Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XI

The Red-Black Trail

A DEEP swoon is the anesthetic that Mother Nature offers her children when horror or pain becomes too great for bearing. Cliona’s faint of terror passed into natural sleep, and when she at last opened her eyes the goblin-be-friendly moon had been ousted by the honest sun, and the room was yellow-bright with reflected light from a morning all cheer and sunshine.

She became aware that a small tongue was licking at her face, and that someone was pounding lustily on the locked door. For a moment her brain refused any explanation of why she should be crouching there on the rug, with a joyful puppy wriggling beside her.

“Mrs. Rhodes! Mrs. Rhodes, ma’am! Oh, my God, are you killed?”

The veil lifted from Cliona’s memory, and shaking off Snookums she struggled to rise — in doing so, one hand fell on some hard, irregular object, and looking she saw that it was the bright-colored image that had been brought her from Mexico. In her fall she must have brushed it from the table.

The godling’s flat face smiled up as benignly as ever, but the serpent-headed crook it had grasped was gone. Only a thin fragment of porcelain standing out on either side of the clenched fist showed where the staff had been broken off.

In a dull, detached way Cliona regretted this damage to Colin’s gift. She even thought of searching for the shattered pieces, with an idea that they might be cemented together again.

But the hammering on the door was too insistent. Staggering up, she went to unlock it.

By the condition of that door the events of the night had been no dream. The lock and one hinge held it partly shut, but the upper hinge had been torn out, splitting a long piece off the jamb; the door itself was split half-way down from the top, and — yes, there was the very place where the white claw had pierced through, and the round, neat holes drilled by her bullets.

Cliona had time to observe these things, for at first the key refused to turn. Finally, however, the strained lock yielded and with some trouble she got the door open.

There stood Marjory King, gasping with terror and anxiety. As soon as Cliona could entangle herself from the large embrace in which she was received, she stepped past, took one look about the living-room, and sat down with a gasp on the side of an overturned chair.

As might have been expected, the place was no more than a spoiled wreck of the cozy, homelike room she had left the night before. But the disorder and breakage were by no means all.

On the floor just outside her room was a great pool of black, half coagulated blood, and from that pool a line of similiar dark blotches led through the arch into the dining-room.

Cliona could not conceive how any creature that had bled so profusely could have lived even to drag itself from sight. The outer side of her door was literally ripped to flinders, and the door itself gashed and torn as though some mad carpenter had been at work there. The furniture was all upset, and most of it hopelessly smashed.

“Mrs. Rhodes,” questioned Marjory, “who was here last night?”

Cliona shook her head. It ached, and she felt very dull and stupid. That odor of musk still permeated the air, though faintly.

“I don’t know. Snookums, come here!”

The pup had emerged from the bedroom and was sniffing cautiously at the horrible, blackening stuff on the floor. He wore a very chastened expression, quite unlike his usual devil-may-care cocksureness. Cliona took him in her lap and looked wistfully at the cook.

“I wish I’d minded you and gone in to the city, Marjory. Tell me, have you looked about the place at all?”

“Indeed, no, Mrs. Rhodes. I had the key you give me and I come in through the front door and the veranda. Everything was right there, but when I seen this room, and when I seen that blood and that door, thinks I, ‘Mrs. Rhodes has been murdered!’”

“It’s the mercy of Heaven I wasn’t,” conceded Cliona simply. “Where is David?”

“At the station. They have a big crate down there that must be the sun-dial Mr. Rhodes was ordering. And they operated on our boy last night, ma’am, and they do say he’ll get well, after all. But, oh, ma’am, if you should see him it would bring the tears to your eyes. So white, and — and — he knew me, ma’am — and —— ”

She was wiping her eyes with the black cotton gloves she carried, and Cliona realized that others than herself had been under a heavy strain the previous night, though of a different sort.

“Poor, poor Marjory!” she cried impulsively. “Forgive me, my dear, for a selfish, heedless little cat that I never asked you for the word of your son! Would you not like to return to the city that you may be near the poor lad?”

“No, indeed, ma’am!” Marjory swallowed her sobs with sudden heroism. “Leavin’ you alone last night was bad enough in all conscience, though Lord knows what happened here. I’m sure you ain’t told me nothing yet. But right by you I stick now till Mr. Rhodes and your brother gets back. My goodness, they’ll be wild when they know!”

Cliona slipped on a kimono and slippers, started for the dining room. The cook followed Both women stepped carefully to avoid setting foot in the blood.

The dining-room was worse than the other, if possible, and still the trail led on, through the pantry, the kitchen, the summer-kitchen, and out the back door. That was clawed like Cliona’s, and burst entirely from its fastenings so that it lay flat. She reflected that the crashing in of that door must have been the sound that was ringing through her brain when the dog awakened her in the night.

Over it the creature had evidently passed on its outward way, still shedding its gore with incredible generosity, out into the yard, past the garage, across green lawns, and down the hill, and still Cliona followed the ghastly trail.

She forgot that she was attired only in a nightgown, kimono and bedroom slippers. She was conscious of nothing but a horrible and growing curiosity as to what possible or impossible beast might lie at the trail’s end.

That it was dead seemed certain. No known creature could shed such gallons of blood and live long. The bare fact that no known creature could shed such gallons of blood, whether it continued to live or no, had not yet become apparent to her mind. Her usually acute brain was fogged by terror and the nerve-strain of a shock whose full effects she was yet to feel.

Marjory knew it, however, with a certainty that was rapidly turning her mind to all the horrors of the supernatural. But her best efforts to induce her mistress to return to the house were vain. Cliona told the cook to go back if she pleased. For herself, she was going right along now until she found — it. At last the two women came to the foot of the hill and the boundary line of Rhodes’ estate — Llewellyn Creek.

And there the trail ended in a muck of crimson-streaked mud, as if the creature had rolled and splashed therein the ultimate convulsions of death.

But of the creature itself there was no other sign.

The far bank was green, peaceful, undisturbed The trail simply ended in the creek-bed, and the little stream flowed happily along, sparkling and chuckling as though it could have told an astonishing thing or two, had it felt at all inclined.

It suddenly occurred to Cliona that she had stood staring blankly at the crimson mud for a long, long time. She turned dull, troubled eyes upon Marjory.

“Send —— ”

She stopped Her throat was oddly constricted, as by an agony of unfelt grief. Mentally she was conscious of no emotion, but she experienced that feeling which overtakes a fever patient, as though mind and body were wholly detached from one another, or connected only by threads of gossamer, and those threads swiftly breaking. Again she tried to speak:

“Send — Tony —— ”

Then the green and gold world swirled into blackness, and had Marjory not caught her she would have subsided into the brook. But the cook was a big, strong woman. Lifting Cliona like a child, she bore the small, unconscious form up the hill and into the house.

There was David, agape at the wreckage.

“Never mind staring!” she cried at him sharply. “Go back down the hill as fast as ever you can. Have a doctor here and phone in a telegram to Mr. Rhodes. You’ll get him at the Hotel Metropole. I heard him tell that to this poor child yesterday. Tell him he’s wanted at home as quick as he can get here. Move, now!”

David, though burning up with curiosity, deemed it wise to obey the keen urge in his wife’s voice. He knew her for a capable woman, better able than he to meet emergencies, and as Marjory laid her burden gently on the bed she heard him go out of the door and down the steps in two long strides.

“Lord knows what will be the end of this,” she muttered as she removed Cliona’s slippers, “or what Mr. Rhodes will say or do when he comes home. It was the devil himself that was here last night, I’ll swear to it. Not any creature that God ever made — no! The poor child! And her all alone here to meet it!”

“Come home quick,” read the wire. “Mrs. Rhodes bad hurt — burglars or something. David B. King.”

David was not a person of tact. His message had been kept within the ten words he knew to be a telegram’s proper length, and it fairly covered the situation as he knew it. But it drove the unlucky recipients into torments of speculative dread.

The telegram was handed to Rhodes at the Hotel Metropole two hours after its receipt there, when the two men returned to the hotel for luncheon, and not bothering with the car, they caught the first fast express for home.

At Carpentier they dropped from the train while it was still moving and made straight for the hill.

To their amazement, as they ascended the winding, tree-shaded road, they began to pass people, men, women, and children. The road was private, and what they were doing here its owner could not conceive. Most of the faces seemed unfamiliar, and they were too many by far to be only the inhabitants of Carpentier.

Rhodes stopped to make no inquiries, though had he and Colin not been too preoccupied to buy a paper on the train, the head-lines would have offered an explanation.

It was then mid-afternoon. David had notified the central police-station early that morning, and the reporters had allowed no grass to grow under them nor waited for details. The bare story, as it stood, had been sufficient to attract every idle, horror-loving mortal who had the price of the half-hour’s railroad journey to Carpentier.

Glancing back, Rhodes and O’Hara perceived that more chattering, curious folk, who had arrived on the same train with themselves, were following.

But the two asked no questions, even of each other. Shouldering their way through the throng, they at last reached the bungalow, only to be barred from its door by the blue-uniformed figure of a policeman on guard there.

“Get out of this!” His tone was that of an officer sorely tried. “Can’t you reporter fellows get enough copy without tryin’ to butt into the house itself? Mrs. Rhodes can’t see nobody.”

“She can see me,” said Rhodes between his teeth “I am her husband. What has happened here?”

“Never mind what’s happened,” growled O’Hara. “We’ve years to find that out, and — Cliona may be wanting us!”

Rhodes obeyed his orders dumbly. He felt suddenly very ill, and as he passed through the veranda he had to support himself by grasping at the chairs.

Colin followed him into the living-room, where they received a vague impression of wrecked furniture, restored to some semblance of order or stacked in a corner, heaped over with a ruined pile of beautiful, blood-stained rugs.

But their real attention was focused on the strange lady in a white uniform who met them with raised brows and inquiring, hostile eyes. In the back of his mind Rhodes knew that none of this was real. This was some other man’s home, not his. His home was a quiet, untroubled place, with Cliona waiting there to smile a welcome; with no throngs of strangers trampling its lawns, no police at the door, nor strange, white-capped women in uniform to meet him in a wrecked room stained with blood.

And through the thought he heard his own voice asking:

“For God’s sake, what has happened to my wife?”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00