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Title: Monster at Play Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304681h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Dec 2015 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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In the dark cellar beneath the gloomy mansion of the Waynes was quartered a monstrous thing, tiny yet horrible...At night Rose Lynn heard it scampering, childlike, through the halls—and shuddered. But not until she saw the mangled bodies of its victims did she know how gruesome was its play—how hideous were the fiendish joys it sought...
TINY in the great four-poster bed, Rose Lynn sat bolt upright and hugged her knees to firm, round breasts. She stared into wavering, uncertain shadows magnifying the expanse of the spacious bedchamber, and in the sea-tinted depths of her wide eyes dread lurked. The heavy coverlet under which she cringed could not shut out the chill of fear shaking her with the faintest of tremors. Her red lips quivered to shallow, affrighted breathing.
A sound had mingled with the first flash of her startled awakening. A swift patter of wee footsteps rattling into stillness. Such a small patter as a child might have made, scampering down the long, dark corridor outside. A child? In this gloomy structure which no child had entered for forty years? What then? What could possibly have fumbled at her door and whisked away with an eerie glee in the tap-tap-tap of its retreat, a mischievousness strangely sinister?
Rose's eyes ached, and the manifold small noises of the country night were an ominous silence to her straining ears. She heard the sough of wind through foliage, the shrill of nocturnal insects, the distant, melancholy wail of a train. And within the house there was only the crackle of drying beams and the rattle of ancient plaster dribbling inside the walls.
The girl's lips twisted. "I dreamed it," she whispered. "It was only a dream. I ought to forget it and go to sleep." If she slid down under the blankets and forced herself to sleep, in the morning black Isaiah would rap on her door as always and mumble his toothless, "Seben o'clock, missie, an' b'eakfas' am ready." She would laugh at her scare then, when the sunshine streamed through the mullioned window, and she would tell Miss Wayne about it, and perhaps the dear old lady would pat her hand with her own fragile, almost transparent fingers, and say, "My dear. This gloomy house is no place for your fresh youth; it is cruel of me to keep you here."
"Cruel!" Rose forced herself to continue the imagined talk, seeking thus to win her mind from the terror that numbed it. "What would I do if I didn't have this job? I'd starve. And besides, you have been so sweet and kind I feel more like a niece than a paid companion. I—"
Her fingers tightened on the quilt edge. From somewhere beyond the closed mystery of her door, an eerie laugh had sounded—distant, but high-pitched like a child's! The stillness quenched it at once, but a pulse beat in the girl's temple now with a dull thumping, and her mouth was dry. Someone stirred in the sleeping house, some alien presence moved.
Who could it be? Was Loretta Wayne, prim, aristocratic spinstress, trotting her spindly shanks about on some midnight adventure? Despite her unease the corners of Rose's eyes crinkled with fugitive humor at the whimsy. Or was it Loretta's brother, Roger Wayne—tall, austere, black hair silvered at the temples above the chiseled dignity of his patrician countenance? Incredible! But there was no one else in the desolate, crumbling mansion. There should be no one else.
The girl's head jerked. There were the pattering footfalls again—fainter now and farther off, but distinct as the tick of the watch under her pillow. Her throat cords tautened to a scream. She gulped it down, remembering the waxen pallor of her mistress' skin that told of a heart all too fragile. A sudden fright...
Oh, why didn't that scampering stop? It was the patter of leaves blown against a window-pane, of pebbles rattling on the roof. It was nothing, nothing at all. That creak!—? That was a step on the staircase at the end of the hall, the third step from the top. No doubt now. No doubt at all that some alien presence was in the house, that someone was on those stairs.
Rose could not ignore this thing, yet she dared not call for help. Her lips tightened. She slid from the bed, stood swaying, nerving herself, while moonlight silhouetted the clean lines of her young body through the sheerness of her nightdress. She whimpered, fisted small hands, moved. Even the whisper of her bare feet on worn carpeting was somehow a sibilant warning of menace...
She got to the door, got through. The knob was pulled from her stiff fingers by a sudden puff of cold air. The door thudded shut, and blackness engulfed Rose, impenetrable dark. Her nostrils clogged with the mustiness of the ancient corridor through which trailed elusive wisps of fragrance, of scent and powder and vanished flowers of a long ago when once the moribund mansion was aglow with gayety and light laughter.
She stood taut, poised, listening for a repetition of the noises that had brought her out of sleep to fear. Momentarily the silence was absolute. Then her veins were a network of ice and her scalp was a tight cap squeezing her skull.
The stillness had been broken, not by the patter of small feet that she had heard before, but by a voice. A thin, thread-like voice prattling unintelligibly, somewhere in the dark. A babbling voice curiously infantile, lisping the monologue of a child at solitary play. An endearing sound in a sun-filled nursery—but a sound fraught with marrow-melting horror in the midnight murk of this moldering mansion. A sound that struck all power to move from the listening girl's limbs and froze her to nightmare rigidity that wrenched a moan from her tight throat...
The pattering recommenced; the third stair creaked again, and little feet scampered toward her through the hall's lightlessness! Rose's brain flashed a frantic message to unresponsive muscles, and something thudded against her knees, toppling her. As she fell her outflung arm brushed a face in the dark, a damp and coldly clammy face not two feet from the floor! Hands were on her cheek, her breast. Hot hands stroked down her side. Hands hot and harsh through the gossamer silk wrung a scream from her.
Somewhere a door slammed. "What is it?" Loretta Wayne shrilled. "Rose!"
Then the hands were gone, and the shaggy body that had pressed close to hers where she had fallen was gone. From somewhere nearby Roger Wayne said, "All right, Loretta. I'll see to it." His tones were measured, calm, as always. "Don't excite yourself."
The dark swirled about Rose. She fought to hold it steady as Wayne's solicitude recalled to her his sister's weakness, and she managed to call out, "A dream, Miss Wayne. I had a nightmare." Then everything slid into swirling blackness that seemed to lift her in strong arms...
She lay on her bed once more, the blankets warm about her. A lamp's soft yellow centered its nimbus about the chest of drawers and edged Roger Wayne's ascetic profile with a line of light. In all the sudden alarm he characteristically had contrived to don a dark dressing-gown buttoning close to his neck, and it gave him the appearance of a medieval monk. But a brother of a fighting order—for his stiff, ramrod erectness, never relaxed, was that of a soldier trained for years.
"Oh," Rose gasped. "I must have fainted."
The man's thin lips moved in a slow smile. "You did, my dear. Fainted dead away. I had to carry you in here. The hall was draughty, and we cannot afford to have you taking cold."
The commingling of grave courtesy and kindliness in his tone was typical of the fortnight since she had come here. In the crumbling decay of the ancient mansion Roger Wayne maintained, somehow pathetically, the courtliness of more spacious days. He was an aristocrat, and neither the loss of fortune nor the mark of time could change his ways.
"It was awfully silly of me to faint." The words slid from Rose's cold lips, and she looked up at his looming figure, his shadowed countenance, waiting for the inevitable question as to what had brought that scream of terror from her and robbed her of consciousness. It did not come. Wayne stood there, silent and grave, and in his eyes there brooded a troubled murkiness, the faint hint of some hidden pain. Tonight it was more alive, more definite than it had ever been.
At last he said, "You can sleep now." That was all. "Sleep?"
He turned away. His slender, blue-veined hand picked up the lamp, and suddenly the light was gone. Protest vibrated in the girl's throat, but before she could voice it the man was gone, the door shut behind him. She was alone with the silver spray of moonlight in the dim room, and the shuddersome recollection of burning, avid hands desecrating her body, of the embrace of a malformed, horribly small frame against hers. Fear clutched her.
The fear seeped away; for the thump, thump of Roger Wayne's stiff walk had not faded but continued in a measured pacing just outside her door. Thump, thump, thump. Back and forth. Back and forth. He had told her to sleep, but there would be no sleep for him tonight. Thump. Thump. Thump. He was mounting sentry-go, guarding her against the unacknowledged horror that stalked his house.
In the morning there was nothing at all to remind Rose of her terror in the night, nothing in her great sunny room, nor in the long, door-walled corridor, nor in the crisp, white breakfast table set in the wide embrasure of a light-filled window. Nothing—save Roger Wayne's red-rimmed, sleepless eyes, opposite her, and the covert, almost desperate appeal in them for her silence. When she took Loretta's tray upstairs she saw the same appeal in the little old lady's birdlike face, grey against the pillow, and the same avoidance of any reference to what must have been foremost in all their thoughts.
What was it? What secret did the house conceal that had sapped its vitality, that had withdrawn these two from the world and laid upon them a pall of dread? Once more Rose's brain tightened with uneasy fear as she sensed a conspiracy of silence about her, a cabal in which even the bent old Isaiah was included. That which they hid from her was evil, they knew that it was evil and that its menace was now directed against her. Wayne's sentry-go last night was evidence of that. But they dared not warn her of its nature. They would only try to protect her from it, to the best of their ability. And how effective could that protection be—the best of a semi-invalid woman, a shambling Negro, a man well past his prime?
Miss Wayne nipped a bit of toast, sipped the final drops of coffee from a cup whose texture was that of a milky bubble. "I shall not trouble you to read to me this morning, my dear. The doctor is coming—you are free till after lunch."
There it was again, another phase of the mystery that was never obtrusive but always in evidence in the queer ways of this queer place. Twice or three times before it had happened. Loretta would announce the practitioner's impending call and tell Rose that her time was her own. Then Wayne would casually, quite casually, find something for the girl to do, something that would take her out of the house. Out of sight of the house...
Now, closing the door with the tray of emptied dishes on her hand, she would have been surprised not to have found him stumping up the stairs with that curiously stiff gait of his, not to have heard him say, with his humorless smile, "Oh, Miss Lynn...I wonder if I may trespass on your good nature."
This time Rose had to resist the flicker of an impulse to refuse. "Of course. Miss Wayne does not need me till after luncheon. What is it?"
"This letter." He held it out to her. "It came in the morning post and I want it returned at once to the sender, unopened. This is Saturday and if it doesn't make the noon mail out of Lordville it will have to wait till Monday. That is too long for the whippersnapper to think I have read one of his scrawls."
Rose took the white envelope, glanced at it, wondered if her flush was visible to Wayne as she read the sender's name. Philip T. Horn. But she knew her voice was cool, steady. "I'll take it down for you. As soon as I give these to Isaiah."
"Thank you. I—"
"But will you be very angry," she added hurriedly, "if I ask you something?" A saucer clinked against the tray rim as her arm trembled.
Wayne seemed puzzled. "Angry?"
"Please don't be. Mr. Wayne? Why are you so bitter against your nephew? Why do you refuse to have anything to do with him? Miss Loretta tells me you have never seen him."
His face took on the immobility of marble; his eyes were dark flame. The response dripped slowly from his white lips: "I have no nephew."
"But Philip Horn is your sister's son. He—"
White spots showed along the knuckles of Wayne's hand as his fingers dug into the banister. "Miss Lynn, you will not mention that name again, nor refer to the subject. Loretta is my only sister. The only sister I ever had. Do you understand?"
"You—" Rose checked herself as the hot glare in his eyes beat her down. "I—I understand. Please forget what I said."
Suddenly as it had come, the icy wrath was gone from the man's face. "You'll take care of the letter?"
"At once." Something like a tear trembled on Rose's eyelash as she started down, passing Wayne. She wished...
The half-formed thought was cut short by a muffled exclamation, a thud, behind her. She whirled. Wayne was sprawled on the landing, a frayed carpet-edge still caught in his heel.
"Oh!" The girl rid herself of the tray in a lithe motion, leaped to help him.
"Get away!" Wayne squealed, and struck at her hand. "Let me alone!" His countenance was suffused with purple, his lip curled in a sudden, astounding snarl! "I don't need help. I don't want it." He was on his back. His arms were cramped to acute, unnatural angles; his hands were hooked, were claw-like. His legs trailed down the stairs with a curious helplessness.
Half-stooped to him, Rose froze, and the short hairs at the nape of her neck bristled with a queer repugnance.
"Get away!" the strangely enraged man spat once more. The virulence of his command jerked the girl upright, sent her fleeing down the staircase, through the beamed gloom of the entrance hall, into the brick-walled kitchen. Isaiah's face was a black moon against ranged rows of burnished copper pots. He put a hand out to her, halted her wild flight.
"What's the matteh?" the Negro demanded. "Whut's happened, missie?"
The pound of her heart shook Rose's small frame. "Oh, Isaiah. Mr. Wayne fell, and...and..."
"Yoh done tried he'p him git up." The black's eyes were blue-white marbles, rolling frenziedly. "Youh didn't ought to do that. He doan lak it nohow."
"But why, Isaiah?" The words quivered. "Why?"
Abruptly there was something electric in the air of the vaulted, dim kitchen. A grey film dulled the dark gloss of the old servant's skin. His hand on her arm was trembling and, queerly enough, there was the same appeal and dread, in Isaiah's eyes as had been in Wayne's this morning.
His protuberant mouth moved, and Rose tensed. Then he spoke. "Doan ask, missie. Doan ask no queshuns 'bout anything yoh see heah. But git out. Doan sleep anotheh night in this yer house."
Rose stopped as the thump, thump of Roger Wayne's stiff-legged walk sounded from the foyer. "Miss Lynn," he called. "Miss Lynn."
She turned, and he was in the doorway. "Miss Lynn. I want to speak to you."
There was dust on his black velvet smoking-jacket, and his antiquated stock of lustrous black silk was slightly askew, but he was his dignified self again. His eyes slid momentarily to the Negro. Rose fancied she saw the flicker of a signal pass between master and servant, was aware that Isaiah had shambled through the swinging door into the dining-room and that she was alone with Wayne.
A tiny muscle twitched in her cheek. "What is it?"
The corner of Wayne's mouth quirked. "I wish to apologize for my actions just now. My rudeness was—uncalled for."
The girl's brows arched, and she straightened with unconscious hauteur. Inexplicably, his bearing obliterated the difference between them of age and position, and she was aware that some obscure importance hinged for him on her reception of his proffered amends.
His hand made a gesture toward her, somehow pathetic. "You—you will not leave us? You have done Loretta so much good. We—she needs you. You have brought into this house the first sunshine that has lightened its gloom for more years than I care to think."
In someone else, in more usual surroundings, the speech would have been stagy, mawkish. But from him, in this place, it was quite natural, quite sincere. Rose recalled that this man, well past his prime, had given up his sleep to protect her, and her indignation, her fear of him gave way to a sudden, inexplicable pity.
Impulsive words spoke themselves for her. "Leave! Of course not. I'll stay as long as you need me."
Something splintered in the rigid lines of his face, and momentarily it was flabby, quivering, like that of a frightened old man's. Then it firmed again, and he was nodding gravely. "Thank you. You are very good to us."
Rose almost said something then that afterward she would have regretted. But she changed it to, "No, I'm not. But if I'm to get this letter mailed in time..."
It was only later she realized Wayne had apologized for his strange actions at the head of the stairs, but had not explained them...
ROSE hurried through the tangle of neglected garden sloping from before the old house, the letter that had served as excuse to send her away conspicuously in her hand. She reached the rutted road winding down the hillside to the village, strode purposefully along it. She passed the unkempt, grassy descent that once had been the proud Wayne lawn. Woods came up to the trail edge on either side and she was walking through a long green tunnel, damp and dark and shadowy.
From ahead came the rattle-bang of a battered flivver. Its crumpled, brassy nose poked into sight around a curve and from its wheel a gaunt-faced, straggly-bearded man let his eyes stray over her with a curiously impersonal appraisal. Bleared eyes they were, rheumy and tired as if they had looked too often on scenes it is not good for the soul of man to see. The car passed and Rose saw on the seat beside its driver a long, narrow satchel of once-black leather. This then was Dr. Hamilton, about whose calls at the Wayne mansion were things she must not know.
She kept going till a glance over her shoulder told her the physician could no longer see her. Then she darted to the roadside, scooped a hole in the soft dirt, buried the letter, marked the spot with a cairn of three stones. This done she plunged into the thicket.
Shadows moved queerly in the thick foliage. Little things scuttered away from the girl's advance. Low-hanging branches whipped across her face and brambles tore the sheer silk of her hose. But in minutes she was holding aside a leafy screen of rank, untended vines and peering through the aperture at the back of the house she had quitted not twenty minutes before.
The windows were blank in the weathered facade at which she looked. She could see into the kitchen; there was no sign of Isaiah. Loretta's room was to the front. Undoubtedly her brother would be there, with the doctor. The Negro was the only one she need worry about.
Rose bit her lip, darted across the yard, up the steps of the little pantry porch. A skewed screen door came open and the paintless wood panel behind it. Breath whistled between her lips. There was another door between her and the kitchen proper, and beyond it the entrance foyer and the little clothes-closet in the stairwell between the steps to the cellar and those to the upper floor. If she could get there unseen she would be safe.
From beyond there came a rumble of voices, but nearby there was no sound. Rose's throat was dry as she got a trembling hand on a doorknob, twisted it. What if they caught her here, what explanation could she give?
There was no one in the kitchen; she flitted across its stone floor soundlessly, was out in the hall. From upstairs came a door-slam; footsteps pounded in the corridor. But already she was inside the little closet, pressed back behind dusty, forgotten garments. From the back of her hiding-place a slit of light was visible, between sill and edge of the door she had not dared to close tightly.
Descending footfalls pounded over her head. She was too late. The doctor was leaving, and she had learned nothing.
A dark form flitted across her view-slit, and another. Queer. They had not gone to the front door, they were going back to the kitchen.
No. Keys rattled, a lock grated, and the footsteps sounded again on stairs beneath her. They were going down into the cellar!
She told herself it was silly to be suddenly so frightened, so apprehensive. Wine is kept in the cellars. They had gone down to open a bottle, to drink together. That was all. Now was her chance to get out. But she could not nerve herself to move. She crouched against the back of the closet and whimpered under her breath;
In God's name, what was that scuttering beneath her feet, that quick pattering as if some small thing were darting about? She heard Wayne's voice, harsh, guttural, could not make out what he said. But the anguish of his tone struck an answering chord in her own breast.
Another rasping voice responded. Abruptly the scuttering stopped, and someone down there screamed. The sound knifed into Rose's brain. It gave way then to a horrible, meaningful scuffle. That ended in a crackling snap like the smack of a whip on quivering flesh, and piercing shrieks of torment from below were a scarlet rivulet through the silence.
Quite suddenly, the screams had stopped, and there were only fading moans that died to nothingness. Rose realized that she had slid down to the floor of the little space where she was hid, and that somehow the closet door had opened still farther, so that she had a clearer view of the passage outside.
There were no moans any longer, and feet were running up the stairs. One pair of feet! They reached the upper floor, pounded past. Rose glimpsed the straggly beard, the seamed countenance of the doctor. The outer door creaked open, thudded shut. From outside came the muffled machination of the Ford's starting, and the roar of its departure.
Rose lay still on the floor of the closet, and horror shook her. For there had been blood on the doctor's hand, and on his cheek. He had run out of the house as one possessed, and Roger Wayne had not come out of the cellar. What had happened? Oh God! What had happened in the basement beneath her?
Something was snarling now down there, was making little mumbling noises that rippled her spine with dread. Noises like some fierce beast mouthing its kill. Rose pushed at the floor with gelid hands. Her throat tightened, was torn by a stifled scream. The pattering was coming up the cellar stairs! Terror rocked the girl. She moaned, perked down sleazy black cloth to hide her from what had been imprisoned in the cellar and had escaped.
It was on the landing. It was in the passage outside, was pattering by. No. Oh God! No! It had stopped, right outside her cubicle! Rose could hear it sniff, like a dog catching a strange scent.
Seconds dragged into an eternity of quivering, soul-shaking fear. The girl cringed beneath the dusty cloth she had pulled down over her, and her skin crawled as the Thing whimpered avidly. Then that with which she had fatuously thought to conceal herself twitched, started to move off her with an ominous, slow sureness.
She squirmed, trying to get away. But the cloth pulled away, and her bulging eyes saw horror.
It was a tiny figure that leaned in to her, its malformed, grotesque body not reaching as high as the knob on the door. Its short legs were straight, kneeless. Eyes of red flame glowed from a head whose high dome was hairless. A blue-lipped mouth twisted and smirked like that of an idiot child snatching for a brightly colored toy it would destroy. And a clawed, trembling hand reached out for her. It closed around her ankle, and tugged fiercely to drag her from her refuge.
Rose's hands flung out, clutched at fabric that ripped and tore away as the gargoylesque manikin dragged her inexorably to it. The Thing laughed, and its laugh was the shrill meaningless laugh of a child—or a madman. Despair was molten lead in her veins, sliced her breast with its searing fangs. She closed her eyes against the grisly visage peering avidly at her. And suddenly the laughter stopped, and the Thing whimpered, and it was not pulling her to it any longer.
The girl forced rigid eyelids open. The dwarf's head, huge by contrast to its minuscule torso, was canted sidewise. Its rubescent eyes had slid to slitted corners, as if some untoward sound had distracted it. Through the pounding of her own heart, Rose heard now the thud of something soft on wood, measured, persistent. And a muffled voice was shouting, from what seemed an immense distance.
"Yassah." That was Isaiah, upstairs. "Yassah. Coming. Coming." His footfalls were a hurried shambling on the risers overhead.
Animation faded from the monster's grotesque countenance. Something like fear crept into its eyes, and crafty cunning. As the sound of the Negro's descent reached the hallway floor it freed Rose's ankle. It twisted, was gone, scuttering to the cellar door, down into the mysterious depths of the basement.
At that instant Rose heard the hinges of the outer portal squeak open, realized the thudding that apparently had saved her had been a pounding on that great door. She heard Isaiah's "Yassah, whut is it?" Heard vibrant, anxious tones in response: "Is anything the matter here?"
"Mattuh? No sah. They ain't nothin..."
Rose was pulling herself up from the closet floor, aquiver with a sudden, wild surmise. That voice!
"I was passing on the road and I thought I heard screams. Guess I was wrong."
The girl tumbled out of the cubicle, reeled into the passageway and twisted toward the front. Isaiah's brown hand was on the knob of the massive door, and his bent figure was stubborn in the opening. But over his woolly pate the sun spotlighted the strong lines of a bronzed face, black eyes narrowed with speculation. Sound surged to Rose's throat, but a larynx torn by unuttered screams refused to function. Her cry was only a rasping, inaudible sound.
"Yoh was wrong. Yassuh." Isaiah was closing the door. The young man stood irresolutely. In another moment...
She couldn't get to the door in time; in the dimness here he could not see her. Trying to move she staggered, flung out a hand to save herself, felt the edge of a picture-frame on the wall. She gripped it and it crashed down.
Isaiah jerked around to the sudden sound; but the young man shoved past.
Rose thrust out a shaking hand to him. She found voice. "Ted! Oh Ted!"
Strong arms were around her, were holding her close to rough cloth; the familiar odor of tweed and tobacco smoke was in her nostrils. "Rose! Something did—What have they done to you?"
"Ted! How did you come here? How...?"
"I was worried about you, decided to come out. As I came up the road I heard someone screaming..."
"Ted!" Rose squirmed from his embrace. She twisted to the cellar door, open now, revealing a slit of blackness. "Down there. Mr. Wayne. Something dreadful's happened to him down there!"
The young man took a step toward that door, his mouth tightening grimly. But with surprising agility Isaiah was around them both, was barring the way, his arms extended from wall to wall of the narrow passage. His face was no longer brown, but a livid, leaden grey.
"Nuthin's happened to Mistuh Wayne;" he said. "Nuthin'?"
"It was he screaming." Rose pushed at the old Negro; but some surprising, spasmodic strength in his old frame made him rocklike. "Ted! It was he who screamed. He's hurt, killed..."
Muscles lumped along Ted's jaw. "Let me pass. Let me by, or—"
"No," the Negro yammered. "Yoh kaint go down in that basement. Yoh kaint."
"Who says I can't!" The young man's hand fisted.
"I do." Like a gust of icy rain Roger Wayne's voice sprayed into the hall. He was standing in the cellar doorway, his face a frozen, expressionless mask. Not a jot of his antiquated but meticulous clothing was disturbed, not a filament of his hair misplaced. He pulled the door to behind him, locked it with a large iron key that was rock-steady in his hand. Then he turned again, lifted bushy grey eyebrows. "What is going on here?"
"Mr. Wayne!" Rose's exclamation was a mere breath. "I thought you—"
His eyes shifted to her, and they were glassy, unfathomable. "I thought you were on the way to Lordville, Miss Lynn. How do you happen to be here?"
The attack took Rose unawares. "I—I..." she stammered. "I came back to—to get my pocketbook. I wanted to buy something." She bit her lip. Why offer so inane an excuse for her presence? He would not for a minute believe it.
But oddly enough, he did—or at least he did not challenge it. He seemed to have dismissed her from his mind, was looking at Ted. "And you, sir. May I be permitted to inquire why you have taken it upon yourself to threaten my servant and search my house?"
White spots showed either side of the young man's nostrils; his eyes flashed and his jaw thrust forward belligerently. Rose put a hand on his arm. She spoke hurriedly, to forestall the other's reply. "Ted knew I was here, and came out to visit me. He thought he heard someone screaming in here, and wanted to help. He was afraid for me. He—he is my fiancÚ."
"Your—fiancÚ," Wayne repeated. The two words dripped from his thin lips into a sudden, queer silence. Then he was saying, as though the situation were the most ordinary in the world, "You are very fortunate. May I offer an old man's congratulations?"
Somehow the tenseness broke. Roger Wayne's grey hand was gripping Ted's sun-tanned fingers and the three were moving toward the arched entrance door—while Isaiah, at a nod from his master, fumbled in a cellarette for a fat-bellied decanter and three small glasses.
"My sister will never forgive me if I let you go without her meeting you," Wayne said. "You must lunch with us, spend the afternoon."
Some peculiar magic in his mannered cordiality, some strange aura of dominance, pulled a curtain over the weird events of the preceding half-hour, made of its screaming horror something artificial, a brief episode on the stage of a theater, utterly unreal. The trio clinked glasses and drank. The black disappeared into the purlieus of his kitchen. Then Rose excused herself, saying, "Miss Wayne will be waiting for me to help her get ready to come down."
She climbed slowly through the dim half-light of the graceful stairs. The murmur of the men's voices came up to her, and the clink of their glasses. Yesterday she would have been overjoyed, jubilant, at the turn of events, at Ted's presence in this house and his friendly reception by Wayne. But now, freed momentarily from the tall man's almost hypnotic influence, her bewildered senses swirled around full cycle to fear again, and a nameless dread. Grotesquely, Roger Wayne played the gracious host while beneath his feet gruesome horror dwelt. How could he...?
The dwarf's contorted body, his hairless head rose up before Rose's memory. Good Lord! Twisted almost out of human semblance, there yet had been a macabre something in that face that was darkly familiar, as though she had seen it in some forgotten nightmare.
The image cleared in the girl's mind, and her blood ran cold as she realized what it was. Malformed, hideous, horrible, it still resembled Roger Wayne and Loretta—resembled even more the age-darkened portrait of their father hanging over the drawing-room fireplace below!
That realization gave her a glimmer of the truth, and sudden pity for the two old people welled up in her once more. Under Wayne's Old World dignity, under Loretta's aristocratic frailness, bubbled a cauldron of such distress as few are called upon to endure. The weird game they had played through the lonely, tortured years showed clear to her. Too clear. She knew that inexorably she had been caught up into that game, she and Ted, knew they were committed to play it to the end.
Quivering, her skin acrawl with the dreadful new knowledge that had come to her, Rose reached the upper landing and darted into her room for a quick change, a dash of cold water on her face, a hasty straightening of her tumbled hair. Then she was with the old lady, was smiling with a forced gayety as she told her of Ted's arrival and their engagement. Loretta's wan excitement, the quick, cold peck of her fleshless lips, her pale, transparent eagerness to descend brought tears to the girl's eyes she was at pains to conceal. So much, so terribly much, did the entrance of a little vicarious happiness mean in this house of infinite despair.
With quite obvious tact the Waynes had left the two lovers alone after a cheery lunch. Ted's expression had grown hard, his dark eyes sultry, as Rose had whispered to him the occurrences of the night and the terrible morning. "You can't stay here another night. I won't let you," he said. "Anything might happen. Pack and come back to town with me, at once."
The girl moved away from him, stiffened, her head erect. "No! I'm not going. They need me. Nothing will harm me. He won't let the—the—it harm me."
"He won't, eh? He didn't this morning, of course. If I hadn't knocked..."
"He didn't know I was in the house. He sent me away to keep me safe."
"It won't do, Rose. Maybe Wayne's doing his best, but the Thing might get loose from the cellar again, and then..."
The girl's small jaw set in a stubborn line. "I promised him I'd stay, and I won't break my promise. Oh, can't you understand, Ted? When I first came they never smiled, either of them. I'm sure they were going slowly mad. Why, when Mr. Wayne fell he went into a fit of almost maniacal rage just because I tried to help him get up. But I've done them a lot of good. He said so. He said I had brought sunshine into the house. They've been pathetically reliant on me, and I can't throw them over now. I can't, dear. It—it would be cruel."
Ted's arms were stiff at his sides, his hands fisted. His eyes took the girl's and for a long minute the shadowed drawing-room was taut with the silent battle between them. But it was the man's that finally fell away, defeated. "All right, then," he grunted. "If you stay, I do. I'm not leaving you alone here."
Rose's tight face broke into a smile, and her eyes danced. "Oh Ted, that will be wonderful! They'll love that. Loretta said to me, while you and her brother were talking over by the fireplace, that it seemed quite like old times with a young couple in the house. She was happier than I've ever seen her. Her cheeks positively had a little color in them."
"The old boy seemed pretty well pepped up too," Ted agreed. "He was telling me some stories of the parties they ran in this room in the old days, when they danced the minuet and drank punch. These gloomy old walls have seen some high times, and—"
"Wait," Rose interrupted. "Wait, Ted! I have an idea. Oh, I have a grand and gorgeous idea! We'll bring back those good old times for them. We'll make them happy for one night at least and give them something to remember! We'll have a party..."
"A party! What do you mean?"
"Just that. You'll get into your car and run back to town. Call up the Snells, and George and Mary Parker, and—Dickie Mays and his girl. George has an old portable radio with batteries—get that. And I'll give you a list of stuff to bring, cake and candy and olives, and all. I won't say a word, and..."
She was rattling on now, animatedly. "Please, Ted. Please. They'll love it. Please." The young man's mouth opened to protest; she closed it in the immemorial way of all lovers, her arms about his neck, her warm body close to his. "Don't you see how much pleasure it will give them? And..." She whispered in his ear.
What could a fellow do? "All right, pug-nose," Ted finally said, planting a kiss on the portion of her anatomy he mentioned. "I'll try to arrange it. But be careful, dear. Please be careful that nothing happens to you while I'm away."
"You're the dearest boy in all the world. And don't worry. I shall be perfectly all right."
But when she had waved good-bye and watched his roadster jounce away, Rose was not so sure of this. The sky had clouded, was a leaden grey vault lowering over the gaunt spread of the old house whose windows looked blindly at her as she came slowly back to it through the dreary garden. Her heart was suddenly cold with foreboding, and it seemed to her that the Wayne mansion cringed to some inescapable, imminent doom.
DARK sifted down early and with it a drizzle came, investing the already desolate house with a damp chill that penetrated to Rose's very bones. In the high-ceilinged, dusty drawing-room a flickering fire and a half-dozen tall, spectral candles fought unavailingly against the gloom. Windows were tight shut, heavy portieres hung across the wide-arched entrance to the room, and the air was heavily still, almost stagnant. But somehow the slender candle-flames wavered in a ghostly wind and black, weighty shadows slid along the floors and wall.
One black silhouette was like a huge spread-winged bird hovering over the great armchair in which Roger Wayne sat, austere visage red-edged by the firelight. Rose remembered a vampire bat she had seen once in some zoo. The shadow was like that, an indescribably foul thing whose hooked claws could cling, whose needle-pointed beak could suck the very life blood from the veins of its prey. She shuddered. It was the tangible embodiment of the evil secret that had drained the life blood from the House of Wayne, that had greyed this man's skin and his life, that had made of the sweet-faced old lady across the fireside from him a feeble, silently enduring invalid.
The crackle of the fire, the click, click of lone bone needles with which Loretta Wayne knitted an endless skein, the rustle of a page Rose turned as she pretended to read some wordy novel she had found about the house, were the only sounds to be heard. Yet she knew that Roger and Loretta Wayne were listening for something, listening for something they dreaded to hear. Evening after evening they had sat like this, under the shadow of fear, the chill of it in their veins.
Tonight it would be different. Rose smiled to herself. She had a secret of her own tonight, a happy one. Where were they? Why didn't they come? Surely they ought to be here by now.
From outside sounded a faraway thrumming. It came nearer, nearer. Wayne stirred. "Sounds like someone driving up the hill road. I wonder who?"
Rose closed her book, got up. "I wonder," she said disarmingly, and crossed to a window. She pulled aside a thick, dusty curtain, peered out. For an instant the blackness out there was impenetrable. Then motor-roar thundered, and a white light-beam scythed the darkness.
It flashed across the garden, straightened to the muddy road as a big closed car lurched to a stop.
Something darted across lush grass, vanished in the Stygian shadow of a spread-topped bush. Apprehension caught at Rose's throat. It was some animal, some disturbed animal, she told herself. But in the fleeting glimpse she had had of it it had seemed to run on two legs, to have been topped by the oval of a pale, almost human face.
The sedan's doors popped open, dark figures scrambled out. Rose twisted to the room behind her, saw Loretta looking at her inquiringly, saw that Wayne had risen, was starting toward her. "They're coming in here," Rose gasped. "I'll go see what they want."
Before any protest could be voiced she was across the room, was out in the hall, loosening the bolt of the big door.
The threshold was crowded with fur-coated figures, arms piled high with bundles. "Surprise!" someone yelled, and young voices chorused, "Surprise!" They swirled in and around her—Ted, plump little Mary Parker, her round face beaming. This lank six-and-a-half-footer was Lou Snell. He ducked his wet chin at a huge black box clamped to his chest and shouted, "For the love of Pete, Rose, tell me where to put this. It's crippling me."
Rose was frightened, now, at what she had done. But she played the part she had rehearsed. "Ted," she cried. "What is this all about? What on earth...?"
Her fiancÚ slid an arm around her waist, pulled her to him, and kissed her full on the lips. "Birthday surprise, dear. Forget it was your birthday?"
"I did. Oh Ted! You shouldn't have. This isn't my home. Mr. Wayne..."
She turned. Wayne was stock upright between the folds of the portieres into the drawing-room. His face was immobile, expressionless as ever, but his eyes were darting from one to the other of the milling young people. "Mr. Wayne! This is terrible. My friends..."
"Are quite welcome," Wayne said. "Please ask them to come in. Loretta and I will retire to our rooms and—"
"Not at all, sir." Ted had Rose's cold hand in his, and his face was lit by a boyish, appealing grin. "We want you with us. In fact, if you do not join us we shall fold our tents like the Arabs and silently steal away."
The little old lady came through the curtains and was at her brother's side, her eyes sparkling. "I'll tell you a secret," Ted continued. "Rose's birthday is just an excuse. I really brought these folks out here to give them the privilege I had this morning, of meeting a lady and gentleman of the old school. I wanted to give them a lesson in manners, you see sir, and the art of fine living."
"That's right!"—"We came to meet you, sir."—"We'll go away if you don't stay with us!" The exclamations popping from every hand did credit to Ted's coaching.
Wayne appeared irresolute. "I—I don't believe..." he started.
But his sister's thin, quavering voice interrupted him. "Roger. Of course they don't mean the nice things they're saying. But let's believe them. Let us take them at their word. It is so long since there have been young people in this house, and laughter. It will do me good, and you too, if we sit mouse-like in our corner by the fire and watch them."
"You dear!" Rose burst out. She darted to Loretta, threw her arms around the frail body, kissed the thin lips. "We're going to have a grand time. I know it."
CANDLES made a blaze of light in the old room, candles in graceful porcelain holders, multitudinous in the crystal chandelier overhead, but somehow the lilting strains of La Cucaracha were not at all out of place here, coming though they did from some electric lit night-club in New York. Dickie Mays, black-mustached, dapper, and his latest bobbed-hair flame, Freea Tainton, were doing an exhibition dance to the tune. George Parker was strumming an imaginary guitar before the old lady, who was smiling broadly and beating time to the music. While Lou Snell, with Mary's laughing assistance, was poking the fire to a higher blaze.
Ted danced Rose into a corner and stopped. "This is the first chance I've had to talk with you, you minx," he said. "How'd I do?"
"You've been grand," Rose answered. "But—" she bit her lip.
"But what? What's wrong?"
"I don't know." The girl repressed a shiver. "There isn't any reason for it, but I'm terribly nervous. Ted. Where's Lou's wife? Where's Ruth?"
"The blonde vamp?" Ted grinned. "Is that all that's worrying you? She's been prattling to Wayne all evening, and he finally took her out to the kitchen to show her how they used to make the famous family punch. He just called Isaiah out, probably to protect himself from her."
Rose's soft palm touched his lips, lightly. "Don't be vulgar." Then, "I'm silly. I know I am. Come, let's dance."
"A kiss first. Nobody's looking. Come on."
"Wait. There's Isaiah coming back." There was nothing to worry about, Rose assured herself, nothing at all. But she tensed as the Negro waddled through the door, staggering under the weight of a huge cut-glass bowl filled with a glinting, ruby liquid. A cheer went up. Roger Wayne stalked through behind him, carrying a tray of glasses and a great ladle. The portieres swished to behind him.
"Ted!" Rose whispered. "Ruth isn't with them."
"I suppose she—well, we had a long ride, you know. Look here, Rose, do I get that kiss?"
Rose evaded him, moved lithely across the floor. "Mr. Wayne," she said, trying to keep her voice steady. "I'm looking for Miss Snell. Have you seen her around?"
Wayne raised quizzical eyebrows. "She went out with me, but found the kitchen too chilly, she said, and came right back. Isn't she here?"
"Why no." Rose forced a smile. Why did a hand seem to clutch her heart? "She must have gone upstairs. Ruth's always fussing with her hair. I'll go look."
She went into the hall. Only a dim lamp burned here, high up in the ceiling, and the passage past the stairs to the rear was a blank, mysterious maw. Back there was the door to the cellar stairs and—But she mustn't think of that. "Ruth," she called. "Ruth Snell!"
Her cry went hollowly into the recesses of the old house, was quenched by silence. The merrymaking in the drawing-room behind her was muffled by the heavy curtains between, seemed somehow, dreamlike. "Ruth!" she called again.
There was no answer. Alarmingly no answer. Surely, wherever the girl might be, she would answer. Rose's apprehension deepened. What if...
Her legs seemed to move through a viscous, clogging liquid that strove to hold her back. She got to the carved newel-post, peered up into the murk of the upper floor. No light up there. No movement.
A rustle twisted Rose around, her hand going to her mouth with sudden fright. Wayne was standing in front of the curtains, a curious speculation in his shaded eyes. "What is it?" he asked. "What is it, my dear? Did I hear you cry out?"
He was afraid too. Rose saw the way the skin tightened along his jaw and knew that he too was afraid. The same grisly thought was in both their minds.
"I was calling for Ruth," Rose said. "She doesn't answer."
"Have you looked for her upstairs? You said..."
"Yes, I know I did. But there isn't any light up there."
"The doors close tightly, you know. Perhaps she is in your room. Why don't you go and see?"
He was trying to get her out of the way while he looked in a more likely place. He was still fighting to protect his secret, as he had when he sent her to the village while the doctor came. Here was the dread game again, the game that tacitly she had promised to play.
Rose answered as she knew she was supposed to answer. "Yes. I'll go see."
She felt his eyes on her back as she climbed—his brooding, tortured eyes. She pulled herself up by the banisters, step by fearful step, and the darkness reached down to her, engulfed her. Panic seized her, drained the strength from her limbs. She clung to the end of the wooden rail, momentarily unable to move. Yet there was nothing to fear up here. Nothing. That to be feared was below!
Below? From somewhere ahead of her, from the lightless, musty reaches of the corridor, a low, gasping moan sounded!
Infinite anguish, infinite helplessness in the almost inaudible cry threaded Rose's brain with searing tendrils of horror. It came again now, a choked burbling of agony. It galvanized the girl into action. She plunged ahead into the darkness and the menace of that Stygian hall, plunged alone into its dread obscurity, while her voice came, a husked whisper from between gelid lips.
"Ruth. Where are you, Ruth?"
The moan did not sound again but there was another sound in the darkness, a sound that sheathed Rose's slim body with ice and dried her throat with utter terror. Sourcelessly, from everywhere and nowhere, there was that patter of small feet that now had power to rack her with utter dread. That muffled patter of small feet, and close on it the slither of fabric against wood as though some heavy body were being dragged. Where? For what? For what demoniacal purpose?
Oh God! Rose crouched, whimpering, rocking her head from side to side, peering into unfathomable darkness alive with eerie menace. Fear racked her, strength-draining fear, and clamped icy fingers about her throat so that her agonized cry was inaudible. Then her little fists clenched, jerked spasmodically at her sides.
There! There to her right and somewhat ahead, a hairline of yellow light lay close to the floor. It seeped from under a door. That door was the one to her own room, and suddenly she knew that it was from there, from behind that door, that the moan, the scuttering of loathsome feet, and the fearsome dragging of a limp body had come.
A burst of laughter reached her from below. It died away, and quite distinctly through the quivering dark there came an inane, feminine giggle, and a shrill, rapid voice. "So my nephoo bit the dog to see if it was any good, and..."
It was some power outside herself that set Rose moving again, that impelled her stiff-limbed, infinitely slow progress towards the door from beneath which the light showed. She reached it at last, trailed numbed fingers across a dust-smeared panel, felt the chill of the china doorknob. Mechanically those fingers closed on the round handle. The rattle of its turning splintered the hush of the upper hall, a hush more fearsome because of the curtain-muffled noise of gayety from below. The door swung open...
The lamp on the dresser-top was lit. Rose blinked to the momentarily blinding glare of its luminance, kept her eyes closed against fear of what she would see when her vision cleared. Frigid ripples prickled her spine. There was no sound, utterly no sound from the room; but someone must be in there. Someone. She forced her lids open, daring to look.
The room was empty, stark, startlingly empty. There was no sign that anyone had entered it since she had left it hours ago. Yes. Her probing eyes reached the age-patinaed dresser, saw that her white comb was out of line with the other items of her neatly laid out toilet-set, saw that a blonde hair coiled about one of its teeth. Ruth had been here then. She had been here—but where was she now?
What was that on the floor, just under the down-trailing edge of the bed's counter-pane? Rose took a fearful step into the room, another. She bent to the shadow lumping there. Her shaking fingers picked up a pump, an absurd little pump of light blue satin with a three-inch, stilted heel.
It was not hers. It was Ruth's. She was sure it was Ruth's. It was still warm from the foot that it had encased and across its gleaming vamp there was a stain. A smear of sticky liquid, still wet, a stain that gleamed dully red.
It was a stain of fresh blood.
Rose stared at the thing in her hand and something within her seemed to die. She had done this thing. She had brought Ruth Snell, a handful of blonde femininity with red lips made only for kisses, to this house of horror. There was no doubt at all in her mind as to what had happened to Ruth. None at all...
A long shudder ran through the girl. A sob retched from her tightened larynx. The pathetic bit of blood-smeared silk and leather dropped from her fingers, and she was on her knees, was peering under the bed. Her own shadow overlaid the floor with black threat. She saw the corded under layer of the antiquated bedstead, a frayed string hanging down, and nothing else. Nothing...
Rose twisted. She could see every bit of the floor, all the big room...
Eerie dread prickled her skin. The gaunt vacancy of the chamber gibbered terror at her. The moan she had heard, the patter of the obscene Thing that haunted this place of horror, had been in this room. She was sure of it, grisly sure. And nothing had come out of it. But there was nothing here. Nothing except the one blonde hair curled about a tooth of the white comb, and the gore-stained slipper. It was as if Ruth and the Thing both had vanished into thin air.
Muted, Negroid harmony came up to her through affrighted stillness, the dexterous tapping of nimble limbs, the rhythmic patting of merry palms. The sound pulled her reason from the dark abyss into which it was sliding. Lou was doing his tap-dance there, and up here his sister—Oh God! What was it that had happened to his sister? She had to call them! She had to tell them! She got a hand up to the softness of the bed in which she could never sleep again, tugged herself erect, turned to the door.
Ted was standing in the doorway, his face pale, his forehead beaded with minuscule drops of sweat. "Rose!" he burst out. "You were gone so long, I—Good Lord! What's happened? What's scared you?"
The girl's throat worked. "Ruth," she mouthed. "Ruth—she—"
A glittering something flashed threadlike out of the hallway darkness, snaked around Ted's neck. He jerked sidewise out of the doorway, clawing at his throat. She heard the pound of his falling body outside, lunged through the door. Light streamed through, but its edges were somehow clean-cut, and to one side where Ted struggled the blackness was unrelieved.
A bestial something snarled. The garroted man gurgled, threshed. Rose whirled to the struggle, threw herself at it. Her hands found something alive in the darkness, flesh and bone, cloth-covered but utterly unjointed. It flailed club-like and jerked away from her clutching fingers. She remembered the kneeless legs of the dwarf in the closet door.
The Thing was sprawled atop Ted's tossing back, but it seemed to be arched upward, and its stretched arms ended in tight fists from which a twisted wire was tautly stretched. Feeling this, Rose knew where the Thing's face must be, and she beat at it, beat at clammy flesh in the dark, at lips snarled back, at fanged teeth that gashed her knuckles.
The girl's furious onslaught seemed to make no impression on the lewdness that lay atop her lover and held tight the wire that was choking the life from him. Red rage exploded in her brain, turned to primal fury. She was primeval woman now, battling for her mate. She was a jungle female, scratching, gouging...
Her thumb found an eye, dug in. The Thing screamed piercingly. Whirled. Its arm pounded against her chest, sent her skidding down the hall. She twisted, pulled erect, and found voice at last.
"Help!" she screamed. "Help!"
Shouts answered from below, and feet pounded upward. She hurled herself back across the light shaft from the open door. But no fighting fury met her. There was only Ted, limp on the floor, and the scutter of small feet whisking away.
"Rose!" George yelled. "Where are you?" A flashlight slithered through the blackness. People were all about her. Someone was lifting her from Ted's horribly crumpled body, and someone was cursing in a low monotone.
ROSE gulped water from a glass that was against her lips, and opened her eyes. She didn't know she had fainted, but after she had pointed to the door of her bedroom her stomach had seemed to turn over, and pale, staring faces to have blurred in a crazed Witch's Dance.
"I'm all right," she managed to say now to Mary, who was leaning over her. "Let me alone."
She was in a chair in her room because they had put Ted on the bed. Dick Mays was bending over him and all she could see of Ted was his shoes and the black smear they had made on the white spread. She pushed herself up from the chair, and started to walk toward him. Mary got out of her way, and she saw Ted's awfully white face, the red line around his neck.
Dick lifted his head. "He's coming around," he said. "He'll be okay in a few minutes, but it was a close call." Mays was in fourth year medical school and he ought to know. He turned to her.
"Hey," he said. "What are you doing on your feet? You'll drop if you move around, and I can't afford to spend time on you. I have to go take care of my other patient."
The pain in Rose's chest, where the Thing had hit her, made it hard for her to talk. "Your—other patient? Who?"
"Miss Wayne. She went out like a light when you screamed. She's on the couch downstairs. I gave her a shot of the digitalin Freea found in her room, but it doesn't seem to have done much good. Freea's down there with her. She's a nurse, you know, from St. Vincent's."
"Not alone, Dick!" Rose gasped. "Freea's not down there alone?"
The man's lip twitched. "No. The Negro is down there too. He insists they'll be all right as long as he's with them, and Mr. Wayne agreed."
"Mr. Wayne! Where is he, Dick? And where's George?"
Dick pulled the back of his hand across his clammy forehead, and his eyes slid away from her, slid to Mary. Behind her, Rose heard the young matron whimper behind her. Her hand lashed out, dug into Mays' forearm. "Where are they, Dick? What's happened to them?"
The embryo medico's lips were a bluish white. "Nothing. Nothing that I know of. They're around the house somewhere, looking for Ruth and—and Lou."
"Lou!" Rose thought she screamed the name, but the sound she made was only a rasping gasp. "Lou! What—how—"
"He was talking to Miss Wayne when she keeled over, and caught her. He didn't come with us. George and I carried Ted—in here. The girls brought you in. Then we noticed that Lou wasn't with us, and George went down to see why.
"He wasn't in the drawing-room; he wasn't anywhere. Mr. Wayne was in the back of the first floor when it happened. He didn't see Snell go that way and he couldn't have come upstairs without our seeing him. He's just vanished off the face of the earth, like—like—"
"Like Ruth! Dick, there's something horrible going on here, and I know what it is." Rose had decided. "I know—"
A scream cut her off, a woman's piercing, horror-shrilled scream from below! It wailed to a crescendo of terror, faded to a sob. Before Rose could shake off the nightmare paralysis that seized her Dick had whirled, and with a choked "Freea," plunged into the corridor.
Rose got control of her legs. Mary snatched at her arm. "Don't go," she squealed. "Don't leave me alone."
The girl pulled away from the detaining fingers, threw herself through the door, whirled after the man.
Halfway down the stairs her heel caught. She toppled, arced through the air for the rest of the flight, crashed to the floor at its end. Half-stunned, she rolled there in agony, and saw the portieres still swaying with the impetus of Dick's passage through them. Then she saw where the dim luminance of the hall-lamp glinted redly on the curving edge of a wet pool that spread slowly from beneath those portieres...
Feet pounded overhead. From the passage to the kitchen came the stiff-legged thumping of Roger Wayne's approach. Rose pulled herself up by the newel-post, swayed, was running across the little space between the stair bottom and the curtains, had thrust through them.
Her feet went out from under her in slippery wetness and she toppled again. Her hand, instinctively thrust downward to save herself, struck human flesh, clammy and shuddersome. She saw a face beneath her own, Lou Snell's face, the eyes glassy. She came down on his twisted body, rolled off it. She lifted to her knees, and stared at horror incarnate.
It was Lou, who lay there—lanky, good-humored Lou. But he was lanky no longer. He was a horrible, legless corpse. No, not quite legless. There were stumps below his waist, unjointed short stumps cut off just above the knees. From their raw, red ends blood still oozed in a carmine, grisly stream to feed the pool that had tripped her.
Across the room Freea Tainton was still screaming, her high-pitched voice an unending ghastly shrilling. George Parker burst in, staggered against the door-jamb, retched. Rose twisted, saw Freea's tall, willowy form quivering like a harp-string struck by a hammer, saw her mouth cavernously open and black flames of madness in her bulging eyes.
Dick Mays reached her. His arm jerked up, lashed out. Smack! His open hand stung Freea's cheek, and the report was like a pistol shot. The astounding act lifted Rose to her feet. She started across the long room toward the man, reaching for him. Had he, too, gone crazy with horror? Were they all insane?
But Freea's crazed screaming stopped, and although the mark of Dick's fingers was scarlet against the ghastly white of her face, the madness was gone from her eyes. Dick was crowded close up against her; his fingers were tight around her wrist, and he was saying, "Freea! How did he get here? Where from?"
"Through the curtains." The words were a horrified whisper from between lips that were an orange gash across a pallid mask. "He fell through the curtains and lay there..."
"Did you see anyone? Did you see who threw him in?"
"I—I don't—No! No one. He—he just came through as if he were a little man walking in, and then he fell and I saw his legs. Oh—God! I saw that his legs weren't there. Dick! His legs..." She snatched at Mays, gibbering.
"Steady! Steady Freea! You've seen lots worse than that in the hospital. Pull yourself together. You've got a patient to attend to. You—"
"A patient!" Abruptly she was laughing, laughing hysterically, and somehow her laugh was worse than her scream had been. "Look! There's my patient..."
She jerked around, pointed. Dick swung in the direction of her gesture. Rose followed his gaze.
No...The composed, wax-like form on the rose-upholstered sofa was not Freea's patient. Loretta Wayne would never be anyone's patient again.
"She went out ten minutes ago and I sent Isaiah to call you. Why didn't you come? Dick! Why didn't you come?" Freea's throaty voice was more controlled now, but still edged with hysteria.
"He never came for me. He—"
"He was looking for me," a voice behind them said.
They whirled. They had not noticed Wayne coming into the room, but there he was, standing just over Lou's mutilated corpse. The shambles at his feet, the death of his sister, seemed to make no difference in his appearance. Black coated, black throated, he was poised, suave, utterly without expression. Except that the nostrils of his thin, straight nose flared a bit, so that the red inner membrane showed, and the torture in his eyes was more poignant.
That coldness, that emotionless disregard of all the horror about him, his evidently firm intention still to cover up the dread thing behind it all fired Rose with a sudden rage. She swung around, plunged across the room to him, had him by the wrist. "In the name of God, Mr. Wayne," she cried, "how long are you going to keep this up? How long are you going to let that Thing run loose? Tell them! Tell them about it! Can't you understand it's the only way to stop all this killing, all this horror? Are you mad—mad to think you can still hide it?"
Wayne did not resist her clutch on his bony wrist, but his eyes narrowed slightly, and his lips curled. "What do you mean?" he said smoothly. "I know no more about what is going on here than you do."
"You lie!" The vehemence of her rage tore her throat as she spat it at him. "You lie! That Thing you have hidden in the cellar did this!" Her hand jerked down to the legless cadaver. "That hairless, legless dwarf stole Ruth and tried to kill Ted. You know it."
She twisted to the others, to the staring George, and Dick, and Freea. "There was a monster born to the Waynes, long ago, a horrible Thing, deformed and mindless. They hid it, these proud Waynes, hid what they thought was their shame from the world. They shut themselves up in this old house and withdrew themselves from the world, so that no one would suspect their secret. When the father and mother who had brought that Thing into the world died, Loretta and Roger, here, kicked their only sister out of the house, and disowned her because she insisted the time had come to be rid of their slavery to that crazed fetish. She—"
"Stop!" Wayne thundered, his frigidity melted at last. "Stop that insane, mad story. You—"
"Insane, is it? Mad, is it?" Rose jerked back to him, and her face was twisted with passion, with fury. "Then what is it you keep in the cellar? Why do you keep its door locked with a key only you possess? I dare you to open that door. I dare you to take us down there and show us what it is that's so precious you must keep it locked up. You can do it now. They know your secret. I've told it to them, and they know it, and there's no use hiding it from them any longer."
The color drained from Wayne's face, so that it was a mask of white clay in which his dark eyes glowed like burning coals. His hand jerked up, as if to strike Rose, and George flung an arm across in fronts of her to ward off the blow. But Wayne's hand went to his pocket instead, came out with the iron key with which she had seen him lock the basement door.
"Will that convince you?" he asked. The words oozed from his livid lips as the blood seeped from the ragged stumps of what once were Lou Snell's long legs. "Is that all you want? Here then. Go and look." He thrust the key at her, and the iron seemed alive in her fingers as she took it, seemed to burn them with cold fire. "Go. And look. And leave me alone with my dead."
He gave her the key, and the startling words dripped from his lips, and he seemed to have forgotten her, to have forgotten them all as he started forward. They made a passage for him as he stalked between them with that strange, awkward walk of his, stumped down the long room and stood statuesque above where his sister lay so starkly still.
The candles guttered overhead and all about the high-ceiled room, and the shadows they could not quite dispel lurked in hidden corners. Rose followed the others out into the hall, treading in spite of herself with that peculiar hush with which one walks in the presence of grief. The great velvet portieres dropped behind with a muted swish, as if they too were weighted with mourning.
"What are we going to do?" Dick Mays whispered. "Good Lord! What!"
Rose jerked to him. "Do! I don't know what the rest of you are going to do, but I'm going to see what's down in the cellar. I have the key and I'm using it."
"You're crazy," George snapped, round spots of red at the points of his high cheekbones the only color relieving the greyness of his drawn visage. "I'm going upstairs to get Mary and I'm taking her out of this house. And the rest of you had better follow us before you're where Ruth and Lou are." He whipped away, stumbled up the stairs, vanished.
"The yellow cur," Dick muttered. "Let him go. I'm with you, Rose. I want a look-see into that cellar too."
"Come on then. Come on." Rose was hurrying down the narrow passage, Dick close behind her. Freea, forgotten, trailed disconsolately in the rear. Rose whisked past the door, now closed, of the closet where she had so narrowly escaped horror not many hours before. She reached that other, further door, and fumbled the key into its lock.
But not yet was she to turn that key, not yet to probe the mysteries below.
For just then, the hinges of the kitchen door, at the end of the passage, grated. Rose looked around, saw that the door was slowly opening. She saw the widening slit that let through lurid, dancing light from the great range beyond, saw a white hand jagging the edge of that slit.
She froze as the portal came fully open, and revealed—Ruth Snell!
But what a Ruth! She was stark naked, and long, scarlet wheals striped her pink body from shoulders down across firm, globular breasts, down her quivering, pain-narrowed abdomen and along her columnar legs. Her once-white face was a criss-crossed mask of red-oozing gashes. Her hair, the blonde hair that once had been her glory, was a blood-matted cap hugged tight to her scalp, and from under that soul-shattering cap, from out of dark, lidless sockets, eyes stared that were pits, deep pits of hell.
One hand still clutched the door-edge. The other was crooked, and in the crook a doll lay, a doll that was fashioned seemingly from a greasy pot rag. And from the nipple of the breast to which Ruth held it a slow drop of blood welled and fell onto the black ball that was the doll's head, just where its mouth should be.
Freea's shriek, behind Rose, was straight from the limbo of madness itself. That shriek came again, but it was further off, and Rose heard a quick patter of feet running away. She heard Dick shout "Freea. Wait!" She heard his feet pound away, heard the great entrance door squeal open and pound shut.
Swaying, every cell of her body screaming unutterable horror, she knew that she was alone with that which stood in the kitchen doorway and crooned a pain-edged lullaby, and nursed a grease-blackened doll on blood.
Where Rose found the strength for what she did then, from what unknown well of courage, she never knew. But find it she did. She straightened, and though what she said choked her, she got it out.
"Ruth," she said. "Ruth, dear. We've been looking for you. Where have you been?" She moved toward that stark image, hand out, and touched it. "Ruth..."
Somehow that touch must have reached through the haze with which the blonde girl's mind had shielded itself from pain and terror, for a long shudder ran through her, and she looked up from the doll. Momentarily her eyes were almost sane.
"In Hell," she mumbled. "I've been in Hell. See that pretty baby I found there..." She held the loathsome thing up, dancing it as a proud mother might. "Isn't it sweet, Rose? Isn't it cute?"
"Ruth!" Rose was herself fighting against the gibbering imps of insanity. "Ruth! Listen to me. Who did that to you? Who cut you like that?"
"Cut me!" Ruth looked bewildered. "Oh yes. The—"
Metal flashed past Rose, soughed as it struck flesh. A black knife-handle vibrated, like a gruesome pendant, in Ruth's throat. Blood spurted around it. Like a gashed meal sack, the torture-crazed girl collapsed slowly in the doorway—infinitely slowly, till at length she sprawled, a limp, motionless figure on the threshold.
Rose whirled to meet an expected attack. The passage at whose end she was, its widening into the mansion's entrance foyer, danced crazily before her eyes, and she sensed movement out there.
Then she could see clearly. The passage and the hall were vacant! More ominously than if some assailant had haunched there to spring upon her and kill, there was utterly no one there. And there was no movement except for the tiny sway of the curtains, stirred by the wind.
But was it wind that stirred? As Rose crouched there, rigid with cold dread, a new thought coiled pallid tendrils of apprehension about her and stroked her spine with gelid fingers of fear. Behind the mask of those portieres a desecrated corpse lay weltering in a pool of its own blood, and a second was stiff and quiet in a longed-for peace. But there was another there, alive and able-bodied, who might have slipped out, thrown the knife that had cut off Ruth's revelation, slipped back in the instant before she had turned. Wayne! Roger Wayne! Was he the killer? Was it he, fighting still to preserve the secret of the house against all odds? Had the anguished years brought him at last to murder?
Even then the girl's instinct rejected the suggestion reason forced on her. That distinguished gentleman, who had immured himself in a living death to satisfy what he conceived as an obligation of honor, no matter how false that conception might be...
Nevertheless, inching forward on silent feet, Rose crept noiselessly through the dimness and the dread of that foyer to the screening curtains. She must look, she must see what he was doing. Perhaps she might surprise him in some betraying act.
She reached the portieres, put out a hand to their velvet stiffness, stiffer now for the dried blood that edged their hem. With infinite slowness, avoiding even the whisper of fabric against fabric, she moved that hand to make a slit.
There was no sound beyond them. Apprehension tightened about her. What could that utter silence mean? Had the killer taken him too? Had the monster turned at last on the brother who had nurtured him through the long years?
FLICKERING candle-light at length seeped through the aperture Rose had made. Most of the candles had burned out, and the great room was shadowy. Rose's glance fled by the vague dreadful mound just within the threshold, probed the vast dimness beyond. At the other end was the sofa on which Loretta Wayne was outstretched in her last, dreamless sleep. Two tall candles were arranged on a small table at her head, two more at her feet. Their meeting rays outlined the placid, wax-like form of the old lady, laid luminance across her face from which death had erased the lines of long-endured pain and left only a wistful, quiet smile. Their glimmer rested like a benediction on the dark figure kneeling at that improvised bier, shoulders bent in a posture of infinite grief, head bowed and resting on the sofa-edge so that only the black hair shot with grey was visible.
So poignant was the sorrow implicit in that kneeling, bowed form, so eloquently did it speak of grief and hopelessness, that despite the dread and terror through which she had passed Rose momentarily was conscious only of a stab of sympathy for the man left alone with the horror that had made of his life an endless nightmare. Almost unendurable it had been, with the sweet-faced gentle woman to help him bear it. What would it be now, with only that monster to keep him company in the moldering house? To look upon this man's Golgotha were almost sacrilege. She let the curtain drop...
And heard from behind her a slow bump, bump, bump! Not a footfall, but the thud, thud of something soft, something queasily soft, falling step by step down the long stairs. Bump. Bump. Bump. Oh God! What now? What unearthly peril was coming down upon her now? She twisted to the sound.
Bump. Bump. Bump. With a horrible limpness that told there was no life within it, a body came out of the gloom of the staircase's lift, rolled, and thudded down another step. Bump. Rolled over again, arced flaccid arms in a grisly seeming of life, dropped again.
Bump. It was a man, that was all she could see in the darkness through which it tumbled. A man! Bump. Bump. Bump. Ted? Oh God! Oh Good God! Was it Ted? Was the lifeless thing rolling, bumping down the stairs her lover?
In that instant it was as if the doom pervading the moldering mansion had materialized into a gigantic hand that came down upon her, crushing her to the floor, flattening her against the decaying boards, holding her there helpless to move, to scream, to do anything but stare at the floundering body that bumped down out of the dark evil above, down into the glimmer of wan light spread on the floor before her. It reached the bottom step, face down. It almost stopped. The impetus that had sent it down to her was not quite spent. It rolled over once more, slowly, rolled over and settled as if tired, deadly tired, just off the step.
It was scarcely human—the wrenched, broken thing sprawling there in a pool of pale luminance that half concealed, half revealed the unnatural, awkward jumble of its limbs and torso, the twisted wire half-buried in its neck, the distorted face between whose black lips, wide-stretched in a humorless grin, a black tongue jutted and out of whose empurpled gruesomeness eyes bulged like plum pits squeezed from their pulp. It was scarcely human, but once it had been a man. George Parker!
Not Ted! Thank God! Not Ted! Crazed laughter vibrated in Rose's throat at the realization, and at once horror struck at her that she should feel such relief, such utter thankfulness while her friend lay before her twisted in grisly, tortured death. Horror struck at her, and still mad laughter stayed in her brain.
But she knew now that it was no longer her own laughter! It was coming down from above, from the darkness of the landing above, where, black against darkness, a foreshortened, incredible thing laughed shrilly and capered like a child who has played a childish prank!
Rose's head jerked up to that nightmare Thing dancing in high glee above the destruction it had wrought, and her blood ran cold with horror. Even as she glimpsed it a final peal of mocking, cracked laughter echoed in the quivering air of that house of ancient evil, and the dwarf of the malformed body and high-domed, hairless head twisted and scampered off down the corridor. The small pattering of its merry feet rattled down the hall above and suddenly stopped. And she knew that it had gone again into her room—into the room where Ted, her Ted, lay wounded and helpless!
The rigidity of nightmare terror held Rose immovable for a long moment. Then a sound jerked her around, the scrape of an opening door. The entrance door was ajar, and old Isaiah was in the aperture.
"Missie," he whispered huskily. "Missie Lynn. Come! Yoh kin git out now."
The door was open, beyond it lay the clean air of the open fields. She need take only a step, one step, to release, to safety. But Rose turned away, not bothering even to answer, leaped stairward.
Outside lay safety, but her lover was above, and he was in danger. In danger! Oh God! Was she too late? Had the monstrous dwarf already...? Rose shut her mind to the shattering thought as the stairs pounded beneath her feet, as the third step creaked, as she twisted into the long corridor and flew down its Stygian length.
She reached the door of her room. It was shut. Tight shut. She grabbed for its knob, missed, grabbed again and clutched it. A sudden long wail, wrenched from a pain-shriveled throat by unendurable torment, sirened from within. Rose twisted the knob. The portal gave way, shot inwards, catapulting her in with its sudden yielding. She sprawled, skidded across the floor, crashed against a leg of the heavy bedstead, rolled, exploded to her feet.
Though the lamp was out an eerie radiance filled the chamber. Sharp-edged luminance from the window lay across the floor, and its cant-sided diamond was blotted by an inky silhouette that jerked in rhythm to convulsive moans gibbering from behind Rose. She whirled around to that fearsome yammer. She saw, spread-eagled across the wall-opening something at which Lucifer himself would have wept in pity, and a scream of pure horror burst her larynx.
Mary Parker, crucified in the window, shrieked once more, arched in a terrific spasm that tore one pitiful hand from the driven spike that held it, and then was limp as merciful death released her.
Rose swayed, tasted bitter retch in her mouth, felt the floor heave sickeningly under her. She pulled herself out of the wave of black oblivion surging up within her. She pulled her eyes from the grisly form in the window, fought nausea as she searched the room for Ted—for whatever the Thing had left of Ted.
He wasn't there! Appallingly he wasn't anywhere in the room, although the bed was tousled, the blankets thrown from it to the floor, the mattress half off. A chair was on its side, broken-backed, a night-table was overturned. There were all the earmarks of a terrific struggle, but nowhere was the bronze-faced man she loved, nowhere here where he had to be.
Abruptly then, from within the wall itself, the farther wall that was most in shadow, came the muffled, shrill laugh of the mad Thing that had spewed evil throughout this doomed house. From within the wall! Understanding flashed on Rose of how Ruth had vanished from this chamber to reappear below, of where Ted had gone.
Some power without herself hurled the frenzied girl across the room, slammed her against that wall. No opening, no faintest break in its faded paper showed where the entrance to that secret passage might be. She clawed at the wall, ripped the paper from it with nails that broke and tore to the quick, and failed to reach her reeling brain with the torment of their tearing. The wall was blank, inscrutable, but still from behind it, far distant now, she heard the monster's grisly laughter, the fading patter of his going.
She beat against the partition, pounded on it, kicked it in a frenzy of despair. She was a wild thing, a thing without reason, knowing only that her lover was in the power of the monster, and that the way to him was through this wall, and that somehow she must get to him, must help him. She pulled back from the wall a little way, rushed at it to batter it down with her head...
A hand gripped her arm, stopped her in mid course! She whirled, spewing, spitting. But she withheld the flail of her curved talons at the sight of Roger Wayne's grave face, his melancholy eyes.
"My dear," he said. "My dear. That won't help. You can't tear that down."
"But I must. I tell you I must. That Thing had Ted. I must get to him."
"You cannot get to him." Wayne's arm went out in a hopeless gesture. "Once in there, there is no hope for him."
Something clicked in Rose's desperate brain. Wayne could help her, of course he could help her; but he would not because, with his sister dead and his house in ruins about his feet, he still clung to his mono-maniacal denial of the monster's existence. The Waynes' secret must remain a secret though the world itself came to an end.
But she knew, thank God she knew how to strip from him his crazed resistance to betrayal. "Mr. Wayne," she said, and was herself surprised at how coldly, how dispassionately she spoke. "You're going to help Ted. You've got to."
His high brow wrinkled. "Why?"
"Because Ted—is himself a Wayne. He is Philip T. Horn. Philip Theodore Horn. Oh, don't you understand?" Her voice rose again to shrillness. "Ted is your nephew, your sister's son. That is how I knew the story of the monster. That is why I came here, to try to accomplish a reconciliation between you." She drove the idea into him, seeing by the shadow clouding his eyes, the indecisive trembling of his lips, that he did not yet understand. "Ted is a Wayne." Her voice rose to shrillness. "A Wayne. And I am engaged to him, I am also a Wayne. There isn't any reason to hide anything from me. I am a Wayne."
It got through! "Come," he said, and stepped to the wall.
What he did Rose could not quite see, but he fingered the design on the paper, here and there, and quite suddenly a panel slid aside with a rasping sound, and there was a black aperture where just now had been a solid wall.
"Come," he said again, standing aside for her with instinctive courtesy. "Watch out for the steps."
Rose went into the black opening, found descending stairs with groping feet, started down. The panel slid back into place behind her. Impenetrable darkness engulfed her, age-old dust clogged her nostrils, her throat; and the thump of Wayne's stiff-legged descent was a thunder behind her. She was going down into the monster's bailiwick, she was going down into the cellar where horror dwelt, but she was not afraid. She was not afraid for herself, only for what she might find below, only that she might be too late.
And then, instantaneously, she was afraid for herself as bony hands gripped her from behind, and bony fingers slid around her throat and clamped tight, cutting off breath—and a harsh whisper hissed in her ear. "I've got you now. At last I have you where I want you." Terror seared her, and exploded into nothingness as a blow crashed against the side of her head, crashed her into oblivion.
Rose weltered up through pain, through the pulse of pain in her head, and in her breasts—the throb of pain and despair in all her aching body. She lay on her back, on something cold and hard, and somewhere near tiny feet pattered busily. Pain shot through her; she groaned, and the slight effort redoubled it. She tried to lift a hand to her head.
She only tried. She could not do it, for her wrists were bound to her flanks, her naked flanks. Her eyes flew open.
A red and lurid light danced across rough ceiling beams from which dusty cobwebs swayed. She rolled her head. She was on an earthen floor, green-scummed, and across it, there where dripping stone joined the ground, a shadowed, motionless figure lay. Between it and her was a pit in the earth, a long, oblong pit.
The light flared, and she saw what it was. A grave! A yawning grave waiting for—whom? Her eyes lifted again to the form lying so still on a long mound of loose earth into which a short-handled spade was thrust. The light flared still more brightly; she saw a face, clammy-white with the pallor of death; and suddenly her skin was an icy, crawling shiver. She knew now for whom that grave had been dug. For Ted!
A harsh hand rasped along her flank, and someone chuckled. Someone said, "Awake, my pretty one? Are you awake?" A face was close over hers, the gargoylesque, denuded face of the monstrous dwarf, and loathsomely it was acrawl with lewd eagerness. "Rose! My sweet Rose. Mine at last. Are you awake?"
Rose wanted to close her eyes against the fearful sight, but could not. She could not shut her eyes, she could not shut vision from her brain where horror hewed at the last tottering remnants of reason. Not even when the face came closer, and twisted, slavering lips drooled her a kiss.
She shuddered, and the Thing jerked away. Wrath writhed in its weird countenance, struck red flame from its bloodshot eyes. "Still proud, eh?" it said. "Still too proud to love the legless monster." It slapped its twisted legs, whose tiny feet jutted horribly from where knees ought to be, slapped them with the flat of a long, heavy-bladed meat-cleaver that flashed in the lurid luminance of hell-fire lighting this pit of Hades. "Well, my dear, you won't be proud long. Not when you're like me. Not when you're legless."
The scuttering movements of the monster made pattering sounds like that of a little child as it came back to her, but further down, nearer her feet. Its laugh was the merry laugh of a mischievous child. Its fingers loathsome on her slim calves.
"Pretty legs. Such pretty legs. Almost a shame to cut them off." It was prattling to itself now. "But as long as she has legs she won't love me, so they'll have to go."
God! Oh God! Oh merciless God! The monster's hideous intent burst on Rose full force and the realization exploded within her tortured mind, a cosmos-shattering burst of terror incarnate. With the fascination of a snake-doomed dove her eyes clung to the blood-smeared cleaver about whose handle the dwarf's bony hands were wrapped. She watched it rise with a slow lasciviousness that made of the turmoil within her a long-drawn agony. Straining futilely at the lashings about her arms and chest, she watched the keen-edged instrument of mutilation start downward, slowly at first, then faster and faster till its descent was a semicircle of scarlet arcing down to the quivering, shrinking flesh of her white thighs—to slice them through...
It did not strike! Above her, metal clanged sharply!
A black arc had spurted to meet the red one. The spade had crashed against the cleaver, had wrested it from the clutching fingers of the sadistic maniac. Before Rose was aware of her startling rescue from the awful maiming, a tall figure, a figure immeasurably tall by contrast to the dwarf's shrunken body, vaulted across her prostrate form and swooped down on the Wayne monster, merged with it in a maelstrom of snarling, bestial combat.
"Ted!" the name shrieked from her torn throat. "Ted!" And suddenly darkness surged up into her skull, irresistibly, and the lurid light seemed to blink out. Blackness swooped in on her...
Ted's kisses on her lips brought her to consciousness again. Seamed with pain, drawn and white, his face hovered above her, and his eyes were anxious. "Are you all right, dear?" The words gusted from him. "Rose, are you?"
The tendrils of utter madness seemed reluctant to release their grip on her brain. It couldn't be. Ted was dead. She had seen him dead. Perhaps she also was dead.
"It's all over, dear. He's done for. He won't do any more damage. Do you understand, the Wayne monster is dead, and we are safe."
Sublimely unconscious of her nudeness, Rose sat up. "Dead?" She saw something in a corner, covered over with a grain sack, saw the slow dribble of blood from beneath it. "You—killed it?"
"Yes, dear. George ran into the bedroom, scared gutless. He'd just yammered out what had happened when the dwarf appeared from nowhere, knocked me out. Next thing I knew I awoke down here just in time to see his cleaver coming down on your legs. I threw the spade, and jumped him. Little as he was, he gave me an awful battle. Might have licked me if my hand hadn't happened to hit the axe and—well, there he is."
Rose pulled her eyes away from the still mound, peered about the huge, bare cellar. "What is it, dear?" Ted asked. "What are you looking for?"
"Roger Wayne. He—"
The young man gestured to his victim. "There!"
Fear flared again into the girl's consciousness. Good God! Was Ted's mind gone, had all they had endured made him mad? "Ted! What are you saying?"
"Just that." The young man turned, picked up something Rose had missed seeing in her quick scrutiny of the cellar. "Roger Wayne was himself the monster. Look! Here's his wig. And—" What he displayed now, a thing of steel and leather straps and wire springs, was like a cruel torture device spawned in some twisted medieval mind—"this is what he wore to appear a normal man."
Despite all the horror Roger Wayne had wrought, quick pity stirred in the girl's breast. "Oh the poor thing! The poor, poor thing! To wear that, even to put it on, must have been torture."
Ted's teeth gritted. "I'll say it was. That's why he screamed so when the doctor was here. That's why he took it off and scampered around the house at night laughing for the sheer joy of temporary release from it."
"Now I understand what happened last night," Rose said slowly. "Ted! The torture of wearing that thing drove him to the point of insanity. The torture and—after all he was human, with human feelings—his forced celibacy. Then I almost discovered him last night, and fainted, and he fell over me. I was only in my nightie, remember. That rocked his already shaken mind. And tonight we brought all the young people in, and Ruth flirted with him in that sensuous way of hers. Is it any wonder he went insane?"
Ted nodded. "After he did for Ruth he wanted to kill me because you loved me, and he wanted to kill the others because you had told them the secret, or as much of it as my mother had told me, and he wanted to cut off your legs because that would make you like he was and his twisted brain thought that then you would love him. And, by Jupiter, he damn near accomplished it all!"
"Almost!" Rose shuddered. And then, suddenly, a thought struck her. "Ted!" she exclaimed. "I can understand how he did everything else, by using this hidden passageway and perhaps another somewhere in the house. But I had just looked at him kneeling beside Loretta when George Parker's body came tumbling down the stairs, and I saw the—the dwarf up in the hall. He couldn't be in two places at once. Maybe you're wrong. Maybe—"
"I can't be. You saw him, Wayne, you say? Did he move? Talk?"
"No. He was quite still. His head was bowed and he seemed to be praying."
Ted Horn's face cleared. "Then it wasn't he, at all. It was this harness, and a cushion stuffed inside his coat, and his wig on top of that, making a clever dummy that fooled you while he slipped upstairs..."
"And knifed Ruth, and killed George, and did all the rest of the damage. Oh Ted! It's all like a nightmare, a horrible, horrible nightmare. There is nothing real about it all, nothing..."
"Except this." The youth's arms were about Rose, and he was holding her close to him, and what he said was barely audible because his lips moved tight against hers. "Our love is real, my rose of all desire. There is nothing more real in all the world. And its fire will soon burn out the memory of this night of horror, and there will be nothing left but you and me—alone together."
The girl clung to her lover, and a strange peace salved the wounds of her body and soul. "You and I, Ted dear," she murmured. "You and I. Always together. But not—always—alone."
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