Chapter X. The Laughter
 

Lady Lashmore proved to be far more beautiful than Dr. Cairn had anticipated. She was a true brunette with a superb figure and eyes like the darkest passion flowers. Her creamy skin had a golden quality, as though it had absorbed within its velvet texture something of the sunshine of the South.

She greeted Dr. Cairn without cordiality.

"I am delighted to find you looking so well, Lady Lashmore," said the doctor. "Your appearance quite confirms my opinion."

"Your opinion of what, Dr. Cairn?"

"Of the nature of your recent seizure. Sir Elwin Groves invited my opinion and I gave it."

Lady Lashmore paled perceptibly.

"Lord Lashmore, I know," she said, "was greatly concerned, but indeed it was nothing serious--"

"I quite agree. It was due to nervous excitement."

Lady Lashmore held a fan before her face.

"There have been recent happenings," she said--"as no doubt you are aware--which must have shaken anyone's nerves. Of course, I am familiar with your reputation, Dr. Cairn, as a psychical specialist--?"

"Pardon me, but from whom have you learnt of it?"

"From Mr. Ferrara," she answered simply. "He has assured me that you are the greatest living authority upon such matters."

Dr. Cairn turned his head aside.

"Ah!" he said grimly.

"And I want to ask you a question," continued Lady Lashmore. "Have you any idea, any idea at all respecting the cause of the wounds upon my husband's throat? Do you think them due to--something supernatural?"

Her voice shook, and her slight foreign accent became more marked.

"Nothing is supernatural," replied Dr. Cairn; "but I think they are due to something supernormal. I would suggest that possibly you have suffered from evil dreams recently?"

Lady Lashmore started wildly, and her eyes opened with a sort of sudden horror.

"How can you know?" she whispered. "How can you know! Oh, Dr. Cairn!" She laid her hand upon his arm--"if you can prevent those dreams; if you can assure me that I shall never dream them again--!"

It was a plea and a confession. This was what had lain behind her coldness--this horror which she had not dared to confide in another.

"Tell me," he said gently. "You have dreamt these dreams twice?"

She nodded, wide-eyed with wonder for his knowledge.

"On the occasions of your husband's illnesses?"

"Yes, yes!"

"What did you dream?"

"Oh! can I, dare I tell you!--"

"You must."

There was pity in his voice.

"I dreamt that I lay in some very dark cavern. I could hear the sea booming, apparently over my head. But above all the noise a voice was audible, calling to me--not by name; I cannot explain in what way; but calling, calling imperatively. I seemed to be clothed but scantily, in some kind of ragged garments; and upon my knees I crawled toward the voice, through a place where there were other living things that crawled also--things with many legs and clammy bodies...."

She shuddered and choked down an hysterical sob that was half a laugh.

"My hair hung dishevelled about me and in some inexplicable way--oh! am I going mad!--my head seemed to be detached from my living body! I was filled with a kind of unholy anger which I cannot describe. Also, I was consumed with thirst, and this thirst...."

"I think I understand," said Dr. Cairn quietly. "What followed?"

"An interval--quite blank--after which I dreamt again. Dr. Cairn, I cannot tell you of the dreadful, the blasphemous and foul thoughts, that then possessed me! I found myself resisting--resisting--something, some power that was dragging me back to that foul cavern with my thirst unslaked! I was frenzied; I dare not name, I tremble to think, of the ideas which filled my mind. Then, again came a blank, and I awoke."

She sat trembling. Dr. Cairn noted that she avoided his gaze.

"You awoke," he said, "on the first occasion, to find that your husband had met with a strange and dangerous accident?"

"There was--something else."

Lady Lashmore's voice had become a tremulous whisper.

"Tell me; don't be afraid."

She looked up; her magnificent eyes were wild with horror.

"I believe you know!" she breathed. "Do you?"

Dr. Cairn nodded.

"And on the second occasion," he said, "you awoke earlier?"

Lady Lashmore slightly moved her head.

"The dream was identical?"

"Yes."

"Excepting these two occasions, you never dreamt it before?"

"I dreamt part of it on several other occasions; or only remembered part of it on waking."

"Which part?"

"The first; that awful cavern--"

"And now, Lady Lashmore--you have recently been present at a spiritualistic seance."

She was past wondering at his power of inductive reasoning, and merely nodded.

"I suggest--I do not know--that the seance was held under the auspices of Mr. Antony Ferrara, ostensibly for amusement."

Another affirmative nod answered him.

"You proved to be mediumistic?"

It was admitted.

"And now, Lady Lashmore"--Dr. Cairn's face was very stern--"I will trouble you no further."

He prepared to depart; when--

"Dr. Cairn!" whispered Lady Lashmore, tremulously, "some dreadful thing, something that I cannot comprehend but that I fear and loathe with all my soul, has come to me. Oh--for pity's sake, give me a word of hope! Save for you, I am alone with a horror I cannot name. Tell me--"

At the door, he turned.

"Be brave," he said--and went out.

Lady Lashmore sat still as one who had looked upon Gorgon, her beautiful eyes yet widely opened and her face pale as death; for he had not even told her to hope.

       *       *       *       *       *

Robert Cairn was sitting smoking in the library, a bunch of notes before him, when Dr. Cairn returned to Half-Moon Street. His face, habitually fresh coloured, was so pale that his son leapt up in alarm. But Dr. Cairn waved him away with a characteristic gesture of the hand.

"Sit down, Rob," he said, quietly; "I shall be all right in a moment. But I have just left a woman--a young woman and a beautiful woman--whom a fiend of hell has condemned to that which my mind refuses to contemplate."

Robert Cairn sat down again, watching his father.

"Make out a report of the following facts," continued the latter, beginning to pace up and down the room.

He recounted all that he had learnt of the history of the house of Dhoon and all that he had learnt of recent happenings from Lord and Lady Lashmore. His son wrote rapidly.

"And now," said the doctor, "for our conclusions. Mirza, the Polish Jewess, who became Lady Lashmore in 1615, practised sorcery in life and became, after death, a ghoul--one who sustained an unholy existence by unholy means--a vampire."

"But, sir! Surely that is but a horrible superstition of the Middle Ages!"

"Rob, I could take you to a castle not ten miles from Cracow in Poland where there are--certain relics, which would for ever settle your doubts respecting the existence of vampires. Let us proceed. The son of Mirza, Paul Dhoon, inherited the dreadful proclivities of his mother, but his shadowy existence was cut short in the traditional, and effective, manner. Him we may neglect.

"It is Mirza, the sorceress, who must engage our attention. She was decapitated by her husband. This punishment prevented her, in the unhallowed life which, for such as she, begins after ordinary decease, from practising the horrible rites of a vampire. Her headless body could not serve her as a vehicle for nocturnal wanderings, but the evil spirit of the woman might hope to gain control of some body more suitable.

"Nurturing an implacable hatred against all of the house of Dhoon, that spirit, disembodied, would frequently be drawn to the neighbourhood of Mirza's descendants, both by hatred and by affinity. Two horrible desires of the Spirit Mirza would be gratified if a Dhoon could be made her victim--the desire for blood and the desire for vengeance! The fate of Lord Lashmore would be sealed if that spirit could secure incarnation!"

Dr. Cairn paused, glancing at his son, who was writing at furious speed. Then--

"A magician more mighty and more evil than Mirza ever was or could be," he continued, "a master of the Black Art, expelled a woman's spirit from its throne and temporarily installed in its place the blood-lustful spirit of Mirza!"

"My God, sir!" cried Robert Cairn, and threw down his pencil. "I begin to understand!"

"Lady Lashmore," said Dr. Cairn, "since she was weak enough to consent to be present at a certain seance, has, from time to time, been possessed; she has been possessed by the spirit of a vampire! Obedient to the nameless cravings of that control, she has sought out Lord Lashmore, the last of the House of Dhoon. The horrible attack made, a mighty will which, throughout her temporary incarnation, has held her like a hound in leash, has dragged her from her prey, has forced her to remove, from the garments clothing her borrowed body, all traces of the deed, and has cast her out again to the pit of abomination where her headless trunk was thrown by the third Baron Lashmore!

"Lady Lashmore's brain retains certain memories. They have been received at the moment when possession has taken place and at the moment when the control has been cast out again. They thus are memories of some secret cavern near Dhoon Castle, where that headless but deathless body lies, and memories of the poignant moment when the vampire has been dragged back, her 'thirst unslaked,' by the ruling Will."

"Merciful God!" muttered Robert Cairn, "Merciful God, can such things be!"

"They can be--they are! Two ways have occurred to me of dealing with the matter," continued Dr. Cairn quietly. "One is to find that cavern and to kill, in the occult sense, by means of a stake, the vampire who lies there; the other which, I confess, might only result in the permanent 'possession' of Lady Lashmore--is to get at the power which controls this disembodied spirit--kill Antony Ferrara!"

Robert Cairn went to the sideboard, and poured out brandy with a shaking hand.

"What's his object?" he whispered.

Dr. Cairn shrugged his shoulders.

"Lady Lashmore would be the wealthiest widow in society," he replied.

"He will know now," continued the younger man unsteadily, "that you are up against him. Have you--"

"I have told Lord Lashmore to lock, at night, not only his outer door but also that of his dressing-room. For the rest--?" he dropped into an easy-chair,--"I cannot face the facts, I--"

The telephone bell rang.

Dr. Cairn came to his feet as though he had been electrified; and as he raised the receiver to his ear, his son knew, by the expression on his face, from where the message came and something of its purport.

"Come with me," was all that he said, when he had replaced the instrument on the table.

They went out together. It was already past midnight, but a cab was found at the corner of Half-Moon Street, and within the space of five minutes they were at Lord Lashmore's house.

Excepting Chambers, Lord Lashmore's valet, no servants were to be seen.

"They ran away, sir, out of the house," explained the man, huskily, "when it happened."

Dr. Cairn delayed for no further questions, but raced upstairs, his son close behind him. Together they burst into Lord Lashmore's bedroom. But just within the door they both stopped, aghast.

Sitting bolt upright in bed was Lord Lashmore, his face a dingy grey and his open eyes, though filming over, yet faintly alight with a stark horror ... dead. An electric torch was still gripped in his left hand.

Bending over someone who lay upon the carpet near the bedside they perceived Sir Elwin Groves. He looked up. Some little of his usual self-possession had fled.

"Ah, Cairn!" he jerked. "We've both come too late."

The prostrate figure was that of Lady Lashmore, a loose kimono worn over her night-robe. She was white and still and the physician had been engaged in bathing a huge bruise upon her temple.

"She'll be all right," said Sir Elwin; "she has sustained a tremendous blow, as you see. But Lord Lashmore--"

Dr. Cairn stepped closer to the dead man.

"Heart," he said. "He died of sheer horror."

He turned to Chambers, who stood in the open doorway behind him.

"The dressing-room door is open," he said. "I had advised Lord Lashmore to lock it."

"Yes, sir; his lordship meant to, sir. But we found that the lock had been broken. It was to have been replaced to-morrow."

Dr. Cairn turned to his son.

"You hear?" he said. "No doubt you have some idea respecting which of the visitors to this unhappy house took the trouble to break that lock? It was to have been replaced to-morrow; hence the tragedy of to-night." He addressed Chambers again. "Why did the servants leave the house to-night?"

The man was shaking pitifully.

"It was the laughter, sir! the laughter! I can never forget it! I was sleeping in an adjoining room and I had the key of his lordship's door in case of need. But when I heard his lordship cry out--quick and loud, sir--like a man that's been stabbed--I jumped up to come to him. Then, as I was turning the doorknob--of my room, sir--someone, something, began to laugh! It was in here; it was in here, gentlemen! It wasn't--her ladyship; it wasn't like any woman. I can't describe it; but it woke up every soul in the house."

"When you came in?"

"I daren't come in, sir! I ran downstairs and called up Sir Elwin Groves. Before he came, all the rest of the household huddled on their clothes and went away--"

"It was I who found him," interrupted Sir Elwin--"as you see him now; with Lady Lashmore where she lies. I have 'phoned for nurses."

"Ah!" said Dr. Cairn; "I shall come back, Groves, but I have a small matter to attend to."

He drew his son from the room. On the stair:

"You understand?" he asked. "The spirit of Mirza came to him again, clothed in his wife's body. Lord Lashmore felt the teeth at his throat, awoke instantly and struck out. As he did so, he turned the torch upon her, and recognised--his wife! His heart completed the tragedy, and so--to the laughter of the sorceress--passed the last of the house of Dhoon."

The cab was waiting. Dr. Cairn gave an address in Piccadilly, and the two entered. As the cab moved off, the doctor took a revolver from his pocket, with some loose cartridges, charged the five chambers, and quietly replaced the weapon in his pocket again.

One of the big doors of the block of chambers was found to be ajar, and a porter proved to be yet in attendance.

"Mr. Ferrara?" began Dr. Cairn.

"You are five minutes too late, sir," said the man. "He left by motor at ten past twelve. He's gone abroad, sir."