“Flame Is Life”
Simon Gaunt worshipped fire. His mania was purely pagan; had he lived in ancient Britain, he might have been a Druid, tending the sacred altar flame. He loved fire as he would have loved a woman, and, I thought sometimes, it was the only thing that kept him alive.
Despite this, there was no warmth in the man. His eyes were chill flakes of blue ice, and his hands were wasted and transparent. He was always cold, except when he crouched by his hearth, watching oak-logs crackle and burn down to glowing coals of pulsing red.
The obsession of fire grew stronger as Gaunt aged.
He owned an advertising agency, but neglected it more and more. The burden of responsibility fell heavier on my shoulders, for I was the manager of the business. It would not have mattered if the firm had failed, for Gaunt was wealthy. Yet people spoke of him now as eccentric, and Diana and I talked together about it — but we could reach no real conclusion.
Diana was Gaunt's daughter, and my fiancée, a slim, blond girl whose blue eyes were all warmth and sparkle. We had been engaged for a year. Gaunt neither approved nor disapproved; he simply ignored us. His emotions always were kept under lock and key, though I knew he had a very real affection for Diana.
Superficially there was nothing wrong. Despite Simon Gaunt's skeletal appearance, he was in perfect health. Nor was his mind affected. The only thing was — he was abnormally and morbidly preoccupied with the cult of fire-worship.
His library was full of books on the subject. Sometimes he would talk to us about his theories — and they were wild enough.
"Flame is life," he said once, his skull-like face reddened by the glow from the hearth. "The old religions were wiser than we. The ancient Persians knew the truth."
Diana and I exchanged glances.
"Fire was man's first step toward civilization," I said. "Certainly it — "
Gaunt made an impatient gesture.
"I am not speaking figuratively. Fire is life. The seeds of life came from the sun, and later from a molten earth. Fire is the crucible. Folklore hints at that, with its talk of fire elementals and salamanders — beings that can live in flame, are even part of it. I think," he said somberly, "that I should die very quickly if I could not replenish my energy with fire."
"You're good for twenty years more at least," I said, grinning. "Even on an iceberg."
"Did you bring those new advertising accounts?" Gaunt said, abruptly changing the subject. "I should like to go over them with you."
"They're right here." I took the papers from my briefcase. It was like old Simon to show these sudden flashes of interest in the business, which he usually ignored.
Diana rose, went to Gaunt, and kissed the top of his head.
"I hate being bored," she smiled. "Duke was going to take me to a dance tonight."
"All right. I can go over these contracts alone."
"You're tired," I said. "I'll stay and help you. The dance can wait an hour or so."
Diana wrinkled her nose at me and went to the door.
"I should ask Steve to take me," she said. "But I'll wait."
"Okay," I said helplessly. I didn't like Steve Mallory. A young attorney, he and Diana had once been engaged, and I knew he still phoned her too often for my peace of mind, though I tried to be fair about it. Mallory was a bachelor, probably lonely — a good fellow, to give the devil his due. The fact that Diana wore my ring on her hand didn't make me her boss.
Gaunt suddenly pushed back the papers and blinked at me.
"It's Diana's birthday next Sunday," he said.
"I know. I'm buying her a — "
He fumbled in his pocket, and brought out his battered old pipe.
"I sent to New York for her present. Having it delivered at the shop, so she won't see the package. Let me know when it comes."
He puffed reflectively at aromatic tobacco.
"I'm going up to the lodge for a few days. Want to be alone." There was the flash of a smile. "You'd be surprised at what I'm doing up there. Certain experiments — "
"Well, you'll see. I'm trying something the ancient pyromancers used to do — materialize a fire-elemental. Sounds silly, doesn't it? I'd have said the same myself a few years ago. But lately I think I've stumbled on something — "
Gaunt looked at me keenly.
"Don't try to be polite. You don't believe in magic. Well — " He chuckled hoarsely. "We won't talk about it. But don't be surprised if I live to be a hundred — or more. Fire is imperishable. There's such a thing as possession — you've heard of men possessed by demons. There's also possession that isn't diabolic — an elemental spirit dwelling in a human body, and endowing it with strength and energy. A fire-elemental — "
But he would say no more, and we fell to work on the contracts. Later, I repeated Gaunt's words to Diana, and she shook her head worriedly.
"People are beginning to talk about Dad. He's made no secret of his theories. And — well, such a hobby can't be healthy."
It wasn't. A few days later, Gaunt went up to his private lodge in the mountains, alone, as usual. That was on a Friday — the 13th — bringing unexpected bad luck to me.
Gaunt went to the mountains — and I went to the hospital!
I was on my way to see him and driving too fast — an unfortunate habit of mine. The first thing I knew, a car swung out of a side street into my path. There was a crash.
Then I woke up in an atmosphere of ether, with a nurse taking my pulse. It wasn't anything serious, but cuts and a broken rib or two kept me tied to the hospital bed — so I wasn't present when Diana, with Steve Mallory, drove to the lodge and found Simon Gaunt's body.
Botulism was the answer — food poisoning. There was an open tin of meat paste in the kitchen, and analysis proved that it carried the fatal toxins of decay. The brand was a new one, just recently put on the market, and Gaunt was addicted to meat paste sandwiches. His last one had been fatal.
Mallory told me about it, mentioning that the lodge had some unusual equipment, gadgets that would have looked in place in the den of some medieval alchemist. There were carefully-labeled bottles of herbs, powders, oily-looking liquids; devices that were a designer's nightmare; curious out-of-print books on fire-magic.
Eccentricity — nothing more. I thought that, then.
I was in the hospital for a month. During that month, Steve Mallory saw Diana almost every day — and at last Diana gave me back my ring.
"I'm sorry, Duke," she said. "We decided long ago that we should be honest with each other, if — "
"It's Mallory, isn't it?" I asked.
"Yes. He's been so — so kind, so good … . You see, Duke, this is the first real trouble I've ever had. And I find myself turning to Steve. Just as I used to, before we — "
So that was that. There was no use trying to argue, of course. I lay back on my pillows and wondered when they'd let me out of the hospital.
Then Don Albertson came into the picture. He was Diana's cousin, but, years ago, he and Simon Gaunt had quarreled bitterly over some trivial matter. Now, however, he spent most of his time with Diana.
He was a short, round-faced fellow with an unruly thatch of red hair and a loose grin. I thought him stupid and as talkative as a magpie when he visited me at the hospital.
"So you'll be out of here tomorrow," he said. "That'll be swell. Just in time for the big party at the lodge." I stared at him.
"Party? What — "
He grinned, rather nervously. "Didn't you know? There was one clause in old Gaunt's will that was pretty screwy. Once a year Diana's got to go to the lodge and perform a sacrifice to Ahriman."
"Not what you're thinking of. I saw the directions — a lot of screwy ritual stuff about burning magic powders on an altar and chanting incantations to elementals. Diana's got to do it on Walpurgis Night — which is two days off."
"Good Lord!" I said. "Her father died less than a month ago, and — well, it sounds pretty morbid to me. Can't you stop her? A thing like that doesn't mean anything."
Albertson lit a cigarette.
"It did to the old man — and Diana realizes that. I told her it was foolish, but she insists it's the least she can do for her father, now that he's dead. However, I see what you mean. It'd be plenty depressing, so I had Diana let me handle it. I invited a lot of people, and we're going to throw a real party. Drinks and music and dancing — "
I stared at him, utterly astounded. The man's lack of good taste was appalling.
"Does Diana know what you're doing?"
"She left it in my hands," he said blandly. "I can really manage a party. Got it all fixed up. The big stunt's going to be a treasure hunt — clues and everything."
"You can't dance on Gaunt's grave that way," I said. "Nobody would come."
"I invited my friends," he said — and then I noticed, as he leaned closer, that there was a strong odor of liquor on his breath. Later I was to learn that drunkenness was Albertson's continual state. No sober man would have planned such a thing.
I picked up the phone. Albertson lifted his eyebrows.
"Diana's out of town. Won't be back till just before the party. She went to Chicago with Mallory and his father on some legal business. I don't even know where they're staying."
"Take my advice and call it off," I urged. Albertson only winked at me and went out. I lay back, feeling vaguely nauseated. If I could get in touch with Diana, I knew she'd call off this gruesome party — but there was no way for me to reach her, though I put in a long distance call to Chicago.
The next day I was released from the hospital, cured, and tried out my car, which had been repaired. It seemed in good condition. But I didn't sleep well that night.
The next evening I drove to the lodge.
Early as I was, I wasn't early enough. Don Albertson and his gang — a dozen of them, men and women — had taken possession. They were engaged in getting intoxicated, and greeted me with whoops of joy.
"Sit down and listen," Albertson urged. "Have a drink. I'm just reading Simon's instructions."
"Where's Diana?" I asked.
"Not here yet … Listen." He struck a pose. "Here's what the old boy wrote … 'It is my belief that after my death, I shall live again through the power of fire — '"
It was the same argument I had heard so often from Simon Gaunt himself. Albertson droned on:
"Here's the interesting part. 'On each Walpurgis Night, I wish my daughter, Diana, to perform the ancient ceremony of Ahriman on the altar I have erected at my mountain lodge. First burn the following herbs … and so on … reading the ritual to be found hereunder … Place the body of a black cock on the coals of the altar, and throw upon it these sacred powders… .'"
I looked around the lodge's big room. The wall-paper was curious, carrying a design of magical symbols — pentagrams, zodiacal markings, and the like. From overhead, spiders dangled from oak beams. They had spun fast. A small crucible stood in one corner, and there were racks upon racks of extraordinary instruments, and shelves of books. Against the wall stood a block of an altar, made of dull metal, with a bowl scooped out of the top. I walked over to examine it. Tracks on the floor showed where it had been moved. It was light enough, being hollow, to shift easily.
In the room was a chemical odor, mixed with a faint incense, aromatic and vaguely stifling. I heard Albertson say:
"I've got the herbs and stuff all ready — even brought along a black cock. But we can't make magic yet. 'Tisn't time "
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The Dead Return
I heard a car draw up in front.
Diana came in, followed by Steve Mallory, a big, bronzed man, with level blue eyes and a tight smile. Behind him was his father, a dry, withered husk of a man, with all the moisture burned out of him by age — a bald, sardonic giant. But now there was little of his bigness left save the skeleton, on which shrunken skin hung in folds.
I saw the surprised disapproval on their faces. Even Albertson noticed it. He went hurriedly to Diana and drew her aside. They talked for a time — and at last I saw the girl nod, though she frowned. I caught a few words.
"… Can't let me down now, Diana … my friends … Thought it'd cheer you up … ."
I was talking to Steve Mallory.
"I tried to stop this. Tried to get in touch with you. I wish Diana'd order this gang of drunks to leave!"
Mallory scowled. "Yeah — "
His father broke in, his voice sardonic:
"She won't. She's too soft. Doesn't want to hurt anybody's feelings."
I caught Diana's eye as she headed for the back door, and followed. The Mallorys were at my heels. We stepped out through the porch, and the door slammed shut, muffling the tinny music of the radio. The sun was going down behind the mountains; at our feet a long slope reached toward the lake. Trees cast long shadows around us.
"Listen, Diana," I said. "Give me the word and I'll throw those tramps out."
"Thanks, Duke," she smiled, rather wanly. "But it really doesn't matter. Dad can't be hurt by anything now. Let them stay. They're all broke, Don says, and — well, let them have their fun."
"Let's get off where we can't hear that radio," Steve Mallory said harshly. He took Diana's arm and led her off into the twilight.
I lit a cigarette. Abruptly it was night. The sun was gone, and darkness came on with a rush. Curiously, it was not at all cold — almost oppressively hot.
Presently I walked down toward the pier that stretched out into the lake. I heard footsteps, and Albertson came up behind me.
"Duke," he said nervously, "was Diana mad?"
"No." My voice was annoyed. "Where is she?"
"Out on the pier," I said, pointing. "With Steve. Leave them alone."
"Sure," Albertson said hesitantly. "Sure … ."
I started back toward the house, stumbling over the pump that stood beside the path. I fell on hands and knees, cursing under my breath, and simultaneously I heard Diana's soft, choked cry.
I sprang up, searching for her in the dimness. But it wasn't Diana I saw. Not twenty feet away —
Simon Gaunt stood watching us.
It was no illusion. It was Simon Gaunt, dressed in his burial clothes, with a dead, passionless face that held no emotion whatsoever. He stood there in the dark, and looked at us.
How could we see him — in the dark?
His body was like a lamp. A lamp in which hell-flamed burned!
A core of fire seemed to shimmer within him. He loomed against the dark like a — a shining shadow of light. Despite myself, I could not repress the crawling thing that rippled down my spine.
I heard Albertson's shrill cry, heard footsteps pounding. Instantly I was racing at his heels. The shining thing had not moved. Its eyes, I saw, were luminous. Around the black pupils they glowed like white, intensely hot flame.
Albertson's silhouette momentarily blotted out part of the figure. Something, red and withering, gushed out like the very heart of fire. Albertson cried out, flung up an arm to protect his face. And then the — the thing was gone.
A flashlight's beam rayed out from behind me, playing over the gnarled boles of oaks that stood here and there on the lawn. Albertson was crouching down, scrubbing at his face, making a hoarse, inarticulate sound deep in his throat. Beyond him, I could see nothing — only shadows, and the white cone of light, as it played like a revealing pencil here and there.
There was no place where the creature could have hidden. The trees were far apart, and there was no shelter close enough for it to have reached. It might have climbed —
No. The flashlight danced over oak limbs as its holder walked cautiously forward.
"Is it up there?" Steve said.
I tilted back my head, staring.
"No, I don't see anything."
The white ray flickered about. Quite obviously, there was nothing in the trees.
Then the others were with us, Steve Mallory, holding the light, scowling in angry bewilderment; his father, Aaron Mallory, helping Diana, with a lean arm about her waist. She was whispering:
"It was Dad. I saw him — "
My face felt curiously hot, as though flame had breathed upon it.
"Let's get in the house," I said abruptly. "There's nothing out here."
I moved aside a little, but Diana already had seen what I was trying to hide. The flashlight dwelt on scorched footprints that were burnt into the tall grass.
Mallory sucked in his breath and knelt down. His probing forefinger touched the withered outline, and grass crumbled, brittle as glass, under his hand. I said irritably:
"Stop playing detective and get Diana in the house! She's not made of iron!"
"I'm going to look around here a bit." Mallory said. His father didn't speak, but he didn't follow us in, either. When we opened the porch door, music struck us in the face, and the laughter of half-drunk couples. Diana headed for a bedroom.
I switched on the porch light. Albertson, his round face strained, bent to examine his hands under the glow.
"Burned," he said. "See?"
The finger-tips were red and inflamed.
"What was it?" I asked in an undertone.
"I don't know. I touched that thing, and it — burned like fire."
"I saw a flame — "
"Well, there was that, too. I haven't seen old Simon for years. Was that — like him?'' Shock had sobered Albertson.
"Exactly like him," I said shortly, and pushed past him into the big room, through dancing couples. None of that gang, of course, knew what had happened outside. I went into Gaunt's bedroom, lined as it was with books. Albertson followed me.
There was something oppressive about this little room. A dead, stifling, hot silence that filled it unpleasantly. Albertson was examining the books.
"This is — very curious," he said, in his shrill voice. "I've done some research in magic, and Simon has a lot of unusual stuff here."
He found a vellum-bound book, flipped it open, and found a place.
"Listen to this: 'The salamander is a symbol by which we know them. In the fires of creation they dwell; their blood is as flame, and they move invisibly like burning shadows. Yet they may be commanded to dwell within the body of a man, and their life is endless. Though the flesh shall die, the fire elemental lives on, giving to that flesh a fiery rebirth — ' That's the angle, eh? Gaunt was on the track of eternal life, the old chimera."
I stared at him.
"He hinted as much to me."
Albertson shook his head.
"The whole thing's impossible, of course."
"That Gaunt might have called up a fire-elemental, and that it might have reanimated his corpse?" My voice wasn't quite as steady as I had expected.
Diana was suddenly standing on the threshold. Her face, I noticed, was white.
"That was Dad, you know. It wasn't a trick."
"Diana," I said, "do you think it's safe for you to stay here? I'd feel better if you were back in the city."
Her lips tightened. "I'm going to stay."
"Suppose I stay here," I suggested. "I have my gun. And I can — take care of any emergency that might come up. I don't pretend to know what's happening here, but I do know it Isn't kindergarten stuff. I wish you'd go back."
Her eyes dwelt on me.
"You saw — him — at close quarters, didn't you, Duke? It was Dad — "
"Listen," I said, and took her firmly by the shoulders. "Don't get any screwy ideas. I saw something — okay. I don't know what it was. But I intend to find out. Meanwhile, I'd feel safer if I knew you were out of danger."
"Danger. You feel that? But Dad wouldn't hurt me — "
Involuntarily I glanced at the book which Albertson had left open on a table. Diana bent to scan it, and turned a shocked white face to me.
"You're hinting something, Duke. That Dad isn't — "
"I'm not hinting anything," I said half angrily. "I'm simply implying that maybe it wasn't your father we just saw."
"I've never believed in ghosts — or anything going on after death," she whispered. "But we don't know, do we?"
"Ghosts," I said, "are one thing. A hunk of ectoplasm — maybe. But a fire elemental is another."
I thumbed through the book Albertson had found.
"Listen to this rot: 'All things sprang from the Mystic Four: earth, air, fire, and water. And these four combine in mankind, who partakes of the attributes of each. He is clay; he is water; breath is his life; fire the center of his being. But these great forces have their own children. Of the sea are undines; sprites dwell in the air about us, and there are dwellers in earth. Greatest of all are the spirits of fire. Man was shaped from the Mystic Four, and the life-force of them. That power, that life-force, brought forth from its womb beings without souls, eternal beings, the elementals. In Egypt they have known them. They were known in Stonehenge. The Druid fires masked a mighty secret. They are' — " I broke off, grinning wryly.
"It isn't even fake spiritualism."
"It may be something worse," Diana said slowly.
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I felt a gust of anger.
"Magic!" I growled. Simultaneously I heard Albertson's gasp.
I followed the direction of his gaze. There was something at the window. Only a glimpse I had, of a flaming shapeless thing, and then Albertson brushed me aside and headed for the door.
Still the — the thing hovered outside the window as though it watched us — malignantly!
Then I was racing after Albertson. Diana, I realized was at my heels. I said:
"Go back!" but she only shook her head mutely. There was no time for more.
We were outside the house, in darkness. Pale yellow shafts slanted out through the windows. Of the Mallorys, father and son, there was no trace. Albertson's figure loomed up in the dark; I caromed into him, and heard something thud and roll away on the grass.
"My flashlight!" he said —
"I've got something better," I snapped, and felt the coolness of my automatic against my palth. Briefly I stood motionless, orienting myself to the darkness.
Diana pressed close to me.
"Do you smell that, Duke? Something burning — "
Yes — I smelled it. Simultaneously I saw a little flare of flame spring into view in the distance. A tiny grass- fire which elongated and ran along like a serpent through the gloom. I found myself thinking : green-grass doesn't burn.
Then I saw the — the thing. It was fire. It was a core of pure white flame, twisting in midair, unsupported. It seemed to float away from us, dancing as though in mockery, like some monstrous, diabolic Will-o'-the-Wisp.
Behind it, like a track — like a flaming spoor — the serpent of flame ran!
Footprints of fire!
I was plunging in pursuit of the thing, my automatic lifting. I fired. But, if I struck anything tangible, there was no apparent result.
"Missed?" That was Albertson's voice.
"I don't miss — " I caught myself, glancing at the shadow of Diana, beside me.
"Maybe," I said shortly, and ran on.
Nightmare race through blackness, guided by that floating core of flame! We followed the fire-snake as it writhed through the grass — grass that should not burn, at this season. A breath of dry, baking heat gusted back at us. It was strangely dream-like, this pursuit, with the rhythmic pounding of our feet, the hoarse gasping of our breaths, the dancing, silent core of fire that swayed mockingly before us.
Albertson found time to say:
"That isn't — Gaunt — anyway."
The blood was pounding in my temples. My eyes hurt with the strain of following that incredible track. Despite myself, I felt a subtle horror of overtaking the thing that fled.
Why did it flee? To find — sanctuary?
Then the serpent-track at our feet died and was gone. Only the fire-shape hung motionless in the dark.
Again I fired. And, as before, there was no result.
And yet there was. Instantly the glowing, strange core of flame vanished. In its place stood — Simon Gaunt!
Expressionless, terrible, he stood there, twenty feet away, and my gun barked and jolted against my hand. He did not move. His face, his eyes, his whole body, glowed as though lighted from within, like a vessel for some incredible Dweller that flamed within his flesh!
The crackling snarl of my automatic died. There was only silence, and that oppressive heat.
I heard a choked little cry from Diana. She sprang forward, racing toward the horror that stood under the oaks.
I was at her heels, but too late. Red flame gushed out. She screamed, and I caught her as she fell back, moaning. When I looked again, Simon Gaunt was gone.
I lifted Diana in my arms.
"I'm going back to the house."
"Yeah." Albertson lit a match, but there was nothing to see — only a trail of burned, cindery grass. "I — I guess we might as well." He looked up.
Diana had fainted.
Back on the porch, I laid her on a couch and examined her. Her face was slightly burned.
The radio still was blaring, and suddenly the porch was filled with Albertson's crowd, staring owlishly, flushed with liquor. Someone asked thickly:
I told them. I told them just what had happened, because I disliked them violently and wanted to wipe the fatuous grins from their faces. I'd have liked nothing better than to scare them sober.
But it didn't work. A girl with a glass in her hand reeled toward Albertson.
"Swell gag, Don," she mouthed. "Halloween stuff. Let's make that sacrifice for old Simon now, eh?"
I might have known it. They were too thoroughly, professionally plastered to notice an earthquake. I glared at Albertson.
"See if you can find some ointment in the bathroom," I snapped, and he vanished through the door with the others. The radio blared louder. I heard the scuffle of dancing feet. Then I saw Steve Mallory lined against the outside dark.
"I heard shots — " he said. "Diana! What happened?"
"She's all right," I said. "And if it's a fair question, just where the devil have you been?"
"Never mind that," he said impatiently. "I didn't find anything."
Albertson returned, with a jar of ointment, and Mallory took it from him, applying it to her face.
I told him what had happened. For his part, he said that he and his father had been — searching. That was all. They hadn't found anything.
"Yeah," I said again, and took out my automatic, checking it carefully. Albertson met my eyes.
"Blanks?" he asked softly.
"No. I had that idea, too. But my gun was loaded. And — blast it, man, I'm not that bad a shot!"
"According to Gaunt's own books, an elemental can leave the body it possesses at any time," Albertson said. "But it always returns."
"I doubt it," I remarked rudely, and slid a fresh clip into the automatic, slipping the weapon back into my pocket.
"I think it's time we stopped sticking our necks out. Or, rather, Diana's neck. Speaking for myself, I move we all get out of here, and get out pronto!"
"Come, come, Duke!" Aaron Mallory stood at the door, looking more like the skeleton of a vulture than ever. "We must be realists. I am no believer in the supernatural."
I felt a gust of annoyance. "You can believe in little red devils, for all I care," I said. "I'm thinking about Diana. This place is dangerous. Though I notice you didn't run any risks."
He tut-tutted me blandly.
"I see Diana is not badly burned. That's well."
Albertson unexpectedly took my side.
"I think Duke's right. This isn't safe — for Diana, anyway. We'd better go. I found my flashlight — so I'll look around a bit, first. Coming, Mallory?"
"I'm staying with Diana," I said quietly. "With my gun loaded."
Aaron Mallory grunted.
"We'll look around. If that thing we saw was tangible, it couldn't have vanished without leaving traces. If it wasn't — I don't believe in it."
Steve shrugged, muttered something, and followed the others out. I heard them go slowly off into the night.
The darkness closed in, almost tangibly, around the porch. Presently I realized that Diana's eyes were open.
"Hello, Duke," she said, smiling wanly. "I — I guess I ran right into trouble."
"How do you feel? Your face — "
"It hurts. Duke! It isn't — scarred — "
"Of course not," I reassured her. "Minor burns. Steve smeared salve on 'em."
I told her.
"Steve's out there?" she asked.
"Yeah. With the others."
"I'm going to him," she said, rising. "You're safer here. He'll be back."
"Duke," she whispered, looking at me, "don't you understand? I love him."
I looked at her in silence. After a moment I said: "Yeah," and opened the porch door.
"Come along, then."
My eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness.
"Not from here. Let's go out on the pier. We can see from there."
I followed her out on the rickety structure. It wasn't dangerous; the water was only waist deep at the most. But the boards creaked perilously under our feet.
We had nearly reached the end when a flare of light came from behind us. I heard a yell, in Steve's voice. Simultaneously Diana cried out, whirled, and raced back along the pier. I followed, guided by an intermittent red flame. It seemed centuries before I saw a knot of struggling figures — Steve and Albertson, grappling with a being that was human, but which glowed like fire. Aaron Mallory was crumpled on the grass nearby.
Flame gushed out, and Albertson fell back, snarling. Then he hurled himself again upon that silent, ferociously battling thing with the glowing face of Simon Gaunt.
I pushed Diana out of the way. The automatic jolted in my hand. Simon Gaunt's figure sprang up, twisting free of his assailants.
He stood for a moment, a black hole in his forehead. Then he crashed down … .
And the white light of Albertson's flashlight told us the truth.
I stripped the mask from the dead face — the death mask of Simon Gaunt. The man who lay there had the brown, leathery face of a countryman. The blue eyes still were vaguely luminous. "Who is he?" Diana whispered.
"I don't know," I said. And the same answer came from the others.
Albertson was rubbing his hands on his coat.
"Ouch!" he said. "He must have had some acid smeared on his clothes. No wonder he burned my fingers!"
Steve was holding Diana close.
"It's all right, dear," he said. "We saw that — that glowing thing, and followed it. Then it seemed to turn into your father, and I tackled it. Albertson and Dad helped me."
He turned to Aaron Mallory, who was rising, rubbing his head.
"Sure. Just a bump on the head. Let's have a look at this chap!"
Aaron bent, and fumbled at the dead man's eyes. He held up a little shell of glass. "Covered his eyes — see? They were treated with luminous paint, too, like the mask and his clothes."
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The Riddle of Fire
I picked up a cloak from the ground. On one side it was jet black; on the other, a twisting spiral had been drawn with luminous paint.
"And this explains a lot more. Wearing this, in the dark, he couldn't be seen, except as a shining flame. And the track in the grass — it's my guess he laid a trail of kerosene in advance, and touched it off as he ran."
Two other things we found — a small portable flame-thrower, crudely made, but effective enough. The other thing was a door in a tree.
The oak's great bole was hollow. A slab had been cut out of it and roughly wired so that it could be swung open easily. The edges of the wood were still raw and new, with sawdust clinging to them. This, obviously, was how the masquerader had been able to disappear so magically.
Fire flickered up suddenly from the windows of the lodge.
Steve Mallory whirled.
"What the devil — " he snapped. "More of this?" We all knew what he meant.
We forgot about the body on the ground. All of us headed for the house, Mallory in the lead. His big figure loomed ahead of me as he burst into the porch and raced into the big room.
I saw him stop to stare. Then we were all inside the door, watching the group gathered around the metal altar against the wall.
A girl turned to face us — the one who had suggested that we perform the ritual ordered by Gaunt's will. In her hand she held the feathery body of a black cock; she waved it at us. She was drunker than the others.
One of the men was reading a ritual, in stumbling Latin.
The concavity on the altar was filled with glowing red coals that flared up now and then.
"It's okay," the girl called. "We're jush — just doing what old Simon wanted."
Diana said, in a tight voice:
"Stop them, Steve."
He moved forward, his eyes blazing — and two men lunged toward him, seized his arms.
"Gotta — finish it, now," one of them mouthed.
Before Steve could break free, the girl with the dead fowl had dropped it on the coals. The smell of singed feathers arose. She picked up a bowl, filled with dry herbs, and poured the stuff on the altar.
Instantly a fierce, raging flame rushed up, a blazing column that licked at the wall behind the altar. It drew our eyes … .
Steve tore free from the men who held him. He moved toward the altar — and paused, beside it, staring up at the wall as that fierce flame died down. I followed his gaze, and my heart jumped with excitement.
On the wall-paper — writing was appearing!
The first thing we saw was the name, "Simon Gaunt." And then, brought out by the heat, brownish lines of script grew to visibility above it.
The message said, quite simply:
"I have been poisoned. Before I came to the lodge, he gave me this new brand of meat paste and insisted that I try it. Now I am dying, and I know my murderer will come here to make certain of my death, and that I have left no message. I think he will also want the necklace of rubies I have just bought for Diana's birthday, but I have hidden these in the artesian well under the pump, suspended by a long string.
"In my will, I have asked Diana to perform a certain ritual yearly. Knowing this, I have moved the altar against the wall, where, during the ritual, the heat of the fire will make this writing visible. I am being killed because my murderer is in need of money; I recently discovered that he has been stealing from the firm for several years, losing every cent and more in gambling debts.
"I waited for him to confess — I would have helped him then — but I waited too long. I am being murdered so that Duke can marry Diana and inherit my fortune.
"Duke!" Diana turned slowly. "No!"
I was at the door, and the automatic was at my hand, covering them all, sobering even Albertson's drunken crowd.
"Please don't move," I said gently. "As I said before, I seldom miss."
Her eyes were wide. "But you couldn't have — poisoned Dad — "
"I poisoned him, Diana. I knew he'd found out about the money and the gambling. So I gave him the poisoned meat paste, and then drove up here to make certain. I searched the house, but I didn't find the message, or the rubies. It was clever of Simon Gaunt to write with invisible ink — milk or lemon juice, I suppose."
"You dirty — " Steve began.
"Shut up!" I nosed the gun toward him. "You talk too much. You talked too much to Diana — I thought I had that sewed up, and then you came back and made her break her engagement to me."
"I love Steve," Diana said.
"A few last words, eh? Remember my auto accident? That happened on the way back from this lodge — I was hurrying to establish an alibi. A month in the hospital kept me from searching for the rubies — but I was willing to wait. After Diana threw me over, I realized I couldn't get my hands on Gaunt's money — but I could get the necklace, if I could find it. There was plenty of time, I thought."
I looked at Albertson.
"Then you planned this party — with a treasure hunt! The worst thing that could have happened! I knew I had to find the necklace immediately, so I drove here yesterday. I couldn't find it. I needed more time, and I didn't want a gang of fools searching around the lodge!"
"That man you killed tonight — "
"Jim Nesbit? He's a tramp; I found him in a hobo jungle last night. I paid him to frighten you all away, so I could have a free hand to look for the necklace."
"You killed him." That was Diana.
"Of course," I said. "He couldn't have gotten away from Steve and Albertson. So I made certain he wouldn't talk."
"What do you intend to do?" Steve said.
"Kill you," I said. "You, Steve, and your father, and Albertson — and Diana. The rest of you won't dare to stop me. Then I'll get the necklace and disappear. It won't be hard."
"Kill Diana?" he asked.
I laughed, very softly.
"You don't think I ever loved her, do you?"
Steve moved so swiftly that I was almost taken by surprise. I saw his foot shoot out against the altar, and the hollow metal bulk toppled over clangingly.
I fired. Mallory staggered.
From the altar gushed a flood of coals. They buried my feet to the ankles. Sheer agony blazed through me.
I leaped free, squeezing the trigger again and again. But pain blinded me.
Pain and rage and red murder-lust. I felt hands clutching me, fought against them, fought as the gun was jerked from my grip, fought and fought till the crimson mists parted to show me Diana's white face, and the trickle of blood that ran down her arm … .
* * *
Tonight I die.
In a week Diana and Steve will be married. My bullets had wounded, but killed no one.
Tonight I die for the murder of two men.
It is, of course, blind superstition to imagine that Simon Gaunt, who worshipped flame, came back from the grave to thwart me by means of the fire he served. And yet I know, quite clearly, that it was not burning pain alone that made me lose my head that night. The coals buried my feet to the ankles; well and good. But there was something else. I looked down, involuntarily, and I am willing to swear that I saw a face limned on those glowing embers. It was the burning face of Simon Gaunt, and it was laughing at me.
I have told that to no one. I have no wish to spend the rest of my life in an asylum. In an hour, I shall walk to the chair, and another sort of fire will finish me.
I have not seen Diana, though she came to the prison. I do not wish her pity.
I am sorry I did not kill her. I want to die, so that I may forget her white face, and the trickle of blood on her arm.
I never loved her. I played a clever game for Gaunt's fortune, that was all. Over and over, from the very beginning, I told myself that I felt no emotion toward Diana Gaunt. But — only now, when it is too late … .
Why is it that I cannot forget the horror in her eyes when she knew the truth?
It is horrible to remember —
Soon I shall forget, forever. In an hour.
But — oh, God! — how long an hour can be!
~ The End ~
By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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