From Supernatural Stories 14 -1958
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“The lights were dim, and the letters on the board spelt the name of one long dead . . .”
Val rang the bell and as it jangled loudly in the depths of the house, he began to wonder what he was doing there . . . “I’m a prize idiot,” he told himself reproachfully, and looked again at the slip of card in his hand, “Madame Le Noir — clairvoyant, palmist and spiritualist. Unrivalled Queen of the Occult Arts, 113, Roman Street, Soho.”
He put the card back in his pocket and listened. Somewhere inside the house he could hear footsteps . . . they sounded quite loud now, just beyond the door, in fact, and as he stepped back, a little, it opened.
“Good evening.” The inside of the house was dark and Val had difficulty in seeing the newcomer.
“Good evening,” he answered politely. “My name is Stearman — Madame is expecting me, I believe.”
“Come in,” said the voice from the darkness, and as Val entered, a pale green light came on. “You’re the journalist, I believe,” said the voice again, and Val nodded as he studied its owner. The man was short and thick-set, with a horrible spine-deformity that made him the image of Quasimodo. From head to foot he was clad in a long black robe, emblazoned with Oriental dragons, symbols of good luck, and the signs of the Zodiac. “Follow me, please,” said the hunchback, and began moving along the narrow passage. “Mind the stairs,” muttered Val’s guide suddenly, and the young reporter stopped abruptly as a flight of black marble steps appeared in the floor.
The hunchback had already begun to descend and Val followed him rather more slowly. The marble surface looked treacherously slippery, and Stearman had no desire to end up in the basement with a broken leg . . . From somewhere below them came the unmistakable odour of incense, and Val wrinkled his nose disdainfully. He was typical of the Angry Young Men of his day, and had very little time for things which he regarded as unnecessary trappings. Stearman was a highly practical type, with a well-developed scientific mind, and anything related to the arts, or worse still, mysticism or the supernatural, infuriated him intensely.
He had, in fact, recently contributed a highly controversial article to the Sunday Press, dealing with those facets of life which do not submit easily to scientific analysis. As his feet continued to descend, his mind recalled one particularly biting denouncement:
“It would be a great step forward in the development of healthy minds on a national scale, if we could rid ourselves once and for all of those soothsayers, charlatans and mystic cranks who batten upon public credulity and fan the smouldering fires of superstition into flames of fear.”
It was the phrase “soothsayers, charlatans and mystic ranks” which had led to the short communication he had received from Madame Le Noir. On the back of her card were written four words, “Come and be enlightened!”
He could not deny that it had intrigued him, but now as he descended these black marble stairs, on the heels of the grotesque, black-robed hunchback, he began to wish that he had not wasted his time on the venture. The whole atmosphere seemed false and theatrical, as if it was intended to condition the minds of the ‘customers’ into a state of apathetic gullibility . . . The smell of incense was much stronger now and he became aware that the hunchback had reached the bottom of the stairs.
They were in some kind of ante-room, and he looked closely at the curtained walls — Val distrusted curtains! In the same way that he distrusted dark narrow alleyways at night! He had been around considerably during his young life, and knew exactly what such places could contain on occasion.
As he looked at the curtains again, he recalled a certain night in Algiers, and a bewitching little dancing girl, whose perfumed apartment had held a lurking half-cast with a six-inch dagger! One of Val’s shoulders still carried the scar! But he had escaped with his life and his wallet, which was more than he might have done. He was accordingly grateful to whatever Providence watches over inexperienced adventurers in the danger spots of this world.
The hunchback knocked on a green baize door, and from beyond it Val heard a female voice say “Enter.” Bowing low, a posture which exaggerated his deformity, the hunchback ushered him inside, and retreated, closing the door behind him.
For the first time, Val caught sight of Madame Le Noir and he gasped in astonishment. His preconceived notions of a female medium were based vaguely on Margaret Rutherford’s brilliant portrayal in “Blythe Spirit” . . . to Val a medium should be at least fifty, shapeless in the extreme, and possessed of an earnest manner. Madame Le Noir was somewhere between twenty and thirty. Her hair, which was a shimmering blue-black, framed her exquisite face in the style of a Cleopatra. Her eyes, almond-shaped and as black as her hair, bored straight through him, and she wore a skin-tight dress of dark velvet.
“You seem surprised, Mr. Stearman,” she said softly. Val felt rather like Holly in the presence of Ayesha the immortal.
“I’m surprised, all right,” he enjoined after a pause. “I expected to see someone with half your curves and twice your age!” There was instant reproach in the black eyes.
“This meeting is purely business.” Ice dropped from every syllable. “I don’t want to hear any personal comments.” Val coughed to hide his embarrassment.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, as he felt in his pocket for her card. “Perhaps you’d like to explain this more fully?” She glanced down at it and the soft smile came back into her eyes.
“Of course.” He slid it back into his pocket. “You said some very unkind things about us in your article, Mr. Stearman,” she murmured in a mildly reproachful tone.
“And I stick by them,” answered Val aggressively. “I tremble to think what you people believe in, but I believe in reality. I’m tired of hearing all this pseudo-scientific balderdash about ether and vibrations. I’m tired of listening to all the claptrap about auras and astral bodies. I don’t want lengthy explanations about ectoplasm and poltergeists — I want facts.” His tone was becoming almost ferocious.
“You shall have your facts, Mr. Stearman,” said the woman in a voice of terrible quietness. “I and my colleagues can present you with enough evidence to fill a thousand volumes. Evidence that would outweigh all your assertations in the Sunday Press a million times over. But it is not the bad publicity that troubles us. We have had little else for a long, long time.” She shook her head slowly and sadly.
“No, Mr. Stearman, my main concern tonight is with something far more important than publicity. You are very representative of this day and generation, and we want to know whether it is possible to convince the majority of today’s average intelligent people that the spirit world and all that it stands for, is as real as the material world.”
Val started to speak, but she continued without pausing: “You will describe yourself as a hard nut to crack, I believe? Therefore, if we can convince you, the way will be more obviously open to shed light into the rest of the world. I gather that you are not a religious man?” Val snorted derisively.
“Not on your life! I am an atheist, and proud of it!” Madame Le Noir nodded.
“Excellent!” she purred. For a second she seemed to bear a resemblance to a huge black cat, but the impression passed as quickly as it had come.
“When do you start the mumbo-jumbo?” asked Val bluntly.
“As soon as the others arrive,” she answered softly. “In the meantime let me show you some of the things at which you scoff so boldly.”
He thought her voice held a trace of derision. But he lost all thoughts of her voice when she rose gracefully and walked slowly across the room — he had never seen a walk like it! She literally seemed to flow along with a swaying feline movement that almost hypnotised him, and more than ever her resemblance to a giant black cat became pronounced. She bent over a small black-draped table in one corner and lifted a crystal ball from its stand, then returned to her seat opposite the young journalist.
“This crystal is over 5,000 years old,” she murmured reverently. “It was found in the Temple of Bast, buried beneath the sands of time.”
“Which Temple of Bast?” asked Val. “I’ve been to Egypt,” he added pointedly.
“Outside Thebes,” purred the woman musically. “One of the greatest and most ancient of temples!”
“There are some excavations outside Thebes,” conceded Val grudgingly. He looked at her candidly. “I wondered if your Egyptian references were just a lot more hocus-pocus,” he said bluntly.
“What a strange man you are!” commented Le Noir. “You cling to your Aggressive Doubt as though it were a creed!”
“The only thing I defend is scientific truth and human progress,” answered Stearman hotly.
“Look at the crystal,” suggested the spiritualist. “Do you not feel the emanations from it?”
“Of course not!” sneered Val. “Emanations be hanged! It’s a piece of transparent mineral, having a known chemical formula and specified physical properties. It can be weighed, analysed, measured and thoroughly understood. Now I’ll tell you something! If you think you can either feel or see emanations, it’s time you consulted a psychiatrist. Any modern medical man who studies the mind can tell you that crystal gazing and self-hypnotism are one and the same thing. The crystal only acts as a focal point for the concentration of the subject. Anything you may ‘see’ in it is only a projection from your own mind!” He smacked one fist emphatically into the palm of the other hand.
“You seem very sure of yourself,” said the woman gently. “Please look into the crystal.” She waved her hand over it. “Deliberately think hard about anything you like, and you will see that the image is not a projection from your mind . . . Concentrate!” Prosaically, Val concentrated on fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. The medium smiled inscrutably to herself, as though she could read his thoughts. Gradually the crystal seemed to cloud over, and Val found himself staring in fascination. The clouding cleared again and pictures began to form.
“Incredible!” he breathed. Revealed there in perfect miniature, he could see a walled eastern city. Domes and spires shone as if made from burnished gold, and by straining his eyes he could even see the people in the street, but the most incredible fact of all was — that they were moving!
“It can’t be!” he gasped. “It isn’t true!”
“It is true,” contradicted the spiritualist, “and you have just seen it!” As she spoke the crystal clouded over again, and the picture vanished from sight. Val Stearman sat back rubbing his eyes in amazement.
“Fantastic!” he whispered to himself. The woman was smiling with evident satisfaction. “I want to examine that thing more closely,” said Val suddenly. It had occurred to him that some secret mechanism inside the globe might produce the image.
“Certainly,” said Le Noir. “But handle it with great care — there are very few as valuable as this one.”
“I’ll watch it,” said the journalist. He studied the sphere from all directions, turning it round and round in his hands, but it was perfectly plain and quite devoid of any internal devices. “I’m baffled,” he admitted grudgingly, as he handed it back to her. “What’s your explanation?”
“In the spirit world, one accepts things as they are without demanding explanations,” answered the woman simply. “You claim that your science has achieved much, yet what is your television compared to this? Know you what city you saw?” Val shook his head.
“That was Ur of the Chaldees as it was 7,000 years before Christ,” said Le Noir. “Time is immaterial to the crystal.” Stearman lapsed into a long, thoughtful silence.
“So our crystal has surprised you?” said Le Noir slowly. “But it is as nothing to the things that shall follow.” She returned the uncanny sphere to its stand, and picked up a pack of cards. As she spread them out before her, Val realised that they were unlike any cards he had seen before.
“What are these?” he enquired.
“The cards of the Tarot,” answered the spiritualist. “They are more sensitive to the psychic forces around us than ordinary playing cards, and therefore must be used for true cartomancy.” This time Val decided to wait and see before deriding her reference to psychic forces — the experience with the crystal had rather shaken him! She gathered the cards together again and passed the pack over to him.
“Shuffle them well,” she murmured softly. He did so and returned them to her. “Watch,” she commanded. One by one she arranged them in three rows of seven, and once more Val looked at the cards in fascination. Here was a court jester, there a man on a gibbet; this card depicted an asylum, that one bore a globe to represent the world. The drawings were in a style that had long since passed from favour. A kind of sharp-edged caricature in bold colours, like many early prints.
“You are twenty-seven years of age, and unmarried,” said the spiritualist suddenly. Val nodded. “Your full name is Valentine Gregory Stearman, and you were born in Kensington,” she went on.
“That’s true,” agreed the journalist, “but you could have found out any of these facts by enquiry — they don’t prove anything!” Her only answer was another inscrutable smile.
“You were educated at a secondary modern school, and then went on to evening classes, while you delivered bread for a living.”
“That’s also true,” said Val. Le Noir looked down at the cards again.
“You had several jobs in those days,” she purred gently. “You were once a waiter and after that a ‘bus conductor.”
“Right again,” conceded Val. “But you could have easily discovered all this without resorting to anything supernatural.”
“Since the past fails to impress you we will go to the present,” said the woman resignedly. “You are employed by the Daily Globe; and augment your living by free lance articles for various sensational Sunday papers. You live in a small bachelor flat in Knightsbridge, where you quite frequently entertain young ladies of rather doubtful virtue.” Val had gone crimson as the spiritualist spoke. “You have a marked taste for whisky and soda, and a great love of animals — particularly horses and greyhounds.”
Stearman was unable to suppress a smile, even though the joke was on him. “You have a fine collection of scientific reference books, and the works of various rationalist philosophers and psychologists. You also have a fine collection of outstanding bills.”
Val spluttered something unprintable, but Le Noir went on quite unmoved. “So much for the present — Now to the future. You have a long, vigorous life ahead of you, and there is little doubt that despite your attempts to destroy your physique with alcohol you should reach a ripe old age. There is a change coming,” she said in a different tone. “For there is more good than bad in you, Valentine Gregory Stearman, and that good is seeking to express itself in a positive way.”
Her strange eyes narrowed. “I should not have thought you such a man as this, and I feel a strange shadow of fear as I read the cards,” she whispered almost to herself, but he caught the words and wondered at their meaning.
“I see conflict . . .” A frown crossed her face, hiding the beauty of it, and giving her the air of a sarcophagus portrait. Deep down inside the young journalist a danger bell was ringing urgently, but he had no idea of the direction in which it lay.
“We will have done with the cards,” said Le Noir suddenly, and gathering them up with the speed of a conjuror, she returned the pack to its place on the black table.
“I didn’t think much of that,” said Stearman. “You told me nothing that you couldn’t have discovered from natural means. I’ll admit that you know a great deal about me, but any close friend could have told you most of it . . .” He paused as he remembered her references to his illicit amours, and decided to let the subject rest.
“Any penny slot machine could have told me something ambiguous about the future. ‘A long, vigorous life’,” be snorted. “Well, I should hope so. I’m in perfect health now, and I’m quite young; that seems a pretty safe bet. And if for any reason it proves wrong, I shan’t be able to come back and contradict!”
“Won’t you?” Le Noir arched one eyebrow as she spoke. “You will think differently by the end of the evening.” She glanced quickly round the room. “But wait . . . I have something else to show you.”
From beneath the black cloth, that curtained the space beneath the table, she drew out an oval casket of dark varnished wood. Painted on the lid was the unmistakable outline of a cat. “This is the casket of Set,” she whispered, her hand resting lightly upon the wood.
Val looked at it closely. It was about two feet long and a foot wide in the centre, the wood was foreign and looked fantastically old.
“What’s in it?” asked the journalist, curiously.
“The secret of life and death,” hissed Le Noir.
“Rot,” said Stearman, crudely.
“You shall see!” answered the woman fiercely, and Val realised, that by her lights, he had said something blasphemous. Her long, slender fingers pressed a concealed spring, and the lid flew suddenly open to reveal the perfectly preserved body of a cat. For a moment he wondered if it only slept. but a second look was enough to convince him. It was a long, lithe beast, with the rather vicious-looking features of a Siamese, and it was as motionless as the painting on the lid. The light reflected back from its glossy black coat, and glinted on its polished claws. Never before had the taxidermist’s art reached such perfection.
“What brilliant work!” said Val admiringly. “I’ve never seen such complete preservation.” Le Noir recovered some of her composure.
“Complete preservation,” she echoed mockingly. “Watch!” She waved her hand above the casket and a subtle change came over the cat.
“Good heavens!” breathed Val. “It’s moving!” Slowly the animal bent its muscular legs, and its tail twitched a fraction. The eyes opened and regarded Val curiously. Involuntarily the journalist moved back in horror and as he did so the cat rose up and stepped slowly out of the casket. There was no denying its reality. This was no clever mechanical toy. This was a dead cat, resurrected by some mysterious power he could not begin to comprehend!
“Alaka oran Ra, hei Set,” said the woman earnestly and the cat stepped back into the casket and laid down. Le Noir waved her hand over it, and as Val watched, he saw its body stiffen once more and assume the undeniable rigidity of death.
“Merciful heavens!” he gasped. “What is this?”
“They call it Necromancy,” said Le Noir. “It is one of the oldest occult arts.” She looked at him invitingly. “Come, touch the beast and tell me if it is truly dead.” Unwillingly, Val stretched out his hand and felt for any signs of life. There was no respiration, no heart beat. He stood shaking his head in bewilderment.
“I’m utterly baffled,” he said in a dull, flat voice. “The whole basis of ordinary everyday life seems to have been torn away like a veil, but I can see nothing behind it, at least nothing that makes sense.”
“When you stop searching for patterns and laws and accept things as they are, you will be on the road to truth,” said the spiritualist.
“When I stop looking for explanations, and scientific laws, I shall be dead,” said Val doggedly. “If there is a spiritual world, then that, too, must be ordered and rational; it must contain precepts and principles; it must conform to some kind of pattern,” he argued. The same look of doubt, and twisted shadowy fear, that he had seen before, crossed her face again, and he got the weird impression that her face was a mask; flesh and blood undoubtedly, but a mask nonetheless. The feeling passed as rapidly as it had come, and he realised she was speaking again.
“You are satisfied that he is dead?” she asked, indicating the cat. He nodded. “And you are equally satisfied that he was dead when I undid the casket?” she persisted. Again he inclined his head. “You have no doubt that he rose and walked upon the floor?”
“No doubt at all,” he agreed.
“Then he has served his purpose,” she declared with an air of finality. “I will return him to eternity.” She closed the lid, and replaced the casket beneath the table. There came a sudden knocking at the door. “Who is it?” called Le Noir.
“Doctor Jules and Professor Van Haak,” answered the hunchback.
“Enter!” called the woman, and turned to Stearman. “Our circle is now complete — we can begin the seance,” she said softly. Val turned round to study the newcomers.
Doctor Jules entered first. He was a long, lean cadaverous man, with thin steel spectacles, and a nose like a vulture’s beak. His thinning hair was worn long like the Shakespearean actor of bygone days, and he reminded Stearman of an ominous bird of prey.
Van Haak was the complete antithesis of the doctor. He was shorter than Val, and had the sleek, plump appearance of a successful businessman. His chubby little features, lost in a welter of flabby pinkness, made Val think of a pig. He had rarely encountered two such unprepossessing specimens at the same time.
“I must introduce you,” said Le Noir. They shook hands conventionally. Jules had a claw-like extremity, and Van Haak’s hand was even fleshier than his face. The hunchback closed the door behind them and lifted another table into the centre of the room. They drew up their chairs around it.
“Light the other incense burner,” commanded Le Noir, and her repulsive servant hastened to obey. The sickly sweet perfume doubled its intensity, and Stearman began to long for fresh air.
“Start the music,” ordered the spiritualist and the hunchback turned on a concealed record player. Weird eastern piping filled the room, with thin ethereal notes and an expression of ecstasy began to form on Le Noir’s face. She sank down in her chair, the bright black eyes closed and her head fell back The medium was in a trance. The other sitters joined hands. Val found himself on the hunchback’s right, with the talon of Dr. Jules on his other side. Madame sat on the hunchback’s left, and Van Haak completed the circle between her and the cadaverous doctor. The music stopped automatically, and the hunchback got up silently to dim the lights. The atmosphere was strangely tense, and expectant.
“Who’s there?” asked the hunchback in sepulchral tones, as he rejoined the circle. “Who comes to us from the great spirit world?”
There was a long pause, and then a voice began to issue from the throat of Madame Le Noir. But it was a sound which no woman could have produced.
“I am chief U-kapal, lord of the marshes,” said the medium. “I am come to speak with you.”
“Are you a departed human spirit?” asked Jules, his voice low and hollow. There was a pause before the medium spoke again.
“I am chief U-kapal, lord of the marshes. I do not understand. What is a spirit?” Van Haak whispered across to the journalist:
“The ghosts on the lowest plane don’t know that they’re dead.”
“Tell us about yourself,” invited Jules.
“I am the greatest hunter in all the East,” said U-kapal. “My war chariot is the swiftest and most greatly feared among all the Angles.”
“Must be an Ancient Briton,” whispered Van Haak. Val was growing interested despite himself.
“Ask him something?” suggested Dr. Jules. Stearman cleared his throat quietly.
“How old are you?” he asked gently.
“I have lived for thirty-seven summers and winters,” said the spirit. “But I have been lost for many, many years. I do not understand. I do not understand . . .” His voice began to fade away.
“He’s going,” said Van Haak, with interest. “I wonder who’s coming now?” The voice that followed contrasted strangely with that of the Ancient Briton.
“I am Cvaz,” came from the medium. The voice was cultured, although it contained strong traces of an accent.
“Are you the departed spirit of a human being?” asked Dr. Jules.
“No!” The answer was swift and definite. “I am alive at this moment.”
“Where are you?” asked the porcine Van Haak.
“A thousand miles above you,” replied Cvaz.
“Do you mean you’re in space?” asked the reporter quickly.
“That is correct. I am aboard an interplanetary craft, which is at present hovering above your world,” replied the voice calmly.
“Where are you from?” questioned the doctor
“The world of Rek — Venus to you —” answered Cvaz.
“Have you a message for us . . . ?” began Van Haak.
“I have much to say if I am allowed to speak, but there are many others who seek to use the medium; it is difficult to stay in possession. I and many men of Rek are constantly watching your earth from outer space. We have been watching for many years now. O, beware, brothers, beware of self-destruction. You have great power in your grasp for good or evil — use it for good I pray you . . .” He was suddenly cut off, and a dreadful snarling issued from Le Noir’s throat.
“Death and destruction; murder and chaos!” she screamed in tones more animal than human. “Blood and fire; hell and fury!”
“By thunder, what’s that?” whispered Val Stearman.
“One of the ancient masters,” replied the hunchback, and as though to confirm his words the roaring grew louder.
“Hail Satan!” screamed the woman. “Greetings to Baal. Let us sacrifice to Zamiel and Beelzebub. Praises to Dagon and the elders of Gehenna!” Gradually she grew calmer, the snarling voice subsided and died away; but never in his life before had Stearman felt so uncontrollably afraid. The presence of evil was so heavy in the air that even the insensitive journalist realised that the atmosphere contained something not readily explainable in the scientific terms that were so dear to him.
“Rakala-he-si-lo-che-ming,” cried Le Noir suddenly in a strange sing-song voice.
“Chinese,” said Dr. Jules thoughtfully. “It means, ‘Death brings blessed freedom from the woes of life’.”
“That’s a damned cheerful philosophy,” said Stearman abruptly. But no one answered him. There was another spate of Oriental gibberish, and once more Jules translated :
“Silence and darkness are the only true realities, all else is dreams. Sleep and forgetfulness are the most precious things in the world!”
“Bilge,” said Stearman to himself. “Utter bilge!” Jules fixed him with an unpleasant stare.
“What do you know of the Oriental mind?” he asked crushingly.
“Enough to dislike it intensely!” retorted the journalist. Before the doctor could reply, Le Noir said something else in Chinese, and once more he translated:
“‘We must welcome every passing day, for every passing day takes us nearer to the grave, and our release from pain’.”
The sing-song voice of the Oriental began to say something else, but before he could complete a sentence he lost his grip of the medium and another spirit took his place.
“Who is there now?” asked Van Haak.
“Charles Gray,” answered Le Noir. “Charles Handsworth Gray, master ironmonger, of Boston, Lincolnshire.” The voice was pleasant and sounded quite natural. Stearman realised that a clever impersonator might be able to produce it, but it seemed, somehow, to be too spontaneous to be the invention of the medium.
“Tell us about yourself, Mr. Gray,” invited Jules, and the spirit voice spoke again:
“I have come with a message for my great grandson, Val Stearman.” The journalist jerked back in great surprise.
“Your great grandson?” he asked incredulously.
“Your mother’s name is Iris Jean,” said Le Noir. “Her maiden name was Cregson.”
“Yes,” agreed the journalist.
“Her mother’s name was Gray,” went on the spirit. “She was Pauline Gray, your grandmother, my daughter. I am your great-grandfather . . . I come to tell you many things. Turn from your ways and heed the truth the spirits bring. Trust these people for they are wise, and you will learn much from them. Do not fear the wonders they will show you, but drink knowledge into your soul.”
“Tell me about yourself,” asked Stearman. “When did you die?”
“I was drowned in Boston River on 2nd March, 1875,” replied the spirit rather sadly.
“Suicide?” queried Val.
“Of course not!” came the answer, almost angrily. “I had been drinking with a party of friends, and as we walked home I stumbled and fell in.” There was a pause. “A sad and sudden end to an evening’s harmless merriment.”
“Where was your shop situated?” went on Val, who had every intention of checking on the details of the story.
“Under the shadow of the Tower,” said the spirit voice, “on the corner of Broad Street and Wyckham Road.” Again there was a pause. “It was as fine a shop as any in Boston,” he said proudly. “And I was the best ironmonger in the city!”
“Does pride run in the family?” queried Jules wickedly, but Stearman ignored the cadaverous doctor, and spoke to Le Noir once more.
“Do you know what became of the shop after your death?” But it appeared that Charles Handsworth Gray had lost his place, for there was a long silence, and finally a woman’s voice spoke, but it was not the hypnotic tones of the fatal Le Noir — it was old, and hideous in its senility.
“The sun is too hot, Matilda! Draw the blinds! Draw the blinds! Hurry, girl! The sun is too hot! Matilda, where are you? The sun is too hot!” Silence . . . “I want my lunch,” croaked the dreadful old voice. “I want my lunch. Where is my lunch, Matilda? Drat the girl! Where is my lunch?” Another pause. “Light the fire and fetch my shawl! I shall freeze. I’m only a poor, helpless old woman. Fetch my shawl, I’m so cold, Matilda!”
Somehow, Le Noir’s features had aged in the dim light, as if she were absorbing some of the spirit’s personality. The voice whined again:
“It’s getting dark, Matilda. Bring more candles, more candles, hurry, it’s getting so dark! I can’t see at all; can’t see-it’s dark now! What did you say? The candles are all lighted? Then I must be going blind! It’s so dark and cold! O where am I going? Who are these people? Help me, someone, help me!”
“Can you hear me?” asked Dr. Jules suddenly.
“Yes, yes!” said the thin, unhappy voice.
“You are dead!” said the doctor in a flat, emotionless tone. “You are dead and buried-your soul is lost in eternity.” The voice began to break down into a series of deep sobs.
“Why is it so dark?” queried the old woman.
“Do you wish for a guide?” asked Jules cunningly.
“Please! Please send me a guide,” pleaded the lost soul.
“Call the master!” hissed Jules to Van Haak, and the porcine professor leant forward and whispered urgently into the medium’s ear. There was a sudden resumption of the snarling sounds.
“Hail, Zamiel!” said the medium in a guttural tone. “Praise to Belial!” There was a series of terrified screams and then an utter, horrible silence.
“What on earth has happened?” asked Stearman in consternation.
“She has been guided to her final home,” murmured Van Haak, evidently well pleased with what he had just heard. “She is now in our master’s house.” A spasm of cold, stark horror shook the journalist from head to foot, and a vague, dawning suspicion made the sweat break out on his forehead.
“What have you done to that poor old woman?” he demanded harshly.
“She has been taken care of,” answered the doctor softly. “A good night’s work, eh, professor?”
“Excellent,” whispered Van Haak. “It bodes well for our other plans.” The hunchback rose quietly and disengaged his hands, moving across the darkened room to where an oddly-shaped wooden board lay in one corner.
“You have heard the voices of the spirits; now you shall see their work,” he announced, as he laid the board on the table. He placed a pencil in Le Noir’s hand and guided it into a hole in the board. A sheet of paper lay beneath. She remained motionless for several minutes, while every eye rested intently on her.
“Aaaaahhhh! They come!” exclaimed the hunchback. “The spirits write their messages!” The pencil was moving rapidly in the woman’s hand, and Val noticed that the illusion of extreme age had gone from her bewitching features. More than ever she made him think of Cleopatra — beautiful, yet somehow strangely evil and dangerous.
A few seconds of intense writing and she laid the pencil aside. The hunchback carefully withdrew the top sheet, and switching on a small light above the table he held it up for all to see.
“Roger Davison, R.A.F. pilot, Fighter Command, born 2nd April, 1920; killed in action August, 1943. Good luck, and good-bye.” The writing was in a powerful, dashing, masculine hand. The kind of writing one would associate with such a man as Davison might have been. Those brief sentences built up a rough sketch of a personality. Val imagined a tall, good-looking young officer, complete with bushy moustache and twinkling eyes. A man whose vocabulary would be full of “Bang on!” and “Wizard prang!” and whose brave heart would be full of adventure. He looked again at the words, ‘killed in action’, and a great feeling of sorrow swept. through him. “Action” was the very keynote of life to a man of Davison’s calibre, and Stearman felt the full pity of death’s tragedy. He thought again about the bitter futility of war, and the sadness gave place to anger. Anger at politicians who mouthed platitudes about peace and did nothing to achieve it. Anger at the arms manufacturers, who disguised their vested interests as patriotism. Anger at the apathy of the vast mass of humanity who detested war in their hearts, but did nothing to prevent it. Anger at the combination of apathy, greed and hypocrasy which had sent a million Roger Davisons to their deaths! Two World Wars! He looked up suddenly and realised that Le Noir was writing again.
The hunchback removed the paper as before and this time the writing was decidedly feminine. It had a rather curious backward slope and the flourishes were quite ostentatious. The message was in rhyme:
“From out the vast infinity of timelessness
Comes one to whom this life is but a dream.
Yet once again. I step into the worldly throng and press
The life of people in a living stream.
I loved the life I lived, and would return.
I am an ember, dead; that longs to burn.
Farewell, a sad farewell.”
Even before they had all finished reading the words of the dead poetess, Le Noir was writing once more. This time the characters were weirdly ill-formed, and Val realised that it was the mis-shapen awkward writing of a child.
“The dog is good. The cat sits on the mat. I eat a plum.” There was a strange wavy line. followed by some figures:
“2 x 2 is 4, 2 x 4 is 8, 2 x 8 is 15,” then “2 x 8 is 16.”
“Poor little chap,” thought Val. “He must have carried his scholastic worries with him to eternity.”
Le Noir sat slowly upright and opened her eyes.
“I am tired of this writing,” she said in an uncanny, dazed voice. “Let us begin the real business of the evening.”
“Yes,” agreed Van Haak, his eyes bulging from his flabby face. “The real reason for our coming!” Val Stearman felt suddenly uneasy. The warning bell deep within his mind was ringing furiously once more. “Careful!” said a voice in his subconscious. “There is terrible danger here. Be very, very careful!” La Noir stood up, the dazed look had left her eyes, and she seemed to be filled with a strange, ecstatic sense of expectancy.
“Prepare the pentagon,” she said imperiously, and the hunchback began to draw on the dark tiled floor with green chalk. Le Noir’s self-styled title “Queen of the Occult Arts” was no idle boast, for not only the hunchback, but Van Haak and the doctor appeared to accept her orders without question. They placed various strange charms and talismans at the five points, of the weird figure the hunchback had drawn, and the latter now began to light black sulphur candles around its perimeter. The scent of incense had offended Stearman, but it was pleasant compared to the odorous reek of these foul candles!
“Take your places,” ordered Le Noir. Val noticed that the woman was trembling slightly, with an unholy excitement. The whole atmosphere of the room was like a strong electric field, vibrating with hidden power. A power that waited to be released in a holocaust of evil fury. They all moved to a point of the pentagon, and with a sudden quick movement Le Noir fell to her knees in an attitude of supplication.
Stearman felt unaccountably sickened by her action. It seemed somehow to represent the symbolic degradation of all humanity to the unclean forces of Darkness. He longed to leave his place and lift her to her feet once more, in defiance of whatever black powers were present. A revolution was taking place in the journalist’s mind, and his whole pattern of beliefs was in a turmoil. Le Noir rose slowly and stepped into the centre of the pentagon — as though she was sleep-walking. The spiritualist raised a hand to her shoulder and the black dress cascaded to her ankles. Beneath it was only the briefest of two-piece costumes, of some jet black material that clung to every curve of her magnificent figure. The sensual Van Haak was drinking in every detail of her flawless body, his piggy little eyes starting from his head, and his podgy hands were damp with perspiration.
Jules, despite his other failings, was not a voluptuary, and he displayed neither more nor less interest in the proceedings than he had done while Le Noir was fully clothed. The hunchback, like Van Haak, was watching with ill-concealed delight, and Val Stearman, connoisseur of beautiful women, was eyeing the spiritualist appreciatively. The main thought in Val’s mind, however, was admiration, and a deep sense that such loveliness should not belong to evil. As if by a pre-arranged signal the others began to chant, and Stearman listened closely to their words as anger mounted steadily within him.
“Zamiel, hail! Prince of Darkness, hail! Come, accept, the sacrifice we offer! Belial be praised! Power and praise to the lord of night! Hail Chaos!”
“Stop!” roared Stearman suddenly, and stepped over the chalk line into the centre of the pentagon beside Le Noir, who had sunk to a kneeling position once more.
“Get up!” said Val firmly, and unceremoniously slapped her face. The dazed look left her eyes and she glared at him resentfully.
“How dare you!” hissed Van Haak.
“Shut up!” snapped Stearman viciously.
“Curse you!” snarled the doctor, his voice pregnant with meaning. “May all our masters curse you; now and forever.”
“Go to hell!” rejoined the journalist. He lifted Le Noir onto her feet, and looked straight into her eyes.
“You invited me here to be enlightened,” he began. “I’ve been enlightened all right — incredibly enlightened! I’ve also been adding two and two together and I don’t like the score!” The strange feeling of expectancy in the air grew stronger, the atmosphere became even more dynamic.
“What exactly do you mean?” whispered the woman.
“I mean that when I came here tonight I was an atheist, so religiously ignorant that I couldn’t even discern devil worship when I saw it! So convinced that life was nothing but open and shut materialism, that when I saw Black Magic being practised, I still couldn’t reconcile myself to the truth! But I’ll say this for your Black Magic, the Tarot cards told the truth. I may be a very rough diamond, but I’m still an idealist at heart, and I realise now that a lot of those ideals come from a subconscious faith — a faith that belongs to my earliest childhood.” He paused, conscious that every eye was upon him.
“Dim memories began to stir, Sunday School classes, little bits of sermons from the days when we had to attend church parade. Conversation with sincere people who had the guts to argue with me. And I realised that there was evil here, behind these things — not everything, perhaps, but a lot of them.”
He turned savagely round to them all in turn. “You deliberately lured me here for a purpose; you had designs on my very soul!” he said meaningly. “Well, it’s not going to work, do you understand? It’s not going to work!”
“We shall see,” said Van Haak, in a voice of terrible malevolence. “We shall see!” Le Noir was looking intently at the journalist as the fat man uttered his threat, and Stearman became gradually aware that her eyes were less hostile. She looked suddenly doubtful, as if some, dreadful conflict were raging in her strange soul’s depths . . . But before he had time to think any more about it there was a sudden blinding flash, a roaring as of mighty water falls, and a Presence appeared amongst them! There, in the centre of the pentagon, was a creature of unbelievable terror!
Its huge amorphous body was repulsive in its uncanny shapelessness, although it bore a vague resemblance to a human form. The eyes blazed fire . . . the head was surmounted by a pair of dreadful horns. Stearman knew that even if this foul apparition was not the devil himself, it was one of his minions. With a blood-curling cry, the demon reached out two ghastly hands for Stearman, and as terror began to overwhelm him, Val became aware of Jules’ hideous laughter from outside the pentagon. He tried to back away from the monster, but the chalk lines of the pentagon held him like the bars of an invisible ray. He was trapped with the evil spirit inside the narrow confines of the geometrical figure.
“This way!” said Le Noir suddenly, and made a series of passes in the smoke-laden air. “Hurry! You can cross here!” Obeying her blindly, Val stepped towards the edge of the Pentagon at the point where she indicated, and found that it was even as she had said. He glanced behind and saw that the thing was attempting to follow! The change that had been taking place in his mind was complete . . .
“In the name of the Most High — be gone!” he said firmly and clearly. There was a shriek of anguish from the weird being and it vanished as suddenly as it had come. Le Noir lay senseless on the floor.
“She aided his escape,” muttered the hunchback.
“She must be sacrificed to appease Zamiel,” whispered Van Haak.
“She must indeed,” echoed the sinister Jules, and drew a long curved knife from somewhere beneath his black jacket.
Val Stearman was not only one of the Angry Young Men — he was also one of the Hefty Young Men! He was justifiably proud of his athletic prowess, and it stood him in good stead now! He seized the hunchback and flung him at Jules with every ounce of power in his shoulders. They crashed together onto the floor in a sprawling, cursing heap. Van Haak attempted to block his route to the stairs — but he might as well have tried to block the Flying Scot. Val let him have an upper-cut! It started from knee-height and ended up on the point of the fat man’s jaw, with the force of a steam-hammer. Van Haak joined his confederate on the floor. Val looked at the motionless figure of Le Noir, remembered Van Haak’s word’s, ‘She helped him to escape’; remembered, too, the look in her eyes that had told him of the unexpected change taking place within her, and felt against the powerful urge that nothing so lovely ought to belong to evil,
Before Jules and the hunchback had disentangled themselves, he picked her up in his arms and began to climb the stairs. She opened her lovely almond eyes and smiled at him. In that moment he knew that he was right about her, whatever she had been no longer mattered. Just as what he had been no longer mattered.
“You’re a witch!” he whispered.
“I’m going to be a white witch from now on!” she replied. “If you’ll help me to be good.”
“We’ll help each other, if that’s the way you want it,” said Val, and she nodded eagerly.
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