result of a momentary weakness brought on by soul-sick weariness.
The box contained George’s most important revelations pertaining to the damnable Cthulhu cult, and had until this morning resided in a safe held in the Harrison Room of Newport’s Redwood Library and Athenaeum on Bellevue Avenue. Upon returning to Providence from Arkham via Boston, George had swiftly returned home to obtain a change of clothes and the key to the box. Wasting no time at all, he had hurried downhill to the docks and boarded a ferry to Newport.
A cab had taken him to the Grecian-fronted library, where he had met with its curator, Lavinia Shrewsbury, the younger sister of Miskatonic’s celebrated – and currently in absentia – anthropologist, Laban Shrewsbury. George first met Lavinia when Laban was visiting Providence in 1910 to take part in a symposium on the ritual customs of primitive cultures, and had brought his sister to dinner one night.
Despite her tender years, Lavinia had proven to be a vivacious, well-rounded woman with an enquiring mind and studious demeanour. She had enthusiastically taken part in the discussions surrounding her brother’s proposed plan to journey overseas to study the myth cycles of Pacific islanders, and George had maintained a semi-regular correspondence with Miss Shrewsbury over the years. A mutual respect existed between them, comparable to that of a proud father and devoted daughter.
Before travelling north to investigate the host of bones washed up on Kingsport’s beaches, George had deposited the box of his findings with Lavinia, together with strict instructions that it be passed to his grandnephew, Francis Wayland Thurston, in the event of his death. Though reluctant to be custodian of such a morbid instruction, Lavinia had nevertheless agreed and secured the box in the library’s safe.
Her relief at seeing George this morning had been tempered by the manic urgency in his demeanour and the haunted shadows under his eyes. With little time for small talk, George had answered Lavinia’s polite inquiries on his recent trip to Kingsport with vague platitudes. The truth of that venture had left scars deep enough on the venerable professor’s mind. He had no wish to relive the treachery and horror unleashed on the Persephone’s rotted deck nor recall the hideous beasts that murdered the crew of the Nicodemus.
George had accepted the return of the lockbox, thanked Lavinia profusely, and taken his waiting cab back to the wharfs to board the next ferry to Providence.
Another swell struck the ferry and George shook himself from his reverie. He checked his watch. Quarter to three in the afternoon, and the sky was already bearing down on the world. George felt a tightness in his chest that was partly the compound exhaustion of his recent adventures and partly the pressing weight of the knowledge contained in the box. He found it difficult to remember a time when he had been ignorant of the true face of the world, a time when his only concerns had been lecturing, faculty politics and the social upheavals following the Great War.
It had been the grotesque clay bas-relief brought to him by Henry Wilcox that led George to uncover knowledge of the most hideous kind. The disturbed young sculptor’s ravings, together with the testimony of an Inspector of Police from New Orleans named John Legrasse, had led George to knowledge of the existence of a dreadful cult.
This cult worshipped a monstrous alien being known as Cthulhu, an ancient star god imprisoned in deathless slumber beneath Earth’s ocean for millions of years and whose lunatic followers sought to see restored to his throne on Earth. It was now a matter of supreme urgency that he gather what few possessions he might need to formulate a plan of action.
The ferry’s horn sounded, a mournful bray that echoed from the quayside buildings and made George jump in surprise. His heart leapt with fright and he fought to calm his jangling nerves. He looked to the approaching wharfs as waiting dockers stood ready with heavy ropes and a wood-framed gangway. His fellow travellers emerged from the ferry’s shuttered interior. The husband and wife stood apart, distanced by an unresolved argument, while the rough-looking nautical types gathered like brooding conspirators and the studious young man scribbled in a leather-bound notebook.
Ropes were thrown over the gunwale and the engines cut as the boat gently bumped against the quay. The horn sounded again and one of the ferry’s crewmen unlocked the gate in the port rail as the dockside crew rolled the gangway into place.
‘Providence, final stop,’ said the crewman. ‘Next sailing, thirty minutes.’
George allowed the bickering couple to disembark, faintly amused by the banality of their squabbles when the fate of the world hung in the balance. He made to step onto the gangway, but a swarthy man in a heavy woollen sweater and seaman’s cap jostled him aside.
George started to form a rebuke, but the man – a native of some exotic kingdom near the equator by the cut of him – met his reproachful gaze with one of sullen menace. George stepped back as the man and his equally surly companions made their way to shore and began climbing into the queer dark courts that lined the streets leading from the waterfront.
George shook his head as the studious young man approached him, his notebook tucked into a wide pocket at his hip.
‘A brutish lot,’ he said. ‘Not even an apology or an excuse me,’
‘Quite,’ agreed George. ‘Though I am disinclined to seek redress.’
The young man gestured to the gangway and said, ‘After you, sir.’
George nodded his thanks and descended the gangway, holding tight to the handrail as it gently swayed with the rise and fall of the moored boat. He paused on the quayside as the young man followed after him, grateful to be on terra firma once again.
‘Do you reside in Providence?’ asked the young man.
‘I do,’ answered George, pointing to a shortcut uphill he knew well. ‘On Williams Street.’
‘You have a steep climb ahead of you,’ said the young man.
‘One I have made many times before,’ George reassured him. ‘And yourself? Do you call Providence home?’
The young man smiled. ‘Indeed I do, but I intend to take a taxi to my destination. I find I have not the constitution for strenuous exercise. Childhood illness, you understand.’
George nodded and put out a hand and said, ‘A pleasure to meet you…’
‘Howard,’ replied the young man shaking the proffered hand.
‘George Gammell Angell,’ replied George.
‘A pleasure,’ said Howard, setting off towards a line of waiting cabs. ‘Enjoy your climb.’
George watched Howard go, and girded his loins for the precipitous climb to his home. He had walked this route many times before, it was true, but as he lifted his gaze to the far summit of the hill, he was reminded of his sombre dreams in Kingsport. The darkly threatening men from the ferry had disappeared into the warren of streets, and George shook off a lingering unease as he set off.
No matter what lay ahead, it was good to be home.