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L. Sprague de Camp

L. Sprague de Camp is a seminal figure, one whose career spans almost the entire development of modern fantasy and SF. For the fantasy magazine Unknown in the late 1930s, he helped create a whole new modern style of fantasy writing—funny, whimsical, and irreverent—of which he is still the most prominent practitioner. His most famous books include Lest Darkness Fall, The Incomplete Enchanter (with Fletcher Pratt), and Rogue Queen. His most recent book is Bones of Zora, a novel written in collaboration with his wife Catherine Crook de Camp.

Here he takes us to the sunny, sylvan, deceptively sleepy shores of peaceful Lake Algonquin for a traditional lake monster sighting that is not quite what it seems—in more ways than one!

When I parked behind my aunt's camp on Lake Algonquin, the first face I saw was Mike Devlin's wrinkled brown one. Mike said:

"Hello, Mr. Newbury! Sure, it's good to see you again. Have ye been hearin' about it?"

"About what?"

"The monster—the Lake Algonquin monster."

"Good lord, no! I've been in France, getting married. Darling, this is my old friend Mike Devlin. Mike, my wife Denise."

"Me, I am enchanted, Monsieur," said Denise, whose English was still a little uncertain.

"You got yourself a good man, Mrs. Newbury," said Mike. "I'm after knowing him since he was no bigger'n a chipmunk. Gimme them bags."

"I'll take this one," I said. "Now, what's this about a monster?"

Mike scratched his crisp gray curls. "They do be saying that, on dark nights, something comes up in the lake and shticks its head out to look around. But nobody's after getting a good look at it. There's newspaper fellies, and a whole gang of Scotchmen are watching for it, out on Indian Point."

"You mean we have a home-grown version of the Loch Ness monster?"

"I do that."

"How come the Scots came over here? I thought they had their own lake monster. Casing the competition, maybe?"

"It could be that, Mr. Newbury. They're members of some society that tracks down the shtories of sea serpents and all them things."

"Where's my aunt?"

"Mrs. Colton and Miss Colton are out in the rowboat, looking for the monster. If they find it, I'm thinking they'll wish they hadn't."

Mike took us into the camp—a comfortable, three-story house of spruce logs, shaded by huge old pines—and showed us our room. He pointed at the north window. "If you look sharp, you can see the Scotchmen out there on the point."

I got out the binoculars that I had brought for wild-life watching. Near the end of Indian Point was a cluster of figures around some instruments. I handed the glasses to Denise.

The year before, Mike had been left without a job when my old schoolmate, Alfred Ten Eyck, had been drowned in the quake that sank Ten Eyck Island. I recommended Mike to my aunt, whose camp on Lake Algonquin was twenty miles from Gahato. Since my aunt was a widow with children grown and flown, she could not keep up the place without a handy man. Mike—an ex-lumberjack, of Canadian birth despite his brogue—filled the bill. My aunt had invited Denise and me to spend our honeymoon at the camp. Her daughter Linda was also vacationing there.

Settled, we went down to the dock to look for my aunt and my cousin. Several boats were out on the lake, but too far away to recognize. We waved without result.

"Let's go call on the Scots," I said. "Are you up to a three-quarter-mile hike?"

"That is about one kilometer, no? Allons!"

The trail wanders along the shore from the camp to Indian Point. When I was a kid there in summer, I used to clear the brush out of this trail. It had been neglected, so we had to push through in places or climb over deadfalls. At one point, we passed a little shed, almost hidden among the spruces, standing between us and the water.

"What is that, Willy?" asked Denise.

"There used to be a little hot-air engine there, to pump water up to the attic tank in the camp. When I was a kid, I collected wood and fired up that engine. It was a marvelous little gadget—not efficient, but simple, and it always worked. Now they have un electric pump."

Near the end of Indian Point, the timber thins. There were the Scots around their instruments. As we came closer, I saw four men in tweeds and a battery of cameras and telescopes. They looked around as we approached. I said: "Hello!"

Their first response was reserved. When I identified myself as Mrs. Colton's nephew and guest, however, they became friendly.

"My name's Kintyre," said one of them, thrusting out a hand. He was a big, powerful-looking, weather-beaten man with graying blond hair, a bushy mustache, a monocle screwed into one eye, and the baggiest tweeds of the lot. The only other genuine monocle-wearer I had ever known was a German colonel, captured in the last month of the war.

"And I'm Ian Selkirk," said another, with a beautiful red beard. (This was before anybody but artists wore them.) He continued: "Lord Kintyre pays the siller on this safari, so he's the laird. We have to kneel before him and put our hands in his and swear fealty every morning."

Lord Kintyre guffawed and introduced the remaining two: Wallace Farg and James MacLachlan. Kintyre spoke British public-school English; Farg, such strong "braid Scots" that I could hardly understand him. The speech of the other two lay somewhere in between. At their invitation, we peered through the telescopes.

"What about this monster?" I said. "I've been out of the country."

They all started talking at once until Lord Kintyre shouted them down. He told me essentially what Mike Devlin had, adding:

"The bloody thing only comes up at night. Can't say I blame it, with all those damned motorboats buzzing around. Enough to scare any right-thinking monster. I've been trying to get your town fathers to forbid 'em, but no luck. The younger set dotes on 'em. So we may never get a good look at Algy."

"Algae?" I said, thinking he meant the seaweed.

"Surely. You Americans call our monster 'Nessie,' so why shouldn't we call the Lake Algonquin monster 'Algy'? But I'm afraid one of these damned stinkpots will run into the poor creature and injure it. I say, are you and your lovely bride coming to the ball tomorrow at the Lodge?"

"Why, my lordship—I mean your lord—"

"Call me Alec," roared his lordship. "Everyone else does. Short for Alexander Mull, second Baron Kintyre. My old man sold so much scotch whiskey abroad, after you chaps got rid of the weird Prohibition law, that Baldwin figgered he had to do something for him. Now, laddie, how about the dance? I'm footing the bill."

"Sure," I said, "if Denise can put up with my two left feet."

Back at the camp, we met my aunt and her daughter coming back from their row. The sky was clouding over. Linda Colton was a tall, willowy blonde, highly nubile if you didn't mind her washed-out look. Nice girl, but not exactly brilliant. After the introductions, my Aunt Frances said:

"George Vreeland's coming over for dinner tonight. Briggs gave him the time off. Do you know him?"

"I've met him," I said. "He was a cousin of my late friend, Alfred Ten Eyck. I thought Vreeland had gone to California?"

"He's back and working as a desk clerk for Briggs," said Aunt Frances.

Joe Briggs was proprietor of the Algonquin Lodge, a couple of miles around the shore from the Colton camp, the other way from Indian Point. Linda Colton said:

"George says he's going to get one of those frogman's diving suits to go after the monster."

"I doubt if he'll get very far," I said. "The water's so full of vegetable matter, you can't see your hand before your face when you're more than a couple of feet down. When they put in the dam to raise the lake level, they didn't bother to clear all the timber out of the flooded land first."

I could have added that what I had heard about George Vreeland was not good. Alfred Ten Eyck claimed that, when Alfred was away, George had rented the camp on Ten Eyck Island from him. While there, he had sold most of Alfred's big collection of guns in the camp to various locals. He pocketed the money and skipped out before Alfred returned. I wouldn't call Vreeland wicked or vicious—just one of those old unreliables, unable to resist the least temptation.

Instead, I told about our meeting the Scots. Linda said: "Didn't you think Ian Selkirk just the handsomest thing you ever saw?"

"I'm no judge of male beauty," I said. "He looked like a well-set-up-man, with the usual number of everything. I don't know that I'd go for that beard, but that's his business."

"He grew it in the war, when he was on a submarine," said Linda.

Denise said: "If you will excuse me, I looked at Mr. Selkirk, too. But yes, he is handsome. And he knows it—maybe a little too well, hein?"

My cousin Linda changed the subject.

At dinner time, George Vreeland came roaring over from the Lodge in an outboard. He did not remember me at first, since I had met the little man only casually, and that back in the thirties when we were mere striplings.

It was plain that Vreeland was sweet on Linda Colton, for all that she was an inch taller than he. He talked in grandiose terms of his plans for diving in pursuit of Algy. I said:

"It seems to me that, if there is no monster, you're wasting your time. If there is a monster, and you disturb it, you'll probably end up in its stomach."

"Oh, Willy!" said Linda. "That's the way he always was, George, even as a boy. Whenever we'd get some beautiful, romantic, adventurous idea, he'd come out with some common-sense remark, like a cynical old gentleman, and shoot down our lovely plan in flames."

"Oh, I'll have something to protect myself with," said Vreeland. "A spear-gun or something—that is, if the goddamned Scotchmen don't harpoon the thing first."

"They told me they had no intention of hurting it," I said.

"Don't trust those treacherous Celts. Trying to stop our motorboats, ha! They'd ruin the whole summer-visitor season, just to get a strip of movie film of the monster."

Soon after dinner, my Aunt Frances called our attention to distant lightning. It flared lavender against the clouds, which hung low above the forested Adirondack ridges.

"George," she said, "since you came by water, you'd better be starting back, unless you want Linda to drive you to the Lodge and come back tomorrow for your boat."

"No, I'll be going," said Vreeland. "I have the night duty tonight."

After he had gone, we talked family matters for an hour or so. Then an outburst of yells brought us out on the porch.

The noise came from the direction of Indian Point. I could see little flickers of light from the Scottish observation post. Evidently the Scots thought they had seen something.

Between flashes of lightning, the lake was too dark to make out anything. "Wait till I get my glasses," I said.

The glasses proved of no help so long as the lake remained dark. Then a bright flash showed me something—a dark lump-out on the lake. It was perhaps a hundred yards away, although it is hard to estimate such distances.

I kept straining my vision, while the three women buzzed with questions. I picked up the thing in several more lightning flashes. It seemed to be moving across my field of vision. It also seemed to rise and fall. At least, it looked different in successive glimpses. I handed the glasses to my aunt, so that the women could have a look.

Then thunder roared and the rain came down. Soon we could see nothing at all. Even the hardy Scots gave up and went back to the Lodge.

When we awoke next morning, it was still raining. We came late to breakfast. When I started to apologize, Linda Colton said:

"Oh, that's all right, Willy. We know that honeymooners like any excuse to stay in bed."

I grinned sheepishly. Denise, who comes from a somewhat straitlaced French Protestant family, stared hard at her orange juice.

That morning, I studied economics for my trust company job. By noon, the rain had stopped and the skies had begun to clear. When the afternoon turned warm, I suggested a swim. Denise said:

"But, Willy, mon cher, if there is a monster there, what if it eats us?"

"Listen, darling, my friends and kinsmen and I have been swimming in these lakes for most of my thirty-two years, and Algy has never bitten any of us. If there is a monster here, it's had plenty of chances.

"Besides, I used to argue with the geology prof at M.I.T. about such monsters. He explained that such a critter needs an area big enough to support the food, such as fish, that it feeds on. Lake Algonquin couldn't support anything much bigger than a snapping turtle. Il n'y a rien a craindre."

"Well then, how about the alligators and crocodiles that you have in the Florida? They do not need a whole sea to live in," she said.

"In the first place," I explained, "they live in interconnected bodies of water, so they can move around from one to another. You need, not just enough area for one, but fifty or a hundred times that much, to support a breeding population. Otherwise, the species dies out. So don't look for a Plesiosaurus or a Mosasaurus in these lakes. Besides, no alligator—or any reptile of that size—could survive the winters here, where the lakes freeze over."

Denise looked doubtful, but she went swimming. I fear, however, that I do not have enough masochist in me really to enjoy that icy Adirondack water.

When we were dried and changed, we hiked out to Indian Point, partly to warm up and partly to see how the Scots were doing. Present were Farg, MacLachlan, and another man introduced to us as Professor Ballardie. Him I understood to be the big brain of the expedition. They were setting up a searchlight along with their other gear.

"There may be nought to it at all," said Ballardie, a cheerful little gray-haired man. "But this is the only way to find out."

"Aye," said Farg. "If we dinna try, we sanna learn."

I brought up the arguments of the M.I.T. professor of geology. As I expected, for every argument of mine they had ten counter-arguments. I thought it best to pipe down and listen; after all, I was not selling securities in their enterprise. When Ballardie ran out of breath, I asked:

"Where's Mr. Selkirk?"

"He's off this afternoon," said MacLachlan.

Farg added: "Forbye, he'll be makin' hissel braw for the ba'." At least that is what I think he said.

My aunt decided not to go to the "ba'." George Vreeland came across the lake in his motorboat and carried Denise, Linda, and me back to the Lodge. Since this all happened before the era of youthful scruffiness in the sixties, both George and I had donned coat and tie. While we were trudging up the path from the Lodge dock, I could hear Lord Kintyre's booming laugh.

Inside, there was Joe Briggs, fat and red-faced, playing the genial host. I saw what Wallace Farg had meant by Selkirk's making himself "braw for the ba'." Selkirk had on a kilt, complete with sporran, dirk in the stocking, and one of those short little jackets with angular silver buttons—the works. Lord Kintyre was similarly clad, although the rest of the Scots made do with their weathered tweeds. We met Lady Kintyre, a mousey little gray-haired woman, and a couple more Scots whom I had not yet seen.

I was struggling through a rumba with Denise when Vreeland and Linda went by. Selkirk stepped up and tapped Vreeland on the arm. "May I cut in?" he said pleasantly.

I doubt if Vreeland even knew about the custom of cutting. While he gaped, Selkirk whisked Linda neatly out of his arms and danced off with her. When we passed them again, he had turned on the charm, whispering in Linda's ear and making her laugh.

After more dances and drinks, Lord Kintyre roared: "Now we'll show you a couple of Scottish dances. Ian, bring the young lady out here to demonstrate."

Selkirk led out Linda Colton. Having enough trouble with dances that I have practiced in advance, I was happy to steer Denise back to the bar. Since Lord Kintyre was paying, and since my Aunt Frances served nothing stronger than sherry, I was glad to wrap myself around some real booze.

There was George Vreeland, sopping up the sauce. His face was flushed, his speech was thick, and his manner was offensive. We avoided him.

We watched the Scottish dances from the sidelines. When it came time to go, Vreeland was not to be found. In the end, Selkirk drove us back to my aunt's camp in one of the expedition's cars. Linda had stars in her eyes when she bid us goodnight.

About three in the morning came another outburst of sound from Indian Point. From our windows, I saw nothing except the wavering beam of the searchlight. I was not fascinated enough by lake monsters to get up and go out, but the racket kept up for over an hour. We never did get back to sleep, although I would not say that the time till morning was wasted.

The Scots later said that they had seen Algy again and that he hung around so long that they launched a boat to get a closer look at him. Then, however, he dived.

Sunday was one of those rare fine days. Denise and I took a hike in the morning and in the afternoon went out on the lake. We had been rowing for maybe half an hour when Denise said:

"There is a canoe, Willy, which comes from your aunt's dock. I think I see the red beard of the Mr. Selkirk."

Sure enough, there came Ian Selkirk and Linda Colton out in one of Joe Briggs's rentable canoes. I waved, but they must have been so absorbed in each other that they never saw us.

When they got closer, I saw that they were in bathing suits. This is not a bad idea, if you want to paddle a canoe without previous experience. Linda, in the stern, was paddling and calling out instructions to Selkirk in the bow.

I rested on my oars, watching. After a while, they stopped paddling. I noticed something odd about their position. They had slid off their thwarts and were sitting on the bottom, so only their heads and shoulders showed. They were inching closer to each other, all the while talking and laughing at a great rate.

Denise said: "I think they are about to try un petit peu de l'amour."

"It's an idea," I said, "if you remember to keep the weight well down in the boat." I wondered if I ought to try to save my cousin's virtue. This was before the sexual revolution, when many families still took their girls' virtue seriously. But then, I did not even know whether Linda had any virtue to save.

"Well," said Denise, misreading the look on my face, "don't you get any such ideas, my old. Me, I could not enjoy it in a boat for fear of tipping over."

The two were now so close together that Selkirk was embracing Linda. I do not know what would have happened if Algy had not interfered.

Out of the water, on the lakeward side of the canoe and not ten feet from that craft, a reptilian head, as big as that of a horse, arose on a long, thick neck. The head had staring white eyeballs and long white fangs. It rose six feet out of the water and glared down upon the occupants of the canoe.

It took several seconds for the canoeists to realize that they were under observation. Then Linda shrieked.

Ian Selkirk looked around, jumped up, dove overboard, and struck out for shore at an Olympic speed. He left the rocking canoe and Linda behind.

"The dastard!" I said. "I'm going closer."

"Willy!" cried Denise. "It will devour us!"

"No it won't. Take a second look. It's just some sort of amusement-park dragon."

Disregarding Denise's plaints, I rowed towards the apparition. Algy proved a gaudily painted structure of sponge rubber. I poked it with an oar to make sure and then rowed to the canoe.

Linda was in hysterics, but she calmed down when she saw me. Soon she was paddling the canoe back towards our dock. We followed in the rowboat.

Ashore, we met Mike Devlin. He said: "Mr. Newbury, what's all this about the monster? The young Scotchman is after asking—"

Then the two figures appeared running on the trail from Indian Point. First came George Vreeland with a bloody nose. After him pounded Ian Selkirk, in swimming trunks and sneakers, howling imprecations in some tongue I did not recognize. It may have been very braid Scots, or it may have been Gaelic. They vanished along the road to the Lodge.

"It's the pump shed," said Mike. "The Scotchman was asking me if there was any such place. I told him yes, and off he went like the banshee was after him."

"Let's go see," I said.

We had to push through heavy brush and second growth to get to the pump shed, for nobody had gone there in years. A canoe was moored at the edge of the water below the shed.

Inside the shed, dust and drifted pine needles lay thick. The old hot-air engine and pump were covered with rust. But something new had been added.

"Mother of God, look at that!" said Mike. "So that's how the young felly had us fooled!"

On the inside wall of the shed were mounted a pair of windlasses. Each consisted of a drum, around which a number of turns of clothesline had been wrapped, and a crank handle for turning the drum. The ropes led out through holes in the wall. They extended to the water's edge and disappeared into the lake on divergent paths.

It was clear what Vreeland had done. He had laid a couple of stanchions—concrete blocks or the like—on the lake bottom, with pulleys or rings stapled to them. The ropes, attached to Algy, led through these stanchions and back to the shed. By turning the cranks, one could make Algy, who was buoyant, rise or sink or, within limits, move horizontally along the surface.

Mike explained: "I heard the racket, and I seen the monster out in the water and the young Scotchman swimming for shore like the Devil was ahint of him. When he climbed out and got his breath, he says: 'It's after me!'

"'Look, man,' I says. 'Anybody can see 'tis not a real monster at all, with the boats paddling all around it, and shtanding shtill in the water.'

"So he looks. 'By God, you're right!' he says. Now this is a smart young Scotchman, and it don't take him ten seconds to figure out what's happened. 'Quick!' he says. 'Is there any sort of hut or cabin along the shore near here?' So I tell him about the old pump house. 'I'll show you,' I says. 'No, thanks,' he says. 'Just tell me where it is. I don't want any witnesses.' And off he goes. He must have caught Mr. Vreeland just coming out."

Denise went into a fit of giggles until I had to pound her back. "Comme c'est rigolo donc!"

Every boat on Lake Algonquin soon put out for a look at the monster. Selkirk did not succeed in annihilating Vreeland. The latter ducked into the woods and, knowing the terrain, soon lost his pursuer. Hours later, Selkirk, scratched and mosquito-bitten, staggered back to the Lodge. I suppose he felt his loss of face too keenly to show himself, for none of us saw him again.

My cousin Linda accepted neither of these dubious suitors. A year later, she married a rising-young-businessman type.

Next morning I got a telephone call. "Mr. Wilson Newbury, please . . . Oh, is that you, Willy? Alec Kintyre here. I say, Willy, could you do me a favor? My lads have packed up all our gear to leave, but I want to go over the ground once more with someone who knows it. Could you . . ."

Half an hour later, I was showing Lord Kintyre the shed in which Vreeland had set up his control mechanism.

"You know," said Lord Kintyre, "it was all Briggs's doing."

"How so?"

"When Vreeland came in this morning, he and Briggs got into a blazing quarrel, and Vreeland blew the gaff. Seems Briggs hired him last spring to set up this hoax, to draw more summer trade. It did, too.

"They might have got away with it, since Vreeland was supposed to surface the bloody monster only at night. He'd paddle over in that canoe so the noise of his motorboat wouldn't give him away. Everybody knew he was a damned stinkpot fanatic, so nobody suspected him of being a canoeist.

"Ian Selkirk spoilt the scheme. Vreeland was so eager to do Ian one in the eye that he brought up Algy in broad daylight. Then it took only a good second look to show it was a fake. The lads on the point realized that when they got their telescopes on it.

"Rum thing about Ian. He's not really a coward—he was in submarines with me during the war—but just this once he panicked. He didn't even wait to help with the packing but left last night. Trouble with Ian is, all he thinks of is dipping his wick. Now could we go out for a look at Algy?"

I took Lord Kintyre out in the Colton rowboat. We circled Algy, who was still sitting in the water as he had been left.

Algy consisted of head, six feet of neck, and an egg-shaped body without limbs, save for a kind of rudder aft. This fin made the monster face forward when towed through the water, so that Vreeland could parade the thing back and forth, as far as his rope tackle allowed.

The last Scots had left Indian Point with their apparatus. We moved up close to Algy, and Lord Kintyre took out a pocket knife. "I'll cut a little piece off as a souvenir, if you don't mind," he said.

He got his piece of sponge rubber, and we started back. Then I said: "Hey, Alec! Look around!"

Something was happening to Algy. He was moving back and forth by jerks, stirring the water to foam. The jerks became wider and more violent. Have you ever seen a dog shake a squirrel or similar small prey to death? Algy was moving as if he had been seized from below and was being thus shaken. The boat rocked in the waves. Lord Kintyre's monocle fell out and dangled on its string. Algy was drawn down until he almost disappeared.

Then the water quieted. Algy bobbed up again—but in pieces. We sat quietly, afraid (at least I was) to move or speak, lest whatever had mangled Algy come for us.

When nothing more happened, I took a few cautious strokes towards the scene of the disturbance, backing water so that I could pull for shore in a hurry. I fished out a piece of blue-green sponge rubber, the size of my foot. I think it came from Algy's neck.

Lord Kintyre replaced his eyeglass and sighed. "Just my damned luck," he said, "to be without camera or other equipment."

"Are you going to call your boys back, to start watching again?"

"No. Some have already left for home, and the rest are all packed up. We've spent enough money and got enough material for our report to the Society. Someone else will have to chase the real Algy."

In the years since then, I have heard of no further mysterious phenomena on Lake Algonquin. But, although I have been back there several times, I have always found some excuse for not going swimming.

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