LORD ROXTON had returned from a Central American heavy game shooting, and had at once carried out a series of Alpine ascents which had satisfied and surprised everyone except himself.
“Top of the Alps is becomin’ a perfect bear-garden,” said he. “Short of Everest there don’t seem to be any decent privacy left.”
His advent into London was acclaimed by a dinner given in his honour at the ‘Travellers’ by the Heavy Game Society. The occasion was private and there were no reporters, but Lord Roxton’s speech was fixed verbatim in the minds of all his audience and has been imperishably preserved. He writhed for twenty minutes under the flowery and eulogistic periods of the president, and rose himself in the state of confused indignation which the Briton feels when he is publicly approved. “Oh, I say! By Jove! What!” was his oration, after which he resumed his seat and perspired profusely.
Malone was first aware of Lord Roxton’s return through McArdle, the crabbed old red-headed news editor, whose bald dome projected further and further from its ruddy fringe as the years still found him slaving at the most grinding of tasks. He retained his keen scent of what was good copy, and it was this sense of his which caused him one winter morning to summon Malone to his presence. He removed the long glass tube which he used as a cigarette-holder from his lips, and he blinked through his big round glasses at his subordinate.
“You know that Lord Roxton is back in London?”
“I had not heard.”
“Aye, he’s back. Dootless you’ve heard that he was wounded in the war. He led a small column in East Africa and made a wee war of his own till he got an elephant bullet through his chest. Oh, he’s done fine since then, or he couldn’t be climbin’ these mountains. He’s a deevil of a man and aye stirring up something new.”
“What is the latest?” asked Malone, eyeing a slip of paper which McArdle was waving between his finger and thumb.
“Well, that’s where he impinges on you. I was thinking maybe you could hunt in couples and, there would be copy in it. There’s a leaderette in the Evening Standard” He handed it over. It ran thus:
“A quaint advertisement in the columns of a contemporary shows that the famous Lord John Roxton, third son of the Duke of Pomfret, is seeking fresh worlds to conquer. Having exhausted the sporting adventures of this terrestrial globe, he is now turning to those of the dim, dark and dubious regions of psychic research. He is in the market apparently for any genuine specimen of a haunted house, and is open to receive information as to any violent or dangerous manifestation which called for investigation. As Lord John Roxton is a man of resolute character and one of the best revolver shots in England, we would warn any practical joker that he would be well-advised to stand aside and leave this matter to those who are said to be as impervious to bullets as their supporters are to common sense.”
McArdle gave his dry chuckle at the concluding words.
“I’m thinking they are getting pairsonal there, friend Malone, for if you are no a supporter, you’re well on the way. But are you no of the opeenion that this chiel and you between you might put up a spook and get two racy columns off him?”
“Well, I can see Lord Roxton,” said Malone. “He’s still, I suppose, in his old rooms in the Albany. I would wish to call in any case, so I can open this up as well.”
Thus it was that in the late afternoon just as the murk of London broke into dim circles of silver, the pressman found himself once more walking down Vigo Street and accosting the porter at the dark entrance of the old-fashioned chambers. Yes, Lord John Roxton was in, but a gentleman was with him. He would take a card. Presently he returned with word that in spite of the previous visitor, Lord Roxton would see Malone at once. An instant later, he had been ushered into the old luxurious rooms with their trophies of war and of the chase. The owner of them with outstretched hand was standing at the door, long, thin, austere, with the same gaunt, whimsical, Don Quixote face as of old. There was no change save that he was more aquiline, and his eyebrows jutted more thickly over his reckless, restless eyes.
“Hullo, young fellah!” he cried. “I was hopin’ you’d draw this old covert once more. I was comin’ down to the office to look you up. Come in! Come in! Let me introduce you to the Reverend Charles Mason.”
A very tall, thin clergyman, who was coiled up in a large basket chair, gradually unwound himself and held out a bony hand to the newcomer. Malone was aware of two very earnest and human grey eyes looking searchingly into his, and of a broad, welcoming smile which disclosed a double row of excellent teeth. It was a worn and weary face, the tired face of the spiritual fighter, but it was very kindly and companionable, none the less. Malone had heard of the man, a Church of England vicar, who had left his model parish and the church which he had built himself in order to preach freely the doctrines of Christianity, with the new psychic knowledge super-added.
“Why, I never seem to get away from the Spiritualists!” he exclaimed.
“You never will, Mr. Malone,” said the lean clergyman, chuckling. “The world never will until it has absorbed this new knowledge which God has sent. You can’t get away from it. It is too big. At the present moment, in this great city there is not a place where men or women meet that it does not come up. And yet you would not know it from the Press.”
“Well, you can’t level that reproach at the Daily Gazette,” said Malone. “Possibly you may have read my own descriptive articles.”
“Yes, I read them. They are at least better than the awful sensational nonsense which the London Press usually serves up, save when they ignore it altogether. To read a paper like The Times you would never know that this vital movement existed at all. The only editorial allusion to it that I can ever remember was in a leading article when the great paper announced that it would believe in it when it found it could, by means of it, pick out more winners on a race-card than by other means.”
“Doosed useful, too,” said Lord Roxton. “It’s just what I should have said myself. What!”
The clergyman’s face was grave and he shook his head.
“That brings me back to the object of my visit,” he said. He turned to Malone. “I took the liberty of calling upon Lord Roxton in connection with his advertisement to say that if he went on such a quest with a good intention, no better work could be found in the world, but if he did it out of a love of sport, following some poor earth-bound soul in the same spirit as he followed the white rhinoceros of the Lido, he might be playing with fire.”
“Well, padre, I’ve been playin’ with fire all my life and that’s nothin’ new. What I mean — if you want me to look at this ghost business from the religious angle, there’s nothin’ doin’, for the Church of England that I was brought up in fills my very modest need. But if it’s got a spice of danger, as you say, then it’s worth while. What!”
The Rev. Charles Mason smiled his kindly, toothsome grin.
“Incorrigible, is he not?” he said to Malone. “Well, I can only wish you a fuller comprehension of the subject.” He rose as if to depart.
“Wait a bit, padre!” cried Lord Roxton, hurriedly. “When I’m explorin’, I begin by ropin’ in a friendly native. I expect you’re just the man. Won’t you come with me?”
“Well, sit down and I’ll tell you.” He rummaged among a pile of letters on his desk. “Fine selection of spooks!” he said. “I got on the track of over twenty by the first post. This is an easy winner, though. Read it for yourself. Lonely house, man driven mad, tenants boltin’ in the night, horrible spectre. Sounds all right — what!”
The clergyman read the letter with puckered brows.
“It seems a bad case,” said he.
“Well, suppose you come along. What! Maybe you can help clear it up.”
The Rev. Mason pulled out a pocket-almanac. “I have a service for ex-Service men on Wednesday, and a lecture the same evening.”
“But we could start today.”
“It’s a long way.”
“Only Dorsetshire. Three hours.”
“What is your plan?”
“Well, I suppose a night in the house should do it.”
“If there is any poor soul in trouble it becomes a duty. Very well, I will come.”
“And surely there is room for me,” pleaded Malone.
“Of course there is, young fellah! What I mean — I expect that old, red-headed bird at the office sent you round with no other purpose. Ah, I thought so. Well, you can write an adventure that is not perfect bilge for a change — what! There’s a train from Victoria at eight o’clock. We can meet there, and I’ll have a look in at old man Challenger as I pass.”
They dined together in the train and after dinner reassembled in their first-class carriage, which is the snuggest mode of travel which the world can show. Roxton, behind a big black cigar, was full of his visit to Challenger.
“The old dear is the same as ever. Bit my head off once or twice in his own familiar way. Talked unadulterated tripe. Says I’ve got brain-softenin’, if I could think there was such a thing as a real spook. ‘When you’re dead you’re dead’”. That’s the old man’s cheery slogan. Surveyin’ his contemporaries’ he said, extinction was a doosed good thing! ‘It’s the only hope of the world’, said he. ‘Fancy the awful prospect if they survived’. Wanted to give me a bottle of chlorine to chuck at the ghost. I told him that if my automatic was not a spook-stopper, nothin’ else would serve. Tell me, padre, is this the first time you’ve been on safari after this kind of game?”
“You treat the matter too lightly, Lord John,” said the clergyman gravely. “You have clearly had no experience of it. In answer to your question I may say that I have several times tried to help in similar cases.”
“And you take it seriously?” asked Malone, making notes for his article.
“Very, very seriously.”
“What do you think these influences are?”
“I am no authority upon the general question. You know Algernon Mailey, the barrister, do you not? He could give you facts and figures. I approach the subject rather perhaps from the point of view of instinct and emotion. I remember Mailey lecturing on Professor Bozzano’s book on ghosts where over five hundred well-authenticated instances were given, every one of them sufficient to establish an a priori case. There is Flammarion, too. You can’t laugh away evidence of that kind.”
“I’ve read Bozzano and Flammarion, too,” said Malone, “but it is your own experience and conclusions that I want.”
“Well, if you quote me, remember that I do not look on myself as a great authority on psychic research. Wiser brains than mine may come along and give some other explanation. Still, what I have seen has led me to certain conclusions. One of them is to think that there is some truth in the theosophical idea of shells.”
“What is that?”
“They imagined that all spirit bodies near the earth were empty shells or husks from which the real entity had departed. Now, of course, we know that a general statement of that sort is nonsense, for we could not get the glorious communications which we do get from anything but high intelligences. But we also must beware of generalizations. They are not all high intelligences. Some are so low that I think the creature is purely external and is an appearance rather than a reality.”
“But why should it be there?”
“Yes, that is the question. It is usually allowed that there is the natural body, as St. Paul called it, which is dissolved at death, and the etheric or spiritual body which survives and functions upon an etheric plane. Those are the essential things. But we may really have as many coats as an onion and there may be a mental body which may shed itself at any spot where great mental or emotional strain has been experienced. It may be a dull automatic simulacrum and yet carry something of our appearance and thoughts.”
“Well” said Malone, “that would to some extent get over the difficulty, for I could never imagine that a murderer or his victim could spend whole centuries re-acting the old crime. What would be the sense of it?”
“Quite right, young fellah,” said Lord Roxton. “There was a pal of mine, Archie Soames, the gentleman Jock, who had an old place in Berkshire. Well, Nell Gwynne had lived there once, and he was ready to swear he met her a dozen times in the passage. Archie never flinched at the big jump at the Grand National, but, by Jove! he flinched at those passages after dark. Doosed fine woman she was and all that, but dash it all! What I mean — one has to draw the line — what!”
“Quite so!” the clergyman answered. “You can’t imagine that the real soul of a vivid personality like Nell could spend centuries walking those passages. But if by chance she had ate her heart out in that house, brooding and fretting, one could think that she might have cast a shell and left some thought-image of herself behind her.”
“You said you had experiences of your own.”
“I had one before ever I knew anything of Spiritualism. I hardly expect that you will believe me, but I assure you it is true. I was a very young curate up in the north. There was a house in the village which had a poltergeist, one of those very mischievous influences which cause so much trouble. I volunteered to exorcize it. We have an official form of exorcism in the Church, you know, so I thought that I was well-armed. I stood in the drawing-room which was the centre of the disturbances, with all the family on their knees beside me, and I read the service. What do you think happened?”
Mason’s gaunt face broke into a sweetly humorous laugh. “Just as I reached Amen, when the creature should have been slinking away abashed, the big bearskin hearthrug stood up on end and simply enveloped me. I am ashamed to say that I was out of that house in two jumps. It was then that I learned that no formal religious proceeding has any effect at all.”
“Then what has?”
“Well, kindness and reason may do something. You see, they vary greatly. Some of these earthbound or earth-interested creatures are neutral, like these simulacra or shells that I speak of. Others are essentially good like these monks of Glastonbury, who have manifested so wonderfully of late years and are recorded by Bligh Bond. They are held to earth by a pious memory. Some are mischievous children like the poltergeists. And some — only a few, I hope — are deadly beyond words, strong, malevolent creatures too heavy with matter to rise above our earth plane — so heavy with matter that their vibrations may be low enough to affect the human retina and to become visible. If they have been cruel, cunning brutes in life, they are cruel and cunning still with more power to hurt. It is evil monsters of this kind who are let loose by our system of capital punishment, for they die with unused vitality which may be expended upon revenge.”
“This Dryfont spook has a doosed bad record,” said Lord Roxton.
“Exactly. That is why I disapprove of levity. He seems to me to be the very type of the creature I speak of. Just as an octopus may have his den in some ocean cave, and come floating out a silent image of horror to attack a swimmer, so I picture such a spirit lurking in the dark of the house which he curses by his presence, and ready to float out upon all whom he can injure.”
Malone’s jaw began to drop.
“I say!” he exclaimed, “have we no protection?”
“Yes, I think we have. If we had not, such a creature could devastate the earth. Our protection is that there are white forces as well as dark ones. We may call them ‘guardian angels’ as the Catholics do, or ‘guides’ or ‘controls’, but whatever you call them, they really do exist and they guard us from evil on the spiritual plane.”
“What about the chap who was driven mad, padre? Where was your guide when the spook put the rug round you? What!”
“The power of our guides may depend upon our own worthiness. Evil may always win for a time. Good wins in the end. That’s my experience in life.”
Lord Roxton shook his head.
“If good wins, then it runs a doosed long waitin’ race, and most of us never live to see the finish. Look at those rubber devils that I had a scrap with up the Putomayo River. Where are they? What! Mostly in Paris havin’ a good time. And the poor niggers they murdered. What about them?”
“Yes, we need faith sometimes. We have to remember that we don’t see the end. ‘To be continued in our next’ is the conclusion of every life-story. That’s where the enormous value of the other world accounts come in. They give us at least one chapter more.”
“Where can I get that chapter?” asked Malone.
“There are many wonderful books, though the world has not yet learned to appreciate them — records of the life beyond. I remember one incident — you may take it as a parable, if you like — but it is really more than that. The dead rich man pauses before the lovely dwelling. His sad guide draws him away. ‘It is not for you. It is for your gardener’. He shows him a wretched shack. ‘You gave us nothing to build with. It was the best that we could do’. That may be the next chapter in the story of our rubber millionaires.”
Roxton laughed grimly.
“I gave some of them a shack that was six foot long and two foot deep,” said he. “No good shakin’ your head, padre. What I mean — I don’t love my neighbour as myself, and never shall. I hate some of ’em like poison.”
“Well, we should hate sin, and, for my own part, I have never been strong enough to separate sin from the sinner. How can I preach when I am as human and weak as anyone?”
“Why, that’s the only preachin’ I could listen to,” said Lord Roxton. “The chap in the pulpit is over my head. If he comes down to my level I have some use for him. Well, it strikes me we won’t get much sleep to-night. We’ve just an hour before we reach Dryfont. Maybe we had better use it.”
It was past eleven o’clock of a cold, frosty night when the party reached their destination. The station of the little watering-place was almost deserted, but a small, fat man in a fur overcoat ran forward to meet them, and greeted them warmly.
“I am Mr. Belchamber, owner of the house. How do you do, gentlemen? I got your wire, Lord Roxton, and everything is in order. It is indeed kind of you to come down. If you can do anything to ease my burden I shall indeed be grateful.”
Mr. Belchamber led them across to the little Station Hotel where they partook of sandwiches and coffee, which he had thoughtfully ordered. As they ate he told them something of his troubles. “It isn’t as if I was a rich man, gentlemen. I am a retired grazier and all my savings are in three houses. That is one of them, the Villa Maggiore. Yes, I got it cheap, that’s true. But how could I think there was anything in this story of the mad doctor?”
“Let’s have the yarn,” said Lord Roxton, munching at a sandwich.
“He was there away back in Queen Victoria’s time. I’ve seen him myself. A long, stringy, dark-faced kind of man, with a round back and a queer, shuffling way of walking. They say he had been in India all his life, and some thought he was hiding from some crime, for he would never show his face in the village and seldom came out till after dark. He broke a dog’s leg with a stone, and there was some talk of having him up for it, but the people were afraid of him, and no one would prosecute. The little boys would run past, for he would sit glowering and glooming in the front window. Then one day he didn’t take the milk in, and the same the next day, and so they broke the door open, and he was dead in his bath — but it was a bath of blood, for he opened the veins of his arm. Tremayne was his name. No one here forgets it.”
“And you bought the house?”
“Well, it was re-papered and painted and fumigated, and done up outside. You’d have said it was a new house. Then, I let it to Mr. Jenkins of the Brewery. Three days he was in it. I lowered the rent, and Mr. Beale, the retired grocer, took it. It was he who went mad — clean mad — after a week of it. And I’ve had it on my hands ever since — sixty pounds out of my income, and taxes to pay on it, into the bargain. If you gentlemen can do anything, for God’s sake do it! If not, it would pay me to burn it down.”
The Villa Maggiore stood about half a mile from the town on the slope of a low hill. Mr. Belchamber conducted them so far, and even up to the hall door. It was certainly a depressing place, with a huge, gambrel roof which came down over the upper windows and nearly obscured them. There was a half-moon, and by its light they could see that the garden was a tangle of scraggy, winter vegetation, which had, in some places, almost overgrown the path. It was all very still, very gloomy and very ominous.
“The door is not locked,” said the owner. “You will find some chairs and a table in the sitting-room on the left of the hall. I had a fire lit there, and there is a bucketful of coals. You will be pretty comfortable, I hope. You won’t blame me for not coming in, but my nerves are not so good as they were.” With a few apologetic words, the owner slipped away, and they were alone with their task.
Lord Roxton had brought a strong electric torch. On opening the mildewed door, he flashed a tunnel of light down the passage, uncarpeted and dreary, which ended in a broad, straight, wooden staircase leading to the upper floor. There were doors on either side of the passage. That on the right led into a large, cheerless, empty room, with a derelict lawn-mower in one corner and a pile of old books and journals. There was a corresponding room upon the left which was a much more cheery apartment. A brisk fire burned in the grate, there were three comfortable chairs, and a deal table with a water carafe, a bucket of coals, and a few other amenities. It was lit by a large oil-lamp. The clergyman and Malone drew up to the fire, for it was very cold, but Lord Roxton completed his preparations. From a little hand-bag he extracted his automatic pistol, which he put upon the mantelpiece. Then he produced a packet of candles, placing two of them in the hall. Finally he took a ball of worsted and tied strings of it across the back passage and across the opposite door.
“We will have one look round,” said he, when his preparations were complete. “Then we can wait down here and take what comes.”
The upper passage led at right angles to left and right from the top of the straight staircase. On the right were two large, bare, dusty rooms, with the wallpaper hanging in strips and the floor littered with scattered plaster. On the left was a single large room in the same derelict condition. Out of it was the bathroom of tragic memory, with the high, zinc bath still in position. Great blotches of red lay within it, and though they were only rust stains, they seemed to be terrible reminders from the past. Malone was surprised to see the clergyman stagger and support himself against the door. His face was ghastly white and there was moisture on his brow. His two comrades supported him down the stairs, and he sat for a little, as one exhausted, before he spoke.
“Did you two really feel nothing?” he asked. “The fact is that I am mediumistic myself and very open to psychic impressions. This particular one was horrible beyond description.”
“What did you get, padre?”
“It is difficult to describe these things. It was a sinking of my heart, a feeling of utter desolation. All my senses were affected. My eyes went dim. I smelt a terrible odour of putrescence. The strength seemed to be sapped out of me. Believe me, Lord Roxton, it is no light thing which we are facing to-night.”
The sportsman was unusually grave. “So I begin to think,” said he. “Do you think you are fit for the job?”
“I am sorry to have been so weak,” Mr. Mason answered. “I shall certainly see the thing through. The worse the case, the more need for my help. I am all right now,” he added, with his cheery laugh, drawing an old charred briar from his pocket. “This is the best doctor for shaken nerves. I’ll sit here and smoke till I’m wanted.”
“What shape do you expect it to take?” asked Malone of Lord Roxton.
“Well, it is something you can see. That’s certain.”
“That’s what I cannot understand, in spite of all my reading,” said Malone. “These authorities are all agreed that there is a material basis, and that this material basis is drawn from the human body. Call it ectoplasm, or what you like, it is human in origin, is it not?”
“Certainly,” Mason answered.
“Well, then, are we to suppose that this Dr. Tremayne builds up his own appearance by drawing stuff from me and you?”
“I think, so far as I understand it, that in most cases a spirit does so. I believe that when the spectator feels that he goes cold, that his hair rises and the rest of it, he is really conscious of this draft upon his own vitality which may be enough to make him faint or even to kill him. Perhaps he was drawing on me then.”
“Suppose we are not mediumistic? Suppose we give out nothing?”
“There is a very full case that I read lately,” Mr. Mason answered. “It was closely observed — reported by Professor Neillson of Iceland. In that case the evil spirit used to go down to an unfortunate photographer in the town, draw his supplies from him, and then come back and use them. He would openly say, ‘Give me time to get down to So-and-so. Then I will show you what I can do’. He was a most formidable creature and they had great difficulty in mastering him.”
“Strikes me, young fellah, we have taken on a larger contract than we knew,” said Lord Roxton. “Well, we’ve done what we could. The passage is well lit. No one can come at us except down the stair without breaking the worsted. There is nothing more we can do except just to wait.”
So they waited. It was a weary time. A carriage clock had been placed on the discoloured wooden mantelpiece, and slowly its hands crept on from one to two and from two to three. Outside an owl was hooting most dismally in the darkness. The villa was on a by-road, and there was no human sound to link them up with life. The padre lay dozing in his chair. Malone smoked incessantly. Lord Roxton turned over the pages of a magazine. There were the occasional strange tappings and creakings which come in the silence of the night. Nothing else until . . .
Someone came down the stair.
There could not be a doubt of it. It was a furtive, and yet a clear footstep. Creak! Creak! Creak! Then it had reached the level. Then it had reached their door. They were all sitting erect in their chairs, Roxton grasping his automatic. Had it come in? The door was ajar, but had not further opened. Yet all were aware of a sense that they were not alone, that they were being observed. It seemed suddenly colder, and Malone was shivering. An instant later the steps were retreating. They were low and swift — much swifter than before. One could imagine that a messenger was speeding back with intelligence to some great master who lurked in the shadows above.
The three sat in silence, looking at each other.
“By Jove!” said Lord Roxton at last. His face was pale but firm. Malone scribbled some notes and the hour. The clergyman was praying.
“Well, we are up against it,” said Roxton after a pause. “We can’t leave it at that. We have to go through with it. I don’t mind tellin’ you, padre, that I’ve followed a wounded tiger in thick jungle and never had quite the feelin’ I’ve got now. If I’m out for sensations, I’ve got them. But I’m going upstairs.”
“We will go, too,” cried his comrades, rising from their chairs.
“Stay here, young fellah! And you, too, padre. Three of us make too much noise. I’ll call you if I want you. My idea is just to steal out and wait quiet on the stair. If that thing, whatever it was, comes again, it will have to pass me.”
All three went into the passage. The two candles were throwing out little circles of light, and the stair was deeply illuminated, with heavy shadows at the top. Roxton sat down half-way up the stair, pistol in hand. He put his finger to his lips and impatiently waved his companions back to the room. Then they sat by the fire, waiting, waiting.
Half an hour, three-quarters — and then, suddenly it came. There was a sound as of rushing feet, the reverberation of a shot, a scuffle and a heavy fall, with a loud cry for help. Shaking with horror, they rushed into the hall. Lord Roxton was lying on his face amid a litter of plaster and rubbish. He seemed half dazed as they raised him, and was bleeding where the skin had been grazed from his cheek and hands. Looking up the stair, it seemed that the shadows were blacker and thicker at the top.
“I’m all right,” said Roxton, as they led him to his chair. “Just give me a minute to get my wind and I’ll have another round with the devil — for if this is not the devil, then none ever walked the earth.”
“You shan’t go alone this time,” said Malone.
“You never should,” added the clergyman. “But tell us what happened.”
“I hardly know myself. I sat, as you saw, with my back to the top landing. Suddenly I heard a rush. I was aware of something dark right on the top of me. I half-turned and fired. The next instant I was chucked down as if I had been a baby. All that plaster came showering down after me. That’s as much as I can tell you.”
“Why should we go further in the matter?” said Malone. “You are convinced that this is more than human, are you not?”
“There is no doubt of that.”
“Well, then, you have had your experience. What more can you want?”
“Well, I, at least, want something more,” said Mr. Mason. “I think our help is needed.”
“Strikes me that we shall need the help,” said Lord Roxton, rubbing his knee. “We shall want a doctor before we get through. But I’m with you, padre. I feel that we must see it through. If you don’t like it, young fellah —” The mere suggestion was too much for Malone’s Irish blood.
“I am going up alone!” he cried, making for the door.
“No, indeed. I am with you.” The clergyman hurried after him.
“And you don’t go without me!” cried Lord Roxton, limping in the rear.
They stood together in the candle-lit, shadow-draped passage. Malone had his hand on the balustrade and his foot on the lower step, when it happened.
What was it? They could not tell themselves. They only knew that the black shadows at the top of the staircase had thickened, had coalesced, had taken a definite, batlike shape. Great God! They were moving! They were rushing swiftly and noiselessly downwards! Black, black as night, huge, ill-defined, semi-human and altogether evil and damnable. All three men screamed and blundered for the door. Lord Roxton caught the handle and threw it open. It was too late; the thing was upon them. They were conscious of a warm, glutinous contact, of a purulent smell, of a half-formed, dreadful face and of entwining limbs. An instant later all three were lying half-dazed and horrified, hurled outwards on to the gravel of the drive. The door had shut with a crash.
Malone whimpered and Roxton swore, but the clergyman was silent as they gathered themselves together, each of them badly shaken and bruised, but with an inward horror which made all bodily ill seem insignificant. There they stood in a little group in the light of the sinking moon, their eyes turned upon the black square of the door.
“That’s enough,” said Roxton, at last.
“More than enough,” said Malone. “I wouldn’t enter that house again for anything Fleet Street could offer.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Defiled, degraded — oh, it was loathsome!”
“Foul!” said Roxton! “Did you get the reek of it? And the purulent warmth?”
Malone gave a cry of disgust. “Featureless save for the dreadful eyes! Semi-materialized! Horrible!”
“What about the lights?”
“Oh, damn the lights! Let them burn. I am not going in again!”
“Well, Belchamber can come in the morning. Maybe he is waiting for us now at the inn.”
“Yes, let us go to the inn. Let us get back to humanity.” Malone and Roxton turned away, but the clergyman stood fast. He had drawn a crucifix from his pocket.
“You can go,” said he. “I am going back.”
“What! Into the house?”
“Yes, into the house.”
“Padre, this is madness! It will break your neck. We were all like stuffed dolls in its clutch.”
“Well, let it break my neck. I am going.”
“You are not! Here, Malone, catch hold of him!”
But it was too late With a few quick steps, Mr. Mason had reached the door, flung it open, passed in and closed it behind him. As his comrades tried to follow, they heard a creaking clang upon the further side. The padre had bolted them out. There was a great slit where the letter-box had been. Through it Lord Roxton entreated him to return.
“Stay there!” said the quick, stern voice of the clergyman. “I have my work to do. I will come when it is done.” A moment later he began to speak. His sweet, homely, affectionate accents rang through the hall. They could only hear snatches outside, bits of prayer, bits of exhortation, bits of kindly greeting. Looking through the narrow opening, Malone could see the straight, dark figure in the candlelight, its back to the door, its face to the shadows of the stair, the crucifix held aloft in its right hand.
His voice sank into silence and then there came one more of the miracles of this eventful night. A voice answered him. It was such a sound as neither of the auditors had heard before — a guttural, rasping, croaking utterance, indescribably menacing. What it said was short, but it was instantly answered by the clergyman, his tone sharpened to a fine edge by emotion. His utterance seemed to be exhortation and was at once answered by the ominous voice from beyond. Again and again, and yet again came the speech and the answer, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, varying in every key of pleading, arguing, praying, soothing, and everything save upbraiding. Chilled to the marrow, Roxton and Malone crouched by the door, catching snatches of that inconceivable dialogue. Then, after what seemed a weary time, though it was less than an hour, Mr. Mason, in a loud, full, exultant tone, repeated the “Our Father.” Was it fancy, or echo, or was there really some accompanying voice in the darkness beyond him? A moment later the light went out in the left-hand window, the bolt was drawn, and the clergyman emerged carrying Lord Roxton’s bag. His face looked ghastly in the moonlight, but his manner was brisk and happy.
“I think you will find everything here,” he said, handing over the bag.
Roxton and Malone took him by either arm and hurried him down to the road.
“By Jove! You don’t give us the slip again!” cried the nobleman. “Padre, you should have a row of Victoria Crosses.”
“No, no, it was my duty. Poor fellow, he needed help so badly. I am but a fellow-sinner and yet I was able to give it.”
“You did him good?”
“I humbly hope so. I was but the instrument of the higher forces. The house is haunted no longer. He promised. But I will not speak of it now. It may be easier in days to come.”
The landlord and the maids stared at the three adventurers in amazement when, in the chill light of the winter dawn, they presented themselves at the inn once more. Each of them seemed to have aged five years in the night. Mr. Mason, with the reaction upon him, threw himself down upon the horsehair sofa in the humble coffee-room and was instantly asleep.
“Poor chap! He looks pretty bad!” said Malone. Indeed, his white, haggard face and long, limp limbs might have been those of a corpse.
“We will get a cup of hot tea into him,” Lord Roxton answered, warming his hands at the fire, which the maid had just lit. “By Jove! We shall be none the worse for some ourselves. Well, young fellah, we’ve got what we came for. I’ve had my sensation, and you’ve had your copy.
“And he has had the saving of a soul. Well, we must admit that our objects seem very humble compared to his.”
They caught the early train to London, and had a carriage to themselves. Mason had said little and seemed to be lost in thought. Suddenly he turned to his companions. “I say, you two, would you mind joining me in prayer?” Lord Roxton made a grimace. “I warn you, padre, I am rather out of practice.”
“Please kneel down with me. I want your aid.”
They knelt down, side by side, the padre in the middle. Malone made a mental note of the prayer.
“Father, we are all Your children, poor, weak, helpless creatures, swayed by Fate and circumstance. I implore You that You will turn eyes of compassion upon the man, Rupert Tremayne, who wandered far from You, and is now in the dark. He has sunk deep, very deep, for he had a proud heart which would not soften, and a cruel mind, which was filled with hate. But now he would turn to the light, and so I beg help for him and for the woman, Emma, who, for the love of him, has gone down into the darkness. May she raise him, as she had tried to do. May they both break the bonds of evil memory which tie them to earth. May they, from to-night, move up towards that glorious light which sooner or later shines upon even the lowest.”
They rose from their knees.
“That’s better!” cried the padre, thumping his chest with his bony hand, and breaking out into his expansive, toothsome grin. “What a night! Good Lord, what a night!”1
1 Vide Appendix.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53