The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 4

Where the Gray Dust Led

WHAT Robert Drayton expected when, without one glance for the world he felt himself to be forever leaving, he so deliberately followed the two Trenmores, he scarcely knew. Death, probably.

As he bent above the Dust, his back to the sunlight and to life, he was conscious of neither regret, fear, nor curiosity. He had reached that blank wall which seems to rise in moments of great crisis — a sense of nowness that cuts off past and future, leaving for standing place only the present, an infinitesimal point.

Carefully copying the actions of those who had preceded him, Drayton touched the Dust, first gently, then, in sudden haste for the end, giving it one vigorous stir with his forefinger.

Had he been a conventional suicide tugging at a trigger the result could have come no more promptly. As he had seen it rise before, so it rose now — that grim cloud which to Drayton presaged dissolution.

It reached his face, was in his eyes, his nostrils. With it came dizziness and a strong physical nausea. His mouth tasted sharply bitter, as if he had swallowed quinine. Drayton shuddered and gasped. He saw everything through a gray mist. The room was filled with it. It was a mist composed of thin, concentric rings, swirling slowly with himself for axis. The rings became thicker, denser — till he could perceive nothing else — till he could not see his hands, when, stretching them out to catch at a chair or table, they came in contact only with the air.

The bitter taste and the sickness increased. His hand was on the floor supporting him, and the floor felt strange; the carpet unlike any weave of human making. Presently even the dizziness and nausea were forgotten. He had attention only for that strange carpet. He could have sworn that what he touched with cautious, investigatory fingers was not carpet at all, but grass! Surely it was grass — long, matted, a tangle of brittle-dry blades.

While he still explored this odd phenomenon, the blinding grayness about him began to thin. All around him appeared the changing outlines of shapes, gray and mutable as the mist itself, but still shapes of a sort. Rapidly now these grew more coherent, solid, and acquired a more than shadowy substance, until, all in a moment, the gray, swirling veil was withdrawn.

Unless every sense of his body lied, Drayton was crouching on the ground in open air. Those gray shapes he had glimpsed were the fallen stones and broken walls of some old, ruined building.

Unspeakably bewildered, Drayton staggered to his feet. There before him stretched the broad level of a wide green plain, across which a low sun stared through a strata of reddened cloud. The ruins near which he stood crowned the summit of a little hill, all overgrown with that dry, tangled grass which had so puzzled him in the mist. Here and there a few small trees had sprung up among the stones. He heard their scant, yellowish foliage rustling stiffly in the slight breeze.

Turning slowly, he perceived that the hill of the gray ruins was the first of a low range of foothills, above whose summits in the east loomed the white peaks of mountains.

Following amazement, Drayton’s first impression was one of intolerable loneliness. In the sky of this strange, wide world he had invaded not a bird flew; mountain, hill, and plain lay desolate, empty of any living creature; no sound broke the stillness save the gentle, unhuman whisper of the warm breeze, blowing from the plain upward across the hills.

And yet it was all very real; very convincing and earthlike. The shadows of the ruins stretched long and dark away from the almost level rays of the sinking sun. Stretching forth his hand, Drayton laid it cautiously upon the stone of a broken wall. The rough granite felt dusty and hot beneath his fingers. He broke off a bit of green-gray lichen that grew there, and it was just that — lichen and no more.

If he were dead, if this were the world that awaits the soul when the body perishes, why did he feel so uncommonly like his ordinary, everyday, physical self? How could he feel at all, in any common sense?

He was alive. His feet pressed the earth with the weight of a quite material body. Why, his very clothing denied any spirituality in this experience. There he stood, bareheaded, dressed in the same old blue serge suit he had bought five years ago in Cincinnati, and which now constituted his sole wardrobe. The sun was warm on his face; the air breathed clear and sweet. Surely he was no spirit, but a living man of flesh and blood.

Nowhere, however, was there hint or sign of other living humanity than himself. He was alone in a land so empty that only the greenness on hills and plain preserved it from utter desolation. The ruins spoke of man, but of man dead and gone so many ages since that their stones remembered his clean chisel strokes but vaguely.

What devilish nature had that Dust possessed, and where had it seen fit to deposit his fellow victims?

Drayton flung out his arms in a gesture of despair. For a long moment he stood so, a desolate figure in a vacant land. Then his hands dropped limp at his sides, and he began an aimless, wandering walk between the ruins.

Here, he thought with a faint flicker of interest, there had once stood a fortress or castle. Centuries ago it had fallen. All that remained were broken columns, heaps of rugged granite and portions of the thick outer walls. Within the latter he could trace the shape of a courtyard, still paved in places with crumbling flagstones.

Presently he came upon the remains of a gateway. The arch had fallen in and upon one of its stones Drayton observed traces of letters. He examined them curiously. Time, however, had done its work too thoroughly, and all he could decipher were the first few letters of two lines:

ULITH—

MC

There was no clue in that to his whereabouts.

In despair of learning more, he strayed on, vaguely wondering why he should walk at all, until in the matted grass of the courtyard, close to the inner side of the same wall by which he had first found himself kneeling, his foot struck against something.

He stared downward. The sun was very low, the shadow of the wall was dark, and he could see only that there was a long mound there, under the tangled grass. But that soft, heavy resilience of the thing he had stumbled on, coupled with the length and shape of the mound — there was that in the combination which struck him unpleasantly.

He turned to leave it, then came back as if fascinated. Finally he stooped, and with nervous, desperate fingers dragged and tore at the network of dry, tangled fibers that covered the mound. At last he uncovered something that looked and felt like a piece of cloth. But the color of it — the color of it! Out of the dim shadow it gleamed at him, bright, clear, bluest and purest of blues — the hue of a bluebird’s wing!

Frantically, with a growing sense of impending horror, Drayton persisted in his task until his worst fears were confirmed.

Beneath that grass lay the body of a woman, face down. Though the face was concealed, he knew her instantly. And she lay there, deathly quiet, face down and the grass had grown over her.

How long — good God! — how long a time had passed since he had stood face to face with this girl in James Burford’s library? It had been morning there. Here it was sunset. Sunset? How many suns had set since that grass was young and began its task of shroud weaving?

Conquering a sudden and violent impulse to flee, Drayton turned the body over and laughed a little wildly. After all, the grass was a liar. Dead the girl might be — she lay still enough — but if dead she was most recently so. Her face was pale and sweet and perfect as a child’s sleeping there in the shadow. The lids were closed softly over her eyes, as if at any moment the curling lashes might quiver and lift.

Scarcely breathing, Drayton knelt and laid his ear above her heart. Surely that was a faint flutter he felt! Raising her head, he sought some other sign of returning consciousness. There was none. He laid a hand on her forehead. It was cool, but not with the chilling coldness he dreaded.

Questioning no longer, but with a great hope in his heart, Drayton sprang to his feet and paused. Where in this empty, houseless land could he obtain any stimulant or even water to revive her? He must have it — he must save her before that faint trace of life should flicker out. Alone he had been nothing. With this small sister of Trenmore’s at his side he could face all the mysteries of the universe with a cheerful carelessness. He loved her suddenly and joyously, not because she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, but simply because she was human!

Yet should he leave her to seek water the girl might die in his absence. Better he had never found her than that! Despairing of other means, Drayton was about to try what resuscitation the chafing of wrists and forehead might effect when, glancing westward to judge how much of day might be left him, he beheld an odd, unlooked-for thing.

On the side of the ruins toward the plain stood the longest and highest fragment of the outer wall. On the left it rose in a jagged slant from the old foundations to a height of six or seven feet, extended level for a distance of four yards or so, then ended in an abrupt vertical line that exactly bisected the red sun, now touching the horizon. And from beyond its black silhouette, against the faint pink of the western sky, a thin puff of smoke was ascending!

It was dissipated by the slight breeze from the plain. Another puff and another followed it. Then the puffs ceased, to be succeeded by a slow, thin column of mysterious vapor.

Who or what was behind that wall?

Standing there alone and weaponless beside the unconscious girl, Drayton was swept by a terror deeper and more vivid than any dread he had ever before experienced. Smoke! The most familiar sight known to man. But in this strange, unhuman place? What vague demon might he not discover if he dared look behind that wall?

Yet his very fear drove him. Night was on its way to lend terror the cloak of invisibility. He must go while the sun befriended him.

Leaving the girl where she was, Drayton stumbled across the grass-hidden stones between him and the fragment of wall. He caught at its top with his hands and cautiously pulled himself up.

Just before his head cleared the ragged stones a voice began speaking. It was a deep, vibrant voice, entirely harmonious with the surroundings.

“Well,” it declared, and the tone was somewhat plaintive, “and that is the last of my last cigar. Sure, it’s a fine sunset they have here, but ’tis not my idea of Purgatory at all! ’Tis too dull, so it is. I wish —”

“Terry Trenmore!” With joyful, scarce-believing eyes, Drayton was staring over the wall. Then his muscles suddenly gave way and he dropped back on his own side.

For an instant there was dead silence. When the voice was heard again it was with an intonation of profound resignation.

“There now, it’s begun at last! Sure, I never should have wished for excitement! But the devils will find Terence Trenmore game. Invisible voices shouting my own name! I wonder now, is that the best they can do? I wonder had I better —”

“Trenmore, it’s I— Bob Drayton!”

As Drayton appeared suddenly around the end of the wall, the Irishman faced him calmly without rising. “I’m resigned,” he said. “You might take a worse shape than that. What is it you’d be about now?”

Laughing outright, Drayton walked over and shook his giant friend by the shoulder.

“You blessed old idiot! Don’t you know me? Have you been sitting here all this time while I mooned about thinking myself — By Heaven, Terry, do you know that Viola is here, too?”

“Viola, is it? Now I tell you straight, my lad, if you’re what I suspect you of being you keep your tongue off my little sister or there’ll be one devil the less in these parts!”

“Trenmore, have you gone stark mad? I’m no devil! Here, take my hand. Doesn’t that feel like flesh and blood? I tell you, Viola is here. She came to the house after — after you went. And before I could prevent her she had stirred up that infernal gray powder.”

“She did? Well, tell me then how you reached here yourself, and perhaps I’ll begin to believe you.”

Drayton shrugged. “I followed, of course. The whole thing was my fault. I thought you were both dead, and I could hardly do less than follow.”

Trenmore sprang up and wrung the other’s hand with his customary enthusiasm. “And now I do believe you!” he cried. “You’re Bobby Drayton and none other, for you’ve acted like the man I knew you to be. But poor little Viola! And where is she now? Sure, if she’s in this place, I misdoubt it’s the one I took it for, after all!”

“She is over among the ruins, and she seems to have fainted. I found her all buried in grass. She mustn’t be left alone another instant. Have you any whisky or brandy about you?”

“I have not — bad luck to me!”

Disappointed, but still hopeful, Drayton led the way, eagerly followed by his friend. The sun had sunk till it glowed like the half of a great, round, red lantern above the horizon’s rim. Drayton was wondering what they should do if they failed to revive Viola before night came on; but this anxiety was wasted.

As they crossed the grass-grown court a little figure in blue dashed suddenly from behind a shattered column and flung itself bodily into the arms of Trenmore.

“Terry — oh, Terry, my dear!”

“Little Viola! There, there now. Is it crying you are? And for what?”

“Just for joy, Terry, dear. Don’t mind me. There, I’ll not cry any more. I waked up — all alone — in the shadow. And Terry, darling, I’d been dreaming that we both were dead!”

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