It was preposterous, of course, but Maxim Verdette imagined that a dead man’s soul was staring out at him through the eyes of the dog.
“Gip!” he called, remembering the terrier’s name.
A shaggy bundle of white and tan stirred on the rug before the fireplace, trundled forward a few steps, then stopped and peered warily at its master.
Verdette tossed aside the newspaper he had been reading. He had never liked dogs, and the dislike had been mutual. He had acquired Gip along with the rest of his brother’s possessions, and he recalled there was a ridiculous paragraph in the will expressing a wish that the animal be well cared for.
Now, as master and beast gazed into each other’s eyes, Maxim Verdette determined that the dog should die. He could not imagine what his brother Justin, a flinty, crafty man whose lodestar throughout life had been the dollar sign, had seen to like in a worthless cur like that. He knew that even the hardest of men have their streaks of sentimental weakness, but he had never suspected such a streak in Justin.
Yes, he reflected, conscious of a growing antipathy to the terrier, Gip must die. There must be no irritations to mar his enjoyment of the life of wealth, ease and luxury he had only that day begun. Though he could not analyze his feelings, the dog vexed him in a strange way. There was not only Maxim’s absurd fancy that his dead brother was looking at him through the beast’s eyes, but also something subtler, more trenchant, something that inspired him with odd qualms.
“Gip, old boy, come here,” he said in a wheedling tone; but the terrier must have sensed the falsetto in his voice, for he stopped again after a few reluctant steps forward, his intelligent eyes full of suspicion as, with head bent to one side, he peered at his master with an intensity that was almost human.
Verdette, now getting a closer view of the animal, laughed. As he had suspected, his imagination had tricked him. Gip’s eyes in no way resembled the dead man’s. Justin’s had been a sort of ratlike gray, while the predominant tone in the terrier’s was a calm, deep brown. Justin’s eyes had been narrow, elongated slits, while Gip’s were wide and almost round. No resemblance whatever, Maxim assured himself; just a foolish fancy of his, probably the result of his mental restlessness the past year.
He reached for the newspaper, but a new and startling impression stayed his hand. It suddenly struck him there was something familiar in the terrier’s squinting scrutiny, in the slant of the small, alert head, and, above all, in the odd trick of holding one leg in front of the other. It was a most uncommon way for a dog to stand; there was an uncanny suggestion in it of something human. And suddenly Verdette remembered that his brother, Justin, had been wont to stand just like that.
It had been one of Justin’s favorite poses. He had always struck it when “sizing up his man” as he used to say. Verdette remembered it well — the head tilted slightly to the left, the legs crossed, the sharp, cynical eyes bent on a scrutiny that seemed to search the inmost niches of the soul. He had often shrank from that steady, sardonic and almost painful inspection, hiding his embarrassment behind a laugh and a jest.
Now, in the quiet of the softly illumined and richly furnished library, the terrier’s aping of the dead man’s mannerisms seemed almost weird. Verdette understood now why the dog’s eyes had impressed him so strangely. He had recognized Justin’s pose, and his fancy had conjured up a dead man’s soul behind it. He laughed again, but the laugh had a shrill note. Perceiving that his hands were trembling, he crossed the floor and poured a stiff drink. Then, again resolving that the dog must die, he sat down and picked up the newspaper.
His eyes chanced on an item chronicling that Maxim Verdette had that day returned from an extensive tour of South America and had taken up his residence in his brother’s house on Fifth Avenue. The article alluded to what had become known as “The Verdette Mystery,” recalling that in the year that had now elapsed since Justin Verdette’s disappearance, nothing had been definitely established in regard to his fate. It was the general opinion that he had been murdered and that the murderer had disposed of the body. A crimson stain on the bedroom floor, discovered by a servant the morning following Justin’s disappearance, gave weight to that theory. But who had committed the deed, what had been the motive, and what had become of the body?
A thin smile parted Maxim’s lips as he read on. It was stated that the police, as well as the private detectives engaged by the dead man’s brother, had practically given up hope of solving the mystery. It was recalled that Maxim Verdette, being his brother’s sole heir, and apparently the only person to whom a tangible motive could be ascribed, had been closely questioned by the police during the initial stages of the investigation, but had established a satisfactory alibi. Besides, if Maxim had killed the brother with a view to hastening the day of his inheritance, it was unthinkable that he should have disposed of the body, since he must have been well aware that the courts would insist on satisfactory proof of Justin’s death before they released the estate.
Maxim’s smile broadened. He had hoped that some bright mind would hit upon just such an argument. It was, indeed, unthinkable that an impatient beneficiary should conceal the only proof that existed of his benefactor’s death, thereby tying up the estate in interminable court proceedings. It had been a very effective touch, that, and almost as brilliantly conceived as the convincing, but neither too perfect nor too obvious, alibi.
And Maxim Verdette had the patience to wait. Already his attorney had obtained for him permission to occupy his dead brother’s magnificent house and to use a generous percentage of the income from the estate for living expenses. Eventually all legal requirements would have been complied with, and the courts would declare Justin presumptively dead. And if that day were too long in coming, there was always the possibility that the body would — by merest accident, of course — he found by somebody; perhaps by Maxim Verdette himself.
The newspaper slipped from his fingers. He leaned back in the chair, and a glow of complete gratification spread over his sleek and somewhat crafty features. The future lay radiant before his vision, a pleasing prospect of velvety ease, dazzling lights, superb revels, splendid adventures. He had always had a craving for pleasure; now he had the money with which to indulge it. It was an excellent combination. Maxim Verdette, once the black sheep of the family and now its only surviving member, felt that he had just begun to live.
Then, abruptly, the tantalizing vision faded. All the life died out of the smile on Maxim’s face, leaving only a dead, frozen smirk. His roving eyes had paused on the dog, who had crawled back to its rug before the fireplace; and again he thought that some subtly terrifying emanation of the dead man was staring at him through the eyes of the beast. Something in the steady, relentless scrutiny of those eyes gave him a chill. Then he laughed hoarsely.
The dog was lying on its side, pressing its right forepaw against the black-speckled tip of its head. It was a quaint trick and would have impressed Maxim as ludicrous if he had not seen in it another of the dead brother’s mannerisms. It had been characteristic of Justin to press his right hand against his chin when absorbed in the thought; and now the terrier was mimicking, so far as his anatomy permitted, this peculiarity of the dead man. It was a droll conceit, but to Maxim it seemed a ghostly gesture, an absurd but harrowing suggestion that some fragment of the harsh, cold and eccentric nature of Justin Verdette had become incarnate in the dog.
In that moment his dislike of the small creature turned to hate. The beast seemed to be deliberately taunting him. It seemed to take a diabolical delight in parading before his eyes a personality that belonged in the region of shades and phantoms. He felt a strong impulse to beat it to death, knowing that its agonized yelps would compensate him for the torture he was now enduring. A cruel grin on his lips, he arose and stepped toward the fireplace.
A low growl stopped him, and the next instant he knew he was beaten. It was neither fear nor pity that checked him, but awe of the thing that stared out of the terrier’s eyes. He cursed himself for his asininity and indecision, but to no avail. He felt — it was a childish fancy, of course, but he could not resist it — that in laying hands on the dog he should also be laying hands on something spectral, unearthly.
He turned away with a hollow chuckle and flung another drink down his throat. For a moment the liquor stiffened his resistance to the weird influence exerted by the dog. He wanted to laugh, but the laughter choked in his throat. He had heard of such things as qualms of conscience, and he supposed that if he ever were to feel them, he would feel them during his first night under the dead man’s roof.
He was a bit nervous, he told himself, and his fevered imagination made him see things. That was all. He had merely imagined that the cur was aping Justin’s mannerisms, and this in turn had caused him to see a dead man’s soul in the animal’s eyes. Nothing to get excited over. It was the height of idiocy for him to be cowed by a helpless mite of a dog. Ha! ha! The dog must die. It would be just as well, though, to let some one else attend to the execution. He jabbed at a bell.
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“Did you ring, sir?” The butler’s tune was funereal — and quite in tune with Maxim’s mental state.
“Did I ring?” he said angrily. “You know very well I rang! If not, why did you stick your ugly mug in here?”
The butler regarded him stonily, his face as blank as an unwritten page. It was Maxim’s first close look at the man, and he felt the same instinctive suspicion he had felt toward Gip. There was a quality in the man’s stiff bearing and impassive face that puzzled him.
“Your name is — ?”
Though he could not explain why, Maxim felt there was a mystery behind the unfathomable face, that might be worth plumbing. “You worked for my brother a good many years, eh, Tillson?”
“I understand he was a hard master?”
A part of the man’s iciness seemed to melt away. His voice shook a little. “He was, and he wasn’t, sir. At times he treated me very harshly. But once, when I was in troubles he acted like a friend — and a good one — to me.”
Maxim scowled. Another of Justin’s sentimental weaknesses, he thought; and suddenly he sensed an insidious danger in the butler’s apparent devotion to the dead man.
“Well, there’s one thing I want you to understand, Tillson,” he said sternly. “The relations between you and me will be strictly those of master and servant. Get me?”
“I understand, sir.” Tillson stood stiffly erect, his inscrutable eyes leveled straight at the master’s face. Maxim felt something of the same inward quavering he had experienced before the dog’s scrutiny. There was not a quiver in Tillson’s face, and he seemed as rigid and impassive as though he had been a mummy, but his mere presence in the room electrified the atmosphere.
“Why the devil do you look at me like that?” asked Maxim.
“I meant no offense, sir,” said Tillson, evenly.
Maxim restrained an impulse to throw him out bodily.
“Tell you what I want you to do,” he said thickly. “I want you to take that dog out of here and kill him.”
The stony look fled from the butler’s face. “Kill Gip? I couldn’t do that, sir. Your brother thought the world and all of him. He often used to say —”
“I don’t give a hang what he used to say!” exclaimed Maxim. “I want that infernal cur killed, and I want him killed now.”
Tillson gazed tenderly at the terrier, and the animal gazed back with mute gratitude in its eyes. It seemed to Maxim as though it had instinctively caught the drift of the conversation, and it infuriated him to think that an understanding existed between the dog and the butler. A stream of angry invective was on his lips.
He started as a clock began to strike the hour of eleven. He had an odd feeling that the tolling, subdued, distant and haunting, was a part of the scene being enacted by himself, the butler and the dog. As the first dulcet tones sounded, the terrier rose from its recumbent position and peered wistfully at the armchair beside the library table. As the last stroke died, it emitted a soft, plaintive yelp.
“What’s ailing the brute?” muttered Maxim.
“Mr. Justin Verdette was very punctual in his habits, as you may know, sir,” explained the butler. “He spent his evenings here reading, but on the stroke of eleven he would go to his bedroom. Gip always followed him, and he still goes through the motions, just as though he didn’t realise his master was dead. Look at him, sir.” Gip had risen on his hind legs beside the chair. Now, with long, eager strokes of the tongue, he was lapping the leather covering of the armrest, as though unaware that the chair was vacant and that there was no master’s hand to lick.
Maxim, shaking with helpless rage, stood staring at the spectacle, his senses dazed by the ghostly mummery enacted before his eyes. It seemed as though everybody were conspiring to taunt him with the specter of Justin Verdette.
“Come, Gip,” called Tillson, solemnly. “You see, sir, I always take him to Mr. Justin Verdette’s bedroom at night, just as your brother used to do when he was alive.”
He stepped from the room, beckoning Gip to follow. Maxim, infuriated at the fellow’s cool impudence, was about to repeat his order that the dog be killed, but the scene that now ensued rendered him speechless. The terrier started after the butler, but it did not walk as dogs usually walk, but strutting on two legs and with its front limbs crossed in crude but startling imitation of Justin Verdette’s habit of pacing the floor with arms folded.
As if magnetized against his will, Maxim followed. As they traversed room after room, he felt as though he were treading in the footsteps of the dead, and meanwhile he was silently cursing the wild fancies that were shooting through his brain. Erect and as grimly silent as though he were the master of some uncanny ceremonial, Tillson walked slowly and evenly at the head of the queer procession. Maxim felt like shouting to the fellow and calling his attention to the dog’s strange behavior; but something — he did not know what — told him that he did not wish Tillson to witness the bizarre spectacle. Perhaps he dreaded the look of understanding which, he half suspected, he would see in the butler’s face.
Tillson opened a door, and the dog bounded past him into the room. Maxim saw the animal gaze, with an expression that was almost tender, at the somber draperies in front of the bed. Then, with a hoarse, long-drawn moan and head hanging low, it slunk into a corner and lay down.
Silent and stony-faced, Tillson watched the dog for a few moments; and again Maxim was impressed with something mystic and baffling in the man’s features. Then, without a word, but with a look that sent a shiver through Maxim’s being, he turned on his heels and left the room.
The bedchamber seemed very quiet and dismal. Maxim found the air heavy and choking. The rain was drumming lazily against the windows, and the wind swept past with a dirge-like drone. There seemed to be whispers — strange, muffled voices — about him. He looked at the dog, wondering whether its eyes still mirrored the dead man’s soul. Then, urged on by an odd fascination, he stepped toward where the terrier lay curled up on its rug. The light was dim there, and he could see only a shaggy outline and a few dull streaks of tan and white.
The dog gave a warning growl as he stooped for a closer look, and he saw that its paws were toying with something — something that struck an opaline shimmer into the gloom. A curious tingle ran down his spine as he snatched at the object. The dog, with another and louder growl, snapped fiercely at his fingers. He felt a choke in his throat as he drew back and considered ways and means of separating the animal from its treasure. His mind swam, and his only clear thought was that he must, somehow, see what the thing was.
On a taboret near the bed stood a heavy silver match safe. Maxim snatched it up, dealt the terrier a stunning blow on the head, and with a feeble moan it crumpled into a limp heap. The next moment the lustrous object was in Maxim’s hand. His fingers trembled as he held it to the light.
Then an icy sensation shuddered through his veins. A dull cry sprang from his bloodless lips as his wild eyes stared at the object.
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It was a ring of rare and curious workmanship, the heavy gold band being fashioned into a likeness of a coiled serpent, lavishly studded with brilliants. Its glitter had fascinated Maxim’s eyes more than once, and he had been told there was none other like it in the world. It had been made expressly for an East Indian banker, who had presented it to an American friend. A year had passed since Maxim last saw it — and at that time it had adorned one of Justin Verdette’s fingers.
That was why his face took on a strained, ashen look of anguish while the electric light broke into riotous iridescence against the blazing jewel. His mind reeled as he sought an explanation of its presence in the house. According to all the laws of fact and reason, the ring should lie under several feet of dirt, beside the decaying bones of Justin Verdette. It had been buried there, Maxim knew.
Prompted by greed, he had tried hard, that night a year ago, to wrench the ring from his brother’s stiffening fingers. It had fitted tightly, and he had failed. Afterward, in a saner moment, he had been glad of it, for so unique an ornament must inevitably have betrayed him if he had attempted to sell it. Besides, he had reasoned, in the event that the courts should demand absolute proof of Justin Verdette’s death, it might be desirable to arrange an “accidental” discovery of the bones, and then the ring would serve as identification.
With sickening anguish he realized that the presence of the ring in the house meant that the grave had been found.
“But by whom?” he wondered, wiping the cold, prickly sweat from his face. Everything depended upon that. Had it been found by some one who had searched for it with a view to bringing the murderer of Justin Verdette to justice? Had that cur —
He glared savagely at the corner where Gip lay. The dog’s eyes were glassy and half closed, but he fancied that a glint of humanness was blazing out at him through those rigid orifices. The fact that the ring had been in Gip’s possession, viewed in connection with the butler’s mysterious demeanor, was distinctly disquieting. A blind, unreasoning fear, a dazed feeling that he had suddenly been transported to a goblin world where dead men’s souls stared out of the eyes of beasts, sent a numbing chill through his being.
Slowly his mind began to function again, and his first clear thought was that he must know what had happened. A glance through the window told him that the town was wrapped in a dripping blanket of thick clouds. The house and the immediate neighborhood were almost oppressively silent. It was near midnight.
He thrust the ornament into a pocket and dashed from the room. Reaching his own bedchamber, he armed himself with a pistol and wriggled into a raincoat. Then he stole down the stairs and out through the rear. At the back of the garage, where he remembered such implements had always been kept, he found a short-handled spade. Concealing it beneath his raincoat, he scurried down the automobile driveway, darted across the street, and faded away in the black shadows that hung over the park.
He recalled, with a nervous chill, that other wet and dark night when, with a limp burden dangling from his shoulders, he had taken the same route. As this time, he had crossed the street unseen, and in the black depths of the park he was safe from spying eyes. Yet, as he hastened forward, a mere blot against the thick gloom, he fancied that the lambent glow of the terrier’s eyes was zigzagging through the darkness.
He muttered an oath. A moment later he stopped at a rectangular intersection. He could scarcely see the dim ribbons of road, but the topography of the region was indelibly graven on his mind. He stumbled forward until he came to a huge bowlder that rose, frowning and shadowy, before his eyes. He walked halfway around it, then stopped and went down on his knees.
He remembered the place vividly. He felt with his fingers until he found the exact spot where, by digging in a slanting direction, he should soon prove the correctness or absurdity of the suspicion suggested to his mind by the serpentine ornament. He thrust the point of the spade into the ground.
Then an amazed gasp slipped from his lips. The ground was firm, belying his suspicion that any one had disturbed it since he himself had dug there a year ago. Yet he had seen, only a few minutes ago, the very ring which had been buried there with the body of Justin Verdette.
Shaking, he struggled to his feet; and suddenly a tall, shadowy figure darted out of the silence and the gloom. With arms folded, he stood there erect, accusing, and he felt its burning eyes boring into his face. With a hoarse exclamation, he darted aside, but the specter followed.
“Who — who are you?” he gasped.
“Tillson,” said a deep, funereal voice. “Much obliged to you for leading me to the place where you buried it. I loved your brother, and I swore I’d find the fiend that murdered him.”
Three other shadows detached themselves from the darkness and joined Tillson. Maxim, an overwhelming weakness stealing over him, managed to splutter a question.
“Oh, the jewel,” said Tillson. “That was only a fairly good imitation, made from my description of the original.”
Maxim stumbled away between two of his captors. He heard Tillson’s voice.
“The little cuss was coming to when I left. The blow stunned him for a while. Say, that’s some dog! Mr. Justin Verdette used to amuse himself by teaching it to imitate some of his manners, and the little fellow still keeps it up. Some dog, eh?”
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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