Chapter XXII. The Devil Worshipers
 

Tragic though the end of the young nurse, Dora Baldwin, had been, the scheme of her brother, in which she had become fatally involved, was by no means as diabolical as that in the case that confronted us a short time after that.

I recall this case particularly not only because it was so weird but also because of the unique manner in which it began.

"I am damned--Professor Kennedy--damned!"

The words rang out as the cry of a lost soul. A terrible look of inexpressible anguish and fear was written on the face of Craig's visitor, as she uttered them and sank back, trembling, in the easy chair, mentally and physically convulsed.

As nearly as I had been able to follow, Mrs. Veda Blair's story had dealt mostly with a Professor and Madame Rapport and something she called the "Red Lodge" of the "Temple of the Occult."

She was not exactly a young woman, although she was a very attractive one. She was of an age that is, perhaps, even more interesting than youth.

Veda Blair, I knew, had been, before her recent marriage to Seward Blair, a Treacy, of an old, though somewhat unfortunate, family. Both the Blairs and the Treacys had been intimate and old Seward Blair, when he died about a year before, had left his fortune to his son on the condition that he marry Veda Treacy.

"Sometimes," faltered Mrs. Blair, "it is as though I had two souls. One of them is dispossessed of its body and the use of its organs and is frantic at the sight of the other that has crept in."

She ended her rambling story, sobbing the terrible words, "Oh--I have committed the unpardonable sin--I am anathema--I am damned-- damned!"

She said nothing of what terrible thing she had done and Kennedy, for the present, did not try to lead the conversation. But of all the stories that I have heard poured forth in the confessional of the detective's office, hers, I think, was the wildest.

Was she insane? At least I felt that she was sincere. Still, I wondered what sort of hallucination Craig had to deal with, as Veda Blair repeated the incoherent tale of her spiritual vagaries.

Almost, I had begun to fancy that this was a case for a doctor, not for a detective, when suddenly she asked a most peculiar question.

"Can people affect you for good or evil, merely by thinking about you?" she queried. Then a shudder passed over her. "They may be thinking about me now!" she murmured in terror.

Her fear was so real and her physical distress so evident that Kennedy, who had been listening silently for the most part, rose and hastened to reassure her.

"Not unless you make your own fears affect yourself and so play into their hands," he said earnestly.

Veda looked at him a moment, then shook her head mournfully. "I have seen Dr. Vaughn," she said slowly.

Dr. Gilbert Vaughn, I recollected, was a well-known alienist in the city.

"He tried to tell me the same thing," she resumed doubtfully. "But--oh--I know what I know! I have felt the death thought--and he knows it!"

"What do you mean?" inquired Kennedy, leaning forward keenly.

"The death thought," she repeated, "a malicious psychic attack. Some one is driving me to death by it. I thought I could fight it off. I went away to escape it. Now I have come back--and I have not escaped. There is always that disturbing influence--always-- directed against me. I know it will--kill me!"

I listened, startled. The death thought! What did it mean? What terrible power was it? Was it hypnotism? What was this fearsome, cruel belief, this modern witchcraft that could unnerve a rich and educated woman? Surely, after all, I felt that this was not a case for a doctor alone; it called for a detective.

"You see," she went on, heroically trying to control herself, "I have always been interested in the mysterious, the strange, the occult. In fact my father and my husband's father met through their common interest. So, you see, I come naturally by it.

"Not long ago I heard of Professor and Madame Rapport and their new Temple of the Occult. I went to it, and later Seward became interested, too. We have been taken into a sort of inner circle," she continued fearfully, as though there were some evil power in the very words themselves, "the Red Lodge."

"You have told Dr. Vaughn?" shot out Kennedy suddenly, his eyes fixed on her face to see what it would betray.

Veda leaned forward, as if to tell a secret, then whispered in a low voice, "He knows. Like us--he--he is a--Devil Worshiper!"

"What?" exclaimed Kennedy in wide-eyed astonishment.

"A Devil Worshiper," she repeated. "You haven't heard of the Red Lodge?"

Kennedy nodded negatively. "Could you get us--initiated?" he hazarded.

"P--perhaps," she hesitated, in a half-frightened tone. "I--I'll try to get you in to-night."

She had risen, half dazed, as if her own temerity overwhelmed her.

"You--poor girl," blurted out Kennedy, his sympathies getting the upper hand for the moment as he took the hand she extended mutely. "Trust me. I will do all in my power, all in the power of modern science to help you fight off this--influence."

There must have been something magnetic, hypnotic in his eye.

"I will stop here for you," she murmured, as she almost fled from the room.

Personally, I cannot say that I liked the idea of spying. It is not usually clean and wholesome. But I realized that occasionally it was necessary.

"We are in for it now," remarked Kennedy half humorously, half seriously, "to see the Devil in the twentieth century."

"And I," I added, "I am, I suppose, to be the reporter to Satan."

We said nothing more about it, but I thought much about it, and the more I thought, the more incomprehensible the thing seemed. I had heard of Devil Worship, but had always associated it with far- off Indian and other heathen lands--in fact never among Caucasians in modern times, except possibly in Paris. Was there such a cult here in my own city? I felt skeptical.

That night, however, promptly at the appointed time, a cab called for us, and in it was Veda Blair, nervous but determined.

"Seward has gone ahead," she explained. "I told him that a friend had introduced you, that you had studied the occult abroad. I trust you to carry it out."

Kennedy reassured her.

The curtains were drawn and we could see nothing outside, though we must have been driven several miles, far out into the suburbs.

At last the cab stopped. As we left it we could see nothing of the building, for the cab had entered a closed courtyard.

"Who enters the Red Lodge?" challenged a sepulchral voice at the porte-cochere. "Give the password!"

"The Serpent's Tooth," Veda answered.

"Who are these?" asked the voice.

"Neophytes," she replied, and a whispered parley followed.

"Then enter!" announced the voice at length.

It was a large room into which we were first ushered, to be inducted into the rites of Satan.

There seemed to be both men and women, perhaps half a dozen votaries. Seward Blair was already present. As I met him, I did not like the look in his eye; it was too stary. Dr. Vaughn was there, too, talking in a low tone to Madame Rapport. He shot a quick look at us. His were not eyes but gimlets that tried to bore into your very soul. Chatting with Seward Blair was a Mrs. Langhorne, a very beautiful woman. To-night she seemed to be unnaturally excited.

All seemed to be on most intimate terms, and, as we waited a few minutes, I could not help recalling a sentence from Huysmans: "The worship of the Devil is no more insane than the worship of God. The worshipers of Satan are mystics--mystics of an unclean sort, it is true, but mystics none the less."

I did not agree with it, and did not repeat it, of course, but a moment later I overheard Dr. Vaughn saying to Kennedy: "Hoffman brought the Devil into modern life. Poe forgoes the aid of demons and works patiently and precisely by the scientific method. But the result is the same."

"Yes," agreed Kennedy for the sake of appearances, "in a sense, I suppose, we are all devil worshipers in modern society--always have been. It is fear that rules and we fear the bad--not the good."

As we waited, I felt, more and more, the sense of the mysterious, the secret, the unknown which have always exercised a powerful attraction on the human mind. Even the aeroplane and the submarine, the X-ray and wireless have not banished the occult.

In it, I felt, there was fascination for the frivolous and deep appeal to the intellectual and spiritual. The Temple of the Occult had evidently been designed to appeal to both types. I wondered how, like Lucifer, it had fallen. The prime requisite, I could guess already, however, was--money. Was it in its worship of the root of all evil that it had fallen?

We passed soon into another room, hung entirely in red, with weird, cabalistic signs all about, on the walls. It was uncanny, creepy.

A huge reproduction in plaster of one of the most sardonic of Notre Dame's gargoyles seemed to preside over everything--a terrible figure in such an atmosphere.

As we entered, we were struck by the blinding glare of the light, in contrast with the darkened room in which we had passed our brief novitiate, if it might be called such.

Suddenly the lights were extinguished.

The great gargoyle shone with an infernal light of its own!

"Phosphorescent paint," whispered Kennedy to me.

Still, it did not detract from the weird effect to know what caused it.

There was a startling noise in the general hush.

"Sata!" cried one of the devotees.

A door opened and there appeared the veritable priest of the Devil--pale of face, nose sharp, mouth bitter, eyes glassy.

"That is Rapport," Vaughn whispered to me.

The worshipers crowded forward.

Without a word, he raised his long, lean forefinger and began to single them out impressively. As he did so, each spoke, as if imploring aid.

He came to Mrs. Langhorne.

"I have tried the charm," she cried earnestly, "and the one whom I love still hates me, while the one I hate loves me!"

"Concentrate!" replied the priest, "concentrate! Think always 'I love him. He must love me. I want him to love me. I love him. He must love me.' Over and over again you must think it. Then the other side, 'I hate him. He must leave me. I want him to leave me. I hate him--hate him.'"

Around the circle he went.

At last his lean finger was outstretched at Veda. It seemed as if some imp of the perverse were compelling her unwilling tongue to unlock its secrets.

"Sometimes," she cried in a low, tremulous voice, "something seems to seize me, as if by the hand and urge me onward. I cannot flee from it."

"Defend yourself!" answered the priest subtly. "When you know that some one is trying to kill you mentally, defend yourself! Work against it by every means in your power. Discourage! Intimidate! Destroy!"

I marveled at these cryptic utterances. They shadowed a modern Black Art, of which I had had no conception--a recrudescence in other language of the age-old dualism of good and evil. It was a sort of mental malpractice.

"Over and over again," he went on speaking to her, "the same thought is to be repeated against an enemy. 'You know you are going to die! You know you are going to die!' Do it an hour, two hours, at a time. Others can help you, all thinking in unison the same thought."

What was this, I asked myself breathlessly--a new transcendental toxicology?

Slowly, a strange mephitic vapor seemed to exhale into the room-- or was it my heightened imagination?