The Slayer of Souls, by Robert W. Chambers

Chapter 7.

The Bridal

Over the United States stretched an unseen network of secret intrigue woven tirelessly night and day by the busy enemies of civilisation — Reds, parlour-socialists, enemy-aliens, terrorists, Bolsheviki, pseudo-intellectuals, I.W.W.‘s, social faddists, and amateur meddlers of every nuance — all the various varieties of the vicious, witless, and mentally unhinged — brought together through the “cohesive power of plunder” and the degeneration of cranial tissue.

All over the United States the various departmental divisions of the Secret Service were busily following up these threads of intrigue leading everywhere though the obscurity of this vast and secret maze.

To meet the constantly increasing danger of physical violence and to uncover secret plots threatening sabotage and revolution, there were capable agents in every branch of the Secret Service, both Federal and State.

But in the first months of 1919, something more terrifying than physical violence suddenly threatened civilised America — a wild, grotesque, incredible threat of a war on human minds!

And, little by little, the United States Government became convinced that this ghastly menace was no dream of a disordered imagination, but that it was real: that among the enemies of civilisation there actually existed a few powerful but perverted minds capable of wielding psychic forces as terrific weapons: that by the sinister use of psychic knowledge controlling these mighty forces the very minds of mankind could be stealthily approached, seized, controlled and turned upon civilisation to aid in the world’s destruction.

In terrible alarm the Government turned to England for advice. But Sir William Crookes was dead.

However, in England, Sir Conan Doyle immediately took up the matter, and in America Professor Hyslop was called into consultation.

And then, when the Government was beginning to realise what this awful menace meant, and that there were actually in the United States possibly half a dozen people who already had begun to carry on a diabolical warfare by means of psychic power, for the purpose of enslaving and controlling the very minds of men — then, in the terrible moment of discovery, a young girl landed in America after fourteen years’ absence in Asia.

And this was the amazing girl that Victor Cleves had just married, at Recklow’s suggestion, and in the line of professional duty — and moral duty, perhaps.

It had been a brief, matter-of-fact ceremony. John Recklow, of the Secret Service, was there; also Benton and Selden of the same service.

The bride’s lips were unresponsive; cold as the touch of the groom’s unsteady hand.

She looked down at her new ring in a blank sort of way, gave her hand listlessly to Recklow and to the others in turn, whispered a timidly comprehensive “Thank you,” and walked away beside Cleves as though dazed.

There was a taxicab waiting. Tressa entered. Recklow came out and spoke to Cleves in a low voice.

“Don’t worry,” replied Cleves dryly. “That’s why I married her.”

“Where are you going now?” inquired Recklow.

“Back to my apartment.”

“Why don’t you take her away for a month?”

Cleves flushed with annoyance: “This is no occasion for a wedding trip. You understand that, Recklow.”

“I understand. But we ought to give her a breathing space. She’s had nothing but trouble. She’s worn out.”

Cleves hesitated: “I can guard her better in the apartment. Isn’t it safer to go back there, where your people are always watching the street and house day and night?”

“In way it might be safer, perhaps. But that girl is nearly exhausted. And her value to us is unlimited. She may be the vital factor in this fight with anarchy. Her weapon is her mind. And it’s got to have a chance to rest.”

Cleves, with on hand on the cab door, looked around impatiently.

“Do you, also, conclude that the psychic factor is actually part of this damned problem of Bolshevism?”

Recklow’s cool eyes measured him: “Do you?”

“My God, Recklow, I don’t know — after what my own eyes have seen.”

“I don’t know either,” said the other calmly, “but I am taking no chances. I don’t attempt to explain certain things that have occurred. But if it be true that a misuse of psychic ability by foreigners — Asiatics — among the anarchists is responsible for some of the devilish things being done in the United States, then your wife’s unparalleled knowledge of the occult East is absolutely vital to us. And so I say, better take her away somewhere and give her mind a chance to recover from the incessant strain of these tragic years.”

The two men stood silent for a moment, then Recklow went to the window of the taxicab.

“I have been suggesting a trip into the country, Mrs. Cleves,” he said pleasantly,”— into the real country, somewhere — a month’s quiet in the woods, perhaps. Wouldn’t it appeal to you?”

Cleves turned to catch her low-voiced answer.

“I should like it very much,” she said in that odd, hushed way of speaking, which seemed to have altered her own voice and manner since the ceremony a little while before.

Driving back to his apartment beside her, he strove to realise that this girl was his wife.

One of her gloves lay across her lap, and on it rested a slender hand. And on one finger was his ring.

But Victor Cleves could not bring himself to believe that this brand-new ring really signified anything to him — that it had altered his own life in any way. But always his incredulous eyes returned to that slim finger resting there, unstirring, banded with a narrow circlet of virgin gold.

In the apartment they did not seem to know exactly what to do or say — what attitude to assume — what effort to make.

Tressa went into her own room, removed her hat and furs, and come slowly back into the living-room, where Cleves stood gazing absently out of the window.

A fine rain was falling.

They seated themselves. There seemed nothing better to do.

He said, politely: “In regard to going away for a rest, you wouldn’t care for the North Woods, I fancy, unless you like winter sports. Do you?”

“I like sunlight and green leaves,” she said in that odd, still voice.

“Then, if it would please you to go South for a few weeks’ rest —?”

“Would it inconvenience you?”

Her manner touched him.

“My dear Miss Norne,” he began, and checked himself, flushing painfully. The girl blushed, too; then, when he began to laugh, her lovely, bashful smile glimmered for the first time.

“I really can’t bring myself to realise that you and I are married,” he explained, still embarrassed, though smiling.

Her smile became an endeavour. “I can’t believe it either, Mr. Cleves,” she said. “I feel rather stunned.”

“Hadn’t you better call me Victor — under the circumstances?” he suggested, striving to speak lightly.

“Yes . . . It will not be very easy to say it — not for some time, I think.”

“Tressa?”

“Yes.”

“Yes — what?”

“Yes — Victor.”

“That’s the idea,” he insisted with forced gaiety.

“The thing to do is to face this rather funny situation and take it amiably and with good humour. You’ll have your freedom some day, you know.”

“Yes — I— know.”

“And we’re already on good terms. We find each other interesting, don’t we?”

“Yes.”

“It even seems to me,” he ventured, “it certainly seems to me, at times, as though we are approaching a common basis of — of mutual — er — esteem.”

“Yes. I— I do esteem you, Mr. Cleves.”

“In point of fact,” he concluded, surprised, “we are friends — in a way. Wouldn’t you call it — friendship?”

“I think so, I think I’d call it that,” she admitted.

“I think so, too. And that is lucky for us. That makes this crazy situation more comfortable — less — well, perhaps less ponderous.”

The girl assented with a vague smile, but her eyes remained lowered.

“You see,” he went on, “when two people are as oddly situated as we are, they’re likely to be afraid of being in each other’s way. But they ought to get on without being unhappy as long as they are quite confident of each other’s friendly consideration. Don’t you think so, Tressa?”

Her lowered eyes rested steadily on her ring-finger. “Yes,” she said. “And I am not — unhappy, or — afraid.”

She lifted her blue gaze to his; and, somehow, he thought of her barbaric name, Keuke — and its Yezidee significance, “heavenly-azure.”

“Are we really going away together?” she asked timidly.

“Certainly, if you wish.”

“If you, also, wish it, Mr. Cleves.”

He found himself saying with emphasis that he always wished to do what she desired. And he added, more gently:

“You are tired, Tressa — tired and lonely and unhappy.”

“Tired, but not the — others.”

“Not unhappy?”

“No.”

“Aren’t you lonely?”

“Not with you.”

The answer came so naturally, so calmly, that the slight sensation of pleasure it gave him arrived only as an agreeable afterglow.

“We’ll go South,” he said . . . “I’m glad that you don’t feel lonely with me.”

“Will it be warmer where we are going, Mr. Cleves?”

“Yes — you poor child! You need warmth and sunshine, don’t you? Was it warm in Yian, where you lived so many years?”

“It was always June in Yian,” she said under her breath.

She seemed to have fallen into a revery; he watched the sensitive face. Almost imperceptibly it changed; became altered, younger, strangely lovely.

Presently she looked up — and it seemed to him that it was not Tressa Norne at all he saw, but little Keuke — Heavenly Azure — of the Yezidee temple, as she dropped one slim knee over the other and crossed her hands above it.

“It was very beautiful in Yian,” she said, “— Yian of the thousand bridges and scented gardens so full of lilies. Even after they took me to the temple, and I thought the world was ending, God’s skies still remained soft overhead, and His weather fair and golden . . . And when, in the month of the Snake, the Eight Sheiks-el-Djebel came to the temple to spread their shrouds on the rose-marble steps, then, after they departed, chanting the Prayers for the Dead, each to his Tower of Silence, we temple girls were free for a week . . . And once I went with Tchagane — a girl — and with Yulun — another girl — and we took our keutch, which is our luggage, and went to the yaïlak, or summer pavilion on the Lake of the Ghost. Oh, wonderful — a silvery world of pale-gilt suns and of moons so frail that the cloud-fleece at high-noon has more substance!”

Her voice died out; she sat gazing down at her spread fingers, on one of which gleamed her wedding-ring.

After a little, she went on dreamily:

“On that week, each three months, we were free . . . If a young man should please us . . . ”

“Free?” he repeated.

“To love,” she explained coolly.

“Oh.” He nodded, but his face became rather grim.

“There came to me at the yaïlak,” she went on carelessly, “one Khassar Noïane — Noïane means Prince — all in a surcoat of gold tissue with green vines embroidered, and wearing a green cap trimmed with dormouse, and green boots inlaid with stiff gold . . .

“He was so young . . . a boy. I laughed. I said: ‘Is this a Yaçaoul? An Urdu-envoy of Prince Erlik?’— mocking him as young and thoughtless girls mock — not in unfriendly manner — though I would not endure the touch of any man at all.

“And when I laughed at him, this Eighur boy flew into such a rage! Kai! I was amazed.

“‘Sou-sou! Squirrel!’ he cried angrily at me. ‘Learn the Yacaz, little chatterer! Little mocker of men, it is ten blows with a stick you require, not kisses!’

“At that I whistled my two dogs, Bars and Alaga, for I did not think what he said was funny.

“I said to him: ‘You had better go home, Khassar Noïane, for if no man has ever pleased me where I am at liberty to please myself, here on the Lake of the Ghost, then be very certain that no boy can please Keuke–Mongol here or anywhere!’

“And at that — kai! What did he say — that monkey?” She looked at her husband, her splendid eyes ablaze with wrathful laughter, and made a gesture full of angry grace:

“‘Squirrel!’ he cries —‘little malignant sorceress of Yian! May everything high about you become a sandstorm, and everything long a serpent, and everything broad a toad, and everything —’

“But I had had enough, Victor,” she added excitedly, “and I made a wild bee bite him on the lip! What do you think of such courtship?” she cried, laughing. But Cleves’s face was a study in emotions.

And then, suddenly, the laughing mask seemed to slip from the bewitching features of Keuke Mongol; and there was Tressa Norne — Tressa Cleves — disconcerted, paling a little as the memory of her impulsive confidence in this man beside her began to dawn on her more clearly.

“I— I’m sorry —” she faltered . . . “You’ll think me silly — think evil of me, perhaps —”

She looked into his troubled eyes, then suddenly she took her face into both hands and covered it, sitting very still.

“We’ll go South together,” he said in an uncertain voice . . . “I hope you will try to think of me as a friend . . . I’m just troubled because I am so anxious to understand you. That is all . . . I’m — I’m troubled, too, because I am anxious that you should think well of me. Will you try, always?”

She nodded.

“I want to be your friend, always,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. Cleves.”

It was a strange spot he chose for Tressa — strange but lovely in its own unreal and rather spectral fashion — where a pearl-tinted mist veiled the St. Johns, and made exquisite ghosts of the palmettos, and softened the sun to a silver-gilt wafer pasted on a nacre sky.

It was a still country, where giant water-oaks towered, fantastic under their misty camouflage of moss, and swarming with small birds.

Among the trees the wood-ibis stole; without on the placid glass of the stream the eared grebe floated. There was no wind, no stirring of leaves, no sound save the muffled splash of silver mullet, the breathless whirr of a humming-bird, or the hushed rustle of lizards in the woods.

For Tressa this was the blessed balm that heals — the balm of silence. And, for the first week, she slept most of the time, or lay in her hammock watching the swarms of small birds creeping and flitting amid the moss-draped labyrinths of the live-oaks at her very door.

It had been a little club house before the war, this bungalow on the St. Johns at Orchid Hammock. Its members had been few and wealthy; but some were dead in France and Flanders, and some still remained overseas, and others continued busy in the North.

And these two young people were quite alone there, save for a negro cook and a maid, and an aged negro kennel-master who wore a scarlet waistcoat and cords too large for his shrunken body, and who pottered, pottered through the fields all day, with his whip clasped behind his bent back and two pointers ranging wide, or plodding in a heel with red tongues lolling.

Twice Cleves went a little way for quail, using Benton’s dogs; but even here in this remote spot he dared not move out of view of the little house where Tressa lay asleep.

So he picked up only a few brace of birds, and confined his sport to impaling too-familiar scorpions on the blade of his knife.

And all the while life remained unreal for him; his marriage seemed utterly unbelievable; he could not realise it, could not reconcile himself to conditions so incomprehensible.

Also, ever latent in his mind, was knowledge that made him restless — the knowledge that the young girl he had married had been in love with another man: Sanang.

And there were other thoughts — thoughts which had scarcely even taken the shape of questions.

One morning he came from his room and found Tressa on the veranda in her hammock. She had her moon-lute in her lap.

“You feel better — much better” he said gaily, saluting her extended hand.

“Yes. Isn’t this heavenly? I begin to believe it is life to me, this pearl-tinted world, and the scent of orange bloom and the stillness of paradise itself.”

She gazed out over the ghostly river. Not a wing stirred its glassy surface.

“Is this dull for you?” she asked in a low voice.

“Not if you are contented, Tressa.”

“You’re so nice about it. Don’t you think you might venture a day’s real shooting?”

“No, I think I won’t,” he replied.

“On my account?”

“Well — yes.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right as long as you’re getting rested. What is that instrument?”

“My moon-lute.”

“Oh, is that what it’s called?”

She nodded, touched the strings. He watched her exquisite hands.

“Shall I?” she inquired a little shyly.

“Go ahead. I’d like to hear it!”

“I haven’t touched it in months — not since I was on the steamer.” She sat up in her hammock and began to swing there; and played and sang while swinging in the flecked shadow of the orange bloom:

“Little Isle of Cispangou.

Isle of iris, isle of cherry.

Tell your tiny maidens merry

Clouds are looming over you!

La-e-la!

La-e-la!

All your ocean’s but a ferry;

Ships are bringing death to you!

La-e-lou!

La-e-lou!

“Little Isle of Cispangou.

Half a thousand ships are sailing;

Captain Death commands each crew;

Lo! the ruddy moon is paling!

La-e-la!

La-e-la!

Clouds the dying moon are veiling.

Every cloud a shroud for you!

La-e-lou!

La-e-lou!

“Cispangou,” she explained, “is the very, very ancient name, among the Mongols, for Japan.”

“It’s not exactly a gay song,” he said. “What’s it about?”

“Oh, it’s a very ancient song about the Mongol invasion of Japan. I know scores and scores of such songs.”

She sang some other songs. Afterward she descended from the hammock and came and sat down beside him on the veranda steps.

“I wish I could amuse you,” she said wistfully.

“Why do you think I’m bored, Tressa? I’m not at all.”

But she only sighed, lightly, and gathered her knees in both arms.

“I don’t know how young men in the Western world are entertained,” she remarked presently.

“You don’t have to entertain me,” he said, smiling.

“I should be happy to, if I knew how.”

“How are young men entertained in the Orient?”

“Oh, they like songs and stories. But I don’t think you do.”

He laughed in spite of himself.

“Do you really wish to entertain me?”

“I do,” she said seriously.

“Then please perform some of those tricks of magic which you can do so amazingly well.”

Her dawning smile faded a trifle. “I don’t — I haven’t —” She hesitated.

“You haven’t your professional paraphernalia with you,” he suggested.

“Oh — as for that —”

“Don’t you need it?”

“For some things — some kinds of things . . . I could do — other things —”

He waited. She seemed disconcerted. “Don’t do anything you don’t wish to do, Tressa,” he said.

“I was only — only afraid — that if I should do some little things to amuse you, I might stir — stir up — interfere — encounter some sinister current — and betray myself — betray my whereabouts —”

“Well, for heaven’s sake don’t venture then!” he said with emphasis. “Don’t do anything to stir up any other wireless — any Yezidee —?”

“I am wondering,” she reflected, “just what I dare venture to do to amuse you.”

“Don’t bother about me. I wouldn’t have you try any psychic stunt down here, and run the chance of stirring up some Asiatic devil somewhere!”

She nodded absently, occupied with her own thoughts, sitting there, chin on hand, her musing eyes intensely blue.

“I think I can amuse you,” she concluded, “without bringing any harm to myself.”

“Don’t try it, Tressa! —”

“I’ll be careful. Now, sit quite still — closer to me, please.”

He edged closer; and became conscious of an indefinable freshness in the air that enveloped him, like the scent of something young and growing. But it was no magic odour — merely the virginal scent of her hair and skin that even clung to her summer gown.

He heard her singing under her breath to herself:

La-e-la!

La-e-la!

and murmuring caressingly in an unknown tongue.

Then, suddenly in the pale sunshine, scores of little birds came hovering around them, alighting all over them. And he saw them swarming out of the mossy festoons of the water-oaks — scores and scores of tiny birds — Parula warblers, mostly — all flitting fearlessly down to alight upon his shoulders and knees, all keeping up their sweet, dreamy little twittering sound.

“This is wonderful,” he whispered.

The girl laughed, took several birds on her forefinger.

“This is nothing,” she said. “If I only dared — wait a moment! —” And, to the Parula warblers: “Go home, little friends of God!”

The air was filled with the musical whisper of wings. She passed her right arm around her husband’s neck.

“Look at the river,” she said.

“Good God!” he blurted out. And sat dumb.

For, over the St. John’s misty surface, there was the span of a bridge — a strange, marble bridge humped high in the centre.

And over it were passing thousands of people — he could make them out vaguely — see them passing in two never-ending streams — tinted shapes on the marble bridge.

And now, on the farther shore of the river, he was aware of a city — a vast one, with spectral pagoda shapes against the sky —

Her arm tightened around his neck.

He saw boats on the river — like the grotesque shapes that decorate ancient lacquer.

She rested her face lightly against his cheek.

In his ears was a far confusion of voices — the stir and movement of multitudes — noises on ships, boatmen’s cries, the creak of oars.

Then, far and sonorous, quavering across the water from the city, the din of a temple gong.

There were bells, too — very sweet and silvery — camel bells, bells from the Buddhist temples.

He strained his eyes, and thought, amid the pagodas, that there were minarets, also.

Suddenly, clear and ringing came the distance muezzin’s cry: “There is not other god but God! . . . It is noon. Mussulmans, pray!”

The girl’s arm slipped from his neck and she shuddered and pushed him from her.

There was nothing, now, on the river or beyond it but the curtain of hanging mist; no sound except the cry of a gull, sharp and querulous in the vapours overhead.

“Have — have you been amused?” she asked.

“What did you do to me!” he demanded harshly.

She smiled and drew a light breath like a sigh.

“God knows what we living do to one another — or to ourselves,” she said. “I only tried to amuse you — after taking counsel with the birds.”

“What was that bridge I saw!”

“The Bridge of Ten Thousand Felicities.”

“And the city?”

“Yian.”

“You lived there?”

“Yes.”

He moistened his dry lips and stole another glance at this very commonplace Florida river. Sky and water were blank and still, and the ghostly trees stood tall, reflected palely in the translucent tide.

“You merely made me visualise what you were thinking about,” he concluded in a voice which still remained unsteady.

“Did you hear nothing?”

He was silent, remembering the bells and the enormous murmur of a living multitude.

“And — there were the birds, too.” She added, with an uncertain smile: “I do not mean to worry you . . . And you did ask me to amuse you.”

“I don’t know how you did it,” he said harshly. “And the details — those thousands and thousands of people on the bridge! . . . And there was one, quite near this end of the bridge, who looked back . . . A young girl who turned and laughed at us —?”

“That was Yulun.”

“Who?”

“Yulun, I taught her English.”

“A temple girl?”

“Yes. From Black China.”

“How could you make me see her!” he demanded.

“Why do you ask such things? I do not know how to tell you how I do it.”

“It’s a dangerous, uncanny knowledge!” he blurted out; and suddenly checked himself, for the girl’s face went white.

“I don’t mean uncanny,” he hastened to add. “Because it seems to me that what you did by juggling with invisible currents to which, when attuned, our five senses respond, is on the same lines as the wireless telegraph and telephone.”

She said nothing, but her colour slowly returned.

“You mustn’t be so sensitive,” he added. “I’ve no doubt that it’s all quite normal — quite explicable on a perfectly scientific basis. Probably it’s no more mysterious that a man in an airplane over midocean conversing with people ashore on two continents.”

For the remainder of the day and evening Tressa seemed subdued — not restless, not nervous, but so quiet that, sometimes, glancing at her askance, Cleves involuntarily was reminded of some lithe young creature of the wilds, intensely alert and still, immersed in fixed and dangerous meditation.

About five in the afternoon they took their golf sticks, went down to the river, and embarked in the canoe.

The water was glassy and still. There was not a ripple ahead, save when a sleepy gull awoke and leisurely steered out of their way.

Tressa’s arms and throat were bare and she wore no hat. She sat forward, wielding the bow paddle and singing to herself in a low voice.

“You feel all right, don’t you?” he asked.

“Oh, I am so well, physically, now! It’s really wonderful, Victor — like being a child again,” she replied happily.

“You’re not much more,” he muttered.

She heard him: “Not very much more — in years,” she said . . . “Does Scripture tell us how old Our Lord was when He descended into Hell?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, startled.

After a little while Tressa tranquilly resumed her paddling and singing:

“— And the eight tall towers Guard the route Of human life. Where at all hours Death looks out. Holding a knife Rolled in a shroud. For every man. Humble or proud. Mighty or bowed. Death has a shroud; — for every man — Even for Tchinguiz Khan! Behold them pass! — lancer. Baroulass. Temple dancer In tissue gold. Khiounnou. Karlik bold. Christian, Jew — Nations swarm to the great Urdu. Yaçaoul, with your kettledrum. Warn your Khan that his hour is come! Shroud and knife at his spurred feet throw. And bid him stretch his neck for the blow! —”

“You know,” remarked Cleves, “that some of those songs you sing are devilish creepy.”

Tressa looked around at him over her shoulder, saw he was smiling, smiled faintly in return.

They were off Orchid Cove now. The hotel and cottages loomed dimly in the silver mist. Voices came distinctly across the water. There were people on the golf course paralleling the river; laughter sounded from the clubhouse veranda.

They went ashore.

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