The Slayer of Souls, by Robert W. Chambers

Chapter 16.

The Place of Prayer

Her husband called her on the telephone a few minutes later:

“Fifty-three, Six–Twenty-six speaking! Who is this?”

“V-sixty-nine,” replied his young wife happily. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. Is M. H. 2479 there?”

“He is here.”

“Very well. An hour ago I saw Togrul Khan in a limousine and chased him in a taxi. His car got away in the fog but it was possible to make out the number. An empty Cadillac limousine bearing the number is now waiting outside the 44th Street entrance to the Hotel Astor. The doorman will hold until I finish telephoning. Tell M. H. 2479 to send men to cover this matter —”

“Victor!”

“Be careful! Yes, what is it?”

“I beg you not to stir in this affair until I can join you —”

“Hurry then. It’s just across the street from Westover Court —” His voice ceased; she heard another voice, faintly, and an exclamation from her husband; then his hurried voice over the wire: “The doorman just sent word to hurry. The car number is N. Y. 015F0379! I’ve got to run! Good-b —”

He left the booth at the end of Peacock Alley, ran down the marble steps to the left and out to the snowy sidewalk, passing on his way a young girl swathed to the eyes in chinchilla who was hurrying into the hotel. As he came to where the limousine was standing, he saw that it was still empty although the door stood open and the engine was running. Around the chauffeur stood the gold laced doorman, the gorgeously uniformed carriage porter and a mounted policeman.

“Hey!” said the latter when he saw Cleves — “what’s the matter here? What are you holding up this car for?”

Cleves beckoned him, whispering, then turned to the doorman.

“Why did you send for me? Was the chauffeur trying to pull out?”

“Yes, sir. A lady come hurrying out an’ she jumps in, and the shawfur he starts her humming —”

“A lady! Where did she go?”

“It was that young lady in chinchilla fur. The one you just met when you run out. Yessir! Why, as soon as I held up the car and called this here cop, she opens the door and out she jumps and beats it into the hotel again —”

“Hold that car, Officer!” interrupted Cleves. “Keep it standing here and arrest anybody who gets into it! I’ll be back again —”

He turned and hurried into the hotel, traversed Peacock Alley scanning every woman he passed, searching for a slim shape swathed in chinchilla. There was no chinchilla wraps in Peacock Alley; none in the dining-room where people already were beginning to gather and the orchestra was now playing; no young girl in chinchilla in the waiting room, or in the north dining-room.

Then, suddenly, far across the crowded lobby, he saw a slender, bare-headed girl in a chinchilla cloak turn hurriedly away from the room-clerk’s desk, holding a key in her white gloved hand.

Before he could take two steps in her direction she had disappeared into the crowd.

He made his way through the packed lobby as best he could amid throngs of people dressed for dinner, theatre, or other gaiety awaiting them somewhere out there in the light-smeared winter fog; but when he arrived at the room clerk’s desk he looked for a chinchilla wraps in vain.

Then he leaned over the desk and said to the clerk in a low voice: “I am a Federal agent from the Department of Justice. Here are my credentials. Now, who was that young woman in chinchilla furs to whom you gave her door key a moment ago?”

The clerk leaned over his counter and, dropping his voice, answered that the lady in question had arrived only that morning form San Francisco; had registered as Madame Aoula Baroulass; and had been given a suite on the fourth floor numbered from 408 to 414.

“Do you mean to arrest her?” added the clerk in a weird whisper.

“I don’t know. Possibly. Have you the master-key?”

The clerk handed it to him without a word; and Cleves hurried to the elevator.

On the fourth floor the matron on duty halted him, but when he murmured an explanation she nodded and laid a finger on her lips.

“Madame has gone to her apartment,” she whispered.

“Has she a servant? Or friends with her?”

“No, sir . . . I did see her speak to two foreign-looking gentlemen in the elevator when she arrived this morning.”

Cleves nodded; the matron pointed out the direction in silence, and he went rapidly down the carpeted corridor, until he came to a door numbered 408.

For a second only he hesitated, then swiftly fitted the master-key and opened the door.

The room — a bedroom — was brightly lighted; but there was nobody there. The other rooms — dressing closet, bath-room and parlour, all were brilliantly lighted by ceiling fixtures and wall brackets; but there was not a person to be seen in any of the rooms — nor, save for the illumination, was there any visible sign that anybody inhabited the apartment.

Swiftly he searched the apartment from end to end. There was no baggage to be seen, no garments, no toilet articles, no flowers in the vases, no magazines or books, not one article of feminine apparel or of personal bric-a-brac visible in the entire place.

Nor had the bed even been turned down — nor any preparation for the night’s comfort been attempted. And, except for the blazing lights, it was as though the apartment had not been entered by anybody for a month.

All the windows were closed, all shades lowered and curtains drawn. The air, though apparently pure enough, had that vague flatness which one associates with an unused guest-chamber when opened for an airing.

Now, deliberately, Cleves began a more thorough search of the apartment, looking behind curtains, under beds, into clothes presses, behind sofas.

Then he searched the bureau drawers, dressers, desks for any sign or clew of the girl in the chinchillas. There was no dust anywhere — the hotel management evidently was particular — but there was not even a pin to be found.

Presently he went out into the corridor and looked again at the number on the door. He had made no mistake.

Then he turned and sped down the long corridor to where the matron was standing beside her desk preparing to go off duty as soon as the other matron arrived to relieve her.

To his impatient question she replied positively that she had seen the girl in chinchillas unlock 408 and enter the apartment less than five minutes before he had arrived in pursuit.

“And I saw her lights go on as soon as she went in,” added the matron, pointing to the distant illuminated transom.

“Then she went out through into the next apartment,” insisted Cleves.

“The fire-tower is on one side of her; the scullery closet on the other,” said the matron. “She could not have left that apartment without coming out into the corridor. And if she had come out I should have seen her.”

“I tell you she isn’t in those rooms!” protested Cleves.

“She must be there, sir. I saw her go in a few seconds before you came up.”

At that moment the other matron arrived. There was no use arguing. He left the explanation of the situation to the woman who was going off duty, and, hastening his steps, he returned to apartment 408.

The door, which he had left open, had swung shut. Again he fitted the master-key, entered, paused on the threshold, looked around nervously, his nostrils suddenly filled with a puff of perfume.

And there on the table by the bed he saw a glass bowl filled with a mass of Chinese orchids — great odorous clusters of orange and snow-white bloom that saturated all the room with their freshening scent.

So astonished was he that he stood stock still, one hand still on the door-knob; then in a trice he had closed and locked the door from inside.

Somebody was in that apartment. There could be no doubt about it. He dropped his right hand into his overcoat pocket and took hold of his automatic pistol.

For ten minutes he stood so, listening, peering about the room from bed to curtains, and out into the parlour. There was not a sound in the place. Nothing stirred.

Now, grasping his pistol but not drawing it, he began another stealthy tour of the apartment, exploring every nook and cranny. And, at the end, had discovered nothing new.

When at length he realised that, as far as he could discover, there was not a living thing in the place excepting himself, a very faint chill grew along his neck and shoulders, and he caught his breath suddenly, deeply.

He had come back to the bedroom, now. The perfume of the orchids saturated the still air.

And, as he stood staring at them, all of a sudden he saw, where their twisted stalks rested in the transparent bowl of water, something moving — somthing brilliant as a live ember gliding out from among the mass of submerged stems — a living fish glowing in scarlet hues and winnowing the water with grotesquely trailing fins as delicate as filaments of scarlet lace.

To and fro swam the fish among the maze of orchid stalks. Even its eyes were hot and red as molten rubies; and as its crimson gills swelled and relaxed and swelled, tints of cherry-fire waxed and waned over its fat and glowing body.

And vaguely, now, in the perfume saturated air, Cleves seemed to sense a subtle taint of evil — something sinister in the intense stillness of the place — in the jewelled fish gliding so silently in and out among the pallid convolutions of the drowned stems.

As he stood staring at the fish, the drugged odor of the orchids heavy in his throat and lungs, something stirred very lightly in the room.

Chills crawling over every limb, he looked around across his shoulder.

There was a figure seated cross-legged in the middle of the bed!

Then, in the perfumed silence, the girl laughed.

For a full minute neither of them moved. No sound had echoed her low laughter save the deadened pulsations of his own heart. But now there grew a faint ripple of water in the bowl where the scarlet fish, suddenly restless, was swimming hither and thither as though pursued by an invisible hand.

With the slight noise of splashing water in his ears, Cleves stood staring at the figure on the bed. Under her chinchilla cloak the girl seemed to be all a pale golden tint — hair, skin, eyes. The scant shred of an evening gown she wore, the jewels at her throat and breast, all were yellow and amber and saffron-gold.

And now, looking him in the eyes, she leisurely disengaged the robe of silver fur from her naked shoulders and let it fall around her on the bed. For a second the lithe, willowy golden thing gathered there as gracefully as a coiled snake filled him with swift loathing. Then, almost instantly, the beauty of the lissome creature fascinated him.

She leaned forward and set her elbows on her two knees, and rested her face between her hands — like a gold rose-bud between two ivory petals, he thought, dismayed by this young thing’s beauty, shaken by the dull confusion of his own heart battering his breast like the blows of a rising tide.

“What do you wish?” she inquired in her soft young voice. “Why have you come secretly into my rooms to search — and clasping in your hand a loaded pistol deep within your pocket?”

“Why have you hidden yourself until now?” he retorted in a dull and laboured voice.

“I have been here.”

“Where?”

“Here! . . . Looking at you . . . And watching my scarlet fish. His name is Dzelim. He is nearly a thousand years old and as wise as a magician. Look upon him, my lord! See how rapidly he darts around his tiny crystal world! — like a comet through outer star-dust, running the eternal race with Time . . . And — yonder is a chair. Will my lord be seated — at his new servant’s feet?”

A strange, physical weariness seemed to weight his limbs and shoulders. He seated himself near the bed, never taking his heavy gaze from the smiling, golden thing which squatted there watching him so intently.

“Whose limousine was that which you entered and then left so abruptly?” he asked.

“My own.”

“What was the Yezidee Togrul Kahn doing in it?”

“Did you see anybody in my car?” she asked, veiling her eyes a little with their tawny lashes.

“I saw a man with a thick beard dyed red with henna, and the bony face and slant eyes of Togrul the Yezidee.”

“May my soul be ransom for yours, my lord, but you lie!” she said softly. Her lips parted in a smile; but her half-veiled eyes were brilliant as two topazes.

“Is that your answer?”

She lifted one hand and with her forefinger made signs from right to left and then downward as though writing in Turkish and in Chinese characters.

“It is written,” she said in a low voice, “that we belong to God and we return to him. Look out what you are about, my lord!”

He drew his pistol from his overcoat and, holding it, rested his hand on his knee.

“Now,” he said hoarsely, “while we await the coming of Togrul Kahn, you shall remain exactly where you are, and you shall tell me exactly who you are in order that I may decide whether to arrest you as an alien enemy inciting my countrymen to murder, or to let you go as a foreigner who is able to prove her honesty and innocence.”

The girl laughed:

“Be careful,” she said. “My danger lies in your youth and mine — somewhere between your lips and mine lies my only danger from you, my lord.”

A dull flush mounted to his temples and burned there.

“I am the golden comrade of Heavenly–Azure,” she said, still smiling. “I am the Third Immaum in the necklace Keuke wears where Yulun hangs as a rose-pearl, and Sansa as a pearl of fire.

“Look upon me, my lord!”

There was a golden light in his eyes which seemed to stiffen the muscles and confuse his vision. He heard her voice again as though very far away:

“It is written that we shall love, my lord — thou and I— this night — this night. Listen attentively. I am thy slave. My lips shall touch thy feet. Look upon me, my lord!”

There was a dazzling blindness in his eyes and in his brain. He swayed a little still striving to fix her with his failing gaze. His pistol hand slipped sideways from his knee, fell limply, and the weapon dropped to the thick carpet. He could still see the glimmering golden shape of her, still hear her distant voice:

“It is written that we belong to God . . . Tokhta! . . . ”

Over his knees was settling a snow-white sheet; on it, in his lap, lay a naked knife. There was not a sound in the room save the rushing and splashing of the scarlet fish in its crystal bowl.

Bending nearer, the girl fixed her yellow eyes on the man who looked back at her with dying gaze, sitting upright and knee deep in his shroud.

Then, noiselessly she uncoiled her supple golden body, extended her right arm toward the knife.

“Throw back thy head, my lord, and stretch thy throat to the knife’s sweet edge,” she whispered caressingly. “No! — do not close your eyes. Look upon me. Look into my eyes. I am Aoula, temple girl of the Baroulass! I am mistress to the Slayer of Souls! I am a golden plaything to Sanang Noïane, Prince of the Yezidees. Look upon me attentively, my lord!”

Her smooth little hand closed on the hilt; the scarlet fish splashed furiously in the bowl, dislodging a blossom or two which fell to the carpet and slowly faded into mist.

Now she grasped the knife, and she slipped from the bed to the floor and stood before the dazed man.

“This is the Namaz–Ga,” she said in her silky voice. “Behold, this is the appointed Place of Prayer. Gaze around you, my lord. These are the shadows of mighty men who come here to see you die in the Place of Prayer.”

Cleves’s head had fallen back, but his eyes were open. The Baroulass girl took his head in both hands and turned it hither and thither. And his glazing eyes seemed to sweep a throng of shadowy white-robed men crowding the room. And he saw the bloodless, symmetrical visage of Sanang among them, and the great red beard of Togrul; and his stiffening lips parted in an uttered cry, and sagged open, flaccid and soundless.

The Baroulass sorceress lifted the shroud from his knees and spread it on the carpet, moving with leisurely grace about her business and softly intoning the Prayers of the Dead.

Then, having made the arrangements, she took her knife into her right hand again and came back to the half-conscious man, and stood close in front of him, bending near and looking curiously into his dimmed eyes.

“Ayah!” she said smilingly. “This is the Place of Prayer. And you shall add your prayer to ours before I use my knife. So! I give you back your power of speech. Pronounce the name of Erlik!”

Very slowly his dry lips moved and his dry tongue trembled. The word they formed was.

“Tressa!”

Instantly the girl’s yellow eyes grew incandescent and her lovely mouth became distorted. With her left hand she caught his chin, forced his head back, exposing his throat, and using all her strength drew the knife’s edge across it.

But it was only her clenched fingers that swept the taut throat — clenched and empty fingers from which the knife had vanished.

And when the Baroulass girl saw that her clenched hand was empty, felt her own pointed nails cutting into the tender flesh of her own palm, she stared at her blood-stained fingers in sudden terror — stared, spread them, shrieked where she stood, and writhed there trembling and screaming as though gripped in an invisible trap.

But she fell silent when the door of the room opened noiselessly behind her; — and it was as though she dared not turn her head to face the end of all things, which had entered the room and was drawing nearer in utter silence.

Suddenly she saw its shadow on the wall; and her voice burst from her lips in a last shuddering scream.

Then the end came slowly, without a sound, and she sank at the knees, gently, to a kneeling posture, then backward, extending her supple golden shape across the shroud; and lay there limp as a dead snake.

Tressa went to the bowl of water and drew from it every blossom. The scarlet fish was now thrashing the water to an iridescent spume; and Tressa plunged her hands and seized it and flung it out — squirming and wheezing crimson foam — on the shroud beside the golden girl of the Baroulass. Then, very slowly, she drew the shroud over the dying things; stepped back to the chair where he husband lay unconscious; knelt down beside him and took his head on her shoulder, gazing, all the while, at the outline of the dead girl under the snowy shroud.

After a long while Cleves stirred and opened his eyes. Presently he turned his head sideways on her shoulder.

“Tressa,” he whispered.

“Hush,” she whispered, “all is well now.” But she did not move her eyes from the shroud, which now outlined the still shapes of two human figures.

“John Recklow!” she called in a low voice.

Recklow entered noiselessly with drawn pistol. She motioned to him; he bent and lifted the edge of the shroud, cautiously. A bushy red beard protruded.

“Togrul!” he exclaimed . . . “But who is this young creature lying dead beside him?”

Then Tressa caught the collar of her tunic in her left hand and flung back her lovely face looking upward out of eyes like sapphires wet with rain:

“In the name of the one and only God,” she sobbed —“if there be no resurrection for dead souls, then I have slain this night in vain!

“For what does it profit a girl if her soul be lost to a lover and her body be saved for her husband?”

She rose from her knees, the tears still falling, and went and looked down at the outlined shapes beneath the shroud.

Recklow had gone to the telephone to summon his own men and an ambulance. Now, turning toward Tressa from his chair:

“God knows what we’d do without you, Mrs. Cleves. I believe this accounts for all the Yezidees except Sanang.”

“Excepting Prince Sanang,” she said drearily. Then she went slowly to where her husband lay in his armchair, and sank down on the floor, and laid her cheek across his feet.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chambers/robert_w/slayer-of-souls/chapter16.html

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