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Title: Satan's Bedchamber Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304701h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2017 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
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It was an ominous, shadow-infested old castle that Elise's Russian husband had brought her to. But she never guessed the grisly, mind-shattering secret it harbored—until the gates of hell yawned wide, and the maimed and ravished form of her dearest friend became the mute, terrible omen of what was in store for her own horror-shaken body...
ELISE GORNOFF whirled as she glimpsed the sudden swoop of some black, phantasmal thing from the corner of her eyes. A soundless scream constricted her throat...
But there was nothing there! Nothing at all was in the huge, beam-ceiled living room of the house on Phantom Island, save the black shadow-shapes that always lurked here, more fearsome now because of the approaching storm's lurid murk... Then for a single, searing instant, the age-darkened grain of an oaken wall seemed to writhe, as though something were melting into it!
A rumble of thunder from the leaden sky faded, and the black surge of terror in the girl's veins ebbed. Her delicately modeled mouth quirked in a brief smile of bitter self-mockery.
She was silly, childish, to be so startled. There were no evil wraiths on Phantom Island, despite the old wives' tales that had kept island and house uninhabited until Serge Gornoff had brought his bride here. Two hundred feet across the west branch of the River was Waterville, a bustling, congested city. There was nothing to fear...
Wood scraped against wood, beyond heavy portieres that cut off her view of the hall beyond. Elise's heart thumped. They were coming out of the mysterious room whose entrance was a secret panel in that hall's oak-lined wall. Serge was coming out of it, and Nikita and Pavel. Their dull footfalls broke the cowering stillness of the house.
In what dreadful ritual did they engage in that room she was forbidden to enter, forbidden even to mention? The old, futile indignation flared up in Elise. She was Serge's wife! Even though he were fifteen years older, she was his wife and had a right to share his secrets. A better right than the two servants, even though they had accompanied their barin* on his flight from the vast, dim Russia that had rejected him and his class. She should long ago have demanded to know... But she was afraid to know.
[* Russian барин: pre-Revolutionary term for "lord" or "master."]
The curtains swung apart, and Serge Gornoff came through them. "My dear," he said. He moved across to Elise, his feet whispering on the rug. The girl's throat pulsed at the sight of his tall, distinguished figure, and her love for him was a dull pain in her breast. "You are beautiful, here in the dimness. Like a white flame. A lonely flame." His ascetic face was lined with weariness, not of the body so much as of the soul, and pain dwelt deep in the dark-wells of his eyes. At his temples a hint of white edged the iron lustrelessness of his hair.
"I am always lonely, Serge." Elise swayed toward her husband, gave him both her hands. His were icy, but they closed on her slim fingers and clung with a strange fierceness, as if he were afraid that she would be taken from him.
It was this savage possessiveness of his love that had made her marriage a long agony of loneliness. He had isolated her on this island, had cut her off from all her old friends in a semi-Oriental seclusion...
"Tonight it will not be so lonely here, when our guests come."
The girl's heart thumped suddenly with warm gratefulness. He was actually looking forward to their arrival. He was human, after all... Thunder, nearer, deeper, growled in the heavens.
Gornoff glanced at the lurid, glowering oblong of the window. "Or perhaps they will not come." He seemed disappointed. "This is no pleasant place in a storm."
"That isn't stopping them. I watched them cross the footbridge from the mainland, a while ago. They're climbing up the hill, through the woods. They are coming..."
A voice from the hallway interrupted her. "They come, panya." Elise turned to face the bent figure in the archway. Nikita's grey, stringy hair straggled across her hook-nosed, witch's face. "But they not go away..."
With an exclamation of sudden anger Elise sprang across the room. "You...!" Her fingers dug into fleshless bone of the woman's arm. "What do you mean?" Wrath choked her voice. Wrath and icy, sudden fear. "What...?"
"Elise." Gornoff s voice was suave, unexcited. "You forget yourself..."
The girl whirled to face him, her grip on the hag unrelaxed. "No, Serge. I've just remembered myself. I've just remembered that it is I who am mistress here—"
A vast, rumbling torrent of sound cut her off—a roaring that battered against the house from without. The stone-walled edifice, the very ground beneath it, shuddered under the tremendous detonation...
Gornoff, in the window bay, stood taut and quivering against the glare of blue lightning. "Bozhe moy," he grunted. "Good Lord! The River..."
Elise, her passion suddenly puny against whatever cataclysm had loosed that detonation, found herself standing beside him. There was no rain as yet, but a roaring, solid gale pressed the forest down; and beyond it—beyond and below—a twenty-foot wall of water rushed down the river channel.
It thundered down on the footbridge. There was no longer any bridge, there were only a few tumbling sticks of timber harried by a chaos of rushing, foaming water. The base of the island was engulfed. The low river-bank streets of Waterville across the incredibly widened stream vanished.
"A cloudburst in the hills!" Gornoff exclaimed. "Look." Elise turned in the direction of his pointing finger. The northern sky was menacing midnight black. "We're cut off from the mainland. Your friends will have to stay here longer than they thought."
"Cut off!" The girl gasped. Was that what Nikita had meant? But how could she have known...? "Serge! They're in the woods. Will they...?"
"Here they are." A wind-tossed figure appeared at the edge of the clearing before the house, then another; but something in her husband's tone pulled Elise's gaze away from them, to his face. Fingers of icy fear squeezed her heart. That patrician face was darkened by virulent hatred. The eyes were red embers...
No, she was mistaken. It was only that the black pall over the sky had thrown a shadow across Serge's countenance, only that his pupils had mirrored a lurid streamer of angry sunset that had broken through the clouds in the west.
"What, Elise? What were you saying?"
"I... I forgot to tell you. Beside my sister Naomi, the Falks, and Dick Tyler and May Bailey—I asked Hugh Rayne too."
They were struggling across the clearing, clinging to one another against the wind's blast, the girls shrieking with bewildered laughter at their own helplessness...
"Rayne... Oh yes, the young man who I displaced in your affections."
Why did Serge say it so slowly, so gloatingly...? "I thought perhaps that being here with Naomi, he would decide to like her as well as he once thought he liked me. I thought..."
Gornoff didn't seem to hear her. "That makes it perfect," he was saying. "Perfect."
What did he mean? Elise moistened her lips, and felt a weird, vague fear at her husband's words. Suddenly she knew she shouldn't have asked Hugh Rayne to come to this house. She shouldn't have asked any of them. It was a trap. It was a place of black menace—and Serge Gornoff...
"Elly. Elly dear." A small, slender girl burst through the drapes, pattered toward her sister. Naomi Wilson was blonde as Elise was dark, her red lips made for kissing. "Isn't it a shame. Hugh couldn't come with us. He said he'd get over later, but now he won't be able to... what? What's that you said?"
"Nothing, dear. Only that I am glad that you got here safely." But Elise lied. What she had said was, "Thank God—thank God."
DICK TYLER and Wally Falk had wanted to go back to Waterville. The flood, they feared, had spread wide destruction in the low-lying slums along the riverfront, and help would be needed. But there was no boat on Phantom Island, and even if there had been it could not have lived in the seething torrent the river had become. So perforce they had to remain, to May Bailey's palpable relief.
"Maybe you're losing a chance to be a hero, Dick," she said, grinning impishly. "That's all right with me. I look swell in black, but grandma's wedding dress is a dream, and it would be a shame not to wear it."
Wally Falk laughed, curtly, bitterly, at that, and Elise Gornoff caught the flicker of a strange look in Ida's hazel eyes as, slitted between long, dark lashes, they had flitted from her husband to May. There had been rumors about those two, Elise had recalled...
After dinner, in the living room, Elise became poignantly conscious once more of gnawing, baseless dread. The night lay black against the window through which she stared, and the sound of rain on the glass was like pale, blind fingers fumbling at the pane. The wind rose, moaning...
"Like a woman wailing for her demon lover," Naomi quoted, pressing close to her. "That's how I feel tonight. I wish—oh Elly—I wish that Hugh had come."
"He's grand, isn't he," Elise murmured, "with his broad shoulders and his laughing eyes, and his tousled red hair one always wants to smooth?"
"Elly," Naomi laughed teasingly, her voice louder than she intended. "I believe you're still in love with Hugh. Is that why...?"
Elise didn't hear the rest. She had a sudden feeling of harsh, inimical eyes upon her, and whirled about to find her husband watching her, his face contorted into a mask of almost maniacal rage.
The girl gasped—and the look was gone. Had she imagined it? Had he heard... Pavel, simian-armed, barrel-chested bulked between the parted curtains. His clothes were wet with the rain.
Serge swung around, as if instinctively he knew the man was there. Pavel beckoned. Gornoff's feet whispered across the rug. The drapes swung shut behind the two.
Tiny chills scampered Elise's spine. Definitely there had been something furtive about the way Pavel had signaled Serge... Nonsense. He acted only as a well-trained menial should... But there was a sound of wood scraping on wood, out there in the hall.
They were going into the secret chamber! Even with guests in his house Serge couldn't keep out of there! Was it because there were guests in the house...?
"Elise," Ida Falk called from the floor where she was curled, a small bundle at Wally's feet. "I wish your husband would tell us some more stories about Russia's glorious past. He..."
"I'll do better than that." Serge's voice announced his return. "I'll bring you a voice from that past." He had a book with him, a tome so huge it took both his hands to carry it. The leather with which it was bound was scuffed, ragged, and greenish with age. "Perhaps it will tell us things the old Boyars knew, things that men have forgotten." His wife had never seen that volume before. Had it come from the hidden room?
Gornoff placed it on a table, carefully. "All the world has heard of Rasputin," he continued. "The last Tsar and his family were completely under his uncanny dominance; and it was because of him the dynasty ended in the scarlet of fire and of blood. All Russia called him the Mad Monk. He was not mad. He was a monk. But he did not serve God."
They were sitting up now, Ida, and May, and Hal, and Wally. Something in Serge's low accents, a green flicker of flame in his black eyes, was gripping them. Naomi moved closer, and Elise's hand went out, as if to snatch her baby sister back from the brink of some yawning, invisible chasm...
"Rasputin—his body at least—was killed one frosty midnight by a group of nobles more loyal to the Tsar than the Tsar himself." Gornoff's voice quivered with some obscure, remembered emotion. "Those who killed him, too late, were executioners—not assassins. Nor looters. There was only one thing missing from the contents of his house where so many men—and women—had lost their souls. This book."
He smiled. That smile was a grimace of nickering mockery, making almost satanic his thin, sardonic face. "There is one section that appears to be the basis of that modern pastime of numerology you have all played with and laughed at. Would it amuse you to test the ancient method?"
"Oh, what fun!" May exclaimed, her eyes sparkling. "Let's!"
But Elise wanted to scream, "No!... No!" And wondered distractedly why she felt such an impulse.
"We shall start with you." Pencil and paper lay on the table beside the book.
"M-a-y-B-a-i-l-e-y." Serge was jotting down the letters, performing some abstruse calculation. "Your number is one-two-four." He opened the book, ran a finger down a crackling, parchment page. "Here it is."
Gornoff's fleshless lips moved silently, as though he were translating. Then: "Beneath a shimmer of sunlight on rippling waters, a warm spring wells, wherein love may find quiet nurture..."
"How in hell...!" Tyler ejaculated. "You couldn't know that." His arm was around his sweetheart, drawing her close to him. "I'm the only one who knows what this kidding little nuisance really is."
Again that flitting lip-movement of evasive irony. "The hand that wrote that is dead a thousand years. The truth is eternal if one only knows where to look for it. When Miss Bailey's mother named her, she fastened upon the babe her nature—and her fate. Her fate... There is more. Listen. 'But too soon death's frost will clutch the green-gleaming lake, and still its laughter forever.' "
"I told you I was a cold proposition Dick," May laughed. "Watch out." There was no humor in her laugh...
"I say," said Wally Falk, starting forward. "This thing's likely to make one or two of us damned uncomfortable. Why don't we try it on someone who isn't here. Someone we all know..."
"Hugh Rayne," Naomi breathed. "Please, Serge. Work it out for Hugh Rayne."
Gornoff shrugged. "Very well." His pencil was busy again. Elise could not be quite sure, but she thought a tiny muscle twitched in his sallow cheek. He finished his calculations, turned a page or two... read...
Suddenly he closed the book with a bang, his lined features bleak, his lips drained of blood. "Perhaps we had better do something else."
"What is it?" Naomi demanded. "What did it say, Serge?"
His hand was trembling. "I had rather not."
"Oh, I say," exclaimed Dick Tyler. "You can't leave us up in the air like that. Read it."
"There was very little there," said Ida Falk, peering over Gornoff's shoulder. "Only five words. All the other numbers had a lot after them."
"What did it say, Serge?" Elise bit her lip. She didn't want him to answer—but she had to know. She had to know what the esoteric volume had said about the man she was planning to mate with her sister. "Please."
"If you ask it," Gornoff bowed, "my dear." He opened the book again. Quickly, too quickly, he found the right page. Almost as if he had kept a finger between the leaves to mark it. Was his reluctance only feigned?
He read the guttural, harsh syllables aloud, the meaningless Russian. And then he translated.
"Six—sixty-six—" he said, tonelessly. "The number of the beast."
The words were followed by a sudden, queer hush—a silence in which dread seeped into the very bones of the listeners, penetrating skepticism as the chill of an early spring rain pierces even the thickest clothing...
Naomi whimpered. "The beast. What... what...?"
Dick Tyler answered her. "I know. I remember it from comparative religions at college." His fresh, young voice seemed to affront the brittle silence. "The beast is the incarnation of the great antagonist, the avatar of evil. He roams the earth in the dark and the tempest, seeking those whom he must destroy. The old chiromancers had a word to evoke it. It—it's on the tip of my tongue. I've got it. It's..."
"Stop," Elise shrieked. "Don't say it. Don't..."
Nikita suddenly appeared beside Gornoff. She laughed her cackling, senseless laugh. It ended in some gibberish—a single word...
An earth-splitting, stunning thunderclap seemed to wipe out the lights in the room. Utter blackness fell solid-seeming in its impenetrability. A cold wind blasted past Elise, a draught from some frozen hell. An invisible form brushed against her arm, wet and shaggy, and an unshod foot thudded on the floor somewhere in front of her. A man cursed...
Then the scream rose out of the blank darkness, a livid crescendo of uttermost terror, of excruciating, unearthly anguish. It stabbed into Elise's quivering heart like a lance, rasped her taut nerves... It ended, abruptly.
Before the girl could move, before she could throw off the nightmare paralysis that held her, the thing brushed by her again. Its brief touch was revolting to her skin, the clammy touch of something long dead and mossy with rottenness. An odor of noisome putrescence trailed after it—and was gone as that icy draught shut off...
It had been a woman who screamed—a girl! Was it Naomi? Was it...? There was a bubbling sound in the darkness that was worse than the scream. There were no intelligible words, but its meaning was clear, too dreadfully clear...
"Light," a voice shrieked. "Light..."
A match sputtered. Its tiny flame flared, steadied. The darkness withdrew a little from white, staring faces—from a crumpled heap on the floor.
Elise could not make out the color of the shreds of flimsy fabric torn from a once-white, lacerated body. The same dark-glistening, viscid fluid that obscured it made the writhing face a gory mask. But the hair—it was close cropped, tawny! Relief, damnable, selfish relief caught in Elise's throat. It was not Naomi who lay there, contorted in incredible anguish. It was...
"May!" The name wrenched from Dick Tyler in a great sob, and he was down on his knees beside his sweetheart. "Almighty God! May!" His hands were suddenly gloved with red as he gathered her in his arms.
"What—" Wally choked—"What happened? Who...?" Rain lashed Elise, from behind. She realized that the window was open.
"Here," she called, not aware that her cry was a shrill, eldritch shriek. "Out here through this window—it went..."
They rushed at her, pell-mell, went past her, snarling like a pack of rabid hounds. Dick, with his scarlet, clawing hands, led them, his face a mask of death save for the eyes from which a terrible wrath blazed. They clambered out through the window, went pounding across the clearing.
"Keep together," Elise heard Serge command. "Keep together for protection..." The rest was lost in the threshing of heavy bodies in the wood's underbrush.
Nikita was standing in the archway, and there were two lit candles in her gnarled hands. Their radiance fluttered across her countenance. It was a face out of some delirium, a harpy's face...
May was not dead. Even that mercy was denied her. Red bubbles rose on her torn lips, as she tried to form words. She was saying something—but what it was no sane mind could have conceived!
ELISE GORNOFF fought her way out of the cloak of black horror that enveloped her. "Stop the blood," she croaked. "We've got to stop it..."
Those ghastly wounds were jagged-edged, shredded... They had been made by no knife, by no conceivable weapon a human being would use. Fangs—claws—had torn May Bailey—mangled her. The fangs and claws of some ravening, giant animal whose presence on the island had hitherto been unsuspected... Some beast...
Beast... The words Gornoff had read from the ancient, occult book flooded back into Elise's numb brain: "The number of the beast!" The nape of her neck bristled with ancestral fear...
A shout from outside brought her whirling around to the window. A shout: "Here he is"—and the pound of running feet. Without conscious volition she went out through the doorway. The wind pounded her. The rain stung her. Blacker against black, figures were visible at the edge of the woods. Drenched, gasping, Elise reached them.
The men were stooped over a dark form, inert on a crushed bed of tall grass... The sky went blue with livid lightning...
"Rayne!" Wally Falk exclaimed. "It's Hugh Rayne!"
Incredibly it was Hugh Rayne! Sprawled there senseless, rain drenched.
"The beast," a voice squealed, unrecognizable, and Dick Tyler leaped at the prone man. His darting hands were red with May's blood, against the pale glimmer of Hugh's face... Snatching fists grabbed Dick, were dragging him away...
"He's the beast," the squirming youth shrieked. "The book said so..."
"Wait." Serge's injunction was even-toned, calm as ever. "We must make sure. He cannot get away, and..."
"It wasn't he." Sudden recollection prompted Elise's denial "I felt the killer pass. He was shaggy, repulsive."
Was she sure? Faint, almost intangible, that same odor of putrescence hung about her even in the driving rain. But another lightning flash showed her Hugh's drenched raincoat, and it was of smooth rubber. There was a blue bruise on his forehead, under his wet-plastered red hair.
"You felt him!" Serge's voice. "Elise! It might have been you instead of May!" A strange note in it. Was it of fear? Or threat?
Rayne groaned, checking the fevered speculations in Elise's brain. He quivered, thrust big-thewed arms against the ground, shoving himself up to a sitting posture. "What...?" he mumbled thickly. "What's going on...?"
"What's your story?" Wally Falk demanded, somewhere above Elise. His tone was sharply authoritative, as she had heard it once in court. He was cross-examining Hugh, making him talk while he was still half-stunned, and incapable of fashioning a plausible lie. "What happened to you?"
"I—I don't know exactly." Rayne pressed a hand to his forehead. "Someone hit me... jumped me out of the dark. The house lights had just gone out... I couldn't see who it was..."
"How did you get here? The bridge is gone."
"Worried about you folks. 'Phone line out. Stole a boat... Guy's fist was like a club. My head's still ringing..."
Relieved breath hissed from between Elise's teeth. It was like Hugh to have risked his life if he thought his friends needed help. An electric flare washed the macabre scene with blue light, and she saw there was no blood on his hands or his clothing. The storm could not have washed it entirely away... But a furtive doubt lingered.
Wally Falk voiced it. "How on earth did you mange to keep a boat afloat in that freshet?"
"I—I... It was hell. I..."
"Who's there?" Dick, spinning, shrieked the challenge. "Who...?"
"Steady, Tyler." Gornoff murmured. "Steady. There's nothing..."
"Someone's in the brush. Watching us. I heard... Listen."
The blackness was grotesque, ominous with gigantic forms felt rather than seen. Were they only the trees? Only... Someone, something, breathed, heavily, close by.
The men half-crouched, tensing to meet an attack, cowering in a grisly fear. Elise tried to turn, to dash back to the shelter of the house, but her limbs were water-weak, would not obey her. Serge left the group, walking stiff-legged into the terrible darkness.
"Gornoff," Rayne exclaimed, surging to his feet, "you..."
A groan came out of the midnight murk into which Serge had gone. "Pavel!" he exclaimed. "It's Pavel..."
That released the others from the terror that held them rigid. But as they got to where Serge Gornoff was standing above his servant they huddled together again, huddled as sheep do scenting the prowling wolf near their byre.
"Pavel!" Gornoff said again, sharply, and the Russian sank to his knees beside the prone figure of his servant. Nikita, Elise thought, must have lit a lamp in the house, for yellow light sifted now through the trees. She saw that Pavel clutched a gnarled, thick club in one ham-like fist.
"Pan," he husked, "gdye..."*
[* Russian: "Sir, ... where?"]
"Talk English," Serge snapped. "They all want to know."
"Lights go out, master. I look kitchen window, see someone, something—how you call?—gray, run away from house. I run after, hit with club. Hit hard, he no hit back. But everything go black... Then you say my name."
"Was it this man you hit with your club?" Wally thrust Hugh Rayne forward. "Was this he?"
Pavel peered at Hugh, hesitation, doubt in his uncouth, broad-sculptured countenance. Then, "No. Other big. Big. Like... man-monkey."
"That's what the fellow jumped me seemed like. A white ape, man-size." Did Rayne snatch at the suggestion too eagerly? "Smelled like one too. I remember that now. It was the smell I noticed first, just before he hit me."
Elise's spine prickled. The thing that had attacked May had carried a fetid odor with it, and bristly fur had scraped her as it passed. Was there truth in the old, grisly legends about Phantom Island...? She thought of something.
"Serge! The girls are alone in the house. Shouldn't we...?"
"Get back to them!" Falk interjected. "Good Lord! We're fools, leaving them alone..."
They were running across the clearing. Someone boosted Elise through the open window. Her wide-eyed glance searched the desecrated room for her sister, found her.
Naomi's face was ghastly, her dress blood-smeared. "Elly!" she gasped. "Do something for May. Do something..." It was May's blood that was on the blonde girl. She was all right, unhurt. May was on the couch, they must have lifted her there. Her hand was shoved with fierceness of unendurable torture against raw, glistening flesh. Ida Falk was dabbing her with an ineffectual handkerchief, a wisp of fabric dyed carmine...
"Where's Nikita?" Serge demanded. "Where's that woman?"
"I—I don't know." Naomi's pupils were dilated, so that the blue of her eyes had given place to black in which hysteria flared. "There was a scraping noise from inside, and she went into the hall. She hasn't come back."
"Bozhe moy!" Gornoff exclaimed and lurched out through the curtains, Pavel close behind him. That room again, Elise thought, inconsequently. Always that damnable room.
"What—who did that to her?" asked Hugh Rayne in a shocked voice. All this was happening in seconds, was overlapping. "Who did...?"
"You ask that!" Dick shrieked, whirling to the red-headed man, springing at him, gore-gloved hands clawing. "You..." Rayne lifted startled arms to protect himself. Elise threw herself between them.
Wally grabbed Tyler, pinning the frantic lad's arms to his sides. "Stop it, Dick," Elise cried, her voice choked with grief and terror. "You're keeping us from helping May. May needs our help, and we can't give it to her if you act like this."
"May!" Dick moaned. He stumbled blindly toward the couch.
Serge Gornoff came through the portieres, gaunt, unsmiling. The lamplight glinted on something silvery in his hand. Elise saw that it was a hypodermic syringe. Serge went to the couch. Just as Dick reached it, the gleaming needle sank into May Bailey's lacerated arm. There was something ghoulish in the way Gornoff stabbed the torn flesh, something that prickled Elise's spine with a queasy chill. But the dreadful moaning stopped.
"We cannot telephone for a doctor," Serge said, "and if we could it would be impossible for one to reach us. But fortunately I have some smattering of medicine... Elise—if you will wash out these wounds with hot water and bandage them..."
"Yes, Serge." It was a relief to have something to do. A relief not to have to think...
"I've got this window locked," said Wally, turning away from it. "How about the others, and the door? There's a chance the—whatever it was—will come back."
"An idea. If it will avail anything." Serge's brooding glance rested briefly, significantly, on Hugh, turned back to Wally Falk. "You and Pavel make the rounds down here, Mr. Falk. I shall go upstairs, with Mr. Rayne. I have a gun, the only one in the house."
"We'd better leave that here with the girls, hadn't we?" Rayne suggested. "I don't know yet what it's all about, but if there's any danger..."
"No." Gornoff answered flatly. "The danger will not be here." If you are not; he might as well have gone on to say, thought Elise. He still suspected Hugh... Or was he trying to build up suspicion of him in the minds of the others? Suspicion that had its beginnings in that eerie sentence in the book—the book that only Serge Gornoff could read?
He picked up one of the candles, Wally the other. As the three men trampled out through the portieres, Elise glimpsed Pavel in the hall. He was standing in front of the place where the secret room was concealed by its sliding panel. Had he just come out of it?... The curtain swished back into place.
A shiver ran through the girl's slender body, as she realized that there was left in this room only three frail, helpless women, and a moaning youth whom grief and horror had made worse than helpless.
The chimney of the lamp was already blackened by soot, so that its light was dim, and the great chamber again a place of eerie, threatening shadows.
Ida snatched at her arm. "Elise," she chattered through blue lips, "I'm scared, in..."
"There's nothing to be frightened of any more," said Elise. She had found some new well of courage from which to draw. "We've got to take care of May. I'll go and get some hot water from the kitchen. Nikita always has a kettle on, for her interminable tea."
"I'll go." Naomi jerked out. "I know where it is." Before her sister could object, the girl's slender form slipped through the archway drapes. Elise started to follow.
"Don't leave me alone here," Ida whispered fearfully.
Elise swung around, read in the wide hazel eyes confronting her the tale of nerves jangled to the breaking point, ready to abdicate to shrieking madness.
"All right," she said, quietly, trying to calm the other by her own forced calmness. "I won't. Help me get the clothes off May so we'll be ready when Naomi gets back."
"Yes," Ida whimpered. "We've got to..." The effort she was putting forth to control herself showed in the throb of the pulse in her corded throat, in the way her small fists were clenched, nails digging into her palms.
"Dick." Elise put a gentle hand on the sobbing man's shoulder. "Go over there and sit down. You're in the way."
He obeyed, moving jerkily, like an automaton. Elise bent to the couch...
Running footsteps pounded. Upstairs. Through the muffled sound of fists pounding on wood, of heavy soles kicking at a door. Wally's voice roared:
"Hugh! Gornoff!" And then it broke into shrillness. "They're in there. They must be in there. What's happened to them?" Shrill and jittery. "Gornoff!"
WALLY FALK'S thin cry was a flailing whiplash, striking terror to Elise's heart. Serge! Something had happened to Serge! In that searing instant her doubts, her fear of him were gone, and her love was reborn in a terrible fear for him. She whirled, and ran up the dark obscurity of the broad staircase outside.
A splintering crash met her on the landing above. Lightning glimmer was blotched by two hulking forms lurching through a door they had battered down. Elise threw herself after them, past the ripped casing. An acrid tang was sharp in her nostrils.
The smell cut her lungs with tiny slicing knives, vertigo swirled in her head. She gasped, pulling in air, cold and wet and refreshing. Her vision cleared and she was aware of Wally Falk at a window, of curtains bellying in with the draught that had cleared away the choking fumes.
"Barin," Pavel groaned, bending over something on the floor. "Barin..."
There was light in the bedroom, dancing light from a candle to which Falk had touched a match flame. Serge was sprawled on the floor, and Hugh Rayne. Their faces were dough-yellow in the flickering candle-light...
"We were through downstairs, came up here to look for them," Wally whispered, his aplomb shattered at last. "They weren't in any of the other rooms, and the door to this one was locked."
"Are they—are they...?" Rayne rolled, staggered to his feet and she did not need to finish her question. Serge pulled in a single, gasping breath, sat up. The revivifying air had worked swiftly.
"What happened, Serge? What happened?"
They seemed unhurt. Only dazed, bemused...
"Rayne went into this room first, and I was close behind him. He stumbled against me. My candle went out. I smelled something—and that was all I knew till this moment."
"Gas," Falk supplied. "Some kind of gas. I got a whiff of it as the door gave way, felt it getting me. That's why I jumped to fling this window open."
"That's it." Rayne said thickly. "That's what knocked us out. But I thought I saw someone in here before I caved."
"Door locked," Pavel put in. "No key."
"Someone asphyxiated us and locked us in," Gornoff mused, maintaining a calm, strange demeanor—uncanny under the circumstances. "But he did not harm us. Why?"
"Maybe the—whoever it was that attacked May—was hiding up here while we were looking for him outside." Falk suggested. "Maybe he's still in the house."
"He is still in the house." Gornoff's eyes rested on Rayne, voicelessly accusing him once more. "There is no doubt of that."
"We went through all the rooms downstairs, and all up here but this one." Falk had collected himself again, but under his left eye a little muscle twitched and would not be still. "No one passed us on the stairs."
"There is another set of stairs, in the rear." Gornoff said. He bent and picked up something from the floor. "He could have avoided you that way."
"I can't understand how he got so strong a concentration of gas in here," Falk pondered, "without making it airtight, first."
"This is how," said Gornoff, straightening. He held out a palm on which some sharp slivers glinted. "He broke a globe or ampoule of thin glass just as we came in, probably smashed it against the jamb. And..."
"Elise! Elise!" Ida was calling from below. "What's happening up there? What...?"
"It's all right, Ida," Wally called, striding through the door. "No one's hurt."
"Then why don't you come down? Why is everybody leaving me alone down here?"
"Alone!" Elise was suddenly cold. She swung around. "Isn't Naomi there? Didn't she come back...?"
"Naomi? No. Isn't she up there?"
"Up here...?" Comprehension exploded in Elise's skull. "No..." Naomi had not returned from the kitchen and the backstairs led right down into it!
Elise ran through the dark passage outside, threw herself down the light-less well at its other end. "Naomi!" The cry tore her throat. "Naomi!"
No answer! The kitchen, lit only by red glow from the range, was starkly, appallingly empty, and there was no one in the dining room she could see through the open door.
Had Naomi opened that door? Had she gotten that far? There were no signs of a struggle anywhere...
"The door's locked from the inside," Wally Falk said. "The window hasn't been opened." Elise hadn't been aware they had followed her, but the men were here, were scattering through the ground floor rooms. Rayne called in from the dining room that the windows there, too, were tightly barred.
"She is in the house, then," Gornoff growled. "She must still be somewhere in the house."
"Find her. Do something to find my baby sister." Elise choked, sobbing. There was no strength any longer in her limbs. There was no reason in her mind. There was only the vision in her eyes of Naomi as she might now be—a bedraggled, mangled ruin of a body such as lay out there on the couch. "Find her, if you love me."
"Falk!" Gornoff snapped. "Come back upstairs with me. Pavel, you take Rayne down into the cellar."
They were gone. Elise could hear trampling feet upstairs, could hear dull noises made by the searchers below. They were hunting the house for Naomi...
They were searching the house—but they weren't looking for Naomi where she must be. Where Elise knew now she must be.
Serge Gornoff had told them where to search. But he hadn't told them of the secret room in the long hall on this very floor.
Suddenly something snapped in Elise's brain, and the girl laughed madly. Serge was fooling them all...
"Elise!" Her wild laughter, that had brought Serge back down the stairs to her, choked off. "Why are you laughing like that?"
"I was laughing at what a fool I have been," screamed Elise, "loving you, trusting you—like a fool!" She leaped at him, her curled fingers clawing for his eyes. "Give me back my sister. Give her back..."
His hands caught her wrist, and they were manacles of steel holding her in an inescapable grip. "I am trying to find her for you," he said, still with that curious, frightening quiet of his—that calm which nothing seemed to break. "I am searching for her."
"You lie," Elise shrieked. "You lie. She's in the forbidden room. You know she's in there. That's why you didn't say anything about it. That's why..."
She checked, terrified even in her rage. She had broken through his unnatural calm at last. His face was suddenly colorless. It was like marble, its expression stiffly menacing and demoniac wrath burned deep in his eyes. The basilisk glare held her, paralyzed. Even if her life had depended on it, she could not have moved.
Words seethed from his stiff, white lips. "So it was for that, you asked your lover here. To spy upon my secret. You have failed twice, and you will not succeed the third time."
"What...?" the accusation shocked her into speech. "What do you mean?"
But she knew...
"He tried to scare everyone out of the house with his attack on the girl. That failing, he suffocated me with his gas, slipped down here to force the door. Your sister interrupted him. He disposed of her somehow, heard Pavel and Falk start upstairs, got back up there in time to lock the room and pretend to have met the same fate as I. Now you..."
"Stop!" Elise screamed at her husband, her love for him metamorphosed to virulent hatred. "That is very plausible—but it doesn't fool me. It was you who played that trick on him. You hate all my friends because you have no friends. You hate Hugh because of mad, uncalled for jealousy. When you consented to my having visitors here you made your plans. Your plans for murder, with suspicion pointing at him. That's why you were disappointed when you thought he was not coming. That's why you brought in the book when Pavel told you, that because he was unselfish and brave, Hugh had managed to reach the island. It's you..."
"You—you wench..." Gornoff's right hand let go its hold on his wife's wrist, and rose to strike her in white passion...
A thunderous thud that shook the house with its impact stopped that blow.
"Bozhe moy!" Gornoff gasped, whirling to face the hall door from the kitchen.
A scream sliced through the house, piercing, agonized. "Wally!"
It cut off. Gornoff darted out into the hall from which that thud, and the scream, had come. Elise got to the doorway, and halted. At the foot of the broad front stairs Ida stood as rigid as a statue, the lamp from the living room held high in her paralyzed hand. Its light sifted down on the thing at her feet, on the thing at which she stared, open-mouthed, her face frozen by ineffable horror after that first ear-piercing scream.
As Gornoff reached it, Elise saw what that thing was. A bundle of clothes, collapsed like a pricked balloon. Pulp oozing from it. Quivering, smashed pulp that had been a man once. No fall could have done that to him. He had been hurled down from above, with incredible force!
WALLY FALK lay smashed against the floor as a rotten apple might be smashed wantonly against a wall. His pulped body had burst through his clothing. But unholy joy throbbed in Elise Gornoff's breast.
Serge hadn't done that. Serge had been in the kitchen with her and he hadn't done that thing!
Instantly the fierce elation was quenched by a surge of quivering self-disgust that this should be her first reaction, and then a new terror probed her brain. If not Serge, who? Wally had been alone up there! The others, Pavel and Hugh Rayne, were in the cellar...
Were they? Either was strong enough, powerful enough to have lifted the lawyer and flung him down...Had one overcome the other, slipped upstairs to attack Wally?
Elise Gornoff prayed that this was so. The alternative was... unthinkable.
A door burst open, under the slant of the stairs, and Pavel lurched out of it. Pavel—and Hugh, behind him. Both dust-covered, smear-faced with the dust and soot of the basement. They caught sight of Gornoff bending to the grisly mass, rushed toward him...
Elise caught hold of the jamb to keep from falling. None of the three could possibly have been above. Someone—or some thing—else prowled the house. Some fiend incarnate, unseen, perhaps unseeable, had mangled May Bailey, murdered Wally—and carried Naomi off to its grisly lair!
"Naomi!" the shuddering girl whimpered. "Naomi."
What macabre doom had befallen her? Where was the laughing-eyed, endearing sister, whose chubby hand she had held in her own, teaching her her first toddling steps?
"I can't stand it," Ida wailed; her voice knife-edged with sheer madness. She whirled, dashed through the portieres.
"She's gone mad," someone gasped. "She'll kill herself." They were gone, hurtling through the portieres after the hysterical girl. Elise was alone in the dark hall, alone with that horror...
Alone and unwatched in the hall where the panel was behind which lurked that secret room. Out of the swirl of terror encompassing her, the girl remembered her earlier thought. Naomi might be in there. She might...
This was her chance, her only chance. She needed no light to find the spot, to grope for the shrewdly simulated knots in the graining that were the open sesame, knowledge of which she had nursed in her bosom, not daring to use. She thumbed them. That too familiar scrape of wood on wood grated at her feet, and she felt the apparently solid fabric slide aside.
The noisome odor of putrescence swept toward Elise from out of the dark void that was opening in front of her. Her nerves tensed.
Suddenly a scratching, mewling fury pounced out upon her. Slicing claws ripped her face. Bony fingers knotted on her throat. A form battered against her, flinging her back—a skeleton clothed in swirling, sleazy fabric. She was on the floor of the hall. She was whirling over and over in a snarling, primordial battle with a harridan who bit and scratched and yowled. She was fighting back; biting, gouging, clawing; civilization stripped from her; fear blasted out of her. She had become a primitive woman, battling for her life...
Desperation and rage against the evil mysteries in this place, coupled with her youth and natural strength, soon gave Elise the advantage over her grisly antagonist. She clenched a scrawny, dry-skinned throat with her hands. Tightened her grip.
A clutch fastened on her shoulders, dragging her up and away from her victim. The throat she throttled came up with her; then fingers tore her grip away. Elise's vision cleared. She saw candlelight dancing on Nikita's prostrate, gasping form, realized that it was Gornoff who had separated them. That Pavel and Rayne were gaping at her. Saw Dick Tyler's white face, to which some semblance of intelligence had returned.
"What on earth?" Hugh groaned. "What now?"
"I come from pantry," Nikita gasped. "Panya try to kill me."
"You lie!" Elise flared. "You jumped out at me from the secret room. You've got Naomi in there and..."
"What room, my dear?" Gornoff's countenance was ashen, bleak as the visage of a soul condemned to eternal torment. "What room do you mean?" His low voice was still steady, still controlled, but there was a quiver in it now, as though he were holding on to himself only by the exertion of an indomitable will.
"You know what room. That one." Elise tore herself from his grasp, whirled about to point toward it. "The one you never let me enter. That's where Naomi..." She gasped. The wall was solid-seeming as though there never had been an opening there! "You've closed it!"
"I closed nothing, my dear. I do not know what you are talking about."
"You don't know... I'll show you, then. I'll show you." She flung herself at the panel, thumbed the swirls in the graining that would open it.
Nothing happened. Nothing at all.
"You've locked it," she screamed. Her fingers fumbled at the borders of the panel, she was trying to dig with her nails into interstices that didn't exist. She pounded madly on unyielding wood.
"Naomi! Naomi!" she shrieked. "Let me in to her! Let me in to my sister."
Then she couldn't pound any more because Dick and Pavel were holding her arms, were pulling her away from the wall. "God!" Hugh Rayne grunted, drawing a shaking hand across his forehead. "She's..."
"Hysterical." That was what Serge said, but he meant—mad. "No wonder, with all that has happened."
"I—I will be all right, now," she muttered.
A terrible weariness welled up within the girl, the languor of defeat and despair. May, Naomi, Ida. The gruesome night had taken them all. She was the only woman left within this infernal house. Nikita, scrambling to her feet, was not a woman. She was a sexless avatar of weird hate, a witch-woman who had evoked some monstrous entity that ravaged and slew, and made of the storm-beleaguered house a shuddering enclave of hideous evil.
"I'm all right now," Elise said again, repeating the words in the voice of a dazed child. "Serge. Hugh. Dick. I shall be all right, if only you will find Naomi. If only you will find my little sister for me."
There were tears in her eyes as she looked from one to the other of them, tears that burned like acid. "Please find her. Please." And in her breast there was leaden despair. Could they help her? Would they? Dick Tyler was a white-faced, quivering non-entity, his grief and his fear making him less than a man. Pavel was—Nikita's mate. The others—Serge—Hugh—the finger of suspicion had pointed to each in turn. "Find my baby sister. If you love me..."
The tiny green candle-flames of hell flickered again in Gornoff's brooding orbs. His lips whitened. But it was Rayne who spoke first. "We can't leave her alone," he groaned. "She's likely to..."
"I shall take care of that," Gornoff interjected, and his hand came out of his pocket. It held the hypodermic syringe with which he had given May Bailey relief, the plunger only half-down. Before Elise could jerk away, before she could shriek her protest, he had bared her arm and plunged the gleaming needle into it.
The steel slid sickeningly in, and the syringe plunger squeezed down. A warm tingle spread up Elise's arm from the wound, tracing the punctured artery. Nausea twisted at the pit of her stomach, twisted in her brain. The hall blurred...
An unintelligible voice muttered something. She was being lifted, she was being carried somewhere. Oblivion blotted consciousness...
NAUSEA twisted at the pit of her stomach. The blackness in which she lay was charged with some deadly threat, with shadow shapes that took forms of unearthly menace, and dissolved, and reformed again to swoop down upon her...
Somewhere in the terrible gloom a pinpoint of light pulsed—steadied. It was the soot-dimmed wick of a kerosene lamp, and the vague light it gave did little to dissipate the gloom of the raftered living room of the old house on Phantom Island. Slowly the understanding came to Elise that she was slumped in a high-backed, high-armed chair, carried there no doubt after the narcotic had taken her senses from her.
She was faced anglingly toward the front of the room, perhaps to avert her gaze from that which lay on the couch and babbled. But whoever had placed her so had forgotten the oval mirror on the wall. Darkly in that mirror she could see what was behind her.
She could see the body of May Bailey on the couch. She could see Dick Tyler, a statue of pallid fear standing against the dark folds of the archway portieres, his white fingers clutching a weapon of some sort, half-lifting it as though every muscle, every sinew of his quivering frame were ready to lash out at an unseen antagonist. There were beads of cold sweat on the youth's pallid forehead, and there was no color, no color at all, in his face.
Otherwise the murk-walled room was vacant. Of Ida Falk there was only a wet stain on the window curtains to show what had become of her.
Elise tried to speak to Dick, but it was as though her vocal chords had become paralyzed. No sound came from her lips! They had not even opened. She was incapable of speech—but she had to get his attention somehow. She had to know what was going on. If she got up out of the chair, showed him that she was awake...
She couldn't. She had no control of a single muscle. The opiate, whatever it was Serge had injected into her veins, held her in a weird catalepsy, in which she was fully conscious but incapable, utterly incapable of movement. Her brain was alive; fiercely, poignantly alive; but her body was dead.
It was then that madness swooped down on Elise Gornoff, like a black, enveloping cloud. She could feel her reason slipping away from her under the impact of the horror with which she was surrounded and submerged in.
She knew she must not give way to it. If she went mad Naomi would be alone, utterly alone and without hope, in this house of dreadful doom.
But Naomi perhaps was dead. God grant that she was dead. Even terribly, like Wally Falk. God grant that she was not lying somewhere, torn, shredded, mangled, like May Bailey...
Or that a worse fate had not overtaken her.
She must think of a way out—for herself and for Naomi. She could at least force herself to think, to trace out the truth in the chaotic delirium of the night's happenings. Then, when and if the effects of Gornoff's dose wore off, she might know what there was for her to do. It would be by thought, and thought alone, that she would be able to fight off the grisly madness that threatened her.
Think... Who of those in the house might be responsible for what was occurring there?
Not any of the girls. Not Dick. Not Wally Falk.
Nikita was somehow involved in it. But Nikita alone could not have done the things that had been done. She had neither the strength nor the opportunity.
Pavel? He might have attacked May, stunned Hugh Rayne. But he was in the cellar with Hugh when Wally... Those two had been in the cellar then, and Serge had been in the kitchen with her...
Inevitably, then, there was someone else in the house. Some one or something else. Was it some thing of demoniac terror, materialized from the storm and the ancient legends of Phantom Island, from the ancient, weird past of the island that had kept it uninhabited...?
The secret room was bound up in the mystery, and the brooding, almost tangible fear that had tormented Serge, that she had sensed was dogging him from the first day she had met him. It had been that sense of torment, of inescapable dread that had drawn her to him. Something in that room that he had hidden from her, hugging his dread secret to himself as the Spartan boy hugged the wolf that gnawed at his vitals.
What did she know of that room? Only that something fearful went on in there. Only that he had brought the syringe, and the liquid it contained, from there. He had brought the book from there...
The book! Wait... What was it he had said about the book? "There was only one thing missing from Rasputin's house, where so many men and women had lost their souls. This book." How had it come into Serge's possession? Was he one of those men who had invaded that lair of iniquity, bent on purging Russia of him who was consummating her downfall? They had been nobles, the story went, princes and barons...
"He was not mad. He was a monk, but he did not serve God." Serge had said that. And he had said, "They killed him—his body at least—" Only his body, he had meant! Rasputin, the dark essence of evil that had consummated the ruin of a nation, had not been killed. Could not be killed...
Those who were known to have been members of that midnight band of patriots, were known also to have died, horribly... Elise knew at last—knew as surely as though he had told her—what it was from which Serge Gornoff had fled his Russia. What terror it was he had fled from and which had pursued him across half a world.
And she knew what it was he had been doing in that hidden room. Frantically, desperately, with feverish hope and icy despair, he had been combing that book of Satan's secrets for some formula to use against the vengeance of Satan's servitor. Against the time when the monk, who was not mad and who did not serve God, should find him out at last.
What an agony of hellish fear his life must have been! No wonder he had turned pale when Pavel had come in to tell him that someone inexplicably had attained the island, despite the flood and the storm. No wonder something transcending terror had gripped him when that very book had informed him that that man bore the number of the—beast!
In that instant blackness had smashed down and the terror had begun. They had found Hugh Rayne outside the window. Stunned. Or pretending?
But Elise had known Hugh all her life. He could not be...
What if Hugh Rayne had been drowned in the flood? What if that which had come to the house out of the night and the storm were Hugh Rayne's body indeed, but animated by some other spirit? Some grisly temporary tenant of that body, which, for its own dark purposes had...
Elise never finished the thought. A flicker in the mirror stopped it, a slither of cautious stealthy movement. In the splotched glass, the portieres were stealthily moving behind Dick Tyler. Slowly, with infinite stealth, they drew minutely apart—and a hand slid soundlessly through the aperture. Or was it a hand? The silvery fingers were curled, claw-like, and they ended in long, sharp talons that were brown and granular with dried blood. The wrist, the arm behind, were shaggy, bristling with hair of a gleaming, startling whiteness.
A scream formed in Elise Gornoff's breast—but it found no utterance. Held rigid and voiceless, she could not warn the youth. She could not...
The claw struck, swift and silent as a snake. It fastened on Dick's throat. The nails dug into quivering flesh. Little scarlet jets spurted from the wounds they made. Little fountains of scarlet death...
Dick hung, a limp, doll out of which the scarlet sawdust had run, beneath the silver-grey hand. The curtains bellied inward to the pressure of an unseen form. The claw opened and the flaccid body dropped from it, straight down, no stiffening to it at all. The drapes moved apart.
The killer slid into view.
THE thing that swayed in the doorway was an apparition out of the depths of such a hell as man in his most macabre imaginings could not have devised. It was a silver, wraith-like obscenity against the somber background of the drapes, a huge hulk clad in a black monk's robe that hung open to reveal a pelt of bleached, shaggy bristles, the precise shade of those blind things that wriggle under wet rocks in the dank depths of a light-less forest. Its furred legs were columnar, its arms thick-thewed and powerful as those of a gorilla. It had no neck—and it was faceless.
There was only hair where the thing's face should have been—curled, colorless hair that made of its head a shaggy monstrosity. And yet, in some manner, the creature must have been able to see. For that featureless head moved, while it swayed momentarily in the archway, as though it were scanning the room. Its claws, the one scarlet with new blood, the other brown with old, opened and closed beside its ponderous thighs, opened and closed as though still avid for the feel of quaking flesh within their grasp, as though hungry for the feel of screaming life ebbing from beneath their terrible grip.
Elise Gornoff was unable to move. But she cowered within the chair, cringing from the horror of that which was in the room with her, while blind terror ran riot in her veins.
A sound came from out of the depths of the thing's throat—a sound that was a hollow, deep-chested chuckle, as his unseen gaze found and rested on the shrinking, pitiable girl on the couch. A lascivious chuckle of glee at the sight of his handiwork.
He liked what he had done! Red fury exploded in Elise's brain. Her fingers curled in a small fist...
Her fingers had curled! They had moved! The dread paralysis was fading. Too late! A sob gurgled, far back in her throat...
The pale monster heard it! He launched into movement, into padding, swift movement. He reached the chair whose high back had hidden her, might have kept her safe had it not been for that single, uncontrollable sob. He reached the chair, and swung about in front of it. And again he laughed. That laugh was a hideous, hissing whisper, more fearful than any growl. An arm lashed out, its hand clutching...
Elise jerked backward, with the newly found small strength that had returned to her, and the talon that had aimed to rip her throat caught in the neckline of her frock instead. It ripped the fabric, tearing it away from the girl's gleaming skin, exposing the swelling curves of one dimpled breast...
The white-furred monk was suddenly motionless. Elise felt his inscrutable gaze on her, devouring her, sliding over her body, that of it which was exposed and that which seductively was still half-concealed. Clearly as though he had spoken she knew the thoughts in its brain.
And then the beast lashed out again. One hot palm clamped over her lips to stifle a beginning scream. The other arm slid around her waist, pulled her against the bristling, repulsive body. The gagging hand slid away and a lipless, hairy face nuzzled her lips.
Somewhere, far off, there was the sound of thumping footfalls. Were Serge and Rayne coming, in time to save her? Would they get here in time?
The girl's small fists beat frantically on the monstrous, noisome chest against which she was hugged. Waves of repulsion shuddered through her. Overpowering even her terror was the sense of defilement with which the thing's touch sickened her.
His body was no longer pressed tight to hers. She had won. The fury of her defense had driven him away from her, and gained for her the few moments time needed for rescuers to reach the living room. The sound of their slow footfalls were nearer. They were in the hall...
The gagging hand slapped across her mouth again.
The Monk chuckled. He slung her effortlessly up from the floor, swung around, and in a single lightning-like surge of movement was out through the window, was dropping lightly to the ground. Elise dangled from his arms like a broken puppet, knowing it was useless to attempt to call out, useless to attempt to struggle. The white thing was carrying her off to his lair in the woods...
But Elise's captor was not headed for the woods. He was loping around the house, keeping close to the foundations. He went around a corner, and abruptly he was climbing. Straight up the rugged stone wall he climbed, over a decorative ledge...
The ledge was not wholly ornamental. It protruded from the wall just sufficiently to hide from below an aperture in the stone, a window Elise had not known was there. Her captor thrust her through that window, held her suspended while he squirmed in after her. They dropped into a dim glimmer of light.
This was a room, narrow but long. A lamp on a table gave it light. There was a padlocked cupboard, a chair. The further end was closed off by a ceiling-high partition of steel bars.
And behind that cell-like wall Elise could see in that one fearful glance a bed. A tousled bed, and on it—was it joy or consternation that burst in a white glare of fire within her brain—on that bed lay Naomi, stark naked.
Elise twisted about, realizing for the first time that the beast no longer held her. He was crouched against the wall opposite that through which they had entered. He seemed to be listening.
The scarred, unfinished wood of that wall told the girl what it was. The inner side of the panel in the hall! She was in the secret room, at last...
A bundle of rags at the thing's feet moved. A bony hand flung out from it in a spasmodic, involuntary movement. A wisp of fabric fluttered away from a cadaverous face—Nikita's face!
Something clinked on the floor, falling out of the old woman's clothing. A key! The clink jerked the white monk around. He bent swiftly, snatched up the key. He swayed for a moment, his faceless visage turning, now to the panel, now to Elise, now to the bars that intervened between him and the nude, unconscious form of the girl for whom Elise had searched so long. Back and forth, back and forth, as though the possession of the key he clutched in his blood stained claw enforced upon him the necessity for some decision with which his mind could not cope.
Elise knew what the dilemma was with which the white-haired thing struggled.
She was here, ready to his hand, to his lust. The other was behind the bars, to get at her he must go there, must fit the key into its lock. But it was the other, Naomi, who had first inflamed him.
He seemed suddenly to come to a decision. He loped, with that uncannily soundless shuffle of his, down the length of the room. His hand fumbled at the lock in the cell door, and metal clinked against metal as he struggled to fit it in.
Elise's desperate glance darted about the chamber, searching for a weapon. There was none. And if there had been, with her feeble strength, what good would it have done?
But she had a weapon. Woman's strength. Her body.
"Look," Elise screamed. "Look at me." With a single frantic tug of her shaking hands she tore from herself what little clothing there was left to cover her. "Look."
The beast twisted about, growling.
She stood there, a white, flowerlike glow in the dimness, her arms outstretched to him, every inch, every luscious inch of her perfect body a separate seduction. The very nausea that pulsed within her, the very revulsion which drove the blood from the surfaces of her sculptured figure, to leave it pallid and gleaming, made her ineffably, ineluctably desirable.
"Come to me," she whispered. "Come."
And he was coming. Slowly, as if to tantalize with anticipation his boiling blood, as if to savor to the last poignant drop the lust that drove him, the white beast came.
Five feet remained between them, four. His breath reached Elise, the leprous stench of his body, the putrescent odor of a sepulcher. Three feet... Two. "God forgive me. God..."
"Panya!" Nikita's screech was a cry from hell itself! The old woman was somehow on her feet, was lurching between them. "No. No!" There was a whip in her hand. It lashed out.
A roar of rage, bestial, overwhelming, blasted from the beast. He leaped. His claws fastened on the screaming old woman. She whirled aloft. Smashed sickeningly against the stone wall under the window—became a pulped, red horror...
Elise was in the monk's arms. His bristles rasped her skin. His harsh palms stroked her flanks...
The world exploded in a splintering crash, in a chaos of shouting voices, of smacking blows. Elise was flung out of the maelstrom, hurled against the wall, slid unnoticed to the ground. Somewhere near her a woman screamed, shrilly, unendingly. Pavel's face appeared out of the mad tumult that whirled in the center of the room. Hugh's. They were obliterated by the silvery hair of the Devil's Monk.
Suddenly Serge Gornoff reeled out of the whirlwind, his chest bare, gory, his countenance a writhing mask of satanic fury. He bent, snatched up a long, ragged splinter of wood from the shattered panel, leaped in at the combatants, leaped out again.
The wood in his hand dripped blood that spattered on the stone floor of the secret room. There was sudden silence in the chamber, a silence that hurt. The swaying mass split. Pavel and Hugh staggered back from it. The white monk lay, a shuddering, writhing, incredible form, on the floor. His robe was torn from him and his chest was no longer white, but a mass of matted, gory hair.
"Nikolai! Nikolai!" Serge Gornoff was on his knees beside the dead monster. He was lifting the shaggy head in straining arms. "Nikolai." The name was a heartbroken cry wrenched out of a strong man's soul by unutterable grief. "I had to—do it."
Somehow, in that moment, the monk's head was no longer faceless. Elise saw that the eyes, the features, had been obscured by a wiry, overgrown beard, by hair that had grown straggly and wild to fall down over his forehead and meet that beard.
"Elly. Elly." Naomi's voice. "Get me out of here."
The key was still in the lock. It was Elise who first got to the door, who turned the key. Naomi, quivering, shuddering as though never again she would be free of hysterics, was in her sister's arms.
"Elly. It was awful. He caught me in the kitchen and carried me into this room. The old woman saved me. She was in here and she made him let me go. She locked me in here. Then I heard you calling me, and that other door started to open, and she jumped out. He tried to get at me then, and he couldn't. But he was so maddened by his efforts that he knocked her out and I thought he would get the key from her. Some noise outside distracted him, he listened at the panel, and then went out.
"A little while later I saw him push you in at the window. I fainted then... Who is he, Elly? What is he?"
"Yes, Gornoff. It's about time you explained that to us," Hugh Rayne rasped, his face white, strained.
Serge looked up, his countenance was like a bed of burned out ashes from which the fire had died. "My brother," he said simply. "Baron Nikolai Gornoff. The man who fired the shot that killed Rasputin."
"But—but I don't understand..."
"Pavel drove the car in which Nikolai fled from the scene of his crime. He brought Nikolai to me, white-haired, a raving maniac. The book—I showed you outside—was clutched in his arms.
"I hid him in our castle till the Bolshevist uprising forced me to flee. I brought him here then, with Pavel and Nikita, smuggled him into the country as the alien Chinese are smuggled. He became violent, but I had to keep him hidden. If I had revealed his presence, then we should both have been deported to Russia, and you know what fate we should have encountered. The only one he would let enter his cell was Nikita, but he wouldn't allow her to cut his hair. He had the idea that Rasputin's soul had entered his body, that he must take revenge on everyone else for that assassination of which he himself was guilty.
"I tried every way I could learn to cure him. One way was treatment with a certain asphyxiating gas. It must have been an ampoule of that which he used to knock the two of us out. When May Bailey was attacked I knew that somehow Nikolai had gotten loose. Even then, even in spite of all the terrible things he did, I tried to keep the secret. I must have been—a little mad myself by then."
"But I can't understand how he got free."
"Nikita." It was Pavel who spoke. "Nikita. The panya, the mistress, struck her. She do it—for get even."
"But it was she who saved me at the last," Elise broke in. "Pavel—I don't understand."
"She not save you," the Russian said slowly, painfully. "She save the—how you say—honor of the House of Gornoff."
Extract from the Flood Edition of the Waterville Evening
printed on the presses of the Haynesburg Daily Clarion:
It was learned this morning that a party of four who were to be the week-end guests of Mr. and Mrs. Serge Gornoff at their home on Phantom Island were caught by the flood on the bridge to that island and swept away. They were Mr. and Mrs. Walter Falk, May Bailey and Richard Tyler, all of this city. Their bodies were recovered, so smashed by the debris carried down on the face of the freshet that they were identified only with difficulty.
Miss Naomi Wilson, sister of Mrs. Gornoff, was miraculously able to reach shore, and was rescued from a tree to which she was clinging by Mr. Hugh Rayne, of Waterville, who was to have been one of the party but was delayed on business and managed to reach the island only with great difficulty later in the evening. A relieving touch is given to the tragedy by the announcement of the engagement of the two young people to be married.
After the solemnization of the ceremony, which will be private, the Gornoffs and the Raynes plan to take up their abode on the mainland.
Far better, that pitifully tragic lie which blamed the flood—than that the whole ghastly truth be published for the world to read...
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