June sunshine poured through the window of his bedroom in the Ritz; and Cleves had just finished dressing when he heard his wife’s voice in the adjoining sitting-room.
He had not supposed that Tressa was awake. His hastened to tie his tie and pull on a smoking jacket, listening all the while to his wife’s modulated but gay young voice.
Then he opened the sitting-room door and went in. And found his wife entirely alone.
She looked up at him, her lips parted as though checked in what she had been saying, the smile still visible in her blue eyes.
“Who on earth are you talking to?” he asked, his bewildered glance sweeping the sunny room again.
She did not reply; her smile faded as a spot of sunlight wanes, veiled by a cloud — yet a glimmer of it remained in her gaze as he came over to her.
“I thought they’d brought our breakfast,” he said, “— hearing your voice . . . Did you sleep well?”
He seated himself, and his perplexed scrutiny included her frail morning robe of China silk, her lovely bare arms, and her splendid hair twisted up and pegged down with a jade dagger. Around her bare throat and shoulders, too, was a magnificent necklace of imperial jade which he had never before seen; and on one slim, white finger a superb jade ring.
“By Jove!” he said, “you’re very exotic this morning, Tressa. I never before saw that negligee effect.”
The girl laughed, glancing at her ring, lifted a frail silken fold and examined the amazing embroidery.
“I wore it at the Lake of the Ghosts,” she said.
The name of that place always chilled him. He had begun to hate it, perhaps because of all that he did not know about it — about his wife’s strange girlhood — about Yian and the devil’s Temple there — and about Sanang.
He said coldly but politely that the robe was unusual and the jade very wonderful.
The alteration in his voice and expression did not escape her. It meant merely masculine jealousy, but Tressa never dreamed he cared in that way.
Breakfast was brought, served; and presently these two young people were busy with their melons, coffee, and toast in the sunny room high above the softened racket of traffic echoing though avenue and street below.
“Recklow telephoned me this morning,” he remarked.
She looked up, her face serious.
“Recklow says that the Yezidee mischief is taking visible shape. The Socialist Party is going to be split into bits and a new party, impudently and publicly announcing itself as the Communist Party of America, is being organised. Did you ever hear of anything as shameless — as outrageous — in this Republic?”
She said very quietly: “Sanang has taken prisoner the minds of these wretched people. He and his remaining Yezidees are giving battle to the unarmed minds of our American people.”
“Gutchlug is dead,” said Cleves, “— and Yarghouz and Djamouk, and Yaddin.”
“But Tiyang Khan is alive, and Togrul, and that cunning demon Arrak Sou–Sou, called The Squirrel,” she said. She bent her head, considering the jade ring on her finger. “— And Prince Sanang,” she added in a low voice.
“Why didn’t you let me shoot him when I had the chance?” said Cleves harshly.
So abrupt was his question, so rough his sudden manner, that the girl looked up in dismayed surprise. Then a deep colour stained her face.
“Once,” she said, “Prince Sanang held my heart prisoner — as Erlik held my soul . . . I told you that.”
“Is that the reason you gave the fellow a chance?”
“Oh . . . And possibly you gave Sanang a chance because he still holds your — affections!”
She said, crimson with the pain of the accusation: “I tore my heart out of his keeping . . . I told you that . . . And, believing — trying to believe what you say to me, I have tried to tear my soul out of the claws of Erlik . . . Why are you angry?”
“I don’t know . . . I’m not angry . . . The whole horrible situation is breaking my nerve, I guess . . . With whom were you talking before I came in?”
After a silence the girl’s smile glimmered.
“I’m afraid you won’t like it if I tell you.”
“You — such things perplex and worry you . . . I am afraid you won’t like me any better if I tell you who it was I had been talking with.”
His intent gaze never left her. “I want you to tell me,” he repeated.
“I— I was talking with Sa-n’sa,” she faltered.
“With Sa-n’sa . . . We called her Sansa.”
“Who the dickens is Sansa?”
“We were three comrades at the Temple,” she said timidly, “— Yulun, Sansa, and myself. We loved each other. We always went to the Lake of the Ghosts together — for protection —?”
“Sansa was a girl of the Aroulads, born at Buldak — as was Temujin. The night she was born three moon-rainbows made circles around her Yaïlak. The Baroulass horsemen saw this and prayed loudly in their saddles. Then they galloped to Yian and came crawling on their bellies to Sanang Noïane with the news of the miracle. And Sanang came with a thousand riders in leather armour. And, ‘What is this child’s name?’ he shouted, riding into the Yaïlak with his black banners flapping around him like devil’s wings.
“A poor Manggoud came out of the tent of skins, carrying the new born infant, and touched his head to Sanang’s stirrup. ‘This babe is called Tchagane,’ he said, trembling all over. ‘No!’ cries Sanang, ‘she is called Sansa. Give her to me and may Erlik seize you!’
“And he took the baby on his saddle in front of him and struck his spurs deep; and so came Sansa to Yian under a roaring rustle of black silk banners . . . It is so written in the Book of Iron . . . Allahou Ekber.”
Cleves had leaned his elbow on the table, his forehead rested in his palm.
Perhaps he was striving in a bewildered way to reconcile such occult and amazing things with the year 1920 — with the commonplace and noisy city of New York — with this pretty, modern, sunlit sitting-room in the Ritz–Carlton on Madison Avenue — with this girl in her morning negligee opposite, her coffee and melon fragrant at her elbow, her wonderful blue eyes resting on him.
“Sansa,” he repeated slowly, as though striving to grasp even a single word from the confusion of names and phrases that were sounding still in his ears like the vibration of distant and unfamiliar seas.
“Is this the girl you were talking with just now? In — in this room?” he added, striving to understand.
“She wasn’t here, of course.”
“Her body was not.”
Tressa said in her sweet, humorous way: “You must try to accustom yourself to such things, Victor. You know that Yulun talks to me. . . . I wanted to talk to Sansa. The longing awakened me. So — I made the effort!”
“And she came — I mean the part of her which is not her body.”
“Yes, she came. We talked very happily while I was bathing and dressing. Then we came in here. She is such a darling!”
“Where is she?”
“In Yian, feeding her silk-worms and making a garden. You see, Sansa is quite wealthy now, because when the Japanese came she filled a bullock cart with great lumps of spongy gold from the Temple and filled another cart with Yu-stone, and took the Hezar of Baroulass horsemen on guard at the Lake of the Ghosts. And with this Keutch, riding a Soubz horse, and dressed like an Urieng lancer, my pretty little comrade Tchagane, who is called Sansa, marched north preceded by two kettle-drums and a toug with two tales —”
Tressa’s clear laughter checked her; she clapped her hands, breathless with mirth at the picture she evoked.
“Kai!” she laughed; “what adorable impudence has Sansa! Neither Tchortcha nor Khiounnou dared ask her who were her seven ancestors! No! And when her caravan came to the lovely Yliang river, my darling Sansa rode out and grasped the lance from her Tougtchi and drove the point deep into the fertile soil, crying in a clear voice: ‘A place for Tchagane and her people! Make room for the toug!’
“Then her Manggoud, who carried the spare steel tip for her lance, got out of his saddle and, gathering a handful of mulberry leaves, rubbed the shaft of the lance till it was all pale green.
2 Urdu = An imperial encampment.
3 Mocalla = A platform used as a Moslem pulpit.
Again Tressa’s laughter checked her, and she strove to control it with the jade ring pressed to her lips.
“Oh, Victor,” she added in a stifled voice, looking at him out of eyes full of mischief, “you don’t realise how funny it was — Sansa and her toug and her Urdu — Oh, Allah! — the bones of Tchinguiz must have rattled in his tomb!”
Her infectious laughter evoked a responsive but perplexed smile from Cleves; but it was the smile of a bewildered man who has comprehended very little of an involved jest; and he looked around at the modern room as though to find his bearings.
Suddenly Tressa leaned forward swiftly and laid one hand on his.
“You don’t think all this is very funny. You don’t like it,” she said in soft concern.
“It isn’t that, Tressa. But this is New York City in the year 1920. And I can’t — I absolutely can not get into touch — hook up, mentally, with such things — with the unreal Oriental life that is so familiar to you.”
She nodded sympathetically: “I know. You feel like a Mergued Pagan from Lake Baïkal when all the lamps are lighted in the Mosque; — like a camel driver with his jade and gold when he enters Yarkand at sunrise.”
“Probably I feel like that,” said Cleves, laughing outright. “I take your word, dear, anyway.”
But he took more; he picked up her soft hand where it rested on his, pressed it, and instantly reddened because he had done it. And Tressa’s bright flush responded so quickly that neither of them understood, and both misunderstood.
The girl rose with heightened colour, not knowing why she stood up or what she meant to do. And Cleves, misinterpreting her emotion as a silent rebuke to the invasion of that convention tacitly accepted between them, stood up, too, and began to speak carelessly of commonplace things.
She made the effort to reply, scarcely knowing what she was saying, so violently had his caress disturbed her heart — and she was still speaking when their telephone rang.
Cleves went; listened, then, still listening, summoned Tressa to his side with a gesture.
“It’s Selden,” he said in a low voice. “He says he had the Yezidee Arrak Sou–Sou under observation, and that he needs you desperately. Will you help us?”
“I’ll go, of course,” she replied, turning quite pale.
Cleves nodded, still listening. After a while: “All right. We’ll be there. Good-bye,” he said sharply; and hung up.
Then he turned and looked at his wife.
“I wish to God,” he muttered, “that this business was ended. I— I can’t bear to have you go.”
“I am not afraid . . . Where is it?”
“I never heard of the place before. We’re to meet Selden at ‘Fool’s Acre.’”
“Where is it, Victor?”
“I don’t know. Selden says there are no roads — not even a spotted trail. It’s a wilderness left practically blank by the Geological Survey. Only the contours are marked, and Selden tells me that the altitudes are erroneous and the unnamed lakes and water courses are all wrong. He says it is his absolute conviction that the Geological Survey never penetrated this wilderness at all, but merely skirted it and guessed at what lay inside, because the map he had from Washington is utterly misleading, and the entire region is left blank except for a few vague blue lines and spots indicating water, and a few heights marked ‘1800.’”
He turned and began to pace the sitting-room, frowning, perplexed, undecided.
“Selden tells me,” he said, “that the Yezidee, Arrak Sou–Sou, is in there and very busy doing something or other. He says that he can do nothing without you, and will explain why when we meet him.”
Cleves turned on his heel and came over to where his wife stood beside the sunny window.
“I hate to ask you to go. I know that was the understanding. But this incessant danger — your constant peril —?”
“That does not count when I think of my country’s peril,” she said in a quiet voice. “When are we to start? And what shall I pack in my trunk?”
“Dear child,” he said with a brusque laugh, “it’s a wilderness and we carry what we need on our backs. Selden meets us at a place called Glenwild, on the edge of this wilderness, and we follow him in on our two legs.”
He glanced at the mantel clock.
“If you’ll dress,” he said nervously, “we’ll go to some shop that outfits sportsmen for the North. Because, if we can, we ought to leave on the one o’clock train.”
She smiled; came up to him. “Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Because I also am nervous and tired; and I mean to make an end to every Yezidee remaining in America.”
They both flushed deeply.
She said in a steady voice: “Between God and Erlik there is a black gulf where a million million stars hang, lighting a million million other worlds.
“Prince Sanang’s star glimmers there. It is a sun, called Yramid. And it lights the planet, Yu-tsung. Let him reign there between God and Erlik.”
“You will slay this man?”
“God forbid!” she said, shuddering. “But I shall send him to his own star. Let my soul be ransom for his! And may Allah judge between us — between this man and me.”
Then, in the still, sunny room, the girl turned to face the East. And her husband saw her lips move as though speaking, but heard no sound.
“What on earth are you saying there, all to yourself?” he demanded at last.
She turned her head and looked at him across her left shoulder.
“I asked Sansa to help me . . . And she says she will.”
Cleves nodded in a dazed way. Then he opened a window and leaned there in the sunshine, looking down into Madison Avenue. And the roar of traffic seemed to soothe his nerves.
But “Good heavens!” he thought; “do such things really go on in New York in 1920! Is the entire world becoming a little crazy? Am I really in my right mind when I believe that the girl I married is talking, without wireless, to another girl in China!”
He leaned there heavily, gazing down into the street with sombre eyes.
“What a ghastly thing these Yezidees are trying to do to the world — these Assassins of men’s minds!” he thought, turning away toward the door of his bedroom.
As he crossed the threshold he stumbled, and looking down saw that he had tripped over a white sheet lying there. For a moment he thought it was a sheet from his own bed, and he started to pick it up. Then he saw the naked blade of a knife at his feet.
With an uncontrollable shudder he stepped out of the shroud and stood staring at the knife as though it were a snake. It had a curved blade and a bone hilt coarsely inlaid with Arabic characters in brass.
The shroud was a threadbare affair — perhaps a bed-sheet from some cheap lodging house. But its significance was so repulsive that he hesitated to touch it.
However, he was ashamed to have it discovered in his room. He picked up the brutal-looking knife and kicked the shroud out into the corridor, where they could guess if they like how such a rag got into the Ritz–Carlton.
Then he searched his bedroom, and, of course, discovered nobody hiding. But chills crawled on his spine while he was about it, and he shivered still as he stood in the centre of the room examining the knife and testing edge and point.
Then, close to his ear, a low voice whispered: “Be careful, my lord; the Yezidee knife is poisoned. But it is written that a poisoned heart is more dangerous still.”
He had turned like a flash; and he saw, between him and the sitting-room door, a very young girl with slightly slanting eyes, and rose and ivory features as perfect as though moulded out of tinted bisque.
She wore a loose blue linen robe, belted in, short at the elbows and skirt, showing two creamy-skinned arms and two bare feet in straw sandals. In one hand she had a spray of purple mulberries, and she looked coolly at Cleves and ate a berry or two.
“Give me the knife,” she said calmly.
He handed it to her; she wiped it with a mulberry leaf and slipped it through her girdle.
“I am Sansa,” she said with a friendly glance at him, busy with her fruit.
Cleves strove to speak naturally, but his voice trembled.
“It is you — I mean your real self — your own body?”
“It’s my real self. Yes. But my body is asleep in my mulberry grove.”
“In — in China?”
“Yes,” she said calmly, detaching another mulberry and eating it. A few fresh leaves fell on the centre table.
Sansa chose another berry. “You know,” she said, “that I came to Tressa this morning — to my little Heart of Fire I came when she called me. And I was quite sleepy, too. But I heard her, though there was a night-wind in the mulberry trees, and the river made a silvery roaring noise in the dark . . . And now I must go. But I shall come again very soon.”
She smiled shyly and held out her lovely little hand, “— As Tressa tells me is your custom in America,” she said, “I offer you a good-bye.”
He took her hand and found it a warm, smooth thing of life and pulse.
“Why,” he stammered in his astonishment, “you are real! You are not a ghost!”
“Yes, I am real,” she answered, surprised, “but I’m not in my body — if you mean that.” Then she laughed and withdrew her hand, and, going, made him a friendly gesture.
“Cherish, my lord, my darling Heart of Fire. Serpents twist and twine. So do rose vines. May their petals make your path of velvet and sweet scented. May everything that is round be a pomegranate for you to share; may everything that sways be lilies bordering a path wide enough for two. In the name of the Most Merciful God, may the only cry you hear be the first sweet wail of your first-born. And when the tenth shall be born, may you and Heart of Fire bewail your fate because both of you desire more children!”
She was laughing when she disappeared. Cleves thought she was still there, so radiant the sunshine, so sweet the scent in the room.
But the golden shadow by the door was empty of her. If she had slipped through the doorway, he had noticed her departure. Yet she was no longer there. And, when he understood, he turned back into the empty room, quivering all over. Suddenly a terrible need of Tressa assailed him — an imperative necessity to speak to her — hear her voice.
“Tressa!” he called, and rested his hand on the centre table, feeling weak and shaken to the knees. Then he looked down and saw mulberry leaves lying scattered there, tender and green and still dewy with the dew of China.
“Oh, my God!” he whispered, “such things are! It isn’t my mind that has gone wrong. There are such things!”
The conviction swept him like a tide till his senses swam. As though peering through a mist of gold he saw his wife enter and come to him; — felt her arm about him, sustaining him where he swayed slightly with one hand on the table among the mulberry leaves.
“Ah,” murmured Tressa, noticing the green leaves, “she oughtn’t to have done that. That was thoughtless of her, to show herself to you.”
Cleves looked at her in a dazed way. “The body is nothing,” he muttered. “The rest only is real. That is the truth, isn’t it?”
“I seem to be beginning to believe it . . . Sansa said things — I shall try to tell you — some day — dear . . . I’m glad to hear your voice.”
“Are you?” she murmured.
“And glad to feel your touch . . . I found a shroud on my threshold. And a knife.”
“The Yezidees are becoming mountebanks . . . Where is the knife?” she asked scornfully.
“Sansa said it was poisoned. She took it. She — she said that a poisoned heart is more dangerous still.”
Then Tressa threw up her head and called softly into space: “Sansa! Little Silk–Moth! What are these mischievous things you have told to my lord?”
She stood silent, listening. And, in the answer which he could not hear, there seemed to be something that set his young wife’s cheeks aflame.
“Sansa! Little devil!” she cried, exasperated. “May Erlik send his imps to pinch you if you have said to my lord these shameful things. It was impudent! It was mischievous! You cover me with shame and confusion, and I am humbled in the dust of my lord’s feet!”
Cleves looked at her, but she could not sustain his gaze.
“Did Sansa say to you what she said to me?” he demanded unsteadily.
“Yes . . . I ask you pardon . . . And I had already told her you did not — did not — were not in — in love — with me . . . I ask you pardon.”
“Ask more . . . Ask your heart whether it would care to hear that I am in love. And with whom. Ask your heart if it could ever care to listen to what my heart could say to it.”
“Y-yes — I’ll ask — my heart,” she faltered . . . “I think I had better finish dressing —” She lifted her eyes, gave him a breathless smile as he caught her hand and kissed it.
“It — it would be very wonderful,” she stammered, “— if our necessity should b-become our choice.”
But that speech seemed to scare her and she fled, leaving her husband standing tense and upright in the middle of the room.
Their train on the New York Central Railroad left the Grand Central Terminal at one in the afternoon.
Cleves had made his arrangements by wire. They travelled lightly, carrying, except for the clothing they wore, only camping equipment for two.
It was raining in the Hudson valley; they rushed through the outlying towns and Po’keepsie in a summer downpour.
At Hudson the rain slackened. A golden mist enveloped Albany, through which the beautiful tower and façades along the river loomed, masking the huge and clumsy Capitol and the spires beyond.
At Schenectady, rifts overhead revealed glimpses of blue. At Amsterdam, where they descended from the train, the flag on the arsenal across the Mohawk flickered brilliantly in the sunny wind.
By telegraphic arrangement, behind the station waited a touring car driven by a trooper of State Constabulary, who, with his comrade, saluted smartly as Cleves and Tressa came up.
There was a brief, low-voiced conversation. Their camping outfit was stowed aboard, Tressa sprang into the tonneau followed by Cleves, and the car started swiftly up the inclined roadway, across the trolley tracks, and straight on up the steep hill paved with blocks of granite.
On the level road which traversed the ridge at last they speeded up, whizzed past the great hedged farm where racing horses are bred, rushing through the afternoon sunshine through the old-time Scotch settlements which once were outposts of the New York frontier.
Nine miles out the macadam road ended. They veered to the left over a dirt road, through two hamlets; then turned to the right.
The landscape became rougher. To their left lay the long, low Maxon hills; behind them the Mayfield range stretched northward into the open jaws of the Adirondacks.
All around them were woods, now. Once a Gate House appeared ahead; and beyond it they crossed four bridges over a foaming, tumbling creek where Cleves caught glimpses of shadowy forms in the amber-tinted pools — big yellow trout that sank unhurriedly out of sight among huge submerged boulders wet with spray.
The State trooper beside the chauffeur turned to Cleves, his purple tie whipping in the wind.
“Yonder is Glenwild, sir,” he said.
It was a single house on the flank of a heavily forested hill. Deep below to the left the creek leaped two cataracts and went flashing out through a belt of cleared territory ablaze with late sunshine.
The car swung into the farm-yard, past the barn on the right, and continued on up a very rough trail.
“This is the road to the Ireland Vlaie,” said the trooper. “It is possible for cars for another mile only.”
Splendid spruce, pine, oak, maple, and hemlock fringed the swampy, uneven trail which was no more than a wide, rough vista cut through the forest.
And, as the trooper had said, a little more than a mile farther the trail became a tangle of bushes and swale; the car slowed down and stopped; and a man rose from where he was seated on a mossy log and came forward, his rifle balanced across the hollow of his left arm.
The man was Alek Selden.
It was long after dark and they were still travelling through pathless woods by the aid of their electric torches.
There was little underbrush; the forest of spruce and hemlock was first growth.
Cleves shined the trees but could discover no blazing, no trodden path.
In explanation, Selden said briefly that he had hunted the territory for years.
“But I don’t begin to know it,” he added. “There are vast and ugly regions of bog and swale where a sea of alders stretches to the horizon. There are desolate wastes of cat-briers and witch-hopple under leprous tangles of grey birches, where stealthy little brooks darkle deep under matted débris. Only wild things can travel such country.
“Then there are strange, slow-flowing creeks in the perpetual shadows of tamarack woods, where many a man has gone in never to come out.”
“Why?” asked Tressa.
“Under the tender carpet of green cresses are shining black bogs set with tussock; and under the bog stretches quicksand — and death.”
“Do you know these places?” asked Cleves.
Cleves stepped forward to Tressa’s side.
“Keep flashing the ground,” he said harshly. “I don’t want you to step into some hell-hole. I’m sorry I brought you, anyway.”
“But I had to come,” she said in a low voice.
Like the two men, she wore a grey flannel shirt, knickers, and spiral puttees.
They, however, carried rifles as well as packs; and the girl’s pack was lighter.
They had halted by a swift, icy rivulet to eat, without building a fire. After that they crossed the Ireland Vlaie and the main creek, where remains of a shanty stood on the bluff above the right bank — the last sign of man.
Beyond lay the uncharted land, skimped and shirked entirely in certain regions by map-makers; — an unknown wilderness on the edges of which Selden had often camped when deer shooting.
It was along this edge he was leading them, now, to a lean-to which he had erected, and from which he had travelled in to Glenwild to use the superintendent’s telephone to New York.
There seemed to be no animal life stirring in this forest; their torches illuminated no fiery orbs of dazed wild things surprised at graze in the wilderness; no leaping furry form crossed their flashlights’ fan-shaped radiance.
There were no nocturnal birds to be seen or heard, either: no bittern squawked from hidden sloughs; no herons howled; not an owl-note, not a whispering cry of a whippoorwill, not the sudden uncanny twitter of those little birds that become abruptly vocal after dark, interrupted the dense stillness of the forest.
And it was not until his electric torch glimmered repeatedly upon reaches of dusk-hidden bog that Cleves understood how Selden took his bearings — for the night was thick and there were no stars.
“Yes,” said Selden tersely, “I’m trying to skirt the bog until I shine a peeled stick.”
An hour later the peeled alder-stem glittered in the beam of the torches. In ten minutes something white caught the electric rays.
It was Selden’s spare undershirt drying on a bush behind the lean-to.
“Can we have a fire?” asked Cleves, relieving his wife of her pack and striding into the open-faced camp.
“Yes, I’ll fix it,” replied Selden. “Are you all right, Mrs. Cleves?”
Tressa said: “Delightfully tired, thank you.” And smiled faintly at her husband as he let go his own pack, knelt, and spread a blanket for his wife.
He remained there, kneeling, as she seated herself.
“Are you quite fit?” he asked bluntly. Yet, through his brusqueness her ear caught a vague undertone of something else — anxiety perhaps — perhaps tenderness. And her heart stirred deliciously in her breast.
He inflated a pillow for her; the firelight glimmering, brightened, spread glowing across her feet. She lay back with a slight sigh, relaxed.
Then, suddenly, the thrill of her husband’s touch flooded her face with colour; but she lay motionless, one arm flung across her eyes, while he unrolled her puttees and unlaced her muddy shoes.
A heavenly warmth from the fire dried her stockinged feet. Later, on the edge of sleep, she opened her eyes and found herself propped upright on her husband’s shoulder.
Drowsily, obediently she swallowed spoonfuls of the hot broth which he administered.
“Are you really quite comfortable, dear?” he whispered.
“Wonderfully . . . And so very happy . . . Thank you — dear.”
She lay back, suffering him to bathe her face and hands with warm water.
When the fire was only a heap of dying coals, she turned over on her right side, and extended her hand a little way into the darkness. Searching, half asleep, she touched her husband, and her hand relaxed in his nervous clasp. And she fell into the most perfect sleep which she had known in years.
She dreamed that somebody whispered to her, “Darling, darling, wake up. It is morning, beloved.”
Suddenly she opened her eyes; and saw her husband set a tray, freshly plaited out of Indian willow, beside her blanket.
“Here’s your breakfast, pretty lady,” he said, smilingly. “And over there is an exceedingly frigid pool of water. You’re to have the camp to yourself for the next hour or two.”
“You dear fellow,” she murmured, still confused by sleep, and reached out to touch his hand. He caught hers and kissed it, back and palm, and got up hastily as though scared.
“Selden and I will stand sentry,” he muttered. “There’s no hurry, you know.”
She heard him and his comrade walking away over dried leaves; their steps receded; a dry stick cracked distantly; then silence stealthily invaded the place like a cautious living thing, creeping unseen through the golden twilight of the woods.
Seated in her blanket, she drank the coffee; ate a little; then lay down again in the early sun, feeling the warmth of the heap of whitening coals at her feet, also.
For an hour she dozed awake, drowsily opening her eyes now and then to look across the glade at the pool over which a single dragon-fly glittered on guard.
Finally she rose resolutely, grasped a bit of soap, and went down to the edge of the pool.
Tressa was in flannel shirt and knickers when her husband and Selden hailed the camp and presently appeared walking slowly toward the dead fire.
Their grave faces checked her smile of greeting; her husband came up and laid one hand on her arm, looking at her out of thoughtful, preoccupied eyes.
“What is the Tchordagh?” he said in a low voice.
The girl’s quiet face went white.
“The — the Tchordagh!” she stammered.
“Yes, dear. What is it?”
“I don’t — don’t know where you heard that term,” she whispered. “The Tchordagh is the — the power of Erlik. It is a term . . . In it is comprehended all the evil, all the cunning, all the perverted spiritual intelligence of Evil — its sinister might — its menace. It is an Alouad–Yezidee term, and it is written in brass in Eighur characters on the Eight Towers, and on the Rampart of Gog and Magog; — nowhere else in the world!”
“It is written on a pine tree a few paces from this camp,” said Cleves absently.
Selden said: “It has not been there more than an hour or two, Mrs. Cleves. A square of bark was cut out and on the white surface of the wood this word is written in English.”
“Can you tell us what it signifies?” asked Cleves, quietly.
Tressa’s studied effort at self-control was apparent to both men.
She said: “When that word is written, then it is a death struggle between the powers of Darkness and those who have read the written letters of that word . . . For it is written in The Iron Book that no one but the Assassins of Khorassan — excepting the Eight Sheiks — shall read that written word and live to boast of having read it.”
“Let us sit here and talk it over,” said Selden soberly.
And when Tressa was seated on a fallen log, and Cleves settled down cross-legged at her feet, Selden spoke again, very soberly:
“On the edges of these woods, to the northwest, lies a sea of briers, close growing, interwoven and matted, strong and murderous as barbed wire.
“Miles out in this almost impenetrable region lies a patch of trees called Fool’s Acre.
“At Wells I heard that the only man who had ever managed to reach Fool’s Acre was a trapper, and that he was still living.
“I found him at Rainbow Lake — a very old man, who had a fairly clear recollection of Fool’s Acre and his exhausting journey there.
“And he told me that man had been there before he had. For there was a roofless stone house there, and the remains of a walled garden. And a skull deep in the wild grasses.”
Selden paused and looked down at the recently healed scars on his wrists and hands.
“It was a rotten trip,” he said bluntly. “It took me three days to cut a tunnel through that accursed tangle of matted brier and grey birch . . . Fool’s Acre is a grove of giant trees — first growth pine, oak, maple. Great outcrops of limestone ledges bound it on the east. A brook runs through the woods.
“There is a house there, no longer roofless, and built of slabs of fossil-pitted limestone. The glass in the windows is so old that it is iridescent.
“A seven-foot wall encloses the house, built also of slabs blasted out of the rock outcrop, and all pitted with fossil shells.
“Inside is a garden — not the remains of one — a beautiful garden full of unfamiliar flowers. And in this garden I saw the Yezidee on his knees making living things out of lumps of dead earth!”
“The Tchordagh!” whispered the girl.
“What was the Yezidee doing?” demanded Cleves nervously.
Involuntarily all three drew neared each other there in the sunshine.
“It is difficult for me to see,” said Selden in his quiet, serious voice. “It was nearly twilight: I lay flat on top of the wall under the curving branches of a huge syringa bush in full bloom. The Yezidees —”
“Were there two!” exclaimed Cleves.
“Two. They were squatting on the old stone path bordering one of the flower beds.” He turned to Tressa: “They both wore white cloths twisted around their heads, and long soft garments of white. Under these their bare, brown legs showed, but they wore things on their naked feet which were shaped like what we call Turkish slippers — only different.”
“Black and green,” nodded Tressa with the vague horror growing in her face.
“Yes. The soles of their shoes were bright green.”
“Green is the colour sacred to Islam,” said Tressa. “The priests of Satan defile it by staining with green the soles of their footwear.”
After an interval: “Go on,” said Cleves nervously.
Selden drew closer, and they bent their heads to listen:
“I don’t, even now, know what the Yezidees were actually doing. In the twilight it was hard to see clearly. But I’ll tell you what it looked like to me. One of these squatting creatures would scoop out a handful of soil from the flower bed, and mould it for a few moments between his lean, sinewy hands and — and something alive — something small like a rat or a toad, or God knows what, would escape from between his palms and run out into the grass —”
Selden’s voice failed and he looked at Cleves with sickened eyes.
“I can’t — can’t make you understand how repulsive to me it was to see a wriggling live thing creep out between their fingers and — and go running or scrambling away — little loathsome things with humpy backs that hopped or scurried though the grass —”
“What on earth were these Yezidees doing, Tressa?” asked Cleves almost roughly.
The girl’s white face was marred by the imprints of deepening horror.
“It is the Tchordagh,” she said mechanically. “They are using every resource of hell to destroy me — testing the gigantic power of Evil — as though it were some vast engine charged with thunderous destruction! — and they were testing it to discover its terrific capacity to annihilate —”
Her voice died in her dry throat; she dropped her bloodless visage into both hands and remained seated so.
Both men looked at her in silence, not daring to interfere. Finally the girl lifted her pallid face from her hands.
“That is what they were doing,” she said in a dull voice. “Out of inanimate earth they were making things animate — living creatures — to — to test the hellish power which they are storing — concentrating — for my destruction.”
“What is their purpose?” asked Cleves harshly. “What do these Mongol Sorcerers expect to gain by making little live things out of lumps of garden dirt?”
“They are testing their power,” whispered the girl.
“Like tuning up a huge machine?” muttered Selden.
“For what purpose?”
“To make larger living creatures out of — of clay.”
“They can’t — they can’t create!” exclaimed Cleves. “I don’t know how — by what filthy tricks — they make rats out of dirt. But they can’t make a — anything — like a — like a man!”
Tressa’s body trembled slightly.
“Once,” she said, “in the temple, Prince Sanang took dust which was brought in sacks of goat-skin, and fashioned the heap of dirt with his hands, so that it resembled the body of a man lying there on the marble floor under the shrine of Erlik . . . And — and then, there in the shadows where only the Dark Star burned — that black lamp which is called the Dark Star — the long heap of dust lying there on the marble pavement began to — to breathe! —”
She pressed both hands over her breast as though to control her trembling body: “I saw it; I saw the long shape of dust begin to breathe, to stir, move, and slowly lift itself —”
“A Yezidee trick!” gasped Cleves; but he also was trembling now.
“God!” whispered the girl. “Allah alone knows — the Merciful, the Long Suffering — He knows what it was that we temple girls saw there — that Yulun saw — that Sa-n’sa and I beheld there rising up like a man from the marble floor — and standing erect in the shadowy twilight of the Dark Star . . . ”
Her hands gripped at her breast; her face was deathly.
“Then,” she said, “I saw Prince Sanang draw his sabre of Indian steel, and he struck . . . once only . . . And a dead man fell down where the thing had stood. And all the marble was flooded with scarlet blood.”
“A trick,” repeated Cleves, in the ghost of his own voice. But his gaze grew vacant.
Presently Selden spoke in tones that sounded weakly querulous from emotional reaction:
“There is a path — a tunnel under the matted briers. It took me more than a week to cut it out. It is possible to reach Fool’s Acre. We can try — with our rifles — if you say so, Mrs. Cleves.”
The girl looked up. A little colour came into her cheeks. She shook her head.
“Their bodies may not be there in the garden,” she said absently. “What you saw may not have been that part of them — the material which dies by knife or bullet . . . And it is necessary that these Yezidees should die.”
“Can you do anything?” asked Cleves, hoarsely.
She looked at her husband; tried to smile:
“I must try . . . I think we had better not lose any time — if Mr. Selden will lead us.”
“Yes, we had better go, I think,” said the girl. Her smile still remained stamped on her lips, but her eyes seemed preoccupied as though following the movements of something remote that was passing across the horizon.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06