Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XVIII

A Voice

BUT Colin did not invade Reed’s place that afternoon. For one thing he wanted Rhodes’ opinion before acting. He knew himself for an impetuous man, more used to the rough, forthright ways of the open than the ruled order of civilization. He feared committing some blunder, overriding the law in some way that might injure the girl rather than help her. Yes, he must talk to Rhodes.

He returned to his lonely bungalow in a mood so meditative that he was scarcely aware of the wild tempest that raved and tore at his drenched figure as he ascended the hill-road from Carpentier.

Night had fallen — a roaring blackness, and there had been no one to light up against his coming. He stumbled in, switching on the lights through the house as he went. They were comfortable, cheery rooms that sprang into view, still wearing some few of the homelike touches given them by Cliona, but for some reason the sight of them only emphasized the trouble of his mind.

Still pondering gloomily, Colin exchanged his dripping clothes for dry ones. Then he called Green Gables on the telephone. His sister answered, and, having informed her of the negative result of his visit to Undine, he asked for Tony.

But Tony, it seemed, was in town, having been detained on business. He would be home later in the evening.

“I’ll call him later, then,” said Colin, and bade his sister goodby.

He went through the dining-room, and from a bracket of the sideboard there a little porcelain image smiled benignly at his passing form. The broken shield still lay beside it. He had kept the godling “for the sake of the dream it would always bring to mind,” but that “dream” was far from his thoughts tonight.

He passed Quetzalcoatl’s small eidolon without a glance, and sought the kitchen, where he began preparing his supper. The cold rain had given him an appetite that even vague worry could not spoil. Having made a wonderfully good meal, he pushed the dishes to one side of the kitchen-table and lighted his pipe with a deep sigh of physical contentment.

But the satisfaction of his appetite had by no means quieted his mind. Back and forth fled his thoughts, spinning an invisible, intangible web between the bungalow at Carpentier and the house at Undine, till it seemed as if the cords of it had entangled his very body and were dragging him forth into the storm again.

What was the real connection between the huge, bloody thing that left its trail on this hill and that grating, vibratory roar he had heard last evening as he sat in Reed’s entrance-hall? Was there a connection? And why did Reed keep a mad girl in the very surroundings best calculated to increase her dementia? And why should he, Colin O’Hara, care so very intensely what Reed did for his daughter, or left undone?

Could insanity rouse love? No. Common sense told him that the barrier of madness was higher than he could cross. Then it must be only pity that he felt for this poor daughter of Chester Reed. Pity, it seemed, was a force of fearful power! What was she doing now? What fate hung over her? Or was this feeling of indefinite dread no more than a film of his too active fancy?

Now and again, while Colin sat smoking and frowning through the smoke, the whole bungalow would shake, quivering as if in the grasp of some fierce monster. It was just that, and the monster was the living, raving wind. It dashed rain against the windows with savage roars, and shouted among the branches, daring the man within to match his strength to its violence.

Colin wished that Rhodes had been in. He wanted authority — authority to remove the girl definitely and forever from the care of a father not fit to have charge of her. Did he take her by force and prematurely, it might weaken the case. How could he tell? Rhodes was the law-wise lad ——

The wind’s voice no longer defied him — it was calling, pleading with him in great shouts and gasps of terror. It was a reckless, impetuous messenger, tearing at his windows and his heart in gusty throbs of wordless passion. There he sat, stolid, content in his animal comfort, and the wind knew that which should drag him through storm, fire, or hell’s self, could it but impart its dread information.

Colin laid down his pipe and rose with a troubled frown. Wandering into the living-room he touched a match to the pile of kindling and logs in the fireplace. For a while the snapping, friendly flames were a solace to his rising discontent, but soon the feeling of unrest returned like a flowing tide.

The wind — the wind! Its invisible hand was shaking at the latch. Down it plunged through the chimney and spat contemptuous smoke and ashes at his stubborn inertia. It howled scorn at him for an irresolute, doubting fool, and wailed sorrowfully about the house in a long prophecy of bitterness and lifelong regret.

Till at last he could bear no more.

“Colin O’Hara,” said he, “you’re a fool; but if go you must, then go and have done with it!”

Suddenly he tramped to his room and again changed, this time to heavy hunting clothes, with stout, water-proof boots, donned an ulster and pulled a steamer-cap well down over his ears. Then he hesitated. Should he carry the blued steel weapon that still lay in his suitcase?

Colin had a certain scorn for any weapons other than the very efficient ones provided him by nature. To his mind there was something childish, even cowardly, about the look of a pistol in that great right hand of his. In the end he flung the thing into a drawer, hunted out and thrust in his overcoat pocket a small flashlight, extinguished the living-room fire, and marched from the house, nose in air in defiance of his own folly.

The gale fairly snatched the breath from his nostrils, but Colin lowered his head and lunged onward down the hill. He knew where he was going, and if he were thrusting himself in where no one wanted or needed him — well, let it be that way.

It was then eight o’clock, and he was just in time to catch the local that ran every two hours until midnight. At Undine he descended and was glad to observe that even the socially minded agent had been driven to cover by the storm. Passing through the small group of stores and dwellings beyond the station, Colin walked on out the pike, fairly leaning his weight against the blast, and too blinded by rain to get much good of the flaring and far-separated roadlights.

Instinctively it was toward the gate that he directed his steps, but reaching it he found his purpose too indefinite for convenience. Should he ring the bell and Marco answer it, what reason could he offer to gain him admittance?

If he were going in at all, it was clear that the entry must be clandestine. Once more he eyed that spike-topped wall with speculative glance. Then he recalled that the station-lounger had spoken of board-fences enclosing part of the estate. A fence might be easier to, scale, and might just possibly be spikeless.

Ten minutes later found Colin standing on the further bank of Llewellyn Creek, a spot he had reached by following the pike across the bridge and turning in at a little foot-path branching off beyond. It led a hundred yards or so along the bank and ceased at what his flashlight showed to be another bridge, a single, narrow arch of stone, crumbling and without hand-rail or parapet.

On the other side, there appeared to be a small building, rising flush with the stream’s bank and standing out somewhat from a high wooden barrier.

Crossing the bridge, Colin found himself faced by a plain wooden door set in a windowless wall of granite.

What interested him was that this door was not only unlocked, but slightly open. He entered, and his light playing over walls and floor showed a large, bare, dusty place. Boxes and packing-cases were stacked on one another, and in a corner lay a few rusty bits of old machinery. Nothing alive here save rats.

Perhaps it was the contents of one of those packing cases that gave off so unpleasant an odor. There was the dusty, disused smell natural to such a place, and through it whiffs of this other, and by no means agreeable, exhalation. Colin wrinkled his nose and sniffed. Failing to identify its source, he dismissed the matter and looked for an inner exit.

Crossing the old wooden floor, broken in more than one place, he discovered a pair of double doors, like those of a carriage-house. These, too, were unbarred and slightly ajar.

Someone had surely been careless. Colin wondered if Genghis Khan were once more abroad, but thought not. No sensible monkey would choose a night like this for its rambles.

Emerging from the storehouse he found his feet on a narrow plank walk that skirted a length of twelve-foot-high wire-fencing. It looked strong enough. Those springy steel meshes might have withstood the attack of a mad elephant. Curiosity, subordinated before to his concern for the girl, welled up now, and, yielding to it, Colin sent the light of his flash through the meshes.

The darting ray disclosed an expanse of trampled mud and wet turf, and beyond that a small, semi-enclosed shed. He held his light steady upon it. The rain, which had for a few moments diminished, descended again in driven, slanting sheets, but he thought he had glimpsed a heap of something gray that stirred as his light found it. Then a plaintive, long-drawn “Ba-a-a!” reached his ears. Colin snapped off his light in disgust. He had disturbed the innocent rest of some harmless sheep.

Following the plank walk, he squelched heavily along in what he felt must be the direction of the house. Now and again he allowed himself another brief glance beyond the wire fence, but most of the space seemed empty. One mournful cow, unprovided with even so flimsy a shelter as the sheep-shed, mooed at him dolefully as he splashed by.

“This I am sure of,” thought Colin indignantly, “if that Reed man treats all his creatures like this, he’ll soon have no stock to play scientist with. Sure, they’ll all die of pneumonia!”

He had traversed a considerable distance, and still he saw nothing but on one hand that absurdly strong wire fence, on the other, shrubbery and a multitude of lashing, wind-tormented trees.

“I’ll get nowhere at this rate save the other end of the estate.”

So, turning aside, he plunged into pathless shrubbery. It was bad going and, except for his flash, would have been worse. They were blackberry and currant bushes, run wild and malignant with thorns and prickles. Out of their clutches at last, he, for the first time, glimpsed a light other than his own, which latter he promptly extinguished.

“That’ll be the house,” he said decisively, and hoped he was right.

Plowing toward it through a wet wilderness of weeds that had once been close-cropped lawn, he came among trees again and shortly found himself within a stone’s throw of his goal.

It was a double light for which he had been heading, and proved to emanate from two windows set close together in the second story. Presently, using his own light cautiously, he identified near by the deep porch and porte-cochère of his last night’s visit.

And now, having achieved the goal for whose attainment he had laid himself open to a charge of felonious trespass, Colin found himself somewhat at a loss. Standing there in the rain it seemed to him that the strong inner force that had hitherto driven him, and which constituted his only real excuse for being there, now mockingly withdrew.

He shivered and scowled morosely at the dark, inhospitable entrance. For the first time he knew what a prowling, prying fool he must seem to Reed, could that gentleman have guessed his presence.

He glanced again toward the lighted windows above him. To his surprise he saw that the lower sash of one was raised. The drenched white curtains were flapping inward with the wind-driven rain. Then, as he looked, a figure appeared there, backing slowly into view, and O’Hara gasped at the desired but unexpected apparition.

There she stood, and though her back was toward him and the rain slanted between, he could make no mistake. He knew every curving line of those green-clad shoulders, that erect, white neck, and well-poised head. Had she been his closest comrade for years, instead of the stranger common sense called her, he could have felt no keener sense of familiar recognition.

Still keeping her face to the room, she stretched back one slim arm, feeling for the window-ledge. A wet curtain lashed and wrapped itself about the arm. With a quick, frantic energy she strove to free it. Then another arm flashed into view, and at last Colin knew the meaning of the silent drama of whose actors he had yet seen but one.

That darting arm was neither charming nor graceful. White, shaggy, rough as a length of pale, thick vine, it clutched toward her throat, with hand and fingers extravagantly long and terrible. Colin knew that hand, for he had felt it on his own throat.

With a great shout he sprang across the drive and was under the window.

“Jump!” he yelled through the sheeting rain. “Throw yourself backward and jump!”

He commanded a difficult feat, and from where he now waited could see nothing of what was going on above him. How might she possibly elude that near and gripping hand? And why should she obey his own roaring command from the outer darkness?

Three seconds passed, four, five. This was folly. He must break his way in somehow, before it was too late, and ——

Above him there leaned out a head and a pair of slim shoulders, while a low voice called:

“I am coming! You frightened it!”

A pair of white, bare feet swung out over the window-ledge. Sitting so, the girl was instantly drenched. To emerge into the raging maw of the tempest, blinded by rain, and swing off into a vacancy which might or might not receive her tenderly, must have required a courage — or a recklessness — of uncommon quality. Yet sitting so, without pause or hesitation, the girl pushed herself off and dropped.

Colin caught her in his arms and did not even stagger to the shock. It seemed to him that she had fallen lightly as a leaf drifting earthward, or a bird with the air cupped in its wings. How had his strength increased that she lay in his arms so lightly? He closed them about her in a quick fierceness of protection. That brute — that hairy, clutching ape-thing — had dared clutch at her — at his Dusk Lady!

“Are you hurt?” he whispered. “Is it hurt you are that you lie so still?”

She answered in the same low, sweet tones that had addressed him from the window.

“No, my lord. But it was well that you came when you came, and well that you called to me! The demon above there would have killed me, I think, had you not frightened him with the trumpet of your voice. My lord, will you take me away now?”

“My lord” scarcely knew what to do. To some queer deep part of his being it seemed quite natural that she should call him so; quite reasonable and satisfactory that she should speak to him with the quiet confidence of one who appeals to an old friendship — old and sure. But his surface mind was less easy. Her father had spoken no more than truth — the girl was demented!

“Sure and I’ll take you away,” he declared. “And isn’t that the very reason I was waiting under your window? But first we’ll go into the house and make all straight and proper, the way none may say I’ve been stealing you, little lady.”

“What? Return behind the walls of hate? But why?”

“It’s a matter of decency, my dear. And, besides, before I can take you away you must be dry and better clothed. You’re shivering this minute.”

“Not for cold,” she began, but just then a light sprang up close to Colin’s head.

Startled, he fumed and saw that he was close by a window of the entrance hall. Two forms flashed, running across his field of vision, and a moment later he heard the door within the deep porch flung open.

Carrying the girl, he stalked around toward the steps, for he was no sneaking marauder, and felt neither shame nor further need of excuse for his presence. It had been too amply justified.

Marco met him, behind him a crouching, snarling, bestial form, but of that latter Colin had a very brief glimpse. Genghis Khan may have recognized the enemy who had chased him across five miles of rough going after breaking his right arm, now bandaged in splints at his side. Khan promptly retreated, sliding through, the door and out of sight with the streaking speed of a giant white cockroach. But Marco held his ground.

“You — you!” he mumbled, pointing a shaking, furious finger. ”You come again? You touch her — my lady?”

“Better I than some others less respectful,” retorted O’Hara calmly. “Is your master here?”

“Well, you know he is not! You fear him — everyone fears him! You come when he is gone! Put her down — let me take my lady!”

Coming at him, the albino thrust his hand beneath the girl’s shoulders as if to tear her away. At that she screamed for the first time, clutching at Colin with small, convulsive fingers.

Then Colin struck Marco with the full weight of his fist, and with all his really terrible strength at the back of the blow.

It was a needless, savage act, as he afterward condemned it.

Marco was no possible match for him. In cold blood he would have brushed the albino aside without harming him. But the sight of that repulsive, red-eyed, pallid thing clawing at the girl, and the loathing and the terror in her voice acted upon him like a draft of maddening liquor. He struck without thought or premeditation, as at some noxious insect, desiring only to crush it, obliterate it from the world it polluted by living.

The blow caught Marco just under the point of the chin. His head flew back with an audible snap, his body jerked through the air, and sliding full length across the porch, brought up at the inner threshold. It twitched spasmodically and lay quiet.

Colin stood, and the girl clung to him, silent and quivering.

Very softly he ascended the steps, crossed the porch, and gently disengaging her arms set his burden down within the doorway, her bare feet on the dry softness of a rug.

Then he bent over Marco. He had hit him hard — too hard, and well he knew it. A thin, scarlet trickle was running from a corner of the flaccid mouth. He was not at all surprised when, lifting the albino’s shoulders, the head dropped back with the limpness of a broken stick held together by a few torn fibers. He felt for Marco’s heart and examined his neck with inquiring fingers. Then he laid him back and rose.

From the dead man he looked up to his mad Dusk Lady. She was watching him with dark, wondering eyes. Her wet, green gown clung to limbs and body, close as the green bark of a young tree, and the thick curls of her hair glistened black and shining.

Like some sorrowful spirit of the storm-torn forest she stood there, and Colin was ashamed before her. He, who had come to protect and guard her, had been betrayed by his temper and thereby involved them in Heaven only knew what entanglements.

“My lord, why do you look so sad and stern? Have I given you offense?”

“You! Poor child, no, ’tis myself has offended — but how, never mind. Go to your room, little lady, and dress yourself so that I may take you to a kinder place. At least, Marco will trouble you no more the night. He is — hurt.”

“Hurt? Is he not dead?”

She said it so simply and with so childlike an inflection of disappointment that the words took Colin aback.

“Never mind that!” he retorted almost sharply. “Never mind that! Go dress yourself dry and warm, and put on a coat, if you have one, against the rain.”

Frowning, she looked down at her one inadequate but becoming garment.

“I owe you gentle obedience, my lord, but I had vowed never to don robes of his giving. Must I, then, break my solemn vow?”

“Indeed, and I fear you must. They’ll not let us on the train otherwise.”

She meditated a moment longer. Then, “I will put on me a coat, since my lord desires it,” and she started for the stair.

Remembering Genghis Khan, O’Hara followed. She led him straight to the door at the end of the second floor hall, where he had first seen her. It stood open, and as she entered he looked in over her shoulder.

He saw a large bedroom, well, even luxuriously furnished. Clearly, careless though he might be of her welfare in other respects, Reed did not begrudge money spent on his daughter’s immediate surroundings.

Having made sure that the great ape was lurking nowhere in the room, and having closed the window above a rain-flooded Persian rug, O’Hara left his charge alone. She had said nothing in that while, only watched hum with attentive eyes that followed every move with quiet interest, and he himself had little mind for conversation.

But in the act of closing her door he turned back. “Where’s the phone?” said he.

“The — the phone?”

“The telephone — the box they talk through when a bell rings,” explained O’Hara patiently.

She shook her head, with a look of perplexed distress that was to him unutterably pathetic. Dusk Lady indeed, ever wandering through the twilight of a darkened mind!

“I’ll find it myself,” said he hastily, and closed the door.

Down the stairs he went, heavy and slow, weighed down by a great sickness of the spirit. Despite Reed’s assurance, despite the dictates of everyday reason, O’Hara had until the last hour been possessed of a secret, unvoiced hope that this girl, the glamour of whose elfin personality had drawn him as no woman ever drew him before, might prove to be a sane and normal being. That hope was dead now — dead as the unlucky albino slain in his master’s doorway. And for the sake of a mad girl he had committed a crime which in his own eyes debased him to the level of any common thug.

Coming at last to the stair foot, he turned and crossed toward the corpse of his poor, repulsive victim. And reaching the threshold of the hall, lo, it was empty!

The body of Marco lay there no more, nor any trace of it.

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