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Title: The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories
Author: Blackwood, Algernon, 1869-1951
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories" ***

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THE EMPTY HOUSE

AND OTHER GHOST STORIES


BY

ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

AUTHOR OF

"JOHN SILENCE" "THE LOST VALLEY" ETC.


LONDON
EVELEIGH NASH COMPANY
LIMITED

1916


First Printed    1906
Uniform Edition  1915
Reprinted        1916



CONTENTS


THE EMPTY HOUSE

A HAUNTED ISLAND

A CASE OF EAVESDROPPING

KEEPING HIS PROMISE

WITH INTENT TO STEAL

THE WOOD OF THE DEAD

SMITH: AN EPISODE IN A LODGING-HOUSE

A SUSPICIOUS GIFT

THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY IN NEW YORK

SKELETON LAKE: AN EPISODE IN CAMP



THE EMPTY HOUSE


Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once
their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular
feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an
ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the
unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with
their being: that they are evil. Willy nilly, they seem to communicate
an atmosphere of secret and wicked thoughts which makes those in their
immediate neighbourhood shrink from them as from a thing diseased.

And, perhaps, with houses the same principle is operative, and it is the
aroma of evil deeds committed under a particular roof, long after the
actual doers have passed away, that makes the gooseflesh come and the
hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of
the horror felt by his victim, enters the heart of the innocent watcher,
and he becomes suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin,
and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent
cause.

There was manifestly nothing in the external appearance of this
particular house to bear out the tales of the horror that was said to
reign within. It was neither lonely nor unkempt. It stood, crowded into
a corner of the square, and looked exactly like the houses on either
side of it. It had the same number of windows as its neighbours; the
same balcony overlooking the gardens; the same white steps leading up to
the heavy black front door; and, in the rear, there was the same narrow
strip of green, with neat box borders, running up to the wall that
divided it from the backs of the adjoining houses. Apparently, too, the
number of chimney pots on the roof was the same; the breadth and angle
of the eaves; and even the height of the dirty area railings.

And yet this house in the square, that seemed precisely similar to its
fifty ugly neighbours, was as a matter of fact entirely
different--horribly different.

Wherein lay this marked, invisible difference is impossible to say. It
cannot be ascribed wholly to the imagination, because persons who had
spent some time in the house, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared
positively that certain rooms were so disagreeable they would rather die
than enter them again, and that the atmosphere of the whole house
produced in them symptoms of a genuine terror; while the series of
innocent tenants who had tried to live in it and been forced to decamp
at the shortest possible notice, was indeed little less than a scandal
in the town.

When Shorthouse arrived to pay a "week-end" visit to his Aunt Julia in
her little house on the sea-front at the other end of the town, he found
her charged to the brim with mystery and excitement. He had only
received her telegram that morning, and he had come anticipating
boredom; but the moment he touched her hand and kissed her apple-skin
wrinkled cheek, he caught the first wave of her electrical condition.
The impression deepened when he learned that there were to be no other
visitors, and that he had been telegraphed for with a very special
object.

Something was in the wind, and the "something" would doubtless bear
fruit; for this elderly spinster aunt, with a mania for psychical
research, had brains as well as will power, and by hook or by crook she
usually managed to accomplish her ends. The revelation was made soon
after tea, when she sidled close up to him as they paced slowly along
the sea-front in the dusk.

"I've got the keys," she announced in a delighted, yet half awesome
voice. "Got them till Monday!"

"The keys of the bathing-machine, or--?" he asked innocently, looking
from the sea to the town. Nothing brought her so quickly to the point as
feigning stupidity.

"Neither," she whispered. "I've got the keys of the haunted house in the
square--and I'm going there to-night."

Shorthouse was conscious of the slightest possible tremor down his back.
He dropped his teasing tone. Something in her voice and manner thrilled
him. She was in earnest.

"But you can't go alone--" he began.

"That's why I wired for you," she said with decision.

He turned to look at her. The ugly, lined, enigmatical face was alive
with excitement. There was the glow of genuine enthusiasm round it like
a halo. The eyes shone. He caught another wave of her excitement, and a
second tremor, more marked than the first, accompanied it.

"Thanks, Aunt Julia," he said politely; "thanks awfully."

"I should not dare to go quite alone," she went on, raising her voice;
"but with you I should enjoy it immensely. You're afraid of nothing, I
know."

"Thanks _so_ much," he said again. "Er--is anything likely to happen?"

"A great deal _has_ happened," she whispered, "though it's been most
cleverly hushed up. Three tenants have come and gone in the last few
months, and the house is said to be empty for good now."

In spite of himself Shorthouse became interested. His aunt was so very
much in earnest.

"The house is very old indeed," she went on, "and the story--an
unpleasant one--dates a long way back. It has to do with a murder
committed by a jealous stableman who had some affair with a servant in
the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and
when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants' quarters,
chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come
to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below."

"And the stableman--?"

"Was caught, I believe, and hanged for murder; but it all happened a
century ago, and I've not been able to get more details of the story."

Shorthouse now felt his interest thoroughly aroused; but, though he was
not particularly nervous for himself, he hesitated a little on his
aunt's account.

"On one condition," he said at length.

"Nothing will prevent my going," she said firmly; "but I may as well
hear your condition."

"That you guarantee your power of self-control if anything really
horrible happens. I mean--that you are sure you won't get too
frightened."

"Jim," she said scornfully, "I'm not young, I know, nor are my nerves;
but _with you_ I should be afraid of nothing in the world!"

This, of course, settled it, for Shorthouse had no pretensions to being
other than a very ordinary young man, and an appeal to his vanity was
irresistible. He agreed to go.

Instinctively, by a sort of sub-conscious preparation, he kept himself
and his forces well in hand the whole evening, compelling an
accumulative reserve of control by that nameless inward process of
gradually putting all the emotions away and turning the key upon them--a
process difficult to describe, but wonderfully effective, as all men who
have lived through severe trials of the inner man well understand.
Later, it stood him in good stead.

But it was not until half-past ten, when they stood in the hall, well in
the glare of friendly lamps and still surrounded by comforting human
influences, that he had to make the first call upon this store of
collected strength. For, once the door was closed, and he saw the
deserted silent street stretching away white in the moonlight before
them, it came to him clearly that the real test that night would be in
dealing with _two fears_ instead of one. He would have to carry his
aunt's fear as well as his own. And, as he glanced down at her
sphinx-like countenance and realised that it might assume no pleasant
aspect in a rush of real terror, he felt satisfied with only one thing
in the whole adventure--that he had confidence in his own will and power
to stand against any shock that might come.

Slowly they walked along the empty streets of the town; a bright autumn
moon silvered the roofs, casting deep shadows; there was no breath of
wind; and the trees in the formal gardens by the sea-front watched them
silently as they passed along. To his aunt's occasional remarks
Shorthouse made no reply, realising that she was simply surrounding
herself with mental buffers--saying ordinary things to prevent herself
thinking of extra-ordinary things. Few windows showed lights, and from
scarcely a single chimney came smoke or sparks. Shorthouse had already
begun to notice everything, even the smallest details. Presently they
stopped at the street corner and looked up at the name on the side of
the house full in the moonlight, and with one accord, but without
remark, turned into the square and crossed over to the side of it that
lay in shadow.

"The number of the house is thirteen," whispered a voice at his side;
and neither of them made the obvious reference, but passed across the
broad sheet of moonlight and began to march up the pavement in silence.

It was about half-way up the square that Shorthouse felt an arm slipped
quietly but significantly into his own, and knew then that their
adventure had begun in earnest, and that his companion was already
yielding imperceptibly to the influences against them. She needed
support.

A few minutes later they stopped before a tall, narrow house that rose
before them into the night, ugly in shape and painted a dingy white.
Shutterless windows, without blinds, stared down upon them, shining here
and there in the moonlight. There were weather streaks in the wall and
cracks in the paint, and the balcony bulged out from the first floor a
little unnaturally. But, beyond this generally forlorn appearance of an
unoccupied house, there was nothing at first sight to single out this
particular mansion for the evil character it had most certainly
acquired.

Taking a look over their shoulders to make sure they had not been
followed, they went boldly up the steps and stood against the huge black
door that fronted them forbiddingly. But the first wave of nervousness
was now upon them, and Shorthouse fumbled a long time with the key
before he could fit it into the lock at all. For a moment, if truth were
told, they both hoped it would not open, for they were a prey to various
unpleasant emotions as they stood there on the threshold of their
ghostly adventure. Shorthouse, shuffling with the key and hampered by
the steady weight on his arm, certainly felt the solemnity of the
moment. It was as if the whole world--for all experience seemed at that
instant concentrated in his own consciousness--were listening to the
grating noise of that key. A stray puff of wind wandering down the empty
street woke a momentary rustling in the trees behind them, but otherwise
this rattling of the key was the only sound audible; and at last it
turned in the lock and the heavy door swung open and revealed a yawning
gulf of darkness beyond.

With a last glance at the moonlit square, they passed quickly in, and
the door slammed behind them with a roar that echoed prodigiously
through empty halls and passages. But, instantly, with the echoes,
another sound made itself heard, and Aunt Julia leaned suddenly so
heavily upon him that he had to take a step backwards to save himself
from falling.

A man had coughed close beside them--so close that it seemed they must
have been actually by his side in the darkness.

With the possibility of practical jokes in his mind, Shorthouse at once
swung his heavy stick in the direction of the sound; but it met nothing
more solid than air. He heard his aunt give a little gasp beside him.

"There's someone here," she whispered; "I heard him."

"Be quiet!" he said sternly. "It was nothing but the noise of the front
door."

"Oh! get a light--quick!" she added, as her nephew, fumbling with a box
of matches, opened it upside down and let them all fall with a rattle on
to the stone floor.

The sound, however, was not repeated; and there was no evidence of
retreating footsteps. In another minute they had a candle burning, using
an empty end of a cigar case as a holder; and when the first flare had
died down he held the impromptu lamp aloft and surveyed the scene. And
it was dreary enough in all conscience, for there is nothing more
desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit,
silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by rumour with the memories of
evil and violent histories.

They were standing in a wide hall-way; on their left was the open door
of a spacious dining-room, and in front the hall ran, ever narrowing,
into a long, dark passage that led apparently to the top of the kitchen
stairs. The broad uncarpeted staircase rose in a sweep before them,
everywhere draped in shadows, except for a single spot about half-way up
where the moonlight came in through the window and fell on a bright
patch on the boards. This shaft of light shed a faint radiance above and
below it, lending to the objects within its reach a misty outline that
was infinitely more suggestive and ghostly than complete darkness.
Filtered moonlight always seems to paint faces on the surrounding gloom,
and as Shorthouse peered up into the well of darkness and thought of the
countless empty rooms and passages in the upper part of the old house,
he caught himself longing again for the safety of the moonlit square, or
the cosy, bright drawing-room they had left an hour before. Then
realising that these thoughts were dangerous, he thrust them away again
and summoned all his energy for concentration on the present.

"Aunt Julia," he said aloud, severely, "we must now go through the house
from top to bottom and make a thorough search."

The echoes of his voice died away slowly all over the building, and in
the intense silence that followed he turned to look at her. In the
candle-light he saw that her face was already ghastly pale; but she
dropped his arm for a moment and said in a whisper, stepping close in
front of him--

"I agree. We must be sure there's no one hiding. That's the first
thing."

She spoke with evident effort, and he looked at her with admiration.

"You feel quite sure of yourself? It's not too late--"

"I think so," she whispered, her eyes shifting nervously toward the
shadows behind. "Quite sure, only one thing--"

"What's that?"

"You must never leave me alone for an instant."

"As long as you understand that any sound or appearance must be
investigated at once, for to hesitate means to admit fear. That is
fatal."

"Agreed," she said, a little shakily, after a moment's hesitation. "I'll
try--"

Arm in arm, Shorthouse holding the dripping candle and the stick, while
his aunt carried the cloak over her shoulders, figures of utter comedy
to all but themselves, they began a systematic search.

Stealthily, walking on tip-toe and shading the candle lest it should
betray their presence through the shutterless windows, they went first
into the big dining-room. There was not a stick of furniture to be
seen. Bare walls, ugly mantel-pieces and empty grates stared at them.
Everything, they felt, resented their intrusion, watching them, as it
were, with veiled eyes; whispers followed them; shadows flitted
noiselessly to right and left; something seemed ever at their back,
watching, waiting an opportunity to do them injury. There was the
inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty
had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again.
The whole dark interior of the old building seemed to become a malignant
Presence that rose up, warning them to desist and mind their own
business; every moment the strain on the nerves increased.

Out of the gloomy dining-room they passed through large folding doors
into a sort of library or smoking-room, wrapt equally in silence,
darkness, and dust; and from this they regained the hall near the top of
the back stairs.

Here a pitch black tunnel opened before them into the lower regions,
and--it must be confessed--they hesitated. But only for a minute. With
the worst of the night still to come it was essential to turn from
nothing. Aunt Julia stumbled at the top step of the dark descent, ill
lit by the flickering candle, and even Shorthouse felt at least half
the decision go out of his legs.

"Come on!" he said peremptorily, and his voice ran on and lost itself in
the dark, empty spaces below.

"I'm coming," she faltered, catching his arm with unnecessary violence.

They went a little unsteadily down the stone steps, a cold, damp air
meeting them in the face, close and mal-odorous. The kitchen, into which
the stairs led along a narrow passage, was large, with a lofty ceiling.
Several doors opened out of it--some into cupboards with empty jars
still standing on the shelves, and others into horrible little ghostly
back offices, each colder and less inviting than the last. Black beetles
scurried over the floor, and once, when they knocked against a deal
table standing in a corner, something about the size of a cat jumped
down with a rush and fled, scampering across the stone floor into the
darkness. Everywhere there was a sense of recent occupation, an
impression of sadness and gloom.

Leaving the main kitchen, they next went towards the scullery. The door
was standing ajar, and as they pushed it open to its full extent Aunt
Julia uttered a piercing scream, which she instantly tried to stifle by
placing her hand over her mouth. For a second Shorthouse stood
stock-still, catching his breath. He felt as if his spine had suddenly
become hollow and someone had filled it with particles of ice.

Facing them, directly in their way between the doorposts, stood the
figure of a woman. She had dishevelled hair and wildly staring eyes, and
her face was terrified and white as death.

She stood there motionless for the space of a single second. Then the
candle flickered and she was gone--gone utterly--and the door framed
nothing but empty darkness.

"Only the beastly jumping candle-light," he said quickly, in a voice
that sounded like someone else's and was only half under control. "Come
on, aunt. There's nothing there."

He dragged her forward. With a clattering of feet and a great appearance
of boldness they went on, but over his body the skin moved as if
crawling ants covered it, and he knew by the weight on his arm that he
was supplying the force of locomotion for two. The scullery was cold,
bare, and empty; more like a large prison cell than anything else. They
went round it, tried the door into the yard, and the windows, but found
them all fastened securely. His aunt moved beside him like a person in
a dream. Her eyes were tightly shut, and she seemed merely to follow the
pressure of his arm. Her courage filled him with amazement. At the same
time he noticed that a certain odd change had come over her face, a
change which somehow evaded his power of analysis.

"There's nothing here, aunty," he repeated aloud quickly. "Let's go
upstairs and see the rest of the house. Then we'll choose a room to wait
up in."

She followed him obediently, keeping close to his side, and they locked
the kitchen door behind them. It was a relief to get up again. In the
hall there was more light than before, for the moon had travelled a
little further down the stairs. Cautiously they began to go up into the
dark vault of the upper house, the boards creaking under their weight.

On the first floor they found the large double drawing-rooms, a search
of which revealed nothing. Here also was no sign of furniture or recent
occupancy; nothing but dust and neglect and shadows. They opened the big
folding doors between front and back drawing-rooms and then came out
again to the landing and went on upstairs.

They had not gone up more than a dozen steps when they both
simultaneously stopped to listen, looking into each other's eyes with a
new apprehension across the flickering candle flame. From the room they
had left hardly ten seconds before came the sound of doors quietly
closing. It was beyond all question; they heard the booming noise that
accompanies the shutting of heavy doors, followed by the sharp catching
of the latch.

"We must go back and see," said Shorthouse briefly, in a low tone, and
turning to go downstairs again.

Somehow she managed to drag after him, her feet catching in her dress,
her face livid.

When they entered the front drawing-room it was plain that the folding
doors had been closed--half a minute before. Without hesitation
Shorthouse opened them. He almost expected to see someone facing him in
the back room; but only darkness and cold air met him. They went through
both rooms, finding nothing unusual. They tried in every way to make the
doors close of themselves, but there was not wind enough even to set the
candle flame flickering. The doors would not move without strong
pressure. All was silent as the grave. Undeniably the rooms were utterly
empty, and the house utterly still.

"It's beginning," whispered a voice at his elbow which he hardly
recognised as his aunt's.

He nodded acquiescence, taking out his watch to note the time. It was
fifteen minutes before midnight; he made the entry of exactly what had
occurred in his notebook, setting the candle in its case upon the floor
in order to do so. It took a moment or two to balance it safely against
the wall.

Aunt Julia always declared that at this moment she was not actually
watching him, but had turned her head towards the inner room, where she
fancied she heard something moving; but, at any rate, both positively
agreed that there came a sound of rushing feet, heavy and very
swift--and the next instant the candle was out!

But to Shorthouse himself had come more than this, and he has always
thanked his fortunate stars that it came to him alone and not to his
aunt too. For, as he rose from the stooping position of balancing the
candle, and before it was actually extinguished, a face thrust itself
forward so close to his own that he could almost have touched it with
his lips. It was a face working with passion; a man's face, dark, with
thick features, and angry, savage eyes. It belonged to a common man, and
it was evil in its ordinary normal expression, no doubt, but as he saw
it, alive with intense, aggressive emotion, it was a malignant and
terrible human countenance.

There was no movement of the air; nothing but the sound of rushing
feet--stockinged or muffled feet; the apparition of the face; and the
almost simultaneous extinguishing of the candle.

In spite of himself, Shorthouse uttered a little cry, nearly losing his
balance as his aunt clung to him with her whole weight in one moment of
real, uncontrollable terror. She made no sound, but simply seized him
bodily. Fortunately, however, she had seen nothing, but had only heard
the rushing feet, for her control returned almost at once, and he was
able to disentangle himself and strike a match.

The shadows ran away on all sides before the glare, and his aunt stooped
down and groped for the cigar case with the precious candle. Then they
discovered that the candle had not been _blown_ out at all; it had been
_crushed_ out. The wick was pressed down into the wax, which was
flattened as if by some smooth, heavy instrument.

How his companion so quickly overcame her terror, Shorthouse never
properly understood; but his admiration for her self-control increased
tenfold, and at the same time served to feed his own dying flame--for
which he was undeniably grateful. Equally inexplicable to him was the
evidence of physical force they had just witnessed. He at once
suppressed the memory of stories he had heard of "physical mediums" and
their dangerous phenomena; for if these were true, and either his aunt
or himself was unwittingly a physical medium, it meant that they were
simply aiding to focus the forces of a haunted house already charged to
the brim. It was like walking with unprotected lamps among uncovered
stores of gun-powder.

So, with as little reflection as possible, he simply relit the candle
and went up to the next floor. The arm in his trembled, it is true, and
his own tread was often uncertain, but they went on with thoroughness,
and after a search revealing nothing they climbed the last flight of
stairs to the top floor of all.

Here they found a perfect nest of small servants' rooms, with broken
pieces of furniture, dirty cane-bottomed chairs, chests of drawers,
cracked mirrors, and decrepit bedsteads. The rooms had low sloping
ceilings already hung here and there with cobwebs, small windows, and
badly plastered walls--a depressing and dismal region which they were
glad to leave behind.

It was on the stroke of midnight when they entered a small room on the
third floor, close to the top of the stairs, and arranged to make
themselves comfortable for the remainder of their adventure. It was
absolutely bare, and was said to be the room--then used as a clothes
closet--into which the infuriated groom had chased his victim and
finally caught her. Outside, across the narrow landing, began the stairs
leading up to the floor above, and the servants' quarters where they had
just searched.

In spite of the chilliness of the night there was something in the air
of this room that cried for an open window. But there was more than
this. Shorthouse could only describe it by saying that he felt less
master of himself here than in any other part of the house. There was
something that acted directly on the nerves, tiring the resolution,
enfeebling the will. He was conscious of this result before he had been
in the room five minutes, and it was in the short time they stayed there
that he suffered the wholesale depletion of his vital forces, which
was, for himself, the chief horror of the whole experience.

They put the candle on the floor of the cupboard, leaving the door a few
inches ajar, so that there was no glare to confuse the eyes, and no
shadow to shift about on walls and ceiling. Then they spread the cloak
on the floor and sat down to wait, with their backs against the wall.

Shorthouse was within two feet of the door on to the landing; his
position commanded a good view of the main staircase leading down into
the darkness, and also of the beginning of the servants' stairs going to
the floor above; the heavy stick lay beside him within easy reach.

The moon was now high above the house. Through the open window they
could see the comforting stars like friendly eyes watching in the sky.
One by one the clocks of the town struck midnight, and when the sounds
died away the deep silence of a windless night fell again over
everything. Only the boom of the sea, far away and lugubrious, filled
the air with hollow murmurs.

Inside the house the silence became awful; awful, he thought, because
any minute now it might be broken by sounds portending terror. The
strain of waiting told more and more severely on the nerves; they
talked in whispers when they talked at all, for their voices aloud
sounded queer and unnatural. A chilliness, not altogether due to the
night air, invaded the room, and made them cold. The influences against
them, whatever these might be, were slowly robbing them of
self-confidence, and the power of decisive action; their forces were on
the wane, and the possibility of real fear took on a new and terrible
meaning. He began to tremble for the elderly woman by his side, whose
pluck could hardly save her beyond a certain extent.

He heard the blood singing in his veins. It sometimes seemed so loud
that he fancied it prevented his hearing properly certain other sounds
that were beginning very faintly to make themselves audible in the
depths of the house. Every time he fastened his attention on these
sounds, they instantly ceased. They certainly came no nearer. Yet he
could not rid himself of the idea that movement was going on somewhere
in the lower regions of the house. The drawing-room floor, where the
doors had been so strangely closed, seemed too near; the sounds were
further off than that. He thought of the great kitchen, with the
scurrying black-beetles, and of the dismal little scullery; but,
somehow or other, they did not seem to come from there either. Surely
they were not _outside_ the house!

Then, suddenly, the truth flashed into his mind, and for the space of a
minute he felt as if his blood had stopped flowing and turned to ice.

The sounds were not downstairs at all; they were _upstairs_--upstairs,
somewhere among those horrid gloomy little servants' rooms with their
bits of broken furniture, low ceilings, and cramped windows--upstairs
where the victim had first been disturbed and stalked to her death.

And the moment he discovered where the sounds were, he began to hear
them more clearly. It was the sound of feet, moving stealthily along the
passage overhead, in and out among the rooms, and past the furniture.

He turned quickly to steal a glance at the motionless figure seated
beside him, to note whether she had shared his discovery. The faint
candle-light coming through the crack in the cupboard door, threw her
strongly-marked face into vivid relief against the white of the wall.
But it was something else that made him catch his breath and stare
again. An extraordinary something had come into her face and seemed to
spread over her features like a mask; it smoothed out the deep lines
and drew the skin everywhere a little tighter so that the wrinkles
disappeared; it brought into the face--with the sole exception of the
old eyes--an appearance of youth and almost of childhood.

He stared in speechless amazement--amazement that was dangerously near
to horror. It was his aunt's face indeed, but it was her face of forty
years ago, the vacant innocent face of a girl. He had heard stories of
that strange effect of terror which could wipe a human countenance clean
of other emotions, obliterating all previous expressions; but he had
never realised that it could be literally true, or could mean anything
so simply horrible as what he now saw. For the dreadful signature of
overmastering fear was written plainly in that utter vacancy of the
girlish face beside him; and when, feeling his intense gaze, she turned
to look at him, he instinctively closed his eyes tightly to shut out the
sight.

Yet, when he turned a minute later, his feelings well in hand, he saw to
his intense relief another expression; his aunt was smiling, and though
the face was deathly white, the awful veil had lifted and the normal
look was returning.

"Anything wrong?" was all he could think of to say at the moment. And
the answer was eloquent, coming from such a woman.

"I feel cold--and a little frightened," she whispered.

He offered to close the window, but she seized hold of him and begged
him not to leave her side even for an instant.

"It's upstairs, I know," she whispered, with an odd half laugh; "but I
can't possibly go up."

But Shorthouse thought otherwise, knowing that in action lay their best
hope of self-control.

He took the brandy flask and poured out a glass of neat spirit, stiff
enough to help anybody over anything. She swallowed it with a little
shiver. His only idea now was to get out of the house before her
collapse became inevitable; but this could not safely be done by turning
tail and running from the enemy. Inaction was no longer possible; every
minute he was growing less master of himself, and desperate, aggressive
measures were imperative without further delay. Moreover, the action
must be taken _towards_ the enemy, not away from it; the climax, if
necessary and unavoidable, would have to be faced boldly. He could do it
now; but in ten minutes he might not have the force left to act for
himself, much less for both!

Upstairs, the sounds were meanwhile becoming louder and closer,
accompanied by occasional creaking of the boards. Someone was moving
stealthily about, stumbling now and then awkwardly against the
furniture.

Waiting a few moments to allow the tremendous dose of spirits to produce
its effect, and knowing this would last but a short time under the
circumstances, Shorthouse then quietly got on his feet, saying in a
determined voice--

"Now, Aunt Julia, we'll go upstairs and find out what all this noise is
about. You must come too. It's what we agreed."

He picked up his stick and went to the cupboard for the candle. A limp
form rose shakily beside him breathing hard, and he heard a voice say
very faintly something about being "ready to come." The woman's courage
amazed him; it was so much greater than his own; and, as they advanced,
holding aloft the dripping candle, some subtle force exhaled from this
trembling, white-faced old woman at his side that was the true source of
his inspiration. It held something really great that shamed him and gave
him the support without which he would have proved far less equal to the
occasion.

They crossed the dark landing, avoiding with their eyes the deep black
space over the banisters. Then they began to mount the narrow staircase
to meet the sounds which, minute by minute, grew louder and nearer.
About half-way up the stairs Aunt Julia stumbled and Shorthouse turned
to catch her by the arm, and just at that moment there came a terrific
crash in the servants' corridor overhead. It was instantly followed by a
shrill, agonised scream that was a cry of terror and a cry for help
melted into one.

Before they could move aside, or go down a single step, someone came
rushing along the passage overhead, blundering horribly, racing madly,
at full speed, three steps at a time, down the very staircase where they
stood. The steps were light and uncertain; but close behind them sounded
the heavier tread of another person, and the staircase seemed to shake.

Shorthouse and his companion just had time to flatten themselves against
the wall when the jumble of flying steps was upon them, and two persons,
with the slightest possible interval between them, dashed past at full
speed. It was a perfect whirlwind of sound breaking in upon the midnight
silence of the empty building.

The two runners, pursuer and pursued, had passed clean through them
where they stood, and already with a thud the boards below had received
first one, then the other. Yet they had seen absolutely nothing--not a
hand, or arm, or face, or even a shred of flying clothing.

There came a second's pause. Then the first one, the lighter of the two,
obviously the pursued one, ran with uncertain footsteps into the little
room which Shorthouse and his aunt had just left. The heavier one
followed. There was a sound of scuffling, gasping, and smothered
screaming; and then out on to the landing came the step--of a single
person _treading weightily_.

A dead silence followed for the space of half a minute, and then was
heard a rushing sound through the air. It was followed by a dull,
crashing thud in the depths of the house below--on the stone floor of
the hall.

Utter silence reigned after. Nothing moved. The flame of the candle was
steady. It had been steady the whole time, and the air had been
undisturbed by any movement whatsoever. Palsied with terror, Aunt Julia,
without waiting for her companion, began fumbling her way downstairs;
she was crying gently to herself, and when Shorthouse put his arm round
her and half carried her he felt that she was trembling like a leaf. He
went into the little room and picked up the cloak from the floor, and,
arm in arm, walking very slowly, without speaking a word or looking once
behind them, they marched down the three flights into the hall.

In the hall they saw nothing, but the whole way down the stairs they
were conscious that someone followed them; step by step; when they went
faster IT was left behind, and when they went more slowly IT caught them
up. But never once did they look behind to see; and at each turning of
the staircase they lowered their eyes for fear of the following horror
they might see upon the stairs above.

With trembling hands Shorthouse opened the front door, and they walked
out into the moonlight and drew a deep breath of the cool night air
blowing in from the sea.



A HAUNTED ISLAND


The following events occurred on a small island of isolated position in
a large Canadian lake, to whose cool waters the inhabitants of Montreal
and Toronto flee for rest and recreation in the hot months. It is only
to be regretted that events of such peculiar interest to the genuine
student of the psychical should be entirely uncorroborated. Such
unfortunately, however, is the case.

Our own party of nearly twenty had returned to Montreal that very day,
and I was left in solitary possession for a week or two longer, in order
to accomplish some important "reading" for the law which I had foolishly
neglected during the summer.

It was late in September, and the big trout and maskinonge were stirring
themselves in the depths of the lake, and beginning slowly to move up to
the surface waters as the north winds and early frosts lowered their
temperature. Already the maples were crimson and gold, and the wild
laughter of the loons echoed in sheltered bays that never knew their
strange cry in the summer.

With a whole island to oneself, a two-storey cottage, a canoe, and only
the chipmunks, and the farmer's weekly visit with eggs and bread, to
disturb one, the opportunities for hard reading might be very great. It
all depends!

The rest of the party had gone off with many warnings to beware of
Indians, and not to stay late enough to be the victim of a frost that
thinks nothing of forty below zero. After they had gone, the loneliness
of the situation made itself unpleasantly felt. There were no other
islands within six or seven miles, and though the mainland forests lay a
couple of miles behind me, they stretched for a very great distance
unbroken by any signs of human habitation. But, though the island was
completely deserted and silent, the rocks and trees that had echoed
human laughter and voices almost every hour of the day for two months
could not fail to retain some memories of it all; and I was not
surprised to fancy I heard a shout or a cry as I passed from rock to
rock, and more than once to imagine that I heard my own name called
aloud.

In the cottage there were six tiny little bedrooms divided from one
another by plain unvarnished partitions of pine. A wooden bedstead, a
mattress, and a chair, stood in each room, but I only found two mirrors,
and one of these was broken.

The boards creaked a good deal as I moved about, and the signs of
occupation were so recent that I could hardly believe I was alone. I
half expected to find someone left behind, still trying to crowd into a
box more than it would hold. The door of one room was stiff, and refused
for a moment to open, and it required very little persuasion to imagine
someone was holding the handle on the inside, and that when it opened I
should meet a pair of human eyes.

A thorough search of the floor led me to select as my own sleeping
quarters a little room with a diminutive balcony over the verandah roof.
The room was very small, but the bed was large, and had the best
mattress of them all. It was situated directly over the sitting-room
where I should live and do my "reading," and the miniature window looked
out to the rising sun. With the exception of a narrow path which led
from the front door and verandah through the trees to the boat-landing,
the island was densely covered with maples, hemlocks, and cedars. The
trees gathered in round the cottage so closely that the slightest wind
made the branches scrape the roof and tap the wooden walls. A few
moments after sunset the darkness became impenetrable, and ten yards
beyond the glare of the lamps that shone through the sitting-room
windows--of which there were four--you could not see an inch before your
nose, nor move a step without running up against a tree.

The rest of that day I spent moving my belongings from my tent to the
sitting-room, taking stock of the contents of the larder, and chopping
enough wood for the stove to last me for a week. After that, just before
sunset, I went round the island a couple of times in my canoe for
precaution's sake. I had never dreamed of doing this before, but when a
man is alone he does things that never occur to him when he is one of a
large party.

How lonely the island seemed when I landed again! The sun was down, and
twilight is unknown in these northern regions. The darkness comes up at
once. The canoe safely pulled up and turned over on her face, I groped
my way up the little narrow pathway to the verandah. The six lamps were
soon burning merrily in the front room; but in the kitchen, where I
"dined," the shadows were so gloomy, and the lamplight was so
inadequate, that the stars could be seen peeping through the cracks
between the rafters.

I turned in early that night. Though it was calm and there was no wind,
the creaking of my bedstead and the musical gurgle of the water over the
rocks below were not the only sounds that reached my ears. As I lay
awake, the appalling emptiness of the house grew upon me. The corridors
and vacant rooms seemed to echo innumerable footsteps, shufflings, the
rustle of skirts, and a constant undertone of whispering. When sleep at
length overtook me, the breathings and noises, however, passed gently to
mingle with the voices of my dreams.

A week passed by, and the "reading" progressed favourably. On the tenth
day of my solitude, a strange thing happened. I awoke after a good
night's sleep to find myself possessed with a marked repugnance for my
room. The air seemed to stifle me. The more I tried to define the cause
of this dislike, the more unreasonable it appeared. There was something
about the room that made me afraid. Absurd as it seems, this feeling
clung to me obstinately while dressing, and more than once I caught
myself shivering, and conscious of an inclination to get out of the room
as quickly as possible. The more I tried to laugh it away, the more real
it became; and when at last I was dressed, and went out into the
passage, and downstairs into the kitchen, it was with feelings of
relief, such as I might imagine would accompany one's escape from the
presence of a dangerous contagious disease.

While cooking my breakfast, I carefully recalled every night spent in
the room, in the hope that I might in some way connect the dislike I now
felt with some disagreeable incident that had occurred in it. But the
only thing I could recall was one stormy night when I suddenly awoke and
heard the boards creaking so loudly in the corridor that I was convinced
there were people in the house. So certain was I of this, that I had
descended the stairs, gun in hand, only to find the doors and windows
securely fastened, and the mice and black-beetles in sole possession of
the floor. This was certainly not sufficient to account for the strength
of my feelings.

The morning hours I spent in steady reading; and when I broke off in the
middle of the day for a swim and luncheon, I was very much surprised,
if not a little alarmed, to find that my dislike for the room had, if
anything, grown stronger. Going upstairs to get a book, I experienced
the most marked aversion to entering the room, and while within I was
conscious all the time of an uncomfortable feeling that was half
uneasiness and half apprehension. The result of it was that, instead of
reading, I spent the afternoon on the water paddling and fishing, and
when I got home about sundown, brought with me half a dozen delicious
black bass for the supper-table and the larder.

As sleep was an important matter to me at this time, I had decided that
if my aversion to the room was so strongly marked on my return as it had
been before, I would move my bed down into the sitting-room, and sleep
there. This was, I argued, in no sense a concession to an absurd and
fanciful fear, but simply a precaution to ensure a good night's sleep. A
bad night involved the loss of the next day's reading,--a loss I was not
prepared to incur.

I accordingly moved my bed downstairs into a corner of the sitting-room
facing the door, and was moreover uncommonly glad when the operation
was completed, and the door of the bedroom closed finally upon the
shadows, the silence, and the strange _fear_ that shared the room with
them.

The croaking stroke of the kitchen clock sounded the hour of eight as I
finished washing up my few dishes, and closing the kitchen door behind
me, passed into the front room. All the lamps were lit, and their
reflectors, which I had polished up during the day, threw a blaze of
light into the room.

Outside the night was still and warm. Not a breath of air was stirring;
the waves were silent, the trees motionless, and heavy clouds hung like
an oppressive curtain over the heavens. The darkness seemed to have
rolled up with unusual swiftness, and not the faintest glow of colour
remained to show where the sun had set. There was present in the
atmosphere that ominous and overwhelming silence which so often precedes
the most violent storms.

I sat down to my books with my brain unusually clear, and in my heart
the pleasant satisfaction of knowing that five black bass were lying in
the ice-house, and that to-morrow morning the old farmer would arrive
with fresh bread and eggs. I was soon absorbed in my books.

As the night wore on the silence deepened. Even the chipmunks were
still; and the boards of the floors and walls ceased creaking. I read on
steadily till, from the gloomy shadows of the kitchen, came the hoarse
sound of the clock striking nine. How loud the strokes sounded! They
were like blows of a big hammer. I closed one book and opened another,
feeling that I was just warming up to my work.

This, however, did not last long. I presently found that I was reading
the same paragraphs over twice, simple paragraphs that did not require
such effort. Then I noticed that my mind began to wander to other
things, and the effort to recall my thoughts became harder with each
digression. Concentration was growing momentarily more difficult.
Presently I discovered that I had turned over two pages instead of one,
and had not noticed my mistake until I was well down the page. This was
becoming serious. What was the disturbing influence? It could not be
physical fatigue. On the contrary, my mind was unusually alert, and in a
more receptive condition than usual. I made a new and determined effort
to read, and for a short time succeeded in giving my whole attention to
my subject. But in a very few moments again I found myself leaning back
in my chair, staring vacantly into space.

Something was evidently at work in my sub-consciousness. There was
something I had neglected to do. Perhaps the kitchen door and windows
were not fastened. I accordingly went to see, and found that they were!
The fire perhaps needed attention. I went in to see, and found that it
was all right! I looked at the lamps, went upstairs into every bedroom
in turn, and then went round the house, and even into the ice-house.
Nothing was wrong; everything was in its place. Yet something _was_
wrong! The conviction grew stronger and stronger within me.

When I at length settled down to my books again and tried to read, I
became aware, for the first time, that the room seemed growing cold. Yet
the day had been oppressively warm, and evening had brought no relief.
The six big lamps, moreover, gave out heat enough to warm the room
pleasantly. But a chilliness, that perhaps crept up from the lake, made
itself felt in the room, and caused me to get up to close the glass door
opening on to the verandah.

For a brief moment I stood looking out at the shaft of light that fell
from the windows and shone some little distance down the pathway, and
out for a few feet into the lake.

As I looked, I saw a canoe glide into the pathway of light, and
immediately crossing it, pass out of sight again into the darkness. It
was perhaps a hundred feet from the shore, and it moved swiftly.

I was surprised that a canoe should pass the island at that time of
night, for all the summer visitors from the other side of the lake had
gone home weeks before, and the island was a long way out of any line of
water traffic.

My reading from this moment did not make very good progress, for somehow
the picture of that canoe, gliding so dimly and swiftly across the
narrow track of light on the black waters, silhouetted itself against
the background of my mind with singular vividness. It kept coming
between my eyes and the printed page. The more I thought about it the
more surprised I became. It was of larger build than any I had seen
during the past summer months, and was more like the old Indian war
canoes with the high curving bows and stern and wide beam. The more I
tried to read, the less success attended my efforts; and finally I
closed my books and went out on the verandah to walk up and down a bit,
and shake the chilliness out of my bones.

The night was perfectly still, and as dark as imaginable. I stumbled
down the path to the little landing wharf, where the water made the very
faintest of gurgling under the timbers. The sound of a big tree falling
in the mainland forest, far across the lake, stirred echoes in the heavy
air, like the first guns of a distant night attack. No other sound
disturbed the stillness that reigned supreme.

As I stood upon the wharf in the broad splash of light that followed me
from the sitting-room windows, I saw another canoe cross the pathway of
uncertain light upon the water, and disappear at once into the
impenetrable gloom that lay beyond. This time I saw more distinctly than
before. It was like the former canoe, a big birch-bark, with
high-crested bows and stern and broad beam. It was paddled by two
Indians, of whom the one in the stern--the steerer--appeared to be a
very large man. I could see this very plainly; and though the second
canoe was much nearer the island than the first, I judged that they were
both on their way home to the Government Reservation, which was situated
some fifteen miles away upon the mainland.

I was wondering in my mind what could possibly bring any Indians down to
this part of the lake at such an hour of the night, when a third canoe,
of precisely similar build, and also occupied by two Indians, passed
silently round the end of the wharf. This time the canoe was very much
nearer shore, and it suddenly flashed into my mind that the three canoes
were in reality one and the same, and that only one canoe was circling
the island!

This was by no means a pleasant reflection, because, if it were the
correct solution of the unusual appearance of the three canoes in this
lonely part of the lake at so late an hour, the purpose of the two men
could only reasonably be considered to be in some way connected with
myself. I had never known of the Indians attempting any violence upon
the settlers who shared the wild, inhospitable country with them; at the
same time, it was not beyond the region of possibility to suppose. . . .
But then I did not care even to think of such hideous possibilities, and
my imagination immediately sought relief in all manner of other
solutions to the problem, which indeed came readily enough to my mind,
but did not succeed in recommending themselves to my reason.

Meanwhile, by a sort of instinct, I stepped back out of the bright light
in which I had hitherto been standing, and waited in the deep shadow of
a rock to see if the canoe would again make its appearance. Here I could
see, without being seen, and the precaution seemed a wise one.

After less than five minutes the canoe, as I had anticipated, made its
fourth appearance. This time it was not twenty yards from the wharf, and
I saw that the Indians meant to land. I recognised the two men as those
who had passed before, and the steerer was certainly an immense fellow.
It was unquestionably the same canoe. There could be no longer any doubt
that for some purpose of their own the men had been going round and
round the island for some time, waiting for an opportunity to land. I
strained my eyes to follow them in the darkness, but the night had
completely swallowed them up, and not even the faintest swish of the
paddles reached my ears as the Indians plied their long and powerful
strokes. The canoe would be round again in a few moments, and this time
it was possible that the men might land. It was well to be prepared. I
knew nothing of their intentions, and two to one (when the two are big
Indians!) late at night on a lonely island was not exactly my idea of
pleasant intercourse.

In a corner of the sitting-room, leaning up against the back wall, stood
my Marlin rifle, with ten cartridges in the magazine and one lying
snugly in the greased breech. There was just time to get up to the house
and take up a position of defence in that corner. Without an instant's
hesitation I ran up to the verandah, carefully picking my way among the
trees, so as to avoid being seen in the light. Entering the room, I shut
the door leading to the verandah, and as quickly as possible turned out
every one of the six lamps. To be in a room so brilliantly lighted,
where my every movement could be observed from outside, while I could
see nothing but impenetrable darkness at every window, was by all laws
of warfare an unnecessary concession to the enemy. And this enemy, if
enemy it was to be, was far too wily and dangerous to be granted any
such advantages.

I stood in the corner of the room with my back against the wall, and my
hand on the cold rifle-barrel. The table, covered with my books, lay
between me and the door, but for the first few minutes after the lights
were out the darkness was so intense that nothing could be discerned at
all. Then, very gradually, the outline of the room became visible, and
the framework of the windows began to shape itself dimly before my eyes.

After a few minutes the door (its upper half of glass), and the two
windows that looked out upon the front verandah, became specially
distinct; and I was glad that this was so, because if the Indians came
up to the house I should be able to see their approach, and gather
something of their plans. Nor was I mistaken, for there presently came
to my ears the peculiar hollow sound of a canoe landing and being
carefully dragged up over the rocks. The paddles I distinctly heard
being placed underneath, and the silence that ensued thereupon I rightly
interpreted to mean that the Indians were stealthily approaching the
house. . . .

While it would be absurd to claim that I was not alarmed--even
frightened--at the gravity of the situation and its possible outcome, I
speak the whole truth when I say that I was not overwhelmingly afraid
for myself. I was conscious that even at this stage of the night I was
passing into a psychical condition in which my sensations seemed no
longer normal. Physical fear at no time entered into the nature of my
feelings; and though I kept my hand upon my rifle the greater part of
the night, I was all the time conscious that its assistance could be of
little avail against the terrors that I had to face. More than once I
seemed to feel most curiously that I was in no real sense a part of the
proceedings, nor actually involved in them, but that I was playing the
part of a spectator--a spectator, moreover, on a psychic rather than on
a material plane. Many of my sensations that night were too vague for
definite description and analysis, but the main feeling that will stay
with me to the end of my days is the awful horror of it all, and the
miserable sensation that if the strain had lasted a little longer than
was actually the case my mind must inevitably have given way.

Meanwhile I stood still in my corner, and waited patiently for what was
to come. The house was as still as the grave, but the inarticulate
voices of the night sang in my ears, and I seemed to hear the blood
running in my veins and dancing in my pulses.

If the Indians came to the back of the house, they would find the
kitchen door and window securely fastened. They could not get in there
without making considerable noise, which I was bound to hear. The only
mode of getting in was by means of the door that faced me, and I kept my
eyes glued on that door without taking them off for the smallest
fraction of a second.

My sight adapted itself every minute better to the darkness. I saw the
table that nearly filled the room, and left only a narrow passage on
each side. I could also make out the straight backs of the wooden chairs
pressed up against it, and could even distinguish my papers and inkstand
lying on the white oilcloth covering. I thought of the gay faces that
had gathered round that table during the summer, and I longed for the
sunlight as I had never longed for it before.

Less than three feet to my left the passage-way led to the kitchen, and
the stairs leading to the bedrooms above commenced in this passage-way,
but almost in the sitting-room itself. Through the windows I could see
the dim motionless outlines of the trees: not a leaf stirred, not a
branch moved.

A few moments of this awful silence, and then I was aware of a soft
tread on the boards of the verandah, so stealthy that it seemed an
impression directly on my brain rather than upon the nerves of hearing.
Immediately afterwards a black figure darkened the glass door, and I
perceived that a face was pressed against the upper panes. A shiver ran
down my back, and my hair was conscious of a tendency to rise and stand
at right angles to my head.

It was the figure of an Indian, broad-shouldered and immense; indeed,
the largest figure of a man I have ever seen outside of a circus hall.
By some power of light that seemed to generate itself in the brain, I
saw the strong dark face with the aquiline nose and high cheek-bones
flattened against the glass. The direction of the gaze I could not
determine; but faint gleams of light as the big eyes rolled round and
showed their whites, told me plainly that no corner of the room escaped
their searching.

For what seemed fully five minutes the dark figure stood there, with the
huge shoulders bent forward so as to bring the head down to the level of
the glass; while behind him, though not nearly so large, the shadowy
form of the other Indian swayed to and fro like a bent tree. While I
waited in an agony of suspense and agitation for their next movement
little currents of icy sensation ran up and down my spine and my heart
seemed alternately to stop beating and then start off again with
terrifying rapidity. They must have heard its thumping and the singing
of the blood in my head! Moreover, I was conscious, as I felt a cold
stream of perspiration trickle down my face, of a desire to scream, to
shout, to bang the walls like a child, to make a noise, or do anything
that would relieve the suspense and bring things to a speedy climax.

It was probably this inclination that led me to another discovery, for
when I tried to bring my rifle from behind my back to raise it and have
it pointed at the door ready to fire, I found that I was powerless to
move. The muscles, paralysed by this strange fear, refused to obey the
will. Here indeed was a terrifying complication!

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a faint sound of rattling at the brass knob, and the door was
pushed open a couple of inches. A pause of a few seconds, and it was
pushed open still further. Without a sound of footsteps that was
appreciable to my ears, the two figures glided into the room, and the
man behind gently closed the door after him.

They were alone with me between the four walls. Could they see me
standing there, so still and straight in my corner? Had they, perhaps,
already seen me? My blood surged and sang like the roll of drums in an
orchestra; and though I did my best to suppress my breathing, it sounded
like the rushing of wind through a pneumatic tube.

My suspense as to the next move was soon at an end--only, however, to
give place to a new and keener alarm. The men had hitherto exchanged no
words and no signs, but there were general indications of a movement
across the room, and whichever way they went they would have to pass
round the table. If they came my way they would have to pass within six
inches of my person. While I was considering this very disagreeable
possibility, I perceived that the smaller Indian (smaller by comparison)
suddenly raised his arm and pointed to the ceiling. The other fellow
raised his head and followed the direction of his companion's arm. I
began to understand at last. They were going upstairs, and the room
directly overhead to which they pointed had been until this night my
bedroom. It was the room in which I had experienced that very morning so
strange a sensation of fear, and but for which I should then have been
lying asleep in the narrow bed against the window.

The Indians then began to move silently around the room; they were going
upstairs, and they were coming round my side of the table. So stealthy
were their movements that, but for the abnormally sensitive state of the
nerves, I should never have heard them. As it was, their cat-like tread
was distinctly audible. Like two monstrous black cats they came round
the table toward me, and for the first time I perceived that the smaller
of the two dragged something along the floor behind him. As it trailed
along over the floor with a soft, sweeping sound, I somehow got the
impression that it was a large dead thing with outstretched wings, or a
large, spreading cedar branch. Whatever it was, I was unable to see it
even in outline, and I was too terrified, even had I possessed the power
over my muscles, to move my neck forward in the effort to determine its
nature.

Nearer and nearer they came. The leader rested a giant hand upon the
table as he moved. My lips were glued together, and the air seemed to
burn in my nostrils. I tried to close my eyes, so that I might not see
as they passed me; but my eyelids had stiffened, and refused to obey.
Would they never get by me? Sensation seemed also to have left my legs,
and it was as if I were standing on mere supports of wood or stone.
Worse still, I was conscious that I was losing the power of balance, the
power to stand upright, or even to lean backwards against the wall. Some
force was drawing me forward, and a dizzy terror seized me that I should
lose my balance, and topple forward against the Indians just as they
were in the act of passing me.

Even moments drawn out into hours must come to an end some time, and
almost before I knew it the figures had passed me and had their feet
upon the lower step of the stairs leading to the upper bedrooms. There
could not have been six inches between us, and yet I was conscious only
of a current of cold air that followed them. They had not touched me,
and I was convinced that they had not seen me. Even the trailing thing
on the floor behind them had not touched my feet, as I had dreaded it
would, and on such an occasion as this I was grateful even for the
smallest mercies.

The absence of the Indians from my immediate neighbourhood brought
little sense of relief. I stood shivering and shuddering in my corner,
and, beyond being able to breathe more freely, I felt no whit less
uncomfortable. Also, I was aware that a certain light, which, without
apparent source or rays, had enabled me to follow their every gesture
and movement, had gone out of the room with their departure. An
unnatural darkness now filled the room, and pervaded its every corner so
that I could barely make out the positions of the windows and the glass
doors.

As I said before, my condition was evidently an abnormal one. The
capacity for feeling surprise seemed, as in dreams, to be wholly absent.
My senses recorded with unusual accuracy every smallest occurrence, but
I was able to draw only the simplest deductions.

The Indians soon reached the top of the stairs, and there they halted
for a moment. I had not the faintest clue as to their next movement.
They appeared to hesitate. They were listening attentively. Then I heard
one of them, who by the weight of his soft tread must have been the
giant, cross the narrow corridor and enter the room directly
overhead--my own little bedroom. But for the insistence of that
unaccountable dread I had experienced there in the morning, I should at
that very moment have been lying in the bed with the big Indian in the
room standing beside me.

For the space of a hundred seconds there was silence, such as might
have existed before the birth of sound. It was followed by a long
quivering shriek of terror, which rang out into the night, and ended in
a short gulp before it had run its full course. At the same moment the
other Indian left his place at the head of the stairs, and joined his
companion in the bedroom. I heard the "thing" trailing behind him along
the floor. A thud followed, as of something heavy falling, and then all
became as still and silent as before.

It was at this point that the atmosphere, surcharged all day with the
electricity of a fierce storm, found relief in a dancing flash of
brilliant lightning simultaneously with a crash of loudest thunder. For
five seconds every article in the room was visible to me with amazing
distinctness, and through the windows I saw the tree trunks standing in
solemn rows. The thunder pealed and echoed across the lake and among the
distant islands, and the flood-gates of heaven then opened and let out
their rain in streaming torrents.

The drops fell with a swift rushing sound upon the still waters of the
lake, which leaped up to meet them, and pattered with the rattle of shot
on the leaves of the maples and the roof of the cottage. A moment later,
and another flash, even more brilliant and of longer duration than the
first, lit up the sky from zenith to horizon, and bathed the room
momentarily in dazzling whiteness. I could see the rain glistening on
the leaves and branches outside. The wind rose suddenly, and in less
than a minute the storm that had been gathering all day burst forth in
its full fury.

Above all the noisy voices of the elements, the slightest sounds in the
room overhead made themselves heard, and in the few seconds of deep
silence that followed the shriek of terror and pain I was aware that the
movements had commenced again. The men were leaving the room and
approaching the top of the stairs. A short pause, and they began to
descend. Behind them, tumbling from step to step, I could hear that
trailing "thing" being dragged along. It had become ponderous!

I awaited their approach with a degree of calmness, almost of apathy,
which was only explicable on the ground that after a certain point
Nature applies her own anæsthetic, and a merciful condition of numbness
supervenes. On they came, step by step, nearer and nearer, with the
shuffling sound of the burden behind growing louder as they approached.

They were already half-way down the stairs when I was galvanised afresh
into a condition of terror by the consideration of a new and horrible
possibility. It was the reflection that if another vivid flash of
lightning were to come when the shadowy procession was in the room,
perhaps when it was actually passing in front of me, I should see
everything in detail, and worse, be seen myself! I could only hold my
breath and wait--wait while the minutes lengthened into hours, and the
procession made its slow progress round the room.

The Indians had reached the foot of the staircase. The form of the huge
leader loomed in the doorway of the passage, and the burden with an
ominous thud had dropped from the last step to the floor. There was a
moment's pause while I saw the Indian turn and stoop to assist his
companion. Then the procession moved forward again, entered the room
close on my left, and began to move slowly round my side of the table.
The leader was already beyond me, and his companion, dragging on the
floor behind him the burden, whose confused outline I could dimly make
out, was exactly in front of me, when the cavalcade came to a dead halt.
At the same moment, with the strange suddenness of thunderstorms, the
splash of the rain ceased altogether, and the wind died away into utter
silence.

For the space of five seconds my heart seemed to stop beating, and then
the worst came. A double flash of lightning lit up the room and its
contents with merciless vividness.

The huge Indian leader stood a few feet past me on my right. One leg was
stretched forward in the act of taking a step. His immense shoulders
were turned toward his companion, and in all their magnificent
fierceness I saw the outline of his features. His gaze was directed upon
the burden his companion was dragging along the floor; but his profile,
with the big aquiline nose, high cheek-bone, straight black hair and
bold chin, burnt itself in that brief instant into my brain, never again
to fade.

Dwarfish, compared with this gigantic figure, appeared the proportions
of the other Indian, who, within twelve inches of my face, was stooping
over the thing he was dragging in a position that lent to his person the
additional horror of deformity. And the burden, lying upon a sweeping
cedar branch which he held and dragged by a long stem, was the body of a
white man. The scalp had been neatly lifted, and blood lay in a broad
smear upon the cheeks and forehead.

Then, for the first time that night, the terror that had paralysed my
muscles and my will lifted its unholy spell from my soul. With a loud
cry I stretched out my arms to seize the big Indian by the throat, and,
grasping only air, tumbled forward unconscious upon the ground.

I had recognised the body, and _the face was my own_! . . .

It was bright daylight when a man's voice recalled me to consciousness.
I was lying where I had fallen, and the farmer was standing in the room
with the loaves of bread in his hands. The horror of the night was still
in my heart, and as the bluff settler helped me to my feet and picked up
the rifle which had fallen with me, with many questions and expressions
of condolence, I imagine my brief replies were neither self-explanatory
nor even intelligible.

That day, after a thorough and fruitless search of the house, I left the
island, and went over to spend my last ten days with the farmer; and
when the time came for me to leave, the necessary reading had been
accomplished, and my nerves had completely recovered their balance.

On the day of my departure the farmer started early in his big boat with
my belongings to row to the point, twelve miles distant, where a little
steamer ran twice a week for the accommodation of hunters. Late in the
afternoon I went off in another direction in my canoe, wishing to see
the island once again, where I had been the victim of so strange an
experience.

In due course I arrived there, and made a tour of the island. I also
made a search of the little house, and it was not without a curious
sensation in my heart that I entered the little upstairs bedroom. There
seemed nothing unusual.

Just after I re-embarked, I saw a canoe gliding ahead of me around the
curve of the island. A canoe was an unusual sight at this time of the
year, and this one seemed to have sprung from nowhere. Altering my
course a little, I watched it disappear around the next projecting point
of rock. It had high curving bows, and there were two Indians in it. I
lingered with some excitement, to see if it would appear again round the
other side of the island; and in less than five minutes it came into
view. There were less than two hundred yards between us, and the
Indians, sitting on their haunches, were paddling swiftly in my
direction.

I never paddled faster in my life than I did in those next few minutes.
When I turned to look again, the Indians had altered their course, and
were again circling the island.

The sun was sinking behind the forests on the mainland, and the
crimson-coloured clouds of sunset were reflected in the waters of the
lake, when I looked round for the last time, and saw the big bark canoe
and its two dusky occupants still going round the island. Then the
shadows deepened rapidly; the lake grew black, and the night wind blew
its first breath in my face as I turned a corner, and a projecting bluff
of rock hid from my view both island and canoe.



A CASE OF EAVESDROPPING


Jim Shorthouse was the sort of fellow who always made a mess of things.
Everything with which his hands or mind came into contact issued from
such contact in an unqualified and irremediable state of mess. His
college days were a mess: he was twice rusticated. His schooldays were a
mess: he went to half a dozen, each passing him on to the next with a
worse character and in a more developed state of mess. His early boyhood
was the sort of mess that copy-books and dictionaries spell with a big
"M," and his babyhood--ugh! was the embodiment of howling, yowling,
screaming mess.

At the age of forty, however, there came a change in his troubled life,
when he met a girl with half a million in her own right, who consented
to marry him, and who very soon succeeded in reducing his most messy
existence into a state of comparative order and system.

Certain incidents, important and otherwise, of Jim's life would never
have come to be told here but for the fact that in getting into his
"messes" and out of them again he succeeded in drawing himself into the
atmosphere of peculiar circumstances and strange happenings. He
attracted to his path the curious adventures of life as unfailingly as
meat attracts flies, and jam wasps. It is to the meat and jam of his
life, so to speak, that he owes his experiences; his after-life was all
pudding, which attracts nothing but greedy children. With marriage the
interest of his life ceased for all but one person, and his path became
regular as the sun's instead of erratic as a comet's.

The first experience in order of time that he related to me shows that
somewhere latent behind his disarranged nervous system there lay psychic
perceptions of an uncommon order. About the age of twenty-two--I think
after his second rustication--his father's purse and patience had
equally given out, and Jim found himself stranded high and dry in a
large American city. High and dry! And the only clothes that had no
holes in them safely in the keeping of his uncle's wardrobe.

Careful reflection on a bench in one of the city parks led him to the
conclusion that the only thing to do was to persuade the city editor of
one of the daily journals that he possessed an observant mind and a
ready pen, and that he could "do good work for your paper, sir, as a
reporter." This, then, he did, standing at a most unnatural angle
between the editor and the window to conceal the whereabouts of the
holes.

"Guess we'll have to give you a week's trial," said the editor, who,
ever on the lookout for good chance material, took on shoals of men in
that way and retained on the average one man per shoal. Anyhow it gave
Jim Shorthouse the wherewithal to sew up the holes and relieve his
uncle's wardrobe of its burden.

Then he went to find living quarters; and in this proceeding his unique
characteristics already referred to--what theosophists would call his
Karma--began unmistakably to assert themselves, for it was in the house
he eventually selected that this sad tale took place.

There are no "diggings" in American cities. The alternatives for small
incomes are grim enough--rooms in a boarding-house where meals are
served, or in a room-house where no meals are served--not even
breakfast. Rich people live in palaces, of course, but Jim had nothing
to do with "sich-like." His horizon was bounded by boarding-houses and
room-houses; and, owing to the necessary irregularity of his meals and
hours, he took the latter.

It was a large, gaunt-looking place in a side street, with dirty windows
and a creaking iron gate, but the rooms were large, and the one he
selected and paid for in advance was on the top floor. The landlady
looked gaunt and dusty as the house, and quite as old. Her eyes were
green and faded, and her features large.

"Waal," she twanged, with her electrifying Western drawl, "that's the
room, if you like it, and that's the price I said. Now, if you want it,
why, just say so; and if you don't, why, it don't hurt me any."

Jim wanted to shake her, but he feared the clouds of long-accumulated
dust in her clothes, and as the price and size of the room suited him,
he decided to take it.

"Anyone else on this floor?" he asked.

She looked at him queerly out of her faded eyes before she answered.

"None of my guests ever put such questions to me before," she said; "but
I guess you're different. Why, there's no one at all but an old gent
that's stayed here every bit of five years. He's over thar," pointing
to the end of the passage.

"Ah! I see," said Shorthouse feebly. "So I'm alone up here?"

"Reckon you are, pretty near," she twanged out, ending the conversation
abruptly by turning her back on her new "guest," and going slowly and
deliberately downstairs.

The newspaper work kept Shorthouse out most of the night. Three times a
week he got home at 1 a.m., and three times at 3 a.m. The room proved
comfortable enough, and he paid for a second week. His unusual hours had
so far prevented his meeting any inmates of the house, and not a sound
had been heard from the "old gent" who shared the floor with him. It
seemed a very quiet house.

One night, about the middle of the second week, he came home tired after
a long day's work. The lamp that usually stood all night in the hall had
burned itself out, and he had to stumble upstairs in the dark. He made
considerable noise in doing so, but nobody seemed to be disturbed. The
whole house was utterly quiet, and probably everybody was asleep. There
were no lights under any of the doors. All was in darkness. It was after
two o'clock.

After reading some English letters that had come during the day, and
dipping for a few minutes into a book, he became drowsy and got ready
for bed. Just as he was about to get in between the sheets, he stopped
for a moment and listened. There rose in the night, as he did so, the
sound of steps somewhere in the house below. Listening attentively, he
heard that it was somebody coming upstairs--a heavy tread, and the owner
taking no pains to step quietly. On it came up the stairs, tramp, tramp,
tramp--evidently the tread of a big man, and one in something of a
hurry.

At once thoughts connected somehow with fire and police flashed through
Jim's brain, but there were no sounds of voices with the steps, and he
reflected in the same moment that it could only be the old gentleman
keeping late hours and tumbling upstairs in the darkness. He was in the
act of turning out the gas and stepping into bed, when the house resumed
its former stillness by the footsteps suddenly coming to a dead stop
immediately outside his own room.

With his hand on the gas, Shorthouse paused a moment before turning it
out to see if the steps would go on again, when he was startled by a
loud knocking on his door. Instantly, in obedience to a curious and
unexplained instinct, he turned out the light, leaving himself and the
room in total darkness.

He had scarcely taken a step across the room to open the door, when a
voice from the other side of the wall, so close it almost sounded in his
ear, exclaimed in German, "Is that you, father? Come in."

The speaker was a man in the next room, and the knocking, after all, had
not been on his own door, but on that of the adjoining chamber, which he
had supposed to be vacant.

Almost before the man in the passage had time to answer in German, "Let
me in at once," Jim heard someone cross the floor and unlock the door.
Then it was slammed to with a bang, and there was audible the sound of
footsteps about the room, and of chairs being drawn up to a table and
knocking against furniture on the way. The men seemed wholly regardless
of their neighbour's comfort, for they made noise enough to waken the
dead.

"Serves me right for taking a room in such a cheap hole," reflected Jim
in the darkness. "I wonder whom she's let the room to!"

The two rooms, the landlady had told him, were originally one. She had
put up a thin partition--just a row of boards--to increase her income.
The doors were adjacent, and only separated by the massive upright beam
between them. When one was opened or shut the other rattled.

With utter indifference to the comfort of the other sleepers in the
house, the two Germans had meanwhile commenced to talk both at once and
at the top of their voices. They talked emphatically, even angrily. The
words "Father" and "Otto" were freely used. Shorthouse understood
German, but as he stood listening for the first minute or two, an
eavesdropper in spite of himself, it was difficult to make head or tail
of the talk, for neither would give way to the other, and the jumble of
guttural sounds and unfinished sentences was wholly unintelligible.
Then, very suddenly, both voices dropped together; and, after a moment's
pause, the deep tones of one of them, who seemed to be the "father,"
said, with the utmost distinctness--

"You mean, Otto, that you refuse to get it?"

There was a sound of someone shuffling in the chair before the answer
came. "I mean that I don't know how to get it. It is so much, father. It
is _too_ much. A part of it--"

"A part of it!" cried the other, with an angry oath, "a part of it, when
ruin and disgrace are already in the house, is worse than useless. If
you can get half you can get all, you wretched fool. Half-measures only
damn all concerned."

"You told me last time--" began the other firmly, but was not allowed to
finish. A succession of horrible oaths drowned his sentence, and the
father went on, in a voice vibrating with anger--

"You know she will give you anything. You have only been married a few
months. If you ask and give a plausible reason you can get all we want
and more. You can ask it temporarily. All will be paid back. It will
re-establish the firm, and she will never know what was done with it.
With that amount, Otto, you know I can recoup all these terrible losses,
and in less than a year all will be repaid. But without it. . . . You must
get it, Otto. Hear me, you must. Am I to be arrested for the misuse of
trust moneys? Is our honoured name to be cursed and spat on?" The old
man choked and stammered in his anger and desperation.

Shorthouse stood shivering in the darkness and listening in spite of
himself. The conversation had carried him along with it, and he had been
for some reason afraid to let his neighbourhood be known. But at this
point he realised that he had listened too long and that he must inform
the two men that they could be overheard to every single syllable. So he
coughed loudly, and at the same time rattled the handle of his door. It
seemed to have no effect, for the voices continued just as loudly as
before, the son protesting and the father growing more and more angry.
He coughed again persistently, and also contrived purposely in the
darkness to tumble against the partition, feeling the thin boards yield
easily under his weight, and making a considerable noise in so doing.
But the voices went on unconcernedly, and louder than ever. Could it be
possible they had not heard?

By this time Jim was more concerned about his own sleep than the
morality of overhearing the private scandals of his neighbours, and he
went out into the passage and knocked smartly at their door. Instantly,
as if by magic, the sounds ceased. Everything dropped into utter
silence. There was no light under the door and not a whisper could be
heard within. He knocked again, but received no answer.

"Gentlemen," he began at length, with his lips close to the keyhole and
in German, "please do not talk so loud. I can overhear all you say in
the next room. Besides, it is very late, and I wish to sleep."

He paused and listened, but no answer was forthcoming. He turned the
handle and found the door was locked. Not a sound broke the stillness of
the night except the faint swish of the wind over the skylight and the
creaking of a board here and there in the house below. The cold air of a
very early morning crept down the passage, and made him shiver. The
silence of the house began to impress him disagreeably. He looked behind
him and about him, hoping, and yet fearing, that something would break
the stillness. The voices still seemed to ring on in his ears; but that
sudden silence, when he knocked at the door, affected him far more
unpleasantly than the voices, and put strange thoughts in his
brain--thoughts he did not like or approve.

Moving stealthily from the door, he peered over the banisters into the
space below. It was like a deep vault that might conceal in its shadows
anything that was not good. It was not difficult to fancy he saw an
indistinct moving to-and-fro below him. Was that a figure sitting on the
stairs peering up obliquely at him out of hideous eyes? Was that a sound
of whispering and shuffling down there in the dark halls and forsaken
landings? Was it something more than the inarticulate murmur of the
night?

The wind made an effort overhead, singing over the skylight, and the
door behind him rattled and made him start. He turned to go back to his
room, and the draught closed the door slowly in his face as if there
were someone pressing against it from the other side. When he pushed it
open and went in, a hundred shadowy forms seemed to dart swiftly and
silently back to their corners and hiding-places. But in the adjoining
room the sounds had entirely ceased, and Shorthouse soon crept into bed,
and left the house with its inmates, waking or sleeping, to take care of
themselves, while he entered the region of dreams and silence.

Next day, strong in the common sense that the sunlight brings, he
determined to lodge a complaint against the noisy occupants of the next
room and make the landlady request them to modify their voices at such
late hours of the night and morning. But it so happened that she was not
to be seen that day, and when he returned from the office at midnight it
was, of course, too late.

Looking under the door as he came up to bed he noticed that there was no
light, and concluded that the Germans were not in. So much the better.
He went to sleep about one o'clock, fully decided that if they came up
later and woke him with their horrible noises he would not rest till he
had roused the landlady and made her reprove them with that
authoritative twang, in which every word was like the lash of a metallic
whip.

However, there proved to be no need for such drastic measures, for
Shorthouse slumbered peacefully all night, and his dreams--chiefly of
the fields of grain and flocks of sheep on the far-away farms of his
father's estate--were permitted to run their fanciful course unbroken.

Two nights later, however, when he came home tired out, after a
difficult day, and wet and blown about by one of the wickedest storms he
had ever seen, his dreams--always of the fields and sheep--were not
destined to be so undisturbed.

He had already dozed off in that delicious glow that follows the removal
of wet clothes and the immediate snuggling under warm blankets, when his
consciousness, hovering on the borderland between sleep and waking, was
vaguely troubled by a sound that rose indistinctly from the depths of
the house, and, between the gusts of wind and rain, reached his ears
with an accompanying sense of uneasiness and discomfort. It rose on the
night air with some pretence of regularity, dying away again in the roar
of the wind to reassert itself distantly in the deep, brief hushes of
the storm.

For a few minutes Jim's dreams were coloured only--tinged, as it were,
by this impression of fear approaching from somewhere insensibly upon
him. His consciousness, at first, refused to be drawn back from that
enchanted region where it had wandered, and he did not immediately
awaken. But the nature of his dreams changed unpleasantly. He saw the
sheep suddenly run huddled together, as though frightened by the
neighbourhood of an enemy, while the fields of waving corn became
agitated as though some monster were moving uncouthly among the crowded
stalks. The sky grew dark, and in his dream an awful sound came
somewhere from the clouds. It was in reality the sound downstairs
growing more distinct.

Shorthouse shifted uneasily across the bed with something like a groan
of distress. The next minute he awoke, and found himself sitting
straight up in bed--listening. Was it a nightmare? Had he been dreaming
evil dreams, that his flesh crawled and the hair stirred on his head?

The room was dark and silent, but outside the wind howled dismally and
drove the rain with repeated assaults against the rattling windows. How
nice it would be--the thought flashed through his mind--if all winds,
like the west wind, went down with the sun! They made such fiendish
noises at night, like the crying of angry voices. In the daytime they
had such a different sound. If only--

Hark! It was no dream after all, for the sound was momentarily growing
louder, and its _cause_ was coming up the stairs. He found himself
speculating feebly what this cause might be, but the sound was still too
indistinct to enable him to arrive at any definite conclusion.

The voice of a church clock striking two made itself heard above the
wind. It was just about the hour when the Germans had commenced their
performance three nights before. Shorthouse made up his mind that if
they began it again he would not put up with it for very long. Yet he
was already horribly conscious of the difficulty he would have of
getting out of bed. The clothes were so warm and comforting against his
back. The sound, still steadily coming nearer, had by this time become
differentiated from the confused clamour of the elements, and had
resolved itself into the footsteps of one or more persons.

"The Germans, hang 'em!" thought Jim. "But what on earth is the matter
with me? I never felt so queer in all my life."

He was trembling all over, and felt as cold as though he were in a
freezing atmosphere. His nerves were steady enough, and he felt no
diminution of physical courage, but he was conscious of a curious sense
of malaise and trepidation, such as even the most vigorous men have been
known to experience when in the first grip of some horrible and deadly
disease. As the footsteps approached this feeling of weakness increased.
He felt a strange lassitude creeping over him, a sort of exhaustion,
accompanied by a growing numbness in the extremities, and a sensation of
dreaminess in the head, as if perhaps the consciousness were leaving its
accustomed seat in the brain and preparing to act on another plane. Yet,
strange to say, as the vitality was slowly withdrawn from his body, his
senses seemed to grow more acute.

Meanwhile the steps were already on the landing at the top of the
stairs, and Shorthouse, still sitting upright in bed, heard a heavy body
brush past his door and along the wall outside, almost immediately
afterwards the loud knocking of someone's knuckles on the door of the
adjoining room.

Instantly, though so far not a sound had proceeded from within, he
heard, through the thin partition, a chair pushed back and a man quickly
cross the floor and open the door.

"Ah! it's you," he heard in the son's voice. Had the fellow, then, been
sitting silently in there all this time, waiting for his father's
arrival? To Shorthouse it came not as a pleasant reflection by any
means.

There was no answer to this dubious greeting, but the door was closed
quickly, and then there was a sound as if a bag or parcel had been
thrown on a wooden table and had slid some distance across it before
stopping.

"What's that?" asked the son, with anxiety in his tone.

"You may know before I go," returned the other gruffly. Indeed his voice
was more than gruff: it betrayed ill-suppressed passion.

Shorthouse was conscious of a strong desire to stop the conversation
before it proceeded any further, but somehow or other his will was not
equal to the task, and he could not get out of bed. The conversation
went on, every tone and inflexion distinctly audible above the noise of
the storm.

In a low voice the father continued. Jim missed some of the words at the
beginning of the sentence. It ended with: " . . . but now they've all left,
and I've managed to get up to you. You know what I've come for." There
was distinct menace in his tone.

"Yes," returned the other; "I have been waiting."

"And the money?" asked the father impatiently.

No answer.

"You've had three days to get it in, and I've contrived to stave off the
worst so far--but to-morrow is the end."

No answer.

"Speak, Otto! What have you got for me? Speak, my son; for God's sake,
tell me."

There was a moment's silence, during which the old man's vibrating
accents seemed to echo through the rooms. Then came in a low voice the
answer--

"I have nothing."

"Otto!" cried the other with passion, "nothing!"

"I can get nothing," came almost in a whisper.

"You lie!" cried the other, in a half-stifled voice. "I swear you lie.
Give me the money."

A chair was heard scraping along the floor. Evidently the men had been
sitting over the table, and one of them had risen. Shorthouse heard the
bag or parcel drawn across the table, and then a step as if one of the
men was crossing to the door.

"Father, what's in that? I must know," said Otto, with the first signs
of determination in his voice. There must have been an effort on the
son's part to gain possession of the parcel in question, and on the
father's to retain it, for between them it fell to the ground. A curious
rattle followed its contact with the floor. Instantly there were sounds
of a scuffle. The men were struggling for the possession of the box. The
elder man with oaths, and blasphemous imprecations, the other with short
gasps that betokened the strength of his efforts. It was of short
duration, and the younger man had evidently won, for a minute later was
heard his angry exclamation.

"I knew it. Her jewels! You scoundrel, you shall never have them. It is
a crime."

The elder man uttered a short, guttural laugh, which froze Jim's blood
and made his skin creep. No word was spoken, and for the space of ten
seconds there was a living silence. Then the air trembled with the sound
of a thud, followed immediately by a groan and the crash of a heavy body
falling over on to the table. A second later there was a lurching from
the table on to the floor and against the partition that separated the
rooms. The bed quivered an instant at the shock, but the unholy spell
was lifted from his soul and Jim Shorthouse sprang out of bed and across
the floor in a single bound. He knew that ghastly murder had been
done--the murder by a father of his son.

With shaking fingers but a determined heart he lit the gas, and the
first thing in which his eyes corroborated the evidence of his ears was
the horrifying detail that the lower portion of the partition bulged
unnaturally into his own room. The glaring paper with which it was
covered had cracked under the tension and the boards beneath it bent
inwards towards him. What hideous load was behind them, he shuddered to
think.

All this he saw in less than a second. Since the final lurch against the
wall not a sound had proceeded from the room, not even a groan or a
foot-step. All was still but the howl of the wind, which to his ears
had in it a note of triumphant horror.

Shorthouse was in the act of leaving the room to rouse the house and
send for the police--in fact his hand was already on the door-knob--when
something in the room arrested his attention. Out of the corner of his
eyes he thought he caught sight of something moving. He was sure of it,
and turning his eyes in the direction, he found he was not mistaken.

Something was creeping slowly towards him along the floor. It was
something dark and serpentine in shape, and it came from the place where
the partition bulged. He stooped down to examine it with feelings of
intense horror and repugnance, and he discovered that it was moving
toward him from the _other side_ of the wall. His eyes were fascinated,
and for the moment he was unable to move. Silently, slowly, from side to
side like a thick worm, it crawled forward into the room beneath his
frightened eyes, until at length he could stand it no longer and
stretched out his arm to touch it. But at the instant of contact he
withdrew his hand with a suppressed scream. It was sluggish--and it was
warm! and he saw that his fingers were stained with living crimson.

A second more, and Shorthouse was out in the passage with his hand on
the door of the next room. It was locked. He plunged forward with all
his weight against it, and, the lock giving way, he fell headlong into a
room that was pitch dark and very cold. In a moment he was on his feet
again and trying to penetrate the blackness. Not a sound, not a
movement. Not even the sense of a presence. It was empty, miserably
empty!

Across the room he could trace the outline of a window with rain
streaming down the outside, and the blurred lights of the city beyond.
But the room was empty, appallingly empty; and so still. He stood there,
cold as ice, staring, shivering listening. Suddenly there was a step
behind him and a light flashed into the room, and when he turned quickly
with his arm up as if to ward off a terrific blow he found himself face
to face with the landlady. Instantly the reaction began to set in.

It was nearly three o'clock in the morning, and he was standing there
with bare feet and striped pyjamas in a small room, which in the
merciful light he perceived to be absolutely empty, carpetless, and
without a stick of furniture, or even a window-blind. There he stood
staring at the disagreeable landlady. And there she stood too, staring
and silent, in a black wrapper, her head almost bald, her face white as
chalk, shading a sputtering candle with one bony hand and peering over
it at him with her blinking green eyes. She looked positively hideous.

"Waal?" she drawled at length, "I heard yer right enough. Guess you
couldn't sleep! Or just prowlin' round a bit--is that it?"

The empty room, the absence of all traces of the recent tragedy, the
silence, the hour, his striped pyjamas and bare feet--everything
together combined to deprive him momentarily of speech. He stared at her
blankly without a word.

"Waal?" clanked the awful voice.

"My dear woman," he burst out finally, "there's been something awful--"
So far his desperation took him, but no farther. He positively stuck at
the substantive.

"Oh! there hasn't been nothin'," she said slowly still peering at him.
"I reckon you've only seen and heard what the others did. I never can
keep folks on this floor long. Most of 'em catch on sooner or
later--that is, the ones that's kind of quick and sensitive. Only you
being an Englishman I thought you wouldn't mind. Nothin' really happens;
it's only thinkin' like."

Shorthouse was beside himself. He felt ready to pick her up and drop her
over the banisters, candle and all.

"Look there," he said, pointing at her within an inch of her blinking
eyes with the fingers that had touched the oozing blood; "look there, my
good woman. Is that only thinking?"

She stared a minute, as if not knowing what he meant.

"I guess so," she said at length.

He followed her eyes, and to his amazement saw that his fingers were as
white as usual, and quite free from the awful stain that had been there
ten minutes before. There was no sign of blood. No amount of staring
could bring it back. Had he gone out of his mind? Had his eyes and ears
played such tricks with him? Had his senses become false and perverted?
He dashed past the landlady, out into the passage, and gained his own
room in a couple of strides. Whew! . . . the partition no longer bulged.
The paper was not torn. There was no creeping, crawling thing on the
faded old carpet.

"It's all over now," drawled the metallic voice behind him. "I'm going
to bed again."

He turned and saw the landlady slowly going downstairs again, still
shading the candle with her hand and peering up at him from time to time
as she moved. A black, ugly, unwholesome object, he thought, as she
disappeared into the darkness below, and the last flicker of her candle
threw a queer-shaped shadow along the wall and over the ceiling.

Without hesitating a moment, Shorthouse threw himself into his clothes
and went out of the house. He preferred the storm to the horrors of that
top floor, and he walked the streets till daylight. In the evening he
told the landlady he would leave next day, in spite of her assurances
that nothing more would happen.

"It never comes back," she said--"that is, not after he's killed."

Shorthouse gasped.

"You gave me a lot for my money," he growled.

"Waal, it aren't my show," she drawled. "I'm no spirit medium. You take
chances. Some'll sleep right along and never hear nothin'. Others, like
yourself, are different and get the whole thing."

"Who's the old gentleman?--does he hear it?" asked Jim.

"There's no old gentleman at all," she answered coolly. "I just told
you that to make you feel easy like in case you did hear anythin'. You
were all alone on the floor."

"Say now," she went on, after a pause in which Shorthouse could think of
nothing to say but unpublishable things, "say now, do tell, did you feel
sort of cold when the show was on, sort of tired and weak, I mean, as if
you might be going to die?"

"How can I say?" he answered savagely; "what I felt God only knows."

"Waal, but He won't tell," she drawled out. "Only I was wonderin' how
you really did feel, because the man who had that room last was found
one morning in bed--"

"In bed?"

"He was dead. He was the one before you. Oh! You don't need to get
rattled so. You're all right. And it all really happened, they do say.
This house used to be a private residence some twenty-five years ago,
and a German family of the name of Steinhardt lived here. They had a big
business in Wall Street, and stood 'way up in things."

"Ah!" said her listener.

"Oh yes, they did, right at the top, till one fine day it all bust and
the old man skipped with the boodle--"

"Skipped with the boodle?"

"That's so," she said; "got clear away with all the money, and the son
was found dead in his house, committed soocide it was thought. Though
there was some as said he couldn't have stabbed himself and fallen in
that position. They said he was murdered. The father died in prison.
They tried to fasten the murder on him, but there was no motive, or no
evidence, or no somethin'. I forget now."

"Very pretty," said Shorthouse.

"I'll show you somethin' mighty queer any-ways," she drawled, "if you'll
come upstairs a minute. I've heard the steps and voices lots of times;
they don't pheaze me any. I'd just as lief hear so many dogs barkin'.
You'll find the whole story in the newspapers if you look it up--not
what goes on here, but the story of the Germans. My house would be
ruined if they told all, and I'd sue for damages."

They reached the bedroom, and the woman went in and pulled up the edge
of the carpet where Shorthouse had seen the blood soaking in the
previous night.

"Look thar, if you feel like it," said the old hag. Stooping down, he
saw a dark, dull stain in the boards that corresponded exactly to the
shape and position of the blood as he had seen it.

That night he slept in a hotel, and the following day sought new
quarters. In the newspapers on file in his office after a long search he
found twenty years back the detailed story, substantially as the woman
had said, of Steinhardt & Co.'s failure, the absconding and subsequent
arrest of the senior partner, and the suicide, or murder, of his son
Otto. The landlady's room-house had formerly been their private
residence.



KEEPING HIS PROMISE


It was eleven o'clock at night, and young Marriott was locked into his
room, cramming as hard as he could cram. He was a "Fourth Year Man" at
Edinburgh University and he had been ploughed for this particular
examination so often that his parents had positively declared they could
no longer supply the funds to keep him there.

His rooms were cheap and dingy, but it was the lecture fees that took
the money. So Marriott pulled himself together at last and definitely
made up his mind that he would pass or die in the attempt, and for some
weeks now he had been reading as hard as mortal man can read. He was
trying to make up for lost time and money in a way that showed
conclusively he did not understand the value of either. For no ordinary
man--and Marriott was in every sense an ordinary man--can afford to
drive the mind as he had lately been driving his, without sooner or
later paying the cost.

Among the students he had few friends or acquaintances, and these few
had promised not to disturb him at night, knowing he was at last reading
in earnest. It was, therefore, with feelings a good deal stronger than
mere surprise that he heard his door-bell ring on this particular night
and realised that he was to have a visitor. Some men would simply have
muffled the bell and gone on quietly with their work. But Marriott was
not this sort. He was nervous. It would have bothered and pecked at his
mind all night long not to know who the visitor was and what he wanted.
The only thing to do, therefore, was to let him in--and out again--as
quickly as possible.

The landlady went to bed at ten o'clock punctually, after which hour
nothing would induce her to pretend she heard the bell, so Marriott
jumped up from his books with an exclamation that augured ill for the
reception of his caller, and prepared to let him in with his own hand.

The streets of Edinburgh town were very still at this late hour--it was
late for Edinburgh--and in the quiet neighbourhood of F---- Street,
where Marriott lived on the third floor, scarcely a sound broke the
silence. As he crossed the floor, the bell rang a second time, with
unnecessary clamour, and he unlocked the door and passed into the
little hallway with considerable wrath and annoyance in his heart at the
insolence of the double interruption.

"The fellows all know I'm reading for this exam. Why in the world do
they come to bother me at such an unearthly hour?"

The inhabitants of the building, with himself, were medical students,
general students, poor Writers to the Signet, and some others whose
vocations were perhaps not so obvious. The stone staircase, dimly
lighted at each floor by a gas-jet that would not turn above a certain
height, wound down to the level of the street with no pretence at carpet
or railing. At some levels it was cleaner than at others. It depended on
the landlady of the particular level.

The acoustic properties of a spiral staircase seem to be peculiar.
Marriott, standing by the open door, book in hand, thought every moment
the owner of the footsteps would come into view. The sound of the boots
was so close and so loud that they seemed to travel disproportionately
in advance of their cause. Wondering who it could be, he stood ready
with all manner of sharp greetings for the man who dared thus to disturb
his work. But the man did not appear. The steps sounded almost under
his nose, yet no one was visible.

A sudden queer sensation of fear passed over him--a faintness and a
shiver down the back. It went, however, almost as soon as it came, and
he was just debating whether he would call aloud to his invisible
visitor, or slam the door and return to his books, when the cause of the
disturbance turned the corner very slowly and came into view.

It was a stranger. He saw a youngish man short of figure and very broad.
His face was the colour of a piece of chalk and the eyes, which were
very bright, had heavy lines underneath them. Though the cheeks and chin
were unshaven and the general appearance unkempt, the man was evidently
a gentleman, for he was well dressed and bore himself with a certain
air. But, strangest of all, he wore no hat, and carried none in his
hand; and although rain had been falling steadily all the evening, he
appeared to have neither overcoat nor umbrella.

A hundred questions sprang up in Marriott's mind and rushed to his lips,
chief among which was something like "Who in the world are you?" and
"What in the name of heaven do you come to me for?" But none of these
questions found time to express themselves in words, for almost at once
the caller turned his head a little so that the gas light in the hall
fell upon his features from a new angle. Then in a flash Marriott
recognised him.

"Field! Man alive! Is it you?" he gasped.

The Fourth Year Man was not lacking in intuition, and he perceived at
once that here was a case for delicate treatment. He divined, without
any actual process of thought, that the catastrophe often predicted had
come at last, and that this man's father had turned him out of the
house. They had been at a private school together years before, and
though they had hardly met once since, the news had not failed to reach
him from time to time with considerable detail, for the family lived
near his own and between certain of the sisters there was great
intimacy. Young Field had gone wild later, he remembered hearing about
it all--drink, a woman, opium, or something of the sort--he could not
exactly call to mind.

"Come in," he said at once, his anger vanishing. "There's been something
wrong, I can see. Come in, and tell me all about it and perhaps I can
help--" He hardly knew what to say, and stammered a lot more besides.
The dark side of life, and the horror of it, belonged to a world that
lay remote from his own select little atmosphere of books and dreamings.
But he had a man's heart for all that.

He led the way across the hall, shutting the front door carefully behind
him, and noticed as he did so that the other, though certainly sober,
was unsteady on his legs, and evidently much exhausted. Marriott might
not be able to pass his examinations, but he at least knew the symptoms
of starvation--acute starvation, unless he was much mistaken--when they
stared him in the face.

"Come along," he said cheerfully, and with genuine sympathy in his
voice. "I'm glad to see you. I was going to have a bite of something to
eat, and you're just in time to join me."

The other made no audible reply, and shuffled so feebly with his feet
that Marriott took his arm by way of support. He noticed for the first
time that the clothes hung on him with pitiful looseness. The broad
frame was literally hardly more than a frame. He was as thin as a
skeleton. But, as he touched him, the sensation of faintness and dread
returned. It only lasted a moment, and then passed off, and he ascribed
it not unnaturally to the distress and shock of seeing a former friend
in such a pitiful plight.

"Better let me guide you. It's shamefully dark--this hall. I'm always
complaining," he said lightly, recognising by the weight upon his arm
that the guidance was sorely needed, "but the old cat never does
anything except promise." He led him to the sofa, wondering all the time
where he had come from and how he had found out the address. It must be
at least seven years since those days at the private school when they
used to be such close friends.

"Now, if you'll forgive me for a minute," he said, "I'll get supper
ready--such as it is. And don't bother to talk. Just take it easy on the
sofa. I see you're dead tired. You can tell me about it afterwards, and
we'll make plans."

The other sat down on the edge of the sofa and stared in silence, while
Marriott got out the brown loaf, scones, and huge pot of marmalade that
Edinburgh students always keep in their cupboards. His eyes shone with a
brightness that suggested drugs, Marriott thought, stealing a glance at
him from behind the cupboard door. He did not like yet to take a full
square look. The fellow was in a bad way, and it would have been so like
an examination to stare and wait for explanations. Besides, he was
evidently almost too exhausted to speak. So, for reasons of
delicacy--and for another reason as well which he could not exactly
formulate to himself--he let his visitor rest apparently unnoticed,
while he busied himself with the supper. He lit the spirit lamp to make
cocoa, and when the water was boiling he drew up the table with the good
things to the sofa, so that Field need not have even the trouble of
moving to a chair.

"Now, let's tuck in," he said, "and afterwards we'll have a pipe and a
chat. I'm reading for an exam, you know, and I always have something
about this time. It's jolly to have a companion."

He looked up and caught his guest's eyes directed straight upon his own.
An involuntary shudder ran through him from head to foot. The face
opposite him was deadly white and wore a dreadful expression of pain and
mental suffering.

"By Gad!" he said, jumping up, "I quite forgot. I've got some whisky
somewhere. What an ass I am. I never touch it myself when I'm working
like this."

He went to the cupboard and poured out a stiff glass which the other
swallowed at a single gulp and without any water. Marriott watched him
while he drank it, and at the same time noticed something else as
well--Field's coat was all over dust, and on one shoulder was a bit of
cobweb. It was perfectly dry; Field arrived on a soaking wet night
without hat, umbrella, or overcoat, and yet perfectly dry, even dusty.
Therefore he had been under cover. What did it all mean? Had he been
hiding in the building? . . .

It was very strange. Yet he volunteered nothing; and Marriott had pretty
well made up his mind by this time that he would not ask any questions
until he had eaten and slept. Food and sleep were obviously what the
poor devil needed most and first--he was pleased with his powers of
ready diagnosis--and it would not be fair to press him till he had
recovered a bit.

They ate their supper together while the host carried on a running
one-sided conversation, chiefly about himself and his exams and his "old
cat" of a landlady, so that the guest need not utter a single word
unless he really wished to--which he evidently did not! But, while he
toyed with his food, feeling no desire to eat, the other ate
voraciously. To see a hungry man devour cold scones, stale oatcake, and
brown bread laden with marmalade was a revelation to this inexperienced
student who had never known what it was to be without at least three
meals a day. He watched in spite of himself, wondering why the fellow
did not choke in the process.

But Field seemed to be as sleepy as he was hungry. More than once his
head dropped and he ceased to masticate the food in his mouth. Marriott
had positively to shake him before he would go on with his meal. A
stronger emotion will overcome a weaker, but this struggle between the
sting of real hunger and the magical opiate of overpowering sleep was a
curious sight to the student, who watched it with mingled astonishment
and alarm. He had heard of the pleasure it was to feed hungry men, and
watch them eat, but he had never actually witnessed it, and he had no
idea it was like this. Field ate like an animal--gobbled, stuffed,
gorged. Marriott forgot his reading, and began to feel something very
much like a lump in his throat.

"Afraid there's been awfully little to offer you, old man," he managed
to blurt out when at length the last scone had disappeared, and the
rapid, one-sided meal was at an end. Field still made no reply, for he
was almost asleep in his seat. He merely looked up wearily and
gratefully.

"Now you must have some sleep, you know," he continued, "or you'll go to
pieces. I shall be up all night reading for this blessed exam. You're
more than welcome to my bed. To-morrow we'll have a late breakfast
and--and see what can be done--and make plans--I'm awfully good at
making plans, you know," he added with an attempt at lightness.

Field maintained his "dead sleepy" silence, but appeared to acquiesce,
and the other led the way into the bedroom, apologising as he did so to
this half-starved son of a baronet--whose own home was almost a
palace--for the size of the room. The weary guest, however, made no
pretence of thanks or politeness. He merely steadied himself on his
friend's arm as he staggered across the room, and then, with all his
clothes on, dropped his exhausted body on the bed. In less than a minute
he was to all appearances sound asleep.

For several minutes Marriott stood in the open door and watched him;
praying devoutly that he might never find himself in a like predicament,
and then fell to wondering what he would do with his unbidden guest on
the morrow. But he did not stop long to think, for the call of his books
was imperative, and happen what might, he must see to it that he passed
that examination.

Having again locked the door into the hall, he sat down to his books and
resumed his notes on _materia medica_ where he had left off when the
bell rang. But it was difficult for some time to concentrate his mind on
the subject. His thoughts kept wandering to the picture of that
white-faced, strange-eyed fellow, starved and dirty, lying in his
clothes and boots on the bed. He recalled their schooldays together
before they had drifted apart, and how they had vowed eternal
friendship--and all the rest of it. And now! What horrible straits to be
in. How could any man let the love of dissipation take such hold upon
him?

But one of their vows together Marriott, it seemed, had completely
forgotten. Just now, at any rate, it lay too far in the background of
his memory to be recalled.

Through the half-open door--the bedroom led out of the sitting-room and
had no other door--came the sound of deep, long-drawn breathing, the
regular, steady breathing of a tired man, so tired that, even to listen
to it made Marriott almost want to go to sleep himself.

"He needed it," reflected the student, "and perhaps it came only just in
time!"

Perhaps so; for outside the bitter wind from across the Forth howled
cruelly and drove the rain in cold streams against the window-panes, and
down the deserted streets. Long before Marriott settled down again
properly to his reading, he heard distantly, as it were, through the
sentences of the book, the heavy, deep breathing of the sleeper in the
next room.

A couple of hours later, when he yawned and changed his books, he still
heard the breathing, and went cautiously up to the door to look round.

At first the darkness of the room must have deceived him, or else his
eyes were confused and dazzled by the recent glare of the reading lamp.
For a minute or two he could make out nothing at all but dark lumps of
furniture, the mass of the chest of drawers by the wall, and the white
patch where his bath stood in the centre of the floor.

Then the bed came slowly into view. And on it he saw the outline of the
sleeping body gradually take shape before his eyes, growing up strangely
into the darkness, till it stood out in marked relief--the long black
form against the white counterpane.

He could hardly help smiling. Field had not moved an inch. He watched
him a moment or two and then returned to his books. The night was full
of the singing voices of the wind and rain. There was no sound of
traffic; no hansoms clattered over the cobbles, and it was still too
early for the milk carts. He worked on steadily and conscientiously,
only stopping now and again to change a book, or to sip some of the
poisonous stuff that kept him awake and made his brain so active, and on
these occasions Field's breathing was always distinctly audible in the
room. Outside, the storm continued to howl, but inside the house all was
stillness. The shade of the reading lamp threw all the light upon the
littered table, leaving the other end of the room in comparative
darkness. The bedroom door was exactly opposite him where he sat. There
was nothing to disturb the worker, nothing but an occasional rush of
wind against the windows, and a slight pain in his arm.

This pain, however, which he was unable to account for, grew once or
twice very acute. It bothered him; and he tried to remember how, and
when, he could have bruised himself so severely, but without success.

At length the page before him turned from yellow to grey, and there were
sounds of wheels in the street below. It was four o'clock. Marriott
leaned back and yawned prodigiously. Then he drew back the curtains. The
storm had subsided and the Castle Rock was shrouded in mist. With
another yawn he turned away from the dreary outlook and prepared to
sleep the remaining four hours till breakfast on the sofa. Field was
still breathing heavily in the next room, and he first tip-toed across
the floor to take another look at him.

Peering cautiously round the half-opened door his first glance fell upon
the bed now plainly discernible in the grey light of morning. He stared
hard. Then he rubbed his eyes. Then he rubbed his eyes again and thrust
his head farther round the edge of the door. With fixed eyes he stared
harder still, and harder.

But it made no difference at all. He was staring into an empty room.

The sensation of fear he had felt when Field first appeared upon the
scene returned suddenly, but with much greater force. He became
conscious, too, that his left arm was throbbing violently and causing
him great pain. He stood wondering, and staring, and trying to collect
his thoughts. He was trembling from head to foot.

By a great effort of the will he left the support of the door and walked
forward boldly into the room.

There, upon the bed, was the impress of a body, where Field had lain and
slept. There was the mark of the head on the pillow, and the slight
indentation at the foot of the bed where the boots had rested on the
counterpane. And there, plainer than ever--for he was closer to it--was
_the breathing_!

Marriott tried to pull himself together. With a great effort he found
his voice and called his friend aloud by name!

"Field! Is that you? Where are you?"

There was no reply; but the breathing continued without interruption,
coming directly from the bed. His voice had such an unfamiliar sound
that Marriott did not care to repeat his questions, but he went down on
his knees and examined the bed above and below, pulling the mattress off
finally, and taking the coverings away separately one by one. But
though the sounds continued there was no visible sign of Field, nor was
there any space in which a human being, however small, could have
concealed itself. He pulled the bed out from the wall, but the sound
_stayed where it was_. It did not move with the bed.

Marriott, finding self-control a little difficult in his weary
condition, at once set about a thorough search of the room. He went
through the cupboard, the chest of drawers, the little alcove where the
clothes hung--everything. But there was no sign of anyone. The small
window near the ceiling was closed; and, anyhow, was not large enough to
let a cat pass. The sitting-room door was locked on the inside; he could
not have got out that way. Curious thoughts began to trouble Marriott's
mind, bringing in their train unwelcome sensations. He grew more and
more excited; he searched the bed again till it resembled the scene of a
pillow fight; he searched both rooms, knowing all the time it was
useless,--and then he searched again. A cold perspiration broke out all
over his body; and the sound of heavy breathing, all this time, never
ceased to come from the corner where Field had lain down to sleep.

Then he tried something else. He pushed the bed back exactly into its
original position--and himself lay down upon it just where his guest had
lain. But the same instant he sprang up again in a single bound. The
breathing was close beside him, almost on his cheek, and between him and
the wall! Not even a child could have squeezed into the space.

He went back into his sitting-room, opened the windows, welcoming all
the light and air possible, and tried to think the whole matter over
quietly and clearly. Men who read too hard, and slept too little, he
knew were sometimes troubled with very vivid hallucinations. Again he
calmly reviewed every incident of the night; his accurate sensations;
the vivid details; the emotions stirred in him; the dreadful feast--no
single hallucination could ever combine all these and cover so long a
period of time. But with less satisfaction he thought of the recurring
faintness, and curious sense of horror that had once or twice come over
him, and then of the violent pains in his arm. These were quite
unaccountable.

Moreover, now that he began to analyse and examine, there was one other
thing that fell upon him like a sudden revelation: _During the whole
time Field had not actually uttered a single word!_ Yet, as though in
mockery upon his reflections, there came ever from that inner room the
sound of the breathing, long-drawn, deep, and regular. The thing was
incredible. It was absurd.

Haunted by visions of brain fever and insanity, Marriott put on his cap
and macintosh and left the house. The morning air on Arthur's Seat would
blow the cobwebs from his brain; the scent of the heather, and above
all, the sight of the sea. He roamed over the wet slopes above Holyrood
for a couple of hours, and did not return until the exercise had shaken
some of the horror out of his bones, and given him a ravening appetite
into the bargain.

As he entered he saw that there was another man in the room, standing
against the window with his back to the light. He recognised his
fellow-student Greene, who was reading for the same examination.

"Read hard all night, Marriott," he said, "and thought I'd drop in here
to compare notes and have some breakfast. You're out early?" he added,
by way of a question. Marriott said he had a headache and a walk had
helped it, and Greene nodded and said "Ah!" But when the girl had set
the steaming porridge on the table and gone out again, he went on with
rather a forced tone, "Didn't know you had any friends who drank,
Marriott?"

This was obviously tentative, and Marriott replied drily that he did not
know it either.

"Sounds just as if some chap were 'sleeping it off' in there, doesn't
it, though?" persisted the other, with a nod in the direction of the
bedroom, and looking curiously at his friend. The two men stared
steadily at each other for several seconds, and then Marriott said
earnestly--

"Then you hear it too, thank God!"

"Of course I hear it. The door's open. Sorry if I wasn't meant to."

"Oh, I don't mean that," said Marriott, lowering his voice. "But I'm
awfully relieved. Let me explain. Of course, if you hear it too, then
it's all right; but really it frightened me more than I can tell you. I
thought I was going to have brain fever, or something, and you know what
a lot depends on this exam. It always begins with sounds, or visions, or
some sort of beastly hallucination, and I--"

"Rot!" ejaculated the other impatiently. "What _are_ you talking about?"

"Now, listen to me, Greene," said Marriott, as calmly as he could, for
the breathing was still plainly audible, "and I'll tell you what I
mean, only don't interrupt." And thereupon he related exactly what had
happened during the night, telling everything, even down to the pain in
his arm. When it was over he got up from the table and crossed the room.

"You hear the breathing now plainly, don't you?" he said. Greene said he
did. "Well, come with me, and we'll search the room together." The
other, however, did not move from his chair.

"I've been in already," he said sheepishly; "I heard the sounds and
thought it was you. The door was ajar--so I went in."

Marriott made no comment, but pushed the door open as wide as it would
go. As it opened, the sound of breathing grew more and more distinct.

"_Someone_ must be in there," said Greene under his breath.

"_Someone_ is in there, but _where_?" said Marriott. Again he urged his
friend to go in with him. But Greene refused point-blank; said he had
been in once and had searched the room and there was nothing there. He
would not go in again for a good deal.

They shut the door and retired into the other room to talk it all over
with many pipes. Greene questioned his friend very closely, but without
illuminating result, since questions cannot alter facts.

"The only thing that ought to have a proper, a logical, explanation is
the pain in my arm," said Marriott, rubbing that member with an attempt
at a smile. "It hurts so infernally and aches all the way up. I can't
remember bruising it, though."

"Let me examine it for you," said Greene. "I'm awfully good at bones in
spite of the examiners' opinion to the contrary." It was a relief to
play the fool a bit, and Marriott took his coat off and rolled up his
sleeve.

"By George, though, I'm bleeding!" he exclaimed. "Look here! What on
earth's this?"

On the forearm, quite close to the wrist, was a thin red line. There was
a tiny drop of apparently fresh blood on it. Greene came over and looked
closely at it for some minutes. Then he sat back in his chair, looking
curiously at his friend's face.

"You've scratched yourself without knowing it," he said presently.

"There's no sign of a bruise. It must be something else that made the
arm ache."

Marriott sat very still, staring silently at his arm as though the
solution of the whole mystery lay there actually written upon the skin.

"What's the matter? I see nothing very strange about a scratch," said
Greene, in an unconvincing sort of voice. "It was your cuff links
probably. Last night in your excitement--"

But Marriott, white to the very lips, was trying to speak. The sweat
stood in great beads on his forehead. At last he leaned forward close to
his friend's face.

"Look," he said, in a low voice that shook a little. "Do you see that
red mark? I mean _underneath_ what you call the scratch?"

Greene admitted he saw something or other, and Marriott wiped the place
clean with his handkerchief and told him to look again more closely.

"Yes, I see," returned the other, lifting his head after a moment's
careful inspection. "It looks like an old scar."

"It _is_ an old scar," whispered Marriott, his lips trembling. "_Now_ it
all comes back to me."

"All what?" Greene fidgeted on his chair. He tried to laugh, but without
success. His friend seemed bordering on collapse.

"Hush! Be quiet, and--I'll tell you," he said. "_Field made that scar._"

For a whole minute the two men looked each other full in the face
without speaking.

"Field made that scar!" repeated Marriott at length in a louder voice.

"Field! You mean--last night?"

"No, not last night. Years ago--at school, with his knife. And I made a
scar in his arm with mine." Marriott was talking rapidly now.

"We exchanged drops of blood in each other's cuts. He put a drop into my
arm and I put one into his--"

"In the name of heaven, what for?"

"It was a boys' compact. We made a sacred pledge, a bargain. I remember
it all perfectly now. We had been reading some dreadful book and we
swore to appear to one another--I mean, whoever died first swore to show
himself to the other. And we sealed the compact with each other's blood.
I remember it all so well--the hot summer afternoon in the playground,
seven years ago--and one of the masters caught us and confiscated the
knives--and I have never thought of it again to this day--"

"And you mean--" stammered Greene.

But Marriott made no answer. He got up and crossed the room and lay down
wearily upon the sofa, hiding his face in his hands.

Greene himself was a bit non-plussed. He left his friend alone for a
little while, thinking it all over again. Suddenly an idea seemed to
strike him. He went over to where Marriott still lay motionless on the
sofa and roused him. In any case it was better to face the matter,
whether there was an explanation or not. Giving in was always the silly
exit.

"I say, Marriott," he began, as the other turned his white face up to
him. "There's no good being so upset about it. I mean--if it's all an
hallucination we know what to do. And if it isn't--well, we know what to
think, don't we?"

"I suppose so. But it frightens me horribly for some reason," returned
his friend in a hushed voice. "And that poor devil--"

"But, after all, if the worst is true and--and that chap _has_ kept his
promise--well, he has, that's all, isn't it?"

Marriott nodded.

"There's only one thing that occurs to me," Greene went on, "and that
is, are you quite sure that--that he really ate like that--I mean that
he actually _ate anything at all_?" he finished, blurting out all his
thought.

Marriott stared at him for a moment and then said he could easily make
certain. He spoke quietly. After the main shock no lesser surprise could
affect him.

"I put the things away myself," he said, "after we had finished. They
are on the third shelf in that cupboard. No one's touched 'em since."

He pointed without getting up, and Greene took the hint and went over to
look.

"Exactly," he said, after a brief examination; "just as I thought. It
was partly hallucination, at any rate. The things haven't been touched.
Come and see for yourself."

Together they examined the shelf. There was the brown loaf, the plate of
stale scones, the oatcake, all untouched. Even the glass of whisky
Marriott had poured out stood there with the whisky still in it.

"You were feeding--no one," said Greene "Field ate and drank nothing. He
was not there at all!"

"But the breathing?" urged the other in a low voice, staring with a
dazed expression on his face.

Greene did not answer. He walked over to the bedroom, while Marriott
followed him with his eyes. He opened the door, and listened. There was
no need for words. The sound of deep, regular breathing came floating
through the air. There was no hallucination about that, at any rate.
Marriott could hear it where he stood on the other side of the room.

Greene closed the door and came back. "There's only one thing to do," he
declared with decision. "Write home and find out about him, and
meanwhile come and finish your reading in my rooms. I've got an extra
bed."

"Agreed," returned the Fourth Year Man; "there's no hallucination about
that exam; I must pass that whatever happens."

And this was what they did.

It was about a week later when Marriott got the answer from his sister.
Part of it he read out to Greene--

"It is curious," she wrote, "that in your letter you should have
enquired after Field. It seems a terrible thing, but you know only a
short while ago Sir John's patience became exhausted, and he turned him
out of the house, they say without a penny. Well, what do you think? He
has killed himself. At least, it looks like suicide. Instead of leaving
the house, he went down into the cellar and simply starved himself to
death. . . . They're trying to suppress it, of course, but I heard it all
from my maid, who got it from their footman. . . . They found the body on
the 14th and the doctor said he had died about twelve hours before. . . .
He was dreadfully thin. . . ."

"Then he died on the 13th," said Greene.

Marriott nodded.

"That's the very night he came to see you."

Marriott nodded again.



WITH INTENT TO STEAL


To sleep in a lonely barn when the best bedrooms in the house were at
our disposal, seemed, to say the least, unnecessary, and I felt that
some explanation was due to our host.

But Shorthouse, I soon discovered, had seen to all that; our enterprise
would be tolerated, not welcomed, for the master kept this sort of thing
down with a firm hand. And then, how little I could get this man,
Shorthouse, to tell me. There was much I wanted to ask and hear, but he
surrounded himself with impossible barriers. It was ludicrous; he was
surely asking a good deal of me, and yet he would give so little in
return, and his reason--that it was for my good--may have been perfectly
true, but did not bring me any comfort in its train. He gave me sops now
and then, however, to keep up my curiosity, till I soon was aware that
there were growing up side by side within me a genuine interest and an
equally genuine fear; and something of both these is probably necessary
to all real excitement.

The barn in question was some distance from the house, on the side of
the stables, and I had passed it on several of my journeyings to and fro
wondering at its forlorn and untarred appearance under a régime where
everything was so spick and span; but it had never once occurred to me
as possible that I should come to spend a night under its roof with a
comparative stranger, and undergo there an experience belonging to an
order of things I had always rather ridiculed and despised.

At the moment I can only partially recall the process by which
Shorthouse persuaded me to lend him my company. Like myself, he was a
guest in this autumn house-party, and where there were so many to
chatter and to chaff, I think his taciturnity of manner had appealed to
me by contrast, and that I wished to repay something of what I owed.
There was, no doubt, flattery in it as well, for he was more than twice
my age, a man of amazingly wide experience, an explorer of all the
world's corners where danger lurked, and--most subtle flattery of
all--by far the best shot in the whole party, our host included.

At first, however, I held out a bit.

"But surely this story you tell," I said, "has the parentage common to
all such tales--a superstitious heart and an imaginative brain--and has
grown now by frequent repetition into an authentic ghost story? Besides,
this head gardener of half a century ago," I added, seeing that he still
went on cleaning his gun in silence, "who was he, and what positive
information have you about him beyond the fact that he was found hanging
from the rafters, dead?"

"He was no mere head gardener, this man who passed as such," he replied
without looking up, "but a fellow of splendid education who used this
curious disguise for his own purposes. Part of this very barn, of which
he always kept the key, was found to have been fitted up as a complete
laboratory, with athanor, alembic, cucurbite, and other appliances, some
of which the master destroyed at once--perhaps for the best--and which I
have only been able to guess at--"

"Black Arts," I laughed.

"Who knows?" he rejoined quietly. "The man undoubtedly possessed
knowledge--dark knowledge--that was most unusual and dangerous, and I
can discover no means by which he came to it--no ordinary means, that
is. But I _have_ found many facts in the case which point to the
exercise of a most desperate and unscrupulous will; and the strange
disappearances in the neighbourhood, as well as the bones found buried
in the kitchen garden, though never actually traced to him, seem to me
full of dreadful suggestion."

I laughed again, a little uncomfortably perhaps, and said it reminded
one of the story of Giles de Rays, maréchal of France, who was said to
have killed and tortured to death in a few years no less than one
hundred and sixty women and children for the purposes of necromancy, and
who was executed for his crimes at Nantes. But Shorthouse would not
"rise," and only returned to his subject.

"His suicide seems to have been only just in time to escape arrest," he
said.

"A magician of no high order then," I observed sceptically, "if suicide
was his only way of evading the country police."

"The police of London and St. Petersburg rather," returned Shorthouse;
"for the headquarters of this pretty company was somewhere in Russia,
and his apparatus all bore the marks of the most skilful foreign make. A
Russian woman then employed in the household--governess, or
something--vanished, too, about the same time and was never caught. She
was no doubt the cleverest of the lot. And, remember, the object of this
appalling group was not mere vulgar gain, but a kind of knowledge that
called for the highest qualities of courage and intellect in the
seekers."

I admit I was impressed by the man's conviction of voice and manner, for
there is something very compelling in the force of an earnest man's
belief, though I still affected to sneer politely.

"But, like most Black Magicians, the fellow only succeeded in compassing
his own destruction--that of his tools, rather, and of escaping
himself."

"So that he might better accomplish his objects _elsewhere and
otherwise_," said Shorthouse, giving, as he spoke, the most minute
attention to the cleaning of the lock.

"Elsewhere and otherwise," I gasped.

"As if the shell he left hanging from the rafter in the barn in no way
impeded the man's spirit from continuing his dreadful work under new
conditions," he added quietly, without noticing my interruption. "The
idea being that he sometimes revisits the garden and the barn, chiefly
the barn--"

"The barn!" I exclaimed; "for what purpose?"

"Chiefly the barn," he finished, as if he had not heard me, "that is,
when there is anybody in it."

I stared at him without speaking, for there was a wonder in me how he
would add to this.

"When he wants fresh material, that is--he comes to steal from the
living."

"Fresh material!" I repeated aghast. "To steal from the living!" Even
then, in broad daylight, I was foolishly conscious of a creeping
sensation at the roots of my hair, as if a cold breeze were passing over
my skull.

"The strong vitality of the living is what this sort of creature is
supposed to need most," he went on imperturbably, "and where he has
worked and thought and struggled before is the easiest place for him to
get it in. The former conditions are in some way more easily
reconstructed--" He stopped suddenly, and devoted all his attention to
the gun. "It's difficult to explain, you know, rather," he added
presently, "and, besides, it's much better that you should not know till
afterwards."

I made a noise that was the beginning of a score of questions and of as
many sentences, but it got no further than a mere noise, and Shorthouse,
of course, stepped in again.

"Your scepticism," he added, "is one of the qualities that induce me to
ask you to spend the night there with me."

"In those days," he went on, in response to my urging for more
information, "the family were much abroad, and often travelled for years
at a time. This man was invaluable in their absence. His wonderful
knowledge of horticulture kept the gardens--French, Italian, English--in
perfect order. He had carte blanche in the matter of expense, and of
course selected all his own underlings. It was the sudden, unexpected
return of the master that surprised the amazing stories of the
countryside before the fellow, with all his cleverness, had time to
prepare or conceal."

"But is there no evidence, no more recent evidence, to show that
something is likely to happen if we sit up there?" I asked, pressing him
yet further, and I think to his liking, for it showed at least that I
was interested. "Has anything happened there lately, for instance?"

Shorthouse glanced up from the gun he was cleaning so assiduously, and
the smoke from his pipe curled up into an odd twist between me and the
black beard and oriental, sun-tanned face. The magnetism of his look and
expression brought more sense of conviction to me than I had felt
hitherto, and I realised that there had been a sudden little change in
my attitude and that I was now much more inclined to go in for the
adventure with him. At least, I thought, with such a man, one would be
safe in any emergency; for he is determined, resourceful, and to be
depended upon.

"There's the point," he answered slowly; "for there has apparently been
a fresh outburst--an attack almost, it seems,--quite recently. There is
evidence, of course, plenty of it, or I should not feel the interest I
do feel, but--" he hesitated a moment, as though considering how much he
ought to let me know, "but the fact is that three men this summer, on
separate occasions, who have gone into that barn after nightfall, have
been _accosted_--"

"Accosted?" I repeated, betrayed into the interruption by his choice of
so singular a word.

"And one of the stablemen--a recent arrival and quite ignorant of the
story--who had to go in there late one night, saw a dark substance
hanging down from one of the rafters, and when he climbed up, shaking
all over, to cut it down--for he said he felt sure it was a corpse--the
knife passed through nothing but air, and he heard a sound up under the
eaves as if someone were laughing. Yet, while he slashed away, and
afterwards too, the thing went on swinging there before his eyes and
turning slowly with its own weight, like a huge joint on a spit. The man
declares, too, that it had a large bearded face, and that the mouth was
open and drawn down like the mouth of a hanged man."

"Can we question this fellow?"

"He's gone--gave notice at once, but not before I had questioned him
myself very closely."

"Then this was quite recent?" I said, for I knew Shorthouse had not been
in the house more than a week.

"Four days ago," he replied. "But, more than that, only three days ago a
couple of men were in there together in full daylight when one of them
suddenly turned deadly faint. He said that he felt an overmastering
impulse to hang himself; and he looked about for a rope and was furious
when his companion tried to prevent him--"

"But he did prevent him?"

"Just in time, but not before he had clambered on to a beam. He was very
violent."

I had so much to say and ask that I could get nothing out in time, and
Shorthouse went on again.

"I've had a sort of watching brief for this case," he said with a smile,
whose real significance, however, completely escaped me at the time,
"and one of the most disagreeable features about it is the deliberate
way the servants have invented excuses to go out to the place, and
always after dark; some of them who have no right to go there, and no
real occasion at all--have never been there in their lives before
probably--and now all of a sudden have shown the keenest desire and
determination to go out there about dusk, or soon after, and with the
most paltry and foolish excuses in the world. Of course," he added,
"they have been prevented, but the desire, stronger than their
superstitious dread, and which they cannot explain, is very curious."

"Very," I admitted, feeling that my hair was beginning to stand up
again.

"You see," he went on presently, "it all points to volition--in fact to
deliberate arrangement. It is no mere family ghost that goes with every
ivied house in England of a certain age; it is something real, and
something very malignant."

He raised his face from the gun barrel, and for the first time his eye
caught mine in the full. Yes, he was very much in earnest. Also, he knew
a great deal more than he meant to tell.

"It's worth tempting--and fighting, _I_ think," he said; "but I want a
companion with me. Are you game?" His enthusiasm undoubtedly caught me,
but I still wanted to hedge a bit.

"I'm very sceptical," I pleaded.

"All the better," he said, almost as if to himself. "You have the pluck;
I have the knowledge--"

"The knowledge?"

He looked round cautiously as if to make sure that there was no one
within earshot.

"I've been in the place myself," he said in a lowered voice, "quite
lately--in fact only three nights ago--the day the man turned queer."

I stared.

"But--I was obliged to come out--"

Still I stared.

"Quickly," he added significantly.

"You've gone into the thing pretty thoroughly," was all I could find to
say, for I had almost made up my mind to go with him, and was not sure
that I wanted to hear too much beforehand.

He nodded. "It's a bore, of course, but I must do everything
thoroughly--or not at all."

"That's why you clean your own gun, I suppose?"

"That's why, when there's any danger, I take as few chances as
possible," he said, with the same enigmatical smile I had noticed
before; and then he added with emphasis, "And that is also why I ask you
to keep me company now."

Of course, the shaft went straight home, and I gave my promise without
further ado.

Our preparations for the night--a couple of rugs and a flask of black
coffee--were not elaborate, and we found no difficulty, about ten
o'clock, in absenting ourselves from the billiard-room without
attracting curiosity. Shorthouse met me by arrangement under the cedar
on the back lawn, and I at once realised with vividness what a
difference there is between making plans in the daytime and carrying
them out in the dark. One's common-sense--at least in matters of this
sort--is reduced to a minimum, and imagination with all her attendant
sprites usurps the place of judgment. Two and two no longer make
four--they make a mystery, and the mystery loses no time in growing into
a menace. In this particular case, however, my imagination did not find
wings very readily, for I knew that my companion was the most
_unmovable_ of men--an unemotional, solid block of a man who would
never lose his head, and in any conceivable state of affairs would
always take the right as well as the strong course. So my faith in the
man gave me a false courage that was nevertheless very consoling, and I
looked forward to the night's adventure with a genuine appetite.

Side by side, and in silence, we followed the path that skirted the East
Woods, as they were called, and then led across two hay fields, and
through another wood, to the barn, which thus lay about half a mile from
the Lower Farm. To the Lower Farm, indeed, it properly belonged; and
this made us realise more clearly how very ingenious must have been the
excuses of the Hall servants who felt the desire to visit it.

It had been raining during the late afternoon, and the trees were still
dripping heavily on all sides, but the moment we left the second wood
and came out into the open, we saw a clearing with the stars overhead,
against which the barn outlined itself in a black, lugubrious shadow.
Shorthouse led the way--still without a word--and we crawled in through
a low door and seated ourselves in a soft heap of hay in the extreme
corner.

"Now," he said, speaking for the first time, "I'll show you the inside
of the barn, so that you may know where you are, and what to do, in
case anything happens."

A match flared in the darkness, and with the help of two more that
followed I saw the interior of a lofty and somewhat rickety-looking
barn, erected upon a wall of grey stones that ran all round and extended
to a height of perhaps four feet. Above this masonry rose the wooden
sides, running up into the usual vaulted roof, and supported by a double
tier of massive oak rafters, which stretched across from wall to wall
and were intersected by occasional uprights. I felt as if we were inside
the skeleton of some antediluvian monster whose huge black ribs
completely enfolded us. Most of this, of course, only sketched itself to
my eye in the uncertain light of the flickering matches, and when I said
I had seen enough, and the matches went out, we were at once enveloped
in an atmosphere as densely black as anything that I have ever known.
And the silence equalled the darkness.

We made ourselves comfortable and talked in low voices. The rugs, which
were very large, covered our legs; and our shoulders sank into a really
luxurious bed of softness. Yet neither of us apparently felt sleepy. I
certainly didn't, and Shorthouse, dropping his customary brevity that
fell little short of gruffness, plunged into an easy run of talking
that took the form after a time of personal reminiscences. This rapidly
became a vivid narration of adventure and travel in far countries, and
at any other time I should have allowed myself to become completely
absorbed in what he told. But, unfortunately, I was never able for a
single instant to forget the real purpose of our enterprise, and
consequently I felt all my senses more keenly on the alert than usual,
and my attention accordingly more or less distracted. It was, indeed, a
revelation to hear Shorthouse unbosom himself in this fashion, and to a
young man it was of course doubly fascinating; but the little sounds
that always punctuate even the deepest silence out of doors claimed some
portion of my attention, and as the night grew on I soon became aware
that his tales seemed somewhat disconnected and abrupt--and that, in
fact, I heard really only part of them.

It was not so much that I actually heard other sounds, but that I
_expected_ to hear them; this was what stole the other half of my
listening. There was neither wind nor rain to break the stillness, and
certainly there were no physical presences in our neighbourhood, for we
were half a mile even from the Lower Farm; and from the Hall and
stables, at least a mile. Yet the stillness was being continually
broken--perhaps _disturbed_ is a better word--and it was to these very
remote and tiny disturbances that I felt compelled to devote at least
half my listening faculties.

From time to time, however, I made a remark or asked a question, to show
that I was listening and interested; but, in a sense, my questions
always seemed to bear in one direction and to make for one issue,
namely, my companion's previous experience in the barn when he had been
obliged to come out "quickly."

Apparently I could not help myself in the matter, for this was really
the one consuming curiosity I had; and the fact that it was better for
me not to know it made me the keener to know it all, even the worst.

Shorthouse realised this even better than I did. I could tell it by the
way he dodged, or wholly ignored, my questions, and this subtle sympathy
between us showed plainly enough, had I been able at the time to reflect
upon its meaning, that the nerves of both of us were in a very sensitive
and highly-strung condition. Probably, the complete confidence I felt in
his ability to face whatever might happen, and the extent to which also
I relied upon him for my own courage, prevented the exercise of my
ordinary powers of reflection, while it left my senses free to a more
than usual degree of activity.

Things must have gone on in this way for a good hour or more, when I
made the sudden discovery that there was something unusual in the
conditions of our environment. This sounds a roundabout mode of
expression, but I really know not how else to put it. The discovery
almost rushed upon me. By rights, we were two men waiting in an alleged
haunted barn for something to happen; and, as two men who trusted one
another implicitly (though for very different reasons), there should
have been two minds keenly alert, with the ordinary senses in active
co-operation. Some slight degree of nervousness, too, there might also
have been, but beyond this, nothing. It was therefore with something of
dismay that I made the sudden discovery that there _was_ something more,
and something that I ought to have noticed very much sooner than I
actually did notice it.

The fact was--Shorthouse's stream of talk was wholly unnatural. He was
talking with a purpose. He did not wish to be cornered by my questions,
true, but he had another and a deeper purpose still, and it grew upon
me, as an unpleasant deduction from my discovery, that this strong,
cynical, unemotional man by my side was talking--and had been talking
all this time--to gain a particular end. And this end, I soon felt
clearly, was to _convince himself_. But, of what?

For myself, as the hours wore on towards midnight, I was not anxious to
find the answer; but in the end it became impossible to avoid it, and I
knew as I listened, that he was pouring forth this steady stream of
vivid reminiscences of travel--South Seas, big game, Russian
exploration, women, adventures of all sorts--_because he wished the past
to reassert itself to the complete exclusion of the present_. He was
taking his precautions. He was afraid.

I felt a hundred things, once this was clear to me, but none of them
more than the wish to get up at once and leave the barn. If Shorthouse
was afraid already, what in the world was to happen to me in the long
hours that lay ahead? . . . I only know that, in my fierce efforts to deny
to myself the evidence of his partial collapse, the strength came that
enabled me to play my part properly, and I even found myself helping
him by means of animated remarks upon his stories, and by more or less
judicious questions. I also helped him by dismissing from my mind any
desire to enquire into the truth of his former experience; and it was
good I did so, for had he turned it loose on me, with those great powers
of convincing description that he had at his command, I verily believe
that I should never have crawled from that barn alive. So, at least, I
felt at the moment. It was the instinct of self-preservation, and it
brought sound judgment.

Here, then, at least, with different motives, reached, too, by opposite
ways, we were both agreed upon one thing, namely, that temporarily we
would forget. Fools we were, for a dominant emotion is not so easily
banished, and we were for ever recurring to it in a hundred ways direct
and indirect. A real fear cannot be so easily trifled with, and while we
toyed on the surface with thousands and thousands of words--mere
words--our sub-conscious activities were steadily gaining force, and
would before very long have to be properly acknowledged. We could not
get away from it. At last, when he had finished the recital of an
adventure which brought him near enough to a horrible death, I admitted
that in my uneventful life I had never yet been face to face with a
real fear. It slipped out inadvertently, and, of course, without
intention, but the tendency in him at the time was too strong to be
resisted. He saw the loophole, and made for it full tilt.

"It is the same with all the emotions," he said. "The experiences of
others never give a complete account. Until a man has deliberately
turned and faced for himself the fiends that chase him down the years,
he has no knowledge of what they really are, or of what they can do.
Imaginative authors may write, moralists may preach, and scholars may
criticise, but they are dealing all the time in a coinage of which they
know not the actual value. Their listener gets a sensation--but not the
true one. Until you have faced these emotions," he went on, with the
same race of words that had come from him the whole evening, "and made
them your own, your slaves, you have no idea of the power that is in
them--hunger, that shows lights beckoning beyond the grave; thirst, that
fills with mingled ice and fire; passion, love, loneliness, revenge,
and--" He paused for a minute, and though I knew we were on the brink I
was powerless to hold him. " . . . _and fear_," he went on--"fear . . .
I think that death from fear, or madness from fear, must sum up in a
second of time the total of all the most awful sensations it is possible
for a man to know."

"Then you have yourself felt something of this fear," I interrupted;
"for you said just now--"

"I do not mean physical fear," he replied; "for that is more or less a
question of nerves and will, and it is imagination that makes men
cowards. I mean an _absolute_ fear, a physical fear one might call it,
that reaches the soul and withers every power one possesses."

He said a lot more, for he, too, was wholly unable to stem the torrent
once it broke loose; but I have forgotten it; or, rather, mercifully I
did not hear it, for I stopped my ears and only heard the occasional
words when I took my fingers out to find if he had come to an end. In
due course he did come to an end, and there we left it, for I then knew
positively what he already knew: that somewhere here in the night, and
within the walls of this very barn where we were sitting, there was
waiting Something of dreadful malignancy and of great power. Something
that we might both have to face ere morning, and Something that he had
already tried to face once and failed in the attempt.

The night wore slowly on; and it gradually became more and more clear to
me that I could not dare to rely as at first upon my companion, and that
our positions were undergoing a slow process of reversal. I thank Heaven
this was not borne in upon me too suddenly; and that I had at least the
time to readjust myself somewhat to the new conditions. Preparation was
possible, even if it was not much, and I sought by every means in my
power to gather up all the shreds of my courage, so that they might
together make a decent rope that would stand the strain when it came.
The strain would come, that was certain, and I was thoroughly well
aware--though for my life I cannot put into words the reasons for my
knowledge--that the massing of the material against us was proceeding
somewhere in the darkness with determination and a horrible skill
besides.

Shorthouse meanwhile talked without ceasing. The great quantity of hay
opposite--or straw, I believe it actually was--seemed to deaden the
sound of his voice, but the silence, too, had become so oppressive that
I welcomed his torrent and even dreaded the moment when it would stop. I
heard, too, the gentle ticking of my watch. Each second uttered its
voice and dropped away into a gulf, as if starting on a journey whence
there was no return. Once a dog barked somewhere in the distance,
probably on the Lower Farm; and once an owl hooted close outside and I
could hear the swishing of its wings as it passed overhead. Above me, in
the darkness, I could just make out the outline of the barn, sinister
and black, the rows of rafters stretching across from wall to wall like
wicked arms that pressed upon the hay. Shorthouse, deep in some involved
yarn of the South Seas that was meant to be full of cheer and sunshine,
and yet only succeeded in making a ghastly mixture of unnatural
colouring, seemed to care little whether I listened or not. He made no
appeal to me, and I made one or two quite irrelevant remarks which
passed him by and proved that he was merely uttering sounds. He, too,
was afraid of the silence.

I fell to wondering how long a man could talk without stopping. . . . Then
it seemed to me that these words of his went falling into the same gulf
where the seconds dropped, only they were heavier and fell faster. I
began to chase them. Presently one of them fell much faster than the
rest, and I pursued it and found myself almost immediately in a land of
clouds and shadows. They rose up and enveloped me, pressing on the
eyelids. . . . It must have been just here that I actually fell asleep,
somewhere between twelve and one o'clock, because, as I chased this word
at tremendous speed through space, I knew that I had left the other
words far, very far behind me, till, at last, I could no longer hear
them at all. The voice of the story-teller was beyond the reach of
hearing; and I was falling with ever increasing rapidity through an
immense void.

A sound of whispering roused me. Two persons were talking under their
breath close beside me. The words in the main escaped me, but I caught
every now and then bitten-off phrases and half sentences, to which,
however, I could attach no intelligible meaning. The words were quite
close--at my very side in fact--and one of the voices sounded so
familiar, that curiosity overcame dread, and I turned to look. I was not
mistaken; _it was Shorthouse whispering_. But the other person, who must
have been just a little beyond him, was lost in the darkness and
invisible to me. It seemed then that Shorthouse at once turned up his
face and looked at me and, by some means or other that caused me no
surprise at the time, I easily made out the features in the darkness.
They wore an expression I had never seen there before; he seemed
distressed, exhausted, worn out, and as though he were about to give in
after a long mental struggle. He looked at me, almost beseechingly, and
the whispering of the other person died away.

"They're at me," he said.

I found it quite impossible to answer; the words stuck in my throat. His
voice was thin, plaintive, almost like a child's.

"I shall have to go. I'm not as strong as I thought. They'll call it
suicide, but, of course, it's really murder." There was real anguish in
his voice, and it terrified me.

A deep silence followed these extraordinary words, and I somehow
understood that the Other Person was just going to carry on the
conversation--I even fancied I saw lips shaping themselves just over my
friend's shoulder--when I felt a sharp blow in the ribs and a voice,
this time a deep voice, sounded in my ear. I opened my eyes, and the
wretched dream vanished. Yet it left behind it an impression of a strong
and quite unusual reality.

"_Do_ try not to go to sleep again," he said sternly. "You seem
exhausted. Do you feel so?" There was a note in his voice I did not
welcome,--less than alarm, but certainly more than mere solicitude.

"I do feel terribly sleepy all of a sudden," I admitted, ashamed.

"So you may," he added very earnestly; "but I rely on you to keep awake,
if only to watch. You have been asleep for half an hour at least--and
you were so still--I thought I'd wake you--"

"Why?" I asked, for my curiosity and nervousness were altogether too
strong to be resisted. "Do you think we are in danger?"

"I think _they_ are about here now. I feel my vitality going
rapidly--that's always the first sign. You'll last longer than I,
remember. Watch carefully."

The conversation dropped. I was afraid to say all I wanted to say. It
would have been too unmistakably a confession; and intuitively I
realised the danger of admitting the existence of certain emotions until
positively forced to. But presently Shorthouse began again. His voice
sounded odd, and as if it had lost power. It was more like a woman's or
a boy's voice than a man's, and recalled the voice in my dream.

"I suppose you've got a knife?" he asked.

"Yes--a big clasp knife; but why?" He made no answer. "You don't think a
practical joke likely? No one suspects we're here," I went on. Nothing
was more significant of our real feelings this night than the way we
toyed with words, and never dared more than to skirt the things in our
mind.

"It's just as well to be prepared," he answered evasively. "Better be
quite sure. See which pocket it's in--so as to be ready."

I obeyed mechanically, and told him. But even this scrap of talk proved
to me that he was getting further from me all the time in his mind. He
was following a line that was strange to me, and, as he distanced me, I
felt that the sympathy between us grew more and more strained. _He knew
more_; it was not that I minded so much--but that he was willing to
_communicate less_. And in proportion as I lost his support, I dreaded
his increasing silence. Not of words--for he talked more volubly than
ever, and with a fiercer purpose--but his silence in giving no hint of
what he must have known to be really going on the whole time.

The night was perfectly still. Shorthouse continued steadily talking,
and I jogged him now and again with remarks or questions in order to
keep awake. He paid no attention, however, to either.

About two in the morning a short shower fell, and the drops rattled
sharply on the roof like shot. I was glad when it stopped, for it
completely drowned all other sounds and made it impossible to hear
anything else that might be going on. Something _was_ going on, too, all
the time, though for the life of me I could not say what. The outer
world had grown quite dim--the house-party, the shooters, the
billiard-room, and the ordinary daily incidents of my visit. All my
energies were concentrated on the present, and the constant strain of
watching, waiting, listening, was excessively telling.

Shorthouse still talked of his adventures, in some Eastern country now,
and less connectedly. These adventures, real or imaginary, had quite a
savour of the Arabian Nights, and did not by any means make it easier
for me to keep my hold on reality. The lightest weight will affect the
balance under such circumstances, and in this case the weight of his
talk was on the wrong scale. His words were very rapid, and I found it
overwhelmingly difficult not to follow them into that great gulf of
darkness where they all rushed and vanished. But that, I knew, meant
sleep again. Yet, it was strange I should feel sleepy when at the same
time all my nerves were fairly tingling. Every time I heard what seemed
like a step outside, or a movement in the hay opposite, the blood stood
still for a moment in my veins. Doubtless, the unremitting strain told
upon me more than I realised, and this was doubly great now that I knew
Shorthouse was a source of weakness instead of strength, as I had
counted. Certainly, a curious sense of languor grew upon me more and
more, and I was sure that the man beside me was engaged in the same
struggle. The feverishness of his talk proved this, if nothing else. It
was dreadfully hard to keep awake.

But this time, instead of dropping into the gulf, I saw something come
up out of it! It reached our world by a door in the side of the barn
furthest from me, and it came in cautiously and silently and moved into
the mass of hay opposite. There, for a moment, I lost it, but presently
I caught it again higher up. It was clinging, like a great bat, to the
side of the barn. Something trailed behind it, I could not make out
what. . . . It crawled up the wooden wall and began to move out along one
of the rafters. A numb terror settled down all over me as I watched it.
The thing trailing behind it was apparently a rope.

The whispering began again just then, but the only words I could catch
seemed without meaning; it was almost like another language. The voices
were above me, under the roof. Suddenly I saw signs of active movement
going on just beyond the place where the thing lay upon the rafter.
There was something else up there with it! Then followed panting, like
the quick breathing that accompanies effort, and the next minute a black
mass dropped through the air and dangled at the end of the rope.

Instantly, it all flashed upon me. I sprang to my feet and rushed
headlong across the floor of the barn. How I moved so quickly in the
darkness I do not know; but, even as I ran, it flashed into my mind that
I should never get at my knife in time to cut the thing down, or else
that I should find it had been taken from me. Somehow or other--the
Goddess of Dreams knows how--I climbed up by the hay bales and swung out
along the rafter. I was hanging, of course, by my arms, and the knife
was already between my teeth, though I had no recollection of how it got
there. It was open. The mass, hanging like a side of bacon, was only a
few feet in front of me, and I could plainly see the dark line of rope
that fastened it to the beam. I then noticed for the first time that it
was swinging and turning in the air, and that as I approached it seemed
to move along the beam, so that the same distance was always maintained
between us. The only thing I could do--for there was no time to
hesitate--was to jump at it through the air and slash at the rope as I
dropped.

I seized the knife with my right hand, gave a great swing of my body
with my legs and leaped forward at it through the air. Horrors! It was
closer to me than I knew, and I plunged full into it, and the arm with
the knife missed the rope and cut deeply into some substance that was
soft and yielding. But, as I dropped past it, the thing had time to turn
half its width so that it swung round and faced me--and I could have
sworn as I rushed past it through the air, that it had the features of
Shorthouse.

The shock of this brought the vile nightmare to an abrupt end, and I
woke up a second time on the soft hay-bed to find that the grey dawn was
stealing in, and that I was exceedingly cold. After all I had failed to
keep awake, and my sleep, since it was growing light, must have lasted
at least an hour. A whole hour off my guard!

There was no sound from Shorthouse, to whom, of course, my first
thoughts turned; probably his flow of words had ceased long ago, and he
too had yielded to the persuasions of the seductive god. I turned to
wake him and get the comfort of companionship for the horror of my
dream, when to my utter dismay I saw that the place where he had been
was vacant. He was no longer beside me.

It had been no little shock before to discover that the ally in whom lay
all my faith and dependence was really frightened, but it is quite
impossible to describe the sensations I experienced when I realised he
had gone altogether and that I was alone in the barn. For a minute or
two my head swam and I felt a prey to a helpless terror. The dream, too,
still seemed half real, so vivid had it been! I was thoroughly
frightened--hot and cold by turns--and I clutched the hay at my side in
handfuls, and for some moments had no idea in the world what I should
do.

This time, at least, I was unmistakably awake, and I made a great effort
to collect myself and face the meaning of the disappearance of my
companion. In this I succeeded so far that I decided upon a thorough
search of the barn, inside and outside. It was a dreadful undertaking,
and I did not feel at all sure of being able to bring it to a
conclusion, but I knew pretty well that unless something was done at
once, I should simply collapse.

But, when I tried to move, I found that the cold, and fear, and I know
not what else unholy besides, combined to make it almost impossible. I
suddenly realised that a tour of inspection, during the whole of which
my back would be open to attack, was not to be thought of. My will was
not equal to it. Anything might spring upon me any moment from the dark
corners, and the growing light was just enough to reveal every movement
I made to any who might be watching. For, even then, and while I was
still half dazed and stupid, I knew perfectly well that someone was
watching me all the time with the utmost intentness. I had not merely
awakened; I had _been_ awakened.

I decided to try another plan; I called to him. My voice had a thin weak
sound, far away and quite unreal, and there was no answer to it. Hark,
though! There was something that might have been a very faint voice near
me!

I called again, this time with greater distinctness, "Shorthouse, where
are you? can you hear me?"

There certainly was a sound, but it was not a voice. Something was
moving. It was someone shuffling along, and it seemed to be outside the
barn. I was afraid to call again, and the sound continued. It was an
ordinary sound enough, no doubt, but it came to me just then as
something unusual and unpleasant. Ordinary sounds remain ordinary only
so long as one is not listening to them; under the influence of intense
listening they become unusual, portentous, and therefore extraordinary.
So, this common sound came to me as something uncommon, disagreeable. It
conveyed, too, an impression of stealth. And with it there was another,
a slighter sound.

Just at this minute the wind bore faintly over the field the sound of
the stable clock, a mile away. It was three o'clock; the hour when
life's pulses beat lowest; when poor souls lying between life and death
find it hardest to resist. Vividly I remember this thought crashing
through my brain with a sound of thunder, and I realised that the strain
on my nerves was nearing the limit, and that something would have to be
done at once if I was to reclaim my self-control at all.

When thinking over afterwards the events of this dreadful night, it has
always seemed strange to me that my second nightmare, so vivid in its
terror and its nearness, should have furnished me with no inkling of
what was really going on all this while; and that I should not have been
able to put two and two together, or have discovered sooner than I did
_what_ this sound was and _where_ it came from. I can well believe that
the vile scheming which lay behind the whole experience found it an easy
trifle to direct my hearing amiss; though, of course, it may equally
well have been due to the confused condition of my mind at the time and
to the general nervous tension under which I was undoubtedly suffering.

But, whatever the cause for my stupidity at first in failing to trace
the sound to its proper source, I can only say here that it was with a
shock of unexampled horror that my eye suddenly glanced upwards and
caught sight of the figure moving in the shadows above my head among the
rafters. Up to this moment I had thought that it was somebody outside
the barn, crawling round the walls till it came to a door; and the rush
of horror that froze my heart when I looked up and saw that it was
Shorthouse creeping stealthily along a beam, is something altogether
beyond the power of words to describe.

He was staring intently down upon me, and I knew at once that it was he
who had been watching me.

This point was, I think, for me the climax of feeling in the whole
experience; I was incapable of any further sensation--that is any
further sensation in the same direction. But here the abominable
character of the affair showed itself most plainly, for it suddenly
presented an entirely new aspect to me. The light fell on the picture
from a new angle, and galvanised me into a fresh ability to feel when I
thought a merciful numbness had supervened. It may not sound a great
deal in the printed letter, but it came to me almost as if it had been
an extension of consciousness, for the Hand that held the pencil
suddenly touched in with ghastly effect of contrast the element of the
ludicrous. Nothing could have been worse just then. Shorthouse, the
masterful spirit, so intrepid in the affairs of ordinary life, whose
power increased rather than lessened in the face of danger--this man,
creeping on hands and knees along a rafter in a barn at three o'clock in
the morning, watching me all the time as a cat watches a mouse! Yes, it
was distinctly ludicrous, and while it gave me a measure with which to
gauge the dread emotion that caused his aberration, it stirred
somewhere deep in my interior the strings of an empty laughter.

One of those moments then came to me that are said to come sometimes
under the stress of great emotion, when in an instant the mind grows
dazzlingly clear. An abnormal lucidity took the place of my confusion of
thought, and I suddenly understood that the two dreams which I had taken
for nightmares must really have been sent me, and that I had been
allowed for one moment to look over the edge of what was to come; the
Good was helping, even when the Evil was most determined to destroy.

I saw it all clearly now. Shorthouse had overrated his strength. The
terror inspired by his first visit to the barn (when he had failed) had
roused the man's whole nature to win, and he had brought me to divert
the deadly stream of evil. That he had again underrated the power
against him was apparent as soon as he entered the barn, and his wild
talk, and refusal to admit what he felt, were due to this desire not to
acknowledge the insidious fear that was growing in his heart. But, at
length, it had become too strong. He had left my side in my sleep--had
been overcome himself, perhaps, first in _his_ sleep, by the dreadful
impulse. He knew that I should interfere, and with every movement he
made, he watched me steadily, for the mania was upon him and he was
_determined to hang himself_. He pretended not to hear me calling, and I
knew that anything coming between him and his purpose would meet the
full force of his fury--the fury of a maniac, of one, for the time
being, truly possessed.

For a minute or two I sat there and stared. I saw then for the first
time that there was a bit of rope trailing after him, and that this was
what made the rustling sound I had noticed. Shorthouse, too, had come to
a stop. His body lay along the rafter like a crouching animal. He was
looking hard at me. That whitish patch was his face.

I can lay claim to no courage in the matter, for I must confess that in
one sense I was frightened almost beyond control. But at the same time
the necessity for decided action, if I was to save his life, came to me
with an intense relief. No matter what animated him for the moment,
Shorthouse was only a _man_; it was flesh and blood I had to contend
with and not the intangible powers. Only a few hours before I had seen
him cleaning his gun, smoking his pipe, knocking the billiard balls
about with very human clumsiness, and the picture flashed across my
mind with the most wholesome effect.

Then I dashed across the floor of the barn and leaped upon the hay bales
as a preliminary to climbing up the sides to the first rafter. It was
far more difficult than in my dream. Twice I slipped back into the hay,
and as I scrambled up for the third time I saw that Shorthouse, who thus
far had made no sound or movement, was now busily doing something with
his hands upon the beam. He was at its further end, and there must have
been fully fifteen feet between us. Yet I saw plainly what he was doing;
he was fastening the rope to the rafter. _The other end, I saw, was
already round his neck!_

This gave me at once the necessary strength, and in a second I had swung
myself on to a beam, crying aloud with all the authority I could put
into my voice--

"You fool, man! What in the world are you trying to do? Come down at
once!"

My energetic actions and words combined had an immediate effect upon him
for which I blessed Heaven; for he looked up from his horrid task,
stared hard at me for a second or two, and then came wriggling along
like a great cat to intercept me. He came by a series of leaps and
bounds and at an astonishing pace, and the way he moved somehow inspired
me with a fresh horror, for it did not seem the natural movement of a
human being at all, but more, as I have said, like that of some lithe
wild animal.

He was close upon me. I had no clear idea of what exactly I meant to do.
I could see his face plainly now; he was grinning cruelly; the eyes were
positively luminous, and the menacing expression of the mouth was most
distressing to look upon. Otherwise it was the face of a chalk man,
white and dead, with all the semblance of the living human drawn out of
it. Between his teeth he held my clasp knife, which he must have taken
from me in my sleep, and with a flash I recalled his anxiety to know
exactly which pocket it was in.

"Drop that knife!" I shouted at him, "and drop after it yourself--"

"Don't you dare to stop me!" he hissed, the breath coming between his
lips across the knife that he held in his teeth. "Nothing in the world
can stop me now--I have promised--and I must do it. I can't hold out any
longer."

"Then drop the knife and I'll help you," I shouted back in his face. "I
promise--"

"No use," he cried, laughing a little, "I must do it and you can't stop
me."

I heard a sound of laughter, too, somewhere in the air behind me. The
next second Shorthouse came at me with a single bound.

To this day I cannot quite tell how it happened. It is still a wild
confusion and a fever of horror in my mind, but from somewhere I drew
more than my usual allowance of strength, and before he could well have
realised what I meant to do, I had his throat between my fingers. He
opened his teeth and the knife dropped at once, for I gave him a squeeze
he need never forget. Before, my muscles had felt like so much soaked
paper; now they recovered their natural strength, and more besides. I
managed to work ourselves along the rafter until the hay was beneath us,
and then, completely exhausted, I let go my hold and we swung round
together and dropped on to the hay, he clawing at me in the air even as
we fell.

The struggle that began by my fighting for his life ended in a wild
effort to save my own, for Shorthouse was quite beside himself, and had
no idea what he was doing. Indeed, he has always averred that he
remembers nothing of the entire night's experiences after the time when
he first woke me from sleep. A sort of deadly mist settled over him, he
declares, and he lost all sense of his own identity. The rest was a
blank until he came to his senses under a mass of hay with me on the top
of him.

It was the hay that saved us, first by breaking the fall and then by
impeding his movements so that I was able to prevent his choking me to
death.



THE WOOD OF THE DEAD


One summer, in my wanderings with a knapsack, I was at luncheon in the
room of a wayside inn in the western country, when the door opened and
there entered an old rustic, who crossed close to my end of the table
and sat himself down very quietly in the seat by the bow window. We
exchanged glances, or, properly speaking, nods, for at the moment I did
not actually raise my eyes to his face, so concerned was I with the
important business of satisfying an appetite gained by tramping twelve
miles over a difficult country.

The fine warm rain of seven o'clock, which had since risen in a kind of
luminous mist about the tree tops, now floated far overhead in a deep
blue sky, and the day was settling down into a blaze of golden light. It
was one of those days peculiar to Somerset and North Devon, when the
orchards shine and the meadows seem to add a radiance of their own, so
brilliantly soft are the colourings of grass and foliage.

The inn-keeper's daughter, a little maiden with a simple country
loveliness, presently entered with a foaming pewter mug, enquired after
my welfare, and went out again. Apparently she had not noticed the old
man sitting in the settle by the bow window, nor had he, for his part,
so much as once turned his head in our direction.

Under ordinary circumstances I should probably have given no thought to
this other occupant of the room; but the fact that it was supposed to be
reserved for my private use, and the singular thing that he sat looking
aimlessly out of the window, with no attempt to engage me in
conversation, drew my eyes more than once somewhat curiously upon him,
and I soon caught myself wondering why he sat there so silently, and
always with averted head.

He was, I saw, a rather bent old man in rustic dress, and the skin of
his face was wrinkled like that of an apple; corduroy trousers were
caught up with a string below the knee, and he wore a sort of brown
fustian jacket that was very much faded. His thin hand rested upon a
stoutish stick. He wore no hat and carried none, and I noticed that his
head, covered with silvery hair, was finely shaped and gave the
impression of something noble.

Though rather piqued by his studied disregard of my presence, I came to
the conclusion that he probably had something to do with the little
hostel and had a perfect right to use this room with freedom, and I
finished my luncheon without breaking the silence and then took the
settle opposite to smoke a pipe before going on my way.

Through the open window came the scents of the blossoming fruit trees;
the orchard was drenched in sunshine and the branches danced lazily in
the breeze; the grass below fairly shone with white and yellow daisies,
and the red roses climbing in profusion over the casement mingled their
perfume with the sweetly penetrating odour of the sea.

It was a place to dawdle in, to lie and dream away a whole afternoon,
watching the sleepy butterflies and listening to the chorus of birds
which seemed to fill every corner of the sky. Indeed, I was already
debating in my mind whether to linger and enjoy it all instead of taking
the strenuous pathway over the hills, when the old rustic in the settle
opposite suddenly turned his face towards me for the first time and
began to speak.

His voice had a quiet dreamy note in it that was quite in harmony with
the day and the scene, but it sounded far away, I thought, almost as
though it came to me from outside where the shadows were weaving their
eternal tissue of dreams upon the garden floor. Moreover, there was no
trace in it of the rough quality one might naturally have expected, and,
now that I saw the full face of the speaker for the first time, I noted
with something like a start that the deep, gentle eyes seemed far more
in keeping with the timbre of the voice than with the rough and very
countrified appearance of the clothes and manner. His voice set pleasant
waves of sound in motion towards me, and the actual words, if I remember
rightly, were--

"You are a stranger in these parts?" or "Is not this part of the country
strange to you?"

There was no "sir," nor any outward and visible sign of the deference
usually paid by real country folk to the town-bred visitor, but in its
place a gentleness, almost a sweetness, of polite sympathy that was far
more of a compliment than either.

I answered that I was wandering on foot through a part of the country
that was wholly new to me, and that I was surprised not to find a place
of such idyllic loveliness marked upon my map.

"I have lived here all my life," he said, with a sigh, "and am never
tired of coming back to it again."

"Then you no longer live in the immediate neighbourhood?"

"I have moved," he answered briefly, adding after a pause in which his
eyes seemed to wander wistfully to the wealth of blossoms beyond the
window; "but I am almost sorry, for nowhere else have I found the
sunshine lie so warmly, the flowers smell so sweetly, or the winds and
streams make such tender music. . . ."

His voice died away into a thin stream of sound that lost itself in the
rustle of the rose-leaves climbing in at the window, for he turned his
head away from me as he spoke and looked out into the garden. But it was
impossible to conceal my surprise, and I raised my eyes in frank
astonishment on hearing so poetic an utterance from such a figure of a
man, though at the same time realising that it was not in the least
inappropriate, and that, in fact, no other sort of expression could have
properly been expected from him.

"I am sure you are right," I answered at length, when it was clear he
had ceased speaking; "or there is something of enchantment here--of real
fairy-like enchantment--that makes me think of the visions of childhood
days, before one knew anything of--of--"

I had been oddly drawn into his vein of speech, some inner force
compelling me. But here the spell passed and I could not catch the
thoughts that had a moment before opened a long vista before my inner
vision.

"To tell you the truth," I concluded lamely, "the place fascinates me
and I am in two minds about going further--"

Even at this stage I remember thinking it odd that I should be talking
like this with a stranger whom I met in a country inn, for it has always
been one of my failings that to strangers my manner is brief to
surliness. It was as though we were figures meeting in a dream, speaking
without sound, obeying laws not operative in the everyday working world,
and about to play with a new scale of space and time perhaps. But my
astonishment passed quickly into an entirely different feeling when I
became aware that the old man opposite had turned his head from the
window again, and was regarding me with eyes so bright they seemed
almost to shine with an inner flame. His gaze was fixed upon my face
with an intense ardour, and his whole manner had suddenly become alert
and concentrated. There was something about him I now felt for the first
time that made little thrills of excitement run up and down my back. I
met his look squarely, but with an inward tremor.

"Stay, then, a little while longer," he said in a much lower and deeper
voice than before; "stay, and I will teach you something of the purpose
of my coming."

He stopped abruptly. I was conscious of a decided shiver.

"You have a special purpose then--in coming back?" I asked, hardly
knowing what I was saying.

"To call away someone," he went on in the same thrilling voice, "someone
who is not quite ready to come, but who is needed elsewhere for a
worthier purpose." There was a sadness in his manner that mystified me
more than ever.

"You mean--?" I began, with an unaccountable access of trembling.

"I have come for someone who must soon move, even as I have moved."

He looked me through and through with a dreadfully piercing gaze, but I
met his eyes with a full straight stare, trembling though I was, and I
was aware that something stirred within me that had never stirred
before, though for the life of me I could not have put a name to it, or
have analysed its nature. Something lifted and rolled away. For one
single second I understood clearly that the past and the future exist
actually side by side in one immense Present; that it was _I_ who moved
to and fro among shifting, protean appearances.

The old man dropped his eyes from my face, and the momentary glimpse of
a mightier universe passed utterly away. Reason regained its sway over a
dull, limited kingdom.

"Come to-night," I heard the old man say, "come to me to-night into the
Wood of the Dead. Come at midnight--"

Involuntarily I clutched the arm of the settle for support, for I then
felt that I was speaking with someone who knew more of the real things
that are and will be, than I could ever know while in the body, working
through the ordinary channels of sense--and this curious half-promise of
a partial lifting of the veil had its undeniable effect upon me.

The breeze from the sea had died away outside, and the blossoms were
still. A yellow butterfly floated lazily past the window. The song of
the birds hushed--I smelt the sea--I smelt the perfume of heated summer
air rising from fields and flowers, the ineffable scents of June and of
the long days of the year--and with it, from countless green meadows
beyond, came the hum of myriad summer life, children's voices, sweet
pipings, and the sound of water falling.

I knew myself to be on the threshold of a new order of experience--of an
ecstasy. Something drew me forth with a sense of inexpressible yearning
towards the being of this strange old man in the window seat, and for a
moment I knew what it was to taste a mighty and wonderful sensation, and
to touch the highest pinnacle of joy I have ever known. It lasted for
less than a second, and was gone; but in that brief instant of time the
same terrible lucidity came to me that had already shown me how the past
and future exist in the present, and I realised and understood that
pleasure and pain are one and the same force, for the joy I had just
experienced included also all the pain I ever had felt, or ever could
feel. . . .

The sunshine grew to dazzling radiance, faded, passed away. The shadows
paused in their dance upon the grass, deepened a moment, and then melted
into air. The flowers of the fruit trees laughed with their little
silvery laughter as the wind sighed over their radiant eyes the old,
old tale of its personal love. Once or twice a voice called my name. A
wonderful sensation of lightness and power began to steal over me.

Suddenly the door opened and the inn-keeper's daughter came in. By all
ordinary standards, her's was a charming country loveliness, born of the
stars and wild-flowers, of moonlight shining through autumn mists upon
the river and the fields; yet, by contrast with the higher order of
beauty I had just momentarily been in touch with, she seemed almost
ugly. How dull her eyes, how thin her voice, how vapid her smile, and
insipid her whole presentment.

For a moment she stood between me and the occupant of the window seat
while I counted out the small change for my meal and for her services;
but when, an instant later, she moved aside, I saw that the settle was
empty and that there was no longer anyone in the room but our two
selves.

This discovery was no shock to me; indeed, I had almost expected it, and
the man had gone just as a figure goes out of a dream, causing no
surprise and leaving me as part and parcel of the same dream without
breaking of continuity. But, as soon as I had paid my bill and thus
resumed in very practical fashion the thread of my normal consciousness,
I turned to the girl and asked her if she knew the old man who had been
sitting in the window seat, and what he had meant by the Wood of the
Dead.

The maiden started visibly, glancing quickly round the empty room, but
answering simply that she had seen no one. I described him in great
detail, and then, as the description grew clearer, she turned a little
pale under her pretty sunborn and said very gravely that it must have
been the ghost.

"Ghost! What ghost?"

"Oh, the village ghost," she said quietly, coming closer to my chair
with a little nervous movement of genuine alarm, and adding in a lower
voice, "He comes before a death, they say!"

It was not difficult to induce the girl to talk, and the story she told
me, shorn of the superstition that had obviously gathered with the years
round the memory of a strangely picturesque figure, was an interesting
and peculiar one.

The inn, she said, was originally a farmhouse, occupied by a yeoman
farmer, evidently of a superior, if rather eccentric, character, who had
been very poor until he reached old age, when a son died suddenly in
the Colonies and left him an unexpected amount of money, almost a
fortune.

The old man thereupon altered no whit his simple manner of living, but
devoted his income entirely to the improvement of the village and to the
assistance of its inhabitants; he did this quite regardless of his
personal likes and dislikes, as if one and all were absolutely alike to
him, objects of a genuine and impersonal benevolence. People had always
been a little afraid of the man, not understanding his eccentricities,
but the simple force of this love for humanity changed all that in a
very short space of time; and before he died he came to be known as the
Father of the Village and was held in great love and veneration by all.

A short time before his end, however, he began to act queerly. He spent
his money just as usefully and wisely, but the shock of sudden wealth
after a life of poverty, people said, had unsettled his mind. He claimed
to see things that others did not see, to hear voices, and to have
visions. Evidently, he was not of the harmless, foolish, visionary
order, but a man of character and of great personal force, for the
people became divided in their opinions, and the vicar, good man,
regarded and treated him as a "special case." For many, his name and
atmosphere became charged almost with a spiritual influence that was
not of the best. People quoted texts about him; kept when possible out
of his way, and avoided his house after dark. None understood him, but
though the majority loved him, an element of dread and mystery became
associated with his name, chiefly owing to the ignorant gossip of the
few.

A grove of pine trees behind the farm--the girl pointed them out to me
on the slope of the hill--he said was the Wood of the Dead, because just
before anyone died in the village he saw them walk into that wood,
singing. None who went in ever came out again. He often mentioned the
names to his wife, who usually published them to all the inhabitants
within an hour of her husband's confidence; and it was found that the
people he had seen enter the wood--died. On warm summer nights he would
sometimes take an old stick and wander out, hatless, under the pines,
for he loved this wood, and used to say he met all his old friends
there, and would one day walk in there never to return. His wife tried
to break him gently off this habit, but he always had his own way; and
once, when she followed and found him standing under a great pine in the
thickest portion of the grove, talking earnestly to someone she could
not see, he turned and rebuked her very gently, but in such a way that
she never repeated the experiment, saying--

"You should never interrupt me, Mary, when I am talking with the others;
for they teach me, remember, wonderful things, and I must learn all I
can before I go to join them."

This story went like wild-fire through the village, increasing with
every repetition, until at length everyone was able to give an accurate
description of the great veiled figures the woman declared she had seen
moving among the trees where her husband stood. The innocent pine-grove
now became positively haunted, and the title of "Wood of the Dead" clung
naturally as if it had been applied to it in the ordinary course of
events by the compilers of the Ordnance Survey.

On the evening of his ninetieth birthday the old man went up to his wife
and kissed her. His manner was loving, and very gentle, and there was
something about him besides, she declared afterwards, that made her
slightly in awe of him and feel that he was almost more of a spirit than
a man.

He kissed her tenderly on both cheeks, but his eyes seemed to look
right through her as he spoke.

"Dearest wife," he said, "I am saying good-bye to you, for I am now
going into the Wood of the Dead, and I shall not return. Do not follow
me, or send to search, but be ready soon to come upon the same journey
yourself."

The good woman burst into tears and tried to hold him, but he easily
slipped from her hands, and she was afraid to follow him. Slowly she saw
him cross the field in the sunshine, and then enter the cool shadows of
the grove, where he disappeared from her sight.

That same night, much later, she woke to find him lying peacefully by
her side in bed, with one arm stretched out towards her, _dead_. Her
story was half believed, half doubted at the time, but in a very few
years afterwards it evidently came to be accepted by all the
countryside. A funeral service was held to which the people flocked in
great numbers, and everyone approved of the sentiment which led the
widow to add the words, "The Father of the Village," after the usual
texts which appeared upon the stone over his grave.

This, then, was the story I pieced together of the village ghost as the
little inn-keeper's daughter told it to me that afternoon in the
parlour of the inn.

"But you're not the first to say you've seen him," the girl concluded;
"and your description is just what we've always heard, and that window,
they say, was just where he used to sit and think, and think, when he
was alive, and sometimes, they say, to cry for hours together."

"And would you feel afraid if you had seen him?" I asked, for the girl
seemed strangely moved and interested in the whole story.

"I think so," she answered timidly. "Surely, if he spoke to me. He did
speak to _you_, didn't he, sir?" she asked after a slight pause.

"He said he had come for someone."

"Come for someone," she repeated. "Did he say--" she went on
falteringly.

"No, he did not say for whom," I said quickly, noticing the sudden
shadow on her face and the tremulous voice.

"Are you really sure, sir?"

"Oh, quite sure," I answered cheerfully. "I did not even ask him." The
girl looked at me steadily for nearly a whole minute as though there
were many things she wished to tell me or to ask. But she said nothing,
and presently picked up her tray from the table and walked slowly out
of the room.

Instead of keeping to my original purpose and pushing on to the next
village over the hills, I ordered a room to be prepared for me at the
inn, and that afternoon I spent wandering about the fields and lying
under the fruit trees, watching the white clouds sailing out over the
sea. The Wood of the Dead I surveyed from a distance, but in the village
I visited the stone erected to the memory of the "Father of the
Village"--who was thus, evidently, no mythical personage--and saw also
the monuments of his fine unselfish spirit: the schoolhouse he built,
the library, the home for the aged poor, and the tiny hospital.

That night, as the clock in the church tower was striking half-past
eleven, I stealthily left the inn and crept through the dark orchard and
over the hayfield in the direction of the hill whose southern slope was
clothed with the Wood of the Dead. A genuine interest impelled me to the
adventure, but I also was obliged to confess to a certain sinking in my
heart as I stumbled along over the field in the darkness, for I was
approaching what might prove to be the birth-place of a real country
myth, and a spot already lifted by the imaginative thoughts of a
considerable number of people into the region of the haunted and
ill-omened.

The inn lay below me, and all round it the village clustered in a soft
black shadow unrelieved by a single light. The night was moonless, yet
distinctly luminous, for the stars crowded the sky. The silence of deep
slumber was everywhere; so still, indeed, that every time my foot kicked
against a stone I thought the sound must be heard below in the village
and waken the sleepers.

I climbed the hill slowly, thinking chiefly of the strange story of the
noble old man who had seized the opportunity to do good to his fellows
the moment it came his way, and wondering why the causes that operate
ceaselessly behind human life did not always select such admirable
instruments. Once or twice a night-bird circled swiftly over my head,
but the bats had long since gone to rest, and there was no other sign of
life stirring.

Then, suddenly, with a singular thrill of emotion, I saw the first trees
of the Wood of the Dead rise in front of me in a high black wall. Their
crests stood up like giant spears against the starry sky; and though
there was no perceptible movement of the air on my cheek I heard a
faint, rushing sound among their branches as the night breeze passed to
and fro over their countless little needles. A remote, hushed murmur
rose overhead and died away again almost immediately; for in these trees
the wind seems to be never absolutely at rest, and on the calmest day
there is always a sort of whispering music among their branches.

For a moment I hesitated on the edge of this dark wood, and listened
intently. Delicate perfumes of earth and bark stole out to meet me.
Impenetrable darkness faced me. Only the consciousness that I was
obeying an order, strangely given, and including a mighty privilege,
enabled me to find the courage to go forward and step in boldly under
the trees.

Instantly the shadows closed in upon me and "something" came forward to
meet me from the centre of the darkness. It would be easy enough to meet
my imagination half-way with fact, and say that a cold hand grasped my
own and led me by invisible paths into the unknown depths of the grove;
but at any rate, without stumbling, and always with the positive
knowledge that I was going straight towards the desired object, I
pressed on confidently and securely into the wood. So dark was it that,
at first, not a single star-beam pierced the roof of branches overhead;
and, as we moved forward side by side, the trees shifted silently past
us in long lines, row upon row, squadron upon squadron, like the units
of a vast, soundless army.

And, at length, we came to a comparatively open space where the trees
halted upon us for a while, and, looking up, I saw the white river of
the sky beginning to yield to the influence of a new light that now
seemed spreading swiftly across the heavens.

"It is the dawn coming," said the voice at my side that I certainly
recognised, but which seemed almost like a whispering from the trees,
"and we are now in the heart of the Wood of the Dead."

We seated ourselves on a moss-covered boulder and waited the coming of
the sun. With marvellous swiftness, it seemed to me, the light in the
east passed into the radiance of early morning, and when the wind awoke
and began to whisper in the tree tops, the first rays of the risen sun
fell between the trunks and rested in a circle of gold at our feet.

"Now, come with me," whispered my companion in the same deep voice, "for
time has no existence here, and that which I would show you is already
_there_!"

We trod gently and silently over the soft pine needles. Already the sun
was high over our heads, and the shadows of the trees coiled closely
about their feet. The wood became denser again, but occasionally we
passed through little open bits where we could smell the hot sunshine
and the dry, baked pine needles. Then, presently, we came to the edge of
the grove, and I saw a hayfield lying in the blaze of day, and two
horses basking lazily with switching tails in the shafts of a laden
hay-waggon.

So complete and vivid was the sense of reality, that I remember the
grateful realisation of the cool shade where we sat and looked out upon
the hot world beyond.

The last pitchfork had tossed up its fragrant burden, and the great
horses were already straining in the shafts after the driver, as he
walked slowly in front with one hand upon their bridles. He was a
stalwart fellow, with sunburned neck and hands. Then, for the first
time, I noticed, perched aloft upon the trembling throne of hay, the
figure of a slim young girl. I could not see her face, but her brown
hair escaped in disorder from a white sun-bonnet, and her still browner
hands held a well-worn hay rake. She was laughing and talking with the
driver, and he, from time to time, cast up at her ardent glances of
admiration--glances that won instant smiles and soft blushes in
response.

The cart presently turned into the roadway that skirted the edge of the
wood where we were sitting. I watched the scene with intense interest
and became so much absorbed in it that I quite forgot the manifold,
strange steps by which I was permitted to become a spectator.

"Come down and walk with me," cried the young fellow, stopping a moment
in front of the horses and opening wide his arms. "Jump! and I'll catch
you!"

"Oh, oh," she laughed, and her voice sounded to me as the happiest,
merriest laughter I had ever heard from a girl's throat. "Oh, oh! that's
all very well. But remember I'm Queen of the Hay, and I must ride!"

"Then I must come and ride beside you," he cried, and began at once to
climb up by way of the driver's seat. But, with a peal of silvery
laughter, she slipped down easily over the back of the hay to escape
him, and ran a little way along the road. I could see her quite clearly,
and noticed the charming, natural grace of her movements, and the
loving expression in her eyes as she looked over her shoulder to make
sure he was following. Evidently, she did not wish to escape for long,
certainly not for ever.

In two strides the big, brown swain was after her, leaving the horses to
do as they pleased. Another second and his arms would have caught the
slender waist and pressed the little body to his heart. But, just at
that instant, the old man beside me uttered a peculiar cry. It was low
and thrilling, and it went through me like a sharp sword.

HE had called her by her own name--and she had heard.

For a second she halted, glancing back with frightened eyes. Then, with
a brief cry of despair, the girl swerved aside and dived in swiftly
among the shadows of the trees.

But the young man saw the sudden movement and cried out to her
passionately--

"Not that way, my love! Not that way! It's the Wood of the Dead!"

She threw a laughing glance over her shoulder at him, and the wind
caught her hair and drew it out in a brown cloud under the sun. But the
next minute she was close beside me, lying on the breast of my
companion, and I was certain I heard the words repeatedly uttered with
many sighs: "Father, you called, and I have come. And I come willingly,
for I am very, very tired."

At any rate, so the words sounded to me, and mingled with them I seemed
to catch the answer in that deep, thrilling whisper I already knew: "And
you shall sleep, my child, sleep for a long, long time, until it is time
for you to begin the journey again."

In that brief second of time I had recognised the face and voice of the
inn-keeper's daughter, but the next minute a dreadful wail broke from
the lips of the young man, and the sky grew suddenly as dark as night,
the wind rose and began to toss the branches about us, and the whole
scene was swallowed up in a wave of utter blackness.

Again the chill fingers seemed to seize my hand, and I was guided by the
way I had come to the edge of the wood, and crossing the hayfield still
slumbering in the starlight, I crept back to the inn and went to bed.

A year later I happened to be in the same part of the country, and the
memory of the strange summer vision returned to me with the added
softness of distance. I went to the old village and had tea under the
same orchard trees at the same inn.

But the little maid of the inn did not show her face, and I took
occasion to enquire of her father as to her welfare and her whereabouts.

"Married, no doubt," I laughed, but with a strange feeling that clutched
at my heart.

"No, sir," replied the inn-keeper sadly, "not married--though she was
just going to be--but dead. She got a sunstroke in the hayfields, just a
few days after you were here, if I remember rightly, and she was gone
from us in less than a week."



SMITH: AN EPISODE IN A LODGING-HOUSE


"When I was a medical student," began the doctor, half turning towards
his circle of listeners in the firelight, "I came across one or two very
curious human beings; but there was one fellow I remember particularly,
for he caused me the most vivid, and I think the most uncomfortable,
emotions I have ever known.

"For many months I knew Smith only by name as the occupant of the floor
above me. Obviously his name meant nothing to me. Moreover I was busy
with lectures, reading, cliniques and the like, and had little leisure
to devise plans for scraping acquaintance with any of the other lodgers
in the house. Then chance brought us curiously together, and this fellow
Smith left a deep impression upon me as the result of our first meeting.
At the time the strength of this first impression seemed quite
inexplicable to me, but looking back at the episode now from a
stand-point of greater knowledge I judge the fact to have been that he
stirred my curiosity to an unusual degree, and at the same time awakened
my sense of horror--whatever that may be in a medical student--about as
deeply and permanently as these two emotions were capable of being
stirred at all in the particular system and set of nerves called ME.

"How he knew that I was interested in the study of languages was
something I could never explain, but one day, quite unannounced, he came
quietly into my room in the evening and asked me point-blank if I knew
enough Hebrew to help him in the pronunciation of certain words.

"He caught me along the line of least resistance, and I was greatly
flattered to be able to give him the desired information; but it was
only when he had thanked me and was gone that I realised I had been in
the presence of an unusual individuality. For the life of me I could not
quite seize and label the peculiarities of what I felt to be a very
striking personality, but it was borne in upon me that he was a man
apart from his fellows, a mind that followed a line leading away from
ordinary human intercourse and human interests, and into regions that
left in his atmosphere something remote, rarefied, chilling.

"The moment he was gone I became conscious of two things--an intense
curiosity to know more about this man and what his real interests were,
and secondly, the fact that my skin was crawling and that my hair had a
tendency to rise."

The doctor paused a moment here to puff hard at his pipe, which,
however, had gone out beyond recall without the assistance of a match;
and in the deep silence, which testified to the genuine interest of his
listeners, someone poked the fire up into a little blaze, and one or two
others glanced over their shoulders into the dark distances of the big
hall.

"On looking back," he went on, watching the momentary flames in the
grate, "I see a short, thick-set man of perhaps forty-five, with immense
shoulders and small, slender hands. The contrast was noticeable, for I
remember thinking that such a giant frame and such slim finger bones
hardly belonged together. His head, too, was large and very long, the
head of an idealist beyond all question, yet with an unusually strong
development of the jaw and chin. Here again was a singular
contradiction, though I am better able now to appreciate its full
meaning, with a greater experience in judging the values of
physiognomy. For this meant, of course, an enthusiastic idealism
balanced and kept in check by will and judgment--elements usually
deficient in dreamers and visionaries.

"At any rate, here was a being with probably a very wide range of
possibilities, a machine with a pendulum that most likely had an unusual
length of swing.

"The man's hair was exceedingly fine, and the lines about his nose and
mouth were cut as with a delicate steel instrument in wax. His eyes I
have left to the last. They were large and quite changeable, not in
colour only, but in character, size, and shape. Occasionally they seemed
the eyes of someone else, if you can understand what I mean, and at the
same time, in their shifting shades of blue, green, and a nameless sort
of dark grey, there was a sinister light in them that lent to the whole
face an aspect almost alarming. Moreover, they were the most luminous
optics I think I have ever seen in any human being.

"There, then, at the risk of a wearisome description, is Smith as I saw
him for the first time that winter's evening in my shabby student's
rooms in Edinburgh. And yet the real part of him, of course, I have
left untouched, for it is both indescribable and un-get-atable. I have
spoken already of an atmosphere of warning and aloofness he carried
about with him. It is impossible further to analyse the series of little
shocks his presence always communicated to my being; but there was that
about him which made me instantly on the _qui vive_ in his presence,
every nerve alert, every sense strained and on the watch. I do not mean
that he deliberately suggested danger, but rather that he brought forces
in his wake which automatically warned the nervous centres of my system
to be on their guard and alert.

"Since the days of my first acquaintance with this man I have lived
through other experiences and have seen much I cannot pretend to explain
or understand; but, so far in my life, I have only once come across a
human being who suggested a disagreeable familiarity with unholy things,
and who made me feel uncanny and 'creepy' in his presence; and that
unenviable individual was Mr. Smith.

"What his occupation was during the day I never knew. I think he slept
until the sun set. No one ever saw him on the stairs, or heard him move
in his room during the day. He was a creature of the shadows, who
apparently preferred darkness to light. Our landlady either knew
nothing, or would say nothing. At any rate she found no fault, and I
have since wondered often by what magic this fellow was able to convert
a common landlady of a common lodging-house into a discreet and
uncommunicative person. This alone was a sign of genius of some sort.

"'He's been here with me for years--long before you come, an' I don't
interfere or ask no questions of what doesn't concern me, as long as
people pays their rent,' was the only remark on the subject that I ever
succeeded in winning from that quarter, and it certainly told me nothing
nor gave me any encouragement to ask for further information.

"Examinations, however, and the general excitement of a medical
student's life for a time put Mr. Smith completely out of my head. For a
long period he did not call upon me again, and for my part, I felt no
courage to return his unsolicited visit.

"Just then, however, there came a change in the fortunes of those who
controlled my very limited income, and I was obliged to give up my
ground-floor and move aloft to more modest chambers on the top of the
house. Here I was directly over Smith, and had to pass his door to
reach my own.

"It so happened that about this time I was frequently called out at all
hours of the night for the maternity cases which a fourth-year student
takes at a certain period of his studies, and on returning from one of
these visits at about two o'clock in the morning I was surprised to hear
the sound of voices as I passed his door. A peculiar sweet odour, too,
not unlike the smell of incense, penetrated into the passage.

"I went upstairs very quietly, wondering what was going on there at this
hour of the morning. To my knowledge Smith never had visitors. For a
moment I hesitated outside the door with one foot on the stairs. All my
interest in this strange man revived, and my curiosity rose to a point
not far from action. At last I might learn something of the habits of
this lover of the night and the darkness.

"The sound of voices was plainly audible, Smith's predominating so much
that I never could catch more than points of sound from the other,
penetrating now and then the steady stream of his voice. Not a single
word reached me, at least, not a word that I could understand, though
the voice was loud and distinct, and it was only afterwards that I
realised he must have been speaking in a foreign language.

"The sound of footsteps, too, was equally distinct. Two persons were
moving about the room, passing and repassing the door, one of them a
light, agile person, and the other ponderous and somewhat awkward.
Smith's voice went on incessantly with its odd, monotonous droning, now
loud, now soft, as he crossed and re-crossed the floor. The other person
was also on the move, but in a different and less regular fashion, for I
heard rapid steps that seemed to end sometimes in stumbling, and quick
sudden movements that brought up with a violent lurching against the
wall or furniture.

"As I listened to Smith's voice, moreover, I began to feel afraid. There
was something in the sound that made me feel intuitively he was in a
tight place, and an impulse stirred faintly in me--very faintly, I
admit--to knock at the door and inquire if he needed help.

"But long before the impulse could translate itself into an act, or even
before it had been properly weighed and considered by the mind, I heard
a voice close beside me in the air, a sort of hushed whisper which I am
certain was Smith speaking, though the sound did not seem to have come
to me through the door. It was close in my very ear, as though he stood
beside me, and it gave me such a start, that I clutched the banisters to
save myself from stepping backwards and making a clatter on the stairs.

"'There is nothing you can do to help me,'" it said distinctly, 'and you
will be much safer in your own room.'

"I am ashamed to this day of the pace at which I covered the flight of
stairs in the darkness to the top floor, and of the shaking hand with
which I lit my candles and bolted the door. But, there it is, just as it
happened.

"This midnight episode, so odd and yet so trivial in itself, fired me
with more curiosity than ever about my fellow-lodger. It also made me
connect him in my mind with a sense of fear and distrust. I never saw
him, yet I was often, and uncomfortably, aware of his presence in the
upper regions of that gloomy lodging-house. Smith and his secret mode of
life and mysterious pursuits, somehow contrived to awaken in my being a
line of reflection that disturbed my comfortable condition of ignorance.
I never saw him, as I have said, and exchanged no sort of communication
with him, yet it seemed to me that his mind was in contact with mine,
and some of the strange forces of his atmosphere filtered through into
my being and disturbed my equilibrium. Those upper floors became haunted
for me after dark, and, though outwardly our lives never came into
contact, I became unwillingly involved in certain pursuits on which his
mind was centred. I felt that he was somehow making use of me against my
will, and by methods which passed my comprehension.

"I was at that time, moreover, in the heavy, unquestioning state of
materialism which is common to medical students when they begin to
understand something of the human anatomy and nervous system, and jump
at once to the conclusion that they control the universe and hold in
their forceps the last word of life and death. I 'knew it all,' and
regarded a belief in anything beyond matter as the wanderings of weak,
or at best, untrained minds. And this condition of mind, of course,
added to the strength of this upsetting fear which emanated from the
floor below and began slowly to take possession of me.

"Though I kept no notes of the subsequent events in this matter, they
made too deep an impression for me ever to forget the sequence in which
they occurred. Without difficulty I can recall the next step in the
adventure with Smith, for adventure it rapidly grew to be."

The doctor stopped a moment and laid his pipe on the table behind him
before continuing. The fire had burned low, and no one stirred to poke
it. The silence in the great hall was so deep that when the speaker's
pipe touched the table the sound woke audible echoes at the far end
among the shadows.

"One evening, while I was reading, the door of my room opened and Smith
came in. He made no attempt at ceremony. It was after ten o'clock and I
was tired, but the presence of the man immediately galvanised me into
activity. My attempts at ordinary politeness he thrust on one side at
once, and began asking me to vocalise, and then pronounce for him,
certain Hebrew words; and when this was done he abruptly inquired if I
was not the fortunate possessor of a very rare Rabbinical Treatise,
which he named.

"How he knew that I possessed this book puzzled me exceedingly; but I
was still more surprised to see him cross the room and take it out of
my book-shelf almost before I had had time to answer in the affirmative.
Evidently he knew exactly where it was kept. This excited my curiosity
beyond all bounds, and I immediately began asking him questions; and
though, out of sheer respect for the man, I put them very delicately to
him, and almost by way of mere conversation, he had only one reply for
the lot. He would look up at me from the pages of the book with an
expression of complete comprehension on his extraordinary features,
would bow his head a little and say very gravely--

"'That, of course, is a perfectly proper question,'--which was
absolutely all I could ever get out of him.

"On this particular occasion he stayed with me perhaps ten or fifteen
minutes. Then he went quickly downstairs to his room with my Hebrew
Treatise in his hand, and I heard him close and bolt his door.

"But a few moments later, before I had time to settle down to my book
again, or to recover from the surprise his visit had caused me, I heard
the door open, and there stood Smith once again beside my chair. He made
no excuse for his second interruption, but bent his head down to the
level of my reading lamp and peered across the flame straight into my
eyes.

"'I hope,' he whispered, 'I hope you are never disturbed at night?'

"'Eh?' I stammered, 'disturbed at night? Oh no, thanks, at least, not
that I know of--'

"'I'm glad,' he replied gravely, appearing not to notice my confusion
and surprise at his question. 'But, remember, should it ever be the
case, please let me know at once.'

"And he was gone down the stairs and into his room again.

"For some minutes I sat reflecting upon his strange behaviour. He was
not mad, I argued, but was the victim of some harmless delusion that had
gradually grown upon him as a result of his solitary mode of life; and
from the books he used, I judged that it had something to do with
mediæval magic, or some system of ancient Hebrew mysticism. The words he
asked me to pronounce for him were probably 'Words of Power,' which,
when uttered with the vehemence of a strong will behind them, were
supposed to produce physical results, or set up vibrations in one's own
inner being that had the effect of a partial lifting of the veil.

"I sat thinking about the man, and his way of living, and the probable
effects in the long-run of his dangerous experiments, and I can recall
perfectly well the sensation of disappointment that crept over me when I
realised that I had labelled his particular form of aberration, and that
my curiosity would therefore no longer be excited.

"For some time I had been sitting alone with these reflections--it may
have been ten minutes or it may have been half an hour--when I was
aroused from my reverie by the knowledge that someone was again in the
room standing close beside my chair. My first thought was that Smith had
come back again in his swift, unaccountable manner, but almost at the
same moment I realised that this could not be the case at all. For the
door faced my position, and it certainly had not been opened again.

"Yet, someone was in the room, moving cautiously to and fro, watching
me, almost touching me. I was as sure of it as I was of myself, and
though at the moment I do not think I was actually afraid, I am bound to
admit that a certain weakness came over me and that I felt that strange
disinclination for action which is probably the beginning of the
horrible paralysis of real terror. I should have been glad to hide
myself, if that had been possible, to cower into a corner, or behind a
door, or anywhere so that I could not be watched and observed.

"But, overcoming my nervousness with an effort of the will, I got up
quickly out of my chair and held the reading lamp aloft so that it shone
into all the corners like a searchlight.

"The room was utterly empty! It was utterly empty, at least, to the
_eye_, but to the nerves, and especially to that combination of sense
perception which is made up by all the senses acting together, and by no
one in particular, there was a person standing there at my very elbow.

"I say 'person,' for I can think of no appropriate word. For, if it
_was_ a human being, I can only affirm that I had the overwhelming
conviction that it was _not_, but that it was some form of life wholly
unknown to me both as to its essence and its nature. A sensation of
gigantic force and power came with it, and I remember vividly to this
day my terror on realising that I was close to an invisible being who
could crush me as easily as I could crush a fly, and who could see my
every movement while itself remaining invisible.

"To this terror was added the certain knowledge that the 'being' kept
in my proximity for a definite purpose. And that this purpose had some
direct bearing upon my well-being, indeed upon my life, I was equally
convinced; for I became aware of a sensation of growing lassitude as
though the vitality were being steadily drained out of my body. My heart
began to beat irregularly at first, then faintly. I was conscious, even
within a few minutes, of a general drooping of the powers of life in the
whole system, an ebbing away of self-control, and a distinct approach of
drowsiness and torpor.

"The power to move, or to think out any mode of resistance, was fast
leaving me, when there rose, in the distance as it were, a tremendous
commotion. A door opened with a clatter, and I heard the peremptory and
commanding tones of a human voice calling aloud in a language I could
not comprehend. It was Smith, my fellow-lodger, calling up the stairs;
and his voice had not sounded for more than a few seconds, when I felt
something withdrawn from my presence, from my person, indeed from my
_very skin_. It seemed as if there was a rushing of air and some large
creature swept by me at about the level of my shoulders. Instantly the
pressure on my heart was relieved, and the atmosphere seemed to resume
its normal condition.

"Smith's door closed quietly downstairs, as I put the lamp down with
trembling hands. What had happened I do not know; only, I was alone
again and my strength was returning as rapidly as it had left me.

"I went across the room and examined myself in the glass. The skin was
very pale, and the eyes dull. My temperature, I found, was a little
below normal and my pulse faint and irregular. But these smaller signs
of disturbance were as nothing compared with the feeling I had--though
no outward signs bore testimony to the fact--that I had narrowly escaped
a real and ghastly catastrophe. I felt shaken, somehow, shaken to the
very roots of my being."

The doctor rose from his chair and crossed over to the dying fire, so
that no one could see the expression on his face as he stood with his
back to the grate, and continued his weird tale.

"It would be wearisome," he went on in a lower voice, looking over our
heads as though he still saw the dingy top floor of that haunted
Edinburgh lodging-house; "it would be tedious for me at this length of
time to analyse my feelings, or attempt to reproduce for you the
thorough examination to which I endeavoured then to subject my whole
being, intellectual, emotional, and physical. I need only mention the
dominant emotion with which this curious episode left me--the indignant
anger against myself that I could ever have lost my self-control enough
to come under the sway of so gross and absurd a delusion. This protest,
however, I remember making with all the emphasis possible. And I also
remember noting that it brought me very little satisfaction, for it was
the protest of my reason only, when all the rest of my being was up in
arms against its conclusions.

"My dealings with the 'delusion,' however, were not yet over for the
night; for very early next morning, somewhere about three o'clock, I was
awakened by a curiously stealthy noise in the room, and the next minute
there followed a crash as if all my books had been swept bodily from
their shelf on to the floor.

"But this time I was not frightened. Cursing the disturbance with all
the resounding and harmless words I could accumulate, I jumped out of
bed and lit the candle in a second, and in the first dazzle of the
flaring match--but before the wick had time to catch--I was certain I
_saw_ a dark grey shadow, of ungainly shape, and with something more or
less like a human head, drive rapidly past the side of the wall farthest
from me and disappear into the gloom by the angle of the door.

"I waited one single second to be sure the candle was alight, and then
dashed after it, but before I had gone two steps, my foot stumbled
against something hard piled up on the carpet and I only just saved
myself from falling headlong. I picked myself up and found that all the
books from what I called my 'language shelf' were strewn across the
floor. The room, meanwhile, as a minute's search revealed, was quite
empty. I looked in every corner and behind every stick of furniture, and
a student's bedroom on a top floor, costing twelve shillings a week, did
not hold many available hiding-places, as you may imagine.

"The crash, however, was explained. Some very practical and physical
force had thrown the books from their resting-place. That, at least, was
beyond all doubt. And as I replaced them on the shelf and noted that not
one was missing, I busied myself mentally with the sore problem of how
the agent of this little practical joke had gained access to my room,
and then escaped again. _For my door was locked and bolted._

"Smith's odd question as to whether I was disturbed in the night, and
his warning injunction to let him know at once if such were the case,
now of course returned to affect me as I stood there in the early
morning, cold and shivering on the carpet; but I realised at the same
moment how impossible it would be for me to admit that a more than
usually vivid nightmare could have any connection with himself. I would
rather stand a hundred of these mysterious visitations than consult such
a man as to their possible cause.

"A knock at the door interrupted my reflections, and I gave a start that
sent the candle grease flying.

"'Let me in,' came in Smith's voice.

"I unlocked the door. He came in fully dressed. His face wore a curious
pallor. It seemed to me to be under the skin and to shine through and
almost make it luminous. His eyes were exceedingly bright.

"I was wondering what in the world to say to him, or how he would
explain his visit at such an hour, when he closed the door behind him
and came close up to me--uncomfortably close.

"'You should have called me at once,' he said in his whispering voice,
fixing his great eyes on my face.

"I stammered something about an awful dream, but he ignored my remark
utterly, and I caught his eye wandering next--if any movement of those
optics can be described as 'wandering'--to the book-shelf. I watched
him, unable to move my gaze from his person. The man fascinated me
horribly for some reason. Why, in the devil's name, was he up and
dressed at three in the morning? How did he know anything had happened
unusual in my room? Then his whisper began again.

"'It's your amazing vitality that causes you this annoyance,' he said,
shifting his eyes back to mine.

"I gasped. Something in his voice or manner turned my blood into ice.

"'That's the real attraction,' he went on. 'But if this continues one of
us will have to leave, you know.'

"I positively could not find a word to say in reply. The channels of
speech dried up within me. I simply stared and wondered what he would
say next. I watched him in a sort of dream, and as far as I can
remember, he asked me to promise to call him sooner another time, and
then began to walk round the room, uttering strange sounds, and making
signs with his arms and hands until he reached the door. Then he was
gone in a second, and I had closed and locked the door behind him.

"After this, the Smith adventure drew rapidly to a climax. It was a week
or two later, and I was coming home between two and three in the morning
from a maternity case, certain features of which for the time being had
very much taken possession of my mind, so much so, indeed, that I passed
Smith's door without giving him a single thought.

"The gas jet on the landing was still burning, but so low that it made
little impression on the waves of deep shadow that lay across the
stairs. Overhead, the faintest possible gleam of grey showed that the
morning was not far away. A few stars shone down through the sky-light.
The house was still as the grave, and the only sound to break the
silence was the rushing of the wind round the walls and over the roof.
But this was a fitful sound, suddenly rising and as suddenly falling
away again, and it only served to intensify the silence.

"I had already reached my own landing when I gave a violent start. It
was automatic, almost a reflex action in fact, for it was only when I
caught myself fumbling at the door handle and thinking where I could
conceal myself quickest that I realised a voice had sounded close beside
me in the air. It was the same voice I had heard before, and it seemed
to me to be calling for help. And yet the very same minute I pushed on
into the room, determined to disregard it, and seeking to persuade
myself it was the creaking of the boards under my weight or the rushing
noise of the wind that had deceived me.

"But hardly had I reached the table where the candles stood when the
sound was unmistakably repeated: 'Help! help!' And this time it was
accompanied by what I can only describe as a vivid tactile
hallucination. I was touched: the _skin_ of my arm was clutched by
fingers.

"Some compelling force sent me headlong downstairs as if the haunting
forces of the whole world were at my heels. At Smith's door I paused.
The force of his previous warning injunction to seek his aid without
delay acted suddenly and I leant my whole weight against the panels,
little dreaming that I should be called upon to give help rather than
to receive it.

"The door yielded at once, and I burst into a room that was so full of a
choking vapour, moving in slow clouds, that at first I could distinguish
nothing at all but a set of what seemed to be huge shadows passing in
and out of the mist. Then, gradually, I perceived that a red lamp on the
mantelpiece gave all the light there was, and that the room which I now
entered for the first time was almost empty of furniture.

"The carpet was rolled back and piled in a heap in the corner, and upon
the white boards of the floor I noticed a large circle drawn in black of
some material that emitted a faint glowing light and was apparently
smoking. Inside this circle, as well as at regular intervals outside it,
were curious-looking designs, also traced in the same black, smoking
substance. These, too, seemed to emit a feeble light of their own.

"My first impression on entering the room had been that it was full
of--_people_, I was going to say; but that hardly expresses my meaning.
_Beings_, they certainly were, but it was borne in upon me beyond the
possibility of doubt, that they were not human beings. That I had caught
a momentary glimpse of living, intelligent entities I can never doubt,
but I am equally convinced, though I cannot prove it, that these
entities were from some other scheme of evolution altogether, and had
nothing to do with the ordinary human life, either incarnate or
discarnate.

"But, whatever they were, the visible appearance of them was exceedingly
fleeting. I no longer saw anything, though I still felt convinced of
their immediate presence. They were, moreover, of the same order of life
as the visitant in my bedroom of a few nights before, and their
proximity to my atmosphere in numbers, instead of singly as before,
conveyed to my mind something that was quite terrible and overwhelming.
I fell into a violent trembling, and the perspiration poured from my
face in streams.

"They were in constant motion about me. They stood close to my side;
moved behind me; brushed past my shoulder; stirred the hair on my
forehead; and circled round me without ever actually touching me, yet
always pressing closer and closer. Especially in the air just over my
head there seemed ceaseless movement, and it was accompanied by a
confused noise of whispering and sighing that threatened every moment to
become articulate in words. To my intense relief, however, I heard no
distinct words, and the noise continued more like the rising and falling
of the wind than anything else I can imagine.

"But the characteristic of these 'Beings' that impressed me most
strongly at the time, and of which I have carried away the most
permanent recollection, was that each one of them possessed what seemed
to be a _vibrating centre_ which impelled it with tremendous force and
caused a rapid whirling motion of the atmosphere as it passed me. The
air was full of these little vortices of whirring, rotating force, and
whenever one of them pressed me too closely I felt as if the nerves in
that particular portion of my body had been literally drawn out,
absolutely depleted of vitality, and then immediately replaced--but
replaced dead, flabby, useless.

"Then, suddenly, for the first time my eyes fell upon Smith. He was
crouching against the wall on my right, in an attitude that was
obviously defensive, and it was plain he was in extremities. The terror
on his face was pitiable, but at the same time there was another
expression about the tightly clenched teeth and mouth which showed that
he had not lost all control of himself. He wore the most resolute
expression I have ever seen on a human countenance, and, though for the
moment at a fearful disadvantage, he looked like a man who had
confidence in himself, and, in spite of the working of fear, was waiting
his opportunity.

"For my part, I was face to face with a situation so utterly beyond my
knowledge and comprehension, that I felt as helpless as a child, and as
useless.

"'Help me back--quick--into that circle,' I heard him half cry, half
whisper to me across the moving vapours.

"My only value appears to have been that I was not afraid to act.
Knowing nothing of the forces I was dealing with I had no idea of the
deadly perils risked, and I sprang forward and caught him by the arms.
He threw all his weight in my direction, and by our combined efforts his
body left the wall and lurched across the floor towards the circle.

"Instantly there descended upon us, out of the empty air of that
smoke-laden room, a force which I can only compare to the pushing,
driving power of a great wind pent up within a narrow space. It was
almost explosive in its effect, and it seemed to operate upon all parts
of my body equally. It fell upon us with a rushing noise that filled my
ears and made me think for a moment the very walls and roof of the
building had been torn asunder. Under its first blow we staggered back
against the wall, and I understood plainly that its purpose was to
prevent us getting back into the circle in the middle of the floor.

"Pouring with perspiration, and breathless, with every muscle strained
to the very utmost, we at length managed to get to the edge of the
circle, and at this moment, so great was the opposing force, that I felt
myself actually torn from Smith's arms, lifted from my feet, and twirled
round in the direction of the windows as if the wheel of some great
machine had caught my clothes and was tearing me to destruction in its
revolution.

"But, even as I fell, bruised and breathless, against the wall, I saw
Smith firmly upon his feet in the circle and slowly rising again to an
upright position. My eyes never left his figure once in the next few
minutes.

"He drew himself up to his full height. His great shoulders squared
themselves. His head was thrown back a little, and as I looked I saw the
expression on his face change swiftly from fear to one of absolute
command. He looked steadily round the room and then his voice began to
_vibrate_. At first in a low tone, it gradually rose till it assumed the
same volume and intensity I had heard that night when he called up the
stairs into my room.

"It was a curiously increasing sound, more like the swelling of an
instrument than a human voice; and as it grew in power and filled the
room, I became aware that a great change was being effected slowly and
surely. The confusion of noise and rushings of air fell into the roll of
long, steady vibrations not unlike those caused by the deeper pedals of
an organ. The movements in the air became less violent, then grew
decidedly weaker, and finally ceased altogether. The whisperings and
sighings became fainter and fainter, till at last I could not hear them
at all; and, strangest of all, the light emitted by the circle, as well
as by the designs round it, increased to a steady glow, casting their
radiance upwards with the weirdest possible effect upon his features.
Slowly, by the power of his voice, behind which lay undoubtedly a
genuine knowledge of the occult manipulation of sound, this man
dominated the forces that had escaped from their proper sphere, until
at length the room was reduced to silence and perfect order again.

"Judging by the immense relief which also communicated itself to my
nerves I then felt that the crisis was over and Smith was wholly master
of the situation.

"But hardly had I begun to congratulate myself upon this result, and to
gather my scattered senses about me, when, uttering a loud cry, I saw
him leap out of the circle and fling himself into the air--as it seemed
to me, into the empty air. Then, even while holding my breath for dread
of the crash he was bound to come upon the floor, I saw him strike with
a dull thud against a solid body in mid-air, and the next instant he was
wrestling with some ponderous thing that was absolutely invisible to me,
and the room shook with the struggle.

"To and fro _they_ swayed, sometimes lurching in one direction,
sometimes in another, and always in horrible proximity to myself, as I
leaned trembling against the wall and watched the encounter.

"It lasted at most but a short minute or two, ending as suddenly as it
had begun. Smith, with an unexpected movement, threw up his arms with a
cry of relief. At the same instant there was a wild, tearing shriek in
the air beside me and something rushed past us with a noise like the
passage of a flock of big birds. Both windows rattled as if they would
break away from their sashes. Then a sense of emptiness and peace
suddenly came over the room, and I knew that all was over.

"Smith, his face exceedingly white, but otherwise strangely composed,
turned to me at once.

"'God!--if you hadn't come--You deflected the stream; broke it up--' he
whispered. 'You saved me.'"

The doctor made a long pause. Presently he felt for his pipe in the
darkness, groping over the table behind us with both hands. No one spoke
for a bit, but all dreaded the sudden glare that would come when he
struck the match. The fire was nearly out and the great hall was pitch
dark.

But the story-teller did not strike that match. He was merely gaining
time for some hidden reason of his own. And presently he went on with
his tale in a more subdued voice.

"I quite forget," he said, "how I got back to my own room. I only know
that I lay with two lighted candles for the rest of the night, and the
first thing I did in the morning was to let the landlady know I was
leaving her house at the end of the week.

"Smith still has my Rabbinical Treatise. At least he did not return it
to me at the time, and I have never seen him since to ask for it."



A SUSPICIOUS GIFT


Blake had been in very low water for months--almost under water part of
the time--due to circumstances he was fond of saying were no fault of
his own; and as he sat writing in his room on "third floor back" of a
New York boarding-house, part of his mind was busily occupied in
wondering when his luck was going to turn again.

It was his room only in the sense that he paid the rent. Two friends,
one a little Frenchman and the other a big Dane, shared it with him,
both hoping eventually to contribute something towards expenses, but so
far not having accomplished this result. They had two beds only, the
third being a mattress they slept upon in turns, a week at a time. A
good deal of their irregular "feeding" consisted of oatmeal, potatoes,
and sometimes eggs, all of which they cooked on a strange utensil they
had contrived to fix into the gas jet. Occasionally, when dinner failed
them altogether, they swallowed a little raw rice and drank hot water
from the bathroom on the top of it, and then made a wild race for bed so
as to get to sleep while the sensation of false repletion was still
there. For sleep and hunger are slight acquaintances as they well knew.
Fortunately all New York houses are supplied with hot air, and they only
had to open a grating in the wall to get a plentiful, if not a wholesome
amount of heat.

Though loneliness in a big city is a real punishment, as they had
severally learnt to their cost, their experiences, three in a small room
for several months, had revealed to them horrors of quite another kind,
and their nerves had suffered according to the temperament of each. But,
on this particular evening, as Blake sat scribbling by the only window
that was not cracked, the Dane and the Frenchman, his companions in
adversity, were in wonderful luck. They had both been asked out to a
restaurant to dine with a friend who also held out to one of them a
chance of work and remuneration. They would not be back till late, and
when they did come they were pretty sure to bring in supplies of one
kind or another. For the Frenchman never could resist the offer of a
glass of absinthe, and this meant that he would be able to help himself
plentifully from the free-lunch counters, with which all New York bars
are furnished, and to which any purchaser of a drink is entitled to help
himself and devour on the spot or carry away casually in his hand for
consumption elsewhere. Thousands of unfortunate men get their sole
subsistence in this way in New York, and experience soon teaches where,
for the price of a single drink, a man can take away almost a meal of
chip potatoes, sausage, bits of bread, and even eggs. The Frenchman and
the Dane knew their way about, and Blake looked forward to a supper more
or less substantial before pulling his mattress out of the cupboard and
turning in upon the floor for the night.

Meanwhile he could enjoy a quiet and lonely evening with the room all to
himself.

In the daytime he was a reporter on an evening newspaper of sensational
and lying habits. His work was chiefly in the police courts; and in his
spare hours at night, when not too tired or too empty, he wrote sketches
and stories for the magazines that very rarely saw the light of day on
their printed and paid-for sentences. On this particular occasion he was
deep in a most involved tale of a psychological character, and had just
worked his way into a sentence, or set of sentences, that completely
baffled and muddled him.

He was fairly out of his depth, and his brain was too poorly supplied
with blood to invent a way out again. The story would have been
interesting had he written it simply, keeping to facts and feelings, and
not diving into difficult analysis of motive and character which was
quite beyond him. For it was largely autobiographical, and was meant to
describe the adventures of a young Englishman who had come to grief in
the usual manner on a Canadian farm, had then subsequently become
bar-keeper, sub-editor on a Methodist magazine, a teacher of French and
German to clerks at twenty-five cents per hour, a model for artists, a
super on the stage, and, finally, a wanderer to the goldfields.

Blake scratched his head, and dipped the pen in the inkpot, stared out
through the blindless windows, and sighed deeply. His thoughts kept
wandering to food, beefsteak and steaming vegetables. The smell of
cooking that came from a lower floor through the broken windows was a
constant torment to him. He pulled himself together and again attacked
the problem.

" . . . for with some people," he wrote, "the imagination is so vivid as
to be almost an extension of consciousness. . . ." But here he stuck
absolutely. He was not quite sure what he meant by the words, and how to
finish the sentence puzzled him into blank inaction. It was a difficult
point to decide, for it seemed to come in appropriately at this point in
his story, and he did not know whether to leave it as it stood, change
it round a bit, or take it out altogether. It might just spoil its
chances of being accepted: editors were such clever men. But, to rewrite
the sentence was a grind, and he was so tired and sleepy. After all,
what did it matter? People who were clever would force a meaning into
it; people who were not clever would pretend--he knew of no other
classes of readers. He would let it stay, and go on with the action of
the story. He put his head in his hands and began to think hard.

His mind soon passed from thought to reverie. He fell to wondering when
his friends would find work and relieve him of the burden--he
acknowledged it as such--of keeping them, and of letting another man
wear his best clothes on alternate Sundays. He wondered when his "luck"
would turn. There were one or two influential people in New York whom
he could go and see if he had a dress suit and the other conventional
uniforms. His thoughts ran on far ahead, and at the same time, by a sort
of double process, far behind as well. His home in the "old country"
rose up before him; he saw the lawn and the cedars in sunshine; he
looked through the familiar windows and saw the clean, swept rooms. His
story began to suffer; the psychological masterpiece would not make much
progress unless he pulled up and dragged his thoughts back to the
treadmill. But he no longer cared; once he had got as far as that cedar
with the sunshine on it, he never could get back again. For all he
cared, the troublesome sentence might run away and get into someone
else's pages, or be snuffed out altogether.

There came a gentle knock at the door, and Blake started. The knock was
repeated louder. Who in the world could it be at this late hour of the
night? On the floor above, he remembered, there lived another
Englishman, a foolish, second-rate creature, who sometimes came in and
made himself objectionable with endless and silly chatter. But he was an
Englishman for all that, and Blake always tried to treat him with
politeness, realising that he was lonely in a strange land. But
to-night, of all people in the world, he did not want to be bored with
Perry's cackle, as he called it, and the "Come in" he gave in answer to
the second knock had no very cordial sound of welcome in it.

However, the door opened in response, and the man came in. Blake did not
turn round at once, and the other advanced to the centre of the room,
but _without speaking_. Then Blake knew it was not his enemy, Perry, and
turned round.

He saw a man of about forty standing in the middle of the carpet, but
standing sideways so that he did not present a full face. He wore an
overcoat buttoned up to the neck, and on the felt hat which he held in
front of him fresh rain-drops glistened. In his other hand he carried a
small black bag. Blake gave him a good look, and came to the conclusion
that he might be a secretary, or a chief clerk, or a confidential man of
sorts. He was a shabby-respectable-looking person. This was the
sum-total of the first impression, gained the moment his eyes took in
that it was _not_ Perry; the second impression was less pleasant, and
reported at once that something was wrong.

Though otherwise young and inexperienced, Blake--thanks, or curses, to
the police court training--knew more about common criminal
blackguardism than most men of fifty, and he recognised that there was
somewhere a suggestion of this undesirable world about the man. But
there was more than this. There was something singular about him,
something far out of the common, though for the life of him Blake could
not say wherein it lay. The fellow was out of the ordinary, and in some
very undesirable manner.

All this, that takes so long to describe, Blake saw with the first and
second glance. The man at once began to speak in a quiet and respectful
voice.

"Are you Mr. Blake?" he asked.

"I am."

"Mr. Arthur Blake?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Arthur _Herbert_ Blake?" persisted the other, with emphasis on the
middle name.

"That is my full name," Blake answered simply, adding, as he remembered
his manners; "but won't you sit down, first, please?"

The man advanced with a curious sideways motion like a crab and took a
seat on the edge of the sofa. He put his hat on the floor at his feet,
but still kept the bag in his hand.

"I come to you from a well-wisher," he went on in oily tones, without
lifting his eyes. Blake, in his mind, ran quickly over all the people he
knew in New York who might possibly have sent such a man, while waiting
for him to supply the name. But the man had come to a full stop and was
waiting too.

"A well-wisher of _mine_?" repeated Blake, not knowing quite what else
to say.

"Just so," replied the other, still with his eyes on the floor. "A
well-wisher of yours."

"A man or--" he felt himself blushing, "or a woman?"

"That," said the man shortly, "I cannot tell you."

"You can't tell me!" exclaimed the other, wondering what was coming
next, and who in the world this mysterious well-wisher could be who sent
so discreet and mysterious a messenger.

"I cannot tell you the name," replied the man firmly. "Those are my
instructions. But I bring you something from this person, and I am to
give it to you, to take a receipt for it, and then to go away without
answering any questions."

Blake stared very hard. The man, however, never raised his eyes above
the level of the second china knob on the chest of drawers opposite. The
giving of a receipt sounded like money. Could it be that some of his
influential friends had heard of his plight? There were possibilities
that made his heart beat. At length, however, he found his tongue, for
this strange creature was determined apparently to say nothing more
until he had heard from him.

"Then, what have you got for me, please?" he asked bluntly.

By way of answer the man proceeded to open the bag. He took out a parcel
wrapped loosely in brown paper, and about the size of a large book. It
was tied with string, and the man seemed unnecessarily long untying the
knot. When at last the string was off and the paper unfolded, there
appeared a series of smaller packages inside. The man took them out very
carefully, almost as if they had been alive, Blake thought, and set them
in a row upon his knees. They were dollar bills. Blake, all in a
flutter, craned his neck forward a little to try and make out their
denomination. He read plainly the figures 100.

"There are ten thousand dollars here," said the man quietly.

The other could not suppress a little cry.

"And they are for you."

Blake simply gasped. "Ten thousand dollars!" he repeated, a queer
feeling growing up in his throat. "_Ten thousand._ Are you sure? I
mean--you mean they are for _me_?" he stammered. He felt quite silly
with excitement, and grew more so with every minute, as the man
maintained a perfect silence. Was it not a dream? Wouldn't the man put
them back in the bag presently and say it was a mistake, and they were
meant for somebody else? He could not believe his eyes or his ears. Yet,
in a sense, it was possible. He had read of such things in books, and
even come across them in his experience of the courts--the erratic and
generous philanthropist who is determined to do his good deed and to get
no thanks or acknowledgment for it. Still, it seemed almost incredible.
His troubles began to melt away like bubbles in the sun; he thought of
the other fellows when they came in, and what he would have to tell
them; he thought of the German landlady and the arrears of rent, of
regular food and clean linen, and books and music, of the chance of
getting into some respectable business, of--well, of as many things as
it is possible to think of when excitement and surprise fling wide open
the gates of the imagination.

The man, meanwhile, began quietly to count over the packages aloud from
one to ten, and then to count the bills in each separate packet, also
from one to ten. Yes, there were ten little heaps, each containing ten
bills of a hundred-dollar denomination. That made ten thousand dollars.
Blake had never seen so much money in a single lump in his life before;
and for many months of privation and discomfort he had not known the
"feel" of a twenty-dollar note, much less of a hundred-dollar one. He
heard them crackle under the man's fingers, and it was like crisp
laughter in his ears. The bills were evidently new and unused.

But, side by side with the excitement caused by the shock of such an
event, Blake's caution, acquired by a year of vivid New York experience,
was meanwhile beginning to assert itself. It all seemed just a little
too much out of the likely order of things to be quite right. The police
courts had taught him the amazing ingenuity of the criminal mind, as
well as something of the plots and devices by which the unwary are
beguiled into the dark places where blackmail may be levied with
impunity. New York, as a matter of fact, just at that time was literally
undermined with the secret ways of the blackmailers, the green-goods
men, and other police-protected abominations; and the only weak point
in the supposition that this was part of some such proceeding was the
selection of himself--a poor newspaper reporter--as a victim. It did
seem absurd, but then the whole thing was so out of the ordinary, and
the thought once having entered his mind, was not so easily got rid of.
Blake resolved to be very cautious.

The man meanwhile, though he never appeared to raise his eyes from the
carpet, had been watching him closely all the time.

"If you will give me a receipt I'll leave the money at once," he said,
with just a vestige of impatience in his tone, as if he were anxious to
bring the matter to a conclusion as soon as possible.

"But you say it is quite impossible for you to tell me the name of my
well-wisher, or why _she_ sends me such a large sum of money in this
extraordinary way?"

"The money is sent to you because you are in need of it," returned the
other; "and it is a present without conditions of any sort attached. You
have to give me a receipt only to satisfy the sender that it has reached
your hands. The money will never be asked of you again."

Blake noticed two things from this answer: first, that the man was not
to be caught into betraying the sex of the well-wisher; and secondly,
that he was in some hurry to complete the transaction. For he was now
giving reasons, attractive reasons, why he should accept the money and
make out the receipt.

Suddenly it flashed across his mind that if he took the money and gave
the receipt _before a witness_, nothing very disastrous could come of
the affair. It would protect him against blackmail, if this was, after
all, a plot of some sort with blackmail in it; whereas, if the man were
a madman, or a criminal who was getting rid of a portion of his
ill-gotten gains to divert suspicion, or if any other improbable
explanation turned out to be the true one, there was no great harm done,
and he could hold the money till it was claimed, or advertised for in
the newspapers. His mind rapidly ran over these possibilities, though,
of course, under the stress of excitement, he was unable to weigh any of
them properly; then he turned to his strange visitor again and said
quietly--

"I will take the money, although I must say it seems to me a very
unusual transaction, and I will give you for it such a receipt as I
think proper under the circumstances."

"A proper receipt is all I want," was the answer.

"I mean by that a receipt before a proper witness--"

"Perfectly satisfactory," interrupted the man, his eyes still on the
carpet. "Only, it must be dated, and headed with your address here in
the correct way."

Blake could see no possible objection to this, and he at once proceeded
to obtain his witness. The person he had in his mind was a Mr. Barclay,
who occupied the room above his own; an old gentleman who had retired
from business and who, the landlady always said, was a miser, and kept
large sums secreted in his room. He was, at any rate, a perfectly
respectable man and would make an admirable witness to a transaction of
this sort. Blake made an apology and rose to fetch him, crossing the
room in front of the sofa where the man sat, in order to reach the door.
As he did so, he saw for the first time the _other side_ of his
visitor's face, the side that had been always so carefully turned away
from him.

There was a broad smear of blood down the skin from the ear to the
neck. It glistened in the gaslight.

Blake never knew how he managed to smother the cry that sprang to his
lips, but smother it he did. In a second he was at the door, his knees
trembling, his mind in a sudden and dreadful turmoil.

His main object, so far as he could recollect afterwards, was to escape
from the room as if he had noticed nothing, so as not to arouse the
other's suspicions. The man's eyes were always on the carpet, and
probably, Blake hoped, he had not noticed the consternation that must
have been written plainly on his face. At any rate he had uttered no
cry.

In another second he would have been in the passage, when suddenly he
met a pair of wicked, staring eyes fixed intently and with a cunning
smile upon his own. It was the other's face in the mirror calmly
watching his every movement.

Instantly, all his powers of reflection flew to the winds, and he
thought only upon the desirability of getting help at once. He tore
upstairs, his heart in his mouth. Barclay must come to his aid. This
matter was serious--perhaps horribly serious. Taking the money, or
giving a receipt, or having anything at all to do with it became an
impossibility. Here was crime. He felt certain of it.

In three bounds he reached the next landing and began to hammer at the
old miser's door as if his very life depended on it. For a long time he
could get no answer. His fists seemed to make no noise. He might have
been knocking on cotton wool, and the thought dashed through his brain
that it was all just like the terror of a nightmare.

Barclay, evidently, was still out, or else sound asleep. But the other
simply could not wait a minute longer in suspense. He turned the handle
and walked into the room. At first he saw nothing for the darkness, and
made sure the owner of the room was out; but the moment the light from
the passage began a little to disperse the gloom, he saw the old man, to
his immense relief, lying asleep on the bed.

Blake opened the door to its widest to get more light and then walked
quickly up to the bed. He now saw the figure more plainly, and noted
that it was dressed and lay only upon the outside of the bed. It struck
him, too, that he was sleeping in a very odd, almost an unnatural,
position.

Something clutched at his heart as he looked closer. He stumbled over a
chair and found the matches. Calling upon Barclay the whole time to wake
up and come downstairs with him, he blundered across the floor, a
dreadful thought in his mind, and lit the gas over the table. It seemed
strange that there was no movement or reply to his shouting. But it no
longer seemed strange when at length he turned, in the full glare of the
gas, and saw the old man lying huddled up into a ghastly heap on the
bed, his throat cut across from ear to ear.

And all over the carpet lay new dollar bills, crisp and clean like those
he had left downstairs, and strewn about in little heaps.

For a moment Blake stood stock-still, bereft of all power of movement.
The next, his courage returned, and he fled from the room and dashed
downstairs, taking five steps at a time. He reached the bottom and tore
along the passage to his room, determined at any rate to seize the man
and prevent his escape till help came.

But when he got to the end of the little landing he found that his door
had been closed. He seized the handle, fumbling with it in his violence.
It felt slippery and kept turning under his fingers without opening the
door, and fully half a minute passed before it yielded and let him in
headlong.

At the first glance he saw the room was empty, and the man gone!

Scattered upon the carpet lay a number of the bills, and beside them,
half hidden under the sofa where the man had sat, he saw a pair of
gloves--thick, leathern gloves--and a butcher's knife. Even from the
distance where he stood the blood-stains on both were easily visible.

Dazed and confused by the terrible discoveries of the last few minutes,
Blake stood in the middle of the room, overwhelmed and unable to think
or move. Unconsciously he must have passed his hand over his forehead in
the natural gesture of perplexity, for he noticed that the skin felt wet
and sticky. His hand was covered with blood! And when he rushed in
terror to the looking-glass, he saw that there was a broad red smear
across his face and forehead. Then he remembered the slippery handle of
the door and knew that it had been carefully moistened!

In an instant the whole plot became clear as daylight, and he was so
spellbound with horror that a sort of numbness came over him and he came
very near to fainting. He was in a condition of utter helplessness, and
had anyone come into the room at that minute and called him by name he
would simply have dropped to the floor in a heap.

"If the police were to come in now!" The thought crashed through his
brain like thunder, and at the same moment, almost before he had time to
appreciate a quarter of its significance, there came a loud knocking at
the front door below. The bell rang with a dreadful clamour; men's
voices were heard talking excitedly, and presently heavy steps began to
come up the stairs in the direction of his room.

It _was_ the police!

And all Blake could do was to laugh foolishly to himself--and wait till
they were upon him. He could not move nor speak. He stood face to face
with the evidence of his horrid crime, his hands and face smeared with
the blood of his victim, and there he was standing when the police burst
open the door and came noisily into the room.

"Here it is!" cried a voice he knew. "Third floor back! And the fellow
caught red-handed!"

It was the man with the bag leading in the two policemen.

Hardly knowing what he was doing in the fearful stress of conflicting
emotions, he made a step forward. But before he had time to make a
second one, he felt the heavy hand of the law descend upon both
shoulders at once as the two policemen moved up to seize him. At the
same moment a voice of thunder cried in his ear--

"Wake up, man! Wake up! Here's the supper, and good news too!"

Blake turned with a start in his chair and saw the Dane, very red in the
face, standing beside him, a hand on each shoulder, and a little further
back he saw the Frenchman leering happily at him over the end of the
bed, a bottle of beer in one hand and a paper package in the other.

He rubbed his eyes, glancing from one to the other, and then got up
sleepily to fix the wire arrangement on the gas jet to boil water for
cooking the eggs which the Frenchman was in momentary danger of letting
drop upon the floor.



THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY IN NEW YORK



I

It was never quite clear to me how Jim Shorthouse managed to get his
private secretaryship; but, once he got it, he kept it, and for some
years he led a steady life and put money in the savings bank.

One morning his employer sent for him into the study, and it was evident
to the secretary's trained senses that there was something unusual in
the air.

"Mr. Shorthouse," he began, somewhat nervously, "I have never yet had
the opportunity of observing whether or not you are possessed of
personal courage."

Shorthouse gasped, but he said nothing. He was growing accustomed to the
eccentricities of his chief. Shorthouse was a Kentish man; Sidebotham
was "raised" in Chicago; New York was the present place of residence.

"But," the other continued, with a puff at his very black cigar, "I must
consider myself a poor judge of human nature in future, if it is not one
of your strongest qualities."

The private secretary made a foolish little bow in modest appreciation
of so uncertain a compliment. Mr. Jonas B. Sidebotham watched him
narrowly, as the novelists say, before he continued his remarks.

"I have no doubt that you are a plucky fellow and--" He hesitated, and
puffed at his cigar as if his life depended upon it keeping alight.

"I don't think I'm afraid of anything in particular, sir--except women,"
interposed the young man, feeling that it was time for him to make an
observation of some sort, but still quite in the dark as to his chief's
purpose.

"Humph!" he grunted. "Well, there are no women in this case so far as I
know. But there may be other things that--that hurt more."

"Wants a special service of some kind, evidently," was the secretary's
reflection. "Personal violence?" he asked aloud.

"Possibly (puff), in fact (puff, puff) probably."

Shorthouse smelt an increase of salary in the air. It had a stimulating
effect.

"I've had some experience of that article, sir," he said shortly; "but
I'm ready to undertake anything in reason."

"I can't say how much reason or unreason there may prove to be in this
particular case. It all depends."

Mr. Sidebotham got up and locked the door of his study and drew down the
blinds of both windows. Then he took a bunch of keys from his pocket and
opened a black tin box. He ferreted about among blue and white papers
for a few seconds, enveloping himself as he did so in a cloud of blue
tobacco smoke.

"I feel like a detective already," Shorthouse laughed.

"Speak low, please," returned the other, glancing round the room. "We
must observe the utmost secrecy. Perhaps you would be kind enough to
close the registers," he went on in a still lower voice. "Open registers
have betrayed conversations before now."

Shorthouse began to enter into the spirit of the thing. He tiptoed
across the floor and shut the two iron gratings in the wall that in
American houses supply hot air and are termed "registers." Mr.
Sidebotham had meanwhile found the paper he was looking for. He held it
in front of him and tapped it once or twice with the back of his right
hand as if it were a stage letter and himself the villain of the
melodrama.

"This is a letter from Joel Garvey, my old partner," he said at length.
"You have heard me speak of him."

The other bowed. He knew that many years before Garvey & Sidebotham had
been well known in the Chicago financial world. He knew that the amazing
rapidity with which they accumulated a fortune had only been surpassed
by the amazing rapidity with which they had immediately afterwards
disappeared into space. He was further aware--his position afforded
facilities--that each partner was still to some extent in the other's
power, and that each wished most devoutly that the other would die.

The sins of his employer's early years did not concern him, however. The
man was kind and just, if eccentric; and Shorthouse, being in New York,
did not probe to discover more particularly the sources whence his
salary was so regularly paid. Moreover, the two men had grown to like
each other and there was a genuine feeling of trust and respect between
them.

"I hope it's a pleasant communication, sir," he said in a low voice.

"Quite the reverse," returned the other, fingering the paper nervously
as he stood in front of the fire.

"Blackmail, I suppose."

"Precisely." Mr. Sidebotham's cigar was not burning well; he struck a
match and applied it to the uneven edge, and presently his voice spoke
through clouds of wreathing smoke.

"There are valuable papers in my possession bearing his signature. I
cannot inform you of their nature; but they are extremely valuable _to
me_. They belong, as a matter of fact, to Garvey as much as to me. Only
I've got them--"

"I see."

"Garvey writes that he wants to have his signature removed--wants to cut
it out with his own hand. He gives reasons which incline me to consider
his request--"

"And you would like me to take him the papers and see that he does it?"

"And bring them back again with you," he whispered, screwing up his eyes
into a shrewd grimace.

"And bring them back again with me," repeated the secretary. "I
understand perfectly."

Shorthouse knew from unfortunate experience more than a little of the
horrors of blackmail. The pressure Garvey was bringing to bear upon his
old enemy must be exceedingly strong. That was quite clear. At the same
time, the commission that was being entrusted to him seemed somewhat
quixotic in its nature. He had already "enjoyed" more than one
experience of his employer's eccentricity, and he now caught himself
wondering whether this same eccentricity did not sometimes go--further
than eccentricity.

"I cannot read the letter to you," Mr. Sidebotham was explaining, "but I
shall give it into your hands. It will prove that you are my--er--my
accredited representative. I shall also ask you not to read the package
of papers. The signature in question you will find, of course, on the
last page, at the bottom."

There was a pause of several minutes during which the end of the cigar
glowed eloquently.

"Circumstances compel me," he went on at length almost in a whisper, "or
I should never do this. But you understand, of course, the thing is a
ruse. Cutting out the signature is a mere pretence. It is nothing.
_What Garvey wants are the papers themselves._"

The confidence reposed in the private secretary was not misplaced.
Shorthouse was as faithful to Mr. Sidebotham as a man ought to be to the
wife that loves him.

The commission itself seemed very simple. Garvey lived in solitude in
the remote part of Long Island. Shorthouse was to take the papers to
him, witness the cutting out of the signature, and to be specially on
his guard against any attempt, forcible or otherwise, to gain possession
of them. It seemed to him a somewhat ludicrous adventure, but he did not
know all the facts and perhaps was not the best judge.

The two men talked in low voices for another hour, at the end of which
Mr. Sidebotham drew up the blinds, opened the registers and unlocked the
door.

Shorthouse rose to go. His pockets were stuffed with papers and his head
with instructions; but when he reached the door he hesitated and turned.

"Well?" said his chief.

Shorthouse looked him straight in the eye and said nothing.

"The personal violence, I suppose?" said the other. Shorthouse bowed.

"I have not seen Garvey for twenty years," he said; "all I can tell you
is that I believe him to be occasionally of unsound mind. I have heard
strange rumours. He lives alone, and in his lucid intervals studies
chemistry. It was always a hobby of his. But the chances are twenty to
one against his attempting violence. I only wished to warn you--in
case--I mean, so that you may be on the watch."

He handed his secretary a Smith and Wesson revolver as he spoke.
Shorthouse slipped it into his hip pocket and went out of the room.

       *       *       *       *       *

A drizzling cold rain was falling on fields covered with half-melted
snow when Shorthouse stood, late in the afternoon, on the platform of
the lonely little Long Island station and watched the train he had just
left vanish into the distance.

It was a bleak country that Joel Garvey, Esq., formerly of Chicago, had
chosen for his residence and on this particular afternoon it presented a
more than usually dismal appearance. An expanse of flat fields covered
with dirty snow stretched away on all sides till the sky dropped down to
meet them. Only occasional farm buildings broke the monotony, and the
road wound along muddy lanes and beneath dripping trees swathed in the
cold raw fog that swept in like a pall of the dead from the sea.

It was six miles from the station to Garvey's house, and the driver of
the rickety buggy Shorthouse had found at the station was not
communicative. Between the dreary landscape and the drearier driver he
fell back upon his own thoughts, which, but for the spice of adventure
that was promised, would themselves have been even drearier than either.
He made up his mind that he would waste no time over the transaction.
The moment the signature was cut out he would pack up and be off. The
last train back to Brooklyn was 7.15; and he would have to walk the six
miles of mud and snow, for the driver of the buggy had refused
point-blank to wait for him.

For purposes of safety, Shorthouse had done what he flattered himself
was rather a clever thing. He had made up a second packet of papers
identical in outside appearance with the first. The inscription, the
blue envelope, the red elastic band, and even a blot in the lower
left-hand corner had been exactly reproduced. Inside, of course, were
only sheets of blank paper. It was his intention to change the packets
and to let Garvey see him put the sham one into the bag. In case of
violence the bag would be the point of attack, and he intended to lock
it and throw away the key. Before it could be forced open and the
deception discovered there would be time to increase his chances of
escape with the real packet.

It was five o'clock when the silent Jehu pulled up in front of a
half-broken gate and pointed with his whip to a house that stood in its
own grounds among trees and was just visible in the gathering gloom.
Shorthouse told him to drive up to the front door but the man refused.

"I ain't runnin' no risks," he said; "I've got a family."

This cryptic remark was not encouraging, but Shorthouse did not pause to
decipher it. He paid the man, and then pushed open the rickety old gate
swinging on a single hinge, and proceeded to walk up the drive that lay
dark between close-standing trees. The house soon came into full view.
It was tall and square and had once evidently been white, but now the
walls were covered with dirty patches and there were wide yellow streaks
where the plaster had fallen away. The windows stared black and
uncompromising into the night. The garden was overgrown with weeds and
long grass, standing up in ugly patches beneath their burden of wet
snow. Complete silence reigned over all. There was not a sign of life.
Not even a dog barked. Only, in the distance, the wheels of the
retreating carriage could be heard growing fainter and fainter.

As he stood in the porch, between pillars of rotting wood, listening to
the rain dripping from the roof into the puddles of slushy snow, he was
conscious of a sensation of utter desertion and loneliness such as he
had never before experienced. The forbidding aspect of the house had the
immediate effect of lowering his spirits. It might well have been the
abode of monsters or demons in a child's wonder tale, creatures that
only dared to come out under cover of darkness. He groped for the
bell-handle, or knocker, and finding neither, he raised his stick and
beat a loud tattoo on the door. The sound echoed away in an empty space
on the other side and the wind moaned past him between the pillars as if
startled at his audacity. But there was no sound of approaching
footsteps and no one came to open the door. Again he beat a tattoo,
louder and longer than the first one; and, having done so, waited with
his back to the house and stared across the unkempt garden into the fast
gathering shadows.

Then he turned suddenly, and saw that the door was standing ajar. It had
been quietly opened and a pair of eyes were peering at him round the
edge. There was no light in the hall beyond and he could only just make
out the shape of a dim human face.

"Does Mr. Garvey live here?" he asked in a firm voice.

"Who are you?" came in a man's tones.

"I'm Mr. Sidebotham's private secretary. I wish to see Mr. Garvey on
important business."

"Are you expected?"

"I suppose so," he said impatiently, thrusting a card through the
opening. "Please take my name to him at once, and say I come from Mr.
Sidebotham on the matter Mr. Garvey wrote about."

The man took the card, and the face vanished into the darkness, leaving
Shorthouse standing in the cold porch with mingled feelings of
impatience and dismay. The door, he now noticed for the first time, was
on a chain and could not open more than a few inches. But it was the
manner of his reception that caused uneasy reflections to stir within
him--reflections that continued for some minutes before they were
interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps and the flicker of a
light in the hall.

The next instant the chain fell with a rattle, and gripping his bag
tightly, he walked into a large ill-smelling hall of which he could only
just see the ceiling. There was no light but the nickering taper held by
the man, and by its uncertain glimmer Shorthouse turned to examine him.
He saw an undersized man of middle age with brilliant, shifting eyes, a
curling black beard, and a nose that at once proclaimed him a Jew. His
shoulders were bent, and, as he watched him replacing the chain, he saw
that he wore a peculiar black gown like a priest's cassock reaching to
the feet. It was altogether a lugubrious figure of a man, sinister and
funereal, yet it seemed in perfect harmony with the general character of
its surroundings. The hall was devoid of furniture of any kind, and
against the dingy walls stood rows of old picture frames, empty and
disordered, and odd-looking bits of wood-work that appeared doubly
fantastic as their shadows danced queerly over the floor in the shifting
light.

"If you'll come this way, Mr. Garvey will see you presently," said the
Jew gruffly, crossing the floor and shielding the taper with a bony
hand. He never once raised his eyes above the level of the visitor's
waistcoat, and, to Shorthouse, he somehow suggested a figure from the
dead rather than a man of flesh and blood. The hall smelt decidedly ill.

All the more surprising, then, was the scene that met his eyes when the
Jew opened the door at the further end and he entered a room brilliantly
lit with swinging lamps and furnished with a degree of taste and comfort
that amounted to luxury. The walls were lined with handsomely bound
books, and armchairs were arranged round a large mahogany desk in the
middle of the room. A bright fire burned in the grate and neatly framed
photographs of men and women stood on the mantelpiece on either side of
an elaborately carved clock. French windows that opened like doors were
partially concealed by warm red curtains, and on a sideboard against the
wall stood decanters and glasses, with several boxes of cigars piled on
top of one another. There was a pleasant odour of tobacco about the
room. Indeed, it was in such glowing contrast to the chilly poverty of
the hall that Shorthouse already was conscious of a distinct rise in the
thermometer of his spirits.

Then he turned and saw the Jew standing in the doorway with his eyes
fixed upon him, somewhere about the middle button of his waistcoat. He
presented a strangely repulsive appearance that somehow could not be
attributed to any particular detail, and the secretary associated him in
his mind with a monstrous black bird of prey more than anything else.

"My time is short," he said abruptly; "I hope Mr. Garvey will not keep
me waiting."

A strange flicker of a smile appeared on the Jew's ugly face and
vanished as quickly as it came. He made a sort of deprecating bow by way
of reply. Then he blew out the taper and went out, closing the door
noiselessly behind him.

Shorthouse was alone. He felt relieved. There was an air of obsequious
insolence about the old Jew that was very offensive. He began to take
note of his surroundings. He was evidently in the library of the house,
for the walls were covered with books almost up to the ceiling. There
was no room for pictures. Nothing but the shining backs of well-bound
volumes looked down upon him. Four brilliant lights hung from the
ceiling and a reading lamp with a polished reflector stood among the
disordered masses of papers on the desk.

The lamp was not lit, but when Shorthouse put his hand upon it he found
it was _warm_. The room had evidently only just been vacated.

Apart from the testimony of the lamp, however, he had already felt,
without being able to give a reason for it, that the room had been
occupied a few moments before he entered. The atmosphere over the desk
seemed to retain the disturbing influence of a human being; an
influence, moreover, so recent that he felt as if the cause of it were
still in his immediate neighbourhood. It was difficult to realise that
he was quite alone in the room and that somebody was not in hiding. The
finer counterparts of his senses warned him to act as if he were being
observed; he was dimly conscious of a desire to fidget and look round,
to keep his eyes in every part of the room at once, and to conduct
himself generally as if he were the object of careful human observation.

How far he recognised the cause of these sensations it is impossible to
say; but they were sufficiently marked to prevent his carrying out a
strong inclination to get up and make a search of the room. He sat quite
still, staring alternately at the backs of the books, and at the red
curtains; wondering all the time if he was really being watched, or if
it was only the imagination playing tricks with him.

A full quarter of an hour passed, and then twenty rows of volumes
suddenly shifted out towards him, and he saw that a door had opened in
the wall opposite. The books were only sham backs after all, and when
they moved back again with the sliding door, Shorthouse saw the figure
of Joel Garvey standing before him.

Surprise almost took his breath away. He had expected to see an
unpleasant, even a vicious apparition with the mark of the beast
unmistakably upon its face; but he was wholly unprepared for the
elderly, tall, fine-looking man who stood in front of him--well-groomed,
refined, vigorous, with a lofty forehead, clear grey eyes, and a hooked
nose dominating a clean shaven mouth and chin of considerable
character--a distinguished looking man altogether.

"I'm afraid I've kept you waiting, Mr. Shorthouse," he said in a
pleasant voice, but with no trace of a smile in the mouth or eyes. "But
the fact is, you know, I've a mania for chemistry, and just when you
were announced I was at the most critical moment of a problem and was
really compelled to bring it to a conclusion."

Shorthouse had risen to meet him, but the other motioned him to resume
his seat. It was borne in upon him irresistibly that Mr. Joel Garvey,
for reasons best known to himself, was deliberately lying, and he could
not help wondering at the necessity for such an elaborate
misrepresentation. He took off his overcoat and sat down.

"I've no doubt, too, that the door startled you," Garvey went on,
evidently reading something of his guest's feelings in his face. "You
probably had not suspected it. It leads into my little laboratory.
Chemistry is an absorbing study to me, and I spend most of my time
there." Mr. Garvey moved up to the armchair on the opposite side of the
fireplace and sat down.

Shorthouse made appropriate answers to these remarks, but his mind was
really engaged in taking stock of Mr. Sidebotham's old-time partner. So
far there was no sign of mental irregularity and there was certainly
nothing about him to suggest violent wrong-doing or coarseness of
living. On the whole, Mr. Sidebotham's secretary was most pleasantly
surprised, and, wishing to conclude his business as speedily as
possible, he made a motion towards the bag for the purpose of opening
it, when his companion interrupted him quickly--

"You are Mr. Sidebotham's _private_ secretary, are you not?" he asked.

Shorthouse replied that he was. "Mr. Sidebotham," he went on to explain,
"has entrusted me with the papers in the case and I have the honour to
return to you your letter of a week ago." He handed the letter to
Garvey, who took it without a word and deliberately placed it in the
fire. He was not aware that the secretary was ignorant of its contents,
yet his face betrayed no signs of feeling. Shorthouse noticed, however,
that his eyes never left the fire until the last morsel had been
consumed. Then he looked up and said, "You are familiar then with the
facts of this most peculiar case?"

Shorthouse saw no reason to confess his ignorance.

"I have all the papers, Mr. Garvey," he replied, taking them out of the
bag, "and I should be very glad if we could transact our business as
speedily as possible. If you will cut out your signature I--"

"One moment, please," interrupted the other. "I must, before we proceed
further, consult some papers in my laboratory. If you will allow me to
leave you alone a few minutes for this purpose we can conclude the whole
matter in a very short time."

Shorthouse did not approve of this further delay, but he had no option
than to acquiesce, and when Garvey had left the room by the private door
he sat and waited with the papers in his hand. The minutes went by and
the other did not return. To pass the time he thought of taking the
false packet from his coat to see that the papers were in order, and the
move was indeed almost completed, when something--he never knew
what--warned him to desist. The feeling again came over him that he was
being watched, and he leaned back in his chair with the bag on his knees
and waited with considerable impatience for the other's return. For more
than twenty minutes he waited, and when at length the door opened and
Garvey appeared, with profuse apologies for the delay, he saw by the
clock that only a few minutes still remained of the time he had allowed
himself to catch the last train.

"Now I am completely at your service," he said pleasantly; "you must, of
course, know, Mr. Shorthouse, that one cannot be too careful in matters
of this kind--especially," he went on, speaking very slowly and
impressively, "in dealing with a man like my former partner, whose mind,
as you doubtless may have discovered, is at times very sadly affected."

Shorthouse made no reply to this. He felt that the other was watching
him as a cat watches a mouse.

"It is almost a wonder to me," Garvey added, "that he is still at large.
Unless he has greatly improved it can hardly be safe for those who are
closely associated with him."

The other began to feel uncomfortable. Either this was the other side of
the story, or it was the first signs of mental irresponsibility.

"All business matters of importance require the utmost care in my
opinion, Mr. Garvey," he said at length, cautiously.

"Ah! then, as I thought, you have had a great deal to put up with from
him," Garvey said, with his eyes fixed on his companion's face. "And, no
doubt, he is still as bitter against me as he was years ago when the
disease first showed itself?"

Although this last remark was a deliberate question and the questioner
was waiting with fixed eyes for an answer, Shorthouse elected to take
no notice of it. Without a word he pulled the elastic band from the blue
envelope with a snap and plainly showed his desire to conclude the
business as soon as possible. The tendency on the other's part to delay
did not suit him at all.

"But never personal violence, I trust, Mr. Shorthouse," he added.

"Never."

"I'm glad to hear it," Garvey said in a sympathetic voice, "very glad to
hear it. And now," he went on, "if you are ready we can transact this
little matter of business before dinner. It will only take a moment."

He drew a chair up to the desk and sat down, taking a pair of scissors
from a drawer. His companion approached with the papers in his hand,
unfolding them as he came. Garvey at once took them from him, and after
turning over a few pages he stopped and cut out a piece of writing at
the bottom of the last sheet but one.

Holding it up to him Shorthouse read the words "Joel Garvey" in faded
ink.

"There! That's my signature," he said, "and I've cut it out. It must be
nearly twenty years since I wrote it, and now I'm going to burn it."

He went to the fire and stooped over to burn the little slip of paper,
and while he watched it being consumed Shorthouse put the real papers in
his pocket and slipped the imitation ones into the bag. Garvey turned
just in time to see this latter movement.

"I'm putting the papers back," Shorthouse said quietly; "you've done
with them, I think."

"Certainly," he replied as, completely deceived, he saw the blue
envelope disappear into the black bag and watched Shorthouse turn the
key. "They no longer have the slightest interest for me." As he spoke he
moved over to the sideboard, and pouring himself out a small glass of
whisky asked his visitor if he might do the same for him. But the
visitor declined and was already putting on his overcoat when Garvey
turned with genuine surprise on his face.

"You surely are not going back to New York to-night, Mr. Shorthouse?" he
said, in a voice of astonishment.

"I've just time to catch the 7.15 if I'm quick."

"But I never heard of such a thing," Garvey said. "Of course I took it
for granted that you would stay the night."

"It's kind of you," said Shorthouse, "but really I must return to-night.
I never expected to stay."

The two men stood facing each other. Garvey pulled out his watch.

"I'm exceedingly sorry," he said; "but, upon my word, I took it for
granted you would stay. I ought to have said so long ago. I'm such a
lonely fellow and so little accustomed to visitors that I fear I forgot
my manners altogether. But in any case, Mr. Shorthouse, you cannot catch
the 7.15, for it's already after six o'clock, and that's the last train
to-night." Garvey spoke very quickly, almost eagerly, but his voice
sounded genuine.

"There's time if I walk quickly," said the young man with decision,
moving towards the door. He glanced at his watch as he went. Hitherto he
had gone by the clock on the mantelpiece. To his dismay he saw that it
was, as his host had said, long after six. The clock was half an hour
slow, and he realised at once that it was no longer possible to catch
the train.

Had the hands of the clock been moved back intentionally? Had he been
purposely detained? Unpleasant thoughts flashed into his brain and made
him hesitate before taking the next step. His employer's warning rang in
his ears. The alternative was six miles along a lonely road in the
dark, or a night under Garvey's roof. The former seemed a direct
invitation to catastrophe, if catastrophe there was planned to be. The
latter--well, the choice was certainly small. One thing, however, he
realised, was plain--he must show neither fear nor hesitancy.

"My watch must have gained," he observed quietly, turning the hands back
without looking up. "It seems I have certainly missed that train and
shall be obliged to throw myself upon your hospitality. But, believe me,
I had no intention of putting you out to any such extent."

"I'm delighted," the other said. "Defer to the judgment of an older man
and make yourself comfortable for the night. There's a bitter storm
outside, and you don't put me out at all. On the contrary it's a great
pleasure. I have so little contact with the outside world that it's
really a god-send to have you."

The man's face changed as he spoke. His manner was cordial and sincere.
Shorthouse began to feel ashamed of his doubts and to read between the
lines of his employer's warning. He took off his coat and the two men
moved to the armchairs beside the fire.

"You see," Garvey went on in a lowered voice, "I understand your
hesitancy perfectly. I didn't know Sidebotham all those years without
knowing a good deal about him--perhaps more than you do. I've no doubt,
now, he filled your mind with all sorts of nonsense about me--probably
told you that I was the greatest villain unhung, eh? and all that sort
of thing? Poor fellow! He was a fine sort before his mind became
unhinged. One of his fancies used to be that everybody else was insane,
or just about to become insane. Is he still as bad as that?"

"Few men," replied Shorthouse, with the manner of making a great
confidence, but entirely refusing to be drawn, "go through his
experiences and reach his age without entertaining delusions of one kind
or another."

"Perfectly true," said Garvey. "Your observation is evidently keen."

"Very keen indeed," Shorthouse replied, taking his cue neatly; "but, of
course, there are some things"--and here he looked cautiously over his
shoulder--"there are some things one cannot talk about too
circumspectly."

"I understand perfectly and respect your reserve."

There was a little more conversation and then Garvey got up and excused
himself on the plea of superintending the preparation of the bedroom.

"It's quite an event to have a visitor in the house, and I want to make
you as comfortable as possible," he said. "Marx will do better for a
little supervision. And," he added with a laugh as he stood in the
doorway, "I want you to carry back a good account to Sidebotham."



II

The tall form disappeared and the door was shut. The conversation of the
past few minutes had come somewhat as a revelation to the secretary.
Garvey seemed in full possession of normal instincts. There was no doubt
as to the sincerity of his manner and intentions. The suspicions of the
first hour began to vanish like mist before the sun. Sidebotham's
portentous warnings and the mystery with which he surrounded the whole
episode had been allowed to unduly influence his mind. The loneliness of
the situation and the bleak nature of the surroundings had helped to
complete the illusion. He began to be ashamed of his suspicions and a
change commenced gradually to be wrought in his thoughts. Anyhow a
dinner and a bed were preferable to six miles in the dark, no dinner,
and a cold train into the bargain.

Garvey returned presently. "We'll do the best we can for you," he said,
dropping into the deep armchair on the other side of the fire. "Marx is
a good servant if you watch him all the time. You must always stand over
a Jew, though, if you want things done properly. They're tricky and
uncertain unless they're working for their own interest. But Marx might
be worse, I'll admit. He's been with me for nearly twenty years--cook,
valet, housemaid, and butler all in one. In the old days, you know, he
was a clerk in our office in Chicago."

Garvey rattled on and Shorthouse listened with occasional remarks thrown
in. The former seemed pleased to have somebody to talk to and the sound
of his own voice was evidently sweet music in his ears. After a few
minutes, he crossed over to the sideboard and again took up the decanter
of whisky, holding it to the light. "You will join me this time," he
said pleasantly, pouring out two glasses, "it will give us an appetite
for dinner," and this time Shorthouse did not refuse. The liquor was
mellow and soft and the men took two glasses apiece.

"Excellent," remarked the secretary.

"Glad you appreciate it," said the host, smacking his lips. "It's very
old whisky, and I rarely touch it when I'm alone. But this," he added,
"is a special occasion, isn't it?"

Shorthouse was in the act of putting his glass down when something drew
his eyes suddenly to the other's face. A strange note in the man's voice
caught his attention and communicated alarm to his nerves. A new light
shone in Garvey's eyes and there flitted momentarily across his strong
features the shadow of something that set the secretary's nerves
tingling. A mist spread before his eyes and the unaccountable belief
rose strong in him that he was staring into the visage of an untamed
animal. Close to his heart there was something that was wild, fierce,
savage. An involuntary shiver ran over him and seemed to dispel the
strange fancy as suddenly as it had come. He met the other's eye with a
smile, the counterpart of which in his heart was vivid horror.

"It _is_ a special occasion," he said, as naturally as possible, "and,
allow me to add, very special whisky."

Garvey appeared delighted. He was in the middle of a devious tale
describing how the whisky came originally into his possession when the
door opened behind them and a grating voice announced that dinner was
ready. They followed the cassocked form of Marx across the dirty hall,
lit only by the shaft of light that followed them from the library door,
and entered a small room where a single lamp stood upon a table laid for
dinner. The walls were destitute of pictures, and the windows had
Venetian blinds without curtains. There was no fire in the grate, and
when the men sat down facing each other Shorthouse noticed that, while
his own cover was laid with its due proportion of glasses and cutlery,
his companion had nothing before him but a soup plate, without fork,
knife, or spoon beside it.

"I don't know what there is to offer you," he said; "but I'm sure Marx
has done the best he can at such short notice. I only eat one course for
dinner, but pray take your time and enjoy your food."

Marx presently set a plate of soup before the guest, yet so loathsome
was the immediate presence of this old Hebrew servitor, that the
spoonfuls disappeared somewhat slowly. Garvey sat and watched him.

Shorthouse said the soup was delicious and bravely swallowed another
mouthful. In reality his thoughts were centred upon his companion, whose
manners were giving evidence of a gradual and curious change. There was
a decided difference in his demeanour, a difference that the secretary
_felt_ at first, rather than saw. Garvey's quiet self-possession was
giving place to a degree of suppressed excitement that seemed so far
inexplicable. His movements became quick and nervous, his eye shifting
and strangely brilliant, and his voice, when he spoke, betrayed an
occasional deep tremor. Something unwonted was stirring within him and
evidently demanding every moment more vigorous manifestation as the meal
proceeded.

Intuitively Shorthouse was afraid of this growing excitement, and while
negotiating some uncommonly tough pork chops he tried to lead the
conversation on to the subject of chemistry, of which in his Oxford days
he had been an enthusiastic student. His companion, however, would none
of it. It seemed to have lost interest for him, and he would barely
condescend to respond. When Marx presently returned with a plate of
steaming eggs and bacon the subject dropped of its own accord.

"An inadequate dinner dish," Garvey said, as soon as the man was gone;
"but better than nothing, I hope."

Shorthouse remarked that he was exceedingly fond of bacon and eggs, and,
looking up with the last word, saw that Garvey's face was twitching
convulsively and that he was almost wriggling in his chair. He quieted
down, however, under the secretary's gaze and observed, though evidently
with an effort--

"Very good of you to say so. Wish I could join you, only I never eat
such stuff. I only take one course for dinner."

Shorthouse began to feel some curiosity as to what the nature of this
one course might be, but he made no further remark and contented himself
with noting mentally that his companion's excitement seemed to be
rapidly growing beyond his control. There was something uncanny about
it, and he began to wish he had chosen the alternative of the walk to
the station.

"I'm glad to see you never speak when Marx is in the room," said Garvey
presently. "I'm sure it's better not. Don't you think so?"

He appeared to wait eagerly for the answer.

"Undoubtedly," said the puzzled secretary.

"Yes," the other went on quickly. "He's an excellent man, but he has
one drawback--a really horrid one. You may--but, no, you could hardly
have noticed it yet."

"Not drink, I trust," said Shorthouse, who would rather have discussed
any other subject than the odious Jew.

"Worse than that a great deal," Garvey replied, evidently expecting the
other to draw him out. But Shorthouse was in no mood to hear anything
horrible, and he declined to step into the trap.

"The best of servants have their faults," he said coldly.

"I'll tell you what it is if you like," Garvey went on, still speaking
very low and leaning forward over the table so that his face came close
to the flame of the lamp, "only we must speak quietly in case he's
listening. I'll tell you what it is--if you think you won't be
frightened."

"Nothing frightens me," he laughed. (Garvey must understand that at all
events.) "Nothing can frighten me," he repeated.

"I'm glad of that; for it frightens _me_ a good deal sometimes."

Shorthouse feigned indifference. Yet he was aware that his heart was
beating a little quicker and that there was a sensation of chilliness in
his back. He waited in silence for what was to come.

"He has a horrible predilection for vacuums," Garvey went on presently
in a still lower voice and thrusting his face farther forward under the
lamp.

"Vacuums!" exclaimed the secretary in spite of himself. "What in the
world do you mean?"

"What I say of course. He's always tumbling into them, so that I can't
find him or get at him. He hides there for hours at a time, and for the
life of me I can't make out what he does there."

Shorthouse stared his companion straight in the eyes. What in the name
of Heaven was he talking about?

"Do you suppose he goes there for a change of air, or--or to escape?" he
went on in a louder voice.

Shorthouse could have laughed outright but for the expression of the
other's face.

"I should not think there was much air of any sort in a vacuum," he said
quietly.

"That's exactly what _I_ feel," continued Garvey with ever growing
excitement. "That's the horrid part of it. How the devil does he live
there? You see--"

"Have you ever followed him there?" interrupted the secretary. The
other leaned back in his chair and drew a deep sigh.

"Never! It's impossible. You see I can't follow him. There's not room
for two. A vacuum only holds one comfortably. Marx knows that. He's out
of my reach altogether once he's fairly inside. He knows the best side
of a bargain. He's a regular Jew."

"That is a drawback to a servant, of course--" Shorthouse spoke slowly,
with his eyes on his plate.

"A drawback," interrupted the other with an ugly chuckle, "I call it a
draw-in, that's what I call it."

"A draw-in does seem a more accurate term," assented Shorthouse. "But,"
he went on, "I thought that nature abhorred a vacuum. She used to, when
I was at school--though perhaps--it's so long ago--"

He hesitated and looked up. Something in Garvey's face--something he had
_felt_ before he looked up--stopped his tongue and froze the words in
his throat. His lips refused to move and became suddenly dry. Again the
mist rose before his eyes and the appalling shadow dropped its veil over
the face before him. Garvey's features began to burn and glow. Then they
seemed to coarsen and somehow slip confusedly together. He stared for a
second--it seemed only for a second--into the visage of a ferocious and
abominable animal; and then, as suddenly as it had come, the filthy
shadow of the beast passed off, the mist melted out, and with a mighty
effort over his nerves he forced himself to finish his sentence.

"You see it's so long since I've given attention to such things," he
stammered. His heart was beating rapidly, and a feeling of oppression
was gathering over it.

"It's my peculiar and special study on the other hand," Garvey resumed.
"I've not spent all these years in my laboratory to no purpose, I can
assure you. Nature, I know for a fact," he added with unnatural warmth,
"does _not_ abhor a vacuum. On the contrary, she's uncommonly fond of
'em, much too fond, it seems, for the comfort of my little household. If
there were fewer vacuums and more abhorrence we should get on better--a
damned sight better in my opinion."

"Your special knowledge, no doubt, enables you to speak with authority,"
Shorthouse said, curiosity and alarm warring with other mixed feelings
in his mind; "but how _can_ a man tumble into a vacuum?"

"You may well ask. That's just it. How can he? It's preposterous and I
can't make it out at all. Marx knows, but he won't tell me. Jews know
more than we do. For my part I have reason to believe--" He stopped and
listened. "Hush! here he comes," he added, rubbing his hands together as
if in glee and fidgeting in his chair.

Steps were heard coming down the passage, and as they approached the
door Garvey seemed to give himself completely over to an excitement he
could not control. His eyes were fixed on the door and he began
clutching the tablecloth with both hands. Again his face was screened by
the loathsome shadow. It grew wild, wolfish. As through a mask, that
concealed, and yet was thin enough to let through a suggestion of, the
beast crouching behind, there leaped into his countenance the strange
look of the animal in the human--the expression of the were-wolf, the
monster. The change in all its loathsomeness came rapidly over his
features, which began to lose their outline. The nose flattened,
dropping with broad nostrils over thick lips. The face rounded, filled,
and became squat. The eyes, which, luckily for Shorthouse, no longer
sought his own, glowed with the light of untamed appetite and bestial
greed. The hands left the cloth and grasped the edges of the plate, and
then clutched the cloth again.

"This is _my_ course coming now," said Garvey, in a deep guttural voice.
He was shivering. His upper lip was partly lifted and showed the teeth,
white and gleaming.

A moment later the door opened and Marx hurried into the room and set a
dish in front of his master. Garvey half rose to meet him, stretching
out his hands and grinning horribly. With his mouth he made a sound like
the snarl of an animal. The dish before him was steaming, but the slight
vapour rising from it betrayed by its odour that it was not born of a
fire of coals. It was the natural heat of flesh warmed by the fires of
life only just expelled. The moment the dish rested on the table Garvey
pushed away his own plate and drew the other up close under his mouth.
Then he seized the food in both hands and commenced to tear it with his
teeth, grunting as he did so. Shorthouse closed his eyes, with a feeling
of nausea. When he looked up again the lips and jaw of the man opposite
were stained with crimson. The whole man was transformed. A feasting
tiger, starved and ravenous, but without a tiger's grace--this was what
he watched for several minutes, transfixed with horror and disgust.

Marx had already taken his departure, knowing evidently what was not
good for the eyes to look upon, and Shorthouse knew at last that he was
sitting face to face with a madman.

The ghastly meal was finished in an incredibly short time and nothing
was left but a tiny pool of red liquid rapidly hardening. Garvey leaned
back heavily in his chair and sighed. His smeared face, withdrawn now
from the glare of the lamp, began to resume its normal appearance.
Presently he looked up at his guest and said in his natural voice--

"I hope you've had enough to eat. You wouldn't care for this, you know,"
with a downward glance.

Shorthouse met his eyes with an inward loathing, and it was impossible
not to show some of the repugnance he felt. In the other's face,
however, he thought he saw a subdued, cowed expression. But he found
nothing to say.

"Marx will be in presently," Garvey went on. "He's either listening, or
in a vacuum."

"Does he choose any particular time for his visits?" the secretary
managed to ask.

"He generally goes after dinner; just about this time, in fact. But he's
not gone yet," he added, shrugging his shoulders, "for I think I hear
him coming."

Shorthouse wondered whether vacuum was possibly synonymous with wine
cellar, but gave no expression to his thoughts. With chills of horror
still running up and down his back, he saw Marx come in with a basin and
towel, while Garvey thrust up his face just as an animal puts up its
muzzle to be rubbed.

"Now we'll have coffee in the library, if you're ready," he said, in the
tone of a gentleman addressing his guests after a dinner party.

Shorthouse picked up the bag, which had lain all this time between his
feet, and walked through the door his host held open for him. Side by
side they crossed the dark hall together, and, to his disgust, Garvey
linked an arm in his, and with his face so close to the secretary's ear
that he felt the warm breath, said in a thick voice--

"You're uncommonly careful with that bag, Mr. Shorthouse. It surely must
contain something more than the bundle of papers."

"Nothing but the papers," he answered, feeling the hand burning upon his
arm and wishing he were miles away from the house and its abominable
occupants.

"Quite sure?" asked the other with an odious and suggestive chuckle. "Is
there any meat in it, fresh meat--raw meat?"

The secretary felt, somehow, that at the least sign of fear the beast on
his arm would leap upon him and tear him with his teeth.

"Nothing of the sort," he answered vigorously. "It wouldn't hold enough
to feed a cat."

"True," said Garvey with a vile sigh, while the other felt the hand upon
his arm twitch up and down as if feeling the flesh. "True, it's too
small to be of any real use. As you say, it wouldn't hold enough to feed
a cat."

Shorthouse was unable to suppress a cry. The muscles of his fingers,
too, relaxed in spite of himself and he let the black bag drop with a
bang to the floor. Garvey instantly withdrew his arm and turned with a
quick movement. But the secretary had regained his control as suddenly
as he had lost it, and he met the maniac's eyes with a steady and
aggressive glare.

"There, you see, it's quite light. It makes no appreciable noise when I
drop it." He picked it up and let it fall again, as if he had dropped it
for the first time purposely. The ruse was successful.

"Yes. You're right," Garvey said, still standing in the doorway and
staring at him. "At any rate it wouldn't hold enough for two," he
laughed. And as he closed the door the horrid laughter echoed in the
empty hall.

They sat down by a blazing fire and Shorthouse was glad to feel its
warmth. Marx presently brought in coffee. A glass of the old whisky and
a good cigar helped to restore equilibrium. For some minutes the men sat
in silence staring into the fire. Then, without looking up, Garvey said
in a quiet voice--

"I suppose it was a shock to you to see me eat raw meat like that. I
must apologise if it was unpleasant to you. But it's all I can eat and
it's the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours."

"Best nourishment in the world, no doubt; though I should think it might
be a trifle strong for some stomachs."

He tried to lead the conversation away from so unpleasant a subject, and
went on to talk rapidly of the values of different foods, of
vegetarianism and vegetarians, and of men who had gone for long periods
without any food at all. Garvey listened apparently without interest and
had nothing to say. At the first pause he jumped in eagerly.

"When the hunger is really great on me," he said, still gazing into the
fire, "I simply cannot control myself. I must have raw meat--the first I
can get--" Here he raised his shining eyes and Shorthouse felt his hair
beginning to rise.

"It comes upon me so suddenly too. I never can tell when to expect it. A
year ago the passion rose in me like a whirlwind and Marx was out and I
couldn't get meat. I had to get something or I should have bitten
myself. Just when it was getting unbearable my dog ran out from beneath
the sofa. It was a spaniel."

Shorthouse responded with an effort. He hardly knew what he was saying
and his skin crawled as if a million ants were moving over it.

There was a pause of several minutes.

"I've bitten Marx all over," Garvey went on presently in his strange
quiet voice, and as if he were speaking of apples; "but he's bitter. I
doubt if the hunger could ever make me do it again. Probably that's what
first drove him to take shelter in a vacuum." He chuckled hideously as
he thought of this solution of his attendant's disappearances.

Shorthouse seized the poker and poked the fire as if his life depended
on it. But when the banging and clattering was over Garvey continued his
remarks with the same calmness. The next sentence, however, was never
finished. The secretary had got upon his feet suddenly.

"I shall ask your permission to retire," he said in a determined voice;
"I'm tired to-night; will you be good enough to show me to my room?"

Garvey looked up at him with a curious cringing expression behind which
there shone the gleam of cunning passion.

"Certainly," he said, rising from his chair. "You've had a tiring
journey. I ought to have thought of that before."

He took the candle from the table and lit it, and the fingers that held
the match trembled.

"We needn't trouble Marx," he explained. "That beast's in his vacuum by
this time."



III

They crossed the hall and began to ascend the carpetless wooden stairs.
They were in the well of the house and the air cut like ice. Garvey,
the flickering candle in his hand throwing his face into strong outline,
led the way across the first landing and opened a door near the mouth of
a dark passage. A pleasant room greeted the visitor's eyes, and he
rapidly took in its points while his host walked over and lit two
candles that stood on a table at the foot of the bed. A fire burned
brightly in the grate. There were two windows, opening like doors, in
the wall opposite, and a high canopied bed occupied most of the space on
the right. Panelling ran all round the room reaching nearly to the
ceiling and gave a warm and cosy appearance to the whole; while the
portraits that stood in alternate panels suggested somehow the
atmosphere of an old country house in England. Shorthouse was agreeably
surprised.

"I hope you'll find everything you need," Garvey was saying in the
doorway. "If not, you have only to ring that bell by the fireplace. Marx
won't hear it of course, but it rings in my laboratory, where I spend
most of the night."

Then, with a brief good-night, he went out and shut the door after him.
The instant he was gone Mr. Sidebotham's private secretary did a
peculiar thing. He planted himself in the middle of the room with his
back to the door, and drawing the pistol swiftly from his hip pocket
levelled it across his left arm at the window. Standing motionless in
this position for thirty seconds he then suddenly swerved right round
and faced in the other direction, pointing his pistol straight at the
keyhole of the door. There followed immediately a sound of shuffling
outside and of steps retreating across the landing.

"On his knees at the keyhole," was the secretary's reflection. "Just as
I thought. But he didn't expect to look down the barrel of a pistol and
it made him jump a little."

As soon as the steps had gone downstairs and died away across the hall,
Shorthouse went over and locked the door, stuffing a piece of crumpled
paper into the second keyhole which he saw immediately above the first.
After that, he made a thorough search of the room. It hardly repaid the
trouble, for he found nothing unusual. Yet he was glad he had made it.
It relieved him to find no one was in hiding under the bed or in the
deep oak cupboard; and he hoped sincerely it was not the cupboard in
which the unfortunate spaniel had come to its vile death. The French
windows, he discovered, opened on to a little balcony. It looked on to
the front, and there was a drop of less than twenty feet to the ground
below. The bed was high and wide, soft as feathers and covered with
snowy sheets--very inviting to a tired man; and beside the blazing fire
were a couple of deep armchairs.

Altogether it was very pleasant and comfortable; but, tired though he
was, Shorthouse had no intention of going to bed. It was impossible to
disregard the warning of his nerves. They had never failed him before,
and when that sense of distressing horror lodged in his bones he knew
there was something in the wind and that a red flag was flying over the
immediate future. Some delicate instrument in his being, more subtle
than the senses, more accurate than mere presentiment, had seen the red
flag and interpreted its meaning.

Again it seemed to him, as he sat in an armchair over the fire, that his
movements were being carefully watched from somewhere; and, not knowing
what weapons might be used against him, he felt that his real safety lay
in a rigid control of his mind and feelings and a stout refusal to admit
that he was in the least alarmed.

The house was very still. As the night wore on the wind dropped. Only
occasional bursts of sleet against the windows reminded him that the
elements were awake and uneasy. Once or twice the windows rattled and
the rain hissed in the fire, but the roar of the wind in the chimney
grew less and less and the lonely building was at last lapped in a great
stillness. The coals clicked, settling themselves deeper in the grate,
and the noise of the cinders dropping with a tiny report into the soft
heap of accumulated ashes was the only sound that punctuated the
silence.

In proportion as the power of sleep grew upon him the dread of the
situation lessened; but so imperceptibly, so gradually, and so
insinuatingly that he scarcely realised the change. He thought he was as
wide awake to his danger as ever. The successful exclusion of horrible
mental pictures of what he had seen he attributed to his rigorous
control, instead of to their true cause, the creeping over him of the
soft influences of sleep. The faces in the coals were so soothing; the
armchair was so comfortable; so sweet the breath that gently pressed
upon his eyelids; so subtle the growth of the sensation of safety. He
settled down deeper into the chair and in another moment would have been
asleep when the red flag began to shake violently to and fro and he sat
bolt upright as if he had been stabbed in the back.

Someone was coming up the stairs. The boards creaked beneath a stealthy
weight.

Shorthouse sprang from the chair and crossed the room swiftly, taking up
his position beside the door, but out of range of the keyhole. The two
candles flared unevenly on the table at the foot of the bed. The steps
were slow and cautious--it seemed thirty seconds between each one--but
the person who was taking them was very close to the door. Already he
had topped the stairs and was shuffling almost silently across the bit
of landing.

The secretary slipped his hand into his pistol pocket and drew back
further against the wall, and hardly had he completed the movement when
the sounds abruptly ceased and he knew that somebody was standing just
outside the door and preparing for a careful observation through the
keyhole.

He was in no sense a coward. In action he was never afraid. It was the
waiting and wondering and the uncertainty that might have loosened his
nerves a little. But, somehow, a wave of intense horror swept over him
for a second as he thought of the bestial maniac and his attendant Jew;
and he would rather have faced a pack of wolves than have to do with
either of these men.

Something brushing gently against the door set his nerves tingling
afresh and made him tighten his grasp on the pistol. The steel was cold
and slippery in his moist fingers. What an awful noise it would make
when he pulled the trigger! If the door were to open how close he would
be to the figure that came in! Yet he knew it was locked on the inside
and could not possibly open. Again something brushed against the panel
beside him and a second later the piece of crumpled paper fell from the
keyhole to the floor, while the piece of thin wire that had accomplished
this result showed its point for a moment in the room and was then
swiftly withdrawn.

Somebody was evidently peering now through the keyhole, and realising
this fact the spirit of attack entered into the heart of the beleaguered
man. Raising aloft his right hand he brought it suddenly down with a
resounding crash upon the panel of the door next the keyhole--a crash
that, to the crouching eavesdropper, must have seemed like a clap of
thunder out of a clear sky. There was a gasp and a slight lurching
against the door and the midnight listener rose startled and alarmed,
for Shorthouse plainly heard the tread of feet across the landing and
down the stairs till they were lost in the silences of the hall. Only,
this time, it seemed to him there were four feet instead of two.

Quickly stuffing the paper back into the keyhole, he was in the act of
walking back to the fireplace when, over his shoulder, he caught sight
of a white face pressed in outline against the outside of the window. It
was blurred in the streams of sleet, but the white of the moving eyes
was unmistakable. He turned instantly to meet it, but the face was
withdrawn like a flash, and darkness rushed in to fill the gap where it
had appeared.

"Watched on both sides," he reflected.

But he was not to be surprised into any sudden action, and quietly
walking over to the fireplace as if he had seen nothing unusual he
stirred the coals a moment and then strolled leisurely over to the
window. Steeling his nerves, which quivered a moment in spite of his
will, he opened the window and stepped out on to the balcony. The wind,
which he thought had dropped, rushed past him into the room and
extinguished one of the candles, while a volley of fine cold rain burst
all over his face. At first he could see nothing, and the darkness came
close up to his eyes like a wall. He went a little farther on to the
balcony and drew the window after him till it clashed. Then he stood and
waited.

But nothing touched him. No one seemed to be there. His eyes got
accustomed to the blackness and he was able to make out the iron
railing, the dark shapes of the trees beyond, and the faint light coming
from the other window. Through this he peered into the room, walking the
length of the balcony to do so. Of course he was standing in a shaft of
light and whoever was crouching in the darkness below could plainly see
him. _Below?_--That there should be anyone _above_ did not occur to him
until, just as he was preparing to go in again, he became aware that
something was moving in the darkness over his head. He looked up,
instinctively raising a protecting arm, and saw a long black line
swinging against the dim wall of the house. The shutters of the window
on the next floor, whence it depended, were thrown open and moving
backwards and forwards in the wind. The line was evidently a thickish
cord, for as he looked it was pulled in and the end disappeared in the
darkness.

Shorthouse, trying to whistle to himself, peered over the edge of the
balcony as if calculating the distance he might have to drop, and then
calmly walked into the room again and closed the window behind him,
leaving the latch so that the lightest touch would cause it to fly open.
He relit the candle and drew a straight-backed chair up to the table.
Then he put coal on the fire and stirred it up into a royal blaze. He
would willingly have folded the shutters over those staring windows at
his back. But that was out of the question. It would have been to cut
off his way of escape.

Sleep, for the time, was at a disadvantage. His brain was full of blood
and every nerve was tingling. He felt as if countless eyes were upon him
and scores of stained hands were stretching out from the corners and
crannies of the house to seize him. Crouching figures, figures of
hideous Jews, stood everywhere about him where shelter was, creeping
forward out of the shadows when he was not looking and retreating
swiftly and silently when he turned his head. Wherever he looked, other
eyes met his own, and though they melted away under his steady,
confident gaze, he knew they would wax and draw in upon him the instant
his glances weakened and his will wavered.

Though there were no sounds, he knew that in the well of the house there
was movement going on, _and preparation_. And this knowledge, inasmuch
as it came to him irresistibly and through other and more subtle
channels than those of the senses kept the sense of horror fresh in his
blood and made him alert and awake.

But, no matter how great the dread in the heart, the power of sleep will
eventually overcome it. Exhausted nature is irresistible, and as the
minutes wore on and midnight passed, he realised that nature was
vigorously asserting herself and sleep was creeping upon him from the
extremities.

To lessen the danger he took out his pencil and began to draw the
articles of furniture in the room. He worked into elaborate detail the
cupboard, the mantelpiece, and the bed, and from these he passed on to
the portraits. Being possessed of genuine skill, he found the occupation
sufficiently absorbing. It kept the blood in his brain, and that kept
him awake. The pictures, moreover, now that he considered them for the
first time, were exceedingly well painted. Owing to the dim light, he
centred his attention upon the portraits beside the fireplace. On the
right was a woman, with a sweet, gentle face and a figure of great
refinement; on the left was a full-size figure of a big handsome man
with a full beard and wearing a hunting costume of ancient date.

From time to time he turned to the windows behind him, but the vision of
the face was not repeated. More than once, too, he went to the door and
listened, but the silence was so profound in the house that he gradually
came to believe the plan of attack had been abandoned. Once he went out
on to the balcony, but the sleet stung his face and he only had time to
see that the shutters above were closed, when he was obliged to seek the
shelter of the room again.

In this way the hours passed. The fire died down and the room grew
chilly. Shorthouse had made several sketches of the two heads and was
beginning to feel overpoweringly weary. His feet and his hands were cold
and his yawns were prodigious. It seemed ages and ages since the steps
had come to listen at his door and the face had watched him from the
window. A feeling of safety had somehow come to him. In reality he was
exhausted. His one desire was to drop upon the soft white bed and yield
himself up to sleep without any further struggle.

He rose from his chair with a series of yawns that refused to be stifled
and looked at his watch. It was close upon three in the morning. He made
up his mind that he would lie down with his clothes on and get some
sleep. It was safe enough, the door was locked on the inside and the
window was fastened. Putting the bag on the table near his pillow he
blew out the candles and dropped with a sense of careless and delicious
exhaustion upon the soft mattress. In five minutes he was sound asleep.

There had scarcely been time for the dreams to come when he found
himself lying side-ways across the bed with wide open eyes staring into
the darkness. Someone had touched him, and he had writhed away in his
sleep as from something unholy. The movement had awakened him.

The room was simply black. No light came from the windows and the fire
had gone out as completely as if water had been poured upon it. He gazed
into a sheet of impenetrable darkness that came close up to his face
like a wall.

His first thought was for the papers in his coat and his hand flew to
the pocket. They were safe; and the relief caused by this discovery left
his mind instantly free for other reflections.

And the realisation that at once came to him with a touch of dismay was,
that during his sleep some definite _change_ had been effected in the
room. He felt this with that intuitive certainty which amounts to
positive knowledge. The room was utterly still, but the corroboration
that was speedily brought to him seemed at once to fill the darkness
with a whispering, secret life that chilled his blood and made the
sheet feel like ice against his cheek.

Hark! This was it; there reached his ears, in which the blood was
already buzzing with warning clamour, a dull murmur of something that
rose indistinctly from the well of the house and became audible to him
without passing through walls or doors. There seemed no solid surface
between him, lying on the bed, and the landing; between the landing and
the stairs, and between the stairs and the hall beyond.

He knew that the door of the room _was standing open_! Therefore it had
been opened from the _inside_. Yet the window was fastened, also on the
inside.

Hardly was this realised when the conspiring silence of the hour was
broken by another and a more definite sound. A step was coming along the
passage. A certain bruise on the hip told Shorthouse that the pistol in
his pocket was ready for use and he drew it out quickly and cocked it.
Then he just had time to slip over the edge of the bed and crouch down
on the floor when the step halted on the threshold of the room. The bed
was thus between him and the open door. The window was at his back.

He waited in the darkness. What struck him as peculiar about the steps
was that there seemed no particular desire to move stealthily. There was
no extreme caution. They moved along in rather a slipshod way and
sounded like soft slippers or feet in stockings. There was something
clumsy, irresponsible, almost reckless about the movement.

For a second the steps paused upon the threshold, but only for a second.
Almost immediately they came on into the room, and as they passed from
the wood to the carpet Shorthouse noticed that they became wholly
noiseless. He waited in suspense, not knowing whether the unseen walker
was on the other side of the room or was close upon him. Presently he
stood up and stretched out his left arm in front of him, groping,
searching, feeling in a circle; and behind it he held the pistol, cocked
and pointed, in his right hand. As he rose a bone cracked in his knee,
his clothes rustled as if they were newspapers, and his breath seemed
loud enough to be heard all over the room. But not a sound came to
betray the position of the invisible intruder.

Then, just when the tension was becoming unbearable, a noise relieved
the gripping silence. It was wood knocking against wood, and it came
from the farther end of the room. The steps had moved over to the
fireplace. A sliding sound almost immediately followed it and then
silence closed again over everything like a pall.

For another five minutes Shorthouse waited, and then the suspense became
too much. He could not stand that open door! The candles were close
beside him and he struck a match and lit them, expecting in the sudden
glare to receive at least a terrific blow. But nothing happened, and he
saw at once that the room was entirely empty. Walking over with the
pistol cocked he peered out into the darkness of the landing and then
closed the door and turned the key. Then he searched the room--bed,
cupboard, table, curtains, everything that could have concealed a man;
but found no trace of the intruder. The owner of the footsteps had
disappeared like a ghost into the shadows of the night. But for one fact
he might have imagined that he had been dreaming: _the bag had
vanished_!

There was no more sleep for Shorthouse that night. His watch pointed to
4 a.m. and there were still three hours before daylight. He sat down at
the table and continued his sketches. With fixed determination he went
on with his drawing and began a new outline of the man's head. There was
something in the expression that continually evaded him. He had no
success with it, and this time it seemed to him that it was the eyes
that brought about his discomfiture. He held up his pencil before his
face to measure the distance between the nose and the eyes, and to his
amazement he saw that a change had come over the features. The eyes were
no longer open. _The lids had closed!_

For a second he stood in a sort of stupefied astonishment. A push would
have toppled him over. Then he sprang to his feet and held a candle
close up to the picture. The eye-lids quivered, the eye-lashes trembled.
Then, right before his gaze, the eyes opened and looked straight into
his own. Two holes were cut in the panel and this pair of eyes, human
eyes, just fitted them.

As by a curious effect of magic, the strong fear that had governed him
ever since his entry into the house disappeared in a second. Anger
rushed into his heart and his chilled blood rose suddenly to boiling
point. Putting the candle down, he took two steps back into the room and
then flung himself forward with all his strength against the painted
panel. Instantly, and before the crash came, the eyes were withdrawn,
and two black spaces showed where they had been. The old huntsman was
eyeless. But the panel cracked and split inwards like a sheet of thin
cardboard; and Shorthouse, pistol in hand, thrust an arm through the
jagged aperture and, seizing a human leg, dragged out into the room--the
Jew!

Words rushed in such a torrent to his lips that they choked him. The old
Hebrew, white as chalk, stood shaking before him, the bright pistol
barrel opposite his eyes, when a volume of cold air rushed into the
room, and with it a sound of hurried steps. Shorthouse felt his arm
knocked up before he had time to turn, and the same second Garvey, who
had somehow managed to burst open the window came between him and the
trembling Marx. His lips were parted and his eyes rolled strangely in
his distorted face.

"Don't shoot him! Shoot in the air!" he shrieked. He seized the Jew by
the shoulders.

"You damned hound," he roared, hissing in his face. "So I've got you at
last. That's where your vacuum is, is it? I know your vile hiding-place
at last." He shook him like a dog. "I've been after him all night," he
cried, turning to Shorthouse, "all night, I tell you, and I've got him
at last."

Garvey lifted his upper lip as he spoke and showed his teeth. They shone
like the fangs of a wolf. The Jew evidently saw them too, for he gave a
horrid yell and struggled furiously.

Before the eyes of the secretary a mist seemed to rise. The hideous
shadow again leaped into Garvey's face. He foresaw a dreadful battle,
and covering the two men with his pistol he retreated slowly to the
door. Whether they were both mad, or both criminal, he did not pause to
inquire. The only thought present in his mind was that the sooner he
made his escape the better.

Garvey was still shaking the Jew when he reached the door and turned the
key, but as he passed out on to the landing both men stopped their
struggling and turned to face him. Garvey's face, bestial, loathsome,
livid with anger; the Jew's white and grey with fear and horror;--both
turned towards him and joined in a wild, horrible yell that woke the
echoes of the night. The next second they were after him at full speed.

Shorthouse slammed the door in their faces and was at the foot of the
stairs, crouching in the shadow, before they were out upon the landing.
They tore shrieking down the stairs and past him, into the hall; and,
wholly unnoticed, Shorthouse whipped up the stairs again, crossed the
bedroom and dropped from the balcony into the soft snow.

As he ran down the drive he heard behind him in the house the yells of
the maniacs; and when he reached home several hours later Mr. Sidebotham
not only raised his salary but also told him to buy a new hat and
overcoat, and send in the bill to him.



SKELETON LAKE: AN EPISODE IN CAMP


The utter loneliness of our moose-camp on Skeleton Lake had impressed us
from the beginning--in the Quebec backwoods, five days by trail and
canoe from civilisation--and perhaps the singular name contributed a
little to the sensation of eeriness that made itself felt in the camp
circle when once the sun was down and the late October mists began
rising from the lake and winding their way in among the tree trunks.

For, in these regions, all names of lakes and hills and islands have
their origin in some actual event, taking either the name of a chief
participant, such as Smith's Ridge, or claiming a place in the map by
perpetuating some special feature of the journey or the scenery, such as
Long Island, Deep Rapids, or Rainy Lake.

All names thus have their meaning and are usually pretty recently
acquired, while the majority are self-explanatory and suggest human and
pioneer relations. Skeleton Lake, therefore, was a name full of
suggestion, and though none of us knew the origin or the story of its
birth, we all were conscious of a certain lugubrious atmosphere that
haunted its shores and islands, and but for the evidences of recent
moose tracks in its neighbourhood we should probably have pitched our
tents elsewhere.

For several hundred miles in any direction we knew of only one other
party of whites. They had journeyed up on the train with us, getting in
at North Bay, and hailing from Boston way. A common goal and object had
served by way of introduction. But the acquaintance had made little
progress. This noisy, aggressive Yankee did not suit our fancy much as a
possible neighbour, and it was only a slight intimacy between his chief
guide, Jake the Swede, and one of our men that kept the thing going at
all. They went into camp on Beaver Creek, fifty miles and more to the
west of us.

But that was six weeks ago, and seemed as many months, for days and
nights pass slowly in these solitudes and the scale of time changes
wonderfully. Our men always seemed to know by instinct pretty well "whar
them other fellows was movin'," but in the interval no one had come
across their trails, or once so much as heard their rifle shots.

Our little camp consisted of the professor, his wife, a splendid shot
and keen woods-woman, and myself. We had a guide apiece, and hunted
daily in pairs from before sunrise till dark.

It was our last evening in the woods, and the professor was lying in my
little wedge tent, discussing the dangers of hunting alone in couples in
this way. The flap of the tent hung back and let in fragrant odours of
cooking over an open wood fire; everywhere there were bustle and
preparation, and one canoe already lay packed with moose horns, her nose
pointing southwards.

"If an accident happened to one of them," he was saying, "the survivor's
story when he returned to camp would be entirely unsupported evidence,
wouldn't it? Because, you see--"

And he went on laying down the law after the manner of professors, until
I became so bored that my attention began to wander to pictures and
memories of the scenes we were just about to leave: Garden Lake, with
its hundred islands; the rapids out of Round Pond; the countless vistas
of forest, crimson and gold in the autumn sunshine; and the starlit
nights we had spent watching in cold, cramped positions for the wary
moose on lonely lakes among the hills. The hum of the professor's voice
in time grew more soothing. A nod or a grunt was all the reply he looked
for. Fortunately, he loathed interruptions. I think I could almost have
gone to sleep under his very nose; perhaps I did sleep for a brief
interval.

Then it all came about so quickly, and the tragedy of it was so
unexpected and painful, throwing our peaceful camp into momentary
confusion, that now it all seems to have happened with the uncanny
swiftness of a dream.

First, there was the abrupt ceasing of the droning voice, and then the
running of quick little steps over the pine needles, and the confusion
of men's voices; and the next instant the professor's wife was at the
tent door, hatless, her face white, her hunting bloomers bagging at the
wrong places, a rifle in her hand, and her words running into one
another anyhow.

"Quick, Harry! It's Rushton. I was asleep and it woke me. Something's
happened. You must deal with it!"

In a second we were outside the tent with our rifles.

"My God!" I heard the professor exclaim, as if he had first made the
discovery. "It _is_ Rushton!"

I saw the guides helping--dragging--a man out of a canoe. A brief space
of deep silence followed in which I heard only the waves from the canoe
washing up on the sand; and then, immediately after, came the voice of
a man talking with amazing rapidity and with odd gaps between his words.
It was Rushton telling his story, and the tones of his voice, now
whispering, now almost shouting, mixed with sobs and solemn oaths and
frequent appeals to the Deity, somehow or other struck the false note at
the very start, and before any of us guessed or knew anything at all.
Something moved secretly between his words, a shadow veiling the stars,
destroying the peace of our little camp, and touching us all personally
with an undefinable sense of horror and distrust.

I can see that group to this day, with all the detail of a good
photograph: standing half-way between the firelight and the darkness, a
slight mist rising from the lake, the frosty stars, and our men, in
silence that was all sympathy, dragging Rushton across the rocks towards
the camp fire. Their moccasins crunched on the sand and slipped several
times on the stones beneath the weight of the limp, exhausted body, and
I can still see every inch of the pared cedar branch he had used for a
paddle on that lonely and dreadful journey.

But what struck me most, as it struck us all, was the limp exhaustion of
his body compared to the strength of his utterance and the tearing rush
of his words. A vigorous driving-power was there at work, forcing out
the tale, red-hot and throbbing, full of discrepancies and the strangest
contradictions; and the nature of this driving-power I first began to
appreciate when they had lifted him into the circle of firelight and I
saw his face, grey under the tan, terror in the eyes, tears too, hair
and beard awry, and listened to the wild stream of words pouring forth
without ceasing.

I think we all understood then, but it was only after many years that
anyone dared to confess what he thought.

There was Matt Morris, my guide; Silver Fizz, whose real name was
unknown, and who bore the title of his favourite drink; and huge Hank
Milligan--all ears and kind intention; and there was Rushton, pouring
out his ready-made tale, with ever-shifting eyes, turning from face to
face, seeking confirmation of details none had witnessed but
himself--and _one other_.

Silver Fizz was the first to recover from the shock of the thing, and to
realise, with the natural sense of chivalry common to most genuine
back-woodsmen, that the man was at a terrible disadvantage. At any rate,
he was the first to start putting the matter to rights.

"Never mind telling it just now," he said in a gruff voice, but with
real gentleness; "get a bite t'eat first and then let her go
afterwards. Better have a horn of whisky too. It ain't all packed yet, I
guess."

"Couldn't eat or drink a thing," cried the other. "Good Lord, don't you
see, man, I want to _talk_ to someone first? I want to get it out of me
to someone who can answer--answer. I've had nothing but trees to talk
with for three days, and I can't carry it alone any longer. Those
cursed, silent trees--I've told it 'em a thousand times. Now, just see
here, it was this way. When we started out from camp--"

He looked fearfully about him, and we realised it was useless to stop
him. The story was bound to come, and come it did.

Now, the story itself was nothing out of the way; such tales are told by
the dozen round any camp fire where men who have knocked about in the
woods are in the circle. It was the way he told it that made our flesh
creep. He was near the truth all along, but he was skimming it, and the
skimming took off the cream that might have saved his soul.

Of course, he smothered it in words--odd words, too--melodramatic,
poetic, out-of-the-way words that lie just on the edge of frenzy. Of
course, too, he kept asking us each in turn, scanning our faces with
those restless, frightened eyes of his, "What would _you_ have done?"
"What else could I do?" and "Was that _my_ fault?" But that was nothing,
for he was no milk-and-water fellow who dealt in hints and suggestions;
he told his story boldly, forcing his conclusions upon us as if we had
been so many wax cylinders of a phonograph that would repeat accurately
what had been told us, and these questions I have mentioned he used to
emphasise any special point that he seemed to think required such
emphasis.

The fact was, however, the picture of what had actually happened was so
vivid still in his own mind that it reached ours by a process of
telepathy which he could not control or prevent. All through his
true-false words this picture stood forth in fearful detail against the
shadows behind him. He could not veil, much less obliterate, it. We
knew; and, I always thought, _he knew that we knew_.

The story itself, as I have said, was sufficiently ordinary. Jake and
himself, in a nine-foot canoe, had upset in the middle of a lake, and
had held hands across the upturned craft for several hours, eventually
cutting holes in her ribs to stick their arms through and grasp hands
lest the numbness of the cold water should overcome them. They were
miles from shore, and the wind was drifting them down upon a little
island. But when they got within a few hundred yards of the island,
they realised to their horror that they would after all drift past it.

It was then the quarrel began. Jake was for leaving the canoe and
swimming. Rushton believed in waiting till they actually had passed the
island and were sheltered from the wind. Then they could make the island
easily by swimming, canoe and all. But Jake refused to give in, and
after a short struggle--Rushton admitted there was a struggle--got free
from the canoe--and disappeared _without a single cry_.

Rushton held on and proved the correctness of his theory, and finally
made the island, canoe and all, after being in the water over five
hours. He described to us how he crawled up on to the shore, and fainted
at once, with his feet lying half in the water; how lost and terrified
he felt upon regaining consciousness in the dark; how the canoe had
drifted away and his extraordinary luck in finding it caught again at
the end of the island by a projecting cedar branch. He told us that the
little axe--another bit of real luck--had caught in the thwart when the
canoe turned over, and how the little bottle in his pocket holding the
emergency matches was whole and dry. He made a blazing fire and searched
the island from end to end, calling upon Jake in the darkness, but
getting no answer; till, finally, so many half-drowned men seemed to
come crawling out of the water on to the rocks, and vanish among the
shadows when he came up with them, that he lost his nerve completely and
returned to lie down by the fire till the daylight came.

He then cut a bough to replace the lost paddles, and after one more
useless search for his lost companion, he got into the canoe, fearing
every moment he would upset again, and crossed over to the mainland. He
knew roughly the position of our camping place, and after paddling day
and night, and making many weary portages, without food or covering, he
reached us two days later.

This, more or less, was the story, and we, knowing whereof he spoke,
knew that every word was literally true, and at the same time went to
the building up of a hideous and prodigious lie.

Once the recital was over, he collapsed, and Silver Fizz, after a
general expression of sympathy from the rest of us, came again to the
rescue.

"But now, Mister, you jest _got_ to eat and drink whether you've a mind
to, or no."

And Matt Morris, cook that night, soon had the fried trout and bacon,
and the wheat cakes and hot coffee passing round a rather silent and
oppressed circle. So we ate round the fire, ravenously, as we had eaten
every night for the past six weeks, but with this difference: that
there was one among us who was more than ravenous--and he gorged.

In spite of all our devices he somehow kept himself the centre of
observation. When his tin mug was empty, Morris instantly passed the
tea-pail; when he began to mop up the bacon grease with the dough on his
fork, Hank reached out for the frying pan; and the can of steaming
boiled potatoes was always by his side. And there was another difference
as well: he was sick, terribly sick before the meal was over, and this
sudden nausea after food was more eloquent than words of what the man
had passed through on his dreadful, foodless, ghost-haunted journey of
forty miles to our camp. In the darkness he thought he would go crazy,
he said. There were voices in the trees, and figures were always lifting
themselves out of the water, or from behind boulders, to look at him and
make awful signs. Jake constantly peered at him through the underbrush,
and everywhere the shadows were moving, with eyes, footsteps, and
following shapes.

We tried hard to talk of other things, but it was no use, for he was
bursting with the rehearsal of his story and refused to allow himself
the chances we were so willing and anxious to grant him. After a good
night's rest he might have had more self-control and better judgment,
and would probably have acted differently. But, as it was, we found it
impossible to help him.

Once the pipes were lit, and the dishes cleared away, it was useless to
pretend any longer. The sparks from the burning logs zigzagged upwards
into a sky brilliant with stars. It was all wonderfully still and
peaceful, and the forest odours floated to us on the sharp autumn air.
The cedar fire smelt sweet and we could just hear the gentle wash of
tiny waves along the shore. All was calm, beautiful, and remote from the
world of men and passion. It was, indeed, a night to touch the soul, and
yet, I think, none of us heeded these things. A bull-moose might almost
have thrust his great head over our shoulders and have escaped
unnoticed. The death of Jake the Swede, with its sinister setting, was
the real presence that held the centre of the stage and compelled
attention.

"You won't p'raps care to come along, Mister," said Morris, by way of a
beginning; "but I guess I'll go with one of the boys here and have a
hunt for it."

"Sure," said Hank. "Jake an' I done some biggish trips together in the
old days, and I'll do that much for'm."

"It's deep water, they tell me, round them islands," added Silver Fizz;
"but we'll find it, sure pop,--if it's thar."

They all spoke of the body as "it."

There was a minute or two of heavy silence, and then Rushton again burst
out with his story in almost the identical words he had used before. It
was almost as if he had learned it by heart. He wholly failed to
appreciate the efforts of the others to let him off.

Silver Fizz rushed in, hoping to stop him, Morris and Hank closely
following his lead.

"I once knew another travellin' partner of his," he began quickly; "used
to live down Moosejaw Rapids way--"

"Is that so?" said Hank.

"Kind o' useful sort er feller," chimed in Morris.

All the idea the men had was to stop the tongue wagging before the
discrepancies became so glaring that we should be forced to take notice
of them, and ask questions. But, just as well try to stop an angry
bull-moose on the run, or prevent Beaver Creek freezing in mid-winter by
throwing in pebbles near the shore. Out it came! And, though the
discrepancy this time was insignificant, it somehow brought us all in a
second face to face with the inevitable and dreaded climax.

"And so I tramped all over that little bit of an island, hoping he
might somehow have gotten in without my knowing it, and always thinking
I _heard that awful last cry of his_ in the darkness--and then the night
dropped down impenetrably, like a damn thick blanket out of the sky,
and--"

All eyes fell away from his face. Hank poked up the logs with his boot,
and Morris seized an ember in his bare fingers to light his pipe,
although it was already emitting clouds of smoke. But the professor
caught the ball flying.

"I thought you said he sank without a cry," he remarked quietly, looking
straight up into the frightened face opposite, and then riddling
mercilessly the confused explanation that followed.

The cumulative effect of all these forces, hitherto so rigorously
repressed, now made itself felt, and the circle spontaneously broke up,
everybody moving at once by a common instinct. The professor's wife left
the party abruptly, with excuses about an early start next morning. She
first shook hands with Rushton, mumbling something about his comfort in
the night.

The question of his comfort, however, devolved by force of circumstances
upon myself, and he shared my tent. Just before wrapping up in my double
blankets--for the night was bitterly cold--he turned and began to
explain that he had a habit of talking in his sleep and hoped I would
wake him if he disturbed me by doing so.

Well, he did talk in his sleep--and it disturbed me very much indeed.
The anger and violence of his words remain with me to this day, and it
was clear in a minute that he was living over again some portion of the
scene upon the lake. I listened, horror-struck, for a moment or two, and
then understood that I was face to face with one of two alternatives: I
must continue an unwilling eavesdropper, or I must waken him. The former
was impossible for me, yet I shrank from the latter with the greatest
repugnance; and in my dilemma I saw the only way out of the difficulty
and at once accepted it.

Cold though it was, I crawled stealthily out of my warm sleeping-bag and
left the tent, intending to keep the old fire alight under the stars and
spend the remaining hours till daylight in the open.

As soon as I was out I noticed at once another figure moving silently
along the shore. It was Hank Milligan, and it was plain enough what he
was doing: he was examining the holes that had been cut in the upper
ribs of the canoe. He looked half ashamed when I came up with him, and
mumbled something about not being able to sleep for the cold. But,
there, standing together beside the over-turned canoe, we both saw that
the holes were far too small for a man's hand and arm and could not
possibly have been cut by two men hanging on for their lives in deep
water. Those holes had been made afterwards.

Hank said nothing to me and I said nothing to Hank, and presently he
moved off to collect logs for the fire, which needed replenishing, for
it was a piercingly cold night and there were many degrees of frost.

Three days later Hank and Silver Fizz followed with stumbling footsteps
the old Indian trail that leads from Beaver Creek to the southwards. A
hammock was slung between them, and it weighed heavily. Yet neither of
the men complained; and, indeed, speech between them was almost nothing.
Their thoughts, however, were exceedingly busy, and the terrible secret
of the woods which formed their burden weighed far more heavily than the
uncouth, shifting mass that lay in the swinging hammock and tugged so
severely at their shoulders.

They had found "it" in four feet of water not more than a couple of
yards from the lee shore of the island. And in the back of the head was
a long, terrible wound which no man could possibly have inflicted upon
himself.



_Printed by MORRISON & GIBB LIMITED, Edinburgh._



John Silence

by Algernon Blackwood


"Not since the days of Poe have we read anything in his peculiar genre
fit to be compared with this remarkable book. . . . He brings to his work
an extraordinary knowledge of strange and unusual forms of
spiritualistic phenomena, and steeps his pages in an atmosphere of real
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is used in no light connection. This very remarkable book is a
considerable and lasting addition to the literature of our
time."--_Morning Post_.

"These are the most haunting and original ghost stories since 'Uncle
Silas' appeared."--_Morning Leader_.

"In the field which he has chosen, Mr. Blackwood stands without rival
among contemporary writers."--_Manchester Guardian_.

"As original, as powerful, and as artistically written as that little
masterpiece of Lytton's, 'The Haunters and the Haunted.' He bears
favourable comparison with Le Fanu. . . . A volume which has an
extraordinary power of fascination."--_Birmingham Daily Post_.

"The story is absolutely arresting in its imaginative power."--_Daily
Telegraph_.


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The Lost Valley

by Algernon Blackwood


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of the most successful excursions into the grimly weird; quietly but
surely he makes his reader come under the influence of the eerie, until
the pages are half-reluctantly turned under the spell of a fearful
fascination. Mr. Blackwood writes like a real artist."--_Daily
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"The book of a remarkably gifted writer."--_Daily News_.

"The stories are unforgettable. Through them all, too, runs the charm of
an accomplished style. . . . Mr. Blackwood has indeed done well."--_Pall
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"Whether concerned with beauty or terror, fact or fancy, there is an
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contemporary stories of mystery and imagination."--_Globe_.

"In his method of touching the well-springs of fear, of pity, and of
horror, Mr. Blackwood often exhibits powers which can only properly be
called masterly. In its way his work bids fair to become classical . . .
an art superior to that of Bulwer-Lytton, at least as fine as Le Fanu's,
and hardly, if at all, inferior to that exhibited by the supreme living
masters of the short story, Mr. Kipling and Mr. James."--_Birmingham
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The Listener

by Algernon Blackwood


"These stories are literature . . . good stories, well imagined, carefully
modelled, properly proportioned. . . . 'The Insanity of Jones' is perhaps
the most remarkable _tour de force_ in this remarkable book. . . . If Mr.
Blackwood keeps at his present level one or two very celebrated authors
will have to look to their laurels."--_Daily Chronicle_.

"Even Edgar Allan Poe never suggested more skilfully an atmosphere of
horror than does Mr. Blackwood in his titular story, or again in his
description of 'The Willows.'"--F.G. BETTANY in the _Sunday Times_.

"Saying that Mr. Blackwood's latest stories reveal strong dramatic
instinct is a dull way of expressing the series of thrills which their
perusal causes. Without doubt Mr. Blackwood is designed to fill a high
place as an author who is able to arouse the attention of his reader on
the first page, and to hold it until the last has been turned. . . .
A distinctive genius."--_Pall Mall Gazette_.

"Full of imagination, and well told."--_Daily News_.

"Mr. Blackwood is clearly a master of the art of the genuine sensation
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