On an evening after Easter Day, I sat at a table in a homeward bound steamer′s smoking-room, where half a dozen of us told ghost stories. As our party broke up a man, playing Patience in the next alcove, said to me: "I didn′t quite catch the end of that last story about the Curse on the family′s first-born."
"It turned out to be drains," I explained. "As soon as new ones were put into the house the Curse was lifted, I believe. I never knew the people myself."
"Ah! I′ve had my drains up twice; I′m on gravel too."
"You don′t mean to say you′ve a ghost in your house? Why didn′t you join our party?"
"Any more orders, gentlemen, before the bar closes?" the steward interrupted.
"Sit down again, and have one with me," said the Patience player. "No, it isn′t a ghost. Our trouble is more depression than anything else."
"How interesting? Then it′s nothing any one can see?"
"It′s--it′s nothing worse than a little depression. And the odd part is that there hasn′t been a death in the house since it was built--in 1863. The lawyer said so. That decided me--my good lady, rather and he made me pay an extra thousand for it."
"How curious. Unusual, too!" I said.
"Yes; ain′t it? It was built for three sisters--Moultrie was the name--three old maids. They all lived together; the eldest owned it. I bought it from her lawyer a few years ago, and if I′ve spent a pound on the place first and last, I must have spent five thousand. Electric light, new servants′ wing, garden--all that sort of thing. A man and his family ought to be happy after so much expense, ain′t it?" He looked at me through the bottom of his glass.
"Does it affect your family much?"
"My good lady--she′s a Greek, by the way--and myself are middle-aged. We can bear up against depression; but it′s hard on my little girl. I say little; but she′s twenty. We send her visiting to escape it. She almost lived at hotels and hydros, last year, but that isn′t pleasant for her. She used to be a canary--a perfect canary--always singing. You ought to hear her. She doesn′t sing now. That sort of thing′s unwholesome for the young, ain′t it?"
"Can′t you get rid of the place?" I suggested.
"Not except at a sacrifice, and we are fond of it. Just suits us three. We′d love it if we were allowed."
"What do you mean by not being allowed?"
"I mean because of the depression. It spoils everything."
"What′s it like exactly?"
"I couldn′t very well explain. It must be seen to be appreciated, as the auctioneers say. Now, I was much impressed by the story you were telling just now."
"It wasn′t true," I said.
"My tale is true. If you would do me the pleasure to come down and spend a night at my little place, you′d learn more than you would if I talked till morning. Very likely ′twouldn′t touch your good self at all. You might be--immune, ain′t it? On the other hand, if this influenza,--influence does happen to affect you, why, I think it will be an experience."
While he talked he gave me his card, and I read his name was L. Maxwell M′Leod, Esq., of Holmescroft. A City address was tucked away in a corner.
"My business," he added, "used to be furs. If you are interested in furs--I′ve given thirty years of my life to ′em."
"You′re very kind," I murmured.
"Far from it, I assure you. I can meet you next Saturday afternoon anywhere in London you choose to name, and I′ll be only too happy to motor you down. It ought to be a delightful run at this time of year the rhododendrons will be out. I mean it. You don′t know how truly I mean it. Very probably--it won′t affect you at all. And--I think I may say I have the finest collection of narwhal tusks in the world. All the best skins and horns have to go through London, and L. Maxwell M′Leod, he knows where they come from, and where they go to. That′s his business."
For the rest of the voyage up-channel Mr. M′Leod talked to me of the assembling, preparation, and sale of the rarer furs; and told me things about the manufacture of fur-lined coats which quite shocked me. Somehow or other, when we landed on Wednesday, I found myself pledged to spend that week-end with him at Holmescroft.
On Saturday he met me with a well-groomed motor, and ran me out, in an hour and a half, to an exclusive residential district of dustless roads and elegantly designed country villas, each standing in from three to five acres of perfectly appointed land. He told me land was selling at eight hundred pounds the acre, and the new golf links, whose Queen Anne pavilion we passed, had cost nearly twenty-four thousand pounds to create.
Holmescroft was a large, two-storied, low, creeper-covered residence. A verandah at the south side gave on to a garden and two tennis courts, separated by a tasteful iron fence from a most park-like meadow of five or six acres, where two Jersey cows grazed. Tea was ready in the shade of a promising copper beech, and I could see groups on the lawn of young men and maidens appropriately clothed, playing lawn tennis in the sunshine.
"A pretty scene, ain′t it?" said Mr. M′Leod. "My good lady′s sitting under the tree, and that′s my little girl in pink on the far court. But I′ll take you to your room, and you can see ′em all later."
He led me through a wide parquet-floored hall furnished in pale lemon, with huge Cloisonnee vases, an ebonized and gold grand piano, and banks of pot flowers in Benares brass bowls, up a pale oak staircase to a spacious landing, where there was a green velvet settee trimmed with silver. The blinds were down, and the light lay in parallel lines on the floors.
He showed me my room, saying cheerfully: "You may be a little tired. One often is without knowing it after a run through traffic. Don′t come down till you feel quite restored. We shall all be in the garden."
My room was rather warm, and smelt of perfumed soap. I threw up the window at once, but it opened so close to the floor and worked so clumsily that I came within an ace of pitching out, where I should certainly have ruined a rather lop-sided laburnum below. As I set about washing off the journey′s dust, I began to feel a little tired. But, I reflected, I had not come down here in this weather and among these new surroundings to be depressed; so I began to whistle.
And it was just then that I was aware of a little grey shadow, as it might have been a snowflake seen against the light, floating at an immense distance in the background of my brain. It annoyed me, and I shook my head to get rid of it. Then my brain telegraphed that it was the forerunner of a swift-striding gloom which there was yet time to escape if I would force my thoughts away from it, as a man leaping for life forces his body forward and away from the fall of a wall. But the gloom overtook me before I could take in the meaning of the message. I moved toward the bed, every nerve already aching with the foreknowledge of the pain that was to be dealt it, and sat down, while my amazed and angry soul dropped, gulf by gulf, into that horror of great darkness which is spoken of in the Bible, and which, as auctioneers say, must be experienced to be appreciated.
Despair upon despair, misery upon misery, fear after fear, each causing their distinct and separate woe, packed in upon me for an unrecorded length of time, until at last they blurred together, and I heard a click in my brain like the click in the ear when one descends in a diving bell, and I knew that the pressures were equalised within and without, and that, for the moment, the worst was at an end. But I knew also that at any moment the darkness might come down anew; and while, I dwelt on this speculation precisely as a man torments a raging tooth with his tongue, it ebbed away into the little grey shadow on the brain of its first coming, and once more I heard my brain, which knew what would recur, telegraph to every quarter fox help, release or diversion.
The door opened, and M′Leod reappeared. I thanked him politely, saying I was charmed with my room, anxious to meet Mrs. M′Leod, much refreshed with my wash, and so on and so forth. Beyond a little stickiness at the corners of my mouth, it seemed to me that I was managing my words admirably; the while that I myself cowered at the bottom of unclimbable pits. M′Leod laid his hand on my shoulder, and said "You′ve got it now already, ain′t it?"
"Yes," I answered. "It′s making me sick!"
"It will pass off when you come outside. I give you my word it will then pass off. Come!"
I shambled out behind him, and wiped my forehead in the hall.
"You musn′t mind," he said. "I expect the run tired you. My good lady is sitting there under the copper beech."
She was a fat woman in an apricot-coloured gown, with a heavily powdered face, against which her black long-lashed eyes showed like currants in dough. I was introduced to many fine ladies and gentlemen of those parts. Magnificently appointed landaus and covered motors swept in and out of the drive, and the air was gay with the merry outcries of the tennis players.
As twilight drew on they all went away, and I was left alone with Mr. and Mrs. M′Leod, while tall menservants and maidservants took away the tennis and tea things. Miss M′Leod had walked a little down the drive with a light-haired young man, who apparently knew everything about every South American railway stock. He had told me at tea that these were the days of financial specialisation.
"I think it went off beautifully, my dear," said Mr. M′Leod to his wife; and to me: "You feel all right now, ain′t it? Of course you do."
Mrs. M′Leod surged across the gravel. Her husband skipped nimbly before her into the south verandah, turned a switch, and all Holmescroft was flooded with light.
"You can do that from your room also," he said as they went in. "There is something in money, ain′t it?"
Miss M′Leod came up behind me in the dusk. "We have not yet been introduced," she said, "but I suppose you are staying the night?"
"Your father was kind enough to ask me," I replied.
She nodded. "Yes, I know; and you know too, don′t you? I saw your face when you came to shake hands with mamma. You felt the depression very soon. It is simply frightful in that bedroom sometimes. What do you think it is--bewitchment? In Greece, where I was a little girl, it might have been; but not in England, do you think? Or do you?"
"Cheer up, Thea. It will all come right," he insisted.
"No, papa." She shook her dark head. "Nothing is right while it comes."
"It is nothing that we ourselves have ever done in our lives that I will swear to you," said Mrs. M′Leod suddenly. "And we have changed our servants several times. So we know it is not them."
"Never mind. Let us enjoy ourselves while we can," said Mr. M′Leod, opening the champagne.
But we did not enjoy ourselves. The talk failed. There were long silences.
"I beg your pardon," I said, for I thought some one at my elbow was about to speak.
"Ah! That is the other thing!" said Miss M′Leod. Her mother groaned.
We were silent again, and, in a few seconds it must have been, a live grief beyond words--not ghostly dread or horror, but aching, helpless grief--overwhelmed us, each, I felt, according to his or her nature, and held steady like the beam of a burning glass. Behind that pain I was conscious there was a desire on somebody′s part to explain something on which some tremendously important issue hung.
Meantime I rolled bread pills and remembered my sins; M′Leod considered his own reflection in a spoon; his wife seemed to be praying, and the girl fidgetted desperately with hands and feet, till the darkness passed on--as though the malignant rays of a burning-glass had been shifted from us."
"There," said Miss M′Leod, half rising. "Now you see what makes a happy home. Oh, sell it--sell it, father mine, and let us go away!"
"But I′ve spent thousands on it. You shall go to Harrogate next week, Thea dear."
"I′m only just back from hotels. I am so tired of packing."
"Cheer up, Thea. It is over. You know it does not often come here twice in the same night. I think we shall dare now to be comfortable."
He lifted a dish-cover, and helped his wife and daughter. His face was lined and fallen like an old man′s after debauch, but his hand did not shake, and his voice was clear. As he worked to restore us by speech and action, he reminded me of a grey-muzzled collie herding demoralised sheep.
After dinner we sat round the dining-room fire the drawing-room might have been under the Shadow for aught we knew talking with the intimacy of gipsies by the wayside, or of wounded comparing notes after a skirmish. By eleven o′clock the three between them had given me every name and detail they could recall that in any way bore on the house, and what they knew of its history.
We went to bed in a fortifying blaze of electric light. My one fear was that the blasting gust of depression would return--the surest way, of course, to bring it. I lay awake till dawn, breathing quickly and sweating lightly, beneath what De Quincey inadequately describes as "the oppression of inexpiable guilt." Now as soon as the lovely day was broken, I fell into the most terrible of all dreams--that joyous one in which all past evil has not only been wiped out of our lives, but has never been committed; and in the very bliss of our assured innocence, before our loves shriek and change countenance, we wake to the day we have earned.
It was a coolish morning, but we preferred to breakfast in the south verandah. The forenoon we spent in the garden, pretending to play games that come out of boxes, such as croquet and clock golf. But most of the time we drew together and talked. The young man who knew all about South American railways took Miss M′Leod for a walk in the afternoon, and at five M′Leod thoughtfully whirled us all up to dine in town.
"Now, don′t say you will tell the Psychological Society, and that you will come again," said Miss M′Leod, as we parted. "Because I know you will not."
"You should not say that," said her mother. "You should say, ′Goodbye, Mr. Perseus. Come again.′"
"Not him!" the girl cried. "He has seen the Medusa′s head!"
Looking at myself in the restaurant′s mirrors, it seemed to me that I had not much benefited by my week-end. Next morning I wrote out all my Holmescroft notes at fullest length, in the hope that by so doing I could put it all behind me. But the experience worked on my mind, as they say certain imperfectly understood rays work on the body.
I am less calculated to make a Sherlock Holmes than any man I know, for I lack both method and patience, yet the idea of following up the trouble to its source fascinated me. I had no theory to go on, except a vague idea that I had come between two poles of a discharge, and had taken a shock meant for some one else. This was followed by a feeling of intense irritation. I waited cautiously on myself, expecting to be overtaken by horror of the supernatural, but my self persisted in being humanly indignant, exactly as though it had been the victim of a practical joke. It was in great pains and upheavals--that I felt in every fibre but its dominant idea, to put it coarsely, was to get back a bit of its own. By this I knew that I might go forward if I could find the way.
After a few days it occurred to me to go to the office of Mr. J.M.M. Baxter--the solicitor who had sold Holmescroft to M′Leod. I explained I had some notion of buying the place. Would he act for me in the matter ?
Mr. Baxter, a large, greyish, throaty-voiced man, showed no enthusiasm. "I sold it to Mr. M′Leod," he said. "It ′ud scarcely do for me to start on the running-down tack now. But I can recommend--"
"I know he′s asking an awful price," I interrupted, "and atop of it he wants an extra thousand for what he calls your clean bill of health."
Mr. Baxter sat up in his chair. I had all his attention.
"Your guarantee with the house. Don′t you remember it?"
"Yes, yes. That no death had taken place in the house since it was built: I remember perfectly."
He did not gulp as untrained men do when they lie, but his jaws moved stickily, and his eyes, turning towards the deed boxes on the wall, dulled. I counted seconds, one, two, three--one, two, three up to ten. A man, I knew, can live through ages of mental depression in that time.
"I remember perfectly." His mouth opened a little as though it had tasted old bitterness.
"Of course that sort of thing doesn′t appeal to me." I went on. "I don′t expect to buy a house free from death."
"Certainly not. No one does. But it was Mr. M′Leod′s fancy--his wife′s rather, I believe; and since we could meet it--it was my duty to my clients at whatever cost to my own feelings--to make him pay."
"That′s really why I came to you. I understood from him you knew the place well."
"Oh, yes. Always did. It originally belonged to some connections of mine."
"The Misses Moultrie, I suppose. How interesting! They must have loved the place before the country round about was built up."
"They were very fond of it indeed."
"I don′t wonder. So restful and sunny. I don′t see how they could have brought themselves to part with it."
Now it is one of the most constant peculiarities of the English that in polite conversation--and I had striven to be polite--no one ever does or sells anything for mere money′s sake.
"Miss Agnes--the youngest--fell ill" (he spaced his words a little), "and, as they were very much attached to each other, that broke up the home."
"Naturally. I fancied it must have been something of that kind. One doesn′t associate the Staffordshire Moultries" (my Demon of Irresponsibility at that instant created ′em), "with--with being hard up."
"I don′t know whether we′re related to them," he answered importantly. "We may be, for our branch of the family comes from the Midlands."
I give this talk at length, because I am so proud of my first attempt at detective work. When I left him, twenty minutes later, with instructions to move against the owner of Holmescroft, with a view to purchase, I was more bewildered than any Doctor Watson at the opening of a story.
Why should a middle-aged solicitor turn plovers′ egg colour and drop his jaw when reminded of so innocent and festal a matter as that no death had ever occurred in a house that he had sold? If I knew my English vocabulary at all, the tone in which he said the youngest sister "fell ill" meant that she had gone out of her mind. That might explain his change of countenance, and it was just possible that her demented influence still hung about Holmescroft; but the rest was beyond me.
I was relieved when I reached M′Leod′s City office, and could tell him what I had done--not what I thought.
M′Leod was quite willing to enter into the game of the pretended purchase, but did not see how it would help if I knew Baxter.
"He′s the only living soul I can get at who was connected with Holmescroft," I said.
"Ah! Living soul is good," said M′Leod. "At any rate our little girl will be pleased that you are still interested in us. Won′t you come down some day this week?"
"How is it there now?" I asked.
He screwed up his face. "Simply frightful!" he said. "Thea is at Droitwich."
"I should like it immensely, but I must cultivate Baxter for the present. You′ll be sure and keep him busy your end, won′t you?"
He looked at me with quiet contempt. "Do not be afraid. I shall be a good Jew. I shall be my own solicitor."
Before a fortnight was over, Baxter admitted ruefully that M′Leod was better than most firms in the business: We buyers were coy, argumentative, shocked at the price of Holmescroft, inquisitive, and cold by turns, but Mr. M′Leod the seller easily met and surpassed us; and Mr. Baxter entered every letter, telegram, and consultation at the proper rates in a cinematograph-film of a bill. At the end of a month he said it looked as though M′Leod, thanks to him, were really going to listen to reason. I was many pounds out of pocket, but I had learned something of Mr. Baxter on the human side. I deserved it. Never in my life have I worked to conciliate, amuse, and flatter a human being as I worked over my solicitor.
It appeared that he golfed. Therefore, I was an enthusiastic beginner, anxious to learn. Twice I invaded his office with a bag (M′Leod lent it) full of the spelicans needed in this detestable game, and a vocabulary to match. The third time the ice broke, and Mr. Baxter took me to his links, quite ten miles off, where in a maze of tramway lines, railroads, and nursery-maids, we skelped our divotted way round nine holes like barges plunging through head seas. He played vilely and had never expected to meet any one worse; but as he realised my form, I think he began to like me, for he took me in hand by the two hours together. After a fortnight he could give me no more than a stroke a hole, and when, with this allowance, I once managed to beat him by one, he was honestly glad, and assured me that I should be a golfer if I stuck to it. I was sticking to it for my own ends, but now and again my conscience pricked me; for the man was a nice man. Between games he supplied me with odd pieces of evidence, such as that he had known the Moultries all his life, being their cousin, and that Miss Mary, the eldest, was an unforgiving woman who would never let bygones be. I naturally wondered what she might have against him; and somehow connected him unfavourably with mad Agnes.
"People ought to forgive and forget," he volunteered one day between rounds. "Specially where, in the nature of things, they can′t be sure of their deductions. Don′t you think so?"
"It all depends on the nature of the evidence on which one forms one′s judgment," I answered.
"Nonsense!" he cried. "I′m lawyer enough to know that there′s nothing in the world so misleading as circumstantial evidence. Never was."
"Why? Have you ever seen men hanged on it?"
"Hanged? People have been supposed to be eternally lost on it," his face turned grey again. "I don′t know how it is with you, but my consolation is that God must know. He must! Things that seem on the face of ′em like murder, or say suicide, may appear different to God. Heh?"
"That′s what the murderer and the suicide can always hope--I suppose."
"I have expressed myself clumsily as usual. The facts as God knows ′em--may be different--even after the most clinching evidence. I′ve always said that--both as a lawyer and a man, but some people won′t--I don′t want to judge ′em--we′ll say they can′t--believe it; whereas I say there′s always a working chance--a certainty--that the worst hasn′t happened." He stopped and cleared his throat. "Now, let′s come on! This time next week I shall be taking my holiday."
"What links?" I asked carelessly, while twins in a perambulator got out of our line of fire.
"A potty little nine-hole affair at a hydro in the Midlands. My cousins stay there. Always will. Not but what the fourth and the seventh holes take some doing. You could manage it, though," he said encouragingly. "You′re doing much better. It′s only your approach shots that are weak."
"You′re right. I can′t approach for nuts! I shall go to pieces while you′re away--with no one to coach me," I said mournfully.
"I haven′t taught you anything," he said, delighted with the compliment.
"I owe all I′ve learned to you, anyhow. When will you come back?"
"Look here," he began. "I don′t know, your engagements, but I′ve no one to play with at Burry Mills. Never have. Why couldn′t you take a few days off and join me there? I warn you it will be rather dull. It′s a throat and gout place-baths, massage, electricity, and so forth. But the fourth and the seventh holes really take some doing."
"I′m for the game," I answered valiantly; Heaven well knowing that I hated every stroke and word of it.
"That′s the proper spirit. As their lawyer I must ask you not to say anything to my cousins about Holmescroft. It upsets ′em. Always did. But speaking as man to man, it would be very pleasant for me if you could see your way to--"
I saw it as soon as decency permitted, and thanked him sincerely. According to my now well-developed theory he had certainly misappropriated his aged cousins′ monies under power of attorney, and had probably driven poor Agnes Moultrie out of her wits, but I wished that he was not so gentle, and good-tempered, and innocent eyed.
Before I joined him at Burry Mills Hydro, I spent a night at Holmescroft. Miss M′Leod had returned from her Hydro, and first we made very merry on the open lawn in the sunshine over the manners and customs of the English resorting to such places. She knew dozens of hydros, and warned me how to behave in them, while Mr. and Mrs. M′Leod stood aside and adored her.
"Ah! That′s the way she always comes back to us," he said. "Pity it wears off so soon, ain′t it? You ought to hear her sing ′With mirth thou pretty bird.′"
We had the house to face through the evening, and there we neither laughed nor sung. The gloom fell on us as we entered, and did not shift till ten o′clock, when we crawled out, as it were, from beneath it.
"It has been bad this summer," said Mrs. M′Leod in a whisper after we realised that we were freed. "Sometimes I think the house will get up and cry out--it is so bad."
"Have you forgotten what comes after the depression ?"
So then we waited about the small fire, and the dead air in the room presently filled and pressed down upon us with the sensation (but words are useless here) as though some dumb and bound power were striving against gag and bond to deliver its soul of an articulate word. It passed in a few minutes, and I fell to thinking about Mr. Baxter′s conscience and Agnes Moultrie, gone mad in the well-lit bedroom that waited me. These reflections secured me a night during which I rediscovered how, from purely mental causes, a man can be physically sick; but the sickness was bliss compared to my dreams when the birds waked. On my departure, M′Leod gave me a beautiful narwhal′s horn, much as a nurse gives a child sweets for being brave at a dentist′s.
"There′s no duplicate of it in the world," he said, "else it would have come to old Max M′Leod;" and he tucked it into the motor. Miss M′Leod on the far side of the car whispered, "Have you found out anything, Mr. Perseus?"
I shook my head.
"Then I shall be chained to my rock all my life," she went on. "Only don′t tell papa."
I supposed she was thinking of the young gentleman who specialised in South American rails, for I noticed a ring on the third finger of her left hand.
I went straight from that house to Burry Mills Hydro, keen for the first time in my life on playing golf, which is guaranteed to occupy the mind. Baxter had taken me a room communicating with his own, and after lunch introduced me to a tall, horse-headed elderly lady of decided manners, whom a white-haired maid pushed along in a bath-chair through the park-like grounds of the Hydro. She was Miss Mary Moultrie, and she coughed and cleared her throat just like Baxter. She suffered--she told me it was a Moultrie castemark--from some obscure form of chronic bronchitis, complicated with spasm of the glottis; and, in a dead, flat voice, with a sunken eye that looked and saw not, told me what washes, gargles, pastilles, and inhalations she had proved most beneficial. From her I was passed on to her younger sister, Miss Elizabeth, a small and withered thing with twitching lips, victim, she told me, to very much the same sort of throat, but secretly devoted to another set of medicines. When she went away with Baxter and the bath-chair, I fell across a major of the Indian army with gout in his glassy eyes, and a stomach which he had taken all round the Continent. He laid everything before me; and him I escaped only to be confided in by a matron with a tendency to follicular tonsilitis and eczema. Baxter waited hand and foot on his cousins till five o′clock, trying, as I saw, to atone for his treatment of the dead sister. Miss Mary ordered him about like a dog.
"I warned you it would be dull," he said when we met in the smoking-room.
"It′s tremendously interesting," I said. "But how about a look round the links?"
"Unluckily damp always affects my eldest cousin. I′ve got to buy her a new bronchitis-kettle. Arthurs broke her old one yesterday."
We slipped out to the chemist′s shop in the town, and he bought a large glittering tin thing whose workings he explained.
"I′m used to this sort of work. I come up here pretty often," he said. "I′ve the family throat too."
"You′re a good man," I said. "A very good man."
He turned towards me in the evening light among the beeches, and his face was changed to what it might have been a generation before.
"You see," he said huskily, "there was the youngest--Agnes. Before she fell ill, you know. But she didn′t like leaving her sisters. Never would." He hurried on with his odd-shaped load and left me among the ruins of my black theories. The man with that face had done Agnes Moultrie no wrong.
We never played our game. I was waked between two and three in the morning from my hygienic bed by Baxter in an ulster over orange and white pyjamas, which I should never have suspected from his character.
"My cousin has had some sort of a seizure," he said. "Will you come? I don′t want to wake the doctor. Don′t want to make a scandal. Quick!"
So I came quickly, and led by the white-haired Arthurs in a jacket and petticoat, entered a double-bedded room reeking with steam and Friar′s Balsam. The electrics were all on. Miss Mary--I knew her by her height--was at the open window, wrestling with Miss Elizabeth, who gripped her round the knees.
Miss Mary′s hand was at her own throat, which was streaked with blood.
"She′s done it. She′s done it too!" Miss Elizabeth panted. "Hold her! Help me!"
"Oh, I say! Women don′t cut their throats," Baxter whispered.
"My God! Has she cut her throat?" the maid cried out, and with no warning rolled over in a faint. Baxter pushed her under the wash-basins, and leaped to hold the gaunt woman who crowed and whistled as she struggled toward the window. He took her by the shoulder, and she struck out wildly:
"All right! She′s only cut her hand," he said. "Wet towel quick!"
While I got that he pushed her backward. Her strength seemed almost as great as his. I swabbed at her throat when I could, and found no mark; then helped him to control her a little. Miss Elizabeth leaped back to bed, wailing like a child.
"Tie up her hand somehow," said Baxter. "Don′t let it drip about the place. She"--he stepped on broken glass in his slippers, "she must have smashed a pane."
Miss Mary lurched towards the open window again, dropped on her knees, her head on the sill, and lay quiet, surrendering the cut hand to me.
"What did she do?" Baxter turned towards Miss Elizabeth in the far bed.
"She was going to throw herself out of the window," was the answer. "I stopped her, and sent Arthurs for you. Oh, we can never hold up our heads again!"
Miss Mary writhed and fought for breath. Baxter found a shawl which he threw over her shoulders.
"Nonsense!" said he. "That isn′t like Mary;" but his face worked when he said it.
"You wouldn′t believe about Aggie, John. Perhaps you will now!" said Miss Elizabeth. "I saw her do it, and she′s cut her throat too!"
"She hasn′t," I said. "It′s only her hand."
Miss Mary suddenly broke from us with an indescribable grunt, flew, rather than ran, to her sister′s bed, and there shook her as one furious schoolgirl would shake another.
"No such thing," she croaked. "How dare you think so, you wicked little fool?"
"Get into bed, Mary," said Baxter. "You′ll catch a chill."
She obeyed, but sat up with the grey shawl round her lean shoulders, glaring at her sister. "I′m better now," she panted. " Arthurs let me sit out too long. Where′s Arthurs? The kettle."
"Never mind Arthurs," said Baxter. "You get the kettle." I hastened to bring it from the side table. "Now, Mary, as God sees you, tell me what you′ve done."
His lips were dry, and he could not moisten. them with his tongue.
Miss Mary applied herself to the mouth of the kettle, and between indraws of steam said: "The spasm came on just now, while I was asleep. I was nearly choking to death. So I went to the window I′ve done it often before, without, waking any one. Bessie′s such an old maid about draughts. I tell you I was choking to death. I couldn′t manage the catch, and I nearly fell out. That window opens too low. I cut my hand trying to save myself. Who has tied it up in this filthy handkerchief? I wish you had had my throat, Bessie. I never was nearer dying!" She scowled on us all impartially, while her sister sobbed.
From the bottom of the bed we heard a quivering voice: "Is she dead? Have they took her away? Oh, I never could bear the sight o′ blood!"
"Arthurs," said Miss Mary, "you are an hireling. Go away!"
It is my belief that Arthurs crawled out on all fours, but I was busy picking up broken glass from the carpet.
Then Baxter, seated by the side of the bed, began to cross-examine in a voice I scarcely recognised. No one could for an instant have doubted the genuine rage of Miss Mary against her sister, her cousin, or her maid; and that a doctor should have been called in for she did me the honour of calling me doctor--was the last drop. She was choking with her throat; had rushed to the window for air; had near pitched out, and in catching at the window bars had cut her hand. Over and over she made this clear to the intent Baxter. Then she turned on her sister and tongue-lashed her savagely.
"You mustn′t blame me," Miss Bessie faltered at last. "You know what we think of night and day.".
"I′m coming to that," said Baxter. "Listen to me. What you did, Mary, misled four people into thinking you--you meant to do away with yourself."
"Isn′t one suicide in the family enough? Oh God, help and pity us! You couldn′t have believed that!" she cried.
"The evidence was complete. Now, don′t you think," Baxter′s finger wagged under her nose--"can′t you think that poor Aggie did the same thing at Holmescroft when she fell out of the window?"
"She had the same throat," said Miss Elizabeth. "Exactly the same symptoms. Don′t you remember, Mary?"
"Which was her bedroom?" I asked of Baxter in an undertone.
"Over the south verandah, looking on to the tennis lawn."
"I nearly fell out of that very window when I was at Holmescroft--opening it to get some air. The sill doesn′t come much above your knees," I said.
"You hear that, Mary? Mary, do you hear What this gentleman says? Won′t you believe that what nearly happened to you must have happened to poor Aggie that night? For God′s sake--for her sake--Mary, won′t you believe?"
There was a long silence while the steam kettle puffed.
"If I could have proof--if I could have proof," said she, and broke into most horrible tears.
Baxter motioned to me, and I crept away to my room, and lay awake till morning, thinking more specially of the dumb Thing at Holmescroft which wished to explain itself. I hated Miss Mary as perfectly as though I had known her for twenty years, but I felt that, alive or dead, I should not like her to condemn me.
Yet at mid-day, when I saw Miss Mary in her bathchair, Arthurs behind and Baxter and Miss Elizabeth on either side, in the park-like grounds of the Hydro, I found it difficult to arrange my words.
"Now that you know all about it," said Baxter aside, after the first strangeness of our meeting was over, "it′s only fair to tell you that my poor cousin did not die in Holmescroft at all. She was dead when they found her under the window in the morning. Just dead."
"Under that laburnum outside the window?" I asked, for I suddenly remembered the crooked evil thing.
"Exactly. She broke the tree in falling. But no death has ever taken place in the house, so far as we were concerned. You can make yourself quite easy on that point. Mr. M′Leod′s extra thousand for what you called the ′clean bill of health′ was something toward my cousins′ estate when we sold. It was my duty as their lawyer to get it for them--at any cost to my own feelings."
I know better than to argue when the English talk about their duty. So I agreed with my solicitor.
"Their sister′s death must have been a great blow to your cousins," I went on. The bath-chair was behind me.
"Unspeakable," Baxter whispered. "They brooded on it day and night. No wonder. If their theory of poor Aggie making away with herself was correct, she was eternally lost!"
"Do you believe that she made away with herself?"
"No, thank God! Never have! And after what happened to Mary last night, I see perfectly what happened to poor Aggie. She had the family throat too. By the way, Mary thinks you are a doctor. Otherwise she wouldn′t like your having been in her room."
"Very good. Is she convinced now about her sister′s death?"
"She′d give anything to be able to believe it, but she′s a hard woman, and brooding along certain lines makes one groovy. I have sometimes been afraid of her reason--on the religious side, don′t you know. Elizabeth doesn′t matter. Brain of a hen. Always had."
Here Arthurs summoned me to the bath-chair, and the ravaged face, beneath its knitted Shetland wool hood, of Miss Mary Moultrie.
"I need not remind you, I hope, of the seal of secrecy--absolute secrecy--in your profession," she began. "Thanks to my cousin′s and my sister′s stupidity, you have found out " she blew her nose.
"Please don′t excite her, sir," said Arthurs at the back.
"But, my dear Miss Moultrie, I only know what I′ve seen, of course, but it seems to me that what you thought was a tragedy in your sister′s case, turns out, on your own evidence, so to speak, to have been an accident--a dreadfully sad one--but absolutely an accident."
"Do you believe that too?" she cried. "Or are you only saying it to comfort me?"
"I believe it from the bottom of my heart. Come down to Holmescroft for an hour--for half an hour and satisfy yourself."
"Of what? You don′t understand. I see the house every day-every night. I am always there in spirit--waking or sleeping. I couldn′t face it in reality."
"But you must," I said. "If you go there in the spirit the greater need for you to go there in the flesh. Go to your sister′s room once more, and see the window--I nearly fell out of it myself. It′s--it′s awfully low and dangerous. That would convince you," I pleaded.
"Yet Aggie had slept in that room for years," she interrupted.
"You′ve slept in your room here for a long time, haven′t you? But you nearly fell out of the window when you were choking."
"That is true. That is one thing true," she nodded. "And I might have been killed as--perhaps Aggie was killed."
"In that case your own sister and cousin and maid would have said you had committed suicide, Miss Moultrie. Come down to Holmescroft, and go over the place just once."
"You are lying," she said quite quietly. "You don′t want me to come down to see a window. It is something else. I warn you we are Evangelicals. We don′t believe in prayers for the dead. ′As the tree falls--′"
"Yes. I daresay. But you persist in thinking that your sister committed suicide "
"No! No! I have always prayed that I might have misjudged her."
Arthurs at the bath-chair spoke up: "Oh, Miss Mary! you would ′ave it from the first that poor Miss Aggie ′ad made away with herself; an′, of course, Miss Bessie took the notion from you: Only Master--Mister John stood out, -and--and I′d ′ave taken my Bible oath you was making away with yourself last night."
Miss Mary leaned towards me, one finger on my sleeve.
"If going to Holmescroft kills me," she said, "you will have the murder of a fellow-creature on your conscience for all eternity."
"I′ll risk it," I answered. Remembering what torment the mere reflection of her torments had cast on Holmescroft, and remembering, above all, the dumb Thing that filled the house with its desire to speak, I felt that there might be worse things.
Baxter was amazed at the proposed visit, but at a nod from that terrible woman went off to make arrangements. Then I sent a telegram to M′Leod bidding him and his vacate Holmescroft for that afternoon. Miss Mary should be alone with her dead, as I had been alone.
I expected untold trouble in transporting her, but to do her justice, the promise given for the journey, she underwent it without murmur, spasm, or unnecessary word. Miss Bessie, pressed in a corner by the window, wept behind her veil, and from time to time tried to take hold of her sister′s hand. Baxter wrapped himself in his newly found happiness as selfishly as a bridegroom, for he sat still and smiled.
"So long as I know that Aggie didn′t make away with herself," he explained, "I tell you frankly I don′t care what happened. She′s as hard as a rock--Mary. Always was. She won′t die."
We led her out on to the platform like a blind woman, and so got her into the fly. The half-hour crawl to Holmescroft was the most racking experience of the day. M′Leod had obeyed my instructions. There was no one visible in the house or the gardens; and the front door stood open.
Miss Mary rose from beside her sister, stepped forth first, and entered the hall.
"Come, Bessie," she cried.
"I daren′t. Oh, I daren′t."
"Come!" Her voice had altered. I felt Baxter start. "There′s nothing to be afraid of."
"Good heavens!" said Baxter. "She′s running up the stairs. We′d better follow."
"Let′s wait below. She′s going to the room."
We heard the door of the bedroom I knew open and shut, and we waited in the lemon-coloured hall, heavy with the scent of flowers.
"I′ve never been into it since it was sold," Baxter sighed. "What a lovely, restful plate it is! Poor Aggie used to arrange the flowers."
"Restful?" I began, but stopped of a sudden, for I felt all over my bruised soul that Baxter was speaking truth. It was a light, spacious, airy house, full of the sense of well-being and peace--above all things, of peace. I ventured into the dining-room where the thoughtful M′Leod′s had left a small fire. There was no terror there, present or lurking; and in the drawing-room, which for good reasons we had never cared to enter, the sun and the peace and the scent of the flowers worked together as is fit in an inhabited house. When I returned to the hall, Baxter was sweetly asleep on a couch, looking most unlike a middle-aged solicitor who had spent a broken night with an exacting cousin.
There was ample time for me to review it all--to felicitate myself upon my magnificent acumen (barring some errors about Baxter as a thief and possibly a murderer), before the door above opened, and Baxter, evidently a light sleeper, sprang awake.
"I′ve had a heavenly little nap," he said, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands like a child. "Good Lord! That′s not their step!"
But it was. I had never before been privileged to see the Shadow turned backward on the dial--the years ripped bodily off poor human shoulders--old sunken eyes filled and alight--harsh lips moistened and human.
"John," Miss Mary called, " I know now. Aggie didn′t do it!" and "She didn′t do it!" echoed Miss
"I did not think it wrong to say a prayer," Miss Mary continued. "Not for her soul, but for our peace. Then I was convinced."
"Then we got conviction," the younger sister piped.
"We′ve misjudged poor Aggie, John. But I feel she knows now. Wherever she is, she knows that we know she is guiltless."
"Yes, she knows. I felt it too," said Miss Elizabeth.,
"I never doubted," said John′ Baxter, whose face was beautiful at that hour. "Not from the first. Never have!"
"You never offered me proof, John. Now, thank God, it will not be the same any more. I can think henceforward of Aggie without sorrow." She tripped, absolutely tripped, across the hall. "What ideas these Jews have of arranging furniture!" She spied me behind a big Cloisonnee vase. "I′ve seen the window," she said remotely. "You took a great risk in advising me to undertake such a journey. However, as it turns out ... I forgive you, and I pray you may never know what mental anguish means! Bessie! Look at this peculiar piano! Do you suppose, Doctor, these people would offer one tea? I miss mine."
"I will go and see," I said, and explored M′Leod′s new-built servants′ wing. It was in the servants′ hall that I unearthed the M′Leod family, bursting with anxiety.
"Tea for three, quick," I said. "If you ask me any questions now, I shall have a fit!" So Mrs. M′Leod got it, and I was butler, amid murmured apologies from Baxter, still smiling and self-absorbed, and the cold disapproval of Miss Mary, who thought the pattern of the china vulgar. However, she ate well, and even asked me whether I would not like a cup of tea for myself.
They went away in the twilight--the twilight that I had once feared. They were going to an hotel in London to rest after the fatigues of the day, and as their fly turned down the drive, I capered on the door step, with the all-darkened house behind me.
Then I heard the uncertain feet of the M′Leods and bade them not to turn on the lights, but to feel--to feel what I had done; for the Shadow was gone, with the dumb desire in the air. They drew short, but afterwards deeper, breaths, like bathers entering chill water, separated one from the other, moved about the hall, tiptoed upstairs, raced down, and then Miss M′Leod, and I believe her mother, though she denies this, embraced me. I know M′Leod did.
It was a disgraceful evening. To say we rioted through the house is to put it mildly. We played a sort of Blind Man′s Buff along the darkest passages, in the unlighted drawing-room, and little dining-room, calling cheerily to each other after each exploration that here, and here, and here, the trouble-had removed itself. We came up to the bedroom--mine for the night again--and sat, the women on the bed, and we men on chairs, drinking in blessed draughts of peace and comfort and cleanliness of soul, while I told them my tale in full, and received fresh praise, thanks, and blessings.
When the servants, returned from their day′s outing, gave us a supper of cold fried fish, M′Leod had sense enough to open no wine. We had been practically drunk since nightfall, and grew incoherent on water and milk.
"I like that Baxter," said M′Leod. "He′s a sharp man. The death wasn′t in the house, but he ran it pretty close, ain′t it?"
"And the joke of it is that he supposes I want to buy the place from you," I said. "Are you selling?"
"Not for twice what I paid for it--now," said M′Leod. "I′ll keep you in furs all your life, but not our Holmescroft."
"No--never our Holmescroft," said Miss M′Leod. "We′ll ask him here on Tuesday, mamma." They squeezed each other′s hands.
"Now tell me," said Mrs. M′Leod--"that tall one, I saw out of the scullery window--did she tell you she was always here in the spirit? I hate her. She made all this trouble. It was not her house after she had sold it. What do you think?"
"I suppose," I answered, "she brooded over what she believed was her sister′s suicide night and day--she confessed she did--and her thoughts being concentrated on this place, they felt like a--like a burning glass."
"Burning glass is good," said M′Leod.
"I said it was like a light of blackness turned on us," cried the girl, twiddling her ring. "That must have been when the tall one thought worst about her sister and the house."
"Ah, the poor Aggie!" said Mrs. M′Leod. "The poor Aggie, trying to tell every one it was not so! No wonder we felt Something wished to say Something. Thea, Max, do you remember that night "
"We need not remember any more," M′Leod interrupted. "It is not our trouble. They have told each other now."
"Do you think, then," said Miss M′Leod, "that those two, the living ones, were actually told something--upstairs--in your in the room?"
"I can′t say. At any rate they were made happy, and they ate a big tea afterwards. As your father says, it is not our trouble any longer--thank God!"
"Amen!" said M′Leod. "Now, Thea, let us have some music after all these months. ′With mirth, thou pretty bird,′ ain′t it? You ought to hear that."
And in the half-lighted hall, Thea sang an old English song that I had never heard before.
With mirth, thou pretty bird, rejoice
Thy Maker′s praise enhanced;
Lift up thy shrill and pleasant voice,
Thy God is high advanced!
Thy food before He did provide,
And gives it in a fitting side,
Wherewith be thou sufficed!
Why shouldst thou now unpleasant be,
Thy wrath against God venting,
That He a little bird made thee,
Thy silly head tormenting,
Because He made thee not a man?
Oh, Peace! He hath well thought thereon,
Therewith be thou sufficed!