Chapter XXIII. The Psychic Curse
 

There came a sudden noise--nameless--striking terror, low, rattling. I stood rooted to the spot. What was it that held me? Was it an atavistic joy in the horrible or was it merely a blasphemous curiosity?

I scarcely dared to look.

At last I raised my eyes. There was a live snake, upraised, his fangs striking out viciously--a rattler!

I would have drawn back and fled, but Craig caught my arm.

"Caged," he whispered monosyllabically.

I shuddered. This, at least, was no drawing-room diablerie.

"It is Ophis," intoned Rapport, "the Serpent--the one active form in Nature that cannot be ungraceful!"

The appearance of the basilisk seemed to heighten the tension.

At last it broke loose and then followed the most terrible blasphemies. The disciples, now all frenzied, surrounded closer the priest, the gargoyle and the serpent.

They worshiped with howls and obscenities. Mad laughter mingled with pale fear and wild scorn in turns were written on the hectic faces about me.

They had risen--it became a dance, a reel.

The votaries seemed to spin about on their axes, as it were, uttering a low, moaning chant as they whirled. It was a mania, the spirit of demonism. Something unseen seemed to urge them on.

Disgusted and stifled at the surcharged atmosphere, I would have tried to leave, but I seemed frozen to the spot. I could think of nothing except Poe's Masque of the Red Death.

Above all the rest whirled Seward Blair himself. The laugh of the fiend, for the moment, was in his mouth. An instant he stood--the oracle of the Demon--devil-possessed. Around whirled the frantic devotees, howling.

Shrilly he cried, "The Devil is in me!"

Forward staggered the devil dancer--tall, haggard, with deep sunken eyes and matted hair, face now smeared with dirt and blood- red with the reflection of the strange, unearthly phosphorescence.

He reeled slowly through the crowd, crooning a quatrain, in a low, monotonous voice, his eyelids drooping and his head forward on his breast:

 If the Red Slayer think he slays,
   Or the slain think he is slain,
  They know not well the subtle ways
   I keep and pass and turn again!

Entranced the whirling crowd paused and watched. One of their number had received the "power."

He was swaying slowly to and fro.

"Look!" whispered Kennedy.

His fingers twitched, his head wagged uncannily. Perspiration seemed to ooze from every pore. His breast heaved.

He gave a sudden yell--ear-piercing. Then followed a screech of hellish laughter.

The dance had ended, the dancers spellbound at the sight.

He was whirling slowly, eyes protruding now, mouth foaming, chest rising and falling like a bellows, muscles quivering.

Cries, vows, imprecations, prayers, all blended in an infernal hubbub.

With a burst of ghastly, guttural laughter, he shrieked, "I am the Devil!"

His arms waved--cutting, sawing, hacking the air.

The votaries, trembling, scarcely moved, breathed, as he danced.

Suddenly he gave a great leap into the air--then fell, motionless. They crowded around him. The fiendish look was gone--the demoniac laughter stilled.

It was over.

The tension of the orgy had been too much for us. We parted, with scarcely a word, and yet I could feel that among the rest there was a sort of unholy companionship.

Silently, Kennedy and I drove away in the darkened cab, this time with Seward and Veda Blair and Mrs. Langhorne.

For several minutes not a word was said. I was, however, much occupied in watching the two women. It was not because of anything they said or did. That was not necessary. But I felt that there was a feud, something that set them against each other.

"How would Rapport use the death thought, I wonder?" asked Craig speculatively, breaking the silence.

Blair answered quickly. "Suppose some one tried to break away, to renounce the Lodge, expose its secrets. They would treat him so as to make him harmless--perhaps insane, confused, afraid to talk, paralyzed, or even to commit suicide or be killed in an accident. They would put the death thought on him!"

Even in the prosaic jolting of the cab, away from the terrible mysteries of the Red Lodge, one could feel the spell.

The cab stopped. Seward was on his feet in a moment and handing Mrs. Langhorne out at her home. For a moment they paused on the steps for an exchange of words.

In that moment I caught flitting over the face of Veda a look of hatred, more intense, more real, more awful than any that had been induced under the mysteries of the rites at the Lodge.

It was gone in an instant, and as Seward rejoined us I felt that, with Mrs. Langhorne gone, there was less restraint. I wondered whether it was she who had inspired the fear in Veda.

Although it was more comfortable, the rest of our journey was made in silence and the Blairs dropped us at our apartment with many expressions of cordiality as we left them to proceed to their own.

"Of one thing I'm sure," I remarked, entering the room where only a few short hours before Mrs. Blair had related her strange tale. "Whatever the cause of it, the devil dancers don't sham."

Kennedy did not reply. He was apparently wrapped up in the consideration of the remarkable events of the evening.

As for myself, it was a state of affairs which, the day before, I should have pronounced utterly beyond the wildest bounds of the imagination of the most colorful writer. Yet here it was; I had seen it.

I glanced up to find Kennedy standing by the light examining something he had apparently picked up at the Red Lodge. I bent over to look at it, too. It was a little glass tube.

"An ampoule, I believe the technical name of such a container is," he remarked, holding it closer to the light.

In it were the remains of a dried yellow substance, broken up minutely, resembling crystals.

"Who dropped it?" I asked.

"Vaughn, I think," he replied. "At least, I saw him near Blair, stooping over him, at the end, and I imagine this is what I saw gleaming for an instant in the light."

Kennedy said nothing more, and for my part I was thoroughly at sea and could make nothing out of it all.

"What object can such a man as Dr. Vaughn possibly have in frequenting such a place?" I asked at length, adding, "And there's that Mrs. Langhorne--she was interesting, too."

Kennedy made no direct reply. "I shall have them shadowed to- morrow," he said briefly, "while I am at work in the laboratory over this ampoule."

As usual, also, Craig had begun on his scientific studies long before I was able to shake myself loose from the nightmares that haunted me after our weird experience of the evening.

He had already given the order to an agency for the shadowing, and his next move was to start me out, also, looking into the history of those concerned in the case. As far as I was able to determine, Dr. Vaughn had an excellent reputation, and I could find no reason whatever for his connection with anything of the nature of the Red Lodge. The Rapports seemed to be nearly unknown in New York, although it was reported that they had come from Paris lately. Mrs. Langhorne was a divorcee from one of the western states, but little was known about her, except that she always seemed to be well supplied with money. It seemed to be well known in the circle in which Seward Blair moved that he was friendly with her, and I had about reached the conclusion that she was unscrupulously making use of his friendship, perhaps was not above such a thing as blackmail.

Thus the day passed, and we heard no word from Veda Blair, although that was explained by the shadows, whose trails crossed in a most unexpected manner. Their reports showed that there was a meeting at the Red Lodge during the late afternoon, at which all had been present except Dr. Vaughn. We learned also from them the exact location of the Lodge, in an old house just across the line in Westchester.

It was evidently a long and troublesome analysis that Craig was engaged in at the laboratory, for it was some hours after dinner that night when he came into the apartment, and even then he said nothing, but buried himself in some of the technical works with which his library was stocked. He said little, but I gathered that he was in great doubt about something, perhaps, as much as anything, about how to proceed with so peculiar a case.

It was growing late, and Kennedy was still steeped in his books, when the door of the apartment, which we happened to have left unlocked, was suddenly thrown open and Seward Blair burst in on us, wildly excited.

"Veda is gone!" he cried, before either of us could ask him what was the matter.

"Gone?" repeated Kennedy. "How--where?"

"I don't know," Blair blurted out breathlessly. "We had been out together this afternoon, and I returned with her. Then I went out to the club after dinner for a while, and when I got back I missed her--not quarter of an hour ago. I burst into her room--and there I found this note. Read it. I don't know what to do. No one seems to know what has become of her. I've called up all over and then thought perhaps you might help me, might know some friend of hers that I don't know, with whom she might have gone out."

Blair was plainly eager for us to help him. Kennedy took the paper from him. On it, in a trembling hand, were scrawled some words, evidently addressed to Blair himself:

"You would forgive me and pity me if you knew what I have been through.

"When I refused to yield my will to the will of the Lodge I suppose I aroused the enmity of the Lodge.

"To-night as I lay in bed, alone, I felt that my hour had come, that mental forces that were almost irresistible were being directed against me.

"I realized that I must fight not only for my sanity but for my life.

"For hours I have fought that fight.

"But during those hours, some one, I won't say who, seemed to have developed such psychic faculties of penetration that they were able to make their bodies pass through the walls of my room.

"At last I am conquered. I pray that you--"

The writing broke off abruptly, as if she had left it in wild flight.

"What does that mean?" asked Kennedy, "the 'will of the Lodge'?"

Blair looked at us keenly. I fancied that there was even something accusatory in the look. "Perhaps it was some mental reservation on her part," he suggested. "You do not know yourself of any reason why she should fear anything, do you?" he asked pointedly.

Kennedy did not betray even by the motion of an eyelash that we knew more than we should ostensibly.

There was a tap at the door. I sprang to open it, thinking perhaps, after all, it was Veda herself.

Instead, a man, a stranger, stood there.

"Is this Professor Kennedy?" he asked, touching his hat.

Craig nodded.

"I am from the psychopathic ward of the City Hospital--an orderly, sir," the man introduced.

"Yes," encouraged Craig, "what can I do for you?"

"A Mrs. Blair has just been brought in, sir, and we can't find her husband. She's calling for you now."

Kennedy stared from the orderly to Seward Blair, startled, speechless.

"What has happened?" asked Blair anxiously. "I am Mr. Blair."

The orderly shook his head. He had delivered his message. That was all he knew.

"What do you suppose it is?" I asked, as we sped across town in a taxicab. "Is it the curse that she dreaded?"

Kennedy said nothing and Blair appeared to hear nothing. His face was drawn in tense lines.

The psychopathic ward is at once one of the most interesting and one of the most depressing departments of a large city hospital, harboring, as it does, all from the more or less harmless insane to violent alcoholics and wrecked drug fiends.

Mrs. Blair, we learned, had been found hatless, without money, dazed, having fallen, after an apparently aimless wandering in the streets.

For the moment she lay exhausted on the white bed of the ward, eyes glazed, pupils contracted, pulse now quick, now almost evanescent, face drawn, breathing difficult, moaning now and then in physical and mental agony.

Until she spoke it was impossible to tell what had happened, but the ambulance surgeon had found a little red mark on her white forearm and had pointed it out, evidently with the idea that she was suffering from a drug.

At the mere sight of the mark, Blair stared as though hypnotized. Leaning over to Kennedy, so that the others could not hear, he whispered, "It is the mark of the serpent!"

Our arrival had been announced to the hospital physician, who entered and stood for a moment looking at the patient.

"I think it is a drug--a poison," he said meditatively.

"You haven't found out yet what it is, then?" asked Craig.

The physician shook his head doubtfully. "Whatever it is," he said slowly, "it is closely allied to the cyanide groups in its rapacious activity. I haven't the slightest idea of its true nature, but it seems to have a powerful affinity for important nerve centers of respiration and muscular coordination, as well as for disorganizing the blood. I should say that it produces death by respiratory paralysis and convulsions. To my mind it is an exact, though perhaps less active, counterpart of hydrocyanic acid."

Kennedy had been listening intently at the start, but before the physician had finished he had bent over and made a ligature quickly with his handkerchief.

Then he dispatched a messenger with a note. Next he cut about the minute wound on her arm until the blood flowed, cupping it to increase the flow. Now and then he had them administer a little stimulant.

He had worked rapidly, while Blair watched him with a sort of fascination.

"Get Dr. Vaughn," ordered Craig, as soon as he had a breathing spell after his quick work, adding, "and Professor and Madame Rapport. Walter, attend to that, will you? I think you will find an officer outside. You'll have to compel them to come, if they won't come otherwise," he added, giving the address of the Lodge, as we had found it.

Blair shot a quick look at him, as though Craig in his knowledge were uncanny. Apparently, the address had been a secret which he thought we did not know.

I managed to find an officer and dispatch him for the Rapports. A hospital orderly, I thought, would serve to get Dr. Vaughn.