Complete Novelet of Fearsome Mystery
V: Battle for Life
My fingers closed on what felt
like hardened crust. I knew that beneath the superficial layer of hardness
the plastic material had not yet completely solidified.
My strong sculptor's hands
clamped with powerful tenacity. I twisted the wrist suddenly.
There was a shriek of bellowing
pain and I was dropped.
In that instant of freedom
I lunged backward into the forbidden room and slammed the door.
The key was on the inside.
I turned it, ripped off my coat. It protected my hands a little as I pulled
and shoved the giant cauldron over to barricade the door. The boiling green
mess spilled out all over the floor, hissing and steaming. But at last
the vat was in place.
I leaned against the wall.
No sound came from the corridor outside. I could hear only the hissing
of the stuff on the floor and the crackling of the flames in the pit.
My eyes moved over, past the
hanging skeletons, to look at the empty pedestal where the statue had been.
But the pedestal was not empty!
Crouching there as it had always
been, I could see the dim outlines of the statue of Gribold!
I drew a hand across my eyes
but the illusion still persisted. Relief swept over me. It had been Rakor
Gribold, after all, who had pursued me down from my room through the corridors
and dungeons. It was Gribold who had crept toward me in m room.
But the three bullet holes?
I had seen them appear one
by one just as I had fired the gun -- three round bullet holes just above
the left eye.
My explanation? I had none,
unless the man's unusually thick skull was not completely penetrated by
the small .22 caliber bullet. Perhaps the lead had not entered the cranial
cavity nor pierced the brain.
But then I saw the stuff on
the floor. I moved ever closer. It was a green viscous fluid that was collecting
in the crack between two of the skulls that composed the floor. My eyes
followed the stream toward the base of the pedestal, up the dais to another
little pool of the stuff at the statue's feet. I followed the green drops
up, up to the base of the chin, where they dripped off the hideous face.
On the forehead my eyes stopped.
A sudden, choking cloud of smoke poured out of the cauldron. I gasped,
rubbing at my burning eyes!
Green ichor was oozing out
of what appeared to be -- three round bullet holes just above the left
I have only a faint recollection
of my escape from t he dungeon. I must have upset the cauldron as I hurled
it away from the door. The brew ignited as it came into contact with the
flames in the pit. A strong draft nursed the flames when I flung wide the
door. They pursued me, crackling and spitting, up through the long, winding
corridors to the main floor.
The front door was partly open
when I finally dragged myself up to it. fresh air was pouring in.
I reeled down the huge, stone
steps. A voice called out below me.
Then came a shot, sharp and
clear. Something was shuffling swiftly toward me on the gravel walk. I
threw myself to the side of the path. The thing lurched by me, breathing
heavily and groaning. I lay there half dazed, watching it scramble like
a huge spider up the steps toward the blazing manor.
I staggered to my feet as the
little wizened sheriff puff ed up beside me, clutching a smoking revolver.
He had turned ghastly white. But his hand was steady enough. He raised
the gun and fired at the apparition that leered down at us from the top
landing. I was certain the bullet had found its mark.
But the sheriff fired until
his gun was empty and still the thing at the top of the steps never moved.
It stood there, silhouetted against the yellow flames that were belching
out of the open door at its back. The head was raised and the four arms
were outstretched as if in supplication to the heavens.
"What is it?" I asked. "Is
"Dunno," the sheriff replied
We were standing below, at
some little distance from t he bottom of the steps. The creature ws well
above us, with the flames in back. It was impossible to recognize the features.
"I heard yuh fire three shots,"
yelled the sheriff above the roaring flames. "I hoofed it up here as quick
as I could an' bumped square into that thing streakin' down the path. It
turned around an' ran back, but wouldn't stop when I ordered. So I had
to shoot. Could o' sworn I hit it!"
"Look!" I cried.
The flames were now leaping
out around it, engulfing the thing in great yellow waves. Even where we
were standing, some distance away, the head was terrific.
I was getting so dizzy that
I had to lean against the sheriff for support. I could feel him take in
a deep breath.
"Come down here, Gribold!"
he shouted at the top of his lungs.
The thing on the landing looked
down. Then out of its mouth rose that same ungodly wail I had heard before
-- the thrill cry of a woman tortured by agony!
For a long, hideous moment
that cry stabbed out through the night, chilling my nerves even in the
face of the almost unbearable heat.
I could still hear the cry
even after the thing had turned. It leaped through the open doorway and
was swallowed up in that blazing inferno. I thought I could still hear
it faintly, while the sheriff was half carrying, half dragging me away
from the manor. I had collapsed to the ground at his feet.
Persistently that cry rang
in my ears for over two months after they had taken me to the sanitarium.
When I was finally able to speak coherently, I was invited to describe
in detail my experiences to the psychiatrist in residence.
On the day scheduled for my
dismissal from the sanitarium, I entered the doctor's office. The morning
paper was clutched in my hand. He waved me cordially into the big chair
by his desk.
He listened attentively to
my story and examined the letter I had originally received from Rakor Gribold.
The doctor was especially interested in the skin sack containing the gold
nuggets. He declared it to be human skin, as I had suspected.
"From my observation of you
here in the sanitarium," he said, "I am convinced that you are telling
me exactly what you saw or heard occur at Gribold Manor. There is only
one unclear point in your story, which I'll speak of later. There I believe
our vision was distorted by the nervous tension to which you were being
subjected. Otherwise I think it is a true account of actual experiences."
"You believe, then, that Rakor
Gribold was four armed? I asked.
"Yes. The Gribold family, since
the archduke, has probably exhibited a recessive quadrumanous tendency
appearing only in the male offspring. The old archduke's bride was undoubtedly
driven insane when she became aware of her husband's deformity on their
wedding night. Her insanity was mistaken by the villagers as bewitchment
and Gribold Manor and its occupant s were henceforth shunned.
"Believing the stories of her
own bewitchery, this insane woman began dabbling in the Black Arts. When
her little son was born four armed, she realized the full horror of the
Gribold curse. She probably killed her husband and modeled his likeness
with some plastic hardening substance that she had concocted in the cauldron
after the formulas in her old witchcraft books.
"This would be the famous Statue
of Gribold, perhaps seen at various times by carpenters or masons called
up to repair the aging manor. They must have begun the superstition. Because
the Gribolds were shunned, they were unable to get food honestly from the
village market or from the farmers. So they were forced to go forth at
night and steal livestock or whatever they could lay their hands on.
"Ostracized from the mores
of society, the step to cannibalism for the Gribolds was a natural one.
They could recognize little difference between men and beasts. So cannibalism
became inculcated in their religion. It was passed down by the old witch
as part of necessity. Human meat is very nourishing and the hunting of
it would greatly relieve the monotony of their stranded existence in the
I was following the doctor's
opinions very closely.
"Then you believe that Rakor
Gribold's plan, after he ate Mason, was to include me on his menu?"
Undoubtedly," replied the doctor.
"You were doomed to Mason's fate. But not until you had finished repairing
the statue, which he had called you to 'mend' or 'heal,' as e put it in
his letter to you. HIs reference in t he letter to 'a life depends upon
our succeeding' indicates that Gribold himself believed the statue to be
alive. He paid you, incidentally, with some of the old archduke's vast
"How the statue's wrist was
broken we'll never know. But when you were fighting Gribold and twisted
his wrist he bellowed with pain. It had been injured coincidentally, probably
when Plow Hendricks, the farmer, fired his shotgun at Gribold, who was
out hunting for meat and was peering in at the farmer.
With the exception of one
point, that sounded reasonable.
"But the pieces of green stuff
that the sheriff picked up next morning outside of Plow Hendricks' window
-- " I asked. "What were they?"
"Undoubtedly pieces from Gribold's
cane, which he carried as a weapon. The spraying buckshot form Henricks'
shotgun lodged in Gribold's wrist and shattered the upper part of his cane
at the same time. You said the cane was apparently fashioned not of wood
or metal, but of a greenish stone that had been broken.
"The cane was probably made
from the same stuff as the statue -- material that was highly inflammable,
as proved by the speed with which it ignited when you spilled the cauldron
into the flaming pit. That's why cigarettes were taboo around the statue.
Also, Gribold must have had the ability to make his voice assume a feminine
"But the bullet holes?" I said.
"I saw them appear in the creature's forehead when I fired! And I saw them
later in identically the same place on the statue's head."
"This latter point is the one
place where your story strays from fact," said the doctor slowly. "The
bullet holes appeared in Gribold's forehead because he had an extremely
thick skull, and you were firing .22 caliber bullets. They lodged in t
eh thick supraorbital structure. But when you though you saw these same
holes in the statue's forehead in the dungeon, your vision was obscured
by the smoke and flames pouring out of the pit. And furthermore, Mr. Renton,
your nerves were near the breaking point.
"Probably this one delusion,
more than anything else, was responsible for your long confinement here
in this sanitarium." The doctor rose and extended his hand. "Good-bye,
Mr. Renton -- and good luck."
I shook hands with the doctor
and thanked him. Before I turned to leave I handed him the newspaper I
had brought in with me. I pointed to an obscure news item on the back page.
Gribold Village was stunned by the double murder
of its sheriff and a farmer known as "Plow" Hendricks here last night.
Both men were clubbed death while asleep in their homes near the outskirts
of the village. Their assailant is unknown.
I remarked, and walked out.
Coleman and Jane Ralston Burroughs.