THE EMPTY HOUSE
by Algernon Blackwood
Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once
their character for evil. In the case of the latter, no particular
feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an
ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the
unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with
their being: that they are evil. Willy nilly, they seem to communicate
an atmosphere of secret and wicked thoughts which makes those in their
immediate neighbourhood shrink from them as from a thing diseased.
And, perhaps, with houses the same principle is operative, and it is the
aroma of evil deeds committed under a particular roof, long after the
actual doers have passed away, that makes the gooseflesh come and the
hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of
the horror felt by his victim, enters the heart of the innocent watcher,
and he becomes suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin,
and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent
There was manifestly nothing in the external appearance of this
particular house to bear out the tales of the horror that was said to
reign within. It was neither lonely nor unkempt. It stood, crowded into
a corner of the square, and looked exactly like the houses on either
side of it. It had the same number of windows as its neighbours; the
same balcony overlooking the gardens; the same white steps leading up to
the heavy black front door; and, in the rear, there was the same narrow
strip of green, with neat box borders, running up to the wall that
divided it from the backs of the adjoining houses. Apparently, too, the
number of chimney pots on the roof was the same; the breadth and angle
of the eaves; and even the height of the dirty area railings.
And yet this house in the square, that seemed precisely similar to its
fifty ugly neighbours, was as a matter of fact entirely
Wherein lay this marked, invisible difference is impossible to say. It
cannot be ascribed wholly to the imagination, because persons who had
spent some time in the house, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared
positively that certain rooms were so disagreeable they would rather die
than enter them again, and that the atmosphere of the whole house
produced in them symptoms of a genuine terror; while the series of
innocent tenants who had tried to live in it and been forced to decamp
at the shortest possible notice, was indeed little less than a scandal
in the town.
When Shorthouse arrived to pay a "week-end" visit to his Aunt Julia in
her little house on the sea-front at the other end of the town, he found
her charged to the brim with mystery and excitement. He had only
received her telegram that morning, and he had come anticipating
boredom; but the moment he touched her hand and kissed her apple-skin
wrinkled cheek, he caught the first wave of her electrical condition.
The impression deepened when he learned that there were to be no other
visitors, and that he had been telegraphed for with a very special
Something was in the wind, and the "something" would doubtless bear
fruit; for this elderly spinster aunt, with a mania for psychical
research, had brains as well as will power, and by hook or by crook she
usually managed to accomplish her ends. The revelation was made soon
after tea, when she sidled close up to him as they paced slowly along
the sea-front in the dusk.
"I've got the keys," she announced in a delighted, yet half awesome
voice. "Got them till Monday!"
"The keys of the bathing-machine, or--?" he asked innocently, looking
from the sea to the town. Nothing brought her so quickly to the point as
"Neither," she whispered. "I've got the keys of the haunted house in the
square--and I'm going there to-night."
Shorthouse was conscious of the slightest possible tremor down his back.
He dropped his teasing tone. Something in her voice and manner thrilled
him. She was in earnest.
"But you can't go alone--" he began.
"That's why I wired for you," she said with decision.
He turned to look at her. The ugly, lined, enigmatical face was alive
with excitement. There was the glow of genuine enthusiasm round it like
a halo. The eyes shone. He caught another wave of her excitement, and a
second tremor, more marked than the first, accompanied it.
"Thanks, Aunt Julia," he said politely; "thanks awfully."
"I should not dare to go quite alone," she went on, raising her voice;
"but with you I should enjoy it immensely. You're afraid of nothing, I
"Thanks _so_ much," he said again. "Er--is anything likely to happen?"
"A great deal _has_ happened," she whispered, "though it's been most
cleverly hushed up. Three tenants have come and gone in the last few
months, and the house is said to be empty for good now."
In spite of himself Shorthouse became interested. His aunt was so very
much in earnest.
"The house is very old indeed," she went on, "and the story--an
unpleasant one--dates a long way back. It has to do with a murder
committed by a jealous stableman who had some affair with a servant in
the house. One night he managed to secrete himself in the cellar, and
when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants' quarters,
chased the girl down to the next landing, and before anyone could come
to the rescue threw her bodily over the banisters into the hall below."
"And the stableman--?"
"Was caught, I believe, and hanged for murder; but it all happened a
century ago, and I've not been able to get more details of the story."
Shorthouse now felt his interest thoroughly aroused; but, though he was
not particularly nervous for himself, he hesitated a little on his
"On one condition," he said at length.
"Nothing will prevent my going," she said firmly; "but I may as well
hear your condition."
"That you guarantee your power of self-control if anything really
horrible happens. I mean--that you are sure you won't get too
"Jim," she said scornfully, "I'm not young, I know, nor are my nerves;
but _with you_ I should be afraid of nothing in the world!"
This, of course, settled it, for Shorthouse had no pretensions to being
other than a very ordinary young man, and an appeal to his vanity was
irresistible. He agreed to go.
Instinctively, by a sort of sub-conscious preparation, he kept himself
and his forces well in hand the whole evening, compelling an
accumulative reserve of control by that nameless inward process of
gradually putting all the emotions away and turning the key upon them--a
process difficult to describe, but wonderfully effective, as all men who
have lived through severe trials of the inner man well understand.
Later, it stood him in good stead.
But it was not until half-past ten, when they stood in the hall, well in
the glare of friendly lamps and still surrounded by comforting human
influences, that he had to make the first call upon this store of
collected strength. For, once the door was closed, and he saw the
deserted silent street stretching away white in the moonlight before
them, it came to him clearly that the real test that night would be in
dealing with _two fears_ instead of one. He would have to carry his
aunt's fear as well as his own. And, as he glanced down at her
sphinx-like countenance and realised that it might assume no pleasant
aspect in a rush of real terror, he felt satisfied with only one thing
in the whole adventure--that he had confidence in his own will and power
to stand against any shock that might come.
Slowly they walked along the empty streets of the town; a bright autumn
moon silvered the roofs, casting deep shadows; there was no breath of
wind; and the trees in the formal gardens by the sea-front watched them
silently as they passed along. To his aunt's occasional remarks
Shorthouse made no reply, realising that she was simply surrounding
herself with mental buffers--saying ordinary things to prevent herself
thinking of extra-ordinary things. Few windows showed lights, and from
scarcely a single chimney came smoke or sparks. Shorthouse had already
begun to notice everything, even the smallest details. Presently they
stopped at the street corner and looked up at the name on the side of
the house full in the moonlight, and with one accord, but without
remark, turned into the square and crossed over to the side of it that
lay in shadow.
"The number of the house is thirteen," whispered a voice at his side;
and neither of them made the obvious reference, but passed across the
broad sheet of moonlight and began to march up the pavement in silence.
It was about half-way up the square that Shorthouse felt an arm slipped
quietly but significantly into his own, and knew then that their
adventure had begun in earnest, and that his companion was already
yielding imperceptibly to the influences against them. She needed
A few minutes later they stopped before a tall, narrow house that rose
before them into the night, ugly in shape and painted a dingy white.
Shutterless windows, without blinds, stared down upon them, shining here
and there in the moonlight. There were weather streaks in the wall and
cracks in the paint, and the balcony bulged out from the first floor a
little unnaturally. But, beyond this generally forlorn appearance of an
unoccupied house, there was nothing at first sight to single out this
particular mansion for the evil character it had most certainly
Taking a look over their shoulders to make sure they had not been
followed, they went boldly up the steps and stood against the huge black
door that fronted them forbiddingly. But the first wave of nervousness
was now upon them, and Shorthouse fumbled a long time with the key
before he could fit it into the lock at all. For a moment, if truth were
told, they both hoped it would not open, for they were a prey to various
unpleasant emotions as they stood there on the threshold of their
ghostly adventure. Shorthouse, shuffling with the key and hampered by
the steady weight on his arm, certainly felt the solemnity of the
moment. It was as if the whole world--for all experience seemed at that
instant concentrated in his own consciousness--were listening to the
grating noise of that key. A stray puff of wind wandering down the empty
street woke a momentary rustling in the trees behind them, but otherwise
this rattling of the key was the only sound audible; and at last it
turned in the lock and the heavy door swung open and revealed a yawning
gulf of darkness beyond.
With a last glance at the moonlit square, they passed quickly in, and
the door slammed behind them with a roar that echoed prodigiously
through empty halls and passages. But, instantly, with the echoes,
another sound made itself heard, and Aunt Julia leaned suddenly so
heavily upon him that he had to take a step backwards to save himself
A man had coughed close beside them--so close that it seemed they must
have been actually by his side in the darkness.
With the possibility of practical jokes in his mind, Shorthouse at once
swung his heavy stick in the direction of the sound; but it met nothing
more solid than air. He heard his aunt give a little gasp beside him.
"There's someone here," she whispered; "I heard him."
"Be quiet!" he said sternly. "It was nothing but the noise of the front
"Oh! get a light--quick!" she added, as her nephew, fumbling with a box
of matches, opened it upside down and let them all fall with a rattle on
to the stone floor.
The sound, however, was not repeated; and there was no evidence of
retreating footsteps. In another minute they had a candle burning, using
an empty end of a cigar case as a holder; and when the first flare had
died down he held the impromptu lamp aloft and surveyed the scene. And
it was dreary enough in all conscience, for there is nothing more
desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished house dimly lit,
silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by rumour with the memories of
evil and violent histories.
They were standing in a wide hall-way; on their left was the open door
of a spacious dining-room, and in front the hall ran, ever narrowing,
into a long, dark passage that led apparently to the top of the kitchen
stairs. The broad uncarpeted staircase rose in a sweep before them,
everywhere draped in shadows, except for a single spot about half-way up
where the moonlight came in through the window and fell on a bright
patch on the boards. This shaft of light shed a faint radiance above and
below it, lending to the objects within its reach a misty outline that
was infinitely more suggestive and ghostly than complete darkness.
Filtered moonlight always seems to paint faces on the surrounding gloom,
and as Shorthouse peered up into the well of darkness and thought of the
countless empty rooms and passages in the upper part of the old house,
he caught himself longing again for the safety of the moonlit square, or
the cosy, bright drawing-room they had left an hour before. Then
realising that these thoughts were dangerous, he thrust them away again
and summoned all his energy for concentration on the present.
"Aunt Julia," he said aloud, severely, "we must now go through the house
from top to bottom and make a thorough search."
The echoes of his voice died away slowly all over the building, and in
the intense silence that followed he turned to look at her. In the
candle-light he saw that her face was already ghastly pale; but she
dropped his arm for a moment and said in a whisper, stepping close in
front of him--
"I agree. We must be sure there's no one hiding. That's the first
She spoke with evident effort, and he looked at her with admiration.
"You feel quite sure of yourself? It's not too late--"
"I think so," she whispered, her eyes shifting nervously toward the
shadows behind. "Quite sure, only one thing--"
"You must never leave me alone for an instant."
"As long as you understand that any sound or appearance must be
investigated at once, for to hesitate means to admit fear. That is
"Agreed," she said, a little shakily, after a moment's hesitation. "I'll
Arm in arm, Shorthouse holding the dripping candle and the stick, while
his aunt carried the cloak over her shoulders, figures of utter comedy
to all but themselves, they began a systematic search.
Stealthily, walking on tip-toe and shading the candle lest it should
betray their presence through the shutterless windows, they went first
into the big dining-room. There was not a stick of furniture to be
seen. Bare walls, ugly mantel-pieces and empty grates stared at them.
Everything, they felt, resented their intrusion, watching them, as it
were, with veiled eyes; whispers followed them; shadows flitted
noiselessly to right and left; something seemed ever at their back,
watching, waiting an opportunity to do them injury. There was the
inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty
had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again.
The whole dark interior of the old building seemed to become a malignant
Presence that rose up, warning them to desist and mind their own
business; every moment the strain on the nerves increased.
Out of the gloomy dining-room they passed through large folding doors
into a sort of library or smoking-room, wrapt equally in silence,
darkness, and dust; and from this they regained the hall near the top of
the back stairs.
Here a pitch black tunnel opened before them into the lower regions,
and--it must be confessed--they hesitated. But only for a minute. With
the worst of the night still to come it was essential to turn from
nothing. Aunt Julia stumbled at the top step of the dark descent, ill
lit by the flickering candle, and even Shorthouse felt at least half
the decision go out of his legs.
"Come on!" he said peremptorily, and his voice ran on and lost itself in
the dark, empty spaces below.
"I'm coming," she faltered, catching his arm with unnecessary violence.
They went a little unsteadily down the stone steps, a cold, damp air
meeting them in the face, close and mal-odorous. The kitchen, into which
the stairs led along a narrow passage, was large, with a lofty ceiling.
Several doors opened out of it--some into cupboards with empty jars
still standing on the shelves, and others into horrible little ghostly
back offices, each colder and less inviting than the last. Black beetles
scurried over the floor, and once, when they knocked against a deal
table standing in a corner, something about the size of a cat jumped
down with a rush and fled, scampering across the stone floor into the
darkness. Everywhere there was a sense of recent occupation, an
impression of sadness and gloom.
Leaving the main kitchen, they next went towards the scullery. The door
was standing ajar, and as they pushed it open to its full extent Aunt
Julia uttered a piercing scream, which she instantly tried to stifle by
placing her hand over her mouth. For a second Shorthouse stood
stock-still, catching his breath. He felt as if his spine had suddenly
become hollow and someone had filled it with particles of ice.
Facing them, directly in their way between the doorposts, stood the
figure of a woman. She had dishevelled hair and wildly staring eyes, and
her face was terrified and white as death.
She stood there motionless for the space of a single second. Then the
candle flickered and she was gone--gone utterly--and the door framed
nothing but empty darkness.
"Only the beastly jumping candle-light," he said quickly, in a voice
that sounded like someone else's and was only half under control. "Come
on, aunt. There's nothing there."
He dragged her forward. With a clattering of feet and a great appearance
of boldness they went on, but over his body the skin moved as if
crawling ants covered it, and he knew by the weight on his arm that he
was supplying the force of locomotion for two. The scullery was cold,
bare, and empty; more like a large prison cell than anything else. They
went round it, tried the door into the yard, and the windows, but found
them all fastened securely. His aunt moved beside him like a person in
a dream. Her eyes were tightly shut, and she seemed merely to follow the
pressure of his arm. Her courage filled him with amazement. At the same
time he noticed that a certain odd change had come over her face, a
change which somehow evaded his power of analysis.
"There's nothing here, aunty," he repeated aloud quickly. "Let's go
upstairs and see the rest of the house. Then we'll choose a room to wait
She followed him obediently, keeping close to his side, and they locked
the kitchen door behind them. It was a relief to get up again. In the
hall there was more light than before, for the moon had travelled a
little further down the stairs. Cautiously they began to go up into the
dark vault of the upper house, the boards creaking under their weight.
On the first floor they found the large double drawing-rooms, a search
of which revealed nothing. Here also was no sign of furniture or recent
occupancy; nothing but dust and neglect and shadows. They opened the big
folding doors between front and back drawing-rooms and then came out
again to the landing and went on upstairs.
They had not gone up more than a dozen steps when they both
simultaneously stopped to listen, looking into each other's eyes with a
new apprehension across the flickering candle flame. From the room they
had left hardly ten seconds before came the sound of doors quietly
closing. It was beyond all question; they heard the booming noise that
accompanies the shutting of heavy doors, followed by the sharp catching
of the latch.
"We must go back and see," said Shorthouse briefly, in a low tone, and
turning to go downstairs again.
Somehow she managed to drag after him, her feet catching in her dress,
her face livid.
When they entered the front drawing-room it was plain that the folding
doors had been closed--half a minute before. Without hesitation
Shorthouse opened them. He almost expected to see someone facing him in
the back room; but only darkness and cold air met him. They went through
both rooms, finding nothing unusual. They tried in every way to make the
doors close of themselves, but there was not wind enough even to set the
candle flame flickering. The doors would not move without strong
pressure. All was silent as the grave. Undeniably the rooms were utterly
empty, and the house utterly still.
"It's beginning," whispered a voice at his elbow which he hardly
recognised as his aunt's.
He nodded acquiescence, taking out his watch to note the time. It was
fifteen minutes before midnight; he made the entry of exactly what had
occurred in his notebook, setting the candle in its case upon the floor
in order to do so. It took a moment or two to balance it safely against
Aunt Julia always declared that at this moment she was not actually
watching him, but had turned her head towards the inner room, where she
fancied she heard something moving; but, at any rate, both positively
agreed that there came a sound of rushing feet, heavy and very
swift--and the next instant the candle was out!
But to Shorthouse himself had come more than this, and he has always
thanked his fortunate stars that it came to him alone and not to his
aunt too. For, as he rose from the stooping position of balancing the
candle, and before it was actually extinguished, a face thrust itself
forward so close to his own that he could almost have touched it with
his lips. It was a face working with passion; a man's face, dark, with
thick features, and angry, savage eyes. It belonged to a common man, and
it was evil in its ordinary normal expression, no doubt, but as he saw
it, alive with intense, aggressive emotion, it was a malignant and
terrible human countenance.
There was no movement of the air; nothing but the sound of rushing
feet--stockinged or muffled feet; the apparition of the face; and the
almost simultaneous extinguishing of the candle.
In spite of himself, Shorthouse uttered a little cry, nearly losing his
balance as his aunt clung to him with her whole weight in one moment of
real, uncontrollable terror. She made no sound, but simply seized him
bodily. Fortunately, however, she had seen nothing, but had only heard
the rushing feet, for her control returned almost at once, and he was
able to disentangle himself and strike a match.
The shadows ran away on all sides before the glare, and his aunt stooped
down and groped for the cigar case with the precious candle. Then they
discovered that the candle had not been _blown_ out at all; it had been
_crushed_ out. The wick was pressed down into the wax, which was
flattened as if by some smooth, heavy instrument.
How his companion so quickly overcame her terror, Shorthouse never
properly understood; but his admiration for her self-control increased
tenfold, and at the same time served to feed his own dying flame--for
which he was undeniably grateful. Equally inexplicable to him was the
evidence of physical force they had just witnessed. He at once
suppressed the memory of stories he had heard of "physical mediums" and
their dangerous phenomena; for if these were true, and either his aunt
or himself was unwittingly a physical medium, it meant that they were
simply aiding to focus the forces of a haunted house already charged to
the brim. It was like walking with unprotected lamps among uncovered
stores of gun-powder.
So, with as little reflection as possible, he simply relit the candle
and went up to the next floor. The arm in his trembled, it is true, and
his own tread was often uncertain, but they went on with thoroughness,
and after a search revealing nothing they climbed the last flight of
stairs to the top floor of all.
Here they found a perfect nest of small servants' rooms, with broken
pieces of furniture, dirty cane-bottomed chairs, chests of drawers,
cracked mirrors, and decrepit bedsteads. The rooms had low sloping
ceilings already hung here and there with cobwebs, small windows, and
badly plastered walls--a depressing and dismal region which they were
glad to leave behind.
It was on the stroke of midnight when they entered a small room on the
third floor, close to the top of the stairs, and arranged to make
themselves comfortable for the remainder of their adventure. It was
absolutely bare, and was said to be the room--then used as a clothes
closet--into which the infuriated groom had chased his victim and
finally caught her. Outside, across the narrow landing, began the stairs
leading up to the floor above, and the servants' quarters where they had
In spite of the chilliness of the night there was something in the air
of this room that cried for an open window. But there was more than
this. Shorthouse could only describe it by saying that he felt less
master of himself here than in any other part of the house. There was
something that acted directly on the nerves, tiring the resolution,
enfeebling the will. He was conscious of this result before he had been
in the room five minutes, and it was in the short time they stayed there
that he suffered the wholesale depletion of his vital forces, which
was, for himself, the chief horror of the whole experience.
They put the candle on the floor of the cupboard, leaving the door a few
inches ajar, so that there was no glare to confuse the eyes, and no
shadow to shift about on walls and ceiling. Then they spread the cloak
on the floor and sat down to wait, with their backs against the wall.
Shorthouse was within two feet of the door on to the landing; his
position commanded a good view of the main staircase leading down into
the darkness, and also of the beginning of the servants' stairs going to
the floor above; the heavy stick lay beside him within easy reach.
The moon was now high above the house. Through the open window they
could see the comforting stars like friendly eyes watching in the sky.
One by one the clocks of the town struck midnight, and when the sounds
died away the deep silence of a windless night fell again over
everything. Only the boom of the sea, far away and lugubrious, filled
the air with hollow murmurs.
Inside the house the silence became awful; awful, he thought, because
any minute now it might be broken by sounds portending terror. The
strain of waiting told more and more severely on the nerves; they
talked in whispers when they talked at all, for their voices aloud
sounded queer and unnatural. A chilliness, not altogether due to the
night air, invaded the room, and made them cold. The influences against
them, whatever these might be, were slowly robbing them of
self-confidence, and the power of decisive action; their forces were on
the wane, and the possibility of real fear took on a new and terrible
meaning. He began to tremble for the elderly woman by his side, whose
pluck could hardly save her beyond a certain extent.
He heard the blood singing in his veins. It sometimes seemed so loud
that he fancied it prevented his hearing properly certain other sounds
that were beginning very faintly to make themselves audible in the
depths of the house. Every time he fastened his attention on these
sounds, they instantly ceased. They certainly came no nearer. Yet he
could not rid himself of the idea that movement was going on somewhere
in the lower regions of the house. The drawing-room floor, where the
doors had been so strangely closed, seemed too near; the sounds were
further off than that. He thought of the great kitchen, with the
scurrying black-beetles, and of the dismal little scullery; but,
somehow or other, they did not seem to come from there either. Surely
they were not _outside_ the house!
Then, suddenly, the truth flashed into his mind, and for the space of a
minute he felt as if his blood had stopped flowing and turned to ice.
The sounds were not downstairs at all; they were _upstairs_--upstairs,
somewhere among those horrid gloomy little servants' rooms with their
bits of broken furniture, low ceilings, and cramped windows--upstairs
where the victim had first been disturbed and stalked to her death.
And the moment he discovered where the sounds were, he began to hear
them more clearly. It was the sound of feet, moving stealthily along the
passage overhead, in and out among the rooms, and past the furniture.
He turned quickly to steal a glance at the motionless figure seated
beside him, to note whether she had shared his discovery. The faint
candle-light coming through the crack in the cupboard door, threw her
strongly-marked face into vivid relief against the white of the wall.
But it was something else that made him catch his breath and stare
again. An extraordinary something had come into her face and seemed to
spread over her features like a mask; it smoothed out the deep lines
and drew the skin everywhere a little tighter so that the wrinkles
disappeared; it brought into the face--with the sole exception of the
old eyes--an appearance of youth and almost of childhood.
He stared in speechless amazement--amazement that was dangerously near
to horror. It was his aunt's face indeed, but it was her face of forty
years ago, the vacant innocent face of a girl. He had heard stories of
that strange effect of terror which could wipe a human countenance clean
of other emotions, obliterating all previous expressions; but he had
never realised that it could be literally true, or could mean anything
so simply horrible as what he now saw. For the dreadful signature of
overmastering fear was written plainly in that utter vacancy of the
girlish face beside him; and when, feeling his intense gaze, she turned
to look at him, he instinctively closed his eyes tightly to shut out the
Yet, when he turned a minute later, his feelings well in hand, he saw to
his intense relief another expression; his aunt was smiling, and though
the face was deathly white, the awful veil had lifted and the normal
look was returning.
"Anything wrong?" was all he could think of to say at the moment. And
the answer was eloquent, coming from such a woman.
"I feel cold--and a little frightened," she whispered.
He offered to close the window, but she seized hold of him and begged
him not to leave her side even for an instant.
"It's upstairs, I know," she whispered, with an odd half laugh; "but I
can't possibly go up."
But Shorthouse thought otherwise, knowing that in action lay their best
hope of self-control.
He took the brandy flask and poured out a glass of neat spirit, stiff
enough to help anybody over anything. She swallowed it with a little
shiver. His only idea now was to get out of the house before her
collapse became inevitable; but this could not safely be done by turning
tail and running from the enemy. Inaction was no longer possible; every
minute he was growing less master of himself, and desperate, aggressive
measures were imperative without further delay. Moreover, the action
must be taken _towards_ the enemy, not away from it; the climax, if
necessary and unavoidable, would have to be faced boldly. He could do it
now; but in ten minutes he might not have the force left to act for
himself, much less for both!
Upstairs, the sounds were meanwhile becoming louder and closer,
accompanied by occasional creaking of the boards. Someone was moving
stealthily about, stumbling now and then awkwardly against the
Waiting a few moments to allow the tremendous dose of spirits to produce
its effect, and knowing this would last but a short time under the
circumstances, Shorthouse then quietly got on his feet, saying in a
"Now, Aunt Julia, we'll go upstairs and find out what all this noise is
about. You must come too. It's what we agreed."
He picked up his stick and went to the cupboard for the candle. A limp
form rose shakily beside him breathing hard, and he heard a voice say
very faintly something about being "ready to come." The woman's courage
amazed him; it was so much greater than his own; and, as they advanced,
holding aloft the dripping candle, some subtle force exhaled from this
trembling, white-faced old woman at his side that was the true source of
his inspiration. It held something really great that shamed him and gave
him the support without which he would have proved far less equal to the
They crossed the dark landing, avoiding with their eyes the deep black
space over the banisters. Then they began to mount the narrow staircase
to meet the sounds which, minute by minute, grew louder and nearer.
About half-way up the stairs Aunt Julia stumbled and Shorthouse turned
to catch her by the arm, and just at that moment there came a terrific
crash in the servants' corridor overhead. It was instantly followed by a
shrill, agonised scream that was a cry of terror and a cry for help
melted into one.
Before they could move aside, or go down a single step, someone came
rushing along the passage overhead, blundering horribly, racing madly,
at full speed, three steps at a time, down the very staircase where they
stood. The steps were light and uncertain; but close behind them sounded
the heavier tread of another person, and the staircase seemed to shake.
Shorthouse and his companion just had time to flatten themselves against
the wall when the jumble of flying steps was upon them, and two persons,
with the slightest possible interval between them, dashed past at full
speed. It was a perfect whirlwind of sound breaking in upon the midnight
silence of the empty building.
The two runners, pursuer and pursued, had passed clean through them
where they stood, and already with a thud the boards below had received
first one, then the other. Yet they had seen absolutely nothing--not a
hand, or arm, or face, or even a shred of flying clothing.
There came a second's pause. Then the first one, the lighter of the two,
obviously the pursued one, ran with uncertain footsteps into the little
room which Shorthouse and his aunt had just left. The heavier one
followed. There was a sound of scuffling, gasping, and smothered
screaming; and then out on to the landing came the step--of a single
person _treading weightily_.
A dead silence followed for the space of half a minute, and then was
heard a rushing sound through the air. It was followed by a dull,
crashing thud in the depths of the house below--on the stone floor of
Utter silence reigned after. Nothing moved. The flame of the candle was
steady. It had been steady the whole time, and the air had been
undisturbed by any movement whatsoever. Palsied with terror, Aunt Julia,
without waiting for her companion, began fumbling her way downstairs;
she was crying gently to herself, and when Shorthouse put his arm round
her and half carried her he felt that she was trembling like a leaf. He
went into the little room and picked up the cloak from the floor, and,
arm in arm, walking very slowly, without speaking a word or looking once
behind them, they marched down the three flights into the hall.
In the hall they saw nothing, but the whole way down the stairs they
were conscious that someone followed them; step by step; when they went
faster IT was left behind, and when they went more slowly IT caught them
up. But never once did they look behind to see; and at each turning of
the staircase they lowered their eyes for fear of the following horror
they might see upon the stairs above.
With trembling hands Shorthouse opened the front door, and they walked
out into the moonlight and drew a deep breath of the cool night air
blowing in from the sea.