The train was slowing down for Keegan. A whistle from the locomotive ahead had warned the two alert young men in the smoker to that effect, and they arose to leave the train. Both were neatly and quietly dressed.
One carried a medium-sized camera with the necessary tripod and accessory satchel. The other carried no impediments of any sort. Both were smoking cigars, evidently not of expensive variety, judging by the unaromatic atmosphere thereabouts.
“Can’t see what Bland shipped us up to this one-horse dump for,” grumbled Skip Handlon, the one who carried the camera. He was the slighter of the two and perhaps half a head shorter than the other. “Do you know anything about it?”
“Not much,” confessed the other as they alighted from the smoker. “All I can tell you is that Bland sent for me early this morning, told me to get a story out of this Professor Kell and to drag you along. After we get there you are to do as judgment dictates. But I remember that the Chief was specific as regards one thing. You are to get the proff’s mug.
Don’t forget. The old fellow may growl and show fight, but it’s up to you to deliver the goods--or, in this case, get them. Don’t depend on me for help. I expect to have troubles of my own.” Thus gloomed Horace Perry, star reporter for the Journal.
“This Keegan place”--Handlon was using his eyes swiftly and comprehensively--”isn’t worth much. Can’t see how it manages to even rate a name. Some dump, all right!”
“You said a couple mouthfuls.”
“How’s the train service, if any?”
“Rotten. Two trains a day.” The other was anything but enthusiastic.
“We’ve a nice long wait for the next one, you can bet. Now, just add to that a rough reception after we reach the old lion’s lair and you get a nice idea of what Bland expects from his men.”
Handlon made a wry face at this. “The bird who first applied the words ‘Hard Boiled’ to the Chief’s monniker knew something.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” retorted Perry encouragingly. “Just wait and see what a beaut of a fit he can throw for your benefit if you fail to do your stuff--and I don’t mean maybe.”
Old Man Bland owned the Journal, hired and fired his crew and did his own editing, with the help of as capable an office gang as could be gotten together. It is quite possible that “Hard Boiled” Bland demanded more from his men than any other editor ever has before or since.
Nevertheless he got results, and none of his experienced underlings ever kicked, for the pay was right. If a hapless scribe had the temerity to enter the editorial sanctum with a negative report, the almost invariable reply had been a glare and a peremptory order, “Get the copy.”
And get it they did. If a person refused an interview these clever fellows generally succeeded in getting their information from the next most reliable source, and it arrived in print just the same.
Of such a breed was Perry. Handlon, being a more recent acquisition to the staff, was not yet especially aggressive in his work. On this account the former took keen zest in scaring him into displaying a bit more sand.
The train had disappeared around a bend and the two reporters felt themselves marooned. Keegan, without question, was a most forlorn looking spot. A dismal shanty, much the worse for weather, stood beside the track. In front, a few rotting planks proclaimed that once upon a time the place had boasted a real freight platform. Probably, back in some long-forgotten age, a station agent had also held forth in the rickety shanty. A sign hung on each end of the crumbling structure on which could still be deciphered the legend “KEEGAN.” On the opposite side of the track was an old, disused siding. The only other feature of interest thereabouts was a well traveled country road which crossed the tracks near the shanty, wound sinuously over a rock-strewn hill and became lost in the mazes of an upland forest.
There being no signboard of any kind to indicate their destination, the two, after a moment’s hesitation, started off briskly in a chance direction. The air was hot and sultry, and in the open spaces the sun beat down mercilessly upon the two hapless ones. As they proceeded into the depths of the forest they were shielded somewhat from the worst of the heat. Gradually upon their city-bred nostrils there stole the odor of conifers, accompanied by a myriad of other forest odors. Both sniffed the air appreciatively.
“This is sure the life,” remarked Perry. “If I weren’t so darn thirsty now...” He became lost in mournful thought.
A considerable time passed. The newspaper men trudged wearily along until finally another bend brought them to the beginning of a steep descent. The forest had thinned out to nothing.
“Seems to me I smell smoke,” blurted out Handlon suddenly. “Must be that we are approaching the old party’s lair. Remember? Bland said that he--”
“Uh huh!” the other grunted, almost inaudibly. Now that they seemed to be arriving at their destination something had occurred to him. He had fished from his pocket a sheaf of clippings and was perusing them intently. “Bland said, ‘Get the copy’,” he muttered irrelevantly and half to himself.
The clippings all related directly to Professor Kell or to happenings local to Keegan. Some were of peculiar interest. The first one was headlined thus:
MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF ROBERT MANION AND DAUGHTER STILL
The piece contained a description of the missing man, a fairly prosperous banker who had been seen four days previously driving through Keegan in a small roadster, and one of the girl, who was in the car with him. It told that the banker and his daughter were last seen by a farmer named Willetts who lived in a shack on the East Keegan road, fleeing before a bad thunder storm. He believed the pair were trying to make the Kell mansion ahead of the rain. Nothing more of the Manions or their car had been seen, and their personal effects remained at their hotel in a nearby village unclaimed. The heavy rain had of course effectually obliterated all wheel tracks.
Another clipping was fairly lengthy, but Perry glanced only at the headlines:
KELL STILL CARRYING ON HIS STRANGE EXPERIMENTS
Has Long Been Known to Have Fantastic Theories. Refuses to
Divulge Exact Methods Employed, or Nature of Results
Still another appeared to be an excerpt from an article in an agricultural paper. It read:
A prize bull belonging to Alton Shepard, a Keegan cattle
breeder, has created considerable sensation by running amuck in
a most peculiar manner. While seemingly more intelligent than
heretofore, it has developed characteristics known to be utterly
alien to this type of animal.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the case is the refusal
of the animal to eat its accustomed food. Instead it now
consumes enormous quantities of meat. The terrific bellow of
the animal’s voice has also undergone a marked change, now
resembling nothing earthly, although some have remarked that it
could be likened to the bay of an enormous hound. Some of its
later actions have seemingly added further canine attributes,
which make the matter all the more mystifying. Veterinaries are
asking why this animal should chase automobiles, and why it
should carry bones in its mouth and try to bury them!
The last one read in part:
Professor Kell has been questioned by authorities at Keegan
relative to the disappearance there last Tuesday of Robert
Manion and his daughter. Kell seemed unable to furnish clues of
any value, but officials are not entirely satisfied with the
man’s attitude toward the questions.
Somewhat bewildered by these apparently unrelated items, the reporter remained lost in thought for quite a space, the while he endeavored to map out his course of action when he should meet the redoubtable Professor. That many of the weird occurrences could be traced in some way to the latter’s door had evidently occurred to Bland. Furthermore, the Old Man relied implicitly upon Perry to get results.
It must be said that for once the star reporter was not overly enthusiastic with the assignment. Certain rumors aside from the clippings in his hand had produced in his mind a feeling of uneasiness.
So far as his personal preference was concerned he would have been well satisfied if some cub reporter had been given the job. Try as he would, however, he could offer no tangible reason for the sudden wariness.
He was aroused from his absorption by his companion.
“Thought I smelled smoke a while back, and I was right. That’s the house up in the edge of the pines. Deep grounds in front and all gone to seed; fits the description exactly. Thank Heaven we struck off from the station in the right direction. This stroll has been long enough. Come out of it and let’s get this job finished.”
Suiting the action to the words Handlon started off at a brisk pace down the hill, followed at a more moderate rate by Perry. At length they came within full sight of the grounds. Extending for a considerable distance before them and enclosing a large tract of land now well covered with lush grass, was a formidable looking wall. In former days a glorious mantle of ivy had covered the rough stones; but now there was little left, and what there was looked pitifully decrepit. They continued their progress along this barrier, finally coming upon a huge iron gate now much the worse for rust. It stood wide open.
The road up to the house had long since become overgrown with rank grass and weeds. Faintly traceable through the mass of green could be seen a rough footpath which the two followed carefully. They met no one. As they approached the night of black pines the mass of the old mansion began to loom up before them, grim and forbidding.
Instinctively both shivered. The silence of the place was complete and of an uncannily tangible quality. Nervously they looked about them.
“How do you like it, Skip?” The words from Perry’s previously silent lips broke upon the stillness like a thunderclap. The other started.
“I should hate to die in it,” Handlon answered solemnly. “I’ll bet the old joint is haunted. Nobody but a lunatic would ever live in it.”
“I get a good deal the same impression myself,” said Perry. “I don’t wonder that Bland sent two of us to cover the job.”
As he spoke he mounted a flight of steps to a tumbledown veranda. There was no sign of a door bell on the weather-beaten portal, but an ancient knocker of bronze hanging forlornly before him seemed to suggest a means of attracting attention. He raised it and rapped smartly.
Possessing all the attributes of the conventional reporter and a few additional ones, Perry did not allow himself to become disheartened, but merely repeated his summons, this time with more vim.
“Well, Horace,” grinned Handlon, “it does look as if we were not so very welcome here. However, seems to me if you were to pick up that piece of dead limb and do some real knocking with it ... The dear Professor may be deaf, you know, or maybe he’s--”
“Skip, my boy, I don’t know as we ought to go in right now after all. Do you realize it will soon be dark?”
“To tell you the truth, Horace, I’m not stuck on this assignment either.
And I feel that after dark I should like it even less, somehow. But, gee, the Old Man...”
“Oh, I’m not thinking of quitting on the job. We don’t do that on the Journal.” Perry smiled paternally at the photographer. Could it be he had purposely raised the other’s hopes in order to chaff him some more?
“But I was thinking that it might be a good idea to look about the outbuildings a bit while we have a little daylight. Eh?”
Handlon looked disappointed, but nodded gamely. He delayed only long enough to deposit his camera and traps behind a grossly overgrown hydrangea by the steps, then, with a resigned air, declared himself ready to follow wherever the other might lead.
Perry elected to explore the barn first. This was a depressing old pile, unpainted in years, with what had once been stout doors now swinging and bumping in the light breeze. As the two men drew nearer, this breeze--which seemed to sigh through the place at will--brought foul odors that told them the place was at least not tenantless. In some trepidation they stepped inside and stood blinking in the half darkness.
“Good God! What was that?” Handlon whispered. He knew it was no parrot’s voice. This was a far deeper sound than that, a sound louder than anything a parrot’s throat could produce. It came from the direction of a ruinous stall over near a cobwebbed window. As Perry started fearfully toward this, there issued from it a curious scraping sound, followed by a fall that shook the floor, and a threshing as of hoofs. Now the great voice could be heard again, this time uttering what sounded strangely like oaths roared out in a foreign tongue. Yet when the newspaper men reached the stall they found it occupied only by a large mule.
The animal was lying on its side, its feet scraping feebly against the side of the stall. The heaving, foam-flecked body was a mass of hideous bruises, some of which were bleeding profusely. The creature seemed to be in the last stage of exhaustion, lying with lips drawn back and eyes closed. Beneath it and scattered all over the stall floor was a thick layer of some whitish seeds.
“That’s--why that’s sunflower seed, Horace!” Handlon almost whimpered.
“And look! Look in that crib! It’s full of the same stuff! Where’s the hay, Horace? Does this thing--”
He was interrupted by a mighty movement of the beast--a threshing that nearly blinded the men in the cloud of bloodstained seeds it raised.
With something between a curse and a sob, the mule lunged at its crib as if attempting to get bodily into it. But no: it was only trying to perch on its edge! Now it had succeeded. The ungainly beast hung there a second, two, three. From its uplifted throat issued that usually innocuous phrase, a phrase now a thing of delirious horror:
With a crash the tortured creature fell to the floor, to lie there gasping and moaning.
Skip Handlon left that barn. Perry retained just enough wit to do what he should have done the instant he first saw the animal. He whipped out his automatic and fired one merciful shot. Then he too started for the outside. He arrived in the yard perhaps ten seconds behind Handlon.
“Good Heavens, Perry,” gibbered Handlon. “I’m not going to stay around this place another minute. Just let me find where I left that suffering camera, that’s all I ask.”
“Easy now.” Perry laid a hand on his companion’s shoulder. “I guess we’re up against something pretty fierce here, but we’re going to see it through, and you know it. So let’s cut out the flight talk and go raise the Professor.”
Handlon tried earnestly to don a look of determination. If Perry was set on staying here the least he could do was stay with him. However, could Perry have foreseen the events which were to entangle them, he probably would have led the race to the gate. As it was, he grasped a stick and marched bravely up toward the front door.
A sudden commotion behind him caused him to wheel sharply around.
Simultaneously a yell burst from Handlon.
“Look out, Horace!”
What he saw almost froze the blood in his veins. From a tumbledown coach house had issued an enormous wolf-hound which was now almost upon then, eyes flaming, fangs gleaming horribly.
So unexpected was the attack that both men stood rooted in their tracks.
The next moment the charging brute was upon them, and had bowled Handlon off his equilibrium as if he were a child. The unfortunate photographer made a desperate attempt to prevent injury to his precious camera, which he had but a moment earlier succeeded in retrieving, and in doing so fell rather violently to the ground. Every moment he expected to feel the powerful jaws crunch his throat, and he made no effort to rise. For several seconds he remained thus, until he could endure the suspense no longer. He glanced around only to see Perry, staring open-mouthed at the animal which had so frightened them.
Apparently it had forgotten the presence of the two men.
Handlon regained his feet rather awkwardly, the while keeping a watchful eye on the beast, of whose uncertain temper he was by now fully aware.
In an undertone he addressed his companion.
“What do you make of it?” he wanted to know. “Did the critter bite you?”
“No. That’s the queer part of it. Neither did he bite you, if you were to think it over a minute. Just put his nose down and rammed you, head on.”
The photographer was flabbergasted. Involuntarily his gaze stole again in the direction of the offending brute.
“What on earth--” he began. “Is he sharpening his teeth on a rock preparatory to another attack upon us? Or--What the deuce is he doing?”
“If you ask me,” came astonishingly from the watchful Perry, “he’s eating grass, which is my idea of something damn foolish for a perfectly normal hound, genus lupo, to be--Look out!”
The animal, as if suddenly remembering the presence of the men, suddenly charged at them again, head down, eyes blazing. As before, it made no effort to bite. Though both men were somewhat disconcerted by the great brute they held their ground, and when it presented the opportunity the older reporter planted a terrific kick to the flank which sent the animal whimpering back to its shed behind.
“Score one,” breathed Handlon. “If we--” At a sudden grating sound overhead, he stopped.
Both turned to face the threatening muzzle of an ancient blunderbuss.
Behind it was an irate countenance, nearly covered by an unclipped beard of a dirty gray color. In the eyes now glaring at them malevolently through heavily concaved spectacles they read hate unutterable. The barrel of the blunderbuss swung slightly as it covered alternately one and the other. Both sensed that the finger even now tightening on the trigger would not hesitate unduly. Being more or less hardened to rebuffs of all kinds in the pursuance of their calling, the reporters did not hesitate in stating their purpose.
“What?” yelled the old man. “You dare to invade my grounds and disturb me at my labors for such a reason? Reporters! My scientific research work is not for publicity, sirs; and futhermore I want it understood that I am not to be dragged from my laboratory again for the purpose of entertaining you or any others of your ilk. Get away!”
Without further ado the window was slammed down, a shutter closed on the inside, and once more the silence of the dead descended upon the spot.
The two men grinned ruefully at each other, Handlon finally breaking the stillness.
“My idea of the world’s original one-sided conversation. We simply didn’t talk--and yet we’re supposed to be reporters. You’ve got to hand it to the Proff, Horace, for the beautiful rock-crusher he just handed us.”
“You didn’t think we had anything easy, did you?” said Perry irritably.
“He’ll change his tune presently, when--”
Handlon’s jaw dropped. “You don’t mean you’re going to take any more chances! Would you rouse him again after the way he treated us with that gun? Besides, the train...”
Perry bent a scathing glance at his companion. “What on earth has the train to do with our getting the Professor’s confession of crime or whatever he has to offer? You evidently don’t know Bland--much. I deduce that a lot of my sweetness has been wasted on the desert air. Once more, let me assure you that if you propose to go back without the Proff’s mug on one of those plates you might as well mail your resignation from here. Get me?”
The other wilted.
“I wonder,” Perry ruminated as he stared in the direction of the shed wherein the canine monstrosity had disappeared. “Do you suppose that you can get a snap of the old boy’s mug if I can get him to the window again? If you can do that, just leave the rest to me. I’ve handled these crusty birds before. What say?”
“Go as far as you like.” The photographer was once more grinning as he unslung his camera and carefully adjusted a plate in place. Everything at last to his satisfaction he gripped flash pan and bulb.
“I’m going to make some racket now,” announced Perry grimly. “If Kell shows up, work fast. He may shoot at you, but don’t get excited. It’s almost dark, so his aim might be poor.”
At this suggestion his companion showed signs of panic, but the other affected not to notice this. There came a deafening hullaballoo as Perry beat a terrific tattoo on the ancient door. Followed a deep silence, while Perry leaped back to stand in front of Skip and his camera. After perhaps a full minute’s wait he once more opened up his bombardment, to jump quickly back to the camera as before. This time he had better success. The window was again opened and the muzzle of the blunderbuss put in its appearance. Handlon stood close behind Perry as he silently swung the camera into a more favorable position for action. The face at the window was purple with wrath.
“You damned pests! Leave my grounds at once or I shall call my hound and set him upon you. And when--”
Crack! Flash! Click! Perry had made a sudden sidewise movement as Handlon went into action.
“Much obliged, Professor,” said Perry politely. “Your pose with that old cannon is going to be very effective from the front page. The write-up will doubtless be interesting too. Probably the story won’t be quite so accurate as it would be had you told it to us yourself; but we shall get as many of the details from the natives hereabouts as we can. Good-day to you, sir!”
Motioning to the other he turned on his heel and started down the driveway. It was an old trick, and for a long moment of suspense he almost feared that it would fail. Another moment--
“Wait!” The quavering voice of the irascible old villain had lost some of its malice. “Come back here a minute.”
With simulated reluctance the two slowly retraced their steps. “Is there something else, sir?”
“Perhaps...” The old man hesitated, as if pondering upon his words.
“Perhaps if you care to step in I can be of assistance to you after all.
It occurs to me that possibly I have been too abrupt with you.”
“I am very glad that you have decided to cooperate with us, Professor Kell,” answered the reporter heartily, as they ascended the steps. The old man’s head disappeared from the window and shortly the sound of footsteps inside told of his approach. Finally the oaken door swung open, and they were silently ushered into the musty smelling hallway.
Though outwardly accepting the Professor’s suddenly pacific attitude, Perry made up his mind to be on his guard.
As they entered what had evidently been the parlor in bygone days, an oppressive, heavy odor smote their nostrils, telling of age-old carpets and of draperies allowed to decay unnoticed. On the walls hung several antique prints, a poorly executed crayon portrait of a person doubtless an ancestor of the present Kell, and one or two paintings done in oil, now badly cracked and stained. Everything gave the impression of an era long since departed, and the two men felt vaguely out of place. Their host led them to a pair of dilapidated chairs, which they accepted gratefully. The ride to Keegan after a hard day’s work had not tended to improve their spirits.
“Now to business.” Perry went straight to the point, desiring to get the interview over as soon as possible. “We have heard indirectly of various happenings in this vicinity which many think have some connection with your scientific experiments. Any statement you may care to make to us in regard to these happenings will be greatly appreciated by my paper.
Inasmuch as what little has already been printed is probably of an erroneous nature, we believe it will be in your own best interest to give us as complete data as possible.” Here he became slightly histrionic. “Of course we do not allow ourselves to take the stories told by the local inhabitants too literally, as such persons are too liable to exaggerate, but we must assume that some of these stories have partial basis in fact. Any information relative to your scientific work, incidentally, will make good copy for us also.”
Perry gazed steadily at the patriarch as he spoke. For a moment, a crafty expression passed over the old man’s face, but as suddenly it disappeared. Evidently he had arrived at a decision.
“Come with me,” he wheezed.
The two newspaper men exchanged swift glances, the same thought in the mind of each. Were they about to be led into a trap? If the old man’s shady reputation was at all deserved they would do well to be wary.
Perry thought swiftly of the clippings he had read and of what gossip he had heard, then glanced once more in the direction of Handlon. That worthy was smiling meaningly and had already arisen to follow the Professor. Reluctantly Perry got to his feet and the three proceeded to climb a rickety stairway to the third floor. The guide turned at the head of the stairs and entered a long dark corridor. Here the floor was covered with a thick carpet which, as they trod upon it, gave forth not the slightest sound.
The hall gave upon several rooms, all dark and gloomy and giving the same dismal impression of long disuse. How could the savant endure such a depressing abode! The accumulation of dust and cobwebs in these long forgotten chambers, the general evidence of decay--all told of possible horrors ahead. They became wary.
But they were not wary enough!
The uncouth figure ahead of them had stopped and was fumbling with the lock of an ancient door. Instinctively Perry noted that it was of great thickness and of heavy oak. Now the Professor had it open and was motioning for them to enter. Handlon started forward eagerly, but hurriedly drew back as he felt the grip of the other reporter’s hand on his arm.
“Get back, you fool!” The words were hissed into the ear of the incautious one. Then, to the Professor, Perry observed: “If you have no objection we would prefer that you precede us.”
A look of insane fury leaped to the face of the old man, lingered but an instant and was gone. Though the expression was but momentary, both men had seen, and seeing had realized their danger.
They followed him into the chamber, which was soon illumined fitfully by a smoky kerosene lamp. Both took a rapid survey of the place.
Conceivably it might have been the scene of scientific experiments, but its aspect surely belied such a supposition. The average imagination would instantly pronounce it the abode of a maniac, or the lair of an alchemist. Again, that it might be the laboratory of an extremely slovenly veterinary was suggested by the several filthy cages to be seen resting against the wall. All of these were unoccupied except one in a dark corner, from which issued a sound of contented purring, evidently telling of some well-satisfied cat.
The air was close and foul, being heavy with the odor of musty, decaying drugs. In every possible niche and cranny the omnipresent dust had settled in a uniform sheen of gray which showed but few signs of recent disturbance.
“Here, gentlemen,” their host was saying, “is where I carry on my work.
It is rather gloomy here after dark, but then I do not spend much time here during the night. I have decided to acquaint you with some of the details of one or two of my experiments. Doubtless you will find them interesting.”
While speaking he had, mechanically it seemed, reached for a glass humidor in which were perhaps a dozen cigars. Silently he selected one and extended the rest to the two visitors.
After all three had puffed for a moment at the weeds, the old man began to talk, rapidly it seemed to them. Perry from time to time took notes, as the old man proceeded, an expression of utter amazement gradually overspreading his face. Handlon pulled away contentedly at his cigar, and on his features there grew an almost ludicrous expression of well-being. Was the simple photographer so completely at ease that he had at length forsaken all thought of possible danger?
As Professor Kell talked on he seemed to warm to his subject. At the end of five minutes he began uncovering a peculiar apparatus which had rested beneath the massive old table before which they were sitting. The two men caught the flash of light on glass, and a jumble of coiled wires became visible.
Was the air in the laboratory getting unbearably close? Or was the queer leaden feeling that had taken possession of Perry’s lungs but an indication of his overpowering weariness? He felt a steadily increasing irritation, as if for some strange reason he suddenly resented the words of their host, which seemed to be pouring out in an endless stream. The cigar had, paradoxically, an oddly soothing quality, and he puffed away in silence.