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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

MISTRESS OF HORROR

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A NOVELETTE OF TINGLING FEAR



First published in Horror Stories, February 1935

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-12-07
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Horror Stories, February 1935, with "Mistress of Horror"



The first sight of that desolate island chilled the marrow of Beth Stockton's bones—yet her sense of duty sent her on, into that cavern of slime and screams where fiends of Satan plied the writhing snake of a blood-tipped whip to drive her mind to madness, her body to tortured death, and her soul to hell!



TABLE OF CONTENTS



I. — LEFT FOR DEAD

THE high grey cliff sprang sheer from the sea, shot vertically upward for two hundred feet, and hung like some solitary, mountainous wave solidified to bleak, utterly bare rock. Out of its western face some prehistoric cataclysm had gouged a deep groove down again to the water's edge, so that here, and here only, there was a tiny, walled-off beach; a narrow ledge of sliding, sharp-edged stones. On this ledge Beth Stockton was crouched; her back pressed against the towering, unclimbable precipice; her eyes, wide and staring with apprehension, fixed on the grey, oily swell of the sea.

A brooding, intense silence dripped from the vault of a leaden, ominous sky—a silence that was only intensified by the long swish of a roller as it came up on the broken stones at her feet, came an inch nearer her than the black wetness its preceding fellow had left, seethed momentarily and seeped away. Seeped away only to form again, to come in again. This one would reach a little nearer, she knew, and the next still closer, till the wan water would retreat no longer, but would creep slowly higher; swallowing her ankles, her thighs, her breasts, crawling over her head...

Beth whimpered. Her fingers tightened on the handle of the black bag to which she instinctively clung; tightened till it seemed that the blood would burst from their aching tips. She was alone, utterly alone, and the tide was coming in, and soon she must drown. Death crept inexorably upon her...

The girl's fear-stricken glance swept once more across the sea's melancholy waste till it found what looked like a two-legged black spider crawling along the horizon. "Elmer!" she screamed to the fisherman who had brought her here from Oldport in that now dwindling dory. "Elmer!" the cry once more ripped a throat already raw with futile screams. "Come back! For God's sake come back and get me!"

Only the murmurous silence of the sea heard her, the eerie soundlessness that folded around Sorro Island like a pall. Even had her cries reached him, Beth thought, Elmer Perkins would not have returned. Twenty minutes ago he had leaped from his boat as its prow had touched these rocks. He had literally hauled her from her seat, had hurled her bag after her. Then, white-faced, he had plunged back into the small craft, and before Beth had realized that there was no path, no way of leaving this spot, he had gotten yards away, threshing his oars with long, desperate strokes as if life itself depended on the speed of his departure. Open-mouthed at his inexplicable haste, the girl had not called to him till he was well beyond hearing...

Beth twisted again, frantically searching the desolate, blank loom of the cliff for the faintest hint of a foothold, of some means, however difficult, of escape from doom. There was none. There was none! There must be, she sobbed, there must be some way out. Her mind beat against the hopelessness of her predicament like the wings of a caged bird. Elmer Perkins, the gaunt fisherman who had dandled her on his knees as a pig-tailed, barefoot youngster would not abandon her to the tide. Dr. Hamilton would not have sent her here to die.

So short a while ago the old physician had peered at her over his spectacles. His fragile hand had gripped hers fervently as he hawked a dry throat; and his age-thinned voice had quavered: "I've got a case for you, my dear. Your first case. I was down at the depot to wire for a nurse when your mother told me you had graduated and were coming home for a week's rest, so I waited. But you must go at once. Elmer is waiting to run you over to Sorro Island."

To Sorro Island! A cold shiver had run up Beth's spine at the very name, and fear had stirred obscurely within her. The same queer, marrow-chilling fear that her childhood had known when momentarily the omnipresent mists of this bleak coast cleared, revealing the grey mystery of the gaunt rock that stilled her laughter and that of her brown-legged playmates. They would knot together, then, quivering a little with childish awe, and one or the other would whisper with cold hushed lips some shuddersome legend that the fisher-folk told of the grim islet and its grimmer denizens. Or, once a week, they would gape from covert at the gigantic, coal-black Negro Pompey, who rowed over of a Saturday to purchase supplies for the strange family who so eerily had immured themselves on the sea-girt, barren rock.

When Dr. Hamilton asked her to go out there refusal had formed in her throat. Even after years away from its brooding presence she was afraid, deathly afraid to dare Sorro Island's dark secrets. She had gestured across the little table in her mother's musty parlor and her hand had brushed the bag, the black bag of shiny leather that had been her hard-won graduation prize.

That reminder of her oath of service had closed her lips on the negative she had almost uttered. "All right, Doctor," she had gulped. "I have everything I need in this bag. I'll go with you."

"Not with me. I have other calls to make. You go over now, and I'll come this evening to give you your instructions. You'll know what to do till then."


NOW she was on Sorro Island, and no one had met her, and there was no boat to take her off, and she was held prisoner by the tide that was now wetting her shoe soles with its relentless surge. It was playing with her, sure of its prey. What light there had been was rapidly fading. Not even a sea-bird wheeled in the hushed, ominous sadness of the ocean dusk. Silence was a shroud...

A shroud that suddenly was ripped by the scrape of rock on rock. Beth twisted to it. They had come for her! At last they had come for her! Right at the angle of cliff and beach something moved, a tiny grey thing writhed against the grey and broken stone. A louder, shriller sound pierced the silence. A mew. A cat's mew. The howl of a cat protesting awful anguish.

The girl's skin crawled with the anguish of the beast's thin wail, and her veins ran icy. An instant before there had been nothing there, she could have sworn it, nothing at all. How had it gotten there, this small furred thing that screamed with unutterable torment? A cat cannot swim. If it had fallen from the summit of the precipice she must have seen it, heard the thump of its landing. Had it sprung from the rock itself? Impossible. But impossible also for it to have gotten there in any other way.

The cat howled again, the threadlike agony of its wail infinitely appealing, infinitely pathetic. The sound pulled Beth to it. Death for herself was a matter of a slow hour, but in the meanwhile she could give relief to this one small creature.

As the new-made nurse splashed through the rising water her small mouth twisted bitterly. The months and years of labor and study she had passed through to fit herself for the relief of human suffering was to be repaid only by this—by ministering to a cat! She reached the sprawled animal, bent to it. It was a handful, a wee handful that suddenly assumed proportions of gigantic horror in her reeling brain. The convulsed small body was mangled, was netted with a criss-cross maze of bleeding gashes. Its tail was gone, ripped out by the roots, and where its eyes should have been there were two tiny, blood-filled pits of hell...

What demon could have done this thing? What human fiend? All too certainly human! For burned deep into one blood-matted flank was a symbol that none but a human hand could have made. A letter, clean-cut, unmistakable—the letter S. Enclosed in an oval within which the hair had been shaved away to expose livid, blue-white skin quivering with agony.

Beth Stockton was fresh from days and long nights through which unceasingly she had looked upon pain and death—so much that she had thought her soul itself was calloused and no agony could pierce the armor of professional calm with which she had learned to sheathe herself. But staring at this tiny, outraged bit of life, taking in one awful flash the unbelievable vileness that had been wreaked upon its small compass, her stomach retched bitterness into her mouth and a sick giddiness overwhelmed her. She swayed, started to topple, pulled herself erect with a gigantic effort, was reminded of her own dire peril by the cold wash of a wave over her feet, her ankles.

Spray spattered her knees. Beth staggered backward, felt the thrust of sheer stone at her back saying, "Thus far, and no further." Fear surged again within her skull, a black cold wave of fear and despair matching the chill of the more material wave tugging at her limbs. She fought it, fought sick horror, fought her gaze down again with some vague thought that she must kill the tortured cat, must put it out of its agony. It was gone! Where it had been, gray-green brine swirled, refusing ominously to retreat further.

The tide had swept away the maltreated creature. It was rising fast now, and faster. Soon it would be high enough to sweep her too out on its tossing, oily bosom. Only a little while now. Only a little while...

Despair was a livid, vibrant presence stalking the waves. Dread squeezed her heart with its gelid clutch. Beth's heatless lips moved, and a whisper hissed from between them: "God. Dear God. Don't let me die, like this. Please don't let me die."

The long waves rolled in, booming now as they rolled along the cliff, as they pounded her slim, scarcely mature body against the unyielding rock. Booming, then chuckling gruesomely as they receded, chuckling as their myriad fingers tugged at her, plucked at her with a curious fumbling gentleness as though there were no hurry, no hurry at all. She could cling there if she were obdurate, cling to life a little while longer. She could not escape them. By no imaginable means could she escape them.


FAR out, where the sea was an undulant surface of shadowed grey, a long mound formed. It swelled, lengthened. Its crest grew slowly higher. As Beth's widened eyes followed it, it started toward the shore. Closer and closer it came, till it was a long thunder rolling close upon her. It reached her, pounded her chest, washed over her chin, her head. She was choking, was spluttering, was gasping for breath. It lifted her with its irresistible force, broke her precarious hold on a granite knob—and now it was receding and she was going with it. She was being carried out to sea! This was the end. This...

Steely fingers dug cruelly into Beth's shoulder, hauled her from the clutch of the wave, hauled her back and back till—startlingly—till she was sweeping back into the very cliff! The world exploded into an insupportable roar of sound. Water surged about her, swirled furiously. But the fingers held their grip and she was torn, almost torn in half between them and the baffled, angry drag of the sea. A ponderous thud pounded against her ears, and suddenly the pull of the water was gone and the water itself...

Beth was on her back, spluttering, gasping, enfolded in velvety, salt-odorous blackness. Her eyes were open and just above them floated twin orbs of light, of green glow like grisly, animal eyes glaring at her out of the blackness.

Dazed, half-stunned as she was, not realizing yet how narrow her escape had been from the marauding wave, Beth stared back at those staring eyes. She whimpered, flailed an outstretched hand against the rock on which she lay, pushed at it to push herself up, to get to her feet. A bestial snarl echoed in some hollow emptiness and the eyes moved, swam closer. The girl's throat constricted to a scream.

But that scream was never uttered—flesh, a harsh palm, slapped across her mouth, stifled it. The thing in the dark snarled again. But neither muting hand nor snarl was responsible for the icy ripple prickling Beth's spine. Neither of these, though they were frightening enough. That which aroused her to numbing, nightmare terror was an almost negligible thing. It was an odor; a faint, almost imperceptible thread of odor—the smell of singed fur that came from the thick fingers folded over her mouth. The smell of burned hair, of hair that had been burned to the letter S, clean-cut and unmistakable.

That which was here with her in the darkness, that which snarled with animal ferocity and clamped a harsh hand over her mouth to stifle her scream of terror, was the fiend that had so cruelly mistreated the tiny, defenseless kitten whose agonies had been ended by the far more merciful sea!

Death in that sea, that death from which she had been snatched, was after all clean and sweet and swift. For what greater horror had the solid, impregnable rock opened to preserve her? For what unimaginable foulness of its own had the cat-torturing demon performed its seeming miracle?

Panic was a leaping flame in the prostrate girl's seared brain. Nightmare terror held her rigid as the muffling hand left her mouth, as suddenly a match rasped in the blackness, as its tiny luminance touched fire to a torch—as the torch flared...


II. — THE ROOM WITH THE GREEN LIGHT

WAVERING torchlight glinted from wet rock, woke an enormous shadow to gruesome, dancing life. Beth was on her side, and ahead of her stretched the diminishing arch of a long tunnel that curved where the light faded, and lifted into gloom. The stone floor on which she lay was green-scummed and noisome. Slow, somehow viscid drops crawled down the dank stone walls of the passage and her quivering nostrils flared to a heavy odor of putrescence and decay.

The shadow that lay on the floor changed form, as that which cast it stooped to her. Beth rolled to meet it, stared up at a thick-lipped, black countenance beneath whose back-slanting, brutish brow enormous eyes rolled whitely. Muscles rippled under glistening muscles of a tremendous, bared chest, and a columnar arm extended down to her, slid a hard black hand beneath her shoulder. White teeth gashed black skin with a flashing grin, and a deep-throated voice rumbled drumlike. "Yoh all right, missie? Let me he'p yoh up." The Negro's arm heaved, and effortlessly she was lifted, was set on her feet, as though she were weightless as a child.

A twisted rope served the huge Black for belt, supporting the tattered trousers clothing his big-thewed legs, and in it was thrust a red-hafted, long-bladed knife.

"I—I think I'm all right," Beth managed to say. "I seem to be." Behind him the torch was thrust into a cranny and its luminance was thrown back at her by a rock wall that closed the tunnel. The girl saw a long lever, saw geared, enormous wheels that turning would swing the rock in and aside on massive gimbals as a bank-vault door is swung. She understood how it was she had been saved from the down-crashing wave; understood why there had seemed to be no way of escape from the tiny tidal beach; and something of eerie dread drained from her. But fear remained. "A few minutes ago I didn't think I should be able to say that, or anything else again," she said.

Pompey chuckled. "No'm. Neither did I. The doah got stuck an' I couldn't git it open." He shook with a silent laugh. "I sho did just do so in time. Yoh's the nuss Doc said he wuz a-sendin' over?"

"Yes." Beth responded mechanically, while her blood ran hot with anger at the evident amusement the Negro extracted from the predicament that so nearly had resulted in her death. But she dared not voice her resentment. Despite his chuckles, despite his wide-mouthed grin there was yet grim threat in his spread-legged posture, in the lithe poise of his tremendous body, in the gorilla-like outthrust of his prognathous jaw. "Yes. But I don't think I shall stay. When Dr. Hamilton comes I shall go back with him."

The Black's grin was, if anything, even wider than it had been before. But his eyes narrowed, hardened to a snakelike glitter. "Yoh'll stay, ma'am." The words slid from between his wide lips in accents suddenly flat, intonationless. "Yoh'll stay ontell yoh're let to go."

Tight-lipped, Beth countered with a quiet, "We'll see about that. But there's no use arguing till the doctor does come."

"No'm. They ain't no use argufyin'. Yoh'll fin' out they ain't no use argufyin' 'bout anythin' on Sorro Island. Come." Pompey bent, came up with Beth's black bag in one capacious paw. The other reached for, grasped the torch, held it aloft. "Nor they ain't no use astandin' here. Come."

Inconsequentially, the girl wondered if the water had gotten into the satchel to spoil her stiff-starched uniform or the blue-edged cap of St. Vincent's graduates that she had yet to wear on a case. The homely thought lent her some measure of calmness. "No. It isn't very pleasant here."

"Come." The Negro shoved past her as he muttered the monosyllable once more. He strode away, and Beth followed.


THE damp-black, slimy walls caught the flickering radiance of the blazing torch, splintered the lurid light and spattered it back at her. Underfoot the long, subterranean corridor began to rise. Past the curve that slope was steeper and suddenly the tunnel was spiraling upward, tier on tier. Shadows that uncannily were not thrown by the burning, oil-soaked timber Pompey carried slid away from in front of him, shrank into rough-margined, lightless niches, waited dreadfully for Beth's approach. Unseen things scuttered behind her, or slithered just beyond the range of her vision as the frightened girl twisted, time and again, in frantic attempts to surprise them. A cold wind caught the wavering flame, trailed it back over the giant Black's shoulder like a pennant, trailed a long streamer of smoke from it that coiled heavily down about her hurrying feet like some dark, impalpable reptile. The wind stroked her wet clothing, drew the warmth from it, drew the warmth from her body so that she shuddered, and her teeth chattered with the strength-sapping chill.

And suddenly, from somewhere far off, a wail arose, a muffled wail that crescendoed to piercing shrillness and died away. Beth's scalp was a tight cap, squeezing her skull, and the shudder that shook her now was not from cold. That wail, crammed with pent anguish, was like, so like the agonized yowl of the kitten the sea had taken, and yet so different. So horribly different. For this was a woman's cry of pain, a woman's.

"What was that?" the girl croaked at the hurrying, naked back of her guide. "In God's name! What was that?"

Pompey turned, and his grin was a lascivious, mocking grimace. "Thet, ma'm," he lipped slow words. "Thet was—yoh patient. Yoh'll see her. Soon." He turned back, but not before a swift drooping of one eyelid in an obscene wink supplied the concluding phrase, the phrase that echoed in the girl's affrighted ears. "Too soon."

There was silence now, viscid silence disturbed only by the padding footfalls of the Negro's unshod feet and the click, click, click of her own darting heels. There was silence more awful than sound as Beth wound eternally upward on that strange journey, climbed unendingly up in a mad chase after the black-glistening bare back of her strange leader, and the back-flowing flutter of the torch he bore. Imperceptibly his stride had lengthened. She must run to keep within sight of him. She ran, always climbing, though she was afraid, wildly, breathlessly afraid of him and of that to which he led her. She ran; till agony tore at her lungs, and her breath came in great, gasping sobs; because she was infinitely more afraid to be left here alone in the dark with the sightless things that had scuttered and hid, and now were gruesomely soundless as they waited for her to fall and lie panting and helpless for them to swarm over and... the devil alone knew what it was they willed of her!


AGAIN that long-drawn moan of suffering rose unbearably from a woman's throat. Again it faded, but it was nearer now, much nearer. Just as it sobbed into silence the echoing rough pavement under Beth's feet leveled startlingly, and the torch's flare beat redly within a stone-edged archway. Pompey surged through it. Beth plunged after him, plunged into what vaguely she sensed as a huge chamber of vaulted stone from the very center of which a rough wooden stairway pitched steeply upward to a beam-margined horizontal opening out of which a shaft of green brilliance poured down.

So bright was that green glare that it quenched the torch-glow and struck the rest of the great hall into impenetrable darkness. The Negro gestured to the ladder. "Up thah," he grunted.

Beth skidded to a halt, wrenched around to him. "What's up there?" she gasped.

"Yoh patient. Go ahead."

The girl swayed, put forth all her will to keep from falling. "Why do you tell me to go ahead alone? Why don't you go up there? You've led me this far; why don't you go on?"

The grin was gone from his ebony countenance; his thick lips had tightened to a scowl. "Thet's a sick woman up thah. She's in baid." Reasonable enough, but Beth knew that he lied, knew the reason he gave was false.

"If you don't go first, I'll stay right here." Fear of what lay above peered from his eyes. This gigantic brute was afraid of that to which he was sending her. The short hairs at the nape of Beth's neck bristled with a contagion of his fear. "Make up your mind to that."

"I done tol' you argufyin' ain't goin' tuh bring you nothin' on Sorro Island." The bag dropped from his fingers, and his hand strayed meaningfully to the knife-haft that was scarlet against the black of his belly. "Yoh is gwine up thah peaceable, or else..." He paused, and his eyes were slitted, infinitely dangerous.

Beth thought of the tortured kitten. Was that the knife with which he had gashed it? In the slow crawl of his fingers toward its handle, like black asps writhing, there was threat, threat not of death, of something far worse than that!

"Wall? Is yoh gwine up?"

The black giant's hand closed about his weapon, he half drew it. Though there was no other movement in his huge frame he seemed to crouch, to be tensing for a feline leap, and a scarlet tongue licked his blue lips, slavering with sadistic anticipation. The girl's heart pounded against her ribs, cold hands stroked her spine. Her throat worked, made no sound. Then...

"All right," she squeezed out. "All right. But I've got to get my nurse's uniform out of the bag and put it on. A new patient must see us first in our uniform. That's part of the treatment."

Doubt flickered in Pompey's eyes, sly doubt. Then a crafty smile edged his protuberant muzzle, and he relaxed. "Go ahaid," he muttered, jerking his head to the valise lying on its side at his splayed feet. "Go ahaid and put it on. But be quick about it."


BETH bent, got her hands on the leather, ripped the zipper closure open. The bag gaped, revealing a neatly folded pile of starchy white, a row of small, labeled bottles in a pocket to one side. She lifted the crisp cloth, snapped a white apron open so that it covered her arm and the bag. Underneath it her hand darted swiftly, closed on cold glass. Her fingers twirled a glass cork, she came erect and her hand lashed out. Liquid spurted from the mouth of the open bottle in that hand, spurted into the Negro's eyes. A pungent, ammoniac aroma exploded in the room. The torch arced, blazing, away from the suddenly convulsed Black, and he was clawing at his streaming, reddened eyes.

His wild howls reverberated in the huge chamber, shrilled to screams of agony, spluttered and came in gasps as the choking fumes got in their deadly work on his throat, his lungs. Beth had a handkerchief to her own mouth and nose, was backing away, unable to tear her eyes from the shrieking, yammering, reeling Negro whose tremendous strength she had rendered impotent with one dash of volatile caustic.

"I've changed my mind, Pompey," she mocked. "I'm not going up there. I'm staying down here with you." Hysteric laughter twitched her larynx, she fought it, fought it down...

The Negro slewed around to the sound of her voice. One hand came away from his eyes, groped blindly for the knife.

Beth darted in, snatched the weapon from its belt. But the Black's huge arm whipped around her waist, constricted, lifted her from her feet. Still howling with anguish he crushed her to his sweaty chest, crushed her to it so that the breath whistled from her lungs.

The girl flailed at the hairy flesh against which she was crushed, kicked lustily. Her captor roared like a wounded beast, but the pressure across her back only increased with spasmodic, unendurable fury. It arched her backward as intolerable agony ripped her vitals, arched her backward till in another instant her spine must snap. Blackness swirled in her brain, she felt her eyes bulge, as if to pop from their sockets. Her tongue-tip protruded and her clenching teeth gashed it till the salt sting of her own blood burned her throat.

Spasmodically her fisted hand swept back, lashed at the Black's tear-wet, contorted face. Metal flashed to her straining bleared vision, and suddenly that face was a red-spurting, gory mask. From the yawning gap of the Negro's mouth a shriek burst to which the earlier ferocity of his howls was infantile, and startlingly the pressure on her relaxed. Beth slid from the clamping arms, tumbled to the floor. Rolled over, wondering to what she owed her release. Then it was that she saw a knife, a red-hafted knife pendulous from one quivering cheek that was no longer black, but glistening, dripping red.

Hysteric laughter tore at Beth's throat once more. It was she who had driven the knife into the Negro's face, the knife she had forgotten. How screamingly funny! She, Beth Stockton, had killed a man. Unknowingly she had killed a man! Killed him!

No! Ghastly in the down-flooding green beam from whatever horror lay above, he stood on spread, quivering legs, and swayed, and twisted his head slowly around to the piercing shrillness of her mad laughter till his sightless, caustic-burned eyes were fastened on her.

As new terror choked that laughter in her breast, his black hand swept up to the dangling handle of the knife and jerked it out. God! Oh good God! What manner of man was this who, bloody, and blind and horrible; still could crouch, still could tense with indomitable fury, still could leap...

From behind Beth something black lashed out, reptilian; coiled snakelike about the waist of the giant Negro, stopped him in mid-arc of his pantherine spring and dragged him sidewise and down so that he thudded alongside the girl and skidded out of sight. The knife clanked harmlessly on stone, its rattle drowned by a bestial roar.

"Silence," a stentorian voice thundered. "Silence, you dog!" The floor heaved under the terror-numbed girl and the green light-shaft swam in dizzying circles about her. "You, there." The voice came again. "Nurse! Get up. Your patient is waiting for you.

"Get up," it dripped again to her ears, dominant, compelling.

She rolled, struggled to her knees, twisting, remained there rigid, gaping at what the guttering light of the dying torch revealed.


III. — THE SHADOW ON THE STAIRS

SQUAT in a massive wheel-chair, his flesh bulging through every opening, every interstice, a monstrous figure sat and stared at her like some loathsome spider. Orange luminance silhouetted a tremendous head, utterly hairless and oddly mal-shaped like a blob of half-formed dough. Deep-sunk beneath roll upon roll of clammy fat, tiny eyes glittered, beady and surpassed only in sadistic cruelty by a lipless fish-mouth that gashed the incredible face from ear to ear. He had no neck, this gargantuan human, but from the colossal spread of his shoulders, arms huge as tree-trunks dropped to shapeless, elephantine hands in one of which was gripped the stubbed handle of a bull whip whose long, black lash stretched to Pompey's prostrate, quivering body and coiled around it, slithered like a thing alive across the floor and up on the lap of its wielder. Fingers like bunched pallid bananas stroked it suggestively.

"I am losing patience, nurse." The man's mouth did not move at all as he spoke, but his voice was a gust of sound. "I should not advise you to try me further. Others have attempted it with the Master of Sorro and... regretted it."

Beth's skin was an icy sheath, clamping her body. No conscious command issued from her reeling mind, but, as if some outside will had taken possession of her, she lifted erect, wheeled about and started for the steep ladder bathed in spectral viridescence.

Something crawled in her brain, something that was not quite thought. Whatever waited above, whatever horror, at least he could not follow her. She seemed to be moving through some viscid, transparent liquid that clogged her legs, that was loath to let her go. Then she reached the ladder, got one trembling foot on its lowermost step, when the green blaze above was suddenly jogged by blackness, and a shadow fell across the steps. She stared at it, her eyes widening, and there was no longer any strength in her limbs.

"Wait!" The passionless voice sounded from behind her. "Wait! Stand aside!" Wheels rumbled, and suddenly the speaker was beside her. Against the clammy whiteness of her cheeks two white spots showed. His hand moved, and the bull-whip lashed past her, whistling, lashed up into the opening above, cracked against flesh. A howl sliced down, a snarling, bestial howl. And then the shadow was gone.

Something scuttered across the ceiling, a door slammed above. The black whiplash slid down the stairs. Beth's throat tightened as she saw the trail it left behind, saw the red stain at its tip. Then he, who called himself the Master of Sorro, turned his bald face to her, and malevolence crawled naked in his small eyes.

"When you get upstairs, at once lock the door in the wall to the left and keep it locked till I tell you otherwise. Now—get your bag, your uniform, and go!"


THE room into which Beth came up was windowless, its walls covered by silk draperies whose sheen reflected green luminance blazing from a tripod spread-legged at its very center. A canopied bed was high on a dais against the further wall and around it curtains were drawn. Thick-piled carpeting took Beth's feet softly. Across its pale-green surface droplets still moist and red laid a trail to a great oak door deep-set in an arched embrasure to the left.

The girl stared at that door and shuddered, recalling the shadow that had lain on the stairway. The recollection sent her across to the door, brought her hand up to the massive iron key in its lock, twisted it. A heavy bolt jarred into place, comfortingly.

The act suggested an idea to her. She wheeled. Yes—a hinged trapdoor lay back from the aperture through which she had come. She scuttled back to it, panting, her heart pounding, swung it over. Sorro's voice boomed from beneath in protest, but Beth bit her lip, tugged at a massive sofa, pulled its weight across the trapdoor. The whiplash could not curl up out of that opening now.

Then, and not till then, Beth Stockton glanced back to the curtained bed. Her patient, the patient that she had gone through so much to reach, must be behind those curtains. She started across to them, stopped. She was tattered, bloody, smeared with the slime of the tunnel. Habit asserted itself, habit and the oft-repeated injunctions of her instructors. There is a reason for a nurse's white linen, her meticulous cleanliness.

With all entrance to this room barred, Beth felt herself reasonably safe, safe at least till Dr. Hamilton should come to take her away from this house of terror. She stripped her torn frock from her aching body, dashed cold water on it from a basin in a corner, sponged her face, her hands. In seconds she was clothed once more in crisp, rustling white.

Beth got across to the platform on which the great bed stood. The hand with which she grasped the curtain edge trembled a bit. This was her patient, her first patient outside the hospital where she had tended so many. The old physician's voice quavered again in her ear. "You will know what to do till I come." Curtain rings rattled as she pulled the draperies open, and light struck in.


AT first Beth thought that the bed was empty, so white was the thin face against the white pillowcase, so white the hair that fell in two thick braids over thin shoulders. The woman appeared asleep, at least her eyelids were closed, and the nurse had time for a moment to study her patient.

The wan cheeks were deep-sunk, gaunt, the lips bloodless, the long nose pinched. So tightly was the skin drawn over flesh-less bone that the ravaged face was skull-like. Yet somehow, by some occult chemistry of light and shade, a spectral memory still seemed to hover over it, so that Beth knew beyond doubt that she gazed on the burnt-out ashes of a great beauty.

Perhaps Beth made some small sound, perhaps the sensation of light upon her woke the woman. The almost transparent eyelids flickered, opened, and, like two lustrous pools of black flame, eyes stared out at Beth from deep, shadowed hollows.

Beth forced a smile. "How do you do?" she said cheerily. "I'm Miss Stockton, your nurse. I've come to take care of you and help you get well."

"Get well." The woman's voice was a mere thread of sound, a husked whisper. "I shall never get well."

"Oh yes you shall. Dr. Hamilton will make you well, and I shall help him."

"Can Doctor Hamilton bring the dead to life? Can you? Lida Fane died when the Master brought her to this island; you cannot make her live again."

"Oh come now, that is no way to talk." Beth felt that she must not argue with her patient. "Is there something I can do for you? Something to make you more comfortable."

"No. Nothing." The woman seemed puzzled, uneasy. Her hand, slim, bony, came out from under the coverlet, fumbled down along it as if searching for something, something that was not there. "Except to give me my cat."

"Your—cat?" Beth's scalp prickled. "There is no cat here."

The woman jerked up to a sitting posture, the cover fell away from her, she stared wildly about. "Where is it? Where is my kitten, my little grey kitten?" Her voice strengthened, shrilled. "Where is she?"

Horror tightened around Beth once more. The nightdress her patient wore was low-cut, sheer. Beneath it she could see the woman's wasted body, could see red weals criss-crossing it, weals that could only have been made by the Master of Sorro's cruel whip.

"What has he done with her, with the only thing I had left to love?" Lida Fane was out of bed now, she was clutching Beth's arms with her skeleton fingers.

The girl wrenched away from the frenzied woman, gently as she could, struggled to hold her, to get her back into the bed. "Lie down. Please lie down and I'll go and look for it. I'll find out where it is. I'll—I'll ask Pompey."

"Pompey!" The name was a shrill scream on the woman's tongue. "Pompey! Oh God! I remember now. I remember." And suddenly she was shrieking, was wailing the high pitched, agonized wail that twice Beth had heard in the distance. The sound stabbed the girl to her very soul, paralyzed her with horror and a great pity. Then the woman pulled away from her, ran across the room, and began tugging at the sofa that held down the trapdoor. "Pompey," she screamed. "I want her. Bring her back. Bring my kitty back, do you hear?"

"Don't," Beth cried. "Don't open that door. He's down there. He'll whip you again."

Lida Fane jerked around, her eyes were aflame with madness now. She clawed hooked hands at Beth's face, her nails ripped the girl's cheek. "You—you're his creature too," she screamed. "Let me go after my kitten."


BETH closed with the frenzied woman, wrestled with her, using all the tricks experience had taught her in conquering delirious patients without harming them. But never had she met such strength as this, never such mad strength. The two reeled around the room in a maelstrom of furious combat, caromed off chairs, crashed a small table to the floor. As the tabouret smashed the woman jerked away from the girl, snatched up a jagged and splintered leg from its wreck, whirled back to Beth, swinging it.

Beth dodged the flailing weapon. Her heel caught in a fold of the carpet. She thudded down, heavily. And before she could get up again Lida Fane was standing over her with the improvised club gripped in both hands—was bringing it down in a resistless arc straight for her head!

A shadow fell across the madwoman, a hand shot out of nothingness, clutched the down-sweeping cudgel, ripped it from her grasp. She staggered back, still screaming, and Beth twisted again—to see the great wheeled chair of the "Master" whom she had thought impotent to lift himself to this room.

Beth exploded to her feet. Her up-flung arm took the blow of the whip's short handle, deflected the sweep of the longer lash so that it missed its mark. The impact jarred her in every cell, sent agonizing pain up her arm, numbed it, but she whirled to the man-mountain and screamed: "Stop it! Stop it, you fiend! She's a sick woman. She doesn't know what she's doing. Stop it!"

The hairless, horrible head of the man swung to her momentarily, and hell itself looked at her. The fish-mouth writhed wordlessly. Demoniac wrath made of that quivering countenance a basilisk mask. The man's wrist flicked, and suddenly the whip lash coiled about Beth's slim waist, flung her, sprawling across the room, left her.

"Stay there," the "Master" roared. "I'll deal with you later." Then, apparently he had forgotten her, had swung his glare back to the screaming, cringing Lida. His whip whistled through the air, flicked at her. Flicked a bit of silk from her, never touching her skin. Whistled, flickered, coiled like a thing alive about her till it had taken every bit of nightdress from her shrinking frame, had stripped her naked.

But the lashing thong did not stop. It continued its awful play, seething up and down the shrunken, fleshless body of the woman. And now, little by little, that white skin was turning red. Tiny drops of blood appeared, trickling down the thin arms, dribbling between the flat, pendulous breasts. The whip-tip was writing a bloody letter on the woman's quivering body, a bloody letter S. Sick with horror, unable any longer to bear the terrible sight, Beth wrenched her eyes from it, forced them to the floor, the wall, anywhere but there.

The wall! Where the platform ended against the wall the draperies had caught, flung back, and the green light striking through a gaping aperture showed the sharp descent of a broad ramp behind it. Of course! Fool that she had been to think the ladder was the only way into this room. He would have a way to get up here. This was his house.

But if that was the way up into this room it was also the way down out of it. Beth flung a quick glance at the Master of Sorro, saw that he was still intent on his grisly play.

She twisted over on her belly, lifted the drape hanging beside her, slid under it. The silk rustled down, hid the room, but did not muffle those piercing screams. Beth was crawling now, crawling towards the opening in the wall, towards release from horror.

She reached it, reached the place where the green light struck through the foot-wide slit in the curtains. An instant more and she would be free to escape down that slanting ramp, down the spiraling tunnel that no longer held any terrors for her. She lifted—and faced the stark, staring visage of Pompey, still blinded, still gruesomely blood-smeared!

The bulking, spread-legged form of the silent Negro filled the passage. His head jerked forward as an uncontrollable gasp caught in Beth's throat, and his flat nostrils flared as though he scented her, animal-like. His huge hands groped for her...


IV. — THE HORROR BEHIND THE DOOR

BETH dropped to hands and knees again, surged forward. If she could get through between his legs... Something plucked at her ankle, tugged—dragged her backward, twisting, screaming. It was the black coil of the "Master's" dreadful lash, and it was pulling her back to him. His face was turned to her, and the lipless gash that was his for a mouth twisted upward at the corners in a smile that held no humor, but only drooling cruelty. Behind him Lida Fane was a crumpled heap on the floor, gruesomely striped white and red...

The bull-whip twitched away from her ankle, its lash whistled above her head, coiled lazily. Beth Stockton groveled and her flesh curdled, awaiting its down-thump, its stinging smash. It zoomed like a giant bee, dipped, rose again, caught in a leg of the tripod!

Beth shoved frantic hands against the carpet, shoved herself erect. This was her chance to run, to escape the whip that could strip the clothes from her flesh, the flesh from her bones. She dashed headlong away, and the "Master" twirled the wheels of his chair into play. The whip lashed out at her again, to right, to left.

She dove for the sofa blocking the trapdoor, caromed against it. It slid easily, she went with it, twisted to fling the hatch open. The black whip whistled across it, drove her away. Drove her back against the wall, drove her sidling along it, till—oh God—till she reached the door with the iron key!

She could not pass it because now the "Master" was close enough to send his vicious weapon thumping on the wall either side of it in promise of what would happen to her if she left the spot to which he pinned her. Slash. Slash. Slash. The whip cut the air, cut the silken draperies to ribbons. Slash. Slash. She knew now that he had been toying with her, that he had intended always to drive her here. And now—and what now?

"Open it." The two words snapped through the hissing slashes of the whip. "Open it!"

Beth crouched against the door, twisted to her tormenter. Terror; terror that shrieked in every cell of her protesting body; held her for an instant speechless. Then she found tongue. "No!" she screeched. "No!"

A laugh echoed in the room, a cackling, cracked, crazed laugh that even in that instant of supernal terror twisted her burning glance to its source. Pompey had come into the room, Pompey the huge Negro. His gashed visage was twisted with the horrible laughter, his caustic-reddened eyes rolled grisly in their whitened sockets.

"Make her open it, Mastuh. Make her open it."

"Open it," the "Master" roared again, and the whip flicked Beth's cap away. The momentary flash of defiance was gone. Beth cringed, shaking as if with ague, against that fearful door, and the whip hissed around her, made a whirring sphere of knifelike threat around her. "Open it." She no longer could resist the hypnotic drive of the words. Her hand found the key, twisted it. She pulled the door to her...

And with a parting crack the whiplash struck her, hurled her into the space within. The door crashed closed, darkness engulfed her, and she heard the lock click over to shut her in with dread.


IN the sightless dark Beth lay sprawled limp on the wood of a bare floor. Out of the blackness a fetid, foul odor flowed to her, thick and noisome, and somewhere a crawling Thing scraped what might be claws as it hitched nearer, nearer, snuffling lewdly as it came.

If she could see it, if only she could see it... No! Its very shadow, its humped and misshapen shadow on the stairs had pierced her with ancestral fear. Fear of black shapes that flitted the jungle night and hid their shame from the sun by day. Fear of faceless, blind things that mumbled, putrescent cadavers which even the hyenas scorned. And yet she had seen only a glimpsed shadow. If she saw the reality she would go mad.

If she saw the reality! But it was here, it was in this shut chamber with her, it was creeping toward her, it was upon her! A wet muzzle nosed her face. Something cold and clammy and aquiver with sliminess touched her bare arm. Close above her there was a blubbering, eager whimper. Oh God! Beth sprang to her feet, a shriek tearing her throat, a shriek that had no sound. She lashed out with frantic hands that struck pulpy, resilient flesh. She leaped away, banged into an unseen wall, ran along it, her skin acrawl with revulsion, the talons of utter madness tearing at her brain.

But the room was small, and the Thing followed relentlessly, whimpering still with its horrid avidity. The room was small, was a narrow cell. Beth thumped into wall after padded wall, sank exhausted at last, and felt again the gelid touch of horror. Viscid arms closed about her, slaver dripped on her cheek, a heavy, quivering body lumped down on her. Sound, shrill sound burst from Beth's larynx in an ultimate outpouring of horror. It was answered by a thunder of smashing wood, by a sudden squeal from that which weighed her down and scrabbled feverishly at her clothes. Light burst in, green light, showed her the grotesque, nightmarish countenance of the Thing in whose grip she was, a gargoylesque distortion of something that once might have been human. Beth screamed again. The sound of her scream was drowned in the pound of a barking gun. A voice, a masculine voice ripped an oath. The Thing threshed in agony, rolled off from her. Feet pounded—and Beth slid down, down into oblivion.


AFTER an eternity she weltered back up to consciousness. Doctor Hamilton's seamed face was over hers, more wrinkled than ever with anxiety, and the quick tears of age glittered in his rheumy eyes, dripped in a slow rivulet alongside his bony nose. His lip trembled.

"Doctor," Beth gasped. "Doctor. Thank God you've come."

"Beth," the old man quavered. "Beth. Are you all right? Are you..."

"I'm in one piece, I think, and in my right mind. But—but my patient..."

"Your patient, mercifully, is no longer in need of you, or me. Her long suffering is ended. But my dear, how can you forgive me? How can you ever forgive me?"

The girl struggled to a sitting posture. She was on the floor of the outer room. The curtains of the bed were again drawn, and somehow she was reminded by them of the white screens that are placed around ward beds to make a gesture at decent privacy for death. At the other end of the room two stalwart young men in the oilskins and sou'westers of the fishermen stood with drawn guns over Pompey and that other demon who called himself "Master of Sorro."

Beth shuddered at the grim malevolence in that one's eyes, turning her glance back to the old physician. "I don't know," she said. "Didn't you know what was going on here?"

"Not altogether. I swear to you, I did not know, though I admit I suspected there was something brewing. That is why I was so anxious to send you over here quickly. I thought—like an old fool, I thought the presence of a stranger here would save—her—till I could arrange to have her taken away.

"And then, just as I was going down to the beach to row over here the body of a kitten I had given her was washed up. It—it..."

"Yes," Beth interrupted, catching her breath at the recollection. "I know. I saw it."

"I knew then that hell was loose here, and I got these two brave lads to come with me, and we burned the sea coming over. By the Mercy of Providence I had been shown the secret of the tunnel entrance, and—and we got here just in time."

"Just," she responded grimly. "But what on earth was it all about, doctor. Do you know?"

The old man sighed. "Yes, my dear, I do. I have carried the secret around for many years, ever since I delivered—that which now lies shot dead in there. All this, Beth, is the expiation of a crime now twenty years old. Marcus Fane," he gestured to the behemoth in the wheel chair, "was president of a bank in a city not far from here. He embezzled funds, was discovered, fled with his wife Lida who at the time was big with child, and with their servant, Pompey. In Lida's condition they could go neither fast nor far, but Marcus knew of this isolated island, knew the secret of its vault-doored entrance that had been built by smugglers long ago, and they found sanctuary here.

"A month later Lida was delivered of a monster. I think it was then that Fane went mad. Or perhaps he was never quite sane. At any rate, the four remained here all those long years, and when I occasionally was called to attend one or the other of them I sensed that slowly, day by day, he was wreaking on his unfortunate wife a cruel vengeance. But what could I do?" he spread gnarled hands. "You know the oath of professional secrecy by which you and I are bound?"

"Professional secrecy be damned!" Beth was on her feet, her face working with rage. "Because of a fetish you let him torture that poor woman till her hair was pure white and she was nothing but a bag of skin and bones. You let him..."

"He paid for his sins," the old man spluttered, backing from the nurse's wrath. "His—son broke loose one night and in the fight that followed smashed Fane's spine so that below the waist he was forever paralyzed. It was then that he made the whip and learned to use it better than most men can use their hands..."

"He paid! Oh God! All the tortures of hell could not make him pay for what he did to her. And you? How have you paid?"

"I?" Hamilton's face was blank, uncomprehending. "For what have I to pay?"

"For permitting that torture to go on. For letting him..."

"Torture?" The old man's hands spread wide. "I did not know that he was actually physically torturing her. How could I know? He was always courteous to her when I was here, and she did not tell me..."

"Tell you! And you, a physician could not see...!" Beth broke off, twisted away from him. "Pfah," she spat. "You will never understand." She bent, picked up her black bag, pulled shut the closure. "Goodbye. I'm going back to the city and get me a nice, clean case of smallpox or leprosy to take the taste out of my mouth and help me forget the Island of Sorro."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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