Griswell awoke suddenly, every nerve tingling with a premonition of imminent peril. He stared about wildly, unable at first to remember where he was, or what he was doing there. Moonlight filtered in through the dusty windows, and the great empty room with its lofty ceiling and gaping black fireplace was spectral and unfamiliar. Then as he emerged from the clinging cobwebs of his recent sleep, he remembered where he was and how he came to be there. He twisted his head and stared at his companion, sleeping on the floor near him. John Branner was but a vaguely bulking shape in the darkness that the moon scarcely grayed.
Griswell tried to remember what had awakened him. There was no sound in the house, no sound outside except the mournful hoot of an owl, far away in the piny woods. Now he had captured the illusive memory. It was a dream, a nightmare so filled with dim terror that it had frightened him awake. Recollection flooded back, vividly etching the abominable vision.
Or was it a dream? Certainly it must have been, but it had blended so curiously with recent actual events that it was difficult to know where reality left off and fantasy began.
Dreaming, he had seemed to relive his past few waking hours, in accurate detail. The dream had begun, abruptly, as he and John Branner came in sight of the house where they now lay. They had come rattling and bouncing over the stumpy, uneven old road that led through the pinelands, he and John Branner, wandering far afield from their New England home, in search of vacation pleasure. They had sighted the old house with its balustraded galleries rising amidst a wilderness of weeds and bushes, just as the sun was setting behind it. It dominated their fancy, rearing black and stark and gaunt against the low lurid rampart of sunset, barred by the black pines.
They were tired, sick of bumping and pounding all day over woodland roads. The old deserted house stimulated their imagination with its suggestion of antebellum splendor and ultimate decay. They left the automobile beside the rutty road, and as they went up the winding walk of crumbling bricks, almost lost in the tangle of rank growth, pigeons rose from the balustrades in a fluttering, feathery crowd and swept away with a low thunder of beating wings.
The oaken door sagged on broken hinges. Dust lay thick on the floor of the wide, dim hallway, on the broad steps of the stair that mounted up from the hall. They turned into a door opposite the landing, and entered a large room, empty, dusty, with cobwebs shining thickly in the corners. Dust lay thick over the ashes in the great fireplace.
They discussed gathering wood and building a fire, but decided against it. As the sun sank, darkness came quickly, the thick, black, absolute darkness of the pinelands. They knew that rattlesnakes and copperheads haunted Southern forests, and they did not care to go groping for firewood in the dark. They ate frugally from tins, then rolled in their blankets fully clad before the empty fireplace, and went instantly to sleep.
This, in part, was what Griswell had dreamed. He saw again the gaunt house looming stark against the crimson sunset; saw the flight of the pigeons as he and Branner came up the shattered walk. He saw the dim room in which they presently lay, and he saw the two forms that were himself and his companion, lying wrapped in their blankets on the dusty floor. Then from that point his dream altered subtly, passed out of the realm of the commonplace and became tinged with fear. He was looking into a vague, shadowy chamber, lit by the gray light of the moon which streamed in from some obscure source. For there was no window in that room. But in the gray light he saw three silent shapes that hung suspended in a row, and their stillness and their outlines woke chill horror in his soul. There was no sound, no word, but he sensed a Presence of fear and lunacy crouching in a dark corner… Abruptly he was back in the dusty, high-ceilinged room, before the great fireplace.
He was lying in his blankets, staring tensely through the dim door and across the shadowy hall, to where a beam of moonlight fell across the balustraded stair, some seven steps up from the landing. And there was something on the stair, a bent, misshapen, shadowy thing that never moved fully into the beam of light. But a dim yellow blur that might have been a face was turned toward him, as if something crouched on the stair, regarding him and his companion. Fright crept chilly through his veins, and it was then that he awoke—if indeed he had been asleep.
He blinked his eyes. The beam of moonlight fell across the stair just as he had dreamed it did; but no figure lurked there. Yet his flesh still crawled from the fear the dream or vision had roused in him; his legs felt as if they had been plunged in ice-water. He made an involuntary movement to awaken his companion, when a sudden sound paralyzed him.
It was the sound of whistling on the floor above. Eery and sweet it rose, not carrying any tune, but piping shrill and melodious. Such a sound in a supposedly deserted house was alarming enough; but it was more than the fear of a physical invader that held Griswell frozen. He could not himself have defined the horror that gripped him. But Branner’s blankets rustled, and Griswell saw he was sitting upright. His figure bulked dimly in the soft darkness, the head turned toward the stair as if the man were listening intently. More sweetly and more subtly evil rose that weird whistling.
“John!” whispered Griswell from dry lips. He had meant to shout—to tell Branner that there was somebody upstairs, somebody who could mean them no good; that they must leave the house at once. But his voice died dryly in his throat.
Branner had risen. His boots clumped on the floor as he moved toward the door. He stalked leisurely into the hall and made for the lower landing, merging with the shadows that clustered black about the stair.
Griswell lay incapable of movement, his mind a whirl of bewilderment. Who was that whistling upstairs? Why was Branner going up those stairs? Griswell saw him pass the spot where the moonlight rested, saw his head tilted back as if he were looking at something Griswell could not see, above and beyond the stair. But his face was like that of a sleepwalker. He moved across the bar of moonlight and vanished from Griswell’s view, even as the latter tried to shout to him to come back. A ghastly whisper was the only result of his effort.
The whistling sank to a lower note, died out. Griswell heard the stairs creaking under Branner’s measured tread. Now he had reached the hallway above, for Griswell heard the clump of his feet moving along it. Suddenly the footfalls halted, and the whole night seemed to hold its breath. Then an awful scream split the stillness, and Griswell started up, echoing the cry.
The strange paralysis that had held him was broken. He took a step toward the door, then checked himself. The footfalls were resumed. Branner was coming back. He was not running. The tread was even more deliberate and measured than before. Now the stairs began to creak again. A groping hand, moving along the balustrade, came into the bar of moonlight; then another, and a ghastly thrill went through Griswell as he saw that the other hand gripped a hatchet—a hatchet which dripped blackly. Was that Branner who was coming down that stair?
Yes! The figure had moved into the bar of moonlight now, and Griswell recognized it. Then he saw Branner’s face, and a shriek burst from Griswell’s lips. Branner’s face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!
Griswell never remembered exactly how he got out of that accursed house. Afterward he retained a mad, confused impression of smashing his way through a dusty cobwebbed window, of stumbling blindly across the weed-choked lawn, gibbering his frantic horror. He saw the black wall of the pines, and the moon floating in a blood-red mist in which there was neither sanity nor reason.
Some shred of sanity returned to him as he saw the automobile beside the road. In a world gone suddenly mad, that was an object reflecting prosaic reality; but even as he reached for the door, a dry chilling whir sounded in his ears, and he recoiled from the swaying undulating shape that arched up from its scaly coils on the driver’s seat and hissed sibilantly at him, darting a forked tongue in the moonlight.
With a sob of horror he turned and fled down the road, as a man runs in a nightmare. He ran without purpose or reason. His numbed brain was incapable of conscious thought. He merely obeyed the blind primitive urge to run—run—run until he fell exhausted.
The black walls of the pines flowed endlessly past him; so he was seized with the illusion that he was getting nowhere. But presently a sound penetrated the fog of his terror—the steady, inexorable patter of feet behind him. Turning his head, he saw something loping after him—wolf or dog, he could not tell which, but its eyes glowed like balls of green fire. With a gasp he increased his speed, reeled around a bend in the road, and heard a horse snort; saw it rear and heard its rider curse; saw the gleam of blue steel in the man’s lifted hand.
He staggered and fell, catching at the rider’s stirrup.
“For God’s sake, help me!” he panted. “The thing! It killed Branner—it’s coming after me! Look!”
Twin balls of fire gleamed in the fringe of bushes at the turn of the road. The rider swore again, and on the heels of his profanity came the smashing report of his six-shooter—again and yet again. The fire-sparks vanished, and the rider, jerking his stirrup free from Griswell’s grasp, spurred his horse at the bend. Griswell staggered up, shaking in every limb. The rider was out of sight only a moment; then he came galloping back.
“Took to the brush. Timber wolf, I reckon, though I never heard of one chasin’ a man before. Do you know what it was?”
Griswell could only shake his head weakly.
The rider, etched in the moonlight, looked down at him, smoking pistol still lifted in his right hand. He was a compactly-built man of medium height, and his broad-brimmed planter’s hat and his boots marked him as a native of the country as definitely as Griswell’s garb stamped him as a stranger.
“What’s all this about, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Griswell answered helplessly. “My name’s Griswell. John Branner—my friend who was traveling with me—we stopped at a deserted house back down the road to spend the night. Something—” at the memory he was choked by a rush of horror. “My God!” he screamed. “I must be mad! Something came and looked over the balustrade of the stair—something with a yellow face! I thought I dreamed it, but it must have been real. Then somebody began whistling upstairs, and Branner rose and went up the stairs walking like a man in his sleep, or hypnotized. I heard him scream—or someone screamed; then he came down the stair again with a bloody hatchet in his hand—and my God, sir, he was dead! His head had been split open. I saw brains and clotted blood oozing down his face, and his face was that of a dead man. But he came down the stairs! As God is my witness, John Branner was murdered in that dark upper hallway, and then his dead body came stalking down the stairs with a hatchet in its hand—to kill me!”
The rider made no reply; he sat his horse like a statue, outlined against the stars, and Griswell could not read his expression, his face shadowed by his hat-brim.
“You think I’m mad,” he said hopelessly. “Perhaps I am.”
“I don’t know what to think,” answered the rider. “If it was any house but the old Blassenville Manor—well, we’ll see. My name’s Buckner. I’m sheriff of this county. Took a prisoner over to the county-seat in the next county and was ridin’ back late.”
He swung off his horse and stood beside Griswell, shorter than the lanky New Englander, but much harder knit. There was a natural manner of decision and certainty about him, and it was easy to believe that he would be a dangerous man in any sort of a fight.
“Are you afraid to go back to the house?” he asked, and Griswell shuddered, but shook his head, the dogged tenacity of Puritan ancestors asserting itself.
“The thought of facing that horror again turns me sick. But poor Branner—” he choked again. “We must find his body. My God!” he cried, unmanned by the abysmal horror of the thing; “what will we find? If a dead man walks, what—”
“We’ll see.” The sheriff caught the reins in the crook of his left elbow and began filling the empty chambers of his big blue pistol as they walked along.
As they made the turn Griswell’s blood was ice at the thought of what they might see lumbering up the road with a bloody, grinning death-mask, but they saw only the house looming spectrally among the pines, down the road. A strong shudder shook Griswell.
“God, how evil that house looks, against those black pines! It looked sinister from the very first—when we went up the broken walk and saw those pigeons fly up from the porch—”
“Pigeons?” Buckner cast him a quick glance. “You saw the pigeons?”
“Why, yes! Scores of them perching on the porch railing.”
They strode on for a moment in silence, before Buckner said abruptly: “I’ve lived in this country all my life. I’ve passed the old Blassenville place a thousand times, I reckon, at all hours of the day and night. But I never saw a pigeon anywhere around it, or anywhere else in these woods.”
“There were scores of them,” repeated Griswell, bewildered.
“I’ve seen men who swore they’d seen a flock of pigeons perched along the balusters just at sundown,” said Buckner slowly. “Negroes, all of them except one man. A tramp. He was buildin’ a fire in the yard, aimin’ to camp there that night. I passed along there about dark, and he told me about the pigeons. I came back by there the next mornin’. The ashes of his fire were there, and his tin cup, and skillet where he’d fried pork, and his blankets looked like they’d been slept in. Nobody ever saw him again. That was twelve years ago. The blacks say they can see the pigeons, but no black would pass along this road between sundown and sunup. They say the pigeons are the souls of the Blassenvilles, let out of hell at sunset. The Negroes say the red glare in the west is the light from hell, because then the gates of hell are open, and the Blassenvilles fly out.”
“Who were the Blassenvilles?” asked Griswell, shivering.
“They owned all this land here. French-English family. Came here from the West Indies before the Louisiana Purchase. The Civil War ruined them, like it did so many. Some were killed in the War; most of the others died out. Nobody’s lived in the Manor since 1890 when Miss Elizabeth Blassenville, the last of the line, fled from the old house one night like it was a plague spot, and never came back to it—this your auto?”
They halted beside the car, and Griswell stared morbidly at the grim house. Its dusty panes were empty and blank; but they did not seem blind to him. It seemed to him that ghastly eyes were fixed hungrily on him through those darkened panes. Buckner repeated his question.
“Yes. Be careful. There’s a snake on the seat—or there was.”
“Not there now,” grunted Buckner, tying his horse and pulling an electric torch out of the saddle-bag. “Well, let’s have a look.”
He strode up the broken brick walk as matter-of-factly as if he were paying a social call on friends. Griswell followed close at his heels, his heart pounding suffocatingly. A scent of decay and moldering vegetation blew on the faint wind, and Griswell grew faint with nausea, that rose from a frantic abhorrence of these black woods, these ancient plantation houses that hid forgotten secrets of slavery and bloody pride and mysterious intrigues. He had thought of the South as a sunny, lazy land washed by soft breezes laden with spice and warm blossoms, where life ran tranquilly to the rhythm of black folk singing in sunbathed cottonfields. But now he had discovered another, unsuspected side—a dark, brooding, fear-haunted side, and the discovery repelled him.
The oaken door sagged as it had before. The blackness of the interior was intensified by the beam of Buckner’s light playing on the sill. That beam sliced through the darkness of the hallway and roved up the stair, and Griswell held his breath, clenching his fists. But no shape of lunacy leered down at them. Buckner went in, walking light as a cat, torch in one hand, gun in the other.
As he swung his light into the room across from the stairway, Griswell cried out—and cried out again, almost fainting with the intolerable sickness at what he saw. A trail of blood drops led across the floor, crossing the blankets Branner had occupied, which lay between the door and those in which Griswell had lain. And Griswell’s blankets had a terrible occupant. John Branner lay there, face down, his cleft head revealed in merciless clarity in the steady light. His outstretched hand still gripped the haft of a hatchet, and the blade was imbedded deep in the blanket and the floor beneath, just where Griswell’s head had lain when he slept there.
A momentary rush of blackness engulfed Griswell. He was not aware that he staggered, or that Buckner caught him. When he could see and hear again, he was violently sick and hung his head against the mantel, retching miserably.
Buckner turned the light full on him, making him blink. Buckner’s voice came from behind the blinding radiance, the man himself unseen.
“Griswell, you’ve told me a yarn that’s hard to believe. I saw something chasin’ you, but it might have been a timber wolf, or a mad dog.
“If you’re holdin’ back anything, you better spill it. What you told me won’t hold up in any court. You’re bound to be accused of killin’ your partner. I’ll have to arrest you. If you’ll give me the straight goods now, it’ll make it easier. Now, didn’t you kill this fellow, Branner?
“Wasn’t it something like this: you quarreled, he grabbed a hatchet and swung at you, but you dodged and then let him have it?”
Griswell sank down and hid his face in his hands, his head swimming.
“Great God, man, I didn’t murder John! Why, we’ve been friends ever since we were children in school together. I’ve told you the truth. I don’t blame you for not believing me. But God help me, it is the truth!”
The light swung back to the gory head again, and Griswell closed his eyes.
He heard Buckner grunt.
“I believe this hatchet in his hand is the one he was killed with. Blood and brains plastered on the blade, and hairs stickin’ to it—hairs exactly the same color as his. This makes it tough for you, Griswell.”
“How so?” the New Englander asked dully.
“Knocks any plea of self-defense in the head. Branner couldn’t have swung at you with this hatchet after you split his skull with it. You must have pulled the ax out of his head, stuck it into the floor and clamped his fingers on it to make it look like he’d attacked you. And it would have been damned clever—if you’d used another hatchet.”
“But I didn’t kill him,” groaned Griswell. “I have no intention of pleading self-defense.”
“That’s what puzzles me,” Buckner admitted frankly, straightening. “What murderer would rig up such a crazy story as you’ve told me, to prove his innocence? Average killer would have told a logical yarn, at least. Hmmm! Blood drops leadin’ from the door. The body was dragged—no, couldn’t have been dragged. The floor isn’t smeared. You must have carried it here, after killin’ him in some other place. But in that case, why isn’t there any blood on your clothes? Of course you could have changed clothes and washed your hands. But the fellow hasn’t been dead long.”
“He walked downstairs and across the room,” said Griswell hopelessly. “He came to kill me. I knew he was coming to kill me when I saw him lurching down the stair. He struck where I would have been, if I hadn’t awakened. That window—I burst out at it. You see it’s broken.”
“I see. But if he walked then, why isn’t he walkin’ now?”
“I don’t know! I’m too sick to think straight. I’ve been fearing that he’d rise up from the floor where he lies and come at me again. When I heard that wolf running up the road after me, I thought it was John chasing me—John, running through the night with his bloody ax and his bloody head, and his death-grin!”
His teeth chattered as he lived that horror over again.
Buckner let his light play across the floor.
“The blood drops lead into the hall. Come on. We’ll follow them.”
Griswell cringed. “They lead upstairs.”
Buckner’s eyes were fixed hard on him.
“Are you afraid to go upstairs, with me?”
Griswell’s face was gray.
“Yes. But I’m going, with you or without you. The thing that killed poor John may still be hiding up there.”
“Stay behind me,” ordered Buckner. “If anything jumps us, I’ll take care of it. But for your own sake, I warn you that I shoot quicker than a cat jumps, and I don’t often miss. If you’ve got any ideas of layin’ me out from behind, forget them.”
“Don’t be a fool!” Resentment got the better of his apprehension, and this outburst seemed to reassure Buckner more than any of his protestations of innocence.
“I want to be fair,” he said quietly. “I haven’t indicted and condemned you in my mind already. If only half of what you’re tellin’ me is the truth, you’ve been through a hell of an experience, and I don’t want to be too hard on you. But you can see how hard it is for me to believe all you’ve told me.”
Griswell wearily motioned for him to lead the way, unspeaking. They went out into the hall, paused at the landing. A thin string of crimson drops, distinct in the thick dust, led up the steps.
“Man’s tracks in the dust,” grunted Buckner. “Go slow. I’ve got to be sure of what I see, because we’re obliteratin’ them as we go up. Hmmm! One set goin’ up, one comin’ down. Same man. Not your tracks. Branner was a bigger man than you are. Blood drops all the way—blood on the bannisters like a man had laid his bloody hand there—a smear of stuff that looksbrains. Now what—”
“He walked down the stair, a dead man,” shuddered Griswell. “Groping with one hand—the other gripping the hatchet that killed him.”
“Or was carried,” muttered the sheriff. “But if somebody carried him—where are the tracks?”
They came out into the upper hallway, a vast, empty space of dust and shadows where time-crusted windows repelled the moonlight and the ring of Buckner’s torch seemed inadequate. Griswell trembled like a leaf. Here, in darkness and horror, John Branner had died.
“Somebody whistled up here,” he muttered. “John came, as if he were being called.”
Buckner’s eyes were blazing strangely in the light.
“The footprints lead down the hall,” he muttered. “Same as on the stair—one set going, one coming. Same prints—Judas!”
Behind him Griswell stifled a cry, for he had seen what prompted Buckner’s exclamation. A few feet from the head of the stair Branner’s footprints stopped abruptly, then returned, treading almost in the other tracks. And where the trail halted there was a great splash of blood on the dusty floor—and other tracks met it—tracks of bare feet, narrow but with splayed toes. They too receded in a second line from the spot.
Buckner bent over them, swearing.
“The tracks meet! And where they meet there’s blood and brains on the floor! Branner must have been killed on that spot—with a blow from a hatchet. Bare feet coming out of the darkness to meet shod feet—then both turned away again; the shod feet went downstairs, the bare feet went back down the hall.” He directed his light down the hall. The footprints faded into darkness, beyond the reach of the beam. On either hand the closed doors of chambers were cryptic portals of mystery.
“Suppose your crazy tale was true,” Buckner muttered, half to himself. “These aren’t your tracks. They look like a woman’s. Suppose somebody did whistle, and Branner went upstairs to investigate. Suppose somebody met him here in the dark and split his head. The signs and tracks would have been, in that case, just as they really are. But if that’s so, why isn’t Branner lyin’ here where he was killed? Could he have lived long enough to take the hatchet away from whoever killed him, and stagger downstairs with it?”
“No, no!” Recollection gagged Griswell. “I saw him on the stair. He was dead. No man could live a minute after receiving such a wound.”
“I believe it,” muttered Buckner. “But—it’s madness! Or else it’s too clever—yet, what sane man would think up and work out such an elaborate and utterly insane plan to escape punishment for murder, when a simple plea of self-defense would have been so much more effective? No court would recognize that story. Well, let’s follow these other tracks. They lead down the hall—here, what’s this?”
With an icy clutch at his soul, Griswell saw the light was beginning to grow dim.
“This battery is new,” muttered Buckner, and for the first time Griswell caught an edge of fear in his voice. “Come on—out of here quick!”
The light had faded to a faint red glow. The darkness seemed straining into them, creeping with black cat-feet. Buckner retreated, pushing Griswell stumbling behind him as he walked backward, pistol cocked and lifted, down the dark hall. In the growing darkness Griswell heard what sounded like the stealthy opening of a door. And suddenly the blackness about them was vibrant with menace. Griswell knew Buckner sensed it as well as he, for the sheriff’s hard body was tense and taut as a stalking panther’s.
But without haste he worked his way to the stair and backed down it, Griswell preceding him, and fighting the panic that urged him to scream and burst into mad flight. A ghastly thought brought icy sweat out on his flesh. Suppose the dead man were creeping up the stair behind them in the dark, face frozen in the death-grin, blood-caked hatchet lifted to strike?
This possibility so overpowered him that he was scarcely aware when his feet struck the level of the lower hallway, and he was only then aware that the light had grown brighter as they descended, until it now gleamed with its full power—but when Buckner turned it back up the stairway, it failed to illuminate the darkness that hung like a tangible fog at the head of the stair.
“The damn thing was conjured,” muttered Buckner. “Nothin’ else. It couldn’t act like that naturally.”
“Turn the light into the room,” begged Griswell. “See if John—if John is—”
He could not put the ghastly thought into words, but Buckner understood.
He swung the beam around, and Griswell had never dreamed that the sight of the gory body of a murdered man could bring such relief.
“He’s still there,” grunted Buckner. “If he walked after he was killed, he hasn’t walked since. But that thing—”
Again he turned the light up the stair, and stood chewing his lip and scowling. Three times he half lifted his gun. Griswell read his mind. The sheriff was tempted to plunge back up that stair, take his chance with the unknown. But common sense held him back.
“I wouldn’t have a chance in the dark,” he muttered. “And I’ve got a hunch the light would go out again.”
He turned and faced Griswell squarely.
“There’s no use dodgin’ the question. There’s somethin’ hellish in this house, and I believe I have an inklin’ of what it is. I don’t believe you killed Branner. Whatever killed him is up there—now. There’s a lot about your yarn that don’t sound sane; but there’s nothin’ sane about a flashlight goin’ out like this one did. I don’t believe that thing upstairs is human. I never met anything I was afraid to tackle in the dark before, but I’m not goin’ up there until daylight. It’s not long until dawn. We’ll wait for it out there on that gallery.”
The stars were already paling when they came out on the broad porch. Buckner seated himself on the balustrade, facing the door, his pistol dangling in his fingers. Griswell sat down near him and leaned back against a crumbling pillar. He shut his eyes, grateful for the faint breeze that seemed to cool his throbbing brain. He experienced a dull sense of unreality. He was a stranger in a strange land, a land that had become suddenly imbued with black horror. The shadow of the noose hovered above him, and in that dark house lay John Branner, with his butchered head—like the figments of a dream these facts spun and eddied in his brain until all merged in a gray twilight as sleep came uninvited to his weary soul.
He awoke to a cold white dawn and full memory of the horrors of the night. Mists curled about the stems of the pines, crawled in smoky wisps up the broken walk. Buckner was shaking him.
“Wake up! It’s daylight.”
Griswell rose, wincing at the stiffness of his limbs. His face was gray and old.
“I’m ready. Let’s go upstairs.”
“I’ve already been!” Buckner’s eyes burned in the early dawn. “I didn’t wake you up. I went as soon as it was light. I found nothin’.”
“The tracks of the bare feet—”
“Yes, gone! The dust had been disturbed all over the hall, from the point where Branner’s tracks ended; swept into corners. No chance of trackin’ anything there now. Something obliterated those tracks while we sat here, and I didn’t hear a sound. I’ve gone through the whole house. Not a sign of anything.”
Griswell shuddered at the thought of himself sleeping alone on the porch while Buckner conducted his exploration.
“What shall we do?” he asked listlessly. “With those tracks gone there goes my only chance of proving my story.”
“We’ll take Branner’s body into the county-seat,” answered Buckner. “Let me do the talkin’. If the authorities knew the facts as they appear, they’d insist on you being confined and indicted. I don’t believe you killed Branner—but neither a district attorney, judge nor jury would believe what you told me, or what happened to us last night. I’m handlin’ this thing my own way. I’m not goin’ to arrest you until I’ve exhausted every other possibility.
“Say nothin’ about what’s happened here, when we get to town. I’ll simply tell the district attorney that John Branner was killed by a party or parties unknown, and that I’m workin’ on the case.
“Are you game to come back with me to this house and spend the night here, sleepin’ in that room as you and Branner slept last night?”
Griswell went white, but answered as stoutly as his ancestors might have expressed their determination to hold their cabins in the teeth of the Pequots: “I’ll do it.”
“Let’s go then; help me pack the body out to your auto.”
Griswell’s soul revolted at the sight of John Branner’s bloodless face in the chill white dawn, and the feel of his clammy flesh. The gray fog wrapped wispy tentacles about their feet as they carried their grisly burden across the lawn.
Again the shadows were lengthening over the pinelands, and again two men came bumping along the old road in a car with a New England license plate.
Buckner was driving. Griswell’s nerves were too shattered for him to trust himself at the wheel. He looked gaunt and haggard, and his face was still pallid. The strain of the day spent at the county-seat was added to the horror that still rode his soul like the shadow of a black-winged vulture. He had not slept, had not tasted what he had eaten.
“I told you I’d tell you about the Blassenvilles,” said Buckner. “They were proud folks, haughty, and pretty damn ruthless when they wanted their way. They didn’t treat their slaves as well as the other planters did—got their ideas in the West Indies, I reckon. There was a streak of cruelty in them—especially Miss Celia, the last one of the family to come to these parts. That was long after the slaves had been freed, but she used to whip her mulatto maid just like she was a slave, the old folks say… The Negroes said when a Blassenville died, the devil was always waitin’ for him out in the black pines.
“Well, after the Civil War they died off pretty fast, livin’ in poverty on the plantation which was allowed to go to ruin. Finally only four girls were left, sisters, livin’ in the old house and ekin’ out a bare livin’, with a few blacks livin’ in the old slave huts and workin’ the fields on the share. They kept to themselves, bein’ proud, and ashamed of their poverty. Folks wouldn’t see them for months at a time. When they needed supplies they sent a Negro to town after them.
“But folks knew about it when Miss Celia came to live with them. She came from somewhere in the West Indies, where the whole family originally had its roots—a fine, handsome woman, they say, in the early thirties. But she didn’t mix with folks any more than the girls did. She brought a mulatto maid with her, and the Blassenville cruelty cropped out in her treatment of this maid. I knew an old man years ago, who swore he saw Miss Celia tie this girl up to a tree, stark naked, and whip her with a horsewhip. Nobody was surprised when she disappeared. Everybody figured she’d run away, of course.
“Well, one day in the spring of 1890 Miss Elizabeth, the youngest girl, came in to town for the first time in maybe a year. She came after supplies. Said the blacks had all left the place. Talked a little more, too, a bit wild. Said Miss Celia had gone, without leaving any word. Said her sisters thought she’d gone back to the West Indies, but she believed her aunt was still in the house. She didn’t say what she meant. Just got her supplies and pulled out for the Manor.
“A month went past, and a black came into town and said that Miss Elizabeth was livin’ at the Manor alone. Said her three sisters weren’t there any more, that they’d left one by one without givin’ any word or explanation. She didn’t know where they’d gone, and was afraid to stay there alone, but didn’t know where else to go. She’d never known anything but the Manor, and had neither relatives nor friends. But she was in mortal terror of something. The black said she locked herself in her room at night and kept candles burnin’ all night…
“It was a stormy spring night when Miss Elizabeth came tearin’ into town on the one horse she owned, nearly dead from fright. She fell from her horse in the square; when she could talk she said she’d found a secret room in the Manor that had been forgotten for a hundred years. And she said that there she found her three sisters, dead, and hangin’ by their necks from the ceilin’. She said something chased her and nearly brained her with an ax as she ran out the front door, but somehow she got to the horse and got away. She was nearly crazy with fear, and didn’t know what it was that chased her—said it looked like a woman with a yellow face.
“About a hundred men rode out there, right away. They searched the house from top to bottom, but they didn’t find any secret room, or the remains of the sisters. But they did find a hatchet stickin’ in the doorjamb downstairs, with some of Miss Elizabeth’s hairs stuck on it, just as she’d said. She wouldn’t go back there and show them how to find the secret door; almost went crazy when they suggested it.
“When she was able to travel, the people made up some money and loaned it to her—she was still too proud to accept charity—and she went to California. She never came back, but later it was learned, when she sent back to repay the money they’d loaned her, that she’d married out there.
“Nobody ever bought the house. It stood there just as she’d left it, and as the years passed folks stole all the furnishings out of it, poor white trash, I reckon. A Negro wouldn’t go about it. But they came after sunup and left long before sundown.”
“What did the people think about Miss Elizabeth’s story?” asked Griswell.
“Well, most folks thought she’d gone a little crazy, livin’ in that old house alone. But some people believed that mulatto girl, Joan, didn’t run away, after all. They believed she’d hidden in the woods, and glutted her hatred of the Blassenvilles by murderin’ Miss Celia and the three girls. They beat up the woods with bloodhounds, but never found a trace of her. If there was a secret room in the house, she might have been hidin’ there—if there was anything to that theory.”
“She couldn’t have been hiding there all these years,” muttered Griswell. “Anyway, the thing in the house now isn’t human.”
Buckner wrenched the wheel around and turned into a dim trace that left the main road and meandered off through the pines.
“Where are you going?”
“There’s an old Negro that lives off this way a few miles. I want to talk to him. We’re up against something that takes more than white man’s sense. The black people know more than we do about some things. This old man is nearly a hundred years old. His master educated him when he was a boy, and after he was freed he traveled more extensively than most white men do. They say he’s a voodoo man.”
Griswell shivered at the phrase, staring uneasily at the green forest walls that shut them in. The scent of the pines was mingled with the odors of unfamiliar plants and blossoms. But underlying all was a reek of rot and decay. Again a sick abhorrence of these dark mysterious woodlands almost overpowered him.
“Voodoo!” he muttered. “I’d forgotten about that—I never could think of black magic in connection with the South. To me witchcraft was always associated with old crooked streets in waterfront towns, overhung by gabled roofs that were old when they were hanging witches in Salem; dark musty alleys where black cats and other things might steal at night. Witchcraft always meant the old towns of New England, to me—but all this is more terrible than any New England legend—these somber pines, old deserted houses, lost plantations, mysterious black people, old tales of madness and horror—God, what frightful, ancient terrors there are on this continent fools call ‘young’!”
“Here’s old Jacob’s hut,” announced Buckner, bringing the automobile to a halt.
Griswell saw a clearing and a small cabin squatting under the shadows of the huge trees. The pines gave way to oaks and cypresses, bearded with gray trailing moss, and behind the cabin lay the edge of a swamp that ran away under the dimness of the trees, choked with rank vegetation. A thin wisp of blue smoke curled up from the stick-and-mud chimney.
He followed Buckner to the tiny stoop, where the sheriff pushed open the leather-hinged door and strode in. Griswell blinked in the comparative dimness of the interior. A single small window let in a little daylight. An old Negro crouched beside the hearth, watching a pot stew over the open fire. He looked up as they entered, but did not rise. He seemed incredibly old. His face was a mass of wrinkles, and his eyes, dark and vital, were filmed momentarily at times as if his mind wandered.
Buckner motioned Griswell to sit down in a string-bottomed chair, and himself took a rudely-made bench near the hearth, facing the old man.
“Jacob,” he said bluntly, “the time’s come for you to talk. I know you know the secret of Blassenville Manor. I’ve never questioned you about it, because it wasn’t in my line. But a man was murdered there last night, and this man here may hang for it, unless you tell me what haunts that old house of the Blassenvilles.”
The old man’s eyes gleamed, then grew misty as if clouds of extreme age drifted across his brittle mind.
“The Blassenvilles,” he murmured, and his voice was mellow and rich, his speech not the patois of the piny woods darky. “They were proud people, sirs—proud and cruel. Some died in the war, some were killed in duels—the menfolks, sirs. Some died in the Manor—the old Manor—” His voice trailed off into unintelligible mumblings.
“What of the Manor?” asked Buckner patiently.
“Miss Celia was the proudest of them all,” the old man muttered. “The proudest and the cruelest. The black people hated her; Joan most of all. Joan had white blood in her, and she was proud, too. Miss Celia whipped her like a slave.”
“What is the secret of Blassenville Manor?” persisted Buckner.
The film faded from the old man’s eyes; they were dark as moonlit wells.
“What secret, sir? I do not understand.”
“Yes, you do. For years that old house has stood there with its mystery. You know the key to its riddle.”
The old man stirred the stew. He seemed perfectly rational now.
“Sir, life is sweet, even to an old black man.”
“You mean somebody would kill you if you told me?”
But the old man was mumbling again, his eyes clouded.
“Not somebody. No human. No human being. The black gods of the swamps. My secret is inviolate, guarded by the Big Serpent, the god above all gods. He would send a little brother to kiss me with his cold lips—a little brother with a white crescent moon on his head. I sold my soul to the Big Serpent when he made me maker of zuvembies—”
“I heard that word once before,” he said softly, “from the lips of a dying black man, when I was a child. What does it mean?”
Fear filled the eyes of old Jacob.
“What have I said? No—no! I said nothing.”
“Zuvembies,” prompted Buckner.
“Zuvembies,” mechanically repeated the old man, his eyes vacant. “A zuvembie was once a woman—on the Slave Coast they know of them. The drums that whisper by night in the hills of Haiti tell of them. The makers of zuvembies are honored of the people of Damballah. It is death to speak of it to a white man—it is one of the Snake God’s forbidden secrets.”
“You speak of the zuvembies,” said Buckner softly.
“I must not speak of it,” mumbled the old man, and Griswell realized that he was thinking aloud, too far gone in his dotage to be aware that he was speaking at all. “No white man must know that I danced in the Black Ceremony of the voodoo, and was made a maker of zombies and zuvembies. The Big Snake punishes loose tongues with death.”
“A zuvembie is a woman?” prompted Buckner.
“Was a woman,” the old Negro muttered. “She knew I was a maker of zuvembies—she came and stood in my hut and asked for the awful brew—the brew of ground snake-bones, and the blood of vampire bats, and the dew from a nighthawk’s wings, and other elements unnamable. She had danced in the Black Ceremony—she was ripe to become a zuvembie—the Black Brew was all that was needed—the other was beautiful—I could not refuse her.”
“Who?” demanded Buckner tensely, but the old man’s head was sunk on his withered breast, and he did not reply. He seemed to slumber as he sat. Buckner shook him. “You gave a brew to make a woman a zuvembie—what is a zuvembie?”
The old man stirred resentfully and muttered drowsily.
“A zuvembie is no longer human. It knows neither relatives nor friends. It is one with the people of the Black World. It commands the natural demons—owls, bats, snakes and werewolves, and can fetch darkness to blot out a little light. It can be slain by lead or steel, but unless it is slain thus, it lives for ever, and it eats no such food as humans eat. It dwells like a bat in a cave or an old house. Time means naught to the zuvembie; an hour, a day, a year, all is one. It cannot speak human words, nor think as a human thinks, but it can hypnotize the living by the sound of its voice, and when it slays a man, it can command his lifeless body until the flesh is cold. As long as the blood flows, the corpse is its slave. Its pleasure lies in the slaughter of human beings.”
“And why should one become a zuvembie?” asked Buckner softly.
“Hate,” whispered the old man. “Hate! Revenge!”
“Was her name Joan?” murmured Buckner.
It was as if the name penetrated the fogs of senility that clouded the voodoo-man’s mind. He shook himself and the film faded from his eyes, leaving them hard and gleaming as wet black marble.
“Joan?” he said slowly. “I have not heard that name for the span of a generation. I seem to have been sleeping, gentlemen; I do not remember—I ask your pardon. Old men fall asleep before the fire, like old dogs. You asked me of Blassenville Manor? Sir, if I were to tell you why I cannot answer you, you would deem it mere superstition. Yet the white man’s God be my witness—”
As he spoke he was reaching across the hearth for a piece of firewood, groping among the heaps of sticks there. And his voice broke in a scream, as he jerked back his arm convulsively. And a horrible, thrashing, trailing thing came with it. Around the voodoo-man’s arm a mottled length of that shape was wrapped, and a wicked wedge-shaped head struck again in silent fury.
The old man fell on the hearth, screaming, upsetting the simmering pot and scattering the embers, and then Buckner caught up a billet of firewood and crushed that flat head. Cursing, he kicked aside the knotting, twisting trunk, glaring briefly at the mangled head. Old Jacob had ceased screaming and writhing; he lay still, staring glassily upward.
“Dead?” whispered Griswell.
“Dead as Judas Iscariot,” snapped Buckner, frowning at the twitching reptile. “That infernal snake crammed enough poison into his veins to kill a dozen men his age. But I think it was the shock and fright that killed him.”
“What shall we do?” asked Griswell, shivering.
“Leave the body on that bunk. Nothin’ can hurt it, if we bolt the door so the wild hogs can’t get in, or any cat. We’ll carry it into town tomorrow. We’ve got work to do tonight. Let’s get goin’.”
Griswell shrank from touching the corpse, but he helped Buckner lift it on the rude bunk, and then stumbled hastily out of the hut. The sun was hovering above the horizon, visible in dazzling red flame through the black stems of the trees.
They climbed into the car in silence, and went bumping back along the stumpy terrain.
“He said the Big Snake would send one of his brothers,” muttered Griswell.
“Nonsense!” snorted Buckner. “Snakes like warmth, and that swamp is full of them. It crawled in and coiled up among that firewood. Old Jacob disturbed it, and it bit him. Nothin’ supernatural about that.” After a short silence he said, in a different voice, “That was the first time I ever saw a rattler strike without singin’; and the first time I ever saw a snake with a white crescent moon on its head.”
They were turning in to the main road before either spoke again.
“You think that the mulatto Joan has skulked in the house all these years?” Griswell asked.
“You heard what old Jacob said,” answered Buckner grimly. “Time means nothin’ to a zuvembie.”
As they made the last turn in the road, Griswell braced himself against the sight of Blassenville Manor looming black against the red sunset. When it came into view he bit his lip to keep from shrieking. The suggestion of cryptic horror came back in all its power.
“Look!” he whispered from dry lips as they came to a halt beside the road. Buckner grunted.
From the balustrades of the gallery rose a whirling cloud of pigeons that swept away into the sunset, black against the lurid glare.
Both men sat rigid for a few moments after the pigeons had flown.
“Well, I’ve seen them at last,” muttered Buckner.
“Only the doomed see them perhaps,” whispered Griswell. “That tramp saw them—”
“Well, we’ll see,” returned the Southerner tranquilly, as he climbed out of the car, but Griswell noticed him unconsciously hitch forward his scabbarded gun.
The oaken door sagged on broken hinges. Their feet echoed on the broken brick walk. The blind windows reflected the sunset in sheets of flame. As they came into the broad hall Griswell saw the string of black marks that ran across the floor and into the chamber, marking the path of a dead man.
Buckner had brought blankets out of the automobile. He spread them before the fireplace.
“I’ll lie next to the door,” he said. “You lie where you did last night.”
“Shall we light a fire in the grate?” asked Griswell, dreading the thought of the blackness that would cloak the woods when the brief twilight had died.
“No. You’ve got a flashlight and so have I. We’ll lie here in the dark and see what happens. Can you use that gun I gave you?”
“I suppose so. I never fired a revolver, but I know how it’s done.”
“Well, leave the shootin’ to me, if possible.” The sheriff seated himself cross-legged on his blankets and emptied the cylinder of his big blue Colt, inspecting each cartridge with a critical eye before he replaced it.
Griswell prowled nervously back and forth, begrudging the slow fading of the light as a miser begrudges the waning of his gold. He leaned with one hand against the mantelpiece, staring down into the dust-covered ashes. The fire that produced those ashes must have been built by Elizabeth Blassenville, more than forty years before. The thought was depressing. Idly he stirred the dusty ashes with his toe. Something came to view among the charred debris—a bit of paper, stained and yellowed. Still idly he bent and drew it out of the ashes. It was a note-book with moldering cardboard backs.
“What have you found?” asked Buckner, squinting down the gleaming barrel of his gun.
“Nothing but an old note-book. Looks like a diary. The pages are covered with writing—but the ink is so faded, and the paper is in such a state of decay that I can’t tell much about it. How do you suppose it came in the fireplace, without being burned up?”
“Thrown in long after the fire was out,” surmised Buckner. “Probably found and tossed in the fireplace by somebody who was in here stealin’ furniture. Likely somebody who couldn’t read.”
Griswell fluttered the crumbling leaves listlessly, straining his eyes in the fading light over the yellowed scrawls. Then he stiffened.
“Here’s an entry that’s legible! Listen!” He read:
“‘I know someone is in the house besides myself. I can hear someone prowling about at night when the sun has set and the pines are black outside. Often in the night I hear it fumbling at my door. Who is it? Is it one of my sisters? Is it Aunt Celia? If it is either of these, why does she steal so subtly about the house? Why does she tug at my door, and glide away when I call to her? Shall I open the door and go out to her? No, no! I dare not! I am afraid. Oh God, what shall I do? I dare not stay here—but where am I to go?’”
“By God!” ejaculated Buckner. “That must be Elizabeth Blassenville’s diary! Go on!”
“I can’t make out the rest of the page,” answered Griswell. “But a few pages further on I can make out some lines.” He read:
“‘Why did the Negroes all run away when Aunt Celia disappeared? My sisters are dead. I know they are dead. I seem to sense that they died horribly, in fear and agony. But why? Why? If someone murdered Aunt Celia, why should that person murder my poor sisters? They were always kind to the black people. Joan—’”
He paused, scowling futilely.
“A piece of the page is torn out. Here’s another entry under another date—at least I judge it’s a date; I can’t make it out for sure.
“‘—the awful thing that the old Negress hinted at? She named Jacob Blount, and Joan, but she would not speak plainly; perhaps she feared to—’ Part of it gone here; then: ‘No, no! How can it be? She is dead—or gone away. Yet—she was born and raised in the West Indies, and from hints she let fall in the past, I know she delved into the mysteries of the voodoo. I believe she even danced in one of their horrible ceremonies—how could she have been such a beast? And this—this horror. God, can such things be? I know not what to think. If it is she who roams the house at night, who fumbles at my door, who whistles so weirdly and sweetly—no, no, I must be going mad. If I stay here alone I shall die as hideously as my sisters must have died. Of that I am convinced.’”
The incoherent chronicle ended as abruptly as it had begun. Griswell was so engrossed in deciphering the scraps that he was not aware that darkness had stolen upon them, hardly aware that Buckner was holding his electric torch for him to read by. Waking from his abstraction he started and darted a quick glance at the black hallway.
“What do you make of it?”
“What I’ve suspected all the time,” answered Buckner. “That mulatto maid Joan turned zuvembie to avenge herself on Miss Celia. Probably hated the whole family as much as she did her mistress. She’d taken part in voodoo ceremonies on her native island until she was ‘ripe,’ as old Jacob said. All she needed was the Black Brew—he supplied that. She killed Miss Celia and the three older girls, and would have gotten Elizabeth but for chance. She’s been lurkin’ in this old house all these years, like a snake in a ruin.”
“But why should she murder a stranger?”
“You heard what old Jacob said,” reminded Buckner. “A zuvembie finds satisfaction in the slaughter of humans. She called Branner up the stair and split his head and stuck the hatchet in his hand, and sent him downstairs to murder you. No court will ever believe that, but if we can produce her body, that will be evidence enough to prove your innocence. My word will be taken, that she murdered Branner. Jacob said a zuvembie could be killed… in reporting this affair I don’t have to be too accurate in detail.”
“She came and peered over the balustrade of the stair at us,” muttered Griswell. “But why didn’t we find her tracks on the stair?”
“Maybe you dreamed it. Maybe a zuvembie can project her spirit—hell! why try to rationalize something that’s outside the bounds of rationality? Let’s begin our watch.”
“Don’t turn out the light!” exclaimed Griswell involuntarily. Then he added: “Of course. Turn it out. We must be in the dark as”—he gagged a bit—“as Branner and I were.”
But fear like a physical sickness assailed him when the room was plunged in darkness. He lay trembling and his heart beat so heavily he felt as if he would suffocate.
“The West Indies must be the plague spot of the world,” muttered Buckner, a blur on his blankets. “I’ve heard of zombies. Never knew before what a zuvembie was. Evidently some drug concocted by the voodoo-men to induce madness in women. That doesn’t explain the other things, though: the hypnotic powers, the abnormal longevity, the ability to control corpses—no, a zuvembie can’t be merely a mad-woman. It’s a monster, something more and less than a human being, created by the magic that spawns in black swamps and jungles—well, we’ll see.”
His voice ceased, and in the silence Griswell heard the pounding of his own heart. Outside in the black woods a wolf howled eerily, and owls hooted. Then silence fell again like a black fog.
Griswell forced himself to lie still on his blankets. Time seemed at a standstill. He felt as if he were choking. The suspense was growing unendurable; the effort he made to control his crumbling nerves bathed his limbs in sweat. He clenched his teeth until his jaws ached and almost locked, and the nails of his fingers bit deeply into his palms.
He did not know what he was expecting. The fiend would strike again—but how? Would it be a horrible, sweet whistling, bare feet stealing down the creaking steps, or a sudden hatchet-stroke in the dark? Would it choose him or Buckner? Was Buckner already dead? He could see nothing in the blackness, but he heard the man’s steady breathing. The Southerner must have nerves of steel. Or was that Buckner breathing beside him, separated by a narrow strip of darkness? Had the fiend already struck in silence, and taken the sheriff’s place, there to lie in ghoulish glee until it was ready to strike?—a thousand hideous fancies assailed Griswell tooth and claw.
He began to feel that he would go mad if he did not leap to his feet, screaming, and burst frenziedly out of that accursed house—not even the fear of the gallows could keep him lying there in the darkness any longer—the rhythm of Buckner’s breathing was suddenly broken, and Griswell felt as if a bucket of ice-water had been poured over him. From somewhere above them rose a sound of weird, sweet whistling…
Griswell’s control snapped, plunging his brain into darkness deeper than the physical blackness which engulfed him. There was a period of absolute blankness, in which a realization of motion was his first sensation of awakening consciousness. He was running, madly, stumbling over an incredibly rough road. All was darkness about him, and he ran blindly. Vaguely he realized that he must have bolted from the house, and fled for perhaps miles before his overwrought brain began to function. He did not care; dying on the gallows for a murder he never committed did not terrify him half as much as the thought of returning to that house of horror. He was overpowered by the urge to run—run—run as he was running now, blindly, until he reached the end of his endurance. The mist had not yet fully lifted from his brain, but he was aware of a dull wonder that he could not see the stars through the black branches. He wished vaguely that he could see where he was going. He believed he must be climbing a hill, and that was strange, for he knew there were no hills within miles of the Manor. Then above and ahead of him a dim glow began.
He scrambled toward it, over ledge-like projections that were more and more taking on a disquieting symmetry. Then he was horror-stricken to realize that a sound was impacting on his ears—a weird mocking whistle. The sound swept the mists away. Why, what was this? Where was he? Awakening and realization came like the stunning stroke of a butcher’s maul. He was not fleeing along a road, or climbing a hill; he was mounting a stair. He was still in Blassenville Manor! And he was climbing the stair!
An inhuman scream burst from his lips. Above it the mad whistling rose in a ghoulish piping of demoniac triumph. He tried to stop—to turn back—even to fling himself over the balustrade. His shrieking rang unbearably in his own ears. But his will-power was shattered to bits. It did not exist. He had no will. He had dropped his flashlight, and he had forgotten the gun in his pocket. He could not command his own body. His legs, moving stiffly, worked like pieces of mechanism detached from his brain, obeying an outside will. Clumping methodically they carried him shrieking up the stair toward the witch-fire glow shimmering above him.
“Buckner!” he screamed. “Buckner! Help, for God’s sake!”
His voice strangled in his throat. He had reached the upper landing. He was tottering down the hallway. The whistling sank and ceased, but its impulsion still drove him on. He could not see from what source the dim glow came. It seemed to emanate from no central focus. But he saw a vague figure shambling toward him. It looked like a woman, but no human woman ever walked with that skulking gait, and no human woman ever had that face of horror, that leering yellow blur of lunacy—he tried to scream at the sight of that face, at the glint of keen steel in the uplifted claw-like hand—but his tongue was frozen.
Then something crashed deafeningly behind him; the shadows were split by a tongue of flame which lit a hideous figure falling backward. Hard on the heels of the report rang an inhuman squawk.
In the darkness that followed the flash Griswell fell to his knees and covered his face with his hands. He did not hear Buckner’s voice. The Southerner’s hand on his shoulder shook him out of his swoon.
A light in his eyes blinded him. He blinked, shaded his eyes, looked up into Buckner’s face, bending at the rim of the circle of light. The sheriff was pale.
“Are you hurt? God, man, are you hurt? There’s a butcher knife there on the floor—”
“I’m not hurt,” mumbled Griswell. “You fired just in time—the fiend! Where is it? Where did it go?”
Somewhere in the house there sounded a sickening flopping and flapping as of something that thrashed and struggled in its death convulsions.
“Jacob was right,” said Buckner grimly. “Lead can kill them. I hit her, all right. Didn’t dare use my flashlight, but there was enough light. When that whistlin’ started you almost walked over me gettin’ out. I knew you were hypnotized, or whatever it is. I followed you up the stairs. I was right behind you, but crouchin’ low so she wouldn’t see me, and maybe get away again. I almost waited too long before I fired—but the sight of her almost paralyzed me. Look!”
He flashed his light down the hall, and now it shone bright and clear. And it shone on an aperture gaping in the wall where no door had showed before.
“The secret panel Miss Elizabeth found!” Buckner snapped. “Come on!”
He ran across the hallway and Griswell followed him dazedly. The flopping and thrashing came from beyond that mysterious door, and now the sounds had ceased.
The light revealed a narrow, tunnel-like corridor that evidently led through one of the thick walls. Buckner plunged into it without hesitation.
“Maybe it couldn’t think like a human,” he muttered, shining his light ahead of him. “But it had sense enough to erase its tracks last night so we couldn’t trail it to that point in the wall and maybe find the secret panel. There’s a room ahead—the secret room of the Blassenvilles!”
And Griswell cried out: “My God! It’s the windowless chamber I saw in my dream, with the three bodies hanging—ahhhhh!”
Buckner’s light playing about the circular chamber became suddenly motionless. In that wide ring of light three figures appeared, three dried, shriveled, mummy-like shapes, still clad in the moldering garments of the last century. Their slippers were clear of the floor as they hung by their withered necks from chains suspended from the ceiling.
“The three Blassenville sisters!” muttered Buckner. “Miss Elizabeth wasn’t crazy, after all.”
“Look!” Griswell could barely make his voice intelligible. “There—over there in the corner!”
The light moved, halted.
“Was that thing a woman once?” whispered Griswell. “God, look at that face, even in death. Look at those claw-like hands, with black talons like those of a beast. Yes, it was human, though—even the rags of an old ballroom gown. Why should a mulatto maid wear such a dress, I wonder?”
“This has been her lair for over forty years,” muttered Buckner, brooding over the grinning grisly thing sprawling in the corner. “This clears you, Griswell—a crazy woman with a hatchet—that’s all the authorities need to know. God, what a revenge!—what a foul revenge! Yet what a bestial nature she must have had, in the beginnin’, to delve into voodoo as she must have done—”
“The mulatto woman?” whispered Griswell, dimly sensing a horror that overshadowed all the rest of the terror.
Buckner shook his head. “We misunderstood old Jacob’s maunderin’s, and the things Miss Elizabeth wrote—she must have known, but family pride sealed her lips. Griswell, I understand now; the mulatto woman had her revenge, but not as we’d supposed. She didn’t drink the Black Brew old Jacob fixed for her. It was for somebody else, to be given secretly in her food, or coffee, no doubt. Then Joan ran away, leavin’ the seeds of the hell she’d sowed to grow.”
“That—that’s not the mulatto woman?” whispered Griswell.
“When I saw her out there in the hallway I knew she was no mulatto. And those distorted features still reflect a family likeness. I’ve seen her portrait, and I can’t be mistaken. There lies the creature that was once Celia Blassenville.”
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