The Slayer of Souls, by Robert W. Chambers

Chapter 10.

At the Ritz

When Victor Cleves telegraphed from St. Augustine to Washington that he and his wife were on their way North, and that they desired to see John Recklow as soon as they arrived, John Recklow remarked that he knew of no place as private as a public one. And he came on to New York and established himself at the Ritz, rather regally.

To dine with him that evening were two volunteer agents of the United States Secret Service, ZB-303, otherwise James Benton, a fashionable architect; and XYL-371, Alexander Selden, sometime junior partner in the house of Milwin, Selden & Co.

A single lamp was burning in the white-and-rose rococo room. Under its veiled glow these three men sat conversing in guarded voices over coffee and cigars, awaiting the advent of 53–6-26, otherwise Victor Cleves, recently Professor of Ornithology at Cambridge; and his young wife, Tressa, known officially asV-69.

“Did the trip South do Mrs. Cleves any good?” inquired Benton.

“Some,” said Recklow. “When Selden and I saw her she was getting better.”

“I suppose that affair of Yarghouz upset her pretty thoroughly.”

“Yes.” Recklow tossed his cigar into the fireplace and produced a pipe. “Victor Cleves upsets her more,” he remarked.

“Why?” asked Benton, astonished.

“She’s beginning to fall in love with him and doesn’t know what’s the matter with her,” replied the elder man drily. “Selden noticed it, too.”

Benton looked immensely surprised. “I supposed,” he said, “that she and Cleves considered the marriage to be merely a temporary necessity. I didn’t imagine that they cared for each other.”

“I don’t suppose they did at first,” said Selden. “But I think she’s interested in Victor. And I don’t see how he can help falling in love with her, because she’s a very beautiful thing to gaze on, and a most engaging one to talk to.”

“She’s about the prettiest girl I ever saw,” admitted Benton, “and about the cleverest. All the same —”

“All the same — what?”

“Well, Mrs. Cleves has her drawbacks, you know — as a real wife, I mean.”

Recklow said: “There is a fixed idea in Cleves’s head that Tressa Norne married him as a last resort, which is true. But he’ll never believe she’s changed her ideas in regard to him unless she herself enlightens him. And the girl is too shy to do that. Besides, she believes the same thing of him. There’s a mess for you!”

Recklow filled his pipe carefully.

“In addition,” he went on, “Mrs. Cleves had another and very terrible fixed idea in her charming head, and that is that she really did lose her soul among those damned Yezidees. She believes that Cleves, though kind to her, considers her merely as something uncanny — something to endure until this Yezidee campaign is ended and she is safe from assassination.”

Benton said: “After all, and in spite of all her loveliness, I myself should not feel entirely comfortable with such a girl for a real wife.”

“Why?” demanded Recklow.

“Well — good heavens, John! — those uncanny things she does — her rather terrifying psychic knowledge and ability — make a man more or less uneasy.” He laughed without mirth.

“For example,” he added, “I never was nervous in any physical crisis; but since I’ve met Tressa Norne — to be frank — I’m not any too comfortable in my mind when I remember Gutchlug and Sanang and Albert Feke and that dirty reptile Yarghouz — and when I recollect how that girl dealt with them! Good God, John, I’m not a coward, I hope, but that sort of thing worries me!”

Recklow lighted his pipe. He said: “In the Government’s campaign against these eight foreigners who have begun a psychic campaign against the unsuspicious people of this decent Republic, with the purpose of surprising, overpowering, and enslaving the minds of mankind by a misuse of psychic power, we agents of the Secret Service are slowly gaining the upper hand.

“In this battle of minds we are gaining a victory. But we are winning solely and alone through the psychic ability and the loyalty and courage of a young girl who, through tragedy of circumstances, spend the years of her girlhood in the infamous Yezidee temple at Yian, and who learned from the devil-worshipers themselves not only this so-called magic of the Mongol sorcerers, but also how to meet its psychic menace and defeat it.”

He looked at Benton, shrugged:

“If you and if Cleves really feel the slightest repugnance toward the strange psychic ability of this brave and generous girl, I for one do not share it.”

Benton reddened: “It isn’t exactly repugnance —” But Recklow interrupted sharply:

“Do you realise, Benton, what she’s already accomplished for us in our secret battle against Bolshevism — against the very powers of hell itself, led by these Mongol sorcerers?

“Of the Eight Assassins — or Sheiks-el-Djebel — who came to the United States to wield the dreadful weapon of psychic power against the minds of our people, and to pervert them and destroy all civilisation — of the Eight Chief Assassins of the Eight Towers, this girl already has discovered and identified four — Sanang, Gutchlug, Albert Feke, and Yarghouz; and she has destroyed the last three.”

He sat calmly enjoying his pipe for a few moments’ silence, then:

“Five of this sect of Assassins remain — five sly, murderous, psychic adepts who call themselves sorcerers. Except for Prince Sanang, I do not know who these four men may be. I haven’t a notion. Nor have you. Nor do I believe that with all the resources of the United States Secret Service we ever should be able to discover these four Sheiks-el-Djebel except for the astounding spiritual courage and psychic experience of the young wife of Victor Cleves.”

After a moment Selden nodded. “That is quite true,” he said simply. “We are utterly helpless against unknown psychic forces. And I, for one, feel no repugnance toward what Mrs. Cleves has done for all mankind and in the name of God.”

“She’s a brave girl,” muttered Benton, “but it’s terrible to possess such knowledge and horrible to use it.”

Recklow said: “The horror of it nearly killed the girl herself. Have you any idea how she must suffer by being forced to employ such terrific knowledge? by being driven to use it to combat this menace of hell? Can you imagine what this charming, sensitive, tragic young creature must feel when, with powers natural to her but unfamiliar to us, she destroys with her own mind and will-power demons in human shape who are about to destroy her?

“Talk of nerve! Talk of abnegation! Talk of perfect loyalty and courage! There is more than these in Tressa Norne. There is that dauntless bravery which faces worse than physical death. Because the child still believes that her soul is damned for whatever happened to her in the Yezidee temple; and that when these Yezidees succeed in killing her body, Erlik will surely seize the soul that leaves it.”

There was a knocking at the door. Benton got up and opened it. Victor Cleves came in with his young wife.

Tressa Cleves seemed to have grown since she had been away. Taller, a trifle paler, yet without even the subtlest hint of that charming maturity which the young and happily married woman invariably wears, but her virginal allure now verged vaguely on the delicate edges of austerity.

Cleves, sunburnt and vigorous, looked older, somehow — far less boyish — and he seemed more silent than when, nearly seven months before, he had been assigned to the case of Tressa Norne.

Recklow, Selden, and Benton greeted them warmly; to each in turn Tressa gave her narrow, sun-tanned hand. Recklow led her to a seat. A servant came with iced fruit juice and little cakes and cigarettes.

Conversation, aimless and general, fulfilling formalities, gradually ceased.

A full June moon stared through the open windows — searching for the traditional bride, perhaps — and its light silvered a pale and lovely figure that might possibly have passed for the pretty ghost of a bride, but not for any girl who had married because she was loved.

Recklow broke the momentary silence, bluntly:

“Have you anything to report, Cleves?”

The young fellow hesitated:

“My wife has, I believe.”

The others turned to her. She seemed, for a moment, to shrink back in her chair, and, as her eyes involuntarily sought her husband, there was in them a vague and troubled appeal.

Cleves said in a sombre voice: “I need scarcely remind you how deeply distasteful this entire and accursed business is to my wife. But she is going to see it through, whatever the cost. And we four men understand something of what it has cost her — is costing her — in violence to her every instinct.”

“We honour her the more,” said Recklow quietly.

“We couldn’t honour her too much,” said Cleves.

A slight colour came into Tressa’s face; she bent her head, but Recklow saw her eyes steal sideways toward her husband.

Still bowed a little in her chair, she seemed to reflect for a while concerning what she had to say; then, looking up at John Recklow:

“I saw Sanang.”

“Good heavens! Where?” he demanded.

“I— don’t — know.”

Cleves, flushing with embarrassment, explained: “She saw him clairvoyantly. She was lying in the hammock. You remember I had a trained nurse for her after — what happened in Orchid Lodge.”

Tressa looked miserably at Recklow — dumbly, for a moment. Then her lips unclosed.

“I saw Prince Sanang,” she repeated. “He was near the sea. There were rocks — cottages on cliffs — and very brilliant flowers in tiny, pocket-like gardens.

“Sanang was walking on the cliffs with another man. There were forests, inland.”

“Do you now who the other man was?” asked Recklow gently.

“Yes. He was one of the Eight. I recognised him. When I was a girl he came once to the Temple of Yian, all alone, and spread his shroud on the pink marble steps. And we temple girls mocked him and threw stemless roses on the shroud, telling him they were human heads with which to grease his toug.”

She became excited and sat up straighter in her chair, and her strange little laughter rippled like a rill among pebbles.

“I threw a big rose without a stem upon the shroud,” she exclaimed, “and I cried out, ‘Niaz!’ which means, ‘Courage,’ and I mocked him, saying ‘Djamouk Khagan,’ when he was only a Khan, of course; and I laughed and rubbed one finger against the other, crying out, ‘Toug ia glachakho!’ which means, ‘The toug is anointed.’ And which was very impudent of me, because Djamouk was a Sheik-el-Djebel and Khan of the Fifth Tower, and entitled to a toug and to eight men and a Toughtchi. And it is a grave offence to mock at the anointing of a toug.”

She paused, breathless, her splendid azure eyes sparkling with the memory of that girlish mischief. Then their brilliancy faded; she bit her lip and stole an uncertain glance at her husband.

And after a pause she explained in a very subdued voice that the “Iagla michi,” or action “greasing the toug,” or standard, was done when a severed human head taken in battle was cast at the foot of the lance shaft stuck upright in the ground.

“You see,” she said sadly, “we temple girls, being already damned, cared little what we said, even to such a terrible man as Djamouk Khan. And even had the ghost of old Tchinguiz Khagan himself come to the temple and looked at us out of his tawny eyes, I think we might have done something saucy.”

Tressa’s pretty face was spiritless, now; she leaned back in her armchair and they heard an unconscious sigh escape her.

“Ai-ya! Ai-ya!” she murmured to herself, “what crazy things we did on the rose-marble steps, Yulun and I, so long — so long ago.”

Cleves got up and went over to stand beside his wife’s chair.

“What happened is this,” he said heavily. “During my wife’s convalescence after that Yarghouz affair, she found herself, at a certain moment, clairvoyant. And she thought she saw — she did see — Sanang, and an Asiatic she recognised as being one of the chiefs of the Assassins sect, whose name is Djamouk.

“But, except that it was somewhere near the sea — some summer colony probably on the Atlantic coast — she does not know where this pair of jail-birds roost. And this is what we have come here to report.”

Benton, politely appalled, tried not to look incredulous. But it was evident that Selden and Recklow had no doubts.

“Of course,” said Recklow calmly, “the thing to do is for you and your wife to try to find this place she saw.”

“Make a tour of all such ocean-side resorts until Mrs. Cleves recognises the place she saw,” added Selden. And to Recklow he added: “I believe there are several perfectly genuine cases on record where clairvoyants have aided the police.”

“Several authentic cases,” said Recklow quietly. But Benton’s face was a study.

Tressa looked up at her husband. He dropped his hand reassuringly on her shoulder and nodded with a slight smile.

“There — there was something else,” she said with considerable hesitation —“something not quite in line of duty — perhaps —”

“It seems to concern Benton,” added Cleves, smiling.

“What is it?” inquired Selden, smiling also as Benton’s features froze to a mask.

“Let me tell you, first,” interrupted Cleves, “that my wife’s psychic ability and skill can make me visualise and actually see scenes and people which, God knows, I never before laid eyes upon, but which she has both seen and known.

“And one morning, in Florida, I asked her to do something strange — something of that sort to amuse me — and we were sitting on the steps of our cottage — you know, the old club-house at Orchid! — and the first I knew I saw, in the mist on the St. Johns, a Chinese bridge humped up over that very commonplace stream, and thousands of people passing over it — and a city beyond — the town of Yian, Tressa tells me — and I heard the Buddhist bells and the big temple gong and the noises in streets and on the water —”

He was becoming considerably excited at the memory, and his lean face reddened and he gesticulated as he spoke:

“It was astounding, Recklow! There was that bridge, and all those people moving over it; and the city beyond, and the boats and shipping, and the vast murmur of multitudes . . . And then, there on the bridge crossing toward Yian, I saw a young girl, who turned and looked back at my wife and laughed.”

“And I told him it was Yulun,” said Tressa, simply.

“A playfellow of my wife’s in Yian,” explained Cleves. “But if she were really Chinese she didn’t look like what are my own notions of a Chinese girl.”

“Yulun came from Black China,” said Mrs. Cleves. “I taught her English. I loved her dearly. I was her most intimate friend in Yian.”

Then ensued a silence, broken presently by Benton; and:

“Where do I appear in this?” he asked stiffly.

Tressa’s smile was odd; she looked at Selden and said:

“When I was convalescent I was lonely . . . I made the effort one evening. And I found Yulun. And again she was on a bridge. But she was dressed as I am. And the bridge was one of those great, horrible steel monsters that sprawl across the East River. And I was astonished, and I said, ‘Yulun, darling, are you really here in America and in New York, or has a demon tangled the threads of thought to mock my mind in illness?’

“Then Yulun looked very sorrowfully at me and wrote in Arabic characters, in the air, the name of our enemy who once came to the Lake of the Ghosts for love of her — Yaddin-ed-Din, Tougtchi to Djamouk the Fox . . . And who went his way again amid our scornful laughter . . . He is a demon. And he was tangling my thread of thought!”

Tressa became exceedingly animated once more. She rose and came swiftly to where Benton was standing.

“And what do you think!” she said eagerly. “I said to her, ‘Yulun! Yulun! Will you make the effort and come to me if I make the effort? Will you come to me, beloved? And Yulun made ‘Yes,’ with her lips.”

After a silence: “But — where do I come in?” inquired Benton, stiffly fearful of such matters.

“You came in.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You came in the door while Yulun and I were talking.”

“When?”

“When you came to see me after I was better, and you and Mr. Selden were going North with Mr. Recklow. Don’t you remember; I was lying in the hammock in the moonlight, and Victor told you I was asleep?”

“Yes, of course —”

“I was not asleep. I had made the effort and I was with Yulun . . . I did not know you were standing beside my hammock in the moonlight until Yulun told me . . . And that is what I am to tell you; Yulun saw you . . . And Yulun has written it in Chinese, in Eighur characters and in Arabic — tracing them with her forefinger in the air — that Yulun, loveliest in Yian, flame-slender and very white, has seen her heart, like a pink pearl afire, burning between your august hands.”

“My hands!” exclaimed Benton, very red.

There fell an odd silence. Nobody laughed.

Tressa came nearer Benton, wistful, uncertain, shy.

“Would you care to see Yulun?” she asked.

“Well — no,” he said, startled. “I— I shall not deny that such things worry me a lot, Mrs. Cleves. I’m a — an Episcopalian.”

The tension released, Selden was the first to laugh.

“There’s no use blinking the truth,” he said; “we’re up against something absolutely new. Of course, it isn’t magic. It can, of course, be explained by natural laws about which we happen to know nothing at present.”

Recklow nodded. “What do we know about the human mind? It has been proven that no thought can originate within that mass of convoluted physical matter called the brain. It has been proven that something outside the brain originates thought and uses the brain as a vehicle to incubate it. What do we know about thought?”

Selden, much interested, sat cogitating and looking at Mrs. Cleves. But Benton, still flushed and evidently nervous, sat staring out of the window at the full moon, and twisting an unlighted cigarette to shreds.

“Why didn’t you tell Benton when the thing occurred down there at Orchid Lodge, the night we called to say good-bye?” asked Selden, curiously.

Tressa gave him a distressed smile: “I was afraid he wouldn’t believe me. And I was afraid that you and Mr. Recklow, even if you believed it, might not like — like me any the better for — for being clairvoyant.”

Recklow came over, bent his handsome grey head, and kissed her hand.

“I never liked any woman better, nor respected any woman as deeply,” he said. And, lifting his head, he saw tears sparkling in her eyes.

“My dear,” he said in a low voice, and his firm hand closed over the slim fingers he had kissed.

Benton got up from his chair, went to the window, turned shortly and came over to Tressa.

“You’re braver than I ever could learn to be,” he said shortly “I ask your pardon if I seem sceptical. I’m more worried than incredulous. There’s something born in me — part of me — that shrinks from anything that upsets my orthodox belief in the future life. But — if you wish me to see this — this girl — Yulun — it’s quite all right.”

She said softly, and with gentle wonder: “I know of nothing that could upset your belief, Mr. Benton. There is only one God. And if Mahomet be His prophet, or if he be Lord Buddha, or if your Lord Christ be vice-regent to the Most High, I do not know. All I know is that God is God, and that He prevailed over Satan who was stoned. And that in Paradise is eternal life, and in hell demons hide where dwells Erlik, Prince of Darkness.”

Benton, silent and secretly aghast at her theology, said nothing. Recklow pleasantly but seriously denied that Satan and his demons were actual and concrete creatures.

Again Cleves’s hand fell lightly on his wife’s shoulder, in a careless gesture of reassurance. And, to Benton, “No soul is ever lost,” he said, calmly. “I don’t exactly know how that agrees with your orthodoxy, Benton, But it is surely so.”

“I don’t know myself,” said Benton. “I hope it’s so.” He looked at Tressa a moment and then blurted out: “Anyway, if ever there was a soul in God’s keeping and guarded by His angels, it’s your wife’s!”

“That also is true,” said Cleves quietly.

“By the way,” remarked Recklow carelessly, “I’ve arranged to have you stop at the Ritz while you’re in town, Mrs. Cleves. You and your husband are to occupy the apartment adjoining this. Where is your luggage, Victor?”

“In our apartment.”

“That won’t do,” said Recklow decisively. “Telephone for it.”

Cleves went to the telephone, but Recklow took the instrument out of his hand and called the number. The voice of one of his own agents answered.

Cleves was standing alone by the open window when Recklow hung up the telephone. Tressa, on the sofa, had been whispering with Benton. Selden, looking over the evening paper by the rose-shaded lamp, glanced up as Recklow went over to Cleves.

“Victor,” he said, “your man has been murdered. His throat was cut; his head was severed completely. Your luggage has been ransacked and so has your apartment. Three of my men are in possession, and the local police seem to comprehend the necessity of keeping the matter out of the newspapers. What was in your baggage?”

“Nothing,” said Cleves, ghastly pale.

“All right. We’ll have your effects packed up again and brought over here. Are you going to tell your wife?”

Cleves, still deathly pale, cast a swift glance toward her. She sat on the sofa in animated conversation with Benton. She laughed once, and Benton smiled at what she was saying.

“Is there any need to tell her, Recklow?”

“Not for a while, anyway.”

“All right. I suppose the Yezidees are responsible for this horrible business.”

“Certainly. Your poor servant’s head lay at the foot of a curtain-pole which had been placed upright between two chairs. On the pole were tied three tufts of hair from the dead man’s head. The pole had been rubbed with blood.”

“That’s Mongol custom,” muttered Cleves. “They made a toug and ‘greased’ it! — the murderous devils!”

“They did more. They left at the foot of your bed and at the foot of your wife’s bed two white sheets. And a knife lay in the centre of each sheet. That, of course, is the symbol of the Sect of the Assassins.”

Cleves nodded. His body, as he leaned there on the window sill in the moonlight, trembled. But his face had grown dark with rage.

“If I could — could only get my hands on one of them,” he whispered hoarsely.

“Be careful. Don’t wear a face like that. Your wife is looking at us,” murmured Recklow.

With an effort Cleves raised his head and smiled across the room at his wife.

“Our luggage will be sent over shortly,” he said. “If you’re tired, we’ll say good-night.”

So she rose and the three men came to make their adieux and pay their compliments and devoirs. Then, with a smile that seemed almost happy, she went into her own apartment on her husband’s arm.

Cleves and his wife had connecting bedrooms and a sitting-room between. Here they paused for a moment before the always formal ceremony of leave-taking at night. There were roses on the centre table. Tressa dropped one hand on the table and bent over the flowers.

“They seem so friendly,” she said under her breath.

He though she meant that she found even in flowers a refuge from the solitude of a loveless marriage.

He said quietly: “I think you will find the world very friendly, if you wish.” But she shook her head, looking at the roses.

Finally he said good-night and she extended her hand, and he took it formally.

Then their hands fell away. Tressa turned and went toward her bedroom. At the door she stopped, turned slowly.

“What shall I do about Yulun?” she asked.

“What is there to do? Yulun is in China.”

“Yes, her body is.”

“Do you mean that the rest of her — whatever it is — could come here?”

“Why, of course.”

“So that Benton could see her?”

“Yes.”

“Could he see her just as she is? Her face and figure — clothes and everything?”

“Yes.”

“Would she seem real or like a ghost — spirit — whatever you choose to call such things?”

Tressa smiled. “She’d be exactly as real as you or I, Victor. She’d seem like anybody else.”

“That’s astonishing,” he muttered. “Could Benton hear her speak?”

“Certainly.”

“Talk to her?”

Tressa laughed: “Of course. If Yulun should make the effort she could leave her body as easily as she undresses herself. It is no more difficult to divest one’s self of one’s body than it is to put off one garment and put on another . . . And, somehow, I think Yulun will do it to-night.”

“Come here?”

“It would be like her.” Tressa laughed. “Isn’t it odd that she should have become so enamoured of Mr. Benton — just seeing him there in the moonlight that night at Orchid Lodge?”

For a moment the smile curved her lips, then the shadow fell again across her eyes, veiling them in that strange and lovely way which Cleves knew so well; and he looked into her impenetrable eyes in troubled silence.

“Victor,” she said in a low voice, “were you afraid to tell me that your man had been murdered?”

After a moment: “You always know everything,” he said unsteadily. “When did you learn it?”

“Just before Mr. Recklow told you.”

“How did you learn it, Tressa?”

“I looked into our apartment.”

“When?”

“While you were telephoning.”

“You mean you looked into our rooms from here?”

“Yes, clairvoyantly.”

“What did you see?”

“The Iaglamichi!” she said with a shudder. “Kai! The Toug of Djamouk is anointed at last!”

“Is that the beast of a Mongol who did this murder?”

“Djamouk and Prince Sanang planned it,” she said, trembling a little. “But that butchery was Yaddin’s work, I think. Kai! The work of Yaddin-ed-Din, Tougtchi to Djamouk the Fox!”

They stood confronting each other, the length of the sitting-room between them. And after the silence had lasted a full minute Cleves reddened and said: “I am going to sleep on the couch at the foot of your bed, Tressa.”

His young wife reddened too.

He said: “This affair has thoroughly scared me. I can’t let you sleep out of my sight.”

“I am quite safe. And you would have an uncomfortable night,” she murmured.

“Do you mind if I sleep on the couch, Tressa?”

“No.”

“Will you call me when you are ready?”

“Yes.”

She went into her bedroom and closed the door.

When he was ready he slipped a pistol into the pocket of his dressing-gown, belted it over his pyjamas, and walked into the sitting-room. His wife called him presently, and he went in. Her night-lamp was burning and she extended her hand to extinguish it.

“Could you sleep if it burns?” he asked bluntly

“Yes.”

“Then let it burn. This business has got on my nerves,” he muttered.

They looked at each other in an expressionless way. Both really understood how useless was this symbol of protection — this man the girl called husband; — how utterly useless his physical strength, and the pistol sagging in the pocket of his dressing-gown. But understood that the only real protection to be looked for must come from her — from the gifted and guardian mind of this young girl who lay there looking at him from the pillows.

“Good-night,” he said, flushing; “I’ll do my best. But only one of God’s envoys, like you, knows how to do battle with things that come out of hell.”

After a moment’s silence she said in a colourless voice: “I wish you’d lie down on the bed.”

“Had you rather I did?”

“Yes.”

So he went slowly to the bed, placing his pistol under the pillow, drew his dressing-gown around him, and lay down.

After he had lain unstirring for half an hour: “Try to sleep, Tressa,” he said, without turning his head.

“Can’t you seem to sleep, Victor?” she asked. And he heard her turn her head.

“No.”

“Shall I help you?”

“Do you mean use hypnosis — the power of suggestion — on me?”

“No. I can help you to sleep very gently. I can make you very drowsy . . . You are drowsy now . . . You are very close to the edge of sleep . . . Sleep, dear . . . Sleep, easily, naturally, confidently as a tired boy . . . You are sleeping . . . deeply . . . sweetly . . . my dear . . . my dear, dear husband.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29