Brood of the Witch Queen/Chapter 1
Robert Cairn looked out across the quadrangle. The moon had just arisen, and it softened the beauty of the old college buildings, mellowed the harshness of time, casting shadow pools beneath the cloisteresque arches to the west and setting out the ivy in stronger relief upon the ancient walls. The barred shadow on the lichened stones beyond the elm was cast by the hidden gate; and straight ahead, where, between a quaint chimney-stack and a bartizan, a triangular patch of blue showed like spangled velvet, lay the Thames. It was from there the cooling breeze came.
But Cairn's gaze was set upon a window almost directly ahead, and west below the chimneys. Within the room to which it belonged a lambent light played.
Cairn turned to his companion, a ruddy and athletic looking man, somewhat bovine in type, who at the moment was busily tracing out sections on a human skull and checking his calculations from Ross's Diseases of the Nervous System.
"Sime," he said, "what does Ferrara always have a fire in his rooms for at this time of the year?"
Sime glanced up irritably at the speaker. Cairn was a tall, thin Scotsman, clean-shaven, square jawed, and with the crisp light hair and grey eyes which often bespeak unusual virility.
"Aren't you going to do any work?" he inquired pathetically. "I thought you'd come to give me a hand with my basal ganglia. I shall go down on that; and there you've been stuck staring out of the window!"
"Wilson, in the end house, has got a most unusual brain," said Cairn, with apparent irrelevance.
"Has he!" snapped Sime.
"Yes, in a bottle. His governor is at Bart's; he sent it up yesterday. You ought to see it."
"Nobody will ever want to put your brain in a bottle," predicted the scowling Sime, and resumed his studies.
Cairn relighted his pipe, staring across the quadrangle again. Then—
"You've never been in Ferrara's rooms, have you?" he inquired.
Followed a muffled curse, crash, and the skull went rolling across the floor.
"Look here, Cairn," cried Sime, "I've only got a week or so now, and my nervous system is frantically rocky; I shall go all to pieces on my nervous system. If you want to talk, go ahead. When you're finished, I can begin work."
"Right-oh," said Cairn calmly, and tossed his pouch across. "I want to talk to you about Ferrara."
"Go ahead then. What is the matter with Ferrara?"
"Well," replied Cairn, "he's queer."
"That's no news," said Sime, filling his pipe; "we all know he's a queer chap. But he's popular with women. He'd make a fortune as a nerve specialist."
"He doesn't have to; he inherits a fortune when Sir Michael dies."
"There's a pretty cousin, too, isn't there?" inquired Sime slyly.
"There is," replied Cairn. "Of course," he continued, "my governor and Sir Michael are bosom friends, and although I've never seen much of young Ferrara, at the same time I've got nothing against him. But—" he hesitated.
"Spit it out," urged Sime, watching him oddly.
"Well, it's silly, I suppose, but what does he want with a fire on a blazing night like this?"
"Perhaps he's a throw-back," he suggested lightly. "The Ferraras, although they're counted Scotch—aren't they?—must have been Italian originally—"
"Spanish," corrected Cairn. "They date from the son of Andrea Ferrara, the sword-maker, who was a Spaniard. Cæsar Ferrara came with the Armada in 1588 as armourer. His ship was wrecked up in the Bay of Tobermory and he got ashore—and stopped."
"Married a Scotch lassie?"
"Exactly. But the genealogy of the family doesn't account for Antony's habits."
"Well, look." Cairn waved in the direction of the open window. "What does he do in the dark all night, with a fire going?"
"Nonsense! You've never been in his rooms, have you?"
"No. Very few men have. But as I said before, he's popular with the women."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there have been complaints. Any other man would have been sent down."
"You think he has influence—"
"Influence of some sort, undoubtedly."
"Well, I can see you have serious doubts about the man, as I have myself, so I can unburden my mind. You recall that sudden thunderstorm on Thursday?"
"Rather; quite upset me for work."
"I was out in it. I was lying in a punt in the backwater—you know, our backwater."
"To tell you the truth, I was trying to make up my mind whether I should abandon bones and take the post on the Planet which has been offered me."
"Pills for the pen—Harley for Fleet? Did you decide?"
"Not then; something happened which quite changed my line of reflection."
The room was becoming cloudy with tobacco smoke.
"It was delightfully still," Cairn resumed. "A water rat rose within a foot of me and a kingfisher was busy on a twig almost at my elbow. Twilight was just creeping along, and I could hear nothing but faint creakings of sculls from the river and sometimes the drip of a punt-pole. I thought the river seemed to become suddenly deserted; it grew quite abnormally quiet—and abnormally dark. But I was so deep in reflection that it never occurred to me to move.
"Then the flotilla of swans came round the bend, with Apollo—you know Apollo, the king-swan?—at their head. By this time it had grown tremendously dark, but it never occurred to me to ask myself why. The swans, gliding along so noiselessly, might have been phantoms. A hush, a perfect hush, settled down. Sime, that hush was the prelude to a strange thing—an unholy thing!"
Cairn rose excitedly and strode across to the table, kicking the skull out of his way.
"It was the storm gathering," snapped Sime.
"It was something else gathering! Listen! It got yet darker, but for some inexplicable reason, although I must have heard the thunder muttering, I couldn't take my eyes off the swans. Then it happened—the thing I came here to tell you about; I must tell somebody—the thing that I am not going to forget in a hurry."
He began to knock out the ash from his pipe.
"Go on," directed Sime tersely.
"The big swan—Apollo—was within ten feet of me; he swam in open water, clear of the others; no living thing touched him. Suddenly, uttering a cry that chilled my very blood, a cry that I never heard from a swan in my life, he rose in the air, his huge wings extended—like a tortured phantom, Sime; I can never forget it—six feet clear of the water. The uncanny wail became a stifled hiss, and sending up a perfect fountain of water—I was deluged—the poor old king-swan fell, beat the surface with his wings—and was still."
"The other swans glided off like ghosts. Several heavy raindrops pattered on the leaves above. I admit I was scared. Apollo lay with one wing right in the punt. I was standing up; I had jumped to my feet when the thing occurred. I stooped and touched the wing. The bird was quite dead! Sime, I pulled the swan's head out of the water, and—his neck was broken; no fewer than three vertebrae fractured!"
A cloud of tobacco smoke was wafted towards the open window.
"It isn't one in a million who could wring the neck of a bird like Apollo, Sime; but it was done before my eyes without the visible agency of God or man! As I dropped him and took to the pole, the storm burst. A clap of thunder spoke with the voice of a thousand cannon, and I poled for bare life from that haunted backwater. I was drenched to the skin when I got in, and I ran up all the way from the stage."
"Well?" rapped the other again, as Cairn paused to refill his pipe.
"It was seeing the firelight flickering at Ferrara's window that led me to do it. I don't often call on him; but I thought that a rub down before the fire and a glass of toddy would put me right. The storm had abated as I got to the foot of his stair—only a distant rolling of thunder.
"Then, out of the shadows—it was quite dark—into the flickering light of the lamp came somebody all muffled up. I started horribly. It was a girl, quite a pretty girl, too, but very pale, and with over-bright eyes. She gave one quick glance up into my face, muttered something, an apology, I think, and drew back again into her hiding-place."
"He's been warned," growled Sime. "It will be notice to quit next time."
"I ran upstairs and banged on Ferrara's door. He didn't open at first, but shouted out to know who was knocking. When I told him, he let me in, and closed the door very quickly. As I went in, a pungent cloud met me—incense."
"His rooms smelt like a joss-house; I told him so. He said he was experimenting with Kyphi—the ancient Egyptian stuff used in the temples. It was all dark and hot; phew! like a furnace. Ferrara's rooms always were odd, but since the long vacation I hadn't been in. Good lord, they're disgusting!"
"How? Ferrara spent vacation in Egypt; I suppose he's brought things back?"
"Things—yes! Unholy things! But that brings me to something too. I ought to know more about the chap than anybody; Sir Michael Ferrara and the governor have been friends for thirty years; but my father is oddly reticent—quite singularly reticent—regarding Antony. Anyway, have you heard about him, in Egypt?"
"I've heard he got into trouble. For his age, he has a devil of a queer reputation; there's no disguising it."
"What sort of trouble?"
"I've no idea. Nobody seems to know. But I heard from young Ashby that Ferrara was asked to leave."
"There's some tale about Kitchener—"
"By Kitchener, Ashby says; but I don't believe it."
"Well—Ferrara lighted a lamp, an elaborate silver thing, and I found myself in a kind of nightmare museum. There was an unwrapped mummy there, the mummy of a woman—I can't possibly describe it. He had pictures, too—photographs. I shan't try to tell you what they represented. I'm not thin-skinned; but there are some subjects that no man anxious to avoid Bedlam would willingly investigate. On the table by the lamp stood a number of objects such as I had never seen in my life before, evidently of great age. He swept them into a cupboard before I had time to look long. Then he went off to get a bath towel, slippers, and so forth. As he passed the fire he threw something in. A hissing tongue of flame leapt up—and died down again."
"What did he throw in?"
"I am not absolutely certain; so I won't say what I think it was, at the moment. Then he began to help me shed my saturated flannels, and he set a kettle on the fire, and so forth. You know the personal charm of the man? But there was an unpleasant sense of something—what shall I say?—sinister. Ferrara's ivory face was more pale than usual, and he conveyed the idea that he was chewed up—exhausted. Beads of perspiration were on his forehead."
"Heat of his rooms?"
"No," said Cairn shortly. "It wasn't that. I had a rub down and borrowed some slacks. Ferrara brewed grog and pretended to make me welcome. Now I come to something which I can't forget; it may be a mere coincidence, but—. He has a number of photographs in his rooms, good ones, which he has taken himself. I'm not speaking now of the monstrosities, the outrages; I mean views, and girls—particularly girls. Well, standing on a queer little easel right under the lamp was a fine picture of Apollo, the swan, lord of the backwater."
Sime stared dully through the smoke haze.
"It gave me a sort of shock," continued Cairn. "It made me think, harder than ever, of the thing he had thrown in the fire. Then, in his photographic zenana, was a picture of a girl whom I am almost sure was the one I had met at the bottom of the stair. Another was of Myra Duquesne."
"Yes. I felt like tearing it from the wall. In fact, the moment I saw it, I stood up to go. I wanted to run to my rooms and strip the man's clothes off my back! It was a struggle to be civil any longer. Sime, if you had seen that swan die—"
Sime walked over to the window.
"I have a glimmering of your monstrous suspicions," he said slowly. "The last man to be kicked out of an English varsity for this sort of thing, so far as I know, was Dr. Dee of St. John's, Cambridge, and that's going back to the sixteenth century."
"I know; it's utterly preposterous, of course. But I had to confide in somebody. I'll shift off now, Sime."
Sime nodded, staring from the open window. As Cairn was about to close the outer door:
"Cairn," cried Sime, "since you are now a man of letters and leisure, you might drop in and borrow Wilson's brains for me."
"All right," shouted Cairn.
Down in the quadrangle he stood for a moment, reflecting; then, acting upon a sudden resolution, he strode over towards the gate and ascended Ferrara's stair.
For some time he knocked at the door in vain, but he persisted in his clamouring, arousing the ancient echoes. Finally, the door was opened.
Antony Ferrara faced him. He wore a silver-grey dressing gown, trimmed with white swansdown, above which his ivory throat rose statuesque. The almond-shaped eyes, black as night, gleamed strangely beneath the low, smooth brow. The lank black hair appeared lustreless by comparison. His lips were very red. In his whole appearance there was something repellently effeminate.
"Can I come in?" demanded Cairn abruptly.
"Is it—something important?" Ferrara's voice was husky but not unmusical.
"Why, are you busy?"
"Well—er—" Ferrara smiled oddly.
"Oh, a visitor?" snapped Cairn.
"Not at all."
"Accounts for your delay in opening," said Cairn, and turned on his heel. "Mistook me for the proctor, in person, I suppose. Good-night."
Ferrara made no reply. But, although he never once glanced back, Cairn knew that Ferrara, leaning over the rail, above, was looking after him; it was as though elemental heat were beating down upon his head.