|FOUR WOODEN STAKES by Victor Rowe|
There it lay on the desk in front of me, that missive so simple in wording, yet so perplexing, so urgent in tone:
Come at once for old-time’s sake. Am all alone. Will explain upon arrival,
Having spent the past three weeks in bringing to a successful termination a case that had puzzled the police and two of the best detective agencies in the city, I decided I was entitled to a rest; so I ordered two grips packed and went in search of a time-table. It was several years since I had seen Remson Holroyd; in fact, I had not seen him since we had matriculated from college together. I was curious to know how he was getting along, to say nothing of the little diversion he promised me in the way of a mystery.
The following afternoon found me standing on the station platform of the little town of Charing, a village of about fifteen hundred souls. Remson’s place was about ten miles from there; so I stepped forward to the driver of a shay and asked if he would kindly take me to the Holroyd estate. He clasped his hands in what seemed to be a silent prayer, shuddered slightly, then looked at me with an air of wonder, mingled with suspicion.
“I dun’t know what ye wants to go out there fer, stranger, but if yell take the advice of a God-fearin’ man ye’ll turn back where ye come from. There be some mighty fearful tales concernin’ that place floatin’ around, and more’n one tramp’s been found near there so weak from loss of blood and fear he could hardly crawl. They’s somethin’ there. Be it man or beast I dun’t know, but as fer me, I wouldn’t drive ye out there for a hundred dollars—cash.”
This was not at all encouraging, but I was not to be influenced by the talk of a superstitious old gossip; so I cast about for a less impressionable rustic who would undertake the trip to earn the ample reward I promised at the end of the ride. To my chagrin, they all acted like the first; some crossed themselves fervently, while others gave me one wild look and ran, as if I were in alliance with the devil.
By now my curiosity was thoroughly aroused, and I was determined to see the thing through to a finish if it cost me my life. So, casting a last, contemptuous look on those poor, misguided souls, I stepped out briskly in the direction pointed out to me. However, I had gone but a scant two miles when the weight of the valises began to tell, and I slackened pace considerably.
THE sun was just disappearing beneath the treetops when I caught my first glimpse of the old homestead, now deserted but for its one occupant. Time and the elements had laid heavy hands upon it, for there was hardly a window that could boast its full quota of panes, while the shutters banged and creaked with a noise dismal enough to daunt even the strong of heart.
About one hundred yards back I discerned a small building built of grey stone, pieces of which seemed to be lying all around it, partly covered by the dense growth of vegetation that overran the entire countryside. On closer observation I realized that the building was a crypt, while what I had taken to be pieces of the material scattered around were really tombstones. Evidently this was the family burying-ground. But why had certain members been interred in a mausoleum while the remainder of the family had been buried in the ground in the usual manner?
Having observed thus much, I turned my steps toward the house, for I had no intention of spending the night with naught but the dead for company. Indeed, I began to realize just why those simple country folk had refused to aid me, and a hesitant doubt began to assert itself as to the expediency of my being here, when I might have been at the shore or at the country club enjoying life to the full.
By now the sun had completely slid from view, and in the semi-darkness the place presented an even drearier aspect than before. With a great display of bravado I stepped upon the veranda, slammed my grips upon a seat very much the worse for wear, and pulled lustily at the knob.
Peal after peal reverberated throughout the house, echoing and re-echoing from room to room, till the whole structure rang. Then all was still once more, save for the sighing of the wind and the creaking of the shutters.
A few minutes passed, and the sound of footsteps approaching the door reached my ears. Another interval, and the door was cautiously opened a few inches, while a head shrouded by the darkness scrutinized me closely. Then the door was flung wide, and Remson (I hardly knew him, so changed was he) rushed forward and, throwing his arms around me, thanked me again and again for heeding his plea, till I thought he would go into hysterics.
I begged him to brace up, and the sound of my voice seemed to help him, for he apologized rather shamefacedly for his discourtesy and led the way along the wide hall. There was a fire blazing merrily in the sitting-room, and after partaking generously of a repast, for I was famished after my long walk, I was seated in front of it, facing Remson and waiting to hear his story.
“Jack,” he began, “I’ll start at the beginning and try to give you the facts in their proper sequence. Five years ago my family circle consisted of five persons: my grandfather, my father, two brothers, and myself, the baby of the family. My mother died, you know, when I was a baby. Now—”
His voice broke and for a moment he was unable to continue.
“There’s only myself left,” he went on, “and so help me God, I’m going, too, unless you can solve the damnable mystery that hovers over this house, and put an end to that something which took my kin and is gradually taking me.
“Granddad was the first to go. He spent the last few years of his life in South America. Just before leaving there he was attacked while asleep by one of those huge bats. Next morning he was so weak he couldn’t walk. That awful thing had sucked his life-blood away. He arrived here, but was sickly until his death, a few weeks later. The medicos couldn’t agree as to the cause of death; so they laid it to old age and let it go at that. But I knew better. It was his experience in the south that had done for him. In his will he asked that a crypt be built immediately and his body interred therein. His wish was carried out, and his remains lie in that little grey vault that you may have noticed if you cut around behind the house.
“Then my dad began failing and just pined away until he died. What puzzled the doctors was the fact that right up until the end he consumed enough food to sustain three men, yet he was so weak he lacked the strength to drag his legs over the floor. He was buried, or rather interred, with granddad. The same symptoms were in evidence in the cases of George and Fred. They are both lying in the vault. And now, Jack, I’m going, too, for of late my appetite has increased to alarming proportions, yet I am as weak as a kitten.”
“Nonsense!” I chided. “We’ll just leave this place for a while and take a trip somewhere, and when you return you’ll laugh at your fears. It’s all a case of overwrought nerves, and there is certainly nothing strange about the deaths you speak of. They are probably due to some hereditary disease. More than one family has passed out in a hurry just on that account.”
“Jack, I only wish I could think so, but somehow I know better. And as for leaving here, I just can’t get away. There is a morbid fascination about the place which holds me. If you want to be a real friend, just stick around for a couple of days, and if you don’t find anything I’m sure the sight of you and the sound of your voice will do wonders for me.”
I agreed to do my best, although I was hard put to keep from smiling at his fears, so apparently groundless were they. We talked on other subjects for several hours; then I proposed bed, saying that I was very tired after my journey and subsequent walk. Remson showed me to my room, and, after seeing that everything was as comfortable as possible, he bade me good-night.
As he turned to leave the room, the flickering light from the lamp fell on his neck and I noticed two small punctures in the skin. I questioned him regarding them, but he replied that he must have beheaded a pimple and that he hadn’t noticed them before. He again said goodnight and left the room.
I UNDRESSED and tumbled into bed. During the night I was conscious of an overpowering feeling of suffocation—as if some great burden was lying on my chest which I could not dislodge; and in the morning, when I awoke, I experienced a curious sensation of weakness. I arose, not without an effort, and began divesting myself of my sleeping-suit.
As I folded the jacket I noticed a thin line of blood on the collar. I felt my neck, a terrible fear overwhelming me. It pained slightly at the touch. I rushed to examine it in the mirror. Two tiny dots rimmed with blood—my blood—and on my neck! No longer did I chuckle at Remson’s fears, for it, the thing, had attacked me as I slept!
I dressed as quickly as my condition would permit and went downstairs, thinking to find my friend there. He was not about, so I looked about outside, but he was not in evidence. There was but one answer to the question. He had not yet arisen. It was nine o’clock, so I resolved to awaken him.
Not knowing which room he occupied, I entered one after another in a fruitless search. They were all in various stages of disorder, and the thick coating of dust on the furniture showed that they had been untenanted for some time. At last, in a bedroom on the north side of the third floor, I found him.
He was lying spread-eagle fashion across the bed, still in his pyjamas, and as I leaned forward to shake him my eyes fell on two drops of blood, spattered on the coverlet. I crushed back a wild desire to scream and shook Remson rather roughly. His head rolled to one side, and the hellish perforations on his throat showed up vividly. They looked fresh and raw, and had increased to much greater dimensions. I shook him with increased vigour, and at last he opened his eyes stupidly and looked around. Then, seeing me, he said in a voice loaded with anguish, resignation, and despair:
“It’s been here again, Jack. I can’t hold out much longer. May God take my soul when I go!”
So saying, he fell back again from sheer weakness. I left him and went about preparing myself some breakfast. I had thought it best not to destroy his faith in me by telling him that I, too, had suffered at the hands of his persecutor.
A walk brought me some peace of mind, if not a solution, and when I returned about noon to the big house Remson was up and around. Together we prepared a really excellent meal. I was hungry and did justice to my share; but after I had finished, my friend continued eating until I thought he must either disgorge or burst. Then, after putting things to rights, we strolled about the long hall, looking at the oil paintings, many of which were very valuable.
At one end of the hall I discovered a portrait of an old gentleman, evidently a Beau Brummel in his day. He wore his hair in the long flowing fashion adopted by the old school, and sported a carefully trimmed moustache and Vandyke beard. Remson noticed my interest in the painting and came forward.
“I don’t wonder that picture holds your interest, Jack. It has a great fascination for me, also. At times I sit for hours studying the expression on that face. I sometimes think he has something to tell me, but of course that’s all tommyrot. But I beg your pardon, I haven’t introduced the old gent yet, have I? This is my granddad. He was a great old boy in his day, and he might be living yet but for that cursed bloodsucker. Perhaps it is such a creature that’s doing for me; what do you think?”
“I wouldn’t like to venture an opinion, Remson, but unless I’m badly mistaken we must dig deeper for an explanation. We’ll know tonight, however. You retire as usual and I’ll keep a close watch and we’ll solve the riddle or die in the attempt.”
Remson said not a word, but silently extended his hand. I clasped it in a firm embrace, and in each other’s eyes we read complete understanding. To change the trend of thought I questioned him on the servant problem.
“I’ve tried time and again to get servants that would stay,” he replied, “but about the third day they would begin acting queer, and the first thing I’d know they’d have skipped, bag and baggage.”
That night I accompanied my friend to his room and remained until he had disrobed and was ready to retire. Several of the window-panes were cracked, and one was entirely missing. I suggested boarding up the aperture, but he declined, saying that he rather enjoyed the night air; so I dropped the matter.
As it was still early, I sat by the fire in the sitting-room and read for an hour or two. I confess that there were many times when my mind wandered from the printed page before me and chills raced up and down my spine as some new sound was borne to my ears. The wind had risen, and was whistling through the trees with a peculiar whining sound. The creaking of the shutters tended to further the eerie effect, and in the distance could be heard the hooting of numerous owls, mingled with the cries of miscellaneous night fowl and other nocturnal creatures.
As I ascended the two flights of steps, the candle in my hand casting grotesque shadows on the walls and ceiling, I had little liking for my job. Many times in the course of duty I had been called upon to display courage, but it took more than mere courage to keep me going now.
I EXTINGUISHED the candle and crept forward to Remson’s room, the door of which was closed. Being careful to make no noise, I knelt and looked in at the keyhole. It afforded me a clear view of the bed and two of the windows in the opposite wall. Gradually my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and I noticed a faint reddish glow outside one of the windows. It apparently emanated from nowhere. Hundreds of little specks danced and whirled in the spot of light, and as I watched them, fascinated, they seemed to take on the form of a human face. The features were masculine, as was also the arrangement of the hair. Then the mysterious glow disappeared.
So great had the strain been on me that I was wet from perspiration, although the night was cool. For a moment I was undecided whether to enter the room or to stay where I was and use the keyhole as a means of observation. I concluded that to remain where I was would be the better plan; so I once more placed my eye to the hole.
Immediately my attention was drawn to something moving where the light had been. At first, owing to the poor light, I was unable to distinguish the general outline and form of the thing; then I saw. It was a man’s head.
So help me God, it was the exact reproduction of that picture I had seen in the hall that very morning. But oh, the difference in expression! The lips were drawn back in a snarl, disclosing two sets of pearly white teeth, the canines overdeveloped and remarkably sharp. The eyes, an emerald green in colour, stared in a look of consuming hate. The hair was sadly disarranged, while on the beard was a large clot of what seemed to be congealed blood.
I noticed thus much; then the head melted from my sight and I transferred my attention to a great bat that circled round and round, his huge wings beating a tattoo on the panes. Finally he circled around the broken pane and flew straight through the hole made by the missing glass. For a few moments he was shut off from my view; then he reappeared and began circling around my friend, who lay sound asleep, blissfully ignorant of all that was occurring. Nearer and nearer it drew, then swooped down and fastened itself on Remson’s throat, just over the jugular vein.
At this I rushed into the room and made a wild dash for the thing that had come night after night to gorge itself on my friend; but to no avail. It flew out of the window and away, and I turned my attention to the sleeper.
“Remson, old man, get up.”
He sat up like a shot.
“What’s the matter, Jack? Has it been here?”
“Never mind just now,” I replied.
“Just dress as hurriedly as possible. We have a little work before us this evening.”
He glanced questioningly toward me, but followed my command without argument. I turned and cast my eye about the room for a suitable weapon. There was a stout stick lying in the corner and I made toward it.
I wheeled about.
“What is it? Damn it all, haven’t you any sense, almost scaring a man to death?”
He pointed a shaking finger toward the window.
“There! I swear I saw him. It was my granddad, but oh, how disfigured!”
He threw himself upon the bed and began sobbing. The shock had completely unnerved him.
“Forgive me, old man,” I pleaded; “I was too quick. Pull yourself together and we may yet get to the bottom of things tonight.”
When he had finished dressing we left the house. There was no moon out, and it was pitch-dark.
I LED the way, and soon we came to within ten yards of the little grey crypt. I stationed Remson behind a tree with instructions to just use his eyes, and I took up my stand on the other side of the vault, after making sure that the door into it was closed and locked. For the greater part of an hour we waited without results, and I was about ready to call it off when I perceived a white figure flitting between the trees about fifty feet away.
Slowly it advanced, straight toward us, and as it drew closer I looked, not at it, but through it. The wind was blowing strongly, yet not a fold in the long shroud quivered. Just outside the vault it paused and looked around. Even knowing as I did about what to expect, it was a decided shock when I looked into the eyes of the old Holroyd, deceased these past five years. I heard a gasp and knew that Remson had seen, too, and recognized. Then the spirit, ghost, or whatever it was, passed into the crypt through the crack between the door and the jamb, a space not one-sixteenth of an inch wide.
As it disappeared, Remson came running forward, his face wholly drawn of colour.
“What was it, Jack? What was it? I know it resembled granddad, but it couldn’t have been he. He’s been dead five years!”
“Let us go back to the house,” I answered, “and I’ll explain things to the best of my ability. I may be wrong, of course, but it won’t hurt to try my remedy. Remson, what we are up against is a vampire. Not the female species usually spoken of today, but the real thing. I noticed you had an old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. If you’ll bring me volume XXIV I’ll be able to explain more fully the meaning of the word.”
He left the room and returned, carrying the desired book. Turning to page 52, I read:
“Vampire. A term apparently of Servian origin originally applied in eastern Europe to blood-sucking ghosts, but in modem usage transferred to one or more species of blood-sucking bats inhabiting South America.... In the first mentioned meaning a vampire is usually supposed to be the soul of a dead man which quits the buried body by night to suck the blood of living persons. Hence, when the vampire’s grave is opened his corpse is found to be fresh and rosy from the blood thus absorbed.... They are accredited with the power of assuming any form they may so desire, and often fly about as specks or dust, pieces of down or straw, etc.... To put an end to his ravages a stake is driven through him, or his head cut off, or his heart torn out, or boiling water and vinegar poured over the grave.... The persons who turn vampires are wizards, witches, suicides, and those who have come to a violent end. Also, the death of any one resulting from these vampires will cause that person to join their hellish throng.... See Calumet’s Dissertation on the Vampires of Hungary.”
I looked at Remson, He was staring straight into the fire. I knew that he realized the task before us and was steeling himself to it. Then he turned to me.
“Jack, we’ll wait until morning.”
That was all. I understood, and he knew. There we sat, each struggling with his own thoughts, until the first faint glimmers of light came struggling, through the trees and warned us of approaching dawn.
REMSON left to fetch a sledge-hammer and a large knife with its edge honed to a razor-like keenness. I busied myself making four wooden stakes, shaped like wedges. He returned bearing the horrible tools, and we struck out toward the crypt. We walked rapidly, for had either of us hesitated an instant I verily believe both would have fled incontinently. However, our duty lay clearly before us.
Remson unlocked the door and swung it outward. With a prayer on our lips, we entered.
As if by mutual understanding, we both turned toward the coffin on our left. It belonged to the grandfather. We displaced the lid, and there lay the old Holroyd. He appeared to be sleeping; his face was full of colour, and he had none of the stiffness of death. The hair was matted, the moustache untrimmed, and on the beard were stains of a dull brownish hue.
But it was his eyes that attracted me. They were greenish, and they glowed with an expression of fiendish malevolence such as I had never seen before. The look of baffled rage on the face might well have adorned the features of the devil in his hell.
Remson swayed and would have fallen, but I forced some whisky down his throat and he took a grip on himself. He placed one of the stakes directly over its heart, then shut his eyes and prayed that the good God above take this soul that was to be delivered unto Him.
I took a step backward, aimed carefully, and swung the sledge with all my strength. It hit the wedge squarely, and a terrible scream filled the place, while the blood gushed out of the open wound, up, and over us, staining the walls and our clothes. Without hesitating, I swung again, and again, and again, while it struggled vainly to rid itself of that awful instrument of death. Another swing and the stake was driven through.
The thing squirmed about in the narrow confines of the coffin, much after the manner of a dismembered worm, and Remson proceeded to sever the head from the body, making a rather crude but effectual job of it. As the final stroke of the knife cut the connection a scream issued from the mouth; and the whole corpse fell away into dust, leaving nothing but a wooden stake lying in a bed of bones.
This finished, we dispatched the remaining three. Simultaneously, as if struck by the same thought, we felt our throats. The slight pain was gone from mine, and the wounds had entirely disappeared from my friend’s, leaving not even a scar.
I wished to place before the world the whole facts contingent upon the mystery and the solution, but Remson prevailed upon me to hold my peace.
Some years later Remson died a Christian death, and with him went the only confirmation of my tale. However, ten miles from the little town of Charing there sits an old house, forgotten these many years, and near it is a little grey crypt. Within are four coffins; and in each lies a wooden stake stained a brownish hue, and bearing the finger prints of the deceased Remson Holroyd.