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Title: Soft Blows the Breeze from Hell! Author: Arthur Leo Zagat * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1304721h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2013 Most recent update: Apr 2017 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Hal Curtin fought to protect the girl he loved from all the imps of hell. But he did not dream that horror could come dancing on the wind, skipping with Satanic grace to strike at the innocent and young—nor that soon he would find his bride-to-be, slave to a madman's will, and he himself, helpless—appointed to be her executioner!
It was ball-shaped and about the size of a five-year-old's fist. Its color was the yellow-tainted white of a corpse dead a day. It was so weightless that although the lightest of breezes breathed down Stalton's elm-lined Blossom Street it fled before the zephyr, curiously swift, curiously without sound.
In the dusk's dim grey hush the thing was at first noticed by no one, so that for minutes no one thought its presence strange, though the hamlet lay in the midst of rolling fields, and the nearest spot sunless and dank enough for the fungus to grow was Roget's Wood, a full five miles away.
It darted along the narrow, sod-bordered walk, leaping the grass-shoots between the worn flagstones, flitting beneath the feet of the strollers in the dreamy twilight.
None had any hint of how soon all laughter would be stifled in Stalton, of how soon eyes now sparkling with gaiety would be dark and brooding with dread.
It was Hilda Mead who first saw the round thing as it scudded past her along a picket fence pale in the evening's greyness. "Look!" she exclaimed, snatching her slim hand from Hal Curtin's warm clasp to point at it. "Look, darling! What is that?"
"What?" her stalwart lover asked, his gaze reluctant to drag itself from her olive, elfin face, from the sweet promise of her velvet lips. "What is what, dear?"
"That... Oh, I don't like it, Hal." A tiny shudder went through her small-boned, round little body. "I don't like the way it's running along as though it were alive with a queer kind of life, and knows where it's going."
"Silly," the young man exclaimed, his teeth flashing in a fond smile as he peered after that at which Hilda pointed. "It's nothing but a puffball. It's a common fungus, and—"
"And I still don't like it," the girl interrupted, pouting prettily at Curtin. "I'm afraid of it."
"Afraid!" Instinctively wise in the ways of love, Hal Curtin had sense enough not to laugh, had sense enough to draw Hilda within the strong curve of his arm, to hold her close against his body's slender strength and say, deep-voiced: "You need never be afraid of anything while I'm alive to protect you."
The puffball veered sharply from its course, almost as if possessed of the weird sentience Hilda had ascribed to it. It leaped at a dim-seen gate, struck a paling and vanished in the spurt of spore-smoke that gives its kind their name.
In the next moment the cottage beyond that gate seemed blotted out by a dark pall; its outlines merged with the night, the yellow rectangles of its windows gone...
Something's happened to the lights, Hal Curtin thought...
In the blackened house someone laughed. The laugh was edged with shrillness and utterly humorless, and threaded by a mad sort of agony. More appalling than any scream, it held Blossom Street in thrall to a sudden, icy paralysis so that there was no movement under the elms but only blanching faces and the gasp of caught breaths.
Then there was light again in those windows, a burst of lurid light that lay in whirling sheets against the panes and smashed through them with a great shattering of glass, and spouted out of the gaping holes thus made in huge roaring tongues of flame. There was light in the street and on the ivy-clad small homes in the gardens, the terrifying orange-red light of fire. There were shadows; the gigantic black shadows of the trees wavering as the flames wavered; the shadows of humans, arms flung overhead—shouting shadows, screaming shadows pelting toward the blaze.
Shouts and screams and the roar of the flames, and always through the roar that terrible laugh...
"God!" Hal Curtin gasped, Hilda tight within his arm. "They haven't the ghost of a chance!" Those who had been strolling on Blossom Street were past them, those coming from farther off had not yet reached them, and for breathless seconds the lovers were isolated. "They're done for..."
"Look!" the girl throbbed. "Look!" Her free hand flung out to the ridgepole of the blazing house. "There..."
Against sky-glare was blackly silhouetted a thing man-form yet grotesquely not a man. On the narrow crest of the slanted roof that was not yet alight, it capered in a queerly simian frenzy and it was from that capering monstrosity that the brain-curdling laugh came.
From the dark human mass surging against the fence of the doomed house, surging away from the blasting heat of that furnace, a shout went up. Curtin could not know whether it was evoked by sight of the thing on the roof or by the explosion of flame through the black roof-slant. The house was a vast torch now, a pillar of seething orange and crimson and strange greens supporting on its apex the affrighted vault of the sky, within which nothing could live.
Nothing... Hal tore himself away from Hilda's clinging hands, a strange cry in his throat! He vaulted the pickets beside them, his leap a lithe and effortless bound, was hurtling away from her.
His feet thudded into soft garden loam and in his nostrils was the sweet fragrance of honeysuckle. His toes flung the crunch of path-cinders behind him. He whipped past the red-bathed porch of a small home, past its end wall whose dark ivy strove to shield it from the lurid glare. He was beyond it, on the soft turf of its kitchen yard, angling toward the roar whence that glare came and had plunged into the shadow of the next house, stygian by contrast.
Blinded, Curtin battered into a back hedge he did not see, was ripped by its stems, its stiff leaves, as he burst through it into blackness. Tall grass whipped his legs and he knew he was in the vacant lots that lie between Stalton and the fields. He halted for a moment to get his bearings, projected almost useless sight, taut hearing, into the gloom that was the deeper because overlaid by the rubid heavens.
Somewhere within that murk was furtive movement... There! Almost straight ahead was a darkening of the black. Hal launched himself at the vague forms, wrath wrenching a shout from his lips.
The forms were plainer... his ankle was caught by some ground-creeper, pulled from under him. He lurched forward into a blow that exploded white light within his skull...
HILDA MEAD squatted in the tall grass, reckless of her filmy white frock. "Hal!" she whimpered. "Hal. I thought I'd never find you." Her hands tugged at the recumbent form, tugged its head on to her knees. "Hal!" Her fingers found wetness on that head, viscid wetness matting the hair, staining her fingers.
"Ouch!" Curtin winced, jerking his head from the fierce pain of that touch. "Don't..." then, "Hilda. You..."
"Hal! What was it? What were you chasing? What—who did this to you?"
"I saw..." he checked himself. "Hilda! Don't ask me what I saw. Don't let me tell you."
"Hal, you're still dazed. You're talking wildly."
"No." Curtin pushed hands against the ground, pushed himself to a sitting posture. "No. I'm not dazed. I... Hilda, you must not know. It would be dangerous for you to know." Something in his tone told the girl there was utter truth in the words that otherwise were so mad. "And listen. Tell no one it was I... How I got this cut on my head. Say that I started to run to the fire, tripped, banged my skull. Perhaps—perhaps I was not seen clearly, was not recognized." It was fear that sounded in Hal's voice, and Hilda had not dreamed that he could ever be afraid. "Do you understand?"
"No," she said. "I don't understand. But I'll do as you say."
A crash pulled their eyes to where the fire had blazed. Sparks fountained above the dull red glow that was all that was left of the blaze. High into the sky they went, till they were golden stars dancing in the heavens, and then they were drifting down again upon Stalton. Hilda Mead had a queer fancy that they were tiny lanterns guiding a horde of imps to their landing place.
IT was not till long after dawn that the ruins of the house on Blossom Street had cooled sufficiently to permit inspection, and the full extent of the horror made certain.
The searchers found the skeletons then, in the jumble of charred timbers that once had been a home, enough of the incinerated bones to identify whose they were when the holocaust seared life from them. There were five of them, five heaps of whitened ashes.
"That's the full count," the haggard-faced Fire Chief said when he had received the last report from one of his men. "Not one escaped."
"How could they," John Wayne, village president, responded, "the way that fire burst out?" He was tall and gnarled and sturdy as an oak. His hatless white hair was smudged by the embers that had drifted into it while the blaze still burned, for he had been early on the scene. "They tell me it was everywhere at once, upstairs and down." His grizzled, kindly countenance was grey with his distress. "Everywhere."
"That's what's got me," Chief Rail muttered. "It was a wooden house sure enough, but it was well built and should have resisted the flames if I know anything at all. I'd understand it if they'd been cut off in a single room, but from the position of the—bodies and the things around them, the maid was in the kitchen washing dishes. Bob Dutton and the boy were in the living room, Mary upstairs in the nursery."
"And the baby?"
"The baby was in its crib," Rail said softly. "Mary—the way she lies tells us—threw herself over it to save it. Even with the flames around her, as they must have been, the mother did that."
A murmur went through the group of mourning neighbors that, silent save for a shifting of uneasy feet and an occasional muffled sob, had been listening to the report. In the depths of Hal Curtin's brown eyes a smolder of wrath deepened and the line of his blunt jaw hardened to a knotted ridge.
He moved closer to Wayne and Rail, addressed the latter. "Chief," he asked, low-toned, "are you sure that was all who were in the house?"
The tired man turned to him. "We've raked the ashes clean and that's all we've found."
"That isn't what I mean. I thought there might—that someone might have escaped. I know the family's all accounted for, but there might have been some visitor..."
"There wasn't none," a pillow-bosomed woman, Lena Corbitt, put in. "I was just in there to ask Mary for a dress pattern I knew she had, and there wasn't anyone but Bob and little Bob and her around. And there couldn't have been anybody come in because I was scarcely back to my own gate, two doors away, when the thing happened."
"In the kitchen maybe? Someone calling on the maid?"
"No. I went to the door to ask Jennie for a glass of water and I saw the whole room. There wasn't anybody!"
That was that, then. The capering figure on the roof was unexplained. The figure that had laughed not in glee but in agony. No one had mentioned it, hence no one but he and Hilda had seen it; but that was reasonable. The spectators' gaze had been riveted on the flame-filled, windows.
"Why did you ask that?" Rail inquired. "What's on your mind, Hal?"
Curtin shrugged. "Nothing." Now why had he lied? He had intended to tell them of what he'd seen. "Just a hunch I had." He glanced at the watch on his wrist. "It's late. I've got to be getting to work much as I don't feel like it."
The knot of watchers broke up as he walked away, reminded of waiting offices and workrooms, of housework to be done and children to be sent off to school. But those children were kissed more lingeringly that morning, more reluctantly dispatched. Infants too young for school were held tightly to their mothers' breasts.
"Hal!" Hilda's dear voice called his name. She was at the gate of her home, halfway down the block, fresh and sweet in a filmy negligee, her eyes still dewy with sleep.
"Hal! I saw you... Is your head all right?" She touched the plastered bandage that made a white patch in his shock of chestnut hair. "I had to run out and ask."
"Quite all right, darling." His brown, strong hand closed on her fingers, took them to his lips. "I haven't even a headache left."
"Hal, I was awake for a long time. I was thinking... could that thing we saw have had anything to do with—what happened? That puff ball?"
"Good Lord, what a queer idea!" Curtin was queerly uneasy. "How on earth could it?" He had an obscure sensation as of eyes upon him, watching, evil eyes. He half turned to the street with careful carelessness calculated not to alarm his sweetheart.
"It couldn't, of course," he heard her. "Of course it couldn't."
Nobody was watching him. There was no one who had any reason to watch him. They were all familiar, all friendly, warmhearted people who had been his neighbors and friends.
"That's more sensible." He leaned over the gate, kissed Hilda full on her sweet, warm mouth. "'Bye, love. I've got to go and tend to business."
She held him a moment longer. "Hal," she breathed, "I want to ask you something."
"Did you mean what you said last night? That you'll protect me from anything?"
"All my life. From the devil and all his imps." His voice was deep, as if he suddenly had some prescience of how soon he was to be called upon to fulfill almost literally that promise.
The second puffball was seen by many of the townspeople. It appeared in Main Street at three-fifteen that afternoon, when traffic there was at its height. It bounded straight down the center of the street, and it was the way that it avoided the rolling wheels of the autos, the trampling hooves of the farmers' horses that drew amused eyes, pointing fingers, to it.
The wind was stronger than it had been on the previous evening and the bit of fungus was much like a tiny, pallid animal scudding legless and armless before it. It was shooting across the intersection of Apple Street when Hal Curtin, driving back to his law office from the Town Hall, spied it.
Unaccountably his skin crawled with sudden apprehension. Almost without volition he skidded his roadster into Main Street and darted after the swiftly rolling thing like a terrier after a rat.
The instant before his mind had still been filled with the scene in the village's Council Room. John Wayne had presided with unaccustomed solemnity, the morning's tragedy brooding in his eyes. Curtin himself, butcher Rudolph Schalk, portly, ruddy-cheeked; gaunt and acidulous Doctor Adam Ranier, and Stephen Brinn, pompous with the dignity of his bank, had sat slouched deep in their chairs, attentive but wordless. But there had been debate verging on acrimony at that meeting.
The protagonists had been fussy little Mark Yarrow the druggist, and realtor Reddon Gast; the issue, approval by the Council of a great trunk highway proposed to run through Stalton's very center.
Gast was violently in favor, Yarrow opposed. Brinn and Ranier were lined up with the realtor, Schalk and Curtin with Yarrow. That left Wayne with the deciding vote, and there was no doubt of how that vote would be cast.
Stalton was the old man's very life: its tree-lined streets, its neat, white homes, its peaceful atmosphere of neighborliness created almost by his very hands. When first he'd come here the town had been a rambling, dingy hamlet, a trading center for the farmers' roundabout, and nothing more. By his influence, by his unremitting toil, it had become what it was. A trunk route through it would bring turmoil and confusion, a mushroom growth of gas stations and hotdog stands and roadhouses, a stench of exhaust fumes by day and a clamor of honking horns by night.
Yet such was the fairness, the passion for justice of the man that, because Gast and his party saw prosperity for Stalton in the change, he had agreed to reserve the vote given him only in case of a tie, till they had had every opportunity to win over one of those who thought as he.
Wayne had gone further. He had offered to resign from his presidency and call a special election in which he would run against any one Gast chose. This, however, the realtor had refused, knowing well enough that, no matter what the question, John Wayne would be re-elected by an overwhelming margin, so dearly loved was he by the people of Stalton.
Gast preferred, however, to attempt to win to his side one of those who was not too strongly opposed to the idea. If he succeeded, his paltry land holdings would become a veritable gold mine.
Wealth, then, had been the gage for which Reddon Gast had battled, his alpaca coat hanging in loose folds on his huge, rawboned frame, his countenance granite-hard and expressionless except for the faint sneer of his lifted lip at Mark Yarrow, his predatory eyes contemptuous of the little man whose Vandyke had bristled and voice grown shrill and stuttering.
Hal Curtin had watched the dispute with a curious intentness he was careful to mask, with a curious excitement manifested only by the throb of a pulse in his temple. If he could only be sure of what he had seen last night, just before that terrific blow had smashed him into oblivion...
There had been no decision. Gast, sensing that he had made no progress, had demanded another week's consideration. Curtin had left the Town Hall with that pump of blood still in his temple, had driven mechanically east with a strange, unbelievable speculation throbbing in his skull. Then he saw that small puffball scuttering up Main Street, and Hilda's queer remark of the morning flashed out of memory.
It kept just ahead of his car's hood, a bounding, irregular sphere all but animate. He recalled Hilda's words: "... alive with a queer kind of life. It knows where it's going." Something grated along the side of his roadster, caught a fender, let go...
The puffball leaped sidewise, darted toward the sidewalk, darted across it and straight into the lobby of a movie theatre whose canopy was overhung with flamboyant signs proclaiming: Kiddies' Matinee—Mickie Mouse—Rustlers of Sunset Range, Episode 8—Kiddies' Matinee.
Hal jammed his brakes, hurled out of his car, hurtled into the lobby. A swirl of gray smoke, spore-puff of the fungus, lay against the white base of the door into the auditorium.
Curtin's palm slapped the door—fingers grabbed his arm and a voice rasped, "Ticket, mister."
Blackness billowed through the aperture between door-edge and jamb, as if an inky fog that filled the interior were finding exit. "Where's your...?" The door was blasted outward by a thunderous crash! Screams came with the thunder and the black fog was suddenly solid with plaster dust. These were children screaming, children in terror, children in pain...
A laugh threaded the chorus of agony! It was the same chattering, mad laugh he had heard not many hours before, the laugh whose sound had never quite died out of Hal Curtin's brain...
The doorman's clutch was a desperate, insensate grip on his arm. He ripped loose from it, battered the door out of his way, plunged through it into an impenetrable darkness, dust-filled and filled with shrill cries, with whimpers, with other sounds indescribable—
And with that damned laugh!
Curtin jerked to a halt, bewildered by that sightless void. Abruptly the black fog seemed to dissipate. A glow spread through it and he could make out jumbled timbers, small forms inextricably entangled with them; small forms struggling, jerking feebly, and not moving at all.
Realization of what had happened beat in on Hal. The balcony had fallen with its load of children on the children below... Not all the balcony...
The projection booth was still erect on its stilts, light streaming from its square window, white light which caught the swirling dust and cast a murky glow by which he saw the broken little bodies. Horrified, he saw a tiny hand reach out from between two shattered beams, its wee fingers gloved with blood, twitching...
The laugh beat at his brain, the laugh so weirdly evil with insane pain. Where did it come from? Who could be laughing in this hell?
Men and shouts poured through the door behind Curtin, battered him, and caught him up in their swirl. Men were clawing at the chaos; cursing, sobbing, frantic with horror and with grief. A voice, scarcely human, jabbered, "Lila. Where's my Lila. She's in here."
The dust swirl, heavy, was settling, the cloud thinning. The light from the projection booth was gathering into a sharp-edged beam boring through the terrible darkness. Its end was a great white square on the further wall. This was the screen that should be displaying an antic rodent. On it, black, shaggy and grotesque, capered the gigantic shadow of that which laughed!
HAL CURTIN was abruptly aware that somehow he had struggled far down toward that screen, dragged there perhaps by his stunned, unthinking search for the source of the laugh. He must have clambered over the worst of the wreckage for there was little here. The seats were empty, open exit doors showing where those who had occupied these seats, and still were able to move, had gone.
Behind him was the terrible clamor of disaster and rescue. Ahead of him that shadow on the screen and, on the stage-like narrow platform just before the screen, the—thing—that cast it.
It danced its evil rigadoon, laughing—Curtin vented an incoherent shout—threw himself down the aisle. His weaponless fingers were clawed, his throat swollen with the terrible anger that possessed him. Beneath his tongue was the salt-sweet taste of blood. He passed, the final seat-row, glanced up at the high rise of the stage-front close before him, jumped for its summit.
His hands caught the platform edge, clung. The momentum of his leap carried his torso high enough so that he could straighten his arms, get a toe-hold, lift and come erect on the little stage.
He was alone on it! The laughter had vanished.
Dazzled by the reflection from the screen's silver surface, Curtin started to turn—the flooring went from beneath his feet. He dropped plummet-like into darkness!
There is no consciousness of time in a sudden fall, only marrow-freezing terror.
A split-second or many minutes might have elapsed before Hal crashed on solid support.
Jarred, half-dazed, he contrived to flail gritty hands, already fisted, to fight whatever it was that had trapped him. He was on his feet... surprisingly...
A black shape loomed in the blackness! Before Curtin could move there was a click, yellow light...
Reddon Gast, his hand on a switch panted. "What is it? What's happened in the theatre? I heard a crash from my office... ran out the back way, through the alley and in here..." Metal armored cables twisted reptilian in the confined space, undulated upward to black, conelike objects, over Gast's head. "What's happened, Hal? You look..." Hal realized they were loud-speakers, behind the screen. This was the chamber beneath it where they were adjusted. That fall of Hal's had brought him only level with the theatre floor.
"Happened?" he gasped. "Enough. But—did you see anyone coming out of here? A man—like a huge ape?"
"Ape!" The realtor stared at him, his eyes widening, as though with doubt of the other's sanity. "No. Of course not. No one passed me. What's that?" A woman's wail, pent with excruciating suffering, came through the overhead aperture through which Hal had fallen. "What's going on in there?"
"The balcony fell." The answer came absently, without intonation. "Hundreds of children killed."
"Great Jupiter!" Gast lurched past Curtin, was heaving up a vertical iron ladder that came down from the trapdoor through which the lawyer had fallen...
The rest of that afternoon was a blur to Curtin. Afterwards he had a dim memory of helping to lift great beams, of carrying limp and moaning small forms tenderly in his arms, of laying lifeless bodies in a lengthening, terrible row.
He was not quite clear-minded again till he found himself in the kitchen of Hilda's home on Blossom Street, weariness a dull ache in his muscles and his bones, his brain a boil of dark and dreadful thoughts, black as the night pressing against the unshaded windows.
"Eat this salad, darling," Hilda was saying. "Look, I made it for you just the way you like; only white meat, nice, crisp lettuce and plenty of mayonnaise. And here's iced tea. You must eat or you'll be sick."
He looked up at her from his chair at the kitchen table. "You made it," he said dully. "Where's Ethel?"
The girl smiled through the glimmer of tears in her eyes. "I told you," she answered with tender patience, "that Ethel went to the hospital where her little brother is, and that dad and mother are out seeing what they can do to help the Widow Simpson, whose son and daughter both were killed this afternoon."
"Yes," her lover muttered. "Yes. I remember." Because Hilda seemed to want it so much he reached for the dainty plate she had prepared. His sleeve brushed a crumpled newspaper on the table.
The lurid headlines leaped from the page at him:
Forty Killed, Scores Hurt in Theatre Crash
Balcony Collapse Blamed on Lax Inspection
Gast Accuses President Wayne to Weakness
Links Failure to Find Cause of Blossom St. Fire
and Demands Thorough Investigation
"Gast accuses!" Curtin exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "Gast demands!" He stared wild-eyed at the startled girl. "But it was Gast who was in the sound room, Gast who said he saw no one come out of it. I've got it, Hilda. By God, I've got it and I'm going to stop it." He whirled, was running through the dining room, was through the hall and out on the porch. He was in his roadster, parked outside, and was pounding his heel on the starter.
The car jumped away from the curb, roared off, roared past the blackened ruins of the house where five had been seared to death, past houses still standing that were blackened with heart-rending grief or with an anguish of doubt more poignant than mourning. Last night, Hal Curtin thought, little children were laughing inside those houses...
Laughing! Twice he had heard another kind of laugh—how did that fit into the dark pattern that had formed in his mind?
He twisted his wheel, changing his course. To fill out that pattern there was a bit of information he must obtain, and Mark Yarrow would have it for him. The little druggist was the village gossip...
The loungers in the pharmacy were pallid tonight, their faces sultry with recollection of the scenes they had witnessed not long since. There was little talk from their tight-lipped mouths, but what there was, was of John Wayne and how he had failed them.
"I've got a hunch there's plenty more due to happen," someone said. "The way the town's gone to rack and ruin lately. I got a feeling in my bones this ain't the last."
"Cut it, Bill," another protested. "Ain't we got enough to think about?" But the first speaker had voiced the sense of impending doom, the prescience of further disaster that brooded over all Stalton.
Ancestral fears were revived tonight in the mourning town, inchoate as these might have been in the souls of their ancestors. The gods were wroth with them, and prepared their destruction. The gods must be appeased by a human sacrifice, and that sacrifice was ready to their hand.
"I say we all ought to go up to John Wayne's and..."
The sentence was interrupted by the entrance of Hal Curtin. Disheveled, his eyes burned-out coals in a yeasty mask, he strode stiff-legged through them. He shouldered them aside from his path, and none took offense because it was so evident he did not know he had done so. He went straight back through the store, past the end of the counter that closed off its public space, through the swinging door in the partition behind it.
Mark Yarrow, dapper in a white half-smock, looked up from the pills he was rolling to see the apparition stride into his prescription room. Before his indignation at the intrusion could find more expression than a pursing of his lips, a hand had clutched his collar and thick words were choking off his own utterance.
"Mark," Curtin demanded. "Tell me. Has Reddon Gast any connection with the county madhouse?"
He gasped, "Yes. He's on the Board and he leased the place to the county. That's one of his little grafts. Why...?"
He was left with the question unfinished, his mouth gaping like a pouter fish's. Hal Curtin had wheeled away and was gone.
"Gawd," he heard an exclamation from outside. "What's eating you..." and then the hammer of heels across the floor out there was ended, to be succeeded an instant later by the thrrrrr of an auto starter and the clash of gears viciously meshed.
The night seemed darker to Hal Curtin, and more foreboding, as he catapulted through the village, retracing his course. A block from Hilda's he braked again, sat for a minute with clenched hands, with lips biting hard on one another. He must get control of himself, must speak coherently, convincingly. That which he was about to say would be difficult enough to get across without the impediment of its being said by one who looked as if he were on the brink of madness.
Mark Yarrow's expression had told him what he looked like.
There was a comb somewhere in his pocket. He fumbled for it, used it. He adjusted his tie, straightened his coat. These small actions helped to reduce the fever in his blood, the pound in his temples. Now he could trust himself.
He got out of the roadster, walked quite slowly up the path that led through a garden to the Colonial entrance of a small but somehow stately white house. He read the name in letters of wrought iron set in the weathered boards of the door:
His hand did not tremble as he lifted the knocker and rapped once with it.
The door opened more quickly than he had expected. It was Wayne himself who opened it. The sight of his countenance, ashen, haggard, the visage of an almost senile ancient now, and not that of gracious age, undid all Hal Curtin had accomplished with himself.
"Mr. Wayne," he blurted. "I've come to tell you... I know who's behind what's happening in town. I've seen..."
Something flared into Wayne's sunken eyes, something that silenced Curtin more surely than the old man's, "Wait a minute, Hal! Come in..."
And then there was another voice, from behind Wayne. "Looks like I'd better cut my good-night short, John. Well, we understand each other, don't we?" The old man turned... to Reddon Gast!
"Yes," he said. "Yes, Reddon. I understand. Thank you for coming." They were shaking hands. Gast was passing Curtin with a curt nod. Did Hal imagine it or was there dark flame in the pouch-underlaid eyes that caught his own briefly, flame of a hellish hate?
"What was he doing here?" Curtin croaked. "What did he want?"
Wayne smiled wearily. "He came to apologize for what he said to the Gazette's reporter. He was excited, didn't mean it. He does not honestly blame me for—the fire and the accident, and he's going to make a statement tomorrow retracting what he said today."
"After the damage is done," Curtin commented, bitterly. "After he's set Stalton against you as he planned from the beginning. You're through now. They'll demand your resignation, and some creature of his will be elected. Which is exactly why he's done what he has. He wants that highway and the fortune it means for him, and he's stopped at nothing to get it. Not even at murder."
John Wayne took a step backward into the open doorway, one almost transparent hand lifting as if to ward off an attack.
"What?" the old man whispered.
"What do you mean?"
"Just that. Gast is responsible for the fire on Blossom Street, for the collapse of the theatre balcony. And if those are not enough, he's ready to perpetrate another outrage. All this to discredit you, to get you out of the way."
"You're—you're upset, my boy. What you say is—impossible. Those were accidents."
"The hell they were accidents. Look!" The words were tumbling out of Curtin's mouth now, the words that had been pounding in his skull. "If that house were filled with lycopodium, a haze of fine powder, no one would have noticed. If a match were struck, it would have blazed up all at once, the way it did. A very little dynamite, placed under the supporting pillars of the theatre balcony, would have brought it down. Gast had access to dynamite. He's blasting foundations for that office building on Apple Street and he could have..."
"What are you saying? I've known Reddon for years. Gast couldn't..."
"No. Not Gast with his own hands. But Gast in the person of some madman he released from the asylum. I've seen him, I'd know him anywhere. I saw him in the theatre and he got away. I saw him before that, on the roof of the burning house, saw him leap for the telephone wires just before the final burst of flame came, and drop to the ground. I almost caught him that time, would have if there hadn't been someone with him who clouted me..."
"Hal!" Wayne interrupted. "That's it! You were hurt more badly than you thought when you fell that night, and your experience today finished the job. Go home. Get some sleep. Tomorrow you'll be rid of these wild ideas."
"I can prove it to you. I can, I'm almost certain, show you the madman. I've got an idea where he's hiding. Those puff-balls that have been appearing just before each thing happens, can come only from Roget's Wood. He brings them—that's where his lair is. We'll organize a posse and go there and capture him, and that will prove my ideas aren't as wild as you think."
"Yes. Yes I know. They seem so logical now, but after you've slept you'll see how fantastic they are. Look, I'll go get my hat and take you home. Wait here." The door shut between them, as if the old man were frightened of his visitor and wished a solid barrier for protection.
"God!" Curtin groaned, his hands fisting at his sides. "God help me. God help Stalton..." He turned to go back to his roadster, some idea of running back to Yarrow's, of telling his tale to the men there, beginning to form in his desperation...
On the sidewalk, bounding along with a noiseless swiftness now terrible to him, was a puffball. It shot by, went on up the street.
Something more was about to happen! Some new horror was coming to one of the houses on Blossom Street! Hilda Mead's house was in the direction the puffball fled. Was that the house that was marked for doom?
HAL CURTIN was running, but it seemed to him he made no progress at all along that quiet street, that as in a nightmare the faster he ran the more firmly was he rooted to the spot where he was.
And always fifty feet before him bounded the pallid bit of fluff he could not overtake, though overtaking it meant so terribly much.
Abruptly it veered, as he'd seen two exactly like it veer. It was Hilda's gate, open as he himself had left it, through which the thing darted. It was Hilda's garden pathway up which it scuttered, Hilda's porch steps it struck to puff out of existence in a gray swirl of spore dust.
As he flung himself up the path icy terror jelled Hal Curtin's veins. But nothing happened. The structure that housed the girl he loved did not burst into flame, did not collapse, did not, as he half-expected, vanish as the puffball had in a swirl of grey smoke.
He gasped with relief as he leaped the porch steps, seized the doorknob, jerked the portal open and flung through into the foyer that had known the kisses and the whisperings of so many lingering good-nights... And gasped again with terror, finding himself in black darkness, even the street-lamp light close behind blotted out!
This was not merely the absence of light. This was blackness that swallowed sight, which swallowed reality itself and left nothing but terror. This was the black fog that had filled the house up the road just before the lurid flames had made it a roaring furnace, the fog that had swirled out of the theatre auditorium just before its balcony had crashed! Now it was here, and somewhere within it was...
"Hilda!" Her name burst from Hal Curtin's clamped throat. "Hilda!"
There was no answer!
His cry was quenched by vacant silence, by the muffled hush of doom... Was there, somewhere ahead, the faint shadow of a laugh, of a chattering, mad laugh...? Ahead... from the kitchen where he had left Hilda... there was a glow, vague, vertical and narrow. It was light, blessed light, seeping past the edge of the kitchen door.
Curtin's footfalls made hollow, empty echoes in the empty house. He flung into the kitchen—the lighted kitchen... halted...
No Hilda. Not even her body, as he had feared, dead in some awful way. No sign of her at all. But the table at which he'd sat was overturned. A chair was smashed by a struggle, a fragment of her flowered dress caught in its splinters—and the back-door swung open to the mystery of the night.
That was all, the table, the chair, the door... not quite all. There was something chalked on the scrubbed white tile of the floor, letters scrawled crudely in crimson chalk and obscured by the breakfast cloth that had slid from the table.
Hal Curtin twitched the gay cloth away. He read the message:
You keep your dam mouth shut if you want to see her again
He stood there, looking at it, the tablecloth trailing from his clenched hand, his mouth working. He had brought this upon her. He... His "dam mouth" blurting a warning to Reddon Gast, not waiting to ascertain that he was alone with Wayne. Giving Gast time to hasten here and...
How had Gast dared? If he'd been seen entering or found here when Hilda's parents returned...
It was not Gast who'd entered here. Not Gast. A clearing of Curtin's vision had revealed to him something more caught in the splintered end of that chair rung than the bit torn from Hilda's dress. Not very much. Just a wisp of black hair, of short hairs black and coarse and kinked.
It was not Reddon Gast who held Hilda Mead prisoner, but Gast's tool, his mad creature who had capered in the midst of horror laughing a weird and insane laugh!
That was worse, far worse. A madman knows no set design, no fixed purpose. He is swayed by sudden impulses, by the surge of mindless frenzies, of insane lusts...
"I will protect you always," Curtin's own oath sounded in his ears. "Against Satan and all his imps."
Protect her! She was in the hands of a mad thing. His Hilda, her rounded, warm body, her soft curves, prisoner to a thing half-human perhaps, perhaps all beast, subject to his whims, his will.
Find her! Save her! Save her before it was too late from—Curtin's mind shuddered away from thought of the peril his loved one was in. Find her! But where? How?
Gast knew. He whirled, about to dash out to Gast, to choke the truth from him, to tear him limb from limb if he would not give it. It would take time, valuable time. Hilda's captor could not have gotten far as yet, by the time he had dragged the truth from Reddon Gast they would be God knew how far away. God knew what would have occurred before he could reach them. But he had no choice...
Wait! Once more the tortured man recalled his own words, more recently spoken. "Those puffballs—Roget's Wood—That's where his lair is—I'll take you there."
Roget's Wood! Five miles across the fields. But they were gone only ten minutes, fifteen at the most. That was all it was since Gast had left Wayne's. If he went after them at once—no time to get help, no time to get a weapon—he might overtake them, might reach the madman's lair, at least, before...
Hal Curtin whirled again, went sprinting out of the kitchen door, out into the lonely night.
Hal Curtin never knew how long it took him to run those five lightless miles over rough fields, up hills that became mountains in the dark, splashing through streams, sliding gasping, torn by his own breathing, torn by thorns of berry bushes, by barbed wire unseen till he was upon it... But he raced through, a featureless chiaroscuro of shadows, feeling his hurts not at all, feeling not at all that the clothes were torn from him, that he was lacerated and bleeding, that an iron band was about his chest and the hammers of hell beating upon his skull.
SOMEWHERE in that nightmare flight there was the thrumming of a far-off auto. Somewhere in that Gethsemane there were twin beams of distant headlights scything the darkness... and then there was the loom of black woods ahead of him, and he was in their earth-odorous dankness, and he was slowing to a halt.
Careful now. He must be careful. If the madman heard him, got warning of his approach, Hilda would be... Hal was weaponless, he had only his arms, and his fists to use against the Lord alone knew what insane strength. The advantage of surprise must be his.
Surprise. But how? There was impenetrable darkness here. There was only the shrill piping of cicadas and the scutterings of the woods' night-kind... There was a glimmer of light, far within the tree-deepened blackness.
Cautiously, with an instinctive woods-manship called out of racial memory by his great need, with a taut check on his urge to run, shouting, to the source of that light, Hal Curtin crept up on it. He reached it at long last, at last was crouched at the edge of a tiny clearing, was gazing with aching eyes at a tumbledown cabin of crumbling logs, some shelter left by ancient lumbermen, through whose gaping chinks came the gleam that had brought him here.
Only an instant Curtin crouched there, then he stole across the narrow space between and flattened himself against the moss-slimy wall.
He peered through a crack into the shack's interior. He could see only a small portion of it, but that was enough.
A candle guttered within the hovel. By its wavering, weird luminance he saw Hilda.
Two roughly hewn beams had sometime fallen from the decrepit cabin's roof. They slanted now from roof to earthen floor. The girl lay on one of these, lashed to it hand and foot, half-covered by the rags to which her neat, crisp frock, her dainty undergarments had been reduced.
She was as yet unharmed. Physically at least. All concealment had been torn from one rounded breast. Her arms, her olive, rounded thighs, strained at the lashings that cut into their soft, warm flesh. In her fear-widened eyes there was ineffable terror.
Grotesque and horrible as the creature had appeared when capering on a blazing roof, when laughing from the stage of a smashed theatre, he was now utterly appalling.
Clad only in ragged trousers, his body was the scarred wreck of a frame once clean-cut and stalwart. It was malformed with a rottenness not so much of its tissues as of the soul within it, and shaggy with hair black and kinked and matted as a wild beast's fur. His straddled, columnar legs, his big-thewed arms, bulged with swollen muscles. His unshaved, black-bristled countenance was high-browed, its features finely chiseled, but it was empty of all intelligence, of all emotion save the vapid, long-toothed grin of a mindless idiot, while its skin twitched with tiny spasms as though beneath it vermin scuttered and pinched it with their microscopic jaws.
He towered above the bound, half-naked girl, his lips drooling, his soulless eyes repeating their imbecile grin. It was as if he were calling upon her to witness the cleverness of that which he was about.
With a curious deftness one of his great paws juggled three of the puff balls that had accumulated so much of terrible meaning for Hal Curtin, catching and tossing the fragile globules so that they did not burst but danced like down in the wavering light. In and out and about the flickering balls he flashed the braided metal lash of a small whip in gleaming intricate maneuvers.
The madman missed one of the puff-balls. It dropped on Hilda, touched her just where the ragged edge of her torn slip lay against her abdomen's throbbing skin. Her captor snatched at it. His spatulate fingers, clumsy now, caught in the pink fabric. There was a ripping sound...
The ball struck the floor, burst. Not spore dust but a black cloud spurted from it, billowed upward to meet the other two that still were floating down...
The madman's frenzied fingers were ripping the last vestige of clothing from Hilda. She screamed...
Her scream came to Curtin out of blackness that enveloped her, that was filling the cabin, the blackness that had been spewed from the burst puff ball, from the two others. He thrust himself away from the wall, whirled to hurl himself along it to search for a door—there must be a door somewhere by which he could get inside, get to Hilda, fight for her...
There was no longer any light. The candle must have gone out. No, not out. Its light quenched by the black fog of the puffballs, by the material blackness that was pouring out through the chinks between the logs, clouds darker than the forest darkness, darker than evil. There was no light, so Curtin had to guide himself by a hand against the log wall, while from behind the wall came the screams of the girl he loved, and the bestial snufflings of the man-beast who...
He came to a corner, whirled around it; saw a billow of the stygian vapor pouring out of the door he sought. He vented something between a groan and a shout, plunged through it...
Into sightlessness that was alive with sound, Hilda's shrieks, fainter now, the sound of rending cloth, snuffling, and horrible snarls.
"Stop it!" the yell tore Hal's throat. "God blast you," he yelled, "stop it!" Hurtling toward those sounds, blinded by the eye-blinding black. "Stop..." A heavy blow smashed the back of his head, smashed into his skull. He spun down and down into oblivion...
HAL CURTIN'S head ballooned with pain that expanded within it, as though to burst it. Because of the pain he could not move though he tried to lift his hand to his head, to still that throbbing torture.
It wasn't because of the pain that he could not lift his hand! As returning consciousness became surer he was aware of tightness about his wrists. He was bound, wrists and ankles, to a heavy beam.
He opened his eyes. A wall slanted toward him at a mad angle, an earthen floor slanted up toward him. The guttering light through which he saw them held a curious quality of darkness, as though it were strained through a black mist. This was unreal, dreamlike.
Someone moaned, beside him. Curtin's head rolled to the sound... It was Hilda who moaned! Hilda naked, a grey pallor underlying her skin that was crisscrossed with red and angry weals. Her eyes were closed. She was lashed to a beam that slanted downward from above. Curtin realized that he too was lashed to a beam similarly slanted, that it was he and not the wall, the floor, that lay at this unaccustomed angle.
"Hilda!" He managed only a whisper. She did not move.
There were ropes around her ankles, her wrists. But there was also a rope about her neck. This did not go around the beam on which she lay. It went straight up. It went over a hook in the broken ceiling and came down again. Its other end was fastened to the beam to which Hal Curtin himself was bound, and it was just short of tautness. Beneath Hilda's ear the looped rope was tied with a hangman's slipknot.
She did not hear him. Could she hear him? Was she...?
"She has fainted," someone said, the voice oddly familiar. "But she will come out of it in a moment." Curtin jumped, hearing it. The timber supporting him rocked. Its upper end started to slip from the cross-beam holding it...
It was slipping off that cross-beam! A quarter inch more and it would come down—jerking tight the rope fastened to it, jerking tight the noose around Hilda's neck. Strangling her!
It didn't. Not this time. Something steadied it, stopped that fearful rocking. A hand, Curtin saw as his head rolled, a great calloused paw with black, kinky hair on the backs of its fingers. He saw the owner of that hand, the madman!
That fatuous, leering grin was still on the creature's face. In his other hand was still the metal lash with which he had toyed with the puffballs that had spewed the blackness.
The same voice spoke again, from behind Curtin, where he could not see the speaker. "The next time Jock will let the timber come down," it said, "and you know what that will do. It may interest you to know also that the cords with which you are tied may be broken with not too great effort. You can free yourself, but not quickly enough to stop the beam from falling."
There it was. Hal Curtin was imprisoned not by lashings that he might break, but by the knowledge that his escape meant—Hilda's death.
"You fiend!" he grunted. "Who are you?" He had heard that voice before, many times. Was it because of his physical and mental agony that he could not identify it? It was—no, it could not be Reddon Gast's. Whose then? "Come around here where I can see you." The madman Jock was drawing his whip between his fingers, lovingly. What did he mean to do with it? What in the name of Satan was he going to do with that braided metal thong?
"So that you can see me?" the Voice mused. "Well, it hardly matters now whether you see me or not, you will tell no one who I am. And your reaction will amuse us, perhaps, while we wait for your—sweetheart—to waken."
There was a shuffle of feet on the hard-packed earthen floor. There was a flicker of Jock's eyes to the sound, the look of a fawning dog coming into them. And then a man moved into the range of Hal Curtin's vision.
He was tall and gnarled. His hair was a lustrous white mane crowning a face seamed by deep lines, sunken-cheeked, with eyes that now gleamed wildly.
"Wayne!" burst from Hal Curtin's lips.
Wayne gave a humorless smile. "Clever of you to recognize me. As clever as your guessing how that fire was started, and how the theatre balcony was brought down, and that this was Jock's lair. You are a very clever man, Hal Curtin. I wonder if you have reasoned out the connection of the puffballs with all that has happened."
Curtin's brow knitted. Perhaps by humoring his captor he would gain enough time to work out some escape for Hilda, from this imprisonment, from the threat of the lash Jock fondled. "They're not quite—natural. The blackness. Some variation in them has increased their spore-puff to a vast cloud of blackness. Perhaps the puffballs were treated chemically, carefully grown, crossed with unknown varieties. This cloud cloaked Jock when he was setting the fire, when he was mining the theatre balcony.
"Not Jock," Wayne grinned. "Not Jock. He was to be the scapegoat, the whipping boy, taking the blame if some human agency were uncovered in connection with the disasters. The spore-cloud cloaked me, Hal Curtin. It was I who..."
"You!" the bound man gasped, the unbelievable truth against which his mind had rebelled was now stark and inescapable. "You are the one..."
"Yes." Wayne's features were no longer kindly. They were dark and contorted with evil triumph, and evil leered from beneath his shaggy brow. "I set the fire, I mined the balcony..." He laughed, and there was the same fierce pain in his laugh as in Jock's.
"You," Curtin groaned. "But why...?"
"Why?" Tiny light worms crawled in Wayne's slitted eyes. "You can ask that, when... But I forgot. You were not born when Stalton damned my brother to horror."
The old man's tortured look went to Jock, who was leaning forward now, his avid tongue licking his lips, his burning look fastened on Hilda's nude beauty.
"They were too penurious to pave the streets," Wayne grated. "Jock, a fine young lad, slipped in the mud as he played, sprawled into the gutter. The hoof of a passing horse just flicked his skull—and made him what you see.
"It was murder, the assassination of a soul, but they called it an accident, and I believed them. Dreamer that I was, I dedicated my life to making certain no such accident should occur again, to making Stalton a safe place for its children, for their lives, and a beautiful place for their play. Stalton thanked me with its lips but always behind their eyes, behind the eyes of Gast and Yarrow and the others who knew, I could see the taunting mockery, the reminder of my brother, an animal imprisoned within the asylum's grey walls.
"He was the only human I ever loved; I was lonely, and they had made me so. I grieved, and it was because of what they had done that I grieved. But I forgave them, because I thought they knew not what they had done. I forgave them—till once more, because of greed, they were determined to enrich themselves at the price of the soul of that which I loved, of this town I had created—my all. If I allowed that road to be put through it would have taken the town from me.
"I knew then what I had to do. They should not kill Stalton, I would, and swiftly. Station's soul was its children; its children should die... Stalton had taken the soul of my brother—I would take the limbs and lives of its children."
Jock grunted. His shaggy, muscled arm thrust out, jabbing a thumb at Hilda. She stirred, and her eyes opened...
"Hal!" she exclaimed, joy flaring into her tear-streaked countenance. "Hal...! You've come for..." and then all the joy was gone; terror, anguish were replacing it. "But you're tied up too. He's got you...!"
"I've got him," Wayne broke in. "As I planned. I've got him to punish him for interfering with me in the way that will hurt him most, and Jock will take the blame for that as he would have done for all else if he had been caught. Jock! Go ahead."
The madman whimpered, like a grateful dog, sprang forward. The whip in his hand lifted. The metal lash whistled up, whistled down...
Struck Hilda's flesh! A fiery circle sprang out upon it, a bleeding cincture belting her palpitating breast. She screamed...
Hal screamed too, screamed mad blasphemy as that biting whip flashed up, flashed down again on the naked flesh of the girl he loved. Screamed wild oaths at the madman, at the white-haired man who stood, impassive, eyes glittering, and lips tight and white. Hal yelled his protests, but he did not dare to move, did not dare to stir so much as a finger lest he rock the beam upon which he lay and bring it thundering down to strangle the life out of her.
Whirr, smack! Whirr, smack! The madman was laughing now, was laughing and capering as he had laughed and capered before. He was dancing about his victim, her flesh netted with weals now, with spurting wounds, her round soft body clothed with scarlet from her wounds... He laughed...
And Hilda moaned; "Kill me, Hal! Kill me! I want to die."
There it was! That was the way he could save her from this agony. Death—the only gift for her lover to give her. His muscles knotted, ready for the leap...
And still he waited while that whistling lash cut, and cut again, winding itself about an olive, quivering thigh, slashing across a taut abdomen. While a beast-man capered...
Then Hal Curtin leaped, tearing loose from the cords that lashed him. The beam leaped with him, crashed down...
On the head, the shoulders, of the madman, crushing Jock's skull and pulping his addled brain! It was held for a moment, as Hal had planned it, by the great shaggy form that had danced beneath its slant, held there long enough for Hal to tear free the noose from his sweetheart's neck—and then it crashed, with the bulk of the creature it had slain, to the ground.
But Curtin had whirled, had thrown himself, ravening and mad himself in that moment, at the white-haired Wayne. Curtin's fists, sledge-hammers of vengeance, catapulted—smash—smash—into the hollow-cheeked countenance of the madman's brother.
Smash! There was the crack of snapped bone. Those furious blows had broken John Wayne's jaw—had broken John Wayne's spine...
LONG after, Hilda Curtin would wake from a dream of never-to-be-forgotten terror, and Hal would wake with her.
She would turn to him, and he would take her in his arms and hold her close to him, knowing as lovers always know, why she was trembling so. And after awhile the trembling would cease, and Hilda would whisper, "Hold me, Hal. Hold me close, close, so I'll know you're here, so I'll know that always, always, you will protect me against..."
"Satan and all his imps," Hal would whisper. "Forever, my dear."
And he would hold her close...
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