a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Priestess of Murder Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304561h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Aug 2013 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
A thing of terror lurked in hiding—waiting to work its ghastly evil upon beautiful Leila Monroy!... Was her lover in truth the monster who sought her? Was it lovely Eve, her best friend? Or were Leila's darkest suspicions correct—could it be that she, herself, changed periodically into the thing of horror and death that haunted that stricken countryside?
THE house was full of whispers. Leila Monroy, pathetically small in the huge, wing-sided easy chair, fumbled at her throat. A sob was trying to rise there, knotting her muscles with a sort of physical pain.
The house was full of whispers. The ancient farmhouse that always had been her home was an abode of brooding dread, a place of dark despair. The groaning of the old timbers' drying fibers seemed terribly loud in the oppressive silence. They came from the very walls about Leila; from the age-darkened rafters overhead; from the ominous gloom of the entrance hallway that somehow repelled the living-room light; from the broad staircase twisting upward out of that foyer to appallingly empty obscurity above.
The house was full of whispers, shredding Leila's frayed nerves with terrible reminders of her day's long agony. Just such a place of muted, ominous sounds had the courtroom been. Unshed tears, through the anguished hours, had blurred its crowded benches; and the only reality had been the gaunt, suffering figure of her grey-faced father in the prisoner's dock. But the whispers had been inescapable. All day they had hissed at her, as they were hissing now: mutterings of horror as witness after witness had damned Justin Monroy with hushed tales of brutal, unutterably savage killing; gasps of outrage when Leila herself gave halting testimony that she had been with her father, here in this room, all the fatal hour between the time when Shean Rourke had last been seen alive and the time when Foster Corbett had found his hacked and mangled corpse beneath the poplars dividing the two farms.
Whispers had met the exhausted girl—whispers of tight-lipped condemnation—when at last she had stumbled down from the witness chair; and the farmer-women's Sunday silks had rustled, self-righteously, drawing away from the defiling touch of the girl who, hostile eyes said, had lied desperately to save a blood-guilty slayer.
Whispers, whispers, whispers—seething out of the pulsating silence as the stony-faced jury marched back into their box.
And then the whispers had become a soundless scream searing Leila's breast as the dreadful verdict soughed from the foreman's tight throat.
"Murder! While insane!"
Insane! The recollection flung Leila Monroy up out of her chair, held her rigid in distress. Insane! The word hissed within her skull, hissed from the stark vacancy in which she was so utterly alone with terror and despair. Slithering foliage, stirred by a swiftly rising wind, hissed it at her from the terrible outer night. Insane!
Insane! The kindly, tender old man to whose gnarled hand she had clung as the brown clods thudded on the drab wood of her mother's coffin; the hard- working, weather-beaten oldster who had been father and mother to her through so many years—a madman! Her father! From whose veins came the blood surging now so darkly in her veins.
Leila quivered. Tremors ran through the long, delicate curves of her slim form. The tiny oval of her small-featured countenance blanched with a new dismay. His blood in her veins! What if that blood were tainted with a foul lust to kill, with an atavistic urge to tear with fang and claw, to rend human flesh and taste the warm, salt-sweet tang of human life-fluid on smacking, gory lips? What if she had not really drowsed that half-hour whose lapse fatally had invalidated her testimony? Had she run, instead, ravening by his side while a fearful heritage of homicidal madness blotted memory from her soul as the alienists said it had blotted recollection from Justin Monroy's?
Abruptly the light within was paled by a blue blaze glaring in through the window on which her unseeing stare was fixed, by lightning that split the sky's black vault with a jagged and blazing fracture. Thunder blast became to the shocked girl the devastating roar of an enormous beast that leaped on the house, that battered it, that shook it in huge jaws whose slaver was driving rain. Storm tumult howled about the old walls, crashed through the empty rooms, drowned out the whispers that had tortured Leila, drowned out the whispers in her harried brain. Almost, after the first terrific onslaught, she was grateful for the fury that would no longer let her hear those whispers.
But it could not drown her dreadful thoughts.
"No," she moaned. "Merciful Lord, no!" as she had moaned when Justin Monroy's suave attorney had elicited from the bald-pated alienist glib testimony that had saved his client from the death-chair—and condemned him to a living hell. "No! It can't be true."
"I could have done nothing else," the lawyer had answered her reproaches afterward. "It was your father's axe Foster Corbett found buried in the dead man's chest. Your father's footprints were traced out of the trampled mess around the corpse and across the meadow to your back porch. There was the old boundary line feud between your father and his neighbor, his threats that if Foster Corbett or his son Stanley or his farm hand, Shean Rourke, stepped on Monroy land they would regret it. Against that we had only your word that he was seated in the room with you all evening. And on cross-examination you admitted that you had fallen asleep."
The wind pounded against the door as their fists had pounded, coming to accuse Dad of the awful deed. Foster Corbett, triumphant at last over his ancient adversary. Stan Corbett—
Leila's pale lips writhed. Stan! In his arms she had known happiness, against her lips his lips had thrilled. Defiant of the enmity between their fathers they had loved. If State Trooper Stanley Corbett had fired his gun into her heart, he could no more cruelly have slain that love than he had by saying to her father, "You're under arrest, Mr. Monroy."
Rain lashed against the window in a spasm of new fury. The world was ablaze with a flickering electric flare that spilled bluely on the tossing poplars marching along the tree-marked boundary between the two farms. It was just there that Shean Rourke's corpse—Something moved stealthily—vague and black—among the wind-bent trunks!
Darkness smashed down again! Who was it? Who prowled the storm-drenched night. The demoniac slayer who had made a ghastly horror of what once had been a man? The real killer, stalking a new prey? Stalking her? Icy fingers clutched Leila Monroy's throat, chill prickles tickled her spine. His blood-thirst still unslaked, inflamed by his terrible crime for which Dad unjustly had been condemned to terrible expiation, the murderer was creeping up on her. On her!
An ancient legend of whispered terror trailed a slimy speculation across her fear. A name breathed with shudders of apprehension by the gaffers clustering around the cherry-bellied stove in the village. The Monster of West Cliff! The traditional phantom that was reputed to haunt the stony precipice whose sheer rampart rose behind the fertile plain along which, from north to south, lay the three neighboring farms of the Corbetts, the Monroys and the Stars! Often of late he had been seen stalking the dark belt of primeval forest cloaking the base of that cliff, the elusive, appalling wraith, it was said, of an Indian chief whose tribe had been massacred by the plain's first settlers. Stalking the ages, waiting for a chance at gruesome revenge. Every accident, every unexplained disaster of the countryside was ascribed to him. Was it he who—
Storm-blaze arched the heavens once more, exploding into momentary existence the tempest-tormented trees, the downpour-beaten pasture between. They were deserted, vacant as the house itself. Nothing—no one was anywhere in sight. The prowling shadow had been an illusion, a figment of her anguished brain.
Wait! Wait! The imagined sight had recalled something to Leila. An incident of the fateful night that she had utterly forgotten till now, till it was too late. The girl groaned, beat her breast in bitter self- condemnation.
Stepping to this very window, that evening, to pull down its shade, she had seen, or thought she had seen, Foster Corbert dodging behind the tool shed just visible left of the house. She had said nothing to her father, fearing to excite him, fearing to jeopardize the reconciliation for which she and Stan plotted. The terrible events following had obliterated the matter from her memory. Utterly, till now. How could she have forgotten it, its astounding implication? The murder-axe, whose blood-smeared helve had shown no fingerprints, had come from that very shed!
Perhaps it was not yet too late. Perhaps if she told her story—
Shrill sound sliced across the thought. It stopped, spurted again. Rrrring—rrrring—rrring. It whirled Leila around to it. Rrrring—rrring—rrring. The telephone! Three rings, the Monroy signal! Who could be phoning her. Stan? Incredible! Eve Starr, perhaps? Eve, her neighbor and closest female friend, calling to extend sympathy, consolation. Like Eve to remain loyal when every one else shunned her.
Rrrring—rrring—Leila, flinging across the room, into the hallway's dimness, jerked the receiver from its hook.
"Lock your doors," a hoarse, unrecognizable voice grated without preamble. "Lock your windows." A voice choked, coarsened by some inexplicable terror. "Don't let any one in. Not any—"
The telephone was suddenly dead, with the flat, inanimate deadness of a line from which the humming life of its current has gone. Dead! Had the storm blown down a frail wire or had some human hand cut it? Some human hand, just too late to stop the husked warning?
Some human hand! Icy terror once more struck at Leila Monroy. The hand of some one who even now crept up on the house. Then she was moving, had flung herself to the great front door, was thrusting into its socket the heavy bolt clamped to its sturdy oak.
The back door was already locked, she remembered. The windows! Old-fashioned shutters creaked out of recesses in their embrasured sides to the frantic pull of her trembling hands, were also bolted. She rushed in frenzied haste through dining room, through kitchen, clicking on light as she went, light from which shadows fled that were black, sinister silhouettes waiting around corners, behind doors, to spring upon her. The lower floor was at last a blaze of light, was a locked and barred fortress against whatever menace threatened. The lower floor—
But there was the upstairs yet, the upstairs that was blacker, as Leila's dilated pupils stared up into its mystery, because of the luminescence about her. No longer was it the warm, familiar bedroom floor of the old house but a precinct of stygian gloom haunted by some darkness-shrouded threat.
The girl's small fingers—tightened on the newel post to which she clung, tightened till the blood was driven from them and they were grey, trembling splotches against the lustrous patina of the wood. It was only the dark, up there, of which she was afraid. Over and over she told it to herself. It was only because of the dark that she had that hint of evil lurking just beyond the stair head, of monstrous evil crouched just beyond the range of her vision, haunched and waiting to pounce upon her. There was nothing more in the corridor above, Leila assured herself, than shadows like the eerie phantoms that had fled from the lights she had turned on.
Nothing? A shriek sliced down to her, the high, shrill scream of a woman in deadly terror.
It checked off, faded into vague thumpings as of a fierce struggle, into the thud of a storm-tossed branch against the building wall. It came again!
Tiny muscles twitched in Leila's cheeks. Insensate, humorless laughter sounded in her fluttering throat. It was the wind that had screamed from up there, tightening her scalp with fear. It must have been the wind. No one could possibly be up there.
But she was afraid. Afraid to go up there and look. Afraid of the storm and the dark.
A sharp crackle jerked her around. She stared wide-eyed at the entrance door. Fool! That had been only the splintering of a gale-riven branch—It came again. Unmistakable this time. The crunch of a heel on the gravel pathway outside!
A foot thudded on the porch just beyond the door and unseen fingers rattled the door knob. Through a crashing peal of thunder the terrified girl heard a threatening, hoarse bellow. Someone was just the other side of the sturdy portal. Some one—The killer! The mad killer, seeking her!
He bellowed again, pounded wild fists on the wood. The great panel shuddered under the berserk attack. Its hinges creaked. The furious pounding piled a frenzied terror on her fear of the storm and the dark. Realization pierced her that only five feet of air, two inches of wood, separated her from the monstrous creature that had made of Shean Rourke a mangled horror. It twisted her about, sent her hurtling headlong up the stairs that a moment before dread had barred to her, sent her dashing through the lightless corridor in instinctive flight to the fancied sanctuary of her own bedroom.
Her hand clutched the knob of its door, swung her to it. Frantically she thrust open the panel, slammed it shut behind her, leaned back against it, gasping, quivering.
Rain lashed against the window pane, threshed on the roof above her. Dulled by distance, the savage pounding on the door below beat about Leila as though tangible blows buffeted her. Momentarily the lightning had ceased. The chamber was obliterated by tar-barrel darkness. A feeling grew on Leila that she was not alone here.
Leila Monroy whimpered, stabbed blindly at the light-switch she knew jutted from the wall to her right. The small room sprang into sight. A disheveled apparition stared at her from her dresser mirror, russet wealth of hair tumbling about her now pallid face, mouth twisting and livid, grey eyes dark with the frenzy of her terror. She pulled her gaze from it, saw the bed—
Crumpled on its scarlet-flecked counterpane lay the contorted body of a girl. Blue-black hair veiled her face, but where a pink frock had been cruelly torn away, lurid finger-marks on a white throat showed the manner of her death. Her death—there was no motion, no movement at all in the awful stillness of the pathetic figure. The exposed, blanched breast stirred with not the slightest breath.
"Eve," Leila whimpered, unable to do no more than stare and whimper. "Eve..."
Forgotten the tumult of the storm, the battering at the entrance door. Forgotten everything but the horror that burst within her skull. But she had no memory of Eve's arrival. No memory...
Time must have dropped out of her consciousness. Time enough for her to have summoned the girl, to have lured her up here! Time enough—for her own hands to have clenched on her friend's throat, to have pressed, pressed, until life no longer throbbed beneath her throttling fingers!
IT seemed to Leila Monroy that she could feel, in her icy palms, memory of the soft flesh's slow crumple beneath their lethal construction. Once she had hated Eve, when the girl quite openly had tried to win Stan Corbett away from her. That jealous hatred had passed away with her own triumph and they had been friends again. Had it passed? Had it not rather sprung to sinister existence with the blood madness inherited from the father they had led away to a padded cell?
Darkness smashed down as the light went out. The window was momentarily a blue oblong, flickering with the electric radiance of lightning.
"Leila!" A voice came up to her. "Open up. It's Stan, Leila. Stan!"
Stan! He had come for her as he had come for her father. He had come to drag her, shrieking, to the same chamber of horrors where Justin Moore had agonized.
He would have to catch her first! If she were mad she would avail herself of a lunatic's cunning. From a window at the end of the passage rain-spout clamps made an easy ladder to the ground. The storm would hide her, she would bury herself in the woods—Leila got the door open behind her, flung out into the hall.
Thunderous crash of the portal below met her, and the tempest's howl, blasting in through the house. The sound whirled her startled glance in its direction. The stairs were in darkness.
Stan's feet thudded on the steps, coming up.
Lightning glimmer threw Stan's climbing shadow against the wall, made visible the face of a crouching figure. It was the grizzled, distorted face of Foster Corbett! Of Stan's own father! Waiting for his son with a revolver uplifted in his hand!
"Stan!" Leila screamed. "Look out He's—"
A shout drowned her out, a blast of bestial fury. Somewhere a shot blazed, and then the world crashed in on her. She fell headlong into a limbo of whirling, coruscating sparks. She felt herself lifted in powerful arms, felt herself thrown over a heaving shoulder. Shouts, shots, echoed about her, a gibbering chatter of apelike defiance. Rain drenched her, an icy gale pounded at her. Oblivion claimed her.
AT last Leila dared to lift her lids, bit by slow bit. She blinked. Darkness was about her, strangely mottled with glancing fragments of silvery light. Darkness, and glistening, dank rock above her. The earthy smell of a tomb in her nostrils.
She was, it dawned on her, in a shallow cave. The luminous flecks dancing about her were splotches of moonlight shifting through the leaves of high trees. A cave! Trees! This must be West Cliff, then.
Leila thrust herself up to a sitting posture as terror sliced her. Was this the cave of the Monster? But there wasn't any Monster, she thought. There was only the crazed slayer who had hacked Shean Rourke with an ax, who had throttled Eve Starr, who had crouched with lethal gun to shoot down Stan Corbett. Not any phantom Monster! Not Justin Monroy either, nor Leila herself. Foster Corbett!
For a moment Leila forgot her pain, her danger, in the jubilance of that revelation. Dad was no maniac killer, nor—was she. It was Foster Corbett who had schemed with the cunning of the insane to slay and place the blame for his crime on the man he hated. Foster Corbett who had dragged a second victim to Leila Monroy's bed so that the daughter should be doomed to the same terrible fate to which he had condemned the father. Foster Corbett who, losing all hold on reason, had haunched in the storm-battered corridor, waiting to kill his own son!
Had he? Had he added filicide to the role of his crimes? A shot had blazed across her scream of warning just before the madman had whirled to attack her! If Stan had fired it, the maniac could not have moved so swiftly. It had been fired at Stan, then, had buried itself in his breast? In the breast of the man she loved?
Loved. Leila Monroy, springing to her feet knew terribly that her love for Stan was not dead. A sob tore at her throat. She must go to him. Reckless of the agony that seared through her she started forward to the cave's entrance.
Then she froze as a rattle of rolling pebbles came up to her from below the cavern mouth! Of stones dislodged by some one climbing the face of the cliff.
He was coming for her. He had borne her here, left her here while he pursued some other dreadful mission of his murder-lusting brain, and now he was returning to work his mad will upon her.
Helpless? Leila Monroy's lip snarled up from her tiny teeth. She was suddenly a creature of the wilds. The desperate courage of hopelessness entered into her, the feral cunning of wildernesses small beasts who will fight, must fight, when escape from their persecutors has become no longer possible. She stooped, snatched handfuls of jagged stones from the cave floor, flitted to its entrance, silent as a cloud.
Leila peered out and down, slyly cautious. There he was! Like a huge, black spider clinging to the splattered, bare precipice. Working his way up, indomitably, slowly by the necessity of finding handholds, footholds, in the bare, sheer rock face. Hidden now by a pool of stygian shadow, revealed now by fragments of leaf-splintered moonlight. Inexorably climbing to add her to the dreadful list of his victims.
Distorted by the eerie light he was somehow unhuman, somehow a monster of primitive evil, spewed out of the past. And Leila Monroy, the weak thing he hunted, was primitive, too. Primitive and pitiless. Her hand flew back, arced forward. A stone left it—and struck fair on the skull of the maniac! The crunch of its landing came up to her, sickened her, but she flung another stone and another. A dark splotch appeared on his forehead, and then the man let go his holds, plunged down, a black, sprawling figure, crashed terribly in the underbrush below.
A thrill of triumph ran through Leila, a hot thrill of triumph that was a torrid flame boiling in her blood. Her laugh, bubbled up in the dark silence of the forest. A shrill, thin cachinnation of black laughter, spilling from her gaping throat, rioting out in the rain-washed night.
It was horrifying! Her throat clamped on it. She checked it, icy with loathing of the savagery that had inspired it, quivering with revulsion at the thing she had become. She had killed a man and laughed with joy at the deed. She, Leila Monroy! Cliff and forest whirled about her in a sudden vertigo. The hot flush of joy at Corbett's thumping fall, the jubilant laughter, were these the reactions of sanity? Soaring glee at killing— only a lunatic could feel it, only a homicidal maniac.
"Murder! While insane!" What if the incredible acts she had ascribed to Foster Corbett were fetid illusions of her own darkened mind? What if she were, in deed, the lunatic slayer and he a good neighbor trying to save her from herself, the victim of her mania? What if her hand, that had slain him, was gory already with the blood of Eve Starr and of Stan!
No! Not Stan! That, at least, was clear to her even in her bewilderment. If Stan were slain she could not have slain him. There was the test. Only a madman would kill his own son. Corbett or she. She or Corbett. If Stan were alive, she was the maniac. If he were dead—
If he were dead—the thought slashed at her like a sword. That she should hope for his death—her Stan! Broad-shouldered, upstanding, frank-eyed. No! Rather that she be condemned to the eternal perdition of raving madness, rather that she take a knife and slice it across her own throat... Bullets do not always kill! Was he lying there, wounded, desperately wounded, suffering? Not dead but bleeding to death while she dallied here, delaying the aid that might save him?
Leila licked dry lips with a trembling tongue. She was down on her knees on the narrow ledge that made a sort of porch to the cave. She swung over it, was scrambling for footing against the sheer wall of the rock, was inching down that perilous descent, while weakness was like water in her limbs, while pain was a network of agony meshing her frail form.
His name was a prayer on her lips as she attained the cliff's foot at last, as she sent one shuddering glance at the still mound, blacker against black, that her missiles had flung there. "Stan!"
She plunged into the thicket.
A twisted root caught Leila's foot, pounded her headlong into the mire. She lay as she fell, heaving in great breaths of the dank air to her tortured lungs, fighting for strength to rise, to go on. The forest silence closed in on her, a black pall of soundlessness.
Not altogether soundless. A vague, ominous slither threaded it. It lifted Leila's head with a jerk, despite the darts of agony shooting through her at even that slight effort. It pulled her burning stare through the tree-boles that were grotesque giants reaching writhing arms down to pluck her from her miry bed.
And then her scalp suddenly tightened.
It drifted almost silently toward her; wraithlike, phantasmal... A vagrant beam caught it full—and a scream formed in Leila's breast, tore her constricted throat, died at her lips.
The phantom of Eve Starr was gliding toward her between the ebon trees. Eve Starr, whose corpse Leila had seen contorted in awful death on the gore-stained counterpane of her own bed!
LEILA MONROY'S blood jelled within her veins. Supernal terror squeezed her heart as the apparition's ghastly approach held her eyes with the appalled but helpless stare of a reptile-fascinated bird.
And a twig snapped beneath Eve Starr's feet!
The sharp crackle of dried wood breaking beneath the pressure of a careless foot, so little a thing to save one from blithering madness! It forced reason into Leila's shuddering terror, stung her to sanity with the realization that this was not a disembodied ghost advancing toward her through the obscurity of the fear-filled wood, that it was flesh and blood, that it was—
"Eve!" Leila moaned, finding strength somehow to stand up. "Eve!"
Startled, the dusky-haired girl swung around to her, fright distorting her bloodless countenance.
"Who's there?" she gasped. "Who is it?" Her eyes were burned-out coals, dark horror pitting the blanched whiteness of her visage. "Who—?"
"It's Leila, hon. Leila Monroy."
"Leila!" Stark terror in that gusted exclamation. "Leila!"
Her hand went up to her throat—to the blue bruises that splotched its whiteness, the marks of throttling fingers. Of whose fingers? Leila Monroy knew that she must ask the terrible question, though she was terrified of what the answer might be.
"Eve," she blurted. "Eve! Who did that to you? Who? Was it I? Was it I, Eve?"
"Leila!" Eve hadn't heard her. "Don't touch me." Or had she heard and was this the awful answer to the momentous question? "Keep away."
The girl whirled, dashed away.
Started to dash away. She stumbled, went to her knees, snatched for support at the rattling withes of a low bush, swayed there in pitiful weakness. She was feeble, so feeble. The cold and the damp of the woods would kill her before morning if she were left here alone.
"Eve," Leila said, not moving, not daring to move. "I won't hurt you." Almost without volition her arms went out, appealing, to her friend. "Let me help you. Let me help you get home."
Eve's free hand fumbled at the grisly marks above the pallid round of her voluptuous breasts as though the very sight of Leila reawakened their agony.
"No," she whimpered. "Haven't you done enough to me already?"
She pulled herself to her feet, staggeringly, painfully, started to fall again.
Leila jumped forward to catch her. Eve screamed, somehow found footing, lurched away from her grasp. Leila stopped, tried again.
"Listen to me, Eve. I may have—I may have been mad before, but I'm sane now. You'll have to believe that I'm sane. Because you can't get home alone. You can't. You'll die out here in the woods. Please believe me. Please let me help you." And all the time and inner voice was saying, "If she dies, you have killed her."
"Help me!" Eve's husked tones were bitter, accusing. "You help me! Murderess!"
She screamed that last expletive, and then she had whirled and was running, stumbling, dazedly, impelled only by the false strength of a terrible fear.
"Eve!" She couldn't last long. "Eve!" She would drop far in the tangled depths of the woods. "Eve!" Leila reeled after her.
Strangely enough, Eve managed to keep just ahead of her, just beyond reach. She was a flitting, staggering form just ahead of Leila, always just ahead, always just about to drop, but somehow keeping on her feet, somehow maintaining a little space between them. The reason for her chase slid away from Leila. She knew only that she must catch the luminous wraith she pursued, knew only that she must keep going through the nightmare blackness of the impeding forest. Knew only that the uncanny compulsion was upon her—
A denser grouping of stygian tree-trunks swallowed Eve for an instant. Leila plunged through them—stopped. Eve had disappeared. She wasn't anywhere in sight, and there was no sound to tell where she had gone.
Had she, after, been pursuing a phantom created by her own mad brain? Was she doomed forever to wander in a dreamland of dread in which she would be unable to distinguish the real from the unreal? Doomed forever—see, these very trees seemed instinct with a baleful life. They seemed to be closing in on her.
One of them was moving, was coming toward her with a slow, infinitely evil deliberation. It couldn't be moving! She was imagining it. How could a tree move?
It wasn't a tree. It was a bent, massive figure of a man; huge, browless head set neckless on gargantuan shoulders; bronzed, naked torso gleaming eerily in the moonlight; little, pig-like eyes glowing redly out of an imbecilic, drooling countenance. It was the Monster of the Cliff!
But she had killed the Monster. No, that was Foster Corbett she had killed. This Monster didn't exist. It was a figment of her imagination, this bestial thing that crept inexorably toward her. It wasn't there at all and she wouldn't run from it. If she didn't run from it it would vanish and she would be sane again. She must not be afraid of it. She must not be afraid of the big-muscled arms that seemed to reach out for her, of the stubbed and fearful talons.
That closed on her arms with a sudden, fearful pain that told her the thing was real. That told her too late that it was real.
Leila screamed, but the shrill cry of her terror and her agony was drowned by the ferocious, overwhelming roar of the Monster. Towering over her, he slammed her against the shaggy, unyielding bark of a giant tree behind her, trying to crush her, it seemed, into the very heart of the quivering timber, driving breath from her so that she could scream no longer.
She could not scream, but she could flail desperate fists against the steel-hard thews of his giant arms. The beast laughed at her puny efforts—chatteringly, gibberingly. His black-lipped mouth opened to display yellow, rotted fangs, a cavity in which the flesh was not red but a hideous black.
Leila writhed, jerked free. Almost jerked free. The Monster's knee came up, thrust excruciatingly into the softness of her abdomen, pinned her helpless against the rough tree-bark behind that cut through her flimsy dress and stabbed her with countless tiny points. Pinned her helpless, so that one of his bestial paws released its grip and flew to the neckline of her frock. It tore downward, as the seamed, hairless countenance mowed with insensate, obscene glee.
"Pretty," the thing chattered. "Pretty," and his leathery palm fumbled at Leila's breast, rasped it with a lewd caress. "Calban likes."
The girl's hand spatted against the indurated cheek, her toes banged at the Monster's shins. He squealed like a stuck pig and his fingers flew to her throat, clutched it, constricted.
Leila's lungs pumped unavailingly, fighting for air they could not find. The brutal digits tightened still more, till the girl thought they must cut right through the flesh, must squeeze clear through her neck. Knives stabbed and twisted within her chest, invisible fingers gouged at her eyes. The glaring, ferocious visage of her tormentor vanished in a great, roaring blackness.
Through which she seemed to hear a high, piercing whistle. The roaring in her skull was drowned in the blast of Calban's feral roar. The whistle came again, and Leila crashed to the ground as the terrible grip on her throat, the pinning thrust of the bestial knee, were released.
Leila wallowed in her distress, while somewhere above her a tumultuous sound crashed momentarily and died away. She pulled air into the sore agony of her lungs.
"Leila," Stan cried, somewhere above her.
It wasn't Stan. It couldn't be Stan. Stan was lying dead in the old house that had suddenly become an abode of horror. Stan had bled to death there because she had not been able to get to him in time to save him.
Hands were tugging at her, were rolling her over. Stan's hands. His dear face was looking down at her, anxiety clouding his eyes. Stan's face...
"Leila! Speak to me. Leila!"
The girl sat up. He was disheveled. His trooper's uniform was gashed, torn by the tearing brambles of the forest, and there was a livid weal across his tanned cheek that a lashing tendril had made. But he was alive. It was Stan who had saved her, at the last possible moment, from an awful death.
"Stan! What—how did you get here? How...?"
"I was knocked out, there in your house, I came to, heard the back door close. I rushed out there and saw you vanishing into the woods. I've been hunting for you..."
"Don't talk now," Stan silenced her. "You're hurt, exhausted. When I get you home, get you warm, you can tell me all about it."
He was tender, solicitous. He loved her still. Leila nestled in his arms, thrilling to his strength, thrilling to the feel of his heart heating against her own. She would obey him, she would keep quiet for a few minutes. If she started to talk, if she told him that it had been Eve he had seen, not her, she would have to tell him the rest.
She would have to tell him that the girl in his arms had killed his father. How could she tell him that? How could she?
The black trees of the forest slid by, rustling in the night. Leila whimpered. "Hush, darling," Stan murmured. "We'll soon be out of this. We'll soon be where it's warm and light."
Light. Would there ever be light again in her dark soul? Darker than ever now. Thought burred through Leila's aching brain. Stan had been attacked in the house, had been knocked unconscious. That was evident. Foster Corbett must have done that, lying in ambush. Then Leila must be sane.
But Eve Starr's actions had confirmed the awful speculation that it was Leila who had attacked her. Leila, in whose mind no memory remained of the terrible deed. That proved her insane.
There wasn't any answer. There couldn't be any answer, because she didn't know how much of her experiences was real, how much she had forgotten, how much she had imagined. The Monster, for instance. Stan's coming had saved her from him, but Stan didn't seem to know anything about him. Had that lecherous attack been only her own madness? Had her own maniac fingers torn the clothes from her shoulders; clamped, tightening, about her own throat?
Or had Stan's call, his threshing approach, frightened the brute away before the trooper could see him?
Over Stan's shoulder Leila saw a shadow move, high up on the bough of a tree. It haunched, came sprawling down; great arms flailing; spread, spatulate talons clawing for Stan's throat!
"STAN!" Leila Monroy shrieked and contorted in his arms, driving her forehead against his chest. This instantaneous inspiration of her terror was the only thing that could have saved her lover. It unbalanced him, sent him reeling backward, and the down-dropping monster missed his mark.
The brute crashed down into the underbrush, was momentarily tangled in the whipping leaves. In that instant Leila slipped from Stan's hold as the trooper recovered his footing and reached for his holstered gun. Calban bellowed, soared from the ground. His shaggy arm lashed ahead of him with a cobra's lightning-like lash, struck Stan's gun-wrist, pounded the weapon from it. Its metallic gleam sliced into the underbrush and the antagonists came together with a thud of flesh against flesh that was thunderous to the terrified girl.
Stan's fists pumped, two flashing pistons, into Calban's taut belly. The monster's muscle-bulging arms clamped around the trooper in a rib-cracking clinch. They swayed, black and gigantic in the eerie forest light and from the taut, straining agony of that clinch burst an appalling cacophony of bestial sounds, of growls and vicious snarls.
A shrill, piercing squeal forced by unendurable pain from a strong man's lips galvanized Leila into action. She dropped to her knees, searching frantically in the meshed, baffling underbrush for Stan's gun. The tumult of that eerie battle increased, behind her. A chattering, mindless scream signaled that Stan had got home a telling blow.
"Run, Leila," the man yelled. "Get away. I can't—hold him."
The girl twisted, saw Calban, momentarily driven away from Stan, closing in again. Her lover met the renewed attack by a ferocious uppercut exploding from a crouch. His fist landed on the monster's jaw with the blast of a rifle shot, his other fist crashed against the brute's chest. The devastating blows might have been flicks of a fly's wings for all the effect they had. Calban was not even staggered. His huge paw closed on Corbett's neck, engulfing it with its vast span. His swarthy other hand drove for the man's groin.
Somehow a thick stick was in Leila's hand and she was hurling herself, shrilling primitive fury, at the monster. Her improvised club pounded against Calban's forehead. He roared, with anger rather than pain, and the hand that was reaching for Stan's groin flicked sidewise instead.
It struck Leila in midair, catapulted her backward, crashing her into the threshing cushion of a bush. Jarred and half-stunned, she saw Calban's attack focus again on Stan, saw her lover swept from his feet, saw him lifted high above the grisly creature's head by straining arms shaggy with a beast's black hair.
The terrible tableau etched itself on Leila's mind. The gorilla-like brute; his bestial ferocity the more horrible for the fact that he was no beast but a man degraded, obscenely decadent; poised momentarily motionless as he gathered his forces for the throw that would smash Stan to a pulp. Above his head Stan was as motionless—rigid and helpless in the gigantic grip of Calban's leathery hands at armpit and crotch, his face contorted and pallid, his eyes staring in agony.
For an eternal moment that awful pause persisted. And then the lurid gleam of Calban's beady, savage eyes flared more redly and the muscles in his huge arms writhed snakelike beneath their hairy skin, and Leila knew that in the next instant they would sweep downward.
From somewhere a whistle shrilled high and piercing, through the quivering terror of the woods. It came again, the strange high sound that once before Leila had heard through black clouds of death swirling about herself. It froze Calban to an astounding paralysis, leashed him as though it were a chain writhing about his savage limbs. Leila could almost see the death-thought seep unwilling from the black and terrible frame.
Calban's protest was a grisly roar blasting through the black forest aisles. The huge arms bent, slowly, reluctantly, letting Stan down.
The trooper twisted abruptly, freed himself from Calban's loosening grip. He thudded to the ground, sprang erect, snarling...
But the monster was gone, had plunged away into the veiling thickets. For minutes the lovers heard the threshing of his huge, evil body moving away, and then a sinister silence close about them. A silence sinister because it cloaked not only the ravening man-beast, but another mysterious entity, a lurking, invisible being who was master of the Monster, whose whistling command the brute obeyed even in the height of his frenzy. Twice Leila had heard the weird whistle, twice it had saved her.
Not her, but Stan! It had been at Stan's approach that the ravening human hound had been called away that first time, it had been Stan whose deadly peril had just now been averted. If it were not for Stan—
"God!" the youth groaned. "Who is he? Where did he come from?" He pulled a trembling hand across his bruised forehead above his glazed, unseen eyes, swayed with exhaustion. "Why did he quit, just when he was about to slam me down and break every bone in my body?"
Leila struggled out of the tangling bush into which Calban had flung her. "I don't know, Stan." She was cold, icy cold with foreboding, with realization of a terrible enmity focused upon herself. I—"
Her throat damped as Stan pitched forward, pounded limply down, lay sodden and unconscious in spongy, water-soaked loam.
Leila lurched to him. Her hand flew to a dark, spreading stain on his shirt, found warm, viscid wetness. It was blood! His blood! But Calban had no knife...
Moaning, the girl tore the shirt-stuff away with trembling fingers. The angling wound across his ribs from which the gory, angry fluid gushed was no knife-dash. It was the jagged-edged path of a bullet, and under the fresh, scarlet pour was the mass of an old clot.
Leila ripped a hasty bandage from the tatters to which her own frock had been reduced, worked frantically to stanch that grisly flow. And as she worked a vague explanation of what had happened formed in her mind.
His mad father's bullet had ploughed across Stan's ribs, had flung him down, unconscious at the foot of the stairs. The slow seepage had stopped itself. He had come awake. Hearing what he thought was Leila running out of the house he had followed. His exertions, the battle with the ape-faced monster, had opened the wound afresh. Weakened by the new loss of blood he had fainted once more.
Now he lay here, unconscious, in the black depths of the forest. He lay here, and she with him, and somewhere in the glimmering, ominous shadows Calban still roved and...
Leila's neck prickled abruptly, with the sense of eyes upon her, of glaring, hostile eyes. Leaves rustled, stealthily. She crouched low over Stan's senseless form, throwing the frail protection of her slight body athwart him, and quivered with the knowledge that out of the murk her enemy was creeping silently to leap upon her and destroy her.
To leap upon her! It was she, Leila Monroy, the unseen adversary threatened, not Stan! Stan's danger lay only in that she was with him. Twice that had been proved. If she could lead the chase away from Stan...
She leaped from her lover's recumbent form.
"Come and get me," she cried, and was hurtling once more through the lashing, tearing brambles of the woods. Was running headlong and blindly through the shadowed aisles, not knowing where she ran, not caring so long as it was away from Stan, so long as she led the destroyer away from the man she loved.
The forest crashed into sudden life behind her. Some one was following her, was flinging after her a hollow, echoing shout. Its threat spurred her to renewed efforts.
Despairing, frantic, the gasping, fear-goaded girl catapulted through the tearing brambles, crashed into stunning tree-trunks, caromed off and ran on.
And then, quite suddenly, Leila was out of the forest. She was running down a wet but grass-soft slope, and before her, across the familiar pasture, was the yellow-windowed bulk of her own house, black against a sky tinted by the haunting gray of false dawn.
Almost at once she was in her own back yard, was leaping up the back-porch steps, was tugging at the knob of a friendly kitchen door. It resisted her efforts. It would not open. She gasped, remembering that she had herself locked it from the inside.
Unhoped for safety, tantalizingly offered at the last moment, was snatched away. Leila whirled to meet the fate from which she had fled.
Silver of the setting moon sluiced an empty field. No one, nothing, was there. She had outdistanced her invisible pursuer, had left him behind in the forest.
Or had he fooled her as she had thought to fool him? Had he left her fleeing blindly through the woods while he turned back to pounce upon and destroy the lover she had planned to save by her rejected sacrifice?
Something moved, there in the ribbon of darkness that was the forest-edge across the fields. Something moved and came lumbering out into the brooding lunar luminance. A two-headed, grotesque monster, it came slowly, inexorably out of the shadows. Gelid fingers clutched Leila's throat. What nightmare thing was this, what awful spawn of the dark forest?
The porch floor heaved beneath her feet, threw her back against the paint-peeled door. It wasn't there! She fell backward through it, fell against a warm, feminine figure.
"What's the matter?" Eve Starr exclaimed. "Where have you been?"
"Close the door," Leila screamed. "Close it." Somehow she was on her feet again, had her hand on the wood of the portal. She threw a single terrified glance through the opening—
And checked the closing panel. Nearer and distinct now in the silvery light, she saw what it was that had come out of the woods. Saw Stan's lolling, pallid face. Saw that he was leaning heavily on the shoulder of another man. Of—her blood was a black flood in her veins—of Foster Corbett! Of his grizzled father who she thought lay dead at the foot of West Cliff's high parapet!
She knew now who was Calban's master. She knew now whose high, shrill whistle it was that had twice driven the monster from his prey—to save Stan Corbett—
"LEILA," Eve cried. "Why is your door broken down and the place upset? What's scared you so?"
Leila Monroy twisted to her, fell back in astonishment. The girl whom last she had seen with a few shreds of torn clothing fluttering from her lacerated, almost naked form was fully dressed, her hair carefully arranged, no signs of the wild night about her.
"I saw your lights come on, after the storm and I came over to see if anything was the matter. I found—"
Eve cut off as stumbling feet pounded on the boards outside the door, as Foster Corbett staggered in with his grey-faced, limp burden.
"Stan! Mr. Corbett! In the name of all that's holy what's been going on here?"
"Never—mind—now," the older man grunted. "Help me."
Leila jumped to his side. Together the three lifted Stan from his wavering legs, carried him in to the living room where, hours ago, Leila had cringed from the whispered lash of fancied voices and laid the youth on the couch there. Stan groaned, his lids flickered open.
"Where—where—Dad!" His eyes lighted up. "Leila! You—you're both here. Both all right?"
"Fairly all right, son," the old man answered.
There was a black bruise on his brow, another on his check. His clothing was smeared with the brown loam into which he had fallen, his shoes were packed with it. Otherwise he seemed unhurt. His bleared, brooding gaze fastened on Leila, slid to Eve, went back to Stan.
"We'll do. But you need a doctor. I'll call—"
"No." Stan shoved himself up to a sitting position and Leila winced as his face twitched with the pain of the effort. "No. I'm kind of frayed at the edges, but I'll last. I'm like Eve. I want to know what this is all about."
Leila started to speak, but the old man beat her to it.
"We'd all like to know that, Stan. Suppose you give us your story first."
He was starting wrong end to, Leila thought. There was a reason for that. He was concealing something. Of course he was concealing something. He was Calban's master. He was the moving force behind all the terrible events of the night and he wanted first to hear how much the others knew before he concocted his own story to fit. She wouldn't interfere. She'd keep quiet and give him rope enough to hang himself, and then...
But Stan was talking. "I tried to get to Leila, after the trial, but she was gone by the time I managed to shove through the crowd. I saw Eve though, told her to tell Leila I'd come to her as soon as my tour of duty was over.
"The storm caught me as I came up the road. Leila's lights were all on. I heard a scream from the house, and she didn't answer when I knocked on the door. That scared me. I went frantic started to batter down the door. The lights went out just as it gave way. I ploughed in, yelling for her. The lightning showed me she wasn't on the lower floor. I started up the stairs. I heard her scream again. A shot jabbed me. It seared across my ribs, jolted me off balance.
"I guess I must have gone down on my head and knocked myself out, because the next thing I knew, it seemed a long time after, I heard the door close and saw her running into the woods."
Leila's eyes flicked to Eve. The girl was listening open-mouthed, did not interrupt to correct Stan's misapprehension. That was queer. Queer as her evident ignorance of all that had happened to her, or had seemed to have happened to her. If she had lain, apparently dead, on the bed above, if she had run, screaming in terror of Leila herself, through the woods, how could she be so neatly dressed, so undisturbed? The awful doubt of her own reason closed in once more on Leila with its nameless fear.
"Unaccountably the brute dropped me, and—and I fainted again from loss of blood," Stan finished. "Then you were bending over me, Dad, were helping me up."
"How about you, Leila?" Foster Corbett turned to her. "What's your end of the story?"
His eyes bored into her, and in their rheumy depths she saw little lights of triumph crawl. If she answered, she must convict herself—of sheer, incredible madness. Of madness! How could she tell of finding Eve apparently dead, of the strange scene of her terror in the woods, when the girl herself was so calm, so unperturbed, so evidently ignorant of it all that? How could she confess to the attack on Stan's father?
Her mouth opened, closed again. She swayed, put out a groping hand to the arm of a chair to keep herself from falling. And Eve came to her rescue!
"Can't you see how weak she is, Mr. Corbett?" the dark-haired girl indignantly exclaimed as she jumped to Leila's side and helped her into the chair. "She can't talk!"
"But we've got to get at the bottom of this thing," Corbett insisted. "There's something damned queer going on!"
"Seems to me you've got a story, too," Eve countered. "Why don't you tell it?" Had the same thought occurred to her, too, Leila wondered, that the old man had taken charge of the situation in order to cover up his own guilt? "How come you were out there in the woods at this time of the morning?"
"Yes, Dad," Stan put in. "That's puzzling me, too."
Corbett made a peculiar little gesture with his gnarled hands, as of defeat.
"I can't help much," he said. "But I'll tell what I know. When the storm broke I thought of Leila and looked out of my window to try and see if she were alone over here. The lightning struck into that line of poplars between our farms. I saw some one among them just at the spot where we found Shean Rourke—a dark, crouching figure watching the Monroy house. There was something indescribably menacing in his pose, and it flashed on me that perhaps we had been all wrong about Justin's being Rourke's murderer, that perhaps this was the real killer, and that now he was after Leila.
"He started moving in the moment I glimpsed him, dodging low in the high grass of the pasture. I lost sight of him. I ran to the phone to warn Leila. I just had time to tell her to lock her doors and windows when the wire went dead. I snatched up my gun, ran out to come to her aid.
"Her lights were going on, I saw her shadow going from window to window, pulling the screens across them. And then I saw the fellow I'd spotted before. He had climbed to the little roof over the kitchen porch, was sliding into a window up there.
"I knew that because of my own warning Leila would not open the door to me. By the time I got her to understand, the prowler would catch her, would kill her. My only course was to go after him the way he had entered, try to catch him before he did any damage.
"The storm redoubled in violence and I am an old man. It took me hours, it seemed, before I managed to get to the house, before I managed to climb up to that small, slanting roof. I heard a muffled scream from inside as I got into the room up there, heard a damnable pandemonium going on. The room was pitch black and a minute passed before I found the door and got out into the hall.
"Just as I did so, the door crashed in below. I twisted to the stairway, heard some one shout down there as he came in, could not make out the words. Then I recognized Stan's voice, and in the same instant some one screamed behind me.
"Some one screamed and a black form surged at me from somewhere behind, struck me. The blow jolted my finger that was pressing the trigger of the gun and fired the shot. I whipped around, in time to see that same dark, grotesque form pounce on Leila and carry her off. I shouted, did not dare shoot for fear of hitting her.
"The invader hurtled along the corridor, dived into a room at the very end. I went after him, yelling for Stan."
"I was out, dad, and didn't hear you."
"So I know now. That room door was jammed, and by the time I opened it the chamber was empty. But the window was open and through it I saw the kidnaper vanishing into the wood, Leila still on his shoulder. I saw that he must have climbed down a rainspout that passed the window, but I didn't dare follow that way.
"The head of the back stairs, however, was at this end of the corridor. I ran down them, out through the back door again, across the fields and into the forest where I had seen the fellow vanish.
"In the storm I couldn't trail him. I shouted, fired off my gun in the hope Leila would respond. In vain. Then the storm was over, as suddenly as it had begun. The clouds started to break. Moonlight, sifting through, showed me trampled bushes, shreds of a girl's clothing caught on briars. I followed that trail, reached the face of West Cliff. Just above where the spoor ended I saw the mouth of a cave, thought I sensed movement within it. Possibly, I thought, my shots had scared the kidnaper away and Leila was alone up there. I started to climb up to it. Suddenly rocks started to fly down at me. One struck me on the head. I felt myself falling, struck and lost consciousness."
IT fitted, Leila thought, his story fitted. Was it the truth or a tissue of lies? Somehow it explained everything too patly, everything except who the Monster was and where he had come from, except the mystery of Eve Starr's weird part in the dreadful night. Eve's face was an expressionless mask, her unfathomable eyes fixed on Corbett's seamed, horribly tired countenance.
"When I came to I heard the sounds of struggle, far-off. A pile of dead leaves had cushioned my fall, I wasn't badly hurt. I staggered to my feet, ploughed through the woods, and found Stan, knocked out."
Or had he come on that scene just a little earlier, in time to whistle off Calban, in time to send the Monster ravening after her through the woods. Was he playing still for a chance to get her alone, to finish her? The speculation wrenched a groan from the bemused girl.
"Leila!" Eve exclaimed. "You're white. You look as though you were going to faint. I'll get you some water."
She was out of the room as her sentence ended. The kitchen door swung closed behind her.
"Leila," Foster Corbett spun to her. "What do you know of Eve's actions tonight? Have you seen her?"
A scream sliced across her amazing question, a scream from behind the kitchen door. Corbett slewed around. Gun in hand, he hurled himself across the room, pounded that door open. The brick-walled room beyond was starkly, gruesomely vacant, but the back door was just slamming shut and from beyond it a thin, high wail of infinite terror told where Eve had vanished.
"He's got her, now," the old man yelled. "I was wrong. Come on, Stan!" And then he, too, was gone into the grisly night.
LEILA MONROY came up out of her chair, fighting the intangible but cloying threads of her weakness, fighting a giddy nausea that whirled within her skull and tweaked at the pit of her stomach. Through that dizzy whirlpool she saw Stan's vague form dart past her, lurched to follow it. The room seemed to whirl about her as she moved, there was a wall where the door should be, a wall into which she jolted.
Half-stunned, she pawed at the partition, found the door away from which she had reeled in her vertigo, reeled through. The kitchen, a place of black, threatening shadows, danced about her. She staggered across it, stabbed at the outer door, missed it, pulled in an agonizing breath and tried again.
This time Leila contrived to grab the doorknob as it went by and steadied herself by it. Gripping the jamb with her other hand, she fought to get the portal open, succeeded.
Something lay, a black, unmoving bulk, on the porch outside. Stan! It must be Stan, her bewildered fear jabbed at her and she went to her knees beside it. She pawed at it, her blurred vision still refusing to clear...
The body came suddenly alive. Rolled over. The apelike, ferocious visage of the Monster glared at her, black lips curling away from yellow fangs in a strange, jabbering laugh of bestial triumph.
A scream sliced her throat and then Calban's gigantic arms flailed around her, crushing her to him, crushing her ribs, damping that scream to silence in her breathless lungs. He surged to his feet, bringing her up with him as though she had no weight at all. He lurched back into the house with her.
Through the kitchen, the living room, he ploughed, chuckling lewd glee. Into the foyer hall he shouldered, the piggish little eyes under his beetling brows lurid with an obscene light, his calloused, rasping fingers writhing as though with some vile life of their own on her shrinking, quivering flesh. Leila's larynx swelled once more with a shriek, but Calban caught her intention by some unhuman second-sight and gagged her—gagged her horribly with the pressure of his slobbering, evil lips on hers in a kiss of ultimate horror.
Crushed thus in the viselike cradle of the beast-man's arms, gagged thus by his insufferable caress, Leila knew that he was carrying her up the broad stairs to the passage above. To the passage where her own room was, her own bed—
No doubt now, no doubt at all, of what the brute-man intended.
No doubt of what he intended or of what had happened. He had been waiting outside, had grabbed Eve and—killed her, probably. Foster Corbett had taken advantage of the girl's one cry to get out of the way himself, to get Stan out of the way—and had sent back his creature to finish off Leila. Stan's unlooked for presence time and time again had interfered with his macabre plans, but Stan was out of the way now and Leila was in Calban's power, being carried up to the room where the night's horror had begun and now would be consummated.
Calban was in the room, thrusting the door shut with a dexterous foot as he passed through it, twisting to the bed with a swift surety that told of curious familiarity with its location. Even in that terrible moment Leila noted that, noted that her white spread was rumpled and blood-flecked, that the indentation of a contorted figure was still visible on it. Then Calban had flung her stunningly down on the bed, had pinned her to it with a digging, cruel knee as he tore avidly at what was left of her clothing.
"Pretty," he jabbered, as he had jabbered before in the forest, "Pretty. Calban likes."
He paused to gloat over the quivering beauty his violating paws had revealed. "Calban likes very much."
Leila's tortured eyes fled from the evil anticipation of his thick-lipped, drooling mouth, slid past the muscles of his terrible arms. Her hopeless gaze slid along the walls of her familiar room that now was a cell of madness and despair, reached the door. It was opening! Slowly, silently, it was opening and white fingers jogged its edge.
The girl's heart leaped.
"Please," she whimpered pulling her gaze back to her tormentor. "Please, Calban, let me go." At all costs she must distract his attention, keep him from noticing the advent of her rescuer. "I'll pay you. I'll give you lots of money, jewels..."
The Monster gibbered his mindless laugh. "Calban no want money, jewels. Calban want pretty woman, white, soft flesh of pretty woman. Like this—"
And suddenly he leaped away from her, leaped to the center of the room and whirled to the opening door. Some sixth sense had warned him of danger...
Stan jumped into the room, a long carving knife in his hand that must have come from the kitchen below.
"Leila!" he yelled. "Run, jump out of the window. I can hold him long enough!"
Calban roared, plunged at him. Stan met the attack with a darting slash of the knife, caught the Monster across the knuckles. The beast-man's other fist crashed against the trooper's shoulder, slammed him against the wall. Leila screamed, started up from the bed.
Calban twisted to her. A flick of his long arm pounded her back to the creaking mattress. Stan rebounded from the wall, sliced at Calban. The giant sprang backward, avoiding the rush, dropped to the floor and rolled toward the trooper.
Leila was out of the bed, was darting once more toward the window. Black digits closed on Stan's ankles, heaved upward. The trooper was flung high into the air. He twisted lithely, came down on his feet, crouched to meet his snarling adversary's lunge. Calban's juggernaut rush swerved at the last instant and the girl felt the impact of his fists once more, blasting her headlong away from attempted escape. She sprawled, brought up thumping against the wall.
Stan ducked forward, slashed a long cut across the other's leathery cheek. Calban squealed, more in rage than pain, and exploded into a swift blur of action which Leila's eyes could not follow nor Stan avoid. Suddenly that whirling battle was static, terribly static.
Stan hung from the giant's tight clutch on his wrists, hung from arms stretched horizontally out from his shoulders in that terrific grip. Crucified on an invisible cross, the trooper's body was a taut arc of suffering, his face a fish-belly white, sweat-wet mask of hideous torture.
A low moan squealed from his rigid throat, squealed into sound. "Get out—Leila—your chance..." gurgled into a nondescript gust of agony as Calban's gargantuan span of whipcord muscle widened to crack the bone-jointures in his shoulders with the gruesome power of its living torture-rack.
Leila's way to the door was clear as long as Calban held the straddle- legged pose he must to continue his grisly torment of her lover. This was her chance to escape.
She shoved away from the wall to which that last fierce buffet had flung her, came up to her feet. Came up to her feet with the light bedroom chair in her hands, leaped toward Calban and pounded the improvised weapon down on his head.
The chair splintered, smashed. Calban let Stan drop and whirled to Leila. He was laughing, actually he was laughing!
"She-devil," his twitching lips spewed. "Calban like you that way." His hands lashed out, his fingers dug into the girl's shoulder, sent fiery agony darting through her twisting, almost nude body. "Calban like woman that can fight, but can't play now. Must finish with man first. Tear arms out, legs, like fly's wings."
"No," Leila screamed. "No. Leave him alone. Do what you want with me, but leave him alone."
Calban's simian visage was distorted by his yellow-toothed, imbecilic grin. "Calban do what he like with both." She was helpless, infantile in his great hands as he flung her once more on the bed, as he ripped the sheets into strips and lashed her ankles, her wrists; lashed them tightly, cruelly, pulling the knots with sadistic violence. The rough edges of the torn linen cut into her shrieking flesh, were scarlet-edged with oozing blood.
On the floor behind the savage giant a long shudder ran through Stan Corbett's crumpled frame, and he was crawling, crawling as a stepped-upon beetle—might in whom life was not yet quite extinct. But unlike that beetle the man moved with a definite purpose. A yard beyond his shaking, bloodless hand lay the knife he had dropped. A yard—to his anguish enfeebled body that yard was an infinite distance. But if he could reach that knife...
Leila, seeing, stoppered in her throat the moans of her own agony sought to wrench from her and contrived a question to hold Calban long enough for Stan to succeed.
"What will your master say if you harm him? Your master doesn't want you to...
"Calban have no master," the brute roared, rage flaring into his little eyes. "No one tell Calban what must or must not do." Dismay pierced Leila as he twisted away from her, as he lurched toward Stan, whose scrabbling fingers were still inches away from the knife. "No one..."
The whistle shrilled in, the whistle that twice before had saved Stan. A vague figure blotted the window's dim rectangle.
"Mr. Corbett," Leila screamed. "He's killing Stan. Calban's killing..."
IT wasn't Foster Corbett who came surging in through the aperture. It was Eve! Astoundingly it was Eve. "Calban!" she yelled.
The whistle hadn't stopped the monster this time. He was lifting the lacerated, almost unconscious man from the floor by one hand, and his other was at Stan's throat!
"Calban!" Eve cried again. "Stop it!"
The giant paused. Over the limp, lolling frame of his victim he glared at the dark-haired girl, his face a gargoylesque, demoniac visage.
"No," he chattered. "Calban will not be cheated any more. Calban will kill the man, and take the woman, and your lies will not stop him again."
"Calban! I did not lie to you." Grotesque, hideous, this colloquy between the slim, darkly-beautiful girl whom Leila Monroy had known all her life, and the beetle-browed, barrel-chested savage who was an atavism from the very dawn of time. "It was you who forgot our bargain and tried to force from me what I promised would be yours when you finished the task I set you. If you hadn't attacked me, choked me—"
Oh God! It was blasphemous even to think his name in the presence of that woman!
"You—you fiend," Leila burst out. "You brought him here to kill me. You—"
Eve's glance flicked to her, and it stung Leila as if the evil in it were a barbed whiplash of frozen steel.
"Shut up!" she hissed. "You don't count, now."
Then she was concentrating on the giant.
"Calban," she pleaded, "let him go. Let him live."
Lurid light-worms crawled sinisterly in the brute's small eyes. "No," he grunted, and his throttling fingers started again to close, bit by cruel bit, on Stan's throat. "No. You want him, and you'll never give yourself to Calban while he lives."
"That's it, is it?" Eve's cry was abruptly a hollow whisper of defeat. "That's what I must pay to save him? Here, then, Calban. Here!"
Her hands flew to her throat, her fingers fumbled at the high, lacy collar that veiled it. Then the flimsy silk was ripping; as those white hands tore down through it; ripping away from her chest, the creamy, heaving rounds of her desirous breasts, the taut, quivering hollow of her abdomen. The shredded fabric slid down the long line of her thighs, reached the floor, and she threw out her arms to the beast-man in an abandon of seduction noisome as the uttermost depths of Hell, and glorious as Heaven itself. Glorious because, whatever the woman was, whatever evil had driven her, she descended now into Hades to save the man she loved!
The man she loved! In that moment the whole story was clear to Leila. Eve loved Stan and—
Calban whimpered. He let his victim fall. He lumbered; uncouth, shaken by the tempest she had aroused within him; to the naked, alluring form of the temptress, luminous-seeming in the moonlight glow. His black arms slid around that voluptuous form...
By some accident of the inscrutable fates, Stan had dropped right atop the knife he so futilely had struggled to reach. His twitching, bloodless hand closed on its hilt...
Eve moaned, shudderingly, as Calban's shaggy arms enfolded her—That moan seemed to explode in Stan with a sudden, spasmodic strength. He lifted to his knees, flung the knife...
Point first, it was a silver flash streaking the moonlight, and then it was a black excrescence, quivering from the middle of Calban's back. Blood spurted...
The monster squealed with the sudden pain. His great hands gripped the woman they had been fondling, flung her from him in a paroxysm of rage. She catapulted into the wall. The crackling thud of crushing bone sickened Leila...
And then the bound girl was screaming in terror for her lover as the wounded beast-man whirled and plunged ferociously at the trooper, who was swaying on his knees, was toppling over from the effort alone of throwing that knife. Calban's writhing fingers closed on Stan...
Thunder crashed in the room. It was the thunder of Foster Corbett's gun, blazing from the doorway. Long, orange-red jets of flame seared across the room. Calban's great form jolted to the impacts of the lethal lead, once, twice. He collapsed like a ripped meal sack, rolled over near his intended victim, quivered and was still.
Foster Corbett came in. He was mud-covered, from head to foot. A blue bruise blotched the seamed gray of his face and one trouser leg flapped, grotesquely somehow in two disjointed halves.
But the man's old, tired eyes glowed with a strange satisfaction.
"You gals sure can play hell," he growled, "when you get to fighting over a boy." He picked up the knife and sliced Leila's lashings, then bent to his son's flaccid form.
"Is—is he—?" Leila dared not finish the question, but Corbett understood and answered it. "No. He's just knocked out and he's coming out of it now. He'll be all right by noon, I imagine, right enough to stand up with you in front of the parson and—"
"He wouldn't marry me, now," Leila moaned. "He wouldn't marry the daughter of a madman."
"Madman, hell," Corbett grunted, swinging around to Eve's crumpled, moaning body. His gnarled fingers probed the girl's hurts with a curious tenderness. Then, "I'm afraid you're through, Eve," he said. "Maybe things will be a little better for your soul, where it's going, if you tell Leila yourself..."
White lips moved in face that was agony incarnate.
"Yes... I... swore you... never would have... Stan. Calban... imbecile living caves... West Cliff... everybody thought... monster. I... made friends with him... got him kill... Rourke... throw blame your father... kill Stan's love for you. It's... killed me instead." A gush of blood burbled from her lips, she writhed to a sitting position, threw out her arms. "Forgive me, Stan."
And then there wasn't an Eve Starr any more. Only a pitiful, nude corpse, slumped in a corner of the dreadful room.
THEY pieced it together afterward, the tale of that dreadful night. How, learning of Stan's message that her plot had failed, the love-maddened girl must have determined to have her mindless dupe kill Leila. How she must have sneaked into Leila's bedroom, either up the ram-spout ladder or through the same window that Calban had entered. How the imbecile must have attacked her, choked her to insensibility on the bed, been scared away by Leila's rush, by Stan's pounding on the doorway below... Had been scared away, and then had attacked Foster Corbett, kidnapped Leila.
Eve had recovered, had gone out into the woods to make certain Calban had gone for Leila. The frightened girl's questions had given her the clue to Leila's fear of her own madness. She had played on that to torture her, to lure her deeper into the woods, into Calban's clutches. But Stan's appearance had once more disrupted her plan.
Because she loved him she had saved him then. She had saved him again later, when the imbecile took matters into his own hands. But she had been able only at terrible cost to herself to save him the third time...
"It was horrible," Leila shuddered, shrinking into Stan's arms. "It was a nightmare out of hell's vilest depths."
"But it ended happily, my darling." Stan's lips were warm, under her ear. "Like the fairy stories. ?And so they were married and lived happily ever after.'"
"Ever after," Leila murmured. "But the ending of our fairy story is even better. Look!"
Under the poplars that till now had divided the Monroy and the Corbett farms, that till now had made a line of ancient enmity, two old men stood. The taller one, Justin Monroy, pointed to the ground, made a gesture with his forefinger as though he were drawing a boundary. Foster Corbett nodded. The two shook hands gravely.
"They've got it settled at last, that old fight."
"Doesn't make much difference any more, does it, Leila? The two farms will belong to one little fellow pretty soon—"
"What do you mean?" Leila Corbett cried, blushing. But she knew. Even if they had only been wedded a short hour before, she knew what her husband meant.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia