Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter IX.

A Daring Challenge

And again Leilah and Dr. Vanaman were alone with a problem not only unsolved, but which seemed even a shade more sinister for its startling effect upon a person of Miss Fellowes’ previously fearless and determined character.

Under hastily applied restoratives she had soon recovered consciousness and seemed physically little the worse for her experience. But whatever strange vision had flashed before her closed eyes, she was either unable to recall it clearly, or literally dared not describe it. Recalling his own and Leilah’s hesitation to express in words the cause for their worst fears, Vanaman rather fancied that the latter reason for her reticence might be the true one.

He had no heart to question his aunt very searchingly. She was tremulous and shaken as by some severe shock, and he felt sick with self-reproach that he had deliberately dragged another innocent victim within the green casket’s evil influence.

Leilah, though with secret misgivings on her uncle’s account, had urged Miss Fellowes to remain with them till the following day; but Dr. Vanaman’s aunt had had enough and more than enough of that house. A few short minutes, it seemed, had robbed her of all pretense to courage, and the mere vicinity of the green box appeared to cause her the most acute distress.

Vaguely she assured her nephew that she had been through an experience which cured her forever of any liking for or interest in the occult, entreated him to leave the house with her and promise never to return; and when he refused, insisted on at once taking her own departure.

Since Vanaman’s solemn promise forbade him to desert his charge, Leilah ordered out the runabout and herself saw the poor woman to the railroad station and off on the first New York train.

Returning, she found the doctor still in the library, very meditative and depressed, though he greeted Leilah with attempted lightness.

“Archangels and scarlet cities are a new development,” he smiled.

“Not altogether so,” she corrected him.

“No? Have you seen —”

“Nothing that you have not. But I think you have forgotten or perhaps overlooked something. Wait.”

She rang for Frisby, and when the man appeared asked him to bring them the noon edition of yesterday’s Inquirer. From somewhere at the back of the house he resurrected it, and alone once more the woman pointed to a sentence in the earlier account of Lutz’s death.

“The man, who was well dressed but hatless, splashed with mud, and, according to Dolan, rather wild-eyed, made a muttered reply in which the guards could distinguish only some reference to an ‘archangel,’ and passed on.”

“You see?” commented Leilah quietly.

“I see nothing,” Vanaman protested, rumpling his reddish-brown hair till it stood up wildly. “Archangels — scarlet cities — they only confuse what few coherent thoughts I had of the affair. Lutz muttered something about an archangel. But why should he sacrifice a white horse to an archangel?”

Leilah’s eyes opened wide.

“You mean those two men bought white horses to sacrifice them?”

Vanaman nodded miserably.

“They most surely did. In all the ancient worship of the sea, whether under the older Greek name of Poseidon, or as the Roman Neptune, black bulls and white horses were considered the most acceptable offering. I had a very definite suspicion of Lutz’s purpose when I first read that account. He didn’t use his knife to strike at the lifeguard, as it says. He struck at the horse, but not Dolan. He meant to cut Mirror’s throat there on the beach, and failing in that seems to have gone clean raving mad and drowned himself.

“When we met Blair at the river he was bound on a similar errand. I didn’t interfere, because I was afraid of precipitating a similar result. He succeeded in making his offering, and may God let it bring him peace! Though it’s a rankly pagan custom, I am beginning to understand how they may have been driven to it. But Poseidon, god of the sea, was not an archangel. Where does the archangel come in?”

Leilah did not reply, and he saw that she was staring with strange, fascinated eyes fixed on lucent depths of green. He snatched the box from the table, tucked it under his arm, and rose.

“You, at least, need not be sacrificed, Miss Robinson! If I swear to you that under no circumstances and for no reason, imaginable or otherwise, will I desert your uncle so long as he keeps this box — won’t you in turn consent to leave here for a while? You have other relatives with whom you could stay. Go to them! I beg and entreat of you, go!”

The woman shook her head, smiling. This was not the first time Vanaman had voiced that plea, but his “sprite of the moonlights” as he had fancifully thought of her, possessed a resolution firm as her uncle’s, though of different quality.

“I couldn’t possibly leave him,” she countered. “He relies on me in many ways, and needs me now, I think, more than ever. I can’t go, but you can. There is no claim of duty to hold you here, Dr. Vanaman.”

He turned away, head slightly bowed. Sometimes the best and most innocent of women will administer a stabbing hurt and remain quite unconscious of causing it.

“I prefer to stay,” he said in a low voice, and carrying the box to the suite of rooms he shared with his employer, spent the rest of the afternoon alone with it.

Robinson returned late, tired out, and in an uncommonly savage humor. His mood found its appropriate victim in the man he held by a tenuous but unbreakable bond. Ruthless judge and manager of men that he had always been, the old hawk was sure of Vanaman as of Leilah, and since in his own peculiar way he really loved the latter and cared nothing about the former, the woman was peremptorily dismissed from her uncle’s presence and Vanaman received full benefit of the evil temper generated by conditions at the engine works.

It was an unpleasant martyrdom, and before the evening was over the doctor hated Robinson as he had never known he could hate a human being.

Though the day had been fair, night promised another storm. Toward morning the promise was fulfilled with a violence that seemed to shake the very earth: and lying awake, expectant, Vanaman found it hard to quell and banish certain foolish notions.

Yet this night was better in one respect than any he had spent here. Brief snatches of sleep visited him, and from each he would start quiveringly alert; but not even once did the menacing hiss of a phantom but terrible approach mingle with the sounds of rain, raving against the windows.

Indeed, had Vanaman been willing to accept the belief he suspected Robinson of holding, he might have thought the inhuman thing which claimed the green box was using its utmost force in other ways, and had none to spare for empty hallucinations. As it was, grim pictures flashed before his fancy.

While the house shook in the grip of the unseasonable storm, he saw with the mind’s eye an unconquered, ravening blackness, that gleamed translucent green when the lightning’s lance shook above it. Over the globe’s broad curve it roared hungrily, and the crests of its monstrous billows were tossed toward the clouds, like the myriad, wind-torn manes of white horses racing.

They flung themselves on the land, and the land vanished beneath their thunderous hoofs. A wailing rose in the night; earth shook and shuddered; mountains crashed into mighty flares of flame, and by the leaping light of those awful torches he saw the shrieking race of men devoured, swept away, made nothing. He saw earth open yawning mouths that swallowed whole cities, gulped and closed again. And where the cities had been — the ten glittering, scarlet cities — there surged and thundered the white-maned hosts of him.

Vanaman shook himself awake again and scowled vengefully across the room at a green box clutched tight in two claw-like hands. Better to lie awake than dream dreams like that.

Day returned at last, and again the lash of the tempest rested, and from north to south, down the long sweep of the Atlantic coast, men cursed, wept, counted their lost, and wondered.

Old Jesse J. Robinson had slept like a child, but the slightly better humor in which he awoke was quickly shattered by the morning’s news. Grim-faced, steely eyes narrowed, he read of the ravages wrought by the sea while he slumbered.

Watching him across the breakfast table, Vanaman thought that so might appear the grim old tyrant of a city, reading the despatches that told of some strong enemy’s gains. Of a beleaguered, beautiful, scarlet city that would not yield.

The doctor gave himself a mental shake. For Heaven’s sake, what was coming over him? Continually, like a moving succession of small, bright pictures, the strangest ideas and fancies marched across the dull background of an over weary brain. He dared not even inspect them too closely. He remembered Lutz and Blair. Was that fate on its way to him? Then he glanced at Leilah, and steadied himself with an effort. His part was to guard her at any cost.

Robinson left shortly for his beloved and engine works; or so Vanaman supposed.

The old hawk’s errand this time, however, proved to have been quite another than that of yesterday. The doctor had believed himself hardened to amazement and more or less proof against shocks; but the announcement made by Robinson on return, some hours later, strained his command to the uttermost.

On coming in, the old man greeted Leilah with a somewhat preoccupied then beckoned Vanaman.

“Want to talk with ye alone, doctor,” he said briefly, and led the way to his study.

He seated himself, motioning the doctor do likewise.

“Now,” he began, “I want to ask ye a very important question. I want ye to think twice, and look yourself mighty close in the eyes before ye answer it. Are you game?

“Are ye a clean and honest-to-goodness, can’t-be-made-a-quitter-by-nothin’, a sure, dead game?”

Vanaman looked rather bored, and his eyes narrowed slightly.

“I really couldn’t say,” he drawled. “You will have to judge that for yourself, Mr. Robinson.”

A reluctant grin twitched for an instant at the old man’s mouth.

“Judging by short experience I’ve had with ye, I should say ye are. But if ye’ve got the least suspicion that, plug down deep enough, a body might find even the faintest shade of yaller, then take old Jesse Robinson’s advice and clear out now, while ye’ve got the chance. For I’ll tell ye something, son: Ye think ye’ve been pretty hardly used and badly tried; and so ye hev. But if ye stick now, I warn ye a trial’s on its way to ye beside which what’s passed was child’s play! Understand?”

The doctor scowled.

“If you would have the commonplace decency, Mr. Robinson, to be frank with a man who, you admit, has done his utmost blindfolded, that man might possibly not only understand, but be of far greater value to you.”

“So? But that’s another thing for me to jedge, and I jedge differently. You suspicion what we’re up against, but in the fool pride of your schooling and book knowledge ye refuse to believe in it. That’s all right. You ain’t old Jesse Robinson, and if ye did know the truth and believed it, I reckon ye’d hunt the nearest hole to hide in and be no more good to me. But this much I’ll tell ye, and ye can make what ye like of it:

“What I want I get, and what I get I keep. That’s been my motto always, and I intend to hold by it. But on the other hand, I ain’t anyways as mean as some folks hold me. I ain’t aiming to see whole cityfuls of people routed in this business. The fight’s between me and him, and I’m willing to let it be so. What he gets he keeps; and what I get I keep.

“If he can take this here box from me fair, all right. But I don’t jest reckon he can, and that’s why he’s raising murder over it trying to skeer me into giving up. To test that — fair — without involving any more of the general damage to property and life he’s saw fit to work, I’ve done a thing that may or may not skeer ye, jest accordin’ to how much of the truth ye believe and how near ye come to being dead up-and-down game — like me and Leilah.”

The old man’s face had lighted with a grim, unholy daring, and his steely eyes glittered as they roved about the room. They came at last to fixed rest on the casket.

“We’re going to sea, my son,” he announced abruptly. “Me and this here green beauty and you, if ye’ve got the nerve, we’re going to meet the party that wants my property, fair and open. There ain’t nobody nor nothing can bluff nor bully old Jesse Robinson. I aim to prove that. They’s a first-rate bit of sea-goin’ shipping down at the docks. Her name’s the Nagaina, and she was built for rough work up north. I’m told the storm ain’t yet blowed that can down the Nagaina, so I reckon she’s my boat. Leastways, I’m chartering her for a two month’s cruise, and I aim to go aboard her this very day. Now, young man, are you game? Because if ye ain’t, Leilah is, and I’ll take the gal instead!”

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