The Haunted Woman, by David Lindsay

Chapter 5

Isbel Sees Herself

Marshall came down again by train on Friday evening. Judge had replied to him during the week, notifying that he was still considering the question of parting with his house, but hoped before long to come to a definite decision. Meanwhile, no useful purpose would appear to be served by a personal interview with the lady desiring to purchase, but he was willing to undertake to give her the first refusal of the estate. He enclosed the key of the East Room. Marshall communicated only the business part of the letter to Mrs. Moor.

The fine weather continuing, he took the ladies on Saturday for a long run through Sussex and Kent. They wound up with the theatre at night.

On Sunday morning, at the breakfast-table, Isbel announced to her aunt the intention of herself and Marshall to motor over to Runhill Court before lunch. Mrs. Moor, although a rigid churchgoer, manifested neither pleasure not displeasure.

“But you will be back for lunch this time?”

“Oh, yes. Marshall merely wants to carry out his commission.”

“I know you don’t like the house, so I needn’t warn you against prematurely falling in love with it. I’ve got a strong feeling he won’t part with it.”

“Why not?” asked Marshall.

“Oh, I’ve had some experience of these heart-broken old widowers. He’s far more likely to pick up another wife than to renounce an old, familiar home. At his time of life he’s not so much a man as a bundle of habits.”

“Fifty-eight’s not so old.”

“Too old for a new establishment, but not too old for a new wife,” repeated Mrs. Moor with a shade of contempt.

Her niece reached for the marmalade dish. “I expect there are women who would marry him. He must be decently well off.”

“Of course — and even quite young girls. If it’s beauty he wants he’ll find a wife easier to get than a good cook. Mark my words — within twelve months a second Mrs. Judge will be installed in that house.”

“I thought you were an admirer of his,” said Isbel nonchalantly.

“I admire his thoroughness in practical matters, but that doesn’t blind my eyes to probabilities.”

“In other words, you think he’s treating you badly by keeping you on tenterhooks. Own up, aunt!”

“You’re quite mistaken, child. I’m not attacking him. I’m simply finding reasons for his not being able to make up his mind. It’s his own house, and he can do what he likes with it.” . . . However, it was obvious that Mrs. Moor was annoyed.

The two younger people left Brighton soon after ten o’clock, and as the road was now more familiar they reached Runhill Lodge almost upon the stroke of eleven. Mrs. Priday did not appear; this time it was her husband who attended the gate. He wore a black coat, in honour of the day, and was smoking a nicotine-stained wooden pipe carved in the likeness of a man’s head. Marshall showed him a corner of Judge’s letter, with the signature, following it up with a small pourboire, which the head gardener thrust indifferently into his pocket.

“Can we get into the house now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you at liberty?”

Priday answered in the affirmative.

“As a matter of fact, it’s only one room we have to see. We went over all the rest last time. The East Room. It was locked when we were here before, but I’ve got the key since.”

The gardener gazed at him with his cunning eyes for a moment, and then asked cautiously, as if feeling his way: “Now, why would the boss be having that room opened, sir?”

“Any particular reason why it shouldn’t be opened?”

“It’s been kept locked up for eight years, sir, and that’s one good reason.”

“Why?” demanded Isbel.

“Oh, there’s nothing there for nobody.”

“Then why waste a good lock?” . . . Finding that Priday did not reply, she proceeded, “I understand its real name is Ulf’s Tower?”

“What name?”

“Ulf’s Tower.”

“I never heard that, miss. In my grandfather’s time, the old ’uns used to call it the elves’ Tower.”

“How extraordinary! I wonder which version is the right one?”

“Well, we can be talking about all this when we get to the house,” said Marshall, “if you’ll get the key and let us through.”

While Priday went into the lodge Isbel closed her eyes and pressed her hand to her forehead.

“I’m afraid I’ve a headache coming on.”

“Is it the sun? If so, the sooner we get inside, the better.”

“It must be the hot sun.”

the gardener reappeared almost immediately with the key in his hand, and at once set about opening the carriage gate. Marshall got back into the car — Isbel had not alighted — they passed through, the gate was closed behind them, and Priday having been invited to mount, they ran smoothly up the drive, and within a minute or two were outside the house.

As they stood waiting by the door, while Priday fumbled with the lock, the throbbing of Isbel’s temples grew so unendurable that she hardly knew how to remain erect.

“Worse?” inquired Marshall, with some anxiety.

“I’m afraid so. I wish he’d hurry up.”

At the same moment that she spoke, the door was got open, and Marshall supported her into the cool of the hall, where she sat down. The two men remained standing beside her.

“This is better, but I fear I can’t go on for a minute or two.” . . . After a pause, she addressed Priday more conversationally: “So you know nothing about the East Room?”

“There’s no ‘so’ about it,” was the blunt, though not offensive reply. “I never said I didn’t.”

“But you say there’s nothing there?”

“There ain’t nothing there that you want, miss.”

“What do I want?”

“You’ve come on a picnic, like . . . This house ain’t going to be played with. P’raps it’ll bite back, and bite hard.”

This language, which would have sounded imbecile in another place, seemed almost like a threat to Isbel in their present situation, surrounded as they were by the solemn, silent remains of an extreme antiquity. She discontinued her questions. Marshall, however, who preserved his common-sense, took up the story.

“What exactly do you mean by that, Priday?”

“Gentleman like you, sir, can go anywhere about the house. You’ll see or hear nothing, and it won’t hurt you. Young female nerves is a very different matter. P’raps those who start a funny journey can’t always come back when they like . . . The young lady’s got a headache, you say. That’s a good enough excuse. Let her rest here, sir, while you and me go up to see what you want to see.”

“Oh, rot! . . . You want to come, don’t you, Isbel?”

“Very much. But really, I’m physically incapable of moving. My head gets worse instead of better.”

“Then, shall I stop with you, or would you like me to get the job over? I could be up and down again in ten minutes. Say what you’d like.”

“Yes, please go. Take Mr. Priday with you. I think complete silence and solitude may do me good. Talking makes it worse.”

“I wish to heaven I could do something for you! . . . You’re sure you don’t mind being left?”

She gave a feeble, reassuring smile. “Good gracious! I’m not a child.”

Marshall took his departure reluctantly upstairs, accompanied by Priday, whose legs, however, stiffened by a lifetime of digging, were soon unable to keep pace with those of the young underwriter.

Isbel now kept shutting and reopening her eyes. The repose, silence, and gloom began to exercise a soothing effect on her nerves, and she had not sat there two minutes before her head became easier. Everything in the hall was as it had been on the occasion of their previous visit. The dark, dignified, polished woodwork was solemnly illuminated as before, by the golden, blue and crimson rays from the mediaeval windows, and there was the same deathly stillness.

Suddenly it occurred to her that she was looking at something the existence of which she had never yet realised. It was a part of the structure of the hall, and she must certainly have seen it before, but, if so, it had completely escaped her observation. It was a second flight of uncarpeted stairs, leading upwards out of the hall, by the side of the ancient fireplace. It did not strike her that there was anything odd about these stairs; they were quite prosaic and real; the only curious circumstance was that hitherto she should have overlooked them in so miraculous a manner.

They went straight forward and up through an aperture in the wall. About a dozen steps were visible, but the top was out of sight. It immediately flashed across her mind that by ascending them she would set foot in a heretofore unexplored part of the house. In the excitement of the discovery she forgot her headache. She got up, stood for a moment in doubt, wondering whether she should call out to Marshall, and then, deciding that her voice would not carry so far, and that it would be time enough to acquaint him with her find on his reappearance, she resolved in the meantime to do a little pioneering on her own account. Not once did it enter her brain to identify these stairs with those of Judge. They appeared in a different quarter of the house, and, moreover, were too solid and tangible to conjure up the faintest suspicion of anything supernatural. She was not in the least alarmed; merely intensely surprised and curious.

Deliberately, but with a slightly agitated pulse, she ascended the steps one by one, occasionally turning to look back down at the hall. Something in the whole proceeding occurred to her as mysterious, though she was unable to explain to herself just what it was. The steps were of a dark, shining wood, which resembled teak; there were, from bottom to top, seventeen of them. There was no handrail, but the walls enclosed the well of the staircase on either side.

At the head of the flight she found herself standing in a little room, about fifteen feet square, empty of furniture, and lighted from above, although no skylight was visible. The floor, walls, and ceiling were of the same dark, handsome wood as the staircase. It was a kind of ante-chamber. There was nothing to see there, and nowhere to sit down, but there were doors leading out of it. There were three of them; one in the centre of each of the three walls, the head of the stairs occupying the centre of the fourth. All were of plain, undecorated wood, investing them with an almost primitive air. All three were closed.

Isbel hesitated. She wished to proceed, but those closed doors seemed to hold a sort of menace. She now remembered that Mrs. Priday had omitted to show these rooms with the rest of the house — or was it that she had thought they had already seen them prior to her arrival? Or, again, like the East Room, they might be locked; they, too, might contain undesirable mysteries . . . On that point, of course, she would satisfy herself at once . . . if it were really possible to go any further. . . .

Could it have been something of the same feeling that leads a woman to scrutinise an envelope addressed in an unfamiliar handwriting for several moments before opening it, which induced Isbel to pause for so long outside those doors? It was naturally absurd to suppose that she was actually frightened — so she told herself — and yet, somehow, she could not bring herself to adopt the sensible plan of peeping in . . . The fact was, there was something not quite right about them. They were unlike other doors. And not only were they unlike other doors, they were unlike each other. In that fact, perhaps, consisted their chief strangeness. The door in the middle, which she faced, looked noble, stately, and private, whereas the right-hand one had — she could not describe it to herself — a dangerous, waiting appearance, as though the room it belonged to were inhabited and the door at any moment might be flung suddenly open. As for that on the left, most likely it opened on to a passage-way — that was the impression it gave her . . . Perhaps all this hypersensitiveness on her part had its origin in the mutual position of the walls.

For some minutes she was incapable either of impelling herself forward or dragging herself away. She remained standing in nervous embarrassment, biting her gloved fingertips, and smiling at her own weakness. Perhaps she ought to descend again to the hall and wait for Marshall. He might have returned by this time, and be wondering what had become of her . . . It was most extraordinary that he, too, hadn’t noticed these stairs! . . .

Unable to muster sufficient courage to attack any of the doors unsupported, she at last determined to return for his assistance. But she had made no allowance for whim. While her foot was still on the second stair from the top, she turned straight round, then walked with a springing action across the room to the left-hand door, and, defiantly flinging it wide open, stood on the threshold, staring in with startled eyes.

The room was even smaller than that outside. Its fittings were all of the same dark wood. There was no furniture, but a large oval mirror hung on one of the walls, and on the side of the room furthest from the door, was a long, rich-red curtain, which seemed to conceal another door. Isbel took a tentative step forward. She kept asking herself what these rooms could be for, to what part of the house they belonged, and why they had been left unfurnished.

Abstractedly she walked over to the mirror to adjust her hat . . . Either the glass was flattering her, or something had happened to make her look different; she was quite startled by her image. It was not so much that she appeared more beautiful as that her face had acquired another character. Its expression was deep, stern, lowering, yet everything was softened and made alluring by the pervading presence of sexual sweetness. The face struck a note of deep, underlying passion, but a passion which was still asleep . . . It thrilled and excited her, it was even a little awful to think that this was herself, and still she knew that it was true. She really possessed this tragic nature. She was not like other girls — other English girls. Her soul did not swim on the surface, but groped its way blindly miles underneath the water . . . But how did the glass come to reflect this secret? And what was the meaning of this look of enchanting sexuality, which nearly tormented herself? . . .

She spent a long time gazing at the image, but without either changing the position of her head, or moving a muscle of her countenance. Petty, womanish vanity had no share in her scrutiny. She did not wish to admire, she wished to understand herself. It seemed to her that no woman possessing such a strong, terrible sweetness and intensity of character could avoid accepting an uncommon, and possibly fearful, destiny. A flood of the strangest emotions slowly rose to her head . . .

She heard a man’s voice calling her name from a very long way off. The voice was muffled, as if by intervening walls, but she had no difficulty recognising it as Marshall’s . She guessed that he was shouting down from the top of the house, and that, on getting no response, he would quicken his descent to the hall. She would half to go and meet him. Before retracing her steps, however, it was of course essential to peep behind the curtain.

Hastening across to it, she pulled aside the heavy red drapery. There was revealed a doorway, but no door; another flight of wooden stairs started to go down immediately beyond. Isbel persuaded herself that she would still have time to explore a little.

Half-way down, the hall came in sight . . . She could not understand . . .

Near the bottom she realised that she was coming out by the side of the fireplace — in other words, that this staircase was identical with that by which she had ascended . . . How this could possibly be, however, she had no more opportunity of asking herself, for at that moment she reached the hall, and at the very instant that her foot touched the floor every detail of her little adventure flashed out of her mind, like the extinguishing of a candle.

She remembered having commenced the ascent of those stairs, she was perfectly conscious that the ascent of those stairs, she was perfectly conscious that she had that very minute come down them, but of all that had happened to her in the interim she had no recollection whatever.

She turned round to look at the staircase again. It had vanished! . . . It was then, for the first time, that she recalled Mr. Judge’s story.

Instinct informed her that the whole transaction must be concealed from Marshall. She required time to think it over quietly and tranquilly, in all its bearings, before taking him into her confidence — if, indeed, she should ever decide to do so. He was very unlikely to put a charitable construction on her tale; it would almost certainly cause disagreement and general unpleasantness — it would be far better never to say anything about it at all. She sat down and waited for him. Her headache had returned.

Presently Marshall, followed by Priday, entered the hall, but not from upstairs — from outside. He appeared rather distracted, and on catching sight of Isbel his face flushed up.

“Where in the name of wonder have you been all this time?”

“All which time? What is the time?”

“It’s well past twelve. I’ve been looking for you a good twenty minutes.”

“Oh! . . . ”

“Where were you?”

She forced a smile, while thinking rapidly.

“Evidently I wasn’t here, since you didn’t see me . . . As a matter of fact, I went outside for a few minutes.”

Priday regarded her with a dubious stare.

“Even so, you must have heard me shouting,” said Marshall.

“My dear Marshall, are you trying to be unpleasant, or what? If I had heard you, I should have answered. Perhaps I dropped off to sleep — I can’t say. My head was bad, and I was sitting under some trees, with my eyes closed. I really don’t think that you need make such a fuss about it . . . Did you see the room?”

“Of course we saw it. It’s just a room like any other room.”

“Nothing mysterious?”

“Oh, that’s all bunkum! . . . Well are you fit, or would you like to wait a bit longer?”

She got up slowly. “We’d better go.”

Marshall looked at her strangely, but said nothing more. They left the house. Marshall went across to the car, but Isbel stopped for a minute to address Priday, who was engaged in locking the door.

“So I should have run no great risk in that room, after all, Mr. Priday?”

He finished his task before looking up or replying.

“That may be, miss — but I ain’t taking nothing back. And what’s more, I ain’t so sure you ain’t seen too much, as it is.”

“Really, this is most uncalled-for!” she exclaimed, laughing. “Why, what do you imagine I’ve seen?”

“You know and I don’t, miss. All I say is, I see a difference in you since forty minutes ago.”

“An improvement, I hope, Mr. Priday?”

“You’re amusin’ yourself with me, miss — and that’s all right. But I ain’t one to speak of what I don’t know, and I sticks to it — and you mark my words — this house ain’t one for young ladies like yourself. There’s plenty more old houses in the kingdom for you to see over, if you want such.”

“Come along, Isbel!” called out Marshall impatiently from the car. “Don’t stand gassing there, with your bad head.”

As she obeyed and took her seat, the smile dropped from her face, leaving it so puckered and anxious-looking that he uttered an involuntary exclamation:

“By Jove! You do look washed-out.”

Isbel made no reply, but after they had repassed through the lodge-gate she unobtrusively produced a small mirror of polished silver from her handbag and carefully scrutinized her features. She certainly was not looking very attractive, but otherwise she could detect no special change in her appearance.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57