Chapter XXVII. The Thug's Cord
 

As Robert Cairn hung up the receiver and found himself cut off again from the outer world, he realised, with terror beyond his control, how in this quiet backwater, so near to the main stream, he yet was far from human companionship.

He recalled a night when, amid such a silence as this which now prevailed about him, he had been made the subject of an uncanny demonstration; how his sanity, his life, had been attacked; how he had fled from the crowding horrors which had been massed against him by his supernaturally endowed enemy.

There was something very terrifying in the quietude of the court--a quietude which to others might have spelt peace, but which, to Robert Cairn, spelled menace. That Ferrara's device was aimed at his freedom, that his design was intended to lead to the detention of his enemy whilst he directed his activities in other directions, seemed plausible, if inadequate. The carefully planned incident at the Museum whereby the constable had become possessed of Cairn's card; the distinct possibility that a detective might knock upon his door at any moment--with the inevitable result of his detention pending inquiries--formed a chain which had seemed complete, save that Antony Ferrara, was the schemer. For another to have compassed so much, would have been a notable victory; for Ferrara, such a victory would be trivial.

What then, did it mean? His father had told him, and the uncanny events of the evening stood evidence of Dr. Cairn's wisdom. The mysterious and evil force which Antony Ferrara controlled was being focussed upon him!

Slight sounds from time to time disturbed the silence and to these he listened attentively. He longed for the arrival of his father--for the strong, calm counsel of the one man in England fitted to cope with the Hell Thing which had uprisen in their midst. That he had already been subjected to some kind of hypnotic influence, he was unable to doubt; and having once been subjected to this influence, he might at any moment (it Was a terrible reflection) fall a victim to it again.

Cairn directed all the energies of his mind to resistance; ill-defined reflection must at all costs be avoided, for the brain vaguely employed he knew to be more susceptible to attack than that directed in a well-ordered channel.

Clocks were chiming the hour--he did not know what hour, nor did he seek to learn. He felt that he was at rapier play with a skilled antagonist, and that to glance aside, however momentarily, was to lay himself open to a fatal thrust.

He had not moved from the table, so that only the reading lamp upon it was lighted, and much of the room lay in half shadow. The silken cord, coiled snake-like, was close to his left hand; the revolver was close to his right. The muffled roar of traffic--diminished, since the hour grew late--reached his ears as he sat. But nothing disturbed the stillness of the court, and nothing disturbed the stillness of the room.

The notes which he had made in the afternoon at the Museum, were still spread open before him, and he suddenly closed the book, fearful of anything calculated to distract him from the mood of tense resistance. His life, and more than his life, depended upon his successfully opposing the insidious forces which beyond doubt, invisibly surrounded that lighted table.

There is a courage which is not physical, nor is it entirely moral; a courage often lacking in the most intrepid soldier. And this was the kind of courage which Robert Cairn now called up to his aid. The occult inquirer can face, unmoved, horrors which would turn the brain of many a man who wears the V.C.; on the other hand it is questionable if the possessor of this peculiar type of bravery could face a bayonet charge. Pluck of the physical sort, Cairn had in plenty; pluck of that more subtle kind he was acquiring from growing intimacy with the terrors of the Borderland.

"Who's there?"

He spoke the words aloud, and the eerie sound of his own voice added a new dread to the enveloping shadows.

His revolver grasped in his hand, he stood up, but slowly and cautiously, in order that his own movements might not prevent him from hearing any repetition of that which had occasioned his alarm. And what had occasioned this alarm?

Either he was become again a victim of the strange trickery which already had borne him, though not physically, from Fleet Street to the secret temple of Meydum, or with his material senses he had detected a soft rapping upon the door of his room.

He knew that his outer door was closed; he knew that there was no one else in his chambers; yet he had heard a sound as of knuckles beating upon the panels of the door--the closed door of the room in which he sat!

Standing upright, he turned deliberately, and faced in that direction.

The light pouring out from beneath the shade of the table-lamp scarcely touched upon the door at all. Only the edges of the lower panels were clearly perceptible; the upper part of the door was masked in greenish shadow.

Intent, tensely strung, he stood; then advanced in the direction of the switch in order to light the lamp fixed above the mantel-piece and to illuminate the whole of the room. One step forward he took, then ... the soft rapping was repeated.

"Who's there?"

This time he cried the words loudly, and acquired some new assurance from the imperative note in his own voice. He ran to the switch and pressed it down. The lamp did not light!

"The filament has burnt out," he muttered.

Terror grew upon him--a terror akin to that which children experience in the darkness. But he yet had a fair mastery of his emotions; when--not suddenly, as is the way of a failing electric lamp--but slowly, uncannily, unnaturally, the table-lamp became extinguished!

Darkness.... Cairn turned towards the window. This was a moonless night, and little enough illumination entered the room from the court.

Three resounding raps were struck upon the door.

At that, terror had no darker meaning for Cairn; he had plumbed its ultimate deeps; and now, like a diver, he arose again to the surface.

Heedless of the darkness, of the seemingly supernatural means by which it had been occasioned, he threw open the door and thrust his revolver out into the corridor.

For terrors, he had been prepared--for some gruesome shape such as we read of in The Magus. But there was nothing. Instinctively he had looked straight ahead of him, as one looks who expects to encounter a human enemy. But the hall-way was empty. A dim light, finding access over the door from the stair, prevailed there, yet, it was sufficient to have revealed the presence of anyone or anything, had anyone or anything been present.

Cairn stepped out from the room and was about to walk to the outer door. The idea of flight was strong upon him, for no man can fight the invisible; when, on a level with his eyes--flat against the wall, as though someone crouched there--he saw two white hands!

They were slim hands, like the hands of a woman, and, upon one of the tapered fingers, there dully gleamed a green stone.

A peal of laughter came chokingly from his lips; he knew that his reason was tottering. For these two white hands which now moved along the wall, as though they were sidling to the room which Cairn had just quitted, were attached to no visible body; just two ivory hands were there ... and nothing more!

That he was in deadly peril, Cairn realised fully. His complete subjection by the will-force of Ferrara had been interrupted by the ringing of the telephone bell But now, the attack had been renewed!

The hands vanished.

Too well he remembered the ghastly details attendant upon the death of Sir Michael Ferrara to doubt that these slim hands were directed upon murderous business.

A soft swishing sound reached him. Something upon the writing-table had been moved.

The strangling cord!

Whilst speaking to his father he had taken it out from the drawer, and when he quitted the room it had lain upon the blotting-pad.

He stepped back towards the outer door.

Something fluttered past his face, and he turned in a mad panic. The dreadful, bodiless hands groped in the darkness between himself and the exit!

Vaguely it came home to him that the menace might be avoidable. He was bathed in icy perspiration.

He dropped the revolver into his pocket, and placed his hands upon his throat. Then he began to grope his way towards the closed door of his bedroom.

Lowering his left hand, he began to feel for the doorknob. As he did so, he saw--and knew the crowning horror of the night--that he had made a false move. In retiring he had thrown away his last, his only, chance.

The phantom hands, a yard apart and holding the silken cord stretched tightly between them, were approaching him swiftly!

He lowered his head, and charged along the passage, with a wild cry.

The cord, stretched taut, struck him under the chin.

Back he reeled.

The cord was about his throat!

"God!" he choked, and thrust up his hands.

Madly, he strove to pluck the deadly silken thing from his neck. It was useless. A grip of steel was drawing it tightly--and ever more tightly--about him....

Despair touched him, and almost he resigned himself. Then,

"Rob! Rob! open the door!"

Dr. Cairn was outside.

A new strength came--and he knew that it was the last atom left to him. To remove the rope was humanly impossible. He dropped his cramped hands, bent his body by a mighty physical effort, and hurled himself forward upon the door.

The latch, now, was just above his head.

He stretched up ... and was plucked back. But the fingers of his right hand grasped the knob convulsively.

Even as that superhuman force jerked him back, he turned the knob--and fell.

All his weight hung upon the fingers which were locked about that brass disk in a grip which even the powers of Darkness could not relax.

The door swung open, and Cairn swung back with it.

He collapsed, an inert heap, upon the floor. Dr. Cairn leapt in over him.

       *       *       *       *       *

When he reopened his eyes, he lay in bed, and his father was bathing his inflamed throat.

"All right, boy! There's no damage done, thank God...."

"The hands!--"

"I quite understand. But I saw no hands but your own, Rob; and if it had come to an inquest I could not even have raised my voice against a verdict of suicide!"

"But I--opened the door!"

"They would have said that you repented your awful act, too late. Although it is almost impossible for a man to strangle himself under such conditions, there is no jury in England who would have believed that Antony Ferrara had done the deed."