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Brood of the Witch-Queen

Brood of the Witch-Queen

Author:Sax Rohmer


Robert Cairn looked out across the quadrangle. The moon had just arisen, and it softened the beauty of the old college buildings, mellowed the harshness of time, casting shadow pools beneath the cloisteresque arches to the west...
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  Robert Cairn looked out across the quadrangle. The moon had justarisen, and it softened the beauty of the old college buildings,mellowed the harshness of time, casting shadow pools beneath thecloisteresque arches to the west and setting out the ivy in strongerrelief upon the ancient walls. The barred shadow on the lichenedstones beyond the elm was cast by the hidden gate; and straight ahead,where, between a quaint chimney-stack and a bartizan, a triangularpatch of blue showed like spangled velvet, lay the Thames. It was fromthere the cooling breeze came.

  But Cairn's gaze was set upon a window almost directly ahead, and westbelow the chimneys. Within the room to which it belonged a lambentlight played.

  Cairn turned to his companion, a ruddy and athletic looking man,somewhat bovine in type, who at the moment was busily tracing outsections on a human skull and checking his calculations from Ross's_Diseases of the Nervous System_.

  "Sime," he said, "what does Ferrara always have a fire in his roomsfor at this time of the year?"

  Sime glanced up irritably at the speaker. Cairn was a tall, thinScotsman, clean-shaven, square jawed, and with the crisp light hairand grey eyes which often bespeak unusual virility.

  "Aren't you going to do any work?" he inquired pathetically. "Ithought you'd come to give me a hand with my _basal ganglia_. I shallgo down on that; and there you've been stuck staring out of thewindow!"

  "Wilson, in the end house, has got a most unusual brain," said Cairn,with apparent irrelevance.

  "Has he!" snapped Sime.

  "Yes, in a bottle. His governor is at Bart's; he sent it up yesterday.You ought to see it."

  "Nobody will ever want to put _your_ brain in a bottle," predicted thescowling Sime, and resumed his studies.

  Cairn relighted his pipe, staring across the quadrangle again. Then--

  "You've never been in Ferrara's rooms, have you?" he inquired.

  Followed a muffled curse, crash, and the skull went rolling across thefloor.

  "Look here, Cairn," cried Sime, "I've only got a week or so now, andmy nervous system is frantically rocky; I shall go all to pieces on mynervous system. If you want to talk, go ahead. When you're finished, Ican begin work."

  "Right-oh," said Cairn calmly, and tossed his pouch across. "I want totalk to you about Ferrara."

  "Go ahead then. What is the matter with Ferrara?"

  "Well," replied Cairn, "he's queer."

  "That's no news," said Sime, filling his pipe; "we all know he's aqueer chap. But he's popular with women. He'd make a fortune as anerve specialist."

  "He doesn't have to; he inherits a fortune when Sir Michael dies."

  "There's a pretty cousin, too, isn't there?" inquired Sime slyly.

  "There is," replied Cairn. "Of course," he continued, "my governor andSir Michael are bosom friends, and although I've never seen much ofyoung Ferrara, at the same time I've got nothing against him. But--"he hesitated.

  "Spit it out," urged Sime, watching him oddly.

  "Well, it's silly, I suppose, but what does he want with a fire on ablazing night like this?"

  Sime stared.

  "Perhaps he's a throw-back," he suggested lightly. "The Ferraras,although they're counted Scotch--aren't they?--must have been Italianoriginally--"

  "Spanish," corrected Cairn. "They date from the son of Andrea Ferrara,the sword-maker, who was a Spaniard. Cæsar Ferrara came with theArmada in 1588 as armourer. His ship was wrecked up in the Bay ofTobermory and he got ashore--and stopped."

  "Married a Scotch lassie?"

  "Exactly. But the genealogy of the family doesn't account for Antony'shabits."

  "What habits?"

  "Well, look." Cairn waved in the direction of the open window. "Whatdoes he do in the dark all night, with a fire going?"


  "Nonsense! You've never been in his rooms, have you?"

  "No. Very few men have. But as I said before, he's popular with thewomen."

  "What do you mean?"

  "I mean there have been complaints. Any other man would have been sentdown."

  "You think he has influence--"

  "Influence of some sort, undoubtedly."

  "Well, I can see you have serious doubts about the man, as I havemyself, so I can unburden my mind. You recall that sudden thunderstormon Thursday?"

  "Rather; quite upset me for work."

  "I was out in it. I was lying in a punt in the backwater--you know,_our_ backwater."

  "Lazy dog."

  "To tell you the truth, I was trying to make up my mind whether Ishould abandon bones and take the post on the _Planet_ which has beenoffered me."

  "Pills for the pen--Harley for Fleet? Did you decide?"

  "Not then; something happened which quite changed my line ofreflection."

  The room was becoming cloudy with tobacco smoke.

  "It was delightfully still," Cairn resumed. "A water rat rose withina foot of me and a kingfisher was busy on a twig almost at my elbow.Twilight was just creeping along, and I could hear nothing but faintcreakings of sculls from the river and sometimes the drip of apunt-pole. I thought the river seemed to become suddenly deserted; itgrew quite abnormally quiet--and abnormally dark. But I was so deep inreflection that it never occurred to me to move.

  "Then the flotilla of swans came round the bend, with Apollo--you knowApollo, the king-swan?--at their head. By this time it had growntremendously dark, but it never occurred to me to ask myself why. Theswans, gliding along so noiselessly, might have been phantoms. A hush,a perfect hush, settled down. Sime, that hush was the prelude to astrange thing--an unholy thing!"

  Cairn rose excitedly and strode across to the table, kicking the skullout of his way.

  "It was the storm gathering," snapped Sime.

  "It was something else gathering! Listen! It got yet darker, but forsome inexplicable reason, although I must have heard the thundermuttering, I couldn't take my eyes off the swans. Then ithappened--the thing I came here to tell you about; I must tellsomebody--the thing that I am not going to forget in a hurry."

  He began to knock out the ash from his pipe.

  "Go on," directed Sime tersely.

  "The big swan--Apollo--was within ten feet of me; he swam in openwater, clear of the others; no living thing touched him. Suddenly,uttering a cry that chilled my very blood, a cry that I never heardfrom a swan in my life, he rose in the air, his huge wingsextended--like a tortured phantom, Sime; I can never forget it--sixfeet clear of the water. The uncanny wail became a stifled hiss, andsending up a perfect fountain of water--I was deluged--the poor oldking-swan fell, beat the surface with his wings--and was still."


  "The other swans glided off like ghosts. Several heavy raindropspattered on the leaves above. I admit I was scared. Apollo lay withone wing right in the punt. I was standing up; I had jumped to my feetwhen the thing occurred. I stooped and touched the wing. The bird wasquite dead! Sime, I pulled the swan's head out of the water, and--hisneck was broken; no fewer than three vertebrae fractured!"

  A cloud of tobacco smoke was wafted towards the open window.

  "It isn't one in a million who could wring the neck of a bird likeApollo, Sime; but it was done before my eyes without the visibleagency of God or man! As I dropped him and took to the pole, the stormburst. A clap of thunder spoke with the voice of a thousand cannon,and I poled for bare life from that haunted backwater. I was drenchedto the skin when I got in, and I ran up all the way from the stage."

  "Well?" rapped the other again, as Cairn paused to refill his pipe.

  "It was seeing the firelight flickering at Ferrara's window that ledme to do it. I don't often call on him; but I thought that a rub downbefore the fire and a glass of toddy would put me right. The storm hadabated as I got to the foot of his stair--only a distant rolling ofthunder.

  "Then, out of the shadows--it was quite dark--into the flickeringlight of the lamp came somebody all muffled up. I started horribly. Itwas a girl, quite a pretty girl, too, but very pale, and withover-bright eyes. She gave one quick glance up into my face, mutteredsomething, an apology, I think, and drew back again into herhiding-place."

  "He's been warned," growled Sime. "It will be notice to quit nexttime."

  "I ran upstairs and banged on Ferrara's door. He didn't open at first,but shouted out to know who was knocking. When I told him, he let mein, and closed the door very quickly. As I went in, a pungent cloudmet me--incense."


  "His rooms smelt like a joss-house; I told him so. He said he wasexperimenting with _Kyphi_--the ancient Egyptian stuff used in thetemples. It was all dark and hot; phew! like a furnace. Ferrara'srooms always were odd, but since the long vacation I hadn't been in.Good lord, they're disgusting!"

  "How? Ferrara spent vacation in Egypt; I suppose he's brought thingsback?"

  "Things--yes! Unholy things! But that brings me to something too. Iought to know more about the chap than anybody; Sir Michael Ferraraand the governor have been friends for thirty years; but my father isoddly reticent--quite singularly reticent--regarding Antony. Anyway,have you heard about him, in Egypt?"

  "I've heard he got into trouble. For his age, he has a devil of aqueer reputation; there's no disguising it."

  "What sort of trouble?"

  "I've no idea. Nobody seems to know. But I heard from young Ashby thatFerrara was asked to leave."

  "There's some tale about Kitchener--"

  "_By_ Kitchener, Ashby says; but I don't believe it."

  "Well--Ferrara lighted a lamp, an elaborate silver thing, and I foundmyself in a kind of nightmare museum. There was an unwrapped mummythere, the mummy of a woman--I can't possibly describe it. He hadpictures, too--photographs. I shan't try to tell you what theyrepresented. I'm not thin-skinned; but there are some subjects that noman anxious to avoid Bedlam would willingly investigate. On the tableby the lamp stood a number of objects such as I had never seen in mylife before, evidently of great age. He swept them into a cupboardbefore I had time to look long. Then he went off to get a bath towel,slippers, and so forth. As he passed the fire he threw something in. Ahissing tongue of flame leapt up--and died down again."

  "What did he throw in?"

  "I am not absolutely certain; so I won't say what I _think_ it was,at the moment. Then he began to help me shed my saturated flannels,and he set a kettle on the fire, and so forth. You know the personalcharm of the man? But there was an unpleasant sense of something--whatshall I say?--sinister. Ferrara's ivory face was more pale than usual,and he conveyed the idea that he was chewed up--exhausted. Beads ofperspiration were on his forehead."

  "Heat of his rooms?"

  "No," said Cairn shortly. "It wasn't that. I had a rub down andborrowed some slacks. Ferrara brewed grog and pretended to make mewelcome. Now I come to something which I can't forget; it may be amere coincidence, but--. He has a number of photographs in his rooms,good ones, which he has taken himself. I'm not speaking now of themonstrosities, the outrages; I mean views, and girls--particularlygirls. Well, standing on a queer little easel right under the lamp wasa fine picture of Apollo, the swan, lord of the backwater."

  Sime stared dully through the smoke haze.

  "It gave me a sort of shock," continued Cairn. "It made me think,harder than ever, of the thing he had thrown in the fire. Then, in hisphotographic zenana, was a picture of a girl whom I am almost sure wasthe one I had met at the bottom of the stair. Another was of MyraDuquesne."

  "His cousin?"

  "Yes. I felt like tearing it from the wall. In fact, the moment I sawit, I stood up to go. I wanted to run to my rooms and strip the man'sclothes off my back! It was a struggle to be civil any longer. Sime,if you had seen that swan die--"

  Sime walked over to the window.

  "I have a glimmering of your monstrous suspicions," he said slowly."The last man to be kicked out of an English varsity for this sort ofthing, so far as I know, was Dr. Dee of St. John's, Cambridge, andthat's going back to the sixteenth century."

  "I know; it's utterly preposterous, of course. But I had to confide insomebody. I'll shift off now, Sime."

  Sime nodded, staring from the open window. As Cairn was about to closethe outer door:

  "Cairn," cried Sime, "since you are now a man of letters and leisure,you might drop in and borrow Wilson's brains for me."

  "All right," shouted Cairn.

  Down in the quadrangle he stood for a moment, reflecting; then, actingupon a sudden resolution, he strode over towards the gate and ascendedFerrara's stair.

  For some time he knocked at the door in vain, but he persisted in hisclamouring, arousing the ancient echoes. Finally, the door was opened.

  Antony Ferrara faced him. He wore a silver-grey dressing gown, trimmedwith white swansdown, above which his ivory throat rose statuesque.The almond-shaped eyes, black as night, gleamed strangely beneath thelow, smooth brow. The lank black hair appeared lustreless bycomparison. His lips were very red. In his whole appearance there wassomething repellently effeminate.

  "Can I come in?" demanded Cairn abruptly.

  "Is it--something important?" Ferrara's voice was husky but notunmusical.

  "Why, are you busy?"

  "Well--er--" Ferrara smiled oddly.

  "Oh, a visitor?" snapped Cairn.

  "Not at all."

  "Accounts for your delay in opening," said Cairn, and turned on hisheel. "Mistook me for the proctor, in person, I suppose. Good-night."

  Ferrara made no reply. But, although he never once glanced back, Cairnknew that Ferrara, leaning over the rail, above, was looking afterhim; it was as though elemental heat were beating down upon his head.