Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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As the great train hurtled through the subway, the lives of hundreds of passengers were in Gerald Payne's hands—the grotesquely misshapen hands that he had given to the Lady from Hell!
IT was true the woman was beautiful. She was almost too beautiful. Gerald Payne had recognized something unhealthy and unnatural in her seductive, irresistible allure. But he didn't excuse himself on those grounds. He was a married man, he loved his wife, he had two small children to support. Since he had married Ruth he had never allowed another woman even to enter his thoughts until last night...
It had happened ten minutes after he had gone off shift at the 242nd St. Station. He had passed her under a street light—and had turned and followed her.
It was strange the way the thing occurred, although the oddness of it hadn't been apparent to him at the time. Curiously, the only thought that entered his mind was to wonder why such a handsomely dressed, beautiful woman should be interested in a chap in trainman's overalls—in a subway motorman who had got off duty so recently that he had not even had time to wash his face and hands.
Thinking of his hands made Payne look down at them. He was back on duty, now. His hands gripped the controls as usual. His left thumb held the deadman's button depressed. His right hand rested on the air control. But his hands didn't look the same, somehow. They, like everything else about him, seemed changed since last night. What was it? And what, in God's name, had happened last night?
He had followed the woman to her home, a small but comfortable looking little cottage near the edge of town. She had opened the door for him, stood aside while he entered. He had come in, and obeying an impulse that flooded over him like a tidal wave, he had taken her in his arms and kissed her, He remembered nothing more... He had come to his senses at six o'clock on the following morning—this morning. He had been lying in a dark little dead-end alley only a few blocks from his home. His head had felt strange—filled with a sort of sick throbbing—and his hands had been covered with blood!
GERALD PAYNE shivered as he brought his train to a stop. While passengers got on and off at the express street he gazed ahead through the long, light-dotted tunnel. He had never liked this job, but he had not been able to get anything else. Now he both hated and feared it. There must be something wrong with him—or a thing such as had happened last night could never have occurred— and that meant he was unfitted to hold a job with responsibilities as great as this one possessed. True, the dead-man's button—which must be continually pressed down or the train would automatically stop—and other devices would insure the safety of the passengers even if he should be stricken with complete unconsciousness. But this strange malady that had so suddenly come upon him must be something more than that. He had done—something. That blood on his hands...
He shivered again as he turned the lever that put the train in motion. Shivered, because his hands performed their functions with a strange stiffness.
That stiffness increased as the days went by, and with growing horror Gerald Payne noticed that the whole character of his hands was changing. They were becoming larger. The fingers thickened, became blunt and spatulate where they had been slender and supple. Black hairs sprouted from the backs of his hands, and the skin covering his palms grew rough and leathery.
He tried to hide his hands from his wife, and for a few days was successful. Then, about a week after his strange adventure with the mysterious woman, she noticed them one evening while they were at dinner. She asked him to pass her something. Thoughtlessly, he fully exposed one hand as he complied, realizing his stupidity only when her widened eyes snatched his wandering attention back to the hairy, ungainly paw he was stretching toward her. So strained had his nerves become that he dropped the plate.
"Oh, Jerry," she cried, "what has happened to you?"
"Nothing," he muttered, and thrust his hands hurriedly into his coat pockets.
"Darling," cried Ruth, "what has happened? Let me see!"
"No," muttered Payne, thrusting his hands deeper in his pockets. "It is nothing, Ruth. I'll be all right..."
But the girl would not be put off. She insisted that he see a doctor on the morrow. And now she remembered something she had read about glandular irregularities. Payne grasped at that suggestion. There might, after all, be an explanation for his affliction that a doctor would understand.
The next day Gerald Payne went to a doctor in a distant borough. He lied about his occupation, fearing the loss of his job should the doctor's report of his condition be unfavorable. He said that he was a machinist and gave a fictitious name. He neglected, at first, to mention a new symptom that had been developing during the past couple of days—an increasing tendency to lose control of his hands.
But the doctor was watching him carefully. He noted how Payne's hands would begin to rise from his lap for no perceptible reason, how Payne would attempt, unsuccessfully, to make the movement appear natural and premeditated. How, then, he would stuff his hands into his pockets as though that was the only way he could keep them still.
After his examination the doctor said that a cranial X-ray would be necessary, and made an appointment with him for the following day. But Gerald Payne did not return to keep the appointment.
THE following day was Saturday. At the height of the one o'clock rush hour Gerald Payne sat in the cab of his train in Times Square. The train was full, jammed to overflowing. The guards had pressed in the last passengers by main force and slammed the doors. The dispatcher's bell was ringing stridently—but the train did not move.
Gerald Payne was fighting the battle of his life—a battle with his own hands. For days he had been struggling with them, forcing them into reluctant and hesitant obedience only through constant and extreme exercise of his will. The battle was wearing him out. He no longer had the strength to subjugate them.
Was that it? Or had they grown increasingly strong with a ferocious and terrifying will of their own? It seemed to him that his hands had become those of an idiot brute, a fiend by whom he must be conquered at the slightest showing of weakness on his part. And he was showing that weakness, now. Oh, God! He was lost. He could not force them to the controls. Any moment the dispatcher would be running up to find out what was the matter. He would lose his job, and Ruth and the babies would be thrown in the street—would starve...
It was that thought which called forth the last resource of Gerald Payne's will. His face was bathed in sweat, his whole body shaking with the terrific strain of his struggle. His hands were poised in front of him, huge, heavy fingers clawed toward his chest. They had been rising slowly, inexorably toward his throat as though of their own volition, they were about to choke him to death. He glared down at them, and willed them, with every ounce of strength in his being, to descend—and suddenly they began to obey. Their upward progress hesitated—halted. For a moment they poised there—then with terrific, lightning- like suddenness they dived downward onto the controls like swooping hawks.
As the train jerked into sudden motion Payne's heart gave a great thump of sick terror. Instantly he attempted to release the controls, to throw on the air brakes. This was something that he had not bargained for. Why had he not foreseen that, since now each movement of his hands was obtained only at the cost of exerting the utmost of his will power, that he might not be able to stop the train when he wished? God in heaven! What had he done? The train was gathering speed, the control was open to the full. In a dozen seconds the string of ten densely packed cars would be hurtling along at a speed of fifty miles an hour or more. Would he be able to stop it by the time they reached the next express station?
The upright girders of the tunnel flashed by at increasing speed. The first local stop loomed, ahead, swept past, and the train dived on through the great tube. The shadows, the dim lights, the running ribbon of steel that was the track danced crazily before Gerald Payne's eyes as he fought to bring the train to a stop. The crescendoing roar of the trucks and the whirling flanges of the wheels gibbered and howled in his ears like the voices of mocking fiends. And his hands clung to the controls with a final and fatal steel-like strength that he was completely powerless to overcome.
It was coming—the dreadful crash that would occur when they hit the train ahead. The mangled bodies. The wails of the maimed and dying—it was coming. Hundreds of men and women and children were hurtling onward to their doom. Like the pilot of a hellish juggernaut he was carrying them to a death of fire and horror and smashed flesh and bones. There was no escape...
The second local stop flashed by—and the third. Ahead was the next express stop...
Payne knew that his train was making far more than normal speed. No express trainman runs at maximum speed during rush hours—the trains are spaced too closely together. The chances were that his train would crash with the one ahead before it had a chance to get out of the 72nd St. station.
Gerald Payne bit his lips savagely. Like a man in a fit he threw his body about in the cab, futilely trying to loosen a pair of hands that were as stiff and hard and unyielding as though they had been cast in iron. He shouted at the top of his voice, risking spreading panic among the passengers in the hope that one or two might break through to him and somehow save the train.
But his heart sank with the realization that the thunder of the trucks was drowning out his voice; that even if he could make himself heard it was doubtful that the door of the cab could be opened. The press of the packed passengers would make it all but impossible.
Then his worst fears were realized.
The first block signal showed red. It flashed by, and a second ruby glow gleamed in the dusk before him. It was supplanted by a third—and then the red end-lights of the express ahead darted at him from around the slight curve that led into the station.
Gerald Payne's eyes bulged with insupportable terror. The black end of the other express was like the maw of a dragon, spreading to receive and crush to death in giant jaws his body and the bodies of the passengers he was responsible for.
Suddenly he shrieked a prayer—and in that instant an idea came to him. If he were dead—or even unconscious—perhaps his hands would be forced to relax their grip. With all his strength he swung his body around and crashed his head into the steel lintel of the window of his cab. Darkness, then, like a great, black bird swooped over his brain...
AT the inquiry which followed, Gerald Payne heard himself alternately extolled as a hero and cursed as a drunkard or a maniac. He heard expert medical opinion describe his glands as normal in one moment, and as functionally deranged the next.
He wished fervently that it would end. He had lost his job. He would not be taken back whatever this investigation reported. But an attempt was being made to demonstrate that he had been guilty of criminal negligence. If that could be proved he would face a prison sentence. Somehow even that prospect had not the power to bother him much, just now.
He had regained complete control over his hands. True, they were still gross, swollen, grotesquely huge and hairy—but they no longer acted independently of his own volition. He looked at them with a kind of controlled dread, but he no longer felt horror of them. Doubtless, in time, he would become used to them...
He glanced up. The assistant to the commissioner of transportation was talking—oddly enough, talking about his hands.
"I did not bring this man's hands into the discussion," he was saying, and his voice was charged with sneering contempt, "and I have not the exalted knowledge of the expert witnesses to understand the physical cause of such hands. But to me, gentlemen, they are the hands of a shiftless lout, a probable drunkard and—a possible murderer!"
The attorney who was representing Payne leaped to his feet.
"Objection!' he shouted. "The commissioner has no right—"
Suddenly his voice broke. Payne saw the man's eyes fall upon him and he knew the cause of that interrupted utterance. For at the commissioner's pronouncement of the word "murderer" Payne felt ominous, foreign life flowing into his hands. It was as though the word had conjured back the malevolent vitality that had activated them since that night when he had met the strange woman. And now those hands were rising, faster than they had before, imbued with a sureness and strength of movement that no longer took the least account of Gerald Payne's will.
Helplessly, his eyes sought his wife's. Ruth was rising from her seat in growing terror as she saw her husband's hands rising like taloned paws toward his throat. She uttered a piercing scream as she saw them suddenly close with terrific pressure about his windpipe, and rushed forward.
People were springing up all over the room. The physician who had testified that Payne was suffering from a combination of cerebral pressure, perhaps caused by a tumor, and a functional disorder of the pituitary gland, was the first to reach his side.
Gerald Payne's face was purpling. His tongue protruded and his eyes seemed starting from his head. The horror written upon his engorged face was mirrored in those which gathered about him, as their owners struggled vainly to force open the fingers that were choking him to death. Ruth fought to his side and, shrieking, grasped his thickened wrists with her small white hands. She tugged futilely until she was forced aside by men who believed their superior strength would avail where hers failed.
They were no more successful than she. Slowly Gerald Payne's eyes glazed, his face turned from purple to black. At length the steel-tense muscles of his body relaxed and he fell forward in his seat...
DR. HOWARD CRANDALL, psychiatrist and research officer of the Boston Society for Psychical Research, had been the expert who testified at Gerald Payne's trial concerning the probable cause of Payne's affliction. It was in Dr. Crandall's private sanatorium that Payne regained consciousness a few hours after he had been carried from the hearing and remanded to Dr. Crandall's care. The little doctor whose small stature belied the steely strength of his compact, hard body stood with his hands behind him, gravely questioning his patient. Payne at length told the physician about the adventure with the mysterious woman, and how, the next morning, he had awakened in the street with blood on his hands.
The doctor was silent for a moment, after Payne ceased speaking. Then, slowly, he nodded his head as though in affirmation of some inner thought, his eyes broodingly on the floor.
"Could you go to the house again?" he asked at length, raising his light grey eyes to Pane's.
"Why—yes," replied Payne hesitantly. "But I—I wouldn't care to go back there, doctor."
"Oh," said the doctor. "Well, I suppose you do feel a certain reluctance about it. However, it is necessary for us to locate this woman. We'll go tomorrow."
So it was, on the following day, in spite of Payne's frenzied protests, that the young man and the physician found themselves late in the afternoon standing in front of the house where the mysterious woman had lived. Sight of the house kindled a flame of terror in Gerald Payne's breast that nearly drove him to turn and run as though for his life. Only the little physician's firm grip on his arm held him in check.
"You must be brave," said the doctor quietly. "We will face God alone knows what horrors before we are through with this business—but they must be faced if you are to be freed from the influence that is ruining your life that, if not conquered, will undoubtedly kill you before long. Much depends on your courage and control of yourself!"
Together they marched up to the door, and Dr. Crandall knocked loudly upon it with his fist, there being no bell-button. They waited for several seconds; then the doctor repeated his knock. There was no response. After waiting a minute or so longer, the physician surprisingly produced a small jimmy, such as burglars use, and without even bothering to look about to see if he was observed, calmly forced the door open and walked in, Payne following with a fearful hesitancy he was trying manfully to control.
The door of the bedroom was the only one locked. After the two men had explored the other rooms they paused in the hall in front of the bedroom door, and again the good doctor brought his jimmy into play. After a few moments the door swung open.
Involuntarily crying out, Gerald Payne fell backward a step. There on the bed lay the mysterious, dark-haired woman who had lured him to this place, weeks ago. Her eyes closed, arms crossed above her breast, she lay in stark, white beauty, completely nude.
With a murmured word of admonition, Dr. Crandall strode forward without hesitation. He approached the side of the bed, produced a small vial from a vest pocket, and bent above the figure of the woman, passing the tiny bottle back and forth beneath her nostrils.
Gerald Payne, still standing rooted to his tracks in the doorway saw the woman stir restively, saw her marble-white bosom rise with a slow inspiration of breath. Slowly he crept forward, his eyes fastened upon her face, a strange numbness creeping over his senses as on that night when he had first seen her. A power of some kind seemed to emanate from her, increasing as she gave stronger indications of returning to consciousness, and a great fear was growing in Gerald Payne's heart fear that a catastrophe which he would be completely powerless to prevent, was about to occur.
Dr. Crandall turned and looked at him curiously, but Gerald Payne's eyes were fixed in a wide stare of horror on the face of the woman. Her eyes were open, now, and the young man felt as though they were boring into his soul. He became unconscious of everything but those eyes. He did not even know that his great, misshapen hands were slowly rising, slowly reaching out—toward Dr. Crandall's throat!
Nor was the good doctor aware, at first, of the danger that was threatening him. After that one curious glance at Payne, he too had turned to look at the woman. But as he noted her eyes were open, he slipped a hand into his pocket and drew it out again, holding something that he shielded from view in his palm.
Then the great, heavy hands of Gerald Payne closed about his throat. After a short, convulsive struggle, the little doctor ceased to resist. He merely stood and gazed fixedly into the eyes of the man who was killing him—eyes that were spread in horror of what their owner's hands were doing. Eyes that pleaded for strength to resist a weirdly murderous will far stronger than that of any merely mortal man.
And from the fearless mind of the little doctor, some strength seemed now to flow into the soul of Gerald Payne, so that he was able to make his heavy fingers loosen a trifle—enough to permit a painful, shuddering breath to enter the doctor's lungs... Relief flooded Payne's heart, and a cry burst from his lips—a cry of joy at what he believed to be the sign of his release from the doom which had been upon him.
But as though in angry echo another cry came from the bed. The white, beautiful body of the woman was suddenly galvanized into action. In the next instant Gerald Payne felt soft arms twining about his body, he felt hot breath, and then avid lips and small, biting teeth on the back of his neck. Quick, slender hands ripped buttons from his shirt, slid down his chest, over his abdomen...
Like a wave of black fire lust flowed over the mind of Gerald Payne, blanking all other sensation, wiping out every vestige of reason. He was conscious only of a sudden move on the part of the doctor—the thrust of the little physician's right arm against Payne's side—and then the stunning crash of the three of them as they fell to the floor. After that—darkness...
THERE was a small pile of dust in the middle of the bedroom floor. In the center of the pile was a small cruciform dagger with the figure of the Savior molded into the hilt. As Payne watched, the doctor bent over and picked up the weapon, returned it to his pocket.
"That's all, my boy," he said quietly. "We have won... Look at your hands!"
Payne looked down at his hands—and a cry of joy burst from his lips. They had returned to normal!
"You see," said the doctor, "we cannot explain what has happened in terms of anything we know—or think we know—about life and normal experience. We must fall back on what most people are pleased to call superstition. And there is a superstition, originating, I believe, in Middle Europe, to the effect that demons sometimes visit the earth in human form. They are called, in their various manifestations, ouves, deeves, vampires, werewolves, etc. A polish or Czech peasant would unhesitatingly say that we have had to do, here, with some such being.
"By day they lie in a condition resembling death, from which they may be aroused only by the fumes of oil of mandrake—a small amount of which I brought here with me and applied to the being's nostrils, as you saw. They may be destroyed by any holy relic, or cruciform weapon. Thus, with the little dagger, I was able to conquer our adversary when she leaped upon your back. That her body dissolved into dust proves—"
"Yes, but why—" interposed Payne—"why should she have forced me to do the things I did? Why did she try to make me wreck the train? Why did my hands grow so heavy?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. "Again we must fall back on superstition," he said. "The devil—Satan—is the avowed enemy of the human race. He desires the destruction of us all. His servants, by enslaving human beings, as you were enslaved, can bring about the deaths of hundreds. Perhaps—who knows?—wars are begun, great fire started, contagious diseases spread by his minions. We may not be independent, self-sufficient beings we believe ourselves to be!"
Gerald Payne nodded. There was another question trembling on the tip of his tongue—but he dared not ask it. That blood which had been on his hands the morning he had awakened in the little blind alley—whence had it come? Not, as he had thought, from the woman who had so mysteriously disappeared from this room. Had it been the blood of an innocent victim? Some luckless wayfarer he had encountered in the street. Had a body, mysteriously slain, been found that morning lying in the street?
He shuddered, and knew that these were questions better left unanswered—knew, too, that for long years to come his sleep would be troubled, his conscience agitated by them... Even that, perhaps, would be better than knowing the truth.