Chapter XXIV. The Serpent's Tooth
 

I had scarcely returned to the ward when, suddenly, an unnatural strength seemed to be infused into Veda.

She had risen in bed.

"It shall not catch me!" she cried in a new paroxysm of nameless terror. "No--no--it is pursuing me. I am never out of its grasp. I have been thought six feet underground--I know it. There it is again--still driving me--still driving me!

"Will it never stop? Will no one stop it? Save me! It--is the death thought!"

She had risen convulsively and had drawn back in abject, cowering terror. What was it she saw? Evidently it was very real and very awful. It pursued her relentlessly.

As she lay there, rolling her eyes about, she caught sight of us and recognized us for the first time, although she had been calling for us.

"They had the thought on you, too, Professor Kennedy," she almost screamed. "Hour after hour, Rapport and the rest repeated over and over again, 'Why does not some one kill him? Why does he not die?' They knew you--even when I brought you to the Red Lodge. They thought you were a spy."

I turned to Kennedy. He had advanced and was leaning over to catch every word. Blair was standing behind me and she had not seen her husband yet. A quick glance showed me that he was trembling from head to foot like a leaf, as though he, too, were pursued by the nameless terror.

"What did they do?" Kennedy asked in a low tone.

Fearfully, gripping the bars of the iron bed, as though they were some tangible support for her mind, she answered: "They would get together. 'Now, all of you,' they said, 'unite yourselves in thought against our enemy, against Kennedy, that he must leave off persecuting us. He is ripe for destruction!'"

Kennedy glanced sidewise at me, with a significant look.

"God grant," she implored, "that none haunt me for what I have done in my ignorance!"

Just then the door opened and my messenger entered, accompanied by Dr. Vaughn.

I had turned to catch the expression on Blair's face just in time. It was a look of abject appeal.

Before Dr. Vaughn could ask a question, or fairly take in the situation, Kennedy had faced him.

"What was the purpose of all that elaborate mummery out at the Red Lodge?" asked Kennedy pointblank.

I think I looked at Craig in no less amazement than Vaughn. In spite of the dramatic scenes through which we had passed, the spell of the occult had not fallen on him for an instant.

"Mummery?" repeated Dr. Vaughn, bending his penetrating eyes on Kennedy, as if he would force him to betray himself first.

"Yes," reiterated Craig. "You know as well as I do that it has been said that it is a well-established fact that the world wants to be deceived and is willing to pay for the privilege."

Dr. Vaughn still gazed from one to the other of us defiantly.

"You know what I mean," persisted Kennedy, "the mumbo-jumbo--just as the Haitian obi man sticks pins in a doll or melts a wax figure of his enemy. That is supposed to be an outward sign. But back of this terrible power that people believe moves in darkness and mystery is something tangible--something real."

Dr. Vaughn looked up sharply at him, I think mistaking Kennedy's meaning. If he did, all doubt that Kennedy attributed anything to the supernatural was removed as he went on: "At first I had no explanation of the curious events I have just witnessed, and the more I thought about them, the more obscure did they seem.

"I have tried to reason the thing out," he continued thoughtfully. "Did auto-suggestion, self-hypnotism explain what I have seen? Has Veda Blair been driven almost to death by her own fears only?"

No one interrupted and he answered his own question. "Somehow the idea that it was purely fear that had driven her on did not satisfy me. As I said, I wanted something more tangible. I could not help thinking that it was not merely subjective. There was something objective, some force at work, something more than psychic in the result achieved by this criminal mental marauder, whoever it is."

I was following Kennedy's reasoning now closely. As he proceeded, the point that he was making seemed more clear to me.

Persons of a certain type of mind could be really mentally unbalanced by such methods which we had heard outlined, where the mere fact of another trying to exert power over them became known to them. They would, as a matter of fact, unbalance themselves, thinking about and fighting off imaginary terrors.

Such people, I could readily see, might be quickly controlled, and in the wake of such control would follow stifled love, wrecked homes, ruined fortunes, suicide and even death.

Dr. Vaughn leaned forward critically. "What did you conclude, then, was the explanation of what you saw last night?" he asked sharply.

Kennedy met his question squarely, without flinching. "It looks to me," he replied quietly, "like a sort of hystero-epilepsy. It is well known, I believe, to demonologists--those who have studied this sort of thing. They have recognized the contortions, the screams, the wild, blasphemous talk, the cataleptic rigidity. They are epileptiform."

Vaughn said nothing, but continued to weigh Kennedy as if in a balance. I, who knew him, knew that it would take a greater than Vaughn to find him wanting, once Kennedy chose to speak. As for Vaughn, was he trying to hide behind some technicality in medical ethics?

"Dr. Vaughn," continued Craig, as if goading him to the point of breaking down his calm silence, "you are specialist enough to know these things as well, better than I do. You must know that epilepsy is one of the most peculiar diseases.

"The victim may be in good physical condition, apparently. In fact, some hardly know that they have it. But it is something more than merely the fits. Always there is something wrong mentally. It is not the motor disturbance so much as the disturbance of consciousness."

Kennedy was talking slowly, deliberately, so that none could drop a link in the reasoning.

"Perhaps one in ten epileptics has insane periods, more or less," he went on, "and there is no more dangerous form of insanity. Self-consciousness is lost, and in this state of automatism the worst of crimes have been committed without the subsequent knowledge of the patient. In that state they are no more responsible than are the actors in one's dreams."

The hospital physician entered, accompanied by Craig's messenger, breathless. Craig almost seized the package from his hands and broke the seal.

"Ah--this is what I wanted," he exclaimed, with an air of relief, forgetting for the time the exposition of the case that he was engaged in. "Here I have some anti-crotalus venine, of Drs. Flexner and Noguchi. Fortunately, in the city it is within easy reach."

Quickly, with the aid of the physician he injected it into Veda's arm.

"Of all substances in nature," he remarked, still at work over the unfortunate woman, "none is so little known as the venom of serpents."

It was a startling idea which the sentence had raised in my mind. All at once I recalled the first remark of Seward Blair, in which he had repeated the password that had admitted us into the Red Lodge--"the Serpent's Tooth." Could it have been that she had really been bitten at some of the orgies by the serpent which they worshiped hideously hissing in its cage? I was sure that, at least until they were compelled, none would say anything about it. Was that the interpretation of the almost hypnotized look on Blair's face?

"We know next to nothing of the composition of the protein bodies in the venoms which have such terrific, quick physiological effects," Kennedy was saying. "They have been studied, it is true, but we cannot really say that they are understood--or even that there are any adequate tests by which they can be recognized. The fact is, that snake venoms are about the safest of poisons for the criminal."

Kennedy had scarcely propounded this startling idea when a car was heard outside. The Rapports had arrived, with the officer I had sent after them, protesting and threatening.

They quieted down a bit as they entered, and after a quick glance around saw who was present.

Professor Rapport gave one glance at the victim lying exhausted on the bed, then drew back, melodramatically, and cried, "The Serpent--the mark of the serpent!"

For a moment Kennedy gazed full in the eyes of them all.

"Was it a snake bite?" he asked slowly, then, turning to Mrs. Blair, after a quick glance, he went on rapidly, "The first thing to ascertain is whether the mark consists of two isolated punctures, from the poison-conducting teeth or fangs of the snake, which are constructed like a hypodermic needle."

The hospital physician had bent over her at the words, and before Kennedy could go on interrupted: "This was not a snake bite; it was more likely from an all-glass hypodermic syringe with a platinum-iridium needle."

Professor Rapport, priest of the Devil, advanced a step menacingly toward Kennedy. "Remember," he said in a low, angry tone, "remember--you are pledged to keep the secrets of the Red Lodge!"

Craig brushed aside the sophistry with a sentence. "I do not recognize any secrets that I have to keep about the meeting this afternoon to which you summoned the Blairs and Mrs. Langhorne, according to reports from the shadows I had placed on Mrs. Langhorne and Dr. Vaughn."

If there is such a thing as the evil eye, Rapport's must have been a pair of them, as he realized that Kennedy had resorted to the simple devices of shadowing the devotees.

A cry, almost a shriek, startled us. Kennedy's encounter with Rapport had had an effect which none of us had considered. The step or two in advance which the prophet had taken had brought him into the line of vision of the still half-stupefied Veda lying back of Kennedy on the hospital cot.

The mere sight of him, the sound of his voice and the mention of the Red Lodge had been sufficient to penetrate that stupor. She was sitting bolt upright, a ghastly, trembling specter. Slowly a smile seemed to creep over the cruel face of the mystic. Was it not a recognition of his hypnotic power?

Kennedy turned and laid a gentle hand on the quaking convulsed figure of the woman. One could feel the electric tension in the air, the battle of two powers for good or evil. Which would win-- the old fascination of the occult or the new power of science?

It was a dramatic moment. Yet not so dramatic as the outcome. To my surprise, neither won.

Suddenly she caught sight of her husband. Her face changed. All the prehistoric jealousy of which woman is capable seemed to blaze forth.

"I will defend myself!" she cried. "I will fight back! She shall not win--she shall not have you--no--she shall not--never!"

I recalled the strained feeling between the two women that I had noticed in the cab. Was it Mrs. Langhorne who had been the disturbing influence, whose power she feared, over herself and over her husband?

Rapport had fallen back a step, but not from the mind of Kennedy.

"Here," challenged Craig, facing the group and drawing from his pocket the glass ampoule, "I picked this up at the Red Lodge last night."

He held it out in his hand before the Rapports so that they could not help but see it. Were they merely good actors? They betrayed nothing, at least by face or action.

"It is crotalin," he announced, "the venom of the rattlesnake-- crotalus horridus. It has been noticed that persons suffering from certain diseases of which epilepsy is one, after having been bitten by a rattlesnake, if they recover from the snake bite, are cured of the disease."

Kennedy was forging straight ahead now in his exposure. "Crotalin," he continued, "is one of the new drugs used in the treatment of epilepsy. But it is a powerful two-edged instrument. Some one who knew the drug, who perhaps had used it, has tried an artificial bite of a rattler on Veda Blair, not for epilepsy, but for another, diabolical purpose, thinking to cover up the crime, either as the result of the so-called death thought of the Lodge or as the bite of the real rattler at the Lodge."

Kennedy had at last got under Dr. Vaughn's guard. All his reticence was gone.

"I joined the cult," he confessed. "I did it in order to observe and treat one of my patients for epilepsy. I justified myself. I said, 'I will be the exposer, not the accomplice, of this modern Satanism.' I joined it and--"

"There is no use trying to shield anyone, Vaughn," rapped out Kennedy, scarcely taking time to listen. "An epileptic of the most dangerous criminal type has arranged this whole elaborate setting as a plot to get rid of the wife who brought him his fortune and now stands in the way of his unholy love of Mrs. Langhorne. He used you to get the poison with which you treated him. He used the Rapports with money to play on her mysticism by their so-called death thought, while he watched his opportunity to inject the fatal crotalin."

Craig faced the criminal, whose eyes now showed more plainly than words his deranged mental condition, and in a low tone added, "The Devil is in you, Seward Blair!"