The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

Inside the House.

MRS. PENTREATH’S surprise at seeing a lady through the window, was doubled by her amazement at seeing a gentleman when she opened the door. Waiting close to the bell-handle, after he had rung, instead of rejoining his niece on the step, Uncle Joseph stood near enough to the house, to be out of the range of view from Mrs. Pentreath’s window. To the housekeeper’s excited imagination, he appeared on the threshold with the suddenness of an apparition — the apparition of a little rosy-faced old gentleman, smiling, bowing, and taking off his hat with a superb flourish of politeness, which had something quite superhuman in the sweep and the dexterity of it.

“How do you do? We have come to see the house,” said Uncle Joseph, trying his infallible expedient for gaining admission the instant the door was open.

Mrs. Pentreath was struck speechless. Who was this familiar old gentleman with the foreign accent and the fantastic bow? and what did he mean by talking to her as if she was his intimate friend? Mrs. Frankland’s letter said not so much, from beginning to end, as one word about him.

“How do you do? We have come to see the house,” repeated Uncle Joseph, giving his irresistible form of salutation the benefit of a second trial.

“So you said just now, Sir,” remarked Mrs. Pentreath, recovering self-possession enough to use her tongue in her own defense. “Does the lady,” she continued, looking down over the old man’s shoulder at the step on which his niece was standing — “does the lady wish to see the house too?”

Sarah’s gently spoken reply in the affirmative, short as it was, convinced the housekeeper that the woman described in Mrs. Frankland’s letter really and truly stood before her. Besides the neat, quiet dress, there was now the softly toned voice, and, when she looked up for a moment, there were the timid eyes also to identify her by! In relation to this one of the two strangers, Mrs. Pentreath, however agitated and surprised she might be, could no longer feel any uncertainty about the course she ought to adopt. But in relation to the other visitor, the incomprehensible old foreigner, she was beset by the most bewildering doubts. Would it be safest to hold to the letter of Mrs. Frankland’s instructions, and ask him to wait outside while the lady was being shown over the house? or would it be best to act on her own responsibility, and to risk giving him admission as well as his companion? This was a difficult point to decide, and therefore one which it was necessary to submit to the superior sagacity of Mr. Munder.

“Will you step in for a moment, and wait here while I speak to the steward?” said Mrs. Pentreath, pointedly neglecting to notice the familiar old foreigner, and addressing herself straight through him to the lady on the steps below.

“Thank you very much,” said Uncle Joseph, smiling and bowing, impervious to rebuke. “What did I tell you?” he whispered triumphantly to his niece, as she passed him on her way into the house.

Mrs. Pentreath’s first impulse was to go downstairs at once, and speak to Mr. Munder. But a timely recollection of that part of Mrs. Frankland’s letter which enjoined her not to lose sight of the lady in the quiet dress, brought her to a stand-still the next moment. She was the more easily recalled to a remembrance of this particular injunction by a curious alteration in the conduct of the lady herself, who seemed to lose all her diffidence, and to become surprisingly impatient to lead the way into the interior of the house, the moment she had stepped across the threshold.

“Betsey!” cried Mrs. Pentreath, cautiously calling to the servant after she had only retired a few paces from the visitors — “Betsey! ask Mr. Munder to be so kind as to step this way.”

Mr. Munder presented himself with great deliberation, and with a certain lowering dignity in his face. He had been accustomed to be treated with deference, and he was not pleased with the housekeeper for unceremoniously leaving him the moment she heard the ring at the bell, without giving him time to pronounce an opinion on Mrs. Frankland’s letter. Accordingly, when Mrs. Pentreath, in a high state of excitement, drew him aside out of hearing, and confided to him, in a whisper, the astounding intelligence that the lady in whom Mr. and Mrs. Frankland were so mysteriously interested was, at that moment, actually standing before him in the house, he received her communication with an air of the most provoking indifference. It was worse still when she proceeded to state her difficulties — warily keeping her eye on the two strangers all the while. Appeal as respectfully as she might to Mr. Munder’s superior wisdom for guidance, he persisted in listening with a disparaging frown, and ended by irritably contradicting her when she ventured to add, in conclusion, that her own ideas inclined her to assume no responsibility, and to beg the foreign gentleman to wait outside while the lady, in conformity with Mrs. Frankland’s instructions, was being shown over the house.

“Such may be your opinion, ma’am,” said Mr. Munder, severely. “It is not mine.”

The housekeeper looked aghast. “Perhaps,” she suggested, deferentially, “you think that the foreign old gentleman would be likely to insist on going over the house with the lady?”

“Of course I think so,” said Mr. Munder. (He had thought nothing of the sort; his only idea just then being the idea of asserting his own supremacy by setting himself steadily in opposition to any preconceived arrangements of Mrs. Pentreath.)

“Then you would take the responsibility of showing them both over the house, seeing that they have both come to the door together?” asked the housekeeper.

“Of course I would,” answered the steward, with the promptitude of resolution which distinguishes all superior men.

“Well, Mr. Munder, I am always glad to be guided by your opinion, and I will be guided by it now,” said Mrs. Pentreath. “But, as there will be two people to look after — for I would not trust the foreigner out of sight on any consideration whatever — I must really beg you to share the trouble of showing them over the house along with me. I am so excited and nervous that I don’t feel as if I had all my wits about me — I never was placed in such a position as this before — I am in the midst of mysteries that I don’t understand — and, in short, if I can’t count on your assistance, I won’t answer for it that I shall not make some mistake. I should be very sorry to make a mistake, not only on my own account, but — ” Here the housekeeper stopped, and looked hard at Mr. Munder.

“Go on, ma’am,” said Mr. Munder, with cruel composure.

“Not only on my own account,” resumed Mrs. Pentreath, demurely, “but on yours; for Mrs. Frankland’s letter certainly casts the responsibility of conducting this delicate business on your shoulders as well as on mine.”

Mr. Munder recoiled a few steps, turned red, opened his lips indignantly, hesitated, and closed them again, he was fairly caught in a trap of his own setting. He could not retreat from the responsibility of directing the housekeeper’s conduct, the moment after he had voluntarily assumed it; and he could not deny that Mrs. Frankland’s letter positively and repeatedly referred to him by name. There was only one way of getting out of the difficulty with dignity, and Mr. Munder unblushingly took that way the moment he had recovered self-possession enough to collect himself for the effort.

“I am perfectly amazed, Mrs. Pentreath,” he began, with the gravest dignity. “Yes, I repeat, I am perfectly amazed that you should think me capable of leaving you to go over the house alone, under such remarkable circumstances as those we are now placed in. No, ma’am! whatever my other faults may be, shrinking from my share of responsibility is not one of them. I don’t require to be reminded of Mrs. Frankland’s letter; and — no! — I don’t require any apologies. I am quite ready, ma’am — quite ready to show the way upstairs whenever you are.”

“The sooner the better, Mr. Munder — for there is that audacious old foreigner actually chattering to Betsey now, as if he had known her all his life!”

The assertion was quite true. Uncle Joseph was exercising his gift of familiarity on the maid-servant (who had lingered to stare at the strangers, instead of going back to the kitchen), just as he had already exercised it on the old lady passenger in the stage-coach, and on the driver of the pony-chaise which took his niece and himself to the post-town of Porthgenna. While the housekeeper and the steward were holding their private conference, he was keeping Betsey in ecstasies of suppressed giggling by the odd questions that he asked about the house, and about how she got on with her work in it. His inquiries had naturally led from the south side of the building, by which he and his companion had entered, to the west side, which they were shortly to explore; and thence round to the north side, which was forbidden ground to everybody in the house. When Mrs. Pentreath came forward with the steward, she overheard this exchange of question and answer passing between the foreigner and the maid:

“But tell me, Betzee, my dear,” said Uncle Joseph. “Why does nobody ever go into these mouldy old rooms?”

“Because there’s a ghost in them,” answered Betsey, with a burst of laughter, as if a series of haunted rooms and a series of excellent jokes meant precisely the same thing.

“Hold your tongue directly, and go back to the kitchen,” cried Mrs. Pentreath, indignantly. “The ignorant people about here,” she continued, still pointedly overlooking Uncle Joseph, and addressing herself only to Sarah, “tell absurd stories about some old rooms on the unrepaired side of the house, which have not been inhabited for more than half a century past — absurd stories about a ghost; and my servant is foolish enough to believe them.”

“No, I’m not,” said Betsey, retiring, under protest, to the lower regions. “I don’t believe a word about the ghost — at least not in the day-time.” Adding that important saving clause in a whisper, Betsey unwillingly withdrew from the scene.

Mrs. Pentreath observed, with some surprise, that the mysterious lady in the quiet dress turned very pale at the mention of the ghost story, and made no remark on it whatever. While she was still wondering what this meant, Mr. Munder emerged into dignified prominence, and loftily addressed himself; not to Uncle Joseph, and not to Sarah, but to the empty air between them.

“If you wish to see the house,” he said, “you will have the goodness to follow me.”

With those words, Mr. Munder turned solemnly into the passage that led to the foot of the west staircase, walking with that peculiar, slow strut in which all serious-minded English people indulge when they go out to take a little exercise on Sunday. The housekeeper, adapting her pace with feminine pliancy to the pace of the steward, walked the national Sabbatarian Polonaise by his side, as if she was out with him for a mouthful of fresh air between the services.

“As I am a living sinner, this going over the house is like going to a funeral!” whispered Uncle Joseph to his niece. He drew her arm into his, and felt, as he did so, that she was trembling.

“What is the matter?” he asked, under his breath.

“Uncle! there is something unnatural about the readiness of these people to show us over the house,” was the faintly whispered answer. “What were they talking about just now, out of our hearing? Why did that woman keep her eyes fixed so constantly on me?”

Before the old man could answer, the housekeeper looked round, and begged, with the severest emphasis, that they would be good enough to follow. In less than another minute they were all standing at the foot of the west staircase.

“Aha!” cried Uncle Joseph, as easy and talkative as ever, even in the presence of Mr. Munder himself. “A fine big house, and a very good staircase.”

“We are not accustomed to hear either the house or the staircase spoken of in these terms, Sir,” said Mr. Munder, resolving to nip the foreigner’s familiarity in the bud. “The Guide to West Cornwall, which you would have done well to make yourself acquainted with before you came here, describes Porthgenna Tower as a Mansion, and uses the word Spacious in speaking of the west staircase. I regret to find, Sir, that you have not consulted the Guide-book to West Cornwall.”

“And why?” rejoined the unabashed German. “What do I want with a book, when I have got you for my guide? Ah, dear Sir, but you are not just to yourself! Is not a living guide like you, who talks and walks about, better for me than dead leaves of print and paper? Ah, no, no! I shall not hear another word — I shall not hear you do any more injustice to yourself.” Here Uncle Joseph made another fantastic bow, looked up smiling into the steward’s face, and shook his head several times with an air of friendly reproach.

Mr. Munder felt paralyzed. He could not have been treated with more ease and indifferent familiarity if this obscure foreign stranger had been an English duke. He had often heard of the climax of audacity; and here it was visibly embodied in one small, elderly individual, who did not rise quite five feet from the ground he stood on!

While the steward was swelling with a sense of injury too large for utterance, the housekeeper, followed by Sarah, was slowly ascending the stairs. Uncle Joseph, seeing them go up, hastened to join his niece, and Mr. Munder, after waiting a little while on the mat to recover himself, followed the audacious foreigner with the intention of watching his conduct narrowly, and chastising his insolence at the first opportunity with stinging words of rebuke.

The procession up the stairs thus formed was not, however, closed by the steward; it was further adorned and completed by Betsey, the servant-maid, who stole out of the kitchen to follow the strange visitors over the house, as closely as she could without attracting the notice of Mrs. Pentreath. Betsey had her share of natural human curiosity and love of change. No such event as the arrival of strangers had ever before enlivened the dreary monotony of Porthgenna Tower within her experience; and she was resolved not to stay alone in the kitchen while there was a chance of hearing a stray word of the conversation, or catching a chance glimpse of the proceedings among the company upstairs.

In the mean time the housekeeper had led the way as far as the first-floor landing, on either side of which the principal rooms in the west front were situated. Sharpened by fear and suspicion, Sarah’s eyes immediately detected the repairs which had been effected in the banisters and stairs of the second flight.

“You have had workmen in the house?” she said quickly to Mrs. Pentreath.

“You mean on the stairs?” returned the housekeeper. “Yes, we have had workmen there.”

“And nowhere else?”

“No. But they are wanted in other places badly enough. Even here, on the best side of the house, half the bedrooms upstairs are hardly fit to sleep in. They were anything but comfortable, as I have heard, even in the late Mrs. Treverton’s time; and since she died — ”

The housekeeper stopped with a frown and a look of surprise. The lady in the quiet dress, instead of sustaining the reputation for good manners which had been conferred on her in Mrs. Frankland’s letter, was guilty of the unpardonable discourtesy of turning away from Mrs. Pentreath before she had done speaking. Determined not to allow herself to be impertinently silenced in that way, she coldly and distinctly repeated her last words — “And since Mrs. Treverton died — ”

She was interrupted for the second time. The strange lady, turning quickly round again, confronted her with a very pale face and a very eager look, and asked, in the most abrupt manner, an utterly irrelevant question:

“Tell me about that ghost story,” she said. “Do they say it is the ghost of a man or of a woman?”

“I was speaking of the late Mrs. Treverton,” said the housekeeper, in her severest tones of reproof; “and not of the ghost story about the north rooms. You would have known that, if you had done me the favor to listen to what I said.”

“I beg your pardon; I beg your pardon a thousand times for seeming inattentive! It struck me just then — or, at least, I wanted to know — ’

“If you came to know about anything so absurd,” said Mrs. Pentreath, mollified by the evident sincerity of the apology that had been offered to her, “the ghost, according to the story, is the ghost of a woman.”

The strange lady’s face grew whiter than ever; and she turned away once more to the open window on the landing.

“How hot it is!” she said, putting her head out into the air.

“Hot, with a northeast wind!” exclaimed Mrs. Pentreath, in amazement.

Here Uncle Joseph came forward with a polite request to know when they were going to look over the rooms. For the last few minutes he had been asking all sorts of questions of Mr. Munder; and, having received no answers which were not of the shortest and most ungracious kind, had given up talking to the steward in despair.

Mrs. Pentreath prepared to lead the way into the breakfast-room, library, and drawing-room. All three communicated with each other, and each room had a second door opening on a long passage, the entrance to which was on the right-hand side of the first-floor landing. Before leading the way into these rooms, the housekeeper touched Sarah on the shoulder to intimate that it was time to be moving on.

“As for the ghost story,” resumed Mrs. Pentreath, while she opened the breakfast-room door, “you must apply to the ignorant people who believe in it, if you want to hear it all told. Whether the ghost is an old ghost or a new ghost, and why she is supposed to walk, is more than I can tell you.” In spite of the housekeeper’s affectation of indifference toward the popular superstition, she had heard enough of the ghost-stony to frighten her, though she would not confess it. Inside the house, or outside the house, nobody much less willing to venture into the north rooms alone could in real truth have been found than Mrs. Pentreath herself.

While the housekeeper was drawing up the blinds in the breakfast-parlor, and while Mr. Munder was opening the door that led out of it into the library, Uncle Joseph stole to his niece’s side, and spoke a few words of encouragement to her in his quaint, kindly way.

“Courage!” he whispered. “Keep your wits about you, Sarah, and catch your little opportunity whenever you can.”

“My thoughts! My thoughts!” she answered in the same low key. “This house rouses them all against me. Oh, why did I ever venture into it again!”

“You had better look at the view from the window now,” said Mrs. Pentreath, after she had drawn up the blind. “It is very much admired.”

While affairs were in this stage of progress on the first floor of the house, Betsey, who had been hitherto stealing up by a stair at a time from the hall, and listening with all her ears in the intervals of the ascent, finding that no sound of voices now reached her, bethought herself of returning to the kitchen again, and of looking after the housekeeper’s dinner, which was being kept warm by the fire. She descended to the lower regions, wondering what part of the house the strangers would want to see next, and puzzling her brains to find out some excuse for attaching herself to the exploring party.

After the view from the breakfast-room window had been duly contemplated, the library was next entered. In this room, Mrs. Pentreath, having some leisure to look about her, and employing that leisure in observing the conduct of the steward, arrived at the unpleasant conviction that Mr. Munder was by no means to be depended on to assist her in the important business of watching the proceedings of the two strangers. Doubly stimulated to assert his own dignity by the disrespectfully easy manner in which he had been treated by Uncle Joseph, the sole object of Mr. Munder’s ambition seemed to be to divest himself as completely as possible of the character of guide, which the unscrupulous foreigner sought to confer on him. He sauntered heavily about the rooms, with the air of a casual visitor, staring out of window, peeping into books on tables, frowning at himself in the chimney-glasses — looking, in short, anywhere but where he ought to look. The housekeeper, exasperated by this affectation of indifference, whispered to him irritably to keep his eye on the foreigner, as it was quite as much as she could do to look after the lady in the quiet dress.

“Very good; very good,” said Mr. Munder, with sulky carelessness. “And where are you going to next, ma’am, after we have been into the drawing-room? Back again, through the library, into the breakfast-room? or out at once into the passage? Be good enough to settle which, as you seem to be in the way of settling everything.”

“Into the passage, to be sure,” answered Mrs. Pentreath, “to show the next three rooms beyond these.”

Mr. Munder sauntered out of the library, through the doorway of communication, into the drawing-room, unlocked the door leading into the passage — then, to the great disgust of the housekeeper, strolled to the fireplace, and looked at himself in the glass over it, just as attentively as he had looked at himself in the library mirror hardly a minute before.

“This is the west drawing-room,” said Mrs. Pentreath, calling to the visitors. “The carving of the stone chimney-piece,” she added, with the mischievous intention of bringing them into the closest proximity to the steward, “is considered the finest thing in the whole apartment.”

Driven from the looking-glass by this maneuver, Mr. Munder provokingly sauntered to the window and looked out. Sarah, still pale and silent — but with a certain unwonted resolution just gathering, as it were, in the lines about her lips — stopped thoughtfully by the chimney-piece when the housekeeper pointed it out to her. Uncle Joseph, looking all round the room in his discursive manner, spied, in the farthest corner of it from the door that led into the passage, a beautiful maple-wood table and cabinet, of a very peculiar pattern. His workmanlike enthusiasm was instantly aroused, and he darted across the room to examine the make of the cabinet closely. The table beneath projected a little way in front of it, and, of all the objects in the world, what should he see reposing on the flat space of the projection but a magnificent musical box at least three times the size of his own!

“Aïe! Aïe!! Aïe!!!” cried Uncle Joseph, in an ascending scale of admiration, which ended at the very top of his voice. “Open him! set him going! let me hear what he plays!” He stopped for want of words to express his impatience, and drummed with both hands on the lid of the musical box in a burst of uncontrollable enthusiasm.

“Mr. Munder!” exclaimed the housekeeper, hurrying across the room in great indignation. “Why don’t you look? why don’t you stop him? He’s breaking open the musical box. Be quiet, Sir! How dare you touch me?”

“Set him going! set him going!” reiterated Uncle Joseph, dropping Mrs. Pentreath’s arm, which he had seized in his agitation. “Look here! this by my side is a music box too! Set him going! Does he play Mozart? He is three times bigger than ever I saw! See! see! this box of mine — this tiny bit of box that looks nothing by the side of yours — it was given to my own brother by the king of all music-composers that ever lived, by the divine Mozart himself. Set the big box going, and you shall hear the little baby-box pipe after! Ah, dear and good madam, if you love me — ”

“Sir!!!” exclaimed the housekeeper, reddening with virtuous indignation to the very roots of her hair.

“What do you mean, Sir, by addressing such outrageous language as that to a respectable female?” inquired Mr. Munder, approaching to the rescue. “Do you think we want your foreign noises, and your foreign morals, and your foreign profanity here? Yes, Sir! profanity. Any man who calls any human individual, whether musical or otherwise, ‘divine,’ is a profane man. Who are you, you extremely audacious person? Are you an infidel?”

Before Uncle Joseph could say a word in vindication of his principles, before Mr. Munder could relieve himself of any more indignation, they were both startled unto momentary silence by an exclamation of alarm from the housekeeper.

“Where is she?” cried Mrs. Pentreath, standing in the middle of the drawing-room, and looking with bewildered eyes all around her.

The lady in the quiet dress had vanished.

She was not in the library, not in the breakfast-room, not in the passage outside. After searching in those three places, the housekeeper came back to Mr. Munder with a look of downright terror in her face, and stood staring at him for a moment perfectly helpless and perfectly silent. As soon as she recovered herself she turned fiercely on Uncle Joseph.

“Where is she? I insist on knowing what has become of her! You cunning, wicked, impudent old man! where is she?” cried Mrs. Pentreath, with no color in her cheeks and no mercy in her eyes.

“I suppose she is looking about the house by herself,” said Uncle Joseph. “We shall find her surely as we take our walks through the other rooms.” Simple as he was, the old man had, nevertheless, acuteness enough to perceive that he had accidentally rendered the very service to his niece of which she stood in need. If he had been the most artful of mankind, he could have devised no better means of diverting Mrs. Pentreath’s attention from Sarah to himself than the very means which he had just used in perfect innocence, at the very moment when his thoughts were farthest away from the real object with which he and his niece had entered the house. “So! so!” thought Uncle Joseph to himself; “while these two angry people were scolding me for nothing, Sarah has slipped away to the room where the letter is. Good! I have only to wait till she comes back, and to let the two angry people go on scolding me as long as they please.”

“What are we to do? Mr. Munder! what on earth are we to do?” asked the housekeeper. “We can’t waste the precious minutes staring at each other here. This woman must be found. Stop! she asked questions about the stairs — she looked up at the second floor the moment we got on the landing. Mr. Munder! wait here, and don’t let that foreigner out of your sight for a moment. Wait here while I run up and look into the second-floor passage. All the bedroom doors are locked — I defy her to hide herself if she has gone up there.” With those words, the housekeeper ran out of the drawing-room, and breathlessly ascended the second flight of stairs.

While Mrs. Pentreath was searching on the west side of the house, Sarah was hurrying, at the top of her speed, along the lonely passages that led to the north rooms.

Terrified into decisive action by the desperate nature of the situation, she had slipped out of the drawing-room into the passage the instant she saw Mrs. Pentreath’s back turned on her. Without stopping to think, without attempting to compose herself; she ran down the stairs of the first floor, and made straight for the housekeeper’s room. She had no excuses ready, if she had found anybody there, or if she had met anybody on the way. She had formed no plan where to seek for them next, if the keys of the north rooms were not hanging in the place where she still expected to find them. Her mind was lost in confusion, her temples throbbed as if they would burst with the heat at her brain. The one blind, wild, headlong purpose of getting into the Myrtle Room drove her on, gave unnatural swiftness to her trembling feet, unnatural strength to her shaking hands, unnatural courage to her sinking heart.

She ran into the housekeeper’s room, without even the ordinary caution of waiting for a moment to listen outside the door. No one was there. One glance at the well-remembered nail in the wall showed her the keys still hanging to it in a bunch, as they had hung in the long-past time. She had them in her possession in a moment; and was away again, along the solitary passages that led to the north rooms, threading their turnings and windings as if she had left them but the day before; never pausing to listen or to look behind her, never slackening her speed till she was at the top of the back staircase, and had her hand on the locked door that led into the north hall.

As she turned over the bunch to find the first key that was required, she discovered — what her hurry had hitherto prevented her from noticing — the numbered labels which the builder had methodically attached to all the keys when he had been sent to Porthgenna by Mr. Frankland to survey the house. At the first sight of them, her searching hands paused in their work instantaneously, and she shivered all over, as if a sudden chill had struck her.

If she had been less violently agitated, the discovery of the new labels and the suspicions to which the sight of them instantly gave rise would, in all probability, have checked her further progress. But the confusion of her mind was now too great to allow her to piece together even the veriest fragments of thoughts. Vaguely conscious of a new terror, of a sharpened distrust that doubled and trebled the headlong impatience which had driven her on thus far, she desperately resumed her search through the bunch of keys.

One of them had no label; it was larger than the rest — it was the key that fitted the door of communication before which she stood. She turned it in the rusty lock with a strength which, at any other time, she would have been utterly incapable of exerting; she opened the door with a blow of her hand, which burst it away at one stroke from the jambs to which it stuck. Panting for breath, she flew across the forsaken north hall, without stopping for one second to push the door to behind her. The creeping creatures, the noisome house-reptiles that possessed the place, crawled away, shadow-like, on either side of her toward the walls. She never noticed them, never turned away for them. Across the hall, and up the stairs at the end of it, she ran, till she gained the open landing at the top — and there she suddenly checked herself in front of the first door.

The first door of the long range of rooms that opened on the landing; the door that fronted the topmost of the flight of stairs. She stopped; she looked at it — it was not the door she had come to open; and yet she could not tear herself away from it. Scrawled on the panel in white chalk was the figure — “I.” And when she looked down at the hunch of keys in her hands, there was the figure “I.” on a label, answering to it.

She tried to think, to follow out anyone of all the thronging suspicions that beset her to the conclusion at which it might point. The effort was useless; her mind was gone; her bodily senses of seeing and hearing — senses which had now become painfully and incomprehensibly sharpened — seemed to be the sole relics of intelligence that she had left to guide her. She put her hand over her eyes, and waited a little so, and then went on slowly along the landing, looking at the doors.

No. “II.,” No. “III.,” No. “IV.,” traced on the panels in the same white chalk, and answering to the numbered labels on the keys, the figures on which were written in ink. No. “IV.” the middle room of the first floor range of eight. She stopped there again, trembling from head to foot. It was the door of the Myrtle Room.

Did the chalked numbers stop there? She looked on down the landing. No. The four doors remaining were regularly numbered on to “VIII.”

She came back again to the door of the Myrtle Room, sought out the key labeled with the figure “IV." — hesitated — and looked back distrustfully over the deserted hall.

The canvases of the old family pictures, which she had seen bulging out of their frames in the past time when she hid the letter, had, for the most part, rotted away from them now, and lay in great black ragged strips on the floor of the hall. Islands and continents of damp spread like the map of some strange region over the lofty vaulted ceiling. Cobwebs, heavy with dust, hung down in festoons from broken cornices. Dirt stains lay on the stone pavement, like gross reflections of the damp stains on the ceiling. The broad flight of stairs leading up to the open landing before the rooms of the first floor had sunk down bodily toward one side. The banisters which protected the outer edge of the landing were broken away into ragged gaps. The light of day was stained, the air of heaven was stilled, the sounds of earth were silenced in the north hall.

Silenced? Were all sounds silenced? Or was there something stirring that just touched the sense of hearing, that just deepened the dismal stillness, and no more?

Sarah listened, keeping her face still set toward the hall — listened, and heard a faint sound behind her. Was it outside the door on which her back was turned? Or was it inside — in the Myrtle Room?

Inside. With the first conviction of that, all thought, all sensation left her. She forgot the suspicious numbering of the doors; she became insensible to the lapse of time, unconscious of the risk of discovery. All exercise of her other faculties was now merged in the exercise of the one faculty of listening.

It was a still, faint, stealthily rustling sound; and it moved to and fro at intervals, to and fro softly, now at one end, now at the other of the Myrtle Room. There were moments when it grew suddenly distinct — other moments when it died away in gradations too light to follow. Sometimes it seemed to sweep over the floor at a bound — sometimes it crept with slow, continuous rustlings that just wavered on the verge of absolute silence.

Her feet still rooted to the spot on which she stood, Sarah turned her head slowly, inch by inch, toward the door of the Myrtle Room. A moment before, while she was as yet unconscious of the faint sound moving to and fro within it, she had been drawing her breath heavily and quickly. She might have been dead now, her bosom was so still, her breathing so noiseless. The same mysterious change came over her face which had altered it when the darkness began to gather in the little parlor at Truro. The same fearful look of inquiry which she had then fixed on the vacant corner of the room was in her eyes now, as they slowly turned on the door.

“Mistress!” she whispered. “Am I too late? Are you there before me?”

The stealthily rustling sound inside paused — renewed itself — died away again faintly; away at the lower end of the room.

Her eyes still remained fixed on the Myrtle Room, strained, and opened wider and wider — opened as if they would look through the very door itself — opened as if they were watching for the opaque wood to turn transparent, and show what was behind it.

“Over the lonesome floor, over the lonesome floor — how light it moves!” she whispered again. “Mistress! does the black dress I made for you rustle no louder than that?”

The sound stopped again — then suddenly advanced at one stealthy sweep close to the inside of the door.

If she could have moved at that moment; if she could have looked down to the line of open space between the bottom of the door and the flooring below, when the faintly rustling sound came nearest to her, she might have seen the insignificant cause that produced it lying self-betrayed under the door, partly outside, partly inside, in the shape of a fragment of faded red paper from the wall of the Myrtle Room. Time and damp had loosened the paper all round the apartment. Two or three yards of it had been torn off by the builder while he was examining the walls — sometimes in large pieces, sometimes in small pieces, just as it happened to come away — and had been thrown down by him on the bare, boarded floor, to become the sport of the wind, whenever it happened to blow through the broken panes of glass in the window. If she had only moved! If she had only looked down for one little second of time!

She was past moving and past looking: the paroxysm of superstitious horror that possessed her held her still in every limb and every feature. She never started, she uttered no cry, when the rustling noise came nearest. The one outward sign which showed how the terror of its approach shook her to the very soul expressed itself only in the changed action of her right hand, in which she still held the keys. At the instant when the wind wafted the fragment of paper closest to the door, her fingers lost their power of contraction, and became as nerveless and helpless as if she had fainted. The heavy bunch of keys slipped from her suddenly loosened grasp, dropped at her side on the outer edge of the landing, rolled off through a gap in the broken banister, and fell on the stone pavement below, with a crash which made the sleeping echoes shriek again, as if they were sentient beings writhing under the torture of sound!

The crash of the falling keys, ringing and ringing again through the stillness, woke her, as it were, to instant consciousness of present events and present perils. She started, staggered backward, and raised both her hands wildly to her head — paused so for a few seconds — then made for the top of the stairs with the purpose of descending into the hall to recover the keys.

Before she had advanced three paces the shrill sound of a woman’s scream came from the door of communication at the opposite end of the hall. The scream was twice repeated at a greater distance off, and was followed by a confused noise of rapidly advancing voices and footsteps.

She staggered desperately a few paces farther, and reached the first of the row of doors that opened on the landing. There nature sank exhausted: her knees gave way under her — her breath, her sight, her hearing all seemed to fail her together at the same instant — and she dropped down senseless on the floor at the head of the stairs.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52