After the meal Rex tried to get on to Cardinals Folly again but the line was still reported out of order so he scribbled a note to Richard, saying that he was safe and well and would ring them in the morning, then asked Wilkes to have it sent up to the house by hand. When the landlord had left them, they moved back into the lounge and discussed how they should pass the night. Tanith was as insistent as ever that under no circumstances should Rex leave her to herself even if she asked him later on to do so. She felt that her only hope of safety lay in staying with him until the morning, so it was decided that they spend the night together in the empty lounge. Tanith had already booked a room and to make all things orderly in the mind of the good Mr. Wilkes, Rex booked another, but told the landlord that as Tanith suffered from insomnia, they would probably remain in the lounge until very late, and so he was not to bother about them when he locked up. As a gesture, he also borrowed from Wilkes a pack of cards, saying that they meant to pass an hour or two playing. The fire was made up and they settled down comfortably under the shelter of the big mantel in the inglenook with a little table before them upon which they spread out the cards for appearance sake.
Rex would have been in the seventh heaven but the thought of this terrible business in which Tanith had got herself involved and the threat of Mocata's power hanging like a sword of Damocles above her head. Again and again, from a variety of subjects and experiences ranging the world over, and from their childhood to the present day, they found themselves continually and inexplicably caught back to that macabre subject which both were seeking to avoid. In the end, both surrendered to it and allowed the thoughts which were uppermost in their minds to enter their conversation freely.
“I'm still hopelessly at sea about this business,” Rex confessed. “It's all so alien, so bizarre, so utterly fantastic. I know I wasn't dreaming last night or the night before. Yet, every time I think of it, I feel that I must have been imagining things, and that it just simply can't be true.”
“It is, my dear,” she pressed his hand gently, “that is just the horror of it. If it were any ordinary tangible peril, it wouldn't be quite so terrifying. It wouldn't be quite so bad even if we were living in the middle ages. But in these days of modern scepticism there is no one I can turn to; police and clergymen and doctors would all think of me as insane. I only have you and I'm frightened, Rex, frightened.” A sudden flush mounted to her cheeks again.
“I know, I know,” Rex soothed her gently. “But you must try not to be. I've a feeling that you're scaring yourself more than is really necessary. I'll agree that Mocata might hypnotise you if he caught you alone again, and maybe use you in some way to get poor Simon back into his net, but what could he actually do to you beyond that? He's not going to take a chance murdering anyone, so that the police could take a hand, even if he had a sufficient motive.”
“I am afraid you don't understand, dearest,” she murmured gently. “A Satanist who is as far along the path as Mocata does not need a motive to murder anyone, unless you call malicious pleasure a motive in itself, and my having left him in the lurch at such a critical time is quite sufficient to anger him into bringing about my death.”
“I tell you, sweet, he'll never risk doing that. In this country it is far too dangerous a game.”
“But his killings are not like ordinary murders. He can kill from a distance if he likes.”
“By sticking pins in a little wax figure with your name scratched on it, or letting it melt away before the fire until you pine and die?”
“That is one way, but he is more likely to use the blood of white mice.”
“How in the world do you mean?”
“I don't know very much about it except what I have picked up from Madame D'Urfe and a few other people. They say that when a very advanced adept wishes to kill someone, he feeds a white mouse on some of the holy wafers so they compel people to steal from churches for them. The sacrilegious aspect is very important, you see. Then they perform the Catholic ceremony of baptism over the mouse, christening it with the same name as that of their intended victim. That creates an affinity between the mouse and the person far stronger than carving their name on any image.”
“Then they kill the mouse, eh?”
“No, I don't think so. They draw off some of its blood, vaporise it and call up an elemental to feed upon its essence. Then they perform a mystic transfusion in their victim's veins causing the elemental to poison them. But, Rex...”
“Yes, my sweet?”
“It is not that I am afraid to die. In any case, as I have told you, there is no hope of my living out the year, but that has not troubled me for a long time now. It is what may come after that terrifies me so.”
“Surely he can't harm anybody once they're dead,” Rex protested.
“But he can,” Tanith burst out with a little cry of distress and fear, “if he kills me that way, he can make me dead to the world, but I shall live on as an undead and that would be horrible.”Rex passed his hand wearily across his eyes.
“Don't speak in riddles, treasure. What is this thing you're frightened of? Just tell me now in ordinary, plain English.”
“All right. I suppose you have heard of a vampire?”
“Why? Yes! I've read of them in fiction. They're supposed to come out of their graves every night and drink the blood of human beings, aren't they? Until they're found out, then their graves are opened up for a priest to cut off their head and drive stakes through their hearts. Is that what you call an undead?” Tanith nodded slowly.
“Yes, that is an undead – a foul, revolting thing, a living corpse that creeps through the night like a great white slug, and a body bloated from drinking people's blood. But have you never read of them in other books beside nightmare fiction?”
“No, I wouldn't exactly say I have as far as I can remember. The Duke would know all about them for a certainty, and Richard Eaton too, I expect because they're both great readers. But I'm just an ordinary chap who's content to take his reading from the popular novelists who can turn out a good, interesting story. Do you mean to tell me seriously that such creatures have ever existed outside the thriller writer's imagination?”
“I do. In the Carpathians, where I come from, the whole countryside is riddled with vampire stories from real life. You hear of them in Poland and Hungary and Romania, too. All through Middle Europe and right down into the Balkan countries there have been endless cases of such revolting Satanic manifestations. Anyone there will tell you that time and again, when graves have been opened on suspicion, the corpses of vampires have been found, months after burial without the slightest sign of decay, their flesh pink and flushed, their eyes wide-open, bright and staring. The only difference to their previous appearance is the way in which their canine teeth have grown long and pointed. Often, even, they have been found with fresh blood trickling out of the sides of their mouths.”
“That sounds pretty grim,” Rex exclaimed with a little shudder. “I reckon De Richleau would explain that by saying that the person was possessed before he died and that after, although the actual soul passed on, the evil spirit continued to make a doss-house of its borrowed body. But I can't think that anything so awful would ever happen to you.”
“It might, my dear. That is what scares me so. And if Mocata did get hold of me again he would not need to perform those ghastly rites. He could just throw me into the hypnotic state and, after he had made me do all he wished, allow some terrible thing to take possession of me at once. The elemental would still remain in my body when he killed me, and I should become one of those loathsome creatures – the undead, if that happened, this very night.”
“Stop! I can't bear to think of it,” Rex drew her quickly to him again. “But he shan't get hold of you. We'll fight him till all's blue, and I'm going to marry you tomorrow so that I can be with you constantly. We'll apply for a special licence first thing in the morning,” she nodded, and a new light of hope came into her eyes.
“If you wish it, Rex,” she whispered, “and I do believe that by your love and strength, you can save me. But you mustn't leave me for a single second tonight and we mustn't sleep a wink. Listen!” She paused a moment as the bell in the village steeple chimed the 12 strokes of midnight which came to them clearly in the stillness of the quiet room.
“It is the second of May now, my fatal day.” He smiled indulgently.
“Sure, I won't leave you and we won't sleep either.” She stood up then, raising her arms to smooth back her hair, and making a graceful, slender silhouette against the flickering flames of the heaped-up fire.
“No. The night will slip away before we know it,” she agreed more cheerfully, “because I've got a thousand things to tell you too. I must just slip upstairs to powder my nose now and when I come back, we'll settle down in earnest to make a night of it together.” A quick frown crossed his face.
“I thought you said I wasn't to let you leave me even for a second. I don't like that you’re going upstairs alone at all.”
“But, my dear!” Tanith gave a little laugh. “I can hardly take you with me and it won't take me more than a few moments.”
Rex nodded, reassured as he saw her standing there, smiling down at him in the firelight so happy and normal in every way. He felt certain that he would know at once if Mocata was trying to exert his power on her from a distance, by that strange, far- away look which had come into her eyes and the fanatical note that had raised the pitch of her voice each time she had spoken of the imperative necessity of her reaching the meeting place for the Sabbat on the previous day. There was not the faintest suggestion of that other will, imposed upon her own, in her face or voice now, and obviously it would have been childish to attempt to prevent her carrying out so sensible a suggestion before settling down. The best part of six hours must elapse before daylight began to filter greyly through the old-fashioned bow window at the far end of the room.
“All right,” he laughed. I’ll give you five minutes by that clock, but no more, remember, and if you're not down then, I'll come up and get you.”
'Dear lover!' she slipped out of the room closing the door softly behind her. Rex lay back, spreading his great limbs now in the comfortable corner of the inglenook, and stretching out his long legs to the glow of the log fire. He wasn't sleepy, which amazed him when he thought how little sleep he had had since he woke in his state room on the giant Cunarder the morning of the day that he dined with De Richleau. That seemed ages ago now, weeks, months, years. So many things had happened, so many new and staggering thoughts came to seethe and ferment in his brain, yet Simon's party had been held only a bare two nights before.
He wasn't sleepy-not a bit.
His brain had never been more active and his thoughts turned for a moment to his friends at Cardinals Folly. They, too, would be wide awake, braced, no doubt, under De Richleau's determined leadership, to face an attack from the powers of evil. De Richleau must be feeling pretty sleepy he thought. Neither of them had had more than three hours that morning after their exhausting night. They hadn't got to bed much before dawn the night before either and the Duke had been up, according to Max, at seven in order to be at the British Museum directly. Say six hours in 60. He glanced at the clock, thinking it almost time that Tanith should rejoin him, but saw that the slow-moving hand had only advanced two minutes.
“Amazing how time drags when one is watching it,” he thought. He would probably have been horribly drowsy by now if he had been a fool enough to fall for the cocktails. His mind began to form little mental pictures of some of those strange episodes which he had lived through in the last two days – old Madame D'Urfe smoking her cigar and then Tanith; Max arranging the cushions in De Richleau's electric canoe at Pangbourne, and Tanith again. Then, Tanith once more sitting opposite him at the table with the soft glow of the shaded electric lamp lighting her oval face and throwing strange shadows in the silken web of her golden hair. He glanced at the clock again – another minute had crawled by, and then he pictured Tanith as he had seen her only a few moments before, her face warm and flushed by the firelight, and those strange, deep, age-old eyes of hers smiling tenderly into his, beneath their heavy half-lowered lids. It must be this strange wonderful love for her, he thought, which kept him so alive and alert, for ordinarily his healthy body demanded its fair share of sleep and he would have been nodding his head off by this time. He could still see those glorious golden eyes of hers smiling into his. The face above them was indistinct and vague, but they remained clear and shining in the shadows on the far side of the fireplace. He thought for a second of glancing at the clock again. It seemed that Tanith had left him ages ago now, but judging by the time it had taken for that long hand to crawl through three minutes' space, he felt that it could hardly yet have covered the other two. Besides, he did not want to lose the focus of those strange, bright eyes which he could see so plainly when he half closed his own. Rex wasn't sleepy-not a bit. But time is an illusion, and he never afterwards knew how long he sat awake there in the semi-darkness. Perhaps during the first portion of his watch, some strange power deluded his vision and the clock had in reality moved on while he only thought that the minutes dragged so heavily. In any case, those eyes that watched him from the shadows were his last conscious thought and the next moment he was sound asleep.
* * *
While Rex slumbered evenly and peacefully before the dying fire in the lounge of the 'Pride of Peacocks', Richard, Marie Lou, the Duke and Simon waited in the pentacle, on the floor of the library at Cardinals Folly, for the dreary hours of the night to drag their way into the morning. They lay with their heads towards the centre of the circle and their feet towards the rim, forming a human cross, but although they did not speak for a long time after they had settled down, none of them managed to drop off to sleep. The layer of clean sheets and blankets beneath them was pleasant enough to rest on for a while, but the hard, unyielding floorboards under it soon began to cause them discomfort.
to be continued...