Chapter XXVIII. The Claws of the Cat
 

The hoarse voice ceased. Neither Gatton nor I moved or spoke. Then:

"I have three minutes--or less," whispered Damar Greefe. "Question me. I am at your service."

"Where is your villa?" asked Gatton suddenly.

"It is called The Laurels--"

"The Laurels!" I cried incredulously.

"It is called so," whispered the Eurasian. "It is the last house but one in College Road! From there I conducted my last experiment with L.K. Vapor, which resulted not in the death of Mr. Addison, but in that of Eric Coverly--"

Gatton sprang to his feet.

"Come along, Mr. Addison!" he cried. But:

"The Laurels is empty," came, ever more faintly. "In her Sothic fury, Nahemah fled. The bloodlust is upon her. I warn you. She is more dangerous ... than ... any rabid dog.... Tuberculosis will end her life ... before the snows ... come. But there is time for her to ... Ah, God's mercy!"

He writhed. He was contorted. Foam appeared Upon his lips.

"Hlangkuna!" he moaned, "hlangkuna! She ... touched me with a poisoned needle ... two hours--ago...."

He rose to his full height, uttered a stifled scream, and crashed down upon the floor--dead!

In a species of consternation, Gatton and I stood looking at one another--standing rigidly like men of stone one on either side of that long, thin body stretched upon my study floor. The hawk face in profile was startlingly like that of Anubis as it lay against the red carpet.

Neither of us, I think, was capable of grasping the fact that the inquiry was all but ended and that the mysteries which had seemed so dark and insoluble were cleared up and the inner workings of this strange conspiracy laid bare before us. One thought, I believe, was uppermost in both our minds: that the man who now lay dead upon the floor, a victim of one of his own devilish inventions, was no more than a brilliant madman.

If his great work on the ape-men of Abyssinia and that greater one dealing with what he called "the psycho-hybrids" had ever had existence outside his own strange imagination no one was ever likely to know. But that Dr. Damar Greefe was a genius whom much learning had made mad, neither of us doubted.

The whole thing seemed the wildest phantasy, and, for a time, in doubting the reality of the Eurasian's work, I found myself doubting the evidence of my own senses and seriously wondering if this possessed witch-cat whose green eyes had moved like Satanic lanterns throughout the whole phantasmagoria, had any more palpable existence than the other strange things spoken of by the unscrupulous scientist.

That Gatton's thoughts had been running parallel with my own was presently made manifest, for:

"Without a moment's delay, Mr. Addison," he said, speaking like a man newly awakened from slumber, "we must proceed to The Laurels and test the truth of what we have heard."

He crossed to the door, threw it open, and:

"Sergeant!" he cried. "Come in! The prisoner is dead!"

As the sergeant and the constable who were waiting came into the study and stood looking in stupefaction at the body stretched on the floor, I heard the telephone bell ring. I started nervously. That sound awakened ghastly memories, and I thought of the man who only a few hours before had met his death in the room where now the bell was ringing its summons.

I doubted if I could ever spend another night beneath that roof, for here Dr. Damar Greefe, the arch-assassin, and one of his victims both had met their ends. I heard the voice of Coates speaking in the adjoining room, and presently, as Gatton went to the door:

"Miss Merlin wishes to speak to you, sir," said Coates.

I ran eagerly to the 'phone, and:

"Hello!" I cried. "Is that you, Isobel?"

"Yes!" came her reply, and I noted the agitation in her voice. "I am more dreadfully frightened than I have ever been in my life. If only you were here! Is it possible for you to come at once?"

"What has alarmed you?" I asked anxiously.

"I can't explain," she replied. "It is a dreadful sense of foreboding--and all the dogs in the neighborhood seem to have gone mad!"

"Dogs!" I cried, a numbing fear creeping over me. "You mean that they are howling?"

"Howling!" she answered. "I have never heard such a pandemonium at any time. In my present state of nerves, Jack, I did the wrong thing in coming to this funny lonely little house. I feel deserted and hopeless and, for some reason, in terrible danger."

"Are you alone, then?" I asked, in ever growing anxiety.

To my utter consternation:

"Yes!" she replied. "Aunt Alison was called away half an hour ago--to identify some one at a hospital who had asked for her--"

"What! an accident?"

"I suppose so."

"But the servants?"

"Cook left this morning. You remember Aunt told you she was leaving."

"There is the girl, Mary?"

"Aunt 'phoned for her to join her at the hospital!"

"What! I don't understand! 'Phoned, you say? Was it Mrs. Wentworth herself who 'phoned?"

"No; I think not. One of the nurses, Mary said. But at any rate, she has gone, Jack, and I'm frightened to death! There's something else," she added.

"Yes?" I said eagerly.

She laughed in a way that sounded almost hysterical.

"Since Mary went I have thought once or twice that I have seen some one or something creeping around outside the house in the shadows amongst the trees! And just a while ago something happened which really prompted me to 'phone you."

"What was it?"

"I heard a sort of scratching at an upper window. It was just like--"

"Yes! Yes!"

"Like a great cat trying to gain admittance!"

"See that all the doors and windows are fastened!" I cried. "Whatever happens or whoever knocks don't open to any one, you understand? We will be with you in less than half an hour!"

Still in that frightened voice:

"For heaven's sake," she begged, "don't be long, Jack!..."

I became aware of a singular rasping sound on the wires, which rendered Isobel's words almost unintelligible. Then:

"Jack," I heard, in a faint whisper, "there is a strange noise ... just outside the room...."

Silence came. But, vaguely, above that rasping sound, I had detected the words: "Cutting ... telephone ... wires...."

I replaced the receiver. My hand was shaking wildly.

"Gatton!" I said, "do you understand? It has turned its attention to Miss Merlin!" Then, raising my voice: "Coates!" I cried, "Coates! run for the car! Hurry, man! Some one's life depends on your speed!"

Inspector Gatton grabbed the telephone directory.

"I will instruct the local police," he muttered. "Give me the exact address, Mr. Addison, and go and see the cab that's outside. If it's a good one we'll take it instead of waiting."

Out I dashed, spurred by a sickly terror, crying Mrs. Wentworth's address as I ran. And of the ensuing five minutes I retain nothing but chaotic memories: the bewildered cabman; the police bending over the gaunt form on my study floor; Gatton's voice shouting orders. Then, we had jumped into the cab and enjoining the man to drive like fury, were speeding off through the busy London streets. Leaving the quietude of one suburb for the maelstrom of central London, we presently emerged into an equally quiet backwater upon the Northerly outskirts.

It was a nightmare journey, but when at last we approached the house for which we were bound my apprehension and excitement grew even keener. It was infinitely more isolated and lonely than I had ever realized, behind its high brick walls.

Of the local police there was no sign. And without hesitation we ran in at the open gate and up the path towards the porch. Every window in the house was brightly illuminated, testifying to the greatness of the occupant's fear. Gaining the porch, we stopped, as if prompted by some mutual thought, and listened.

There was the remote murmuring of busy London, but here surrounding us was a stillness as great as that which prevailed in my own neighborhood; and as we stood there, keenly alert--distinctly we both heard the howling of dogs!

"You hear it?" rapped Gatton.

"I do!" I replied.

Grasping the bell-knob, I executed a vigorous peal upon the bell. There was a light in the hallway but my ringing elicited no response, until:

"My God, look!" cried Gatton.

He pulled me backward out of the porch, looking upward to the window of a room on the first floor.

A silhouette appeared there--undoubtedly that of Isobel. She seemed to be endeavoring to pull the curtain aside ... when the shadow of a long arm reached out to her, and she was plucked irresistibly back. The sound of a muffled scream reached my ears, and:

"Great heavens! It has got in!" whispered Gatton.

He raised his hand and the shrill note of a police whistle split the silence.

The closed door was obviously too strong to be forced without the aid of implements for the purpose, and we began to run around the house, looking for some means of entrance. Suddenly:

"There's the way!" said Gatton, and pointed up to where the branches of an old elm tree stretched out before a window. The glass of the window was entirely shattered except for some few points which glittered like daggers around the edges of the frame.

"Can you do it?"

"In the circumstances--yes!" I said.

Without more ado I began to climb the elm, stimulated by memories of how I had entered Friar's Park. It afforded little foothold for the first six feet and proved an even tougher job than I had anticipated, but at last I reached a projecting limb, the bulk of which had been sawn off. Gatton's agility was not so great as mine, but at the moment that I half staggered and half fell into the room, I heard him swinging himself onto the limb behind me so that as I leaped to the open door he came tumbling in through the window, and the pair of us raced side by side along the corridor towards an apartment facing front from which horrifying cries and sounds of conflict now arose.

Gaining the closed door of this room, I literally hurled myself upon it. It crashed open ... and I beheld a dreadful spectacle.

Isobel lay forced back upon a settee which occupied the window recess--and bending over her, having her back turned towards me, was a tall, lithe, black-clad woman who, so far as I could see, was clutching Isobel's throat and forcing her further backward--backward upon the cushions strewn upon the settee!

But instant upon the door's opening this horrible scene changed. With never a backward glance (so that neither Gatton nor I had even a momentary glimpse of her face) the black-robed woman sprang to the window, opened it in a moment, and to my dismay and astonishment sprang out into the darkness!

My first thought was for Isobel--but Gatton leaped across the room and craned out, peering on to the path below. Indeed, even as I dropped on my knees beside the swooning girl, I found myself listening for the thud of the falling body upon the gravel path. But no sound reached me. That uncanny creature must have alighted truly in the manner of a cat. Through the stillness of the house rang the flat note of a police-whistle. From some distant spot I heard a faint reply.

       *       *       *       *       *

For long I failed to persuade myself that Isobel had not sustained some ghastly injury from the attack of the cat-woman. Memories uprose starkly before me of that hlangkuna and the other dreadful death-instruments of the mad Eurasian doctor. Not even the assurances of the local medical man who had been summoned in haste could convince me. For I recognized how petty was his knowledge in comparison with that of Dr. Damar Greefe. But although I trembled to think what her fate might have been if we had arrived a few minutes later, the fact remained (and I returned thanks to Heaven) that she had escaped serious physical injury at the hands of her assailant.

But, alas, to this very hour she sometimes awakes shrieking in the night. And her terrified cry is always the same: "The green eyes of Bast!... the green-eyes of Bast!"