As they trooped into the ancient, strangely coloured hall their voices instinctively became lower and joking ceased. Blanche drew her friend aside.
“It’s a lovely place, Billy! . . . Well, did you speak to him again?”
“Yes, it’s all right — he’s going to let us have it.”
“How did you manage it?”
“I didn’t manage it at all; the offer came from him.”
“Certainly — why shouldn’t it? So now we shall live here, I suppose.”
“Congratulations, my dear! . . . I expect you’ll have to see quite a lot of him after this? You took that into consideration, of course?”
“Why do you dislike him so much?”
“I neither like nor dislike him. I’m only afraid you may have to pay a rather high price for your house, that’s all. However, it’s your funeral . . . ”
Blanche forthwith turned to Judge, to express her astonishment at the beauty of the hall. It looked even weirder than usual, by reason of the circumstance that the sun’s rays now penetrated the windows obliquely, so that one half of the place was in shadow. Judge responded to her with somewhat worried courtesy. Meanwhile Isbel seated herself in a wicker chair, with her back to the fireplace.
“Is the headache worse?” asked Roger, quietly and kindly.
“It isn’t any better, Roger.” As the others came up: “I wonder if you would all mind seeing the house without me? I hate being a wet blanket.”
“What do you propose doing, then?” asked Blanche.
“I’ll stop here; my head’s going like an engine. I’ve seen everything before.”
“Except that one room,” Judge reminded her. “Still, there’s absolutely nothing to see there.”
“What room is that?” asked “Blanche.
“A room on the top floor,” explained Isbel. “Supposed to be haunted — isn’t it, Mr. Judge?”
“I don’t know where that information comes from, I’m sure. Foolish tales may be told of it, as of any other room.”
Blanche laughed. “A real live ghost, Mr. Judge?”
“I hope it’s a classic example, but I really know nothing about it.”
“How thrilling? You’ll take us there?”
“Certainly, if you wish it.”
Bur, first of all, they decided to complete their inspection of the apartments on the ground floor. Isbel remained sitting while the others wandered about the hall. The almost incessant drone of Judge’s voice, as he explained his property, detail by detail, began to exercise a soporific effect upon her, and she had a hard task to keep her eyes open . . .
She must have dozed, for she awoke to consciousness with a start. She was alone in the hall. Her friends were still somewhere on the lower floor; she could hear their voices sounding from one of the rooms in the back of the house. The words were indistinguishable, but Judge’s rumbling tones were nearly continuous, while Blanche’s high-pitched organ supplied an occasional punctuation. She thought how singular it was that a woman’s voice should always sound so absurdly shrill when heard from another room in conjunction with a man’s .
She sat up sharply and rearranged her skirt. Without her being aware of the fact, her foot was tapping the floor rapidly in nervous agitation. Before going upstairs they would have to return to the hall. They might reappear at any moment, and until they were safely away in the upper part of the house she dared not risk turning in her chair — to see what was behind her . . . If those stairs should already be there!
When, shortly afterwards, the door of the dining-room was thrown open and her friends re-entered the hall in a cluster, bringing with them a clatter of conversation, Isbel smiled towards them, but made no offer to rise.
“Aha! She’s awake,” exclaimed Roger.
“Did you expect to find me asleep, then?”
“You were slumbering beatifically when we left you. We went out on tiptoes, like a trio of conspirators. Endorse me, Judge.”
“Well, what do you think of it all, Blanche, as far as you’ve seen?”
“It’s a perfectly wonderful house. So picturesque and quiet, and so full of shadows. Won’t you come over the rest with us now?”
“No, thanks. I’d better keep still, I think.”
Judge pulled out a gold half-hunter. “What shan’t be a great while. It’s a quarter to three. It ought not to take us above an hour, I fancy. You don’t mind waiting that time?”
“No, no — only do go!”
Before departing, roger lit a cigarette.
“Have one, to pass the time away, Billy?”
“Perhaps I will.”
The first match went out, and she reached her hand for the box.
“I’ve seen steadier hands than yours,” remarked Roger.
She passed back the box without a word, retained the lighted cigarette in her mouth, and suffered her hand to remain motionless on her lap. Blanche and Judge were already at the foot of the staircase, and Roger hastened after them. Isbel gave a noiseless sigh, smoking on nervously.
From her seat she could hear her friends debating on the upper landing where they should go first. Judge suggested the first-floor apartments, but Blanche insisted on the haunted room. Apparently she gained her way, for a minute later their footsteps sounded on the upper staircase, leading to the top of the house. Their voices sank to a confused murmur, which grew lower and lower, until at last absolute silence reigned.
At the end of three minutes or so, Isbel rose suddenly, overturning the chair in her vehemence. Her eyes swiftly fastened themselves on the wall next to the fireplace . . . And then she gave a silent laugh of reaction, for she at once realised how unnecessary her impatience had been. Not only was that staircase there, directly confronting her, but how could it help being there? — it was so manifestly solid and tangible, it was so essential a part of the structure of the hall . . . Truly, it was most puzzling that she had not noticed it on their entrance a short time ago, and that none of the party had called attention to it, but it was out of the question to go against the evidence of her senses. The staircase was made of wood, it had been constructed by human hands, and it ascended to a different part of the same house. There was nothing mystical or unnatural about it; it was a straight-forward piece of work, intended for everyday use. And in fact, she had used it. if she hadn’t perfectly well remembered that, she would certainly not have plotted and planned to be there that afternoon.
More minutes passed before she could bring herself to move. Covering her eyes with her hand, she made a violent effort to recall what had taken place before; it was both odd and exasperating that it should have so completely escaped her. She distinctly recollected her impressions while standing with her foot on the first step, but after that all was oblivion, until she had been in the act of redescending into the hall. What could possibly be the cause of this most unpleasant failure of memory? . . . Perhaps the atmosphere of that upper part of the building was hypnotic? That, however, would only be explaining one mystery by another, for what kind of rooms could they be which had the effect of drugging the brain to permanent forgetfulness? But perhaps she had dreamt it all, and was still dreaming? Or she might be suffering from hallucination, suggested by Judge’s story? . . . She had never felt more sane, wide awake, or rational in her life. The explanation could not be that . . .
Time was creeping on. She looked upwards towards the gallery, and listened intently, with held breath. There was not a sound; the others evidently were still on the top floor. She stepped noiselessly across to the bottom of the staircase, and began to ascend. Again the thrill of adventure seized her which she had experienced on the former occasion. She felt that she was visiting an unknown region of the house, where strange discoveries awaited her . . .
Almost immediately she started to remember. She could not recall everything at once, but had to piece it together, as one pieces together an old and buried event in one’s career. At the head of these stairs there should be an ante-room, with three doors. Through one of these doors she had passed. In the room beyond she had seen . . . a wall-mirror . . . and a red curtain. Pushing past the curtain — what had happened next? . . . She dimly recollected having descended more stairs — having found herself once again in the hall . . . It was all frightfully obscure and dark!
In the act of reconstructing her experience she paused frequently. So deep was her abstraction that she was already standing quietly in the very ante-room she had recalled, before she was fully conscious that she had reached it. She looked up with a sudden start, and gave a single rapid, comprehensive glance around the apartment. The three doors were there — closed and forbidding, as before. The coloured light of the hall had given the place to a sort of grey twilight . . .
It was all perfectly real to her senses, yet she had a disquieting feeling that she was wandering in a dream-house, where anything might happen. The excitement which had so far sustained her now began to ebb, and she drew frightened. She had no intention of retreating, but she liked the look of those doors less than ever. How she had plucked up courage to open one of them on the last occasion, she could not conceive . . . It had been the left-hand one. As it was useless to repeat that experience, she ought really now to try the middle door — if only she could bring herself to do so. The other, on the right, she dismissed with a little emphatic shiver. Its appearance scared her. She did not know why, but merely to be standing in front of it was formidable. She had an idea all the time that it was on the point of swinging solemnly open.
The headache had departed, but her nerves were in a low condition. She kept starting; her heart was hammering away; flush after flush came to her cheeks. Then a sudden panic possessed her. She was sure that that awful door was about to open. She imagined that something was waiting just behind it, preparing to glide out, to intercept her from the stairs. Hardly knowing what she did, she clutched the handle of the middle door . . . It opened. She passed in quickly and breathlessly, and hurriedly closed it again from within.
She stood in a small, wainscoted room, unfurnished except for a carved wooden couch that was against the further wall. The floor was bare, and the walls were undecorated. The apartment was duskily lighted from overhead, since not a single side-window existed.
Notwithstanding its emptiness, there was an atmosphere of stately opulence in the little chamber, which could only be accounted for by the exquisiteness of its dark, naked timber. Merely to be in it impressed her with a sense of personal dignity; it was like entering the private cabinet of a nobleman . . . She fancied that the presence of that solitary couch seemed to point to the room’s being primarily intended as a place for intimate meetings . . . though that would be queer, too! . . .
She sat down, but in an erect attitude and without relaxing her muscles. She prepared herself to spring up suddenly again, if need were. In fact, she felt far from easy in her mind. To be sitting alone in that mysterious room, behind a closed door, which might at any minute be opened — the situation was not precisely tranquillising . . . What was she waiting for, and why did she not retire, since she had seen all there was to see? She asked herself the question, and found no satisfactory reason for remaining, but it was as if she were in a state of enchantment — she continued sitting, watching the door with nervous anxiety. Her sensitive fingers were playing time along the long, delicate scarf she wore round her neck. She dared not acknowledge to herself that she was waiting for that door to open, and yet perhaps she was.
She uttered a faint cry, and half-rose from the couch. The door was opening . . . Her terrified eyes met those of Judge!
She got up altogether, and stumbled towards him. Judge closed the door behind him quickly and quietly; then, coming up to her, he supported her with his arm to the couch, and both sat down. Isbel could not stare at him enough. He seemed younger, and different. It might have been the effect of the dim light, but it was too remarkable not to be noticed.
“How have you got here?” she asked, as soon as she could command her tongue.
He did not reply immediately, but continued gazing at her with a sort of stern kindness. His face was different. It was less sallow, less respectable, more powerful and energetic . . . and always younger. He looked no more that five-and forty.
“I’ve come straight from the East Room,” he said at last. “I mustn’t stop — the others are expecting me back. I left them in the drawing-room, while I returned to lock the East Room and bring away the key. I had forgotten to do so. When I got there — a minute ago — I saw the stairs, and here I am.”
“But where are we?”
“In a strange place, I fear. I can’t conceive how you have found your way up.”
“I came up from the hall . . . What is that third door?”
“I’ve never ventured to enter. Perhaps some other time we will try it together. We haven’t leisure now.”
Isbel turned pale, and removed herself a little away from him.
“That’s a strange thing to say. You know it’s impossible.”
“How do you regard this meeting, then?” He eyed her gravely.
“As accidental . . . Tell me — is this really a part of the house, or are we dreaming?”
“Possibly neither. I’ve been here many times in former years, and I’m still no wiser than on the first occasion. You may not be aware that in ten minutes’ time neither of us will remember a single detail of this meeting?”
“I know. I also have been here before, though not in this room.”
“Then you have been deceiving me?”
“By force of necessity.”
“Yes, you could not have acted differently. Those stairs have an irresistible attraction. I know the feeling, and how everything else has to give way.”
Isbel still toyed with her scarf. “Did you guess that I was practising a stratagem on you?”
“No, it didn’t occur to me, although I did not altogether understand your anxiety to have the house.”
“Now I’ve sunk hopelessly in your estimation?”
“No — but you have succeeded in depressing me. I dreamt of friendship, and I wake up to find it’s nothing of the sort.”
She looked at him with a strange smile.
“When you came in just now, and found me sitting here, what passed through your mind?”
“I was unaware that you were here as the result of a fixed purpose. I thought it was your first visit, and I presumed to imagine that fate had brought us together. Pardon my audacity.”
“And why do you suppose that your friendship is a matter of such indifference to me?”
“Because you have used it as an instrument for your designs.”
“It is not a matter of indifference to me,” she said, in a very low voice . . . “As everything is to be forgotten so soon, there’s no object in my concealing my true feelings. There is such a thing as honour. I am to marry another man, and all my love is for him. But though I can’t and mustn’t love you, you have already influenced my life very strongly, and I feel that you will go on doing so more and more. I don’t wish our friendship to die away — on the contrary, I wish it to become richer and more intimate. I’ve deceived you in other things, but not in that.”
Judge’s manner appeared curiously humble. “If I have had some influence on your life, you have inspired me to new life altogether. Before I met you, I was a lost man. I was wifeless and friendless . . . I don’t think I could go on without your friendship. I’m willing to pay higher prices than the one you’ve exacted.”
They looked at each other in silence for a minute.
“We shall understand each other better after this,” said Isbel, softly. “Even if our minds forget, something in us will remember.”
“Perhaps; but give me something to remember by.”
After a moment’s reflection, Isbel slowly unwound the silk scarf from her neck. “Take this, then!”
He glanced at her before accepting it. “Won’t its absence be remarked?”
“It’s mine to dispose of, I think. I’m not giving anything with it except respect and kindness.”
Judge held out his hand, took the scarf, and, after carefully, almost reverently folding it into small compass, bestowed it in the breast-pocket of his coat.
“I shall guard it as the most precious of secrets . . . I have an idea that we shall meet here again.”
She shook her head doubtfully. “It’s a fearful place. I’m not sure that we have either of us done right to come here at all.”
“Do you feel a worse woman for having spent these few minutes with me?”
“Oh, no — no! . . . Not worse, but, far, far better! I feel . . . it’s impossible to describe . . . ”
“I feel . . . just as if I’d had a spiritual lesson . . . It’s foolish . . . ”
“Let me interpret for you. Isn’t it your feeling that during the short time we have spent here together we have been enabled temporarily to drop the mask of convention, and talk to each other more humanly and truthfully? Isn’t this what you feel?”
“Yes, I think it is . . . The air here seems different. It’s nobler, and there’s a sort of music in it . . . If it hadn’t been for this strange meeting, we should never have known each other so well. Perhaps not at all.”
“Then we have done right to come here.”
Isbel got up, and stared walking about restlessly. Judge sat where he was, with a face of stone. Presently she stopped short in front of him, and demanded with quiet suddenness:
“What can be waiting for us in that other room?”
“We must find out — but not now. I must go now.”
“But haven’t you formed a guess?”
“I have somehow received the impression that this room and the left-hand one are merely lobbies to that other. If we are to experience anything, it will be there. All this is only preliminary.”
“I think so, too,” said Isbel. “But I should never find the courage to enter that room alone.”
“We’ll go together. The same fortune which has brought us face to face here this afternoon will provide us with an opportunity.”
He got to his feet.
“So now we separate, in order to meet again?” asked Isbel.
“As strangers, unfortunately.”
“No.” She spoke with quiet dignity. “Hearts which have once met can never be strangers. I am sure we shall know each other.”
They moved towards the door, and, as they did so, the same idea occurred for the first time to both.
“Surely we couldn’t both have come up the same flight of stairs?” asked Isbel.
“I know of only one way up. We must have done.”
“But I came up from the hall, and I only climbed to the height of one storey.”
“We have to recognise, I fear, that physical properties here are different. I have plagued my head sufficiently over all that. I’m not disposed to worry about it any longer . . . We will go down together, but I think we shall lose sight of each other on the stairs.”
They passed through the door, into the ante-room.
“Couldn’t we put it to the test, by my taking your arm?” queried Isbel.
“Better not play with unknown forces, I think.”
He bowed, and stood aside to allow her to precede him down the staircase.
Half-way down, she turned her head to see if he were still there following, but he had disappeared.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11