The Mystery of the Scornful Lover
The Mystery of the Scornful Lover
"You are familiar with Cora DeComfette, Pendleton?"
I was surprised by the question. Vail had been distracted all morning, and had avoided all attempts at conversation, responding to my morning greeting at breakfast with a monosyllable grunt and lapsing into moody silence. "The celebrated performer?" I asked.
"The diva, yes."
"Well, no more familiar than anyone else, I suppose. She is quite famed for her voice." I shook my head. "But I don't think I have ever seen her perform, and I am quite certain I have never met her."
"You may get your chance," said Vail. He held up a small white letter and passed it to me. "This arrived by morning post, before you woke. What do you make of it?"
I took the letter and scanned it.
I would not impose upon your kindness, sir, but I am desperate and have nowhere else to turn. You are known as much for your discretion as for solving puzzles, and I am confronted with a delicate problem. I fear my sister may be losing her mind. I shall call on you at 2:00 this afternoon in the hope that you may be able to offer some advice on what is, for me, a dreadful and enigmatic situation.
Mlle Charlotte DeComfette
"Interesting, eh?" said Vail when I looked up.
"Mysterious, certainly," I said. "What can it mean?"
"It means that Charlotte DeComfette will be paying us a visit this afternoon," said Vail wryly. "Though if her sister has become deranged, I am at a loss as to what she expects me to do. I am hardly a doctor, to treat mental illness."
"Then you think there may be something to what she says? That Cora DeComfette may be losing her mind?"
Vail gave a slight shrug. "She is a brilliantly talented performer, by all accounts. It is not unknown for those cursed with brilliance to have certain... eccentricities. Such people are driven to excel, and often lose themselves in their work. It is not such a long step to madness."
It struck me that Vail might well be describing himself, but wisely I did not voice my thought. "Cora DeComfette is a darling of society," I pointed out. "Hardly a reclusive madman, I should think."
Vail shrugged again. "Ah, well, it is useless to speculate. Charlotte DeComfette will arrive at the appointed hour, and no doubt her enigmatic missive will be explained. Until then, let us put the matter from our minds."
* * *
The day seemed to last forever. I found myself glancing continually at the clock above the mantle, impatient at the slow progress of the hands. Occasionally I paced the length of the study, pausing by the window to glance out at the foggy street below. I could think of nothing other than the mysterious letter, and what it might mean.
Vail, however, seemed to have taken his own advice and put the matter completely out of mind. He spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon in bright spirits, busily engaged in cleaning and ordering his makeshift laboratory.
At last the appointed hour arrived, and a small but ornate hansom pulled up in front of our flat. I watched at the window as a woman exited it and made her way to our door. A moment later a knock followed.
"Our guest has arrived," said Vail. "Miss Sherington will bring her up."
A moment later and Charlotte DeComfette stood at our door.
She was a tall woman, with handsome and angular features and fair auburn hair which flowed past her shoulders. Her eyes were a startling shade of blue, and there was something in her manner which spoke of quiet determination.
"Ah, Mlle DeComfette," said Vail. "Please, come in, come in. Have a seat. May I offer you tea?"
"Thank you, no." Her voice betrayed a hint of the soft, lazy accent so common to the people of Richemulot. I had read somewhere that her family hailed from that land, as might be expected by her name.
Vail nodded. "We recieved your letter this morning," he said. "Please tell us how we may be of service."
She glanced uncertainly at me. "Mr. Vail, this is a... delicate matter."
"Should I go?" I asked.
"I assure you," said Vail, "my associate is a trustworthy man. Pendleton is a splendid fellow, and I often find his aid indispensable. You may rely upon his complete discretion."
I gave her my solemn assurance that whatever she had to say would be held in utmost confidence, and she nodded slowly.
"Now," said Vail. "Please tell us how we may aid you."
The woman collected her thoughts. "Mr. Vail, it is my sister."
"So we were given to understand in you letter."
She shook her head, and for the first time I saw that she was under an enormous strain. "I am not at all certain that you can help me, Mr. Vail. This sort of thing hardly seems your province, but I have nowhere else to turn."
Vail nodded. "Perhaps we would be best served, Mlle. DeComfette, if you would tell us exactly what is wrong."
She visibly collected herself. "I am sorry, Mr. Vail. These last few days have been... very upsetting. Cora was always such a friendly and generous person, and now..."
"When did you begin to notice changes in her?" asked Vail.
"I... I am not certain. Perhaps a week ago. I was away, visiting friends in Blackhurst. It is when I returned that I learned she was having bad dreams."
She nodded. "Yes. Poor Cora had awoken from her sleep screaming as if she were being attacked. The servants told me of it. By the time I had returned, she had already taken to locking herself in her room. At first, I thought it was only a part of her mourning."
"Her mourning?" asked Vail.
She saw our confused expressions. "I'm sorry, I should explain. Cora was engaged to marry Hilary Tilbrook. He is... was a young man from the Willoughby district. A month ago he was involved in a terrible accident and died as a result of his injuries. Of course, Cora was destroyed."
"Quite understandable," said Vail.
"Yes," said Mlle DeComfette, "and for some time after the accident, she was in grieving. I had thought she was coming out of it... she's always been a strong person..." She shook her head. "But when I returned home from my visit, it was like she was someone else. Someone I didn't know. She was pale, like she hadn't gone out in the sun in weeks, and she looked as if she hadn't eaten in days. Her eyes... Mr. Vail, her eyes were haunted, there is no other word. And her temper...
"She didn't tell me of the dreams, I learned of them from the servants. But it is more than bad dreams. She wanders the house like a ghost, and shuts herself in her room for hours at a time. She never lets anyone else in, and I hear strange noises from it at night. I think... I think she has taken to sleeping during the day, though I don't know why.
"And there is something else, something worse." She lowered her voice. "Cora believes she has seen Hilary."
"A ghost?" asked Vail, sitting up in his chair.
Mlle DeComfette shook her head. "She claims he comes to her in her dreams. If it is a ghost or not... I do not know. She only spoke of it once, when I first returned. She asked me if I believed in life after death. I told her I didn't know.
"'He comes to me in my sleep,' she said. 'I fear for my sanity.' She wouldn't speak of it further, but since then... Mr. Vail, last night I saw her in the graveyard after dark, visiting his grave. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks. She stood there, like a ghost in the mist, wearing only her nightgown."
"Yes, we have a small family cemetary on the grounds. Cora requested that Hilary be buried on it, even though they were never married. Hilary's family agreed to it, feeling it was what he would have wanted."
"I see," said Vail. "Please, go on."
"I confronted her about it when she returned to the house and she flew into a rage, accusing me of spying on her. 'You were always jealous of me,' she said, 'You hated Hilary because you couldn't have him!'"
Tears formed in the poor woman's eyes. "I was shocked, Mr. Vail. Cora has never spoken to me like that, never. It isn't like her. I love my sister, Mr. Vail, but I have no idea what I should do. So I came to you, in hope that... in hope that you might have some advice for me."
My heart went out to the poor lady, for I could see the pain in her eyes. I felt pity, too, for from her description it did not sound like the sort of case Vail would take.
"I fear," said Vail, "that I have no advice to offer. While there are certain points of interest in your narrative, it is impossible to make any conclusion based solely on the little you have said. More first-hand evidence is required."
Her face fell. "Then you can do nothing, Mr. Vail?"
Vail's next words astonished me. "On the contrary, we will do everything in our power. I believe that your sister is in greater peril than you know. It may be her soul, and not merely her mind, that is in danger."
Relief flooded the woman's face. "You will help me, then?"
Vail nodded, rising. "We will do what we can. However, that may be precious little." He moved to his desk and rifled through his papers. "There are striking similarities..." he muttered, then looked up. "I must ask for specific details on Hilary Tilbrook's death."
Mlle DeComfette's face paled. "You think then, that there may be some unnatural agency at work?"
"It is impossible to be certain, but I very much suspect it," said Vail. "But please, how did he die?"
"Hilary was an active young man, almost... reckless. He had many passions, all of which were dangerous to one degree or another. Two months ago an expedition to scale Mt. Gries was organized - an expedition of ten men. He volunteered to join it. They did practice runs on the Briaden Ledges - you know, outside Sedgewick. It was during one of these routine climbs that tragedy struck. Hilary... lost his hold, slipped and fell."
"Surely he was tethered to the other members of the expedition?" asked Vail, surprised.
She nodded. "He was, but the knot was poorly tied, and the rope parted. He only fell about forty feet before striking an outlying ledge, but it was enough."
"You said he died as a result of his injuries," said Vail. "He was not dead, then, by the time they reached him?"
Again the woman nodded. "He was alive, and conscious, though he knew he was dying. In fact, he dictated a letter to Cora."
"Indeed?" Vail seemed to take this as a particular point of interest.
"Yes, it was delivered to her after the tragedy, and read later, at the funeral."
"Hum! I don't suppose there is any chance I might see it?"
Mlle DeComfette looked taken aback by the question. "Cora has it, of course. She guards it jealously. If you can talk her into surrendering it to you... It is simply a letter, much what one would expect from a dying man. He wanted her to know that he loved her, and would always love her; that he was sorrowful that he would not live to see their wedding day."
"Never mind, never mind," said Vail. "Please continue. You were saying that Tilbrook was alive when they found him."
"Yes, that's right. His injuries were very serious, but not mortal. Unfortunately, by the time the team managed to get him off the mountain, his condition had worsened. He died before they reached medical help."
Vail nodded distractedly. I saw that he had found what he was looking for, a small leatherbound notebook. I recognized it as one of Dr. Van Richten's treatises, though I could not tell which it was. He opened it and began turning pages, looking for something.
Mlle DeComfette glanced at me, surprised by Vail's sudden silence. I gave her a reassuring look. "Vail does this from time to time," I murmured in quiet explanation.
She looked back at him, and nodded slowly.
"Hmm," he said, his expression grim. "Yes... striking." Abruptly he looked up, slamming the notebook closed. "You live in the Blackhurst district, of course."
She was surprised at the statement. "The family estate is there, yes... but how could you know that?"
"It was the return address on the letter you sent," said Vail. "That would be an hour's ride from here by carriage, yes?"
"Good. You will return immediately, and Pendleton and I will follow. There are a few things I must collect before we set out, but we will arrive before dark."
"You will come to the manor then? Will you be staying the night?"
"Indeed," said Vail, "though there is no need to prepare a guest room. Rather, you should prepare your sister for our coming, for I must speak with her. Most likely she will refuse to see us, but you must try."
"I will do what I can," said Mlle DeComfette, "though after our argument last night, I cannot think that she will listen to me."
"You must try," said Vail. "If this is as serious as I think, it may mean the difference between life and death for her. And only she can save herself."
* * *
"I must confess, Vail," I admitted after the woman left, "that I am surprised."
Vail gave me a wry grin. "At what, Pendleton? That I would take a case such as this, which appears, on the surface at least, to be wholly unsuitable for my methods?"
"Well, yes, quite frankly. It hardly seems in your line."
He had been reading through the treatise again, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace. He closed it now, and tucked it under one arm. "We shall see, Pendleton, we shall see. It may be that you are right. There is too little data yet to be certain, but I have a suspicion..." He shook his head. "We must pay a visit to the eminent Dr. Kaufen, and retrieve a very special item he has procured in his collection. He owes a favor, and is a good enough fellow, so I have no doubt that he will loan it for our use in this good cause."
He took his cloak from the coatstand, and turned to me. "Well Pendleton, are you game?"
"Of course," I said, reaching for my own coat and cane, invigorated by his sudden energy. "I should like nothing better."
* * *
It was late afternoon when our hansom pulled up in front of the DeComfette estate, and lazy red sunlight stretched across the drive, making the shadows of the stately house and surrounding trees twist in an unsettling way. I had never seen a sunset in this part of the country before, and I was struck by how breathtaking it was, and yet sinister at the same time. The rich light played across the golden-brown leaves of the trees (the season was autumn) and a light breeze stirred the branches.
The house itself was elegant and maintained; a white-washed three-story structure with a grand set of steps leading up to a spacious portico supported by four white pillars. It looked very much the sort of place one would expect a social darling to dwell, and I could easily imagine lines of carriages pulling up in front, discharging finely-dressed gentlemen and ladies for elegant parties and gatherings.
Vail stepped out and looked about as if he hardly noticed the grandness of the house. "Ah, there it is," he said, and my eyes followed his gaze.
Half hidden behind the corner of the manse, and some distance away, was a small family cemetary. There were a smattering of tombstones and monuments, surrounded by a square irongrill fence.
Mlle DeComfette had apparently been anxiously awaiting our arrival, for no sooner had we emerged from the carriage then she came hurrying down the steps to meet us. From her drawn expression I could tell that she bore no good news.
"Mr. Vail, she has shut herself in her room," she said as she drew near. "She refuses even to answer my knock, though I have tried to get some response all afternoon. I do not know what to do, or how to coax her from her chamber."
Vail nodded as if this was expected. "I had hoped against hope... Never mind; we shall coax her forth. Pendleton, you have the box?"
I nodded. In my hands I held a small flat wooden box, ten inches long, four inches wide, and no more than three inches thick. It was the thing which Vail had taken from Dr. Kaufen, and it had ridden on the seat between us all the way from Mordentshire. I did not know what was inside it, but it was heavy for something so small, and I handled it carefully. Dr. Kaufen had an extensive collection of exotic, valuable, and - in some cases - magical items, and I knew that whatever it was, it would be priceless and irreplaceable.
"Good. I have the feeling that before the evening is done, we will have pressing need of its contents." Vail was again looking towards the small graveyard.
"Shall I take you to her chamber, Mr. Vail?" asked Mlle DeComfette.
"Not just yet, Mlle," said Vail. "I think it best if I had a look at that cemetary first."
"The... cemetary?" The woman was taken aback, and glanced at me in confusion, as if to gain some explanation. I shrugged helplessly. Vail's actions were often dark to me.
"Yes," said Vail. "It may well accomplish two tasks at once." He looked back to Mlle DeComfette. "You need not accompany us, Mlle. We will find our own way."
"It would be best if you were not present," said Vail decisively. "You must trust me on that. We will rejoin you after our visit."
"Of course, Mr. Vail," she said faintly, backing off a step. "I shall await you in the house."
"Come Pendleton," said Vail, striding off, "don't dawdle."
I hastened to keep abreast of him. "Vail," I said, once the woman was out of earshot, "what purpose did you have in speaking to that poor woman so?"
A smile quirked at his lips. "You will think me rude, no doubt. I have my reasons. Has it not occurred to you that she stands to gain if her sister is driven mad?"
"That lovely creature?" I asked, taken back.
He glanced at me in surprise. "It is not my experience that 'loveliness' is a sign of virtue. Indeed, some of the most diabolical minds I have encountered during my career were attached to an attractive face."
"But surely you cannot believe-"
"Actually, Pendleton, since you mention it, I do not believe she has anything to do with her sister's madness. But that is for reasons unrelated to her comeliness. Ah!"
He was standing at the wrought-iron gate leading into the cemetary. "Just as I thought." In a moment he had worked the mechanism and swung the knee-high gate wide. I stepped through after him.
Within were a few small plots and gravestones. It was to one of these that Vail had directed his attention.
It was a rectangular plot, a marble stone laid flat into the ground so that it stood only a few inches above the soil. It was three and a half feet in width and six feet in length. There was no headstone, but carved into the marble was the inscription:
Hilary Tilbrook 737 - 761
"Farewell, Noble Friend"
Honor in Life and Death
That it was a recent addition to the cemetary was evidenced by the whiteness of the marble, and the fact that the surrounding grass and soil had not enchroached upon it. And laid carefully across it in different places were several curious items. At the head of the marble had been placed a small mirror, and an identical mirror had been laid at the foot. There were three different bundles of some sort of vegetable... garlic, I realized, leaning forward to look closer, wreaths of garlic. And scattered over the rest of the marble surface were shiny metal objects of different shapes, two of which I recognized as holy symbols.
"What do you make of it, Pendleton?" asked Vail. "Not the sort of things one would expect to be laid on a grave, eh?"
"Strange," I admitted. "Holy symbols, garlic... mirrors?"
"All items commonly held to possess warding powers over the undead," said Vail. "But, of course, this would not have been effective..."
"But why should she have laid these items over the grave of a loved one?" I asked.
"Plainly she fears something. Perhaps that an unclean spirit has gained possession of his body."
I glanced over my shoulder towards the house and started. In one of the upper windows, a pale oval face was framed, staring malevolently out at us. The ghostly visage was gone in an instant, leaving me wondering if my eyes were playing tricks. "Vail!"
"Yes, Pendleton," he said, unperterbed. "I saw. No doubt she will be down in a moment. There is nothing so offensive as seeing a stranger violate a loved one's resting place." He was bending over the marble, carefully running his fingers along its edges, looking for cracks or hinges. After a moment's examination, he stood. "No levers or hinges, or any other way of lifting the marble, and the soil around the grave has not been disturbed. And there are no cracks in the marble, no sign that anything has forced its way through from below."
"You thought that perhaps Tilbrook was able to rise from the grave, then?"
"I would not have discounted it," said Vail, "though I admit I had not expected it. It was as well to be certain."
"You!" a woman's voice cried from behind us, and I whirled. A woman had appeared at the rear entrance to the house, and was storming down the path towards us, outraged. "Who are you? What are you doing here? Come away from there! This is private property!"
I had never before met Cora DeComfette, and I was struck immediately by her great beauty. Unlike her sister, she had raven black hair which swept past her shoulders, accompanied by piercing emerald eyes. Her face was classically beautiful, and she was taller than I had expected. At the best of times she must have been a magnificent beauty, but it was plain that she had recently been under some great stress, for there were dark circles under her eyes, which were also red-rimmed, and she was pale as a ghost, with blue veins showing through the skin in some places. She looked as if she had neither eaten nor slept in several days.
"Mlle Cora DeComfette, I presume?" said Vail calmly. "I am Hector Vail, and this is my associate, Col. Oliver Pendleton. We are here at your sister's behest."
"My sister is a fool," she said coldly. "And if you allowed her to bring you here, the you are fools as well. I'll thank you to leave our cemetary in peace, and be on your way."
Vail bowed. "Come along, Pendleton. We've seen all we need to see here."
I followed him out of the graveyard and onto the little path, where we stood facing the furious woman.
"I apologize," said Vail. "We did not wish to cause you distress. I assure you we had no intention of disturbing your fiancee's grave. By all accounts he was a noble young man, and I am sorry for his loss."
For a moment she was silent, a mixture of anger and grief playing across her features. "You know nothing of him," she said at last.
"I know that he comes to visit you in the night," said Vail.
She stared at him. "My sister told you," she said at last. "She thinks I am going mad."
Vail nodded. "But I do not. I fear there is an evil and dangerous agency at work. It is why I have come, in hopes of giving aid."
She shook her head, a haunted look coming into her eyes. "There is nothing you can do... nothing anyone can do."
"Let me try," said Vail. "I have some experience in these matters. I beg of you, do not turn us away."
She stared from one of us to the other, her eyes measuring. "I am tired... so tired. Yes... yes, if you can help me..." a desperate tone crept into her voice. "I don't know what to do."
* * *
"It began two weeks after Hilary's accident," began Cora. The words came slowly, haltingly, as if she were unsure how to begin.
We were in the sitting room, a small fire blazing on the hearth. Cora was sitting on a plushly-appointed armchair, her slender white knuckles gripping the chair's arms. Across from her, Vail leaned forward on a settee, listening attentively. Her sister stood nearby, wringing her hands worriedly and uncertain whether she should be present. I had taken up position next to Vail and listened as Cora shared her story.
"I was... grieved by his passing. I loved him, of course, and it seemed so unfair that he was torn from me so suddenly..." she shook her head. "But then, he came to me..."
"Yes," said Vail. "You must tell us."
Her eyes filled with tears. "At first, I thought it was only a dream... Hilary came to me, you see. He was alive, in my dream, and... he said he wanted to talk to me. I thought he might have come from the other side, just to be near me..." A single tear crept down her cheek, and she brushed it away. "I was so lonely, I missed him so much."
Vail nodded sympathetically. "And he appeared to comfort you."
She shook her head. "No! He appeared to torment me. His words... Mr. Vail, I cannot describe them. They were filthy; obscene. And he accused me, accused me of his death! He said he blamed me; that it was my fault, and that he had nothing but hatred and scorn for me."
She gave a little half-sob. "Hilary was a good man. I loved him, Mr. Vail, I loved him with all my heart - you must believe that. I don't understand what could make him hate me so."
"Calm yourself," said Vail gently. "I assure you, it is not your fiancee that visits you, but a foul creature that seeks to feed upon your weakness. Please, go on."
She gave a small nod, wiping at her tears, and regained some of her composure. "I thought it was only a nightmare, that first time... a horrible nightmare. But then he came again... and again... And the dreams became more and more real, until they did not seem like dreams at all. He would suddenly appear at my bedside, bending over me, whispering those horrible words... and he seemed to take utter delight in causing me pain!" She shook her head. "I tried to stay awake, after that third night. But it was as if an evil spell overcame me, and I dreamed again.
"When I woke, I found that I was more desperately tired then when I went to sleep - these nightmares afforded me no rest, and each day it seemed a little more of my vitality was drained away." She shot us an uncertain look. "I... checked myself, Mr. Vail. For puncture wounds."
Vail nodded. "You thought perhaps it was a vampire."
"Yes. But I found nothing, no sign. Still, I had become convinced that Hilary had somehow managed to come back from the dead. I... I tried to take steps to keep him in his grave."
Again Vail nodded. "We saw the garlic and mirrors. Such things would not have affected the creature that haunts you, not if it is what I think."
She paused a moment before going on. "I... I could not rest. I desperately needed sleep. I began to have hallucinations. I lashed out at the servants, at my family." She glanced at her sister, sorrow etched in her eyes. "I began sleeping during the day. Hilary... the creature, it would only visit me at night."
"Yes, of course," said Vail.
"I would sleep during the day, snatching what rest I could, but at night I would try to maintain a vigil; to keep myself awake. Sometimes I succeeded. Other times exhaustion overcame me... and he would visit again."
Vail shook his head. "I do not believe that he came only in your dreams, not this creature. No, it would take physical form. What does he look like when he visits?"
Cora thought about the question. "Exactly as Hilary did in life. Perhaps... perhaps even better, for he is healthy and strikingly attractive, at least in the dreams. But his eyes... his eyes are hard and cruel, and his lips are twisted into an evil smile."
"Does he wear gloves? Boots? Is there any part of his body he tries to hide from you?"
"No," she said after a pause, "no, I don't think so. Though I don't really pay attention - his face draws all my attention. Gloves? No, no gloves. But boots... perhaps. Yes, perhaps he does wear boots, at that."
Vail nodded, a thoughtful look in his eye. I know Vail rather well, and it seemed to me that her answer was not what he had expected. "He always visits you in your chamber?"
She started to nod, then checked herself. "Once, when I was trying to remain awake, I fell asleep in this very room, and he visited me here."
"Strange," said Vail, almost to himself. It seemed to me that again he had recieved an answer he had not expected.
There was a pause, and Cora spoke again. "What is it that plagues me, Mr. Vail? How can I stop these terrible nightmares?"
Vail shook himself from his reverie. "We shall sit vigil with you this very night, in your chambers. If I am correct, it will manifest itself again, and, with luck, we shall destroy it. Make no mistake, you are in great peril. The thing that plagues you is a powerful creature, and seeks nothing less than the consumption of your very soul."
* * *
Cora DeComfette's chamber was grand and spacious, with a high ceiling and a broad window which faced out towards the graveyard. There was a gigantic four-poster bed, and two different armchairs to either side of the fireplace, each tall-backed and grand. An elegant writing desk stood near the window, and not far off stood a small piano, with some papers scattered across its top. Hanging from the walls were an assortment of paintings, all excellent, interspersed with various exotic objects, some of which I recognized as musical instruments from far-off lands.
As for the fireplace, it was a large marble affair, a mantel and mirror hanging over, and a stand of ornate pokers and bellows standing next to it. It was unlit, and the room was quite chilly when we entered.
Vail entered first, and bid the rest of us stay back. After a few minutes of examining the room, during which he checked the window, floors, fireplace, and even the space under the bed and piano, he stood with a sigh.
"Come in," he said at length. "I can find no sign that anyone other than Mlle Cora has been here. I had not really expected there would be, but..." His voice had held a puzzled note to it, I thought. He rubbed his arms. "It is quite brisk in here. We could do with some warmth. Pendleton, would you be so good?"
At Vail's instruction, I left to gather firewood from where it was stacked outside the house. As I stepped outside, I found it was later than I had thought. The sun had vanished, and the last stages of twilight were giving way to night. The sky was cold and clear, with stars twinkling faintly, and a half moon had already appeared. A chill took me, for the temperature had dropped somewhat, and I bundled my coat around me as I went for the firewood.
Upon returning to Cora's chamber, I found that her sister had vanished. When I asked, Vail explained that he had sent her away. "If I am right, the creature we face is very dangerous," he said. "Bad enough that we must expose Cora to risk; there is no need for her sister to be put in danger as well."
At Vail's hinting of danger, I checked the pistol I had brought, making certain it was loaded and in good order, ready for action.
"You have your pistol, I see," said Vail. "Good. Likely it will afford us no protection against the creature we face, but it is best to be prepared."
"Mr. Vail," asked Cora. "What do we do now?"
"We wait," said Vail, moving to the window and looking out. "Full dark is almost upon us. The creature may appear at any hour after it falls. We shall have to exercise patience. Pendleton, you have the box?"
I told him that I did, and at his request, I turned it over to him.
"What is that?" asked Cora, as Vail nimbly undid the clasp.
He folded back the top to reveal an obsidian-black stone dagger, worked with strange markings and runes. He removed it from its resting place in the box, hefting the weight in his hands. "It is a very special weapon," he said. "It even has a name; Nythic-senshai, though that probably means nothing to you. It has a history... a very long history. It is imbued with terrible power... some might even call it evil. But it will aid us in the slaying of this creature."
Gently Vail placed it back in its box, and closed the lid.
Cora took a seat in one of the armchairs, while I busied myself with starting the fire. "Should I... Do I have to sleep?" she asked.
Vail shook his head. "Better if you do not," he said. "It should make no difference. The creature will appear either way."
She nodded, relieved.
* * *
It was a long evening we spent that night. Hour after hour dragged on in silence. I had taken up position on the second armchair, and Vail stood by the window, occasionally glancing out in the direction of the cemetary.
Hardly a word was spoken between us, and for the most part the only sound was the light crackling from the fireplace as the logs were consumed, mixed with the eery sound of the wind playing across the window panes, making the branches of a nearby tree scrabble against the side of the house.
There was a small clock mounted on the far wall, and it ticked off the seconds somberly, making a soft chime whenever the half-hour or hour mark was passed.
The quiet did little to put me at ease. Indeed, as the evening stretched on, I found myself nervously eyeing the shadows, half-expecting them to materialize into some fiend. I did not know what manner of creature we faced, but if Vail thought it dangerous enough to warrant such a weapon as that black dagger, I was not anxious to face it. Occasionally I would rise from the chair, and make a quick circuit of the room, as much to relieve my nervousness by pacing as to check the shadows for hidden dangers.
For his part, Vail seemed calmly patient. Occasionally he would move from his place at the window, but never far, and from time to time he would glance at the clock. He had the box tucked under one arm, and I held my pistol in my lap.
Cora seemed to lose herself in the dancing flames of the fireplace. Her haunted gaze seemed to look far beyond the fire, though, as if she were lost in another world. More than once I wondered whether she would respond if I spoke. But I thought better of trying. For some reason the silence seemed threatening, as if something malevolent being would appear if I broke it.
The hours dragged by.
Vail expression darkened as the time passed, until eventually he began showing signs of impatience. He began to pace the room, glancing at the clock from time to time, and halting at the window, looking up towards the nightime sky. Twice he removed the black dagger from its case, handling it carefully before placing it back. "Should have appeared by now," I overheard him mutter once, as he glanced towards the clock. "Something is wrong."
But the night dragged on without incident, and the darkness outside the window began to lighten with the coming dawn.
A quiet snore drew my attention to Cora, and I realized she had dozed off. I reached out a hand to wake her, but Vail shook his head.
"Let her sleep, Pendleton," he said, his voice tinged with disappointment. "It is nearly dawn. She is in no danger."
"You think then, that the creature will not appear?"
His voice was tired. "No. Not tonight."
There was a timid knock at the door. Vail didn't stir from his place at the window, and Cora was still asleep, so I got up to answer it.
It was her sister, dressed in nightgown and robe. She peered in warily. "Is everyone alright?" she asked. "I couldn't sleep a wink for worry. I kept waiting to hear the sounds of struggle."
"There was no manifestation," I said quietly.
"No manifestation?" she asked. "Then-"
"It was an uneventful evening," said Vail, still staring out the window. His back was to me, but I could hear the disappointment in his voice, and plainly see his despondancy in the set of his shoulders. "Apparently... I was incorrect in my assumptions. I do not know how I could have been so wrong." He lapsed into silence again.
Charlotte looked at him, then back to me, a worried look in her eyes. "Then... what of my sister's nightmares?"
I stood aside so that she could see her sister. "She had none," I said. "Not last night, anyway."
She entered and went to her sister, laying a hand on her forehead. Cora's eyes fluttered open at the touch. "It's morning," she said, looking about the room confused. "I don't remember... is it over?"
Vail shook his head grimly. "Your ghostly fiancee did not appear."
"Then... then I am not rid of these nightmares?" she sounded on the verge of sobbing.
"I fear," said Vail, still not turning from his place, "that I may have been wrong. The very real possibility exists that I cannot help you."
Charlotte enfolded her sister in her arms as Cora began to weep.
* * *
We did not leave the DeComfette residence. Instead, at the older sister's request, we stayed.
Vail assured them both that he would stay until he had exhausted every possibility of giving aid. But I knew from his tone of voice that he was not hopeful.
He was distant and despondent all morning, refusing breakfast and sulking quietly in the sitting room, spending hours staring into the fire.
Around midday he roused himself, and without a word went outside. I watched from the window as he re-examined the graveyard, slowly and carefully looking for anything he might have missed. He then made his way around the yard, searching every foot around the house. I could tell by his expression that his search was fruitless.
Towards evening, he made his way back into the house, and, with the sisters' permission, began a careful examination of every room, starting with Cora's. For several hours he moved through the house like a ghost, scrutinizing every corner.
"What is he doing, Col. Pendleton?" Charlotte asked me.
I was forced to shrug. "He's looking for something... anything."
At last Vail returned to the sitting room. "Nothing," he said sourly, staring into the flames again. "Not one clue. Pendleton, I am helpless. I came here with certainty that I knew what was plaguing her and how to fight it... but there is nothing."
"Mr. Vail," said Charlotte, appearing at the doorway, "Cora has fallen asleep in the study. Should I wake her? Will you be keeping vigil again tonight?"
Vail was silent for a moment. "We will stand vigil," he said at last. "Leave her where she is for now; let her slumber. I cannot see that it will harm her, and she needs the rest. Later we will move her up to her chamber."
She nodded, and left us alone.
"Perhaps," I said, trying to cheer him, "it will appear tonight, this creature you speak of. It may be that it only comes every other night."
Vail shook his head. "Did her nightmares come every other night? Did her visitations come every other night? No, it would have appeared. It is part of its nature. All the signs seemed to point towards it... How could I have been so wrong?"
"Perhaps," I said hesitantly, "perhaps there is no outside force at work here at all. As you said before, brilliant people are often under tremendous strain. It could be that she is losing her grip on reality. Perhaps the explanation is as simple as that. There is a saying in the medical profession, I am told. 'When first you see hoofprints, think horses; not zebras.'"
Vail had been listening in silence, but suddenly he shot up from his chair as if struck by lightning. "Pendleton!" he cried, clapping a hand to his head. "My god, what a fool I have been! What time is it?" He was already racing towards the window.
"Perhaps a half-hour past dark," I stammered, surprised by his sudden excitement. "Why?"
"Quickly!" he shouted, racing for the hall. "The gods send we are not too late! Oh, I am a fool, a fool!"
I leaped to my feet, racing after him. The urgency of his voice compelled me to fumble my pistol from my coat.
The hall bent at a right angle into darkness, and dim light spilled from the doorway which led to the study. Vail dashed through it and into the room beyond with me hard on his heels.
"There!" he cried, pointing across the room. "You see it, Pendleton? You see it!"
Across the room, slumped backwards in an armchair, was Cora DeComfette, eyes closed in sleep, but beads of sweat on her brow. Her lips writhed, and her body jerked and twisted as if she were in great pain. Above her, leaning down over the chair from behind, was a... thing.
Roughly humanoid in shape, it appeared in form to be constructed entirely of shadow. Indeed, the corner of the room where it lurked was noticeably dimmer than the rest, as if it somehow absorbed the light. One shadowy 'hand' was laid atop the woman's brow, and the creature had its own head thrown back in an expression of ecstasy.
"My God Vail!" I cried as I stared at the scene with a mixture of horror and disbelief. "What is it?" Instinctively I raised my pistol and fired.
My aim was true, but the bullet passed through the creature without effect and with a crack struck the wall behind it, scoring a deep mark in the wood.
"Stay back Pendleton!" ordered Vail, leaping forward. The black dagger had appeared in his hands. "Don't let it touch you!"
The creature appeared to have taken no notice of us, so absorbed was it in its horrifying feeding. Vail reached Cora in two bounds, and swung the dagger in an arc that connected with the creature's body just where its heart would have been (if such a thing could have a heart).
There was a terrible grating shriek that blasted the room, and I was forced to clap my hands to my ears or be deafened.
The black dagger slammed home as if it had struck solid flesh, and the creature spasmed, shrieking in agony and letting go its hold on Cora. It leaped backwards, away from Vail, nearly tearing the dagger from his grip.
Vail maintained his hold, though, and the dagger pulled free from the shadow monster's flesh. It backed swiftly away from Vail, moving like an injured animal.
At that moment, Charlotte appeared in the second doorway, which connected the study to the kitchens.
"Back!" cried Vail in warning, but the poor woman could only gape in horror. The creature darted forward, speeding towards her.
Vail tried to leap into its path, but it was too quick. In an instant it had reached Charlotte.
The woman reflexively took a step backwards, as if to flee, but the creature was upon her. It spread its arms as it dove down on her, and I expected her to be bowled to the ground from the fierceness of its attack.
Instead, the shadow thing passed comletely through her, emerging on the other side. For her part, Charlotte's mouth opened in a silent scream as it passed through, and her muscles stiffened as if she had been doused in icewater.
Her eyes rolled wildly in their sockets, and for a moment she stood quaking. Then, with a snarl, she leaped towards me.
Utterly surprised by her actions, I scarcely had a moment to throw up my hands defensively before she was on me, clawing and grasping for my throat with fingers filled with mad purpose and supernatural strength. I fell to the floor before her unexpected and furious attack, the pistol slipping from my hands.
"Hold her, Pendleton!" cried Vail. "Don't allow her to hurt herself!"
His advice was all very well, but at the moment I was hard pressed to keep her from hurting me, much less herself. Spittle leaked from the corner of her lips and a wild light lit her eyes. She snarled and grunted gutterally as she clawed deep scores in my throat.
Fighting wildly, I seized her wrists and, using all my strength, managed to force her hands from my face and throat. She squirmed in my grip, and I felt a dull rush of pain as she kneed me in the abdomen. I fought to keep my breath and my hold on her.
Occupied as I was, I lost all sight of what the creature was doing. From my peripheral vision I saw motion and heard the sounds of furniture being thrown aside, but I could not tell whether it was the creature's actions or Vail's.
There was an unearthly, deafening roar of hate and rage. So horrifying was it that my skin was prickled. It was a sound that no human throat could ever create.
Then, abruptly, there was silence. At the same moment, Charlotte went limp in my arms, collapsing against me as if she were dead.
Quickly I rolled her off of me and lay her to the side.
Vail stood panting near an overturned bookshelf, a cut on his forehead leaking blood. In his hands was clutched the black dagger. Of the creature there was no sign.
"You are alright, Pendleton?" he asked.
I took stock of myself. I was bruised and scratched, but unhurt. I nodded. "The... creature?" I asked.
"Destroyed," said Vail.
I bent over Charlotte DeComfette, concerned. She was breathing lightly, but her eyes were closed.
"She will recover momentarily," said Vail, seeing my worry. He moved quickly to Cora's side. "It is Cora who is in real peril. The creature was draining her life force. If we cannot wake her, she may well be lost to us."
I sat up. Indeed, it did appear that something was terribly wrong with her. She lay slumped on her side, utterly still, her eyes closed. From where I was I could not tell whether she was even breathing. "Does she live?" I asked.
Vail put a pair of fingers to her throat, a worried frown on his face. "She has a pulse," he said. "And she is breathing. Perhaps there is some hope that I have not botched this case beyond repair."
Gently he placed a palm to her cheek and gave her a light shake. She didn't stir.
He tried again, and this time her eyes fluttered open. "What... ?" she muttered, looking around the room through bleary eyes. "How-?"
"Shhh," said Vail gently. "It's over. You need fear your dreams no longer."
But her eyes had closed already, and her breathing became steady and even.
Vail gave me a triumphant smile. "Ah, Pendleton, we are very fortunate," he said, immensely relieved. "My stupidity did not result in tragedy."
* * *
"A bastellus, Pendleton," said Vail. "It was a bastellus. A creature half of this world and half of another." He gave a rueful shake of his head. "What a fool I was to overlook the possibility."
We were back in our flat in Mordentshire. I was stretched out in the armchair, sipping a cup of hot tea that Miss Sherington had made. Vail was standing at his desk, surveying the papers and treatises scattered across it, scowling. A small bandage was wound around his head. "It was your remark that put me back on track, Pendleton."
"What remark was that?" I asked.
"The one about hoofprints. You see, I was so busy looking for a zebra, I forgot to consider the possibility of a horse."
"I don't understand."
Vail waved it away. "I fell prey to pride, Pendleton. When Charlotte DeComfette told us of her sister's problem, I immediately formed a conclusion as to what type of monster was plaguing her. And then, when conflicting evidence appeared, I was so set in my conclusion that I did not consider it. When Cora said that her fiancee tormented her rather than comforted her, I should have recognized immediately that I was on the wrong track."
"But what do you mean,Vail?"
Vail smiled, and lifted one of the leatherbound notebooks from the desk. "Dr. Van Richten's Treatise on Ghosts," he said. "The bastellus is mentioned herein, though it is a matter of some debate whether it should technically be classified as a ghost. Also mentioned herein is the 'Phantom Lover', a unique spirit of incredible power."
"The 'Phantom Lover'?" I asked. "I have never heard of it."
"It is a spirit that appears to the recently bereaved wearing the form of their lost loved one. Often, it makes its home in a nearby graveyard. You see the similarity?"
"It is striking," I admitted.
"Yes, but the Phantom Lover would never accuse a victim of betrayal, or try to torment her. The Phantom Lover is a very powerful spirit, but it has no power that the victim does not give to it. The victim must receive it with open arms. The Phantom Lover will comfort the victim, pretending to be her lost love. Night by night he will return to her, slowly draining her life essence and vitality away. Eventually she will so fall under his spell that she will follow him into his realm, into the graveyard. Once she does this, she is lost forever. Truly a horrifying creature. It preys upon the weakness and beauty of the human heart."
I nodded. "Striking similarities to the DeComfette case," I said. "You can hardly be blamed for confusing the two."
"Can't I?" There was a bitter twist to Vail's lips. "The evidence was there; it was I who refused to see it, blinded by my pride. If not for your comment, Mlle DeComfette could have been slain. The bastellus is a dangerous creature in its own right - a thing composed of living shadow that feeds upon the nightmares of its victims. The Phantom is a physical creature. I assumed, in my pride, that Cora DeComfette had blurred the line between reality and dreams; that she was being physically visited by her dead lover. But in truth, her dead lover was the product of nightmares forced on her by the bastellus.
"There were many times when I should have been alerted to my folly. The Phantom Lover has one small defect - no matter how much he may resemble her lover, one hand or foot will be misshapen and deformed, blackened and lizardlike. Yet Cora described no such deformity. I assumed perhaps the lover had hidden it with a boot or glove. But Cora recalled specifically that he wore no gloves, and did not remember boots. Again I assumed the fault was in her recollection, rather than taking it as evidence that my conclusion was wrong.
"Also, the Phantom Lover can manifest for only an hour at most, but must come every night. The bastellus can only feed on unconscious victims, and will never manifest if there are other conscious beings present. So of course it didn't appear the night we kept vigil.
"And the ultimate clue was simply the nightmares themselves. The Phantom Lover doesn't cause nightmares. Quite the contrary, he engenders a feeling of love and security in his victims - often, they will not admit his existance, and will protect him at all costs."
Vail shook his head. "No, Pendleton, this was not one of my triumphs. If there is a hero to this story, it is you. Your innocent comment struck me like a thunderclap. Here I had been looking for a unique apparition, when all the time it was something far more common. The bastellus, incidentally, is a very rare creature, but not unique by any stretch."
"Ah well," I said, trying to cheer him. "After all, the creature is destroyed, and Cora DeComfette is free of its curse, safe once more."
Vail sighed, lighting his pipe. "Yes, thank heaven for that. Pendleton, the next time I get arrogant and condescending, kindly remind me of this case. It will do wonders for my humility."