Archive for April 2014
It was a dreary, forlorn establishment way down onHarbor Street. An old sign announced the legend: “Giovanni Larla- Antiques,” and a dingy window revealed a display half masked in dust.
Even as I crossed the threshold that cheerless September afternoon, driven from the sidewalk by a gust of rain and perhaps a fascination for all antiques, the gloominess fell upon me like a material pall. Inside was half darkness, piled boxes and a monstrous tapestry, frayed with the warp showing in worn places. An Italian Renaissance wine-cabinet shrank despondently in its corner and seemed to frown at me as I passed.
“Good afternoon, Signor. There is something you wish to buy? A picture, a ring, a vase perhaps?”
I peered at the squat bulk of the Italian proprietor there in the shadows and hesitated.
“Just looking around,” I said, turning to the jumble about me. “Nothing in particular….”
The man’s oily face moved in smile as though he had heard the remark a thousand times before. He sighed, stood there in thought a moment, the rain drumming and swishing against the outer plane. Then very deliberately he stepped to the shelves and glanced up and down them considering. At length he drew forth an object which I perceived to be a painted chalice.
“An authentic Sixteenth Century Tandart,” he
I shook my head. “No pottery,” I said. “Books perhaps, but no pottery.”
He frowned slowly. “I have books too,” he replied, “rare books which nobody sells but me, Giovanni Larla. But you must look at my other treasures too”
There was, I found, no hurrying the man. A quarter of an hour passed during which I had to see a Glycon cameo brooch, a carved chair of some indeterminate style and period, and a muddle of yellowed statuettes, small oils and one or two dreary Portland vases. Several times I glanced at my watch impatiently, wondering how I might break away from this Italian and his gloomy shop. Already the fascination of its dust and shadows had begun to wear off, and I was anxious to reach the street.
But when he had conducted me well toward the rear of the shop, something caught my fancy. I drew then from the shelf the first book of horror. If I had but known the events that were to follow, if I could only have had a foresight into the future that September day, I swear I would have avoided the book like a leprous thing, would have shunned that wretched antique store and the very street it stood on like places cursed. A thousand times I have wished my eyes had never rested on that cover in black. What writhings of the soul, what terrors, what unrest, what madness would have been spared me!
But never dreaming the secret of its pages I fondled it casually and remarked:
“An unusual book. What is it?”
Larla glanced up and scowled.
That is not for sale,” he said quietly. “I don’t know how it got on these shelves. It was my poor brother’s.”
The volume in my hand was indeed unusual in appearance. Measuring but four inches across and five inches in length and bound in black velvet with each outside corner protected with a triangle of ivory, it was the most beautiful piece of hook-binding I had ever seen. In the centre of the cover was mounted a tiny piece of ivory intricately cut in the shape of a skull. But it was the title of the book that excited my interest. Embroidered in gold braid, the title read:
“Five Unicorns and aPearl”
I looked at Larla. “How much?” I asked and reached for my wallet.
He shook his head. “No, it is not for sale. It is . . . it is the last work of my brother. He wrote it just before he died in the institution.
Larla made no reply but stood staring at the book, his mind obviously drifting away in deep thought. A moment of silence dragged by. There was a strange gleam in his eyes when finally he spoke. And I thought I saw his fingers tremble slightly.
“My brother, Alessandro, was a fine man before he wrote that book,” he said slowly. “He wrote beautifully, Signor, and he was strong and healthy. For hours I could sit while he read to me his poems. He was a dreamer, Alessandro; he loved everything beautiful, and the two of us were very happy.
“All … until that terrible night. Then he . . . but no a year has passed now. It is best to forget.” He passed his hand before his eyes and drew in his breath sharply.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Happened, Signor? I do not really know. It was all so confusing. He became suddenly ill, ill without reason. The flush of sunnyItalywhich was always on his cheek, faded, and he grew white and drawn. His strength left him day by day. Doctors prescribed, gave medicines but nothing helped. He grew steadily weaker until . . . until that night.”
I looked at him curiously, impressed by his perturbation.
Hands opening and closing, Larla seemed to sway unsteadily; his liquid eyes opened wide to the brows.
“And then . . . oh, if I could but forget! It was horrible. Poor Alessandro came home screaming, sobbing. He was . . . he was stark, raving mad!
“They took him to the institution for the insane and said he needed a complete rest, that he had suffered from some terrific mental shock. He . . . died three weeks later with the crucifix on his lips.”
For a moment I stood there in silence, staring out at the falling rain. Then I said:
“He wrote this book while confined to the institution?”
Larla nodded absently.
“Three books,” he replied “Two others exactly like the one you have in your hand. The bindings he made, of course, when he was quite well. It was his original intention, I believe, to pen in them by hand the verses of Marini. He was very clever at such work. But the wanderings of his mind which filled the pages now, I have never read. Nor do I intend to. I want to keep with me the memory of him when he was happy. This book has come on these shelves by mistake. I shall put it with his other possessions.”
My desire to read the few pages bound in velvet increased a thousand-fold when I found they were unobtainable. I have always had an interest in abnormal psychology and have gone through a number of books on the subject. Here was the work of a man confined in the asylum for the insane. Here was the unexpurgated writing of an educated brain gone mad. And unless my intuition failed me, here was a suggestion of some deep mystery. My mind was made up. I must have it.
I turned to Larla and chose my words carefully.
“I can well appreciate your wish to keep the book,” I said, “and since you refuse to sell, may I ask if you would consider lending it to me for just one night? If I promised to return it in the morning?…..”
The Italian hesitated. He toyed undecidedly with a heavy gold watch chain.
“No, I am sorry….”
“Ten dollars and back tomorrow unharmed.”
Larla studied his shoe.
“Very well, Signor, I will trust you. But please, I ask you, please be sure and return it.”
That night in the quiet of my apartment I opened the book. Immediately my attention was drawn to three lines scrawled in a feminine hand across the inside of the front cover, lines written in a faded red solution that looked more like blood than ink. They read:
“Revelations meant to destroy but only binding without the stake. Read, fool and enter my field, for we are chained to the spot. Oh wo unto Larla.”
I mused over these undecipherable sentences for some time without solving their meaning. At last, I turned to the first page and began the last work of Alessandro Larla, the strangest story I had ever in my years of browsing through old books, come upon.
“On the evening of the fifteenth of October 1 turned my steps into the cold and walked until I was tired. The roar of the present was in the distance when I came to twenty-six bluejays silently contemplating the ruins. Passing in the midst of them I wandered by the skeleton trees and seated myself where I could watch the leering fish. A child worshipped. Glass threw the moon at me. Grass sang a litany at my feet. And pointed shadow moved slowly to the left.
“I walked along the silver gravel until I came to five unicorns galloping beside water of the past. Here I found a pearl, a magnificent pearl, a pearl beautiful but black. Like a flower it carried a rich perfume, and once I thought the odor was but a mask, but why should such a perfect creation need a mask?
“I sat between the leering fish and the five galloping unicorns, and I fell madly in love with the pearl. The past lost itself in drabness and -”
I laid the book down and sat watching the smoke-curls from my pipe eddy ceilingward. There was much more, but I could make no sense of any of it. All was in that strange style and completely incomprehensible. And yet it seemed the story was more than the mere wanderings of a madman. Behind it all seemed to lie a narrative cloaked in symbolism.
Something about the few sentences had cast an immediate spell of depression over me. The vague lines weighed upon my mind, and I felt myself slowly seized by a deep feeling of uneasiness.
The air of the room grew heavy and close. The open casement and the out-of-doors seemed to beckon to me. I walked to the window, thrust the curtain aside, stood there, smoking furiously. Let me say that regular habits have long been a part of my make-up. I am not addicted to nocturnal strolls or late meanderings before seeking my bed; yet now curiously enough, with the pages of the book still in my mind I suddenly experienced an indefinable urge to leave my apartment and walk the darkened streets.
I paced the room nervously. The clock on the mantel pushed its ticks slowly through the quiet. And at length I threw my pipe to the table, reached for my hat and coat and made for the door.
Ridiculous as it may sound, upon reaching the street I found that urge had increased to a distinct attraction. I felt that under no circumstances must I turn any direction but northward, and although this way led into a district quite unknown to me, I was in a moment pacing forward, choosing streets deliberately and heading without knowing why toward the outskirts of the city. It was a brilliant moonlight night in September. Summer had passed and already there was the smell of frosted vegetation in the air. The great chimes in Capitol tower were soundingmidnight, and the buildings and shops and later the private houses were dark and silent as I passed.
Try as I would to erase from my memory the queer book which I had just read, the mystery of its pages hammered at me, arousing my curiosity. “Five Unicorns and aPearl!” What did it all mean?
More and more I realized as I went on that a power other than my own will was leading my steps. Yet once when I did momentarily come to a halt that attraction swept upon me as inexorably as the desire for a narcotic.
It was far out onEasterly Streetthat I came upon a high stone wall flanking the sidewalk. Over its ornamented top I could see the shadows of a dark building set well back in the grounds. A wrought-iron gate in the wall opened upon a view of wild desertion and neglect. Swathed in the light of the moon, an old courtyard strewn with fountains, stone benches and statues lay tangled in rank weeds and undergrowth. The windows of the building, which evidently had once been a private dwelling were boarded up, all except those on a little tower or cupola rising to a point in front. And here the glass caught the blue-gray light and refracted it into the shadows.
Before that gate my feet stopped like dead things. The psychic power which had been leading me had now become a reality. Directly from the courtyard it emanated, drawing me toward it with an intensity that smothered all reluctance.
Strangely enough, the gate was unlocked; and feeling like a man in a trance I swung the creaking hinges and entered, making my way along a grass-grown path to one of the benches. It seemed that once inside the court the distant sounds of the city died away, leaving a hollow silence broken only by the wind rustling through the tall dead weeds. Rearing up before me, the building with its dark wings, cupola and facade oddly resembled a colossal hound, crouched and ready to spring.
There were several fountains, weather-beaten and ornamented with curious figures, to which at the time I paid only casual attention. Farther on, half hidden by the underbrush, was the life-size statue of a little child kneeling in position of prayer. Erosion on the soft stone had disfigured the face, and in the half-light the carved features presented an expression strangely grotesque and repelling.
How long I sat there in the quiet, I don’t know. The surroundings under the moonlight blended harmoniously with my mood. But more than that I seemed physically unable to rouse myself and pass on.
It was with a suddenness that brought me electrified to my feet that I became aware of the significance of the objects about me. Held motionless, I stood there running my eyes wildly from place to place, refusing to believe. Surely I must be dreaming. In the name of all that was unusual this…. this absolutely couldn’t be. And yet-
It was the fountain at my side that had caught my attention first.Across the top of the water basin were five stone unicorns, all identically carved, each seeming to follow the other in galloping procession. Looking farther, prompted now by a madly rising recollection, I saw that the cupola, towering high above the house, eclipsed the rays of the moon and threw a long pointed shadow across the ground at my left. The other fountain some distance away was ornamented with the figure of a stone fish, a fish whose empty eye-sockets were leering straight in my direction And the climax of it all – the wall! At intervals of every three feet on the top of the street expanse were mounted crude carven stone shapes of birds. And counting them I saw that those birds were twenty- six bluejays.
Unquestionably – startling and impossible as it seemed – I was in the same setting as described in Larla’s book! It was a staggering revelation, and my mind reeled at the thought of it. How strange, how odd that I should be drawn to a portion of the city I had never before frequented and thrown into the midst of a narrative written almost a year before!
I saw now that Alessandro Larla, writing as a patient in the institution for the insane, had seized isolated details but neglected to explain them. Here was a problem for the psychologist, the mad, the symbolic, the incredible story of the dead Italian. I was bewildered and I pondered for an answer.
As if to soothe my perturbation there stole into the court then faint odor of perfume. Pleasantly it touched my nostrils, seemed to blend with the moonlight. I breathed it in deeply as I stood there by fountain. But slowly that odor became more noticeable, grew stronger, a sickish sweet smell that began to creep down my lungs like smoke. Heliotrope! The honeyed aroma blanketed the garden, thickened the air.
And then came my second surprise of the evening. Looking a to discover the source of the fragrance I saw opposite me, seated on another stone bench, a woman. She was dressed entirely in black, and her face was hidden by a veil. She seemed unaware of my presence. Her head was slightly bowed, and her whole position suggested a person in deep contemplation.
I noticed also the thing that crouched by her side. It was a dog, a tremendous brute with a head strangely out of proportion and eyes as large as the ends of big spoons. For several moments I stood staring at the two of them. Although the air was quite chilly, the woman wore no over-jacket, only the black dress relieved solely by the whiteness of her throat.
With a sigh of regret at having my pleasant solitude thus disturbed I moved across the court until I stood at her side. Still she showed no recognition of my presence, and clearing my throat I said hesitatingly:
“I suppose you are the owner here. I…. I really didn’t know the place was occupied, and the gate…. well, the gate was unlocked. I’m sorry I trespassed.”
She made no reply to that, and the dog merely gazed at me in dumb silence. No graceful words of polite departure came to my lips, and I moved hesitatingly toward the gate.
“Please don’t go,” she said suddenly, looking up. “I’m lonely. Oh, if you but knew how lonely I am!” She moved to one side on the bench and motioned that I sit beside her. The dog continued to examine me with its big eyes.
Whether it was the nearness of that odor of heliotrope, the suddenness of it all, or perhaps the moonlight, I did not know, but at her words a thrill of pleasure ran through me, and I accepted the proffered seat.
There followed an interval of silence, during which I puzzled for a means to start conversation. But abruptly she turned to the beast and said in German:
The dog rose obediently to its feet and stole slowly off into the shadows. I watched it for a moment until it disappeared in the direction of the house. Then the woman said to me in English which was slightly stilted and marked with an accent:
“It has been ages since I have spoken to anyone…. We are strangers. I do not know you, and you do not know me. Yet…. strangers sometimes find in each other a bond of interest. Supposing…. supposing we forget customs and formality of introduction? Shall we?”
For some reason I felt my pulse quicken as she said that. “Please do,” I replied. “A spot like this is enough introduction in itself. Tell me, do you live here?”
She made no answer for a moment, and I began to fear I had taken her suggestion too quickly. Then she began slowly:
“My name is Perle von Mauren, and I am really a stranger to your country, though I have been here now more than a year. My home is inAustrianear what is now the Czechoslovakian frontier. You see, it was to find my only brother that I came to theUnited States. During the war he was a lieutenant under General Mackensen, but in 1916 in April I believe it was, he…. he was reported missing.
“War is a cruel thing. It took our money; it took our castle on theDanube, and then – my brother. Those following years were horrible. We lived always in doubt, hoping against hope that he was still living.
“Then after the Armistice a fellow officer claimed to have served next to him on grave-digging detail at a French prison camp near Monpre. And later came a thin rumour that he was in theUnited States. I gathered together as much money as I could and came here in search him.”
Her voice dwindled off, and she sat in silence staring at the brown weeds. When she resumed, her voice was low and wavering.
“I …. found him…. but would to God I hadn’t! He was no longer living.”
I stared at her. “Dead?” I asked.
The veil trembled as though moved by a shudder, as though her thoughts had exhumed some terrible event of the past. Unconscious of my interruption she went on:
“Tonight I came here – I don’t know why – merely because the gate was unlocked, and there was a place of quiet within. Now have I bored you with my confidences and personal history?”
“Not at all,” I replied. “I came here by chance myself. Probably the beauty of the place attracted me. I dabble in amateur photography occasionally and react strongly to unusual scenes. Tonight I went for amidnightstroll to relieve my mind from the bad effect of a book I was reading.”
She made a strange reply to that, a reply away from our line of thought and which seemed an interjection that escaped her involuntarily.
“Books,” she said, “are powerful things. They can fetter one more than the walls of a prison.”
She caught my puzzled stare at the remark and added hastily: “It is odd that we should meet here.”
For a moment I didn’t answer. I was thinking of her heliotrope perfume, which for a woman of her apparent culture was applied in far too great a quantity to show good taste. The impression stole upon me that the perfume cloaked some secret, that if it were removed I should find…. but what?
The hours passed, and still we sat there talking, enjoying each other’s companionship. She did not remove her veil; and though I was burning with desire to see her features, I had not dared to ask her to. A strange nervousness had slowly seized me. The woman was a charming conversationalist, but there was about her an indefinable something which produced in me a distinct feeling of unease.
It was, I should judge, but a few moments before the first streaks of a dawn when it happened. As I look back now even with mundane objects and thoughts on every side, it is not difficult to realize the significance of that vision. But at the time my brain was too much in a whirl to understand.
A thin shadow moving across the garden attracted my gaze once again into the night about me. I looked up over the spire of the deserted house and started as if struck by a blow. For a moment I thought I had seen a curious cloud formation racing low directly above me, a cloud black and impenetrable with two wing-like ends strangely in the shape of a monstrous flying bat.
I blinked my eyes hard and looked again.
“That cloud!” I exclaimed, “that strange cloud!…. Did you see -”
I stopped and stared dumbly.
The bench at my side was empty. The woman had disappeared.
During the next day I went about my professional duties in the law office with only half interest, and my business partner looked at me queerly several times when he came upon me mumbling to myself. Th incidents of the evening before were rushing through my mind. Questions unanswerable hammered at me. That I should have come upon the very details described by mad Larla in his strange book: the leering fish, the praying child, the twenty-six bluejays, the pointed shadow of the cupola – it was unexplainable; it was weird.
“Five Unicorns and aPearl.” The unicorns were the stone statues ornamenting the old fountain, yes – but the pearl? With a start I suddenly recalled the name of the woman in black: Perle von Mauren. What did it all mean?
Dinner had little attraction for me that evening. Earlier I had gone to the antique-dealer and begged him to loan me the sequel, the second volume of his brother Alessandro. When he had refused, objected because I had not yet returned the first book, my nerves had suddenly jumped on edge. I felt like a narcotic fiend faced with the realization that he could not procure the desired drug. In desperation, yet hardly knowing why, I offered the man more money, until at length I had come away, my powers of persuasion and my pocketbook successful.
The second volume was identical in outward respects to its predecessor except that it bore no title. But if I was expecting more disclosures in symbolism I was doomed to disappointment. Vague as Unicorns and aPearl” had been, the text of the sequel was even more wandering and was obviously only the ramblings of a mad brain. By watching the sentences closely I did gather that Alessandro Larla had made a second trip to his court of the twenty-six bluejays and met there again his “pearl.”
There was the paragraph toward the end that puzzled me. It read:
“Can it possibly be? I pray that it is not. And yet I have seen it and heard it snarl. Oh, the loathsome creature! I will not, I will not believe it.”
I closed the book and tried to divert my attention elsewhere by polishing the lens of my newest portable camera. But again, as before, that same urge stole upon me, that same desire to visit the garden. I confess that I had watched the intervening hours until I would meet woman in black again; for strangely enough, in spite of her abrupt exit before, I never doubted that she would be there waiting for me. I wanted her to lift the veil. I wanted to talk with her. I wanted to throw myself once again into the narrative of Lana’s book.
Yet the whole thing seemed preposterous, and I fought the sensation with every ounce of will-power I could call to mind. Then it suddenly occurred to rne what a remarkable picture she would make, sitting there on the stone bench, clothed in black, with the classic background of the old courtyard. If I could but catch the scene on photographic plate….
I halted my polishing and mused a moment. With a new electric flash-lamp, that handy invention which has supplanted the old mussy flash-powder, I could illuminate the garden and snap the picture with ease. And if the result were satisfactory it would make a worthy contribution to the International Camera Contest atGenevanext month.
The idea appealed to me, and gathering together the necessary equipment I drew on an ulster (for it was a wet, chilly night) and slipped out of my rooms and headed northward. Mad, unseeing fool that I was! If only I had stopped then and there, returned the book to the antique~iealer and closed the incident! But the strange magnetic action had gripped rne in earnest, and I rushed headlong into the horror.
A fall rain was drumming the pavement, and the streets were deserted. Off to the east, however, the heavy blanket of clouds glowed with a soft radiance where the moon was trying to break through, and a strong wind from the south gave promise of clearing the skies before long. With my coat collar turned well up at the throat I passed once again into the older section of the town and down forgottenEasterly Street. I found the gate to the grounds unlocked as before, and the garden a dripping place masked in shadow.
The woman was not there. Still the hour was early, and I did not for a moment doubt that she would appear later. Gripped now with the enthusiasm of my plan, I set the camera carefully on the stone fountain, training the lens as well as I could on the bench where we had sat the previous evening. The flash-lamp with its battery handle I laid within easy reach.
Scarcely had I finished my arrangements when the crunch of gravel on the path caused me to turn. She was approaching the stone bench, heavily veiled as before and with the same sweeping black dress.
“You have come again,” she said as I took my place beside her.
“Yes,” I replied. “I could not stay away.”
Our conversation that night gradually centered about her dead brother, although I thought several times that the woman tried to avoid the subject. He had been, it seemed, the black sheep of the family, had led more or less of a dissolute life and had been expelled from the University of Vienna not only because of his lack of respect for the pedagogues of the various sciences but also because of his queer unorthodox papers on philosophy. His sufferings in the war prison camp must have been intense. With a kind of grim delight she dwelt on his horrible experiences in the grave-digging detail which had been related to her by the fellow officer. But of the manner in which he had met his death she would say absolutely nothing.
Stronger than on the night before was the sweet smell of heliotrope. And again as the fumes crept nauseatingly down my lungs there came that same sense of nervousness, that same feeling that the perfume was hiding something I should know. The desire to see beneath the veil had become maddening by this time, but still I lacked the boldness to ask her to lift it.
Towardmidnightthe heavens cleared and the moon in splendid contrast shone high in the sky. The time had come for my picture.
“Sit where you are” I said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Stepping to the fountain I grasped the flash-lamp, held it aloft for an instant and placed my finger on the shutter lever of the camera. The woman remained motionless on the bench, evidently puzzled as to the meaning of my movements. The range was perfect. A click, and a dazzling white light enveloped the courtyard about us. For a brief second she was outlined there against the old wall. Then the blue moonlight returned, and I was smiling in satisfaction.
“It ought to make a beautiful picture,” I said.
She leaped to her feet.
“Fool!” she cried hoarsely. “Blundering fool! What have you done?”
Even though the veil was there to hide her face I got the inmpression that her eyes were glaring at me, smouldering with hatred. I gazed at her curiously as she stood erect, head thrown back, apparently taut as wire, and a slow shudder crept down my spine.Then without warning she gathered up her dress and ran down the path toward the deserted house. A moment later she had disappeared somewhere in the shadows of the giant bushes.
I stood there by the fountain, staring after her in a daze. Suddenly off in the umbra of the house’s facade there rose a low animal snarl.
And then before I could move, a huge gray shape came hutling through the long weeds, bounding in great leaps straight toward me. It was the woman’s dog, which I had seen with her the night before. But no longer was it a beast passive and silent. Its face was contorted in diabolic fury, and its jaws were dripping slaver. Even in that moment of terror as I stood frozen before it, the sight of those white nostrils and those black hyalescent eyes emblazoned itself on my mind, never to be forgotten.
Then with a lunge it was upon me. I had only time to thrust the flashlamp upward in half protection and throw my weight to the side. My arm jumped in recoil. The bulb exploded, and I could feel those teeth clamp down hard on the handle. Backward I fell, a scream gurgling to my lips, a terrific heaviness surging upon my body.
I struck out frantically, beat my fists into that growling face. My fingers groped blindly for its throat, sank deep into the hairy flesh. I could feel its very breath mingling with my own now, but desperaly I hung on.
The pressure of my hands told. The dog coughed and fell back. And seizing that instant I struggled to my feet, jumped forward and planted a terrific kick straight into the brute’s middle.
“Fortmitdir, Johann!” I cried, remembering the woman’s German command.
It leaped back and, fangs bared, glared at me motionless for a moment. Then abruptly it turned and slunk off through the weeds.
Weak and trembling, I drew myself together, picked up my camera and passed through the gate toward home.
Three days passed. Those endless hours I spent confined to my apartment suffering the tortures of the damned.
On the day following the night of my terrible experience with the dog I realized I was in no condition to go to work. I drank two cups of strong black coffee and then forced myself to sit quietly in a chair, hoping to soothe my nerves. But the sight of the camera there on the table excited me to action. Five minutes later I was in the dark room arranged as my studio, developing the picture I had taken the night before. I worked feverishly, urged on by the thought of what an unusual contribution it would make for the amateur contest next month atGeneva, should the result be successful.
An exclamation burst from my lips as I stared at the still-wet print. There was the old garden clear and sharp with the bushes, the statue of child, the fountain and the wall in the background, but the bench – the stone bench was empty. There was no sign, not even a blur of the woman in black.
I rushed the negative through a saturated solution of mercuric chloride in water, then treated it with ferrous oxalate. But even after this intensifying process the second print was like the first, focused in every detail, the bench standing in the foreground in sharp relief, but no trace of the woman.
She had been in plain view when I snapped the shutter. Of that I was positive. And my camera was in perfect condition. What then was wrong? Not until I had looked at the print hard in the daylight would I believe my eyes. No explanation offered itself, none at all; and at length, confused, I returned to my bed and fell into a heavy sleep.
Straight through the day I slept. Hours later I seemed to wake from a vague nightmare, and had not strength to rise from my pillow. A great physical faintness had overwhelmed me. My arms, my legs, lay like dead things. My heart was fluttering weakly. All was quiet, so still that the clock on my bureau ticked distinctly each passing second. The curtain billowed in the night breeze, though I was positive I had closed the casement when I entered the room.
And then suddenly I threw back my head and screamed! For slowly, slowly creeping down my lungs was that detestable odor of heliotrope!
Morning, and I found all was not a dream. My head was ringing, my hands trembling, and I was so weak I could hardly stand. The doctor I called in looked grave as he felt my pulse.
“You are on the verge of a complete collapse,” he said. “If you do not allow yourself a rest it may permanently affect your mind. Take things easy for a while. And if you don’t mind, I’ll cauterize those two little cuts on your neck. They’re rather raw wounds. What caused them?”
I moved my fingers to my throat and drew them away again tipped with blood.
“I…. I don’t know,” I faltered.
He busied himself with his medicines, and a few minutes later reached for his hat.
“I advise that you don’t leave your bed for a week at least,” he said. “I’ll give you a thorough examination then and see if there are any signs of anemia.” But as he went out the door I thought I saw a puzzled look on his face.
Those subsequent hours allowed my thoughts to run wild once more. I vowed I would forget it all, go back to my work and never look upon the books again. But I knew I could not. The woman in black persisted in my mind, and each minute away from her became a torture. But more than that, if there had been a decided urge to continue my reading in the second book, the desire to see the third book, the last of the trilogy, was slowly increasing to an obsession.
At length I could stand it no longer, and on the morning of the third day I took a cab to the antique store and tried to persuade Larla to give me the third volume of his brother. But the Italian was firm. I had already taken two books, neither of which I had returned. Until I brought them back he would not listen. Vainly I tried to explain that one was of no value without the sequel and that I wanted to read the entire narrative as a unit. He merely shrugged his shoulders.
Cold perspiration broke out on my forehead as I heard my desire disregarded. I argued. I pleaded. But to no avail.
At length when Larla had turned the other way I seized the third book as I saw it lying on the shelf, slid it into my pocket and walked guiltily out. I made no apologies for my action. In the light of what developed later it may be considered a temptation inspired, for my will at the time was a conquered thing blanketed by that strange lure.
Back in my apartment I dropped into a chair and hastened to open the velvet cover. Here was the last chronicling of that strange series of events which had so completely become a part of my life during the past five days. Larla’s volume three. Would all be explained in its pages? If so, what secret would be revealed?
With the light from a reading-lamp glaring full over my shoulder I opened the book, thumbed through it slowly, marveling again at the exquisite hand-printing. It seemed then as I sat there that an almost palpable cloud of quiet settled over me, muffling the distant sounds of the street. Something indefinable seemed to forbid me to read farther. Curiosity, that queer urge told me to go on. Slowly, I began to turn the pages, one at a time, from back to front.
Symbolism again. Vague wanderings with no sane meaning.
But suddenly my fingers stopped! My eyes had caught sight of the last paragraph on the last page, the final pennings of Alessandro Larla. I read, re-read, and read again those blasphemous words. I traced each word in the lamplight, slowly, carefully, letter for letter. Then the horror of it burst within me.
In blood-red ink the lines read:
“What shall I do? She has drained my blood and rotted my soul. My pearl is black as all evil. The curse be upon her brother, for it is he who made her thus. I pray the truth in these pages will destroy them for ever.
“Heaven help me, Perle von Mauren and her brother, Johann, are vampires”
I leaped to my feet.
I clutched at the edge of the table and stood there swaying. Vampires! Those horrible creatures with a lust for human blood, taking the shape of men, of bats, of dogs.
The events of the past days rose before me in all their horror now, and I could see the black significance of every detail.
The brother, Johann – some time since the war he had become a vampire. When the woman sought him out years later he had forced this terrible existence upon her too.
With the garden as their lair the two of them had entangled poor Alessandro Larla in their serpentine coils a year before. He had loved the woman, had worshipped her. And then he had found the awful truth that had sent him stumbling home, raving mad.
Mad, yes, but not mad enough to keep him from writing the fact in his three velvet-bound books. He had hoped the disclosures would dispatch the woman and her brother for ever. But it was not enough.
I whipped the first book from the table and opened the cover. There again I saw those scrawled lines which had meant nothing to me before.
“Revelations meant to destroy but only binding without the stake. Read fool, and enter my field, for we are chained to the spot. Oh, wo unto Larla!”
Perle von Mauren had written that. The books had not put an end the evil life of her and her brother. No, only one thing could do that. Yet the exposures had not been written in vain. They were recorded for mortal posterity to see.
Those books bound the two vampires, Perle von Mauren, Johann, to the old garden, kept them from roaming the night streets in search of victims. Only him who had once passed through the gate could they pursue and attack.
It was the old metaphysical law: evil shrinking in the face of truth.
Yet if the books had found their power in chains they had also opened a new avenue for their attacks. Once immersed in the pages of the trilogy, the reader fell helplessly into their clutches. Those printed lines had become the outer reaches of their web. They were an entrapment net within which the power of the vampires always crouched.
That was why my life had blended so strangely with the story of Larla. The moment I had cast my eyes on the opening paragraph I had fallen into their coils to do with as they had done with Larla a year before I had been drawn relentlessly into the tentacles of the woman in black. Once I was past the garden gate the binding spell of the books was gone, and they were free to pursue me and to –
A giddy sensation rose within me. Now I saw why the doctor had been puzzled. Now I saw the reason for my physical weakness. She had been – feasting on my blood! But if Larla had been ignorant of the one way to dispose of such a creature, I was not. I had not vacationed in southEuropewithout learning something of these ancient evils.
Frantically I looked about the room. A chair, a table, one of my cameras with its long tripod. I seized one of the wooden legs of the tripod in my hands, snapped it across my knee. Then, grasping the two broken pieces, both now with sharp splintered ends, I rushed hatless out of the door to the street.
A moment later I was racing northward in a cab bound forEasterly Street.
“Hurry’!” I cried to the driver as I glanced at the westering sun. “Faster, do you hear?”
We shot along the cross-streets, into the old suburbs and toward the outskirts of town. Every traffic halt found me fuming at the delay. But at length we drew up before the wall of the garden.
I swung the wrought-iron gate open and with the wooden pieces of the tripod still under my arm, rushed in. The courtyard was a place of reality in the daylight, but the moldering masonry and tangled weeds were steeped in silence as before.
Straight for the house I made, climbing the rotten steps to the front entrance. The door was boarded up and locked. I retraced my steps and began to circle the south wall of the building. It was this direction I had seen the woman take when she had fled after I had tried to snap her picture. Well toward the rear of the building I reached a small half-open door leading to the cellar. Inside, cloaked in gloom, a narrow corridor stretched before me. The floor was littered with rubble and fallen masonry, the ceiling interlaced with a thousand cobwebs.
I stumbled forward, my eyes quickly accustoming themselves to the half-light from the almost opaque windows.
At the end of the corridor a second door barred my passage. I thrust it open – and stood swaying there on the sill staring inward.
Beyond was a small room, barely ten feet square, with a low-raftered ceiling. And by the light of the open door I saw side by side in the center of the floor – two white wood coffins.
How long I stood there leaning weakly against the stone wall I don’t know. There was an odor drifting from out of that chamber. Heliotrope! But heliotrope defiled by the rotting smell of an ancient grave.
Then suddenly I leaped to the nearest coffin, seized its cover and ripped it open.
Would to heaven I could forget that sight that met my eyes. There the woman in black – unveiled.
That face – it was divinely beautiful, the hair black as sable, the cheeks a classic white. But the lips – ! I grew suddenly sick as I looked upon them. They were scarlet…. and sticky with human blood.
I reached for one of the tripod stakes, seized a flagstone from the floor and with the pointed end of the wood resting directly over the woman’s heart struck a crashing blow. The stake jumped downward. A violent contortion shook the coffin. Up to my face rushed a warm, nauseating breath of decay.
I wheeled and hurled open the lid of her brother’s coffin. With only a glance at the young masculine Teutonic face I raised the other stake high in the air and brought it stabbing down with all the strength in my right arm.
In the coffins now, staring up at me from eyeless sockets, were two gray and mouldering skeletons.
The rest is but a vague dream. I remember rushing outside, along the path to the gate and down Easterly, away from that accursed garden of the jays.
At length, utterly exhausted, I reached my apartment. Those mundane surroundings that confronted me were like a balm to my eyes. But there centred into my gaze three objects lying where I had left them, the three volumes of Larla.
I turned to the grate on the other side of the room and flung the three of them into the still glowing coals.
There was an instant hiss, and yellow flame streaked upward and began eating into the velvet. The fire grew higher…. higher…. and diminished slowly.
And as the last glowing spark died into a blackened ash there swept over me a mighty feeling of quiet and relief.