20 May The Haunter of the Ring
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"The Haunter of the Ring"Written by Robert E. Howard
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Estimated reading time — 20 minutes
As I entered John Kirowan’s study I was too much engrossed in my own thoughts to notice, at first, the haggard appearance of his visitor, a big, handsome young fellow well known to me.
“Hello, Kirowan,” I greeted. “Hello, Gordon. Haven’t seen you for quite a while. How’s Evelyn?” And before he could answer, still on the crest of the enthusiasm which had brought me there, I exclaimed: “Look here, you fellows, I’ve got something that will make you stare! I got it from that robber Ahmed Mektub, and I paid high for it, but it’s worth it. Look!” From under my coat I drew the jewel-hilted Afghan dagger which had fascinated me as a collector of rare weapons.
Kirowan, familiar with my passion, showed only polite interest, but the effect on Gordon was shocking.
With a strangled cry he sprang up and backward, knocking the chair clattering to the floor. Fists clenched and countenance livid he faced me, crying: “Keep back! Get away from me, or—”
I was frozen in my tracks.
“What in the—” I began bewilderedly, when Gordon, with another amazing change of attitude, dropped into a chair and sank his head in his hands. I saw his heavy shoulders quiver. I stared helplessly from him to Kirowan, who seemed equally dumbfounded.
“Is he drunk?” I asked.
Kirowan shook his head, and filling a brandy glass, offered it to the man. Gordon looked up with haggard eyes, seized the drink and gulped it down like a man half famished. Then he straightened up and looked at us shamefacedly.
“I’m sorry I went off my handle, O’Donnel,” he said. “It was the unexpected shock of you drawing that knife.”
“Well,” I retorted, with some disgust, “I suppose you thought I was going to stab you with it!’
“Yes, I did!” Then, at the utterly blank expression on my face, he added: “Oh, I didn’t actually think that; at least, I didn’t reach that conclusion by any process of reasoning. It was just the blind primitive instinct of a hunted man, against whom anyone’s hand may be turned.”
His strange words and the despairing way he said them sent a queer shiver of nameless apprehension down my spine.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded uneasily. “Hunted? For what? You never committed a crime in your life.”
“Not in this life, perhaps,” he muttered.
“What do you mean?”
“What if retribution for a black crime committed in a previous life were hounding me?” he muttered.
“That’s nonsense,” I snorted.
“Oh, is it?” he exclaimed, stung. “Did you ever hear of my great-grandfather, Sir Richard Gordon of Argyle?”
“Sure; but what’s that got to do with—”
“You’ve seen his portrait: doesn’t it resemble me?”
“Well, yes,” I admitted, “except that your expression is frank and wholesome whereas his is crafty and cruel.”
“He murdered his wife,” answered Gordon. “Suppose the theory of reincarnation were true? Why shouldn’t a man suffer in one life for a crime committed in another?”
“You mean you think you are the reincarnation of your great-grandfather? Of all the fantastic—well, since he killed his wife, I suppose you’ll be expecting Evelyn to murder you!” This last was delivered in searing sarcasm, as I thought of the sweet, gentle girl Gordon had married. His answer stunned me.
“My wife,” he said slowly, “has tried to kill me three times in the past week.”
There was no reply to that. I glanced helplessly at John Kirowan. He sat in his customary position, chin resting on his strong, slim hands; his white face was immobile, but his dark eyes gleamed with interest. In the silence, I heard a clock ticking like a death-watch.
“Tell us the full story, Gordon,” suggested Kirowan, and his calm, even voice was like a knife that cut a strangling, relieving the unreal tension.
“You know we’ve been married less than a year,” Gordon began, plunging into the tale as though he were bursting for utterance; his words stumbled and tripped over one another. “All couples have spats, of course, but we’ve never had any real quarrels. Evelyn is the best-natured girl in the world.
“The first thing out of the ordinary occurred about a week ago. We had driven up in the mountains, left the car, and were wandering around picking wildflowers. At last we came to a steep slope, some thirty feet in height, and Evelyn called my attention to the flowers which grew thickly at the foot. I was looking over the edge and wondering if I could climb down without tearing my clothes to ribbons, when I felt a violent shove from behind that toppled me over.
“If it had been a sheer cliff, I’d have broken my neck. As it was, I went tumbling down, rolling and sliding, and brought up at the bottom scratched and bruised, with my garments in rags. I looked up and saw Evelyn staring down, apparently frightened half out of her wits.
“‘Oh Jim!’ she cried. ‘Are you hurt? How came you to fall?’
“It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her that there was such a thing as carrying a joke too far, but these words checked me. I decided that she must have stumbled against me unintentionally, and actually didn’t know it was she who precipitated me down the slope.
“So I laughed it off and went home. She made a great fuss over me, insisted on swabbing my scratches with iodine, and lectured me for my carelessness! I hadn’t the heart to tell her it was her fault.
“But four days later, the next thing happened. I was walking along our driveway, when I saw her coming up it
in the automobile. I stepped out on the grass to let her by, as there isn’t any curb along the driveway. She was smiling as she approached me, and slowed down the car, as if to speak to me. Then, just before she reached me, a most horrible change came over her expression. Without warning the car leaped at me like a living thing as she drove her foot down on the accelerator. Only a frantic leap backward saved me from being ground under the wheels. The car shot across the lawn and crashed into a tree. I ran to it and found Evelyn dazed and hysterical, but unhurt. She babbled of losing control of the machine.
“I carried her into the house and sent for Doctor Donnelly. He found nothing seriously wrong with her, and attributed her dazed condition to fright and shock. Within half an hour she regained her normal senses, but she’s refused to touch the wheel since. Strange to say, she seemed less frightened on her own account than on mine. She seemed vaguely to know that she’d nearly run me down, and grew hysterical again when she spoke of it. Yet she seemed to take it for granted that I knew the machine had got out of her control. But I distinctly saw her wrench the wheel around, and I know she deliberately tried to hit me—why, God alone knows.”
“Still I refused to let my mind follow the channel it was getting into. Evelyn had never given any evidence of any psychological weakness or ‘nerves’; she’s always been a level-headed girl, wholesome and natural. But I began to think she was subject to crazy impulses. Most of us have felt the impulse to leap from tall buildings. And sometimes a person feels a blind, childish and utterly reasonless urge to harm someone. We pick up a pistol, and the thought suddenly enters our mind how easy it would be to send our friend, who sits smiling and unaware, into eternity with a touch of the trigger. Of course we don’t do it, but the impulse is there. So I thought perhaps some lack of mental discipline made Evelyn susceptible to these unguided impulses, and unable to control them.”
“Nonsense,” I broke in. “I’ve known her since she was a baby. If she has any such trait, she’s developed it since she married you.”
It was an unfortunate remark. Gordon caught it up with a despairing gleam in his eyes. “That’s just it—since she married me! It’s a curse—a black, ghastly curse, crawling like a serpent out of the past! I tell you, I was Richard Gordon and she—she was Lady Elizabeth, his murdered wife!” His voice sank to a blood-freezing whisper.
I shuddered; it is an awful thing to look upon the ruin of a keen clean brain, and such I was certain that I surveyed in James Gordon. Why or how, or by what grisly chance it had come about I could not say, but I was certain the man was mad.
“You spoke of three attempts.” It was John Kirowan’s voice again, calm and stable amid the gathering webs of horror and unreality.
“Look here!” Gordon lifted, his arm, drew back the sleeve and displayed a bandage, the cryptic significance of which was intolerable.
“I came into the bathroom this morning looking for my razor,” he said. “I found Evelyn just on the point of using my best shaving implement for some feminine purpose—to cut out a pattern, or something. Like many women, she can’t seem to realize the difference between a razor and a butcher-knife or a pair of shears.
“I was a bit irritated, and I said: ‘Evelyn, how many times have I told you not to use my razors for such things? Bring it here; I’ll give you my pocket-knife.'”
“‘I’m sorry, Jim,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know it would hurt the razor. Here it is.’
“She was advancing, holding the open razor toward me. I reached for it—then something warned me. It was the same look in her eyes, just as I had seen it the day she nearly ran over me. That was all that saved my life, for I instinctively threw up my hand just as she slashed at my throat with all her power. The blade gashed my arm as you see, before I caught her wrist. For an instant she fought me like a wild thing; her slender body was taut as steel beneath my hands. Then she went limp and the look in her eyes was replaced by a strange dazed expression. The razor slipped out of her fingers.”
“I let go of her and she stood swaying as if about to faint. I went to the lavatory—my wound was bleeding in a beastly fashion—and the next thing I heard her cry out, and she was hovering over me.”
” ‘Jim!’ she cried. ‘How did you cut yourself so terribly?’ ”
Gordon shook his head and sighed heavily. “I guess I was a bit out of my head. My self-control snapped.
“‘Don’t keep up this pretense, Evelyn,’ I said. ‘God knows what’s got into you, but you know as well as I that you’ve tried to kill me three times in the past week.’
“She recoiled as if I’d struck her, catching at her breast and staring at me as if at a ghost. She didn’t say a word—and just what I said I don’t remember. But when I finished I left her standing there white and still as a marble statue. I got my arm bandaged at a drug store, and then came over here, not knowing what else to do.
“Kirowan—O’Donnel—it’s damnable! Either my wife is subject to fits of insanity—” He choked on the word. “No, I can’t believe it. Ordinarily, her eyes are too clear and level—too utterly sane. But every time she has an opportunity to harm me, she seems to become a temporary maniac.”
He beat his fists together in his impotence and agony.
“But it isn’t insanity! I used to work in a psychopathic ward, and I’ve seen every form of mental unbalance. My wife is not insane!”
“Then what—” I began, but he turned haggard eyes on me.
“Only one alternative remains,” he answered. “It is the old curse—from the days when I walked the earth with a heart as black as hell’s darkest pits, and did evil in the sight of man and of God. She knows, in fleeting snatches of memory. People have seen before—have glimpsed forbidden things in momentary liftings of the veil, which bars life from life. She was Elizabeth Douglas, the ill-fated bride of Richard Gordon, whom he murdered in a jealous frenzy, and the vengeance is hers. I shall die by her hands, as it was meant to be. And she-” he bowed his head in his hands.
“Just a moment.” It was Kirowan again. “You have mentioned a strange look in your wife’s eyes. What sort of a look? Was it of maniacal frenzy?”
Gordon shook his head. “It was an utter blankness. All the life and intelligence simply vanished, leaving her eyes dark wells of emptiness.”
Kirowan nodded, and asked a seemingly irrelevant question. “Have you any enemies?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You forget Joseph Roelocke,” I said. “I can’t imagine that elegant sophisticate going to the trouble of doing you actual harm, but I have an idea that if he could discomfort you without any physical effort on his part, he’d do it with a right good will.”
Kirowan turned on me an eye that had suddenly become piercing.
“And who is this Joseph Roelocke?”
“A young exquisite who came into Evelyn’s life and nearly rushed her off her feet for a while. But in the end, she came back to her first love-Gordon here. Roelocke took it pretty hard. For all his suaveness there’s a streak of violence and passion in the man that might have cropped out but for his infernal indolence and blasé indifference.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to be said against Roelocke,” interrupted Gordon impatiently. “He must know that Evelyn never really loved him. He merely fascinated her temporarily with his romantic Latin air.”
“Not exactly Latin, Jim,” I protested. “Roelocke does look foreign, but it isn’t Latin. It’s almost Oriental.”
“Well, what has Roelocke to do with this matter?” Gordon snarled with the irascibility of frayed nerves. “He’s been as friendly as a man could be since Evelyn and I were married. In fact, only a week ago he sent her a ring which he said was a peace-offering and a belated wedding gift; said that after all, her jilting him was a greater misfortune for her than it was for him—the conceited jackass!”
“A ring?” Kirowan had suddenly come to life; it was as if something hard and steely had been sounded in him. “What sort of a ring?”
“Oh, a fantastic thing—copper, made like a scaly snake coiled three times, with its tail in its mouth and yellow jewels for eyes. I gather he picked it up somewhere in Hungary.”
“He has traveled a great deal in Hungary?”
Gordon looked surprised at this questioning but answered: “Why, apparently the man’s traveled everywhere. I put him down as the pampered son of a millionaire. He never did any work, so far as I know.”
“He’s a great student,” I put in. “I’ve been up to his apartment several times, and I never saw such a collection of books-”
Gordon leaped to his feet with an oath, “Are we all crazy?” he cried. “I came up here hoping to get some help—and you fellows fall to talking of Joseph Roelocke. I’ll go to Doctor Donnelly-”
“Wait!” Kirowan stretched out a detaining hand. “If you don’t mind, we’ll go over to your house. I’d like to talk to your wife.”
Gordon dumbly acquiesced. Harried and haunted by grisly forebodings, he knew not which way to turn, and welcomed anything that promised aid.
We drove over in his car, and scarcely a word was spoken on the way. Gordon was sunk in moody ruminations, and Kirowan had withdrawn himself into some strange aloof domain of thought beyond my ken. He sat like a statue, his dark vital eyes staring into space, not blankly, but as one who looks with understanding into some far realm.
Though I counted the man as my best friend, I knew but little of his past. He had come into my life as abruptly and unannounced as Joseph Roelocke had come into the life of Evelyn Ash. I had met him at the Wanderer’s Club, which is composed of the drift of the world, travelers, eccentrics, and all manner of men whose paths lie outside the beaten tracks of life. I had been attracted to him, and was intrigued by his strange powers and deep knowledge. I vaguely knew that he was the black sheep younger son of a titled Irish family, and that he had walked many strange ways. Gordon’s mention of Hungary struck a chord in my memory; one phase of his life Kirowan had once let drop fragmentarily. I only knew that he had once suffered a bitter grief and a savage wrong, and that it had been in Hungary. But the nature of the episode I did not know.
At Gordon’s house Evelyn met us calmly, showing inner agitation only by the over-restraint of her manner. I saw the beseeching look she stole at her husband. She was a slender, soft-spoken girl, whose dark eyes were always vibrant and alight with emotion. That child tried to murder her adored husband? The idea was monstrous. Again I was convinced that James Gordon himself was deranged.
Following Kirowan’s lead, we made a pretense of small talk, as if we had casually dropped in, but I felt that Evelyn was not deceived. Our conversation rang false and hollow, and presently Kirowan said: “Mrs. Gordon, that is a remarkable ring you are wearing. Do you mind if I look at it?”
“I’ll have to give you my hand,” she laughed. “I’ve been trying to get it off today, and it won’t come off.”
She held out her slim white hand for Kirowan’s inspection, and his face was immobile as he looked at the metal snake that coiled about her slim finger. He did not touch it. I myself was aware of an unaccountable repulsion. There was something almost obscene about that dull copperish reptile wound about the girl’s white finger.
“It’s evil-looking, isn’t it?” She involuntarily shivered. “At first I liked it, but now I can hardly bear to look at it. If I can get it off I intend to return it to Joseph—Mr. Roelocke.”
Kirowan was about to make some reply when the doorbell rang. Gordon jumped as if shot, and Evelyn rose quickly.
“I’ll answer it, Jim. I know who it is.”
She returned an instant later with two more mutual friends, those inseparable cronies, Doctor Donnelly, whose burly body, jovial manner and booming voice were combined with as keen a brain as any in the profession, and Bill Bain, elderly, lean, wiry, acidly witty. Both were old friends of the Ash family. Doctor Donnelly had ushered Evelyn into the world, and Bain was always Uncle Bill to her.
“Howdy, Jim! Howdy, Mr. Kirowan!” roared Donnelly. “Hey, O’Donnel, have you got any firearms with you? Last time, you nearly blew my head off showing me an old flintlock pistol that wasn’t supposed to be loaded!”
We all turned. Evelyn was standing beside a wide table, holding it as if for support. Her face was white. Our badinage ceased instantly. A sudden tension was in the air.
“Doctor Donnelly,” she repeated, holding her voice steady by an effort, “I sent for you and Uncle Bill-for the same reason for which I know Jim has brought Mr. Kirowan and Michael. There is a matter Jim and I can no longer deal with alone. There is something between—us something black and ghastly and terrible.”
“What are you talking about, girl?” All the levity was gone from Donnelly’s great voice.
“My husband-” She choked, then went blindly on: “My husband has accused me of trying to murder him.”
The silence that fell was broken by Bain’s sudden and energetic rise. His eyes blazed and his fists quivered.
“You young pup!” he shouted at Gordon. “I’ll knock the living daylights-”
“Sit down, Bill!” Donnelly’s huge hand crushed his smaller companion back into his chair. “No use goin’ off half-cocked. Go ahead, honey.”
“We need help. We can not carry this thing alone.” A shadow crossed her comely face. “This morning Jim’s arm was badly cut. He said I did it. I don’t know. I was handing him the razor. Then I must have fainted. At least, everything faded away. When I came to myself he was washing his arm in the lavatory-and-and he accused me of trying to kill him.”
“Why, the young fool!” barked the belligerent Bain. “Hasn’t he sense enough to know that if you did cut him, it was an accident?”
“Shut up, won’t you?” snorted Donnelly. “Honey, did you say you fainted? That isn’t like you.”
“I’ve been having fainting spells,” she answered. “The first time was when we were in the mountains and Jim fell down a cliff. We were standing on the edge—then everything went black, and when my sight cleared, he was rolling down the slope.” She shuddered at the recollection.
“Then when I lost control of the car and it crashed into the tree. You remember—Jim called you over.”
Doctor Donnelly nodded his head ponderously.
“I don’t remember you ever having fainting spells before.”
“But Jim says I pushed him over the cliff!” she cried hysterically. “He says I tried to run him down in the car! He says I purposely slashed him with the razor!”
Doctor Donnelly turned perplexedly, toward the wretched Gordon.
“How about it, son?”
“God help me!” Gordon burst out in agony. “It’s true!”
“Why, you lying hound!” It was Bain who gave tongue, leaping again to his feet. “If you want a divorce, why don’t you get it in a decent way, instead of resorting to these despicable tactics-”
“Damn you!” roared Gordon, lunging up, and losing control of himself completely. “If you say that I’ll tear your jugular out!”
Evelyn screamed; Donnelly grabbed Bain ponderously and banged him back into his chair with no overly gentle touch, and Kirowan laid a hand lightly on Gordon’s shoulder. The man seemed to crumple into himself. He sank back into his chair and held out his hands gropingly toward his wife.
“Evelyn,” he said, his voice thick with laboring emotion, “you know I love you. I feel like a dog. But God help me, it’s true. If we go on this way, I’ll be a dead man, and you—”
“Don’t say it!” she screamed. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me, Jim. If you say I tried to kill you, I know I did. But I swear, Jim, I didn’t do it consciously. Oh, I must be going mad! That’s why my dreams have been so wild and terrifying lately-”
“Of what have you dreamed, Mrs. Gordon?” asked Kirowan gently.
She pressed her hands to her temples and stared dully at him, as if only half comprehending.
“A black thing,” she muttered. “A horrible faceless black thing that mows and mumbles and paws over me with apish hands. I dream of it every night. And in the daytime, I try to kill the only man I ever loved. I’m going mad! Maybe I’m already crazy and don’t know it.”
“Calm yourself, honey.” To Doctor Donnelly, with all his science, it was only another case of feminine hysteria. His matter-of-fact voice seemed to soothe her, and she sighed and drew a weary hand through her damp locks.
“We’ll talk this all over, and everything’s goin’ to be okay,” he said, drawing a thick cigar from his vest pocket. “Gimme a match, honey.”
She began mechanically to feel about the table, and just as mechanically Gordon said: “There are matches in the drawer, Evelyn.”
She opened the drawer and began groping in it, when suddenly, as if struck by recollection and intuition, Gordon sprang up, white-faced, and shouted: “No, no! Don’t open that drawer-don’t”—
Even as he voiced that urgent cry, she stiffened, as if at the feel of something in the drawer. Her change of expression held us all frozen, even Kirowan. The vital intelligence vanished from her eyes like a blown-out flame, and into them came the look Gordon had described as blank. The term was descriptive. Her beautiful eyes were dark wells of emptiness, as if the soul had been withdrawn from behind them.
Her hand came out of the drawer holding a pistol, and she fired point-blank. Gordon reeled with a groan and went down, blood starting from his head. For a flashing instant, she looked down stupidly at the smoking gun in her hand, like one suddenly waking from a nightmare. Then her wild scream of agony smote our ears.
“Oh God, I’ve killed him! Jim! Jim! ”
She reached him before any of us, throwing herself on her knees and cradling his bloody head in her arms, while she sobbed in an unbearable passion of horror and anguish. The emptiness was gone from her eyes; they were alive and dilated with grief and terror.
I was making toward my prostrate friend with Donnelly and Bain, but Kirowan caught my arm. His face was no longer immobile; his eyes glittered with a controlled savagery.
“Leave him to them!” he snarled. “We are hunters, not healers! Lead me to the house of Joseph Roelocke!”
I did not question him. We drove there in Gordon’s car.
I had the wheel, and something about the grim face of my companion caused me to hurl the machine recklessly through the traffic. I had the sensation of being part of a tragic drama which was hurtling with headlong speed toward a terrible climax.
I wrenched the car to a grinding halt at the curb before the building where Roelocke lived in a bizarre apartment high above the city. The very elevator that shot us skyward seemed imbued with something of Kirowan’s driving urge for haste. I pointed out Roelocke’s door, and he cast it open without knocking and shouldered his way in. I was close at his heels.
Roelocke, in a dressing-gown of Chinese silk worked with dragons, was lounging on a divan, puffing quickly at a cigarette. He sat up, overturning a wine-glass which stood with a half-filled bottle at his elbow.
Before Kirowan could speak, I burst out with our news. “James Gordon has been shot!”
He sprang to his feet. “Shot? When? When did she kill him?”
“She?” I glared in bewilderment. “How did you know-”
With a steely hand Kirowan thrust me aside, and as the men faced each other, I saw recognition flare up in Roelocke’s face. They made a strong contrast: Kirowan, tall, pale with some white-hot passion; Roelocke, slim, darkly handsome, with the Saracenic arch of his slim brows above his black eyes. I realized that whatever else occurred, it lay between those two men. They were not strangers; I could sense like a tangible thing the hate that lay between them.
“John Kirowan!” softly whispered Roelocke.
“You remember me, Yosef Vrolok!” Only an iron control kept Kirowan’s voice steady. The other merely stared at him without speaking.
“Years ago,” said Kirowan more deliberately, “when we delved in the dark mysteries together in Budapest, I saw whither you were drifting. I drew back; I would not descend to the foul depths of forbidden occultism and diabolism to which you sank. And because I would not, you despised me, and you robbed me of the only woman I ever loved; you turned her against me by means of your vile arts, and then you degraded and debauched her, sank her into your own foul slime. I had killed you with my hands then, Yosef Vrolok-vampire by nature as well as by name that you are-but your arts protected you from physical vengeance. But you have trapped yourself at last!”
Kirowan’s voice rose in fierce exultation. All his cultured restraint had been swept away from him, leaving a primitive, elemental man, raging and gloating over a hated foe.
“You sought the destruction of James Gordon and his wife, because she unwittingly escaped your snare. You—”
Roelocke shrugged his shoulders and laughed. “You are mad. I have not seen the Gordons for weeks. Why blame me for their family troubles?”
Kirowan snarled. “Liar as always. What did you say just now when O’Donnel told you Gordon had been shot? ‘When did she kill him?’ You were expecting to hear that the girl had killed her husband. Your psychic powers had told you that a climax was close at hand. You were nervously awaiting news of the success of your devilish scheme.
“But I did not need a slip of your tongue to recognize your handiwork. I knew as soon as I saw the ring on Evelyn Gordon’s finger; the ring she could not remove; the ancient and accursed ring of Thoth-amon, handed down by foul cults of sorcerers since the days of forgotten Stygia, I knew that ring was yours, and I knew by what ghastly rites you came to possess it. And I knew its power. Once she put it on her finger, in her innocence and ignorance, she was in your power. By your black magic you summoned the black elemental spirit, the haunter of the ring, out of the gulfs of Night and the ages. Here in your accursed chamber you performed unspeakable rituals to drive Evelyn Gordon’s soul from her body, and to cause that body to be possessed by that godless sprite from outside the human universe.
“She was too clean and wholesome, her love for her husband too strong, for the fiend to gain complete and permanent possession of her body; only for brief instants could it drive her own spirit into the void and animate her form. But that was enough for your purpose. But you have brought ruin upon yourself by your vengeance!”
Kirowan’s voice rose to a feline screech.
“What was the price demanded by the fiend you drew from the Pits? Ha, you blench! Yosef Vrolok is not the only man to have learned forbidden secrets! After I left Hungary, a broken man, I took up again the study of the black arts, to trap you, you cringing serpent! I explored the ruins of Zimbabwe, the lost mountains of inner Mongolia, and the forgotten jungle islands of the southern seas. I learned what sickened my soul so that I forswore occultism forever—but I learned of the black spirit that deals death by the hand of a beloved one, and is controlled by a master of magic.
“But, Yosef Vrolok, you are not an adept! You have not the power to control the fiend you have invoked. And you have sold your soul!”
The Hungarian tore at his collar as if it were a strangling noose. His face had changed, as if a mask had dropped away; he looked much older.
“You lie!” he panted. “I did not promise him my soul-”
“I do not lie!” Kirowan’s shriek was shocking in its wild exultation. “I know the price a man must pay for calling forth the nameless shape that roams the gulfs of Darkness. Look! There in the corner behind you! A nameless, sightless thing is laughing-is mocking you! It has fulfilled its bargain, and it has come for you, Yosef Vrolok!”
“No! No!” shrieked Vrolok, tearing his limp collar away from his sweating throat. His composure had crumpled, and his demoralization was sickening to see. “I tell you it was not my soul—I promised it a soul, but not my soul—he must take the soul of the girl, or of James Gordon.”
“Fool!” roared Kirowan. “Do you think he could take the souls of innocence? That he would not know they were beyond his reach? The girl and the youth he could kill; their souls were not his to take or yours to give. But your black soul is not beyond his reach, and he will have his wage. Look! He is materializing behind you! He is growing out of thin air!”
Was it the hypnosis inspired by Kirowan’s burning words that caused me to shudder and grow cold, to feel an icy chill that was not of earth pervade the room? Was it a trick of light and shadow that seemed to produce the effect of a black anthropomorphic shadow on the wall behind the Hungarian? No, by heaven! It grew, it swelled-Vrolok had not turned. He stared at Kirowan with eyes starting from his head, hair standing stiffly on his scalp, sweat dripping from his livid face.
Kirowan’s cry started shudders down my spine.
“Look behind you, fool! I see him! He has come! He is here! His grisly mouth gapes in awful laughter! His misshapen paws reach for you!”
And then at last Vrolok wheeled, with an awful shriek, throwing his arms above his head in a gesture of wild despair. And for one brain-shattering instant, he was blotted out by a great black shadow—Kirowan grasped my arm and we fled from that accursed chamber, blind with horror.
The same paper which bore a brief item telling of James Gordon having suffered a slight scalp-wound by the accidental discharge of a pistol in his home, headlined the sudden death of Joseph Roelocke, wealthy and eccentric clubman, in his sumptuous apartments-apparently from heart-failure.
I read it at breakfast, while I drank cup after cup of black coffee, from a hand that was not too steady, even after the lapse of a night. Across the table from me, Kirowan likewise seemed to lack appetite. He brooded, as if he roamed again through bygone years.
“Gordon’s fantastic theory of reincarnation was wild enough,” I said at last. “But the actual facts were still more incredible. Tell me, Kirowan, was that last scene the result of hypnosis? Was it the power of your words that made me seem to see a black horror grow out of the air and rip Yosef Vrolok’s soul from his living body?”
He shook his head. “No human hypnotism would strike that black-hearted devil dead on the floor. No; there are beings outside the ken of common humanity, foul shapes of transcosmic evil. Such a one it was with which Vrolok dealt.”
“But how could it claim his soul?” I persisted. “If indeed such an awful bargain had been struck, it had not fulfilled its part, for James Gordon was not dead, but merely knocked senseless.”
“Vrolok did not know it,” answered Kirowan. “He thought that Gordon was dead, and I convinced him that he himself had been trapped, and was doomed. In his demoralization, he fell easy prey to the thing he called forth. It, of course, was always watching for a moment of weakness on his part. The powers of Darkness never deal fairly with human beings; he who traffics with them is always cheated in the end.”
“It’s a mad nightmare,” I muttered. “But it seems to me, then, that you as much as anything else brought about Vrolok’s death.”
“It is gratifying to think so,” Kirowan answered. “Evelyn Gordon is safe now; and it is a small repayment for what he did to another girl, years ago, and in a far country.”
Credit: Robert E. Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936)
🔔 More stories from author: Robert E. Howard
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