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The Terror by Night by Unknown


Maynard disincumbered himself from his fishing-creel, stabbed the butt of his rod into the turf, and settled down in the heather to fill a pipe. All round him stretched the undulating moor, purple in the late summer sunlight. To the southward, low down, a faint haze told where the sea lay. The stream at his feet sang its queer, crooning moor-song as it rambled onward, chuckling to meet a bed of pebbles somewhere out of sight, whispering mysteriously to the rushes that fringed its banks of peat, deepening to a sudden contralto as it poured over granite boulders into a scum-flecked pool below.

For a long time the man sat smoking. Occasionally he turned his head to watch with keen eyes the fretful movements of a fly hovering above the water. Then a sudden dimple in the smooth surface of the stream arrested his attention. A few concentric ripples widened, travelled towards him, and were absorbed in the current. His lips curved into a little smile and he reached for his rod. In the clear water he could see the origin of the ripples; a small trout, unconscious of his presence, was waiting in its hover for the next tit-bit to float downstream. Presently it rose again.

"The odds are ten to one in your favour," said the man. "Let's see!"

He dropped on one knee and the cast leapt out in feathery coils. Once, twice it swished; the third time it alighted like thistledown on the surface. There was a tiny splash, a laugh, and the little greenheart rod flicked a trout high over his head. It was the merest baby—half-an-ounce, perhaps—and it fell from the hook into the herbage some yards from the stream.

"Little ass!" said Maynard. "That was meant for your big brother."

He recovered his cast and began to look for his victim. Without avail he searched the heather, and as the fateful seconds sped, at last laid down his rod and dropped on hands and knees to probe among the grass-stems.

For a while he hunted in vain, then the sunlight showed a golden sheen among some stones. Maynard gave a grunt of relief, but as his hand closed round it a tiny flutter passed through the fingerling; it gave a final gasp and was still. Knitting his brows in almost comical vexation, he hastened to restore it to the stream, holding it by the tail and striving to impart a life-like wriggle to its limpness.

"Buck up, old thing!" he murmured encouragingly. "Oh, buck up! You're all right, really you are!"

But the "old thing" was all wrong. In fact, it was dead.

Standing in the wet shingle, Maynard regarded the speckled atom as it lay in the palm of his hand.

"A matter of seconds, my son. One instant in all eternity would have made just the difference between life and death to you. And the high gods denied it you!"

On the opposite side of the stream, set back about thirty paces from the brink, stood a granite boulder. It was as high as a man's chest, roughly cubical in shape; but the weather and clinging moss had rounded its edges, and in places segments had crumbled away, giving foothold to clumps of fern and starry moor-flowers. On three sides the surrounding ground rose steeply, forming an irregular horseshoe mound that opened to the west. Perhaps it was the queer amphitheatrical effect of this setting that connected up some whimsical train of thought in Maynard's brain.

"It would seem as if the gods had claimed you," he mused, still holding the corpse. "You shall be a sacrifice—a burnt sacrifice to the God of Waste Places."

He laughed at the conceit, half-ashamed of his own childishness, and crossing the stream by some boulders, he brushed away the earth and weed from the top of the great stone. Then he retraced his steps and gathered a handful of bleached twigs that the winter floods had left stranded along the margin of the stream. These he arranged methodically on the cleared space; on the top of the tiny pyre he placed the troutlet.

"There!" he said, and smiling gravely struck a match. A faint column of smoke curled up into the still air, and as he spoke the lower rim of the setting sun met the edge of the moor. The evening seemed suddenly to become incredibly still, even the voice of the stream ceasing to be a sound distinct. A wagtail bobbing in the shallows fled into the waste. Overhead the smoke trembled upwards, a faint stain against a cloudless sky. The stillness seemed almost acute. It was as if the moor were waiting, and holding its breath while it waited. Then the twigs upon his altar crackled, and the pale flames blazed up. The man stepped back with artistic appreciation of the effect.

"To be really impressive, there ought to be more smoke," he continued.

Round the base of the stone were clumps of small flowers. They were crimson in colour and had thick, fleshy leaves. Hastily, he snatched a handful and piled it on the fire. The smoke darkened and rose in a thick column; there was a curious pungency in the air.

Far off the church-bell in some unseen hamlet struck the hour. The distant sound, coming from the world of men and every-day affairs, seemed to break the spell. An ousel fluttered across the stream and dabbled in a puddle among some stones. Rabbits began to show themselves and frisk with lengthened shadows in the clear spaces. Maynard looked at his watch, half-mindful of a train to be caught somewhere miles away, and then, held by the peace of running water, stretched himself against the sloping ground.

The glowing world seemed peopled by tiny folk, living out their timid, inscrutable lives around him. A water-rat, passing bright-eyed upon his lawful occasion, paused on the border of the stream to consider the stranger, and was lost to view. A stagnant pool among some reeds caught the reflection of the sunset and changed on the instant into raw gold.

Maynard plucked a grass stem and chewed it reflectively, staring out across the purple moor and lazily watching the western sky turn from glory to glory. Over his head the smoke of the sacrifice still curled and eddied upwards. Then a sudden sound sent him on to one elbow—the thud of an approaching horse's hoofs.

"Moor ponies!" he muttered, and, rising, stood expectant beside his smoking altar.

Then he heard the sudden jingle of a bit, and presently a horse and rider climbed into view against the pure sky. A young girl, breeched, booted and spurred like a boy, drew rein, and sat looking down into the hollow.

For a moment neither spoke; then Maynard acknowledged her presence by raising his tweed hat. She gave a little nod.

"I thought it was somebody swaling—burning the heather." She considered the embers on the stone, and then her grey eyes travelled back to the spare, tweed-clad figure beside it.

He smiled in his slow way—a rather attractive smile.

"No. I've just concluded some pagan rites in connection with a small trout!" He nodded gravely at the stone. "That was a burnt sacrifice." With whimsical seriousness he told her of the trout's demise and high destiny.

For a moment she looked doubtful; but the inflection of breeding in his voice, the wholesome, lean face and humorous eyes, reassured her. A smile hovered about the corners of her mouth.

"Oh, is that it? I wondered ..."

She gathered the reins and turned her horse's head.

"Forgive me if I dragged you out of your way," said Maynard, never swift to conventionality, but touched by the tired shadows in her eyes. The faint droop of her mouth, too, betrayed intense fatigue. "You look fagged. I don't want to be a nuisance or bore you, but I wish you'd let me offer you a sandwich. I've some milk here, too."

The girl looked round the ragged moor, brooding in the twilight, and half hesitated. Then she forced a wan little smile.

"I am tired, and hungry, too. Have you enough for us both?"

"Lots!" said Maynard. To himself he added: "And what's more, my child, you'll have a little fainting affair in a few minutes, if you don't have a feed."

"Come and rest for a minute," he continued aloud.

He spoke with pleasant, impersonal kindliness, and as he turned to his satchel she slipped out of the saddle and came towards him, leading her horse.

"Drink that," he said, holding out the cup of his flask. She drank with a wry little face, and coughed. "I put a little whisky in it," he explained. "You needed it."

She thanked him and sat down with the bridle linked over her arm. The colour crept back into her cheeks. Maynard produced a packet of sandwiches and a pasty.

"I've been mooning about the moor all the afternoon and lost myself twice," she explained between frank mouthfuls. "I'm hopelessly late for dinner, and I've still got miles to go."

"Do you know the way now?" he asked.

"Oh, yes! It won't take me long. My family are sensible, too, and don't fuss." She looked at him, her long-lashed eyes a little serious. "But you—how are you going to get home? It's getting late to be out on the moor afoot."

Maynard laughed.

"Oh, I'm all right, thanks!" He sniffed the warm September night. "I think I shall sleep here, as a matter of fact. I'm a gipsy by instinct—

"'Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly Heaven above——'"

He broke off, arrested by her unsmiling eyes. She was silent a moment.

"People don't as a rule sleep out—about here." The words came jerkily, as if she were forcing a natural tone into her voice.

"No?" He was accustomed to being questioned on his unconventional mode of life, and was prepared for the usual expostulations. She looked abruptly towards him.

"Are you superstitious?"

He laughed and shook his head.

"I don't think so. But what has that got to do with it?"

She hesitated, flushing a little.

"There is a legend—people about here say that the moor here is haunted. There is a Thing that hunts people to death!"

He laughed outright, wondering how old she was. Seventeen or eighteen, perhaps. She had said her people "didn't fuss." That meant she was left to herself to pick up all these old wives' tales.

"Really! Has anyone been caught?"

She nodded, unsmiling.

"Yes; old George Toms. He was one of Dad's tenants, a big purple-faced man, who drank a lot and never took much exercise. They found him in a ditch with his clothes all torn and covered with mud. He had been run to death; there was no wound on his body, but his heart was broken." Her thoughts recurred to the stone against which they leant, and his quaint conceit. "You were rather rash to go offering burnt sacrifices about here, don't you think? Dad says that stone is the remains of an old Phœnician altar, too."

She was smiling now, but the seriousness lingered in her eyes.

"And I have probably invoked some terrible heathen deity—Ashtoreth, or Pugm, or Baal! How awful!" he added, with mock gravity.

The girl rose to her feet.

"You are laughing at me. The people about here are superstitious, and I am a Celt, too. I belong here."

He jumped up with a quick protest.

"No, I'm not laughing at you. Please don't think that! But it's a little hard to believe in active evil when all around is so beautiful." He helped her to mount and walked to the top of the mound at her stirrup. "Tell me, is there any charm or incantation, in case——?" His eyes were twinkling, but she shook her fair head soberly.

"They say iron—cold iron—is the only thing it cannot cross. But I must go!" She held out her hand with half-shy friendliness. "Thank you for your niceness to me." Her eyes grew suddenly wistful. "Really, though, I don't think I should stay there if I were you. Please!"

He only laughed, however, and she moved off, shaking her impatient horse into a canter. Maynard stood looking after her till she was swallowed by the dusk and surrounding moor. Then, thoughtfully, he retraced his steps to the hollow.

A cloud lay across the face of the moon when Fear awoke Maynard. He rolled on to one elbow and stared round the hollow, filled with inexplicable dread. He was ordinarily a courageous man, and had no nerves to speak of; yet, as his eyes followed the line of the ridge against the sky, he experienced terror, the elementary, nauseating terror of childhood, when the skin tingles, and the heart beats at a suffocating gallop. It was very dark, but momentarily his eyes grew accustomed to it. He was conscious of a queer, pungent smell, horribly animal and corrupt.

Suddenly the utter silence broke. He heard a rattle of stones, the splash of water about him, realised that it was the brook beneath his feet, and that he, Maynard, was running for his life.

Neither then nor later did Reason assert herself. He ran without question or amazement. His brain—the part where human reasoning holds normal sway—was dominated by the purely primitive instinct of flight. And in that sudden rout of courage and self-respect one conscious thought alone remained. Whatever it was that was even then at his heels, he must not see it. At all costs it must be behind him, and, resisting the sudden terrified impulse to look over his shoulder, he unbuttoned his tweed jacket and disengaged himself from it as he ran. The faint haze that had gathered round the full moon dispersed, and he saw the moor stretching before him, grey and still, glistening with dew.

He was of frugal and temperate habits, a wiry man at the height of his physical powers, with lean flanks and a deep chest.

At Oxford they had said he was built to run for his life. He was running for it now, and he knew it.

The ground sloped upwards after a while, and he tore up the incline, breathing deep and hard; down into a shallow valley, leaping gorse bushes, crashing through whortle and meadowsweet, stumbling over peat-cuttings and the workings of forgotten tin-mines. An idiotic popular tune raced through his brain. He found himself trying to frame the words, but they broke into incoherent prayers, still to the same grotesque tune.

Then, as he breasted the flank of a boulder-strewn tor, he seemed to hear snuffling breathing behind him, and, redoubling his efforts, stepped into a rabbit hole. He was up and running again in the twinkling of an eye, limping from a twisted ankle as he ran.

He sprinted over the crest of the hill and thought he heard the sound almost abreast of him, away to the right. In the dry bed of a watercourse some stones were dislodged and fell with a rattle in the stillness of the night; he bore away to the left. A moment later there was Something nearly at his left elbow, and he smelt again the nameless, fœtid reek. He doubled, and the ghastly truth flashed upon him. The Thing was playing with him! He was being hunted for sport—the sport of a horror unthinkable. The sweat ran down into his eyes.

He lost all count of time; his wrist watch was smashed on his wrist. He ran through a reeling eternity, sobbing for breath, stumbling, tripping, fighting a leaden weariness; and ever the same unreasoning terror urged him on. The moon and ragged skyline swam about him; the blood drummed deafeningly in his ears, and his eyeballs felt as if they would burst from their sockets. He had nearly bitten his swollen tongue in two falling over an unseen peat-cutting, and blood-flecked foam gathered on his lips.

God, how he ran! But he was no longer among bog and heather. He was running—shambling now—along a road. The loping pursuit of that nameless, shapeless Something sounded like an echo in his head.

He was nearing a village, but saw nothing save a red mist that swam before him like a fog. The road underfoot seemed to rise and fall in wavelike undulations. Still he ran, with sobbing gasps and limbs that swerved under his weight; at his elbow hung death unnamable, and the fear of it urged him on while every instinct of his exhausted body called out to him to fling up his hands and end it.

Out of the mist ahead rose the rough outline of a building by the roadside; it was the village smithy, half workshop, half dwelling. The road here skirted a patch of grass, and the moonlight, glistening on the dew, showed the dark circular scars of the turf where, for a generation, the smith's peat fires had heated the great iron hoops that tyred the wheels of the wains. One of these was even then lying on the ground with the turves placed in readiness for firing in the morning, and in the throbbing darkness of Maynard's consciousness a voice seemed to speak faintly—the voice of a girl:

"There's a Thing that hunts people to death. But iron—cold iron—it cannot cross."

The sweat of death was already on his brow as he reeled sideways, plunging blindly across the uneven tufts of grass. His feet caught in some obstruction and he pitched forward into the sanctuary of the huge iron tyre—a spasm of cramp twisting his limbs up under him.

As he fell a great blackness rose around him, and with it the bewildered clamour of awakened dogs.

Dr. Stanmore came down the flagged path from the smith's cottage, pulling on his gloves. A big car was passing slowly up the village street, and as it came abreast the smithy the doctor raised his hat.

The car stopped, and the driver, a fair-haired girl, leant sideways from her seat.

"Good-morning, Dr. Stanmore! What's the matter here? Nothing wrong with any of Matthew's children, is there?"

The Doctor shook his head gravely.

"No, Lady Dorothy; they're all at school. This is no one belonging to the family—a stranger who was taken mysteriously ill last night just outside the forge, and they brought him in. It's a most queer case, and very difficult to diagnose—that is to say, to give a diagnosis in keeping with one's professional—er—conscience."

The girl switched off the engine, and took her hand from the brake-lever. Something in the doctor's manner arrested her interest.

"What is the matter with him?" she queried. "What diagnosis have you made, professional or otherwise?"

"Shock, Lady Dorothy; severe exhaustion and shock, heart strained, superficial lesions, bruises, scratches, and so forth. Mentally he is in a great state of excitement and terror, lapsing into delirium at times—that is really the most serious feature. In fact, unless I can calm him I am afraid we may have some brain trouble on top of the other thing. It's most mysterious!"

The girl nodded gravely, holding her underlip between her white teeth.

"What does he look like—in appearance, I mean? Is he young?"

The shadow of a smile crossed the doctor's eyes.

"Yes, Lady Dorothy—quite young, and very good-looking. He is a man of remarkable athletic build. He is calmer now, and I have left Matthew's wife with him while I slip out to see a couple of other patients."

Lady Dorothy rose from her seat and stepped down out of the car.

"I think I know your patient," she said. "In fact, I had taken the car to look for him, to ask him to lunch with us. Do you think I might see him for a minute? If it is the person I think it is I may be able to help you diagnose his illness."

Together they walked up the path and entered the cottage. The doctor led the way upstairs and opened a door. A woman sitting by the bed rose and dropped a curtsey.

Lady Dorothy smiled a greeting to her and crossed over to the bed. There, his face grey and drawn with exhaustion, with shadows round his closed eyes, lay Maynard; one hand lying on the counterpane opened and closed convulsively, his lips moved. The physician eyed the girl interrogatively.

"Do you know him?" he asked.

She nodded, and put her firm, cool hand over the twitching fingers.

"Yes," she said. "And I warned him. Tell me, is he very ill?"

"He requires rest, careful nursing, absolute quiet——"

"All that he can have at the Manor," said the girl softly. She met the doctor's eyes and looked away, a faint colour tingeing her cheeks. "Will you go and telephone to father? I will take him back in the car now if he is well enough to be moved."

"Yes, he is well enough to be moved," said the doctor. "It is very kind of you, Lady Dorothy, and I will go and telephone at once. Will you stay with him for a little while?"

He left the room, and they heard his feet go down the narrow stairs. The cottage door opened and closed.

The two women, the old and the young, peasant and peer's daughter, looked at each other, and there was in their glance that complete understanding which can only exist between women.

"Do 'ee mind old Jarge Toms, my lady?"

Lady Dorothy nodded.

"I know, I know! And I warned him! They won't believe, these men! They think because they are so big and strong that there is nothing that can hurt them."

"'Twas th' iron that saved un, my lady. 'Twas inside one of John's new tyres as was lyin' on the ground that us found un. Dogs barkin' wakened us up. But it'd ha' had un, else——" A sound downstairs sent her flying to the door. "'Tis the kettle, my lady. John's dinner spilin', an' I forgettin'."

She hurried out of the room and closed the door.

The sound of their voices seemed to have roused the occupant of the bed. His eyelids fluttered and opened; his eyes rested full on the girl's face. For a moment there was no consciousness in their gaze; then a whimsical ghost of a smile crept about his mouth.

"Go on," he said in a weak voice. "Say it!"

"Say what?" asked Lady Dorothy. She was suddenly aware that her hand was still on his, but the twitching fingers had closed about hers in a calm, firm grasp.

"Say 'I told you so'!"

She shook her head with a little smile.

"I told you that cold iron——"

"Cold iron saved me." He told her of the iron hoop on the ground outside the forge. "You saved me last night."

She disengaged her hand gently.

"I saved you last night—since you say so. But in future——"

Someone was coming up the stairs. Maynard met her eyes with a long look.

"I have no fear," he said. "I have found something better than cold iron."

The door opened and the doctor came in. He glanced at Maynard's face and touched his pulse.

"The case is yours, Lady Dorothy!" he said with a little bow.