Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XX

The Fourth Visitation

O’HARA stood on the macadamized drive beneath the same tree from which Genghis Khan had reached for his throat two nights ago. MacClellan alone was with him, for at the last moment Rhodes had received a telephone call from his partner — that line was in working order, after all — begging that he come in town at once on a matter of considerable business importance.

O’Hara urged him to go, and in the end he did, but with a promise to join them later if possible. So they had run down to the city in Rhodes’ car, dropped its owner at his office, set Forester down at city hall — his superior having denied any need of the young man loafing away any more time on this job — and proceeded straight to Carpentier.

O’Hara was his own chauffeur, and he had MacClellan in the tonneau, so at least he was spared any converse with him during the trip. Once at the bungalow, however, the detective gave his tongue and his opinions a loose rein.

As he had told them, this fresh bit of apparently objectless destruction bore a broad resemblance to the earlier attempt, save that this time its perpetrators had left no visible trace of themselves save their work.

Every room in the house had been visited, as if by a small invading whirlwind. An indiscriminating whirlwind, too, that had scattered and smashed with no regard for relative values.

A finely carved and heavily constructed sideboard which had escaped the first visitation had been broken to bits in the most difficult and painstaking manner. But equally the cheap deal table, at which Colin had taken supper the night before, lay about the kitchen in well-nigh unidentifiable fragments. In the bedroom that had been first Cliona’s and then Colin’s, nothing had been touched except the bed, and that was irrevocably smashed, even to the twisted mass of wire which had been the springs.

So everywhere things common and valuable were broken or left intact with the whimsicality of choice that distinguishes those three insentient destroyers — fire, storm, and concussion.

Yet there were no signs of an explosion, no fire had raged here, and, though a storm there had been, it must have been a strange one to have shattered windows and doors, ravaged inner rooms, and left roof and walls uninjured.

The milkman’s statement that he “came up to leave the milk and found no place to leave it” was not entirely unfounded. His custom had been to put O’Hara’s quart bottle of the healthful fluid on the front steps, but these steps, which were wooden, had been torn away and lay some distance off. Every one of the veranda windows was broken, sash and all, and the door was flat and in two pieces.

Having gloomily inspected the remains of his premises, Colin stood in the dining-room and listened with acute boredom to MacClellan’s views. Something small and bright-colored caught his eye, and stooping, he plucked it from amidst the sideboard’s débris. It was the last surviving remnant of that unfortunate Aztec godling — the head, minus its miter, and part of the red and blue tunic.

Colin stared grimly down at the still patiently smiling face.

“So they got you at last, little man,” he muttered, half-abstractedly.

The face smiled on — patient forever with the blindness of mankind.

“What’s that?” demanded MacClellan.

“Nothing.” Colin tossed the fragment aside, and led the way toward the door. “Just a bit of pottery that was worth a few thousand before we began receiving midnight callers. There’s no luck to this house — no luck all. I shall live here no more. Drop the case or keep on with it as you like — its a matter of no further interest to myself.”

This annoyed MacClellan. It annoyed him more than O’Hara’s insistence that he solve the previous case. There could be drawn an inference that the Irishman had lost all faith in his ability to solve anything whatever, but in that he was mistaken. O’Hara could not lose what he had never possessed.

“We shall continue to investigate,” he declared with stolid dignity. “We have sent word down the line to round up every hobo between here and headquarters, and —— ”

“Hoboes!” The ejaculation had a quality of bitter scorn that dissipated the last of MacClellan’s patience.

“Yes, hoboes!” he snapped. “If you’re so sure that I don’t know anything, then you have some good reason for being sure! When you get ready to tell it, let me know. I’m going back by train. Good day!”

Colin viewed his retreating figure with wide, amused eyes.

“And that’s the only really clever thing he ever said in his life! Good day to you, Mr. MacClellan! Sure, I’ll let you know — but not until I’m ready!”

The detective, on his early morning visit, had again called out a patrolman to stand guard over O’Hara’s possessions, and there he stood, MacClellan having departed in too great a rage to remember his patient sentinel.

“Go or stay as you please,” said O’Hara to the officer. “I’ll send up a man presently to pack what’s left worth packing and ship it in town. I doubt if I’ll return here myself.”

“I’ll see that your man makes a good job,” volunteered the policeman agreeably. O’Hara had just slipped a bit of green paper into his willing hand — extended for that purpose, perhaps from habit, discreetly and with back half turned.

“Thanks. I wish you would.”

As Colin climbed into the driving seat of his borrowed car he gave a last glance about the now desolate hilltop. Here and there strayed some idle and amateur seeker of “clues.” A reporter or so, ruthlessly repelled by the gloom-stricken Irishman, still hovered hungrily in the offing. One individual hurried toward him as he started the car. Had Colin looked he would have seen a lean, worn-looking man, white-haired, with the mark of an old scar across his lower forehead.

“Mr. O’Hara!” he called. “Hey, there! O’Hara! Wait a minute!”

“Go to the devil with the rest of ’em!” muttered Colin without even a glance, and fairly shot out of hearing.

He wanted to get away from it all. He had by no means surrendered hope of achieving a final solution — in fact he was grimly certain that the solution would not be much longer delayed. But he was sick of the bungalow — sick of everything.

No matter if he exposed Reed as the deus ex machina of these lawless manifestations; no matter if in exposing him he discovered the reason of Reed’s grudge, if he had one. No matter, even, if for one reason or another the killing of Marco should be publicly applauded as a righteous act — though that last seemed to him unlikely enough. No matter for anything. Was he not indeed linked by a “golden thread” to the one girl in the world for him — and was she not hopelessly, unquestionably insane?

He determined that he would not go back to Green Gables. She was safe in his sister’s keeping, and he determined that before yielding himself to the police he would have one final interview with Reed — providing that is, that he could easily locate him.

Yet before going on that errand, he brought the car to a halt before Bradshaw’s shop, entered and with a nod to the storekeeper made for the little telephone booth. But Bradshaw halted him.

“Say, Mr. O’Hara, your sister called up a while ago. Said the bungalow line was out of order. Did you find out —— ”

“Did Mrs. Rhodes want me, then? How long ago was that?”

“Oh, about an hour, more or less, the first time. She’s called twice since and says for you to phone her right away. Did that detective fellow —— ”

“Why didn’t you send up the hill after me?” demanded O’Hara indignantly.

“Nobody to send. Been looking around for a boy, but they’re all up round your place, I guess. Did you find out —— ”

“I did not!“ O’Hara disappeared in the booth, banging the door in poor Bradshaw’s aggrieved face. That is, he tried to bang it, but the booth never having been built for his bulk, the attempt was a miserable failure.

In an uncomfortably stooped position Colin went through the customary struggle to get Green Gables from Carpentier through a matter of three exchanges, and in the end was rewarded by Cliona’s voice on the wire. She had been waiting anxiously for the call and before he could ask a question she imparted her news.

“Colin — she’s gone!”

“What? Who’s gone?” But he knew very well.

“That Miss Reed, or whoever she was. She’s gone — and I’ve been trying to get you for nearly two hours. Where have you been?”

“Here.” Colin’s voice was a trifle hoarse. Of course they would find her again — she had wandered away, but he would find her ——

Again Cliona was speaking. She had, it appeared, seen her guest safely bestowed in the bedroom assigned to her use, and herself gone to lie down for a short time. When she returned to offer the girl a cup of tea the room was empty. She was nowhere in the house and her coat had also disappeared. And — “Colin, she had taken that dreadful green dress again!”

“Taken it? She didn’t wear it?”

“I— I’m afraid she did. The clothes I gave her were on the bed — they were laid out very nicely and in order, Colin dear — she must have had a beautiful bringing up —— ”

“Never mind consoling me, Cliona. What have you done to find her?”

It seemed she had sent every one of the servants to search the neighborhood and had tried to get in touch with him before notifying the police. And three reporters had been there already about the bungalow — and the servants had all returned with news, and she had waited and waited ——

“Yes, to be sure. But do you tell me, darling. Did she say anything to you before you left her? Tell me word for word all she said. I may get some trace of her by it.”

“Let me think. I asked her about her father, but she would tell me nothing. She said that already she loved me, but only to you would she speak. She said: ‘I have seen kindness in the eyes of others than you, but it has been as the mockings of the shadow people. They went and returned not. But between me and my lord hangs a Golden Thread, and therefore there is trust between us.’ Something like that. I’m trying to remember exactly, but —— ”

“You’ve a wonderful memory, and you’re doing fine. And then?”

“Well, she seemed disturbed because you had gone to Carpentier, and asked me to take her and follow you. Then she said she left the reception hall because you disliked the fat, clean man — Mr. MacClellan, I suppose — so much that you were making her hate him. She hates Marco and you — you struck him. And she thought that striking Marco had made you sad, she knew not why. So she went away lest you strike the fat, clean man also. Forgive me, Colin, but you wanted to know exactly.

“And so I do. Then?”

“That was all. When I wouldn’t take her after you, she asked to lie down in her room and she did. She wad so perfectly nice and — and pleasant that I never — never thought —— ”

“And why would you? There’s no blame at all to you, darling.” His exoneration of Cliona was quite mechanical, a matter of habit, for in truth his thoughts were not on her.

From head to foot he thrilled with a bitter, uncanny joy that shocked but refused to be banished by his reasoning mind. She had felt his dislike for MacClellan, sensed and sympathized with it to the point of hatred, in the same way that he had flamed to deadly, unjustifiable passion for her sake!

What fire was this in which fleshly barriers melted and their two spirits fused? A dangerous blaze, surely, that expressed itself only in hate! No, that was the chance of unlucky circumstance. What opportunity had there been for happiness to, leap between them? Oh, all madness, madness!

Somewhere in him there must lurk a weak, abnormal strain that responded to her insanity. He forced thought of it from him as something to be faced another time, and resolutely set his mind to the present exigency.

“Don’t be telling the police — yet. I’ve an idea where she may have gone. Had she any money, do you think?”

“How do I know?” wailed his harassed sister. “She might have had some in her coat.”

“Cliona, do you take your mind off this business entirely. I’m the one that’s responsible for her, and it’s myself will find the poor lass. If any more reporters or detectives come bothering you, have Masters send them about their business. All will be well and ’twill be less than a help should you fret yourself into another sickness. Call up Tony at the office and tell him I’m leaving Carpentier and he had best return straight home when he can, so I’ll know where to find him. Will you do all that for me, darling?”

“Where are you going?” Her voice hinted of indefinite alarm.

“Well, the railroad station would be a good place to seek first trace of her, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps — yes, I believe you’re right, Colin. And then try the police stations. She’s certainly quiet and well-behaved enough one way, but you can’t tell what she might do outside and alone. Then will you come home — whether you find her or not?”

“Oh, I’ll come home. Goodby, Cliona, and mind all I told you.”

He hung up the receiver without waiting for a reply. Having purposely misled her in regard to the direction his search would take, he wished to answer no more questions.

There was one place to which his Dusk Lady, had she been of sound mind, would have been supremely unlikely to return. Being what she was, in O’Hara’s opinion that was the first covert to draw. She had expressed to Cliona alarm for his safety and a desire to follow him.

Danger and the house at Undine must be to her synonymous terms. There she had known misery and terror, there she had barely escaped the clutches of danger carnified in the person of Genghis Khan; there, she had seen him, O’Hara, kill a man and felt vicariously his own after-horror.

There, then, if she thought of danger, would she picture him, and since she wished to follow him, it was to Reed’s house that she would straightway go.

It was sketchy theorizing, perhaps, but Colin had been trained in a rough school that turns out excellent and not often mistaken psychologists.

He swung out of Bradshaw’s, and almost into the arms of the white haired man, who had followed him down the hill.

“Mr. O’Hara,” he began again, but Colin brushed ruthlessly past.

“I’ve nothing to say,” he flung back.

He had an impression that the persistent journalist sprang after him, tried to get a foothold on the running board, and fell. But his thoughts were a rushing torrent that fairly bore him with them. The outer consciousness that repulsed the man and set the car in motion was as mechanical as the motor itself.

And so went Colin’s last chance of escape from that which awaited him, swept under by the impetuous nature that no experience could lessen — that would be still impetuous to the very hour of its death.

The road to Undine was well enough known to him, when he was not led cross-country. The big car ate up those few miles at reckless speed. Of course, there was a possibility that the lost maiden might have started for home in a vague, wandering way, without the wits or the money to reach it. But O’Hara deemed otherwise. The cleverness of lunacy is notorious, and who knew how familiar she might be with ways and means of getting about the city?

Ten minutes after leaving Carpentier, he pulled up with a jerk at the iron gates upon whose intricate beauty he gazed for the fourth time in two days. It was then after five o’clock, and dusk was spreading its mantle of indistinctness and mystery. Behind those iron scrolls the gate-lodge loomed as a dim, sepulchral mass.

O’Hara was out of the car almost before it had stopped, and at the gate in two long strides. But with his hand on the bell he paused. The thought of another clandestine intrusion on these premises was distasteful. He wanted to ring the bell and make his demands boldly of whoever should answer. But would anyone answer? Why had he so taken it for granted, because of last night’s havoc at the bungalow, that Reed had never gone further from home than Carpentier — that the note transmitted by Marco’s hand contained a lie?

What if, up there at the house whose gray roofs so melted into the gray dusk as to be invisible behind their screen of skeleton boughs, what if no one was there save the monster ape and Marco? Marco, deaf forever to the ringing of that or any earthly bell?

Had Reed returned, from however nefarious an expedition, would his own criminal proceedings have stopped him from sending out a general alarm, that the slayer of his servant and the abductor of his daughter might be immediately traced? And it would have been so easy to trace him!

Surely, even MacClellan could have picked up that trail, followed so obvious a clue as the conductor’s story. But if Reed were not at his “farm,” if no one were there save Genghis Khan, and it had been he who caused Marco’s body to vanish so disturbingly, then the girl could not be there either. Had she come, there was no one to admit her — ah, stupidity! What of that open storehouse door through which Colin himself had showed her the way? And if she had gone in — had found Khan there, alone, masterless ——

Filled with an increasing horror of possibilities conjured up by his own imagination, O’Hara laid his hand on the gate, shaking it slightly — and at that light impulsion it swayed inward an inch or so. The loud complaint of its hinge smote his ears like a blow. The gate was unlocked! Anyone might have entered here — anyone.

Half reluctantly, like a man who approaches some sight too terrible for human bearing, O’Hara pushed the gate wider and set his foot on the sodden leaves of the drive.

He had left that house, left the man-ape loose there and given no warning that should save any harmless intruder from its unrestrained and cunning savagery. He knew what reward had been meted out to him, the double offender — knew it as though the torn, dismembered body of his Dusk Lady lay at his feet. Yet, since he must, he entered and turned his footsteps toward the unseen house.

Tonight there was no wind; only silence, intense, painful as an evil dream, which the soft sound of wet leaves beneath his feet only served to make more lifeless. A thin haze had risen from the sodden ground, so that about him there was neither light nor darkness, only gray neutrality from which gaunt trees lifted their skeleton tracery against a sky only a little brighter than the mist below.

Yet objects close at hand were still discernible. He passed the vine-hidden gate-lodge, and as he did so, and because of the general stillness, a sound reached his ears, a just perceptible rustling, as of wood gently rubbed upon wood.

Whirling quickly, he stared through the thin haze toward the inner wall of the lodge. From where he stood, ten feet away, its outlines were somewhat blurred, its vines a mass without detail. And yet he was almost sure that again, as on that first night, a blacker oblong had appeared in the dark wall of vines.

Then and for the first time in his life O’Hara learned the meaning of stark, horrible fear — fear that shut his throat against breath, and turned the strength of his giant limbs to water!

In the center of that vague black oblong, faintly gleaming through the mist by a pallid light of its own, appeared an oval shape that swayed slightly from side to side — the oval of the gate-keeper’s barely visible countenance. And to Colin the gatekeeper was Marco. And Marco lay dead by Colin’s hand!

Had the Irishman been given time to reflect, time to set the stern clamp of reason on his slipping faculties, what followed might have happened differently. But time was not granted. The oval wavered and rose a foot or so, then shot itself outward straight for O’Hara’s face.

He screamed out, loud and harsh, twisting his head to one side. Something struck his neck a terrible blow, and the gray mist flared red about him, to vanish, roaring, into blank unconsciousness.

He was lying beneath the sea, lapped in the slimy ooze of its deepest profundity. He could feel the rocking of his body to some slow, dense current, and the awful pressure of the depths crushed the flesh inward upon his vital organs, squeezing out the very life. Yet struggling to breathe — why, he could breathe, though shortly. He felt the air in his nostrils. How was that? Was there air on the sea-bottom?

With that question, awakening reason dissipated the dream and roused him from unconsciousness. But the pressure it did not dissipate, nor the slow rocking motion. With an effort he forced open his eyes. It was night. He was lying on the ground somewhere in the open air, for he was looking upward through mist not dense enough to obscure the larger stars. His mind, still dazed, refused at once to resume the business of life.

Marco? Marco? What was it concerning Marco? Reluctantly, then with gathering power, memory took up its office, showing him the day as he had lived it, action by action and scene by scene, till it brought him to an iron gate — the lodge within — the face that had hung poised in the doorway, unbearable horror of its flashing out at him, then that great blow and — darkness.

But what after that? Why was he lying here, with body and limbs surrounded by some strange, tightening substance? Heavily he raised his head. He saw his own chest as a dim, whitish mass that seemed to stir with a slow, creeping motion. And now he knew that continually, through the paralyzing pressure, he had felt that sluggish creep, creep of the thing about him.

There was a pounding in his ears, his temples throbbed and his eyes were dim with a suffusion of blood. But he perceived that the coiled mass round his chest was becoming faintly luminescent — that it was by its own light he saw the flat broadness of the coil nearest his face; noted, with a great effort of attention, its thin edge and the translucent parallel corrugations of its upper surface.

Like the body of a worm it was, seen by transmitted light — a gigantic, living, shining worm that had no right to existence, even in a bad dream. And it was around him — he felt its naked coldness pressed against the skin of his right wrist, where the sleeve had been pushed above the protecting leather of his heavy glove.

The coils tightened, contracted, with that continual revolting deliberation of movement, that drawing together and expanding of the corrugations that each time slid them a little further along. From chest to feet this — thing had wrapped itself about him, and still rocked him gently to its leisurely and sliding compassion.

The luminance of its body was not constant, but increased and faded, increased and faded in a long, slow pulsation.

Letting his head fall back on the sodden leaves he strove to move his limbs, to struggle. It was like straining against tight, thick rubber that gave a little but overcame the resistance of his deadened muscles simply by pressure.

Then came the worst, for up from beneath his left shoulder a head rose and stretched itself on a thin, flat, tapering neck. It was a head that seemed mostly mouth, a great triangular aperture, gaping, tongueless, with soft drooping lips, and behind it on either side a fleck of red that might have been eyes or their remnants.

It reared a good two feet above Colin’s face, and he, staring, saw that its under side was dark, opaque, and that it was only from its upper surface that the light came. Then the head drooped and lowered, the neck curved backward.

For one instant there was presented that same pale, shimmering oval which had hung in the doorway and that he had believed to be Marco’s dead face. It descended with a swift, darting motion and Colin felt flabby lips muzzling at his neck.

A dreadful, groaning cry rang in his ears, and he did not know that it was his own voice. He writhed in that close embrace, and its flat, contractible coils tightened around his chest — till the lungs collapsed and could no longer expand themselves — till he could utter not so much as a whisper of sound.

Mental torment gave way to acute physical pain and that again to the merciful blankness of negation.

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