The Slayer of Souls, by Robert W. Chambers

Chapter 8.

The Man in White

It was at the sixth hole that they passed the man ahead who was playing all alone — a courteous young fellow in white flannels, who smiled and bowed them “through” in silence.

They thanked him, drove from the tee, and left the polite and reticent young man still apparently hunting for a lost ball.

Like other things which depended upon dexterity and precision, Tressa had taken most naturally to golf. Her supple muscles helped.

At the ninth hole they looked back but did not see the young man in white flannels.

Hammock, set with pine and palmetto, and intervals of evil-looking swamp, flanked the course. Rank wire-grass, bayberry and scrub palmetto bounded the fairgreen.

On every blossoming bush hung butterflies — Palomedes, swallowtails — drugged with sparkle-berry honey, their gold and black velvet wings conspicuous in the sunny mist.

“Like the ceremonial vestments of a Yezidee executioner,” murmured the girl. “The Tchortchas wear red when they robe to do a man to death.”

“I wish you could forget those things,” said Cleves.

“I am trying . . . I wonder where that young man in white went.”

Cleves searched the links. “I don’t see him. Perhaps he had to go back for another ball.”

“I wonder who he was,” she mused.

“I don’t remember seeing him before,” said Cleves . . . “Shall we start back?”

They walked slowly across the course toward the tenth hole.

Tressa teed up, drove low and straight. Cleves sliced, and they walked together into the scrub and towards the woods, where his ball had bounced into a bunch of palm trees.

Far in among the trees something white moved and vanished.

“Probably a white egret,” he remarked, knocking about in the scrub with his midiron.

“It was that young man in white flannels,” said Tressa in a low voice.

“What would he be doing in there?” he asked incredulously. “That’s merely a jungle, Tressa — swamp and cypress, thorn and creeper — and no man would go into that mess if he could. There is no bottom to those swamps.”

“But I saw him in there,” she said in a troubled voice.

“But when I tell you that only a wild animal or a snake or a bird could move in that jungle! The bog is one vast black quicksand. There’s death in those depths.”

“Victor.”

“Yes?” He looked around at her. She was pale. He came up and took her hand inquiringly.

“I don’t feel — well,” she murmured. “I’m not ill, you understand —?”

“What’s the matter, Tressa?”

She shook her head drearily: “I don’t know . . . I wonder whether I should have tried to amuse you this morning —?”

“You don’t think you’ve stirred up any of those Yezidee beasts, do you?” he asked sharply.

And as she did not answer, he asked again whether she was afraid that what she had done that morning might have had any occult consequences. And he reminded her that she had hesitated to venture anything on that account.

His voice, in spite of him, betrayed great nervousness now, and he saw apprehension in her eyes, also.

“Why should that man in white have followed us, keeping out of sight in the woods?” he went on. “Did you notice about him anything to disturb you, Tressa?”

“Not at the time. But — it’s odd — I can’t put him out of my mind. Since we passed him and left him apparently hunting a lost ball, I have not been able to put him out of my mind.”

“He seemed civil and well bred. He was perfectly good-humoured — all courtesy and smiles.”

“I think — perhaps — it was the way he smiled at us,” murmured the girl. “Everybody in the East smiles when they draw a knife . . . ”

He placed his arm through hers. “Aren’t you a trifle morbid?” he said pleasantly.

She stooped for her golf ball, retaining a hold on his arm. He picked up his ball, too, put away her clubs and his, and they started back together in silence, evidently with no desire to make it eighteen holes.

“It’s a confounded shame,” he muttered, “just as you were becoming so rested and so delightfully well, to have anything — any unpleasant flash of memory cut in to upset you —”

“I brought in on myself. I should not have risked stirring up the sinister minds that were asleep.”

“Hang it all! — and I asked you to amuse me.”

“It was not wise in me,” she said under her breath. “It is easy to disturb the unknown currents which enmesh the globe. I ought not to have shown you Yian. I ought not to have shown you Yulun. It was my fault for doing that. I was a little lonely, and I wanted to see Yulun.”

They came down the river back to the canoe, threw in their golf bags, and embarked on the glassy stream.

Over the calm flood, stained deep with crimson, the canoe glided in the sanguine evening light. But Tressa sang no more and her head was bent sideways as though listening — always listening — to something inaudible to Cleves — something very, very far away which she seemed to hear through the still drip of the paddles.

They were not yet in sight of their landing when she spoke to him, partly turning:

“I think some of your men have arrived.”

“Where?” he asked, astonished.

“At the house.”

“Why do you think so?”

“I think so.”

They paddled a little faster. In a few minutes their dock came into view.

“It’s funny,” he said, “that you should think some of our men have arrived from the North. I don’t see anybody on the dock.”

“It’s Mr. Recklow,” she said in a low voice. “He is seated on our veranda.”

As it was impossible to see the house, let alone the veranda, Cleves made no reply. He beached the canoe; Tressa stepped out; he followed, carrying the golf bags.

A mousy light lingered in the shrubbery; bats were flying against a salmon-tinted sky as they took the path homeward.

With an impulse quite involuntary, Cleves encircled his young wife’s shoulders with his left arm.

“Girl-comrade,” he said lightly, “I’d kill any man who even looked as though he’d harm you.”

He smiled, but she had not missed the ugly undertone of his words.

They walked slowly, his arm around her shoulders. Suddenly he felt her start. They halted.

“What is it?” he whispered.

“I thought there was something white in the woods.”

“Where, dear?” he asked coolly.

“Over there beyond the lawn.”

What she called the “lawn” was only a vast sheet of pink and white phlox, now all misty with the whirring wings of sphinx-moths and Noctuidæ.

The oak grove beyond was dusky. Cleves could see nothing among the trees.

After a moment they went forward. His arm had fallen away from her shoulders.

There were no lights except in the kitchen when they came in sight of the house. At first nobody was visible on the screened veranda under the orange trees. But when he opened the swing door for her a shadowy figure arose from a chair.

It was John Recklow. He came forward, bent his strong white head, and kissed Tressa’s hand.

“Is all well with you, Mrs. Cleves?”

“Yes. I am glad you came.”

Cleves clasped the elder man’s firm hand.

“I’m glad too, Recklow. You’ll stop with us, of course.”

“Do you really want me?”

“Of course,” said Cleves.

“All right. I’ve a coon and a surrey behind your house.”

So Cleves went around in the dusk and sent the outfit back to the hotel, and he himself carried in Recklow’s suitcase.

Then Tressa went away to give instructions, and the two men were left together on the dusky veranda.

“Well?” said Recklow quietly.

Cleves went to him and rested both hands on his shoulders:

“I’m playing absolutely square. She’s a perfectly fine girl and she’ll have her chance some day, God willing.”

“Her chance?” repeated Recklow.

“To marry whatever man she will some day care for.”

“I see,” said Recklow drily.

There was a silence, then:

“She’s simply a splendid specimen of womanhood,” said Cleves earnestly. “And intensely interesting to me. Why, Recklow, I haven’t known a dull moment — though I fear she has know many —”

“Why?”

“Why? Well, being married to a — a sort of temporary figurehead — shut up here all day alone with a man of no particular interest to her —”

“Don’t you interest her?”

“Well, how could I? She didn’t choose me because she liked me particularly.”

“Didn’t she?” asked Recklow, still more drily. “Well, that does make it a trifle dull for you both.”

“Nor for me,” said the younger man naïvely. “She is one of the most interesting women I ever met. And good heavens! — what psychic knowledge that child possesses! She did a thing to-day — merely to amuse me —”

He checked himself and looked at Recklow out of sombre eyes.

“What did she do?” inquired the older man.

“I think I’ll let her tell you — if she wishes . . . And that reminds me. Why did you come down here, Recklow?”

“I want to show you something, Cleves. May we step into the house?”

They went into a little lamplit living-room. Recklow handed a newspaper clipping to Cleves: the latter read it, standing:

“HAD DEADLIEST GAS READY FOR GERMANS”

“‘Lewisite’ Might Have Killed Millions

“WASHINGTON, APRIL 24. — Guarded night and day and far out of human reach on a pedestal at the Interior Department Exposition here is a tiny vial. It contains a specimen of the deadliest poison ever known, ‘Lewisite,’ the product of an American scientist.

“Germany escaped this poison by signing the armistice before all the resources of the United States were turned upon her.

“Ten airplanes carrying ‘Lewisite’ would have wiped out, it is said, every vestige of life — animal and vegetable — in Berlin. A single day’s output would snuff out the millions of lives on Manhattan Island. A drop poured in the palm of the hand would penetrate to the blood, reach the heart and kill the victim in agony.

“What was coming to Germany may be imagined by the fact that when the armistice was signed ‘Lewisite’ was being manufactured at the rate of ten tons a day. Three thousand tons of this most terrible instrument ever conceived for killing would have been ready for business on the American front in France on November 1.

“‘Lewisite’ is another of the big secrets of the war just leaking out. It was developed in the Bureau of Mines by Professor W. Lee Lewis, of Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill., who took a commission as a captain in the army.

“The poison was manufactured in a specially built plant near Cleveland, called the ‘Mouse Trap,’ because every workman who entered the stockade went under an agreement not to leave the eleven-acre space until the war was won. The object of this, of course, was to protect the secret.

“Work on the plant was started eighteen days after the Bureau of Mines had completed its experiments.

“Experts are certain that no one will want to steal the sample. Everybody at the Exposition, which shows what Secretary Lane’s department is doing, keeps as far away from it as possible.”

When Cleves had finished reading, he raised his eyes in silence.

“That vial was stolen a week ago,” said Recklow gravely, “by a young man who killed one guard and fatally wounded the other.”

“Was there any ante-mortem statement?”

“Yes. I’ve followed the man. I lost all trace of him at Palm Beach, but I picked it up again at Ormond. And now I’m here, Cleves.”

“You don’t mean you’ve traced him here!” exclaimed Cleves under his breath.

“He’s here on the St. Johns River, somewhere. He came up in a motor-boat, but left it east of Orchard Cove. Benton knows this country. He’s covering the motor-boat. And I— came here to see how you are getting on.”

“And to warn us,” added Cleves quietly.

“Well — yes. He’s got that stuff. It’s deadlier than the newspaper suspects. And I guess — I guess, Cleves, he’s one of those damned Yezidee witch-doctors — or sorcerers, as they call them; — one of that sect of Assassins sent over here to work havoc on feeble minds and do murder on the side.”

“Why do you think so?”

“Because the dirty beast lugs his shroud around with him — a bed-sheet stolen from the New Willard in Washington.

“We were so close to him in Jacksonville that we got it, and his luggage. But we didn’t get him, the rat! God knows how he knew we were waiting for him in his room. He never came back to get his luggage.

“But he stole a bed-sheet from his hotel in St. Augustine, and that is how we picked him up again. Then, at Palm Beach, we lost the beggar, but somehow or other I felt in my bones that he was after you — you and your wife. So I sent Benton to Ormond and I went to Palatka. Benton picked up his trail. It led toward you — toward the St. Johns. And the reptile has been here forty-eight hours, trying to nose you out, I suppose —”

Tressa came into the room. Both men looked at her.

Cleves said in a guarded voice:

“To-day, on the golf links at Orchard Cove, there was a young man in white flannels — very polite and courteous to us — but — Tressa thought she saw him slinking through the woods as though following and watching us.”

“My man, probably,” said Recklow. He turned quietly to Tressa and sketched for her the substance of what he had just told Cleves.

“The man in white flannels on the golf links,” said Cleves, “was well built and rather handsome, and not more than twenty-five. I thought he was a Jew.”

“I thought so too,” said Tressa, calmly, “until I saw him in the woods. And then — and then — suddenly it came to me that his smile was the smile of a treacherous Shaman sorcerer.

“ . . . And the idea haunts me — the memory of those smooth-faced, smiling men in white — men who smile only when they slay — when they slay body and soul under the iris skies of Yian! — O God, merciful, long suffering,” she whispered, staring into the East, “deliver our souls from Satan who was stoned, and our bodies from the snare of the Yezidee!”

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