The Slayer of Souls, by Robert W. Chambers

Chapter 6.

In Battle

Cleves went back into the apartment; he noticed that Miss Norne’s door was ajar.

To get to his own he had to pass that way; and he saw her, seated before the mirror, partly undressed, her dark, lustrous hair being combed out and twisted up for the night.

Whether this carelessness was born of innocence or of indifference mattered little; he suddenly realised that these conditions wouldn’t do. And his first feeling was of anger.

“If you’ll put on your robe and slippers,” he said in an unpleasant voice, “I’d like to talk to you for a few moments.”

She turned her head on its charming neck and looked around and up at him over one naked shoulder.

“Shall I come into your room?” she inquired.

“No! . . . when you’ve got some clothes on, call me.”

“I’m quite ready now,” she said calmly, and drew the Chinese slippers over her bare feet and passed a silken loop over the silver bell buttons on her right shoulder. Then, undisturbed, she continued to twist her hair, following his movements in the mirror with unconcerned blue eyes.

He entered and seated himself, the impatient expression still creasing his forehead and altering his rather agreeable features.

“Miss Norne,” he said, “you’re absolutely convinced that these people mean to do you harm. Isn’t that true?”

“Of course,” she said simply.

“Then, until we get them, you’re running a serious risk. In fact, you live in hourly peril. That is your belief, isn’t it?”

She put the last peg into her thick, curly hair, lowered her arms, turned, dropped one knee over the other, and let her candid gaze rest on him in silence.

“What I mean to explain,” he said coldly, “is that as long as I induced you to go into this affair I’m responsible for you. If I let you out of my sight here in New York and if anything happens to you, I’ll be as guilty as the dirty beast who takes you life. What is your opinion? It’s up to me to stand by you now, isn’t it?”

“I had rather be near you — for a while.” she said timidly.

“Certainly. But, Miss Norne, our living here together, in my apartment — or living together anywhere else — is never going to be understood by other people. You know that, don’t you?”

After a silence, still looking at him out of clear, unembarrassed eyes:

“I know . . . But . . . I don’t want to die.”

“I told you,” he said sharply, “they’ll have to kill me first. So that’s all right. But how about what I am doing to your reputation?”

“I understand.”

“I suppose you do. You’re very young. Once out of this blooming mess, you will have all your life before you. But if I kill your reputation for you while saving you body from death, you’ll find no happiness in living. Do you realise that?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then? Have you any solution for this problem that confronts you?”

“No.”

“Haven’t you any idea to suggest?”

“I don’t — don’t want to die,” she repeated in an unsteady voice.

He bit his lip; and after a moment’s scowling silence under the merciless scrutiny of her eyes: “Then you had better marry me,” he said.

It was some time before she spoke. For a second or two he sustained the searching quality of her gaze, but it became unendurable.

Presently she said: “I don’t ask it of you. I can shoulder my own burdens.” And he remembered what he had just said to Recklow.

“You’ve shouldered more than your share,” he blurted out. “You are deliberately risking death to serve your country. I enlisted you. The least I can do is say my affections are not engaged; so naturally the idea of — of marrying anybody never entered my head.”

“Then you do not care for anybody else?”

Her candour amazed and disconcerted him.

“No.” He looked at her, curiously. “Do you care for anybody in that way?”

A light blush tinted her face. She said gravely: “If we really are going to marry each other, I had better tell you that I did care for Prince Sanang.”

“What!” he cried, astounded.

“It seems incredible, doesn’t it? Yet it is quite true. I fought him; I fought myself; I stood guard over my mind and senses there in the temple; I knew what he was and I detested him and I mocked him there in the temple . . . And I loved him.”

“Sanang!” he repeated, not only amazed but also oddly incensed at the naïve confession.

“Yes, Sanang . . . If we are to marry, I thought I ought to tell you. Don’t you think so?”

“Certainly,” he replied in an absent-minded way, his mind still grasping at the thing. Then, looking up: “Do you still care for this fellow?”

She shook her head.

“Are you perfectly sure, Miss Norne?”

“As sure as that I am alive when I awake from a nightmare. My hatred for Sanang is very bitter,” she added frankly, “and yet somehow it is not my wish to see him harmed.”

“You still care for him a little?”

“Oh, no. But — can’t you understand that it is not in me to wish him harm? . . . No girl feels that way — once having cared. To become indifferent to a familiar thing is perhaps natural; but to desire to harm it is not in my character.”

“You have plenty of character,” he said, staring at her.

“You don’t think so. Do you?”

“Why not?”

“Because of what I said to you on the roof-garden that night. It was shameful, wasn’t it?”

“You behaved like many a thoroughbred,” he returned bluntly; “you were scared, bewildered, ready to bolt to any shelter offered.”

“It’s quite true I didn’t know what to do to keep alive. And that was all that interested me — to keep on living — having lost my soul and being afraid to die and find myself in hell with Erlik.”

He said: “Isn’t that absurd notion out of your head yet?”

“I don’t know . . . I can’t suddenly believe myself safe after all those years. It is not easy to root out what was planted in childhood and what grew to be part of one during the tender and formative period . . . You can’t understand, Mr. Cleves — you can’t ever feel or visualise what became my daily life in a region which was half paradise and half hell —”

She bent her head and took her face between her fingers, and sat so, brooding.

After a little while: “Well,” he said, “there’s only one way to manage this affair — if you are willing, Miss Norne.”

She merely lifted her eyes.

“I think,” he said, “there’s only that one way out of it. But you understand”— he turned pink —“it will be quite all right — your liberty — privacy — I shan’t bother you — annoy —”

She merely looked at him.

“After this Bolshevistic flurry is settled — in a year or two — or three — then you can very easily get your freedom; and you’ll have all life before you” . . . he rose: “— and a jolly good friend in me — a good comrade, Miss Norne. And that mean you can count on me when you go into business — or whatever you decide to do.”

She also had risen, standing slim and calm in her exquisite Chinese robe, the sleeves of which covered her fingertips.

“Are you going to marry me?” she asked.

“If you’ll let me.”

“Yes — I will . . . it’s so generous and considerate of you. I— I don’t ask it; I really don’t —”

“But I do.”

“— And I never dreamed of such a thing.”

He forced a smile. “Nor I. It’s rather a crazy thing to do. But I know of no saner alternative . . . So we had better get our license tomorrow . . . And that settles it.”

He turned to go; and, on her threshold, his feet caught in something on the floor and he stumbled, trying to free his feet from a roll of soft white cloth lying there on the carpet. And when he picked it up, it unrolled, and a knife fell out of the folds of cloth and struck his foot.

Still perplexed, not comprehending, he stooped to recover the knife. Then, straightening up, he found himself looking into the colourless face of Tressa Norne.

“What’s all this?” he asked —“this sheet and knife here on the floor outside your door?”

She answered with difficulty: “They have sent you your shroud, I think.”

“Are not those things yours? Were they not already here in your baggage?” he demanded incredulously. Then, realising that they had not been there on the door-sill when he entered her room a few moments since, a rough chill passed over him — the icy caress of fear.

“Where did that thing come from?” he said hoarsely. “How could it get here when my door is locked and bolted? Unless there’s somebody hidden here?”

Hot anger suddenly flooded him; he drew his pistol and sprang into the passageway.

“What the devil is all this!” he repeated furiously, flinging open his bedroom door and switching on the light.

He searched his room in a rage, went on and searched the dining-room, smoking-room, and kitchen, and every clothes-press and closet, always aware of Tressa’s presence close behind him. And when there remained no tiniest nook or cranny in the place unsearched, he stood in the centre of the carpet glaring at the locked and bolted door.

He heard her say under her breath; “This is going to be a sleepless night. And a dangerous one.” And, turning to stare at her, saw no fear in her face, only excitement.

He still held clutched in his left hand the sheet and the knife. Now he thrust these toward her.

“What’s this damned foolery, anyway?” he demanded harshly. She took the knife with a slight shudder. “There is something engraved on the silver hilt,” she said.

He bent over her shoulder.

“Eighur,” she added calmly, “not Arabic. The Mongols had no written characters of their own.”

She bent closer, studying the inscription. After a moment, still studying the Eighur characters, she rested her left hand on his shoulder — an impulsive, unstudied movement that might have meant either confidence or protection.

“Look,” she said, “it is not addressed to you after all, but to a symbol — a series of numbers, 53–6-26.”

“That is my designation in the Federal Service.” he said sharply.

“Oh!” she nodded slowly. “Then this is what is written in the Mongol–Yezidee dialect, traced out in Eighur characters: ‘To 53–6-26! By one of the Eight Assassins the Slayer of Souls sends this shroud and this knife from Mount Alamout. Such a blade shall divide your heart. This sheet is for your corpse.’”

After a grim silence he flung the soft white cloth on the floor.

“There’s no use my pretending I’m not surprised and worried,” he said; “I don’t know how that cloth got here. Do you?”

“It was sent.”

“How?”

She shook her head and gave him a grave, confused look.

“There are ways. You could not understand . . . This is going to be a sleepless night for us.”

“You can go to bed, Tressa. I’ll sit up and read and keep an eye on that door.”

“I can’t let you remain here. I’m afraid to do that.”

He gave a laugh, not quite pleasant, as he suddenly comprehended that the girl now considered their rôles to be reversed.

“Are you planning to sit up in order to protect me?” he asked, grimly amused.

“Do you mind?”

“Why, you blessed little thing, I can take care of myself. How funny of you, when I am trying to plan how best to look out for you!”

But her face remained pale and concerned, and she rested her left hand more firmly on his shoulder.

“I wish to remain awake with you,” she said. “Because I myself don’t fully understand this”— she looked at the knife in her palm, then down at the shroud. “It is going to be a strange night for us,” she sighed. “Let us sit together here on the lounge where I can face that bolted door. And if you are willing, I am going to turn out the lights —” She suddenly bent forward and switched them off —“because I must keep my mind on guard.”

“Why do you do that?” he asked, “you can’t see the door, now.”

“Let me help you in my own way,” she whispered. “I— I am very deeply disturbed and very, very angry. I do not understand this new menace. Yezidee that I am, I do not understand what kind of danger threatens you through your loyalty to me.”

She drew him forward, and he opened his mouth to remonstrate, to laugh; but as he turned, his foot touched the shroud, and an uncontrollable shiver passed over him.

They went close together, across the dim room to the lounge, and seated themselves. Enough light from Madison Avenue made objects in the room barely discernible.

Sounds from the street below became rarer as the hours wore away. The iron jar of trams, the rattle of vehicles, the harsh warning of taxicabs broke the stillness at longer and longer intervals, until, save only for that immense and ceaseless vibration of the monstrous iron city under the foggy stars, scarcely a sound stirred the silence.

The half-hour had struck long ago on the bell of the little clock. Now the clear bell sounded three times.

Cleves stirred on the lounge beside Tressa. Again and again he had thought that she was asleep for her head had fallen back against the cushions, and she lay very still. But always, when he leaned nearer to peer down at her, he saw her eyes open, and fixed intently upon the bolted door.

His pistol, which still rested on his knee, was pointed across the room, toward the door. Once he reminded her in a whisper that she was unarmed and that it might be as well for her to go and get her pistol. But she murmured that she was sufficiently equipped; and, in spite of himself, he shivered as he glanced down at her frail and empty hands.

It was some time between three and half-past he judged, when a sudden movement of the girl brought him upright on his seat, quivering with excitement.

“Mr. Cleves!”

“Yes?”

“The Sorcerers!”

“Where? Outside the door?”

“Oh, my God,” she murmured, “they are after my mind again! Their fingers are groping to seize my brain and get possession of it!”

“What!” he stammered, horrified.

“Here — in the dark,” she whispered —“and I feel their fingers caressing me — searching — moving stealthily to surprise and grasp my thoughts . . . I know what they are doing . . . I am resisting . . . I am fighting — fighting!”

She sat bolt upright with clenched hands at her breast, her face palely aglow in the dimness as though illumined by some vivid inward light — or, as he thought — from the azure blaze in her wide-open eyes.

“Is — is this what you call — what you believe to be magic?” he asked unsteadily. “Is there some hostile psychic influence threatening you?”

“Yes. I’m resisting. I’m fighting — fighting. They shall not trap me. They shall not harm you! . . . I know how to defend myself and you! . . . And you!”

Suddenly she flung her left arm around his neck and the delicate clenched hand brushed his cheek.

“They shall not have you,” she breathed. “I am fighting. I am holding my own. There are eight of them — eight Assassins! My mind is in battle with theirs — fiercely in battle . . . I hold my own! I am armed and waiting!”

With a convulsive movement she drew his head closer to her shoulder. “Eight of them!” she whispered — “trying to entrap and seize my brain. But my thoughts are free! My mind is defending you — you, here in my arms!”

After a breathless silence: “Look out!” she whispered with terrible energy; “they are after your mind at last. Fix your thoughts on me! Keep you mind clear of their net! Don’t let their ghostly fingers touch it. Look at me!” She drew him closer. “Look at me! Believe in me! I can resist. I can defend you. Does your head feel confused?”

“Yes — numb.”

“Don’t sleep! Don’t close your eyes! Keep them open and look at me!”

“I can scarcely see you —”

“You must see me!”

“My eyes are heavy,” he said drowsily. “I can’t see you, Tressa —”

“Wake! Look at me! Keep your mind clear. Oh, I beg you — I beg you! They’re after our minds and souls, I tell you! Oh, believe in me,” she beseeched him in an agonised whisper —“Can’t you believe in me for a moment — as if you loved me!”

His heavy lids lifted and he tried to look at her.

“Can you see me? Can you?”

He muttered something in a confused voice.

“Victor!”

At the sound of his own name, he opened his eyes again and tried to straighten up, but his pistol fell to the carpet.

“Victor!” she gasped, “clear your mind in the name of God!”

“I can not —”

“I tell you hell is opening beyond that door! — outside your bolted door, there! Can’t you believe me! Can’t you hear me! Oh, what will hold you if the love of God can not!” she burst out. “I’d crucify myself for you if you’d look at me — if you’d only fight hard enough to believe in me — as though you loved me!”

His eyes unclosed but he sank back against her shoulder.

“Victor!” she cried in a terrible voice.

There was no answer.

“If the love of God could only hold you for a moment more!”— she stammered with her mouth against his ear, “just for a moment, Victor! Can’t you hear me?”

“Yes — very far away.”

“Fight for me! Try to care for me! Don’t let Sanang have me!”

He shuddered in her arms, reaching out and resting heavily on her shoulder, staggered to his feet and stood swaying like a drunken man.

“No, by God,” he said thickly, “Sanang shall not touch you.”

The girl was on her feet now, holding him upright with an arm around his shoulders.

“They can’t — can’t harm us together,” she stammered. “Hark! Listen! Can you hear? Oh, can you hear?’

“Give me my pistol,” he tried to say, but his tongue seemed twisted. “No — by God — Sanang shall not touch you.”

She stooped lithely and recovered the weapon. “Hush,” she said close to his burning face. “Listen. Our minds are safe! I can hear somebody’s soul bidding its body farewell!”

White-lipped she burst out laughing, kicked the shroud out of the way, thrust the pistol into his right hand, went forward, forcing him along beside her, and drew the bolts from the door.

Suddenly he spoke distinctly:

“Is there anything outside that door on the landing?”

“Yes . . . I don’t know what. Are you ready?” She laid her hand on lock and knob.

He nodded. At the same instant she jerked open the door; and a hunchback who had been picking at the lock fell headlong into the room, his pistol exploding on the carpet in a streak of fire.

It was a horrible struggle to secure the powerful misshapen creature, for he clawed and squealed and bounced about on the floor, striking blindly with ape-like arms. But at last Cleves held him down, throttled and twitching, and Tressa ripped strips from the shroud to truss up the writhing thing.

Then Cleves switched on the light.

“Why — why — you rat!” he exclaimed in hysterical relief at seeing a living man who he recognised there at his feet. “What are you doing here?”

The hunchback’s red eyes blazed up at him from the floor.

“Who — who is he?” faltered the girl.

“He’s a German tailor named Albert Feke — one of the Chicago Bolsheviki — the most dangerous sort we harbour — one of their vile leaders who preaches that might is right and tells his disciples to go ahead and take what they want.”

He looked down at the malignant cripple.

“You’re wanted for the I.W.W. bomb murder, Albert. Did you know that?”

The hunchback licked his bloody lips. Then he kicked himself to a sitting position, squatted there like a toad and looked steadily at Tressa Norne out of small, red-rimmed eyes. Blood dripped on his beard; his huge hairy fists, tied and crossed behind his back, made odd, spasmodic movements.

Cleves went to the telephone. Presently Tressa heard his voice, calm and distinct as usual:

“We’ve caught Albert Feke. He’s here at my rooms. I’d like to have you come over, Recklow . . . Oh, yes, he kicked and scuffled and scratched like a cat . . . What? . . . No, I hadn’t heard that he’d been in China . . . Who? . . . Albert Feke? You say he was one of the Germans who escaped from Shantung four years ago? . . . You think he’s a Yezidee! You mean one of the Eight Assassins?”

The hunchback, staring at Tressa out of red-rimmed eyes, suddenly snarled and lurched his misshapen body at her.

“Teufelstuck!” he screamed, “ain’t I tell efferybody in Yian already it iss safer we cut your throat! Devil-slut of Erlik — snow-leopardess! — cat of the Yezidees who has made of Sanang a fool! — it iss I who haf said always, always, that you know too damn much! . . . Kai! . . . I hear my soul bidding me farewell. Gif me my shroud!”

Cleves came back from the telephone. With the toe of his left foot he lifted the shroud and kicked it across the hunchback’s knees.

“So you were one of the huns who instigated the massacre in Yian,” he said, curiously. At that Tressa turned very white and a cry escaped her.

But the hunchback’s features were all twisted into ferocious laughter, and he beat on the carpet with the heels of his great splay feet.

“Ja! Ja!” he shrieked, “in Yian it vas a goot hunting! English and Yankee men und vimmens ve haff dropped into dose deep wells down. Py Gott in Himmel, how day schream up out of dose deep wells in Yian!” He began to cackle and shriek in his frenzy. “Ach Gott ja! It iss not you either — you there, Keuke Mongol, who shall escape from the Sheiks-el-Djebel! It iss de Old Man of the Mountain who shall tell your soul it iss time to say farewell! Ja! Ja! Ach Gott! — it iss my only regret that I shall not see the world when it is all afire! Ja! Ja! — all on fire like hell! But you shall see it, slut-leopard of the snows! You shall see it und you shall burn! Kai! Kai! My soul it iss bidding my body farewell. Kai! May Erlik curse you, Keuke Mongol — Heavenly Azure — Sorceress of the temple! —?”

He spat at her and rolled over in his shroud.

The girl looked down on him closed her eyes for a moment, and Cleves saw her bloodless lips move, and bent nearer, listening. And he heard her whispering to herself:

“Preserve us all, O God, from the wrath of Satan who was stoned.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/chambers/robert_w/slayer-of-souls/chapter6.html

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