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´╗┐Title: Dearest
Author: Piper, H. Beam, 1904-1964
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Dearest" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



Transcriber's Note:

This etext was produced from Weird Tales March 1951. Extensive research
did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was
renewed.



[Illustration: "Get him to tell you about this invisible playmate of
his."]

Heading by Vincent Napoli



   DEAREST

    BY

  H. BEAM PIPER


Colonel Ashley Hampton chewed his cigar and forced himself to relax, his
glance slowly traversing the room, lingering on the mosaic of
book-spines in the tall cases, the sunlight splashed on the faded pastel
colors of the carpet, the soft-tinted autumn landscape outside the
French windows, the trophies of Indian and Filipino and German weapons
on the walls. He could easily feign relaxation here in the library of
"Greyrock," as long as he looked only at these familiar inanimate
things and avoided the five people gathered in the room with him, for
all of them were enemies.

There was his nephew, Stephen Hampton, greying at the temples but
youthfully dressed in sports-clothes, leaning with obvious if slightly
premature proprietorship against the fireplace, a whiskey-and-soda in
his hand. There was Myra, Stephen's smart, sophisticated-looking blonde
wife, reclining in a chair beside the desk. For these two, he felt an
implacable hatred. The others were no less enemies, perhaps more
dangerous enemies, but they were only the tools of Stephen and Myra. For
instance, T. Barnwell Powell, prim and self-satisfied, sitting on the
edge of his chair and clutching the briefcase on his lap as though it
were a restless pet which might attempt to escape. He was an honest man,
as lawyers went; painfully ethical. No doubt he had convinced himself
that his clients were acting from the noblest and most disinterested
motives. And Doctor Alexis Vehrner, with his Vandyke beard and his
Viennese accent as phony as a Soviet-controlled election, who had
preempted the chair at Colonel Hampton's desk. That rankled the old
soldier, but Doctor Vehrner would want to assume the position which
would give him appearance of commanding the situation, and he probably
felt that Colonel Hampton was no longer the master of "Greyrock." The
fifth, a Neanderthal type in a white jacket, was Doctor Vehrner's
attendant and bodyguard; he could be ignored, like an enlisted man
unthinkingly obeying the orders of a superior.

"But you are not cooperating, Colonel Hampton," the psychiatrist
complained. "How can I help you if you do not cooperate?"

Colonel Hampton took the cigar from his mouth. His white mustache,
tinged a faint yellow by habitual smoking, twitched angrily.

"Oh; you call it helping me, do you?" he asked acidly.

"But why else am I here?" the doctor parried.

"You're here because my loving nephew and his charming wife can't wait
to see me buried in the family cemetery; they want to bury me alive in
that private Bedlam of yours," Colonel Hampton replied.

"See!" Myra Hampton turned to the psychiatrist. "We are _persecuting_
him! We are all _envious_ of him! We are _plotting against_ him!"

"Of course; this sullen and suspicious silence is a common paranoid
symptom; one often finds such symptoms in cases of senile dementia,"
Doctor Vehrner agreed.

Colonel Hampton snorted contemptuously. Senile dementia! Well, he must
have been senile and demented, to bring this pair of snakes into his
home, because he felt an obligation to his dead brother's memory. And
he'd willed "Greyrock," and his money, and everything, to Stephen. Only
Myra couldn't wait till he died; she'd Lady-Macbethed her husband into
this insanity accusation.

"... however, I must fully satisfy myself, before I can sign the
commitment," the psychiatrist was saying. "After all, the patient is a
man of advanced age. Seventy-eight, to be exact."

Seventy-eight; almost eighty. Colonel Hampton could hardly realize that
he had been around so long. He had been a little boy, playing soldiers.
He had been a young man, breaking the family tradition of Harvard and
wangling an appointment to West Point. He had been a new second lieutenant
at a little post in Wyoming, in the last dying flicker of the Indian Wars.
He had been a first lieutenant, trying to make soldiers of militiamen and
hoping for orders to Cuba before the Spaniards gave up. He had been the
hard-bitten captain of a hard-bitten company, fighting Moros in the
jungles of Mindanao. Then, through the early years of the Twentieth
Century, after his father's death, he had been that _rara avis_ in the
American service, a really wealthy professional officer. He had played
polo, and served a turn as military attache at the Paris embassy. He had
commanded a regiment in France in 1918, and in the post-war years, had
rounded out his service in command of a regiment of Negro cavalry, before
retiring to "Greyrock." Too old for active service, or even a desk at the
Pentagon, he had drilled a Home Guard company of 4-Fs and boys and paunchy
middle-agers through the Second World War. Then he had been an old man,
sitting alone in the sunlight ... until a wonderful thing had happened.

"Get him to tell you about this invisible playmate of his," Stephen
suggested. "If that won't satisfy you, I don't know what will."

       *       *       *       *       *

It had begun a year ago last June. He had been sitting on a bench on the
east lawn, watching a kitten playing with a crumpled bit of paper on the
walk, circling warily around it as though it were some living prey,
stalking cautiously, pouncing and striking the paper ball with a paw and
then pursuing it madly. The kitten, whose name was Smokeball, was a
friend of his; soon she would tire of her game and jump up beside him to
be petted.

Then suddenly, he seemed to hear a girl's voice beside him:

"Oh, what a darling little cat! What's its name?"

"Smokeball," he said, without thinking. "She's about the color of a
shrapnel-burst...." Then he stopped short, looking about. There was
nobody in sight, and he realized that the voice had been inside his head
rather than in his ear.

"What the devil?" he asked himself. "Am I going nuts?"

There was a happy little laugh inside of him, like bubbles rising in a
glass of champagne.

"Oh, no; I'm really here," the voice, inaudible but mentally present,
assured him. "You can't see me, or touch me, or even really hear me, but
I'm not something you just imagined. I'm just as real as ... as
Smokeball, there. Only I'm a different kind of reality. Watch."

The voice stopped, and something that had seemed to be close to him left
him. Immediately, the kitten stopped playing with the crumpled paper and
cocked her head to one side, staring fixedly as at something above her.
He'd seen cats do that before--stare wide-eyed and entranced, as though
at something wonderful which was hidden from human eyes. Then, still
looking up and to the side, Smokeball trotted over and jumped onto his
lap, but even as he stroked her, she was looking at an invisible
something beside him. At the same time, he had a warm and pleasant
feeling, as of a happy and affectionate presence near him.

"No," he said, slowly and judicially. "That's not just my imagination.
But who--or what--are you?"

"I'm.... Oh, I don't know how to think it so that you'll understand."
The voice inside his head seemed baffled, like a physicist trying to
explain atomic energy to a Hottentot. "I'm not material. If you can
imagine a mind that doesn't need a brain to think with.... Oh, I can't
explain it now! But when I'm talking to you, like this, I'm really
thinking inside your brain, along with your own mind, and you hear the
words without there being any sound. And you just don't know any words
that would express it."

He had never thought much, one way or another, about spiritualism. There
had been old people, when he had been a boy, who had told stories of
ghosts and apparitions, with the firmest conviction that they were true.
And there had been an Irishman, in his old company in the Philippines,
who swore that the ghost of a dead comrade walked post with him when he
was on guard.

"Are you a spirit?" he asked. "I mean, somebody who once lived in a
body, like me?"

"N-no." The voice inside him seemed doubtful. "That is, I don't think
so. I know about spirits; they're all around, everywhere. But I don't
think I'm one. At least, I've always been like I am now, as long as I
can remember. Most spirits don't seem to sense me. I can't reach most
living people, either; their minds are closed to me, or they have such
disgusting minds I can't bear to touch them. Children are open to me,
but when they tell their parents about me, they are laughed at, or
punished for lying, and then they close up against me. You're the first
grown-up person I've been able to reach for a long time."

"Probably getting into my second childhood," Colonel Hampton grunted.

"Oh, but you mustn't be ashamed of that!" the invisible entity told him.
"That's the beginning of real wisdom--becoming childlike again. One of
your religious teachers said something like that, long ago, and a long
time before that, there was a Chinaman whom people called Venerable
Child, because his wisdom had turned back again to a child's
simplicity."

"That was Lao Tze," Colonel Hampton said, a little surprised. "Don't
tell me you've been around that long."

"Oh, but I have! Longer than that; oh, for very long." And yet the voice
he seemed to be hearing was the voice of a young girl. "You don't mind
my coming to talk to you?" it continued. "I get so lonely, so dreadfully
lonely, you see."

"Urmh! So do I," Colonel Hampton admitted. "I'm probably going bats, but
what the hell? It's a nice way to go bats, I'll say that.... Stick
around; whoever you are, and let's get acquainted. I sort of like you."

A feeling of warmth suffused him, as though he had been hugged by
someone young and happy and loving.

"Oh, I'm glad. I like you, too; you're nice!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Yes, of course." Doctor Vehrner nodded sagely. "That is a schizoid
tendency; the flight from reality into a dream-world peopled by
creatures of the imagination. You understand, there is usually a mixture
of psychotic conditions, in cases like this. We will say that this case
begins with simple senile dementia--physical brain degeneration, a
result of advanced age. Then the paranoid symptoms appear; he imagines
himself surrounded by envious enemies, who are conspiring against him.
The patient then withdraws into himself, and in his self-imposed
isolation, he conjures up imaginary companionship. I have no doubt...."

In the beginning, he had suspected that this unseen visitor was no more
than a figment of his own lonely imagination, but as the days passed,
this suspicion vanished. Whatever this entity might be, an entity it
was, entirely distinct from his own conscious or subconscious mind.

At first she--he had early come to think of the being as feminine--had
seemed timid, fearful lest her intrusions into his mind prove a
nuisance. It took some time for him to assure her that she was always
welcome. With time, too, his impression of her grew stronger and more
concrete. He found that he was able to visualize her, as he might
visualize something remembered, or conceived of in imagination--a lovely
young girl, slender and clothed in something loose and filmy, with
flowers in her honey-colored hair, and clear blue eyes, a pert, cheerful
face, a wide, smiling mouth and an impudently up-tilted nose. He
realized that this image was merely a sort of allegorical
representation, his own private object-abstraction from a reality which
his senses could never picture as it existed.

It was about this time that he had begun to call her Dearest. She had
given him no name, and seemed quite satisfied with that one.

"I've been thinking," she said, "I ought to have a name for you, too. Do
you mind if I call you Popsy?"

"Huh?" He had been really startled at that. If he needed any further
proof of Dearest's independent existence, that was it. Never, in the
uttermost depths of his subconscious, would he have been likely to label
himself Popsy. "Know what they used to call me in the Army?" he asked.
"Slaughterhouse Hampton. They claimed I needed a truckload of sawdust to
follow me around and cover up the blood." He chuckled. "Nobody but you
would think of calling me Popsy."

There was a price, he found, that he must pay for Dearest's
companionship--the price of eternal vigilance. He found that he was
acquiring the habit of opening doors and then needlessly standing aside
to allow her to precede him. And, although she insisted that he need not
speak aloud to her, that she could understand any thought which he
directed to her, he could not help actually pronouncing the words, if
only in a faint whisper. He was glad that he had learned, before the end
of his plebe year at West Point, to speak without moving his lips.

Besides himself and the kitten, Smokeball, there was one other at
"Greyrock" who was aware, if only faintly, of Dearest's presence. That
was old Sergeant Williamson, the Colonel's Negro servant, a retired
first sergeant from the regiment he had last commanded. With increasing
frequency, he would notice the old Negro pause in his work, as though
trying to identify something too subtle for his senses, and then shake
his head in bewilderment.

One afternoon in early October--just about a year ago--he had been
reclining in a chair on the west veranda, smoking a cigar and trying to
re-create, for his companion, a mental picture of an Indian camp as he
had seen it in Wyoming in the middle '90's, when Sergeant Williamson
came out from the house, carrying a pair of the Colonel's field-boots
and a polishing-kit. Unaware of the Colonel's presence, he set down his
burden, squatted on the floor and began polishing the boots, humming
softly to himself. Then he must have caught a whiff of the Colonel's
cigar. Raising his head, he saw the Colonel, and made as though to pick
up the boots and polishing equipment.

"Oh, that's all right, Sergeant," the Colonel told him. "Carry on with
what you're doing. There's room enough for both of us here."

"Yessuh; thank yo', suh." The old ex-sergeant resumed his soft humming,
keeping time with the brush in his hand.

"You know, Popsy, I think he knows I'm here," Dearest said. "Nothing
definite, of course; he just feels there's something here that he can't
see."

"I wonder. I've noticed something like that. Funny, he doesn't seem to
mind, either. Colored people are usually scary about ghosts and spirits
and the like.... I'm going to ask him." He raised his voice. "Sergeant,
do you seem to notice anything peculiar around here, lately?"

The repetitious little two-tone melody broke off short. The
soldier-servant lifted his face and looked into the Colonel's. His brow
wrinkled, as though he were trying to express a thought for which he had
no words.

"Yo' notice dat, too, suh?" he asked. "Why, yessuh, Cunnel; Ah don' know
'zackly how t' say hit, but dey is som'n, at dat. Hit seems like ...
like a kinda ... a kinda _blessedness_." He chuckled. "Dat's hit,
Cunnel; dey's a blessedness. Wondeh iffen Ah's gittin' r'ligion, now?"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Well, all this is very interesting, I'm sure, Doctor," T. Barnwell
Powell was saying, polishing his glasses on a piece of tissue and
keeping one elbow on his briefcase at the same time. "But really, it's
not getting us anywhere, so to say. You know, we must have that
commitment signed by you. Now, is it or is it not your opinion that this
man is of unsound mind?"

"Now, have patience, Mr. Powell," the psychiatrist soothed him. "You
must admit that as long as this gentleman refuses to talk, I cannot be
said to have interviewed him."

"What if he won't talk?" Stephen Hampton burst out. "We've told you
about his behavior; how he sits for hours mumbling to this imaginary
person he thinks is with him, and how he always steps aside when he
opens a door, to let somebody who isn't there go through ahead of him,
and how.... Oh, hell, what's the use? If he were in his right mind, he'd
speak up and try to prove it, wouldn't he? What do you say, Myra?"

Myra was silent, and Colonel Hampton found himself watching her with
interest. Her mouth had twisted into a wry grimace, and she was
clutching the arms of her chair until her knuckles whitened. She seemed
to be in some intense pain. Colonel Hampton hoped she were; preferably
with something slightly fatal.

       *       *       *       *       *

Sergeant Williamson's suspicion that he might be getting religion became
a reality, for a time, that winter, after The Miracle.

It had been a blustery day in mid-January, with a high wind driving
swirls of snow across the fields, and Colonel Hampton, fretting indoors
for several days, decided to go out and fill his lungs with fresh air.
Bundled warmly, swinging his blackthorn cane, he had set out,
accompanied by Dearest, to tramp cross-country to the village, three
miles from "Greyrock." They had enjoyed the walk through the white
wind-swept desolation, the old man and his invisible companion, until
the accident had happened.

A sheet of glassy ice had lain treacherously hidden under a skift of
snow; when he stepped upon it, his feet shot from under him, the stick
flew from his hand, and he went down. When he tried to rise, he found
that he could not. Dearest had been almost frantic.

"Oh, Popsy, you must get up!" she cried. "You'll freeze if you don't.
Come on, Popsy; try again!"

He tried, in vain. His old body would not obey his will.

"It's no use, Dearest; I can't. Maybe it's just as well," he said.
"Freezing's an easy death, and you say people live on as spirits, after
they die. Maybe we can always be together, now."

"I don't know. I don't want you to die yet, Popsy. I never was able to
get through to a spirit, and I'm afraid.... Wait! Can you crawl a
little? Enough to get over under those young pines?"

"I think so." His left leg was numb, and he believed that it was broken.
"I can try."

He managed to roll onto his back, with his head toward the clump of pine
seedlings. Using both hands and his right heel, he was able to propel
himself slowly through the snow until he was out of the worst of the
wind.

"That's good; now try to cover yourself," Dearest advised. "Put your
hands in your coat pockets. And wait here; I'll try to get help."

Then she left him. For what seemed a long time, he lay motionless in the
scant protection of the young pines, suffering miserably. He began to
grow drowsy. As soon as he realized what was happening, he was
frightened, and the fright pulled him awake again. Soon he felt himself
drowsing again. By shifting his position, he caused a jab of pain from
his broken leg, which brought him back to wakefulness. Then the deadly
drowsiness returned.

       *       *       *       *       *

This time, he was wakened by a sharp voice, mingled with a throbbing
sound that seemed part of a dream of the cannonading in the Argonne.

"Dah! Look-a dah!" It was, he realized, Sergeant Williamson's voice.
"Gittin' soft in de haid, is Ah, yo' ol' wuthless no-'count?"

He turned his face, to see the battered jeep from "Greyrock," driven by
Arthur, the stableman and gardener, with Sergeant Williamson beside him.
The older Negro jumped to the ground and ran toward him. At the same
time, he felt Dearest with him again.

"We made it, Popsy! We made it!" she was exulting. "I was afraid I'd
never make him understand, but I did. And you should have seen him bully
that other man into driving the jeep. Are you all right, Popsy?"

"Is yo' all right, Cunnel?" Sergeant Williamson was asking.

"My leg's broken, I think, but outside of that I'm all right," he
answered both of them. "How did you happen to find me, Sergeant?"

The old Negro soldier rolled his eyes upward. "Cunnel, hit war a mi'acle
of de blessed Lawd!" he replied, solemnly. "An angel of de Lawd done
appeahed unto me." He shook his head slowly. "Ah's a sinful man, Cunnel;
Ah couldn't see de angel face to face, but de glory of de angel was
befoh me, an' guided me."

They used his cane and a broken-off bough to splint the leg; they
wrapped him in a horse-blanket and hauled him back to "Greyrock" and put
him to bed, with Dearest clinging solicitously to him. The fractured leg
knit slowly, though the physician was amazed at the speed with which,
considering his age, he made recovery, and with his unfailing
cheerfulness. He did not know, of course, that he was being assisted by
an invisible nurse. For all that, however, the leaves on the oaks around
"Greyrock" were green again before Colonel Hampton could leave his bed
and hobble about the house on a cane.

Arthur, the young Negro who had driven the jeep, had become one of the
most solid pillars of the little A.M.E. church beyond the village, as a
result. Sergeant Williamson had also become an attendant at church for a
while, and then stopped. Without being able to define, or spell, or even
pronounce the term, Sergeant Williamson was a strict pragmatist. Most
Africans are, even five generations removed from the slave-ship that
brought their forefathers from the Dark Continent. And Sergeant
Williamson could not find the blessedness at the church. Instead, it
seemed to center about the room where his employer and former regiment
commander lay. That, to his mind, was quite reasonable. If an Angel of
the Lord was going to tarry upon earth, the celestial being would
naturally prefer the society of a retired U.S.A. colonel to that of a
passel of triflin', no-'counts at an ol' clapboard church house. Be that
as it may, he could always find the blessedness in Colonel Hampton's
room, and sometimes, when the Colonel would be asleep, the blessedness
would follow him out and linger with him for a while.

       *       *       *       *       *

Colonel Hampton wondered, anxiously, where Dearest was, now. He had not
felt her presence since his nephew had brought his lawyer and the
psychiatrist into the house. He wondered if she had voluntarily
separated herself from him for fear he might give her some sign of
recognition that these harpies would fasten upon as an evidence of
unsound mind. He could not believe that she had deserted him entirely,
now when he needed her most....

"Well, what can I do?" Doctor Vehrner was complaining. "You bring me
here to interview him, and he just sits there and does nothing.... Will
you consent to my giving him an injection of sodium pentathol?"

"Well, I don't know, now," T. Barnwell Powell objected. "I've heard of
that drug--one of the so-called 'truth-serum' drugs. I doubt if
testimony taken under its influence would be admissible in a court...."

"This is not a court, Mr. Powell," the doctor explained patiently. "And
I am not taking testimony; I am making a diagnosis. Pentathol is a
recognized diagnostic agent."

"Go ahead," Stephen Hampton said. "Anything to get this over with....
You agree, Myra?"

Myra said nothing. She simply sat, with staring eyes, and clutched the
arms of her chair as though to keep from slipping into some dreadful
abyss. Once a low moan escaped from her lips.

"My wife is naturally overwrought by this painful business," Stephen
said. "I trust that you gentlemen will excuse her.... Hadn't you better
go and lie down somewhere, Myra?"

She shook her head violently, moaning again. Both the doctor and the
attorney were looking at her curiously.

"Well, I object to being drugged," Colonel Hampton said, rising. "And
what's more, I won't submit to it."

"Albert!" Doctor Vehrner said sharply, nodding toward the Colonel. The
pithecanthropoid attendant in the white jacket hastened forward, pinned
his arms behind him and dragged him down into the chair. For an instant,
the old man tried to resist, then, realizing the futility and undignity
of struggling, subsided. The psychiatrist had taken a leather case from
his pocket and was selecting a hypodermic needle.

Then Myra Hampton leaped to her feet, her face working hideously.

"No! Stop! Stop!" she cried.

Everybody looked at her in surprise, Colonel Hampton no less than the
others. Stephen Hampton called out her name sharply.

"No! You shan't do this to me! You shan't! You're torturing me! you are
all devils!" she screamed. "Devils! _Devils!_"

"Myra!" her husband barked, stepping forward.

With a twist, she eluded him, dashing around the desk and pulling open a
drawer.

For an instant, she fumbled inside it, and when she brought her hand up,
she had Colonel Hampton's .45 automatic in it. She drew back the slide
and released it, loading the chamber.

Doctor Vehrner, the hypodermic in his hand, turned. Stephen Hampton
sprang at her, dropping his drink. And Albert, the prognathous
attendant, released Colonel Hampton and leaped at the woman with the
pistol, with the unthinking promptness of a dog whose master is in
danger.

Stephen Hampton was the closest to her; she shot him first, point-blank
in the chest. The heavy bullet knocked him backward against a small
table; he and it fell over together. While he was falling, the woman
turned, dipped the muzzle of her pistol slightly and fired again; Doctor
Vehrner's leg gave way under him and he went down, the hypodermic flying
from his hand and landing at Colonel Hampton's feet. At the same time,
the attendant, Albert, was almost upon her. Quickly, she reversed the
heavy Colt, pressed the muzzle against her heart, and fired a third
shot.

T. Barnwell Powell had let the briefcase slip to the floor; he was
staring, slack-jawed, at the tableau of violence which had been enacted
before him. The attendant, having reached Myra, was looking down at her
stupidly. Then he stooped, and straightened.

"She's dead!" he said, unbelievingly.

Colonel Hampton rose, putting his heel on the hypodermic and crushing
it.

"Of course she's dead!" he barked. "You have any first-aid training?
Then look after these other people. Doctor Vehrner first; the other
man's unconscious; he'll wait."

"No; look after the other man first," Doctor Vehrner said.

Albert gaped back and forth between them.

"Goddammit, you heard me!" Colonel Hampton roared. It was Slaughterhouse
Hampton, whose service-ribbons started with the Indian campaigns,
speaking; an officer who never for an instant imagined that his orders
would not be obeyed. "Get a tourniquet on that man's leg, you!" He
moderated his voice and manner about half a degree and spoke to Vehrner.
"You are not the doctor, you're the patient, now. You'll do as you're
told. Don't you know that a man shot in the leg with a .45 can bleed to
death without half trying?"

"Yo'-all do like de Cunnel says, 'r foh Gawd, yo'-all gwine wish yo'
had," Sergeant Williamson said, entering the room. "Git a move on."

He stood just inside the doorway, holding a silver-banded malacca
walking-stick that he had taken from the hall-stand. He was grasping it
in his left hand, below the band, with the crook out, holding it at his
side as though it were a sword in a scabbard, which was exactly what
that walking-stick was. Albert looked at him, and then back at Colonel
Hampton. Then, whipping off his necktie, he went down on his knees
beside Doctor Vehrner, skillfully applying the improvised tourniquet,
twisting it tight with an eighteen-inch ruler the Colonel took from the
desk and handed to him.

"Go get the first-aid kit, Sergeant," the Colonel said. "And hurry. Mr.
Stephen's been shot, too."

"Yessuh!" Sergeant Williamson executed an automatic salute and
about-face and raced from the room. The Colonel picked up the telephone
on the desk.

The County Hospital was three miles from "Greyrock"; the State Police
substation a good five. He dialed the State Police number first.

"Sergeant Mallard? Colonel Hampton, at 'Greyrock.' We've had a little
trouble here. My nephew's wife just went _juramentado_ with one of my
pistols, shot and wounded her husband and another man, and then shot and
killed herself.... Yes, indeed it is, Sergeant. I wish you'd send
somebody over here, as soon as possible, to take charge.... Oh, you
will? That's good.... No, it's all over, and nobody to arrest; just the
formalities.... Well, thank you, Sergeant."

The old Negro cavalryman re-entered the room, without the sword-cane and
carrying a heavy leather box on a strap over his shoulder. He set this
on the floor and opened it, then knelt beside Stephen Hampton. The
Colonel was calling the hospital.

"... gunshot wounds," he was saying. "One man in the chest and the other
in the leg, both with a .45 pistol. And you'd better send a doctor who's
qualified to write a death certificate; there was a woman killed,
too.... Yes, certainly; the State Police have been notified."

"Dis ain' so bad, Cunnel," Sergeant Williamson raised his head to say.
"Ah's seen men shot wuss'n dis dat was ma'ked 'Duty' inside a month,
suh."

Colonel Hampton nodded. "Well, get him fixed up as best you can, till
the ambulance gets here. And there's whiskey and glasses on that table,
over there. Better give Doctor Vehrner a drink." He looked at T.
Barnwell Powell, still frozen to his chair, aghast at the carnage around
him. "And give Mr. Powell a drink, too. He needs one."

He did, indeed. Colonel Hampton could have used a drink, too; the
library looked like beef-day at an Indian agency. But he was still
Slaughterhouse Hampton, and consequently could not afford to exhibit
queasiness.

It was then, for the first time since the business had started that he
felt the presence of Dearest.

"Oh, Popsy, are you all right?" the voice inside his head was asking.
"It's all over, now; you won't have anything to worry about, any more.
But, oh, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to do it!"

"My God, Dearest!" He almost spoke aloud. "Did you make her do that?"

"Popsy!" The voice in his mind was grief-stricken. "You.... You're
afraid of me! Never be afraid of Dearest, Popsy! And don't hate me for
this. It was the only thing I could do. If he'd given you that
injection, he could have made you tell him all about us, and then he'd
have been sure you were crazy, and they'd have taken you away. And they
treat people dreadfully at that place of his. You'd have been driven
really crazy before long, and then your mind would have been closed to
me, so that I wouldn't have been able to get through to you, any more.
What I did was the only thing I could do."

"I don't hate you, Dearest," he replied, mentally. "And I don't blame
you. It was a little disconcerting, though, to discover the extent of
your capabilities.... How did you manage it?"

"You remember how I made the Sergeant see an angel, the time you were
down in the snow?" Colonel Hampton nodded. "Well, I made her see ...
things that weren't angels," Dearest continued. "After I'd driven her
almost to distraction, I was able to get into her mind and take control
of her." Colonel Hampton felt a shudder inside of him. "That was
horrible; that woman had a mind like a sewer; I still feel dirty from
it! But I made her get the pistol--I knew where you kept it--and I knew
how to use it, even if she didn't. Remember when we were shooting
muskrats, that time, along the river?"

"Uhuh. I wondered how she knew enough to unlock the action and load the
chamber." He turned and faced the others.

Doctor Vehrner was sitting on the floor, with his back to the chair
Colonel Hampton had occupied, his injured leg stretched out in front of
him. Albert was hovering over him with mother-hen solicitude. T.
Barnwell Powell was finishing his whiskey and recovering a fraction of
his normal poise.

"Well, I suppose you gentlemen see, now, who was really crazy around
here?" Colonel Hampton addressed them bitingly. "That woman has been
dangerously close to the borderline of sanity for as long as she's been
here. I think my precious nephew trumped up this ridiculous insanity
complaint against me as much to discredit any testimony I might ever
give about his wife's mental condition as because he wanted to get
control of my estate. I also suppose that the tension she was under
here, this afternoon, was too much for her, and the scheme boomeranged
on its originators. Curious case of poetic justice, but I'm sorry you
had to be included in it, Doctor."

"Attaboy, Popsy!" Dearest enthused. "Now you have them on the run; don't
give them a chance to re-form. You know what Patton always said--Grab
'em by the nose and kick 'em in the pants."

Colonel Hampton re-lighted his cigar. "Patton only said 'pants' when he
was talking for publication," he told her, _sotto voce_. Then he noticed
the unsigned commitment paper lying on the desk. He picked it up,
crumpled it, and threw it into the fire.

"I don't think you'll be needing that," he said. "You know, this isn't
the first time my loving nephew has expressed doubts as to my sanity."
He sat down in the chair at the desk, motioning to his servant to bring
him a drink. "And see to the other gentlemen's glasses, Sergeant," he
directed. "Back in 1929, Stephen thought I was crazy as a bedbug to sell
all my securities and take a paper loss, around the first of September.
After October 24th, I bought them back at about twenty per cent of what
I'd sold them for, after he'd lost his shirt." That, he knew, would have
an effect on T. Barnwell Powell. "And in December, 1944, I was just
plain nuts, selling all my munition shares and investing in a company
that manufactured baby-food. Stephen thought that Rundstedt's Ardennes
counter-offensive would put off the end of the war for another year and
a half!"

"Baby-food, eh?" Doctor Vehrner chuckled.

Colonel Hampton sipped his whiskey slowly, then puffed on his cigar.
"No, this pair were competent liars," he replied. "A good workmanlike
liar never makes up a story out of the whole cloth; he always takes a
fabric of truth and embroiders it to suit the situation." He smiled
grimly; that was an accurate description of his own tactical procedure
at the moment. "I hadn't intended this to come out, Doctor, but it
happens that I am a convinced believer in spiritualism. I suppose you'll
think that's a delusional belief, too?"

"Well...." Doctor Vehrner pursed his lips. "I reject the idea of
survival after death, myself, but I think that people who believe in
such a theory are merely misevaluating evidence. It is definitely not,
in itself, a symptom of a psychotic condition."

"Thank you, Doctor." The Colonel gestured with his cigar. "Now, I'll
admit their statements about my appearing to be in conversation with
some invisible or imaginary being. That's all quite true. I'm convinced
that I'm in direct-voice communication with the spirit of a young girl
who was killed by Indians in this section about a hundred and
seventy-five years ago. At first, she communicated by automatic writing;
later we established direct-voice communication. Well, naturally, a man
in my position would dislike the label of spirit-medium; there
are too many invidious associations connected with the term. But there
it is. I trust both of you gentlemen will remember the ethics of your
respective professions and keep this confidential."

"Oh, brother!" Dearest was fairly hugging him with delight. "When bigger
and better lies are told, we tell them, don't we, Popsy?"

"Yes, and try and prove otherwise," Colonel Hampton replied, around his
cigar. Then he blew a jet of smoke and spoke to the men in front of him.

"I intend paying for my nephew's hospitalization, and for his wife's
funeral," he said. "And then, I'm going to pack up all his personal
belongings, and all of hers; when he's discharged from the hospital,
I'll ship them wherever he wants them. But he won't be allowed to come
back here. After this business, I'm through with him."

T. Barnwell Powell nodded primly. "I don't blame you, in the least,
Colonel," he said. "I think you have been abominably treated, and your
attitude is most generous." He was about to say something else, when the
doorbell tinkled and Sergeant Williamson went out into the hall. "Oh,
dear; I suppose that's the police, now," the lawyer said. He grimaced
like a small boy in a dentist's chair.

Colonel Hampton felt Dearest leave him for a moment. Then she was back.

"The ambulance." Then he caught a sparkle of mischief in her mood.
"Let's have some fun, Popsy! The doctor is a young man, with brown hair
and a mustache, horn-rimmed glasses, a blue tie and a tan-leather bag.
One of the ambulance men has red hair, and the other has a
mercurochrome-stain on his left sleeve. Tell them your spirit-guide told
you."

The old soldier's tobacco-yellowed mustache twitched with amusement.

"No, gentlemen, it is the ambulance," he corrected. "My spirit-control
says...." He relayed Dearest's descriptions to them.

T. Barnwell Powell blinked. A speculative look came into the
psychiatrist's eyes; he was probably wishing the commitment paper hadn't
been destroyed.

Then the doctor came bustling in, brown-mustached, blue-tied,
spectacled, carrying a tan bag, and behind him followed the two
ambulance men, one with a thatch of flaming red hair and the other with
a stain of mercurochrome on his jacket-sleeve.

For an instant, the lawyer and the psychiatrist gaped at them. Then T.
Barnwell Powell put one hand to his mouth and made a small gibbering
sound, and Doctor Vehrner gave a faint squawk, and then both men
grabbed, simultaneously, for the whiskey bottle.

The laughter of Dearest tinkled inaudibly through the rumbling mirth of
Colonel Hampton.


The End



TYPOGRAPHICAL ERRORS CORRECTED

In the text: "... a man in my position would dislike the label of
spirit-medium;" the word "meduim" was corrected to "medium."





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