Animal Ghosts or Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter by Elliott O'Donnell
VII BIRDS AND THE UNKNOWN
"Humph," he said at last. "As you so rightly observed, Henri, this is a remarkable case. I have finished my investigation for to-night. Let us be going home. To-morrow I should like to visit Marthe's home."
This conversation took place shortly before midnight; some six hours later all Orskaia was ringing with the news that Marthe Popenkoff's three children had all been found dead in their beds, their faces and bodies lacerated in exactly the same manner as their mother's. There seemed to be no doubt now that Marthe had been murdered, and the populace cried shame on the police; for the assassin was still at large. They agreed that the murderer could be no other than Peter Popenkoff, and the editor of the local paper repeating these statements, Peter Popenkoff was duly charged with the crimes, and arrested. He was pronounced guilty by all excepting M. Hersant; and of course M. Hersant thought him guilty, too; only he liked to think differently from anyone else.
"I don't want to commit myself," was all they could get out of him. "I may have something to say later on."
M. Durant laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
"It, undoubtedly, is Peter Popenkoff," he observed. "I had an idea that he was the culprit all along."
But a day or two later, Peter Popenkoff was found dead in prison with the skin on his face and hands all torn to shreds.
"There! Didn't we say so?" cried the inconsequent mob. "Peter Popenkoff was innocent. One of the police themselves is the murderer."
"Come, you must acknowledge that we are on the right track now--it is one of the police," M. Durant said to his friend.
But M. Hersant only shook his head.
"I acknowledge nothing of the sort," he said. "Come with me to the mill-house to-night, and I will then tell you what I think."
To this proposition M. Durant willingly agreed, and, accompanied by his friend and the village priest, set off. On their arrival, M. Hersant produced a big compass, and on the earth floor of the mill-house drew a large circle, in which he made with white chalk various signs and symbols. He then sat in the middle of it, and bade his two companions stand in the doorway and watch. The night grew darker and darker, and presently into the air stole a something that all three men at once realized was supernatural. M. Hersant coughed nervously, the priest crossed himself, and M. Durant called out, "This is getting ridiculous. These mediśval proceedings are too absurd. Let us go home." The next moment, from the far distance, a church clock began to strike. It was midnight, and an impressive silence fell on the trio. Then there came a noise like the flutterings of wings, a loud, blood-curdling scream, half human and half animal, and a huge black owl, whirling down from the roof of the building, perched in the circle directly in front of M. Hersant.
"Pray, Father! Pray quickly," M. Hersant whispered. "Pray for the dead, and sprinkle the circle with holy water."
The priest, as well as his trembling limbs would allow, obeyed; whereupon the bird instantly vanished.
"For Heaven's sake," M. Durant gasped, "tell us what it all means."
"Only this," M. Hersant said solemnly, "the phantasm we saw caused the death of the Popenkoff family. It is the spirit of an owl that the children, encouraged by their parents, killed in a most cruel manner. As soon as I examined Marthe's body, I perceived the mutilations were due to a bird; and when I visited this mill on the eve of my arrival, I knew that a bird had once lived here; that it had been captured with lime and murdered, and that it haunted the place."
"How could you know that?" the priest exclaimed in astonishment.
"I am clairvoyant. I saw the bird's ghost as it appeared to us just now. Afterwards I enquired of the Popenkoffs' neighbours, and the information I gathered fully confirmed my suspicions--that the unfortunate bird had been put to death in a most barbarous manner. The deaths of the three children laid to rest any doubt I may have had with regard to the superphysical playing a part in the death of Marthe. Then when her better-half had been served likewise, I was certain that all five pseudo-murders were wholly and solely acts of retribution, and that they were perpetrated--I am inclined to think involuntarily--by the spirit of the owl itself. Accordingly, I decided to hold a sťance here--here in its old haunt, and if possible to put an end to the earth-bound condition and wanderings of the soul of the unhappy bird. Thanks to Father Mickledoff we have done so, and there will be no more so-called murders near Orskaia."