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.





The Dying Mother {101} The Examination Paper facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback