“Now where was I? Yes — poppycock sir!” barked the older of the two gentlemen. “There is as much life in your peculiar theories as there is in the Dodo!”
“You may scoff sir but—”
“My dear boy,” interrupted the older gent, “there is, without doubt, a certain malignancy in everyday objects that we have no dominion over. Take the Lucifer match for instance. Nothing can be in its way more irritating than that small piece of wood. Who can tell when it will light, when it will refuse to light, when it will break in the middle, when it will snap off just at the top after lighting, and leave it a fiery head on one’s hand? But all this will go on no doubt even after the world has accepted the philosophical theory that the Lucifer is a malign and a capricious thing like some ill-conditioned gnome or sprite or imp. We cannot educate or convert or punish a match any more than we can a sprite or imp!”
The two gentlemen sit facing each other over their drinks; the older man having just returned from attending a call at the door of the club where they presently reside. In the gloom of the evening, the fitful gleams of the fire had suggested to the one just seated the idea of discussing the subject of ghosts, in particular the surfeit of reports regarding the supernatural possession of inanimate objects. The younger gent is a tall, slender, considerate sort of man with a voice that seems to carry with it the slightest hint of impatience, and altogether one of those persons who, we may be inclined to think is given to the supernatural fancies common to his age.
“But sir, you yourself said—” the younger chap stopped mid-sentence, appearing to calm himself. “Look, despite your propensity to pooh-pooh all that is other-worldly we are sat here discussing the theory all the same!”
At that the older gentleman quietened and took some time in pensive thought to consider his next words.
“The whole human race might,” he said, “be brought into that league of universal self-obliteration if it were for such a belief. Even the lower animals might be persuaded or coerced into the same arrangement.”
He raised his pipe and looked sharply at his fireside companion.
“The world began with the inanimate things, as we call them. They started the whole business, and then came the lower animals, and then came man.”
“Now suppose man were universally willing to extinguish himself — what guarantee could he possibly have from these inanimate things that the moment he had disappeared they would not start the whole machine of existence all over again. You cannot have a compact with the sands of the desert or the salt of the sea or the stone in a quarry. You cannot have a treaty with the dust of the highway or an alliance with the coals in a mine. Even if you could have such an arrangement, who could answer for its being carried out? Who could trust these things to keep their plighted words? The moment our backs were turned they would be sure to set the whole mechanism going again, just for the perverse fun of the business!”
The younger man took his glass from the top of a neighbouring cabinet and sighed. He was obviously losing patience with his companion who was intent on obfuscation.
“If you permit me, I will tell you about my sister who had an encounter with such a thing. Though I am quite sure now that you will not believe any such report. Nevertheless I would prefer that you hear it.”
“If you must,” huffed the older sir.
“Thank you. Firstly, I hasten to point out that my sister is not given to sensationalism and has little proclivity for extravagance; but recently she told me that she had bought a fine wardrobe from a dealer, a rather ordinary piece of walnut furniture for £10. She put it in a guest-room and thought no more about it. But — just about three months ago, she said, some friends who were staying the weekend asked her if she could account for the strange opening and shutting of the wardrobe drawers which kept them awake all night. The noise has since continued nightly. And that is not all, she has been told that the phantom banging has been accompanied by a more conventional manifestation: The figure of an elderly man in old-fashioned clothes, wearing a kind of deer-stalker cap, now walks downstairs and out of the front door every evening. Agnes said that she had tried to touch him, but he vanished in her fingers.”
“l am not a psychic, nor am I nervous, but this wretched ghost sounds frightful. Indeed, she has recently told me that she is now unable to get a single soul to stay in the manor.”
The younger man finished his tale, then stared at his companion hoping to perceive a quickening of his pulse or a slight tremor but instead he sat motionless with scarcely a change of countenance.
“What utter balderdash sir! Next, you’ll be telling me that she advertised the damned thing:— Haunted wardrobe — advertiser will be glad to deliver same to anybody interested, complete with ghost, which would also, no doubt, feel more at home if welcomed!”
The younger man brushed his trouser as if removing an irritant fly. He shifted uneasily in his chair and, then, as if drawing upon a reserve of air, he prepared his gambit.
“You may dismiss these events as pure bunkum but I will tell you sir that I have some personal experience in these matters.”
“Once again, please proceed at your leisure — but you will not find any change in this mind.”
The gentleman pushed himself forward in his chair and placed his feet firmly on the rug beneath.
“It is a tale that I have not spoken of for a great time— for it plagues me to do so as each memory is like a pebble cast upon a pond,” he stops seeking to compose himself. “Each ripple like a trigger— ”
The older gentleman sensing his companion to be on the edge of an emotional surge, leans forward as if to support him.
“A moment please sir and I am sure I will be composed.”
The younger man reaches for his pocket chief and places it upon his brow. Brandy once again whets his lips and soon he is able to continue.
“A few years back I was in the habit of visiting a certain dealer’s shop in London, just a short skip from Chester Street. It was a fine establishment — nothing shady — simply well lit and informal, and a veritable Aladdin’s Cave.”
“One time I entered the shop and came across a cupboard — an old one made of heavy oak. There was nothing particularly special about it but it struck me as a fine enough piece of furniture — at least, it would serve to accommodate a few family heirlooms and documents. Unfortunately, I did not have the cash in hand at the time to purchase it and so I asked the proprietor if he wouldn’t mind putting a reserve tag on it. I added that I would be back within the week to pay for it. I distinctly recall that I had thought about the piece only a handful of times before I returned on the Friday to acquire it. However, on reaching the spot occupied by the cupboard I found it to be gone – instead, another, far inferior piece, sat in its place!”
“The proprietor was most apologetic; informing me that his assistant had mistakenly removed the tag and in the proceeding day or two it had been sold. I must admit I was very disappointed but as the owner had been most considerate of my custom in the past I did not openly inform him of my annoyance.”
“It could only have been a week or two later when a strange coincidence occurred. I happened to be in London on business once more when I chanced upon the dealer in Belgravia. He was as surprised to see me as I was of him, and proceeded to tell me in joyous terms that the purchaser had only that morning returned the cupboard to the shop. I was of course delighted but immediately felt the urge to enquire as to the reasons why it had been returned. The answer surprised me greatly. The gentleman who brought it back said that he had bought it as a present for his mother. It had only been in her possession for a matter of days when she took a distinct dislike to it. I asked what it was about the cupboard that had caused her upset, and the answer that came forthwith was an even greater surprise. My dealer told me that he wasn’t in the habit of turning customers away – or for that matter trying to dissuade a purchaser from buying an item he had developed a fondness for – but in this instance he considered it of the utmost importance to give me the full details. The lady in question stated in conversation with her son that she felt the cupboard had an ‘evil influence’. Apparently, two of her friends had developed “nerves” in the presence of the cupboard. One of them actually insisted on standing outside the door, because she said, there was something oppressive in the room. Furthermore, the housekeeper said that since the arrival of the cupboard she had heard strange noises at night. She described the sounds as resembling a struggle at times, and that the commotion occurred to such an extent that the two watchdogs in the house barked furiously, though a search had never revealed an intruder.”
“Such were the problems caused by the cupboard that the old lady invited a prominent spiritualist into her home, one holding a high position in the town. When he approached it he had a singular experience reporting a splitting headache, and something gripping at his throat.”
“Despite these negatives, I remained intent on purchasing the item. Whether it was from the natural impetuosity of youth or something more considered I cannot tell you; but I knew that I wanted it now even more than before. But now ¬— if it were for the wisdom of hindsight I would not have taken it into my possession for I firmly believe it to have exerted some malign influence over me.”
“When it arrived, I asked if the wardrobe could be placed next to the small window in my bedroom, set deeply against the thick walls, and the iron-bound shutters.”
“Not long after it had been fitted, I went downstairs and was just about to enter the dining room when I heard a sharp thumping above me. Immediately I returned to upstairs and scoured the room for the source of the noise. I even looked inside the wardrobe and under the bed, but found nothing that could have created such a disturbance.”
“The rest of the winter evening had passed in uneventful routine when I came to my bedroom, a cheerful fire remaining in the grate. I extinguished the candle and went to bed. Still the fire was blazing brightly, and I could distinctly see every object in the room. As I lay gazing on the fire, I suddenly became conscience of a presence and of a rustle as if of silk. Turning my head, I beheld, in the opposite corner of the room, the figure of an old woman, in what appeared to be an old-fashioned ball-dress, with a very short waist and skirt, and an enormous head-dress. The face, on which the firelight shone directly, was ugly and repulsive in the extreme. I closed my eyes to shut out the vision, but it still appeared before me. I lay, gazing at it, half petrified with horror.”
“I could not articulate, but I thought ‘Who in God’s name are you?'”
” ‘Oh,’ was the immediate answer, ‘Don’t you know me? I am Betty.'”
“Following this, she calmly stalked across to my bedside, ogling and sneering in a wretched manner; and then, pausing for a moment, suddenly jumped up and sat upon my stomach. I became almost delirious through terror; but, making a supreme effort, I threw off the witch, and jumped out of bed. I then re-lit the candle, and thoroughly searched the room, with the same result as before. Then I began to doubt the reality of what I had seen, and resolved I must have been asleep and dreaming. I did not dare to go back to bed, however, so I dressed myself and sat by the hearth all that hideous winter’s night. In the morning I came down, pale, nervous and disconsolate, to the breakfast parlour. I accepted this then, and for long afterwards, as proof beyond doubt that I had seen a ghost.”
The room stood cold and still in the interminable seconds that followed the gentleman’s story.
Then, all at once, a knock came upon the door.
“Damned nuisance,” muttered the older gentleman before rising to answer it. On the way he took out his pocket watch to examine the time. “Ungodly hour too—”
Stepping across the lobby, he made his way to the main door and opened it to find no one there. Nor was there anyone in the vicinity, nor anyone attempting to get-away.
“Infernal thing — must be the hinge working loose.” he said, examining the door. The door was closed again and he returned to the comfort of his chair.
“I cannot tell you the number of times these past few weeks I have opened the door to receive a caller but found no one standing there. Each time the knock is as distinct and methodical as before and despite my best efforts I am unable to detect from what part of the door it comes — you see, I hoped to deduce whether it was a child or not.”
“No matter. Now, tell me,” said the old gentleman, “whatever became of the old cupboard?”
His companion looked to his knees, then rubbed his chin nervously and after a moment, once more, brought his glass to his lip.
“My instinct was to destroy the thing but — but there was something inside me that resisted the impulse. You see, I had this awful sense of the presence there in the room with me, growing more powerful with each succeeding day. I sincerely wanted to rid myself of it, but I possessed no means of projecting my thought to do so. More worrying was the sense that any attempt to approach it with malicious intentions would set about something – a haunting if you will – on a far greater level than I had so far witnessed. Instead, I sold it.”
“Sold it?” the old gentleman asked incredulously. “But to whom? Who would have such a thing?”
“Who indeed— though in my defence I have to say he was always quite the insistent type. You see Old Blakey could never resist a bargain, even one that had such a terrible tale attached to it.”
“Blakey? You mean Harold Blake?”
“Yes, the very man. It must be almost a year ago since I sat here and told him the very details I have revealed to you. But as I say he was most insistent that he should have the piece despite its history. It must have been the antiquarian in him – acquisitive to the last!”
“We’ll I never—”
“And on that note sir I must bid you a good night. The hour is late and I—”
“Yes, yes, of course. I am locking up tonight and no doubt I will be off shortly after you.”
The two men raised their glasses once more and bid goodnight to each other, the younger taking his coat and hat and slipping out through the lobby doors.
The old gentleman returned to his chair to finish his glass and ruminate further on the tale he had just been told. There was something quite ingenuous in the young man’s references, he thought, and he couldn’t quite help find his mind moving between two versions of the said events.
Then, not five minutes after his companion for the evening had left the premises, there came an awful, insistent knocking at the door.
Again came the knocking, three or four distinct taps—
Again, again— and then it suddenly dawned upon him. For the main hallway had been redecorated but a month before. To each side of the doorway a new companion piece of furniture had been fitted. He had seen a couple of men working on the pieces a few weeks before, sanding and varnishing them to such a degree that they had shed their old mantles and had taken on a significantly altered look. He recalled the men had remarked at the time that it was entirely down to good fortune that they had located a cupboard almost exactly the copy of the one that had stood there for as long as anyone could remember. Upon entering into a conversation with the men as to how the piece had been acquired he was informed that it had been bequeathed to the club following the unfortunate demise of the manager, Harold Blake.
In this sense, it became clear that due to the reworking of the item the young gentleman had passed by it over the previous weeks without so much as a turn of the head.
Again came the ominous knocks, louder, more insistent; but whether threatening or merely clamorous he could not decide. Now, with a veil lifted he approached the doors of the lobby with utmost dread and having fixed his eyes steadily on the drawer from which the tapping evidently proceeded, he saw what looked to be the knuckle-bone of a leg of lamb, about the size of a very small walnut, protruding and jerking repeatedly against the wood lying beneath its doors. At length the drawer opened further, and a naked human leg grinded its way through the fold. The foot arrived with a dense, deathlike sound to the floor, resting there for what seemed to the terrified man to be at least half a minute before the body to which it belonged was disclosed to his view. It approached the mantle-piece to which the man now feverishly grasped, held captive by horror and curiosity. Slowly, and with the same unnatural footfalls, it pursued him and placed itself near his feet, and, repulsed by its piteous groans, he tried to look away, to rally his thoughts – to reason with himself and even to speculate upon the nature of the object before him.
Too stunned to scream and paralysed with fear, he held his breath. As it approached it stretched out a long, ghastly, white hand, that began to paw the lower portion of his legs. In that instance the man jerked his body from its torpor and started for the door ahead but it was no more— for a darkness had enveloped both he and the thing upon him. What might have been heard after that we do not know, for insensibility came to his relief.
Several hours later, the light of dawn, outshining the electric light, found the man, gazing up with stricken face and eyes which looked as if sleep had been taken from him forever. Brilliantly, the rays of the rising sun struck upon him as if a silver-framed portrait: highlighting the mournful presentment of one that had been frightened beyond that permitted by mortal stature alone.