The Slayer of Souls

Robert W. Chambers



The girl's direct gaze met his with that merciless searching intentness he already knew.
          "What do you wish me to do?"
          "Enter the service of the United States."
          "Work for the Government."
          She was too taken aback to answer.
          "Where were you born?" he demanded abruptly.
          "In Albany, New York," she replied in a dazed way.
          "You are loyal to your country?"
          "You would not betray her?"
          "I don't mean for money; I mean for fear."
          After a moment, and, avoiding his gaze: "I am afraid of death," she said very simply.
          He waited.
          "I--I don't know what I might do--being afraid," she added in a troubled voice.  "I desire to--live."
          He still waited.
          She lifted her eyes: "I'd try not to betray my country," she murmured.
          "Try to face death for your country's honour?"
          "And for you own?"
          He leaned nearer: "Yet you're taking a chance on your own honour to-night."
          She blushed brightly: "I didn't think I was taking a very great chance with you."
          He said: "You have found life too hard.  And when you faced failure in New York you began to let go of life--real life, I mean.  And you came up here to-night wondering whether you had courage to let yourself
go.  When I spoke to you it scared you.  You found you hadn't the courage.  But perhaps to-morrow you might find it--or next week--if sufficiently scared by hunger--you might venture to take the first step along the path that you say others usually take sooner or later."
          The girl flushed scarlet, sat looking at him out of eyes grown dark with anger.
          He said: "You told me an untruth.  You have been tempted to betray your country.  You have resisted.  You have been threatened with death.  You have had courage to defy threats and temptations where your country's honour was concerned!"
          "How do you know?" she demanded.
          He continued, ignoring the question: "From the time you landed in San Francisco you have been threatened.  You tried to earn a living by your magician's tricks, but in city after city, as you came East, your uneasiness grew into fear, and your fear into terror, because every day more terribly confirmed your belief that people were following you determined either to use you to their own purposes or to murder you---?"
          The girl turned quite white and half rose in her chair, then sank back, staring at him out of dilated eyes.  Then Cleves smiled: "So you've got the nerve to do Government work," he said, "and you've got the intelligence and the knowledge, and something else--I don't know exactly what to call it--Skill?  Dexterity?  Sorcery?" he smiled--"I mean your professional ability.  That's what I want--that bewildering dexterity of yours, to help your own country in the fight of its life.  Will you enlist for service?"
          "W-what fight?" she asked faintly.
          "The fight with the Red Spectre."
          "Yes . . . Are you ready to leave this place?  I want to talk to you."
          "In my own rooms."
          After a moment she rose.
          "I'll go to your rooms with you," she said.  She added very calmly that she was glad it was to be his rooms and not some other man's.
          Out of countenance, he demanded what she meant, and she said quite candidly that she'd made up her mind to live at any cost, and that if she couldn't make and honest living she'd make a living anyway.
          He offered no reply to this until they had reached the street and he had called a taxi.
          On their way to his apartment he re-opened the subject rather bluntly, remarking that life was not worth living at the price she had mentioned.
          "That is the accepted Christian theory," she replied coolly, "but circumstances alter things."
          "Not such things."
          "Oh, yes, they do.  If one is already damned, what difference does anything else make?"
          He asked, sarcastically, whether she considered herself already damned.
          She did not reply for a few moments, then she said, in a quick, breathless way, that souls have been entrapped through ignorance of evil.  And asked him if he did not believe it.
          "No," he said, "I don't."
          She shook her head.  "You couldn't understand," she said.  "But I've made up my mind to one thing; even if my soul has perished, my body shall not die for a long, long time.  I mean to live," she added.  "I shall not let my body be slain!  They shall not steal life from me, whatever they have done to my soul---?"
          "What in heaven's name are you talking about?" he exclaimed.  "Do you actually believe in soul-snatchers and life-stealers?"
          She seemed sullen, her profile turned to him, her eyes on the brilliantly lighted avenue up which they were speeding.  After a while: "I'd rather live decently and respectably if I can," she said.  "That is the natural desire of any girl, I suppose.  But if I can't, nevertheless I shall beat off death at any cost.  Because I am absolutely determined to go on living.  And if I can't provide the means I'll have to let some man do it, I suppose."
          "It's a good thing it was I who found you when you were out of a job." he remarked coldly.
          "I hope so," she said.  "Even in the beginning I didn't really believe you meant to be impertinent"--a tragic smile touched her lips--"and I was almost sorry---?"
          "Are you quite crazy?" he demanded.
          "No, my mind is untouched.  It's my soul that's gone. . . . Do you know I was very hungry when you spoke to me?  The management wouldn't advance anything, and my last money went for my room. . . . Last Monday I had three dollars to face the future--and no job.  I spent the last of it to-night on violets, orange juice and cakes.  My furs and my gold bag remain.  I can go two months more on them.  Then it's a job or---?"  She shrugged and buried her nose in her violets.
          "Suppose I advance you a month's salary?" he said.
          "What am I to do for it?"
          The taxi stopped at a florist's on the corner of Madison Avenue and 58th Street.  Overhead were apartments.  There was no  elevator--merely the street door to unlock and four dim flights of stairs rising steeply to the top.
          He lived on the top floor.  As they paused before his door in the dim corridor:
          "Are you afraid?" he asked.
          She came nearer, laid a hand on his arm:
          "Are you afraid?"
          He stood silent, the latch-key in his hand.
          "I'm not afraid of myself--if that is what you mean," he said.
          "That is partly what I mean . . . you'll have to mount guard over your soul."
          "I'll look out for my soul," he retorted dryly.
          "Do so.  I lost mine.  I--I would not wish any harm to yours through our companionship."
          "Don't you worry about my soul," he remarked, fitting the key to the lock.  But again her hand fell on his wrist:
          "Wait.  I can't--can't help warning you.  Neither your soul nor your body are safe if--if you ever do make of me a companion.  I've got to tell you this!"
          "What are you talking about?" he demanded bluntly.
          "Because you have been courteous--considerate--and you don't know--oh, you don't realise what spiritual peril is!--What your soul and body have to fear if you--if you win me over--if you ever manage to make of me a friend!"
          He said: "People follow and threaten you.  We know that.  I understand also that association with you involves me, and that I shall no doubt be menaced with bodily harm."
          He laid his hand on hers where it still rested on his sleeves:
          "But that's my business, Miss Norne," he added with a smile.  "So, otherwise, it being merely a plain business affair between you and me, I think I may also venture my immortal soul alone with you in my room."
          The girl flushed darkly.
          "You have misunderstood," she said.
          He looked at her coolly, intently; and arrived at no conclusion.  Young, very young, confessedly without moral principle, he still could not believe her actually depraved.  "What did you mean?" he said bluntly.
          "In companionship with the lost, one might lose one's way--unawares. . . . Do you know that there is an Evil loose in the world which is bent upon conquest by obtaining control of men's minds?"
          "No," he replied, amused.
          "And that, through the capture of men's minds and souls the destruction of civilisation is being planned?"
          "Is that what you learned in your captivity, Miss Norne?"
          "You don't believe me."
          "I believe your terrible experiences in China have shake you to your tragic little soul.  Horror and grief and loneliness have left scars on tender, impressionable youth.  They would have slain maturity--broken it, crushed it.  But youth is flexible, pliable, and bends--gives way under pressure.  Scars become slowly effaced.  It shall be so with you.  You will learn to understand that nothing really can harm the soul."
          For a few moments' silence they stood facing each other on the dim landing outside his locked door.
          "Nothing can slay our souls," he repeated in a grave voice.  "I do not believe you really ever have done anything to wound even your self-respect.  I do not believe you are capable of it, or ever have been, or ever will be.  But somebody has deeply wounded you, spiritually, and has wounded your mind to persuade you that your soul is no longer in God's keeping.  For that is a lie!"
          He saw her features working with poignant emotions as though struggling to believe him.
          "Souls are never lost," he said.  "Ungoverned passions of every sort merely cripple them for a space.  God always heals them in the end."
          He laid his hand on the door-knob once more and lifted the latch-key.
          "Don't!" she whispered, catching his hand again, "if there should be somebody in there waiting for us!"
          "There is not a soul in my rooms.  My servant sleeps out."
          "There is somebody there!" she said trembling.
          "Nobody, Miss Norne.  Will you come in with me?"
          "I don't dare---?"
          "You and I alone together--no! oh, please--please!  I am afraid!"
          "Of what?"
          "Of--giving you--my c-confidence--and trust--and--and f-friendship."
          "I want you to."
          "I must not!  It would destroy us both, soul and body!"
          "I tell you," he said, impatiently, "that there is no destruction of the soul--and it's a clean comradeship anyway--a fighting friendship I ask of you--all I ask; all I offer!  Wherein, then, lies this peril in being alone together?"
          "Because I am finding it in my heart to believe in you, trust you, hold fast to your strength and protection.  And if I give way--yield--and if I make you a promise--and if there is anybody in that room to see us and hear us--then we shall be destroyed, both of us, soul and body---?"
          He took her hands, held them until their trembling ceased.
          "I'll answer for our bodies.  Let God look after the rest.  Will you trust Him?"
          She nodded.
          "And me?"
          But her face blanched as he turned the latch-key, switched on the electric light, and preceded her into the room beyond.
          The place was one of those accentless, typical bachelor apartments made comfortable for anything masculine, but quite unlivable otherwise.
          Live coals still glowed in the hob grate; he placed a lump of cannel coal on the embers, used a bellows vigorously and the flame caught with a greasy crackle.
          The girl stood motionless until he pulled up an easy chair for her, then he found another for himself.  She let slip her furs, folded her hands around the bunch of violets and waited. 
          "Now," he said, "I'll come to the point.  In 1916 I was at Plattsburg, expecting a commission.  The Department of Justice sent for me.  I went to Washington where I was made to understand that I had been selected to serve my country in what is vaguely known as the Secret Service--and which includes government agents attached to several departments.
          "The great war is over; but I am still retained in the service.  Because something more sinister than a hun victory over civilisations threatens this Republic.  And threatens the civilised world."
          "Anarchy," she said.
          She did not stir in her chair.
          She had become very white.  She said nothing.  He looked at her with his quiet, reassuring smile.
          "That's what I want of you," he repeated.
          "I want your help," he went on.  "I want you valuable knowledge of the Orient.  I want whatever secret information you possess.  I want your rather amazing gifts, your unprecedented experience among almost unknown people, your familiarity with occult things, your astounding powers--whatever they are--hypnotic, psychic, material.
          "Because, to-day, civilisation is engaged in a secret battle for existence against gathering powers of violence, the force and limit of which are still unguessed.
          "It is a battle between righteousness and evil, between sanity and insanity, light and darkness, God and Satan!  And if civilisation does not win, then the world perishes."
          She raised her still eyes to him, but made no other movement.
          "Miss Norne," he said, "we in the International Service know enough about you to desire to know more.
          "We already knew the story you have told me.  Agents in the International Secret Service kept in touch with you from the time that the Japanese escorted you out of China.
          "From the day you landed, and all across the Continent to New York, you have been kept in view by agents of this government.
          "Here, in New York, my men have kept in touch with you.  And now, to-night, the moment has come for a personal understanding between you and me."
          The girl's pale lips moved--became stiffly articulate: "I--I wish to live," she stammered, "I fear death."
          "I know it.  I know what I ask when I ask your help."
          She said in the ghost of a voice: "If I turn against them--they will kill me."
          "They'll try," he said quietly.
          "They will not fail, Mr. Cleves."
          "That is in God's hands."
          She became deathly white at that.
          "No," she burst out in an agonised voice, "it is not in God's hands!  If it were, I should not be afraid!  It is in the hands of those who stole my soul!"
          She covered her face with both arms, fairly writhing on her chair.
          "If the Yezidees have actually made you believe any such nonsense"--he began; but she dropped her arms and stared at him out of terrible blue eyes:
          "I don't want to die, I tell you!  I am afraid!--afraid!  If I reveal to you what I know they'll kill me.  If I turn against them and aid you, they'll slay my body, and send it after my soul!"
          She was trembling so violently that he sprang up and went to her.  After a moment he passed one arm around her shoulders and held her firmly, close to him.
          "Come," he said, "do your duty.  Those who enlist under the banner of Christ have nothing to dread in this world or the next."
          "If--if I could believe I were safe there."
          "I tell you that you are.  So is every human soul!  What mad nonsense have the Yezidees made you believe?  Is there any surer salvation for the soul than to die in Christ's service?"
          He slipped his arm from her quivering shoulders and grasped both her hands, crushing them as though to steady every fibre in her tortured body.
          "I want you to live.  I want to live, too.  But I tell you it's in God's hands, and we soldiers of civilisation have nothing to fear except failure to do our duty.  Now, then, are we comrades under the United States Government?"
          "O God--I--dare not!"
          "Are we?"
          Perhaps she felt the physical pain of his crushing grip for she turned and looked him in the eyes.
          "I don't want to die," she whispered.  "Don't make me!"
          "Will you help your country?"
          The terrible directness of her child's gaze became almost unendurable to him.
          "Will you offer your country your soul and body?" he insisted in a low, tense voice.
          Her stiff lips formed a word.
          "Yes!" he exclaimed.
          For a moment she rested against his shoulder, deathly white, then in a flash she had straightened, was on her feet in one bound and so swiftly that he scarcely followed her movement--was unaware that she had risen until he saw her standing there with a pistol glittering in her hand, her eyes fixed on the portières that hung across the corridor leading to his bedroom.
          "What on earth," he began, but she interrupted him, keeping her gaze focused on the curtains, and the pistol resting level on her hip.
          "I'll answer you if I die for it!" she cried.  "I'll tell you everything I know!  You wish to learn what is this monstrous evil that threatens the world with destruction--what you call anarchy and Bolshevism?  It is an Evil that was born before Christ came!  It is an Evil which not only destroys cities and empires and men but which is more terrible still for it obtains control of the human mind, and uses it at will; and it obtains sovereignty over the soul, and makes it prisoner.  Its aim is to dominate first, then to destroy.  It was conceived in the beginning by Erlik and by Sorcerers and devils. . . . Always, from the first, there have been sorcerers and living devils.
          "And when human history began to be remembered and chronicled, devils were living who worshiped Erlik and practised sorcery.
          "They have been called by many names.  A thousand years before Christ Hassan Sabbah founded his sect called Hassanis or Assassins.  The Yezidees are of them.  Their Chief is still called Sabbah; their creed is the annihilation of civilisation!"
          Cleves had risen.  The girl spoke in a clear, accentless monotone, not looking at him, her eyes and pistol centred on the motionless curtains.
          "Look out!" she cried sharply.
          "What is the matter?" he demanded.  "Do you suppose anybody is hidden behind that curtain in the passageway?"
          "If there is," she replied in her excited but distinct voice, "here is a tale to entertain him:
          "The Hassanis are a sect of assassins which has spread out of Asia all over the world, and they are determined upon the annihilation of everything and everybody in it except themselves!
          "In Germany is a branch of the sect.  The hun is the lineal descendent of the ancient Yezidee; the gods of the hun are the old demons under other names; the desire and object of the hun is the same desire--to rule the minds and bodies and souls of men and use them to their own purpose!"
          She lifted her pistol a little, came a pace forward:
          "Anarchist, Yezidee, Hassani, Boche, Bolshevik--all are the same--all are secretly swarming in the hidden places for the same purpose!"
          The girl's blue eyes were aflame, now, and the pistol was lifting slowly in her hand to a deadly level.
          "Sanang!" she cried in a terrible voice.
          "Sanang!" she cried again in her terrifying young voice--"Toad!  Tortoise egg!  Spittle of Erlik!  May the Thirty Thousand Calamities overtake you!  Sheik-el-Djebel!--cowardly Khan whom I laughed at from the temple when it rained yellow snakes on the marble steps when all the gongs in Yian sounded in your frightened ears!"
          She waited.
          "What!  You won't step out?  Tokhta!" she exclaimed in a ringing tone, and made a swift motion with her left hand.  Apparently out of her empty open palm, like a missile hurled, a thin, blinding beam of light struck the curtains, making them suddenly transparent.
          A man stood there.
          He came out, moving very slowly as though partly stupefied.  He wore evening dress under his overcoat, and had a long knife in his right hand.
          Nobody spoke.
          "So--I really was to die then, if I came here," said the girl in a wondering way.
          Sanang's stealthy gaze rested on her, stole toward Cleves.  He moistened his lips with his tongue.  "You deliver me to this government agent?" he asked hoarsely.
          "I deliver nobody by treachery.  You may go, Sanang."
          He hesitated, a graceful, faultless, metropolitan figure in top-hat and evening attire.  Then, as he started to move, Cleves covered him with his weapon.
          "I can't let that man go free!" cried Cleves angrily.
          "Very well!" she retorted in a passionate voice--"then take him if you are able!  Tokhta!  Look out for yourself!"
          Something swift as lightning struck the pistol from his grasp,--blinding him, half stunned him, set him reeling in a drenched blaze of light that blotted out all else.
          He heard the door slam; he stumbled, caught at the back of a chair while his senses and sight were clearing.
          "By heavens!" he whispered with ashen lips, "you--you are a sorceress--or something.  What--what are you doing to me?"
          There was no answer.  And when his vision cleared a little more he saw her crouched on the floor, her head against the locked door, listening, perhaps--or sobbing--he scarcely understood which until the quiver of her shoulders made it plainer.
          When at last Cleves went to her and bent over and touched her she looked up at him out of wet eyes, and her grief-drawn mouth quivered.
          "I--I don't know," she sobbed, "if he truly stole away my soul--there-there in the temple dusk of Yian.  But he--he stole my heart--for all his wickedness--Sanang, Prince of the Yezidees--and I have been fighting him for all these years--all these long years--fighting for what he stole in the temple dusk! . . . And now--now I have it back--my heart--all broken to pieces--here on the floor behind your--your bolted door."


.. .. ..
.. copyright @ 2003 miskatonic university press / yankee classic pictures, inc. all rights reserved ..