|←Black Wisdom|| Skull-Face by
Kathulos of Egypt
|The Dark House→|
|First published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, October-December 1929.|
And Heaven an iron cope."
The Skull-faced One stood watching me critically as I sat panting on a couch, completely exhausted. He held in his hand the goblet and surveyed the golden stem, which was crushed out of all shape. This my maniac fingers had done in the instant of drinking.
"Superhuman strength, even for a man in your condition," he said with a sort of creaky pedantry. "I doubt if even Hassim here could equal it. Are you ready for your instructions now?"
I nodded, wordless. Already the hellish strength of the elixir was flowing through my veins, renewing my burnt-out force. I wondered how long a man could live as I lived being constantly burned out and artificially rebuilt.
"You will be given a disguise and will go alone to the Frenton estate. No one suspects any design against Sir Haldred and your entrance into the estate and the house itself should be a matter of comparative ease. You will not don the disguise--which will be of unique nature--until you are ready to enter the estate. You will then proceed to Sir Haldred's room and kill him, breaking his neck with your bare hands--this is essential--"
The voice droned on, giving the ghastly orders in a frightfully casual and matter-of-fact way. The cold sweat beaded my brow.
"You will then leave the estate, taking care to leave the imprint of your hand somewhere plainly visible, and the automobile, which will be waiting for you at some safe place nearby, will bring you back here, you having first removed the disguise. I have, in case of complications, any amount of men who will swear that you spent the entire night in the Temple of Dreams and never left it. But here must be no detection! Go warily and perform your task surely, for you know the alternative."
I did not return to the opium house but was taken through winding corridors, hung with heavy tapestries, to a small room containing only an oriental couch. Hassim gave me to understand that I was to remain here until after nightfall and then left me. The door was closed but I made no effort to discover if it was locked. The Skull-faced Master held me with stronger shackles than locks and bolts.
Seated upon the couch in the bizarre setting of a chamber which might have been a room in an Indian zenana, I faced fact squarely and fought out my battle. There was still in me some trace of manhood left--more than the fiend had reckoned, and added to this were black despair and desperation. I chose and determined on my only course.
Suddenly the door opened softly. Some intuition told me whom to expect, nor was I disappointed. Zuleika stood, a glorious vision before me--a vision which mocked me, made blacker my despair and yet thrilled me with wild yearning and reasonless joy.
She bore a tray of food which she set beside me, and then she seated herself on the couch, her large eyes fixed upon my face. A flower in a serpent den she was, and the beauty of her took hold of my heart.
"Steephen!" she whispered, and I thrilled as she spoke my name for the first time.
Her luminous eyes suddenly shone with tears and she laid her little hand on my arm. I seized it in both my rough hands.
"They have set you a task which you fear and hate!" she faltered.
"Aye," I almost laughed, "but I'll fool them yet! Zuleika, tell me--what is the meaning of all this?"
She glanced fearfully around her.
"I do not know all"--she hesitated--"your plight is all my fault but I--I hoped--Steephen, I have watched you every time you came to Yun Shatu's for months. You did not see me but I saw you, and I saw in you, not the broken sot your rags proclaimed, but a wounded soul, a soul bruised terribly on the ramparts of life. And from my heart I pitied you. Then when Hassim abused you that day"--again tears started to her eyes--"I could not bear it and I knew how you suffered for want of hashish. So I paid Yun Shatu, and going to the Master I--I--oh, you will hate me for this!" she sobbed.
"I told him that you were a man who might be of use to him and begged him to have Yun Shatu supply you with what you needed. He had already noticed you, for his is the eye of the slaver and all the world is his slave market! So he bade Yun Shatu do as I asked; and now--better if you had remained as you were, my friend."
"No! No!" I exclaimed. "I have known a few days of regeneration, even if it was false! I have stood before you as a man, and that is worth all else!"
And all that I felt for her must have looked forth from my eyes, for she dropped hers and flushed. Ask me not how love comes to a man; but I knew that I loved Zuleika--had loved this mysterious oriental girl since first I saw her--and somehow I felt that she, in a measure, returned my affection. This realization made blacker and more barren the road I had chosen; yet--for pure love must ever strengthen a man--it nerved me to what I must do.
"Zuleika," I said, speaking hurriedly, "time flies and there are things I must learn; tell me--who are you and why do you remain in this den of Hades?"
"I am Zuleika--that is all I know. I am Circassian by blood and birth; when I was very little I was captured in a Turkish raid and raised in a Stamboul harem; while I was yet too young to marry, my master gave me as a present to--to Him."
"And who is he--this skull-faced man?"
"He is Kathulos of Egypt--that is all I know. My master."
"An Egyptian? Then what is he doing in London--why all this mystery?"
She intertwined her fingers nervously.
"Steephen, please speak lower; always there is someone listening everywhere. I do not know who the Master is or why he is here or why he does these things. I swear by Allah! If I knew I would tell you. Sometimes distinguished-looking men come here to the room where the Master receives them--not the room where you saw him--and he makes me dance before them and afterward flirt with them a little. And always I must repeat exactly what they say to me. That is what I must always do--in Turkey, in the Barbary States, in Egypt, in France and in England. The Master taught me French and English and educated me in many ways himself. He is the greatest sorcerer in all the world and knows all ancient magic and everything."
"Zuleika," I said, "my race is soon run, but let me get you out of this--come with me and I swear I'll get you away from this fiend!"
She shuddered and hid her face.
"No, no, I cannot!"
"Zuleika," I asked gently, "what hold has he over you, child--dope also?"
"No, no!" she whimpered. "I do not know--I do not know--but I cannot--I never can escape him!"
I sat, baffled for a few moments; then I asked, "Zuleika, where are we right now?"
"This building is a deserted storehouse back of the Temple of Silence."
"I thought so. What is in the chests in the tunnel?"
"I do not know."
Then suddenly she began weeping softly. "You too, a slave, like me--you who are so strong and kind--oh Steephen, I cannot bear it!"
I smiled. "Lean closer, Zuleika, and I will tell you how I am going to fool this Kathulos."
She glanced apprehensively at the door.
"You must speak low. I will lie in your arms and while you pretend to caress me, whisper your words to me."
She glided into my embrace, and there on the dragon-worked couch in that house of horror I first knew the glory of Zuleika's slender form nestling in my arms--of Zuleika's soft cheek pressing my breast. The fragrance of her was in my nostrils, her hair in my eyes, and my senses reeled; then with my lips hidden by her silky hair I whispered, swiftly:
"I am going first to warn Sir Haldred Frenton--then to find John Gordon and tell him of this den. I will lead the police here and you must watch closely and be ready to hide from Him --until we can break through and kill or capture him. Then you will be free."
"But you!" she gasped, paling. "You must have the elixir, and only he--"
"I have a way of outdoing him, child," I answered.
She went pitifully white and her woman's intuition sprang at the right conclusion.
"You are going to kill yourself!"
And much as it hurt me to see her emotion, I yet felt a torturing thrill that she should feel so on my account. Her arms tightened about my neck.
"Don't, Steephen!" she begged. "It is better to live, even--"
"No, not at that price. Better to go out clean while I have the manhood left."
She stared at me wildly for an instant; then, pressing her red lips suddenly to mine, she sprang up and fled from the room. Strange, strange are the ways of love. Two stranded ships on the shores of life, we had drifted inevitably together, and though no word of love had passed between us, we knew each other's heart--through grime and rags, and through accouterments of the slave, we knew each other's heart and from the first loved as naturally and as purely as it was intended from the beginning of Time.
The beginning of life now and the end for me, for as soon as I had completed my task, ere I felt again the torments of my curse, love and life and beauty and torture should be blotted out together in the stark finality of a pistol ball scattering my rotting brain. Better a clean death than--
The door opened again and Yussef Ali entered.
"The hour arrives for departure," he said briefly. "Rise and follow."
I had no idea, of course, as to the time. No window opened from the room I occupied--I had seen no outer window whatever. The rooms were lighted by tapers in censers swinging from the ceiling. As I rose the slim young Moor slanted a sinister glance in my direction.
"This lies between you and me," he said sibilantly. "Servants of the same Master we--but this concerns ourselves alone. Keep your distance from Zuleika--the Master has promised her to me in the days of the empire."
My eyes narrowed to slits as I looked into the frowning, handsome face of the Oriental, and such hate surged up in me as I have seldom known. My fingers involuntarily opened and closed, and the Moor, marking the action, stepped back, hand in his girdle.
"Not now--there is work for us both--later perhaps." Then in a sudden cold gust of hatred, "Swine! Ape-man! When the Master is finished with you I shall quench my dagger in your heart!"
I laughed grimly.
"Make it soon, desert-snake, or I'll crush your spine between my hands."