The stranger was dressed in a summer suit of grey flannel, and dangled a broad-brimmed Panama hat in his hand. Nothing indicated that he had observed their little group.
Mrs. Moor tapped her heel smartly on the floor. He at once looked round, but with perfect self-possession. He was a shortish, heavily-built man, perhaps fifty years of age, having a full, florid face, a dome-like forehead, and a neck short, thick and red — an energetic, intellectual type of person, probably capable of prolonged periods of heavy mental exertion. His head was bald to the crown, the remaining fair was sandy-red and he wore a short, pointed beard of the same colour. His somewhat large, flat. Pale blue-grey eyes had that peculiar look of fixity which comes from gazing at one set of objects and thinking of something totally different.
“Are you the American gentleman?” interrogated Mrs. Moor, from a distance. He strolled towards them before replying.
“I do belong to the American nation.” His voice was thick, but not unpleasant; it had very little accent.
“They told us you were here, but we were not anticipating a musical treat.”
He laughed politely. “I guess my apology will have to be that I forgot my audience, madam. I heard you all come in, but you disappeared somewhere in the house, and the circumstance went clean out of my mind.”
Mrs. Moor glanced at the bulky note-book stuffed into his side-pocket, and risked a shrewd conjecture.
“Artists, we know, are notoriously absent-minded.”
“Why, I do paint, madam — but I don’t put that forward as an excuse for discourtesy.”
“Then you were lost in the past, we will say. You have few such interesting memorials in your country?”
“We have some; we are putting on years. But I’m interested in this house in a special sense. My wife’s great-grandfather was the former proprietor of it — I don’t know just how you call it here . . . well, the squire.“
Isbel fastened her steady, grey-black eyes on his face. “But why were you playing Beethoven in an empty house?”
The singular, softly-metallic character of her voice seemed to attract his attention, for he shot a questioning glance at her.
“I was working something out,” he replied curtly, after a brief hesitation.
“Is it permissible to inquire what?”
He looked still more surprised. “You wish to know that? . . . Some ideas came to me in this house which seemed to require music to illustrate them — that particular music, I mean.”
“Do you know Mr. Judge personally?”
“I do not.”
Isbel went on gazing at him meditatively, and seemed inclined to pursue the conversation, but at that moment a sound was heard in the hall below. Glancing over the balustrade, they saw Mrs. Priday entering from the lobby.
“I’ll have to be going,” remarked the American.
No one offered to detain him; the ladies smiled, while Marshall raised his hat. The artist bowed gravely, clapped his own had on and turned to go downstairs.
In the hall he stopped beside the caretaker for a moment in order to slip a coin into her hand. After that he went out, and the door close behind him.
“What is the name of that gentleman?” asked Mrs. Moor of the woman, as soon as the latter had joined them.
“Mr. Sherrup, madam.”
“Oh! . . . Well, Mrs. Priday, we’ve now seen the whole of the ground floor, and we’re waiting for you to show us over the rest, if you will be so good. And first of all — what are those two doors there?”
“The drawing-room, madam, and what used to be the old library, but Mr. Judge has turned it into a billiard-room. The new library’s at the end of the corridor. That’s all the sitting-rooms on this floor.”
“Very good, then I think we’ll first see the drawing-room.”
Mrs. Priday without delay ushered them into the apartment in which Sherrup had been playing the piano. It was immediately over the dining-room, and had the same outlook; its windows overlooked the side and back of the house. Quite evidently it was the sanctum of the late lady of the manor — no man could have lived in that room, so full of little feminine fragilities and knick-knacks as it was, so bizarre, so frivolous, so tasteless, yet so pleasing. And underneath everything loomed up the past, persisting in discovering itself, despite the almost passionate efforts to conceal it . . . A chill struck Isbel’s heart, and at the same time she wished to laugh.
“Her taste!” she exclaimed “Couldn’t she see it was all wrong? How old was she, Mrs. Priday?”
“The late Mrs. Judge.”
“She was thirty-seven, miss.”
“Twenty years younger than her husband. I wasn’t so far out, aunt . . . Were they happy together?”
“Why shouldn’t they be happy together, miss? Young husbands are not always the kindest.”
“What was she like?”
“Small, slight, and fair, miss; pretty and soft-spoken, with a weakish mouth, but the sharpest tongue that ever was.”
Mrs. Moor looked annoyed, but Isbel persisted with her questions.
“Did they get about together much?”
“Yes and no, miss. She was one for society, while the master likes no ones’ company so much as his own. He will shut himself up with a book by the hour together. And then he’s fond of long tramps in the countryside; and he belongs to an antiquarian society — they go on excursions and suchlike.”
“Did she go with them?”
The caretaker smiled. “She hated them like a swarm of earwigs, miss. She used to call them most terrible names.”
“Poor Mrs. Judge!”
“How long have you been in service here?” demanded Mrs. Moor.
“Eighteen years, madam, I married Priday eighteen years ago. He’s been here all his life, and his father and grandfather, too. Many people they’ve seen come in, and many people they’ve seen go out.”
“Most interesting! Has Mr. Judge been down here yet since his return?”
“Not yet, madam. We’ve had letters, and that’s all.”
They passed through the billiard room. Isbel contrived to linger behind with Marshall for a moment.
“Which is the room we have to see?”
“Upstairs. I think I told you it’s called the East Room.”
“I’m growing more fascinated now. It certainly has an atmosphere of its own, this house. Whether pleasant or unpleasant I can’t decide yet.”
He pressed her arm. “I sincerely hope you will like it, for I don’t see how our marriage is going to come off till your aunt gets fixed.”
She looked back at him affectionately, but said nothing. Meanwhile Mrs. Moor had followed the caretaker into the corridor, where she awaited them impatiently. They proceeded without loss of time to visit the bedrooms on that floor. Some were large, some were mere boxes, but the appointments of all were modern, hygienic, and expensive. Whoever spent a night at Runhill Court was sure of a luxurious room. The views, too, from the windows were magnificent. Nevertheless the same oppressive sense of antiquity pervaded everything, and once again the same disagreeable doubts sprang up in Isbel’s mind.
“It certainly isn’t hard to understand how a place like this might affect a man’s sanity, if he lived here long enough,” she whispered to Marshall. “I am sure I should begin to see things, myself, from the very first night . . . But he must be mad — what do you think?”
“Probably. Should you like to meet him, and judge for yourself?”
“I’ll see if I can arrange it.”
“Please try. I’m certain he’s an extraordinary man, quite apart from the question of hallucinations.”
The others by this time were in the library, where the younger couple hastened to join them. Mrs. Moor at once drew Isbel into a corner of the room.
“We’ve seen practically everything that counts now. How are we to decide?”
“I don’t think I could live here, aunt, but don’t settle anything in a hurry. You can’t imagine what strange thought I have. At one time I feel I hate and loathe the place, and at another — I can’t express what I feel. There’s something very uncanny about it all, and yet it isn’t ghostly, in that sense . . . There’s some living influence . . . I do wish we hadn’t parted from Mr. Sherrup so abruptly. I feel positive he could have thrown some light on it.”
“Your nerves must be desperately out of order, child, and, that being the case, I strongly doubt whether such a house as this is suitable for you. However, as you say, nothing need be decided on the spur of the moment . . . now we’ll see upstairs, and then go home.”
It was nearly one o’clock.
The upper landing had a low, sloping roof. It was lighted by a gable window facing the south-west. Opposite to the head of the stairs were two servants; rooms, while on the right hand a passage ran through to the other end of the house, dimly lighted along its entire length by skylights. Doors opened out here and there from both sides; those on the right were dark lumber-rooms, the others were the remaining servants; bedrooms, possessing windows which faced the back of the house. At the far end of the building the servants’ staircase came up from the ground floor.
After a cursory walk through, the party returned to the other landing.
“Now, is that all?” demanded Mrs. Moor.
Marshall pinched his chin thoughtfully. “Which is the East Room?”
“It’s locked, sir.”
“Locked, is it? But Mr. Judge told me he was giving instructions to have it opened.”
“I don’t know anything about that, sir. It’s locked.”
“That’s unfortunate. At all events, show us where it is.”
Mrs. Moor cast him a keen glance, but held her tongue.
“We shall have to go through a rather dark passage, sir — if you don’t mind that. It’s this way.”
Parallel with and overlooking the stairs was another little corridor, stretching to the front of the house and lighted by a dormer-window at the end. Along this Mrs. Priday conducted them. When they could nearly touch the sloping roof, the corridor turned sharply to the left and became a sort of tunnel. Marshall begin to strike matches.
“By Jove, it is dark!”
“It gets lighter directly, sir.”
After twenty paces or so, there came another twist. A couple of shallow stairs brought them up into a widening of the passage which might almost be described as a room. Its rafters were the interior of a great gable, through the high-set window of which the sun was slanting. Everything had been scrubbed clean, but there was not a stick of furniture.
“The man who designed this house must have had a queer brain,” remarked Isbel, with a smile. “Do you mean to tell me that all this leads only to the one room?”
“That’s all, miss.”
They had paused for a minute to take advantage of the light, before plunging into the next section of night-like corridor. While they stood there, a look of perplexity appeared on Isbel’s face, as she seemed to listen to something.
“What’s that?” she whispered.
“What?” asked her aunt.
“Can’t you hear a sound?”
They all listened.
“What’s it like, Isbel?” inquired Marshall.
“Surely you can hear it! . . . a find of low, vibrating hum . . . like a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection . . . ”
But no one else could catch the noise.
“Judge spoke of some sound in a corridor,” said Marshall. “He told me everyone couldn’t hear it. Kind of a thunder, is it?”
“Yes . . . yes, perhaps . . . It keeps coming and going . . . A low buzz . . . ”
“That must be it, then — unless, of course, it’s a ringing in your ears.”
Isbel uttered a short laugh of annoyance. “Oh, surely I can tell a sound when I hear one? It’s exactly as if I were listening on the telephone for an answer to a call. A voice might speak at any moment.”
“Foolishness!” said her aunt irritably. “If it’s anything at all, it’s probably an outside wire of some sort . . . Come along!”
“I can’t understand why nobody else hears it. It’s so unmistakable.”
“Well, nobody else does, child — that’s enough. Are you coming, or are you not?”
“It’s really quite impressive, though. Like an orchestra heard through a thick wall.”
“The question is, are we to stay here until you’ve succeeded in working yourself up into a fit of enthusiasm over it?”
“I wonder if this is what Mr. Sherrup heard? Very likely it is. It certainly does give one the idea of a preparation for something. It’s exciting . . . oh, don’t glare at me, aunt, as if I were some wild animal — I’m quite in my right senses, I assure you.”
“That may be so; but if it’s a joke I don’t know why you should fix on lunch-time for it. How much longer do you propose to keep us here, may I ask?”
Isbel at last consented to proceed, but there was a strange look in her eyes for all the rest of the time she was upstairs.
The second section of unlighted passage led to another gable-room, and this in turn was succeeded by a third, but shorter, tunnel. Towards the end it was dimly illuminated by a skylight. The passage was terminated by a plain oak door.
“Is this the East Room?” asked Marshall.
He tried the handle, but the door was locked.
“Well, that’s no go, then!”
“Why is it kept locked?” asked Mrs. Moor.
“Because Mr. Judge wishes it, madam.”
They could not tell from Mrs. Priday’s expression whether she were being impertinent, or merely simple. Isbel, however, hazarded another question:
“Is the room haunted?”
“I say, is the room haunted?”
The caretaker smiled, as she wrapped her hands in the apron she wore. “If you mean ghosts, miss, I’ve never heard of any such.”
“I’m simply asking of it has the reputation of being queer in any way?”
“Well, for one thing, miss, it’s very old. Priday says it’s far and away the oldest part of the house — all this end is. It wouldn’t be natural if no stories was told about an ancient room like this.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Ah, my husband’s the one for all that, miss. He’ll tell you all you want to know about the house — if you can get him to talk, that is. Not many can. The master never could get much out of him. The Pridays have served here for more than a hundred years, and it’s to be expected that my husband knows a goodish bit about the place, which he doesn’t want to lose by telling to the first asker. You talk to him, miss, and if he’s in the mood he’ll tell you some funny stories. I don’t pretend to know much about it myself.”
“Do you say that this part of the house is older than the hall?” asked Marshall.
“My husband says it’s nigh fifteen centuries old, sir, only it’s been patched up from time to time, and made to look more like the rest of the house.”
“That’s rather interesting. I wonder if Judge know it?”
No one answered him. Mrs. Moor again consulted her wrist-watch.
“We really must be getting back — we shall lose our lunch. You’ll have to see the room some other time, Marshall, if it’s a case of necessity.”
There was nothing else to do, and they retraced their steps. Returning through the corridor, they descended the stairs. When once again in the hall, the ladies thanked Mrs. Priday and prepared to go outside, but Marshall stayed behind for a moment to slip a treasure-note in her hand.
Priday himself opened the lodge-gate to allow the car to pass. He was a tough, wrinkled little fellow of about fifty-five, with cheeks like Kentish apples, and a pair of small, wary, twinkling, sloe-black eyes. Isbel viewed him with great curiosity, but no words were exchanged.
“Then we’ll run over there again next week-end, providing I can get the key of that room?” asked Marshall of Isbel on the same evening, at the hotel.
She looked at him closely. “Yes. And when you write to Mr. Judge, hint to him that aunt is quite prepared to bid for the house. You know how to put it.”
“But is that definite?”
“Certainly. She may not know her own mind, but I know it for her. You’ll do that?”
“You’d be prepared to live there yourself for a few months?”
“Yes — for it’s such a short time that it makes no difference one way or the other.”
And she lifted her hand to her hair with such an air of cold abstraction that Marshall thought she was really bored by the whole affair.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11