Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XIV

The Second Visitation

MR. COSMO STACKFIELD, rounding a sharp curve with no warning hornblast, swerved, swore, and bringing his car to a halt, turned in his seat.

“I say,” he called back, “I wasn’t trying to run you down, O’Hara!”

“Oh! I thought you were.”

“Are you people back at the bungalow?” inquired Stackfield. “I trust Mrs. Rhodes is recovered from the results of her fright.”

“She is,” retorted the other with intentional briefness. “She’s not here. I came out by myself for the solitude. When a man’s used to the open, he wearies of just hearing people chatter. So I’m living alone for a while. Good day to you, sir.”

Colin’s rudeness was too gross and too obviously intentional for Stackfield to ignore longer. A slow flush tinged his flabby cheeks, and with a muttered word that sounded less like “good day” than some term not so polite, he sped past on his road to the city.

O’Hara smiled grimly after his defeated interrogator, but the incident gave him food for thought. Had he too greatly relied on not being acquainted with people is this neighborhood? Having arrived only yesterday, Stackfield was the second man who had greeted him on his early morning stroll. Secrecy promised to be a difficult achievement.

Laying the matter aside as one that must be left to chance, O’Hara turned back toward Carpentier.

Having no particular fancy for housekeeping, he had engaged a middle-aged woman to come up by the day, cook his meals, and keep the bungalow in order. Luncheon that day proved one sad fact conclusively. Promising of all housewifely virtues as had been the neat vine-covered cottage from which Colin had wrested her to his own service, Mrs. Bollinger could not cook.

The house had been thoroughly repaired, even to the laying of new planks in the scarred living-room floor, and the furniture left undamaged was plenty for his needs.

Four days he spent, reading — an occupation of which he was always fond — and wandering about the now-neglected gardens.

Ten o’clock of the fifth evening found him going about his usual preparations for the night. They were painstaking, though of a sort which would have astonished Mrs. Bollinger. Most people expecting an undesirable caller do not leave doors and windows unlocked — certainly not invitingly ajar. Nor does the burglar-expecting householder prefer his home to be in utter darkness from ten o’clock on throughout the night.

Having little use for the police at any time, Colin had disconnected the burglar alarm. Now he sought the kitchen and returned, his arms laden with tin aluminum utensils, to be stacked in high tottery piles behind the doors opening inward upon the living-room from the veranda and from the pantry into the dining-room, placing them so, rather than at the outer doors, lest the intruder be frightened away too early for successful pursuit.

As he carried out this simple and homely expedient for providing noise when noise should be least welcome, he whistled quite cheerfully for a man expecting so very strange a visitation.

Then he lay down fully dressed, in the room that had been his sister’s .

Four nights his light slumber had been unbroken, but on this fifth night he suddenly awakened, every sense alert in the black darkness.

Something, he knew, was imminent. Something had telegraphed a warning to his sleeping brain. A sound? He listened keenly, intently. From far away came the faint whistle of a locomotive. Against his window he heard a slight tapping sound — then a flutter, accompanied by a mouselike squeaking. A wind-blown vine tapping the pane — the squeak of a bat. Those sounds should not have roused him.

With stealthy noiselessness, O’Hara slid from his bed and stole across the floor. The night was moonless, with an overcast sky, and save for the dim, oblong shapes of the windows the darkness within the bungalow was absolute. But O’Hara saw the location of every piece of furniture in the light of a carefully schooled memory, and he made no blunders.

Every sense quivering with a vivid expectation, he peered into the living-room.

What had awakened him? A dream? He had not been dreaming. Sheer nervousness? He knew himself too well for that to receive consideration. He heard no sound, felt no vibration. He had fallen asleep in a house empty save for himself. It was not empty now. He knew it, felt it, yet could give himself no reason for the assurance.

As noiselessly as he had crossed the bedroom he passed through the living-room. From the portièred arch he stared on into further silent blackness. On turning back, however, O’Hara became aware that a change had befallen the space behind him.

Vaguely he could now perceive dark masses — chairs, a table; even, though faintly, the rug on which he stood.

It was some seconds before he perceived the source of this illumination, which was, by infinitesimal degrees, growing steadily brighter. Between living-room and veranda the partition was pierced by two windows, glazed and hung with thin, ivory-yellow curtains. Three other windows, similarly draped, opened upon a lawn beyond the angle formed by the veranda’s end wall.

On sunny days nearly as much light was reflected through one set of windows as the other, for the veranda was finished in yellow spruce and faced south. Now, however, the windows toward the lawn were invisible behind their curtains, while those opening upon the veranda had become faintly glowing rectangles of yellowish light.

It was not a steady light. It throbbed, first dim, then brighter, in a long, regular pulsation.

O’Hara’s first impulse was to spring across the room and sweep the curtains aside. His second was better. A view through the window might gratify his curiosity, but he wanted a more practical satisfaction than that. He would take no chance of giving a premature alarm by spying between curtains.

The light, which until now had continually increased, ceased to grow, but continued to throb.

Still no sound came from the other side of the partition, nor could he see anything through the translucent window draperies. He stood there in the dim twilight of the living-room and the two windows hung like yellow, oblong Chinese lanterns, pulsing between light and shadow, but giving no other hint of the presence that must be back of them.

At last Colin moved. Crouchingly he stole toward the door, body half bent, ready at any moment to leave creeping and spring. Even to him the stillness had become somewhat ghastly. If enemies were there, why did they make no move? What could be the object of this ghostly and silent illumination? They did not, could not know that he was aware of their presence. What was there in the veranda to hold their attention for so long a time?

Then Colin committed a folly for which he never afterward quite forgave himself. In the intensity of his desire to reach the door, fling it wide and take the enemy unaware, he forgot his own precautions against its noiseless opening. As his hand closed on the knob one foot grazed the little pile of precariously balanced tinware. Over it went, clashing and clattering, a most satisfactory alarm — had he not been the one to spring it!

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