Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter VIII.


To demand is very well, and not difficult for any one who is young, forceful, and keyed almost to breaking point by circumstances which in the normal course of a normal person’s life have no right to be. To endorse those demands may or may not be quite so easy. In Mr. Jesse J. Robinson, for instance, the demander of anything whatever, reasonable or otherwise, was likely to find a resistance more than proportionate to the force in action against it.

Dr. Vanaman was young, strong-willed, and resolute. But at the end of that interview he knew that he had merely dashed himself against the steel of a will not only the full equal of his own strength, but having the advantage of a ruthless cunning to which he could by no means lay claim.

He had fancied that his feeling for Leilah, a secret almost from his own soul, was unsuspected by her uncle. Now he learned differently. Keen hawk-eyes had seen much more than they appeared to, and, at this first real rebellion of the slave he had taken unto himself, old Robinson tightened his grip in a very disconcerting manner.

“So ye won’t stay by me without I satisfy your prying curiosity, eh? Ye’ll leave me to fight my own battles this very night, without I account for the foolishness of them two durn fools, Blair and Lutz, and tell ye, besides, all I know about this here?”

His grasping claws caressed the green box, and his voice rose in snarling triumph. “All right! Clear out, then, ye wuthless, quittin’ whelp! Leilah and me, we can git on without ye! Leilah’s a Robinson and the Old Nick himself, hoofs, horns, tail, and brimstone, can’t make a quitter of that gal!

“Skeered, maybe; yes. But she’ll stick by her old Uncle Jesse till Tophet freezes. You’re sweet on that gal. Oh, yes, ye are, now; d’ye think old Jesse Robinson’s a fool to believe ye’ve took a job that drags ye through hell every night, and kep’ it even this long for any other reason?

“Well, then! Ye want Leilah should hev your job o’ watching by me? I warn ye, that’s what’ll happen if ye quit. I can trust Leilah, and I’ve learnt I can trust you; but ‘fore the Lord, there ain’t another body living I’d want to take chances on trusting to watch by me right now! One of ye two I will hev beside me. Which is it to be? You or — Leilah?”

“I’ll stay,” conceded Vanaman rather hoarsely.

“Course ye will” sneered the other, and added with one of his steely, flashing glances: “That don’t mean ye’ll git Leilah, neither, mind. I aim to hev that gal marry somebody wuth while!”

The doctor set his teeth and fairly ground his temper under his heel. There was small point to be gained by giving rein to it. He had his choice: to hand over the full burden of those dreadful nights to the woman of the moonlight hair; or himself to carry on, and bear as best might be the gross insults which went with the singular service. He realized that Robinson was speaking again.

“Now we’ve got that all settled, I’ll tell ye something, doctor. It’s for your own good I ain’t making the full truth known to ye. Blair knows it. Lutz knew part of it. I know as much as Blair. We three, I’m free to admit, hev all had some cause to worry. But Blair and Lutz and me, we’ve been in this thing a way that you nor Leilah ain’t, and as long as ye jest obey orders and keep from pryin’ too deep and don’t git skeered of what can’t really hurt ye, you’re safe as a church and ye won’t be buyin’ any white horses, neither.

“Not but what white horses are good enough in a way. I named them two as fools, but I dunno but in Lutz’s place or Blair’s, I might try the same thing myself — mebbe. My own position’s right different from theirs now, though. It ain’t white horses he wants from me. He’s like old Jesse Robinson; that’s why I’ve got such a lot of respect for him and am kind of enjoying our little meet-up. His motto’s the same as mine. What he wants he gets, and what he gets he keeps. All except this here box, and he’s kinda lost his grip on this, eh? Well, then!”

“Mr. Robinson,” broke in the doctor, rising suddenly. “I do know why those white horses were bought, and I understand better than you think what it is you believe you’re fighting. But whatever the history of the box — for whatever reason it is haunted by hallucination for those who own or are near it — the belief you hold is madness! Such things cannot be.

“Lutz went literally mad over the same delusion you cherish; you know how he ended. Blair is going the same road soon, or I mistook the look in his eyes to-day. For Heaven’s sake, man, pull up before it’s too late, and you and I and perhaps even that lovely young woman your niece — follow those other two! What you believe in is illusion — folly — outrageous superstition! But the real truth, whatever it is, has produced in that box an accursed thing. Get rid of it! Break it to pieces, or cast it into the sea if you prefer —”

He checked, amazed even yet by the really frightful anger which his tyrant’s face was capable of expressing. The knotted brows writhed above eyes like points of blue fire; the beak-shaped nose seemed to curve more sharp and cruel, while out of that fanged, oblong aperture, his mouth, issued a sound that was not articulate, but the wordless savage warning of a predacious creature.

Before the torrent of objurgation he knew would follow could be uttered, Vanaman wheeled and left the study. He had failed, and must make the best of it, but he felt the need of getting a better grip on his own temper before taking any more of Robinson’s uncalled-for abuse.

That night all up and down the Atlantic coast raged a storm such as even winter seldom looses, and from Nova Scotia to the Florida Keys the sea was flung, ravening upon the helpless land. The frail defenses of man went down before it, and in many a supposedly safe harbor, and in many a flooded coast town, the green hissing marauder claimed toll of human life.

Up the Delaware swept such a tide as she had not known in all her history, and the lower part of even Tremont, over fifty miles from the coast, was inundated by its far-flung rage. At Kensington, a few miles beyond, some of the great manufacturing plants were completely flooded. The Robinson Brothers’ Engine Works suffered heavily, and next day the latter’s amiable owner, after an early telephone call from the general manager at the plant, found occasion to express very forcible annoyance.

It was Sunday, but unlikely to be a day of rest for any one connected with the engine works. A large government contract stood in danger of being tied up, and Robinson, after a hurried breakfast, flung out of the house and into his car with the expressed determination to “git that water drained off if I have to murder a few of them wuthless loafers who want to lay around and twiddle their thumbs and wait. Wait! Damn ’em! They’d wait till the cussed Delaware dries up, and me losin’ money every day.”

He was gone, and a certain atmosphere of relief enfolded the house he had vacated.

For Leilah and Dr. Vanaman, however, the relief was not so great as it might have been had they not been left to guard a blue-green, polished, beautiful enigma, the very sight of which they both loathed. Again its owner had extracted a solemn promise from his resentful but trustworthy slave not to let the box for one instant out of his sight and keeping.

“The cussed thing is mine,” he had emphasized. “It’s not Leilah’s, and it ain’t yours. Understand that, and —”

“If you have any mad idea that I want to claim ownership in it —” began the doctor indignantly, but Robinson had cut him short.

“Ye plaguey fool, no!” he snapped. “Shet up and listen. This box is mine. You and Leilah, you’re jest agents of mine, and though you’re responsible to me ye ain’t responsible to — to somebody that used to hev this box and is actin’ up mighty dangerous trying to git it back. Don’t ye ever dasst think of it as anybody’s but mine; then I reckon you’re safe enough. Fergit that warning and I won’t guarantee nothing. Understand?”

“You know that I do not — not fully. But I shall remember what you said,” Vanaman told him.

After Robinson had gone the day passed quietly enough until mid-afternoon, when the door-bell rang and presently the butler brought Vanaman a card.

“Show the lady into the library, Frisby,” he instructed, after a moment’s contemplation. “And ask Miss Robinson if she will be so very good as to join me there at her convenience.”

He descended, taking the box with him, and when a few minutes later Leilah appeared in the library she found him conversing with a tall, angular, determined-looking woman dressed in black. Her iron-grey hair was fairly strained back under an old-fashioned black bonnet, and the stern severity of her countenance would have been rather appalling, had it not been relieved by a pair of very kindly, bright brown eyes, so like the doctor’s own that Leilah instantly and correctly surmised blood relationship.

“Miss Robinson, I would like you to know my aunt, Miss Fellowes. This, Aunt Jane, is the young lady who, as I wrote you, shares with me the desire to see a very curious problem solved.”

“And as soon as I had Jack’s letter I came straight on,” announced the visitor, in tones as positive as her appearance.

“That was extremely kind of you, and I am very pleased to make the acquaintance of a relative of Dr. Vanaman.”

Leilah spoke cordially, though inwardly bewildered. Was this the “person in New York” to whom he had referred as necessary to the second plan, which he would have preferred not to take? If so, what was that plan, and why had he hesitated over it? But as the conversation proceeded, her naturally quick intuition divined the reason well enough, and in connection with any other matter than the green box she might have found it just a little bit amusing.

Dr. Vanaman’s aunt was a spiritualist, and not only that, but a spiritualist of the most pronounced and aggressive school.

That “Jack,” who according to his aunt had been a grossly blind materialist from his youth up, should have had to admit that there really was something in the world a bit past his understanding, seemed to give her something very like gloating triumph. Moreover, she had apparently assumed that from this on he was full convert to her own rather extreme views. “Spirits,” “communicators,” “guides,” “percipients,” and “psychic forces” haunted that library in verbal form till in desperation the doctor held up a protesting hand.

“Aunt Jane,” he pleaded, “I can’t possibly swallow all that at once. Please don’t be annoyed with me, but I really can’t! Maybe everything you say is true. Maybe every inch of the space we move through is crowded with spirits, and maybe it’s as easy to establish communication with Julius Caesar as it is to call up the telephone operator. But all that was not exactly what I wanted your help about. I’ll admit that I have a strong natural aversion for belief in the supernatural. I believe that if apparently supernormal phenomena exist their cause can — must be traced to some natural law, not previously recognized, perhaps, but as fixed and actually natural as the law or gravitation.

“Now I know, Aunt Jane, that you’ve had some rather curious experiences of your own. You told me about them last year, and if I seemed to take them lightly may God forgive me, for what I have been through the last few nights. But never mind that now. You told me that you had seen some sort of visions, and heard voices —”

“I talked with your grandfather’s ghost,” interpolated his aunt with abrupt firmness.

“Very well. You talked with grandfather’s ghost. According to that, Aunt Jane, you must be what spiritualists term ‘sensitive.’ Now, with all due respect and apologies, I haven’t sufficient faith in the veracity of a professional medium to trust one of them with a certain experiment I want made. In the case of this box” — he eyed the green thing that lay across his knees, and shuddered slightly, “ — in the case of this box any one who is even slightly ‘sensitive’ in the sense we mean should be able to prove or disprove my theory.”

“What is it about the box that has troubled you so much, Jack?”

His aunt’s voice was suddenly as kindly and sympathetic as it had formerly been didactic.

“I would rather not tell you just yet. Miss Robinson and I wish to find out something about its history. I’ve heard that a medium can sometimes — er — tell the history of an object merely by touching it —”

“But I don’t at all pretend to be a medium, Jack.”

“Miss Fellowes,” interposed Leilah, “won’t you please at least try to help us out? If you knew — if you could by any possibility guess the frightful — frightful horrors —”

Her voice trembled and she broke off, biting her lips. Miss Fellowes looked surprised; the sympathy in her brown eyes deepened.

“Why, you poor children! I had no idea there was anything very dreadful attached to the affair. Certainly, I’ll do all I can to help. But you mustn’t give way to fear, child. There is nothing in the spirit world to harm you. Sometimes people are harmed, but they are injured by their own fright, not by any evil influence. I myself have learned to fear nothing. I think I can truthfully say, Miss Robinson, that there is nothing in this world or the other of which I am afraid!”

She looked it, too, sitting bolt upright, shoulders back, sternly severe save for the betraying kindliness in her bright brown eyes. Somehow for all her talk of spirits there was a matter-of-fact practicality about Miss Jane Fellowes which made her very presence reassuring.

“Exactly what did you wish me to do, Jack? Of course, you mustn’t expect me to go into a trance. As I said before, I don’t even pretend to be a real psychic.”

“Well, you might take the box in your hands to begin with. And then if you — er — see anything, you can describe it to us.”

Despite recent experiences, Vanaman was feeling rather foolish over the affair. He wished the idea of asking his aunt to come on had never occurred to him. Very methodically she was removing her black silk gloves, rolling them up and placing them in her hand-bag. Her hands, Leilah observed, were beautiful; not the kind of hands one expected from those stern, almost harsh features. Long, slender, delicate, there was temperament in every line of them.

“I’ll take it now, Jack.”

Fascinated, Leilah watched as the doctor half reluctantly placed his detested charge in the hands extended to receive it. What would come of this? Was there any chance that they were about to learn the dread secret which made that clouded, emerald-like thing a menace to sanity, at least, if dangerous in no worse way?

“It is extremely pretty,” commented Miss Fellowes’ positive tones. She was turning it about, admiring the shifting shades of green. “Oh! You were holding it upside down, weren’t you? What is this red writing on the cover?”

“I don’t know. Give the thing back to me, Aunt Jane. I was foolish to expect results from such an experiment and I don’t like to see you holding it!”

“Why, Jack, you are really afraid of this box, aren’t you? My dear boy, there is nothing in psychic experiences to harm one. If this beautiful little casket is haunted by the restless spirit of some past owner, we, I am entirely sure, have nothing to fear. Such apparitions, Jack, are caused by the effort of earth-bound souls to make themselves seen and known again in the material world. Spirits of that order are to be pitied, not feared.”

“Aunt Jane, I tell you this is not a matter of ghost-walking. The apparition that haunts the box — is not — human.”

“No? Really, you arouse my curiosity immensely. Perhaps one of the elementals has been playing tricks on you. Raja Ramput, one of our greatest teachers, told me with his own lips that he had seen a fire elemental — the spiritual essence of fire, you understand — play all about the room where a seance was going on, and apparently set the curtains in a blaze. But no real harm was done. The elementals are mischievous and like to frighten people when they can. I know better than to be afraid, however. Now I shall close my eyes, endeavor to make my mind quite blank, and if any definite ideas or visions come to me I’ll let you know.”

Sitting up very straight and rigid, holding the box in her lap with long, delicate fingers resting lightly just over the scarlet inscription, she did close her eyes. Several minutes of dead silence ensued. Miss Fellowes was quiet as a graven image, and looked rather like one, too.

It occurred to Vanaman that any fearful qualities the box possessed might well be held in stern repression so long as it remained in the keeping of his Aunt Jane.

Then Leilah gave a low cry, and the doctor half started from his chair. There was reason for dismay.

Over those stern, determined features had swept a sudden and dreadful change. Every drop of blood seemed to leave the face in a moment, the very lips went blue-white, and the eyes flashed open with a look of such awful fear in their depths as Vanaman had never seen in the eyes of a living creature.

“Oh — how — horrible!” The voice was a rasping cry, harsh and unfamiliar. “How horrible! The cities — the scarlet cities crashing — falling. Save me! Oh, God, won’t anybody save me? There he is! There! It is he, I tell you! The archangel. Oh, God — it is the archangel The archangel of the abyss —”

Leaping forward, the doctor snatched the green casket from his aunt’s hands and fairly flung it upon the table. Then he caught her in his arms just in time to prevent her toppling sidewise to the floor.

Jane Fellowes who had been so sternly sure of her courage to face any abnormal phenomena, and “feared nothing in this world or the other,” had fainted dead away from sheer terror.

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