Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter X

The First Visitation

“CLIONA, my dear, ’tis a quaint-looking present I’ve brought you, but they do say it’s worth a power of money for its rarity. The value I put on it, though, is another sort. There’s a tale behind it so wild I’d not tell it to even you, little sister, lest you think me a liar of outrageous imaginations.”

Colin O’Hara passed his fingers reflectively over the polished bit of colored porcelain in his hand. Fifteen years had elapsed since first he set eyes on it, when his trail-mate had lifted it down from the bracket in Biornson’s hacienda.

Those years had left no mark on the porcelain godling but they had wrought their inevitable changes in the man. The face that at twenty was broadly good-humored was good-humored still. But the blurred lines of youth had set to a deeper firmness, the lips could be stern as well as smiling, and the light-blue, kindly eyes were capable of flaring into anger as intolerant as was promised by the red thatch of hair above them. In both size and appearance the contrast between the man and the girl he had just addressed was striking to the point of absurdity.

Colin’s height missed the seven-foot mark by a bare four inches, while Cliona O’Hara Rhodes, his young married sister, measured no more than five feet five. Her raven’s -wing hair shadowed eyes that were wonderfully blue; from beneath straight, fine brows the lashes curved thick and long, and her skin had the tint of one of those small seashells that are like smooth, new ivory shading a to a center so delicate that to call it pink is almost desecration — say, rather, angel-color.

Yet a resemblance to her brother might have been traced in the girl’s generous forehead, the carriage of her head, and certain inbred mannerisms of speech and gesture.

Since the death of her parents, when Cliona was a very small child, this huge, rugged man had been her whole family and sole guardian. Many of those years he had spent world-wandering; yet he had ever kept in touch with his little sister, given her a convent education, and to this day she had all the love of his great, affectionate heart.

Now they sat together on a stone bench in the gardens that surrounded her bungalow home at Carpentier, a small suburb just within the wide-flung boundary line of a city in the eastern part of the United States.

As he fell silent she tapped an impatient foot on the gravel path.

“Had I guessed where you were off to when you left me six months ago, Colin, I should have kept you here or gone after you!”

“Ah, now,” he protested, “am I not back safe and sound? ’Twas for that very reason I said nothing of it. With you just married and all, would I be spoiling your honeymoon with anxieties? Not that the danger was worth speaking of, but I guessed how you’d fret. And this journey was one I’ve had in the back of my head a-many years. Always there’s been one thing or another risen to prevent. It seemed like fate was set against in ever learning the truth of the matter, and now — now I’m less sure than before I went if ’twas all a dream and a fevered vision or a sober reality!”

“Tell me the story.” Cliona took the porcelain Quetzalcoatl in her hands and examined it curiously. Though about it there was an indefinable look of age, its unglazed, polished enamel might have left the potter’s hands but yesterday. From the delicately indicated embroidery of the tunic to the minute scaling of the serpent-headed staff it held, it was an exquisite bit of craftsmanship. The flat, benignant face eyed her with a kind of patient stoicism that brought a smile to Cliona’s lips.

“Poor little idol-man!” she said whimsically. “Are all your worshipers dead and gone? Tell me the story, Colin.”

“If I do, you’ll neither repeat it to another nor think it a fabrication?”

“Colin!”

“I know, but when I’ve finished you may ‘Colin’ me in another tone, my dear! It strains my own belief to think of it, and I’m not sure — not sure at all — to go back and find naught but a lake so deep there was no fathoming it; to find but the ruins of the hacienda, and they so overgrown one could scarce identify them, and only certain scars I bear to this day and the bit of image you hold in your hands as an evidence that ’twas not quite all a delusion! They and the name of Svend Biornson.

He was once living, for I looked up the history of him. Sometimes I do think that I was sickening for the fever when we came to that valley; that poor Kennedy died of it there in the Norseman’s house, and myself escaped Biornson’s care to stray back to the desert, naked and raving, as I was, when some friendly Mayas found me and took me to their village.

“’Twas many a week before I was a man again, and then I was in the hospital at Vera Cruz. I’d never have known how I got there had not Richards, the American ornithologist who brought me in with his party, left word with the hospital authorities before he took ship for home.

And I had no money and no friends. I worked in the streets at cleaning and the like to keep body and soul together, and was so ate up with worry for you, who was but a babe and me with naught but an empty blessing to send those who had care of you, that I nigh went crazy before I got a paying job.

“Could I go back then, I ask you? I never left a mate in trouble before nor since, but poor Kennedy; may the saints have helped him, must have been a dead man long before I was on me feet again! That is, if the heft of it happened at all. Like a dream it was to me — and yet with a differ betwixt it and the dreams of the delirium. ’Twas all so clear and bright-colored and — and bright like. The little man in your hands is no clearer to your eyes than was the sight of Tlapallan to mine.”

“Tlapallan?”

“Tlapallan! Ah, you strange, bright city, do you really lie ruined at the bottom of that black lake — or were you the fancy of a fever?”

“Colin, that’s no way at all to tell a story! Begin at the first, not the last. Now who was this Svend Biornson — and who was Kennedy?”

“For the last, a man I picked up, in Campeche, on the Gulf. The both of us were on the gold trail. At least, I thought I was ready for it, though I was a raw, green boy then — all this happened a matter of fifteen years ago, you must understand. I knew little then of the tricks of that hunt, and the half of what I knew being false information.

“But this Mr. Kennedy, he was a man of fine education, and with some dozen years the better of me in age and experience. He was wanting a mate for a desperate hard trip, with the yellow stuff to be picked up off the ground, so he said at the end of it — be off there, Snookums, dog! You’ve untied my shoe-lace again!”

He paused to kick very gently at Cliona’s bull-pup which retaliated by dashing upon the other shoe with great enthusiasm. Cliona caught the pup in her arms and gave him an admonitory pat.

As she set him down again the puppy tore off up the path to fling himself recklessly against the legs of a young man advancing along it. The newcomer swept Cliona into his arms with an abandoned disregard for O’Hara’s presence, which caused that gentleman to frown disapprovingly.

“Tony, my lad, I can see you’ve no more idea of the behavior of a dignified husband than you had when I left ye!”

Anthony Rhodes released his wife, and turned a delighted countenance to her brother.

“When Cliona phoned me I dropped everything and made for the train!” His hand met Colin’s in a long, friendly pressure. “We thought you had dropped clean off the earth, old man, till we had that postal from Texas.”

On this afternoon in June luncheon was served in the glass and screen enclosed veranda, a place of yellow light and many comfortable chairs. Thence one could look out to a prospect of green lawns, flowering bushes, and between the trees, down and across Llewellyn Creek to delectable vistas, part forest, part open meadows beyond.

The bungalow itself stood on the crest of a hill, and was so surrounded by trees that only in winter could one hope for any general view of its outer architecture.

“Cliona,” said Rhodes while they lingered over the coffee cups, “would you and Colin care for a trip to the capital tomorrow?”

He had given up trying to extract any satisfactory account of his brother-in-law’s recent journeyings, and, surmising that he might have some good reason for reticence, had good-naturedly dropped the subject.

“I am to have a talk with Senator Dobson in connection with a new insurance law he is pushing through in the special session. He has promised me an interview as representative of my firm and several others. It’s a business trip, of course, but when I heard Colin was back I thought we might run over in the car, all three of us, and make a sort of pleasure-jaunt of it.”

His wife hesitated, then shook her head.

“Do you and Colin go. Later I’ll drive with you all you please, but I’ve had enough of chasing the moon for awhile, and my house is not yet in order.”

They would start the following morning. Colin’s luggage had been brought up from the station, and while Cliona insisted on personally packing her two men’s suitcases, the men in question sallied forth to give the car a thorough overhauling, dubiously assisted by David, man-of-all-work.

And so Colin’s story remained untold, and the afternoon which Cliona had planned to drain with her returned wanderer like a cup of sunshine and summery wine was wasted after the commonplace way of the unforeseeing human kind.

How could she know that this was the last such cup this place would offer her, or guess the dark, strange cloud that was so soon to overshadow their pleasant bungalow home?

It was 3 P.M. of the day following when Mary, the trim and obliging maid whom Cliona justly regarded as “a treasure,” approached that young housewife with the unmistakable air of one about to ask a favor.

“Please, Mrs. Rhodes, are you havin’ any company this evening?”

“I am expecting none. Why do you ask?”

“You promised I might go spend the night with me sister in Chester some day this week, ma’am, and, seein’ as Mr. Rhodes and Mr. OHara is both away an’ you not doin’ no entertainin like, I thought —— ”

“That this would a good time for your visit? You may go, Mary, but try and be back tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be needing your help then in work I have planned.”

“Yes’m. I’ll certain sure be here by lunch time — and thank you, ma’am.”

Cliona smiled after the maid’s retreating figure. The girl had been with them since they had come to live in the bungalow, and this was the first favor she had asked.

Rhodes and Colin had departed early that morning, but the voluntarily deserted one had kept herself too busy to think much of how lonely she was going to be for practically the first time since her marriage. True, she might phone in to the city and persuade one or another of her women friends to come out and spend a night at the bungalow, but this she hardly expected to do. With books and fancy work she believed the evening would pass pleasantly enough.

The maid’s defection, however, was followed an hour later by a more serious interruption to household affairs. The phone rang and a woman’s voice asked for Mr. David King. Cliona sent the cook to look for David, who, besides being gardener and garage-man was, ex officio, the cook’s husband. A few minutes later he was at the telephone, from which he turned with a very white face.

“What is it, David? Has anything happened?”

“Mrs. Rhodes —— ” The man stopped, took a deep breath and continued. “It’s my son, George. That — that woman on the phone is a nurse at the City Hospital, ma’am. He has fell off a pole, and — he’s bad hurt she says —— ”

He was interrupted by a scream, as Marjory, the cook, fairly flung her husband aside and grasped at the receiver; but the other party had hung up.

Cliona had intervened.

“Never mind the phone. David, get your hat. You’ve just three minutes to catch the four-fifteen — there’s the whistle now! Run, David! Marjory, you may take the next train if you like.”

For she well knew how dear to the couple was their son, who was a hard-working young wireman in the employ of an electrical contractor.

David did run and caught the train, for the Carpentier station was almost at the foot of the hill which the bungalow crowned. Then Cliona had her hands full in offering what solace she might to her stricken cook.

There was another train at six, and in the meantime David called up, urging his wife to take it and come. He was alarmingly indefinite, but the very fact that the hospital authorities had suggested that the boy’s mother be sent for told its own story.

Marjory King, good soul, able to consider another even in the midst of grief, urged her young mistress to accompany her and spend the night in town. The bungalow was too lonely. But Cliona hurried her off, assuring her that if she felt in the least nervous she could go and beg the hospitality of a neighbor. As a matter of fact, being as yet only slightly acquainted in the locality, she intended doing nothing of the sort.

Left alone, she reflected for a time on the sadness of losing an only son, thanked her stars in innocent selfishness that the hurt man was neither her husband nor brother, and proceeded to get her own supper.

By the time the dishes were cleared away and washed it was after eight and quite dark. Having first turned on all the lights in the front of the house, Cliona seated herself in the living-room beside Rhodes’ own particular table with its brown-shaded reading lamp, and took up the knitting on which she was then engaged.

The living room was itself of a comforting and companionable appearance. Even alone in it, Cliona had a pleasant sense that its walls offered a sort of conscious protection.

Not that she was really nervous, but this was her first experience of that queer feeling of emptiness that pervades a house at night when deserted by all its customary occupants except one. And the bungalow was entirely isolated, in a practical sense, standing as it did among trees at the summit of a quite high hill. Until one came close to it, it could not even be seen.

About ten o’clock she rose, put away her work, and went through the house making sure that doors and windows were secure and the burglar-alarm system, so far as she could determine, properly set.

Outside the night was very still, frosted white by the radiance of a brilliant moon.

On an impulse she passed through the enclosed veranda, opened the door and stepped out. The air was pleasant, neither cold nor warm, and scented with the breath of flowers.

Slowly she walked around the house, Snookums, her bulldog, bouncing and wriggling before her. In the black shade of the trees the dog was a white shadow, but in the general paleness where the moon struck full he seemed almost to disappear. Indeed, it was as if only the ink-black shadows preserved the world from melting into invisibility. The open meadows overlooked by the hill were pale, wide pools of light.

On the path beneath Cliona’s feet the moon, peering through foliage, wrought embroideries of black and white more intricate than any needle had ever traced.

The night was absolutely still — so still that the gentle ripple of water reached her ears from Llewellyn Creek, flowing past the foot of the hill.

Presently a little wind came and shook the branches over Cliona’s head with a sound strangely startling and mysterious, like feet running through the night far away.

It is true that there was a great peace upon the world, but it was a peace too coldly colored for Cliona’s lonely ease. There was nothing human in it. When she presently returned into the bungalow, she was glad of its friendly walls and kindly rooms.

Having put Snookums in the kitchen and half reluctantly turned out the lights, she retired to her bedroom which, with three others, opened directly off the living-room. The servants’ empty quarters were located in a small wing leading by a passage to the kitchen.

Shutting and locking her door, she began to brush her hair. And then at last the loneliness that had been creeping up on her all evening made its final spring. Cliona stopped suddenly, brush poised in the. air. What if — what if ——

“Well, what if what?” she demanded aloud, staring at her mirrored reflection as if expecting a reply. “Cliona O’Hara Rhodes, shame upon you for a little, sniveling coward! What is it you’re afraid of? Tell me that now.”

The reflection looked back with big, indignant eyes. But the indignation was a sham, roused there to hide a less comfortable emotion, and well she knew it.

Unlocking her door, she went to the kitchen and called Snookums, who bounded joyfully from his basket in the corner and dashed ahead of her. On returning through the living-room, Cliona caught up a small, brightly colored object in passing, and with a whimsical smile set it beside Rhodes’ automatic pistol on the table by her bed. Let it represent the giver, in whose protecting strength she had such perfect faith.

So the eyes of that little “heathen god” Quetzalcoatl, lord of the air, looked benignantly on as Cliona said her orisons before the shrine of another faith.

Snookums had been “put to bed” on the rug, but once his mistress had definitely retired he improved on the arrangement by jumping on the bed itself and curling up over her feet. Twice she put him off, then yielded to the pup’s particular form of bulldog tenacity and let him remain.

The house was very empty — she could feel it even through her closed door — and the warmth of the small, live body through the sheet was comforting. Because she knew her nervousness to be mere folly, Cliona drifted off to sleep at last.

And all outdoors was drenched in its pallid moon bath.

At the foot of the hill Llewellyn Creek ran ripples of ebony and white fire, and where at one point there was a wide slope of treeless lawn, it was as if the turf were powdered with snow.

The natural voice of the creek became merged with a distant splashing. That second sound grew louder — nearer. Presently from the little stream something came out and up — something almost invisible in that false lucidity of moonlight.

Crossing the unshaded turf it was a vague largeness, wallowing clumsily upward. In the black shade of the trees it was a white shadow — a white, frightful shadow, too terrible for the right to existence, even in a bad dream.

Cliona’s sleep was untroubled by dreams, bad or good, but from it she was awakened by a frantic sound of barking, and realized that Snookums was bouncing about on the bed like a pup gone mad. He was tugging at the sheet with his teeth, and making racket enough for a dog twice his size.

Roused to that temporary superwakefulness which follows such a nightalarm, Cliona sat up. There was in her mind a notion, too, that the pup’s barking had been preceded by some other and far different sound.

As his mistress roused, Snookums bounded off the bed, rushed to the door and scratched furiously at the crack beneath it, as if trying to dig under it through the floor. To Cliona but one explanation occurred. Someone had broken into the house, and for a ten months’ pup Snookums was proving himself a pre good watchdog.

Cliona snapped on the electric light, picked up the pistol and — hesitated She was no coward, but neither was she rashly indiscreet. To unlock that door at which the pup was still tearing would be to place herself in the power of whatever night prowler had entered.

If the dog’s yapping ha not scared the supposititious burglar from the premises, then he would be a burglar on guard, and probably a burglar at least as well-armed as herself.

All their genuine plate and most of Cliona s jewelry were safe in the city. Was it worth while, would Tony thank her, to expose her own person to unknown danger in order to protect what valuables were in the bungalow?

Abruptly she received notice that an intruder was really present, and that he had been by no means frightened to the extent of leaving.

As has been said, four bedrooms, of which Cliona’s was one, opened upon the living-room, and between that and the dining-room was an open archway hung with portieres. After clearing away her supper dishes, Cliona had set the table for breakfast.

Now she heard a great crash and jingle, as if someone had deliberately tipped up the heavy dining-table, allowing silver and dishes to slide to the floor. The bang of its mahogany legs as it fell back confirmed the supposition. _

With all her heart she wished that there had been a branch telephone in her bedroom, but there was not. To phone she must go outside her door.

It sounded to her as if every piece of furniture in the dining-room was being violently flung from one side of the room to the other. Now the intruder’s attentions had been advanced to the living-room. She heard a smash and tinkle that told of the destruction of the brown-shaded reading-lamp of which her husband was so fond.

She was trembling, not so much with fear as because of her inability to cope with the situation. Her ears conveyed warning that the inside of their dear bungalow was being literally wrecked; yet she still hesitated at opening the door and trying to stop the destructive work.

Then Cliona became conscious of a new thing. It was an odor, and every moment it was growing stronger — a penetrating, almost overpowering smell of musk.

Something whimpered about her feet. Looking down she saw Snookums writhing there in agonies of puppyish supplication. He was the valiant watch-dog no more, for his nose informed him of a terror unfit for his tender years to meet.

The intruder’s noisy operations had ceased at last. Cliona had a moment’s wild hope that he might have smashed his way clear outside, but it was a hope quickly dissipated. Something was being dragged now, or was dragging itself, across the floor of the living-room. It reached her door and paused.

She crept into bed and sat with the covers pulled up, eyes fixed on the door in an agony of anticipation. There followed a snuffing noise, much the same as Snookums had been making, only louder. Then something reared up and came rasping down the whole length of the door and she could hear the wood follow in great splinters.

Snookums squealed like a young pig and scuttled abjectly beneath the bed.

“Get away from that door or I’ll fire!”

Cliona’s voice was so hoarse that she scarcely knew it for her own. She had the pistol beside her.

The only reply was a sort of snort through the keyhole, and the knob was violently shaken. The rattling was accompanied by a low snarling sound of bestial rage, as if something were chewing at the knob and resented its hardness and refusal to part from the door.

The odor of musk became nauseating. A moment later the claws rasped down the door again. This time Cliona knew beyond chance of doubt that they were claws, no less.

In one place, where the wood was thinnest between panels, it was pushed out in a long splinter and for a single instant one great, whitish talon gleamed through, curved, needle-pointed, appalling in its vicious menace.

And at that sight Cliona for the first time really lost her head. What she should have done was to climb out the window, an easy thing since it was only a matter of a few feet above the ground, run down the hill and raise an alarm in Carpentier. That might have been course had the burglar turned out to be a burglar.

But this — this thing of the midnight that thrashed snarled and ripped clean through a door with its pale, enormous claw — it had robbed her of capacity to think or reason.

She screamed, jumped out of bed, and raised Rhodes’ pistol. Without taking aim she loosed its ten shots in the general direction of the door.

The crashing rattle of the automatic was drowned in the tumult that answered from without. Shrieks like the scream of a mad stallion, and a furious thrashing against the weakened door mingled with the splintering sounds of wood ripped up by chisel talons.

The gun was empty. Cliona saw the door bulging inward, and she did what many a woman would have done nearer the beginning — fainted and dropped to the floor, a pathetic heap of pretty silk and soft, dark hair, one white arm flung out with fingers extended, as if grasping again at the useless pistol they had just released.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30