Either the bribe or the threat had the desired effect, for the fellow grabbed at the money with one hand while with the other he surrendered the leash which held the lurcher. Leaving him to retrace his steps, we continued to make our way into the utmost recesses of the great swamp.
The tortuous path grew less and less defined as we proceeded, and was even covered in places with water, but the increasing excitement of the hound and the sight of the deep footmarks in the mud stimulated us to push on. At last, after struggling through a grove of high bulrushes, we came on a spot the gloomy horror of which might have furnished Dante with a fresh terror for his “Inferno.”
The whole bog in this part appeared to have sunk in, forming a great, funnel-shaped depression, which terminated in the centre in a circular rift or opening about forty feet in diameter. It was a whirlpool—a perfect maelstrom of mud, sloping down on every side to this silent and awful chasm.
Clearly this was the spot which, under the name of the Hole of Cree, bore such a sinister reputation among the rustics. I could not wonder at its impressing their imagination, for a more weird or gloomy scene, or one more worthy of the avenue which led to it, could not be conceived.
The steps passed down the declivity which surrounded the abyss, and we followed them with a sinking feeling in our hearts, as we realised that this was the end of our search.
A little way from the downward path was the return trail made by the feet of those who had come back from the chasm’s edge. Our eyes fell upon these tracks at the same moment, and we each gave a cry of horror, and stood gazing speechlessly at them. For there, in those blurred footmarks, the whole drama was revealed.
Five had gone down, but only three had returned.
None shall ever know the details of that strange tragedy. There was no mark of struggle nor sign of attempt at escape. We knelt at the edge of the Hole and endeavoured to pierce the unfathomable gloom which shrouded it. A faint, sickly exhalation seemed to rise from its depths, and there was a distant hurrying, clattering sound as of waters in the bowels of the earth.
A great stone lay embedded in the mud, and this I hurled over, but we never heard thud or splash to show that it had reached the bottom.
As we hung over the noisome chasm a sound did at last rise to our ears out of its murky depths. High, clear, and throbbing, it tinkled for an instant out of the abyss, to be succeeded by the same deadly stillness which had preceded it.
I did not wish to appear superstitious, or to put down to extraordinary causes that which may have a natural explanation. That one keen note may have been some strange water sound produced far down in the bowels of the earth. It may have been that or it may have been that sinister bell of which I had heard so much. Be this as it may, it was the only sign that rose to us from the last terrible resting-place of the two who had paid the debt which had so long been owing.
We joined our voices in a call with the unreasoning obstinacy with which men will cling to hope, but no answer came back to us save a hollow moaning from the depths beneath. Footsore and heart-sick, we retraced our steps and climbed the slimy slope once more.
“What shall we do, Mordaunt?” I asked, in a subdued voice. “We can but pray that their souls may rest in peace.”
Young Heatherstone looked at me with flashing eyes.
“This may be all according to occult laws,” he cried, “but we shall see what the laws of England have to say upon it. I suppose a chela may be hanged as well as any other man. It may not be too late yet to run them down. Here, good dog, good dog-here!”
He pulled the hound over and set it on the track of the three men. The creature sniffed at it once or twice, and then, falling upon its stomach, with bristling hair and protruding tongue, it lay shivering and trembling, a very embodiment of canine terror.
“You see,” I said, “it is no use contending against those who have powers at their command to which we cannot even give a name. There is nothing for it but to accept the inevitable, and to hope that these poor men may meet with some compensation in another world for all that they have suffered in this.”
“And be free from all devilish religions and their murderous worshippers!” Mordaunt cried furiously.
Justice compelled me to acknowledge in my own heart that the murderous spirit had been set on foot by the Christian before it was taken up by the Buddhists, but I forbore to remark upon it, for fear of irritating my companion.
For a long time I could not draw him away from the scene of his father’s death, but at last, by repeated arguments and reasonings, I succeeded in making him realise how useless and unprofitable any further efforts on our part must necessarily prove, and in inducing him to return with me to Cloomber.
Oh, the wearisome, tedious journey! It had seemed long enough when we had some slight flicker of hope, or at least of expectation, before us, but now that our worst fears were fulfilled it appeared interminable.
We picked up our peasant guide at the outskirts of the marsh, and having restored his dog we let him find his own way home, without telling him anything of the results of our expedition. We ourselves plodded all day over the moors with heavy feet and heavier hearts until we saw the ill-omened tower of Cloomber, and at last, as the sun was setting, found ourselves once more beneath its roof.
There is no need for me to enter into further details, nor to describe the grief which our tidings conveyed to mother and to daughter. Their long expectation of some calamity was not sufficient to prepare them for the terrible reality.
For weeks my poor Gabriel hovered between life and death, and though she came round al last, thanks to the nursing of my sister and the professional skill of Dr. John Easterling, she has never to this day entirely recovered her former vigour. Mordaunt, too, suffered much for some time, and it was only after our removal to Edinburgh that he rallied from the shock which he had undergone.
As to poor Mrs. Heatherstone, neither medical attention nor change of air can ever have a permanent effect upon her. Slowly and surely, but very placidly, she has declined in health and strength, until it is evident that in a very few weeks at the most she will have rejoined her husband and restored to him the one thing which he must have grudged to leave behind.
The Laird of Branksome came home from Italy restored in health, with the result that we were compelled to return once more to Edinburgh.
The change was agreeable to us, for recent events had cast a cloud over our country life and had surrounded us with unpleasant associations. Besides, a highly honourable and remunerative appointment in connection with the University library had become vacant, and had, through the kindness of the late Sir Alexander Grant, been offered to my father, who, as may be imagined, lost no time in accepting so congenial a post.
In this way we came back to Edinburgh very much more important people than we left it, and with no further reason to be uneasy about the details of housekeeping. But, in truth, the whole household has been dissolved, for I have been married for some months to my dear Gabriel, and Esther is to become Mrs. Heatherstone upon the 23rd of the month. If she makes him as good a wife as his sister has made me, we may both set ourselves down as fortunate men.
These mere domestic episodes are, as I have already explained, introduced only because I cannot avoid alluding to them.
My object in drawing up this statement and publishing the evidence which corroborates it, was certainly not to parade my private affairs before the public, but to leave on record an authentic narrative of a most remarkable series of events. This I have endeavoured to do in as methodical a manner as possible, exaggerating nothing and suppressing nothing.
The reader has now the evidence before him, and can form his own opinions unaided by me as to the causes of the disappearance and death of Rufus Smith and of John Berthier Heatherstone, V.C., C.B.
There is only one point which is still dark to me. Why the chelas of Ghoolab Shah should have removed their victims to the desolate Hole of Cree instead of taking their lives at Cloomber, is, I confess, a mystery to me.
In dealing with occult laws, however, we must allow for our own complete ignorance of the subject. Did we know more we might see that there was some analogy between that foul bog and the sacrilege which had been committed, and that their ritual and customs demanded that just such a death was the one appropriate to the crime.
On this point I should be sorry to be dogmatic, but at least we must allow that the Buddhist priests must have had some very good cause for the course of action which they so deliberately carried out.
Months afterwards I saw a short paragraph in the Star of India announcing that three eminent Buddhists—Lal Hoomi, Mowdar Khan, and Ram Singh—had just returned in the steamship Deccan from a short trip to Europe. The very next item was devoted to an account of the life and services of Major-General Heatherstone, “who has lately disappeared from his country house in Wigtownshire, and who, there is too much reason to fear, has been drowned.”
I wonder if by chance there was any other human eye but mine which traced a connection between these paragraphs. I never showed them to my wife or to Mordaunt, and they will only know of their existence when they read these pages.
I don’t know that there is any other point which needs clearing up. The intelligent reader will have already seen the reasons for the general’s fear of dark faces, of wandering men (not knowing how his pursuers might come after him), and of visitors (from the same cause and because his hateful bell was liable to sound at all times).
His broken sleep led him to wander about the house at night, and the lamps which he burnt in every room were no doubt to prevent his imagination from peopling the darkness with terrors. Lastly, his elaborate precautions were, as he has himself explained, rather the result of a feverish desire to do something than in the expectation that he could really ward off his fate.
Science will tell you that there are no such powers as those claimed by the Eastern mystics. I, John Fothergill West, can confidently answer that science is wrong.
For what is science? Science is the consensus of opinion of scientific men, and history has shown that it is slow to accept a truth. Science sneered at Newton for twenty years. Science proved mathematically that an iron ship could not swim, and science declared that a steamship could not cross the Atlantic.
Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, our wise professor’s forte is “stets verneinen.” Thomas Didymus is, to use his own jargon, his prototype. Let him learn that if he will but cease to believe in the infallibility of his own methods, and will look to the East, from which all great movements come, he will find there a school of philosophers and of savants who, working on different lines from his own, are many thousand years ahead of him in all the essentials of knowledge.