The Slayer of Souls, by Robert W. Chambers

Chapter 3.

Grey Magic

To Victor Cleves came the following telegram in code:

“Washington.

“April 14th, 1919.

“Investigation ordered by the State Department as the result of frequent mention in despatches of Chinese troops operating with the Russian Bolsheviki forces had disclosed that the Bolsheviki are actually raising a Chinese division of 30,000 men recruited in Central Asia. This division had been guilty of the greatest cruelties. A strange rumour prevails among the Allied forces at Archangel that this Chinese division is led by Yezidee and Hassani officers belonging to the sect of devil-worshippers and that they employ black arts and magic in battle.

“From information so far gathered by the several branches of the United States Secret Service operating throughout the world, it appears possible that the various revolutionary forces of disorder, in Europe and Asia, which now are violently threatening the peace and security, of all established civilisation on earth, may have had a common origin. This origin, it is now suspected, may date back to a very remote epoch; the wide-spread forces of violence and merciless destruction may have had their beginning among some ancient and predatory race whose existence was maintained solely by robbery and murder.

“Anarchists, terrorists, Bolshevists, Reds of all shades and degrees, are now believed to represent in modern times what perhaps once was a tribe of Assassins — a sect whose religion was founded upon a common predilection for crimes and violence.

“On this theory then, for the present, the United States Government will proceed with this investigation of Bolshevism; and the Secret Service will continue to pay particular attention to all Orientals in the United States and other countries. You personally are formally instructed to keep in touch with XLY-371 (Alek Selden) and ZB-303 (James Benton), and to employ every possible means to become friendly with the girl Tressa Norne, win her confidence, and, if possible, enlist her actively in the Government Service as your particular aide and comrade.

“It is equally important that the movements of the Oriental, called Sanang, be carefully observed in order to discover the identity and whereabouts of his companions. However, until further instructions he is not to be taken into custody. M.H. 2479.

“(Signed)

“(JOHN RECKLOW)”

The long despatch from John Recklow made Cleves’s duty plain enough.

For months, now, Selden and Benton had been watching Tressa Norne. And they had learned practically nothing about her.

And now the girl had come within Cleves’s sphere of operation. She had been in New York for two weeks. Telegrams from Benton in Chicago, and from Selden in Buffalo, had prepared him for her arrival.

He had his men watching her boarding-house on West Twenty-eighth Street, men to follow her, men to keep their eyes on her at the theatre, where every evening, at 10:45, her entr’acte was staged. He knew where to get her. But he, himself, had been on the watch for the man Sanang; and had failed to find the slightest trace of him in New York, although warned that he had arrived.

So, for that evening, he left the hunt for Sanang to others, put on his evening clothes, and dined with fashionable friends at the Patroons’ Club, who never for an instant suspected that young Victor Cleves was in the Service of the United States Government. About half-past nine he strolled around to the theatre, desiring to miss as much as possible of the popular show without being too late to see the curious little entr’acte in which this girl, Tressa Norne, appeared alone.

He had secured an aisle seat near the stage at an outrageous price; the main show was still thundering and fizzing and glittering as he entered the theatre; so he stood in the rear behind the orchestra until the descending curtain extinguished the outrageous glare and din.

Then he went down the aisle, and as he seated himself Tressa Norne stepped from the wings and stood before the lowered curtain facing an expectant but oddly undemonstrative audience.

The girl worked rapidly, seriously, and in silence. She seemed a mere child there behind the footlights, not more than sixteen anyway — her winsome eyes and wistful lips unspoiled by the world’s wisdom.

Yet once or twice the mouth drooped for a second and the winning eyes darkened to a remoter blue — the brooding iris hue of far horizons.

She wore the characteristic tabard of stiff golden tissue and the gold pagoda-shaped headpiece of a Yezidee temple girl. Her flat, slipper-shaped footgear was of stiff gold, too, and curled upward at the toes.

All this accentuated her apparent youth. For in face and throat no firmer contours had as yet modified the soft fullness of immaturity; her limbs were boyish and frail, and her bosom more undecided still, so that the embroidered breadth of gold fell flat and straight from her chest to a few inches above the ankles.

She seemed to have no stock of paraphernalia with which to aid the performance; no assistant, no orchestral diversion, nor did she serve herself with any magician’s patter. She did her work close to the footlights.

Behind her loomed a black curtain; the strip of stage in front was bare even of carpet; the orchestra remained mute.

But when she needed anything — a little table, for example — well, it was suddenly there where she required it — a tripod, for instance, evidently fitted to hold the big iridescent bubble of glass in which swarmed little tropical fishes — and which arrived neatly from nowhere. She merely placed her hands before her as though ready to support something weighty which she expected and — suddenly, the huge crystal bubble was visible, resting between her hands. And when she tired of holding it, she set it upon the empty air and let go of it; and instead of crashing to the stage with its finny rainbow swarm of swimmers, out of thin air appeared a tripod to support it.

Applause followed, not very enthusiastic, for the sort of audience which sustains the shows of which her performance was merely an entr’acte is an audience responsive only to the obvious.

Nobody ever before had seen that sort of magic in America. People scarcely knew whether or not they quite liked it. The lightning of innovation stupefies the dull; ignorance is always suspicious of innovation — always afraid to put itself on record until its mind is made up by somebody else.

So in this typical New York audience approbation was cautious, but every fascinated eye remained focused on this young girl who continued to do incredible things, which seemed to resemble “putting something over” on them; a thing which no uneducated American conglomeration ever quite forgives.

The girl’s silence, too, perplexed them; they were accustomed to gabble, to noise, to jazz, vocal and instrumental, to that incessant metropolitan clamour which fills ever second with sound in a city whose only distinction is its din. Stage, press, art, letters, social existence unless noisy mean nothing in Gotham; reticence, leisure, repose are the three lost arts. The megaphone is the city’s symbol; its chiefest crime, silence.

The girl having finished with the big glass bubble full of tiny fish, picked it up and tossed it aside. For a moment it apparently floated there in space like a soap-bubble. Changing rainbow tints waxed and waned on the surface, growing deeper and more gorgeous until the floating globe glowed scarlet, then suddenly burst into flame and vanished. And only a strange, sweet perfume lingered in the air.

But she gave her perplexed audience no time to wonder; she had seated herself on the stage and was already swiftly busy unfolding a white veil with which she presently covered herself, draping it over her like a tent.

The veil seemed to be translucent; she was apparently visible seated beneath it. But the veil turned into smoke, rising into the air in a thin white cloud; and there, where she had been seated, was a statue of white stone the image of herself! — in all the frail springtide of early adolescence — a white statue, cold, opaque, exquisite in its sculptured immobility.

There came, the next moment, a sound of distant thunder; flashes lighted the blank curtain; and suddenly a vein of lightning and a sharper peal shattered the statue to fragments.

There they lay, broken bits of her own sculptured body, glistening in a heap behind the footlights. Then each fragment began to shimmer with a rosy internal light of its own, until the pile of broken marble glowed like living coals under thickening and reddening vapours. And, presently, dimly perceptible, there she was in the flesh again, seated in the fiery centre of the conflagration, stretching her arms luxuriously, yawning, seemingly awakening from refreshing slumber, her eyes unclosing to rest with a sort of confused apology upon her astonished audience.

As she rose to her feet nothing except herself remained on the stage — no debris, not a shred of smoke, not a spark.

She came down, then, across an inclined plank into the orchestra among the audience.

In the aisle seat nearest her sat Victor Cleves. His business was to be there that evening. But she didn’t know that, knew nothing about him — had never before set eyes on him.

At her gesture of invitation he made a cup of both his hands. Into these she poured a double handful of unset diamonds — or what appeared to be diamonds — pressed her own hands above his for a second — and the diamonds in his palms had become pearls.

These were passed around to people in the vicinity, and finally returned to Mr. Cleves, who, at her request, re-covered the heap of pearls with both his hands, hiding them entirely from view.

At her nod he uncovered them. The pearls had become emeralds. Again, while he held them, and without even touching him, she changed them into rubies. Then she turned away from him, apparently forgetting that he still held the gems, and he sat very still, one cupped hand over the other, while she poured silver coins into a woman’s gloved hands, turned them into gold coins, then flung each coin into the air, where it changed to a living, fragrant rose and fell among the audience.

Presently she seemed to remember Cleves, came back down the aisle, and under his close and intent gaze drew from his cupped hands, one by one, a score of brilliant little living birds, which continually flew about her and finally perched, twittering, on her golden headdress — a rainbow-crest of living jewels.

As she drew the last warm, breathing little feathered miracle from Cleves’s hands and released it, he said rapidly under his breath: “I want a word with you later. Where?”

She let her clear eyes rest on him for a moment, then with a shrug so slight that it was perceptible, perhaps, only to him, she moved on along the inclined way, stepped daintily over the footlights, caught fire, apparently, nodded to a badly rattled audience, and sauntered off, burning from head to foot.

What applause there was became merged in a dissonant instrumental outburst from the orchestra; the great god Jazz resumed direction, the mindless audience breathed freely again as the curtain rose upon a familiar, yelling turbulence, including all that Gotham really understands and cares for — legs and noise.

Victor Cleves glanced up at the stage, then continued to study the name of the girl on the programme. It was featured in rather pathetic solitude under “Entr’acte.” And he read further: “During the entr’acte Miss Tressa Norne will entertain you with several phases of Black Magic. This strange knowledge was acquired by Miss Norne from the Yezidees, among which almost unknown people still remain descendants of that notorious and formidable historic personage know in the twelfth century as The Old Man of the Mountain — or The Old Man of Mount Alamout.

“The pleasant profession of this historic individual was assassination; and some historians now believe that genuine occult power played a part in his dreadful record — a record which terminated only when the infantry of Ghenghis Khan took Mount Alamout by storm and hanged the Old Man of the Mountain and burned his body under a boulder of You–Stone.

“For Miss Norne’s performance there appears to be no plausible, practical or scientific explanation.

“During her performance the curtain will remain lowered for fifteen minutes and will then rise on the last act of ‘You Betcha Life.’”

The noisy show continued while Cleves, paying it scant attention, brooded over the programme. And ever his keen, grey eyes reverted to her name, Tressa Norne.

Then, for a little while, he settled back and let his absent gaze wander over the galloping battalions of painted girls and the slapstick principals whose perpetual motion evoked screams of approbation from the audience amid the din of the great god Jazz.

He had an aisle seat; he disturbed nobody when he went out and around to the stage door.

The aged man on duty took his card, called a boy and sent it off. The boy returned with the card, saying that Miss Norne had already dressed and departed.

Cleves tipped him and then tipped the doorman heavily.

“Where does she live?” he asked.

“Say,” said the old man, “I dunno, and that’s straight. But them ladies mostly goes up to the roof for a look in at the ‘Moonlight Masque’ and a dance afterward. Was you ever up there?”

“Yes.”

“Seen the new show?”

“No.”

“Well, g’wan up while you can get a table. And I bet the little girl will be somewheres around.”

“The little girl” was “somewheres around.” He secured a table, turned and looked about at the vast cabaret into which only a few people had yet filtered, and saw her at a distance in the carpeted corridor buying violets from one of the flower-girls.

A waiter placed a reserve card on his table; he continued on around the outer edge of the auditorium.

Miss Norne had already seated herself at a small table in the rear, and a waiter was serving her with iced orange juice and little French cakes.

When the waiter returned Cleves went up and took off his hat.

“May I talk to you for a moment, Miss Norne?” he asked.

The girl looked up, the wheat-straw still between her scarlet lips. Then, apparently recognising in him the young man in the audience who had spoken to her, she resumed her business of imbibing orange juice.

The girl seemed even frailer and younger in her hat and street gown. A silver-fox stole hung from her shoulders; a gold bag lay on the table under the bunch of violets.

She paid no attention whatever to him. Presently her wheat-straw buckled, and she selected a better one.

He said: “There’s something rather serious I’d like to speak to you about if you’ll let me. I’m not the sort you evidently suppose. I’m not trying to annoy you.”

At that she looked around and upward once more.

Very, very young, but already spoiled, he thought, for the dark-blue eyes were coolly appraising him, and the droop of the mouth had become almost sullen. Besides, traces of paint still remained to incarnadine lip and cheek and there was a hint of hardness in the youthful plumpness of the features.

“Are you a professional?” she asked without curiosity.

“A theatrical man? No.”

“Then if you haven’t anything to offer me, what is it you wish?”

“I have a job to offer if you care for it and if you are up to it,” he said.

Her eyes became slightly hostile:

“What kind of job do you mean?”

“I want to learn something about you first. Will you come over to my table and talk it over?”

“No.”

“What sort do you suppose me to be?” he inquired, amused.

“The usual sort, I suppose.”

“You mean a Johnny?”

“Yes — of sorts.”

She let her insolent eyes sweep him once more from head to foot.

He was a well-built young man and in his evening dress he had that something about him which placed him very definitely where he really belonged.

“Would you mind looking at my card?” he asked.

He drew it out and laid it beside her, and without stirring she scanned it sideways.

“That’s my name and address,” he continued. “I’m not contemplating mischief. I’ve enough excitement in life without seeking adventure. Besides, I’m not the sort who goes about annoying women.”

She glanced up at him again:

“You are annoying me!”

“I’m sorry. I was quite honest. Good-night.”

He took his congé with unhurried amiability; had already turned away when she said:

“Please . . . what do you desire to say to me?” He came back to her table:

“I couldn’t tell you until I know a little more about you.”

“What — do you wish to know?”

“Several things. I could scarcely ask you — go over such matters with you — standing here.”

There was a pause; the girl juggled with the straw on the table for a few moments, then, partly turning, she summoned a waiter, paid him, adjusted her stole, picked up her gold bag and her violets and stood up. Then she turned to Cleves and gave him a direct look, which had in it the impersonal and searching gaze of a child.

When they were seated at the table reserved for him the place already was filling rapidly — backwash from the theatres slopped through every aisle — people not yet surfeited with noise, not yet sufficiently sodden by their worship of the great god Jazz.

“Jazz,” said Cleves, glancing across his dinnercard at Tressa Norne — “what’s the meaning of the word? Do you happen to know?”

“Doesn’t it come from the French ‘jaser’?”

He smiled. “Possibly. I’m rather hungry. Are you?”

“Yes.”

“Will you indicate your preferences?”

She studied her card, and presently he gave the order.

“I’d like some champagne,” she said, “unless you think it’s too expensive.”

He smiled at that, too, and gave the order.

“I didn’t suggest any wine because you seem so young,” he said.

“How old do I seem?”

“Sixteen perhaps.”

“I am twenty-one.”

“Then you’ve had no troubles.”

“I don’t know what you call trouble,” she remarked, indifferently, watching the arriving throngs.

The orchestra, too, had taken its place.

“Well,” she said, “now that you’ve picked me up, what do you really want of me?” There was no mitigating smile to soften what she said. She dropped her elbows on the table, rested her chin between her palms and looked at him with the same searching, undisturbed expression that is so disconcerting in children. As he made no reply: “May I have a cocktail?” she inquired.

He gave the order. And his mind registered pessimism. “There is nothing doing with this girl,” he thought. “She’s already on the toboggan.” But he said aloud: “That was beautiful work you did down in the theatre, Miss Norne.”

“Did you think so?”

“Of course. It was astounding work.”

“Thank you. But managers and audiences differ with you.”

“Then they are very stupid,” he said.

“Possibly. But that does not help me pay my board.”

“Do you mean you have trouble in securing theatrical engagements?”

“Yes, I am through here to-night, and there’s nothing else in view, so far.”

“That’s incredible!” he exclaimed.

She lifted her glass, slowly draining it.

For a few moments she caressed the stem of the empty glass, her gaze remote.

“Yes, it’s that way,” she said. “From the beginning I felt that my audiences were not in sympathy with me. Sometimes it even amounts to hostility. Americans do not like what I do, even if it holds their attention. I don’t quite understand why they don’t like it, but I’m always conscious they don’t. And of course that settles it — to-night has settled the whole thing, once and for all.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What others do, I presume.”

“What do others do?” he inquired, watching the lovely sullen eyes.

“Oh, they do what I’m doing now, don’t they? — let some man pick them up and feed them.” She lifted her indifferent eyes. “I’m not criticising you. I meant to do it some day — when I had courage. That’s why I just asked you if I might have some champagne — finding myself a little scared at my first step . . . But you did say you might have a job for me. Didn’t you?”

“Suppose I haven’t. What are you going to do?”

The curtain was rising. She nodded toward the bespangled chorus. “Probably that sort of thing. They’ve asked me.”

Supper was served. They both were hungry and thirsty; the music made conversation difficult, so they supped in silence and watched the imbecile show conceived by vulgarians, produced by vulgarians and served up to mental degenerates of the same species — the average metropolitan audience.

For ten minutes a pair of comedians fell up and down a flight of steps, and the audience shrieked approval.

“Miss Norne?”

The girl who had been watching the show turned in her chair and looked back at him.

“Your magic is by far the most wonderful I have ever seen or heard of. Even in India such things are not done.”

“No, not in India,” she said, indifferently.

“Where then?”

“In China.”

“You learned to do such things there?”

“Yes.”

“Where, in China, did you learn such amazing magic?”

“In Yian.”

“I never heard of it. Is it a province?”

“A city.”

“And you lived there?”

“Fourteen years.”

“When?”

“From 1904 to 1918.”

“During the great war,” he remarked, “you were in China?”

“Yes.”

“Then you arrived here very recently.”

“In November, from the Coast.”

“I see. You played the theatres from the Coast eastward.”

“And went to pieces in New York,” she added calmly, finishing her glass of champagne.

“Have you any family?” he asked.

“No.”

“Do you care to say anything further?” he inquired pleasantly.

“About my family? Yes, if you wish. My father was in the spice trade in Yian. The Yezidees took Yian in 1910, threw him into a well in his own compound and filled it up with dead imperial troops. I was thirteen years old . . . The Hassani did that. They held Yian nearly eight years, and I lived with my mother, in a garden pagoda, until 1914. In January of that year Germans got through from Kiaou–Chou. They had been six months on the way. I think they were Hassanis. Anyway, they persuaded the Hassanis to massacre every English-speaking prisoner. And so — my mother died in the garden pagoda of Yian . . . I was not told for four years.”

“Why did they spare you?” he asked, astonished at her story so quietly told, so utterly destitute of emotion.

“I was seventeen. A certain person had placed me among the temple girls in the temple of Erlik. It pleased this person to make of me a Mongol temple girl as a mockery at Christ. They gave me the name Keuke Mongol. I asked to serve the shrine of Kwann-an — she being like to our Madonna. But this person gave me the choice between the halberds of the Tchortchas and the sorcery of Erlik.”

She lifted her somber eyes. “So I learned how to do the things you saw. But — what I did there on the stage is not — respectable.”

An odd shiver passed over him. For a second he took her literally, suddenly convinced that her magic was not white but black as the demon at whose shrine she had learned it. Then he smiled and asked her pleasantly, whether indeed she employed hypnosis in her miraculous exhibitions.

But her eyes became more sombre still, and, “I don’t care to talk about it,” she said. “I have already said too much.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry into professional secrets —”

“I can’t talk about it,” she repeated. “ . . . Please — my glass is quite empty.”

When he had refilled it:

“How did you get away from Yian?” he asked.

“The Japanese.”

“What luck!”

“Yes. One battle was fought at Buldak. The Hassanis and Blue Flags were terribly cut up. Then, outside the walls of Yian, Prince Sanang’s Tchortcha infantry made a stand. He was there with his Yezidee horsemen, all in leather and silk armour with casques and corselets of black Indian steel.

“I could see them from the temple — saw the Japanese gunners open fire. The Tchortchas were blown to shreds in the blast of the Japanese guns . . . Sanang got away with some of his Yezidee horsemen.”

“Where was that battle?”

“I told you, outside the walls of Yian.”

“The newspapers never mentioned any such trouble in China,” he said suspiciously.

“Nobody knows about it except the Germans and the Japanese.”

“What is this Sanang?” he demanded.

“A Yezidee–Mongol. He is one of the Sheiks-el-Djebel — a servant of The Old Man of Mount Alamout.”

“What is he?”

“A sorcerer-assassin.”

“What!” exclaimed Cleves incredulously.

“Why, yes,” she said, calmly. “Have you never heard of The Old Man of Mount Alamout?”

“Well, yes —”

“The succession has been unbroken since 1090 B.C. A Hassan Sabbah is still the present Old Man of the Mountain. His Yezidees worship Erlik. They are sorcerers. But you would not believe that.”

Cleves said with a smile, “Who is Erlik?”

“The Mongol’s Satan.”

“Oh! So these Yezidees are devil-worshipers!”

“They are more. They are actually devils.”

“You don’t really believe that even in an unexplored China there exists such a creature as a real sorcerer, do you?” he inquired, smilingly.

“I don’t wish to talk of it.”

To his surprise her face had flushed, and he thought her sensitive mouth quivered a little.

He watched her in silence for a moment; then, leaning a little way across the table:

“Where are you going when the show here closes?”

“To my boarding-house.”

“And then?”

“To bed,” she said, sullenly.

“And to-morrow what do you mean to do?”

“Go out to the agencies and ask for work.”

“And if there is none?’

“The chorus,” she said, indifferently.

“What salary have you been getting?”

She told him.

“Will you take three times that amount and work with me?”

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