Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XVII

A Surprise and a Disappointment

THE following day brought Colin a surprise as great and in a way, more disconcerting than had been given him by Genghis Khan when he descended upon him out of an oak-tree the evening before.

Cliona arrived at the bungalow, and she was a Cliona indignant and filled with the just wrath of a woman deceived. She was so angry that she had forgotten all dread of the place and marched into the dining-room unannounced, like a small avenging angel.

Colin was alone. Mrs. Bollinger had made good her resolve and renounced his service in a wonderfully spelled note, which a small boy thrust under the front door that morning. So Colin had cooked his own breakfast and luncheon. He was a good cook, within the limits of his cuisine, as this ran chiefly to wild game “of which he had none,” fried ham, eggs, flapjacks, and coffee. There promised to be a certain monotony of diet unless he could persuade some other Mrs. Bollinger to dare the goblins of the bungalow.

He was somewhat sadly reflecting upon this fact when Cliona surprised him. Unexpectedly long though his residence here had been, and though the continuance of its secrecy had seemed a daily increasing miracle, yet the worst he had anticipated was discovery by his brother-in-law, who might have got wind of his presence there through the gossip of some Carpentierian in business circles. He would be unlikely to carry word of it to his wife, but would investigate on his own account.

For Cliona herself to descend upon him was lightning from a clear sky, and he had never felt more astonished and embarrassed in his life. He choked on his coffee, but this was fortunate. By the time he was able to speak he had thought of something to say.

“Cliona, my dear,” he beamed, coming around table with outstretched arm, “it’s a fine thing to see you looking so well and all!”

But she ran away from him, barricading herself behind a chair. She regarded her brother scornfully.

“You lied to me!” She was fairly ablaze with the white-hot anger that occasionally flared up in both the O’Haras. “You lied, and you never went away at all!”

Because he was dear to her, the discovery of his incomprehensible deception had hurt her intolerably. As she had written him, her health and strength had practically returned, and she had begun to go about much as usual.

While in the city shopping, she had chanced to meet a lady whose husband owned an extensive property adjoining Rhodes’ former possessions at Carpentier.

Cliona could not understand the woman’s meaning when she said: “Your brother looks so well, Mrs. Rhodes. I often see him, though only at a distance.” Then it had all come out.

Cliona said nothing to her husband. This was between her and Colin, and as soon as Rhodes left her to return to his office, she took the first train to Carpentier.

“Why, no,” confessed Colin, halting to run his fingers through his hair and reflect. “Sure, I didn’t go away. Did you think I would really travel off to the far end of the earth and leave you so sick and all? I—— ”

The matter of the lie Colin excused on the ground that if he had told the truth Rhodes would have insisted on coming with him, or at least occasionally sharing his nightly watch. Cliona shuddered at the thought. She heard the story of his last night’s adventure, somewhat toned down and denatured, for Colin had no notion of increasing her concern for him.

He told her of his suspicion that Reed’s strange “stock-farm” was responsible for her own experience, and in that case, of course, there was no danger in his remaining at the bungalow. Reed would now take the utmost care that none of his creatures, whatever they might be, should again escape.

But even to her O’Hara could not bring himself to tell of Reed’s daughter. Deranged or sane, to him she was sacred, a vision bestowed upon him by the friendly gods, and he would not speak of her.

“So I am going there again this day,” he concluded, “and when I come away I may have news to phone you or not, but at least if such a creature is there as your ears informed you of, and your eyes saw the white claw of him, he will not be hard to pick out. So let me live here a while longer, Cliona, and do you go back to Tony. Then in a few days I will join you, and perhaps I’ll visit St. Augustine with yourselves.”

To this she finally agreed, stipulating, however, that he should telephone her daily so that she might know he was safe.

“Night and morning I’ll phone you,” Colin promised. “And now will you sit at my table, Mrs. Rhodes, and enjoy the elegant menu provided by my fine Irish chef? There’s little variety, but plenty of quantity, which, you know, is the main thing as shown in my own person!”

After all, except her husband, there was no one in the world so nice as Colin. Her wounded affection healed by the knowledge that his deception had been carried out for the purpose of avenging her own wrongs, the two had a very merry meal together, and later Colin rode with her to the train.

Before paying his call, O’Hara determined to obtain some outside information regarding his new acquaintance, Chester Reed. For this purpose there seemed no one more convenient than the station agent, for Undine, excelling therein most such small suburban points, boasted a real, live agent. O’Hara found him to be a pleasant young fellow, ready to handle passengers with admirable impartiality.

Yes, certainly he knew Mr. Reed. Reed had bought the old Jerrard place a year ago last April. Beautiful old estate. Dated clean back to revolutionary days, and been in the Jerrard family ever since, till — well, Mr. Charles Sutphen Jerrard was the last of ’em. Too bad he had to come such a cropper. Five years ago it was. Hanged himself in the gatelodge.

His creditors had been trying ever since to rent or sell the place at a decent profit, but nobody seemed to want it till this man Reed came along. Makes a place mighty unpopular to have a memory like that hanging over it. Say, if you’d hear some of the stories about that gatelodge — what? Oh, well, Reed had taken the place anyway, and didn’t seem to care a tinker’s cuss for all the dead Jerrards that ever walked. Not the sort that cared to have living outsiders about, though.

Yes, be believed Reed did handle some breeds of stock. His animals were brought there on the hoof, or in crates and boxes, and he for his part had never seen that any of them were unusual. Just sheep and calves, chickens and rabbits. Nothing even very fancy, so far as he had noticed.

Here a man who was lounging against a packing-case put in his word.

“Y’know, that guy Reed is funny. When he first come here he give out that he was goin’ in for what he called ‘scientific stock raisin’.’ There’s two or three real stock-farms hereabout, and some fellows went and offered him some nice prize stock, but he says no, he don’t want nothing like that. What he was goin’ to begin on must be imported. . . .

“So he puts up a lot of wire fencin’, the strongest I ever seen, an’ then outside o’ that he shuts in the Jerrard grounds with high board fences all along Llewellyn Creek and the other sides away from the pike. Then he nails up ‘No Trespass’ signs about every five feet, like he was goin’ to start a dynamite factory.”

“Well,” broke in the agent, “he has a right to keep people off his grounds, hasn’t he?”

“I ain’t sayin’ he ain’t. I’m only tellin’ you what a funny guy he is. You only gotta look at the poor old house to see that. What’d he want t’stick that big round cupuly thing right in the middle of the roof for — huh? What’s a cupuly got to do with stock raisin’? Then he imports this here fancy stock, and — haw! Say, I got a good look at a lot of it when it come in. By jiminy, they was the commonest, orneriest bunch o’ cattle that anybody ever turned out in the road to get rid of! They was —— ”

“There were some fine Belgian hares in the last shipment,” cut in the agent.

“Them brown rabbits, you mean? I dunno nothin’ about them — but, say I do know cattle. I was raised on a real stock-farm. Them calves and sheep of his couldn’t sneak up on a blue ribbon that was give out by a blind judge at midnight! An’ the poultry — oh-h, my!”

Here his feelings overcame him. He fairly doubled up with mirth.

All this was very puzzling to O’Hara. Had not Reed distinctly stated that his farm was not for the purpose of breeding ordinary domestic animals?

“And what do you think of his taste in monkeys?” he suggested tentatively.

Both his informants seemed to take this query as delightfully facetious. The agent had appeared inclined to defend Reed, but he, too, laughed saying: “That bleached out man of his is the limit, isn’t he? I always said he was more like a white rat than a human being, but I guess an albino monkey does come nearer the mark.”

Colin stared. Could it be possible that Genghis Khan was unknown in the neighborhood?

“You don’t take my meaning,” he said frankly. “I’m not referring to Marco, but to the real monkey, the one he calls Genghis Khan.”

The agent shook his head. Both men looked blank.

“Didn’t know he had one, mister. Must be some pet that came in one of the small boxes. Well, I’ve got my bills of lading to check over. If you want to go out to Reed’s place, Jimmy here will show you the way. Won’t you, Jimmy? That is, unless you’ve been there before.”

“I know the way,” nodded O’Hara, “and thanks for the time you’ve given me!”

As he started up the road the lounger called after him.

“Say, mister, don’t be surprised at nothing you hear there. That Miss Reed, his girl that lives there with him, is loony! I never seen her, but I’ve heard she takes on somethin’ awful every wunst in a while. An’ say, don’t buy none of his imitation fancies, neither. I c’n put you next to some real good —— ”

But with an impatient wave of the arm O’Hara strode out of hearing. Without reason he resented intensely the man’s reference to the girl. And to follow it up with advice about live stock! Had the fool no sense of what was fitting?

Though he resolutely declined to face the fact, O’Hara was taking an astonishing amount of interest in this mad girl, to whom he had never spoken, whom he had seen for a scant three minutes. He might refer to her as a “blessed and miraculous memory” all he pleased, but it was not so much memory as a faint hope of seeing her again that made this present visit the most exciting he had ever planned paying in his life.

The day had begun fine and sunny, but a high wind had arisen. Now, at four in the afternoon, masses of dark cloud were surging across the sky, threatening rain before nightfall. Dust and dry, brown leaves swirled around and past him, and he had to cling to his hat lest it follow the leaves. The branches of the trees whipped and writhed in a wind that was stripping away the last of their October splendors.

Colin walked slowly, for he wished to think over the things he had just learned.

“Sheep, calves, poultry, and hares. Now which of those four could groan like an — earthquake? Faith, it sounds like a riddle! Something did moan last night, and ’twas no cage dragged over a floor, either. It frightened the poor little Dusk Lady upstairs. But if the people about here know nothing of Genghis Khan, why may it not be that Reed has other secrets — for museums, says he, and menageries?

“Now, what sort of beasts would those be? I never did hear of a man that could breed the larger carnivora with any success at all in captivity — or not in these latitudes. Freaks, then. Maybe. Now, what is this queer ‘science’ of Reed’s? Does he cut the poor brutes up alive and hang the fore part of one on the hind part of another?”

O’Hara had been reading “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and its vivisectionary horrors had stirred his imagination.

“If there’s anything like that going on here,” he thought, “’tis high time it was put a stop to. I did not like that man Reed at first, and now, after thinking him over, I do not at all. He’s too smooth and too polite, and behind it he hides a nasty temper. And his glasses are too big and ridiculous. I’d like to see the lad with them off, and his beard off too. A man might as well wear a mask as all that adornment. I may have seen him before, and I may not, but if I could see him shaved it would help me decide.”

Here he postponed further reflection, for he had come up to the wrought-iron gates. He sought the button of the electric bell and pressed it. It rang in the gate-lodge, as before, but since it seemed unlikely that the entire time of Reed’s one servant was spent in that sepulchral refuge, Colin assumed that the button had two connections, one of them at the house.

It was in that lodge, the agent had said, that the last owner had hanged himself. Recalling his experience of last night, a doubt flashed through Colin’s mind like a flying spark. It was gone in an instant. He had his superstitious side, but seldom allowed it to get the better of him. That pale oval in the gate-lodge doorway had been Marco’s face. Ghosts do not push doors open, nor close them to, and, anyway, it would be a very inefficient “haunt” that showed itself only to disappear so instantly. Colin smiled at the thought and looked beyond the lodge.

Within, the grounds seemed more desolate, though less mysterious, than on the previous night. Through the trees, which had shed so many of their leaves that afternoon, he caught glimpses of gray granite walls, and above them the roofs of the old, many-gabled house — and yet above them, like a misplaced reminiscence of the Orient — a strange, round, domed affair.

The dome form is one of the glories of architecture, but this one was not beautiful at all. It somehow suggested that an incredibly large, white fungus had sprouted there in the night and not yet been discovered and removed by the outraged dwelling’s owner. Somewhere, some time — where and when, thought Colin, had he once before received that impression of a dome?

A fugitive memory that he could not place — and now Marco came rustling down through the leaves on the unswept drive. He met O’Hara with that same frightened stealthy look which seemed his habitual expression, and opened the gate with the air of a conspirator.

“What ails you, man?” demanded O’Hara as he entered. “You’re shivering like a wet poodle dog. Is it the ague you have?”

The man shook his head and replied in his mumbled toothless voice:

“Last night — you made great noise last night. Too much noise! Silence — silence!”

Colin stared. He had supposed the man normal save in appearance, but it appeared he was only half-witted.

“All right, my lad,” he said soothingly. “Since noise troubles you so I’ll try and make less of it today. Will I find Mr. Reed at the house?”

Again Marco shook his head and, putting a hand in the pocket of his worn corduroys, pulled out a crumpled envelope. “Here,” he mumbled, extending it to O’Hara. “There are words on the white paper inside!”

“A note, eh? Now, what —— ”

Colin tore open the envelope. As the albino had phrased it, there were indeed words on the white paper inside, and words, moreover, which he read with considerable disappointment. The letter ran:

My dear Mr. O’Hara:
   I am writing this in case you should honor me with a visit this afternoon, as you spoke of doing. It is with great regret that I am obliged to postpone the pleasure of showing you about my little place, but imperative business calls me away. I cannot set the exact time of my return, but probably it will be in the course of a few days. I will then drop you a line, and sincerely hope that your visit may be repeated. Again regretting this involuntary rudeness to an invited guest, believe me,

Most sincerely yours,

Chester T. Reed.

Colin glanced from Reed’s note to find the albino’s eyes fixed on his face, but, as usual, not with the least appearance of seeing him. One could hardly believe that those black, pointlike pupils were designed to look outward.

“So, your master has left you in charge here?” queried Colin thoughtfully.

“I am here — yes.”

“But I mean, is it alone you are? No one to look after — Miss Reed?”

Marco frowned and pointed, first to the note, then to the gate.

“The master said — after reading, go!”

“Faith, you’ve a polite way of dismissing his guests, friend Marco!”

Colin hesitated. Could it be possible that Reed had actually gone away and left his pitifully lovely daughter in the charge of this red-eyed and possibly degenerate creature?

If so, what had been none of his business became his business or that of any other decent man. There must be some law of the State to cover such a situation. He decided to consult his brother-in-law. That clever lawyer could surely advise him. In the meantime ——

“Marco,” he said, “look me in the eye and heed well what I say. Should any harm come to Miss Reed in her father’s absence, be sure I’ll know of it, and be sure that it’s myself you’ll have to deal with for it. D’ye understand? I could tear you to bits, little man, and well you know it!”

“The master said — after reading, go!”

“Oh, I’ll go! But do you think of my words and heed them! And tell your master that the O’Hara was here. Good day to you, Marco!”

The gates clicked shut behind him. Colin paused outside to light a cigar, with difficulty shielding the match from the gale. When he glanced back through the iron scrolls Marco had disappeared.

“’Tis ashamed of myself I am,” mused Colin, “threatening violence to a weak, white worm like him! But that’s the best I could think of to do. I do not know what is wrong with that place, nor with the master of it, but that something is wrong I am sure as sure can be. And I could hardly invade the man’s premises by force to look into the matter. Or could I?”

He stared thoughtfully through the beautiful gates that Sutphen Jerrard himself had imported from Italy. As he looked, the first few drops of driven rain beat stingingly upon Colin’s face, and the wind ripped through the trees like the breath of a giant’s shouting — violent, impetuous, intolerant of all foul vapors and secret vileness.

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