a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors) or get HELP Reading, Downloading and Converting files)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: Ghost Gleams Author: William James Wintle * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600771h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2016 Most recent update: July 2016 Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
The Red Rosarie
When the Twilight Fell
The House on the Cliff
The Ghost at the "Blue Dragon"
The Spectre Spiders
The Footsteps on the Stairs
The Chamber of Doom
When Time Stood Still
The Black Cat
Father Thornton's Visitor
The Horror of Horton House
The Haunted House on the Hill
The Voice in the Night
The Light in the Dormitory
The Watcher in the Mill
To Eight Dear Boys:
Philip, Thomas, Gabriel, Illtyd, Brendan, Peter, Gerard, Antony
for whose amusement these stories were first written
they are now dedicated
These tales make no claim to be anything more than straightforward ghost stories. They were written in answer to the insistent demand, "Tell us a story!" from eight bright boys whose names stand on the dedicatory page; and they were told on Sunday nights to the little group crouching over a wood fire on a wind-swept island off the Western shore.
They were so fortunate as to meet with approval from their rather critical audience. Truth to tell, the gruesome ones met with the best reception. Boys like highly flavoured dishes. But the tales are not all tragic—far from it!
They now go forth to face a wider audience: they will be fortunate if they find a kinder one.
The circumstances surrounding the mysterious fate of Dr. David Wells have never hitherto been made public; and this is easy to explain. Not only were they terrible in themselves, but they involved so much that is abnormal and almost incredible, that the telling of the story demands some courage. Few men care to have the reputation of being accomplished liars; while still fewer wish to be regarded as superstitious and credulous. To ask the average person to believe the facts about the tragedy of Dr. Wells is to make a considerable demand upon his trust in the narrator's veracity. But the prevalence of rumours reflecting on the character of the unfortunate man, and in particular the theory of suicide that has been proposed in certain quarters, seem to render it necessary that the truth should no longer be withheld.
All who knew the late doctor were familiar with his large and valuable collection of curiosities from all quarters of the world. In fact he was a born collector, and his hobby consumed most of his time and a considerable portion of his fortune.
His sympathies were large, and he took an interest in many branches of both art and science; but his special subject was anthropology, and in particular that branch of it which deals with the origins and development of religious belief and practice among the more uncivilised races of mankind.
In this connection he indulged a fancy—for he hardly claimed it to be anything more—that possibly there might be some glimmering of a religious sense among the higher and more rational animals, apart from man. In certain of the more obscure forms of nature worship he fancied that he had found traces of a connection between non-human life and certain occult phenomena. In particular he thought that the hostility with which mankind regards the serpent tribe was a mutual one, and had its source in something that lay beneath the surface.
Thus as a collector he specialised in articles of uncivilised human workmanship, and chiefly in those connected with primitive forms of worship. His collection of fetishes from Africa and the South Sea Islands was unrivalled: he possessed articles connected with Tibetan Lamaism that no public museum had been able to obtain: while the section devoted to serpent worship was the envy of every specialist and was his greatest pride.
There were few rooms in his house that did not contain examples of his hobby; and nervous visitors did not altogether relish having to spend the night in company with some of his more fearsome idols; but the gems of the collection were housed in a large room on the ground floor which served the combined purposes of museum, library and study. Owing to the value of certain idols and other objects, which were of precious metal and decked with costly gems, Dr. Wells had taken special precautions to guard against the intrusion of burglars or other unwelcome visitors to this room. It will be remembered that it was here that he was found dead on the tragic day; and the fact that the various burglar alarms and precautions proved that no one from outside could have entered had its bearing on the mystery surrounding his end. It was not until the possibility of human intervention had been excluded after an exhaustive investigation that the facts here recorded were reluctantly accepted as true by his friends.
A few months before his death, Dr. Wells had added to his collection a treasure for which he had patiently sought for some years. He called it a Red Rosary; and apparently he was right in believing that it was the only specimen in any collection. It came from a little known tribe on the borders of Tartary, and was connected with a corrupt form of Lamaistic Buddhism in which animal worship was said to be practised.
He had heard of this rosary, and of its strange use, from a traveller who had visited the tribe in question through the accident of losing his way; and his account so aroused the collecting instincts of Dr. Wells that he offered him a very large sum—said to have been three thousand pounds—to revisit the tribe and endeavour to steal the coveted article. The man went, and in due course returned with the rosary; but he did not live to deliver it to his principal. Fortunately he had packed it in a box bearing Dr. Wells's name and address, and thus it reached its destination.
It appears that the rosary had been kept in a kind of fetish house, closely guarded night and day by three men who could only be described as partly monk, partly priest, and partly medicine man. After trying various less disreputable means of accomplishing his purpose, the emissary of Dr. Wells had secured the spoils by drugging the guardians with cheap gin and morphia—a mixture that has never yet been known to fail.
Then followed a chapter of strange happenings. It certainly seemed as if the theft of the Red Rosary had offended some power that was quite capable of avenging itself. And it lost no time about it! Almost every day of the journey back to England was marked by some mishap or other; and on more than one occasion the traveller narrowly escaped with his life.
On reaching London he went with his treasure to an hotel in Craven Street—and the place was burnt out that same night. He escaped in his pyjamas, but did not forget to take the box with him. After finding other quarters and getting a supply of clothes, he set out to take the box to Dr. Wells; and on the way found himself in a collision of motor buses in which the person on each side of him was killed. He escaped with some bad bruises; and again he held tightly to the box. He resolved to wait till the next day; and in the morning he was found dead in the room he had taken at the Station Hotel.
At the inquest it was stated that he was found sitting in an armchair, and that there was no sign of any injury to account for death. But his face had the expression of a man in the very extremity of utter terror. The box lay on the table before him. The medical evidence was very vague. There was no disease of any kind; and there was nothing definite that could account for the death. All that could be said was that the heart had stopped for some unknown reason; and that apparently the dead man had been frightened by something. But death by fright is not a very satisfactory kind of verdict; and at the coroner's suggestion the jury decided that the cause of death was syncope—which left things pretty much where they were before.
The box bearing the name and address of Dr. Wells was duly forwarded to him; and at last the Red Rosary reposed in a safe built into the wall of his museum, where he kept some of his most valuable specimens. Several of us saw it during the short space of life that still remained to him.
It consisted of a string of fine catgut, on which were threaded six series of six beads each; each set being separated from the next by a larger bead. In the middle of the string was a very large oval amethyst of poor quality, from which depended a short string of little beads ending in a much larger one. It will be noticed that the general appearance of the rosary was not unlike that of the familiar one used by Catholics.
The intrinsic value of the thing was considerable. The small beads were all rubies, though by no means of fine quality; and the larger ones that divided the sets were emeralds. They had been roughly ground down to a round shape in the usual native fashion; but the surface of each bead was rudely scratched all over. On careful examination it appeared that these scratches were meant to imitate the scales on a snake.
But the most remarkable thing about the rosary was the pendent bead at the end of the short string. This was oval in shape and was composed of green jade, most curiously and unusually mottled with blue, yellow and red. It was shaped just like the head of a snake, and had been carved with considerable skill. The details of the snake's head had been well worked out; and two small yellow opals had been inserted to represent its eyes. But in one way the artist had departed from his model. The snake's lips were slightly raised on each side, as if snarling—which no snake can do—and thus the fangs were visible. But the points of the fangs did not protrude, nor were the jaws made to open. The head was quite solid. It is important to remember this in view of what followed. Altogether the rosary was more uncanny in appearance than beautiful. In fact there was something distinctly repulsive about it.
Neither Dr. Wells nor his unfortunate emissary had been able to find out anything about the history of the rosary, and not much about its use. Indeed we all of us thought that much of what he told us about it was rather speculation on his part than ascertained fact. According to him, the rosary was not used in connection with the recitation of prayers but for the purposes of divination. He said it was enclosed in a tube and turned out on the ground to tell the fortune of the inquirer, which was judged by the gyrations of the snake-like rosary and the position which it finally took up.
There seemed to be something curiously unstable about the equilibrium of the thing. After laying it down on the table, it would tremble and twist a good deal more than one would expect before finally coming to rest; and, even after it had been lying still for a minute or two, it would give queer, sudden twists and jerks. Sometimes it really seemed to give one the impression that it was alive. And somehow it always looked wicked and malignant.
Apparently it was on the actual night of its arrival that Dr. Wells had the first inkling that there was something queer about the Red Rosary. He told us the tale himself. He had been carefully examining it with a lens, searching for any possible inscription or markings that might have escaped his notice; and two or three times he had almost dropped it. This puzzled him, for he was in the habit of handling things carefully, especially when he valued them highly, as he did this. He could not quite make it out, for it really felt exactly as if the rosary had twisted between his fingers—very much as a sleepy snake might do. He did not quite like it; and he found himself speculating upon possible digestive or nervous disturbance to account for it. He presently laid the rosary down on the table, took up a book, and sat down to read. A few minutes later, feeling tired, he put the book on the table, noticing distinctly at the time that he laid it between the rosary and himself. Then he sat musing over what he had read; and the natural consequence was that he fell asleep. When he woke up, the first thing that he saw was that the rosary was now in front of the book instead of behind it. And the snake-like head was looking towards him!
This was rather startling and a trifle disquieting. There seemed to be but three possible explanations. Either he had been completely wrong in supposing that he had laid the book down in front of the rosary; or he had in his sleep risen and moved it; or the rosary had moved without his intervention. The first two explanations involved the suggestion that he was not quite in the best of health—which he was not prepared to admit—while the implications of the third explanation were of a kind that he entirely repudiated. Dr. Wells was no believer in the occult.
So he deliberately laid the question aside, and resolved to leave town the next day for Cromer, where he hoped that the bracing air would blow away any mental cobwebs that might be about. Before morning his resolve was strengthened by the miseries of a restless night. Dream after dream came to keep his brain from repose; and every dream had some connection with the Red Rosary. And in each there was an element of threatening. He was haunted by that sinister carved head with the snarling lips and the suggestion of poisoned fangs.
In the morning, before leaving town, he had occasion to go to the safe where he had placed the rosary over night; and a nasty shock met him. He was quite clear that he had laid the rosary out at length along the front of one of the shelves; and he remembered distinctly how the light had caught the contrasting rubies and emeralds in that position. But now the rosary was no longer on the shelf. It lay in the bottom of the safe, and was coiled up exactly like a snake. The head was in the centre, resting on one of the coils, but slightly drawn back as when alarmed and ready to strike. It faced him as he opened the door.
To say that Dr. Wells was puzzled is to put it too mildly. He was thoroughly bewildered. His memory was clear about the position in which he had left the rosary; and his memory was a good one. No one but himself had access to the safe, which was securely fastened by an elaborate combination lock. The shelf could not have been shaken, for the safe was built into the wall; and there had been no earthquake during the night. There was just the bare possibility that the rosary had been left in a state of unstable equilibrium and have fallen if it had rolled off the shelf, but hardly have coiled itself up in such complete fashion. Besides, it was not lying where it would have fallen if it had rolled off the shelf, but was considerably on one side. The more he thought over the mystery, the less he could make of it. So he just left it. But he did not at all like it.
Dr. Wells remained at Cromer for three weeks; but the holiday could hardly be called a success. He was out of doors all the time, and he played golf every day; but he returned to town worse than he went. True, he had not been troubled by any more dreams of the Red Rosary; but the entire holiday had been one long chapter of worries and misfortunes. Several of his recent investments went wrong, and he found himself the poorer by a sum larger than he cared to contemplate. His pet dog—whom he valued as an old friend—was run over and killed by a passing motor-car, and a letter came from the firm of publishers to whom he had entrusted the manuscript of his important new book, saying that they deeply regretted that it had perished in a fire at their establishment. And the worst of it was that the duplicate copy had been accidentally destroyed a few weeks earlier.
In addition, a letter came from his solicitors informing him that an action for libel had been commenced against him by a former servant whose misdeeds he had unwisely mentioned in a letter to a person who had made inquiry. It seemed as if the stars in their courses were fighting against him; and it was in very poor spirits that he returned to town.
When he reached his house, he found the servants in a state of nervous alarm, and talking about burglars. There was, however, no evidence that any attempt had been made upon the place; but they reported that they had heard slight sounds at night in the museum and that there was a tapping and scratching kind of noise in the corner where the safe was concealed by a false panel. Twice they had called in the police, but had only been laughed at for their pains. Dr. Wells listened to the story with impatience and dismissed it with the contempt that it seemed to deserve.
But he thought there was something in it when he went to the safe and found out the state of affairs. The first thing he noticed was that the Red Rosary was missing! He had left it in a small box on one of the shelves; and now the box was overturned and empty! Not only so, but several small things on the shelf were out of place and had been pushed aside. Nothing, however, was missing except the rosary. Yet there was not the smallest indication that the safe had been tampered with. Even if the thief had used a duplicate key, how could he have discovered the combination number to which Dr. Wells had set the lock when he left town? The thing was absurdly impossible.
The next day brought the explanation—and it could hardly have been a more unwelcome one. Dr. Wells found the missing rosary. It was coiled up, as he had seen it once before, behind a packet of papers at the back of the shelf; exactly as a living snake might have coiled itself up in its den. It really looked as if the rosary had glided out of its box, pushing the other small articles aside and incidentally causing the tapping sounds that had alarmed the servants, and had sought a resting place more to its liking. But this idea was really too absurd. How could a mere string of beads do anything of the sort? Yet, what other explanation was at all possible?
Dr. Wells told all this to an intimate friend the next day, and added that he had spent a large part of the evening in making a thorough examination of the mysterious rosary, but with entirely negative results. He tested every hypothesis that occurred to him as at all possible. He applied various chemical tests to the beads, with the idea that possibly they were not what they seemed but were composed of some substance that might be influenced by atmospheric dampness. But they proved to be genuine rubies, emeralds, one amethyst and one piece of jade. None of these could be influenced in this way.
He paid special attention to the string of catgut on which they were threaded, remembering the familiar weather-indicating figures that were formerly actuated by a short piece of this substance. But even exposure to steam failed to produce any appreciable movement. Then he tried various electric tests, but all without effect.
It is significant in view of what happened afterwards, that he most carefully and even microscopically examined the carved pendent of jade that so closely resembled the head of a snake. He seems to have had some suspicion that it could be opened and might possibly contain some substance. But he was able to satisfy himself that this was not so. The piece of jade was unquestionably solid and contained nothing enclosed in it.
Thus far the tests resulted in nothing. But, all the same, Dr. Wells could not get away from the impression that there was something uncanny about the rosary. It seemed to resist the tests! Though the idea is absurd, the beads seemed to try to slip back from his fingers; and once the whole thing suddenly wound itself round his wrist and appeared to grip. It was, of course, just possible that the warmth of the hand, acting on the string of catgut, might account for something like this: yet the effect seemed out of all proportion to such a cause.
At last Dr. Wells resigned himself to the conclusion that the whole thing was purely subjective and had no existence outside his own imagination. But it was not pleasant to think that he was in that abnormal condition when a man "sees things." He had always prided himself on the possession of sober judgment and well-balanced critical faculty. Still, it might be well to have a chat with a specialist about it. These things need to be nipped in the bud.
The following afternoon he wrote for an appointment. The matter had suddenly become urgent. It seems that he had been again examining the rosary while seated in an armchair after lunch. Feeling drowsy, he laid the rosary on the table at his elbow and composed himself for a nap. About ten minutes later, he was roused from sleep by a loud knock at the door. Then he sprang out of the chair with a cry of alarm. The Red Rosary was no longer on the table. It was coiled on the sleeper's chest; and the snarling head was raised as if to strike! It fell to the ground as Dr. Wells sprang up.
It was now certainly time that he took advice. Hallucinations of this kind end in madness, as he well knew. Of course it was hallucination. Any other explanation was sheer insanity. It was merely a question between two different forms of madness.
The specialist wrote next day, making an appointment for the following one. But his expected patient did not arrive to keep it. The question of his sanity would never now be solved. The Red Rosary had fulfilled its mission, if it had one; and the tragedy was complete.
Dr. Wells was found in his museum, lying apparently asleep in his lounge chair. But he did not answer when called; and the doctors said that he had been dead for some few hours. The Red Rosary lay coiled on his shoulder and fell to the floor when he was raised.
An inquest was duly held; and the coroner expressed the opinion that the evidence was highly unsatisfactory. The post-mortem examination failed to reveal the cause of death with any certainty. All that the pathologists could say was that the symptoms pointed to alkaloidal poisoning; but that no trace of any such alkaloid could be found in the organs of the body. In many details the evidence suggested death from snake-bite: but here again there was no certain proof.
There was no sign of violence, nor was there any external injury, except two very small pricks on the left cheek, just below the eye. These were just such as would be caused by the bite of a small snake. But there was no evidence that any snake could have gained access to the room; nor was there any trace of snake venom in the neighbourhood of the trifling wounds. So the jury could do nothing better than record what is called "an open verdict," which simply left matters where they were before.
As to the Red Rosary, it vanished after the tragedy. Whether it was stolen by one of the servants, or by some other person who may have been admitted to the room, no one knows. And the few who knew this tragic story were not greatly disposed to take any steps for its recovery.
Mostyn Grange is a fine old house, standing in extensive grounds, under the shadow of the Chilterns. It dates from the days of the Tudors, though externally it bears little evidence to the fact. Restorations and improvements, so-called, have done their worst, and the outside of the house suggests the days of the Georges, or even the earlier ones of Queen Victoria. But things are better inside the Grange.
In general arrangement the old rooms are much as they were when Queen Elisabeth spent a night at the place and thus provided it with "the Queen's room," immediately over what is now used as the drawing-room. The great hall, which was the living-room of the family in those days, fills the centre of the block, and has a fine timbered roof and a minstrels' gallery of good proportions. A gallery at the sides gives access to some of the bedrooms; and the wall space above it is dignified by family portraits and trophies of arms.
The whole place is a perfect warren of passages and unexpected turnings, with surprises in the form of rooms in odd corners and in unlikely situations. Rooms have been built within rooms; and the varying levels of the floors, and the steps up or down from one room to another are veritable pitfalls for the unwary. Some of the rooms are low in the ceiling, and not as well lighted as might have been wished; while others take full toll of the sunlight. The same may be said of the passages; so that the whole building is a place of lights and shadows intermingled and of sudden transitions from the one to the other.
Such was Mostyn Grange as I first knew it some few years ago, when I spent three or four months beneath its hospitable roof. It came about through an old college friendship with Jack Bolton, who had inherited the place from an uncle who in his lifetime had taken no notice of him, but in death made him his heir. The new master of the Grange—a bachelor like myself—had never really lived there. He had but stayed at the place a month or two after it came into his possession, and had then left for a shooting trip in British Columbia which had been planned long before. As I chanced to be at a loose end for the moment, he suggested that I should stay at the Grange and keep the place warm for him during his absence.
This suited my convenience—in fact it was rather a godsend just then—and I settled down to spend the autumn amid pleasant surroundings. As neither he nor I knew the neighbours, and the house was regarded as closed and in mourning for the recent death of its late owner, it was possible that I might find things dull at times; so I decided to take the opportunity for writing a book that had been long on the stocks. Time did not press for it: so I could write if inspiration came, and not worry if it stayed away.
As it happened, the book made small progress at Mostyn Grange: other things occupied my attention; and it is the record of a few of these that is set down here. They were strange and unusual things, to say the least; and if any mystery lay behind them it was never cleared up. I have my own ideas on the subject; but that is no reason for inflicting them on other people. If the record will not speak for itself, I see no occasion to act as its spokesman.
It may be just as well to say here that—so far as I know myself—I am not an imaginative person; for which reason all urgings to write a novel have been smiled aside. Nor am I addicted to seeing things that are not apparent and obvious to the ordinary man. I neither drink nor take drugs: I know so little about hysteria that the spelling of the word is a matter of doubt for me: my general health is normal: and at the time when these things happened I was feeling particularly fit, and was as free from worry or depression as a man could well be. And now to get on with the story.
The thing began about a week after my arrival at Mostyn Grange; and the beginning was a very small one—quite insignificant except in relation to what followed. I was writing letters in the delightful old library, surrounded by a collection of ancient tomes that made me break the tenth commandment each time I looked at them, and the evening was beginning to draw in. As the light was failing, the butler brought candles. Gas and electric light had not yet invaded the venerable house.
I like candles, provided there are plenty of them and I am not asked to pay the bill for them. There is something soothing about the warm glow of a good wax candle that is entirely lacking in your gas flame or electric bulb. It was pleasant to write there in the genial light of a couple of noble candles beside me. Then suddenly I noticed that the page of writing paper had turned blue!
For the moment I thought that something had gone wrong with my vision. I rubbed my eyes; but it made no difference. Then I looked at the two candles and saw that the flame in both cases was bright blue. It was not the kind of blue flame that may be seen immediately round the wick, or in the fire sometimes. It was not the kind of flame produced by a Bunsen burner or by an ordinary spirit lamp. Those flames give little, if any light: the candles gave as much light as before—but it was blue! And the flames seemed longer drawn out than is usual with candles. If the idea were not so absurd, one might almost have said that the candles seemed to be afraid!
I could only suppose that there was something peculiar in the composition of the candles, which caused the strange effect. Then it occurred to me to try the effect of striking a match from the box that lay on the table. They were wooden matches, so there was no question of their composition. I struck the match, and it at once burned blue like the candles. I tried others, always with similar result.
The only other possible suggestion was some peculiarity in the atmosphere of the room, such as a lack of oxygen. But this idea could not be entertained, for the window stood open and the air in the room was practically as fresh as outside. A minute later the blue colour disappeared, and the two candles were burning with normal flame. I struck two or three matches, and they also burned normally.
The whole thing seemed inexplicable; and it was not till long afterwards that I read in some book that ghostly happenings are often preceded by lights burning blue. But I knew nothing of this at the time, and should not have believed it in any event. Nothing followed in this case, and the only unusual thing that I noticed at the time was a slight sense of chilliness, as if the air had suddenly become cooler. But the evening was really a very warm one.
The next incident that arrested my attention was in connection with a dog that had belonged to the late owner of the house. It was a Scots terrier of good pedigree, and was said to be valuable. As it had been accustomed to the run of the place, I did not attempt to restrict its liberty, though I did not greatly care for its company. Nor did it seem specially attached to me. We tolerated one another; and that is about all that can be said.
This dog was lying asleep on the hearthrug, an evening or so after the incident of the candles, and I was sitting by the table with a book, when it suddenly sprang up and ran towards me with every sign of alarm. Then it turned and faced the rug where it had been lying a moment before. Its teeth were bared, the hair on its back fairly stood on end; it was growling fiercely and showed every symptom of hostility and alarm. So much so that I looked towards the fireplace with momentary expectation of seeing someone there.
Of course, no one was to be seen: everything was as usual. I spoke soothingly to the dog, but it took no notice. Then I got up and walked to the fireplace, standing on the rug where the dog had been lying. The result was curious. The dog seemed to be watching some invisible person who was going from where I was standing to the door as if facing the retiring foe, still with every sign of alarm and hostility. When it faced the door, its anger seemed to subside. It ceased to bristle and snarl, and a moment later it came to me. But two or three times it suddenly turned towards the door, as if uncertain of the departure of the unseen enemy.
The whole affair was perplexing, and a trifle uncomfortable. The dog certainly saw someone or something to which it was distinctly hostile. And that something or somebody apparently moved from the fireplace to the door, and so out of the room, although the door was closed. But there is a little more to be said. Though I did not see anything, yet I was conscious of something. There was that curious feeling that sometimes comes over one when any person approaches unseen. This feeling is rather developed in myself, and in some others that I know. My pet theory on the subject is that this is nothing more or less than the sense of smell. Under ordinary circumstances we do not scent our own species. But that the scent is present is evident from the ease with which other animals detect our presence when we are to windward of them. It seems to me that the reason we do not usually detect it is simply that it is always present with us. And it may account for the fact that to many of us a room that is occupied feels somehow different from an unoccupied one, while the near approach of any person in the dark causes a vague sense of disquiet if not of alarm.
However this may be, I experienced the feeling that someone was present in the room; and this feeling subsided at the same time with the calming of the dog. You may say that the latter was the true cause of the former: perhaps it was. I am not prepared to argue the point. But the incident left an unpleasant impression.
Another queer happening during these first few weeks at Mostyn Grange occurred in the hall one evening about sunset. I had just come in from a walk, and had paused in the hall to glance through some letters. I was vaguely conscious that one of the maids was doing something in the gallery. Suddenly I heard a gasp, and looking up I was in time to see her start back and look at the traceried window over the minstrels' gallery.
I followed her gaze, and distinctly saw a face looking in through the window. I saw it clearly, and for sufficient time to note its appearance; and then it faded away. It was not removed, but it simply melted into nothingness. The whole thing lasted perhaps five seconds or a trifle more. Then I ran out through the door and looked up at the window where I had seen the face. No one was there; nor could anyone have got there without a ladder. The end wall of the hall fell sheer down from the window to the ground; and there was no foothold of any kind for anyone trying to look through the window.
But that was not all. I felt sure that the face was one that I knew. It was that of a man in early middle life, ruddy, stout, and with a thin reddish moustache and beard. The chin appeared to be shaven. The expression of the face suggested a coarse sort of good humour, with a background of determination and unscrupulousness. It was the kind of man who would stand your friend so long as you pleased him, but stick at nothing if you opposed him.
Where had I seen that face before? Certainly not in the flesh; but I was much mistaken if I had not seen it in some picture. It was in the middle of dinner that night when the solution flashed on me. The face was that of Henry VIII. Now Mostyn Grange was built in his reign; and if he was never there himself, many of his friends are known to have frequented the place. It was certainly interesting to have caught a glimpse at the merry monarch! But what was he doing here? The fact that the servant had seen the face at the window went to prove that it was something more than mere imagination on my part.
Although it was not the next unusual thing that occurred during my stay at the Grange, it may be as well to mention here another mysterious appearance that seems to have some connection with it. I had taken an opportunity of sounding the old housekeeper on the subject of ghosts, and she had told me that several of the maidservants at one time or another had caught sight of the form of a woman standing or walking in the gallery overlooking the hall; but none of them had seen it very clearly or could give any definite description of it. She herself expressed the opinion that it was all nonsense and the result of reading "those rubbishy novelettes."
The story did not impress me much: one had heard that sort of thing so many times before. But it fell to my lot not only to verify it, but to give it definite shape and actuality. It was towards the end of my stay in the house, when I had completely forgotten the housekeeper's story, that I chanced to be standing in the minstrels' gallery as it was growing dusk. There was no reason for lingering—and some unfinished correspondence was waiting in the library—but somehow I found myself impelled to stand there and watch.
It seemed as if I was expecting someone, but without the smallest idea who it might be. I was on guard, so to speak, and must not go until relieved. The light was fast fading, and the hall below me was getting darker every moment. I was quite alone; and yet it seemed that the hall was full of people coming and going. There was nothing to be seen or heard; but there was the vague consciousness of a crowd in motion—and it seemed to be an important crowd.
Then I became aware that I was watching rather intently a door in one of the side galleries. It was partly covered by a piece of tapestry; and I had never troubled to inquire to what rooms it led. As I watched, I saw the tapestry pulled aside, and a woman stood in the doorway partly hidden. She seemed to pause for a moment, as if hesitating, and then she came out through the door and stood in the gallery. One hand rested on the balustrade, and she seemed to be watching someone in the hall below.
The light had now become very dim; but by looking intently I was presently able to make out the details of the figure. It was that of a slim woman of middle height, dressed in a fashion long since dead. The gown and stomacher and the high stiff collar were literally encrusted with seed pearls and gems of many kinds, as was also her elaborately arranged golden hair. In better light she would have been a dazzling figure. Her features were rather pronouncedly aquiline, and her whole expression was imperious and unsympathetic.
She stood there for perhaps a minute, as if watching for someone. Then it appeared that he arrived, for she smiled, bowed very slightly, and retired through the door, drawing the tapestry over it as she passed. Nothing more happened, though I remained in the minstrels' gallery for some time. Later in the evening I asked the butler about the partly hidden door in the gallery, and he told me that it led to the room in which Queen Elisabeth had slept when she stayed at the Grange.
It was not until some time after my visit had come to an end that I learnt quite by chance that the day when I had seen the figure in the gallery was the anniversary of the Queen's arrival there.
Another unexplained experience took the form of a disturbed night. Usually I sleep soundly from the moment my head touches the pillow till I am called in the morning; but on this occasion my rest was very intermittent. There seemed to be no reason for it. I was in the best of health; had taken plenty of exercise the day before; had dined moderately on quite digestible food; and had nothing on my mind to keep me awake. And yet sleep would not come.
For hours I tossed impatiently in bed, trying in vain all the usual methods of wooing sleep. I seemed to be obsessed by the idea that there was something to be done—something to keep awake for. Yet the most thorough search through all the pigeon-holes of memory brought nothing to light. No engagement had been forgotten: no duty had been left undone. There are few things more harrassing than a night like this.
At last I fell asleep; but only to wake up an hour later with the impression that a blast of trumpets had aroused me. The metallic blare seemed still to linger in my ears as I emerged from light sleep to complete wakefulness. And then I heard the trumpets again. There was no question of it this time: I was not dreaming, but was wide awake.
Then came a sound of horsemen in the distance. The trotting of a company could be heard distinctly as it rapidly grew in volume and nearness. It seemed first to be in the high road which ran between the two nearest towns and passed within a mile of Mostyn Grange. Then it sounded less sharply as the horsemen left the hard road for the drive through the park; and from time to time the trumpets sounded, each time nearer and more loudly. Who could be coming to the Grange at this time of night, and when no one was there but myself? No visitor was expected; and least of all a visitor who arrived in this style.
A minute or two later, the clatter of hoofs on the stones announced that the mysterious riders had reached the courtyard in front of the house. There was a halt, and then the various sounds of men dismounting, horses champing bits, and the rest. The new-comers were evidently entering the hall: I must see who these people were. My bedroom faced the other side of the block of buildings, and nothing could be seen from the windows; so I slipped on a dressing-gown and went to an unoccupied room in the front from which a complete view could be obtained.
As I went along the corridor for this purpose, I not only heard the sounds in the courtyard more loudly, but could also distinctly hear men walking and talking in the hall. It was evidently an important as well as a numerous company. There was a feeling of fuss and ceremony about it all. Then I reached the room in the front; and as I entered it the sounds seemed to die away, and a moment later all was silent. Looking out through the window, I saw no horsemen nor anything else unusual, save that the white stones were marked with many prints of muddy hoofs. That was the only thing visible that lent substance to what my sense of hearing had been telling me.
It was cold, and I was soon glad to return to bed. The rest of the night passed in fitful spells of broken sleep; and several times I heard distant sounds of horsemen and trumpets, though they did not again approach the house. In the morning my first thought was of the hoof-prints on the stones; but, on going out to look for them, I found to my disappointment that it had been raining hard at some time in the early hours, and the stones were washed clean of any marks that might have been there. The gamekeeper came along just then and remarked that he had been kept up all night in expectation of a poaching raid. So I took the opportunity of asking casually if there had been anything unusual during the night; and he told me that all had been perfectly quiet except that the night had been windy at times.
Quite a number of other things happened during my stay at Mostyn Grange that were outside the range of normal occurrences, so far as my experience had gone; but only one of them need be recorded here. It took place in the old library, which I have already mentioned as containing a series of ancient volumes probably unequalled by any private collection in England at the time. Included among these were a considerable number of volumes of manuscript, a few of which I had rather casually looked over. They seemed to consist mainly of old correspondence and household accounts that had been bound up many years back. It occurred to me at the time that a careful study of these manuscript volumes might throw a good many sidelights upon domestic history and upon old time social conditions; and I decided to suggest it to Jack Bolton on his return. He was always fond of digging in out-of-the-way sources of information.
I went into the library one morning before breakfast, and at once noticed that a certain small volume of manuscript was lying on the table. It was not the first time that I had picked up this book without being able to remember having taken it from the shelf; but on this occasion I was perfectly sure that it was not out of its place when I left the library late on the previous evening. Between then and my finding the book on the table nobody would have entered the library except the maidservant, whose work it was to attend to the room in the morning. But while I was wondering why she should meddle with it, she came in to dust and made some apology for having been detained by other duties and so prevented from doing the library sooner. It was clear that she had not been in the room. Who else could have touched the book?
The thing did not seem very important, and I soon dismissed it from my mind. But next day the book was again on the table when I came down. So when night came, I told the butler not to wait up for me, as I should be working late. As soon as all was quiet and it was clear that the household were in bed, I carefully locked up the library and took the key upstairs with me. In the morning I rose unusually early in order to open the room before any of the servants should find out what had been done. When I went into the room, the book was lying on the table!
This time it was open, and between the pages lay a withered rose which fell to dust when touched. It had evidently been there for many a year. This added to the mystery, which I sought to solve by a careful study of the volume. It proved to be made up of a series of love letters, dating from the days of Charles I., and of a kind of diary of the same period. The letters were pathetic and touching enough in their way, and the diary recorded only the ordinary doings and experiences of a country lady of uneventful and well ordered life.
There was absolutely nothing to suggest why someone or something from any other plane of existence should take an interest in the volume, and apparently study it when mere mortals are asleep. But many times afterwards I found the volume lying about when no living person had been there to take it down. The mystery was never solved nor was any meaning for it ever suggested.
All this happened some years ago. The other day I chanced to meet Jack Bolton; and I asked him if anything out of the normal line of happenings was ever experienced at Mostyn Grange. He replied that the actualities of life left little time to devote to its potentialities—a reply which I can only regard as an attempt to evade the issue.
It all came about through Cyril being too clever by half. He fell into the common mistake of supposing that a mysterious something in his inner consciousness which he called intuition was a sounder guide to conduct than the general common sense of the race. He fancied that the best way to get away from the worries of life was to get away somewhere by himself: and this is just where he made the mistake. The greatest of all worries is oneself—at any rate it was so in Cyril's case. And just then he really believed that he had ground for worry.
What it was does not concern our story; so we need not stay to speculate about it. But it was something that required treatment, according to Cyril: and the treatment that it required was to get away from things. He had tried the British Museum reading-room in the off season, when everyone is away except the lady who writes the Riviera news for the Upper Ten, and the man who has found out how to square the circle. He had tried a course of University Extension lectures on the Multiplication of the Ego: and he had tried salmon fishing in the lower reaches of the Thames. But he couldn't get away from his worry.
Then a brilliant idea struck him. He was half inclined to resent the abruptness with which it struck him; for anything that savoured of familiarity was especially offensive in his present mood. But the idea did not mean to be shook off: it meant to stick. And he was bound to admit that the idea was not such a bad one after all. It was worth thinking about: and to think about it was to act on it.
It was this. A friend of his had built a kind of cottage on a lonely cliff as a sort of retreat for writing his novels. It was in a very retired spot, far away from everything except the sea; it was in private grounds; and its occupant could be as free from visitors as he wished. As it happened, he had seen in that morning's Post that his friend was passing through town and was stopping at the "Langham." Cyril took up the telephone receiver.
"That you, Howard? Ah; how d'ye do? No; feeling a bit limp, you know; nerves a bit jumpy. Want a rest, I suppose. I say, old man, if you are not doing anything with that shanty of yours on the cliff, may I roost there for a week or two? What's that? Going to pull it down? Haunted? Rats! I'm not afraid of spooks. Yes, thanks; I'll order in a supply of stuff and do for myself, thanks. No need to trouble your people at all. Thanks awfully, old chap; it's really very good of you."
So the thing was settled; and next day a long railway trip, followed by what seemed an even longer journey by road, took Cyril to the house on the cliff. It was certainly as lonely as could well be wished. Five miles from the nearest town, or rather village; a good mile from the high road; within a private estate whose house was rarely occupied; and hidden away behind masses of furze and bramble, with bracken more than knee-deep; it was an ideal place for the man who wanted to get away from things.
The situation, apart from its loneliness, was simply gorgeous. The house stood almost on the edge of a lofty limestone cliff which fell a sheer hundred feet without a break to the waves that beat about its base. The cliff stood out like a miniature headland beside a little bay bestrewn with vast boulders round which the long oar-weed clung and twined like ever-writhing water snakes as the tides ebbed and flowed. All around, the cliffs were pierced by caves that the waves had worn out of the ancient rocks by their ceaseless surging, while overhead hung clinging masses of samphire and other green things.
Looking out to sea, an endless waste of waters met the eye; broken for a moment by a rocky island that showed upon the horizon on clear days, and nearer in by some jagged rocks that rose above the surface in all but the highest tides and threatened the unwary mariner with swift destruction. On three sides lay the sea, while the fourth looked landwards and—as we have seen—showed a tangle of wild growth closed in behind by dense trees and rising hills. No house could be seen, nor any sign of human life; and the path that led to the cliff was hard to find, so closely was it overgrown and encroached upon by the bushes and bracken.
Cyril stood on the edge of the cliff and congratulated himself. He had managed to get away from things at last. There would be no interruption here. By dint of vigorous and persistent telegraphing the day before, an adequate supply of foodstuffs and other needful things had been sent up to the cliff from the town and left in heaped confusion in the little porch. He liked roughing it; he could do simple cooking; he was not likely to find the need of servants. So he looked around him with unmixed satisfaction.
The house on the cliff could hardly be called a house in any strict sense of the term. Nor was it exactly a summer-house or arbour. It was a simple wooden structure of one storey, consisting of two small rooms for living and sleeping, and a sort of ante-chamber containing an oil-stove and a few cooking utensils. The entrance porch was at the back; and the front faced the sea, the two windows looking out from a shallow veranda. The furniture too was of the simplest; the floors were innocent of carpet and the walls of pictures; and the absence of anyone to intrude made blinds and window-curtains unnecessary.
Cyril stood there as the sun sank down in a bed of opal grey flushed with purple sapphire; and long flashing feathers of ruby played across the drowsy waves. A passing boatman saw him from the distance outlined against the sky, and wondered who it could be: and that was the last time that any human eye saw him alive.
What happened at the house on the cliff, and how the horror came and grew until it ended in appalling disaster, no man knows with any certainty now. Cyril's lips are silent for ever: and the Thing that watched and waited has done its ruthless will and perhaps has ceased from troubling. All that we have is a disconnected collection of brief notes, written on loose half sheets of note-paper. They were no doubt written in the order of the occurrences; but when found the wind had blown them about the floor, and it was impossible to do more than guess at the intended sequence. We can only put them together in what seems the most probable order and weave a consequent story as best we may.
It would appear that as Cyril stood there and watched the sunset, his thoughts went back to his telephone conversation with the owner of the place, who had said something about intending to pull the place down because it was haunted. Cyril prided himself on the possession of sound common sense. Without being particularly sceptical, he was by no means credulous. He required evidence before he believed anything improbable; and the evidence for the occult struck him as weak in the extreme. Nor was he at all imaginative or fanciful: he had good control over his nerves, although he had admitted to Howard that they were a bit jumpy at the moment.
So his features deepened into a broad smile as he remembered the conversation. Spooks, indeed; queer thing that a sensible fellow like Howard should take any notice of such tales. Rats, no doubt; or perhaps other wild things creeping about the place when all is quiet and making small ghostly noises; but to put the thing down to spooks was a trifle too absurd. And Cyril laughed aloud.
Then he started suddenly and looked behind him. What a curious echo! He could have sworn that someone laughed. But among rocks and cliffs one expects echoes; so it was only natural that there should be one. But, somehow, there was something queer about this echo. In an ordinary echo one gets a repetition of the sound, a little modified—either sharpened or softened—by the nature of the reflecting surface from which the sound is thrown back; but it is the same sound. There is no originality about an echo. And that is where Cyril was puzzled and a trifle startled. This echo was different. There was a suggestion of malignancy about it that had certainly not been in his laughter.
It made him pause for a moment and frown. Then sanity reasserted itself, and he brushed the thought aside as absurd. But, as he did so, surely someone laughed! It was less audible this time, but more unpleasant. It resembled the low chuckling of an ignoble mind that scores over a higher one. It was distinctly curious, and a little annoying. Cyril hoped his nerves were not going to play him tricks.
Then he deliberately put the thing out of his mind and refused to think about it. He sat down on the short turf and gazed out to sea for some minutes. The sunset grey was now deepening into purple, and a long bank of cloud was gathering to the southwards. A slight breeze was rising, and the bushes behind him were whispering the secrets of the falling night. Then Cyril again looked behind him with a vague sense of disquiet.
Nothing had happened, but he had that curious suspicion of being watched that sometimes comes to one in a crowded room or street. He turned and looked fixedly at the bushes and bracken for some minutes. There was nothing to be seen, though he knew that probably many eyes of furtive wild things were watching him curiously and timidly. But it was not of these that he thought. He was vaguely aware of a Thing that was watching and biding its time—a Thing that meant mischief of a sort that would not stand thinking about. Cyril found himself waiting for the Thing to reveal its presence.
A moment later he took himself firmly in hand. This sort of thing would not do. He had read all about it in books of so-called ghost stories: and he understood the psychology of the nonsense. He pulled himself together and went into the house. Here he found occupation for the next hour in unpacking the supply of food-stuffs that lay in the porch and stowing them away. Then his small supply of books had to be looked out, writing materials arranged on one of the tables, the bedroom put in order for the night. By this time his odd nervousness had passed off; and he turned in to bed at an unusually early hour and in the best of spirits.
He slept well, as he generally did, and was only once disturbed by something that sounded like scratching around the walls of the house. No doubt a rat, or possibly a rabbit. He had noticed that there were plenty of them about. But, just as he was going to sleep again, an odd thing happened. The moon was shining in through the window, to which his back was turned, and he noticed that while part of the room was in bright light, part seemed to be in shadow. It was as if a blind were partly drawn across the window. He turned drowsily in bed to look at the window, when the shadow suddenly vanished! This was rather startling, for it certainly seemed as if someone had been looking in through the window.
Cyril sprang out of bed and ran to the window. There was no one there; nor could anyone be seen when he went to the door immediately afterwards. Not a soul was stirring, except a few rabbits that bolted at the sight of him. He could only put the whole thing down to fancy when half awake: or it was just possible—but hardly probable—that some wandering tramp had found his way to the place. Anyway it was of no use to think any more about it; and Cyril went back to bed and slept soundly till morning.
Next morning he rose in high spirits, and had evidently forgotten the small disquieting incidents of the previous evening. But among his notes is an entry that seems to belong to this day, and is significant in view of what happened afterwards. He bathed in the bay, climbing down the steep cliffs with the aid of a rope that had evidently been fixed there by Howard for that purpose. He was a fairly strong swimmer, but did not go far out as the currents were a little puzzling. He was doing some quiet breast strokes in the deep channel that lay close in under the cliff opposite the house when it happened. He suddenly sank some inches. It was exactly as if someone had laid a heavy hand between his shoulders and pushed him down. He righted himself instantly and turned on his back; and, just as he did so, a shadow seemed to vanish from above him. It did not float away as a cloud might have done; nor did it melt away; but it just ceased to be there. And at the same time he seemed to hear someone laughing in the distance. It certainly was very odd.
The rest of the day seems to have passed without event until the evening. It must have been very soon after sunset when Cyril, who had been sitting in the shade of a rock and reading a book, rose to go in. As he did so, he happened to glance up, and was just in time to see something vanish behind the rock. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was just too late to see it. He had that strange impression that something certainly was there but was gone before his eyes had time to focus themselves on it. Cyril dashed round the rock—and found nothing. Yet the distance to the nearest bushes was sufficient to have prevented the intruder from taking cover in the short space of time. And then he was conscious of the faintest possible echo of laughter somewhere close at hand; and once more came the strong impression of being watched by something that was hostile.
But when he went into the house he encountered a distinctly unpleasant shock. Before going out, he had been writing at a table placed before the window; and he distinctly remembered leaving a copy of Montaigne open on it. The table was now pushed back to the wall, and the book was lying on the floor. But the thing that most alarmed him was the discovery of a sheet of paper on which he had been making a few notes. This was also lying on the floor; but the sinister thing was the presence of a footprint on it. The print was very faint, and rather suggested in appearance a slight burn or scorching than soiling. It was not easy to make out, for it was incomplete; the sheet being too small to take it all. At a glance it could be seen that it was not made by human foot or hand: neither was it at all like the footprint of a dog or any other familiar animal. It exactly resembled one half of the impression that would be made by the foot of a bird, such as a barndoor fowl. But what bird could have a foot quite eight inches across? And what kind of bird would scorch rather than soil the paper on which it happened to step?
Cyril did not lose hold of himself. He saw that everything depended on self-control if he was to rid himself of this pestilent obsession. He brought common sense to bear on the situation and demonstrated to himself that the evidence was faulty at all points, and clearly showed that the phenomena were purely subjective. It was a little difficult to get over the footprint; but he pointed out to himself that the marks were very vague and might be caused in various ways apart from the impression of any foot at all. As to the removal of the table, his memory must have played a trick with him. Clearly he must have moved it before he went out, but forgotten about it afterwards. Anything was better than an explanation that would not bear thinking about.
But the events of the night did not tend to reassure him. Three times he was roused by a sound close beside his bed, which could only be described as a sound of beating of wings against the walls, alternated by sharp raps and a sound of scratching. And on one of these occasions, when the moon was shining through the window, he was conscious of a Thing that watched but vanished when he looked up. In the morning he found that the door, which he was sure that he had bolted when going to bed, was standing slightly ajar.
The worst thing of all was an increasing sense that the Thing that watched was somehow getting closer. The net of evil seemed to be gathering round him; and it was only a question of time how soon it would enfold him. And then what would happen?
When he went out to bathe before breakfast, he had a narrow escape. He was about to descend the cliff as before with the aid of the rope when he noticed just in time that this had been partly untied, so that when he put his weight on it the knot would run through and he would be sent whirling down to break his bones on the rocks far below. It was with a grim face that Cyril retied the knot before climbing down. But he looked still more grim a moment later, when a mass of rock that had been nicely poised on a ledge fell and missed him by a few inches.
This time he took care not to go out of his depth; and he kept clear of the overhanging cliffs. But again he thought he caught sight of something peering over a rock at him, which vanished when he looked that way.
Several times during the day he was haunted by this threatening danger: and the Thing that was biding its time was evidently gathering strength. He had an idea that the final attack was not very far off now. In fact he made up his mind to leave the place next day. But it was waiting for the next day that was to cost him his life.
The last thing that his notes record seems to have happened during the afternoon of this day. He was sitting in a deck chair, reading a book, when he saw out of the corner of his eye something like a great wing rise above a rock on the left at a little distance. It seemed to stretch itself and then sink down, as if the bird were resting behind the rock. It had just the appearance of a raven's wing: but no bird of such size was ever seen by human eye. Cyril did not see it quite clearly. He was looking at his book without paying any great attention to it; and he saw the wing indirectly and as it were slightly out of focus. When he looked directly at the rock, there was nothing unusual to be seen.
He got up and went to the place. No trace of anything like a bird was to be seen; but behind the rock was a cave which opened on a rock platform facing the sea. He remembered having heard that human remains had been found there, and that the cave was supposed to have been a rock shelter in prehistoric days. Then he noticed that in one place the earth seemed to have been disturbed very recently—apparently only a few days before. There was a strong musky smell about the place—quite unlike anything that he had ever smelt before—and again came that strange sense of something that was watching and waiting its chance. The gloom of the cave seemed to be something not merely unnatural but even immoral.
That is all that we shall ever know of the horror through which Cyril was doomed to pass. He evidently scribbled his note about the cave on his return—and the rest is silence.
Late in the afternoon of the next day a fisherman passing in his boat noticed something unusual on the rocks below the cliff, and put in to see what it was. There he found all that was left of poor Cyril, horribly mangled and broken. There was not a whole bone in his body; and the mangling could not be accounted for by a fall from the cliff. His clothes were torn into ribbons; and on his chest and back were fearful rents that appeared to have been made by the claws of a gigantic bird of prey. But what bird has feet eight inches across?—and only feet of those dimensions could have made such wounds.
When they came to examine the house, they found evidence of a mighty struggle. Most of the furniture was overturned, and some of it was smashed to splinters. A bag of flour had been thrown down and burst open; and thus several footprints were recorded. Those of Cyril were easily recognised, for he was wearing boots of peculiar shape: and the other footprints were those of a bird! And the bird's footprints were eight inches across.
The "Blue Dragon" was one of the oldest and best hotels in Saltminster; and that was saying a good deal. Long before Saltminster became popular as a seaside resort; long before people got into the habit of going to the seaside for holidays or for health; the old market town had been a busy place, and its inns were both numerous and good. New ones had sprung up of recent years to meet the needs of the visitors; and as these styled themselves hotels, the older ones had to fall into line and adopt the more ambitious name as well.
But although the "Blue Dragon" now called itself an hotel, and found itself doing more and better business than ever, it had changed very little in the course of the years. It was still a delightfully old-fashioned place; the quaint old rooms remained unaltered; the old English cookery was still the same; and you would look in vain for anything foreign or new-fangled. The French cook and the German waiter had never found entrance; and that was one of the reasons why the place was in such repute. You needed to book your room well in advance if you wished to stay at the "Blue Dragon."
Now Professor Latham wanted to stay at the "Blue Dragon;" for he knew a good thing when he found it. At Cambridge, where he occupied the chair of Assyrian History, he was better known for his ability as a judge of port than as a lecturer; and, when he recommended an hotel, you might be quite sure that both table and cellar would prove to be above reproach. So he booked his room well in advance, and made his way to Saltminster in the middle of July to spend a quiet six weeks and incidentally to revise the manuscript of his forthcoming book.
At the "Blue Dragon" he found that he had been allotted a room which met with his full approval. It was in the quietest and most retired part of the house, at the end of a long corridor, and looked out upon the salt marshes that ran down to the sea. It was well away from the busier parts of the house, and was on the side remote from the road. And it was furnished in the style of our grandparents—exactly the style that Professor Latham admired and loved.
But it had one drawback, which gave the newcomer a distinct shock when he saw it. There were two beds in the room! Having only one body, he had no use for two beds. Nor had he the least intention of sharing his room with anyone else. But mine host quickly reassured him. The room was occasionally let to people who required an extra bed, and thus had been provided with one; but of course it would not be in use while the Professor occupied the room. Mine host trusted the bed would not be in the Professor's way: it was only kept furnished with the usual bedding because a dismantled bed looked so uncomfortable. The Professor assured him that he did not mind in the least if the bed was not used: it would do to put things on.
So he proceeded to unpack his bag and to throw the contents about the room in the careless style that was the despair of his housekeeper at Cambridge. The spare bed was soon pretty well concealed beneath scattered articles of clothing, books, bundles of manuscript and other things.
Then he went for a walk, located the principal streets and buildings with the aid of the local map which was always his first purchase on arriving at any strange place, noted sundry secondhand book shops and curio shops for further investigation at leisure, and finally made his way down to the shore, gazed with disapproval at the mixed bathing, and then absorbed himself in the alleged history of the town as set forth in a local guide-book.
Now Professor Latham was an authority on history, and had a keen scent for fiction masquerading as fact. So he duly appreciated a detailed account of the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the town, and her stay at the "Blue Dragon," at a date when she was unquestionably lying ill at the Old Palace at Richmond, which she was never to leave alive. But he cared less for various ghost stories, all of which seemed to be connected in one way or another with the "Blue Dragon." If they were all to be believed, that famous hostelry must have been a somewhat exciting place to stay at in the olden days.
The Professor did not believe in ghosts. He dealt in facts and had no use for fancies. He had never yet met with a ghost story that would stand looking into, or even telling a second time. Tales of that sort always crumbled to bits when you began to ask questions. Nobody whom he had met had ever seen a ghost, though plenty of them knew other people who had seen one: and he knew the worthlessness of second-hand evidence. Still, it was a little amusing to find that the "Blue Dragon" had been the scene of so many legends of this kind. It was just as well that he knew better than to trouble about such absurdities; or he might not have slept well. He would be able to tell his friends that he had stayed in a very nest of ghosts, and had proved by experience that there was nothing at all in it.
He returned to the hotel in time to dress for dinner, and at once noticed that the things he had left on the spare bed had been removed and placed carefully on the table. Evidently the chambermaid had been at work in his absence; but he rather wished she would leave things alone. He put them back on the bed and hoped she would take the hint. Then he dressed and went down to dinner.
The dinner met with his entire approval. The turbot was perfection, and the saddle of mutton was exactly as it should be. He sampled the famous fifty-eight port, of which he had heard good accounts; and he fully endorsed the accounts. He also finished the bottle. Professor Latham knew a good thing when he met it, and he never let it go to waste. Then he smoked a leisurely cigar, drank his coffee to the accompaniment of some particularly fine old brandy, and went up to bed on excellent terms with himself and with all the world beside.
When he reached his room, he paused and reflected. Surely he put those things back on the bed before he went down to dinner. And now they were on the table again! Confound that chambermaid! But was he quite sure that he put them back? He thought so—but really that port was uncommonly fine . . . and the brandy was the genuine article . . . but did he put those things back, or did he only intend to do so? Really it was too absurd that he could not remember a simple little thing like that . . . let's see, what was the date? Fifty-eight, of course: but why should the waiter meddle with his arrangements of the bedroom? No, not the waiter: it must have been the chambermaid. Or were the things on the table after all? Why couldn't he remember a simple little thing like that? It must be the sea air. Better go to bed and not bother any more about it.
So Professor Latham threw the things back on the bed, except those that fell on the floor, and turned into the other bed. He murmured "fifty-eight" twice, and then slept the sleep of the man who has dined. Not for worlds would we suggest that Professor Latham was either merry, elevated, well oiled, three sheets in the wind, or anything other than as sober as a judge after an assize dinner.
Thus it can only be regarded as remarkable that his sleep should have been disturbed by persistent dreams. And it was still more remarkable that all his dreams had to do with that other bed. He dreamed that it was occupied. He dreamed that he was aroused by the sound of—well, heavy breathing; and the sound came from the other bed. He struck a match and lit the candle that stood by his bedside. When it had left off spluttering he saw that the things he had laid on the other bed were no longer there. But a mountain seemed to have arisen in the midst of the bed. It was occupied! Now, who could have had the confounded impertinence . . . he would have a few plain words with the landlord in the morning about this.
Then he thought that he got carefully out of bed, said things to himself as his bare foot trod on a collar stud that some fool must have thrown on the floor, and made his way to the other bed to see who the intruder was. He had already noted that the man was an ugly looking fellow, redheaded and provided with a nose whose colour suggested that water disagreed with him. Probably some drunken roisterer who had come home late and had mistaken the room. He would enlighten him on the subject.
He took the candle to the bedside of the intruder, turned back the sheet to reveal the face more completely, and saw—himself! Then he seized himself by the shoulder and shook himself, with the result that himself woke up and hit him in the eye. A tremendous tussle followed. Himself jumped out of bed and knocked him down, but he got up again and tripped himself up and got the head of himself into chancery. When himself got free, it was clear that both of him were in a distinctly nasty temper. A stand-up fight followed, resulting in considerable damage to both himself and him; but finally he knocked himself down with a crash that shook the universe—and woke up Professor Latham.
The Professor was quite annoyed. He usually slept well and was rarely troubled by dreams. He struck a light to see the time; and then noticed that all the things he had thrown on the other bed were now lying in a heap on the floor. Now this was beyond a joke. It could not be the chambermaid this time. Was it possible that when he threw the things on the bed over night his aim was not quite straight? The thought was not an agreeable one to a man like himself of strictly sober habits.
Anyway, the things could not lie on the floor: so he got out and once more put them on the other bed. Then he turned in and dozed and dreamed until the morning. And his dreams were still occupied with that second bed, which seemed fated to destroy his rest.
When he rose next morning, the first thing that met his eye was that troublesome bed: and what he saw made him rub his eyes and wonder if he were awake or asleep. The things he had put on it during the night were now once more scattered about the floor. But this was not all. The bed had apparently been slept in! The bed clothes were thrown back, as if someone had just risen; and there was a depression in the middle of the bed and on the pillow which could only be accounted for by someone having slept there.
But the thing was simply impossible. Professor Latham went straight to the door, and found that it was locked as he had left it over night. No one could have come in. Who then slept in that other bed? It was an uncomfortable kind of question.
There seemed to be only three possible explanations of the affair. He might have risen in his sleep and changed into the other bed. But if so, he must have changed back again, for he was in the right bed when he woke up. He was not addicted to walking in his sleep; and the thing seemed very improbable. Or the bed might have been disturbed without anyone sleeping in it. But, if so, who disturbed it? No one could have done it but himself: so this did not help matters much. The third possible explanation was that someone other than himself had really been lying in that bed at some time during the night, but had gone before he woke up. But, if so, it must have been someone who could enter a locked room and leave it again without making any sign. This was an unpleasant kind of suggestion; and he did not dwell on it. As we have said, he did not believe in ghosts: and besides, who ever heard of a ghost sleeping in a bed—or anywhere else for the matter of that?
He thought and thought; and the more he thought, the less he liked it. Mysteries were not in his line, and he did not want to be mixed up in any. So he dismissed the matter from his mind, with a private resolve to avoid the fifty-eight port at dinner, and went downstairs to breakfast. On his way he met the chambermaid and learnt from her that she had not moved any things off the bed in his room.
After breakfast, he went up to his room in search of a book that he intended to take with him and read out of doors, and was just going to enter when he heard someone talking in the room. He paused and listened. Yes, there was certainly someone there, and he seemed out of temper. What he was saying Professor Latham could not hear; but the tone of the voice was distinctly unamiable. And the oddest thing about it was that it sounded just like his own voice as he had once heard it in a gramophone!
But, whoever the intruder might be, he had no right in that room; and the Professor entered with the full intention of telling him so in unmistakable terms. He went in with a frown on his brow; but this changed at once to a stare of astonishment. The room was empty. But apparently somebody had recently been there, for the very book he had come for had been thrown into the fireplace! And his pet cigar case was lying beside it!
Yet the door of the room had been locked till he opened it. No one could have entered the room, except the chambermaid who was provided with a master key; but inquiry proved that she had been in another part of the house since Professor Latham went down to breakfast. It was of course possible that some thief might have provided himself with a skeleton key; but there was nothing to suggest any attempt at robbery. Nothing had been interfered with, except the articles that were thrown into the fireplace. Besides, the Professor had heard the voice of the intruder immediately before entering the room.
The landlord was called, and he listened to the story with a patient smile. His explanation was a very simple one; but it did not convey much consolation to his guest.
"My dear Sir," he said, "in an old house like this, full of long passages and odd corners communicating with one another, all kinds of small sounds get carried along and mixed up; so that the echo of a voice or sound in one part of the house seems to come from another. If we were to take any notice of all the slight sounds that one hears when all is quiet at night, we should begin to think that every room in the place was haunted. All those silly tales about this house in the local guide-book have no doubt been started in this way. We simply take no notice of them."
But this did not explain the removal of the things from the bed, nor the disturbance of the bed clothes, nor the throwing of the book and cigar case into the fireplace; and it did not impress Professor Latham much. So he shrugged his shoulders, took up his book, and started for his walk. And then another queer thing happened.
Passing a photographer's shop, he was startled to see in the window an excellent portrait of himself! As he had never been to the place before, and had never in his life been photographed with his hat on his head—as this portrait represented him—he was considerably astonished. He went into the shop, and remarked:
"I see you have in your window a photograph of Professor Latham of Cambridge. May I ask when it was taken?"
"I fear you are mistaken, Sir," said the photographer. "We do not know the name and have certainly not taken any gentleman giving that name. Would you mind pointing out the portrait?"
The bewildered professor indicated the photograph, and received the explanation that it was that of a gentleman who had stayed at the "Blue Dragon" two years before, and who declined to give any name.
"But it is really a very good portrait of yourself," said the photographer. "Possibly it is yours, and you have forgotten the occurrence?"
Professor Latham could only assure him that he had never been in Saltminster before, and had certainly not sat for that portrait. It could only be regarded as a very curious and extraordinary coincidence. He wondered if he possessed a double.
Then another odd thing happened. In the course of his walk he met a man who raised his hat and said, "Let me take the opportunity of apologising for my clumsiness in colliding with you in the hotel last night. It was caused by catching my foot in the edge of the carpet."
The Professor assured him that he was mistaken. No one had collided with him: it must have been someone else. But the man persisted that it was he whom he had knocked against just outside the door of room No. 39, which was that which Professor Latham was occupying. These mistakes were very strange.
But a still more curious mistake awaited him on his return to the hotel. On entering his room, he found the chambermaid putting an extra blanket on the spare bed. He asked what this meant, as the bed was not to be used, and was told that he himself had asked her to do it as he felt cold in the night. The Professor denied this, and pointed out that he slept in the other bed. The maid said that both of the beds had been slept in, which she did not understand, and that she was quite sure she had seen him about half an hour previously, coming out of the room, and that he had been very particular to explain which bed was to have the extra blanket!
The bewildered Professor could not make it out at all. Had all the world gone mad in Saltminster? Or was he in the throes of a nightmare and would presently wake up and find it all a dream? And then came another shock. He presently went to the mirror to brush his hair; and over his shoulder he distinctly saw the exact double of himself going out through the door of the room. He turned quickly and was just in time to see the door close. He ran across the room and flung the door open; but no one was visible in the corridor. Yet he had been so quick, and the corridor was so long, that no one could have got away in the time.
A few minutes later he went down to lunch. As he entered the dining-room, he noticed that the waiter looked at him with some surprise. Then the man asked if he had changed his mind about lunching. The Professor asked what he meant, and was informed that as he went out of the house a few minutes before he had said in answer to the waiter's inquiry that he would not be in to lunch. Things were getting complicated. Evidently someone was being mistaken for him. This might be accounted for by personal resemblance; but what about the incidents in the bedroom? And these things were not happening after dinner; so that the blame could not be laid at the door of the fifty-eight port.
The rest of the day was uneventful. Professor Latham dined with as much satisfaction as on the day before, but he drank a lighter wine than port; he had a game at billiards after dinner; he avoided the old brandy; and he retired to rest in good time.
The sea air had made him sleepy, and he hoped to make amends for the restlessness of the previous night. On the whole he slept soundly, but twice in the night he was disturbed by dreams that he heard someone breathing heavily in the room. On thinking the matter over afterwards he was not quite sure whether he dreamed this or actually heard it when half awake. He was inclined to think that the latter was the case; for in the morning he found to his disgust that the spare bed had evidently been slept in again.
And there was a fresh development. On a chair beside the spare bed lay a piece of paper, torn out of the Professor's pocket book as it proved; and on this had been scribbled some verses of a music-hall song of a particularly ribald and vulgar character. And the handwriting was that of Professor Latham! He could not deny it. Though the song was quite unknown to him and was of a kind that he would never think of either writing or repeating, he could not get away from the fact that the handwriting was his own. He began to feel thankful that he had not left his cheque-book about.
But during the day things took a still more unpleasant turn. The landlord sought an interview with him; and after some hesitation told him that he must ask him to find other accommodation. He indignantly inquired the reason, and was told that a gentleman who attempted to kiss the chambermaid on the stairs was not the kind of patron that was desired at the "Blue Dragon!" Imagine the feelings of Professor Latham, who was the last man in the world to do such a thing! But the chambermaid persisted in her story, in spite of his denials and assurances that it must have been someone else; and the unfortunate man had to agree to leave the next day. By this time he had had more than enough of Saltminster, and decided to return to Cambridge rather than seek other accommodation in the place. But the delay till the next day was to prove very nearly fatal to him.
That same evening, as he went up to bed, he distinctly heard muttered laughter in his room just before he opened the door to go in; and he found that the clothes of the spare bed had been turned back as if someone was about to get into it. He also noticed that one of his razors had been taken out of its case and was lying open on the dressing-table. He put it back—and it was as well for him that he did so.
He undressed and was about to get into bed when he turned to the window to see what kind of weather it was. The moon was shining brightly, and he stood there for a minute of two with the window open. Then he suddenly found himself caught in the grip of someone behind him; and at the same moment an accidental glance at the mirror showed him the face of his antagonist over his shoulder. It was his own face!
He saw at once that it was to be a struggle for life. The horror that had him in its grip was evidently trying to throw him out through the window. For some minutes the issue was uncertain. Twice he was pressed against the window-sill and was almost over; but each time by a supreme effort he managed to get back into the room. Dressing-table and chairs were overturned in the struggle, and no doubt a great noise was thus made; but he was unconscious of everything but the struggle for life.
But the noise was the saving of Professor Latham. It attracted the notice of other guests, who came out of their rooms to see what it was. Then followed a loud knocking at his door; and at the same moment he found himself alone!
He left Saltminster the next morning; and he has expressed no opinion on ghost stories since. Nor has he ever been known to recommend the "Blue Dragon" as a nice quiet place for a holiday.
The fog hung thickly over London one morning in late autumn. It was not the dense compound of smoke and moisture, pea-souplike in color and pungent to eyes and nose, that is known as a "London peculiar;" but a fairly clean and white mist that arose from the river and lay about the streets and squares in great wisps and wreaths and banks.
The passing crowd shivered and thought of approaching winter; while a few optimistic souls looked upward to the invisible sky and predicted a warm day when the sun had grown in strength. A little child remarked to a companion that it smelled like washing day: and the comparison was not without its point. It was as if the motor machinery of the metropolis had blown off steam in preparation for a fresh start.
People passed one another in the mist like sheeted ghosts and did not speak. Friend failed to recognize friend; or, if he did, he took for granted that the other did not. Apart from the steady rumble of the traffic and the long deep note that the great city gives forth to hearing ears all the day long, the world seemed strangely silent and unfriendly.
Certainly this applied with truth to one member of the passing crowd whose business brought abroad that misty morning when home and the fireside gained an added attraction. Ephraim Goldstein was silent by nature and unfriendly by profession. For him language was an ingenious device for the concealment of thought; and when there was no special reason for such concealment, why should he trouble to speak?
It was not as if people were over desirous to hear him speak. He was naturally unattractive: and where nature had failed to complete her task, Ephraim had brought it to perfection. A habit of scowling had effectually removed any trace of amiability that might have survived the handicap of evil eyes and unpleasing features. When strangers saw Ephraim for the first time, they looked quickly around for a pleasant face to act by way of antidote.
We have said that he was unfriendly by profession. But the unwary and innocent would never have suspected this from his professional announcements in the personal column of the morning papers. The gentleman of fortune who was wishful, without security or inquiry, to advance goodly sums of money to his less fortunate fellow creatures on nominal terms and in the most delicate manner possible, was surely giving the best of all proofs of a soul entirely immersed in the milk of human kindness.
Yet those who had done business with Ephraim spoke of him in terms not usual in the drawing room: men of affairs who knew the world of finance called him a blood-sucking spider, and Scotland Yard had him noted down as emphatically a wrong 'un. Ephraim was not popular with those who knew him. He had in fact only one point of character that could be commended. He had never changed his name to Edward Gordon or even to Edwin Goldsmith: he was born Ephraim Goldstein—and Ephraim Goldstein he was content to remain to the end. A rose by any other name smells just as sweet—but people did not express it quite like that when Ephraim was under discussion.
He had not always been a gentleman of fortune, nor had he always been wishful to share his fortune with others. People with inconveniently long memories recalled a youth of like name who got into trouble at Whitechapel for selling Kosher fowls judiciously weighted with sand and there was also a story about a young man who manipulated three thimbles and a pea on Epsom Downs.
But why drag in these scandals of the past? In the case of any man it is unfair to thus search the record of his youth for evidence against him; and in the case of Ephraim it was quite unnecessary. He was a perennial plant: however lurid the past, he blossomed forth afresh every year in renewed vigor and in equally glowing colors.
How fortune had come to him seemed to be known by no one save himself; but certainly it had come, for it is difficult to lend money if you do not possess it. And with its coming Ephraim had migrated from Whitechapel to Haggerston, then to Kilburn, and finally to Maida Vale, where he now had his abode. But it must not be supposed that he indulged in either ambition or luxury. He was content with very modest comfort, and lived a simple bachelor existence; but he found a detached villa with some garden behind it more convenient for his purposes than a house in a terrace with an inquisitive neighbor on either side. His visitors came on business and by no means for pleasure: and privacy was as congenial to them as it was to him.
The business that had brought him out on this foggy morning was of an unusual character in that it had nothing to do with money making. It in fact involved spending money to the extent of two guineas now, with a probability of further sums; and he did not at all relish it. Ephraim was on his way to Cavendish Square to consult a noted oculist.
For some weeks past, he had been troubled with a curious affliction of his sight. He was still on the sunny side of fifty, and hitherto he had been very sharp-sighted in more senses than one. But now something seemed to be going wrong. His vision was perfect during the day, and usually through the evening as well; but twice recently he had been bothered with a curious optical delusion. On each occasion he had been sitting quietly reading after dinner, when something had made him uneasy. It was the same sort of disquiet that he always felt if a cat came into the room. So strong had been this feeling that he had sprung out of his chair without quite knowing why he did it and each time had fancied that a number of shadows streamed forth from his chair and ran across the carpet to the walls, where they vanished. They were evidently nothing but shadows, for he could see the carpet through them; but they were fairly clear and distinct. They seemed to be about the size of a cricket ball. Though he attached no meaning to the coincidence, it was a little odd that on each occasion he had been reluctantly compelled during the day to insist upon his pound of flesh from a client. And when Ephraim insisted, he did not stick at a trifle. But obviously this could have nothing to do with a defect of vision.
The great specialist made a thorough examination of Ephraim's eyes, but could find nothing wrong with them. So he explored further and investigated the state of his patient's nervous aid digestive systems; but found that these were perfectly sound.
Then he embarked upon more delicate matters, and sought to learn something of the habits of Ephraim. A bachelor in the forties may be addicted to the cup that cheers and occasionally inebriates as well: he may be fond of the pleasures of the table: he may be attracted by the excitement of gambling: in fact he may do a great many things that a man of his years should not do. The physician was a man of tact and diplomacy. He asked no injudicious questions; but he had the valuable gift of inducing conversation in others. Not for years had Ephraim talked so freely and frankly to any man. The result was that the doctor could find no reason for suggesting that the trouble was due to any kind of dietary or other indiscretion.
So he fell back on the last refuge of the baffled physician. "Rest, my dear Sir," he said; "that is the best prescription. I am happy to say that I find no serious lesion or even functional disturbance; but there is evidence of fatigue affecting the brain and the optic nerve. There is no reason to anticipate any further or more serious trouble; but a wise man always takes precautions. My advice is that you drop all business for a few weeks and spend the time in golf or other out-of-door amusement—say at Cromer or on the Surrey Downs. In that case you may be pretty confident that no further disturbance of this kind will occur."
Ephraim paid his two guineas with a rather wry face. He had the feeling that he was not getting much for his money; still it was reassuring to find that there was nothing the matter. Rest! Rubbish! He was not overworked. Surrey Downs indeed! Hampstead Heath was just as good and a great deal cheaper: he might take a turn there on Sunday mornings. Golf? You would not catch him making a fool of himself in tramping after a ridiculous ball! So he simply went on much the same as before, and hoped that all would be well.
Yet, somehow, things did not seem to be quite right with him. Business was prosperous, if you can speak of business in connection with the pleasant work of sharing your fortune with the less fortunate—always on the most reasonable terms possible. Ephraim would have told you that he lost terribly through the dishonesty of people who died or went abroad or whose expectations did not turn out as well as they should; and yet, in some mysterious way, he had more money to lend than ever. But he was worried.
One evening, after an unusually profitable day, he was sitting in his garden, smoking a cigar that had been given him by a grateful client who was under the mistaken impression that Ephraim's five per cent was to be reckoned per year, whereas it was really per week. It was a good cigar; and the smoker knew how to appreciate good tobacco. He was lying back in a hammock chair, and idly watching the rings of smoke as they rose on the quiet air and floated away.
Then he suddenly started and stared. The rings were behaving in a very odd fashion. They seemed to form themselves into globes of smoke; and from each of them protruded eight waving filaments that turned and bent like the legs of some uncanny creature, And it seemed as if these trailing limbs of smoke turned and reached toward him. It was curious and not altogether pleasant. But it was no case of an optical delusion. The evening light was good, and the thing vas seen clearly enough. It must have been the result of some unusual state of the atmosphere at the time.
He was aroused by hearing conversation on the other side of the wall. The occupant of the next-door house was in his garden with a friend, and their talk was of matters horticultural. It did not interest Ephraim, who paid a jobbing gardener the smallest possible amount to keep the place tidy, and concerned himself no further about it. He did not want to hear of the respective virtues of different local seed vendors. But the talk was insistent, and he presently found himself listening against his will. They were talking about spiders; and his neighbor was saying that he had never known such a plague of them or such large-sized specimens. And he went on to say that they all seemed to come over the wall from Ephraim's side! The listener discovered that his cigar had gone out; and he went indoors in disgust.
It was only a few days later when the next thing happened. Ephraim had gone to bed rather earlier than usual, being somewhat tired, but was unable to sleep. For some hours he tossed about wearily and angrily—for he usually slept well—and then came a spell of disturbed and restless slumber. Dream after dream passed through his mind; and somehow they all seemed to have something to do with spiders. He thought that he fought his way through dense jungles of web; he walked on masses of soft and yielding bodies that crushed and squished beneath his tread; multitudinous hairy legs waved to and fro and clung to him; fanged jaws bit him with the sting of fiery fluids; and gleaming eyes were everywhere staring at him with a gaze of unutterable malignancy. He fell, and the webs wrapped him round in an embrace of death; great woolly creatures flung themselves upon him and suffocated him with their foul stink; unspeakable things had him in their ghastly grip; he was sinking in an ocean of unimaginable horror.
He awoke screaming, and sprang out of bed. Something caught him in the face and clung round his head. He groped for the switch and turned on the light. Then he tore off the bandage that blinded him, and found that it was a mass of silky threads like the web that a giant spider might have spun. And, as he got it clear of his eyes, he saw great shadows run up the walls and vanish. They had grown since he saw them first on the carpet; they were now the size of footballs.
Ephraim was appalled by the horror of it. Unrestful sleep and persistent nightmare were bad enough; but here was something worse. The silky wisps that still clung about his head were not such stuff as dreams are made of. He wondered if he was going mad. Was the whole thing a hallucination? Could he pull himself together and shake it off? He tried; but the bits of web that waved from his fingers and face were real enough. No dream spider could have spun them; mere imagination could not have created them. Moreover, he was not a man of imagination. Quite the opposite. He dealt in realities: real estate was the security he preferred.
A stiff glass of brandy and soda pulled him together. He was not addicted to stimulants—it did not pay in his profession—but this was a case that called for special measures. He shook off the obsession, and thought there might be something in the golf suggestion after all. And when a client called during the morning to negotiate a little loan, Ephraim drove a shrewd bargain that surprised even himself.
The next incident that caused considerable disquiet to the gentleman of fortune seems to have occurred about a month later. He was no lover of animals, but he tolerated the presence of a Scots terrier in the house. It occasionally happened that he had large sums of money on the premises—not often, but sometimes it could not be helped—and the alert little dog was a good protection against the intrusive burglar. So he treated the animal as a sort of confidential servant, and was, after his fashion, attached to it. If he did not exactly love it, he at any rate appreciated and valued it. He did not even grudge the veterinarian charges when it was ill.
At night the terrier had the run of the house, but usually slept on a mat outside Ephraim's door. On this particular occasion Ephraim dreamed that he had fallen over the dog, and that it gave a loud yelp of pain. So vivid was the impression that it woke him, and the cry of the animal seemed to still linger on his ear. It was as if the terrier outside the door had really cried out. He listened, but all was quiet save for a curious clicking and sucking sound that he heard at intervals. It seemed to come from just outside the door; but that could not be, for the dog would have been roused and would have given the alarm if anything was wrong.
So he presently went to sleep again, and did not wake until his usual time for rising. As he dressed, it struck him as unusual that he heard nothing of the dog, which was accustomed to greet the first sounds of movement with a welcoming bark or two. When he opened his door, the terrier lay dead on the mat.
Ephraim was first shocked, then grieved, and next alarmed. He was shocked because it was simply natural to be shocked under the circumstances; he was grieved because it then dawned upon him that he was more fond of the animal than he could have believed possible; and he was alarmed because he knew that the mysterious death of a watch dog is often the preliminary to a burglary.
He hurried downstairs and made a hasty examination of the doors and windows, and particularly of a safe that was hidden in the wall behind what looked like a solid piece of furniture. But everything was in good order, and there was no sign of any attempt on the premises. Then he went upstairs to remove the body of the dog, wondering the while if it would be worth the expense to have a postmortem. Ephraim disliked mysteries, especially when they happened in the house.
He picked up the dead terrier, and at once met with a bad shock. It was a mere featherweight, and collapsed in his hands! It was little more than a skeleton, rattling loose in a bag of skin. It had been simply sucked dry!
He dropped it in horror, and as he did so he found some silky threads clinging to his hands. And there were threads waving in the air, for one of them twined itself about his head and clung stickily to his face. And then something fell with a soft thud on the floor behind him, and he turned just in time to see a shadow dart to the wall and disappear. He had seen that shadow form before; but it somehow seemed to be less shadowy and more substantial now.
It seems to have been about this time that a rumor circulated in Maida Vale that a monkey had escaped from the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park and had been seen climbing on Ephraim's house.
It was first seen early in the morning by a milkman, who mentioned it to a policeman, and soon afterward by a housemaid who was cleaning the steps of a house opposite. It was a rather dark and misty morning, which doubtless accounts for a certain vagueness in the descriptions of the animal. But, so far as they went, all the descriptions agreed.
The monkey was described as a very fat specimen, almost like a football in size and rotundity, with very long arms. It was covered with thick, glossy, black hair, and was seen to climb up the front of the house and enter by an open window. The milkman, who was fond of reading, said that he thought it was a spider monkey; but his only reason for this seems to have been some fancied resemblance to a very large spider.
Later in the morning, the policeman called on Ephraim to mention the matter, and to ask if the monkey was still there. His reception was not polite; and he retired in disorder. Then he rang up the Zoological Gardens, but was informed that no monkeys were missing. The incident was duly recorded at the police station, and there it ended, for no more was ever heard of it.
But another occurrence in the following week gave rise to much more talk, especially among the ladies of the neighborhood. The empty skin of a valuable Persian cat was found in the shrubbery of the house next to Ephraim's—empty, that is, except for the bones of the animal. The skin was quite fresh; as it well might be, for the cat had been seen alive the evening before. The mystery formed a nine days' wonder, and was never solved until an even more shocking mystery came to keep it company. The cat's skin had been sucked dry and the local theory was that a stoat or other beast of prey had escaped from the zoo and done the dire deed. But it was proved that no such escape had occurred, and there the matter had to stop.
Although it seems to have no significance, it may be well to place on record a trifling incident that happened a week or two later. A collector for some charitable institution called upon Ephraim under the mistaken impression that he was a person who wanted to get rid of his money. He was speedily undeceived, and was only in the house for a few minutes. But he told his wife afterward that Mr. Goldstein was evidently a great cat fancier, for he had noticed several fine black Persians curled up asleep in the house. But it was curious that they were all in the darkest and most obscure corners, where they could not be seen very clearly. He had made some passing reference to them to Mr. Goldstein, who did not seem to understand him. Indeed he stared at him as if he thought him the worse for drink!
Another incident at this time was made the subject of remark among Ephraim's neighbors. For reasons best known to himself, he had long been in the habit of sleeping with a loaded revolver at his bedside; and one morning, about daybreak, the sound of a shot was heard. The police were quickly on the spot and insisted upon entering the house. Ephraim assured them that the weapon had been accidentally discharged through being dropped on the floor; and, after asking to see his gun licence, the police departed.
But what had really happened was much more interesting. Ephraim had woke up without apparent cause, but with a vague sense of danger; and was just in time to see a round black body, covered with a dense coat of hair, climb up the foot of his bed and make its way cautiously toward his face. It was a gigantic spider; and its eight gleaming eyes blazed with lambent green light like a cluster of sinister opals.
He was paralysed with horror; then, summoning all his force of will, he snatched up the revolver and fired. The flash and the noise of the report dazed him for a moment; and when he saw clearly again the spider was gone. He must have hit it, for he fired point blank; but it had left no sign. It was just as well, for otherwise his tale would not have passed muster with the police. But, later in the morning, he found a trail of silky threads running across the carpet from the bed to the wall.
But the end was now very near. Only a few days later, the police were again in the house. This time they had been called in by the gardener, who said that he could not make Mr. Goldstein hear when he knocked at his door, and that he thought he must be ill. The door was locked, and had to be forced.
What the police found had better not be described. At the funeral, the undertaker's men said that they had never carried a man who weighed so little for his size.
Halton Square, Oldchester, was not at all the kind of place that one would associate with anything romantic or unusual. In fact, it was commonplace and ordinary to the last degree. While the houses in it were not exactly new, they were by no means old; and not one of them seemed to possess the smallest feature of interest. Until quite recently they had been dwelling houses, but were now with few exceptions converted into places of business.
No. 15, on the north side of the square, might be described as only half converted. It was now a business house, but it still remained a dwelling house. When Thomas Boston, general merchant, removed his place of business to No. 15, he removed himself and his family as well. The lower regions of the house were devoted to the purposes of the business, and the upper ones to those of the household.
The latter consisted of Mrs. Boston and a general servant whose name was Angelina and for that reason was known as Sarah. What the business consisted of is not quite so easily stated. The business of a general merchant is like charity in that it covers a multitude of sins. Far be it from us to suggest that Mr. Thomas Boston was a worse sinner than other dwellers in the square, or that his business was other than honest and straightforward. But what it was, few people knew exactly except himself. In fact, it may be doubted if he could have stated its precise nature in a sentence: so why should we attempt it?
Mr. Boston was a general merchant: he dealt in things in general. All was fish that happened to get into his net. He was ready for anything that came. At one time he was running a special line in mouse-traps; at another he was selling margarine on commission; a few weeks later he was making a book on the races; and at the time of our story he was disposing of a special line of brushes and brooms which for some reason had the maker's name carefully removed.
The police seemed to take an interest in Mr. Boston and his business, and they paid friendly calls at moments when they thought that they were least expected. But in this they were mistaken. They were never unexpected. Mr. Boston lived in the constant expectation that the next footstep would be that of a sergeant or perhaps an inspector; and he was always ready to greet them with a cordial word of welcome.
He used to be fond of remarking that you don't catch an old bird on the hop; but why an old bird should not hop like other birds, he did not explain. For some reason or other the police did not seem to be specially pleased with the cordiality with which they were always welcomed at No. 15; but then some people are never pleased. Perhaps they would have liked it better if Mr. Boston had not been quite so ready for them when they called.
Now it is perhaps hardly necessary to say that a man like him, with plenty of sound sense, was not at all the sort of person to indulge in fancies or to imagine things; and that makes it all the more curious that the strange things we have to tell should have happened in his house of all places.
The house itself had nothing remarkable about it. It was just an ordinary house of moderate size, and had been built about fifty years. There was no shop; but the front room on the ground floor served for business purposes, while that behind it had been turned into an office for an elderly man who combined in himself the functions of shopman, book-keeper, corresponding clerk, office boy and messenger on a salary of a pound a week. How he did it, nobody knew except himself: why he did it, the police thought that they knew. But they were not quite sure; and this was one of the reasons why they took such a friendly interest in the business.
Below these rooms was a basement, reached by an area from the street; and this was used for storing the goods in which Mr. Boston happened to be dealing at the moment. It could also be reached by a staircase indoors. The stairs to the first floor were opposite the front door, and went straight up without a turn. Facing the top of them was a small room which served as a private office for Mr. Boston; and the rest of the floor consisted of living rooms. Opposite the private office, the stairs turned and went on up to the second floor, where the bedrooms and a couple of lumber-rooms accounted for the rest of the house.
Now if you had attempted to go down into the area from the street after dark, you would have found it necessary to be very careful. There was no lamp on that side of the square; and if there did not happen to be a moon at the time, the area was then as dark as it well could be. Anyone down there could not be seen from the road unless some inquisitive policeman happened to turn his bull's eye lantern in that direction.
And if you had looked for the bell pull at the area door, you would not have found one. Why should you? The bell was at the front door, as is usual in all respectable houses. But if you had been curious enough to feel round the edge of the frame of that area door in the dark, you would have found a small button; and if you had pressed it, a whirring sound would have been heard in Mr. Boston's private office on the first floor. It was not a bell; for he was too thoughtful of the convenience of his neighbours—to say nothing of his friends, the police—to wish that the noise of a bell should disturb anyone late at night. And it was apt to be very late indeed when that whirring sound brought him down to the area door to see if it was the postman. It never was; but he did not seem to mind.
The people who called and used that little button always came on very private business indeed; and Mr. Boston always went down himself. And so thoughtful was he of the comfort of the neighbours that he had covered the fanlight over the front door with thick felt, so that no light should show through when he went downstairs to the area door to let in his visitor. And the stairs were never lighted late at night for the same reason: he always used an electric torch.
Now it happened one night in November that Mr. Boston was working very late indeed in his office. In fact, it was not night but morning, for the clock had just struck three. It was odd that he should be up so late, for he did not seem to be very busy. Indeed, he was simply smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper. If you had looked over his shoulder, you would have seen the subject that was interesting him. He was reading about a burglary that had taken place the previous night at a country house about twelve miles away, when the thieves had got off with a large quantity of plate and jewellery. And he was expecting a caller before the night was out.
Suddenly a soft whirring sound was heard in the office. Mr. Boston laid down his paper and smiled. But he did not rise. He waited till the sound came a second and a third time. Then he knew that the visitor at the area door was "all right." It was someone who knew the ropes.
Mr. Boston rose, slipped his feet into a pair of thick felt slippers—for why should he disturb people by treading noisily on the stairs?—took up a small electric torch, tested it to see that it was working well, slipped a revolver into his pocket, and went downstairs. He reached the area door in perfect silence, but he did not open it at once. He first made a slight scratching noise on the door with his finger nail: and in reply came three very soft taps from the other side. Then he smiled again, and opened the door.
No one was there! Mr. Boston instantly closed the door. He had no wish to attract attention; and it at once struck him that his visitor had heard the approaching footsteps of some quite unnecessary policeman and had taken cover in the disused coal cellar, the door of which was always kept unfastened for such emergencies. He would only have to wait a minute for the coast to become clear again.
He waited perhaps two minutes, and then came a very soft tap on the door. Mr. Boston repeated the scratching signal; and in response came the three taps. He opened the door; but again no one was there. He closed the door quickly and silently, scratched his head and looked puzzled. He had never had it happen twice before. There must have been another interruption just as he was opening the door. He waited again for perhaps ten minutes, but nothing more happened and he went back upstairs to his office, where he sat up till five o'clock. As his visitors had sufficient common sense not to run the risk of calling later than that hour, he then went to bed.
In the morning he thought it over and could not make it out at all. Someone must have rung the buzzer; and someone must have been at the door when he gave the signal and heard the three taps in answer. And the visitor must have meant business, for he stayed to seek admission a second time. But why did he try no more? Besides, he could not have got away in the couple of seconds that it took to open the door, unless he went into the cellar—a device that was only known to the people whom Mr. Boston regarded as "all right." And in that case why had he gone away without trying once more to leave behind what he had presumably brought? As a rule, his late-at-night visitors were only too anxious to unload themselves of the goods that they brought—a fact which enabled him to drive many a good bargain.
The whole thing was very puzzling; and he turned for relief to the morning paper. And it was a curious thing that the very first article to which he turned was the latest news of the big burglary.
But there was no news. The police had got a clue—as they generally have—but the burglars had got the goods. They had got clear away; and as all the stations had been watched and it was known that no doubtful characters had entered or left the district the burglary was evidently the work of local men. The stolen valuables could not be very far off. And then following the usual remarks about the importance of suppressing the receivers of stolen goods and thus deprive burglars of a market for their ill-gotten spoil. Mr. Boston read all this with a broad smile. Of course a general dealer had no interest in stolen goods.
Nothing further occurred during the day, except that a badly disguised detective called during the morning to buy a broom, and wasted nearly an hour in talking about things in general. But in the evening, just as it was growing dusk, Mr. Boston happened to go to the door and glanced down into the area. He was surprised to see a man standing at the door, apparently tapping quietly. And the man had a large bundle partly hidden under a large cloak. Could anybody have been mad enough to come at such a risky time? It must be somebody new to the business; and he would need to be handled very cautiously. Perhaps it would be safer to have nothing to do with him.
Mr. Boston glanced round the square to see that no one was approaching, then looked into the area again, and saw—no one! The area was empty.
What in the world did this mean? Had the fellow gone into the cellar without any reason? This must be looked into. So he once more glanced around the square, saw that all was quiet, and then fetched a scuttle and shovel and went down to the area and into the cellar to get some coal. No one was there!
But as he looked out, he caught a momentary glimpse of the same man, with the bundle under his cloak; and he was again tapping at the door of the basement. Mr. Boston only paused to put down the coal scuttle, and then stepped out of the cellar. The man had completely vanished. But it was impossible for anyone to get up the steps to the street in so short a time. The whole affair was most bewildering.
Mr. Boston sat up late again that night. He was still expecting a visitor; and this time he was not disappointed. About two in the morning the buzzer sounded; and, after the usual precautions, the visitor was admitted to the basement. As he proved to be an old business friend, he was taken up to the private office, where he produced from various strange places in his clothes a collection of jewels that quite agreed with the descriptions in the newspapers of that week.
The business transactions that then took place between the two men were strictly private and confidential; so it is not for us to inquire what they were. All we know is that they were arranged, after some grumbling on the part of the visitor. When he had gone, Mr. Boston pulled the rug from under his desk, lifted up a small trap-door in the floor, and put a parcel out of sight. Then he replaced the rug, extinguished the light, and went to bed.
About an hour later he woke up suddenly and distinctly heard the buzzer sounding in his office. He was not expecting another visitor; and he was very comfortable in bed: but business is business and must be attended to. So he hastily rose, put on some clothes, and went down to the basement. Then followed an exact repetition of the strange incidents of the previous night. It seemed certain that someone was there, but nobody was visible. If Mr. Boston had not been a strict teetotaller, he would really have begun to wonder if he had not better become one.
Nothing unusual now happened for about a week. Mr. Boston had branched out in another line of business and was exploiting a new soap which was warranted to wash everything except the human skin. And somehow the police seemed to have taken quite an interest in soap, if one might judge by the number of constables in plain clothes who called to buy it.
And then a very puzzling thing occurred. It was Tuesday night about ten o'clock. Mr. Boston was sitting in his office, smoking a final cigar before going to bed. He was not expecting any visitor, and there was no reason to stay up late. His wife and the servant had gone upstairs half an hour before. He was just putting his desk straight before following their example, when he suddenly paused and listened.
Someone was coming up the stairs from the basement! What could this mean? And who could it be? As we have already explained, the office was on the first landing, and from the door anyone could see down the stairs to the ground floor and up the stairs to the second floor. Mr. Boston quietly took his revolver out of the table drawer, saw that it was loaded, opened the door, and waited. The steps could be distinctly heard. They came up the stairs from the basement, and then along the ground floor passage. Now they would have to come up to the first floor, and then he would see who this intruder was.
He held the revolver in readiness. There were some valuable goods in hiding under the floor of his office; and the men with whom he did business would not stick at a trifle. It would not do to take any risks. And now the steps began to come up the stairs to the first floor. But—it was very strange—he could not see anyone, although the light from his office shone on the stairs and he had also flashed his electric torch on them. The steps came up the stairs, seemed to pause for a moment outside his office door, and then went on to the second floor. And yet he saw no one!
After a moment's hesitation, he went up after the invisible intruder; and at the farthest end of the passage on the second floor he caught just a glimpse of the man in the cloak whom he had seen about a week before in the area tapping at the basement door. The man seemed to melt away into nothing just as he caught sight of him. He thought it as well to visit each room and make sure that no intruder was there; but he found no one. Nor did he make any discoveries when he went downstairs and explored the basement. All was quiet and everything was in its usual order. The whole affair was a complete mystery.
We have already said that Mr. Boston was not a man of imagination. He dealt with solid facts and tangible realities. Thus an experience of this kind was entirely out of his line. He could form no theory about it: he was simply bewildered. He had heard the man come upstairs; he actually caught a glimpse of him; and yet there was nobody. He could only remark that he was eternally blest if he could understand it—only "blest" was not the exact word that he used.
The queer thing about it all was that it seemed to have no sort of meaning. And the same could be said of the next thing that happened at No. 15 Halton Square. This time it was the servant who had the surprise. Angelina—called Sarah for short—had a young man, and was allowed every Tuesday evening off for the express purpose of spending the time with him. This arrangement was one that Mr. Boston, with the approval of Mrs. Boston, specially insisted upon. It would never do to have any followers hanging about the place after dark. They might get in the way of the business; and incidentally they might get to know too much about it. So Sarah—otherwise Angelina—had one pleasant evening a week in company with the young man, who was understood by Mr. Boston and fully believed by Angelina to be a clerk in a stockbroker's office. If Mr. Boston had known that he was really a young member of the local detective force, and was much more interested in him than in Angelina, that young lady would doubtless have received a month's wages instead of notice and have been sent about her business without any further delay.
Now it happened that Sarah—or Angelina, just as you please—came home punctually on Tuesday evening at ten o'clock, according to orders; and the young man accompanied her as far as the corner of the square. There they bade one another good night, and she made her way across the quiet square and up to the front door of No. 15. She was just about to enter when someone seemed to brush past her and go into the house. But she saw no one. It was not mere imagination, or even a draught caused by opening the door suddenly; for she felt a distinct push which almost made her drop a small parcel that she was carrying. In fact, she exclaimed, "Who are yer shovin' of?" before she realised that no one was there.
She looked round two or three times before she could assure herself that there was no one. Then she shut the door, and started to go up to the living rooms on the first floor. And then she had a very queer experience. It seemed to her that part of the stairs in front of her was blotted out, just as if some person were walking up in front of her. And she distinctly heard a sort of shuffling tread on the stairs. But no one was there.
When she reached the first landing, she found Mr. Boston at the door of his private office, looking puzzled. He asked her if anyone had come in with her, and explained that he thought he heard the footsteps of two people instead of one. For some reason or other, Angelina thought fit to be very indignant at the suggestion, and he found it well to ask no more questions. But Sarah—we mean Angelina—was very much scared for all that: and she was still more scared a little later when she heard the footsteps again outside her bedroom door. She had locked the door as usual; but she took the precaution to push the chest of drawers against it as well.
Next day the police called on Mr. Boston: in fact, quite a lot of them called. And they called all at once, with an inspector at their head. They came to search the premises; and they had a warrant from the magistrate to enable them to do so. Mr. Boston could not understand at all why they came; and he said so. They seemed to be interested in soap and brooms, for they turned over all the stock in the basement to see what was underneath. And they spent quite of lot of time in hunting about the coal cellar.
Then they went upstairs and turned out all the rooms in the rudest and most inconsiderate fashion. They even looked inside Mrs. Boston's wardrobe and shook all her newest dresses; which seemed a very foolish thing to do. They searched the private office, but they found nothing that interested them. It never occurred to them to move the rug under the desk.
But they met with an incident that they could not make out at all. One of them happened to look out of an upstairs window and saw a man with a large parcel half hidden under a cloak going down into the basement. He told the inspector, who sent a man out to the street to see that the new-comer did not get away while he and another policeman went down to see who it was and what the parcel contained. But they found no one in the area or in the basement, though it was certain that he could not have got back to the street. At last they gave it up as a bad job and went away.
Mr. Boston now made up his mind to move from Halton Square. How could the business of a respectable general merchant be carried on if he was to be worried in this way? Besides, it looked so bad to have the police paying so many friendly visits. And it really hindered business; for Mr. Boston's friends had a decided objection to running the risk of finding a policeman on the premises when they called late at night about a little deal in brooms or soap.
But the removal never came off. Mr. Boston went off instead. And it happened in this way. Just as it was getting dusk one evening soon afterwards, he was looking out of his door when he saw a man in a black cloak, with a big bundle hidden under it, slip very cautiously down into the area. He did not go down to attend to him for two reasons. One was that a police sergeant was standing at the corner of the square: and the other was that Mr. Boston thought it was just one more of those queer occurrences and not a real man at all. So he took no notice.
But the sergeant had also seen the man; and he knew nothing about any ghost or anything of that sort having been seen. So he went down into the area to ask what was in that bundle. Now it most unfortunately happened that it was a real man this time; and when the sergeant had called another policeman and they had opened the bundle, Mr. Boston had the surprise of his life; for it was full of watches and gold and silver from a big robbery that had taken place a week before.
Of course Mr. Boston did not at all understand what it meant; but the judge and jury did; and he got seven years' holiday at a seaside place called Portland.
Glenmorris Castle was the ancestral home of Lord Glenmorris, who could boast that he was descended from a hundred earls and from the kings of both England and Scotland. Parts of it were over six hundred years old; and the rest of it was not built yesterday. And it is not likely to fall down to-morrow either, for people in those days built houses to last. Its walls were six feet thick in the older portions; and some of them contained passages and galleries whose existence no one would have suspected.
The castle stood on the side of a hill, sheltered by thick woods on either side and by the rising slope of the hill behind. In front it looked for miles across the country, with not a town in sight, and with very few scattered houses more or less hidden from view. It would be difficult to imagine a more pleasant and attractive site for a house, provided always that its occupant had no objection to the inconveniences arising from remoteness from the nearest town and railway. But the owner of Glenmorris Castle was possessed of motors and horses in more than plenty; and such a thing as inconvenience seldom made itself felt by him.
The interior of the castle was pretty much what might have been expected. What may be called the more ornamental parts as contrasted with the useful ones had been preserved or skilfully restored to their original appearance in the days of old; but the living-rooms had been modernised in the most up-to-date fashion, so that it was a little difficult for the visitor to realise that he was in a very ancient and historic house.
The place had long been renowned for its hospitality. People were always coming and going when the family were at home, especially in the days of the late Lord Glenmorris, who dearly loved to find himself surrounded by his friends. One of his chief hobbies was to take people over the vast place and exhibit its various points of interest. Indeed, some of his family thought that he overdid the thing; and they complained that the home of their ancestors was being converted into a kind of semi-private hotel.
But there was one thing in Glenmorris Castle that was never shown and rarely mentioned. If anyone had carefully examined the old oak panelling that lined the great gallery which ran along the west side of the castle on the first floor and gave access to the principal rooms, he might have discovered the existence of a panel which could be pushed aside. But the chances are that he would have made no such discovery, for the panel was hidden by a large piece of furniture; and, even if this had been removed, there was nothing to distinguish the panel from the others.
When the panel was pushed aside, the solid wall of the castle was laid bare. At this particular point, the outer wall of the castle had been strengthened by an immense mass of stonework, like a great buttress, the need for which was not easy to see. So that the wall here must have been about fifteen feet thick.
But if the wall behind this panel had been examined closely it would have been found that originally there had been a door here. This had been built up with solid stonework, so that now only the arch above it could be distinguished from the rest of the wall. It appeared therefore that there must at one time have been a room in the thickness of the buttress, to which the door gave access. This idea was confirmed by the fact that in the outside of the buttress could be faintly seen the outline of what must at one time have been a small window that gave light to the room.
Now there was a mystery connected with this hidden room. If the wall where the door had been was closely examined in a good light, some faintly scratched letters could be made out on the stonework. They were almost worn away with age, but they seemed to spell the words, "The Chamber of Doom." Underneath this was another old inscription, part of which was missing, but it seemed to have been originally, "Glenmorris lasts until Glenmorris comes."
There was no history connected with all this. Although the family records had been carefully kept for many hundreds of years, none of the old documents in the muniment room in the tower mentioned this mysterious room or threw any fight on the strange inscription. How long the room had been disused was unknown: it was not even known if the room was still there. It might have been filled up and so destroyed when the door was closed. But the inscription suggested that it still existed.
Although there was no definite information on the subject, there was an ancient tradition in the family that the room was still there, and that it contained some mystery. Certainly the name, "The Chamber of Doom," hinted at something of the sort. And the tradition went on to say that the prosperity of the family depended upon the room being left alone. The second inscription, "Glenmorris lasts until Glenmorris comes," was supposed to mean that there would always be a Lord Glenmorris until one of that name came to the hidden room. What would happen when he came was not stated; but there was the ominous suggestion that there would be no Lord Glenmorris afterwards.
Thus for hundreds of years the closed door had been left alone; and earl after earl had warned his son and heir to beware of any attempt to solve the mystery. Indeed it was said that the mysterious death of the eleventh earl, who was found lying cold in the great gallery when the servants rose one winter morning, had followed closely upon some attempt to test the blocked doorway and find out if there was any empty space behind it.
The late earl had followed the practice of his ancestors and had banished the subject from his mind; but what line the new earl would take up remained to be seen. He was a young man of twenty-three, fresh from Oxford, and was supposed to have little respect for what he called "old-fashioned superstitions." So some of the older servants were inclined to shake their venerable heads, and to wonder if the young lord would let well alone.
Not long before his death, the late earl had mentioned the matter to him and had advised him to have nothing to do with it. The young man rather scoffed, and said that the whole thing seemed to him too trivial to even think about. He questioned if there was any room behind the blocked door; and expressed the opinion that the faintly scratched inscription was merely the work of some practical joker. His argument was that if there had been anything to hide, no one would have put up an inscription that was certain to rouse curiosity, and thus lead to a search. The notion that the welfare of the family was in any way influenced by anything that the supposed chamber might contain was absurd.
And now the young earl reigned in the stead of his father, who had been dead for rather over a year. His mother had departed for the dower house, where she preferred to live, before setting forth on a round of prolonged visits to some of her relations. His sisters were all married; his younger brother was still at Cambridge; and he himself was unmarried. So he found himself alone in the castle.
He rather preferred to be alone. He disliked a crowded house—in which he was the exact opposite of his father—and he took but little interest in sport of any kind. He was a bookish young man, with a taste for scientific experiments and for sundry sorts of collecting; and he could be quite happy with no company but his own.
And he had an additional reason for wishing to be alone just now. Since coming to the title he had amused himself by making a rough catalogue of the deeds and other documents that he had found stored in a neglected cupboard in the muniment room; and among them he had found an undated document of considerable antiquity, which seemed to refer to the troublous times of civil war when the castle had been more than once besieged.
It was a kind of memorandum of the various places in which certain valuables had been hidden. Many of the articles mentioned were still in possession of the family and were well known; others appeared to have been lost or disposed of, for the young earl had never heard of them. The hiding places thus recorded were also interesting. Most of them were readily recognisable to one who knew the castle well; and some were highly ingenious. Lord Glenmorris smiled as he read some of the details.
But there were other items that greatly puzzled him. It appeared that quite a number of valuable articles of which all record was now lost had been stored in what was described in the manuscript as "Chamber D." But there was no clue as to the situation of this chamber. He puzzled a great deal about this mysterious hiding-place.
Then the thought suddenly struck him that possibly "Chamber D" and the "Chamber of Doom" behind the great gallery might be the same place. There was certainly a curious resemblance in the two names. A bricked-up room would be a very safe place to hide things in. And if it was possible to associate some superstition with the place, so that people would fear to meddle with it, the hidden valuables would be all the safer. The notion seemed worth considering.
And then another thought struck him. The second inscription, "Glenmorris lasts until Glenmorris comes," had hitherto been understood as a threat, meaning that when a Lord Glenmorris came to the hidden chamber there would be an end of him if not the entire family. But was it not possible that the meaning was quite different? Could it not mean that the line of Glenmorris would last until a Lord Glenmorris came to the chamber and found his hidden treasure? In other words a promise that the treasure should not be lost to the family for lack of a Glenmorris to find it. There seemed no reason why this should not be the true explanation of the mystery of the Chamber of Doom.
Certainly the name of the hidden room did not sound altogether reassuring. But this was probably all part of the scheme for keeping people away from the hiding-place; and certainly it had proved most successful. Whatever the chamber contained—supposing the chamber really to exist—it had been left severely alone ever since the door was blocked up.
For some weeks this thought was seldom out of his mind; and the result was that he decided to put his theory to the test by opening the Chamber of Doom—if there really was a chamber in the buttress—and find out the facts. But how to do this was the problem with which he was faced. It would never do to let the servants know what was being done, as they would be sure to talk—and a fuss was just what he wished to avoid. Moreover, when he laughingly suggested to the old steward that it might be worth while to clear up the mystery, he was met with respectful but very determined opposition. The steward said that not only he but all the older servants would leave the house at once if anything so dangerous was attempted. They were quite sure that there was something bad in that hidden room, which had better not be let out.
Young Glenmorris laughed at this, but inwardly he felt that it would never do to upset all the chief servants and run the risk of losing them. So it seemed impossible to have the masons in and take down the wall where the ancient door had been. The thing could not then be kept secret. How then was it to be managed? The only possible plan seemed to be to do it himself when all was quiet at night. Circumstances favoured the plan. The servants' quarters were at some distance from the great gallery; so that with reasonable precautions to avoid unnecessary noise, it would be possible to open the wall without their being any the wiser.
So he set to work to do this. He secured what he found to be the proper tools for cutting away the mortar between the stones, and concealed them beforehand in a cupboard near the place. Then, when all was quiet and he was supposed to be in bed, he began the task after carefully locking all doors that led to the gallery. He had made his plans for putting the broken mortar and stone in a large oak chest which happened to be placed close to the moving panel.
He had but little experience of such work, though he had once helped some men to pull down a wall; and he anticipated a long and wearisome task, probably lasting through several nights before it would be finished. But he met with better success than he expected. The great square stones with which the old doorway had been filled in, proved to be nothing more than a rather thin facing to a wall of brick. It looked as if the masons of those bygone days had cheated their employer over the work. But this made it all the easier now.
His first object was simply to bore a hole through the wall and thus ascertain if there was any space behind, or if the room itself had been filled up at the same time with the doorway. By this time, however, he had little doubt remaining that there was a room there. It was not until the second night that he found he had pierced the wall.
The hole thus made was not large enough to see through; but he was at once struck by the fact that a slight draught of air came through; and that it had not the damp and fusty odour of air from a long closed room. On the contrary, the air felt distinctly warm—just as if it came from an occupied room. But who could be occupying a room that had been closed for some hundreds of years?
It now only remained to make a hole in the wall sufficiently large to get through; and then the secret would be revealed. He worked with a will, and found the work easier now. The bricks came away readily when once a hole had been made. And then he heard something in the room!
It was a curious sound; but it certainly came from inside the long closed room. It was a spiteful sound, and could only be compared with the spitting of an angry cat. Twice he heard it between the first opening of the hole and its enlargement to a size sufficient to admit him.
At last the task was finished, and Glenmorris laid down his tools and was going to enter the Chamber of Doom. But something inside was beforehand with him. Something rushed out suddenly through the hole, pushing him violently aside as it came. He saw nothing; but he felt something! A hand pushed him back. It rested for a moment on his face. It felt like a long, skinny hand; and it was so hot that it almost scorched his face.
He staggered backward in astonishment; and then looked closely about the gallery in which he was working. But no one was there; and the doors were closed and locked. And once more he heard that angry, spiteful sound. He almost wished that he had left the business alone. But it was too late to draw back now. He had let out the secret of the chamber; and he wanted to know what it was that he had let out.
Lord Glenmorris plucked up his courage, took up his lamp, and stepped through the hole into the Chamber of Doom. It proved to be a small square room, and most of the floor space was occupied by a massive table; and on the table stood an ancient coffin with its lid thrown off and lying on the floor. He hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward, and looked into the coffin. It was empty, so far as any occupant was concerned; but it contained an ancient sword, a pair of spurs, and one or two other things of the kind that it was the custom to place in the coffin of a knight in the days of old.
Then the intruder received another shock. By the side of the coffin lay a paper, written in ink in the old handwriting of the Middle Ages. He was familiar with old manuscripts and so had no difficulty in reading the words. They were these: "The fool has come at last!" And the ink was wet.
Glenmorris looked around with a queer sense of mingled fear and horror. Someone had just written those words. But where was the pen; where was the ink; and above all where was the writer? And, more unpleasant question still, who was the writer?
Then his eye fell on the coffin lid that was lying on the floor. It bore an engraved plate; and on it was the name of one of his earliest known ancestors, who had now been dead for many a century past. Glenmorris remembered what he had heard of the terrible life led by this man, who was supposed to have sold his soul to the devil, and to have committed unmentionable crimes. And he remembered also that all record of the place of this man's burial had been lost, and that his grave was not with the rest of the ancient Lords Glenmorris. And then the words on the stonework struck him like a blow: "Glenmorris lasts until Glenmorris comes!" Could it be that this horror had lasted until he, like a fool, had come to find it?
There was nothing else in the room; but where was its late occupant? That was the uncomfortable question that had to be faced next. Glenmorris could only close the panel, replace the piece of furniture that concealed it, clear away all marks of his work, and hope for the best. But it was only too clear that something or somebody was at large in the place that it would be very unpleasant to meet.
As Glenmorris went to his room, he felt almost that he again heard that spiteful sound somewhere in the house. He lay down and tried to go to sleep. But could he sleep while an unsleeping horror was abroad? How could he rest when something that ought to have been at rest centuries ago was still awake and apparently malignant? There was to be no more peace or rest for Glenmorris in this world.
When he came downstairs, after tossing in vain for some hours, he found the old steward waiting to tell him that all the servants had given notice and had asked leave to go at once. And he could not feel greatly surprised when he heard their story.
It seemed that when the maids came down to begin their usual work, they were struck by the strong smell of something that they described as "brimstone" about the place. Then they found dark finger-prints on the doors, almost like marks of burns, and two of them had caught sight of something that vanished round a corner before they could quite see what it was. And one of them had been roughly pushed aside by something that had brushed past her, although nothing could be seen. And just afterwards she found that her dress was scorched all down the side where the unseen intruder had brushed against her. So it was not greatly to be wondered at that all the maidservants were in a state of nerves and hysterics.
But there was more to tell; and it was the butler who told it. He was an elderly man of sound sense—the last man to fancy that he saw things. He was not superstitious, and had a great contempt for those who were. But on this occasion he could not get away from the evidence of his own senses.
He had been passing the door of the library on first coming down, when he thought that he heard someone moving inside. As he knew that Lord Glenmorris had not come down, he pushed the door open very quietly to see who it was. And what he saw held him there speechless with horror. Beside the table stood a man in the dress of a nobleman of the Middle Ages, who had before him a pile of the old title deeds of the Glenmorris estate from the muniment room, and was deliberately tearing them in pieces and throwing them into the fireplace. There was no fire in the grate; but as each piece left the hands of the mysterious stranger it seemed to catch fire and fell flaming on the hearth.
The butler gasped; and the intruder turned and looked at him. Then the butler fainted for the first time in his life. But before he lost consciousness he saw that the intruder was a skeleton in the garb of an ancient earl. In the sockets where eyes had once been, were now two smouldering red embers; and about the bony fingers played little blue flames. Small wonder that the deeds caught fire when they took them up! When he came to again, the horror was no longer there, but the burnt remains of the deeds lay upon the hearth.
The servants left during the day; and Lord Glenmorris felt that he had no right to object. All that remained were the old housekeeper, who stayed on partly because she did not like to leave the young earl whom she had nursed as a child, and partly because she was old and rather feeble, and did not feel equal to making other arrangements such a hurry; and one of the footmen who did not believe the tales of the other servants and thought that he might expect a handsome reward for obliging the earl.
Nothing happened during the day, but Lord Glenmorris found evidence on every hand that a very bitter and malignant enemy of his race was at large and active. The muniment room had been simply sacked and the most important documents so thoroughly destroyed that it would be difficult now to prove his title to anything. He also found that the historic coronet of his ancestors, which had been worn at so many coronations, had been broken into small bits. But he saw nothing of the foe, though in several cases it was clear that he had been at work in the room just before; and once or twice he again heard that spiteful, spitting sound.
Lord Glenmorris was last seen by the footman about eleven in the evening, when he was sitting in the library writing letters. In the morning his body was still in the chair: but the lips which alone could tell the story of the end were silent now for ever. His face spoke of fear and horror beyond expression in words; and the protruding eyes told of death from choking. Ten burns on his neck showed where fingers on fire had gripped him: and a heap of ashes on the table was all that was left of the letters he had been writing. Only one paper remained undestroyed, though it was badly scorched; and on this was written in mediaeval script the words, "Glenmorris lasted until Glenmorris came!"
Two days later a mysterious fire broke out in the west gallery of the castle, although nobody had been there, and no reason for it could be suggested. It destroyed the entire side of the place, and finally swept out of existence the Chamber of Doom.
Henson and I had been arguing the matter out. Now when Henson starts arguing, the other man has his hands full. Not that Henson is likely to be right; for he is generally wrong; but he is about the toughest problem that I ever had to face when it comes to making him see reason. He is one of those people who cannot see when they are hopelessly defeated: in fact the more badly he is beaten the more sure he is of winning.
Now I am not like that. Though usually—I might almost say always—in the right, no man is more ready than I am to acknowledge himself in the wrong. What I want to get at is the truth, the whole truth, and if possible a little more than the truth. What other people choose to think is no business of mine: this is a free country and people are at liberty to be as stupid as they please.
For example, when I said that the war would not and could not last more than two years, I was quite prepared to admit that if the Government did not act with the wisdom and energy with which I credited them I could not be held responsible for what might happen in the way of prolongation of the war. My prediction was therefore correct enough: it was the attitude and action of the Government that were not correct. If your data are falsified, you cannot be held responsible if your conclusions are upset.
When Henson on the other hand predicted that the war would last over four years, his arguments were absurd and his conclusions therefore unwarranted. He was hopelessly in the wrong; and no one knew it better than he did himself. The mere accident that the end of the war happened to coincide with the date that he urged in the face of all reason, was nothing more or less than the merest accidental coincidence, and does not alter the position in the least.
Well, as I was saying, Henson and I had been arguing it out. He had been saying that the past was past and was done with. It was over and gone, and had now ceased to exist. According to him, the present was the only real time; which is obviously absurd. Of course everybody knows that the present is a mere mode of speech and does not represent anything real. The past is the real thing, and is as much in existence to-day as it ever was. Does not science tell us that nothing is ever destroyed; and that whatever has been is and always will be, though perhaps not in the same form?
Of course it was a sheer waste of time to argue with Henson; but I happened to know that I was right. I don't mean merely that my arguments were sound—that goes without saying—but that I had had experience of the continued existence of the past. So I thought it might be as well to tell him the story that is now given to a wider audience, from whose intelligence I hope for a better reception than I could expect from him.
It happened about two years ago, when I was spending a few months at a small seaside town in South Wales. If we call it Llandwy, we shall not revealing its real name. It is a sort of jumping—off town for the principality, standing out into the like a diving board between two semi-circular bathing pools. Remote from any main line of railway, and reached by a side line that is never known to be in a hurry, it sleeps peacefully through the greater part of the year; only waking up for the two or three months that it is pleased to call its season.
Of course I went there when the season was not on, preferring the most virulent dullness to the perambulators and the pierrots. There was not much to see or to do in Llandwy; but it was a convenient kind of place to get away from. Several pleasant villages and quite a number of rural attractions lay close at hand; and to one or other of these I made my way on most fine days.
There was one spot in particular that always attracted me; and it was there that the strange incidents occurred that I have to narrate. To reach it, you left Llandwy by a road through what had been a marsh in the olden days but was now a level range of fertile fields with a small stream flowing through it. Crossing the stream by a bridge, you went along a narrow lane leading down into a pleasant valley. Just beyond this, the lane rose gently towards a ridge which commanded a wide landscape.
But before you reached the ridge, a rough path led off to the right from the lane and soon became a mere track through the thick undergrowth. Following this trail you reached an open space on the side of the hill, where the limestone crags jutted out from the greensward. Among these crags was hidden the entrance to a deep cave. So well was it concealed by the natural features of the place that you might go there day after day, and wander about the rocks, and fail to notice it.
The cave had been explored many years ago, and a quantity of bones of animals and some traces of primitive man had been discovered in it. It communicated with quite a series of caverns in the depth of the hill, in which the unwary visitor might easily lose himself. All this I had read in the local guide-book; but it did not greatly interest me, and I had not troubled to locate the exact opening of the cave. So that, while I knew it was there, it did not at all occupy my thoughts.
It seems just as well to mention this in view of what happened afterwards. It became quite a habit with me on fine evenings to stroll in this direction and to sit with a book on a little hillock that faced the group of rocks. A thick bush concealed me pretty perfectly from anyone who might be about the rocks; but this was not any recommendation of the resort, partly because there was no occasion for concealment and partly because no one ever seemed to come that way when I was there.
I suppose I had been there about half a dozen times before it struck me that there was something queer about the place. There was nothing unpleasant—no sense of danger or anything of that kind—but still there was a feeling that I had never met with elsewhere. It is difficult to explain. I can only describe it as a sense of extreme antiquity. The whole place seemed old beyond imagination.
There were no ruins to suggest such an idea; and, although hills are proverbially old, they do not usually inspire any feeling of this sort—at least not to me. They suggest sublimity and awe, and sometimes loneliness, but not antiquity. And here the hills were not so much in evidence as to impress one. They were quite low hills, covered with grass and undergrowth, and only the few crags opposite reminded one of the ancient geological formation to which they belonged.
But this strange sense of antiquity did not lie in the surroundings merely. It seemed to be to some extent in myself. Not that I felt personally old, but that I seemed to belong to an age long gone by. In a word, I felt old-fashioned—but old-fashioned to an extent passing computation—and it seemed as if the place was old-fashioned too. I seemed out of it, as the popular phrase goes, in relation to the things of to-day. I should not have been surprised to wake up and find that this present-day world was only a dream, and that the world was still young and unspoiled. If I had found the ancient Britons still in possession of the land, with no idea that a mighty nation of conquering Romans would ever be born, it would have seemed simply natural and just what I expected.
Do not suppose that I formulated my ideas on these lines. On the contrary, at the time there was but a vague sense into which I did not pry closely. But, looking back at it now, it seems to me that if I had analysed my sense of antiquity the results would have been pretty much what I have stated. But we must not linger over what is at best vague and indefinite.
The first incident that made me think there might be more in the sense of antiquity than at first appeared happened one evening as it was growing dusk. I had been reading a popular novel, and must have dozed for a few minutes. It could not have been longer, as the fading daylight had not grown perceptibly less during the moments of oblivion.
I woke with a start and with that sudden sense of alertness that often comes when a man is aroused by something unexpected. All was very quiet, and even the distant sounds of farm work were absent. The loneliness seemed extreme; I might have been the only man in existence. But not the only living creature! On the contrary, there was a curious feeling that something was about, and that it was something interesting.
At quite a short distance to the left, a small wood began and its edge was rather sharply defined. I found myself watching it without at all knowing why. I was expecting to see something, but had no idea what. Then suddenly there was a movement among the trees of the little wood. A number of them swerved to and fro, although there was no apparent reason for it. There was not a breath of wind; and the movement was not general. Only certain trees were disturbed, much as if some gigantic animal was pushing his way through the wood. And I heard a distinct sound of crashing branches; but this sounded farther away than the moving trees.
The whole thing could not have lasted more than a few seconds, when the sound ceased and the trees were still again. On my way back to the hotel at Llandwy, I went through the wood; but nothing out of the ordinary was to be seen.
It was two or three days later when the next thing happened. I was reading at the usual spot when my attention was arrested by a sound of snorting and heavy breathing, which gave the impression of the presence of some large animal. But it was nowhere near at hand. The sound came from a considerable distance evidently; and I found myself wondering what animal could be large enough to produce it. It seemed much farther away than the little wood; and there was no indication of any disturbance among the trees.
That the thing was not mere imagination or a waking dream on my part was proved by the fact that I was not the only listener. Some rabbits had been feeding in the grass, quite unconscious of my presence behind the bush: and it was evident that they heard it also, for they started, pricked up their ears, and listened intently to the sound.
When the sound ceased, they went on feeding; but about five minutes later they again started and listened. This recalled my wandering thoughts; and I then clearly heard the crashing sounds as on the previous occasion. But it was a long way off, and there was no sign of anything moving in the wood.
So far I had attached no sort of importance to these trifling incidents. They seemed not worth attention; for, though curious, they might be explained in many ways. Air currents sometimes play strange pranks with tree-tops; and distant sounds are often deceitful. But they proved to be only the prelude to much more interesting and significant happenings; and these followed quickly.
The next evening saw a remarkable development. I was reading one of Lamb's essays, and am certain that I had not fallen asleep. Suddenly I heard the sound of crashing branches much nearer at hand. Looking in the direction of the wood, I again saw the trees moving on the left side; and the movement seemed to be coming towards me. I watched to see what would happen when the disturbance reached the edge of the wood; and this is what I saw. The movement among the trees came gradually nearer, but not continuously. Whatever the cause of the motion, it seemed to move a little and then pause.
But presently it got to the edge, and I saw the branches on the side next to me open slightly as if something was pushing its way out. Then in the shadow I saw an immense bulk of ill-defined shape, which was not to be clearly distinguished from the trees that partly concealed it. But it appeared to be a huge elephant, for I caught a momentary glimpse of long tusks. But they were twisted in a fashion different from those of any elephant that I had ever seen.
A passing gleam of sunshine caught the body of the creature; and I then saw that it was covered with long hair of reddish hue. It appeared to be pulling the shoots from the branches and feeding upon them. But the view was only momentary; for something seemed to disturb the beast, and it moved back through the wood with the same sound of crashing branches that I had heard before.
My first impression was that an elephant had escaped from a travelling menagerie; but against this were the facts that the local papers had contained no mention of any such menagerie in the district, and that what I had seen of the beast did not agree with any elephant now known to naturalists. It more nearly matched the pictures of the mammoth; but that beast has been extinct since the far-off days when the human race was young, and the men of the Stone Age roamed about Europe.
I did not know what to think; and was still more puzzled when I cautiously entered the wood where the beast had appeared. Not a trace of its presence could be found. The trees were not damaged in any way, as they must have been if such a large animal as an elephant had forced its way among them. I could not see that any of the branches had been torn down; neither could I find any footprints in the soft ground.
The only shadow of a confirmation of what I had seen came from the passing remark of a labouring man who greeted me on his way home with the remark that we might expect rain, for he had noticed the wind blowing the trees about a few minutes before. But this did not amount to much: nor did the predicted rain come.
During the next few days I watched the local papers closely, but found no reference to any escaped animal at large. Needless to say, I did not mention the matter to anyone, for I had no wish to be taken for a lunatic. But that what I had seen was real and not a mere figment of the imagination was proved clearly enough before the story ended.
It was on the following Sunday evening that the next development came. I was in the usual place, and this time was reading a new book that greatly interested me. There was no risk of falling asleep while it lasted. I was in the midst of a specially absorbing chapter when the crashing sound disturbed me, and on looking up I again saw the trees moving and could distinguish a bulky shadow passing through them. The beast seemed to be leisurely feeding; when suddenly it seemed to start back and then fled through the wood, trumpeting loudly as it went. This was the first time that I had heard the voice of the mysterious beast, and there was no question about its resemblance to that of elephants in captivity.
The beast had evidently been scared by something; and a moment later the cause of its fright appeared on the scene. Out of the undergrowth a huge bear crept stealthily, looked hastily around, and then stood for some seconds in full view. It was larger than the biggest grizzly I had either seen or read about; but in other respects it closely resembled the common brown bear of Europe. It was evidently a formidable monster; and I could well understand that even an elephant would prefer to avoid a combat with it. When it yawned, I saw that it had a complement of teeth quite in keeping with its general bulk.
It stood for a few moments sniffing and testing the air; then seemed to scent danger, turned quickly and disappeared into the shadows. As it did so, a gust of wind coming from its direction conveyed to me a distinct animal odour, such as one notices in menageries and zoological gardens, however well cleaned and ventilated.
I cannot pretend that I felt altogether at ease. An elephant at large in the neighbourhood was nothing to be afraid of, for that animal is not prone to attack unless molested: but a bear was another affair. I quite admit that I returned to Llandwy rather earlier than usual that evening. But again there came no news of any menagerie visiting the district, still less of any escaped animals. The district is by no means uninhabited; and the presence of such animals as a bear and an elephant at large might be relied upon to produce a general scare before many hours had elapsed.
I did not know what to think of it. I could not make myself believe that it was all imagination: neither was it possible to view the occurrences as normal happenings. There was something queer about it. The only plan seemed to be to just await events and act as they might indicate.
A few days later found me again on the spot, but this time armed with a revolver. That this could be of any use was doubtful, to say the least, but it felt reassuring to be armed in case of need. I had a book with me that I wanted to read; but I will admit that for the first hour or so my attention was divided between the book and the little wood. As nothing happened the wood at last lost its interest and the book soon proved absorbing.
This accounts for the fact that I did not notice what must have been happening close at hand, and was only brought back to a sense of my surroundings by the sudden appearance of a rabbit, which had bolted through the bush that concealed me and dashed right into my arms. Of course it at once made off at full speed; but it must have been a severe fright that would make it take such a headlong dash without looking where it was going.
When I peered through the bush, I saw what fully justified the flight of the rabbit. Quite close at hand a dark form was creeping through the low bushes. At first I took it for a very large dog; but its movements were different, and when it crossed an open patch I saw that it was a hyaena. It was dragging with it the limb of some large animal; and a moment later it was followed by its mate, which also was carrying part of a carcase.
Both of the loathsome beasts slunk across the open space before me, and disappeared among the rocks opposite, where I now remembered for the first time was the entrance to the cave. It was clear that they had their lair there, and possibly a family of young hyaenas as well.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. A large stone whizzed past me and almost hit the hindmost animal. This was startling indeed; and it proved that I was not the only person who saw the beasts. I looked cautiously out from my concealment; but no one appeared, though I watched carefully for some time. But when I rose to go back to my hotel before it got quite dark, I went to the spot where I saw the stone fall; and there it lay amongst the grass. I picked it up, and found that it was a polished flint implement of Neolithic type, such as could be seen in the local museum in considerable numbers. Then it occurred to me that these relics of an ancient culture had been found rather plentifully in the neighbourhood, and that quite a number had been taken from the cave among the rocks.
At the same time it was odd that such a flint implement should have been thrown at the hyaenas by their unseen assailant. But there was the possibility that I had not picked up the actual stone thrown at them. The events of the next day, however, went far to convince me that this was the same stone.
It was a little earlier in the evening than usual when, on the next day, I saw the closing incidents in the series of strange happenings. The sky had been overcast all day, and there seemed to be thunder about, though no rain fell. The air was close and heavy; and the general gloom increased the effect of shadow cast by the trees, and gave rather the impression of forest land to what was in reality fairly open country.
The sense of antiquity was more insistent than ever as I sat there, at times reading but more often vaguely musing, until the sound of crashing among the trees called me to full attention. This time it was louder than before, and was coming in my direction. Then suddenly the trees were brushed aside, and a huge animal rushed out of the shadows and made his way across the open to the shelter of another small wood with a speed surprising for a beast of his bulk and build. He moved with a clumsy gallop, but turned quickly and neatly to avoid an obstacle.
As he dashed across the open, I saw the great bear—or one exactly like it—rush out of a covert as if to make for the mammoth, as I suppose it should be called. But it seemed to change its mind, for it suddenly looked round and slunk back; and at the same moment two hyaenas ran from the neighbourhood of the cave with every appearance of fright and made off at full speed.
For a moment I was puzzled to account for the evident terror of all these fierce beasts; and then the explanation came in the shape of a stone that whizzed past me and fell on a bare patch of ground where I could distinctly see that it was a Neolithic flint implement, almost exactly a duplicate of the other.
It was the coming of man that had put the beasts to flight! Directly afterwards I saw him. From out of the wood came a man—undoubtedly a man, though very different in appearance from the men who live to-day in the neighbourhood of Llandwy. He was rather short in stature, with somewhat bowed legs and with arms apparently longer than is usual in well-built men now. He had heavy beetling brows; his face was partly concealed by a mass of unkempt hair; and his complexion was distinctly dark. He was not the kind of man one would wish to meet on a lonely road.
He was followed by a woman and a youth who was probably his son. Except that they were of lighter build, they did not differ very greatly from the man. They were all armed with roughly made axes with stone heads and with bows and arrows. So far as I could see, the arrows were tipped with flint.
They had evidently been in pursuit of the mammoth, and had probably hoped to drive him into some concealed pit; for I could not see how they might hope to overcome such a huge beast. But the intended prey had got away; and the three were clearly disappointed and surly. They lingered for a minute or two; and I could hear their guttural conversation: then they made their way across the open to the rocks and disappeared. I suppose they had their home in a cave there.
It was now almost dark, and I also made my way home for the night—glad to get away without meeting those people at closer quarters. I never saw them or the animals again, though I still went daily to the place. But here was proof positive of what I said at the opening of this story; that the past is the real thing; that it is not past and done with; and that it is as much in existence to-day as ever for those to whom it is given to see it.
I told this to Henson and asked what he now had to say for himself. He replied that I was either a bigger fool or a more accomplished liar than he had supposed.
If there was one animal that Sydney disliked more than another it was a cat. Not that he was not fond of animals in a general way—for he had a distinct affection for an aged retriever that had formerly been his—but somehow a cat seemed to arouse all that was worst in him. It always appeared to him that if he had passed through some previous stage of existence, he must have been a mouse or a bird and thus have inherited—so to speak—an instinctive dread and hatred for the enemy of his earlier days.
The presence of a cat affected him in a very curious fashion. There was first of all a kind of repulsion. The idea of the eyes of the animal being fixed on him; the thought of listening for a soundless tread; and the imagined touch of the smooth fur; all this made him shudder and shrink back. But this feeling quickly gave place to a still stranger fascination. He felt drawn to the creature that he feared—much as a bird is supposed, but quite erroneously, to be charmed by a snake. He wanted to stroke the animal and to feel its head rubbing against his hand: and yet at the same time the idea of the animal doing so filled him with a dread passing description. It was something like that morbid state in which a person finds actual physical pleasure in inflicting pain on himself. And then there was sheer undisguised fear. Pretend as he might, Sydney was in deadly fear when a cat was in the room. He had tried and tried, time and again, to overcome it; but without success. He had argued from the well-known friendliness of the domestic cat; from its notorious timidity; and from its actual inability to do any very serious harm to a strong and active man. But it was all of no use. He was afraid of cats; and it was useless to deny it.
At the same time, Sydney was no enemy to cats. He was the last man in the world to hurt one. No matter how much his slumber might be disturbed by the vocal efforts of a love-sick marauder on the roof in the small hours of the morning, he would never think of hurling a missile at the offender. The sight of a half-starved cat left behind when its owner was away in the holiday season filled him with a pity near akin to pain. He was a generous subscriber to the Home for Lost Cats. In fact, his whole attitude was inconsistent and contradictory. But there was no escape from the truth—he disliked and feared cats.
Probably this obsession was to some extent fostered by the fact that Sydney was a man of leisure. With more urgent matters to occupy his thoughts, he might have outgrown these fancies with the advance of middle age. But the possession of ample means, an inherited dislike for any kind of work calling for energy, and two or three interesting hobbies which filled up his time in an easy and soothing fashion, left him free to indulge his fancies. And fancies, when indulged, are apt to become one's masters in the end; and so it proved with Sydney.
He was engaged in writing a book on some phase of Egyptian life in the olden days, which involved considerable study of the collections in the British Museum and elsewhere, as well as much search for rare books among the antiquarian book-shops. When not out on these pursuits, he occupied an old house which like most old and rambling places of its kind was the subject of various queer stories among the gossips of the neighbourhood. Some tragedy was supposed to have happened there at some date not defined, and in consequence something was supposed to haunt the place and to do something from time to time. Among local gossips there was much value in that nebulous term "Something," for it covered a multitude of inaccurate recollections and of foggy traditions. Probably Sydney had never heard the reputation of his house, for he led a retired life and had little to do with the neighbours. But if the tales had reached his ears, he gave no sign; nor was he likely to do so. Apart from the cat obsession, he was a man of eminently balanced mind. He was about the last person to imagine things or to be influenced by any but proved facts.
The mystery which surrounded his untimely end came therefore as a great surprise to his friends; and the horror that hung over his later days was only brought to partial light by the discovery of a diary and other papers which have provided the material for this history. Much still remains obscure, and cannot now be cleared up; for the only man who could perhaps throw further light on it is no longer with us. So we have to be content with such fragmentary records as are available.
It appears that some months before the end, Sydney was at home reading in the garden, where his eyes happened to rest upon a small heap of earth that the gardener had left beside the path. There was nothing remarkable about this; but somehow the heap seemed to fascinate him. He resumed his reading; but the heap of earth was insistent in demanding his attention. He could not keep his thoughts off it, and it was hard to keep his eyes off it as well. Sydney was not the man to give way to mental dissipation of this kind, and he resolutely kept his eyes fixed on his book. But it was a struggle; and in the end he gave in. He looked again at the heap; and this time with some curiosity as to the cause of so absurd an attraction.
Apparently there was no cause; and he smiled at the absurdity of the thing. Then he started up suddenly, for he saw the reason of it. The heap of earth was exactly like a black cat! And the cat was crouching as if to spring at him. The resemblance was really absurd, for there were a couple of yellow pebbles just where the eyes should have been. For the moment, Sydney felt all the repulsion and fear that the presence of an actual cat would have caused him. Then he rose from his chair, and kicked the heap out of any resemblance to his feline aversion. He sat down again and laughed at the absurdity of the affair—and yet it somehow left a sense of disquiet and of vague fear behind. He did not altogether like it.
It must have been about a fortnight later when he was inspecting some Egyptian antiquities that had recently reached the hands of a London dealer. Most of them were of the usual types and did not interest him. But a few were better worth attention; and he sat down to examine them carefully. He was specially attracted by some ivory tablets, on which he thought he could faintly trace the remains of handwriting. If so, this was a distinct find, for private memoranda of this sort are very rare and should throw light on some of the more intimate details of private life of the period, which are not usually recorded on the monuments. Absorbed in this study, a sense of undefined horror slowly grew upon him and he found himself in a kind of day dream presenting many of the uncanny qualities of nightmare. He thought himself stroking an immense black cat which grew and grew until it assumed gigantic proportions. Its soft fur thickened around his hands and entwined itself around his fingers like a mass of silky, living snakes; and his skin tingled with multitudinous tiny bites from fangs which were venomous; while the purring of the creature grew until it became a very roar like that of a cataract and overwhelmed all his senses. He was mentally drowning in a sea of impending catastrophe, when, by an expiring effort, he wrenched himself free from the obsession and sprang up. Then he discovered that his hand had been mechanically stroking a small unopened animal mummy, which proved on closer examination to be that of a cat.
The next incident that he seems to have thought worth recording happened a few nights later. He had retired to rest in his usual health and slept soundly. But towards morning his slumbers were disturbed by a dream that recalled the kind of nocturnal fear that is common in childhood.
Two distant stars began to grow in size and brilliancy until he saw that they were advancing through space towards him with incredible speed. In a few moments they must overwhelm him in a sea of fire and flame. Onwards they came, bulging and unfolding like great flaming flowers, growing more dazzling and blinding at every moment; and then, just as they were upon him, they suddenly turned into two enormous cat's eyes, flaming green and yellow. He sprang up in bed with a cry, and found himself at once wide awake. And there on the window-sill lay a great black cat, glowering at him with lambent yellow eyes. A moment later the cat disappeared.
But the mysterious thing of it was that the window-sill was not accessible to anything that had not wings. There was no means by which a cat could have climbed to it. Nor was there any sign of a cat in the garden below.
The date of the next thing that happened is not clear, for it does not appear to have been recorded at the time. But it would seem to have been within a few days of the curious dream. Sydney had occasion to go to a cupboard which was kept locked. It contained manuscripts and other papers of value; and the key never left his possession. To his knowledge the cupboard had not been opened for at least a month past. He now had occasion to refer to a collection of notes in connection with his favourite study. On opening the cupboard, he was at once struck by a curious odour. It was not exactly musky, but could only be described as an animal odour, slightly suggestive of that of a cat. But what at once arrested Sydney's notice and caused him extreme annoyance was the fact that the papers had been disturbed. The loose papers contained in some pigeon-holes at the back had been drawn forwards into a loose heap on the shelf. They looked for all the world like a nest, for they had been loosely arranged in a round heap with a depression in the middle. It looked as if some animal had coiled itself up to sleep there; and the size of the depression was just such as would be made by a cat.
Sydney was too much annoyed by the disturbance of his papers to be greatly impressed at the moment by their curious arrangement; but it came home to him as a shock when he began to gather the papers together and set them in order. Some of them seemed to be slightly soiled, and on closer examination he found that they were besprinkled with short black hairs like those of a cat.
About a week afterwards he returned later in the evening than usual, after attending a meeting of a scientific society to which he belonged. He was taking his latch key from his pocket to open the door when he thought that something rubbed against his leg. Looking down, he saw nothing; but immediately afterwards he felt it again, and this time he thought he saw a black shadow beside his right foot. On looking more closely, nothing was to be seen; but as he went into the house he distinctly felt something soft brush against his leg. As he paused in the hall to remove his overcoat, he saw a faint shadow which seemed to go up the stairs. It was certainly only a shadow and nothing solid, for the light was good and he saw it clearly. But there was nothing in motion to account for the passing shadow. And the way the shadow moved was curiously suggestive of a cat.
The next notes in the book that Sydney seems to have devoted to this curious subject appear to be a series of mere coincidences: and the fact that he thought them worth recording shows only too clearly to what an extent his mind was now obsessed. He had taken the numerical value of the letters C, A, T, in the alphabet, 3, 1, and 20 respectively, and by adding them together had arrived at the total 24. He then proceeded to note the many ways in which this number had played its part in the events of his life. He was born on the 24th of the month, at a house whose number was 24 and his mother was 24 years old at the time. He was 24 years old when his father died and left him the master of a considerable fortune. That was just 24 years ago. The last time he had balanced his affairs, he found that he was worth in invested funds—apart from land and houses—just about 24 thousand pounds. At three different periods, and in different towns, he had chanced to live at houses numbered 24; and that was also the number of his present abode. Moreover the number of his ticket for the British Museum Reading Room ended with 24, and both his doctor and his solicitor were housed under that same persistent number. Several more of these coincidences had been noted by him; but they were rather far-fetched and are not worth recording here. But the memoranda conclude with the ominous question, "Will it all end on the 24th?"
Soon after these notes were written, a much more serious affair had to be placed on record. Sydney was coming downstairs one evening, when he noticed in a badly lighted corner of the staircase something that he took to be a cat. He shrank back with his natural dislike for the animal; but on looking more closely he saw that it was nothing more than a shadow cast by some carving on the stair-head. He turned away with a laugh; but, as he turned, it certainly seemed that the shadow moved! As he went down the stairs he twice stumbled in trying to save himself from what he thought was a cat in danger of being trodden upon; and a moment later he seemed to tread on something soft that gave way and threw him down. He fell heavily and shook himself badly.
On picking himself up with the aid of his servant he limped into his library, and there found that his trousers were torn from a little above the ankle. But the curious thing was that there were three parallel vertical tears—just such as might be caused by the claws of a cat. A sharp smarting led to further investigation; and he then found that there were three deep scratches on the side of his leg, exactly corresponding with the tears in the trousers.
In the margin of the page on which he recorded this accident, he has added the words, "This cat means mischief." And the whole tone of the remaining entries and of the few letters that date from this time shows only too clearly that his mental outlook was more or less tinged and obscured by gloomy forebodings.
It would seem to have been on the following day that another disturbing trifle occurred.
Sydney's leg still pained him, and he spent the day on a couch with one or two favourite books. Soon after two o'clock in the afternoon, he heard a soft thud, such as might be caused by a cat leaping down from a moderate height. He looked up, and there on the window-sill crouched a black cat with gleaming eyes; and a moment later it sprang into the room. But it never reached the floor—or, if it did, it must have passed through it! He saw it spring; he saw it for the moment in mid-air; he saw it about to alight on the floor; and then—it was not there!
He would have liked to believe that it was a mere optical delusion; but against that theory stood the awkward fact that the cat in springing down from the window knocked over a flowerpot; and there lay the broken pieces in evidence of the fact.
He was now seriously scared. It was bad enough to find himself seeing things that had no objective reality; but it was far worse to be faced by happenings that were certainly real, but not to be accounted for by the ordinary laws of nature. In this case the broken flower-pot showed that if the black cat was merely what we call a ghost for lack of any more convenient term, it was a ghost that was capable of producing physical effects. If it could knock a flower-pot over, it could presumably scratch and bite—and the prospect of being attacked by a cat from some other plane of existence will hardly bear being thought of.
Certainly it seemed that Sydney had now real ground for alarm. The spectre cat—or whatever one likes to call it—was in some way gaining power and was now able to manifest its presence and hostility in more open and practical fashion. That same night saw a proof of this. Sydney dreamed that he was visiting the Zoological Gardens when a black leopard of ferocious aspect escaped from its cage and sprang upon him. He was thrown backwards to the ground and pinned down by the heavy animal. He was half crushed by its weight; its claws were at his throat; its fierce yellow eyes were staring into his face; when the horror of the thing brought the dream to a sudden end and he awoke. As consciousness returned he was aware of an actual weight on his chest; and on opening his eyes he looked straight into the depths of two lambent yellow flames set in a face of velvet black. The cat sprang off the bed and leaped through the window. But the window was closed and there was no sound of breaking glass.
Sydney did not sleep much more that night. But a further shock awaited him on rising. He found some small blood stains on his pillow; and an inspection before the looking glass showed the presence of two groups of tiny wounds on his neck. They were little more than pin-pricks; but they were arranged in two semi-circular groups, one on either side of the neck and just such as might be caused by a cat trying to grasp the neck between its two forepaws.
This was the last incident recorded in Sydney's diary; and the serious view that he took of the situation is shown by certain letters that he wrote during the day, giving final instructions to his executors and settling various details of business—evidently in view of his approaching end.
What happened in the course of the final scene of the tragedy we can only guess from the traces left behind: but there is sufficient evidence to show that the horror was an appalling one.
The housekeeper seems to have been awakened once during the night by a strange noise which she could only describe as being like an angry cat snarling; while the parlour maid, whose room was immediately above that occupied by Sydney, says that she dreamt that she heard her master scream horribly once or twice.
In the morning, Sydney did not answer when called at his usual hour; and, as the door was found to be locked, the housekeeper presently procured assistance and had it broken open. He was found crouching on the floor and leaning against the wall opposite the window. The carpet was saturated with blood; and the cause was quickly evident. The unfortunate man's throat had been torn open on either side, both jugular veins being severed. So far as could be made out, he had retired to bed and had been attacked during sleep, for the sheets were bespattered with blood. He had apparently got out of bed in his struggles to overcome the Thing that had him fast in its fearful grip. The look of horror on his distorted face was said by the witnesses to be past description.
Both window and door were fastened, and there was nothing to show how the assailant entered. But there was something to show how it left. The bloodstains on the floor recorded the footprints of a gigantic cat. They led across the floor from the corpse to the opposite wall—and there they ceased. The cat never came back; but whether it passed through the solid wall or melted into thin air, no one knows. In some mysterious way it came and went; and in passing it did this deed of horror.
It was a curious coincidence that the tragedy took place on Christmas Eve—the 24th day of the month!
Father Thornton was a hard-headed Yorkshire-man with no nonsense about him. He had just been placed in charge of the parish of Dashton, and was feeling his way cautiously at first. The people did not know much of him as yet; but what little they knew they liked. And the same might be said of his feeling towards them.
There were not many Catholics in Dashton, and most of Father Thornton's flock were scattered over the surrounding country. Hence he had plenty of work in visiting them. There was no lack of exercise for the legs of the priest, who had often to tramp for miles over the moors to visit one sick case. Night calls in winter or in bad weather were the chief cross that he had to bear.
The late priest, who had died at his post at an advanced age, had scarcely been able to keep pace with the work, and so things had grown a little slack. He had been there for many years, and nearly all the congregation had been baptised in infancy by him.
But though there had been no change of priest for so many years, the same could not be said of the priest's housekeepers. They had been constantly coming and going; and this was a subject of much gossip and curiosity in Dashton. Why did they never stop? It could not be that the old priest was hard to get on with, for he was the kindest of men, and his requirements were few and simple. His explanation was confined to two words: "Women's fads!" Their explanation, when they vouchsafed to give one, was that they had nothing to complain about but that they could not feel at home in the house. They said there was something queer about it; but what that "something" was they could never clearly explain.
So in a mild sort of way, the priest's house had the reputation of being haunted; but no details could be ascertained. There was, however, a vague rumour that the site of the house had once been occupied by an old farmhouse where a man had lived who was supposed to have refused to let the priest be fetched when his wife was dying; and from this arose the suggestion that his ghost walked on the anniversary of the woman's death. But the old priest laughed at the story; and none of the departing housekeepers ever pretended to have seen anything. That was the story that Father Thornton was told; and he gave it just the attention that it seemed to deserve—that is, none at all.
Haunted or not, the house was a pleasant one. The church was the last building as you leave the little town on the south side; and the house was built on the side remote from the town. So it faced the open country, and from its windows you had an uninterrupted view across the moors for several miles to the hills in the far distance. And the garden was a thing of delight as well. It was extensive, and had been the pride and chief recreation of the old priest, under whose skilful care it had become one of the pleasantest sights of the neighbourhood. Not that the general public saw anything of it; for it was enclosed by a high wall on the side bordering the road. On the inner side of this wall, which caught the sun, flourishing fruit trees had been trained at intervals.
Much skill had been displayed in the arrangement of the garden. Its main purpose was usefulness; and so I suppose it must be called a kitchen garden. But no flower garden, devoted to ornament alone, could have been more pleasant to look upon. It might have been described as a vegetable garden disguised as a flower garden; and the disguise was a successful one. Flowers and vegetables were so skilfully intermingled that the whole effect was one of beauty. No detail had been overlooked: even the rubbish heap in the corner was hidden by a rockery and alpine garden: and the story went that the Bishop, who was a trifle shortsighted, had remarked that it was a pity that the rector grew no vegetables for the table when he had so much available space.
It was Father Thornton's chief delight to sit in the garden with a book, or to pace its walks while he said his Office. He even made up his mind to take up gardening seriously, though the pursuit had never appealed to him before. His first act on rising was to look out of his window at the garden; and his last at night, if there was any moon, was to linger at the window and note how the shadows lent another kind of beauty to the garden that he loved.
So it happened that about a month after his arrival in Dashton he was watching the garden by moonlight, when he noticed a dark patch on the wall between two trained pear trees. The wall was whitewashed to reflect the sun's rays; and the patch looked just as if some water had been thrown on the place. Father Thornton mentally remarked that the gutter of the house must be choked and the rain water running down the wall.
In the morning, as soon as he had said Mass, eaten his breakfast and said some Office, he went out to attend to the matter. The patch had disappeared, and the supposed damp had vanished; which was only to be expected seeing that the sun was shining hotly on the wall. And then it dawned on the priest that there was no gutter to overflow on the wall! So his explanation fell to the ground; but of course it was possible that some water had been thrown there. It was not worth thinking about any further.
That same morning his housekeeper complained that she had slept badly and had been plagued by dreams that someone was walking about the garden and sobbing. Father Thornton told her to take no notice of dreams; and added a word or two on the subject of tinned lobster and toasted cheese for supper. He also inquired if by any chance she had thrown water on the wall: but she knew nothing about it.
It seems to have been about a week later that he noticed the same thing; but the mark looked a little darker than before. This time he watched it for some minutes, and fancied that it moved. But this was obviously pure fancy. In the morning he again looked at the place; and this time he searched for any inequality in the brickwork, or for any minute growth of mould on the wall, that might show up when the light fell on it at a certain angle. But nothing at all came of the investigation. But it was an odd coincidence that the housekeeper had complained of another disturbed night.
The next night, Father Thornton saw the dark patch again; but this time it looked much more like a shadow. Yet there was no object standing between the wall and the rising moon that could have thrown such a shadow. He watched it for some minutes, till he again thought that it moved, when he very sensibly said to himself that it was quite time to go to bed.
Then the weather changed, and for three weeks the nights were dark and overcast, so that there was no temptation for the priest to linger at the window when he went to bed. But the housekeeper still complained of disturbing dreams—always connected with the garden—and this was supported by the testimony of an elderly lady of bibulous habits who said that one night she was passing on her way home and heard a sound like a man moaning in the garden. But as she added that her poor legs gave way under her, and the stones of the street rose up and struck her in the face, Father Thornton formed his own conclusions about it.
But he began to have very serious doubts when the weather improved and the nights became clear again; for by this time the affair seemed to have developed. The moon was shining brightly, and every detail in the garden could be seen almost as well as in the daytime. Where the vague patch had been seen on the wall, now stood a shadow; and it had assumed definite shape. It was clearly the shadow of a man. It stood out sharply—there was no question about it. But where was the man who cast the shadow? There was no one in the garden. And this time the shadow moved! There was not the least question that it moved. It was no merely trifling appearance of motion, which might have been put down to imagination. The shadow moved from one side of the pear tree to the other.
Father Thornton was now so sure that there was someone in the garden that he opened his window and called out. There was no reply; but at that moment a cloud obscured the moon, and when the light came again the shadow on the wall had gone.
Next morning the housekeeper gave notice. She said she liked the place well enough and was sorry to go; but she could not stand being disturbed every night. She believed there was something queer about the place, and that the former housekeepers had not left for nothing. She would be glad to go as soon as someone could be found to take her place. Father Thornton's persuasions were useless: even an offer of increased wages had no effect. So there was nothing for it but to look out for someone else; and in the meantime to wonder why all the other housekeepers had left.
The next few nights the priest was so much occupied in the evenings that he was too tired to watch at the window. But when he next did so, he saw a further development. The shadow, which now appeared more substantial—if one may so speak of a shadow—was in its usual place; but, while he watched, it moved away and apparently went down the path until it passed out of sight behind a group of shrubs. Father Thornton rubbed his eyes; made sure that he was awake; and watched to see what would happen next. But nothing further occurred, and he went to bed thoroughly puzzled.
Then came a further spell of wet weather and overcast skies; and it was not until about a week later that anything more happened. It was a bright moonlight night, and the priest found himself once more at the window about ten o'clock. This time he saw, not a shadow, but a man standing by the wall. His face was turned away, but he appeared to be a man of middle life, with his head a little bent and his arms folded.
Father Thornton was just about to call out to him when he moved slowly away and disappeared behind the shrubs, as the shadow had done previously. The moon shone brightly on him, so that he was clearly seen; and his movements were quite natural and unconstrained. And yet it seemed to the watcher that there was something unusual about him. It was not until Father Thornton was thinking the matter over in the morning that it dawned upon him what this was. The man cast no shadow! The moon was shining clearly; but it shone right through the man! His body offered no obstruction to the light.
This was distinctly startling and rather disquieting. A trespasser in the garden at night was unwelcome enough, but could be warned off if he came again; but what can one do with a man who casts no shadow?
Next night Father Thornton went to his window only just in time to see the intruder disappear behind the shrubs. He ran down without a moment's delay, and out to the garden; but no one was there. On his return to his room he watched for the next half-hour, but nothing occurred. But in the morning the housekeeper said that she really must leave that same week, for she could not stand any more of such nights as the last. According to her story, she had been wakened up again and again with the idea that someone was groaning in the garden.
For two or three nights nothing further happened, and then the priest once more saw the man standing by the wall. This time he adopted fresh tactics. He ran downstairs, out by the sacristy door to the road, along the outside of the wall, and then went in very softly through a small door at the bottom of the garden. He was thus able to get behind the shrubs where the man without a shadow had disappeared on the previous occasions.
There he waited for his coming. It could hardly be said that he felt quite at ease; but neither was he particularly nervous. He was just curious to see what would happen. Presently he heard soft footsteps approaching; and, peering through the branches of a shrub, he saw the mysterious visitor walking slowly towards him. The man had his arms folded, and his head so much bent that his face could not be seen. He came up to the shrubs, turned the corner, and then Father Thornton suddenly stepped out of the shadow and stood in his track.
The priest told a friend afterwards that it was rather difficult to explain exactly what then occurred. The intruder vanished; but the method of his going was peculiar. He did not disappear like a flash; neither did he sink into the earth; it was more as if a blind had been suddenly pulled down in front of him. The upper part of him seemed to vanish just a second before the rest of him. This was not exactly it; but Father Thornton said that it was the nearest way he could describe it. Anyway, the man vanished before it was possible to speak to him or even to see his face.
To say that the watcher was taken aback is to put it too mildly: he was simply staggered. Up till now he had not regarded the affair as out of the normal. Even the fact that the intruder cast no shadow, though it puzzled him, had not left any great impression on his mind. But now he was forced to face the fact that his visitor was—well, he did not know quite what to think. He recalled the story about the man who had once lived there and was said to have deprived his dying wife of the consolations of the Church—and he did not at all like it. Still, what could he do? There was nothing for it but to await events. And the events soon arrived.
A few days later, the new housekeeper—for the old one had gone—told Father Thornton that she had seen some man in the garden while he was in church, and had hurried out to ask who it was, but had been only just in time to see him pass behind the group of shrubs; and, when she looked there, he was gone. A similar tale came from a farmer who was driving by in a high cart at night and could see over the wall. He noticed the man and mentioned the matter in case it should be anyone after the fruit.
It was clear from this that the intruder was visible to other people besides the priest; and this excluded his idea that perhaps it might be a delusion on his part. If other people could see the stranger, it was clear that he really existed outside the imagination of one person. The thing could not now be brushed aside as mere fancy or at best as a mere mental impression which might or might not have some intelligible meaning. And things that are really existent have to be faced and dealt with. But still, what was there to do?
On Saturday night came a fresh and very significant development. Father Thornton was in his confessional as usual, and the last of the little waiting group of penitents had just made his confession. The priest was about to leave, when he saw a man enter the church and come hurrying up, as if fearing to be too late. He was a tall man, muffled in a black cloak, and he walked with his head so bowed that his face could not be seen. He was a complete stranger to the place; and yet Father Thornton could not help fancying that he had somewhere seen him before. He came quickly up and entered the confessional. The slight vibration as he knelt down could be distinctly felt.
The priest opened the shutter and murmured the usual blessing. Then he heard the opening words of the Confiteor, said in a muffled voice; and then the voice suddenly ceased. He said quietly, "Yes; go on." But there was no reply. Father Thornton at once left his seat and went round to the side of the confessional, fearing that the man had fainted or been taken suddenly ill. There was nobody there! Nor was there anyone in the church, for the other people had now gone.
Then it flashed upon Father Thornton where he had seen the man before. It was the intruder in the garden—the man who cast no shadow! What could this possibly mean? It certainly looked as if this was some unquiet spirit, condemned to haunt the place for his sins, and anxious to confess them and obtain forgiveness. But could such a thing possibly be?
And what could a priest do in such a case, supposing it to exist? Could he give absolution to a ghost? Suppose the man came again and managed to make his confession? He would have to do something. He had better consult the Bishop without delay; and yet how could he expect the Bishop to believe such an impossible story? It would not be very pleasant to have that excellent prelate thinking him insane, or perhaps wondering if he was strictly sober in the evening. It was a bit awkward that these strange events had all happened at night.
When he went into the house, the new house-keeper had a queer story to tell. According to her, she was just returning from an errand to a shop when she saw a rather tall man, wrapped in a black cloak, enter the church. There was nothing remarkable about that: but the queer thing was that the door was closed, and the man went right through it. Of course, Father Thornton told her not to talk nonsense; but she persisted in her story. She was quite sure that she saw the man walk right up to the closed door; and then he seemed to melt into it. As she went on to express the opinion that it must be the devil, and to say that if there were to be any goings-on of that sort she would never be able to sleep at night, it did not look very promising for the future. It would be too bad to have another housekeeper take herself off through this puzzling business.
But the end of it came about a week later, and the mystery was as nearly solved as it ever will be in this world. The winter had come suddenly, and a heavy snowstorm had taken the world by surprise. The moors were carpeted with white, and the hoar-frost on the branches glittered in the moonlight. Then a knock came at the door, and a moment later the housekeeper announced that a man wanted to see the priest.
Father Thornton went to the door and found himself face to face with a tall man in a black cloak. He was not much past middle age, though the hair of his temples was turning white, and his short beard was still raven black. His face was quite strange to the priest; and yet he somehow felt that he had seen him before. He spoke abruptly and awkwardly, as if doubtful of his reception. He had simply come to ask the priest to go at once to a house about two miles distant on the moor, to give the last Sacraments to a woman there.
"But she is not ill," said the priest; "I saw her only yesterday, and she was perfectly well."
"She was taken suddenly, only this afternoon, and the doctor says she is going fast," answered the man.
"But if this is true, why did not some of her own people come and tell me?" queried the priest, who could not quite believe the tale.
"For God's sake, don't delay, Father," pleaded the man. "You will be only just in time. None of them could get away; so I have come. You don't know what it means to me. Do come quickly!"
"Very well, then. I will come at once," said the priest; and the man instantly turned on his heel and hurried away in the direction of the cottage where the sick woman was.
Father Thornton put on his heavy boots, fetched the oils and the Blessed Sacrament from the church, and proceeded to wrap himself up well to face the bleak walk across the moor. Then the housekeeper came into the room with a scared look, and begged him not to go. She said that she had the "creeps" all the time that man was talking; and she was sure there was something queer about him. It was most likely all a trick to annoy the priest. Much better wait till the morning and find out the real facts.
He too had his doubts; but he felt it right to be on the safe side. How would he ever forgive himself if the woman proved to be really dying, and he had not gone to her? So he set out for his long tramp through the snow.
As he left the gate, he saw before him the footprints of the man who had come to fetch him. They led straight across the snow-covered moor; and the priest was glad to see them. They were like somebody's company on a lonely night. So he kept his eyes on them as he went along. Then he stopped suddenly.
Could he believe his eyes, or was it imagination? The footprints in the snow ceased suddenly. The track ended there, right on the open moor. The man had walked so far—and then what had happened? He might have sprung up into the air; but, if so, he never came down again. Or had he melted away into the night and left no sign? Anyway, there was the expanse of untouched snow in all directions: and there were the footprints mysteriously ended.
Father Thornton confessed afterwards that it was only the thought of Him Whom he was carrying that gave him the courage to go on. But he pursued his way until he reached the cottage, where he was received with mingled astonishment and joy. There he learnt a little more of the strange happenings of the night.
The woman had been taken ill in the afternoon, but the doctor did not anticipate any immediate danger. He said there was no need to trouble the priest till morning. But she had suddenly grown very weak, and they had fetched the doctor again. Nearly an hour before the priest's arrival—about the time when the messenger called Father Thornton—the doctor had said she was dying. The only available person at hand had started to fetch the priest, but had fallen over a log hidden in the snow, and had badly strained his ankle, so that he could go no further.
The poor people were in despair, when Father Thornton arrived. He was only just in time, for the woman died a few minutes after receiving the last Sacraments.
And now, who was that messenger? The priest has often asked himself this question, and has never yet found the answer. Nor has he ever since seen the man without a shadow walking in the garden: and the housekeepers have ceased to come and go.
Horton House was a mansion that stood on the borders of a wood in Wiltshire. It was about two hundred years old at the time of our story; and the same family had lived in it all the while. Several generations of the Hortons had spent their days in this old home of their family.
It was a quaint rambling place, with passages in unexpected places, and rooms hidden away in odd corners. It was easy to lose oneself; and more than one visitor had wandered about the upper part of the house until almost in despair of finding the way down to breakfast in the morning.
John Horton, the present owner, was fond of the place. He loved it not merely because it was the home of his ancestors, but because it just suited him. He liked a roomy old house of this kind; and when it became his at the death of his father he spent a good deal of money in having it thoroughly restored and put in order. And in the progress of the restorations, several interesting things were brought to light.
A secret passage was found, hidden in the thick wall of the dining-room; and the entrance to it was by means of a panel which slid aside when a knob in the carving was pushed the right way. But the odd thing was that this passage, which was so cleverly hidden, seemed to be of no possible use. It led nowhere! It went for a short distance, and then ended in a blank wall. It was quite dark, for there was no means by which light could enter. John had gone to some expense in having the walls probed in order to discover the secret, if there was one; but it all ended in no result. Still, there was the passage; and the man who had it made must have had some intention.
At the side of the dining-room was another large room, which had formerly been known as the parlour, but now served as a library. It was here that John Horton spent most of his time when in the house. Here too some interesting discoveries had been made. The walls, which had been covered with plaster and paper, were found to be finely panelled with old oak. But the panelling had no sliding door in it and there was nothing hidden behind it. There was, however, one curious thing about it.
Over the fireplace an inscription was found carved deeply in the oak. It ran thus:
"Let Horton live, let Horton die;
Pray God the horror come not nigh."
What this meant, nobody knew. John Horton had taken great trouble in going through all the old papers belonging to his ancestors, and he had made inquiries in all directions; but without learning anything that could throw light on the strange inscription.
What could the horror be? Evidently it was something that some former owner of the house feared; and it was equally evident that it was in some way connected with the Horton family. Yet there was no family legend that could throw any light on it. No ancestor of his had been under any fear, that he could find out.
The house had not even the reputation of being haunted; which was rather curious, for it was just the sort of place for a good ghost story. It was old; it was lonely; it was rambling; it had plenty of long passages down which a ghost might wander; there were plenty of echoes ready to catch and repeat the sound of sighs and groans and clanking chains; but nothing of that kind had ever been known in the place. No tragedy had ever occurred there, so far as was known; the family had not a single villain to boast of; there was no curse upon it or any member of it; in fact there was simply nothing at all. The Hortons had been a quiet, respectable, God-fearing set of people; and the very idea of any horror or mystery in connection with them seemed to be utterly absurd.
Still John Horton was by no means satisfied. He insisted that there must be some meaning in the inscription; and he meant to find out what it was. If he had known what it was that he was to find out, and how appalling was the horror that he was seeking, he would certainly have been content to let well alone. But he did not know: and that was what brought about the tragedy.
On the evening when this history begins, he was sitting before the fire in his library. It was a chilly evening towards the end of October; he had been shooting most of the day in some coverts near by; and now after dinner he was sitting with pipe and paper before the fire, occasionally glancing at the news but more often gazing idly into the fire and thinking of nothing in particular.
Then his eye caught the inscription over the fireplace:
"Let Horton live, let Horton die;
Pray God the horror come not nigh."
Once more he wondered what it could mean; and he felt almost inclined to pray that the horror might come nigh in order that he might find out what it was. And then a strange idea took hold of him. There was something unusual about the inscription. The word "horror" was not as distinct as usual. Some change seemed to be coming over it as he looked at it. The two letters O were not as sharply defined as before. There was a blur in each which puzzled him.
Then he started out of his chair with a cry of alarm. In place of the two letters O were two eyes: and the eyes were not those of any creature known to man. In circles of green glowed two pupils of dull red fire! But it was intelligent fire. The eyes were alive; and their glance spoke of a malignancy that might be feared but could never be measured.
John Horton quailed before that stare of horror. For a moment he let his eyes fall; and when he looked again there was nothing unusual to be seen. The inscription was as before, and the word "horror" was as it had always been. He rubbed his eyes and tried to convince himself that he had fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing. But he knew that he had not: he had been very wide awake all the time. His pipe had not gone out.
No; he could not put the thing down to a dream; but neither on the other hand was he willing to believe in its reality. Such things do not occur, as every sensible person knows. He could only put it down to sheer imagination or hallucination. But he was not the kind of man to indulge in fancies or to see things that are not there. Nothing of the kind had ever happened to him before. He began to think that he must be unwell in some way, though he never felt better in his life. The best thing would be to go to bed and try to forget all about it.
So he went to bed; and, contrary to his expectations he slept soundly and did not dream about eyes and horrors. In the morning he examined the inscription carefully, to see if it was possible that any shadow cast upon the word "horror" could produce the appearance of eyes in the two letters O; but found nothing of the kind. There was nothing now peculiar in any way about the word.
He got on a chair and sounded the panel thoroughly to see if there was any possibility of a trick being played by anyone. But it proved to be quite solid and all in one piece. And he knew that the wall behind it was sound, for it had been partly rebuilt during the restoration of the house, in order to strengthen the chimney. So he gave up the problem as insolvable, and resolved to think no more about it.
But a week or two later he had to start thinking again. On this occasion he was sitting before the fire rather late in the evening, and once again found himself looking at the inscription and wondering what secret it concealed. The house was very quiet, for he lived alone and had told the butler that no one need wait up for him. He was smoking a final pipe before retiring for the night, when he thought that he heard something in the dining-room, which as we have mentioned was the next room to the library. He listened, and distinctly heard a chuckling sound as if someone was amused. But it was an unpleasant sort of amusement and suggested that the person who chuckled was not a friendly one.
He heard it a second time. Then he rose quietly and went into the next room to see who was there. He found no one: but the sliding panel leading to the hidden passage was open!
For the moment he thought that one of the servants was there; but the passage within proved to be empty. He was a little annoyed, for he now felt convinced that the hidden passage had been shown to some visitor without his knowledge—a thing that he never allowed—and he decided to make inquiry in the morning. But as he closed the panel, he distinctly heard the chuckle again; and this time the sound came from within the passage. So clear was it that he opened the panel and again examined the interior; but the passage was empty.
In the morning he mentioned the matter to the butler, but was assured that the panel was closed when he cleared the room and put out the lights after dinner, and that no one could have entered it afterwards. The thing was a complete mystery; and John Horton did not like mysteries.
He was still more disturbed when the same thing happened a few days later; and this time there was more to think about. He had just closed the panel, thinking at the time that it might be as well to have a lock fixed to it, when he noticed what looked like the marks of a set of very dirty fingers at the side of the panel. This pointed pretty clearly to some meddlesome person with unwashed hands; and he made up his mind to say a few very plain words to the servants about it next day.
But when the morning came he was not quite so sure about this. On looking more closely at the finger-marks he saw that they were not made by an unwashed hand, but by a burning one! The wood was slightly scorched where the fingers had touched it; and another remarkable thing was that the hand seemed to have five fingers in addition to the thumb! There were six marks where there should have been five.
John Horton decided not to mention the affair to the servants. It hardly seemed possible that one of them was in fault; while it was more than possible that they would want to leave if they knew what had occurred. They were good servants and he had no wish to frighten them away.
That same evening he fell asleep in his chair by the fire, after struggling in vain with an uninteresting book; and he dreamed that he again saw the eyes of fire looking at him from the word "horror" over the mantel. He awoke with a start, and became conscious of a slight smell of burning wood. This scared him, for he had a wholesome fear of fire in an old house largely constructed of wood. He rang for the butler, who also noticed the smell of burning. They both went carefully through the house, but could find nothing amiss.
But next day John happened to look at the carved inscription and saw that the word "horror" in it was apparently discoloured. On closer inspection he found that the two letters O were scorched by fie—just like the finger-marks on the panel in the dining-room. The smell of burning was still slightly perceptible when one's face was close to the wood.
The following week-end an old college friend spent a short holiday with John, and met with an experience which would not be worth recording but for its apparent connection with the mystery that was perplexing his host. He had a very disturbed night, and told John that he had dreamed the same thing twice in the same night—which is a somewhat unusual occurrence.
He thought himself in the dining-room alone, sitting opposite the entrance to the passage in the wall, which John had shown to him during the day. As he sat there, the panel slid back and he was at once aware of a strong smell of burning. Then he saw a hand appear out of the darkness—and it was on fire! The fingers were long and claw-like; and little blue flames were playing over them. The hand grasped the side of the panel, and he saw that the wood was slightly scorched. It was then that he noticed that the hand seemed to have a finger more than the usual number.
The hand seemed to waver vaguely for a moment in the gloom of the dark entrance to the passage; next it suddenly pointed to a large painting of John Horton on the opposite wall; then it seemed to just go out, as when a candle is blown out; and the panel slid back into its place.
The visitor woke up and noticed that it was still dark. He struck a light and found that it was half-past two o'clock. Then he went to sleep again, and dreamed the same thing once more in all its details. It should be mentioned here that John had not said anything to him about the curious occurrences that had been troubling him of late.
John dismissed the subject with a joke; but it gave him some uneasy minutes when he thought it over afterwards. It was after this occurrence that he commenced keeping a record, to which he gave the ominous title of "The Coming of the Horror;" and it is to this record that we are indebted for the details which developed until they culminated in such appalling terror.
The next occurrence that he has thus left on record took place in the early morning. John Horton had planned some fishing before breakfast; and he rose about four for that purpose. After dressing hastily and snatching a mouthful of food, he took tip his rod and started. But, before he had gone many yards, he happened to look back at the house.
There was a slight mist—one of those mists in the early morning which often indicate heat later on in the day. But as he looked back at the house it seemed to him that it was hidden more than the slight mist would account for. He looked again, and then he saw that it was smoke and not mist that obscured the view. This brought him back at the double, and he found that smoke was rising from the wall of the house. There was no other sign of fire; but the smoke seemed to come through the wall exactly outside the place where the passage was hidden in its thickness. Evidently the place was on fire!
John rushed to the dining-room, but found no sign of fire there. When he opened the panel leading to the concealed passage, he found it empty and quite as usual. But a slight smell of fire could be detected, and the outer wall was warm. All idea of fishing was now abandoned, and he spent the next hour in a thorough examination of the premises. But it was without result: everything was in order; and the wall of the dining-room was soon quite cold.
The whole business was most perplexing. Everything pointed to the fact that something must have been on fire in the passage. He had seen smoke, he had smelt the fire, and he had felt the heat. He could not deny the evidence of three of his senses. But what could have been on fire? That was the problem that he could not answer. He left a wooden bucket of water in the passage as a precaution in case the fire broke out afresh.
For some days after this he was left in peace; and the worry had almost passed out of his mind when he chanced to wonder if the pocket knife that he had missed might have been dropped in the hidden passage when he was there. So he went to see: and he saw what he did not expect. The bucket of water was empty, and it was badly charred by fire!
About this time John Horton was absent from home on a visit to some relatives for three weeks; and it was apparently directly after his return that the next incident happened. He went into the dining-room on his way to bed, thinking that he had left a book there; and he distinctly heard a chuckle in the hidden passage. He listened and heard it a second time. He was not lacking in pluck, and he at once walked across the room, slid back the panel, and looked in. The passage ran along the side of the room, so that the light from the room only reached that end of it which was immediately behind the panel. The rest of the passage was in complete darkness: and at the farther end he saw two gleaming eyes. They glowed red within circles of green, and were apparently the same that he had seen looking out of the inscription over the fireplace in the library.
John was staggered for the moment. He turned quickly to get a light and clear up the mystery, when his hand was caught in a grip of fire! It was only for an instant; but he screamed with the shock and pain of it. Then the burning hand released him; and the gleaming eyes had vanished.
His hand was giving him extreme pain, which was only partly relieved by the remedies that were available in the house. In the morning some ugly blisters remained; and when the doctor saw them he remarked that the burn was a bad one. John did not care to tell how it occurred, but said he had burnt himself when destroying some old letters—an explanation that the doctor clearly did not believe, though he was too discreet to say so.
It was a full fortnight before the hand was well; and during this time nothing unusual seems to have occurred. But John had been thinking things over, and he had come to the conclusion that possibly fire was the "horror" referred to in the inscription. With this idea in mind, he had again gone through the history of the Hortons to see if there was anything to confirm it. He found very little, except that in the early days of the history of the house there had been a fire that damaged some of the downstairs rooms. It was possible enough that the inscription had been carved after this occurrence. But there was nothing to prove it: so the notion did not amount to much, nor did it go far to explain the strange things that had happened.
The next thing noted by him was the odd behaviour of the parlourmaid, who asked to be allowed to leave without giving the usual notice. She had given every satisfaction and had been in the house for several years; so that he tried his best to persuade her to stop. He offered to raise her wages or to do anything else in reason if she would change her mind. But she would not be persuaded to stay; and at last he got the reason out of her. She liked the place well enough, got on well with the other servants, and had been very comfortable; but she could not stand the "goings on."
John naturally asked what "goings on;" and with some reluctance she told him a strange tale. It was part of her work to sweep and dust the dining-room the first thing in the morning, and she had been frightened several times by hearing what she described as a sort of choking laugh in the hidden passage. She had spoken to the housekeeper about it, and had been well laughed at for her pains. The housekeeper had taken her into the passage and had shown her that it was impossible for anyone to be there when the panel was closed. But the laughter had still been heard.
But what had finally made her give notice was something that had occurred a few days before. She was dusting the room, and had happened to lean back for a moment against the edge of the sliding panel. At once she had smelt burning linen, and had found that the back of her dress was scorched where it had touched the chink at the side of the panel. She had told this to the housekeeper and had been sharply reproved for telling untruths when it was quite plain that she had burnt her dress by leaning against the stove. So she had made up her mind to go; and she would like to go without waiting the month, please.
Really this hidden passage was becoming troublesome. The mystery of its origin and purpose had never been discovered. It seemed to have been there ever since the house was built; but no one had been able to suggest any use for it. It was by far too long for the purposes of a cupboard; and the situation was absurd for a storeroom. Someone had started the idea that it was a "priest's hiding hole" in penal days; but against this was the fact that the Hortons were not an old Catholic family.
In any case, the hidden passage was not merely useless but positively mischievous, and had better be destroyed. So John Horton made up his mind rather reluctantly to have the passage filled up and the wall made solid behind the sliding panel. He wrote a note to a builder to come over during the following week to arrange about the work. But when the builder came, John Horton was not there to meet him.
Only one other note was found in his diary. It appears that during the evening he went to the secret passage for some purpose that he does not mention, and that while he was standing at the entrance looking once more at the scorched finger-prints, the cat strolled into the passage. A moment later it gave a piercing yell, and then came whirling through the air as if flung by an invisible hand. It dashed out of the room and out of the house; and, when it returned an hour later it was noticed that its fur was singed badly.
There the diary ends, and the mystery is left unsolved. When the builder arrived a few days later to attend to the passage, he found the house in confusion. John Horton was missing. He had last been seen by the butler late in the previous evening; but he had not answered when called in the morning. Then it was found that his bed had not been slept in. Possibly he had gone out, but it seemed very unlikely, for none of his hats or caps was missing, and all his boots were in the house.
The servants were greatly puzzled but were hoping that their master would turn up presently. In the meantime the butler said that the builder might just as well save time by looking at the passage that was to be closed. The two men entered together. They were met by a curious smell of burning; and on the floor they found a heap of calcined bones which the doctor at the inquest said were those of a man. The Horror of Horton House had done its worst.
I don't suppose anyone will believe a word of this story; and so it would be only a waste of time to assure you that every word of it is true. But whether you believe it or not makes no difference at all. All the believing in the world will not make fiction into fact: and even your scepticism cannot make a true story false. Frankly I don't care if you believe it or not: what does it matter?
It was about ten years ago that I went to live at the house on the hill, where the incidents happened that are related in this veracious narrative. It was occupied at the time by a friend of mine whose name you may perhaps have heard before. It was Smith. He was a married man, with a wife and two boys aged twelve and fourteen respectively. There was also a servant, who wanted to be called Ethel, and for that reason was known as Emma. This made up the household when I went to live there as a boarder. Mrs. Smith always spoke of me to her friends as the paying guest; but it came to the same thing. I paid a certain sum per month, and lived with the Smiths as one of the family.
Smith was something in the city—whatever that may mean. Nobody seemed to quite know. Mrs. Smith said vaguely that he was engaged on the Exchange; but whether it was the Stock Exchange or the Hop Exchange or some less well-known exchange she did not condescend to explain. Anyway he was absent from home during the day on some business or other; and apparently he did very well at it.
He was a man of level judgment and sound sense; about the last man in the world to give way to any foolish fancies, or to believe anything for which he had not good evidence. Mrs. Smith was like him in this: she was one of the most sensible women that I have ever met. She was also one of the homeliest—to use the Yankee term which sounds so much prettier than ugliest—that ever captured a husband. But that was his business, and had nothing to do with me.
As to the servant Ethel, otherwise Emma, she was a dull, plodding, industrious girl, with no imagination about her. She was slow to notice things; but a thing had to be a solid fact in order to arrest her attention. Thus when she said that she had seen a thing, you could be pretty well certain that it was a fact. So I attach a good deal of importance to her evidence in connection with the happenings at the house on the hill.
The two boys, Tom and George, were bright, intelligent little fellows and no worse liars than other boys of their age. Their mother had never allowed them to read or to hear ghost stories—which is one of the things that showed how sensible she was—and so it is hardly likely that they made up their contributions to the strange story that I have to tell.
As for the house on the hill, where these curious things happened, there was nothing specially remarkable about it. The house had been built less than a hundred years, and was roomy and comfortable. It stood at a little distance from its neighbours and was surrounded by a large garden and shrubberies. There was no history of any sort connected with it, so far as the Smiths had heard. They had moved into it about three months before I went to live with them; and had only just completed the various alterations that they had thought desirable.
Having thus described the house and the people with whom I went to live, I suppose that I must say just a word about myself. I saw some of the things that happened; so it may be as well to put on record the fact that I am a strict teetotaller and am not given to seeing things. Nor am I any more of a romancer that other unfortunates who get their living by writing stories and such-like things. But, as I said at the start, I don't suppose you will believe this story—and I don't care whether you do or not!
As a matter of fact, it was to me that the first queer thing happened, though I did not take any notice of it at the time. It was only afterwards that it proved to be anything out of the ordinary. I was sitting reading in the garden one afternoon, when an old lady in very old-fashioned dress came up the path from the gate as if going to the house. I was some little distance away, so that there was no occasion to take any notice; and I naturally supposed that she was going to the front door. But she went round the end of the house as if going to the garden door which opened from the back hall. I supposed that she was some intimate friend of the Smiths, and thought no more about it.
Half an hour later, when the servant brought me a cup of tea, I learnt that Mrs. Smith had been out all the afternoon and that no one had called during her absence. It seemed odd; but it was no business of mine. Possibly the old lady was some friend of the servant.
A few days later, I heard one of the boys asking his mother who the old lady was that he had seen in the garden. Mrs. Smith said she had seen no one, and asked the servant if anyone had called. But she also had seen no one; and Mrs. Smith could only suggest that it was someone who had stepped in to look at the flowers, remarking that old ladies sometimes did odd things.
I suppose that it was about a week after this when Mr. Smith mentioned that he had met an old lady coming out of the gate as he entered; and that she had looked at him with a curiously searching glance when he raised his hat, supposing her to have been some caller upon his wife. He asked who she was, and was evidently surprised to find that his wife knew nothing about her.
The next person to see the old lady was Mrs. Smith herself. She happened to be standing close inside the gate, but concealed by a laurel bush, when the old lady came up and seemed to hesitate before entering. Mrs. Smith stepped into view and said, "Good morning." But apparently the old lady neither saw nor heard, for without looking in her direction or taking any notice of her she turned away.
A moment later, when Mrs. Smith looked out to see where she went, she was nowhere in view. This was very strange, for there was no turning nor gate through which she could have gone in so short a time. But Mrs. Smith was not greatly interested, and gave no further thought to the incident.
Last of all, the mysterious old lady was seen by the servant, who met her coming out of the gate as she returned from an errand. She also was struck by the curious look with which she regarded her; and she mentioned it to her mistress. But no one had called at the house during the past few hours.
So the position now was that five people had seen the strange visitor separately and quite without looking for her. Nothing had happened in either case, except that she had a piercing glance and either did not hear or took no notice when she was addressed.
Of course the thing was talked over; but none of us attached any significance to it, naturally supposing that it was merely some only lady in the neighbourhood, of eccentric but harmless habits. It was not until other strange things happened that we began to think more seriously of it.
One morning not long afterwards the elder boy, Tom, asked at breakfast who the people were who were talking in the garden during the night. As he was no exception to the rule that boys of fourteen are sound sleepers, his parents supposed that he had dreamed it, and said so; but he seemed pretty sure that he had wakened up while it was still dark and had heard the voices. He said that the voices sounded like those of a man and a woman; but naturally no importance was attached to the vague impressions of a sleepy boy.
But some support was given to the tale by the statement of the servant, who had not heard the boy's story, that she had been very much bothered by dreams in the night and had fancied that there were people walking about the garden. She thought it was only a dream, but admitted the possibility that she might really have heard the people when half awake.
I took very little notice of the affair; but during the morning something occurred that brought it back to mind. I was sitting on the lawn trying to think out a troublesome story to a conclusion that would not make too great a demand on the reader's credulity, when I became vaguely conscious that I was not alone. There were low and indistinct voices somewhere behind me; and one of them sounded like that of an old woman. Without paying any very alert attention to the matter, I looked round in a rather absent-minded fashion and thought that I saw two people—a man and an old woman—standing in the shadow of some shrubs. It was only a vague impression; and on looking a second time and more intently I could see no one. The only reasonable conclusion seemed to be that the incident was merely a fleeting memory of the talk at breakfast; and that the half-conscious thought had formed a passing image in the mind's eye.
Nothing more occurred for about a month, except that the old lady was seen two or three times in the garden towards dusk; but she was nowhere to be found when people went out to see who she was. Then a much more serious affair came to call for attention. About half an hour after midnight, Mr. Smith was aroused by a policeman who had called to tell him that one of the downstairs windows was open, and at the same time remarked that he supposed we had someone ill in the house, as there was a light at one of the windows under the roof so frequently.
This was very puzzling, as the window under the roof was that of an unoccupied room in which only a little old furniture was stored. Mr. Smith at once went up to it, but found no sign that anyone had been there. Everything was as usual: so he locked the door, took the key away, and asked the policeman to let him know if the light was seen there again. In the morning everybody was questioned on the subject; but no one could offer any explanation. When the room was examined by daylight, the undisturbed dust that lay thickly on the furniture went to show that no one had been there recently.
A few nights later, Mr. Smith and I were sitting up rather late, talking over some small matter that happened to interest us both, when a tap came at the window. We went to the door and found the policeman, who had come to say that the light was at that very moment showing at the window under the roof. We all three went up together without delay, and as quietly as we could; but we found the door locked and the room empty. It was quite a task to make the policeman believe that it was the same room.
On the following morning, the younger boy, George, had a tale to tell. He said that when he went up to bed the night before, he met an old lady coming down from the room under the roof. At first he thought that it was his grandmother, and wondered that he had not heard of her arrival; but, before he could speak to her, she turned and looked at him, and he saw that she was a stranger. He said that she looked very sour and disagreeable; and of course he wanted to know who she was.
His parents seemed too much astonished to quite know what to answer; and I fear it was I who rushed to the rescue with the first bit of fiction that came to mind. So far as I now remember, I said she was a Mrs. Coleman, who had called to see about buying some of the old furniture that was stored away upstairs. At any rate it served to stop further questions and to change the subject.
When the boys had gone to school, Mr. Smith and I went up to the room under the roof, bent on a thorough search. It resulted in very little. There was no evidence that anyone had entered the room—in addition to the fact that the door was still locked—but it struck both of us that the old furniture had been moved farther away from a cupboard in the corner. But, as we had not taken any exact note of the original position of the things, we could not be sure that they had been moved. But our impression was that they had.
We examined the cupboard carefully, but without finding anything unusual. But we both had a strange feeling that the cupboard was not unoccupied. I don't quite know how to explain it; but most probably you have noticed that a room in which people live has a different kind of feeling from an unoccupied one. It was just like that. We felt that somebody had either been in that cupboard lately, or was there still. It sounds absurd; but that is the fact.
We could make nothing of it; nor could we arrive at any explanation of the boy's adventure with the lady on the stairs. We could only decide to drop the subject, and advise Mrs. Smith to pay no attention to it. She quite agreed that it was the best thing to do under the circumstances.
But about a week later she opened the question afresh; though neither she nor her husband had any idea at the time that they were doing so. She drew our attention to the damage done by some dog or cat in the garden. A bed had been newly planted with some bulbs; and these had been disturbed. They were seriously displaced; and yet it did not look quite like the work of an animal. There were no footprints nor any signs of scratching. It looked more as if some person had turned the ground over or dug it up, and had then tried to smooth over the surface and to replace the bulbs that had been uprooted. But this seemed an absurd supposition; for who would want to dig up another person's garden?
So we could only conclude that appearances were deceptive, as usual, and decide that it must have been some stray dog that had done the damage. How to prevent its recurrence was not easy to see; but Mr. Smith had a spring put on the grate so that it might not be left open at any time. It occurred to me later that the disturbed bed was close by the spot where I had thought that I saw a man and woman standing in the garden.
The next incident in connection with the haunting of the house on the hill happened to be witnessed by myself, and would have been quite without significance but for the other occurrences. I was walking in the garden at dusk when I saw a cat coming along the top of a kind of balcony that ran round part of the house. It was a large black Tom for whom I had formed a distinct dislike. In my time I have experienced the musical endeavours of the feline tribe both in season and out of season, by day and by night, in both town and country; but never have I met with a cat whose vocal efforts pleased me less than those of this particular Tom. He did his best: and his best was his worst. Many a time have I longed for a gun, or even for half a brick, when my slumbers have been rudely broken by the heart-rending love ditties of this disreputable beast. I therefore viewed his progress with interest, and found myself wishing that he would over-balance and break his neck.
He came strolling idly along, apparently with not a care in the world, until he reached a spot where he could look in at the window of the room under the roof. Here he paused for a moment and bestowed a hasty lick on a spot in his fur whose smoothness seemed capable of improvement. Then he was about to proceed, when he—apparently quite by chance—glanced into the room. What he saw I don't know and cannot imagine; but he sprang up as if shot, and fled back at full speed by the way he had come. He had evidently received a bad scare; and at the time I supposed that someone was in the room and had frightened him. But a casual inquiry of Mr. Smith later in the evening gave me the information that the room was still kept locked up and that he had not let the key go out of his possession. The question, What the cat saw, was therefore an interesting one, but was likely to remain unsolved.
A few days after this, Mr. Smith stayed up with me after his wife had gone to bed and said that he wanted to tell me something that he did not wish her to know. A very queer thing had happened, and he did not know what to think about it. Very early that morning he had wakened up with the strong idea that someone was in the house. He listened and distinctly heard soft footsteps on the stairs.
So he got up quietly without disturbing his wife, switched on a small electric hand-lamp, and went out of the room to investigate. No one was to be seen and all was quite quiet. But he still felt uneasy, and decided to go down and make sure that all was right. As he went silently down the stairs, he distinctly heard soft footsteps following him. Again and again he stopped suddenly and turned sharply; but there was no one to be seen. He noticed that the footsteps ceased as soon as he turned; but they went on again when he started afresh.
This suggested an echo: but no echo had ever before been noticed in the house. Moreover the limited space and the presence of curtains and other hangings went against the idea. An echo was hardly possible under the circumstances. But what followed seemed to dispose of this suggestion altogether.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, the footsteps ceased and he went into the various rooms to make sure that all was in order. He found nothing unusual; but, while standing in the dining-room and looking round, he distinctly heard the footsteps in the hall. This time there could be no question of an echo of his own steps, for he was standing still at the time.
He went out into the hall, but found no one there. Then he again heard the soft footsteps; and they seemed to be going up the stairs. He at once made up his mind to follow them. As I think has been said already, he was a level-headed, sensible man, not at all given to fancies; and the idea that there was something here that was not natural does not seem to have occurred to him. He was simply puzzled; but had no doubt that the thing would soon be explained.
Hence he had no hesitation about following the mysterious footsteps: he only wanted to see the person to whom they belonged. He followed them up the stairs; and they led him to the room under the roof and seemed to go in. But the door was closed; and when he tried to open it he found that it was locked as he had left it. He was brought to a stop; but, as he stood listening, he distinctly heard the footsteps again. They were now inside the room. He also heard the cupboard door in the room opened and closed.
There could be no sort of doubt that someone was in the room in spite of the locked door: and he meant to find out who that someone was. So he went quickly downstairs to his dressing-room, got the key from his pocket, and came up again. Before opening the door of the room, he paused and listened, with the result that he again heard footsteps inside and the door of the cupboard closed.
Then he quickly unlocked the door, flung it open, and went in. No one was there. He opened the cupboard, and found it empty. But he had that curious impression that he was not alone and that the cupboard—or perhaps the room—was occupied. But there was no sense of danger or of fear. It was rather as if any presence that might be there was quite harmless and friendly.
Mr. Smith searched the room thoroughly, found nothing, and at last went back to bed thoroughly perplexed. Later in the morning, as he went out to business, a policeman remarked to him that there had been a light in the room under the roof all through the night.
We talked it over, but could make nothing of it. As we went upstairs to bed, we both thought that we heard soft footsteps following us; but we put it down to imagination resulting from the object of our conversation.
A day or two later, a further development took place. The lad, Tom, came downstairs to breakfast in a great state of excitement and told us that when he woke up there was an old lady standing by his bed and looking at him. He said she had very piercing eyes; and, just as he was going to ask her who she was and what she wanted, she muttered something about "those letters," and he could not see her any more. The boy was quite sure that she did not go out of the room: but she simply was not there. How she got away he could not make out. The odd thing about the whole affair was that the boy was not frightened in the least by this strange experience. He was only interested and puzzled.
The servant had also a tale to tell, but nothing so interesting as the boy's. She had dreamed that she woke up and went to look out of the window. It was in the middle of the night, but the moon was so bright that everything outside could be seen clearly. In the garden she saw an old lady and a man doing something to the bed of bulbs that had been disturbed before. She thought they were digging, but could not be sure.
Of course we told the servant not to trouble her head about dreams, which never meant anything; but it was not so easy to get rid of the boy's story. Mr. and Mrs. Smith and I had a long discussion that evening after the others had gone to bed. We put all the facts together, and we could not get away from the impression that there was something in them. They certainly seemed to suggest that some old lady—and apparently a man as well—came to the house and were interested in the room under the roof and in one of the flower-beds in the garden. What it was that attracted them to these places was unknown to us; but the old lady had said something about "those letters"—that is, supposing that the boy's tale was to be relied upon.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith had no belief in ghosts or in anything of the kind, while I had an open mind on the subject. In fact I was a trifle proud of having such an open mind. Unkind friends said that it was rather a case of an empty mind than an open one—but never mind! I was quite prepared to believe in ghosts if anyone could produce a specimen in a reasonable state of preservation. So I suggested that, without expressing any opinion on the subject, we might very well decide to investigate the room under the roof and the flower-bed in the garden, and see if those letters could be found.
This was agreed upon; and Mr. Smith and I spent the next Saturday afternoon in digging up the flower-bed. There was nothing at all near the surface; but we meant to do the work thoroughly while we were at it. So we kept on until we had an opening as deep as a grave. And then we came upon an old chest, bound with iron, which proved to be full of papers.
Next we thoroughly searched the room under the roof, and found that there was a hollow space behind the match-board lining of the cupboard; and here again we found a quantity of papers. On examining the two sets of papers, we found that they consisted of a long series of love letters—of no interest whatever except to the writers. We burnt them after reading, as that seemed the right thing to do.
We afterwards learnt that the name of the lady writer was that of an old lady who had once lived in the house on the hill, and was said to be very eccentric. Rumour in the neighbourhood had it that she had long been in love with a man whose circumstances did not permit him to marry; and when he died she came to the house on the hill and lived a very retired life. She died without a will or she would no doubt have left directions for the letters to be destroyed after her death, as she apparently did not like to burn them in her lifetime.
It only remains to add that the old lady was never seen after the discovery and destruction of the correspondence.
John Barron was frankly puzzled. He could not make it out at all. He had lived in the place all his life—save for the few years spent at Rugby and Oxford—and nothing of the sort had happened to him before. His people had occupied the estate for generations past; and there was neither record nor tradition of anything of the kind. He did not like it at all. It seemed like an intrusion upon the respectability of his family. And John Barron had a very good opinion of his family.
Certainly he was entitled to have a good opinion of it. He came from a good stock: his ancestry was one to be proud of: his coat of arms had quarterings that few could display: and his immediate forbears had kept up the reputation of their ancestors. He himself could boast a career without reproach: the short time he had spent at the bar was marked by considerable success and still more promise—a promise cut short by the death of his father and his recall to Bannerton to take up the duties of squire, magistrate and county magnate.
In the eyes of his friends and of people generally, he was a man to be envied. He had an ample fortune, a delightful house and estate, hosts of friends, and the best of health. What could a man wish for more? The ladies of the neighbourhood said that he lacked only one thing, and that was a wife. But it may be that they were not entirely unprejudiced judges—the unmarried ones, at any rate. But up till the time of our story John Barron had shown no sign of marrying. He used to boast that he was neither married, nor engaged, nor courting, nor had he his eye on anyone.
And now this annoyance had come to trouble and puzzle him! What had he done to deserve it? True, he might take the comfort to his soul that it was no immediate concern of his. The affair had not happened to any member of his family or household. Why then should he not mind his own business? But he felt that it was his business. It had happened within the bounds of his manor and almost within sight of his windows. If anything tangible could be connected with it, he was the magistrate whose duty it would be to investigate the matter. But up till the present there was nothing tangible for him to deal with.
The whole business was a mystery: and John Barron disapproved of mysteries. Mysteries savoured of detectives and the police court. When unravelled they usually proved to be sordid and undesirable; and when not unravelled they brought with them a vague sense of discomfort and of danger. As a lawyer he held that mysteries had no right to exist. That they should continue to exist was a sort of reflection on the profession, as well as upon the public intelligence.
And yet here was the parish of Bannerton in the hands of a mystery of the first water. As a magistrate, John Barron had officially looked into the matter; and, as a lawyer, he had spent some hours in carefully considering it; but entirely without any practical result. The mystery was not merely unsolved: it had even thickened!
This was the history with which he was faced. A fortnight before, the occupants of a cottage on the outskirts of the village—a gardener and his wife—had left their little daughter of three years old in the house while they went on an errand. The child was soundly asleep in its cot; and they locked the door as they went out. They were absent about twenty minutes; and were nearing the house when they heard the screams of a child. The father rushed forward, unlocked the door, and the two parents entered together.
The child's cot was in the living room into which the front door opened. As they went in, the screams ceased and a terrible gasping sound took their place. Then they saw that the cot was hidden by some dark body that seemed to be lying on it. This they hardly saw, though they were quite clear that it was there, for it seemed to melt away like a mist when they rushed into the room. Certainly it was nothing solid, for it completely disappeared without a sound. It could not have dashed out through the door, for the parents were hardly clear of the door when it vanished.
They had returned only just in time to save the life of the child. At first it was doubtful if they were in time, for the doctor held out little hope. But after a day or two, the child took a turn for the better, and was now out of danger. It had evidently been attacked by some kind of savage animal, which had torn at its throat and had only just failed to sever the arteries of the neck. In the opinion of the doctor and of John Barron himself, the wounds suggested that the assailant had been a very large dog. But it was strange that a dog on such size had not done far worse damage. One might have expected that it would have killed the child with a single bite.
But was it a dog? If so, how did it enter the house? The door in front was locked, as we have seen; that at the back was bolted; and all the windows were shut and fastened. There was no apparent way by which it could possibly have got into the house. And we have already seen that its way of going was equally mysterious.
The most careful examination of the room and of the premises generally failed to yield the smallest clue. Nothing had been disturbed or damaged, and there were no footprints. The only thing at all unusual was the presence of an earthy or mouldy odour which was noticed by the doctor when he entered the room and also by some other persons who were on the scene soon afterwards. John Barron had the same impression when he went to the cottage some hours later, but the odour was then so faint that he could not be at all sure about its existence.
By way of embroidery to the story came two or three items of local gossip of the usual sort. An old woman near by said that she was looking out of her window to see the state of the weather a little earlier in the evening, when she saw a huge black dog run across the lane and go in the direction of the cottage. According to her tale, the dog limped as if lame or very much tired.
Three people said they had been disturbed for two or three nights previous by the howling of a dog in the distance; and a farmer in the parish complained that his sheep had apparently been chased about the field during the night by some wandering dog. He loudly vowed vengeance on dogs in general; but, as none of the sheep had been worried, nobody took much notice. All these tales came to the ears of John Barron; but to a man accustomed to weigh evidence they were negligible.
But he attached much more importance to another piece of evidence, if such it might be called. As the injured child began to get better, and was able to talk, an attempt was made to find out if it could give any information about the attack. As it had been asleep when attacked, it did not see the arrival of its assailant; and the only thing it could tell was,
"Nasty, ugly lady bit me!"
This seemed absurd; but, when asked about the dog, it persisted in saying,
"No dog. Nasty ugly lady!"
The parents were inclined to laugh at what they thought a mere childish fancy; but the trained lawyer was considerably impressed by it. To him there were three facts available. The wounds seemed to have been caused by a large dog: the child said she had been bitten by an ugly lady: and the parents had actually seen the form of the assailant. Unfortunately it had disappeared before they could make out any details; but they said it was about the size of a very large dog, and was dark in colour.
The local gossip was of small importance and was such as might be expected under the circumstances. But, for what it was worth, it all pointed to a dog or dog-like animal. But how could it have entered the closed house; how did it get away; and why did the child persist in her story of an ugly lady? The only theory that would at all fit the case was that supplied by the old Norse legends of the werewolf. But who believes such stories now?
So it was not to be wondered at that John Barron was puzzled. He was rather annoyed too. Bannerton had its average amount of crime; but it was in a small way and could generally be disposed of at the petty sessions. It was not often that a case had to be sent to the assizes, and the newspapers seldom got any sensational copy from the quiet little place. He reflected with some small satisfaction that it was lucky the child had not died; for in that case there must have been an inquest and the inevitable publicity. If his suspicions were well founded, the case would have yielded something far more sensational than generally falls to the lot of the local reporter.
But a day or two later he had more to ponder over. Things had developed—and in a way that he did not like. The farmer had again complained that his sheep had been chased about the field during the night; and this time more damage had been done. Two of the sheep had died; but the strange thing was that they had hardly been bitten at all. Their wounds were so slight that their death could only be attributed to fright and exhaustion. It was very curious that the dog—if dog it was—had not mauled them worse and made a meal of them. The suggestion that it was some very small dog was negatived by the fact that what wounds there were must have been made by a large animal. It really looked as if the animal had not sufficient strength to finish its evil work.
But John Barron had another item of evidence which he was keeping to himself for the present. During each of the two past nights he had woke up without any apparent reason soon after midnight. And each time he had heard the Cry in the Night. It was a voice borne on the night air which he never expected to hear in England; and least of all in Bannerton. The voice came from the moor that stood above the little hamlet; and it rose and fell on the silence like the cry of a spirit in distress. It began with a low wail of unspeakable sadness; then rose and fell in lamentable ululations; and then died away into sobs and silence.
The voice came at intervals for more than an hour: and the second night it was stronger and seemed nearer than the first. John Barron had no difficulty in recognising that long-drawn cry. He had heard it before when travelling in the wilder parts of Russia. It was the howling of a wolf!
But there are no wolves in England. True, it might have been an escaped animal from some travelling menagerie; but such an animal would have made worse havoc of the sheep. And if this was the assailant of the little child, how did it get in; how did it get away; and why did the child still persist in saying that it was not a dog but a lady who bit her?
The next few days saw the plot thicken. Other people heard the voice in the night, and put it down to a stray dog out on the moor. Another farmer's sheep were worried, and this time one of them was partly eaten. So a chase was arranged, and all the local farmers and many other people banded together to hunt the sheep-killer. For two days the moor was scoured, and the adjacent woods thoroughly beaten, but without coming across any signs of the miscreant.
But John Barron heard a story from one of the farmers that set him thinking. He noticed that this man seemed to avoid a little thicket beside the moor, suggesting that there was a better path at some distance from it; and after some pressing he explained the real reason for this. But he was careful to add that of course he was not himself superstitious, but his wife had queer notions and had begged him to avoid the place.
It seemed that not long before, some wandering gipsies who from time to time camped on the moor, had secretly buried an old woman in the thicket and had never returned to the moor since. Of course there were the inevitable additions to a tale of this sort. The old lady was alleged to have been the queen of the gipsy tribe; and she was also said to have been a witch of the most malignant kind; and these were supposed to have been the reasons for her secret burial in this lonely spot. It did not seem to occur to the farmer that the gipsies thus saved the expense of a regular funeral. Very few people knew the story, and they thought it well to hold their peace. It was not worth while to make enemies of the gipsies, who could so easily have their revenge by robbing hen-roosts or even by driving cattle; to say nothing of the more mysterious doings with which they were credited.
John Barron began to put things together. The whole business had a distinct resemblance to the tales of the were-wolf in the Scandinavian literature of the Middle Ages. Here we had a woman of suspicious reputation buried in a lonely place without Christian rites; and soon afterwards a mysterious wolf roams the district in search of blood—just like the were-wolf. But who believes such stories now, except a few ghost-ridden cranks with shattered nerves and unbalanced minds? The whole thing is absurd.
Still, the mystery had to be cleared up; for John Barron had not the slightest intention of letting it simply slide into the refuse heap of unsolved problems. He kept his own counsel; but he meant to get to the bottom of it. Perhaps if he had realised the horror that lay at the bottom of it, he would have let it alone.
In the meantime the farmers had taken their own steps to deal with the sheep-worrying nuisance. Tempting morsels, judiciously seasoned with poison, were laid about; but with the sole result of causing the untimely death of a valued sheep-dog. Night after night the younger men, armed with guns, sat up and watched; but without success. Nothing happened, the sheep were undisturbed, and it really seemed as if the invader had left the neighbourhood. But John Barron knew that once a dog has taken to worrying sheep, it can never be cured. If the mysterious visitor was a dog, he would most certainly return if still alive and able to travel: if it was not a dog—well, anything might happen. So he continued to watch even after the general hunt for the dog had ceased.
Soon he had his reward. One very dark and stormy night, he again heard the distant voice in the night. It came very faintly rising and falling on the air, for the breeze was strong and the sound had to travel against the wind. Then he left the house, carrying his gun, and took up his post on rising ground that commanded the road that led from the moor.
Presently the cry came nearer, and then nearer still, till it was evident that the wolf had left the moor and was approaching the farms. Several dogs barked; but they were not the barks of challenge and defiance, but rather the timid yelps of fear. Then the howling came from a turn in the road so close at hand that John Barron, who was by no means a timid or nervous man, could hardly resist a shudder.
He silently cocked his gun, crept softly from behind the hedge into the road, and waited. Then a small, shrivelled old woman came into sight, walking with the aid of a stick. She hobbled along with surprising briskness for so old a woman until a turn in the road brought her suddenly face to face with him. And then something happened.
He was not a man addicted to fancies; nor was he at all lacking in powers of description as a rule; but he could never state quite clearly what it was that really happened. Probably it was because he did not quite know. He could only speak of an impression rather than of certain experience. According to him, the old woman gave him one glance of unspeakable malignancy; and then he seemed to become dazed or semi-conscious for a moment. It could have been only a matter of a second or two: but during that short space of time the old woman vanished. John Barron pulled himself together just in time to see a large wolf disappear round the turn of the road.
Naturally enough, he was somewhat confused by his startling experience. But there was no doubt about the presence of the wolf. He only just saw it; but he saw it quite clearly for about a second of time. Whether the wolf accompanied the old woman, or the old woman turned into a wolf, he neither saw nor could know. But each supposition was open to many obvious objections.
John Barron spent some time next day in thinking the thing out; and then it suddenly occurred to him to visit the thicket by the moorside and see the grave of the gipsy. He did not expect that there would be anything to see; but still it might be worth while to take a look at the place.
So he strolled in that direction early in the afternoon.
The thicket occupied a kind of little dell lying under the edge of the moor and was densely filled with small trees and undergrowth. But a scarcely visible path led into it; and, pushing his way through, he found that there was a small open space in the middle. Evidently this was the site of the gipsy grave.
And there he found it: but he found more than he expected. Not only was the grave there, but it lay open! The loose earth was heaped up on either side, and had the appearance of having been scraped out by some animal. And, sure enough, the footprints of a very large dog or wolf were to be seen in several places.
John Barron was simply horrified to find that the grave had been thus desecrated—and apparently in a manner that suggested an even worse horror. But, after a moment of hesitation, he stepped to the edge of the grave and looked in. What he saw was less appalling than he feared. There lay the coffin, exposed to view; but there was no sign that it had been opened or tampered with in any way.
There was evidently only one thing to be done, and that was to cover up the coffin decently and fill in the grave again. He would borrow a spade at the nearest cottage on some pretence and get the job done. He turned away to do this; but as he went through the thicket he could have sworn that he heard a sound like muffled laughter! And he could not get away from the notion that the laughter had some quality closely resembling the howling of a wolf. He called himself a fool for thinking such a thing—but he thought it all the same.
He borrowed the spade and filled the grave, beating the earth down as hard as he could; and again, as he turned away after completing the task, he heard that muffled laugh. But this time it was even less distinct than before, and somehow it sounded underground. He was rather glad to get away.
It may well be imagined that he had plenty to occupy his thoughts for the rest of the day; and even when he sought to sleep he could not. He lay tossing uneasily, thinking all the time of the mysterious grave and the events that certainly seemed now to be connected with it. Then, soon after midnight, he heard the voice in the night again. The wolf howled a long way off at first; then came a long interval of silence; and then the voice sounded so close to the house that Barron started up in alarm and he heard his dog give a cry of fear. Then the silence fell again; and some time later the howling was again heard in the distance.
Next morning he found his favourite dog lying dead beside his kennel; and it was only too evident how he had met his end. His neck was almost severed by one fearful bite; but the strange thing was that there was very little blood to be seen. A closer examination showed that the dog had bled to death; but where was the blood? Natural wolves tear their prey and devour it. They do not suck its blood. What kind of a wolf could this be?
John Barron found the answer next day. He was walking in the direction of the moor late in the afternoon, as it grew towards dusk, when he heard shrieks of terror coming from a little side lane.
He ran to the rescue, and there he saw a little child of the village lying on the ground, with a huge wolf in the act of tearing at its throat.
Fortunately he had his gun with him; and, as the wolf sprang off its victim when he shouted, he fired. The range was a short one, and the beast got the full force of the charge. It bounded into the air and fell in a heap. But it got up again, and went off in a limping gallop in the way that wolves will often do even when mortally wounded. It made for the moor.
John Barron saw that it had received its death wound, and so gave it no further attention for the moment. Some men came running up at his shouts, and with their assistance he took the wounded child to the local doctor. Happily he had been in time to save its life.
Then he reloaded his gun, took a man with him, and followed the track of the wolf. It was not difficult to follow, for blood-stains on the road at frequent intervals showed plainly enough that it was severely wounded. As Barron expected, the track led straight to the thicket and entered it.
The two men followed cautiously; but they found no wolf. In the midst of the thicket lay the grave once more uncovered. And there beside it lay the body of a little old woman, drenched with blood. She was quite dead, and the terrible gunshot wound in her side told its own story. And the two men noticed that her canine teeth projected slightly beyond her lips on each side—like those of a snarling wolf—and they were blood-stained.
The Abbey of St. Placidus stood in a valley between the mountains, and was hidden from the few travellers who passed through that lonely region by a thick belt of trees. It was several miles from the nearest town; and the road through the valley led to no place of any importance. It was therefore rarely used except by the dependents of the Abbey and a few other peasants.
Thus disturbance from the outside world was quite unknown; and the peace of the community was rarely broken by any disquiet from within. The monks spent their days in the silence of prayer and recollection; and the daily round of Offices in the Church and work about the house, gardens and farm, fully occupied their time and thoughts.
Speaking generally, the monks ran elderly. Most of them were well over forty—a few were over eighty—and the Abbot was nearer sixty than fifty. He very properly maintained that no man had cut his wisdom teeth till he had passed fifty. But at the same time the community felt the need of some younger members. The old ones could not expect to live for ever in this world; there was plenty of work that called for strong, young hands; and the noviciate cried aloud for occupants.
So the Abbot took counsel with his brethren, and they agreed with him that something must be done to meet the situation. And the only thing that seemed at all possible was to try the experiment of an alumnate or school for boys who seemed likely to develop a vocation for community life later on. And that is how it came about that the old dormitory over the west cloister was now occupied by a dozen youths of rather lively disposition.
It was a decided change for the old dormitory, for it had been disused for twenty years past. No one appeared to quite know why; but there seemed to be a combination of reasons. For one thing, it was the part of the house farthest removed from the rest of the rooms, and so was a trifle inconvenient for those who lived in it. Then the stairs leading up to it were narrow and steep, and so were trying to elderly legs; the dormitory itself was cold in winter, and so did not agree with people subject to asthma and bronchitis; and the place was said to be bad to sleep in.
What this last objection meant was not very clear; but those who were old enough to have slept there when it was last used said that it was noisy. This was odd in a place where silence reigned both in the house and outside it; but the suggestion was that the wind somehow caught that part of the buildings and howled through chimneys and chinks. Queer noises were heard, which were put down to birds under the eaves or rats under the floor—anyway the place was noisy and unsuitable for light sleepers.
It was known as the old dormitory because it—with the west cloister beneath it—formed the sole surviving part of the ancient monastery which was pulled down when the present Abbey was built. It dated from the beginning of the thirteenth century, but had been considerably altered inside. Originally it had been one long, open dormitory, in which some twenty beds could have been arranged along the walls; but it was now divided into what were called cells, though they were merely cubicles open to the gangways down the centre.
Thus, while the occupants of the cubicles had a certain amount of privacy, they could see anyone who passed down the dormitory; and as the partitions between the cubicles were only some eight feet high, a good portion of the old oak roof was visible from all of them.
The boys were a very varied set, who got on well together as a rule; but we are only now concerned with one of them. This was Brother Bernard, who on account of being the eldest and steadiest had been made prefect of the alumnate. This meant that he had general charge of the others, under the monk who was their immediate superior, and was held responsible for their good behaviour. He was a youth of seventeen; and he had his hands full!
His cubicle was that next to the stairs, and was so arranged that it commanded a rather larger view of the dormitory than the others. It was his duty to see that everyone was in his cell immediately after Compline, and that all lights were out half an hour later. There was no gas or electric light in this ancient building: the dormitory was rather ineffectually lighted by some hanging oil lamps.
It was Brother Bernard's business to put these out, and to see that everybody was in bed by that time. Then he returned to his cubicle; and it was usually about a quarter of a minute later when steady breathing told the shadows that he was fast asleep. And the steady breathing did not as a rule cease until the bell rang to wake the community in the morning.
But one night he woke up with a start, and was just in time to hear the Abbey clock strike midnight. He turned over and tried to go to sleep again, but without result. He had that queer feeling that somebody was about. But all was perfectly still and silent.
Then for the first time he noticed the light in the dormitory which was destined to have such a strange sequel. He was looking drowsily at nothing—for there was nothing to look at—when he saw it. It was just a patch of light shining on the roof about half-way down the room.
He at once thought that one of the alumni had got a bit of candle from the sacristy, and was enjoying a surreptitious spell of reading. This was forbidden; and it was his business to stop it. So he slipped out of bed, and went quietly down the passage between the cubicles. But everybody seemed to be fast asleep; there was no light in any of the cubicles; and there was no odour of a blown-out candle. When he looked up at the roof again, the light was gone.
This was distinctly curious; but Brother Bernard was too young to trouble his head about such a trifle. It was not until the thing happened again about a week later that he began to think it over. Much reading of detective stories, written by people who have never been detectives nor talked with detectives, had given that youth the idea that he was a born investigator; and he set to work with a relish to find out the mystery of the light in the dormitory.
Could it come from any of the cubicles? To this question he was able to give a pretty decided negative. He knew that nobody had a dark lantern or anything of that sort; and on both occasions he had made sure that no bit of candle was being burnt. Besides, when he came to think of it, the patch of light was too small and too sharply defined to be caused in that way. A candle would have lit up a considerable part of the roof and not a small patch of it.
Could the light have come from outside? Again he was obliged to answer "No." The old dormitory was lighted in the day by some narrow lancet windows. Had the light shone through one of these, it would have been a long strip of light and not a small patch. Besides, the windows verlooked the cloister garth, into which no one could enter at night; so that the notion of a strong bull's-eye lantern operated from the garth was quite out of the question.
But soon the mysterious light became still more mysterious. The next time that Brother Bernard woke up in the night and saw it there was a change. Before, it was a vague patch; but now it was more distinct and was in the shape of a cross. He rubbed his eyes and wondered if he was dreaming. Then he looked again, and it was clearly a cross. A moment later it disappeared. But it disappeared in a rather unusual way. It did not vanish either suddenly or gradually; but it went out from one side. First one arm of the cross vanished, then the upright, and then the other arm. Imagine that the cross had been pushed sideways behind a dark screen, and you will have a fair idea of what happened.
It must have been just about the same time, if not on the same night, that one of the monks had a queer dream which he related next day at recreation. Of course Brother Bernard knew nothing about this and only heard of it by chance some time later. The monk in question, who was a very level-headed man, had his cell overlooking the cloister garth, but on the side opposite to the old dormitory. He had heard nothing about the strange light that had been seen.
He dreamt that he was standing in the cloister when he saw a monk in front of him whom he failed to recognise by the back view. The monk was walking slowly away from him. It was apparently not one of the community; and he knew that no visitor had arrived. So he hastened to pass him, that he might see who it was. But the other also hastened, and turned the corner; where he seemed to vanish, for he was not to be seen a moment later.
The monk in his dream then thought that he turned back, and again saw the stranger before him. This time he stood still to watch, and saw him take some object out of the folds of his habit. Whatever this object may have been, it seemed to give out a faint light which shone on the roof of the cloister. Then the stranger walked to a certain spot in the old west cloister and appeared to step into the wall and vanish! At this point the monk woke up, and at that moment the Abbey clock struck midnight.
Brother Bernard continued to have disturbed nights, waking up without any apparent cause, but saw nothing more for two or three weeks. Then a night came when he was aroused at about twelve o'clock, and again saw the light on the roof. This time it was brighter than before—so much so that it drew him out of bed in spite of previous failures to discover the cause. He stepped out into the central passage, and there before him he saw what he took to be one of the monks.
This greatly puzzled him, for no one had any business there at night, except the infirmarian in case of sickness. But there was no one unwell in the alumnate over night; and, if anyone had been taken ill, the prefect must first have been called to fetch the infirmarian. It was very strange. It might possibly be the Abbot or Prior who had taken it into his head to go round and see that all was right. In any case, it was Brother Bernard's duty to ascertain who it was; so he stood and watched the figure, expecting that when it turned back he would see. But the mysterious monk did not turn back. He walked to the farther end of the dormitory, which ended in a blank wall without a door.
But as he walked, Brother Bernard noticed that the light on the roof went with him. It was just as if he was carrying a lamp turned upwards, except that the patch of light was as before in the shape of a cross. Yes; without a doubt the light was moving along. It continued to move until it came to the wall, and then it disappeared in the same curious way as before, just as if it had been pushed sideways behind a screen. Or it might be said to have vanished sideways into the end wall.
Brother Bernard was watching the light, and so he did not see what became of the monk. But when the light vanished, he looked for him—and saw nothing! In fact it was too dark to see anything. There was no moon; and the dormitory was in total darkness. Then it struck him as very strange that he should have been able to see the monk at all in the dark. He could only suppose that the light on the roof enabled him to see.
Up till now, he had said nothing to anyone about the light in the dormitory, as he had no special wish to be laughed at for foolish fancies. But now he thought it right to mention the matter to the Prior. To his surprise, he was taken at once to the Abbot, and was asked to repeat the story in full detail. A good many questions were asked; and he was told not to say anything to the other alumni but to report any further happenings at once.
He was considerably astonished to find his story taken so seriously; and he would have been still more surprised if he had learnt the reason. Things had been happening at the Abbey. In the first place, an old manuscript had been found among the documents stored in the library, which seemed to be part of a diary kept by one of the monks over a century ago. Amongst other things of interest, it contained an account of some curious happenings in the Abbey at that time. Several of the community had seen what they supposed to be a spectre monk, walking in the cloister at night. On several occasions he had been seen to vanish into the wall of the west cloister; and he seemed to carry something in the folds of his habit that gave out a faint light.
Another, and still older, document had come to light in the same place. This was very difficult to read, and seemed to have been purposely written in such style as to conceal some secret from any casual reader. But, so far as could be made out, it was intended to record the hiding of something of value on the Abbey premises, and to give a clue to the hiding place. The clue was apparently lost now, for the manuscript was torn badly and the latter part could not be read.
But something else had happened besides the finding of these two papers. Curious rustling sounds had been heard late at night in the old west cloister by a monk who had been sitting up late to finish some important work; and on going to see what it was he had caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a figure in black that melted into the wall.
He went to the spot where the figure had disappeared; and he thought that a faint patch of light shone on the roof just overhead; but it was very faint, and had gone before he could be quite certain that it was there.
The next time that Brother Bernard woke up in the night, he saw the dark figure more distinctly, and he also saw plainly that it was carrying something partly concealed in the folds of its habit. The light appeared to come from this. He plucked up his courage and ran lightly and silently down the central passage to the intruder. But, quick as he was, the visitor was quicker still and had vanished before he overtook him. But Brother Bernard was in time to detect a curious perfume that seemed to linger on the air for a moment. It was like the pleasant scent that comes from an old chest in which spices and perfumes have been stored long ago.
Now we have said that the youth had detective ideas; and he decided to lay a trap for the visitor. The next night, when all were in bed and he went round to put out the lamps, he fastened a piece of black cotton across the passage about a foot from the floor, in such fashion that anyone passing that way would inevitably break it.
Nothing happened that night nor the next; but on the third he again woke up and saw the mysterious monk standing half-way down the passage. This time he was turned partly towards Brother Bernard, who could now see that he was holding what appeared to be a golden cross which gave out a pale light that seemed to be reflected on the open roof of the dormitory. He seemed to hesitate for a few moments, then walked slowly down the passage way, appeared to push the cross into the wall and then to melt away. The figure walked right past the place where the black cotton was fixed; but, when Brother Bernard went to examine it, he found that it had not been broken. It was pretty clear from this that the intruder was not of solid flesh and blood. What then could he be made of?
When the Abbot heard this story, he decided that a watch should be kept by two seniors; and for over a week these two monks—much to their disgust—sat up in the old dormitory till after midnight. But nothing at all happened, and they said a good many things about the folly of paying attention to idle tales. But it was a little odd that both of these monks dreamed the next night that a monk stood by their beds and said something about a hiding place. But in the morning neither of them could remember what it was the Visitor had said.
The suggestion was now made by somebody that the whole affair was a delusion of the evil one; and Brother Bernard was told to try to sprinkle the apparition with holy water the next time it was seen. So he provided himself with a sprinkler and waited for an opportunity.
It came about a week later, and the result was not at all what he expected. The mysterious visitor was standing opposite his cubicle when he woke up with a start. As soon as he saw this, he slipped out of bed and took up the sprinkler. But something caught him by the wrist and held his hand back. Meanwhile the apparition was moving slowly down the central passage. Three times Brother Bernard tried to use the sprinkler, but each time the same thing happened. The last time, his wrist was held so tightly and jerked back so sharply as to cause actual pain. But who did it? Certainly not the apparition; for that was going down the dormitory at the time.
So the experiment was tried again in a different way. A small stoup of holy water was hung on the end wall at the exact spot where the monk had so many times been seen to disappear. The result was curious, according to Brother Bernard's account the next morning. He woke up as usual and saw the monk going down the dormitory. When he came to the usual spot he did not vanish but stood still as if hesitating what to do. The watcher saw his chance and ran towards him. But again he was disappointed, for something caught him by the heel and he fell with a crash. When he scrambled to his feet, the apparition was gone.
This was distinctly vexing, for he could not tell how the mysterious monk got over the difficulty of having to pass through a stoup of holy water. But a few nights later he found out, for he saw him again. This time he did not attempt to interfere but simply watched. When the monk reached the end of the dormitory, he seemed to hesitate for a moment; then he appeared to push the cross he was carrying into the wall a little below the holy water stoup; after which he simply vanished. How he went, the watcher could not describe: he just was not there, and that was all that could be said.
Things now took a rather unpleasant turn for Brother Bernard. The whole story rested on his word; and every attempt to test the truth of it had failed. Several of the monks who had heard the history began to suggest that the whole business was imagination at first and romancing later. He was cross-questioned pretty sharply by the Prior more than once; and the Abbot took occasion to say a few words on the sin of lying. So it was very fortunate for him that one or two small incidents happened at this time to confirm his story.
One of the boys was a little unwell, and the local doctor came to see him. He was accompanied by a little terrier which came up to the dormitory with him. Needless to say, the doctor was not in the habit of taking a dog with him to see his patients; but in this case he had called in the course of a country walk and had asked permission to bring the dog in, as he did not want it to go chasing rabbits in his absence.
While the doctor was examining his patient, the terrier ran about the dormitory. Presently it went to the wall at the end. It stopped suddenly, hesitated for a moment, and then went slowly and suspiciously to the very spot where the nocturnal visitor was in the habit of disappearing. It went to sniff at the wall; darted suddenly back as if it had touched something very hot; and then dashed howling out of the place.
The other incident was the merest trifle in itself, but was significant in view of what had happened. A new boy joined the alumnate. He had heard nothing about anything occurring in the dormitory; and it chanced that he was placed in the bed nearest to the end wall. But in the morning he asked to be moved, and could give no better reason than that he felt afraid and that he thought he heard whisperings in the wall. He was told not to be silly: but he was moved all the same.
And now things developed rapidly. Brother Bernard woke up a few nights later to find the mysterious monk standing by his side and bending over him. He at once moved away, but kept looking back as if expecting to be followed. The boy got up and went with him; and, when he thought it over afterwards, he was surprised that he did not feel in the least afraid. The monk walked slowly down the dormitory. This time he did not appear to be carrying anything; and the usual light on the open roof was not there. But the moonlight was streaming through the windows, and everything could be seen.
They reached the end wall; and then the monk stopped and pointed to a spot below the holy water stoup. To his surprise, Brother Bernard then saw distinctly a cross of light shining on the place. He turned to his companion, meaning to ask him what it meant—but he was alone. The monk had vanished completely.
He was not much taken aback by this. He was getting used to queer things happening. So he just went quietly back to his cell again; and, as he went up to the dormitory, he heard an alumnus talking in his sleep. And the boy was saying,
"Open the wall, Father!"
Next day all this was duly reported to the Prior; and the Abbot decided to make a search. A mason was sent for, and the end wall of the old dormitory was opened at the place that Brother Bernard had indicated. It quickly became evident that the wall had previously been tampered with. Beneath the stone facing, the wall had been cut away and then loosely filled in with broken stone and mortar. This was cleared away, and then a box came to light. It contained a cross of gold, containing a relic for which the Abbey had been famed in the olden days, before the dissolution.
Brother Bernard had the honour of carrying it in the procession when it was solemnly conveyed back to the church and placed once more in its old position above the high altar. And since that day, the light in the old dormitory has been seen no more.
Edward Sinclair was a man of eminent common sense. He prided himself on having no nonsense about him; but what exactly he meant by this was not easy to say. If he was asked why he did not go to church, why he did not marry, why he preferred the Telegraph to the Times, why he had come to live in a lonely place like Marshtown-in-the-Hole, or anything else; it was ten to one that he would tell you it was because there was no nonsense about him.
Unkind people said there was no sense as well as no nonsense about it; but these were generally people who had got a horse to sell or a lot of doubtful oats to get rid of: so nobody took much notice of them. The opinion of most of the people in the neighbourhood was that Edward Sinclair was not born yesterday—which was obvious seeing that he was not far off forty—or that there were no flies on him, the meaning of which nobody seemed to know.
He had not lived in the district very long. He had spent his youth and young manhood in a distant part of England; and it was the death of a rather remote relative that had brought him to Marshtown-in-the-Hole—which was not a town at all, but a large straggling parish of scattered houses. But it was certainly in the Hole, for it lay at the bottom of a kind of basin surrounded by rising country. When this relative died, he left all his property to Edward Sinclair, who had never heard of him before; but now found himself the possessor of an old house surrounded by a good garden and some fields, including a small wood. He was now also master of a sufficient income to enable him to live in decent comfort without following any occupation.
How he had earned his livelihood before inheriting this little fortune, the neighbours often wondered but had not yet managed to find out. Evidently he had been in decent circumstances, for his manners were good and he was clearly accustomed to live amid the surroundings that are usual in respectable society. Being thus a bit of a mystery, his doings were naturally a favourite theme of discussion, especially with the ladies of the place, who were all convinced that he had been disappointed in love. But they could never find out anything, except that there was no nonsense about him—and they had only his own word for this.
But whatever he had been or had done, he was pleased when he came into his little fortune and was able to live as he liked and amuse himself just how he thought fit. He had only been at Marshtown-in-the-Hole for about five months; and so far he had amused himself by having the garden put in order, exploring the district, and reading the books that he had found in his relative's library. Thus he had done nothing yet to gratify the curiosity of the local gossips, though the fact that he did not go to church caused plenty of head-shaking and indignant comment. He was in fact studying the place and people, and getting his bearings before making up his mind quite how to occupy the leisure that he could now enjoy.
On the evening when this story begins, he was sitting on his lawn, with his pipe gone out, thinking hard. As he sat there he faced the little wood that came up to the side of the house and extended to the southern extremity of his property. He was looking at a gap in the trees, through which he could see an old building which had formerly been a mill. It stood beside a stream which had turned the wheel; but it had been disused for many years and had been allowed to fall into disrepair. The roof was still sound enough, for it dated from a time when mills were built to last; but the door and windows had fallen away, or perhaps had been removed by passing tramps in search of firewood. The building now served no useful purpose, but formed a picturesque feature of the view from the house. It was an odd fact that Sinclair's distant relative, in the will by which he had left the place to him, had expressed a strong wish that the mill should not be pulled down. Sinclair had often wondered why this had been mentioned but could never get any light on the subject.
As we have said, he was sitting and looking at this mill; and the fact that he had let his pipe go out suggests that his mind was fully occupied with his thoughts. Although there was no nonsense about him—a fact that we may have mentioned before—he was letting his thoughts wander into paths of which he entirely disapproved. Indeed he was not acting with that common sense upon which he prided himself so much. But he was very much puzzled and bewildered.
Something had happened which was quite new to his experience. During the afternoon he had strolled through the little wood, and had stopped to examine the old mill once more. He had two or three times wondered if it could not be turned to some useful purpose instead of being a mere ornament to the landscape. So he went into the building, and once more carefully considered its possibilities. And while he was there he had a vague sense of discomfort and of danger. As there was no nonsense about him, he had of course taken the sensible course and had tried to brush the foolish idea away. But it stuck to him all the same.
He at first wondered if the idea was due to some half-conscious doubt about the safety of the roof under which he was standing; and he had again very carefully examined it, with the result that he felt more sure than ever that it was perfectly sound. The more he thought it over, the less reason could he see for anything like a sense of danger; but still he could not shake it off.
A curious thing about it was that he felt this queer sense of something wrong each time that he went into an upstairs room, the window of which faced his house. It was a room of modest size, and had probably been used as a living-room by the miller in the days when the mill-wheel turned and the great millstones ground the corn for the neighbourhood. Strangely enough, a few odds and ends of furniture still remained in the room, probably as being too old to be worth removing. Besides a chair and table, an old wreck of a bureau stood against the wall, and looked as if it would fall to pieces if moved. There was also a large cupboard by the fireplace; and its door seemed to be nailed up, for Sinclair had been unable to open it. And it was chiefly when trying to get this cupboard open that he had felt the queer sense of impending danger.
He was still puzzling about the incident, when he realised that his pipe had gone out. He felt in his pocket for the silver match-box that he always carried, but could not find it. Then he remembered having laid it down on the table in the old mill after lighting his pipe there during the afternoon. This was annoying; but it would never do to leave it there. Some tramp might possibly take shelter there for the night; in which case he might say farewell to that silver match-box. So he reluctantly got up from his chair, went indoors to light his pipe, and then strolled down to the old mill.
Here he met with a surprise. On mounting the rickety stairs leading to the upper room, he found his match-box lying on the floor just outside the door of the room, and beside it lay a handful of wild flowers that he had gathered during his walk and had also forgotten when he left the place. But he was quite certain that he had left these things on the table in the room. How then did they get outside?
When he went into the room, he at once noticed that the table and chair, which he had pushed aside when trying to open the cupboard, had been replaced exactly in their old positions. Evidently someone had been tidying up after him. But who could this be? No one lived in the place, and no one had charge of it. So far as he knew, no one took any interest in it, and it was rarely entered. Any casual visitor would have either pocketed the silver match-box or have left it alone. He would not have taken the trouble to remove it and the flowers outside the door.
He could not make it out. And then once more came that odd sense of danger, which now took the form of a feeling that he was being watched by someone who was not friendly. He tried to call common sense to the rescue; but common sense thought better of it and declined to come. He tried to put the idea out of his head; but it refused to go. He felt quite upset: and then again came that sense of danger, but this time with a force that seemed to paralyse him.
For quite a minute he stood and shuddered: then, by a supreme effort, he summoned his forces and fled from the place. Once outside the building, the horror left him and he recovered his self-control. Then he remembered that his walking-stick had been left behind. Should he go back and get it? All his common sense told him to go back and take it: but all his fears came back to forbid him. He hesitated: and then something came whizzing by his head and reached the ground a few feet in front of him. It was the walking-stick!
This brought him to himself with a jerk. Somebody must have thrown that stick: and somebody was asking for trouble. He was not the man to evade a challenge like this. So he rushed back into the mill, and up to the room where he had left the stick. But the place stood empty: nobody was there! But no one could have escaped. There had been no time for it: and there was no way out except through the door by which he had just come or by the windows which he had in full view at the time. He hastily searched all the corners of the place, but found no one.
And then once more came that horrifying sense of being watched by something evil and malicious; and he almost fancied that he heard a sneering laugh somewhere near at hand. He simply fled, and did not stop till he was once more in his own house.
But this was not to be the last of the puzzling incidents of the day. When Sinclair went up to bed, he happened to look out of his window in the direction of the disused mill, and was at once struck by the fact that there was a light in the window of the upstairs room. It seemed from this pretty clear that someone was passing the night in the place; and his thoughts at once went in the direction of tramps. He was more than half inclined to go there at once and investigate; but somehow the experiences of the day did not make him welcome the idea of going there after dark; and he contented himself with resolving to have a door fixed in the now open doorway of the mill, and to keep it locked. The place at present might easily become a resort for bad characters—if it was not so already.
In the morning he went to the mill again, to see if he could find any trace of the intruder with the light, who had presumably made use of the place for free lodging. But there was not the smallest trace of anyone having been in the place since he left it on the previous day. But he again fancied he heard that sneering laugh as he turned to go away.
He took one precaution. As he went out of the room, he laid a straw across the doorway, and placed a couple of dead leaves in exact contact with it, so that any person entering the room must disturb the arrangement; while at the same time the thing looked merely like an accidental straw that the wind had blown there, and so would not be noticed.
Nothing more occurred for three days, and then once more he saw the light in the window as he retired to rest at night. In the morning he visited the mill, and found that the straw and leaves had not been disturbed. On the next day, the door was fixed in position and was locked by Sinclair himself—who also had wooden bars fixed across the downstairs windows—and that very night the light shone forth again from the mill!
But this time there was a difference. While Sinclair watched the light, he saw it interrupted by something that came to the window for a moment. This happened three times; and the third time he was almost sure that it was the shadow of a man that he saw.
Oddly enough, this development reassured Sinclair. Mysterious and unaccountable lights and the like were disturbing, even to a man with no nonsense about him; but the shadow of a man meant that there must be a man to cast the shadow—and Sinclair was not afraid of any man living. Whether he might be afraid of any man dead was a question that he did not put to himself. So he decided to go at once and interview the man who had cast the shadow.
He took a lantern with him and made his way at once to the mill. There he found the door locked and the windows undisturbed; and on entering he found everything as usual and no trace of anyone having been there. He searched in every corner, and made quite sure that the place was entirely deserted. But, on his return home, he happened to look back as he was going in; and there was the light once more in the window of the old mill!
Next morning he made another investigation; and this time he took his dog with him. The animal was a pedigree bloodhound; and he had the idea that if anybody had been there the dog might get on the track and lead to a discovery. But the animal absolutely refused to enter the building. No amount of coaxing or threatening had the smallest effect. The dog was usually the most ready and obedient of animals; but now it seemed overwhelmed with sheer terror. Each time that it was brought to the door of the mill, it ran back whining piteously; and when ordered to go in it simply lay down and whimpered. Finally it suddenly started up, seemed to look up at the window for a moment, and then ran off at full speed with its tail between its legs.
Clearly nothing was to be done with the dog; so Sinclair entered the building alone. The door was locked as he had left it the night before, and the windows had not been in any way tampered with. He went upstairs to the room where the light had shone; and there he met with something new. The cupboard door which he had so often tried in vain to open, stood ajar! He pulled it open without difficulty. There was no lock; and there was no trace of nails or screws that might have fastened it before.
The cupboard proved to be quite a roomy place, in which four men could easily have stood upright. There were shelves at the back of it; but they were quite bare and the place was entirely empty. And yet at the same time it did not feel empty. Sinclair had that odd feeling that he was not alone. Had it been too dark to see anything, he would have felt sure that someone was close to him. And he again had the uncomfortable sense that it was someone unfriendly.
He examined the cupboard very closely, to see if by any chance it might afford a means of access to the room. But the walls were sound and solid: there was no trace of any concealed entrance through the back wall or anywhere else. Nor could he find anything to account for the difficulty in opening the door on previous occasions. It really seemed as if someone inside had been holding the door. But that was nonsense—and we have remarked at least once before that there was no nonsense about Edward Sinclair.
He finally gave up the problem for the present, locked the door of the mill, and went back home. During the day business occupied his attention, and he gave no more thought to the puzzling affair. But when he went to bed he noticed that there was no light showing at the mill. However, about two in the morning, he happened to wake up and looked out. There was the light again; and at the window could be clearly seen the figure of a man! At that distance no details could be made out; but it looked like a small man, and seemed somehow to suggest an aged one.
In the morning Sinclair went once more to the mill, and at once saw that the door was standing open. But the extraordinary thing about it was that it had not been unlocked! The bolt was shot, just as when it was locked—but the door stood open. Normally this could only happen if the socket into which the bolt worked had been taken off the doorpost. But it was in place and bore no sign of having been touched. How in the world could the door have been opened? And—more awkward question still—who opened it?
He examined it closely but could suggest no solution of the mystery. Then he went in and up to the room above. As he entered, he could have sworn that the door of the cupboard had just been closed. He was just in time to see it close; but only just in time. He saw it close perhaps the last half-inch. He was not lacking in courage, and he instantly rushed across the room and tried to pull the door open again. But it resisted all his efforts. He could not open it even a fraction of an inch; and yet there was the feeling that it was not fastened. It seemed to yield very slightly to his pulling: as if someone stronger than he was holding it closed from the other side. And then once more came that compelling sense of danger; and again he thought he heard that sneering laugh.
He could do nothing but give it up; but at any rate he could make it difficult to open the door again. So he went out and cut three wedges of wood, which he forced under the door as tightly as possible. Then he pushed the rickety table and chair against the door as an additional precaution, and went home; not forgetting to once more lock the door of the mill.
This, however, proved as ineffectual as the other measures; for next day he found the outer door and the door of the cupboard standing open as before, but without the smallest trace of any person who could have opened them. The chair and table were back in their place again. But this time he noticed some marks in the dust that covered the top of the table so thickly. They looked like very shaky writing, traced with a finger. The more Sinclair looked at them, the more he felt convinced of this; and he thought he could make out the word "Beware," but of this he was not quite sure.
But of one thing he was quite sure: he had had enough of this! He was not disposed to have his peace of mind disturbed by nonsense of this sort. Either it was mere imagination, and therefore a waste of time: or there was something in it, in which case the sooner it was stopped the better. So he decided to have the mill pulled down. It was of no use; and the view from the house would look just as well without it. He would be going to London on the next day for business purposes, and he would then make some inquiry about having it removed.
But Edward Sinclair never went to London; and the old mill is standing to-day. It was in the morning that he decided about having the mill destroyed; and the rest of the forenoon was occupied with business correspondence. He had just finished a letter, and was thinking there was time for a cigarette before lunch, when suddenly he felt that strange sense of impending danger that he had so many times experienced at the mill. He was at the time sitting in a chair at his writing-table; and he thought he heard a sneering laugh close behind him. He sprang out of the chair, and was just in time to see something vanish into thin air!
He did not actually see it, in the sense of seeing what it was; but he saw that the view of the opposite side of the room was obscured for the moment by something. Then the something was no longer there, and the other side of the room could be seen again. But he was sure that something had been there the moment before, and he had a strong impression that it was not merely something but someone.
After a moment's hesitation, he turned and went out of the room, intending to take a short walk and try to shake off the unpleasant impression. As he went through the hall on the way out, he happened to glance back to the room he had just left. Someone was standing there! Sinclair started in astonishment; but when he looked again the intruder had vanished. He went back to the room; but everything was as usual. No one was there: and no one could have got away. What did this mean?
He had hardly time to ask himself this question when lunch was announced. He went to the dining-room and took his seat. As he sat at table, he could see the old mill through the open window; and, when half-way through the meal, he distinctly saw an old man go into the mill through the door that he had left safely locked.
Here then was the solution to the mystery. Someone by some means got into the building, and was doubtless responsible for the pranks that had been played on him. And now he would be caught! Sinclair did not lose an instant, but sprang up and ran out of the house, to the surprise of the servant who was in the act of handing him a dish. He kept the door of the old mill in sight as he ran to it, so that no one might escape without his observation. When he arrived, he saw that, as before, the door had been opened without unlocking it. The bolt was still shot. But he did not pause to think about this. He rushed into the building, and up the rickety stairs.
There was no one in the room; but he was in time to see the door of the cupboard being closed. He dashed at it and tried to pull it open. But all in vain: it resisted as before, though he tried his hardest. Then the door suddenly flew open; and knocked him violently backwards.
The cupboard was empty: and yet—there was something strange and unnatural about it. Sinclair could see no one; but it seemed as if something was there after all, for he could not see a part of the back of the cupboard. It was as if an invisible person was there who could not be seen through. And then Sinclair experienced a horror that few men have ever known. He knew, though he could not have said how or why he knew, that the occupant of that cupboard was coming out. And for the first time in his life, he was fainting with sheer terror.
A moment later, he was caught in an unseen grip and flung down. Strong arms had hold of him; sinewy fingers clasped him by the throat; a lithe and vigorous body seemed to entwine itself around him; and a hatred that was not human was working its fearful will on him. He tried to struggle: but who can struggle against attacks that he can neither anticipate nor see. It was a losing battle from the first. Sinclair's doom was sealed from the moment that the unseen watcher in the mill had him in his grip.
Later in the day he was missed, and after much seeking his body was found horribly mangled and crushed in the old mill. The place had to be broken open, for the door was closed and locked as he had left it in the morning.
The whole affair was a mystery that was never solved. No one ever found out how he came by his shocking end: and to this day no man knows who the watcher in the mill was, or why he watched to wreak his vengeance on Edward Sinclair.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia