The Brood of the Witch-Queen by Sax Rohmer
Chapter V. The Rustling Shadows
Cairn stepped out of the lift, crossed the hall, and was about to walk out on to Piccadilly, when he stopped, staring hard at a taxi-cab which had slowed down upon the opposite side whilst the driver awaited a suitable opportunity to pull across.
The occupant of the cab was invisible now, but a moment before Cairn had had a glimpse of her as she glanced out, apparently towards the very doorway in which he stood. Perhaps his imagination was playing him tricks. He stood and waited, until at last the cab drew up within a few yards of him.
Myra Duquesne got out.
Having paid the cabman, she crossed the pavement and entered the hall-way. Cairn stepped forward so that she almost ran into his arms.
"Mr. Cairn!" she cried. "Why! have you been to see Antony?"
"I have," he replied, and paused, at a loss for words.
It had suddenly occurred to him that Antony Ferrara and Myra Duquesne had known one another from childhood; that the girl probably regarded Ferrara in the light of a brother.
"There are so many things I want to talk to him about," she said. "He seems to know everything, and I am afraid I know very little."
Cairn noted with dismay the shadows under her eyes--the grey eyes that he would have wished to see ever full of light and laughter. She was pale, too, or seemed unusually so in her black dress; but the tragic death of her guardian, Sir Michael Ferrara, had been a dreadful blow to this convent-bred girl who had no other kin in the world. A longing swept into Cairn's heart and set it ablaze; a longing to take all her sorrows, all her cares, upon his own broad shoulders, to take her and hold her, shielded from whatever of trouble or menace the future might bring.
"Have you seen his rooms here?" he asked, trying to speak casually; but his soul was up in arms against the bare idea of this girl's entering that perfumed place where abominable and vile things were, and none of them so vile as the man she trusted, whom she counted a brother.
"Not yet," she answered, with a sort of childish glee momentarily lighting her eyes. "Are they very splendid?"
"Very," he answered her, grimly.
"Can't you come in with me for awhile? Only just a little while, then you can come home to lunch--you and Antony." Her eyes sparkled now. "Oh, do say yes!"
Knowing what he did know of the man upstairs, he longed to accompany her; yet, contradictorily, knowing what he did he could not face him again, could not submit himself to the test of being civil to Antony Ferrara in the presence of Myra Duquesne.
"Please don't tempt me," he begged, and forced a smile. "I shall find myself enrolled amongst the seekers of soup-tickets if I completely ignore the claims of my employer upon my time!"
"Oh, what a shame!" she cried.
Their eyes met, and something--something unspoken but cogent--passed between them; so that for the first time a pretty colour tinted the girl's cheeks. She suddenly grew embarrassed.
"Good-bye, then," she said, holding out her hand. "Will you lunch with us to-morrow?"
"Thanks awfully," replied Cairn. "Rather--if it's humanly possible. I'll ring you up."
He released her hand, and stood watching her as she entered the lift. When it ascended, he turned and went out to swell the human tide of Piccadilly. He wondered what his father would think of the girl's visiting Ferrara. Would he approve? Decidedly the situation was a delicate one; the wrong kind of interference--the tactless kind--might merely render it worse. It would be awfully difficult, if not impossible, to explain to Myra. If an open rupture were to be avoided (and he had profound faith in his father's acumen), then Myra must remain in ignorance. But was she to be allowed to continue these visits?
Should he have permitted her to enter Ferrara's rooms?
He reflected that he had no right to question her movements. But, at least, he might have accompanied her.
"Oh, heavens!" he muttered--"what a horrible tangle. It will drive me mad!"
There could be no peace for him until he knew her to be safely home again, and his work suffered accordingly; until, at about midday, he rang up Myra Duquesne, on the pretence of accepting her invitation to lunch on the morrow, and heard, with inexpressible relief, her voice replying to him.
In the afternoon he was suddenly called upon to do a big "royal" matinee, and this necessitated a run to his chambers in order to change from Harris tweed into vicuna and cashmere. The usual stream of lawyers' clerks and others poured under the archway leading to the court; but in the far corner shaded by the tall plane tree, where the ascending steps and worn iron railing, the small panes of glass in the solicitor's window on the ground floor and the general air of Dickens-like aloofness prevailed, one entered a sort of backwater. In the narrow hall-way, quiet reigned--a quiet profound as though motor 'buses were not.
Cairn ran up the stairs to the second landing, and began to fumble for his key. Although he knew it to be impossible, he was aware of a queer impression that someone was waiting for him, inside his chambers. The sufficiently palpable fact--that such a thing was impossible--did not really strike him until he had opened the door and entered. Up to that time, in a sort of subconscious way, he had anticipated finding a visitor there.
"What an ass I am!" he muttered; then, "Phew! there's a disgusting smell!"
He threw open all the windows, and entering his bedroom, also opening both the windows there. The current of air thus established began to disperse the odour--a fusty one as of something decaying--and by the time that he had changed, it was scarcely perceptible. He had little time to waste in speculation, but when, as he ran out to the door, glancing at his watch, the nauseous odour suddenly rose again to his nostrils, he stopped with his hand on the latch.
"What the deuce is it!" he said loudly.
Quite mechanically he turned and looked back. As one might have anticipated, there was nothing visible to account for the odour.
The emotion of fear is a strange and complex one. In this breath of decay rising to his nostril, Cairn found something fearsome. He opened the door, stepped out on to the landing, and closed the door behind him.
At an hour close upon midnight, Dr. Bruce Cairn, who was about to retire, received a wholly unexpected visit from his son. Robert Cairn followed his father into the library and sat down in the big, red leathern easy-chair. The doctor tilted the lamp shade, directing the light upon Robert's face. It proved to be slightly pale, and in the clear eyes was an odd expression--almost a hunted look.
"What's the trouble, Rob? Have a whisky and soda."
Robert Cairn helped himself quietly.
"Now take a cigar and tell me what has frightened you."
"Frightened me!" He started, and paused in the act of reaching for a match. "Yes--you're right, sir. I am frightened!"
"Not at the moment. You have been."
"Right again." He lighted his cigar. "I want to begin by saying that--well, how can I put it? When I took up newspaper work, we thought it would be better if I lived in chambers--"
"Well, at that time--" he examined the lighted end of his cigar--"there was no reason--why I should not live alone. But now--"
"Now I feel, sir, that I have need of more or less constant companionship. Especially I feel that it would be desirable to have a friend handy at--er--at night time!"
Dr. Cairn leant forward in his chair. His face was very stern.
"Hold out your fingers," he said, "extended; left hand."
His son obeyed, smiling slightly. The open hand showed in the lamplight steady as a carven hand.
"Nerves quite in order, sir."
Dr. Cairn inhaled a deep breath.
"Tell me," he said.
"It's a queer tale," his son began, "and if I told it to Craig Fenton, or Madderley round in Harley Street I know what they would say. But you will understand. It started this afternoon, when the sun was pouring in through the windows. I had to go to my chambers to change; and the rooms were filled with a most disgusting smell."
His father started.
"What kind of smell?" he asked. "Not--incense?"
"No," replied Robert, looking hard at him--"I thought you would ask that. It was a smell of something putrid--something rotten, rotten with the rottenness of ages."
"Did you trace where it came from?"
"I opened all the windows, and that seemed to disperse it for a time. Then, just as I was going out, it returned; it seemed to envelop me like a filthy miasma. You know, sir, it's hard to explain just the way I felt about it--but it all amounts to this: I was glad to get outside!"
Dr. Cairn stood up and began to pace about the room, his hands locked behind him.
"To-night," he rapped suddenly, "what occurred to-night?"
"To-night," continued his son, "I got in at about half-past nine. I had had such a rush, in one way and another, that the incident had quite lost its hold on my imagination; I hadn't forgotten it, of course, but I was not thinking of it when I unlocked the door. In fact I didn't begin to think of it again until, in slippers and dressing-gown, I had settled down for a comfortable read. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to influence my imagination--in that way. The book was an old favourite, Mark Twain's Up the Mississippi, and I sat in the armchair with a large bottle of lager beer at my elbow and my pipe going strong."
Becoming restless in turn, the speaker stood up and walking to the fireplace flicked off the long cone of grey ash from his cigar. He leant one elbow upon the mantel-piece, resuming his story:
"St. Paul's had just chimed the half-hour--half-past ten--when my pipe went out. Before I had time to re-light it, came the damnable smell again. At the moment nothing was farther from my mind, and I jumped up with an exclamation of disgust. It seemed to be growing stronger and stronger. I got my pipe alight quickly. Still I could smell it; the aroma of the tobacco did not lessen its beastly pungency in the smallest degree.
"I tilted the shade of my reading-lamp and looked all about. There was nothing unusual to be seen. Both windows were open and I went to one and thrust my head out, in order to learn if the odour came from outside. It did not. The air outside the window was fresh and clean. Then I remembered that when I had left my chambers in the afternoon, the smell had been stronger near the door than anywhere. I ran out to the door. In the passage I could smell nothing; but--"
He paused, glancing at his father.
"Before I had stood there thirty seconds it was rising all about me like the fumes from a crater. By God, sir! I realised then that it was something ... following me!"
Dr. Cairn stood watching him, from the shadows beyond the big table, as he came forward and finished his whisky at a gulp.
"That seemed to work a change in me," he continued rapidly; "I recognised there was something behind this disgusting manifestation, something directing it; and I recognised, too, that the next move was up to me. I went back to my room. The odour was not so pronounced, but as I stood by the table, waiting, it increased, and increased, until it almost choked me. My nerves were playing tricks, but I kept a fast hold on myself. I set to work, very methodically, and fumigated the place. Within myself I knew that it could do no good, but I felt that I had to put up some kind of opposition. You understand, sir?"
"Quite," replied Dr. Cairn quietly. "It was an organised attempt to expel the invader, and though of itself it was useless, the mental attitude dictating it was good. Go on."
"The clocks had chimed eleven when I gave up, and I felt physically sick. The air by this time was poisonous, literally poisonous. I dropped into the easy-chair and began to wonder what the end of it would be. Then, in the shadowy parts of the room, outside the circle of light cast by the lamp, I detected--darker patches. For awhile I tried to believe that they were imaginary, but when I saw one move along the bookcase, glide down its side, and come across the carpet, towards me, I knew that they were not. Before heaven, sir"--his voice shook--"either I am mad, or to-night my room was filled with things that crawled! They were everywhere; on the floor, on the walls, even on the ceiling above me! Where the light was I couldn't detect them, but the shadows were alive, alive with things--the size of my two hands; and in the growing stillness--"
His voice had become husky. Dr. Cairn stood still, as a man of stone, watching him.
"In the stillness, very faintly, they rustled!"
Silence fell. A car passed outside in Half-Moon Street; its throb died away. A clock was chiming the half-hour after midnight. Dr. Cairn spoke:
"One other thing, sir. I was gripping the chair arms; I felt that I had to grip something to prevent myself from slipping into madness. My left hand--" he glanced at it with a sort of repugnance--"something hairy--and indescribably loathsome--touched it; just brushed against it. But it was too much. I'm ashamed to tell you, sir; I screamed, screamed like any hysterical girl, and for the second time, ran! I ran from my own rooms, grabbed a hat and coat; and left my dressing gown on the floor!"
He turned, leaning both elbows on the mantel-piece, and buried his face in his hands.
"Have another drink," said Dr. Cairn. "You called on Antony Ferrara to-day, didn't you? How did he receive you?"
"That brings me to something else I wanted to tell you," continued Robert, squirting soda-water into his glass. "Myra--goes there."
"Where--to his chambers?"
Dr. Cairn began to pace the room again.
"I am not surprised," he admitted; "she has always been taught to regard him in the light of a brother. But nevertheless we must put a stop to it. How did you learn this?"
Robert Cairn gave him an account of the morning's incidents, describing Ferrara's chambers with a minute exactness which revealed how deep, how indelible an impression their strangeness had made upon his mind.
"There is one thing," he concluded, "against which I am always coming up, I puzzled over it at Oxford, and others did, too; I came against it to-day. Who is Antony Ferrara? Where did Sir Michael find him? What kind of woman bore such a son?"
"Stop boy!" cried Dr. Cairn.
Robert started, looking at his father across the table.
"You are already in danger, Rob. I won't disguise that fact from you. Myra Duquesne is no relation of Ferrara's; therefore, since she inherits half of Sir Michael's fortune, a certain course must have suggested itself to Antony. You, patently, are an obstacle! That's bad enough, boy; let us deal with it before we look for further trouble."
"He took up a blackened briar from the table and began to load it.
"Regarding your next move," he continued slowly, "there can be no question. You must return to your chambers!"
"There can be no question, Rob. A kind of attack has been made upon you which only you can repel. If you desert your chambers, it will be repeated here. At present it is evidently localised. There are laws governing these things; laws as immutable as any other laws in Nature. One of them is this: the powers of darkness (to employ a conventional and significant phrase) cannot triumph over the powers of Will. Below the Godhead, Will is the supreme force of the Universe. Resist! You must resist, or you are lost!"
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I mean that destruction of mind, and of something more than mind, threatens you. If you retreat you are lost. Go back to your rooms. Seek your foe; strive to haul him into the light and crush him! The phenomena at your rooms belong to one of two varieties; at present it seems impossible to classify them more closely. Both are dangerous, though in different ways. I suspect, however, that a purely mental effort will be sufficient to disperse these nauseous shadow-things. Probably you will not be troubled again to-night, but whenever the phenomena return, take off your coat to them! You require no better companion than the one you had:--Mark Twain! Treat your visitors as one might imagine he would have treated them; as a very poor joke! But whenever it begins again, ring me up. Don't hesitate, whatever the hour. I shall be at the hospital all day, but from seven onward I shall be here and shall make a point of remaining. Give me a call when you return, now, and if there is no earlier occasion, another in the morning. Then rely upon my active co-operation throughout the following night."
"I said active, Rob. The next repetition of these manifestations shall be the last. Good-night. Remember, you have only to lift the receiver to know that you are not alone in your fight."
Robert Cairn took a second cigar, lighted it, finished his whisky, and squared his shoulders.
"Good-night, sir," he said. "I shan't run away a third time!"
When the door had closed upon his exit, Dr. Cairn resumed his restless pacing up and down the library. He had given Roman counsel, for he had sent his son out to face, alone, a real and dreadful danger. Only thus could he hope to save him, but nevertheless it had been hard. The next fight would be a fight to the finish, for Robert had said, "I shan't run away a third time;" and he was a man of his word.
As Dr. Cairn had declared, the manifestations belonged to one of two varieties. According to the most ancient science in the world, the science by which the Egyptians, and perhaps even earlier peoples, ordered their lives, we share this, our plane of existence, with certain other creatures, often called Elementals. Mercifully, these fearsome entities are invisible to our normal sight, just as the finer tones of music are inaudible to our normal powers of hearing.
Victims of delirium tremens, opium smokers, and other debauchees, artificially open that finer, latent power of vision; and the horrors which surround them are not imaginary but are Elementals attracted to the victim by his peculiar excesses.
The crawling things, then, which reeked abominably might be Elementals (so Dr. Cairn reasoned) superimposed upon Robert Cairn's consciousness by a directing, malignant intelligence. On the other hand they might be mere glamours--or thought-forms--thrust upon him by the same wizard mind; emanations from an evil, powerful will.
His reflections were interrupted by the ringing of the 'phone bell. He took up the receiver.
"That you, sir? All's clear here, now. I'm turning in."
"Right. Good-night, Rob. Ring me in the morning."
Dr. Cairn refilled his charred briar, and, taking from a drawer in the writing table a thick MS., sat down and began to study the closely-written pages. The paper was in the cramped handwriting of the late Sir Michael Ferrara, his travelling companion through many strange adventures; and the sun had been flooding the library with dimmed golden light for several hours, and a bustle below stairs acclaiming an awakened household, ere the doctor's studies were interrupted. Again, it was the 'phone bell. He rose, switched off the reading-lamp, and lifted the instrument.
"That you, Rob?"
"Yes, sir. All's well, thank God! Can I breakfast with you?"
"Certainly, my boy!" Dr. Cairn glanced at his watch. "Why, upon my soul it's seven o'clock!"