a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors) or get HELP Reading, Downloading and Converting files)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: House of Living Death Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304301h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jul 2013 Most recent update: Jul 2016 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
Have you ever asked yourself the grim question: "Am I going mad?" Harold Armour, deserted by his friends, forgotten by society, fought that ghastly conjecture through long nights and days of panicked, mounting terror—while nightmare horrors came to life and evil, mindless creatures lived forever with him in the dark house where fear dwelt always... A masterfully told tale of dark, impenetrable mystery and black passions, written against an eerie background that will thrill you and shock you!
ARE you sane?
Are you certain there is no taint in your blood, no lurking bomb of madness in your heritage that may not explode under sudden stress and make of you a staring-eyed lunatic—seething, perhaps, with the passion to see red blood spurting from arteries severed by your knife?
Not long ago a red bubble of rage exploded within your skull and you wanted to smash a leering, grinning face before you; smash it to a gory pulp. Temper, you say. Temper? Are you sure? Dead sure?
Remember: a madman believes himself normal, is convinced it is those others who are insane; those others who do not see the evil faces he envisions, who do not hear the shuddersome, compelling voices whispering in his ears the command to kill, kill, KILL!
Think. Think of the time you woke to deadly stillness in the night and knew, knew beyond doubt that someone was in the room, something that in the next horrible moment would be at your throat, ripping the life from your quivering breast with sharp, unhuman claws. You tried to scream for help and could not; you could not stir a limb, a finger; and the clammy-cold sweat on your brow was like an icy touch from Outer Darkness...After an eternity you managed somehow to switch on your bed lamp...and nothing was there, nothing at all. "A bad dream," you muttered, still shaking with abysmal fear. But was it a dream? Were you not awake; acutely, fearfully awake as you plumbed that hell of causeless terror?
The fear of death is nothing, the fear of being buried alive a pale, wan thing, to the uttermost horror man can face: the fear of going insane, the fear that one is insane!
I held on to the rail as puffing little tugs bunted and hauled the San Pedro into its dock at Bush Terminal. My legs still buckled at the knees, a trip-hammer still pounded at the base of my skull though it was three weeks since I had come to aboard the freighter and known that I was homeward bound. Before that, I could dimly remember a parade of reptilian horror through my cabin, dim, vasty shapes moving through the mists that alcohol had evoked within my soul. But I had not touched a drop aboard ship, and my head was clear. I swear that it was.
Not that I was thinking. I was trying not to think. I was trying not to remember the terse cablegram that had come to me on the saltpeter estancia in the hinterland behind Iquique, the yellow slip carrying the news of my father's sudden death, the message that had rocked me back on my heels and set me guzzling pulque to deaden the week of waiting before I could get a boat for home. I was trying not to realize that the big house on Fifth Avenue would be cold, and empty; that dad would not be there to engulf my hand in his and say—as he always said on my return from one of the earth's far places—"Hello Hal! I've missed you. Come in and have a drink."
I suppose they let me guzzle to sottishness and insensibility as the kindest way to help me through that infinite week. At any rate it was not until the Pedro had been ten days at sea that I had waked to a dreary world that no longer held the father I adored, waked to know that I was alone, utterly alone. Small wonder that I was still white and jittery as the Pedro warped in to her berth.
I felt in the pocket of my jacket for a cigarette, and paper rustled. This was the suit in which I had been carried aboard; someone must have stuffed a last minute message into it. I pulled out the paper. It was a radiogram.
IMPOSSIBLE WAIT FOR YOU STOP SEE AVERY DUNN 200 WALL STREET IMMEDIATELY ARRIVAL NEW YORK STOP FULLY EMPOWERED SETTLE FATHERS ESTATE STOP
So far it made sense. But the signature gave me a jolt, the first, but by no means the last in this weird affair. "Irma Kahn." The name was utterly strange to me. Irma. A woman's name. What on earth had a strange woman to do with my father's estate? Dad had been almost a hermit in the five years since mother left us, wouldn't so much as look at another woman. And this Avery Dunn! Our attorneys were Humperdinck, O'Ryan and Schwartz, a dry as dust firm of legal luminaries who have long monopolized the affairs of the first families of the metropolis.
I thought of looking at the dateline. My head was clear, I repeat. The message was addressed to me at Iquique, had arrived the day the Pedro sailed. It had been sent from the Liner City of Paris, bound for France.
It was more than a year since my father had sent me down to rehabilitate his sadly neglected estancia. Maybe...I crushed the paper in my hand. No. Damn it! Dad wasn't that kind, he'd never...
A gangplank rattled to a dingy, splintered pier-floor, a whistle blasted aloft. I had to find out what this was all about, find out as quickly as I could. I jerked around, thumped down a companionway, and was down the gangplank before the last rope had been fastened. My footing heaved as if it were still the Pedro's deck, but that didn't slow my sprint down the long, dark tunnel of the covered pier. I was out in sun-glare and a yellow cab was veering toward me across the cobbles. I lunged for it, yelled "Wall Street. Two Hundred Wall," at the goggle-eyed driver, and scrambled inside. He started off with a jerk that threw me into the leather seat.
The lobby man looked at me rather queerly when I asked for the number of Avery Dunn's office, but he said "Fourteen-ten," promptly enough. There was a mirror in the elevator, and I smoothed down my hair with the palm of my hand, got my tie around from under my left ear. I needed a shave pretty badly, but that couldn't be helped. At that I had to admit I was a tough-looking specimen. I stand six-four in my stocking feet, but you've got to measure me to realize it, because I'm built in proportion to my height. The Porto-Rican sun had tanned me pretty near to the leathery shade of a mozo, and my eyes were blood-shot and starey. I shouldn't have liked to meet myself on a dark night.
The door of Fourteen-ten didn't give me much information as to who and what Avery Dunn was. His name was down in one corner of the frosted-glass panel, painted in neat gilt letters. And under it was the one word, AFFAIRS. Big letters sprawled across the glass wouldn't have conveyed half the sense of importance those little ones did. And there was something queerly non-committal, almost mysterious about that evasive label. When I got the door open I decided that Mr. Dunn's "affairs" must be manifold. Past the low railing that cut off a square around the entrance I could see a big room, and the rattle of typewriters was like a spigotty revolution going full blast. There must have been two dozen girls seated at long rows of little desks, all busily packing away. Only three or four men were visible, moving around.
"Well," a snippy voice cut across my observation. "What is it?" I jerked my eyes back to the girl who sat at the telephone desk just beyond the railing. She was wearing some kind of black dress with a white collar, and there wasn't too much red on her lips. But her eyes were insolent. "What do you want?"
The muscles under my ears hardened a bit, but I answered, mildly enough, "Mr. Dunn. My name is Harold Armour."
Her face changed when I said it. Something came into it, not fright, but something akin to it. "Harold Armour," she repeated, I thought unnecessarily loudly. She thrust a plug into one of the holes in front of her and said, "Mr. Harold Armour to see you, Mr. Dunn...Yes sir." Then to me: "You are to go right in sir. Straight back." She readied out a hand to swing open the gate in the railing beside her.
I looked at the opening and, quite unreasonably, hesitated a moment. Was some obscure sixth sense warning me of danger? Or were the first crawling worms of madness waking in my brain? At any rate, the prickling across the nape of my neck subsided almost immediately and I strode through, pounding stiff-legged toward the line of partitioned-off small offices at the back of the big room.
Even then there was nothing wrong with my observation, with the keen functioning of my thoughts. I can call up the face of each typist who flicked a quick glance at me as I passed; can spot on a diagram the position of every one of the male clerks. I can sketch for you, even now, the way the door of Dunn's office was set back in an embrasure made by two large square pillars, placed unusually close. But I did jerk that door open with uncalled-for violence and slam it shut behind me.
I SHOT a quick glance around the little room I had entered. If you spend much time in the outlands you get that habit; going into unfamiliar places your life may depend on a knowledge of every small item of your surroundings. And so I am certain, dead certain, of what I saw—or thought I saw.
The wall to my left, some ten feet long, was lined with book-laden shelves. So was the one to my right, except that at its further end the line of shelving was broken by a door. I noticed a diagonal scratch across the bronze key-plate of that door. Afterwards I clung frantically to the memory of that scratch, pictured it again and again as I battled with horror. Over and over, a thousand times or more, I asked myself if any dream, any hallucination, could be as detailed as that.
Opposite me a window let light flood in on a massive desk that dwarfed the little man seated behind it. Avery Dunn was looking straight at me, his sallow face an expressionless mask. There was something faintly Mongolian about his features; a vague heightening of the cheekbones, an almost imperceptible slanting of the eyelids. And there was a peculiarly alien liquidity in his precise enunciation as he said, "I am glad you came directly from the ship, Mr. Armour."
My long legs took me across the space between us in two strides, but I didn't take the chair the movement of his pupils indicated. Oh, I know my behavior was boorish—outrageous. But remember that my parched system was clamoring for the alcohol it had been denied for nearly a month after a prolonged debauch. My actions were ill-mannered, perhaps, but not abnormal. Not abnormal! I put my fists knuckles down on the desk's glass top and thrust out my jaw. "How the devil do you know," I rumbled, "that the San Pedro just docked? We are a day ahead of schedule. Who are you anyway? Who is Irma Kahn? What have the two of you to do with my father's estate?"
Dunn looked me over imperturbably, his narrow, glittering eyes like those of a biologist examining some new, not particularly interesting, specimen. "Irma Kahn," he said at length, "is the executrix of your father's estate. I am her business adviser." I think it was his utter indifference, his lack of resentment at my intolerable brusqueness, that inflamed me further.
"Where the hell do you come in?" I shouted at him. "I've never heard of you in my life, or the Kahn woman either. There's some monkey business here, and, by God, I'm going to find out what it is before I'm many hours older!"
I might have uttered some banality for all my bellow seemed to affect him. "I can quite understand your surprise," he responded very calmly, "and even your attitude. I expected both and prepared for them." His hands, their fingers curiously stubby, made a tent on the desk before him. "Irma Kahn is...."
"Hal! Hal Armour," a muffled, insistent voice husked from my right. "Hal!" I wheeled, stared at the inner door in the side wall from behind which the sound seemed to come. "Hal! Watch out! Watch out!"
My jaw dropped, lax. Who could be calling to me here, using my first name? Who was behind that door?
"Hal! He's a..." the husked words were suddenly unintelligible, crescendoed into a mute shriek, and cut off. Came again. "Help! Help!" I lunged for the door, got my hand on its knob, flung it open and plunged through. I was in a long, narrow room. A man, his back to me, was struggling with another whose face I could not see. A metallic flash whizzed past my ear! A knife, thrown from behind me, plunged into the man's back. I saw blood spurt and I whirled to the menace from the rear. Dunn was out in front of his desk, his arm was raised. A second knife was in his hand, held by the weighted handle and poised for the throw that would plunge it in my own back. Steel springs uncoiled in my legs and I leaped straight for him, grabbing for the black hilt of that knife. I caught it, snatched it away...
"Mahoutma alloy! Stoot!" The gibberish was a squealed command from my left. I twisted to it; saw...great heavens...saw a towering black giant stark-naked, crouching just within the closed outer door. His face was an appalling spectacle of demoniac savagery and in his ebony hand a perfectly civilized automatic snouted at me!
Something crashed against the base of my skull, the world exploded in whirling coruscations of fire, and oblivion swept in...
MY HEAD was a swelling balloon of agony as I weltered up toward consciousness through oceans of pain-shot blackness. I heard my own name spoken in Dunn's liquid, foreign voice. "—Harold Armour, whose father's estate I am managing. He burst in here shouting accusations at me and when I tried to placate him he attacked me with that knife. Luckily this heavy seal was on my desk and I managed to knock him out with it before he did any damage."
"Lucky is right," a gruff voice responded. "That's a wicked blade, and he's big enough to split you in two with it."
I struggled to open my eyes. Hands were fumbling at me, a pungent odor stung my nostrils and something wet dribbled along my lips. Some of the fluid got into my throat and I swallowed convulsively. There was a minor explosion in my chest and my lids popped wide. A pink face was over mine. It had a little blonde mustache and was topped by a blue cap with a red cross embroidered above the visor. I tried to get up, found my arms were being held by iron fingers. My head jerked sidewise, I saw the glowering features of a clerk who had leered at me as I came through the outer office. "Easy," the ambulance surgeon said gently. "Take it easy, old man, and you'll be all right."
A squirrel was chasing its tail inside my skull, but my vision cleared a little and I could see, beyond the doctor, a policeman talking to Dunn. "Grab that man," I mourned. "Arrest him! He's a murderer!"
The cop grinned, infuriatingly, and took a step that brought him above me as I lay on the floor. "That's all right," he chuckled. "You just calm down an' let the doc take care of you."
I forgot the throbbing pain in my head. "You damn fool," I howled, fighting to get away from the hands holding me down. "You...ass! It was Dunn killed the man inside, he tried to kill me, and you're letting him get away with it!"
The officer's eyes narrowed and his thick fingers moved along his nightstick. But the hospital man straightened and whispered something in his ear. The cop grinned and nodded. "What man?" he asked, more smoothly. "Inside where?"
"For the love of God!" I grunted. "The dead man in that room." I rolled; somehow the fellow holding me had relaxed his grip; started to point, started to say "Behind that door." And did neither!
There was no door in the wall back of me! The shelves stretched solidly to the window! The door through which I had lunged to the unknown's cry for help had vanished! There was no sign, absolutely no sign, that an opening had ever existed in that book-lined wall!
I felt my eyes widen, heard myself gasp.
"There was a door," I shrieked. "There was a door there!"
"Sure," the physician said soothingly. "Sure there was a door there. But it isn't there any longer. Now you be a good fellow and let me take you to the hospital. Our doors stay put."
My stomach turned over as I realized that he was humoring me. Great heavens above! Dunn had made them think I was insane!
The thought sobered me. I must be careful, shrewd. I must match his guile with my own.
"All right, Doctor," I muttered very calmly. "All right. I'll go with you. But you'd better take the black man with you too. He might hurt somebody with his gat."
"Hell!" the cop grunted. "He's batty as a loon."
"Keep quiet, Rafferty," the medico snapped. "I'll do all the talking." His blue eyes were shining with interest. "I want to find out just what he thinks he saw." Then, to me, "Who's this black man you're talking about, pal?"
"The fellow without any clothes that pulled a gun on me," I answered, talking slowly and carefully. "He couldn't get away without someone's seeing him."
"No, he couldn't get away." The man in the white coat smiled, and turned his head. "Anybody see a naked black man around here with a gun?"
There was a chorus of "no's," and for the first time I saw the staring-eyed girls crowding the door from the outer room. Fright mingled with morbid curiosity, on most of the white faces, but I saw pity in the eyes of one pert-featured minx. And somehow that pity made me cold, suddenly, cold all over.
"No one could have come into or out of this office without all of us seeing him," another girl said, her voice shrill with excitement. "We all know Mr. Dunn was alone in here till this man barged in, and nobody went in after him."
There was a general murmur of assent. "I heard him shouting at Mr. Dunn,"—the clerk who was holding me offered, "and I was just coming over when there was a crash and the boss yelled for help. I was the first one in. Those two were the only ones to be seen, and nobody could have gotten past me without my knowing it."
The floor rocked under me. They couldn't all be in a conspiracy against me! There was no door in the side-wall, there had been no naked negro! Great God! Were they right? Was I...insane?
"Hell, Doc," the patrolman growled. "Let's get it over with. Let's put the nut in the wagon and get going."
I remembered the scratch on the door-plate. Tiny thing that it was, it steadied me, gave me infinitesimal hope to which to cling. I couldn't have imagined that, I told myself. I tried to keep my voice even. "Doctor," I said. "Doctor. I know it looks bad for me. But will you do me a favor?"
"What is it, old man?" Bless him! He was convinced I was a madman, a homicidal maniac. But he was kindness itself, his voice gentle. May his tribe increase.
"I'd like to see what's behind this wall before you take me away."
"Certainly," he responded. "I'd like you to. Maybe if you see how impossible it is for the things you imagine to have really happened it will help us to cure you."
At a word from the surgeon my captor released me. I was sore all over as I staggered to my feet. The burly clerk closed in on one side of me, the cop on the other, and we moved to the door. The girls scattered as we came toward them.
Dunn himself opened the door of the office on the right of his own. I looked in, and my legs were suddenly water-weak. The apparently unused room was utterly unfamiliar. Although I had only glimpsed that in which I had seen a man killed, I knew this could not possibly be the same. I had looked possibly twenty feet ahead of me into that one, this was only some seven wide. There was no break in the painted expanse of the wall on the left. And there, in a line with those in Dunn's chamber, were windows through which the sun was streaming...
"Are you satisfied?" the medico asked quietly.
"Yes," I forced past the lump in my throat. "Take me away."
A black mist formed in front of my eyes and I swayed, clutching the cop's arm to keep from falling. "Come on," the policeman grunted.
"Wait," Avery Dunn said smoothly. "What are you going to do with him?"
"Take him to the psychopathic ward at Bellevue. I suppose he'll go to Manhattan State Hospital on the Island after a couple of days."
An icy shiver swept over me. Bellevue! The Island!
Dunn's reply came dully to my ears. "I should like to arrange that he go to a private sanitarium. I am in charge of his father's estate and there is plenty of money to give him the best of care."
The interne looked gratified. "That can be done," he said heartily. "But he'll have to be certified by two lunacy commissioners and committed by a judge. You'd better let me take him to Bellevue till the red tape is unwound."
The vertigo with which I was struggling eased a bit, and I watched Dunn warily. One corner of his thick mouth twitched a bit and a film seemed to drop over his Oriental eyes. "I have some influence," he smiled. "It won't take me long to get things fixed up."
A blood-freezing thought flared into being at the back of my tortured brain. In a public institution I should have some chance to prove, to myself and to others, that I was not insane. In a private asylum I should be utterly in the power of the evil-faced Dunn, utterly without hope. "No," I croaked. "No. I want to go with you, Doctor. Take me away with you."
The young fellow turned and patted me on the shoulder. He had to reach up to do so. "Don't be foolish, buddy," he said in the tone one used to a willful child. "If you knew what I do about the Island you'd appreciate the break you're getting."
My biceps swelled and my heart pounded. They thought me mad and would pay no attention to what I wanted! Dread closed in on me, quivering, black dread. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps I was a lunatic—a knife-wielding, murderous maniac. No! I thought of something. The knife with which I was supposed to have attacked Dunn! Where had that come from? I had no weapon of any kind when I left the Pedro. "Damn it!" I bellowed. "Don't talk to me like that. I'm being framed. I'm not crazy, I'm as sane as you are!"
The cop's fingers tightened on my wrist. "That's what they all say," he chortled with the unholy glee of the sane in the presence of the unbalanced. "All these nuts think there's a plot against them."
It was as if his ham-like fist had pounded against my jaw. I rocked back on my heels and the room swung dizzily around me. Faces, faces everywhere leered at me, and all about hundreds of fingers pointed in derisive scorn. An unhuman, horrible voice shrilled, "He's crazy! Hal Armour's crazy," broke into a cackle of triumphant laughter that echoed and re-echoed in vast spaces. Other voices shrieked and bellowed, roared and screamed, "Crazy! Crazy! Hal Armour's crazy!" and the pandemonium was threaded by the squealing gleeful laughter of insensate fiends.
I crouched, suddenly, and sprang, twisting as I leaped. My wrists tore from the grasp of my captors and I was free. Someone got a hand on my shoulder, I whirled and crashed a blow to a blond mustache on a pink face. I hurdled a desk, and dashed down a long aisle as screaming women scattered before me. Someone in an alpaca coat, pig-like eyes glittering, loomed in front of me and my fist flailed out.
He was down and I had leaped his sprawled body. I stumbled and crashed against wood. Ink spilled and papers flew through the air. I saw the railing in front of me, glimpsed the insolent-eyed telephone girl with her mouth wide open and her face fish-belly gray. I thumped into the flimsy barrier, it splintered with a rending crash, and I saw the girl throw something, her earphones, at me. I dodged them, but the wires tangled around me. I plunged on in my bull-like rush, the phone switchboard dragged after me. I stopped to rip the cords away, and someone grabbed me from behind. I twisted to him, bellowing, and fists flew at me from every side. Tugging hands pulled my feet from under me and I crashed to the floor. Sweaty bodies piled atop me, swarmed over me. I was pinned down, helpless.
"Don't hurt him," the doctor's voice sounded thinly through the roaring in my ears. "Don't hurt him more than you can help."
A hand fumbled at my wrist, twisted it. I felt the sharp sting of a hypodermic needle and liquid being forced into a vein. Blackness spread swiftly through my arteries, reached my brain...
I OPENED my eyes. The ceiling above me was enameled a shining white and shadow-lines made a checkered pattern on it. Slowly I became conscious that I was parched, and that excruciating pain pounded in my head. I lifted a hand...tried to lift a hand to it but could not! Queer, I though, mighty queer. But my head hurt too much for me to raise it and see why.
Coarse cloth was under and over me, rasping my skin. That was strange too. They had taken my clothes from me, and I was lying stark naked on a bed. My tongue filled my mouth, and my face, my neck, ached dully. Something pressed heavily on my chest and other weights rested across my thighs.
I heard a door open. "You've come to, eh!" a grating voice said. "About time."
"I want my clothes," I said, and turned my head toward him.
The fellow filled the doorway. His swarthy face was like a troglodyte's, low-browed and heavy-jawed. My skin prickled as I saw that he held in one hairy hand a short, thick-lashed whip, black and snakelike. Good Lord! The walls were covered with gray, heavily quilted canvas! "Get your clothes, is it?" He growled through thick lips. "Wait till the doc sees yuh."
"The doc!" Memory hit me like a trip-hammer and horror closed around me once more. "Where am I?" I gasped. "In God's name where am I?"
The man leered. "Yuh'll find out quick enough." There was lip-licking gloating in the way he said it. "Too quick." The door slammed behind him, and I saw that it, too, was shrouded with quilted canvas. Saw also that no handle broke its surface.
Now I was thoroughly alarmed. I strained to sit up, and found it impossible. But my struggles dislodged the sheet covering me, and, forcing my head up, I saw that those were not weights on my chest and my thighs. They were broad webbed bands tightly stretched across my torso. My wrists were bound to the stout iron sides of the bed on which I was stretched and the one narrow window was covered with steel bars! Almighty God! I was strapped to a cot in the very center of a padded cell!
A scream formed itself in my throat, ripped to the surface. But I choked it back in time, throttled it to the merest whimper. I must not—something deep in my brain told me—I must not again act the lunatic they thought me. I must hold a tight grip on myself, do nothing that a sane, an utterly sane man, would not do. To do otherwise would be to play into their hands, into the hands of that slant-eyed, yellow-faced devil whose machinations had placed me here. Already I had muffed one chance at thwarting him. My blood ran cold as I realized that, remembering what the pink-faced interne had said. Two lunacy commissioners and a judge must have already decided that I was insane. Otherwise I would not be here!
"Watch yourself, Hal Armour," I muttered, half-aloud. "They can't keep you here forever if you behave. No more tantrums, no more scrapping. Don't give them another chance to say that you're crazy."
Great Jumping Jehoshaphat! I was talking to myself! I stared, fear-ridden, at the shadow of the bars on the ceiling. Were they right? Was I...a madman?
Was this only a lucid moment, a glimpse of sanity from the twilight land of madness in which I was doomed to wander forevermore? I licked dry lips and shuddered.
"Well, well, well! So we've decided to take an interest in life." I turned to the chuckling voice. The short, roly-poly man coming through the door was the epitome of cheerfulness. "Jim Rand tells me you want your clothes." He rubbed hands together, and the fat rolls that were his cheeks lifted to a delighted smile. "We'll see. We'll see."
The guard I had seen before followed the newcomer into the room, carrying a chair. He put it at my bedside and retreated, but I noticed that he went only as far as the door. There he leaned against the jamb, glowering at vacancy and swishing his whip against his pants leg. The fat little man sat down, fumbled for my wrist with his flabby fingers. He made clucking noises at the back of his throat, for all the world like a hen scratching up worms for its brood, and then exploded into speech again. "We might as well get acquainted," he said, and giggled. "I'm Doctor Helming, Dr. Ottokar Helming. And you are Harold Armour."
"That's one thing I'm sure of," I responded, fighting to keep hysteria out of my voice. "But I'd like to know where I am."
Helming vented his school-girlish giggle again. "He, he. Very good. One thing you're sure of. Very good indeed. I see that we're going to get along. And your pulse is quite normal. Remarkable. Most remarkable." His hand left my wrist, travelled to my eyelids and pulled them back. "Pupils clear too." His fingers felt peculiarly cold and clammy against my skin.
"What is this place, Doctor?" I repeated my question, quite calmly.
He pursed his tiny red mouth. "This place?" he chuckled. "A very fine place indeed. A very fine place." He waved his palm across my face, close to it. "Reflexes in order. You're in good shape, Mr. Armour. In good shape."
"Where am I?" I said again testily, then, bit my lip. That was his game, of course. He was testing me, trying to get me angry. Trying to get me to flare into rage once more. Well, I'd fool him. "Not that it matters much. I don't suppose I shall have to give the address to very many taxi drivers."
Helming fairly chortled at that. "Heh, heh, heh. A comedian. A veritable comedian. No, my dear fellow, your taxi rides will be limited for a long time to come." His horrible touch stroked along my biceps, down my flanks. "What muscles," he cackled. "What beautiful muscles!"
My skin crawled under the slug-like fell of those gelid fingers. The fellow in the doorway watched with slitted eyes. He cracked his whip and the lash seemed to flick my raw nerves. I jumped inwardly. There was more than threat in the act, there was sadistic yearning, a vile eagerness to sense the crash of that black thong—against flesh, to hear the howl of its human victim.
The doctor must have sensed my thought, for he simpered. "Don't be afraid—of that whip, my boy. You needn't be afraid of anything here... if you behave."
"How about giving me a chance to behave," I ventured. "How about letting me get up?"
The doctor's lips made a little red O. "Hmm. Hmm. Do you think it's wise, son? Do you think it's wise?"
I tried to catch his eyes, those eyes, that were like blue dots, in a pink-white ocean of fat. "I don't want to instruct you in your profession," I said slowly, "but it would be wiser to let me get up than to keep me lying here. If I'm strapped to this bed much longer I'll be a raving lunatic."
"Haw!" Rand spluttered. "Haw haw."
Helming looked at me, and a curious change came over his round face. Good humor fled from it; it was bleak, somehow terrifying. "You're not thinking of playing any tricks on me, are you? Are you?" Lines suddenly appeared at his mouth corners, deep lines of cruelty. "Because it won't get you anywhere. Not anywhere at all."
Can you imagine a round-faced, roly-poly fiend? That was what he looked like, then. A short, fat devil whose belly would quiver with delight as he watched a damned soul fry in the bottom-most pit of hell. "No, I don't like anyone who plays tricks on me, and when I don't like them," the words dripped from his little mouth, "it's...just...too...bad."
"Why shouldn't I behave?" I said mildly. "Will it get me anything if I don't?"
The momentary change in the fat man's appearance vanished, the amused twinkle returned to his eyes. "Fine," he chuckled, rubbing his pudgy hands together. "Splendid!"
He heaved from his chair, seeming no taller on his columnar legs than when he had been seated. "Jim," he turned to the guard. "I can see that Mr. Armour is going to be one of our star patients. Get him his clothing and give him a good room. Sixteen is vacant, I think." His insensate giggle was infuriating. "When he is ready, call me." He toddled to the door and vanished.
Rand came into the room and stood above me, his eyes cold flame. "The doc's good-natured today," he rumbled. "Lucky for you. But don't let that pep yuh up too much." He pulled the flexible length of his whip lovingly through, his fingers. I saw certain crusted brown stains on it and shuddered. "Don't let it give yuh ideas."
I stared at the remnants of the meal Rand had brought to Room Sixteen and tried to fight off the black despair that rested on me like a pall. The food had been good enough, but cut small, it had been served on paper plates with a paper spoon. These now lay on the upper one of two shelves set in a recess in the white enameled wall. A comb and brush, fashioned of papier-mâché, that were shoved to one side showed that this shelving was intended to be a dresser. I had eaten standing, for the only chair was bolted to the door next to a cot, also fastened in place, whose iron bars were welded at their joinings. These were the cubicle's only furnishings, and worst of all, a stout steel grating covered a small window so high up that I could not look out through it.
My eyes wandered to the door. The surface it presented to me was blank; no knob, no key-plate, showed on its smooth surface. The barrier opened outward, I had noted, and there was nothing on the inner side by which the room's occupant could manipulate the latch. Simply, ingeniously, that door was locked against escape while it gave ready access to anyone wishing to enter.
I tried to put a hand in my pocket for a cigarette, the fingers stubbed against cloth and I recalled that, although my own suit had been returned to me, cleaned and neatly pressed, every pocket-slit was sewed closed with strong thread: Somehow that little incident, more than anything else, brought home my situation.
I groaned. I was a man condemned as insane; imprisoned, helpless. Doomed to living death! A cold shudder ran through me. And then a sound twisted me to the door, a muffled scream from somewhere outside, far off. A woman's scream! My blood curdled...and then I remembered where I was. My fisted hands unclenched, but I quivered to the anguish in that scream. It came again louder, nearer; there was the patter of running feet; the thud of heavier, following ones. Something thumped against my door, the knob rattled, the door ripped open and someone was plunging through. I had one glimpse of a fear-distorted face, of golden-glinting, disheveled hair, of a white shoulder against which red marks of a gripping hand blazed, and the girl swept past me, shrieking. Rand plunged into the room, his face contorted and black with fury, his whip whistling in his hands. "Got you, you she-devil," he snarled. "Got you!"
"Save me," the girl shrilled. "Oh save me!"
I grabbed at the keeper, got my hands on his arm. "Wait!" I cried. "Wait a minute." This was a woman after all, a girl. I forgot that she must be mad. "Stop it!"
His whip lashed at me, stung across my cheek. "Out of my way," Rand bawled. "Out of my way, loony."
The epithet ripped my good resolutions to tatters. My fist came up. He ducked it, leaped sideways. I lunged at him—he whirled with lightning swiftness. I saw the lash—off-balance I could not dodge—it crashed across my face, searing like the sting of a scorpion.
I staggered—lunged again. And again he avoided my blow with an agility belaying his hulking body, again the black whip slashed across my face, cutting knife-like. It crashed me to the floor.
The girl shrieked! I exploded to my feet, landed a fist somewhere on him with all the frenzied strength I could put into the blow. It rocked him, but his wrist flicked and his whip whistled, curled around my waist. It flung me away from him, threw me headlong across the room. I thumped into the girl, she sprawled across the cot, and I fell over her. I felt her warm body under me, even in that moment I sensed the sweet redolence of her breath. But I lifted, bounded back at Rand, whimpering with rage. I ducked his whiplash and got another blow home. The impact jarred my elbow to the shoulder, but he shook his head, jumped back, and launched another whizzing slash.
I saw only his swarthy face in a red mist, and the black striking snake of his devilish weapon. It was everywhere, slashing at me, cutting my face, my arms, hurling me from side to side with terrific force. I tried to reach his face with my fists, connected once, once only. I might as well have battered at a marble statue. I heard someone shrieking obscenities in a shrill, crazed voice—knew it was myself. I knew dimly my face was wet with blood, my chin dripping with it. Rand's lips were retracted in a bestial snarl displaying rotted, yellow fangs, and lurid lights crawled in his black eyes. The whip cracked again across my head...
Somewhere in the darkness into which I fell endlessly a girl screamed with terror, with unutterable fear...
SOMEONE was sponging my head with freezing water. I beat up towards consciousness as the blankness within my skull pulsated with an agony not wholly physical. Voices penetrated to me, Dr. Helming's insane giggle, Rand's gruff rumble. "I don't let no loony make a pass at me like that." There was sadistic satisfaction in the guard's throaty growl.
"But you want to be more careful, Jim. Look at the mess you made of him. Suppose you'd killed him?"
"Suppose I had? Wouldn't be the first." That was a pleasant thought.
"No. But Avery Dunn sent him in. I didn't get a chance to tell you that before." The doctor's tones were meaningful.
"Oh yeah!" I heard, could almost see, Rand's thick lips smack "He's one of Dunn's is he? Say, I'm getting sick of handling that guy's pets with kid gloves. There's that damn girl, and the old guy in Twenty-four. I could of smashed him in the puss this morning, crabbing about his food."
A hardness came into Helming's voice, a savage note that reminded me of the demoniac savagery I had seen in his little eyes not long before. "Lay off him, Jim, let him alone. That's our ace in the hole if Dunn and his woman get a yen to double-x us."
"All right. All right. But if it's gonna be lay off this one and that one there ain't gonna be no more fun around this joint."
Helming chuckled. "There will be fun enough to suit you. I just got a tip the State inspectors are coming through in a week to check up on all commitments."
My heart leaped. If there was to be an inspection, a check-up, I should have a chance to prove my sanity. I must watch my every move. It was my chance, my only chance and I would not throw it away. "Oh yeah," Rand growled. "We gotta work quick then."
"Damn quick. But leave it to me...and Shang. Say! This bird is still out. If he doesn't wake up in two shakes I'll have to give him a shot."
"Gawd, Doc, that stuff's powerful. If his heart ain't so good..."
That was enough for me. I groaned, let my eyelids flicker and come open. Helming's round face was over mine. It beamed. "Ah, my dear fellow," he giggled. "Feeling better I hope. Feeling better? Ready to be a good boy?"
I let terror show in my eyes. "Yes," I moaned. "Yes. Anything. Anything except that damn whip." I shuddered visibly, looked around as if in fear. But the girl wasn't there. Rand was on the other side of my cot, his stubby fingers clutching the whip handle. I whimpered as my eyes lit on it, cowered away.
"Steady, my boy." Helming put his hand on my shoulder, where the whip had ripped my jacket sleeve, and it felt like a clammy-cold dead thing. "Steady." He clucked. "You don't have to be afraid of that thing if you behave."
I bit my lips. "But he was going to hit the girl, Doctor. He was going to hit the girl with it and I couldn't stand for that. Could I?"
"Chivalrous," he simpered. "Very chivalrous. But you must remember where you are. This is a sanitarium for mental diseases, you know, and some of our...er...guests must be handled like children. They must be chastised you know, for their own good. For their own good, more in sorrow than in anger."
"Yes," I said while my eyes called him a liar as I remembered the lust to inflict pain that had distorted Rand's face. "I understand now. I forgot for the moment where I was. I am sorry."
Helming chuckled. "Do you hear that, Jim? He is sorry. Mr. Armour apologizes and he will give you no more trouble. I told you he would be a good patient. I told you so."
"Yeah," Rand said, and licked his lips. "Yeah."
"If you are up to it, my boy," the physician continued cheerfully, "I should like to take you on a tour of the establishment. You will understand better then why we are forced to apparently severe methods at times. Only apparently severe, of course."
I struggled to a sitting posture on the bed. "Come on," I said weakly. "Come on." That was what I wanted. Like a cat in a strange house I wanted to know my surroundings, every nook and corner of it. And I had another reason for assenting to a tour of inspection, unacknowledged even to myself.
I wanted to see the girl again, the girl with the streaming, golden hair and the eyes that were blue as the sea at dusk.
Rand was on one side of me as we left the room, Helming on the other. A long, dim corridor was lined by numbered doors. We moved toward a flight of stairs across the head of which a steel-barred gate stretched, ceiling-high, and we paused a moment while Rand fumbled a key into its lock.
Sound came up to me through that stair-well, a mumble of sound that was somehow unclean. There were human voices in it, strangely distorted; and there were other noises, that might have been animal mewlings or the gibberings of...only the Lord knows what! And with the sound came an odor, the fetid stench of unwashed bodies, of beings whose control of their bodily functions had gone with the darkening of their minds. An odor that had something in it of the grave, something of the jungle...an odor that clung to my nostrils all the nightmare time I was in that House of Hell, that affronts my nostrils still.
Rand's key scraped in the lock, the gate swung open. We passed through, the steel clanged shut behind us. The staircase curved so that it veiled that to which we descended, but already a cold shiver of gruesome anticipation rippled up my spine.
"Beyond the Alps lies Italy," someone boomed sepulchrally. "Forward, my men." We came around the last curve of the stairs, I heard the smack of an open-handed slap on flesh, and a lisping, sexless voice said, "Thank you, kind sir. Your caretheth are motht welcome." I could see nothing, at first, but a big room, vaguely lighted by barred windows, high up, a room filled with a seething, tumultuous throng. A dog barked, realistically, and from a far corner came the "Hoink, hoink," of a rooting sow. Underneath the tumult a monotonous moan murmured, "The bugs are biting me. One, two, three, four. The bugs are biting me. Five, six, seven, eight."
Helming's touch on my arm halted me at a point of vantage. "How do you like my pets," he whispered. "Aren't they sweet?" His hands went back to their eternal dry-washing. "As pretty a collection as you will find in any asylum this side of Charcot's in Paris." He giggled, complacently.
My vision cleared, individual figures began to define themselves, faces that belonged to some weird dream. Here was one without a forehead, eyes bulging as if they would drop from their sockets at the slightest touch. There someone crouched on a long stool, his head an enormous dome that overbalanced a wizened body from which it seemed to have sapped all nourishment. He looked steadily into the distance, and the sorrow lining his unhuman visage might have been for all the woes of the world since time began. A wild laugh rang out from a far corner. My burning glance twitched to the maker of the sound, and I saw an expressionless countenance whose pallid skin was so tightly drawn, whose lips were so far retracted and eye-sockets so deeply sunk that it was a veritable death's-head, a living skull that laughed on and on, with a soul-shaking horrible cachinnation that held no humor and no thought.
There were other unmoving figures in that obscene gallery, other shapes distorted almost beyond human semblance, other creatures lost in nightmare phantasm, other amorphous shapes that sat or stood, or sprawled on the filth-strewn floor weighed down by a black melancholy whose utter woe showed in their very stillness. But they were by far not the worst.
This shrieking little man with the big head who darted crazily from side to side of the great hall, his face twisted with terror, his shrill voice screaming, "Eyes, eyes. They're tearing out my eyes!" as he turned, snarling, at each wall and clawed invisible pursuers...
And now I realized that these were not all men here, that there were women, women and girls, intermingled in the gibbering throng. Women among these madmen! Shadowy bulks in dark corners disentangled themselves before my reeling vision...
I reached out for support to the wall. This was hell, worse than hell! It was a Doréesque vision of umbrous horror, a Dantean Hades, a scene at describing which the pen of Victor Hugo himself might have faltered. The man that permitted it—this jelly-like, giggling man at my side, must himself be a monster. My fists clenched, I started to twist to Helming, to cry out in protest...when the glint of blonde hair caught my eye. Good God! Was she here? The girl that had fled to me for help. I peered into the horror pit...
I could not find her. But just there, where I had thought she was, I saw a doorway, and I thought the portal moved.
"Doc," Jim Rand was saying behind me. "I don't see Hen Garten. He should be here."
Helming clucked. "That's right. He's not at his post. I told him the next time he wandered off I'd fire him, get another guard."
Rand sounded uneasy. "I dunno, Doc Maybe Shang..."
The door was moving out there. It was opening, and from it there came a gibbering wail, the long-drawn howl of a soul lost in torment. The lunatics below surged away from it. I heard Rand gasp, saw him plunge past me, down the last few steps. His face was white, his whip upraised. The door at the other end of the chamber flung wide, and framed in it was a form more horrible than any I had yet seen.
The thing's torso was that of a giant, tremendous; but atop the spreading shoulders a tiny, doll's head lolled. A doll's head—but no doll's head ever showed the sheer: brutality, the utter savagery of that face. Its scalp was hairless, but its great, naked chest was shaggy as any beast's. Its arms, incredibly long, were lifted high. Broken chain-links hung from their wrists, and in their great gripping hands something was suspended...
"Shang!" Rand roared. "Shang!" He plunged toward it, his whip slashing a way through the cowering, shrieking lunatics. "Drop him, Shang!"
The thing howled once more; there was obscene triumph in the sound, and it threw that which it held straight at the oncoming keeper. The door slammed shut...
What lay squashed on the floor had once been a man. A black whip was knotted around its skewed neck, its face was a gory pulp.
A girl crawled to it along the floor. She prodded the shapeless corpse with a long-nailed finger, and laughed.
Rand reached the body. He seized the girl and flung her away, knelt to what lay there. He only glanced at it, and turned a white face to us on the stairs. His eyes were black coals, and his mouth worked. "It's Hen, Doc. Hen! He must have gone in to feed Shang and the brute got him."
Helming giggled inanely. "I told him not to, the fool. I told him to leave Shang alone. You'd better go in and chain the fellow again."
Rand's lips were a thin white slash across his swart face. "Not me. Not on your tintype. I don't go in there."
"Some one has to. The Holmes girl is in there. If he gets at her..."
"I'm not going in there, that's flat. He can have the yellow-haired she-devil for all I care."
The yellow-haired...Good Lord! I twisted to Helming. "Who's in there? Who is it? Not the..."
"The girl Jim chased into your room. Yes. She's in a punishment cell, in there. If Shang gets at her..." His eyes were glowing strangely, a corner of his little mouth lifted. But I did not notice it then. All I thought of was that she was somewhere back there, at the mercy of the monster I had just seen, the monster who had done...that!
"Good Lord," I groaned. "You're not going to let him get her. You wouldn't do that!"
Helming spread his hands wide. "I wouldn't dare go in there. And Rand is afraid. What can I do about it?"
"What..." I twisted from him, plunged down into the gibbering mass of maniacs that had clotted at the foot of the stairs, as far from the door as they could get. I shoved through them, saw leering, idiot faces on every side, some still working with the contagion of fear, others already betraying the forgetfulness that is insanity's one recompense. A thin hand clutched my sleeve, dreamy eyes peered into mine, and a soft mouth said: "Wait, pretty boy. Wait for my kisses." I tore myself away and was through them.
Rand made no motion to stop me, but skewed around on his knees and watched me from between the slitted lids. The fetor here was choking, revolting. I was at the further door, reached for its knob. From behind it I could hear a muffled sobbing. My fingers shook as I turned the knob and pushed the heavy, nail-studded door open.
Even out of the vague half-light of the bedlam from which I came my eyes could not penetrate the darkness ahead. I took a step forward. The door shut behind me—and I heard the rattle of a shot bolt. An oath ripped from me as I whirled and surged against the door. It was immovable. Rand had locked me in here, locked me in the darkness with the gigantic madman, the simian figure that had made pulp of a human! I was unarmed...Hen had had the black snake-whip and the thing they called Shang had knotted that dread weapon around his twisted neck. Panic seized me as I crouched and listened to dreadful sound that came from within, the blubbering sobbing as of a gorilla baby crying. Panic rocked me as I heard the tinkle of metal and the whisper of shuffling movement that came toward me.
I crouched, my biceps flexing, my fingers spread wide, curving, as the menace came toward me through the darkness. The blub, blub of the thing was more fearful than an animal growl would have been.
I crouched lower, and moved silently sidewise with some dim idea of evading the monster, of avoiding it in the blackness. But solidity stopped me, the solidity of a stone wall that barred my progress. I was caught, fairly caught, and Shang crept slowly to the attack!
Slowly! God how slowly that mad giant was coming! The blackness was graying a bit as my pupils widened. I could make out the shapeless bulk of him, dark against the dark. He seemed to be crouched as I was crouched, seemed to be hitching himself along spasmodically, jerking forward with each blubbing sob, jerking forward and gasping at the same instant, silent and motionless at the same instant. He was feet from me...
And then he was gone! There was nothing before me but the black-gray of emptiness. I heard nothing, nothing at all. He had vanished like...like something half-seen in the instant between sleep and waking, unseen when midnight terror has one fully awake!
Was this too, unreal? Like the black in Dunn's office, like the room where I had seen a man murdered, a room that never was? I bit back a scream that ripped at my dry throat, swallowed hard. There had been something there! Shang had been there, he had found a side exit from the corridor we were in, had slipped aside to avoid me. He had been afraid of me, had fled from me. It was so dark here that I could not see the side-opening through which he had gone. That was all. That must be all!
If that were so I could find the exit he had used by moving forward, by feeling along the walls. I tried and found that my arms could span the width of the corridor, that my fingertips could scrape each side. I started forward, hesitated...What if he were still lurking on one side or the other? What if he should leap out at me from some ambush where he was hidden? Was he playing with me, luring me away from the door that might admit Rand or Helming to my aid? I swayed in indecision, groaned...
And heard an answering moan, far ahead! The moan of a woman in anguish. A pitiful little sound, muffled and tiny in the vague reaches that seemed endless before me. I forgot myself, forgot Shang. "Where are you?" I called, remembering to pitch my tone low. "Where are you?"
My question rolled into the tunnel, reverberant. It seemed to me I could follow its progress as it wandered off into the dim passage. And after awhile—it must have been at once but to my taut senses minutes seemed to elapse—a feminine voice come back in reply. "Here. Here! Save me. Oh save me!"
The words, the words and the very voice that I had heard before, in my room! I leaped ahead, running, reckless of Shang, reckless of everything except that the golden-haired girl was ahead somewhere, that she was in trouble, needed me.
The passage seemed interminable, my flying feet seemed to be spurning a treadmill that ripped fast and faster beneath them while I advanced not at all. But at last the corridor twisted, I saw light ahead, dull light that seemed bright after the darkness. I heard her voice again.
The voice came from behind a door in the side of the passage, the light from a transom over it. I dug heels to a stop, whirled to the door. Bolts held it shut, two bolts that sank deep into dull-gleaming sockets. I flicked them loose, jerked the door open. And stopped, aghast. "The devils," I gritted. "The lousy devils!"
It was a room like the one in which I had first come to, its walls quilted with gray canvas. It was a cell, a padded cell. But there was no cot there, no furnishing of any kind. There was only a vertical framework of steel, white enameled, a vertical square framework some six feet high. And within it...I balled my fists and cursed those who had done this thing with every malediction in English and Spanish and bastard Indian to which I could lay my tongue.
She hung there in chains, chains that stretched her arms horizontally from her shoulders, that held her little feet together in the center of that fiendish square. She had fainted, her head lolled forward on her bent neck, and her long hair, a ripple of falling sunlight, all but veiled the flaccid but unutterably lovely curves of her slender form. One garment—a flimsy, pastel colored gossamer web—was all that they had left her and through it I could glimpse the golden sheen of her skin. The golden sheen of her skin, and something more! Livid red weals marked that fragile flesh, red marks of a cruel whip like those that still burned on my own cheeks.
I managed to get to her. The chains were not locked, merely hooked together so that they could be easily loosed. I unfastened the lower ones first, then the ones that held her wrists. She fell into my arms. For a moment I held her, shaken by the warm feel of her, for a moment I drank in the sheer young beauty of her face. Then her long lashes trembled against the soft swell of her cheeks, her lids opened, and I was looking into deep blue pools of fear, of terror. "Oh," she gasped, and twisted from my hold. "Oh!" She slid away from me, cowered against the wall. Her mouth quivered.
"Don't be afraid," I said gently. "I'm trying to help you." I slid out of my suit-jacket, tossed it to her. "Here, slip into that, it will make you more comfortable."
As she obeyed she searched my face. "You...why you're the man who...whose room..."
"You ran into when you were trying to get away from Rand. Yes. I tried to help you out then but I wasn't very successful. I'm Hal Armour, at your service." I bowed.
A tiny, fugitive smile lightened her face an instant, and a little of the terror seeped from her eyes. "And I'm Nan Holmes."
Her voice was tight, husky, edged with hysteria. It brought me back to our situation, the danger we were in, the threat of the prowling maniac who for some reason had evaded me. Time enough to ask questions later. "Look here," I said. "We've got to get out of here somehow. I don't know anything about this place..."
"I do. There is a way out."
"Through the big room back there? I'm afraid."
"No. In the other direction. Another staircase."
"Come on then," I began. "If Shang..." I stopped as her eyes flashed wide with renewed terror, stopped and whirled to the door behind me.
The giant stood in the opening, his little head thrust forward, foam dribbling from his protruding lips, his tiny eyes fixed not on me but on Nan beyond me!
I leaped toward him, my fist arcing. But I never reached him. One long arm flicked forward, a back-handed swipe sent me reeling. I twisted, plunged back to the attack. And again the brute crashed me effortlessly away. I skidded along the floor, the wall stopped me. I was half-stunned, my senses were alert but my limbs refused to obey the frantic signals of my brain. I watched Shang's curiously bowed legs shamble slowly toward the girl, watched his hairy fingers curve to seize her, watched the avid, lascivious working of his thick-lipped mouth.
A squeezed, tiny voice whispered, "Hal! Save me, Hal!" It pulled my gaze to Nan, to the terror that struck all beauty from her face, to the hopeless appeal in her eyes.
And suddenly strength was back in my muscles! I rolled over, lifted to toes and spread fingers in a sprinter's crouch, hurled myself at Shang's twisted legs in a football tackle. My arms clamped around his knees, my shoulder struck, and he crashed down.
I had time only to yell, desperately, "Run, Nan, run!" and then the volcano exploded. I was lost in a mad maelstrom of fighting, a frenzy of threshing arms, legs, a whirlpool of bared teeth, ripping nails. The noisome thing I fought was a growling, mad animal; a fanged demon; a volcano of restless fury. But reason, civilization, was stripped from me also. I fought him fang for fang, claw for claw, in a snarling battle that knew no rules, no mercy. Scratching, gouging, biting, I was primordial male battling for my mate, he was ape-man raiding from the dank jungle. He was gorilla-man, his strength triple mine, his maniac fury unconquerable. But for minutes, for long minutes, I held him even.
And then—I don't know how—his shaggy fingers were clamped around my throat, he was atop me, his knees crushing my chest. His drooling, horrible face was close to mine; his yellow, rotted fangs bared by curled back, black lips; his tiny eyes red-blazing with maniac fury. His fingers started to close, my breath was cut off; his fingers were tightening, tightening; his face blurred, was gone in a black mist that veiled my bulging eyes; my lungs were bursting, my fists flailed at his arms that were columns of whipcord and steel; beat weakly, fell flaccidly down...
A SHRILL whistle pierced the mists. I felt the fingers crushing my throat jerk. The whistle came again...above me the monster whimpered. And suddenly the hands were gone from my neck, the weight from my chest. I pulled air into my torn lungs; it cut knife-like. A nausea retched me, I fought it as the haze obscuring my vision faded. Pain pulsed in my throat, my chest, and the floor heaved under me. But I was alive, miraculously I was alive, and Shang was gone! I could see now, and he was nowhere in the room. Nan was gone too. I was alone.
I lay helpless, gasping, gathering strength for the effort to rise. A voice sounded at the door, Helming's giggle. The physician's round face swam over mine, his cold fingers were on my wrist. "You're all right, my boy," he chuckled. "All right."
"Shang," I husked, the words rasping my palate. "Shang."
"He got away. We don't know where he is. He's prowling somewhere around."
Uneasiness flickered in Helming's eyes.
"Why? Why? Why didn't he kill you?"
"His spasm passed, I suppose. It's happened before. But come, we've got to get you to your room, take care of you. You're pretty well bunged up." He slid an arm under me, lifted. With his aid I managed to get to my feet. "How did he catch you, here?"
Something in his face warned me to be careful how I answered. Something in his face, and my suit jacket, lying crumpled in the corner. Its message was plain. "I was looking for him," I mumbled, "and found this room. Heard a sound at the door and there he was. I suppose those are the chains by which he was bound."
"Yes," Helming lied, and relief showed on his rotund countenance, was quickly hidden. "Yes. We keep him here. But he's so powerful when he gets one of his fits that nothing will hold him. When he is running amuck he is dangerous, will kill anyone he sees, on sight. And all we can do is keep out of his way till the spasm passes. But he's never yet succeeded in getting out of this part of the asylum. God help us if he ever does." He wasn't giggling now, fear quivered in his tones. "But we've got to get you to your room. It's late; a good night's sleep is what you need."
I could walk unsupported by now. I followed him out into the dim corridor on which this room fronted, shot a glance to the right as my scalp prickled at the thought that Shang still lurked out there, drooling venom. Helming's flabby hand turned me to the left. We hurried through the dimness, ten paces or so, the corridor turned again, and a staircase lifted ahead of me. "This way," he said. I started to mount. But turned back suddenly to an agonized howl that ripped out from somewhere below.
"Good God," I gasped, staring at another stairs that dipped down to darkness alongside the one I was on. "What was that?"
"Never mind that," Helming giggled, pushing me gently upward. "We have to use some pretty stern discipline here sometimes. One of our inmates was somewhat unruly, and Jim Rand is teaching him a lesson. Jim believes in the old adage, 'spare the rod and spoil the—er...lunatic' It's nothing, though; the fellow is making a lot more noise than what he is getting warrants."
I was too weak to argue, too weak to resist the compulsion with which he urged me on, though gooseflesh prickled along my spine. I recalled the sadistic lust in the big keeper's eyes. No, Rand was scarcely one to spare the rod.
I could still hear those howls as we reached the head of the stairs and a steel-barred gate like that at the other end of the corridor with the numbered doors. Helming swung this open. "The lock on this is broken," he smiled. "I shall have to get it fixed in the morning. No hurry, though. Everyone here knows that these stairs lead only to Shang's quarters, and I assure you no one would try to escape that way." He giggled.
"Suppose he found he could get out through there," I asked. "What then?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. He's due to be quiet for at least twenty-four hours now, and by that time the lock will be fixed." He paused, then said meaningfully. "Of course, if he should get another spasm he'll remember that he didn't finish you off and come looking for you. But here's your room. Pleasant dreams, my boy. Pleasant dreams."
Before I could voice my protest I was in my room and the door had closed behind me. I reeled across the floor, found the cot in the darkness, fell across it. For a long time I lay there, unthinking, feeling only the pain of my wounds, feeling only black despair.
But after awhile thought started again. And I had plenty to think about. Nan, for instance. Was she safe? Had she gotten away? Where was she? What was she doing in this place anyway? There had been terror in her face, fright, but not insanity. By all that was holy her eyes had been sane as mine.
As mine? I groaned. Was I sane? For an instant the panic question reached its livid tendrils into my brain. Even now I was not sure how much that I had seen was real, how much the product of my own fevered imagination. The dreadful quarter-hour when I had crouched in that dark tunnel, trapped, while Shang slithered closer and closer, only to vanish inexplicably...
Inexplicably! So much there was unexplainable in what had passed! Rand's terror, for instance, of the mad monster, and Helming's. Apparently that had not lasted for long, since the doctor had appeared in Shang's very bailiwick not long after and displayed no trepidation. The bolting of the door behind me, why had that been done? To make sure I could not escape from the beast?
And what was it that had saved me at the last? Not a change in Shang's mood but the piercing whistle I had heard. Who had given that whistle, Helming? Rand? If they could control Shang why had they been afraid of him? Were they afraid of him? I caught myself up as my speculations came around full circle. If I kept thinking along that weary treadmill I should go mad. Go mad? Was I not already...
Damn it! I must stop thinking. Sleep. I needed sleep, God knows I needed it. My body was wracked with pain, my limbs water weak. Maybe sleep would clear my mind, bring me strength.
I dreamed of Nan Holmes, her golden hair a shimmering veil through which I caught glimpses of her white body; her rounded arms, pink-tipped hands stretched imploringly to me. Her blue eyes drew mine to them, I looked deep into their cerulean depths; sank deep, deep into their peace, their promise...
And snapped awake! Wide awake, and quivering in the darkness with the sense of danger close at hand! I lay tensed, not stirring, and fought cold fear clutching my throat as Shang's fingers had clutched; fought cold fear and listened...to silence, to dead silence of the silent house. There was no sound. But I knew, knew beyond doubt, that some deadly peril threatened me. I felt its aura, froze in its icy, creeping menace.
There was a sound. No, not quite a sound, a sense of movement, infinitely slow, infinitely cautious movement, somewhere in the room. Against the tautness of my neck muscles I forced my head around, till I could look in the direction from which it seemed to come towards the door. A vague thread of yellow light, vertical, thin as a hairline, bisected the darkness. Imperceptibly it widened, was pencil-thick, was finger-wide. Someone, something, was opening my door! A shout tore at my throat, a scream of fear...but made no sound. Nightmare paralysis quenched it; nightmare paralysis made of me a marble statue in the grip of gibbering, grisly terror. Unbearable terror!
Something blobbed the dim light-line, inch-wide now, something black, serrated. A hand clutching the door edge. A hand whose fingers were hirsute, shaggy with black hair! The hand of an ape. The hand of Shang!!
No! It couldn't be, it must not be. This was a dream, a nightmare of terror. That was why I felt this unutterable fear, which I could not move. It wasn't so! It wasn't...God! What sort of man was I to lie there, motionless, while grisly death crept into the room? I surged from the bed—tried to surge. Something threw me back, held me to the cot, held me helpless. Something! Great Jupiter! It wasn't fear that held me rigid, it wasn't terror! I was strapped down! By all that was fiendish, I was strapped to that bed with the same webbed bands that had been my first experience of this House of Hell!
A low growl twisted my look to the door again; a fetid, animal smell affronted my nostrils. The opening was wider now, wide enough to admit the mad giant's tiny head, wide enough, almost, for his broad, furry, twisted frame. His eyes, peering in, glowed red with the lurid light of madness, I could hear his deep breathing...
He was in! The door swung to behind him, so that only the faintest of light-lines showed that it had not latched. His dark form bulked against it for an instant, vanished. He merged with the darkness, only his eyes showed, his red-gleaming tiny eyes that came steadily toward me, moving faster and faster as the pad of his bare feet slithered toward me along the floor.
And now he loomed close above me, so that I could see his towering form black against the black. And now his fingers touched my cheek, his furry fingers, crept slowly down along my cheek, rasping; drifted along my jaw, under my chin; found my throat...
The door crashed open, light flooded in. The piercing whistle sounded, the mysterious whistle I had heard before. Shang's fingers left my throat, he whimpered, twisting to the door. My own eyes went to it; I glimpsed a figure, a woman; voluptuous curves outlined by light striking through sheer silk of a nightgown, ebony hair-coif above somber eyes. The whistle sounded once more, Shang's bulk blocked the vision from my staring eyes, he swept through the door, it slammed behind him. I heard a contralto voice, berating, its words indistinguishable; heard a squeal like that of a chastised beast, heard the pad of Shang's feet moving away, and heard no more. Heard no more...but lay staring into darkness, cold sweat-damp dewing my forehead...
For a long time I knew only that I had been once more delivered from certain death at the hands of the giant maniac. For a long time my clogged, bewildered brain did not go beyond that bare fact. I think, in those moments, that I was as near the empty, physical shell as ever a man can be this side of the grave.
The Stygian gloom brooding about me was no blacker than that within my soul. The silent house was no more silent than any whisper of hope in my brain. I was in the meshes of a net of horror from which there was no escape, in the hands of fiends from hell itself. Or—I could not keep the dread speculation from my pain-racked brain—or none of these incredible things were real—all were the weird phantasmagoria of a mind wandering in outer darkness.
Slow footsteps moved along the hall, slow shuffling footsteps, something vaguely familiar about their sound. Good Lord, what was going to happen now? They shuffled nearer. A low moan was distinct in the hush, choked by a gasp of terror. And suddenly there were other, running footsteps, a harsh voice bawling:
"Hey you!" Jim Rand's voice, enraged. "Hey!"
The other groaned. I heard Rand reach him, heard a hard thud. I knew, as if I had seen it, that the brutal keeper had slammed the prowler against the corridor wall.
"Damn it! Where are you going? How did you get out?"
"I...I...my door—wasn't latched. I wanted to..."
Deep-chested tones that were yet edged with the thinness of old age. My skin prickled, and I threw myself frenziedly against the webs that held me. My God! Oh my God.
"Yuh wanted to get away. Damn yuh!"
Crack! Crack of Rand's whip on human flesh! His victim screamed.
"No! No! Don't whip me. Kill me but don't use that whip on me!" That voice again, the voice I knew.
The canvas belt cut my skin as I fought against it, fought frenziedly, unavailingly.
"Jim! Jim! Stop it!" Helming's voice, sharp, commanding. "Quit it!"
The physician was nearer. "Take him to his room. And find out how he got out. Hurry." Excitement in his voice, and fear. "Good Lord, if he got away and Dunn knew of it!"
The noises moved down the corridor. A door slammed somewhere. There was silence again.
Silence, and molten ice running through my veins. No question now of my sanity, no question at all! Horror curdled my blood, and then I laughed, laughed silently and long into the rags that stuffed my mouth. Funny, oh how funny it was! I thought, actually thought, I had heard my father's voice. I had heard, real as Rand's gruff, berating tones, the voice of my father who was dead for a month! I laughed till the tears came. What a joke that was, what a funny, funny joke. I would tell it tomorrow to the fellow with the big head who saw eyes all around him, red staring eyes. Maybe it would make him forget his eyes and he'd laugh with me!
Then suddenly I was sobbing, sobbing like a baby. I didn't want to be crazy. I didn't want to hear voices and see things that weren't there, I didn't want to be like those dead-eyed men in the room below who mewed and gibbered, and drooled at the mouth...
I MUST have slept, at length, for I next remember a chill light defining the bare room, and black bars criss-crossing a gray square of sky high up on the wall. I could not feel my body at all so numbed it was. I lay quietly for a while, and despite the throb of pain within my skull, despite the crawling horror of all that I had seen and heard, knew peace, the dull unthinking peace of utter hopelessness.
After a time, though, I became aware of racking thirst. Consciousness of it grew on me till I was suffering the tortures of the damned. I visioned lakes, cool lakes of icy water; foaming cascades leaping down bosky precipices...
"Good morning Mr. Armour. Good morning." I hadn't noticed my door opening, but Helming was in the room, clucking. "I hope you are...er...recovered from your last night's indisposition. You did a lot of running around, remember? And you finally got into a really dreadful fight with one of our other inmates. I had all I could do to separate you. Then after I got you back here and thought you were sound asleep you started screaming again and we had to come in and strap you down. I am very much disappointed in you. Very much."
So that was his game, eh! I was to be convinced that nothing had happened, the way I thought it did. Or...the worms of fear twisted again in my addled brain...perhaps it was so. Good Lord! I started to say something...changed it to a husked demand for water. "Water!"
"Of course. Of course." Glass touched my parched lips and a cooling draught trickled along my tongue. "Gently. Gently. Mustn't gulp it all at once. That would be bad, bad."
I felt a bit better. He withdrew the tumbler, looked at me with smouldering eyes whose corners crinkled with false good humor. "Now, Mr. Armour, do you think we're going to have any more trouble with you? Any more trouble?"
"Trouble?" I said weakly. "I don't want to make any trouble for you."
He giggled. "Good boy. Sensible. Very sensible. If you remember that we shall get along." He chuckled. "Willingness is half the cure, we find. Half the cure. And the other half is remembering that you are not quite...normal, remembering that things are not always what they seem to you. Will you keep that in mind, my boy? Will you?"
Peculiarly, menace had filtered into his face. It had hardened, as once before; had become, for all its pink roundness, a mask behind which lurked utter evil. White lines appeared, running from flat nostrils to mouth corners, and his voice was suddenly flinty. "Armour!" he rasped. "Nothing you thought you saw last night was really so. Nothing at all!" He rapped out the last, and I understood.
Monstrous things crawled in the depths of his tiny eyes—I thought of Rand's black whip, of Nan Holmes chained almost nude in the steel frame, of the wretch whose howls I had heard from the nethermost depths of this hell-hole. My skin crawled. "Nothing happened last night of any importance," I muttered. "I had some bad dreams, that is all."
"That is all." The menace lifted from his countenance, but it left dread in my own heart. "And you wouldn't be foolish enough to tell anyone of those dreams? You have sense enough for that?"
"I have sense enough for that," I parroted. "God help me!"
"Splendid!" His infernal chuckle sounded again. "I have great hopes of curing you yet." His pudgy hands washed one another briskly. "And I have a surprise for you. A pleasant surprise."
What did this portend? What new outrage was germinating in his black mind? I said nothing.
"Yes, a pleasant surprise. A visitor," he simpered. "An old friend of yours has telephoned that he will be here to see you shortly."
"Who?" I managed to say. "Who is it?"
"You will see. You will see. But first we must remove those uncomfortable straps from you, get you in shape to receive your guest. We want you to look nice." He moved to the door. "Jim," he called. "Jim."
Together they took off those accursed bands, and I bit my lips to restrain a scream at the needle-stabbing pain of returning circulation. They massaged me, worked over me, getting a semblance of life back into my tortured frame. Cool water was grateful as Jim sponge-bathed me, and fresh, clean underclothing was an untold luxury. They gave back my suit too, cleaned and neatly pressed, and I began to feel like something human once again. They even brought food to me, toast, and crisp poached eggs, and steaming coffee in a paper cup.
When I had finished the roly-poly doctor collected the paper plates from which I had eaten and waddled to the door. There he turned to me.
"Remember," he said softly. "Remember that I shall be able to hear every word that is said in here. The room is wired for sound."
He giggled again and closed the door behind him. But almost at once there was a knock and the door opened again.
An age-stooped, wrinkled man with the flaring white side-burns of a bygone age tottered in, tears glittering in his rheumy eyes. His arms, held out to me at full length, were shaking visibly.
"Mr. Humperdinck!" I jumped forward to the ancient attorney who had watched over the Armour fortunes for a quarter-century. "Uncle Carl!" I wrung his long-fingered, bony hand. "God, I'm glad to see you!" Glad wasn't the word for it. I quivered inwardly. Was this release at last? Had he come to take me from this house of hell?
He looked at me, his shrunken lips mumbling over false teeth. Emotion was rendering him speechless, his dew-laps shook as he tried to get words out. Behind him Rand closed my room-door softly and I heard the latch click. "Uncle Carl," I said again, and the familiar appellation reminded me of happier days in the rambling old mansion on Fifth Avenue. "How did you find me?"
"The papers," he squeaked. "The newspapers." He fumbled in a pocket of the caped coat he wore, pulled out a Herald-Tribune. I saw the black headlines:
ARMOUR HEIR GOES INSANE
ATTACKS EXECUTOR IN WALL STREET OFFICE
My ink-smudged face stared at me from the page, and my father's! Avery Dunn's too. My hackles rose at the sight of his slant eyes and thin, cruel mouth.
"Thank God! You've come to get me out of here. I should have known you would take care of me. You always have, haven't you, Uncle Carl?"
His lips quivered, and my heart sank at the look in his eyes. "Get you out?" There was pity in them, pity and fear. I rocked back with the appalling realization that he was afraid of me...that he, also deemed me insane. "Why? Aren't they treating you well?"
I thought of Helming's parting warning...he was listening, somewhere, to every word that passed between us. "Of course they are." My tones went flat, dead. "Yes, of course. But—" I dared that much—"But I'm not crazy, Uncle Carl. I'm not!"
"No," he piped, edging toward the door. "Of course you're not crazy. I'll write a letter to the papers and have them correct that statement. You're sick." He was speaking in the cajoling, soothing manner one uses to babies and...lunatics. "You stay here for a while and you will be all right? Dr. Helming impresses me as a very fine man, a man who knows his profession. It is best for you to stay here. Your old friend advises that, Harold. Your old friend and your father's."
My mouth twisted bitterly. There was no help here, I could see that. But there were things I wanted to know. "All right," I said, meekly as I could. "All right if you say so. You know best, Uncle Carl. But sit down and talk to me. I don't know anything of how dad died. Tell me about it."
Relief showed on his face. He sank into the chair, I threw myself across the bed. "Tell me about it, Uncle Carl," I repeated, encouragingly.
"It...it was very sudden," he began, rubbing his thin shanks with his almost transparent hands. "I saw John the night before it happened and he was quite well. More cheerful than he had been for years. I was hopeful that the new companionship he had was bringing him out of the hermit life he had imposed on himself since your mother's death."
"Companionship!" I exclaimed, sitting up. "What...who...?"
Humperdinck blinked at me in owl-like surprise. "Didn't he write you?"
"Mails are slow to Chile," I responded. "And uncertain. To what are you referring?"
"To Mrs. Kahn of course."
"Mrs. Kahn!" This was getting interesting. "Irma Kahn?"
"Yes. Then you do know about her."
I was evasive. "A little. Who is she, Uncle Carl?"
"She claimed to be your father's sister, your aunt. You remember..."
"Yes." The old story woke in my mind. "Yes. He had a younger sister who married a foreigner of some sort..."
"...and went away, was lost sight of. It all happened before I was born."
"That is it. This woman appeared shortly after you left for Iquique and claimed to be she. I was doubtful, started an investigation. But your father insisted on acknowledging her. He took her into the house, and I must say it seemed to do him a great deal of good. But as I was saying, I saw your father the day before his death, we spoke of you—he was very proud of what you were doing with the estancia. He was keen minded, I remember remarking on his marvelous grasp of affairs when we started to draw up his new will."
"To draw up a will. What..."
The old man raised a deprecating hand. "It left everything to you. Everything he possessed, and made Mrs. Kahn his executrix. I advised against that last, but he was obdurate."
I sank back. If I were his sole heir...
"Had it been otherwise I should have been suspicious of something untoward, but the surrogate's court would watch the estate carefully...and there was no reason to dispute probate."
I said nothing, but I was tense with attention. Somewhere here, was the crux of my troubles...the explanation of what I was undergoing. Where was it?
"John—your father—told me that he had put his yacht in commission, was leaving the next day for a short sea trip. 'Irma,' he said, 'advises it, and I think she is right.' He did leave on that trip...and never came back."
"Good Lord! He..."
"He was lost overboard. No one saw him go. He was in the salon—so the report went—playing bridge with the captain, Mrs. Kahn and Mr. Dunn..."
"Dunn was on board!" I broke in. "How..."
"He was a friend of Mrs. Kahn's, had made all the arrangements for the cruise, hired the crew, and everything. As I was saying, your father had been playing bridge, went out on the deck for a breath of air while he was dummy, and, although the yacht was searched from stem to stern, that was the last that was ever seen of him."
I jumped to my feet. "Great Heavens above!" I shouted. "He was murdered! They killed him!" My fists clenched. "They killed him, you old fool, and you let them get away with it."
The lawyer looked frightened, rose, trembling, his old eyes seeking the exit. "Calm yourself, Harold," he quavered. "Calm yourself. Why should anyone kill him? The only one who could gain by his death would be yourself. Surely you didn't sneak on board and murder him."
He said it almost as if he expected me to say that I had done just that. "You were in Chile at the time you know. In Chile."
I controlled myself by a great effort. No use scaring the old man to death. I had gotten all I could out of him. I turned away from him, walked over to the shelf-dresser, and twiddled with the papier-mâché comb that lay there. "I'm sorry," I said slowly. "Forgive me, Uncle Carl. I was excited." Two comb-teeth came away in my fingers. "Of course he wasn't killed. He must have had one of his usual attacks of vertigo, must have fallen overboard. Thanks for coming," I said dully. "I...I appreciate it."
"I had to come. I dandled you on my knee, Harold, when you were knee-high to a grasshopper." He bit his lip; he was at the door, rapping on it.
Dr. Helming pulled the door open. "All through?" he chuckled, rubbing his palms together. "Had a nice visit, I hope. A nice visit."
Humperdinck turned in the doorway, the voluminous fold of his cape filling it. "Goodbye, my boy—Goodbye."
I took his extended hand in my right but my left was busy too. "Goodbye, Uncle Carl. Take care of yourself." Then he was gone, and I was alone again with thoughts that were a scarlet thread through the darkness of my bewildered brain.
I seated myself on the room's one chair, my elbows on my knees, my face buried in my hands. And gradually, as my thoughts wandered in those long corridors of black despair something obtruded on my senses. An almost imperceptible aroma of—ethereal sweetness called to me, warmed minutely the sluggish cold stream in my veins. A tendril of scent still clung to the sleeves of my jacket, of a clean, fresh scent. It was the ghost of the white form my jacket had clothed for moments only, the aura of the golden girl whose blue eyes had twice looked to me for help, for help that I could not give her. Suddenly my breath came faster, my heart pounded hotly, my lips set in a grim, hard line. And I knew there was work for me.
The corridor outside was hushed, silent. Nothing moved out there. From somewhere came a faint murmur of sound, sound repulsive, bestial. That must be from the common-room below where bedlam reigned. I remembered how that room was peopled and caught my breath while an icy shudder took every cell in my body. If they had her there, down there in that place of evil! My teeth gritted. Even if she were in that Avernian pit I would find her, tear her from its unimaginable horror. Even from there! But somehow, calmness came back to me, somehow I felt that it was not there I should find her.
Helming had told me there was a Dictaphone hidden in this room, a metal ear that eavesdropped on every sound within its range. Perhaps someone still listened at its other end. Well, I had passed through much, had had little rest. I rose, stretched and yawned. "God, but I'm sleepy," I murmured aloud. I tossed myself on the cot, its spring creaking. I waited a while, let my breathing grow slower, let a soft snore sound. I snored again, more loudly. Then I was breathing deeply, letting the sound of that breathing die away. I was utterly silent, straining my ears for any intimation that someone stirred in the hall.
The quiet out there was absolute. And the silence within my room was unbroken as I slid slowly, reining my muscles with infinite precaution, from the cot. I lowered myself to the floor, squatting there as my fingers unfastened my shoes and slid them off. Now I was stealthily crawling, moving inch by inch with taut care, so that there was not even the whisper of scraping fabric to—warn any listener I had left the bed. It seemed to me that hours passed before I crossed those few feet to the door.
And now I had reached it, and my hand was lifting, silently, slowly, to purchase on the edge that fit so tightly against the jamb. Blood pounded in my ears, a muscle twitched in my cheek. My palm lay flat against wood—I hesitated—pushed. And the panel moved, moved slightly outward under that gentle shove.
My heart leaped. The two paper teeth that I had concealed between my fingers, that I had pushed into the lock-slot in that door jamb with my left hand as I shook Humperdinck's with my right while his cape concealed my act from Helming; those two paper teeth had jammed the latch so that it had not caught. The asylum-keeper's wily schemes, his paper comb that could not be used as a weapon, his knobless door that needed no lock, had boomeranged against him.
I coughed back a sudden laugh of triumph. The door swung open. I lifted to my stockinged feet and was in the corridor. It was dim, deserted. The steel gates at either end were closed, their bars glimmering in an eerie light. Was Nan up here, behind one of these long rows of dark doors on which numbers were painted? Dared I open them? What if some mindless occupant were to be startled by my appearance, were to scream and bring Helming up here, Rand with his whip? I swayed in indecision, nerving myself to the endeavor.
What was that? I twisted to a sound, midway of the hall, the sound of an opening door. There it was, the panel moving slowly outward. I gasped, started back toward my door. If I could get back there before...But a slim white arm was reaching out of that opening portal, a white, long-fingered hand was moving, was beckoning to me. A whisper, light, feminine, reached me. "In here! Quick! In here, Harold!"
My dash to that door was a flicker of soundless movement. I was in the room, the door shut behind me. And I was staring at...not Nan...a woman tall and stately; a woman about whose rounded, mature form a lacy black negligee clung, half concealing, half revealing; a woman whose olive features were touched with a wistful, appealing sadness; whose lustrous gray eyes, fixed on my face, were flecked with gold.
My lips moved, but made no sound. This dark beauty, this woman whose helmet of ebony hair quivered somehow with vibrant life, whose nostrils flared just enough to show the shell pink of their lining, whose curving lips were dreamy with sensuous promise, what was she doing here in this madhouse? She was no inmate; her poised, insouciant bearing told me that; the fact that her door was not locked, the unbarred window, the luxurious furnishings of her room. I took all this in at a glance, then her voice pulled my gaze back to her, her voice that was the deep throb of a 'cello, resonant, enthralling.
"Harold," she said, "Harold Armour!" and held out both arms to me. The black gossamer web fell back from them, revealed soft curves, glowing skin. "Harold!"
"You know me," I managed to say. "You..."
"But of course. I have a picture of you, Harold, a picture of a chubby, naked infant with a most endearing smile. That was long ago." She sighed, and a world of regret was in that suspiration. "You have changed since that picture was taken, but I still can trace that baby's lineaments in your man's face."
"You have a picture of me," I gulped. "Who..."
"Who am I?" A faint smile touched, just touched, the wings of her luscious mouth. "Your dear father's sister, Harold, your aunt whom you never knew. It was that picture that brought me back from France. I could not bear to think of that baby alone in the world with his sorrow, and I, his only kin, so far away. I rushed back, and when I arrived, last night, my friend Avery Dunn told me that...that..."
"That I was a lunatic who had tried to kill him. That I was in an asylum."
"Yes," she breathed, and a tear trembled in the corner of her eye. "I couldn't believe it. I rushed right out here. It was late and Dr. Helming would not permit you to be disturbed. But he was good enough to offer me this room for the night, and...and I have only just awakened. I heard a movement in the hall, looked out and recognized you, called you in so that I could talk to you alone. Tell me, Harold, tell me that the horrible thing isn't so."
She moved closer to me, her aura seemed to enfold me with an almost overpowering allure. I was drawn to her, drawn by something that was not filial, not the affection of a nephew. My arms crept up to take her within their embrace and suddenly I stiffened. This was Irma Kahn, I remembered, the Irma Kahn who..."I am in an asylum," I said with rigid lips. "Duly committed."
"Oh!" She seemed to feel the change in me. "But they may be mistaken. You were hysterical with grief, unbalanced at the moment. But today..." She made a little gesture with her hand, a pitiful little gesture.
Somehow I felt there was something wrong about her something deadly wrong. The smouldering flame in her eye, the sensuous slow motion of her gorgeous body, the way each little movement displayed new charms, were not compatible with her role of the aunt appealing to her long-lost nephew for affection. They were rather the practiced art of the courtesan, the devious artifice of a woman fighting to awaken in the wanted male—passion! And yet, when that gesture ended with the touch of her fingers on my arm I felt an electric tingle at the point of contact, a tingle that thrilled to my brain and exploded there.
"Let me help you, Harold. Let me help you."
I fought the fever in my veins, fought the unholy sweep of desire that boiled within me. "May I ask," I ventured with tight lips, "whether it was the picture of which you spoke that brought you to my father...to see him die?"
"Harold!" She veiled quickly, but not quickly enough to hide from me, the sudden stab of startlement, of hate, of malevolence that flared in her eyes. "How could you say a thing like that?" I felt suddenly like a wearied swimmer who feels firm ground under his feet at last. "I came to my brother because I was at last free to come after long years of separation. His tragic end," her voice broke, "almost killed me too." I had said so little, so very little, to induce this outburst!
But she recovered quickly. She came closer, so that she was pressed against me, her warm breath was sweet in my nostrils, her great, lustrous eyes were demanding, urgent. Her hands slid up along my arms, were around my neck. "Harold," she throbbed, "dear boy. Don't thrust me away. I have starved for love, for the love of my own, so long, so long."
I was certain now she was not, could not be my aunt. And that certainty was all the worse for me. For the kisses trembling on her lips were there for me to take, the hot pulse of her blood found an answer in the pound of my own heart. A maelstrom of desire whirled in my reeling brain, a great voice shouted in my ears. "Take it. Take what she is offering. What difference who she is, what she is? She is woman, incarnate woman, and the delights that are yours for the asking are such as you never yet have tasted."
In another moment...Thin sound came to me from beyond the door. A scream! A woman's scream! Nan's scream! It came again. I threw Irma from me, saw her reeling, saw the agonized frenzy in her eyes, and whirled, plunged out.
The faraway scream came again, from my right—from the staircase up which Helming had led me last night—the staircase that dropped down to darkness, to the mazed labyrinth where Shang prowled. Great God! I lunged toward the gate, got my hands on it, pulled. It swung open; the lock had not been repaired! I pounded down toward where Nan's cries came again and again, but fainter, further away.
IT WAS a well of darkness down which I hurled myself, a well of darkness veiling the Lord alone knew what dread secrets. But far below I could hear the faint shrieks of the golden girl; her shrieks, and a snuffling, growling rebuttal that told me the mad giant had her. Shang had her, and was taking her...where?
I reached the first landing, where was the passage into the corridor where first I had met the madman. I stopped, listened. The cries I had heard did not come from below, from the further descent whence had come other howls, howls of anguish at which the round-faced owner of this madhouse had giggled. I whipped on, down into that mystery.
Nan's anguished screams were close ahead. Close! Was I in time to save her? The stone steps down which I hurtled twisted. I pounded around the last projecting corner of sweating gray granite...and crashed against something that threw me back with tremendous force, the force of my mad plunge! I sprawled, stunned for an instant, lifted to my feet, and saw that a steel-barred gate closed an arched doorway. Beyond there was a vaulted, dark chamber walled with slimy stone. The girl's shrieks, distant again, burbled into sudden, appalling silence.
I hurled myself at those bars. They were locked. I battered at them, yelling incoherently; tossed my quivering body at them. My jacket ripped from my shoulders. My arms, my forehead, dripped blood, a gush of warm liquid spurted across my cheek, but the barrier at which I battered was immovable. I clung to the bars at last, stared through them with eyes that must in that moment have been truly insane.
Dimness fronted me, dungeon dimness and blacker shadows lying across green-scummed pools that made the broken-boarded floor of the dungeon a noisome plain. Loathsome things scuttered in veiling gloom. A sudden howl of agony twisted my head to the right as my heart came into my throat. Light flooded across another arched doorway there, light somehow lurid, and beyond it...Oh God!...bathed in that bloody glare a naked form hung, its bare toe-tips just scraping the floor! The writhing form of a man hung like that from chains clamped to his wrists; his back was toward me, and across that quivering back crimson weals dripped slow-oozing, ruby droplets that ran in gory rivulets to mingle with the sweat of agony glistening on his tortured frame!
Crack! Black, snake-like, a whip lashed from the door-side and sliced across that agonized back. It wrung another howl from the man, convulsed his suspended form with a spasm of pain that jerked his taut legs from the floor. The steel cuffs to which the chains were fastened cut into his stretched wrists, and from these too rivulets of blood streamed down his muscle-bulging arms.
A shuffling sound jerked my eyes to the left, a shuffling sound and the smack of bestial lips. A misshapen thing loomed in the blackness. It came nearer, nearer? I saw it distinctly. And rocked to supreme horror!
It was Shang! His diminutive head was out thrust from the awful spread of his tremendous shoulders, little lights were crawling in his beady eyes, spittle drooled from the corners of his thick-lipped, lascivious mouth. His hairy, simian chest heaved with crazed emotion, his bowed legs shambled through slime, and one swarthy arm hung loosely at his side, so long that its knuckles were inches from the scummy floor. The other...frantic protest shrieked soundlessly in my squeezed throat...the other arm was curled around the waist of a limp form, the form of a girl, the form of Nan!
She hung flaccid, her long golden hair trailing the mire, her upturned eyes open but staring senselessly in some strange rigor of uttermost terror. The clothes had been ripped from her torso...I saw the corded muscles of her matchless neck, the soft round of her breasts that a vagrant gleam of ruddy light just tipped with fire...
"Shang! Shang! Oh God, Shang!" I screamed to the monster in some mad hope that by my voice alone I could stop him from the horror to which he stalked. "Shang!" I thrust my rasped arms through the bars. "Don't Shang, don't!" He prowled on, and not even the twitch of a muscle showed that he had heard me. But I flared with sudden hope. He was shambling closer, closer, perhaps...He was right before me, my extended bands clawed for his arm. But did not reach, just, did not reach! Oh God Almighty! Oh God!
The grotesque being stalked on, a red glow in his pig-like orbs, obscene expectancy in his gargoyle face, shambled on in a solitude where there was neither sight nor sound. He swerved away from me, was swallowed up by blackness this side of the red-lighted archway, by blackness veiling some dark cave, some lair to which he had dragged his prey. But just before he vanished I saw a flicker of light come into Nan's eyes, a flicker of dread awakening.
I rattled the bars, shook them as if I would tear them apart with my bare hands, shrieked my soul's torture through them. And my shrieks were answered by other screams, shrill screams of supernal agony, of terror beyond comprehension, shrill screams from the black cave where Shang had borne his victim.
"Harold! What is it, Harold?" I whirled to a voice behind me. Irma Kahn! Her eyes glowing, her face alight with strange feeling. "Why did you run from me, my dear?" Light from above struck through the tracery of her lacy garment, showed her voluptuous curves, the black coif of her hair. And I remembered! Remembered the woman who had appeared in my doorway, the woman whose whistle had called Shang from my throat. Thank God!
I leaped for her, clutched her arm. "Irma," I cried. "Irma. Whistle for him. Whistle for Shang. He's got a girl there, Nan! Call him off. Quick! Quick!"
She pulled away from me, shrugged me off. And laughed in my face! "Call him off," she gurgled. "Call him off from that girl you prefer to me! Not I, dear boy. Not I! Why worry about her when you can have me." Her eyes were suddenly slumberous. "When you can have me?"
My hand fisted, raised above her. "Call him or I'll kill you." I was frothing at the mouth. "I'll tear you limb from limb, I'll do to you what he is doing to her."
"You'd strike me, Harold," her voice husked. "You'd strike me." Her hands came up, a quick movement and the black lace fell from her, she was a white flame in the dimness, a white flame of beauty. Her head went back, her arms flung wide.
I rocked on my feet, the solid walls whirled about me. Oh God! O good God! And suddenly I was laughing, shrieking with laughter, with wild laughter that tore my throat, that ripped my lungs. We were crazy! We were all crazy! She and Shang and Nan and I! We were all stark raving mad!
Hinges squealed behind me, hinges squealed and the roar of an enraged animal thundered in my ears. I whirled. Shang was leaping through the open gate, his mad eyes glittering, his great arms sweeping out. His mouth was open and the insensate beast's roar was coming from it. I crouched, fear driving away madness, crouched to meet his attack. He plunged past me—Great Jupiter—he plunged past me and dived for the woman behind me, for Irma Kahn. I heard her scream, glancing around I saw her turn and run, a white, stark-naked figure, up the stone stairs. And after her plunged the hairy brute, the maddened giant, doubly crazed now by jealousy!
They disappeared around the stair-curve. But I whipped through the steel gate, open at last, whipped through—to meet Jim Rand plunging from the red lit archway beyond. "Hey," he roared, and his whip swept up—his whip swept up dripping blood, sliced down at me. But I wasn't there. Taking a leaf from his own book I had dodged. He staggered with the force of the missed blow, my hand darted forward lightning-like, and ripped the whip from his grasp. He launched a fist-blow at me. I parried it with the whip and slashed at his face.
The reddened lash cut a weal across his cheek. He squealed, lunged at me. But I had gone completely berserk. The memory of the brutal whipping he had administered to me lent me strength, the memory of all he had done. My arm rose and fell, rose and fell, and the whip lash whistled through the air, crashed about his face, his shoulders. I remembered the howling victim on whom I had seen him use this very scourge, and slashed at him again. He crouched, sprang. His hard fists landed somewhere on me...I heard their thud...but still I beat at him with the thong that was his own weapon, beat at him through red mists of wrath, through a seething haze in which I could see only his face, dripping blood, and the black thread of my whip snaking across it.
Sheer exhaustion stopped my arm at last. I looked down at the quivering, senseless hulk lying in the slime at my feet, the faceless horror that had been Jim Rand. A modicum of sanity came back to me, and I shuddered. Good God! Had I done this? I? Then my mouth twisted bitterly. It was a dreadful fate that had overtaken him. But it was richly deserved. Richly deserved!
I twisted to his latest victim. A glance showed me that his sufferings were over. That which hung in those chains would feel pain no longer. He had escaped in the only certain way, from the hell of insanity, from the devil that was Jim Rand. I envied him.
But there was something I still had to do. What was it? Something about a girl, a girl with golden hair. Of course. Nan. Nan Holmes. She was somewhere in here. But where?
A low moan answered me, a low moan from the darkness where I could see the arched mystery of a low doorway. I staggered to it, and through.
The red light entered here not at all. But I could see something, a very little, in the gloom...could see a pale bundle that moved. I got to it, knelt to it. A wee small voice moaned a word, a name. My name! "Hal. Save me, Hal."
And I was wholly sane again. "Nan," I groaned. "Nan," getting my arms under her, lifting her. "Nan! Hal's here. I'm here, and I won't let him touch you again."
Her arm slipped around my neck, she nestled in my embrace like a little child as I struggled to my feet. "Safe, Hal Safe," she murmured. She was so light, so light in my arms, and so sweet. I turned to make my way out of that cave. Out of that cave to where? Where in this house was safety for me...for Nan?
I turned, and halted. The red light out there was flickering strangely, was brighter than it had been before. A foul, acrid odor stung my nostrils... the pungent odor of smoke. Good Lord! As I reached the exit from the cave, came out into the dungeon proper, flames crackled. I twisted toward the ominous sound. And saw what I could not have seen when I battered against the gate, what I had overlooked in the furious melee of the fight with Rand.
A brazier had burned within the torture chamber, a caldron of fire in which I saw them scattered now—irons heated for what unholy purpose I could only guess—and guessing know renewed satisfaction at the punishment I had meted out to Rand. But now that brazier was overturned—probably while I battled with the keeper—its coals were strewn over the wood floor of that horror cell—and a sheet of fire was sweeping across the room. Even as I looked a tall tongue of flame shot up, licked at the hanging corpse!
The sight shattered a nebulous plan I had formed of hiding with Nan somewhere in this labyrinth. I must get out, get her out, at once. I leaped for the entrance where the steel gate still hung open, leaped up the staircase. I must get out...
At the head of the first flight I turned into the dim passageway where I had my first meeting with Shang. My skin crawled at the recollection, but I pressed on. The tunnel echoed with my incautious footsteps, and then suddenly another sound drowned their reverberations. Sounds rather; shrieks, catcalls, an agonized scream, pandemonium that was worse than anything I had yet heard! Something was going on in the common-room where the mad inmates of this asylum were gathered! I must know what it was before I dared take Nan out there.
But if I left her here, and she came to before I returned? Came to, and frightened, ran off somewhere where I could not find her. I paused in indecision. And she stirred in my arms.
"Nan," I whispered. "Nan. Are you awake?"
"Yes, Hal, I'm awake." She squirmed, got her feet down, clung to me. I sensed little tremors running through her frame, tiny shoulders that spoke vividly of her grueling experience.
A question burst from my lips, a question that had agonized me since I had found her in that cave. "Nan. Did he? Did Shang...?"
She shuddered. "No. Thank God. No. I screamed when I realized where I was, fought him off for a second. And then he heard a voice from outside, growled and rushed off. I fainted, I guess. But somehow I knew you were near, were coming to save me. How...?"
"Never mind that now." The faint, acrid odor of smoke warned me that I must hurry. "Listen Nan, stay here a moment. I want to take a look out there." Her hand snatched at my wrist. "Don't leave me here, Hal. I'm afraid. Let me go with you."
"Nonsense. There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Nothing to be afraid of!" She threw a fearful look over a shoulder, a wide-eyed look into the shadows. "Shang!"
The very name sent a pang of fear through me. I thought of her slight form in the monster's grip once more! "All right. Come along, then. But stay behind me, and be ready to run if I give the word."
It was thus that we crept through the rest of that dim passage, I in front, she behind, while louder and louder came the turmoil ahead, the shrieking tumult that was like a crazed horde of jungle beasts battling in the steamy night, while stronger and stronger came the fire-smell from behind. And thus at last we came to the nail-studded door that opened to the hell-pit where Helming's mad creatures were.
Hell-pit indeed! The door was slightly ajar, and the sounds that came from behind it transcended all that hell could offer. I singled out of the thunderous babble of sound a sepulchral voice that howled, "The Old Guard dies but never surrenders. Up and at them!" Someone else babbled, over and over, "Fly fly. It's the end of the world." I recognized the wail of the big-headed little man, "Eyes, eyes. They've got my eyes. O Holy Mother have mercy. Have mercy!" And then, cutting knife-like through pandemonium, a woman shrieked, her scream wire-edged with infinite terror! I pushed my head around the door-edge...
Impossible to describe that scene! The big room was a seething, boiling mass of fury, of grotesque figures milling in an indescribable, frenzied storm; swirling about some center whose nucleus I could not at the moment make out; and from there that terrorized scream came again and again, vibrant with fear, with horror. Another sound joined it, the ululation of a furious beast, the booming battle-cry of a combat-frenzied gorilla.
Suddenly the maelstrom split. Something hurtled out of it, a wizened, spidery creature bowling through the mad horde as if catapulted by some gigantic machine. I saw Shang, his long arms recoiling from the throw; his fangs exposed, ferocious; his hairy chest a mass of clotted blood. And behind him I glimpsed the white, nude form of Irma Kahn, blood-streaked, all beauty contorted from her face as-her open mouth vented shriek after shriek of mortal terror.
The inferno closed around them at once, what I had seen was but the momentary flickering of a camera shutter, and the mad throng surged forward. The bang of a shot jerked my eyes to the side, to the staircase. Helming was crouching there, his face fish-belly gray, a gun smoking in his hand as it jerked with another shot at the frenzied mass that leaped, yelling and gibbering, about Shang and his mistress. Helming wasn't giggling now, his little eyes bulged out of the layers of fat, his tiny mouth quivered...
A conglomerate shriek greeted the asylum-keeper's second shot, and suddenly the mad horde was streaming across the floor toward him. He turned to run. His gun crashed. Arms, clawed hands reached for him, caught him. He went down, screaming, under a piled mass of horror.
All this had happened in seconds, in a time so short that my head was still moving past the door-edge, a time too short for me to have done anything had I so willed. Now my eyes swept back to where I had seen Shang and Irma Kahn. They were still there...the woman prostrate, the shaggy giant bending over her. I started forward, stopped, irresolute.
"Oh, go get her, Hal," the girl's whisper sounded in my ear. "You can't leave her there for...for those." She had read my thought. "I'll be all right. Hurry!"
I darted out from my covert and Shang rose to meet me. Ice chilled my blood. Were we to battle again, the gorilla-man and I? He crouched, steadying himself on his bowed, twisted legs and the knuckles of one long arm. His features were a leering gory mask from which his malevolent little orbs stared out, his body was mangled, torn, the great muscles exposed. As I neared I heard a whimper, half of pain, half of defiance, issue from his contorted lips. I tensed for his plunge.
But it never came! He jerked aside as I reached him, jerked aside, whimpering. And I realized that his eyes were watching me not at all, that they were directed past me, to the frenzied mass that still boiled on the stairs. Wondering, I bent to Irma, lifted her bleeding, unconscious body, turned back to the door. And realization burst on me of what Shang feared!
For there was a sudden yell from the madmen on the stairs. The mass there disintegrated, streamed toward me. I saw red-dripping claws outstretched, red-smeared mouths in nightmare visages. I tried to break into a run for the door behind which Nan waited but panic rocked me as I knew that they must reach me before I could make that shelter. Weak, exhausted, I staggered and nearly fell, pulled myself erect and staggered on. Through a whirling, dizzy mist I saw Nan's white face staring from the doorway, her imploring arms out-flung. I heard her far-away scream: "Hurry, Hal, Hurry!"
The burden on my shoulder weighed a ton; my legs moved through some viscous, clinging fluid; the obscene imprecations, the animal howls of the mad pack on my heels were louder, nearer. I could feel their hot breath on my neck, their hands twitching at my sleeves. I...couldn't...make it. "Close the door, Nan," I yelled. "Close the door and get away."
She made no motion to obey, but her finger extended, pointing. "Come on, Hal," she screamed. "Keep coming. Look!"
I twisted my head to where she was pointing, and saw the distorted faces, the foaming mouths of the maniacs hunting me. Saw them close, terribly close. But I also saw Shang's huge shaggy figure lunging to meet them, saw his bared fangs slice the throat of one screaming madman, saw his great hands reach out and snap the necks of two others, saw him lift these last victims and use their writhing bodies as clubs to slug back the oncoming horde.
I plunged on. Nan was right in front of me. I sprawled as I reached her, sprawled through the door she held open and broke Irma Kahn's fall as I sprawled. I twisted, through the closing door I glimpsed Shang dragged down at last, heard his final howl, a howl, strangely, of triumph, and the door slammed shut, blotting out the sight. I heard the rattle of a bolt as Nan shot it home.
I rolled from under Irma, staggered to my feet. Nan went to her knees at the woman's side, reached for her wrist. There was a roaring in my ears, and my chest heaved, struggling for the breath that had been robbed from me by the terrific exertions I had just been through, exertions that would have ended in my own horrible death had it not been for Shang. I thought of my last glimpse of the monster, of his sacrifice, looked at the woman for whom he had made that sacrifice, and contrasted the two dazedly. Shang had been evil, a prowling, dangerous monster, but his evil had come from a darkened mind. Hers was the greater sin!
Nan looked up at me. "She's dying, Hal." I bent, swiftly. There was no beauty left in that mangled face, only the hard lines of an evil life, the tortured lines of pain that wracked her even in her coma. Her eyelids flickered open, terror flared in the gray orbs that I had last seen aflame with foul passion.
Terror flamed in them, and died away. She smiled, actually smiled. Her bloody lips moved, faint words whispered from them. I bent closer. "Kiss me, Harold," she breathed. "Kiss me."
Her blood was salty on my lips. She quivered, her eyes glazed, and life fled from her with a sigh. But the smile remained, hovering about her mouth, the smile that showed she had died as she had lived. Died with the thrill of passion obliterating all else.
"Hal!" Nan's voice broke into my brief thoughts. "Hal. Listen!" I was suddenly aware of a thumping echoing about me, a pounding of fists against wood. "We've got to get away from here, they'll have the door down in a minute."
"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. "I'll say we must." I grasped her wrist, started of. "We'll try upstairs." The battering of the maniac horde echoed around us in the passage, menacing. And there was something else in the passage, a red glare, the crackle of flames. I realized suddenly what the roaring in my ears was, why I had been able to see the dying woman's face so clearly. The fire from below was gaining headway, was roaring up the staircase ahead, the staircase that was our only path to safety! And behind wood splintered, and the howl of the lunatic pack was more distinct.
We broke into a run, exhaustion forgotten, plunged around the last curve in the tunneled corridor. At its end great tongues of flame roared, red flame shot through with yellow, with virulent green. Behind a tremendous crash sounded, and thundering footsteps echoed warning of the oncoming swarm. We were caught between the blaze of hot, devouring flame and the bloody mouths, the gory, tearing claws of the shrieking mob that was hunting us down at last.
THERE was no choice, no choice at all. Rather death in the flames than what those mad men and women would do to us! Not pausing in my desperate run, I ripped off the tattered remnants of my coat, flung it around Nan's head, her golden hair. Then I had her in my arms, the roaring chimney of fire was just ahead, and I had plunged into it.
I held my breath and my eyes were shut as the glare, the heat enfolded me. My eyes were shut, but a picture of that landing, the two staircases, was clear in my mind. I lunged for the one ascending, felt its steps under my feet, pounded upward. Heat swirled about me, heat that singed my hair, charred my skin. Heat swirled about me, diminished as I fled upward and a cooler breath told me I was through the flames, that I dared breathe again.
My eyes opened, I saw the upper corridor stretching before me, the long rows of closed and numbered doors. Pain seared me where the flames had burned, but a great joy flared within me. I had won through, won through with Nan! I had plunged through the fire at the last possible moment of escape, and nothing could stop me now. Somehow I would get out of here, get Nan out of here. I knew it then; despite the deadly peril we still were in I knew that I should win through.
I set the girl down, pulled the coat away from her head. Her face, her glorious hair, were untouched. "All right, Nan?" I gasped.
Her eyes were aglow. "All right, Hal. But you?"
"A little charred, but I'll do. Lots of fight in me yet, and we're going to need it." I grinned. "One thing we've got to thank that fire for, those fellows can't get through it at this end, and the steel gate down there will keep them back at the other. We've only one problem now, how to get out of here ourselves."
Panic came back into her face. "But Hal, we can't. The only way out is down again. The windows up here are all barred. We're shut in. Oh Hal," fear strained her voice, "we're trapped up here to burn."
That fear was echoed in my own heart. And then I remembered! "No, Nan. The windows are not all barred. There's one in that room," I pointed to the door through which a white arm had beckoned me, was it only an hour ago, "through which we can climb."
"Are you sure, Hal? Sure?"
"Of course I am. We'll be out of here in minutes. Nothing more is going to happen to us in this place."
I spoke confidently, but I was wrong. Dead wrong.
WE WERE in the luxuriously furnished room where still clung the warm, musky scent of the woman who lay, stripped of clothing and life itself, somewhere below. Dusk was already graying the window as I pulled up the sash and looked out. There was grass, below, a lawn edged by a tall hedge. Grass...across which a red light danced. I pulled my head in quickly, that red light told me that time pressed, that the rooms below must be a roaring furnace by now. "Hurry, Nan," I grated. "We'll tear these sheets in ribbons, make a rope-ladder to climb out."
She had anticipated my suggestion, had pulled the silk counterpane back, was dragging the white linen from the bed. I took a sheet, started to rip it...and stopped as a dull pounding sounded from without!
Nan put a shaking hand on my arm.
"What is it, Hal—that sound?" she quavered.
"Sounds like some poor devil caught in his room up here. I'll go and see...you get these sheets torn."
The corridor was already filled with a haze of pungent smoke, through which lurid luminance flickered. The thumping was coming from my left, from the end room. I ran to it—the number was twenty-four—and jerked the door open. Jerked the door open and fell back, my jaw dropping as I stared at the apparition within.
The room reeled about me, the floor heaved. A bubbling scream rose to my lips—I choked it back and pawed at the swirling air. Good God! This little man, gray hair, shaggy eyebrows over deep-set, somber eyes—was my father! Dad! Great Heavens! It couldn't be—it couldn't be! Dad, my dad was dead!
Now again, for one horrible instant, the old terror flooded back on me, the old fear that I was insane! Insane—seeing visions, hallucinations, things that were not, that could not be! Then a familiar voice broke through to my swimming brain. "Hal! Hal my boy!"
Dad's fragile hands reached out to me. Even in that moment it wrung my heart to see how lined his countenance was with suffering, how old he was. "Hal! It can't be. It can't be Hal!"
Flame was roaring behind me, black smoke swirled around us. But I did not know it. "It is," I screamed. "It is Hal, Dad." Light flashed in his old face for an instant, then it went blank. He reeled, would have fallen had I not caught him. I lifted him, slung him to my shoulder.
"Hurry, Hal, Hurry!" Nan's voice calling from the room where was the only exit. "The fire..."
"Coming," I gritted, and staggered toward the voice. "Coming." I needed the guidance of her. "Hal! In here," for the smoke-fog was dense now in the corridor, impenetrable. Choking, spluttering, I reeled into the room, heard the door slam behind me. Fresh air from the window revived me.
"I've got the rope ready, tied and tested," Nan said in my ear. My clearing vision saw that this was true, that she had shoved the bed to the window and knotted the long streamer of torn sheeting to one of its posts.
"All right, dear. Slide down, and I'll let dad down to you."
"Dad?" her voice shrilled with surprise.
"Yes. My father. And they told me he was dead! But hurry."
I was crouched behind the hedge that ran along what seemed a street. I was chafing dad's old hands as he lay outstretched on the grass. Nan was beside me, crouching too. Behind us was pandemonium, maniacal screams, bestial howls racketing from the dark bulk of the asylum we had escaped, a dark bulk broken by oblong holes of red flame striped by black bars of steel. Overhead the high arch of a bridge loomed, a high arch I knew. It was Hell Gate Bridge!
"We're in Astoria, Nan," I muttered. "Astoria."
"Yes," she said. "I know. Oh Hal, he isn't...?"
"No. Just fainted. He'll be all right." Feet thudded along the street I peered through the hedge, saw brass buttons and the blue coat of a policeman. He was reaching under his coat for a gun, his face was white and staring as he pounded toward the madhouse where all hell had broken loose. I started to call to him—and choked the cry off just in time.
Good Lord! I—an escaped lunatic—a madman loose from a place where my fellows were tearing their keepers to bits—had been about to call to the law! If I had Nan and dad and I would have been prisoners again, prisoners with all the long intricacy of the law's red tape to unravel! I shuddered. Never again would I be behind steel bars—never again.
A fire siren sounded, far off.
A new terror closed in on me—now, the terror of the hunted. We were pariahs, outcasts, and every man's hand against us. "Hal," Nan whispered. "He's awfully cold. I'm afraid..."
A police whistle shrilled out in the street, glass smashed behind me as the officer already there broke a window to find entrance. I must get away, must find a hiding place for Dad and Nan...but where? In all New York...the answer flashed on me...in all New York there was only one haven of safety for us, the old Armour mansion on Fifth Avenue.
The second policeman rushed across the fire-lit lawn. The fire sirens, the clangor of fire-bells, were nearer now, much nearer. I must act, act now, before these grounds were a mass of men, before we were discovered here under the hedge. But how...how get to sanctuary across Queens, over a long bridge that would be an inescapable trap, across half New York?
Brakes squealed out on the street, and tires scraped. I peered again through the leafy barrier that hid us. A taxi had stopped, and its driver leaned out, gazing curiously at the blazing building set far back on its sloping lawn.
It was no conscious plan that lifted me to my feet, that sent me hurdling over the hedge, that threw me headlong across the walk and fastened my hands around the startled throat of that cabman before a sound could rip from it. Before he could cry out—but not before panic, terror, could stare from his bulging eyes to remain in my memory forever. I thumped his head against the steel post of his hack. He went limp under my hands, and I had hauled him out of his seat, had flung him over the hedge and was myself in shadow again in seconds. Seconds only it took for the desperate deed! Poor fellow—he must wake at night to see a wild-eyed, murderous-visaged maniac leap at him from the night, to see clutching hands reach for his throat...
"Run for the cab, Nan," I grunted, as I tore off his cap, his coat. "Run." She obeyed, and I was close behind her with the cabbie's coat on my own frame, his cap on my head, and Dad's still limp form in my arms. I pushed my father in through the rear door, to Nan's waiting arms, and then I was behind the wheel, the motor was roaring to life, and the cab was gliding away from the flaming pyre where we had all endured so much.
If the capture of the taxi was an explosion of action during which time did not move at all, the slow drive that followed was an infinite unreeling of tortured crawling. I dared not speed, I dared violate no rule of the road; every red light glared danger at me, every policeman was a beetle-browed menace. But I knew that in the darkness of the cab behind me were my father, my old father returned from the dead—and the girl I loved!
Here at last, was the Park on my left. Dark facades flicked past, and there was the squat, red-gabled mansion where I was born. Home! But—I gasped and my blood ran cold once more—from an upper window, wide and arch-topped, yellow light streamed! I groaned. Someone was in the house! Someone was in the upstairs sitting-room! Oh God! Was it not over yet? Were the police waiting here for us, outguessing my plans?
There were people on the sidewalk, a bus crawled past. I dared not hesitate a second—cabs were not allowed to park on this sacrosanct Avenue. The opening in the high fence invited me, where the driveway curved to the porte-cochère. I wheeled the cab in there, followed the old path around to the rear of the house, throttling the engine down to a merest whisper. The stables were still back there, long unused.
How I blessed my father then for his refusal to yield to my urging that he tear those stables down and sell the useless ground. "You can do that after I die, Hal," he had said. "It was like that when I brought your mother here and like that it shall remain till I join her." Now, in our dire need, the ruined barn offered a hiding place for the cab and its precious load.
I slipped from my seat, glanced in back. Dad seemed to be asleep, so quietly he lay, his head pillowed in Nan's lap. "Stay here a minute, dear," I whispered. "I want to take a look-see before I bring you and father into the house."
Something in my tone must have alarmed her, though I had tried to keep it even. "Hal. Is anything wrong? Is..."
"No," I lied. "I just want to be careful. Can't afford to take chances now. Be a good girl and wait here quietly till I call you."
I turned away, as memories of boyhood flooded back. There was a drainpipe at the corner of the structure here, a pantry roof that jutted out, and a pillar that one could climb. Soundlessly I moved, soundlessly I climbed. Just as I had done, long ago, on many a childish escapade. But no excitement throbbed in my veins tonight. Only fear. Fear for dad, and Nan. Only fear.
The window to my old room scraped only slightly as I raised it, but it brought my heart into my mouth. I froze, listening. A distant murmur of voices came to me, but no indication that I had been heard. I slid over the sill, into darkness.
White shapes loomed in the gloom. For an instant I was startled, then realized they were the furniture with dust sheets thrown over. I knew every inch of this place, every creaking board. It would have been a sharp ear indeed that could have heard my passage as I flitted through silent, familiar rooms.
Now I was in the dark hall, was slithering toward where a line of light edged drawn portières to show the occupied room. I was near enough to hear glasses clink, and a toast, in Avery Dunn's oily, hateful voice. "Here's to the Armour estate, my dear fellow. Long may we administer it."
Another voice answered, a voice I had often heard in this house, Carl Humperdinck's quavering, age-thinned voice! Good Lord! "I—I don't know whether I ought to drink that toast. I—when I saw the boy this morning my heart sank. That fine youngster..."
"Stop!" Dunn's command cracked across the old man's trembling accents. "Stop right there. You're in this thing too deep to turn back. You started it, and you're going to finish it. The time to get cold feet was at the beginning."
Uncle Carl groaned. "Yes. Yes, I know. But when you came to me and threatened me with that old misdeed of mine I thought so safely hidden I lost my head. I was old, old and I knew the disgrace of exposure would kill me. I was weak, and you led me on slyly. You said all you wanted was some inside information about some of the families for whom I was attorney. I didn't know that it would lead to...these hellish plots of yours. Two fine young people driven mad," my head snapped up to that, "my oldest friend murdered..."
"Not murdered," Dunn put in, silkily. "Not murdered. The old man Armour is still alive...I confess I don't like the thought of the electric chair you people reserve for...killers...in this country."
I heard a chair tip over as the old man jumped to his feet "Still alive!" he quavered. "My God! Where...where is he?"
Dunn laughed. "In the same place as his son, and your other little client, Nancy Holmes," My teeth gritted at that, and the red mists gathered before my eyes once more. So Nan was their victim too, she was sane, sane as I! But I did not move. I wanted to hear more. "A false bulkhead in my stateroom on Armour's own yacht, a rowboat stealing through the night from her berth in the Sound, and the thing was done. Sit down, you old fool, and drink. At least you haven't got that on your conscience."
Liquid gulped down an old throat. Humperdinck's speech thickened. "Not on my conscience. No. An' Hal...not on my conscience either. He...he is really insane isn't he?" There was a pleading note in the question. "He did attack you in your office, did have hallucinations. Crazy...crazy as a loon."
"No." Dunn's tone was suddenly boasting. "No, he wasn't crazy then!"
"Not crazy! But how could that be? Surely he was posed, with a knife in his hand, when your clerk broke in, ready to plunge it in your heart."
"Of course he was. But I had posed him like that." I leaned closer, the blood thumping in my temples. So it had been a fraud, that mad scene in the man's office. A fraud! "That little scene was my masterpiece. I must tell you about it, my dear ancient.
"You see," he went on. "I have two men whom I can trust absolutely; Hassim, an Indian Dacoit, and Abdul. When young Armour burst into my office, as I expected he would, Hassim was posted behind the side door. At the proper moment I signaled him, and he called out, 'Hal. Hal Armour! Watch out!' You should have seen young Armour's face when he heard that. I almost laughed in his face."
"Yes, yes. But what happened then?"
"Hassim choked, then cried out for help. Armour dived for the door, flung it open. Just as I figured he would from the information you gave us as to his character. Hassim had turned around. He had his own hands at his throat, and a big mirror in the opposite wall that made the room appear twice as long as it really is wide, also reflected him so that it seemed to Armour that there were two men struggling."
"Couldn't he see the reflection of the doorway where he stood?"
"The mirror was canted a bit, so that it would not show that. And besides, the fellow had time only to glimpse the apparent fight before I threw a knife past his head and into a bladder of red ink Hassim had under the back of his coat. That twisted Armour around, and he saw the second knife poised in my hand. He leaped for me, and the instant he did so Hassim pulled a lever that turned a section of the wall in my office around, so that the door was hidden and the wall was solidly lined with bookshelves. After that Hassim had plenty of time to adjust matters in that other room so that it was utterly different from what Armour saw. It was all a matter of perfect timing, my dear sir. Perfect timing. As the young fellow grabbed the knife from me by the hilt, Abdul appeared, stark naked, and shouted some meaningless phrase at him. Armour whipped to him, and I knocked him out with the seal that was ready in my hand. It was really very simple."
"But where did Abdul come from? Surely you did not trust all your office-workers with the secret of what you were up to?"
"Small chance. My outer office door is between two large pillars. One of them is genuine. The other is hollow, and has a secret entrance to my room. I keep the black fellow there in case of trouble. He popped out from there, did his job, and slipped back before Barclay came in. Nobody saw him."
I felt my jaw hardening, the hot blood rushing to my head. The devil, the arrant devil! Coldly, deliberately, he had planned to make me insane, to all the world, and to myself. My fists clenched, and my leg-muscles quivered for a leap. But the old lawyer was talking again. Perhaps there would be more revelations. I held myself in leash.
"I see now how it was done." There was awe in the ancient's accents, awe, and fear. "That ingenious scheme certainly condemned him as insane from his own mouth. The girl was easy, of course. She was so cast down when her widowed mother died, so dazed, that it was simple to get a commitment for her as a melancholic. But there are State inspections of the asylums. What if either, or both, prove themselves cured?"
Dunn laughed shortly. "By the time there is an inspection they will be really crazy. Leave that to Irma—and her charming little pet, Shang. That dear collaborator of mine is not only the consummate actress she proved herself when she won her way into the older Armour's confidence, using your information to build up her character as his long-lost sister. She is also an adept at the work she is doing now. It is marvelous to see her at it. With the brainless giant to aid her she plays on the emotions of her victims, on those strongest emotions a man can have, passion and terror, till their brains are blasted to utter darkness. As for the girl—one look at Shang's face as he creeps toward her in the dark; one feel of his hairy paws?"
That was enough for me! "You devil," I shouted, and catapulted through the draperies. I saw Humperdinck's startled, staring face, flushed with drink, saw Dunn's slant-eyed, yellow face. I leaped for the Eurasian. "How's this for timing?" I yelled, and my fist crashed into his thin nose. "And this?" The other one pulped his gaping mouth. He hurtled away, sprawled across a sofa. I whipped around to the lawyer. "As for you..."
He was backing away, his face livid. But it was not the sheer terror staring from his bleared eyes that choked the words in my mouth; it was the towering black apparition behind him, the Negro I had seen before, clothed now, but with that same snouting automatic menacing me. His lips drew away from gleaming, file-pointed teeth, I saw his finger tighten on the trigger...
Something white flashed from the parting of the portières, crashed against the black's gun elbow just as his gat belched flame. A scream shrilled in my ears as I lunged across the floor and got in a blow at the Negro's face before he could shoot again, was swallowed in a whirlwind, shouting melee of combat through which furniture crashed, thudding blows rocked me and pain shot up my arm from bruised knuckles as I pounded at a rock-like head.
"Hal," someone shouted. "His stomach, Hal. His stomach."
I shifted my attack, sank my fist in the soft belly of my antagonist. And he crumpled up like a pricked balloon, crumpled up and rolled in agony on the floor.
"Good boy, Hal." I twisted. Dad! My old dad was standing in the doorway, a tired smile on his dear face. His arm was around Nan, whose countenance was a jumble of tears and smiles.
"Dad! Was it you who?"
"Threw my best Sevres vase that stood out here in the hall? No. It was this blonde young lady. I woke up, out there. She told me where we were, that you had gone into the house. She was sure that something was wrong but feared to leave me. I remembered a broken window-lock below. We got in the house, heard you yelling up here. Girl ran ahead. I got here too late to save my vase." His old eyes twinkled.
"Dear old Dad. Still up and coming. And Nan. My glorious, golden girl." I started toward them. A moan from the floor distracted me. I looked down, saw old Humperdinck breathing his last. The bullet intended for me, deflected by the thrown vase, had found its billet in him. I moved so as to screen the sight from dad.
"Nan. There's a 'phone in the alcove behind you. You had better call the police."
"The police!" I saw fear flash, for the last time I hope, into her eyes. "But..."
"No," I said gently, striding to her. "No! I have nothing to be afraid of now. There's proof here that I am sane—utterly sane. And here's further proof." I seized her, pulled her to me. And my lips found hers at last.
"I'll say you're sane," I heard dad chuckle. "Too damn sane to suit me."
So, as it turned out, I was not insane. At least not insane enough to be committed to a madhouse. Nor, I will admit, are you. But are you sure, dead sure, that you will never be?
Think about it, tonight, when all the lights are out and you stare into a darkness where a faceless something may be lurking, its curved claws reaching noiselessly for your throat.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia