The White Feather Hex
BY DON PETERSON
[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Weird Tales March 1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Heading by the Author
It all started with a Dutchman, a Pennsylvania Dutchman named Peter Scheinberger, who tilled a weather beaten farm back in the hills.
A strong, wiry man he was—his arms were knotted sections of solid hickory forming themselves into gnarled hands and twisted stubs of fingers. His furrowed brow, dried by the sun and cracked in a million places by the wind was well irrigated by long rivulets of sweat. When he went forth in the fields behind his horse and plow, it wasn't long before his hair was plastered down firmly to his scalp. The salty water poured out of the deep rings in his ruddy neck and ran down his dark brown back. As he grew older the skin peeled and grew loose. It hung on him in folds like the brittle hide of a rhino.
It seemed that the more years he spent in his fields behind the plow horse, the more he slipped back into the timeless tradition of his forefathers. He was a proud descendant of a long line of staunch German settlers commonly known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. He grew up in his fundamental, religious sect having never known any other environment. He was exposed to the sun, soil, and wind from the early days of his childhood, and along with the elements he also was exposed to the evils of the hexerei. The hexerei, or witchcraft, was something that was never doubted or scoffed at by his people. Then why should he, a good Pennsylvania Dutchman, doubt or scoff at such tradition?
Perhaps, had he moved away from his ancestral lands and had been cultured in modern communities, been educated and raised in other schools, he might have matured. But having no time for any other diversions than might be found on his rustic homestead, he grew up behind the plow horse, tramping in the dark, stony pasture land, eking out his meager existence from the black fields of Pennsylvania.
Now, Peter's life could have gone on unnoticed among these forgotten hills, except for the strange visit of Martin G. Mirestone, student of German history.
It was a cold night when Peter met Mirestone. Peter had been sitting up rather late pondering over an old, yellowed book by the light of a kerosene lamp. The pale flame flickered about the walls sending shadows scurrying back and forth creating all types of weird shapes and designs. Peter huddled over the withered pages, every now and then glancing up at the walls to watch the fantastic games that light and dark were playing. Then putting his book aside for the night he prepared to go to bed.
He went over to the window to draw the shutters, stopping for an instant to peer out into the gloom along the stony path that ran from his house to an old foot-bridge about fifty feet away. Curling up from the gorge, mist seemed to play among the rotted planks; it rose and fell in great billowing blankets, sometimes concealing the structure from view.
* * * * *
Peter was about to latch the shutter and leave when his attention was focused upon a figure that seemed to emerge from the fog—sort of fading in from nowhere. It made its way across the narrow span like some ghostly apparition. The mist enveloped his legs and clouded his features. Peter drew back in terror, for the mere appearance of the man coming out of the darkness was enough to fill his infant brain with visions of death and hexerei.
As the figure drew closer Peter saw that it was wearing a cloak. All the more ghostly it appeared with the cloak sailing behind him in the wind like some devil's banner. Peter just stood transfixed as he watched the stranger come up the winding road to his house.
Slamming the shutter he hurriedly fastened it and then turned to the door to bolt that also. Too late. The door was thrown open revealing a tall man clothed in black. His face was wreathed in a wide grin—a grin that seemed to make fun of the grayish pallor of his face and the ominous appearance of his wild garb. Before the man stepped inside, Peter made a mental image of the scene, for it was to be firmly imbedded in his mind so that he would never forget the slightest detail for the rest of his life—the wind blowing about the fierce visage, tossing up the long strands of hair; the massive, veined hand that clutched the wrought iron thumb-latch, and the way that the lamp struck his face, highlighting the thin, ridged nose and high cheekbones.
"Peter Scheinberger, heh?" the man spoke in perfect German. "Peter Scheinberger, the last of your clan here in America."
It was several seconds before Peter could muster up enough courage to answer him. Drawing back slowly he braced himself against the table, and in a thick, guttural German asked, "Who are you?"
The stranger shut the door and drew the bolt. He crossed the room and, with an air of one who was accustomed to having his own way wherever he went, scanned the shelves of Peter's larder with a practiced eye.
Peter watched him closely as he drew down a bottle of wine, broke the neck against a beam above him, and settled down in Peter's easy chair. He poured a glass full and shoved it across the table towards the anxious Peter, and then poured another glass for himself.
"Mirestone," the stranger finally answered, "Martin G. Mirestone." Then, draining his glass, he added, "Student of German history."
All this was beyond Peter's comprehension. No one ever had the audacity to walk into his house and help himself to whatever he wanted—he was indeed unheard of in his tiny social world.
"Well, what are you staring at?" Mirestone boomed out. "Take my cloak, please, then be seated. We'll talk."
Taking the cloak and draping it over a wooden peg in the wall, Peter moved cautiously around the foreboding character that monopolized his small house. Carefully seating himself opposite the man, he moved the table so that it set between them as a protective barrier.
"I'll make myself clear to you," Mirestone explained, "For I want my stay to be as brief as possible."
He poured himself another glass of wine, then settled back in the chair, half closing his eyes. "You see, I am a student, you might say, of German history or folklore. I am in the process of writing a collective history of the Pennsylvania Dutch folk, their habits, beliefs, and—" he broke off for an instant as he leaned forward across the table, staring into the frightened eyes of Peter "—and their superstitions."
Shifting his chair around in order to get benefit from the heat of the fireplace, Mirestone went on. "Now I want facts, Scheinberger, authentic facts. I am prepared to pay you well for your trouble, but I insist on information that is backed up with sound, accurate truth."
Peter became more relaxed but still slightly uneasy. He didn't like the attitude of this man, Mirestone. He was too sure of himself—altogether too cocky. But then on the other hand he had said there would be a financial gain from any business that he could transact with him. Money was something that Peter knew he needed in order to keep his farm going, and any income, however small it may be, would be welcomed gratefully. Yes, he decided that he had better endure the rudeness of this man.
For a few seconds, however, the tall stranger seemed to lose all of his cockiness, and a somber look crept over his jovial features. "Have you ever heard of the hex of the white feather?"
Peter thought a moment before he replied. "Yes. I have heard of it." Then nervously he fingered his glass of wine that he had not as yet touched. Raising it up to his lips he sipped it slowly as he stared at Mirestone over the rim of the glass. "Yes. I have heard of it," he repeated.
"Good, good. You have heard of it. Now, you will tell me about it, of course. I want to know all about it—how it is practiced, the results, and so forth."
"Is that why you came here? Only to learn of the white feather hex?"
* * * * *
Mirestone climbed to his feet and paced the room. "Yes," he said. Peter noted a sad tone in his voice, and he waited for him to say more.
"Yes," Mirestone continued. "I have, like you, heard of the hex of the white feather. I have traced it down to several families, but none could tell me anything about it that was factual. Half of the stupid fools made up stories as they went along—some concocting the biggest bunch of asinine tales that I've ever heard. But you, Peter, are a descendant of the Scheinbergers. I know for a fact that Otto Scheinberger practiced the white feather hex and passed the power on down to your father. From there it stopped. However, there must be some record of it in your family. You are in possession of the books of your grandfather, aren't you?"
"I have several of his books. Some of them I have read."
"Well," Mirestone waited. "Did you come across anything about the hex?"
"Yes," answered Peter. "I read about that which you mention."
"Splendid, now we are getting somewhere. Can you find me the book that tells of it?"
Peter finished drinking his wine and setting the glass upon the table, he slowly rose and faced Mirestone with a look of superiority playing about his rustic features. "No, I am afraid not. You see, I have burned the book."
Mirestone's face went white. "You burned it?"
"Yes," said Peter. "I don't wish to have anything to do with such black magic. It is better burned."
"But you must remember the hex. Although the book is destroyed you still have the information in your head, nein?"
"I could never forget it if I wanted to," replied Peter reluctantly. "If I could burn my memory also it would be better."
Mirestone went back to the fireplace and placed several chunks of wood on the blaze. A bright orange glow leaped out from the hearth and danced mockingly over his pallid brow, hiding his lank jowls in the shadows cast by the cheekbones. Like some grim spectre he rose up, towering above the little Dutchman. Peter had only to look into his eyes to see the imperative request that lingered behind the hollowed sockets.
* * * * *
Throughout the remainder of the night Peter, almost in spite of himself, wracked his brain to bring back to mind everything that was mentioned in the book about the hex of the white feather. The idea was clear enough, but the minute details, the infinite possibilities for mistake, and the exacting specifications concerning the experiment were blurred in his memory. He knew that with time he could bring back everything that he had read, but it would take deep concentration and, perhaps, many days of trial and error to determine the right path that they must follow in order to have success.
Mirestone, realizing that any distraction would break Peter's train of thought, sat quietly in the corner finishing off the Dutchman's supply of wine. He watched Peter closely through his slitted eyes, and it seemed that his compelling stare was the only force that could drive the frightened Peter on. Every so often Peter would glance up and see Mirestone leaning back in the corner half concealed by the deep shadows—only his partially opened eyes could be seen flickering in the fiery glow of the hearth. Then he would cover his face with his large, knotted hands, work the twisted fingers through his hair, and try to bring back to mind the evil recipe.
The glow from the fireplace gradually died down to make room for the streams of morning dawn. Peter blinked sleepily and got up to stretch a bit. Outside the dull morning light worked its way over Peter's farm—clouds of mist still poured up from the gorge, circling the bridge and creeping up the bank across the fields. Peter unlatched the heavy oaken door and went outside to the outbuildings.
Meanwhile, Mirestone had started a fire in the stove and was placing slabs of bacon in the pan. "Nothing like a good old-fashioned peasant's breakfast," he laughed as Peter came in the door several minutes later. "So, you brought a goat, heh?" he noticed. "Are you figuring on starting in soon?"
Peter set a small kid on the floor and watched it scamper about the room, looking for an exit. "Yes, we might as well. I don't like this business at all. I wish to get it over with as soon as possible, and——" Peter eyed Mirestone squarely. "I expect to be paid well for my trouble." He was trying to make himself believe that that was his only reason for complying with Mirestone's demands. Actually he was not so sure....
* * * * *
As the heat of the noon day sun blasted down on their backs, Mirestone watched Peter pass a feather, freshly plucked from a white Leghorn, under the nose of the bleating kid. Mirestone listened carefully to what Peter was telling him. The breath of the victim had to be spread over the feather before anything further could be done.
"Tie him," commanded Peter. Mirestone held the goat by the scruff of his neck and fastened a halter about him. The other end was secured to a stake allowing the kid to run about in a circle of ten feet or so in diameter.
"We will leave him for awhile," said Peter as he walked back to the kitchen.
Mirestone followed in the Dutchman's footsteps, and when they were inside, he listened intently as Peter recited a monosyllabic chant over the feather. "The chant is easy enough to learn," Peter assured him. "You will master it quickly."
"I understand so far," Mirestone said.
"Then that is all," Peter finished, "except that you can hang the feather up and watch it grow red."
"Yes," Peter explained, "That is the only way you can tell if the hex has worked."
Peter went to a chest at the foot of his bed and drew out a small box of sewing utensils. He broke off a piece of black thread and replaced the box in the chest. "Now I'll show you what I mean," Peter spoke wearily as he tied the feather with the thread and suspended it from one of the rafters in the room. "Just sit and watch."
It was not many minutes before a light red tint crept up the feather's quill, spreading slowly outwards towards the fringed edges. Deeper and deeper grew the intensity of the color until it reached a pure blood red.
"Hurry outside," cried Peter. "You can see the goat in its last seconds of life."
Mirestone hurried after the Dutchman. Jerking at the halter the goat bleated in agony, prancing up and down frantically. Its eyes grew horribly bloodshot and finally closed. With a feeble, choking sigh, the animal dropped over on its side, its legs still twitching spasmodically. Mirestone bent over the hairy form and examined the head, now wet with perspiration.
"Nothing can be done for the beast?"
"No." Peter looked on with a touch of pity in his eyes, "Nothing can be done once the feather has turned red."
As if the death of the kid was their cue, masses of thick thunderheads turned over with a deep rumbling thunder. The sky became crystal clear, and a greenish glow could be seen working its way across the horizon. The sky darkened as the glistening thunderheads now taking on an ominous coloring warned the farmers of the impending storm.
It was later that evening. Rain drummed against the slate roof of Peter's house and reverberated through the rooms to where Mirestone and the Dutchman sat by the fire in silence. Mirestone broke the still atmosphere by putting forth a question that Peter somehow knew would be coming sooner or later.
"I wonder how the hex would react on a human being?"
Peter hoped to end the topic by answering him quickly and not beating around the bush trying to evade the question. "It would kill him eventually. Maybe not so quick as the goat, but it would kill him."
"What do you mean not as quickly as the goat—do you think it would take more time on a human?"
"Perhaps. I have heard of cases in which the hex, once it was started, dragged on for many days."
"I see." Mirestone sat back again thinking to himself.
Peter didn't like this. He wanted to get rid of Mirestone. "Well, you have your information. I showed you how the hex works. So, why not pay me and leave?"
Mirestone got up and laughed in the Dutchman's face. Crossing to the larder, he brought down a bottle, cracking the neck on the beam above, just as he had done the night before. A wave of apprehension overcame Peter as he realized the old flip attitude of Mirestone's was coming back. That meant definite trouble, and Peter began to fear the consequences.
"So, why not pay me and leave?" he again ventured. "Or do you want something else?" Peter knew that he didn't need to ask that last question, for already he realized the grim experiment that was playing about in Mirestone's head.
"Yes. I just told you what I wanted. I want to see the hex on a human before I go."
"Why? You have your information. Why do you want to see it work on a man?"
"My stupid, little peasant friend, do I look like a student of history?"
For the first time Peter actually looked at Mirestone and saw him for what he was. Of course, he couldn't be a student. No student would act as he did, or even look as he did. The words jammed in his throat as he was about to voice a reply.
"Ha—Martin G. Mirestone, student of history, student of German history. No my little oxen friend. I am no more a student of history than you are, but I need the hex for other reasons which do not concern you." Then as if he were contemplating a great new joke he continued. "But on the other hand, maybe the future of the white feather hex does concern you."
Mirestone's voice was drowned out by a heavy rumbling of thunder and the increased splashing of rain on the windows. But somehow Peter seemed not to notice.
* * * * *
Somewhat later Mirestone stepped quietly over to the sleeping form of his host. Peter had been over twenty-four hours now without sleep, and although the old Dutchman had tried desperately to fight off the drowsiness that overcame him, the recent excitement of the day had finally taken its toll. Lightning struck near by followed with an ear splitting blast that shook the house to its rocky foundations. Pieces of slate flew off the roof and were carried away into the night. The rain poured down in a great deluge, blurring the window, making it impossible to see in or out.
Mirestone held out a glistening white feather in his long spidery fingers. He placed it within a few inches of Peter's nose and watched the delicate edges riffle in the Dutchman's breath. Crossing to the table, he leaned over the white fluff and breathed the short German incantation over it. How it glistened in the firelight! He bent closer and closer as he whispered the magic words that Peter had taught him, his breath ruffling the feather, playing about in the fringed softness. He hung up the feather by a thread and watched it hop back and forth in the center of the room.
* * * * *
Peter awakened and saw Mirestone sitting by the fire noting every movement of the feather. "What are you doing, heh?"
Mirestone swung around and glared at the bleary eyed Dutchman. "Sit down," he commanded. "Sit down and watch the feather turn red."
Peter didn't need to be told that it was his feather. He knew by the merciless eyes of Mirestone that everything was over. "So, you were determined to find out what would happen if the hex were tried on a man?"
Peter was surprised at how easily he took his fate. There was no need of excitement—this was his end and there was no changing it.
"Yes, I had to know, for I can't leave until I have a complete record of all the results." Mirestone certainly was not cocky now. He looked almost ashamed of himself as he sat there nervously watching a man's fate swing by a silken thread. "I'm sorry, Peter, my friend, but that is how it must be. You are a stepping stone to a glorious reckoning that will soon take place. The hex of the white feather—I can hardly believe that I have at last tracked it down. And you, Peter, are the last witness, the last link in the chain of those who know the secret, and how can it better end than by your becoming a part of the secret?"
Peter realized that he had not much longer to live and nothing he could do to Mirestone would change his fate. Perhaps he could save others, though.
"What is this glorious reckoning you were speaking about?"
"As soon as I see how your case ends, I'll be able to go ahead and release my vengeance on those stupid, bungling fools who have thwarted my progress in the black arts. They claim to speak in the name of humanity, no less!"
"In that case," exclaimed Peter, "I won't let myself be a foothold for your damned work—it is of the devil and I'll have no part of it."
"Shut up, fool. You are a part of it already."
"Not if my body is destroyed before you can get hold of it."
Peter played his trump card. He quickly sprang back and slipped out the door into the storm. Mirestone jumped up after him, but it was too late. He peered out into the raging tempest making out the figure of Peter struggling with the hatch on the horse barn. He pulled his cloak about him and started towards Peter to stop him. The rain beat his face, blinding him momentarily, and before he could see clearly a dark mass pounded by, swift hoofs spattering mud all over him.
Down the road sped Peter on the horse—down the road and towards the foot-bridge. Mirestone ran a few steps and halted. He heard the hollow staccato of horse's hoofs on the planks for an instant, followed by a splintering crash that rumbled up from the gorge. A long, guttural cry pierced the black gloom as man and horse plunged down to the seething death awaiting them.
Cursing savagely, Milestone trudged back through the rain to the house. He slammed the door shut and threw his cloak on Peter's bed. There was one more bottle on the shelf; he smashed the neck and poured a glass. If one could see him bent over the table sending silent curses into his wine, he could readily imagine the feeling of defeat that had spread over Mirestone's countenance. The idiot of a Dutchman who had to play the hero's part and save other lives by ending his own made Mirestone fairly sick. However, all was not over. So the Dutchman had died; the hex had worked—a lot sooner than he had expected though. Now he certainly would be delayed in his progress, for he had counted on examining the body for any traces left that would suggest something out of the ordinary. One thing, however, he had learned was that the hex at least worked on humans. The mangled body that was being washed over the rocks would be enough proof on that score.
Mirestone poured another drink. He leaned back in the chair and placed the glass to his lips. He was tilted so far back that as he raised the wine to a drinking position, it blocked his view of the room. As he slowly sipped it, however, the room began to come into view—the ceiling first and slowly the wall. His eyes focused on a piece of thread hanging from the ceiling, and as the wine sank lower and lower in the glass, the thread grew longer and longer until in one last swallow he was able to see the end of the line.
Mirestone's hand went stiff as he looked at the thread, for on the end of it was a pure white feather.
* * * * *
In an instant Mirestone realized that the hex had not worked. Peter's death at the bridge had been a grotesque coincidence. Had the untimely plunge in the rapids been the result of the hex the feather would have long since been red, therefore, the tragedy was no more than an accident and Mirestone's hands were innocent of the Dutchman's blood. That realization, of course, didn't bother him, for he was not concerned whether or not he was responsible for Peter's death, but he was genuinely worried in the failure of the hex. He wondered if he had done something wrong. If he had, the last link, that could have corrected him was broken. From here on in he was on his own.
He calmed himself and began to think. He retraced everything that he had done to see if he couldn't have found some margin in which error could have crept in. He remembered how carefully he had bent over the feather reciting the exact words taught him by Peter. He especially remembered that part of the hex, for hadn't the feather been ruffled by his breath when he spoke....
Gradually the truth began to dawn on Mirestone. His own breath must have released Peter from the hex. The last person's breath that touched the feather would feel the sting of the power. Mirestone sat back dumbfounded. He was to be his own guinea pig. What ghastly horror was he in for? Would he die quickly like the goat or would his death be prolonged over a period of days like Peter had suggested. He gripped himself. It wouldn't do to lose control of his senses. There must be a way out of the predicament. But Peter said that as soon as the feather turned red there was no turning back. Ah—there's the answer. The feather is still white ... there's still a chance.
Mirestone grabbed his cloak and raced for the door. He must get an animal—another goat, perhaps, and expose the feather to its breath. He must hurry lest the spell will start working.
The slippery mud dragged him back and impeded his progress, but he struggled on through the blinding storm towards the barn. It was so black outside that he could hardly make out the buildings. All at once he saw the barn looming ahead of him. Which door? Every second counted; he would try the first one he came to. Wait—what's this holding his cloak? Mirestone turned and fumbled with some barbed wire fencing. It had snagged him in the dark, and he soon became hopelessly entangled in it. Crying and shrieking, he tore the cloak from his shoulders and ran on in his shirt sleeves. He wrenched open a door and sprawled in the barn head first. On his hands and knees he scurried across the mealy floor to the goat stall. The kids sprang in terror as he lurched in drunkenly, grabbing about in the dark for one of them. Catching one by the hind leg, he groped his way out again.
Thrusting his shoulders forward he slid through the gripping mud, tearing his way through the engulfing rain with his free hand. His leg left numb from the wound inflicted by the barbed wire, and a trickle of blood was running down his shins. Without thinking he reached down to rub the wound, but quickly yanked his hand up again. What was that horrible sensation he felt as he passed his hand over the fleshy sore? He couldn't see in the rain, but his leg told him that it was something hairy, almost bristly.
He ran on towards the house, stumbling in the treacherous mud. Once he fell completely down in the slime. Wiping the dripping earth from his face, he was told again that something was wrong. His cheeks verified his shin's story of a rough, jagged caress.
Holding his hand in front of his face he saw, amidst a flash of lightning, a curling, black claw, bristling with long, ragged hairs. Screaming hysterically he dropped the kid and fell forward into the door of the house. The latch gave way with his weight and he tumbled into the cottage.
Dancing madly on the end of a thread was a blood red feather.