Chapter VIII. The Secret of Dhoon
 

Lord Lashmore was a big, blonde man, fresh coloured, and having his nearly white hair worn close cut and his moustache trimmed in the neat military fashion. For a fair man, he had eyes of a singular colour. They were of so dark a shade of brown as to appear black: southern eyes; lending to his personality an oddness very striking.

When he was shown into Dr. Cairn's library, the doctor regarded him with that searching scrutiny peculiar to men of his profession, at the same time inviting the visitor to be seated.

Lashmore sat down in the red leathern armchair, resting his large hands upon his knees, with the fingers widely spread. He had a massive dignity, but was not entirely at his ease.

Dr. Cairn opened the conversation, in his direct fashion.

"You come to consult me, Lord Lashmore, in my capacity of occultist rather than in that of physician?"

"In both," replied Lord Lashmore; "distinctly, in both."

"Sir Elwin Groves is attending you for certain throat wounds--"

Lord Lashmore touched the high stock which he was wearing.

"The scars remain," he said. "Do you wish to see them?"

"I am afraid I must trouble you."

The stock was untied; and Dr. Cairn, through a powerful glass, examined the marks. One of them, the lower, was slightly inflamed.

Lord Lashmore retied his stock, standing before the small mirror set in the overmantel.

"You had an impression of some presence in the room at the time of the outrage?" pursued the doctor.

"Distinctly; on both occasions."

"Did you see anything?"

"The room was too dark."

"But you felt something?"

"Hair; my knuckles, as I struck out--I am speaking of the second outrage--encountered a thick mass of hair."

"The body of some animal?"

"Probably the head."

"But still you saw nothing?"

"I must confess that I had a vague idea of some shape flitting away across the room; a white shape--therefore probably a figment of my imagination."

"Your cry awakened Lady Lashmore?"

"Unfortunately, yes. Her nerves were badly shaken already, and this second shock proved too severe. Sir Elwin fears chest trouble. I am taking her abroad as soon as possible."

"She was found insensible. Where?"

"At the door of the dressing-room--the door communicating with her own room, not that communicating with mine. She had evidently started to come to my assistance when faintness overcame her."

"What is her own account?"

"That is her own account."

"Who discovered her?"

"I did."

Dr. Cairn was drumming his fingers on the table.

"You have a theory, Lord Lashmore," he said suddenly. "Let me hear it."

Lord Lashmore started, and glared across at the speaker with a sort of haughty surprise.

"I have a theory?"

"I think so. Am I wrong?"

Lashmore stood on the rug before the fireplace, with his hands locked behind him and his head lowered, looking out under his tufted eyebrows at Dr. Cairn. Thus seen, Lord Lashmore's strange eyes had a sinister appearance.

"If I had had a theory--" he began.

"You would have come to me to seek confirmation?" suggested Dr. Cairn.

"Ah! yes, you may be right. Sir Elwin Groves, to whom I hinted something, mentioned your name. I am not quite clear upon one point, Dr. Cairn. Did he send me to you because he thought--in a word, are you a mental specialist?"

"I am not. Sir Elwin has no doubts respecting your brain, Lord Lashmore. He has sent you here because I have made some study of what I may term psychical ailments. There is a chapter in your family history"--he fixed his searching gaze upon the other's face--"which latterly has been occupying your mind?"

At that, Lashmore started in good earnest.

"To what do you refer?"

"Lord Lashmore, you have come to me for advice. A rare ailment--happily very rare in England--has assailed you. Circumstances have been in your favour thus far, but a recurrence is to be anticipated at any time. Be good enough to look upon me as a specialist, and give me all your confidence."

Lashmore cleared his throat.

"What do you wish to know, Dr. Cairn?" he asked, with a queer intermingling of respect and hauteur in his tones.

"I wish to know about Mirza, wife of the third Baron Lashmore."

Lord Lashmore took a stride forward. His large hands clenched, and his eyes were blazing.

"What do you know about her?"

Surprise was in his voice, and anger.

"I have seen her portrait in Dhoon Castle; you were not in residence at the time. Mirza, Lady Lashmore, was evidently a very beautiful woman. What was the date of the marriage?"

"1615."

"The third Baron brought her to England from?--"

"Poland."

"She was a Pole?"

"A Polish Jewess."

"There was no issue of the marriage, but the Baron outlived her and married again?"

Lord Lashmore shifted his feet nervously, and gnawed his finger-nails.

"There was issue of the marriage," he snapped. "She was--my ancestress."

"Ah!" Dr. Cairn's grey eyes lighted up momentarily. "We get to the facts! Why was this birth kept secret?"

"Dhoon Castle has kept many secrets!" It was a grim noble of the Middle Ages who was speaking. "For a Lashmore, there was no difficulty in suppressing the facts, arranging a hasty second marriage and representing the boy as the child of the later union. Had the second marriage proved fruitful, this had been unnecessary; but an heir to Dhoon was--essential."

"I see. Had the second marriage proved fruitful, the child of Mirza would have been--what shall we say?--smothered?"

"Damn it! What do you mean?"

"He was the rightful heir."

"Dr. Cairn," said Lashmore slowly, "you are probing an open wound. The fourth Baron Lashmore represents what the world calls 'The Curse of the House of Dhoon.' At Dhoon Castle there is a secret chamber, which has engaged the pens of many so-called occultists, but which no man, save every heir, has entered for generations. It's very location is a secret. Measurements do not avail to find it. You would appear to know much of my family's black secret; perhaps you know where that room lies at Dhoon?"

"Certainly, I do," replied Dr. Cairn calmly; "it is under the moat, some thirty yards west of the former drawbridge."

Lord Lashmore changed colour. When he spoke again his voice had lost its timbre.

"Perhaps you know--what it contains."

"I do. It contains Paul, fourth Baron Lashmore, son of Mirza, the Polish Jewess!"

Lord Lashmore reseated himself in the big armchair, staring at the speaker, aghast.

"I thought no other in the world knew that!" he said, hollowly. "Your studies have been extensive indeed. For three years--three whole years from the night of my twenty-first birthday--the horror hung over me, Dr. Cairn. It ultimately brought my grandfather to the madhouse, but my father was of sterner stuff, and so, it seems, was I. After those three years of horror I threw off the memories of Paul Dhoon, the third baron--"

"It was on the night of your twenty-first birthday that you were admitted to the subterranean room?"

"You know so much, Dr. Cairn, that you may as well know all." Lashmore's face was twitching. "But you are about to hear what no man has ever heard from the lips of one of my family before."

He stood up again, restlessly.

"Nearly thirty-five years have elapsed," he resumed, "since that December night; but my very soul trembles now, when I recall it! There was a big house-party at Dhoon, but I had been prepared, for some weeks, by my father, for the ordeal that awaited me. Our family mystery is historical, and there were many fearful glances bestowed upon me, when, at midnight, my father took me aside from the company and led me to the old library. By God! Dr. Cairn--fearful as these reminiscences are, it is a relief to relate them--to someone!"

A sort of suppressed excitement was upon Lashmore, but his voice remained low and hollow.

"He asked me," he continued, "the traditional question: if I had prayed for strength. God knows I had! Then, his stern face very pale, he locked the library door, and from a closet concealed beside the ancient fireplace--a closet which, hitherto, I had not known to exist--he took out a bulky key of antique workmanship. Together we set to work to remove all the volumes from one of the bookshelves.

"Even when the shelves were empty, it called for our united efforts to move the heavy piece of furniture; but we accomplished the task ultimately, making visible a considerable expanse of panelling. Nearly forty years had elapsed since that case had been removed, and the carvings which it concealed were coated with all the dust which had accumulated there since the night of my father's coming of age.

"A device upon the top of the centre panel represented the arms of the family; the helm which formed part of the device projected like a knob. My father grasped it, turned it, and threw his weight against the seemingly solid wall. It yielded, swinging inward upon concealed hinges, and a damp, earthy smell came out into the library. Taking up a lamp, which he had in readiness, my father entered the cavity, beckoning me to follow.

"I found myself descending a flight of rough steps, and the roof above me was so low that I was compelled to stoop. A corner was come to, passed, and a further flight of steps appeared beneath. At that time the old moat was still flooded, and even had I not divined as much from the direction of the steps, I should have known, at this point, that we were beneath it. Between the stone blocks roofing us in oozed drops of moisture, and the air was at once damp and icily cold.

"A short passage, commencing at the foot of the steps, terminated before a massive, iron-studded door. My father placed the key in the lock, and holding the lamp above his head, turned and looked at me. He was deathly pale.

"'Summon all your fortitude,' he said.

"He strove to turn the key, but for a long time without success for the lock was rusty. Finally, however--he was a strong man--his efforts were successful. The door opened, and an indescribable smell came out into the passage. Never before had I met with anything like it; I have never met with it since."

Lord Lashmore wiped his brow with his handkerchief.

"The first thing," he resumed, "upon which the lamplight shone, was what appeared to be a blood-stain spreading almost entirely over one wall of the cell which I perceived before me. I have learnt since that this was a species of fungus, not altogether uncommon, but at the time, and in that situation, it shocked me inexpressibly.

"But let me hasten to that which we were come to see--let me finish my story as quickly as may be. My father halted at the entrance to this frightful cell; his hand, with which he held the lamp above his head, was not steady; and over his shoulder I looked into the place and saw ... him.

"Dr. Cairn, for three years, night and day, that spectacle haunted me; for three years, night and day, I seemed to have before my eyes the dreadful face--the bearded, grinning face of Paul Dhoon. He lay there upon the floor of the dungeon, his fists clenched and his knees drawn up as if in agony. He had lain there for generations; yet, as God is my witness, there was flesh on his bones.

"Yellow and seared it was, and his joints protruded through it, but his features were yet recognisable--horribly, dreadfully, recognisable. His black hair was like a mane, long and matted, his eyebrows were incredibly heavy and his lashes overhung his cheekbones. The nails of his fingers ... no! I will spare you! But his teeth, his ivory gleaming teeth--with the two wolf-fangs fully revealed by that death-grin!...

"An aspen stake was driven through his breast, pinning him to the earthern floor, and there he lay in the agonised attitude of one who had died by such awful means. Yet--that stake was not driven through his unhallowed body until a whole year after his death!

"How I regained the library I do not remember. I was unable to rejoin the guests, unable to face my fellow-men for days afterwards. Dr. Cairn, for three years I feared--feared the world--feared sleep--feared myself above all; for I knew that I had in my veins the blood of a vampire!"