Citadel of Fear, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XV

The Third Visitation

THE racket so startled its originator that he leaped backward, collided with a taboret, and sent that over. The oblongs of light in the southern wall vanished abruptly. Further stealth was absurdly useless. Colin flung himself at the door, wrenched it open and, reaching upward, snapped on the general light switch of the veranda. It sprang into dazzling visibility, but no one was there.

Colin made sure of its emptiness in one swift look that included the space beneath a large table and a wicker divan, snapped off the light — he had no desire to form a mark for bullets — and was at the outer door.

It stood ajar as he had left it. Outside, the darkness was nearly as impenetrable as within the house, but for that there was a remedy. Opening a concealed steel switch-box, Colin pulled a lever and sprang down the steps. The lever completed the circuit for several powerful lamps about the grounds, and by their aid he began a search which he felt in the beginning would be fruitless.

He had only himself to blame. The unknown foe had walked into the trap, so he told himself, and his own careless foot had kicked it open.

Raging, he darted from tree-shadow to tree-shadow, cautious even in his fury, but lawns, gardens, and outbuildings were empty as the veranda itself. For any signs to the contrary, that dim irradiation of the windows might have been a product of his over-stimulated imagination.

“The cowards — the sneaking, crawling cowards!” he muttered angrily. “Afraid of the noise of a tin pot or so! ’Tis myself has a notion to give them no further attention!”

But as he flung himself into a chair in the living-room he knew that he would sit there the balance of the night, nourishing the hope that again those two windows might slowly, uncannily illuminate themselves. They did, but it was by the matter-of-fact light of a desolate dawn.

Disgustedly Colin replaced his too-efficient burglar-alarms in the kitchen, undressed, got into bed, and slept soundly until nearly noon.

“It’s busted, but I didn’t do it, Mr. O’Hara. It was laying broke on the floor when I come in!”

“That? Where were you finding it?”

Colin’s brows knit as he took from his housekeeper the shattered object of her protestation.

“I tell you it was laying on the veranda floor when I come in. Honest, I never even seen it before, Mr. O’Hara!”

Mrs. Bollinger’s lean, corded hands twisted themselves nervously in her apron. Though no ceramic expert, there was a quaint beauty about the broken manikin that warned her of possible value.

“H-m!” ejaculated Colin. “It must have been left here with the rest of the furniture when we took Cliona away — though I can’t remember seeing it about. All right, Mrs. Bollinger, I likely knocked it down myself last night.”

When she had gone he stood for some minutes eyeing the image in his hands. The poor little “Lord of the Air” had certainly found bad fortune in the alien land to which Colin had brought him.

First he had lost his serpent crook, and now the round, feather-trimmed shield on the other arm had been broken off, arm and all. Yet still he smiled [with] patient benignity.

“’Tis odd,” muttered Colin, “that I never saw you standing about in the veranda, little man. It’s a wonderful faculty you have for being broke in the midst of a mystery! Well, your bit of staff is gone for good, but the shield and arm here can be restored to you, and shall be for the sake of the dream you will always bring to memory. Smile away, little man! Cement will work miracles!”

With a whimsical smile he set the image and its broken part on a shelf and promptly forgot them both. That there could be any actual connection between the Lord of the Air and their troubles at the bungalow never once occurred to him. How should it? Dream or reality, that strange night of so long ago had held nothing for him that could have led him to suspect the truth — a nightmare, dreadful truth for whose discovery he was at the last to pay a heavy price.

When a full fortnight had slipped by, its monotony unrelieved, Colin’s patience wore decidedly threadbare. He did not at all like this game of waiting and watching.

He dared make no new acquaintances, and rebuffed what advances were offered him. Afternoons and evenings he spent in reading, or in taking long tramps through the autumn woods, while at all times he kept a sharp lookout for any clue, small or large, that might serve to simplify his problem.

But September passed, and October struck the woods to sharp reds and gold, and still he had discovered nothing. The time began to drag intolerably. What people he met looked at him with irritating curiosity, born of his unusual appearance and solitary habits.

The last week of October crept in. The thick foliage that hid the bungalow was beginning to thin in places, and the lawns were a-rustle with bright leaves, when that occurred which led Colin to take renewed hope of his long vigil.

The sun had set, a blood-red ball behind the purple autumn haze, and Colin stepped out of his front door to take a few long breaths of the crispy cool night air. Then he would go in to the lonely and ill-cooked dinner which Mrs. Bollinger had laid out before departing for the night.

That good woman glanced back through the twilight at the dark mass of screening foliage that still concealed the bungalow, and went her way with many shakes of the head and a hastening step. It was already night beneath the trees that overhung her road.

“The poor man will have to get some one else to wait on him,” she reflected as she hurried along, “or else I must leave earlier. It’s all right for him to live in a house that the devil visited, if he likes that sort of thing. But goodness knows, Mr. O’Hara is big enough to thrash even Satan himself, but I’ll never stay in that house again after dark, no matter how bad we need the money. And I’ll tell him so tomorrow morning, first thing. There was that rustling in the trees last night as I went home, and I was a perfect fool to stay so late — oh!”

The woman suddenly picked up her skirts and fled like a rheumatic but badly frightened deer. A little distance from the road there had begun a great rustling and crackling of fallen leaves, and at the same time something whizzed through the air and struck her a painful blow on the cheek.

The missile was only a chestnut burr, but its sharp prickles more than made up for its light weight. Poor Mrs. Bollinger dashed into Carpentier at a gallop, under the firm impression that she had been shot in the face by a rifle bullet.

Her story, however, was somewhat skeptically met. A bullet is supposed to leave some visible mark of its passage, and anyway no neighbor of hers was quite neighborly enough to care for investigating those dark woods with their evil reputation. So the injured lady retrieved her children from the care of a friend and retired to her home, nursing a stung face and the firm resolve that not even daylight should tempt her to return to the bungalow on the hill.

Colin strode up and down the macadamized drive, beneath the arching trees. He had that day received his first letter from Cliona, which had gone the long route to Buenos Aires and back, remailed by the faithful Charles Finn.

She was much better, it seemed, in fact practically well, but Tony babied her dreadfully, and they were going down to St. Augustine the first of December. They missed him, Colin, very much indeed, but she presumed and hoped that he was happy and having a good time.

She supposed by now he must be well on his way across the Pampas. In that case this letter might never reach him, but she hoped it would so that he might know how well she was and enjoy his chosen road untroubled by care for her. Tony sent his love with hers, and Snookums had caught a rat, but it bit him and got away. She hoped he would think of her sometimes, and remember that she was always his faithfully loving sister, Cliona Rhodes.

“Now, why,” said Colin as he paused beneath a spreading oak and kicked at the dry leaves with an impatient foot, “why Cliona Rhodes? That’s the first time she was ever any other than just Cliona, or maybe Cli, to her poor runabout brother. And I wonder, have I left Buenos Aires or no? If I have not, ‘twould be an easy matter to lay up poor Charley with a broken leg and postpone the expedition; or myself with a fever requiring immediate return that I be cured of it.

“I’m thinking the O’Hara has made a fool of himself. Now, will he be the bigger fool to stay here, or to throw up the whole business and return for a pleasant reconciliation with this Cliona Rhodes that’s so formal of a sudden with her only born brother?”

He pondered a while longer, then threw back his red head in a gesture of decision. What that decision may have been is immaterial, for just then something rustled the boughs above him with a violent, crashing motion, and two enormous, hairy hands closed in a strangling grip about the Irishman’s throat.

Colin had so, nearly resigned any hope of being attacked, and had so little reason to expect attack to descend upon him out of a tree and at that early hour of the night, that he came near to being strangled before he could realize what was taking place.

The hands that had gripped him were unnaturally long and sinewy. The fingers overlapped on his by-no-means slender throat as his own might have twined about the neck of a child. And as they squeezed inward they pulled upward. Colin’s two hundred and thirty pounds of bone and muscle actually rose into the air, till only his toes touched the ground.

He enjoyed all the sensations of a man being unexpectedly hanged, and as such a man would grasp at the rope over his head, so his hands flew up to seize the thing above him.

His fingers closed on shaggy hair over iron-hard muscles. The blood was pounding in his ears, and the transparent darkness brightened to a red, star-spangled mist. If it had been a rope about his neck, his effort to raise himself might have relieved the strain, but in this case the rope was alive and squeezing inward with murderous intent.

Fortunately for Colin, though his assailant was strong enough to raise his victim clean off the ground, the tree limb which supported the operation was less efficient. As Colin struggled there came a sharp, loud crack. Next instant he was down on the macadam, part of a frantic, writhing tangle of legs, arms, and the dry bough that had saved his life by breaking.

The fall loosened his assailant’s hold and they met on equal terms. Over and over they rolled, the Irishman breathing in great gasps as he at first strove only to keep those terrible hands from regaining their grip on his throat.

Devil or man or monkey, it was the strongest, most thoroughly energetic antagonist he had ever encountered. It had been silent, but now it was snarling in a slobbering, avid sort of way that made Colin’s gorge rise in disgust even as he fought.

But his own strength was fast returning, and with one mighty effort he tore the great thing loose, flung it back off his body, and got to his feet, half crouched and straining his eyes through the gloom.

A pale bulk rose at him in a long leap, its grasping arms outstretched. With the quickness of a trained wrestler Colin caught one of the wrists in both his hands, turned his back, and with the arm over one shoulder bore down with all his force.

There was a cracking noise, as when the branch snapped off, but not so loud, accompanied by a snarl of pain. The white thing came flying over Colin’s head and landed with a heavy thud on the macadam before him.

Releasing his hold on the arm, he grasped at the body of his victim, but the creature evaded him. Showing remarkable activity, in view of its broken arm and the bad fall it had sustained, the thing was on its feet in an instant, rustling and pattering across the leaf-strewn lawn with Colin in furious pursuit.

The latter was unarmed. Though he had brought with him to the bungalow a large-caliber pistol whose bullets would pierce a four-inch hardwood plank, he had, quite characteristically, never even removed it from his suitcase. Each night he had sat watchful, content in the confidence of his own great strength, but now he wished with all his heart that he had the weapon with him.

Had the season been summer, the fugitive might have easily escaped. Beneath the scattered trees it was dark as a cellar, and only the creature’s own whiteness made it dimly visible in the starlit open spaces. But the dry leaves of autumn traced its progress, and though Colin ran against more than one tree-trunk and had to stop occasionally to distinguish the noise of its flight from his own he managed to follow down the hill, across Llewellyn Creek, and into some denser woods beyond.

There began an increased rustling and a crashing of boughs ahead. Colin realized that his former assailant had left the ground and was swinging itself from bough to bough through the forest.

To follow farther seemed folly. Nevertheless, the Irishman kept doggedly on, following the trail of noise and never getting very far behind it. Perhaps its broken arm retarded the creature’s speed. At any rate, though he stumbled among vines, tore his clothes and flesh on briers, climbed fences, fell headlong over rotting logs, and generally suffered great personal inconvenience, the pursuer kept always within hearing distance of the pursued.

It was heart-breaking work. Only a man of supernal strength, stamina, and stubbornness could have held to that mad hunt, mile after mile, as did Colin O’Hara.

The fugitive avoided houses, and for that reason they by no means went as the crow flies. Several times they crossed roads, and once Colin dashed across a turnpike just in front of a whizzing automobile. The driver slowed to look back and swear, but Colin had neither time nor attention to spare for his grievance. On, on, on, and still ahead of him the October foliage betrayed that wild flight from tree-top to leaf-strewn glade, and up to the branches again.

Colin had lost all sense of direction. Save for the occasional roads and fences they crossed, and judged by the route they had come, this section of suburbia one vast and trackless forest. Colin was no mean woodsman, but never before had he explored such an apparent wilderness, through black night and at so breathless a pace.

He had begun to believe that the chase would never end, and that so long as he followed the untiring thing ahead would flee, when the noise ceased. Stopping in his tracks he listened intently. Only the small, usual sounds of night broke the stillness, the chirp of a late cricket, the thud of a ripe chestnut burr falling to the ground and far away a honking auto horn.

Had his quarry taken counsel of common sense and hidden itself in a treetop? If so, then the chase was indeed ended. In that darkness, without dogs or torches, he could not hope to find its hiding place.

Again Colin began to move forward as silently and swiftly as he might, still listening for any significant rustle before or above him. He came to a deep ditch, just missed falling into it, leaped across and found himself on a broad, smooth road, electrically illuminated at wide intervals.

An explanation of the silence occurred to him. This road was practically bare of the telltale leaves. Was it possible that the fugitive had left the false protection of the trees and taken to the road? If so, in which direction had it gone?

To the right, far down the way, a pale, squat bulk glided into view, slinking on short-bowed legs — into the light of a lamp and out again like a fleeting white shadow.

Colin gave vent to a wild hallo and dashed in pursuit. He caught occasional glimpses of the thing ahead as it passed beneath the road-lamps, and thought that he was at last gaining ground. In a foot-race, over smooth going, the creature of the trees had the worst of it. The road curved, crossed a stream, and a high stone wall replaced the forest on the left-hand side.

Scarcely the length of a city square now separated the Irishman from his quarry. Then he saw it pause directly beneath a lamp, a semihuman shape, and shake one long, thin arm at him, as if in defiance. The other hung limp at its side.

Colin shouted again and increased his speed. His feet pounded over the hard oiled road in giant strides, but again the creature flitted from the circle of light, this time to one side.

Colin pulled up and came on more slowly, for a shrill bell was ringing somewhere behind the wall. There followed a rattle, a clang as of iron, and then the creaking of hinges. A voice spoke, mumbling indistinctly, and Colin arrived at a pair of wrought-iron gates just in time to have them shut in his face with a vicious clang.

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