“Not half a bad yarn,” remarked Reynolds, as Lewis finished the thrilling ghost story he had been narrating. “Only the worst of all these sort of lies, to my mind, is the finale. You get something beautifully weird and thrilling, then comes the explanation — tame and unconvincing — and spoils the lot. “What’s your opinion, John?”
Thatcher, who had been gazing dreamily into the fire, stretched himself out full length in his chair and blew a big cloud of smoke ceilingwards.
“My opinion,” said he, brusquely, “is that it’s easy to sit and scoff surrounded by lights and friends. But I fancy that a night passed in a certain room I know of would be likely to make you modify your views on these things.”
“Where is this room?”
“In the suburbs. I lodged there in my younger days— for one night only.”
“Did you see anything?” asked Reynolds.
“No,” replied Thatcher, slowly.
“But there was something in that room— ”
“Well,” put in Reynolds, “show me this room, and I’m game to spend a night alone in it.”
Thatcher merely glanced at his watch, and said:
“Very good. We’ll start at once then.”
“All right,” replied Reynolds, coolly, although he was somewhat taken aback at this sudden acceptance of his offer.
* * * * *
Thatcher stops before a small suburban residence and walks up the path, carefully sidestepping the mass of spring flowers and weeds clustered at the doorway.
“Here we are,” says he, knocking at the door. “Hope the old man hasn’t gone to bed.”
A moment or two’s silence, a shuffling step and the door is cautiously opened. A stooping, yellow-faced old man stands on the threshold, peering at his two visitors.
“You remember me?” queries Thatcher, stepping forward so that the light from the candle the old man carries falls full on his face.
“It is— oh! Yes, it be Mr. Thatcher. Step inside.”
“And your friend?’ he adds, questioningly, as he bolts the door. “He is— eh?”
“My friend has come here to see certain things in which he is interested,” replied Thatcher. “We will make it worth your while.”
“This way, then. Ah ! You have not forgotten old times, Mr. Thatcher,” grins the old man as Bob leads the way into a small square room with an old fashioned four-poster standing in one corner.
“Not quite,” replies Thatcher.
“And how know you of these things?” asks their host, rubbing his skinny hands and glancing slyly from one to the other. “You never see anything before?”
“No, I never saw anything,” said Thatcher. “But—”
“He ! He! Good for you. Good for you, my boy— unless you want to be a murderer.”
“What do you mean?’ demands Reynolds, involuntarily recoiling from the evil-looking old creature.”
“They say,” whispers the man, “the person you see the spirit of in this little room is the person you will kill before the year is finished.”
“The last lodger I had here,” he continues, “whose shape did he see on the third night, eh? His own. He! He! He committed suicide, one, two week after—. But there!” he broke off, “the gentlemen will want some refreshment after their journey.” And he shambled out of the room, leaving the two young men staring somewhat blankly at each other.
“I shall stay here with you tonight,” says Thatcher.
“But the stipulation was that I should be by myself, wasn’t it?” replies the other.
“Never mind that,” says Thatcher, firmly. “I ask it of you as a favour. I wish to stop.”
“Have your own way,” replies Reynolds; but nevertheless he did not seem displeased at the idea of having his friend’s company. At this juncture the old man reappeared with a jug of water and some whisky.
“Anything else I can get the gentlemen?” he asked.
“Nothing else,” replied Thatcher, promptly.
“Good night and pleasant dreams,” and with a leer and chuckle the old man departed.
“Well,” observed Reynolds, who seemed to have recovered some of his former gaiety, “the old chap meant to make sure of us having spirits of some sort. Fusel oil, I expect.” He poured himself out a stiff glass of whisky and water, and was about to drink it when Thatcher checked him.
“No Dutch courage, old man. Let it be a fair test.”
“All right,” replies Reynolds. “I suppose the spooks have no objection to my having a smoke?”
Thatcher, who seems constrained and ill at ease, makes no reply, and Reynolds puffs away at his cigar in silence. An hour passes slowly without incident.
“I tell you what it is,” remarks Thatcher. “To make a proper test we must put the light out.”
“All right,” says Reynolds. “I hope though, that the spectre, whoever he be, will not keep us waiting much longer, for I’m getting drowsy.”
He extinguishes the light, and they sit in silence a while, Reynolds’s cigar glowing like a wicked red eye in the darkness. At length he rises and tosses the stump into the grate.
“I think,” he says, stretching himself with a yawn, “if you have no objection, Bob, I’ll lie down for a while. Call me if anything happens, won’t you ?”
In spite of his weariness he lies awake for some time. He is just on the point of dozing off, when a slight movement of the door, which being painted white is easily distinguishable, arrests his attention. Thoroughly awake now, he holds his breath and stares with all his might. Was he mistaken? No, for it is moving now; slowly and noiselessly it opens about the width of a foot, then stops. For a minute or two — it seems an hour to Reynolds lying there with heart thumping painfully against his ribs — nothing happened. Then, just as he is about to rise, a dark, shadowy figure glides softly in. For a moment it pauses, as if in the act of listening, then guided by a sudden impulse, advances to the bedside. A superstitious terror, strange to Reynolds, seizes him and chills his blood, but he represses an inclination to shriek out, and lies there with strained, watchful senses.
But as the figure draws nearer, Reynolds’s eyes, accustomed now to the darkness, can distinguish the vague outline of a skinny hand groping along the mantelpiece, and the ticking of his watch that placed there grows fainter and fainter in his ears, as the figure gradually melts into the darkness from which it came. The feeling of relief that swoops over him — relief at realising that he has just been robbed — is almost ludicrous.
“Bob,” he whispers, sitting up in bed as the door is silently closed once more. “Did you see that?”
“I did,” comes the answer. “Leave it to me.”
“What are you going to do?” Reynolds asks, getting on to his feet.
“Leave it to me,” repeats the other, slowly, and slips out of the room.
“What the infernal fool is going to do without a light,” mutters Reynolds, groping about for the matches, “is more than I know, unless he’s going to play the bounder at his own game. I’m —” At this point his hand comes in contact with the whisky he poured himself out an hour or two ago.
“Ah ! That’s just what I want,” he mutters, and drinks it in a couple of gulps.
“That’s not ‘Johnnie Walker,’ I’ll swear,” he says. The next moment a thousand fantastic shapes dance before his eyes, voices call in his ear, the floor rises under his feet and becomes as one with the ceiling. Then the voices mingle and merge into the rushing of waters and he drops heavily across the bed.
It is daylight when he awakes with a sharp, painful throbbing at his temples, and a dry, fevered mouth. With an effort he shifts his position on the bed to a more comfortable one, and closes his eyes again.
Stitch ! Stitch ! comes a sound in his ears. He vaguely concludes that someone must be at needlework within the room, and tries to sleep once more.
Stitch ! Stitch ! Stitch ! Faster and faster come the sounds. He cannot sleep for the low, monotonous noise. Somehow the unpleasant thought is borne on his mind that someone is stitching a shroud for him.
Gradually his brain grows confused, and one by one he traces the events of last night that have led him to his present position.
“Old thief ! Must have drugged that whisky,” he mutters. Then, with a groan, he presses his hand to his forehead, sits up, and looks for his friend.
The room is empty.
Stitch, stitch ! Stitch, stitch !
Mechanically his gaze wanders round in the direction of the sound, and as it does so the supposed stitching noise resolves itself into a steady drip! drip! that comes from a peculiar-coloured, ever-widening stain on the ceiling. For a moment or two he stares at it in pale horror, then in a frenzy he springs from the bed and shouts for Thatcher.
There is no answer. Again he shouts, and this time fancies he can hear a hoarse reply from the top of the house.
Dreading he scarcely knows what, he rushes upstairs and bursts into the first room, and this is what he sees.
Sprawled out on the floor the body of the old man, stabbed to the heart. At the window, Thatcher.
The latter rises as he enters. “I’ve done it, you see,” he says with a smile. “You remember the legend?”
“The legend?” stammers Reynolds, who cannot grasp the reality of the hideous picture before him. “The legend? Great God ! What do you mean, Thatcher?”
“You fool!” shouts the latter. “Didn’t he—” jerking his thumb carelessly in the direction of the still, ungainly figure on the floor. “Didn’t he tell us last night that whoever saw a spirit in that room would murder the body of that spirit ? Didn’t you hear him? Didn’t you see his spirit later on in the room ? Didn’t I tell you to leave it to me?”
Reynolds, struggling against a deadly feeling of nausea, can only look at his friend with staring, incredulous eyes.
“Look at him! Didn’t I do my task well?” cries the other, attempting to lay his hand on Reynolds’s sleeve, but the latter draws back.
“I’ve left something downstairs,” he mumbles, and, stumbling out of the room like a drunken man, creeps silently from the house to tell his ghastly story to the first person he encounters and procure help to secure the raving madman he had left behind.