On the wall hung a map of Mongolia, that indefinite region a million and a half square miles in area, vast sections of which have never been explored.
Turkestan and China border it on the south, and Tibet almost touches it, not quite.
Even in the twelfth century, when the wild Mongols broke loose and nearly overran the world, the Tibet infantry under Genghis, the Tchortcha horsemen drafted out of Black China, and a great cloud of Mongol cavalry under the Prince of the Vanguard commanding half a hundred Hezars, never penetrated that grisly and unknown waste. The “Eight Towers of the Assassins” guarded it — still guard it, possibly.
The vice-regent of Erlik, Prince of Darkness, dwelt within this unknown land. And dwells there still, perhaps.
In front of this wall-map stood Tressa Norne.
Behind her, facing the map, four men were seated — three of them under thirty.
These three were volunteers in the service of the United States Government — men of independent means, of position, who had volunteered for military duty at the outbreak of the great war. However, they had been assigned by the Government to a very different sort of duty no less exciting than service on the fighting line, but far less conspicuous, for they had been drafted into the United States Department of Justice.
The names of these three were Victor Cleves, a professor of ornithology at Harvard University before the war; Alexander Selden, junior partner in the banking firm of Milwyn, Selden, and Co., and James Benton, a New York architect.
The fourth man’s name was John Recklow. He might have been over fifty, or under. He was well-built, in a square, athletic way, clear-skinned and ruddy, grey-eyed, quiet in voice and manner. His hair and moustache had turned silvery. He had been employed by the Government for many years. He seemed to be enormously interested in what Miss Norne was saying.
Also he was the only man who interrupted her narrative to ask questions. And his questions revealed a knowledge which was making the girl more sensitive and uneasy every moment.
Finally, when she spoke of the Scarlet Desert, he asked if the Scarlet Lake were there and if the Xin was still supposed to inhabit its vermilion depths. And at that she turned and looked at him, her forefinger still resting on the map.
“Where have you ever heard of the Scarlet Lake and the Xin,” she asked as though frightened.
Recklow said quietly that as a boy he had served under Gordon and Sir Robert.
“If, as a boy, you served under Chinese Gordon, you already know much of what I have told you, Mr. Recklow. Is it not true?” she demanded nervously.
“That makes no difference,” he replied with a smile. “It is all very new to these three young gentlemen. And as for myself, I am checking up what you say and comparing it with what I heard many, many years ago when my comrade Barres and I were in Yian.”
“Did you really know Sir Robert Hart?”
“Then why do you not explain to these gentlemen?”
“Dear child,” he interrupted gently, “what did Chinese Gordon or Sir Robert Hart, or even my comrade Barres, or I myself know about occult Asia in comparison to what you know — a girl who has actually served the mysteries of Erlik for four amazing years!”
She paled a trifle, came slowly across the room to where Recklow was seated, laid a timid hand on his sleeve.
“Do you believe there are sorcerers in Asia?” she asked with that child-like directness which her wonderful blue eyes corroborated.
Recklow remained silent.
“Because,” she went on, “if, in your heart, you do not believe this to be an accursed fact, then what I have to say will mean nothing to any of you.”
Recklow touched his short, silvery moustache hesitating. Then:
“The worship of Erlik is devil worship,” he said. “Also I am entirely prepared to believe that there are, among the Yezidees, adepts who employ scientific weapons against civilisation — who have probably obtained a rather terrifying knowledge of psychic laws which they use scientifically, and which to ordinary, God-fearing folk appear to be the black magic of sorcerers.”
Cleves said: “The employment by the huns of poison gases and long-range cannon is a parallel case. Before the war we could not believe in the possibility of a cannon that threw shells a distance of seventy miles.”
The girl still addressed herself to Recklow: “Then you do not believe there are real sorcerers in Asia, Mr. Recklow?”
“Not sorcerers with supernatural powers for evil. Only degenerate human beings who, somehow, have managed to tap invisible psychic currents, and have learned how to use terrific forces about which, so far, we know practically nothing.”
She spoke again in the same uneasy voice: “Then you do not believe that either God or Satan is involved?”
“No,” he replied smilingly, “and you must not so believe.”
“Nor the — the destruction of human souls.” she persisted; “you do not believe it is being accomplished to-day?”
“Not in the slightest, dear young lady,” he said cheerfully.
“Do you not believe that to have been instructed in such unlawful knowledge is damning? Do you not believe that ability to employ unknown forces is forbidden of God, and that to disobey His law means death to the soul?”
“That it is the price one pays to Satan for occult power over people’s minds?” she insisted.
“Hypnotic suggestion is not one of the cardinal sins,” explained Recklow, still smiling —“unless wickedly employed. The Yezidee priesthood is a band of so-called sorcerers only because of their wicked employment of whatever hypnotic and psychic knowledge they may have obtained.
“There was nothing intrinsically wicked in the huns’ discovery of phosgene. But the use they made of it made devils out of them. My ability to manufacture phosgene gas is no crime. But if I manufacture it and use it to poison innocent human beings, then, in that sense, I am, perhaps, a sort of modern sorcerer.”
Tressa Norne turned paler:
“I had better tell you that I have used — forbidden knowledge — which the Yezidees taught me in the temple of Erlik.”
“Used it how?” demanded Cleves.
“To — to earn a living . . . And once or twice to defend myself.”
There was the slightest scepticism in Recklow’s bland smile. “You did quite right, Miss Norne.”
She had become very white now. She stood beside Recklow, her back toward the suspended map, and looked in a scared sort of way from one to the other of the men seated before her, turning finally to Cleves, and coming toward him.
“I— I once killed a man,” she said with a catch in her breath.
Cleves reddened with astonishment. “Why did you do that?” he asked.
“He was already on his way to kill me in bed.”
“You were perfectly right,” remarked Recklow coolly.
“I don’t know . . . I was in bed . . . And then, on the edge on sleep, I felt his mind groping to get hold of mine — feeling about in the darkness to get hold of my brain and seize it and paralyse it.”
All colour had left her face. Cleves gripped the arms of his chair and watched her intently.
“I— I had only a moment’s mental freedom,” she went on in a ghost of a voice. “I was just able to rouse myself, fight off those murderous brain-fingers — let loose a clear mental ray . . . And then . . . O God! I saw him in his room with his Kalmuck knife — saw him already on his way to murder me — Gutchlug Khan, the Yezidee — looking about in his bedroom for a shroud . . . And when — when he reached for the bed to draw forth a fine, white sheet for the shroud without which no Yezidee dares journey deathward — then — then I became frightened . . . And I killed him — I slew him there in his hotel bedroom on the floor above mine!”
Selden moistened his lips: “That Oriental, Gutchlug, died from heart-failure in a San Francisco hotel,” he said. “I was there at the time.”
“He died by the fangs of a little yellow snake,” whispered the girl.
“There was no snake in his room,” retorted Cleves.
“And no wound on his body,” added Selden. “I attended the autopsy.”
She said, faintly: “There was no snake, and no wound, as you say . . . Yet Gutchlug died of both there in his bedroom . . . And before he died he heard his soul bidding him farewell; and he saw the death-adder coiled in the sheet he clutched — saw the thing strike him again and again — saw and felt the tiny wounds on his left hand; felt the fangs pricking deep, deep into the veins; died of it there within the minute — died of the swiftest poison known. And yet —”
She turned her dead-white face to Cleves —“And yet there was no snake there! . . . And never had been . . . And so I— I ask you, gentlemen, if souls do not die when minds learn to fight death with death — and deal it so swiftly, so silently, while one’s body lies, unstirring on a bed — in a locked room on the floor below —”
She swayed a little, put out one hand rather blindly.
Recklow rose and passed a muscular arm around her; Cleves, beside her, held her left hand, crushed it, without intention, until she opened her eyes with a cry of pain.
“Are you all right?” asked Recklow bluntly.
“Yes.” She turned and looked at Cleves and he caressed her bruised hand as though dazed.
“Tell me,” she said to Cleves —“you who know — know more about my mind than anybody living —” a painful colour surged into her face — but she went on steadily, forcing herself to meet his gaze: “tell me, Mr. Cleves — do you still believe that nothing can really destroy my soul? And that it shall yet win through to safety?”
He said: “Your soul is in God’s keeping, and always shall be . . . And if the Yezidees have made you believe otherwise, they lie.”
Recklow added in a slow, perplexed way: “I have no personal knowledge of psychic power. I am not psychic, not susceptible. But if you actually possess such ability, Miss Norne, and if you have employed such knowledge to defend your life, then you have done absolutely right.”
“No guilt touches you,” added Selden with an involuntary shiver, “if by hypnosis or psychic ability you really did put an end to that would-be murderer, Gutchlug.”
Selden said: “If Gutchlug died by the fangs of a yellow death-adder which existed only in his own mind, and if you actually had anything to do with it you acted purely in self-defence.”
“You did your full duty,” added Benton —“but — good God! — is seems incredible that such power can actually be available in the world!”
Recklow spoke again in his pleasant, undisturbed voice: “Go back to the map, Miss Norne, and tell us a little more about this rather terrifying thing which you believe menaces the civilised world with destruction.”
Tressa Norne laid her slim finger on the map. Her voice had become steady. She said:
“The devil-worship, of which one of the modern developments is Bolshevism, and another the terrorism of the hun, began in Asia long before Christ’s advent: At least so it is taught us in the temple of Erlik.
“It has always existed, its aim always has been the annihilation of good and the elevation of evil; the subjection of right by might, and the worldwide triumph of wrong.
“Perhaps it is as old as the first battle between God and Satan. I have wondered about it, sometimes. There in the dusk of the temple when the Eight Assassins came — the eight Sheiks-el-Djebel, all in white — chanting the Takase of Sabbah — always that dirge when they came and spread their eight white shrouds on the temple steps —”
Her voice caught; she waited to recover her composure. Then went on:
“The ambition of Genghis was to conquer the world by force of arms. It was merely of physical subjection that he dreamed. But the Slayer of Souls —”
“Who?” asked Recklow sharply.
“The Slayer of Souls — Erlik’s vice-regent on earth — Hassan Sabbah. The Old Man of the Mountain. It is of him I am speaking,” exclaimed Tressa Norne — with quiet resolution. “Genghis sought only physical conquest of man; the Yezidee’s ambition is more awful, for he is attempting to surprise and seize the very minds of men!”
There was a dead silence. Tressa looked palely upon the four.
“The Yezidees — who you tell me are not sorcerers — are using power — which you tell me is not magic — accursed by God — to waylay, capture, enslave, and destroy the minds and souls of mankind.
“It may be that what they employ is hypnotic ability and psychic power and can be, some day, explained on a scientific basis when we learn more about the occult laws which govern these phenomena.
“But could anything render the threat less awful? For there have existed for centuries — perhaps always — a sect of Satanists determined upon the destruction of everything that is pure and holy and good on earth; and they are resolved to substitute for righteousness the dreadful reign of hell.
“In the beginning there were comparatively few of these human demons Gradually, through the eras, they have increased. In the twelfth century there were fifty thousand of the Sect of Assassins.
“Beside the castle of the Slayer of Souls on Mount Alamout —?” she laid her finger on the map —“eight other towers were erected for the Eight Chief Assassins, called Sheiks-el-Djebel.
“In the temple we were taught where these eight towers stood.” She picked up a pencil, and on eight blank spaces of unexplored and unmapped Mongolia she made eight crosses. Then she turned to the men behind her.
“It was taught to us in the temple that from these eight foci of infection the disease of evil had been spreading throughout the world; from these eight towers have gone forth every year the emissaries of evil — perverted missionaries — to spread the poisonous propaganda, to teach it, to tamper stealthily with the minds of men, dominate them, pervert them, instruct them in the creed of the Assassin of Souls.
“All over the world are people, already contaminated, whose minds are already enslaved and poisoned, and who are infecting the still healthy brains of others — stealthily possessing themselves of the minds of mankind — teaching them evil, inviting them to mock the precepts of Christ.
“Of such lost minds are the degraded brains of the Germans — the pastors and philosophers who teach that might is right.
“Of such crippled minds are the Bolsheviki, poisoned long, long ago by close contact with Asia which, before that, had infected and enslaved the minds of the ruling classes with ferocious philosophy.
“Of such minds are all anarchists of every shade and stripe — all terrorists, all disciples of violence — and murderously envious, the slothful slinking brotherhood which prowls though the world taking every opportunity to set it afire; those mentally dulled by reason of excesses; those weak intellects become unsound through futile gabble — parlour socialists, amateur revolutionists, theoretical incapables excited by discussion fit only for healthy minds.”
She left the map and came over to where the four men were seated terribly intent upon her every word.
“In the temple of Erlik, where my girlhood was passed after the murder of my parents, I learned what I am repeating to you,” she said.
“I learned this, also, that the Eight Towers still exist — still stand to-day — at least theoretically — and that from the Eight Towers pours forth across the world a stream of poison.
“I was told that, to every country, eight Yezidees were allotted — eight sorcerers — or adepts in scientific psychology if you prefer it — whose mission is to teach the gospel of hell and gradually but surely to win the minds of men to the service of the Slayer of Souls.
“That is what was taught us in the temple. We were educated in the development of occult powers — for it seems all human beings possess this psychic power latent within them — only few, even when instructed, acquire any ability to control and use this force . . .
“I— I learned — rapidly. I even thought, sometimes, that the Yezidees were beginning to be a little afraid of me — even the Hassani priests . . . And the Sheiks-el-Djebel, spreading their shrouds on the temple steps, looked at me with unquiet eyes, where I stood like a corpse amid the incense clouds —?”
She passed her fingers over her eyelids, then framed her face between both hands for a moment’s thought lost in tragic retrospection.
“Kai!” she whispered dreamily as though to herself —“what Erlik awoke within my body that was asleep, God knows, but it was as though a twin comrade arose within me and looked out through my eyes upon a world which never before had been visible.”
Utter silence reigned in the room: Cleves’s breathing seemed almost painful to him so intently was he listening and watching this girl; Benton’s hands whitened with his grip on the chair-arms; Selden, tense, absorbed, kept his keen gaze of a business man fastened on her face. Recklow slowly caressed the cold bowl of his pipe with both thumbs.
Tressa Norne’s strange and remote eyes subtly altered, and she lifted her head and looked calmly at the men before her.
“I think that there is nothing more for me to add,” she said. “The Red Spectre of Anarchy, called Bolshevism at present, threatens our country. Our Government is now awake to this menace and the Secret Service is moving everywhere.
“Great damage already had been done to the minds of many people in this Republic; poison has spread; is spreading. The Eight Towers still stand. The Eight Assassins are in America.
“But these eight Assassins know me to be their enemy . . . They will surely attempt to kill me . . . I don’t believe I can avoid — death — very long . . . But I want to serve my country and — and mankind.”
“They’ll have to get me first,” said Cleves, bluntly. “I shall not permit you out of my sight.”
Recklow said in a musing voice: “And these eight gentlemen, who are very likely to hurt us, also, are the first people we ought to hunt.”
“To get them,” added Selden, “we ought to choke the stream at its source.”
“To find out who they are is what is going to worry us,” added Benton. Cleves had stood holding a chair for Tressa Norne. Finally she noticed it and seated herself as though tired.
“Is Sanang one of these eight?” he asked her. The girl turned and looked up at him, and he saw the flush mounting in her face.
“Sometimes,” she said steadily, “I have almost believed he was Erlik’s own vice-regent on earth — the Slayer of Souls himself.”
Benton and Selden had gone. Recklow left a little later. Cleves accompanied him out to the landing.
“Are you going to keep Miss Norne here with you for the present?” inquired the older man.
“Yes. I dare not let her out of my sight, Recklow. What else can I do?”
“I don’t know. Is she prepared for the consequences?”
“I can get a housekeeper.”
“That only makes it look worse.”
Cleves reddened. “Well, do you want to find her in some hotel or apartment with her throat cut?”
“No,” replied Recklow, gently, “I do not.”
“Then what else is there to do but keep her here in my own apartment and never let her out of my sight until we can find and lock up the eight gentlemen who are undoubtedly bent on murdering her?”
“Isn’t there some woman in the Service who could help out? I could mention several.”
“I tell you I can’t trust Tressa Norne to anybody except myself,” insisted Cleves. “I got her into this; I am responsible if she is murdered; I dare not entrust her safety to anybody else. And, Recklow, it’s a ghastly responsibility for a man to induce a young girl to face death, even in the service of her country.”
“If she remains her alone with you she’ll face social destruction,” remarked Recklow.
Cleves was silent for a moment, then he burst out: “Well, what am I to do? What is there left for me to do except to watch over her and see her through this devilish business? What other way have I to protect her, Recklow?”
“You could offer her the protection of your name.” suggested the other, carelessly.
“What? You mean — marry her?”
“Well, nobody else would be inclined to, Cleves, if it ever becomes known she has lived here quite alone with you.”
Cleves stared at the elder man.
“This is nonsense,” he said in a harsh voice. “That young girl doesn’t want to marry anybody. Neither do I. She doesn’t wish to have her throat cut, that’s all. And I’m determined she shan’t.”
“There are stealthier assassins, Cleves — the slayers of reputations. It goes badly with their victims. It does indeed.”
“Well, hang it, what do you think I ought to do?”
“I think you ought to marry her if you’re going to keep her here.”
“Suppose she doesn’t mind the unconventionality of it?”
“All woman mind. No woman, at heart, is unconventional, Cleves.”
“She — she seems to agree with me that she ought to stay here . . . Besides, she has no money, no relatives, no friends in America —?”
“All the more tragic. If you really believe it to be your duty to keep her here where you can look after her bodily safety, then the other obligation is still heavier. And there may come a day when Miss Norne will wish that you had been less conscientious concerning the safety of her pretty throat . . . For the knife of the Yezidee is swifter and less cruel than the tongue that slays with a smile . . . And this young girl has many years to live, after this business of Bolshevism is dead and forgotten in our Republic.”
“You think I might dare try to find a room somewhere else for her and let her take her chances? Do you?”
“It’s your affair.”
“I know — hang it! I know it’s my affair. I’ve unintentionally made it so. But can’t you tell me what I ought to do?”
“What would you do?”
“Don’t ask me,” returned Recklow, sharply. “If you’re not man enough to come to a decision, you may turn her over to me.”
Cleves flushed brightly. “Do you think you are old enough to take my job and avoid scandal?”
Recklow’s cold eyes rested on him: “If you like,” he said, “I’ll assume your various kinds of personal responsibility toward Miss Norne.”
Cleves’s visage burned. “I’ll shoulder my own burdens,” he retorted.
“Sure. I knew you would.” And Recklow smiled and held out his hand. Cleves took it without cordiality. Standing so, Recklow, still smiling, said: “What a rotten deal that child has had — is having. Her father and mother were fine people. Did you ever hear of Dr. Norne?”
“She mentioned him once.”
“They were up-State people of most excellent antecedents and no money.
“Dr. Norne was our Vice–Consul at Yarkand in the province of Sin Kiang. All he had was his salary, and he lost that and his post when the administration changed. Then he went into the spice trade.
“Some Jew syndicate here sent him up the Yarkand River to see what could be done about jade and gold concessions. He was on that business when the tragedy happened. The Kalmucks and Khirghiz were responsible, under Yezidee instigation. And there you are:— and here is his child, Cleves — back, by some miracle, from that flowering hell called Yian, believing in her heart that she really lost her soul there in the temple. And now, here in her own native land, she is exposed to actual and hourly danger of assassination . . . Poor kid! . . . Did you ever hear of a rottener deal, Cleves?”
Their hands had remained clasped while Recklow was speaking. He spoke again, clearly, amiably:
“To lay down one’s life for a friend is fine. I’m not sure that it’s finer to offer one’s honour in behalf of a girl whose honour is at stake.”
After a moment Cleves’s grip tightened.
“All right,” he said.
Recklow went downstairs.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06