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   Chapter 15 THE FACE

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 19190

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The Chief of Police's allusion to the picture had started a nebulous idea in my head, but it took it several hours to crystallize. Driving alone up the hill, my mind gravitated dully to the matter of the identity of the perpetrator of the unspeakable outrage. I found myself speculating as to whether or not the Chief of Police, had he known of Rona's previous attacks upon Allen, would have been as ready as he was to attribute the guilt to "Squid" Saunders. And would he-had he known of them-been able to trace any connection between Rona's repeated attempts to induce Allen to go off to the schooner with her and the fact that the crime had been committed there? And didn't it look just a little as though Rona's whole strange plan for having a picture painted was only a subterfuge to open the way for a carefully plotted revenge? And yet, if she had done all this, she surely must have had-or thought she had-a good reason for doing it. But had not Oakes established a clear alibi for the girl when he met her "away inland" the same afternoon men had been reported to have been seen on the schooner? Probably, but not certainly. Oakes himself had said that she was "a great walker" and "very restless."

It was conceivable that the girl might have doubled back and waylaid Allen on the road. Or perhaps she had met him by appointment. He had admitted that he was becoming increasingly subject to her will. But how could she have induced him to go off to the schooner, and how had they gone? No boat had been sighted along the beach (we had looked for one through Butler's glasses on our return to the landing), and none was reported missing from the harbour. The Chief had inquired on that latter point while we were with him at the Station.

And how had Rona, or anyone else for that matter, been able to get the better of such a man as Allen, fully armed and on the alert as I knew him to have been, and noted for his resourcefulness in emergency? That train of thought reminded me that we had found no arms on Allen when we released him. His right coat-pocket was empty, and so was the knife-sheath on his right hip. But his pocketbook, containing a considerable amount in notes, had not been taken.... It was all too much for my tired brain, which, ready enough to suggest questions, was quite incapable of grappling with them. When I drove into the home clearing I was wondering whether the broken glass I had noticed in the bottom of the cockpit was that from the whisky bottle Allen had told me Rona had thrown at him the morning Bell gave up the fight.

I was horribly tired, both in mind and body, and hoped that, with a glass or two of absinthe to relax my nerves, I might be able to sleep at least through the heat of the noonday. Shifting into my pajamas,-after telling Suey, my China boy, that I would not want lunch and not to disturb me until I sent for him,-I crawled under the mosquito-net and tried to drop off. But it was no use. No sooner would I begin to doze than the expiring images of my thoughts would shuffle up and sharpen with a steel-clicking suddenness into the dread likeness of The Face, with its dilated eyes boring me to the spine.

At the end of a couple of hours of fevered tossing, I gave it up, threw off my pajamas, stepped to the low back-window ledge and took a header into the cool green pool below. The Face dissolved as the thrill of the refreshing embrace of the water ran through my blood, but only to return when, after donning a fresh suit of drills, I began a restless pacing of the floor of the big living-room-my studio. Always it flashed a pace or two ahead of me, floating backward as I advanced upon it and swinging with me at the end of the room. I could not wheel swiftly enough to lose it, and it made no difference whether my eyes were opened or closed. I tried it both ways.

It was in the course of an experimental lap I was trying with my hands over my eyes that I bumped into the big rectangle of canvas I had prepared in advance against the day I should be ready to start work on "The Saving of the Black-birder." Ten seconds later I was pawing over my colours with feverish haste. The idea swimming in my head had crystallized. It was, in effect: Put The Face on canvas and it will cease to haunt and harrow your mind. That sounded reasonable. Certainly The Face couldn't be in two places at once, and if I once got it anchored to the canvas I could cover it up when I wanted to get away from it. It would all depend upon how faithfully I did my work, something told me. If the face on the canvas was a replica of the other to a hair, to a line, to the fear in the hell-haunted eyes, then the phantom face would enter into it and become subject to my control. If not-then I would never know sleep nor peace while I continued to live.

No artist can ever have approached a task under empire of the flaming intensity I threw into this one. I was painting to save my reason, perhaps my life. That is not a figure of speech. I mean it quite literally, for I am convinced to this day that I stumbled upon the only path that would have led me clear of complete mental and physical collapse.

There was a rather remarkable coincidence in connection with the way I started to work. Nothing told me that those first nervous slashes of my brush signalized the beginning of a picture the fame of which was destined to reach the outposts of the civilized world before the year was out. All thought of "The Black-birder" was erased from my mind. I had no idea of a picture in my head. I was not even beginning to work upon a figure. I was only conscious that I was going to put all I had into the task of reproducing-recreating, if that were possible-with coloured pigments a phantom of my brain-a face-The Face.

I had no thought, I say, of beginning a picture. I sketched nothing in, not even the outline of the haunting shadow I was going to try to capture. A very few minutes after I began squeezing out colours onto my palette I was smearing them upon a patch of the big six-feet-by-ten expanse of woven cotton in front of me. The coincidence I have mentioned became apparent some weeks later, when I discovered that, of all the sixty square feet of canvas before me, the something less than one square foot upon which I concentrated my paint and energies for the next thirty hours chanced to be in exactly the place it had to be for the result of my effort to assume its proper place in a somewhat intricate composition. I will tell of that in due course.

Save for the strain of the terrible tension under which I worked, the task to which I had set myself proved absolutely the simplest I ever attempted. It seemed that I could not go wrong. It was not like painting a face from memory, nor yet like painting one from a model. It was more like colouring a photograph, for the image, terrible as life, was right there on the canvas at the end of my arm. At first, as I tried to visualize it at shorter range than the five or six feet at which it had been floating, it was a bit hazy; but presently my intense concentration of mind had its reward. The dreadful phantom drew nearer, increased in detail, and finally sharpened into clear focus at the tip of my brush. After that I became just a meticulously faithful retoucher, working in a trance.

It was toward the middle of the afternoon when Suey came in to ask if I was going to be home for dinner. He was becoming used to my queer ways, and, when I failed to take any notice of his reiterated query, came over and touched me on the shoulder. I "came out" with a start, but gathered my wits quickly. I told Suey that I should probably be working steadily for the next day or two and would want nothing to eat until I was finished. If he would bring me a bowl of cracked ice every hour and see that no one was allowed in to bother me, it would be all I should want of him. He replied with a laconic "Can do," and backed out toward the kitchen as though I had asked for curry-and-rice for dinner, or ordered something else equally rational and matter-of-fact.

I settled back into my spell of tranced concentration with scarcely an effort, working swiftly and surely, with never a pause. The "drawing" was all done for me, and even in the matter of colours there was no hesitation. Exactly the proper shade or tint drew my brush like a magnet; and always it was applied with telling effect.

The sunset shadows of the western hills were driving their black wedges across the satiny sheen of the light-flickering levels of the waving sugar-cane when I became aware that a sound I had been conscious of for some time had suddenly changed and intensified. If my mind had tried to catalogue the clear notes that had been floating in through the north window, it was probably to credit them to a certain bell-bird friend of mine who was in the habit of ringing his vesper chimes from a leafy chapel in the big bottle tree toward the end of the afternoon. But there was nothing bird-like in the quick staccato of eager yelps that had been responsible for bringing me, with ears and interest a-cock, out of my trance. "Dogs closing in for a kill," I muttered to myself, realizing that it had been the distant baying of hounds on a hot scent that I had confused with the more imminent chiming of my Austral bell-ringing neighbour. The sounds came from a long way off-probably from somewhere in the dense bush beyond the farther borders of the cane fields. It was a northerly hauling of the wind that brought them down to me so clearly. The air had been charged and

electric all day, and the breaking up of the trade wind indicated that a hurricane was mustering its forces somewhere up among the Islands. I had not looked at the barometer on the veranda, but knew that it must be registering a considerable fall.

The crack of a single shot drifted down the wind as the yelping reached its climax. Then all was quiet in the distance, with only an occasional cackling guffaw of a "laughing jackass" ripping across the silence that brooded nearer at hand. I didn't know what there was to hunt in that particular neck of Queensland, but thought it might be kangaroos or dingoes. It wasn't of enough interest to waste time in speculating upon it, just then in any event.

Daylight had given way to twilight, and twilight to moonlight, before I stopped work again, this time to respond to an insistent ringing of the telephone bell. Oakes' deep voice came excitedly over the wire. "I thought you would be interested to know that Rawdon's dogs tracked down 'Squid' Saunders this afternoon," it said. "He has just been brought in. Bullet through his shoulder, but not a serious wound. The report went around that he had confessed to the attack on Hartley Allen, and the town went wild. Only the Chief's nerve prevented a lynching, and there may be trouble yet. Never saw the people so excited." In response to my inquiry about Allen, Oakes said that he had been drugged to sleep early in the afternoon, and that there was no use trying to forecast what turn things would take until he came out.

"That clears Rona, at any rate," was my thought as I drained a glass of iced absinthe and picked up my brush again. I found it just a shade harder materializing The Face than it had been at first, but managed it at the end of a minute or two of close concentration. Save for an occasional pause for a sip of absinthe, I worked steadily on through the night.

* * *

To make clear what transpired the following day, it will be well to set down at this point a few things which I only learned in a conversation with the Chief of Police after the last act of the drama was played to a finish and the curtain rung down. Contrary to the understanding of Dr. Oakes, and all the rest of the people of Townsville with the exception of the Chief of Police and a couple of his assistants, "Squid" Saunders had not confessed. From what he had said in the presence of all his captors, however, it was easy to see how the story had originated. He admitted quite freely to Rawdon, after the latter had called off his dogs and was lending a hand to plug up the puncture in "Squid's" shoulder, that his one purpose in returning had been to settle his account with "Slant" Allen. He also said that he would rather be strung up straightaway than to be sent back to West Australia and begin, at sixty, serving out a twenty-odd-year sentence.

That was about all Saunders said at the time of his capture, but later, after expressing himself to the Chief of Police to similar effect, he went a little further. He averred frankly that curiosity had always been one of his most pronounced characteristics, and, while he entertained only the kindliest feelings for whoever it was that had been responsible for tying up "Slant" Allen and leaving him alone to meditate upon his past, he couldn't help wondering about the identity of a man able to pull off such a cleverly thought-out and executed piece of business. Might he not suggest to the Chief that the latter try to find some trifle that this bright-minded and quick-handed cove had left behind on the schooner, and see if those sharp-nosed-yes, and sharp-teethed-dogs of his couldn't be put on the owner's trail. They appeared a very likely lot of hounds, especially that big black-and-tan brute with a chewed ear, who had broken away from the ruck and fastened his teeth in the "Squid's" calf.

This all struck the straightforward, open-minded Chief as entirely reasonable. It was only fair to Saunders, too, and since saving him from the mob that afternoon the Chief had come to take a sort of proprietary interest in his prisoner. Going off to the schooner in the morning he found a small fragment of red rag in the cockpit, which, though it was greasy and dirty, did not show signs of exposure to the weather, and must, therefore, have been left comparatively recently. It was a six-by-eight-inch piece of flowered red calico, of the kind used by the natives of all parts of the South Seas for waist-cloths. Even if he wasn't able to locate the particular sulu from which it was torn, the Chief reckoned that it would give the dogs something to go by.

Rawdon's "nigger-chasers" were of a foxhound-bloodhound cross that the old ex-bushranger had bred especially for the purpose of chivvying down runaway blacks from the sugar plantations. The swart sextette displayed a very encouraging interest in the greasy rag the Chief brought them to sniff; so much so, indeed, that they were far from drained of enthusiasm at the end of a bootless day's nosing up and down the coast for tracks that gave back the same ingratiating aroma. It looked quite good enough to warrant going on with the game the following morning, Rawdon pronounced, as he started back on foot for his kennels on the southwest outskirts of town. (The old chap had some kind of a theory about its being destructive to a hound's keeness to tote him around on wheels: also, he had stumbled upon many trails where he least expected them, even in the town.)

Rawdon was striding a couple of blocks ahead of his two helpers when, crossing the town end of the main westerly highway to the hills, the dog he was holding in leash-the big black-and-tan with the chewed ear, by far his keenest-nosed hound-broke away and set off up the side of the road in full cry. As there was no hope of trying to overtake him on foot, Rawdon waited for the other dogs to come up and catch the scent, cautioning his men to hold them well in leash and not to hurry until he rejoined them. Then he ran back a quarter of a mile to the Police Station to summon the Chief and get a horse.

This was about seven o'clock in the evening of Wednesday, the day after we had found Hartley Allen bound to the wheel of the Cora Andrews.

* * *

At the moment the big black-and-tan hound tore his leash out of Rawdon's hand and started to burn up the footpath beside the westerly hill road, I had been streaking a small patch of canvas with coloured pigments for something like thirty hours in a desperate endeavour to drive a phantom out of my brain. I was near to the end of my labours and-I could sense it already-close to victory. I had made a hard fight for it and I deserved to win. Using absinthe sparingly-as a fuel and a food rather than as a stimulant-and drawing upon my nerves for everything the drug would not provide, I had kept going steadily and was finishing strong.

There had been but one interruption since the night before. Early in the forenoon Captain "Choppy" Tancred had called up to say that he had brought his new command to anchor in the harbour the previous evening, and that, as he had a good twenty-four hours' loading to do, he hoped that we could find time to foregather for a bit of a yarn in the course of the day. Would I come down and have lunch with him at the hotel, or would he drive up to me? He would rather prefer the former, as the barometer was down and he ought to remain where he could get off to his ship in a hurry if it came on to blow. I made the best excuse my wandering wits could frame, and hung up. The old boy's voluble protests were still clicking in the receiver as I returned it to its hook.

I had a hard time materializing my "model" again after that break, and it was fifteen or twenty minutes before I was sure enough of it to resume work. For a while, in the back of my brain, there was a flutter of apprehension that old "Choppy" would take it into his head to come up anyhow, and I was desperately afraid that I might not be able to "connect" again after another interruption-that I would fail to focus The Face at the one moment of all when I most needed it. There would have been comfort in that thought twenty-four hours earlier, but by now a desire to finish the portrait for its own sake seemed to have entered into me.

But my fears were groundless. "Choppy" was properly rebuffed, and had no intention of poking in where he "wasna weelcom'." (He told me so himself later.) There was no further interruption, save the negligible one of Suey and the cracked ice, sharp on every hour. As the sunset faded and the twilight flooded the valley with luminous purple mist, I was finished-or nearly finished. The Face was all but complete on the canvas now, and all but erased from my brain. It had taken an intense effort of concentration to hold it while I put the last touch on that writhen lip, as it curled back in a snarl from the bared teeth. But I did it. And now-just a stroke in that whorl of iris to accentuate the abnormal dilation, to fix the horror in that ghastly stare! Slowly the image sharpened in my brain. Again the fear-haunted eyes held my own. Now! I was just darting my delicately poised brush forward when the sound of voices from the veranda arrested the colour-daubed tip a hair short of the blurring eye its touch would have made a hopeless smudge. "Maskey-no can do!" came in Suey's brusque pidgin; and then, following a sudden scuffle and the sharp click of the latch, a familiar chirrup floated to my ears. "Let me in, Whit-nee! Hur-ree, ple-ese, Whit-nee!" was what it said.

* * *

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