The Door with Seven Locks

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Chapter 25

SHE COULD see nothing. Fighting like a tiger to free herself, her other hand passed through the bars and caught a wild tangle of beard.

'Hush!" The voice was deep, sepulchral. "I will not harm you if you tell me what you do here."

It was human, at any rate, more human than the thing that had been chasing her.

"I am Sybil - Lansdown," she gasped. "I came down here to get away from - a horrible - -"

"So!" The grip on her wrist relaxed. "I will open the door. Stand back, if you please; do not move until I have lit the lamp."

The door was opened and she nearly fell through.

She saw a flicker of flame, heard a glass globe tinkle. He had lit a small kerosene lamp, which cast an eerie light upon the weird scene. She looked at the man curiously. His sallow, lined face; his long black beard, which, with a woman's intuition, she knew was dyed; his unsavoury frock - coat, splashed and stained till its original colour could only be guessed at; the little black skull cap on the back of his head - all these combined to give him a peculiarly sinister appearance.

In front of the door with seven locks was a small leather hold - all, which was open, revealing a number of instruments. One, resembling a gimlet, she saw, being inserted in the second lock of the door.

"What frightened you, my little one?" His black eyes were fixed on hers, and seemed to possess an hypnotic quality, for she could not remove her gaze.

"A - a man," she stammered.

He lit a cigarette very slowly - indeed with something of a ritual - and blew a cloud of smoke to the vaulted ceiling.

"At three o'clock in the morning?" He arched his eyebrows. "Surely the young miss who wanders about the country in the middle of the night is not to be frightened by a man? Sit down - on the floor. You are too tall for me. Women who are taller than me dominate, and I cannot suffer domination."

He took the gimlet shape from the door, replaced it in the tool kit, and rolled up the leather, strapping it very carefully and deliberately.

"You have come to spy on me - yes? I heard you close the gate and creep down the stairs - I am in a quandary! What am I to do with a young lady who spies upon me? You realize, of course, that I am seriously compromised and that, if I tell you I am an antiquarian and interested in these strange and ancient mysteries, you will laugh in your sleeve and not believe me, nor will your employers. What was your name?"

She had to wet her dry lips before she replied. She saw his eyes narrow.

"Sybil Lansdown?" he said, almost sharply. "You are, of course, the girl - how coincident!"

He had a queer, un - English way of framing his sentences, which alone betrayed his foreign origin, for otherwise his English was perfect.

She had obeyed his command and was sitting on the stone - flagged floor.

She had never thought of hesitating or even questioning his commands, and it did not seem strange to her that she should accept his orders without any attempt to resist his wishes.

"The whole proceedings are incredibly bizarre," he said, and then for a moment turned from her to examine the door with the seven locks. His long, uncleanly fingers touched the skull's head caressingly.

"You are beyond change - she is also beyond change, for she is an old woman by an inflexible standard. Too old, too old, alas! too old!" He shook his head mournfully and again turned his dark eyes upon her. "If you were eight or nine it would be simple. But you are - what?"

"Twenty - two," she said, and his lips clicked impatiently. "Nothing can be done except - - "His eyes strayed along the narrow, cell - like doors, behind which the dead and forgotten Selfords lay in their niches, and cold fear gripped her heart with icy fingers. "You are a woman, but to me women are that!" He snapped his fingers. "They are weak material for experiment. They do not react normally - sometimes they die, and years of experiment go for nothing."

She saw him purse his wet lips thoughtfully, as he walked past her and tried one of the heavy oaken doors, peering through the rusty grating.

"The whole situation is incredibly bizarre and embarrassing - the man you saw outside, was he extraordinary of appearance?"

She nodded dumbly.

"That, of course, would be a way," he said, as if he were speaking to himself. "On the other hand, he is so clumsy - which is natural. They cannot altogether be trained out of clumsiness, because fineness of execution requires delicate mental adjustments. Could a locomotive thread a needle? No! How much easier would it be for a sewing - machine to pull a train?"

He fumbled in the pocket of his waistcoat, which scarcely met over his trousers, failed to find what he wanted, and dived his hand into the breast pocket of his frock - coat.

"Ah! Here she is!"

It was a small green phial he held in his hand, and when he shook it she heard the rattle of tablets, as she guessed. He drew the cork from the neck of the phial with his teeth and shook two little red pellets on to his hand.

"Swallow these," he said.

She held out her palm obediently.

"Incredibly bizarre and unfortunate," muttered Stalletti, as he went to the second of the tomb doors and pushed a key in the lock. "If all the doors in this miserable house opened so readily, what unhappiness and trouble would be saved, eh?" He looked at her sharply. "You have not done as I told you," he said. She was sitting, the two red pellets, like evil eyes, gleaming up from the white palm.

"Quick - do not hesitate!" he said commandingly. She raised her hand to her lips. Yet her ego was fighting subconsciously and individually against the mastery of this strange man. Obedient to an order which she did not initiate, the white teeth caught the pellets and held them. Satisfied, Mr Stalletti addressed himself to opening the third tomb. And the very physical movement of him for a second released her from his mental tyranny. The pellets dropped back into her hand.

He pulled open the wooden door, creaking and groaning, and, coming back, picked up the lamp, giving her only a casual glance as he passed, disappeared through the door. At that second his spell was broken. She sprang to her feet and fled along the passage, slamming the grille behind her. In another second she was in the open air. One fear for the moment had slain the other, and she did not pause to look left or right for the shape that lurked outside, but flew like the wind along the path which was by now familiar as though she had trod it all her life.

Where was Cawler? She thought of him now, but only for a second. Beyond this valley, she thought, there was another field of grass, then the wall of a farmhouse, then Selford Manor. A caretaker was there; perhaps other servants of whose existence she did not know. She remembered the last time she had come across this shallow valley. Dick Martin had been with her. At the thought of him she winced. What would she not give to have this calm personality at her elbow now!

It was still dark, but in the east the pallor of coming day had tinted the skies. Let daylight come quickly, she prayed. Another hour of tension and she would go mad.

As she crossed the farmyard she heard the rattle of a chain, and a dog strained at her with a savage yelp. But so far from this unexpected incident increasing her terror, it brought almost a sense of comfort, and she stopped, whistled, and called him by a name. There never was a dog that could scare Sybil Lansdown. She went fearlessly towards the yelping beast, and in a minute the big retriever was rubbing himself against her knee and quivering under her caressing hand.

As she stood to release the chain that fastened him, she felt a piece of rope on the ground, and she found it was about six feet long, evidently a disused clothes - line. This would make a capital leash, and she slipped the end through the D of the dog's collar and went on her way at a slower pace and happier than she had been these twelve hours past.

By this approach she came to Selford Manor from the wings, and had to turn abruptly to the right before she was at the front of the house. Selford Manor presented an unbroken front save for its porticoed entrance, of long, narrow, and rather ugly windows. It had been partly rebuilt in the reign of Queen Anne, and its architect, by some unhappy trick of fancy, had produced all that was least lovely of that period. A narrow flower - bed ran under the windows, and a broad stone path ran parallel with its facade. Along this she walked and she did not attempt to move noiselessly. Suddenly she heard the dog growl and felt the leash grow taut. She stopped and looked round, but there was nothing suspicious in sight. It might have been a fox, she thought, slipping from one of the bush clumps which dotted the park, but he was pointing straight ahead.

Until now the windows had been blank and lifeless, but a few paces on she saw a gleam of light, and moved on tiptoe towards the window, which was the third from the entrance door. She looked into a room panelled from ceiling to floor. A candle burnt on the big oak table, which was its principal, indeed, its only, article of furniture. At first she saw nothing, and then a movement near the wide, open fireplace caught her eye, and only in time did she check the scream which rose to her lips.

A man was coming out of the shadow of the fireplace; a big lion - headed man, with a long yellow beard, and hair that fell in waves over his shoulders. He wore a pair of ragged canvas shorts that hardly reached to his bare knees, but for the rest the body was bare. The muscles rippled under the fair skin, they stood up in his arms like huge ropes; she looked, and for some queer reason was not afraid. Unaware that he was observed, the strange creature crept stealthily from his place of concealment, and, taking up the candle in his thin hand, blew it out. In that moment she had a glimpse of the vacant face and the wide, staring blue eyes that gazed unseeingly into space. She held the dog right by the muzzle to prevent his betraying her presence, and, turning, went back the way she had come, until she reached the edge of the farmyard. Should she arouse the caretaker, or should she go on to the nearest village, taking the dog with her for protection?

She felt the cord in her hand tighten, and, with a savage snarl, the retriever leapt at something she could not see. And then she heard the sound of footsteps coming from the direction of the drive, and she found her voice at last.

"Who is there?" she demanded huskily. "Don't come any nearer."

"Thank God!" said a voice, and she nearly swooned with relief, for the man who had come out of the night was Dick Martin.

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