De Marigny and Phillips stared at the Hindoo as if hypnotized, while Aspinwall emitted a series of snorts and bellows. The old attorney’s disgust had by now surged into open rage and he pounded the table with an apoplectically veined fist. When he spoke, it was in a kind of bark.
“How long is this foolery to be borne? I’ve listened an hour to this madman — this faker — and now he has the damned effrontery to say Randolph Carter is alive — to ask us to postpone the settlement for no good reason! Why don’t you throw the scoundrel out, de Marigny? Do you mean to make us all the butts of a charlatan or idiot?”
De Marigny quietly raised his hand and spoke softly.
“Let us think slowly and dearly. This has been a very singular tale, and there are things in it which I, as a mystic not altogether ignorant, recognize as far from impossible. Furthermore — since 1930 I have received letters from the Swami which tally with his account.”
As he paused, old Mr. Phillips ventured a word.
“Swami Chandraputra spoke of proofs. I, too, recognize much that is significant in this story, and I have myself had many oddly corroborative letters from the Swami during the last two years; but some of these statements are very extreme. Is there not something tangible which can be shown?”
At last the impassive-faced Swami replied, slowly and hoarsely, and drawing an object from the pocket of his loose coat as he spoke.
“While none of you here has ever seen the silver key itself, Messrs. de Marigny and Phillips have seen photographs of it. Does this look familiar to you?”
He fumblingly laid on the table, with his large, white-mittened hand, a heavy key of tarnished silver — nearly five inches long, of unknown and utterly exotic workmanship, and covered from end to end with hieroglyphs of the most bizarre description. De Marigny and Phillips gasped.
“That’s it!” cried de Marigny. “The camera doesn’t lie. I couldn’t be mistaken!”
But Aspinwall had already launched a reply.
“Fools! What does it prove? If that’s really the key that belonged to my cousin, it’s up to this foreigner — this damned nigger — to explain how he got it! Randolph Carter vanished with the key four years ago. How do we know he wasn’t robbed and murdered? He was half crazy himself, and in touch with still crazier people.
“Look here, you nigger — where did you get that key? Did you kill Randolph Carter?”
The Swami’s features, abnormally placid, did not change; but the remote, irisless black eyes behind them blazed dangerously. He spoke with great difficulty.
“Please control yourself, Mr. Aspinwall. There is another form of proof that I could give, but its effect upon everybody would not be pleasant. Let us be reasonable. Here are some papers obviously written since 1930, and in the unmistakable style of Randolph Carter.”
He clumsily drew a long envelope from inside his loose coat and handed it to the sputtering attorney as de Marigny and Phillips watched with chaotic thoughts and a dawning feeling of supernal wonder.
“Of course the handwriting is almost illegible — but remember that Randolph Carter now has no hands well adapted to forming human script.”
Aspinwall looked through the papers hurriedly, and was visibly perplexed, but he did not change his demeanor. The room was tense with excitement and nameless dread and the alien rhythm of the coffin-shaped clock had an utterly diabolic sound to de Marigny and Phillips, though the lawyer seemed affected not at all.
Aspinwall spoke again. “These look like clever forgeries. If they aren’t, they may mean that Randolph Carter has been brought under the control of people with no good purpose. There’s only one thing to do — have this faker arrested. De Marigny, will you telephone for the police?”
“Let us wait,” answered their host. “I do not think this case calls for the police. I have a certain idea. Mr. Aspinwall, this gentleman is a mystic of real attainments. He says he is in the confidence of Randolph Carter. Will it satisfy you if he can answer certain questions which could be answered only by one in such confidence? I know Carter, and can ask such questions. Let me get a book which I think will make a good test.”
He turned toward the door to the library, Phillips dazedly following in a kind of automatic way. Aspinwall remained where he was, studying closely the Hindoo who confronted him with abnormally impassive face. Suddenly, as Chandraputra clumsily restored the silver key to his pocket the lawyer emitted a guttural shout.
“Hey, by Heaven I’ve got it! This rascal is in disguise. I don’t believe he’s an East Indian at all. That face — it isn’t a face, but a mask! I guess his story put that into my head, but it’s true. It never moves, and that turban and beard hide the edges. This fellow’s a common crook! He isn’t even a foreigner — I’ve been watching his language. He’s a Yankee of some sort. And look at those mittens — he knows his fingerprints could be spotted. Damn you, I’ll pull that thing off —”
“Stop!” The hoarse, oddly alien voice of the Swami held a tone beyond all mere earthly fright “I told you there was another form of proof which I could give if necessary, and I warned you not to provoke me to it. This red-faced old meddler is right; I’m not really an East Indian. This face is a mask, and what it covers is not human. You others have guessed — I felt that minutes ago. It wouldn’t be pleasant if I took that mask off — let it alone. Ernest, I may as well tell you that I am Randolph Carter.”
No one moved. Aspinwall snorted and made vague motions. De Marigny and Phillips, across the room, watched the workings of the red face and studied the back of the turbaned figure that confronted him. The clock’s abnormal ticking was hideous and the tripod fumes and swaying arras danced a dance of death. The half-choking lawyer broke the silence.
“No you don’t, you crook — you can’t scare me! You’ve reasons of your own for not wanting that mask off. Maybe we’d know who you are. Off with it —”
As he reached forward, the Swami seized his hand with one of his own clumsily mittened members, evoking a curious cry of mixed pain and surprise. De Marigny started toward the two, but paused confused as the pseudo-Hindoo’s shout of protest changed to a wholly inexplicable rattling and buzzing sound. Aspinwall’s red face was furious, and with his free hand he made another lunge at his opponent’s bushy beard. This time he succeeded in getting a hold, and at his frantic tug the whole waxen visage came loose from the turban and clung to the lawyer’s apoplectic fist.
As it did so, Aspinwall uttered a frightful gurgling cry, and Phillips and de Marigny saw his face convulsed with a wilder, deep and more hideous epilepsy of stark panic than ever they had seen on human countenance before. The pseudo-Swami had meanwhile released his other hand and was standing as if dazed, making buzzing noises of a most abnormal quality. Then the turbaned figure slumped oddly into a posture scarcely human, and began a curious, fascinated sort of shuffle toward the coffin-shaped clock that ticked out its cosmic and abnormal rhythm. His now uncovered face was turned away, and de Marigny and Phillips could not see what the lawyer’s act had disclosed. Then their attention was turned to Aspinwall, who was sinking ponderously to the floor. The spell was broken — but when they reached the old man he was dead.
Turning quickly to the shuffling Swami’s receding back, de Marigny saw one of the great white mittens drop listlessly off a dangling arm. The fumes of the olibanum were thick, and all that could be glimpsed of the revealed hand was something long and black . . . Before the Creole could reach the retreating figure, old Mr. Phillips laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t!” he whispered, “We don’t know what we’re up against. That other facet, you know — Zkauba, the wizard of Yaddith . . . ”
The turbaned figure had now reached the abnormal clock, and the watchers saw though the dense fumes a blurred black claw fumbling with the tall, hieroglyphed door. The fumbling made a queer, clicking sound. Then the figure entered the coffin-shaped case and pulled the door shut after it.
De Marigny could no longer be restrained, but when he reached and opened the clock it was empty. The abnormal ticking went on, beating out the dark, cosmic rhythm which underlies all mystical gate-openings. On the floor the great white mitten, and the dead man with a bearded mask clutched in his hand, had nothing further to reveal.
A year passed, and nothing has been heard of Randolph Carter. His estate is still unsettled. The Boston address from which one “Swami Chandraputra” sent inquiries to various mystics in 1930–31-32 was indeed tenanted by a strange Hindoo, but he left shortly before the date of the New Orleans conference and has never been seen since. He was said to be dark, expressionless, and bearded, and his landlord thinks the swarthy mask — which was duly exhibited — looked very much like him. He was never, however, suspected of any connection with the nightmare apparitions whispered of by local Slavs. The hills behind Arkham were searched for the “metal envelope,” but nothing of the sort was ever found. However, a clerk in Arkham’s First National Bank does recall a queer turbaned man who cashed an odd bit of gold bullion in October, 1930.
De Marigny and Phillips scarcely know what to make of the business. After all, what was proved?
There was a story. There was a key which might have been forged from one of the pictures Carter had freely distributed in 1928. There were papers — all indecisive. There was a masked stranger, but who now living saw behind the mask? Amidst the strain and the olibanum fumes that act of vanishing in the clock might easily have been a dual hallucination. Hindoos know much of hypnotism. Reason proclaims the “Swami” a criminal with designs on Randolph Carter’s estate. But the autopsy said that Aspinwall had died of shock. Was it rage alone which caused it? And some things in that story . . .
In a vast room hung with strangely figured arras and filled with olibanum fumes, Etienne Laurent de Marigny often sits listening with vague sensations to the abnormal rhythm of that hieroglyphed, coffin-shaped clock.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57