The Green Eyes of Bast/Chapter 12

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IT was long enough before sleep visited me that night. For nearly half an hour I stood at my open window looking across a moon-bathed slope to where a tower projected, ghostly, above the fringe of the woods. The landlord had informed me that it was Friar's Park which could thus be seen peeping out from the trees, and as I stood watching that sentinel tower a thousand strange ideas visited me.

The curious air of loneliness of which I had become conscious at the moment of my arrival, was emphasized now that the residents in the district had retired to their scattered habitations. No sound of bird or beast disturbed the silence. From the time that the footsteps of Martin the landlord had passed my door as he mounted heavily to his bed-chamber, no sound had reached me but the muffled ticking of a grandfather's clock upon the landing outside my room. And even this sound, the only one intruding upon the stillness, I weaved into my imaginings, so that presently it began to resemble the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece in that gruesome room at the Red House.

The view which I commanded was an extensive one and although in the clear country air I could quite easily discern the upstanding wing of Friar's Park, actually the house and the park were some two miles distant. Where the park ended and the woods began it was impossible to determine, yet such was my curious mood that I lingered there endeavoring to puzzle out those details which were veiled from me by distance.

To-morrow, I thought, I should be seeking admittance to that house among the trees. In fact so great was my anxiety to plumb the depths of the mystery in the hope of recovering some new fact which should exculpate Coverly, that nothing but the unseemly lateness of the hour had deterred me from presenting myself that very evening.

Yet, my night of idleness had not been altogether unfruitful. I had met the scarred man, and from Hawkins I had heard something of his singular story. Now as I stood there drinking in, as it were, the loneliness of the prospect, my thoughts turned for the hundredth time to the game-keeper's account of what had befallen the two rustic rake-hells. I admit that the concluding part of Hawkins' story, quite evidently regarded by him as a detail of no importance, had re-awakened hope which had been at lowest ebb in the hour of my arrival.

Although it was possible that the gift of a "sort of cat" to young Edward Hines might prove on investigation to be not a clew but a will-o'-the-wisp, I preferred to think that fate or the acute reasoning of Inspector Gatton had sent me down to this quiet country for a good purpose; and I built great hopes around the figure of the "lady down from London." Indeed it appeared to me that there were more lines of investigation demanding attention than alone I could hope to deal with in the short time at my disposal. Except that I was determined to visit Friar's Park early on the following day, I scarcely knew in which direction next to prosecute my inquiries.

Determining that I should be well-advised to sleep on the problem, I presently turned in. And when I blew out the candle with which the chambermaid had provided me, I remember thinking that the moonlight was so bright that it would have been possible to read moderately large type without inconvenience.

I slept perhaps for two hours or more, an unrefreshing sleep disturbed by dreams of a wildly grotesque nature. Figures increasingly horrible and menacing crowded upon me; but that which proved the culminating horror and which finally awakened me, bathed in cold perspiration, was a dream of two huge green eyes regarding me with a fixed stare, fascinating and hypnotic, against which evil power I fought in my dream with all the strength of my will.

Vaguely defined as if in smoke I could perceive the body of the creature to which these incredible eyes belonged. It was slender and sinuous and sometimes I thought it to be that of a human being and sometimes that of an animal. For at one moment it possessed all the lines of a woman's form and in the next, with those terrible eyes regarding me from low down upon the ground, it had assumed the shape of a crouching beast of prey. This fearsome apparition seemed to be creeping towards me—nearer and nearer, and was about to spring, I thought, when I awakened as I have said and sat suddenly upright.

One thing I immediately perceived which may have accounted for my bad dreams; I had been sleeping with the moonlight shining directly upon my face. Another thing I thought I perceived, but endeavored to assure myself that it represented the aftermath of an unpleasant nightmare. This was a lithe shape streaking through my open window—a figment of the imagination, as I concluded at the time, the tail-end of a dream visibly retreating in the moment of awakening.

So self-assured of this did I become, that I did not get up to investigate the matter, nor was there any sound from the road below to suggest that the figure had been otherwise than imaginary, yet I found it difficult to woo slumber again, and for nearly an hour I lay tossing from side to side, listening to the ticking of the grandfather's clock and constantly seeing in my mind's eye that deserted supper-room at the Red House.

And presently as I lay thus, I became aware of two things: first of the howling of dogs, and, second, of a sort of muttered conversation which seemed to be taking place somewhere near me. Listening intently, I thought I could distinguish the voice of a man and that of a woman. Possibly I was not the only wakeful inhabitant of the Abbey Inn was my first and most natural idea; but it presently became apparent to me that the speakers were not in the inn, but outside in the road.

Curiosity at last overcame inclination. Of the exact time I was not aware, but I think dawn could not have been far off, and I naturally wondered who these might be that conversed beneath my window at such an hour. I rose quietly and crept across the room, endeavoring to avoid showing my head in the moonlight. By the exercise of a little ingenuity I obtained a view of the road before the inn doors.

At first I was unable to make out from whence this muttered conversation arose, until fixing my attention upon a patch of shadow underlying a tall tree which stood almost immediately opposite the window, I presently made out two figures there. Somewhere, a dog was howling mournfully.

For a long time I failed to distinguish any more than indefinite outlines, nor, throughout the murmured colloquy, did I once detect even so much as a phrase. The night remained perfect and the moon possessed a tropical brilliance, casting deep and sharply defined shadows, and lending to the whole visible landscape a quality of hardness which for some obscure reason set me thinking of a painting by Wiertz.

The low-pitched voices continued in what I thought was a dispute. Something in the voice of the woman, although I could only hear her occasionally, piqued yet eluded my memory. But it was the voice of a young woman, whilst that of the man suggested a foreigner of some sort and one past youth. Subconsciously pursuing the Wiertz idea, I know not why, I invested the dimly-visible speakers with distinct personalities. The man became Asmodeus, master of the revels at the Black Sabbath, and the young woman I cast for that "young witch" depicted in one of the canvasses of the weird Belgian genius.

Everything in the black and silver scene seemed to fit the picture. Here was the unholy tryst, and I pictured the distant woods "peopled with gray things, the branches burdened with winged creatures arisen from the pit; the darkness a curtain 'broidered with luminous eyes ..."

And it was my recollection of that phrase, from a work on sorcery, which now set every nerve tingling. Closely I peered into the masking shadow, telling myself that I was the victim of a subjective hallucination. If this was indeed the case or if what I saw was actual, I must leave each who reads to determine for himself; and the episodes which follow and which I must presently relate will doubtless aid the decision.

But it seemed to me that for one fleeting moment "luminous eyes" indeed "'broidered the darkness!'" From out of the shade below the big tree they regarded me greenly—and I saw them no more.

A while longer I watched, but could not detect any evidence of movement in the shadow patch. The voices, too, had ceased; so that presently it occurred to me that the speakers must have withdrawn along a narrow lane which I had observed during the evening and which communicated with a footpath across the meadows.

I realized that my heart was beating with extraordinary rapidity. So powerful and so unpleasant was the impression made upon my mind by this possibly trivial incident and by the extraordinary dream which had preceded it, that on returning to bed (and despite the warmth of the night) I closed both lattices and drew the curtains.

Whether as a result of thus excluding the moonlight or because of some other reason I know not, but I soon fell into a sound sleep from which I did not awaken until the chambermaid knocked at the door at eight o'clock. Neither did I experience any return of those terrifying nightmares which had disturbed my slumbers earlier in the night.

My breakfast despatched, I smoked a pipe on the bench in the porch, and Mr. Martin, who evidently had few visitors, became almost communicative. Undesirable patrons, he gave me to understand, had done his business much harm. By dint of growls and several winks he sought to enlighten me respecting the identity of these tradekillers. But I was no wiser on the point at the end of his exposition than I had been at the beginning.

"Things ain't right in these parts," he concluded, and thereupon retired within doors.

Certainly, whatever the reason might be, the village even in broad daylight retained that indefinable aspect of neglect, of loneliness. Many of the cottages were of very early date—and many were empty. A deserted mill stood at one end of the village street, having something very mournful and depressing about it, with its black, motionless wings outspread against the blue sky like those of a great bat transfixed.

There were rich-looking meadows no great way from the village, but these, I learned, formed part of the property of Farmer Hines, and Farmer Hines was counted an inhabitant of the next parish. It was, then, this particular country about Upper Crossleys over which the cloud hung; and I wondered if the district had been one of those—growing rare nowadays—which had flourished under the protection of the "big house" and had decayed with the decay of the latter. It had been a common enough happening in the old days, and I felt disposed to adopt this explanation.

My brief survey completed, then, I returned to the Abbey Inn for my stick and camera, and set out forthwith for Friar's Park.

From certain atmospherical indications which I had observed, I had anticipated a return of the electrical storm which a few days before had interrupted the extraordinary heat-wave. And now as I left the village behind and came out on the dusty highroad a faint breeze greeted me—and afar off I discerned a black cloud low down upon the distant hills.