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Chapter Twenty-Eight

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Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Eight  (Read 31 times)
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« on: July 16, 2023, 10:19:38 am »

THE door into the haunted wing stood wide. As they all passed through it, Sarah remembered how she had come this way in the dark, feeling before her with her hand, and how cold the great iron bolt had struck against her palm. The bolt was shot back now. It showed black against the oak of the old door. The Grimsbys must do some work in the house after all. There was no rust upon the iron. The light from the lamp which the Reverend Peter was carrying showed that the bolt had been oiled.

They passed through, and the icy damp of vacant, unused rooms was heavy about them. The door swung to. Against this side of it Sarah had dashed herself, running from---what? She didn’t know. She told herself that it was her own terror, and she remembered how she had wrenched round and seen a shadow stand black beside her in the dusk from an open door. And the shadow had been John Wickham. She felt her own relief again.

The lamplight seemed suddenly much brighter, perhaps because she was remembering the dark. On this side the bolt was rusted in its socket. It might have been a hundred years since it had been shot. The iron was corroded and pitted, the wood of the door showed rough. Everything looked as if at least a hundred years had passed since anyone had swept or dusted here.

And all at once Sarah was frightened. The dust lay thick. Her footprints must be plain to see---hers, and John Wickham’s. And what were they going to make of that? She felt her heart waver and sink. If he was a traitor he had told them already. She looked along the passage and saw that any marks she might have made were indistinguishable. There were footprints enough to cover hers. The dust had been trampled by other feet.

They moved on round the corner which she had turned in the dark. She could see a line of boarded-up windows on the right, and on the left three doors. It must have been the first of these which she had opened. It stood a handsbreadth open now, low and arched, with the rough, rusty latch which had scraped her hand.

There were two steps down into the room. Wilson had to hold the lamp whilst the Reverend Peter got his awkward size and bulk through the cramped opening. Coming down last, Sarah found out why her footprints had been trampled out. The room which she had half seen, half guessed at as quite bare and stark, had now been made ready for their company. There was a rug upon the floor, and a table for the lamp, and for Miss Cattermole’s planchette and Mr. Brown’s slate. A wood fire burned reluctantly upon the hearth, adding its own smell to the mould and damp which had for so long held possession here. Four chairs had been placed symmetrically about it. The boarded-up window no longer gave any glimpse of the sky. The slipped panel had been nailed back. If it was John Wickham who had done any of these things, he might, if he had so chosen, have trodden out her footprints, and that without any risk to himself.

The thought went through her mind like faint lightning. Only why should he? She didn’t know. It didn’t matter. It was the papers they wanted, and the papers they meant to have. It went through her again, but this time brightly and fiercely, that they would stick at nothing to get them.

Mr. Brown moved the table to a place between the chimney and the window. Then he took the lamp from Wilson Cattermole, set it down, and motioned them to their chairs.

“Miss Cattermole---perhaps you will come here, next to the table. I will divide you and Miss Marlowe, and my friend Cattermole will be on her other side. Either of us will then be in a position to indicate to her when she should take a note. But the chairs are wrongly arranged. We must not, I am afraid, sit round the fire. It is the door and the passage beyond it that we have to keep under observation. I think we can leave you in the chimney corner, Miss Cattermole, if you will just turn your chair a little so as to face the door. I shall have the pleasure of being next to you, and of course to Miss Marlowe. And your brother is, I am afraid, the farthest from the fire. Well now, as soon as we are settled I propose to turn the lamp as low as it will go without absolutely going out. I had intended to dispense with the lamp altogether and have nothing but firelight for our experiment, but as the fire is at present really giving no light at all, I think we must allow ourselves just a gleam from the lamp.”

As he turned and stretched out a hand to the screw, Sarah looked about her. They were all facing the door now, with the boarded-up window behind them and the fireplace on their left. Except where the rug covered them the floor-boards were bare. The walls were covered to a height of about six feet with very old, dusty panelling. The fireplace was of a size disproportionate to that of the room. It had the air of a cave. A strong down-draught drove a fitful smoke about the room. The door into the corridor was shut and latched.

She saw these things in the lamplight. Then, with a turn of the screw, the flame dipped. There was an upward rush of darkness and the light failed. The last thing she saw was the enormous distorted shadow of the Reverend Peter’s head and arm flung upwards across the panelling and the dirty plaster.

The lamp was not quite out. When she turned her head Sarah could see a faint blue glimmer at the base of the chimney. It seemed impossible that it should make any impression on the heavy darkness of the room, but by degrees she found herself beginning to see a little. The great shadowy fireplace was blacker than the walls. She could see the outline of Mr. Brown’s big, untidy head, and beyond it something pale which was Joanna’s hair. On her other side Wilson Cattermole was just a denser patch of gloom.

They sat still and in silence for a while. Of course no room with four people in it and a fire burning, or struggling to burn, is ever completely still. There is the movement of air drawn in and breath given out. You feel the beating of your own heart and the stir of your own pulse. You know that each one hears and feels these same things. We are so used to them that they do not interest us and we do not notice them. But when you sit in the dark and wait for something to happen, all these unregarded sounds come crowding into consciousness.

Sarah listened, and was aware of Joanna breathing quickly, of Mr. Brown moving first one foot and then the other with a slow sideways movement, and of Wilson Cattermole sitting so still that she wondered whether he was really there.

Against the background of these small uncounted sounds there came one that none of them could miss, the sharp rasp of a slate-pencil grating on slate. It is a quite unmistakable sound and unlike anything but itself. It came from the direction from which it might have been expected, the table on which the lamp was standing. To the right---that is, on Joanna’s side---had been placed her planchette. To the left, immediately behind Mr. Brown, was the slate which he had suggested as a possible vehicle for messages. It appeared that a message was being delivered now.

Sarah turned her head and stared at the table, but she could see nothing. The lamp bulged below the level of the wick and cast its own shadow to deepen the general gloom. All that she could be sure of was that Mr. Brown had not turned round, and that he did not now appear to be moving at all.

The pencil drove furiously for what might have been the inside of a minute and then stopped. Then there was a small sharp sound as if it had been dropped impatiently. They heard it roll and catch against the wooden frame. Then silence again.

Mr. Brown reached behind him and turned up the lamp. In the sudden glow Sarah wondered whether she herself looked as startled as Joanna did, her eyes so wide that the ring of the iris showed clear, her lips parted in a soundless “Oh!”

Mr. Brown’s hand came back with the slate in it.

“Well now, I thought there might be a message,” he said.

Sarah found herself thinking, “Well now, I’m quite sure you did. And what’s more, you put it there.”

What could be easier than to lay the slate on the table, message down, and scratch on any little bit of slate with any little bit of pencil? She felt a sort of scornful pride at not being taken in.

He was looking at the slate and frowning.

“This is a very strange message. It doesn’t seem----” He broke off and turned to Wilson Cattermole. “I really don’t know what to make of it.”

“If you were to read it----” Wilson’s voice betrayed some impatience.

And, “Read it out!” cried Joanna fretfully.

The Reverend Peter read in a puzzled, hesitating manner, “Can’t get through---she won’t let me---blood calling----

“That’s a very strange message,” said Wilson Cattermole on Sarah’s other side.

Joanna put a hand to her mouth.

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Brown. “I think we had better ask. Shall we see if we can get anything with the planchette? Perhaps you and I, Miss Cattermole---if that will satisfy your brother.”

By turning half round and moving the table slightly forward so as to bring it between them they were able to rest their fingertips upon the board.

At Wilson’s request Sarah wrote down the message from the slate upon her pad. Queer stuff---and Mr. Brown seemed puzzled over it---but of course that was acting. . . . She found herself clinging very hard to that. It was just a fake---a stupid, dangerous game---a dangerous criminal game. But even that was better than to believe in this frantic beating against a wall of oblivion, this trying to draw a curtain which couldn’t be drawn. Horrible to believe in some creature which had once been human making an unavailing effort to get into touch with its own human kind. Thank God she didn’t believe in any of it. But even to touch the fringe of someone else’s belief made her shudder. She looked down at her pad and saw the words she had written on it---“blood---calling----” Oh, that was horrible!

She pulled round to watch the others, and saw that the planchette had begun to move---not writing yet, but trembling and jerking like a dog on a lead, in a hurry to be off. Their hands on it, Joanna’s thin and trembling, Mr. Brown’s thick and heavy---smooth---odd that there should be no hair on them. The light shining down----

Joanna spoke in an excited whisper.

“Quick! What shall we ask?”

“Who is it who won’t let you come through?” Mr. Brown subdued his boom to a whisper.

The planchette was off almost before the words were out of his mouth. It wrote, and stopped. They lifted it and looked at the paper.

There was only one word on it.

The word was “Emily”.

“Write it down,” said Wilson Cattermole at Sarah’s ear.

“But that’s what it said before,” said Joanna.

What!” Wilson’s tone was sharp with something like dismay.

Joanna stared and nodded.

“Oh, yes, it is. When I was sitting with Morgan, the night you were away---something about fog, and dark, and Emily, and where is it? I thought it very strange at the time, because I don’t know anyone called Emily. And Nathaniel couldn’t get through either. I really don’t like it at all. Who is Emily, and why does she try to interfere?”

Wilson Cattermole leaned over Sarah’s shoulder and read from the pad on her knee. He had rubbed up his hair, and his voice had a worried sound.

“The message says, ‘blood---calling’. But---whose blood can it mean?”

“We had better ask,” said Mr. Brown. He put his hands back on the board again. “Will you tell us whose blood is calling?”

Sarah felt a revulsion so strong that she could have screamed. If it was a game, it was a most profane and wicked game. If it was true that murdered blood cried out---there was a bit in the Bible about “thy brother’s blood crying from the ground” . . . That was just a metaphor---it didn’t mean what these people meant. It wasn’t---it couldn’t be Emily Case calling to Sarah Marlowe.

The planchette was moving. It rocked, slid an inch or two, rocked again, and stopped. Sarah watched the hands, clear in the yellow lamplight---Joanna’s bloodless and attenuated, the Reverend Peter’s square and heavy, with short bitten-down nails. They looked strong---horrifyingly strong. The nails were not very clean.

The board rocked again and the pencil began to write. When it had travelled a little way it stopped. Mr. Brown lifted his hands and drew the paper out. This time there were two words on it, and before he read them aloud Sarah knew what they were going to be “Emily----blood----”.

Joanna Cattermole made a faint shocked exclamation.

“I don’t understand! Who is Emily?”

“We had better ask,” said the Reverend Peter.

They sat and waited for the board to move, but not a tremor shook it. It seemed as if a long time went by. Joanna took her hands away.

“It’s no good,” she said. “It is never any good going on when it stops like that. It’s like holding on to the telephone when they’ve hung up at the other end.”

To Sarah her tone suggested relief. She thought Miss Cattermole was not sorry to be cut off. Even knowing what she knew, she had felt her own nerves tingle. It was a wicked, unscrupulous game, played to frighten her, and even though she was forewarned, it had come near enough to doing what it had been meant to do. Just because they had sat in the dark, and because the Reverend Peter could play tricks with planchette, she had come within an ace of being shaken. She mustn’t forget for a single instant that their game was to frighten her and send her running to John Wickham.

She came back from these thoughts to hear Wilson Cattermole say, “I think we should turn down the light again. I did not come down here to take part in what I consider a futile attempt to obtain communications by means of planchette. I consider it a very unreliable vehicle. My sister is fully aware of my views on this point. I came down here to investigate certain manifestations which are said to take place in this room. You have never told me just what form these manifestations take, and I have purposely refrained from asking, as I wished to come to this séance with an unprejudiced mind. But in view of these unexplained and, if I may say so, extraneous communications, I feel entitled to ask whether they have any bearing on what is believed to have happened here.”

Mr. Brown moved the table back into its original position and turned the light down again before he replied. He had the air of a man plunged in thought. His brows made a frowning line. His movements were slow and deliberate. When the darkness had brimmed up and they could no longer see one another he said in a low, grave voice, “You are certainly entitled to an explanation, but I do not know that I can give you one. The communications we have just received have no bearing on what happened in this room a hundred and fifty years ago. As to what exactly did happen, that has never been cleared up. The dead body of a young woman dressed only in her shift was found beneath that window on a snowy January night. It was said that she had walked in her sleep and fallen, breaking her neck. Her name was Olivia Perrott, and she was the ward and kinswoman of Roger Perrott to whom the house belonged. It was said that he had wished to marry her, but that she preferred his brother Humphrey. They were betrothed and the wedding day fixed. The matter was never cleared up. Humphrey, who was absent on the night of the tragedy, never returned. His brother gave out that he was travelling abroad to mend his broken heart. But as time went on it began to be whispered that Humphrey did not come back because he was dead, and dead by his brother Roger’s hand. When Roger broke his neck out hunting about a year later the property passed to a cousin, John Perrott, who shut up this side of the house. It has never been occupied since. Every now and then there have been hardy investigators who have offered to spend a night alone here. One of them was found dead on the very spot where Olivia Perrott fell. Another had a severe illness and was never the same man again. I have not myself spent a night in the room---I must confess that I was unwilling to do so without company---but I have heard---well---sounds.” His voice went away into a deep whisper and ceased.

Sarah wondered whether the story was a true one, or whether he had made it up. It might be true. She felt a horrified pity for that long-ago Olivia and her murdered lover.

“And where does Emily come in?” said Wilson Cattermole.

“My dear friend---” the Reverend Peter was warmly explanatory---“don’t you see, we have here an old tragedy producing disturbances in the psychic atmosphere. These are recurrent. They are especially pronounced at this time of year and in snowy weather. But if some newer disturbance were introduced---can’t you see that this might cause a fading of the older manifestations? The force of the disturbance might be turned into the newer channel.”

“Yes, yes, but has there been any fresh tragedy---that’s the point.”

“That is what we do not know. It need not necessarily have happened here. Any one of us four might provide the point of contact.”

“How could we?” said Joanna Cattermole crossly. “I’ve never known anyone called Emily, and I don’t suppose I ever shall! It isn’t a name that anyone has, except that poor thing who got murdered the other day in a train---what was her name---Emily Case.”

From the other side of the room, from the thick shadow beyond the jutting chimney-breast, there came a long, desolate sigh. Like a wavering echo a faint voice said, “Emily Case----”

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