Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XVI

Admitted

O’HARA stepped up and, grasping the elaborate iron scroll-work, shook the gate angrily.

“Here, you,” he cried, “if this is the city zoo, what do you mean by letting your ferocious baboons and gorillas roam the country at large?”

The guardian of the gate, he who had opened it for the ape’s entrance and closed it in the face of its pursuer, made no reply, unless an incoherent mutter could be so accounted.

He seemed a tall, thin man, dressed in rough corduroys, and his narrow, triangular face peered out at Colin through the floral scrolls with a curiously furtive looks. Colin could see him very well by the light of the road-lamp, and thought that his face had a whiteness, as if the man had been badly frightened, or was just risen from a sick bed.

“What’s that?” demanded Colin, his indignation growing as he recalled the difficulties and discomforts of his long run and the unpleasant combat preceding it. “You need make no excuses to me! I saw the brute come in here, though I do not see him now, and I wish to come in myself and talk with the man who has charge of this place and takes in raging gorillas like they were invited guests at a parish lawn party! Will you admit me, or will I break down this fancy gate of yours?”

He gave it so violent a shake that the man inside jumped back.

“Stop!” he cried excitedly. “Stop it instantly! You are making a noise — a big noise! Stop it!”

The man’s voice came out of his lips as if there were no teeth behind them, in a kind of hushed and mumbling shriek. But he had teeth, for as Colin loosened his grasp and the man again thrust his face against the scroll, they were bared in an animal snarl. His glaring eyes reflected the lamplight with a reddish gleam. A little shiver of cold crept down the Irishman’s spine. Almost involuntarily he retreated a step.

But Colin O’Hara was not the one to be done out of satisfaction for his wrongs by a white-faced, red-eyed, silly-mouthed booby hiding behind a gate, and so he intimated in very positive terms.

“And,” he concluded, “you will now permit me to speak with the gentleman who has the bad taste to keep you and your brother that you just let in for household pets! And if you do not, I’ll come in, whether or no. We’ll see if the O’Hara must chase wild apes over bog and ditch and win his pains for his trouble!”

At that the keeper of the gate moved sulkily away, mumbling over his shoulder:

“You must wait, then, till I go to the master.”

“I’ll wait, but don’t try my patience too far now!”

The figure vanished into the darkness that lay beyond the wall. O’Hara, peering after him, could see only a few square yards of leaf-matted gravel, on which the pattern of the gate was laid in shadow by the lamp behind him.

Beside it rose a roughly peaked cubic mound of reddening ivy, which he took to be either a much-neglected gate-lodge or a monument of some sort. Probably the latter, for there was no sign of door or window. Beyond only dark tree masses loomed against the starry sky. No lights gleamed through the branches, nor did any sound come out save when the night-breeze faintly rustled the dry leaves.

“A queer place and no mistake,” muttered Colin; “and I’m thinking that once in the O’Hara may wish himself out again. I wonder has this beast I’ve chased here anything at all to do with the other matters? Could a monkey, however knowing, have done the things that were performed at the bungalow? No, likely this is an occurrence by itself, and I’ll just give the beast’s owner a piece of my mind and go home again.”

Having reached this conclusion, Colin began to weary of such long waiting. The gate-keeper had now been absent at least a quarter of an hour, and for any evidence of life the Irishman might have been the only human being within miles. Not even a car had passed on the pike behind him. He shifted from one foot to the other and swore softly.

“The white-faced fool has played me some trick!” he grumbled. “Very like ’twas through his fault that the beast got loose, and he’s never gone near his precious master.”

Well, there was a bell connected with this gate. He had heard it sing. Searching for a moment he located a push-button and set his thumb firmly against it. The bell rang; but it rang inside the ivy-covered heap beside the gate. It was a lodge, then. The shrill clamor sounded so startlingly near and out of place in the silence that Colin hesitated a moment before ringing again.

Was that vague rustling sound from inside the lodge, or was it the wind among the leaves? It ceased after a moment. Colin waited, then as no one came he rang again. For fully five minutes he continued to ring, first steadily, then in long and short assaults on the bell-push. But the noise he made was his sole reward.

Disgusted, and at last really angry, O’Hara drew back from the gate and contemplated the wall. Fully ten feet high it extended right and left in an unbroken barrier.

“My coat to the wall,” said Colin, proceeding to take it off, “and I’ll soon be over.”

The garment with which he intended padding the sharp, wicked-looking spikes was in his hand, and he was about to fling it upward when he arrested his arm and hastily slipped the coat on again. A sound had reached his ear from beyond the gate. Either the gatekeeper was returning or the bell had at last roused someone else to action.

Again he, peered into the grounds. Out of the darkness a figure emerged, walking with a brisk, firm tread, and close behind glimmered the white face and red eyes of his first acquaintance, the gate-keeper. As the newcomer advanced, Colin could perceive, even in the dim, shadow-streaked light, that he was a bearded man, that he wore a pair of round glasses with tortoise rims, and that he was frowning angrily.

“Are you the ruffian who broke that poor brute’s arm? Marco, open the gate and have him come in!”

O’Hara was so taken aback by this forestalling of his own complaint that Marco, he of the white face, had time to unlock and swing wide the portals before he could think of any fit reply. But he had no hesitation about entering. In he stalked and confronted the newcomer, while behind him the gates shut, clanging.

“I am the man your beast would have strangled,” he began indignantly; “and for why do you let him run wild at night, the way he might have killed me had I been a small, weak man? Strangling at the throat of me when I am meditating in my own dooryard! Or is it that you are training the handsome creature for murder?”

At that the bearded man laughed. His tone was low, amused, with just the faintest hint of a sneer somewhere about it.

“Pray, my dear sir, don’t carry your accusation to the point of absurdity. If, as you hint, it was Khan who attacked you first, I owe you an apology. Perhaps we had best go to the house and discuss this quietly. Will you follow me, sir?”

O’Hara hesitated, but only momentarily. He was possessed of a dubious feeling, scarcely amounting to suspicion, that wisdom would carry his feet elsewhere than inward. To O’Hara, however, discretion was ever an uninteresting virtue. When the bearded man led the way into the dark shadows of the trees, after him went Colin.

He was still conscious of a sense of repulsion toward the white-faced gate-keeper, following close at his heels, and of a generally eerie and disagreeable impression. But no doubt this was folly, and no man, not even such a one as this gate-keeper, can help the looks he is born with. As for the ungainly monster he had chased here, it was most likely a valuable pet, whose ferocity might or might not be known to its master.

Barely able to see his way, Colin was not aware that they had approached a house until the drive curved sharply aside and they arrived at an entrance, the light of whose open door was shielded by a deep stone porch and a porte-cochère, arching above the driveway.

From the look of these he judged the mansion to be one of considerable size and dignity, but whether a private residence or a public institute of some kind, he was not yet able to determine. The three men ascended the steps, passed through the porch, and came into a square, old-fashioned reception hall.

Within the door the master of the house turned to his guest. He was an older man than the latter had at first supposed, for the carefully trimmed Vandyke beard was thickly streaked with gray. But the dark eyes behind the great, round lenses were very bright, his expression was keenly intelligent, and these characteristics, together with his quick, alert way of moving, lent him a deceptive look of youth.

As he stood, Colin noticed that he kept his left hand in the pocket of his coat. He noticed it, because that hand had been in that pocket since the first moment of their meeting. Colin had seen other men’s left or right hands concealed in the same consistent manner, and it generally meant one thing.

He himself was unarmed.

“Will you be seated, sir?” inquired the man courteously enough. “I must ask you to excuse me while I give Marco some directions for the setting of Khan’s arm. The poor brute is suffering.”

O’Hara acquiesced. As Marco passed across the room in his master’s wake, the visitor received one quick, full view of him and of his face. The man’s singular pallor was explained, for Marco was an albino. He had removed his cap and disclosed a smooth, oval skull, sparsely covered with bristling white hairs.

By this more revealing light, his eyes, that had gleamed red in the shadow-shot gloom, were a reddish pink, and in that one clear glimpse of them O’Hara had a sickening notion that those eyes saw not out but inward. The pupils were like black pin-points.

The effect was as if the man had literally reversed his vision and contemplated not his outer surroundings but the secrets of his own stealthy soul. A childish and an unjust idea, for what had he against Marco save his unfortunate appearance?

Alone in the hall O’Hara looked about with a judging, curious eye. His first impression had been pleasant. The room was agreeably lighted by a hanging fixture, whose translucent, cream-colored globe diffused a mellow radiance. A log glowed in the depths of a fireplace of black dignity and size. The furniture, while severely plain, was good. There was certainly no hint of mystery or danger in that well-lighted, well-ordered, empty hall.

And yet as he stood there, O’Hara was again keenly conscious of the feeling he had experienced on entering the gate. It was as though the very atmosphere were charged with discomfort and some incomprehensible warning. It was indubitably charged beside with a faint but unpleasant odor. Very like it was that which troubled him. He wondered again if Reed kept other beasts than Khan on the premises, and if the bungalow mystery were not indeed near its solution.

A door opened and his host reentered.

“What? Still standing?” began the man, but Colin broke in on his hospitable protestations — which might have seemed more friendly had not that left hand remained in ambiguous concealment.

“I will not sit down. I am not fit to be seated on a decent chair, for I am mud and mold from the head to the feet of me.”

“And for that it seems that we — or rather Khan, is responsible. You must let me make amends, Mr. —— ”

“O’Hara,” supplied the other.

“My own name is Chester Reed. When you first came here, Mr. O’Hara, and from Marco’s account, I believed that you had met Khan on the road and broken his arm with a club or bullet in an effort to capture him. Now I am inclined to believe that an explanation is due you. Before I offer it, would you give me an outline of exactly what occurred?”

Something about the man, or the tones of his voice, struck O’Hara as faintly familiar. Disagreeably familiar, too, as if the former association, if there had really been one, was of a distinctly unpleasant nature. Yet the name was new to him and the face called up no recollections. Doubtless the familiarity was no more than a resemblance to someone he had once known.

He began his narrative, but not until Reed had insisted that he be seated, mud or no mud, and had brought out a decanter, glasses, and a humidor of strong but good cigars.

For this service he used his right hand only. The left was still in his pocket. Colin began to believe his suspicions unjustified. Perhaps the man’s hand was in some way deformed, and thus a mere personal habit, because he scowled over the inconvenience of his one-handed hospitality, and two or three times very obviously overcame an impulse to bring the left hand to the aid of its mate.

The tale ended, Reed shook his head with a frown of annoyance.

“This is the result of Marco’s carelessness. He is an excellent trainer, but he will persist in regarding Genghis Khan as a human being rather than a monkey. I myself had no idea that Khan had a trace of viciousness. He is as gentle and tractable as a child, eats his meals at table, dresses himself in the morning, helps Marco with the other animals — in fact does everything human except read, write and talk. I suppose that in the woods Khan cast aside his clothes and his gentility together. I must congratulate you, Mr. O’Hara. I should not myself care to try a fall with Genghis Khan.”

“Have we met before, Mr. Reed?”

The irrelevant question took his host by surprise. For just an instant Colin thought that the lids behind the round lenses flickered curiously. Then he replied with a quietness tinged by natural surprise. “I am sure we have not, Mr. O’Hara. You are not the sort of person whom one forgets.”

Colin met his quizzical smile and glanced down at himself ruefully.

“You may say so — but I’m not always the wild barbarian I do look just now. Your pet led me a wild dance and that’s the truth. You spoke of other animals. Will you tell me this — what kind of beasts do you keep, and did one other of them break loose early in the summer?”

“Never!” Reed put a strong emphasis on the word which he seemed to regret, for he qualified it instantly. “Never, that is, that I am aware of. I have a rather queer assortment, I’ll admit. By methods of my own I breed and raise animals which I intend later to dispose of to menageries, museums, and the like. That is my business.

“But all precautions are taken, and there is no more danger than there might be in connection with any ordinary menagerie or breeding farm. That is what this place really is — a stock farm. Only, instead of cows and sheep we handle — more peculiar beasts. But there are none of them large enough or savage enough to do any particular harm if they did break loose — and they are all shut behind bars and strong fences.”

“Genghis Khan?” suggested O’Hara, with a lift of his red brows.

“I have explained that. Hereafter Khan will not be given so much liberty. Some time, if you care to come around by daylight, I shall be glad to show you over my place. It is a privilege I extend to few, but —— ”

Breaking off in the midst of speech, Reed grasped the arm of his chair with his free hand and half rose with an indistinct ejaculation.

Somewhere — though it was hard to say from what direction — there had begun a peculiar groaning sound. The very floor quivered to its vibration, and Colin was momentarily conscious of a strange feeling of nausea. The sound persisted for perhaps ten seconds, then ceased as abruptly as it had begun.

There followed a sudden patter of feet across the floor of the room over their heads, a faint scream — that was a woman’s voice. Colin sprang to his feet, bewildered, but with an innate conviction that something had gone very much wrong somewhere. Reed, however, laid a staying hand on his arm.

“Do not disturb yourself, I beg. That voice — I may as well tell you, as you will hear of it perhaps from other sources. I live here alone with Marco and — my daughter. She is — deranged. There! It is a painful subject, and the great sorrow of my life, but such things are given us to endure by God, or Providence, or whatever arbitrary force rules the universe. She cannot bear my poor animals, and will often scream like that at a noise from the cages or yards.”

As he spoke, the expression of almost savage impatience which twisted Reed’s features had faded and smoothed into one of deep and painful sadness.

Colin stared.

“Was that first noise made by one of your beasts, then? ‘Twould be a queer animal with a voice like that. I’d like to see the creature.”

“That noise?” Reed looked oddly uneasy. “I really couldn’t say, Mr. O’Hara. It might have been Marco dragging around one of the small cages — or a box. Yes,” he continued with more assurance, “he probably dragged some heavy box across the floor. But my poor daughter takes alarm at the most innocent sounds.”

It was on O’Hara’s tongue to ask why, if the proximity of the beasts so distressed his daughter, Reed did not send her away to a sanatorium or asylum. But he repressed the question. After all, it was no affair of his. Instead, he said gravely:

“You have my sympathy, sir, and I understand your feelings entirely. But as to the invitation, ‘twould give me pleasure to visit you on some other day and in a manner more formal.”

“If you feel yourself to have been injured by Genghis Khan, or if he damaged your property in any way, I shall be glad to —— ”

“Nothing of the sort. I more than squared accounts with the poor ape in person. To tell the truth, there’s a deal of time on my hands now, and I’ve a fancy for animals. Would it trouble you should I run over tomorrow afternoon?”

“Not at all. Do so, by all means.” Reed spoke with a great appearance of cordiality. “Come at any time, and ring the bell at the gate. Marco will let you in.”

“Then thank you, and I’ll be going. By the way —— ” He broke off with a laugh — then explained: “Your Genghis Khan knows the country hereabouts better than myself. He led me about and about, the way I’ve no notion at all what part of America I’m in now.”

“This house is only a short walk from Undine,” smiled his host, “and Carpentier, where I suppose you wish to return, is the next station up the line. I keep no car, or I would send you back that way, but at least Marco can show you the road to the station. If you would care to — er — straighten your attire —— ”

“And wash off the mud and the blood,” put in Colin. “’Tis a fine idea, for I doubt they’d take me onboard in my present condition. But no need to trouble your man. I can find my own way, if you’ll point it and thanks to you.”

“As you like.”

Reed led the way upstairs and introduced him to a well-appointed bathroom.

“Here is a clothes-brush, and help yourself to the soap and clean towels. I will wait for you in the hall below. You have half an hour for there is a train at ten five. Sorry I can’t offer you the services of a valet, but we live very simply, and Marco and Genghis Khan are my only servants.”

“I’ve already been valeted by Genghis Khan,” jested O’Hara, “and do not care to repeat the performance. I’ll be with you in ten minutes, Mr. Reed.”

Alone, as he brushed at his clothes, Colin reflected on the singular make-up of this household.

“A mad daughter and a menagerie to care for, and he keeps one servant! Yet is it poverty that ails him? The one room I’ve seen is well-furnished enough, and here he has an elegant bath-room — clean towels by the dozen. And himself is not poorly dressed. Strange he’d not have one woman at least to be company for the unfortunate girl. And he says his beasts could not break loose! And that noise was the dragging of a cage! It would be a heavy cage that shook the house like that, though I myself find it hard to account for by any other cause. Nevertheless, had MacClellan a head on his shoulders he’d have found out this place and explored it. But no, he would not believe that Cliona’s wild beast was aught but human.”

Having done the best possible by his clothes, he began cleansing his face and hands.

“An odd thing, now I think of it, that the people hereabout kept quiet. So close to Carpentier, and the papers so full of it and all. How Mr. Chester Reed was not dragged into our business, man-monkey, stock-farm, and all, is a bigger puzzle than the other. I’ll be kind to the poor man and courteous, and perhaps tomorrow I’ll step on the tail of the whole mystery. There, I’m decent to pass in a crowd — and three minutes of the ten yet to spare.”

He passed out toward the stair. As he did so a door opened at the end of the hall behind him, and hearing the soft click of its latch, he glanced around.

There, framed in the doorway, stood the most melancholy and at the same time the most oddly beautiful figure that Colin had ever seen. She could be none other than Reed’s mad daughter, but the Irishman forgot that in amazement at her loveliness.

What she thought of him O’Hara could not know. The slight parting of her lips and her wide eyes might have expressed either amazement, alarm, or expectation. Curiously enough O’Hara was convinced, both then and afterward, that her emotion was really the last named, though what she could expect of him, whom she had never before set eyes on, seemed hard to surmise. He was also convinced — and this belief was as lacking in practical foundation as the other — that she had some information to impart — something which it was highly important that he should know and which concerned them both.

Heretofore O’Hara had compared all women with Cliona, to their disparagement, but here was one who could be compared to no one. She was herself alone and utterly a creature apart, almost unearthly, and who yet suggested in an odd way all the natural beauties of earth. So the darkness of her hair and eyes hinted at mystery of dusk and the recurring miracle of starshine.

She was tall and slender, and her height and slim, bare arms made one think of dryads that live in willow-trees and come out to dance at moonrise. Her hair hung down in rippling, dark curls over the green gown she was dressed in, and Colin saw the beauty of her hair and did not perceive that the gown was so worn and old that it hung in tatters about her bare ankles, and so threadbare in places that her white limbs shone through it.

Her face was long and oval, and her large eyes were too bright, as if suffused with unshed tears. She had the loveliness of night, and the sorrowful beauty of forest pools that hold the stars and the trees in their bosoms.

That was the wonder which appeared to Colin O’Hara.

But had he not been Colin O’Hara, or had he ever loved any other woman save his sister, then it may be that the wonder would not have appeared to him. So he might have seen only a slim girl in a torn, green gown; beautiful, perhaps, — but thin and very melancholy.

And how should either of them guess of a former meeting? Fifteen years are a gulf to swallow memories, and in fifteen years a girl-baby finds magic indeed to change her. Their first glance for each other was of recognition; but it was not a recognition to save suffering. Being not of the flesh and earthly it spared them no after pain.

Colin had no idea of how long he had stood there, staring at the girl and waiting for the message she had for him. But it could hardly have been more than a few moments until Reed’s voice floated up to him from below.

“Is that you, O’Hara? You haven’t long to catch that train.”

Colin roused with a start, and the girl, who had seemed on the very edge of speaking, laid two slim fingers on her lips in a gesture of silence and slipped back into her room.

O’Hara went down the stairs like a man descending out of a dream. He did not know what had happened to him, but that something had happened he was gloriously aware. Every nerve and fiber of his giant body tingled with vivid life, and had she not made that gesture of silence and warning, he would have gone to the girl, not to Reed.

The latter met him at the stair-foot with a glance sharply suspicious.

“I heard you stop there on the floor above. Did my daughter speak to you? Poor child, she is as ready to address a stranger as her own father!”

Colin came to earth with a jolt. That, then, had been the mad girl, Reed’s daughter! And he had — he had — Why, he had done nothing; only life had for him turned a somersault and seemed right-sideup for the first time. But mad! Was it madness that gave her that elfin look, that made her so differently, so marvelously beautiful?

“I had no word from your daughter, sir,” he replied gravely and sadly, for he was wishing he had. “Will you show me the road to the station?”

“You will have no trouble in finding it. Go out the gate, turn to your right, and keep straight on by the wall. From where it ends you can see the lights at the station. Good night, sir!”

The door closed with needless sharpness as Colin went down the steps. Then it opened again.

“If you want any further directions,” Reed called, and there was a strange hint of laughter in his voice, “ask the gatekeeper!”

And once more he banged the door.

Colin had turned at the first word, had seen Reed standing in the lighted doorway, and had caught an odd impression of some trifling difference in his appearance. He stood stock-still on the drive, staring at the shut dooor. Then he scratched his bare head reflectively.

“Ask — the — gatekeeper!” he muttered. “Now, what in the devil did the fool mean by that — and him laughing when he said it? And what was it about him now — oh, his hand!”

That hand had been out of its pocket at last, and it had been large — white — furry.

“To keep a glove on one’s hand is not strange,” thought Colin, “but why the like o’ that white fur one? Mr. Reed, Mr. Reed, ’tis a man of mysteries you are, both small and large, and I do not like you! But your daughter —— ”

It was hard enough to follow the path in the dark, and twice he thought he had lost his way. At last a gleam of light ahead resolved itself into the gaslight on the pike outside. Against its yellow radiance the gates hung, an elaborate silhouette, and he could see the red sheen of the ivy-covered lodge.

Then, as he came toward it, a slight sound came to his ears. Straining eyes dazzled by the light beyond, it seemed to him that in the side of the lodge facing the grounds a door stood open. Yes, there was an oblong blackness there, blacker than the shadowed ivy about it and near the center of the oblong — a whitish oval patch — a face?

It disappeared abruptly, and when Colin came up to the little lodge there were only a closed door and silence. Any windows there might be were hidden by the clinging ivy.

As the gates were unlocked, Colin had no desire to disturb Reed’s repulsive servant. The gates opened at a touch and he went his way.

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