The Garde-Chainpetre was sent out to get it. He tracked it down. It attacked him and he fired, killing it dead. Then he found himself bending over the body of a local youth. That unfortunate rural policeman was tried for murder, but he swore that it was a wolf at which he had shot and the entire population of the village came forward to give evidence on his behalf that the dead man had boasted time and again of his power to change his shape.
“Is that a 15th or 16th century story?” murmured Richard.
“Neither. It occurred in November 1925.”
* * *
For a while longer, De Richleau strode up and down, patiently answering Richard's questions and ramming home his arguments for a belief in the power of the supernatural to affect mankind. When Marie Lou rejoined them, Richard's brown eyes no longer held the half-mocking humour which had twinkled in them an hour before. The Duke's explanation had been so clear and lucid, his earnestness so compelling that the younger man was at least forced to suspend judgment and even found himself toying with the idea that Simon might really be threatened by some very dangerous and potent force which it would need all their courage to resist during the dark hours that lay ahead.
It was eight o'clock now. Twilight had fallen and the trees at the bottom of the garden were already merged in shadow. Yet, with the coming of darkness they were not filled with any fresh access of fear. Like men who are about to go into physical battle, they were alert and expectant, but a little subdued, and realised that their strongest hope lay in putting their absolute trust in each other.
At Marie Lou's suggestion they went into the dining room and sat down to a cold supper which had already been laid out.
Having eaten so lightly during the day, their natural inclination was to make a heavy meal but, without any further caution from De Richleau, they all appreciated now that the situation was sufficiently serious to make restraint imperative. Even Richard denied himself a second helping of his favourite Morecambe Bay shrimps which had arrived that morning.
When they had finished, the Duke leant over him.
“I think the library would be the best place to conduct my experiments, and I shall require the largest jug you have full of fresh water, some glasses and it would be best to leave the fruit.”
“By all means,” Richard agreed, glancing towards his butler, “See to that please, Malin, will you?”
He then went on to give clear and definite instructions that they were not to be disturbed on any pretext until the morning and concluded with an order that the table should be cleared right away.
With a bland, unruffled countenance the man signified his understanding and motioned to his footman to begin clearing the table. So bland in fact was the expression that it would have been difficult for them to visualise him half an hour later in the privacy of the housekeeper's room declaring with a knowing wink:
“In my opinion, it's spooks they're after. The old chap's got no television set and behaving like a lot of heathens with not a drop of drink to their dinner. Think of that with young Simon there who's so mighty particular about his hock.”
When Richard had very pointedly wished his henchman 'good night,' they moved into the library and De Richleau, who knew the room well, surveyed it with fresh interest.
Comfortable sofas and large arm-chairs stood about the uneven polished oak of the floor. A pair of globes occupied two angles of the book-lined walls, and a great oval mahogany writing-table of Chippendale design stood before the wide French window. Owing to its sunken position in the old wing of the house the lighting of the room was dim even on a summer's day. Yet its atmosphere was by no means gloomy.
“We must strip the room furniture, curtains, everything!” said the Duke. “And I shall need brooms and a mop to polish the floor.”
The three men then began moving the furniture out into the hall while Marie Lou fetched a selection of implements from the house-maid's closet.
For a quarter of an hour they worked in silence until nothing remained in the big library except the serried rows of gilt tooled books.
“My apologies for even doubting the efficiency of your staff!” the Duke smiled at Marie Lou. “But I would like the room gone over thoroughly, particularly the floor, since evil emanations can fasten on the least trace of dust to assist their materialisation. Would you see to it, Princess, while I telephone the inn again to find out if Rex has returned.”
“Of course, Greyeyes, dear,” said Marie Lou and with Richard's and Simon's help, she set about dusting, sweeping and polishing until when De Richleau rejoined them, the boards were so scrupulously clean that they could have eaten from them.
“No news of Rex, worse luck,” he announced with a frown. “And I've had to disconnect the telephone now, in case a call makes Malin think it necessary to disregard his instructions. We had better go upstairs and change next.”
“What into?” Richard inquired.
“Pyjamas. I hope you have a good supply. You see none of us tonight must wear any garment which has been even slightly soiled.”
“Shan't we be awfully cold?” hazarded Simon with an unhappy look.
“I'll fit you out with shooting stockings and an overcoat,” Richard volunteered.
“Stockings if you like, providing that they are fresh from the wash, but no overcoats, dressing-gowns or shoes,” said the Duke. “However, there is no reason why we should not wear a couple of suits apiece of beneath the pyjamas to keep us warm. The essential point is that everything must be absolutely clean.”
The whole party then migrated upstairs, the men congregating in Richard's dressing-room where they ransacked his wardrobe for suitable attire. Marie Lou joined them a little later looking divinely pretty in peach silk pyjamas and silk stockings into the tops of which, above the knees, the bottoms of her pyjamas were neatly tucked.
“Now for a raid on the linen cupboard,” said De Richleau. “Cushions, being soiled already, are useless to us, but I am dreading that hard floor so we will take down as many sheets as we can carry, clean bath towels and blankets too. Then we shall have some sort of couch to sit on.”
In the library once more, they set down their bundles and De Richleau produced his suitcase, taking from it a piece of chalk, a length of string, and a foot rule. Marking a spot in the centre of the room, he asked Marie Lou to hold the end of the string to it, measuring off exactly seven feet and then, using her as a pivot, he drew a large circle in chalk upon the floor.
Next, the string was lengthened and an outer circle drawn. Then the most difficult part of the operation began. A five rayed star had to be made with its points touching the outer circle and its valleys resting upon the inner. But, as the Duke explained, while such a defence can be highly potent if it is constructed with geometrical accuracy, should the angles vary to any marked degree or the distance of the apexes from the central point differ more than a fraction, the pentacle would prove not only useless but even dangerous.
For half an hour they measured and checked with string and rule and marking chalk, but Richard proved useful here, for all his life he had been an expert with maps and plans and was even something of an amateur architect. At last the broad chalk lines were drawn to the Duke's satisfaction, forming the magical five pointed star in which it was his intention that they should remain while darkness lasted.
He then chalked in, with careful spacing round the rim of the inner circle, the powerful exorcism:
In nomina Pa tris et Fi Iii et Spiritus. Sancti! El Elohym Sother Emmanuel Sabaoth Agia Tetragammaton Agyos Otheos Ischiros and, after reference to an old book which he had brought with him, drew certain curious and ancient symbols in the valleys and the mounts of the microcosmic star.
Simon, whose recent experience had taught him something of pentacles, recognised ten of them as Cabbalistic signs taken from the Sephirotic tree; Kether, Binah, Ceburah, Hod, Malchut and the rest.
But others, like the Eye of Horus were of Egyptian origin and others again in some ancient Aryan script which he did not understand.
When the skeleton of this astral fortress was completed, the clean bedding was laid out inside it for them to rest upon and De Richleau produced further impediments from his case. With lengths of asafoetida grass and blue wax he sealed the windows, the door leading to the hall,and that concealed in the bookshelves which led to the nursery above, each at both sides and at the tops and at the bottoms, making the sign of the Cross in holy water over every seal as he completed it.
Then, he ordered the others inside the pentacle, examined the switches by the door to assure himself that every light in the room was on, made the fire with a great pile of logs so that it would last well through the night and there be no question of them having to leave the circle to replenish it and joining them where they had squatted down on the thick mat of blankets, produced five little silver cups, which he proceeded to fill two-thirds full with holy water. These he placed, one in each valley of the pentacle.
Then, taking five long white tapering candles, such as are offered by devotees to the Saints in Catholic Churches, he lit them from an old-fashioned tinder-box and set them upright, one at each apex of the five-pointed star. In the rear he placed the five brand new horseshoes which Richard had secured from the village with their horns pointing outward and beyond each vase of holy water he set a dried mandrake, four females and one male, the male being in the valley to the north.
These complicated formulas for the erection of outward barriers being at last finished, the Duke turned his attention to the individual protection of his friends and himself. Four long wreaths of garlic flowers were strung together and each of the party placed one about his neck. The Duke then performed the final rites of sealing the nine openings of each of their bodies.
All this performance had entirely failed to impress Richard. In fact, it tended to revive his earlier scepticism.
It was his private belief that a blackmailing gang were playing tricks upon Simon and the Duke so, before coming downstairs, he had tucked a loaded automatic comfortably away beneath his pyjama jacket. In deference to De Richleau's obvious concern that nothing soiled should be brought within the circle he had first, half-ashamedly, cleansed the weapon in a bath of spirit but, if Mocata was so ill-advised as to break into his house that night with the intention of staging any funny business, he meant to use it. After a little pause he looked cheerfully round at the others.
“Well, here we are! What happens now? We have ample room here,” replied De Richleau. “So there is no reason why we should not lie down with our feet towards the rim of the circle and try to get some sleep, but there are certain instructions I would like to give you before we settle down,” remarked Simon.
“It's early yet and if only Marie Lou weren't here I'd tell you some bawdy stories to keep you gay,” said Richard.
“Don't mind me, darling,” cooed Marie Lou. “I'm human, even if you are right about me having an angelic face.”
“No!” He shook his head quickly.
“Somehow they fail to amuse me. That's why I never tell you any. It needs men on their own sitting round a bottle of something to get the best out of a bawdy jest,” she murmured amiably.
“If Greyeyes and Simon didn't know you so well they would think you nothing but an awful little woman from the way you talk, whereas you're a nice person really.”
“Am I? Well, anyway it's fine that you should think so.” He fondled her short curly hair with his long fingers. “But what shall we talk about?”
“You know the legend of Isis and Osiris?” the Duke asked.
“Yes, vaguely,” Richard replied. “They were the King and Queen of Heaven who came to earth in human form and taught the Egyptians all they knew. The old business of a fair-haired god arriving among a dusky people and importing all sorts of new ideas about agriculture and architecture and justice.” De Richleau nodded.
“That is so, but I mean the story of how Osiris came to die – he was murdered, wasn't he?” volunteered Simon.
“But I've forgotten how.”
“Well, this is the account which has been handed down to us through many thousands of years. Osiris was, apparently, as Richard says, a fair-haired, light-skinned man, alien to the Egyptian race who became their King and ruling them with great intelligence brought them many blessings. But he had a brother named Set and here again you get the two principals of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness for Set was a dark man.
“It always amazes me, whenever I re-read the story in the Greek Classics, how Set, particularly, stands out as a definite and living figure after all these countless generations. The characters in our 17th century plays even are quite unreal with a very few exceptions; but Set remains, timeless and unchanging, the charming, but unscrupulous rogue who might have entertained you with lavish hospitality and brilliant conversation yesterday.
“He was tall, slim, dark, handsome; a fine athlete and a great hunter, but a cultured, amusing person too, and a boon companion. Set was younger than Osiris and jealous of his authority. Then he fell in love with Isis, his brother's wife. The old story of the human triangle you see, or rather the original, for all others in the whole literature of the world which deal with the same subject are plagiarisms. Set conspired, therefore, to slay the King and seize his wife and power for himself.
To assassinate, Osiris openly would have been a difficult matter because he was always surrounded by the older nobles who loved him. You all know that the Egyptians considered this present life to be only an interlude and that almost from the age at which they could think at all their thoughts were largely focused on the life to come. Many of them spent their entire fortune upon preparing some magnificent place of burial for themselves, and at every banquet, when the slaves served the dessert, the head butler carried round a miniature coffin with a skeleton inside to remind the guests that death was waiting round the corner for them all. With diabolical cunning, Set utilised the national preoccupation with death and ceremonial burial to ensnare his brother. First, by a clever piece of trickery he secured Osiris' exact measurements.
“Then he had made the most beautiful sarcophagus that had ever been seen. It was a great heavy chest of fine cedar wood with the figures of the 42 assessors of the dead who form the jury of the gods, painted in lapis blue, and the minutest hieroglyphics in black and red. As soon as this wonderful coffin was completed, Set prepared a great banquet to which he invited Osiris and 72 of the younger nobles, all of whom he had corrupted and drawn one by one into his conspiracy. Then on the night of the feast he had the beautiful sarcophagus placed in a small anteroom through which every guest had to pass on his arrival.”
to be continued...